Showing posts with label television. Show all posts
Showing posts with label television. Show all posts

02 January 2019

Spy TV


by Robert Lopresti

I recently had an experience that carried me off on a cheerful wave of nostalgia.  Our current TV package provides access to an obscure channel called TubiTV.  And on it I was able to make my reacquaintance with The Sandbaggers, a spy series from Britain's ITV.  I had watched it on PBS back around 1980 when it premiered.  I was surprised at how much I remembered and how well it held up.  (It also seems to be available on Youtube.)

The series revolves around the Secret Intelligence Service (never called MI6 in the show), and it's Director of Operations, Neil Burnside (played by Roy Marsden, before he became better known as Adam Dalgleish).  Burnside is in charge of all the British agents in foreign countries around the world, but his first love is the Special Operations Section, known as the Sandbaggers.  These are the smash-and-grab boys, the ones who get sent to perform an extraction or an assassination (or prevent one). Please don't compare them to James Bond or Burnside will slit your throat.  He hates Ian Fleming's famous creation.

And as for slitting your throat, he is himself a former Sandbagger, and as ruthless as they come.  And yes, this crowd is pretty ruthless.  In the 20 episodes you will see virtually all the characters lying to each other, and often doublecrossing their superiors and allies.  Burnside would defend himself by saying he is true to the service and to his ultimate goal: destroying the KGB.  And he is willing to destroy his own career to do it.

An example of Burnside's charming personality.  In one episode he is in a restaurant and someone informs him: "I just saw your ex-wife out on the street."

"Best place for her."  Like I said, charming.

One thing I love about the show is the title.  I like to imagine it made John Le Carre, the master of fictional spy jargon, terribly jealous.  His name for the same type of group was the Scalphunters, but Sandbaggers is so much better.  "To sandbag" means "to launch a sneak attack" but it also means "to build emergency defenses."  Clever, eh?

The show had its flaws, of course.  The SIS is seen to be strangled with personnel shortages but it felt like that had more to do with TV budgets than anything else.  The inside sets look like a high school drama club production.  So many of the international crises take place in Malta that one can only assume ITV had a deal with the local tourist board.  And the last episode of the show only makes sense if you forgot everything that happened four episodes earlier.

None the less, it has been called one of the best spy shows of all time, and I'm not arguing.

The show was created, and most episodes were written, by Ian MacKintosh, a former naval officer.  Because of the series' sense of realism there was speculation that he had been involved in the spy world, but he played coy about it.  The series ends with a (hell of a) cliffhanger, because MacKintosh died unexpectedly and the network decided no one else could do it justice.

But I oversimplified when I said MacKintosh died.  In reality he and his girlfriend disappeared in a small airplane over the Pacific Ocean after radioing for help. The plane disappeared in a small area where neither U.S. nor Soviet radar reached.

I wonder what Burnside would make of that.

Oh, the show also has a great musical theme (just about the only music ever used in the program). Listen all the way to the last note.



But wait, there's more!  In the midst of my Sandbaggery I discovered a very different spy show which is, curiously, both older and newer than The Sandbaggers.  Available on Netflix A Very Secret Service (Au Service de la France) was created in 2015, but is set in 1960. And now let's give Grandpa a moment to marvel here over the fact that The Sandbaggers is set closer in time to 1960 than to 2015.

The series (in French, with subtitles) tells the story of Andre Merlaux, a naive young man who is forcibly recruited into the French Secret Service, which promptly makes it clear that they don't much want him.   It is a rather peculiar agency where doing your job is much less important than turning in proper receipts and wearing suits from the correct tailors.

On his first day on the job Merlaux gets in trouble for committing the incredible faux pas - I know you will be stunned by this blunder -- of answering the ringing phone on his desk. Quel imbécile!

This show is wildly and wickedly funny.  In one episode Merlaux assumes that a suspect cannot be a terrorist because she is a woman  His tutor firmly instructs him: "In cases of terrorism women must be considered humans!"

In another episode the French capture a German on his way from Argentina and suspect he is a Nazi. Fortunately they have a scientific survey which allows them to detect such barbarians.  (Sample question: "Adolf Hitler: pleasant or unpleasant?")

The best spy in the bunch is Clayborn, who will never get promoted because she is a woman.  All her operations are described as "courtesy missions," which means they involve getting naked with someone, but don't think that means they don't also involve theft, blackmail, and murder.

At one point Merlaux pours out all his troubles to Clayborn. She is, of course, sympathetic: "You feel out of place.  I understand.  This is the women's bathroom."

Neil Burnside would not be amused, but I was.


24 September 2016

Things that drive Crime Writers CRAAAZY


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

I’m a crime writer. Hell, I’ll put on my other hat (the one with the pointy top) and say it. I’m even a fantasy writer (my corvette reminds me every day, as those are the books that bought it.)


So I know about suspension of disbelief. I’m willing to admit that as an audience, we might agree to ‘suspend belief’ for a little while.

But enough is enough. Television, you go too far. CSI Hoboken, or wherever you are, take note. Here are some things that drive otherwise fairly normal crime writers (oxymoron alert) crazy:


1. Crime scene people in high heels and raw cleavage.

Of all the !@#$%^&* things that television distorts, this is the one that bugs us the most. Ever been on a crime scene? Ever been in a LAB?

For six years, I was Director of Marketing for the Canadian Society of Medical Laboratory Science. I’ve been in a friggin’ lab or two. Take it from me: it ain’t a place for fuck-me shoes and long loose hair. You want my DNA messing with your crime results?

Network producers, stop treating us like ignorant adolescents who need to be sexually charged every single moment. Stop. Just stop. It’s insulting.

2. Gunshot victims who give their last speech and then die, Kerplunk.

Full disclosure: I was also a hospital director. People who get hit with a bullet to the heart die, kerplunk. They aren’t hanging around to give their last words. People who get hit in the gut may take many hours to die. It’s not a pretty sight. Take it from me. They usually aren’t thinking sentimental thoughts.

3. Where’s the blood spatter?

If you stab someone while they are still living and breathing, there is going to be blood spatter. Usually, that spatter will go all over the stabber. So sorry, producers: your bad guy is not going to walk away immaculate from a crime scene in which he just offed somebody with a stiletto. You won’t need Lassie to find him in a crowd, believe me.

4. Villains who do their ‘Fat Lady Sings’ pontification.

Why does every villain in boob-tube-town delay killing the good guy so he can tell the soon-to-be-dead schmuck his life story? I mean, the schmuck is going to be offed in two minutes, right? You’re going to plug him. So why is it important that he know why you hate your mother and the universe in general?

Someday, I am going to write a book/script where one guy gets cornered and before he can say a word, this happens:

<INT. A dark warehouse or some other cliché. >

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Snidely dropped to the floor.

“Dudley!” gasped Nell. “You didn’t give him a chance to explain!”

I yawned. “Bor-ing. All these villains go to the same school. You heard one, you’ve heard them all.”

“Isn’t that against the law?” said Nell, stomping her little foot. “Don’t you have to let the bad guy have his final scene?”

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Nell dropped to the floor.

Melodie Campbell writes silly stuff for newspapers and comedians, and usually they even pay her. You can catch more of her comedy on www.melodiecampbell.com, or better still, buy her books.

04 October 2015

SOS


by Leigh Lundin

The Prisoner
For a writer who doesn’t own a television, I’ve been watching a lot lately. Friends Steve and Sharon offered their home as an autumn retreat in exchange for house-sitting. And recently I was granted nearly unlimited access to television archives from the past decade, including difficult-to-find productions such as the 2009 update of The Prisoner.

Watching an entire miniseries or season at once offers advantages.
  • Without having to wait a week between episodes and potentially forget clues that occurred in the interim, the viewer gets the full, undiluted impact of the program.
  • Ads become a non-issue. Even with current, prime-time shows, I record episodes and watch them an hour or two later when I can skip ads.
  • Networks have a nasty habit of cancelling series, especially science fiction, but crime-related programs as well. Far too often, these series start with an over-arching plot that never gets resolved. Occasionally long-running programs sour. By having entire seasons on tap, the viewer can decide whether they wish to vest time in watching many hours of television programming that may go nowhere.
Longmire
The disadvantage is that such a viewer chatting with the water cooler set might not be au fait with the latest episode. Not just bubbly conversers, of course, because conversations continue on-line in blogs and Facebook. In this case, TV becomes a shared activity, a social glue that becomes part of our societal fabric.

It’s a choice of course, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the impact of Longmire for an hour or two, night after night for the duration.

SOS

My most serious complaint about television is what I call soap opera… well, to use the British spelling, soap opera shite. SOS is a catchall for the tacky interpersonal dramas inserted by hapless writers to pad out 47 minutes amid a dearth of ideas. While couched as characterization, SOS is a poor parody of characterization through a Bizarro ray, a devolution of unlasting relationships into superficiality, a script device that muddies everything it touches.

Perry Mason
Among the worst offenders have been legal dramas– LA Law, The Practice, Boston Legal, The Good Wife, etc. But also consider the grand exception, the 1957 original Perry Mason series, purist plots in black and white. If the show was re-imagined today, Paul Drake would be shedding his briefs with Della Street who is having an affair with the wife of a hitman hired by Hamilton Burger who’s the father of Perry and Paul’s love child secretly married to Lieutenant Tragg, sleeping with Judge Barlow’s court reporter who’s a secret CIA operative…

To be sure, some programs are deliberately set up to explore relationships between characters, the Sherlock series offering one example and Twin Peaks another. But, as we learned, Twin Peaks followed spiraling devolution as show runners encouraged mattress mix-and-match, pajama plug-and-play. SOS relationships have less structural integrity than a politician’s promise. In another hallmark, when writers can think of nothing else, one character will be found to work for the CIA (or NSA or MI-5).

Murder One
The Minimal Maxim
The axiom regarding television dramas is that creativity decreases as the number of episodes in a series increases and, as a corollary, increases the likelihood of SOS.
Over time, most television dramas descend into SOS, but a few manage to avoid the pitfalls such as the 1993 Murder One and the recent Murder in the First. True Detective also evaded the trap by devoting each season to one story but took matters a step further by completely revising season two with a new cast, plot, location, and theme music. Only its title remained the same.

Promising Premises

The premises of Limitless, Blindspot and Quantico are auspicious although the latter two show early signs of SOS peril. Viewers can hope for the best, but I want to touch upon another program.

The Player
The Player could turn out to be very, very good or really, really bad. It’s a combination of the once brilliant Person of Interest and… remember Admiral Poindexter’s Policy Analysis Market? For that alone, I’d give it a shot while wondering if something like PAM may secretly be happening. The Player's Vegas-based on-line casino gives high-rollers the opportunity to bet on the outcome of terrorism and police action, on life and death itself.

While I find the setup intriguing, the program needs to rapidly build characterization, something beyond fast cars and slow-mo fights. While star Philip Winchester has fully deployed all his first semester drama class skills, Wesley Snipes is its most interesting character. Well played, Mr. Snipes. Critics are betting against it, nearly 2-to-1, and they may be right.

Pure Escape

Escape Plan
I mentioned Person of Interest, which co-starred Jim Caviezel as quiet-spoken John Reese along with unassuming Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. Caviezel appeared as a hard-ass prison warden in a 2013 movie, Escape Plan. I was unaware of it when it made its initial rounds, but I caught it in one of those 3AM BlahTV channel reruns.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to recommend a film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger but, while the Escape Plan isn’t genius (50% positive rating), it takes an intelligent stab at plotting. It’s entertaining watching Stallone, who tests security by breaking out of prisons, do his jailbreak thing.

What is your take?

30 August 2015

Rocky King: Murder, PhD


by Leigh Lundin

With this, the fifth and final in our Rocky King, Detective series, we’ve brought you the five examples available in the public domain. UCLA archives contain about two dozen more episodes salvaged before a disingenuous lawyer destroyed DuMont’s film library, virtually erasing collective memory of the pioneering broadcaster and its teleplays.

In this episode, you may wonder about the haunting blues harmonica that starts off as a nice touch but grows slightly tedious. It’s not used as filler in the ordinary sense. Besides giving organist Jack Ward a break, the jail cut-scene serves a purpose: a staged transition giving actors a chance to rush to their next location, sometimes on a different floor of the DuMont Tele-Centre in Manhattan. The harmonica/jail insert at the four-minute mark gives Roscoe Karns time to jog from the domestic setting of his house to meet Detective Sergeant Lane (Earl Hammond) in their office. Imagine writers and directors forced to not only plot a viable story, but to plan for actors reaching their scenes in time as designated cameras went live.

Mistakes were inevitable, although this episode is relatively free of errors. As we saw in an earlier episode when a picture fell off a wall, things sometimes went wrong during live presentations. Falling props and scenery were not uncommon. Not only did scenery problems afflict the early 1949 BBC broadcast of Miss Marple, the murdered victim rose and walked off the set in the middle of the broadcast.

Tip back your chair and watch how crime stories appeared in homes in the nascent days of television in this episode titled…

Murder, PhD
broadcast: 1953-Dec-13


in which a possibly innocent man is due to be executed in 180 minutes…

23 August 2015

Rocky King: Death Has Dark Hands


by Leigh Lundin

This is the 4th of five episodes of Rocky King, Detective found in the public domain. Some readers are cheering and some are groaning, all muttering, “Only one more to go!” Today’s presentation is also the most obscure and difficult to locate.

It can’t be argued that crime shows proved at least as popular in the nascent television market as they had on radio, before that on stage, and today on our fancy wide-screen entertainment centers. Fortunately for mystery writers, the public’s appetite proved voracious. The DuMont Television Network led with their own stable:


Adventures Of Ellery Queen
Chicagoland Mystery Players
Famous Jury Trials
Front Page Detective¹
Hands of Murder/Mystery

Man Against Crime¹
The Plainclothesman
Rocky King, Detective
They Stand Accused
Trial By Jury
²


¹ syndicated
² reality courtroom show

Early television programming was noted for live action. Soaps with their few set changes seemed reasonable enough, but detective dramas took considerable planning to accomplish seamless transitions, when a director earned his keep. Occasionally sets were found on different floors, requiring actors to run up and down stairs to meet the story requirements. Not until the 1970s would wild car chases become popular enough to obscure muddled plots.

The Plainclothesman appeared in the 9:30 Eastern Time slot immediately following Rocky King. That program innovated ‘subjective camera PoV’, adding a level of complexity and sophistication to live on-camera work. Rather than the audience passively observing a show put on for their benefit, they could participate through the eyes of the protagonist, looking at scenes, actions, and clues as he would see them.

It’s 9 o’clock of a Sunday evening where family gathers around that fascinating new piece of furniture, the DuMont television set. Mom has opened its cabinet doors and Dad switches on the set. The screen brightens, wriggles, and then takes shape… Come with us now for another Rocky King adventure …

Death Has Dark Hands
broadcast: 1952-Oct-19


in which dies a chemist with a glowing reputation…

16 August 2015

Rocky King: One Minute for Murder


by Leigh Lundin

The show must go on: In this episode, Rocky King does not appear in Rocky King.

Roscoe Karns found himself ill and could not go on the air. A popular misconception claims his real-life son, Todd Karns, took over the lead rôle for that episode. Todd, however, had not yet joined the cast. Instead Earl Hammond, who portrayed Sergeant Lane, led the investigation that day.

The series was noted for sly touches of humor and in this case, the inspector made an appearance of sorts… banging on the wall. The dialogue also references live performances going on, no matter what.

Careful listeners could catch little quips to the audience. One of the cleverest subtext jokes came in the episode, ‘Return for Death’ in the domestic badinage between Rocky and his beloved wife, Mabel. As they discuss growing older and the wisdom of picking out a burial plot, Detective Hart phones in to say that a case has erupted in the local cemetery. Hart fumbles a joke about the graveyard shift, and then we’re treated to this double entendre:
Mabel: “Do you think you should go there, dear, after our conversation?”
Rocky: ”Yes, dear. We should plan on having a little plot somewhere.”
During the homicide investigation of a famous mystery writer in ‘Murder in Advance’, Hart asks Rocky King to name his favorite television mystery. King says, “It’s kind of personal.”

Of course it is!

One Minute for Murder
broadcast: 1952-Sep-28


in which a scandal sheet gossip columnist is found murdered in the theatre. Shockingly some people regard that as a crime…

09 August 2015

Rocky King: The Hermit’s Cat


by Leigh Lundin

As mentioned last week (2nd August), Rocky King, Detective was shot live. Besides the thread of the plot, it adds a level of interest for me as I figure out how they managed the telecast on live television from the DuMont Studio premises.

This episode contains an outdoor scene utilizing a couple of different shots. The oncoming car headlights sequence is cleverly done. I imagine a couple of small light bulbs on a black-painted board moving closer to the camera. The camera shows a car wheel, not an actual car itself, rolling to a stop against the victim’s body. The scene in the garage was assembled with only a few props; at no time did the cameras leave the studio.

Note the touches of humor, some of it self-deprecating.
Norton (gardener): “I like to read these and sometimes I get scared.”
R.King: “Oh, detective magazines, huh. You can find out a lot from these, here.”

Norton: “They sure kill people funny ways, don’t they.”
R.King: “That depends on your sense of humor.”
Notice the hideous clown picture in the King family’s house at the beginning of the episode… it will come up again before the episode ends.

My apologies to Bonnie Stevens; even Rocky King, Detective, wasn't able to save the cat.

Grab your popcorn, settle in your armchair, and watch…

The Hermit’s Cat
broadcast: 1952-Aug-31


in which a cat dies and a lawyer loses the will to marry…

02 August 2015

Rocky King: Murder Scores a Knockout


by Leigh Lundin

Rocky King, Inside Detective, did not take himself too seriously. He was, after all, working for the DuMont Television Network, which was constantly starved for cash. Unlike flashier big-screen dicks, the down-to-earth detective proved popular with audiences. Played by Roscoe Karns, he enjoyed the domestic life, scraped by financially, and took his lunch to work.

Rocky’s wife Mabel never appeared on screen originally due to cost-savings measures so she could appear in other rôles without changing costumes. The audience loved that little twist and actress Grace Carney developed her own fan following. At the end of each program, actor Karns would ad-lib a conversation with his wife usually over the phone, ending with a signature sound bite, “Great gal, that Mabel.”

Roscoe Karns’ real-life wife Mary appeared at least once in the show. Their real-life son, Todd Karns, would eventually take over the rôle of Sergeant Lane, presently played by Earl Hammond in the episode presented below.

In the next few weeks, I’ll share more about Rocky King, but take note these broadcasts were performed live, mostly in the DuMont Tele-Center, often using the offices as impromptu sets. While live television suffered from miscues and occasional dropped lines, it’s fascinating to imagine the planning and logistics involved in telecasting a drama like this. Note this as we watch …

Murder Scores a Knockout
broadcast: 1952-Jul-13

In which a magician takes one drink too many…

11 December 2014

The 8th of November, 1951


by Dale C. Andrews

    Sometimes when I settle down in the evening in front of the television I think back to the origins of this strange little device that we have welcomed into our homes over the past 65 or more years.

    Television actually got its start even earlier, in the 1920’s, and for several years what was the first television station sending out commercial broadcasts, WGY – broadcasting out of a General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York -- contented itself with showing Felix the Cat riding around on a turntable for two hours a day.  But regular commercial broadcasting likely dates from 1948, the year that Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle became the first “must see” TV.

    The early years of television saw an avalanche of new programming hit the airwaves, some original series and some transplanted from the about-to-be-supplanted radio airwaves.  Mysteries were a staple of radio and many moved readily to this new medium as well.  Included in this rush to offer televised entertainment were three different series featuring my personal favorite, Ellery Queen, making the jump from radio.  Ellery Queen series variously aired on the old Dumont network, as well as on ABC and NBC.  These early television attempts at conquering the whodunit were a far cry from NBC’s 1975 Ellery Queen series that graced the Thursday and then Sunday night schedule for one short year.  The 1975 series is now available in a great DVD collection, but most of these early Queen televised adventures are now lost to us – they were either performed live, or on lost kinescope tapes.  You can read about them, and their radio predecessors, either in Francis Nevins magnum opus Ellery Queen:  The Art of Detection, or on Kurt Sercu's website Ellery Queen:  A Website on Deduction.  But watching those early shows, that's another matter.  Well, maybe . . . .  There are always exceptions, bits of the past lurking out there ready to be discovered (or re-discovered) by the intrepid detective.

    So step with me, now, into Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine, as we set the dial for November 8, 1951.  When we get there, get comfy on the couch, or on the floor with a pillow.  Pull the popcorn bowl up close.  All eyes on that magnificent 9 inch black and white screen as we eagerly await tonight’s Ellery Queen adventure -- “Murder to Music.”




Note that Dale Andrews returns to SleuthSayers the last Sunday of the month, commencing 25 January 2015.

25 November 2014

Important Thinking On British Televsion Mysteries


By David Dean

Being a trained observer from my police days, it has not escaped my notice that many of my fellow  SleuthSayers are fans of British television mysteries.  It helped that several of you wrote articles on this very subject--these were my first clues.  I suspect that many of SleuthSayers' readers are fans, as well.  I don't have enough evidence to make an arrest, but I think that it's a reasonable suspicion.  So, knowing that I am in good company, I am ready to confess without benefit of counsel, that I, too, enjoy these programs from the misty home of the English language.

English TV Policemen with authentic accents
I've heard, or read, several very good reasons for liking the Brit mysteries (as well as some of their other programming such as "Call The Midwives"), and I have a few of my own which I'm anxious to share.  Firstly, everybody speaks with these really great accents, though sometimes they are difficult to understand.  I have advocated subtitling, but this has not yet been enacted.  What is it about their accents, anyway?  There are dozens of "English" accents being spoken around the globe, from the U.S. to South Africa, but not one of them sound as smart as Englishers themselves.  That's just not fair.  I want to sound smart, too.  But since I can't, I like to watch the British being cultured and savvy.  Sometimes I try on an English accent at home, but Robin either studiously ignores me, refusing to respond to any of my extremely pithy observations, or tells me to stop embarrassing myself.  I feel smarter when I do this, though she says that I don't sound, or look, smarter at all.  She is of Irish descent on both sides of her family and is unreasonably hostile to the English, I think.  Things only get worse when I switch to an Irish accent.



Dreaming Spires
So, the accents are cool, but that's not the only reason I like British television.  There's also the locations.  My absolute favorite is Oxford, the setting of the Inspector Morse, and latterly, the Inspector Lewis, series.  Notice how I worked in "latterly"?  That's how they talk.  Besides being an incredibly beautiful city with its "dreaming spires" (don't ask), it also puts the lie to British weather being lousy.  It's sunny nearly every episode--and this show (in both its manifestations) has a decades-long history!  I can't understand why all the Brits want to move to Spain when they've got Oxford.  If you follow the adventures of Rosemary and Thyme, you'll find that they too walk in beauty beneath a glorious sun and flawless sky.  As soon as Robin retires, we're saddling up for some of that gorgeous English weather!  To hell with Ft. Lauderdale!


Rosemary and Thyme
But the main reason that I like British programming may surprise you.  Yes, the wonderful acting is certainly a draw, but that's not it altogether.  It has to do with the casting.  Have you ever noticed that, unlike American television, British actors are not uniformly attractive?  In fact, in many cases even the actors and actresses in the leading roles of British shows are not in the least bit glamorous.  They're allowed to look like me over there, and still work.  Inspector Robbie Lewis would never be confused for an American television detective.  He might, however, be mistaken for an actual police officer.  Neither Lewis and Hathaway, nor the inspector/sergeant duo on Midsomer Murders appear as if they run ten miles a day and spend an hour every morning in the gym.  I've never seen any of them beat anybody up, which is a daily requirement of their American TV counterparts, and very calorie-consuming.  And since they don't carry guns, they can't shoot any villains.  They actually say that, you know--villains.  As for R and T, they spend all their time investigating murders at various castles, hotels, and estates across England while doing some light gardening, and taking numerous breaks to snack and drink wine.  These Brits appear to drink a lot of wine!  I always thought they were big on warm beer, but no, it's wine for these folks, and it's always being served at things called fetes, which no American knows the meaning of; though they look a lot like parties.  They seem to be held mostly on village "greens" or in gardens.  Though, when the weather doesn't permit (which is almost never--see above) they are held in drawing rooms.  No American knows what kind of room that is either, but it doesn't matter.  This is another thing I like about English life on the telly (sorry, Robin, old girl); they do a lot of partying!  The down side is that the guys almost always have to wear a tux, though they call them something else, I think.  Anyway, it's kind of nice to see men and women who could pass for what I call "normal" populating the screen, with nary a "six-pack" ab between them. 

So there you have it, all the good reasons to watch British television.  Oh...were you thinking it was the clever writing and convoluted plots that form the centerpieces of these programs?  How the hell would I know?  I can't understand half of what they're saying.  I just like how they say it.     
                   

29 April 2014

Cutting Edge


by David Dean

I've been in a writing slump for several months now.  The following narrative may account for this unwelcome condition:

Certain phrases get used a lot.  They tend to go in and out of fashion with the passage of time and different generations, then pop up again.  "Cutting Edge" is one such phrase.  Others are "Groundbreaking", and "Edgy".  There are many more, and I'm sure you can think of them without my help.  Lately, specifically in the case of the aforementioned examples, I've been left wondering what they hell they actually mean.

What caused this seismic tremor within my consciousness was an event that I was wholly unprepared for--Miley Cyrus grew up.  I was happily ignorant of this important, and "groundbreaking," event until a typical morning some months ago.  In fact, I was only vaguely aware that such a person actually existed.  I think I had been under the impression that she was a character on a popular sitcom.   

Settling down in front of the television with my coffee and bowl of porridge, I found myself swept up into a debate that was hotly raging on the "Today Show."  Robin had left it on as she prepared to dress for work.  If only she hadn't.

Over the next several minutes, my bloodshot orbs were treated to footage of a scantily clad young woman grinding against various persons and stuffed animals, while using a large, foam finger in a lascivious manner.  I was informed that she was "twerking".  She may have been singing, as well, I'm not sure.  Apparently, she had appeared on a music program the previous evening and set the world afire!

While I was still pondering the stuffed animal imagery, trying to grasp its deeper significance, the staff of the show discussed the merits and meaning of young Miley's performance.  "I was in."  This is another currently popular phrase, though I may be misusing it.  Riveted by the cultural upheaval occurring before my very eyes, I was treated to the spectacle of seemingly mature adults (the men were wearing suits) tossing words like "cutting edge," and "edgy," at one another like soapy loofas.  Experts on music and Hollywood were interviewed, as well!  This was important!  My oatmeal went cold.

This was no "flash in the pan," either.  The rest of the broadcast day (which is now endless) carried the debate to other networks and cable outlets.  More experts were consulted.  Some pronounced it "performance art."  Others pooh-poohed this as weak-minded, insisting that we had collectively witnessed the "coming out" of Miley's long-suppressed sexuality.  I felt torn and didn't know which way to go on this issue.  Words failed me, adjectives became stuck in my throat.  Until I came to terms with this phenomenon (also a very popular word when describing celebrities), I could not consider myself a modern man.  No one "had my back."

In my defense, my only experience with performance art such as Miley's, had been confined to bachelor party outings.  Of course, my role when patronizing these "gentlemen's clubs" was always to be the voice of restraint.  "Anyone for a cup of coffee?" I might suggest, when the drinking got a little out of hand.  Or, "Hey, save some of those ones for the poor box, boys!"  Many of the dancers (or performance artists, if you will) were very cutting edge.  And though it pains me to say it, there were some who could have given Miley a run for her money and left her in the dust. 

Fortunately for me, the furor over this very important issue faded before any reporters made it to my front door and demanded my opinion.  I remain happily obscure, if still trying to come to terms with what has happened.  Now, when I see a book or movie review that features those much sullied descriptors, I back quietly away--the book remains on the shelf, the film unseen.  How can I risk it?  What if that "edgy" new thriller features a giant foam finger as the killer's calling card, or that "groundbreaking" film has people "twerking" all over the place?  What if all these overused adjectives actually mask yet another tired, hackneyed rehash of what's been done before and better?

It's enough to make me beat the stuffing out of some huge teddy bear.

Fortunately, since I wrote this piece, Skidmore College has added a new course to their curriculum: The Sociology of Miley Cyrus".  It was about time someone did.            





 

          

23 January 2013

Rosemary & Thyme



David Edgerley Gates

Those of you who know me, or have some sense of my taste in books and writers, could easily imagine I'm not that crazy about cozies.  I'm a big fan of JUSTIFIED, for example, with its crazed hillbillies strung out on Oxycodone, and ready access to high-cap mags.  I like the dark corners of Dutch Leonard and Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane.  Psychotics and losers and bent cops, high octane and graphic exit wounds.  It might then come as a surprise that I'm absolutely queer for a Brit mystery series that's set in the world of, wait for it, gardening.  Oh, my stars and whiskers.  What's next?  Pass the Earl Grey.  The old boy's gone gone into the deep end over DOWNTON ABBEY.


Well, not quite.  The show's called ROSEMARY & THYME.  Too cute by far for a title, you might say.  And what of its conceit, two gals of a certain age, in the middle fifties, say, who club up together to run a landscaping shop.  Not high concept, particularly, not Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger as twins.  Who greenlighted this project?  Dead out of the starting gate.  (Oh, did I mention that Season Three picked up a bigger audience share than 24, in the same time-slot?)

Here's the premise.  Rosemary, the hottie, beats men away with a stick, but she's just lost her job.  Laura Thyme, a former cop, has been left by her husband of thirty years for a younger woman.  They pool their resources and start a business.  In amongst the pruning and spading and earth between their fingers, murdered bodies turn up in the shrubbery.  It follows as the night the day, that our two overly-curious heroines get sucked in, not that they're too averse, or how else would you have a show?

We should probably credit Masterpiece Theater and PBS for bringing Brit TV to the States., the most obvious example being UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS, but many others.  Then the raw market for product brought more, Benny Hill, and ARE YOU BEING SERVED, not all on PBS.  A&E syndicated a few, buying them direct.  Mysteries and cop shows were big, LOVEJOYINSPECTOR MORSE, adaptions of Dick Francis.  Some of them better than others, some didn't make it across the pond.  THE BILL, for instance, has never been broadcast here, for whatever reason---impenetrable London slang?  It was John Thaw's breakthrough part, you'd think it would have an audience, after MORSE. Who knows?  LOVEJOY was big in the States, and even now, the complete series on DVD will set you back a hundred and eighty bucks on Amazon.  I love Ian McShane as much as the next guy (and DEADWOOD made him a household name), but a hundred and eighty bucks?

Why, then, is ROSEMARY & THYME so engaging?  Or the better question, why do I find it so charming?  It doesn't have Boyd Crowder, or Raylan smacking Dickie Bennett around.  It doesn't have Ian McShane saying "fuck" every third or fourth frame.  It doesn't even have Morse, ridiculing the long-suffering Lewis.  And the mysteries themselves, it must be said, are somewhat lame, although occasionally one will catch you by surprise. The two-part opening episode of Season Two, "The Memory of Water," completely blindsided me, even though it owed overmuch to Ross Macdonald, but we all steal shamelessly from the masters.  The answer is that the engine behind ROSEMARY & THYME isn't the plotting, but the dynamic between the two lead characters, who are both familiar, and comforting, but who also have the capacity to startle you.  And not always in comfortable ways.

I should come clean about my passion for Felicity Kendal (voted 'best bum' in a Brit poll, when she starred in the series GOOD NEIGHBORS, another show that's never translated to America), who plays Rosemary. She was saddled with the adjective "cute," early on, with her performance in SHAKESPEARE WALLAH, and never quite shook it, for the simple reason that she is.  The nice thing about this show is that she gets to leaven the cuteness with a quick dose of the acerbic.  Pam Ferris, who plays Laura, is nothing if not acerbic, at least in character.  Her range of parts is mildly astonishing, police procedurals, gothics, Dickens, and most recently CALL THE MIDWIFE.  It must be her face, a sort of plastic Rosetta stone, malleable but encoded.

The relationship between the two characters is relaxed from the get-go, a couple of girls who know better, out in the wide world, but there's a sense in which their vulnerability, the trust issues, make them uneasy, even with each other.  They rely on their instincts, and their instincts are sometimes at odds.  The best moments often come when they doubt one another, and one isn't quite convinced.  Usually this results in the unconvinced party being at jeopardy from the villain.  I never said it wasn't generic.

Every once in a while, though, something happens that's off the radar.  An episode where Laura's son comes to see her.  She thinks he's been recruited by his dad to beg her to come back, because her ex is a chickenshit.  So he is, but the kid's only there to ask to sign over the title to the old house.  The ex has an offer on it, and wants to sell.  Quick disappointment shadows her face, and she just as quickly sucks it up.  And then she signs.  So, how is it with you? she asks her son, smiling.  You read her pain.  

Why do I like this show?  Because for all its contrivances and sometimes completely silly stuff---a guy gets shot with an arrow during a Medieval archery contest?---it often has the ring of homely human truth.  The crime isn't exotic, or out of the ordinary.  It's not the arrow, but the heart.