Taking my cue from a remark made by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in the final episode of the excellent PBS documentary The United States Of Television (re-framed and shown here with added Yentob on BBC2), this week’s Telly Addict sets out to prove that the best TV drama is better than Hollywood movies, with specific reference to Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, both at episode seven in their respective seasons on Sky Atlantic at time of writing; also, a tiny leap from Oliver Stone’s Untold History of America, also on Sky Atlantic, to The 80s: The Decade That Made Us on National Geographic (first time on Telly Addict for the channel – ripple of welcoming applause); plus, The Fall, on BBC2, an excellent new police drama from BBC Northern Ireland that punches it weight with the American occupiers; and a strange signal from Hannibal on Sky Living. A packed programme tonight, as the Ronnies used to say. And better than The Great Gatsby, for sure.
Since Game Of Thrones – or GoT as all the uncool kids are calling it – is the most talked-about TV show of the moment, with catch-up guides in every newspaper for those losers who haven’t been watching it from the start (we’re at Season Three for heaven’s sake – do you really have to wait for the broadsheets’ permission?), I have to confess that I’m not reviewing Game Of Thrones on this week’s Telly Addict, because, when I wrote and filmed it yesterday afternoon, the first episode hadn’t aired. (I review, not preview, as previously established.) But we do have the jolly return of Doctor Who on BBC1; Paul Hollywood’s Beard/Bread on BBC2; the latest sci-fi saga from the JJ Abrams universe, Revolution on Sky 1; an update on Broadchurch on ITV; a warm welcome for the regeneration of Foyle’s War on ITV; and a sneak preview of The Village on BBC1.
I have now, of course, watched the first episode of GoT, and it really is not for the latecomer. That’s all I’ll say. Full review next week.
I was, of course, flattered to be asked to contribute to BBC2’s Richard Briers: A Tribute. Having appeared on it, and seen it, I now I wish I hadn’t.
I was sad when he died, of emphysema, aged 79, last month, and although I’ve tended away from “talking head” work these past couple of years, I was caught unawares by the request and actually decided it would be nice to be able to pay tribute to one of my favourite sitcom actors. (At least it wasn’t a list show, and it was on BBC2 on Easter Saturday.)
I grew up with The Good Life, and still consider Ever Decreasing Circles to be one of the all-time best British sitcoms, and the producers of the tribute seemed keen to prime me to talk about some of Briers’ lesser-known work, which I was distantly au fait with, such as The Other One, the barely remembered sitcom he made after The Good Life with Michael Gambon in which he played a compulsive liar, and If You See God, Tell Him from 1993, darker still. As requested, I also did my homework about his films – Hamlet, Frankenstein – and refreshed my memory about Roobarb via YouTube.
On Tuesday 19 March, I duly turned up at the Gore Hotel in Kensington at 2.30 for filming, in a good black shirt and pinstriped jacket for the occasion, and was led to the basement bar, all leather armchairs, gilt, wood panels, stained-glass and oppressive furnishings, a not uncommon type of location for such jobs. Usual drill: bag down, mobile off, exchange greetings with the cameraman and soundman, ask for coffee, sit in the designated chair arranged at an angle from the camera line opposite the chair where the producer will sit and prompt with questions. I’ve done this a million times before.
Actually, not quite a million, but enough to have become a joke. In that first flush of clips shows, I never really minded being known for my “talking head” work. (It forms a chapter in my third book, That’s Me In The Corner, which begins with an audition I once had for some presenting work where the producer said to me, “I really like your talking head work”, a compliment I struggled to take seriously.) My old partner Stuart Maconie is the one who, along with Kate Thornton, became shorthand for “talking head”. The joke was: I did way more than he did, but he rose to prominence on I Love The 70s, which really relied on its “heads”, and because he was a natural at pithy reminiscence and witty soundbites, he made the edit more often than others.
I didn’t get the chance to pithily reminisce until I Love The 80s, and then only made the first three shows, after which I was not asked back. But I had my revenge by agreeing to every other “talking head” job thrown my way. They were fun, they were easy, they paid. And that’s it, really. If you check my IMDb entry, under “Self – TV” (just scroll past the two erroneous entries for “Actor – TV”, which I’ve attempted to get removed to no avail), you’ll find 36 entries, most of which are “talking head” gigs. The first, according to the great oracle that is often wrong, was Solo Spice for C4 in 2001 – a colourful look at the Spice Girls’ solo work. I think my status as “former Q editor” qualified me. After this, and I Love The 80s, there was no stopping my head from talking.
The next few years – during which I was also an author, a 6 Music DJ, the writer of Grass and Not Going Out, and the host of Banter and The Day The Music Died on R2 and R4, all of which were way more important to me than my “talking head” work – were a blur of hotel bars and private clubs, talking at an angle to every TV producer and researcher in British television, and often meeting the same sound engineers and camera operators.
One job led to another. I turned a couple down – including one that appeared to be built around slagging off Noel Edmonds; I’ve always preferred to celebrate stuff – and there was one about the Muppets where I didn’t even make the edit once, which is an existentially challenging experience – but by and large, it was nice for my Mum and Dad to be able to see me on telly occasionally and I genuinely think it’s good to “keep your hand in”. If you talk as part of your job, it’s as well to practice.
I seem to have done around 40 list/clips/nostalgia/popular history shows over 13 years, but most of those before 2008, which seemed to act as kind of semi-retirement year. As I say, I’ve slowed down a lot. Maybe less clips shows are made. Maybe I don’t get asked. I surfed the wave for a while there. It’s fine. But the Briers show reminded me why I shouldn’t bother any more.
I sat in that armchair for the best part of an hour, talking constantly about every aspect of Richard Briers’ career. I knew the show was geared around the people who knew him and worked with him, as it bloody should do, and I guessed my job was to add a critical eye. (I never met him, or worked with him.) When we reached the end of his career, we wrapped, I got up, collected my bag, shook hands and left. The thought of playing even a peripheral part in the BBC’s official memorial to a great actor was reward enough, although I got paid as well. (This is still quite handy when you do as much work on spec, for free, as I do. I’m doing a lot of that currently.)
So, I watched the finished show over Easter weekend on BBC2 and found out precisely how peripheral I was! The programme makers had done brilliantly with their star witnesses: Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal, Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Wilton, Peter Egan, Nicholas Hytner, Sam West, Prunella Scales, Sheila Hancock … as a viewer, I was thrilled. As the token critic who’d taken part, my heart sank. About half an hour in, it was clear that my contribution was not required. To be honest, I have no idea why they even left in my sole contribution, but there it was, at 38.02.
During the section about Briers’ unexpected move into Shakespeare at a stage in his career when his national sitcom treasure status might have been a curse as much as a blessing, there I am, “writer and broadcaster”, saying the following two sentences:
Kenneth Branagh definitely changed Richard Briers’ life, by offering these, er, fantastic Shakespearean parts … It’s easy to overlook the skills of an actor in a sitcom – wrong to, but it’s easy to do it, because they make it look easy, they’re just there to be silly, and funny, a lot of the time. That takes a massive amount of acting.
At 38.28, cut to the much better placed actor Adrian Scarborough, “co-star and friend”, with a far more personal insight. I’m not saying it wasn’t worth me travelling to Kensington and walking from the Tube to the hotel and back (they offered cabs, but I nearly always refuse cabs, as I’d seriously rather use public transport and walk), I’m saying it wasn’t worth the BBC employing me to go all that way in order to say those two sentences. Hey, I know, that’s the way documentaries are made: shoot way more than you need and edit into shape. The writer Andrew Marshall was on quite a few times, and offered sound, firsthand testimony, as he’d co-written If You See God, Tell Him. But If You See God, Tell Him was never mentioned, thus muddying his authority to all but comedy students. The edit takes no prisoners!
The Briers tribute is a really nice programme, and it’s still on iPlayer. You should watch it – it’s my last “talking head” appearance*. I’m glad my shirt and jacket looked smart.
*It probably is, anyway.
This week’s Telly Addict has been brought to you by Into The Woods, a bracing new book about screenwriting, with particular emphasis on the craft of storytelling for TV, by my former boss John Yorke, who produced Collins & Maconie’s first ever radio programme in 1993, Fantastic Voyage, and then became my executive producer on EastEnders some years later, and then Head of Drama at the BBC (he’s now hopped it to the private sector). Anyway, it’s published in April, I’ve been devouring a preview copy, and it currently infects the way I view TV. Henceforth, take copious notes as you view my analytical reviews of the monomythic Masterchef on BBC1; In The Flesh on BBC3; Prisoners’ Wives on BBC1; and It’s Kevin on BBC2. There is no masterplan here, they just happen to be all BBC shows. (I say there’s no masterplan, but as John’s book proves, all stories subconsciously adopt the same structure, so even Telly Addict has a quest, a midpoint, an inciting incident, a protagonist and antagonists, a prize, a resolution and a symmetry between beginning and end. Check it out.
After publicly identifying the “Now, If You’ll Excuse Me, Inspector” moment in ITV’s Lewis on last week’s Telly Addict – in which arrogant Oxford academics rudely make excuses and walk away from Lewis when he’s investigating them about a murder – I have three more prime NIYEMIs on this week’s. I also return to Utopia on C4 to see how it’s getting on after the first rush of blood; give the pilot episode of Fox/Sky Atlantic’s serial killer-based thriller The Following a chance; sigh heavily at the lack of jeopardy on the otherwise well-intentioned Great Comic Relief Bake Off on BBC2; and give a preview of my promised review of Louie on Fox. And another look at the mesmerising ITV logo.
First: it looks like I’m getting two weeks off! So, this week’s Telly Addict, although not a review of the year, acts as an end-of-the-year, end-of-the-world edition. Under review are BBC Sports Personality of the Year, BBC1; the finale of Season Three of Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic (no spoilers); The British Comedy Awards, C4; Richard E Grant’s Hotel Secrets, Sky Atlantic; Inside Claridge’s, BBC2; and Little Crackers, Sky1.
Secondly, I was also asked to promote The Great British Bake Off as my favourite TV show of 2012 (incorrectly billed as “the best TV programme of 2012″ in their more provocative headline). You can watch my little three-minute film here. Props to the Guardian website people for, once again, flagging this up on the main page. It’s reassuring to see that the commenters below the line have been instantaneous with their comfort and joy.
I watched this once. The presenters heads are completely up their own arses and it’s about the most tedious, poncy, self opinionated, piece of shit I have ever had the misfortune to view. Baking should be fun, with these arseholes it becomes a ritualised chore. More utter bilge from the increasingly bilge-producing BBC.
The middle-class fetishisation of food at a time of austerity – just what a PSB provider should be doing! What next … four celebrities in a big house with all the heating and electricity on talking about how warm and cosy they are?
FFS. We used to have telly like Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, Malcom Muggeridge, Face to Face, Not Only …But Also... Now we have endless cookery crap and people taking DNA tests live on air. Seriously- God help this country. It ain’t the Royals fault, either.
Corn syrup for undernourished brains.
Utter trash. Pointless competitions make for cheap nasty television. The smug presenters and contestants are horrible.
No names, obviously, as that would be playing into their evil hands. (I like the concept of “self opinionated” though.) So it’s “Goodwill to all men!” to those miserable fuckers, and “Merry Christmas!” to the rest of you. Thanks for viewing this year – in increasing numbers, so I’m told, since we moved to Tuesday mornings. Here’s to another year of me sitting at a slight angle and trying not to wear the same shirt two weeks’ running.
I’m sorry, I have a cold. Hopefully it won’t hamper your enjoyment of this week’s Telly Addict, which takes a keen interest in … Sarah Lund’s knitwear in The Killing III on Scandinavia’s BBC4, the portrayal of a fantasy BBC you could really trust in the 1957-set The Hour on BBC2; the tragic trajectory of Nadine Dorries MP on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! on ITV1; and a bit of prime Gyp Rosetti on Sky Altantic’s Boardwalk Empire, but don’t worry if you’re a spoiler-shy Sky refusenik and are waiting for the box set, it’s a stand-alone clip that has no bearing on the plot, other than Gyp Rosetti is in it.
Second Tuesday morning Telly Addict, which means I’m catching up on last Tuesday’s Great British Bake Off Final on BBC2 (there will be spoilers – deal with it); plus Friday Night Dinner, which started again three weeks ago on C4 on the wrong night; the penultimate, Leveson-style The Thick Of It, with its excellent Guardian joke, on BBC2; and a one-off C4 documentary with a title that makes it sound less subtle and tender than it actually was, My Tattoo Addiction. (Funnily enough, the programme’s producer alerted me to it via Twitter, but if I hadn’t have liked it, I would have just quietly ignored it. You have to admire him for direct marketing.)
Back on home turf in London again this week, although every day is an International Television Festival in my house. This week’s Telly Addict, created under antiseptic office conditions without the hum of networking and swish of swinging lanyards in the background, covers week three of The Great British Bake Off (my new favourite programme) on BBC2; big post-Olympics drama hitter Parade’s End on BBC2; one-off crime drama Murder on … BBC2; and, on Sky Atlantic (hooray!), A Touch Of Cloth, which was always going to be a toughie to review, coming as it does from the hallowed keys of Charlie Brooker, who, only last Friday, I was genuflecting before. But TV is TV. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the cauldron.
This week, I’m at the Media Guardian Edinburgh International TV Festival, or MGEITF as all the cool delegates know it. The bearing this has on Telly Addict is that, as you can see, I was filmed in the pop-up Guardian “pod” in the noisy lobby of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which was a novelty. (I’m up in Edinburgh to facilitate/host the preview screening/Q&A season at the city’s lovely Film House cinema, which is just far enough round the corner from where the bulk of the TV Fest action is, none of the exceptional work we have been doing there has been officially photographed, or reported upon in the newspapers, even though, for instance, Simon Bird confirmed that a second Inbetweeners movie has not been confirmed, in a Q&A about Friday Night Dinner – scoop!
Anyway, in Telly Addict (see if you can hear TV people slurping free YouTube smoothies in the background), I’m reviewing The Great British Bake Off on BBC2, The Last Weekend on ITV1 and Red Or Black? on ITV1. It’s here.