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"This is Better in Blackface, But You'll Just Have to Imagine That"

By Caspar Salmon | TV | January 6, 2011 | Comments ()

By Caspar Salmon | TV | January 6, 2011 |


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Yo ho ho, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and may 2011 deliver us all a lot less "Miranda." I think this year should be a good one, TV-wise: I'm looking forward to new episodes of "The Thick of It," hopefully more "Misfits," more "Downton Abbey," a bit of "Psychoville," a new series of "Skins," and then of course all the stuff that I don't know about that's currently being made. Of course, all of these programmes will be made on a shoestring since this new government, which I don't want to emit a value judgment on, will be cutting the arts down to the very gills. Just one of the many reasons that this government sucks David Blaine's balls and smells of rotten stingray on a bed of slimy artichokes and peppery betrayal. God I hate this government.

Anyway, let's talk about some of the programmes that were on over the Christmas period, shall we?

I didn't watch "Doctor Who." Next!

Misfits

A very quick word on "Misfits," which concluded in style just before Christmas; I must be brief because I'm always wittering on about "Misfits" and even if the rest of you aren't bored of me talking about it, I am. In brief: It ended absolutely awesomely, with two episodes of such supreme confidence and narrative strength that it would be an absolute farce if it didn't return for another series. The last episode, which acted as a standalone special, a Christmas episode and a potential cliffhanger for series 3 all rolled into one, was set a few months after the official end of the series, which coincidentally enabled the writers not to work too hard at constructing Simon and Alesha's relationship, which wasn't exactly blossoming at the end of the series. They spun a glorious tale, which involved our lo-rent superheroes flogging off their powers and having to pay for them back, to a backdrop of Christmas boredom. They also gave Nathan a rather wonderful and unlikely girlfriend and staged the most wondrous, heartwarming and disgusting birth scene that I have ever laid eyes upon. I started watching "Misfits" slightly apprehensively, and ended up an embarrassing, burbling fanboy. Please watch this series.


Peep Show

It's difficult to say why, but did anyone else feel a little bit let down by "Peep Show" towards the end of this run? It was a golden set of episodes, containing many wonderful moments and some brain-meltingly classic lines, but by the end I couldn't help feeling that they might have done more, and that character development and narrative had not been sufficiently worked on.

What '"Peep Show" did do this year, and oh how brilliantly, was work with their much later schedule, to create a Christmas episode and a New Year's Eve episode. The Christmas ep chimed with me rather strongly since my attempt at hosting my first ever grown-up Christmas and having my parents stay with me was a complete wash-out: this episode of "Peep Show" saw Mark and Jeremy valiantly trying not to let Christmas be too terrible, but Mark's horrendous family ruin everything. There was a brilliantly sour scene where the family is playing charades, did you see it? Mark's cold, supercilious father suggests that Jez act out "Thus Spake Zarathustra," and Jez, deciding against it, acts out the film Chicken Run and then mouths at the father, "Oh I'm sorry, I thought you said Chicken Run." It's all so bitter and horrible, and "Peep Show" revels gleefully in these situations where the shit takes over the good times, despite everyone's best intentions. Oh, and there was a wonderful line where Jez, upon discovering that Mark and his family use the expression "to do a Jez" to mean "mess up," says, "I hope I don't screw up and end up doing a big Mark in my pants!" "Peep Show" toes a beautiful line between the childish and the scabrous.

The New Year's Eve episode was essentially an endless variation on the fact that everyone always has the worst night of their lives at New Year's Eve. It felt like the "Peep Show" generation was announcing it had grown up and was putting childish things behind it with this episode, which felt very bittersweet in tone and seemed to announce, I don't know, the end of some sort of an era. I found it arresting, but ultimately a little hollow because this season the plot didn't really advance much and there was a lot of treading water. What it did do well was grow up; we now need to see how this grown-up, more stately version will behave itself.

Toast

There were two fairly high profile single-episode dramas over the Christmas period this year, both biopics of television British heroes quitting their humble beginnings to become more or less beloved British institutions. One was "Eric and Ernie," about the two men who would become the beloved comedic duo Morecambe and Wise, and another was "Toast," about the TV chef and cooking writer Nigel Slater. "Toast" was a vivid, poignant memoir by Nigel Slater, published a few years ago, which very evocatively sketched his sixties upbringing through a recollection of all the variously tired or delightful foodstuffs that he and a generation of children had been reared on.

This drama took the book and -- while staying faithful to it -- somehow managed to take a lot of heart out of the story. One would ordinarily hope to root for the hero of a programme -- and one, furthermore, who is only a child and whose mother dies halfway through. So how did "Toast" mess it up, and how did I come away from it feeling so irritated towards its whiny, petulant subject? The answer is partly that they cast Helena Bonham-Carter as his dislikable step-mother: she turns in a charmingly brassy performance with a Wolverhampton twang that reeks of cigarettes, meaning that you're not really so against her as all that, even when she's being cruel to the little boy. I was all, "Yeah! Sock it to him, Helena! Little brat."

There was a wonderful scene of a typically British, really shabby picnic by the sea with Nigel, his mother and his father sitting on fold-up chairs on a cold, windy beach. That misery really did bring back memories of sad childhood food, as Nigel tragically tries to wipe the disgusting jelly off his slice of ham. That was very good, and very well written and acted. But there was so much about "Toast" that was humdrum or boringly executed: Nigel's infatuation with the family's gardener, Josh, could have been played for a proper shock effect, or been made erotic, or something, but the whole thing fell flat, like a sad chocolate parfait.

It must be said though that the programme did manage to capture something of the boringness of the adult Nigel Slater, who is one of the more insipid charisma-vacuums to appear on screen; his TV show consists of him digging up potatoes in his garden and saying to the camera in a simpering monotone, "You know what, these are so fresh and nice that I'm just going to cook them very simply in a bit of butter." In some of the later scenes with Freddie Highmore as the adolescent Nigel, the show beautifully displayed some of Nigel Slater's lack of whoomph, although that could have been a mistake, I'm not sure.

Eric and Ernie

My treat of the season was "Eric and Ernie," broadcast on New Year's day, about the rise of Morecambe and Wise from child performers to beloved comedy double act. Almost everything about it was perfect and I'll get my quibble out of the way early, which is that because I didn't grow up in Britain, and therefore had no nostalgia for Morecambe and Wise drilled into me by my parents and their generation, I don't find them funny. So I had a bit of difficulty with all the scenes of people roaring their dicks off at Eric and Ernie's well-oiled cabaret routines. But that is, indeed, what everyone enjoyed at the time, and Morecambe and Wise went on to become something of an institution in the country. Beats me. Debate question: has comedy got funnier since the olden days? I'd say so.

Anyway, this traced their early years as precocious child entertainers, and showed how Eric Morecambe's parents brought him up with a view to him becoming a comedy star. There was so much tenderness in this painting of family life, and in particular in the way that Morecambe's mother fought for him and managed him. She was played to perfection by Victoria Wood, capturing the hard exterior of parents of child actors, but also conveying a twinkling sense of humour and a real warmth and dynamism. There was a great scene when Morecambe brings his unmarried partner back home with their baby (this is the 50s, remember), and his mother hurries them indoors, saying to Morecambe, "You should be ashamed!" But she isn't talking about the scandal of his child, but about how shit his last routine was on television. It was a lovely touch.

There were so many great lines. Within the first ten minutes, Wise's dad (also a performer) uttered this wonderful line, before launching into a song: "This is better in blackface, but you'll just have to imagine that." I knew then that we were in good hands. Peter Bowker, who always writes a cracking script anyway, perfectly captured the fizz of Morecambe and Wise's chemistry (say what you like about their hilarity or lack thereof, they had undeniable alchemy) and brilliantly captured the post-war world of variety acts as our heroes traipsed from music hall to music hall. There were some beautiful moments of emotion, and some even more beautiful moments of emotion being typically undercut by humour: the best scene came when Morecambe's mother delivered an earnest speech imploring him to keep trying to succeed in comedy, because she believed in him, and he had the talent to do it, etc etc, and also because "you're no good at anything else!" On another occasion, having bombed on television, Morecambe tells his father he wishes he could go somewhere where television doesn't exist: "try Barrow-in-Furness," retorts the father. It was also beautifully directed by Jonny Campbell with some swoonsome shots of the sea at Morecambe bay and a classical sort of lensing that made sense of the performers' universe. It was charming through and through.

Caspar lives in London and bravely considers himself to be in his late twenties. He enjoys many things, the listing of which would make him sound like an unbearably pretentious douche.




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