What if … the mechanical shark had worked in Jaws?

Another little item I wrote for Word magazine, in 2009, that I’d forgotten about (and has never been published online). I was asked to imagine a “what if?” scenario from the world of entertainment.

JawsBruceshark

May, 1974, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts: first day of the Jaws shoot. The three life-size, $200,000 mechanical great white sharks designed by effects veteran Robert A Mattey work like a dream. The saltwater has no adverse effect on the steel rails running under the surface, the eyes and jaws look realistic and the polyurethane skin does not need constantly replacing. The rushes looks fantastic. The film comes in on time and on budget. Director Steven Spielberg and editor Verna Fields do not need to “hide” the shark: it appears, full face, in scene one, requiring no suspenseful two-note musical theme from John Williams. Jaws opens in 409 theatres in June; audiences get an initial shock on seeing the shark, but the film peaks too early. Word gets out. Box office tails off. The big studios see no quick way of making a mint in summer, and continue to indulge the left-field “movie brat” directors. Universal files for bankruptcy. A nervous Fox opens Star Wars in just 300 theatres. It becomes a minor cult. No sequel is ordered. The studios doggedly pursue the European visions of the new wave of auteurs throughout the 80s until moviemaking becomes a high-risk, low-return business and the new multiplexes are closed, leading to a minor boom in arthouses. Jaws enjoys a revival as an ironic midnight movie. In 1993, Spielberg finally gets an Emmy for Watch The Skies, a single-camera sitcom about a man in Phoenix convinced he’s seen a UFO. People who have been swimming in the sea without fear ever since have no way of describing rare shark sightings: “It was a like a scene out of … ?”

Advertisements

Whatever | April 2010

Whatever | 3D or not 3D
Will Avatar take Hollywood to the next dimension, or are those glasses making us blind?

WhateverAvatarApr2010 Just before Christmas in 1952, United Artists released a functional African jungle adventure called Bwana Devil. The first feature to be exhibited in Natural Vision 3D, its publicity made the famous promise, “A lion in your lap!” Advertising standards would take a dim view of the flimsiness of this leonine proximity claim today, but desperate times – as the 1950s were for Hollywood during TV’s first boom – called for desperate measures.

Just before Christmas in 2009, 20th Century Fox released a functional Pandoran jungle adventure called Avatar. The first feature to be shot in 3D using various bespoke gizmos in the field of motion-capture, its publicity revolved around special tie-in bottles of Coke Zero and director James Cameron talking the film up big-style at sci-fi conventions. No explicit promises were made, but Avatar might have been sold with the guarantee, “Little floaty specs of ash caused by an air strike raining down around your shoulders like dandruff!”

This is not meant as a facetious comparison, even though I have carefully written it as one. In actual fact, not that much has changed between the lion in the lap and the dandruff down the back, except that 21st century audiences are less gullible and more reticent to tear themselves away from small glowing boxes. Bwana Devil did well enough at the box office, as did the knock-on 3D flea circuses that propagated in its wake – House Of Wax, It Came From Outer Space, Robot Monster, The Creature From The Black Lagoon – at least until the sums stopped adding up. But none of them performed like Avatar, even if figures are adjusted for inflation, which they never are or else Gone With The Wind would always be number one and the all-time box office charts would cease to act as a team-building exercise for studio accountants.

WhateverAvatarApr2010

The tin-hat difference between Bwana Devil and Avatar is that the former was conspicuous by its absence at the 25th Academy Awards – it was all 2D confections like High Noon and The Quiet Man that year – while the latter scored nine nominations at the 82nd. By the time you read this, you’ll know whether or not it took home Best Picture. If not, having already shamed his last film Titanic into second place with a world-beating $2.3 billion take (at time of going to press), Cameron will be able to dry his eyes on hundred dollar bills and toss them into a waste paper basket woven from the eyelashes of angels.

The twinkling aura of success that fizzes and pops around Avatar provides a welcome firework display to momentarily distract from an inconvenient truth: that the movies are in trouble. In posh film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James made his own prediction: that the Oscar will indeed go to Avatar, because, as he foresaw it, “this year the industry will vote for the financial, not the aesthetic Best Picture … The business will cheer the money, because they’re scared and they hope that 3D can save them.” In the same issue, Nick Roddick, writing as “Mr Busy”, penned a de facto obituary for Hollywood as we know it: “the studio system is like a dinosaur in a tar pit.” With execs being fired on a daily basis – two of them, Universal co-chairmen Marc Schmuger and David Linde announced that we live in “an era where brands have become the new stars” just before they received their redundancy packages – the impression is of an industry in panic. Why? Didn’t some film called Avatar just make, like, more money than any other film ever except Gone With The Wind and who cares about that old thing? Yes it did. In 17 days. (Now there’s a block graph on an overhead projector that’s going to make up for the lack of croissants at the News Corps shareholders meeting.)

Just as the success of Nirvana led to the signing of Tad, post-Avatar, film studios are literally sending completed blockbusters back to the menders and ordering up an extra dimension, from Clash Of The Titans to the final Harry Potter double-bill Deathly Hallows. The Times reported that LA’s celluloid-to-digital conversion labs are fully booked (“We can turn an older film into 3-D in around 16 weeks,” said the man at one such, Legend Films in San Diego), while super-geeks Peter Jackson and George Lucas are salivating at the prospect of running their respective sagas through the machine, just as Pixar have done with Toy Story. “2D or not 2D?” – that is not the question.

WhateverAvatarApr2010

I wish it was a passing craze, like Sensurround™, Illusion-O™ and Vinnie Jones™, but with 3D tellys being rolled out, 3D Blu-Ray on the horizon and 3D football matches bringing new meaning to collecting up the glasses in pubs, it may be that the man from cinema chain USC was right when he told the Times, “It’s no longer a gimmick, but an expectation.” Not in my house. And I speak as someone who queued up to see Friday The 13th 3D as a teenager in order to experience a pitchfork handle in my face. Nick James is astute when he describes Avatar as “a film for 15-year-olds that grown-ups enjoy for its technological breakthroughs.” I also worry that all this tech-fetishism makes gawping idiots of us all.

Hey, I’m all for the industry being saved – I really like films – but Avatar is not exactly a quick fix. It took years to make and cost $310 million, plus $150 to market. It would be cheaper to release an actual lion into every punter’s lap.

Having said that, those wraparound 3D specs did create the dazzling illusion that Camerons one-dimensional characters were two-dimensional.

Twenty Twelve: TV

TA79grab TA81grabCMFcustard8TA78grabBorgenBakeSJ1TA77grabTA75grabTA82grab

Well, I’ve certainly put the hours in this year in terms of TV. My first full calendar year of writing and recording Telly Addict every week: that’s a lot of percentage in the Sky+ tank. Because I am now duty-bound to review all the exciting new stuff – and that means stuff I wouldn’t normally watch, like Red Or Black, TOWIE and The Apprentice – I find myself watching and analysing the first episode of everything, but not always bothering to watch the second episode. There are only so many hours in the day etc.

This, if you run a finger down my final list, accounts for the fact that Secret State, which I wasn’t sure about to start with, makes the list, and The Town, which I was sure about, doesn’t. I saw the former through to the bitter end, which means something, and I found myself unable to summon up the enthusiasm to see how The Town turned out, which also means something. My enthusiasm for The Great British Bake Off was entirely sincere: I couldn’t wait for the next episode. This is how I feel about the re-runs of Friday Night Lights: can’t wait. (Although the Guardian erroneously claimed that I judged The Bake Off to be “the best TV show of 2012”, when, in fact, it was simply my favourite.)

It seems obsessive and random to put these fantastic shows in any kind of qualitative order, so I’ll leave them in the order that they occurred to me. I’m not sure whether or not I ought to apologise for the proliferation of shows on Sky Atlantic. The channel has a deal with HBO; ergo, it’s where all the best imports turn up. Sorry (There, I apologised.) Oh, and by the way, I enjoyed some of the Olympics on the BBC, and Euro 2012, on the BBC and ITV, but found Gary Lineker a bit irksome on both.

The Great British Bake Off, BBC2
Line Of Duty, BBC2
Game of Thrones, Season 2, Sky Atlantic
Boardwalk Empire, Season 3, Sky Atlantic
Hunderby, Sky Atlantic
The Fear, C4
Homefront, ITV1
Fresh Meat, Series 2, C4
Friday Night Dinner, Series 2, C4
Michael Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys, BBC2
Sherlock, Series 2, BBC1
Borgen, BBC4
The Bridge, BBC4
Homeland, Seasons 1-2, c4
Twenty Twelve, Series 2, BBC2
Chatsworth, BBC2
Inside Claridge’s, BBC2
The Thick Of It, Series 4, BBC4
Eastbound and Down, Season 3, FX
The Walking Dead, Season 3, FX
American Horror Story: Asylum, FX
Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, E4
Friday Night Lights, Seasons 1-3, Sky Atlantic
Girls, Sky Atlantic
Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partidge, Sky Atlantic
The Newsroom, Sky Atlantic
Veep, Sky Atlantic
Secret State, C4
Top of the Pops, 1977, BBC4
Man About The House, Series 3-5, ITV3
Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss, BBC4
Loving Miss Hatto, BBC1
Downton Abbey, Series 3/Christmas Special, ITV1
Mrs Biggs, ITV1
Celebrity MasterChef, BBC2
Modern Family, Season 4, Sky1
Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, ITV1
The Bletchley Circle, ITV1

Feel free to nominate shows you loved. I fell out with Downton during Series 2, but was surprised to find myself back onboard with Series 3. I also thought that Gates, on Sky Living, came out very well, but since I was one of its writers, I am unable to trust my own judgement. We must try Sky Living’s judgement, though, and it won’t be returning for a second series.

Danger, shark!

Nice little grab of the Capitol building there, but nothing to do with today’s US Presidential Election. Rather, while negotiating the minefield of spoilers, this week’s Telly Addict tries to discuss the other burning question, “Has Homeland jumped the shark or not?”; also, a horror double-bill from Halloween week, the gothic return of American Horror Story to FX, and BBC4’s Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss; just enough time, too, to consider another rare US drama import – this time from the History Channel – that’s showing on terrestrial television over here: post-Civil War feud saga Hatfields & McCoys, on Channel Five. (I have finally caught up with hospital comedy-drama Getting On, by the way, and I’ll be reviewing that next week.)

Warning: contains language

In the new Telly Addict, you will see and hear me reviewing the teatime debut of Keith Lemon’s Lemonaid on ITV1; the welcome second series of Twenty Twelve on BBC2; the last of Talk At The BBC on BBC4 (which I hope they repeat soon); and the final season of Eastbound & Down on FX.

I did watch Derek last night on C4, but it was too late to include it, as I have to deliver my script on a Thursday and record it first thing on Friday. And I was out last night. I may assess it next week, although I don’t mind telling you in advance that I don’t feel, as a one-off, that it earned enough of our sympathy to expect us to be sad about a character being sad after such a short time. And did he have to have that hairstyle?

Normal service

Eyes front! Normal service is resumed for this week’s Telly Addict. The Guardian “digital first” department pulled itself together, fixed the Autocue, remembered to caption my clips and all was right with the world. (The weird thing is, only I seemed to notice that last week’s was a bit “off”. We apparently had a spike in views and drew more comments than normal, too, one or two of which weren’t just, “You are shit, it is shit, everything you reviewed is shit.” So go figure, as the Americans say.) This week, I’m covering the return of Being Human for its fourth series to BBC3, which I don’t really think is aimed at me; the return of HBO’s True Blood for its fourth season to FX, which I went off during season three but may well have fallen back in love with; and the return of Whitechapel for its third series to ITV1, which, again, I got fed up with during series two, but am well up for again now. (Note how carefully I refer to series if it’s British, and seasons if it’s American. One has to preserve the language.)

Next week, I plan on revisting Call The Midwife, which is the new sensation across the nation, as I tuned in to episode one and had to turn off as it had all these babies being born in it, and catching up with Inside Men, which might just be the best British thing on TV at the moment.

2011: here isn’t the news

I am incredibly busy this festive season, but keen to do my usual themed reviews/lists of the year. Let’s do TV. In a year where the most exciting stuff happened on the news, I will concentrate on new and returning dramas, comedies and documentaries. Clearly, there are more than 15 TV shows I loved in 2011 – I enjoyed Frozen Planet, like everybody else, and Spooks – but you have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise you would go mad. Here is the line that I drew.

1. The Shadow Line, BBC2

I spent much of the year watching British drama on television and failing to really passionately engage with it. And not all of it could blame its own hype for in-built disappointment, like The Hour. As a writer who can currently only dream of writing serious drama, I want everything to be great. I will it to be so. But much of it seems designed to be understood by idiots, which is likely to be down to pressure from broadcasters and producers, and I understand that. Meanwhile, Hugo Blick’s near-Shakespearean police corruption potboiler moved about familiar territory with such panache and confidence, it put all those identikit new cop shows like Vera, Case Sensitive, Case Histories and even The Body Farm in the shade. And required you to think at every turn. Even though none of us guessed the ending – surely! – it wasn’t a whodunit. It was so much more than that. I can never forgive it for seeming to drown a cat, and the fact that I have made it number one despite this shows just how good, and resonant all these months later, it is.


2. This Is England ’88, C4

This could have been more of the same from Shane Meadows, who found a comfortable spiritual home on TV last year with This Is England ’86. But he raised the emotional bar, and wrung so much more out of his gang, not least Lol, perhaps the most inappropriately named character in modern drama, through whose troubles Vicky McClure played a blinder. Lovely use of The Smiths on the soundtrack, too.

3. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, More4

A truly epic undertaking, Mark Cousins filled a void we didn’t even know existed by providing a history of cinema that was at once personal and polemical, but strove for mainstream legitimacy and arguably achieved that, constantly criss-crossing continents to show echoes bouncing around the globe concurrently, but firmly placing entirely original and thrilling comparisons into context. His lilting voice – which I love – conveys “pretentious” to his detractors, but its softness and sense of wonder humanised a big subject. I didn’t want it to end.


4. The Killing, BBC4

I’ve only seen the first season. The second is stacking up in my Sky+, deliberately, so that I can watch it box-set style in big swathes – that’s how I devoured this one. I sense that Forbrydelsen II is not the equal of the original, but how could it be? It’s half as long, for a start, whereas the first one, out of the blue, took us into a whole other world and allowed us to linger for 20 episodes, all the while changing our minds about whodunit, and learning Danish as we went. Sophie Grabol was superb as Sarah Lund, but it wasn’t just about her and her jumper. This was a window on the parallel universe of Scandinavia, where grisly murders don’t happen as much, politics is all about coalition and the rain seems never to stop. Who knew that a subtitled drama would be one of the year’s best? (It originally aired in 2007, of course, but it’s new to us.)


5. Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic

I apologise to all of you who diligently snub all of Rupert Murdoch’s works and thus cannot join in the chorus of approval for what is, effectively, our own little HBO: Sky Atlantic. Its launch was, for my household, one of the best bits of news of 2011. Whether it’s oddities like Bored To Death, from-the-start re-runs of the likes of Big Love and The Wire, TV movies of the quality of Too Big To Fail or Temple Grandin, or brand new, still-wet broadcasts of the best US stuff, like this, or Mildred Pierce, the stopcock of quality never stops flowing. What’s most astounding about Boardwalk Empire is the way the second season has turned it on a new pivot, with Jimmy taking over from Nucky, or attempting to, and Van Alden starting a new life. Also: the best opening credits on television. You can probably see those on YouTube for free.


6. American Horror Story, FX

Delighted to see this get a Golden Globe nomination today. I have a soft spot for FX (more Murdoch, I’m afraid, but he’ll get his comeuppance in hell), which this year brought The Walking Dead back and went all BBC4 with its thrilling French cop import Braquo. But American Horror Story, one of the few truly chilling pieces of mainstream television since Twin Peaks, pretty much instantly became a favourite, with Jessica Lange bringing some Hollywood ballast to a cast otherwise made up of familiar folks from other TV shows, like Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, Morris Chestnutt from V, Zachary Quinto from Heroes, Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under, and on it goes. The haunted house standby gets an eerie makeover from the creator of Nip/Tuck and the now off-the-boil Glee (with both of which it shares a delicious sense of camp), with a gimp seemingly living in the attic, and everybody who ever died in the house living in the cellar.


7. Game Of Thrones, Sky Atlantic

I’m really not one for fantasy lit. And I doubt I’ll ever pick up one of George R.R. Martin’s novels. But this epic saga, based upon that very source material, provided a stirring narrative in its first season, with a parallel world of warring factions so complex the opening credits (which won an Emmy) are based upon a map. Perhaps a little too fond of soft porn nudity for its own good, it’s full of British and Irish actors – and shot in Northern Ireland – so has that instant appeal. And it’s got Peter Dinklage in it – another Emmy winner – so what can go wrong? Season two due to air on HBO in April 2012, and that means we’ll get it almost concurrently, something that never used to happen, did it?


8. Fresh Meat, C4/Rev, BBC2

Hedging my bets a bit, I realise, but these two comedies, so very different, cannot be separated in my mind. Fresh Meat, which showed Campus how to do a student comedy – mainly by doing it about the students and not the staff – will surely win Jack Whitehall a Comedy Award on Friday, and if not, it doesn’t matter, he’s redeemed himself in the eyes of anyone who had him down as a smug, preening, fast-tracked, over-privileged stand-up hunk, breathing life into the monstrous but lovable JP. (Zawe Ashton also a revelation as Vod.) Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong created the template and, we may assume, the characters, but other writers, some much newer to telly, took on individual episodes. This programme is actually like a university. And Rev I’ve raved about very recently. It continues to delight.


9. Top Boy, C4

Although arbitrarily broadcast across successive nights when it should have been allowed to bubble and simmer across the same number of weeks, Top Boy was writer Ronan Bennett at his dramatic and journalistic best, translating what he learned from residents of estates in East London into a story that – in bravely dispensing with the police (or “Feds”) – found a human story among the hardship. Along with Attack The Block, another fiction about black youths by a white writer that sidestepped caricature, this dared to look beyond the cliches. Also, what an atmospheric piece, so brilliantly founded upon the insistent, ambient riff from Ghostpoet’s Finished I Ain’t. (It’s interesting that this came so soon off the back of The Jury on ITV1, also by Bennett, but replete with cliches and clunky exposition, almost as if someone somewhere decided that ITV1 viewers needed their food cutting up into chunks for them, which I would argue they don’t.)


10. Treme, Sky Atlantic

Like Boardwalk Empire, here’s another sprawling drama that manages to keep a number of stories spinning, and was not defeated by a second season, despite a spectacular first. So very different to The Wire, whose Ed Simon co-created it, and yet so similar in many ways, it concentrated on the black experience, but not exclusively, and did a unique thing in narrative drama in letting the music tell the story. There is clearly music in the veins of New Orleans, and this aspect was what made Treme so different. It’s not a musical, but it is.


11. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, BBC2

I saw a lot of documentaries this year, as I am drawn to non-fiction. But Adam Curtis is more than a documentary maker, and his latest, esoteric, uniquely paced three-part opus took in everything from Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and Buckminster Fuller to President Mobutu, Richard Dawkins and the Club Of Rome, all the while taking the back off our obsession with computers and machine-age utopianism. This is a filmmaker who joins dots that you didn’t even know were dots.


12. The Promise, C4

Sometimes, ambition is not enough. But in tackling the Israel-Palestine question from both a historic and a contemporary viewpoint, without ever decisively demonising or lionising either side, Peter Kosminsky – a dramatist who likes issues – created a compelling story that asked as many questions as it answered. Claire Foy came of age (did that sound patronising enough?) as the initially apolitical tourist in Israel who delves into the past via the death of her grandfather. I didn’t feel brow-beaten – terrorism, cruelty and prejudice was shown on both sides – but came away feeling pretty sad about the whole situation. (It made me re-attempt Martin Gilbert’s epic account Israel, but it defeated me again. The Promise was in that sense far more successful.)


13. British Masters/Art Of America, BBC4

It would be churlish to separate these fine art series on the channel that does them best. The former gave us a new expert, Dr James Fox (with whom I entered into a pleasant correspondence when I contacted him through the faculty of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge while trying to ascertain his actual age, which is a sickening 29), the latter set a well established one, the persuasive Andrew Graham-Dixon, at another part of the world, this time America. So we had Dr Fox, not that one, moving from bathhouse to terraced street in search of the great, in some cases unsung, British painters of the 20th century, from Nash, Spencer and Freud to Hamilton, Bomberg and Hockney, while Graham-Dixon hopped in the statutory open-top car and went from coast to coast to get to the heart of Hopper, Wyeth, Rockwell and Warhol. Both utterly absorbing – the former knocked on forums by certain academics for sanding down the rough edges (a criticism my new friend Dr Fox refutes) – and both pulled off, with aplomb and approachability, in just three parts apiece. I could have watched either for twice as many. Can’t wait for their next LP. In a year when BBC4 had a large chunk of its pocket money taken away by a government that hates it, we have to hope they have ringfenced funding for this type of thing. Sky Arts do an ever improving job, but we can’t have Murdoch taking over the whole sandpit. Even Sky Atlantic disciples understand that.


14. Modern Family, Sky1

Still the best US import, Modern Family has been a constant in my life all year, and, when a run coincides with 30 Rock and Curb, as it did this autumn, I feel spoiled by American wit. Favourite character? Still Cam.


15. Celebrity Masterchef, BBC1

You know I have a soft spot for this, and it gets into the Top 15 partly because it had such a likable and impressive bunch of contenders in Kirsty Wark, Hollyoaks‘ Nick Pickard, Danny from Supergrass and eventual winner, the sweet and soft-spoken retired rugby captain Phil Vickery, but also because the show was exiled to the salt mines of daytime from the early evening and I think this was a bad move. It deserves to be reinstated.