Shows You Should Be Watching (But You Won’t Because It’s For Kids): So Awkward

There’s a new sitcom on television!jasmarthalily

Hurrah!

It’s lively, funny, and has a brilliantly surreal streak despite touching on some actually quite realistic issues!

Excellent!

It stars one of the best collections of new talent ever assembled in one cast!

Amazeballs!

It’s one… “amazeballs”?

Sorry.

I can honestly say I’ve laughed out loud at every episode I’ve seen so far, all the way through- and there are very, very few shows I can say that about.

Tell me more!

Okay, it airs at 4.30pm, Thursdays on CBBC, and-

Aaaaand we’re done.

It seems that this scenario has played out on a loop for pretty much all my life. How many times have I raved about a show to friends? Promised them that it’s one of the best programmes ever put to screen? …Only for them to at best zone out, at worst publicly disown me, as soon as the magic phrase “kids’ TV” is mentioned. Continue reading

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What I’ve Been Listening To: Four of the best (and one to avoid)

Spring has Sprung, and once again, we’re left trying to work out… what is TV and Radio’s problem with it?
Every year, the period from late February to early May becomes a cultural dead zone for drama and comedy. The post-Christmas boom dies away, and every channel or station decides to save its big hitters for late summer and autumn. What exactly do schedulers believe we’re doing in the intervening time? They surely can’t imagine we’re all outdoors enjoying the good weather; this is Britain, for heaven’s sake. We hate it when the weather’s good. Weather is there to be complained about; that’s what it’s for.

Stony ground

DCI Stone enjoys the British weather

Doctor Who at least used to be a big part of Spring TV, but even that’s been relegated to the ‘Back to School’ Autumn season, when everyone’s too depressed to notice the quality of the scripts has hit rock bottom. Instead we’re left with a very dry patch for drama junkies like me. I’ve even started watching Holby City, and, even more troublingly, enjoying it. There’s been precious little of value to listen to on the radio, either (apart from the brief joy of Radio 2’s annual Eurovision-themed popup station).

But hurrah! The beginning of Summer is here, and just as BBC television heralds it with the excellent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (worth watching just for Marc Warren’s hairpiece), so too has BBC Radio launched forth with new series of some of my favourite shows.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with the agent of fear, misery and despair known as the dentist, leaving me with little to do that afternoon but suck soup through a straw into my misshapen, paralysed mouth, and more importantly, sit back and catch up on some great radio. Here is (in my smug little opinion) the best shows on the wireless at the moment: Continue reading

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Analysis of a Newzoids Sketch

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A team of crack writers (or possibly writers on crack) gather around a table in the offices of ITV’s new ‘edgy, spiky’ satirical show Newzoids. The Head Writer calls the meeting to order.

HW: Right, we’re here to plan out episode one of what I’m sure will become the new face of British satire. So, team, where shall we start? What ground-breaking global issues can we look at in a way that has never been seen before? What new, original spin can we put on the news?

Silence. A tumbleweed rolls past. The Head Writer sighs.

HW: Okay, let’s think about this. What’s big at the moment? What’s got people talking?

Linda:  Broadchurch?

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“I’m Coming Back”- Blake’s 7: Warship Review

It was an event that had been rumoured for years. warship coverWe all wanted it, but no one could quite bring themselves to believe it. Something that was long, long overdue, something that seemed to hold so much promise that it was perversely inevitable that it would be a disaster.

Yes, I’m finally going to review a non-BBC audio drama.
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God hears you better when you’re talking to yourself: I’m A Believer

There is a fundamental problem at the heart of I’m A Believer. It’s one that has nothing to I'm A Believer fancy dressdo with Jon Canter’s script, or any of the many doubtless talented individuals who worked on Tuesday 24th’s edition of the Afternoon Drama.

Because let’s talk for a second about the way radio drama is presented. About how it’s advertised to the general public. And about the relationship- or lack of- between the way a show might be described on the BBC website or in the Radio Times, and the actual programme that reaches our ears.

Take, for example, the synopsis for I’m A Believer from iPlayer itself:

“When Simon meets God in his dreams, he’s happy to tell Him to His face that He doesn’t exist. But that’s before Simon meets Birth, Death and a woman who thinks he’s a vicar… all on the same night.”

So, what kind of story can we look forward to here? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by years of listening to Radio 4 to expect things to be done, in, well, that very Radio 4 way of theirs, but that little précis gave me a very clear mental image, and, to be fair, I was intrigued. Simon meets God? As in, God will be an important character in the story? More than that, Birth and Death will be characters, too? I mean, that’s what you’d expect, from the way the words are capitalised, and the statement that Simon will “meet them”, isn’t it? And a substantial and important part of the action will take place in some kind of dreamscape? And the unfolding events will somehow change Simon, into a man no longer sure of his own atheism? What kind of mystical, metafictional format will this play take?

Well, of course I had to listen. Liberal, forward-thinking, cloyingly benevolent Radio 4 are going to do a play about some kind of Damascene conversion, about a man who comes to realise and accept the existence of the Lord? How are they going to pull this one off?

Well, they’re not. At all.

Mainly because the official synopsis is the biggest load of misleading, must-make-it-sound-like-the-Radio 4-house-style hogwash imaginable.

I'm A Believer cast

An honest synopsis for IAB would read: “Farce about a man on his way to a fancy dress party dressed as a vicar. Misunderstandings ensue.” That’s what the play is, and unashamedly so. There is no great epiphany here, no deep plumbing of the psyche of its main character. Yes, there are dream sequences, in which Simon comes face to face with a laconic, cheerful God with a line in terrible puns, but these have no impact on the main plot. They’re there because they’re funny. Just as ninety percent of the contents of Jon Canter’s script is in there because it’s funny.

So, what is the story here?

Simon (played by Stephen Mangan with that tinge of impotent hysteria he does so well) is a graphic designer and father-to-be who does not believe in God. We know he doesn’t believe in God because he never really shuts up about it. He complains about church bells ringing outside his new house, he rants about the futility of faith while walking along the beach, he argues with his wife after she gets them invited to a “vicars and tarts” fancy dress party.

Having just Googled that, I can confirm that that is indeed a thing, apparently, which tells me that I’m not as worldy wise as I might sometimes think.

We’re never really told what Simon likes to do or say when he isn’t railing against the evils of religion, which gives the first half of IAB a slightly disjointed feel, as if we’re fast-forwarding through his life in a mad rush to get to the angry bits (much like some Christians do with the Bible. Satire!). But again, once it finally clicks that this is supposed to be an out-and-out farce, that everything here is set up for a punchline, that the blunt characterisation begins to make sense.

It is while on his way the aforementioned party, dressed unwillingly as a vicar and bickering with his wife Jane (Claudie Blakley), whose costume is never mentioned (probably for the best), that they encounter the scene of a traffic accident. When Simon investigates, the shaken driver, Mary (Pauline McLynn) mistakes him for a real vicar, and he so he is forced to stay behind to give priestly support to Mary and her unconscious passenger Megan, while his wife drives off to get help.

This two-handed scene, around which the rest of the play is really only dressing, is where the script really gets going. Canter’s slick, wordplay-driven dialogue, which for much of the opening act felt unnaturally polished and over-the-top, suddenly bursts into life here, ridiculous lines and behaviour to match a ridiculous situation. Simon’s dual predicament of having to offer Mary spiritual guidance and spontaneously invent a backstory for himself in response to her questions about his faith are both toe-curlingly awkward and deliciously hilarious.

I'm A Believer irreverence

God knows. Actually, I hope he doesn’t.

From his introduction to Mary as “Vicar Simon” of the “Uncatholic Church,” to his attempts to recite the Nicene Creed (“you start”), which somehow segues midway into the Lord’s Prayer, it’s a terrific send-up of the way Christianity is viewed by people who have never been in a church in their life. Even with Megan trapped in the car with her pulse weakening (“What about her brain?” “I didn’t feel her brain!”), even with Mary’s belief that the crash was punishment from God for their lesbian relationship, there’s never really any serious side to IAB.

Yes, admittedly a recurring subject is the death of Simon’s father from cancer, and the uselessness of his devout faith in the face of the illness, but really that’s just another thing for Simon to rant about, not some dark origin story for his atheism. Canter does not attempt to wring a realistic tragic event for some kind of tortuous emotional meaning, and should be respected for that. And when it transpires that Simon’s wife, seeking a phone to call an ambulance, stumbled across a house containing a midwife (who helped her give birth), whose husband is looking for graphic designers (solving their employment problem), and everyone expect Simon praises this as “a miracle,” to his annoyance, we see that nothing has really changed. He’s still just as antagonistic to religion as ever, he just now has to keep up his charade for Mary, who inexplicably still believes he is “Vicar Simon,” and wants to have weekly prayer sessions with him from now on.

It’s an open, sitcom-style ending, the kind you might get in a half hour comedy that concludes with a bulldozer heading towards the main characters or something. Canter isn’t summing up his grand treatise on religion, it’s just a punchline to a set-up that contains such genius moments as when Simon, asked by Mary about the time he decided to become a priest, and mindful of his wife’s instructions to keep up the charade at all costs, says “I was on a journey… and a force greater than myself told me to become a vicar.”

With dialogue that slick, it’s a shame the rest of the production never really lives up to it. Scene transitions are always difficult on radio, without the time or budget for incidental music of their own. Charles Paris is a great example of working around that, its soundtrack of vintage rock giving it a unique identity. Here, the lengthy hymns, arias and organ recitals that separate the scenes begin to feel like padding very quickly. The sound design, too, seems straight off The Official BBC CD Of Common Noises- a particularly jarring scene comes early on, when Simon and Jane are having an argument in their kitchen. There’s an echo on their voices that suggests confined space, yet the pervasive ten second loop of birdsong that runs through the entire scene suggests that at the very least the builders have neglected to put any glass in the windows. But then again, you’ve got to have birdsong, haven’t you? It’s the countryside! Feel rustic! I’d much rather the producer had given the birdsong a break and given us stuff like the rustle of paper when Jane hands Simon the party invitation, or the rustle of fabric when Simon embraces Mary. You know, just something to at least suggest we weren’t listening to three people standing around in a tiny recording studio.

So, going back to that official BBC synopsis:

“When Simon meets God in his dreams, he’s happy to tell Him to His face that He doesn’t exist. But that’s before Simon meets Birth, Death and a woman who thinks he’s a vicar… all on the same night.”

Well, Simon is indeed happy to tell God that He doesn’t exist at the start of the play. He’s also happy to tell God that He doesn’t exist at the end of the play, because if anything, his experience with Mary only deepens his belief in the absurdity of religion. He doesn’t meet any interpretation of birth and death that would warrant the capitalisation of the words- more pressingly, he doesn’t meet ‘death’ at all that night, as Megan survives the night and ends the play on the way to a recovery.

So why do broadcasters and listings magazines do this to us? This is the iPlayer generation, where we rely on these short, catchy descriptions to help us decide what to watch or listen to. We don’t have time to be misled like this. Well, I think it goes back to that “Radio 4 style” I alluded to earlier. The belief that BBC radio drama, especially the Afternoon Drama, has to be about An Issue, because radio is the highbrow medium. It’s something that really annoys me, because it seems to suggest that you’re only allowed to listen to the radio to learn some great world truth, not to enjoy yourself. So when a radio drama like I’m A Believer comes along, with its sole and honest aim of making its audience laugh, it’s got to be covered up and disguised at all costs. And it shouldn’t be like that at all. Radio should be a home for drama of as much variety as any other format, and if the BBC learnt to stop playing up to their own stereotype and embrace that, they might find people would be a lot more interested in tuning in.

Jon Canter and the cast of I’m A Believer? Well done; laughed my head off. BBC? Grow up.

I’m A Believer can be listened to here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04bryz1

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Ambridge Over Troubled Waters: He’s a Limp Lettuce Man

street-long

After the dramatic explosion of The Archers’ whole “Tom-loves-Kirsty-but-not-enough-to-stop-him-standing-her-up-at-the-altar” affair, last week saw the villagers of Ambridge begin to pick up the pieces again. And then promptly hit each other repeatedly with the pieces, as the Archer family self-destructed into the Blame Game (Not as much fun as the Generation Game, which involves me trying to work out how everyone in this damn show is related to each other). Who was to blame for the wedding fiasco? Tom blamed his father Tony; Tony blamed his mother Peggy, while everyone tried to avoid blaming Tom in case he did something foolish, like commit suicide, or join EastEnders.

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Higher- Review

(Mon 28th April, BBC Radio 4)

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Ever watched or listened to a half-hour sitcom and tried to imagine what happened after the credits rolled? The kind of improbable insanity that would unfold after the final twist or punchline set up one last ridiculous scenario just to make us chuckle? Well, thanks to Higher (Monday-Wednesday BBC Radio 4), imagine no longer! If episode one of this three part series is anything to go by, Higher hasn’t so much been stretched out to fill the 45 minute Afternoon Drama slot as had an extra quarter of an hour dumped onto the end, driving the already dull and uninspired jokes beyond breaking point.

Now, I’m aware that Higher is one of those recurring series for the Afternoon Drama schedules, and that this is actually the umpteenth season featuring these characters. Thus, I freely and gladly lay myself open to accusations of “you’ve missed the point.” So be it. I can only take what I hear. That said, I’m in no hurry to seek out any previous series…

It’s hard to say what the ideal programme slot or running time for Higher would be, because the script is so schizophrenic it’s hard to work out what it’s even supposed to be about. The BBC website has it billed as a “barbed satire of higher education establishments,” which is practically laughable. Yes Minister is ‘barbed satire’ because the characters, dialogue and situation are so realistic and observantly portrayed. The four leads of Higher, who make up the staff of the Faculty of Geography at the fictional Hayborough University, are so cartoonish, their actions so far removed from the day-to-day running of a university, that ‘barbed satire’ this aint. Higher is ‘feathered satire,’ at best.

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