Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Colour of Money (continued)

Caitlin Moran on TV, The Times Review p. 14:

"If the genius of a classic game show is in its very simplicity (find the box with the most money in/guess the price of the fridge/answer pub-triv questions for £1 million), then The Colour of Money is as dumb as a mug of mud. If I were to put it in a nutshell, I would have to use a coconut, at the very least.

"... The Colour of Money is basically Michael Barrymore's Strike it Lucky. It's just tellies in a line, with prizes in. Classic Barrymore. You can't fool me. Quite how it's taken the six people listed in the credits to come up with the format is a mystery. It takes only two people to make a baby, for God's sake."

And Tim Teeman devotes the whole of his "Trash Can" column in the Playlist supplement to this entertainment triumph:

"It's rare for a quiz show to be quite as bad as The Colour of Money. At least Hole in the Wall has ridiculous suits and the perils of an advancing wall and water. At least Countdown has the naughty insurrectionies of Dictionary Corner. But there is no tension, depite the contestant and the audience's hysteria, in The Colour of Money.

"In case you missed last week's first episode, the contestant stands with Chris Tarrant who asks them to choose a colour. Once past this decoy of possible interest, a clock begins to tick. The sums of money go up by a thousand pounds. The contestant must shout "stop" when he or she thinks this process is going to screech to a halt. If the clock stops and the contestant hasn't shouted "stop", they lose the money. And so it goes on, meaningless colour categories and all.

"Tarrant, the poor man, must say absurd things like "Why did you choose lime?" to another grown adult. That adult must reply to this in all seriousness. As on Deal or No Deal, another game show with no real skill or knowledge on display, the contestant imposes their own logic on this ridiculous process, or sometimes gives up entirely ("I just really like lime!"). The sums of money to win are very "recession": respectable but not edge-of-sofa, will-they-won't they? woo-hoo. Milly Clode, the busty co-presenter, aims to sound wise, as if her own steely, firm reassurances ("You could still win") are pivotal to the contestant's "method".

"Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe Gail Trimble, the University Challenge brainbox, can deconstruct The Colour of Money's thudding intellectual heart. But really, it makes The Price is Right look like QI."

Friday, February 27, 2009

E-commissioning at the BBC

From the Writers' Guild of Great Britain blog 9posted by Naomi MacDonald, the Guild's Assistant General Secretary):

The BBC has updated its commissioning process by introducing an online system for submitting proposals. The BBC says that e-Commissioning enables them to handle the 10,000 proposals they receive per year faster and more efficiently. They also say that the e-Commissioning system will not replace creative conversations with producers and that it is designed "simply to make the process of filtering and comparing ideas much easier".


One member told us " It's the very nature of the system that is the problem, dreamt up by people who seem to have no understanding of writers at all. It just seems to put paid to the possibility of developing any sort of creative relationship."

Another told us that she managed to register for the system quite easily but got in a pickle trying to submit her pitch. On the other hand, we've heard from writers who found the process complicated the first time but found it easier once they'd got the hang of it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Whitechapel, Moses Jones and The Colour of Money

ITV's three-parter Whitechapel and BBC2's Moses Jones both concluded last Monday.

Whitechapel was a clever but obvious concept that fully embraced its subject matter - including the various Ripperologist hobbyhorses, throwing in a candidate for the 1888 Ripper I had never considered (the Kelly witness, George Hutchinson, who has previously been regarded as the man most likely to have seen rather than been Jack) - and ended up with a genuine sense of excitement. The characters were stereotypical but the clash of old school v new was made central to the drama and in any case this is a genre in which character should always be subordinate to plot.

Joe Penthall's Moses Jones, on the other hand, valued layered characterisation and smart writing above plot and lost out badly. Protagonist and antagonist eventually sacrificed all the careful characterisation to end up as Valiant Knight and Pantomime Villain simply to facilitate a conclusion. Even then we had to endure five minutes of straight voice-over exposition to wind up the loose ends. All bar one, that is - motivation. In a programme that set out to showcase Afro-Caribbean acting talent, Denis Waterman turned out to be the best thing in it.

Typically, neither show really understood the central premise of thrillers - that the protagonist must always be in the most jeopardy from the antagonist. But at least Whitechapel had a perfunctory go at it - our hero was assaulted twice by the Ripper, albeit incidentally rather than malevolently, and his crusty oppo stabbed.

The two channels went head to head. And ITV won. Again.

ITV did not do so well with its more usual fare, Saturday night's new curtain raiser for Harry Hill and Ant and Dec. What follows are extracts from Andrew Billen's review for The Times:

The Colour of Money is a Saturday night shiny floor show that aims to be the next Who Wants to be a Millionaire? This may be why its host, Chris Tarrant, was wearing a three-button black suit from Millionaire's heyday. It would be tedious to explain the rules - it was tedious - but they involve contestants picking from different coloured ATMs, each of which contain between £1,000 and £20,000. They have to amass a predetermined sum or go home with nothing.

[...] Tarrant failed to dominate. Not that there was much to dominate, the game requiring no general knowledge or tactical skill.

[...] The Colour of Money is advertised as the "most stressful game on television". It's as stressful as bingo night at the village hall. And the shiny floor didn't even look very shiny. We know ITV is hard up, but has it replaced its spotlights with eco-bulbs?

One of the reasons it lacked tension was that it was overproduced, with extracts from what was about to come topping and tailing each section. This practice confirms to the viewer only one thing: the programme is not live.

["Shiny bore show", Times 2, Monday February 23, p. 18]

Disastrous, one might assume. But no - its primetime competition across on BBC1 was Total Wipeout, which has simply gone on too long, and the unbelievably awful Let's Dance for Comic Relief. Note to Beeb: Claudia Winkleman's talent is for spontaneous, unscripted, ironic wit. Her stooge here, Steve Jones, has no talent whatsoever and should be slapped on sight. Claudia's jokes were as well flagged as Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar, but the idiot boy still walked all over them. Unmitigated kack.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Monsterist manifesto

It all started with a lamentable production of an old, piss-poor European play by a new director on a large stage with a huge cast. The playwrights Richard Bean, Colin Teevan, Sarah Woods and Ryan Craig had seen it and were enraged that such resources aren't lavished on many living playwrights. If they were, they speculated, perhaps there wouldn't be such a lack of variety in the new plays being written.
And it's not just the poverty of resources that's having an effect on playwrights. According to Teevan: "There's been a predominance of television realism and of a section of the critical culture that demands a moral message from new writing. This is in danger of making theatre about as interesting as muesli."
"Why would anyone write stage plays now?" asks Craig. "If you can write dialogue and you can hit a deadline you can write TV. You can write about your south London council estate or your middle class swingers and you can make more money and reach more people and therefore have more impact." Apart from anything else, the denial of the larger stages to living playwrights has made it harder and harder for them to earn a living from writing, as they see their income from royalties dwindle to insultingly low levels.
"Theatre has moved out of the Webberised 1990s and the In-Yer-Face millennium," says Woods. We have moved on from the bleak post-Thatcher landscape and the end of the cold war. The big, messy complex world we find ourselves in, says Woods, "is not going to be best expressed by a two- or four-handed play in a studio theatre. It must also be allowed a cast of 12 or even 20 on a main stage."
But this was more than just moaning. Woods started writing down everything that the four playwrights said. Then they invited others associated with the National Theatre Studio to join them and form a writers' group. As we began to contribute our own experiences and ideas it became obvious that the original quartet didn't represent a narrow clique: they were speaking for the vast majority of new and aspiring playwrights. And Monsterism was born.
Moira Buffini sums up the thinking behind the campaign when she says: "It's our job to take people where they don't expect to go. It's our job to provoke, move, unsettle and inspire. It goes without saying that plays that manage to do this are big. It is possible to write them for a cast of two and perform them in a box barely bigger than a lounge but I've got to the point where I want to kick down the walls of these boxes. I'm sick of writing epics for six."
Initially our efforts were modest. We ceremonially gambled the tiny expenses allowance the National Studio gave us for our monthly meeting in the hope of backing a winner and raising some meagre funds for our campaign. Next we plotted kidnapping prominent theatre critics we particularly disliked and holding them captive for a pathetic ransom like 50p. Fortunately we quickly evolved out of our anarchist phase and began to apply for jobs running theatres instead. (Of course, playwrights always miss the deadline ...)
Then, having distilled our ideas on paper in the form of a manifesto, we set out to meet as many theatre managers as possible. The artistic director of the National Theatre, Nick Hytner, pledged to encourage big new plays. Another artistic director was none too happy at the small number of us who were available to meet with him (no reflection, mate, we're all busy too!). But, piqued or passionate, they all got the same treatment: we grilled them about their theatres and their visions for the future and we put our case.
When they have met us as a collective, directors, theatre managements and institutions have never been anything other than supportive, but often when they meet us privately or individually they lay the blame at our door. If you only wrote a big play, they say, we'd love to put it on. But dramatists, the most pragmatic of writers, only have to look at the plays that have been done in the past 20 years to see which way the wind has been blowing in often cash-strapped theatres. We want the managements to take some responsibility, be proactive and help to turn things around but we're not simply passing the buck. "We've become masters at crafting our stories into reductive, exclusive black-box experiences," Jonathan Lewis points out. "We fell in love with and are exhausting this intimate version of events."
"The moment someone decides to write for the stage," says Roy Williams, "they should be encouraged to believe the limits to what they can achieve are only the limits of their imagination." But this doesn't always happen. Like Bean, I increasingly miss the opportunity to write a whole world, with its opportunities for great parts for leading actors and small, gem-like one-scene roles. Newer playwrights have been formed in a democratic culture that encourages equality for all the characters in a narrative and instills the notion that if you employ a performer you ought to give them a good amount to do. Nothing wrong with that but sometimes we want to write a different kind of play.
This dominant mode is reinforced by the critical culture. Script development people and reviewers always seem to note that any small part is "underwritten" - even if, as Bean tartly points out, that is a deliberate choice on the part of the playwright. Many argue that the minor characters should be cut - but imagine Macbeth without the Porter. No wonder so many playwrights are frustrated.
Buffini warns: "If living writers are not given access to the stages that our dead forebears still dominate, then our skills cannot develop and our talent will go elsewhere." And there are other exciting places for talented writers to go if the theatre does not want us on at least some of our new terms. Writers like Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Monica Ali are showing how exciting the novel can be, inspiring and enthralling readers with an epic sweep and the accuracy with which they explore the human condition. And for the dyed-in- the-wool dramatists, Paul Abbott, Abi Morgan and Russell T Davies are living proof that if you write well and pursue a passionate, ambitious, inventive vision then TV can still be a place where you can tell the tales you want.
The Monsterists, though, are dedicated to theatre - and now we're shifting our private efforts into a public campaign. This Friday we are holding a Monster Day Out at Hampstead Theatre in London to discuss our ideas with critics, directors and other playwrights. Already things are looking up. Hytner is richly fulfilling his promise to produce big new plays, by playwrights new and established. The Royal Shakespeare Company is telling any writer who will listen that it wants new plays to be at heart of the company's work and is commissioning large cast pieces from the writers it believes in. Despite having smaller resources than the larger companies the Royal Court is doing its absolute best to stage large scale, ambitious work by its writers.
But there is a long way to go. The Monsterists, with the support of the Arts Council, commissioned a survey of the 2004 autumn season in British theatre. Of the 276 plays produced by our surveyed theatres, 35% were new - but our feedback suggests that substantially less than 35% of the participating companies' resources were actually spent on the new plays, while money as ever has been thrown at Shakespeare, Wilde and the rest.
What to do? Well, apart from dreaming of a year-long moratorium on Shakespeare, we would like the theatre industry to consider introducing a "dead writers' levy". Quite simply, every time a play is put on by a dead writer, to whom a royalty does not have to be paid, the producer contributes an equivalent sum towards a fund that supports the production of new work. The beauty of such a scheme is that it would, in one go, provide a substantial additional source of funding for theatres committed to putting on ambitious new work and remove the unfair financial incentive theatres have for producing old plays by dead writers.
Monsterism may have started out as a moan but it is a positive, forward-looking campaign by writers to ask British theatre to raise its game. Buffini speaks for all of us when she says: "Deluded though I may be, I am an optimist. If we playwrights work together we may effect a change. If we are allowed to give our imaginations free reign, if we have use of the same resources, the spaces, budgets, casts and directors that are usually reserved for the deceased, we may write the kind of plays that will attract a new audience. We all moan about tired old productions and dead theatre. We can only try to bring it back to life."
Monsterism's Manifesto
Monsterism is a theatre writers' campaign to promote new writing in the British theatre. It is a positive, forward looking movement that aims to create opportunities for British theatre writers to create large scale plays, for large stages.
The key aesthetic tenets of a monsterist work are:
· Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
· The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
· Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
· Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
· The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
· Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
On a practical level the implications of the manifesto are:
· The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage
· Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (ie equal with dead writers)
· Use of the very best directors for new plays
· Use of the very best actors for new plays

Article (Massive Attack) by monsterist David Eldridge in the Guardian, Monday June 27 2005.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Critical comment on the condition of Channel 4

"Once a finger-clicking, city-slicking maverick ... C4 is now a broken bag of a broadcaster, fatally weakened by the gigantic, cancer-like Big Brother, which has twisted its entire broadcasting physiognomy out of shape."

Caitlin Moran on TV, The Times Review, Saturday Feb 14 2009, p. 14

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Captain Woodes Rogers

Statue of Captain Woodes Rogers

Extracts from Ben Macintyre's article, Hark, I hear the ghost of a Scots Buccaneer, in the Times, Thursday February 12 2009 p. 27.

Three hundred years ago this month the crew of the Duke, a privateer under the command of Captain Woodes Rogers, spotted an unfeasibly hairy figure on a deserted island 418 miles off Chile.

The creature was clad in skins, with a long matted beard, and waving wildly. On shore, the sailors gathered around the savage apparition, who was plainly trying to communicate but “seemed to speak his words by halves”. Finally, he uttered the single word “marooned”, and burst into tears.

On closer inspection, the hairy man revealed himself to be not some hitherto unknown species of hominid, but a Scotsman by the name of Alexander Selkirk, who had spent the previous four years and four months alone on the island.

Selkirk's story formed the basis for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, arguably the first English novel, the inspiration for the television series Castaway three centuries later and any number of desert island tales in between. [...]

The Scotsman left his home in Fife to seek ill-gotten riches, was reduced to living on whatever he could scrabble out of an inhospitable island, survived to become rich, yet looked back wistfully on when he had nothing.

As The Times observed in 1830: “This plain man's story is a memorable example that he is happiest who confines his want to natural necessities; and he that goes farther in his desires increases his want in proportion to his acquisitions.” [...]

The principal reason that Selkirk was dumped on a remote island on the Juan Fernández archipelago was because he was very irritating.

Having signed on as a licensed pirate, or privateer, with the Cinq Ports, he fell out with his captain, declared that the ship was so worm-eaten that it would sink, tried to lead a mutiny, demanded to be set ashore and then, to his extreme dismay, found his wish granted.

The Cinq Ports sailed away and soon after, as Selkirk had predicted, it sank. The 29-year-old pirate was marooned with a musket, gunpowder, hatchet, navigation tools, 2lbs of tobacco, a Bible and enough cheese for about three sandwiches - which had not been invented yet, and anyway he had no bread.

For four years he lived on fur seals, turtles and fish, garnished with pimento, cabbage palm and wild watercress. When his clothes fell apart, he made his own out of the skins of wild goats, which also provided the castaway with nourishment, eating utensils carved out of horn and, it was later rumoured, sex.

Selkirk considered suicide at first, but slowly came to terms with his solitude. He befriended the island's feral cats, which then stood guard at night to ward off the rats that gnawed his feet. Selkirk had no Man Friday for company. Yet he became “thoroughly reconciled to his Condition”, according to one account, “his Being much more joyful than it had before been irksome”.

There was little to like about him, but his was an astonishing feat of survival, ingenuity and mental strength.

Safely aboard the Duke, the castaway was shaved, clothed and installed as navigator. On the way home, the privateers robbed several Spanish galleons. Back in Fife, telling his story from pub to pub, he “frequently bewailed his return to the world, which could not, he said, with all its enjoyments, restore him to the tranquillity of his solitude”.

Selkirk's share of the Duke's booty had made him a wealthy man. “I am now worth £800,” he said. “but shall never be so happy as when I was not worth a farthing.” At the bottom of his father's garden he built himself a rudimentary shelter, like his island refuge, from which to observe the sea.

In 1721 Selkirk headed back to the ocean, contracted yellow fever off West Africa, died and was once more dumped in mid-ocean, this time permanently. Robinson Crusoe had been published two years earlier. An instant bestseller, it ran to countless editions and inspired many spin-offs.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Trial and Retribution: Shooter

First of a two-parter by Tony McHale featured so many cliches it could be used as a learning exercise in script-writing classes. The guv'nor on a mission; the family of old-fashioned blaggers with their womenfolk the three witches from Macbeth; poor old Martin Marquez as the gay hard man with 80s perm and shell suit; horrible, overlong and utterly unconvincing court scenes; dialogue that conveniently flags up the next scene and the compulsory second murder three minutes before the end. Ghastly ... and yet McHale managed one surprise that will bring back viewers next week. The insignificant junior female detective co-opted for no real reason from the proceeds of crime unit turns out to be a plant. Incidentally, the show continued the trend away from the anodyne and unempathic Smurfit to the much more interesting Dorian Lough as Satch.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth

There comes a time...

There comes a time when the successful artist tackles the question, how would I like to be seen by posterity? Few have come up with the answer that hit Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) judging by these self-portraits.

Killer in a Small Town

C4's documentary about the 2006 murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich (by Steve Wright, who recently abandoned his appeal) was a league apart from the usual prurient exploitation of these unsavoury matters. Louise Osmond's film focused instead on the ongoing victims - the family and friends of the murdered women and even, very unusually, the members of the public who just happened to find the bodies. I shall certainly seek out more of this director's work. Exceptional.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

More on Deja Vu

Paul Donovan in The Times Culture supplement Feb 1 2009 (p 77):

"... Alexis Zegerman's drama is a unique collaboration between the BBC and a French outfit, Arte, which has already made more than 1,000 'sound pieces' that reside on its website. ... On the BBC's website, it will last seven days, but on Arte's five years (and doubtless be much downloaded to help teach English).

"Deja Vu was recorded on location in both capitals: in a flat in Tufnell Park and on the Circle Line here; on the Metro and at the Gare du Nord in Paris. The richness of its audio terrine, with clattering heels, hydraulic hissing, sirens, loudspeakers, mobiles and a soupcon of verbal improvisation, reflects the fact that it took eight days to make - twice as long as a normal Radio 4 afternoon play, which is two days to record and two days to edit."

I listened on Arte radio and agree that the soundscape was ambitious. I found it unsuccessful, though - a demonstration of the old maxim that reality doesn't always sound like reality. Much of the time I simply did not know what or where it was. Overall, I must agree with Donovan's conclusion:

"It is a novel venture rather let down by its ending, and all the sound effects in the world cannot save a weak story."

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

"Blair wanted me to become leader, says Charles Clarke." The Times, Thursday Feb 5 2009, p. 14.

Either Tony had an unsuspected drink problem or Big Charlie has a rather more likely truth problem.