In praise, or at least defence, of The White Queen

Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth, with Max Irons as EdwardThis post contains spoilers for both the plot of The White Queen and, if you’re unfamiliar with it, late fifteenth century English politics as it really happened.

BBC One’s The White Queen, which concluded on Sunday, has attracted a truly remarkable amount of venom, nearly all of it undeserved. Just yesterday, some outlets rushed to run the story that it had been “cancelled” when it was in fact a serial and, as anyone familiar with the historical events it depicts could have told you, it really had reached the end of the compelling narrative it was relating. The eagerness of some people to stick the boot in was pretty astonishing, however. Now, I’m sure that for a professional medievalist it was probably a rather painful watch and could quite readily be nitpicked into oblivion. But I want to use this post to say why I enjoyed it both as a high quality slice of drama and as a very welcome bit of exposure for a period of history too often neglected in favour of the ever-popular sixteenth century.

While it’s true that The White Queen wasn’t textbook history, the place to go for that is a history texbook (for the textbook version of events depicted, go to this one, or for something equally authoritative but closer to storytelling, try this). The only obligation on the programme-makers is to produce ten hours of high quality drama. For my money they succeeded, and did so by presenting the basic outline of an exciting and fascinating slice of English history essentially accurately: Edward IV did make a marriage with Elizabeth that failed to advance England’s diplomatic interests and cocked a snook at his mentor Warwick; he did get kicked off his throne and have to re-claim it; George Duke of Clarence was an unstable figure who repeatedly rebelled against his brother, and may even have been drowned in malmsey wine; and Henry Tudor did ultimately seize the throne from a hapless Richard III, with his scheming mother pressing him on. So far, so historical.

The late fifteenth century is not a period of history, however, about which we have an abundance of detail regarding the personal relationships between the key figures; indeed, at times even the basic narrative of events is a little cloudy (as is particularly the case around Richard’s usurpation of the throne, of which we have hardly any reliable contemporary accounts). The programme-makers therefore have a lot of space to fill in terms of the detail of what we see on screen (exactly why Edward married Elizabeth, and the arrangements he made on his death-bed, are both good examples: we just don’t know what happened, so the programme has to show a reasonably plausible guess). Moreover, The White Queen was adapted from Philippa Gregory’s novels, and I can’t tell you which of the creative choices were made by her, and which by the producers. Nonetheless, I’d argue that the show on balance made its decisions wisely.

The focus on the women was clearly a conscious choice, and I presume comes from the novels. It doesn’t, as I believe Philippa Gregory has tried to suggest, show that “the women made history” in this period or anything like that; indeed, it makes it obvious that society and politics at the time were truly patriarchal and the role of women was principally to produce male heirs and wait at home for news from battle. Nonetheless, the focus serves the programme well: focus solely on the men would have left the female characters barely seen on-screen, and ten hours of thuggish men slugging it out would not really work as mainstream television drama. The focus also makes the dynastic considerations in English politics clear, which is impressive as they are quite hard to put across without a diagram. Better still, it also means the producers don’t have to show lots of very expensive battle scenes (and when they try, it must be said the limitations of even a lavish TV budget were very obvious, as the viewer is never convinced there are two armies on-screen).

In particular, the choice of Elizabeth Woodville as the central character offers a clear thread through the main events, although the point at which she enters the story does mean we didn’t get to see much of Henry VI’s madness and to understand why his reign was such a disaster. It also means that the series got off to a relatively slow start, with the really juicy plot turns coming from the second episode onwards; word of mouth appears to have been kinder to the show than initial reviews, as viewers who stuck with it found it rewarding. But I must say I can’t identify a better place in the history to start; maybe some kind of non-linear structure, telling the early part of the story in flashback from some later decisive point, would have remedied that problem.

Overall though, one of the nice things about drama generally, and why The White Queen withstood most of the minor liberties taken with the history (and I’ll get to those) is that on-screen characters are defined by their actions, and with the basic outline of events correctly shown the characters – perhaps more the men than the women – carry fair echoes of their historical counterparts. Edward IV was indeed an effective and mostly un-vindictive king (the historical Edward did not have Henry VI executed when he could have done, much to his personal cost); similarly, Richard is pleasingly balanced, accurately shown as loyal to Edward in his lifetime, and making a succession of bad decisions after it (albeit not quite the mistakes the real-life Richard made); and Clarence was indeed self-centred and arguably rather unhinged.

Faye Marsay as Anne Neville

Even from this standpoint however, the last two episodes were problematic because they showed a convoluted (albeit moderately clever) explanation of the deaths of Edward V and his brother in the Tower that departed from the overwhelmingly most likely historical explanation: that they were killed on the orders of their uncle Richard. I wouldn’t exactly say Richard is treated well by the show’s revised narrative: arguably the incestuous affection he develops towards his niece – ostensibly as a political ploy, but genuinely felt by the character, on my reading of the drama (confirmed in the US edit, which contains some gratuitous nudity from most of the female leads, including a love scene between Richard and the younger Elizabeth) – is at best one step up from murdering his nephews. It’s an interesting treatment of the character, but the true situation – a loyal lieutenant, lacking the skills for leadership and making a series of ever-more panicky and ill-judged decisions, culminating in a combined regicide and infanticide, and then his own death – would have served at least as well for the purposes of the drama. It also undermined the fictional Richard’s relationship with his wife at the end of her life, whereas the real-life king was reportedly much more upset by her death than the one we saw here. That said, and as an aside, Anne Neville’s journey from frightened girl to scheming eminence grise and ultimately to broken, guilt-wracked queen is one of the best story threads of the serial, and impressively portrayed by Faye Marsay in what IMDB suggests was only her second screen role. Similarly, Rebecca Ferguson and Amanda Hale were also excellent as the other main queens; the latter seems a little typecast currently in playing semi-demented women, but she does it brilliantly and certainly managed not to lose the viewer’s sympathy for Margaret.

But to wrap up the problems: the second of the biggies was the survival of Elizabeth’s second son by Edward. Not only is this nonsense historically, but it makes little sense in character terms either: it is very hard for the viewer to accept that Elizabeth will just sit back and not tilt for the throne with her surviving son, after all she has already put herself through. Of course, it’s not clear at the end that that’s what happened: the series finishes at the end of the battle of Bosworth, and doesn’t attempt to get into the political consequences of Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne – if you didn’t know the history, you might have expected a second series to pick up with Elizabeth trying to oust Tudor. I had rather expected the show to go up to Elizabeth’s death, by which time she had become the grandmother of the future Henry VIII. But looking at it in terms of cold story, really once matters are settled at Bosworth, the conflict that drives the drama is over, so I can understand the writers not risking a limp final episode or half-episode to wrap everything up in a bow.

Those slightly wayward choices aside, the serial really did put the whole saga on-screen in a way that was faithful to the beats of the history. It would be letting the show off the hook, however, not to acknowledge at least some of the holes that could be picked. I didn’t mind that it looked rather “chocolate box” – it’s a prime time drama on BBC One, and I thought the way the last couple of episodes in particular were shot looked sumptuous. But beyond the quality of the photography, the architecture was neither convincingly English (the filming taking place on the continent) nor, often, convincingly medieval; the period church interiors in particular were unconvincing, seldom resembling medieval Catholic churches at all – then again, there aren’t exactly many of those left untouched by the Reformation.

It can also be observed that some of the historical players, particularly nobles, were omitted entirely, conflated with other nobles or alive at a time when their historical counterparts were dead. But, frankly, good – fitting that amount of history into ten hours is a demanding task, and sacrificing a bit of detail for the sake of getting the outline of the key events on screen is not merely justified but essential. I had more of a problem with Edward IV personally murdering Henry VI, both for the idea that he would do it himself and for the depiction of the old king being smothered, when Henry was more probably killed by a blow to the head.

Amanda Hale as yet another unhinged woman, but she plays them so well - this time Margaret Beaufort

It’s also the case that the actors aren’t the right ages, for instance at the start of the series Margaret Beaufort, with her son Henry Tudor only 5 or so, should still have been in her late teens, having only been about 13 when she gave birth. In my view however the producers were right not to go overboard on distracting ageing make-up, or re-casting each part in “old” and “young” versions (with some sensible exceptions, for characters who start as children). Less well-judged were a couple of very modern-looking “trials” – although it’s true that Edward prosecuted Clarence personally, the production relied on the televisual grammar of modern courtroom dramas rather too heavily. The depiction of the Woodvilles’ witchcraft actually affecting the outcome of events is bobbins too (I’ve no problem with the idea that characters might have believed witchcraft had an effect, of course), although the subtle pay-off near the end with the reference to the ill-fated Prince Arthur almost redeemed it… but didn’t quite. And no doubt many costume and other details are out if you’re minded to look for them.

Overall though I do think that to grouse about the detail without recognising the serial’s strengths is to miss the wood for the trees: I was delighted to see this period getting a high profile treatment on television, and it has certainly re-kindled my enthusiasm for it. Some modest mis-steps aside, The White Queen made a decent fist of that difficult task: turning compelling history into compelling drama.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #9 Early Doors

EARLY DOORS_EP4What is it?
Early Doors was the next “people sitting around talking and nothing happening” sitcom co-created by Craig Cash after The Royle Family, this time with Phil Mealey. It is set entirely in the Stockport pub The Grapes, and follows landlord Ken, his family (work-shy mother and student daughter) and his wider family, the pub’s regulars.

It ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Two in 2003 and 2004.

Why was it good?
Early Doors is another of the series that was well-regarded at the time, but has perhaps become a bit obscure since, being overshadowed by the return of The Royle Family for interminable Christmas specials. That said, it occasionally pops up as a repeat on BBC Four.

While the talky bits are full of quick, but very dry, Northern humour, the series is given an extra dimension by a number of through-line plots over the course of each series. These were added, according to the DVD commentaries, on the advice of Nicola Shindler and rather against the instincts of Cash and Mealey who wanted to stick to the droll talky stuff. The understated plotlines about Ken’s daughter tracking down her real father (series 1) and the threatened closure of the pub and possible romance for Ken (series 2) give the show a weight that makes it all the more watchable and effective. The cast are of course also excellent throughout (so much so that a couple of them, James McAvoy and Maxine Peake, were poached by Shameless between series). It’s a show that does a particularly good job of creating its own world for the viewer to revisit: warm and funny, but not without its rough edges.

Why is it underrated?
Some aspects of the show are down to taste: it’s very Northern, and the business of people sitting around talking and nothing very much happening (or at least not very obviously or quickly) probably limited its appeal. Those who liked it, however, undoubtedly really liked it, and it’s included here in the hope of nudging it to keep alive in the memory for a bit longer rather than because it got any particularly raw deal at the time.

Can I watch it?
Both series are available on DVD.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #6 Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps

two pintsWhat is it?
Two Pints starts off as the story of five friends in early adulthood, with little education and even less money, striking out on their own in Runcorn (it draws closely on the experiences of creator Susan Nickson, who is the same age as her characters and was therefore impressively young to have a sitcom commissioned).

The friends comprise two couples: the homely pairing of well-intentioned layabout Jonny (Ralf Little) and the only slightly more industrious Janet (Sheridan Smith), and the altogether more feisty and barbed pairing of mechanic Gaz (Will Mellor) and the perpetually angry Donna (Natalie Casey); the shallow, self-obsessed and squeaky Louise (Kathryn Drysdale) makes up the five.

Two Pints ran for nine series plus sundry specials from 2001 to 2011, totalling 80 episodes by my count (though IMDB says 83 for some reason), across BBC Two, BBC Choice and BBC Three.

Why was it good?
Like many of the sitcoms featured in these posts, Two Pints limits its appeals somewhat by one of its key characteristics: it’s only for you if you like really crude humour. But it was a warm show: the humour was unsubtle, but this was not a show about people being horrible to each other; ultimately, it was a show about a group of friends that had a warm tone, verging on the cosy.

The cast was superb – all now well-regarded actors, not least Sheridan Smith who has gone from starring in a widely-maligned show to being flavour of the month – and the characters also well-drawn and capable of driving the plot. These two things allowed for some really compelling episodes, such as the two-hander at the start of series 8 between Will Mellor and Sheridan Smith, apparently shot all in a single as-live take.

The show also gave rise to several specials: a musical at the start of series 4 remains probably the best, and was followed by a highly effective horror ep at the end of series 6, the live broadcast of the first episode of series 7 (the last live sitcom to come from Television Centre?), a crossover episode for Children in Need with the other two BBC Three sitcoms created or worked on by Susan Nickson, Grownups (also starring Sheridan Smith) and Coming of Age, and finally after series 8 a second musical episode and then Sliding Gaz, a bold two-hander between Mellor and Casey, switching between two possible scenarios for Gaz and Donna, the ‘real’ one being revealed at the start of the ninth and final series.

Why is it underrated?
Few things in relation to television annoy me more than the way in which Two Pints has become the ready punchline to many a lazy joke, as a byword for poor quality. It’s very hard to see how this can be justified: bad shows do not run for nine series or become the de facto flagship programme on their channel.

The reasons for the general low esteem in which the show is held are mostly (but not entirely) unrelated to its content and more to do with context. At the time of its launch the knives were well and truly out for anything that looked like traditional TV, particularly multi-camera sitcoms. Contemporary working class characters are always somewhat unloved within the TV industry, and by the second half of the 2000s the buzzword of the day was “chav” – a term that could be applied to both Jonny and Janet in Two Pints. The programme was also arguably rather over-exposed by the constant looping of repeats (mostly of series 2 to 6) on BBC Three at around the same time.

That said, as noted above the humour is undoubtedly a bit divisive and it’s certainly possible to argue that the show ran for too long. Story-wise, the relationships between the characters were played out by the end of series five (by which point the writers had taken them through the inevitable splitting up, cheating and getting back together again), although Louise was egregiously one-dimensional and really had little to offer story-wise after about the third series. From series six onwards the stories became more forced and contrived, with the show deliberately jumping the shark to explain the writing-out of Jonny after Ralf Little left between series. By the final series (which I’ll admit I’ve not seen – I’m part-way through a re-watch of the show and have series nine sitting on my DVD shelf waiting for me to get to it), only Gaz and Donna remained of the original cast. Sadly Two Pints ended on a cliffhanger in the hope of a re-commission; Zai Bennett’s purge of BBC Three comedy shows put paid to that. A more dignified wrapping-up a little earlier might have been preferable, but it certainly deserves to be remembered as a well-written, well-acted and successful show, not as the byword for bad taste it has become.

Can I watch it?
All series are available on DVD, though sadly the days of constant looped repeats of the show on BBC Three are long over.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #5 Joking Apart

joking apart 2What is it?
The series opens with its protagonist, Mark Taylor (Robert Bathurst), performing a stand-up routine beginning with the words: “My wife left me.” A romcom in reverse, it starts with Mark’s separation from Becky (Fiona Gillies), and flashes back to their meeting and the earlier stages of their relationship. Much of the comedy is farce, as Mark tries to win Becky back, usually involving their friends Robert and Tracey (Paul Raffield, Tracie Bennett) and Becky’s lover Trevor (Paul-Mark Elliott).

Joking Apart ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Two in 1993 and 1995.

Why was it good?
Joking Apart was Steven Moffat’s second TV series, after Press Gang, and his first sitcom. Believing that the second series of Press Gang would be its last (wrongly, it turned out), Moffat began pitching an idea for a sitcom set in a school, drawing on his own experiences as a teacher. His producer Andre Ptaszynski observed that in conversation he spoke far more passionately and engagingly about the divorce he was going through than about his proposed sitcom, and suggested he write about that instead.

The scripts contain Moffat’s trademarks in spades: intricate plots that close around the characters like a steel trap – in this case as excruciatingly acute farce, rather than timey-wimey story arcs – and relentless punchlines in almost every word of dialogue. The nature of the subject material means that the stakes are high for the characters from the get-go, which heightens both the drama and the comedy. The show also benefits from an excellent cast who sell all the characters to good effect.

Critics of Moffat’s ability to write women (a debate I don’t want to get much into, frankly) should have a look at this show: while Becky is the instigator of the end of the marriage, reflecting how Moffat’s own first marriage ended, she is often a more level-headed and sympathetic character than the angry and emotional Mark.

The penultimate episode particularly sticks in the mind: concussed after a knock to the head, Mark hallucinates a new friend, Dick, who seems to be the talking personification of his own penis. Dick accompanies him throughout the episode, with only Mark able to see him, offering a brutally frank and funny critique of male sexuality throughout, and eventually condemning Mark as a “brainhead” when he does the decent thing and turns down an inappropriate proposition.

joking apart 1Why is it underrated?
This is another sitcom whose subject matter will instantly alienate a chunk of the potential audience, its acidic and brutal treatment of it even more so. For those with a taste for it however, Joking Apart undoubtedly held a lot of appeal on broadcast.

Part of the reason why the show is remembered by some as a “lost classic” rather than “classic” without qualification was the problematic nature of its scheduling. There was a long delays between transmission of the two series: the second eventually aired in early 1995, two years after the first, the pilot having been shot in 1990, and lacked a stable time slot. Moffat has stated that because of this, this sitcom actually lasted slightly longer than the marriage it was inspired by.

For today’s audience, it’s got to be said that the use of Chris Rea’s Fool If You Think It’s Over as a title song massively and jarringly datestamps it to the early 1990s, though the comedy itself is fairly timeless.

Overall however, Joking Apart delivers a fine line in farce, some acute observations on relationships and an occasionally vicious finishing touch.

Can I watch it?
Rather pleasingly, both series are available on DVD thanks to the efforts of a fan, who bought the rights, digitally restored the episodes and set up his own independent DVD label purely to release the show (and he went on to release Moffat’s widely-maligned sitcom Chalk too – or at least its first series, before the recession bit and further releases became uneconomical).

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.

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.

In the Concrete Doughnut

I hadn’t previous envisaged that my first ever visit to Television Centre would involve me having to re-clothe myself, but I found myself having to reinstate my belt round my waist just inside the main gate. Last night I went to see a recording for the next series of That Mitchell and Webb Look: now, if you’ve been to a TV recording like this before this will all be old hat, but as it’s the first time I’ve done it, I’m going to write a blog post.

In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to attend a studio recording: twice before I have been too far back in the queue and turned away, despite having tickets. Now, this is fair enough: it’s made explicitly clear that they give out more tickets than they have spaces for, and for good reason – the idea is, after all, to be sure of getting a sufficient audience, and the entertainment experience of the evening is a secondary consideration…

…And boy, does it show! Audiences are treated as little more than laughter cattle: the whole thing is so shambolically organised that the only experience I can call on to liken it to is flying out of Heathrow Airport. It’s that bad.

Firstly, the queue system is a farce. There are usually multiple programmes being recorded, and the queues are formed on the pavement outside TVC. Now, that’s fair enough: maybe there is no other space on which to do it. But are there signs to say which queue is which, or any staff around? Nope, or at least not for a long time. Eventually some staff appear and go along the queue checking people are in the right one, but not very efficiently: they do two passes, and still find people on the second pass who have not been caught by the first. Now, the BBC has been recording programmes with audiences in this location for years: why can’t they get simple things like organising queues right? It’s not as if there is a shortage of staff: once you get inside, there’s no end of people marshalling you about. Queues can be organised successfully – Wimbledon only runs for two weeks of the year, but it’s absolutely peasy, with plenty of people on-hand to direct you to the right place.

Then there is security. Now, it’s fair enough that there are scanners, but do they have to be so sensitive that you need to take your belt off? And why can’t there be signs warning people of this in advance? There are stewards milling around occasionally and haphazardly mentioning it, but many people miss the instruction and it slows the process down. After the scanner, there is also no real room for putting your stuff back in your pockets and re-robing yourself as necessary – hence I had the slightly odd experience with my belt. Again, there’s not really any excuse for this: I’ve been in four different national and supra-national Parliament buildings, the Royal Courts of Justice and to numerous party conferences, all requiring scanner-level security, and all managing it better than the BBC.

So, once inside (having resisted the temptation to take a photo of the TARDIS prop outside the entrance, mainly because my phone was still in my bag) we ended up in a lobby area with a food counter and a BBC shop. The food counter had two people serving, to cater for the audience of three different shows. It was a long time before we got food (and some amazingly expensive red wine), but as studio admission was due to start in twenty minutes, we reckoned we had time to polish it off. We reckoned wrong: audiences started to be called almost instantly, with instructions over the PA to form queues in a space that had no obvious location for queue-forming, among all the tables and chairs. So we had to join the queue, wolf our food and neck the wine.

I’m aware this has been a big whinge so far, and also that it’s fashionable to bash the BBC at the moment: rest assured all that stops here. For, while I was pretty seething by the time I got to my seat in Studio 8, from that point on it was all rather enjoyable.

The first and most pleasant surprise was the warm-up act: “Is that Lucy Porter??” I asked – the answer was yes, it was! Lucy Porter doesn’t have what you’d call gag-based comedy, but she’s an utterly lovely presence, and runs an extremely funny line in banter – she’s a stand-up I had hoped to see at some point, so that was a rather lovely bonus!

The sketches that the BBC milked our laughter for came as a mixture of live action in the three separate sets that were up in the studio (two directly in front of the audience, one behind those and visible via screens) and pre-recorded items on screens. The studio sketches were mostly at the whimsical end of Mitchell and Webb’s output, but some of the pre-recorded ones were among their most satirical and scathing: I was particularly delighted to see religion, homeopathy, The Apprentice and vegetarianism getting particularly well-judged kickings. The other great highlight among these was an excellent James Bond spoof.

The live sketches were much as I suppose I had expected: each was recorded twice with occasional pick-ups (though generally the first take seemed better to me!). The final set, after a second costume-change into the mis-matched office-sharing characters went quite badly, however: Robert Webb in particular became prone to fluffing his lines, and technical problems led to several lengthy breaks in recording (one extended further, from what I could hear, by David Mitchell needing to go to the toilet). With two sketches completed, Webb eventually exploded and went, “oh shit! I keep screwing this up!” Everyone laughed, but after a moment it looked like he was genuinely annoyed at how things were going. Following some conferring with the floor manager, they announced they were calling it a day, and presumably returning to the office sketches later.

Overall it was an enjoyable evening, and all the sketches were to a very high standard – remarkable considering how much material Mitchell and Webb have produced over the last couple of years – and maybe even a step up from the second series. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished episodes on screen. As for attending future recordings, I’ve not been totally put off but the BBC really have no excuse for their shabby organisation.

Farewell to the Concrete Doughnut?

Far sadder than Ming Campbell’s departure, though perhaps no less inevitable, is the report that the BBC is planning to sell Television Centre, whereupon it will no doubt be knocked down and replaced with housing.

As a child raised on Going Live and Blue Peter, I find this extremely sad to contemplate: it’s an iconic building and really ought to be listed. But all the old BBC facilities are going the same way: Pebble Mill has been replaced by the Mailbox in Birmingham, and New Broadcasting House in Manchester – the third and probably least marvellous in the BBC’s trinity of English Concrete Monstrosities – is due to be knocked down when the new facility in Salford is ready. Big new BBC buildings have also been opened in Cardiff and Glasgow recently, and no doubt elsewhere too.

The move to Manchester is no doubt partly responsible, but only partly. The main problem is that television programmes are no longer made like they were in the 1960s when TVC was built. Digital editing has rendered the traditional “multi camera” format for drama obsolete, while high quality lightweight cameras make recording large amounts of a programme on location viable now in a way that it never used to be – hence the Monty Python “this room is surrounded by film!” sketch.

Indeed, it goes deeper still: TVC’s set-up used to be, as I understand it, that programmes would be shot in a studio, but actually recorded to videotape, or to film, in a separate suite in the basement. It seems weird now, but that and many other facets of its original design (albeit often now amended) have left TVC looking hopelessly out of date, and being used for fewer and fewer productions. It now seems to be more economical simply to rent out studio facilities as required, and shift the permanent things like news out to other BBC buildings.

Of course, the BBC has always had multiple studio facilities in London: Lime Grove was closed amid some fanfare in the early ’90s and the Corporation used to own Ealing film studios. Even so, a BBC without TVC is an idea that will take a heck of a lot of getting used to. I really must try and get in there for a look round before the bulldozers move in…