Sunday, March 27, 2011

BBC knee jerk reaction

I found this item in Matthew Bell's media diary in today's Independent on Sunday (p. 43): "The BBC acted quickly to avoid causing offence in the wake of the unfolding Swindon murder case. The fifth episode of a Woman's Hour drama, Cottonopolis, was pulled on Friday because it was about a missing woman and a taxi driver who wrongly comes under suspicion. The chief suspect in the murder of Sian O'Callaghan is a taxi driver. No doubt it was the right decision, but it must have been a blow to the play's author, Michelle Lipton. She has written about how difficult the series was to write, because it all hinges on the sixth episode, which brings together several storylines. That was due to be aired on Monday, but a BBC spokesman says it will be postponed indefinitely." On the face of it, no one can blame the underling of the day who cancelled Friday's broadcast as the O'Callaghan case was unfolding in real time. This is the paranoid atmosphere of Mark Thompson's servile Beeb and no employee would have dared do otherwise. But it raises so many issues that Matthew Bell seems to accept without question. First of all, the play is drama not reality. Secondly, it played on radio - Radio 4 moreover - as part of the Woman's Hour slot and had been doing so since Monday. Was the assumption that its listeners had forgotten the previous four episodes? Also, this is radio, which pretends radio drama doesn't exist, not TV where it would have been advertised in every break between programmes for at least a week - in other words, discriminating consumers had searched it out and chosen to listen. Michelle Lipton has learned what I learned some years ago - don't write realistic police dramas involving sex crimes for the Beeb. There is always some perv who does something vaguely similar in real life and it will always get pulled. In these instances indefinitely usually means permanently as the culprit's capture, trial and conviction will be followed by endless legally-aided appeals. Have the butler do it with a candelbra in gazebo and you'll be fine. Of lesser importance is the fact that a Woman's Hour serial was unwisely linked to an Afternoon Play (the sixth episode mentioned by Bell). This is a trope of Alison Hindell's time as Head of Radio Drama and is, in my opinion, ill-judged. The surviving slots have distinct characteristics; this is a good thing, this is what your huge audiences like.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Note on radio comedy

I found an interesting comment from Jane Berthoud, Head of BBC Radio Comedy, in a podcast on the Writers' Guild of Great Britain website (

"...because it's radio, and because you can go anywhere, I think that people can have a tendency to overcomplicate. When I arrived I don't think there was a single sitcom that was set in 20th century ordinary Britain, which I found quite odd actually."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

At last - the BBC Drama podcast

The weekly BBC Drama podcast launched this weekend - and launched with an absolute corker, the form at its finest... Black Roses The Killing of Sophie Lancaster. Actually, this wasn't a play at all, but a dramatic feature in the finest tradition of Geoffrey Bridson - Sophie's mother describing her daughter's life and brutal, senseless murder (kicked to death in a park in Bury by a gang of thugs who didn't like the appearance of Sophie and her boyfriend, both Goths) interwoven with beautiful, simple, plangent poetry specially written by Simon Armitage. It was indescribably moving in a way that straight broadcast drama no longer can be, thanks to the grand guignol TV soaps. Fittingly produced in Manchester, home of Bridson and the laboratory (under Archie Harding in the 1930s) in which the dramatic feature was forged.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Night Dinner

Robert Popper's new C4 sitcom is classically wonderful. Family-based, five recurring characters and essentially a single set, it is beautifully written and marvellously acted. Paul Ritter, an actor I haven't noticed before, is an absolute revelation, Tamsin Greig seizes the opportunity to extend her range by playing the mum of adult sons, and Mark Heap (notwithstanding the shame of his role in the abyssmal Lark Rise to Candleford) positively shines as the nutty neighbour. I love it so much I watch every episode twice.

Give it time...

Brian Viner, writing in today's Independent, says critics were too quick to diss the recent BBC1 Sunday night dramatisation of South Riding. I myself was one who moved rapidly on about halfway through Episode 1, but that was mainly because if I see David Morrissey in one more worthy drama I think I might cry. However, Viner makes the very valid point that when ITV did its dramatisation in 1974 they allowed 13 hour-long episodes whilst the BBC made Andrew Davies knock the novel down to 3. Viner continues:

"...people keep telling me how wonderful The Killing is on BBC4. It's a Danish import with subtitles, and significantly it is 20 episodes long. The incomparably fine Mad Men runs to 13 episodes per series. Yet for our own broadcasters, drama output is crippled by risk aversion. Naturally, they cite stratospheric costs as a reason for three episodes rather than 20, 13 or even six, but where there's a will to make an audience feel properly cherished, there's a way. Sadly, the BBC seems to have lost the will."

I would just add three points:

1. Neither The Killing nor Mad Men is written by a screenwriter as cynical as Davies. Neither stars actors as over-exposed as Morrissey or Penelope Wilton.
2. Mad Men is original drama. The Killing is a dramatisation of a contemporary novel. Neither is in themselves 'classic' or 'done better before'.
3. The cost of a 13-part series is less than the cost of the four shorter series that replace it. In drama, as in all things, economy of scale applies.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Killing

The BBC has obviously done a press release, because both Guardian and Independent have articles today about this cult Danish series currently halfway through its run on BBC4. Both rely heavily on the same publicity material and cite the same parallels. Overall, I marginally prefer Gerard Gilbert's piece in the Indy:

Murdoch-phobes will savour the irony that at a juncture in TV history when the chattering classes are supposed to chattering, Tweeting and Facebooking about Sky Atlantic's much-hyped new HBO shows – David Simon's post-Katrina New Orleans saga, Treme, or the lavish Prohibition-era epic Boardwalk Empire – all the noise is actually about an unheralded and subtitled Danish crime series showing free-to-air on BBC Four.

The Killing is keeping a growing group of viewers – 359,000 of them according to last weekend's figures (247,000 watched Boardwalk Empire in the same timeslot) – from doing anything more useful with their Saturday nights, as it follows the slow-burn investigation into the rape and murder of a 19-year-old girl in a Copenhagen flat.

["Wanted in Britain: Europe's must-see TV Thrillers" 5/3/11]
Personally, I have been hooked from the start. What maintains the interest is that the makers haven't gone down the route of cheap shocks or multiple murders. They understand the role of silence, and the show is at its best when probing the silent grief of Nanna's parents (both beautifully acted).
My only criticism is for the Beeb. Two episodes every Saturday night is too much. Each instalment of The Killing is a feast in itself and demands a period of digestion. Of course, fans can do what I do - watch the first ep on Saturday and then record the late night repeat of the next ep on Wednesday - but I would rather have had the 20 weeks the makers planned for. Like I say, a minor niggle.