Monthly Archives: July 2011

Torchwood: I preferred it when it was rubbish

Torchwood is in several ways one of the most unusual television drama series to have been recommissioned for multiple seasons. It was launched in 2006 as a spin-off of Russell T Davies’ astronomically successful reboot of Doctor Who, and was pitched as appealing to a more adult demographic, with the set-up involving a shadowy team of vaguely X-Files-y scientists and investigators operating from a secret base in Cardiff, with a brief to look into anything alien, or paranormal, or extra-sensory-perception-ish. The first unusual thing about the series is that the BBC didn’t bother sticking its toe in with a pilot but went straight for a 13 week run of 45 minute episodes – they obviously felt confident that anyone over the age of 12 who watched Who would also want to watch this. They didn’t however give it much of a budget. They put it out on their widely derided youth channel BBC Three and most of the money seemed to have been spent on inexplicable helicopter shots of John Barrowman’s character Captain Jack Harkness striking moody/heroic poses atop local landmarks.

The second unusual thing is that, presumably due to the speed with which it was thrown together, the scripts for the series didn’t seem to have gone through any kind of editing or revision process of the type that is needed to catch obvious clashes of tone and transparently risible plot devices. Because once the series started airing, and particularly once past Davies’ reasonably acceptable opening installment, it became obvious very quickly: Torchwood was terrible. The best description I’ve come across is that it was like a 14 year old boy’s idea of what “adult” science fiction should be like: histrionic, seemingly hormone-driven regular characters who divide their time between shouting at each other, getting off with each other and pointing guns at each other, while ludicrous (and very cheaply computer generated) aliens pop up periodically and characterlessly and generally completely non-interestingly in order to be shouted at, or shot at, or got off with. The second episode actually features an alien obsessed with shagging people to death. You get earthy Welsh humour running up against overwrought psychodrama and then colliding with purportedly uber-cool techno-fetishism and that’s really gotta smart.

However, and this third unusual thing may be the most interesting of them, despite its manifest awfulness Torchwood was also hardly ever boring, and often compulsively watchable. Part of this is the attraction of watching a bad accident unfold, but every so often you’d get a hint of something really quite promising: some of the quieter episodes would explore ideas of memory, or loss, or change and sometimes one of the extra-terrestrial artefacts that would regularly appear would catch one’s imagination – the pendant that allows one to read other’s thoughts or the machine that gives one access to the powerful memories associated with significant locations. The ratings were certainly very good, and the series came back a year or so later, this time promoted to BBC Two.

The second series was again 13 episodes, and a certain amount of reining in of extremes had been achieved, but again the feeling was of a show put together by a team under too much pressure and with too little time. Symptomatic of the problems of the programme was the plot strand in which the unlikeable Owen died, but was for obscure and unsatisfactorily presented reasons still able to walk around fully functional and conscious. He seemed to earned this privilege basically because he was able to best a smoky entity representing death in a fist fight. Elsewhere, the tone was still swinging wildly between grotesque black comedy (the wedding/alien pregnancy themed Something Borrowed), event-free “atmospherics” (Out Of The Rain) and glaring campery (anything with Captain Jack squaring off with his sparring partner/alter-ego James Marsters’ Captain John Hart). Again it wasn’t very good – again a lot of people watched it.

Given this run of form it was therefore rather surprising, and yet another unusual thing, that the third season of Torchwood, which aired over five consecutive days in July 2009, turned out to be more or less the best television science-fiction made in Britain since Quatermass. This was one story with the umbrella name Children Of Earth and it masterfully laid out a terrifying scenario in which a powerful and implacable alien ambassador arrives on Earth to present a dreadful claim on the world’s children. Everything that had previously been laughable or unconvincing about Torchwood had been comprehensively expunged and suddenly we had intelligent, probing, sometimes very funny and sometimes genuinely chilling scripts rendered expertly on screen by the actors and the production team. Before, the aliens on Torchwood had been a joke – now they were nightmarish, and the fact that they were never fully visible on screen made it even worse. Peter Capaldi gave what is probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on TV as a conflicted civil servant, and regular characters were seen to make heartbreaking sacrifices and be presented with impossible choices. This was extraordinary television.

And then…well, it’s two years later, and there’s now a fourth season of Torchwood running on BBC One. Rather unusually, it’s now a co-production between the BBC and US company Starz, which means that the action is largely taking place in the states, and most of the cast are American. As in the previous season, it’s one long story running over several episodes (ten this time, under the banner title Miracle Day), and also as before, it hangs on a simply explained concept: one day, human beings stop dying. This intriguing idea has the mark of Russell T Davies about it, and for sure he’s involved, overseeing and writing some episodes, but you know what? Three episodes in, and I’ve stopped being interested. These days Torchwood is slick and expensive and can afford big-name stars like Bill Pullman and classy location shooting but it’s also, for the first time ever, really boring. The plot is moving at snail’s pace, blatant padding abounds, all of the new characters are either bland or obnoxious and it may just be me, but isn’t it a little patronising to give characters lines explaining to the British audience what a gas station or a drugstore or an ATM is? There must be some interesting avenues to explore with a central idea as audacious as this one, but they sure don’t seem to bothered about getting there any time soon. This may be where me and Torchwood part company – shame, but as rides go it’s sure been damnably unusual.

Beginners: even men with steel hearts love to see a dog in a flick

Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills (not the one out of REM), is a charming and low-key drama starring Ewan McGregor as Oliver, a sensitive and introspective commercial artist, and Christopher Plummer as his increasingly eccentric and flamboyant father who comes out as gay at the age of 75 after Oliver’s mother dies. Plummer’s character himself dies four years later and the movie flips back and forth between scenes showing Oliver coping with his father’s fairly radical change of lifestyle and scenes from the period when he’s having to deal with his second bereavement, clear his father’s house and try to re-establish his emotional connection with the world, mainly through a new relationship he strikes up with an actress he meets while attending a party dressed as Sigmund Freud. The film’s regularly punctuated by McGregor’s voiceovers and some idiosyncratic montages of old photographs and illustrations, but for the main part it’s played out in a loose and understated manner and manages to avoid being either irritatingly quirky or depressingly maudlin.

McGregor is onscreen for pretty much the whole of the running time and is surprisingly convincing as the sad and lonely Oliver, given his over-familiarity from a string of considerably more bombastic movies, and Mélanie Laurent does as well as she can with her somewhat clichéd role as the kooky but troubled love interest, but it’s the veteran Christopher Plummer who really impresses here, playfully mincing his way through Gay Pride events and private parties without once coming across as a lazy stereotype. It’s nice that Oliver is fully accepting and supportive of his father’s embracing of his true sexuality, and much of the energy of the film comes from the contrast between the father’s new lust for life and Oliver’s subsequent aimlessness and expectations of disappointment. The true star of the film however is Arthur, the Jack Russell that Oliver inherits after his father’s death – normally, using a dog in a film as shorthand for the need for companionship comes over as obvious and hackneyed, but here the animal steals every scene with its cuteness, and the director even gets away with using subtitles to convey Oliver’s impressions of what its inner thoughts might be, which really really shouldn’t work. This is a lovely film. Genuinely touching.

Richard Herring and Catie Wilkins at The Junction, Cambridge, 26th July 2011

Impromptu visit to the Junction on Tuesday to see two comedians previewing their Edinburgh Festival sets and using the opportunity to generally finetune and work out timings and which bits of their material need sharpening up. Actually, both of these sets seemed pretty much nailed down already. Catie Wilkins presented a well-structured, if slightly tentative, set based mainly on her childhood and her relationship with her parents. She was very likeable and managed to find interesting angles on what you might think is a well-worn subject, along with some funny and engaging anecdotes, but you got the sense that she’s relatively new to stand-up and hasn’t yet developed the attack mechanism a comedian would need if faced with a more restless or beered-up audience than this one. Definitely worth watching though.

No such issues with Richard Herring however, who blasted his way through an hour and a quarter of his new show What Is Love, Anyway? at high speed – very impressive, given the lack of any overlap of material with his previous one Christ On A Bike, which he only finished touring a few weeks ago. The new stuff tends more towards the personal, with several heartfelt but still very funny stories about his family and some imaginative flights of fancy spinning off conversations he’s had with his girlfriend (the Ferrero Rocher pyramid routine is a particular highlight), and his delivery is as robust as ever – there weren’t any hecklers in the house, but you sense that anyone trying to destabilise the show would have been minced quite mercilessly. I’d expected something a lot more formless and improvisatory than this – I’ve got a feeling he’s going to slay them in Edinburgh.

Word On The Water: C.W.Stoneking on a paddle steamer plus my two minutes of podcast glory 24/7/2011

Sometimes everything just lines up nicely. My partner Soo and I been thinking about going on a boat down the Thames for a while and we’re currently mildly obsessed by delta blues/1920s jazz throwback C.W.Stoneking, so when The Word magazine emailed to offer me priority booking for an afternoon in London aboard the rather plush paddle steamer The Dixie Queen with Stoneking providing the musical entertainment it was, as I believe the young people say, a no-brainer.  And if that were not enough, the magazine’s overlords and all-purpose music and popular culture commentators David Hepworth and Mark Ellen would also be recording one of their legendary podcasts during the trip. These informal, usually insightful and frequently hysterically funny chats have been enlivening my walks to work for over five years now, and this seemed like an unmissable opportunity. Tickets were booked within about 30 seconds of the “You’ve Got Mail!” alert sound going off.

Come the day of the cruise, the good karma didn’t look like it was running out: it was gloriously sunny in London, the brightest and warmest day for weeks. Soo and I boarded at Tower Pier and headed upstairs to the bar, where Mr Hepworth was performing unofficial bouncer duties by the door to the not yet accessible lounge where the music and talking were due to take place. A couple of exits next to the bar led to an open-air deck at the front of the boat from which a classic view of Tower Bridge could be had, and as this was apparently the biggest pleasure steamer in the country, the bridge was going to have to raise to let us pass. We got a good vantage point as the boat approached, with me vaguely worrying about the possibility of missing the start of the podcast recording.

And then the weird thing happened. Pretty much exactly as we passed under the two halves of the raised bridge the public address came on and we heard the convivial tones of Mark Ellen, welcoming us aboard and telling us that the podcast would be starting in the next few minutes. And that in the spirit of audience participation that it would be nice if the first five people to have bought tickets could be part of the podcast. Remember what I said about being quick on the draw with that email…

Now, I’m by no means an attention-seeker (despite the existence of this blog), and my gut instinct in this kind of situation is to find a cupboard to hide in, but hell! This was The Word podcast! Short of being inexplicably invited on the Adam & Joe show I wasn’t going to get something this in tune with my sensibilities landing at my feet again ever. So I walked over to Mark, identified myself, found myself being greeted like some class of superstar and a few minutes later was in the surreal position of taking the stage to a round of applause, where I sat next to estimable compere Kerry Shale and was subjected to some gentle grilling on my first ever gig (The Cure, 1984. Mr Hepworth didn’t approve), my best ever gig (very tricky…but I went for Robyn Hitchcock in Anglia Poly bar in 2004 because I thought there’d be mileage in it, what with him being mates with Mr Ellen), and the best ever time I’ve ever had on a boat (I picked falling into a canal, which probably isn’t true but had humour potential). I think it went off OK, but it’s going to take some courage to listen to it when it’s released. Two minutes later I was back in the audience shellshocked, listening to the next person’s answers to the same questions. And not long after that, they brought out Neil Finn from Crowded House and asked him too. This led into a two song set by Finn and his wife’s informal set-up Pajama Club, which sounded pretty snappy to me.

After the podcast, the main event. By now, the lounge was packed, with tables full of people down by both sides and others (including Soo and I) sitting primary school style on the dance floor in front of the stage. Stoneking led his band through a truncated set and sounded as authentically temporally- and geographically- dislocated as ever (for more detail on his extraordinary M.O. see here). He also mined a good line in boat-related between-song banter. He wrapped up just as the boat returned back to Tower Pier – I hadn’t even noticed it turning round. It had been three hours since we departed but it felt like ten minutes. Just time to get some CDs signed by Stoneking and a short chat with Mr Ellen about the days of Smash Hits and we were away. An amazing afternoon.

PJ Harvey and Portishead at All Tomorrow’s Parties: I’ll Be Your Mirror, Alexandra Palace 23/7/2011

I’m not much of a one for festivals, as I tend to find, as in life, that being presented with simultaneous multiple options induces anxiety rather than relaxation, but I made an exception for day one of All Tomorrow’s Parties: I’ll Be Your Mirror as at least it was being held in a well-defined and relatively accessible venue (the venerable Alexandra Palace) and it wasn’t going to involve any camping. True to form, on arrival I found the sheer mass of humanity attending a little alarming, and the confusing one-way system didn’t help allay my gut instinct that I’d signed up for some kind of alternative bootcamp, but after some food and a screening of the agreeable Submarine (featuring an appropriately shambolic and self-effacing Q & A with its director Richard Ayoade) I was starting to feel acclimatised.

As I’ve said before, at the minute I love PJ Harvey, and it was great to see her even in the vast Great Hall of the palace, a massive space that may well have been used in a past life for auctioning blue whales. She appeared dressed entirely in black, clutching her autoharp, with her extensive black hair sculpted into a fantastic back-projecting structure that reminded me of nothing so much as the alien blue opera singer from The Fifth Element. Her set consisted mainly of a tight runthrough of nearly all of the songs from the remarkable Let England Shake, with the band made up of the same seasoned players that appear on the album, and as on the recorded version they played with grace and no showboating, allowing you not to be distracted from the PJ’s astonishing and highly accomplished vocals. As befits an artist wary of resting on her laurels there was nothing much in the way of golden oldies (C’mon Billy and Angelene were I think the only pre-2007 selections), and there were a couple of songs I didn’t recognise that may well have been new. All fine stuff anyway, presented with the minimum of fuss and over a more than decent public address system, and it was nice of PJ to introduce her band and let them take a bow with her at the end.

Portishead were awesome and majestic and magisterial and any other adjective you can find towards the top end of the scale of quality that starts with “alright, I suppose”. Their melancholy blend of processed beats, murky aural textures and heart-tugging melody can’t be straightforward to reproduce even in laboratory conditions, but the mix in this most cavernous of venues was well-nigh faultless, with Beth Gibbons’ aching vocals cutting through the industrial percussion and treated guitars immaculately. The five musicians on stage were varying the approach admirably too, changing instruments to fit every song’s requirements with the minimum of delays, and I was surprised to hear something as traditional as a delicately picked acoustic guitar at one point. My only issue is really the same that I have with the albums, in that the raw material gets a little, well, samey after a while – the songs and arrangements always seem to be descending, and would it kill them to use a major chord every now and then? – but there’s absolutely no denying the quality of this performance. Sour Times sounded as clear as a CD being listened to on top quality headphones, with every element in perfect balance, while the harsh electronic drill-like motif of the frankly terrifying Machine Gun (surely one of the least compromising pop singles ever) seemed to cause my heart to start racing. They went to town with the visuals too: multiple screens showing a mix of animations, abstract sequences and distorted live footage of the band as they played. This was one of the most impressive live presentations on a technical level I can remember, even if I didn’t always connect emotionally with the repertoire.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2: end of an era

And lo, it did come to pass, ten years after the first film in this most juggernauty of franchises and fourteen years after the first book in the world-subduing series was published, that the final (and here we must apply the standard issue ill-advised-reboot caveat) Harry Potter movie did come to be unleashed. There’s no point at this stage attempting a precis of the general set-up – this is literally the most popular thing in the whole of popular culture, so if you don’t know by now it must be through deliberate avoidance, in which case you presumably won’t even be reading this – and the makers of the unwieldly titled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 certainly don’t waste any time trying to bring any newcomers to the series up to speed. My main piece of advice if you’re thinking of seeing it is therefore: do your homework. It’s an adaptation of the second half of a knotty, plotty and continuity-heavy fantasy novel that is itself the seventh part of a complex series, and there’s no handy “previously on Harry Potter” montage at the start. I’ve actually read these books, and I saw Hallows part 1 only six months ago, and I was struggling to remember the significance and number of the various magical artefacts and the specific personality traits of the many minor characters good and evil, and a lot of the several casual references to incidents in the last film went straight over my head. I suspect most of the kids watching will be fine though.

Is it any good? Was it worth sitting through all those hours of spells, lessons, Quidditch matches and murky family history to get to this? Well, yes, I think so. For me the Potter films have been until now a classic example of the law of diminishing returns, with the spark and charm of the early ones gradually giving way to darkness and angst, and the once elegant standalone plots becoming over-complicated and offering less and less to anyone not a committed fan. Hallows part 1 in particular seemed painfully slow and melancholy, with the story becalmed for much of its running time. The new movie however reverses the trend. Stuff’s finally getting resolved here, and it’s done with some style.

As you might expect for a film adapted from the second half of a book this is a little weird structurally, starting as it does with some quiet talky scenes dealing with the aftermath of the climactic events of the previous installment. It doesn’t take long to rev up though, first with a flamboyantly executed sequence involving a bank raid (well, I say bank. It’s more like a vast subterranean wilderness really) and an impromptu dragon ride, and then a return to Hogwart’s school, which is now in the hands of the enemy. Pretty soon we’re into an extended siege reminiscent of the Helm’s Deep section of The Lord Of The Rings which affords the film-makers an opportunity to show off some impressive pyrotechnics. All of this is done with admirable pace, energy and confidence, which is a blessed relief after the seemingly endless shots of Harry, Hermione and Ron moping about in the woods in the last film.

Even more impressive than the special effects however is the effectiveness of the long-awaited reveal of the motivations of Alan Rickman’s ostensibly treacherous Snape, aka The Teacher We Love To Hate. This bit has real emotional heft, as has the subsequent passage of Harry confronting his destiny, which means that when we get to the grand finale we’re properly invested in the characters – no mean trick for a whizz-bang Summer blockbuster. Things pay off satisfactorily, and the ending isn’t shamelessly milked or over-extended, although I suspect the tacked-on epilogue won’t be for everyone. This is a strong finish for the most successful entertainment thing ever – just don’t even think about seeing it unless you’ve seen the others. Or read a cribsheet.

Footnote: Can you believe how many top-notch British thesps are in this film, even if it’s just for a few seconds? Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Kelly MacDonald, Julie Walters, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory, Michael Gambon, Miriam Margoyles, Emma Thompson…

The Tree Of Life: nuts on a cosmic scale

So what was all that about then?

This season’s chin-strokey arthouse must-see would seem to be Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, which has been provoking both awe and ridicule since it was unveiled at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. It’s clearly a labour of love and a deeply personal project from the legendarily reclusive and enigmatic (ie doesn’t do interviews) writer and director, and it’s certainly very rare to find something this defiantly highbrow made on what must have been a considerable budget. I can’t see this one making its money back any time soon.

Why the controversy? What’s so difficult and challenging about it? Well, for about three-quarters of its running time, nothing really. The bulk of the film is a small-scale, closely observed domestic drama seen through the eyes of the eldest of three young boys growing up in a suburban American environment in the 1950s. The conflict arises through the stern authoritarian attitudes of the boys’ father, who insists on them calling him “Sir” and impresses a “nice guys finish last” message on them at every available opportunity. Their mother is by contrast loving, supportive and long-suffering and rarely stands up to her husband. There are one or two significant incidents, but the flow of these sequences is for the most part easy and unforced, with the emotions and development of the characters being revealed more through the camerawork than through the dialogue, which is hardly ever expository and absent completely for long periods. This section of the film is deftly made and often quite moving, with the sense of both the exuberance and the frustrations of youth being effectively conveyed. It’s energetically shot, with a lot of handheld camera and a particular focus on the natural world, and it’s skilfully edited, with a striking montage dealing with the births and early childhood of the boys and some occasional jumpcuts that underline moments of tension. It’s almost well-made enough to let you forget that the father is being played by Brad Pitt.

So there’s a neat and touching ninety minute family portrait here. The trouble is that surrounding, and sometimes interrupting, it is the rest of the film. And this stuff is frankly bizarre. Early on there’s a long passage that reminds me of nothing so much as a live action remake of the “Rite Of Spring” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia: lots of Hubble-style imagery of distant galaxies and star formations giving way to fire and lava, which are in turn replaced by primeval life forms and surging oceans before we end up with rainforests and fully rendered CGI dinosaurs, all set to a stirring operatic soundtrack. It is in its own way quite magnificent, but it’s more like God’s own screensaver than anything that relates to the Brad Pitt stuff. And the dinosaurs must have cost millions. Then there are the bits with Sean Penn, who’s playing the grown-up version of the oldest son. Now Penn’s a damn fine actor, but he doesn’t get to do anything here other than look wistful and regret-struck, initially in a succession of soulless steel and glass skyscrapers and then in a desert and on a beach (presumably to make a nature-good/business-bad point). Finally there’s an extended bit involving hundreds of people wading around at low tide looking worryingly happy-clappy that might well be pitched to a plane somewhat higher than the one I tend to inhabit.

Anyway: it’s weird. But not completely without merit. The other things it reminded me of were Andrei Tarkovsky in general, and Mirror in particular (though that, despite being deliberately collage-like, somehow seemed a lot more cohesive than this), and the trippier bits of 2001 A Space Odyssey, which confused the hell out of me when I first saw it at age eleven. I grew to love 2001 in the end, so who knows? Maybe this tree is a grower…