Season Reviews, TV

THIS IS GOING TO HURT makes you feel the pain, humour and tragedy of modern British healthcare

Have we reached the point yet where we can collectively agree that the ‘clap for the NHS’ phenomenon during the height of the Covid pandemic was a tokenistic gesture at best? This Is Going to Hurt really brings home how unintentionally insulting our efforts were.

Not that Adam Kay’s adaptation of his best-selling memoir of the same name directly covers these events, or even references Covid, but across seven episodes it rather brilliantly brings home the stark reality of just what the National Health Service does on a daily basis. To say doctors, nurses, clinical staff and more go above and beyond is an incredible understatement. Kay’s series presents them, undoubtedly accurately, as modern heroes fighting against a system driving them into the ground.

One might suspect the resulting series would be a highly depressing journey through the darkest corners of hospital life but This Is Going to Hurt is no bleak episode of Casualty or existential hour of Holby City. Kay’s show manages to accomplish what his memoir did in balancing the melancholic and downright despairing with the deeply hilarious. His series can veer from razor sharp wit all the way to tragic, shocking consequences in a heartbeat, and does so without ever missing a step.

It is, quite simply, one of the finest depictions of the NHS we have perhaps ever seen on screen.

Continue reading “THIS IS GOING TO HURT makes you feel the pain, humour and tragedy of modern British healthcare”
Doctor Who, TV

Book Review + Author Interview: THE LONG GAME (Paul Hayes)

We all remember the improbability of Doctor Who’s return in 2005 after sixteen years off screen, barring one semi-canonical TV movie in 1996. It seemed, for fans, an impossibility after years not only in the wilderness but in the perceived rear window of television history. Doctor Who was cheap, cheesy and passe in the post-modern world.

Russell T. Davies entirely reinvented the series and changed that perception from the ground up once he unveiled Christopher Eccleston as a stripped-back, modern Doctor with a jolly northern brogue, dress sense like your semi-trendy uncle, and the brooding angst beneath of a man who was transformed from the eccentric old man with flamboyant costumes into the last of the Time Lords. Taking the stylistic precepts British viewers had grown used to with a decade of American pop cultural imports, ‘RTD’ made Doctor Who relatable, likeable, down to earth and even a bit trendy in a way it probably had never quite been before.

We know this story. Some of us might even know the backstory of how the revival was produced, of how Davies and Bad Wolf productions turned BBC Wales in Cardiff into a 21st century TV producing powerhouse. It is all well documented. Less so is the premise of The Long Game: 1996-2003 – The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who, in which Paul Hayes does what the book says on the tin and sketches out a lost chapter in Doctor Who history. One of numerous reasons his book is a resounding success is for just how much he brings to light a story most of us won’t even necessarily know we wanted, yet it turns out to be a compelling, widespread tale not just about Doctor Who, but a much wider television landscape.

After reading The Long Game, you really will never quite look at Doctor Who again in the same way.

Continue reading “Book Review + Author Interview: THE LONG GAME (Paul Hayes)”

The Office, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Downsize’ (1×01)

The opening episode of The Office establishes, in broad strokes, the majority of storylines and thematic ideas that will run across the entirety of the two series and fourteen episodes of the show’s run.

Downsize first and foremost introduces the key, signature character of David Brent, our protagonist as played by co-writer/director Ricky Gervais, and placed him in context. Brent, almost immediately, works as a comedic creation. Gervais, and co-writer/director Stephen Merchant, provide an opening scene which gives us a very clear flavour of who Brent is – a self-aggrandising joker desperate to impress, yet without the arrogance that would distance him from the audience. Gervais plays Brent so painfully cheesy and wilfully, blissfully unaware of how uncool he is, that you can’t help but immediately find him funny. His opening monologue, delivered to an incumbent forklift driver called Alex, is a perfect introduction.

Gervais and Merchant then swiftly introduce the office setting that will be crucial in their depiction of a workplace purgatory; a status quo of middle England static inertia, characterised in how drab Slough—the location of paper merchants Wernham Hogg—is presented in the credits. Concrete edifices, a holdover from the brutalist architecture of the 1960s that infested towns across England; roundabouts; eternally overcast skies; and finally the view of an office building that could be any industrial estate in the country. The interior is equally unremarkable, and indeed was constructed as a set around a largely defunct office space that Gervais & Merchant wanted to retain the shabbiness off – a sense of eternal coffee stains and badly cleaned interiors. The employees themselves appear lifeless and drained of energy for their work.

It is perhaps the introductory to camera moment for Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), one of the audiences’ relatable surrogates, that perhaps sums up the initial impression of the setting of this new comedy. “I’m a sales rep, which means that my job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantity and type of paper, whether we can supply it to them and whether they can pay for it… and I’m boring myself talking about it…”

Continue reading “TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Downsize’ (1×01)”

Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.

Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm.

You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.
Continue reading “Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism”

TV, Writing

THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF is exactly what we need right now

Precipitously timed as we head into deeper, restrictive Covid-19 measures in the U.K., The Great British Bake Off is a breath of fresh air.

Yes, I’m a fan of this show, particularly in recent years. I didn’t get on with Mel & Sue generally but once they left, and the charming mixture of Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig filled the breach when the show transitioned from BBC1 to Channel Four, it rapidly became a show I enjoyed with my wife as opposed to doing other things while she had it on. As with any ‘reality’ show, the combination of presenters and on-screen talent are the key ingredients to engagement. These kind of shows are, as a result, entirely subjective – I may have found Mel & Sue irritating, but many would have turned away from the show with Noel & Sandi taking their place, or the posh, grandmotherly Mary Berry being replaced by the equally posh, schoolmistress-y Prue Leith.

For me, the combination worked, and it allowed the fantasy of Bake Off to engulf me whole. And it is a fantasy. Bake Off exists in a hermetically sealed, English-rose depiction of Britain, one where the sun always shines on canvas tents surrounded by bunting in the gardens of manor houses and stately homes. It’s as if the 19th century gentry allowed the peasants to have a bit of fun on their grounds, yet at the same time it never strives to be elitist. Bake Off feels inclusive, warm and good natured, even if ultimately it’s not really about baking. It’s about personal empowerment, building self-esteem, and proving worth in a fantastical, alternate-universe England where we all live in harmony.

In 2020, more than ever, Bake Off is a pleasant fiction.

Continue reading “THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF is exactly what we need right now”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03)

Thus far, One Foot in the Grave has portrayed a dim view of British society at large through the prism of Victor Meldrew, and The Valley of Fear continues that trend.

Alive and Buried saw Victor the victim of a heartless corporate machine, replacing human capital with technological without so much as a second thought for what it might do to the self-esteem of a long-term, loyal employee. The Big Sleep sees Victor frustrated by boorish neighbours who think nothing of playing loud music and throwing garbage over the fence into his garden. The Valley of Fear compounds these societal problems that Victor faces by having him, off-screen before the episode begins, mugged by a gang of youths who steal his jacket and daub rude graffiti on the side of his house. David Renwick expressly tackles very present anxieties for the elderly when it comes to youth culture or youth subculture, but ends up inverting them for comic effect, and perhaps to make a wider sociological point.

Outside of this, The Valley of Fear sees Renwick starting to construct elements of the more labyrinthian plotting we will see refined in later seasons, particularly with the central gag involving sweet, kindly old Mrs Birkitt being unintentionally locked away in the Meldrew’s loft overnight as Renwick stitches together a confluence of plotlines including a radiator making a recurring tapping noise and community attempts to assemble a neighbourhood watch group, all of which climax in Victor’s realisation he has become the one-man gang he has been so afraid of. One Foot’s comedy is almost entirely built on misunderstanding inflected with hints of horror and moments that are just plain uncanny – the sideboard everyone can smell but Victor until the end, when the gag is reversed, is one of those unexplained One Foot mysteries designed for another purpose.

The result of this is that you can continue to see One Foot’s comedic elements slowly coming together in The Valley of Fear, even if it lacks the initial strength of the opener and the pathos of its immediate predecessor.

Continue reading “TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03 – Series Retrospective #3)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the third episode of the first series, The Valley of Fear, which first aired on January 18, 1990…

Thus far, One Foot in the Grave has portrayed a dim view of British society at large through the prism of Victor Meldrew, and The Valley of Fear continues that trend.

Alive and Buried saw Victor the victim of a heartless corporate machine, replacing human capital with technological without so much as a second thought for what it might do to the self-esteem of a long-term, loyal employee. The Big Sleep sees Victor frustrated by boorish neighbours who think nothing of playing loud music and throwing garbage over the fence into his garden. The Valley of Fear compounds these societal problems that Victor faces by having him, off-screen before the episode begins, mugged by a gang of youths who steal his jacket and daub rude graffiti on the side of his house. David Renwick expressly tackles very present anxieties for the elderly when it comes to youth culture or youth subculture, but ends up inverting them for comic effect, and perhaps to make a wider sociological point.

Outside of this, The Valley of Fear sees Renwick starting to construct elements of the more labyrinthian plotting we will see refined in later seasons, particularly with the central gag involving sweet, kindly old Mrs Birkitt being unintentionally locked away in the Meldrew’s loft overnight as Renwick stitches together a confluence of plotlines including a radiator making a recurring tapping noise and community attempts to assemble a neighbourhood watch group, all of which climax in Victor’s realisation he has become the one-man gang he has been so afraid of. One Foot’s comedy is almost entirely built on misunderstanding inflected with hints of horror and moments that are just plain uncanny – the sideboard everyone can smell but Victor until the end, when the gag is reversed, is one of those unexplained One Foot mysteries designed for another purpose.

The result of this is that you can continue to see One Foot’s comedic elements slowly coming together in The Valley of Fear, even if it lacks the initial strength of the opener and the pathos of its immediate predecessor.

Continue reading “ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03 – Series Retrospective #3)”

Doctor Who, Essays, TV

DOCTOR WHO Season 12 is Regenerating… Back into Itself

Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.

I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.

Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.

It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.

Continue reading “DOCTOR WHO Season 12 is Regenerating… Back into Itself”
His Dark Materials, Season Reviews, TV

HIS DARK MATERIALS (Season 1) is a slick adaptation lacking magic (TV Review)

Until the BBC, in league with HBO, decided to tackle Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, it remained one of the greatest, unfilmed epic adventure stories in modern literature.

There was, granted, an attempt in 2007 with The Golden Compass, directed by Chris Weitz, but despite starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and a host of talented thespians in support, it failed to capture enough critical acclaim & audience imagination (and crucially box office) to warrant adapting not just Pullman’s first novel, Northern Lights, but the subsequent two sequels – not to mention launch the career of star Dakota Blue Richards, playing central heroine Lyra Belacqua. On the face of it, His Dark Materials should be a slam dunk as a success story; a plucky heroine, a quest narrative, magical realms, talking bears, witches and megalomaniacal villains. Except it isn’t quite that simple.

Though this kind of genre may lend itself to family friendly entertainment, a Harry Potter-esque story of good vs evil, Philip Pullman’s books are incredibly dense, complicated and challenging pieces of world-building crammed with the kind of philosophical ideas that your JK Rowling’s or George Lucas’ do not touch. His Dark Materials, over the three books, goes to some seriously dark places – the climax of Northern Lights is built on such a moment. Adapting these books is not nearly as easy as they may look from the outset, bucking convention in the ideas Pullman presents. The Golden Compass proved one film was not enough space to pull this off. The BBC’s His Dark Materials suggests even an eight-part television series might not be up to the challenge.

As despite the fact Jack Thorne’s scripts put everything from the first novel (and a bit from the second) on screen, the first season of His Dark Materials lacks the key component present in Pullman’s writing: magic.

Continue reading “HIS DARK MATERIALS (Season 1) is a slick adaptation lacking magic (TV Review)”
Film, Good Omens, Reviews

GOOD OMENS (Season 1) is a glossy but frustrating attempt to capture Pratchett’s magic (TV Review)

Everything pointed toward Good Omens being one of the TV highlights of 2019 yet, in truth, it could likely turn out to be one of the year’s greatest disappointments.

The ‘why?’ of this is, to an extent, confounding. Good Omens derives from much loved source material, a one-off 1990 fantasy comic novel by the joint literary powerhouses of Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett. It tells an epic, cosmic story across 6000 years of human history, tackling the classic Biblical concept of Armageddon and the rise of the Anti-Christ through a delightfully oddball British lens. It is festooned with a variety of inventive comic characters, from ancient angels and demons through to surly modern witchfinders and ever-present prophets. It never takes itself too seriously while remaining a potent reminder, right at the end of the Cold War era, of man’s ability to self-destruct in the most apocalyptic of ways. It is also underpinned by an unlikely, history-spanning friendship between two ideological enemies which, again, reflects the end of an era. The world is ending. Long live the world.

While personally I don’t consider Good Omens anywhere near the best work of Pratchett or Gaiman, lacking the finesse, wit and structure of their strongest novels, there is no reason Good Omens couldn’t and shouldn’t have made for a strong TV adaptation. And TV is certainly the ideal medium for a fractured, multi-strand, ensemble story that weaves everyone together at the end. Terry Gilliam was all set to make it in the early 2000’s with Johnny Depp & Robin Williams headlining, boasting a script Gaiman claims was in fine fettle, but you wonder just how adequately a two hour or so film could have threaded everything in Good Omens together. TV gives it room to breathe, room to build up the core dynamic between angel Aziraphale & demon Crowley which exists at the heart of the book. Gaiman’s scripts all live up to this over the six parts and yet… it doesn’t work.

The more I think about why Good Omens doesn’t work, the more the answer becomes… well, ineffable.

Continue reading “GOOD OMENS (Season 1) is a glossy but frustrating attempt to capture Pratchett’s magic (TV Review)”