The British way of TV

After my unintended absence, I’m back. Thanks to Jarndyce and Katie for holding the fort and the prime seats in front of the TV for me in my absence, but now I shall retake my rightful place in command of the Sharpener remote control.

One of the unforeseen cultural consequences of the Gambling Bill has been the attention paid to Blackpool and its potential to become ‘Britain’s Las Vegas’ (copyright all newspapers). And, just as the real Vegas has been getting dramatical TV attention recently (most notably as the setting for the original CSI series) so too has Blackpool. Luckily for us, British TV doesn’t feel its role in depicting towns and cities is to boost them, but to show them warts and all. And, if last year’s all-singing, all-dancing Blackpool wasn’t strange enough for you, this year brings us BBC Three’s Funland which started with the striking image of someone in a gorilla suit falling from the Blackpool Tower and then rewound three days to begin the mystery of just who that person was.

It follows the same format as Blackpool before it – a death, a stranger in town, a family entwined in the sleazier side of Blackpool business trying to move on up – but manges to avoid looking like a copy, partially because both have their own unique style. Instead of Potter-esque dreams of music and dancing featuring David Morrissey, Funland presents us with a world steeped in grime, where every room seems to be a smoke-filled back one and dirty weekends turn into journeys through hellish underworlds full of desperate people. Given the way it takes the mechanics of ordinary drama and turns it into the grotesque, it’s perhaps not surprising to discover that it’s a collaboration between The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson and Simon Ashdown, previously best known for writing Eastenders. And, at just half an hour long and filled with an excellent cast, it’s worth trying out. Not something everyone will enjoy, though.

Also clocking in with half-hour episodes is the BBC’s latest Dickens adaptation, Bleak House. It’s almost a literary cliche to say that if Dickens was around today, he’d be writing soaps, so it was probably only a matter of time before someone decided to try running an adaptation like a soap, even giving it a regular slot after Eastenders, rather than the hour at 9pm on Sundays as big historical dramas usually get. Scheduling aside, though, this is mostly a BBC adaptation-by-numbers – script by Andrew Davies, big names in almost every role, no matter how small, and sets that reek of historical versimilitude. Bleak House was perhaps the best choice for the soap-like treatment, given its huge cast of characters and number of intertwining plots. And, while some have been disappointed with it, I’m quite impressed. It’s not epoch-making TV, or a defining Dickens for TV, but it holds your attention, entertains and, if nothing else, will no doubt be seen in years to come as one of the steps (the National Theatre’s His Dark Materials being the first) on Anna Maxwell Martin’s path to becoming one of the great British actresses of her generation.

As an aside, it’s customary to praise American actresses who put on British accents as though they’re performing some form of acting miracle, but Gillian Anderson’s is worthy of note. Unlike some examples of the art (I’m looking at you, Zellwegger) her voice sounds perfectly natural, and not accompanied with a Streep-esque emphasis demanding the audience see how good it is.

When the BBC relaunched Top Gear a few years ago, they probably expected copycats when the new format proved to be a ratings success. And while other car shows have come and gone, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to apply the formula to other fields and thus we now have Gordon Ramsay presenting The F Word on Channel 4. And while it’s not exactly bad, there’s the sense of a wasted opportunity hanging over the whole show, as if it can’t decide exactly just what it wants to be with Ramsay spending half the show doing his usual shouting at junior chefs and the other half engaging in ‘conversation’ with Giles Coren and passing minor celebrities that’s trying ever so hard not to look rehearsed while stuck in an actual restaurant that’s had no expense spared in making it look like a TV set rather than a real place. Still, at least the food looks tasty there.

Also, of course, putting it out pre-watershed removes one of Ramsay’s USPs from the show in that he’s not able to fill the air with expletives. And that might be a good thing, as only a couple of hours after The F Word ends, BBC Four proves that swearing can be big, funny and clever in The Thick Of It. As most of the audience of The Sharpener are political junkies, I’ll assume you’re all watching it anyway, but if not you really should give it a try as it’s a much more interesting view of the political process than you’ll get from Newsnight and Question Time which are up against it. It’s The West Wing as performed by Derek and Clive, and perhaps the funniest thing Armando Ianucci has produced since his days working with Chris Morris.

  1. Jarndyce said:

    As you probably guessed, I’m quite a fan of Dickens, and BH especially. Overall, I think, a decent job so far, with one caveat: they’ve given far too much (almost everything, no?) away on the Lady Dedlock / Nemo storyline so early in the run. Can’t understand why. Also, and this isn’t necessarily a spoiler, why all the meaningful cuts to Esther Summerson right after Scully? You’d think they’re connected in some way…? All a bit sledgehammer for me. Otherwise, great stuff.

  2. Neil Hall said:

    Not surprising that Gillian Anderson has a natural English accent – she grew up in North London!