Better Left Unsaid

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In my last blog, I praised the writing and direction of Don’t Forget the Driver for often advancing the narrative wordlessly. I took it for granted that this is an admirable trait and that the opposite, overly heavy-handed exposition, is to be decried, mainly because the speech patterns involved sound so unnatural. Yes, the story has to be advanced, but, even if things are left unclear, I far prefer the minimalist approach and ambiguity can also be a positive virtue. A number of the current new batch of dramas and comedies (and, yes, dramatic-comedies) inspire me to expand upon this theme.

 

The gold standard in this regard is Stefan Golaszewski’s Mum, back on BBC2 (Wednesdays) for its 3rdand final season, and available complete on BBC i-player (and I Unknown-1must admit that I love this show so much I have already watched every episode twice!). As it is actually about a group of people who find it almost impossible to articulate their feelings, it is no surprise that what is left unsaid is more important than what is spoken. I noted in my blog about the second season, back in April last year, that that it contained a number of extended contemplative scenes and found all the characters in a limbo where nothing happened. Well, the third season finds matters resolving at last and difficult conversations are had, but Golaszewski still finds plenty of time for awkward silences and contemplative moments. One big difference is that the season covers a week in the characters’ lives, rather than a year, much as the final season of Him and Her (BBC, 2010-13) took the characters out of their bedsit for the first time. The setting is still a house, though a much grander one, and the action of each day seemingly takes place in close to real time, as before.

 

All the characters have moved on (just a little, of course) from the stasis of season two and their main problems I identified in my earlier blog seem resolved: Cathy and Michael know they want each other, though the difficulty in reconciling both Jason and Dave’s parents to this remains (and forms the main thread of the new season); Jason and Kelly have finally moved into their own flat and Kelly is pregnant (though hopelessly imagestrying to hide the fact); Pauline’s divorce has come through (and her settlement is paying for the week in the grand house), but she is still clearly uncertain about where she is going, and is as obnoxious as ever and doesn’t fit with the group; and Maureen’s dementia seems to have relented somewhat, possibly now that she has discovered the joy of the i-pad.

 

Making the silences and the awkwardness work is as much (if not more) down to the writing and direction, as it is to the acting.  Maybe that’s why Golaszewski took over directing duties for the second and third seasons – because he knew exactly where it was going, what he wanted and how it would work. Again, I mentioned in my previous blog how I was a little uncertain of his initial approach in the second season, but how it had been vindicated by the end – well, now it makes even more glorious sense. His plan was clearly fully formed.

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For me, the key silences of the current season occur in the scenes where Derek does not reply when Pauline asks if she is an awful person and the one between Cathy and Maureen in the final episode, where Cathy says what she wants about moving on two years after Dave’s death while Maureen simply stares silently into the distance. So much in Mum is unsaid or misunderstood that the moments of clarity and honesty are ultra-startling – most notably Michael’s declaration of love to Cathy, made with such gushing eloquence that it must have come as a shock to that usually taciturn character himself. It is inspired by, and echoes, Cathy’s similar outburst near the end of season two. Then there is the magnificent cheer-out-loud moment in the final episode when Cathy tells Pauline to go fuck herself (comparable in impact to David Brent saying much the same to Finchy in the Office finale). And the ending – oh, the ending! – as Golaszewski has his cake and eats it by rewarding us with the sight of Cathy and Michael happy together, but allowing his other cast members to critique it at the same time (“bit trite, just walking into the distance”).

 

It would be too much to hope that Mum should receive the honours it deserves in the categories it deserves them – in other words the proper acting awards, not the ones for comedy performance. I can only honour it by putting it straight onto my own shortlist, which I will also formally enlarge at this point with Back to Life, which finished very well since I blogged about it last time out. And one last aside about Mum – in my previous blog I wondered how the episodes would be titled, given that the first two series had used every month of the year. The answer was that each episode had a day of the week (given the contracted time-scale), from Monday to Saturday, as its title – this came up in white on a black background after the opening credits, which showed the imposing facade of the grand house, and in silence after the last strong beat of “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”, which made it look a bit like The Shining!

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Also in my last blog, I mentioned that new drama series by Russell T. Davies and Shane Meadows were on the horizon. These duly arrived in the same week, on consecutive nights, and so are not only ripe for comparison, but exhibit contrasting versions of the theme under discussion here. Davies’ Years and Years (BBC1, Tuesdays) follows a large family, focussing on four siblings, through a speculative future, beginning in the present. In so doing it addresses pretty much every current political and social issue and then some. The first episode breathlessly covered the years 2019 to 2024, ending in startling fashion with the start of a nuclear war. That, however, proves something of a damp squib (!), and the family’s travails are covered in more depth and at a (slightly) slower pace in subsequent episodes. It is very wordy, very frantic and it (just about) works because of Davies’ trademark wit, though as a speculation on what the future may bring it is no Black Mirror. The characters all have a function as conduits for various issues, but the strength of the cast (Rory Kinnear, Jessica Hynes, Russell Tovey, Emma Thompson et al) ensures that they are not just cyphers.

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This is Davies at his most unrestrained, which is not to everybody’s taste and not particularly to mine, as it can be very hit and miss, with plenty to admire, but almost as much to put you off. Last year’s A Very English Scandal was so good because he found an existing subject which fitted him perfectly. This is nearer to his earlier Cucumber (Channel 4, 2015) which contained some phenomenal moments (and one unforgettable episode in particular), but overall was less than the sum of its parts.

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By total contrast, Shane Meadows’ The Virtues (co-written with This Is England collaborator Jack Thorne) is brooding and intense. Where the opening episode of Years and Years raced through 5 years of narrative, the first of The Virtues covered two days representing a turning point in the life of semi-autobiographical protagonist Joseph (Stephen Graham). Indeed, the entire segment between the first break and the second consists solely of Joseph getting drunk after saying goodbye to his son, who is emigrating to Australia with his mother and her new partner, while the rest of the episode consists of his impulsive journey to Ireland to confront the ghosts of his past. Apart from a confrontation with a jobsworth in the ferry office, very little is said in any scene, but the presence of Graham keeps you riveted to the screen at all times. So far, the formula has been repeated across three of the four episodes as we gradually edge towards what Joseph must face up to.

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Now, obviously these two series are doing different things and the differing scales of narrative demand the different approaches, but for me the minimalist approach of The Virtues communicates a great deal more. Other recent dramas show yet further different approaches to the issue. Stephen Poliakoff has never been shy of employing expository dialogue, though it works better in his most recent offering, Summer of Rockets (BBC2, Wednesdays) than in some of his previous pieces. Indeed, the series itself works better than most recent Poliakoff, which had fallen into an overly-familiar and formulaic pattern of sameness. Despite the usual period setting and sumptuous visuals, this one actually has a decent storyline and some interesting characters and at least I haven’t given up at the first episode, as I did with each of his last three series. Episode two did contain one of the most ludicrous pieces of unnecessary dialogue I have heard of late, though, when a character woke up in bed after a dream sequence and exclaimed “thank goodness that didn’t really happen”!

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Sally Wainwright, on the other hand, has usually employed fairly pithy dialogue, at least images-3in her contemporary dramas, but give her a period piece and a sudden need to explain seems to take over. It certainly has in Gentleman Jack (BBC1, Sundays), which I’m afraid I have given up on. I should have known it wouldn’t be for me when the Radio Times described it as “roistering”, which is one of those buzz words which usually warns me off something (“caper” is another) – subtlety is what I prize most in drama.

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One more of the current glut of interesting dramas should be mentioned here, and it is one in which explanatory dialogue is very necessary but is perfectly naturally integrated in the script. I mentioned in my previous blog that Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic, Tuesdays) had started strongly and it has very much continued in that vein. The international cast is excellent, the locations totally convincing and the effects brilliantly handled, but the most impressive thing is how the magnitude of the event is conveyed in a way which has had a greater impact than any amount of documentaries or writing before – part of this images-4involves lengthy explanations given by scientists to government figures, just as I imagine must have happened in reality, but there are also plenty of moments where the visuals alone tell the story. It’s extremely impressive. Interestingly, Chernobyl also featured in one of the most striking sequences in David Attenborough’s new series for Netflix, Our Planet, in which he showed how nature is now reclaiming the abandoned and still poisonous townscapes near to where the disaster happened.

 

So, The Virtues and Chernobyl are hovering on the edge of my shortlist, awaiting confirmation when they finish, and I will update it at the half-way stage at the end of June. It has already been an outstanding year and I have a couple of recent documentaries to add to the list, plus 63 Up, which is on ITV next week and is, by its very presence, a certainty for the list before I have even seen a minute of it! I guess that is my next blog sorted.

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.