TV eats itself on a regular basis. Not just through the regular diet of talking head clip shows, but through the process of every good idea being repeated ad infinitum across every channel until its been flogged to death and then thrown out for twenty years until someone re-invents the wheel and the whole process begins again.
The latest trend, especially prominent in American TV, but also featuring regularly on ITV in Britain is going right back to the early days of television and broadcasting dramas live. Ostensibly, it’s not just an homage to the early days of TV but a chance for actors and directors to shine and show how they can get out of tough spots without the usual trickery to help them. Realistically, it’s an opportunity for the audience to watch and hope for someone to catastrophcally mess it up. After all, it’ll only take one major cock up to end the current obsession with live drama for another twenty years.
No one’s managed it yet, and so the audiences keep tuning in, hoping they’ll be able to say they watched the moment it all went wrong which meant that, last week, The West Wing became the latest TV series to try the experiment.
The important point about live episodes, of course, is that they have to be, in the words of numerous continuity announcers, a Very Special Episode. One can’t just make amendments to a regular script and do it live, there has to be some big reason for it to be shown live, which meant that we got what may be one of TV’s finest hours of post-modern self-referentiality. In keeping with the current spirit of the show, which is to feature the original characters less and less while throwing new ones at the audience willy-nilly in the hope that some of them will stick, The West Wing‘s live episode was centred entirely around the Presidential debate between the two characters hoping to replace Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett: the Democrats’ Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and the Republicans’ Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). What gave it that extra edge was that, officially at least, the producers of the show have yet to declare who’ll be replacing Martin Sheen as the President, and thus having a chance to be the leading character in an ongoing drama series. Thus we had the spectacle of two actors trying to connect with the audience at home in an effort to be the one selected, portraying two characters hoping to connect with a fictional audience in their fictional home in an effort to be the one selected. So, while the drama was clearly tightly scripted, there was always that dim hope that one of them would go off-message/off-script and make their own appeal direct to the people at home, following the lead of their characters who proved the fictional nature of the West Wing universe by choosing to throw out the rules of the debate.
While it was a interesting piece of television, and both Smits and Alda are good actors, one couldn’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity. Not only was the live episode centred around two relatively new characters, none of the long-term cast were seen on screen, or even mentioned. It’s another reason to lament the departure of Aaron Sorkin from the show he created, for surely with his experience of writing for the theatre, he could have created a much more interesting drama that might have given actors like Martin Sheen, Allison Janney and Richard Schiff one last chance to shine before departing the series.
As well as doing it live, another recent trend in British TV drama has been re-imaginings of old classics. As with so many other things, Andrew Davies began the recent revival with a modern-day telling of Othello for ITV. The BBC responded with The Canterbury Tales in 2003, and now adds Shakespeare Re-Told to the mix, which kicked off last week with Much Ado About Nothing. It does make me wonder if there were any stages during the BBC’s development of the Davies-scripted Bleak House where that was set to be a modern reworking, and if a viewing of the rather poor 1998 film version of Great Expectations put them off that idea.
It’s kicked off an interesting debate in certain quarters, based around the question of which is more important in Shakespeare, the plot or the dialogue? While most argue for the words, it’s worth remembering that there’s a long history of artists from Verdi to Kurosawa and beyond, who have plundered Shakespeare’s stories for their own use. And while it would be presumptuous to place David Nicholls’ script amongst that august company, it made for an entertaining piece of television and, like toher similar versions before it, will probably be praised to the heavens by English teachers for years to come. Indeed, that was the problem with this adaptation in that it kept too closely to the original, rather than pushing off in a new direction, to the extent of keeping the character names from the original, which I suspect may have the result of several babies being named Hero in the near future, as their Billie Piper-loving parents decide it’s a bit less obvious than calling her Rose.
Much Ado About Nothing did acknowledge the original by featuring Sonnet 116 in several scenes, though that did beg the question of just how two characters called Beatrice and Benedick had failed to notice how their lives were imitating art, though that is perhaps due to me being far too literal. But, the on-screen chemistry between Sarah Parish and Damian Lewis was hard to deny, and I’m sure I can’t be the only viewer who would love to see them (and, indeed, the rest of the cast) tackling the original version.
Perhaps to fit in with that other TV trend, they could perform it live, in a return to the TV productions of the 50s or 60s. Of course, hoping for something like that is a dream, with the most likely implentation of it being ITV presenting it as a challenge to reality-show exiles looking to keep their ‘careers’ going. Celebrity Shakespeare Live, anyone?