Monday, 12 January 2009

Things we noticed watching TV this week 18 (Spoilers)

As I've previously mentioned, the Saturday evening/tea time slot has become one of my favourites since Doctor Who re-galvanized it. Maybe it takes me back to my childhood and youth when I could stay up a bit later and watch The A Team, Robin Hood and ahem, Baywatch. Now, as well as the good Doctor, we have the new Robin Hood, Merlin, Primeval and the latest addition, Demons. With Johnny Capps & Julian Murphy (also Merlin and Hex) seemingly single handedly bringing fantasy back to UK screens, I was extremely excited about this series. And two episodes in, I'm enjoying it.

I get the feeling not everyone is, but equally, I really feel that if ITV keeps its nerve, and allows this series to bed in, it could be very good. It actually reminds me of Sanctuary, which I liked at first but got a bit bored with and gave up when work and other shows were causing a pile up. I think one of the reasons I lost interest was because of the unconnected nature of the show. Built around story of the day for the dip in whenever audience, there was not much keeping my interest week after week. I think this is fine for cop and doc shows, but fantasy creates a kind of mythology (and an ardent, loyal fanbase) and for me it benefits when there are more continuing elements. Demons has, admittedly, started more as a 'new demon' each week thing, but I am hoping that like Apparitions, this is just to lead people into the series and the next four or so will have a more continuing plot. But the actual show is working well, with a couple of reservations. Much has been made of Philip Glenister's American accent. I've read all sorts, like this will make it easier to sell the show to the Americans (er, right) to everyone not wanting Rupert to be too much like a certain Gene Hunt. Well, my answer to that would be, why the hell not? Glenister himself apparently said the following:

"Rupert was written as a Texan originally and I thought b****cks to that - I'm not playing a Texan. They said I could play him as English, but I wanted to have the challenge of playing an American... It was quite funny because they sent some of the rushes to Sony in New York and this email came back from them saying: 'Philip Glenister's accent is acceptable.'"

Well yes, acceptable is the word I'd use too. But why bother? I'm not one to question an actors job, but trying an American accent seems a superficial challenge. Dare I say he seems a bit self conscious of getting that right in the show above anything else. Better surely to create a memorable character like Gene (Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham acknowledge that it was only after seeing footage from the first couple of episodes that they realised what a great job Glenister was doing and the character became far more central to the overall series.) Like Hunt, Rupert Galvin is the mentor figure for a younger man, has most of the sharp lines and could be the real star of the show. My other question mark at the moment concerns the tone and the young protagonist, Luke Van Helsing. In the fantasy genre, you usually get one of two types of protagonists. Either, they embrace their 'special' status (like Merlin or even the Doctor) or they fight against it and are reluctant heroes (like Luke Skywalker or early Buffy I think.) They just want to be normal. Luke Van Helsing seems neither one nor the other. In the first couple of episodes he's been really passive, doing what he is told most of the time. But not really rebelling against the 'rules' or training or his status, but not really relishing it either. It's made it a bit difficult to get a handle on him as a character. It's been rather nonchalant that all of a sudden there are demons everywhere (where have they been up until now) and he has to kill them. His girlfriend, Ruby, also seems to be taking it very much in her stride. Why is no one freaking out at this rather odd turn of events? It's a problem I had with early Apparition episodes but that faded over the series. So I hope it will here too.

A whole other ball game was BBC's latest adaptation of The Diary Of Anne Frank. If you type in those five words to IMDB, you'll see how many versions of this there have been over the years. As I was critical of the BBC for doing yet another adaptation of The 39 Steps over Christmas, it would be hypocritical of me not to raise a similar point here. However it is true that this subject matter is one that needs constant reinforcement, especially when Holocaust deniers are invited to speak at leading colleges throughout the world and give television Christmas messages. (Although having said that there are of course, sadly, many other narratives from that period and it may still be preferable to do something new and not so familiar. Compare the recently released Defiance that I have yet to see but certainly intend to.) But this adaptation was definitely written well enough, by the supremely talented Deborah Moggach, who had this to say:

"Like many people, I read the diary when I was young. Now, on rereading it, I'm struck by how contemporary Anne is - stroppy, obsessed with boys, with her looks, beady and rebellious, highly critical of her mother. In other words, a thoroughly modern teenager. In past adaptations, she has been somewhat sanctified - a bit cheeky and talkative maybe, but also over-sweet. I want to be true to the real girl. Sure, she got on people's nerves; but she was also full of life, her own sternest critic and, above all, she made people laugh."

In that respect, Moggach certainly achieved her goal. The character of Anne was rawer but truer than any I have seen before. And stupidly, like all good adaptations of true stories, I was still willing that THIS time, this time, it would end differently. This time they would not get caught.

The other thing that was fascinating about this adaptation was the decision to make it as five 30 minute episodes over one week. I wouldn't be as crass as to suggest that it was trying to soap-ify it (say like Bleak House or Little Dorrit) but if it made it more accessible or found a new audience, then I think it was a very smart and innovative decision indeed.

Finally, whilst not in any way wanting to seem flippant, it's worth thinking about how the drama works. Obviously we know the story, and it is true and heartbreaking. But now that it is so familiar, it's easy to forget that one girl writing about a handful of people confined to one little flat for two years, regardless of circumstance and the outside world that we never see, does not immediately suggest good television, i.e. visual, drama. But it is gripping, because of the threat of being caught, yes. But also because of the well drawn characters and the interactions and conflicts even in this confined space. The whole thing is a dozen actors and one set. Not the biggest of budgets I imagine. So without wanting to cheapen it in any way, it's worth thinking about whether we have any other stories, powerful, sad, entertaining or happy, that we can tell under these conditions.


John Soanes said...

I guess in a daft way, one might draw comparisons between their plight and the deliberate confinement of Big Brother (or, if you prefer, Dead Set).

Haven't watched the episodes of TDOAF yet - but have it recorded, and am looking forward to it, I have to say.


Jez Freedman said...

Absolutely. I mean obviously no real-world comparison can be made between the danger Jews and other minorities faced at the hands of Nazis - with any fictional or reality tv based scenario.

But in terms of where you're coming from - from a drama and screenwriting point of view, then yes, definitely. There are always script calls on bulletins like Shooting People asking for stories with limited number of characters in one location - and they are really, really hard to write! So it's certainly worth thinking about because it would be a lot easier to attract interest.

John Soanes said...

Completely agree - I seem to remember an old adage about well-developed characters in drama or comedy effectively writing their own story if you stick them in a confined space (several episodes of One Foot On The Grave showed this, I feel, superbly).

My comment looks (and I realised this almost as soon as I clicked to post) faintly flippant, but my intention - and I think you read it as such - was to suggest that the success of Big Brother meant that adaptations of The Diary Of A Young Girl or even Huis Clos can't be dismissed as unsuitable for current TV on the grounds that they’re just about people interacting in a closed environment.

I've long thought that Anne Frank's story is so powerful because it's a miniature version of the experience of so many people during WWII - it's human-scale and relatable, and if we take fear and tension and horror of what she and her family lived through, and multiply it by millions, then we're probably getting a tiny fractional hint of what it was actually like.

Then again, I'm writing all this with fond memories of the book and visiting the Anne Frank Museum, and fingers crossed about the recent dramatisation; really must watch the episodes…