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31.10.18

Drop the Dead Donkey: The Unbroadcast Pilot

Posted 31st October 2018

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Drop The Dead Donkey pilot - Alex, Damien, Dave and George

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with TV pilots.

TV pilots of all kinds. Shows which eventually made it to the screen virtually untouched as part of a series, like The Young Ones episode Demolition. Shows which made it to screen, but which were substantially or entirely reshot for the series proper, such as Citizen Smith. One-offs which aired, but never became a series – remember Mirrorball? And then there’s my favourite: pilots which were never broadcast, either because they were never intended to be in the first place, or because substantial changes happened between the pilot and the series… or because they were a complete fucking disaster in every single respect.

There are so many of these unbroadcast pilots I’d love to see. There’s the 1986 pilot Dungeon Doom… followed by a second, also unbroadcast pilot under the more familiar name Knightmare in 1987. Similarly, 1983 saw an unnamed pre-pilot, followed by a full pilot called UNTV… with a series appearing the year after, a certain Spitting Image. Then there’s Paul O’Grady’s version of The Generation Game, which by rights should have been the BBC’s big entertainment hit of 2003… and wouldn’t you just love to watch the two pilots they made to see exactly why that didn’t happen?

Occasionally, such pilots get to see the light of day on DVD, if they ended up as successful shows. Sherlock saw its unbroadcast 60 minute version of A Study in Pink released. The Day Today is one of the most obvious comedy examples, with the bare bones of the show there… but the visual panache of the series very much not. And then there’s Doctor Who, where the DVD set The Beginning contains the complete unedited pilot recording, and a brand new edit combining the best of all the raw session’s takes. Because, y’know, Doctor Who.

With comedy, it’s easy to wish so much more was released.1 Blackadder is the most obvious example here, with a pilot which had never been officially put out on DVD, presumably due to somebody not wishing it to be out there.2 Slightly further afield, I would do anything3 to see A Big Bunch of Hippies, the pilot for the underrated sitcom Hippies – and even if you didn’t like the show, its unbroadcast pilot was the last TV show scripted jointly by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, which is surely of interest to the discerning comedy fan.4

But occasionally, we get lucky. Hello Drop the Dead Donkey, Channel 4’s truly excellent 90s newsroom sitcom… which actually released its unbroadcast pilot on DVD in 2005. And watching it in the context of that first series from 1990 is rather instructive.

Let’s instruct ourselves, shall we?

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  1. Admittedly, comedy in general has it better than game shows, or entertainment shows in general. Duncan Norvelle’s pilot edition of Blind Date is the stuff of legend, and we’ve never seen so much as a field of it. UPDATE: Thanks to Ben Baker, who points out that parts of this pilot were seen in the documentary Who Killed Saturday Night TV? Now I’ve just got to pluck up the courage to watch it. 

  2. To be honest, it shuffles round the net so often like the proverbial video ghost that you’d think whoever it is might as well just throw up their hands, give in, and accept a few pennies out of it. 

  3. Not actually anything. 

  4. Yes, you there. Hello. 

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18.10.18

Theatrical Sparkle

Posted 18th October 2018

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Here’s a nice little find: a good quality version of the second title sequence to BBC political programme On The Record, from 1993:

The clip was uploaded by one of the creators, Stephanie Chappell:

“This was designed and directed by me and my fellow designer Dimitri Kevgas. It turned out to be one of the longest running titles on the BBC – running over 11 years until the programme was retired in 2004.1

We created a story for the UK political animal – the crocodile based on one of the gargoyles at Westminster. Because we were moving into the EU in the early 90s, we sent the crocodile on a journey, reflecting the interaction with his European allies. The whole project took 3 months to complete – with 1 month of solid single frame animation covering a second of the sequence each day.”

Here’s my question: could you ever imagine a political programme commissioning such a title sequence today? A piece of stop motion animation which took three months to create from beginning to end? I can’t. The money for such luxuries has long gone.

And this is the kind of thing I mean when I say: a lot of TV looks cheaper these days.

Oh, sure, there are endless newspaper columns and blog posts going on about the current golden age of television, and I’m not going to sneer at shows like Killing Eve. But they aren’t the only kinds of television there is. And over the years, imperceptibly at first, huge swathes of TV has been squeezed. Sometimes fundamentally: we’ve all read endless stories about the lack of rehearsal time on the soaps even compared to the 90s. And sometimes just with the fun stuff at the edges.

Because of course: On The Record didn’t need those opening titles, per se. But they did set a certain… tone. TV’s no fun if you cut everything to the bare bone. Television shouldn’t just be utilitarian, in the same way that your dinner shouldn’t just be about nutrition. Blockbusters didn’t need this glorious set of titles, but surely we can all agree it’s brilliant that they did… and also agree that there’s not a chance in hell they would ever be made now.

When I think back to my memories growing up with television, it’s often that fun stuff on the edges I remember the most. When TV just goes all-out on something beautiful, brilliant, and a bit mad, just because it can. Like, for instance, spending three months on a stop motion animation sequence of the Palace of Westminster acting like a crocodile and taking a short holiday around Europe. When budgets shrink, that stuff is the first thing to go. And I miss it like hell. 2

I’m not particularly pinning blame on programme-makers here. They do the best with the resources available. Nor is this really the place for my long, uninformed thesis on how to fix television. I’m just saying, for all the talk about the current golden age of TV… it’s worth remembering some of the fun stuff we’ve lost, just because it has the temerity not to be a “premium” drama.

A bit of theatrical sparkle shouldn’t be restricted to a narrow set of programming.


  1. This is incorrect, in fact: the last ever episode of On The Record was broadcast on the 15th December 2002

  2. I love this argument too, from Dave Jeffery: “To me, commissioning titles like that is the BBC supporting and promoting the arts in a way that is just as important as supporting an orchestra or composer. Similarly the BBC should do things like commission sculptures or murals for its buildings.” 

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22.09.18

Cheap Cheap Cheap: Escape from the Cuntery

Posted 22nd September 2018

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Cheap Cheap Cheap - Barry and Noel

It isn’t a game show crossed with a sitcom, of course.

Oh, Hat Trick might have tried to sell it like that. It was the line used in all the pre-publicity. But the word “sitcom” simply oversells the narrative element of Cheap Cheap Cheap. If people really tuned into the programme expecting a sitcom, no wonder they were disappointed with what they saw.

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05.08.18

A Few Notes on the Recording of The Lenny Henry Birthday Show

Posted 5th August 2018

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TV Centre

On the 30th July, I went to see The Lenny Henry Birthday Show recorded in TC1 at TV Centre. The following are a few notes from the experience. Nothing too spoilery, if only because my brain has an innate capability for forgetting the funniest of jokes precisely 10 seconds later.

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21.07.18

“A British Netflix”

Posted 21st July 2018

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BBC News, ‘Netflix effect’ poses challenge to British TV’, 18th July 2018:

Video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime now have more subscribers than traditional pay TV services in the UK, new data from Ofcom has revealed.

The media regulator says British TV will have to change the way it operates if it wants to compete with the internet giants.

Sharon White, Ofcom’s chief executive, says: ‘We’d love to see broadcasters such as the BBC work collaboratively with ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 so that they have got that scale to compete globally, making shows together, co-producing great shows that all of us can watch.

“I think it would be great to see a British Netflix.”

*   *   *

BBC Media Centre, ‘BBC announces changes to political programming’, 12th July 2018:

The BBC has announced changes to its political and parliamentary output to improve its digital coverage, better serve its audiences, and provide more value for money.

The changes include:

[…]

A changed schedule for BBC Parliament: the channel will still broadcast live and replayed coverage of Parliament and the devolved parliaments and assemblies, but will no longer make bespoke programmes and will not air in the weeks when the UK Parliament or the devolved Parliaments and assemblies are not sitting.

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12.06.18

The Churn

Posted 12th June 2018

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Jonah Nolan1, guesting on the podcast Scriptnotes, Episode #352:

“…I’ve done broadcast TV, and I’d very gotten very used to the sort of endless churn. I liken broadcast TV to getting a tie caught in a shredder. You’re just fucking all in. The prevailing rule of broadcast television for decades was once you’ve got that magic formula, that franchise of cast and characters and the story of the week, you just keep doing that. And I never had any interest in that whatsoever.

I think with Westworld much more explicitly we set out not using the rules of television, because TV has now expanded to fit so many different formats, it’s kind of the Wild West. We looked more at the rules for franchise filmmaking.”

Me? I love the churn. The churn is responsible for some of the best moments of television ever.

*   *   *

The churn gets you the angriest episode of Frasier ever made. The churn gets you Coronation Street‘s widely-praised storyline about Aidan’s suicide. The churn gets you endless fun on CBBC live links; tons of material, written fast, rehearsed minutes before transmission. The very definition of churn, and stuff which has had me hooting so loudly you could hear me three streets away.

And the churn gets you moments like the Star Trek: Voyager episode Course: Oblivion. Oh, I could have cheated here, and dug up a widely-acknowledged Next Generation classic: Yesterday’s Enterprise, for instance, which was done in such a ridiculous time crunch five people worked on the teleplay just to get the damn thing finished. Course: Oblivion is a divisive episode at the very least, and is rarely considered one of the best Trek episodes ever made.

But it’s a fascinating example of what the churn of television can create. The story of an entirely duplicate Voyager crew, which would never exist if Voyager was a carefully-plotted, 10 episodes a year kind of show. It’s a sideshow – the kind of episode which has many people asking “Who cares – they’re not our characters.”

Or put another way, it’s Voyager having the freedom to say: “What the hell, we’ve got 25 other episodes this year – let’s just do something weird and see what happens”. An episode so nihilistic it barely feels like a Trek episode at times, as our duplicate crew go unremittingly towards their destruction, through no fault of their own. And yet the episode is far from pointless; it’s about the need to be remembered, for your life to mean something. As co-writer Nick Sagan puts it: “it’s about loss and remembering, death and grief.”

I love it to bits. And we owe its existence to the churn of weekly television.

*   *   *

The churn is “Shit, what the fuck do we do this week?” – and coming up with an answer. Sometimes, the answer is crap. Sometimes, it’s merely fine.

But sometimes, it’s amazing. And you can end up in places it’s difficult to get to with your 10-episodes-a-year, we’re-really-just-one-long-movie-style plotting. Not necessarily superior places, not always. But places we may never otherwise have gone.

As ever: let’s embrace all the different ways we can make television.


  1. Who, incidentally, thinks that The Prisoner doesn’t contain any actual penny-farthings

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26.04.18

“Genuinely Eager to Champion the Unemployed…”

Posted 26th April 2018

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Of all the striking things about Dennis Potter’s 1965 play Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, one thing in particular stands out: its use of real news footage, of Nye Bevan’s speech on the Suez crisis, and an “interview” with Oswald Mosley1 on unemployment. Clips which aren’t included into the play in a diegetic fashion, but are merely thrown into the mix when a character mentions them.

This is the tale of how such unusual method of storytelling may have preserved a little piece of history. And although the world probably doesn’t need any more Oswald Mosley2, Nigel Barton nonetheless provides exactly that.

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  1. Cunt. 

  2. Cunt. 

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17.04.18

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton: From Script to Screen

Posted 17th April 2018

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Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton title card

Previously on Dirty Feed, I took a look at the differences between the script taken into rehearsals for Dennis Potter’s 1965 play Stand Up, Nigel Barton, and what was finally broadcast. (Please read that first piece if you haven’t already; it contains a lot of background necessary for understanding this one.) This time, we take a look at Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, broadcast the following week on the 15th December 1965. Fittingly enough, Vote – Potter’s cry of desperation about the state of politics – got bogged down in behind-the-scenes politics of its own, and ended up with a rather chequered production history. So first of all, it’s important to define what this article isn’t.

Unlike the relative peacefulness of Stand Up‘s production, Vote not only had a major rewrite, but that major rewrite was after the whole thing had been shot. Potter details in his introduction to the Penguin scriptbook The Nigel Barton Plays that the play was originally ready for broadcast on the 23rd June 1965, but that executives started to get cold feet and pulled the play seven hours before transmission.

Between June and the play’s eventual December broadcast, several scenes were rewritten and reshot. Needless to say, Potter wasn’t very happy about it.

“The result disfigures the play in a few important ways. Firstly, some of the savagery of Jack Hay’s cynicism had to be muted. It was argued that, in the original, the agent was ‘almost psychotic’. After much edgy negotiation, I was able to settle for what is now in the text – but I hope it will be clear […] that any further diminution in the bite or the fury of the part would have ruined the play.”

The crucial bit for us in terms of analysing the changes made to the text is the following:

“Like the new Jack Hay I, too, have my own ‘private grief’ and nothing will now induce me to publish the original Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton (nor the original of my Cinderella). These published texts are to be related to what was actually shown on the screen.”

Which means we have a somewhat different situation here compared to that with Stand Up, Nigel Barton. There, we could be certain that the text as published in The Nigel Barton Plays was what was taken into the rehearsal rooms. Here, Potter admits that the script published for Vote is not his original intention. These certainly aren’t transcripts, as there are plenty of differences between this script and what made it onto the screen – so they are presumably an amalgamation of his original script, and the specific scenes featuring Jack Hay which he delivered as rewrites.

So, what this article can’t detail is Potter’s original vision. You don’t get the old, even more twisted Jack Hay here, I’m afraid. We only have what is published in The Nigel Barton Plays to go on. We will, however, analyse the sections of the script which Potter admits were rewritten… and in at least a couple of instances, we can tell that the enforced rewrite on his character has entirely been ignored when it came to actually shooting the thing.

Enough background. Let’s get going. Material from the book is styled like this, and dialogue from the show as broadcast is styled like this. Note that I haven’t detailed every single change in wording between the script and the screen – only the stuff where there seemed to be an interesting point to make, or where there have been clear censorship issues.

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04.04.18

“Television is a waste of time, people”

Posted 4th April 2018

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Khoi Vinh, “Movies Watched, 2017”, 5th January 2018:

“That beats my 2016 total by five and averages out to just under sixteen a month, a pace I credit to my continued adherence to a largely television-free diet. I’m going into my third year doing this now and I don’t miss TV much at all, especially as eschewing it has afforded me the time to watch and re-watch so many great or obscure or fondly remembered movies that I’d never be able to otherwise. Television is a waste of time, people.”

Khoi Vinh, “Movies Watched, February 2018”, 8th March 2018:

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle” Also hilarious.

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle is not a movie, but a television programme, originally made and broadcast by Sky in 2016. And not only is it a television programme, but it’s a parody which makes fun of the conventions of a certain kind of television documentary. It only fully works in the context of it being a television programme.

If you’re going to dismiss an entire artform, by all means do so. But it’s probably best to be consistent about it, rather than pretending the bits you like are actually movies instead.

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25.02.18

Stand Up, Nigel Barton: From Script to Screen

Posted 25th February 2018

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Stand Up, Nigel Barton - title card

“Television brings us the Prime Minister, and a faith healer, a bleeding boxer and a sinking ship, a coronation and an assassination. The picture we see may have been thrown across the Atlantic or even off the moon: it can then seem a highly comic sort of activity to write Act One, Scene One, rehearse in a draughty Territorial Army drill-hall for a fortnight, remove the expletive ‘Christ!’ and finally sandwich yourself between Harold Wilson being frank and somebody walking in space.”

– Dennis Potter, Introduction to The Nigel Barton Plays

Much has been written about Dennis Potter’s two plays Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, which aired in consecutive weeks on BBC1 as part of The Wednesday Play in December 1965. About their takes on class and politics; on how both are some of the most autobiographical works in the Potter canon; and how both plays point to themes present in Potter’s later work.

None of that is what I want to talk about here, however. Instead, I want to take a look at the Penguin paperback The Nigel Barton Plays, published two years later in 1967. This contains an excellent introduction by Potter, and scripts for both plays. Note the word “scripts”, there. They aren’t transcripts of the broadcast version of the plays. These contain numerous differences – in fact, they are the original scripts written by Potter, stage directions and all. Which means, by comparing the contents of the book to the final plays as broadcast, we can tell exactly what Potter originally intended to make it to air – and exactly how the rehearsal process changed things.

Spoiler: Potter wasn’t lying with his amusing anecdote about removing “the expletive ‘Christ!'”.

This article, then, is not a general analysis of Stand Up, Nigel Barton. Rather, it’s a look at exactly what changed between that script and the final programme. Of course, it can’t be a comprehensive list of all changes made to the show; that would be immensely tedious, and any good points would be lost in a sea of minor word changes and rephrases. I have, however, picked up on what I think are the most interesting differences – and I have tried to include every single change when it comes to profanity, as I think that’s the most important aspect of how Potter’s work was changed from script to screen.

While writing this piece, I have also had the pleasure of taking a look at pages of an actual copy of the script, as taken into rehearsals by Ian Fairbairn who was one of the children in the play. Aside from some different scene numbers, studying it gives confirmation that the text printed in The Nigel Barton Plays is the actual material taken into rehearsals. Many thanks to Andrew-Mark Thompson for his help here.

Let’s get going. Material from the book is styled like this, and dialogue from the show as broadcast is styled like this.

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