Monday, March 31, 2008

An experiment in convergence

The City Speaks, BBC Radio 4, digital TV and online

Radio with pictures? That’s television, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no, judging by the six short dramas in this cross-media experiment for Radio 4’s Afternoon Play.

The idea is this: You invite six of the best radio writers to respond to a scenario by the Laureate of London, Peter Ackroyd, in which an ancient manuscript prophesies a manifestation of the Virgin Mary in Bread Street in 2008. You then broadcast the results, as normal, over the radio – but also simulcast them as films via the red button on digital BBC 1 and 2. The texts for radio and film are the same, the directors different. And the results, inevitably, are mixed.

Just as some writers respond directly to Ackroyd’s scenario – Lin Coghlan’s Boy (Pushing) and Alison Joseph’s Ayshe (Ayshe’s Tale) both experience ‘miracles’ in Bread Street – so some films simply illustrate the texts. Alnoor Dewshi’s film for Pushing, for example, shows the voice actors acting out the soundtrack in fifteen minute’s worth of stills that match the narrative exactly. Joe King and Rosie Pedlow (I Am Not You Are Not Me), William Raban (Ayshe’s Tale) and, albeit more imaginatively, Sam Brady (Make Your Way) match dialogue with travelogue, images of the city we all believe we know. There are interesting moments – flickering candles in the Pushing stills, split screen and animation in Make Your Way – but these films neither add nor detract from the audio.

Radiogenic drama flourishes in ambiguity, allusion and indirect narrative. These are also signatures of one strand of short film art. The “radio films” that work best in this exercise are thus those that respond indirectly to multilayered texts.

Esther Johnson’s film for Yalda relates to Mehrdad Seyf’s text in the same way a high-end music video relates to the song. Some key lines are actually pumped up onto the screen, part blurb, part slogan, whilst the dramatic climax – the revelation that Yalda’s miracle is the surgical restoration of her virginity – is offset against shots of synchronised swimmers.

Inge Blackman goes further with Broken Chain, including content not specified in Mark Norfolk’s script. Who is that bloke in cellophane bandages and is that a grin or a grimace? The veiled woman in white taffeta sashaying away from us through the busy market – we tend to assume she’s the Virgin but we check the credits and realise she’s La Diablesse. It makes you think.
So, was the experiment a success? Yes and no. Was it worth doing? Absolutely. The BBC produces more radio drama than any other broadcaster. With so much product, the quality inevitably ranges from outstanding to dire. Virtually none of it is experimental. The experiment in The City Speaks is neither literary nor dramatic but technological. From the Dramatic Control Panel in 1928 to the online Radio Player and podcasting The Archers the BBC Radio Drama Department has always led the field technologically. If these six radio films spark the interest of new audiences then hurry up and make more.

The City Speaks was broadcast as the Afternoon Play on Wednesday March 19 and Thursday March 20 2008. An edited version of this review was published in The Independent Monday March 31 2008.

Monday, March 24, 2008

No 1 Ladies Detective Agency v He Kills Coppers

9pm Sunday - two primetime dramas go head-to-head on the UK's main terrestrial channels - both based on lightweight fiction - both desperate for ratings success. The winner by a knockout?

Post-match analysis? The McCall Smith has a clear, likeable protagonist who by sheer good nature sets the world to rights after minor transgressions in an imaginary Eden. The Jake Arnott has substituted red-top headlines for characterisation, with no one to like or even identify with in an inner circle of Hell, namely a badly-researched Sixties London. It is a shame to knock ITV again, because they are genuinely trying with their drama. Perhaps the answer is competent screenwriters (and the BBC has a clear advantage here, with the late Minghella and Richard Curtis) and directors who serve story rather than directors who really want to direct upmarket adverts. The fact that He Kills Coppers was apparently shot through the side of a dirty aquarium didn't help - and poor old ITV is stuck with two more episodes of this tosh that, on previous Arnott showing, can only get worse as he moves from faction to fiction. Remember the pointless psychologist in The Long Firm? Ghastly.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Plus ca change

Came across this quotation in Martin Pugh's Hurrah for the Blackshirts (2005). It's from William John Brown (1894-60), trade unionist, turncoat, class traitor, who at the time of writing this was the recently elected Labour MP for Wolverhampton West, then later became a scandalous Independent MP for Rugby. Anyway, it's from "Democracy in Danger", Saturday Review, January 31 1931, p. 145:

"Many of us are beginning to think that the supreme need is not so much for Governments of a particular colour but for Governments that will govern and not fiddle about while the country drifts steadily nearer to diaster."

Lesson for Gordon B there...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Weekend TV

The Last Enemy last night was beaten in the ratings by Around the World in 80 Gardens on BBC2. The problem is, it's gone on so long we've lost track of what the conspiracy is supposed to be. Normally, I like Max Beasley but this series has taken a real nosedive since he emerged from behind the wire-behind-the-ears fake beard. Personally, I fell asleep.

After high hopes and oodles of hype, it has become all too clear why HBO passed on Mad Men and how right they were. There's no story, the characters are largely indistinguishable, and the pace would bore a tortoise. I shall not risk a third viewing.

On the positive side, Big Bang Theory continues to excel and BBC3's series of one-off dramas that started off well with Being Human had an even better second week with Mrs Inbetweeny - crap title but fabulous performances all round and a stunning turn from the often undervalued Amelia Bulmore in the title role. Being Human would work better in a 30-minute slot and if the Beeb doesn't commission a run of Mrs Inbetweeny we should withhold the licence fee.

Monday, March 03, 2008

ITV drama missing the mark

Conor Dignam "On Broadcasting", Independent, Monday March 3:
"The wave of new dramas that were supposed to give ITV1 a more contemporary and cutting edge have ... disappointed. The Palace started with viewing figures of 4.3 million and dropped from there, Amanda Redman's Honest opened with a respectable 6 million but dropped away, and Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach have seen ITV beaten by every other terrestrial channel in the Friday night 9pm to 10pm slot."

Mad Men: "It shouldn't be too difficult..."

Essentially, it's about being non-PC. Typewriters have to be simplified for women to use; secretaries go on the pill so they can sleep with and marry their boss; and - best of all - the suggestion that "It shouldn't be too difficult to convince the American public Dick Nixon's a winner."

There was much to appreciate but very little to engage with. The producers seemed more intent on cramming in benefit-of-hindsight jokes and not sufficiently interested in characterisation or dramatic structure. Well worth giving a second try, though.