Tag Archives: Charlie Brooker

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 These, my friends, are the historical documents that in a hundred years’ time will be included in the source analysis paper of GCSE History.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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Puns, Plot Points and Puppets: A Guide to Spoofing

This week I finally got round to watching A Touch of Cloth, which has been on my DVD shelf since approximately the dawn of time. It’s a film-length parody of TV crime dramas, written by Daniel Maier and Charlie Brooker (he of Screen Wipe, 10 O’Clock Live, angry-ranting-about-a-variety-of-subjects and punching-well-above-his-weight-by-marrying-Konnie-Huq fame) and the cast includes John Hannah (hilarious in The Mummy, heartbreaking in Four Weddings and a Funeral), Suranne Jones (Scott and Bailey, plus two different programme with David Tennant – well played), Navin Chowdhry and Adrian Bower (Kurt and Brian from Teachers) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (understated hero/sometimes obnoxious jerk Dr Macartney from Green Wing).

Given the afore-mentioned cast and crew, I was quite looking forward to watching A Touch of Cloth – especially as I still get pangs of sadness that Kurt and Brian are no more – and it didn’t disappoint. As well as the near-destruction of the fourth wall over the course of the show, elements of hilarity included WPC Cardboard Cut-Out, the various jokes that popped up in the background (such as a hospital sign directing you to the ‘Shayne Ward’) and the increasingly painful puns on the hero’s name, DCI Jack Cloth (“Thanks to you, the entire department is losing face, Cloth”). Perhaps my favourite moment was DC Asap Qureshi (Chowdhry) welcoming Cloth to the crime scene and Doing Exposition:

Victim’s name is Aidan Matthew Hawkchurch, successful chef, 39 years old, six foot, 180 pounds, got his own TV show, now in its fourth season, been married for thirteen years, all in a row, lives in this house, estimated resell value £1.9 million, desirable catchment area, would suit professional couple or recently murdered man, black front door, entrance hall, Orla Kiely stem print mat, recommended retail price £29.99, six-peg coat hook, price unknown, walnut frame mirror, purchased 2006, grieving widow Claire Hawkchurch, 37, GSOH, Sagittarius, 34C.

This tickled me because obvious and unnecessary exposition is one of my pet peeves in crime dramas, with the various incarnations of CSI being the biggest offenders. Apparently, Jim Brass from the original series is known in the fanbase as “Captain Exposition”, while this blogger lists cheesy exposition as one of the reasons she despises Horatio Caine from CSI Miami (a view with which I have some sympathy) – but at least it makes sense that these guys would know the facts and need to tell them to someone else. In contrast, the worst examples of ‘Here’s what’s happening, viewers’ come when characters are giving information to people who would already know it, and especially when the viewer’s already worked it out anyway. Check out this absurd exchange from CSI Miami, in which two characters are talking about a crashed car:

A: “There’s damage here in the quarter panel and bumper.”
B: “She did impact at over 60 miles per hour. It could have happened then.”
A: “Well, there’s also paint transfer. [Ah! So there was another car that ran her off the road!] Now, it could be incidental, or it could be road rage.” [And therefore another car that ran her off the road. Maybe sample the paint and find out who it was?]
B: “We need to get these paint samples to Trace, have them analyzed. [That’s what I said.] Every paint has a distinct signature, so…” [Yes, so you can find it who it was that ran her off the road.]
A: “We find the collision car, we find a witness.” [Or whoever it was that ran her off the road.]
B: “That’s right. Or a murder suspect.” [I KNOW!]

And they always take themselves so seriously, too. This is apparently one of the reasons why Brooker and Maier decided to spoof crime dramas rather than murder mysteries, because the latter are already, as Brooker put it in an interview, pretty much parodies of themselves: the focus is on tea and cakes and village fêtes, and the actual murder barely comes into it. Other programmes with a light touch would presumably also be pretty hard to parody. Take Neighbours – sure, there are all sorts of ridiculous elements to Neighbours that are just begging to made fun of, but Neighbours does that itself. This week, for example, Toadie, Sonya and Susan invoke the soap trope that two people talking in the kitchen can’t be heard by anyone in the living room, despite the fact that the latter is about six feet away with a paper-thin interior wall between them; but Toadie and Sonya keep having to pause the argument whenever they go to the fridge because that end of the kitchen is in Susan’s eye-line. You get the feeling, with Neighbours, that everyone involved recognises the absurdity of the programme and tries to make it work for them, not against them.

A good spoof, on the other hand, takes an earnest programme and makes it nonsensical. Look Around You did a bang-up job of doing this to educational science programmes in its two series of non-stop lies and gibberish. The presenters (Robert Popper, Josie D’Arby, Peter Serafinowicz and the now deservedly ubiquitous Olivia Colman) play it absolutely straight as they tell us interesting facts about the world around us: the largest number is 45,000,000,000, ghosts can’t whistle, and baby birds are called ‘bees’. The Office did the same thing: yes, workplace documentaries will usually fixate on the office oddballs, who really do exist and are often more than a bit strange – but they’re not generally quite so strange as to start an office singsong during a corporate training session or entertain their colleagues with mimes of being shot by a sniper. This is why it’s so difficult to parody talent shows – you’re already watching a dog dance in front of an audience of people apparently brainwashed to cheer and boo exactly on cue. Where can you go with that?

And it’s in this context that Family Tree, which started last week on BBC 2, isn’t quite hitting the mark. The programme is based on the format of genealogy programmes like Who Do You Think You Are and it has a number of mockumentary features, such as characters talking to the camera as if being interviewed and lines of dialogue that imitate the pauses and stumbles of real speech. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to class it as a parody (many sources simply refer to it as a sitcom), but, come on, it’s written by Christopher Guest, co-creator of officially the best mockumentary that has ever existed, This Is Spinal Tap, so I was expecting some gold-standard piss-takery: people bursting into tears at the slightest mention of sadness in an ancestor’s life, a long-lost relative who turns out to have been a human taxidermist or the person who draws the faces on Jelly Babies – you know the kind of thing. And yet… Family Tree is just not that stupid: the only amusing occupation uncovered so far is a man who was the back end of a pantomime horse. And the single truly surreal element is the main character’s sister, who due to some traumatic past event talks through a monkey puppet – she’s played by Nina Conti, so the ventriloquism is pretty spot on, but it isn’t really spoofing any particular element of genealogy shows, which makes it weird in an aimless way.

The monkey-puppet aspect also doesn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the programme, which is mainly down-to-earth and quite sweet. Chris O’Dowd is lovely as the main character Tom Chadwick, doing his trademark stunned-disbelief face at his sister and the other slightly eccentric characters around him, including a blind date who thinks that the dinosaurs are still alive – this scene was actually pretty funny. Not that there’s not really anything wrong with a pleasant and (dare I say it) watchable show that raises the occasional laugh and also works in some bittersweet moments – the moment at the end of the second episode when a camp theatre manager reveals something unexpected about Tom’s great-grandfather is one example. I suspect that I will grow to care about the characters and get interested in what Tom finds out next. But so far, Family Tree is definitely not turned up to 11 – it’s a seven or eight at best.

So when it comes to parodies, I suppose what I really want is out-and-out stupidity: subtle-as-a-brick puns, knowing absurdity, recognisable archetypes grotesquely metamorphosed into insane caricatures. I want David Brent, DCI Anne Oldman (get it?), Synthesizer Patel, Nigel Tufnell. I don’t want subtlety and nuance – I want in-your-face proof that something, somewhere is being mocked. Proof, reader.