Balancing Act: Keeping Politics Fair And Fun

Turn on a British TV this month, and the first programme you see will almost certainly have something to do with one of two topics. Neither of these two topics is particularly enthralling as a basis for a semi-humorous televisiophile blog post, but I feel that I would be ignoring the elephant in the room if I blogged about, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Fuller House (but look out for next month’s post, sitcom lovers!).

One of the afore-mentioned topics that’s filling up the airwaves is football. I will not be writing about this.

This leaves me with the good old EU referendum (June 23rd, guys! Two days to go! Get your cross-writing muscles ready now!). Much like the Scottish independence referendum before it, the debate on the EU seems to have been raging for years without anyone saying anything remotely useful, leaving the general population (i.e. the people who actually have to make the decision) confused and irritated by the whole thing. Thank goodness, then, for topical comedy. The most recent series of Have I Got News for You did its best to perk things up, but was in the unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate, who can say?) position of finishing its current run a month before the referendum actually takes place. However, as always, when we say goodbye to HIGNFY we say hello to Mock the Week, which started up again two weeks ago.

The first thing to say about Mock the Week is that I can’t really decide whether I like it or not. Sometimes, if the right guests are on, it’s very funny, especially since it can be snarkier and more cut-throat than HIGNFY. But, as others have commented, it’s a little too scripted, a little too smug, and it does sometimes seem to have that boys’ club mentality, particularly since they seem to go out of their way to make the single female guest (mandated, of course, by the BBC) look like the Token Woman. (Maybe, just once, out of seven comedians, more than one of them could be female? No? OK.)

Anyway. What I noticed most about Mock the Week on this occasion was that the EU referendum got comparatively little airtime. Granted, the first question was technically all about the EU, but since it was ‘If this is the answer, what is the question?’ and the answer was ‘4%’, most of the jokes were related to non-EU topics such as Muhammad Ali, Johnny Depp, Sepp Blatter and other celebrities who have either done something very bad or fallen victim to the Curse of 2016. Once the answer was revealed (4% was the difference between Remain and Leave voters in the most recent poll, if you want to know), there was a little more Europe-related comedy: a few jokes about scaremongering on both sides of the campaign, some light criticism of various politicians, including Josh Widdicombe’s astute observation that “Michael Gove looks like a satirical cartoon of Michael Gove”, and then it was on to Euro 2016, the Megabus mascot and Noel Edmonds’ cancer box. Either the BBC is so afraid of appearing biased one way or the other that it’s managed to reign in even the Mock the Week team; or, as Hugh Dennis suggested, “We’ve got to make this last three weeks – we can’t use all the jokes now”.

Perhaps because they kept the EU ref refs on the down-low, it seemed to me that they did a very good job of keeping things even-handed and not showing bias one way or the other, despite the fact that all of them probably lean substantially to the left and are likely to be voting ‘In’. In fact, there was very little in the way of argumentation or debate at all – they just carried along with the same kind of ‘politicians look a bit weird’ humour that gets bums on seats but can hardly be called politically motivated.

Not so The Last Leg on Channel 4. The first episode got straight into the nitty-gritty of the issues by kicking off the series with everyone’s favourite bearded Labour Party stirrer Jeremy Corbyn. The JezCorbs segment was halfway through the episode, and he was immediately subjected to viewer questions that were surprisingly incisive for hash-tagged tweets, starting off with ‘Why have you always been Eurosceptic but are now pro-Remain?’ (Answer in brief: being part of a slightly flawed group is still better than not being in the group at all.) Jezza was a good speaker, if not a particularly jolly one (lampshaded by another Twitter question: “Why are you on a comedy show if you have no sense of humour?” Burn.) Overall, though, he acquitted himself well enough that large swathes of the programme were, by sheer dint of his presence, pro-Remain. (And anti-Trump, but then he is a functioning human being.)

Apart from this interlude, though, there was generally a pervasive sense of having no opinion one way or the other, largely due to having no idea what was happening. The three hosts (Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker) all carefully avoided the question of what they personally thought, and there was a lot of chat about the enormous amount of nonsense spouted by both campaigns, complete with “Bullshit!” buzzer. They briefly ventured to state some facts, mainly regarding economic claims, before we moved to mocking the people in charge on each side (cue videos of Jean-Claude Juncker drunkenly kissing foreign dignitaries and Boris hanging off his wire) as well as the attempts of both parties to engage the youth: the Leave campaign producing branded condoms and beer mats, and the Remain campaign enlisting June Sarpong, T4 presenter of the late 2000s.

The overall feeling of the Last Leg opener, then, was one of “getting Brissed off with the whole thing”; in fact, the only people to demonstrate an actual opinion seemed to be the audience, who cheered and whooped for JezCorbs and booed the pro-Leave frontman of Right Said Fred when he won an arm wrestle against the Pro-Leave Johnny Vegas (it sort of made sense in context).

This week’s episode was a little different, since large parts of the show dealt with other topics arising from a horrific week of awful news stories, discussed, by and large, with dignity and compassion. Since, as a result of the terrible news, both EU campaigns were suspended for several days, the show also veered away from explicitly discussing the referendum (Mock the Week’s second episode, due on Thursday, was withdrawn for the same reason). Again, therefore, no political biases were evident, and most jokes were at the expense of everyone’s two favourite tyrants, “wigged prick” Donald Trump and “secretly gay ultra conservative” Vladimir Putin.

Speaking of whom…

You expect topical news shows to be up-to-date, but it seems unreasonable to expect it of a sitcom; or DOES IT??? Power Monkeys would beg to differ.

In its original incarnation last year, Power Monkeys was called Ballot Monkeys. It was aired in the run-up to the General Election, it took place on board the (fictional) campaign buses of the various parties, and, crucially it was written and filmed the day it was shown. This astonishing feat of televisual speed and stamina led to a very funny, very topical show; and, if the first two episodes of the new series was anything to go by, they’ve managed the same astonishing feat again.

Power Monkeys follows the chaos and hysteria leading up to the referendum, with scenes variously set on the Brexit campaign bus, the HQ of the Conservative Unity Unit, Trump’s battle plane and Putin’s government offices. Stars include Jack Dee, Claire Skinner (Outnumbered), Amelia Bullmore (Twenty Twelve), Archie Panjabi (with a much more convincing accent than in The Good Wife) and Stacey’s brother off of Gavin and Stacey.

The first episode was broadcast the day after the Farage interview and Hillary securing the Democrat nomination for president; it made reference to both of these things, as well as the extension of the voter registration deadline and, naturally, Noel Edmonds’ magic cancer box (how we all long for those heady days two weeks ago when that was the biggest news story). Episode two included references to Russian football hooligans (“The flare? No. That was festive. We use them like party poppers”), John Cleese coming out as pro-Brexit, the sheer absurdity of the Thames flotilla, and recent polls putting ‘Leave’ ahead (“Huh. We’d better make it seem like we have a plan”).

As with Mock the Week and The Last Leg, the general theme of the programme is that everyone involved in politics is bonkers. The pro-Leave campaign is full of crazy scaremongerers whose claims are ripped straight from the headlines of The Sun (“I’ve just tweeted that since we’ve joined the EU, the number of verrucas has risen sharply”), while the Conservative Unity Unit is a diverse bunch of weird people who are constantly at each other’s throats. Then, of course, there’s the antics of Trump and Putin, whose existence has the dubious advantage of making our home-grown British politicians look slightly less awful. It should be noted that neither the Big T nor the Big P actually appear themselves; what we see are their secretaries, assistants and aides being generally useless and commenting on their masters’, erm, foibles (“Don’t hover! Litvinenko used to hover!”).

But what’s curious about this set-up is the omission of a pro-Remain group. The original series featured Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and UKIP in comparable measures and was equally scornful of all of them. This time, there’s no specific group of lefties; apparently the Conservative Unity Unit is pro-Europe, but this doesn’t clearly come across in the dialogue – most of the jokes in those scenes are at the expense of David Cameron personally, which means that the limited amount of explicit anti-pro-Remain mockery all falls on Jack Dee’s character, who hits right back with razor-sharp snipes at the leaders of his own party (“Don’t mention the British Virgin Islands, or the British Islands as they’ve been called since Boris paid them a visit”). This is odd because, as Mock the Week and The Last Leg have beautifully illustrated, the pro-Remainers have their fair share of nutcases, ripe for quips about playing it safe, prophesying the apocalypse and being under the heel of Angela Merkel.

The makers of Power Monkeys have stated that they’re trying their damnedest not to show their own hands, but the result of the set-up described above does, inevitably, come across as a slightly sneaky nudge towards ‘Remain’. This is probably a more natural reaction to the whole farrago than scrupulously toeing a central line so as not to offend or influence anyone; but, at the same time, it feels a little bit uncomfortable, maybe because everyone else is trying so hard to avoid taking a stand. Still, if campaigning with facts is dull, and campaigning with lies is unethical, maybe campaigning with comedy is the only option.

So let’s be sensible about this, OK, guys? For the next two days, let’s concentrate on the task at hand, try to sort the facts from the rubbish, keep a civil conversation going, vote accordingly, and then, whatever the result, go forward as a diverse but courteous United Kingdom. And then we can all focus on a cause close to the hearts of every man, woman and child in the country: ripping the shit out of Donald Trump.

Anyone for #Chicken?

Douze Points!: Why Eurovision Is Awesome

A couple of weeks ago, in light of the upcoming EU referendum, YouGov conducted a poll to find out the British people’s thoughts on one of the most pressing social/political/cultural questions of the day, with SHOCKING RESULTS: a majority of Britons, if given the choice, would leave the Eurovision Song Contest. What has this country come to?!?!?!

Actually, my summary of the results there is not strictly true. 47% of people polled (out of a sample of 2033) said ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Wouldn’t vote’, and the remaining split was 60-40 in favour of leaving Eurovision – that’s 646 people, or 32% of the total sample. Now, 646 people may not seem like much, but, assuming that YouGov conducted a stringent poll with a representative sample, the future looks bleak for Eurovision.

Those who know me will correctly surmise that I find this VERY upsetting. First of all, if you don’t like Eurovision, you don’t have to watch it – but that doesn’t mean that no one else should be allowed to watch it either. Why would you vote to stop other people enjoying something? I’m not a massive fan of organised sports, but if there was a vote on whether the Home Nations should leave UEFA, would I vote ‘yes’ just so I wouldn’t have to find something else to watch whenever matches were broadcast? Would I…? (Hold on, I’m thinking…) No, of course not. What nonsense.

Anyhoo, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s discuss exactly why leaving Eurovision would be so terrible. There are SO MANY REASONS. The outfits. The choreography. The special effects. The body positivity. The chance to practice naming the capitals of Europe. The inexplicable subtitled translations of the songs not in English. The awkward switching between languages during the presenters’ pieces to camera. The moment of excitement when you discover which British celebrity (always unrecognisable to viewers in any other country) will be announcing our scores. The little videos of tourist attractions and cultural experiences in the host country, dubiously linked to whichever song is coming next. Did I mention the outfits?

And then there’s the fact that it’s one of the few things I actually prefer to watch with other people. I’d much rather watch a drama on my own, so that no one can see me alternately getting super excited when nice things happen to my favourite characters and bawling my eyes out when disaster strikes. With comedies, I’ll go either way – seeing other people laugh can make something funnier, provided there’s no unnecessary chichat that causes you to miss the next joke. But Eurovision – that requires camaraderie, companionship and concord (and preferably a few drinks). If your friends take the same view, then everyone can get together for that most enjoyable of television-based social events: the Eurovision Party.

Of course, the Eurovision Party is not a heterogeneous phenomenon. Such events may vary considerably, since there are, understandably, numerous ways to celebrate one’s love for all things camp and European. A couple of years ago, the party I attended was food-based, and guests brought along a selection of foodstuffs themed to one or more of the participating countries. (For reference, possible choices include French bread, Danish pastries, Swiss cheese, Belgian chocolate, Polish sausage, Greek yoghurt, Swedish meatballs and Turkey. Much eating was done that day.) A few years before that, we went for the sweepstake angle: each participant was assigned a random country around which they would theme their outfit and foodstuffs, and if their country won they’d get the kitty, to which everyone had contributed. (My country was Portugal. I dressed like Carmen Miranda and brought Nando’s. I did not win the kitty.)

This year (Saturday 14th March 2016, BBC1, 8pm – jot that down in your copybooks now), the theme is going to be Serious Scoring. The procedure is very simple: there will be a Master Scoreboard, upon which the countries will be listed in order of appearance; guests will score songs according to personal preference; and points will be totted up at the end in order to ascertain how far the mood of the room matches that of the good people of Europe. And lest you think that this doesn’t sound particularly spontaneous and fun, let me point out that we haven’t decided yet whether we’re going to score all countries as they appear OR wait until the end and use the official Eurovision points system (12, 10, 8, 6-1). We’re crazy like that.

What should be clear from all this is that Having A Good Time does not equate to Using Eurovision As An Excuse For A Party And Not Actually Watching Any Of It – no no! Rapt attention must be paid to the actual show, songs especially. Now, note that in my list of ‘great things about Eurovision’ above, I didn’t actually include ‘music’. After all, one man’s Elvis is another man’s scraping a rusty cat across an old barrel of chalkboards; and, it must be confessed, many Eurovision songs are really not very good (and I absolutely include a number of British entries in that). But this is not true of them all. Some of the winners have become astronomically famous (generally for the right reasons) – Lulu, ABBA, Celine Dion et al. – and don’t even try to tell me that Love Shine a Light wasn’t an absolute belter of a song. (Here’s a link to it, in case you need reminding.) Plus there’s pretty much guaranteed to be a few great poppy numbers to get you dancing, as well as at least one surprisingly impressive ballad sung by an unprepossessing woman from somewhere like Iceland or Malta. I mean, there are twenty-six countries in the final – you must be able to find something you like (especially since the range of genres is starting to open up since Lordi burst onto the scene with their ridiculous outfits and crazy heavy metal classic ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ – yes, I’m still impressed).

Plus, viewers in the UK will obviously need to be listening closely in order to catch Graham Norton’s snarky commentary gems, which have quickly become as legendary as Terry Wogan’s. I do occasionally wonder if Norton is occasionally too mean, which would be a slight affront to the jolly Eurovision spirit, but then I remember that he’s just as bitchy when it comes to guests on his show and elsewhere. Hell, he got in some zingers at the BAFTAs last week, in particular throwing shade at Aidan Turner’s hair (“A man bun at the BAFTAs. How very modern.”) and, indeed, at the whole of the UK’s television production industry (*deadpan voice* “Yay. Us. Aren’t we great.”). So really that’s just his way, and our way, and it is pretty damn funny, although if the other countries are listening in then that might explain why we always do so badly…

So, with the party organised and the food prepared, what are we expecting from the show this year? Well, Sweden are hosting, which is a promising start – their presenting game when they hosted in 2013 was exceptionally strong, in particularly Petra Mede’s fantastic half-time song ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’ (“Our people are cold but our elks are hot”; cue three girls dressed as meatballs). As for the actual songs, I haven’t watched the semi-finals so I really haven’t got the faintest idea what’s going to happen or who’s singing what. The only exception is the UK’s entry, Joe and Jake’s ‘You’re Not Alone’,  which I’ve heard on the radio – it isn’t exactly my cup of tea (I find the cross between ballad-y singing and a heavy beat a bit confusing) but is certainly much less appalling than some of the dross we’ve put through in the last few years.

Suffice to say that we probably won’t win, but then there’s no special reason that we should – we have a tendency to enter half-arsed generic songs, we never have any particularly eyecatching costumes or staging, and, oh yeah, we spend the other 364 days of the year complaining about those bloody Europeans. Quite frankly, it astonishes me that so many Brits spend so much time whingeing about Europe, its countries, its people, its governance, its food, its weather, its music and its languages, and then wonder why people don’t vote for us in Eurovision once a year. Honestly, the nerve of those Eastern Europeans / Scandinavians / Iberians / Balkanites, always voting for their neighbours with whom they share a border, a culture, a history, an outlook, a language and a tendency to actually be nice to each other! Why do they hate us so much?! What’s the point of even being a part of Europe if we don’t get to win automatically just for being British?!

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So in conclusion, Eurovision is great. It brings people together both at home and abroad. It gives Brits the opportunity to hear other languages and see other people doing stuff a bit differently. It has catchy music (sometimes). It’s a massive continent-wide party. And it’s an opportunity for eating lots of delicious food. I vote ‘In’.

One last treat: I shall leave you with my favourite Eurovision song of all time: Ukraine’s 2007 entry, Verka Serduchka with ‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai’. Good luck getting that out of your head for the next twenty years.

~

Gif credits:

Captain-America-In-The-Impala on Tumblr

http://gifsec.com/funny/gifs-anyway-david-tennant-doctor-who-so-anyway-gif/

There Goes Lassiter’s Again: Why I Still Need Good Neighbours

Spoilers for UK-pace Neighbours up to 12/04/16

It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is possible to judge how old someone is just by asking them a few questions about their TV-watching habits. One such battery of questions might proceeed as follows: ‘Which Blue Peter presenters do you remember most vividly?’; ‘Who’s your Doctor?’; ‘What did you watch on Saturday mornings?’; ‘What’s the first celebrity death you remember on TV?’. My answers to these questions are, respectively, Diane-Louise Jordan / Stuart Miles / Konnie Huq / Matt Baker, Number Ten, Live and Kicking (Andi and Emma version) and Princess Diana, all of which classes me firmly as an early Millenial.

But there’s one particular question that will not only reveal your age but also the deepest secrets of your psyche, and that question is ‘What was your most shocking Neighbours moment?’

Given that Neighbours has been running for 31 years, there are A LOT of momentous events to choose from. Scott and Charlene’s romantic wedding is obviously a classic from the early years, as are Bouncer’s dream sequence (Bouncer, obviously, being a Golden Labrador) and Harold’s disappearance over a cliff, leaving only a pair of broken glasses behind him. Moving forward in time, the world was rocked by Karl’s affair with Sarah, Drew falling off his horse, and – perhaps most shocking of all – Toadie getting his hair cut, while recent years have included Steph’s affair with her best friend Libby’s husband, teenage Bridget having a baby and then dying, Paul nearly being murdered, and the Ramsay Street car crash that nearly killed off every young person in the show.

And last week, the latest in a long line of disasters occurred, as Lassiter’s hotel blew up, leaving dozens more Erinsborough residents fearing for their lives…

But, the thing is: it’s all been a bit weird. The main reason for this, I think, is that everyone knew it was going to happen. Of course, for all of these really big storylines it’s generally known that Something Is Coming, but this time the advance warning has been really quite in-your-face. For weeks there have been references to the “maintenance issues” in the basements at the hotel, which has recently been suffering from a dodgy air conditioning system and a severely malfunctioning boiler. As if that wasn’t ominous enough, Channel 5 has been trailing it with a special title (‘Neighbours: Hotel Horror’ – no melodrama here) and tagline (“Five rooms, five days, one hotel”) as well as a late-night special episode subtly entitled Neighbours: Who Dies?

All that advertising certainly builds up momentum and anticipation – I wouldn’t have been watching otherwise, since my relationship with Neighbours in recent years has been patchy, to say the least. But there are two problems with being quite so forceful in your advertising. First it gets rid of the shock factor, which is really an essential part of a Shocking Moment. And second, if you’re gonna hype the show up like that, the pressure’s really on you to deliver something special. And Neighbours: Hotel Horror… well, it just hasn’t.

To be fair, it should be stated that it has all the makings of a classic Neighbours disaster. First, it takes place at Lassiter’s complex, scene of all the finest accidents and catastrophes: the explosion at the Waterhole pub (1993), the Lassiter’s fire (2004), Paul’s attempted murder (2010) and the destruction of Toadie and Sonya’s wedding (2013), to name but a few (if an event ain’t happening at Lassiter’s, it ain’t happening, and that’s a fact). Second, eternal Satanic patriarch Paul Robinson is almost certainly involved, having become embroiled a blood feud with the hotel’s owners – not a wise move on their part (if an evil scheme isn’t being plotted by Paul Robinson, it isn’t an evil scheme, and that’s another fact). Third, the potential death toll has been increased considerably by a sudden influx of characters towards the disaster site on the flimsiest and most spurious of grounds. Want to talk to your grandson about your will? Do it at a luxury hotel! Need to ask your estranged husband to dump his new girlfriend and move to Germany with you? Luxury hotel! Got a plot to trick your crush into thinking he’s going to meet a famous guitarist? Why, that sounds like a job for a luxury hotel!

So the potential was definitely there – AND YET.

One issue: the pacing has been all over the place. The bulk of the drama – one day in TV-time – has taken place across a week of five episodes; and the tagline (recall: “Five rooms, five days, one hotel”) suggested some kind of cool single-camera real-time event where each episode would deal with the inhabitants of one of the five hotel rooms (yep, it only seems to have five, and in fact up until last week I was pretty sure it only had one). But that was very much not what happened.

Episode #1: the residents of Erinsborough gather for the ‘Citizen of the Year’ event at Lassiter’s. The staff worry that the boiler might explode. Paul Robinson schemes. The boiler explodes.

Episode #2: No sooner have the viewers asked, “Who’s going to die first??” than the answer is revealed: it’s Josh, before the opening credits role. Sad, but not exactly suspenseful, since he’s gone before you can blink. Kyle and Amy are free almost immediately afterwards, having spent approximately two seconds trapped in a lift; Karl and Sarah also escape in a matter of minutes, despite Sarah’s whingeing and limping. Daniel has also been extracted from the building and is in hospital, having regained consciousness.

Episode #3: Doug is brought out of the hotel, apparently unharmed. Outside, he collapses and dies as his ghost looks on. His body is then left in the rain for several hours (although someone does bother to put a mini gazebo up over it).

Episode #4: We discover that Toadie is trapped in the most damaged part of the hotel. Paul ‘tries’ to ‘comfort’ Terese by choosing the hour after her son and father-in-law’s death to tell her he loves her.

Episode #5: We recall (having forgotten about them for four episodes) that Ben and Xanthe are also in the hotel, just in time for them to realise that’s a stupid place to be and walk out of the hotel again. Kyle, having recently escaped a life-threatening experience, decides that it’s the ideal time to move to Germany, and leaves with his dog.

So, to sum up: of the twelve characters in danger from being killed inside the hotel, seven casually walked out after the explosion with hardly a scratch on them, leaving the audience to wonder why the writers bothered to stick them in there at all; one died in the first five minutes of the disaster; another died outside the hotel, possibly of the disease he was already suffering from; two have been extracted and are recovering (we assume) in hospital; and one – a character who had already left the show – hasn’t been mentioned but would be incredibly lucky not to have got out since she was in the same room as two others. Quite frankly, a disappointing showing.

Now this isn’t to say that there weren’t some good moments. The sudden realisation that Toadie was in the building – now that was tense, because Toadie is great (and long may he reign over the House Formerly of Trouser and all that is awesome). The emotional impact of a death on a dazed family, beautifully acted. The wonderful musical choice of having ‘Georgia on My Mind’ play as Kyle decided to move to Germany with, yes, Georgia. The fact that Bossy the dog is leaving with him (all in all, probably the most devastating loss of the week.) And Terese asking the immortal question, “Is there something you’re not telling me, Paul?” (Pro tip: The answer is yes. THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS YES.) And there are also several strands still to tie up. Who caused the explosion? We assume Paul, but we could be wrong. Why has Sarah returned? Just to wreak havoc and destroy Susan and Karl’s marriage yet again? What is in Toadie’s mysterious red file, bequeathed to Steph to be destroyed in the event of his death?

But, overall, none of it comes close to my most shocking Neighbours moment. What is it? I hear you cry. What? What?

Dear friends, it is THE PLANE CRASH.

Fans of the show will already be fanning themselves in relived horror at the mere mention of this event; for non-viewers, the monumental impact of this storyline may be illustrated by the fact that it has its own Wikipedia page. Briefly, Paul Robinson (him again) invites pretty much the entire cast to go on a historical fancy-dress joy-ride to Tasmania on his private plane, including Neighbours stalwart mother-figure Susan Kennedy and her much-detested love rival Izzy Hoyland, the Bishop family David, Liljana and Serena, likeable Irish rogue Connor and kooky young couple Dylan and Sky; Paul himself and his daughter Elle are also aboard. A bomb causes the plane to crash, everyone tips out into the Bass Strait, and the fight for survival begins. Young lovers cling onto each other. Enemies are forced to work together. The tide rises. And chaos reigns.

So what does this choice tell you about me? It tells you, first, that I was at my Neighbours-watching peak (i.e. a student) in 2005, which means that I was probably a child of the Eighties. It also tells you that I love over-the-top melodrama, storylines about relationships and an intense close-quarters scene or two. If I told you, additionally, that I was most concerned about Dylan and Sky, then you could also surmise that I love a rough-edged character with a heart of gold. All these inferences would, by the way, be 100% accurate.

And that’s why, eleven years later, I still can’t quite let Neighbours go. I don’t know whether baby Millennials and the first members of Generation Z will sit about in 2027 reminiscing about the Lassiter’s hotel explosion. Maybe they will. Maybe they loved it. Maybe I found it hard to care about the current roll-call of characters because they are no longer my people; maybe, in short, Neighbours is simply not for me any more. But I suspect that, for many years to come, I will still be checking in on Ramsay Street now and again, just to see how everyone is getting along.

Once a Neighbour, always a Neighbour.

“The Peacocks Have Arrived!”: From Fact To Fiction With ‘Mr Selfridge’

SPOILERS: Mr Selfridge season 1-3

I like TV. And I like books. And I also like lists of things. So imagine my delight when I recently received, as an unbirthday present, a book called ‘1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die’. Challenge accepted!

Obviously, the first thing I did was make a spreadsheet (with each entry broken down by page number, title, year the show premiered, country of production and genre); equally obviously, the next thing I did was scour Netflix to discover just how many of the world’s top 1001 TV programmes I could already get without having to pay any additional money. Quite a few, as it turns out – The Good Wife, Life on Mars, The Vampire Diaries, Danger Mouse and many other classics – but, for no real reason other than possibly a hint of Downton Withdrawal Syndrome, I opted to begin with Mr Selfridge.

I didn’t have particularly high expectations, knowing very little about the premise (other than ‘Rich American man comes to London and opens shop, people buy things, rich American man gets richer, viewers fall in love with rich American man’). I also, sadly, haven’t managed to watch fast enough to be ready to watch the most recent – fourth and final – season, which concludes tonight on ITV. But, given that each season is only ten episodes long, I’ve sped through and am well into season three, and in a worryingly short space of time have become a bit obsessed with it (cue gasps of surprise and cries of ‘But you never get obsessed with anything!’). Reasons for this (completely unprecedented) enamourment include:

  1. Everyone looking incredibly snappy in Edwardian frock coats and bodices
  2. A big cast full of confident, funny, clever women who are there to work, vote and sell you as many pairs of gloves as you can fit in your motorcar
  3. Motorcars
  4. A French guy actually played by a French guy, rather than a Brit sounding like an extra from ‘Allo ‘Allo!
  5. The afore-mentioned French guy also being smokin’ hot
  6. Sudden renditions of music-hall songs with the audience guffawing inexplicably
  7. Amanda Abbington
  8. Katherine Kelly
  9. Mr Crabb, probably the most interesting fictional accountant ever
  10. Those amazing window displays.

But one of the most fascinating things about it is that it is, of course, based on a true story and a real person. Unlike, say, Downton Abbey, in which the writers can (and did) introduce, send away, marry off or do away with characters as and when they please, shows like Mr Selfridge must (one would assume) try to stick to the basic facts, or, at the very least, keep within one hundred yards of the facts at all times.

In Mr Selfridge’s case, the general idea, as I understand it, was to paint broad strokes and invent a cast of fictional characters around the key people and milestones in Selfridge’s life. Hence Rose, Selfridge’s insanely patient wife (and her death somewhere between seasons 1 and 2); his four children, Rosalie, Violette, Gordon and Beatrice (although Beatrice does mysteriously disappear around the same time her mother does); Selfridge’s mother Lois, who lives with them all; and Rosalie’s slightly sinister husband Serge de Bolotoff. But Agnes and Henri, Victor, Mr Grove and Miss Mardle, Kitty and so on and so forth – they are characters of the writers’ and actors’ imaginations, brought to life merely to delight and entrance us.

In fact, a particularly fun game to play while watching the programme is ‘Spot which characters are real historical figures’. For example, I was pretty confident in recognising Edward VII, Ernest Shackleton and Arthur Conan Doyle as real people, and I made the right leap in surmising that Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett were Mack and Mabel of, well, Mack and Mabel; but I was tricked by Alfie Boe’s music-hall singer, who appears to be completely fictitious, and I was also unaware of Louis Blériot, cross-Channel-flier extraordinaire, and Winifred Bonfils, American reporter. I’ll have to read up.

Of course, the problem with all this mixing fact and fiction is that you just don’t know when to stop. As I said earlier, I really only know some very basic facts about Selfridge, so I’ve been taking things pretty much on faith, and Mr Selfridge is so glamorous and dazzling that you want to believe everything it tells you, however preposterous. In some cases, these things turn out to be true – Selfridge really did set up an entire plane as part of a display – so why not believe some of the other stuff too? Selfridge’s staff invented fashion shows and lipstick in a tube, eh? Cool! He generously hired more staff than he needed to make sure people weren’t out of work? Sure! And he was a spy for Britain during WW1? OK!

And all these unlikely elements are so convincing because they’re presented in the same gorgeous and excitable fashion as the facts, with all the same authentic-seeming period trappings. Not knowing a particularly large amount about the Edwardians, I can’t really judge whether the costumes / sets / language / general demeanour of the show are historically appropriate, but the whole thing is certainly chock-full of things that seem distinctly not of our time. Jazz clubs with actual dancing – now there’s something that screams ‘Turn of the century’; likewise, people being able to board moving buses simply by grabbing the rail and leaping on. Oh, and hats. Everyone wears a hat, all the time: smart hats, walking-about hats, working-in-the-loading-bay hats, wedding hats, supporting-women’s-suffrage hats, shopping-for-hats hats…

The question is: does it matter where fact ends and fiction begins? Some would say so – take Selfridge’s great-granddaughter, who is (understandably) a bit peeved about his characterisation as a womaniser both during and after his marriage. Then there’s the show’s creator, Andrew Davies, who seems to feel guilty about suggesting that Mrs Selfridge might have been a bit of a player herself (not to the extent of her husband, but still – some of her choices regarding young cocky painters have been a little poor). On the other hand, it sounds as though the artistic licence of the TV version was a welcome change from the Selfridge in the source material (the book Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead) – according to one blogger, TV Harry is a lot more charming and a lot less dull than real/book Harry.

It all comes down, in the end, to whether you expect your biographical dramas to be true to the letter or the spirit of the person and time they’re portaying. Personally, I love the spirit of Mr Selfridge and the themes that are woven into its lustrous fabric – family, friendship, fair play, hard graft, gender equality, joy and heartbreak. The way the show handled the period 1914-1918 is a great example. The build-up was a little laboured, perhaps, à la Downton – “Times are changing,” one person intones, and another replies, “Who knows what will happen in the next five years?”, while a third adds sagely, “Trouble’s brewing…” But once England declared war, Mr Selfridge became heart-breaking in its depiction of young men excited about fighting for their country; parents, spouses and siblings terrified to hear the postman knock on the door; women putting aside their own feelings to go to work for the war effort; people of all races and sexes displaced and homeless; the men who never came home; and those who did but were never the same. For that, if for nothing else, Mr Selfridge has been a worthwhile endeavour.

As for the letter of Mr Selfridge’s life and times, well, I don’t know. Did Harry Selfridge really hire peacocks for his daughter’s wedding? Would he really have allowed his staff to hug him, or tell him when he was making a massive cock-up of things? As I come to the final season of the show, will it deal with the dwindling funds and power of the Selfridge estate, with his mother’s death, with the sale of the store? And will I bursting into tears every five minutes the way I have been in season 3?

Perhaps, after this, I’ll have to give the screen a rest for a few days and go back to my books. But now that I’ve finished reading 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, what to read next…?

Selfridge

On Sharks, And How To Jump Them Successfully

SPOILERS for Death in Paradise, Grey’s Anatomy and X-Files

Tonight, the truth will be revealed. Or, you know, it won’t. It’s hard to say. I mean, FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully have been looking for it since 1993 and haven’t found it yet, despite having lost pretty much all members of their families, been impossibly impregnated, survived alien cancer, brought down numerous government conscpiracies, stopped vampires, ghouls, poltergeists and chupacabras, and been abducted by extraterrestrials at least twice between them. After all that excitement, you’d think that everything that needed to be said about aliens would have been said – but here they come again, with a new mini-series of The X-Files starting in the UK on Channel 5 this evening.

I meet this news with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I love Mulder, I love Scully, I love Mulder/Scully, I love Skinner (see this earlier blog post), I love the witty repartee, I love the music and I LOVE a good mystery. But having watched the whole show, in order, years after it was originally broadcast, I quickly started to get frustrated with the whole alien thing. Monster of the Week episodes – yes. Increasingly absurd and nonsensical myth-arc which grew more ludicrous and more tedious by the week – no. In The X-Files’ defence, I have a terrible memory, so it wasn’t entirely the show’s fault that I spent quite a lot of time in the latter seasons going, “Who’s that? Is he an alien? What did she do before? Didn’t he die? Why’s she doing that? Is that Mulder’s dad? Is THAT Mulder’s dad? Was he that guy with the thing? Who’s that? Who’s THAT? Why can’t that guy with the waterbed come back?” Deficits of my brain notwithstanding, I really feel like the last few seasons were specifically designed to confuse and alienate viewers (pun very much intended), for reasons I can’t begin to fathom. So, bringing it back now, eight years after the concluding film… Has The X-Files jumped the shark?

This phrase, as you may know, comes from an episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz, out for a casual water-ski one sunny day, literally has to jump over a shark. Cue applause, many rounds of ‘Ey!’, and groans from audiences all over the country who decided that this was quite frankly absurd and that enough was enough. The producers didn’t listen to the groans and delivered six more seasons, but the deed was done, and now that poor shark is immortalised in pop culture as a symbol of a show past its sell-by date – when something so ludicrous happens that you know the show is never going to be the same again.

And it’s not that hard to argue that, indeed, The X-Files jumped the shark some time ago. One major category of shark-jumping (according to TV Tropes, fount of all film and television knowledge) is to do with plot. A show can push its own self-destruct by, among other things, radically altering its premise, drastically and suddenly changing its mood, throwing in endless plot twists, or absolutely refusing to tie up its main storyline, leaving it hanging about, getting more and more complex and inexplicable, until viewers lose not only the will to watch but the will to live. I’m not saying that’s the case with The X-Files or anything, but let me just note that the official TV Tropes designation for this occurrence is ‘The Chris Carter Effect’ – Chris Carter being the guy who, um, created The X-Files

Of course, shark-jumping isn’t all about plot. Another major kind of shark-jump – possibly the most common – is cast changes, including but not limited to the removal of a popular character, a new character that everyone hates, replacing an actor and claiming it’s the same character, or replacing a character with a totally different character who’s actually exactly the same. I highly recommend that you go and check out the various lists of occasions on which these have occurred (assuming you have a spare week to get hopelessly lost in an endless web of pop culture titbits) but today I’m concerned with a few shows in particular that have undergone these changes, starting with Death in Paradise.

Series 5 of this desert-island murder mystery is currently showing on BBC1, and, cast-wise, it bears little or no resemblance to series 1, which I adored. It’s still a cosy mystery set on a beautiful tropical island and all that jazz, but of the four main characters who began the series, only one is left, and it’s the worst one. (Sorry, Danny John-Jules – loved your work in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, though). The first heartbreaking disappearance was Ben Miller’s pernickety English detective with a penchant for paperwork and inappropriately warm suits, replaced by Kris Marshall’s goofy English detective who’s decided to really just embrace this whole Caribbean thing. Initially I was very upset by this, and considered giving up there and then; but I battled through, and Marshall won me over. But then – BUT THEN. The next character to leave was Fidel, the lovely young sergeant played by Gary Carr; and then, travesty of travesties, Sara Martins’ suave French lady detective went as well. Quelle désastre, as they would say on Saint Marie.

And the thing about that is – OK, actors leave. But in Death in Paradise they haven’t been replaced by new exciting characters that will take the show in a different direction. They’ve been replaced by almost identical characters who look like them and sound like them but just aren’t them. It’s weird and I can’t get my head around it.

What other tropes should we avoid, then, if we want the shark to stay firmly unjumped? Here’s one: overuse of gimmicks, such as special guest stars, musical episodes, clips shows or the release of a movie. What show am I about to talk about…? Yep.

Poor old Simpson family. From humble beginnings as a short section on someone else’s show, they went from strength to strength on the basis of being really damn funny. But times are a-changing, and now there are other cartoon for grown-ups, so what choice do they have but to keep on pushing or give up completely?

You could fill a book with analyses of the celebrities who’ve cameoed on The Simpsons (in fact, someone probably has. If not, they should – can you say ‘money spinner’?!). Simpsons vocal alumni include Stephen Hawking, Glenn Close, Buzz Aldrin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Justin Bieber, Richard Dawkins, Eric Idle, Julian Assange, Richard Branson, Paul and Linda McCartney, Elizabeth Taylor, Pete Sampras, Tony Blair and, of all people, Cat Deeley. True, the fact that the show can get such a raft of glitterati involved is impressive – but you do have to wonder what it’s trying to distract you from with all these famous voices.

Likewise, what are they hiding beneath all the musical numbers? I have to say, I actually feel kind of unfair complaining about this, because The Simpsons’ musical episodes are by and large utterly glorious. There’s a whole generation of people who only need to hear the opening chords to Mr Burns’ ‘See My Vest’ in order to jump up onto a table and start belting out the most beautiful nonsense about grizzly bear underwear (and don’t even get me started on the bundle of delight that is Spider-Pig. That came from the movie, though, and we all know that releasing a movie is a Sure Sign of sharks being jumped). Nonetheless, you can’t keep a show going on music and funny voices alone, and the slow but steady decline of quality in the actual storylines of The Simpsons is basically a fact of life now (allow me to insert a link to a particularly apt episode of my favourite podcast here), and the fact that it still keeps on rolling is a cause of wonderment to pretty much everyone, not least, I would imagine, the show’s producers.

But that’s the thing – a shark jump is not necessarily a death sentence (however much people – including me – might whinge about it). Here’s a classic example: over the last few weeks, I’ve been catching up with the most recent season of Grey’s Anatomy. “Grey’s Anatomy?!” I hear you cry. “Is that still a thing?!” Why yes it is, dear reader, and I’m still watching it, slowly, bit by bit, as new DVDs trickle over from across the pond, since all British TV networks appear to have given up on it some time ago. Yet, on a hospital-shaped set somewhere in LA, a group of actors are still putting on white coats and saying things like, “This guy’s going to crash, we’ll have to do an emergency heart transplant, prep OR 1 stat and tell my spouse and/or children that my work comes first, I’m a surgeon, dammit!”

Grey’s has basically run the gamut of shark-jumps. It’s killed off or otherwise thrown out numerous beloved characters (George, Denny, Cristina and of course the one and only McDreamy); introduced odious new replacements (Arizona. There, I said it. She irritates the hell out of me and I’m not sorry); completely changed the personalities of key figures (George, the sweetest person in the world, cheating on his wife? Come on now); resolved all manner of sexual tensions (Meredith and Derek, Cristina and Owen, Callie and Arizona, Jackson and April, to name but a few); and thrown an absurd number of outlandish scenarios at the main character (hurricane, fire, secret sister, other secret sister, shooting, drowning, call from President, best friend moving to Switzerland, plane crash), from which she has emerged with no more personality than at the start of the series. It’s also had a musical episode and a spin-off, which you will by now recognise as classic examples of shark-jumping. But I STILL LOVE IT. The most recent season had me laughing, weeping, booing, cheering and, crucially, wanting to watch more.

So maybe there’s hope for The X-Files as well. I shall sit down tonight, snacks in bowl and notepad in hand, ready to embrace Mulder, Scully, Skinner and even Cigarette-Smoking Man, open to the idea that it might still be worth loving.the-x-files-i-want-to-believe-print