Anyone remember the days of ‘One Nation TV’? Those were the days when the population only had access to a small number of channels and there was a reasonable chance that when you went into school or work, your friends and colleagues had all been watching the same programme(s) as you the previous evening. TV execs and advertisers today probably go all misty-eyed just thinking about it. Thus the whole country was on tenterhooks about the finale of ‘Quatermass‘, the identity of the person that shot J.R. in ‘Dallas’ and other similar cliffhangers.
A few things happened to explode this cosy constituency, the first of which was the advent of the VCR in the early 1980’s. I had a friend in Cheadle who was what they call ‘an early adopter’ and he started out with this monstrous Betamax machine and 2 videotapes full of episodes of ‘Fawlty Towers’ and clips from ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’. The top of the Betamax machine used to fold up and out like the gull-wings of a De Lorean sports car. Seems hilarious now, but at the time it was revolutionary.
What it ushered in was the era of time-shifted viewing which, as far as TV people were concerned was a crucial shift inasmuch as it eventually led to the current television landscape where the viewer, rather than the broadcaster is in control. Back in the day, if you missed an edition of your favourite soap, that was it. No ‘Catch-up TV’, no BBC iPlayer, no DVD box sets, no Channel X + 1 (where programmes run an hour behind the main broadcast), no recording to tape, DVD or hard drive. You had to rely on word of mouth descriptions from friends about what you’d missed.
The next revolution, of course, was the advent of satellite TV and the development of its little brother, cable. Now we had a multitude of channels to choose from, so whether your penchant is for buying zirconium rings on shopping channels, watching daytime re-runs of ‘The New Avengers’ or (in my case) watching MUTV to find out just who is this Slovenian ‘libero’ we are reportedly chasing (for example), your needs were likely to be met. I don’t have any figures to back up this point of view, but my suspicion is that the overall TV audience in this country is unlikely to have grown much (if at all) and may well have declined, which means that the available audience is now diluted among a plethora of channels. So, ‘One Nation TV’ is out of the window and whilst you’re watching ‘Celebrity Pets Makeover on Ice’, or I’m watching re-runs of United hammering Newcastle in 1996, the world could be coming to an end and we’d probably be none the wiser. And you do end up missing things that are worth watching – for example, I have managed to miss out on both ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ due to a bewildering choice of channels and the fact that I can only cope with so much TV, frankly.
Further competition for our viewing time has come from commercially available recordings of programmes. Initially video, and now DVD Box Sets have become one mechanism through which programme-makers can claw back or retain the loyalty of an audience, though that is of no consolation to advertisers. It’s now possible to watch every episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or ‘Stargate SG-1’. Then again, it’s possible to walk the Pennine Way or learn Portuguese or write a blog – the issue is choice, and here in the Wicked West, we probably have too much of that for any TV executive to sleep easily at night.
Thanks to the magic of Box Sets, I spent much of last summer with the Princess watching all 7 series of ‘The West Wing’, another one I had missed first time around. What I loved about it was the fact that you could just bung on an episode if you had an hour to spare, or as a ‘nightcap’. On the other hand, you could have a binge and watch three episodes in a row. This was the way forward, I told myself and have now borrowed a box set of the first 2 series of ‘The Sopranos’ with a similar strategy in mind.
I’ve also been revisiting another high-water mark of 90’s TV, ‘This Life’, which ran to 30-0dd episodes between 1996 and 1997. I also re-watched the 2007 reunion special ‘+ 10′. This tale of 5 newly-graduated lawyers and their travails at work and in the house they share in Southwark was really not aimed at my generation at all, but at those ten years younger than me. Just as I sometimes felt a bit of a fraud at punk and post-punk gigs in Manchester in the 70’s and ’80’s, I felt similarly out of step watching ‘This Life’.
Having said that, it was compelling stuff. In a way, my attraction to the show baffled me; after all it’s not as though these were the kind of people I would have liked – except for Egg. He and I would no doubt have bonded over our mutual love of United, besides which he never seemed as driven as the others. Miles was a boor and a product of his upper-class public school background. Milly was a snob, a conniving bitch and a liar. Warren was just too self-obsessed, especially about his sexual proclivities. Anna was…well, where do you start? Mouthy yet insecure…a walking car crash in many respects. Even so, the dramas and melodramas of the house and its occupants were compelling stuff.
The extended ‘This Life’ cast
Jason Hughes (Warren) left at the end of Series 1, with one of his ex-lovers, Ferdy (Ramon Tikaram) drafted in as a replacement for the second run. Ferdy’s internal conflicts about his own sexuality led to a serious entanglement with Glaswegian handyman Lenny (Tony Curran) and numerous run-ins with Miles, culminating in Ferdy flooring him. Miles and Anna continued to spar with one another – both verbally and sexually – even as Miles headed for what was clearly destined to be a catastrophic marriage to Francesca. The ever-aspirational and increasingly paranoid Milly pursued an affair with her Boss in favour of Egg, who had by this point abandoned the law in favour of working in a ‘caff’.
The second series culminates with an altercation at Miles’ wedding reception as Egg is informed of Milly’s infidelity and Milly duly launches an extraordinary physical assault on Rachel (the informant). Lenny and Ferdy are high on E’s and snogging on the stairs. Anna is avoiding Miles, who has declared his love for her and whose marriage is already clearly doomed, Egg is weeping in the Gents and everyone else is cavorting drunkenly on the dancefloor. Into this chaos strolls Warren, back from a trip to Australia and California. “Excellent” he declares, grabbing a drink and surveying the carnage in front of him. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose…..
The climactic fight between Milly & Rachel at the end of Series 2; one manipulative bitch attacks another…
Apparently, there was a plan for a third series of ‘This Life’ with a completely new set of characters moving into the Southwark house, but this came to nothing. However, some 10 years after the second series ended, there was an 80-minute one-off ‘reunion’ called ‘+ 10’ with the original five principals reunited. The reunion episode hinges on a number of conceits; firstly that the five are reunited at Ferdy’s funeral. How likely it is that Anna or Miles would have attended is dubious but we’ll let that pass. 10 years in the future, Egg has abandoned catering in favour of writing and has produced a runaway best-seller based on the events in the house of 10 years before. He and Milly are reconciled and have produced a child. Miles has opened a chain of cut-price hotels in the Far East and has acquired a trophy Vietnamese wife, whilst Warren is grieving for Ferdy, trying to get a ‘Life Coaching’ project off the ground. and ‘addicted’ to health supplements. Anna is the only one of the five still working as barrister, but her ‘biologocal clock’ is ticking and she wants a child.
The second main conceit of ‘+ 10’ is that Egg is being followed everywhere by a documentary film-maker. A reunion weekend is set up at a Sussex country house that Miles is renting. The camera is on hand to record the abrasive interactions and growing tensions between the principals. Miles’ Vietnamese wife storms out, then Warren storms out and only comes back when Milly persuades him. Milly envies Anna her career whilst Anna envies Milly her role as a Mother. Milly is similarly frustrated by Egg’s successful career as a writer. It’s the customary chaotic scenario. In the end, Egg steals the videotaopes of the reunion and hurls them into a lake. Anna and Warren surprisingly agree to have a child together, whilst living apart. A repossession crew arrive to strip the house of its contents – Miles is apparently not as well-heeled as he suggested. He leaves to go ‘travelling’ leaving the others to sort out their messy lives.
‘+ 10’ was apparently not well received by diehard fans of the original two series and in truth, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg – bits of it are quite convincingly done, but other parts just seem far-fetched. Egg remains the most sympathetic character but with deadlines imminent and no second book in prospect, his future, too, is also back in the melting pot. There’s a scene near the end that rather sums up this dysfunctional crew. Warren is upstairs, having crashed out due to a surfeit of herbal tranquilisers whilst the others are downstairs having a barbecue. Loud music blares out across the night-time landscape and Miles, Milly, Egg and Anna cavort drunkenly – but they cavort alone. There seems to be minimal companionship and none of the fondness that you would expect from old friends in such a scenario. One of the best-written passages has Egg holding forth on how they all knew each other when their personalities were only partially-formed and that they had all seen one another both at their best and also at their worst. One thing is for sure, they certainly don’t seem to have mellowed.
The poor reception for ‘+10’ makes it less probable that there will be a ‘+ 20’, which would be due about 2017. I wonder if the writers and cast would be tempted a second time? If they do, it should probably revert to the London settings that were such a prominent and effective feature of the original series and probably needs to be a little less hysterical in tone. After all, by that point the characters would be in their mid-40’s and surely will have mellowed a little….except for Anna; you suspect she will never change.