Book Review: Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James

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Once upon time, conversations about TV used to be like this:

“Did you see Neighbours yesterday?”

“Yes, I saw most of it. Bouncer had a dream…” And so on.

A few years later, it would often be more like.

“Did you see Sex and the City last night?”

“Don’t tell me about it. I’ve taped it.”

Now, it’s more like:

“I watched Santa Clarita Diet yesterday.”

“Cool. I’ve not seen that. Or heard of it actually. Get back to me in 2020.”

For we live in the age of bingewatching. All of our viewing is laid out before us. In the 1970s, this would have meant whole series of The Onedin Line, Upstairs Downstairs and er, Poldark would have been presented to us in one go. Today, it means I’m bang up to date with some things (13 Reasons Why, Crazy Ex Girfriend, Transparent) and miles behind on others. I’m only on about 2013 in the story of The Good Wife. A shame as Mr. James unleashes a supermassive epic spoiler about this series early on! Be warned.

But otherwise, Clive James, once a famous TV critic before his own TV career is the perfect man to write this book. He has always been a superb writer and has taken the opportunity created by his recent illness to bingewatch a plenty with his family and as usual elevates this material far above the level an unknown scribe like myself has ever managed while writing for the likes of magazines like Geeky Monkey, Bingebox and DVD Monthly.

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As usual, with such things, it’s more fun if you’ve seen the show he’s discussing for yourself. He tackles the major shows of our time: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The West Wing, Homeland, The Good Wife and Game of Thrones amongst others. Most controversially, he thinks Breaking Bad is very overrated. He thinks Steve Buscemi isn’t quite tough enough for Boardwalk Empire (which should be renamed Boredwalk Empire in my view. Only Buscemi’s presence and Michael Shannon’s hypnotic voice kept me watching as long as I did). He is probably right to claim House of Cards goes off a lot once Frank Underwood becomes president (er, spoiler alert! Although surely everyone knows that?). He is also probably right about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s follow up to The West Wing. It probably suffered from trying to apply the same level of seriousness to a TV comedy show as Sorkin did to life in the White House. It also probably didn’t help that none of the comics on the show within a show (Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg aside) were actually very funny.

Occasionally, James shows his age. He dismisses anything with superheroes and zombies in outright. I, at forty, am only just starting to do this. He also makes it a little too obvious which actresses he does and doesn’t fancy.

But who am I to criticise? Nobody does this sort of thing better than Clive James.

He is the Master.

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Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.

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This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…

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Blu-ray review: The Americans: Season 1 (15)

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DVD/Blu-ray. Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment

Starring: Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, Richard Thomas, Margo Martindale.

It’s 1981, Ronald Reagan has just been elected president and the Cold War is colder than ever. In Washington DC, seemingly ordinary suburban couple Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) bring up their two children and get on with their busy lives.

Yet in reality, “Philip” and his “wife” “Elizabeth” are much “busier” than anyone, even their own children, realise. For they are not American at all but are in fact Soviet undercover KGB agents planted during the Khrushchev era and dedicated to the destruction of (as Superman memorably put it) “truth, justice and the American way”.

As if life wasn’t complicated enough, look whose moving in next door! Why it’s the Beeman family headed by patriotic American Stan (Noah Emmerich) who is (of all things) an FBI agent! Stan’s s own marriage is recovering after a long spell undercover himself with the Klan in the Deep South. But while the Jennings know what he does (he is quite open about it), he has no idea that the Jennings are in fact the enemies in his midst although he does sense something is a little “off” about Philip.  With the two suburban families apparently growing friendlier, the stage is set for an enormous game of cat and mouse to begin.

As The Sopranos demonstrated, there’s plenty of fun to be had by mixing apparent suburban bliss with a morally ambiguous double life. Although they were formally paired together in the 1960s, the Jennings’ marriage isn’t a total sham. They love their genuinely all-American kids and do at least get jealous of each other when one or each of them takes part in the inevitable liaisons with other people which are an inevitable part of their work. Although the air of mystery is slightly undermined by the silly wigs and disguises they are forced to wear (think Val Kilmer in The Saint), we are left under no illusions: even Philip who has nagging doubts about the cause and has contemplated defecting to the West for good, is still prepared to do horrendous things in the name of the USSR.

Emmerich (once again playing a neighbour/spy as he did in The Truman Show) is actually the best thing about this in this and in some ways, the ups and downs of his life are more compelling than those of the Jennings who all too often vent their frustrations by simply  whingeing at each other. This and a general lack of a sense of humour are probably the main flaws of the series.

But with Season 2 of ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg’s series already screening on ITV 1, this certainly shows promise. And it’s hard to be too critical of a series which gives Richard Thomas his best role (as Stan’s boss at the FBI) since his heyday as John -Boy Walton.

Extras: Deleted Scenes, Audio Commentary on Episode “The Colonel”, Executive Order 2578: Expanding The Americans Featurette, Perfecting The Art of Espionage Featurette, Ingenuity Over Technology Featurette, Gag Reel.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

BBC Three: RIP?

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The news that the TV channel BBC Three will exist solely as an online entity as of autumn 2015, struck a damaging hammer blow to the nation’s psyche last week. “Will life be worth living if Snog, Marry Avoid?  is told to “POD off” forever?” many wondered. Others contemplated a world without Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. Would the living come to envy the dead?

Yet snootiness aside, many questions are raised by the imminent demise of the only specifically youth-orientated TV channel in the UK. For one thing: what will be BBC Four be called now? Will it now become the new BBC Three? The potential for confusion is endless.  Another question persists: How will British viewers get to watchFamily Guy now? And, more pertinently, how precisely does BBC Three save money by going online? Surely it is the production of TV programmes, not the fact that they are broadcast on TV, which incurs by far the greatest sum of the costs? How does switching all of the content online save serious money?

More seriously, this is a shame, simply because while it is all too easy to deride much of its content, BBC Three has built up a good record for launching new comedy in the last decade. Both Little Britain and Gavin & Stacey first appeared on BBC Three and became among the biggest British TV comedy hits of the last ten years. Both ultimately transferred to BBC One, where it must be said, their lustre rather faded over each of their three series. But their early freshest TV episodes appeared on BBC Three, (Little Britain, it should be said, technically first appearing on Radio 4).

Nor is it by any means clear that BBC Three’s best days, comedy or otherwise, is necessarily in the past. Him & HerCuckooBad EducationPramfaceUncle and Russell Howard’s Good News have all been typical of BBC Three’s recent comedy output.

In 2010, similar plans to close the BBC radio channel 6 Music were abandoned after a popular outcry. I hope something similar will occur with BBC Three. Leaving aside the issue of whether going online really suggests the “living death” that it initially appears to suggest, with Sky1 already yapping at the BBC’s heels in the comedy output stakes, can the Beeb really afford to do away with BBC Three? For if BBC Three is not there to “feed our funny,” viewers will surely someone else who will.

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House of Cards Revisited

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“Nothing lasts forever,” muses Francis Urquhart as he looks at a picture of Margaret Thatcher. ”Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday”. 

So begins House of Cards, one of the finest political dramas in British TV history. It has recently been remade for the US by Netflix.

Based on a book by Tory insider Michael Dobbs and brought to the screen by the more left wing British dramatist Andrew Davies in 1990, House of Cards centres on Francis Urquhart, the Tory Party Chef Whip superbly played by the late Ian Richardson. Taking the audience into his full confidence – Urquhart has a disarming and involving tendency to talk directly to the audience, often offering nothing more than a wry smile or a raised eyebrow in response to events – we become fully involved and even complicit in Urquhart’s activities as he skilfully manoeuvres his way to the top of the Tory tree an into Downing Street.

The action opens in the aftermath of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s apparent retirement (at that point, an event still in the future). Indeed, Thatcher is the only real life figure (other than the Queen) referred to at any point. Urquhart assesses the likely candidates for the succession:

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.”

Urquhart with splendid false modesty rules himself out:

“What, me? Oh, no no no. I’m the Chief Whip, merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick around. I make them jump. And I shall, of course, give my absolute loyalty to whoever emerges as my leader.”

In fact, when the new leader Henry “Hal” Collingridge reneges on a promise to appoint Urquhart to the Cabinet, Francis turns against him, constructing a bogus scandal involving the Prime Minister’s wayward brother and demolishing all other rivals to not only bring down Collingridge but to ensure that he, Francis Urquhart, shall succeed him.

In this the role of young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) proves crucial. It is to her that he leaks information answering her questions not n the affirmative but couched in the coded evasive standard political answer: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

 

Timing

The series was blessed by remarkable good timing. In real life, Michael Heseltine announced his intention to stand against Margaret Thatcher, just five days before the first episode went on on November 18th 1990. By the time of the fourth and final episode, Thatcher had been toppled and John Major had beaten both Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to become Prime Minister. House of Cards thus became very topical indeed. The series had the good fortune to go out during the first change of Tory leadership in fifteen years and one of the most dramatic ends to a Prime Ministerial reign ever.

 

Real life parallels?

House of Cards is obviously fiction but some have suggested similarities to real life figures. Make of them what you will. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Francis Urquhart: Urquhart does not obviously resemble any one real life person strongly. He is nothing like Edward Heath, another Chief Whip who went onto Downing Street. Urquhart’s upper class background was also distinctly unfashionable by 1990. Douglas Hurd, would in fact be embarrassed by his posh background in the leadership contest that took place while House of Cards went out and no Tory leaders emerged from upper class background between 1965 and 2005 (between Alec Douglas Home and David Cameron). Urquhart’s ideological position seems to be closest to Thatcher. Yet unlike any of these figures, he is a murderer and probably closer to Shakespeare’s Richard III than anyone in real life.

Henry Collingridge: Both Dobbs and Davies were right to predict domineering figure like Thatcher would be succeeded by a moderate more conciliatory figure. A harsh critic might say Urquhart’s summary of Collingridge: “a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom,” applied equally well to Thatcher’s actual successor John Major (or indeed, David Cameron). Major also won the 1992 election with a majority of 21 (Collingridge manages about 30). Unlike in the series, there are few immediate problems resulting from the Tory majority dropping so dramatically. John Major’s Tories had anticipated defeat in 1992 and were happy just to win at all. Major’s premiership would prove similarly troubled although more enduring than Collingridge’s. If anyone fatally undermined Major’s leadership, other than Major himself, it was his predecessor Lady Thatcher.

Bob Landless: A crude American media magnate. Clearly a composite of and Robert Maxwell, then still alive (although unlike Landless, a Labour supporter) and Rupert Murdoch.

Lord Bilsborough: Seems similar to William Whitelaw, who ran against Thatcher in 1975 but ultimately became her most loyal servant. But Whitelaw was much nicer than Bilsborough and much less tainted by “shabby deals”.

Michael Samuels: In some ways similar to Michael Portillo, then a dashing rising star in the party and with a history of left wing support and some homosexuality (then not known about) in his past. Portillo, although half-Spanish, isn’t Jewish as Samuels is though. In this respect, Samuels is more like another rising Tory Michael of the time and future leader, Michael Howard.

Peter Mackenzie: Health Minister. Physically very like John Major (he is played by Christopher Owen) although unlike Major seems to be racist and accidentally runs over a disabled protester.

Afterwards

(SPOILER ALERT) Two TV sequels To Play The King and The Final Cut are worth seeing although neither quite scaled the heights of the original. Dobbs wrote two books which followed the first series. The first book ends differently with Urquhart, consumed by shame choosing to hurl himself to death rather than Mattie.

Michael Dobbs served as Deputy Tory Chairman under John Major and is now Baron Dobbs in the House of Lords. He has written many novels.

Already a prolific author Andrew Davies (A Very Peculiar Practice), Davies has become something of an adaptation-writing machine since the huge success of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice (which featured Mattie Storin from House of Cards as Jane). Incredibly, Davies has written over twenty series since including Mr Selfridge, Bleak House and Middlemarch.

Ian Richardson died in 2007.

A new US series of House of Cards (much altered) starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood is is available on Netflix.