Thursday 1 June 2017

David Edgar's Play for Today 'DESTINY' (1978) - essay for British Television Drama website

"An ideology red white and blue in tooth and claw"

I'm returning here to delightedly announce that I have a three-part epic essay about David Edgar's 1978 Play for Today, 'Destiny', currently being published on British Television Drama website. This is a significant play (currently viewable here) that dramatises the insurgent far-right and British national identity in the late 1970s. I have been researching this TV play for eight months and have included e-mail interviews with the writer and producer, as well as extensive use of the BBC WAC in Caversham (thanks to Matthew Chipping).

Thanks go to David Edgar and Margaret Matheson for their detailed e-mails with their memories of the play and conscientious answers to my questions. Thanks also to David Rolinson for his tireless work in editing this juggernaut of a piece (originally 20,000 plus words!), as well as Mark Sinker*, Justin Lewis**, Ian Greaves and John Williams who have assisted with queries and research.

Part 1 (David Edgar, the theatrical Destiny and British historical context)

Part 2 (production of the TV play, its broadcast and its reception)

Part 3 (analysis of the play and its afterlife and Edgar and Matheson's subsequent careers)
to be published 2 June 2017

*Who knows much more about English Baroque music than I.
**Who knows much more about UK chart history than I.

Tom May
Newcastle Upon Tyne

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Top of the Pops (BBC-1, 01/05/1980)

(TX: BBC-4, 22/05/2015)

Imagine a universe where scantily-clad, objectified and anonymised women strut about mechanistically to daintily piano-led jazz-funk music that now evokes distant memories of late-1990s late-night music for Ceefax. Picture, if you will, the Dionysian racket of Motörhead - introduced oddly as 'Leatherhead' by presenter Tommy Vance - followed immediately by the saccharine tupperware pop of The Nolans.

This edition of TOTP is epitomised by openers New Musik, complete with vaguely telefantasy-style watery set. If I haven't written about their From A to B album before, then that's a massive oversight: it's a lovely fusion of power-pop and synth-pop. The bassist appears thoroughly impassive, like a Jeff Lynne statue in large dark glasses. The keyboardist plays the fool, anticipating so much great Thomas Dolby geekery. Wimbledon-born Tony Mansfield paces to the syncopated rhythm, both out-of-place and utterly comfortable on this Top of the Pops. Mansfield went onto produce Cleaners from Venus, responsible for that great unheard 1982 indie opus, Midnight Cleaners with its impossibly lovely jangling volleys like 'Only a Shadow' and the best askew pop essay in Englishness this side of XTC or Robyn Hitchcock.

That New Musik didn't mutate into fixtures of the pop scene in Britain is testament to the usual British conservatism... That rare alignment of New Musik, Buggles, Korgis and McCartney II is one of the most delightful of 1980 English musical constellations.

Disco's there - how could it not be? Narada Michael Walden's 'I Shoulda Loved You' shimmers gorgeously, with its soul-jazz horns and elemental groove. Slightly less compelling is the reappearance of a latter-day Jimmy Ruffin, in a Hawaiian shirt, belting out some mildly Barry White-esque soul ballad on a balcony.

The 3-4 years late 'punk' brigade seem to fill one or two slots in every 1980 TOTP show, and The Chords are eminently forgettable in a sub-sub-The Jam style. The distinct heavy metal presence is different to most 1970s charts, and Tommy Vance is the apposite host, pronouncing 'lovin'' naturally without the 'g'. The genre has been on my mind, what with Marcello Carlin's sterling writing on Iron Maiden and Def Leppard on Then Play Long. And, also, Jeremy Deller's exhibition-come-treatise All That is Solid Melts into Air, which I saw at the Laing art gallery in Newcastle, which used Saxon's 'Wheels of Steel' as one of its video exhibits - the Sheffield band who appear in this very TOTP. The conceptual exhibition also included popular broadsides from the Victorian era, including one imagining a future utopia of 1973, as well as family trees of the Messrs Ryder, Holder and Ferry. Deller is from the more analytical, socially engaged end of conceptual art; ironically, given his Marshall Berman-citing title regarding modernism, his connections became ever more concrete the more you moved around the exhibition and thought. De-industrialisation was being experienced by young men in places like Sheffield; not just Mick in Barry Hines and Ken Loach's 1981 film Looks and Smiles, but Saxon and their 'Steel City' contemporaries. As Deller argues, heavy metal is hewn from the memories of industry and its noises.

Then, there is the uncannily serene slice of jazz-funk I alluded to at the start. Legs & Co. function as, well, legs and assorted objects to accompany this almost chillingly calm piece of music: 'The Groove' by Rodney Franklin. Sophisticated in a manner perhaps only achievable by instrumental jazz-funk of this era. The fifteen year-old Gilles Peterson would surely have enjoyed this, even if it is like the super-ego to the id of Incognito, Cymande or Hi-Tension, a wonderful strain of British music he played much of on last week's show.

During the 24/04/80 show, Steve Wright remarks: "Nice to see something so unusual in the charts" - and he says that of Sky... The same show included a one-two of The Cure's 'A Forest' and Elvis Costello's 'High Fidelity'. There's more here; we don't just have an ode to UFOs with a drone-like long introduction from supposedly 'safe' Hot Chocolate, but also Kate Bush's 'Breathing', one of the most horrifying and gut wrenching of any responses to the Second Cold War and the threat of nuclear doomsday. It's from the same album as the crystalline John Dowland-as-subtle-protest-song 'Army Dreamers'. If you aren't into Kate Bush by this stage, then your taste is unfathomable to me! There's no more radical place to start than Never for Ever and The Dreaming and start all should.

The Beat - 'Mirror in the Bathroom': a window on a whole new world, to paraphrase the great Dennis Potter. And Dexys Midnight Runners are at number #1, with 'Geno'. It may not quite be my favourite of theirs: that is 'This Is What She's Like' from five years hence. But it is another evolutionary step as a number 1, following 'Going Underground' a month or two earlier.

To add to the unexpectedly purplish standard, we are thankfully not treated to B.A. Robertson, a bane of this era and, not so much a poor man's Ian Dury, as a 'wacky' Bob Willis, Sky TV's inveterate misanthrope of a cricket commentator (now sentenced, Rochester style, to inserts in the studio). This episode also spares us the egregious Steve Wright, arms flung 'chummily' around invariably female and voice-less audience members. 

The audience lasses are permitted but a few words by Vance, and no, sadly, they aren't colloquial or choice ones. Of course, when introducing the Cockney Rejects, Wright emits an unspeakable 'amusing' blend of cockerney and his mid-Atlantic RP: witness this and cringe.

Alas, this installment doesn't quite avoid Johnny Logan, as his 'What's Another Year' plays over the yellow credits. Yes, blandness, or beigeness in Kate Tempest's terms, always asserts itself in British culture, even amid the more awakened musical culture of 1978-82. However, this programme is generally of a different, stellar order to 1976 TOTP, which I wrote about over three years ago here. We are seeing the infiltration of subcultures and artistry of an altogether weirder and fresher hue, led by talismans such as Kate and Kevin and overseen with wisdom and lightness of touch by a 37-year-old Scouser named Paul. For the moment, commercial compromise and cynicism seem to have been kept out, with the hapless Nolans the ones marooned and marginalised.

Bizarrely, BBC-4 ordain to show an edited thirty minute version on Thursday evenings, and then the full forty or so minuter later in the early hours of Friday (here it is on iPlayer). Needless to say, the edit is superfluous. As a friend has rightly argued, they should further contextualise the show in its era by accompanying the TOTEP re-runs with repeated dramas like Play for Today or documentaries like Russian Language and People - which is at least partially available here, happily.

Tommy Vance unfurls a one-liner, following New Musik's sprightly opening number... "Just a minute I thought I was going to drown there, but luckily I didn't." As Richard Hawley would appreciate, the ocean is bountiful and strange enough to desire immersion.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Becoming a Legend: Blakes 7 - Series One

TX: BBC-1, 02/01/1978 - 27/03/1978

'Fascism threatens to become fashionable. I use the term loosely, but then people do. Call it totalitarianism, and in some guise or other it is a staple theme of teledrama: an all-purpose enemy, decked out with military precision, paramilitary uniform, uniformity of thought, one fatal flaw - and of course - our hero as dissident, battling against the odds to defeat it or perish.'

-- Peter Fiddick, 'Television: Blake's Seven', The Guardian, 10/01/1978, p.8

Welcome to the first of four joint-essays on each series of Blakes 7, inspired by Neil and Sue Perryman's undertaking to watch the lot and write about it at Adventures with the Wife and Blake. I am a donor for their Kickstarter project and have greatly enjoyed reading the blog, after watching the episodes. Sharing the viewing and, now, the writing with me is Ben Brown, with whom I have also been viewing much 'classic' Doctor Who and unusual cinema in recent times... You'll see Ben focusing on narrative, character and dialogue and myself exploting the show's cultural context, themes and myths.


Kerr Avon - Thorn in their Side?

Since being introduced to British sci-fi, I have been confronted with numerous robots, aliens, monsters, spacecraft, laser guns, eccentric - sometimes megalomaniacal - characters and a host of smug one-liners. Eventually my time came to be initiated into the cult following of the dark-ish, somewhat messed-up but often hilarious Blakes 7. This was series 1 and it was 1978. Echoes of Star Wars were still pulsing through the air. [Editor's note: In the Times' TV listings for episode 2, the link is made specific: 'To keep us going until we can actually get tickets for Star Wars, BBC has come up with a new series series Blakes Seven. Worth watching meanwhile.']

The man who brought the Daleks to millions now brought us seven rebellious crew members aboard an errant spaceship eventually to be called the Liberator. This man was Terry Nation and he would make sure he would have an iron grip on the first series by writing every single episode.

The story begins with the plight of our hero, Roj Blake. His memory has been damaged, as is revealed to him ten minutes into the first episode. He has but one disturbing and intense flashback to fall back on. Consequently, we are exposed time and again to Blake’s gaping mouth and the repetition of him being clubbed over the head by an agent of the Terran Federation. It turns out that this tyrannical, intergalactic power had been responsible for the murder of his family and the subsequent wiping of his memory. Upon reacquiring his memory of the atrocities committed by the Federation, he is sentenced to be deported to planet Cygnus Alpha along with other prisoners. A prominent dissident, the Feds have really gone to town on preventing Blake from becoming a martyr. When the charges are outlined to him, charges which basically amount to paedophilia, the apparently innocent Blake realises he has been fit-up and exclaims: “You’ve done a BRILLIANT JOB!” to the security cameras.

"You've done a BRILLIANT JOB!"
Before mnemonic revival kicks in, we have to watch as Blake is told that he is guilty, and while pacing his cell like a caged animal, swears that he “is not insane!” and bellows out that he can’t “remembah… remembah… remembah… remembah…!” – a roar that still echoes in my ears to this day. Blake eventually escapes the Federation aboard the spaceship renamed The Liberator, and gradually acquires six fellow convicts to accompany him along the way:

Kerr Avon is acerbic, cool and ultra-intelligent, don’t you know? When the need arises, he is quite able to conduct himself as the ship’s resident sleuth. A Cluedo-like scenario arises in 'Mission to Destiny', where the only major difference to the usual set-up is the substitute of a manor house for a spaceship control room. It all begins when Mr Hopwood from Grange Hill keels over while trying to man the controls of a spaceship. This, of course, warrants the use of a screaming banshee named Sara upon discovery of the corpse. Eventually the members of B7 find that murder is apparent on this spaceship and Avon takes it upon himself to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

AVON: … The plan had gone to pieces. The best the killer could hope for was to delay a full inquiry for as long as possible. As a matter of fact, I think that was a waste of effort. I know - we all know, that one of you is the murderer. But proving which one... Unless, of course, as seems quite likely, someone other than the murderer already knows...
A whodunnit in corridor land!

Avon completes his moment to shine in this episode by eventually socking Sara in the mouth when he discovers she is actually behind the murders!
AVON: You better get her out of here. I really rather enjoyed that!
Olag Gan is the ship’s strong-man, and although unable to kill, due to the implantation of electronic limiter into his neck, he is quite capable of threatening to tear off some one’s arms and legs if he gets rubbed up the wrong way.
GAN: Couldn't stop the... Couldn't stop the... implant [grunt!]
Vila Restal is a lock-picker and coward and can be relied upon to deliver the odd snappy one-liner, usually to himself, except when drawn into a confrontation with… you guessed it… Avon, over access through a door.
VILA: Listen, Fingers, computers are yours, doors are mine, right?
Jenna Stannis, initially the only female aboard the Liberator, is the sexy blonde action-woman who is more than capable of carefully choreographed martial arts. She seems to like Blake and show concern for him when he returns to the ship unscathed from some action on Cygnus Alpha.
JENNA: I was so worried!
BLAKE: I had a few sweaty moments myself!

Cally is an alien guerrilla fighter from planet Auron. Initially and understandably hostile, she is confronted by Vila who reassures her.
VILA: No need for belligerence, pretty lady. I'm harmless!
Zen, the Liberator’s computer, informs the rest of the crew of approaching planets, danger and encroaching ships in a bored voice which was probably meant to sound inhumanly electronic. When he asks Blake to be more precise about a question surrounding the whereabouts of his crew, the unfortunate Zen is on the receiving end of an impatient Blake who barks: "The others! My crew! Where are they!?"

By the time of 'Time Squad', our crew is virtually fully formed to the delight of an enthusiastic Gan. Avon cannot resist slipping in another caustic remark:

GAN: I think we make a great team 
AVON: Well, hooray for us!
It soon becomes apparent that the other crew members can only take so much of Avon’s saturnine comments. Gan soon gets his revenge on Avon when Avon knocks another one of Blake’s ideas:
GAN: For a clever man you're not very bright!
Presumably Gan replayed that moment over again and again to much satisfaction while lying on his bunk. Later on Blake finally snaps like a father to a misbehaving child:
GAN: We can talk and travel. We’re safer on the move.
AVON: Another one who’s prepared to let Blake do his thinking for him.
BLAKE: Enough, Avon!
The adventures that follow are sometimes ridiculous, sometimes entertaining and sometimes quite boring. Our crew land in the superfluous episode 'The Web', and we are presented with foetus-in-a-jar thing, Saymon, who chants to us in a spooky voice:
SAYMON: They. Must. Come. To. Us...!
Highlights of this episode include Cally turning evil and lamping Villa when he innocuously asks her what she thinks of his outfit. Green alien blobs, the tearful and vengeful Decimers are quite amusing as they hysterically dash about the place, clamouring at glass doors and hammering on them for dear life. They also count football as one of their native sports, traditionally played with a withered head. Jenna pays tribute to The Exorcist (1973) by becoming possessed, unfortunately without the projectile vomiting. Avon also manages to slip in some bile, in revenge to Gan’s earlier affront to his intelligence.
AVON: [The automatic repair system] It's slow - you should appreciate that problem.
Otherwise, the episode is needless and ludicrous with much head-fuddling jargon.

Every sci-fi hero needs their nemesis and Blake’s turns up in the form of eye-patch wearing Commander Travis, looking imposing with his hands on his hips. He complains to his superior Servalan that Blake is becoming a legend.

SERVALAN: Blake is just a man!
The pair extensively lock heads in 'Duel', a great episode which includes Blake in a noticeably lighter mood for the first time. This lasts until The Liberator is attacked. A hilarious scene of slowed-down speech and strung-out psychedelia ensues to evoke a feeling of calamity. The episode also has Blake’s face turning intermittently blue at one point! A real scene-stealer here is Patsy Smart as Giroc, the old crone who relishes the war between Blake and Travis. About Travis, she cackles:
GIROC: Not only is he primitive, he’s pompous as well!

'Breakdown' opens with what appears to be Gan suffering from a stroke. Grasping his head, he slowly turns evil as the electronic limiter malfunctions. 

Our Gan becomes a beast that needs neurosurgery to return to his non-killer self. A medical kit comprising tranquilizer pads - whatever the hell they are - is used to mollify the foaming Gan and he is restrained on a trolley with straps. A confused Blake is exasperated...
BLAKE: Because I don't know what to do about it! And if it is the limiter, I don't know how we can help him. Unless neurosurgery is one of your particular talents.
AVON: Unfortunately, no.
Vila warns that, unless something is done, the unfortunate Gan may end up like a vegetable – that is, more vegetable-like than normal! The stress begins to get to the crew members and Avon snipes at Blake again:
AVON: Staying with you requires a degree of stupidity I no longer feel capable of!
Fortunately the day is saved by the efforts of the brain surgeon, Professor Kayn and his assistant, Renor, who seems more horny than focused on the job in hand:
RENOR: Hello! This place is full of pretty girls.
Ultimately, Gan’s limiter is fixed and all returns to “normal”. Blake becomes uncharacteristically jubilant and surrounded by his crew members, says to Gan:
BLAKE: Oh and... by the way, welcome back!
This generates such uproarious laughter that it was at this point that I questioned the state of Blake’s mental health. I noticed his mood is “all or nothing” – he’s either seriously intense or in fits of laughter. Bipolar? PTSD? The stress of his family being murdered, accusations of child molestation and running a spaceship has clearly taken its toll on him by this point.

By 'Bounty' the crew feel compelled to help another prisoner of the federation, lepidopterist President Sarkoff. Playing his warbling record all day long, the man seems hell-bent on staying put, despite Blake’s appeal to him to leave with them. Eventually he relents when Blake smashes his precious record. A fair-to-middling episode, 'highlights' include futuristic Arab Sheik Tarvin groping Jenna but also his admission that he once sold his grandmother and another biting exchange between Villa and Avon:

VILLA: I'm entitled to my opinion.
AVON: It is your assumption that we're entitled to it too that is irritating.

In 'Deliverance' the crew land on planet Cephlon and again encounter primitives or “scavengers”, albeit not Decimers, but relatively human-looking ones. A frantic man named Ensor needs to get a box of power cells back to the planet on which his father lives, to save his life. At one point, Blake uses what sounds suspiciously like a sonic screwdriver to open the lid on it. First prize has to go to Ensor for the campest groan when he finally carks it.

Additionally, Avon encounters Meegat, who believes him to be a "Lord", which he revels in. 

Vila thinks the “poor woman” must be "insane". Vila is somewhat put out that it is not him.
AVON: You are hardly the stuff that Gods are made of.
The last episode contains the only recap in the series – a bloated one that smacks of padding. We meet daddy Ensor, the Prof with his mechanical ticker, who insults the helpful crew by calling them “morons”. He eventually dies anyway.

The series comes to an end when the crew acquire another computer – a supercomputer called ORAC, worth some 100 million credits. It has “all the knowledge of all the worlds”. It shows its sarcastic side when Vila speaks:

VILA: I think I've heard enough. I don't like him. Orac, be a good junk heap - shut up.
CALLY: I agree with Vila.
ORAC: Define the words 'Shut up.'
The scene is thus set for series 2.


‘Without computers we’re dead’

Blakes 7 is a strange beast and beast it most assuredly is. It lacks the possessive genitive and indeed an actual seven folk commanded by the freedom fighter or terrorist Roj Blake.

Nobody with any historical awareness would watch it expecting a 2014 level of special effects. Who cares about such concerns anyway? ‘Dated’ can be a positive label if it means that invention is to the fore in areas such as acting, direction and writing...

So, does Blakes 7 measure up?

Yes and no. Terry Nation is series one’s sole writer and it stands and falls according to this veteran telefantasy writer. Nation establishes a genuinely unpredictable, grim dystopia in the first episode. I haven’t seen any of his Survivors (1975-77) but assume it is similarly bleak. Opener ‘The Way Back’ is markedly more adult than his inane 1970s Doctor Who potboilers ‘Planet of the Daleks’ and ‘Death to the Daleks’. Indeed, it is more like Louis Marks’ ‘Day of the Daleks’ – with its guerrilla rebels – and LWT’s tremendous The Guardians (1971). He creates a dystopia with an absurdist show trial adjudicated by baubles in boxes, a summary massacre of unarmed civilians and accusations of child molestation. And this future also has an archivist jiving to his Walkman, a scene hinting at some of the ‘lighter’ moments to come in the series. Script editor Chris Boucher’s contribution is notable in adding a necessary acerbic humour.

Does Nation deliver in his thirteen episodes? Like Eve approaching verdant orchards and getting peckish, we invariably get the sort of Nation tropes that are guaranteed to be present whatever the programme he is writing for: caves, ice, genocide, radiation (sickness), carnivorous plants, cryogenic capsules, disease, genetic mutation and mutated viruses. (Thanks to West, Orton, Davidson et al.’s estimable tome Maximum Power! Miwk, 2012, for this inventory) 

On 19th February 1978, Michael Palin recorded in his diary attending a BBC Enterprises banquet at the Old Ship Hotel where the Corporation was promoting its current roster of programmes. He mentions chatting with Terry Nation; Nation congratulates Palin on 'The Testing of Eric Olthwhaite', broadcast as part of the sublime Ripping Yarns exactly five years to the day before my birth. Palin mentions returning the compliment regarding Nation's new series, Blakes 7. He surely can't have caught 'The Web'!

Weaker episodes: well, there isn’t a dearth. Unlike my comrade in this project, I found ‘Time Squad’ tedious and inconsequential, with the cryogenically frozen astronauts a cringe-worthy ‘threat’. The aforementioned ‘The Web’ is just risible, making Doctor Who’s ‘The Mutants’ seem like Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973). I may have been ironically entertained by it during the 2000 BBC-2 repeats, but this time I was struck by the preposterous monotony of solemn proto-New Romantics wandering around a meagre holiday camp, which is being pelted by tot-sized ‘savages’: the Decimas. On top of all this, there’s a foetal monkey thing in a tank. This is assailed at the end by the Decimas running amok – in scenes that rival any in television for their rowdy absurdity. 

Certain episodes have potential – the Avon turns detective trope in ‘Mission to Destiny’, the simulacrum of the twentieth century exemplified by Sarkoff’s dwelling in ‘Bounty’. But these promises aren't consummated. The curious scene where Blake breaks Sarkoff’s antique opera record has no impact whatsoever, as the writing has not previously elicited concern about his supposed ‘plight’ or predicament. It is just T.P. McKenna being laid back and urbane listening to some tunes. 

For me, the strongest episodes are ‘Duel’ and ‘Orac’. The former is mainly down to Douglas Camfield’s direction, which gives it a psychedelic and energetic gusto. Strangely, Cornell, Day and Topping describe ‘Duel’ as doing ‘little to inspire confidence’, mentioning its similarity to a Star Trek episode. (The Guinness Book of Classic British TV, 1993, p.299) However, its tone and weirdness distinguish it; Camfield treats us to slowed-down voices, frayed 1970s colours and flashing lights: the non-naturalism and ripe acting make it the highlight of series one. 

‘Orac’ possesses refined plotting and urgency, ably bringing several threads together to round off the series. It features a range of settings – a beach, caves, a greenhouse-type science lab – which benefit the narrative. 

It also subtly associates with JG Ballard; like in his evocative novel The Drowned World (1962), cities have been overtaken by environmental catastrophe and reptilian life-forms have come to the fore – they are mercifully used sparingly, kept in the shadows. The imagination is enticed not satiated.

Throughout the series, the music does get a little wearing; predictable Dudley Simpson soundtrack follows… predictable Dudley Simpson soundtrack. Most of his music is competent but uninspiring and becomes the archetypal aural ‘wallpaper’ that limits the drama. ‘The Way Back’ is intensely more effective, due to the sparring use of its more ambient, electronic soundtrack. ‘Duel’ is also made more unusual and engaging by its drifting, distant Popol Vuh-esque undertow of synths.

The acting tends to salvage things, although it is by no means consistent across the series. There are some utter stalwarts – Julian Glover imbues the preposterous melodrama ‘Breakdown’ with gravitas when he shows up thirty minutes in as surgeon Kayn. Brian Blessed enlivens the middling ‘Cygnus Alpha’; a year or so on from his subtle and spellbinding turn as Augustus in I, Claudius, he is in the default deafening mode exhibited in two guest appearances in Space: 1999 and, frankly, the rest of his post-Vargas career. This sort of performance is necessary to enliven a plodding episode, and his death scene is wonderfully ludicrous, to the point of surrealism. 

"I... RULED!?!?"
Best of all is Derek Farr in the season finale. The veteran TV and film actor plays the cantankerous Professor Ensor with dynamism and heart. Farr’s CV included films like Town on Trial (1957) and The Dam Busters (1955) and TV programmes as various as Play for Today, Days of Hope, Bergerac, Star Maidens, The Avengers and Dixon of Dock Green. I have seen some of Nightingale’s Boys, Granada’s thoughtful 1975 series reflecting on grammar schools and idealism – Farr plays the old schoolmaster, Bill Nightingale. At the end of ‘Orac’, he voices that titular character, an impudent and imperious piece of hardware, which will hopefully mean Farr plays a significant part in series two.

The regular cast do their best with often variable material. None of them were household names and they do not appear in Jonathan Meades’ mordant book This Is Their Life, ‘a fascinating look’ into the hobbies, habits and home-life of ‘your favourite T.V. personalities’. By 1979, Darrow, Thomas et al had clearly not joined the favoured roster that included Dave Allen, Joan Bakewell and Derek Nimmo.

It's better than Shakespeare, this! You even get to wrestle monks.

The RSC trained Gareth Thomas came to B7 soon after an authoritative performance in HTV West’s eerie and uncanny Children of the Stones (1977) and, as Cornell, Day and Topping argue, he lends a solid, down to earth quality to Blake, grounding his quest. He can be liked or disliked depending on one’s feelings about Avon and Blake's particular tactics – and he forms, in Servalan's words, a plausible "rallying point for malcontents". Sally Knyvette retains a certain dignity despite the accumulation of inapt implied rape threats that Jenna is confronted with. Michael Keating is underused as Vila, yet deftly delivers lines which serve his function as ‘comic foil’. Jan Chappell is ill-served as Cally, contributing little to the narrative other than to be patronised. 

David Jackson drew the shortest straw as Gan, the hulking great barbarian who cannot kill. He can only overact, as in ‘Breakdown’ - his centrepiece, where Gan is given next to no lines but plenty of chance to grip his bonce and out-gurn Jon Pertwee. Or, fail to make crass Neanderthal lines sound sincere, as in ‘Time Squad’: “He killed my woman…”

That same story has Gan’s chirpy “I think we make a great team!” answered by Avon in utterly languid, sardonic tones: “Well hooray for us.” Paul Darrow’s Avon is by far the strongest character in series one. Terse, sarcastic, deadpan: as the episodes accumulate, his icy asides grow in number and quality. Darrow facilitates what this show fundamentally is all about: a fractious group comprised of idealists, ne’er do wells and selfish malcontents quite frankly not getting on. American television often thrives in portraying harmonious groups; B7’s British cynicism and awkwardness is often vastly entertaining.

“We could be up to our armpits in homicidal maniacs within the hour!” (1.4)
Part of the problem with the narrative of this first series is Travis: he’s a monotone baddie, clad in black with a ‘sci-fi’ eye patch. Stephen Grief infuses Travis with less charm and genuine threat than Roger Delgado did with his similarly omnipresent Master in Pertwee era Doctor Who. In multiple appearances, he speaks about how much he wants to kill Blake but invariably fails to do so. With each reappearance, his general aura of haplessness increases. Servalan is relatively insignificant in this series – I assume she’ll get more to do as B7 develops. Too many episodes revolve around Travis’ ill-starred pursuit of Blake: for instance, ‘Project Avalon’. Unlike Cornell, Day and Topping, I didn’t find this ‘snowbound resistance melodrama’ remotely interesting, merely leaden. We could also have done with a deeper portrayal of the Federation, through a greater number of characters. 

Jenna’s self-description as a ‘free trader’ gives food for thought, considering B7 accompanied Thatcher’s rise. Avon is both self-interested individual and detached computer nerd, suggesting he is a man of the future - in several senses. As a supposed smuggler Jenna seems rather easily won over to Blake’s idealistic cause. ‘Bounty’’s villain Tarvin (Marc Zuber) represents the mercantile tendency; he is given one great line, confirming he sold his own grandmother to stop being sold himself. But, fundamentally, Tarvin is a stereotyped Arab rogue, with little sense that he or his values matter in the show’s world. The preceding ‘Breakdown’ has Glover’s surgeon make several irate attacks on bureaucracy through its ineffectual embodiment in Farron: “You bureaucratic fool” “You gutless nothing!” Characters of such poise as Kayn and Avon are shown to be superior to the dull systemic thinking of the Federation, which may represent a future socialist or fascist Britain, depending on your viewpoint. From Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death onwards, British culture took a critical stance towards hidebound thinkers like Farron, hiding behind the directives of state planning: “You pathetic feeble minded little bureaucrat!”

There is a strangely telling moment at the end of ‘Breakdown’; the independent space station has been destroyed, killing hundreds of people, including Kayn and Farron. This was a preferred ‘bolthole’ for Avon to escape to and make some money. After a brief moment’s solemnity speaking to Avon, Blake goes over to Jenna and Gan and they are all quickly laughing jovially about Gan’s restoration to health. Avon’s reaction is not shown. 

Series one went out on Mondays at 7.15pm on BBC-1*; it averaged an impressive 9.22 million viewers – starting out with 7.4 million and closing with the 10.6 million who watched ‘Orac’.

*Barring 'The Way Back', that slice of brutality which went out in the Doctor Who time-slot of 6pm. In a DVD commentary to 'Space Fall', producer David Maloney mentions many in the audience coming to it after being DW viewers from a young age. This scheduling clearly has much to answer for in how it shaped today's British forty-somethings!

How was the show received critically? 

In The Financial Times, Chris Dunkley saw it as looking cheap in comparison to Space: 1999, Star Wars and Alphaville and mentions tightening BBC budgets. While he describes it as more ‘derivative than hoped’ from Terry Nation who created Survivors and the Daleks, he can see the ‘human story’ becoming a ‘compelling habit’ over the series. There was a preoccupation on science and its fictions beyond Lucas land: Carl Sagan’s Planets lecture having shown on BBC-2 over Christmas 1977. More broadly, Dunkley identified British television’s over-focus on a perpetual British middle class in a state of ‘permanent hilarity’, with fictions set between the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. He also slams the ‘xenophobic’ Mind Your Language and the unimaginative, ‘slavish’ aping of The Sweeney, not just by Target, but by a new series called The Professionals.

The Guardian's Peter Fiddick perceived that B7 did not trade in jokes', but then he was reviewing the show two episodes in, before its change in tone. It is described as 'a mix of olde worlde space jargon, ray guns, Western style goodies and baddies, and punch ups straight out of The Sweeney.' He locates it within the television tradition inspired by Orwell: Nineteen-Eighty Four, The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Guardians and 1990, describing 'The Enemy as Bureaucracy' and the prison ship with its 'ethics straight out of the warders' room at Belsen'. The Daily Mail - via critic Shaun Usher - gave a typically upbeat assessment of both Britain in 1978 and B7's dystopia, saying the show depicted 'the future as being much the same as the present, Lord help us, only worse.'

In The Times, Stanley Reynolds reviewed 'Time Squad'; he praises B7's seriousness: its being 'straight, with real villains' and also its episodes being self-contained yet adding to a 'saga'. He enjoys the script with its 'terse commands' and its sense of action: Jenna 'fighting off the Findus fiends'. He mentions Cally as 'the latest addition to Blake's outer-space merry men' and the prospect of her spelling 'love trouble for blonde Jenna', of a sort not faced by Maid Marian in Robin Hood: incidentally, a powerful British myth that Blakes 7 taps into.

Despite such motifs as air ducts, corridors, gullible guards, sundry pygmies, nomadic scavengers and medieval types; despite excess sexism on several fronts and perpetual lines like “Do you read me…?” B7 series one seems worthwhile. There are just enough well-crafted episodes and acidic one-liners for it to achieve a distinctively down at heel British charm. 

Here's how we rated each episode, plus attribution for writing and direction - the former shows impressive variety! Also recorded are dates of transmission and the viewing figures:

Ben Brown lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne. He works in the Medical Records department at the RVI in Newcastle and has studied Psychology at Master's level.

Tom May also lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne. He is a lecturer in English Language and Communication & Culture at a local Sixth Form College, having studied English and Film at universities southern and northern. He is working on a book about British culture and the cold war.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Pissing in Duchamp's Urinal: Arts Television in the Early Nineties

The Thing is... Brian Eno
TX: Channel 4, 13/05/1992

The South Bank Show 15.13: Douglas Adams
TX: ITV, 05/01/1992

Paul Morley to Brian Eno: "You're good at lying aren't you?"

Maybe you are also bored with the mind-numbing, formulaic Arts TV of our times. Maybe you just might want to take a trip back to 1992: the past they do things less diffidently there.

I was over a friend's house in Darlington and the opportunity to watch recordings fromhis VHS collection. He hadn't even used his video player in two years! It was the time for that to be remedied. In addition to the two main programmes, I was treated to side courses of Adam and Joe's Vinyl Police - installments that featured a game Gary Numan and a quarrelsome and belligerent Mark E. Smith.

Then, a programme I had heard about and been curious about seeing: a half-hour documentary-'interview' on Brian Eno, conducted by Paul Morley. Morley is a knowledgeable, irreverent figure damned by many for the cardinal sin of being in love with the English Language - and moulding it according to his own directions. Reviewing an earlier The Thing Is... in The Times, Lynne Truss attacked the 'stream of gabble' - presumably Morley's use of some polysyllabic, aka. nasty and foreign lexis. Also in The Times, Richard Morrison attacked his 'pretentious name-dropping' of writers; as if mentioning Beckett and Sartre is verboten in British culture. Perhaps it is a dig from the Oxbridge graduate to the grammar school boy Morley, who didn't go to university. He goes on, in cynical fashion:

'Sometimes Morley walked round and round in a warehouse. Sometimes he knelt in a Buddha temple. "There is a pure boredom", he mused transcendantally, "that goes with being bored with East-Enders".' (The Times, 30/04/1992)

I cannot comment on all that much of Morley's written work, other than to say that his memoir Nothing captures a deeply affecting melancholy and last year's Earthbound is a laudably concise piece of cultural analysis centering around the Bakerloo line and taking in the Sony Walkman, Maida Vale and much else. That book is incisive and inspired in identifying less than obvious cultural connections and currents.

Compared with the 1980s and early '90s, he is less commonly on television today, though did feature in an engaging BBC4 documentary, wherein he attempted to try his hand at classical music composition - and he crops up periodically as 'talking head' on music documentaries (e.g. one on John Cooper Clarke) and is a BBC4 Review Show regular. Here he is a revelation as TV host; serious when he needs to be but also humorously dispensing asides to the audience like a particularly wise Shakesperean fool. In December 1990, he had presented a thirty-minute documentary on Channel 4 looking into the cultural origins of the Christmas tree, card and decorations. The Thing Is... grew out of the Without Walls (C4, 1990-97) documentary strand and Morley helmed half-hour television disquisitions on topics such as motorways (featuring JG Ballard), money (featuring Dennis Taylor), animals, hotels and even 'an existential quest into the heart of boredom' (The Guardian, 26/04/1992).

Just over two weeks before the Eno programme, The Guardian described him as looking like a 'cast-aside teddy bear in a fashionably baggy suit'. 'Names such as Ionescu, Roland Barthes and Beckett pepper his conversations with cultural theorists and Thora Hird.' Morley as a link between the worlds of continental cultural theory and Alan Bennett?

In his anti-interview, brilliant tactics include imploring Eno, on behalf of the audience, to start singing again; Morley makes reference to the four great works of 'pop song' that Eno produced in his verdant 1970s. And then the ultra dry questioning regarding his more recent collaborations: "It must be really rewarding, helping out the small bands: U2..."

A particularly amusing sequence is where he gets Eno onto the topic of sex and the bald East Anglian gives notably detailed reflections on the merits of European and American pornography. The programme cuts away to Morley clearly filmed later on, giving a few somewhat amused looks.

There is a deadpan, European surrealism to proceedings. Eno speaks positively of the creativity that could be enabled by the karaoke phenomenon. Then we cut to Morley in a high street record shop, headphones on, listening and intensely singing along to Eno's very own 'Third Uncle'.

When his rendition has finished, there is a deliberately faked 'studio audience' 'applause' followed by a delighted reaction shot from Morley.

It's a delightful programme, getting all the more under Eno's skin by avoiding linear questioning tactics and opting for an editing strategy that plays up the oblique moments, rather pushes towards any conventional denouement.

Pleasingly, the programme can be watched in its entirety here.

"High on a rocky promentory sat an electric monk on a bored horse..."

Next was a South Bank Show from the same year, but four months earlier: broadcast before the Grey Man himself ushered in another enlightened five years of Tory rule. Its subject was the mercurial Douglas Adams, whose death before he reached fifty was a loss to British culture was of a magnitude greater than if, say, IDS were to meet with a freak ATOS inspired drubbing in Easterhouse.

It explores Adams' much publicized difficulties in finishing his writing projects; so thoroughly, that they even feature his literary agent visiting him on behalf of the publishers. Everything is in place for the fifth HH novel, Mostly Harmless, except, well, the novel itself being written! The Guardian's television listings for the day mention an abortive Hollywood script project and his involvement in computing, but strangely, these areas are barely touched on.

Like Morley's documentary, there is dry humour present in its satire of the documentary trope of focusing on his 'Cambridge Days'. The past is demystified and we even get a sense of Cambridge's present in Adams' sharply edited appearances in the city. His College - St John's - won't allow the film crew to film anything at all in the grounds of the College, so Adams philosophically sits with a pint in the Baron of Beef pub. There was filming nearby for Adams' strike-scuppered 1979 Doctor Who serial, 'Shada', recently issued on DVD.

We also get an excellent sequence of Adams ruminating on getting artistic inspiration from his post-university days as a hotel attendant, having to watch the elevators open and close all day. He relives this unusual rite of passage, appearing on screen in the situation - in the best droll Jonathan Meades style.

John Carlaw had previously directed the acclaimed eight-part series Playing Shakespeare, made by LWT in 1982. His direction here is notable in its artistry, far removed from the plodding conservatism of the South Bank Show's form and presentation in its latter years - and perhaps even its norm back then. Wittily edited, it contains actors from the HitchHikers' TV series reprising their roles and engaging in postmodernist querying of their own identity. We even have the aforementioned electric monk, well and truly part of the bizarre proceedings.

While it fails to focus - somewhat surprisingly - on DA's associations with Monty Python's Flying Circus and Doctor Who, it is the sort of genuinely satisfying arts documentary that many directors, producers and writers would do well to learn from today. Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins, now bastions of whatever remains of 'Liberal Britain', are used intelligently to make points that add to our understanding of Adams' work. His application of Wodehousian humour - to infuse potentially alienating science fiction ideas with the bathetic everyday - is discussed by Fry, who was then still immersed in making the superlative sketch series A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Dawkins is used to draw out DA's good humoured antipathy to religion, but also to helpfully explain his integration of Quantum Physics within his narratives - which were moving into the area of parallel realities and all being subject to contingency.

Most of all, there is gratifyingly little stuff of this ilk: straightforward filming of cosy chat with old uncle Melvyn. Carlaw does the Arts service by making art himself. Gratifyingly, it seems that you can see this redoubtable documentary here.

Both programmes live up to Jonathan Meades' desire to see documentaries that combined the lecture theatre with the music hall. Humorous knockabout is a much more useful tool than sombre, portentous prattle while walking around 'famous sites'. In these past exemplars, we see rounded, idiosyncratic contributors to British - and world - culture: Adams and Eno. Emblems of a sceptical, worldly liberalism that has been supplanted by the shallow neo-liberal generation of Clegg and Laws - Eno, indeed, has been a regular participant in Liberal Democrat campaigns in recent years and was bizarrely appointed a youth affairs adviser by Clegg.

These are major cultural contributors who were taken seriously by television. And this is television which avoided reverence towards them or the cardinal sin of patronising its audience. It complicated the picture by fusing registers and tones; such a dexterous approach is what people deserve, rather than neatly packaged, simple narratives peddling partial myths.

-- With thanks to John Robinson.

Friday 7 June 2013

"Fun for all the family? I don't know how they have the nerve!"

Doctor Who: 
'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' (BBC-1, TX: 14/12/1988 - 04/01/1989)

It's always been a part of me, for as long as I can remember, really.

A hazy, possibly self-invented recollection of a rotund, colourful-coated man on a screen - from when I was, maybe, 4. I might have retrospectively imagined that. I'd surely have ended up a quite different person if I'd had the misfortune to catch some banal Pip and Jane Baker-penned potboiler as my first - and thus, potentially, last - Doctor Who adventure.

A definite Year Zero: 'Remembrance of the Daleks', episode 1. 5th October 1988. The true adventure began.

I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness recently, but could never prefer Star Trek to Doctor Who. Ever since 1988.

Doctor Who's richness is in how much of an impression it makes on different generations and individuals, in unpredictable ways. Sylvester McCoy is often written off. Often by fans of previous eras, as well as the general public.

I have often regarded Peter Davison to be a slightly bland Doctor, rarely grabbing my interest as much as others.  Yet, I have always been captivated by certain of his stories: along with the obvious final one, 'Kinda' and 'Enlightenment'. I have recently watched - with weary trepidation - the 1993 Children in Need 'Special' 'Dimensions in Time' and, in his brief appearance, he lends some gravitas to an utterly unseemly farrago. He is more central to and brilliant in 'Time Crash', one of the most touching and witty things that Steven Moffat has written this side of Press Gang.

Having just finished reading Richard Marson's excellent JN-T: The Scandalous Life and Times of John-Nathan Turner I thought I would write a review of 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy', watched on DVD with a friend, Ben, last Sunday. The JN-T biography is an insightful book, not just into the specifics of the show and BBC practices of the 1980s, but into a remarkable man; Nathan-Turner was the charismatic, ebullient yet flawed producer of Doctor Who for the whole of the 1980s. The book has moments of high farce and absurdity, but also a deep underlying melancholy, as personal hubris and wider circumstances lead to his slow, sad decline. 

Ben liked this story, but wasn't entirely bowled over by it, slightly preferring the Pertwee era six-parter 'The Time Monster' which we also watched. I speculated that my preference for this McCoy story may partly have been through my strong attachment to it from my personal experience of the McCoy years. But it isn't just that, I'd say: it is a brilliant work, made against the odds. It repays subsequent viewings and is enriched by knowing its context.

As Marson's book and the DVD extras explain, this story had a troubled production. After the externals had been filmed in a more than typically evocative quarry, the BBC studios could not be used due to the discovery of asbestos. It looked as is this serial would have to be given up. JN-T came into his element in improvising within constraints. He decided to remount it; placing the circus tent in the BBC car-park. This actually adds a distinct atmosphere - and the lighting of this tent is first-rate: creepy dark reds, greens and blues banishing the memory of the ghastly, over-lit studio sets in earlier 1980s serials such as 'Timelash' or 'Warriors from the Deep'.

Unlike in so much Doctor Who in the troubled 1985-7 period, the casting is appropriate. They are a diverse bunch - Peggy Mount, Gian Sammarco, T.P. McKenna, Chris Dury - but this works entirely with the grain of the story. It is a truly bizarre array of characters - a weary battleaxe with a fruit stall in the middle of nowhere (Mount), berating the 'weirdos!' and 'circus riff-raff' who come into her path. Nord, self-described 'Vandal of the Roads', an irate hooligan biker screaming things like: "OI!!!! WHITE FACE! WHITE FACE! CAN YOU TELL ME THE WAY TO THE PSYCHIC CIRCUS!" Deadbeat, a monosyllabic depressive, who seems lost in his own world. Captain Cook - a pompous intergalactic explorer, always regaling us with past exploits. Mags, a glum, subordinated companion to Cook with the look of the Goth about her. There are departed characters mentioned who are named 'Juniper Berry' and 'Peace Pipe' - and, somehow, you scoff. You are drawn along by a story that shows an empathy with hippie ideals. But is in no illusion about them.

Latter-day EastEnders and Corrie actor Ian Reddington - is MAGNIFICENT as the Chief Clown. A return to proper Doctor Who villainy? Or a bold, new step into a realistic depiction of managerial evils? The use of his voice, face and body language is unnerving and masterly. It makes you sad how so few actors in Doctor Who had put real effort into their characterizations since Sharaz Jek... Maybe it was the casting, maybe the direction; but, either way, the show had hit rock bottom in the three seasons prior to this, with only slight glimmers of promise.

Mark Ayres's music is languid and fitting, after the incessant clatter provided by Keff McCulloch in most previous 1987-8 stories.

Stephen Wyatt, having penned the partially successful Paradise Towers, which heavily alludes to JG Ballard's High-Rise, comes up with a cerebral yet accessible script. After the dreary, half-hearted efforts of the previous few years, this is an intoxicating breath of fresh air. There are ideas, there are different levels on which you can take it. As Cornell, Day and Topping wrote in 1995, this was a 'return of magic, chaos and surrealism' to Doctor Who.

Episode 4 gained 6.6 million viewers: by far the largest audience the show received between 'Revelation of the Daleks' (1985) and the Paul McGann 'TV Movie' (1996) - if you don't count the execrable 'Dimensions in Time', of course.

This could be seen as: (a) an undeniably scary, weird circus story, (b) a satire of the way the show was beset by idiotically blinkered fans - the Whizzkid (played by Sammarco, TV's Adrian Mole, in similar nerd specs and jumper apparel) - and BBC bosses, who couldn't understand or appreciate its value as a programme other than grudgingly regarding its pecuniary value to BBC Enterprises. Or, indeed, (c) a melancholy depiction of the failings of 1960s idealism, with the idealists reduced to sorry, dead-eyed commerce in the heartless, Thatcherite 1980s. 

Captain Cook (T.P. McKenna), "a crushing bore" in the Doctor's words, represents the stultifying arrogance of a status quo that is always harking back to old battles. The emotionless 'Father', 'Mother' and 'Child' represent the everyday horrors of a philistine Middle England tendency, the ruthless efficiency of the 1980s reforms. Reforms that made it harder for inventive and unusual things to emerge from British culture. The croak-voiced Daleks were on the march, to paraphrase Dennis Potter.

You feel for the characters. Wyatt has us rooting for the underdog. The sad werewolf girl against the pompous ass explorer. Loving idealism against cynical calculation and "every man for himself" and "survival of the fittest". A theme that runs through the wistful, yet urgently humanist Season 26. 

At this stage, Doctor Who itself was the ultimate underdog - in terms of general public and BBC perception, indeed being pitted directly against the mighty Coronation Street in the schedules. Yet, here, it shows a good deal more life and spirit than no doubt many of the BBC's more prestigious 'heritage' minded drama adaptations of the time.

As Tat Wood argues in About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who - Volume 6: 'Ranged against the corporate whores are a quixotic bunch of misfits. It is surely no coincidence that in this story, the bad guys are turning imagination into a commodity'. Peggy Mount's Stallslady indeed castigates the Seventh Doctor and Ace as "weirdos", along with the others. It is impossible to imagine the Pertwee or Colin Baker characters accepting this as phlegmatically or siding as convincingly with the underdogs: the ragbag gaggle of Mags (Jessica Martin, a comedienne, very subtle), Deadbeat (Chris Dury, of Lovejoy fame) and Bellboy (Christopher Guard, excellent). 

In 2003, Mark Fisher honed in on some of 1980s DW's problems: 'Davison's problem was his winning, fresh-faced toothsomeness; something intelligently offset by his reading of the character as beset by an ancient melancholia. Colin Baker, on the other hand, looked like a smug office manager in pantomime costume. He had a solid, doughy ordinariness, more deadly to Dr Who than any Cyberman or Dalek.' Baker's strident verbosity and garish coat do not make for madness or an alien quality, but a kind of conformism: the managerial type trying desperately to appear different. 

"Everybody remotely interesting is mad in some way!"- McCoy's Doctor, in this story. 

McCoy is never managerial, he is mysterious; sneaky perhaps, but you cannot help somehow trust and warm to him.

This also chimes with Michael Newton's recent description of the great German director Werner Herzog's world-view in the Guardian (01/06/13): 'There are few film-makers less interested in the everyday world of supermarkets, mortgage payments and Sky Sports. Herzog does not despise the "ordinary person", for it is hard to picture him believing in such a rare creature and to imagine him despising anyone. Yet in the background of his films lingers a sorrowing contempt for the blithe, banal member of "the public" – that hypothetical person who accepts society as it is, who believes bread will always come ready-packaged, and who is too busy updating their Facebook page to notice how at any moment nature might sweep us all off the Earth.'

From Herzog, Vivian Stanshall and, indeed, the Seventh Doctor I have learned the lesson that life is not about being an 'ordinary person' or 'normal'. This story may not just be getting at the BBC bosses of 1988 but also the 'armchair critics' - people writing baleful, ill-informed letters to newspapers or, to extend this to 2013, emitting endless bile from behind aliases on internet forums. People so disappointed in their own lives that they want to spread the malady. Or, indeed, it may be getting at the sort of people involved in the Starburst and DWB campaigns against JN-T. People who, in substance, may often have been right - but, who, in their approach, went beyond the pale into pure, needless nastiness.

McCoy, so often mocked, has a lovely, quiet gravitas when required. The eccentric, slightly professorial clown uncle - he was indeed strongly associated with that radical figure in British theatre, Ken Campbell. Likewise, Sophie Aldred, in Marson's book, mentions her own left-wing feminist background at Manchester University. Andrew Cartmel was 'right-on', yes, and this earnestness was just what a show that was on its knees needed. A new direction, in contrast to Eric Saward's increasingly grim, vacillating world-view. As script-editor, the key role in DW alongside producer, Cartmel put his own mark on the show, as had others before him: Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers'-style laid-back wit, Christopher H. Bidmead's uptight injection of 'science!' and Robert Holmes's wholly assured handling of the 'Gothic Horror' phase from 1974-6. 

Doctor Who aligned itself with underdogs, beyond the wrongheaded pandering to fans of the previous few years. Cartmel enabled the show to become more than a sorry tug-of-war between JN-T's insubstantial, PR-chasing, panto leanings and Saward's wrongheaded bleakness. Some stories were weak - Silver Nemesis and Battlefield, the former especially - but even these had incidental pleasures.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy seemed wonderful at the time, watching this over Christmas 1988. It now seems miraculous, considering the show's dreadful 1985, its cataclysmic 1986 and its half-baked 1987.

It displayed JN-T at his very best, and this serial reflects what he could do, when supported by intelligent scripts and apt casting. It is a sad irony that the last two years of the show saw a creative renaissance while JN-T himself was losing interest, perhaps realizing that he was doomed by association with its earlier epic, tragic failings in the 1985-7 period. But he hadn't lost interest here - and this was a production that all enjoyed and reflects the very best of what this limited, yet whole-hearted producer, could achieve in the most difficult circumstances. 

JN-T in 1988; Doctor Who in 1988: the ultimate underdogs. Backs to the wall, they all produce something that is of value. That matters. Or at least has to me, for many, many years. If 'Remembrance of the Daleks' captivated, it was watching earlier adventures like 'The Time Warrior' on video and new stories like this on broadcast that ensured that Doctor Who was for life.

Monday 31 December 2012

Kangaroo Court of Love: "Peep Show" 8.6

TX: Channel 4, 24/12/2012

'Friendship is a disinterested commerce between equals; love, an abject intercourse between tyrants and slaves.'
- Oliver Goldsmith, The Good-Natured Man (1768)

To follow that 'Celtic Tiger' of a comedy (Mrs Brown's Boys), we thought we would watch a slightly different sort of sitcom, also broadcast around this Christmas period. If MBB takes a condescending view of its audience's intelligence, then Peep Show probes the absurd human frailties of its protagonists for the amusement of a no doubt smaller audience. There are aspects of Usborne and Corrigan in most of us 'young men'; MBB's figurines are barely human.

David: Anyway, this should be a pleasing antidote to that. 

Tom: Episode 6. Not a bad series so far... 

David: Better than Series 7, anyway. No reason why this can't go on until one of them croaks it. 

Tom: Super Hans is a great character; I would've liked to see a bit more of him in this series really. 

David: "Coaster? Fuck's sake, Jez, I'm not an animal!"

Tom: "There are quite a few snakes in your room". 

David: Has Dobby got a black eye? 

David: "Five-a-side? That's where all the men go to laugh at us". 

Tom: Mark's masculinity issues coming out there... 

David: Further disappointment for Mark. 

David: This ongoing saga relies upon M + J's constant unhappiness. 

David: "Very much the on methadone, living in a halfway house type of woman". 

David: Very reflective of the 'indefinite teenage years' thing that's being imposed on those of us who are unable to achieve the tools needed to 'grow up'. 

Tom: "'Jason's van'. That sounds like the sort of bullshit I'd come up with".   

David: Jeremy is now a 40 year old teenager. 

Tom: "I'll watch her squirm"... an altruistic view of relationships there from Corrigan! Or, a realistic depiction of love with its jealousies and insecurities...

Tom: Mark playing 5-a-side footer... bound to elicit a few chuckles. 

David: "Did you see the game the other night? The big... fixture?" 

David: "Take him out" / "WHAT?!!" 

David: Dobby is quite intimidating here!   

Tom: This show's characters ring true as imperfect people who aren't merely looking to gain laughs from saying "fuck"...  

David: Meanwhile, Mrs Brown's Boys says nothing about society other than that there are masses of people who find a swearing old woman and jokes from 1972 hysterical...  

Tom: "Sure, the massive apple..." 

Tom: This series seems to have a sustained story-line which runs all the way through the six episodes. I don't think many of its previous series' had that. There seem to be fewer 'different' episodes, like the musical festival one or the jury service. Or the Christmas special with Mark's family last year - I really liked that one. And the jury service one with the mentalist woman defendant from Sunderland. Unsure whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that there are fewer excursions or digressions... 

David: [amid the advert break] Why's Kevin Bacon pretending to give a toss about British popular culture?

Tom: Aye, Bacon is a beaming irritant.

David: Series 9 of Peep Show is already commissioned; there seem to be infinite things that they can do with the two hapless ones. 

David: It must be quite cathartic for the writers to put them through whole new trends of misery; there are always twelve more months of cultural references to slip in effortlessly, too.  

Tom: Yes, it is a reliable formula.   

Tom: "Depressing lingerie outlet in Reading"...   

Tom: Ah, the old El Dude brothers routine, ever invoked in times of crisis. I like how have they slipped in subtle references in this eighth series, such as to Super Hans' curious fixation with The Barchester Chronicles - when Jez's stuff is being cleared out.

David: They seem to have an endless supply of embarrassing situations. 

Tom: The thoughts-aloud voice-overs have always been crucial to its success. Just wouldn't work as well without them.    

David: "I'm sorry... what the FUCKING HELL are you talking about?" The key to it is hearing their real thoughts in conjunction with the often manipulative words they say.

Tom: Jez stuck on the train!   

Tom: Speaking his mind finally - rarely a good idea!   
Tom: "How can I do that when there's no such thing as elbow grease!" Great line there from Jez. 

David: 10/10 dialogue - the situations often seem less important than the dialogue. 

Tom: "An honourable man" again! Reference back to his flat housing committee election campaign. 

David: "THAT'S your punishment of last recourse: FREE TRAVEL?!" So inappropriately pompous. 

David: It's been fun watching Mark being relegated to a series of humbling jobs.

Tom: Yes, and in episode 6.1 (TX: 18/09/2009) you had a rare instance of British television responding to the economic crisis, when JLB go bust. 

Tom: It's also been good to have the vocation of life-coaching relentlessly mocked in this series.  

Tom: "This kangaroo court of love". 

David: Editing process must be horrendous.   

Tom: Mark inevitably ends up the one who is squirming...   

David: Jeremy is a lovable moral vacuum. 

David: "Now, time to stigmatize the mentally ill".   

David: Hilariously immature. No more mature than in 2003! 

David: Electric fence!   

Tom: "Will you two stop electrocuting each other?"

David: "Will you two stop electrocuting each other?!"
'Friendship is a disinterested commerce between equals'
David: "If you don't throw that rock at me, I'm going to hit you with this stick".

David: How did she have time to text that?!  

Tom: Indeed...
David: "You FUCKED it, not me!" 

David: "Why does it say here that I'm 80% gay?!" 

David: "DOBBY!!!" 

David: Excellence.  

Tom: Yes, a pretty good series closer.   

David: Perfect antidote to Mrs Brown's Arse 

Tom: Exactly.   

David: Other current comedy series' close to that standard? I'll say Him and Her, Getting On and, to a lesser extent, Friday Night Dinner. But not a lot else!   

Tom: Maybe could have had more Johnson involvement (following his great cameo in 8.1), but it was a well crafted series revolving around the inevitable love triangle. Dobby has been a necessary character for the programme... to throw the 'brothers' into relief.  

David: I'm certainly looking forward to the sadistic events that series 9 will hopefully have to offer. Once again, it seems that we've reached the end too quickly - I suppose there were episodes on consecutive nights, though. This series didn't run alongside when it was being shown however, unlike last series which seemed to be set around the same time of year.   

Tom: Interesting to think how they'll take it from here...   

David: Looks like Dobby may not return.

'The beloved object is successively the malady and the remedy that suspends and aggravates it.'  
- Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (Cities of the Plain) (1921-2)     

Tom: Good to have them in open warfare there at the end over her... 

David: I'm sure there will be one or two different women ready to play with their infantile heartstrings. 

David: First time they've competed for the same woman though... 

Tom: Or Sarah, Mark's sister with the fringe and Fifty Shades-inspired bedroom practices...   

David: I would have liked to have seen more of Mark's older woman from his course; she was nice, but then Peep Show wouldn't allow for it to have gone well.