Posts Tagged ‘Channel 4’

Democracy, I commented recently, has had a rough couple of years. I must, of course, qualify this by saying I speak as a left-leaning progressive and internationalist; should you be a right-winger who fervently believes in the primacy of the nation state, you will probably be little short of delighted with how things have turned out for you. Perhaps it’s better to say that recent events have conspired to show up the cracks in the system. As Churchill famously said, democracy is a terrible way of organising things; it just happens to be better than all the others. It inevitably reduces the multi-layered complexities of human opinion and belief down to a black and white tick-your-preferred-box choice.

And this is when the system is functioning as it’s supposed to. Situations like the one in the USA last year, when the person who scored three million votes more than the second placed candidate did not in fact win the contest, almost inevitably lead one to wonder in what sense the electoral college system is genuinely democratic. Meanwhile, here in the UK, we have repeatedly had the problematic situation where the slenderness of a winning majority has had no effect on the behaviour of a winning side – you may only get 52% of the vote in a referendum, but that still gives you 100% of the power to impose your interpretation of the result on the population, under the cover of the useful phrase ‘the Will of the People’.

The extent to which the Will of the People really matters is one of the issues examined by A Very British Coup, a 1988 TV drama which I was recently moved to revisit (available free-to-watch to UK residents). Rather to everyone’s surprise, it is showing every sign of becoming prescient and topical: written by Alan Plater from Chris Mullins’ novel, and directed by Mick Jackson, it opens on the day of a general election, in which former steelworker and lifelong socialist Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) is victorious and becomes the Prime Minister of a borderline-Marxist Labour government. In addition to the nationalisation of various sectors, Perkins’ legislative programme includes open government, limiting private ownership of the media, nuclear disarmament, and the removal of US Air Force bases from British soil.

Unsurprisingly, this is met with horror by various members of the British establishment, not to mention the current American administration, and a shadowy coalition including senior figures at MI5, the head of the BBC, a Tory press baron, and members of the CIA comes together to undermine and, if necessary, topple the elected government of the UK. For the good of the country, naturally.

As I say, the series was made in 1988, and has a near-future setting (most clearly indicated by the fact that there are various references to ‘the King’) – apparently if you squint you can see tax discs for the year 1991 or 92, not that it really matters. The story was apparently inspired by persistent rumours that a military coup against Harold Wilson’s government was a very real possibility in 1974, not to mention alleged CIA involvement in an Australian constitutional crisis at around the same time.

It’s a solidly-made production, a product of that time when the scope and production values of British TV drama were becoming more cinematic, while its tone remained more theatrical. It is quite talky, and the audience is credited with some intelligence. McAnally carries the production ably, and there’s one of those interesting supporting casts made up of people on their way to a somewhat bigger time – Keith Allen plays Perkins’ press secretary, Jim Carter is the Foreign Secretary, Philip Madoc is the press baron, Tim McInnerny is a ruthless MI5 operative, and so on. (Of interest to a more niche audience – Geoffrey Beevers, Caroline John, and Jessica Carney also appear in roles of differing sizes.)

It’s a product of its time in another way, too – it’s hard to imagine anything quite so openly party-political being made by a UK broadcaster nowadays: Perkins is unmistakably the good guy throughout, with the forces against him clearly those of conservatism (with both a big and small C) and the right. The series was made while Thatcher was in power, based on a book written when it seemed distinctly possible for a hard left politician to become Prime Minister (in the early 80s, prior to the Falklands adventure, it seemed that Thatcher might lose the 1983-84 election and someone like Michael Foot or Tony Benn would take over – V for Vendetta was also originally predicated on this type of scenario). One of Thatcher’s most enduring achievements is that for many years it seemed wildly improbable that a committed socialist could ever get the job again.

And yet here we are. The series failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, which inevitably colours its international outlook, and barely touches on the topic of the UK’s relationship with Europe, but to me it still feels like one with relevant things to say about the country’s situation today. Our papers are full of editorials referring to the Will of the People – or at least a particular, narrow interpretation of what that Will might be – and we see the privately-owned media united in attempts to discredit the leadership of the Labour party. ‘Partisan’ and ‘biased’ doesn’t even begin to properly describe the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by many papers. Once again, no doubt the editors involved would say they are doing it for the good of the nation. They may even believe this themselves.

A Very British Coup takes biased press coverage as being just the first of the conspiracy’s moves against Perkins, going on to include fomenting industrial action, forged evidence of financial impropriety, and actual murder (a pro-disarmament scientific advisor is assassinated by MI5 – or so it is strongly implied). The series ends ambiguously, with another election, talk of ‘constitutional uncertainty’, and the sound of rising aircraft engines, implying that perhaps a genuine coup d’etat is in progress (again, there has already been speculation as to the likely response of the military to a Corbyn victory). Before all this, however, is a scene between Perkins and the head of MI5 where the civil servant admits that the prospect of a successful, genuinely left-wing government terrifies the establishment and those with a vested interest in the status quo, hence their determination to destroy Perkins and his government.

It’s a powerful scene and a disturbingly credible one, although still slightly theatrical. Who really runs the country? Does the Will of the People carry any real power? Or is it just the case that our elected officials are only allowed to govern within certain parameters, regardless of their popular support? If so, who has the real power, and what is it based on? In a few days there is a chance that all these questions may feel very urgent and significant indeed, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if any answers emerge.

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JMS’s philosophy when putting together every season of B5 but the first was something he would happily discuss on the internet and elsewhere: at the beginning of a series B5 was likely to get more new and casual viewers, and so to encourage them to stick around and become regular viewers, those parts of the season included more standalone episodes and stuff designed to bring people up-to-speed with what was going on. Conversely, fewer people were likely to watch the show for the first time towards the end of a season, and so the overall story was much more prominent.

This is certainly the case with season 3, with most of the final five episodes comprising one ongoing story, namely the planning and execution of a counter-attack against the forces of the Shadows and its ultimate consequences for all concerned.

Walkabout, episode 18, has the testing of a new weapon as its B-story. This part of the episode is competently done with some decent special effects sequences, even if some of the drama leading up to the climax feels a bit contrived (G’Kar has to be wrangled into sending a Narn ship to help in the test). My problem with the episode is the A story from which it gets its name: it’s just terribly, terribly dull, concerned with Dr Franklin (still coming to grips with his drug problem) getting involved with a cabaret singer played by a former Kid From Fame. (Her songs are JMS compositions, and all I will say is that the music of the 2250s seems to be looking over its shoulder to that of the 1980s.)

Hey ho. There’s a bit of a tangent in Grey 17 is Missing, which is partly concerned with the aftermath of Sinclair’s departure – apparently War Without End and Walkabout swapped places in the running order, which would have made this flow a little more smoothly.

With Sinclair gone, Delenn is taking on some of his responsibilities, including the leadership of a Human-Minbari paramilitary organisation, the Rangers. As she is a member of the religious caste, the warrior caste want one of their own people installed instead, and so recurring nuisance Neroon turns up making various dark threats against her person. Having been made to promise not to warn any of the station staff about the danger, Lennier gets round this by telling (oh dear) Marcus, who resolves to delay Neroon long enough to complete the transfer of power by challenging him to a duel.

It turns out you *can* get the staff after all.

It turns out you *can* get the staff after all.

At the time this episode originally aired, B5 was still running in a teatime slot on Channel 4 and, as such, was occasionally savagely edited to fit the timeslot. This occasion was the first time I’ve seen it uncut (the same is true of Shadow Dancing), and I’m not completely sure what the fuss was about. All right, so there’s a prolonged action sequence in which Marcus gets beaten half to death (I’m tempted to say ‘pity about the half’), but not what you’d call buckets of blood. Some dialogue about broken ribs is fairly on-the-nose, I suppose. Anyway all is resolved in the stately manner one would expect of an episode about Minbari politics.

Except all this is the B-story! The A-story is a frankly rotten and silly one about a religious cult living in a hidden level of the station, complete with their own pet monster. Garibaldi – who’s never had much to do this year – discovers their existence, and, well, nothing much happens. The premise strains credibility, the dialogue is JMS-waffle, and the conclusion is nonsensical. I don’t think season 3 comes close to the heights of season 2, but it only contains one real stinker of an episode – and, mainly due to the A-story, this is it.

Centauri politics get some screentime in And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place, a neat little political thriller which is basically setting up locations and plotlines for early in season 4. Peter Jurasik, Stephen Furst and Andreas Katsulas all get lots to do, which is always a sign of a good episode. The B-story about a convention of religious leaders visiting the station – complete with a gospel service – is a little clunky but on the whole this is strong.

Shadow Dancing is very much akin to Walkabout, featuring big space battles against the Shadows and Dr Franklin and his drug problem – though thankfully that gets resolved in this episode. The battle with the Shadows looks good, but doesn’t have the same emotional clout as the assault on Babylon 5 from earlier in the season. It leads very smoothly into the climax of the season, Z’Ha’Dum.

The lesson we learn from this story is that Sheridan makes a very bad houseguest. More than that? Hum, well, to me I don’t think this story is doing what JMS wants it to – the audience is so invested in the characters by now that it’d take more than a philosophical debate to make the Shadows’ point of view seem reasonable. JMS-waffle obscuring the identity of their key spokesman is also arguably counterproductive.

But if nothing else it’s a strong end to a reasonable season which is possibly the last one to show Babylon 5 as a consistently good TV series. Seasons 4 and 5, mainly for behind-the-scenes reasons, have – how shall we put it? – specific issues of their own, which will probably become apparent quite soon.

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Crikey, it’s only the Second of Jan and already we’re enjoying brand new realms of stupidity courtesy of the nation’s TV program planners. I refer, of course, to the crack lemurs employed by ITV and Channel 4 who, brilliantly, decided to schedule the network premieres of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk at exactly the same time.

This is outstanding because, of course, both these movies appeal to exactly the same audience. But what makes it particularly special is that not only are they both from the same studio, but they also have many of the same creative personnel even down to members of the cast: in a possibly unprecedented feat, for a few seconds today Robert Downey Jr. was appearing as the same character in two different films on different networks.

Artist's impression of the ITV and Channel 4 schedules.

However, this run of form did not stop there, as the ITV guys have pioneered a strange and rather astonishing new variant on censorship. Regular censorship, of which I am not a great fan, generally consists of hacking bits out of films to make them less overtly violent or sexual. Much to my amazement, The Incredible Hulk was actually edited to make it look more violent and sexiful than was originally the case.

For instance – in the version I saw at the cinema, the Hulk kicks Tim Roth’s character, who flies back about fifty feet and splats into a tree. In the ITV version, you see the big guy start to swing his leg, then there’s the crunching noise of Roth hitting the tree and a crumpled limb flopping into shot. The original is kinetic and overblown in that unique Louis Leterrier way, but not actually nasty – the ITV cut just makes it look like the Hulk’s stomped him into paste.

Moving on to sex (how infrequently I get to use those words in that order), in the theatrical release Ed Norton and Liv Tyler rekindle their old romance, but are forced to abandon things mid-foreplay as Norton’s heart-rate is becoming dangerously elevated and he’s about to turn green and level the place. It’s a poignant moment (and illustrates yet another drawback to being the Hulk). Now, I thought the foreplay was very mild, but still enough to get ITV flustered – they’ve snipped everything after their initial kiss. So a scene of which the original point was that they don’t have sex has been re-edited to imply that they do. Good work at maintaining the moral standards of the nation, guys.

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In another bold innovation, your correspondent breaks new ground (for this blog, anyway) by reviewing a programme before it’s actually finished airing. Well, this isn’t an actual review per se, but anyway. Our text for the evening is Channel 4’s The Taking of Prince Harry, another in the broadcaster’s series of  made-up documentaries about bizarre and unpleasant things that haven’t actually happened but, you know, might one day.

Following last year’s cheerful and not at all provocative exploration of what might happen were the government to have a former glam rocker lawfully killed (reviewed right here in one of our earliest outings), this year’s production poses the question of ‘What would happen should the Queen’s grandson get shot down over Afghanistan and be nabbed by the Taliban?‘ Knowledgable coves pop-up and speak gravely and measuredly about things they no doubt know a great deal about, while – er – reconstructions of things that were never constructed in the first place play out, giving work to many actors who are otherwise unknown. (It also offers a glimpse of a pleasing otherworld where Chinless Dave isn’t the Prime Minister.) Occasionally glancing through the Daily Mail (know thine enemy and all, and it’s not like I actually pay for the wretched thing) means I know how it actually ends – young Ginger gets sprung by special forces at the last minute.

As you’d expect from such a high-profile production this is lavish, credible, and solidly made (though it did seem to drastically overestimate how popular the Prince is with the general public). But it also seems to me to be a fundamentally pointless exercise. Yes, no doubt it would be utterly ghastly if Prince Harry returned to play a further role in Operation: Endless Bloodbath (as I fondly refer to the Afghan adventure), and if he was then shot down and then captured by the Taliban. But one way and another I’m not sure we can do anything to stop that happening, short of telling the lad he can’t be in the army after all (in which case we still face the problem of what to do to keep young members of the Royal Family from hanging around on street corners and making a nuisance of themselves).

It would similarly be horrible should pigeons develop a taste for human flesh and savage office workers and city dwellers across the country, but I can’t see C4 throwing money at a drama-documentary on the subject. If X Factor finalists started spontaneously detonating at random intervals, scything down their retinue and crew members with bone fragments and the like, many people would doubtless get rather distraught – but once again I don’t see much mileage in going on about it, as I strongly doubt it’ll happen. The only reason this got made was because its very nature and subject matter was guaranteed to provoke a loud response from certain elements of the media, and in turn guarantee the network a healthy dollop of cut-price publicity.

So C4 deserves a tut and a disappointed shake of the head for making this show, but the media deserve no less for going along with it. Every outraged double-page spread and stringent leader article denouncing it as provocative and unnecessary just ensured more viewers for the actual programme, which in turn increases the chances of an even-more-dubious offering appearing next Autumn. (The Mail, which as you’d expect honked louder than most that this programme should be cancelled and the makers dragged off to the Tower, then went on to list it as one of its TV Picks of the Day.) 

Many of the brickbats slung at this show were truly moronic – it might give the Taliban ideas, screeched one article. Really? Do we honestly think the Taliban are so thick as to need to take strategy tips from Channel 4 programme makers? It might upset the Queen, somebody else said. Well, I find the majority of prime-time TV upsettingly banal and formulaic, but no-one ever thinks of my feelings.

So I’m left wondering – are the press really so dim as not to realise that complaining about programmes like this provides them with exactly the oxygen of publicity that their makers are relying on? Or do they simply not care, overwhelmed by the chance to have a really good outraged chunter about something,  secure as ever in the belief they have the moral high ground? If you really don’t like a show like this then the best thing you can do is to pretend it doesn’t even exist.

(Advice, I notice, which I am contradicting simply by offering. Sometimes you just can’t win.)

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UK Channel 4 can always be relied on to provide something provocative, thought-provoking and more often than not downright grotesque, and most of these boxes were well and truly ticked by The Execution of Gary Glitter, a mock-drama-documentary by Rob Coldstream about the reintroduction of the death penalty in England. The film told the story of the arrest, trial, and hanging of a disgraced former rock star upon his return from living abroad in Vietnam. What made this film particularly jaw-dropping was that while the story was fictional, the disgraced former rock star was a portrayal of a real person. As you may have guessed, the man in question performed under the name of Gary Glitter in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and his releases included ‘Do You Want To Touch Me There’ and ‘What Your Mama Don’t See’. Hmm. I should point out that Glitter is a convicted sex offender who’s done time in both the UK and Vietnam for various offences, so this isn’t a defence of the man.
But still… I’d lost track of the guy and was mildly astonished to find he’s currently living in the UK. What he made of the film, if he watched it, I can scarcely contemplate. There can’t be many people in the world today who’ve been treated to the sight of a fictionalised version of themself (Hilton McRae, possibly best known for playing Green Leader in Return of the Jedi – he’s the guy who brings down the Super Star Destroyer) on Death Row, with baying crowds outside demanding their death. Didn’t they need Glitter’s permission to do this? Wouldn’t he be on the phone to his lawyers the moment he even heard a rumour of this project? I suspect Channel 4’s legal department was kept very busy by this exact topic, which must mean that all the evidence of the offences Glitter eventually hangs for is real, and presumably the offences in question are the ones he did time for in Vietnam. (The fictional Glitter’s speech in his own defence during the trial seems to have been largely based on interviews the real Glitter’s given about what occurred.) In which case, isn’t that just muckraking against a man whose image is pretty irredeemably ruined anyway?

One can understand why Channel 4 took the decision to put Glitter in the centre of this film rather than a fictional paedophile: it may have been a provocative and sensationalist move that could arguably bias the audience, but it’s certainly one guaranteed to grab the attention of the media and generate publicity (a move which I’ve just realised I’m inadvertantly justifying. Bugger), which sometimes it seems is all the channel is interested in these days. In its defence the film was commendably restrained in its approach, with uniformly strong and credible performances from the actors involved. If Coldstream himself has an opinion about capital punishment, then it wasn’t clearly discernible in his film (although the pro-hanging case probably didn’t benefit from being represented by the likes of Garry Bushell and Anne Widdecombe – let’s not forget that she also came out in support of Harry Saxon, for heaven’s sake). The credibility of the film suffered somewhat from the hoops it had to jump through in order to live up to its central concept. The whole thing had to shift into a definitely parallel dimension to obscure which party it was that reintroduced the death penalty, to allow Glitter to be tried here for offences he’s already been convicted of in Vietnam, and – most fundamentally – to allow the UK legal system to try someone for crimes committed in another country.

I can’t help thinking that a serious and balanced look at the possible return of capital punishment to the UK would have been better achieved differently – but as I say, seriousness and balance didn’t appear to be on the agenda here, whereas sensationalism and prurience quite clearly were. I wasn’t even aware that it was even a topic for serious discussion by the main UK parties. Then again, given the ominous rightward drift of the nation, with Fotherington-Thomas and his pals way ahead in the polls and the BNP in the European Parliament, maybe this film was appropriately timely after all. It was certainly appropriately depressing.

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