Archive for bbc

UK with Me: Part 2

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV History, Uncategorized, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2016 by Tom Steward

Where I continue my rundown of the TV I watched during my time in the UK, as a result of visiting at a time of year conducive to indoor sports that require no physical prowess or ability. Since we didn’t have a darts board, the television would have to do. Much of the British television I had written off as dated and defunct had returned and, though many were old wine in old bottles, there were several programs being broadcast made by familiar names that added something new and interesting to a pre-existing legacy. There were also genuinely innovative moments:

 

Car Share – BBC One

 

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Hands up who likes Peter Kay again

 

After emerging in the late nineties as a successor to the observationally rich character comedy pioneered in the North of England by writer-performers such as Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood and Steve Coogan with That Peter Kay Thing, Peter Kay stagnated creatively in the naughties and the teens, content with cosying up to light entertainment until it swallowed his authenticity. The two-hander sitcom Car Share which follows two colleagues carpooling on their commute to and from work was exactly the stripped-down concept that Kay needed to reboot his realism. Punctuated by conversational silences drowned out in the perfectly pastiched audio garbage of satellite radio commercials, the wiretapped feel of the dialogue and understated sincerity of the couple’s interaction reminds us why Kay was once such a treasured comic voice in British culture. Even the more indulgent sequences, such as the fantasy music videos, have an almost Dennis Potter-like quality in the context of the storyline.

 

Toast of London – Channel 4

 

Toast of London

His career is toast

 

Arthur Mathews once co-wrote and created Father Ted, the sitcom of its day and one which – like much British comedy of the time – refuses to date and instead grows in stature the more we find out about the world (or in this case the Catholic Church). Nothing that Mathews has done since has been able to surpass Father Ted, although surreal juxtaposition sketch show Big Train came tantalisingly close. But seeing Toast of London, which Mathews devised with Matt Berry, a comedian, actor and writer who is a darling of cult comedy and possesses a sleazy retro quality that consumes everything he does, you feel as if he might come close. As with Father Ted, the sitcom is set in another sphere of absurd mediocrity; that of the jobbing actor. As heavily stylised as its ecumenical predecessor – which often resembled a live-action version of The Simpsons – it nonetheless discovers inherent truths about the profession that a documentary treatment couldn’t, though you suspect many of the situations encountered are anecdotally motivated.

 

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride – BBC Four

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No really…this is it

 

If the successes of Gogglebox and Car Share have demonstrated anything, it’s that extremely basic formats still hold tremendous appeal for British TV audiences. But All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride has taken this to avant-garde extremes. A camera is rigged to a traditional reindeer sleigh and taken on a two-hour journey across the Artic wilderness of Norway. There’s no music or editing or semblance of a narrative, simply the spectacular footage the camera collects as it moves. Of course, TV audiences adore gazing lingeringly at landscapes given the ratings-winning genre of nature programming, but the development here is about time, and how much of it we’ll give without the reward of storytelling and entertainment. Perhaps the structureless viral video has immunised us to the boredom of simple watching, or maybe this is gentle and familiar enough a subject to bring experimental video art into our homes by the back door.

 

Downton Abbey – ITV

 

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Downton finale criticized for anachronisms

 

I’ll remain as anachronistic as Downton itself by pretending that anyone in America who wants to see the finale hasn’t already used their internet connection to steal it, and not offer any spoilers. Not that there’s a lot to spoil, the finale ramming home how little storylines or character development have to do with the appeal of this piece of virtual tourism versus the other quality television drama of our time. Creator and writer of all episodes Julian Fellowes certainly knows what his audience wants, and is not shy about giving it to them in as tidiest boxes as he can pack. I preferred the series in high melodrama mode and so it was somewhat of a disappointment to me that the electric hair-dryer that everyone kept pointing out was merely historical window-dressing and not foreshadowing some Emmerdale-like fiery disaster to wipe out the cast. Indeed, any hint of tragedy seems to have been smoked red herring.

UK with Me: Part 1

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2016 by Tom Steward

I spent Christmas in England, which meant that for the majority of my trip I was under or adjacent to water. This – coupled with apples not falling far from family trees – left me watching a lot of television. After going cold turkey with British television in my first couple of years living in America – literally in the case of the daily cooking shows I opted out of when I left – returning this time I felt as if I had been missing out, not just because of what British TV makes but also what it shows. Here’s my travel watch list:

 

The Bridge –BBC Four

 

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Sex is Sex

 

It might seem perverse that the first program I watched upon returning to the UK was Scandinavian but that’s testament to the BBC’s policy of screening the best in European television crime drama, which is currently the best in the world. The third season of the police detective show about crimes that cross the Danish and Swedish border remained as flawlessly acted, written and photographed as the first two, even following the departure of star Kim Bodnia in the run-up to filming. As in previous seasons, a repertory of outstanding Scandinavian character actors were there to play supporting roles but were given more screen time and development, particularly Nicolas Bro formerly of The Killing who guarantees at least one laugh-out-loud moment per episode. Sofia Helin’s new co-star Thure Lindhardt (or Saga’s new partner Henrik) is still the perfect counterpoint to TV’s twitchiest detective, but his sardonic cynicism is also much-needed relief from Martin’s increasingly grating emotional naivety. Creator Hans Rosenfeldt has talked about the rule of three in Scandinavian TV drama in relation to The Killing and Borgen but with both Saga and Henrik having story arcs in progress, he can afford to break with tradition.

 

Tim Peake – BBC News

 

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Ground Control to Major Tim

 

I woke on the first full day of my trip to catch TV news coverage of the launch of the rocket that took British astronaut Tim Peake to the International Space Station, the first Briton to do so. Never mind how visually unstimulating and uneventful the launch was as television or how difficult it was to extract a milestone from the seventh British person to enter space, but it says something about how little there is to be proud about in Britain in years that don’t have major international sporting events that Peake’s journey into space was such big news in the national media. A live transmission from the space station with the inevitable satellite delay was some of the most tedious television you’re ever likely to witness.

 

Peep Show – Channel 4

 

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No more kicking off

 

I didn’t even know the final season of Channel 4’s longest-running and possibly finest sitcom was on the air, and was even less aware that the episode I started watching mid-way through was the finale. It says something about my ignorance but even more about how good the writing on the series is. No need for self-aggrandising, Peep Show left us with as unassumingly brilliant an episode as it had ever produced, with a nod to the perpetuation of a gloomy cycle of immature repetition that dooms Mark and Jeremy to a life of wanking and watercolours. Nine seasons – especially in British terms – of a sitcom is impossible without a foolproof concept and filtering the action through Mark and Jeremy’s first-person perspective – some early camera tomfoolery aside – was innovation that lasted. Even so, the key to sustaining the show was gradually escalating the abhorrence of the character’s life choices from jilting spouses to attempting murder, and happily the finale continues to raise the stakes.

 

Gogglebox – Channel 4

 

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Talking Heads

 

A reality show about people watching TV was always the sleeping lion of television pitches, but it needed exactly the right execution to succeed, and that’s exactly what Gogglebox did in 2013 when it blended fly-on-the-wall and sitcom formats to a perfect consistency. Since I last saw the show, however, it has bloomed into Channel 4’s flagship Friday night program and even spawned (quite literally) a spin-off in the shape of Gogglesprogs, which marries Gogglebox to another immaculate format; children obliviously saying funny things on TV. One particular sprog who looked like an Alan Bennett doll appeared to have already figured out how David Cameron rose to power through pre-existing privilege and public apathy and was the mouthpiece of abolitionists young and old throughout Britain when remarking on Queen Elizabeth’s record-breaking reign as British monarch: ‘Doing what? She just walks and waves.’ From the mouths of babes…

 

 

 

 

Baking The Waves

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Touring TV, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s not an unreasonable assumption that Americans prefer to know about Britain’s heritage than the way it is today. So it will come as no surprise to anyone on either side of the Atlantic that a Great British Bake-Off spin-off (which can be contracted to The Great British Bake-Off) called The Great Holiday Baking Show is airing on ABC primetime over the Christmas season. The Great British Bake-Off is a cooking competition celebrating British culinary traditions against a landscape idealizing Britain as the green and pleasant land of yore replete with signifiers of our imperial past, like the bunting-lined parties we used to host for wartime victories and royal events. Though if you’re labouring under the misapprehension that cultural fascination has triumphed over commercial interest, it’s worth remembering that in the UK this year the finale of The Great British Bake-Off was the most-watched program of the year, that past seasons of the show currently occupy peak Sunday airtime on PBS, and that a US version of the format called The American Baking Competition debuted in 2013 but was cancelled within a year following poor ratings. It’s both too lucrative and too particular to attempt anything other than a spin-off.

Bake Britain

Bake Britain

Americanizing the brand has proved difficult. PBS had to re-name the US airings The Great British Baking Show not because of cultural misunderstandings – as surely ‘Bake-Off’ is a term friendlier to the American spirit of competition than ours of miserable make-do – but America’s corporate hegemony. Girth-romanticising pastry company Pilsbury hold the trademark to the name ‘Bake-Off’ since it is the name of their patented annual cooking contest. The American Baking Competition continued the tradition of American reboots of British reality shows exporting celebrity judges, but it backed the wrong horse. Perhaps they were expecting some latent movie star glamour to suddenly burst forth from baker Paul Hollywood when he was brought into geographical proximity with his namesake – or more likely they wanted another British villain – but there was less gel than the sour scouse keeps in his hair when they brought him into the show. Though far sweeter and lacking the negativity that reality TV bottom-feeds off, The Great Holiday Baking Show has made a far better choice in calling upon veteran food writer and TV presenter Mary Berry to handle the judging, especially since any successful translation of the format requires as much exploitation of British icons as possible.

As is usually the case in television, the biggest factor affecting the success of The Great Holiday Baking Show is time. The Great British Bake-Off is shown over ten weeks and, while it is clear from the preponderance of sunlight and the frequently-used excuse of it being a ‘hot day’ that it is filmed in Summer, the baking is not linked to any particular season of the year. As the title states, The Great Holiday Baking Show is very clearly themed around the American Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to reflect the period of the calendar year in which most baking is done and/or consumed in the US. The producers have evidently latched on to the seasonality of baking as justification for a short-run December-long series which also conveniently prevents them from having to commit to a full season in programming terms. Conversely, the configuration of cake-eating with sunny countryside settings in the British original has almost made it seem like an exclusively Summer activity in the UK, not a happy by-product of taking refuge from the cold of Autumn and Winter as it is in the US. Finding what is culturally equivalent about an imported show is often the key.

Baking in the Free World!

Baking in the Free World!

The subject matter and presentation of The Great British Bake-Off is twee and backwards but it gestures to the diversity of post-colonial Britain. Though by no means proportional, there is a range of ethnic, racial, sexual and regional representation in the contestant base. To wit, the 2015 winner was Nadiya Jamir Hussein, a British-Bengali women identifying as a Muslim. I’m glad to see that The Great Holiday Baking Show has followed in these footsteps, though in both cases it’s difficult to tell whether this is selection strategy or merely that it’s an inclusive enough application process for minorities to make it through. What makes the difference is the ability to use the original format and continue to have Mary Berry on board, although why they would make her a judge for an American spin-off only to patronise her like a cigar store Indian in a parallel universe is beyond me.

 

The Apprentice’s Apprentice

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…’

I’m quoting Joni Mitchell not (only) because I’m reading Morrissey’s autobiography and have the urge to paste song lyrics into prose when I’ve run out of things to say but rather as a description of the way I feel about The Apprentice. It’s rare in our culture to prefer the re-make over the original but even rarer that we admit to preferring another country’s version of an idea to ours, regardless of which came first. It’s this paradoxical thinking that draws me to the BBC adaptation of The Apprentice and makes me resent the NBC original. Now that I live in America, the latter is my bread-and-butter and the former feels too distant from my daily existence to be relevant viewing anymore. As I sit writing this on a winter’s day with the sun beating my back, I don’t ask for sympathy. But I do rather feel like the person who bought the last painting before they discovered perspective.

From the arse's mouth!

From the arse’s mouth!

Like most shows sold overseas, the format remains largely unchanged. But there’s something about the translation of American corporate-speak and aspirational diatribe into the laughably misjudged self-esteem of Britain’s business classes that gives The Apprentice on the BBC an ironic quality which bends a celebration of capitalism into a critique of the ideology. Goebbels once said that no-one could watch an Eisenstein film without becoming a communist. Well, I severely doubt anyone could sit through an episode of UK version of The Apprentice and still think capitalism is going to last. It’s not hard to believe we have economies based on nothing because The Apprentice UK tells us the people who front it are never less than vacuous. While the American original has the product placement and commercial saturation of a major US network in its arsenal, the BBC version is broadcast on a British public service station which prohibits advertising. The former is mired in a web of cross-marketing, while the latter seems inhospitable to the idea of a TV programme as a commodity.

Go waste the President's time instead...

Go waste the President’s time instead…

This is not to say that The Apprentice UK is some sort of subversive attempt by the imagined leftist conspiracy at the BBC to undermine British entrepreneurship. It’s more accurate to call it ‘private service television’, a mode of broadcasting addressed to a society dominated by privatised industry and designed to make the best of it (even that is being a touch generous!). But neither does it use its airtime to consolidate a corporate empire through media exposure, like its forbearer. The Donald Trump Apprentice never misses a chance to tell you how powerful and glorious the various business enterprises of the Trump family are, whereas the Alan Sugar counterpart (which sounds like the greatest 80s garage band that never was!) makes his company look like a loosely connected network of 1940s-style spivs and barrow-boys. The tasks assigned by Trump are publicity-centric busywork (especially in the current Celebrity variant) but Sugar’s are about the hard graft of street selling and face-to-faces with customers. You’re the apprentice of a swindler learning how to avoid being swindled.

Sugar doing my job for me!

Sugar doing my job for me!

Perhaps this is because ivory-towerism doesn’t sit so well with the British public, while it taps into the ultimate aspirations of many Americans. The British version is certainly not intended as satire (though the directors do like to puncture with visual gags anyone who takes self-assessment as business elites too literally) but it is playing to a crowd who like sarcasm, wit and darkly awkward comedy. Sugar and his associates are fans of linguistically inventive cruelty, the directors eek every ounce of uncomfortable voyeurism out of the documentary filming (in a style borrowed from pioneering UK sitcom The Office), and the show itself is framed as a sadistic prank played on those who applied to appear. It’s marginally better now the prize is a sizeable investment in a business venture a la Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank (delete monster and monster holding cell as appropriate) but I remember when winners were rewarded by an internship at a digital signage company amid the electro-magnetic subjugation of Tottenham Court Road. Somnambulist losers of Touch the Truck have it better. No-one expects Donald Trump to say anything intelligent, funny or creative (even his racist metaphors lack flair) and the verbal garbage emerging from the Ridley Scott-alien mouths of his children is a generation stupider. Mavericks are praised not parodied and the mere act of aspiring is deemed worth the risk.

Watching TV With Britons Part 1: Eee By Glum!

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2014 by Tom Steward

Goodbye! Like Seinfeld’s Elaine upon encountering a caring Jerry, selfless George and talented Kramer, I’m in the bizarro world. I started this blog as a Briton casting a foreigner’s eye over American television and the Americans who watch it. Now British television is foreign to me and the viewing habits of UK audiences are as curious to my mind as America’s once was. Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I am now a resident of the United States (or have assumed I am the worst pirate in TV history!). While I’m still in the privileged position of returning to my homeland without the jarring feeling of alienation felt by most ex-pats, I cannot say the same about British television. It is not simply a question of being out of touch, but experiencing the TV I knew from the outside in. I see the problems more clearly, but I am less forgiving of them than a native now. Here’s Part 1 of my round-up of the TV I watched while I was back in the UK these past few weeks, which looks specifically at what I saw of and about the North while away:

BBC Northwest Tonight (BBC1)

If I had ever forgotten what a place of horror the North can be, I was scared straight by the top item on the local news about a priest who was arrested for murder. There was also a sub-plot about the various presenters switching roles that went clear over my head, and reminded me that local TV news is more parochial soap opera than neutral information source.

Remember Me (BBC 1)

Python Found In Sheffield!

Python Found In Sheffield!

Seasonal ghost stories are an overlooked tradition in British television, as is the utilisation of former Python Michael Palin as a TV actor. This Sunday-night 3-parter was a welcome return for both, and brought the haunting beauty of the Yorkshire coast to half-light. I’m always complaining about the lack of Britain’s multiculturalism in our flagship drama and South Yorkshire’s substantial Asian population should be represented in any depiction of the area, as it is here. But I couldn’t help feeling there were underlying xenophobic anxieties about immigration in the way the story unfolded (incidentally rather in keeping with the current normalisation of anti-immigration discourses in British politics) which undermined the diversity. It’s one thing to show the social harmony between the elderly white and Asian communities in Sheffield, another to envelope that in imagery concerning the vengeful spirit of an Indian colonial wreaking havoc on British shores.

Inside No 9 (BBC 2)

There's No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

There’s No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

Horror comedy writing-acting duo Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith may have left the North behind after the gloriously gothic sitcom The League of Gentleman, but their anthology-based follow-up to the macabre melodrama Psychoville is easily their best work yet. Classic British horror movies were as influential to the pair’s writing as the variously horrifying Northern towns they grew up in. But in this series of one-offs centred around buildings and rooms that bear the number 9, it’s easier to detect the legacy of great British dramatists like Harold Pinter and Mike Leigh than Hitchcock and Hammer.

Through The Keyhole (ITV)

This was once a beloved and genteel daytime panel show presented by British institution Sir David Frost in which middlebrow celebrities tried to guess which other middlebrow celebrity a house belonged to. It was easy-going, bland and offended no-one. To my horror, it’s been revived as a platform for crass Yorkshire-born comic Leigh Francis to showcase his abhorrent character Keith Lemon and brand of vulgar anarchy. Imagine if the cast of Jackass suddenly took over from the current hosts of 60 Minutes and you’ll have some idea of how inappropriate a mix of star and format this is. Tabloidization of classic British television standards has been and gone, but this is a new stage of perversion and travesty that befits a dystopian satire!

The Fall (BBC 2)

The Fall Of British Television

The Fall Of British Television

Belfast is a bleak yet glamorous backdrop for the most unremittingly downbeat police drama in TV history. Not even sexy elf Gillian Anderson can bring much more than the odd dry moment of wit to proceedings, as Christian Grey-in-waiting Jamie Dornan stalks the city’s streets and homes as a sexual serial killer and freelance social worker. Authentically Northern Irish, it also tops the genre for storytelling innovation. Dornan’s Paul Spector is as much the hero as the detective would be in any other cop show, making for deeply uncomfortable viewing. But, like the North, it remains gruesomely compelling.

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