Half-time Analysis

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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.

 

Oh, the Humanity!

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Two media news items caught my eye in recent days. In the first, the BBC revealed that it is using artificial intelligence, programmed with the profile of the BBC4 audience, to trawl its archive catalogue and create a schedule for an evening’s programming on that channel: https://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/tech/bbc-randd-uses-ai-to-uncover-hidden-gems-for-bbc4/5129603.article  Meanwhile, in Belgium, AI is being used in a script editing capacity to analyse and criticise potential work being considered for production: https://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/tech/ai-is-rewriting-the-tv-script/5129743.article

 

The reason these stories resonated at this particular moment is that I am currently following two drama series in the well-established and recently expanding sci-fi sub-genre speculating on the implications of creating artificial human beings: HBO’s Westworld season 2 on Sky Atlantic and Humans season 3 on Channel 4. Thinking about how feasible some of what we are being presented with in these series may be, I mused on the possibility of creating an AI television critic, who may be better placed to judge the likelihood of the plot and character developments – it looks like that may not have been such a frivolous thought after all.

 

There are plenty of robots with humanoid form or characteristics in the history of Unknown-1science fiction, but it was in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 50 years ago, that the implications of attempting to replicate human consciousness in machine form received its most brilliantly considered treatment. Put simply, the conundrum Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke explored was that the greater the success in replicating human behaviour, the greater the likelihood that human failings – unreliability, vengefulness, the tendency towards violence – will emerge, and this has become a standard trope of the AI genre. The genre also offered thoughtful film makers the possibility of exploring what the essence of humanity is – it is often remarked that the computer HAL is the “most human” character in 2001 and the astronauts were presented as being efficient and emotionless to emphasise this. Having re-created human consciousness, the only way forward was the next stage in human evolution, presented at the end of the film.

 

Science fiction has always been way ahead of science fact and highly speculative, but the best sci-fi has often had a grounding in technological possibility. So, as robotic and AI technologies progressed, the humanoid robots came to be played by actors, rather than presented as something highly mechanical. The original film of Westworld gave us a clearly mechanical Yul Brynner, but then a new trope appeared – as the quality of sci-fi robotics improved it became difficult to know for sure who was human and who artificial, allowing dramatic “reveals” which are now becoming a cliché. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) shocked us when Ian Holm turned out to be an android, and the rest of the franchise continued the trope. The same director then took it much further in Blade Runner (1982), which was basically about AI consciousness and its comparison to humanity, though very much from the “replicant” point of view. Rutger Hauer’s BattyUnknown-2 gets the best speech of the film (one of the best in all cinema) and we are left unsure whether Harrison Ford’s Deckard may be a replicant himself. For the actors involved, it meant a choice between playing their characters as they would a normal human being or using subtle indicators of their mechanical nature. A whole new acting skill developed, seen at its best in Stephen Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

On TV, Star Trek: The Next Generation (CBS, 1987-94) allowed the development of human characteristics in an android character, Lt. Cdr. Data, over the course of its run, which in turn allowed the writers to explore themes of humanity and emotional responses through him and the actor, Brent Spiner, to develop an acting style which moved from the mechanical towards the human.

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Both Westworld and Humans aspire to examine the essence of humanity through the creation of artificial individuals, though they go about it in very different ways. Both employ the established tropes of the genre, including the “reveal” of the artificial natures of characters we had assumed were human (notably Bernard in Westworld and D.I. Karen Voss in Humans). Both also contain a godlike creator figure (by coincidence, the surviving one of a duo of innovators), in each case played by a veteran actor (William Hurt in Humans, pretty much reprising his role from Spielberg’s AI; Anthony Hopkins in Westworld).

 

Westworld also explores questions of free will in a scenario where the “hosts” characters and back stories have been created by a writer. Indeed, the most interesting parts, especially in the current season, are those where the development of the narrative is questioned by those within it who have responsibility for it. However, such philosophical moments are few and soon give way to yet another of the shoot-outs or violent set-pieces of which the series is so fond (well, it has a lot of time to fill). Moreover, especially in the first season, these soon become tiresome because the hosts are simply re-built and death and destruction cease to have any dramatic impact. This is less the case in season 2, but the shootouts are still tiresome because of their regularity, even images-1though they are more dramatically significant, and I preferred the fractured narrative of season 1. One nice touch in season 2 was when a group of the characters arrived in the neighbouring Shogun World and the writer remarked on how some of the “western” storylines had been replicated there, reminding us of the classic westerns which had been adapted from Kurosawa’s samurai epics.

 

Overall, Westworld cannot work as a western, even in part, because it simply isn’t one – it is sci-fi. But that doesn’t seem to stop the programme makers trying to have their cake and eat it too. It looks fantastic and is superbly put together but is ultimately far from satisfying. Humans, on the other hand, knows what it is and where it is going and is thus, for me, the better series. In its first season, by concentrating on the human reaction to interacting with domestic “synths” and on those synths secretly programmed with consciousness, it probed the theme of what it is to be human, in its second, with the move towards consciousness for all synths, the intervention of technology companies and disquiet amongst the human population, it became more issue-based and that has continued into the third season, in which docile, more mechanical orange-eyed synths have replaced the now fully-conscious green-eyed ones, who are perceived as a threat and kept in isolated camps and whose “human rights” are now the focus.

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Whereas the actors playing the hosts in Westworld seem to be giving naturalistic performances, on the assumption that the replication of human emotions has been perfected, in Humans the synths are recognisable as such (unless they are being deceptive) because of their green eyes and blue blood (no bloody shootouts here!) as well as their perfect make-up (do synths put their own make-up on, or are they built with it already there? – that’s one for our AI critic, I think). The performances of the actors playing the synths, exemplified by Gemma Chan as Mia, are very well judged to be both mechanical and nuanced.

 

But would I have any confidence in one of the synths as a BBC4 scheduler? The device in question is intended to understand the essence of the channel, but, as far as I am concerned, unpredictability is a key element in a successful schedule, so I hope that has been programmed in, as well as a good sense of humour.

The Awards that Reward

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This evening in New York the 30 winners of the 2017 Peabody Awards, together with two institutions and one individual, will receive their small but highly prestigious trophies at a ceremony on Wall Street. There are no categories, no envelopes and no nominees. We already know who the winners are. The list is here: http://www.peabodyawards.com/stories/story/2017-peabody-award-winners-77th-annual-peabody-30

 

I was fortunate and privileged to serve on the Peabody Board of Jurors from 2011 to 2016 and know well how many hours, days, weeks and months of viewing, discussing and deliberating goes into reducing over 1,200 submissions to the final thirty. It is an exhausting and exhilarating process which always produces a list of titles worth exploring. If, like me, you endured another year of frustrating and mystifying decisions at this year’s Baftas last Sunday, I can recommend you check out the Peabody list. The vast majority of the submissions are American, and this year’s list of winners is even more dominated by US product than in most previous years, but the process of deliberation is so trustworthy that what wins is not really a matter for contention. Unlike the Baftas, where you know what has been chosen over what else in each category and can get upset about it, the Peabody list is simply a collection of great stuff and there is imageslittle point in criticising inclusions or fretting over exclusions – 16 highly-qualified and carefully chosen judges have already done that for us and have agreed unanimously on the outcome.

 

That said, not everything on the list will be to everybody’s taste. When I was on the Board, I was able and obliged to watch everything which received serious consideration. For the last two years, since I left the Board, I have used the list as a totally reliable guide to select what to watch in a crowded market – last year I was particularly knocked out by Louis CK’s Horace and Pete. Not everything on the list is going to be available outside the USA – the fact that material on the PBS website won’t play outside the States is as frustrating as the unavailability of stuff on the BBC i-Player must be to people outside Britain (and it’s done for the same reason). But many of the entertainment and documentary titles can be found on various platforms such as Netflix and Amazon (even some of the PBS stuff) and I have enjoyed watching a number of the things I had not already seen in the past few weeks since the list was announced.

 

First to be published were the documentary winners and I watched Chasing Coral and Newtown on Netflix, which carries the latter despite it being a PBS title from the outstanding Independent Lens series. Newtown is a very moving study of the effects of the Sandy Hook school massacre on the Connecticut community. The documentary I would most like to see, though, is Deej, which I cannot find available anywhere in Britain as yet – hopefully it will come our way some time soon.

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From the entertainment list, published a week later, I checked out Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King on Netflix – a stand-up comedy special which is not only very funny, but truly thought-provoking and well-designed for television presentation. Minhaj is hosting tonight’s ceremony, so it will be fun to see how that works. I also looked at The Marvellous Mrs Maisel on Amazon, but I’m afraid I didn’t get further than the first episode – as I said, not everything appeals to everybody.

 

But there are two things from this year’s list of Peabody winners which have more than re-confirmed my faith in it as the best guide to quality viewing and which I may not otherwise have discovered – one from the documentary list, the other from entertainment, and both available on Netflix. Time: the Kalief Browder Story (Weinstein Television – and, yes, Harvey’s name is even on the credits!) is a documentary series about injustice in the tradition of Making a Murderer. It tells the horrific tale of a Unknown-2young black man whose refusal to plea bargain over an alleged minor felony kept him in the “justice system” for three years, involving incarceration in New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison and several lengthy spells in solitary confinement, before his eventual release and exoneration preceded a tragic ending. With extensive forensic interviews and disturbing CCTV footage, the series grips and shocks over six episodes, but it is the nature of the injustices and abuses it uncovers rather than the style of storytelling which makes the greatest impact – and that is just as well, because the other series I am going to describe is such a perfect parody of the genre that it’s going to make it difficult to watch such things in future without thinking about it.

 

I’m certainly glad I watched The Kalief Browder Story before I came across American Vandal (3 Arts/Funny or Die). Taking its cue from series like The Jinx, Making a Murderer and Serial, it is a hilarious genre parody in which two high-school media nerds investigate who was responsible for spray-painting 27 penises on cars in the school staff car park, in an attempt to prove the innocence of the suspended prime suspect. The humour is pitch-perfect, but the joke could not have been stretched across eight episodes if it had not been much more besides. The characters are so well drawn that it works as comedy-drama as well – imagine My So-Called Life re-made in the style of The Office. It also has plenty to say about the nature of documentary truth and the effect of such programming on people’s lives in the age of social media.

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Unfortunately, these being programmes from 2017, neither can go on my running list of the best of 2018, even though I’ve only just caught up with them.  But the latest season of a Peabody winner from 2011 certainly can. I first encountered Homeland (Showtime) as part of my Peabody viewing and it was on the winners’ list in its first season. Despite the fact that it then suffered something of a slump, I have followed it ever since and am delighted that it has been reviving over the past three years: so much so that I think the latest season, just finished on Channel 4, is the best since the first – maybe it’s even better. No other dramatic series manages to keep its finger on the pulse of contemporary events as strikingly as Homeland has done over the past two seasons, which is even more amazing when you consider the lead-in times involved. The current threats to American democracy – Russia, media manipulation, Presidential hubris – are all in there and Carrie’s bi-polar disorder is a perfect metaphor for the divisive nature of current American politics and society.

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Homeland is thus the first American title on my 2018 shortlist, though the best stuff from the States has usually arrived here in the Summer in recent years (see my first blog!), so I’m certain it won’t be the last. And I still have a good deal of catching up to do on Netflix and Amazon (I’m currently enjoying The Looming Tower on the latter). Maybe I’ll have managed to see more of the 2018 Peabody winners, at least in the entertainment section, before the list is published next year. I’ll certainly be awaiting it as eagerly as ever.

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.

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.

Mum & Damned

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I usually put a basic descriptive working title on my blogs as I write them on Word and then try to replace them with something snappier for publication. In this case, I’m just going to keep the working title, because it somehow sounds right. So, this is about the two series named above.

 

In a blog back in December, I mentioned several series of 30-minute programmes which I said would be amongst my top 10 TV titles of this century and which, though they come from comedy, contain dramatic elements and realistic narratives which make them more like mini-dramas. My two favourites are Stefan Golaszewski’s Him & Her (BBC, 2010-13) and Getting On (BBC, 2009-12), co-created by Jo Brand. The most recent creations by both Golaszewski and Brand have just completed their respective second seasons and both go straight on to my running shortlist for the best of 2018.

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Mum (BBC2) doesn’t even run to 30 minutes now. Apart from the final episode, Golaszewski clearly thought that a 25-minute slot was enough to convey what he needed each time, and this season contained a number of extended contemplative scenes with minimal dialogue – the moment when Karl Johnson’s Reg was simply sitting and thinking about the loss of his son was a deft and necessary reminder of the background to the piece, even though the closing song is always there to reinforce the point that the key character is the one we never met. This has not only been a series where nothing has happened – nothing happening has been the point. All the characters have been in their own limbo for a second full year, as individuals as well as couples – Cathy and Michael still unable fully to understand or accept each one’s need for the other; Jason and Kelly constantly on the brink of moving to their own flat, though Jason clearly finds it Unknownunbearably difficult to leave his mum, both because of the loss of his father and his own domestic needs – meals and washing – which Kelly seems very unlikely to provide for him; Derek and Pauline waiting for the latter’s divorce to be finalised and hiding their own desperate insecurities behind their rather pathetic public personas; and Maureen and Reg, usually in the background, Maureen asleep and Reg seemingly waiting for the moment he will lose his wife as well, all the time tenderly checking that she is still alive, in between swearing and complaining about everything else.

 

I must admit, that, after three or four episodes, I was beginning to wonder if Golaszewski had made a mistake in not advancing any kind of plot dynamic. Nothing happened in the first series of Him & Her either, but the second series gave a definite sense of dramatic development, albeit by stealth. Maybe the difference is that Pauline, obnoxious as she is, lacks the malevolent narrative-driving presence of Laura in Him & Her. I was also concerned that maybe, by assuming the directorial responsibility as well (Richard Laxton directed all four series of Him and Her and the first of Mum), Golaszewski had made it just that little bit too introspective. But I shouldn’t have worried. The final two episodes put the previous four into a different light and completed a magnificent whole, which I am already looking forward to revisiting. In the final ten minutes a combination of Michael’s impending move to Spain and Jason’s clumsy attempt to preserve his own memory of his father by warning Michael against “stealing his wife” prompts Cathy into a desperate declaration of love which stuns both Michael and us. In the penultimate episode we have already seen her give Michael an impromptu hug which doesn’t seem to have advanced matters, so there is no guarantee this will, either. When they tentatively link hands while watching fireworks on bonfire night in the final image of the series we are reminded that the first series ended in much the same way on New Year’s Eve the previous year.

 

So, it is perfectly possible, when the third season arrives, that nothing will have changed, but I trust Golaszewski to have something very special in store for us and, whatever does imagesor doesn’t happen, we are going to miss it when it’s gone. It really seems superfluous to note that the acting performances are out-of-this-world wonderful, but, equally, it would be an oversight to write a blog about Mum without mentioning just how fantastic Lesley Manville and Peter Mullan are, as are all the cast (and a special mention for Karl Johnson as Reg this time round). So much goes unspoken, but you are in no doubt what the characters are thinking and feeling. One other point about the third series – it will be interesting to see how the episodes are titled. So far, each episode has had the name of a month as its title (each season covering a year in the characters’ lives), but all 12 have been used up now.

 

Damned (Channel 4), by contrast, is jam-packed with incident. There is more narrative in the overheard phone conversations than in an entire season of Mum. It also represents the completion of the transformation of Jo Brand from stand-up, presenter and panel show regular to the finest female writer and comic actor we have – and, whereas that was once the late lamented Caroline Aherne’s title for the taking, there is now a great deal of competition from the likes of Sharon Horgan, Julia Davis, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel and Diane Morgan. But Brand has now been (jointly) responsible for two of the finest series of the last two decades. I regard Getting On as one of the greatest TV achievements of the 21stcentury: it was written and performed by Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine (and the first two series were directed by Peter Capaldi, no less) and I always assumed that each was mainly responsible for their own character (much of it was improvised, anyway), with Brand providing the background knowledge from her time as a psychiatric nurse, which gave it such a ring of authenticity.

 

I believe subsequent career trajectories have borne out my assumption that Brand was the leading creative force behind Getting On (which, incidentally, translated very well to the US version, made by HBO under the auspices of its creators). Scanlan and Pepperdine collaborated on the less-than-inspired Puppy Love (BBC4, 2014), before returning to their acting careers (Scanlan to great acclaim in Paul Abbot’s No Offence for Channel 4), while Brand moved her character of Nurse Kim Wilde on to a brief but highly memorable three-part series, Going Forward (BBC4, 2016). At the same time, she created Damned in collaboration with Morwenna Banks, firstly as a pilot for Sky’s Playhouse Presents, in 2014, which was then developed into a series for Channel 4, with the addition of Will Smith to the writing team, debuting in 2016.

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Much as Getting On drew on Brand’s own experience of nursing, so Damned reflects her mother’s profession as a social worker in a children’s department. She seems to be playing a version of herself in all these series, but that is what makes it so effective and authentic. What is more, Damned is populated by brilliantly drawn characters, both the workplace regulars and the clients. Alan Davies, Kevin Eldon, Georgie Glen and Isy Suttie provide the sort of support you would expect from such reliable performers, but it is two of the other staff members whose roles are most striking: Himesh Patel as uptight ex-cop Nitin and Lolly Adefope as political jargon-spouting trainee Mimi. To cast minority actors in roles which seem mainly there to attract the derisive scorn of the veteran staff is a brave move, but one which works well, especially as both come good at the end of the second series and show a depth of character which is part of the success of the show. Nobody is a stereotype on Damned, and the writers deserve great credit for that. They also deserve enormous credit for producing a narrative and dialogue which delivers many laughs while also being shocking and provocative (sometimes all at the same time).

 

Not joining Mum and Damned on the 2018 shortlist, however, is Hold the Sunset (BBC1). I managed to watch it all and was mildly diverted by it, as anybody would be images-2watching John Cleese, Alison Steadman and Jason Watkins effortlessly investing substandard dialogue with the sort of comic potential it doesn’t deserve. The rest of the high-quality cast, including the aforementioned Joanna Scanlan and sitcom veteran Peter Egan, were largely wasted, though. And, unlike the other two shows, it was really trying to be funny.

 

As for recent new British dramas of a more traditional length, I also watched all of David Hare’s Collateral (BBC2) without being overly impressed, while I didn’t get beyond the first episode of Troy: Fall of a City (BBC1). Meanwhile, on Channel 4, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams concluded its run with a couple of interesting stories but was inconsistent overall and no replacement for Black Mirror. However, I am currently gripped by one particularly impactful new drama, which I reckon is another certainty for the 2018 shortlist, but that will be for my next blog.

The Difference an S Makes

 

Civilisations

It can be invidious to attempt to re-make a TV classic, to produce a new version of one for a modern audience or even simply to invite comparison with one. In the case of Civilisations (BBC2 and BBC i-player) it seems that what is being attempted is the invocation of the status of the iconic series Civilisation (BBC2, 1969) and the “correction” of that series’ perceived cultural elitism. The booklet to accompany the presentation, in 2000, of the BFI TV100 (in which Civilisation was voted 8th in the list of greatest factual programmes on British TV) comments that “it set the standard for subsequent presenter-led documentary series and stood as a benchmark for the educational value of public service television, though some of it may now be seen as culturally exclusive and elitist”.

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That judgement could seem either a little harsh or a little soft, depending on your standpoint, whereas it is really simply acknowledging the fact that this monumental series did have its detractors and is possibly also an explanation of the fact that it didn’t finish higher on the list (I should know – I wrote it!). My own view is that Civilisation has suffered critically from one mistake only – its choice of title. It was clearly intended to be a history of Western European art and architecture (beautifully shot and presented on 35mm film to demonstrate the potential of the new colour television service) and was imagessubtitled A Personal View by Kenneth Clark. Clark himself had become a well-known presenter of documentaries on art, especially painting, throughout the fifties and sixties, but this was the first time (of many more to come) that an expert presenter had fronted a prestige 13-part series and, though the aim was a comprehensive overview of his subject, that subject needed to be clearly defined (and clearly wasn’t).

 

Clark says at the very start of Civilisation that he can’t define the title term but knows when he is looking at it (and he is looking at Notre Dame in Paris as he says that). Even though the ambition of the series was greater than what had gone before, it was still restricted by the practical and financial limitations of the time. I referred in an earlier blog to the talk I helped organise at the BFI by Sir David Attenborough, in which he explained that the scope of Life on Earth was only possible in the mid-seventies because the expansion of air travel allowed a worldwide shooting schedule to be drawn up. Attenborough, of course, was the Controller of BBC2 who commissioned Civilisation and, in the later sixties, the idea of travelling across Western Europe to film a prestige series was ambitious enough. Even if the money had been there to go further afield, the way the world was divided politically would have militated against it.

 

The original informs the remake at several points, not least in the opening remarks of the first part and the opening titles, which clearly establish the new series as a direct response to the old. Simon Schama also tackles the meaning of “civilisation” – his takeimages-2 being that he may not be able to define it positively, but he can certainly recognise the opposite – and, where Clark begins his narrative with the Dark Ages and the survival of civilisation during an age of barbarian vandalism “by the skin of our teeth”, so Schama invokes the cultural destructiveness of ISIS to illustrate the fragility of civilisation (and at the same time tells the story of Khaled al-Asaad, the ultimate archivist, who preferred execution to revealing the whereabouts of Palmyra’s treasures). Then on to the opening titles – in which the title “Civilisation” first appears, with the final S formed as an addition from matter floating about the screen. The connection to the original series is unambiguously made.

 

But this is not enough – the “corrective” differences also need to be emphasised and the fact that most of Schama’s opening episode concerns itself with the ancient world, as Unknownwell as venturing well beyond Western Europe, establishes the difference in time as well as space. The second part brings even more points of comparison and difference – most obviously, there is a different presenter, Mary Beard, who will contribute two parts to the series, as will David Olusoga, while Schama returns for a further four. This has the desired effect of introducing more diverse voices and each part is clearly labelled as the personal view of the presenter.  Whether this fragmentation helps the coherence of the series is another matter, as is the related decision to divide the narrative thematically rather than chronologically. Beard’s first foray contains more direct correctives to the original than seen so far, including a clip of Clark delivering the sort of “elitist” judgements here being disclaimed. Beard has clearly been included amongst the presenters to provide a much-needed feminist perspective, but she rather overstepped the brief in the widely derided sequence in which she told a story of a man who ejaculated on an ancient statue of Aphrodite and claimed this was rape because the statue had not consented! To me, the problem here was not so much the plain silliness of the assertion, inserted in a spirit of political correctness to make a connection with a current issue, but the lost opportunity it represented to explore ideas about the fine line between art and pornography.  To be fair to Beard, she recovered from this low point to give us one of the better episodes – the one on religion and art (part 4: The Eye of Faith) – which she ended with her own take on the meaning of “civilisation” as an “act of faith”.

 

The biggest elephant in the Civilisation room however, is the establishment of Western cultural elitism as a result of imperialism. Simon Schama first touches upon the question in part 5, but it is really the province of David Olusoga, whose previous historical series have been critiques of imperialism and colonialism and who devotes a whole episode of Civilisations (part 8: The Cult of Progress) to the question. There is clearly an important point to be made here and Olusoga not only makes it well but does so without direct reference to the original series. However, it does seem that it is the unspoken assumptions of Clark’s approach which are being addressed and I do wonder what MV5BMzI5NmVmYTAtZDg5Mi00YjhiLThkNzctYjc5YTE5YzE0YWRjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDYxOTY1Njg@._V1_audience this is aimed at. Those old enough to remember the original will (hopefully) have gone through a long process, aided by countless TV arts and history series, of gaining a greater perspective on world cultural history. Those who don’t remember it, or don’t even know about it, will understand that attitudes have changed and may wonder why the point is being emphasised at all.

 

So, to return to the title, while CivilisationS intends to indicate a wider scope than Civilisation (i.e. it is about many civilisations) it also allows for incompleteness (i.e. it is about some civilisations, not all), which can actually result in a narrower, rather than wider focus. Most of the themes tackled in single episodes could be full series in their own right (and, indeed, several have been, presented by the likes of Andrew Graham-Dixon, Waldemar Januszczak and Simon Schama himself – while Mary Beard and David Olusoga have covered similar territory at greater length from the more general historical perspective). And not every individual part of Civilisations works either – there are some excellent ten or fifteen-minute sequences, but then, when you would like to see the development of the idea, it moves on to something different entirely. Nine 60-minute episodes is nowhere near enough to encompass the scale of its ambition, with the result that the whole is very much less than the sum of its parts.

 

Therefore, ultimately, I would judge Civilisations a failure in relation to its lofty ambition. Despite its faults, the original Civilisation represents a genuine and highly significant advance in the art of documentary television, while Civilisations is really a misconceived idea, lacking a real point. The original series will go back on my DVD shelves and I reckon its place in the canon remains secure, but it will not be joined by its successor, which also shouldn’t trouble those of us who like to make lists.

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