Tag Archives: The Last Leg

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?

Have TV Your Way: How On-Demand Makes Watching Television Trickier

Note: spoilers for (old episodes of) X-Files, Grey’s Anatomy and NCIS.

Recently I had a very bizarre experience, one that I thought was lost in the mists of time… I watched a TV programme as it was broadcast.

I know, right? It wasn’t a topical programme, or even filmed live (all right, I confess, it was University Challenge), but nonetheless I watched it on the television at a time decided for me by official BBC schedulers. This came as a shock because less and less of my (and many other people’s) TV watching is done thus: in all honesty, I’m a catch-up junkie. I know I’m not the only one, but what with all the repeats, online players, +1 channels and TV subscription services, I sometimes feel like I’ve completely lost the ability to watch TV at the originally specified time.

Oh, it started off harmlessly enough. As a youth, I’d occasionally catch a repeat of Friends on Channel 4, not out of choice but because there was just nothing else to watch after Neighbours and The Simpsons. Soon I was seeking out repeats, then I started buying DVDs of my favourite shows, in order to relive my favourite scenes and jokes. At some point, it occurred to me that I could buy DVDs of shows that I hadn’t already seen, shows that other people had watched but I’d missed out on the first time. From there it was just too easy to put things off – ‘No need to watch it now,’ I’d say to myself, ‘I can buy it on DVD later’ – and the development of BBC iPlayer and 4OD just made things worse. Before long I was catching up on programmes from the last seven days like nobody’s business, filling my shelves with secondhand DVDs, watching things on +1 as if not+1 didn’t exist… And then, finally, the world came crashing down and I hit rock bottom: I joined Netflix.

Nowadays I treat the TV schedules with all the disdain and wanton disregard I can muster. This week, for example, I watched New Girl on E4+1, switched to Channel 4 for the second half of Rude Tube and then switched to Channel 4+1 for the first half of Rude Tube, just because I could. Oh, the humanity.

If truth be told, I’m already paying the price for this destructive habit. Sure, watching TV programmes at a time of your own choosing is convenient, but there are many reasons why pick-your-own-schedules TV may not be the way to go, and they’re mostly to do with the fact that people talk to each other (what are they thinking?).

First, obviously – spoilers. This is most clearly the case with the most popular TV programmes, and particularly when you’re far enough behind the rest of the world to be forever playing catch-up but not far enough for everyone to have stopped talking about it already. Take Downton Abbey. I missed the boat when it was first broadcast, but Netflix offered it to me on a plate; so I took a tentative bite, and have got as far as season two (2011). But because everyone on the planet has been obsessed by the Crawley family for the last four years, I already know that CENSORED and CENSORED get married, CENSORED is arrested for murder, CENSORED has a baby, and CENSORED dies*. Every episode is imbued with either a sense of inevitable dread (‘Don’t do it, don’t visit her, or when she dies everyone will think it was you…”) or a tragic poignancy (‘They think their love might be doomed… it is, oh it is!’). It’s the same when programmes are still ongoing and the cast continues to change – even if you manage not to find out exactly how their characters leave, you still know that their days are numbered. In my TV-watching world, Mulder and Scully have just made it through Mulder’s brief bout of insanity to emerge the other side and share a New Year’s kiss (X-Files season seven, 2000) – and now he’s leaving? How will Scully cope? How will I cope? In my world, Cristina seems to have forgiven Hunt for his affair and has just told him that he’s her ‘person’ (Grey’s Anatomy season eight, 2012) – but how will they get it properly together now before Cristina leaves in season ten? And in my world, Kate has just been killed by a terrorist and no one knows who her replacement will be (NCIS season two, 2005); yet apparently that replacement is already leaving the show. Slow down, man! I ain’t the Doctor – I can’t cope with this many time streams.

Of course, it’s impossible for people not to give spoilers away, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to keep quiet about major TV events, because people like talking about the TV they watch. (Hell, I like it so much that I’ve set up a really great blog dedicated to exactly that.**) Most of the time, people are only giving the plot away because they’re so excited by it and want to discuss it with other like-minded viewers – such as when I accidentally told someone the ending of the first series of The Killing, not realising they were only on episode four. (It’s OK, guys, I did an incredible cover-up, and she was even more surprised when the reveal eventually came along.)

Which is another reason why watching TV programmes months or years after everyone else is a bit of a bummer: you don’t get to discuss them with anyone. Things like Downton are OK, because the series is still going and people are still interested in the characters, but Teachers? Smallville? The IT Crowd? Not so much. I only saw The IT Crowd last winter (a mere seven years after it first aired), and I was finally able to discuss it with those of my friends who’d watched and enjoyed it back in the noughties – unfortunately, by the time I got round to the conversation, it went something like this:

Me: “Just been watching The IT Crowd.”

Friend: “It’s hilarious, isn’t it?”

Me: “Oh my God, yes. D’you remember that episode where Moss accidentally works as a barman?”

Friend: “Um, not really. Hey, you know what’s great at the moment? Happy Endings. Have you seen that?”

Me: “Ask me again in seven years.”

This is even worse now that interaction about TV is both global and instantaneous. I’m still slightly unsettled by the idea that you should tweet or text in to TV programmes while you’re in the middle of watching them (although so far it seems to be only with live current affairs, entertainment and other non-fiction programmes – when Call the Midwife starts running banners on the screen saying ‘Tell us which of the two babies Jenny should save, @midwivescanonlydosomuch #dontaccidentallypicktheevilone’, then pop culture as we know it is officially dead). But it’s increasingly tempting to pick up the phone/mouse and have your say, especially when you feel like you could contribute a damn sight more to the discussion than ‘really dont like huw edwards suit bro’. This is especially the case with The Last Leg, which asks viewers to send in their dubious questions about what’s appropriate to say or do on TV, because Adam Hills actually reads out people’s tweets and discusses them on the show. This week, I confess, I was overcome by the sudden desire to ‘get involved’ in the debate on exam results, and I very nearly made my first use of the #isitok hashtag – then I remembered that I was watching the programme on Channel 4+1, and that Adam Hills and everyone else involved in the show had probably left the studio some time ago.

So, really, watching things as the fancy takes you rather than when other people are watching them has its drawbacks – but it also has its perks. Sometimes it can give you a new perspective on a show or character. I only started watching Doctor Who in 2010, so Matt Smith was my first doctor; when I went back to watch Christopher Eccleston he seemed scarily dark and dour in comparison (and also better: see my Doctor Who post). Likewise, I’m currently catching up on The X-Files on DVD and Californication on Netflix; both star David Duchovny, which means that Hank Moody seems like Fox Mulder in an alternate universe where the absence of Scully has driven him to a world of booze, one-night stands, prolific use of the f-word and more cigarettes than the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The truth is out there, indeed.

What to do, then, dear friends? If we want to talk about programmes properly, if we want to keep the element of surprise, we need to be watching them at more or less the same time. On the other hand, now that we can watch TV whenever and wherever we want, it seems almost silly to watch a programme at 9pm on a Saturday just because someone you’ve never met thinks that’s the best time for it. It’s a conundrum that will probably sort itself out as more and more people start to use on-demand services. Or maybe we could decide by Twitter vote. #greattvscheduledebate, anyone?

~

*The censored parts are less for your benefit than for mine – if I don’t type the names out then maybe the events won’t happen, right…?

**That’s this blog. Just so we’re clear.