Tag: Television

Keeping it fresh

What does it take to make an old trope feel fresh? I’m prompted to ask this question by the return to British screens of Misfits, which is currently getting a repeat showing on Channel 4 on Saturday nights. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Misfits is about a group of young offenders who get caught in a storm that grants them (and others) super-powers. The thing is, it’s a much more interesting programme than it sounds; for all that it might seemingly be based on a hackneyed trope, there’s a freshness to it. One reason for this is that, I think, Misfits is determined to stay true to the context of its story.

To explain what I mean, I’ll first take a step back and look at the example of Heroes, another show about ‘ordinary’ people with super-powers (there’s a further similarity in that characters’ abilities were initially related to their personalities and/or circumstances in some way). Heroes was essentially a comic book on the telly, and it came to the television medium with various aspects (both good and bad) of superhero comics – cliffhangers, alternative timelines, and so on. This worked well enough  in season one: the aesthetics were fresh, and I think there were some smart ideas – for example: giving such a visible power as flight to the character who’s the most public figure; giving regeneration to a teenage girl, who’s at probably the only time in her life when such a power would be unwelcome, because it’s a mark of difference. But Heroes went off the boil after that, for a variety of reasons, but including that it got wrapped up in its own continuity and moved too far away from what (I think) made it distinctive. It couldn’t be about ordinary people with remarkable abilities any more, not when some of its characters became so mighty-powered, and not when such extraordinary plots were being hatched.

Misfits strikes me as different. At least in its first season (the second has yet to air), every fantastical happening is filtered through the prism of inner-city teenagers with ASBOs; the idea of ‘super-powers’ is put into the service of a story about that kind of people in that kind of place – and this is what gives the programme its freshness. It’s the same thing that made the ending of Ashes to Ashes satisfy, even though the concept (a purgatory for coppers) wasn’t particularly surprising – it worked because the 1980s, police-procedural aesthetic remained intact throughout.

I’ve seen a similar effect at work in books. There are times I’ve found myself abandoning series of supernatural thriller/detections, because I felt they were relying too much on their built-up continuity to generate drama, instead of the root idea that made them interesting to me in the first place. But, just recently, I read The Radleys by Matt Haig, which is a vampire story with that sense of freshness. And, again, that freshness comes less from the concept – a middle-class family of abstaining vampires trying to get on with life – than the way Haig keeps the theme of ‘middle-class family travails’ at centre-stage, and deploys the vampire trope through that theme.

I’m coming to think that even the most venerable of tropes can be revitalised if integrated thoroughly enough with a particular setting or aesthetic. I wondered if any new takes were possible on the Arthurian mythos; and then, last year, I read Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which places aspects of that mythos in a story about feuding street gangs. It’s not fantastical as such, but it uses the significance of Arthurian names and icons for part of its effect, transforming them in the process – and that runs to the very heart of the novel.

This post has tried to put into words some thoughts that I’ve been mulling over for a while. I guess I can sum them up by saying: one way to make a trope fresh is to place it in a different context, and make it serve that context. The results can be interesting.

TV Book Club: The Silver Linings Play Book

So, that was the first series of The TV Book Club, and it has been rather a mixed bag. The series was notable, partly for being a programme about books (of which there are very few on British television), but also for being a continuation of the highly influential Richard & Judy Book Club. Although it improved as it went along (certainly compared to the first episode, which, let’s be honest, was a mess), I don’t think the show ever quite lived up to what it could have been.

The format stayed essentially the same throughout the series: a short interview with the guest celebrity panellist; a filmed ‘non-fiction’ item; an interview with the author of a title chosen in previous years, examining what has happened to them since; and discussion of the week’s choice, after a short filmed interview with the writer. All these elements have had their ups and downs: the panellist interviews were better when the guest was talking about the books they liked, rather than their own book, or something else entirely (a more diverse range of guests would also have been welcome). The ‘book club stories’ always struck me as rather too much like trumpet-blowing (though some of the authors’ comments were interesting), and the non-fiction items were often just too frivolous for their own good.

The discussion of the weekly choice is the centrepiece of the programme, yet even this has been variable – indeed, for the first week or so, it seemed almost an afterthought to the interview with the guest panellist. Some, however, have been rather good (taking into account that there’s obviously a limit to what can be covered in eight or ten minutes): for example, I thought this week’s discussion of The Silver Linings Play Book was quite robust, with some lively debate.

But I think the greatest weakness of The TV Book Club – something which was carried through to the very end – is an apparent reluctance to engage seriously with its material. Whether it was generally superficial discussion, or a tendency to undercut serious points with a quip, it seemed to me that the show was uncomfortable with saying substantial things about books. And it needn’t be – discussion can be intelligent without being forbidding or abstruse, and, in my view, book programmes should assume that’s what their audience wants. The TV Book Club was at its best when it was making substantial points.

I like the idea of a reader-focused book programme, but, for all its improvements, The TV Book Club still has some way to go. I hope its creases can be ironed out in time for its return in the summer.

TV Book Club: The Rapture

This week’s TV Book Club was about The Rapture by Liz Jensen, which I reviewed last week (click here to see what I thought). The series got off to a shaky start, but has been improving week on week; so I was keen to see how it would go this time. In the end, it was better than some weeks, but not great.

One again, the panel was a member down, with Gok Wan away; once again, the format worked better with fewer people. This week’s guest celebrity was Martine McCutcheon; the interview with her contained the show’s first misstep. In previous weeks, this segment has been much better when the guest was interviewed about the books they like to read, rather than about their own book. The first question was about the former subject, but the conversation soon turned to the writing of McCutcheon’s novel — and the end result was indeed poorer than the interviews in the last few episodes.

I’ve always found the vox-pop non-fiction items unsatisfactory, but I think this week’s was the worst so far. It was about a book on regional dialects, called How to Talk Like a Local, by the Countdown lexicographer Susie Dent. This could have been such ain interesting item, particularly if the author had contributed — but, no. What we got instead was a comedian named Alun Cochrane travelling back and forth between the West and East Midlands, trying to find the point at which the local word for a bread roll changes from ‘batch’ to ‘cob’. That was it: no exploration of where those words come from, or how such differences arise — nothing. One could be forgiven for watching that item and not being able to name the book connected to it. Very disappointing.

After a weak first half, then, we headed out of the commercial break, and into the usual short filmed interview with an author who’d been chosen for the Book Club in previous years (this week it was David Mitchell, of Cloud Atlas fame — another book I should probably read, but haven’t). Then it was time to turn to The Rapture — and it wasn’t a bad discussion, actually. The panel had a lot to say about the novel (which they all liked); it was perhaps always going to be an impossible task to really get under the skin of the book in the time available, when it can be approached from so many angles — but the conversation brought across just how much there is in The Rapture. And McCutcheon, while not as insightful as some of the previous guests in the series, made a worthwhile contribution nevertheless.

Not one of the better TV Book Club episodes, I’d say, let down in particular by a poor first half — but quite a good discussion of the featured title, which is of course where it counts the most.

TV Book Club: Sacred Hearts

Well, this was a major step up from the first two programmes. There are still some elements that don’t work — the back-and-forth presentation is awkward; describing how an author’s career was boosted by the Book Club in years past is unnecessary; and the non-fiction items (this week, one on the origins of pub names) might well be interesting in another context, but they don’t fit the format of this programme.

Elsewhere. however, things were far better. This week’s guest was the actor Emilia Fox, who didn’t have a book of her own to talk about, so instead the interview with her was about her favourite books. This was a much better idea, and Fox came across as a keen reader, as guests on The TV Book Club ought to be.

The choice this week was Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a novel about two nuns in a 16th-century Ferraran convent. Unlike previous weeks, the discussion was vigorous and enthustic — exactly what the programme needed. Nathaniel Parker remained the best contributor of the regular panellists, really engaging with the period here; but all were better than they were previously (though Gok Wan was absent this week), and Emilia Fox also made some of the strongest contributions. And, most importantly, they made the book sound interesting.

There’s a way to go yet, but, on this evidence, The TV Book Club is on the right path at last.

TV Book Club: The Little Stranger

Tonight, More4 broadcast the first episode of The TV Book Club, the successor to the Richard & Judy Book Club, but extended to half an hour and presented by a panel of five celebrities (Jo Brand, Nathaniel Parker, Laila Rouass, Dave Spikey and Gok Wan). I never paid much attention in the R&J days, but watched this partly out of curiosity, and partly because I already knew the book under discussion, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (my review of that book is here). And I’m left with one main thought: is that it?

Each week, we were told at the beginning, the panel would be joined by a guest who would take part in the discussion and also talk about their own book. This week’s guest was Chris Evans, who was interviewed about his autobioraphy for most of the first half. This actually ended up being the most in-depth item on the whole programme; but,. as I’m not terribly interested in celebrity autobiographies, I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for it.

After the Evans segment, the show blew its own trumpet with a short item on the author Cecelia Ahern, and how her career was transformed by being chosen for the Book Club back in 2004. And that was the end of part one.

Part two arrived, and were we now going to talk about the week’s choice? No, we weren’t. Instead, we had a filmed item in which the comedian Mark Watson asked people if they knew what various obscure words meant. (This was in relation to a recently-published book called The Completely Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler.) Watson was, as ever, entertaining; and, at least, this was telling me about a book of which I was unlikely to have heard. But, still, this item was essentially a makeweight in a programme that really needed more substance.

And, finally, we made it to The Little Stranger. First, a short interview in which Waters talked about the book; then the actual discussion, which lasted less than five minutes. In a half-hour show. How disappointing.

So, the first episode of The TV Book Club was unsatisfactory on just about all counts. It didn’t succeed as a book club, because barely five minutes in total were devoted to the chosen book. It didn’t succeed as a magazine programme about books, because it didn’t cover enough new/unfamiliar books, or talk about its subjects in any real depth. We don’t have that many TV shows about books in the UK as it is — but new ones really need to be better than this.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 1

For the past week-and-a-bit, I’ve been at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, my first time going to such an event. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and the rather tight separation between writers and audience (no real opportunities for interaction apart from Q&As at the end of each session, and signings afterwards) was a little disconcerting at first (I guess that’s the only practical way to run things with so many events and speakers). The Festival was quite celebrity-led (then again, isn’t contemporary publishing the same?); but, generally speaking, they were interesting celebrities, and there was plenty of other stuff going on. All in all, I had a good time, and went to a nicely varied programme of events.

I never had internet access while I was away, otherwise I’d have blogged about the Festival in more detail while I was there. Instead, I present the edited highlights, which are pretty long as it is…

Friday 9th

6.00 pm: My first event, listed in the festival brochure as ‘The Man Booker Winner’, who of course in the end was Hilary Mantel.

I haven’t traditionally had much luck with Booker titles (of all the nominees, and one winner, that I’ve read, I can only truly say that I liked Animal’s People by Indra Sinha), but I certainly became interested in reading Wolf Hall after hearing Mantel read from it, and speak so enthusiastically.

7.30 pm: Leaving the Town Hall, I realise that I’ve just passed a fellow Huddersfielder, the poet Simon Armitage. He is today’s Guest Director (there’s one for each day of the Festival, who has programmed three events for that particular day).

Saturday 10th

11.30 am: I have the morning free, so I’ve been to look around town. As I’m going into the Town Hall, I think back to seeing Simon Armitage last night, and wonder if I could play a little game of ‘Guest Director bingo’, just to see how many of them I could spot over the ten days. At the precise moment I think this (and I swear I’m not making this up), I reliase that today’s Guest Director, Richard Eyre, has just walked past me. That makes up my mind: the challenge is on!

1.30 pm: Off to the Centaur pavilion (what a great pun) at the racecourse to see Michael Palin. He talks about his career in the 1980s, the period covered by the new volume of his diaries. Much as I like Palin’s work (he’s one of the few writers I’ll be seeing who I’ve actually read), I’m more familiar with his travel programmes than this part of his career, so it’s interesting to hear his behind-the-scenes tales of (mostly) the films he made at that time.

4.00 pm: Marcus Chown, the New Scientist‘s cosmology consultant, talks about his latest book, which (says the brochure) ‘looks at what the everyday world tells us about the universe’. The discussion about science is interesting, but I don’t gain much sense of what the book is actually like.

6.30 pm: Readings and discussion from the novelists Diana Evans and Patrick Neate. The latter, I would say, is the better reader; but both books sound interesting, and so my ‘would like to read’ list grows a little longer.

8.45 pm: Quite interesting stuff from John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, the creators of QI. They can’t talk about their new book, because it’s not finished yet; nevertheless, their enthusiasm is infectious.

Sunday 11th

10.00 am: Am I cheating in my game of Guest Director bingo if the only time I see them is when I know I’m going to? Well, it’s my game, with my rules, so I decide that the answer is no. So, here is today’s Guest Director, Sandi Toksvig, interviewing the novelist Kate Mosse. Actually, it’s less of an interview than a chat between friends — and less informative (to me, as someone who has never read Mosse but thought about it) as a result.

12.00 pm: The first of several occasons when I miss out on an event to which I wanted to go. There were no tickets left for Harry Hill; disappointing, but never mind.

4.00 pm: Back to the vast (and full) auditorium of the Centaur, where Mark Lawson is interviewing Mitchell and Webb. I’ve never really watched them, but find them quite funny here; and the talk of how they work as a double act is interesting.

7.30: Time for something different — two hours of dynamic storytelling by the excellent Ben Haggarty. He weaves a wonderful tale that begins with his visting a freak show at a carnival in America, and ends on the moon, where he discovers the truth about his profession. I don’t know how often Haggarty tours, but if he comes anywhere near you, go and see him.

Monday 12th

10.00: A talk by David Elder about an anthology he has put together of writing about Cheltenham. This was one of the events I was less sure about, didn’t know quite what to expect, and ultimately I found it a bit dry. To be fair, I would probably have got more out of it if I were a Cheltonian.

Lunchtime: I’ve been wandering around, trying to find somwhere nice to have lunch, and end up going from one side of town to the other. It’s good for my game of Guest Director bingo, because at one point I pass a group of people which includes today’s Guest Director, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

4.00 pm: A conversation between P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. As with the Toksvig/Mosse event yesterday, these two are good friends; and, though the talk is interesting enough, I once again feel that the writers’ fans will have got more out of it than I did.

8.45 pm: I did want to see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall now, but the event had sold out. Instead, I’m at the interview of another Channel 4 presenter, Kevin McCloud, who is talking about European architecture and the idea of the ‘Grand Tour’. He’s a marvellously entertaining speaker, even breaking into spontaneous impersonations of Brian Sewell and Prince Charles. I’m not particularly into architecture, but McCloud makes the subject interesting; and he’s not the only person who will do so this week — but that can wait for another instalment…

Hustle: further thoughts on series 5

Not very prompt of me, I know, but here are some more impressions of the latest series of Hustle, following on from my earlier post after the first episode:

It took three episodes before Albert got out of jail and the team was back together. That’s half the series, which was really too long; although the plot to get him released was wonderfully inventive.

Actually, this series had some of the most engagingly twisty plots I can remember on Hustle in quite some time. Frustratingly, I can’t remember the details of those plots, only that I enjoyed their twists and turns.

One I do remember is that of the last episode, which wasn’t one of the best. Some of the grifters’ former victims joined forces to con them; nice idea, but I could spot the ‘punchline’ a mile off. (Interestingly, the three episodes I liked best were the three not written by the series’ creator, Tony Jordan.)

This series didn’t really have the big, outlandish set-pieces Hustle has had previously (or, at least, they weren’t as outlandish), but that was certainly no impediment, and might even have strengthened the series. But Hustle still can’t do gritty, and should stop trying; Emma and Sean ae supposed to have grown up on the streets, but it doesn’t work. The hustlers exist in a world of glitz, glamour and froth; the show doesn’t work when it attempts to step out of that world.

Speaking of the new characters, Emma has proved a fine replacement for Stacie (though the romantic, will-they-won’t-they sub-plot between her and Mickey grew tedious, because it was clear that the series would never function if they did get together); but Sean is nowhere near as good a character as Danny. Sean doesn’t have Danny’s ragged-wideboy charm, and his protective attitude towards his sister is no substitute for Danny trying his luck with Stacie and never succeeding.

But, on the whole, it was a good series, it was great to have Hustle back, and it’s great to hear that we have a sixth series to look forward to.

The return of Red Dwarf

I didn’t see this coming [*], but apparently there is going to be a brand new two-part special of Red Dwarf this Easter, in which Lister and co. finally return to Earth. I’m cautiously optimistic about the news: of course it’s great to have the show back after all this time — it never really ‘finished’ — but I can’t help wondering, ‘is it going to be any good?’ It’s a shame that Rob Grant is apparently not involved, but I’m looking forward to seeing what Doug Naylor and everyone else have come up with… cautiously, anyway.

[*] Perhaps I should have seen it coming, because the news that the specials were being made was orginally announced in September last year. But it passed me by.

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