Zen arcade 2016

Behold, the promised Telly Addict: Zen Roundup of The Year! Officially Telly Addict #26, the 26th Telly Addict of my half-year contract with UKTV, who resurrected the show and treated it with care, attention, love, personnel, marketing and doughnuts during that allotted time – so a big thanks to all who sailed in her, not least Dave, Joel, Matt, Cherish and Justine (upstairs). It’s not over yet, but there will be a hiatus, during which I shall endeavour to maintain the blog, and with a prevailing wind and a bit of luck, the Telly Addict brand will continue in a modified form. You watch this space, and I’ll keep watching the glowing box in the corner of the room.

Rather than spoil the show, here are a few screengrabs in the traditional style that, I think, cumulatively say “the second half of 2016 in televisual terms”. If you want to ease our passage into the New Year, all comments, views, thumbs-ups, “likes” and shares either here, on YouTube, or on Twitter, will help make the case for its free-to-air return. There will be no crowdsourcing – I don’t feel comfortable begging for money – but where there’s an audience, there’s a way. If you haven’t watched all the 25 previous Telly Addicts yet, why not go back and do so: every hit helps. If you find a TA with a lowly view-total of around a thousand to 1,500 , give the runt a glance.

Thanks for watching thus far. See you on the other side.

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I wish I was a little bit taller

I wish I was a baller. Actually, I don’t wish I was one, judging by the portrayal of that particular lifestyle of the rich and fatuous on sharp and sharp-suited comedy Ballers (HBO/Sky Atlantic), returning for a second season of wry, self-lacerating Cribs-style aspiration. As I say in my review on the new Telly Addict, which features an expensively animated duck, the parts for women may be few and far between on this show about insecure Miami-based football players and the men – and it is apparently always men – who move their money around, but the gentlemen don’t come out of it that well. They’re just big babies. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson even looks like one. In a suit.

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Sticking with HBO, I celebrate the return after one of those irksome “breaks” of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (HBO/Sky Atlantic), just in time for the aftershock of the Conventions. I am a little bit in love with John Oliver, although we are stablemates at the same management company, so I should probably work on that. I’ve genuflected at his creative use of HBO-excused swearing in the past (and sometimes calling Donald Trump a “fucking asshole” is the only sensible response, even for a Wildean wit), but this week, he brought the house down on the much less promising subject of Hillary’s running mate Tim Kaine with a simple, “Is it?”

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I’m saving the new HBO comedy from the people who brought you Eastbound & Down, namely Vice Principals, until next week, for fear of an HBOverload. The Amazon Prime sensation Mr Robot (Universal) arrives on steam-powered TV, while the early adopters binge on Season Two, which is already up on the bookshop. I’m hooked, as I knew I would be, and if I’m hallucinating the gentle allusions to The Third Man (more paranoia in supposed peacetime), I apologise. But I like TV fiction that encourages that kind of tangential response.

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The BBC seems to be spoiling us beyond its usual Ferrero Rocher pyramid of music documentaries this summer, with – and look out for clickable links to that garden of earthly delights BBC iPlayer – Julian Temple’s archetypally esoteric Keith Richards film The Origin of the Species (BBC Two), Jon Savage and Paul Tickell’s 1966: 50 Years Ago Today (BBC Four), from Savage’s book of the same year, and part two of the ongoing People’s History of Pop (BBC Four), wherein Danny Baker proved the eager and appreciative conduit for other folks’ curios and souvenirs from 1966-76. A very good sort-of-decade. Watch all of these programmes, please.

I expect if you’re a diehard fan of Robot Wars (BBC Two), you’ll need no cue from me to watch its return to the Corporation after a “lend” to Channel 5. This amiable, foam-finger-waving scrapheap challenge is aimed at me in no way whatsoever, but I do get why people go nuts for it. And it celebrates ingenuity, hobbyism and craftspersonship, as well as Sunday league-style competition. I am more than able to wield a screwdriver or bradawl when required, but I am no mechanic and find Robot Wars a little outside my comfort zone, but far more nerdy than nearest touchstone Top Gear, and I mean that in a positive way, clearly.

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Afore we go, a promise that if you’ve never before sat down to view Friday Night Dinner (Channel 4) by Robert Popper, an autobiographical Whitehall farce set not in a bedroom but, mostly, a dining room, it will not let you down, so please do remedy that. You can box-set all three previous series on All 4. It is a joy. Brilliantly cast, with Tamsin Greig, Paul Ritter, Tom Rosenthal and Simon Bird as the family, and Mark Heap as neighbour Jim, and various supporting players, its most recent episode had the most satisfying one-line ending (after half an hour of ever-spiralling disaster that seemed to know no end) I almost stood up and saluted.

Here’s that duck. (Forgive me, but I haven’t forgotten which Collings & Herrin fan gave it to me as a thoughtful gift circa 2009, but if it’s you: look, I’ve still got it!)

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Water cooler moment

Hooray, Telly Addict No.5 is up on time! View it here and check out Telly Addicts Nos. 1-4 while you’re there.

And here is your actual Water Cooler Moment from this week’s TV: an actual water cooler in a rented office from the first half of the first episode of Channel 4’s newest reality TV format The Job Interview, bubbling away to itself. It is, as gently hinted at by its title, based around job interviews, which are filmed for our entertainment, and, one presumes, the participants’ narcissism.

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Channel 4 have built a wall around their new show by calling back the top brass off of Very British Problems, who sit and unravel anecdote by the yard in what I always assume are NOT their kitchens to camera, and getting them to say similarly pithy things about employment for My Worst Job. Is this Jimmy Carr’s kitchen? Or the kitchen of one of the show’s producers?

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There’s a new season of glossy US legal drama Suits on Dave, who are owned by the same people who own me, although I was already a fan, so happy to report back from Episode 1, which makes me wonder why I wandered away from Season 5. It’s still super-slick, glamorous, alpha and a little bit eugenic in its casting, but the beautiful people at Pearson Specter Litt are in trouble and that’s always a good place to start. I’m already a fan of First Dates, as you’ll known, and I approve of Celebrity First Dates on a purely anthropological level. Here are its charming waiting staff, craning their necks at someone who they partially recognise.

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And finally, this week’s What’s On The Coffee Table? It’s a promotional Masterchef apron, which I am fond of, even though it gets its own catchphrase wrong (“Cooking doesn’t get better than this”?!) I’ve noticed that the pastries always look like they are for giants, when in real life, they are normal pastry-sized. The lies that TV tells.

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Tommy, a rock opera

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I’ve spent so much time since my first set visit to Arley Hall in Cheshire in November in and around Peaky Blinders (BBC Two) – in fact, since I flew to Dublin in August 2014 to meet Cillian Murphy for an interview to herald series two – I seem to have almost forgotten to simply review it. With all the interviews I’ve done on set, in trailers, in pubs and hotels and private clubs, on the phone, and in panels after screenings, and all the column inches I’ve written subsequently, I feel like I’ve done nothing but talk about, and thus “review” Peaky Blinders. But now we’re halfway through series three, which all involved promised me was the best yet, it’s a pleasure to be able to confirm that. It is the best yet, and furthermore a completely different beast to series one and two. All that was magnificent about one and two – the ambition both practical and emotional, the epic scope, the anachronistic music, the intensity of the acting, the almost expressionistic look of the thing (the work of three directors in total: Otto Bathurst, Tom Harper, Colm McCarthy) – is present and correct in three, but more so.

And if any scene in last night’s third episode summed all that up, it was the disarming montage set to Soldier’s Things by Tom Waits. It goes something like this.

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Oh, and this one is for bravery …
And this one is for me

Tommy has been prevented from torturing the doomed head of the rival Italian mob family, Vicente Shangretta, played by Ken Colley (Jesus in Life Of Brian, trivia fans), by the swift intervention of Arthur, who shot Shangretta in the head before his grieving, raging younger brother could subject him to a long night of short knives. A coup de grace, it was a decisive moment: an insubordinate act, an act of mercy, a challenge to Tommy’s increasingly fraught and unpredictable methodology (and an echo of the name of his deceased wife, Grace). The plaintive piano of Soldier’s Things, from Waits’ pivotal 1983 LP Swordfishtrombones, immediately sets the tone of the aftermath, one of quiet reflection, perhaps a moment of clarity for Tommy. The lyric speaks of a military veteran assessing the flotsam of his life, counting his medals, and selling his belongings.

And everything’s a dollar
In this box

Tommy orders younger brother John – not exactly a centre of gravity himself but we’ve seen him, too, show mercy – to get rid of the body and, importantly, get rid of his torture kit (“for good”). The song, which lays everything out, becomes a lament for Tommy’s past life and offers potential hope of a settlement, or a deal with the God he doesn’t believe in, in the future.

He drives himself home, and pulls into the ornate drive of his country compound, the grand house that he and Grace and baby Charles called home until she got caught in the crossfire. Steven Knight declined to show us the funeral (having made such a big deal of the wedding) and instead jumped forward this episode into the depths of Tommy’s grief, which drove him into himself, and into his Gypsy roots, with fire and horses and spells. This line was perfectly synched with the image of the car pulling up:

It’s good transportation
But the brakes aren’t so hot

This is the fusion of great writing and plotting, deft direction from Tim Mielants, who, with Ben Wheatley’s talented DP Laurie Rose, has injected the series with a certain roving urgency as well as an eye for grandeur and Grand Guignol, and attentive editing from Celia Haining.

Neckties and boxing gloves
This jackknife is rusted
You can pound that dent out on the hood

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A tinker, a tailor
A soldier’s things
His rifle, his boots full of rocks

A sudden burst of light, as Tommy is reunited with his and Grace’s only son – so much more than a “thing”. This almost Athena-like tableau of father-son bonding provides another rare moment of Tommy looking at ease with the world, rather than railing against it. He is indeed a tinker, and a soldier, and a thief. It’s as if Waits wrote the tune for him.

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Then it’s back to business. Tommy, the Godfather, back behind his oak desk, pensive, caught between the legitimate and the illegitimate, in cold limbo in fact. The dusty, almost sepia look is clearly a nod to the work of Gordon Willis on The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. We with long memories remember that Michael Corleone started out as a decorated war hero, a Marine returning from World War II with a Silver Star for bravery. He’d dropped out of college to enlist and shunned his family’s business. Tommy had no college to drop out of, and was conscripted in the First World War, but the melancholy of stars on the chest is the same.

Oh, and this one is for bravery
Oh, and this one is for me

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And everything’s a dollar
In this box

Tommy finally walks silently into the room where Ada, still “legitimate”, is studying. She’s his sister, not his wife, but like Kay Corleone, there is a tacit understanding between them that she will not ask about “his business” and he will not tell her about it.

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As the song ends and Tom Waits’ piano – so very rarely licensed to TV or film – tinkles out, Tommy slumps in the chair, a man who’s learned some heavy lessons, not least the one of mercy from his own, born-again elder sibling.

But the song’s end signals the end of reflection, for now. It’s back to work: “There’s someone ahead of us, and I need to know why.” Ada has been doing some investigative work on the Shelby Company’s behalf (she’s a librarian, and a Communist), and so she’s crossed a line, and Tommy is about to lure her over it.  Swordfishtrombones is an album of gin and ruin, wild years and after effects, bullets and shore leave, and one foot in a mythic American past. It couldn’t have been better chosen, as Tommy now has his sights on the port of Boston (“Boston, America?”), and there’s “a vacancy.” What could possibly go right?

Most dramas on TV you couldn’t even watch once. This one demands repeated viewings. They’ve created a rock opera. And there’s nothing else on telly like it.

Stop of the Pops

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I love Top of The Pops (BBC Four). I realised how very much I loved it when, a year after Jimmy Savile’s death, the nauseating truth began to unfold and any editions of the nation’s favourite chart show presented by the grim reaper were understandably taken out of circulation. (He hosted around 300 editions between 1964 and 2006, including the first and the last.) In 2012, the year Operation Yewtree began, BBC Four were in full nostalgic swing with real-time repeats of Top of The Pops on Thursday nights, by then most of the way into 1977, a chance for those of a certain age to relive their youth. Sinister, telltale gaps started to appear in what had previously been an unbroken weekly virtual reality experience. Gary Glitter, arrested that October and jailed in February 2013, was already persona non grata in archival terms, and had long since been wiped from pop history. But now, with good reason, we lost any editions the monstrous Savile hosted or co-hosted. The subsequent arrest of Dave Lee Travis in November 2013 removed another batch of Pops shows (he was eventually convicted of one count of indecent assault in 2014). The arrest and imprisonment of Rolf Harris made less of a mark on the archive as he’d stopped having hits by the late 70s (although the mid-90s edition where he performs Stairway To Heaven will most likely now not be shown – if we get that far).

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Even though Paul Gambaccini was acquitted of any wrongdoing, his arrest in 2013 temporarily cast doubt over editions he presented. Disaster averted there, thankfully. And now Tony Blackburn has been sacked by the BBC (not arrested, by the way, but fired from the BBC because his testimony to Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into Savile differed from the Corporation’s version of events over an allegation made in 1971 which Blackburn denies and which he claims the BBC never interviewed him about at the time, hence the disparity, hence the overreacton by Tony Hall). This, we have to assume, takes the many shows he presented off the table, which certainly includes a couple in the early 80s, otherwise packed with fabulous music from a peppy time when the studio seemed less like a mausoleum and more like a balloon factory. All of this makes you grateful for Peter Powell, John Peel, Paul Burnett, Simon Bates, Kid Jensen, Steve Wright and indeed any Top Of The Pops presenter never to have had a knock at the door from Inspector Knacker. (Incidentally, Blackburn has threatened legal action against his former employers and continues to broadcast on local commercial radio in Kent.)

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We’re into the 80s now, so at least we can put history’s most sexually suspect decade behind us. The very glimpse of a presenter with his arms around teenage girls now makes us shudder, however innocently, even if it speaks of no greater crime than being an adult male working in the entertainment industry between the years 1970-79. The tactile culture, an implicit patriarchy where young women were still called “girls” or “birds”, was not helped by the weekly cavort by Legs & Co, all-female dance troupe, often scantily clad (some weeks, even into the 80s, Legs & Co are essentially in bras and pants), and, one may assume, filmed by all-male camera crews; the creepy male gaze in full effect. It really was another time, another place. I was a child during the 70s and not expected to be sexually anything, never mind sexually enlightened; I gorged on TOTP, weekly, because it had all the pop acts and bands on that were in the charts. It was a simple contract.

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As an adult, I have been all over the BBC Four reruns. Top of the Pops has become again a must-see treat, every Thursday. With all the episodes that have been retired due to unforeseen sexual assault and predatory paedophilia, it’s an incomplete experience, but one that I still cherish; even if, let’s be brutally honest, there’s nothing to top the sheer plurality of a 1970s Pops, with its feverish mix of glam rock, rock’n’roll revivalism, punk, disco, soul, funk, novelty singles and end-of-the-pier holiday cabaret music sung by people who looked like your auntie and uncles. Apparently, there is still a chart, but it’s not on telly every week, and it’s bent out of shape by downloads and the X-Factor, and I haven’t heard of most of the people who top it (or if I have, I don’t much care about them, as they don’t seem to be able to make a record without one of the other people “featuring” on it).

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To an extent, yes, I live in the past, and TOTP enables that illusion for 30 blessed minutes. The past is a foreign country, and a half-hour cross-section of its popular music gives me a Proustian rush and a snapshot of a more innocent time. (I realise the very idea of “innocence” is now tainted by grim findings, but you know what I mean). To give you a clue as to how far out of synch we are now with real-time TOTP, the editions now showing are from August 1981 – we’re five months into the future in the past! BBC Four have been occasionally showing two a week, as if to sweep these valuable time capsules under the carpet (or maybe just to clear the decks for the Proms and the more-important festival season). The writing may well be on the wall. The Top Of The Pops balloon may be about to go up. History has been rewritten by the victims, and we must respect that. But I so wish the BBC could afford to sit an editor down in a suite for a year and carefully edit out any sexual miscreants from archived shows, so that we could at least watch the music without the links.

For the record, I wrote about Savile in my other blog in October 2012, before Yewtree’s findings.

Stop Press: see comments below for insight into why editing out miscreants might not work.