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Watching TV With Britons Part 2: Same Same Same

Posted in Americans watching British TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2014 by Tom Steward

The second part of my exile’s guide to British television looks at the unwelcome familiarity of the programmes I watched during my recent visit to the UK, as any vain hope of something changing for the better while I was away is quickly crushed under my muddy, slushy Wellington boot:

The Royal Variety Performance (ITV):

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

Who is the least talented person in this picture?

As both variety (our version of vaudeville) and royalty are anachronisms in British popular culture, this annual broadcast of theatrical entertainment staged in front of members of the monarchy seems to exist for nostalgia alone. Tellingly, there’s no variety on offer but merely alternating stand-ups and singers. The addition of William and Kate – presumably as a reward for breeding – meant that the event was no longer attended by a couple famous for their dislike of showbusiness but they still couldn’t help appearing like a benign Statler & Waldorf. It’s hard to believe that host – and redefinition of the term ‘comedian’ – Michael Mcintyre remains popular in Britain but given the programme’s commitment to the regression of our culture, artist and medium have never been better matched.

The Railway: First Great Western (Channel 5):

Public transport documentaries have been the saving grace of British reality television in the past few years, but the UK’s TV network-in-the-attic Channel 5 has, by focusing on this year’s closure of the Dawlish rail line due to storms and flooding, turned it into weather porn – one of the less commendable reality genres to emerge on British TV after the advent of climate change! Still, it was interesting to see that Home Secretary Theresa May is as inept at forming sentences as she is at politics.

Black Mirror: White Christmas (Channel 4)

A Christmas Hamm!

A Christmas Hamm!

British TV critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker exists in a categorical limbo between Clive James and Rod Serling, alternating parodic weekly TV review shows with anthology sci-fi horror. This festive (in genre alone!) edition of techno-fear playhouse Black Mirror was, in keeping with the British Christmas special, more conventional than we expect from the series. The formulaic storytelling was partly a satisfying return to the Christmas TV horror plays of old but also revived some rather retrograde attitudes to gender and race that I’m sure we’d all have rather left in the TV of the 70s. A surprise Christmas gift came in the form of an outstanding star turn by Jon Hamm, leading the effort to turn British migrant labour in American TV into a hostage exchange (P.S. You keep James Nesbitt, we’ll have Steve Buscemi!), which, as Mad Men comes to a close, more than proved – at least to doubting Thomases like me – that he could credibly be something other than Don Draper.

It Was Alright in the 70s (Channel 4)

Several people told me I should watch this programme, which runs clips of contemporaneously controversial British TV from the 1970s alongside commentary from the people involved as well as aghast modern-day viewers. The clips themselves have the requisite shock and entertainment value, but I was uneasy with the tone and project of this documentary. It seemed to suggest that the bigotry and exploitation that appeared in 1970s television was somehow a thing of the past and that all the problems of representation had subsequently been resolved, whereas I saw plenty of examples, if perhaps more latent than pointed, of prejudice and cruelty in the TV I watched while in the UK. It’s also a very selective history of 1970s television in the UK which continually declines to mention how experimental, challenging and innovative a great deal of TV was in that era, perhaps more than now, and certainly with more frequency. When this is acknowledged, it’s usually passed off as the inconsequential ramblings of a cultural historian in the editing, and only ever associated with content that would be hard to defend on a representational level, such as The Goodies’ (literally!) savage attack on apartheid involving racial slurs and minstrelry. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the programme is its lack of originality. It’s a cursory spin on a clip-based nostalgia format that’s been around since the turn of the millennium, and almost matches the exploitative tendencies of the TV it lambasts by offering recent revelations about the sex crimes of 70s British celebrities as a unique selling point.

Autopsy: The Last Days of Elvis Presley (Channel 5)

briton 6

Dr Richard Shepherd, Graduate of The University of Stating The Bleeding Obvious!

Like asking which bullet killed a person shot 24 times. Worth seeing for the Elvis curl on the lips of the actor portraying Presley whilst dying on the toilet.

Hallow’s TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

It occurred to me while watching the excellent Halloween special of one of the best new sitcoms on the block The Mindy Project how rarely I enjoy them. I think what bothers me is how wardrobe tends to take over and all other departments seem to take a week off. The Mindy Project kept its (hilarious) costume reveal to the last possible moment and didn’t buy into the holiday wholesale thanks to the eponymous lead character’s wariness and cynicism about Halloween rituals. There were storylines that could have been in any episode and the fancy dress aspects were invested with the show’s usual wit, imagination and absurdity. This is a far cry from the gagless and story-devoid episodes of (often great) US sitcoms like Roseanne or The Cosby Show which let the outfits do all the work. That said, it’s been a lot better since sitcoms lost their studio audiences. At one time a sitcom would move its live spectators to rapturous applause and accentuated laughter for being the on-the-spot witnesses of an inventive costume, albeit one which usually played off knowledge of the character, leaving the home viewer out of the joke rather than sweeping them along with the fun, as was more usually their function. Watching a Halloween-themed sitcom used to be like watching film footage of Hitler’s speeches; unimpressive and kind of shambolic and yet those in the crowd seem to be going wild for it. Fourth-wall sitcoms now recognise they have to do something more than catwalk a costume to get a laugh, hence The Office’s running gag about the surplus of Heath Ledger Joker costumes in the Halloween special the year The Dark Knight was released. This year Parks and Recreation even sneaked a huge story event into their Halloween special to counter the frivolity.


‘Tinkerbell, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

British TV, like the country, came to Halloween late, and begrudgingly. Given British culture’s longstanding propensity for wanting to scare people in otherwise non-horrific periods of the year, like Christmas, it’s unsurprising that we narrow in on the ghostly and ghoulish connotations of Halloween in how we celebrate the occasion. And because we’ve never fully got the American way of celebrating a supernatural and spiritual event through soft porn dress sense and celebrity impersonations, we tend to stick to the reassuringly frightening arena of the macabre. Hence why our Halloween television is horror, plain and simple. Well, not quite. Over the last twenty years, Halloween has been a great excuse to make groundbreaking fantasy television in Britain. Through one-off Halloween specials, we’ve been attempting to make horror TV the equal of the movies that zombie-infect the schedules around October time but playing specifically to the effect of getting scared in our homes watching TV. This almost fell at the first hurdle with Ghostwatch, a 90-minute filmed drama shown on BBC 1 on Halloween in 1992 which posed as a live factual investigative programme about Britain’s most haunted house using real-life TV presenters playing themselves. Viewers claimed they had been duped, accused the BBC of betraying its values of trust and reliability, and a case of suicide was linked to the programme. It unsettled a nation of viewers who, unlike today, were unaccustomed to TV parodying its programming, and prickled cultural anxieties about paedophilia with its child-abusing poltergeist. The BBC never repeated or tried anything like this again, but in 2007 TV writer and critic Charlie Brooker made Dead Set, a mini-series shown over Halloween week on Channel 4 in which a zombie outbreak hits the Big Brother house, and suddenly horror had white-wormed its way back into our favourite TV shows.

Ghostwatch: please have nightmares

If I want good Halloween TV, though, I generally go to animated comedies. Crafting elaborate costumes and turning characters into ghoulish versions of themselves can be done so fluently in animation and with such minimal effort compared to live action that they’re free to explore Halloween in whatever way they wish. For The Simpsons this has meant annually becoming a contemporary equivalent of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with their Halloween episodes portmanteaus of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories which play into the well-worn conventions of spooky storytelling and with the naturalist style of the programme. These seasonal specials serve to enrich the programme conceptually by placing its characters and settings an alternative universe with infinite story and scenario possibilities. The producers of The Simpsons take this responsibility so seriously that over the years they’ve produced some of the most powerful, intricate and intelligent fantasy TV the US has ever seen. Mike Judge’s Chekhovian sitcom King of the Hill has also had some of its finest moments during Halloween. One particularly memorable special called appropriately ‘Hilloween’ concerns the cancellation of Halloween celebrations in the Texas small town of Arlen after pressure on local government from a conservative Christian fundamentalist. The episode was about the evangelistic brainwashing of locals and the resistance that takes back the holiday irregardless of its satanic imagery, because it makes being a kid fun. Fun is also had at the expense of the creationist movement, with a didactic anti-evolution spin on the haunted house. Addressing the religious boycotting of Halloween in devout parts of the American South, the series put an original spin on the concept, and made it relevant to the people and places the show is interested in. I guess what I’m saying is the Halloween special has to be special, not just themed.


Rod Serling would have been proud




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