Thursday, 28 January 2010

Mad Men, BBC Four

Here's a quick review of last night's Mad Men double bill on BBC Four wot I done for Orange.

I'm off to the Isle of Wight in an hour to do a bit of rewriting and celebrate 20 glorious years of the Tom 'n' Jane Laff-In, so I don't have time to do any more writery analysis. Suffice to say that each episode is an absolute masterclass in structure, deeeeeep characterisation and subtext.

(Link: Some PDF scripts from series one, courtesy of the script-compiling legend that is Lee Thompson.)

Be seeing you!

At long last, several spoiler-avoiding months after it went out in the US, Mad Men – the Best Thing on Telly – is back on the BBC for its third series. We'll have none of that "season" nonsense here, thank you very much.

Set in a New York ad agency in the early 1960s, the ice-cool show has been hoovering up awards since it started. The other week it won Best TV Drama at the Golden Globes, while Jon Hamm and January Jones (above) were all smiles after walking off with Best Actor and Best Actress for the second year running.

Series three picks up the story amid uncertain times at Stirling Cooper, following its takeover by a load of pesky Brits. With the accounts team fighting for survival, Don Draper (Hamm) had to take a trip to Baltimore with closeted gay art director Sal (Bryan Batt). And when a late-night fire alarm forced the evacuation of their hotel, Don found that he wasn't the only one hiding a few secrets.

Episode two, shown immediately afterwards, brought things closer to home, as decisions had to be made about the care of Don's increasingly senile father-in-law. Meanwhile, pioneering copywriter Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) decided to get her mojo back and went out on the pull.

However, Mad Men is one of those shows where a quick summary doesn't do it anything like full credit. Everything about it, from the writing to the set design and costumes, is as immaculately tailored as one of Don Draper's suits: every aspect – every line, look and gesture – is there for a reason, which isn't always obvious.

Granted, the show doesn't make many concessions to new viewers. There are no "As you know, Bob…" conversations to bring the audience up to speed. Instead, you're just dropped into the beautifully realised world and have to start putting together the pieces yourself.

However, if you give it a try you'll find it impossible not to be sucked in. Each episode is a marvellously constructed mini-movie that offers no straightforward answers and leaves you pondering what you've seen long after the credits have finished.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Skins, Series 4 preview, BFI

There's no way I should like Skins. Whenever I'm stuck on a bus with some patois-spitting little Herbert playing shit music out of his mobile, I often think my quality of life would improve immeasurably if they were all shunted off to secure offshore rearing units until the age of 21.

Anyway, when it kicked its way noisily onto the box in 2007, I thought – as a keen student of TV drama – that I'd give it a fair crack of the whip. And while I rolled my eyes a bit at the idea that yoot behaving badly is a 21st-century invention, some of the show's subtlety intrigued me.

By the end of the first episode, I was sure I'd missed something. "What?" I spluttered through my late-night gorgonzola. "We're supposed to *like* Tony?!" But, of course, we weren't. Well, we were a bit. Weren't we? But how much?

Sure he was gorgeous, funny and clever – just how we would have wanted to view ourselves at that age. But he was also a selfish, manipulative and cruel wanker. And the ambivalence fuelled by that depth of characterisation was what fuelled the first two series much more powerfully than the shock horror sex-and-drugs stuff.

For me, it was the second episode – 'Cassie' – that really drew me in. Bryan Elsley's script, Paul Gay's direction and Hannah Murray's luminous performance combined to immerse the viewer in Cassie's world of anorexia and dissociation. It was suddenly apparent that there was going to be more to the show than destructive house parties.

Anyway, the other night we saw a preview of the first episode of series four, at the BFI. And it was excellent. I won't give much away, but it focuses on Thomas (Merveille Lukeba), who is thrown into a bit of a personal crisis when something nasty happens at the club night he puts on. It's darker in tone than the previous series openers, but script, direction, performances and editing all come together beautifully.

There was a Q&A after the screening, featuring writers Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, director Neil Biswas, Merv Lukeba and Lily Loveless (who plays Naomi). It was well moderated by Heat magazine's Boyd Hilton, and while most of the questions were directed at the cast members, there were a few bits of interest from a writing perspective.

* When questioned about the apparent darker tone of 4.1, JB and BE said that one of the things that defines Skins is the fact that its tone can shift around at ease, from intense drama to knockabout comedy and back again. They always seek to open the series with a spectacle, which just happens to be darker this time round. However, the events will continue to have reverberations throughout the series.

* Neil Biswas said he didn't have to fit into a fixed Skins style when he joined the show. Everyone was relaxed about him bringing his own interpretation, and the series is characterised by a lot of collaboration and conversation.

* Bryan Elsley said that he devised the show's writing method because he realised before starting that to make a show about teens he needed to involve teens. As things came together, he became increasingly aware of the talents of the young people he was working with, and wanted to create an atmosphere where they could develop and learn by making mistakes in a safe environment.

* He also responded to claims that the series depicted teens in a bad way by saying again that the show uses the full range of tone - both dark and light - and that it reflects not just teenage life but also a wider range of experience, which is why grown-ups watch the show too. He added that characters like JJ and Pandora also show the very best in human nature.

* Finally, he said that he was happy to have a niche audience of 1.5m-2m who are really engaged with the show; he wants the show to have an audience it can have a relationship with. He was also full of praise for the support the show receives from Channel 4.

I'll watch series four with interest. I remember giving a sudden mental gasp in series two when Cassie suddenly turned up in New York and it became apparent that there was no way we'd be able to second-guess how the series was going to end. I hope the same free-wheeling creativity holds sway as the second generation of Skins heads towards its conclusion.

(And here's what I wrote about last year's series opener. It's looking much better this time round - maybe that's going to be a side-effect of the two-year character cycle?)

Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Caretaker / Harold Pinter - A Celebration

I was well chuffed when I heard that Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, starring Jonathan Pryce as Davies, was coming to London. So chuffed, in fact, that I bought top-price tickets straight away – about two hours before I got an email with a two-for-one offer. Tossbags.

I've had a soft spot for the play since I studied it at sixth-form college and it became part of my Teenage Cultural Awakening. Apart from grinding through Henry IV Part One for my O-level, I'd never really come across drama or the theatre until I started my A-levels.

When I discovered something as obviously modern, stylish and profound as The Caretaker, it was like a switch had been flicked in my noddle. My horizons suddenly expanded the same way they had when I first saw the Once in a Lifetime video on Top of the Pops a few years earlier, and I developed an almost insatiable appetite for culture - especially literature - that still defines how I spend most of my spare time.

If you're unfamiliar with the play, it tells the story of Davies, a tramp who is brought home one day by Aston, one of a pair of brothers who run a shabby boarding house. Once he's got his knees under the table, Davies tries to play Aston and his brother, the unpredictable Mick, off against each other to cement his position as caretaker of the house.

Pryce is perfect as Davies, whose pathetic standing at the start attracts our sympathy, but whose snarling opportunism takes over as he fights for survival. Peter McDonald is moving as the inward-looking and damaged Aston, but I didn't really think that Sam Spruell was sufficiently menacing as Mick.

Maybe I was spoiled by the edition I studied from, which featured Alan Bates (as Mick) glowering magnificently from the cover. Even the fact that Spruell's Mick was wearing a brown leather jacket instead of a black one seemed to mitigate his presence.

Watching the play and remembering the significance of Sidcup, Aston's shed and Mick's plans for the house - and even the vacuum cleaner and poor old Buddha - was like meeting up with some old friends and having a few drinks for the first time in years. The dialogue still crackles with life, turning on a sixpence from humour to menace as the relationships in the house shift.

I enjoyed the production, but last night I had my Pinter cobwebs blown away good and proper by a BFI preview of Harold Pinter: A Celebration, which will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday (24 Jan, 9pm).

Having not paid a lot of attention when we booked it, I'd assumed it would be a standard biographical documentary. However, it's something altogether much richer than that.

It's a record of an event that took place at the National Theatre in June 2009, when a stellar cast of actors performed extracts from Pinter's work, directed by Ian Rickson, the former artistic director of the Royal Court.

The performances covered the author's full range, from a poem he wrote as a 20-year-old to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As well as extracts from his better-known plays, there were also moving renditions of his personal and political poetry and hilarious extracts from his memoirs.

There are too many highlights to pick out, and the event was beautifully structured, enlightening and inspiring. It's a reminder of the range of Pinter's genius and makes you want to go back and immerse yourself in his work deeper than you ever have before.

Review of the National Theatre event (Michael Billington, The Guardian)

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Survivors, BBC One

Here's a quick review of last night's Survivors wot I wrote for Orange. I enjoyed it - especially in comparison with Day of the Triffids. It was a nice mix of pacey action stuff and sinister consipracy stuff, plus a bit of a deeper exploration of the characters.

Survivors has returned at a very appropriate time, just days after the country was brought to its knees by a terrible phenomenon that no-one could possibly have predicted or done anything about. It certainly felt a bit post-apocalyptic when I had to go to Penge Sainsbury's at the weekend.

Anyway, the second series picked up very much where the first had left off, with Abby Grant (Julie Graham) getting nabbed by some sinister science police types who thought she was the key to developing a vaccine against the plague that had devastated the country – well, Manchester, at least.

Meanwhile, Johnson off Peep Show (Paterson Joseph) had been shot during the confrontation, forcing doctor Anya (Zoe Tapper) to save his life through a bit of – convincingly grisly – improvised surgery in reception at the Midland Hotel. And yes, I know his character is called Greg Preston, but let's face it – we all just call him "Johnson" anyway.

The episode moved along at a fair old lick, as Anya had to lead an expedition to a nearby hospital to get hold of some medical supplies. However, when the building collapsed (with some nifty special effects), she and reformed playboy Al were suddenly trapped and in fatal peril.

Back at the Midland, Johnson was having some intriguing flashbacks about his life before the plague, including him getting a bit medieval on the bloke who was having an affair with his wife. We also saw another side of glamorous parasite Sarah, who seemed to make a fairly gruesome personal sacrifice to get the help needed to free Al and Anya.

While all this was going on, Abby was having a bit of a time of it at the creepy scientists' laboratory. The fibbing fibster of a head boffin revealed that they knew about the plague before it struck! And that Abby would have to be reinfected with the virus before her blood could produce an adequate vaccine! Boo!

All in all I really enjoyed the first episode of the new series. We saw a bit deeper into the characters, the plot moved on rapidly and the whole thing compared very favourably to the thematically similar Day of the Triffids two-parter that vegetated across our screens over Chrimbo.

It looks like series two is going to be a bit more action-packed than the first series, and the opener was very smartly done. Hopefully the future will be a bit brighter for post-plague Manchester than post-snowpocalypse Penge.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

44 Inch Chest and Q&A, BFI

Last night we headed to the BFI for the first time this year, for a preview of 44 Inch Chest - a new British film written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (Sexy Beast) and starring Ray Winstone, alongside a top drawer cast: Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Stephen Dillane and Joanne Whalley.

The plot sounds simple (and geezerish) enough: Colin Diamond (Winstone) is a gruff car salesman whose world falls apart when his wife Liz (Whalley) announces that she's leaving him for a younger man. Urged on by his grizzly gang of mates, he kidnaps 'Loverboy' (Melvin Poupaud) and takes him to a derelict house. With his friends insisting that Loverboy has to die for what he's done, Col has a long dark night of the soul as he decides what to do

Although the trailer would have you think it's a bit of a laddish gangland romp, the film is actually much richer and stranger than that. Mostly confined to a single room, the plot is minimal: Colin has to decide whether or not to kill Loverboy.

However, through a combination of flashback, hallucination and a typically committed performance from Ray Winstone, the film goes into Colin's mind to vividly depict the psychic disintegration that he suffers after Liz drops her bombshell.

The script - and, by extension, the film - are more about texture than plot. The profane banter that flies around between the blokes has a rich musical rhythm, especially when delivered by such a talented cast, even if some of the anecdotes and exchanges seem a bit tangental. When Colin's mates are berating the unlucky Loverboy, it feels a lot like Pinter's The Birthday Party, when the gangsters interrogate Stanley.

The film is billed as a provocative look at masculinity, but I didn't see much in the characters that relates to my life. In the Q&A afterwards, Ray Winstone said that he saw it very much as a love story; like Othello, the broken Col maintains that his biggest fault was that he loved Liz too much (although that doesn't prevent him from giving her a brutal beating when she attempts to leave).

It's an interesting film, full of captivating performances and shot with a real photographer's eye by director Malcolm Venville (making his feature debut) and cinematographer Daniel Landin. However, it might fall between two stools commercially. If an audience turns up expecting a Lock, Stock-style geezercom, they might be alienated by the intimate nature of the film and find its conclusion a bit anti-climactic.

Along with Ray Winstone, the Q&A afterwards was attended also attended by John Hurt and co-writer David Scinto. It'll turn up on BFI Live soon enough, so I won't go through it blow by blow.

The most interesting thing from a screenwriting perspective was David Scinto's statement that they focus on characters when they write, so they can attract top-class actors who really want to get their teeth into the material. Then, once the acting talent has shown an interest, the film becomes a much easier sell to financiers and producers.

Looking at the casts they attracted to Sexy Beast and 44 Inch Chest, you'd have to say it's a strategy that's paid off.