TheWestWingLabour Uncut is always a good place to go to for outlandish claims that bear no relationship to reality, and the opening of this piece is no exception:

Probably the greatest hour in modern television history is the magisterial finale of the second season of The West Wing: Two Cathedrals.

I’m not convinced it’s even the best episode of The West Wing, and the idea of it being the greatest piece of modern television feels somewhat akin to stating that Liz Kendall would be a popular choice for leader amongst Labour party members. I can think of a dozen Breaking Bad or The Wire episodes that are better than Two Cathedrals, and I’m sure people reading this can come up with lists of episodes from other series just as easily.

However, I’m not intending this to be a post about favourite TV episodes. It’s very common to see politicos and aspiring politicos cite The West Wing (and its hipster equivalent, Borgen) as being amongst their favourite TV. It’s an interesting phenomenon, given that it’s rare for people in any other profession to look upon depictions of their jobs in the same way. Indeed, the most common reaction of most people is to point out that dramas tend to hyper-idealise their profession and depict everyone involved as being way more competent than reality. In reality, we see things like the ‘CSI effect‘ where forensic scientists are seen as being able to achieve much more than they can, or that doctors and nurses complain how people see defibrilators as near-magic. Meanwhile, politicos are gazing on an obviously idealised portrayal of themselves and their abilities and are choosing to praise it rather than point out the flaws in it.

I’ve written before about how people – especially those in politics – think that ‘political drama’ and ‘drama about politicians’ are the same thing. It’s a building block in the idea that politics is just about the games white men (and the occasional woman) in suits play, while they walk up and down corridors being very clever at each other. The actual effects of the policies they’re talking about, and especially the people affected by them, rarely feature in them. Politics as depicted by The West Wing is all about the process, making big meaningful speeches (sometimes in Latin) and beating the other team, when the real thing is a lot more complicated than that. The trouble is that we have a generation of young politicos who think that’s all it is about, and it’s having the same effect as if we had a generation of A&E doctors basing their treatment plans on what they’d seen on Casualty.

What makes for good drama – and The West Wing is good drama, even if better has been made since – isn’t the compromises, muddled resolutions, and unclear endings that characterise reality. When there are so many people involved in politics who think that a drama about politics encapsulates all they need to know about it, it’s no wonder that we have such a shallow political culture that sees the main focus of politics as being the men at the top having showy disagreements instead of the effects their arguments have on the people at the bottom. You can keep watching it, but don’t imagine it teaches you anything about actual politics and what’s really important.


hdmThere was good news from the BBC yesterday with an announcement that they’ve commissioned a TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for BBC One. It’s not the first time it’s been adapted to the screen but the film adaptation spluttered at the box office and never got past adapting (most of) the first book. Indeed, the fact that it missed out the crucial scene at the end of it might be one of the reason the filmed failed, as all the events leading up to it didn’t make sense on their own. The BBC plan to adapt the books as a miniseries will hopefully get around that issue, and also give the story a bit more time to evolve and develop. It was interesting to me that the National Theatre’s stage adaptation of the books managed to do a better job of transitioning between set-pieces than the film managed, making them feel like a coherent story rather than merely a series of events.

Of course, the BBC announcing an adaptation has been commissioned doesn’t mean it’ll be on our screens soon, or if it does make it, that it’ll be on the BBC. The BBC announced they were adapting The Man In The High Castle – five years later, it’s about to be released on Amazon with a completely different team behind it, so nothing is certain until casting happens and the cameras start rolling.

Even with that caveat, the BBC’s production partners for this are very interesting. As well as New Line Cinema (who own the adaptation rights, so may well be just a silent partner in it) the series is being produced by Bad Wolf Productions, a new company founded by Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, former executive producers of Doctor Who. The name Bad Wolf coupled with Gardner and Tranter, and no writer being announced in the press release does fill me with hope that they’re trying to get Russell T Davies on board to do it.

For me, RTD would be the perfect choice to adapt the books as he comes from the same mindset as Philip Pullman – an atheist who’s interested in religion, and how it affects people and their decisions. I wrote about this a while ago, looking at how questions of what faith and religion mean to people are a common theme in Davies’s work and it’s this perspective of his that makes me really want to see him writing the script for an adaptation of His Dark Materials. His perspective isn’t to mock someone for believing in something but to see what effects that belief has on a person, but also what effects it would have on the world if that belief turned out to be real. That’s at the heart of His Dark Materials, and Davies is the sort of writer who understands how to bring those themes into drama without them overwhelming the story.

The other talent he has is for creating worlds in the mind of the viewer. A lot of the important organisations that fill Pullman’s worlds are only seen for a glance, or through the lens of Lyra or Will overhearing someone talking about them. There’s a minimum of exposition, but a huge amount of subtle detail slipped in as things go on. This is something Davies did brilliantly during his time on Doctor Who, making references to the War or the Medusa Cascade and the Nightmare Child, but letting the audience fill in the details. His version of the Time War as something vast and essentially unknowable in detail is the sort of approach that could bring the world of the Authority and the Magisterium to life.

Of course, I may just be adding two and two together to make fifteen but I can’t help thinking that Davies would be such a good scriptwriter for this project that I’ll be disappointed if someone else gets the job.


p11650192_p_v8_aaI’ve long been a sucker for historical what-ifs and tales of alternate worlds where history went differently, so I was very happy to discover Parallels on Netflix the other day (other ways of watching it may be available). It’s billed as a film, but is clearly a TV pilot still looking for a home, both for the fact it’s packed full of exposition and little conclusion and is also clearly two separate episodes bolted together. Turning unaired pilots into movies is nothing new, of course – they’ve made great schedule-filler for many channels over the years – but the actual status of Parallels seems a bit more ambiguous than other failed pilots as hope of it becoming a series (on Netflix or elsewhere) appears not to be completely dashed.

That makes it hard to decide how to review it: as a one-off, or on its potential to become a series. As a one-off, it’s interesting but frustrating as it’s an idea with a lot of imagination but nothing much gets resolved and it ends with you left with a lot of questions about what happens next. As a potential series, those questions are setting up a lot of future plots, but there’s not been much in the way of building up interesting characters you want to spend time with as they search for those answers. (Potential spoilers follow)

Read the rest of this entry


Updating the Have I Got News For You gender bias spreadsheet is still a depressing task

Since I first started doing my breakdown of HIGNFY guests by gender a few years ago, it’s always been a quite depressing experience. Sure, there are occasional chinks of light – the BBC stopping all-male panels, and the first show for 17 years with all-female guests – but the general trend is still absolutely nothing to write home about, and the very first series of the show back in 1990 is still its second-best for representing women.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the 49th season ended, and while I’ve had other things to distract me, I partly resisted updating the spreadsheet because it would be a rather annoying reminder of just how much this series did the bare minimum. Sure, there was a female guest on each show, but just one each time with four men around them. Only two of them – Jo Brand and Victoria Coren Mitchell – got to host it, with the other seven shows in the series all hosted by men. After series 48 got close to parity of hosts, this was a depressing return to the norm where only a quarter of the shows since the introduction of guest hosts have been hosted by women. (24.73% of guests in total are women while the exact figure for hosts is 24.35%)

You can see the spreadsheet for yourself by clicking here, and I’ll keep on doing it in the hope that series 50 improves the situation, but I’m not expecting it to break from the established norm.


Question Time needs a wider variety of panellists

BBC_Question_TimeBecause I’m a masochist, I watched Question Time last night, where one of the panellists was a representative of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Contrary to the image they present, the TPA isn’t a membership-based grassroots organisation, but a privately funded lobbying group that doesn’t represent anyone but its donors – what’s normally known as an ‘astroturf‘ group. However, like other lobbying groups and corporate shills that pretend to be ‘think tanks’ (the ones with ‘Institute’ in their names), it often gets invited to go on Question Time and other news programmes as though it has some kind of impartiality and objectivity, rather than being something established to campaign for a specific purpose.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with campaigning for something, even if that is to ensure that addressing the concerns of the wealthy and privileged is even more over-represented in political debate, but why aren’t other campaigning groups given a seat on the Question Time panel? I can’t recall anyone from organisations like Friends of the Earth or Amnesty – groups with actual memberships, often larger than any of the political parties – ever sitting on the panel, while the TPA and their ilk regularly get a seat there.

Alternatively, if the producers of Question Time are actually incapable of doing any sort of research into the people they invite and accept the spin that these people are some kind of impartial experts, why not invite some genuine experts on the programme? There are hundreds of academic experts in politics and public policy and at least some of them are safe to put on television before a general audience. Naturally, I’d suggest someone like David Sanders from Essex, but other academics and academic disciplines are available. I have been told by reliable sources that there are historians with opinions out there who aren’t called ‘David Starkey’.

They can still have the astroturf lobbyists on there occasionally if they want to, but surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find a wider range of panellists that might actually allow some facts to be interjected into the discussion occasionally?

, ,

The Man In The High Castle gets a full series


Some good news to report: Amazon TV’s pilot of The Man In The High Castle has been commissioned for a full series. It’s rather unsurprising news, as reviews for the pilot were almost universally positive, but still good to hear.

I reviewed the pilot when it was broadcast and look forward to seeing the series. No announcement yet on when it will be broadcast, but I’m hoping to see it appear before the end of the year.

, ,

Not Watching This Weekend: Find Me A Writer!

"You might already know that these are books. But what you might not know is that the words inside them are made up by people."

“You might already know that these are books. But what you might not know is that the words inside them are made up by people.”

The Pitch: There’s been a lot of complaint that TV mainstream doesn’t have much, if any, programming about books (rather than just being based on them). This show aims to change that by finding Britain’s Next Top Writer in a primetime show. Having made one giant leap of originality by doing a show about books in primetime, the rest of the show will be a complete ripoff of other talent formats. Thus, one round will feature wannabe writers reading a small sample of their work to celebrity writer judges, who’ll be sitting in the chairs from The Voice that have been badly modified to look ‘writerly’. Writers will be expected to jump across genre, style and form at a moment’s notice. (An amateur playwright protesting they know nothing about novel structure being berated by an angry Salman Rushdie will become a YouTube favourite) The life of a writer will be presented as effortless luxury, casually dispensing bon mots at cocktail parties between dashing out a newspaper column and being showered in money by benevolent publisher.

The climax will come in a live final at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff where a book-wielding audience of thousands will watch as the four finalist writers discover that the hours they’ve spent sweating over their work, carrying out every edit and demeaning video diary task ordered by the producers, was utterly wasted as the executives have discovered no one really likes reading books, so they’ll be engaging in It’s A Knockout style contests with a vaguely books-that-have-become-well-known-movies theme. The winner will discover that there book was already published for free as a sample on Amazon that morning and they’ve made £2.35 from the millions of downloads.

Initially planned judges/mentors by the producers: JK Rowling, that one who wrote that thing that we were all reading last year in Tuscany, what was it, look, just get me JK Rowling. What do you mean, she doesn’t want to do it?
Actual judges: A generally confused looking Salman Rushdie, three other authors who could be made to look vaguely presentable on camera and are happy to appear on The One Show and regional radio programmes on an almost daily basis to plug this.
Likelihood of actually boosting book sales across the nation: Low