Cucumber on Channel 4

A friend and colleague yesterday asked me if I still write. I haven’t written anything other than marketing copy or emails for a few years but I have been watching a fair amount of TV. Not as much as I used to but this January and February I’ve followed three series: Broadchurch, Wolf Hall and Cucumber.

As I tried to go to sleep last night I couldn’t get the latest episode of Channel 4’s Cucumber out of my head. It was shocking, in the sense that I really didn’t see what happened coming and it was disturbing. It felt like the sort of thing that could happen in real life and I had to remind myself I’d watched actors working with a fabulous script by Russell T Davies of whom I a fan.

Davies of course wrote Queer As Folk back in the late 90s about a group of young gay men in Manchester. That series was shocking at the time in its portrayal of fairly explicit gay sex and Cucumber comes in the same vein, if you will, only this time it’s about a group of middle-aged gay men in Manchester.

I could try to write something serious about why I’m interested in a drama about northern gay men. But instead I’ll say something glib which is who wouldn’t want to watch a drama about a group of people of roughly similar age to you but with relatively few responsibilities and a lifestyle which is subtly different from the one you find yourself living. TV is about escapism after all.

But last night’s episode, which I won’t ruin too much for those watching on catch-up, was a kick to the guts and a reminder that people can face danger in the most mundane circumstances as they go about their lives, socialising and working, simply because other people can be unpredictable even to themselves.

It will be fascinating to see how the next episode deals with the storyline of Lance, the gay black guy who moved to Manchester for work and who fell in love; who had a hard time with his partner and whose story was last night told over an episodic hour of flashbacks and present-day action. Thought-provoking and visceral but never sentimental it was easily one of the best things I’ve seen on TV for some time.


Homeland. Good, wasn’t it?

Clare Danes in Homeland

Wow. I totally struck gold with that last post. I’ll admit I did no research before writing it and initially thought Channel 4’s bought-in US series Homeland was a two-parter. ROFL etc.

Yet here we are some 12 weeks later and the excellent series has just ended. Already I want to watch series two and am remembering why box sets after the event are a good idea. As the C4 continuity announcer said when the totally tense final episode of the first series ended last night, series two will appear on C4 sometime in the future. We don’t know when; it hasn’t even been made yet.

Why was Homeland such a hit? Because it didn’t strike any bum notes. On the relatively rare occasions that US drama producers make a good drama – when the drama is airing on a smallish cable network like Showtime and isn’t under pressure to get all schmaltzy – it is really good.

Our own Damian Lewis was excellent as the conflicted and last night very sweaty Sergeant Brody. Clare Danes was even better as the reasonably mad CIA agent Carrie living with bipolar disorder. More than Stephen Fry I suspect Danes will make forms of manic depression cool from now on, as in: “I’m just in my manic phase, it’ll pass.” [Cue insight of unimaginable profundity.]

Of course the nub of the series and of last night’s episode in particular was that there was method in Carrie’s madness. She did indeed crack the conundrum, she worked out the link between Brody and terrorist master Nazir just as she succumbed to anaesthesia and electro convulsive therapy which will wipe her short-term memory at the start of the second series.

I also loved Mandy Patinkin as Sol (that’s how all the characters pronounced his name, even if it’s meant to be spelled Saul). You had to feel for him last night, losing Carrie to ECT just as he lost his wife back to her native India earlier in the series. Like Toby Siegler in West Wing or Dr Green Bean in ER he’s the gruffly lovable, intellectual character totally wedded to his work and therefore unlucky in his private life.

Anyway, we got resolution in that mad Carrie did thwart a terrorist suicide bomber mission, even if she, the authorities and most of the people involved were unaware of the fact. Aside from some Mitchell and Webb-style camera work which could have been comic in other hands, scenes of Brody fiddling with his ball-bearing and explosive-loaded vest in the toilet of a secure bunker with half the US government a few feet away were tense indeed. My palms are sweating again as I think about it.

Great stuff. I now see why Lewis couldn’t say on Graham Norton’s UK chat show a few weeks back whether he would be in the second series or not. I hope he is, he’s brilliant in this part and a second series won’t typecast him forever. Just get on and make the thing.


Homeland on Channel 4

Homeland on Channel 4

Damian Lewis as Brody in Homeland

So many things to post about but for now I’m thinking of Homeland, the US drama featuring Brit actor Damian Lewis that started on Channel 4 on Sunday.

I find Lewis an interesting actor. He’s not my favourite person to look at on TV but I always enjoy whatever he’s in. He definitely has talent (like he needs me to write this, he was nominated for a Golden Globe). He carrys off this American supposed war hero part without a flaw. The female lead Claire Danes actually won a Golden Globe for her performance in this drama as a rookie CIA agent who has been “dealing” with her issues via anti-pyschotic drugs since she was 22. I hope her story turns out to be just as interesting as Brody’s.

The Homeland plot revolves around a particular piece of contemporary American paranoia: that one of their own soldiers may have been “turned” by radical Islamic treatment and torture into a terrorist who is out to commit an atrocity on American soil. C4 is even running an online vote on the matter, such is the intrigue about whether Lewis’ character Brody is a friend or foe. For my money, at the end of episode one, I reckon he is a terrorist but we’ll have to stay tuned to find out.

Thanks to C4 for buying in this production. It made me miss Upstairs Downstairs on BBC 1 but I didn’t see the first series of that drama anyway. Amazing how the reworked classic has been eclipsed by Downton Abbey.

I admit I did get sucked into Call the Midwife and was one of the 9 million or so watching the final episode earlier on Sunday. In some ways it was middle of the road, mumsy, feel-good Sunday night TV. But you can’t argue with the lyrics of the closing song, “Why do fools fall in love?” And you can’t ignore something featuring Jenny Agutter. A part of me will always want to be her as Bobby in the Railway Children.


Arse about face

A quick post because I am writing about Jamie’s Dream School again. And surely one of the points of writing a blog for no financial gain is that I can write what I want when I want rather than constantly having to review whatever is “new” on TV this week.

I watched the fourth episode of Channel 4‘s Dream School last night and was just as uncomfortable as before as some of the scenes unfolded. These kids do not behave nicely at all and it makes me despair for the prospects of my own children and their peers if standards of behaviour in the schools they attend break down to the extent they have among the Dream School children. There, that’s middle age speaking.

But seriously I have come to the conclusion that Jamie’s Dream School is as much about the teachers as it is about the pupils – about the ability of certain adults to engage with young people and share some of their knowledge.

As we learnt in the first programme with historian David Starkey and saw again last night with poet Andrew Motion, it doesn’t matter how knowledgeable you are. It isn’t enough to be posh and expect respect simply because you are educated. You have to get down and dirty at a disengaged child’s level if you want to share some of what you have learned with them. Motion did this in last night’s episode and that was the one uplifting moment of the hour-long programme.

The rest involved desperate stories of a teenage mother dropping out of Dream School because her child had chicken pox and the emotional unravelling of the headmaster himself. His own fear of failure, based on his experiences as a child when he was chucked out of  three schools before finally engaging with education, was thrown into sharp relief as he confronted more and more challenges from the misbehaving Dream School kids.

I stumbled upon an article by musician Jazzie B, one of the Dream School teachers, in an education magazine that was posted through our door the other day. Jazzie B concluded by hoping that viewers come away from Dream School “as I did, with renewed respect for what teachers do”.

This surely is the point of Dream School. Respect for what teachers are expected to do. A newly qualified teacher will earn about £25,000 a year, rising to £35,000 in some subjects with some experience. A head teacher in London will earn up to £90,000 a year. What do you think of that, media folk earning £90k+?

We are, as Julie Birchill and many others have observed before me, in a situation whereby people are paid in inverse proportion to their perceived value in society. So teachers and nurses don’t earn enormous salaries but they are expected to deal with real, almost intractable social problems that affect us all. Those who provide entertainment and distraction – footballers and other celebrities – earn an absolute fortune. It’s enough to make you think the country has gone to the dogs, and that is middle-aged thinking.


Confessions of a Traffic Warden

No picture because… well, just because. But Channel 4‘s Confessions of a Traffic Warden made by independent production company Betty made me a bit sad.

Don’t get me wrong. It was a good programme. Too good, really. Following a rookie traffic warden in the London borough of Westminster and concentraing mainly on Durga who had recently arrived from Nepal, the film was as much about immigration as parking enforcement.

Poor old Durga arrived with his MA in something or other, speaking four languages (although the producers saw fit to subtitle him sometimes and not at other times – a touch patronising I thought). He’d left his wife and daughter in Nepal. And he thought – get this – there was no violence, only politeness and Shakespeare and wisdom to be found in England.

How wrong he was, once he had the traffic warden’s uniform on.

I am not averse to verbalising my various frustrations with life from time to time but I confess I balked at the name-calling, the string of “shut the fuck ups” that came the way of the average traffic warden in this film.

Yes, traffic wardens are the spawn of a bastard regime that seeks to make money out of other people’s general despair and disorganisation. But it was a bit sad to see just how angry and abusive people can be to those who are, after all, doing a shitty job that noone else wants to do. It didn’t help that the abusers were white British and the abused were part of one of the most multicultural workforces in Britain. I haven’t even mentioned the wardens’ boss, a largish, white chap with lots of rings on his fingers one of which said “Dad” in gold letters.

Pip pip.

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Jamie Oliver in New York. Channel 4

Had I but world enough, and time, I might have written about the following in the past few weeks.

Heston Blumenthal‘s return to Little Chef on Channel 4 to see if his new menu and the new-look restaurant, trialled at the A303’s very own Popham services, was a success. Clearly, this allowed for plenty of footage from the original series to be repeated. But we gathered that yes, new things are working for Little Chef and they’re rolling out Heston’s menu and the modern decor across the chain’s main sites. But that stuffed shirt of a Little Chef chief executive is still as painful to watch as he ever was. That’s enough now, please.

Then there was Jamie Oliver road-tripping around America. I particuarly enjoyed his take on New York which included very few actual Americans (whoever they are) and lots of first and second generation immigrants. As a result we saw a side of New York that didn’t feature in Friends and, as Jamie himself said, we might have been inspired to find out where our own local Egyptian or Chilean restaurant is. I have a short answer to that. Not in these parts.

And finally Spooks has returned to BBC 1. Better than it was after the quality dip that came after the first two brilliant series. But still chock full of corny dialogue which just stops short of Nanoboy-esque “only five minutes to save the world”. Good fun though. Last night’s episode about potential black-outs as British gas supplies dry up made me doubly appreciative of my open fire. Happy Autumn.

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Hot potato

Rageh Omaar. Channel 4

Hot on the heels of that last post comes a Channel 4 season of films, Race: Science’s Last Taboo and in particular last night’s documentary presented by Rageh Omaar on race and intelligence.

The film tackled the taboo question of whether there is a racial hierarchy in intelligence, with Asians, Europeans and Africans in roughly that order.

Omaar and a few academics brave enough to go on camera established that if there is an intelligence gap between different races it is more a factor of class, environment, education and upbringing than of genetic racial difference. But to reach that conclusion, by way of lots of serious science (always difficult on television), Omaar had to face down a couple of serious (white) experts who insisted there was an intelligence gap and it was all down to inferior (black) racial genes or brain size. The eugenicists were no doubt sharpening their pencils in the background.

All of which reminds us – as with so much research whether it’s nutrition or the environment – that “seek and you will find”. As one academic pointed out, the whole question of which race is more or less intelligent than another is only relevant in an inherently racist society. Go back a step and ask why the question is even being asked.

Discounting a few clunky shots of screeching trains when the scientific arguments reached a crunch point, this was a brave and rigorous film. And how wonderful to end with Obama, hoping that the black children of America will aspire to be scientists, engineers, presidents of America. Omaar is great, but Obama is the orator du jour.

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The Red Lion

A landlord. The Red Lion. Channel 4

Who saw The Red Lion on Channel 4 last night? I was intrigued. A Cutting Edge documentary, it was basically an hour-long advert for pubs and the joys of drinking.

Ostensibly a look at the role of the pub in British culture, The Red Lion (apparently the most popular pub name in England) visited several pubs of that name and interviewed regulars and bar staff. Hence we had the story of the Welsh university netball team and their regular Wednesday night pub crawl, the sole aim of which was to get absolutely wasted. Then there was the rugger bugger crowd, similarly inebriated most nights of the week, particularly Saturdays. Then there were the golfers…. you get the gist. Lots of people had puffy faces and the men had beer bellies.

But there were surprises. The 80-year-old women, both of whom had been married to journalists called Bob. “The Bobs” died about 10 years ago and since then the women have become firm friends, having lunch twice a week at their local Red Lion, where they enjoy a bottle of wine before wobbling home to finish another couple. That’s on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays it’s wine at one of their homes and then rum and Coke.

Bejesus. Apart from the occasional off-camera question from the (dour-sounding) film-maker Sue Bourne about whether the interviewees thought they drank too much, the film didn’t attempt to judge. It was simply a road trip around some Red Lion pubs showing us just how much the British do love to drink.

I am fairly well acquainted with the world of drinkers and pubs, for various reasons. And on the evidence of last night’s programme we have nothing to fear but alcoholism itself. Viva Friday night.

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Bye Bye Big Brother

Big Brother logo. C4/Endemol

So Big Brother is being evicted from the C4 schedules and it’s time to measure its legacy. It’s not all bad. BB certainly did revolutionise TV programming: along with coverage of Wimbledon and Glastonbury, it helped popularise the use of the “red button” to access other video streams; it also brought in phone voting, connecting the audience with what was happening on screen in a way that’s taken for granted on Strictly Come Dancing or X Factor.

The first Celebrity Big Brother – with Vanessa Feltz and Jack Dee – aired as part of a Comic Relief effort but soon became its own brand as commissioners realised how popular celebrity contestants could be in a reality show. I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here launched on ITV in 2002 and since then we’ve had all the Hell’s Kitchen, Celebrity Apprentice nightmares a reality TV fan could possibly want, with minor celebs competing in constructed reality situations.

None of this existed back in 2000 when the first series of Big Brother went out. Back then we thought Driving School was a reality show and Maureen Rees was a star.

At first, the TV industry didn’t think of BB as entertainment. It was launched – in the same year as Castaway 2000 – with producers talking about it as a “social experiment”. Some even wondered whether it should be thought of as a documentary. I was on a panel at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2000 which considered exactly this. Sada (remember her?) had just been evicted from the BB house and was with us. It soon became clear it was best to think of the BB juggernaut as entertainment and keep it that way.

A C4 executive, Julian Bellamy, wrote compellingly yesterday about his 10-year involvement with BB and I agree with almost everything he says.

Apart from the point about BB being “a remarkable insight into the values and behaviour of the noughties generation”. Bellamy may be right that “For the first time, this generation was given a voice on mainstream television.” But I don’t think the programme simply observed the values and behaviour of a generation – I think it may have helped shape those values as well.

I used to believe the media simply held up a mirror to society. But now that I’m a staid, old mother of two I am beginning to subscribe to the idea that the media makes attitudes as well as reflecting them.

BB was part of the phenomenon that encompasses Heat, Hannah Montana and WAGs. A phenomenon that urges everyone (every girl) to be first a Brat and then another Katie Price, famous for being famous, celebrated not for particular talents (unless talents = tits) but for having appeared on television or in print.

It will be fascinating to see whether, and where, the tide is turning against this wave of wannabe popstars.

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If it were now to die,

The West Wing cast, series 1. NBC/Warner Bros/Channel 4

‘Twere now to be most happy.

Oh god, I don’t really mean that. It’s just that it’s been a good day, what with it being my birthday ‘n all and getting some lovely presents, some of which I bought for myself.

Including, finally, a box set of the complete series of The West Wing! One of my fave all time US series of ALL TIME! It’s something I’ve coveted for years, since whenever the rubbish scheduling got too complicated on Channel 4/E4/More4 and I literally lost the plot before the last and seventh series. So tonight I’m starting again from scratch. Just 112 hours to go and I still don’t know whether the Hispanic guy gets elected to succeed Josiah Bartlett.

And speaking of top US drama, I must note in passing the last ever episode of ER which aired on More4 last Thursday. What an anti-climax, as at least one other committed fan has also said to me. We both had the tissues all lined up and didn’t need a single one.

I’m not sure it’s admirable that the show’s executive producer John Wells resisted the urge to milk the schmaltz factor and avoided out-and-out sentimentality in the finale. The final scene saw the cast lining up outside the ER to admit yet another mass trauma, with the camera pulling away to leave them to just another night at the ER. But without us, the viewers, their committed fans, watching them. We will never see them do anything new again. (The re-runs will no doubt continue in daytime and elsewhere for years.) I felt slightly robbed.

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