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Peri-anal Prolapse, Sliced Napalm, and Dame Maggie

By Caspar Salmon | TV | October 28, 2010 |

By Caspar Salmon | TV | October 28, 2010 |

Pajiba readers, welcome! My name is Caspar Salmon, and this little ol’ weekly column here exists so that you can hear about what’s hot and what’s, er, cold, I suppose, on British television right now. Let’s just skip right to the shows, shall we?

Getting On

When my beloved grandmother was living in an old people’s home a few years ago, in the days when she was sadly no longer quite the sharp-minded person she had once been, we were all sitting around in her room, chatting, when she took something out of her handbag, examined it intently through her thick glasses and then, having decided that it must be some sort of treat, began to eat it. After a short while, I noticed that she was crunching down on it quite hard, with an expression of workmanlike disgust.

Me: Oh Nan, what on earth are you eating?
Nan (pensively): I don’t know.
My mother: Aargh, stop gnawing on it! What is it?
Nan (taking it out of her mouth and inspecting it): I found it in my bag.
My mother (looking closer): Oh god, it’s one of your teeth.

This gruesome, sad and — I’m afraid to say — quite funny memory comes back to me sometimes when I’m watching “Getting On.” “Getting On” is about two nurses and a doctor, working on a chaotic and over-bureaucratised geriatric ward, where patients smell, are insulting, go missing, can’t speak, and die. It’s hilarious. It’s also moving and beautiful, heart-warming and honest — but mostly hilarious. The staff — played by Jo Brand, Vicki Pepperdine, and Joanna Scanlan (from “The Thick of It” and “In The Loop”) — are underpaid and overworked, besides which they squabble, are unprofessional and often self-involved. They have to cope with each other as much as with their patients.

The first episode of the first season last year opened with the two nurses eating a dead patient’s birthday cake. Now, with the show back for a second season of six episodes, the nurses are having to cope with a new, inert patient who smells absolutely horrendous, and who gets carted from ward to ward in the hospital because no-one can tolerate her stench. That’s the thing: if I list any of the things that happen in “Getting On’s” wonderful return to our screens, it won’t sound very funny. There’s the nameless old woman who smells infernal and is suffering from a peri-anal prolapse; there’s a male medical student humiliated by the visiting doctor (played by the brilliant Vicki Pepperdine), who starts crying during a talk; there’s a woman who calmly requests stronger painkillers for her mother, who is in agony. Honestly: it’s really funny.

Part of “Getting On’s” charm is the easy rapport between the three women (and it’s also a joy to see a predominantly female cast (the actresses also write the show)): as they veer between camaraderie and petty feuds, they have a timing in their delivery that is flawless.There are some brilliant one-liners (of the old woman’s smell, nurse Kim Wilde observes that “it’s an orifices cocktail”) and astonishing instances of situational comedy, but it’s mostly the little things in life, the tiny misunderstandings, the drone of everyday work, that get dissected and celebrated here. Directed by “The Thick Of It’s” Peter Capaldi with the obligatory Steadi-cam and grey palette, it’s a naturalistic, touching, inspiring treat.

The second series has opened on an episode that is just marginally less triumphant than the first series was throughout, but with a couple of adjustments it will soon be back to its glorious best, I have no doubt. I’ll report back as the new series progresses.

Downton Abbey

When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go — DOWNTON! Every week as I gleefully gear myself up to watch a new episode of the hot new period drama on the block (“Downton Abbey,” starring the peerless Dame Maggie Smith and her usual panoply of glares, mutterings and withering put-downs), I like to sing “Downton” to the tune of “Downtown.”

I’m sorry, did I just say I like to sing songs as I get ready for an episode of a TV show? Please forget that. It’s not true. Not true at all. Let’s start again.

“Downton Abbey” is a new programme written by Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for Gosford Park, the Robert Altman film (also starring Dame Mag). “Downton Abbey” is essentially Gosford Park, except stretched over seven episodes and with a far inferior cast. The episodic nature of the programme means that the whole thing has a lot less natural realism going on than the film, and a lot of really camp and schlocky subplots (secrets, lies, affairs and schemes) which makes it a lot more fun than Gosford Park. So: the show finds an aristocratic family fighting to save their family home when the Titanic sinks and robs them of their two male inheritors. The three daughters are encouraged to marry, and a new heir to the property embarks in the area with his mother. Meanwhile, downstairs, the servants and butlers and valets and all that load of common rabble are all having their own affairs of the heart and the body.

It all rattles along at a very fast pace, with a script that is often terrific, and sometimes terrible, as if Julian Fellowes (who knows everything about the olden days) were being overruled by a script editor who wanted to dumb down the show for a slightly dim audience. Characters will often say things like, “Why is it that I can’t have a proper job?” and someone will answer, “Because you’re a woman in 1912, Ethel! Feminism still hasn’t succeeded in converting public opinion to the necessity of female suffrage!” or they’ll sometimes say things like, “Oh my god, get over yourself!” I wish the show took less time explaining British inheritance law; it’s safe to say that people watching “Downton” will all have seen Pride & Prejudice at least nine times and will therefore be well versed in the particulars of entail.

There’s also a vast chasm in talent between various members of the cast: the actors who play the upper-class lot upstairs have been taken from Britain’s prestigious theatres and drama schools, and they like to stare out of windows and talk about their soul — while the servants downstairs all used to act in the UK’s terrible soap operas and like to shout at each other and give distrusting glances as soon as someone leaves the room.

Amidst all this, there’s Dame Maggie (who has always been by far the best Dame. If you’re going to argue the case for Judi or Helen or Vanessa, we aren’t going to get along), who plays the regal and domineering Dowager Countess Violet. She is really, really, really awesome in the part. She has always been best at playing stiff upper lip, at playing odious harridans (her most twinkly part ever was in Keeping Mum, in which she played a murderer), but this one is extra special. Last week, she played an incredible scene where, disagreeing violently with the new heir, she sat back in her chair complacently but, surprised by finding herself in a swivelling chair, wobbled and clutched at the table with a look of panic and alarm on her face, before quickly recovering her composure to throw a look of disgust and pity at such a ludicrous modern invention as a swivelling chair, then casting a lethal put-down at the inventor of the swivel-chair: “Must I really do battle every day with an American?” Maggie Smith is also in possession, with this role, of the best line on British television for about four years, which she uttered about two weeks ago: “What is a weekend?” Amazing.

The Apprentice

I must say a few words, briefly, about “The Apprentice.” Yes, we get the same terrible reality TV shows over here as in the States. But they’re better here. In the new series of the British Apprentice, our cut-price Donald Trump is back once more — namely, the tiny, agitated little business grizzly bear, Lord Alan Sugar. Alan Sugar is a joke of a businessman. He made Amstrad computers in the 80s before selling up just as the computer market was taking off, and no-one has any idea what the hell his companies do any more. Still, every year he wearily picks a hurrahing great moron for his apprentice from amongst a pile of dribbling, self-serving halfwits who would try and sell their own grandmother if they thought that could help them win the contest — except they’re all far too stupid to remember who their grandmother is, or where she lives, or even what a ‘grandmother’ might be.

The British version of “The Apprentice” is a triumph because it is entirely divorced from any notion of succeeding in business. We only want to laugh at the monkeys in their pinstripe suits, baring their bright bottoms in the “business tasks” every week and then reporting back to zoo central for Alan Sugar to tell them that if they pull any more of this shit next week, he’s confiscating their bananas. The whole of the “Apprentice’s” inner workings are exposed: we know that Alan Sugar doesn’t really ride a helicopter around or meet people for important lunches; all he has is a bare office in Brentwood, a town so ugly and boring it makes Scranton look like Venice. No one in their right mind would want to work there, especially after being put through 10 weeks of ludicrously devised “tasks” — along the lines of being made to sell toffee to famous dictators, or try and market iPads to one-year-olds, or create a TV advert for holidays in Tajikistan.

Yesterday, the most gloriously brain-dead contestant of all time, Melissa Cohen, got evicted after an astonishing four weeks of getting away with using words like “conversate” and “analysation” in business meetings. Melissa was the worst thing since sliced napalm — but since British viewers don’t want the best business brain to succeed anyway, and since Melissa’s asinine pronouncements and excruciating outfits made wonderful TV, we’re all going to miss her terribly.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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