Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ten TV programmes that make me the cynical, paranoid, greedy, capitalist bastard that I am today

In reverse chronological order:

1. 24 (FOX, 2001) The sheer audacity of the final five minutes of season one restored my faith in big-budget mainstream TV. The fast pace, great plotting and character of Sherry Palmer - a charismatic, evil, strong female - had me addicted. After season two it disintegrated into a marketing exercise for FORD, but in its heyday this series ruined a whole genre of movies for me.

2. MY SO-CALLED LIFE (ABC, Channel 4, 1994) was the only high-school series that got a hold of me. GRANGE HILL was nothing like where I went to school and was just too pat - cheekie kids getting into scrapes - and the whole Zammo on smack storyline was again fifty leagues removed from my life. MY SO-CALLED LIFE was bang on. The heroine, Angela, was just a normal kid. Not so pretty, not so smart, not fucked-up by irresponsible parents. But still dealing with her friends' alcoholism and homosexuality and her own messy love-life. I was devestated when it got cancelled.

3. G.B.H. (Channel 4, 1991). Written by the UK's most important contemporary dramatist, Alan Bleasdale, G.B.H. provided a book-end to the social and political upheavals of the Thatcher era. It pitted the megolamaniacal council leader Michael Murray (based on Derek Hatton) against Old Labour headmaster Jim Nelson. It showed how the political machinations at the highest levels - games played for power rather than belief - screw over the lives of normal voters. Intricately plotted and acted, the slowly revealed plot twist answers for much of my political cynicism. It also explains much of the genesis of, and naked opportunism of, the New Labour project. As the shit-rain starts to fall on Blair, I long for another Bleasdale play to chart a course through it all.

4. TWIN PEAKS (ABC, 1990) exploded every convention of what a TV serial could and should do. The visuals were beautiful, the music was haunting, the characters were kooky, beautiful, sick, twisted and full of secrets. The second series lost its way, but the final frames showing the apple-pie wholesome Agent Dale Cooper looking into a mirror at the face of BOB scared me silly. More proof, if any were needed, that David Lynch is the most important visual artist of our time and that the small screen can be used as effectively as the big screen. Shame on all those who do not try.

5. THE NEW STATESMAN SERIES 1,2 and 3 (ITV, 1987) was a vile, brutal, political satire of the worst excesses of the Thatcherite era that had me and my mates re-enacting swathes of dialogue in the playground. It featured Rik Mayall as the corrupt, nouveau riche Tory MP, Alan B'Stard. B'Stard mocked Old Labour crusty Bob Crippen, bullied the landed wet, Piers Fletcher-Dervish MP and mocked the press. B'Stard was brilliantly charismatic and you wanted him to win, so pathetic were his opponents - thus revealing the singular truth that in the Thatcher years, politics on both sides of the fence was a pretty grubby affair. Years later, my cousin Bobby would famously use the line "Right, I'm off to Stringfellows to commit adultery!" with alarming regularity. Of course, THE NEW STATESMAN became unfunny when Thatcher was ousted and replaced with that grey pillock, John Major. Not least of the charges that can be laid against that treacherous bastard, Heseltine's, door is that he pulled the rug from under much of Britain's best comedy.

6. BLACKADDER, SERIES 2,3 and 4 (BBC, 1983-) Blackadder is a peculiarly British comedy that combines dry black wit, political satire and good old-fashioned slapstick comedy. The first series was a bit weak, but by the second it hit its stride. Set in Elizabethan England, then Georgian and finally World War One, Blackadder sent up the great figures of each era in 1066 AND ALL THAT stylee. Blackadder is a malevolent, self-centred man a rung below the in-bred, idiotic ruling class, and frustrated by his infinitely greater merit. Rowan Atkinson's plaintiff sigh of "Oh, God," every time, Percy, Baldrick or the Prince Regent utter some imbecilic plan just sums up what it is to endure life in this country. Not only is Blackadder bloody funny, but in the final episode of Series 4, where the protagonists go over the top of a trench to their death, it is incredibly moving. There is no more eloquent display of the futility and horror of war than those thirty minutes. APOCALYPSE NOW and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN have nothing on it.

7. THE BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF (BBC, 1982). Looking back now, it is easy to forget how radical politics was in the early 1980s and the huge social upheavals that went with it. Now we mock Chavs for wearing Burberry, but in an age of full employment you forget what the miners' strike was like. Of course, I grew up in happy, rich, South-East England with parents who read the Daily Telegraph, so the social unrest seemed like distant thunder. I can still remember the visceral impact of seeing THE BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF and the demented chant, "gissa job". Alan Bleasdale's TV drama exposed for the first time on national television the huge social price of so-called modernity. I can't articulate how much of a revelation that series was.

8. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (ITV, 1981). Of course, I didn't see this till ten years later but it remains for me the quintessial big bucks TV literary adaptation and never to be bettered. Everything about the production is indulgent in the best possible way. Waugh's novel portrays the indulged aristocratic lifestyle and laments its decline. Director Charles Sturridge (who also did a brilliant adaptation of Waugh's brutal A HANDFUL OF DUST) helms a production that spares no expense or attention to detail in bringing the country estate or the Oxford dining club to life. Sir John Mortimer is indulged with thirteen hours of airtime and so can include all the minor characters and the full intricacies of the plot. And the audience is indulged with a stellar cast, including Laurence Olivier as the Byronic Lord Marchmain and Sir John Gielgud in a chilling cameo as Mr. Ryder. I watch the complete BRIDESHEAD REVISITED once a year. It is a story full of tragic love affairs, homosexual, heterosexual, between a man and a way of life, and between people and their faith. It is glorious and shows just how TV can out-do cinema - it can take time. I passionately believe that Alan Moore's THE WATCHMEN can only be brought to the screen SUCCESSFULLY in a similar, lengthy, high-budget, utterly faithful adaptation.

9. TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (1978, ITV) is another faithful adaptation of a novel that I hold in the highest regard. I saw it in the 1990s at a time when I was reading a lot of Graham Greene, Waugh and John le Carre and I can honestly say that it shaped the way in which I view the world - from politics to love affairs. George Smiley is my hero, and George Smiley will always be, for me, Sir Alec Guinness looking weary but unbowed.

10. SESAME STREET taught me the letters of the alphabet, numbers, how to cross a streeet, that there are lots of people who aren't white too..... Thinking back to all that funky music and cartoon ads for numbers sung by the Pointer Sisters, is it any wonder I grew to believe that Maceo Parker's Elephant Stepped on My Foot was the greatest track ever recorded?


  1. How dare you put the travesty teen-angst bullshit that is MSCL in the same category as the sheer genius of Twin Peaks, or the comedy of the New Stateman or Blackadder?

    Bina, I started to suspect this with Lady in the Water - you've lost your way!


  2. Sesame Street rocks! 1,2,3,4,5...6,7,8,9,10...11,12! :-D