Opening the Span of Our Horizons

Brian Lamb and the Loss to Democracy

May 19th will see the retirement of a man who might well be able to lay claim to being the most important media figure of the last 50 years. C-Span founder Brian Lamb is retiring.

Here in the UK, C-Span is not often watched – perhaps unsurprisingly. My impression is that ex-pats, politico geeks and ‘The West Wing’ affectionados form its core audience.

My introduction came via this last category and I stumbled across a show called ‘C-Span Q&A‘ around 2009. It was a simple show: an old guy talks to a person, usually a writer but not always, for an hour.

Just that. No adverts, no razzmatazz, no hectoring or screaming: just a person being allowed to articulate their point of view in their own words.  It is the sort of television which doesn’t get made any more and a lesson to any one with an interest in media about what can be done.

Over the last decade, I have listened to the show pretty consistently – or consistently inconsistently as I have a tendency to binge listen to them. Lamb is a revelation. Unfailingly polite, thoroughly prepared, he never pretends to know anything he does not and he asks questions in a simple way, drawing out implications for viewers in case they don’t have the depth of knowledge he does – which few of us could possibly have but he’d never be so mean as to highlight this!

And now I discover that midway through the month, he is stepping down. The former naval lieutenant who once attended press briefings with Robert MacNamara and walked LadyBird Johnson down the aisle, who persuaded Congress to let cameras in and established public service political broadcasting in the most cut throat media market in the world – and kept it free and on the air – is off.

Brian Lamb is a self-effacing one off. He will be sadly missed by people who think that politics, its coverage and how people access it, matters for the good of all – no matter where they are on the globe.

It seemed somehow tragically appropriate that the news of his retirement came via an interview in the Rupert Murdoch owned ‘Wall Street Journal’.

An interview which couldn’t read as it is behind a pay wall. Another institution which forms part of the key narrative of 20th century American media, The Washington Post, recently changed its slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. The retirement of Brian Lamb represents an unparalleled dimming of democracy.

He will be truly missed.

Revisiting… Inspector Morse

30 Not Out.

Sunday night, 8th January 2017, the fourth series of ITV’s Endeavour begins. With a pleasingly orchestrated symmetry, this also marks the 30th Anniversary of its beloved origin show, Inspector Morse.

Morse on DVD

The DVDs of the Complete Inspector Morse episodes are available for purchase from Amazon

Inspector Morse aired for the first time on Tuesday 6th January 1987 and, it is fair to say, it did not appear at a time of optimism for the contemporary TV viewer. ITV’s reputation for drama had all but evaporated – the pinnacle, Brideshead Revisited, lay 6 years in the past

The previous year, 1986, had included  modern classics like The Singing Detective  and The Monocled Mutineer so, there were things of note happening on television.

Just not on ITV.

Morse would change all that.

Its leisurely pace of two hours an episode was in stark contrast to what the public were used to seeing, and even Colin Dexter, the author of the 13 novels upon which some of the television episodes are based, has acknowledged that the show was an unlikely success. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub in 2007, Dexter told presenter James Naughtie in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, “one of the huge things about Morse was that he came at the right time, when everyone wanted to get away from the American programmes where everybody was shooting and car chasing all over the shop. And somebody said, ‘what we want is something a little bit slower and more tedious. More gentle and – perhaps – more cerebral.’ Somebody wrote, right from the very word go, Dexter’s idea of any sort of thrill in a story was to get two aged classics professors arguing about Aristotle in the Sheldonian.”

This is a little harsh perhaps, (the first episode drew approximately 14 million viewers after all), however, you can see right from the very opening of, ‘The Dead of Jericho’ that this is to be different and that, in lead actor John Thaw, here is a leading man about to put to bed his reputation-defining turn as Jack Regan in The Sweeney.

This blog has looked at this wonderfully dated slice of action thriller elsewhere (Revisiting: The Sweeney) but contrasting the opening of the two shows is instructive. The Sweeney has rushing cars, handheld wobbly camera angles of gritty realism, tyres screaming and that famous title sequence theme tune booming electronica, like sirens through a 70s hangover, frantically edited.

As Morse opens there are quick edits too; a close up of a painting cuts to: some people in a choir, beginning to sing Vivaldi’s Gloria in excelsis Deo, a stark white on black title card announces:

title-card

Cut to: a close up of the moving bonnet of a red classic Jaguar, shiny polished chrome of the big cat gleaming.

morses-bonnet

We get our first look at Thaw, a serious look on his face.

serious-morse

The music swells, the car sails past like a stately ocean liner. As he passes, a sign on the wall reads: beware-morse

This is exactly the sort of instruction designed to insight maximum disobedience from Regan, not so for Morse. He pulls up.

Another cut:

dead-of-jericho

After a close up of a woman from the choir, we move again to such exciting action as: some men listening to tuneless electronica on a radio while they respray a car. You can tell they are baddies: they have appallingly out of context cockney accents for Oxford.

However, the class of the production is hinted at in shot of Morse from within the garage through the bolted doors. The intercutting of the classical with the crass modernity as signified by the music choices and locations continues before the impending victory of the law and order side is represented by the drowning out of the modern music and the man from inside realises that it’s a trap (“It’s da law!” he shrieks), men in hard hats sneak up and handcuff him to the door of his car.

In the days of Regan and The Sweeney this would have been the time he would have bounded out and traded blows with the “blaggers”. Here, he sits passively, while he is left trying to block the escape of the criminals.

There is a poignancy and clarity of symbolism in the ownership of this car by Morse. A Mark II Jaguar was so often used as the car of the criminals in the earlier series that later Thaw claimed that he had witnessed it being written off several times in The Sweeney and that allegedly, this was the reason Thaw was frequently seen in close-up driving the vehicle as it was being towed because it had broken down.

Here, the climax of the action is the criminals crashing into Morse’s car while he looks to the heaven’s being serenaded by the choir with an exasperated look on his face, as though the holy spirit of Regan and his physicality is finally being exorcised.

exasperated-thaw

And it is this change, this passive exorcism, which lies at the heart of Thaw’s performance as we see the final move between the 1970s rough and tumble to the leisurely pace and intellect of Morse and the 1980s.

In that same Bookclub interview James Naughtie describes Morse thus; “He’s grumpy, he’s odd, he’s lonely, he’s not always kind to people he loves underneath.” But he then asks, “Why do we warm to him?” Dexter replies, “I think quite a lot of the ladies would like to go to bed with him… but I think people enjoy Morse because he was sensitive and vulnerable to a certain extent. Never quite happy about life, but always wonderfully happy about his love of music and poetry.” Thaw is the constant embodiment of this duality; the soul of an artist, the tortured longing of the unfulfilled.

The programme ran until the year 2000, consistently drawing large audiences and spawned the spin off Lewis as well as the aforementioned Endeavour. Success does not always breed total fondness and even the British Film Institute’s (BFI) entry for the series on its Screenonline section has the slightly less than effusive Philip Wickham couching his praise in backhanded terms: “’Middlebrow’ is often used as a derogatory term in British culture… the series offers little that is new or challenging; it adopts the familiar patterns of the English ‘whodunnit’…No one could accuse the programme of being grittily realistic – Oxford’s murder rate rivalled the Bronx…There is a formulaic edge to the series that veers occasionally to parody.”

Not all of 1987 has aged as well as Inspector Morse. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Chevy Chase’s Three Amigos! (and his post-Community career), A-ha’s Cry Wolf, The Housemartins’ Caravan of Love and Alison Moyet’s Is This Love were all near the top of the charts in their respective mediums and are all wearing the years more heavily than Morse. But, with his classic cars, his classical music and his preserved architecture, he was never of the time anyway, so he could scarcely be out it now.

Inspector Morse is well worth #revisiting and will surely reign supreme over domestic television crime fiction for at least 30 years more.

Revisiting… The Sweeney (1975)

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Dennis Waterman, left, as George Carter and John Thaw as Jack Regan in The Sweeney

January 2nd 1975 saw a show debut which was so unlike anything to come before it that it has been loved, parodied, referenced and adored for now over 40 years. It was Euston Films and Thames Television’s, The Sweeney.

Some shows take their place in the canon from a steady evolution of a genre and some just punch through as though out of nowhere – The Sweeney is definitely – defiantly – one of the latter.

From the opening of the first episode, ‘Ringer’, we are catapulted into a London not previously seen on British television. Famously filmed on 16mm, it’s like Ken Loach had decided that police dramas were his true metier. A villain seated in a car, smoking a cigarette, lowers a copy of The Sporting Life newspaper to reveal a green flat cap and natty sideburns. We cut to a point of view shot of a van – is it an ambulance? – speeding across an industrial wasteland.

Oh, the sky might be blue, the trees verdant green – but they frame nothing more than a concrete scar in the landscape, fringed by abandoned buildings with shattered windows. As the cars pull off, we get another point of view shot from inside the car’s cabin as now a mounted camera position allows us to feel the speed generated by the vehicles.

After a conversation, in which we are treated to handheld over the shoulder shots and sweeping nausea-inducing sweeps, we have revealed to us the gas masks and guns these gangsters are planning to use. There’s more conversation, more handheld camera antics, a light dash of humour with the villain who can’t count.

Then, and only then, do we cut to the title sequence.
These titles explode for the viewer – trumpets blaring over a thumping soundtrack as a Ford comes haring towards the camera with a staccato movement created in the edit. This is the most literal arrival of the boys in blue one could envision.

Opening titles: This wasn't your Daddy's police force.

Opening titles: This wasn’t your Daddy’s police force.

All of which presents a stark change from the world of Dixon of Dock Green, which (unbelievably) was still running when The Sweeney made its debut, (and, indeed, would run for another year afterwards, till 1976). One thing was for sure: this wasn’t your Daddy’s police force.

The origin of the series can be found in the one-off drama called – not with sparkling originality – Regan written by Ian Kennedy-Martin for ITV’s Armchair Cinema strand of programmes as a vehicle for John Thaw, with whom he had worked in Redcap.

The relationship between Thaw, playing Jack Regan, and the young Dennis Waterman as George Carter is the central heart of the series. The older colleague mentoring the youngster, whilst they both have to overcome their professional and personal vulnerabilities remains as powerful as when, albeit in a very different form, it was repeated in the more cerebral Inspector Morse (1987)

However, what concerns one now is the way that The Sweeney has come to be seen as a beacon for reactionaries who mythologise its perceived homophobia, racism, casual sexism and other areas now seen as attractive to the unreconstructed. This is simplistic to say the least. The show does have elements of all of these, it is after all an historical document of a particular time, but to say that it is more, vastly more, sophisticated than this suggests is to dance a quick step with understatement.

The character of Regan is not that guy. He wrestles with dilemmas; he is straight in a corrupt world. These are characters that inhabit a bleak world – both at work and at home – and who have to regularly make choices which are unpalatable. Thaw is a cut above the average actor in showing the self-determination wrecking his soul as he torments himself with his self-disgust, whilst Waterman was never better at playing the enthusiastic conscience for his damaged mentor.

All of which makes both the simplicity of the Gene Hunt character in Ashes to Ashes and the humourless, clod-footed Ray Winston reboot The Sweeney debacle all the more disturbing for the viewer who appreciates the importance of what this show tried to do in the period.

The poster for the humourless, clod-footed 2012 Ray Winston reboot

The poster for the humourless, clod-footed 2012 Ray Winston reboot

There’s a lot been written about the show – the bust up between creator Ian Kennedy-Martin and Ted Childs (which Kennedy-Martin discusses in a blog post) – means that the show has been subjected to a lot of analysis. There are the movies, Sweeney! (1977) and its likeable, if at times harrowing, sequel Sweeney 2 (1978) but, at the end of the day, for humour, action, emotion and drama – there’s rarely been anything better on UK television and it deserves to be revisited.

Reposting: The Politics of ‘Poldark’

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The smouldering cast of 2015’s BBC adaptation of ‘Poldark’

This post about the Politics of Poldark has proved consistently popular. Please note, this was originally written and posted in May 2015 after Season One and doesn’t deal with any later events in the show 

As with a great many of these sorts of things, I came to the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ novels late (i.e. after they had finished airing and we got them on DVD). I was not keen at first. “Oh good – another BBC costume drama about poncey aristos doing their best Colin Firth-impression” is not a phrase I’m likely to utter. However, I was delighted to be proved wrong. From early in the first episode, I was entranced. Not – in the way that apparently the middle aged cohort of Sunday night fantasists obsessed with Aidan Turner’s pecs are – but by the choice of subject at this particular juncture in political history. Brave does not begin to cover it. We’ve all heard the BBC criticised for bias – in Scotland for a pro-union stance, in England for its slavish adherence to Tory policy or for being the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’. I’ve always taken a neutral stance on this alleged bias – firstly, I’m sceptical that an organisation as Byzantine and disparate as the BBC is capable of maintaining a coherent party line (I struggle with believing in organisations to be that organised.) And, also, because I think if you’re being attacked for bias from all sides, then you’re probably on the right lines. But make no mistake – ‘Poldark’ is brave. In an age of austerity, with food bank usage topping 1 million people, (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/22/food-bank-users-uk-low-paid-workers-poverty) for the nation’s broadcaster to produce an adaptation centred on a man of noble birth concerned with the survival of his workers to the extent that he will take on starving miners as farm hands and use his societal position to raise capital to put his people back to work is pretty ballsy.

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

The point of business is not just to make money is like a refrain for Ross Poldark and he outrages his contemporaries with this standpoint. He stands up for poachers and petitions not only the court for clemency, but also the owner of the pheasants, because of the context of the boy poacher’s circumstances. He is acutely aware of the hardships of subsistence living in his period for normal people. Poldark even tries to form what amounts to a Fairtrade workers’ collective to gain a fair price for the tin mined in the region. “I’m disgusted by my class,” he tells the lovely Demelza (another waif saved from a poor home life by Poldark at a time he can ill-afford to pay for another mouth to feed), “not all of them, but most.” In short, the character of Poldark is like a socialist hero of another age – one who actually believes that by working together we can all get richer. At a time when the top 1% are stretching away from the other 99% across the developed world, I can scarcely think of a more suitable hero than a man who is willing to see poverty and hardship as the result of circumstance rather than sloth and ingratitude and well done to the BBC (and Mammoth Screen who have undertaken the lavish production) for daring to offer the nation a compassionate hero – even if he does spends too long topless scything and staring out of the window in moody contemplation.

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark - a socialist hero?

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark – a socialist hero?