Category Archives: Television

Watching ‘The Sopranos’

In some respects, writing a review of ‘The Sopranos’ in 2010 is a bit like turning out a contemporary review of the Woodstock Festival of 1969 – that train left the station quite some time ago.  God knows how many millions of words have already been blasted into the ether about the Season 6 finale alone, but the great thing about bloggers is that we stumble inexorably onwards; as Rowan Atkinson once memorably remarked, “Like the blind man searching in a darkened room on a foggy night for the black cat…..which isn’t there”…or words to that effect.

I’ve written here before about my problems with committing to long-running TV series.  I’m currently struggling to keep up with Season 4 of ‘Mad Men’ and relying heavily on the BBC’s iPlayer in order to do so.  It’s not that I’m out partying all the time, either…no, it’s more perverse and insidious.  We even (finally) have a shiny new widescreen LG monster on which to watch all these shows, but I think I have become accustomed to being able to watch what I want when I want – the epitome of viewer-centred TV.  iPlayer, Virgin Catch-Up TV, box sets and internet streaming or downloads are all grist to my mill in this respect, so I rarely regard anything other than live United games as ‘must-watch-now’ events.  Everything else comes under the heading of ‘must-watch-sometime’.

Another problem is that more choice has generally meant more crap on TV and the major networks have responded by lowering the bar with ordure like ‘The X Factor’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’…… cheap TV that has gradually been tarted up as its audience has grown.  Mutton dressed as lamb, however you choose to interpret it.  Yeah, I know, a million flies can’t be wrong…..

Currently, the ITV networks are in particularly poor shape; having already had to deal with a diminished advertising share due to the proliferation of channels, they now have a recession to cope with as well.  Blithe talk about ‘quality programming’ seems to have been superseded by survival strategies these days.  Their response has (largely) been to produce a range of  lowest common denominator ‘light entertainment’ programmes that shriek and bray and howl for us to sit down and watch them RIGHT NOW!  Advertisers are loath to settle for anything less.

Thankfully, due to the archaic safety net of the licence fee, the BBC are insulated from all this to some extent, but they get constantly outflanked by companies like Sky – ‘Mad Men’  Series 5, assuming they make it, will be screened first in this country on Sky, who pinched ‘Lost’ from Channel 4 in the same way and have, of course, previously been responsible for removing live Premiership football from the ‘free-to-air’ landscape.

However, to see non-network TV companies as leeches who simply outbid the  broadcasting establishment is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was.  ‘The Sopranos‘ is a case in point. Made by HBO, ‘The Sopranos‘ is just one of several hugely successful shows originated by HBO in recent years.  ‘Sex & the City’ and ‘Six Feet Under’ are other examples.  HBO started as a Manhattan-based cable TV company in the late 1960’s, but is now part of the Time Warner conglomerate.  Clearly, their philosophies about originating rather than simply buying in programmes  has changed as their status (and their budget) has grown.

As a subscription service, HBO was liberated from the usual problems  with advertisers and ‘Moral Majority’ crazies about sexual content, violence and profanity that afflict the mainstream networks.  This enabled the makers of ‘The Sopranos‘ to go for a far more realistic approach to their scripts; the message was classic American entrepreneurialism – ‘If you don’t like it, don’t buy it’.  Whilst this hasn’t kept them off the radar of the right-wing media, the makers of the show have to some extent headed their critics off at the pass by selling a sanitised ‘no sex/no violence/no profanity’ version of the show (in 2007) to A&E Televison ( a combine involving Disney, NBC and the Hearst Corporation) for $2.5 million per squeaky-clean episode.  Strikes me as a bit like trying to cook a spice-free curry, but to each their own.

Anyway, my pathetically belated attempt to ‘catch up’ with the whole ‘Sopranos’ saga began during the summer.  I know a guy who had systematically downloaded all six seasons of the programme from a torrent site and burned them all to DVD.  Thus I began, a season at a time and watched the last three episodes in a colossal Bada Bing-e last night. 

Condensing 8 years of Soprano family history into about 4 months is a strange sensation.  Physically, the adults don’t change much, but the Soprano kids, A.J. and Meadow start out as high school kids and are to all intents and purposes adults by the time it ends.   It will be interesting to see how their career paths fare from here on.  I suspect that it doesn’t matter what Jamie Lynn Sigler (Meadow) and Robert Iler (A.J.) do from now on, to most of us, they will always be the characters they portrayed so faithfully through all those years.  Then again, will James Gandolfini ever be able to  really escape from Tony?

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Inevitably, like many people, I came to The Sopranos via The Godfather and Goodfellas.  Whilst The Sopranos is quite clear about its New Jersey roots – as is apparent from the title sequence – it nonetheless taps into that whole East Coast wiseguy schtick.  The Sopranos, it should be noted immediately, is a lot more Goodfellas than Godfather. There is much Goodfellas-type banter in The Sopranos; the guys are forever ‘busting each other’s balls’ over one topic or another.  It’s a little piece of American/Italian machismo that sometimes has a serious intent – testing out a potential enemy’s weak spots – and occasionally has murderous consequences – the deterioration of relations between Tony and John Sacramoni could be said to stem from Ralph Cifaretto’s off-colour joke about Sacramoni’s wife – something which has fatal and near-fatal resonances throughout the rest of the saga.

If Coppola’s epic saga of one Cosa Nostra ‘family’ was Shakespearean in tone, The Sopranos was, for all its portrayal of violence and corruption, far less sombre – at least until the final season.  The original, amusing conceit of a ‘made man’ going into therapy was picked up on and turned into 2 hit movies (‘Analyse This’ / ‘Analyse That’) and characters like Silvio and Paulie were often gently lampooned for their attitudes and behaviour, as were Tony and Carmella themselves.

Dinner chez Soprano

One thing that ‘The Sopranos’ does share with ‘The Godfather’ is a preoccupation with family life and the rituals of eating, drinking and socialising.  Carmella & Tony are, one would assume, third generation Italian/Americans and they retain enough of that racial memory of their Ellis Island roots to want to live in a house that looks like an MFI version of the Doge’s Palazzo in Venice.  They  (like Vito Corleone) also want to keep their kids out of the ‘family business’.  Like Vito, then Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano has to somehow reconcile acts of monstrous violence with the humdrum realities of family life.   Tony is not apparently as unhinged by all of this as Michael; at the end of Season 6, he remains what he has been throughout – essentially, a  cunning , but good-natured slob with a  depressive streak and a violent temper that only kicks in when things don’t go his way.  There is none of the chilly, almost demonic sang-froid that characterises Michael Corleone’s behaviour in the closing half-hour of Godfather 2. 

Of course, over the course of six seasons, we get to know Tony Soprano from every conceivable angle – we see Tony the family man and father, Tony the gambler, Tony the serial philanderer, Tony the cold-blooded killer, Tony the Boss, Tony the bully, Tony the therapy junkie and numerous other facets of this complex man  The question that should, I suppose, be asked is whether his journey has made him wiser as well as older.

The answer to that question would suggest that his shooting and near death at the start of Season 6  abruptly makes him aware of his own mortality and changes his attitude to many things.  ‘Every day is a blessing’ would seem to be the mantra and Tony’s hunger for a quieter life manifests itself in the way in which he tries to reach out to the Lupertazzi family in an effort to resolve their disputes.  He even feels some kinship with Phil Leotardo when he suffers a heart attack and is obviously reflecting on the passage of the years. 

Tony may be longing for a peaceful life, but he’s too enmeshed in ‘the life’ to escape now.  Despite his attempts to defuse problems with the Lupertazzis, events are moving rapidly towards a violent and bloody confrontation.   His two male ‘heirs’ – A.J. at home and Chris Moltisanti at work – are both proving to be letdowns for one reason or another.  A car crash in which Moltisanti is seriously injured gives Tony (who isn’t) the chance to finish him off and eradicate one source of worry, but problems with A.J. remain, as he will clearly never follow in his father’s footsteps.

By the end of Season 6, Tony appears to have survived his showdown with Leotardo, though at some cost to his organisation, with Bobby Baccalieri dead and Silvio Dante comatose in hospital.  Still, a measure of sanity appears to be returning with A.J. seemingly over his abortive suicide attempt and Meadow planning a wedding.   Peace is brokered with the Lupertazzis and Leotardo ‘whacked’, so Tony feels free to resume his normal routine – aside from his visits to his therapist; she discontinues their sessions after reading research which suggests that therapy makes sociopaths more sociopathic.

Steve van Zandt as Sil; probably my favourite character

The diner scene at the end of the series left things hanging in the air – it was by no means a straightforward ending.  Does Tony get ‘whacked’ as he has dinner with his family or is it just that he will always be watching the door to see who might be coming in?  Technically, the final scenes are extremely carefully constructed and everything (including a possible hommage to The Godfather) points to the fact that Tony is indeed about to get his come-uppance.   The 10 seconds of blank screen at the end of the episode before the credits silently roll, perhaps reference an earlier conversation that Tony has with Bobby Baccalieri where they speculate that when you get ‘whacked’ it’s all over so quickly that you see, hear & feel nothing… there’s just blackness.

In any case, why should we care? This is a man who has used verbal and physical violence towards  his family,  has betrayed his wife on numerous occasions with multiple partners, has himself committed 8 murders that we know about and sanctioned numerous others, has serially endorsed widespread corruption and law-breaking, is homophobic and racist.  It might be asked why we should shed metaphorical tears for such a man.  And yet , we have all sat there through six seasons of his nefarious, callous and murderous behaviour, fascinated by a man who like most of us is a mixture of good, bad and ugly – except with Tony, it’s just more so.  Series originator David Chase was apparently horrified by the apparent clamour to see Tony with his brains spattered across the wall, thus we are left to ponder the fate of Tony Soprano and his two families, with no clear answers available to us.

Tony lays down the law to Chris Moltisanti with Sil and Bobby looking on

It’s often said that comparisons are invidious, but before I close I feel the need to comment on the fact that  ‘The Sopranos’ was recently voted the best ever TV series by readers of The Guardian. Good as it was, I would have to demur.  For me, the subtexts of the show are too narrow and predictable – we know there will be crime, we know there will be violence,  we know there will be betrayals, we know that there will be scenes of family life as Tony struggles to reconcile the conflicting polarities of his complex existence.  In other words, if you make a series about ‘The Mob’, the landscapes – both external and internal – are almost as inevitable as they  would be in a Western.  To their credit, Chase, Weiner et al make much of flying in the face of such conventions, especially when it generates moments of genuine humour among all the drama and blood-letting.  Thus we get Tony with the ducks in his pool, Tony pouring out his thoughts to Dr Melfi, Tony dogged by his appalling Mother in the early seasons and so on. 

For me, however, ‘The West Wing’ is a more impressive and resonant piece of television.  Here, all the world is President Bartlett’s stage and whilst any White House drama will also have its own conventions, they are generally less oppressive than is  the case in The Sopranos.  The writers and directors  of  ‘The West Wing’  make better use of the ensemble cast (particularly the female characters) and the potential of the overall narrative is far wider and far less predictable.  These are two high-water marks in the chequered history of television, so it’s a bit like choosing between foie gras and caviar.  Even so, and much as I enjoyed the saga of 8 years out of Tony Soprano’s life, for me ‘The West Wing’ wins by a short head.  Then again, best not mention horses’ heads….

Watching ‘This Life’ and ‘This Life + 10’

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.

 

Stumbling towards glory…..

Watched England’s final warm-up game before the 2010 World Cup yesterday.  They played Japan in Graz and without wishing to be disrespectful towards Japanese football, Capello’s team made enormously heavy weather of the game, winning 2-1 thanks to two own goals from Japanese defenders.  England looked anything but major contenders for the World Cup, with this result following on from an equally unconvincing 3-1 win over Mexico at the Wembley Swamp last Monday.

Despite this, the stands in Graz were well-filled by the usual aggregation of shaven-headed literati who apparently have both the time and the money to follow Ing-er-land anywhere on the planet, even for allegedly meaningless friendlies like the Japan game.  Do they really believe that England can win in South Africa after watching debacles like this?  My own impression is that England have little or no chance – this lot look even less impressive than Eriksson’s crew before the last tournament in  Germany.  It seems to me that they were at their best whilst qualifying for this tournament and have, in effect, peaked a year too soon.

For many of the 30-man squad this was a final chance to make the cut, as 30 will be 23 by tomorrow.  The media guys working on the match all got a chance to evaluate who was going to be left behind and ex-Chelsea midfielder and in-house ITV motormouth Andy Townsend lost no time in plugging  the loathsome Joe Cole (currently of Chelsea, funnily enough), at every opportunity, managing to incorporate his name into Joe Cole sentences that otherwise actually weren’t Joe Cole about him at all.

Whilst the overpaid, over-rated and over-hyped senior internationals were struggling to justify their vast reputations in Graz, the England U-17’s were quietly going about their business in the European U17 Tournament, staged just down the road in Liechtenstein.  They beat Spain by 2-1 in the Final of the Tournament to become the first English side to win an ‘age-defined’ trophy since the U18’s won in 1993, with a team featuring  Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Sol Campbell, Gary Neville and Robbie Fowler.  Star of the show appears to have been Ipswich’s Connor Wickham, who scored the winning goal and who has played fairly often for Ipswich’s first team in the season just ended.  Wickham has been linked with moves to many Premiership sides – most recently Spurs, as I recall.

From a ‘local’ perspective, I was pleased to see that Will Keane has been a regular member of the team and other United youngsters like Tom Thorpe and Sam Johnstone have also been featured squad members.  Well done to them and let’s hope they are able to enjoy their career before all the media hype takes over, as it has done for their senior colleagues.  Congratulations to the team and to coach John Peacock.

England’s Under-17 Team celebrate their win over Spain in Vaduz.

Art and artifice: ‘Edge of Darkness’ (1985/2010)

Edge of Darkness (2010)

Edge of Darkness  (1985)

They say that comparisons are invidious.    They also say that Hollywood can take a great storyline and bend, fold, spindle and mutilate it until it bears no resemblence to the original.  Both statements may well be true but in approaching  the 2010 Hollywood version of Troy Kennedy Martin’s ‘Edge of Darkness’ we should also bear in mind that Tinseltown has now and again managed to honour the spirit of an original  TV series whilst possibly adding a little gloss here and there.

Only last year, Kevin Anderson’s ‘State of Play’ showed that this was distinctly possible.  However,  it has to be said that for every ‘Naked Gun’ or ‘Traffic’ or ‘Twin Peaks: Fire walk with me’, there are a whole host of insipid ‘Charlie’s Angels’ or ‘Dragnet’ type catastrophes to contend with. 

Of course, the logic behind such transformations from small to large screen is inescapably commercial.  After all, you are tapping into an established fan-base and curiosity alone should dictate that you are therefore likely to pull in reasonable initial box office returns. 

In the case of this year’s ‘Edge of Darkness’ remake, you are also drawing on the considerable and justifiable critical approbation earned by the original 1985 BBC mini-series.  There is also an element of continuity inasmuch as New Zealand-born director Martin Campbell made the original ‘EoD’ whilst still a young whippersnapper and returns to it now as an established Hollywood force with 2 ‘Zorro’ and 2 well-received James Bond movies on his CV.

The original TV version of Edge of Darkness was made at a time when the social fabric of the UK was severely stretched.  The country was groaning under the yoke of  a Thatcher-led Tory government that had secured a huge majority in the wake of the perceived ‘victory’ of the Falklands War and Mrs T. was exploiting our lack of a written constitution to centralise power at the heart of her Whitehall web.  However, for every action there’s a reaction – Clive Ponting was leaking documents to the press, the Miner’s Strike pushed the State to (and sometimes beyond) its limits before coming to an inglorious conclusion and there were inner-city riots in most major English cities during the autumn of 1985.

The late Troy Kennedy Martin in 1985

Troy Kennedy Martin, the original screenwriter for Edge of Darkness,  said that he wrote it out of some very real fears about the state of mid-80′s Britain allied to a sense of irritation at the completely apolitical nature of BBC programming during this era.  He also said that he never expected to see it made.  However, the fact that the storyline tapped into a whole range of prevalent liberal neuroses – about the proliferation of nuclear technology (even pre-Chernobyl), about Reagan’s SDI ‘Star Wars’ initiative, about the increasingly secretive nature of the British government and about environmental issues to name just four – struck chords with sympathetic individuals within the BBC.

The gestation of ‘Edge of Darkness’ may have been far from straightforward and even once production was under way there were disputes between Campbell and Martin and a wholesale mutiny among the cast about Martin’s original ending where Craven is transformed into a tree.  Nonetheless, the BBC assembled a stellar cast and crew with Charles Kay, Joanne Whalley, Joe Don Baker, John Woodvine, Ian McNeice, Hugh Fraser and Zoe Wanamaker supporting the marvellous Bob Peck in the central role of Ronnie Craven.  Eric Clapton & Michael Kamen supplied the haunting soundtrack and producer Michael Wearing had also been centrally involved in another high-water mark for 80′s TV, Alan Bleasdale’s ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ , an extraordinary saga of Liverpudlian life during the Thatcher years.

Charles Kay as the shrewish but dangerous Pendleton shares his thoughts with Bob Peck’s Craven

Bob Peck actually said at one point that during production, there was a growing sense among the cast that they were involved in something really special and once ‘Edge of Darkness’ began its initial run on BBC2 in November 1985, the public seemed to agree.  Viewing figures were high and critical response almost universally positive, leading to a rapid re-run of the series in three double-episode chunks on BBC1 before the end of the year.  The series was to win six BAFTA awards the following year.

“I told her to stay away from that Val Kilmer” – Peck & Whalley looking relaxed on set

‘Edge of Darkness’  departed from the standard policier/thriller format in a number of ways, but perhaps the most notable was the blending of hard-edged realism with new age mysticism.  Initially, this is mostly personified by Craven’s daughter, Emma, but is then taken up by Craven himself and eventually by Joe Don Baker in what is almost a show-stealing turn as the maverick CIA operative, Darius Jedburgh. 

Emma is killed inside the opening half-hour of the first episode, but returns (both as the ‘ghost child’  and eventually as her adult self) to act as Craven’s ‘spirit guide’ , emerging at key moments to counsel, cajole and even scold her father as he attempts to shed his functional everyday persona and become an enlightened being.  Emma has of course been involved with the eco-terrorist group GAIA (echoing the work of James Lovelock with his ‘Gaia Hypothesis’  which sees Planet Earth as a single organic entity) and, had she not been shot by McCroon would almost certainly have died from radiation poisoning as a result of GAIA’s clandestine and illegal attempt to penetrate the Northmoor facility. 

Craven eventually begins to believe in GAIA’s philosophies and finds common cause with Jedburgh, who clearly pays lip service to the CIA’s Reaganite stance only  because it allows him a free rein to pursue his own agenda.  That agenda, as gradually becomes clear, is that Jedburgh is actually operating outside the system and has in fact become a highly moralistic crusader against the forces of the State and Commerce that are ranged against him.  His address to the assembled ‘top brass’ at Gleneagles about the ‘new age of plutonium lunacy’ and his depiction of Grogan as a ‘Teutonic knight’ shows that he has become the proverbial loose cannon as far as the power-that-be are concerned.   Even so, his depiction of Grogan taps into another mythical thread, this time about the Knights Templar who ‘guarded a special wisdom in the Temple of the Rock in Jerusalem.’  The following exchange between Craven and Jedburgh would suggest that the conventions of the standard ‘policier’ have been abandoned in favour of something rather more fanciful;

Ronald Craven: Why do you hate Grogan so much?
Darius Jedburgh: Because of who he is.
Ronald Craven: And who is he?
Darius Jedburgh: He’s part of the Dark Forces who would rule this planet.
Ronald Craven: You believe in all that stuff?
Darius Jedburgh: Yeah, sure.

Jedburgh makes his point about plutonium at Gleneagles

The mysticism that underlies so much of ‘Edge of Darkness’ is a product of Troy Kennedy Martin’s philosophies about television.  He wrote a polemical article in 1964 (‘Nats go home’) attacking documentary and narrative realism in televison and demanding a new vocabulary, punctutation etc that aimed to tell stories in visual terms and be prepared to take on new challenges.  New age mysticism and police thrillers do not necessarily make sympathetic bedfellows, but the characters in Martin’s script were so finely drawn that they were able to take this on board,  bypassing the rationalists and nay-sayers and reaching an audience who genuinely wanted to believe that the overwhelming hegemony of State and the Military/Industrial Complex could be resisted.  Ironically, at a time when we were all low on optimism, ‘Edge of Darkness’ hinted at the possibility of  better times ahead.

“Edge of Darkness embodies an avant-garde sensibility in a popular thriller, stretching the conventions without quite breaking them, and pushing on the boundaries of what popular television can do.”  (Tenpercent.wordpress.com.)

All of which brings us back to the 2010 remake of ‘Edge of Darkness’, again directed by Martin Campbell and with a new and fundamentally different script by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell.  Perhaps Campbell’s principal problem with this remake was that he was trying to tell the same story in a third of the time.  For this reason, the whole GAIA/mysticism subplot is ditched as are the elements of political chicanery where Bennett and Grogan play footsie with the British establishment.  Little time can be devoted to character development, particularly as Mel Gibson is on screen almost throughout and dominates proceedings in a way that Bob Peck’s Craven was never allowed to.

Of course, Hollywood has relocated the action to the USA – no surprise there.  Gibson’s Craven plays a seasoned Boston cop who loses his daughter much as in the BBC version.  From that point onwards the paths of the two productions diverge.  Peck’s ‘voyage of discovery’ becomes Gibson’s revenge mission – I lost track of how many times he pulled a gun on someone.  In this American ‘EoD‘ there is one  nice reversal with Darius Jedburgh  played by an Englishman (Ray Winstone).  Winstone is less jolly and more threatening in the role, but never has the scope to build his character beyond cameo status.  Also, frankly, the plot contrivance that has him suffering from a fatal illness is risible.

Not too subtle; Mel’s got his gun out – again…..

Gibson continues on his mission to avenge Emma, encountering bland corporate smoothie Danny Huston, who is light years less credible in the role of Bennett than Hugh Fraser was in the original.  There are no equivalents to Pendleton and Harcourt; indeed the US government’s only involvement is via Jedburgh, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Northmoor crew.  One of the shocking elements about the original was to see the aftermath of the Gleneagles conference where all parties – Grogan, Bennett, Pendleton, Harcourt and the military – are seen hobnobbing over drinks whilst Craven and Jedburgh are hunted like vermin.  That kind of shock is avoided here ; after all it’s 2010 and it’s  Obama, not Reagan, in the White House.

So, what we are left with at the end of the 2010 remake is a fairly humdrum revenge thriller.  If you like Mel Gibson (personally, I’m indifferent) then you may be happy enough, but so much is lost in this abridged version.  The moments in the movie where Craven discovers that his daughter possesses not only a pistol but also a Geiger counter have only a fraction of the punch of the 1985 version. The dramatic scenes where Craven hacks into a Ministry of Defence computer to obtain a map of Northmoor and the story of Craven’s own expedition into Northmoor are missing – and sadly missed.

In terms of casting, no-one could ever have replaced Joe Don Baker as Jedburgh and the late Bob Peck’s mixture of dogged professionalism and nascent awareness would have been difficult for any actor to emulate.  There are clearly no American equivalents for Pendleton and Harcourt and the atmosphere of mid-80′s paranoia – the shadow of Thatcher and her ‘conviction’ politics, the spectre of Northern Ireland, the social tsunami of the Miner’s Strike – all are necessarily absent here.

I usually run the original version of ‘Edge of Darkness’ every couple of years just to remind myself of how grim a country this was to live in during the long attritional years of Thatcher’s misguided, misanthropic junta and remind myself how it has scarred this green and pleasant land.  In conclusion, I very much doubt that the remake can aspire to any equivalent delusions of profundity.  It does what Hollywood unfortunately does all too often; reducing the subtlest of narratives to so much popcorn mush.  File under ‘major disappointments’.

Rooney on everything…

A bit of truth-telling before I get going.  My loathing of Awards Ceremonies is right up there with my loathing of Neo-Nazis,the ‘Big Brother’ TV series and the music of Queen.  Every year, however, there is one exception to this rule and that is the Manchester United Player of the Year Awards, as broadcast live by MUTV into your very own living room.  Here for three hours or so, you can get to relish some re-runs of the great or not-so-great season just ending, embellished with inane interviews and the wit and wisdom of Brian McClair, United’s Academy Director (who is so dryly amusing that he should really have his own show)

All of this glitzy nonsense takes place in one of Old Trafford’s identikit Hospitality Suites with about 700 people in attendance.  Included are most of the players from United’s first team, Reserve and Under-18 squads and Awards are presented to the outstanding performers at each level, along with the award for the Goal of the Season, the Fans’ Player of the Year and the First Team Players’ Player of the Year.  Wives and partners are also in attendance but not that trainee WAG the U-18 team left back pulled at some dodgy club in Ancoats last Tuesday.  The whole event is emceed by Jim Rosenthal who is nowhere near as obsequious as he is on ITV and generally does a sound job of moving things along.

First up was the Academy Player of the Year award and I was delighted to see Will Keane win this.  He really is an oustanding prospect and should become a regular for the Reserves next year.  What sets him aside as a special player is his apparent ability to freeze time when the ball comes to him in the opposition penalty area.  He doesn’t flap, or snatch at chances but just calmly tucks them away with a minimum of fuss.  A true penalty box predator who has already played for England at U-17 level and for whom the future is looking increasingly bright.

Will Keane (on the right) with his twin brother,  Michael – also on United’s books 

Next up was the Reserve Player of the Year and that was won by Ritchie de Laet, the Belgian centre-back who joined Stoke from United’s feeder club Royal Antwerp but completely failed to set the Potteries on fire.  However, he’s reinvented himself at United and is developing into a tough central defender, having also played a few games at full-back for the first team.  As Reserve Team coach, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had a brilliant first season – and got the biggest cheer of the night – winning both the Reserve League North and the National Play-Off Final against Villa.  In a squad which has untilised no less than 46 different players during the season, De Laet has been a standout performer.  I would expect to see both Keane and De Laet featuring in the first team on a regular basis in the years to come.

Ritchie De Laet – not at Stoke any more

Unfortunately, things got progressively less interesting once we got on to the First Team Awards.  Fair enough that Wayne Rooney’s splendid goal against Arsenal at the Emirates should win Goal of the Season and fairly predictable that he would win the Fans’ Award, but I was really hoping that the Players themselves would vote for Patrice Evra, who for my money, has had a magnificent season, playing in virtually every Premier League game.  Jim Rosenthal tried in vain to think of further questions to ask Rooney each time he came up to get another award, but it was pretty dismal stuff compared to the erudite McClair, who is cutting an increasingly Hemingwayesque figure with his deep tan and scruffy beard.  Rooney did raise a laugh when he suggested that it made a change for Ronaldo not to win everything, but that was as good as it got.  Still, I guess he’s not being paid for his dinner-party repartee……

Patrice Evra in full flow….

Watching ‘Mad Men’……………

……or no longer watching ‘Mad Men’, to be strictly accurate as Series 3 of the best thing on British TV has just come to a jaw-dropping finale, with the Draper marriage and Sterling Cooper Advertising both falling apart. 

I am considerably relieved to discover that there will be a Series 4, with the principals  from SCA now operating out of a hotel suite and Don Draper moving back into the city as his wife files for a quickie divorce.  The narrative possibilities for the future are considerable as the mid-60’s, Beatlemania, Vietnam. flower power and men walking on the moon are  imminent.  All are likely to form part of the constantly scrolling diorama of ‘current events’ that acts as a backdrop to the parish pump affairs of the Sterling Cooper crew and their significant others. 

Betsy & Don Draper….the dream is malfunctioning

‘Mad Men’  is the work of the same people who came up with ‘The Sopranos’ .  To be honest, I wasn’t a ‘Sopranos‘ aficionado – by the time the word reached me  about what I was missing, I had missed too much of it to make jumping aboard a real possibility.  Same with ‘The Wire’….

But ‘Mad Men’ struck a chord with me even before it started.  Given that advertising was one of the benchmarks of the 20th Century’s ‘mass media’, I could never quite understand how there had never been any notable movies or tv shows about it before.  The only ‘Mad Men’ I could remember from the movies were Robert Webber’s portrayal of a brash,but shallow Madison Avenue ad-man in Sydney Lumet’s 1957 adaptation of  the jury-room drama ‘Twelve Angry Men’  (“Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes!”) and Cary Grant’s  turn as the equally lightweight Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’ from 1959( “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.” ) – and neither movie was actually about advertising at all.

Don Draper might look a bit like Webber and Grant with his sharp suits and saturnine good looks, but there is little that is shallow about him.  He is a dark and complex character and it’s sometimes possible to both admire and despise him within the same episode.  To all intents and purposes, Draper and his uptight blonde WASP-ish wife – plus three kids – are living the American dream out in Westchester County.  The intriguingly-named January Jones plays Betsy Draper with just the right amount of repressed  ‘preppy’ angst, but really starts to come into her own in Series 3.  Similarly, Don, who stalks Manhattan like a a feral Casanova in the first two series, is about to get his come-uppance from his wife, though not for the reasons that you might expect.  Series 3 is very much about the disintegration of the Draper marriage, whilst also following the increasingly byzantine goings-on at Sterling Cooper.  Having been snaffled up by a bigger (and British) fish in PPL, the busy boys & girls of the Sterling Cooper offices are about to find out that there are yet larger denizens of the deep.

Many people have remarked on how ‘well-dressed’ ‘Mad Men’ is.  The first series was notable for the fact that everyone seemed to be smoking, and pretty much all the time as well.  Now everyone talks about the fantastic clothes that are on show – particularly by the women characters.  The voluptuous Joanie, as played by Christina Hendricks,  is one of the clothes horses of the series and makes a welcome return to the fold at the end of Series 3.

Joanie knows best…..

Being ‘well-dressed’ is well and good, but the real strengths of ‘Mad Men’ are in the depth of the characterisation of its cast and the basis of that lies in its splendid scripts.  Quite simply, the quality of the writing in ‘Mad Men’ has just got better and better.  New viewers have about 6 months to catch up via the DVD Box Sets……

Watching ‘Cycling the Americas’

Just finished watching the third and final part of Mark Beaumont’s ‘Cycling the Americas’; the filmed (often by Mark himself) record of a 9-month journey along the Rockies/Andes chain from Alaska in the north to Ushuaia in the south.  As if the journey itself wasn’t enough, Beaumont, a 25-year old Scot bearing a disturbing resemblance to former United sharpshooter Ruud van Nistelrooy, also managed to build into his programme two 20,000 feet + climbs of the highest mountains in North America (Alaska’s Denali or Mt McKinley if you prefer) and  South America (Argentina’s Aconcagua). 

Mark Beaumont reaches the end of  his journey at Ushuaia in Patagonia

Mark Beaumont had already set a new record for cycling round the world and nowadays has become an adventurer-at-large.  Having secured the backing of the BBC for this project, Beaumont has also been busy seeking out commercial sponsorship from the likes of Orange, something that has not always played well with the cycling community at large, some of whom clearly see Beaumont as an opportunist and shameless self-publicist.  By way of an illustration, here’s a quote from the CTC Forum, an online discussion board for cyclists you can find at http://forum.ctc.org.uk

“…..Bottom line is that there are people who do things off their own bat, without thought or need of reward, sponsorship or fame, and there are certain people who without these rewards wouldn’t do these charity events or world records.
Eventually people decide for themselves who to give their respect to, but in an increasingly cynical world the number of people deserving this respect is sadly diminishing.
As for scooting around the world on a bike as quickly as possible with a large wedge of someone else’s dosh in my pocket and then calling it a world record……….OK its a world record but no big deal, athletically, spiritually or in terms of an adventure, just another tentacle of Corporate sponsorship…..”

Tempting to dismiss all that as just sour grapes and I certainly think there’s a whiff of that in there, but there’s also a grain of truth in there as well.  ‘Cycling the Americas’ was, as I mentioned largely filmed by Beaumont himself and whatever footage ended up on the cutting room floor (so to speak) what we have left is often as much about Mark and his moods as it is a travelogue of the fascinating landscapes through which he travelled.  I mean, yes, OK, we can imagine that it wasn’t a barrel of laughs cycling into a headwind through the Atacama Desert for day after day.  If it had been easy then he wouldn’t have been doing it and we vicarious travel junkies wouldn’t have been watching.  Even so, there were probably a few too many sequences featuring his agonised progress up hill and down dale and not enough about the countries through which he passed.  A military coup in Honduras is dismissed in a few sentences, no real explanation is offered as to why he had to take a ship from Panama to Ecuador, detours to chilli farms, bullfights and observatories seem random – and Bill Paterson’s background narration is often high on melodrama but low on information

Of course, some of this is due to the restrictions placed on Beaumont by the BBC.  A 9-month journey is somehow compressed into 3 x 1-hour programmes, which is clearly ridiculous, but perhaps the quality of the self-filmed footage wasn’t up to any more than that..or maybe it was just more and yet more agonised pedalling through mountains and deserts.

Mark Beaumont brooding in the Atacama desert…I think he’s brooding anyway…

Having followed Mark Beaumont’s progress from the very start via the BBC website, Facebook and Flickr, what was clearly an epic journey was not reflected in the resultant films – which were a tad disappointing if I’m going to be honest.  Maybe he will do better with a book, though not if it’s based on the transcripts of the films – and not if it’s as inward -looking. 

It’s understandable that endurance cyclists are going to be focussed on the drama of their own situation, the state of their bikes and bodies, the roads and the weather.  That is why this project would probably have been better if it had been covered, filmed and narrated by a film-maker, rather than by a cyclist.  However, with BBC budgets as squashed as they are nowadays, such a project would never have been made unless someone from ‘EastEnders’ or ‘Strictly Come Dancing‘ had been on the bike.  What price ‘Celebrity Tandems  Go to Vladivostok’ hosted by Ant & Dec?