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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Oh boy

 

As you know, we shoot Telly Addict on a Wednesday morning for a Thursday airdate. This mean we shot Telly Addict #21 on the morning of 9 November, 2016, an historic date and not a nice one. I’d already written it and chosen the clips. I added in a brand new opening based upon the US Presidential Election of the night before. Like a lot of people, I get my headlines from the Internet, but turn to the TV for context, then to the newspaper for analysis. As such, I rely on TV news to confirm or deny what I’ve already gleaned online. This reflects my age, my generation, born in the 60s, raised on analogue TV, an early adopter of video, then DVD, satellite and more recently streaming. If someone dies, I need to see it on TV before I fully believe it. On Wednesday morning, I turned on the TV to see the full horror of Donald Trump’s tsunami.

It did not put me in a tremendous mood to pretend nothing had happened and film some humorous links about some telly I’d watched in the previous seven days. But I’m a professional, and here it is. (The very first Telly Addict for my new patrons UKTV was filmed just after the EU Referendum. So we have form in this area.)

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Life goes on. Life must go on. Regardless of the US Election result, I knew it was never going to be a “slow news week”, so, in an attempt to build in a sense of calm, I ran the story of a pygmy three-toed sloth and his quest for a mate throughout Telly Addict. It was a rare non-fatal, danger-free strand from the first part of that wise old Galapagos tortoise David Attenborough’s latest bulletin from the natural world, Planet Earth II (BBC One) – a rather blunt title, I find, for such a display of wonder.

I’ve long been a fan of Dave Gorman’s books, shows and concepts; a man called Dave on a channel called Dave – he has found his spiritual home, and shows no signs of running out of things to point out in PowerPoint, hence we’ve reached series four of the labour-intensive Modern Life is Goodish (Dave).

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This first episode – part of which I was lucky enough to see Dave road-test, live, at the recent UKTV Live event, in a packed NFT1 at London’s SouthBank – moved seamlessly from “extractor fans” to specialist magazines (no not that kind), via Homes Under the Hammer. our genial supply teacher confirmed that he represents his own special intersection in the Venn diagram of stand-ups who are funny, stand-ups who are clever, and stand-up who use Venn diagrams.

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As you’ll have spotted, in fond tribute, I’m wearing a brand new Dave Gorman-style shirt for the occasion. But this shirt, it turns out, says something about me. I know, because 80s style commentator Peter York says so.

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In Peter York’s Hipster Handbook (BBC Four), he took a sociological-economic spin around the Captain Haddock-bearded, white, urban, entrepreneurially artisanal dandy and it was truly hilarious. Watch it. The further away from London and other urban centres you are, the funnier it will be. I live in London, and when I worked temporarily in Shoreditch in East London, I was proud to be the only clean-shaven man in the postcode at that time. Because for the hipster, a beard is the aerial that picks up signals from the cosmos. Now, more costumes …

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The really big show of the week was The Crown (Netflix), the ambitious BBC drama about the reign of the current queen, planned for six BBC series, that the BBC couldn’t afford, or afford to commit to. So it’s on Netflix. And that means all ten episodes of the first series are available NOW, if you’re signed up. Though it starts in the 1950s, a simpler age, it says everything there is to say about the current age we live in, when the BBC is no longer the broadcaster bound to be showing a drama about the royal family, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Daldry, and starring everyone. It’s forensically calibrated to appeal to an international audience and spells everything out, but you can’t fail to be awed by the sheer scale and poise of the thing.

There’s a new ruler now, and it’s Netflix.

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That said, here are two further, terrestrial catch-up recommendations for two less showy, and way less expensive dramas that won’t require you to keep coming back for future series. The first is The Moonstone (BBC One), a diversity-sensitive BBC Daytime adaptation of the Wilkie Collins whodunit that is worth your while. They kind of threw it away in five consecutive afternoons – although I guess the assumption is: people who watch telly in the afternoons watch it every afternoon. All five are here for the next couple of weeks.

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I also enjoyed HIM (ITV) – not sure why the caps lock, but that’s the way it was billed – a three-part, finite horror story about a young adult with telekinesis, which seems to be linked to having divorced parents, by Paula Milne. I admired the direction, and the writing, but especially liked the two young unknowns in the leads. All three eps are on ITV Player.

It’s been a funny week to think meaningfully about anything other than the Bad Thing, but also, therapeutic. Life really does go on. And at the beginning of Telly Addict, you will hear my Homer Simpson alarm clock, a symbol of all that is still great and not terrifying about America.

Oh, and The Moonstone even worked in a BBC Daytime Poldark moment for new face Joshua Silver. Honestly, they treat fit male actors like meat.

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Dracula meets Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man meets Dr Jekyll meets Mr Hyde meets Dorian Grey

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I wasn’t sure about Penny Dreadful (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) at the birth. Something about the random-seeming audacity of mashing up Frankenstein, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Grey into one over-the-top show. (That Victorian reading list has since expanded to include The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and incorporates The Wolf Man, which was a film.) But it came alive and fell into place for me in episode two when Eva Green’s apparently possessed protagonist crawled over the seance table of Helen McCrory’s spiritualist like a potty-mouthed Dickensian Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and the very same audacity revealed itself not to be random after all, and clicked. Created by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall), this was actually a flamboyant, costumed challenge to purists, and a gift from one horror aficionado to another. It was in the spirit of Universal’s mercenary 1940s brand-offs like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man – except deadly, if not at all times deadly serious.

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Now, three episodes into season three, I believe it has entered its baroque period. It’s as if the show itself is a manifestation of Simon Russell Beale’s continually finessing facial topiary. After what I felt were a couple of longueurs in season two (I zoned out of the Cut Witch diversion, even though I accepted that it had backstory ballast, as I wanted to get back to the thrilling present with the wax museum, the Pinkertons and the Verbis Diablo), this one swaggers with an inflated confidence and seems to want to break its own taboos. (Without giving too much away for latecomers, there was scene in episode three that involved three-way sex and enough blood to fill a barrel.) John Logan is the presiding genius, creator and showrunner, the Frankenstein to Penny Dreadful’s monster, and his has been the only ever writing credit. That’s 21 hour-long episodes thus far without the visible fingerprint of another writer on them. Producers are credited, but never specifically as writers. I’m certain it’s tabled and punched up, but it’s a rare example of an “authored” US show. It exhausts me just to think about Logan typing every single word. Boardwalk Empire was written by around 20 people over its five seasons; Breaking Bad at least a dozen; even The Knick, which was written predominantly by its two creators, had another loyal captain standing by to take up the slack. Logan makes me think of the Tom Waits song, in which he repeats, “What’s he building in there … ?”

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Penny Dreadful warns of adult themes and scenes of a sexual nature, and has had them from the start (remember Rory Kinnear’s entrance as the creature?), but it is fundamentally a whole heap of fun. Blood is spilled. Blood is smeared. Blood is sucked. Blood rains down on a ballroom full of dancing Victorians and paints the walls of an inn after a massacre. But what season three does, already, is to get out of town. Previously confined to London, which looked suspiciously like Dublin, it has lately exploded into the Wild West, the Arctic (a direct nod for scholars to Mary Shelley’s text) and Africa – what Logan describes as “different geographies” – and it’s quite a treat to see the sky at last. Just as films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre challenged the precepts of “noir” by heading out into the baking sun, Penny Dreadful has pushed back the perimeter fence of Gothic.

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A word on the cast. Eva Green has always been a challenge, as her character, Vanessa is by factory setting an unsmiling, unapproachable “project” of a woman, but she inhabits it like Helena Bonham Carter might do, except without the knowing smirk. Vanessa does not smirk much. Her current window of romance is set to slam shut, and her mania to revisit her past through Patti LuPone’s therapist promises much. (Logan describes the series as being about “one woman’s journey to faith” – hers.) Timothy Dalton has found the role of his life as the grizzled, grieving Sir Malcolm, an amalgam of every retired 19th century adventurer and the motley cast’s father figure; as has Josh Hartnett, a former lightweight who rises to the challenge of the lycanthropic cowboy. A thrill, too, this season, to see Wes Studi (Last of The Mohicans, Dances With Wolves) with his striking features seemingly carved from a rockface, and the promise of Brian Cox to come, no slouch either in the geological physiognomy. The lithe, panda-eyed Harry Treadaway now spars in the lab with Shazad Latif (the IT guy from Spooks and Clem Fandango from Toast!), while Billie Piper and Reeve Carney as the Bride of Frankenstein and Dorian Grey get to grips with new kid Jessica Barden – their story is only just coagulating. Rory Kinnear had an intriguing story in season two, leading to self-exile, but in digging into his past, season three seems to have somewhere deep to go – a rhyme with Vanessa’s rebirthing, perhaps. Oh, and Samuel Barnett as a boyish Renfield – there are no flies on him.

I find the show heady and preposterous, fine and dandy, dark and troubling; in going over the top it gets under the skin. I think Lou inadvertently summed up Penny Dreadful in 1951 in Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man: “I went to shake his hand, his hand was gone. I looked up to speak to him, his head was gone. Then he took off his shirt, his body was gone. He took off his pants, his legs were gone! Then he spoke to me, I was gone.”

Outside. Now.

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This is what the 30 April-6 May 2016 cover of Radio Times looks like. If you live in Birmingham. If you live anywhere else in the country, it looks like this:

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I have been a journalist for 28 years. I know how this works. The first cover story I ever wrote, professionally, was about The Fall and their new album Extricate in the NME dated 25 January 1990. I was inextricably proud. Since that momentous day, I have not written that many cover stories, by which any freelance writer’s stock can be measured. Even when I got my own desk and became a commissioning editor – at NME, Select, Q and Empire – I rarely gave myself the cover story to write. It didn’t seem politic, and in any case, a good features editor will have an army of great writers to call upon, and to not call upon them would be a dereliction of duty. I gave myself Carter USM, twice, and My Bloody Valentine, and Billy Bragg, at NME; I gave myself Blur, and Paul McCartney, at Q; and was given Blur and Alanis Morissette by the features editor at Select; at Word, where I was a humble freelance again, I was given Elbow, and the Stone Roses. Age does not wither the excitement of writing a cover story.

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Peaky Blinders was a story I’ve been writing, as in researching and interviewing for, most excitingly on location of the imminent third series, since November. It is a production that’s close to my heart, and I’ve been more or less embedded with it this time around, hosting the press launch, and a BFI screening. I even had some exclusive material for my cover story, which can be read in the new Radio Times. Even in a cynical media world where instant gratification drives everything, people on both sides of the glass care about magazine covers, the timing of them, the exclusivity of them, the sheer magic of them in a prelapsarian age of paper and staples and shops and high streets. Cillian Murphy was on the cover of the Guardian magazine last Saturday, but that doesn’t count, as you can’t see the cover of a supplement on the newsstand – it’s wrapped and sometimes bagged up around the newspaper itself. The gorgeous full-face of Cillian Murphy on the cover above can be seen, even by browsers. But only in Birmingham.

Here’s the problem: famous and brilliant people have been dying at an alarming rate this year, many of them TV names: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Terry Wogan, Maurice White, George Kennedy, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Ronnie Corbett, Garry Shandling, Prince, and, at a fearfully early age, Victoria Wood. When I heard that she’d died, last Wednesday, I was in the Radio Times office, where the magazine dated 30 April-6 May 2016 was being put together by a team of dedicated professionals. I was, in that instant, sad. Sad for her, obviously, and sad for her friends and family, and for all the viewers who would never see a new Victoria Wood programme on television, which includes me. And I was also sad for the Peaky Blinders cover. Even a show as rich and beautiful and improving as Peaky Blinders will be on again the week after, and the week after that, and the week after that. But you only die once. And some lives demand to be memorialised in the affectionate and comprehensive way that the magazine I work for has done this week for Victoria Wood. (As it did for Ronnie Corbett, and Terry Wogan. Just as you turn to 6 Music to get you through the death of a musical hero, Radio Times does the job with a TV hero.)

Which is why I am personally glad that Peaky Blinders made the cover in one very specific part of the country: its home. (The contents of both versions of the magazine are identical.)

 

 

We British

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My education into British colonalism began with Carry On Up The Khyber and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. I guess I must have been about ten or eleven when I first saw the film on TV, which was concurrent with the start of the popular BBC sitcom. I gathered that both were set in the past, and the military aspect helped me correctly place It Ain’t Half Hot Mum at the time of the Second World War. (Up The Khyber is set much earlier, as evidenced by the uniforms, although such historic subtlety wouldn’t have occurred to me at that young age; the BFI synopsis says 1895.) The Carry On was prototypically subtitled The British Position In India, which clarified things somewhat. Here’s what I learned about the British Raj at that time: “we British” – as the Indian bearer Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum used to ironically say – seemed to rule over India, where Indians live, on the other side of the world. Quite why was not made clear to me then. But you accept the world as it is handed down to you at the age of ten or eleven.

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Without the luxury of historical or ethnic context, I followed the crux of the comedy in both film and sitcom: that “we British” were a bunch of arses. Pompous, incompetent, cowardly, entitled, and no match for the cunning and wisdom of the Indians (“There is an old Hindu proverb …” as Rangi used to say in wrap-up). In Up The Khyber, an Indian uprising is quelled by a kilted regiment revealing to the revolting natives that they wear no underwear beneath their kilts. In It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, our military heroes belong to a camp concert party, and their militaristic sergeant major’s attempts to man them up are a constant source of frustration for him and laughs for us. In the Carry On, Kenneth Williams plays the Indian ruler, the Khasi; the equally Caucasian Angela Douglas is his daughter, Princess Jelhi; and the Jewish Bernard Bresslaw is Burpa leader Bungdit Din. More infamously, Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was played by an even more vigorously “browned-up” Michael Bates, who was born to British parents in British India and spoke Hindi, but was not by any stretch of the imagination Indian. (The usual excuse for this is that there weren’t many Indian or Pakistani actors working in Britain in the early 70s, which may have been statistically true, but they managed to cast the other two key Indian roles with Bengali Dino Shafeek and London-born Babar Bhatti. It’s sobering to remember that David Lean cast Alec Guinness as Hindi professor Godbole in A Passage To India in what you might have hoped was a more enlightened mid-80s.) Is it any wonder my view of the British Raj was somewhat shallow?

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I am older and wiser now, further-educated by a wealth of drama set at the time of the British position in India: A Passage To India, Gandhi, The Jewel In The Crown, The Far Pavilions, The Man Who Would Be King, even Black Narcissus. These have all been far more helpful than the two formative comedies. I’ve also read India: A History by John Keay, which I ordered from a book club and found very informative. And now we have Indian Summers (Channel 4). Or, in fact, maybe we don’t, as I just read that C4 have pulled the plug on it after two pricey series.

My politics place me in historical opposition to the British Empire. The very idea of it feels foreign, bullying and distant: lording it over large parts of the globe? Ruling the waves? We seem unable to run a whelk stall or organise a piss-up in the brewery in the 21st century. For me, our imperial past is nothing to be proud of – I’m vehemently against medals being handed out in the name of the British Empire – and I expect my dramatists to feel the same. What’s refreshing about Paul Rutman’s ambitious drama, which opens in 1932 but was planned to go on, is its clear focus. It revolves around the community of civil servants and hangers-on who repair up the mountains of Shimla during the unbearably sticky summers, where they rule a hilltop fiefdom, dress to the nines (at one party as French aristocrats), drink, cavort, patronise, put on plays, wheel, deal and throw their weight around with the “natives”, who are of course not to be trusted, except for Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), a clerk, who is, but perhaps shouldn’t be.

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Now here’s my confession. I watched the first episode of series one last February, and, despite the strong cast (Craig Parkinson, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Patrick Malahide, Edward Hogg, Fiona Glascott), and some fetching locations in Malaysia, I felt I’d seen it all before and took it off series link. When it returned for its second series, we decided to give it another go, watched episode one and realised very quickly that we were lost. (There are ten episodes a series.) Conveniently, C4 has the whole first series on catch-up, so we rewound to the beginning and started again. Not since The Knick have I been so wrong about a TV drama based upon my first impressions. The series-one binge was glorious: all the internecine intrigues and secrets (Chris Chibnall once gave me the sound advice: “Give everyone a secret”), and despite the inevitable clashes between civilisations, the line between Good Indians and Bad English was never too thickly drawn. Rutman, who claims no Asian credentials but who worked in India as a drama teacher and fell in love with the culture then went home and read up on the Raj, is interested enough in the more extreme cultural difference and racial divide – the club run by Julie Walters actually bears a sign warning “No dogs, no Indians” in series one – but finds subtleties of conflict to explore dramatically too.

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One of the Brits asks how an Indian from one social caste can recognise that another Indian is from a different caste. There is no concrete answer: you can just tell. This cleverly shows the extent of the remove at which the colonialists operate from the indigenous population, and how complex a board game they have taken on – or at least, the one the East India Company took on. (Indian Summers does not get bogged down in history, concerned chiefly with the here and now, which has enough local difficulty to be getting on with: Gandhi’s hunger strike, the rise of the Indian National Congress, political representation for the “untouchables”, the Government of India Act, provincial elections, terrorism, snakes. On top of these tensions and shifts, Rutman weaves further stories out of the hockey-sticks comings and goings of the colonial whites: affairs, illegitimate babies, power struggles, marital disharmony, fraternity with the natives, financial ruin. Dalal’s family has conflicts enough for its own soap: between him and his fiercely rebellious sister, his sister and his Anglophile father, both parents and his girlfriend Sita.

Although Julie Walters plays the old-fashioned lovable music-hall racist and hostess Mrs Coffin (which sounds like a Wood & Walters character name) for broad melodrama – in one scene wearing a massive headdress to her latest free lunch on the verandah which opens up to reveal a live dove – and Patrick Malahide’s viceroy could have stepped out of the dinner party scene in Up The Khyber, picking bits of plasterboard out of his pith helmet, the most striking “baddie” is far more complex, Lloyd-Hughes’s Ralph Whelan, boyish viceroy-in-waiting, who runs the gamut from dastardly to benevolent and treats those impostors just the same. A lustily sneering political climber, he’s brilliant. You want him to get the gig, even though he’s willing to do anything to get it.

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So, I’m behind on series two, but literally catching up, with a suddenly empty goal ahead of me, simultaneously berating myself for getting it so wrong at the start and grateful to have had the luxurious experience of racing through series one at a lick. Paul Rutman, incidentally, is one of those writers who’s been plugging diligently away on big TV brands like Lewis, Vera and Marple, and this is his big passion project. Even if it must end before its time, his passion shows, and I’m pleased he got to make two series of it, at a lofty price tag. If you, too, have denied yourself this big, colourful pleasure, please adjust your position.