American Restoration
Jun 2012 21

The History Channel is now my go to channel, my latest addiction is American Restoration. It is like MTV’s Pimp My Ride but for Antiques. Well what Americans consider antiques anyway.

Rick’s Restoration is the setting for the show in question. Rick Dale our protaganist is a sleeveless denim shirt wearing biker character. In the title sequence he talks about working with objects built in a time when ‘made in America’ meant built to last forever. They can restore practically anything back to its former glory. They restore anything from 50’s Coca-Cola signs to petrol pumps and Cars.

Most shows will start with a customer bringing them an object to restore this is where their sister show Pawn Stars comes into play, The lads from pawn stars will buy something in the knowledge that restored they will get a far greater return on their investment. And that is the driver for the show really how much value can they add to what is essentially rusted but valuable antiques. Pawn Stars is about a family run pawn shop in Las Vegas (another good time killer of a show)

For me the pleasure comes from the craft and the techniques used to breath new life into the relics that are delivered to them. Like skilful surgeons they go about carful my researching the patients and deal with the issues one at a time and the put them back together again. They are truly skilled craftsmen, and the big reveal at the end of the show always impresses even though you know it they won’t have made a pigs ear of it.

Rick works with his son (most of the shows on the History Channel feature family business) and three other main craftsmen. There is good banter between the team with his son being a good guide for us as he learns the business we can learn with him. The son seems to be the butt of any pratical jokes, which he deals with in his ‘must be smoking a lot of pot to be that relaxed’ kind fo way.

It is probably my age but I really think the history channel is producing some very watchable television currently and deserve more viewers in the UK.

Catch American Restoration every day on the the History Channel.

Content is King!
Jul 2012 08


I have two boys aged 4 and 5 and they love television and it’s fascinating to watch them interact with the content dancing before their eyes.  They will literally talk back to the television and dance if it tells them to.  One of the new things my eldest has started to do is quote facts from adverts. For example, my mother was talking about putting some Vanish powder on the carpet to get rid of a stain, and he pipes up with “you have to leave it on for 20 minutes”.  If only he listened to his parents as well as he does the TV.

 

The reason I mention my boys is that they have no idea about channels-only content.  They ask for the show they want to watch when they want it, not understanding if it isn’t delivered to them instantly.  They have no idea that when I grew up in the late 70’s and early 80’s kids TV was only on for a couple of hours a day and Saturday mornings, the rest of the time we had to entertain ourselves.

This is obviously not a revelation to most of us, but it makes me think: what is the future for channels as we know them?  Surely BBC1,2,3,4 etc. will just become BBC-licensed and produced content.  We will expect to be able to pick what we want from their selection of programs and radio shows.  I know some will have concerns over finding new content if  faced with a menu bloated in scale like a restaurant yet to be visited by Gordon Ramsey.

I believe most people find new shows through word of mouth anyway.  Music is currently in the situation TV will be in in a few years if we are not careful: a mass of content distributed in hundreds of different formats on thousands of platforms.  The good news is people are always finding new music though (they don’t pay for it, but they do find it).

I don’t know many people who watch live TV these days unless it is a sporting event. Why would you, when you can use the time to watch exactly what you want?  I have heard stats along the lines of 60% of TV programming is watched live,. I don’t believe this tells the whole story, most of the working people I know who have kids record shows because they lead busy lives, can’t wait for something to be on, and then don’t want to sit through adverts. I know lots of people (including myself) who will start a show 15 minutes behind its broadcast so they don’t have to watch the commercials.

Surely the winner will be the company who works out how to deliver the following: Simple user interface, global day and date released content, and better quality than illegal downloading.

Simple to say, seemingly impossible to deliver.

The Newsroom
Jul 2012 10

This just in: The Newsroom premiers in the UK on Sky Atlantic tonight at 10pm. After watching the pilot, and, following its less than enthusiastic reception in the USA, here are my thoughts:

Aaron Sorkins latest TV show irritates and pleases in equal measures. It is unashamedly American, and starts with a fantastic rant by lead (and surrogate Sorkin) Jeff Daniels at a room of college students. His angry words relate to America no longer being the best country in the world, but that it could be, and that an informed country is a better country. Sorkin is asking the audience to buy into his central thesis that news is the answer to America’s current problems. This is his excuse for the self-important and pompous nature of the characters who walk (and talk) around with faux gravitas for the rest of the show.

You wouldn’t need to know in advance that this is an Aaron Sorkin production, it is him through and through. Fast dialogue, walking and talking, and intelligent and snappy sound bites. I really want to know if Mr Sorkin can write for a stupid character; I can’t think of any in his shows, and if America (or indeed, any country) really did have this ratio of smart people to stupid, maybe it really would be the best country in the world.

With The Newsroom I think he may have an uphill battle getting us to like these characters. Throughout the episode, the fact that the public don’t respect or trust the news is repeatedly referenced, thus making their plight something we find hard to swallow. Speaking of hard to swallow, some of the flagrant flag waving is so sickly sweet, it makes you want to hurl red white and blue. Throughout his writing, Sorkin comes across as an intelligent, thoughtful human being, which makes it surprising when this show makes clear that he seems to genuinely think that the USA is the best country in the world, as if such a thing could ever exist.

Basing each show around a real news event is a novel concept, but it’s convenient that one of the lead characters was able to get two sources for separate companies within seconds of the event occurring and then report the full scale of the story in hours rather than the days it took to unfold in real life, where you have to contend with like, real problems.

I’m an unabashed fan of Sorkin’s work, but am starting to worry that he is getting sucked into showing us how smart his characters are, or how smart he is. Some of the dialogue in this feels unnatural (even by his stylised standards!) and, having some involvement in broadcast News myself, feel that Anchorman is closer to the truth than Newsroom.

Having written all of the above, I will still watch the rest of the series, as it is well made, well acted and leagues above most other dramas on TV at the moment. Sorkin believes that America isn’t the greatest country in the world, but that it could be. I think The Newsroom is definitely not the greatest drama on TV, but that it can be better.

As an aside the iPhone will auto correct Sorkin to Dorkins. Try it.

Jul 2012 19

To write this piece, I used IMDB to cross check some information about the cast. I was surprised to find that The Newsroom is currently scoring 8.8 out of 10. To put this in perspective; The West Wing scores 8.7 and The Sopranos 9.5. If you follow this logic, it is up there with the greats and should be judged accordingly. We all have friends that, upon meeting their other halves, think ‘I don’t know what they see in them’, and that reflects the way I feel about ‘The Newsroom’ at the moment.

Admittedly, there are flashes of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliance in the writing; the trademark intelligent, fast paced dialogue, especially between Maggie (Alison Pill) and Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) in this second episode is fantastic, but is surrounded by some otherwise bog standard filler.

John Gallagher J

Alison Pill

What annoys me most? The obvious nature of the plots and the relationships. This week Will (Jeff Daniels) and his ex, Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) have a disagreement about the running order, and if they should concentrate on viewing figures, or reporting the News. It is so apparent that by the end of the hour Will will have come round to her way of thinking that it is hard to maintain interest.

There is no edge, no surprise, not even any mild peril to make us concerned for the characters, or their story arcs. Truly great TV Drama has an edge and takes risks, for example: Prime Suspect, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men … they all have characters which can flip on you at any moment and take you somewhere you couldn’t have imagined.

As I have said previously, it has very high production values and, on the whole is well acted, but 8.8? Come on! Seriously?

This really feels like Sorkin’s guide to making safe TV. I will give it a couple more episodes, but I’m warning you Sorkin, if it doesn’t pull up its socks, I will go back to watching Spiral. And I mean it.

Hit or Miss?
Jul 2012 25

I love it when TV surprises you. Genuinely that is.

While there is plenty of good quality drama out there, mainly from the US, it’s rare that something so subverts the medium of telly that you really can’t tell what it might throw at you next.

After recently finishing series 1 of British home-grown drama Hit and Miss, I can genuinely say this one kept catching me off-guard. The premise has received plenty of press, with transsexual hit wo(man) Mia (played without any sense of easy understanding by a wonderfully elusive Chloe Sevigny) coldly despatching John Doe’s throughout each episode, under the direction of her client, Eddie. We know little of Eddie other than he hangs out in bars and clubs up north, issuing death warrants to Mia with cold instruction. Eddie and Mia’s interdependence underpins the series. There is little evidence of mutual friendship, just raw need, which means they look out for one another without giving a damn.

But more central to the plot is that of Mia’s relationship to a motley crew of children living in a rundown farmhouse on a desolate moor. Early in the series, Mia learns that a former girlfriend, from her previous existence as a man, has recently died, handing custody of one of his own children, as well as three more (two teenage), to her. Yep – confusing, and complicated.

Somewhere, in her pre-op existence as a cold blooded killer, Mia must find the time to be a surrogate parent (mother or father?!) to the four children, dealing with some pretty meaty issues (try rape and murder) in the meantime, looking to find acceptance on every level of personal and social existence. Each episode follows the complex relationships that Mia forms with those who directly affect her life, fighting to gain the respect of her adopted family, while protecting them the only way she knows, with ruthless detachment. Sounds tricky? Well it is. It’s difficult to like many characters in Paul Abbot’s drama, and this is where it works. Apart from the kids, who are depicted as uncertain, angry, defensive, angelic and in serious trouble, there is little else to route for. Every time Mia allows you in, she despatches someone without a second thought, showing no repentance, after all, it’s just a job, paying to keep a roof over her news brood’s heads.

Plot strands link the episodes together, not dragging on. Six episodes felt right, but as with all good dramas, it leaves you wanting a second series to see how things work out.

Beautifully shot, with the cold moors as backdrop, this is un-mistakenly British drama that challenges. No heroes, no easy answers, just some uncompromising situations in which characters are trying to get by. Surviving Mia’s cold killer is beyond many, but it’s the mere survival of everyday that challenges each and every character in this series. I really do hope there’s more to come.

Not easy, or simple viewing. But then the best TV shouldn’t be, should it?

NP

Martin Scorsese’s Student Film: The Big Shave
Jul 2012 29

Have you ever actually watched a student film? Then you will have witnessed:

1. Low production values

2. Demented, spread-eagled overacting, juxtaposed with stultifying underacting

3. Terrible sound. Usually this would be more of an issue, but in most student films, it is greeted by the viewer as a blessing, because it usually masks a script so poor, that puking blood would seem like a pleasant alternative.

How do I know all this? Because I have made a few entries in that illustrious canon in my time at University of course! If there were proof that the great directors really are better than the rest of us, it lies herein, as embedded below is Martin Scorsese’s 1967 student short, The Big Shave.

Unlike most student efforts, whose grandiose ambitions are outweighed by basic filmmaking errors, Scorsese takes a simple, but original idea, and uses filmmaking language to create an interesting and impressive tension. Try not to weep with artistic jealousy at the nascent but still towering talent of the young Scorsese. He is but an artist, and we are mere ants by comparison:

Also, following a recommendation from RBT’s own Tom Williams, I checked out Adam Buxton (of Adam & Joe fame)’s latest show, BUG. Based on some live shows that were successful at the BFI Southbank, BUG essentially consists of Adam Buxton, onstage with a laptop, showing interesting music videos to audience. This he intersperses with irreverent and musical interludes of his own devising, followed by reading out the comments posted by REAL INTERNET PEOPLE in humorous voices.

If it sounds strange, cheap, and un-televisual, you’d be right, but somehow it comes out as both genuinely funny, and strikingly entertaining. It’s also a good opportunity to see some cool music videos, still a relatively new medium, where some of the more talented directors out there get more artistic licence than they would if they were making adverts or films.

So, at the risk of admitting that Tom Williams was right, I have to say that this show is great, and well worth your time. But don’t just take my word for it. Decide for yourself by checking out the below link to a special, funny, intro thing:

TA

<br>Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee
Aug 2012 19

Just a Lazy Shiftless Bastard – Alec Baldwin – Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.

This is the latest project from Jerry Seinfeld and according to Stephen Armstrong in the Sunday Times ‘Jerry finally gets to make a show about nothing’.  If you are a fan of ‘Seinfeld’ you will be well aware of the the running story line of Jerry and George trying to write a sitcom about nothing.  This of course was the inspiration for ‘Seinfeld’ to write a sitcom about four friends who do ordinary everyday things.  ‘Seinfeld’  of course is much more complex than the premise and plays on some very unlikeable characters and social faux pas.   I love thatis it is an online only affair with most episodes on lasting 10 minutes.  I’m just happy to have one of my comedy heroes back on any screen creating new content.  Follow the link at the top to check it out.

Sep 2012 11

HBO Films: The Girl – Trailer – YouTube.

TV You Should Be Watching: Breaking Bad
Sep 2012 26

First off, apologies to our American readers, because you, in your infinite, world-weary wisdom, are probably all over Breaking Bad, and don’t need some jumped up limey to tell you how good it is.

No, this piece is directed at you, the British reader (or perhaps other similarly uninitiated peoples from around the globe), because I have got a televisual treat for you…

Roll up, roll up, for your new favourite TV show. Prepare to marvel at its pop culture radar-bamboozling qualities. Be amazed at the tour-de-force acting blowing your mind episode after episode. Sigh with wonder at the fact that Channel 5 somehow got the rights to it in the UK, and not some more prestigious channel. Amazon the box set, settle in on your comfy sofa, open a beer, and get ready to be entertained.

Breaking Bad is the sordid but addictive tale of high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston)’s diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, and how this is the catalyst for a sudden career change to a crystal meth manufacturing underworld player. Jesse (Aaron Paul) is his dropout former pupil who acts as his partner and the gateway to the netherworld of drug crime. If that wasn’t enough of an about-face from his quiet, suburban lifestyle, how about the complication of having a pregnant wife and teenage son with cerebral palsy? Oh yeah, and did I mention his brother in law works in the Vice Squad?

That’s right: sh*t gets real.

Early on in the first episode, the show grabs you with a ‘flash-forward’ bringing you one of the most bizarre car chases you’ll ever see, complete with (I kid you not) flying trousers. From there, a quick world-building exercise ensues. You further learn that his brother in law seems to be quite good at catching (you guessed it) meth dealers, and it is at this point that you realised that you are hopelessly invested in the narrative. Bryan Cranston, who seems to have enjoyed quite the career renaissance off the back of this (he’s in literally everything) fully commits to his role, and as his previously-suppressed ruthless sociopath takes hold, it’s astounding that he somehow keeps us on his side. Jesse (perhaps surprisingly) provides us with a sympathetic edge to the dealing, meaning that the heavy emotional lifting isn’t left entirely to Walt’s family, who get to shine in other ways.

It’s often been said that this is a golden age in TV drama (particularly in the US), and our stateside cousins routinely rate this as highly as The Wire and The Sopranos. Two television series that have been the torch-bearers for quality television on both sides of the Atlantic. Vince Gilligan’s preference for seven episodes per season keeps the pacing short and snappy without ever feeling rushed, and the darkness (and boy, is it dark), is balanced by a generous helping of some artfully-placed humour.

Absurdly surreal moments and images balance out the violence and familial dischord

This alternate version of the American Dream fires the reward centres of the brain like few can. My advice: get into this show now, get in the lift on the ground floor and make sure that everyone sees you doing it. Then, in a few years, when the rest of the masses eventually catch up, you can smugly inform them that they have “so much good stuff to come”, saying in your most patronising voice: “I’m so jealous of you, getting to watch this for the first time”, all the while lovingly caressing your prized boxsets. It’s not too late, don’t be a sheep, be a shepherd.

A drug-dealing shepherd.

A ghost story is for life, not just for Christmas….
Oct 2012 13

Okay I’ll admit it. When it comes to being spooked I’m a little old fashioned. With the onset of Autumn, I dust off a number of old books that sit my shelves throughout spring and summer and, whenever I have 5 mins to myself, will read ghost stories. Short or long, it doesn’t matter. Even better if it’s by an open fire.

There’s something about M R James, the classic ghost story writer, probably the most famous, that just conjures dread in his numerous short stories. They range from unhinged to terrifying and anything in between. As a Christmas treat in the late 1960s and 70s, the BBC produced adaptations of these tales (under the loose series title of Ghost Stories for Christmas) based in the works of MR James, broadcasting to terrified viewers each Christmas Eve. Auntie then briefly revived the tradition between 2005 and 2010. Imagine my delight at seeing that the BFI has decided to release all 12 dramas in a boxset, due for release later this month (nicely timed for Halloween).

These adaptations, which have a subtlety and style all of their own, have been a major influence on many contemporary British horror film makers and have garnered a reputation as being some of the most sought after British TV titles of all time by their legions of eager fans. They are:

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968); The Stalls of Barchester (1971); A Warning to the Curious (1972); Lost Hearts (1973);The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974); The Ash Tree (1975); The Signalman (1976); Stigma (1977); The Ice House (1978); A View from a Hill (2005); Number 13 (2006); and Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010)

I’d like to draw your attention to 3 of these productions, which stand out over all the others:

1) Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), the original and best adaptation, starring Sir Michael Horden and Directed by Jonathon Miller is a masterpiece of the spooky kind. With sparse dialogue, and some breathtaking black and white photography on the shores of East Anglia, all anchored by a wonderfully bumbling and eccentric turn by Horden, this is hands down one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen. In truth, not a lot happens, but the atmosphere of dread is so well lifted from the original story that it permeates the whole production, until the numbing last few minutes. I guarantee you that, after the numerous shots of the lead character walking on lonely beaches in winter, you’ll begin to feel his very sense of not being alone. There is something just odd about what is following him….

2) A Warning to the Curious (1972), starring Peter Vaughan is a more conventionally recounted and scripted story. Loosely following an amateur archaeologist who rather foolishly removes an ancient crown from a Saxon burial ground, that local legend says is protected by a vengeful spirit, this production has two of the most terrifying and heart-stopping moments I have seen in film. I couldn’t shake its mournful effect for days.

3) The Signalman (1976), starring Denholm Elliot is as haunting a 60 mins as you will ever see. Low key, slow moving, wonderfully acted and with an unparalled atmosphere of desperate melancholy. This story was adapted from an original short by Charles Dickens and builds to a devastating climax.

The remaining productions range in quality, but are all unique in atmosphere. Check out the bizarre and downright weird Lost Hearts (1973), and the fantastic A View from a Hill (2005) as other highlights.

The original version of O Whistle and I’ll Come to You (it was remade in 2010 with John Hurt) remains my absolute favourite. For an idea of its unsettling atmosphere, click on the following link, and watch from 0:58 to 3:13:

O Whistle and I’ll Come to You

It’s fantastic that finally, all of these are being made available, and I would urge film fans of any genre, to get a hold of the boxset as quickly as possible (Official release date is Monday 29th October). This is a masterclass in old fashioned scares.

Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja eat your hearts out.

 

NP

 

 

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