I realise that my blog’s been pretty quiet for the last few weeks, but I have an excuse: I’ve been on holiday. I went to the States, where, thanks to the insistence of my travelling companion (my sister), we saw all kinds of cultural, educational and natural sights throughout the south west: San Francisco, Alcatraz, Stanford University, Pebble Beach, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park. But, hell, I wasn’t going through California without stopping at my spiritual homeland, the epicentre of film and television magic, the guiding light at the heart of all that is broadcast on a rectangular screen: Hollywood.
So we went. And it was magical. And here’s what I learnt there.
1. TV makes stuff look bigger.
It’s a well-worn cliché that the camera adds ten pounds, but, as it turns out, it also adds metres, miles, hectares and cubic feet. Making brazen use of my sister’s love of FRIENDS, I managed to convince her that a tour of the Warner Bros studio in Burbank would be a fun activity, so we headed north, parked up, grabbed a Starbucks and hopped onto a golf buggy, where a friendly guide took us on a little drive around the backlots of the studio. And everything was SO SMALL. Around one little square in the middle of the lot are pretty much all of the buildings and places that ever popped up in FRIENDS – the Geller house, the street where Joey builds a cardboard-box Porsche, the field where Ross plays rugby, the newsstand where the squirrel threatens Phoebe – as well as the Addams Family house, City Hall from Batman (the original and best Adam West version), the Waltons house, the street where Kermit, Jason Segel and Amy Adams sang the opening number in The Muppets, and numerous other buildings from about a bazillion TV shows and films. Add a few distinctive lamp-posts, some brightly coloured signs and a distinctive shop or two and you get twenty different towns from one little hamlet.
I should add that the highlight of the Warner Bros tour was when we got to visit Central Perk. The actual Central Perk. And we sat on the actual Sofa. It was brilliant. But you know what? That was teeny-weeny too.
2. TV sometimes tells the truth.
So, yes, TV can mislead us (like, who knew that amateur detectives aren’t really allowed to stroll onto crime scenes and start solving stuff?). Then again, sometimes the box is bang on. Take Baywatch, for example. For a British viewer, it’s impossibly glossy: the sun always shines, everyone is beautiful, the lifeguard houses are so cute, there are lots of nice piers under which you can have a romantic tryst… Basically, the programme makers have created the perfect setting for a fun soapy drama. But the thing is – it’s actually like that. We went to Santa Monica. We saw the lifeguard shacks and the creaking piers. We gawped at the beautiful people running and doing tai chi and flicking their hair. We sunbathed. We paddled. We watched the silhouettes of surfers making the most of the last rays of sun. And then we damn well went to a diner and had fries and milkshakes.
(It should be noted that some of the less savoury programmes are fairly accurate too. Take It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The main characters run a horrible bar in an awful area of the city; they live in squalor, they take drugs, they scrounge welfare money and they sometimes eat dog food. And when we went to see the place in downtown LA where they film the outside of the bar… Let’s just say we were afraid to get out of the car.)
3. TV is big business.
This seems like an obvious thing to say – if people didn’t love TV, no one would make it (and no one would blog about it either). But you go to LA, and TV (and film) is everywhere. Walk down any street and you’ll see signs that say ‘Location available for filming’ or ‘Catering/laundry/decorating services for production companies’; and even the buskers and street performers are dressed up as film and TV characters (we must have seen about a dozen Minions shuffling along the pavement). Plus, if you know where to look, there are TV and film locations all over the place: for example, Buffy’s house is in a nice suburb in Torrance, and the Scrubs hospital is in a pleasant street in North Hollywood (now turned into flats, which was a bit of a disappointment, but damn it, we pretended to be Vanilla Bear and Chocolate Bear anyway).
4. Like, REALLY big business.
Also, people (read ‘tourists’) will pay good money for TV-related stuff. Forget pricey studios tours and TV museums and ‘experiences’ (see #6 below); just walking along the street can seriously cost you, if you get sucked into wanting one of the pieces of TV-related merchandise that fill the shops and sidewalk stalls. All the usual tourist tat is there, Hollywood-themed as hell: key-rings, licence plate covers, sweets, badges, T-shirts. But this is TV Land, and people get creative. Who wouldn’t want, for example, a CSI-themed stain remover pen? Or ‘Bazinga’ shot glasses? Or John Wayne toilet paper?
Naturally, I didn’t fall into the trap of spending lots of money on frivolous television-related items. And I most certainly didn’t buy a dress that looks like the outfit worn by the Tenth Doctor.
5. Contrary to popular belief, celebrities aren’t around every corner.
But for all the excitement and television buzz, there’s one element that is conspicuously missing, and that’s actual actors. They must be there somewhere, of course – it’s where loads of them live and work. But we didn’t spot any. Well, we may have seen one; there was a really tall guy signing a piece of paper for an excited-looking woman outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. But my sister and I both peered at him curiously, and we had no idea who he was, so it probably doesn’t count.
Even if you go to a working studio, it’s tricky to spot a celeb. Apparently past visitors to the WB Studio Tour have been successful (our tour guide mentioned a group recently who’d got to meet Kunal Nayyar, AKA Raj from The Big Bang Theory – cue ‘Oohs’ from me and several other women, and eye-rolling from my sister). But we didn’t see any actors either there or at Valencia Studios, which is where – take a deep breath – NCIS is filmed. Tours aren’t available, so we drove there anyway to have a peek; unfortunately, it turned out that the show was on hiatus, so all we saw was a very bored-looking security guard and some closed-up trailers. But I was there, man. I was there.
6. It’s fun to pretend to be on TV.
After we’d left Los Angeles, of course, the television-related fun was over. Psych! It wasn’t. Our last stop on the trip (after the Grand Canyon and all that jazz) was Las Vegas, Sin City, a place of lights, flamboyance, bedazzlement, poker tables, martinis and, of course, gruesome murders that always turn out to have some kind of unexpected twist. This, my friends, was CSI: The Experience at the MGM hotel, a sort of interactive exhibition where the TV-obsessed tourist gets to be part of a criminal investigation team. I chose my scenario, ‘Skeleton Found In Desert’ (I thought ‘Car Driven Into Living Room’ and ‘Body In Back Alley’ might be too bloody), and then I set to work. I took notes at the crime scene, ran DNA samples, matched bullets to guns, visited Autopsy and looked at suspicious seeds under a microscope. And I had a lovely time. OK, so I probably had a slightly easier job to do than real CSIs (the puzzles at each station were about as tricky as a ‘Spot the difference’ game on the CBeebies website), but the fake bullets were nice and weighty and there were some cool UV lights and they gave me a little clipboard to jot down my thoughts. Plus I got a certificate at the end. Lush.
7. There’s so much TV I haven’t watched yet.
The biggest lesson of all, perhaps, is that I haven’t even started to delve into the extraordinary world that is TV today. I’ve seen the sets for Pretty Little Liars, Suburgatory and Hart of Dixie, but I haven’t seen the shows yet. I’ve been offered T-shirts featuring Sam and Dean from Supernatural, the Stark family sigil from Game of Thrones and quotes from Girls, but I haven’t seen those shows yet either. When I finally got home and spent several jetlagged days collapsed in front of Netflix, I was presented with Wallander, Suits, The Thick of It, Heroes, Prison Break, Modern Family… The list goes on. Honestly, I should start watching more TV.
And the final lesson… 8. Don’t rely on technology.
Hope you liked the pictures that accompanied this post. Sorry there weren’t more – two days before the end of the holiday, the memory card in the camera had a meltdown and corrupted about three-quarters of the photos we’d taken. Guess we’ll have to go back sometime…