Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week 23 (spoilers)

In recent weeks we've spoken here about how some dramas are more plot driven and some more character driven. For example, I suggested that Hunter (BBC1) worked well as a conventional, race against time, whodunit kinda thing, whereas Unforgiven (ITV) worked very well indeed as a slower character study of why people do the things they do. I think we've seen another example of this at 9pm on the last three Monday nights. It was a shame that they clashed, but thanks to technology I was able to watch and enjoy both Moses Jones and Whitechapel.

Moses Jones
(written by Joe Penhall) was a brooding, dark, intense crime drama set amongst the world of Ugandan immigrants in London. We often hear about multi-cultural Britain but actually very rarely get to see it on screen. I have no idea whether this was an accurate portrayal or not, but it certainly felt authentic! Moses Jones, with his Ugandan ancestry, is brought in to investigate a grisly murder seemingly purely because of his race. His sidekick, the equally colourfully named Dan Twentyman was younger, white, and was very clearly on the stepping stone to promotion. But although these two were essentially the protagonists, particularly Jones obviously, it was as much about the secondary characters like Solomon (magnificently played by Eamonn Walker,) Joy and Dolly. A closed community still ruled by powerful men from back home, it asked questions like when is the right time, if ever, to raise your head above the parapet and embrace the institutions of your new home? If seeking citizenship here, are you then obligated to respect the laws of the land, and those who enforce them? For people seeking a new and better life than the one back home, do they actually find it? And what must they do if they don't?

Moses Jones was very firmly about why people do the things they do. Plot wise, it was a slow burner with very few twists and turns. It simply didn't need them. We as the audience pretty much knew who had done what and why. We just had to sit back and watch the drama swirl, the melting pot stir, and see who was going to crack first. Sometimes looking away was the only option, as Dolly had her teeth smashed in for example for talking to the police. There were moments of surprise though. Dennis Waterman's former boxer, now TV personality, was as much the villain as former soldier Matthias Mutukula. In some ways even more so. But there was also a certain satisfaction of him punching out Mutukula. At least someone wasn't afraid of him? But in the end, the bad guys were punished, the good guys did ok, and Moses even got the girl. Interestingly, as often happens with slow burning stuff, the end then felt a bit rushed. We got this weird 'oh crap we better end this quickly and tie everything up' scene when Moses tells Joy what happened to everyone, some of which she surely would've known anyway, and besides it wasn't really necessary. One other minor complaint was the rather too neat revelation that Jones's family also had a history with Mutukula, making it nice and personal - again not really needed. The whole point was the re-connection of Moses to his community and it worked quite well through his relationship with Joy. It didn't need to be forced. But overall this was a good piece of drama and although uncomfortable viewing at times, was never less than absorbing.

The same can be said about Whitechapel (written by Ben Court and Caroline Ip). Amassing huge viewing figures and continuing ITV's mini revival, it was violent, bloody, but pretty damn gripping. It also, as I've suggested, functioned differently from Moses Jones. Whitechapel was all about plot. It was built on clues, twists, red herrings and all the other usual stuff you get in crime thrillers. In fact I've just realised I described Moses Jones as a crime drama and Whitechapel as a crime thriller - the same can be said about Unforgiven and Hunter - so that may be a clue as to where priorities lie! In Whitecapel, it has to be said that this was evidenced by some pretty familiar, seen it all before characters. Rupert Penry-Jones played uptight, obsessive compulsively clean, fast tracked DI Chandler, who was surrounded by working class, 'real' coppers, all skeptical of their new boss, and led by DS Miles (played by Phil Davis who has nevertheless made it an art form.) Of course, by the end of the three episodes, Chandler had proved himself, been turned away by his former mentor for supposedly botching the case even though he had saved the last victim, and stayed on to lead his now loyal crew. There was also some pretty ropey dialogue, especially in the first episode, but what really worked well was the pace of the script and the tone (excellently directed by one of my faves and iemmy buddy SJ Clarkson. Ok just kidding. We met once for like a minute. But I do think she is a very good director) Therefore the key to this series for me was that I was genuinely intrigued and always wanted to know what would happen next. Like many a good idea, the concept of a Jack the Ripper copycat in present day Whitechapel seems so obvious, and yet correct me if I'm wrong I don't recall seeing it done before quite like this. Of course the handicap was that Jack was never caught, and so too neither was our killer! Anonymity and mythology were kept intact. But it was a very compelling thriller, and despite what I said about the characters, ITV could do a lot worse than find another story to put them in to.

So there you have it. Another two examples of the different ways to skin a script, as it were. I think the key to all this is to work out what best serves your story. It might be to focus on one or the other, or could very well be both. Sometimes you can fall back on archetypal characters when you want to crack on with a fast plot. Sometimes, a slower plot will give more interesting characters space to breathe. Know your story and be confident about what you want to achieve. There will be times that someone will not quite get it and may say oh but your characters are too familiar or your story isn't fast enough. Maybe they are right. But maybe they haven't quite understood what you are trying to do.


mark said...

Trouble with Whitechapel was that the story hinged so much on the tension within the team that I had a very good idea who the killer was when he was introduced early in the first episode. Was more confident I was right with every second that went by, because there was precious little detection - and little room for suspects. By the time he appeared again - pointlessly - early in the second episode, I could quite happily bet my house and family on it.

Jez Freedman said...

That's fair enough. It's never truly satisfying if you guess whodunit. I have to say that I am absolutely terrible at that. I never seem to know. So I am probably easier to please!