Archives for posts with tag: BBC2

Historical comedy is probably one of the hardest to get right. The balance needs to be found between mocking our ancestors’ beliefs on a subject without making it a history lesson, whilst also spearing some of our modern-day pre-occupations. Blackadder did it near perfectly, particularly season 3, but it is easy to see why it has often been avoided. For every hit there is a Let Them Eat Cake.

Still, one crops up now and again, and recently we have seen the launch of Quacks. This is a sitcom based around three Victorian medicine men – surgeon Robert, William the alienist (psychologist) and John, a dentist. There is also Robert’s wife, Caroline, who is keen to become a medical professional herself, and Dr Hendricks, the head of a medical school.

Naturally, most of the humour is about how backwards medical practice was: the high mortality rate of surgery, the dangerousness of early anaesthetics, the lack of any psychological understanding at all. Many of these are used as set ups to the plots of the episode, rather than the plot itself, which is a relief, as this is the weakest strand. Which is awkward, as this should be where a historical sitcom shines.

Instead, it is the surreal pin-wheeling off that is driving force behind the humour. Take episode two, where William and Caroline take a drug-addicted Charles Dickens to John’s shop to try his drugs, leading to Caroline and Charles being locked in a cupboard with a comatose boy who suddenly comes round.

Which brings to me another strength of the show, which is the guest characters. Andrew Scott was delightfully horrid as the attention seeking and sex obsessed Dickens, playing the character exactly as his worst critics had written him. Of course, the problem with guest appearances being the root of a show’s success is that if an episode has a duff one or not one at all, then you are left with a central cast that offers little.

This is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody feels a little underdeveloped as characters. For example, John is rarely stretched beyond being a drug-loving dentist. There is also a cloying subplot of William’s love of Caroline while Robert ignores her. I do wish someone could make a sitcom where men and women are just friends and stay that way. I doubt this plot will add to anymore laughs to the show – it hasn’t done so far anyway.

Despite this, I want the show to find its feet. It is too easy for channels to ditch sitcoms after one season if they don’t quite work nowadays, rather than letting them adjust as time goes on. Blackadder only really worked series 2 onwards, for example. There is a kernel of something good here, but rather than labouring how terrible medicine was back then, it needs to focus on the more surrealist elements. Don’t just raise a smile, make me laugh. It’s what I’m paying a licence for.

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If I was to make a list of my favourite people, I would have to place Ian Hislop near the top. I think Private Eye should be read by everyone, especially around election time, to help them make educated decisions as to how genuine the parties and individual MP’s are being. Beneath his satire on Have I Got News For You, he also offers some searing insights.

Hislop is also a great documentary maker. In the past he has covered the Welfare state, railways and philanthropy. His most recent one is Who Do We Let In? Britain’s First Immigration Row. It positions our current obsession with immigration within the context of Britain’s move from open doors in the mid-Victorian era to the first pieces of peacetime immigration legislation in the early 20th century.

Along the way there were some interesting stories. How Britain was so open doored, it even harboured terrorists to prove its liberalism (the fact said terrorist was French perhaps helped). How Winston Churchill was so incensed by the anti-immigration rhetoric of his colleagues in the 1900’s, we switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals. How Britain became the proud home so thousands of Belgians fleeing the German army during the First World War.

The most interesting moment though was Hislop’s interview with Katie Hopkins about the media’s role in fuelling immigration fear. Hopkins seemed to take pride in her role, claiming that two things sell papers – Maddie McCann and immigration. She also pushed back strongly on the idea that she was pedalling hate, claiming to be merely defending a country she loved, which is strange, considering most of her journalism involves talking the country down in a way that if it was done by a Leftie, would be seen as unpatriotic. Most chillingly though, she laid the blame for her and other right-wing commentators at the feet of Hislop, positing him and the ‘liberal elite’ as Frankenstein, she as their monster.

One of the things that came out repeatedly in the documentary was that history is often a cycle. In this case, a surge of immigration creates fears of crime, cultural clashes and threats to employment. Then those immigrants assimilate, aping their hosts’ habits, before the next generation sees a new set of immigrants, and the fears rise up again.

Hislop did leave us with a lesson, albeit a slightly theoretical one. Although open door immigration wouldn’t work (although other than going against popular opinion he doesn’t say why), open mind would. In other words, be cautious but compassionate. Welcome those who can and will contribute regardless of their background and reach out to those who are without support. Keep out those who are obviously dangerous and try to ensure individual communities don’t get overwhelmed. Most importantly, stick to the facts and don’t get wrapped up in rhetoric. Britain’s history will always make it an asylum of nations. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one that doesn’t function.

Last year I did a blog about the news that Stephen Fry was leaving QI and was being replaced by Sandi Toksvig. I mused on the changes that we would likely see, and came to the conclusion that the two were similar enough in personality for there not to be a significant tone change. But was I right?

Well, yes, I was spot on, even if I do say so myself. Toksvig has collected enough stories of her own to match Fry’s ability to raconteur her way through an episode, always handy if the guests around you are failing to keep the pace up. If anything, they are more interesting, less centred as they are on name dropping.

Toksvig also appears to be more generous with her time, at least compared to Fry’s later series, where guests’ flights of fancy were often clipped abruptly. Johnny Vegas always seemed to be one of the few to get away with it, but he is always the most uncontrollable of guests. Instead, Toksvig allows everyone to bubble away nicely. There is an atmosphere of congenial story swapping by the fire, as opposed to the previous air of everyone being forced into having to pay rapt attention to the host.

The biggest test was always going to be Toksvig’s relationship with Alan Davies, who had long been Fry’s foil despite actually being far smarter than he played it. Davies’ reduced klaxon triggering made Fry’s taunts become slightly cruel. Yes, Toksvig still does do this, but only in scripted moments. She also reacts more warmly to Davies’ interventions, sincere laughing replacing her predecessors withering glare.

In many respects then, Toksvig is outperforming Fry. Everything feels as if it’s been given an added injection of warmth (although it was never cold to begin with) and she seems a natural, bouncing off other’s energy rather than trying to repel it.

Are there any weaknesses? Not as yet, but there’s time. Her well of stories may run dry sooner than expected and her lack of childlike glee for information could see her become drier as a host. But, for now, she is capably captaining that most inquisitive of ships.

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.

One of the iconic programmes in British comedy history is Blackadder. It had an unusual concept for a comedy, in that it was set in a bygone era of English history, a different one for each series, with central figure being a distant descendent of the previous central character. Each time the figure of Blackadder fell slightly down the social ladder, from prince to courtier to servant to mid-ranking army officer.

What was so good about it was that it delivered such brilliant satire. Not only did it skewer the times it was set in, but it also mocked the modern world as well. It also skewered major figures of the era, my favourite being Elizabeth I being written as a petulant sociopath. No doubt many would argue this perhaps wasn’t too far from the truth.

There have long been rumours of a fifth series, but to no avail. Instead, its creator, Ben Elton, has written Upstart Crow, a comedy satirising the life and works of Shakespeare. It shares that skewering of historical figures, not least Shakespeare himself, as well as the modern myths that we have created around him. We are introduced to a man who leads a fairly normal family life, who don’t quite get his apparent genius.

Yet despite this, I struggle to actually laugh at this show. I think part of the problem is that, having got so used to watching comedies that are understated and about the subtleties of life, watching something where the jokes are more in plain sight requires a gear change that I cannot manage.

I quickly here want to add a note about the use of live audience laughter – some people thinks this kills comedy dead, but I disagree. Graham Linehan uses it in his comedies, and they don’t detract from anything there. Rather, it is the heavy-handedness of Elton’s writing in Upstart Crow that is to blame.

For example, Helen Monks plays Susannah, Shakespeare’s teenage daughter. This could have been handled any number of ways, but instead we have the well-worn trope of the sulky teenager. You would have thought that after Kevin and Perry, this characterisation would have died a death. It feels like a waste of Monks’ talent, certainly in comparison to her role as Germaine on Raised by Wolves.

There are some bits I like. The occasional joke lands quite well. There was a particularly good recurring one in episode two revolving around where are you supposed to put the coconuts down a woman’s vest if she already has breasts. But they are few and far between. Couple this with a feeling that everything is being slightly overdone in terms of the acting, and you have something that lacks any cohesion.

Despite this, there seems to be some love for it amongst the critics. Maybe if I accept it for what it is, I will enjoy the ride more. Still, I can’t help but feel this is an opportunity missed.