Sunday, 16 November 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 13 (spoilers)

Three very different shows to look at this week, and more importantly, all are British made. It came as quite a surprise to me that, for all the TV I watch, before this last week only Spooks was British. This is perhaps a bigger debate for another time, but in the meantime, I was thrilled at the return of Outnumbered (BBC1)

Created by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, I thought the first series was the funniest sitcom I'd seen in a long time. Broadcast bizarrely late on consecutive nights, it gave itself no time for word of mouth buzz and I was equally flabbergasted that some critics seem to think it was rubbish. Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis play the parents, and they do their roles well, but I don't get what's not to like with the sublime children, especially the youngest two who are simply hilarious. Certain umbrage seemed to be taken that a fair degree of the show is improvised, thus enabling more natural performances from the kids. Now I know this is probably not what a screenwriting blog wants to hear, but it worked, and worked very well. And let's be honest, it hasn't done Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm any harm. The second season will be shown on Saturday evenings, and certainly deserves this far better slot. It kicked off with that horror of horrors, a family wedding, and two standout brilliant scenes when the little bridesmaid filled the bride with complete trepidation, and the little boy harangued the Priest as to whether Jesus was as good a superhero as the likes of Superman. I mean seriously, what's not to like?? I know I am supposed to be more analytical in this column, but it's just hilarious and watch it if you haven't already.

A far different tone was set in Apparitions (BBC1). Created by Joe Ahearne, this six part supernatural thriller is an astonishing commission for prime time BBC. It must say something about the clout of both the writer and star Martin Shaw, that they could get a show about an Exorcist on at all! With anti religious feeling seeming to be the fashion (I have already read this: Unfortunately, there are some who will regard this programme as justification for believing religious, supernatural tosh,) this is quite a turn up. But come on people, this is fictional drama, not Songs of Praise. And this from a religious Jew! It didn't matter that I didn't believe 95% of the theology. All that mattered to me was does the screen narrative work? And the answer was a bit mixed. It was spooky, to a degree, which was the point, and not half as gory as some press build up would've had everyone believe. Father Jacob, the protagonist, was played with gusto and it was nice to see a character so committed to their faith. The tone was serious and played entirely straight. Maybe you could argue it took itself too seriously, but this would be completely missing the point. No one would accuse Spooks or The Fixer, for taking itself too seriously. Because these are crime dramas/thrillers set in worlds we can all immediately buy into (despite both shows have some far fetched elements). So the challenge to Apparitions was to set up this world, with all its fantastical elements, and make us believe it. It didn't quite manage it... yet. The trouble was that everything was done so matter of factly. And it was that that I didn't buy. It was too realistic! If it had set up this exorcist wing of the catholic church as more of a secret, little known practice, that may have worked better in establishing the world where demons are everywhere. But this was only the first episode and it was refreshing not to have another cops n docs show (a reason stated by Shaw for wanting to do it). So I will certainly be tuning in to see where they take the series.

Finally there was Walter's War (BBC4). Written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, this drama was inspired by the life of Walter Tull who, after years in an orphanage, went on to become a professional footballer and then the first black commissioned officer to lead British troops during WW1. It was impossible to escape the significance of watching a drama about a black man becoming an officer in the British army, when the official regulations stated he was not allowed to be, just a few days after Barack Obama was elected to the White House. In terms of the drama, I was surprised it was only sixty minutes long. This seemed a rich world and subject matter that could've been explored more. But even so, the combination of subtle writing and a fantastically understated lead performance by O T Fagbenle, made sure it eschewed big speeches in favour of letting actions speak louder than words. (Never a bad idea when it comes to screen drama!) One memorable moment came when Tull rescued a fellow soldier who had dropped a hand grenade during training, only to be castigated by him, and then failed by the supervisor because if the officer dies, who will lead the troops. It encapsulated the no win situation Tull was in. And the drama, rather than make it a mission on behalf of all black men, was cleverer than that, and focused on Tull's quiet determination to do what he wanted to do, no matter what stood in his way. The fact that the thing he wanted to do was to become an officer and lead men over the top of the Somme, said all it needed to say.

So what to take away from these three, very different British shows. Well, I've mentioned this before I'm sure, but the world you create is so important. I know Walter's War is historical drama, but the world is accurately recreated so that the context makes perfect sense. So too in Outnumbered, the performances are completely in step, and improvised or not, everything that comes out of the mouths of the actors is so character specific, that it's a useful lesson anyway in character creation. Apparitions on the other hand is not quite there yet. I admire and applaud it for playing its drama straight. But these are not everyday occurrences. And pretending they are gives it a false note that is unintended and self defeating. I hope it's not too late to fix it.


Bingethink said...

Re: Apparitions.

Just watched this today. I really enjoyed it, and didn't have the same basic problems with it that you did regarding believability. Quite the reverse - the matter-of-fact, straight-to-the-heart-of-the-story way really worked for me.

Because in the world of the drama these are indeed everyday occurrences. This is what Martin Shaw and his Italian demon-buster colleague do. And what's more, we as the audience watching a demon-busting drama know that in this world, there are demons.

For me, placing some are there/aren't there/isn't there all some rational explanation to this? element would be more intellectually and narratively dishonest. There's no debate or mystery or tension in that question, because the whole series is based on that conceit.

Jez Freedman said...

That's an interesting point. I probably should clarify that I didn't mean there should be are there/aren't there stuff. You're absolutely right in that that would've been misplaced. But this isn't the heightened fantasy worlds of Heroes, Lost or Sanctuary. This was a very real world we could recognise, complete with Champions League football matches in pubs and Social Services. You then add people walking around doing exorcisms right in the open, virtually no questions asked, to that mix. So whilst we as the audience understand that demons deffinitely exist in this world, no one in the drama seemed to bat an eyelid either. I'm absolutely ready to believe it (I'll believe anything on screen!) But I wasn't convinced that Father Jacob et al would/should be allowed to operate so freely in such a real life world.

Bingethink said...

But Catholic priests are allowed to walk around doing exorcisms in our real world, (and most of us don't bat an eyelid, because we don't believe in the devils and demons). But Google "catholic exorcism" and you'll find that exorcism is not a secret or hidden tenet of Catholic belief, but part of their doctrine. There are crack teams of exorcists out there doing this stuff already, freely (except possibly without the weird lighting effects and magical happenings, I reckon...)

It's like any religious observance - you take it seriously if you are a believer and you dismiss it if you're not.

I thought the drama did present sceptical voices - the (presumably secular) mother, and the Catholic but sceptical sister in the seminary.

Actually I think what was interesting for a British drama was that the bulk of the characters were people of faith, and that that faith was presented as reasonable (and, in fact, validated by the events of the drama).

On another topic: Outnumbered is great.

Jez Freedman said...

Wow, I did not know that. They just walk about performing exorcisms?? I don't know whether that's cool or scary! Fair point then, although I think from a TV drama point of view would everyone see it like this?

But it is indeed nice to see a drama about religious people who are not actually evil geniuses in disguise. And it must go down as credit to Ahearne, Shaw and Jane Tranter for doing something pretty innovative and original for BBC primetime drama.

Jez Freedman said...

ps. Outnumbered rocks!