Season of Surprises and Disappointments

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Without wanting to come over all Forrest Gump, I’d like to start with a bit of homespun wisdom; it struck me while wrapping presents and putting them under the tree, that TV series are very like Christmas presents. It’s not that “you never know what you are going to get” – far too often that is perfectly clear in advance – but that some of them will be surprises and others will be disappointments. And sometimes they will be both, because it is both a surprise and a disappointment when something you eagerly anticipate from a much-loved source turns out not really to be what you had hoped for. Recent weeks have given us gifts from Damon Lindelof, Ken Burns and Sir David Attenborough which have not lived up to the extremely high hopes those names engender in me, though there have also been one or two pleasant surprises to celebrate as well.

 

Since he gave us my favourite series of the closing decade – The Leftovers – I was obviously going to look forward to Damon Lindelof’s next project very keenly. Given the extreme quality threshold he had set, disappointment was probably inevitable, but even 2288F4F1-4DBB-4FD7-82BD-7AFB9D6AE2FF_4_5005_cthen I didn’t expect to be giving up after the customary 5 episodes I usually give to something which has clear pedigree and promise and which has received a positive welcome from sources I respect (as well as the wider critical community), but which just did not work for me. Watchmen (HBO/Sky Atlantic) suffers from the same problems I identified previously with The Handmaid’s Tale: it is so much in love with its own central concept and the visual realisation of that concept that it neglects the fundamental building blocks of plot and character development – something you can get away with in cinema, but not in an extended series. This may be because the original source material is, quite literally, two-dimensional, but the screenwriters, directors and actors are there to adapt that material for TV presentation and obviously have the skills to do so. However, the writers and directors of Watchmen seem too keen on the visuals and on drawing clever parallels with aspects of our troubled times, while the performers are hamstrung by having to wear masks for much of the time – precisely the reasons, I think, why we have recently heard criticism of superhero movies from masters like Scorsese and Coppola.

 

Of course, genres like fantasy and science fiction are just as capable of illuminating the human condition as social realism – in many respects, even more so. A good example of a current series which achieves this is His Dark Materials (BBC1, Sundays). Adapted from 3714032B-9950-4A52-966F-B57750C977C5_4_5005_cPhilip Pulman’s novels by the prolific and excellent Jack Thorne (and what a year he has had with The Virtues, The Accident and now this), it contains epic effects, talking animals and mystical themes, yet its characters are all-too-human. It also has one of the most arresting title sequences since The Night Manager. And it reminded me, in many aspects, of Netflix’s Stranger Things, not least the remarkable similarity in both looks and performance between Dafne Keen and Millie Bobby Brown.

 

Following His Dark Materials on BBC1 on three recent Sundays was a new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and this provided a genuine surprise, because this is a novel which has been adapted so many times in the past, but this version managed a 53AABEA5-8103-45C4-A320-BC7A22077D79_4_5005_ccompletely new take on the overly familiar material. It achieved its effect primarily through an impressive visual imagining of a devastated Edwardian landscape and, as it only ran to three hour-long parts, the makers were able to strike a perfect balance between the human story and the visualisation.

 

Turning to factual material, Ken Burns is another name that creates great anticipation when it appears in the listings. His series are mammoth undertakings and his approach to his subjects is meticulous, so there is often a lengthy gap between their appearance. Over a long career, he has documented multiple aspects of American history – some series have been greater landmarks than others so, following the stupendous The Vietnam War two years ago, his next series was always likely to be a let-down. From the start of Country Music (PBS/BBC4) you know you are in familiar Burns territory – the B9EB1D05-F1BA-4504-8824-DF221343154E_4_5005_cbeautifully scanned black and white photographs, the authoritative voice of Peter Coyote. But the longer it went on, the more I got the feeling that this was not the best choice of subject for such lengthy treatment. Compared to Jazz (PBS, 2001), there just wasn’t the depth of interest to be explored. Country Music also seemed to promise at the start of each episode that it would be tracing a link between the music and American social history (as Jazz had done so well), but most of what we got was just the lives and careers of the stars. As before with a Burns series, the BBC is giving us the cut down (9 hours!) version – I have usually sought out the full version (18 hours in this case) but will not be bothering this time. Maybe my problem is that it is not a style of music which interests me greatly, but I do normally expect more from Burns.

 

I also expect a lot from any series or single documentary fronted by Sir David Attenborough, and there have been a lot of them this year. There was the magnificent 28D5BF6C-4B68-4E53-BEEB-38AA5C120EF8_4_5005_cNetflix series Our Planet, which gave us not just spectacular sequences, but also ecological comment. Then there was Attenborough’s personal single doc on climate change for the BBC. So, Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1) was simply a re-hash of what we had already had and many sequences were overly familiar – not just the penguins and albatross searching for their chicks or the co-ordinated dancing birds, but even the walruses falling off cliffs which we had already seen earlier in the year. And the material on climate change became less prominent as the series progressed and seemed to have been added almost as an afterthought.

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John Pilger is another veteran film maker whose work is consistent and you know exactly what to expect, though the fact that he makes his pieces at feature length means that they are sometimes a little stretched. No such fault with The Dirty War on the NHS (ITV), a brilliantly argued, thorough and rather depressing analysis of the dire threats to our health system which spoke directly to many of the issues crucial in the election campaign, though transmitted (inevitably, given the author’s well-known political leaning) too late to make any difference. Not that it would have, sadly.

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Having promised you less humbug this time, I fear I may have failed in that mission, so let me conclude this theme on a more positive note. I knew exactly what to expect from Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out, just concluded its second season on BBC4, yet the pair constantly manage to surprise and delight with exactly the same sort of material they began their TV careers with. Backwards Bill’s tribute to the elephant on Novelty Island had me completely convulsed with laughter.

 

Maybe overly high hopes are the main problem, as they make it easy to be let down – bear that in mind as you both open your presents and watch TV this Christmas, I’ll be back with my 2019 top ten before the year ends (and what a fantastic year it has been, though definitely one of two halves) and I will give you my list of the best of the past decade at the start of the new one.

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A very Happy Christmas to one and all.

Sh*tbox

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In a blog a couple of years ago (Trouble in Store, 4th November 2017) I bemoaned the demise of the BBC Store and the loss of the opportunity to “own” some important archival titles that need to be available, but which were actually snatched back from those of us who had purchased them when it folded. At the time, I quoted the BBC as saying: “the BBC is currently exploring ways by which archive programmes can be viewed” and “we do hope to make the programmes you could only get on BBC Store available elsewhere at some point in the future”. Well, here’s the latest news – Britbox isn’t it!

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Actually, I’m not really sure what Britbox is meant to be at all, and I’m not convinced that the BBC or ITV are either – I suspect it is more about what it may become. As it stands, it is a rather feeble attempt by our two largest domestic broadcasters to enter the streaming market, which is not their natural home, using material which is pretty much all available on home video formats (and which anybody with a serious interest will D4D2F6A8-A5A0-4781-A6A0-9DD9D4E507C8_4_5005_calready own). The oldest titles are from the seventies, but there aren’t many of them and they are the usual suspects (Fawlty Towers etc). Most of the material is much more recent. Rather bizarrely, if you click on “search by decade”, you find much more material set in the sixties and seventies (like Cilla or Life on Mars) than made in those decades.

 

There is nothing in monochrome (though early Doctor Who has been promised as a future feature), no plays by Dennis Potter (a key feature of BBC Store when it was FDC820C3-23E1-4A35-8690-465EF0A7D7AD_4_5005_claunched and a particular lure to myself) and very little factual material of any great interest. It looks as if it has been thrown together in a hurry and sent before its time into the world. It may (just) make sense if it was available to the whole world (much as Netflix was attractive for its archive of American TV before it became a powerhouse of original production), but it isn’t – you have to be located in the UK to access it, though a US version has been available in North America for a couple of years. There has been very little in the way of marketing for Britbox on the BBC or ITV – maybe when Channel 4 joins in next Spring there will be a re-launch, though I doubt they will bring much more to the table.

 

The only immediate function it may come to fulfil, I fear, is to replace the broadcasters’ home video release operations, much as BBC Store seemed intended to do. Those who wish to have continuing access to the best current releases (beyond their catch-up windows) would thus have to pay an ongoing subscription for what they would previously have paid a one-off fee to have securely on their shelf, rather than depending on its continued availability online. And this would not be a new development, alas. Much has been said and written about the effect of Netflix’s move into cinematic production and its impact on the theatrical release of important works, most recently Scorsese’s magnificent The Irishman, which I enjoyed streaming just the other day. B1C6122B-9606-4B61-A498-84FD53BCA941_4_5005_cHowever, although this is an understandable concern, I am much more bothered about the absence of key titles from my DVD and blu-ray shelves than from the cinema, which is another, but less remarked, effect of Netflix’s exclusivity policies. My complete collection of Coen brothers films is incomplete without The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and my Scorsese collection would be similarly so without The Irishman. A glimmer of hope is offered by the welcome recent announcement of a special Criterion edition of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma in the new year, so maybe it will become a case of waiting and hoping that the niche collector’s market delivers the desired titles.

 

And maybe Britbox will be a waiting game, too. Perhaps it will expand its offer to include more archival classics, though that would still be no replacement for really “owning” the stuff. I’m certainly not prepared to maintain a subscription “just in case”, and even then I would have severe reservations about it. Only if it becomes the only way to access recent outstanding titles would I even think about it.

 

Of course, rights clearances and the associated costs and charges will be the ultimate factor. The rights to a lot of BBC and ITV material are already tied up by other streaming platforms, but will revert to BBC and ITV in time, in which case Britbox may look a better proposition. If it did become a success, then maybe the plan would be to clear those rights for full overseas access if the economic model was right, and then it may be a genuine competitor with Netflix, Disney, Amazon and the rest, but it is very hard to see that happening.

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In the longer term, it’s existence may be linked to the future funding model and shape of the BBC and maybe even ITV, which has historically relied on a licence-funded BBC to protect its own sources of revenue. You can’t help but get the feeling that it is a desperate leap in the dark in the face of a highly uncertain future for both of them.

 

Finally, I should apologise for the slightly scatological title to this blog but, try as I did, I couldn’t come up with anything better. Actually, I really dislike the use of the term “box” to refer to television – it is dismissive and now outdated – and also the use of the term “box set” on streaming platforms which are actually denying us the possibility of getting some of the titles in a real box, so I’m not really sorry at all for the title. I am, however, for the generally “humbug” attitude of what I have written this time around. I promise to be more seasonally festive in the coming weeks (or, at least, to try).

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Words can speak louder than actions

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

TV Top Tens: No.2 – American Sitcoms

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It’s been a slow summer, despite a couple of splendid recent Netflix releases (Mindhunter season 2, Top Boy – I’ll come back to those), so it’s back to list-making for the time being.

 

The first of my Top Ten lists, a few months back, was British sitcoms, which I compiled in response to a Radio Times list. It therefore only seems right to follow that up with my list of American sitcoms. Doing the two separately seems the right idea, not just because there are some significant differences of approach, but because my own knowledge and experience of the two fields is very different. While I can claim to have seen every episode of all twenty of the British titles I listed (or, at least all the surviving ones of the earliest titles) I can certainly not make the same claim as regards my American list. Not only do the Americans make many more episodes than we do, but their availability here cannot be guaranteed. The list below is thus to be taken with a large pinch of salt (as are all lists, mind you). There are only three titles here (numbers 1, 3 and 4) which I have seen in their entirety and, of course, there is plenty of other material I have not seen at all.

 

Having said that, there are also some similarities between my British and American lists, most notably the tension I noted in my previous blog between the traditional (studio-based, laughter-tracked) sitcom and the more modern (single camera, no laughter) half-hour forms, though there are fewer of the latter on my American list than on my British one. Americans seem to need the affirmation of laughter, even in a more “serious” piece like M*A*S*H.

 

Unlike my British list (and because of the incompleteness of my viewing) I have not excluded titles which are still being made. I have, however, excluded anything which is a remake of a British original – so, no The Office: An American Workplace, Getting On, or All in the Family, though the originals are all on my British list. So my Top Ten “All American” sitcoms are:

 

1: Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-)

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Larry David’s masterpiece tops the list on two counts – both as one of the most innovative sitcom formats devised and for the frequency and quality of the laughs, despite the semi-improvised nature of the performances, which flourish in the brilliantly conceived plot structures. David’s instinct for what is funny and how far he can go, honed on Seinfeld, is here played to perfection.

 

2: The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sgt Bilko) (CBS, 1955-59)

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Filmed “as live”, the show’s hilarity derived from the seemingly spontaneous nature of the performances and Silvers’ impeccable comic timing. Bilko is simply one of the great comic creations – a selfish loafer saved from being totally despicable by his quick-witted charm. A multiple Emmy winner in its time, yet unaccountably omitted from the canons of both Bianculli and Sepinwall/Seitz (see earlier blog) its reputation is clearly in need of restoration.

 

3: Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-98)

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Larry David’s earlier masterpiece, and no apology for including both in my top three – for much the same reason, too: innovation and great comedy. The fourth season, in which Jerry and George (Larry’s alter ego) devise a sitcom based on their own lives and pitch it to the network, thus simultaneously “explaining” the nature of what we are watching, is a watershed moment in comedy.

 

4: Louie (FX, 2010-15)

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If any series took Seinfeld further, it was this rather than Curb. However, the superficial similarity of having the central character be a stand-up comedian (as in real life) going about his daily life in New York, masks some fundamental shifts, most notably Louis CK’s original approach of including unrelated sequences in single episodes. The fluidity of both style and content comes across as a kind of stream-of-consciousness – and it can be brutally honest.

 

5: M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-83)

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One of the longest-running and possibly the best-loved of all US TV sitcoms, it clearly hit a nerve in post-Vietnam America. It totally eclipsed the feature film on which it was based, which, being an Altman film, was episodic in nature with a large ensemble cast and thus the perfect basis for sitcom.

 

6: I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-57)

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As important for the significance of its production and distribution models as for that of its content, I Love Lucy is undoubtedly the key title from the early years of television sitcom. It set so many conventions that it may itself look a little conventional in retrospect, but the quality of comic invention was uneven from episode to episode.

 

7: Cheers (NBC, 1982-93)

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The best ensemble cast of all – many prominent careers were launched from the Boston bar where everybody knows your name and the situation was so strong that it could easily survive the departure of key cast members and re-invent itself. It’s spin-off, Frasier, itself became one of the key titles of the 1990s.

 

8: Black-ish (ABC, 2014-)

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The real breakthrough for the portrayal of African Americans in TV sitcom. Yes, The Cosby Show pre-dates it by three decades, but that was essentially a conventional comedy which only differed from those around it because of the colour of the faces and only rarely tackled issues pertaining to the black community. Black-ish puts those issues at centre stage and builds its comedy deftly around them, while at the same time presenting, as Cosby did, a traditional sitcom family of likeable characters.

 

9: The Dick van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-66)

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Created by Your Show of Shows writer Carl Reiner and based on his experiences, The Dick van Dyke Show offered two sits for its com: domestic and workplace, the latter being the writer’s room of a TV sketch show. And it eagerly grabbed the myriad possibilities offered by both, being consistently funny and entertaining. Co-star Mary Tyler Moore went on to make her own highly significant contribution to the production of TV comedy.

 

10: Taxi (ABC, 1978-83)

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Second only to Cheers in the “great ensemble cast” stakes, this was an excellent example of the characters, rather than the situation, being the situation. The characters are trapped in a purgatory from which they can briefly emerge but to which they must always return. Great performances from Danny de Vito, Christopher Lloyd and the enigmatic Andy Kaufman.

 

As with my British list, I will also offer you my “next ten” (11-20), which also allows me to acknowledge some outright classics, some of which probably deserve to be higher and maybe would have been if I had seen more of them.

 

11: Master of None (Netflix, 2015-)

12: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (Filmways, 1976-77)

13: Soap (ABC, 1977-81)

14: Roseanne (Carsey-Werner, 1988-2018)

15: Better Things (FX, 2016-)

16: The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-77)

17: The Larry Sanders Show (HBO, 1992-98)

18: Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-2015)

19: Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004)

20: Happy Days (ABC, 1974-84)

 

 

So, if I were to combine my British and American top tens to make a general sitcom list (there aren’t any from anywhere else in the world that would make it!), what would it look like? I think my top three US titles would replace my bottom three British ones, but I guess that only goes to show my personal bias and how unreliable this list is.

 

Super Over the Moon

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Having finally come down off the ceiling, following England’s unbelievable and thrilling victory in the Cricket World Cup Final (Channel 4/Sky Sports) – and before football grabs my full attention again – it is a good time to try to unpick what there was about it that made it a great piece of TV and what was the magic of sport at its most intense. Of course, the “magic of sport” works both ways: the most magical moments that come to mind are always the ones when the team (or individual) you support triumphs. Having waited so long for England to win the Cricket World Cup and for it then to happen in such an incredibly close and tense way obviously has an impact on my feelings (and sport is nothing if not an emotional and partisan experience – I have absolutely no time for “neutrals” or the concept of “may the best team win”), but I also know I wouldn’t feel quite the same way if I were a Kiwi.

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As is often the case with cricket, a memorable finish is often preceded by an ordinary contest – one of the great glories of the sport is how the climactic turning points, which can be extremely intense in both the five-day and one-day versions of the game, arrive out of otherwise attritional play – but you have to watch it all to appreciate and understand the importance of those moments. In television terms, the close but relatively unexplosive first 90% of the World Cup Final was unremarkable, but once Stokes and Buttler had painstakingly brought England to within reach of a potentially dramatic victory, it required those providing the television coverage to raise their own game to do the situation justice. Together, the cricket team and the TV team provided something unforgettable. Cutaways to crowd behaviour, previously a filler for quieter moments, suddenly added to the intensity. Close ups of the players’ faces revealed the emotional turmoil they were going through. Replays of every amazing incident – the six which was nearly a catch, the four overthrows off the diving Stokes’ bat – were analysed to infinity. Putting all this together and retaining the flow of the game required brilliance from the TV team.

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Then, with the teams tied, we got to the unprecedented “super over” – the vital explanation of how it would work (I’m sure very few people knew – unlike a penalty shoot-out it was such an unlikely possibility) was deftly done and the speculation on tactics was spot-on. The fact that the super over itself ended tied was just too much, but we all knew that England would win in that situation, as did the teams, so the excitement was even more intense. The run out off the final ball was brilliantly covered and we were able to jump up and down with rapture even though the on-field umpire called for a replay. In an earlier blog on VAR, I lamented the loss of the ecstatic moment which referral technology can bring, but in this case we could see England had won and the team knew it, too, so their wild celebrations could be effectively covered, just like those at Edgbaston back in 2005.

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Another point about the World Cup Final was how many channels it was shown across, with Sky allowing live free-to-air coverage on Channel 4 and More 4, with C4 providing their own commentary team. Add BBC radio and it was truly a cross-media event, much like the Apollo 11 coverage exactly 50 years ago, which has been the subject of a large number of commemorative programmes.

 

The live coverage of the World Cup Final will be preserved for the future – the BFI has been recording Channel 4 programmes off-air since 1985 and nowadays automatically records its complete output, as it was seen by the viewer. The situation was much different back in 1969. No recordings of the coverage of the landing on the moon or the first moon walk were made by either the BBC or ITV. Yes, we have the NASA feed, but not Michelmore, Burke and Moore in the BBC studio, or David Frost on ITV. The situation is much the same in other countries – many years ago the International Federation of Television Archives asked its members if they had recordings of their own coverage of the event and very few did.

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However, there is plenty of filmed and news material extant, and, of course, the coverage was well recorded in the USA, so we do have the major networks’ output. This material formed the basis of the two main documentaries transmitted to mark the anniversary – one on BBC, the other on Channel 4. Both took the theme of “liveness” as their main approach and both used the American TV coverage, snippets of news from elsewhere and the recordings of the astronauts’ conversations with their Houston Space Center base. The only real difference was that the BBC documentary used the audio recordings as the basis for reconstructions, with actors playing the astronauts and lip-synching to the recordings. As a result, the Channel 4 documentary was by far the better piece.

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It also meant there was more time given over on Channel 4 to the US TV coverage, which for me was the main draw, especially the CBS recordings featuring the wonderful Walter Cronkite – an incredibly eloquent and authoritative presenter who even managed to impress with the quality of his commentaries when he was saying that he could find no words to convey the magnitude of what we were seeing. Just as he did on the famous recording of his announcement of JFK’s death, it was the simple act of taking off his glasses which spoke the loudest. I once had the honour of meeting him and having a brief chat – this was at the opening reception of the 2005 International Federation of Television Archives Conference in New York, hosted by our colleagues at CBS News, at which he was the special guest. He was long retired at that stage, of course, but still had a lively engagement with what was going on in the world of TV news.

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Both documentaries demonstrated what was missing from the archives without the need to acknowledge it. Much the same would be true of a retrospective cricket compilation from the same era or well into the eighties, because all the footage would come from the evening highlights programmes – most of the daytime transmissions were not kept.

 

So, am I putting the World Cup Final onto my shortlist for best of the year?  I think not, on the grounds that I recognise my own massive bias in this case. Yes, the coverage was great, but the event was greater. Live television (as distinct from news journalism) does have a place at annual awards ceremonies, but there are only usually a couple of categories (sports and events) and they are always relegated to the “awards presented earlier” section of what actually gets broadcast. Which is a shame, because they can be truly iconic. On the other hand, they are also “of the moment” and can never really be appreciated in quite the same way on replay, even in a highlights show the same evening – as someone who often follows the advice to “look away now” in order to avoid seeing results which may alter the enjoyment of an imminent highlights show, I can attest that the excitement is just not the same, even if you don’t know what happened. When such things are re-visited in years to come, as with the Moon landing coverage, it is usually for either nostalgic or academic reasons. You can get a sense of the excitement of the moment, but not truly feel it in the same way.

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A Year of Two Halves?

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Half way through the year and it’s been a real corker, at least by my own criteria: at this point last year, I had shortlisted 8 titles for my year’s top ten – this year the figure is 15! Many of those critical sources which do the same are reaching the same conclusion, though not necessarily citing the same titles as me, but there does seem to be a consensus that this is a vintage year.

 

In previous blogs I pointed out several things about which I was enthusiastic, but I was waiting for them to finish before shortlisting them (or not). So, I am happy to confirm that the two titles I anticipated adding to my list from my blog of 31stMay, Chernobyl Unknown-7(Sky Atlantic) and The Virtues (Channel 4), will indeed feature and very strongly so – both maintained the qualities I described to their respective ends and I think they are probably the two best drama series of the year so far. The Virtues provided an extended finale of even greater intensity than the episodes which led up to it, with the main plotlines leading to two simultaneous and harrowing confrontations with different, though unpredictable, outcomes (I won’t spoil it – do watch it if you haven’t already). And the extra information we were given during the end credit sequence of the final episode of Chernobyl was a devastating climax of its own – I’ve never seen that device used so effectively.

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Also in my 31stMay blog, I mentioned that I was enjoying Russell T.Davies’ Years and Years (BBC1), but without any confidence that it would feature on my shortlist. The closing episodes made me change my mind, as the way it finished fully justified the somewhat over-the-top approach it had taken throughout. It turned out that the whole story had been extracted from the brain of the character Edith (Jessica Hynes), who was Unknown-3wired up to a mind-reading device in a futuristic scene reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus (BBC/Channel, 4 1996). And Anne Reid’s soliloquy about automated check-outs really hit a nerve – I always queue for the human-operated tills in my local Waitrose and refuse any offers to help me with the automated section – now I can say “didn’t you see Years and Years?” as well. If you look at it as political satire rather than drama, it has a much greater resonance.

 

Going a bit further back, I confirmed in the comments section of my 13thMay blog that Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life is shortlisted, so the declared shortlist reads:

 

Les Miserables (BBC1)

True Detective (Sky Atlantic)

Moon and Me (cBeebies)

Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil (BBC2)

Three Identical Strangers (Channel 4)

Fleabag (BBC1)

Back to Life (BBC1)

Mum (BBC2)

Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic)

The Virtues (Channel 4)

Years and Years (BBC1)

63 Up (ITV)

Janet Baker: in her own words (BBC4)

One Day in Gaza (BBC2)

 

…..which makes 14, the 15thshortlisted programme being a recent release which I had not blogged about yet.

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Back in February last year, the first of my “TV Catch-Up” blogs considered the classic HBO western series Deadwood (2004-6) and one of the reasons I gave for watching it complete at that time was the tantalising prospect that a concluding movie was in the pipeline, all those years after its screen life was prematurely curtailed. Well, that has now arrived and was aired on Sky Atlantic at precisely the same time as it went out in the US, that is 2am! As a way of wrapping up the story, it worked spectacularly well. There wasn’t as much consideration of the building of American society, which was one of the factors which made the three seasons so memorable, but there was as much as you could hope for in the limited time allowed. The style, the distinctive use of language and the characters had hardly changed, but the (fictional) ten-year gap since the end of season three was masterfully handled by David Milch and his wonderful cast – it was great to be back in their world and very little in the way of catch-up was required. The ending was a great nod to classic western tropes and, alas, the last thing we will get from Milch – one of the true giants of TV drama. Given that this is one of the greatest American series of them all, a fitting finale was always going to be one of the highlights of the year. Just as with 63 Up, it earns a place on the shortlist as much as for what it has been as for what it was this year.

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So, I already have an outstanding list, five of which (not saying which ones) I regard as absolute nailed-on certainties for my top ten of the year. However, if the second half of the year is only half as good as the first, then I may have some very difficult decisions to make. It couldn’t be, could it?

 

Well, we are in a bit of a summer lull at the moment, with only Catch 22 (Channel 4) demanding my regular attention, but that is to be expected. I was, however, glued to my screen all day last Sunday for the Cricket World Cup Final and I still can’t get my head around whether that was one of the great pieces of TV of the year or whether it was the incredible nature of the contest itself which makes it seem so. I think I may return to that next time.

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Up the Past

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Well, I promised that 63 Up (ITV) would form part of my next blog, so here we go. I also named it as a certainty for my running shortlist before I had seen a minute of it because of what it has been, which is an essential part of what it is now. It had already earned its place on my list, even though this edition did turn out to be a little less impactful than previous ones. It had a certain valedictory air, which may be because Michael Apted’s own advancing age makes him question whether he will be around to do it again inUnknown-2 another seven years’ time. Each participant was asked to comment on the original premise of the series – that a person’s character and life path is set at the age of seven – which gave an air of things being wrapped up, at least in the event that there is to be no more. Hopefully this will turn out to be a “just in case” precaution, but I think Apted needs to work out a way of letting it go on without him, because it is too important to let go until the last possible moment. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without Apted’s skill as a film-maker and as an interviewer, but maybe there could be just a small-scale studio get-together every seven years when he’s no longer around.

 

It also struck me that there seemed to be a lot more questions about the participants’ views of political events this time around – in particular, Apted was keen to ask many of them about their attitudes to Brexit. Given that several of them have moved abroad or have family or business connections overseas, while others see themselves as firmly British, this was a fruitful line of enquiry. It also spoke to questions of identity, which have characterised the series throughout.

 

Overall, the series has perhaps become a little predictable now. Tony’s story usually comes first, to hook you in, while Neil’s is last, to keep you watching to the end. The first death in the group, that of Lynn, was very well handled at the end of the middle part, Unknownwhile the grave illness of Nick was also saddening, but otherwise it seemed to be business as usual, though with less to report. The series has mirrored my own life throughout (I was eleven when it started) and “less to report” is pretty much where I am now, too – that’s the main condition of retirement. Coming back every seven years has also worked particularly well with people of this vintage, especially as it only became clear that would happen gradually – with the impact of social media, it wouldn’t be the same for people of later generations, because their lives would be too obviously impacted by their fame. That has happened a little bit in the Up series, but not enough to affect its trajectory.

 

Up is pretty reliable when it comes to the credibility of its participants’ testimony. This may be because it involves “ordinary people” who are not considering their own place in history or attempting to remember more than seven years ago. There have, however, been a number of recent documentaries I would like to mention here, which have relied on the memories of more famous people or have demonstrated how they can be distorted, in one case even deliberately.

 

Going back a couple of months, one of my very favourite documentaries of this year has to be John Bridcut’s Janet Baker: in her own words (BBC4) a wonderful and poignant portrait of one of this country’s greatest ever singers. Baker retired (suddenly) 30 years ago and is now 85 but comes across as incredibly lucid and eloquent as she looks directly into Bridcut’s camera and recalls her glory days. She is, of course, aided by a tremendous catalogue of recordings, both sound and vision. Her core repertoire, as well as the details of her life (she has been caring for her disabled husband for many years) makes theUnknown-3 overall impression very emotional and wistful. Bridcut has a tremendous capacity for filming people simply listening to music which speaks volumes without a word being uttered (he did much the same in his documentary on Herbert von Karajan a few years back). This is a documentary which speaks to me as directly as the Up series – I have most of the Baker recordings featured on my shelves and my years of discovering classical music coincided with Baker at her peak. It is one most definitely for the shortlist.

 

The five-part Thatcher: A Very British Revolution (BBC2), on the other hand, was a recent history told at a distance but by people with their own place in it to cement. Mind you, as John Nott pointed out at the start, not many of Thatcher’s first cabinet are left. There were three main witnesses, interviewed at length: Norman Tebbit, Bernard Ingham and Michael Heseltine (John Major was strangely absent) and, although they all had interesting stories to tell, they also all had their own spin to apply to them. There were some obvious parallels for today, especially with a Tory leadership campaign going on and Europe still dividing the party. Ingham’s incredulous “who would want to lead a Unknown-4Tory government?” was a highlight. There was also some great archival material, including Norman Tebbit’s rescue from the Brighton bomb which was broadcast live on BBC Breakfast Time and has, for a long time, remained un-repeated at his request. I remember watching it at the time and thinking what a striking piece of television it was – the stricken Tebbit, covered in dust and wearing only barely in-place pyjama bottoms, being slowly lowered from the rubble by many hands – a scene resembling Renaissance depictions of Christ’s descent from the cross. The series contained a number of such resonant sequences but, as a whole, contained very little which we didn’t know or which had not been covered in previous series.

 

Even further along the scale, Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Netflix) is deliberately fictionalised documentary making, maybe recognising that attempting to present any sort of “truth” about this subject matter was both impossibleUnknown-5 and probably less fun. Dylan himself is certainly in on the joke and it may well have been his idea. But what the hell, it captures a time and a mood and gives us some fantastic concert footage. It is often said in relation to drama documentaries that they aim to present a “higher truth” when they do not necessarily stick to verifiable facts, and I guess that also applies when what is ostensibly a documentary contains “mockumentary” elements. Whatever, I certainly enjoyed it, but I don’t think it is in the same league as the same director’s No Direction Home (PBS, 2005)

 

Much more recent history was presented in Olly Lambert’s One Day in Gaza (BBC2) transmitted exactly one year after the events it depicts (except in America, where the usually estimable PBS series Frontline shamefully pulled it just before transmission and has yet to re-schedule it). This is a case where there is plenty of evidential footage but also many different “truths” about what happened. Lambert’s doc was very well constructed, with just the right balance of actuality and context. Some of that actuality was remarkably vivid and the drone footage gave it an epic feel. The slow reveals in the interviews (the mother clutching her dead son’s vest, the activist who had lost a leg) personalised the individual experiences of a chaotic situation. Olly Lambert has made a number of films in and about Gaza and obviously has good contacts and made great choices. As for its value as a piece of history, only time will tell, but for the present it is one of the best windows on the Israel/Palestine situation and a must for my shortlist.

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And that shortlist is growing long. It’s been a wonderful year so far. Next time I will update the list for my usual halfway report.

If You Didn’t Laugh…….

 

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Following on from my previous blog on sitcoms, and with particular attention to the issue I am constantly returning to – the emergence and growing primacy of the half-hour dramatic comedy form – two more recent examples are currently lighting up Monday and Tuesday nights on BBC1 and 2 with some of the darkest comedy we have yet seen. I say “dramatic comedy” because I think that is probably the best descriptor for the genre. The BBC announcer recently described one of the two new titles as “comedy-drama”, but that is not a particularly new idea – it is a term which has previously been applied mainly to programmes with a dramatic form and comedic elements, such as Cold Feet (ITV). The newer developments are essentially comedy forms (sitcom) with serious subjects and narrative progression. “Form” here is mainly a question of length – with hour-long or 50-minute episodes being associated with things that are primarily drama, and half-hour/25 minutes for comedy. But in the age of binging and streaming that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) really matter anymore; series creators can now set out to make half-hour episodes without foregrounding either the drama or comedy elements. The only time the genre descriptor matters is when it comes to awards, which are important for recognition: some great acting performances either get lost or are submitted for comedy awards (such as Leslie Manville in Mum), while some shows, like Inside No9, seem to get overlooked because they fall between so many stools.

 

So, to the two new shows I want to consider. As well as both being on the dark side and both being made immediately available in full on the BBC i-player, they have a number of other things in common. Both have been created and co-written by somebody previously known only for their acting, most recently in sitcoms.  Both feature fine ensemble casts of quietly desperate characters. Both are set in fading English seaside towns.

 

Toby Jones’ Don’t Forget the Driver (BBC2, Tuesdays) seems at times like an attempt at a “state of the nation” comedy (particularly in the context of Brexit), but in its quieter, imagesmore character-driven moments, is reminiscent of Detectorists, on which Jones, previously better known for his dramatic roles, cut his sitcom teeth. Jones’ main character, Pete, is a similar ineffectual but decent everyman and, again, is living with a daughter from a failed marriage. He works as a coach driver in Bognor Regis, a town I am very familiar with from childhood holidays and one which, probably because of its “funny” name and association with the phrase “bugger Bognor”, referenced here, has often featured in sitcoms – it was the Steptoes’ regular holiday destination. I say “main” character, because Jones also plays Pete’s twin brother Barry, who has emigrated to Australia and is seen via skype, but returns to Bognor as the series progresses. While the taciturn Pete carries most of the bleak plotlines, Jones indulges himself in some knockabout comedy, too, through the character of Barry.

 

The dark elements are foregrounded from the opening scene, when Pete finds the dead body of a would-be immigrant washed up on Bognor beach (in a Bergmanesque dream sequence later on, he turns the body over to find it has his face). The immigration issue takes centre stage when Pete unwittingly brings Rita, an Eritrean girl, back from a trip to France, hidden in his coach, then rescues and hides her from the people traffickers who are waiting to pick her up. But, yes, this is a comedy.

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The cast of characters and the situations they are placed in do seem to have been created to represent facets of contemporary Britain and sometimes the “little England” symbolism gets a bit heavy-handed, quite literally so in the episode in which Pete takes a group to visit a model village. However, the direction, by the excellent Tim Kirkby, is very subtle and the way the narrative is often advanced wordlessly is impressive. The fact Unknown-2that Rita’s story is happily resolved in the final episode and the main characters return to their ongoing lives, including Pete and Barry’s mother Joy (Marcia Warren) battling with dementia, daughter Kayla (Erin Kellyman) attempting to leave home and rejoin her mother in Birmingham and roadside burger-bar owner Fran (Claire Rushbrook) trying to get Pete’s affection, indicates that we will probably be set for a second season, which would be very welcome.

 

If Toby Jones had been taking notes and gaining inspiration during the making of Detectorists, then Daisy Haggard must have spent most of her time on Episodes, during which she was given faces to pull rather than lines to learn, actually creating Back to Life (BBC1, Mondays), which she has co-written with Laura Solon. This is an even darker piece, in which Haggard plays Miri, released from prison after serving 18 years for a brutal murder and resuming her life with her parents in their middle-class home inUnknown-1 Hythe, on the Kent coast. So far, so Rectify, except there is no doubt about Miri’s guilt, though there are some mysterious mitigating circumstances about the murder which emerge slowly as the series progresses (and I haven’t watched it all yet, so there may be revelations to come). And, yes, this too is a comedy, though a highly dramatic one and packed with a fine cast – Geraldine James particularly outstanding as Miri’s wayward mother and Adeel Akhtar as Miri’s neighbour, trying to cope with caring for an unstable and foul-tongued aunt.

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Haggard plays Miri as a relatively “normal” and well-adjusted person, trying to reconnect with life, get a job and survive the hostility she receives. There is little indication (at least not yet) of any psychological effects on her of her crime or of her years in prison. Indeed, it is the characters who surround her who seem the most damaged and in need of help, which she is happy to provide. The series is very well written and performed and provides constant moments of shock and surprise, but not that many laughs, though when the laugh lines do appear, they certainly hit home.

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The half-hour form has provided most of the best TV of the year so far, and we still have the final season of Mum to come. Back to Life took over Fleabag’s slot and, while it can’t quite compare to that masterpiece, it certainly hasn’t failed to make an impact. Of the two series I have discussed here, it is the one most likely to make my shortlist for the year’s best, though I will wait until I have seen it all to decide. In the meantime, I am expecting this year’s “dramatic improvement” to arrive imminently. Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl has made a very strong start and there are new series from Russell T. Davies and Shane Meadows looming on the near horizon. Happy days.

 

 

TV Top Tens: No.1- British Sitcoms

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I’ve always intended to start blogging lists of my top titles in various genres, which will be a useful thing to return to in quieter periods, and I am inspired to start now by the list of Top 20 British Sitcoms in the current issue of Radio Times.  I enjoy lists and, much as with awards, usually manage to find something to annoy or even enrage me in them. Of course, it’s all opinion (especially when it comes to comedy!) and I would hope my own lists may cause rage in others – that’s part of the fun. The latest Radio Times list is actually pretty good overall and the reason for that is not hard to find: the list of 42 practitioners who voted on it contains many estimable names, including the likes of UnknownClement and La Frenais, Linehan and Matthews, and Barry Cryer. However, there is a glaring omission – even these luminaries have somehow managed to produce a top twenty sitcoms list containing nothing by the generally acknowledged masters of the genre – Galton and Simpson. This is not just an oversight – this is mind-bogglingly wrong.

 

The Radio Times list has some other faults, too – there is nothing earlier than 1968, when Dad’s Army started, so nothing made only in black and white – even Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is specifically included without its monochrome predecessor, The Likely Lads. It’s usually the case that things which get regularly repeated stand a better chance of inclusion and the original Likely Lads is not only not in colour – much of it is missing. The biggest problem I find with so many lists is the lack of historical perspective – the most recent material usually predominates and, looking back on the roster of contributors to the Radio Times list, it is clear that those who would remember the earliest material are in a small minority.

 

There is one thing I need to get clear before setting out my own list and that is to define the parameters of the genre under consideration. In his inaugural 2017 Ronnie Barker imagesComedy Lecture, Ben Elton made the case for the traditional sitcom, recorded in a television studio in front of a live audience, and argued that it is a classic genre which is nowadays looked down upon by devotees of newer forms of comedy, made on location without a laughter track. Now, I am probably one of those Elton is thinking about – most of my favourite TV of the past two decades (both British and American) has been half-hour shows which are ostensibly comedy, but which have a serious edge (sometimes a very serious edge). Some of them are made primarily for laughs, but some are not – some are closer to drama than comedy (and never mind the duration). Another thing that sets them apart is narrative development across episodes, whereas a traditional sitcom usually has self-contained episodes which could be shown in any order. There could certainly be a separate list of half-hour comedy-dramas, but it would contain mostly recent material. Perhaps that is one for the future, or perhaps some of the titles may belong on drama lists, but for the present I am going to include both traditional studio and modern single-camera sitcoms on my list, as did the Radio Times, because I can’t think of any better way to do it.

 

One more consideration before I start – I am not including any titles which are currently still being made, though I may mention them, and some of the titles included here may yet return. Lists are always for future revision.

 

So, my top ten is:

 

  1. Steptoe & Son (BBC, 1962-65, 1970-74)

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Galton and Simpson’s masterpiece – a traditionally made studio sitcom which broke with tradition by casting straight actors in the lead roles and included moments of heartbreaking pathos amongst the laughs. These were real characters with real hopes and disappointments and, when it got serious, you could sense the audience’s uncomfortable reaction, which, of course, released itself in an even bigger guffaw when the laugh line eventually arrived. Four seasons were made between 1962 and 1965, then a further four from 1970 to 1974, when it returned in colour. I was proud to have played my part in recovering a dozen or so missing episodes in the nineties – Ray and Alan knew their worth and had kept them on an early and obsolete home video format.

 

  1. Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975, 1979)

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Often a poll-topper (not only the Radio Times one, but the BFI’s TV100 in 2000) and for good reason: the highest laugh quotient of any sitcom ever; terrific characters, not all of them particularly empathetic, but all very human; brilliantly constructed plots; memorable quotes – “duck’s off”. It was traditionally made but its impact was revolutionary.

 

  1. The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2012)

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The key title in the transition from the “traditional” to the “modern” sitcom, thanks to the vision of Caroline Aherne: filmed mostly on a single set, but without an audience, it’s stately pace and minimalist narrative contained a wealth of insight, character, warmth and unspoken humour. Laughter track my arse!

 

  1. Getting On (BBC, 2009-12)

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Certainly one which falls into the category of laughs not being the primary concern, nevertheless there were plenty of them and they hit home. With brilliant characters created and written by the three actresses performing them, and sensitive direction (in the first two series) by Peter Capaldi it literally laughed in the face of death. The final episode said more about life and death than almost anything else I can think of in any genre. The idea was so strong that the American version (made by HBO) was also excellent and Jo Brand has gone on to create more memorable work in a similar vein, Damned (Channel 4) being particularly outstanding amongst current sitcoms.

 

  1. Him and Her (BBC, 2010-13)

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Another minimalist piece, this time not just restricted to a single set, but each episode shot in real time, allowing us to take in the acutely observed characteristics of the sympathetic, though lethargic, central pair and their relatives and friends, who range from the inept to the hateful. When the “action” moves outside the bedsit for the climactic wedding specials, it is apocalyptic. Writer Stefan Golaszewski has since repeated the trick with the beautiful Mum, the resolution of which is eagerly anticipated.

 

  1. The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC, 1964-66, 1973-74)

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Another sixties sitcom which was revived in the early seventies for colour TV, this could not simply replicate the previous format (as Steptoe did) but had to acknowledge that the lead actors had aged, thus introducing a narrative progression which became the series’ key strength. It became about the passage of time, about nostalgia and life progression and about social change in the north of England. It was also brilliantly funny (Clement and La Frenais) and perfectly performed by James Bolam and Rodney Bewes.

 

  1. The Office (BBC, 2001-3)

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Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant not only dispensed with a laughter track, they made a sitcom in the style of an observational documentary, which was a stroke of genius, but an extremely difficult thing to sustain convincingly as the plot became more complex. They pulled it off totally and their inspiration was responsible for so many iconic comedy moments.

 

  1. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79)

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A trailblazing narrative sitcom in three distinct seasons, linked by memorable characters, all with their own catchphrases, and with Leonard Rossiter’s towering performance at the centre. The repetitive nature of the dialogue (“17 minutes late…”; ”I didn’t get where I am today,,,”; “cock up on the….front”; “I’m not a…..person” etc), creates an oppressive but secure world which simply cannot be escaped.

 

  1. Blackadder (BBC, 1983-89)

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Following Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder and his familiar associates down through the centuries was a joy and the format allowed for constant renewal. Much of the humour came from anachronism, a very special trick which Ben Elton continues to show himself the master of in Upstart Crow (BBC), the best thing he has done since Blackadder.  Difficult to choose a favourite season, but if pushed I would probably go for Blackadder the Third.

 

  1. The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2017)

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Of all my choices, this is the one I think is most arguably not a sitcom – you could say that, with three performers taking all the parts, it is more a series of sketches linked by a fictional location, though with narrative continuity for each set of characters. But, having included it, a top 10 spot was assured. Its triumphant return at Christmas 2017 was testament to the strength of the format and the characters created for it.

 

I intended my lists to be top tens, but the Radio Times sitcom list is a top 20 and, for purposes of comparison, if I were to continue in the same vein, these would be my next ten choices:

 

  1. I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002)
  2. Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98)
  3. Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75, ITV, 1981)
  4. House of Fools (BBC, 2014-15)
  5. Hancock’s Half Hour/Hancock (BBC, 1956-61)
  6. Red Dwarf (BBC, 1988-99, Dave 2009-17)
  7. The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-12)
  8. Peep Show (Channel 4, 2003-15)
  9. Detectorists (BBC, 2014-17)
  10. Fleabag (BBC, 2016-19)

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Some of these choices require little further justification, but others demand comment: it is hard to overestimate the importance of Till Death in its sixties heyday – the searing impact of the writing and performances – but unfortunately the inevitable focus on its treatment of race makes it difficult to assess in a modern context; in House of Fools, Vic and Bob were not only conquering yet another genre, having produced their own surreal versions of the variety show, the sketch show and the comedy quiz show, but, by using the traditional sitcom model (70s style), subverting it still further; Detectorists drew you in with its relaxed pace, but the shows just flew by – on so many occasions I was astonished to find it finishing when I thought I had only been watching for ten minutes or so (great direction by Mackenzie Crook) – and I’m really enjoying Toby Jones’ own creation, Don’t Forget the Driver, on BBC2 at the moment; and Fleabag has only just finished, though we are assured it is over, so it qualifies for inclusion and I have put it at 20 simply because it feels too soon to proclaim it an instant classic to rank alongside the others here – ask me again in a year’s time and I expect it to be in my top ten.

 

Last thoughts: having made such a fuss about the difference between “traditional” and “modern” sitcoms, I have (not deliberately) managed to come up with a list of 20 which contains 10 of each, evenly spread through the list. I’ve also included 11 of the 20 titles chosen by the Radio Times panel and regret not finding room for The Young Ones (and I suspect One Foot in the Grave is hovering just outside the 20 in both cases). So, I guess I must be reasonably in line with the consensus, but I’m sure there are plenty of things about my list which will make somebody angry – I do hope so!

 

Again!, Again!, Again!

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No programme-maker is more in touch with the wonder and the rhythms of infancy, nor is better able to express that wonder and those rhythms in audio-visual terms than Andrew Davenport. As a constant viewer of CBeebies with my daughter Hanna (as I have explained previously), I have been fortunate to have been immersed in his world and to have appreciated just what a brilliant and innovative contribution to the genre of images-2preschool television he has given us with the three shows he has created over the past two decades, the latest of which arrived in February. But he is not only the creator – he produces, writes and composes the music for each episode.

 

There is no doubt that his greatest impact was with Teletubbies (BBC2, CBeebies, 1997-), which changed the landscape of what was possible in a programme for very young children. There was plenty of controversy about it: the limited language which mimicked that of very young children perfectly, but was criticised for normalising it at a time when the main function of such programmes was meant to be education and progression; the generally surreal setting and atmosphere which led some to wonder whether the makers were on drugs and attracted a cult images-2student audience; even Tinky Winky’s sexuality! But its main and greatest innovation was repetition. This applied not only to the filmed stories of different children’s lives which appeared on the Teletubbies’ stomach monitors and which they immediately demanded to be repeated in full, but to segments of the show itself – dances, adventures, domestic life in the Teletubby house, which could be shuffled around to comprise parts of different editions.

 

Teletubbies starts with a sunrise and ends with a sunset, so each episode takes place over the course of a day, but Davenport’s next creation, In the Night Garden (CBeebies, 2007-) begins with a small child (a different one for each episode) in bed and being coaxed to sleep with a story, so it can best be interpreted as a dream (as the title suggests). It is a very beautiful and comforting beginning, which is probably more emotionally resonant for any watching adults than children. Once the dream world of the night garden has been reached, the stars in the sleepy night sky having bust into the flowers of the bright garden, familiar characters arrive and have various adventures, all of them once again interchangeable from episode to episode.

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Where Teletubbies was hallucinatory and surreal, In the Night Garden seems to be exploring the world of the early subconscious, and Davenport has taken this further with his new series, Moon and Me (CBeebies, 2019-). Again it starts with a child preparing for bed, this time by closing down the dolls’ house she has been playing with and putting her toys to bed, but now it is the same little girl every time and the similarity of their hairstyles indicates that her favourite toy, Pepi Nana, is her surrogate once she has gone to sleep and the toys have come to life. So, it can again be interpreted as her dream, though the Storyland sections indicate that it may also be a bedtime story. CBeebies’ scheduling of the series at 5.45 backs this up, though In the Night Garden retains its 6.30 bedtime slot.

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The similarities between the characters In Moon and Me and In the Night Garden are also obvious – Pepi Nana is like Upsy Daisy, Collywobble resembles Makka Pakka. My favourite has to be Mr Onion, who constantly says “onions” with a chuckle in his voice. Indeed, all the characters have their own catchphrases, which they repeat ad nauseam, though with variations of tone and stress to indicate attitude; Pepi Nana has a multitude of different ways of saying “tiddle toddle”. Mind you, having spent the last weeks (months!) listening to the same politicians saying precisely the same things about Brexit over and over again, day after day, this is clearly not confined to the world of pre-school television.

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One striking difference between Moon and Me and Davenport’s two previous series is the use of colour; muted pastel shades replacing bright primary colours, even in the pastoral Storyland, which has echoes of both Teletubbyland and the Night Garden. Davenport’s music is again a major factor, in fact even more so this time as it is integrated by having the characters play their own instruments: Moon Baby’s hand harp is key. The narration is consequently less important than in the Night Garden, where Sir Derek Jacobi’s actorly tones are so perfect for the nonsense rhymes he is asked to recite:

 

Ombliboo, Tombiboo, knock on the door.

Ombiiboo Tombliboo, sit on the floor.

Ombliboo, Tombliboo, here is my nose.

Ombliboo, Tombliboo, that’s how it goes.

The characters in Moon and Me are animated to move the way they would if a child was playing with them; just watch the way Little Nana moves up and down as though being picked up and placed down. There is no tea in the teapot or cups, but they are moved just as if a playing child were moving them. Davenport did a lot of research on play patterns imagesto get this right. When Pepi Nana comes downstairs, or crosses a bridge, you see her do it in real time, or, through clever editing including the beginning and end of the journey, the complete process of the action is conveyed so that it seems it has been shown in full. This is a style associated with the great French director Robert Bresson, and Davenport also uses close ups of characters’ hands or feet in a similar way to Bresson. (Is that comparison worthy of Pseud’s Corner or what?) The overall effect is a feeling of immersion – the sort you get from listening to minimalist music or watching a piece of “slow TV” like The Canal Journey. It is very relaxing and reassuring.

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I hope this may inspire you to watch the odd episode or two of Moon and Me, even if you don’t have a pre-schooler to watch it with. It would be twenty minutes of your time well spent on the BBC i-Player. Both Moon and Me and In the Night Garden work for adults who may like occasionally to regress to the world of infancy, not as any sort of perversion, but as a relaxing break from the ugliness of so much everyday public discourse.

 

Tiddle toddle! Poop poop!

 

Onions.

 

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