BBC Drama Up in Smoke?

The news that BBC hospital drama Casualty has had to drop a storyline because filming it would have broken Welsh law has the scent of scandal about it. Of course, in reality it’s nothing quite so salacious – the proposed storyline merely involved the rather unexciting vice of indoor smoking. But with the BBC threatening to move parts of its drama production back to England as a result, the whole thing is rapidly taking on the appearance of farce. Parts of Upstairs Downstairs were allegedly shot in Bristol to avoid the law, and there have even been discussions assessing the costs of using CGI to create the offending scenes.

Smoke 1UK law quite reasonably forbids smoking in enclosed public spaces – but, while England exempts on-set performers from this, Wales does not. Although the Welsh government seeks to follow England’s example, anti-smoking lobbyists apparently fear “a litany of requests from other industries such as pubs, clubs and the tourism industry.” But this is hard to believe. Few other industries could reasonably argue that smoking is an essential part of their free expression – which is, after all, what is at stake.

For, while such a ban is primarily being opposed on economic or libertarian grounds, the most fundamental principle here is an artistic one. The freedom to represent faithfully the actions of people from different periods and in different situations is central to the dramatic arts. These arts, in turn, form the basis of a liberal and enlightened society. Without this freedom, drama is impotent, and society is poorer for it. This freedom should only be sacrificed in the face of direct and considerable harm. For this reason, the ability of those involved in projects to opt-out of involvement in such scenes should be ensured, as should the minimisation of all risks to health. But warnings of a slippery slope of risk only infantilise the industry. Similar objections could very easily be made against live-action stunts or on-location filming. After all, both pose an element of risk. But this is always assessed within the wider context of free expression and the creative aims of the production.

The notion that you cannot film somebody smoking in a professional context is, essentially, a form of censorship. So while it would be a shame for Wales to lose the production of much high-quality drama, it would be an even greater shame for the industry to sacrifice their creative autonomy.


Film Review: The Impossible

I have always felt a little uncomfortable about works of art that profit from recent suffering, and the 2004 tsunami is the worst natural disaster in the modern era. But The Impossible manages to turn something horrific into something that on the one hand feels well-meaning and respectful, and on the other is clearly shamelessly emotive.

Film still from The Impossible

It’s an odd sort of success, if it is one at all. The film is not well paced, it follows an unsatisfactory narrative arc, and there’s something horribly contrived and almost perversely comic about the way people keep failing to find each other. Even more damaging are the concessions to all the standard tropes of the disaster movie, which continually undermine the film’s realism. The Impossible tries to tread between sentimentality and honesty so cautiously that it is far from clear where on this line it really sits.

Based on true events, it is difficult to criticise the story itself. Nevertheless, there are uncomfortable elements in its choice of heroes. Taken at face value, the film is the uplifting survival story of five Europeans in a tsunami that killed a quarter of a million – mostly Asian – people. And the fact that the Spanish Belón family upon whom the film is based become the very blond ‘Bennett’ family poses further questions. Despite claims from heroine Maria Belón herself that no nationality has been specified to give a sense of universality, it is difficult not to conclude that this betrays the worst sort of cynicism on the part of the film’s Spanish makers.

The Impossible 2There is undoubtedly much to admire in its achievements. Technically, it is utterly believable: the tsunami scenes themselves are impressive, with the use of real water tanks rather than pure CGI creating a documentary realism that is too often missing from the genre. When the waters recede, the cast’s acting talents are left utterly exposed, and they benefit from exposure. Naomi Watts, in particular, proves herself an underrated actress, suggesting promise for Diana, due later this year. And in a film that relies so heavily on its child actors, there are some admirable performances. Sixteen-year-old Tom Holland, given a starring credit, is outstanding. Director Juan Antonia Bayona proves that he can work with experienced actors, children, and non-acting locals alike whilst avoiding any uncomfortable inconsistencies in tone or delivery.

But all this skill is directed towards a single aim: that of emotional manipulation. It is a tear-jerker in the most literal sense, and this is its biggest sin. When you leave the cinema, no matter how much you’ve wept, you know you have been coerced into it. As accomplished, uplifting and harrowing as it is, The Impossible is catharsis distilled to the point of toxicity: it may feel good, but it probably isn’t healthy.

Could Be Blander – Blandings, Episode 1

The BBC continued its assault on the costume cupboard this evening, with the first episode of its PG Wodehose adaptation, Blandings. Imagine The Archers with the comic subtlety of a saucy seaside postcard, and you’ve just about got it. It’s certainly a strange programme to have made at this time, and one wonders quite why it ever went into production.

The themes and motifs so central to Downton Abbey – security of the class system, the house vs. the village, primogeniture – are here dealt the blow of having their ludicrousness fully exposed. The problem is that few people watching today take these sorts of things very seriously. Much better to have them presented in a serious form, and then make fun of them ourselves, because it makes us feel comfortably superior. Blandings doesn’t allow its viewers to elevate themselves in this way; it just denigrates its own characters, which is rather damaging to its integrity.

Blandings castle and residents

It would have been a difficult balance to strike, given the subject matter. We’ve become so used to the idea of the aristocracy as a class of bizarrely-dressed semi-functioning alcoholics, that the notion is no longer innately humourous. It is a mistake made before – see the Oliver Parker version of The Importance of Being Earnest – and it will no doubt be made again.

The Sunday early evening slot probably doesn’t do the programme any favours. It’s effectively the warm-up act to Countryfile and Antiques Roadshow, so there’s really only so much excitement it can muster. This sense of continual anti-climax pervades the episode, and the whole thing begins to feel like one of the camper episodes of Poirot – except that nobody, no matter how irritating they become, gets murdered. It is a mystery of sorts, I suppose. There’s a pig, which for various reasons needs to be fattened, but which refuses to eat. Why isn’t it eating? How will they ever get it to eat? But there’s really only so much of this one can take, isn’t there? I think I cared more about Lord Grantham’s cricket match.

It’s a shame, because the cast are strong. Timothy Spall does a good impression of Boris Johnson and there are some other nice turns. But it’s a telling sign of the show’s tone that Jennifer Saunders is the one who might be most easily accused of naturalism.

So keen is it to bash you over the head with its Britishness, that Blandings might just do well in America. Failing that, let’s hope it’s the thing to kill television’s current obsession with the early twentieth century, once and for all.

Film Review: Les Misérables

Les Mis 1Les Misérables does what few musical film adaptations dare: it justifies its existence by creating something wholly new. Fans of the stage version may struggle to forgive its free play with the raw material, but this film is an undoubted success in its own right.

If you expect stunning visuals, you will be disappointed. The film benefits little from an IMAX format because we rarely see beyond the characters’ faces, with the background mostly lost in soft focus. Shots are often held for minutes, and this can be taken to extremes: Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a single shot, brave and unforgiving. Director Tom Hooper wants us to experience everything that is immediate about a live performance, but with the intimacy that cinema allows. For this reason, vocals were famously recorded live on set, avoiding the usual practice of lip-syncing. It is striking that in a film that could have made so much of its artifice, the central aim has been to establish authenticity.

Les Mis 2

This all poses problems, of course, because the musical was written for a very different medium. Such emotional sincerity makes the Thenardiers’ initial comic scene look off-key. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen stick comfortably to type, and deliver what would be a superb cabaret act; but they have the unwelcome air of gate-crashers at a funeral.

Fortunately, everything crystalises around ‘One More Day’, which interweaves the vocals of the principle characters’ to find a common focus. The attempt to put characters at both the visual and thematic centre of the film pays off, as this universal subject is found in a new revolutionary fervour. The transition onto the violent streets of Paris is remarkably seamless, and we never look back.

Hooper’s willingness to embrace ugliness is particularly prominent and refreshing. And despite dental hygiene improving markedly over the course of the film, this aesthetic is relentless. Blood, sweat and shit are everywhere, including a sewer scene so scatological it puts The Shawshank Redemption to shame. The fact that we are rewarded with so few shots that could be considered beautiful ensures that the film’s visuals never pander to the usual populist demands of costume drama.

Les Mis 3Why the street urchins sound as if they have been plucked out of Whitechapel is not quite clear, but it’s a rare fault in a cast that is otherwise universally strong. Hathaway and Jackman deserve their Oscar nods, if only for surprising with their versatility. Russell Crowe’s Javert has received a lot of criticism – largely for his comparatively weak vocals – but he brings a humanity and ambivalence to the character that makes his exit so much more poignant. And Seyfried, Barks and Redmayne form a love triangle that provides a genuinely bittersweet resolution.

The audience burst into spontaneous applause as the credits rolled, and many were in tears. Les Mis has its technical weaknesses, but it has achieved something much more significant. It is honest, it bares not a hint of cynicism, and it is humane. It is difficult not to love it.

Friends: Why Comedy Isn’t Like Real Life

FriendsMailArticleIn an article on the Daily Mail’s website, Meghan Keneally reports that the six main characters of the nineties/noughties TV sitcom Friends slept with a total of 135 people across 10 seasons. This would be no more than a whimsical factoid if the article didn’t go on to point out that “The characters’ experience was a far cry from real life, as the national averages for number of sexual partners are significantly smaller.”

While this doesn’t exactly constitute a puritanical attack on the loose morals of mainstream entertainment, it implies a criticism based on the premise that Friends failed to mirror the lives of its audience. But are these fair grounds upon which to criticise television comedy, or indeed any form of entertainment? No – and here’s why:

  1. Comedy should not mirror reality – While it should be relatable, comedy has no obligation to document truth in any absolute sense.
  2. Comedy should not reflect its audience – Friends was about liberal, young New-Yorkers at the turn of the twenty-first century, and sought to capture the essence of that atmosphere. The fact that it had mainstream appeal does not mean it should seek to imitate the lives of its broader viewership.
  3. Situation comedy is not an essentially realist genre – Filmed in front of a studio audience, with laughter, applause and audible reactions to the entrances of guest stars, Friends did not demand the same level of immersion in its fiction as a drama. When Brad Pitt guest-starred as his real-life girlfriend’s onscreen enemy, part of the comedy came from the dissonance between these real and fictional relationships. (Good sitcoms often exploit these metadramatic elements, rather than try to deny them.)
  4. Television serials cannot be assessed as a whole – Some plotlines are meant to come and go, and be largely forgotten about. For instance, while the show’s writers did a good job of creating lasting story-arcs and returning characters, there are clear errors in the supposed chronology of events. But these are only a problem if you are looking for them – fiction of any sort is not built to withstand statistical analysis.
  5. Character is more important than action – What made Friends so successful was its loyalty to the principle of strong character. In exploring the reactions of these characters to different circumstances, plotlines were developed that in and of themselves don’t really hold water. So well-developed are the characters, however, that one barely notices the odd leap of faith required.


But I suppose we should be grateful for the article’s one major revelation: Rachel was apparently “the only one of the main six characters to have admitted to having a lesbian make out session with Winona Ryder” – which, after all, only seems fair given that three of the six were male, and that Winona Ryder is by all accounts a very busy woman.

Blink And You’ll Miss It? Or Is HFR Here To Stay?

The merits and failings of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey have already been detailed ad nauseum. In summary, it consists of roughly one hour of stunning CGI action sequences, one hour of gratuitous landscape-porn, and one hour of Martin Freeman blinking somewhat maniacally. All this, of course, benefits from the film being shot at 48 frames per second – or HFR -, which is capable both of exploiting the full potential of 3D and of capturing even the slightest facial nuance. (Indeed, it seems that Peter Jackson was so keen to show off the technology, that one begins to wonder whether he instructed his actors to twitch as often as possible.)

The Hobbit

Critical responses to the frame rate seem to be largely negative. HFR, it is generally agreed, looks like a documentary, a video game or a home movie. Except that it doesn’t really look like any of these, because it is clear and authentic and like nothing we have seen before. Admittedly, the smoothness familiar to cinema audiences is lost, but what is gained is at least as rewarding. In their eagerness to damn, such critics are merely betraying an implicit prejudice against lower – televisual – forms in favour of cinema, the apparent zenith of visual technology. Not only this, but citing these as points of comparison is short-sighted when it comes to assessing the technology’s potential longevity. If we do learn to assimilate it into the standard cinematic language, audiences will get used to it. We learned to tolerate sound and colour, didn’t we? The question should be not ‘is it new?‘, but ‘is it better?

To my mind, it is – at least in the case of the fantasy/action/adventure movie. The richness and vividness it affords every type of shot is a joy to watch. Peter Jackson set out to create something ‘immersive‘, and it would be hard to argue that he failed. Whether HFR can make the leap into other genres – in a way that 3D has yet to do – remains in doubt. But should we perhaps move beyond thinking about one-size-fits-all formats, and begin to accept that cinema can be something of a broad church? Indeed, with both a silent movie and a 3D motion picture nominated in the ‘Best Picture’ category at the Academy Awards last year, maybe we have reason to hope that the diversification of the form can continue to provide us with new and exciting works of cinema for years to come.

Not Sold Yet – Mr Selfridge, Episode 1

“They said we couldn’t do it. … But we are going to prove them wrong!”

I’ve heard better motivational material, but that Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) can certainly move his arms persuasively. The English, on the other hand, don’t seem to move their arms at all – except to offer polite applause or to remove their gloves. Perhaps that’s why they rarely succeed in business.

Mr Selfridge

The fact that this is a collaboration between ITV and PBS goes some way to explain why national stereotypes of both varieties abound – and perhaps that’s why Piven acts like an American acting like an Englishman acting like an American, which is all a bit confusing at first, but probably appeases both audiences. It also means that a lot of money has been thrown at this rather lavish production, which distracts us from the awkward fact that nothing much happens.

The episode opens at the end, before hopping back a year and detailing the preparation for the shop’s opening. This framing device can work quite effectively for a high-tense thriller, but there’s an element of bathos about trying to build tension around the opening of a department store. But then, what did we expect? This is a drama about a department store.

And that’s the problem. The upstairs/downstairs motif inherent in the setting is only touched on, and the majority of characters fail to develop beyond approximations. There is a lot more naturalism among the workers on the shop floor, whose stories show promise of driving the drama over the coming weeks, but they aren’t given enough time to make their mark. Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) is beautifully under-acted, and she moves well beyond the down-trodden working class victim of cruel capitalists, but she is the only character at this stage who demands any degree of audience sympathy.

Questions of job security and unemployment have a ring of relevance to a post-credit-crunch audience, but knowing nods to press intrusion have the air of triumphalism. All-in-all it’s a very modern period drama, but it can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it wants to be taken seriously. And with nine episodes left, it’s going to need to pick up the pace if it wants to keep viewers interested.

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