Who’s in here? Well, if you watch this week’s Telly Addict, which avoids spoilers for the final episodes of The Fall on BBC2 and Game Of Thrones on Sky Atlantic (mainly because I hadn’t seen either when I filmed this yesterday), you’ll see clip evidence of at least two supporting actors who are in both shows. Also, new on BBC3, docucircus The Call Centre, and new on C4, the terrific, glacially-paced French “zombie” drama The Returned. And congratulations and clubbable banter all round for the 500th episode of Pointless on BBC1.
It’s the dawning of a ne-e-e-ew era for television, and for Telly Addict. Just over two years in the chair, and I’m reviewing my first ever television programme that I didn’t watch on my television. I’m talking about season four of Arrested Development, which can only be viewed by subscribing to video streaming service Netflix, which I have now done. I can’t make the sound work when I connect my MacBook to the TV, though, which is why I’ve only watched the first two of 15 brand new episodes on a laptop screen. Meanwhile, back on steam-driven TV, I’ve been beaten by Chris Packham’s games on Springwatch on BBC2, re-educated by Horrible Histories on CBBC (shouldn’t there be some kind of adult-lock that prevents me from watching this channel?), entertained by Psychobitches on Sky Arts (which is the best female-centric comedy that started last week), and gripped by The Americans on ITV1, which is money well spent by the network. There’s also time for a quick clip from Five Years on BBC2, which I failed to review last week because of the stupid Bank Holiday/Memorial Day Weekend.
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.
Catching up with the Masterchef final on BBC1 from last week this week on Telly Addict. Also, the quick death of Four Rooms on C4; Da Vinci’s Demons on Fox; a much more promising new US drama, Banshee, on Sky Atlantic; and two new sitcoms on ITV, Vicious and The Job Lot, one of which I’m sticking with. Due to the Bank Holiday, I hadn’t seen the final episode of The Village when I wrote this one, so I’ll catch up with it next week, as I understand it ended with a song and dance number.
A mere 58,000 viewers tuned in to Sky Atlantic overnight on Wednesday to watch the majestic return of Mad Men, which is down even from the channel’s 98,000 for the start of Season Five last year. It really is one of the least-watched pieces of genius on TV, and it’s the lead review on this week’s Telly Addict, so the Murdoch-intolerant and/or surcharge-averse will at least get to see some majestic clips from its December 1967 incarnation. I also check back in with Game Of Thrones on the same channel (which gets more like 710,000 viewers, by comparison); welcome the first full series of Morse prequel Endeavour to ITV; warm to Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup Of Tea on BBC1; mark the upward turning point of Season 2 of Parks & Rec on BBC4; and applaud Mark Gatiss’s latest period Doctor Who on BBC1.
It wasn’t exactly the Battle of the Blackwater, but there was a brief exchange of fire below the line under this week’s Telly Addict, which was dominated, predictably, by my review of the opening of Season 3 of Game Of Thrones. Although I was careful not to give away any important plot details from Episode 1 in my review – nor to let anything slip in the clips I chose – I strayed, indirectly, into the minefield anyway. This was the pretty angry comment posted by a man called Richard Berry:
Why did the Guardian ensure this video gave a blatant spoiler, even for those who haven’t watched it?
The still image used to advertise the video on the Guardian HOME PAGE shows a character who is clearly alive in season three. The entire plot of series two is that a whole range of others are trying to kill him. Thanks for ruining it.
We don’t all have Sky, and I thought the Guardian would try to refrain from forcing their viewers into the embrace of Rupert Murdoch.
Note that he does not blame me, which is why stepping in may have been a mistake on my part, but it seemed unlikely, what with around 120 comments left under the review at that stage, that anybody involved in producing Telly Addict or responsible for choosing the still that accompanies each one on the page would be following the discussion as vigilantly as I do, so I responded. In my haste, I parried that the offending still was actually from the end of Season 2, which I believed it was. (It certainly features two characters who appear in Seasons 2 and 3, but I have been re-watching episodes from the first two seasons of late so I can’t be trusted!)
Anyway, it turned out to have been from Season 3 after all – from Episode One, in fact. Either way, Richard Berry felt that in revealing that two characters from Season 2 were even in Season 3 was, in and of itself, a spoiler. One of the characters is a principal. It is not out of the question that he might have been killed at the end of Season 2, as a principal was killed at the end of Season 1. However, Sky have been advertising Season 3 with huge billboards in the UK, and these feature the faces of the principal characters, one of whom is in the still the Guardian used. (Is all this obfuscation really necessary? I don’t know.)
Having myself recently re-watched the climax of Season 2 (which revolves around the Battle of the Blackwater), I know that the story does not hinge upon … actually, I now feel too paranoid about spoilers to even discuss it in vague non-detail. After all, not all GoT fans are Sky subscribers, HBO customers or illegal downloaders; although many will have read the books and will know exactly what happens throughout Season 3, and, I think, 4, maybe even 5. (I haven’t looked.)
I have some sympathy with Richard Berry, as he’s working his way through the box sets, as I have done with a number of US imports, notably Battlestar and Breaking Bad, in both cases behind the actual broadcasts and susceptible to spoilers. I’m currently watching the stirring and addictive Friday Night Lights, on Sky Atlantic, which started showing all five seasons after the fifth had aired and when the whole saga was in the public domain. I made the innocent mistake of looking up one of the lower-ranking actors during Season 1 and found out that he was in all five seasons, so I know he’s in for the duration – a spoiler of sorts, although nobody’s fault but my own, right?
But a vanilla still of two characters, officially released by HBO and Sky, surely cannot be categorised as a “spoiler”. Richard will have to wait until Season 3 is out on box set – at the end of this year no doubt – before he can see it. In the meantime, I expect he’s diligently avoiding any internet sites related to GoT, including Wikipedia. He saw a photo on a newspaper’s website below a caption saying something like “The Week in TV”, assumed it to be from a future episode, and felt that it “spoiled” Season 2. Without going into any plot detail, it was impossible for me to explain to him why it wasn’t a spoiler, because you’re on thin ice the whole time when you’re ahead of someone.
The spoiler is well-named. “A person or thing that causes spoilage or corruption,” according to the dictionary, or else “a plunderer or robber”. Before the internet proliferated, its most contemporary setting might have been in print publishing, where newspapers still habitually print spoilers to undermine a competitor’s scoop, and entire magazines are launched to interfere with a rival’s plans. (OK! is just about the most successful spoiler title in publishing.)
I wrote about spoilers for the Observer in 1999, but the focus then was movies. I noted that the concept of spoilers was “an underground one”, which seems quaint now. “Nuggets of information made public with the sole intention of undermining the authority of a forthcoming cinema release” were, I wrote, “all the rage, thanks to the Internet, where knowledge truly is power. If you want to know what happens at the end of The Blair Witch Project, just key the title and the word ‘spoiler’ into your search engine, and you’ll soon find the goods.”
I had been commissioned to write the piece because of the forthcoming Sixth Sense, whose twist had the new-fangled Internet aflame. Its twist had, in fact, become a commercial issue, as patrons in America had already started buying a second ticket to re-view the film. “That’s a very important element,” said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney, in between counting his takings. “People are going back to catch all those things you don’t pick up the first time.” The spoiling of twists is, of course, a one-time-only offer.
I did a roll-call of those 90s thrillers with a twist – The Usual Suspects, The Game, Scream, Primal Fear, Wild Things, Twelve Monkeys, Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge - and it did seem like an epidemic. I also observed that many actually fall to bits once you revisit them armed with the special knowledge gleaned at the end.
An article about The Sixth Sense in 1999 in American magazine Entertainment Weekly was stamped with a warning to readers: STORY CONTAINS KEY PLOT POINTS. This was an early example, I believe, of what we now know as the SPOILER ALERT. As a longtime subscriber to Sight & Sound, whose trademark synopses of new releases inevitably give away endings, I have grown used to the warning. I may as well also confess to being the type of person who reads on when advised not to.
I read the Entertainment Weekly piece right through, not having seen the film, and I went in to see The Sixth Sense knowing the wham-bang ending. I wrote, “As a result, barring amnesia brought on by a blow to the head, I will never be able to see The Sixth Sense the way it was intended.” This has remained true ever since. I am simply a sucker for reading synopses and long reviews, where twists are most likely to be revealed. The warning SPOILER ALERT is a welcome mat to me. (The recently deceased Roger Ebert, perhaps America’s most famous film critic after Pauline Kael, admitted to having been “blind-sided” by The Sixth Sense in the Chicago Sun-Times. Lucky him.)
When Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game came out in 1992, journalists and those attending preview screenings were asked not to give away the big twist. (If you’re still unaware of this one, it occurs long before the end and has an important bearing on the central relationship. It’s also one of the most beautifully-handled and powerful gasp-moments in modern cinema, the sort you envy someone not knowing.) Because The Crying Game had so many other merits as a moviegoing experience, most kept their mouths shut. Ebert, again, ended his review with the words, “See this film. Then shut up about it.”
Being asked to shut up about a hot new film sends out mixed messages: we, the paying public, are usually urged, “Tell your friends!” Because no matter how sophisticated and well-oiled the Hollywood publicity machine has become, word-of-mouth, and its successor word-of-Tweet, is the one marketing factor that’s truly out of The Man’s control. (Only this week, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Oblivion was screened to journalists the night before it went out on general release, but that was, I suspect, for a different reason of media control.)
In 1960, Psycho was publicised with the memorably jolly tagline, “Don’t give away the ending – it’s the only one we have!” Hitchcock actually issued theatre-owners with a handbook, The Care And Handling of Psycho, with half-jokey notices for the foyer reading, “It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning. The manager of this theatre has been instructed at the risk of his life not to admit any persons after the picture starts.” House lights had to remain down for 30 seconds after the end credits, to allow “the suspense of Psycho to be indelibly engraved in the minds of the audience.” Try maintaining that level of compliance in the iPhone age. (Although Steven Moffat and the Doctor Who team were able to pre-screen the first episode of last autumn’s new series to die-hard fans before transmission and successfully implored them not to electronically blab about the unscheduled appearance of the Doctor’s new assistant. Moffat effectively made it a trust issue.)
Back in August 1999, the Sun filled its front page with the headline, “OFFICIAL: BBC’S LOST THE PLOT”, claiming it had obtained “all the storylines of EastEnders for the next year”. However – and here’s the twist – the paper didn’t reveal a single detail. Readers were asked to vote by phone whether they wished to have their enjoyment scuppered or not. They did not. (I was writing for EastEnders at the time and felt very close to this passing scandal. When Phil Mitchell was shot, none of the writers knew who’d dunit. It was safer that way.)
All the Internet has done is made the sharing of information easier. For diehard fans of a franchise, whether it’s Doctor Who or Star Wars or Game Of Thrones or Twilight or Harry Potter, leaks and rumours and revelations feed their devotion. (I always felt luckier than everybody else in the cinema when I saw a Harry Potter, as I had no idea what was about to happen, not having read a word of the books; whereas the more devoted fans around me must have known every last detail.) Richard Berry and those like him who are one season behind on GoT and who have not devoured George R.R. Martin’s source novels, exist in a permanent time-delay: the story they are following is way ahead of them, and it’s out there, in the public domain, out of the bottle, airborne. They moan a lot in comments sections – a pretty risky place to dwell if you’re afraid of spoilers, in any case – but whose responsibility is it to protect them?
I fully intend to see the new Ryan Gosling film A Place Beyond The Pines at the cinema this weekend. David Denby revealed its surprise twist in his review in the New Yorker. I was initially as annoyed with Denby as Richard Berry was with the Guardian. And then I got over it. Not knowing something that happens isn’t the only enjoyment to be had. If something’s good, it won’t really matter.
It is not until the final frame of Citizen Kane that we learn who or what “Rosebud” is. As Kane’s effects are burned on a bonfire, the camera alights on the answer. Just as no-one heard him utter the word at the beginning, no-one notices the reveal at the end: the secret rests solely with us, the audience. Orson Welles, of course, thought it was a “hokey device”.
Finally, a review of the start of Season Three of Game Of Thrones, although this week’s Telly Addict will, of course, start looking old and off the ball again by Wednesday, when Mad Men returns to Sky Atlantic for Season Five. You’ll have to wait until next Tuesday morning for a pithy summation of that. I do recognise that not everybody had Sky Atlantic, whether for fiscal or ideological reasons, and I do my best to sidestep spoilers in my reviews of these imported classics that may not arrive on DVD for a year (and the same with the clips I choose). But it’s a cold, hard truth that we must all learn to work with: some of the best telly in the world is on Murdochvision. Also this week, on telly-for-everybody, The Great British Sewing Bee on BBC1; The Village on BBC1; and The Intern on C4. Hooray.
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.
On this week’s Telly Addict, a clash of the Kudos-produced titans: the eight-part Broadchurch on ITV and the five-part Mayday on BBC1. It’s an unfair fight, as previously established, as I’m reviewing one episode of the former (I hadn’t seen the second when I filmed this, yesterday) and the entirety of the latter, but I hope I have given both a fair crack of the whip in difficult circumstances. Also, on a lighter note: bomb disposal in Afghanistan in new BBC3 comedy Bluestone 42. And, on an actually lighter note, local government in the where-have-you-been? US legend Parks & Recreation, finally arriving on BBC4 after four years on NBC and at least that long on the lips of international comedy aficionados with Region 1 players or no compunction about illegal filesharing. (I have a Region 2 player, a vastly reduced budget for DVDs in any case, and a total aversion to illegal downloading.)
And if you missed my chin-stroking essay on Broadchurch, Mayday and the new film Broken, you may read it here. (There was a time when I was paid for writing such essays, but now I do them for free, which makes them purer, in some ways.)