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.

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!