TV Top Tens: No.1- British Sitcoms

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I’ve always intended to start blogging lists of my top titles in various genres, which will be a useful thing to return to in quieter periods, and I am inspired to start now by the list of Top 20 British Sitcoms in the current issue of Radio Times.  I enjoy lists and, much as with awards, usually manage to find something to annoy or even enrage me in them. Of course, it’s all opinion (especially when it comes to comedy!) and I would hope my own lists may cause rage in others – that’s part of the fun. The latest Radio Times list is actually pretty good overall and the reason for that is not hard to find: the list of 42 practitioners who voted on it contains many estimable names, including the likes of UnknownClement and La Frenais, Linehan and Matthews, and Barry Cryer. However, there is a glaring omission – even these luminaries have somehow managed to produce a top twenty sitcoms list containing nothing by the generally acknowledged masters of the genre – Galton and Simpson. This is not just an oversight – this is mind-bogglingly wrong.

 

The Radio Times list has some other faults, too – there is nothing earlier than 1968, when Dad’s Army started, so nothing made only in black and white – even Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is specifically included without its monochrome predecessor, The Likely Lads. It’s usually the case that things which get regularly repeated stand a better chance of inclusion and the original Likely Lads is not only not in colour – much of it is missing. The biggest problem I find with so many lists is the lack of historical perspective – the most recent material usually predominates and, looking back on the roster of contributors to the Radio Times list, it is clear that those who would remember the earliest material are in a small minority.

 

There is one thing I need to get clear before setting out my own list and that is to define the parameters of the genre under consideration. In his inaugural 2017 Ronnie Barker imagesComedy Lecture, Ben Elton made the case for the traditional sitcom, recorded in a television studio in front of a live audience, and argued that it is a classic genre which is nowadays looked down upon by devotees of newer forms of comedy, made on location without a laughter track. Now, I am probably one of those Elton is thinking about – most of my favourite TV of the past two decades (both British and American) has been half-hour shows which are ostensibly comedy, but which have a serious edge (sometimes a very serious edge). Some of them are made primarily for laughs, but some are not – some are closer to drama than comedy (and never mind the duration). Another thing that sets them apart is narrative development across episodes, whereas a traditional sitcom usually has self-contained episodes which could be shown in any order. There could certainly be a separate list of half-hour comedy-dramas, but it would contain mostly recent material. Perhaps that is one for the future, or perhaps some of the titles may belong on drama lists, but for the present I am going to include both traditional studio and modern single-camera sitcoms on my list, as did the Radio Times, because I can’t think of any better way to do it.

 

One more consideration before I start – I am not including any titles which are currently still being made, though I may mention them, and some of the titles included here may yet return. Lists are always for future revision.

 

So, my top ten is:

 

  1. Steptoe & Son (BBC, 1962-65, 1970-74)

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Galton and Simpson’s masterpiece – a traditionally made studio sitcom which broke with tradition by casting straight actors in the lead roles and included moments of heartbreaking pathos amongst the laughs. These were real characters with real hopes and disappointments and, when it got serious, you could sense the audience’s uncomfortable reaction, which, of course, released itself in an even bigger guffaw when the laugh line eventually arrived. Four seasons were made between 1962 and 1965, then a further four from 1970 to 1974, when it returned in colour. I was proud to have played my part in recovering a dozen or so missing episodes in the nineties – Ray and Alan knew their worth and had kept them on an early and obsolete home video format.

 

  1. Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975, 1979)

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Often a poll-topper (not only the Radio Times one, but the BFI’s TV100 in 2000) and for good reason: the highest laugh quotient of any sitcom ever; terrific characters, not all of them particularly empathetic, but all very human; brilliantly constructed plots; memorable quotes – “duck’s off”. It was traditionally made but its impact was revolutionary.

 

  1. The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2012)

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The key title in the transition from the “traditional” to the “modern” sitcom, thanks to the vision of Caroline Aherne: filmed mostly on a single set, but without an audience, it’s stately pace and minimalist narrative contained a wealth of insight, character, warmth and unspoken humour. Laughter track my arse!

 

  1. Getting On (BBC, 2009-12)

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Certainly one which falls into the category of laughs not being the primary concern, nevertheless there were plenty of them and they hit home. With brilliant characters created and written by the three actresses performing them, and sensitive direction (in the first two series) by Peter Capaldi it literally laughed in the face of death. The final episode said more about life and death than almost anything else I can think of in any genre. The idea was so strong that the American version (made by HBO) was also excellent and Jo Brand has gone on to create more memorable work in a similar vein, Damned (Channel 4) being particularly outstanding amongst current sitcoms.

 

  1. Him and Her (BBC, 2010-13)

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Another minimalist piece, this time not just restricted to a single set, but each episode shot in real time, allowing us to take in the acutely observed characteristics of the sympathetic, though lethargic, central pair and their relatives and friends, who range from the inept to the hateful. When the “action” moves outside the bedsit for the climactic wedding specials, it is apocalyptic. Writer Stefan Golaszewski has since repeated the trick with the beautiful Mum, the resolution of which is eagerly anticipated.

 

  1. The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC, 1964-66, 1973-74)

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Another sixties sitcom which was revived in the early seventies for colour TV, this could not simply replicate the previous format (as Steptoe did) but had to acknowledge that the lead actors had aged, thus introducing a narrative progression which became the series’ key strength. It became about the passage of time, about nostalgia and life progression and about social change in the north of England. It was also brilliantly funny (Clement and La Frenais) and perfectly performed by James Bolam and Rodney Bewes.

 

  1. The Office (BBC, 2001-3)

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Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant not only dispensed with a laughter track, they made a sitcom in the style of an observational documentary, which was a stroke of genius, but an extremely difficult thing to sustain convincingly as the plot became more complex. They pulled it off totally and their inspiration was responsible for so many iconic comedy moments.

 

  1. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79)

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A trailblazing narrative sitcom in three distinct seasons, linked by memorable characters, all with their own catchphrases, and with Leonard Rossiter’s towering performance at the centre. The repetitive nature of the dialogue (“17 minutes late…”; ”I didn’t get where I am today,,,”; “cock up on the….front”; “I’m not a…..person” etc), creates an oppressive but secure world which simply cannot be escaped.

 

  1. Blackadder (BBC, 1983-89)

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Following Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder and his familiar associates down through the centuries was a joy and the format allowed for constant renewal. Much of the humour came from anachronism, a very special trick which Ben Elton continues to show himself the master of in Upstart Crow (BBC), the best thing he has done since Blackadder.  Difficult to choose a favourite season, but if pushed I would probably go for Blackadder the Third.

 

  1. The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2017)

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Of all my choices, this is the one I think is most arguably not a sitcom – you could say that, with three performers taking all the parts, it is more a series of sketches linked by a fictional location, though with narrative continuity for each set of characters. But, having included it, a top 10 spot was assured. Its triumphant return at Christmas 2017 was testament to the strength of the format and the characters created for it.

 

I intended my lists to be top tens, but the Radio Times sitcom list is a top 20 and, for purposes of comparison, if I were to continue in the same vein, these would be my next ten choices:

 

  1. I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002)
  2. Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98)
  3. Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75, ITV, 1981)
  4. House of Fools (BBC, 2014-15)
  5. Hancock’s Half Hour/Hancock (BBC, 1956-61)
  6. Red Dwarf (BBC, 1988-99, Dave 2009-17)
  7. The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-12)
  8. Peep Show (Channel 4, 2003-15)
  9. Detectorists (BBC, 2014-17)
  10. Fleabag (BBC, 2016-19)

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Some of these choices require little further justification, but others demand comment: it is hard to overestimate the importance of Till Death in its sixties heyday – the searing impact of the writing and performances – but unfortunately the inevitable focus on its treatment of race makes it difficult to assess in a modern context; in House of Fools, Vic and Bob were not only conquering yet another genre, having produced their own surreal versions of the variety show, the sketch show and the comedy quiz show, but, by using the traditional sitcom model (70s style), subverting it still further; Detectorists drew you in with its relaxed pace, but the shows just flew by – on so many occasions I was astonished to find it finishing when I thought I had only been watching for ten minutes or so (great direction by Mackenzie Crook) – and I’m really enjoying Toby Jones’ own creation, Don’t Forget the Driver, on BBC2 at the moment; and Fleabag has only just finished, though we are assured it is over, so it qualifies for inclusion and I have put it at 20 simply because it feels too soon to proclaim it an instant classic to rank alongside the others here – ask me again in a year’s time and I expect it to be in my top ten.

 

Last thoughts: having made such a fuss about the difference between “traditional” and “modern” sitcoms, I have (not deliberately) managed to come up with a list of 20 which contains 10 of each, evenly spread through the list. I’ve also included 11 of the 20 titles chosen by the Radio Times panel and regret not finding room for The Young Ones (and I suspect One Foot in the Grave is hovering just outside the 20 in both cases). So, I guess I must be reasonably in line with the consensus, but I’m sure there are plenty of things about my list which will make somebody angry – I do hope so!

 

First Quarter Best Plays (and docs and comedies)

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So far this year, I have rather neglected my running shortlist for best of the year, so it’s time to take stock. In my last blog but one, I identified True Detective season 3 as one for the list and the programme I blogged about last time out, Moon and Me, should be there, too. But what else?

 

Going right back to the beginning of year (indeed, to the very end of last year, as its first part was transmitted on December 30th), Les Miserables (BBC1) surpassed the BBC’s War and Peace in terms of presenting a sprawling 19thcentury classic in 6 gripping episodes, thanks to the even greater brilliance of Andrew Davies’ adaptation this time around. It also concentrated less than its predecessor on sumptuous visuals, which allowed the outstanding acting performances from Dominic West et al to carry it higher. imagesAnd it was great to see an uncharacteristically unsympathetic performance from (surely soon to be Dame) Olivia Colman, though it is not the only thing on my shortlisted programmes from the first quarter to contain such a thing, as you will discover. An aside on Les Miserables: I was, unfortunately, unable to avoid a spoiler broadcast on BBC2’s quiz Only Connect (of which I am a devotee) just a week before the final episode aired. This came in the form of a question in which the teams were asked to find the connection between four names, of which Inspector Javert was one – the answer being that they were all fictional characters who committed suicide. Don’t they check these things?

 

Two other dramas from the first three months of the year are worth mentioning, though neither quite has the special quality required to join Les Miserables and True Detective on the shortlist. Manhunt (ITV) was an unsensational but very involving look at the police work which went into catching the serial killer in the Milly Dowler case, with Martin Clunes highly convincing as the detective involved. Brexit: the Uncivil War (Channel 4) starred Benedict Cumberbatch as the mastermind behind the Vote Leave Unknown-1campaign in the 2016 referendum. It contained eye-catching, though slightly caricatured portrayals of most of the well-known political figures involved in the debate, which is why Cumberbatch could convince so well as the unknown central figure. It was a timely reminder of how we got into the current mess, though the continuing coverage of the most recent political machinations has rendered it somewhat less remarkable.

 

Britain’s relationship with Europe was also the subject of the first of a new three-part documentary series from Norma Percy – Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil (BBC2).  It is Percy and her colleagues at Brook Lapping who have given us a host of wonderful “instant history” series from The Second Russian Revolution (1991) and The Death of Yugoslavia (1995) to the Peabody-winning Putin, Russia and the West (2012). They always seem to get most of the key players involved to give frank interviews about events and this was no exception, though David “it’s all your fault” Cameron was notable by his absence from the first programme (other than in archive footage). But that was far from the best of the series and the other two parts (on the Greek debt crisis and the migrant crisis respectively) surpassed it. Major leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande took part, though they are, of course, now off the scene and able to talk, whereas Angela Merkel’s part had to be explained by her former colleagues and advisors. A definite for the shortlist.

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Also for the shortlist is Channel 4’s Three Identical Strangers, which I include by virtue of its recent transmission on that channel and its production by Raw TV, even though it was first seen on the festival circuit last year. The story of the American triplets separated at birth and re-united in the 1980s in a blaze of media attention is fascinating images-1in its own right and well told using a classic mix of interviews and archive, but the subsequent revelations that they were part of a cruel and secretive psychological experiment leave you simultaneously shocked and intrigued by the contribution of the results to the nature vs nurture debate.

 

Two lengthy documentaries on musical icons are also worth mentioning. Leaving Neverland (Channel 4) certainly contained harrowing testimony concerning allegations of child sex abuse against Michael Jackson, but for me it was its excessive length rather than any doubts about the allegations that made it problematic. It was almost as though the producers (and commissioners) thought they had something so important on their hands that it demanded it be treated at great length, whereas there was nowhere near Unknown-4enough material for four hours of air time. Much better was David Bowie: Finding Fame (BBC2), the third part of Francis Whately’s outstanding trilogy about Bowie, this time looking at his rise to prominence and featuring excellent archival materials. It was a great watch and I am reluctant to leave it off the shortlist, but it is the trilogy that is the really impressive achievement, rather than this particular part.

 

Which leaves comedy and four highly anticipated arrivals/revivals. The much trumpeted “return to television” of Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) in This Time (BBC1) has contained some glorious moments, but overall has not lived up to my high expectations. I think this is a question of credibility, which is important in this context – while it was perfectly possible to believe Partridge would still have been a TV presence in the early Unknown-590s, that is not the case today. His decline and fall has been brilliantly chronicled in I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002) and Mid-Morning Matters (Sky Atlantic, 2012-16), plus a few occasional specials, but this latest development has stretched things too far in striving for familiar comic effects – he truly belongs on North Norfolk Digital, where the humour comes from subtle exchanges. By contrast, the final series of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe (Channel 4) was well judged and the ending was perfect, but the season as a whole was no advance on the previous ones, which still makes it pretty damn good, but, without the impact it made on its first appearance, not quite shortlist material any more.

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I would say that Ricky Gervais’ After Life (Netflix) certainly did live up to my high expectations and I enjoyed it very much (and will certainly be back for more when it returns). However, it also had a bit too much of a ring of familiarity about it – all of Gervais’ prime concerns were aired and the cast contained a number of previous collaborators (Kerry Godliman, Ashley Jensen, David Earl) as well as some excellent performers in minor roles, some of whom (Penelope Wilton, Roisin Conaty) made the most of their cameos, while others (Diane Morgan, Joe Wilkinson, Paul Kaye) were largely wasted in underwritten parts. I had the good fortune recently to see Ricky Gervais at a local theatre, trying out material for his upcoming stand-up tour and Netflix special and it was a great evening, but even a devoted fan like me has to admit that his facility for saying what I agree with and making it funny has become a little too easy to him. He needs to be extended and After Life does not do that, even though it is him at his best, so I reluctantly leave it off the shortlist. Another aside, though: at the end of the end credits is a line giving “special thanks to the British Film Institute and the people of the United Kingdom” – I’ve no idea what this means, but I guess it’s a sentiment I can relate to.

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So, with none of these eagerly awaited comedies making the shortlist, it is a relief to say that the final one of the four most emphatically does make it, and, indeed, is the best thing of the year so far for me. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (BBC1) reached the end of its second (and final, we understand) season last night. After an engaging first season which was fairly whimsical until a late revelation which upended all our assumptions, the second season has been consistently brilliant at alternating great comedy with psychological insight and even religious and philosophical musing. The third episode was a corker – a hilarious business reception, a brilliant cameo from Kristin Scott-Unknown-7Thomas and a marvellous scene in which Andrew Scott’s priest challenged Fleabag’s fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience, which indicated that she had at last found somebody who understood her, but maybe even put us, the audience, in the same position for her as his God is for the priest. All that and even a variant on the classic fart-in-a-lift joke – wonderful writing. The supporting cast is magnificent, with Sian Clifford outstanding as Fleabag’s sister Claire and, of course, Olivia Colman as the villain of the piece.

 

All of which makes me wonder why I find Fleabag so vastly superior to Killing Eve, which everybody else seems to think is the best thing since whatever. You may think making such a comparison is pointless, but I think their similarities go further than just Unknownthe Phoebe Waller-Bridge connection. Both are series in half hour episodes which mix a comedic approach with startling developments to exhilarating effect and both feature women in all the leading roles. So, here are my reasons why Fleabag is better than Killing Eve:

 

  • Obviously, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is actually in Fleabag, giving a wonderful dramatic and comedic performance, and:
  • She wrote all of Fleabag, so it is more consistently brilliant than Killing Eve, as well as having a more defined narrative arc (indeed, she will not be writing any of Killing Eve season two, which is another reason I won’t be watching it). Furthermore:
  • Fleabag knows where it is going. Killing Eve just wants to keep going
  • Fleabag is a personal project – Killing Eve is an adaptation of a series of novels
  • The main leads all being female feels totally natural in Fleabag – in Killing Eve it feels like a gimmick
  • The startling developments are more startling (and thus more impactful) in something which is primarily a comedy than primarily a thriller
  • Fleabag knows when to end (and last night’s ending was so affecting, the BBC even gave it the rare honour of not allowing the continuity announcer to speak over the end credits). Killing Eve should have ended at the end of the first season and its failure to do so was the main reason I gave up on it

 

Actually, all that says much more about Fleabag and why it is so good than it does about Killing Eve.

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Just one more comedy to mention, but not one in line for shortlisting, alas. I have been waiting years to catch up with Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which won a 2016 Peabody, but hasn’t been available anywhere here until the outstanding first season arrived on BBC2 over the past couple of months. I hope they can catch up with the rest of it soon. In the meantime the latest Peabody list is imminent, so I’m looking forward to some more reliable recommendations.

Close to Home

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Most television and film, both fictional and factual, aims to connect with the viewer through identification with characters and situations. The trick is to make these as universal as possible in order to make the widest possible impact. Sometimes, though, the work will speak directly to an individual through a shared experience or characteristic and, though we will all respond to tales of hardship, struggle or repression, those who have personal experience of the situations portrayed, or strong commitment to the causes at issue, will have a more profound reaction. In terms of making critical judgements this can work both ways – personal interest can tempt us to overestimate the significance of the piece, while personal experience can make us more critical of how well the programme makers have conveyed the issue – did they “get it right”?

 

How far is it possible to be objective in these circumstances? Having spent a career assessing the significance of television programmes in different contexts, I have learned to try to be and have always qualified my opinions according to personal interests and connections to subject matter where necessary. However, in considering the series There She Goes, which concluded its brief (5 part) run on BBC4 last night, I cannot do other than approach it as somebody with precisely the same experiences as the characters portrayed – being myself a parent and carer of a daughter with undiagnosed learning disabilities.

 

Until comparatively recently, people with learning disabilities have rarely been portrayed in film or TV – at least not in a way which acknowledged their condition. Unknown-1Comedy has regularly used the adult “simpleton” as a staple character and a source of (often cheap) laughs. Some performers created comic personas which can only be understood as adults with (usually mild) learning disabilities – Jerry Lewis and Norman Wisdom spring to mind. The character of Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (BBC, 1973-78) falls into this tradition and even the person I regard as the greatest comic genius of the 20thcentury, Stan Laurel, is not entirely immune from inclusion in this list. The only comedy character I can recall whose learning disability was acknowledged was Dennis Dunstable in LWT’s Please, Sir (1968-72). By and large, these comic characters were very sympathetic, mainly because their lack of responsibility and awareness rendered them unthreatening, unlike other disabled characters who were regularly portrayed as bitter and sinister. In drama, the standout piece is Walter, Stephen Frears’ film starring Ian McKellen, which was the centrepiece of Channel 4’s opening night schedule in 1982 and set a standard (together with its sequel, Walter and June, the following year) for the portrayal of an adult with learning disabilities which remained unequalled for a long time because nobody else really tried – it had been done.

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Portrayals of the disabled on film and TV have basically mirrored (and occasionally led) society’s attitudes – from the dark days when they were kept out of sight and discussed in hushed tones to today’s more inclusive approach. Physical disabilities led the way and were easier to encompass, mainly because the disabled themselves could participate actively as actors or contributors. Those with learning disabilities have been more difficult to engage with, especially when they are undiagnosed – Down’s Syndrome or autism have featured more prominently in recent years and even sometimes employed performers with those conditions.

 

For me, a major breakthrough was Ricky Gervais’ Derek (Channel 4, 2012-14), because it helped me rethink my attitude to our daughter’s disability. The character of Derek has similar limitations to our Hanna and a similar outlook on life and it gave me a sight of how she may be when she is older, as long as she continues to progress at her own irregular pace (at 19, her TV channel of choice is still Cbeebies).  Gervais was criticised for not specifying Derek’s disorder, but I think this was the right choice – if he had done so, then the special interest groups would have begun to dissect his approach and the power of the piece would have been lost. At the end of the first series, the characters in the care home where Derek lives and works are “interviewed” about their lives and Unknowngenerally conclude that Derek is the one who has things figured out, because he is always so cheerful. That helped me to change my own feelings about Hanna’s condition from one of regret that she will never have a “normal” life to one of acceptance and even gladness that her constantly happy attitude will persist. When you have no concept of what your life could have been, you will have little experience of disappointment, so it should not be a cause for regret. It is possible that this attitude of mine is something of a cop-out for my own peace of mind, but it works for me: besides which, ensuring that she continues to have the appropriate secure environment is enough to keep me occupied. As for Derek, it is also a good example of the sort of series I referred to at the start of this blog – one for which my enthusiasm is engendered by personal connection but is out of step with the general critical consensus.

 

So far, most of the examples I have quoted have been about the learning disabled themselves and maybe I have taken them personally because I am Hanna’s proxy (which, in legal terms, is literally true). But There She Goes is about my life. There have been a number of documentaries about the parents of people with learning disabilities, many focussing on the dilemma of how to ensure that your son or daughter is provided for after your own deaths – Ira Wohl’s 1979 Best Boy was one of the first and Mimi and Dora (PBS, 2015) was a heartbreaking study of an ageing mother’s failure to establish a Unknown-2satisfactory independent life for her disabled daughter – a problem she remarkably solved by outliving her. One of my favourite recent documentaries is How to Dance in Ohio (HBO, 2015) which was about the organisation of a formal prom for a group of autistic youngsters – it was emotional and inspirational, and I certainly recognised my own life in it from accompanying Hanna to the school and college proms and discos which she loves.

 

Before There She Goes, the only fictional piece directly focussing on the parents of a disabled child which I can remember is Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, a Unknown-3stage play which had both film and television adaptations. It has a similar dark humour to There She Goes and was also based on the writer’s own experiences, but it dates from an era when disability was more a private affair and the girl’s disability is severe cerebral palsy. There She Goes is pretty much contemporary to our own experiences and also features a child with undiagnosed disabilities similar to Hanna’s, though a little more severe and much more disruptive.

 

There She Goes is written by Shaun Pye and splits its narrative between 2015, when the learning-disabled Rosie (Miley Locke) is 9, and 2006, when her parents Simon (David Tennant) and Emily (Jessica Hynes) are first discovering her problem. Simon’s reaction in these flashback scenes is to avoid his responsibilities by going straight to the pub after work, while Emily’s desperation makes her even wonder at one point if she will ever be able to love her child. These scenes were very close to home for us: not that I ever sought refuge in a pub or drink or that my wife ever doubted her love for Hanna, but I was out images-1at work while she had to cope with her worries about Hanna in isolation, so it was very hard for her to watch this and Pye (a writer on Have I Got News For You – my favourite comedy panel show) wisely sought his own wife’s input for the character of Emily, which meant it was spot-on. One flashback scene struck me particularly, because it contained a piece of dialogue which came pretty much verbatim out of my own mouth back in about 2003: after a visit to our excellent consultant neurologist, who was organising all sorts of tests for Hanna, none of which produced a conclusive diagnosis, I wondered aloud whether he was partly motivated by the possibility of getting a syndrome named after himself, as does Simon.

 

There is just so much in every episode of There She Goes which strikes home and, no doubt, does also for all parents of children with learning disabilities – I’m sure we all have the dreams where our children are talking ”normally” to us. If I can take anything helpful from it, as I did with Derek, it is better appreciation of my wife’s feelings when she understood from tiny clues that there was a problem way before I did (and she did not, as Emily does, have an older child for comparison). Jessica Hynes is brilliant in these scenes. Shaun Pye’s sense of humour seems much same as mine, though probably not as caustic as Simon’s, so I found it funnier than my wife did – it is best described as comedy-drama, though, and, as with all the best recent work in this field, it is in half-hour episodes.

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The split time-frame also serves to show that Simon and Emily both overcame the problems we see them facing in 2006 to become a functioning and loving family unit in spite of (and probably also because of) Rosie’s disabilities. The interactions between them and their friends, colleagues and family members is also brilliantly handled – living with the issue 24 hours a day, there are things only they understand, and it struck me that, just as certain minorities have re-claimed and “own” perjorative terms which are now taboo for everybody else (black people with the  n-word, gay people with the term “queer” etc), so only we parents of the disabled can use terms like “retard” or “mentally handicapped” with impunity (Simon actually seeks advice on what is socially acceptable from a friend at one point). The whole thing is beautifully crafted and performed and Miley Locke is outstanding as Rosie. It would be too much to expect that a genuine learning-disabled child could have played the part, though I understand it was only the rigours of a shooting schedule which prevented the programme-makers from trying.

 

I fully understand that my judgement on There She Goes is affected by how close to home its subject matter is for me, but I’m not actually out-of-step with the general critical response this time, so I am adding it to my shortlist for the best of 2018. I hope you understand.

Credits where they are due

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Returning to Netflix recently after not having viewed there for a while, I was delighted to discover that they have changed their policy on the presentation of end credits. Whereas, previously, the end credit sequence would be squeezed into a box so small as to render it illegible, while the rest of the screen was devoted to encouraging you to watch the next episode or something else, the default position is now to move you directly to the next episode unless you select the “watch credits” option, in which case they are presented full-screen. This is what I would expect and hope for from a subscription service and the previous policy had come as a great disappointment.

Does this really matter? Well, to me it does, yes, and not just because I have always had an interest, both professional and general, in reading the names of those involved in the production I have just seen. Just as a good opening titles sequence sets the mood for what is to follow (and I never fast-forward through it, no matter how many times I may have seen it), so a thoughtfully composed end credits sequence gives us time to reflect on what we have just seen, as well as maybe commenting on it with a well-chosen piece of music (a comparatively recent development, this, though one which can be traced back to Our Friends in the North and beyond).

At the BFI, we collected a lot of programmes for the archive by recording them as they were transmitted, including all the “ephemeral” material around them, so I was particularly concerned about the exact nature of what we had acquired. Looking back at some of these recordings for a conference we held to mark the 25th anniversary of Channel 4 in 2007, I was struck by the funereal pace of many of the end credit sequences in the 1980s. But it was Channel 4 which first essayed the interruption of end credits for promotional purposes in this country, when it used the closing of the arts strand Without Walls to promote the following week’s programme. With the deregulation of commercial television in the early 1990s, came the introduction and rapid adoption of the voice-over promotion during end credits, designed to tell you what is coming up and dissuade you from changing channels, and it was enthusiastically copied by the BBC, who didn’t mind too much if you changed channel, as long as it was to another BBC one.

Fast ShowAnd it was mostly on the BBC that some shows (it seemed to me) started to fight back against this cultural vandalism. The Fast Show interrupted its end credit sequence with its trademark brief sketches, Tony Garnett’s The Cops used police radio chatter instead of a closing theme tune (difficult to talk over) and the medium-savvy Charlie Brooker directly challenged the BBC to interrupt his closing sequence on one of his “Wipe” shows (which they did, in good humour of course). Over on Channel 4, Chris Morris left the end credits off Jam entirely, replacing them with a web address where he had posted them (jamcredits.com – though you won’t find them there any more, just a commercial for how to build your own website).

By and large, though, programme endings were ruined without discrimination. One that I remember particularly was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras. Each programme ended with a moment of humiliation for Gervais’ character, Andy Millman, followed by a reflective pause, then the slow introduction to Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman – a beautiful ending, always ruined by the continuity announcer’s voice-over. Except on one occasion in the second series: the episode featuring a guest appearance by Chris Martin of Coldplay, playing, as was the convention of the show, an exaggerated version of himself as an egotistical control-freak. Instead of Cat Stevens’ recording of “Tillerman” closing the show, we got the same song performed by Martin. So, the jokeExtra's S2 was that Chris Martin was such an egotist he even insisted on singing the closing song himself. But the joke went even further, because there was no voice over to spoil it. Was the joke that Martin even insisted on singing uninterrupted by continuity? And did Gervais need to negotiate this with the BBC for it to work? Whatever, it only works in the context of every other end credit sequence in the series being interrupted – in other words the joke only works “live”, which makes it really ephemeral!

The “fightback” was short-lived, though. The BBC’s guidelines for the supply of programmes by independent producers soon made it clear that material of editorial significance or any speech should not be included in end credit sequences, a lamentable restriction on creative freedom by a public service broadcaster, and the current guidelines also take account of the most pernicious of the promotional developments: the squeezing of end credit sequences into small boxes in the corner of the screen. Many productions now use credits in larger lettering and still frames (rather than rolling credits) in an attempt to make them seen.

Now, I know that, in terms of credit information, it is all available if I care to look. Embedded metadata on many streaming services, such as Amazon, means that you only need to pause the frame to find out who the actors are or what piece of music is playing and there is plenty of information available on-line. There have been a few recent signs of improvement on broadcast TV, too. The BBC’s channels now allow the credits to IMG_0376occupy more half the screen, while Channel 4 splits it in half and has clearly asked its suppliers to provide programmes with credits which only run on the left side of the frame, so they are designed for this form of presentation rather than lost in the squeeze. ITV and Sky still regularly squeeze the credits into a quarter of the screen, though, and, of course, they all continue to use voice over.

There are also some other ways around the problem for obsessives like me: watching BBC programmes on i-player rather than on transmission is one (in Channel 4’s case it’s best to record, as the compulsory ad breaks on All4 are interminable); and, of course, for the programmes you want to keep, getting them on DVD or Blu-ray, which will give you the “definitive” version. I still cherish the complete experience of watching a programme from the beginning to very end. It was the same when I was a regular cinema-goer. I would never leave until the final credit had rolled, even when they turned on the lights and cleaners asked me to leave because the film “was over”. Oh no, it wasn’t!

Anyway, I can’t bring myself to be too grumpy just now, because CURB IS BACK! – a cause for true rejoicing, even if the end credits are spoiled.

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If you have been affected by the issues raised in this blog, get over it!