Posts Tagged ‘television’

Wheel of X-Factor Fortune

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

It is appropriate that Orff's O Fortuna from Carmina Burana should be used as an X-Factor theme tune. 

O Fortune, variable as the moon, always dost thou wax and wane.
Detestable life, first dost thou mistreat us, and then, whimsically, thou heedest our desire.
As the sun melts the ice, so dost thou dissolve both poverty and power …
… To thy cruel pleasure I bare my back …

We all of us have to sometimes bare our backs to fortune (nothing ventured, nothing gained) but there is a difference between taking a chance whilst nurturing and building up a solid career over the years and leaping up to catch a chance with nothing solid to break your fall. X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent turn the curve of an artistic career on its head: the fame and applause comes first, then you have to either consolidate, find your feet and take root outside the talent contest sphere, or wither away. It works as a launch pad for some, not for others. 'That's show business', you could say. 

BBC2 caught up with the finalists of New Faces 1986 this week: I Had the X-Factor… 25 Years Ago. The stories weren't all bleak; fortune had brought each contestent their own measure of regret and consolation and some were still doing what they loved. Some had tears to shed and the camera was there to catch them, just as they collect the tears of today's overwhelmed X-Factor contestants. The camera has no use for restraint, which won't hold an audience's attention. Just as there is no merit in art that is without heart and soul, so an audience won't watch someone (whether fictional or real) who isn't in the grip of extreme joy, anger, sorrow, or fear. There has always been a fine line between being an audience and a voyeur. 

Your TV Is Watching You…

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Do most of us have a Love/Hate relationship with Television? After a hard day the instinct is to flop down and wallow in what's available, but there is always the niggle that Television was, is and always will be something physically and mentally unhealthy and that there are far more virtuous things we could be doing instead of being hypnotised by the chattering gogglebox. Like reading, for instance. 

Charlie Brooker is presenting, or rather ranting about, 'How TV Ruined Your Life' (on TV of course). You can't take it too seriously, but in the first episode he made some insightful comments about the depth of our dependence on the box for information, diversion and reassurance. Brooker points out how humans are programmed with primitive reactions to any kind of threat, which serve to act as protection. We cannot ignore threats, whether real or imagined and TV goes for this foible. News headlines are the same on screen as they are on print: short on truth and big on impact, presenting a threat that we naturally cannot ignore with great fanfare, thus keeping us superglued to the screen.

Public Safety Films use fear as a corrective, graphically showing the consequences of 'taking your car for a drink', retrieving frisbees from electric substations, not keeping your distance, playing with fireworks, speeding, smoke alarms, forgetting the green cross code and smoking. All of these are valuable life lessons to bear in mind, especially when you are young and naive, but the excessive reliance on shock tactics betray the paternalistic view that people can be traumatised into behaving, which is something we can laugh at. Similarly, nightmarish visions of the future can have the sting taken out of them if we detect the underlying hysteria and terror tactics that turn facts into a sci-fi narrative. 

I would hesitate from envisioning a vast government/media conspiracy from this, but by harping on our human reactions to perceived threats and exposing the modern world as more unstable than ever, TV certainly has the potential to keep us passive, compliant and pessimistic. The aims of television to inform, educate and entertain are becoming increasingly intertwined, to the point where you can't be sure where facts stop and entertainment begins. Is TV genuinely trying to alert us to real threats, or playing on our fears to give entertainment another turn of the screw? Are Docudramas an equal balance of fiction and fact? Does art still reflect life, or does life now reflect art? Subtly, our perceptions of the world can start keeping step with what TV points out to us. If we saw the world and its threats for what they were with our own eyes instead, would we feel more reassured, or more nervous than ever?

All credit to Charlie Brooker for exploring this interesting phenomenon, but by the end of the programme he had become so unrelentingly blase that I couldn't help hoping he would have a big, but harmless shock that would bring him up short and make him momentarily speechless with fear.


Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

BBC 2 returned to Tudorland for the fourth time last night and it began to grate with me all over again. There are many historical dramas that I like (I, Claudius, Charles II, The First Churchills, The Devil's Whore, John Adams), but I have problems with The Tudors that are rather difficult to pin down. As a viewer a few historical anachronisms don't bother me (much), nor does slightly changing some names if they are shared by multiple characters. As a writer I know that historical drama must ultimately favour emotion over etiquette. 

The 16th Century was a glittering and conflicted age of extremes and transformation and the near mythic immortals who give the times such glamour, verve and vigour continue to exercise a strong hold on our imaginations. Surely such History is dramatic enough by itself? Certainly, no expense has been spared in splashing the bejewelled and bloody excesses of Henry VIII's reign on screen, even if a few bodices have been borrowed from the Elizabethan period. However, when it comes to story telling, History is only the springboard from which the story lines must be fashioned – something Shakespeare understood perfectly. In making the 16th Century more immediate and real, The Tudors owes more to the The Sopranos and The West Wing. Jack Pulman used the Mafia to achieve the same result for I, Claudius. Creator Michael Hirst said that ''Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we wanted people to watch it.'' If that's the brief then he must fulfil it how he thinks best (a writer has to eat) and his allegiance to the producers' wishes is plain to see: matters of state are skimmed over and sex scenes are lingered over, because politics are of their age, but sex belongs to the ages. Also, since most of Henry's life revolved around getting a male heir you might think it's right to give sex so much screen time.

We view the past through the different lenses of the previous centuries. When we think of Henry VIII we may think of the famous portrait by Hans Holbein, an image that seems to capture the essence of both Man and King. Like film, television and stained glass, portraits tell stories through pictures. The Tudors is the latest in a long, long tradition of images that are constantly being remade and reassessed. No image is objective, it is designed to communicate a point, it is calculated to appeal. The image of the Tudors commissioned by Showtime communicates what low expectations the producers have of the audience. An achingly familiar story has been resurrected and stretched over thirty-eight episodes (Peter Morgan completed the same story in two), but what has changed in all that time? When characters are chopped and changed their replacements seem interchangeable; just another gang of immoral, but uniformly sexy rakes who can't keep their cod-pieces on and yet another clutch of indistinctive Tudor barbie dolls. The writer may have simply worked to do as they were told and as a writer I understand, but as a viewer I am not satisfied. The pictures are still vivid, but the thrill has gone out of them. 

The creators of The Tudors attract attention by giving their show a very sexy look. Even Anne of Cleves fitted in, though being 'the ugly one' her character was cast as the most sympathetic in the show so far. Above all, Jonathan Rhys Myers has to stay slim, for who knows what the audience will do if they see him looking otherwise. Switch off? Showtime has remade The Tudors in the image of our age. Fine. But it's a poor image. It reflects how thinking audiences are turning into passive consumers. But if creators have low expectations of their audience, then those expectations will always be satisfied and the money is guaranteed. 

If The Tudors inspires interest in the period, will people be disappointed by how un-sexy much of it really was? To quote from Rich Hall, if we have to wait to be turned on to something by TV or Hollywood, then we are mere grazers of culture, part of a herd directed from pasture to pasture to feed on what other people think we want. The Tudors were a venturesome bunch, unafraid of striking out and seeking new discoveries. When it comes to culture, audiences should keep their curiosity just as keen and keep their independence when pursuing their artistic instincts. 

Make God’s House a Home

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

In an episode of BBC 2's sitcom 'Rev.' vicar Adam Smallbone tells God of the burden of having such a vast Church in which to house a tiny congregation. Instead of ministering to people, time is eaten up with raising funds to maintain the empty, vandalised and crumbling space around him. Like the snail carrying its house on its back, Adam's church slows him down, though it does also provide him with a refuge. According to the Telegraph, 20,000 churches and chapels have been sold in Britain in the past 30 years. Attendance declines, congregations are merged, commissioners declare the building redundant and when the Bishop gives sanction the building is put on the market. For those who buy them, plumbing and electricity will have to be installed and if it comes with a graveyard then surviving relatives must be given access. Many a Church has been given a second birth as a restaurant, theatre, community centre and nightclub. Many will see all this as part of the Church of England's terminal and interminable decline, but after two thousand years Christian worship seems to be coming full circle. After all, the first churches were simply gatherings in people's houses and now churches are literally becoming people's houses once more, though not as places for worship of course. Perhaps congregations should start gathering in people's sitting rooms again to conduct worship? Or not – other people's choice of curtains might put the faithful off their devotions.

For centuries a Church has been held as God's house, as a holy place. What becomes of that holiness when God's house becomes somebody's home? It can't be evicted when the commissioners declare the building redundant, or packed up with the lectern and candlesticks. Holiness is defined by a separateness from the commonplace, as something hidden and wrapped in mystery. In the Roman Catholic Mass there is distance between the Priest and congregation, while the high point is when the communion bread is revealed to them. The English Reformation abolished that distance and instead stressed the importance of the sermon; holiness resided in God's words written in the Authorised King James Version. To the New England Puritans holiness resided in the soul, not in any aspect of the wicked world. To name a building as 'holy' would be idolatrous and worship was held in taverns as well as in meeting houses. Today, not even the Bible plays a central role in all churches, whether it is held as God's word or not. Where then is holiness to be found in a Church? I would say in singing and in silence. We should also stop mistaking 'a Church' for 'the Church'. The Church is the faithful, the worshippers themselves, not just the beautiful buildings with stained glass and spires. The act of collective worship, even between two people, should create holiness regardless of where it takes place. All the same, there is something about the longevity of these buildings (reliquaries for the lives of ordinary people) that connects you deeply to a faith shared around the world for two thousand years.

The People’s Detective

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

The Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards are awarding 'The People's Detective Dagger' to the TV sleuth who receives the most votes from this shortlist:

DCI Tom Barnaby (Midsomer Mudrers) – the family man.

DCS Christopher Foyle (Foyle's War) – the war veteran.

DI Jack Frost (A Touch of Frost) – the enemy of paperwork.

Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) – the eccentric enigma.

DI Robbie Lewis (Lewis) – no longer the sidekick.

DCI Morse (Inspector Morse) – cantankerous, but we love him.

Jane Marple (Marple) – appearances can be deceptive.

Hercule Poirot (Poirot) – those little grey cells.

DI Rebus (Rebus) – battle scarred maverick.

DS Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect) – girls come out on top.

DCI Reg Wexford (Ruth Rendell Mysteries) – flaws, virtues and a pint.

DS Charles Wycliffe (Wycliffe) – keeping Cornwall crime free.

My Dad is a fan of Frost, Morse, Poirot and Foyle – and Lord Peter Wimsy. Though TV Detectives seem dismayingly numerous, each one on the list is surprisingly unique. They cross a spectrum of the cerebral, logical, methodical, instinctive, sly, intimidating, hardened, deceptive, detached and worldly-wise. By siding with what is right (which doesn't always equate to siding with the Law) they automatically get us on side, despite some of them being unlikely angels of justice. Their differing approaches to life and death, right and wrong, law and order, crime and punishment and ultimately their understanding of humanity engage us. If their personal lives are given enough screen time we can relate to them even better. If they have no personal life to speak of, or are married to the job, then they gain a certain mystique. Finally, the actors make them immortal by staying on in the memory of the audience.

Jonathan Creek and Gene Hunt would number among my favourites (though they are BBC and so don't count here), as would Henry Crabbe from Pie in the Sky. But the ITV detective who would get my vote is not listed here: Brother Cadfael

Played by Derek Jacobi on TV, Cadfael is a Welsh Benedictine Monk. As herbalist in a Shrewsbury monastery he is kept busy brewing remedies for Abbey and Town, but what should be a serene life is often interrupted by the warring world of 12th century England. The secret to Cadfael's shrewdness lie in his early life as a Crusader, which gave him the worldly knowledge to understand human nature and the natural world. Despite being in middle age, his varied past gives him a more relaxed attitude to life and to rules, along with a more advanced attitude to justice that we can relate to. This places him in opposition to his more uptight and rule-bound brethren. Inquisitive, energetic, unconventional, struggling to balance both spiritual and worldly needs, often in trouble with his superiors, possessor of a healing touch, understanding, resourceful, forgiving and able to mix with high or low, Cadfael possesses many admirable qualities, but his rule-breaking and his past means that he is no Saint. Or perhaps it does? Either way, he has my vote.