Archives for posts with tag: BBC2

Firstly, an apology for missing a week. Real life got in the way. And by real life, I mean a Christmas Afternoon High Tea with prosecco. But I am back now, so let’s crack on.

Last year the BBC launched a number of sitcom pilots to see if any could generate enough interest to succeed as a series. Most failed to even raise an eyebrow, but one – Motherland – generated both critical and public acclaim. This perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider the calibre of people working on it. Two of the four writers are Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan, both of whom have a pedigree in making excellent comedies.

Motherland is, as the title obviously suggests, about parenting. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Julia, who is trying to ‘have it all’ and ending up often with having nothing but stress thanks to a feckless husband. Diane Morgan is the more slatternly (and presumably unemployed) single mum Liz, Lucy Punch as queen of the ‘Tiger Mums’ Amanda and Paul Ready is stay-at-home dad Kevin.

It has to be said the strongest character is Liz, full of brutal honesty and realism with also a touch vulnerability. A particular highlight came in episode one when Julia’s entertainer for her child’s birthday party was exposed as a racist and Liz had also used and refused to pay him. When Julia queried if it was the racism, Liz responded with: “No, because he was shit! If I didn’t pay people because they were racist I would have never got my satellite dish fitted. Or my wedding catered for”.

This more down-to-earth humour balances the more manic energies brought by Julia and Kevin. The latter in particular is annoying, a mixture of weird obsessiveness with a desperation to please normally only seen in puppies. It is the fact this portrayal veers in the cartoony that is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody else you feel is somewhat believable, regardless of their faults.

Putting Kevin aside, this is an excellent comedy. It actually makes you laugh as the strands of the episode build to a climax. There isn’t any of the absurdism of Linehan’s other sitcoms, but then, that wouldn’t work here. This is about wry observations of modern parenting and the social rules that come with it.

I hope this show achieves continued success. Female-dominated comedies often get plenty of well-meaning comments but nothing to show for it. This deserves more. At the very least, a BAFTA for Morgan, who seems to be constantly just bubbling under the surface as a breakout talent. Maybe this could be her chance to join those at comedy’s top table. She has earnt it.

 

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You have to be careful with a format change. It has to be for the good, entirely complementing the programme and audience involved. A case in point of it going badly wrong appears to be The X Factor, where the sing-off has now been replaced with a straight elimination each night and instead a prize fight between the two highest scorers. It has not gone down well – the viewers want the metaphorical blood-spilling that putting the weakest two acts through entails. With me not watching it I can’t offer my views but I do feel it to be an odd idea.

Robot Wars, on the other hand, have been quite canny with their changes. Pre-battle interviews and competitor profiles have been shrunk down, allowing us more time to focus on what we are tuning in for: two lumps of metal tearing chunks off each other. You see, this is how you play to your audience.

We also have a slightly different elimination process – rather than two four-player melees with the top two from each going forward to round-robin semi-final, we instead have two three-way battles, the top team in each automatically qualifying for the semis and the remaining four have a ‘robot redemption’ fight, the winner of each joining the semi’s. Again, more battles, plus a chance for an otherwise excellent robot that had a bit of bad luck in the first round to get through to the later stages again.

The final change will become apparent in the final, where the wild card option has been replaced by 10 robot ‘last man standing’ contest between the second- and third-placed robots in each heat. This could be a glorious moment of carnage or too chaotic for us to know what is happening until it is all over, but I’m willing to give it a go.

Overall, Robot Wars delivers exactly what I want from a show like this. There is destruction and tactics, but still a feeling of goodwill. If a team is up against fixing a robot, particularly if they are an underdog, a whole pit can pull together to ensure the next fight takes place. Everybody understands the glory comes from winning by being the best, not by making someone else the worst.

I do have one quibble, which is the tendancy to have an uneven spread across the heats of front-runners. For instance, heat two had champions Carbide, runners-up Eruption and finalists Aftershock, which I’m assuming means there is another heat where there is a group of robots all lacking pedigree. I can’t help but think some kind of seeding system is needed to prevent this.

Even with this though, this is still one of my favourite hours of TV each week. It’s fun and weirdly positive for saying it centres so much round trashing something that is someone’s lifework. People may joke about the geeks ruling the earth, but on this evidence, we better start asking for mercy now.

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.

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.