This Week in British TV: Andrew Davies Can Adapt Anything
Hello all. This week we have a new take on a classic by Andrew Davies, a cookery show outstaying its welcome, and a new legal drama from Peter Moffatt. Dem's the shows: let's get right to the bitchy take-down of them, eh?
The scene: the office of Andrew Davies, famous screenwriter behind the adaptations of "Bleak House," "Middlemarch," and "Pride & Prejudice" (the one with Colin Firth and the pond). Andrew Davies is sitting at a desk piled high with Penguin Classics.
Andrew Davies: (Sigh)
A young man enters. It's Peter, Andrew Davies' assistant.
Andrew Davies: Well, what have you got?
Peter: Mr Davies, sir, I...
Andrew Davies (shouting): Call me Andy! SO? What classics have you got for me?
Peter: Well, I've been reading Tolstoy like you told me to, and...
Andrew Davies: Yes, boy, yes, yes? Can I adapt him? Is he any good?
Peter: Well, sir, '"War and Peace" seems a bit long, sir, and someone did "Anna Karenina" not long ago.
Andrew Davies (gritting his teeth): That bloody Julian Fellowes, I'll bet. DAMN YOU, FELLOWES, DAMN YOU AND YOUR WITTY SCREENPLAYS REFLECTING A KEEN GRASP OF OLDEN-DAY MORES! What else, Peter? Any more classics? Did this Tolstoy git write anything else?
Peter: Not much else, sir.
Andrew Davies (picking up a copy of "Far From The Madding Crowd" and throwing it at Peter's head): Well why don't you invent a time machine and go back in time to Russia and tell Tolstoy to write another fucking classic! I'm running out of classics to adapt, here!
Peter: Sorry Andrew Davies, sir! Otherwise I thought you could maybe do a Jane Austen? What about ...
Andrew Davies: Idiot! I've done 19 adaptations of Austen, already! And she only wrote two books! What are you going to suggest next? Dickens, you retarded she-baboon?
Peter (cowering): Yes sir, I was going to suggest 'Hard Times' by him, sir!
Andrew Davies: Oh yeah, good one, numb-nuts! I tried reading it and I got stuck on chapter seven! How many times do I have to tell you, I don't care about the Industrial Revolution! Next!
Peter: Well, this is a long shot, but how about "South Riding," by Winifred Holtby?
Andrew Davies (eyes lighting up; quietly): Ooh. Is it a classic?
Peter: Some people call it a classic, yes.
Andrew Davies (rubbing his hands): I see, I see. Interesting, most interesting! Hmm. And tell me, this 'Joy Riding,' does it have an idealistic young female protagonist in it?
Peter: It's "South Riding," sir. And yes, sir, it does -- she's an earnest young teacher in the 1930s, and there's a gruff male love interest, just like you requested.
Andrew Davies: Alright, OK, this is more like it! I'll cast Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey. Their love affair will be muted and slow-burning and captivate the nation. Perfect! So, this new classic of which you speak -- does it have an endearing, whimsical charm to it? Or is it more of a 'times were rough back then' thingummy?
Peter: It's endearingly charming, Mr Davies. It's got a real "Cranford" feel to it.
Andrew Davies (screaming): SPAWN OF THE DEVIL, NEVER MENTION THE C WORD IN THIS HOUSE! I killed my last assistant who mentioned "Cranford"! Then I cut her in pieces, stuffed her in a bag and sent her bloody corpse to Heidi Thomas with a note saying, "This is what your horrid program did to Judi Dench's reputation, you lazy lesbian"!
Peter (quivering): Sorry sir.
Andrew Davies (amiably): Right. Now, tell me, are there any stock comical or mean-spirited characters in this 'Red Riding Hood'? Any people with amusing names?
Peter: Yes sir, there's a lunatic wife and a fat pervy schoolteacher, and characters called things like Alderman Snaith, Mrs Beddows and Bessie Warbuckle.
Andrew Davies (throwing his head back and laughing a satanic laugh): Bessie Warbuckle, eh? A blousy strumpet, I'll warrant! AHAHAHAHAHA! OK, sure, I'm going to write this bitch! It'll take me barely two weeks! And the book will become famous again, because of me, Andrew Davies! They'll teach it in schools! Oh, I can already smell the crinoline and hair curlers on the film set! It's going to be a huge success! Suck it, Emma Thompson! I'm Andrew Davies! There isn't a classic I can't do for telly! Get Penguin on the phone, we're buying the bloody rights!
"Masterchef," the show that aims to find the best cooking talent in Britain and make him or her (usually him) a champion with the chances of setting up his or her (his) own restaurant, has now been back on our screens for a few days, and as a friend sadly and amusingly observed to me on zuckerberg.com the other day, it has jumped the shark-fin soup.
This is a really sad development in my life, and I do hope you, the Pajiba congregation, will pause to mourn with me at the demise of the laddish, wonky, rather dumb and moth-eaten programme of yore. What was charming about "Masterchef" was that it was a brave fighter against the shiny-zation of British reality TV; a lone rampart of endearing ineffectuality and low-grade aesthetic values in the age of Simon Cowell glitz. On the old "Masterchef", the two presenters would shovel food down their horrendous gobs, burble a compliment or put-down, and then fight about who to put through to the next round in the most hilariously cliché terms. The contestants were homely and mumsy, bumbling and frazzled, and they were sometimes so shit at cooking that they couldn't pick out an iceberg lettuce in the crucial "Ingredients Recognition Test."
All that has gone now, and "Masterchef" has upped its game, with a new fancy kitchen with about a million cooking stations in it, plus some ridiculous lighting, emotional family involvement, and Cowell-approved theatrics. With the zapping of all the down-home folksiness of the old show - which still could rack up the tension, and was a particularly exciting ride from start to finish - have gone all the reasons to watch it. It just feels like something undefinable has been lost. The contestants who go on the programme don't know what to do with themselves in this new brazen format: they don't want to be stars, they're just in love with prawns and butter beans and want to cook for people. So they get flustered and awkward during the cooking and look weirded out during the knock-out stages, and the whole charm of it has disappeared.
You've still got the hosts, I suppose: rumpled and patronising chef John Torode, with his terrible clothes and ever half-closed eyelids, and fat and bald grocer Gregg Wallace, with his huge gob and disturbingly naked penchant for puddings. They've always been good value, displaying a Bogart-and-Bacall chemistry at all times and a propensity for uttering the clunkiest statement possible at any given moment; they laddishly love their food and give great TV. But they're floundering in this new re-vamped show, and the joy is over - at least for me.
Rest in peace, "Masterchef." I'll cherish the days of popping round to friends' houses to watch the quarter-final scallops-on-a-bed-of-pea-puree cook-off. I'll miss the crappy ramping-up of tension where no tension existed. I'll treasure the memory of so many failed chocolate fondants. But we two must part, now. It's been great. With regret, "Masterchef", goodbye.
From writer Peter Moffatt, the marvellous fellow who gave us "Criminal Justice" starring Ben Whishaw in its first season and Maxine Peake of "Shameless" fame (above) in its second, comes a new series set in a law firm, which totally puts the 'meh' in 'crime-hour'. OK, OK, no-one says 'crime-hour'; it's not an expression. Fine. But it's got the right letters.
The always delightful and amazing Maxine Peake, then, returns for this series, which sets about betraying her talents in every way possible, making her tackle the character of a determined, doesn't-play-by-the-rules, ultra feminista, Northern, over-worked barrister who is trying to 'make silk' (an expression signifying being made permanent, or becoming important in the firm, or something like that). So Peake has to do things like hold doors open with her high heels while she struggles through them with a huge pile of folders in her hands, or say this shamefully terrible line to her apprentice: "Innocent until proven guilty. Four words to live by." It was by far the worst line in a rather poorly written show, signifying the extent to which this law procedural had been dumbed down for an apparently moronic audience. Who the hell owns a television and doesn't know about presumed innocence? It was mortifying.
There were other bad moments, including Peake's character, Martha Costello, confronting her rival lawyer (played by the formerly good-looking Rupert Penry-Jones with, just, the worst hair I've seen on TV in years) for getting a woman sent down for coke-smuggling and then doing coke at a party that same evening. The hammering home of the hypocrisies of the middle-classes gave me a splitting headache.
So this first episode doesn't work. I'm not saying there's no potential, because Peake and Moffatt have been startlingly brilliant together before, and this show has a decent cast - but it must cut down on exposition, lose some of the stereotypes, and give us some less contrived court cases that we can care about a little more. I'll check back on it in due time.
Caspar Salmon is Banksy