Choices and Choices

Bandersnatch Black Mirror

So, the last day of the year and here, just in time, is my top ten of 2018 – but first I am able to raise my shortlist of 17, as detailed in my last blog, to a top 20 for the year, thanks to three worthy additions I have watched in the last two weeks (one of them only available for the past three days, but that one not only completes my top 20, but also makes it into the top ten, so it was well worth waiting!).

 

Chuck Lorre’s The Kominsky Method (Netflix) is a highly enjoyable, old-fashioned comedy starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, both on top form, as ageing friends. It deals with some issues I am sadly familiar with, such as the effects of an enlarged prostate and the side-effects of the drugs used to treat it. It also reminded me in several Unknownaspects of my all-time favourite American comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm: the central relationship of a performer and his agent; their bemusement at the ways of the modern world; the showbiz milieu, with guest stars playing either characters (Danny de Vito, Ann-Margret) or themselves (Jay Leno, Elliot Gould); the strong Jewish humour. It’s not earth-shattering, but it has its moments of reflection and is extremely watchable.

 

Kidding (Showtime/Sky Atlantic), written by Dave Holstein, starring Jim Carrey and (mostly) directed by Michel Gondry, arrived here too late to make many “best of year” imageslists, as it probably should have. It is visually striking (full of bold colours), with an occasionally unnerving narrative, which veers from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye and centres on a group of people involved in the production of a Sesame Street-like children’s TV show, while at the same time dealing with personal loss and life challenges. Carrey is perfectly cast as the insecure star, Mr Pickles, constantly wanting to introduce themes of death into his character’s show. It was a slow starter and took some getting used to, but the later episodes were very memorable and I will certainly be returning to it.

 

Black Mirror arrives too late every year (since it went to Netflix) to make it onto any lists, even though every season has been consistently outstanding. This year, only one episode has arrived so far, but it is something of such significance and brilliance that it is an automatic must for my top ten. I have always thought that interactivity in drama, though much touted by broadcasters for many years as a likely future development, was a non-starter simply because the whole point of drama is to be told a story, whether you like how it develops or not. But Bandersnatch succeeds because it is actually about the possibilities and implications of interactivity (and therefore a perfect fit for the Black Mirror ethos), as well as because the delivery technology has become so sophisticated that a genius like Charlie Brooker can put it to positive creative use. I think it is a big moment for television.

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And it is about much more than interactivity, with themes of personal choice versus control, of the mysteries of creativity and of the impact of chance on our lives. On this last point, there are echoes of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 film Blind Chance and I imagine the fact that part of the plot hinges on a missed train was a nod in its direction. There are also references to “wrong” choices throughout – Betamax tapes, the newsagent chain John Menzies (though our hero wisely shops at W.H.Smith). I should, however, add that any description of sequences from Bandersnatch I may give you applies only to the version I watched, and, the way the interactivity works, with regular choices of alternatives, that version was one of over a trillion possibilities, which I guess probably makes it my very own version. The “ending” (at least the one I saw, or think I saw) is excellent but after it you get even more choices and the chance to go back on the ones you made until you have had enough and press the “escape to credits” option. By that time, Netflix itself has become part of the story and its familiar interface, suggesting the BlackMirror episode Be Right Back as your next choice (again, maybe only in the version I saw) is implicated too. After all that, I’m not sure there is any need to watch it again, though something tells me I will, maybe in the company of somebody else making the choices. I’ve already told my wife she needs to see it and I can imagine it may have caused battles for the remote in many households.

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Anyway, to get back to my top ten of 2018, Black Mirror:Bandersnatch (Netflix) has crashed unstoppably into it at the very last minute, which caused me a bit of painful reassessment. The other nine, in rough order of appearance only, are as follows:

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Inside No.9(BBC2): a brilliant fourth season, in which every episode was a corker, plus the wonderful live Halloween special.

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Save Me(Sky Atlantic): the first truly outstanding drama series Sky has made, courtesy of a wonderful script and characters created by Lennie James.

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Damned(Channel 4): a stunning second season which confirms Jo Brand as the best female writer/performer we have just now.

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A Very English Scandal(BBC1): Russell T.Davies’ brilliantly witty, yet totally appropriate take on the Jeremy Thorpe affair, with Hugh Grant a revelation.

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American Vandal 2(Netflix): yes, shit is funny, but it has never been quite this funny, while, at the same time containing moral lessons for our times.

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22 July(Netflix): Paul Greengrass at his best in conveying the full horror, impact and implications of the Norwegian massacres carried out by Anders Behring Breivik.

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There She Goes(BBC4): a devastatingly accurate “comedy” about the travails of the parents of a learning-disabled daughter.

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Black Earth Rising(BBC2): a complex, intelligent and highly resonant series from Hugo Blick, centred on the Rwandan genocide.

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Homecoming(Amazon): a brilliant mystery, based on a podcast but transformed into a superb piece of TV by the direction of Sam Esmail.

 

A last few thoughts on my list: if Bandersnatch had not arrived so decisively (and so late), I would have included Doctor Who: Rosa in my top ten and am disappointed that I had to leave it out. I’m also disappointed not to have included any factual pieces in my list, but nothing could compete, in my mind, with the strength of these ten titles.  I had a couple of doubts which I dispelled to my own satisfaction: firstly, is 22 July really a piece of TV or is it a film? – I decided to include it because of the TV pedigree of the director and because it “felt” like a single television drama, and, by the same criteria, I excluded The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (also Netflix), which I loved, because of the cinematic pedigree of the Coens and because it “felt” like a film, despite its episodic nature; secondly, I have already admitted in an earlier blog that my reaction to There She Goes is completely informed by personal experience, but I still feel it is a very important piece and one which I am in a position to judge in terms of authenticity as well as its intrinsic qualities as comedy/drama.

 

So, all that remains is to wish everybody a Happy New Year and good viewing in it. The building of the 2019 shortlist starts tomorrow, with some potential candidates already on the radar for the coming days, though last night’s impressive opening episode of Les Miserables means it may already be underway.

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Two Black Stars Shine on Sky

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“When will Sky finally make an outstanding original drama?”

“Why has British TV found it so difficult to make really effective use of black stars like Idris Elba and how can it do so?”

These are two questions I have asked at various times over the past decade. Both have been answered in the last weeks. What is surprising is that the answer to both was pretty much the same – personal projects created by leading black British actors.

Sky’s attempts at original drama have usually involved buying up established talent and throwing it together in the expectation of automatic success, usually in formats that have proven recently successful. TV, like the movies, is a copycat medium – if something is a success, then try to replicate it. This is the exact opposite of “originality”, but genuine originality has to come from somewhere and, in British TV, that has usually meant the BBC or Channel 4. Even ITV occasionally comes up with something new which it then attempts to replicate ad nauseam, a la Broadchurch, but Sky’s efforts to date have been utterly derivative, from Mad Dogs (2011-13), which threw four then “hot” actors together in a gangster plot which basically ripped off Sexy Beast, to Fortitude (2015-), with its imagesattempt to merge Scandi-noir with the vogue for crime mysteries in enclosed communities.

Last year, Sky presented its most promising effort yet – Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic), which was well worth watching but lacked the vital ingredients to make it outstanding, as well as containing what I thought was an unsuitable and under-developed role for…..Idris Elba. But the solution was at hand, and it was to commission an original drama from one of the many black British stars who had found fame and success in the USA. Actually, Lennie James was not somebody whom British TV had not found a role for in the past – he was excellent in the first season of Line of Duty (BBC2, 2012) and had a few writing credits to his name, such as The Bill. But nothing prepared us for the impact of Save Me, just concluded on Sky Atlantic.

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The plot of Save Me has several points of comparison to Channel 4’s Kiri, aired in January – a mixed-race girl goes missing and her estranged black father becomes involved in the search. It even has a sympathetic black female detective in common with the earlier piece, but there the two diverge, with Save Me investigating the ghastly world of organised paedophilia and the effect of the girl’s disappearance on her parents and their circles of friends and associates, and most particularly on her father, Nelly. Lennie plays Nelly, and the inversion of his name seems to indicate that this is maybe an alternative version of himself. He certainly inhabits the character totally and in turn creates an utterly memorable social milieu for the character to inhabit – the run-down estate, the pub, the gang of locals.

What strikes you the most is the strength of the writing and the scenes James has created, many of them searingly uncomfortable yet totally gripping. It reminded me of This Is England at its best and I can’t offer much higher praise than that, but it is its own thing, not a copy of anything else. That comparison is perhaps prompted by the casting of Stephen Graham, an actor whose mere presence makes an average script good, a good images-1one great and a great one outstanding – and this is a great script. A great cast, too, also including fine work from Suranne Jones and Kerry Godliman, alongside Graham and the others, and a brief yet indelible cameo from Adrian Edmondson.

I did feel slightly uneasy about the ending (and please skip to the next para now if you haven’t seen it), partly because the way Nelly rescued the girl who was being auctioned seemed a little too easy (though the fact that it wasn’t his daughter after all made for a satisfactory conclusion, which emphasised his own obsession and paranoia over her disappearance) but mainly because of the way it leaves things open for a second season. I certainly think there is room for more stories about Nelly and the others, but a continuation of this particular plotline would be very hard to sustain, so I hope that doesn’t happen – mostly because it just wouldn’t be “original” any more.

Sky has a much better record in original comedy than drama, both in terms of providing a platform for innovative pieces like Julia Davis’ Hunderby (2012-15), Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy (2012-15) or the wonderfully surreal This is Jinsy (2011-14), and of commissioning new work involving established comic creations like Alan Partridge. So, they deserve great credit for realising that Idris Elba had the potential for comedy – not just performing it, but also creating it. Maybe it was those commercials he does for them which gave them the idea.

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Elba’s creation, In the Long Run (Sky One), is based on his childhood in 1980s London and he plays Walter, the character representing his own father, in the series, much as Lenny Henry did in his own recreation of his seventies teenage years, Danny and the Human Zoo (BBC1, 2015). Another point of reference is Danny Baker’s series based on his memoirs of a seventies adolescence, Cradle to Grave (BBC2, 2015) – In the Long Run uses contemporary pop songs in much the same way. Elba shows a considerable gift for comedy, considering that his reputation is based on dramatic tough-guy roles, which I guess is why his previous British TV vehicle, Luther (BBC), was just that – a creation designed to showcase him, rather than use his talents in something more substantial.

The council estate where the characters live is presented and populated in much the same loving detail as the one in Save Me (I particularly like the balcony singer, who gives both atmosphere and commentary). Unlike Save Me, though, most of the main cast is black (playing immigrants from Sierra Leone), with the exception of Bill Bailey as Unknown-1Walter’s friend Bagpipes and Kellie Shirley as his wife Kirsty. This is an excellent role for Bailey – a wonderful stand-up but hitherto underused as a comic actor. Bailey and Elba are particularly good in their scenes together. The racial politics of the time are a constant presence and reference point, without becoming overwhelming.

As I hinted in my last blog, Save Me goes straight on to my running shortlist for the best of 2018 (and is certainly the best drama on that list so far), but In the Long Run still has to be seen as something which is highly promising and has potential for development – it started a little unevenly, but episode 4 (the engagement party) was a classic and, by the time it reached the sixth and final episode the characters and their relationships were fully established and it had become highly engaging and enjoyable. Definitely one to keep an eye on in the long run.