Archives for posts with tag: BBC

Graham Linehan is a personal hero of mine. He has created some of my favourite shows, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. He is also collaborating on Motherland, a pilot I enjoyed last year, which is missing some of the trademark absurdities of his other shows but is compensated by allowing the characters to zing off each other.

His current big project though is Count Arthur Strong. As with his other works, this is a collaboration, this time with Steve Delaney. It focuses on an out-of-work former variety star (played by Delaney), his eccentric friends and the put-upon ‘straight’ man Michael. The standard episode revolves around Arthur having some bizarre scheme in his head, which impacts on Michael’s hopes of a quiet life.

The most recent episode progressed as follows: Michael got called up for jury service, while Arthur got addicted to doing good deeds, everyone being followed by a vision of Brian Cox staring dreamily off into the landscape. In doing so he messes up both Michael’s jury service and gets entangled with organised crime, before everything reaches a climax with him overdosing on ‘gratitude’.

This is essentially a comedy of errors writ large. And it is joyful. This is largely because it is written in an innocent way – this is no black-hearted sitcom, with cruel people and comedy monstrousness. Interestingly, the first two series were put on in obscure timeslots, particularly series 2, which is strange when you consider how ‘family’ orientated the show is. No bad language, no sex, and minimal bad behaviour – this is something a ten-year-old could joyfully watch with their parents.

There are some Linehan trademarks. The absurdity has already been hinted at, but also the ensemble nature of the cast is a classic feature of his work. A small retinue of regular and semi-regular characters that have their oddities, but none of them nasty. It isn’t afraid to be tender either. In episode 1, a rare moment of clarity from Arthur helps save Michael from a mistake.

Steve Delaney is great as the eccentric and easily confused Arthur. The malapropisms are a nice touch, showing the character’s delusions in a light way. Rory Kinnear plays the unfortunate Michael well, and the rest of the cast all allow their moments to shine as well. All of this – the kindness in the characters, the warmth in the jokes, the silliness in the plots – makes this the perfect family sitcom. It’s a shame the BBC didn’t realise this two series ago.

Advertisements

Series four of Sherlock was hotly anticipated. How could it not be? The first three seasons had been near perfect, and even a slightly wonky Christmas special had more pluses than minuses, with any confusion overturned by sheer energy. This was a show that was clever, almost taxing even, but still fun and fizzy. It was like a tangy sweet that supercharged your brain.

And then came series four. Oh lord, where to begin. There have been more than a few murmurings that this season lost the plot, and I am inclined to agree to a certain extent. I will pick over the faults in a moment, but to do so I feel I need to extol what I loved about the show previously.

Sherlock is, at heart, a crime drama. It is, after all, about the world’s most famous fictional detective. Hence, what you need is a crime or puzzle to solve. The joy is watching the connections form in Holmes’ mind as it takes leaps of logic. The best episodes left you giddy and gasping for air, but wanting to do it all over again, like the most amazing rollercoaster.

This series, however, we have had two major issues. The first is that the puzzle solving has been replaced by action. Take The Six Thatchers. Who and why is answered half way through, leaving the viewer instead being carted off on an action romp. The episode was saved only by the need to resolve a second mystery of finding the betrayer. Even then, we felt as if the episode had been more of a character study of Mary Watson, in order for the ending to leave us more sucker punched.

This need for a character study blighted episode three as well, this time of Sherlock and, to a lesser degree, Mycroft and Eurus. Whilst there may have been puzzles, it was always more of an emotional drama. But I wonder how many viewers wanted this? I know of many who are walking away from the show now finding the whole thing a mess.

The second episode was, for me, the strongest, because it most went back to what the show does best. It was about how to bring down a villain. Toby Jones was brilliantly chilling and we actually got to see Sherlock’s mind working. It also, bar a mortuary scene, was gloriously un-action like. Everybody got the chance to take a breath. It helped that Una Stubbs got her biggest share of the limelight of the series as well. Seriously, how can one brilliant character be so under used?

The case for the defence is we now have a mature, emotionally astute Sherlock. His sociopathy has been blunted and his awareness of his impact on others blossoming. He is entering a new plan. There also rumours that, if we do get a series 5, we will see a return to the more equally balanced episodes of the opening series. I do hope so. People love a mystery. We are more tepid on watching introspection.

One of the list of things that bring fill me with an uncontainable joy are gin, a decent Sunday roast and, at the top of the list, The Great British Bake Off. I love it to such an extent, that anybody who dislikes it or isn’t aware of it immediately becomes deeply untrustworthy to me. How can you bond over anything if you can’t do it over discussing someone’s drizzle cake or Viennese Whirls?

Of course it is all about casting and the bar is high this year. Last year was near perfect, with heartthrob Tamal, daffy Sandy and Nadiya, who has become a very modern nation’s sweetheart. Such was my expectations, that I almost found the first episode the new series a disappointment, forgetting that my love and adoration for anyone always takes a few episodes. I didn’t plan on marrying Tamal until week 6, for example.

Now the second episode is out of the way, I feel some opinions forming and a few personal favourites rise. For a start, Candice, who seems lovely, down-to-earth and very talented, with just that hint of self-deprecation that, as Brits, we demand all our heroes have. I also like Selasi, purely for his ability to look ridiculously chilled and still turn out some the strongest bakes. His downfall will be if he ever finally does crack. Expect crème patisserie to be up the sides of the Bake Off tent.

Andrew I’m undecided on. As someone from my neck of the woods I feel I should support him, but there is something a little too angelic about him. I would like a swear word to slip out while he is decorating a cake or for him to politely but firmly challenge Paul Hollywood when he is laying into a bake. Still, it may only take a small thing for him to replace Tamal in my heart. Actually, that’s a lie. Nothing could replace Tamal.

As for people I find irritating, Kate has taken top spot with that. Like Ian last year, there seems to be a constant parade of ‘look what I grew at home’. Every time she produces a bowl of home-grown plums, I feel the urge to go to a budget supermarket, pick up a punnet and make the exact same dish but better. Petty, I know, but Bake Off can bring out the worst in me as well as the best.

Anyway, there are still plenty of weeks to go before our champion is crowned. Bread needs to be proved, pastry rubbed and cakes to rise. In the meantime, I’m off to camp outside a certain former contestant’s house. The restraining order only covered his workplace.

TV, like every other aspect of culture, has its cycles. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and a new twist on an old idea is like catnip. Take the rise of proto-eighties synth pop about five years ago. It’s not hard to see how it happens. Someone who was a child in the eighties gets the opportunity to break a new artist, and finds themselves drawn to those who mine the same cultural past as themselves.

Of course, with TV you can just resurrect the show all over again. Take Doctor Who and the upcoming return of Cold Feet. For some it is nostalgia, whilst at the same time there is also a new audience. Who would not have lasted long if it was just the fans of the 70’s watching – it needed a new generation of kids to hide behind the sofa.

Similar is true of the return if Robot Wars. I remember this fondly as a Friday night treat in the late 90’s, a bit of healthy destruction to set up the glorious weekend away from school. Those of a geeky nature could recite the weight and speeds of different machines the way other kids could list the gaps and goals of England players.

Its return recently has been glorious. The key elements are in place – teams creating robots (some good, some game but bad), the house robots a punishment for the foolish, an arena that rewards the powerful and clever. It is the simplest joy to watch.

There have been some changes – gone is the qualifying round of the assault course, replaced instead by a melee. This is all too the good, as very few of us cared if the robot could traverse a see-saw. We want to see a scrap, one with lots of shards of metal shooting off. It seems the producers agree, so the emphasis is very much on fighting.

There has also been an update of presenters, with Craig Charles and Phillipa Forrester making way for Dara O’Briain and Angela Scanlon. Again, this is a good move, as both have a slightly dry sense of humour whilst having a genuine sense of awe and respect into the time that has been spent on the creations.

Of course, what makes it all the more wonderful is that in between battles the rivalries are dropped. Many a time has a robot entered the pits post-battle missing a significant piece of kit, only for the team who destroyed it to being with to lend them theirs. This is the version of humanity I like. Everyone in the pits has time for each other. If the geeks do inherit the earth, one the main advantage is that everyone will learn to be that little bit nicer.

It is always risky critiquing something that is ground breaking in its treatment of social issues. Be too harsh on it and you risk coming across as discriminatory, trying to defend white, middle-class male privilege. Ignore any faults and praise it unreservedly and you trip over into sycophancy and perhaps even patronising the group who you are exalting.

It is, therefore, a difficult line I must tread when discussing Boy Meets Girl, a sitcom about a man who falls in love with a woman who has transitioned from being a man. So let me start by talking about what I like about it, which is plenty. It is, overall, a sweet comedy. Although everyone has their faults, you feel as if they are fundamentally decent people. A favourite of mine is Lizzie Roper as Jackie. Yes, her character is often crude, but I feel there is more natural comedy from her than most of the cast, even those who also have comic form.

Which brings me to the first issue I have – it isn’t really that much of a sitcom. Yes, there are funny moments, but at times the comedy is so gentle it feels like some kind of televisual sedative. It takes Roper bounding on to the screen to shake it up. There doesn’t feel to be a build up to a glorious final moment. Neither did Gavin & Stacey, but that had a stronger ensemble, even minor characters being given enough quirks to drive a scene. In short, Boy Meets Girl lacks the situation half of the sitcom.

The other issue I have is that I don’t feel as if I know enough about Judy or Leo. They must have other people in their lives besides their families. They must both have at least a best friend. Leo has only just started a job, so we are only just seeing work colleagues, but Judy must have some. It is as if their characters entirely depend on being ‘trans-person’ and ‘fiancé of trans-person’. Surely there is space to give them fuller lives than this?

Having said that, this show is a sign of the progress we are making. It is amazing how little people are aware of trans-issues, especially outside big cosmopolitan environments. Reflecting the LGBT community in popular culture is important in generating tolerance and acceptance, even more so when it is people who have transitioned playing the roles. So, yes, credit where it’s due. But there is still a degree of opportunity wasted.

There does seem to be a bounty of comedies on TV at the moment, particularly on the BBC. Whether this is part of their ‘we are too valuable to destroy’ strategy, or merely a happy coincidence, I don’t know. Still, let’s not complain.

One that is shining through is Mum, a low-key sitcom about a middle-aged woman’s first year as a widow. As such, it is a rather sweet, understated affair, with the humour drawn from the juxtaposition of someone who is normal and balanced being surrounded by comic monsters. This includes her dopey son, his even more dim-witted girlfriend, a snobbish new partner for her brother, and rude in-laws and other hangers on.

Not that all of the above are actually monsters – the son and his girlfriend may be idiots but there is some heart to them, even if there insight into how ‘Mum’ feels is irregular and fleeting. Lisa McGrillis as the girlfriend (Kelly) is a gem. Episode 3 saw her mother descend, and suddenly a whole new level to Kelly’s character emerges. She is idiotic because she has been treated like one her whole life, her frail self-esteem hidden protected by telling blunt truths and self-absorption.

Pauline, on the other hand, is a monster. She despairs of this new extended family she has found herself in. Her millionaire ex-husband gave her the world materially but betrayed her emotionally. Despite the obvious pain, there is clearly part of her that would give up the love of a decent bloke to fly round in a helicopter again and have her old social circle back. She is lonely, but doesn’t want to let anyone around her in alleviate it.

At the centre of it are the Mum (Lesley Manville) and her late husband’s best friend (Peter Mullan). It is inevitable that there is a will they/won’t they dynamic between the two – he deeply in love with her, she clueless to it all. In her defence, she has enough on dealing with the emotional crises of others, without her being indulgent to have one herself. Her grief has been a quiet one, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been expressed.

There is a simple joy in it all. Long-term storylines bubble away nicely while the individual set up for each episode plays out. It is a quiet, sweet little programme. It will probably be ignored come award season, but that’s fine, we don’t want the hipsters and fly-by fans watching it anyway. It is our little secret, and a beautiful one at that.

In my last blog, I talked about how used to the underwritten, underperformed style of comedy in sitcoms. No audience laughter, naturalistic settings and acting, and plots that often revolve around the basics of being human. Until The Office, these were virtually non-existent, but have since formed the majority of comedies. The traditional sitcom has become a rarity, and a divisive one at that.

One example of the more ‘underdone’ sitcom, as I’m going to name it for the sake of convenience, is Going Forward. It is written, and stars Jo Brand, and is the sequel to Getting On, in which she played a nurse on a geriatric ward. It was very good at highlighting the problems the health service faces when treating older patients, particularly in a country as diverse as ours. She won a BAFTA for it, and rightly so, as she played it note perfectly. Brand captured the dark humour working in such situations requires, as well as the paperwork that has weighed down nursing.

In Going Forward, Brand has become a community health visitor for a private firm, visiting the elderly in their own homes. The red tape is still there, with limited visiting times meaning only the basics are done, like dressing the elderly and preparing a basic breakfast. The consequences are clear – we see the loneliness that old age can bring, and how selfish we have become as a society to find anyone to palm off those who are dependent on our on to.

Brand presents her character as one who is frustrated by these restrictions, as no doubt many in her profession are. You can see that she wants to offer the company that would really make the patient’s day better, making sure their home is properly clean and they have three square meals a day.

One big difference from Getting On is that we also get an insight into her character’s home life. Her husband is working a job whose take home pay is miniscule to the hours worked because of his company’s enforced deductions. Her son has given up on his future and his dealing with being a teenage dad. The daughter at least has some hopes and dreams and, even though the character is fictional and barely seen, you want her to succeed.

Bubbling in the background is an emotional subplot. Brand’s mother has had a stroke and is in a care home. The sister has spent all her money from the sale of the bungalow, leaving Brand to foot the bill for the care, leading to a very tense relationship between the sisters that is due to explode.

All of this is terrible, but accurate, indictment of our society. There is a price tag on everything, even the care of our loved ones. In our selfish society, our taxes don’t cover it, because we would rather vote for a government that promises low tax than one that wants to support those in need. We want services to be available when we need them but to not have to pay into them when we don’t. Employers of many companies take the mickey with how they treat their staff, and seem to have targets for everything bar job satisfaction.

Yet, in spite of all this, it is funny. Brand has a brilliant way of writing that allows humour to break through the bleakness. Comedy is a weapon, and she knows how to wield it. If ever a sitcom could be a force for change, this is it.