Third-episode verdict: Life on Mars

Life on Mars, starring John Simm and Philip Glennister

Although I review US pilots as they come out (cf ‘Screening Screeners‘, ‘More Screeners‘ and ‘US shows: what to watch and what to ignore completely‘ to see which ones now ring true), I usually reserve my final verdict on new shows until the second or third episode’s aired.

Which explains why I’m only now talking about Life on Mars, the new nostalgia cop show starring John Simm and Philip Glenister. The basic plot: a cop from 2006 gets knocked down in a car accident and wakes to find himself in 1973. Is he in a coma, mad, dead or has he genuinely travelled back in time? We don’t know and neither does he, but until he finds a way back, he has to make the best of it. The trouble is, the police in 1973 appear to think they’re in either an episode of The Sweeney or the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad.

It’s actually pretty enjoyable, despite the fact the show’s from Kudos, who do the glossy but banal Spooks and Hustle. As with all shows where the heroes visit the past, you can get a kick out of the natives’ ‘ignorance’. Most of the show revolves around the gulf between Simm’s expectations of how policing should be done and what his 1970s’ counterparts actually do. Fingerprints take two weeks to be processed, interviews take place in the canteen and aren’t recorded, witness protection is for mafia grasses and Glenister keeps a pile of “bling” and acid in his filing cabinet for when he needs to plant evidence.

The biggest shock is the illiberal attitudes on display (AA Gill said it was as though the main character had woken up in a Richard Littlejohn column). The 70s isn’t that long ago. Most of us can remember the 70s: we’ve lived through it and we have a certain rosy view of the era of our early childhood. But watching Life on Mars, you realise the 70s might as well be one hundred years ago. Watching the treatment a deaf character gets in the second episode brings home to you just what isn’t acceptable these days: anyone ruing political correctness clearly doesn’t remember what things used to be like in the ‘good old days’. Similarly, you realise just how reconstructed today’s police are in comparison with the police of 1973, amazing though that may seem to some.

Of course, Life on Mars isn’t 100% realistic – nor is intended to be. There are hints throughout the show that Simm is still in his hospital after his accident, with mysterious voices talking about his condition and the sun always shining outside, no matter what time of day it is. Any historical slips such as policewomen being called WPC instead of PWs can then be put down to his faulty recall of the era, as can the occasional overly comedic moment such as a mass chase in swimming trunks, which even Simm’s character realises is implausible. Like Lost, though, until the ending is revealed, we won’t know how much slack to cut it on such matters.

Simm and Glenister, last seen together in the outstanding State of Play, get to ham it up a little and seem to have a great time doing it (Glenister more than Simm, who has to be constantly pained by his new colleague’s predilection for punching anyone who annoys him). There’s a rip-roaring 70s soundtrack, including, naturally enough, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’. It’s great fun to watch and while it’s not going to strain the brain too much, there are enough subtleties and unexpected twists to keep your interest piqued.

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Celebrity Big Brother hits the bottom of the barrel

Pete Burns

I have to confess that despite my previous snootiness, I have been watching bits of Celebrity Big Brother. It always work out like that. I say I won’t watch it; Sarah starts watching it; I start watching it over my shoulder.

Last night, I severely began to regret doing this. Did you catch Pete Burns’ abuse of Traci Bingham (the C4 web site totally glosses over Burns’ worst excesses)? Wow. it really makes me proud to be English to know that someone like that shares my nationality. We invite someone over from the US and rather than treat her as a guest in our country, Burns subjects her to a torrent of racist abuse, purely to wind her up.

Fan-bloody-tastic.

If you didn’t catch Dennis’ tape on the first night, he said that the English could be pains and rude. That’s the stereotype: well done Pete for living down to it. You know that if CBB gets any airtime in the US, that is the clip they’re going to be showing.

I feel so proud. If there are any Americans visiting this blog, can I apologise to you all on behalf of my country for inflicting people like Pete Burns on you? Sorry.

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US TV

Who Killed the British Sitcom?

David Liddiment
In case you missed it (ratings 1 million), Who Killed the British Sitcom? was a rather well researched look at trends in British television comedy over the last 30 years.

Presented by David Liddiment, the former director of ITV programmes, the show examined two questions: why British TV schedules are no longer as packed with sitcoms as they were in the 70s; and why there have been so few home-grown ‘classics’ of the genre of late. It came up with five ‘suspects’, including alternative comedy, digital TV and reality TV, and asked whether their arrival had killed off the traditional British sitcom.

It’s always interesting when someone like Liddiment or Greg Dyke makes a programme: they commissioned programmes based on their opinions of what makes a good show, so what happens when they get given a chance to make one themselves? Can they walk the walk? Liddiment, a former investigative journalist and director, clearly knows how to put together a programme and the whole thing gripped from start to finish (unlike Dyke’s last effort).

Galton and Simpson

Most of the show was fascinating, with interviews from most of the major TV comedy writers of British TV history, including John Sullivan, Galton and Simpson, Ben Elton and Carla Lane, exposing how much the commissioning system for comedy had changed since the 50s. Lane appeared particularly galled that no one would commission her to write a 13-part sitcom simply for passing their door – even though she lost her ability to generate decent original content years ago.

The most eye-opening comments came from Victoria Wood, whose unremarkable Dinnerladies, much beloved by older folk, I’d regarded as archaic and dull. She revealed she’d originally intended it as an ER-style show, with multiple cameras swooping in and out of the cast as characters went about their work. Instead, what could have been her crowning achievement, was turned into a standard 70s-style studio piece that she herself was embarrassed by.

Who Killed the British Sitcom?‘s problems stemmed from a certain flabbiness of argument. There were obvious gaps in Liddiment’s coverage of sitcom history, whether for personal or political reasons. For instance, none of the shockingly bad sitcoms that have graced our airwaves over the years, such as ITV’s Babes in the Wood, were mentioned as potential devaluers of the sitcom currency.

Indeed, the idea that anyone in charge of the networks (such as Liddiment) may have been responsible for the demise of the sitcom was entirely overlooked, even though the comments of Wood and others highlighted these failings. Liddiment also ignored certain facts that didn’t gel with his thesis: the high-quality, team-written US sitcoms that Liddiment says undermined the British approach and which he hints should be the model for British sitcom production are actually in trouble in the US, with most of the networks struggling to find shows that last longer than six episodes. Most long-running US sitcoms also suffer from a gradual ‘blanding’ and simplifying of characters to make it easier for ever-changing teams to fit gags to stories, as the inconsistencies of Friends‘ characterisations over the years demonstrated. It seems odd, therefore, for him to suggest this as a solution for generating new classics.

Liddiment’s failure to actively attach blame anywhere even extends to the ‘suspects’ he identifies. None of them is ever fingered as the cause, merely listed as a potential subverter of the genre without much evidence given for its alleged effects. Despite this, Liddiment then goes on to conclude his case proven, without having said what his case was. He then goes on to suggest that maybe everything is all right and that the sitcom is just changing, again without much supporting evidence.

As a polemic, Who Killed the British Sitcom? was fascinating, and with a little tightening up in the narration, it could have been an outstanding piece of television. In its present state, it is at least an interesting examination of British television comedy history. Catch it in repeats if you can.

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Kneale Before Nigel

‘Celebrity’ Big Brother vindicates Nigel Kneale

The Year of the Sex Olympics

Anybody remember a 1968 programme called The Year of the Sex Olympics? Basic plot: population of the world starts to get out of control so the powers that be decide to keep the populace in check by beaming them pornography all day. But guess what? They get bored. There’s only so much porn people can watch before it gets a bit dull (take note Men and Motors). So the powers that be come up with a new idea: reality TV. Stick a family on an island and monitor them 24/7. Then, to really shake things up, stick a criminal on the island and see what happens. The result? People get glued to that all day instead.

It was a remarkably prophetic piece of television, albeit quite dull to watch, unlike the rest of writer Nigel Kneale’s output. What’s even more remarkable is Channel 4’s decision to compress The Year of the Sex Olympics’ plot and stick all its elements into one programme: Celebrity Big Brother.

So we have a bunch of dull people, aka ‘the family’ (Rula Lenska, Faria Alam, Preston Samuel, Maggot, Pete Burns and Chantelle the stooge), pornography (Jodie ‘glamour model’ Marsh, Traci ‘Baywatch’ Bingham) and criminals (well, alleged criminals Michael Barrymore and George Galloway as well as the definitely criminal Dennis Rodman), all stuck into handy half-hour segments for our exploitation/tranquillisation. How Brave New World of Channel 4. I guess our attention span ain’t what it used to be.

Even so, the irony is that given the complete Z-list nature of the ‘celebrities’, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a ratings flop. Our attention span really ain’t what it used to be and minor celebs just don’t aren’t enough any more.

Still, my prediction for the winner? Maggot. All of Wales will be voting for him. Let me know if I turn out to be right: I won’t be watching…