Famous Dicks

 

Do you want to see something really scary? No, nor do I, really. Telly Addict #19 covers two returns, one new beginning and a one-off event that should be taught in schools and might be the greatest piece of television this year. Hypernormalisation (BBC iPlayer) is documentarian, mash-up artist and soothsayer Adam Curtis’s latest bulletin from the end of days, a two hour, 46 minute iPlayer exclusive!!!! in which, as we who seek the truth have come to expect, an atonal English voice relays simple sentences over found footage and in doing so joining the dots between hugely complex philosophical, sociological and geopolitical concepts.

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The bad guys are essentially the same – capitalism, globalisation, advertising, the West’s failure to understand the middle East, the alienating effects of computers, just computers generally, and Jane Fonda’s conversion from radicalism to aerobics, a sequence of footage and captions which has to be seen to be believed. The soundtrack is gorgeous, including Brian Eno, Nine Inch Nails, Suicide and, I think, a bit of Clint Mansell. Not having to make his films to a prescribed length, thanks to the fluidity of iPlayer, seems to have increased Curtis’s work rate, and that’s good news for anybody who can handle bad news. It’s on iPlayer for ages. Set aside two hours and 46 minutes and do it in one mesmerising sitting. I did.

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Now, a problem. The opening episode of Season Seven of The Walking Dead (Fox), the nastiest single episode of fiction I have seen on television. Not necessarily the scariest, or the bloodiest, although it was scary and bloody (it’s what we came for), but the most sadistic. Villains tend to be sadistic. But Negan, who I appreciate was born in the original comic books and comes to the screen ready armed with his barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat (see also: “GET ME MY AXE!”), takes corporeal form in Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose twinkling eyes and billboard grin make the character all the more repellent as he goes about making his mark on the show’s white-hatted survivors.

I’ve watched The Walking Dead avidly since it began in 2010 and sung its praises loudly. It’s about a zombie apocalypse. It’s tense and explicit, the prospect of evisceration lies behind every tree, and its violence and terror speak truths about the human condition and the instinct to keep calm and carry on in an ever more violent and terrifying world. It’s an icky show, with sound sociological/mythic reasons for that. However, I found Episode One, Season Seven, almost impossible to watch. I actually fast-forwarded through Negan’s first actual act of violence, the one whose victim they made us wait six agonising months to discover (Rick, Glenn, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Rosita, Aaron, Sasha, Abraham, Carl or Eugene); maybe I’m getting too old for this visceral gore. (Caved-in skulls are becoming a commonplace on TV, it seems to me.)

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I blogged about the finale to Season Six here. At that time, I was exercised by general fandom anger at the tease of the cliffhanger, and how it didn’t bother me. Now that I have lived through the hard-won denouement, and forwarded through some of it, I feel as manipulated as some fans did six months ago, when I was sanguine. There is a lot of fiction on TV. More than I can fit into my days. So I’ve taken The Walking Dead off series link. I didn’t see that coming!

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On a different but spookily similar note, I have also taken the second series of Ordinary Lies (BBC Two) off series link after one episode. It’s more of Danny Brocklehurst’s sound, well-observed, workplace-based anthology, this new run set in a sporting goods warehouse in Cardiff with a fresh workforce who have a lie each that is ordinary but becomes extraordinary. I enjoyed the acting in the first episode about paranoia and CCTV, especially the central turn by Con O’Neill, who did some prime face acting. However, Twitter alerted me to the fact that Episode Two featured implied violence towards a cat, maybe even a kitten. I have avoided finding out too much, as images of violence towards animals bother me more than images of violence towards humans, as humans volunteer to be actors, and animals do not, especially cats. Please do not tell me what is implied to happen to this cat. I don’t want to know.

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Safer ground: series 14, or “series N”, of QI (BBC Two), which I admit I take for granted, but would fight to the death to keep on my television, as it celebrates intelligence and silliness and treats those two impostors just the same. This just in: Sandi Toksvig filled the formidable brogues of Stephen Fry with ease, as I guess most of us assumed she would. Dare I suggest that Alan Davies was showing off a bit to impress the new teacher in the first edition?

You have to watch this Telly Addict if only for the context of this classic Pointless Celebrities (BBC One) clip. Trust me.

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Oh, and I wore this mask for Halloween and nobody noticed.

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Unstoppable

 

Telly Addict #18 introduces the first long-sleeved shirt of my tenure at UKTV. In other news: The Missing (BBC One) stopped being missing; Tutankhamun (ITV) crept onto the throne vacated by Victoria, hoping the bereft post-Downton audience wouldn’t mind terribly; Zapped (Dave) zapped onto TV in a three-episode pilot that challenged E4’s Tripped to an ex-Inbetweener-in-a-parallel-GameofThrones-style-universe-off; and HBO filed for Divorce (Sky Atlantic) and hoped the bereft Sex & The City audience could suspend their disbelief that Sarah Jessica Parker is Carrie, 13 years after the series ended. More importantly, there were three bird spots. First, an easy one for armchair ornithologists on the pre-penultimate Bake Off (still BBC One).

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That’s a goldfinch. But what the bloomin’ heck was this?

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I’ll tell you. Having consulted my birding guru Dave Keech from Kettering, I can say with confidence that it’s a Muscovy duck. Native to Mexico and Central and South America, it’s also found in North American and Canada, though not ordinarily in Newbury in Berkshire. However, it is a domestic or feral bird and can live anywhere, anytime, like the Mandarin or Egyptian Goose. I shall miss this aspect of the condemned Bake Off more than all the others. Well, as much as all the others. But guess what? First Dates are trying to get in on the ornithological act. Again, an easy one to start, but encouraging nonetheless.

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One big drama, one comedy, and one comedy drama. First, The Missing, which has work to do after what I felt to be a misfire from clearly talented writing bros Jack and Harry Williams – namely, Gothic drawing-room whodunit One Of Us. Well, one episode in, and The Missing II (now an anthology with only the French detective and overcast Euro-gloom to link the two series) seems to firing on as many cylinders as it has timeframes. Oh, and it has two of my favourite actors on TV in the parent roles.

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Both are superb as the mum and dad of a girl who went missing 11 years ago and came back. I thought Tom Shankland’s direction in the first series was tremendous – atmospheric, cleverly lit and strangely beautiful – but Ben Chanan has picked up the baton with equal empathy for the wide open spaces and the expressions on people’s faces. It’s downbeat, glum stuff, but compelling. I just hope the bros have enough story for all eight episodes this time.

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We’re back on more prosaic, indeed factual, ground with Tutanhkamun, substituting for Victoria on ITV, whose outcomes we also know from the history books. Max Irons gives good buccaneering bang for our buck as Howard Carter, sticking a pick axe into ancient burial grounds in search of treasure like he owns Egypt, which of course, colonially, he sort of did. It’s somewhere between Indian Summers and one of the hot-country Poirots – not a bad axis to be on. It’s a ripping yarn that I think I shall feast upon as the darkness rolls in.

Divorce is just that: the story of a separation in photogenically chilly upstate New York. Created by Sharon Horgan, whose vituperative dialogue, sourer than the cut-and-thrust in Catastrophe – perhaps due to the lack of softening influence from Rob Delaney – feels right at home in the mouths of middle-class Americans, it’s hard to warm to, in that the characters in it sort of deserve each other, but I feel I should keep watching, as I like the idea of Sex & The City gone sour, and Talia Balsam is in it.

tauktv17zapZapped is a three-part taster of what will surely become a full-blown series, made by Baby Cow and directed by Dave Lambert, the in-house bundle of energy who directed the last thing I had on telly: the short film Colin, which I co-wrote with Simon Day and appeared under the umbrella Common Ground on Sky Atlantic. This is essentially a traditional sitcom about a character who’s trapped, except it’s in a Game of Thrones netherworld. I love the cast – James Buckley as the man who fell from earth, and Sharon Rooney, Ken Collard, Paul Kaye and Louis Emerick as the locals at a not-very local local – most of whom I interviewed when the show pre-launched at UKTV Live. All three episodes are available to watch now, for free if you are in the UK, at UKTV Play.

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Oh, there’s the object on the coffee table. It’s the first punk single I ever bought, in 1979, aged 14, after Sid Vicious had died. I hope no Nazis are offended by the fact that we censored the swastika on the shirt of the cartoon of Sid Vicious.

Check the guy’s track record

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The People Vs OJ Simpson (FX; showing here on BBC2) comes under the anthology title American Crime Story, itself spun off from the anthology title American Horror Story, the ingeniously regenerative device of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk that has given us the thoroughly unpleasant Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show and Hotel (I watched all of the first three with glee, but bailed on Freak Show and have boycotted Hotel because Lady Gaga seems to be in it). Despite the wily, self-aggrandising rebrand, The People Vs OJ Simpson is a horror story as well as a crime story. Murphy and Falchuk treat those two impostors just the same. In their eyes, all stories are camp. This would remain the case if they launched American Sports Story, or American Accounting Story. And I hope they do.

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I know the OJ saga is in the public domain (and I remember the highlights of the legal circus from the time), but I have taken an unusual path with The People Vs OJ: I bought the book. I became instantly smitten with the show: its heightened tone, its showboat casting, its fixed setting at eleven. And after two episodes (there are ten), I sent off for Jeffery Toobin’s The Run Of His Life, published in 1997, which seems to reign as the definitive article. Five episodes in now, and I’ve finished reading it, unable to put it down. Way more than a court transcript, it does what the New Yorker does, which is to say: humanise reams of information. (Toobin began his story covering the trial for the New Yorker, and quickly became part of it, when police detective Mark Fuhrman sued defence lawyer Bob Shapiro, Toobin and the magazine over a leak.)

I usually make a point of not reading books that are going to be made into films. Indeed, I’ve been evangelical about it in the past. But I read Room by Emma Donaghue specifically because I knew it was coming out as a film, and I was glad I did. Even though it meant I knew where the story was going when I subsequently saw it, I felt that the experience of reading it (told from the point of view of the captive five year old son) was improved by having no pre-warning. I started reading High-Rise by JG Ballard in advance of the film, too, and in doing so, I better understand why the film didn’t quite work: it’s JG Ballard’s fault! Reading The Run Of His Life has been entirely different. We all know the outcome. We watched it on the news in 1995. Toobin’s book is predicated on the understanding that we know the ending, and that the ending is a grotesque travesty of justice; that OJ Simpson did murder Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in cold blood.

The book was safe to read. But having now read it, I am getting so much more out of the TV show. I know that it’s based on fact. It’s a matter of record. Sure, it’s exaggerated for effect – in real life, Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran’s legal team did not file into Judge Ito’s courtroom in slow motion on the day that they discovered that the prosecution had strategically added Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden to the team, nor did they do so to the lowdown mid-90s G-funk tune Black Superman – but it’s factually accurate, it’s on the books (it was on Court TV, if you cared to watch it, and lived in America). Any surgical enhancement by the writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, D. V. DeVincentis, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky and Joe Robert Cole is rooted in fact. Except maybe the retro-fitted bits featuring the Kardashians. But the case is open and shut. If I hadn’t read the book, I might not have believed what went on actually went on.

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It’s a cliché, but you couldn’t make it up. When prosecutor William Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) has a panic attack and faints in court, as a viewer, you’re assuming this must be made up. It’s dramatised for effect, but it pretty much happened. There it is on page 259 of Toobin’s account: “Hodgman noticed a strange feeling in his chest … a tightening … the sensation didn’t go away … paramedics were called.” That the actual trial descended into grave farce is a gift. I can’t wait for the black glove. I can’t wait for prosecutor Marcia Clark’s mid-trial haircut, according to Toobin “a much-admired transformation that landed her hairdresser on Oprah.” (Sarah Paulson is my favourite among a stellar cast – I’ve seen pictures of Clark and the resemblance is sound, although it’s reading about her on the page that paints the clearest picture and Paulson has worked it all into her performance.)

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Dramatising “actual events” is a common thread on modern TV, true crime is so fashionable people will even listen to it on a podcast, never mind on glossy cable TV, and actors seem to spend most of their careers now doing “karaoke” turns as real people. But we all accept  artistic licence, otherwise you’re literally just watching great actors read out transcripts. The skill, I think, with The People Vs OJ, is in organising the material in such a way that it slots neatly into ten episodes. See how they used the famous white Bronco chase to tease us from episode one into episode two (“The Bronco’s gone!” gulps David Schwimmer’s pathetic Robert Kardashian, a line that only works if we know exactly where the Bronco has gone and is going). Episode five ends with an imagined vignette of Furhman listening to what sounds like Wagner while admiring an Iron Cross among his collection of Nazi memorabilia. This was a cheaper trick – like a cliffhanger from Dallas – but it works as television. And this is fabulous television.

Just let me know when American Gardening Story starts and I’ll be there.