Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

Mad Men is one of my favourite TV series, documenting the good/bad old days on Madison Avenue through the 1960s from JFK to **SPOILER ALERT** Coca-Cola teaching the world to sing.

What it also documents is how many ad agencies in the 1960s were kept afloat by Big Tobacco. Don Draper’s agency is frequently over a barrel to the whims of its Lucky Strike clients, and not just by advertising their cigarettes despite the growing health evidence against them. But all that advertising clearly worked, for a while. Almost everyone in the ad agency and their social milieu smoked, a lot, at work and at home, in the bar and in the car.

Who could blame them, when doctors smoked Camel, cowboys smoked Marlboro and your favourite actors sent cartons of Chesterfield as Christmas presents?

doctors camel smoking advert

Cherish your T-Zone. That’s what will go first…

Ronal Reagan Chesterfield cigarette advert

Because cancer is forever, not just for Christmas

With hindsight, it’s almost terrifying how long it took to establish restrictions on the marketing of cigarettes. The first UK study linking smoking and lung cancer was published in 1954, but a TV ban took a further 11 years to take effect, and health warnings on packs another 6 years. 47 years later, it’s still pretty easy to buy ‘death-sticks’. Apparently the Government needs the tax revenue.

Our generation’s tobacco?

More than 10 years ago, Nicholas Carr was already discussing the impact of the worldwide web on human brains in his tremendous book, The Shallows. The immediate access to knowledge about anything and everything, at a moment’s notice, was already starting to shape the way our brain’s memory and attention systems worked. And this was years before the smartphone really put such astonishing power in the palm of our hand.

And so ad spends have morphed out of tobacco into technology; Amazon, Apple, Samsung, Google, Facebook and more. Celebrities talk to their devices instead of gift us cigarettes.

samuel l jackson siri apple iphone advert

In 20 years time, will we look back on this and shudder?

Last week Apple released iOS12, its latest operating system, with a new Screentime feature prominent in its announcements. In short, this is a tool to help users measure and restrict the time they spend on their phones. Apple has included a self-regulating device in its newest products, because it feels it should help people use them less.

I might be wrong, but I Reckon this is Apple getting ahead of the game. Rather than wait years for clinical evidence that excessive mobile phone / social media use can have damaging consequences, they are trying to beat the slow-moving regulators to the punch.

Before the smartphone became ubiquitous my older child (now 16) was bullied through their mobile phone. More recently, our younger child (12) experienced spiteful classmates setting up closed chat groups that excluded her, and created a ‘fake’ avatar account to anonymize herself.

My own experience is that keeping up with constant updates on Twitter can become all-consuming, and often a source of anxiety as the sound of these channels is increasingly angry, extreme and even sinister. They’re an always-on way to remind yourself how shit the world can be. Or they’re packed with irrelevant trivia that dissolves brain cells.

I’m not saying phones are like cigarettes; they don’t kill you if used properly. But I’ve already set Screentime to help me reduce my ‘just having a quick look at…’ time, and I will be encouraging my family to do the same. Right now it’s mid-afternoon and I’ve not opened Facebook or Twitter yet, which (sadly) is saying something.

Maybe I’ll start talking to people more, or writing, or reading, or just doing nothing. Because doing nothing can be better than doing something.


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Can I say I was there at the start? Like seeing Radiohead when they were still On a Friday, I’ve loved Olivia Colman for, like, ages, since she appeared in sketches for The Mitchell and Webb Show (source of this blog’s title). And now she’s only gone and won a Golden Globe. So allow me to remind or introduce you to her fantastic body of work, enormously varied. Like the best in her profession, she makes great choices, and seems to make anything in which she appears better, however small her role.

The Night Manager was a fantastic BBC mini-series based on a John Le Carré novel, with amazing production values, glorious locations and a stellar cast dressed in beautiful things looking almost impossibly beautiful. Angela Burr was the ordinary person; the zealous, determined, heavily pregnant Government operative working almost entirely behind the scenes, focused on making the world a better place by seeking, finding and bringing down the Bad People. Played by Olivia Colman, she was dignity incarnate while all around her was deception, testosterone and greed.

olivia colman angela burr the night manager

(C) The Ink Factory – Photographer: Des Willie


And there was Broadchurch, where she played another decent, strong woman. Ellie Miller is a respected police officer in a small seaside resort, passed over for promotion and having to deal with the apparent suicide of her son’s close friend. In seeking the truth she unravels a very dark underbelly to the town she thought she knew, and faces a shattering revelation.

Olivia Colman Ellie Miller Broadchurch Season 1 final episode


Last but by no means least, perhaps her breakout film role as Hannah, yet another decent, Christian charity shop worker in Tyrannosaur. In what is basically a three-hander, she more than stands her ground alongside powerhouse performances by Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan, both terrifying in their own way. It’s a brutal story and Hannah bears the brunt of it. Colman is mesmerising. I’d watch it again and again if only I had the nerve.

Olivia Colman Hannah Tyrannosaur

But before these often dark, definitely layered character roles, she made her name initially in comedy, from sketch shows to award-winning series. Much as I lover her as Sophie in Peep Show and Sally Owen in Twenty Twelve, my favourite performances and characters are contrasting.

Harriet Schulenberg is one of the hospital administrators in the surreal Green Wing. Permanently stressed, late, flustered and seemingly close to breaking point, she’s a small part who steals every scene she’s in.



In Rev she plays an upstanding vicar’s wife alongside Tom Hollander as her well-meaning husband clinging to his vocation despite the troubles of an impoverished parish in East London. It’s a fabulous series with tremendously human characters and performances, alongside occasional flights of fantasy, like this…


And after all that, I just have to mention PC Doris Thatcher from Hot Fuzz, whose unashamed filthy mind and single-entendres spew forth in a fabulous West Country accent…

I quite like a little midnight gobble …

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Both before and after our fantastic trip to Dorset a couple of weeks ago, I seemed to find plenty of reasons to be downcast. But in the big scheme of things, my life is pretty OK, really. I have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. I have a job I enjoy, working with people I like and respect, a load of great friends and a terrific family. And I get wonderful things from my daughters like this, that I was given on Fathers’ Day last weekend…

BecauseyouaremydadAnd so I should be grateful for what’s still around, and all the things I’ve been privileged to experience in the last couple of years, that I’ve been able to write about in this blog…

I’ve been to some pretty amazing places…

The Alhambra, the Orangerie & Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Swimming in lakes and rivers in France, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of camping and basking in the sunshine of the Jurassic Coast in Dorset

I’ve experienced some fabulous events…

More than 11 years after the first time, I saw Radiohead in concert, Thomas Voeckler at the Quillan Criterium, and marvelled at the delicate beauty of the songs of The Bookshop Band (twice)

I’m proud to be a cinephile and aficionado of classy TV…

We rewatched then entire 7 series of The West Wing, we roared with laughter at Green Wing & Horrible Histories. We’ve rejoiced in the surreal joys of Amélie, gasped at the spectacle of Skyfall

All this, plus I’ve become a bit of a MAGA (middle-aged gym addict)… I feel fitter than I have in years, and have lost (and kept off) the 25lbs I promised myself I would at the start of 2011.

So, in all, not too bad. Consider this the start of me getting over myself.

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I Reckon Horrible Histories is the funniest show on television right now, on any channel.

Originating in 2009, it’s now in its 4th series, plus a few seasonal specials, a Prom concert in the Royal Albert Hall, and a transfer from the CBBC children’s channel to the flagship BBC1. Based on Terry Deary’s books, the concept has spawned countless magazines, CDs and more. It’s also the only children’s programme to win a British Comedy Award.

The latest series launched to much fanfare (in our house at least) last week, and it is hilarious. I’ve been recording every episode so I can watch them when I get home from work. The only other TV show I consider recording is the excellent but altogether different US drama Homeland. And so I’ve been laughing out loud every evening this week. One episode contained possibly the best 12 minutes of comedy I’ve seen in ages.

Cash in The Abbey was a brilliant explanation of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries that parodied a daytime TV show, swiftly followed by Hide and Priest, depicting Priest Holes in the style of a game “that brings Protestants and Catholics together – only not in a good way”.

Then HH TV News ran a near-perfect explanation of the Ascent of Man with a manically excited (Peter Snow?!) reporter, Bob Hale. This ran straight into perhaps my favourite comedy song of all time.

If someone can find me a better-written, better-observed, better-performed, funnier and educational piece of television, I’ll eat my proverbial hat (unless it’s another HH show!).

The show evidently owes a great deal to Monty Python, and like its ex-stablemate on CBBC I’m Sorry I’ve Got No Head, it steadfastly does not treat its viewers like children. Jokes come thick and fast with all sorts of historical truths and complexities woven in, but at no point does it talk down to its viewers. It’s been criticised for a seemingly trivial approach that talks more about poo than history, but frankly, I Reckon that’s bol***ks. The Darwin song explains Natural Selection pretty well in under 3 minutes, and carries off a fabulous David Bowie pastiche at the same time. Their Kings & Queens song even panders to the rote-learning so favoured by certain politicians…

History is at the heart of every sketch and song, but that doesn’t stop the writing from being funny. The show switches between micro- and macro-themes, from the impact of poor Saxon diets on their poo to The Pilgrim Fathers’ settlements in The New World. They ape (adult) contemporary shows with nuanced parodies. This week alone, as well as Cash in The Abbey, Historical Apprentice pitted Team Neanderthal against Team Homo Sapiens, Mr Shouty Man fronted an advertorial for the Victorian Great Western Railway and Queen Elizabeth I was seen online dating and in Oh Yea! magazine. And I really like this old episode of Historical Wife Swap.

But I think it’s the songs that get me the most. Wonderfully written and performed, with fantastic references to the originals, most of which are of my generation rather than my daughters. There are loads of these all over Youtube, and you could spend a very happy time seeking them out. But for your delectation I’ve already done this, and here are a few of my favourites…

Dick Turpin – a truly dandy highwayman?

The Aztec Priests (nice teeth)

Spartan High School Musical

Spitfire Pilots – Take That, Hitler!

My Name is… Charles II

I Reckon you could do a lot worse than setting your recorder CBBC on Fridays at 5pm. I will be, and my evening will be more than a little bit happier, sunnier, sillier for it.

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For what must have been most weeks over at least a couple of years, we used to telephone a friend around the same time every week. It was 9pm and we were settling down for our weekly dose of The West Wing. This was proper appointment television, we never missed it. We chatted for a few minutes before the programme started, then shared a strange but comforting ritual through the title sequence, reciting the cast’s names as they appeared on-screen, in a cod-American accent. These actors and their characters had seemingly become like trusted friends. Every week we spent an hour with them, and more often than not they left us on some emotional cliffhanger.

You can play along with the titles game if you like…

By the time we had giggled our way through “…and Martin Sheen” we were ready to hang up and watch the show. The first words “recently… on The West Wing” had served to remind us of crucial scenes that would be developed, and set us up for what might be to come. We had to reacquaint ourselves with the emotional space in which we were held, captivated, for the next hour. The titles gave us a tremendous sense of anticipation.

I remember my late 20s and early 30s (the late 1990s and early 2000s) as a great era for appointment television. Long-running series like ER, Friends, Frasier and Six Feet Under could serve as chronologies of that period, when Rachel and I bought our first house, got married, moved house and had our first child. On Fridays we would we walk down the street to our friends’ house, bottle of wine in hand, to watch Friends and Frasier, the theme tunes and pre-title sequences would become a familiar routine. This terrific clip I just discovered gives a flavour of each…

This has seemingly all changed. In recent years I’ve been migrating away from television series and towards films. My two young daughters and our other commitments meant that it’s often impossible to ensure we can sit down at a specific time every week. Sky TV has taken many of the series I might be interested in (I stopped watching 24 after the first two series), and the success of those dramas I’ve mentioned helped create a massive proliferation of titles: CSI-almost-anywhere, any number of police procedurals, hospital dramas and so on. I couldn’t begin to keep up, so stopped trying. I’ve never watched even a minute of The Sopranos.

And now it’s become the era of the Box Set: entire series, or indeed multiple series in one handy box format. This has changed how I’ve watched many of my favourite pieces of television in the last few years. I’ve written more than once about the amazing brilliance of The Wire. The BBC showed all five series, practically back-to-back, four nights a week, over a period of a few months. So I recorded it all and watched it almost compulsively, two or three episodes at a time. I was hooked.

Friends recommended the insane comedy Green Wing to me. I had read about this, but it sounded too weird for words. Then I watched it on DVD and found that it is too weird for words, but in an entirely fantastic way. We’ve also been trying to catch up with Spooks, but have so far only managed 3 series, while the final 10th series is currently running on British TV. I missed the first series of the wonderful Mad Men but having seen two episodes of the 2nd series on television and become a total worshipper, I watched the first series on DVD in barely a few evenings.

Watching series on DVD is very different from the weekly appointment. There’s a greater sense of urgency: no commercials break up the episodes and there’s almost an addictive quality to watch more and more (“just one more, then we’ll definitely go to bed…”). The narrative drive is more forceful, as we don’t have to remind ourselves of what has gone before. In fact, the title sequences that were so iconic, memorable and an important part of the experience can get annoying as we become desperate for that fix, the next scenes.

Except perhaps with The Wire, which (as with every aspect of that fabulous show) played the long game. Not only were its title sequences made up of images from throughout the entire series, so there is some ‘reward’ for the eagle-eyed viewer in spotting these moments, but the producers cleverly used different artists to record the title song for each series, and altered the images to demonstrate the overarching ‘theme’ of each series.

Mad Men is probably my only must-see appointment these days, as I try to catch up with all the things I’ve been told I really should see, that I would really like. I kind of miss my regular time with those characters from the old days. But I suppose I could always start again from the beginning…

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How can I have made it to be a 42-year-old, so-called cinephile, and yet I have only just watched Network? Lauded by critics, winner of 4 Oscars and nominated for plenty more, directed by Sidney Lumet at the top of his game, with brilliant performances throughout, this is a bona fide classic.

It surprised me even more that this had somehow eluded me until now, as it’s a coruscating commentary on the state of US Television in the 1970s, and an ominous projection of what it could become in the future. There’s not that much to choose between the fictional UBS network of the movie and contemporary stations. This is usually prime territory for what I reckon, and I’m almost ashamed I’ve written posts about the media and journalism in recent months that didn’t reference this film.

Network is perhaps even fresher and more challenging today, as we can see even more clearly what the box in the corner has become.

This review contains clips and spoilers throughout. So if, like me until last week, you haven’t yet seen Network…

I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs.
I want you to get up right now and go to your DVD rental list, or Amazon, or your local library, or wherever you usually go to get films to watch.
Get hold of Network. Watch it.
Then come back and see if you agree with me…

Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is a veteran TV newsman whose Ratings are down. On discovering he’s about to be let go, he announces on live TV that he plans to use his last broadcast in a few days to commit suicide. His long-time boss and friend Max Schumacher (played marvellously by William Holden) argues against the executives to allow Howard a dignified withdrawal. But it’s clear that all is not well with Howard’s mind when, instead of apologising the following night, his ranting goes from bad to worse.

At this point, the satire kicks in, as Network exposes the dark, dark heart of corporate television broadcasting. Instead of running away from Beale, they start to exploit him. They’re looking for ‘angry shows’ that could win the Ratings Wars, and he seems perfect: well-known and liked, yet truly, properly angry with the world in a way that seems to connect with people, that needs no audience research.

Indeed, after a day walking the streets in his pyjamas and overcoat, Howard Beale strides into the studio during a live broadcast to deliver one of the most famous speeches in cinema history.

I don’t have to tell you things are bad…

Beale has clearly lost his mind, and his friend Schumacher is horrified, but when it immediately becomes clear that they’re yelling in Baton Rouge, and indeed across the nation, he becomes a pawn of the CCA corporation, who own the UBS Network.

Faye Dunaway plays Diane Christiansen, the rising executive star of the Network, who takes over the News Division with a remit to deliver profitable audience share. And so she creates The Network News Hour, with Sybil the Soothsayer

Fox News has nothing on this?!

Howard is hauled before the corporate bosses, and in a chilling scene with Ned Beatty’s ‘Mr Jensen’, we are shown the full scope of Network’s attack on the state of The American Dream. Is it just me, or does he provide a template for Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood…?

The world is a business, Mr Beale…

The corporate bosses from this 1970s movie speak the same language as the real bosses in the current documentary series by Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”.

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars … There is no America; there is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon.

From here you sense this story can only end in tears, and indeed it does, but there are all sorts of tears…

Network lays bare the dehumanising impact of television. Anonymous audience research is both quoted and ignored as suits the executives’ purposes: people, viewers just don’t seem to matter until they tune in. But even then the Network barely cares if they like what they see, as long as they keep tuning in. Even when the News Hour turns into a bawdy tabloid extravaganza, the audience are mainly silent, expressionless, mute. They move and make sounds only when told to by the studio teams.

Behind the scenes it’s even worse. The corporate board rooms are dark, the executives often shrouded in shadows, faceless. Mr Jensen speaks, and noone responds except to do his bidding.

Faye Dunaway’s character is “television incarnate”. She has the clothes, the glamour, the hair, the power. She has fantastic lines and basks in the adulations of her corporate partners at an Executive Dinner. But she is shown to be utterly soulless, emotionless, almost amoral. Even during sex she’s only thinking about the Ratings, the programming, the next concept.

In a truly biting storyline that elicited laughter from me that was more nervous than anything else, she seeks out another ‘angry show’ by approaching a revolutionary bunch of Communist Terrorists, and asks them to continue committing atrocities, if she can film them as the basis for a new series. Some of the scariest and most hilarious scenes involve the contract negotiations between these radicals and the Network legal teams (really!).

The dehumanising impact of this ‘new’ television is made very personal and very human. Howard Beale does end up being the first man to be killed for bad ratings, but really he is killed for making a hero of the individual against the machine, against the system.

Perhaps even more affecting is the way Max Schumacher, humanist and journalist of great integrity, is sucked into the gravitational pull of Diane Christiansen, like some terrible Death Star. He is obsessed with her, despite being painfully aware of her flaws. He leaves his wife of 25 years in a heartbreaking scene, then leaves Diane months later in something altogether more depressing. He is gone, but Diane (Television incarnate) goes on, unmoved, unaffected, oblivious.

Network is a tremendous film, an important film. It has been criticised for being overwrought and overwritten, and there were moments where it did seem just a little too self-aware, a little too conscious of how important it might be. It won its Oscars in the same year that Taxi Driver was largely overlooked (talk about angry…) and All The President’s Men also exposed the dirty underbelly of American Democracy. Like those other two unhappy explorations of America, I Reckon Network is also a masterpiece, and should be required viewing…

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Well, having diminished my political expectations compared to last year’s naive optimism, it was no surprise but still more than a little depressing to learn that the UK AV Referendum resulted in a strong ‘No’ vote against changing our unrepresentative ‘First Past The Post’ system. The margin was significant enough to mean that this opportunity may well not come again for many years. IMHO, this was doomed to failure from the start. AV is hardly a truly proportional voting system anyway. It was a half-arsed proposal, and this result benefits only David Cameron and the Conservative Party.

But enough of that morose talk… I watched something earlier this week that cheered my soul, bringing back vivid memories of my childhood, and of watching truly iconic moments of sport. Many of these moments, particularly in athletics and football, were voiced by the incomparable David Coleman.

David Coleman was the commentator who created modern sports commentary. He covered football at every level, including ‘that save’ by Gordon Banks in the Mexico World Cup in 1970. He covered athletics at every level, pretty much every sport at the Rome Olympics in 1960 up to Sydney in 2000. He interviewed Prime Ministers and Royalty about their love of sport, he interviewed The Beatles. He was the sole presenter of the BBC’s coverage of the Munich Olympics massacre, with just one camera and almost nothing else to support him. He  pretty much invented ‘Final Score’, hosting Grandstand for more than 10 years, and the videprinter over which he presided was the bringer of joy or despair at the end of a Saturday afternoon.

His knowledge of sport seemed encyclopaedic, as he could cite form statistics, goalscorers, table positions, personal bests seemingly at will from memory. He had a genuine passion for sport. He made it immediate, exciting, and he was the forerunner for everyone who followed him. Steve Cram, a world champion athlete and eventual colleague in the BBC commentary box, has said that if David Coleman thought you ran well, that was better than your coach saying you ran well…

He was evidently quite demanding to work with, and not shy of offering his own opinions, as is evident in this tremendous clip from the 1962 World Cup match between Chile & Italy that Coleman dubbed ‘The Battle of Santiago’.

My clearest and most evocative memories were of his commentaries of the ‘Golden Age’ of British middle-distance running, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For one amazing summer in 1981 it seemed as though every time they set foot on a track, world records were broken. Coe set 5 world bests that year, while he and Ovett exchanged the World Mile Record three times in 10 days.

One of my favourite sports photos of all time – the final of the 1500m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Coe had lost the 800m to Ovett days before when he had been expected to win, but got his revenge here over a distance at which Ovett had seemed unbeatable.

This montage of clips features vintage Coleman…

While acknowledged as an inspiration to generations of athletes, viewers and commentators, David Coleman is also a legend for other reasons. His gaffes (perhaps cruelly) became known by Private Eye magazine as Colemanballs. He is at least partly the inspiration for this wonderful comic character of Alan Partridge, whose first incarnation was as a hapless and hopeless sports reporter (quite unlike Coleman’s excellent journalistic pedigree)…

David Coleman retired 10 years ago, but his commentary – passionate, informed, involved and immediate – stands the test of time.

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