“Not ‘Touchwood’, it’s ‘Torchwood!”* My thoughts on Miracle Day

15/07/2011 at 9:37 am (Doctor Who, Torchwood, TV)

Torchwood has always been a bit of an oddity to me.  It’s a show I’ve watched religiously, but never quite loved.  Of course, I watched it because it was a spin off of Doctor Who, although charged with the task of placing it in a more adult pocket of that universe.

The results were patchy to begin with, as sex, violence and swearing seemed to be lobbed in to create “adult” content.  The results could make the show edgy, but sometimes puerile in places.  This is possibly because Torchwood’s remit is a tough one to adapt within the glorious nonsense of the world in which the Doctor exists.  Over time, more thought provoking stories were introduced, the overtly sexualised element was toned down, making it feel less like a late night Hollyoaks with aliens.

Now we have Torchwood: Miracle Day following the excellent Children of Earth, 2009’s five part Torchwood miniseries.  Children of Earth employed truly sinister elements to create a gripping close to the show’s purely British adventures.  So what of Miracle Day?  Would it be a step back to finding its feet in this new US co-production?  Could Torchwood be littered with ill informed decisions from boardroom suits taking away the very quirks that make the show?  I have to say, I’m not that bothered about its “Americanisation”.  It’s pretty much an American format show anyway; small team of agents who’s job is to investigate weird stuff.  I’m also glad it’s not a “reboot”.  It’s the original characters, with a continuing story.

It’s an interesting premise, as we find out that no one dies anymore, anywhere on Earth.  As the story opens, we’re shown polar opposite worlds.  On one side, the CIA, which looks like a mood lit call center with some seriously big TVs.  On the other, the rugged Welsh coast, shown in sweeping panoramas.  I’m sure Russell T Davies, the show’s creator, has done more for Welsh tourism than the country’s designated tourist board.  We’re also given the first glimmers of the villain of the piece, in the shape of convicted pedophile and murderer Oswald Danes, played by Bill Pullman.  He’s not a hard character to hate already, but – thanks to the rather long “coming soon” clips at the end – the character becomes ever more important.

It was nice to see old favourites back, and played true to their previous characterisations; Captain Jack (John Barrowman) going from Mystery Man to Mr One-Liner in equal measure, and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) trying to be a laugh, but sliding into serious mode and looking for things to bother her.  What I was also very happy to see was the return of Gwen’s long suffering husband Rhys (Kai Owen) and Gwen’s old Police partner PC Andy (Tom Price).  I can’t be the only one who wants to see PC Andy go stateside, maybe doing a cultural exchange with the FBI.  Or maybe I am.

I still think “Agent Andy” is a great idea for a show.

I also warmed to the new characters fairly quickly – CIA agents Rex Matheson, played by Mekhi Phifer and Alexa Havins as Esther Drummond.  Havins reminded me of Julie Benz of Angel and Dexter fame, and had a wonderful wide eyed quality.  Not sure about the other series regular, Dr Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur), but I’m sure we’ll get to see more of her character unfold as the story does.  She seems to be the “but you can’t do that, it’s wrong” element to ground the characters.

As much as I enjoyed the story as it unfolded, it was not without it faults.  I can handle the nonsense with rocket launchers and helicopters, but it was the key moment in the story that had a bit of a clunkiness to it.  How do you knit together a storyline to bring our heroes back into the action?  It hinged on the scene where Agent Rex has to fly over to the UK, and travel to Wales.  Yes, time is of the essence here, but with the seemingly small gap in a mobile phone conversation, landing at Heathrow, crossing the toll bridge and getting to the Welsh coast all seemed to be so quick.  For Agent Esther dutifully sat at her laptop, hardly any time seemed to pass at all.

There was plenty to like. however.  Particularly for me, the absolute horror of the explosion victim, was grotesque and brilliant.  It really played to the strengths of the show’s format.  I also loved the little scene where Gwen grabs her handgun, then the little pink fluffy earmuffs to protect her baby’s ears.  In fact, I quite liked all the little domestic bits with Gwen and Rhys, showing Gwen’s constant vigilance.  You can imagine what a nightmare she is to live with. Have a day off, love!

In closing, it was nice to give us a teaser of what’s to come, but I feel it gave a bit too much away.  I’m sure most viewers would’ve been happy with:

Shot of Jack on roof top
Gwen jumping off/out of something
Rhys Looking worried
Officer Rex shouting down the phone
Jack skulking with a hand gun
Officer Esther looking worried
Gwen shooting something
Dr Vera Looking worried
Jack and Gwen shooting stuff while jumping off a rooftop

That would’ve been fine!  Saying that, very nice to see Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under’s Claire Fisher) becoming a rather important part of the series.

All in all, very enjoyable.  As a first episode, I think it was strong.  I can see there’s scope for telling a few different tales under the Miracle Day arc.  As long as the question of what’s causing the phenomenon isn’t dragged out too long.

*I loved that line in the title of this post – it’s what my mum calls the show.


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Gay Kissing and the BBC

21/06/2011 at 11:58 am (Gay, TV)

It is believed that the very first gay kiss on television has surfaced.  Dusted off and exposed, there are some surprising facts about this inaugural lip lock in the drama Columbe. Despite the fact that this is between two brothers – which is massively controversial in itself – it’s the same-sex kissing that is grabbing the attention.

The first of these surprising facts is that appearing alongside actor Richard Pascoe was tough guy Sean Connery.  Connery was a Mr Universe contender, footballer and Bond-to-be.  Another remarkable fact is the year in which Columbe was made, and by who.  In 1960, homosexuality in the UK was still very much illegal.  That is to say, homosexual acts between men, over the age of 21, were decriminalised in England in 1967.  This would’ve been an incredibly edgy production for any drama, especially for the two channels in the UK at the time, BBC and ITV.  And it was the now-perceived “old guard” BBC who shot this piece.

1960 was an incredibly eventful time for the BBC, primarily for the opening of Television Centre.  This was a bold, exciting new era.  The austerity of the 1950’s in the UK were still very much evident.  Despite the Birth Of The Teenager in the previous decade, from my understanding it didn’t seem to reach British shores in quite the same way.  Of course, Great Britain was to get its chance to shine in the coming years, but by all accounts 1960 in the UK was a very conservative environment.

If this newly discovered “first male-to-male kiss on TV, film or on stage” (Derek Fiddy – TV Consultant, BFI) was indeed broadcast, it would have been an incredibly brave move.  Yes, the BBC has broadcasted pioneering dramas in the past.  In fact, I think we sometimes forget what the BBC is capable of.  But as no one seems to have any recollection of the broadcast of Columbe (again, from the snippets of information on this story so far), how do we know it was even shown?  I would like to believe it was, but it would undoubtedly have received complaints – “Dear Auntie Beeb, queers AND incest!?” – especially with only one other channel broadcasting at the time. With no reminiscences about this at all, I’m dubious that it reached any living rooms at all.

Saying that, the sheer fact it was made highlights brave decisions. Not only to dramatise a controversial French play, but to perform it and make it too. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.  Let’s not forget people are still complaining to the BBC about gay men kissing in EastEnders. I still remember the outrage between the show’s characters Colin and Barry having a rather chaste pecking in 1986, which actually led to physical and verbal abuse against the actors in real life.

You might think the British viewing public isn’t ready for the Gay Kiss on TV.  Seems it’s been 50 years overdue.

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Before They Were Famous: Defending The Sleb

16/06/2011 at 9:38 am (TV)

When TV began to eat its own tail some 10 or so years ago, we witnessed the birth of the TV list show.   These  programmes gave us insights into days gone by, with smug presenters snorting things like, “remember Spangles?” but for television shows, music, films and dance crazes.  Yes, certain companies have expressed that they’ll be stepping back from producing these programmes, but they’re still floating around in the ether.

This high handed approach led to a gargantuan output of clip shows highlighting how funny things were back in the day.  “Oh dear me, look at the hair!  Is that a space hopper?  Wagon Wheels were bigger…” et cetera.  Before this comes across as a complete tirade, I will put my hand up and say that I quite like some list shows.  I like clips of TV programmes and films, bits of music videos and the like.  It’s sometimes like having my brain televised.  Absolute respect to the researchers for these things too.  There’s some real gems they’ve discovered.

What I don’t like is the high handed commentary of the guests that appear.  Watch as Upcoming Comedian has just been given VT to comment on, scrabbling for a witticism on the spot, as their agent has told them this is their only springboard to success.  See Aging Popstar recall their experiences of disco, which they probably witnessed from a toilet cubicle, having a much better time than the other poor also-rans shaking it to The Hustle.

But it’s shows like Before They Were Famous that really annoy.  I saw one of these the other day, with a chuckle-laden narration guiding you through the humiliation that celebrities have gone through to get to their current position.  Admittedly, you could say that if  someone’s desperate enough to get on television covered in cling film, rolled in batter and made to impersonate a fried piece of fish, it’s all fair that we should poke fun.

What if we had Before They Were… for “real” people?  Before I was a copywriter, I did various jobs, including litter picking and packing yoghurt (don’t!).  We’ve all got to get to where we’re going somehow, and it just seems a bit of a cheap shot to dredge up this stuff up to take the piss.

Saying that, it’s all just a bit of fun, ain’t it?

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Why I can’t watch The Apprentice

18/05/2011 at 10:22 pm (TV)

The Apprentice is, without a doubt, a personal nightmare personified.

Week after week, dreadful try-hards push their desperate soulless frames through a series of tasks, each designed to encourage them to expand upon their course of banal corporate whoring. But we all know the premise, and it’s watched by millions. People do enjoy the abject awfulness of these Daring Intuitive Coporate Keen-minds, or DICKs for short.

It’s partially a cheering on of an underdog, not that any of these DICKs are sympathetic in any way. They jump through hoops, set by the grizzled terrier face of Sir Alan Sugar, craving his love and acceptance like all the very spineless incarnations of middle management do. Pray you don’t end up with one of these beige automotons as your boss, or perhaps you already have one like it. They won’t defend you, as their default setting seems to be stuck on, “it’s not my fault. I didn’t do it.”

And then there’s the sheer, outrageous corporate bullshit. I’ve heard enough of that crap in the past. The Apprentice is like being sentenced to attend a meeting about asserting egos and not getting anything done, except to have a meeting about organising the next meeting. All bound up in an environment of humourless shit-eating half smiles and neediness. No one seems to have any fun. Ever. It’s all about BEING THE BEST.

The best what? Believing your own-overinflated sense of worth?

I am not belittling self-belief. It’s essential to grow, to aspire and become someone you see in the mirror and say, “you’re not too bad a person. Good one.” Without grounding, or humour, or humility it just becomes a want. Could I take part or succeed at The Apprentice? Definitely not. But that’s not just down to having no entreprenurial skills at all.

I admire good entrepreneurs, They tend to be charming, that’s what works more than anything. How else do you get investment? These DICKs aren’t charming, and I have the feeling there’s no room for charm with a mind that screams, “please love me, Sir Alan,” going around and around like a chunderstorm (spelling intentional) trapped in a valley of arseholes.

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TV Theme Of The Week: The Avengers

29/12/2010 at 5:11 pm (TV Theme Of The Week)

As one of the few truly successful British shows to make it Stateside, The Avengers stands head and shoulders over many other programmes at the time. Not just of the spy genre, but pretty much anything else. Although, the injection of American money from the ABC network certainly helped!

The Avengers started in 1961 as a low-key thriller series. Ian Hendry played Dr David Keel, who’s fiancée was murdered by a drug cartel. A bowler hatless John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, was a shadowy figure who appeared on the scene investigate the murder. Together they began to solve further mysterious murders and misdeeds. Eventually, Steed’s character took greater importance, surviving to a second series, with a major overhaul.

Instead of a gritty crime drama, the highest excesses of British eccentricity were exploited. In David Keel’s place came tough and haughty Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman). This was the foundation of everything to come afterwards. Later plots featured espionage, science fiction, comedy, action and thriller. These elements gelled perfectly, thanks to the introduction of Diana Rigg, and the creation of Mrs Emma Peel.

The charisma between Macnee and Rigg is fantastic, and both were a hit with viewers. Bursting into colour, the adventures of Steed and Mrs Peel became bigger, bolder and more shameless. Laced with innuendo and wit, The Avengers was a distillation of the swinging 60’s and a sense of defending the realm from undesirables.

In its final season, with Linda Thorson – an inexperienced young actress given the hard task of replacing Rigg – playing Tara King, The Avengers was reined in a little. The plots became less “out there” until the very last moments of the last episode in 1969, when Steed and Tara are launched in a rocket, with Steed to not return until the mid 70’s in The New Avengers.

You will always hear Laurie Johnson’s theme to The Avengers (first heard with the introduction of Diana Rigg in 1965) somewhere. Adverts, fashion shows, parodies. the clattering harpsichord and sweeping strings instantly evoke elegance and action of a bygone age…

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TV Theme Of The Week: Joe 90

10/12/2010 at 5:07 pm (TV Theme Of The Week)

What could possibly be wrong with getting your 9 year old son to go on secret missions to thwart international terror plots? Well absolutely nothing, if you’re Professor Ian “Mac” McClaine.

This late 60’s Gerry Anderson puppet series gave the world the concept of Joe90. A boy who’s brain patterns were altered to give him heightened intelligence and experience, via a machine called BIG RAT – Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer (I retain a lot of useless information, but Wikipedia does come in very handy). This machine could feed all sorts of details into young Joe’s head, enabling him to go undercover as a schoolboy, but with all the abilities of a pilot, or surgeon or what have you. Imagine a cross between Ben10 and Dollhouse.

But the reason why I’ve chosen this particular theme? It’s another damn funky Barry Gray tune. I swear, you could put this on in a club, give the beat a bit more oomph, and people would dance!

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Doctor Beat: Pop music and Doctor Who

02/12/2010 at 10:15 pm (Doctor Who, Music, TV)

With news that opera singer Katherine Jenkins will be appearing in the upcoming Doctor Who special, A Christmas Carol, it seemed appropriate to take a look at the Time Lord’s dabbles with music.

Even from the outset of the series beginnings, there was an idea to feature a character that would be “with it” as part of the crew of time travellers. The idea of having Cliff Richard, or someone very much like him, was thrown around back in 1963. Even early outlines of the show included a lead character called “Cliff”, which was to become schoolteacher companion Ian Chesterton. Of course, it wasn’t until 2005 that a pop star would finally become a TARDIS crew member…

Doctor Who’s first foray into the world of pop, and certainly not its last, was in the 1965 story The Chase. And if you’re going to get a performance of a band on your show in the mid sixties, who would you get? Yup, on the Doctor’s grandly titled Time Space Visualiser there appeared none other than The Beatles. I can only imagine how, in the days before leaks and spoilers, how that would have gone down among the nation’s teens.

That wasn’t the end of the show’s connection with the music industry in the 1960’s. Oh no. Although The Beatles were unknowingly spied upon in the TARDIS, it was felt that young and hip Frazer Hines – the Second Doctor’s companion, Jamie – should bring out a single. About Doctor Who. And call it Who’s Dr Who. It came as no surprise when I read about the single on Wikipedia that it “failed to chart”.

You think there’d be a lesson learned from that, wouldn’t you? Clearly, when you travel through space and time, chart failure isn’t much of a concern. That’s not a hint to get Nadine Coyle to hop aboard the TARDIS by the way. During Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor in the early 70’s, he too released a single. About being Doctor Who. And call it I Am The Doctor. Think of it as sci-fi’s answer to Anita Dobson’s Anyone Can Fall In Love.

As time went on, the idea that perhaps if you’re in Doctor Who, you shouldn’t attempt a recording career. This is probably a good rule of thumb. There’s nothing to stop those that have a musical career from coming to the show instead. In 1983, Peter Davison encountered one of the most effete pirates to ever appear on screen in the shape of Imagination’s Leee John (no, I’ve spelt it correctly). Lynda Baron, a spacefaring pirate captain, sure. Leee John, cut throat lackey? Erm, not so much.

In Colin Baker’s era, Doctor Who even managed to win itself its own appeal single! Doctor In Distress was written at a time when the show was taken off air to be re-evaluated. The result was a… well, embarrassing farrago, to be blunt. You click on the link at your own peril, but see if you recognise any of the faces. And feel bad for them.

In 1988, jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine appeared in Silver Nemesis.  In a very inconsequential scene, the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) takes his pyromaniac companion Ace to an outdoor performance.  Before the onslaught of cybermen, nazis and a Tudor witch, the Doctor confesses his favourite type of jazz: “straight blowing.”  Well, I giggled.

Let’s skip to the return of the show in 2005, and the controversial casting of Billie Piper. It seemed the press all had computer keyboards that featured a key that just said “revelation”. Yes, she was very good, but the phrase “Billie Piper is a revelation” was bandied about so much you’d think Wikileaks had nothing on her.

During David Tennant’s time, more pop stars appear. In a tiny cameo, McFly lend their support to the Master’s alter ego, Prime Minister Harold Saxon. Following that, the Christmas special Voyage of the Damned was given an extra burst of hype as it featured Kylie. That really was a big deal, and seemed more than a little surreal. Especially with her appearance on Doctor Who Magazine draped over a dalek, which tied in with the release of her single Two Hearts.  Coincidence? Hmm…

The Streets’ Mike Skinner also made a cameo in the prologue of 2010’s The Time Of Angels.  Having succumbed to the charms of Alex Kingston’s River Song, we find Skinner dazed and confused, a victim of hallucinagenic lipstick.  How very wily.

Which brings us back up to the present, with singing sensation Katherine Jenkins. I have to be honest, I hadn’t heard of her before the announcement she was going to be in the show. Therefore I’ve no preconceptions. The only thing I can say is, you never know how these things are going to work out, but there seems to be more success with pop music going to meet the Doctor, than the other way around.

I mean, how will we look back on Matt Smith’s Glastonbury perfomance with Orbital in 20 year’s time?

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TV Theme Of The Week: The Sweeney

01/12/2010 at 12:10 pm (TV Theme Of The Week)

“Get your trousers on – you’re nicked!”

There’s something about The Sweeney that’s different to the other shows among my TV Theme Of The Week posts. I actually remember it more for not watching it.

When The Sweeney came on, it was time to go to bed. Full of foul language (“bitches”, “bastards” and “bloodies” all over the place), this was not a fitting show for an under-10 to watch. The violence wasn’t too much of an issue though. I don’t think my parents were bothered by that.

This show features the direct inspiration for Life On Mars’ Gene Hunt, Jack Regan – played by the late, great John Thaw. Also, before his “write the feme toon, sing the feme toon” notoriety was housewife’s choice, Dennis Waterman. Like the show’s principal cast, Harry South’s score lights up a cigarette, kicks in your door, swaggers in and punches you. You slaaaaag.

The opening titles are short and sweet, and I recommend having a listen to one of the full versions online.

Nostalgia fans, check out that ThamesTV ident!

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TV Theme Of The Week: Doctor Who

23/11/2010 at 9:00 am (TV Theme Of The Week)

In the late 70’s, my brother and I would be taken to see our grandparents on my Mum’s side on Saturdays, then to my grandparents on my Dad’s side in the evening. Stay with me, there’s a reason for this…

Romana facing the business ends of a pair of plungers

At the age of 5 I watched Doctor Who and finally got it. I was enraptured as daleks burst through a glossy black wall and threatened the Doctor’s Time Lady companion, Romana (portrayed by Lalla Ward). It’s almost like snapshots and pictures became fluid; vivid images knitted together to make followable adventures that completely captivated me.  On the anniversary of this almost 50 year old programme, I think my TV Show Of The Week should go to Doctor Who.

My parents even bought me a copy of the theme as a 7" single

Of course, the original theme is widely regarded as perhaps the most extraordinary pieces of music in British television. Written by Ron Grainer and arranged by ahead-of-her-time Delia Derbyshire, this series of electronic loops and howls was instantly able to conjure an atmosphere. Youngsters would be peeking through their fingers even before a single monster appeared on screen.

And I was one of them. I had the luxury of being absolutely terrified by my first experience of the daleks. So with a love for that old, pioneering theme, why have I chosen the arrangement for Peter Davison’s tenure in the 80’s?

Remember what I said about visiting grandparents? When Peter Davison took over, Doctor Who was moved to a weekday schedule. I understand fans at the time were livid. I was overjoyed, and could actually watch a complete story uninterrupted. I do love Tom Baker’s Doctor, but Peter Davison was MY Doctor. I am sure that, in no small part, the quirks of scheduling might have had something to do with this connection to the ‘new’ Doctor.

So here is the Doctor Who theme, bravely re-arranged by Peter Howell for the 80’s, which made me feel like I really was hurtling through space and time…

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TV Theme Of The Week: The Rockford Files

16/11/2010 at 7:00 pm (TV Theme Of The Week)

The Rockford Files must’ve been one of the first projects for the ubiquitous Stephen J. Cannell. Working alongside Maverick creator Roy Huggins, the anti-hero Jim Rockford was born. What I do remember when watching this in the dim and distant past of the 70’s, was laughing a lot.

Crime dramas and detective series are usually only as good as the humour that’s written into them. This is true of any genre, and James Garner’s characterisation of this down on his luck gumshoe brought wit and warmth.

The theme tune is just fun, and I can’t listen to it without smiling. It’s just joyous. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned – where there’s Stephen J. Cannell, there’s Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. Another winner from these giants of US TV.

Shame I couldn’t actually find the full opening titles (all that rights business), but just let it run…

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