Season of Surprises and Disappointments

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Without wanting to come over all Forrest Gump, I’d like to start with a bit of homespun wisdom; it struck me while wrapping presents and putting them under the tree, that TV series are very like Christmas presents. It’s not that “you never know what you are going to get” – far too often that is perfectly clear in advance – but that some of them will be surprises and others will be disappointments. And sometimes they will be both, because it is both a surprise and a disappointment when something you eagerly anticipate from a much-loved source turns out not really to be what you had hoped for. Recent weeks have given us gifts from Damon Lindelof, Ken Burns and Sir David Attenborough which have not lived up to the extremely high hopes those names engender in me, though there have also been one or two pleasant surprises to celebrate as well.

 

Since he gave us my favourite series of the closing decade – The Leftovers – I was obviously going to look forward to Damon Lindelof’s next project very keenly. Given the extreme quality threshold he had set, disappointment was probably inevitable, but even 2288F4F1-4DBB-4FD7-82BD-7AFB9D6AE2FF_4_5005_cthen I didn’t expect to be giving up after the customary 5 episodes I usually give to something which has clear pedigree and promise and which has received a positive welcome from sources I respect (as well as the wider critical community), but which just did not work for me. Watchmen (HBO/Sky Atlantic) suffers from the same problems I identified previously with The Handmaid’s Tale: it is so much in love with its own central concept and the visual realisation of that concept that it neglects the fundamental building blocks of plot and character development – something you can get away with in cinema, but not in an extended series. This may be because the original source material is, quite literally, two-dimensional, but the screenwriters, directors and actors are there to adapt that material for TV presentation and obviously have the skills to do so. However, the writers and directors of Watchmen seem too keen on the visuals and on drawing clever parallels with aspects of our troubled times, while the performers are hamstrung by having to wear masks for much of the time – precisely the reasons, I think, why we have recently heard criticism of superhero movies from masters like Scorsese and Coppola.

 

Of course, genres like fantasy and science fiction are just as capable of illuminating the human condition as social realism – in many respects, even more so. A good example of a current series which achieves this is His Dark Materials (BBC1, Sundays). Adapted from 3714032B-9950-4A52-966F-B57750C977C5_4_5005_cPhilip Pulman’s novels by the prolific and excellent Jack Thorne (and what a year he has had with The Virtues, The Accident and now this), it contains epic effects, talking animals and mystical themes, yet its characters are all-too-human. It also has one of the most arresting title sequences since The Night Manager. And it reminded me, in many aspects, of Netflix’s Stranger Things, not least the remarkable similarity in both looks and performance between Dafne Keen and Millie Bobby Brown.

 

Following His Dark Materials on BBC1 on three recent Sundays was a new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and this provided a genuine surprise, because this is a novel which has been adapted so many times in the past, but this version managed a 53AABEA5-8103-45C4-A320-BC7A22077D79_4_5005_ccompletely new take on the overly familiar material. It achieved its effect primarily through an impressive visual imagining of a devastated Edwardian landscape and, as it only ran to three hour-long parts, the makers were able to strike a perfect balance between the human story and the visualisation.

 

Turning to factual material, Ken Burns is another name that creates great anticipation when it appears in the listings. His series are mammoth undertakings and his approach to his subjects is meticulous, so there is often a lengthy gap between their appearance. Over a long career, he has documented multiple aspects of American history – some series have been greater landmarks than others so, following the stupendous The Vietnam War two years ago, his next series was always likely to be a let-down. From the start of Country Music (PBS/BBC4) you know you are in familiar Burns territory – the B9EB1D05-F1BA-4504-8824-DF221343154E_4_5005_cbeautifully scanned black and white photographs, the authoritative voice of Peter Coyote. But the longer it went on, the more I got the feeling that this was not the best choice of subject for such lengthy treatment. Compared to Jazz (PBS, 2001), there just wasn’t the depth of interest to be explored. Country Music also seemed to promise at the start of each episode that it would be tracing a link between the music and American social history (as Jazz had done so well), but most of what we got was just the lives and careers of the stars. As before with a Burns series, the BBC is giving us the cut down (9 hours!) version – I have usually sought out the full version (18 hours in this case) but will not be bothering this time. Maybe my problem is that it is not a style of music which interests me greatly, but I do normally expect more from Burns.

 

I also expect a lot from any series or single documentary fronted by Sir David Attenborough, and there have been a lot of them this year. There was the magnificent 28D5BF6C-4B68-4E53-BEEB-38AA5C120EF8_4_5005_cNetflix series Our Planet, which gave us not just spectacular sequences, but also ecological comment. Then there was Attenborough’s personal single doc on climate change for the BBC. So, Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1) was simply a re-hash of what we had already had and many sequences were overly familiar – not just the penguins and albatross searching for their chicks or the co-ordinated dancing birds, but even the walruses falling off cliffs which we had already seen earlier in the year. And the material on climate change became less prominent as the series progressed and seemed to have been added almost as an afterthought.

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John Pilger is another veteran film maker whose work is consistent and you know exactly what to expect, though the fact that he makes his pieces at feature length means that they are sometimes a little stretched. No such fault with The Dirty War on the NHS (ITV), a brilliantly argued, thorough and rather depressing analysis of the dire threats to our health system which spoke directly to many of the issues crucial in the election campaign, though transmitted (inevitably, given the author’s well-known political leaning) too late to make any difference. Not that it would have, sadly.

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Having promised you less humbug this time, I fear I may have failed in that mission, so let me conclude this theme on a more positive note. I knew exactly what to expect from Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out, just concluded its second season on BBC4, yet the pair constantly manage to surprise and delight with exactly the same sort of material they began their TV careers with. Backwards Bill’s tribute to the elephant on Novelty Island had me completely convulsed with laughter.

 

Maybe overly high hopes are the main problem, as they make it easy to be let down – bear that in mind as you both open your presents and watch TV this Christmas, I’ll be back with my 2019 top ten before the year ends (and what a fantastic year it has been, though definitely one of two halves) and I will give you my list of the best of the past decade at the start of the new one.

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A very Happy Christmas to one and all.

Planets and (TV) Universes

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An eel diving into a lake at the bottom of the ocean? A fish with a bulbous transparent forehead so that it can see upwards and backwards? You’ve got to be kidding me, right? No – just two of the many startling sights from the latest edition of Blue Planet II (BBC1, Sundays), delivered from the deepest blue ocean to our bonfire-night living rooms in close-up and glorious high-definition. Oh, and just for good measure, as well as showing us deep-sea creatures which looked like something out of Doctor Who or an advert for cooking with gas, this awe-inspiring hour of television hinted at the origins of life itself and the possibility of it existing elsewhere in our own solar system. This was the secondblue-planet-2-2017-fragman_10062808-14090_1800x945 in the series and the first was pretty spectacular, too – some of the shots of waves were as wonderful as those of the creatures under them and the surfing dolphins were brilliant.

Just as with Planet Earth II last year, and Life Story before that, we are getting the most spectacular new wildlife footage possible, shot using the latest equipment and techniques, the most significant of which is the use of small, resilient, remotely-controlled cameras. Digital technology allows the time and patience required to achieve the best shots, without the need to waste expensive film stock or the equally expensive time of the cameraman in the process.

The other thing which has changed is how natural history programmes and series are put together. The familiar, reassuring presence of Sir David Attenborough is the only remaining link with what has gone before. Just as the speed of light is the only constant ad_204471301in an expanding universe, so the presence of Sir David is the one thing you can rely on in the changing universe of TV natural history. I had the enormous privilege of working with him on a talk he gave as part of our TV documentary season at the BFI two years ago, in which, using the clips we researched and selected, he traced the development of the techniques of natural history programming from the earliest, studio-bound primitivism of the early 1950s to the filming of the landmark series Life on Earth (BBC, 1979), nearly all of which he had led or been personally involved in. His wonderful talk can still be seen on the BFI website here.

Life on Earth was the high watermark of natural history series in terms of both the quality of its images and the scope of its ambition: to explain the evolution of species in 13 parts. He followed this with a succession of brilliant variations on the theme, all designed to explore aspects of the natural world in more detail and all containing the trademark word “life” in the title: The Trials of Life (1990), Life in the Freezer (1993), The Life of Birds (1998), The Private Life of Plants (1995) etc. Each one showcased even more spectacular advances in wildlife filming than its predecessor and, as widescreenLife on Earth (1979) and high-definition television systems arrived, so the familiar stories were re-told in higher quality, interspersed with whatever new animal behaviours had been found in the process.

Where, previously, footage had been sought to illustrate a chosen thesis, more recently it seems that each series is designed to showcase whatever spectacular footage has been obtained. Hence the “movie sequel” titling of series like Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Now into his 90s, but miraculously still as vital and engaged as ever, Attenborough’s contribution is confined to an introductory piece to camera in the first episode of a series and a concluding one at the end of the last, plus, of course, reading the narration, which he no longer writes, though he does insist on having the final say on its contents. The last major thing Attenborough did which had a proper thesis was The Rise of the Animals in 2013 and that was actually an updating of Life on Earth, using state-of-the-art high definition graphics and revealing the results of the latest dinosaur excavations, which the then 87-year-old presenter climbed up a Chinese mountain to investigate. After a long lifetime of intrepid and memorable location work, he has certainly earned his place of comfort in the narrator’s chair.

But there are also fewer words now. The key element of the natural history programme today is music and the building blocks of each programme are self-contained sequences, usually containing dramatic confrontations between species. These are clearly designed as much to stand alone on video sharing and social media platforms as to constitute part of a programme and they often look like music videos. And the composers have been recruited from the worlds of TV drama and the movies: firstly Murray Gold, whose dramatic scores are such an integral part of Doctor Who; and more recently the renowned and prolific Hans Zimmer, the most relevant of whose numerous credits are probably Gladiator (for the animal “battle” scenes) and The Lion King (obviously!).

The music certainly makes the sequences highly dramatic and, because the style is associated with fiction and conveys emotions through association, could even be accused of having an anthropomorphic effect. It can also be used to provide sound effects where they do not otherwise exist, such as underwater. Some fish look very frightening, but they don’t roar, though music can suggest that they may be doing something similarly menacing. The letters page of the current Radio Times is full of predictable complaints about the use of music in Blue Planet II, but, for me, it has contributed massively to some fantastic sequences: one thinks of the barnacle goslings leaping from the cliff in Life Story, grippingly scored by Murray Gold and embedded here (though only in part – the whole sequence lasts about 10 minutes and is well worth checking out); and, of course, the iguana hatchlings escaping the marauding snakes in Planet Earth II. And, for humour, the flamenco dancing spider in Life Story is hard to beat.

One other recent development is also worth noting – the ten-minute “making of” sections at the end of each programme, which provide transparency where there may previously have been distrust as to how the programme makers may be manipulating their footage (remember the polar bear cub?). But, if you look back at the clips selected by Sir David Attenborough for his talk at the BFI, you will find that the most significant milestones in the development of natural history programming were similarly up-front about how the filming was done. The evolution of natural history programming on TV is, after all, a great story in its own right.