The Difference an S Makes



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”.


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.



TV Catch-up #1: Deadwood


One of the best aspects of retirement for me is the opportunity it affords to catch up with or to revisit outstanding TV series, either from my DVD/Blu-ray collection or video streaming services. Watching something several years after its debut allows one to appreciate its significance as part of television history, to read critical commentary around it and to compare it to contemporary production. I’m no great binge-watcher, especially of great drama – I find that the impact of the best material demands time to sink in, so I rarely watch more than two episodes at any sitting. I also like to leave a period of time between seasons, as would happen if I was watching it on debut, rather than jump straight in to the next season when I come to the end of one. As a result, the process can take some time and, of course, I am catching up with other things, movies and TV, at the same time.


One of the series at the top of my list to see in full was Deadwood (HBO), David Milch’s ground-breaking western series which ran for three seasons between 2004 and 2006. There were several reasons for this: firstly I had heard from so many people whose opinions I value that it was one of the best, if not the best TV drama of all (including former Peabody Director Horace Newcomb, who rated it his number one) as well as reading similar judgement in books by David Bianculli and Sepinwall & Seitz; then there was the pedigree of work by David Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993-2005) – one of my all-time favourites (I never missed an episode and intend to revisit it all some time); and there was the tantalising prospect that concluding episodes may yet be made, which, at the time of writing, remains just that (though the chance of it happening is far from certain and the recent sad death of Powers Boothe can’t have helped). I had picked up a set of the complete three seasons for under a tenner in an Amazon sale, so was set to go.


Good TV westerns are now a great rarity, though they dominated both the peak-time and Unknown-2children’s schedules (and my own viewing) when I first started watching TV in the late 1950s. ITV had just begun and imported a large number of American titles, with the BBC following suit to compete. My particular favourites were The Lone Ranger (ABC, 1949-57), Wagon Train (NBC, 1957-62), Maverick (ABC, 1957-62), Bonanza (NBC, 1959-73) and, above all, Rawhide (CBS, 1959-65). However, the genre all but disappeared from TV (and, indeed, the cinema) from the late sixties onwards. There were many reasons for this – socio-political, cultural and economic – though there were the occasional revivals in both cinema (mostly thanks to former TV cowboy Clint Eastwood) and TV (1989’s Lonesome Dove), but then nothing of real impact until….


Deadwood does not just make an impact as a western, but as a wonderful piece of drama which just happens to be a western. It is recognisably the work of one of the co-creators of NYPD Blue, with which it shares a number of characteristics: a strong sense of location; episodes which follow a number of strongly-drawn characters over the course of a day and advances multiple plot lines in brief and telling scenes; a reprehensible anti-hero who is the most memorable (and most memorably portrayed) character in the show, as well as the spirit of the piece. What sets Deadwood apart from other dramas is its use of language: not that it is authentic to the period, but that it creates the illusion that it may be. It is actually poetic, quasi Shakespearean in places, as well as being full of the highest “naughty words” quotient in TV drama history. Characters often speak aloud to themselves, in what amount to soliloquies, without it seeming unnatural. Master of this style is William Sanderson as the scheming town mayor and hotelier E.B.Farnum, whose awareness of his own failings is beautifully and movingly expressed.


Of course, the main focus is Ian McShane’s magnetic performance as saloon-owner and general “Mr Big” Al Swearengen – a name that seems too perfect, given his responsibilityUnknown-1 for so much of the f-ing and c-ing in the dialogue, but one which belonged to the real-life individual on whom the character is based. Indeed, most of the characters in Deadwood are based on the town’s original inhabitants and the narrative is closely tied to the historical reality and to examining the development of social, political and economic structures which emerged from the anarchy of the pioneering west; and within this narrative, Milch and his terrific cast create characters who have both a historic and contemporary resonance, which is why it works so well.


Much has been written about the abrupt ending of Deadwood, following the incredibly tense third and final season, and the possibility of a coda being made, but it was certainly, yet again, not part of a western revival. It seems that the reappearance of westerns are now one-offs rather than fixtures in the TV and movie landscape. In 2012 we got Hatfields and McCoys (History Channel), which also featured a notable attempt at historical reconstruction, including authentic-sounding dialogue, but we have had nothing to rank alongside Deadwood until….


Godless (Netflix, 2017), written and directed by Scott Frank, does have certain themes and plot points in common with Deadwood: from the growth of capitalist interest in the Unknown-3activities of the mineral pioneers, through the importance of the press in the development of the west and its mythology to the depiction of lesbian relationships. However, having watched it immediately after finishing Deadwood, its differences are more striking: it has much more in the way of open spaces, whereas Deadwood is almost completely confined to the town, which gives it a claustrophobic feel (rather like that of NYPD Blue); it also has more in the way of traditional western tropes (the “cowardly” sheriff redeemed at the end; the mysterious stranger who acts as a mentor to a young boy, before riding off into the sunset; a climactic shootout worthy of Sam Peckinpah) despite the “twist” that it features a large number of female protagonists; basically it looks like an extended movie rather than a TV series (shot in a 2.39:1 ratio; complete at just over 7 hours, or less than twice the running time of Heaven’s Gate). It is also mightily impressive and enjoyable and a significant addition to the western canon on both film and TV.


And with the highly-regarded Hostiles yet to come, anybody would think another western revival was underway. As on previous occasions, it probably isn’t, but I’m already looking forward to the next time we think it may be.

The Queen regenerates!



I’ve just finished watching season 2 of The Crown on Netflix and will certainly be back for more when it next returns. One of its many merits is the performance of Claire Foy as the young Queen Elizabeth II. Foy does not particularly resemble the Queen, but this did not matter because she was so convincing in the character. However, when the series returns, she will no longer be there – Olivia Colman will have taken over the role, in order that the ageing process is convincingly portrayed. Colman also does not particularly resemble the Queen, though I’m sure this will not matter either and that she will also be very convincing in the character. The problem is not that neither actress looks like the Queen – the problem is that they do not look like each other.


There is a long history in film and television of actors taking over roles in which we have previously seen a different performer – whether because there is a need for the character to age significantly as part of the narrative or for other reasons. There are some well-established rules for this process and I was reminded of them when I recently caught up with A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ excellent biopic of the American poet Emily Dickinson. The main rules are: 1. ensure you introduce the character the first time she/he appears played by a different actor; 2. make reference to the passage of time. Davies’ scriptthYQQWNMKV is a masterclass in how to follow these rules. The first time Cynthia Nixon appears (replacing Emma Bell, who plays the young Dickinson), she is being introduced by her sister and is then asked about her schooldays (“but that was many years ago”). Job done – though, just to be clear, Davies has already shown us the one actress digitally morph into the other while posing for a photograph and he further emphasises the point in the closing credits by showing a portrait of Nixon as Dickinson which morphs back into one of Bell and then into the only known daguerreotype of Dickinson, showing the strong resemblance between Bell and the real Dickinson.


But these rules would not work in The Crown: firstly, the Queen “needs no introduction”; secondly, it looks as though very little narrative time will have passed between the end of season 2 and the beginning of season 3. Given that several other key members of the cast will also be changing (strong rumours already of Helena Bonham-Carter replacing Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret), I suspect they will simply get on with it and expect the viewer to accept the changes without demur. There are plenty of precedents for this also – remember when Donna Reed replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie in Dallas (Lorimar, 1978-91) for one season and they then brought Bel Geddes back? They didn’t even attempt to explain the completely different hairstyles! But Dallas was a notorious show for playing loose with the conventional rules of narrative and I’ll be coming back to it later.


So, in a series which covers a lengthy narrative timespan, is it best to change actors or use makeup to heimatportray a character’s ageing? I guess the answer is “whatever works”. The outstanding 1984 German series Heimat, which follows life in a Hunsruck village through the 20th century, used both approaches. Most of the characters were portrayed by different actors at different points in their lives, mostly very convincingly, though the adult Hermann was about 6 inches shorter than his lanky teenage self! However, the only two characters who appear in every episode, Maria and Karl, were played by the same actors throughout, with the help of some impressive make-up and padding. It is a shame that the only true British equivalent of this series, Peter Moffat’s The Village (BBC, 2013-14), did not get further than two excellent seasons. The nearest completed thing we have is probably Peter or friendsFlannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC, 1996), in which the lives of four friends were followed from the sixties to the nineties, with the same actors – breakthrough roles for Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Gina McKee and Mark Strong – employed throughout.


Mention of Christopher Eccleston brings me neatly to the show which copes most radically with changing actors in the leading role: Doctor Who. (Mind you, Daniel Craig also ended up in a role which regularly changes its impersonator) The idea of regeneration came about when the first Doctor, William Hartnell, needed to be replaced in 1966 and has since become a unique and staple feature of the show. It is an elegant solution to the problem of replacing a leading actor, but is unique to Doctor Who – probably even copyrighted. I think it unlikely we will see a regeneration scene in The Crown, involving Claire Foy and Olivia Colman – a shame, because it would not only look wonderful but, assuming the third season starts (as rumoured) with the aftermath of the JFK assassination, would be an interesting contemporary Jodie-Whittaker-Doctor-Who-Featurereference, given that the very first Doctor Who was transmitted the day after the events in Dallas (the city, not the show). To take this ludicrous suggestion even further, we have known since the Doctor Who Christmas special (much earlier, really) that the Doctor can even change sex (or, to be more precise, that they can change the sex of the actor portraying him/her), so, if traditionally male roles can now be played by women, why not have a future incarnation of the Queen on The Crown played by a man? I think Eddie Izzard would be good.


Stop this blog now, it’s getting TOO SILLY! Or is it? Yes, the above remarks were made in a spirit of levity but do contain a germ of sense, which is this: the title character of The Crown does regenerate, because the title character is not the Queen (she was the title character of Peter Morgan’s earlier work The Queen – the one with Helen Mirren) – the title character is the crown, or rather its personification, the monarch. And that character certainly does regenerate (and sometimes change gender), usually at the very moment of death, which is a crucial part of its mystery and its constitutional importance. It is significant that the series began before the death of George VI and also regularly references the abdication crisis of 1936, so that the importance of this transition can be recognised. Indeed, the central theme of The Crown is the conflict between the lives of the human characters and the rules, both written and unwritten, by which the constitution works and the monarchy is bound. It is when it is addressing these issues that Morgan’s writing is at its best, rather than when political and world events intervene.



Which begs the further question – will The Crown finish when it gets close to being up-to-date (assuming it gets that far) or could it just go on and on and on? (in which case further regenerations may be necessary) Netflix are certainly onto a winning (though expensive) formula – the royal family as television soap opera. All the elements are there: difficult sibling relationships in every generation, often featuring one acting “responsibly” (usually the monarch or heir) while the younger ones bring chaos and embarrassment – from Edward and Bertie (where that relationship was reversed), through Elizabeth and Margaret, Charles and Andrew (porn-star girlfriend, wayward wife) plus Edward (I do hope Morgan royal knockoutincludes It’s a Royal Knockout!), to William and Harry; problematic marriages and clandestine affairs from the ones currently being portrayed to the even more public scandals of Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie and who-knows-what to come; struggles for control of the “family business”, with the remaining older generation such as the Queen Mother and Lord Mountbatten always trying to interfere, not to mention the troublesome Windsors.


Hmmm….sibling rivalries, troublesome marriages and affairs, struggles for control of the business, awkward relations – remind you of anything? Of course! The Crown is becoming Dallas regenerated – more so than Dallas itself was when it returned (briefly) a few years back and even echoing the abrupt changes of cast. Replace the Queen Mother with Miss Ellie, the Buckingham Palace garden parties with the Southfork barbecue and the crown itself with JR’s stetson and the comparison fits. And now that an actress from an American soap is joining the cast of the real royal family, the connection is complete. Will Meghan end up playing herself on Netflix in ten years’ time?



Before the year is out


Happy end-of-year holidays, everybody. Before the new year arrives, here is my list of the top ten TV things of 2017. One of the great things about doing a blog is that I can leave it until the last moment, just in case something outstanding turns up in the dying embers of the year departing. Another is that I am free of the need to balance my choices across channels or genres, or even to restrict myself to British output. The only thing I am being strict on is that the titles I include must have been first transmitted or released in 2017 – the result being that I have ended up with a list of broadcast TV. I only began using streaming platforms after my retirement and have spent most of my time on Netflix and Amazon this year catching up on things which I had not previously seen. So, while I loved shows like Stranger Things (Netflix) and One Mississippi (Amazon), and would certainly have wanted to include them in my list, I have so far only watched the first seasons from last year. Hopefully, I will be up-to-date by this time next year.

In previous years, when I have been preparing year’s best lists for the BFI or the Peabody Board, the one thing I have valued above all others is innovation and new talent, such as that behind the shows I mentioned above. But the list I have ended up with for 2017 contains so many established names – David Lynch and Mark Frost, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Jimmy McGovern, Louis Theroux, Jane Campion, David Attenborough – that I wonder if this is because TV is running out of new ideas or because I am becoming nostalgic and reactionary in my retirement! It’s probably just a coincidence that these familiar figures were responsible for my favourite work of the year.

The titles in these sorts of lists are often presented “in no particular order”, but this year saw two series which I can only describe as monumental and which have to be mentioned first. They also had a couple of things in common, despite being from very different genres. Back in 1990, two series from the United States stood out in terms of their genre re-defining impact. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks changed what a TV drama series could be, while Ken Burns’ The Civil War did the same for the historical documentary.

Quite astonishingly, Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime/Sky Atlantic) managed to re-twin peaksdefine what a TV drama in 2017 could be as brilliantly as that original series did back in 1990. It was the unmissable highlight of the year over 18 hour-long segments, though David Lynch, who directed it all as compellingly as he has ever directed anything (episode 8 was particularly stunning), said he preferred to see it as an 18-hour film and it did, indeed, make several “best film” lists (see my previous blog).

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War (PBS/BBC4) also weighed in at 18 hours,Burns but not in the version transmitted on BBC4, which was about half that length. Having now seen the full version on DVD, I cannot imagine why we didn’t get the full PBS version. There is nothing superfluous about the material which didn’t make the cut, nor anything which would be of interest to a US audience only. It is all wonderful documentary making and, being twice as long, the full version is literally twice as good. It’s the best thing Burns has done since The Civil War (and he has given us some great things in the years between).

Two drama series I have really loved reached their third and final season this year and leftoversare thus absolute musts for my top ten of the year. Firstly, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (HBO/Sky Atlantic) came to a conclusion worthy of this shatteringly emotional series. If you wanted the central mystery solved, then it was. If like me, you wanted it left a mystery and a catalyst for a superb study of loss, grief and the search for meaning, then it was that, too. For me, this has been the best series of the last 5 years and one of the best ever.

Also concluded satisfactorily was the Danish series The Legacy (Arvingerne) (DR/Sky n-the-legacy-1679-11Arts), created by Maya Ilsoe. Unlike previous Danish dramas, like The Killing or Borgen, this has been tucked away on a niche channel and, although press and online sources drew attention to the first two seasons, the third was virtually unheralded. The plotlines were occasionally a little melodramatic, but this was a series to be watched above all for the acting, which was both intense and subtle throughout, but utterly brilliant from the whole cast, especially Trine Dyrholm as Gro and Carsten Bjornlund as Frederick.

Well, I seem to be going through my list in pairs, so let’s move on to two British dramas, which are also linked thematically. Several series this this year have dealt with crises in deprived communities, including The Moorside (BBC1) and Little Boy Blue (ITV). But brokennobody does this sort of thing better than Jimmy McGovern and he was back with Broken (BBC1), another of his wonderful ensemble pieces. The drama centred around Sean Bean’s catholic priest, struggling to help members of his congregation deal with poverty, racism, gambling addiction and other social evils, while at the same time confronting his own demons.

Equally impressive was Three Girls (BBC1), which tackled the difficult subject of the three-girls-bbcRochdale sexual abuse scandal with sensitivity and incisiveness. Writer Nicole Taylor and director Philippa Lowthorpe (whose documentary background was a key element) produced a work of rare insight, but the main kudos go to the three young actresses who played the girls, alongside established stars like Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp.

Now for two British documentary series. Louis Theroux has, in recent years, changed his approach to the people whose lifestyles and problems form the basis of his documentary webANXlouistdarkstates1e1output. Whereas he previously used a faux naivete to encourage his subjects to reveal themselves, he now befriends them and displays a genuine empathy towards them, which allows him to speak frankly. In his latest series, Dark States (BBC2), he revisited familiar territory in the USA – drugs, prostitution and gun culture, but in a way which enabled him to get much closer to the heart of the issue. The one on heroin addiction in West Virginia was particularly impressive.

Probably the most spectacular and astonishing images of the year were to be found inblue-planet-ii Blue Planet II (BBC1), which can only be described as awesome. Although the reassuringly familiar tones of the evergreen Sir David Attenborough still guide us through the natural wonders on show, these programmes are now on another planet compared to the natural history programmes of previous years. Images and music combine to make sequences that can be enjoyed time and time again.

My final two choices, alas, do not make a convenient coherent pairing. Jane Campion’s top_of_the_lake_2-4Top of the Lake: China Girl (BBC2) was, like its predecessor, a police drama which wasn’t. The case in question was simply the catalyst for an examination of the impact of children (or their absence) on the leading characters lives. Campion’s work is full of memorably drawn characters and her collaborations with leading actresses (Elizabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman standing out here) are particularly rewarding.

And so, I reach my final pick and there has been no comedy yet! (I didn’t tell you: there has to be comedy – it’s a rule!). In my first blog I was bemoaning the lack of memorable comedy this year, but a little help was soon at hand. Most of it, in keeping with my theme for the year, came from established sources and much of it from revivals. Earlier in the year I did try This Country on BBC3, which had the great merit of fresh new talent, but mockumentaries about gormless youngsters are becoming a bit of a cliché. So are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip (this year to Spain), but a very enjoyable one nevertheless. Some of my biggest laughs of the year came from the much-anticipated revival of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but only three or four of the episodes were classic Curb (I particularly liked the one with Bryan Cranston as Larry’s therapist). It was good to have Mitchell and Webb back together in the appropriately titled Back (though how Robert Webb agreed to a script which played entirely to David Mitchell’s comic strengths, I don’t know). Mitchell also featured in another of my favourites, Upstart Crow, which is the best thing Ben Elton has written since Blackadder (and the Christmas special a few days ago was very nicely judged). I also enjoyed the first season of Motherland, written by the overworked Sharon Horgan, together with Graham and Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, and the final one of Mackenzie Crook’s wonderful Detectorists. But none of these merited my final place, which goes to another revival of one of my all-time favourites: not, alas, last night’s Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out (now you see why I left this so late), which had a few wonderful moments but was not what Ileague-of-gentlemen-new-pic had asked for. The truly great comedy revival of the year was last week’s three-part League of Gentlemen (BBC2), which managed to be entirely consistent with the memory of the original show, while updating it for Brexit Britain. It was also as brilliant, as creepy and as hysterically funny as ever, without relying on nostalgia for effect. A bit like Twin Peaks in that respect, actually.

So, that’s my 10 for 2017, but I’ll say a final word about Doctor Who. In my opinion, Peter Capaldi has been the best Doctor since Patrick Troughton. His final series was not as great as the previous one, but the last episode was terrific and the Christmas/regeneration Special was a worthy tribute to the wonderful thing the show has been and a fitting introduction to the modern thing it will become.

So, Happy New Year everybody and good viewing. Here we go again.

Films didn’t get small – TV got big



It’s tS and She time for all those “best of the year” lists, which are fun and cause discussion and serve as an interesting snapshot of contemporary judgement for posterity, much as awards do. I read as many as I can, both TV and film, and one of the ones I always look at is Sight and Sound’s best films of the year. Being a poll of eminent critics from around the world, much as their “best films ever” list is every decade, it carries more weight than most and this year it caused a stir by actively soliciting TV (and other moving image) choices for the first time. Or, rather, it was the result which caused the stir. TV titles had appeared in the list before: three years ago, Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin, a four-part TV series which also showed at film festivals, was included, but was easily “explained away” because of those festival outings and because it didn’t finish high enough to be particularly impactful.


Of course, all the fuss surrounding this year’s list was focussed on Twin Peaks, which came second in theLaura Dern in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME poll, as though this somehow represents a fatal point of no return for the primacy of cinema to those who believe in such a thing. Maybe it does, though it is a very thin end of the wedge so far – I can think of several more TV series which are superior to many of the traditional films on the list. What is more, of all the TV series on offer, Twin Peaks best fits the profile of what a film critic would find acceptable – not only did David Lynch say that he saw it as a long film cut up into parts, but he directed it all himself (unlike the 1990-1 series). And never mind that the film which topped the poll was the “big screen” directorial debut of a TV comedy star (not mentioned in the lengthy and otherwise excellent essay in S&S) – far more subversive is the presence of the other TV drama series in the top 40, The Handmaid’s Tale, way down at the bottom. Titles on the list are all followed (traditionally) by the director’s name, but The Handmaid’s Tale is credited to Bruce Miller, who is the “show runner” and wrote many of the episodes, but didn’t direct any of it. This acknowledgement of the validity of a different way of doing things, if it is such, is a big step.


It is often said that major film directors are moving into TV because of the increased scope for exploring interesting stories, but I think the change in the shape of the screen and definition of the image was equally, if not more, important. However, even before these changes happened, back in the 20th century, there were plenty of great directors besides Lynch happy to work in “small screen” television forms, or to make both film and TV versions of some of their work. Prominent amongst these was Ingmar Bergman, who made TV versions of Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and Fanny and Bertil-Guve-in-Fanny-and-Alexander-Alexander (the first part of which, incidentally, has to be the greatest Christmas movie of all). Indeed, the feature versions of the first two were simply cut down versions of the TV series. In Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was prolific in television – not just the celebrated Berlin Alexanderplatz, but also the “family series” Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (which I have only just caught up with, thanks to the Arrow release) and World on a Wire. I first saw Berlin Alexanderplatz at an exhausting but exhilarating all-weekend screening in NFT1, and Edgar Reitz’s Heimat, which for me is the greatest TV drama series of all, was also first available as an even more memorable two-day cinema marathon.


Even more instructive is the case of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog, a series of ten television dramas, two of which the director expanded from the TV length of about an hour, to a feature length of nearer 90 minutes for cinema release. I find the cinema version of A Short Film About Love better than the TV segment, as it allows for greater characterisation, but I prefer the TV version of what became A Short ShortFilmAboutKilling_RegFilm About Killing because it is much starker and more focussed, with the extra material in the cinema version consisting of unnecessary exposition and moralising. My point here is that my judgement, whether you agree with it or not, is based solely on the different structures of the two versions, not, as is usual when comparing film and TV, on different screen ratios or film gauges or the difference between the theatrical and the home viewing experience.


So, it’s not the film makers themselves who have maintained this “superiority of cinema” ethos – it’s the critics. Film critics have been refining their craft within a comfortable bubble for a long time now – they have a restricted and well-delineated output to consider and, though they love nothing better than a good argument, they conduct their discussions through a common language and an accepted approach to their subject. They meet each other at screenings and festivals, so it is something of a club. TV criticism, by comparison has been fragmented and often even hostile to the medium. You cannot imagine a newspaper or journal employing a film critic who does not love film, but there have been plenty of TV critics who have looked askance at the medium or who have followed their proprietor’s interests in attacking the established broadcasters, especially in the Murdoch press. The likes of Peter Fiddick and Christopher Dunkley always gave TV the serious consideration it deserved, but there were plenty who didn’t and the lack of a TV equivalent of Sight and Sound added to the feeling that it was the inferior form. That things are changing now is mainly down to online platforms. Whereas previously a TV critic would review the first episode of a series only, to coincide with its transmission, nowadays each episode of a significant series will receive critical scrutiny, which leads to more considered judgements.


The technology for creating the images for film and TV has converged – no more film vs digital or 16mm vs 35/70mm, it’s all however many Ks now. Home reception and reproduction technologies have gone through a similar revolution – there are bigger TV screens now than some of the cinema screens I have encountered, as well as home digital projection. Screening in a theatre will become an even less common experience. I remember a TV interview with David Puttnam, just after VHS came out, in which he predicted that cinema will simply become a showcase to promote the home video industry – it’s taken some time, but he was right. Netflix now makes many films for its subscription service only, a netflix-logomove which caused controversy at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. So, what we need now is a convergence of critical response and hopefully the Sight and Sound poll will come to be seen as one small step on the way.


But if directorial authorship is no longer a sine qua non, and if the advantages of long-form television drama are clear (some film franchises are similar anyway), there is still one aspect of television production which may continue to be a difficult hurdle for the film critic to jump if critical convergence is to be possible, and that is the question of programme duration. A two-tier system already exists within the various structures of film assessment: anything running less than 40 minutes is a “short film” and has a separate category at awards ceremonies, though no separate mechanism for judging, say, the acting performances or music such films contain, even though they may be more impressive than those in features. They also get excluded from critical film lists – I’m constantly frustrated when I see Laurel and Laurel-and-Hardy-laurel-and-hardy-30795265-1024-768Hardy represented in such lists by Sons of the Desert or Way Out West rather than one of the true masterpieces from their catalogue of shorts. As far as I am concerned, there is a right length for everything and, if that is under 40 minutes, so be it. Comedy is a case in point: 30 to 40 minutes, or less, is best for comedy because you can only laugh so much without the effect beginning to wear off. Padding comedy out to feature length by adding musical numbers or romantic sub-plots undermines the structure of the piece.


TV used to operate similar conventions: 50-60 minutes or more for drama (and documentary); 25-30 minutes for comedy (and current affairs). But in the last dozen or so years there has been a burst ofgetting on creativity in the 30-minute form, coming out of comedy, but containing reflective or dramatic elements, which has been responsible for many of the very best titles on offer. If I was to list my top ten TV titles of this century, it would include The Thick of It, Sensitive Skin, Getting On and Him and Her. Recent outstanding work from the USA includes Transparent, Girls, Master of None and One Mississippi. These series can have similar plot arcs to drama, rather than simply being episodic, and should be judged on the same terms. There is no extra merit in length – succinctness can be the greater skill. This is recognised in the end of year lists of best TV, but it is interesting that the TV titles in the Sight and Sound list are only those where the episodes are of feature length. But I mustn’t grumble – it’s a start.


All of which serves as a trailer for my own TV Top Ten list, which I will post before the end of the year. I am leaving it to the last minute so that I can include anything great that may go out between now and then – the Radio Times indicates one or two promising possibilities over the holiday period. And, yes, it will be a list of TV titles only, which I hope is not hypocritical of me in the light of what I have written above – it is really just a recognition of probably the greatest barrier to full critical convergence, which is the sheer volume of the material to consider.

So, in the meantime have a very Happy Christmas – I hope you see something wonderful.

Now/then, now/then


It’s always best to make your intentions clear before entering a verbal minefield. This blog concerns (but is not directly about) the biggest story of the moment in the entertainment industries (and beyond) – the recent explosion of sexual harassment, assault and rape allegations which have hit those industries, particularly in the USA, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations – as well as the previous, very similar set of revelations and accusations which followed the Jimmy Savile expose in Britain. I don’t intend to address those issues themselves – that has been and continues to be done exhaustively on news and opinion platforms and social media – but rather to consider actual and potential implications for archives of film and television content containing the work of those accused or convicted, the public re-presentation of that content and the writing of our cultural history. The fact that many of the most recently accused have already admitted to past “failings” makes it reasonable to speculate on the implications of the scandals for their work, but I seek to imply no judgement on any of those whose names have been linked with abuse but have not had their cases tried in a court, so some of the blog will be hypothetical. All “historic” accusations of abuse need to be investigated according to due process and, whatever the outcome, it may be inappropriate for the work of those accused to be screened or otherwise available, both during and after that process. But an archivist (even a retired one) must take the long view, while everyone else is concentrating on the here and now.

A regular feature of the BBC4 schedule for several years now has been repeats of editions of Top of the Pops from the 1970s and 1980s. Very frequently, these are billed in the Radio Times as “revised repeat”, which means they will have been edited to remove the contribution of Jimmy Savile (or Dave Lee Travis, or….), or performances by Gary Glitter (or Jonathan King, or Rolf Harris, or….). Obviously, it would be inappropriate for any of these to appear in unmediated contexts and, in the case of Savile particularly, the BBC’s own sense of shame and responsibility, as well as consideration for his victims, makes it impossible. In the cases of performers like Gary Glitter, there would also be the imperative to avoid paying royalties to a convicted paedophile. The music of the most popular British star of the 70s has had to disappear from TV, radio and all music purchasing outlets – and probably, as a consequence, from history.

OK, these editions of Top of the Pops are only being presented for the purposes of nostalgic entertainment rather than as the exemplars of social and cultural history they could also be, but there still seems to be a whiff of Stalinism about the re-editing of history at work here – or, perhaps more appropriately, of 1984 and Winston Smith’s job of retrospectively altering news reports to tell the “official” story (remember that ministry of truthOrwell’s Ministry of Truth was partly based on his experiences at the BBC). The purist in me would like to see captions included in any re-edited programme, explaining what is missing at any point and why, but I realise that is not going to happen. The most extreme example of this sort of process in the current spate of scandals is the re-shooting and re-editing of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World to replace the performance of Kevin Spacey with one by Christopher Plummer. The film had been completed but not released, so it isn’t a case of changing something which is already a part of film history, but the digital technology to do just that exists and the temptation to use it may grow. After all, film and TV are collaborative arts and it would be unfair on other contributors if something was withdrawn because of the nefarious activities of one star or producer. The Spacey case looks primarily to be a financial decision, rather than a moral one, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, at some future date and if the climate is felt to be right, a “director’s cut” edition appears, with Spacey’s performance reinstated.

The Savile case prompted a flood of allegations against other celebrities from the TV and music industries, some of whom were convicted and jailed (Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall), some tried and acquitted (William Roache) and others found to have no case to answer (Jim Davidson) – a situation brilliantly and sensitively dramatized in Channel 4’s National Treasure. The suppression of appearances by Rolf Harris doesn’t have massive implications – a history of British TV entertainment would be incomplete but not essentially harmed without him. But the William Roache case had different potential implications for our cultural history. If the actor who has been in Coronation Streetcorrie from the very first episode in 1960 had been found guilty of a historic rape charge (or even if his acquittal hadn’t been so decisive) the entire archive of the programme, which represents the greatest fictional social history of the last six decades we possess, may have been compromised.

And what would a cultural history of the United States in the 1970s and 1980s look like without, for sake of argument, reference to The Cosby Show or the films of Woody Allen? Or any history of cinema in the later 20th century without any films starring Spacey or Dustin Hoffman? Not that this is necessarily likely to happen, but the effects of scandals, sexual or otherwise have never been predictable. Consider the different outcomes to the following cases from different periods of film and television history:

ArbuckleThe case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: film history tells us that the two great pioneers of silent film comedy were Chaplin and Keaton, but that could have been very different. Arbuckle’s films were as popular as Chaplin’s and he gave Keaton his start in the business. But the scandal surrounding the death of Virginia Rappe, following a party at Arbuckle’s house, effectively finished both his career and his reputation, despite the fact that he was cleared of rape or any involvement in her death. A nervous studio not only banned, but also destroyed his films – what remains today has been reconstructed from sub-standard copies from the world’s film archives.

The case of Roman Polanski: Hollywood in the 1970s was clearly a more forgiving place and there was no shortage of support for director Polanski when he fled the US on the verge of re-sentencing, after having pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. It was still forgiving when he won the Academy Award as Best Director for The Pianist in 2003 and received an ovation at the Oscars in absentia. His ability to continuepolanski his film-making career (in Europe, at least) has been unaffected by the scandal and his previous films remain highly regarded and easily available. Indeed, there has always been a feeling that an artist who draws upon his or her own experiences (and Polanski’s have been considerably more extreme than most), produces more “authentic” work. While not above the law, artists have often considered themselves beyond the norms of socially acceptable behaviour. Not any more.

The case of Chris Langham: after a patchy career full of minor roles, including a failed stint on Not the Nine O’Clock News, Langham made a breakthrough in the parody documentary People Like Us. Then, in 2005, came two roles which seemed to have set him onto the path of success and which brought him both British Comedy and BAFTA Awards for best comedy actor. I remember him accepting the former by ‘phone and wondering why – it soon became clear with his arrest, followed by conviction and imprisonment, for possession of child pornography. But what of those two series he had langhamstarred in? Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, in the first season of which he starred as the hapless government minister Hugh Abbot, simply evolved into one of the most brilliant satires of the last decade without him. That first series is available on DVD, though with Peter Capaldi on the cover now, rather than Langham. Paul Whitehouse’s Help on the other hand, in which Langham played a psychiatrist to a variety of characters, all played by Whitehouse, was finished by the case and there was only ever the one season. It was the best thing Whitehouse had done since The Fast Show, but, if you want to see it, the only copy publicly available is on a region 4 DVD at a high price. In the meantime, the release of the second season of People Like Us was delayed and was unheralded when it arrived. So, the approach towards Langham’s existing work was entirely pragmatic and sensitive to potential pitfalls.

I can discern some parallels here with the recent controversies, from Cape Town to Oxford to Charlottesville, over monuments to people whose historic status was built on actions and attitudes which history now condemns: Cecil Rhodes, Robert E. Lee et al. A robert e leekey question is whether these monuments have become a part of history and, if not, how far back do you have to go before they are regarded as such? Monuments to ancient empires based on slavery – Egypt, Greece and Rome – are treasured and are part of UNESCO heritage sites. The British Empire and the American Civil War have modern resonances which make things more contentious. The comparison may seem extreme, but how far things remain in the public consciousness can affect their place as a part of history. Films and TV programmes can be seen as a kind of audio-visual statuary in this context. If something is deemed to be unsuitable for continued public display, then it should be kept in a museum (for monuments) or an archive (for film and TV). Ideally, the cultural institutions involved will be able to make the materials publicly available with the appropriate contextualisation. It can be awkward and the contextualisation is everything. You either contextualise in public (which is preferable for historic continuity) or make materials available in a controlled museum/archive environment, for scholars only (who will then write the history and include or exclude things according to what they find of interest).

So far, understanding the recent cultural past in the light of the Savile case and its subsequent revelations has been superficially done. Channel 4’s It was Alright in the Seventies was an interesting attempt to use TV extracts featuring examples of sexism and racism to understand cultural change, but succumbed to the lure of cheap laughs and sensationalism. There is little more awkward than trying, as I have experience of, to till deathpresent episodes of Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part to a modern audience. It is a crucial television text from the sixties and seventies, which was made with the best intentions and is brilliantly written and performed, but the racism, in particular, is impossible to present without context and pretty difficult with it. What shocks the most is not the language or attitudes presented, but the delighted reaction of the contemporary studio audience. When the BBC re-made a lost episode as part of their sitcom season last year, they struggled to find one which was free of racist references and, having done so, still had to point out to the audience that the sexist attitudes were from another era.

Of course, the falls from grace we are currently witnessing will themselves become part of our cultural history, as will their effects on existing work, but it is the potential suppression of that existing work that concerns me. A quick scan through the film listings in the most recent four editions of Radio Times reveals no scheduled transmissions on broadcast TV of any films featuring Kevin Spacey and only one (The Graduate on TCM) featuring Dustin Hoffman. This is probably the right call, for the time being, by the broadcasters, who need to protect themselves against accusations of behaving as though nothing has happened, but the speed at which revelations are coming out may remove a significant part of our film heritage from public view, with the work of many fine contributors thrown out with that of the offending few. Interestingly, the letters page of recent editions of Radio Times contains complaints against the removal of the new Agatha Christie treat from this year’s Christmas schedule due to the ongoing investigation against Ed Westwick, thus neatly highlighting the BBC’s current dilemma.

A key question is how far one can separate a work from the personality of its creator and whether unacceptable views or behaviour diminishes how we view that work. For me that has rarely been a problem (as a life-long devotee of the works of Wagner, I long ago reconciled the fact that the man who wrote the world’s finest music dramas also wrote some of the world’s most unpleasant anti-semitic tracts), but I can understand the position of those for whom it is. Much will depend on the nature of the work – a stand-up comedy routine will depend much more on our connection with the performer than a piece of drama will on our views of the writer or director. Which brings me to the most unsettling of the recent cases: that of Louis CK. In this blog and elsewhere, my HoraceAndPeteadmiration for his work is on record, particularly Horace and Pete, which I regard as a modern American classic and my view of which is not changed by the recent revelations about his personal behaviour. It is possible to have integrity as an artist even though it may be lacking as a person. Indeed, if the work is dealing with human failings, as the best work so often is, then it can help to understand those failings personally – maybe it is even essential. Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy may well turn out to be the most relevant piece to emerge from this whole situation – I would say that I can’t wait to see it, but it looks like I’m going to have to – maybe for a very long time.

In the final analysis, individuals must be answerable for their actions, however long ago and however different the social climate then. Their personal future status will depend on the courts of law and on the court of public opinion, but the products of our shared cultural heritage in which they have previously been involved should not automatically be thrown out like babies with dirty bathwater.

Planets and (TV) Universes


An eel diving into a lake at the bottom of the ocean? A fish with a bulbous transparent forehead so that it can see upwards and backwards? You’ve got to be kidding me, right? No – just two of the many startling sights from the latest edition of Blue Planet II (BBC1, Sundays), delivered from the deepest blue ocean to our bonfire-night living rooms in close-up and glorious high-definition. Oh, and just for good measure, as well as showing us deep-sea creatures which looked like something out of Doctor Who or an advert for cooking with gas, this awe-inspiring hour of television hinted at the origins of life itself and the possibility of it existing elsewhere in our own solar system. This was the secondblue-planet-2-2017-fragman_10062808-14090_1800x945 in the series and the first was pretty spectacular, too – some of the shots of waves were as wonderful as those of the creatures under them and the surfing dolphins were brilliant.

Just as with Planet Earth II last year, and Life Story before that, we are getting the most spectacular new wildlife footage possible, shot using the latest equipment and techniques, the most significant of which is the use of small, resilient, remotely-controlled cameras. Digital technology allows the time and patience required to achieve the best shots, without the need to waste expensive film stock or the equally expensive time of the cameraman in the process.

The other thing which has changed is how natural history programmes and series are put together. The familiar, reassuring presence of Sir David Attenborough is the only remaining link with what has gone before. Just as the speed of light is the only constant ad_204471301in an expanding universe, so the presence of Sir David is the one thing you can rely on in the changing universe of TV natural history. I had the enormous privilege of working with him on a talk he gave as part of our TV documentary season at the BFI two years ago, in which, using the clips we researched and selected, he traced the development of the techniques of natural history programming from the earliest, studio-bound primitivism of the early 1950s to the filming of the landmark series Life on Earth (BBC, 1979), nearly all of which he had led or been personally involved in. His wonderful talk can still be seen on the BFI website here.

Life on Earth was the high watermark of natural history series in terms of both the quality of its images and the scope of its ambition: to explain the evolution of species in 13 parts. He followed this with a succession of brilliant variations on the theme, all designed to explore aspects of the natural world in more detail and all containing the trademark word “life” in the title: The Trials of Life (1990), Life in the Freezer (1993), The Life of Birds (1998), The Private Life of Plants (1995) etc. Each one showcased even more spectacular advances in wildlife filming than its predecessor and, as widescreenLife on Earth (1979) and high-definition television systems arrived, so the familiar stories were re-told in higher quality, interspersed with whatever new animal behaviours had been found in the process.

Where, previously, footage had been sought to illustrate a chosen thesis, more recently it seems that each series is designed to showcase whatever spectacular footage has been obtained. Hence the “movie sequel” titling of series like Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Now into his 90s, but miraculously still as vital and engaged as ever, Attenborough’s contribution is confined to an introductory piece to camera in the first episode of a series and a concluding one at the end of the last, plus, of course, reading the narration, which he no longer writes, though he does insist on having the final say on its contents. The last major thing Attenborough did which had a proper thesis was The Rise of the Animals in 2013 and that was actually an updating of Life on Earth, using state-of-the-art high definition graphics and revealing the results of the latest dinosaur excavations, which the then 87-year-old presenter climbed up a Chinese mountain to investigate. After a long lifetime of intrepid and memorable location work, he has certainly earned his place of comfort in the narrator’s chair.

But there are also fewer words now. The key element of the natural history programme today is music and the building blocks of each programme are self-contained sequences, usually containing dramatic confrontations between species. These are clearly designed as much to stand alone on video sharing and social media platforms as to constitute part of a programme and they often look like music videos. And the composers have been recruited from the worlds of TV drama and the movies: firstly Murray Gold, whose dramatic scores are such an integral part of Doctor Who; and more recently the renowned and prolific Hans Zimmer, the most relevant of whose numerous credits are probably Gladiator (for the animal “battle” scenes) and The Lion King (obviously!).

The music certainly makes the sequences highly dramatic and, because the style is associated with fiction and conveys emotions through association, could even be accused of having an anthropomorphic effect. It can also be used to provide sound effects where they do not otherwise exist, such as underwater. Some fish look very frightening, but they don’t roar, though music can suggest that they may be doing something similarly menacing. The letters page of the current Radio Times is full of predictable complaints about the use of music in Blue Planet II, but, for me, it has contributed massively to some fantastic sequences: one thinks of the barnacle goslings leaping from the cliff in Life Story, grippingly scored by Murray Gold and embedded here (though only in part – the whole sequence lasts about 10 minutes and is well worth checking out); and, of course, the iguana hatchlings escaping the marauding snakes in Planet Earth II. And, for humour, the flamenco dancing spider in Life Story is hard to beat.

One other recent development is also worth noting – the ten-minute “making of” sections at the end of each programme, which provide transparency where there may previously have been distrust as to how the programme makers may be manipulating their footage (remember the polar bear cub?). But, if you look back at the clips selected by Sir David Attenborough for his talk at the BFI, you will find that the most significant milestones in the development of natural history programming were similarly up-front about how the filming was done. The evolution of natural history programming on TV is, after all, a great story in its own right.