Shame, shame, and shame again on Arts Council England and Oldham Council for effectively giving the finger to Oldham Coliseum, their audiences, and all the professionals who have worked there over the years, by not having the balls to come and be accountable for their decisions at the public meeting held at the theatre last night (Tuesday 21st February).
It was a very moving event attended by well over 400 people – not just actors and technicians and creatives, but community activists, and, most importantly, life-long audience members for whom Oldham Coliseum is a totemic part of their identity. But the decision makers, and purse string holders, snubbed the event – despite being promised a fair and respectful hearing – telling the organisers that they were only prepared to have ‘private’ meetings.
Earlier in the day, Oldham Council (presumably with ACE’s blessing) rushed out a press release heralding plans for a shiny new £24m theatre.
But we’ve been here before with plans announced and shelved. If they had a coherent case to make… why not come and make it? By not turning up both bodies looked weak and rude and defensive – and worst of all it added to the sense that the new plans were to be taken with a massive pinch of salt. There is very little trust that this is going to happen, and that lack of trust was amplified by the failure of ACE and the Council to come and argue their corner.
According to Chris Lawson, the Coliseum’s Artistic Director and CEO, the new plans don’t include a rehearsal space (contrary to what is said in the press release), nor a fly tower, and has fewer seats – thus making the business model even more challenging. It really does sound like a ‘performance space’ rather than an actual theatre. There are voices at the Council who have said they are keen for it to remain a producing house, but this isn’t fully endorsed by ACE and seems to fade in and out like an old fashioned radio signal depending which reports you read. I sense that no one in charge understands the difference between a ‘performance space’ and a ‘theatre’ which is so much more.
Questions remain unanswered as to the fate of the £1.8m denied to the theatre but entrusted to Oldham Council which is yet to indicate how the money will be spent, or if there will be a transparent process by which creatives can apply for project money in the absence of the theatre itself. Indeed is there anyone on the Council with the expertise to manage such a fund? As Chris Lawson said, the Arts Council appear to have rejected the Coliseum’s plans for being ‘too risky’ – but exchanged them for ‘no plan whatsoever’ – ! – which a reasonable person might consider to be even riskier.
It was a massive misjudgement by Arts Council England and Oldham Council not to show up. It demonstrated contempt for the communities they are there to serve. How ACE have the brass neck to make people bidding for funds jump through hoops in terms of ‘engagement’ when they are too arrogant to ‘engage’ with anyone who might disagree with them.
And as for Oldham Council. It’s sickening to see a Labour Council (adopts Kinnock voice: ‘a Labour council!’) treating its constituents with such disregard. If local democracy is to mean anything, then those councillors need to feel it in the ballot box.
If ACE and Oldham Council are serious about providing a new theatre then why on earth wouldn’t they be jumping over each other to come and enthuse about the future and more importantly consult with the ‘stakeholders’ (I hate that word!) about what that space needs to be. The stakeholders were all there last night, in one place, but treated as if their views were of no relevance.
But even without the key players, it was a good meeting and genuinely inspirational as people talked about the community involvement and the theatre’s practical role as a cultural hub with regard to new writing, the South Asian and Roma communities, and its role in promoting performance skills for young people in the most deprived borough in Greater Manchester. There was a lot more of a sense of how important the theatre is beyond its core task of putting on shows than I was expecting.
The evening rounded off with Equity Campaigns Officer, Gareth Forest, reassuring the assembly that all the questions raised would not only be put to the Arts Council, but that he would remind them that anyone posing such a question ought to be in the room to do it person. He ended by directing people to the campaign website where you can scroll down for a handy guide to who to write to in support of the theatre. Please please please do click on the link and let’s fill the inboxes of everyone involved so that they can’t pretend this tsunami of passion can possibly be ignored again.
If the Marmoset seems a little out of sorts, then you’d be right. It’s hard to express quite how low my opinion of ACE is right now so if you are involved with ACE then I’m looking at you too. Grow up, show some maturity, and tell your colleagues to grow up while you’re at it. You are paid for out of the public purse, you have a duty to be fully accountable – and to ‘engage’ with the people who pay your wages.
Addendum: Following Tuesday’s no-show at the public meeting to which they were invited (and since the Marmoset put paw to paper to scribble the above blog) the Arts Council has issued a formal statement which you can read in full, here. Laura Dyer, Deputy Chief Executive of ACE was also interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on Saturday 25th February, which you can listen to here. Aside from the tin-eared nature of the following statement…
…neither utterance adds much to the debate. It’s still baffling that the management of the Coliseum is attacked, blaming their application as ‘too risky’ and yet it’s deemed preferable to give the £1.8m to a body that neither applied for it, nor, as yet, has coherent plans for it. But more alarmingly – very alarmingly – there is no commitment, either in the written statement nor in Ms Dyer’s interview, to maintaining a resident, permanent producing company.
It is very very hard indeed not to infer that the reason that neither ACE nor Oldham Council want to engage directly with stakeholders in a public forum is that they are unable or unwilling to address the questions around these two issues that would doubtless come their way. By issuing statements, and refusing to engage publicly with stakeholders, they project a bunker mentality which only adds to the prevailing sense of distrust. They can fix this very easily. If their ideas for the future of the Coliseum are tenable and exciting, come and tell us how great they are. If they’re as good as they believe them to be, then they will stand up to public scrutiny, and we’ll all be very happy, and go home dancing.
(If you’re new to the Marmoset and interested in anything you read on the blog page please find out more by clicking here and having a little explore)
While the fate of a small auditorium in the North of England may hardly seems like headline grabbing material, the recent announcement that Oldham’s Coliseum theatre is to lose its long term Arts Council funding has made national news in the UK, not just because it has a 135 year history and been pivotal in the careers of dozens of actors treasured by TV audiences around the world; not just because it is a keystone of Oldham’s cultural history; but because the decision rings an ominous, warning bell to vulnerable theatres across the country.
Such is the affection for the building amongst theatre professionals and audiences alike, there have been howls of protest. In the wake of this considerable outcry, finding its way to national press and TV news platforms, Jen Cleary, from Arts Council North, braved the airwaves on Sunday morning (5th February) to face questions from Andrew Edwards on allFM’s Artbeat show (Part 2 of that interview can be heard here).
The main takeaway was that, when funds are stretched like never before, the theatre’s application for three-year NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) funding simply wasn’t up to muster, leaving the listener to infer that there were wider concerns about the Coliseum’s overall management and governance. Instead, £1.8m has been ‘ring-fenced’ for Oldham Council to spend on arts provision in the town while plans for a new ‘performing space’ are developed.
But before the dust could settle on any of this, Sarah Maxfield, ACE’s Area North Director told the Oldham Times on Wednesday morning that while the theatre’s NPO bid has been deemed too much of a ‘risk’, there will be seven months of transitional ‘project’ funding available from April to October on a pro-rata basis equaling just under £359,000.
Confused? Yes, you and a good deal of the North-West’s theatre community. Whether Ms. Cleary knew about this partial U-turn when she argued so decisively for the withdrawal of funds just three days earlier is impossible to ascertain, only adding to the sense that all the bodies in question are pulling in different directions at the same time, with an incoherent narrative changing almost daily.
Of course, it’s a positive that there seems to be some small stay of execution (although we are yet to hear from the Coliseum itself who are keeping a respectful silence following the sad death of their much-loved general manager, Lesley Chenery at the weekend) but these statements seem to pose more questions than they answer.
Whether the Coliseum’s 3-year NPO application was genuinely unfit for purpose none of us can know without details being made public, but it strikes me that’s hardly the point. Both Ms. Maxfield and Ms. Cleary argue that there was stiff competition and all applications are held to the same standard which the theatre didn’t meet.
But are they the same standards? Should they be? If, for example, Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre went through a rough patch, messed up the money, struggled to maintain audience numbers, put in an unsuitable NPO application would ACE withdraw their funding? Of course they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t dare, and for good reason. They would recognise the Exchange’s crucial role in the artistic infrastructure of the North West and send in a hit squad to fix it. They would value its artistic critical mass and do everything possible to preserve it despite any short-term failure. They would respect a heritage spanning decades, not to mention the livelihoods dependent on it. But, for some reason, the Coliseum, at the heart of a far more deprived community, and with a much longer heritage, when ‘levelling-up’ is supposedly a priority, hasn’t earned that kind of pro-active intervention.
And all of this is in the context of the soon-to-be-opened Factory International in Manchester city centre, already amply served for cultural venues, which has run £100m over budget and is predicted to cost well over £200m in total.
So is one reputedly poor NPO application for £1.8m over three years really worth more than all of that? It seems very hard to argue that it is.
Equally, it’s hard not to infer that the NPO argument is an excuse, cover for another, perhaps unstated agenda of some sort. If that sounds over the top, all I can say is that I started my theatre career in 1983 and if every building I’ve worked for that ran into trouble had lost its Arts Council funding then the whole idea of building based theatre would have collapsed decades ago. It is accepted that buildings – historic companies – have a value that goes beyond process. In my (frighteningly long) experience, ‘process’ is nearly always used as an excuse for other, often political agendas.
Oldham Council claim they are developing a new £24m theatre for the town, which will be fantastic if it happens, but these plans have been on and off since 2017 and there is no clear timetable for when construction will start let alone when the venue will open. Indeed, the report in The Oldham Times makes it sound like a very distant prospect indeed. When the old Leeds Playhouse was replaced by the shiny new West Yorkshire Playhouse, Jude Kelly was in place as artistic director to oversee a seamless transition (or so it seemed to a young Marmoset working there at the time). Leeds Council recognised that it needed a theatre-maker’s expertise to help design the building and define its purpose and, crucially, to preserve the company’s continuity in the city. When Manchester’s Library Theatre closed to make way for HOME, that closure was planned years in advance. As transitions go, what’s happening in Oldham seems decidedly clumsy by comparison.
ACE says that the Coliseum’s application wasn’t adequate but does that mean that Oldham Council put in a better application of their own? It’s hard to believe that a local authority would bid against its own theatre. So did they or didn’t they?
If they did, what were its objectives, which every other public body applying for cash has to define? We have a right to know. Crucially, what are the processes by which practitioners can access the council’s new project fund to provide the promised arts and culture to the town? If the council’s application sparkled above the theatre’s own, it seems odd that no mechanism has yet been disclosed as to how the money will be allocated. And when the council tweets that it ‘does not have the ability to give this funding to the Coliseum’ does they mean they don’t wish to for internal reasons, or that ACE has told them they can’t? Who is pulling the strings here? It seems to the casual observer like a very peculiar and unwieldy arrangement.
But, if the council didn’t make a formal application, but now, at the Arts Council’s behest have access to the £1.8m, that’s hardly a level playing field contingent on objective criteria. How on earth did that come to pass? It’s contradictory to argue for the withholding of funds from one organisation because their application wasn’t good enough, if the body you then give the funds to made no formal application at all.
If artists – and taxpayers – all around the country – are to trust the decisions made by Arts Council England and local authorities, at the very least, we need transparency. I don’t have a problem with change, but I desperately want to have confidence that if a precious cultural resource is to be allowed to die, there is a rock solid plan – more than just a vague proposition! – to replace it with something better.
Until we get that transparency, it’s very hard to have that kind of confidence.
NB. There’s no way of talking about this without spoilers, although the film largely based on a true story, so it’s up to you.
Holy Spider is a tough watch. It’s a fictionalised account of the serial killer Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 women in Iran, all or most of whom were sex workers, in 2000-2001. He was ultimately caught and executed, but along the way, Hanaei became a folk hero of the religious right because of his claim that his killing spree was a divinely inspired mission to cleanse the streets of ‘corrupt women’.
In light of today’s protests by women in Iran against the strictures of the ‘Morality Police’ the story feels important and prophetic, suggesting that Hanaei’s twisted mentality is now enshrined in a state sanctioned murderously misogynistic DNA.
I should start by saying that I think Holy Spider is a very good film in many ways. It’s brilliantly made, utterly gripping, with superb acting all round. The director, Ali Abbasi, is himself Iranian (although he lives in Denmark now) and some might remember him from the very bizarre Border which came out a few years ago about a Troll working as a customs officer.
On the one hand Holy Spider follows an incredibly determined brave woman journalist, Arezoo Rahimi, who finally entraps Hanaei by posing as a sex worker and pursuing justice on behalf of his victims, on the other it endeavours to explore Hanaei’s psyche (embittered war veteran, religious zealot etc), following him as he commits murder after murder, which he gets away with because, as with Peter Sutcliffe, there is little sympathy for his sex worker victims who are seen as largely responsible for their own fate.
Here lies the problem. To tell this part of the story, Abbasi decides we need to watch not one, not two, but three very brutal murders, dwelling in graphic detail on highly disturbing images of their strangulation. While there is some attempt, certainly with two of the victims, to give them a hinterland and depth beyond being simply cinematic murder-fodder, there is clearly justification for the accusation that Abbasi is being unnecessarily voyeuristic. Wendy Ide in The Observer was particularly scathing, suggesting that this aspect of the film perpetuated precisely what it was attempting to critique and it was therefore only worthy of two stars. She has a point.
I found myself very conflicted. In recent years, especially in the writing community, the consensus has been that we should aim to give far less narrative air time to perpetrators, and where possible make our stories about those who suffer at their hands. In 2021, in The Investigation,a brilliant Danish dramatisation around the murder of journalist Kim Wall in a wealthy entrepreneur’s private submarine, the perpetrator was neither named or featured at all. It was an incredibly affecting and powerful drama.
The thing is, while I was blown away by the power of that Danish series, I can’t in all honesty bring myself to believe that this is the only way of respectfully telling these stories, after all sometimes it is our duty as writers to dig down into why people transgress in the way they do. In the case of Iran, where Abbasi is making a broader political point about ingrained cultural, political and religious misogyny, not to explore who Hanaei believes himself to be would be to render the whole enterprise utterly pointless.
Indeed, although Hanaei was caught after a potential victim managed to escape, the journalist’s brave, empowering entrapment story, gripping though it is, appears to be little more than worthy wish fulfilment. The truth of the film – and truth is what we’re about as writers and directors – lies in the parts of the film about which well-meaning, politically astute critics are so righteously critical.
So, could the film have been made without forcing us to watch those murders? Would one or two murders have been enough? The answer to that is yes, but I seriously doubt it would have been anywhere as powerful a statement as it is. It could reasonably – if uncomfortably – be argued that to do so would be less respectful of those victims, not more so, because in narrative terms the crimes would be sanitised for the audience, and Abbasi is addressing an audience who, he believes, simply do not take the issue of violence against women seriously. If there are people – sometimes controlling entire nations – who see violence against women as an abstract justified by a higher force, as divine retribution, then showing it as cold, brute, murderous evil done, repeatedly, by men (not gods), is thematically and politically justified. After all, that is the truth of the world.
When we meet the parents of one of the murdered women, torn apart by grief and shame, it is a hair-raising moment, precisely because we have lived the young woman’s terrible death with her. When Hanaei’s son coolly, proudly re-enacts his father’s crimes with his toddler sister, as if playing a children’s game, we flinch precisely because we have borne witness to the full horror of the deed as it happened.
And in a brilliant and shocking final act, the execution of Hanaei is seen to be equally brutal, the audience forced to watch in grim detail just as they have the murders of his female victims. We could equally ask do we really need to see that in all its horror? The answer for me is yes, because it exposes the suffocating pointlessness of any culture driven by retribution, divine or human.
It has become easy to eschew voyeurism, and often there is good reason to be wearily impatient with tropes where women feature primarily as corpses, but equally there are times when those stories need to be told, and when perhaps those images need to be seen.
Whether the balance is right here, and whether a woman director would have made this differently, or as effectively, or better, I genuinely have no idea. All I can say is that Holy Spider is an extremely powerful and disturbing film which I shall be thinking about for days if not weeks if not years, where a more discreet cinematic style might have been a good deal more forgettable.
It made me rightfully angry at the crime, not at the film maker, and I’ve never been one for blaming the messenger.
(If you’re new to the Marmoset and interested in anything you read on the blog page please find out more by clicking here and having a little explore)
December ’twas the season to be jolly… and for critics to compile their top ten lists for the year just gone. But what do those lists tell us? It’s great to honour the best that the art of TV drama can offer, but do they really reflect the experience of the dedicated, or even average television viewer?
I’m a screenwriter, and I do a bit of reviewing, so I have a professional interest which perhaps leads me to watch more TV than most, but while we aim to learn from the best in our craft, what can we learn from the rest of it – the ‘quite good’; the ‘enjoyably disposable’; the downright dreary; and the ‘for-God’s-sake-someone, please-put-me-out-of-my-misery’. So it was, at the end of 2022, I thought I’d keep a note of everything I’d seen over the last twelve months. What will that tell me about where the art form is at the moment? Or, perhaps, the list will reveal more about me. Obviously, nobody can watch everything, but I realised not without a little shock, that I’d sat through over seventy TV series, albeit not all of them to the bitter end. As samples go that’s not too bad. I should also add that I saw sixty movies in the cinema.
What follows is a list… quite a long list, actually a set of lists and stats – I mean people, do it for sports, so why not take a leaf out of their book? – so please, just skim through – but that’s the point of the exercise, to see where the nuggets of gold lie in the context of all the grit and fish droppings at the bottom of the sieve. As I started to put the list together, the various categories started to define themselves. If you start losing the will to live… that’s the point too, but it would be great to compare notes.
Here we go!
The Premier League (Series I BloodyLoved): This is the most conventional list: twelve shows that really floated my remote, the ones that became the cornerstones of our week when their episodes dropped. I watch most of my TV with my wife, Gail, who does a proper job – stressful and completely knackering – i.e. she’s not a media luvvie, and so her intolerance for tedium or indulgence sets the bar pretty high! In ordering this list, I’m not thinking solely about quality, but rather about how much the show has stayed with me, and the visceral pleasure it inspired, or the soul-shaking sadness it evoked, which ultimately is the most important quality of all for a piece of story-telling. Did it make me say to myself, for whatever reason: ‘Yes! This is what watching television is about!’?
12. The Baby (HBO/Sky) – This horror comedy about a baby with murderous, supernatural powers disappeared under the radar, but it’s an intelligent show exploring the mucky emotional underbelly of modern parenthood (8 30 minute episodes). 11. 7 Lives of Lea (Netflix): A French YA supernatural drama in which a teenager discovers the remains of a dead body, and finds herself mysteriously living seven different lives, thirty years before, in a quest to unravel the truth of the boy’s murder. While some aspects are well trodden, it is ultimately a moving twist on familiar time-loop tropes (7 episodes – of course!). 10. Red Rose (BBC3): Witty and gripping, this YA tech chiller distinguished itself by being firmly rooted in the Bolton community where the action is set, and shows off a sparkling cast of new young talent (8 episodes). 9. The Dropout (Disney+): Perhaps over-shadowed by the flawless Dopesick in 2021, this 8 part dramatisation of the debacle that was Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos project, buckled under its own weight at times, but was gripping enough to stay in the memory and was held together by a striking central performance from Amanda Seyfried (8 episodes). 8. For All Mankind – Season 3 (Apple TV): The second season of the space-race counterfactual had embarrassingly jumped the shark, but moving on to Mars the show found its rocket boosters again, and was a compelling and convincing dramatic hypothetical (10 episodes). 7. This is Going to Hurt (BBC1): Adam Kay’s sour, but riveting take on the realities of being a junior doctor in today’s NHS, was brilliantly played by Ben Wishaw (prepared to make the character challengingly unsympathetic) along with a standout supporting turn from Ambika Mod as the ill-fated Shruti (7 episodes). 6. Better Call Saul– Season 6 (Netflix): This final season may not have been the strongest overall, but it was, nonetheless, a satisfying conclusion to the greatest love story TV drama has ever known, and worth the ride if only for the jaw dropping sight of Rhea Seahorn suffering a complete emotional breakdown on an airport bus (13 Episodes). 5. Chucky – Season 2 (Syfy): It’s all to easy to turn your nose up at the psycho killer doll, but this is a lovingly crafted, super smart show (8 episodes). 4. Firebite (AMC+): Not a fan of vampires normally, but this gritty Australian series, set among First Nation Australian vampire hunters in the opal fields north of Adelaide, is an original take on the genre, and layered with deeper meaning (8 episodes). 3. Four Lives (BBC1): Neil McKay’s sensitive account of the murder of four gay men in Barking, exploring how the case was badly mishandled by the Metropolitan Police (4 episodes). 2. Severance (Apple TV): By far the most original genre series for some years. Impossible to explain, you just have to see it, and immerse yourself in it, and enjoy Christopher Walken and John Turturro shining in supporting roles (9 episodes). 1. The White Lotus – Season 2 (HBO/Sky): We had no right to expect that Mike White’s follow-up to his 2021 comedy of manners in a luxury Hawaiian hotel could sustain another 7 hours, but relocated to Taormina in Sicily, and with Jennifer Coolidge and Tom Hollander at the centre of the action it surpassed all expectations (7 episodes).
So how does that stack up? It’s about 80 hours of top quality TV drama. Three of the shows are from the BBC, with nothing cutting through to me from itv at all, although at the time of writing I haven’t had a chance to watch Litvinenko due to the inaccessibility of the itvx platform on a pre 2016 Samsung TV (I mean, seriously???). 2 of the series were available on Sky; Disney+, Syfy and AMC+ had 1 a piece; while Apple+ TV punched above its weight with 2 standout shows. More than half of the shows were rooted in non-naturalistic genre (Sci-Fi or Horror); two were ‘based on real events’; one was an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical book; while just two were fully original ‘real-world’ dramas, with stories made-up specifically for the medium of television.
The Championship League (Seemed Better at the Time): The next category is perhaps the saddest of them all. These are shows that felt really enjoyable, well made, all trying to do something interesting, but at the end of the year, clearly weren’t as memorable as they wanted to be. I’ve had to struggle to recall more than the positive sensation of watching them.
4. Chivalry (Channel 4): Steve Coogan having a decent stab at MeToo and Cancel Culture in the movie industry, but I’m not sure it added anything very memorable to the debate (6 30 minute episodes). 3. Chloe (BBC1/Amazon): I seem to remember that this was a decent enough psychological thriller when I was watching it, but a few months later I can remember very little about it (6 episodes). 2. Spy Among Friends (itvx): I have a professional interest in the subject matter, and Guy Pearce and Damian Lewis are on top form – possibly Pearce’s best performance – but it’s a bit of a wordy slog, that blurs into a fog after a while, and feels as if it’s going round in circles (6 episodes). 1. Inside Number 9 – Season 7 (BBC2): Normally, Inside Number 9 is one of my annual TV highlights. There were definitely a couple of standout episodes, but perhaps because of the pandemic, less of this series has stayed with me than usual. Having seen the first episode of Season 8, I’m hopeful for a full return to form in 2023. I do absolutely love this show.
Here we had 18 hours of above average material, that, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite hit its target, all of it coming from terrestrial channels. It’s primarily naturalistic, with only Inside Number 9 straying into the paranormal/horror realm.
League One (Filled the Time Nicely): and that’s about it, insofar as, mostly, I don’t think they were striving to achieve much more, so, in some ways, more successful than the previous category.
6. Parallels (Disney+): More French YA timeloop/parallel universe malarkey (6 episodes). 5. Around the World in 80 days (BBC1): Decent, if overly woke, updating of the Jules Verne classic, which was made for easy Christmas viewing (8 episodes). 4. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+) – I’m sick to the back teeth of the whole Star Wars universe but this rolled along nicely, while I wait for the return of Baby Yoda in 2023, MacGregor seemed a bit more committed than usual, and it was a good de-stress, especially for my better half (6 episodes). 3. Upright – Season 2 (Sky): Nowhere near as original and vibrant as the first series but very entertaining nonetheless. Tim Minchin and Milly Alcock are people you are happy to spend your evenings with. You laugh, you cry, you care (8 30 minute episodes). 2. Bad Sisters (Apple+): Not as substantial as some of Sharon Horgan’s other series, and definitely unnecessarily elongated, but easily digestible, and hugely entertaining nonetheless (10 episodes). 1. The Newsreader (BBC2): A bit of a toss up as to which category to put this one. I think it did have pretensions to be a tad more profound than it was, but ultimately was another fun de-stress, and we were rooting for ‘Gay Camera’ all the way (6 episodes).
34 hours of harmless fluff (the episodes tend to be shorter) with BBC and Disney+ sharing the honours. Three have a fantastical element with three naturalistic dramas in the field. A 50:50 split between entirely original material and series based on pre-existing properties.
League Two (Hmmmm…): Which sums up my response to the next category, four shows that absolutely held my attention, and all strove for excellence and originality, but were ultimately a bit all over the place
4. The Tourist (BBC1): An amnesiac survives a car accident and discovers the dodgy reality behind his true identity. A decent thriller that had a good pop at telling a familiar story in an original way, but ultimately didn’t quite crack it, but was a good watch nonetheless (6 episodes). 3. The Silent Sea (Netflix): Genuinely exciting Korean riff on the whole ‘alien-amok-in-a-research-station’ schtick, with a hugely disappointing ending that had me shouting at my telly in frustration. (8 episodes) 2. Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix): Patchy horror anthology, but with GDT in the mix, everything has the smack of quality about it (8 episodes – that would have made more of an impression kept to 6 or even just 4). 1. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Paramount+): By far my most frustrating series of the year. This had some wonderful set pieces, especially when Bill Nighy picked up the baton from David Bowie’s original alien from the 1976 movie, but veered from the excellent to the lamentable in terms of quality overall. It was a bold show though, and I was sad to see that it did not get renewed (10 episodes).
Another 30 hours spent in front of the telly box mainly grunting with frustration at shows I desperately wanted to be better, but admired for having a go, even if they didn’t quite get there. Just one from the Beeb; two from Netflix; while my favourite was hidden away on Paramount+. Again, there’s a 3:1 ratio of genre to naturalism. With a 50:50 split between original material and adaptation.
National League (Grrrrrr…): I was engaged enough to sit through the whole of these series but left frustrated or downright annoyed as they fell apart after I’d already committed hours of my life to them.
7. Sherwood (BBC1): James Graham’s critically acclaimed polemic about the aftermath of the 84-85 miners’ strike was at odds with my own experience of those communities, and drove me nuts by not respecting the police procedural superstructure Graham was using to frame his story (6 episodes). 6. Mammals (Amazon): Started engagingly enough but went absolutely nowhere. Ultimately felt like a vanity project by all involved (6 30 minute episodes). 5. Life After Life (BBC2): Kate Atkinson’s much loved novel strove for profundity in its TV iteration but ended up a strangely hollow affair with shades of Baby Herman about it (4 episodes). 4. Trigger Point (itv1): A very very silly thriller with a couple of decent and annoyingly compelling set pieces that left me wondering why I was wasting my life like this, somehow persuaded to stick it out all the way to the insubstantial ending (6 episodes). 3. The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (itv1): As Stonehouse is currently proving on itv1 in 2023, you’d think that people who fake their own deaths might be interesting, but they’re just loathsome and there’s nothing that can be done to redeem them or the people who go along with them (4 episodes). 2. Station Eleven (HBO): This drew me in with a timely and believable pandemic story but degenerated into a load of hippie dippy nonsense about travelling players and Hamlet, making me wish that humanity had been wiped out altogether (10 long long long long episodes). 1. The Peripheral (Amazon): This show hit the ground running with amazing production values and hooking me in with an intriguing premise, before fizzling out to an entirely forgettable anti-climax, and some inexplicably dreadful acting from the British end of the international cast. File under ‘Wasted Opportunity of the Year’ (8 episodes).
All in all, 40 hours of my life I will never get back. I’m intrigued by shows like this. You can see how they got made, but with all of them, at some point, for whatever reason, those involved lost the ability to interrogate their own work to really make them fly. They are mainly naturalistic and the majority come from terrestrial broadcasters. Three are original for TV; three are adaptations; with one based on real events.
National League North (We Get the General Idea): On a good few occasions, I am broadly enjoying a series, but my wife (she with the proper job and a no nonsense approach to TV drama) will sigh after a an episode or two and say: ‘We’ve got the general idea. Do we really need to watch any more?’ All of the following were pretty good, quite possibly superior to the preceding category – and were certainly critically well received for good reason – but fell pray to Gail’s devastating judgement.
9. Slow Horses (Apple+): Everyone loves this series, and I tried, I really did… I watched half of it for god’s sake, but in the end I found it all too mannered and affected and I really didn’t care what happened. I can see how good it is, but once I’d got the general idea, I could take it or leave it (3 out of 6 episodes). 8. Wreck (BBC3): After being gripped by Red Rose, the bubblegum palette of BBC3’s next YA horror, might have contributed to the sense, after just one perfectly entertaining episode, that there was no pressing need to go any further. I’d got the general idea (1 out of 6 episodes). 7. Ipcress File (itv1): Stylish, well crafted, but after two episodes… we’d got the general idea (2 out of 6 episodes). 6. The Old Man (Disney+): After an excellent start with Bridges and Lithgow at the top of their game, it didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, and despite the quality on offer… we’d got the general idea (3 out of 7 episodes). 5. This England (Sky): Pointless and premature reconstruction of the Johnson premiership. Undoubtedly well crafted, but because we’d only just lived it, we’d had more than enough of the general idea (2 out of 6 episodes). 4. Andor (Disney+): Supposedly the Star Wars series for people who don’t like Star Wars, and executed with a refreshing verité panache – it was still Star Wars, an imagined universe surely duller than any other in artistic history. Hats off to them for trying to give it some kind of grounding in emotional reality, but as my wife put it, ‘They’re just talking bollocks, aren’t they? – albeit that Anton Lesser was talking his bollocks with Shakespearian authority (3 out of 12 episodes). 3. Rogue Heroes (BBC1): ‘From the makers of Peaky Blinders’ screamed the publicity (endlessly)… and this rock ‘n’ roll account of the early days of the SAS was classily done, but with so much emphasis on style, we’d soon got the idea, and bailed after two perfectly enjoyable episodes (2 out of 6 episodes). 2. House of the Dragon (HBO/Sky); My wife and I were glued to all eight seasons of Game of Thrones and were looking forward to this but once it started we had that grinding sense of having seen it all before and having more than a general idea of the world we were in. We again bailed after two perfectly enjoyable episodes (2 out of 10 episodes). 1. Sandman (Netflix): Love Neil Gaiman. Love the Sandman books. Great cast. Great production values. After two excellently executed episodes… we’d got the general idea, and I wasn’t exactly bored, but I really couldn’t be arsed to watch any more (2 out of 11 episodes).
In this category I watched 20 out of a potential 70 episodes – ! – saving myself about 50 hours of telly watching. As I say, most of this was critically well received but by the end of the year I didn’t feel as if I’ve missed anything. Interestingly, while just under half of these are fantasy/horror/sci-fi, three of the remaining five series are highly stylised in their own way, with only The Old Man and Slow Horses playing out as a naturalistic thrillers where the content is allowed to speak for itself. This may say more about me than the programmes themselves, insofar as I struggle to engage when the authorial and/or creative affectations get in the way, but I suspect there is a significant demographic who respond similarly.
National League South (Gave up after two eps): I had high hopes for all of these – either glowingly reviewed or recommended highly by friends – and gave them the benefit of the doubt for two whole episodes… before giving up in boredom or annoyance. Here they are in order of guilt: 5. Moon Knight (Disney+): I’m profoundly uninterested in the Marvel universe, so I can’t quite remember why I gave this a go. I think I read a few encouraging reviews, but… but… I just don’t get the whole Superhero/Superhuman powers thing. The genre means so much to so many people I really want to be able to make that connection, but try as I might it’s the fallibility of being human that makes me interested in stories. Once you move beyond that – it’s nothing but narrative cheating – the characters cease to be interesting. I can just about hack Spiderman but I keep trying to find another one that might engage me. (2 of 6 eps). 4. Crossfire (BBC1): While it didn’t get great reviews, a lot of people were drawn into this protracted and unlikely tale of Keeley Hawes toughing it out against a hotel spree shooter. I soldiered on but even two thirds of the way through I gave zero shits about the outcome (2 of 3 eps). 3. The English (BBC2): Lots of great reviews, and my friends going nuts for it, but after two eps I was done. I just don’t ‘get’ Hugo Blick. Mannered and affected, I find it impossible to care (2 of 6 eps). 2. Somewhere Boy (Channel 4): Another show that everyone seemed to love, but I didn’t believe a word of it. I tried, I really tried (2 of 8 eps). 1. 22. Juli (Sky): I feel awful about this. In October I was at the International Screenwriters Conference in Copenhagen where one session contained a moving interview with Sara Johnson the writer of the Norwegian TV drama recounting the Oslo and Utøya attacks of 2011. It sounded amazing, and no one could fail to be impressed by the integrity of a process which sought to depict events without exploiting or exaggerating them for dramatic purposes. But… but… I gave up after two episodes finding it oddly indigestible, and frankly a bit of a slog. While undoubtedly more admirable than This England it suffered from the same sense that, stripped of artistic endeavour, it left me wondering what it was for, and thinking I’d rather see a documentary. A horrible, guilt inducing reminder that drama has to do more than simply report events (2 of 6 eps).
I managed 9 hours of the potential 25 hours of fun here. To be fair, my lack of enthusiasm probably says more about me than the shows themselves.
Isthmian League (Gave up after – or during! – the first episode): I watched five of these to review them for Sci-Fi Bulletin and probably wouldn’t have bothered otherwise, but I approached the rest with genuine hope for some kind of entertainment. So, in no particular order… 17. DMZ (HBO): Something to do with a second American civil war. Instantly forgettable (1 of 4 eps). 16. Moonhaven (AMC+): Nonsensical drivel about something or other on the moon, looking like rural Ireland (1 of 6 eps) 15. Yakamoz S-245 (Netflix): Submarine version of Into the Night. Why? (1 of 7 eps) 14. The Fear Index (Sky Atlantic): Sterile adaptation of one of Robert Harris’s less interesting books (1 of 4 eps) 13. Rings of Power (Amazon): I am less interested in Middle Earth than I am in the Star Wars universe and that’s saying something, but obviously the Tolkien estate will do just fine without my attentions (I lasted 30 minutes of the 8 episodes). 12. The Watcher (Netflix): Straight to DVD tediosity (1 of 7 eps) 11. The Undeclared War (Channel 4): Peter Kosminsky proving that he should steer clear of anything vaguely tech or sci-fi. Overblown enactable nonsense. Computer definitely says ‘no’ (1 of 6 Eps). 10. Lazarus Project (Sky Max): Tired timeloop drivel on a par with the BBC series Paradox – the benchmark for bad sci-fi. Astonishingly this has been renewed for a second season (1 of 8 eps). 9. The Capture (BBC1): After about ten minutes I realised I’d sat through the first season of this earnest deep fake nonsense. One of those series where there’s an idea and some characters and you find yourself not believing in or caring about either (1 of 6 eps). 8. The Control Room (BBC1): 999 call centre nonsense reliant on clichés, coincidences and over-acting (1 of 3 eps). 7. No Return (itv1): Lacklustre itv thing, not quite based on a true story, reeking of straight to video (1 of 4 eps). 6. The Midwich Cuckoos (Sky): Laughably, excruciatingly, cheap and dated dramatisation of the John Wyndham classic. A real wasted opportunity. I was a bit sad about quite how bad this was (1 of 7 eps). 5. Wednesday (Netflix): Popular well-received show, but enough with the kids at supernatural schools already. Not for me (1 of 8 eps). 4. The Devil’s Hour (Amazon): Something about a social worker and Peter Capaldi and other lives or memories or premonitions… after 40 minutes of over-acting I didn’t care either way (1 of 6 eps) 3. Inside Man (BBC1): Lukewarm Hannibal Lector rehash. Why? (1 of 4 eps) 2. The Responder (BBC1): This got rave reviews and everyone I know loved it. I’m clinically allergic to Martin Freeman. I’m sure he’s very good and a lovely human being but something about actors with tics that has me scrabbling for the remote. Sorry (1 of 6 eps). 1. Let The Right One In (Showtime): This one made me angry. I love the source material having read the book twice, seen both the films on multiple occasions, and directed the stage play. Here they turned the brilliant premise of the story on its head and committed a crime against fiction. Horrible (1 of 10 eps).
There was one other show which has only tempted me to a single instalment so far, and that’s Ralph and Katie. It’s still on my Sky box, waiting for me to watch it, and I have a professional interest in drama featuring characters and actors with Learning Difficulty/Disability so I hope to get round to it at some point – one ep definitely isn’t enough – but… but… it keeps getting pushed to the back of the queue. Whether that’s about me or the show, I’m not sure.
So, Ralph and Katie aside, I soldiered through 17 of over 100 hours of unbearable drivel. Okay, three or four of these were well-received and/or popular with their target audience, but honestly the rest of them… urghhh. Eleven of the series are sci-fi or supernatural in some way, which is perhaps an indicator of how hard it is to create fantasy with real heart. Stress test that concept, peeps! While there are four BBC shows on this list, one of them was a big hit despite my allergic reaction, so the terrestrial channel isn’t as over-represented in the turkey factory as some BBC-bashers would have us believe. Again we have a 50:50 split between original material and adaptations or spin-offs from pre-existing properties.
Central and South Norfolk League Division Four (That difficult second album…): Sometimes you really enjoy a show but find yourself wishing they hadn’t bothered trying to reprise it. 3. Raised by Wolves – Season 2 (HBO/Sky): Season 1 was a good watch, even if it went a bit mental in the series finale. I was looking forward to a continuation of the story, but they seemed to have cherry picked all the worst mis-steps from the first outing and gaily set off from there in Season 2 (1 of 8 Eps). 2. The Great – Season 2 (Hulu/Starzplay): This pungent account of of Catherine the Great’s stormy relationship with Peter III of Russia was one of the things that got me through the darkest days of lockdown, but returning to it felt oddly unnecessary. Perhaps it was too closely associated with that scary time in our lives (1 of 10 eps). 1. Resident Alien – Season 2 (Syfy/Sky): The 2021 introduction to Alan Tudyk’s brilliant characterisation of the Alien Harry Vanderspeigle balanced comedy science fiction with a heartfelt story of a stranger in a strange land. I couldn’t wait for its return only to discover that it had been thrown out of balance and become a gags-per-minute sitcom. Horrible. (1 of 15 eps).
By only watching three out of a potential 33 episodes, I saved myself a good thirty hours in front of the TV. To be fair, For All Mankind went completely pear-shaped in its second season but returned to form this year, so all is not necessarily lost.
Wednesday Night Kick About on the Rec When It’s Pissing Down With Rain (Why would you do that?): Or, that moment when you see that a show is back for another season and you grimace and say, ‘Seriously?’ 4. The Pact – Season 2 (BBC1): Seriously? I didn’t meet anyone who rated this show (6 eps) 3. Bloodlands – Season 2 (BBC1): Nor this one. And it got a longer run second time round. Mystifying (6 eps). 2. Outlaws – Season 2 (BBC1): Okay so at least this was reasonably popular, I’m told, but I still don’t know anyone who actually watched it (6 eps) 1. The Split – Season 3! (BBC1): Rich people getting divorced, again and again and again. I must be missing something (6 eps).
While I’m always keen to defend the BBC… these are all BBC shows. Go figure. Netflix commissions an awful lot of dross but it does seem to be a bit more careful about its recommissions, but on the plus side, 24 hours of telly I had no desire to watch at all.
So is that it? Not quite. There were a few teams in search of a league, namely the television single drama, the loneliest dramatic form on broadcast media. I watched three this year – four if you include the Detectorists Christmas special – I don’t think there were many more – and I enjoyed them all. Christmas Carole on Sky retold Dickens with a surprisingly fresh modern spin; Then Barbara Met Alan was an engaging account of disability rights activists in the 1980 and 90s; Floodlights was a disturbing and upsetting dramatisation of the child abuse scandal surrounding the football scout Barry Bennell; and Detectoristsoffered awelcome top-up of one of the BBC’s best comedy dramas. The reason I mention these is that our schedules and streaming platforms are so dominated by series, it feels as if we are losing the art of well told stand-alone story, perhaps not big enough to sustain a feature film, but worth 75 to 90 minutes of our time, without being contorted to run and run and run until the life has been drained out of it.
So. Is there anything to conclude from all this, apart from the fact that the Marmoset watched far far far too much telly?
I watched about 255 hours of TV drama, out of a potential 453 hours of material I might have endured had I completed every single series, which means I lost interest in just under half the material for whatever reason. Without another year to compare it to I have no idea whether that’s good or bad. Personal taste is obviously a factor, but there was a good deal of average, below average or completely misconceived product in there.
What I know for sure is that when people talk about the 1960s or 70s or 80s being ‘golden’ eras for TV drama, I doubt I could have come up with 80-100 hours that could reasonably be labeled excellent in some way as I have here. I lived through those decades and most of what was served up to us, from a much more limited range, was pretty dreadful really, with just a few standout shows. We enjoyed it because it was all there was and it defined the times in which we lived.
Back to 2022, I’ve given up on continuing drama (soaps) almost entirely, partly because I’ve spent a quarter of a century writing it, but also because it feels like a very tired dramatic format when the stories are so repetitive and melodramatic, when television is capable of so much more. Perhaps I’ll return to it one day. It’s certainly true that too many series are over extended, and that there is surely space for more single drama, but the idea that the BBC is any worse at producing memorable drama than any other platform doesn’t appear to be born out at all, and neither is the popular notion that Netflix is somehow offering the Gold Standard for TV storytelling.
My resolution for 2023?
Get out more.
(If you’re new to the Marmoset and interested in anything you read on the blog page please find out more by clicking here and having a little explore)
A couple of days ago, a screening at Edinburgh University of Adult Human Female, a documentary which poses the feminist argument against aspects of radical trans activism had to be abandoned – for reasons of public safety – after protestors blocked people from entering the screening rooms on the basis (as I understand it) that the protestors believed the premise of the film to be transphobic.
There was a good deal of angry traffic about it on Twitter of course, but I sought out a variety of sources to try to get a handle on what had actually happened. Here’s the take from the BBC. For another angle check out The National (a pro Scottish Independence daily). Here’s what The Times said if you can get past the paywall. I’m offering these links because, significantly, The Guardian, at the time of writing, doesn’t appear to have covered it at all, and more worryingly Edinburgh University’s own student paper (helpfully called The Student Paper) made an editorial decision not to cover the story for the bewildering reason that to do so would be to platform hate. To which I did find myself thinking, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the film itself, ‘good luck with your journalistic careers’.
Whether Adult Human Female is or it isn’t transphobic, a University – supposedly a place of learning and a place for the exploration of ideas – is absolutely the last place where a screening of pretty much anything should be banned, as long as the content in question isn’t a direct incitement to violence. The idea of whether something is an incitement to hatred is harder to define. I know this because my cousin, a highly respected QC, had the job of trying to prove in court that Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, was guilty of incitement to racial hatred. I mean, how hard can that be? Well my cousin (of whom I’m very proud) knows his legal onions and there were two attempts to get a conviction, both of which failed. So even if a group of students feel a film, presenting a set of ideas, could be seen as an incitement to hatred, that doesn’t mean it is – there is a good deal of subjectivity involved, not to mention the matter of the free will of the audience – and again, a university should be somewhere where all sorts of ideas that people find challenging can be explored, free from intimidation by those who disagree. As Mrs Merton used to say, always with a mischievous smile, ‘Let’s have a heated debate!’.
But, hey, I’m a writer, and addicted to ideas so I sat down to watch Adult Human Female for myself to see whether censoring others from seeing it was in any way valid.
Well… there are some issues with it. The most immediate one is that there is some lazy visual editorialising which is completely unnecessary and which undermines the thoughtfulness of the speakers’ contributions.
There is also a tendency throughout to generalise about ‘The Trans Community’ as if it were a single homogeneous thing – an overuse of the word ‘they’ without the viewer being clear who ‘they’ refers to. I’ve known and worked with at least five people who openly identify as Trans in one form or other, and they’re all different, all individuals, just as the members of any community are. I balk at anyone lumping the Jewish community into one, and we all know the dangers of judging Muslim communities by the behaviour and beliefs of radical, fundamentalist Islamists.
I imagine that many of the speakers in the documentary would have prefaced their comments by clarifying that they are talking specifically about the more extreme end of radical trans activism – with whom there is the noisiest conflict – and indeed there are moments when this is stated explicitly, but it needs more of that. I suspect that some of that defining of terms was simply edited out, but of course I can’t be sure.
On this theme, there is a tendency to turn anecdote, or the account of something specific, into a generality. Of course there are always extreme examples of behaviour in any demographic, but one needs to be careful about citing a specific event – which may well be absolutely true – but then extrapolating that outwards, suggesting that it necessarily represents a generalised truth. There are also a few generalised statements and assumptions which desperately need a bit of statistical backup, and may have even the staunchest gender critic saying ‘hang on a minute!’
I’m not itemising examples here, as I think it’s best if people who are interested enough come to their own conclusions.
But having said all of that, on the fundamentals of the politics; of why self ID is problematic; the confusion between sex and gender; why the term ‘cis’ is problematic; why the mantra ‘trans women are women’ is problematic; the issues around gender therapy/medical interventions and young people; why the progressive left is in such a tangle over gender politics; the role of lobby groups; and a few other issues besides, I’m on board with 85% of what the speakers (predominantly from the feminist left) have to say.
So… it’s a flawed piece which suffers from a lack of editorial/journalistic rigour but there’s much in it of value, and much there which could and should be shared, communally, as a prompt for fair and open discussion – and while it’s over 90 minutes long I found it engrossing and, despite moments of superimposed editorial pettiness, the speakers are intelligent and thoughtful.
Is it an incitement to hatred? Well, there’s a good deal of annoyance, frustration and arguably a bit of anger, but that’s not the same as hate – unless you’re the sort of person who has never encountered actual hate nor looked it up in a dictionary, and you’re confusing it with disagreement. And it’s not in any way an incitement to anyone to do anything, aside from being an appeal to those holding one set of views to listen to some counter arguments.
It’s terrifically depressing that proponents of a cause that is supposed to be about breaking down binary preconceptions, by attempting to stifle the debate, create the ultimate binary dynamic.
Of course you can only have the non-binary, nuanced view of this film if you actually watch it.
I wasn’t in a hurry to see She Said, as, on paper, it sounded heavy going. Two hours and ten minutes of earnest New York Times journalists trying to nail the Harvey Weinstein story? Don’t we already know what happened? Perhaps this is why it has struggled at the Box Office, although numerous news items about how the movie has bombed but is ‘terribly good really’ haven’t helped. But then a friend posted emotionally about going to see it and it spurred me on to make the effort.
Well… for a movie where we do indeed know what happened, and where 80% of the running time is people on their phones, or reporting off-screen action, this is not only edge-of-the-seat gripping stuff, but incredibly moving. I went with my wife and we were both moved to tears (Gail’s from Sheffield and she’s dead hard!).
The genius of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s script is that it’s the tangential detail that acts as the emotional sucker punch. A Skype call where a child reveals the extent to which sexual violence has been normalised is painfully upsetting. A woman about to go into theatre for a mastectomy making a crucial choice to cast off decades of fear and oppression – and more like this – dramatise how it isn’t simply the sorry tale of Harvey Weinstein being brought to book; it isn’t about bringing down one dysfunctional and evil individual. It’s about forcing a long overdue tectonic cultural shift.
On a personal level, while I never witnessed anything on this scale, having worked in theatre and broadcast media for forty years, I’ve encountered a good deal of sexist bullying and intrusive behaviour… and, I’m sorry to say, turned a blind eye to a good deal of it, especially when I was younger in the 1980s, telling myself (wrongly) that as long as I wasn’t a participant, my hands were clean. Of course, all I did, along with pretty much everyone else, male and female, is help to perpetuate a toxic, abusive culture. I mention this, because, if you get anything from seeing this film it shouldn’t be to consider the problems it identifies as ‘other’.
If All The President’s Men is about journalists exposing a conspiracy in the highest echelons of power, She Said is about ending a conspiracy where really rather a lot of quite ordinary people have been complicit as well.
Mulligan and Kazan are both terrific as journalists Twohey and Kantor, and who wouldn’t want Patricia Clarkson as your editor???? There’s a great cameo from Samantha Morton and an incredibly moving supporting performance from Jennifer Ehle. This is a film that could so easily have been ‘worthy’ in a bad way, but it manages to be angry and passionate, and while I haven’t checked the historical accuracy yet, it certainly feels truthful (which is something different). I guess it’s ‘worthy’ in the best way possible, as in leaving me feeling that I’m not worthy… just blown away.
(If you’re new to the Marmoset and interested in anything you read on the blog page please find out more by clicking here and having a little explore)
Yesterday, BBC Woman’s Hour proudly announced that from 17th May they are going to be on air for a A FULL HOUR! Their caps, their exclamation mark.
Well, they might be celebrating with the emoji party poppers at Woman’s Hour, but back in the real world this is nothing less than a cost cutting exercise, signalling the loss of over 250 fifteen minute dramas – equivalent to sixty-four hours of commissioning – mainly of original work, which have been incorporated into the programme since 1998. It’s not just a body blow to the writing community, but this is work now lost for hundreds of actors, technicians, producers, directors.
Of course there is always a discussion to be had about scheduling. I would never argue that these things should be set in stone. There’s a good case to be made for Woman’s Hour having their whole sixty minutes. Good luck to them. Genuinely. But this isn’t a scheduling decision. That sixty-four hours of drama production isn’t magically going to appear elsewhere on the Network. It’s gone. This is just the most visible of a series of incremental cuts, hot on the heels of the erosion of the Saturday afternoon drama from a high point of forty original commissions to just twelve in the current year. No longer The Saturday Drama… it is now, effectively, The Monthly Drama. At the same time the weekday Afternoon Drama has lost fifteen minutes per week, which may not sound like much, but amounts to a further twelve hours lost commissioning, again, primarily of original work.
In total, Radio 4 has cut over a hundred hours of Radio Drama commissioning per year. At a time when the BBC is facing unprecedented pressures on its financing I can understand the attraction of a move that is saving them many hundreds of thousands of pounds. Drama is one of the most expensive of the radio genres. This is true. A sixty minute BBC radio play costs between £20,000 and £24,000, which might sound like a lot, but remember that you’d be hard pressed to bring in an hour of TV drama for less than £500,000 and most cost a lot, lot more. Once you’re into the kinds of SFX that TV audiences expect budgets regularly run into the millions, while on radio those amazing visual effects are conjured up in the listeners mind, so the production costs remain the same. Yes, some of the Audio Drama slack is being picked up by BBC Sounds but it’s hard to find concrete figures as to how much, and a back of the envelope calculation doesn’t get anywhere near them making up the shortfall.
‘Hang on a minute!’ I hear you say. ‘There’s still The Archers.’ Yes, that’s true – and the Sunday Drama remains largely untouched, although this latter slot is, according to the BBC’s own commissioning guidelines, ‘almost exclusively the home of dramatisations’. Meanwhile what remains of the Afternoon Drama is increasingly devoted to series and serials which tend to go to more experienced writing talent.
Not only is this a near critical erosion of Radio Drama, but the loss of this hundred hours is disproportionately targeted at original work, and the changes as a whole are hard to tally with the Corporation’s often stated commitment to developing voices new to radio. Where radio used to be a significant entry point into the industry, where the relatively low production costs allowed it to be a platform for untried voiced, now anyone looking for their first break is faced with an increasingly fragmented and bewildering commissioning system. Meanwhile as production shifts from in-house to independent production companies – a move that has been extremely successful in the world of television – when Radio 4 takes a chainsaw to its radio drama schedules, so they take the same chainsaw to the independent production infrastructure they themselves have encouraged, undermining the economic model that sustains it.
But it isn’t just writers and creatives who lose out.
During the pandemic, drama has never been more important. Audiences have flocked to television – the BBC and all the streaming platforms – hungry to find solace and inspiration from the telling of stories. It is bitterly ironic that the only medium able to continue drama production virtually unhindered throughout lockdown… was Radio.
In an age when the television industry has placed drama front and centre like never before, BBC Radio 4 is choosing this time in its history to diminish its role and its responsibility to one of the greatest treasures to be found in the nation’s dramatic landscape, one that the BBC itself pioneered for nearly a century, and one that has been an inspiration to millions and a seedbed to countless artists and technicians across the decades.
Yes, there is an expanding non-broadcast presence for audio drama away from the BBC, but it’s a genuine tragedy that the Corporation seems so willing to let its status as the champion and benchmark setter of the genre slip away so carelessly. Or perhaps the decision makers are simply unaware of the consequences their actions are having.
These cuts have been happening over a period of years – and the loss of the fifteen minute drama has been challenged by the Talent Unions and Professional Associations since it was first mooted over a year ago, sadly to no avail. The timing didn’t help. There was little appetite in the creative community for attacking the BBC during a pandemic and at a time when the corporation is going through an existential crisis.
But with this very public celebration by the BBC – ‘now the drama’s gone the party can begin!’ – which left writers and creatives feeling unloved and unwanted…
…perhaps it’s time for a more public dialogue to begin. This isn’t a plea for an unsustainable status quo. Scheduling – and where audio drama has its platform on the BBC – most definitely needs to change, but it’s time for the industry, writers and the audiences who love to get lost in the unique imaginative landscape of a radio play, to let the BBC know how they feel, and demand that the BBC rethink its approach. An email to firstname.lastname@example.org could be a starting point, or fill in a comment on the online complaints page at:
This writer of nearly a hundred radio dramas wants Radio 4 tolearn to love drama again, and to make it – us – welcome on its airwaves, and to work with the creative community – who have felt almost completely excluded from the decision making process – to re-establish the BBC as the Gold Standard in our art form.
When The Mash Report started I was really excited, hopeful for a razor sharp, banging new satire show. But I gave up after two programmes… partly because, as my wife said: ‘This isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is’. We’d stumble across it occasionally after that, and she would say: ‘This still isn’t as funny as it thinks it is.’ Before making me switch over.
Having said that, some of the Rachel Parris one-off pieces were very funny indeed and it was also at its most interesting and challenging with some of the Geoff Norcot exchanges. So I felt fine not enduring the whole thing live, just waiting for the occasional good bits (mainly Rachel Parris) to pop up as viral clips on FB or Twitter. But overall it had an alienating self-righteous smugness about it which had me reaching for the remote.
Satire at its best is surprising, exciting, dangerous and, most of all, challenging. Satire that assumes you agree with it – even if you do, especially if you do – is irksome and self satisfied. The Mash Report was, disappointingly, too often the latter.
Sooo…. is its axing a sign of right wing censorship at the BBC because Director General, Tim Davie, apparently, has his tongue glued to Boris’s backside and his aunt’s cousin’s poodle once shagged the Shitzu belonging to a Tory donor’s cleaner? The Daily Telegraph seemed to think so (but since when did I believe everything I read in The Daily Telegraph?) and so did lots of social media commentators running around like headless chickens waving their hands in the air and shouting THE NAZIS ARE COMING!!!
Fact is, I have no idea. If it was axed for political reasons then that is greatly concerning, but I haven’t seen any proof of that as yet beyond conjecture, supposition, paranoia etc. But if the Nazis are coming and it is a right wing putsch at the BBC, it’s even more concerning – because it should have been axed for not being good enough. (That’s satire, by the way).
A show doesn’t have a right to air time because I broadly agree with its political standpoint.
Either way, I’m struggling to mourn its passing because I’m hoping for something better. And as the late, great Peter Cook once observed, the comedy of Beyond the Fringe was heavily influenced by the German Cabaret of the 1930s that did so much to stop the rise of Hitler.
Billionaires. Is it inherently wrong to have that much money? Is it ‘obscene’ (as John McDonnell said today)? Should we get rid of billionaires as some pro-Corbyn commentators (notably Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle on the Emma Barnett show) have observed in recent weeks? Or simply make it impossible to have more than a billion pounds in the uk?
No one contributed more to the popular perception of wealth than German cartoonist George Grosz
Ok, so I doubt anyone reading this would disagree that the increase in economic inequality not just in the UK, but globally, is a massive problem. But is the answer to it (is the answer to anything?) to start a populist vendetta against a hundred and fifty people whose wealth exceeds what is essentially a random number, picked out of the air because it’s eye catching and easy to remember? I’m not pleading their corner – I’m simply asking the question.
Momentum’s Laura Parker believes all billionaires to be inherently dodgy
I have no idea if all one hundred and fifty UK billionaires are guilty of this, although depending on where you research this JK Rowling’s earnings have topped a billion dollars and I would be surprised to learn that she was into any of those (although to be fair I don’t know that she isn’t, she could be up to all sorts of heathen and fiendish evil for all I know).
J K Rowling evil and heathen – depending on her net worth
I tentatively suggest that other factors are at play here, notably maths and technology. Quite simply there are more and more people on the planet, who want more and more stuff and modern technology means that it is easier and easier to sell that stuff… to all of them. Meanwhile inflation has meant that value per unit of currency has fallen over the decades.
Obscene? Or just a thing which is the inevitable result of population growth, and global consumerism and the reality that supply isn’t – nor will it ever be – globally collectivised.
Not right. Not wrong. Just maths and technology. And, for sure, probably a bit of tax avoidance and general skulduggery along the way in some instances.
So. If we did agree that having a billion pounds or more was obscene and that ultimately anyone who fell into that bracket simply wasn’t acceptable as a citizen in the UK how would we set about dealing with that?
For a start is a billion the right number? Are we talking about a billion pounds, a billion dollars, or a billion euros? Or is it just the idea of unimaginable wealth that we don’t like? If we are going to use words like ‘obscene’ where does obscenity start and acceptability finish? I mean why not £640million or £569,482.83p? Is £379m just mildly distasteful?
For it to make any kind of rational sense, you have to set a figure – just as we set a figure for top tax rates. Without a figure it’s meaningless and that figure has to be based on some kind of rationale other than blind resentment.
Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell has made a step towards this. He has made it clear that under a Labour administration no Chief exec in the public sector would be able to earn more than twenty times the National Living Wage. That’s somewhere around £350,000.
That’s a lot of cash to most of us, but small potatoes in CEO land. And nowhere near a million, let alone a billion. Will it re-set the dial in terms of expectations? Possibly, but I doubt it. Will it stop the best people taking those jobs? I have literally no idea. My gut says that it would change the character of the type of person who applies for this kind of job, which could be a good thing… or not. I simply don’t know.
But there is an underlying message there from Mr McDonnell. We obviously want the best people to run the public sector but the acceptable remuneration for that is £350,000 per annum and no more. Implicit in this is that when you pursue more outside of the public sector you are effectively drinking and driving, you are using your mobile phone while doing 105 down the Motorway of life. Sort of like a premiership footballer, who earn, well, an obscene amount…!
Jeremy Corbyn Tweeted today: ‘Do you know what the establishment and the wealthy few are really afraid of? You.’
According to Wikipedia, depending on what sort of year I have, my annual earnings usually fall between the top one and two per cent on the UK earnings scale. In a good year, there are less than half a million individuals who earn as much as I do. Although technically speaking, I am on a zero hours contract… of sorts.
I really need to know who ‘the wealthy few’ are? I mean, if I’m one of them and I’m reading Jeremy’s Tweet… then according to him I’m AFRAID OF MYSELF!!!
James T Kirk was always confounding AIs with unresolvable paradoxes
Let’s assume that all of this comes to pass, and having money – or even aspiring to great wealth and prosperity becomes a social no-no – and exceeding a billion squids (or whatever random number) is outlawed, what do we expect those people to do? There are many devout Corbynistas who say they don’t care and good riddance if the billionaires decide to bugger off. But is that really what we want? Whilst outlawing wealth reduces inequality on paper, it only does so by cooking the books and slicing off the top of the differential graph.
We have to remember what our objectives are. If they are simply ideological – ie billionaires can fuck off – then, for sure, we can achieve that, but there’s no guarantee that in doing that we alleviate poverty at the bottom of the income scale. If our objective is to alleviate poverty and redistribute wealth, then we have to keep the wealth in the country precisely so that it can be redistributed.
You can’t redistribute nothing.
Doing that isn’t easy, and there are a multitude of economic and political approaches to achieving effective redistribution. We could argue the toss about that for months, but I do know for sure that ‘banning billionaires’ or any associated Us-and-Themery won’t get us a millimetre closer to achieving that goal. It’s just populism. Divisive. Pointless. No different at its heart that the mentality of Donald Trump whipping up the crowd at one of his rallies, with the sole objective of fermenting yet moire hate. Are those the values of the Labour Party now? I do hope not.
Please can we be smart about this and think about what we want to achieve and not who we resent, or who we can blame simply for existing. We know exactly where that kind of thinking leads.
In the meantime, I’m going to ensure that my earnings stay at £999,999.99p and not a penny more. That way all my Corbynista friends will go on loving me.