Showing posts with label General TV. Show all posts
Showing posts with label General TV. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

...and when Bagpuss goes to sleep...

RIP Oliver Postgate

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Important Note For the BBC

A policy of appeasement towards the Daily Mail will not work. The Daily Mail is not objecting to one particularly ill-judged radio broadcast: they will use anything as a pretext to attack what they still think of the Bolshevik Broadcasting Company. The colour of a newsreaders' tie; an insufficiently groveling news item about the royal family; soap opera story lines which are too depressing; every occurrence of the word "fuck", in any context - nothing is too trivial to be used as ammunition in their war against public service broadcasting.

Why, incidentally, does the
Today programme continue to say things like "he used the F-word"? Whose sensibilities are they trying to protect? Those of the kind of Daily Mail reader who would be traumatized by seeing the word "masturbation" in plain print? When Today ran an item about how some black people have reclaimed the N-word, they were quite happy to actually pronounce it.

Daily Mail thinks that in attacking the BBC, it is striking a blow against the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite. I have no stomach for a class-war: but if it comes to a fight between the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite and the reactionary, ignorant, provincial riff-raff then I know which side I intend to fight on.

I have very little interest in the role-call of minor pop singers and spoiled Hollywood
luvvettes who parade across Jonathan Ross's chat show: but surely any fool can see that he is a consummate master of the medium of live television? He seems to have the capacity to, on the one hand, totally forget, and to make his victims forget, that they are in front of a camera; while at the same time using the camera as a licence to say the kinds of things that you simply wouldn't say in real life. In an era when TV is bigger than Jesus, the man who can do that will naturally command an astronomical salary. I am not especially entertained by a grown man saying "Bum" to an actress that I have never heard of: but I think that "In Search of Steve Ditko" was the single best documentary about comic-books ever made. Ross is the only person who has ever successfully challenged Stan Lee's version of events; only someone with his outrageous interviewing style could have done so. Obviously, someone who is paid for having this persona is going to overstep the mark from time to time.

When the
Daily Mail is looking for an excuse to hang you, it is most unwise to give them any rope. But the idea that sacking a couple of "shock jocks" will silence the Hooray For the Blackshirts brigade is naive in the extreme. Nothing short of the abolition of the licence fee, which they regard as a thievery on a level with droit du seigneur will satisfy them. Do you really think that allowing them to scent blood is going to calm them down? Surely it is a matter of basic human decency to stick up for your naughty kids in public, even if you give them a clip round the ear when you get them home?

Or am I just too inclined to assume that anyone who named one of their children "Kirby" can't be all-bad?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Important Note For Politicians and Leader Writers

Bad Things happen. Bad Things have always happened. Very probably, Bad Things are going to carry on happening.

Bad Things are not the result of some local and contemporary state of affairs which could, in principle, be changed.

Bad Things would have happened even if the previous administration had not made any errors of judgment; and Bad Things will carry on happening even if you form the next administration. Bad Things are
not the ugly manifestation of a society no longer worthy of the name. Bad Things are not proof that we live in a broken society. There were Bad Things before the Second World War; and Bad Things before the nineteen sixties. There were Bad Things before women started to go out to work. Even when we lived in nuclear families and communities and exerted social pressure through each others net curtains, there were still Bad Things.

When a Bad Thing happens, it is
not a pretext for you to say that everything you have been saying about everything for the last few years has been right; and everything the other side has been saying about everything for the last few years has been wrong. It is most unlikely that any particular Bad Thing has been caused by liberals, civil partnerships, easy divorce, rude disc-jockeys, or the paying of income support to disabled people.

When a Bad Thing happens, please resist the temptation to say "We must make sure that such a Bad Thing never happens again." Because it will. Almost certainly, it already has.

Oh: and there is no such
thing as a "pauper's funeral". Even John Doe gets a hearse, a clergyman, and a marked grave.

Friday, September 05, 2008

"I've witnessed cruelty. I read Darwin all the time and find it feeds my faith. Richard Dawkins makes me want to pray, the same as Homer Simpson makes me want to exercise - for fear that I, too, will end up like him, a whining pub bore with the prose style of an internet conspiracy theorist."
Frank Cottrell Boyce

(I watched Mr Boyce's play. It is jolly nice that the BBC is still up for doing serious cerebral theatrical drama from time to time; all the thesps were acting a lot; the theological points on all sides were well made and followed through; but it managed to still be about characters rather than just a debate. But I couldn't shake the sense that this was a
Christian - maybe specifically Catholic - view of the holocaust: every time someone said "It's God who should have been sent to Auschwitz" I could almost hear the Priest adding: "And do you know, in a very real sense, He was." Maybe a Christian writer can't avoid drawing a line between Cavalry and the concentration camps - it's old news that the Suffering Servant is both Jesus and the Jews. But I wonder what Jewish groups and actual holocaust survivors made of the piece?)

Friday, October 27, 2006


Some television programmes are not by Russell T Davies.
Channel 4 decided that it would be a good idea to promote Peter Morgan's drama about the life of Lord Longford by taking out full-page adverts in the broadsheets depicting Myra Hindley as a saint. Possibly even as the Virgin Mary. It makes one want to experiment with using the words "prophet", "Denmark" and "cartoons" in various combinations.
The advertisement carries the strapline "What did he see in her?" which makes me think that Channel 4 got cold feet before transmitting the film. The halo'd face in the montage is that of Hindley herself, not actress Samantha Morton. It's the police mugshut, of course: assume I'd written a sentence including the words "peroxide" and "iconic" in this space. In the film, Lord Longford doesn't recognise Myra when he first visits her in prison, because she no longer looks like that picture. (Her hair turned red while she was on remand, which some people said indicated that she had no remorse. "I wasn't aware of any correlation between hair colouring and contrition" says Longford.) There seems to be no connection between the ordinary, rather pleasant woman who Longford gets to known and the woman in the picture. The film spends an intelligent and un-sensational couple of hours speculating about what the connection might have been. But there are some powerful people who think that even attempting to understand Myra Hindley is the equivalent of condoning what she did. To avoid being accused of supportiing child murder, the publicity material turns the film on its head, and pretends that it is Lord Longford, not Myra Hindley, who requires "explanation". No sane person could have visited such a monster, let alone called for her parole. So he must have had some ulterior motive. Perhaps he believed that she was a saint. Perhaps he "saw something in her."
The film itself only flirts with this explanation, briefly, and puts it into the mouth of Ian Brady, who says directly that Longford is sexually attracted to the murderess. This seemed to be a slightly heavy-handed intervention from the dramatist, pointing up a possible symmetry. If Longford fancied Myra, then we would have a woman who was only ever loved by two people: one of whom embodied most of what we understand by "evil", and the other was about as close to "good" as anyone you are ever likely to meet. (Who was it who, when asked how they imagined the Christian God, said they thought he must be something like Lord Longford?) But what comes through in the rest of the film is that Longford doesn't really need to be "explained". He was a Christian, possibly a slightly naive one. He thought that loving outcasts and visiting prisoners was part of his Christian duty. He didn't, in that sense, see anything in her -- he aoffers to help the psychotic Brady as well, but Brady won't let him.

Isn't agape by definition love for the un-lovable?
The remarkable thing about the film–apart from Jim Broadbent's astonishingly convincing impersonation of Lord Longford himself–is the way that it presents a complex argument, but nevertheless comes out feeling like drama, not editorial.

The drama follows two trajectories: on the one hand, the relationship between Lord Longford and his wife. She initially opposes his Hindley campaign and persuades him to give it up and concentrate on pornography instead. But having studied the case, she suddenly comes over to his side and recites, over Christmas dinner, a whole series of arguments in favour of Hindley's release which hadn't previously occurred to her husband. ("How much do you know about sado-masochistic relationships?") But this doesn't feel like a speech in a debating society: it feels like an old married couple who have quarrelled having a genuinely touching reconciliation scene. Similarly, a delicately balanced debate about porn–the Lord thinks it is very dangerous, the Lady that it's essentially harmless–comes across as a masterpiece of understated comedy because it takes the form of two old posh people in bed together surrounded by copies of Fiesta and Playboy.
The other strand of the story is, obviously, Longford's relationship with Hindley. The film's thesis is that Hindley deceived him. She finally scuppers her only chance of parole by admitting to two further murders. This means that she not only lied to Lord Longford but that, presumably, she didn't make a full confession to her priest and therefore her return to the Catholic Church is suspect at best. But the film also argues that Longford wilfully allowed himself to be deceived. Early in the story, an anonymous benefactor sends him a cassette tape labelled "The bitch should rot in hell", which he puts in a drawer and doesn't listen to. We all know what "tape" means in the context of a story about the Moors murders. I assume that this is a dramatic device, but the point is a valid one: Longford could have gained access to those terrible recordings but he chose not to; he was therefore able to continue to believe that Hindley was only an accessory to the crime–guilty of murder in they eyes of the law, but not evil in the way that Brady was.
I was rather concerned that we were going to be asked to draw the conclusion that "forgiveness" implies minimizing or condoning sin: that Longford forgave Myra because he didn't think that she was as bad as everyone said she was, and that he gave up on her when he discovered that in fact she was even worse. But the film actually draws a much more interesting and challenging conclusion. Because Myra has ruined Longford's good name by allowing him to campaign for her release on false premises, he finds that he has to forgive her for something that she has done to him--not merely an abstract crime against strangers.
The film concludes with another rather writerly scene in which the aging Longford and the terminally ill Myra meet for the last time in an open prison. He thinks that he has grown spiritually by being forced to learn to love and forgive this sinner; she still remembers her terrible crimes and claims that evil can be a spiritual experience as well.
The film doesn't ultimately "explain" Myra Hindley. We are allowed to consider the possibilities that she is a sinner who repenteth; and a sinner who is unable completely to repenteth or that she is a weak woman temporarily turned into a monster under the influence of a psychopath. Perhaps the most convincing theory is the one put into Brady's mouth: Hindley is literally an "hysteric", one who takes on the attributes that she thinks the person she is with wants her to have: a butch lesbian for her prison guard; a good catholic for Lord Longford; a sadist for her psychotic boyfriend. The one possibility that is not considered is that she is simply an evil figure with an evil haircut who a naive philanthropist mistook for a saint.
For me, the film was summed up by an unintentional irony in the casting department. When Hindley's accomplice first walks onto the set, we see, not the iconic face of Ian Brady, but the familiar, staring, but un-augmented features of Andy Serkis. Longford could have been mistaken for an old wizard, come to that.
Deserve to die? I dare say he does....

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Reader, I Adapted Him

'What are we going to do this season that will convince the punters that the licence fee is good value for money?'

'You mean apart from the hippos?'

'I was thinking maybe one of those costume dramas with ladies in bonnets and wild, uncontrollable men with wild, uncontrollable hair.'

'Good call. They go down well with broadsheets and foreigners.'

'I thought maybe Jane Eyre?'

'OK, I'll nip down to Smiths and pick up a 99p classic. What did she write?'


'Er, guys, I think we have a problem. I was expecting chick lit. Wild eyed hunks on the moor singing it's me, I'm cathee, I've come home.'

'I think that's a different one.'

'But it's all about religion, and growing up, and education, and psychology, and scenery.'

'Well, cut it.'

'All of it?'

'Well, the religion and the psychology. It worked for Peter Jackson. But leave in the scenery We need an excuse for a location shoot or the punters won't believe it was expensive. But drop the education and cut straight to the bonking.'

'There isn't any bonking.'

'I thought you said it was a costume drama?'

'I thought you said it was a prestige literary adaptation.'

'Well invent some. You are a writer after all.'

'Sex? In Jane Eyre? Is it okay if they keep their clothes on?'

'Only if it's artistically necessary. Are there any bonnets?'

'Oh yes. Lot's and lots of bonnets.'

'Bonnets are good. I suppose there is no way you can work in a hippo?'

First person narratives aren't easy things to turn into dramas. Jane Eyre is all about Jane's mind and how it develops; it's full of thoughts, subjective impressions, and enormously long sentences. ('And then my mind made its first earnest effort to comprehend what had been infused into it concerning heaven and hell; and for the the first time it recoiled baffled; and for the the first time glancing behind, on each side, and before it, it saw all round an unfathomed gulf: it felt the one point where it stood -- the present; all the rest was formless cloud and vacant depth; and it shuddered at the thought of tottering, plunging amid that chaos.') It is a mark of how much Ruth Wilson will deserve her BAFTA that she manages to suggest the existence of these kinds of inner depths in a script which, of necessity, limits her to spending most of the first two episodes not saying much more than 'Yes Sir,' and 'No Sir'. Toby Stevens is neither sexy enough nor enough of a bastard to really succeed in being the sexiest bastard in literature, but he had a damn good try. The film starts to sparkle whenever the two of them have an extended scene together. And although it is never tricksy, there are some nice visual touches: I particularly liked the way in which we see Jane and Rochester's faces in profile, her's superimposed over his, the first time he announces that 'you and I are one.' The central episodes, where Jane is the governess at Thornfield made gripping TV, although they did stress the 'Gothic' aspect of the story rather too much for my taste. Jane's wedding is carried of brilliantly; what sticks in the mind is not the high melodrama of the lawyer at the back of the church saying 'There is an impediment!' but Rochester looking at Jane in awe and saying 'How could I have imagined you would have looked better in that gaudy veil!' The use of flashbacks to bring those of us who haven't been watching The Wide Sargasso Sea up to speed with the mad-woman in the attic are also a good idea in theory, although they tend to underline the fact that Rochester can't really be imagined in any context apart from his rambling Gothic mansion. So, all in all, a jolly good piece of Sunday night TV of the kind they don't make any more. What it wasn't, of course, was an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre concludes with Jane receiving a letter from her former suitor Rev. St. John Rivers, who has gone to be a missionary in India (as opposed to Africa, incidentally.) He's very ill; but he knew when he went that the climate would probably kill him. ' "My master,"he says "Has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly 'Surely I come quickly!' and hourly I more eagerly respond, 'Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus.' " ' The last line of Jane Eyre is the same as the last line of the Bible. St. John is quoting St. John. This is important at all sorts of levels. Rochester is the most important person in Jane's life, but he's not the be-all and end-all of her world: when she concludes her 'autobiography', she has higher things than romance on her mind. The story has partly been about Jane's spiritual growth: it starts with her at the mercy of some thoroughly nasty Christians; but it ends with her thinking about a thoroughly good one.

The BBC's version ends with Jane and Rochester entertaining some kind of family gathering, possibly the christening of their second child. They form up into a family group, and the final image of the film is a photograph in a floral frame. (Quite who was taking snapshots in 1847 is open to question: perhaps they held the pose for a week or so while someone did an oil painting.) Granted, this is an attempt to deal with the four most un-adaptable words in English Literature; but it's clear that we are being told that they all lived happily ever after. The book leaves us wondering, as Jane is presumably wondering, whether she did the write thing to follow her heart back to Thornfield rather than follow her head and become a clergyman's wife. In the TV series, the question is not even on the table: all stories end with weddings and if it comes to a choice between God and Toby Stevens, there's no contest. The idea that 'spiritual and religious development' could be one strand of a novel that is also about lurve is clearly not something which TV audiences could deal with. So out goes. So out goes most of the Lowood section (about a quarter of the book) and out goes much of the relationship with St. John.

We know that Jane is never going to go to Africa with Rivers, because she spends all the time that she is with him having flashbacks about Rochester, rendering the sci-fi climax, in which she is summonsed back to Thornfield by telepathy, rather gratuitous. At one level, these flashbacks are a rather elegant bit of TV narration. We jump straight from the revelation of the madwoman in the attic to Jane's being found wandering on the moor by Rivers and his sisters. The flashbacks gradually fill in the details of what happened in between, but also serve to keep Toby Stevens present on the screen when he is absent from the plot, and thus, to prevent the distaff contingent switching to channel 5.

On what would have been their wedding night, Rochester goes to Jane's bedchamber and begs her to run away with him to Italy. Jane is lying on her back; Rochester is lying on Jane, in what Rev. Rivers would presumably not have called the missionary position. It is in this position that he suggests that they could live as brother and sister, so she would not have to live in sin. I think Jane would probably have regarded miming intercourse with a man she didn't think she could legally marry as quite sinful enough, thank you very much. In case we have missed the point, when she goes back to Rochester after the fire, they end up lying on top of each other on the grass, decently clad but with their legs most indecorously intertwined.

Adapting a 19th century book and expecting the characters to adopt 21st century attitudes is precisely like going on holiday to Spain and insisting on drinking fish and chips and Courage best. There may have been a time when the BBC adapted Great Books in the hope that the Unwashed Masses who hadn't read them would be encouraged to discover the wonderful world of reading; or else they did radical reworkings of the classic to challenge and titillate the people who had. Now, it's just a matter of scouring old books for period love stories. Historical tourism.

Meanwhile, if you are the sort of person who finds themselves compelled to look at road accidents, then the BBCs other high-profile costume drama has not yet been removed from its prime time Saturday evening spot.

I think I probably first met Robin Hood in a Christmas production of Babes in the Wood . Then the BBC did The Legend of Robin Hood as one of their Sunday tea-time classic serials, my lady this and my lady that, earnest, historical and probably filmed in a quarry. I've also seen Basil Rathbone trying to conceal the fact that he is an accomplished fencer and Errol Flynn isn't; and Michael Praed pretending that if he goes on and on about Herne the Hunter, no one will notice his girly haircut. But these are all travesties. We all know the canonical version of the story, the one against which all others are judged. It's the one where Robin is a fox, Little John is a bear and Friar Tuck is a badger. In terms of seriousness, conviction and authenticity, it knocks the BBCs present offering into a cocked hat. With a feather on it.

Robin himself is probably the most interesting thing in the new series. In a Saturday teatime sort of way, he's trying to be a rounded character. We're in the version of the story where Robin is not a mere yeoman, but the Earl of Huntingdon. (He's also referred to as Robin of Locksly, which suggests that the writers have been studying some of the more obscure Greenwood ballads. Or watching DVDs of Robin of Sherwood.) He's only recently returned to England; and something very bad happened to him in the Time War, sorry, did I say Time War, I meant Crusades, although so far we haven't found out exactly what. His peasants love him, and he loves them: the reason he steals from the bad and gives to the good is that he still feels some responsibility to his peasants even now he's lost his lands. He very specifically robs the rich to feed the poor: he hasn't been back in England five minutes before he's inviting them to a slap-up feast in Huntingdon manor. He likes to leave gifts for the peasants in surprising ways and then watch the look on their faces when they find them, making me wonder if the writers had possibly confused him with Father Christmas. He likes the thanks and the adulation of the peasants, either because he is a glory hound, or because he has a neurotic need to be loved. (Clue: Answer B will turn out to be correct, probably because he lost someone dear to him in the Holy Land.)

Oh, and he's a pacifist, presumably due to his bad experience in Iraq, sorry, did I say Iraq, I meant Jerusalem. I think that he must have been designed in one of those role-playing games where you get extra skill points if you accept a big disadvantage. Robin has put all his skill points into Archery (he uses a Saracen bendy bow, not an English longbow, which arguably misses the point). He can do anything he likes with his arrows. He's forever shooting the ropes off innocent men on the gallows and shooting down arrows in flight which are about to kill innocent people, and firing six arrows at once which all miraculously go exactly where he meant them to. Most of this happens in slow motion, which presumably makes it a bit easier for him. But like the Green Arrow in the 1970s he has a Code Against Killing. So in episode 1, when the Sheriff is about to cut off Alan Adale's hand, Robin fires off five arrows with pin point accuracy, one between each of Alan's fingers; but then has to run away from the Sheriff's men because he isn't allowed to fire at anyone.

Robin has a sidekick who calls him Master and is devoted to him. His name is Much, but we don't find out if he is a Miller, or indeed if he has a son. I think he may turn out to be a gardener. Once Robin has run away into Sherwood, he finds a ready made troupe of moderately cheerful men. They are led by John, who is very big, but isn't called Little John. (John Little has a little son called Little John: it is obviously much funnier for a little person to be called 'little' than a big person.) Alan Adale shows no sign of being a singer. There are a whole brood of Scarlets, one of them called Will, but he doesn't appear to be a tough guy, or indeed, anything else. Friar Tuck is missing altogether. If we can believe the Daily Express this is because the political correctness brigade thought the character was disrespectful to fat people. But we can't. (In the canonical version, Tuck the badger was not especially over-weight. He lived in a church with some church mice, which suggests a limited understanding of the concept of mendicant orders. But then, since the Franciscans were founded in 1209 and the Dominicans in 1215, there were presumably not a whole lot of Friars in England at the time of Prince John's regency (1190-1194). I digress.)

So far, so harmless. It is certainly uncontaminated by originality, but it slips down easily enough on a Saturday evening. But where the canonical version treated Robin as a a serious heroic character, producer Dominic Minghella can't get it out of his head that what we are watching is a pantomime. This is understandable: if you are an Actor the Sheriff of Nottingham is not so much a nasty character in a medieval romance, but a camp role where the main objective is to get the kiddies to say 'Boo' and 'He's behind you.' Keith Allen can't decide whether he is meant to be playing a slimy politician -- he's rather good when trying to convince the peasants that Robin isn't out for their best interests -- or a pointlessly nasty nastyperson, joking about torture and killing ickle budgies to work off his anger. There is no rapport between this Robin and this Sheriff, because Robin is a dead-pan romantic hero while the Sheriff is camp comedy relief. Guy of Gisborn turns up dressed in biker leathers, and plays the role as a cop-show thug. Three main characters from three different series.

Along comes Marian, who may or may not be a maid. In the canonical version, as in Errol Flynn's, she is a noble lady who lives in the castle and is wooed by the courtly Robin. In Ror-or-or-bin, the Hooded-Man she is pretty much just a female merry man. Here, she is introduced as the ex-Sheriff's daughter, Rob's old flame, who isn't quite sure if she wants to pick up the relationship again. In episode 2 she does the obligatory 'I can help you out of the prison cell' routine, suggesting she just wants to be medieval-drama-lady. Would that she had remained so.

And then we have our obligatory sacrifice to the great god Relevance. I understand, largely because I read it in the Guardian, that Robin-Hood-Robin-Hood-Riding-Through-the-Glen was written by victims of the 1950s anti-communist black-list and contained some subtle digs at McCarthyism. The new series is trying something similar apart from the 'subtle' part. In episode 1, we find out that some people think that Richard has got England involved in an unnecessary war, of dubious legality and morality, against Muslims, because he has much too close a relationship with the Pope. In episode 2, we discover that the Sheriff has introduced a system of indefinite detention without trial for outlaws, who are regarded as 'enemy combatants' for the duration of the war. And in episode 3, we find the slimy sheriff making a slimy speech trying to persuade the peasants that Robin is a bad thing. This goes on in the background while Robin is snogging Marian, so all we hear is 'terrorizing....terror...war on terror!' I want to die. More specifically, I want Dominic Minghella to die.

In Episode 3, we find out that while Robin was off killing Muslims there was another outlaw in Sherwood, who also stood up for the peasants, and who wears a mask. He's called 'The Nightwatchman'. As soon as this was mentioned, I started to repeat 'please don't let it turn out to be Marian; please don't let it turn out to be Marian' over and over again. I needn't have bothered: at the end of the episode, it turned out to be Marian. Are we really so unimaginative that the only alternative we can think of to the admittedly sexist 'courtly love' of the Elizabethan and Hollywood versions is to take the Rich But Fragile Maiden Who The Tough But Strangely Attractive Outlaw Worships From Afar and give her a sword, a bow, and for all I know, a willy?

The aforementioned 'night watchman' is wrongly suspected of having killed the Sheriff's bailiff. The Sheriff, because he is evil, tries to blame Robin for the murder, and, because he is very evil, arranges for a few more of his men to be killed so he can blame Robin for that as well. It turns out that the assassin was someone entirely different; and at the end of the episode, he succeeds in assassinating the Sheriff of Nottingham himself. Except that, because the Sheriff is clever as well as evil, he had himself impersonated by a double while the assassin was on the loose.

'I shot the sheriff!' says Someone Entirely Different. 'No', replies Dick Dastardly 'You shot the deputy.' This would have been excruciatingly unfunny at any time; but it was made worse by the fact that they'd already made exactly the same joke in the title of the episode. I can only assume that it was written by a different Paul Cornell.

It makes me wonder. The opening sequence has a portentous march tune and over-done film style credits. Every new scene is introduced with a caption (accompanied by a silly 'twang' sound) which tells you where the scene is happening, even when you already know or it doesn't matter. The final scene is introduced by a graphic of a spinning archery target. This simply isn't how TV is made nowadays. The episodes end, not with a trailer for next week, but an advert for the BBC's on-line Robin Hood archery game, in which, get this, all the characters are represented as cardboard cut-outs. it possible that Robin Hood is not a drama that fails to take itself seriously; but a deliberate spoof which we have mistaken for straight drama because it is so achingly unfunny?

Prestige literary adaptations have to turn into bonkbusters; kids adventure series just can't help taking the piss. I think the best solution would have been to run the two things together. Jane Eyre Warrior Princess dispossessed from Thornfield hall by evil King George, living wild on the moors with her band of, well, rather dour women, robbing from the industrial middle classes and giving to the inmates of evangelical boarding schools. That would really have been post-modern. Give me a minute and I can work in some hippos.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Guilty Pleasures

I have a terrible confession to make. I allowed the DVD rental people to send me the first two discs of the 1956-7 Adventures of Sir Lancelot TV series. And what is even worse, I rather liked them.

I assume that Sir Lancelot was a follow-up to the Richard Greene Adventures of Robin Hood. It does the same spinning round thing with the titles; and it has an annoyingly catchy theme song over the closing credits. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..." became a chart hit. "Come listen to my story/come listen while I sing/of days of old in England/when Arthur was the King..." presumably didn't.

I rented the thing because I wanted to see William Russell in some role other than Ian Chesterton. But I was disappointed. Sir Lancelot is in all respects the same character as Ian. He has the same combination of self-effacing modesty and square-jawed resolution. His relationship with Merlin is precisely the same as Ian's relationship with the first Doctor. Lancelot is an endless fount of general knowledge. He not only knows the quote about doing as the Romans do while you are in Rome; he also remembers that it was St. Ambrose who said it.. When Merlin wants to preserve an ancient book by Archimedes, Lancelot is the only knight who has heard of him. When Merlin has the amazingly original idea of using pigeons to carry messages, it's Lancelot who points out that the same thing was tried by Solomon. He imparts this information in a self-effacing but resolute way. One might almost think that in a previous life he'd been some kind of school teacher . He certainly comes across on the jousting field as a patient but demanding cricket master. "It's not enough to be quite good in this game. You have to be very good indeed....". (He pronounces it all as one word, veddygoodindeed.) His relationship with his squire, Brian, also recalls Ian's relationship with Susan. Lancelot always knows best, and won't put up with any nonsense, but he's honest and upfront with the lad. ("Do knights really keep their vows? says Brian. "Some do, and some don't." replies Sir Ian. "You can beat them, can't you?" says Brian when Lancelot is about to fight some anachronistic gladiators. "I don't know Brian" says our hero "I just don't know.")

And as was so often the case in Doctor Who one feels that William Russell is an Actor with a capital A. It is often very obvious that he is "carrying" the rest of the cast. He delivers even the corniest lines with a light, naturalistic touch. He does his best not to upstage the drama-school hams he's surrounded by. But you get a sense he's wondering why he's on children's TV when he really wanted to be a matinee idol.

The world of Sir Lancelot is a world of strange accents and even stranger haircuts. The real star of the show is Sir Kay's false moustache. Squire Brian is introduced as a kitchen-lad; and for the first few episodes, he sometimes remembers to talk in mummerset, but he soon gives up and reverts to RADA posh. ("I shell try orfally hard to be brave" he says, before being dragged off to be tortured by Sir Someone-or-other.)

These are boys stories: about boys, for boys. The Knights of the Round Table are big boys; interested in boyish things like fighting, and – well, fighting, basically. The squires are smaller boys. Apart from Brian, they don't have names; and they go about in a group, rather as if they were the Round Table (Junior Division). The big boys are generally nice to the younger boys; even though they sometimes have to tell them off. When Merlin complains that Brian is playing pranks, Lancelot laughs that that is how boys are, and says that even Merlin must have been a boy once – but he backs Merlin in giving Brian extra chores. King Arthur is the only proper grown-up, and he says things like "I can see from your face that you have been punished enough." Merlin is very old and wise but the boys can go to him for advice. ("I don't mean to interrupt your work" says Lancelot. "Helping knights who are in trouble is part of my work" says Grandfather.) Clearly, Camelot is either a Scout camp or a public school. When William Russell takes a week's holiday and Brian gets a story to himself, the whole thing turns into Sir Thomas Brown's School-days. Another lad dares Brian to sneak into the girls dormitory and steal Matron's nightcap. ("It was only a lark, Sire.") Why there is a girls dorm at Camelot, we never find out.

There are grown up Ladies as well. They are there mainly for decoration. They get abducted by evil knights, in which case Sir Lancelot rescues them -- although they have a disconcerting tendency to admit that they actually quite like their captors. Sometimes, it's Sir Lancelot who gets captured by evil knights, in which case Ladies visit him in his cell and do him unexpected kindnesses, often involving keys. When Lancelot disagrees with Arthur (about one episode in three), Guinevere sometimes says "My Lord, perhaps Lancelot is in the right in this case." Uncouth knights often have gentle sisters who nevertheless love them and can appeal to their better natures. When foreign knights visit Camelot, Guinevere shows them round the castle. There are no nuns or witches. Even female peasants seem to be in rather short supply.

It's rather well staged; it looks like more time was spent in National Trust castles than in the studios. The costumes show signs of having been glanced at by an historical adviser. There are no battles -- it seems to be possible to besiege a castle with two knights and one catapult -- but there are enough extras for fairly impressive skirmishes. On foot, combat is desperately theatrical: swords clash above our heads and then below our waists, before Lancelot pushes Sir Nasty with his shoulder and orders him to yield. Spiral staircases, battlements, and rooms with lots of furniture in them are the best places for a sword-fight. If you lose your sword, you can generally make do with a candlestick; or if that fails, a piece of wood. Sir Lancelot seems to find mounting and dismounting his horse rather difficult, and can look a little awkward in mounted close ups...but as soon as he puts his visor down, he miraculously becomes a rather competent horseman. The jousting is really done very nicely indeed.

The theme song proclaims, a trifle ambitiously that Lancelot has fought a million battles and never lost a-one. This presents problems for the writers, but they show some ingenuity in coming up with plots which challenge Sir Invincible. On St. Stephen's Day, all the knights take a vow not to carry arms, and to do whatever their squires tell them, which is inconvenient, considering that that's the very day Sir Baddy steals Excalibur. Sir Wimp goes off to rescue his Lady's father on his own, although he is no match for Sir Villain; Lancelot must follow in secret and help Sir Wimp beat Sir Villain while keeping his honour. Sir Newbie is a skilled warrior but loses his nerve in actual fights; Lancelot must find a way to give him some self-confidence. And Arthur keeps finding that in the case of this particular urgent and crucial mission, it would make sense for a single knight to go alone.

Connections with any known Arthurian legend are few and far between. In episode 1, Lancelot and Guinevere exchange significant glances. Morgana le Fey gets name checked, but doesn't appear. All supernatural elements are resolutely debunked. Merlin lets the knights think he has magic powers but it's really done with pulleys, levers. semaphore, chemistry and carrier pigeons. Excalibur is nothing more than a symbol. Lancelot spins a yarn about finding his own sword in a lake, and some credulous folk take it seriously.

It is never camp or ironic; it never tries to be clever. It's a series of 25 minutes stories about knights-in-armour and you have to accept it for what it is. In 1955, cameras were clunkier and editing rooms less efficient: actors were presumably given their scripts on Monday and shot the episode on Friday. So there's no scope for visual trickery, no swift cuts or cinematic niceties. Scene follows scene with nothing but simple narrative to carry the day. Something surprising happens; which leads to another surprising thing; which leads to yet another surprising thing – and so on until Brian or Merlin but usually Lancelot comes up with a surprising stratagem to save the day. Arthur puts the crown jewels on display in Sir Someone's abbey. After he has gone, robbers emerge through a trap door and take the jewels! Merlin tells Brian to take his pigeons to Coventry as punishment for another prank. On the way, Brian hitches a lift on a wagon. The wagon is then hijacked by the jewel thieves! Brian finds the jewels, and uses the pigeon to send word to Merlin. The thieves catch Brian, and lock him up in their castle..... Sophisticated it is not, but I kept on watching because I wanted to know what happened next.

I don't know. Lack of sophistication is not automatically a virtue. Black and white photography does not excuse all narrative sins. (The series eventually goes to colour, which is a mistake. You mean Arthur dressed his men at arms in bright pink?) A regular diet of plot-plot-plot would become as indigestible as a regular 1950s diet of meat-and-two-veg. And it goes without saying that I think that Ladies can do things apart from look pretty. Some ladies, any way. Yet in world which sometimes feels 'tired with the weight of too much liberty', there is something very appealing about an age when TV thought that its main task was to tell a story which actually made sense. And there's something naively attractive about the unapologetic boyishness of the whole thing. (I think that "boyishness" is the word I am looking for: male, but in no sense laddish or macho. Finding a gay subtext, particularly in the Lancelot/Brian relationship, would be like shooting peasants in a barrel.) I don't really want to go back to a time when such TV shows were the norm; but then; I don't especially want to live in a world where you solved disputes by sitting on horses and hitting each other very hard with sharp metal objects. I never really enjoyed Scout Camp very much. But it's great fun to imagine that there was a mythical past where such things were so.

"In days of old...when knights were bold...this story's told...of Lancelot!"

Monday, May 22, 2006

No one is innocent

I found “See No Evil” -- ITV’s docu-drama based on the notorious Brady-Hindley murders -- very disturbing viewing. But possibly not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.

Before watching the film, I knew practically nothing about the case. Naturally, I was aware that Ian Brady and Myra Hindley had murdered several young children in the 1960s. I knew that Lord Longford believed that since Hindley had become a devout Catholic, she was a reformed character and should be considered for parole. I knew that the Sun thought that since she had peroxide hair, she was evil and should not be. But I didn’t really know who they had killed, under what circumstances, and why. This extremely gripping but curiously evasive three-hour drama didn’t leave me feeling much the wiser.

Dealing with this kind of material presents a writer with two problems. First, he has to stick to the facts. The film is proud of the fact that it has been made in close collaboration with the victims’ families, police officers and others closely associated with the case. The very first thing we are told is that “This is a true story”, and one gets the impression that no incident is put into the film which hasn’t been checked against two sources. In itself, this is a Good Thing: it would be quite unacceptable to take a real-life Orrible Murder and use it simply as a jumping off point for a work of fiction. But it creates an obvious difficulty. Hindley and Brady never made full confessions so their states of minds at the time of the murders is a matter of conjecture. Even the precise details of their crimes aren’t fully known or knowable. This leaves a gaping hole in the middle of any fact-based drama. Secondly the film wants to avoid being sensationalist, exploitative or ghoulish. So it has to adopt a “tell, don’t show” approach. We hear what the police say that Myra did; we hear what little she admitted to; but we actually see very little of it. A lot of the time, this approach makes perfectly good dramatic and documentary sense. The scene in which the police officers search the moor and dig up a child’s shoe is far more distressing than any Brady themed slasher-flick could have been. But sometimes it leads the filmmakers into unintentional surrealism. The evidence which damned Hindley and Brady was, of course, the discovery of a tape recording of a little girl being tortured. There is, thank goodness, no attempt to recreate this tape for the edification of TV audiences. Instead, as the horrified police play the recording on their old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder, the TV audience listens to a child's voice singing "The Little Drummer Boy".

The solution to this structural conundrum -- a true crime movie which can't represent the actual crime -- is to take Maureen Hindley and her husband David Smith as viewpoint characters. For almost the whole of episode 1, nothing happens. Maureen and Dave spend time with sister Myra and her weird boyfriend Ian, and the film allows Dramatic Irony to create its own chilling effects. The audience knows what Myra is doing, even though the police and her family do not. Myra comforts Maureen over the death of her first baby: but we know that she is simultaneously plotting to murder other children. Myra let's slip that she knows what a dead body looks like, and quickly claims that she is talking about childhood friend who drowned. We know the real reason. Myra mentions in passing that her car is convenient for carrying bulky luggage... None of this is made explicit in the screenplay: we don’t “know” that Myra and Ian are murderers until the very end of episode 1. I wonder what a Martian, or come to that an American, who has never heard of the Moors murders would make of the film?

Meanwhile, some old-fashioned no-nonsense police officers - the type whose idea of detective work is to yell “You killed him, didn’t you!” at suspects - are investigating a string of missing children, only gradually spotting that the cases are connected. Inevitably, one of the coppers is Obsessed with the case of Keith Bennet, and has Started to Take it Personally. We even see him sitting in his office staring at the “Have you seen this child?” poster at one point. Even if this is what happened in real life, it's still a dreadful cliché.

So what we have is basically a high quality episode of Columbo. Not a "who dunnit" or a "why dunnit", more a “when and how will the police realise that that they dunnit.”

In the last ten minutes of episode 1, Dave goes to the Hindley/Brady residence and witnesses them committing a murder. We do get a glimpse of this killing, but only momentarily, and in flashback. The bloodstained Dave tells Maureen that "Brady has killed a man" -- and then we flash for a few brief seconds to a shot, lit heavily in red, of Brady frenziedly attacking Edward Evans with an axe while Hindley watches impassively. Nothing that comes beforehand in the story really prepares us for this scene and nothing which comes afterwards explains it. It’s presented as out-of-context, free-floating self-existent terror. As a Stephen King moment, it's quite brilliantly done: two demonic figures presiding over a literally hellish scene. The juxta-positioning of the banal and the horrible; the jump from the world of cop-show and soap opera into the world of gothic; the jump from "perfectly normal Myra" and "pretentious bragger Ian" to "Satanic child killers" certainly had the desired effect. My immediate reaction was "Is that what they did? I can see why people call them Evil."

And there’s the problem. Actress Maxine Peake offers us three separate characterisations of Myra Hindley. She spends the first episode playing her as an aggressively normal northern lass. We entirely understand and believe that Maureen never suspected anything bad about her sister. She spends most of episode two as a film noire villain -- sneering at the court, refusing to admit to her part in the killings -- very much the callous play-acting monster that we’ve come to know and love through 40 years of “evil-Myra” news-stories. And then, in a coda, we see a no-longer-peroxide Myra telling her sister that she has found God in prison and is truly sorry for what she did. The big question, narratively and philosophically is what connects these three women. Can someone be both normal and murderous? Can someone go from murderous to remorseful? Why did Myra become a murderess but Maureen turn out all right? No attempt is made to suggest, or even hint at an answer. Significantly, the explanation which Myra herself is shown offering is pathetically inadequate -- she thinks that she is “damaged” because her father beat her.

Brady is even more of a problem. He seems to be some kind of Nietzschean super-man; believing that if he is strong enough to commit murder, he will make himself superior to the common heard. He hasn’t been on screen for five minutes before he is asking whether or not animals have souls, and suggesting that if souls don’t exist then the whole idea of god and morality is “shite”. He implies that Dave isn't a proper man because he's never killed anyone; lends him copies of the Marquis de Sade and forces him to play Russian roulette as an initiation rite. (Brady may have been “grooming” Dave Smith as a second accomplice, but when Dave witnesses the murder, he goes straight to the police. Dave is still alive and presumably helped with the making of film, which bends over backwards to show that he didn‘t do anything seriously wrong.) Of course, as an explanation, this doesn’t go very far beyond “He murdered people because he was the kind of person who murdered people.”

At least since “Silence of the Lambs”, we have had a rather ambivalent attitude to mass murderers: they are to be feared and locked away, certainly, but we also find them rather attractive because of the energy they draw from their “evil”. I don’t know whether the real Brady expressed these kinds of views, or if he is slipping into the role of T.V serial killer, in the same way that Detective Mounsey slips into the role of TV cop. But this characterisation makes him a dangerously romantic, even heroic, figure. More than once, I caught myself thinking “This guy seems rather interesting; and of course, he is still alive: I'd sure like to read an interview with him" This was not, I imagine, what the writers had in mind.

So: the film proposes no reasons for the Moors murders. And popular wisdom has always said that there are no reasons. Hindley in particular is in a unique metaphysical category called Evil and nothing further can be said. To try to explain what happened -- in terms of damage to her personality, madness, addiction, manipulation by someone else, childhood abuse, even literal demonic possession -- is to make excuses for her and therefore lessen the evil of what she did. And to do that devalues the suffering of the people she murdered and their families -- who are, of course, at the absolute pinnacle of the modern cult of victim-worship. The film, due to its very structure, draws us into this tabloid worldview. While I was watching it, I felt myself starting to think like a Daily Express reader. I found that very disturbing indeed.

The film trips over its own feet trying to deal with the question of Myra’s eventual reform. Maureen believes that Myra is truly remorseful; but Dave rants that she is even more evil than Brady on the philosophically intriguing grounds that he is “just” a sex monster, but she is “still human”. (I fear that this means "You expect this kind of thing from a man, but when a woman does it, it's really bad.”) Despite the fact that the trial judge had (more or less) sentenced Brady to life without parole but Hindley to between twenty five years and life in prison, successive home secretaries refused to consider her for parole. David (spit) Blunkett said in so many words that she couldn’t be let out because ordinary people didn’t think she had reformed: that is, her sentence was decided by her image in the tabloids, an image which films like this tend to perpetuate. There is actually a more interesting movie to be made about what happened to Myra Hindley while she was behind bars: Lord Longford’s diaries, her own prison writings, and forty years of journalistic gossip, would surely provide a lot of documentary material for this. But it would have to explore the forbidden territory of "explanation".

Even at its best, TV is the most clichéd of media. Just as there is an etiquette for reporting a royal death or an election, so there is an established vocabulary out of which dramas about "real life tragedies" have to be constructed. From the first, inevitable establishing shots of the wind-swept moors we knew -- we just knew -- that the film would end with a caption saying "Keith Bennet's body was never found“. But, as the credits rolled in silence over images of the five real life murder victims, there was one significant break with established practice. The continuity announcer was somehow persuaded to keep his mouth shut.

Monday, November 21, 2005

I'm a Celebrant, Get Me Out of Here

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

Could I remind everyone to watch "Priest Idol" tonight? It's one of those rare T.V programmes which makes you think that John Logie-Baird maybe did the human race a favour after all.

Monday-night is God-night at the moment on terrestrial TV. BBC2 recently completed a re-run of "Battle for Britain's Soul", a history of Christianity in the UK by the remarkable Rev. Peter Owen-Jones. Rev. Jones is to God what David Attenborugh is to copulating tropical fish. His enthusiasm momentarily fools you into thinking that the influence of the Salvation Army on the plight of Victorian match girls or the campaign to allow MPs to Affirm are the most fascinating subjects in the world. He dresses like Tom Baker, in a wide brimmed hat and something which might be a leather coat and might be a cassock. He leaps from concept to concept -- jumping over a fence to show you the very chapel where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were shafted by a Methodist Minister. "There's no need to run" you want to say "It's been there for two hundred years, it's not going anywhere."

The series suffers from Modern Documentary Syndrome. Everything must be visual; everything must be dramatic. Apparently, the young people would not be able to grasp the fact that Isaac Newton was able to reconcile his mechanistic view of the universe with the his belief in God without seeing Rev. Owen-Jones stetting up a Scalectric race track in a church. Without, indeed, seeing Rev Owen-Jones going into a toy-shop and buying the Scalectric set. The car whizzes round and round the track, but someone had to set the track up in the first place - get it?

Rev. Owen-Jones approaches religion from a sociological point of view: he has very little to say about doctrine. In Wesley's time, the church catered mainly to the middle-classes; and many of them disapproved of him preaching to poor people who never came near a church. Methodist chapels were democratic and inclusive; working-class local preachers expounded the Bible to their neighbours. Very probably: but surely Wesley's beliefs differed from those of the established church as well. His "whosoever will may come" inclusiveness was a reaction against the hyper-Calvinists who thought that some people were simply beyond salvation, and that wealth was a sign of divine election. Again, Jones thinks that the modern "Alpha" movement has been successful because of its strong sense of community; but isn't it more to the point that Nicky Gumball offers a straight-forward and fairly coherent explanation of what Christians believe, as compared with the vagueness and evasion of the average Bishop?

Possibly in the name of "balance", when Rev. Jones went away, his slot was filled by Jonathon Miller's "Brief History of Unbelief" -- an equally biased and equally polemical history of atheism. Rev. Jones never quite went so far as to say that Christianity was a Good Thing and the Athiests were Wrong but one rather suspected that this was what he thought. Miller makes no secret of the fact that his series is making out a case for the sceptics being right and the theists being wrong. Miller is, of course, Britain's Top Intellectual. He started out as comedian and ended up producing plays and operas, with a career break in the middle to study brain-surgery.

When he was dealing with ideas and philosophy, the programme was rather excellent. It wheeled on an analytical philosopher to give answers to questions about the nature of "belief" that it wouldn't have occurred to me to ask. (Do you believe in something when you are not thinking about it? Can you say of someone who is asleep or in a coma "He believes such-and-such"?) It then turned to an anthropoligist to show us what all world religions, even the most primitive, had in common. Miller strikingly resisted the idea that religion and science were necessarily in conflict, or that religion had necessarily declined as science had advanced. He pointed out that Galileo, Copernicus and Newton had all remained pious Christians despite their scientific discoveries. Even Darwin's loss of faith had more to do with the death of his daughter than the Galapagos tortoises. (Happy birthday, by the way.) Miller's final conclusion was that "belief" or "disbelief" had as much to do with temperament as anything else: there were ancient Greeks with a totally materialistic world-view; and there are modern-day people who see supernatural forces everywhere. Nevertheless, it is historically inevitable that religious belief will come to an end.

"History of Unbelief" was marred by Miller's need to do a small amount of sneering each week. One got the impression that he thought that there was so little atheism on TV that he had better make the most of it. The first episode's philosophical rigor was rounded off by footage of Jonathon and his clever friends laughing at all these stupid religious people and wondering if Jesus and Moses were insane. The final one had some off-hand remarks about "ignorant and stupid" fundamentalists who believe in Creation, without any attempt to talk to an ignorant, stupid fundamentalist and find out how he actually thinks. It was evidently produced on a much lower budget than "Battle for Britian's Soul", and contained some very weird production ideas. At times, we had Miller watching himself on his laptop and commenting on what he had just said. At random moments, we would gets strange grainy - almost subliminal - clips from black and white movies. Some of these were relevant, such as a monochrome shot of priest nailing something to a church door, to indicate we were up to the reformation. Others, less so, such as a shot of a schoolboy taking a test to illustrate the point that "knowing the alphabet" and "believing in god" are in some ways similar and in other ways not. Where Owen-Jones had actors in period costume pretending to be Wesley or William Booth all of Miller's quotes from famous atheists were read out in a sinister voice by Theoden.

The best bit was Miller inducing Richard Dawkins to make a complete arse of himself -- not, admittedly, the hardest of tasks. Miller could understand how having feathers gave one an advantage in the natural selection stakes; but he couldn't see why the most primitive mutation that will eventually become a feather -- a bump in the skin or a pimple -- could make the pimple-bearer more likely to survive. Dawkins opened his mouth without checking to see if his brain was engaged, and found himself irrevocably committed to the sentence "Well, I suppose it comes down to a matter of faith on my part." I know what he meant; I know that faith in the scientific process is not the same as faith in a supernatural being; I know that there are a dozen good answers to Jonathon's good question. But that sentence is so going to come back and haunt him.

In short, Miller's programme on atheism had far more intellectual meat and better ideas; but was ultimately unsatisfying; Rev. Jones programme about religious belief had less rigor but was much livelier and more engaging. I feel a metaphor coming on...

Meanwhile, Channel 4 is running "Priest Idol". Watching this programme is like watching someone in doc martins kick a very small, very cute kitten, repeatedly. I mean that in a good sense. The original idea behind the programme sounds dreadful: on the back of talentless shows like "Pop Idol" and "Fame Academy" someone had the idea of a "reality TV" show about Vicars. The idea was to interview a number of clergyman about possible strategies for turning around a failing parish in Barnsley (average weekly congregation - 9.) The Vicar who came up with the best ideas would move into the parish with a large sum of money and try to put them into practice. It's a protestant Church, so they couldn't call it "Pope Idol"; although strangely, everyone in Barnsley seems to address C of E clergymen as "Father."

In the event, they only got one application for the position, a very well-meaning episcopalian from Pittsburgh U.S.A. He accepted the job, and the TV people decided to drop the game-show metaphor and just do a fly-on-the-wall-of-Jerico documentary about how the Yank coped in a Tough Northern Parish. The sacrificial lamb, Father James McGaskill is endlessly friendly and optimistic. He's the sort of fellow who doesn't just talk about the Shield of Faith, but tells you that it's from Ephesians 6. He only looks a bit embarrassed when people say "fuck" to him, which they do a lot. He hands out thousands of leaflets inviting people to his inaugural service; the pews stay empty. He introduces himself to everyone in the pub and invites them to come to church; they don't. He goes to the supermarket over the road and tells shoppers that the service is starting in a few minutes. It doesn't make any difference. He says that what he really wants to do is get teenagers into his congregation: everyone looks at him as if he is some kind of Martian.

At one point, the off-camera interviewer shows us the crumbling building and the empty pews, and then asks the asks the Vicar's Mum, visiting from the states, if she believes he can turn it around. "No, he can't" she says "But I believe the Lord can." I think that may have been the best moment I've ever seen on TV. An actual bit of spontaneous religious faith; more than you'd get in five years of "Though for the Day."

Depressingly, when a few teenagers do show up in church because their mates are in a "pop choir" which is singing a Christmas carol, the Vicar starts to obsess about whether they are going to disrupt the service. "Give me your word that you will be respectful," he whines. After a few minutes, they get kicked out. This is the only time at which Father James appears to show any sense of despair. "They don't have any respect for anyone, or anything, or any place" he says "I guess because they've never been taught it."

As part of the wreckage of the original "reality TV" concept, an advertising agency has been brought in to promote the church: we won't find out what their ideas are until part two. Even they think that the idea of making teenagers come to church might be a bit optimistic but they dutifully arrange a focus group with some kids. One of them suggests that the only way he would go inside a church would be "in a box". Another one, more hopefully, says he might consider it if he doesn't have to believe in God. "Does that new Vicar believes in God?" he asks. "I should imagine that he does", says the woman from the agency. Meanwhile, Father James' predecessor, Father David, a camp high church caricature with postcards of the Virgin Mary in his kitchen, sneers from a safe distance. The whole idea of a marketing agency horrifies him. Jesus didn't have an advertising agency, apparently. He just had twelve very ordinary people. "You don't even have that many," one may wish to reply.

Someone has painted "Fuck God" on the back of the church; our dog-collared Pollyana is glad that they didn't paint it on the front. Even the advertising people are shocked by this. They read out the word repeatedly, but Channel 4 thoughtfully bleep it out, and pixellate the letter "U", so that our moral well-being is preserved. But in final five minutes Father James reports that people keep asking him why he came to their town. "I say 'Why not?' and they say 'Because it's shit'. If that's what they think about their own community...." The word "shit" is left un-bleeped. Possibly we are close to the 9PM watershed when all children go to bed. Possibly they think that the word "shit" is purged by passing through these ecclesiastical lips. One can only hope that this holy innocent has something other than a moral victory to look forward to in part 2, and that Father David will end up being thrown to some particularly hungry lions.