Saturday, 28 May 2011

Amateur dramatics.

Maybe I'm taking this blogging thing too seriously. I'm regularly reminded of this whenever I'm sat watching trash for the purposes of 'research'. Why? So I can be smug and superior knowing that ultimately something more will come out of it than mindless entertainment?

God, I hate myself.

I watched Made in Chelsea tonight and it's created a melancholy in me that has irreparably changed the way I view a lot of things. In fact, I underestimated it. I was foolish. I'd read the synopsis about spoiled brats galloping around Knightsbridge, as they do; I anticipated a predictable annoyance towards it in the same way that one might be infuriated by seeing the privileged. Those mixed feelings of jealousy and anger at their obnoxious ignorance are just a part of life. Well, for me anyway.

That's not what disturbed me. In the few months I've shyed away from TV in its most traditional sense, there's been a wave for a type of programme that I'm yet to understand. I was unfortunate enough to catch an episode of Pineapple Dance Studios a year or so ago, and found it difficult to fathom how and why they blurred the line between fiction and reality in such an audacious way. Ridiculous as it sounds, it felt dishonest to me to switch between scripted nonsense and engineered 'reality' without so much as a clue as to which is which.

Not that the viewers care, obviously, because in the meantime, along comes The Only Way is Essex and suddenly 'reality soap' is an established genre that people want in quantity. ITV2 and E4 have never had it so good.

But why do they want it? What purpose does this bastard chimera fulfil? It's scripted 'reality', which from what I have seen, is a drama with uncompromisingly appalling acting. It doesn't bring anything to the table, the performers don't have the ability to entertain, but there's nothing to learn because there's nothing real about it, except a faint reference to it MAYBE having some reality element to it. But if there is, none of us have any fucking idea where and how much, and trying to guess is pointless.

I've risked coming across as extremely naive. I'm painfully aware of how unreal any form of reality TV is. However, the audacity of the producers in willfully admitting the half-arsed nature of the show as part of its innovative appeal antagonises me. Is this what 'clever' TV is now? Compounding words together and creating shows based on how catchy it sounds? Dramality? Realisoap? Where will it end?
I'm no closer to conclusion now than when I started writing this. I was hoping this would act as a form of catharsis, that organising my thoughts would help me to understand the subject I'm grappling with here. But no, I'm still feeling utterly confused. I can't understand the appeal of this show, to anyone. I feel ambivalent and simultaneously embarrassed by the whole thing. The only saving grace is that I genuinely do not know what I watched during those ill-fated 15 minutes, which I think is clear by the lack of coherency within this article.

Maybe I should take that as a compliment.

Sunday, 15 May 2011


Eurovision is over for another year, and I feel better in the knowledge that alongside the silly campness of it all, some important lessons of geography and tolerance have been delivered to people that normally would not invite it. I anticipate, for example, a swell of Google searches for Azerbaijan and its location. In case you didn't know, north of Iran, west of the Caspian Sea. It's nice to know television can still do that, almost like a trojan horse of education for the unwilling, if you like.

However, unfortunately, there's only so much one massive international singing competition can do, and this is uncomfortably clear when looking at publications such as the Mail, for example.

Thinking about that for a second, it must be a challenge for their writers every year to set the tone for any Eurovision-related articles. The very length of the tradition has rendered it a 'British institution', and involvement of national heroes such as Terry Wogan have only strengthened its position. However, the engagement with other cultures is an unavoidable side-effect, and it must leave the Mail with an unfortunate conflict of interest.

The reaction to Azerbaijan's win was an interesting one. The initial observation that that Azerbaijan sounds a bit 'too foreign' for Eurovision, was inevitable. Before long, the initial curiosity led to the use of maps, maps in the wrong hands, which is a dangerous thing indeed.

Tedious explanations surrounding the intricacies of the EBU/UER aside, Stephen's observation is typical of the majority of opinions on the Mail's comments boards. There's an understandable confusion surrounding the difference between the EBU and 'Europe', but is it really the technicalities of Eurovision's rules that are getting middle England's knickers in a twist?

We're one of those countries that still uses Eurovision to show why we're superior to the silliness. France take a similar approach; in the knowledge that they're not a popular choice, they submit choosy operatic pieces, or, in the case of 2008, a Barry Gibb look-a-like in a golf buggy performing an Air-esque piece with an inflatable globe. They master the art of snubbing the competition they're taking part in, meaning they avoid the inevitable failure reflecting on them when they languish at the bottom of the board.

The UK's approach, follows in a similar, if less sophisticated vein. The submission of an established and ageing boy band is just the latest in a line of increasingly desperate efforts to win the competition without fully engaging with the culture. We do pop, but 'cooler', and those Euro-squares just don't get it, do they? Looking through the past few years' entries, it's been a succession of ex-reality show contestants singing instantly forgettable 'serious' pop songs. No wonder we can't win, every act has the feel of a child ashamed of its family, half-heartedly engaging against their will.

It strikes a chord with our whole approach to Europe in general really. Are we in it or not? Maybe technically, but there's still an emotional detachment there that stops the full involvement taking place. Since Terry Wogan left, there's been a noticeable change in the overall approach of the commentary too. The nostalgia and fondness has been replaced by an unkind and snippy sense of superiority that turns gentle cajoling into something more sinister and intolerant.

The same could be said of the reaction to the not-so-recent involvement of non-EU states. "What? Azerbaijan? THEY'RE NOT EVEN IN EUROPE!!!" It's an effective way to voice intolerance without the risk of being branded a racist, I suppose, since it's all within the safe confines of a singing competition. It's confusing really, a competition we don't really want to be a part of, if our past efforts are to be believed, although if we don't win we brand it 'political voting', and similarly get narky when 'foreigners' get involved.

This all sounds a bit too much like real life for me.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Something wicked this way comes.

I know I'm not the only one awaiting Psychoville's return to the BBC with baited breath, but I also feel extremely aware that it's been a long time since I had this feeling. You know, those butterflies you get when you see a trailer for a TV comedy you know is going to be good. Something you can safely invest the time in.

Some of the best new comedies take me by surprise. The Trip, for example, I was aware of mere days before it aired, and I was truly thankful that I didn't miss out. Roger and Val Have Just Got In, too, I just caught on the off-chance due to its clever, but still odd broadcast time of early evening. I mean, I love the continuity and real time element, but I can't be the only person who writes off that part of the day as the domain of dull 'lifestyle shows' and programmes about animal cruelty.

Nevertheless, it feels like whilst there's truly some good stuff still out there, I feel like there's something happening in the way things are getting commissioned. And not something positive. Whilst the BBC for its part is holding its own, it is not entirely immune. In fact, the main source of the trouble seems to be Channel Four. As we enter the years where we're desperately awaiting someone to take the baton and write some comedy the likes of which we were spoiled with in the nineties and early noughties, the broadcasters are losing their way trying to identify with what people want to see. In short, you can still have the odd bit of magnificence like The Thick of It, there's also an increasing number of shockingly bad examples of comedy forced down our throats as 'the next big thing' as the broadcasters try to fill the increasing number of gaps in their schedules. No evolution, just repeated revolution.

It feels like sometime about five years ago, somebody decided that funny wouldn't register unless it was needlessly controversial. Probably around the time Frankie Boyle began to gain popularity on Mock the Week, coincidentally. I've always furtively disliked the show for the very reason that it's relies on a concept with so woefully little substance. A group of mediocre comics poked with a stick and forced to be funny under the glare of spotlights. A poor man's Shooting Stars, if you will. 'Freestyle comedy' beset by rules and 'format' that instantly prevent it from existing.

It was around that point, I feel, that someone, somewhere inexplicably decided that this is what the public wanted. Or rather, a small section of the public. The ones who thought the joke about the Queen's haunted pussy was funny. Which, in all probability, is noone. Laughing at inappropriate social behaviour, after all is little more than an automatic response. Like insignificant electrical impulses and twitches after death. It doesn't mean it's particularly welcome or enjoyable. So as Frankie Boyle found his infamy through courting the tabloids, he started to cement his place as 'something for the young'uns'. Fast forward a couple of years and the resulting product is Tramadol Nights, the most appalling excuse for a sketch show I have ever had the misfortune to watch.

And what are we meant to do? Clap and applaud? Comedy may be controversial at times, but that should be a by-product, not the main purpose. At the very least, it should have a reason for being there. The worrying thing about Tramadol Nights is not that it's insulting to its audience (if there is one). It's that someone thought we'd like it. I don't think I'd be going out on a limb to say that someone followed the train of thought that Channel Four needed to maintain its relevancy with a younger audience when considering this as a pitch. And as one of the people they were looking to court with this idea, I won't be the first to say that it didn't resound with me. At the very least, it's comedy at its most patronising. That simply to say something offensive without reasoning or context will be funny to anyone is a fundamentally flawed strategy.

I would be more prone to let this whole business go if I wasn't convinced that Tramadol Nights wasn't Channel Four's 'next big thing'. After all, is there anything else in the pipeline? It doesn't feel that way. Maybe this is why I still feel raw about something that finished in December 2010. Because it's one of the last things I remember coming out of Channel Four that was meant to make us laugh. As if they really considered it a springboard for a new decade of entertainment.

I feel a similar, if less acute sentiment towards Ten O'Clock Live when seeing the manner of execution there. Whilst it still has the veneer of a current affairs show, the inexplicable inclusion of Jimmy Carr suggests to me a point towards controversy over substance. Are we meant to be amused as Carr breaks character repeatedly, proving his inability to handle live television broadcasting? I tired of it during the Alternative Election Night. It all smacks of badly-planned TV given to 'the kids' in the hope it'll float for its kitsch value.

There are lessons to be learned here, but surprisingly, I don't think the viewing figures of half a million by the last episode of Tramadol Nights will deter Channel 4 from commissioning things like this for the future. We'll just have to settle for series 56 of Peep Show, I suppose.

Monday, 2 May 2011

A place to think.

Oh BBC Four, how I love you. I can leave you on over the course of a weekend evening and whilst I may at first be wary of what you want to show me, I know I'll feel all the better for it afterwards.

In the case of this weekend it was Spiral, followed by a Top of the Pops from 1976, and then a documentary about something that escapes me, but something good nonetheless.

But as the tendency to find the glass half-empty tends to prevail when following these trains of thought, I couldn't help but think to myself why a schedule as varied and high quality as this was banished to BBC Four like the wayward pretentious cousin who needs to be kept separate from the rest of the family. Admittedly, Dave Lee Travis portraying a post-Smarties binge Bill Oddie won't be to everyone's taste, but isn't that half the fun?

Looking at BBC 1 and 2's plan for the next couple of months seems like a who's who of 'safe gritty drama' to ensure they look like they're still on the cutting edge, but I couldn't help but feel distinctly underwhelmed.

"But look! John Simm, Jim Broadbent AND Alzheimer's! And if that wasn't enough, we've got another thing, with David Tennant no less!" It's starting to feel like saying you would like to see something other than the aforementioned usual suspects is tantamount to blasphemy against the BBC and all it stands for. But in reality, it's a relatively easy way for them to keep piloting new dramas without the hassle of 'risk'.

It would be wrong to be overly pessimistic and treat this as a threat, when in fact BBC Four has presented a golden opportunity as a testing ground for more 'niche' programming, (if that's even the appropriate phrase to use). Surely now the time has come to start trusting instincts?

There's the argument that with the rise of Freeview, that the vast majority of viewers now have access to BBC Four. But when taking into account viewing habits, there will always be that tendency to stick with the terrestrial two channels, because of the (not unreasonable) assumption that the variety and quality will be there if anywhere. Therefore the problem arises when it becomes more and more clear that that's not really the case.

There are a large number of series which have been aired on BBC Four, only moving over to One and Two long after their initial success, if at all. It took two series of The Thick of It before they moved it over, madness considering its instant popularity and the reputation of Armando Iannucci at the helm. Five years of Screenwipe and latterly Newswipe, and still no move in sight, aside from the odd repeat on BBC2, which in itself is a pretty backward way of doing things. BBC2 getting BBC4's sloppy seconds? Sad but true.

And to think in 2005 Jerry Springer: The Opera aired on BBC2 despite 55,000 complaints and a street protest. I can't imagine that happening now, only six years later. Did they get their fingers burned for showing the determination to broadcast something that caused such polarised opinion?

My main concern is that as programmes such as The Apprentice rear their head once more, I'm reminded that this year doesn't feel much different to last year, and the year before, etc. All we have to look forward to is a couple of reality shows, a handful of costume dramas, something Northern, something borrowed, and Doctor Who.

BBC Four's (wisely) dropped tagline was 'Everyone needs a place to think'. I agree with the sentiment. But not all of us know where to look.

Sunday, 1 May 2011


Far be it from me to be the ghost at the feast, but I've felt the warm praise for the new series of Doctor Who wash over me, leaving only a damp, lukewarm feeling that something's missing.

Don't get me wrong. I've watched the first two episodes and thoroughly enjoyed them. They're well-written, engaging and entertaining, a triple-whammy of fun for all the family. I was similarly pleased to hear how well it's being received worldwide, with Americans in particular clamouring for DVDs, merchandise and the like. After all, Britain is well-known for a standard of entertainment that invokes jealousy in other television organisations, isn't it?

Well, I'm not so sure any more. It feels like the success of each series only goes to mask the growing feeling that there's not a lot else there. Maybe I've not watched enough TV recently, but it feels like we're increasingly relying on the output of other countries to entertain us. Particularly when it comes to comedy and drama, two things of which critical acclaim used to be an expectation, rather than a bonus.

To pre-empt the 'what about...' argument, I feel it needs to be said at this point that for every Sherlock, there's half a dozen Spirals, or Wallanders. And before we go any further, what happened when we tried to rehash the Swedish detective series, even with a talent like Kenneth Brannagh and the golden touch of BBC production values? The British public, renowned for avoidance of subtitles, chose the original anyway, which as a result still enjoys repeats on the BBC. An expensive mistake.
I think the thing that I find most troubling is that the decline in frequency of high quality television seems to be going, for the most part, unnoticed. If this had happened ten years ago, there'd be outcry as millions of viewers are suddenly faced with the reality that they're bored. Now, we can just torrent a US drama series or watch something imported from Europe on BBC Four. It's a quick fix but it does the job. If this level of apathy continues, how long will it be until someone gets off their arse to actually make that effort?

It's not like it hasn't happened before. The British film industry hangs in stasis, waiting for the next Danny Boyle release for an injection of cash and public interest. It's one of the worst cases of abandonment yet, and I fear history will begin to repeat itself. Television is stagnating, and we can't hang all our hopes on Stephen Moffat to get us out of the shit.

Peep Show has had an eighth and ninth series commissioned, as Channel Four desperately buy themselves time before the viewers notice they're out of new ideas. Endless formats thrown at the likes of Charlie Brooker (well, more like, the same format over and over again) in the knowledge that it'll be decent enough to pass under the radar. I can imagine the pre-production meetings. A wheel of fortune with formats: Panel Show, YouTube Countdown, Satirical Review and names from an increasingly dwindling pool of talent. And the result, burned out shows from burned out comics with pained looks on their faces as they try to find meaning behind what they're doing. I almost wept when I saw Robert's Web. Even scheduled after Peep Show to catch the stragglers. I bet it felt pretty different to presenting My Life in Verse.
The reality is that nobody's getting any younger, but similarly nobody seems to be rising up to take their place. Casing point: BBC Three. So many dreams and aspirations for it to be the place for young talent to thrive. Apart from endless re-runs of Two Pints and The Real Hustle, two programmes clumsily built on the foundations of their successful predecessors, what is it really for? Something edgy for the younger generation? How patronising.

Depressed yet? Don't worry, it'll be fine. The next episode of Doctor Who is on Saturday. After that, you're on your own.