Right. I’ve had enough of writing worthy stuff that nobody is interested in. As 2018 comes to a close, I think it’s about time I did something which is just all-out populist. I am more than happy to throw my dignity under a bus for the sake of shareable content.
Here’s when all your favourite TV shows really jumped the shark.
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BBC Media Centre, 4th March 2015:
“At an event co-hosted by BBC Director-General Tony Hall and Shane Allen, Controller of Comedy Commissioning, it was announced that BBC One will host the annual Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture, to be given by a key comedy figure to share his or her experiences and to help inspire others, as well as addressing the present-day challenges and opportunities facing the industry.
Akin to the Reith and Dimbleby lectures, the Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture’s aim is to articulate why comedy matters so much, both on a personal level and how it helps to reflect and define our national character. An inaugural speaker announcement will be made shortly.”
Sure enough, broadcast on the 25th August 2017:
“The inaugural Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture speaker is multi-award-winning comedian, novelist, playwright, film maker and creator of classic sitcoms The Young Ones, Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line and Upstart Crow, Ben Elton. He is introduced by Sir David Jason.
Recorded at the BBC’s Radio Theatre in front of an invited audience from the world of comedy, the lecture is named after the much-loved comedy writer and performer Ronnie Barker, star of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Open All Hours.”
And what did David Jason say in his introduction in the programme itself?
DAVID JASON: I’m so pleased that the BBC have decided to institute an annual lecture on the art of comedy.
The point: the programme was conceived as an annual lecture, and was described as an annual lecture in the programme itself. With 2018 drawing to an end, then, it seems an appropriate time to ask: where the bloody hell has it gone?
It’s annoying. And it’s annoying because the idea of the lecture was such a fantastic one. I can think of few things better than a funny person talking about comedy for 45 minutes, and then broadcasting it to the nation. “Educational but entertaining… perfect BBC output”, you might say. With the best will in the world, how difficult is it to get someone funny to stand in the Radio Theatre for a while and bang on about comedy?
Indeed, I would argue that naming the lecture after Ronnie Barker and then giving up after a year is a tad disrespectful. If they really weren’t sure they could make it an annual event, it was unwise to sell it as one. They could have just named last year’s The Ben Elton Comedy Lecture, do it potentially as a one-off, and give themselves some leeway.
Still, surely there isn’t a struggle for things to talk about. Last year, Ben Elton made the case for studio sitcom – a topic extremely relevant to Ronnie Barker’s work. I would argue another topic equally as relevant to Barker is the current dearth of sketch comedy on television. The odd show like Tracey Breaks the News aside, there’s virtually nothing – and the lack of sketch shows on TV is incredibly damaging to the health of comedy in 2018. True, if the BBC broadcast that lecture, plenty of people would just yell “commission some, then”. But the BBC has a long and proud history of self-flagellation, and I don’t see why this should be any different.
Although at this point, I’d probably settle for somebody standing on stage and telling us YouTube is the future of comedy. Anything, in fact, than a great idea being thrown away so quickly. I mean, I thought there was a possibility it might peter out after three years or so.
But after one is just ridiculous.
Here’s something from the Radio Times, brought to my attention via TV Forum: an odd little piece about the BBC2 Dad’s Army ident that never was.
Odd, because unused TV idents aren’t exactly the kind of thing the Radio Times usually writes about. I mean, I’d love it if it was, but let’s face it: the only reason this article was published is because it’s about Dad’s Army, a sitcom everyone is still obsessed over, despite the fact that It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi!, and You Rang, M’Lord? are all much better.
Enough of my irritating opinions on comedy. I’m here to give some irritating opinions on TV presentation instead. Let’s take a look at the rejected ident in question:
I mean, it’s beautiful. Really beautiful. Very nicely animated, and the inclusion of the Isle of Wight on the 2 really sells it as what it’s supposed to be. In and of itself as a standalone thing, it’s one of the best pieces of TV presentation I’ve seen for ages. It’s clearly made with a tremendous amount of love and respect for the show.
It wouldn’t have worked as an ident in front of Dad’s Army. Not even remotely.
You could perhaps query the inclusion of Nazi symbols on a piece of TV presentation, but that’s not my main problem with it. Nor is my problem covered in the reason the BBC gave for rejecting it:
“Ultimately, however, the BBC decided not to use the homage to those original opening credits. “They said some very nice things about it and it was clearly something that was under discussion for some time,” continues Norton. “However, they told us that they wanted to move away from content-specific idents on BBC2 and wanted more general idents that could serve all programmes across the channel.”
Here’s my problem with it: stop thinking of the proposed ident as a nice standalone piece of video, and start thinking of how it actually would have been used, in front of an episode of Dad’s Army. Just imagine the ident running, the announcer talking over it, introducing the episode… and then going into the actual title sequence, which looks identical. It would be such a weird, jarring repetition of what you’d just seen. Something which looks utterly magical in isolation, would look naff when used in context.1
Linear television is more than just individual elements, slammed next to each other. What the viewer has just seen impacts on what they’re just about to see. And as the various parts of television get ever-more siloed off, seeing the big picture of what is transmitted when everything gets put together becomes more and more difficult. It’s vital that this overview is protected, and strengthened, across all of television.
Otherwise, you don’t just end up with the oddity of seeing a pastiche of a title sequence followed by the real title sequence. You end up with idents accidentally mocking the dead.
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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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.
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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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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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.”
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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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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.
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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.
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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.
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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