Monthly Archives: February 2012

The BBC Dickens Season: Post-Mortem

Warning: The paragraphs on Great Expectations contain SPOILERS.

Three months into the BBC’s Dickens Season it does not seem to have ended, with several Dickensian offerings still knocking around on iPlayer. Reports of its death in my titled “post-mortem” are therefore greatly exaggerated. But it’s fair to say that the bulk of the programming, including all of its major flagships, has been and gone. How, then, to draw any conclusions from the sheer glut of Victorianalia spread out to TV and radio audiences like the largest turkey in the window on Christmas morning?

"The broadcasters, they did it all in three months"

Whenever the Beeb does a ‘Season’ of anything – race, poetry, Stephen Fry – you can guarantee that one phrase will sum up its overall quality: “mixed success”. I think this is just inherent in the vision of unifying so many styles and audiences under one thematic banner with several contrasting artistic strings pulling in all sorts of directions that they don’t usually pull. Something has to give.

My argument in this post is this: that the BBC did well at the Dickens, not so well at the Season. Well at the Dickens for the imagination and innovation in the season’s best bits and for the depth of courage given to his work, life and legacy. But not so well at the Season, because it lacked range, focus and coherency across platforms. The biggest flaw may have been that the season’s central online interface was hard to navigate and almost impossible to find. I know, I just blew your mind with that zinger, right? But it means that the broadcaster both missed the opportunity to exploit the multi-platform potential of the season and to commission some cool Dickensian graphics.

Ok, let’s talk about Dickens and let the Season stuff fall in around it. Or more particularly let’s talk about people talking about Dickens: Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins, both of whom presented those single-author celebrity-fronted documentaries of which the Beeb are so fond. Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens was undoubtedly excellent – passionate polemic advocating the love of Dickens for the sake of his writing. There was little argument here, just a very enthusiastic clever bloke enthusing cleverly, just as Iannucci had done on his superb Milton doc for the Poetry Season two years ago.

Sue Perkins: a threat to Howard Jacobson's very manhood

More controversial was Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas, in which Sue Perkins playfully poked around in Dickens’s troubled biography to reveal the oddities of his family life. It provoked Howard Jacobson to rant in the Guardian that Perkins was “sneering” at Dickens, not only as a husband but – and please frame this in your mind in a big over-dramatic voice – “as a man”. That’s right, that Sue Perkins should be so audacious to have sympathy for the women in Dickens’s life is a direct cause of the shrinking Y chromosome.

Now, at university I was very much a scholar of Dickens’s language and social politics – I am not on good terms with his biography. But there was nothing in Perkins’s documentary that made me suspect it was anything other than well argued, well researched and in reverence to Dickens as a writer. It even, I think, pulled off that sometimes problematic sweep from biographical to literary detail. It’s telling that in Jacobson’s article he says effectively nothing about the argument of Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas, but makes his case by (mis)characterising the tone. You can make any argument sound bad if you accuse someone of ‘sneering’ it (just as I labled Jacobson’s article a “rant” a paragraph ago). It doesn’t make Dickens a good husband, nor does it make Perkins’s script any less witty, or the subject of Dickens’s family life any less interesting a one for a documentary.

Jacobson also had problems with the season’s biggest hit, Great Expectations. Here he stumbles on something much more interesting, accusing it of presenting a reading that “suits our would-be egalitarian times”. Now, this does not mean it was not good drama. Directorially, the thing was a treat, with the breathing sighing moorland and wonderfully framed action, which beautifully underlined the story’s fantasy leanings. But there was something odd about it for anyone who’s read the novel.

In the novel, as in the adaptation, the little boy Pip meets the escaped convict Magwitch and gets him a file (to cut his chains), and some food. But there’s one important difference that I think shows in miniature what the script editor was up to in the production as a whole. In the book, Magwitch asks for the food and Pip, who is scared absolutely shitless by the guy, feels almost physically compelled to do his bidding. It’s a religious relationship, similar to that with a vengeful Old Testament God. He fears punishment, resents charity. But in the show, Magwitch just asks for the file – the good little soul Pip takes it upon himself to give the guy some cake. Magwitch looks positively elated, a moment of shared compassion flickers between them. Dickens’s original fable demonstrates how fear and compassion-less charity are no substitute for human contact. (The book is obsessed with hands – Pip longs to touch. Not to receive money, or a fist, but simply a hand.)

And here’s the important thing: if you let Pip get the food himself, out of compassion, then the whole relationship changes. Instead of an unearned fortune, Pip inherits Magwitch’s wages in some kind of cosmic, karmic justice.

A modern Vicotorian: Sherlock

The drama didn’t have the confidence to deal with this moral ambiguity, so it eliminated it. Pip, it thought, cannot be a benefit scrounger. Our audience cannot cope with a morally ambiguous hero, they reasoned as Sherlock, Dr Who, House and a hundred other dramas blazed from TV screens proving them wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Great Expectations despite these things – the performances and atmosphere were terrific – but they would still have been terrific without blunting the tale’s emotional complexities.

In fact, Sue Perkins aside, the TV leg of the season was characterised by its conservatism. It’s a particular shame the only TV fiction commissioned for the season was Costume Drama – even the only comedy, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, was Costumed. It seemed oblivious to the exciting contemporaneity of Dickens, of his potential for modern adaptation. Where were Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding to stylise the surreal, trippy riffs embedded in The Pickwick Papers? Or the trans-Atlantic commission for a modern, high velocity Martin Chuzzlewit?

That seems an ambitious ask, but then the new radio fiction commissioned for the season abounded with this kind of ambition and even loftier inventiveness. Firstly, Dreaming Dickens, hidden away on BBC World Service (although I guess “hidden” isn’t the right word for a place where nominally the whole world can hear it) – a blend of drama, documentary and found sound in which extracts from an exciting range of Dickens’s writing guide us through London, a London that blends dream, imagination, reality and the dirt beneath your feet. This was a mood piece, all about connecting the emotion of Dickens to the streets he left behind.

from Radio 4's Dickens in London

And secondly (my highlight of the Season), Dickens in London, an extraordinary set of new 15-minute plays commissioned for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Written by Michael Eaton and starring, among others, the phenomenal Antony Sher (you know Antony Sher, you probably saw him in a Shakespeare once), these stories were slightly farcical, non-naturalistic pieces that followed the personas of Dickens throughout his life, as if whole new characters existing somewhere in the spaces between Dickens’s short stories and Eaton’s imagination. Dramatically, these were brilliant, finding a great artistic space to play around and fanaticise in the margins of Dickens’s work – true to the emotion of Dickens, flippant with the letter.

But what’s even more exciting is that each of these plays is visualised on the Radio 4 website. ‘Visualised Radio’ is the current ‘big deal’ in radio broadcasting and, having heard a lot about it at the Radio Fast Train conference earlier this month, I have to admit my initial scepticism. But Dickens in London has converted me – short films that support the primacy of the audio to tell the story. They’ve got what you might call the ‘grammar’ of radio – it’s structured like radio, it feels like radio but it’s something more. The visuals themselves include beautiful puppetry, alarming fighting shoes and talking oven gloves. If you check out one strand in the whole season, check out these.

It’s exactly the kind of innovation the BBC – and for that matter Dickens – is all about.


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Desperate Plotlines – How Desperate Housewives has (almost) refound its mojo

The following was written for a job application, answering the task of analysing a recent TV drama (focusing on writing). I went for the opening of the new series of Desperate Housewives (going by the British/E4 schedule rather than American/ABC). I thought it was pretty good. I guess they didn’t agree but I think it’s something TV blog-types will enjoy reading. It contains SPOILERS if you haven’t seen the current series, otherwise you should be fine.

Desperate Housewives is not usually the best show on television. Since season two it has rarely matched the standard it set itself for suburban subversion and dark witticism in season one. But nor has it ever really been a bad show. This, the first episode of the show’s eighth and final season, is testament to that fact and already promises a vast improvement on the flagging quality of seasons six and seven.

There are a bunch of things that have always made Desperate Housewives worth watching and they’re worth noting before I delve into an analysis of the episode’s writing because I think a lot of people forget how good a show it is. It has a really solid aesthetic, with its trim pristine character, almost dystopic in its opulence and middle class domestic perfection. Additionally, I don’t think anyone who’s seen the show doubts the quality of the cast and personally I think Felicity Huffman who plays Lynette is one of the best female actors on American television, as good as Jane Lynch. And I don’t just mean as good as Jane Lynch in Glee. I mean as good as Jane Lynch in Party Down.

The strength of this episode’s writing is rooted in last season’s cliff-hanger, the murder of Gabrielle Solis’s evil step father by her husband Carlos. The four principle characters are all privy to this and the episode opens with them burying his body in the woods and forming a pact to cover it up. This plotline changes everything, completely re-arranging the show’s relationships and what they mean. Desperate Housewives is of course used to redefining its core set-up, jumping five years in its continuity between seasons four and five in order to spice up its line-up and open new storylines. This new murder storyline marks as large a shift in tone and, although it initially seems like quite a blunt device, is actually a lot more subtle.

Foremost among these changes is that each of the show’s romantic relationships is now either under the strain of a shared secret – i.e. Gabrielle and Carlos – or a hidden truth, as none of the other husbands and boyfriends are yet privy to the cover-up. This means that the show’s dark humour and psychological tensions are at last arranged in the right way. For example, Susan’s plotline presiding over the burial of a school hamster, eulogising it as if it is Gabrielle’s step father, is a cross-roads of all sorts of comic contrasts and parallels. Like the confessional scene with the over-enthusiastic junior priest who is “bummed he can’t tweet anymore”, it proves the show’s ability to still be laugh-out-loud funny.

Lynette and Tom’s plotline meanwhile is painfully well observed. The couple are separating but have so far kept it from their children. Since Lynette can’t sleep through guilt over the murder, she finds solace in Tom at night and the two are, shall we say, reunited. The scene the next morning is one of those perfect Desperate Housewives scenes. Tom assumes they will get back together whilst Lynette only needed comfort – she just can’t tell him why. One has a typical romantic problem, the other an extreme and deranged plotline – but because each character is written with an immense level of emotional depth, each seems real and sympathetic. Small drama and overwhelming darkness stare each other in the face, unable to communicate but inexorably linked. That is what Desperate Housewives is all about.

The other great thing about the murder device is that it gives the housewives a unified storyline, saving the show from the fragmentation its multiple plotlines have caused in recent series. Even when the principle characters are apart, the strain of the secret unifies them to the whole. The episode is also full of exquisite details. For example Bree reminding the man stealing her car to “buckle up” as he drives away or Lynette tripping over the same sprinkler on the lawn that we have seen Tom trip over already – this attention to detail reminds us that someone cares about how the show is put together and gives us extra little things to notice.

It still has problems. The scene in which Gabrielle embarrasses herself by fantasising about their new neighbour whilst he stands right behind her looks almost like a Family Guy-level parody of the show, right down to the coffee mugs and coy eye brow raising. There are also too many scenes to which the punch line is someone being good in bed.

Mary Alice Young’s closing and opening monologues are actually very good in this episode, letting the visuals do the dark subversive dealing-with-a-murder stuff whilst Brenda Strong’s soothing tones juxtapose this and sound like the audio book of a housewives’ manual. But too often this narrative style has seemed tired in later seasons. Young’s role as narrator made sense in season one, which was largely about the mystery surrounding her own death, but without this solid rationale her role became much more limited as the seasons progressed. A way round this would have been to narrate each season with a different character, using a death from the previous series each time. Given the show’s high body count this would not have been difficult.

Desperate Housewives, despite retaining a sizeable audience, is desperately out of fashion and has long stopped being the zeitgeist phenomenon it once was. To close at the end of this season is a good call on the part of the producers – but it’s fantastic to see the writers giving the characters and plot a final new lease of life. And, with the closing shots of a mysterious note in Bree’s mailbox, you just know there’s gonna be trouble.

Viewers will know that the series has meandered a little since I composed this, but for proof of the unity provided by the murder plot, just look at the fantastic symmetry at the end of the episode 7 last week – the body resurfacing in the painting just as it is buried below the house. I mean they totally nailed that, structurally speaking.

ALSO: I’ve been getting a lot of traffic on my BBC/Dickens posts – I’m afraid I won’t have time to give the remainder of the season the coverage I’d like, but look out for a summary this weekend.

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The Son of a Preacherman: Speaking in Tongues goes live

Firstly, a sorry and a thank you. A sorry for the two-week gap in posts and a thank you to the overwhelming response I had to my post on Elly Nowell and Oxford University. It seemed to go a bit viral there for a while so a special thanks to all who posted and retweeted.

Today’s post is a bit different because there aren’t going to be as many words. Instead, it’s an audio post with a radio play that I worked on last summer. The play is called Speaking in Tongues, a domestic drama about a family thrown into turmoil when one of them falls ill. It’s been running in serialised form on the Cherwell website for the last three weeks and is available in its entirety on the Soundcloud player below. Oh, and I also do some acting in it (but not until right at the end.)

The play was great fun to work on and I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out.

The next play in the series is called Amphibians. It’s written by me and is about a man who kills some newts. More on that soon.

Speaking in Tongues

Writer: Rob Williams
Producers: Loveday Wright & Tom Moyser

Cast (in order of appearance):

The Apologist – Dave Ralf
Michael – Richard O’Brien
Louise – Charlotte Geater
David – Rob Williams
Jennifer – Sarah Whitehouse
Terry – Jack Hackett
Billy – Tom Moyser

A few more details can be found here. With thanks to Oxide Radio and Cherwell Online.

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