Sunday, December 27, 2009

The classical Greek/Roman comedy model

“In the protasis characters were introduced and the initial situation was unfolded; in the epitasis complications began to be developed, schemes and stratagems devised and set to work; in the catastrophe difficulties were brought to a head and then resolved so that harmony might be restored, often through an unexpected discovery being made.”

William Tydeman, Introduction to Four Tudor Comedies, Penguin, London, 1984

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

ITV's festive dramas

Mark Lawson sounds a downbeat note in today's Guardian:

"...this blizzard of quality fiction [on ITV] is not quite what it seems. Sleep With Me, a story of bisexual infidelity based on Joanna Briscoe's novel, was completed in the summer of 2008 and has been waiting for transmission since then, while An Englishman in New York, a sequel to the 1975 film The Naked Civil Servant, was first expected to be screened at least a year ago.

"Nor is transmission over the holiday season necessarily the accolade it immediately seems. ITV traditionally concedes the late December schedules to the BBC because advertisers are expected to have spent the bulk of their budgets in the run-up to the festivities. And so, in commercial TV terms, these dramas are being dumped like corpses in the middle of the night."

['Christmas TV schedules a dumping ground for expensive drama'.]

Lawson is talking about ITV, which in theory should mean that here is a key broadcasting field in which the BBC can have to itself, thus redefining the definition of public service broadcasting. In practice, however, most of the year's drama hits have been on ITV. Worrying, indeed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ed McBain: What is a novella?

The late Ed McBain/Evan Hunter came up with this neat summary in the introduction to Transgressions (2005):

"A novella today can run anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words. Longer than a short story (5,000 words) but much shorter than a novel (at least 60,000 words) it combines the immediacy of the former with the depth of the latter, and it ain't easy to write. In fact, given the difficulty of the form, and the scarcity of markets for novellas, it is surprising that any writers today are writing them at all."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Katie Hims wins WGGB radio play award

Katie Hims has won the Writer's Guild of Great Britain award for best radio play (The Gunshot Wedding), which is a little weird as it wasn't one of the nominations. Still, nobody pretends the WGGB is a democracy.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Big Top, big disaster

Every since Wednesday evening I've been trying to think of another contender but haven't found one that comes close. BBC 1'a Big Top is officially the worst British sitcom ever (and I include L for Lester, Lame Ducks and the one on ITV that featured Victor Meldrew as some sort of River Authority policeman). Its first ep got 3.3 million viewers and at least half will be back next week to make sure they hadn't accidentally ingested a hallucinogen.

"It's set in a circus, the only form of public entertainment more doddery and decrepit than the traditional British sitcom", said Michael Deacon in the Telegraph. Over in the Guardian, Sam Wollaston likened the experience to "being repeatedly banged over the head in the 1970s". Sam obviously doesn't remember the 70s as well as I do; the decade saw the Winter of Discontent and the Thatcher putsch but it wasn't as bad as Big Top. Wittiest of the critics was Andrea Mullaney in The Scotsman - "if this was any more of a turkey, Delia Smith would be wrapping bacon around it" - but the Independent's Tom Sutcliffe put his finger on the problem by calling it "one of those programmes that has you wondering about the commissioning process."

Exactly. Commissioning by committee is never going to scare the horses or unearth a genius who hasn't built massive credibility in another form (stand-up in the case of Ricky Gervais) but it is meant to guard against the inrush of sewage. Yet Jay Hunt, who is paid the thick end of £300,000 a year to gatekeep BBC 1 signed off on this garbage. Sure, everyone wants a family sitcom and we should never give up the search for the next Fools and Horses or even My Family. But this had none of the necessary attributes and anyone who knows anything about TV forms could tell you so. A 'traditional' sitcom requires a family, however loosely defined, family members who argue among themselves but present a united front to the world, fully rounded characters with back stories, hopes, ambitions and failings - characters that are just like us no matter how different their world is. And the Number One ingredient for a major worldwide hit worth megabucks in syndication: OPTIMISM. Admittedly, Daniel Peak, woeful begetter of Big Top, is by no means the first British writer to overlook the last one. Apparently Peak co-wrote some of Not Going Out with Lee Mack, which I didn't watch because it had Lee Mack in it. (Close inspection shows that Peak only wrote the third series, after which the show was cancelled - coincidence?) The thing about Mack though, is that he works tirelessly on his material, writing and rewriting until he has polished it smooth. I can only assume that Daniel Peak misheard and polished Big Top with a tyre.

So what do we have? A sitcom set in a circus wherein the inciting incident is a ploy to get the lead character (Amanda Holden) out of the situation. Fatal. We have a circus in which we never see anyone perform and which, unlike any other circus since the dawn of time, has only one foreign artist in it. We have a queasy combition of childish slapstick (hand buzzers, ferrets down trousers) and alleged witty banter. All the characters are downbeat, hopeless and untalented. The cast is surprisingly big name - Holden, Tony Robinson, John Thomson, Sophie Thompson and Ruth Madoc - so I suppose we must call them undiscriminating.

The truth is, Big Top could have been made to work perfectly well as a children's sitcom - perhaps with a teenage runaway to add normality and resonance. Otherwise, best forgotten.

Jay Hunt, however, has questions to answer, for her other big commission of the autumn is the derivative Paradox which, a standout performance from Tamzin Outhwaite notwithstanding, bids fair to be a clunker of Borgia-esque proportions (remember that one, do ya, Sam Wollaston?)