2015: The Year In Review Shows

A new year, eh? Always makes you a bit philosophical. What have I achieved in the last twelve months? What will I remember as the good times? What have I learnt? How long will it be before I can bear to look at a mince pie again? And so forth. But the problem with looking back with nostalgia at the year that’s just gone is that, well, it’s just gone. It was there, like, a few days ago. So to try and sum up 2015, I have turned to television, and, in particular, end-of-year review shows that will do the job for me. These, my friends, are the historical documents that in a hundred years’ time will be included in the source analysis paper of GCSE History. You mark my words.

The first thing I discovered about 2015 from my highly scrutinising documentary investigation was that I apparently missed loads of stuff. During The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, I kept my score – because I am THAT person – and I did appallingly, the worst I have ever performed in this particular challenge (the teams’ scores were 43, 35 and 31 points respectively, and I got 16. Terrible, terrible, terrible). Incredibly poor competitive effort notwithstanding, I was intrigued to see just how this frolicsome and whimsical comedy quiz would manage to be comedic about a year that has, in many ways, been pretty horrific; and the answer was ‘Quite well actually’. After a recognition by Jimmy Carr that 2015’s main news stories had been “a bit terrorist-y”, the questions mainly tried to see the positive side of things – for example, the long-overdue dumping of Farage from his parliamentary seat. In fact, quite a lot of the time, the contestants ignored the “Quiz of the Year” part of the show’s title and went instead for “Big Fat Taking the Piss out of Themselves and Each Other for the Viewers’ Amusement”. This was effective because the line-up was pretty strong: Jo Brand, Rob Brydon (who staged a presenting coup), Richard Ayoade and David Mitchell, whose battle for King of Geeks continues to rage, Greg Davies, and bundle of pure joy Claudia Winkleman. They all looked like they were having a lovely time, the audience was roaring, the children of Mitchell Brook Primary School were as cute as ever, and there was a cameo from Josh Groban. Excellent.

Nonetheless, they did manage to squeeze in some of the vaguely important stuff that really epitomised the last year. Thus, we were quizzed about the general election, Jeremy Clarkson’s departure from the BBC (which, we were forcefully reminded, was a non-renewal of contract and NOT A SACKING), the FIFA corruption scandal, the ominous rise of Donald Trump, and that stupid dress whose colour no-one could agree on. Add in a questionable joke about Oscar Pistorius and a guest appearance from Nadiya from Bake Off and you’ve just about got 2015 sewn up.

Also chockful of 2015-ness was Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe, which included many of the same topics of conversation, though discussed in a much more bitter and sarcastic tone. Politics was high on the agenda, with Brooker treating us to even more of his quite frankly fantastic descriptions of our much beloved head of state. Brooker’s Weekly Wipe series earlier in the year offered us such delights as “harrowing adult baby”, “shiny-skinned succubus of the damned” and the presciently pig-related “gammon despot”, and this most recent episode was liberally sprinkled with billions of other porky pops at the expense of “honey roast prime minister David Cameron”. (I shouldn’t laugh. But I do.) Also grist to the metaphor mill was nefarious wigmonger Donald Trump, whose hair variously described as “a squirrel’s tail brushed over his head”, “a kind of funny gas”, “a guinea pig looking at you through a washing machine door” and “just too Hitler-y for everyone”. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

Aside from specific figures of fun, other topics were covered in a way that sounded like jokery but was actually really depressing. The dress was mentioned again in the words of utter scorn and disgust that it deserves, the “fracas” surrounding Jeremy Clarkson was seen as a welcome departure for a man who is basically a “human exhaust pipe”, 50 Shades of Grey’s questionable sexual politics were roundly insulted, and we paid our respects to Cecil the Lion; then we moved on to the migrant crisis, in which it was revealed that migrants were actually REAL PEOPLE (capital letters simply cannot do justice to the levels of sarcasm achieved by Brooker, Barry Shitpeas, and Queen of All Things Philomena Cunk during this story). Following a quick look at feminism, in which Philomena’s OTT ignorance and vapid commentary were hilarious until you remembered that some people still actually think like that, and a reminder about 2015’s hottest new group, the terrorists formerly known as ISIS, it was strangely fitting that Brooker ended the show by leaning back on his sofa and breaking into the cracked and maniacal laughter of a man driven insane by the stupidity of it all.

After that, I rather fancied a bit of lightness and fun, so I thought, “What better way to cheer myself up than with a healthy dose of Schadenfreude?” Time for Rude Tube: Welcome to 2016! Now obviously I don’t watch Rude Tube for its factual chops (that would be like getting my news from Buzzfeed, which is something I absolutely one hundred per cent do not do ever at all) – I watch it for the screaming goats and people making idiots of themselves. But actually, recent pop culture trends and current affairs played a surprisingly strong role in this year’s special, albeit with a goofy slapstick spin. The anniversary of Back to the Future was represented by a bloke falling off a hoverboard, Zayn’s tragic departure from One Direction appeared in the form of lots of teenage girls crying, and the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was referenced in two clips: a Stormtrooper falling down a set of stairs and Darth Vader crashing into a wall. Good times.

But it ain’t all black eyes and bruised knees, oh no. In compiling a list of popular videos from around the web, Rude Tube takes the pulse of the country, and the country is thinking about lots of things. It’s thinking about the EU referendum, which is why we got to see a neo-Nazi in a stupid mask attempt to burn an EU flag and fail miserably (racists 0, EU health and safety regs 1). It’s thinking about new ways to make ends meet in the unstable financial climate – for example, charging people to hold their place in queues for tickets/designer products/the dole etc. while they go and have a wee. It’s thinking about how we can all be a little bit happier by trying a new and aggressive form of meditation-cum-road-rage.  And, somewhat reluctantly, it’s thinking about the highs and lows of DavCam’s year – from winning the election  to, you know, that other thing.

And if Rude Tube isn’t Zeitgeist-y enough for you, then how about Gogglebox, which actually broadcasts people watching the same stuff other people are watching and then saying stuff about it? Since we’re getting real people involved here, you might expect rather a different approach to summing up the year, and this proved to be the case – the programme started by showing a participant’s cat falling off the sofa before announcing that 2015 had been “a year when far too much happened to mention”. Right-o.

The selection of programmes was indeed a slightly bizarre one, and not necessarily what one might describe as representative of the year as a whole. Poldark reared its ugly head (and by head I mean chest and by ugly I mean topless and glistening), which is fair enough because it made quite a splash, but also included were First Dates (which does have its devoted fans, but which has been going on for several years without really doing anything particularly scandalous), Eurovision’s Greatest Hits (which I watched and enjoyed but is hardly a contender for Programme of the Year) and, of all things, Gladiator (the film one), which came out a mere fifteen years ago. Topical it was not, although, I have to say, the reactions to the woman with the weird tea recipe in First Dates were pretty funny. (For posterity, this recipe was two teabags, evaporated milk and two sugars. Cue gasps of horror.)

But, in amongst the spangly rip-away skirts, a few familiar themes were also subjected to the Goggleboxers’ raucous and pointed analysis. Like a particularly bad piece of undercooked black-and-blue-and-white-and-gold chicken, the stupid dress came up again, with one viewer stating “I lost friends over this dress”; the announcement of Clarkson’s definitely-not-sacking was met with stunned silence followed by a cheerful chorus of “Good riddance”; and, of course, the general election was included in the form of Jeremy Paxman’s interviews with David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The general consensus was that Cameron was a bit of a prat but did at least look as though he might be able to tie his own shoelaces, while Ed Miliband was simply not PM material but didn’t deserve the snarky personal questions fired at him by Paxo. Overall, no one really came off looking particularly good.

With such analysis, the Goggleboxers were probably mirroring the thoughts of quite a substantial part of the nation, which is of course the weird appeal of the programme. Reverend Kate gets  excitedabout chocolate biscuits? Me too! The Siddiquis aren’t 100% sure what Nick Clegg looks like? Neither am I! Scarlett thinks Jeremy Corbyn is a shoo-in for the next Doctor Who? Totes!

Which is why the finale was a bit of a kicker: it was the afore-mentioned analysis of Gladiator, and after a lot of chat about togas and whatnot, we got to see the Goggleboxers’ reactions to the end of the film in which (SPOILER ALERT, if one is still needed after fifteen years…) the hero dies and is reunited with his family in heaven.

And everything went quiet, and everyone looked thoughtfully at their televisions, some smiling, some with tears in their eyes. Looks like Gogglebox may have caught the mood of 2015 after all.

Thanks for reading, and I wish everyone a simply marvellous 2016.

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10 Highly Questionable TV Crushes

Yesterday evening, as well as the excitement of the first Only Connect quarter-final on BBC2, BBC3 brought us the new series of American Dad!, the much-less beloved baby brother of Family Guy. Always one to go off in my own slightly inexplicable direction, I actually prefer American Dad! to its brash and noisy older sibling. For one thing, it has Patrick Stewart in it. For another, it doesn’t have Quagmire (giggidy giggidy go away you are too creepy to be amusing). But perhaps the main reason for my preference is that I have quite a big soft spot for patriarch and eponymous American Dad Stan Smith. I really shouldn’t. He’s barking mad, often very sinister, and also he’s a cartoon. But nonetheless I see his enormous chin and hear his absurd pompous voice and I think, “Ah, Stan. How about slipping some of that American-ness my way, baby?”.

Therefore, in his honour, I now present to you Screen-Eyed Monster’s ’10 Highly Questionable TV Crushes’.

1. Stan Smith (American Dad!)

For those unfamiliar with American Dad!, Stan is your quintessential Republican. He always wears a suit with a little American flag lapel pin; he works for the CIA; he is immensely single-minded in his devotion to both God and Ronald Reagan (not necessarily in that order); he’s horrified by anything remotely left-wing (i.e. his daughter) or non-heteronormative (i.e. his son); in short, he’s sexist, homophobic, bigoted and gun-crazy. But here’s the thing – he’s actually quite sweet sometimes. I mean, he lets an alien and a talking goldfish (inhabited by the mind of a former East German ski-jumper, obvs) live rent-free in his all-American house. And he’s a very snappy dresser. And one time he sacrificed an eye and a hand to save the life of his estranged wife in a post-apocalyptic dystopia run by the Anti-Christ. So, you know, you sort of feel like you’d be safe with Stan. Unless he could only save either you or George W. Bush, in which case you’re a goner.

2. Nigel McCall (Rev)

At first glance, it’s fair to say, Nigel doesn’t appear to be a major heart-throb (even if you generously ignore the fact of his name). As the lay reader at a small inner-city church, he seems to have a problem with authority, which is a bit odd for someone apparently devoting his life to working for the Supreme Authority, and generally wears either a V-neck sweater or a cassock – so not exactly your go-to guy for flights of feverish fantasy. In addition, he’s worryingly strait-laced, posh, pernickety, fastidious, slightly camp and humorously out-of-touch with young people. I guess in that sense he’s quite similar to the actor who plays him, Miles Jupp. In fact, Jupp is the son of a minister and studied divinity, so really they have an awful lot in common. OK, fine, I have a crush on Miles Jupp. Stop banging on about it.

3. Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother)

Ah, Barney Stinson. Womaniser, philanderer, inventor of the Lemon Law. Not a bad person, really, but hardly the ideal date/boyfriend/husband, not least because he seems completely incapable of committing to any other human for more than about twelve seconds. His motto is ‘Love ‘em and leave ‘em’ (well, that’s not strictly true – his mottoes are ‘Suit up’, ‘Legen – wait for it – dary’ and ‘When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead – true story’) and he bounces between attractive women faster than you can say ‘Bob Barker’s your dad’. Nonetheless, he has a sweet side, mainly involving a troubled youth as a lonely hippie and a surprising soft spot for babies. Bless! Sign me up.

4. Walter Skinner (The X-Files)

FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner is a man on a mission: to keep America safe from threats both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. Sure, at the start of the series he has little time for Mulder’s wacky theories, but then Mulder is trying to convince him that aliens are trying to kill us all, which, let’s be honest, does sound a bit bonkers. But after a few run-ins with bad guys not of this world, Skinner starts to believe (certainly quicker than Scully does), and then he’s a steadfast ally, giving leeway where leeway is needed and reining things in when they get out of hand. He also had the balls to take on his evil boss, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and he very much enjoys a good bubble bath. In fact, aside from the age gap (he’s 50 by the end of the series) and the fact that he has a bit of a bald thing going on, I’m not sure this one is actually that weird. Right? Right…?

5. Jack Donaghy (30 Rock)

Jack Donaghy is basically Stan Smith if Stan Smith joined NBC as a network executive. Staunch Republican – check. Snappy dresser – check. Severe disdain for namby-pamby airy-fairy lefties – check. At times it seems all he cares about is money, seducing powerful women and money. But, disconcerting capitalist dogma notwithstanding, Jack’s a pure charmer; after all, you don’t get to be Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming by alienating everyone you meet. In fact, as frontwoman Liz Lemon becomes increasingly selfish and morally ambiguous, Jack starts to shine as a beacon of common sense, conscience and compassion. Either that, or I’ve been so mesmerised by his hypnotic blue eyes and perfect hair that I’ve lost all sense of reality.

6. Brian Steadman (Teachers)

The thing about Brian is that he’s not a bad guy. It’s just that, well, he only ever wears tracksuits (he’s a PE teacher, after all), he’s not brilliant with the ladies (“This has nothing to do with you being fat, which you’re not, you’re just healthy… in a large way”) and he finds it hard to keep up with all this new-fangled political correctness – indeed, finds it hard to keep up with much of anything at all. Still, he seems all right at his job, and certainly manages to avoid some of the worse traits found in his colleagues, such as chain-smoking, one-night stands, sleeping with students, and whining constantly every second of every day. RIP, Brian. RIP.

7. Leonardo (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)

By way of introduction to this one, let me quote Wikipedia: “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a team of mutant red-eared sliders named after four Renaissance artists and living in the sewers of New York City, where they train by day and fight crime by night as ninjas.” Standard. So, yes, essentially I’m saying I have a crush on a humanoid terrapin who lives in a drain. But not just any humanoid terrapin who lives in a drain, oh no. Leonardo is the leader of the gang. He’s the man (turtle) in charge. He’s the hero. He gets stuff done. And you’d never want for pizza.

8. Dennis Reynolds (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

My God, Dennis is a terrible person. I mean, even in the context of It’s Always Sunny, in which every character is appalling, Dennis surpasses them all by being outstandingly horrible. Ever pushed a former friend out of a moving car? Dennis has. Ever bought a boat so you could lure women onto it and coerce them into sleeping with you? Dennis has. Ever installed a glory hole in the bathroom of the bar you own? Dennis has. Ever threatened to kill your sister, chop her into small pieces and make her into a fetching suitcase? Dennis has, and he would do it again. Is he a sociopath? Perhaps. At the very least, he’s sufficiently odious that I’m really struggling to justify the fact that I’ve included him on a list of TV crushes. It certainly has nothing to do with the fact that he takes his shirt off a lot.

9. Huck Finn (Scandal)

Let’s get the bad news out of the way right at the start: Huck is a former Special Ops torturer who really, REALLY loved his job. As they say, once a torturer, always a torturer, and Huck remains a mass of inner turmoil and conflict (not helped by the fact that his ‘hero good guy’ employer keeps asking him if he could maybe just do a teensy-weensy bit of torturing, nothing too serious, all in a good cause, you know – but that’s a rant for another day). However, he has the following going for him. One – sympathy vote (he was blackmailed into becoming a torturer in the first place, so, you know, totally not his fault). Two – incredible loyalty to friends and family (see above re. ‘Nothing wrong with a bit of torturing between friends’). Three – strong technological game, including hacking into government mainframes, which would be useful in avoiding any pesky parking tickets / jury service / murder charges. Basically, however badly you mess up, Huck’s got your back. Maybe best to keep it turned away from him though.

10. Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Spike, AKA William the Bloody. Yikes. Where to begin? Vampire without a soul. Killer. Thief. Double-crosser. Science experiment. Punk. Bleach blond. Writer of truly terrible poetry. On paper, it looks bad – any sensible girl or boy would stay the hell (geddit) out of his way and go for someone a bit more wholesome and human. But pretty much the entire Buffy fandom would pick Spike over, for example, wholesome human Riley Finn, who’s about as interesting as a piece of old sandpaper. And that’s because Spike is cool, all sarcastic and leather-clad and muscly and Cockney and cheekboney and and such. Having a crush on Spike is basically inevitable. Twisted, absurd and highly problematic, but inevitable.

So there you have it. Am I mad, or do I have an eye for a diamond in the rough? WE MAY NEVER KNOW.

Great British Crystal University’s Got Talent: An Examination Of Why Normal People Want To Compete On Television

Last week something rather exciting happened – I went to one of the regional Britain’s Got Talent auditions. I wasn’t auditioning, mainly because the Queen doesn’t want to see someone get up on stage and translate 19th-century French literature or embroider a bookmark (mind you, The Great Pottery Throwdown…). No, I was working, by which I mean hustling contestants back and forth down a corridor, asking them whether they’d come far, and trying to stop the amateur magicians from setting fire to the little dancing girls in their puffy and highly flammable tutus. I mention this not because I have an exclusive story to share about how Ant and Dec take their tea (I didn’t even get to meet them – stupid Australia and its stupid celebrity jungles), but because I watched all these people queuing up to be on TV and it made me think, “Why? Why would you do this?”

Now I’m no stranger to the ethereal pull of celebrity. One of the dearest possessions of my youth was my autograph book (contents: lots of Disneyland characters and Dave Benson Phillips); I own more wearable fan apparel than Hot Topic; and at the merest mention of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, elves, round doors or breakfast, I’ll immediately whip out my story about the time Sean Astin offered to play thumb wars with me. But, good lord, actually being famous – even for five minutes – must be terrifying.

Take talent competitions, for example. I’m going to be optimistic (/wilfully naive) and say that by the time the live shows begin, most of the bad contestants have been quietly rejected, leaving only those who are pretty good at what they do, whether that’s singing or dancing or beatboxing or baking or hunting for bargains. And yet they still fluff it, all the time. Think of all the people on The X Factor who’ve failed to hit high notes, forgotten the words, done a ball change instead of a box step or burst into tears in the middle of a song; recall the nonsensical catchphrases, bizarre product names and God-awful poetry that have been churned out as ‘good’ business ideas on The Apprentice; and what about Great British Bake Off‘s Custardgate (the year before Bingate, in case anyone’s keeping track), in which Deborah made the fatal error of using Howard’s custard?! These people aren’t complete newcomers to their chosen talent, so why are they sometimes so crap? I can only assume that the pressure is simply too much to bear: you want so much to do well and impress people that you lose all perspective, and everything you thought you knew becomes a distant memory as you suddenly find yourself desperately warbling a song about a man who can’t put his pants on properly because he hasn’t eaten breakfast.

So why do it? Well, obviously for the fame. And not just the ‘Get your thighs circled in red by Heat magazine then sell your wedding to OK‘ kind of fame either – it seems like a few people do manage to use the whole talent show process to their advantage. The number of cookery books released by GBBO contestants after appearing on the show runs into the dozens (witty titles include Edd Kimber’s Say It With Cake, Miranda Gore Brown’s Bake Me a Cake as Fast as You Can, Joanne Wheatley’s Ready, Steady, Bake!, and John Whaite’s John Whaite Bakes); and there are several people who’ve come out of singing competitions and actually managed to make a living as musicians, including Girls Aloud, Liberty X, Gareth Gates, Leona Lewis and ubiquitous pop-merchants One Direction. It’s a tiny percentage of the people who compete, and an even tinier percentage of the people who rock up to the auditions and queue for hours in the rain to get the chance to sing the chorus of an Adele song to a TV producer.

And, to be fair, some competitive TV programmes do look quite fun. I’m not the most active of people, but even I think it would be awesome to have a go at the Total Wipeout giant red balls. A long string of other contestants would already have made a complete mess of it, so you’d be in good company, and if the challenge is basically impossible for any creature without wings or a built-in propeller then you wouldn’t feel too awful about unceremoniously tumbling into the water, legs flailing like a drunken daddy-long-legs. Or, another show that would be amazing to take part in – The Crystal Maze. Screw the fame and the fabulous prizes (abseiling in the East Midlands, anyone?) – all a Crystal Maze contestant wants from their time on TV is the chance to get their hands on one of those crystals. A whole generation of Brits has surely dreamt about trying to unlock a small piece of shiny-ish plastic from a tiny cage as the room fills with water and people they thought were their friends scream at them and Richard O’Brien prances about in a leopard-print zoot suit. Well, that or plunging into the world of wonder and enchantment that was Fun House (it’s a whole lot of fun, prizes to be won, real wacky place etc.).

For me, personally, it seems like being on a good old-fashioned quiz show would be good fun. I love ’em, and they seem like the kind of thing I’d be quite good at… until the cameras turned towards me, at which point I’m 97% sure I’d throw up and run away (AKA ‘do a Mia Thermopolis’). Because, I mean, imagine being on University Challenge. Imagine actually sitting opposite Paxo (as well as some three million viewers) and having to do maths in binary and remember the reigns of all of Britain’s monarchs and recognise Così Fan Tutte from the first three notes played by the bassoon. No wonder the contestants often look absolutely petrified, and no wonder they sometimes mess up a bit, like the poor girl from Glasgow University last week who knew the right answer to a question but for some reason, unbeknownst even to herself, heard her name announced and immediately said something completely different. Massive kudos to her, though, for putting it behind her and carrying on with it. Equally massive kudos to her team-mate Brejevs (my personal favourite for this series, now sadly departed) for playing in his second language, and especially for staring Paxo down when his answer to the question about Chinese lunar modules was technically right, but not what Paxo had on the card. (“I asked for a translation” – you got one, mate, just not the one you expected. Synonyms, bitches!)

That said, some other quiz shows do seem as if they’d be a bit less scary to play. Not Mastermind, obviously, since the whole black chair / spotlight combo was clearly dreamed up by secret government ‘enhanced interrogators’. But something like Eggheads or The Chase – I think I’d be too busy wanting to wipe the smug pudgy smiles off the Eggheads’/Chasers’ smug pudgy faces that I’d forget how afraid I was. Or, of course, Only Connect, the other show that makes up Quizzy Mondays (I didn’t come up with that name – it was the BBC continuity announcer – but I wish I had because it’s so fantastically lame). Contestants on Only Connect always seem like they’re having a lovely time, perhaps because Victoria Coren Mitchell is (a) very sweet about saying how hard all the questions are and (b) so bonkers that viewers will be focussed on her anyway, regardless of how badly the players do. I mean, they don’t tend to smile much during their introductions, but that’s because the introductions are filled with the most banal facts known to man. I originally assumed that these just happened to be the most diverting stories that contestants had to offer, but the more I watch, the more I think they’re doing it on purpose – the fact that a person has watched Flash Gordon over a hundred times simply cannot be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to them. (Interestingly, I recently saw a very early episode on Dave, and even during the intros the contestants were laughing uproariously. Then again, much was different back in the heady days of 2008. For one thing, the beloved lion, horned viper, two reeds, water, twisted flax and Eye of Horus had yet to appear, with the clue icons being the – quite frankly run-of-the-mill – first six Greek letters.)

You know what? Maybe I could do it. Maybe we all could. I mean, I’ve been on the radio and it really wasn’t that hard. (I had to read out the names of some sharks on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House – that’s what you get for going to a live recording of a programme and apparently looking like someone who might be able to read stuff into a microphone.) Maybe if you ignore the cameras and pick something you’re quite good at, competing on TV would be a nice day out and something pleasant for you to remember upon Christmas Day. Crawling round a maze carrying bits of rope? Doable. Mixing a bit of flour and sugar together? Easy as pie. Sitting in a chair and answering questions about stuff you really like? No probs.

One day, my friends. One day. And on that day, I will sit behind a shiny blue desk, keeping a perfectly straight face, as Victoria Coren Mitchell turns to me and says, “And to my right we have Screen-Eyed Monster, a television runner, who once nearly played thumb wars with Sean Astin.”

And I bet I would’ve won that too.

Television About Television on Television: The Television Years

I quite like television (don’t know if I’ve mentioned that before), so one of my favourite things is television programmes that are about television programmes. In that regard, recent weeks have been simply delightful, with both W1A series 2 and the Episodes series 4. Quelle richesse!

Episodes, which continues tonight, features two married British screenwriters, Bev and Sean (played by Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan) who go to Los Angeles to have their pet project mangled and regurgitated by the Hollywood Television Machine. In season 4, their original pet project has been dropped by the network, leaving its star, Matt Leblanc (played by Matt LeBlanc) out of work and out of pocket, while Sean and Bev are back into the fray trying to pitch a new show to various bizarre Hollywood executives. And this is great for so many reasons. One: Tamsin Grieg, Stephen Mangan and Matt LeBlanc, all of whom are comedy royalty. Two: a hefty dose of fish-out-of-water Brits-vs-Americans humour, with both sides managing to be surprisingly empathetic despite their quirks and foibles. Three: a (presumably partially accurate) insight into the way Hollywood works, with scripts being passed around, picked apart and rewritten beyond recognition, lots of arse-kissing, creepy network executives, people pretending to like each other, cast and crew members who are either overly enthusiastic or lazy as hell… TV, baby!

And I’m enjoying this fourth series much more than the previous one, which got a bit soapy and weird, with lots of angsty storylines. The main issue was that Bev and Sean were separated, so they – along with pretty much all the other characters – were all sleeping with everyone else and getting upset about it. This season, the show is back on form (notwithstanding a slightly weird lesbian storyline that seems like a deliberately controversial rehash of old plots). Bev and Sean are a team once again, which gives us a united British front of scepticism, tea-drinking and passive-aggressive disapproval against the excesses and enthusiasm of the Americans, as well as allowing Grieg and Mangan to do what they do best and actually interact with each other in a humorous fashion (Green Wing, how we miss thee). Matt LeBlanc also has a particularly fun new storyline of having lost thirty-two million dollars of savings to a rogue accountant, which gives him an excuse to be massively bitchy and self-centred – again, what he does best.

In contrast to Episodes, set in Hollywood, stands W1A, set at the BBC in London. The programme (whose latest series was so short that it was finished before you could say ‘OK, here’s the thing with this’) follows a group of people working in TV development and planning; and it has many things going for it. First of all, it’s set at the BBC, that staple of broadcasting greatness. I see the exterior of New Broadcasting House (it’s no Television Centre – RIP – but you can’t have everything) and there are all the establishing shots of all the researchers and producers and developers tapping away at their BBC desks and I clap my hands in glee at being part of it (ish).

Also, some of the characters are properly fantastic. My absolute favourite is Will the intern, the single most hopeless person in the history of anything, who manages to get away with not being able to perform even the simplest of tasks because he looks so lost and sweet. This series, he’s even managed to have one or two moments of absolute brilliance that have saved him at the last minute from being thrown out on his ear; this is especially pleasing because no one looks more surprised about it than he does. And of course there are other great aspects to the programme, including: Jessica Hynes as painfully nonsensical PR guru Siobhan Sharpe (“If you get bandwidth on this, you’ve got maple syrup on your waffle from the get-go”), the fact that all the meeting rooms are named after celebrities (“Let’s have lunch in Tommy Cooper”), the constant mockery of the BBC’s own nearest and dearest (for example, the uncannily well-timed jokes at the expense of Jeremy Clarkson that aired shortly after he was fired from Top Gear), and, of course, the soothing narration of Lord of All Things David Tennant.

The only thing that limits W1A’s greatness (in my eyes) is that, well, it could be more TV-y. Obviously it started life as Twenty Twelve, with all of the characters working for the Olympic Deliverance Commission, and I loved it back then, but, you know, it was about sport, and that always hung over the programme like a sweaty, lycra-clad spectre. So when it was announced (after the Olympics had finished) that the whole team was moving to the BBC, I was very excited. But, in the end, it turns out that the reason they could get away with changing the setting was that it’s not really about sports, or the Olympics, or television, or the BBC – it’s about working in an office with a bunch of people who are terrible at their jobs and thereby make you terrible at yours. Aside from the name-dropping, the references to BBC shows and the odd cameo (of which more later), W1A could really be set anywhere and it would function the same.

In fairness, both W1A and Episodes do have quite a lot to live up to in terms of shows about shows, since they are following in the wake of two particularly shining examples of the format. One is Extras, which ended in 2007, but which still makes me laugh when I think about it. As a reminder, Ricky Gervais starred as Ricky Gerv- sorry, as Andy Millman, an aspiring actor-writer who is currently stuck wallowing around in the shallow end of the acting pool as an extra on various low- and high-budget productions. As with W1A, a lot of the comedy lies in how useless everyone is, particularly Andy’s agent, who barely seems to know how to use a phone, let alone how to hobnob with producers and directors to get Andy the kinds of roles he wants. BUT, unlike W1A, we get to visit the actual sets on which Andy and his chums are filming, and more frequently than we do in Episodes. As such, we’re introduced to bad catering, cramped dressing-room conditions, uncomfortable costumes, incredibly pretentious stars and awkward homophobia. Extras, how we miss thee also.

The other magnificent programme involving how all the facets of television-making interact is 30 Rock. Set at the peacock-bedecked NBC in New York, the show follows the trials and tribulations of a writer/producer (Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey) and studio exec (Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin) as they try to maintain a grip on their writing team, actors, crew members, assistants, love lives and reality. As with Extras, 30 Rock finished several years ago; but I came late to the 30 Rock party, and am desperately trying to stretch the final season out for as long as I can (we’ve arrived at the last episode, and I don’t want to watch it, because then it will be over *sob*). I LOVE IT. In particular, and more so than any of the other shows I’ve mentioned, 30 Rock holds up the whole business of television-making to the light and examine the cracks, before filling them up with comedy putty. For example, an episode I watched recently featured the main star of the fictional show-within-the-show tweeting that women weren’t funny, which led to Liz Lemon being absolutely hilarious as she tried to prove to everyone that women were funny, and in doing so creating an extremely funny episode written and performed by a women (Tina Fey), thereby proving to the real world that women are funny. (If that doesn’t make sense, never fear: it makes even less sense in context.)

And this is the really great thing, not just about 30 Rock but about the other shows I’ve mentioned as well: they generally involve people in television making fun of themselves and their careers. The fictional writers, directors, production staff and crew all come off looking like hilarious buffoons, largely due to the efforts and self-awareness of the real writers, directors, production staff and crew. And particular credit must go to the ones who actually appear on screen – not just actors and other celebrities, but people who you’d think weren’t quite so used to putting themselves out there for mockery. A previous blog post listed some of my favourite television cameos, but it’s worth giving a quick shout out to some of the other great (and surprising) appearances from these four shows: 30 Rock’s inclusion of Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing (among other things), as a struggling writer who’ll do anything for a gig; Moira Stuart in Extras as Ronnie Corbett’s drug mule; in Episodes, the appearance of a ‘Friends co-star’ in the fictional sitcom that turns out to be Gunther (James Michael Tyler); and Mary Beard on W1A being subjected to the atrocious attentions of Siobhan (“Of course, not everyone can be Lucy Worsley”).

Basically, these shows are fantastic because (a) they’re a double dose of something I love, the almighty television; and (b) the people who make them also love television so much that they’re prepared to look like idiots to make it as wonderful as they possibly can. My kind of people. I peacock you all.

Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before?

Things adapted from other things: a staple of modern pop culture. The world is full of films adapted from books, books adapted from films, musicals adapted from real life, books adapted from video games, comics adapted from films, films adapted from theme park rides, video games adapted from toys adapted from films (Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 for PS3, anyone?). Naturally, coming up with original ideas is tricky, and adaptations are generally a safer bet. But the last few weeks have been particularly full of TV programmes that answer the ubiquitous question, “What new thing can we make a show about?” with “OK, does it have to be a new new thing…?” Poldark, Outlander, The Casual Vacancy, The Musketeers and The 100 are based on books; In and Out of the Kitchen and Nurse are adapted from Radio 4 shows; Arthur and George and Coalition are based on real-life events… You get the idea.

So I was planning to say that, in principle, I don’t have a problem with adaptations, but actually that’s not strictly the case; although there are some brilliant examples that I love, there are also many inherent aspects that make me a little bit sceptical about adaptations as a group.

Obviously, one of the biggest problems is making a narrative designed for one medium work in another. For one thing, how do you deal with the pacing? For a book-to-TV adaptation, say, how many hours of film should each chapter/book/series get? Understandably, detective stories tend to follow the rule ‘One mystery, one episode’ (see e.g. Inspector Morse or Miss Marple), although Midsomer Murders goes for stretching each book over two episodes. Other dramas take it more slowly: a single book might get three episodes (The Casual Vacancy), or an entire series (Outlander, Game of Thrones). Poldark, interestingly, seems to have bucked this trend. I haven’t read the books (by Winston Graham, about a Cornish mine owner in the late 18th century), but I gather from swimming about in the depths of the Internet that the series is rushing through them apace. This could explain why it feels as though everything is happening at once: in the first three episodes we’ve had one war, two weddings (one between two people who’d never met in Episode 1), two pregnancies (that is, the whole nine months with a birth at the end), one near-fatal duel, one near-fatal stroke and one month-long cooking injury healed in a few seconds. In a way it’s impressive that they’ve managed to squeeze so much in there and not make it completely insane, but at the same time it does sort of detract from the genius of television (as opposed to film), which is that things can develop over time. The ratio of Poldark to everyone else is also on the high side. While there are obvious advantages to this (*cough*AidanTurner*cough*), it means that we don’t always get a lot of development of the other characters, some of whom really deserve it (e.g. young urchin-cum-goddess Demelza, whose awful curtsies are some of the best things ever to happen on TV).

Of course, you can avoid this tricky time-management issue by picking a source text that already exists at the speed you want, such as, ooh, I don’t know, adapting a half-hour radio comedy into a half-hour television comedy…? Examples are numerous, but I’ve recently been watching In and Out of the Kitchen (which I was familiar with as a radio show) and Nurse (which I was not). Pacing-wise, they’re golden; but there are other dangers and pitfalls in adapting between two media forms that seem outwardly similar. A striking one is the fact that all of a sudden you can see the characters, which seems like an obvious thing to say, but which has a slightly odd effect on Nurse, in particular. Nurse is described as a comedy drama, and revolves around a community mental health nurse (played by Esther Coles) who goes to visit various different patients, most of whom are played by Paul Whitehouse. On the radio, I imagine this was genius: he’s a splendid and convincing impersonator of human voices. But when you can actually see the characters, it’s rather more obvious that they’re all him, and, for me, the self-indulgence of this detracts somewhat from taking the programme seriously. In fact – laying my cards on the table – I’m constantly reminded of the Aviva adverts where Whitehouse plays a weird range of different OTT (and frequently camp) characters who’ve nonetheless all got a great deal on their car insurance!!!!! Nurse has received positive reviews from various trustworthy sources, including the Independent, the Radio Times  and Richard Osman on Twitter, but I’m just not feeling it: it’s like they took a successful radio programme and plopped it into TV without really asking how they could make it a new and interesting show.

As a counterpoint to this, I’d like to present In and Out of the Kitchen, also a half-hour Radio 4 comedy that’s recently come over all televisual. Now IAOOTK (hmm, not a great acronym – let’s go with Kitchen instead) has not been quite so positively received as Nurse, mainly because, in the words of my favourite TV Editor Alison Graham, “the alchemy of some shows just works better on radio”. Basically, the premise of the radio programme is that Damien Trench, a cookery writer, narrates his day-to-day life, with other characters coming in and providing dialogue when relevant. Clearly this is a non-starter for TV, where voiceover is insufficient; but I think we have to give the programme makers credit for realising this, and for approaching the TV version in a different way. The scenes with other actors now take the forefront, while the narration is replaced by the occasional piece-to-camera (admittedly a tad disconcerting when it first happens) and snippets of scenes that are essentially Damien hosting a cooking show, albeit one where there’s no audience. Personally, I think the cooking scenes are quite a clever mockery of the melodrama of real cookery programmes, and I also think the characters are more rounded in the TV version. So there: transfer to TV successful.

Another positive of Kitchen is that the characters from the radio show are maintained, but the plots are fairly loosely gathered from various series, with a certain disregard for when and where they fit into the overall narrative. The reason I call this a positive is that my other big quibble with adaptations, assuming you’ve read/watched/heard/played/experienced the source material, is that you generally know what’s going to happen in the end. Now friends have put forward the argument that, actually, having an idea of where things are going is a positive thing, since it allows you to judge whether they’re getting there in a convincing fashion. But that’s not at all the attitude I take. I like to pretend TV is real (while I’m watching it, that is; I would definitely never think about TV characters as real people outside the TV-watching moment, that would be insane, what do you take me for, some kind of crazy fangirl?). So I like the element of surprise, and excitement, and ‘Ooh, where is this going next?’ – which I didn’t get in, say, The Casual Vacancy, because I’d read the book. I knew who was going to sleep with whom. I knew who was going to win the council seat left tragically empty by the death of one of the few nice people in the entire town. I knew who was going to behave like an ass-hat (answer: pretty much everyone). Now I do concede that this isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of storytelling, and Casual Vacancy had many other things to recommend it. The overall story is obviously compelling, hence it being adapted in the first place; and the acting was generally excellent, in particular Abigail Lawrie (troubled teenager and unofficial foster mother Krystal) and Julia McKenzie, whose unbearably cute little face seriously belied the venom and nastiness spewing forth from her character. But it would’ve been nice to be surprised by the plot twists along the way.

I should say at this point that I’m probably being a bit unfair in picking out all the bits that didn’t work with the above adaptations. For the record, I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy (and In and Out of the Kitchen), and Poldark, while not my favourite show ever, rolls along quite nicely. But what I’m trying to get at is: adaptations are tricky blighters. Yes, you’ve got a narrative that definitely works and a ready-made fanbase, but you also have to tread several fine lines between faithfulness and freedom, old and new, surprise and disappointment. Overall, I think, I like a loose adaptation. Although they run the risk of infuriating the die-hard fans (which in many cases includes me), some well-aimed changes to the source material can freshen a show up and introduce some much-needed elements of surprise. They had a go at this in Casual Vacancy, when it was announced in advance that the ending had been changed because the book’s original dénouement was deemed “too grim”. I had no quibble with that: the ending of the book was indeed bleak and miserable, and I got quite excited at the prospect of something a bit more uplifting (and, of course, surprising) happening instead. In the event, I was less put out by the fact that they changed the ending and more concerned about how they changed it. Without wanting to spoil it too much, only one person died, instead of the two who died in the book, and a different character had a final redeeming moment. So, um, not that different, then, and still pretty death-y.

Other shows have been more daring in switching things up: Games of Thrones, for example, has recently departed completely from the books, largely because the written series can’t keep up with the TV one. I’m hoping that Outlander (released on Amazon Prime today) goes down this route too. Having read and enjoyed the first book (summary: WW2 nurse goes back in time to Jacobite Scotland and gets mixed up in clan warfare; also sex), there were a few strands that could do with being subjected to the Tom Bombadil Effect, and a few other events and bits of characterisation that could definitely be tightened up for the television series. In particular, some of the episode descriptions seem to suggest that Frank – the main character’s husband who gets left behind in 1945 – gets a bit more of a look-in in the show than he did in the book, and if that’s the case I’ll be extremely pleased. That kind of judicious adaptation strategy, combined with some nice Highland scenery (and probably some more instances of young-rustic-yet-masterful-hero-with-six-pack-displays-anachronistic-penchant-for-taking-his-shirt-off, such as have proved so popular in Poldark) could make Outlander the adaptation of the decade. Let’s go, guys. We can do it. Adapt and prosper.

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(Note: If anyone is seeking to adapt this blog or my life story for television, the fee will be £10,000 in gold bullion, the secret recipe for Joe’s Ice Cream and a lifetime’s subscription to all current and future television-streaming services.)