Yes to Scottish independence


Another year, another Edinburgh. It’s great how you can refer to a trip to what really is my Second City to coincide with the Festival, or Festivals, as “an Edinburgh.” We all know what it means. And it means mostly wonderful things. Before I prepare my report on this year’s three-day piped-bagpipe bagatelle, here’s the traditional shot of me at my first Edinburgh, in 1989.


I feel sure I don’t need to go into detail, but I was two years out of college, one year in the NME art room, far enough into a hair-growing project to produce a nub of a ponytail, and part of a Tooting-based, medical-school-formed am-dram group called Renaissance Comedy Associates; our play, which I co-wrote with co-star Matthew Hall*, was called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out and one or two people paid to see it in a church hall on Princes Street – it was a great adventure, but I didn’t go back until 2001, when the show was Lloyd Cole Knew My Father and we looked like this.


I have been up every year except one ever since. The big shift for me occurred in 2009, when, having been up to do an experimental week of live Collings & Herrin Podcasts at the Underbelly, I was also invited to host, or “chair”, my first session at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, which – after my heartfelt retirement from stand-up comedy in 2010 and a welcome year off in 2011 – has thereafter been my ticket up there. It being Guardian-sponsored, a short clip of me talking to Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin in 2009 is still available to view. My body language says: I am not yet confident enough as a “chair” to sit properly in one.


I like to think I am now a far more confident host. Once you’ve done your first live gig as “facilitator” – whose brief is to introduce the session, get the best out of your interviewees (ie. “facilitate” their illuminating answers), move the thing along, hit the clips at the right moment, coordinate a short audience Q&A at the end and exude approachable authority – you start to get into a rhythm of being miked up, having a producer bark into your ear via an earpiece, knowing when to skip a huge chunk of questions for time, and being unclipped from your mic at the end (always courteous and grateful to the venue staff, as without them you would not be miked up, or able to reach for a sip of water, or even know where the hell to go in the warren of suites, green rooms and auditoria). I am not staff. I am not paid to do this work, but the Festival does pay my train fare and puts me up in a serviceable hotel (the one you can guarantee none of the big stars will be staying in – I know my place). Most importantly, it gives me the chance to be here.


I have rhapsodised Edinburgh aplenty. In a way, I’m the wrong person to ask about the city as I’ve literally only ever stepped foot on the platform of Waverley Station during the Festival. This is clearly not what life is like in Edinburgh for the other 11 months of the year (except for the weather and the novelty drunks and the souvenir shops piping out bagpipe music). But I have made friends up here who do live in Edinburgh and adjoining Dunfermline, so it’s not as if I only hang out with London media wankers like myself. I made enough friends when I was a stand-up to be able to sneak in to see a couple of their shows while I’m up here, which is always a bonus, and I make an effort to conceal or remove my pink, YouTube-sponsored TV Festival pass when I’m walking down the street. I certainly stride maplessly about the place like I own it, which I hope stops me ever looking like a tourist.


Because I always come on my own, what I do feel like is a travelling salesman. Especially at breakfast.


I’ve been a regular at Apex hotels for the past couple of Festivals: no-nonsense places but a cut above a Best Western or Novotel (and I say that not as a hotel snob but as someone whose default, austerity overnight is a Travelodge if I’m paying the bill). This year, for no apparent reason, I was placed in a Hilton. I’m worldly-wise enough to know that the “Hilton” logo does not automatically speak of glamour and the high life. It’s just a hotel chain, a Premier Inn that fancies itself.

There are a couple of Hiltons in Edinburgh (which shows how exclusive they’re not) and I think I was in the least glamorous Hilton. I don’t expect to live like a king – all I require is a bed, wi-fi, a full Scottish breakfast and a free paper. The Hilton gives away the digest version of the Independent whose actual name looks like a mistake of you type it: the i. I’ve never had a minibar. Luckily, I don’t demand a room with light in it either, as this year I was in a non-air-conditioned basement whose windows were painted shut and which was illuminated only by tiny desk lamps (the only fitted ceiling light was in the tiny hallway). I did not complain. I was not paying for it. There was free shortbread with the tea- and coffee-making facilities. I thought: I am living the dream.


The title of this blog entry refers not to Scotland’s forthcoming independence – a matter much discussed and a passion-fuelled debate I felt fortunate to have landed in the middle of at the height of national indecision – but my own current independence. Travelling alone, essentially being on holiday alone (even for three days), is replenishing for the soul, I find. I did plenty of solo travelling when I was a much younger music journalist, and it hardened me up. I flew to Dublin for three hours last week to interview Cillian Murphy for Radio Times and I felt a bit like an international jetsetter, albeit one too intrinsically stingy to pay for a fucking coffee on the plane, especially as the otherwise courteous Aer Lingus declined to offer any of us a free drink while we sat on the tarmac at Dublin for two hours, the mercenary bastards.

I arrived in Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon alone, declined to pay for a cab and thus walked, with my rucksack, to the Hilton, which was 30 minutes away, alone. Checked in alone, unpacked alone etc. etc., you get the manly picture. And within the hour I was back out, alone, marching towards my favourite venue, The Stand, to pick up my ticket to see my friend Josie Long, alone. I bought some fish chowder, which came in a bowl made of bread, from a stall at the new Fringe hub, St Andrew Square Gardens, whose convenience actually prevented me from making my annual day-one pilgrimage to the Pleasance. (This will be the first Edinburgh ever where I haven’t had a pint at the Pleasance. Time bends.) I bought my ceremonial first pint in a plastic glass and sat, alone, among booming revellers, to silently eat my soup and drink my lager. I was happy enough. Edinburgh is full of groups and couples and families at this time of year, but also solo artists, like me. You’re never alone with a plastic pint glass: it is your passport to sit anywhere and just be.


I do regret only seeing one Fringe show this year (I usually squeeze in at least three), but I do not regret choosing Josie Long‘s. It’s been a few years since we were buddied up by 6 Music (and then let go with an empty promise to have us back on – not bitter about that), and even longer since I first met her in a pub basement and offered to hold her indie coat while she sang Nothing Compares 2 U at Karaoke Circus, so I feel I can praise her new direction without being too partisan.

After years of building up her unique and deeply-felt political persona, this year’s show, Cara Josephine (a title movingly explained in the final section), is a left turn. Or a right turn, since she’s already so far to the left. It’s a personal show about heartbreak and failed relationships and being “on the shelf” at 32 that’s quite a jolt if you know her stuff. But it’s delivered in such a way that, while contextually shocking in places (and actually really challenging at one particularly raw and graphic juncture, which I won’t spoil), it’s still Josie being who she is, with her American accents and her self-effacement and righteous ire always bubbling under the surface. It may even be her best show, although that needs to be taken in context. Nobody can accuse her of coasting, that’s for sure.


Back to the picture at the top, which I repeat for reference and which, for all the world, looks like a triumphant stand-up gig, or perhaps a rally, but is actually me introducing an exclusive, public screening of the new Doctor Who episode, Deep Breath, at the mighty Filmhouse cinema on Lothian Road, which has been my de facto base for three years. We screened Asylum Of The Daleks two years ago, with a fabulous Q&A with Steven Moffat afterwards. This, blurrily, was it: ACSMEdTVFest12

No Q&A this time, but the preview itself was enough to pack the 280-seater auditorium of Cinema 1 with enthusiasts of all ages. I did a warm-up and by a show of hands (my fallback warm-up technique) established that we had kids in who were too young to remember when David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, and at least a couple of gentlemen who remembered seeing the first ever episode! It was pretty easy to get them excited before the screening, as they arrived pre-excited.

It was fun to be part of, and the episode itself is pretty damn good, with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor a real shot in the franchise’s arm – his very Scottishness seems to have reinvigorated Moffat’s writing: the 80-miute episode is overlong but full of great jokes, including a couple “about” the Referendum. On Friday morning, in the noisy lobby of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, hub of the TV Festival, I filmed a special Telly Addict review of the episode for the Guardian with my usual producer Tom, busked rather than read from autocue, as we didn’t have one, and it will go live right after the episode airs on BBC1 this evening.


Thursday also had me manhandling the roving mic for an industry session back in the EICC and another exclusive screening: the pilot of a new, grown-up romantic comedy called Catastrophe, written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, produced by Avalon (who also manage me) for C4, and due next year. I “met” them both via Twitter on the train up to Edinburgh and we got on famously. This can happen. It was a buzz to see the creators of a show experience their work with a large audience of their peers, and to soak up the constant laughter. It was an easy Q&A, as it was always going to be, but you wouldn’t believe how panicky PRs and managers get beforehand, as if perhaps I was going to bypass how Sharon and Rob wrote the show in the 15 minutes available and ask them a series of improper, probing personal questions to make them squirm and stutter.

Having been out so late on Wednesday night with my two go-to Edinburgh pals Tony and Helen that two bars shut in our faces, forcing us to go to a much nastier one for a final round, I took it easy on Thursday and retired to my dark room early with a chalice of Stella from the hotel bar to sip with two free sticks of shortbread and watch the world burning on the news with the sound down. (Full disclosure: my manager bought me a posh burger and a beer in a posher hotel than my own, and I did a short spin of the National Museum of Scotland where ITV held their annual TV Fest drinks to discover that I only knew one person in the cavernous space, Badults producer Izzy, whom I was most grateful to talk to.)

EdTV14ACDynamoWe’ll come to the impish, slumped fellow to my right in a moment. Friday was the biggest mountain to climb, with the biggest names to facilitate. It was halfway through the afternoon when I remembered how easy it is to miss entire mealtimes when you’re working the Festival. I’d had my hearty breakfast of course, while weeping lonely tears into the Islamic State headlines in my i (simply doesn’t work, does it? What the hell were they thinking?), but the Guardian filming ran into a session I was keen to attend asking how the US “showrunner” model can be introduced into UK drama production (conclusion: it can’t), and that ran into my first session as host. I did the least imaginative thing possible in the world and ate a warmed-up panini in Caffe Nero for the loyalty stamp in about five minutes flat. Here is a photo of that session, taken by @Missread, my favourite photo of Edinburgh 2014:


A year ago – inspired by seeing the popularity of a session with Vince Gilligan at the TV Festival – I wrote a piece for the Guardian about showrunners. In researching it, I discovered Des Doyle, an Irish filmmaker who was Kickstarting a feature-length documentary about the US TV industry called Showrunners. I plugged it and quoted it in the piece, as you could tell by the trailer than it was going to be an authoritative treat for TV geeks and Yankophiles like me. Well, the extra funding came in, and he finished it, and it’s being released here and in the States in October. It was a pleasure to be able to screen it for the public as well as delegates, as it’s a cracking piece of work, and we’d secured the great Ron D. Moore for a Q&A (he’s the genius behind Battlestar Galactica if you don’t know the name – a wise, softly-spoken sage who happens to be in Scotland to shoot his latest opus Outlander).

In the picture above you can see both Des and me looking adoringly at Ron. This is what a TV festival should be like. It’s all very well to be “industry” and all dry and po-faced about telly, but at heart we should all be fans of the medium and of those who make it, even if, technically, they are our peers. (Our Q&A was foreshortened by The Next Thing, as these events tend to be on this media merry-go-round, but it was great to be in his aura and chat offstage to him about “that” Portlandia sketch.)


Thanks to @envypost for the borrow of the above moody photo, by the way.

Dynamo, boyish 31-year-old underground-overground star of Magician Impossible (whose forthcoming fourth series has been announced as his last for the channel Watch), is a different kettle of fish to anyone I’ve ever facilitated. Although the industry panel we did was conventional (see: above), with his producer/confidsnt Dan, Lucy from Phil McIntyre who manage him, and Richard from the channel, fanned around the coffee table onstage with me in the middle, and with clips playing on the big screen above, the subject – a television show – was not. How do you get under the bonnet of a show whose very beating heart is illusion (what Dynamo prefers to call “events” rather than “tricks”) and to which the question, “How did you do that?” is not only inapplicable, it’s downright rude.

For my intro, I borrowed the quote from Walter Bagehot, 19th century essayist, who warned, “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” And I hope we didn’t, and yet I hope we did a bit. If you’ve not seen Dynamo’s work – indebted to both the street style and spectacle of David Blaine, but without the wankiness – look him up on YouTube or Catch Up. It’s quite unique, as is the way he just walks off after doing something amazing, while Dan’s camera stays on the amazed. Dynamo might have turned out to be a tricky customer in real life, but he was sweet, funny and self-aware, and more than able to deal with a large auditorium. (He’s taking a break from TV to do a live tour, by the way.) When he did a bit of magic, and melted the hearts of even the stoniest TV miseryguts in the audience I think, I was right there next to him. I saw him turn some Lottery tickets into £20 notes by just shaking them. If they were “special” ones, I don’t know how they worked. He also turned his hand all the way round on his wrist, and swapped a playing card he held in his mouth with the playing card held in the mouth of a female volunteer. I know it’s magic, but Iogic disappears when you see someone as cool and casual as Dynamo do it.

The industry session was followed by a public screening, back at the Filmhouse. Sold out, of course, with a crowd that needed even less warming up from me than Doctor Who‘s. We watched Ep1 of his new, typically globe-trotting, celeb-packed series (showing on Watch in September), and Dynamo slipped into the seat next to me in the dark, mid-screening, to soak up the audience reaction. A small child in the row in front turned round and saw him and it was like he’d seen Jesus. After the Q&A, during which he did more magic, he was literally mobbed, enveloped, subsumed by disciples. He’s a star of the Instagram Age and he understands the power of that, but it was still incredible to see how patiently and diligently he gave them all the time they individually craved. Here’s a selfie he had taken with a volunteer, @DimpleMagician:


His popularity, that kid-from-Bradford approachability and a superstar’s diligence combined to become a health and safety issue. I slipped out into the bar to have a chat to my Dunfermline pal Paul (whose daughter – who was such a fan she’d done a school project on Dynamo – queued patiently with her mum to get the now standard autograph/selfie) and realised that, without any warning, my working holiday was over. And it had stared raining.


It was with a little sadness that I ate my last breakfast this morning, and packed my bags. I got absolutely soaked through on the walk home last night in the statutory proper Edinburgh downpour, but along the way (I was too mean, and too wet already, to hail a cab), I saw women without jackets or coats, let alone umbrellas or kagoules, determined to have a Friday night out regardless. You have to love the north. The Scots are already independent, spiritually and behaviourally, and Alex Salmond’s million signatures were reached yesterday, but I still fear the don’t-knows will win the day and Scotland will remain adjoined more than just geographically to the bit of the country that votes in Tory governments. (Capaldi’s Doctor blames the English for his woes in Deep Breath.) I will still love them as anyone might love a different tribe who almost speak the same language.

My last memory of Edinburgh 2014 will be sitting in wet jeans in the Hilton bar with a burger and a chalice of Stella, reading Charlotte Higgins’ brilliant, eloquent but depressing final analysis of the BBC in the Guardian, the newspaper that sponsors the Festival that pays my train fare and gives me the golden opportunity to see auld acquaintances annually, and asks me to busk a review of Doctor Who in a lobby. See you in 2015, yes?

Or should that be: see you in 2015, YES.




*Oh, Matthew Hall changed his name to Harry Hill. Whatever happened to him?


An arresting development

TA105It’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.

Ready, steady, cook


Let’s write about Breaking Bad. When I gathered up the best telly of 2012 for my roundup, a couple of people asked why I had omitted Breaking Bad? Good question. Well, this is why: I didn’t really watch Breaking Bad in 2012. Although we do have history.

I’d already devoured Seasons One and Two on DVD, having missed the first, when it premiered here on FX, because – admire my honesty here – the trailers didn’t grab me. Those astonishing images of Walter White in his underpants, in the New Mexico dessert, wielding a gun, and the pitch about him being a chemistry teacher? I didn’t think this was my kind of programme. Drugs? Pants? An actor I did not know. (Never watched Malcolm in the Middle.) It seemed too … wacky for me. So I gave it a miss.

I was encouraged to rectify this fatal error by other people, probably on this very blog. So, if I recall correctly, when FX re-ran Season One (hey, they’d paid for it), I caught up at Episode 2 and was hooked pretty much instantly. I bought the box set, so I could watch from the beginning, and I did, right the way through. This was a show so good, you could watch it again immediately. Then Channel Five did the right thing, and picked it up for Season Two, but self-defeatingly hid it late at night on imprint FiveUSA and ran it over consecutive nights. I taped and watched it all, feeling all of a sudden like I was in on a secret. (No spoilers, but Two is the one with the pink teddy bear, an indicator of the show’s swaggering, overarching confidence.)

Season Two is everything Season One was, and more. (I’m assuming you’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and go and see it. Seasons 1-4 are now boxed.) And after that, UK television stopped showing Breaking Bad, a case of criminal negligence that has yet to be rectified. As it hits its fifth and final season in the US, it is a long-running, award-winning, lauded drama series of which only 20 episodes have ever been broadcast in this country. A cable insider me told that it was just too expensive for a niche channel to buy, considering the tiny audiences it drew here on FX and Five. (Even the hype that now trails it has had no appreciable effect on the numbers for Seasons 1-2 re-runs.) There is a suggestion that AMC have priced it out of the market.

At the beginning of 2012, I found myself in a sort of sado-masochistic relationship with what might well have been my favourite programme, had I been able to legally view it. It had, by then, gone overground in terms of column inches, overtaking The Wire and Mad Men in chatterati approval ratings, and yet, not even shown on an obscure cable network in the UK. In the States, where it has a home, the aforementioned AMC, it had reached Season Four. I hadn’t even seen Three. In May last year, it finally became available on Region 1 DVD and I leaped at it. But, weirdly, for me, I found it difficult to get back into, knowing that we would always be one season behind.


Well, in the gaping maw between Christmas and New Year, we rescued Season Three from cupboardly exile, and started again; we saw 2013 in with it, pretty much. With unusually large periods of free viewing time, we were able to watch it as nature intended: back-to-back, binge-style. (Each episode is around 47 minutes long; a commercial “hour”, and they cram a lot in.) We did Three in a couple of days’ flat, ordered Four, and then watched that in two sittings. Gripped. Transfixed. Hooked. In constant awe at how the writers and directors keep up the pace and the intrigue. Although many directors pass through, BB has a distinct house style. Shot on 35mm, and characterised by the blinding oranges and yellows of a boiling New Mexico skyline, you know you’re watching Breaking Bad if a POV camera angle puts you at the bottom of industrial vat when chemicals are decanted into it.

Photo Credit:  Ben Leuner/AMC

Often, an episode will begin with an extreme close-up, almost abstract, from which clues may be gleaned, but only 47 minutes later will you fully understand the significance of this elliptical, impressionistic flash-forward. (In many ways, the whole of Season Two plays this trick. There’s also a clue in the titles of four episodes of Two that, taken together, hint at the story arc’s conclusion.)

I would seem odd to go too much into the plot, but it all kicks off with mild-mannered Albuquerque chemistry teacher and family man Mr White (Bryan Cranston) learning that he has terminal lung cancer and opting to cook a batch of pure crystal meth in order to take care of his family – wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), teenage son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), and as-yet unborn baby Holly – financially. He hooks up with ex-student Jesse (Aaron Paul), a known amateur meth cook and dealer – as well as a user – and the mismatched pair attempt to pull off the scheme without alerting Walt’s family, or the authorities, emblemised by his gung-ho DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a stand-up guy who becomes their unwitting nemesis, as well as being close family. Here’s my thinking:

If creator Vince Gilligan, alumnus of The X-Files, had successfully pitched his genius idea as a film, this story would have played out, to some kind of conclusion from which everybody learned lessons, in around two hours. That’s just over two episodes. I’m sure it could have been done, but how much better, culturally speaking, that he pitched it as a serial drama, and was able to make seven episodes. (It would have been nine if not for the writers’ strike.) It did not conclude. We were left wanting more of Walt and Jesse and Skyler and Hank. So, Gilligan and his writing team upped the ante. They turned Season Two, with its full 13 episodes, into an epic, in which, well … some very interesting things happen, and Jesse, in particular, goes on an emotional journey. (There’s no better word for it.)

Since then, so much has happened, and yet, Gilligan has kept the whole story local. We’ve been across the border to Mexico, and Hank’s been to El Paso, but for 46 episodes, we’ve never strayed too far from the White household, Jesse’s aunt’s home, the school, the hospital, a fried chicken joint of massive significance and other local landmarks. Just as a soap invites us into a fictional ecosystem, so does Breaking Bad. Minor characters – Jesse’s meth-head pals, Bogdan the owner of the car wash, Skyler’s boss Ted – hove in and out of the foreground. Seedy but well-connected local lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), gun-for-hire and fixer Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), and kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) have all graduated from guest-starring roles to main cast. As such, BB moves in natural, organic, concentric waves. Because of the deadly nature of the game, we never know who’s going to be killed next. It’s certainly always feasible that it might be Walt or Jesse. You never know.


I love the writing, in that I love the planning, and the storytelling. But I also love the dialogue. Whether or not it’s true to the way people in Albuquerque speak, I don’t know, but the white kids speak like black kids, just like anywhere else, even though the most significant ethnic group is surely Latino. You get a lot of Spanish subtitles, especially when you go deep into the Mexican drug cartel. But even these family-oriented gangsters feel fresh after so many of the Italian-American variety. I read an article that gave BB a kicking for being racist. What? Because its white characters are essentially good, and its Mexican/Latino characters are bad? Simply not true. Gus, a Chilean, is wise and fair and, within the boundaries of the criminal class, principled. Jesse and his white pals are losers, and idiots, by and large. I won’t go on.

Breaking Bad is not a show to knock down. Its cast is gloriously multi-ethnic, and it’s clear that casting choices are made on merit, not on star power. Aside from Cranston, and Gunn (who was in Deadwood), and to a degree Odenkirk (who’s well known in the US for stints on SNL and other comedy formats – he’s also a writer), it does not deal in stars, even for cameos. When Steven Bauer crops up in Season Four as a patriarchal drug lord, it’ll take you a few goes before you identify him as Pacino’s pal in Scarface. I read that Jesse was supposed to be killed at the end of Season One, but as soon as Gilligan saw the chemistry – ha! – between he and Cranston, they decided to keep him in. In this sense, it does operate like a soap.

Something I’ve noticed while watching Three and Four is the regularity with which characters are given monologues, stories to tell, at length. A writer’s dream. Whether it’s Jesse at an AA meeting, describing a box he made in woodwork, or Mike warning Walt about “half measures” with a tale from his days as a beat cop dealing with a domestic disturbance, or even the unnamed Group Leader revealing around a campfire how he killed someone, the writers love to suit up and cook pure anecdote. (This is terrific for the actors, too – indeed, Jonathan Banks really brought his character alive in that scene in Season Three.) It must be such a great show to act in. And all those award nominations! Cranston and Paul seem to be the most eagerly recognised by their peers, but we must remove hats too in honour of Banks, Gunn, Norris, Mitte, Odenkirk (way to give depth to an initially clownish figure), Esposito, and Betsy Brandt (Hank’s kleptomaniac wife, who gets her best season in Four). I fear they may all struggle to get better roles in the future.

I’ve not even bothered to argue whether or not it’s a comedy or a drama: it’s a drama. There are moments of comedy – black comedy, at least – even farce, but these never detract from the gravity of the situation. And people die. They die horribly.

There’s a scene in Season Four – no details – where a character breaks into an office by throwing a brick through the glass door, but the bottom panel of the glass door, via which he enters. There is pure physical comedy in the way he effects this, but the situation is life-or-death, so there’s no time to laugh. You just appreciate it, and file it away. Because you’ll be watching it again. (That’s why I do not resent paying for Breaking Bad.)


So, here’s where we’re at. Unless you live in America, or have Netflix, or don’t care about piracy, you’re playing a waiting game. The first batch of Season Five have aired on AMC, with the second batch to air this summer? That means we won’t get the DVDs until the end of 2013. Thanks, UK broadcasters, for being stingy. Thanks, AMC, for hiking up the price. Thanks, UK viewers for failing to watch it when it did air, thus enabling UK broadcasters to wave their calculators rather than make a qualitative decision. Mind you, some things are so good, they’re worth the wait.

A jazz thing

The Sopranos ended in 2007, The Wire in 2008. So, what did HBO do next? Well, it gave the creators of those two epic, HBO-defining shows free range to do whatever the hell they wanted. David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, went off with writer-producer Eric Overmeyer to New Orleans and made Treme, which premiered way back in April 2010 on HBO, and has finally reached our shores via Sky Atlantic. David Chase, who created The Sopranos, is currently developing a miniseries for HBO about the birth of cinema called The Ribbon Of Dreams; meanwhile, the core writers and producers of The Sopranos have spread out to form a quality drama platoon, Matthew Weiner defecting to Showtime to produce the magnificent Mad Men, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess creating the contemporary NYPD family procedural Blue Bloods for CBS, and Terence Winter sticking around to create Boardwalk Empire.

So, three of the four major post-Sopranos shows are period pieces. Interesting. The Wire‘s David Simon, meanwhile, a man of the streets, is too interested in the drama around him to go backwards, which is why Treme, though set three months after Katrina in 2005, is all about now. Treme and Boardwalk are defining shows for Sky Atlantic, now airing on Friday and Saturday night, respectively. We’re a number of episodes in, so worth assessing where we’re at.

Treme is, in many ways, nothing like The Wire. But it gets under the skin of New Orleans just like Simon’s previous show did with Baltimore. Treme, or Tremé, is a district not totally decimated by the hurricane, but predominantly black, and serves as a capsule for the themes that run through the city like wire. The main theme, though, is music. I’ve never visited New Orleans but I know loads of people who have – or certainly did, before Katrina – and they all say the same thing: wherever you go, there is music. Although Simon is a writer fixated on people, and against institutions (we saw them all ticked off in The Wire), he and Overmeyer have allowed music to be the heart and soul of the piece. It opens with music, it ends with music, and what’s been most thrilling about the first two episodes, is that it stops to let us listen to music. Real musicians from the district play themselves – and play, themselves – and if a sense of reality is something you require from your fiction, Treme delivers.

Fictional threads arise from the constant soundtrack (which is to say, an actual soundtrack that emanates from the story, rather than a soundtrack that is layered on afterwards), but these seem to operate at the same pace as the jazz and blues. The fine cast plays as a band, but individual actors get solos: Clarke Peters – sage-like cool customer Lester Freamon in The Wire – as a father and Mardi Gras Indian rebuilding his life in the water-damaged city; Wendell Pierce – Bunk in The Wire, although a New Orleans-based musician before that, who appeared “as himself”, a wise talking head, in Spike Lee’s epochal When The Levees Broke – as the definitive no-good wandering minstrel; Khandi Alexander – junkie Fran in Simon’s The Corner – as a bar owner in search of her brother; Steve Zahn as a white Trustafarian DJ whose love of indigenous culture seems entirely sincere (he’s seen encouraging live voodoo chicken sacrifice on the air!); John Goodman and Melissa Leo as the middle class white liberals, a teacher and a civil rights lawyer … all human life is here, going about its business, not always providing high-wire, or high-Wire, thrills, but that’s not in the nature of the beast. Profound truths about family and roots and social engineering are still told.

Some have been critical of Treme‘s pacing and lack of incident. But not all drama can be packed with events. I thought drama arose from the decisions of characters when faced with events, not from the events themselves. If so, Treme is pure drama. The event happened three months ago; these people are acting accordingly. The music interludes even give you time to think. Two episodes in, and I’m in.

Boardwalk is much more traditional and less jazzy, even though it is set in the jazz age. That Martin Scorsese is an executive producer, and directed the pilot, is apt, as each episode feels like a little movie. Not that little, actually. Again, not all critical reaction has been positive. Many find it beautifully assembled, but derivative, and calculated. It is, but who can resist returning to it, to find out what happens next?

Apparently Steve Buscemi – not a leading man by birth, but hey, guess what, one with Sopranos form (they look after their own in this universe) – is not that much like the Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Johnson his Nucky Thompson is based on, but nor, you have to assume, is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Henry VIII an exact copy of the real king in The Tudors. It’s not important. As long as the stories are good. And the unfolding  twin-engine plotline of Prohibition-led, politically-exploited gangsterism and the seeds of romance in among the stony ground of sexual cruelty and opportunism (itself shaded by the suffragette and temperance movements) is enough to be going along with. Buscemi’s let’s-say unconventional allure to all women is partly explained away by power, but it’s more of a stretch to understand why Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret would have any time for him, despite an early kindness afforded her. That’s a bigger leap of faith for the viewer than the obviously computer-generated seafront. (Actually, echoing the food-poisoning “dream” episodes of The Sopranos, it does give the show an aesthetically pleasing unreality, a bit like the compound in Big Love.)

We’re six episodes into Boardwalk, so I have a more confident handle on it than I do as yet with Treme – my appreciation of which is at gut level – but I can feel the tensions rising. It’s totally HBO, in that its violence is unflinching (the vandalism of Jimmy’s girl with ambitions to become a starlet a particularly nasty moment), and its sex is raw and full-frontal, albeit usually between an ugly, immobile grunting man and a beautiful, shapely, composed woman – do the men who make these films feel more comfortable with the soft-porn exploitation of actresses’ bodies if the men are always presented in less than pretty form? That said, the interrelationships and intrigues and historical and social context would sit easily after 9pm on a terrestrial channel. I wonder if HBO programmes use the word “cunt” and flash their reproductive organs because they can?

This has not been an advertisement for Sky Atlantic. DVD box sets and illegal downloading are or will be available. (Treme is out in the UK in April; Boardwalk not yet listed.)

Serving suggestion

So, we’ve had the first nine episodes of Caprica on Sky1 – the remaining nine come later this year – and contrary to the image above which was used to sell the series and the DVD, at no point did Zoe take her top off and eat an apple. It’s almost as if that image was created to lure people in. (She’s a schoolgirl, by the way, so I hope Christopher Tookey’s averting his eyes.)

Zoe (Alessandra Torresani, actually 22) is, however, the pivot around which the action revolves: it’s 58 years before the Cylon attack on the Twelve Colonies that precipitates the Battlestar Galactica saga, and after a bit of decadent, last-days-of-Rome scene-setting in the permanent-disco virtual world where teenagers hang out, we lose Zoe in a suicide bomb attack on a monorail. From here on, she exists only in scrubbed-up avatar form, until uploaded into a prototype, red-eyed robot or “cybernetic lifeform node” (ie. Cylon – tingle!), where she gradually achieves a Frankingstein-type life. Meanwhile, her dad, seemingly genial ginger prof Daniel Graystone (the show’s only big name, or biggish, Eric Stoltz), starts to unravel through grief, corporate guilt and technical frustration, and so does his wife.

We also meet the Old Man, when he’s a Young Boy, William Adams/Adama the Tauran hoodlum-in-waiting being schooled by his little-bit-wooh-little-bit-weergh hoodlum uncle Sam – Uncle Sam? – our most explicit link to BSG (we know he’s actually going to turn out to be a Battlestar commander of substance and honour, who even tries a moustache out for a bit). The idea of Caprica, courtesty its creators Ronald D Moore and Jane Espenson, is that you don’t need a working knowledge of BSG to get into it, and that’s probably true – it’s closer to a soap opera than a space opera – but how much more thrilling it is when you know what happens in 58 years’ time. I love Polly Walker as Sister Clarice, too, matronly high priestess of  the Soldiers Of One.

There’s lots to get your teeth into in terms of racial identity and prejudice, as well as the trademark pantheism versus monotheism holy war, and the foretold Skynet-style showdown between man and machine. So what if there’s more emphasis on teenagers? Caprica is a Colony on the verge of extinction and it doesn’t yet know it – we know the kids can’t prevent the apocalypse, but they still embody hope and change. Having now seen The Plan, I could foresee further prequels sets on the other Colonies (“the oceans of Aquaria are burning etc.).

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Caprica‘s first nine episodes – they certainly know how to play a cliffhanger (“Zoe?” – that was one of my favourites) – and I look forward to the Final Nine. Perhaps Zoe will take her top off and eat an apple at some point. Or not.

Battle of the planets

Sci-fi update: it begins next week on the Sci-Fi channel in the UK, butI’ve seen a preview of the pilot of V – that is, the all-CGI, post-9/11 remake of the probably rose-tintedly revered 80s miniseries and series about a quasi-fascist alien invasion of Earth. This time around, with original creator Kenneth Johnson’s name all over the credits, they’ve added an FBI element, and toned down the Nazi allusions which probably felt fresh in 1983, although it looks like the Hitler Youth angle is going to be played out. I was quite taken aback in the pilot when the aliens promised universal healthcare for the human race: it’s post-Obama! Anyway, the formidable Elizabeth Mitchell off of Lost is the star, playing a Fed who finds her way into the resistance. The rest is very familiar – the big spaceships hovering over Earth’s major cities but mostly New York (look! it’s Big Ben! briefly!), the attractively humanoid Visitors etc. – but there’s added irony this time, as two geeks on some news footage make the comparison to Independence Day that we’re already thinking, with a dropped hint that they didn’t think of it. Other than that, it’s played reasonably straight, and quite gory, so hopes are high for the reveal with the guinea pig. Clearly, if you’re not old enough to remember the 80s, you can just start with a clean slate, but I like the way they’re rewarding older viewers with references back. I’m in.

Meanwhile, back at the motherlode of sci-fi War On Terror allegory and reminder just how smart it all was, one-off 2009 prequel Battlestar Galactica: The Plan has finally aired in the UK, on Sky1, and it was worth waiting for, if only for scraping some more crumbs from the table for aficionados of The Greatest Sci-Fi Series Ever Made. Using existing footage from the saga, and artfully dropping in and interweaving brand new stuff with the likes of Grace Park, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Kate Vernon, Edward James Olmos and others reviving their roles, under the steady aegis of Jane Espenson, it basically tells the tale of the destruction of the Twelve Colonies from the Cylons’ perspective – particularly poignant with Caprica ongoing – and fills in any narrative gaps that probably weren’t really bothering BSG fans that much, but which BSG fans will gladly gobble up anyway. I know we did. Like Olmos, who directed the fresh footage, said at the time, it’ll make us all want to go back and watch the whole shooting match again. Which it does. Great to see what amount to deleted scenes, with lots of Cavill, and Anders, and Five, and Six, and even the Chief, stringing it all together. As has been noted elsewhere, this is a REALLY BAD PLACE TO START, as it requires detailed, anal knowledge of the BSG saga to appreciate. They spoil us, Mr Ambassador, with their in-jokey, commitment-rewarding minutiae, especially the way Cavil effectively “loses” Leoben and Sharon to human empathy, the eavesdropped squeals of Starbuck and Anders having it off, and the insertion of a corner-cut note to the Old Man, hinted as Baltar’s, about the 12 Clyon models. Oh, it’s so indulgent. But who cares? It’s like finding outtakes from one of your favourite albums. And so say we all.

Bromine Barium


On the first day of 2010, I watched the final episode of the second season of Breaking Bad, which I now declare to be the finest new TV series of 2009. (It began on AMC in the States and here on FX in 2008, but I picked up on it in 2009.) It was so good and so satisfying, this final episode, I was moved to immediately begin to watch season one again from the start. It is the mark of a truly great TV show that you can watch it again, without a cooling-off period. Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, is one such show.

I wasn’t sufficiently drawn in by the trailers to catch it when it premiered on FX at the end of last year; maybe the timing was wrong, or maybe it just seemed too fond of itself in those trailers. When it was snapped up and re-aired by FiveUSA, I actually missed the opening episode, by mistake, and was forced to come in at episode two, by which time Walt White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) had already embarked upon their get-rich-quick scheme in the New Mexico desert. In fact, Ep2 of S1 begins with its own flashback, further tantalising us about what actually occured in Ep1. To be honest, the trailers, and a couple of rave reviews, filled in the basic narrative gap: that chemistry teacher Walt has been diagnosed with lung cancer and opts to pay for the treatment and look after his family by cooking up crystal meth with an ex-pupil dealer.

It’s a dark piece of work, cleverly set in Albuquerque where they have bright sunshine 300 days a year, thus always hammering home its bleak message under blue skies. It’s not the first time the suburbs have revealed dark secrets, but this is no American Beauty. The White family are not well off. They can’t afford health insurance. Their boiler doesn’t work. Their pool is not an indicator of wealth or comfort. Indeed, the pool itself will come to contain its own grim portents as S2 unfolds, and an emptied pool at another location will bring death. The trailers presented a sort of self-consciously wacky comedy, but Breaking Bad is anything but – there is humour in the writing, certainly, but it comes from the juxtaposition of dialogue, the clash between a 50-year-old man and an ill-educated, jive-talking twentysomething hip hop kid: in Ep1 Jesse tells Walt in the desert that he can see “a cow house”; when Walt tries to dictate to him what to do, he comes out with, “Heil Hitler, bitch!”; and when Walt educates him in how to fashion a makeshift car battery and, like his teacher again, tries to get him to name the element copper, Jesse triumphantly calls out, “Wire!” If Aaron Paul’s characterisation of Jesse seems one-note and comedic from my summary, you ain’t seen nothing yet, beeyach.

Walt is a clever, learned, philosophical man who missed his chance to make money and cannot connect with his students, despite being a very good, and very illuminating, teacher. He loves his wife, and his wife loves him, and there’s a baby on the way, but the sense of having missed the boat is etched into Walt’s brow. He does not “deserve” inoperable lung cancer on his 50th birthday (“Why me?”), and yet, absurdly, it is the making of him. It changes his life. Certain death releases the inner Walt, which is generally bad news for everyone else.

The only real lightness comes from Walt’s son, Walt Jr, who has mild cerebral palsy and yet provides the story with its heart: brilliantly played by RJ Mitte, who also has palsy, he is anything but defined by his condition, and usually cuts through the breakfast table tension between his parents with the honest, unsugared view of a teenage boy who’s finding his own personality (he starts demanding to be called “Flynn”, without much explanation, because his friends do, thus hacking at the family ties of his unimaginative and narcissistic given name). Here is a character who’s living with a debilitating physical condition, hopping around on crutches, unable to use the pedals of a car effectively, but he deals with it stoically and bravely, and does not demand praise or special privileges for doing so. I’ve no idea why Gilligan gave the son palsy, but it was a genius move. (If a kid appeared on crutches in a British drama, you’d immediately think, “box-ticking.” But then, as Breaking Bad confirms, we may as well stop making TV drama in this country and just let the Americans do it.)

Skyler (Anna Gunn, previously seen in The Practice and Deadwood) is the long-suffering wife, but no need to reach for the cliche-scanner – she’s long-suffering in the sense that she effectively has two male children to cope with, and seems to have subjugated her instinct to write to the needs of being a homemaker (we occasionally hear of her short stories, but they remain mostly buried). Like Walt, she has sacrificed something at the altar of family, and look what her reward is: a lying husband. Because Sky is visibly pregnant from the start of Ep1, the bulky belly and the bad back define her to us – she is carrying the future around inside her. Meanwhile, inside her husband, the breadmaker, is an inoperable tumour, something far less hopeful. I won’t ruin it for anyone, but in S2, Skyler sheds her innocence and loses the trust that kept her going – although even as far back as Ep2 in S1, she played detective and confronted Jesse in his own front yard, so she was never a victim.

The character who surprised me the most over the course of the two seasons was Hank (Dean Norris), Walt’s brother-in-law and seeming polar oppostite, the hardass, ball-busting, pistol-packing, bulletproof DEA supervisor, buoyed by the innate bigotry and smart mouth that get him through his day job, but much more complex once you get to know him. Again, I won’t go into any story detail, but even Hank is not a God; he, too, can be reduced to a mere mortal by events. The skill of Breaking Bad is to drip-feed details about the supporting characters gradually over the course of the two series, with even Marie (Betsy Brandt), Sky’s sister and Hank’s wife, fleshed out beyond early tics. (What’s fascinating to me is how different the second viewing is – I watched Ep2 and Ep3 from S1 again last night, and Marie is a great example of a character who feels more real now; the scene in the shoe shop seemed almost random on first viewing; now it is loaded with portent. Can you imagine the guts it takes to make a drama so rich and so subtle that stuff is almost designed to bypass the first-time viewer? TV drama writing is all about immediate impact, usually. Not here.)

A word about the direction. You watch a great film, you can credit the writer and the director. With an ongoing TV series, you must credit a team of writers, and a string of different directors. And yet, Breaking Bad, like all the very best TV dramas, has an overarching visual feel. I guess the real skill of the TV director is to bring personal touch and individual vision without unbalancing the whole. In many ways, the landscape and the New Mexico climate give Breaking Bad its “look.” Of the individual directors across the two seasons, I think I have counted 16 – including, incidentally, Bryan Cranston, John Dahl, Charles Haid and Peter Medak, who once worked here and directed The Krays and Let Him Have It – but their skill is to create something cumulative. There are some amazing early stylistic touches, such as the way the first episode begins with a pair of trousers noiselessly floating to the ground (that was Gilligan), or the way Ep3 (Gilligan again) opens looking up through the acid-dismembered goo of a corpse in a bathtub as Walt and Jesse mop it up. And the recurring flashforward in S2 with the pink teddy bear in the pool is not just a stylistic flourish, but a narrative one, too – not that I’ll be giving any clues about that. (Hey, apparently there are clues in the episode titles of S2, but unless you want to ruin the ending, don’t look for them. I was happier not knowing.)

I never watched Malcolm In The Middle, so I’m only aware theoretically that Bryan Cranston is making a bonfire of his most famous screen characterisation here. I envy those who know and love him as Hal, the Dad in that popular show; it must make Walt and Breaking Bad seem all the more revolutionary. All I know is, Cranston deserved his Emmy for this – it’s a tightly-wound, small-brushstrokes performance that defies the precepts of so much returning-series TV in the sense that Walt changes throughout. The lead character’s job is usually to provide a constant, a pivot around which the action revolves. Sure, a character can get married, have a baby, move house, change job, but his or her personality must remain steady. Not here. Which is why Breaking Bad is more like a film.

Season Three airs in the States in March. Let’s hope Five have bought it. Breaking Bad has been a revelation: simple concept, brilliant execution, subtle depths. Life, death, birth, sun, sky: it is, to risk a pun based on Walt’s beloved Periodic Table, elemental. And, as I say, it merits an immediate second viewing, upon which it reveals further genius. If you haven’t seen it yet – and S1 is on DVD – you’re going to have to get over the fact that the main protagonist coughs, violently and painfully, all the time; that death stalks the show constantly; that by the end of Ep3, two bodies will have been clumsily and graphically disposed of; and that even if you think you’re immunised to insanely violent drug dealers thanks to their ubiquity since Quentin Tarantino changed the face of crime movies, there’s an even more insanely violent one, called Tuco, you have yet to meet, and he will scare the living daylights out of you.

I did. And I’m glad. Vince Gilligan is two years younger than me.