Extra-special Features

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Have you ever bought a DVD/blu-ray for one of the special features (or “extras”) rather than for the film or TV title itself? I’m not talking about upgrading something you already own by buying one of those special edition or anniversary releases, designed to make you buy the thing you already have by packing it with extra stuff that no self-respecting completist collector can be without, but actually buying a title you do not already have because you want one of the “extras” rather than (or more than) the title itself.

 

Well, I’ve just done so for the third time. The first of these was the four (DVD) or three (blu-ray) disc set of Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959) a film which I had seen and enjoyed in the cinema as a child, but one which I had little intention of purchasing until this edition appeared, including as it does the original 1925 silent Fred Niblo version, as presented on Thames Silents with tinted and toned scenes and a wonderful, Wagner-inspired score by Carl Davis. This was a film I had been wanting to get for some time,Unknown especially this version of it, so the fact that it was available on a set which was (and still is) on sale for under a tenner was an opportunity not to be missed. I would gladly have paid double for the silent version alone.

 

As a trained librarian, my collection is meticulously and logically arranged on my shelves, and this set of Ben Hur sits where it belongs – in the silent film section. A few inches away is the second DVD I bought for the extras. Though I am glad to have the William Wyler version of Ben Hur, there is no way I would images-2have bought the silent German bergfilm The Holy Mountain had the set not come with a bonus disc containing the excellent three-hour documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Muller, 1993). It is there because Riefenstahl stars in The Holy Mountain, but otherwise has nothing to do with that film beyond the brief section on her acting career.

 

The third has just been released and I have been enjoying it over the last couple of days. In this case the film is actually a very good one – Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955), which is one of only two films to win both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Picture Oscar. It was one of several notable films of the mid-fifties to have been developed from scripts written originally for live US television drama: Twelve Angry Men and Requiem for a Heavyweight were notable others. And it was the presence of the original 1953 telecastimages of Marty amongst this Eureka release’s special features which was the top selling point for me. It was transmitted as part of NBC’s Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, a strand which was the recipient of a 1953 Peabody Award for the general excellence of its productions, so it wasn’t only the film version which won prestigious awards. It had previously been available only on a US-standard Criterion set called The Golden Age of Television and some interviews from that set are included as well.

 

Marty is arguably the earliest American television drama masterpiece and had a massive impact. Paddy Chayefsky wrote it for Philco Television Playhouse at very short notice (a matter of days) and it was directed by Delbert Mann. For the movie version, two years later, Chayefsky expanded his script by including a few extra scenes, but the essence remained the same. Mann directed again and included a number of location shoots to give the piece a more expansive feel, but a feeling of claustrophobia and inescapable routine was an essential part of the original and this actually works against the film version. Most important are the cast changes to the two leads: Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand (both primarily stage actors at the time) are utterly convincing as the two desperate singletons, seeing in each other a last chance to escape a life “on the shelf”. Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair are very good, but they are movie stars after all, which carries an aura of glamour, and they are lit as such.  Steiger’s trademark mumbling style also works in his favour in this role, whereas Borgnine is more affable and thus less convincing as a reject. Several of the other members of the cast of the TV version reprised their roles in the film.

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Above all, the television version has the impact that comes with the knowledge that it is being performed “live” in a few small sets and on limited resources – they only get the one take and the sense of immediacy is transmitted straight to the audience. Television pioneers made up the rules and grammar of the medium as they went along – certainly there was experience from theatre, radio and film to draw upon, but the TV version of Marty conveys the unmistakable excitement of something very new, so that even the technical limitations become part of the enjoyment of the piece. And those limitations extend also to the method of reproduction – early telerecording (or, as the Americans call it, kinescope), which was, basically, filming the picture from a television screen. This recording contains a number of technical glitches and, when the camera pans across the set, the convex nature of the monitor screen makes the set perspective shift in a very unsettling way. Not that this matters in any way – in fact it actually adds to the impression that you are seeing something genuinely pioneering.

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It is interesting to note that, while the American film industry was responding to the threat of television with widescreen, colour and spectacle, it was also adapting low-key social dramas like Marty for the cinema screen with great success and, indeed, winning major awards with them. The Marty movie cleaned up at the Oscars, winning not only best picture, but best actor, director and adapted screenplay as well. In Britain, by contrast, TV drama at this time was very much dominated by theatrical models and adaptations of literary classics. The main cinematic adaptations of 1950s British TV dramas were those of the Quatermass science fiction series. By the time Sydney Newman converted Armchair Theatre to a vehicle for socially realistic dramas, the cinema new wave was beginning and taking its cues from theatre and contemporary novels.

 

Anyway, having viewed both versions of Marty, I now have to decide whether to put my blu-ray on the shelves containing my film or my TV collections.

I’ll give it five

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There is just too much on TV to keep up with it all, especially when it comes to long-form drama, so how and when do you decide to stop watching something you thought was going to be a regular viewing fixture for yourself? In my first blog on this site, I mentioned that I had given up on The Handmaid’s Tale after 5 episodes, despite the positive reactions I had read from critics I greatly respect. Since then, it has won multiple Emmys, so did I get it wrong? I ask that question now because I am facing the same dilemma with another highly regarded piece – David Simon’s The Deuce (HBO), which reaches its 5th episode on Sky Atlantic tonight. It’s make or break time for me.

Like Handmaid, The Deuce started really impressively and had me hooked. In both cases, a very specific world was conjured onto the screen in magnificent detail. The Deuce was actually the more impressive in this regard, as the world it was creating was a real place at a real historical time (New York in the early 1970s). And, unlike Handmaid, The Deuce quickly established strong and recognisable characters to populate this world. But then it stalled, as though it had already done enough. One of the great attractions of modern TV drama to talented writers and directors, it is often said, is the scope for creating characters with great depth and developing them over a long period of time. This is certainly true. Establishing complex characters quickly was always a rare gift in both film and TV (Jimmy McGovern can do it – so can Sally Wainwright), but the long form also gives the opportunity to withhold information about characters and surprise the audience with it at a later stage. But it does seem that, in many series, this has now become the main purpose, at the expense of plot dynamic and development – and it’s not enough to keep me watching, especially when there is so much other wonderful stuff, both past and present, clamouring for attention.

Hill Street BluesNow don’t get me wrong. I have happily followed many series primarily because of engagement with the characters. I never missed an episode of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue. These, though, could be relied upon to provide constantly engaging and occasionally startling narratives and, as dramas with contemporary settings, had scope for re-invention. And, although they had their high points, those series never failed to deliver, even when past their best – unlike, say, Homeland, another series I have watched throughout, despite several very rocky seasons until its more recent revival (I thought the last season, dealing with the Presidential transition, was the best since the brilliant first season – maybe even better than it).

One crucial aspect seems to me to be whether a series has an end in sight or whether it simply intends to continue until either its creators feel it can go no further or its audience wearies of it. If the latter, then it needs to be constantly refreshing itself – if the former, then it needs to maintain a high-level of engagement, as, for instance, Breaking Bad did. I would imagine The Handmaid’s Tale has an end in sight, as it is based on a novel which has already been made into a film for the cinema, so extending it beyond this series was one of the reasons I gave up, but maybe I will need to go back to it if it completes a satisfactory journey over a number of seasons and continues in high critical regard. The Deuce, on the other hand, looks set for a long haul without necessarily knowing where it is going. This approach strikes me as similar to the way Dickens created his novels (and I’m not – I have to confess – a massive Dickens fan). A series which has its origins in a novel (or a series of novels) does not necessarily have to keep the end of the novel in sight, though. Game of Thrones has adapted new novels in thegame of thrones series as George R.R.Martin has written them. Much the same is happening on a smaller scale with Wolf Hall (and we already KNOW how that will end!). Most interestingly, The Leftovers adapted Tom Perrotta’s complete novel in its first season, with the novelist as co-screenwriter, and continued and completed the story this way in seasons 2 and 3, but without any further novels appearing.

So, how can you tell what will be worth following and what to give up on? Well, you can’t for certain, and that’s the point and part of the fun – not knowing if it will be good or bad, as well as not knowing if the ending, if there is to be one, will be happy or sad or something in-between. The question you ask yourself is: “Is this a place I want to stay in?”. In the days before the introduction of the story arc, this was easier, though the engagement factor with individual episodes was an important consideration. I have made plenty of errors, particularly with The Sopranos, though the scope which now exists for revisiting and redeeming those mistakes makes them easier to make, and I’m really looking forward to redeeming that particular error. On the other hand, I think I got it right when I gave up on Boardwalk Empire, though that took me into the second season before I realised how essentially hollow it was.

So far, I have been talking mostly about American series, but is this a mainly American thing? It certainly used to be, but the model has been creeping into British TV for some considerable time now. The British drama model used to rely more on what are now called mini-series (i.e. single series dramas with a contained plot) rather than returning ones. But you always knew which were intended to be which. Nowadays, the influence of the American model means that what would previously have been a single series drama may well return, if either the writer hopes to extend it or the broadcaster wants more of something that has been a big hit. The use of the singular “writer” is key here, because the British TV tradition of the writer working alone on a series is still the usual pattern (though there are exceptions), but it is not best suited to the American model. As a result, I think there have been more failures than successes.

broadchurchExhibit A is Broadchurch, which I would remember as one of ITV’s great recent dramas if it had ended where it should have, after what became the first season. But a series which is both a major commercial and critical success is something TV cannot resist trying to replicate, and I was so disappointed by the way the second season stretched credibility in order to perpetuate itself, that I gave up on it. I made it all the way through the second season of The Fall (BBC2), which I thought was excellent until the final seconds of the final episode but the lack of a conclusive ending and the subsequent attempt to stretch it further so alienated me that I resolved to avoid the third season. Did anybody watch it? Was it any good? There have been some successes, though: Happy Valley came back just as strong for its second season and Peaky Blinders found the missing ingredient that Boardwalk Empire lacked.

So, it’s back to David Simon. The Wire achieved greatness by making each season distinctive – like each one was a mini-series of its own. Treme was good (and had terrific music performances) but ultimately became somewhat aimless. Show Me a Hero was a wonderful mini-series, which managed to make housing policy in Yonkers in the eighties gripping over 6 episodes. Which way will The Deuce go?

“Glorious summer” returns!

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OK, so the first blog post is supposed to introduce yourself and what you aim to do with your site, but that’s all in the “About” section, if you are interested, so let’s jump straight in:

Time was when the summer television schedules were empty of worthwhile new shows. Sport and repeats were the order of the day, plus those dreadful seaside entertainment shows which proved the rule that the companies weren’t trying because everybody, including themselves, was out enjoying the (marginally better) weather and long evenings. This was, however, a twentieth century thing.

In more recent years, summer seems to have become one of the most important seasons for the scheduling of quality television – at least the stuff I like the best. Let’s face it – the best TV is often not the greatest ratings fodder, so a channel wishing to point to a strong record in providing innovative content and still maximise its ratings is likely to place such material at a time when the biggest audiences are not available anyway. I certainly believe this is the case with Channel 4. When their finest series of the last decade, Dennis Kelly and Marc Munden’s Utopia, rated poorly in its first season, the second was shifted to the summer of 2014 before the show was shamefully cancelled, presumably because it was felt not to be justifying the expense, despite being precisely the sort of exciting and innovative thing C4 should be doing. Much the same goes for The Mill, aired in the high summers of 2013 and 14 before cancellation. Interestingly, Humans, the show which was pretty much a direct replacement for Utopia, followed the opposite trajectory, being premiered in the summer of 2015, then moved to autumn once established. Southcliffe, premiered in August 2013, was one of C4’s most striking recent mini-series. Meanwhile, C4’s closest rival, BBC2, followed suit by scheduling Hugo Blick’s second mini-series, The Honourable Woman, for the summer of 2014.

At the same time, the growing availability of, and demand for, quality shows from the US, Europe and pretty much everywhere else provided plenty of extra material to schedule, often with the imperative of tying transmission in Britain close to that in the States, as our interconnected world makes fandom a global phenomenon, as we have seen this year.

The result of this was a series of summers from about 2012 to 2015 where I found myself avidly following up to four or five really-high-quality dramas at any one time during June, July and August, something that doesn’t often happen in the traditional peak viewing seasons in autumn, winter or spring. This also coincided with my time on the Peabody Board, so I was on the lookout for the best American shows – and there were plenty in supply. The list of overseas titles premiered in summer during this period contains many of my recent favourites, among them the brilliant and haunting Les Revenants from France, The Americans (initially on ITV, but later relegated to subsidiary channels) and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (season 1).

2016 was a little sparse and it seemed that normal service had been resumed, but this summer just gone was an exceptional one for new TV dramas. Anyway, that’s a rather lengthy preamble, attempting to give coherence to a blog which is basically just about some of the things I’ve been glued to over the past three months.

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First up was Jimmy McGovern’s Broken (BBC1), starring Sean Bean as a catholic priest dealing with a variety of social problems suffered by members of his congregation, as well as his own demons. Like McGovern’s previous series The Street and Accused, it used a linking device, the priest and his congregation, to present a number of individual stories and address pressing current issues including poverty, racism, gambling addiction and homophobia. As always with McGovern, the characters are swiftly and memorably established, the casting is outstanding and the issues are not allowed to overwhelm the human dimension, so our response is a highly emotional one. The various strands were each played out over a number of episodes and the priest’s own story over the whole series. In a year in which communities under extreme stress has been the theme of several striking dramas (Three Girls, Little Boy Blue, The Moorside) McGovern’s contribution is still the standout piece. Surprisingly upbeat ending, too.

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I was certainly looking forward to the third season of Fargo (FX/Channel 4) and was not disappointed, though I didn’t think it was quite up to the (extremely high) standard of the first two. There are few more entertaining shows on TV – so confident in its abilities that it can take what seem like ridiculous risks and get away with them. The standout performance this time round was from David Thewlis as a sardonic villain, but one slightly jarring note was that we were yet again presented with a main character of a female cop intuitively understanding a case but dismissed by her blinkered senior officers. The wonderful Carrie Coon did her best in a role already nailed by Frances McDormand and Alison Tolman, but it was a bit déjà vu. Incidentally she received an Emmy nomination for the part, but was overlooked for her incredible work in The Leftovers (more of which later) – bizarre!

I was also looking forward to The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/C4), having read some enthusiastic reviews from the States. It certainly started well, establishing the future fascist state and its own distinctive visual style, but then it didn’t seem to go anywhere and failed to engage me with the characters, even the central one played by Elisabeth Moss. I’m afraid I gave up after the 5th episode, when I read that a second series had been commissioned. A story like that needs the prospect of an ending and I was not prepared to commit to it for the long haul. Moss, however, fared much better in the return of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (BBC2), subtitled China Girl, though that should have been the main title, as the setting moved from New Zealand to Sydney and there wasn’t a lake in sight, though plenty of water. As with the first series, it was full of memorably drawn and strong characters (especially Gwendoline Christie as Miranda) and contained striking set-pieces and dream sequences. Again, the police case at the heart of the story was not the main point – this was about the impact of fertility (or otherwise) and having children on the lives of the characters. Another similarity was the presence in a key supporting role of a leading Hollywood actress who had previously worked with Campion on film (Holly Hunter in the first series, Nicole Kidman in this one) and both were made to wear grey wigs (not sure what to make of that!). This was so clearly the work of an auteur that I was surprised that Campion had not directed the whole thing herself, though I must admit that I would not have realised it if the credits hadn’t told me otherwise.

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Another of our great auteurs, Peter Kosminsky, was back with his 4-part mini-series The State (Channel 4), about a group of idealistic British muslims who travel to Syria to join Islamic State and end up, inevitably, either disillusioned or dead. The research was impressive and the performances and direction as excellent as one would expect from a Kosminsky project. I would have liked more (or something) on what inspired the characters’ journeys in the first place, as they come across as impossibly naïve, but what we did get was riveting.

The summer was dominated though, by the work of probably the greatest auteur ever to essay a TV series, David Lynch. Starting in late May and ending early September (and premiered simultaneously in the UK as in the US, which meant 2am!), Twin Peaks (Showtime/Sky Atlantic) pulled off the quite astonishing feat of expanding the possibilities of what a TV drama could be as profoundly as the first series did back in 1990. I’m writing this while listening to the album of music featured in the series, mostly the songs which signalled the end of each episode – only one of its signature innovations. There have been many petabytes of review and theorising about this series, much of which I have enjoyed reading, but do not intend to add to because the series should just be enjoyed and marvelled at for the experience it is, rather than explained (not that any explanation is really possible). I just loved the extended scenes and takes, the silences, and, in the absence of any decent comedy at the moment, I found so many hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments in every episode.

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But, if Twin Peaks is the greatest thing on TV so-far this year, which I believe it is, it is still not my favourite thing (and, as an archivist, I trained myself to recognise that difference). The summer release I most looked forward to was season 3 of The Leftovers (HBO/Sky Atlantic) and it even managed to exceed my expectations by bringing this magnificent series to a fully satisfying and very moving conclusion. Fortunately, Sky made the entire final season available for download as well as transmitting it weekly, so I was able to enjoy it in one go, without it clashing with my weekly instalments of Twin Peaks and Fargo. Watching an episode of Leftovers after one of Twin Peaks, as Sky had scheduled them, just wouldn’t have worked. The greatest things just need time to sink in.

I mentioned earlier that The Returned (Les Revenants) is a particular personal favourite and I regard The Leftovers as an American equivalent. There was an American re-make of The Returned and they made a complete hash of it by transposing it too literally, when what was needed was to find something with domestic resonance, which is what happened with The Leftovers. Both series present a supernatural mystery and examine its spiritual effects on a community of disparate characters. Both are treasured by people of different religious persuasions, as well as by hardcore atheists like me. I always cry at Mahler’s 2nd Symphony (and did again at the Proms a couple of weeks ago!) despite not believing for one moment in resurrection (indeed, maybe because of that) and I have the same sort of response to both The Returned and The Leftovers.

Most of the critical and on-line theorising about The Leftovers concerned the ending and, in this case, I would like to add my four penn’orth, so please skip to the end of this para if you haven’t seen it yet. The fundamental question was whether Nora was telling the truth in her narration about her experiences after passing through the machine to the parallel existence where the “missing” 2% lived, and whether Kevin really believed her, as he said he did. Reflecting on Nora’s story, so many potential inconsistencies arose, that I am inclined to think it is not the truth, despite the neat way it would solve the mystery. However, I also think it is possible that Nora genuinely believes it to be true and that Kevin genuinely believes her, too. This would fit with the central theme of the series, which is the different ways in which people interpret life’s mystery, and the fact the series’ two most sceptical characters finally find something to hold on to, whether it is true or not, is very satisfying. Personally, in the words of the opening song, “I choose to let the mystery be”. Whatever, it is a beautiful ending, beautifully played by Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux, who led an outstanding cast throughout.

So, that neatly wraps up my first blog, which I’m afraid has been rather too long – most of these series would justify a separate post of their own. One last reflection: apart from The Leftovers, I watched all these series as they were transmitted, leaving little time for Netflix or Amazon or DVD/Blu-ray viewing. That’s how good a summer it was. Now that the autumn schedules are with us, with their more predictable offerings, I expect those platforms to provide a greater proportion of my viewing and maybe blogging.

Thanks for reading – back after a short break.