Words can speak louder than actions


A few months back, I posted a blog in which I argued the merits of telling a story visually rather than verbally (Better Left Unsaid, 31st May) using examples of some recently transmitted programmes. Without in any way invalidating those arguments, a number of recent new series have prompted me to examine the other side of the same coin: effective drama and dramatic comedies which prioritise dialogue over visuals. Of course, for these to work well they still require subtle visual flair and directorial quality and they, too, need to avoid expository dialogue as much as possible.


To start with the two most obviously “wordy” series: State of the Union (BBC2/BBC i-Player) was a series of 10 ten-minute two-handers, always set in the same pub as the two protagonists (played by Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd) met up in advance of their regular weekly marriage counselling sessions. The credits for such a modest scenario were pretty striking – as well as the two excellent actors, the scripts were by Nick Hornby and the direction by Stephen Frears – which is why it worked so well. It was very muchEE02E85E-4545-4618-8C76-2071C72E23D1_4_5005_c in the tradition of pieces like Hugo Blick and Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff (BBC: 2000-2003) or Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (BBC: 1988, 1998). The details of the characters’ lives emerged gradually and as much by implication as by direct statement. This requires clever writing, great acting skills and subtle direction – Frears highlighted the more serious moments with the minutest of camera movements. Another outstanding two-hander, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), is a valuable reference-point. Each episode included the week number (Week 1, Week 2 etc) in its title, so I watched them a week apart, not in twos, as they were transmitted, or by bingeing the whole 100 minutes on i-Player, as I’m sure many did, and I somehow think that was right. I imagine it will be back for another season and could well run and run.


Criminal (Netflix) has a larger cast but also a single set, in this case a police interrogation room, the adjoining surveillance room and the lift area/stairwell outside. It also has an interesting concept. There are four brief series, each made by a different country (UK, France, Spain and Germany) and each series (of 3) has a group of actors playing the police team across the three episodes and guest stars (like David Tennant) BC23E253-1B92-4056-BD86-AAB116598E9B_4_5005_cplaying the “criminals” being interrogated in each episode. Each investigation is a separate story, but there is a story arc across the three episodes involving the police characters. Unfortunately, the lack of back-story context or characterisation in the criminal stories is a hindrance, so there is no great tension in the interrogation scenes, compared to Line of Duty (or even 24 Hours in Police Custody). I haven’t watched every national version, so one of them may have cracked the format, but on the evidence I have seen (the UK and German series), I doubt it.


Far better are two more traditional dramas, both also dealing with crime and police procedures, which most certainly rely on scenes of interview and interrogation rather than action. Season two of David Fincher’s Mindhunter (Netflix) built well on the excellent first series and continued to rely for its effectiveness mainly on the tense “interview” scenes in which imprisoned serial killers (based on real-life murderers and including, this season, Charles Manson) are questioned by the specialist FBI officers, trying to find psychological insights to help solve ongoing crimes (also based on real 4F0B7584-8C73-4117-A13F-FCFDBEA3F473_4_5005_cexamples – most prominently in this season, the Atlanta child murders). What is discussed is grisly in the extreme and comes across far more shockingly for being dispassionately spoken about than it would do if recreated for the drama. The private lives of Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) impact strongly on the narrative and the way the characters’ private experiences are shown to inform their innovative behavioural research (and vice versa) reminded me of a previous series: Masters of Sex (Showtime, 2013-16).


ITV’s A Confession similarly located all its dramatic impetus in its dialogue, which was appropriate given that it was about what was and was not admissible as evidence and how following police procedures to the letter would not have achieved results. In this regard it was very similar to another ITV real-life police drama from earlier in the year: Manhunt. In the earlier piece, it was Martin Clunes playing the career copper who risked his position to follow his instinct. This time it is Martin Freeman, playing pretty much the same role – the Martins could have been interchangeable! It was an engaging, understated drama which kept the attention without setting the world on fire.


All of which, I guess, goes to show that you don’t necessarily need action sequences to produce an engaging drama, but the greatest pieces are likely to be those which find a balance between “action” and dialogue sequences, as long as the action is organic to the narrative and the dialogue is naturalistic rather than expository. Step forward, Top Boy 701B056B-9E87-4B3F-BA20-635122DC0391_4_5005_c(Netflix). Having provided Channel 4 with two outstanding 4-part series in 2011 and 2013, Ronan Bennett’s Top Boy was then inexplicably dropped. But now, thanks to interest (and finance) from the rapper Drake, it is back on Netflix with a new 10-part season and the promise of more to come – and this is very good news. And the fact that the series has been so greatly expanded allows for many more back stories and for reflection on the circumstances the characters find themselves in – all of it highly pertinent to the recent rise in street crime and the headlines it has made.


It also provides a large number of roles for an astonishing roster of young black British acting talent – some of the most impressive being the very youngest ones: Keiyon Cook and Araloyin Oshunremi outstanding as Ats and Stefan. Ashley Walters’ Dushane remains the main focus, though Kane Robinson as Sully and Micheal Ward as Jamie FA69D89B-999E-436F-B8BF-A349627F9CEB_4_5005_ccomplete a trio of riveting protagonists. Writing and direction are top-notch throughout, as is the music – both the original score by Brian Eno and the rap music which provides both impetus and comment. A key theme is the tension between the main characters’ involvement in drug wars and their attempts to engage in “normal” personal lives and look after family members, as well as the inevitable impact of the gang scene on the youngest members of the community. In this respect, it echoes The Godfather films in its epic scope.


We certainly need to be grateful to Drake for bringing about such a vital revival. I just wish that something similar would happen to another wonderful series abandoned by Channel 4 after two seasons and one of my very favourites of the past decade: Utopia.


Top Boy is a definite for my shortlist, and I will add Mindhunter to the list as well.



A Dramatic Improvement


Well, I’ve been banging on in my last few blogs about the lack of decent TV, especially drama, during the summer, and that situation has now been reversed in such a radical way that I am struggling to keep up with all the new-season series that have attracted my interest. At the moment, there is a drama series I am watching on broadcast TV every night of the week except Friday (a night traditionally reserved for comedy anyway), and the things I am anticipating on streaming platforms are still yet to arrive (I’m particularly looking forward to American Vandal 2 on Netflix). There’s even been some decent comedy around, too.


But before the deluge of series arrived, there was that rarity, a single drama of great note which, in earlier days, would have been part of a strand like Play for Today or Screen Two, but nowadays is fitted into a vacant 9 o’clock slot as a filler until a series come along to take that position. Mother’s Day (BBC2) looked back 25 years at the public and personal fallout from the IRA bombing of Warrington, in which two boys died, but also looked back to a simpler style of TV drama – commitment to veracity and social values; Unknown-5unfussy visuals; characters whose opinions and motivations evolve gradually; subtle yet powerful acting performances (Anna Maxwell-Martin, Daniel Mays, Vicky McClure). It ensured that all voices from the era of the Troubles were heard and understood, much as the Vanessa Engle documentary I highlighted from earlier in the year, The Funeral Murders, did. Indeed, the two pieces form a valuable diptych and, though they address issues from 25 and 30 years ago, have a similar contemporary resonance in reinforcing why the Irish border is the most important aspect of the Brexit process. Mother’s Day becomes the 9thprogramme on my running shortlist for the best of 2018.


I only add drama series to that shortlist when they have completed their run, so none of the current batch yet qualifies, though I expect one or two of them may and I will return Unknown-2to any that do at that point. First to arrive, and now nearing completion, was Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard (BBC1, Sundays), an accomplished thriller (as one would expect from that source) which has been a big success and even had the confidence to kill off one of its lead characters halfway through and thus wrong-foot the audience, as it seemed to have been developing a compelling conflict-of-loyalty theme which is now redundant. It is manipulative and at times stretches credibility, but I’m hooked on it.


I also think I may be hooked on Wanderlust (BBC1, Tuesdays) despite signs of it settling in for the long term as early as the second episode. The initial premise – a happily married couple, Joy and Alan (Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh) are bored with each other sexually, take opportunities elsewhere, confess to each other and decide to continue their affairs – was explored deftly, amusingly and with great style. The developments in the second episode – the reactivation of the couple’s love life and the reaction of those involved in their affairs – were predictable but nicely handled in the Unknown-3performances and the direction. The expansion of the narrative into the relationships of other characters (the couple’s friends, colleagues and children; Joy’s clients in her work as a therapist) is also highly engaging, but I did start to worry that it is beginning to stray into Cold Feet territory, potentially replicating the longevity and eventual repetitiveness of that series, so I’m not sure of the need to stay with it, but I probably will because: a) it’s as easy to watch as Cold Feet;  and b) I’m still watching Cold Feet!


The series I have been most eagerly anticipating (indeed, I’ve been looking forward to it Unknown-1since it was announced some three years ago) arrived on BBC2 last Monday. Black Earth Rising is the latest piece from my favourite television auteur, Hugo Blick (actually there aren’t many writer/director/producers around – Poliakoff is another, but they are few on the ground). If it turns out to be anywhere near as good as The Shadow Line (2011) or The Honourable Woman (2014), and early indications are that it will, then it will be an automatic choice for my top 10, but I will return to it later. So far it has contained Blick’s trademark expository scene-setting and has certain similarities to The Honourable Woman, but neither of these are particular drawbacks for me – it’s just great to be back in his intelligent and stylish world.


I approached Trust (BBC2, Wednesdays), the Danny Boyle version of the Getty story, with great interest. I spent a large part of my career working in a building called the J. Paul Getty Jnr Conservation Centre, and met the BFI’s benefactor on many occasions, as well as being a guest at some of the wonderful country house cricket matches at his home in Oxfordshire (and regularly sitting in the stand he built at Lord’s). So, I was keen to see the dramatisation of the most notorious period of his life. He is portrayed in this version by Michael Esper, but all eyes are, of course, on Donald Sutherland as Getty senior, the creator of the family’s fabulous wealth, and he gives a riveting performance which dominates the whole production.


So far, all the series I have described have been new ones, but Thursday’s unmissable drama is the very welcome return of Paul Abbott’s No Offence on Channel 4. This continues at the constant breakneck pace to which we have become accustomed. The characters are all strong ones and need no introduction, so grabbing our attention was never going to be a problem – but, just to be sure, killing off one of the lead characters before the first ad break of the new season was a stunning way to do just that.


Completing the every-night-except-Friday cycle, Saturday saw the start of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s intriguing and captivating Killing Eve (BBC1), an unconventional thriller with a wicked sense of humour.  I didn’t actually watch it on Saturday – just as Fridays are forUnknown comedy, so Saturdays are for sport, especially during the football season. It is not a night for drama, apart from the one exception to that rule, which I will come to below. Anyway, now that the first episode has aired, the whole thing is available on BBC i-player, which is how I will watch it in any spare moments between all the other fine series listed above.


All of which leads me to ask: instead of throwing them all at us now, why could we not have had some of these during the barren summer? Trust would have been perfect for the summer and, like Killing Eve, the BBC is making the whole series immediately available on the i-player, so probably doesn’t see it as a regular ratings-grabber. Judging from all the trailers we are getting, especially from the BBC, there seems to be plenty more interesting stuff on the way, too, including, of course, the new season of Doctor Who. This is highly anticipated for the bold and exciting choice of Jodie Whitaker as the new Doctor, as well as for the debut of Chris Chibnall as show-runner, but, as if this was not enough novelty to deal with, the BBC has made the disastrous decision to move it toJodie-Whittaker-Doctor-Who-Feature Sunday evening. Moving it away from its traditional Saturday home has been tried before and it failed miserably, though maybe in the era of catch-up services it will not matter so much. I worry that the bold experiment of a female Doctor, already tied to the success or otherwise of a new and potentially uncertain show-runner, will be fatally compromised by this blunder – or maybe it is a way of giving the traditionalists something else to focus on, rather than the gender of the lead actor, thus diverting attention from the biggest change and providing something easily rectified. We shall see.


As for the comedies I mentioned, it is great to have Upstart Crow (BBC2) back and going from strength to strength, but the most striking new piece has been Hang Ups (Channel 4), co-written by and starring Stephen Mangan and based on Lisa Kudrow’s US series Web Therapy. Mangan is the on-line therapist with more problems than his clients and most of the action is shot on various devices (laptops, phones) as the characters use them to communicate with each other. It moves at a frantic pace and has a large cast of characters, played by a wonderful array of guest stars including Charles Dance, David Tennant and Richard E.Grant, each giving it their all in brief cameos, as well as a regular cast including Katherine Parkinson and Jessica Hynes. Not quite shortlist quality, but certainly one to return to.


Half-time Analysis



Apologies to my small band of regular readers that there has been some considerable time since my last blog, but the World Cup and a family holiday have intervened since I last wrote. Now that the football is coming to an end, I will blog about it as a television experience next time, but first I thought I would take stock of where I am with my shortlist for the best of 2018, as we have just passed the halfway mark in the year.


So far, I have identified six titles as contenders for my end-of-year top ten: Inside Number 9, Kiri, Save Me, Mum, Damned and Homeland. That was as it stood when I blogged in May and I can find four other titles to make a half-year top ten, but only two of the extra four, one documentary and one drama, are going to make it onto the running shortlist.


I don’t have any documentaries on my list so far and two are worth noting. Vanessa Unknown-2Engle’s The Funeral Murders (BBC2) aired back in March and was a harrowing description of two awful days in the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, told frankly, compassionately and impartially and with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight. Above all, it highlighted why the Irish border issue is not just one of the difficulties of the Brexit process but by far the most important issue. And last Friday, there was a splendid doc on the life and career of Olympic ice skater John Curry, The Ice King (BBC4), full of archival material and rare recordings of his work, though the fact that all the interviews seemed to be archival as well made it look a bit limited. The Funeral Murders is the one to make the shortlist.


I noted in an earlier blog that I was enjoying The Looming Tower on Amazon, and indeed it kept me fully engaged to the end – well-made and well-acted; an interesting Unknown-1story well told – but ultimately maybe just a bit too conventional to be regarded as something special. On the other hand, Russell T.Davies’ A Very English Scandal (BBC1), a three-part dramatization of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal of the seventies, was very special indeed. Davies’ triumph was to make a light, comedic piece out of an episode which, while full of laughable incompetence and colourful characters, also contained some pretty dark elements, and he did it without trivialising those aspects in any way. One line summed up that approach for me – a Liberal Party bigwig regretting that the Thorpe scandal had hit the party just when it was beginning to gain some momentum through the likes of Cyril Smith and Clement Freud. Wicked stuff! And Hugh Grant, while playing the comedy as we knew he could, was a revelation in portraying the deeper complexities of Thorpe. The fact that the case hit the headlines again at the time of transmission, through the news Unknownthat the incompetent assassin Andrew Newton is still alive, when the police thought he was dead, only added to the sense of event television, as did the screening of Tom Bower’s edition of Panorama, scheduled for the night in 1979 when the expected guilty verdict should have been delivered, but shelved when it wasn’t. The inclusion of Peter Cook’s contemporary satire of the judge’s biased summing up during the end credits was a master stroke, too. A Very English Scandal is very much one for the shortlist.


In more general terms, my growing feeling that long-form television drama has now passed the high point of its most recent “golden age” has been supplied with more evidence. I have blogged last year about giving up on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Deuce after 5 episodes of each because they didn’t seem to be going anywhere and even Radio Times, which has championed Handmaid, has now commented that the second season of that much-honoured series was too unremittingly bleak. Most recently, I did watch all of Patrick Melrose (Sky Atlantic), which was mercifully brief at five well-produced and brilliantly acted episodes, but without any discernible point to it. I’m sure it was the best ever depiction of heroin addiction, but, once it was established that images-1Melrose’s self-destructive character was the fault of his abusive father and negligent mother, there was nothing else to it. It rather reminded me of a previous lavish five-parter, also featuring a fine performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and also based on a series of highly-regarded novels, Parade’s End (BBC, 2012), which ultimately did not add up to the sum of its parts.


And now I am faced with the Australian re-make of Picnic at Hanging Rock (BBC2, Wednesdays), which struggled to grab or hold my attention through its first episode. I found Peter Weir’s film version a bit tenuous, albeit highly atmospheric, so I can’t see myself making it through much more of the new series. We are promised a lot in the way of character backstories, but you have to be engaged by the front story for that to be in any way worthwhile.


In the meantime, the half-hour comedy-drama continues to provide the most innovative work, as, for me, it largely has done for the past decade. Bigger is not necessarily better.


Extra-special Features


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.


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.


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


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!

twin peaks


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.