Ten underrated British sitcoms: #4 Is It Legal?

vlcsnap-2013-05-27-21h17m05s250What is it?
Is It Legal? is an ensemble sitcom, written by Simon Nye and set in the offices of Hounslow solicitors Lotus, Spackman and Phelps. We join the story as newly-qualified solicitor Colin Lotus (Richard Lumsden) starts work at the practice, courtesy of his retired father’s position as a founding partner rather than any ability as a lawyer on Colin’s part. Here he meets the other partners – Dick Spackman (Jeremy Clyde), who does nothing but play golf, and the fiercesome mainstay of the business Stella (Imelda Staunton), increasingly dissatisfied with her life and career as she heads into middle age – plus the lovestruck clerk Bob, lazy and shallow secretary Alison (Kate Isitt) and well-intentioned office boy Darren (Matthew Ashforde).

Is It Legal? ran for two series on ITV in 1995 and 1996, and a third on Channel 4 in 1998.

Why was it good?
Unlike the first few underrated sitcoms highlighted in this series, Is It Legal? didn’t meet with much in the way of undue opprobrium or suffer from an unjustly short run. It is, however, an example of an arguably work-a-day sitcom that ran its course and is now largely forgotten.

It’s the show’s lack of spectacular-ness that I rather like about it: it was a decently-done sitcom, nothing more and nothing less – but that is no small thing to be. Its scripts and performances and never less than sound and do what a sitcom should by keeping the laughs coming at a regular pace; the characters don’t have masses of depth, perhaps bar Stella, but are sharply enough drawn for much of the humour to arise from their interactions.

Viewed at a bit of a distance, it now also has a certain fascination in terms of being relatively modern, but featuring an office in which the workers do not have computers on their desks (indeed, it has one episode involving the introduction of computers, which is fascinatingly dated, but whose humour was topical at the time) – if it had started just a few years later this would have been unimaginable.

Unfortunately the inventive title sequence for series 1 and 2, with wind-up “see no evil” monkeys (pictured) was replaced for the Channel 4 run by a rather cartoony effort that seemed to be someone’s idea of what a sitcom title sequence should be, rather than an actual attempt to produce a good title sequence. It seems a small thing to mention, but it always jars with me.

Why is it underrated?
Successful ITV sitcoms tend to get forgotten quickly, doubly so anything made after the supposed “golden age”. In the mid-90s, multi-camera sitcoms appeared to be the last word in unfashionability. Arguably the show appears a bit bog standard: a studio-based, office sitcom – though I’d argue that’s exactly why it deserves credit, as it presents a generic format extremely well.

That said, perhaps the show doesn’t offer much of an edge beyond that; Stella and Bob start a tentative affair in the last series, and while this is charmingly played, the series was clearly never going to hang on the developing personal relationships between characters. That said, it’s still a little surprising that the show appears not to be better remembered: Imelda Staunton is better known than ever now, Kate Isitt went on to even greater success in Coupling, Simon Nye continues to have a strong pedigree, and the show ran for three series after all. Is It Legal remains a great showcase for the talents of all concerned.

Can I watch it?
All three series are available on DVD courtesy of Network (but don’t expect any extras).

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #3 Clone

cloneWhat is it?
In his ‘Mark Lawson talks to…’ interview Mark Gatiss identified Clone, along with Sex Lives of the Potato Men, as both an example of a project he had been involved with that had flopped and an unhappy working experience. It ran for one series of six episodes on BBC Three at the end of 2008.

The set-up is as follows. Top secret military research scientist Victor Blenkinsop (Jonathan Pryce) has artificially bred a soldier, designed to be the perfect tool for military operations; unfortunately, when the clone (Stuart McLoughlin) emerges from the tank he proves to be clumsy, childlike and totally lacking any sort of aggressive instinct. Victor goes on the run from Colonel Black (Gatiss) of MI7, knowing that he and Clone risk being executed to save the military’s blushes. They end up in an obscure English village, lodging at a pub run by inexplicable twenty-something maths prodigy Rose (Fiona Glascott). The series takes place in the village, as Victor, Clone and Rose attempt to rub along together, while Victor tries to keep his identity secret from Rose, keep his location secret from Colonel Black, and find a way of unlocking the clone’s potential to save both their lives.

Why was it good?
Despite its sci-fi trappings, Clone was actually an odd couple, fish-out-of-water comedy, with Victor railing at being stuck in an unsophisticated backwater and lumbered with raising Clone, effectively a child in an adult’s body. Much of the humour is deeply silly, and arises both from Clone’s childlike misunderstandings of the world around him, and Victor’s too-clever-by-half gambits to get out of his predicament.

Such very silly humour will always rely on the performers to sell it, and the cast of Clone do so with style. Pryce is convincingly scathing and nasty, but also fallible, as Victor; Stuart McLoughlin gives a charming and loose-limbed performance as Clone; Fiona Glascott is immensely likeable as the sassy but somehow still vulnerable Rose; and Gatiss, despite his later disdain for the project, offers a gloriously swivel-eyed, scenery-chewing turn as Black.

Why is it underrated?
There can be little doubt that Clone was badly received; indeed, it attracted some of the most vicious reviews of any programme I’ve ever seen, and quickly came to be regarded as a byword for failure.

It is perhaps an example of a show that doesn’t fulfil its contract with the audience. Superficially Clone looked like it would be some sort of sci-fi comedy, perhaps more like Red Dwarf than anything else; the screwball whimsy it delivered, albeit deft and endearing, was really very different, so it’s perhaps unsurprising it failed to find an audience.

I do wonder if it might have done better if it had started with its second episode, and not opened so heavily with its unrepresentative sci-fi setup. Ultimately, the sci-fi angle was very silly and cartoonish; the three-way relationship between Clone, Victor and Rose was the centrepiece of the show, and the scenes cutting away to Mark Gatiss’s character overseeing the search for Victor with OTT menace did sometimes seem rather like side-steps into another (no less silly, but somewhat less charming) show.

All of this gave anyone who wanted it the sticks with which to beat a BBC Three, multi-camera, laugh-tracked sitcom. But ultimately it still makes me laugh, and achieves that highly desirable goal for any television show of creating a distinctive world that I want to re-visit. Its final episode left things in a place for a second series that I’d certainly have been interested to watch.

Can I watch it?
Clone appears not to have been shown on the BBC since its original run, and is presumably unlikely to turn up on Dave or similar. It also seems to be unavailable on DVD at present, if it ever was – the limited retail listings visible online suggest its release might have been cancelled entirely after it flopped so badly on TV. Extensive clips have been put online unofficially – no doubt you know where to look.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #2 White Van Man

wvmpromo-4What is it?
Will Mellor plays Ollie, who has set aside his own dreams of opening a restaurant to take over his father Tony’s (Clive Mantle) handyman business after the latter suffers a heart attack. He pounds the streets of Maplebury (which roughly = Stockport in Greater Manchester) with his work-shy assistant Darren (Joel Fry), occasionally aided by his girlfriend Emma (Georgia Moffett) and Ollie’s sister Liz (Naomi Bentley), who works in the local hardware supplier and nurses a crush on Ollie to which he is entirely oblivious.

White Van Man ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Three in 2011 and 2012.

Why was it good?
White Van Man’s strength was principally that it was very well written by Adrian Poynton, who created a fully rounded sitcom. Although the humour often arose from Ollie getting into awkward situations with clients, this was always built around the characters and strong themes, for instance Ollie trying to do the right thing or not be a pushover; conflict arises from character, usually Ollie versus his father, or Darren, or Emma (forever stealing his good ideas and setting up her own unsuccessful businesses, with no small amount of incompetence and, at worst, deceitfulness and spite). The show offered tight storylining too, with climactic scenes and punchlines diligently set up across each episode.

The scripts were also sold brilliantly by a strong cast firing on all cylinders. Without going through every member – though I could – Ollie is endearingly played by Will Mellor, rather underrated as a character actor in my view, who turns in a convincingly different performance from his other BBC Three comedy role, as Gaz in Two Pints. The episodes often centre on the double act he forms with Joel Fry, who is also a joy to watch.

Like Respectable, White Van Man is enhanced by its soundtrack, with a prominent mix of ska and dub reggae forming an unexpected but hugely enjoyable wrapper for the action.

Why is it underrated?
White Van Man came with the usual dose of snobbery about BBC Three sitcoms from some quarters (even though the truth is that the channel has been a mainstay of British comedy over the last decade, and our sitcom landscape would have looked pretty desolate without it). But the main sense in which White Van Man is underrated is that it was cancelled after two series as part of Zai Bennett’s clear-out of all the comedy shows he inherited when he took up his post as controller of BBC Three – only Russell Howard’s Good News survived the cull, which also claimed non-comedy shows including Doctor Who Confidential. It was a real shame: White Van Man had a lot of heart, and was easily worth a third series.

Can I watch it?
Both series are available on DVD for not much money (series 1, series 2), though the show is in that extremely annoying category of a programme made in HD but not available on Bluray. Repeats of any sort look unlikely, and especially so in HD as the BBC HD channel has now become BBC Two HD. But who knows, it could turn up on a satellite or digital channel at some point.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #1 Respectable

For some reason the only high quality photos still online of Respectable are ones of Jodi Albert in her underwear...

For some reason the only high quality photos still online of Respectable are ones of Jodi Albert in her underwear…

What is it?
Michael Price (played by Justin Edwards), a middle manager entering middle age, feels that life is passing him by. In a sexually unfulfilling marriage to the fiercesome Pippa (“she’s wonderful… very punctual”) he decides to address his mid-life crisis by visiting a brothel in the anonymous suburb where he lives. There he befriends the prostitute Hayley (Jodie Albert) but is far too hesitant to have sex with her (“I’ve got a talker!”); nonetheless, what begins as a a quasi-counselling relationship gradually turns into an unlikely but genuine, and unfulfillable, romance. Michael increasingly has to hide his secret life from his wife, as well as reconciling himself to it.

Respectable ran for a single series of six episodes on Channel 5, with involvement from Paramount Comedy, in 2006 – in a double bill, as I recall, with the surprisingly effective sex-themed sketch show Swinging.

Why was it good? (1) Sidebar on the subject matter
There’s one thing about Respectable that we need to address up-front: it’s a sitcom set in a brothel. Is this off-limits as a subject for a sitcom? Is it deriving humour from the exploitation of women and therefore unforgivable?

Undeniably the sex work depicted in Respectable is at the gentler end of the subject, like Belle De Jour’s novels and their TV adaptation: Respectable presents a suburban brothel run by a gruff mother figure old pro, with a receptionist and prostitutes who include Hayley and her best friend Kate, a student working to fund her studies. Some might argue that by showing the relatively safe end of a murky world the show was irresponsibly complicit in immoral activity (however one approaches the morality of sex work).

I must say I don’t find these objections very convincing (and wouldn’t be including Respectable on the list if I did). The same or similar objections can be levelled at lots of other fondly-regarded sitcoms that operate at the cosier end of unpleasant subject areas: Dad’s Army shows a World War Two of well-intentioned bumbling, not of people being blown to smithereens or bombed out of their homes; Only Fools and Horses and Porridge are both set deep in the world of criminality; Whoops Apocalypse! involves a nuclear armageddon; Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies, in showing people employed in low-paid work, arguably gets laughs from economic exploitation.

Now, there’s a case that perhaps comedy should not go into unpleasant territory that can, even if not shown on screen, involve suffering; but it seems to me that in order to mount this argument against Respectable one either has to argue against a whole range of sitcoms, or argue that there is something exceptional about sexual exploitation compared to any other kind of bad thing. Both arguments are possible, but I can’t say I have much truck with either, and don’t feel there’s any intrinsic problem in a sitcom being set in the world in which Respectable is set.

Indeed, the programme’s makers claimed that the brothel it shows – five women working together in a shared house on an anonymous street – is a type present in many a British suburb; and it’s certainly a model that is safer for the workers and whose continued criminalisation attracts well-evidenced criticism, as I understand the debate. That said, it’s no doubt about as accurate a depiction of that world as Dad’s Army is as life in the Home Guard – recognisable in outline, but not realistic as such. But ultimately one pays one’s money and takes one’s choice; undoubtedly some people will, for good reasons or bad, struggle to get past Respectable’s subject matter.

Why was it good? (2) So, why was it good?
So, having got that out of the way, why was Respectable good? It boiled down in some ways to a “secret life” story, a staple of plenty of comedies where the protagonist has to keep their “other” life secret. This gives rise to a fine line in farce at times, though fortunately the mainstay of Respectable’s comedy isn’t an ever-more implausible list of excuses from Michael.

If anything, Respectable gets a lot of its humour from poking fun at the middle classes: however nice a man he may be, Michael is undoubtedly dull and conventional, admiring few people more than Judge John Deed, seldom happier than when sipping a pint of IPA, and chronically embarrassed about sex. His wife Pippa too is highly conventional, albeit in a materialistic kind of way; together the couple appear to have lost perspective on what matters in life, which the series exploits to good effect.

But it’s the relationship between Michael and Hayley that ultimately makes Respectable work: both are highly sympathetic characters who are, by the end of the series, clearly each the best friend that the other has, even though their love is impossible – a fine creation by Shaun Pye and Harry Thompson. Justin Edwards and Jodi Albert both turn in wonderfully likeable performances as convincingly flawed characters, and there is a thoroughly satisfying emotional pay-off at the end of the series, teeing it up nicely for a second… which never came.

Finally, the music deserves a mention: both the theme tune and the incidental music are built around a sad and understated piano theme, which is given a bigger and more stirring arrangement for the touching last scene between Michael and Hayley in the finale; the music builds to a climax with the story in a rather impressive way.

Why is it underrated?
However much I might like to build the case for these underrated sitcoms, very often they are underrated for a reason and there’s no shying away from it. No comedy is ever to everyone’s taste, but Respectable perhaps limited its appeal more than most. Rightly or wrongly, the brothel setting no doubt lost a chunk of the potential audience instantly.

Even beyond that, its appeal is clearly not universal. I once loaned my DVD of the series to a director for whom I was writing a feature script, in an effort to find some shared common ground on comedy as we tackled the next rewrite; he watched it all, and made a point of telling me how awful he thought it was, and seemed genuinely not to believe that I liked it (I left the project soon after, as we were clearly not going to see the same future direction for the film). I never quite figured out why, but if you don’t go a bomb on unfulfillable love stories or humour poking fun at the English middle classes, it won’t resonate much.

Worse still, it was on Channel 5, which must have supplied plenty of reviewers with ample excuse to be sneering: if it was part of a raft of sitcoms from the channel it might have been taken more seriously, but as it was it arguably seemed (if you didn’t bother to watch it) like another tawdry sex-themed C5 show, its scheduling alongside the similarly adult Swinging clearly not helping – although both deserved more acclaim than they got.

But more seriously, the show did suffer from an unevenness of tone: the character-led humour, revolving around Michael’s relationships with Hayley, Pippa and Barry was quite a contrast with the other dimension to the humour, which featured a lot of knob gags and similar sex-based humour. It was often very deftly done, by playing on Michael’s very English awkwardness about sex, but sometimes it was much more straightforward rudery. Now I enjoyed both, but the cruder stuff undeniably does at times jar a bit with the character-led material. Similarly Hayley is portrayed as extremely uneducated – perhaps not unrealistically – but this can occasionally translate into her being gauche or even at times plain stupid, which can feel uncomfortable when she is generally such a sympathetic character

Ultimately, it’s not the subject matter one has to forgive, but the sometimes awkward blend of deft character-driven comedy and plain dirty jokes (though I wouldn’t want to overstate this – it’s rated 15 rather than 18 on DVD, to the extent that that’s any gauge; and for the avoidance if doubt, nobody has their naughty bits on display at any time). Both are, however, very well done in my view, so for my money the fact that they don’t sit easily alongside each other can happily be overlooked if one is in the market for either.

Despite its flaws, Respectable still stands out, to me anyway, as a well-crafted sitcom that tells a strong story, contains plenty of laughs, and has much more heart and charm than one might expect given the premise.

Can I watch it?
Respectable is available on DVD, still very cheaply from some retailers. That said, others list it for higher prices, which suggests it may be out of print; if you feel like taking a punt for a few quid, get in quick would be my advice.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: introduction

If ever there was a type of programme that it’s never unfashionable to knock, it’s the TV sitcom. Whatever is being broadcast, some TV critic or blogger is always on hand to grumble that we can’t do sitcoms any more like we used to do in the 70s. In truth, the British sitcom has had many a purple patch since then, and is probably in one at the moment, ITV having re-entered the fray in fine style recently with Vicious and The Job Lot.

Those two shows do illustrate changes in sitcoms since the 1970s, however: while Vicious was shot multi-camera and studio-based, being reliant on dialogue and mostly featuring a small-ish number of long-ish scenes in each episode, The Job Lot epitomised the more modern style of sitcom: shot single-camera, with no audience laugh track and character-driven humour – far closer to filmed drama in look and feel than to the traditional sitcom.

The latter variety of show is far more likely to win critical acclaim, and there have been many well-regarded examples over the last decade or so not least Pulling, Gavin and Stacy, Peep Show (albeit with its character-perspective twist) and Grandma’s House. Even the multi-camera sitcoms that have thrived have often done so by being a bit ‘meta’; both Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda regularly break the fourth wall and play with the traditions of the format.

Still, with the form apparently thriving on multiple channels (more so on BBC Two now as well, with the BBC having previously put much of its sitcom on BBC Three and BBC Four), this series of posts will run through some of my favourite sitcoms that I feel are in some way undervalued. They are a mix of shows that flopped at the time, modest successes since forgotten, and one runaway success that is nonetheless widely scorned. But I’m not going to attempt to cover the handful of more infamous ‘lost’ sitcoms like Hardwicke House and Heil Honey, I’m Home (the latter truly lost, its master tapes mostly unbroadcast and all missing believed wiped as far as I’m aware).

All of the sitcoms I’m going to write about are shows that have made me laugh, that I’ve got some affection for, and that I’d recommend people take a second (or in some cases, very likely first) look at. Some were reasonably well respected in their day; others got a somewhat raw deal in terms of reviews, ratings or both. That said, there generally are reasons why they are ultimately not held in high regard, albeit reasons that the viewer might do well to look past. The posts will be published over the next ten weeks, so do bookmark the site, subscribe to the RSS feed or follow me on Twitter if you’re enjoying them.

The Closure of BBC Television Centre

TVC and snow

I was of course sad to see the programmes marking the closure of BBC Television Centre last night. The shows themselves were worthwhile – a well-chosen booking of Madness, a band who played all the big music shows made in the studios over the years, and who retain their popular appeal, plus a retrospective hosted by Michael Grade. But it was very odd that the latter programme allowed so many celebs, in among their reminiscences, to make a range of ill-informed and often rather stupid arguments against the closure of TVC.

Of course, it’s sad to see it go. Indeed, it’s hard to get one’s head around the idea of the BBC selling Television Centre: to many, including me, it long seemed that TVC was the BBC. For people of my age, the association was forged on Blue Peter, Going Live and Record Breakers, and of course in the Broom Cupboard. And there’s no end of broadcasting history stretching even further back. Even as it was winding down, I still felt it was a modestly important moment in my life when I first stepped into it in 2008 – albeit that was as an audience member, and that meeting to discuss making my brilliant idea for a programme will probably now happen somewhere else…

But the rag-bag of arguments put forward on BBC4 last night against its closure prompted me to think about TVC in the context of the BBC and television production more broadly. Seen in this light it’s clear that, however sad it might be, continuing with TVC in its present form simply couldn’t be sustained.

The “television factory” was always there to do a job
Ultimately, TVC is there to do a job, just like any other TV facility. That’s why it was built, and indeed that’s what it will continue to be used for. The vague arguments against closing it seemed to be:

  • it has heritage and should therefore be kept going; well, the first part is true, and the listing of the building guarantees its continued existence, so the UK’s heritage systems have worked
  • it’s a good building to make television programmes; not really true any more, as we’ll see
  • BBC television production somehow needs to be all in one place; except it never has been, ever…

It’s important to understand that television production was designed into the very structure of TVC: it was thoroughly purpose-built. Unfortunately, that television production process was the process of the 1950s, when virtually all TV shows were made in the same way: either broadcast live or recorded as-live, in a multi-camera studio using video cameras after a period of rehearsal. Comedy, drama, light entertainment, cookery shows, you name it – it was all made in basically the same way.

Hardly any TV is made like that now: some sitcoms, panel shows, gameshows, magazine programming and a few other odds and ends. But significantly, drama had moved away from multi-camera setups mostly by the end of the 1980s (and entirely when The House of Elliot ended in 1994) and away from live broadcasting long before that – bar soaps, which TVC did not host anyway. Sitcoms have partly moved away from the setup as well, and those that stick with the traditional format can often only do so in a slightly ‘meta’ way (Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys – the latter not made in TVC, I know), with straight multi-camera sitcoms often derided as somehow unworthy (see My Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and others). The growth of independent TV production also hastened the move away from multi-camera production in the big traditional facilities. When Penelope Keith observed on BBC4 that Sport and Children’s had new homes but asked, “Where does what happened here go?” the answer is that what happened at TVC in terms of drama and comedy doesn’t happen like that any more anyway.

So for decades production at TVC has been somewhat in decline. In recent years it has reportedly become a bit of a ghost town, its work supplemented by hiring out its studios for independent network shows: famously on the day of the London bombings in 2005, Mock the Week and 8 out of 10 Cats were both due to record but only enough comedians for one show could make it to TVC – the panels were combined, the C4 show got made, and that week went un-mocked.

TV anoraks like me will have read many accounts from people involved in the technical side of TV production of just how difficult it is to make TV in a facility with 1950s methods hard-wired into it, and modern technology bodged into the old framework. It’s not for nothing that it is being closed for a thorough refurbishment before being reopened as a production facility in a couple of years’ time.

Into the modern world, out of west London

New Broadcasting House in Manchester being demolished last year

New Broadcasting House in Manchester being demolished last year

TV is made using modern technology, and technology changes. As an industry TV is grappling with the consequences of that (and this is not the place to get into debates about whether existing “channels” will become “content providers” with release dates rather than schedules), but in terms of production facilities there is a clear trend: older 1950s, 60s and 70s facilities are being shut down, and new ones built – indeed, TVC did well to hang on as long as it did. Pebble Mill in Birmingham ad New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road in Manchester (no end of BBC buildings seem to have been called New Broadcasting House at some point in their lives…) are now closed and demolished. In the independent sector, Granada’s Quay Street studio complex has shut, YTV in Leeds has closed in its old form though like TVC seems to be getting a new lease of life as an HD facility, and so on.

In the BBC specifically, there is of course a big of a shift out of London. The debate about whether it was right to shift entire departments north is for another day, but the BBC has always had strong regional centres and what’s happening now can be seen as boosting them: the facilities in Salford, Cardiff and Pacific Quay in Glasgow may be new, but there are long traditions of programme-making in those parts of the country; indeed, I was just as excited to do work experience a decade ago in New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road in Manchester as I later was to visit TVC – it’s where they made The 8:15 from Manchester! So BBC Television has always (well, ever since broadcasting was established across the whole of the UK) been about more than London.

Within London however, the BBC is undertaking a shift away from many of its old sites, and largely out of west London. But it’s important to remember that the BBC hasn’t always inhabited the west London locations it’s now associated with. North London used to be BBC territory far more than the west, although studios were dotted around everywhere: there was Alexandra Palace (in use for news until 1969, well after the opening of TVC, and the Open Univerity until the early 80s), Lime Grove (in use until 1991), Riverside Studios (in use until the early 1970s); plus central London for radio. Camden Palace, now Koko, was the BBC’s Radio Theatre from 1945 to 1972, succeeded by the Golders Green Hippodrome (used for television in the late 60s while the Shepherd’s Bush theatre was refurbished).

The move to west London happened in earnest post-war, and with the sale of TVC has now been largely undone. This is the culmination of developments arising from the technological shifts that moved TV production away from multi-camera by the 1990s. In the early 90s the BBC dispensed of its Television Theatre (which reverted to its previous identity, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire) and its Film Studios (again known as Ealing Studios and still a production facility) – the old divide between multi-camera video and single-camera filmed material having declined in importance. The BBC’s purpose-built rehearsal facility in Acton, the “Acton Hilton”,  has been demolished, after being relegated to storage use for many years (the move away from as-live multi-camera production also meant a move away from extensive rehearsal periods). Its archive on Windmill Road in Brentford was closed in 2011, albeit replaced by a purpose-built facility still out west in Uxbridge. Even the larger White City production and office complex is being wound down. Also, albeit not in west London, the World Service has moved out of Bush House.

So the sale of TVC is part of a much bigger shift, from London to the regions and from older facilities – however steeped in broadcasting history – to newer ones purpose-built for current production techniques. No doubt in thirty to fifty years’ time, these facilities will be looking out of date and debate will rage about their future.

The BBC’s flaghips, past present and future
For all that it had to be done, the sale of TVC does mean the BBC has vacated its flagship location. But the BBC has had more than one flagship location in the past: Broadcasting House and Alexandra Palace have also had that honour. The former is now the undisputed flagship once more – albeit that its new u-shaped architectural signature feature has initially become known as the place where BBC executives stand to resign – and nobody is making the case that the BBC should return to Alexandra Palace. TVC will also move to the status of historic location, like Ally Pally; MediaCityUK may well become the place where childhood memories of broadcasting are forged, with Blue Peter and other shows based there.

As for the future of TVC itself, its studios will mostly be refurbished as a modern facility, and then hired out to production companies including the BBC, which is leasing three of them and basing some of its office staff there too. In short, it won’t be too different, in its use as a production facility, from now. Space that is currently surplus to need will also get a use, with a heritage centre of some sort opening. From the way Danny Baker was going on last night you’d think the whole thing was being demolished and replaced with flats – although some of the newer buildings may not survive, the core of the facility has an assured future. One sad thing is that TC8, the studio long favoured for larger comedy and light entertainment shows, is probably not going to survive on account of its location away from the main block of studios.

Overall, it’s probably the right outcome for the place. Imagine if the BBC had just kept it going for its own sake, with huge amounts of it empty and unused, ever-less appropriate for the needs of modern TV production – sooner or later, it would have become a scandal and embarrassment, no doubt with Tory MPs queueing up to demand the disposal and demolition of the outdated white elephant. There’s a case for saying the BBC has been (perhaps unusually) clear-sighted in avoiding backing itself into that particular corner.

I last walked out of TVC into a snowy night in 2009 after a recording of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. That evening, Lauren Laverne and a camera crew were wandering around filming for a documentary celebrating a show then entering its eighth series; predictably, BBC4’s celebrations completely overlooked this particular long-running BBC comedy success. While it was right to celebrate the end of an era at TVC, and the programmes were overall enjoyable, nostalgia-fests of that sort seldom tell the entire story.

Note: I’m no BBC historian so sections of the above may include factual errors; polite corrections will be welcomed.

What should a calling card script do and what shouldn’t it do?

This year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival was hugely instructive in terms of both the craft and the business of being a screenwriter. I’ve got no track record at all in either, so I hadn’t intended to do any ‘advice’ type blog posts – I seldom write them, as there are plenty of people better qualified than me.

That said, looking back over my notes (almost 60 pages – typing them up took me a day and a half) it struck me that there are one or two things I’ve not read elsewhere, or at least not explicitly. This post covers one of them: spec scripts and calling card scripts. Much-discussed over the weekend, and not necessarily the same thing – any script that’s not been commissioned is written on spec, but that doesn’t mean any non-commissioned script is fit for use as a calling card script. Your early spec scripts probably just won’t be good enough to send out, and should be treated as learning exercises – the perils of sending stuff out too early, because either it’s not sufficiently developed or you’re not, were a recurring theme across many sessions.

But what about the calling card script? The script that shows what you can do and hopefully interests producers and agents in you. Conventional wisdom I’ve read and heard elsewhere starts from the premise that it won’t get made – it’s just there to get you noticed. That’s true (with vanishingly few exceptions). But some things that can be said to follow on from that aren’t so true: “write what you really want to, as it’ll never get made” can get you in trouble.

So here’s my conclusion, which wasn’t said explicitly by any of the speakers I heard, and one or two of them might even dispute it: but a calling card script should be commercial. It should not simply be a demonstration of storytelling and craft. It will be assessed by producers and agents as they would assess any other script: can they sell it, can they get it made? Even though formal events like the speed pitching at last weekend’s festival are essentially artificial and unusual events, the same yardstick will be applied: a project that elicits teeth-sucking and mutterings that it’s hard to get that kind of thing made is not useful, even if you’ve written the script really well.

TV series and serials are immediately more attractive than singles. Some genres and tones are more appealing than others, and it varies by channel. A brilliantly written script on an abhorrent topic would also probably be a bad idea. My 90-minute TV single will always be commercially problematic, no matter how good I can get it; a piece of hard sci-fi will also be hard to sell, albeit for subtly different reasons (niche genre, rather than format [EDIT see the comments below for more on this point]). “Ah,” you may say, “if it’s brilliant it’s brilliant, and it’ll get you somewhere no matter how difficult a sell it might first appear.” Maybe – but at the very least, you’ve made your job significantly harder, which you can ill afford in such a competitive environment. If you can’t get a script into someone’s hands or inbox, it doesn’t matter how well it showcases your talent and craft (on the up-side, it doesn’t so much matter if it’s rubbish, I suppose).

That said, a well-polished spec script that you don’t use as a calling card can still have its uses. Producers and agents, if they’re taken with your calling card script, may well ask to see a second piece of work, although this isn’t always crucial: Julian Friedmann insisted on one panel that he’d be willing to work with someone on the basis of a single script, if it was good enough; Rob Thorogood got his spec script produced by the BBC and when asked if he’d written anything else honestly answered no – but it didn’t matter, he still got his project made and it’s bloody good. But there were plenty of speakers who said they like to see a second sample, and it’s a common request from BBC Writersroom if they like the thing you’ve sent in. So I’m going to keep developing my 90-minute single as a credible writing sample, even though it’s the next project that will be ‘the’ calling card script: a TV pilot rather than something more tricky to sell. It’s still a story I’m keen to tell, of course – there’s never merit in trying to second-guess what people want and write it for the sake of your career rather than the story: if you’re not committed to writing it, your version will inevitably be tepid and unappealing. But there is merit in prioritising, from among all the ideas in your head or on your list of things to write, something that can be put in a commercially viable form.

There’s all sorts of other good advice about writing these scripts, and what might be commercially appealing: have an answer to the question of which channel it would suit, pitch it to appropriate agents and producers, and so on – but that stuff’s out there in abundance already. There was an excellent session on what the different channels are looking for, and when the video is out you should watch it if you’re on the delegates’ network. And there are of course arguments for writing what you really want to, and they should never be lost from sight: it will hopefully be distinctively yours, and put your voice across. But it will almost certainly be truly useful only if it can be pitched and sold.


Why doesn’t Outcasts work?

I rather like Outcasts, and I’m looking forward to stepping into Forthaven again when the next episode is broadcast. Nonetheless, the BBC has activated the contingency plan that exists for all new primetime shows, and decided to shift it to a graveyard slot: implicitly, they have declared it has failed and will not be recommissioned. And for all that I quite enjoy watching the show, I can’t help but feel they’re probably right to take that decision. So, why hasn’t it worked as well as everyone involved must have hoped?

There’s a lot goingfor Outcasts. I suspect the reasons I’m look forward to the next episode are to do with the lush photography – taking full advantage of the HD format – the excellent production design and special effects, the effective use of the South African location to create a foreign-looking world, and the strong cast. The world is well-sketched in its look and feel. So what’s the problem? No doubt many people within the BBC will be asking the same question right now. My thinking keeps coming back to two possible issues: one is that the stakes simply aren’t high enough; the other is that the rules of the world are not fully explained. The two are related.

Let’s look at the stakes first of all. The basic premise of the show rests on a single jeopardy: can a small human colony ensure the continued survival human race in a hostile, or at least uncertain, environment far from Earth? It’s a good premise in as far as it goes, but a lot of the time we are simply told about this: dialogue explains that the birth rate is low, many plant varieties are failing to grow and so on. But the meat of the drama is seldom directly related to this: yes, the ACs often provide the main plots and their existence arises from this jeopardy, but the stories are more often a matter of far more simple conflict: can group A (the humans) get along with group B (the ACs)? In fact, Forthaven seems pretty secure: it’s been established for a good few years by the time we join the story, is clearly quite large, can withstand big setbacks like the big whiteout in episode three, and apparently enjoys political stability. There seems to be no immediate threat of failure.

Combine that with the second problem – that the ‘rules of the world’ are not properly set out – and you have a recipe for muddy rather than compelling drama. By rules of the world I don’t simply mean what the laws say on Forthaven, rather I mean the framework within which the characters interact with each other: why and how are the police force and the scientific corp apparently run by the same person, why can a police officer get such easy access to the President and give him a telling off, where do these people sit within the apparently large society of Forthaven, how come the mathematical prodigy is allowed to run a pirate radio station, what does everyone else do for a living, how does the economy work, and, yes, what do the laws of Forthaven say? What sort of world is this, in other words?

Combine the two, and you’re left with a drama that’s not far removed from The Bill: Fleur and Cass chasing ACs around Forthaven feels not unlike June Ackland and Tony Stamp chasing toerags round the Jasmine Allen. At other times, the rather mild political powerplay involving the President could just as easily be an episode of a boardroom drama such as The Power Game. Both are great programmes, and recipes for highly effective drama, but with Outcasts the viewer has been sold a sci-fi show of some sort, and that’s not what we seem to be getting.

It’s also telling to consider what options seem not to have been pursued. Forthaven could have been portrayed as a frontier town and the show presented as a Western in space, but this seems to have been eschewed. Much of the drama takes place beyond the fence – we spend relatively little time on the streets of Forthaven and involved with the wider society there (indeed, it’s a remarkably small cast for a show of such potentially massive scope).

So there are many elements to the storytelling, some explored and some not… but none seems to dominate. Is this a sci-fi / action-adventure show, a character piece, a cop-style effort or a political drama? It seems to try to be each at different times. Perhaps a clearer focus on the issue of what world we are being shown would have enhanced the programme. The characters are rather good – they’re clearly distinct, and it’s clear enough where they’re coming from… But few are compelling. Perhaps if the stakes were higher, and the characters presented with tougher decisions to make and hurdles to climb over, they would engage us a bit more. I can’t really tell whether any character is on a particular arc: will Fleur become a monster, betraying the values she holds dear in the name of protecting them, as was suggested to great effect at the end of the first episode? Will there be a big pay-off to Stella’s reunion with her daughter? I didn’t quite feel as punched in the guts as I perhaps should when Lily rejected her mother at the end of episode two. And what is the point of Julius Berger? We’re repeatedly told he’s trouble, but all he does is wander round being sanctimonious and enigmatic, his motives unclear. All of this could have a great pay-off of course, but half-way through the series he seems annoying more than anything else. But if there’s a problem with the characters it seems to be not that they’re not well-drawn enough, but that they’re not being put in sufficiently gripping plots to allow them to come properly into relief.

Outcasts also exhibits many of the small flaws that blight primetime BBC drama: there is some clunky dialogue (“It’s not the future I’m worried about…” is fine; it doesn’t need finishing with, “it’s the past,” – we get it!); the plotting too often relies on implausibly high levels of stupidity and low levels of security (dangerous prisoners escape with remarkable ease, people who are clearly at risk from a madman on the loose are not given any protection, the same madman wanders unchallenged into the President’s office); and it’s very earnest, with almost no humour arising naturally from the characters, which is simply not convincing as a depiction of human relationships, on another planet or otherwise. But you can say all that of many much more successful shows on BBC One – the problems that have scuppered Outcasts seem to be more structural.

Comparisons with other shows are illuminating. The most obvious comparison seems to be Battlestar Galactica: humanity is reduced to a small group, removed from its homeworld, contending with a new race of human-like beings, with a baby apparently the key to the survival of both and an ambiguous scientist / agent provocateur knocking around whose motives seem unclear. But the contrasts are significant: for one thing, BSG presents two clear sources of jeopardy: the humans’ internal struggles, and a military threat from a hostile enemy – without the latter source of jeopardy and conflict, Outcasts instantly feels tamer. It’s also notable that the rules and relationships in BSG are instantly clear: the crew of Galactica function like any ship’s crew, a dynamic with which the audience is immediately familiar, while the role of the president and civilian authorities are again set out clearly, rooted in contemporary structures (the US presidency first and foremost) and ruthlessly exploited for drama. Outcasts lacks clarity over these institutions and relationships, and so is unable to produce convincing drama from them.

There are other possible comparisons: both Survivors and underrated US show Jericho presented communities of humans battling for survival after the normal infrastructure of human civilisation has been taken away from them. Again, in both the rules of the world – or lack of – were instantly clear and the source of much of the drama as different characters react to them in different ways. In Outcasts the drama has to come, as we have seen, from more ‘normal’-feeling cop or political-type obstacles for the characters.

Overall, it’s a real shame that Outcasts hasn’t been more successful: a compelling, adult science fiction series would have been a real asset to BBC One (will the promising-sounding fourth series of Torchwood finally deliver this in the summer, after the triumph of Children of Earth?). And Outcasts is certainly not awful: it’s about as good as The Deep, which again was watchable enough on its own merits… but given the amounts of talent and money involved, perhaps not quite good enough. It was telling that The Deep was in five episodes, clearly intended to be stripped across a week like Children of Earth, The Silence and the Criminal Days and Five Days serials, but presumably decreed not to be strong enough to merit it. And that’s the problem for Outcasts: it’s decent, but as a flagship drama for BBC One it invited judgment against very high standards, which it hasn’t been able to meet. For all that, a lot of the bile hurled at it by critics has been simply unjustified, and will probably dissuade the BBC from attempting any new sci-fi type projects for a long time to come, which would be a deeply unfair result.

TV review: Vexed by Howard Overman

BBC 2 has made a rare stab at drama with the new cop show Vexed. It’s gone down surprisingly badly, with some reviewers hailing it as representing all that is worst about British television. Which illustrates the sad truth that most TV reviewers are not especially interested in, or knowledgable about, TV drama. Vexed is a real winner, that seems to be picking up some word of mouth support… unfortunately it seems unlikely that it will be back for a second series.

Vexed is a chalk’n’cheese buddy cop show, and there’s no point pretending it’s massively original, but it is incredibly well-done. Toby Stephens’ Jack is the opposite of “those maverick cops with their averageflasks and boring unorthodox ways”: for him, the job of solving crime doesn’t dominate his life, it gets in its way. Lucy Punch’s altogether more professional Kate is capable of being just as bad, under his influence. Both the leads are great, and Kate in particular has enough pathos to keep the show grounded.

In may ways this is far more a modern version of The Sweeney than Life On Mars ever managed: it’s centred around a buddy relationship and gloriously unprofessional, un-pc policing. It balances that with the thick slab of knowing humour that’s essential to make that sort of thing work these days: its mix of humour, excitement and actual mystery (not the most puzzling mysteries ever seen, but more effective at keeping me guessing about the villain than LoM, or more highbrow efforts like Five Days) is expertly judged by writer Howard Overman.

Sadly, the production company responsible for the show, Greenlit, has just gone out of business and media reports suggest there may be some wrangling over who owns the rights to what. I hope that doesn’t prevent the BBC from commissioning more episodes, and that they are smart enough to ignore the bizarrely negative reviews. But between critical reaction and legal problems, the odds seem to be stacked against any more episodes being made than the three currently being shown.

Be sure to catch up with the first two episodes on iPlayer; the final episode airs on Sunday, 9pm, BBC2.

Second Coming or Looming Apocalypse? A panel discussion at the BFI on UK TV drama

[EDIT September 2010: video from this event is now available on the BFI website.]

Throughout May and June, the BFI has been running an extremely worthwhile season on UK TV drama, with screenings of a selection of the most compelling pieces made over the last decade and a bit, including some not available on DVD. Many were rather awkwardly scheduled for me to get to, but the war-based duo of The Mark Of Cain and Warriors that opened the season were a particular treat to see on the big screen.

The season climaxed last Monday with a sold-out panel discussion of writers, producers and commentators, chaired by Mark Lawson. That panel in full:

Tony Marchant
Jimmy McGovern
Donna Franceschild
Gub Neal
Nicola Shindler
Ben Stephenson (BBC Controller, Drama Commissioning)
David Butcher (Radio Times)

The panel picked up on some of the themes in Mark Duguid‘s  thoughtful talk opening the season on election night. The season has presented TV as a writer-driven medium (though there’s an argument to be had about the respective roles of writers and producers in TV, whereas film can be said to be director-driven and theatre more clearly writer-driven… though more on that later), and Duguid slightly apologetically described it as focusing on “authored” drama – no apology needed in my view, and the issue of “authored” versus “Holby” type drama raised its head in the discussion.

To summarise the premise of the season rather crudely: if the period from c.1960 up to the mid-80s represented a “golden age” of TV, as a certain atavistic strain of thought commonly holds, it is possible at least to identify a second generation of writers who emerged from that time onwards, arguably really making their mark on the small screen from the mid-90s. Whether you can call that a second “golden age” is at least as moot as the debate about whether there really was a first “golden age”.

A few key distinctions between the first and second generations of writers, and the television industry in which they worked, can be drawn. The first generation – including Dennis Potter, Troy Kennedy Martin and my particular favourite, Jack Rosenthal – were drawn from a range of backgrounds, sometimes theatre, sometimes journalism, sometimes other fields totally, not least because television drama as such did not exist in their youth; the second, by contrast, grew up with television. And while TV drama was viewed initially in terms of theatre, from the studio-bound nature of its production to the titles of the various anthology series of one-off plays (Armchair Theatre, Play for Today etc.), by the 1990s the language and techniques took their cues from film (Screen One, Film On Four etc.).

I do wonder how the transition between production techniques in television at around the same time interacted with this arguable generational shift. At the start of the 1980s, TV drama was still commonly made as it had been in the 1950s, that is in the studio on videotape tape using a multi-camera setup, with film inserts for location sequences; by 1990, a shift was well underway to single-camera shooting on film, and the remaining videotape-based dramas (such as Rumpole of the Bailey, the original run of Doctor Who, and finally The House of Elliot) now look distinctly odd to the modern eye. Did this shift in technologies encourage the change to more filmic idioms, or was it accelerated by them? Or is it an evidential phenomenon, that makes the “generations” look more different than they actually were, and disguises a picture of greater continuity – or at least more gradual transition – than the “generations” idea suggests? After all, Rosenthal remained active until his death in 2004, and we would undoubtedly have had more from Potter had he lived longer (whether we wanted it or not). Unfortunately I only thought of this after Duguid’s talk ended and it was too late to ask the question!

My own digressions aside, these were some of the themes framing the discussion among the panellists, which drew out some of the challenges facing UK TV drama. Most depressingly, a lack of funding, even relative to ten years ago, was always lurking not far from the surface. There is simply less drama being made and, as Nicola Shindler and Gub Neal reflected, funding it is getting ever-harder: budgets do not cover the costs of production in the way they once did, and it’s now necessary to find multiple partners to fund a project, much more like in film.

Historical drama served as an illustration for this: internationally the bottom has fallen out of the market completely, and only the BBC is making it. BBC4’s low budget historical dramas, Ben Stephenson suggested, show there are other ways of doing it than the traditional expensive approach, though they are, “mostly about dead celebrities,” sniped Mark Lawson. Stephenson’s reply wasn’t wholly unreasonable: when something is a success unfortunately it becomes a fashion, and he is now looking to ring the changes in BBC4’s drama output. Even so, Tony Marchant argued there should be more guerilla TV, including cheaper period stuff; he did one in 2009 (was he talking about Garrow’s Law?) for half the normal budget.

The comparison with the US was also inevitably made, which Duguid’s opening talk and several of the panel discussions after various individual screenings pre-empted admirably. Pure economics make it impossible for the UK to compete in terms of quantity, and it’s abundantly clear from this season that the best of British can easily compete with the best of American for quality. Moreover, while the US is great at producing 13 and 26-part series, single dramas, two-parters or short serials are pretty much unheard of in the States, save for pilots that don’t get picked up.

A more interesting comparison emerged, however: while commissioners in the UK have had an obsession with “high concept” pieces in recent years (which Nicola Shindler claimed was ebbing… though one or two others on the panel seemed less sure), US drama has been “low concept, high character” – in other words, all about stories and characters, not concept. Shindler should probably be heeded, however – she is, after all, highly successful at getting things commissioned. An interesting illustration was provided regarding Life on Mars as well: although commissioned as a high concept piece (“a 70s cop show like The Sweeney”), it was successful because viewers fell in love with the characters. Perhaps it was because of a perceived need to respond to this that its resolution  failed to do justice to either the concept or the characters, instead falling messily between the two stools.

Another accusation levelled at commissioners has been the perceived tendency to push scripts into genre, particularly thrillers, in order to make them more saleable. Handily, the man who commissions all the BBC’s drama was present, and refuted it – perhaps predictably, but also quite fiercely. Ben Stephenson flatly denied that he had ever, or would ever, push a writer to change a script into a thriller to get it commissioned. Donna Franceschild later suggested it’s a more subtle process than that: writers and producers compromise their work and their vision in order to second guess the market. This prompted a speech from Stephenson that – to his credit, I felt – can only be described as impassioned, arguing that a passionate writer is at the heart of all successful drama, and compromising the central vision will ultimately undermine the quality of the script (my heavy paraphrase but, I believe, a fair one).

The role of the writer, and the writer’s route into television, also came under scrutiny. Tony Marchant picked up, unprompted, on the BBC’s use of continuing drama, such as Casualty and Holby City, as an entry-point for young writers: the phrase “sausage machine” was used and the accusation that “your voice is lost” was levelled. Stephenson made a semi-effective defence of it, arguing it’s right for some writers, but other ways are needed for others – though curiously he cited Eastenders as a success story, not Casualty/Holby as raised by Marchant. One suggestion – from Marchant and picked up by ABW in the audience – was for a revival of studio drama, which could be cheap and provide a route in. Nicola Shindler was very dismissive of the idea – saying it would be going backwards, was not television, and people wouldn’t like it – though a better solution did not emerge.

Another question from the floor raised the issue of writers coming into TV from theatre. Jimmy McGovern offered a rather fascinating response: “This is going to sound awful, but theatre is the worst experience possible for writing television.” He offered the justification that theatre does not teach writers about structure and storytelling – even though McGovern (alongside Russell T Davies, Tony Marchant and other “second generation”-ers) started out in theatre. But McGovern does say fairly consistently that he learnt all he knows about writing TV on Brookside; theatre writers, he maintained, carry a card in their pocket that says “Licence to Bore.” So there you go.

McGovern’s contributions were characteristically dry and thoughtful, despite their absence in this account up to now. It emerged during the discussion that all three writers on the panel (McGovern, Marchant, Francheschild) are lapsed Catholics. McGovern advised parents, if they want their children to grow up to be writers, to raise them as Catholics: “you learn from an early age about the examination of conscience,” and therefore about motivation, which is crucial for successful drama. I was also struck by his observation that an hour is the perfect length for TV drama. Then again, “a BBC hour is 33% more than an ITV hour…” so you have to make more programme, for less money!

Overall, it was hard to know what to take from the discussion and the season more broadly. While the programmes presented demonstrated beyond doubt the strength of UK TV drama, its future looks inescapably bleak. Innovative forms of audio-visual storytelling, whether through a return to studio methods or through online productions like Girl Number Nine (and it was curious that the internet was not mentioned at all in the discussion beyond passing iPlayer references), may provide some respite, but it is hard not to feel that UK TV drama is shrinking back to a largely BBC-oriented core of a modest amount of authored drama, plus the landfill of Holby, Doctors etc. and that there will soon be precious little TV work for new writers to break into.

Disclaimer: any errors or inaccuracies in describing the discussion are entirely mine, and hopefully some video from the session will be made available by the BFI soon.