I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.
Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?
Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.
I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.
Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.
In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.
The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.
The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.
At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.
It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.
These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.
The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.
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Peter Morgan may or may not see his script for the 23rd James Bond film become a reality, and it may or not be a picture directed by acclaimed director Sam Mendes, but Morgan has certainly not struggled to make films about former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Equally serial impressionist Michael Sheen has not found it hard to play the charming leader, taking on the role in previous dramas The Deal, The Queen and now The Special Relationship. Sheen has made a living out of playing real people, from the chaotic camp of Kenneth Williams to the masculine self assurance of football manager Brian Clough and he has always fitted snugly into Blair’s recognisable suits and effortlessly donned his trademark grin. As with Morgan’s previous examinations of Blair The Special Relationship looks at a particular period of this remarkable man’s life through a narrow lens with a small cluster of essential characters. This is the story of Clinton and Blair; the President’s influence on the Prime Minister, the wives influence on the two men’s friendship and the advisers grappling with how best to make use of such ideological and personal bonds.
Blair’s devious tabloid spin doctor Alastair Campbell slammed Morgan’s latest drama before it premiered on BBC2 on Saturday night as a complete work of fiction bearing almost no relation to the facts and events as they happened. Now whilst it must be true that Morgan wielded creative license to craft a number of personal scenes between the two leaders and the leaders and their wives, as he cannot have known the content of such intimate chats besides glimpses from memoirs, Campbell’s utter rejection of the drama’s credibility may be down to his own less than flattering portrayal. The special media adviser appears to be a brash, sneering and crude presence throughout. He represents the dark side of Blair he had to embrace in order to haul Labour out of Opposition in a new media age, a dark side of tabloid manipulation and sinister back stabbing and sordid scandals. Campbell is less of a character in Morgan’s drama than a commentator providing rolling coverage of the headlines at the time, highlighting the worst of public bloodlust and opinion, slipping in details that both provide background and represent the scale of the struggle Blair faces to get things done, when faced with an indifferent public more motivated by the shape of a President’s penis than his foreign policy commitments.
In fact given the political nature of the subject matter it’s hard to get to know any of the characters in The Special Relationship, because we don’t know them and neither did Morgan writing the script. We recall the events of the time, remember the urgency they tried to convey in their speeches and are familiar with their managed images in front of the flash bulbs. But even when we see Dennis Quaid’s brooding Clinton, seemingly drained by scandal and the web of lies he has entangled himself in, it’s impossible to deduce the sentiment of the man, he’s presented as a blank, an enigma of a stress deliberating how best to handle the political fallout. Hillary is arguably the most lifelike character in this drama and she is sensitively played. The restrained emotion is there, visibly only just in check but her ambition and necessity trap her in her situation. She doggedly soldiers on.
The events, somewhat inevitably, are major characters in themselves in this historical drama. That’s not to say we don’t get insight into character; it’s clear early on that despite Clinton’s insistence that Blair owes him nothing he expects good old Tony to tow the line. Initially he does so, movingly and hesitantly sticking his neck out over the affair, but when Blair makes a stand on Kosovo Clinton is not prepared to be in Blair’s debt, he was always managing the upstart Brit whatever the praise. It’s when the plot gathers pace over the Kosovan crisis that this drama comes into its own, engaging far more than the early, plodding set up of the Clinton-Blair relationship. Blair refuses to be politically positioned like a pawn by Clinton and the stage is set for confrontation. Churchillian like speeches full of inspiration captured the mood of the new millennium, a mood of optimistic cooperation in which every nation with a moral compass could play its part and make a genuine difference, a mood banished by 9/11 and the subsequent retaliation. It’s odd to think that Clinton’s America, although led by an adulterer, was more trusted and respected around the world and that Blair was able to harness goodwill felt towards it.
Blair’s boldness wins over the American press, with gushing approval ratings calling for him to run for the Presidency. Throughout the piece however the more experienced Clinton urged Blair to consider his legacy, not just fickle opinion polls, and whilst it may seem triumph in Kosovo secured it for Blair we all knew it was to be eclipsed, and the drama ends ominously with his heart and mind in the right place, committed to a pragmatic, meaningful relationship with new Republican President George Bush, but ultimately to underestimate and be sucked into a damaging legacy he would never shake off. Popularity would pass by Tony Blair just as it passed for Bill Clinton and both men arguably spurned opportunities to make use of it. The Special Relationship of progressive centre left leaders, leading the world in a unified, positive banishment of right-wing politics to the dark ages never truly materialised. Morgan’s drama ends by asking topical questions raised by the release of Blair’s memoir; did Blair waste his legacy and was he ever the politician he claimed to be, given his current support for the coalition, or was he just a self-centred man grabbing his place in history with both hands, wherever he had to reach to? Whatever the answers, despite Clinton’s warning to Blair that rhetoric alone is not enough, both leaders had moments in this drama that demonstrated the enormous power of words in the hands of a politician and leader, the power to ignite, transform and inspire, but also sadly, to disappoint.
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