Archives for posts with tag: satire

How much of a liberty should you take with history when producing a work of fiction? I suppose it depends on what you want the end result to be. A serious period drama needs more attention to detail, and besides, real historical events rarely need extra dramatization adding. A more fluffy drama (e.g. Downton Abbey) needs less of this, as your audience is essentially wanting a soap in period costume. The social changes are merely a jumping off point for characters rather than being the tale you want to tell.

But what about comedy? Yes, again your audience is hardly going to bristle at 21st-century values being imposed on a historical figure, but you still want to feel as if the writer knows what they are talking about. Satirical jabs at our ancestors can become inane if not handled carefully. Quacks trod this line quite well. Upstart Crow, less so.

You see, the big problem with Upstart Crow is that it tries too hard. The veiled, or not so veiled, references to Brexit, Trump and other problems of our down are heavy-handedly transposed into a late 16th-century context. This is surprising, as Ben Elton did this so well in Blackadder.

In fact, the problems with Upstart Crow are laid bare when you look at Blackadder. Having a background cast that hams it up is fine if there is someone central that keeps it level, as Rowan Atkinson did as Edmund Blackadder. But in Crow, David Mitchell is as OTT in his performance as everyone else. It leaves you feeling as if you are being bashed over the head by a group of toddlers chanting ‘laugh, laugh, laugh’.

And then you have the tricky biographical details. Are we really to believe that Shakespeare was an idiot, entirely dependent on his sensible wife and uber-feminist friend to give him inspiration? I know we can stretch our imaginations a little, but this characterisation of Shakespeare borders on the unbelievable. If the whole point is to show how someone from a modest background rose to be one of our greatest writers, isn’t this rather dulled by making him a stupid man with ideas above his station? I don’t believe in hagiographies, but nor do I like this rather ‘know your place’ attitude the show seems to have.

Another example is the representation of Christopher Marlowe as a caddish womaniser when more and more evidence is showing he was actually as close to being an openly practising homosexual you could possibly be for the time. It’s 2017, viewers won’t demand heads on sticks if you write him as such.

Overall, what felt like a novelty in series one is feeling old and tired now. Most of the jokes are recycled from previous episodes bar the plot specific ones and the characters remain one-note. If you are going to satirise history, you need to show some teeth, especially if you are going to stretch the past to its breaking point. Taking liberties is only worth it if the end product is good enough. In this case, it feels like it is not.

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It seems weird to be discussing a show as lightweight as 8 Out of 10 Cats, but I have good reasons to. The first is, to put it bluntly, there is little else on TV at the moment that I haven’t analysed to death, although if someone wants to know my thoughts on New Girl for the umpteenth time I am happy to divulge. The other is that it is a prime example of a successful satirical panel show, and is worthy of dissection as a representation of the genre.

I always see Cats as the teenage grandchild of Have I Got News For You that is enjoying its first few trips to the pub with its mates. The jokes are not as deep and there is no Ian Hislop to offer some thought provoking monologue but it shares some basic genetic material. There are the digs at those in power and popular culture, the latter of which hit home more. It is always more convincing when you hear someone under 40 bemoan modern life if you are in that age bracket. Paul Merton dissing, say, Lady Gaga always comes across as the older generation patronising the younger. Rob Beckett doing it feels more genuine.

The change of captains from Sean Lock and Jon Richardson to Beckett and Aisling Bea is welcome. Not that Lock and Richardson weren’t great, but there was a danger of the show slipping in to the very problem described above with Merton and Hislop – complaining about modern life only works if people genuinely believe you are aware of what it is you are commenting on. Besides Beckett and Bea are hilarious. I am a particular fan of Beckett’s long-running insistence that Jamie Oliver has a kid called Spaghetti Pete. It’s not the cleverest of jokes, but you buy into it because it only stretches the truth slightly.

I do think the show shares a limitation with HIGNFY. Both of them in their satire paint an almost consistent negative picture of politics. There are two camps in satirical thought – one that it exists only to ridicule the powerful and the latter that it should offer guidance on how to improve. I belong in the latter. HIGNFY does have Hislop sometimes giving such a patch of light. Cats does not. You could argue that is not the show’s remit, but with it being so youth oriented, and that generation proving to be so crucial in elections (as the last few years have proved), it almost owes us a duty to encourage engagement in social issues. The Last Leg does this so well without being preachy, so it can be done.

Still, as a diversion it does its job and it isn’t the worst way to spend an hour with the TV.

Adapting a novel for the screen, big or small, must be one of the most challenging projects on TV. It’s all very well having the plot nicely written for you, but this becomes a hindrance. Do you stick to it rigidly, digressions and all? Do you focus on just the main strands but axe some minor characters, who could actually be the most interesting of them all? Do change the ending to suit your ‘vision’?

However you answer these, you are bound to ruffle feathers. Be too close to the book and you risk making something pointless – after all, people may as well just read the story and get the full flavour unless you do something original. Lose a minor character and you remove potentially some of the best moments or give them to someone entirely unsuited. Change the ending or a major plot point and people will howl at the moon if you even put the slightest foot wrong with the change.

When it’s a book you love, you feel very protective of what is created. You have your vision and woe betide anyone who doesn’t go along with it. So I was nervous about the recent adaptation of Decline and Fall, a book I read as a precocious teenager. Or, at least I was nervous, until I realised I couldn’t remember most of it. I definitely recollect enjoying it and finding it funny though.

I suppose then, that this adaptation’s one and only test was to be funny. It stood a good chance with Jack Whitehall in the lead role of Paul Pennyfeather. Yet I was surprised by how lifeless he seemed to make the character. Of course, that is partially due to the nature of the story – the pitfalls that occur are caused by others’ actions on to him rather than his own agency. Even so, book Paul always seemed more robust than TV Paul. This could be partially due to a reader having more access to an inner monologue and the narration, where the satire is probably sharper. It could also be a faulty memory of mine.

Nevertheless, quietly politely rarely carries a story well, so it falls onto the supporting cast to give the story its life. They do this admirably, in particular Vincent Franklin as agnostic minister Prendergast and Douglas Hodge as Grimes, a man who is nearly always ‘in the soup’.

There are hints at the satire that Waugh was aiming for in his novel. The Bollinger Club and the government officials who manipulate their way to the top and stay there, largely by passing blame on to those underneath. The ‘trendy’ approach to maintaining discipline in prison. An education system that focuses on please parents over teaching children. All as true now as then. I can’t help feeling it couldn’t have been more savage though. This was satire with gloves on. What it needed was for a brick to be hidden in it.

Confession time – there has been little new for me to watch this week. No new series have taken my fancy and my week has fell into a humdrum pattern of viewing. The good news is that this week coming there are a couple of new things on the horizon. For now though, you will have to suffer me talking about something I’ve discussed before.

The Last Leg has built a loyal following over the last five years. It has moved beyond its original remit of just being a Paralympics companion show to becoming an incisive current affairs programme, gleefully mixing pop culture references with satire to cut through the news of the week.

By and large, it does an excellent job. Neither forced to be neutral like the BBC or owned by someone with an agenda like our newspapers, it can break down stories to make them understandable whilst offering social commentary. It is positive and uplifting and is capable of discussing both sides of the argument whilst still able to draw a line when one side is talking nonsense. They even have a special ‘bullshit’ button to know when that line is being crossed.

Of course, time restraints mean that they can never go into too much detail, but shows like this are only ever intended to be a jumping off point, especially ones like this that aim to give some light relief. Of course, it is seen by many as a home to ‘libtards’, although this seems harsh when you consider they have been as quick to criticise the shortcomings of Clinton and Corbyn as they have to May and Trump, it’s just the latter two have now got power and need to be more accountable for what they say and do.

My biggest critique is that actually, for all its talk of equality and diversity, it sometimes fails its own standards. The last three female guests on the show, Victoria Coren Mitchell, Sandi Toksvig and Sharon Horgan, have all been paired with male guests, with only Horgan’s understandable, as it was her writing partner Rob Delaney. Both Coren Mitchell and Toksvig could hold their own. There didn’t seem to be a need to book a female guess to counter balance Kevin Bridges, and, as Harry Hill pointed out when he appeared, it was ironic that the show broadcast on International Women’s Day had five men and no women.

Similar arguments could be made regarding race and LGBT figures (Stormzy the sole BME guest and Toksvig ticking the LGBT box for the series). Nobody wants this reduced to a box-ticking exercise but something as simple as allowing female guests to fly solo would be a start.

Am I being pedantic? Maybe. But it would be a shame for a show that covers equality and diversity so well in other areas to fall on something as basic as this. Otherwise it might be their hiring policy that is termed ‘bullshit’.

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.

Contrary to some arguments, satire appears to be in robust health. The sketch show has perhaps continued it’s slow death, although Tracey Ullman has giving it a bit of a boost, but panel shows have sprung up to take its place. Having said that, there does seem to be an increasingly blunted edge to their swords, particularly on the BBC, who are having to kiss the arse of a government that overtly hates them.

So it is little surprise then that the brightest future for a satire is a) American and b) animated. The Simpsons arguably started this charge, with South Park and Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad following suit. Joining the charge of the laughs brigade is Bordertown, a cousin of the aforementioned of American Dad. It has a similar tone and target, focusing on the ludicrous actions and bewildering popularity of right-wing political movements and their supporters. What AD did to the Republican movement, Bordertown is doing to the hot potato of immigration.

At the centre of the show are two families living in a small town on the US/Mexico border. The Buckwald’s are borderline red-necks. You can imagine them supporting Trump and not batting an eye at the violent mob that swirls around him. The Gonzalez family are Mexican immigrants who have achieved a modest level of success. Most of the humour revolves around the patriarch of the former, Bud, being jealous of the latter’s head of house, Ernesto.

A lot of the jokes hit home in a fairly blunt manner. It’s quite clear that the reason for the Gonzalez’s success is having a better work ethic, entrepreneurial vision and a sincere gratitude for life. Meanwhile, the Buckwald’s are comparatively uneducated, lazy and consumed by material greed. This is, of course, more black and white than reality, but some points still stand. Those who look frustratingly at immigrants climbing past them don’t realise the work the immigrants put in to doing so. Certainly in Britain, the tools are there for everyone to achieve, it’s just that some choose not to and prefer to complain about those that do.

Of course, it’s all well and good making some wise satire, but if it’s not funny it is not going to hit its mark. Thankfully, to me at least, it is. I have laughed several times at each episode so far, which is an achievement in itself. Yes, some of the humour is a little basic, and I am still not a fan of toilet humour. But, overall, I am charmed by it. Reviews suggest I am in a minority, but I’m used to that. Sadly, those of us that look beyond the spin around immigration often are.

For saying we live in the 21st century, there are times when you feel TV is struggling to play catch-up. Take for example the excitement over Claudia Winkleman being made permanent co-host of Strictly Come Dancing. Finally, two women were allowed to co-anchor a primetime Saturday night family entertainment show. How it took us to 2014 to achieve that landmark should be the real story. It’s not like the concept of Saturday night as a captive audience or that women being good at presenters is a new thing. As good as something like this happening is, you can’t help but wonder why this wasn’t being done a decade or two ago.

Likewise, considering that being disabled hasn’t been invented in the last few years, it seems surprising that it took until 2012 for a light entertainment format to be fronted by, and to frequently discuss, people with disabilities. Yet in The Last Leg, we finally do. For the uninitiated, The Last Leg is a satirical look at the week’s events, with an added chat element thrown in, fronted by Adam Hills (a successful stand-up comic who has a prosthetic leg) and co-hosted by Alex Brooker (another comedian and also disabled) and Josh Widdicombe (not disabled, although he is from Devon, so has his own issues to deal with).

For a show that is at its heart quite light-hearted, it doesn’t shy away from big issues. The most recent episode debated tax avoidance, whilst on the flip side it also looked at Fifty Shades of Grey and Australia entering Eurovision. It is informed, edgy and sharp, but isn’t worthy. It’s like Mock the Week without the cruelty. The central theme of the show, whether they are discussing Russia, ISIS or trigger-happy Americans, is ‘don’t be a dick’.

One of the most interesting recurring themes of the show though is disability. I like the honesty of it. When discussing whether or not they would take a pill to cure their disabilities, Hills gave a resounding yes, pointing out that he had learnt all he could about life from being disabled. In a previous series, he had said that the biggest issue with being disabled was that it was, quite frankly, a pain the arse. I find this honesty far more inspirational than the ‘human interest’ stories you read in the tabloids, where someone discusses their triumph over tragedy.

It is a sign of progress that a show like this is being made for a mass-audience, not a niche one that some may presume. However, it would be even better to see more of this kind of programming, not just involving disability, but covering all sections of society. Too often diversity is tucked away into niche programming, or at the other extreme so heavily promoted you choke on the worthiness. The Last Leg shows how you can avoid this.