Sunday, 23 October 2011

"I Didn't Write That! Sounds More Like Dickens!"

Didn't Charles Edwards look a lot like Michael Palin? Didn't Steve Punt not look quite as much like Eric Idle as everyone had previously assumed? Didn't Terry Gilliam sound like Yogi Bear?

It doesn't matter how far off the wall you take your TV biopic, people will always instinctively compare it with what they know before they do anything else. Writer Tony Roche and director Owen Harris must have known this from the start when planning Holy Flying Circus, a worthwhile but mightily flawed anti-biography that had been all but crushed by the weight of expectation before it was out of the traps. Despite all this, it often got up to a fairly speedy lope.

The performances, as has been noted everywhere, ranged from uncanny to unworldly. Such a large lookalike cast was always going to be hell to gather up, so credit is due to the casting department for hitting the targets as often as they did. The gags varied wildly between straight rip-offs (a slightly dodgy rerun of the Life of Brian spaceship skit) and bits that seemed completely out of place (the interminable puppet battle, which seemed to have fallen off a Spike Jonze movie). In between though, there was a lot to enjoy: Alex McQueen's cunt dictator, Geoffrey McGivern's point-missing petitioner, and Michael Cochrane's flawless try-out for what must surely become a Roche-penned biopic of Saint Mugg.

The visual style often proved a problem. It was, unsurprisingly considering the doubtless tiny budget, filmed like any other BBC4 drama. Stuffed with close-ups to avoid manufacturing too much period background, colours muddied in post-production to sherry advert proportions, pseudo-Gilliam cartoons too slick in some ways, not nearly slick enough in others. There was none of the brightly-lit, live cutaway rhythm of the TV series, nor the wide-angle surrealism of the films.

The decision to “go Python” meant that complaints about fact-fudging were, of course, headed off at the pass. Rather too often, as it happens. The TV series itself never had nearly such a high density of self-reflexive, self-heckling moments. The jibes at BBC4 were squarely in the programme planner-knocking spirit of the original, but the fan-flattering references weren't. If Python often indulged itself, it rarely celebrated itself so conspicuously. It was the audience that disgraced themselves at live performances, not the Pythons.

Not everything that failed to work was unique to Holy Flying Circus. The zany band of Christian misfits invented to hound the Pythons was, tedious verbal tics aside, straight from the BBC4 light ent dramadoc “Plotify My Research” manual. This is the problem for those criticising the programme's whole approach. The alternative wouldn't be a rigorously researched, legally watertight recreation of every single memo, bicker and fart that took place. The alternative would be Hughie Green, Most Sincerely with the words “Hughie Green” crossed out and “Python” written in in crayon. Biopics are bullshit. BBC4 Light Ent biopics are bullshit squared. Ever since that Fanny Craddock one, the aim has never been to provide a rigorous history. Occasionally this results in legal action, mostly it just results in annoyed flicking to Challenge TV.

It's a moribund sub-genre which nevertheless pulls in the punters in a way not even Brian Cox's Authorised History of Brilliant Atoms can manage, so it'll be a long time a-dying. Tony Roche and company deserve, at the very least, an A+ for effort in making something different from what's left of it. In a time of extreme stylistic retrenchment in TV drama, any kind of experiment, even a failed one, has to be applauded. It could lead to something truly magnificent.

It could also lead to The Not the Nine O'Clock News Story narrated by a giant Oxbridge hedgehog or Absolutely Stoneybridge, but that's the risk you take. At least it can still be taken.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

A Blow for the Silent Majority

As ever when Ricky Gervais gets his greasily transgressive chops all over the media's thinkpieces, the thoughts of sensible folk turn immediately to anything other than Ricky Gervais. It is, however, shamefully tempting to speculate how well Life's Too Short will stack up against the (admittedly very few) previous attempts to get humour out of society's attitudes to those we shall be very 1992 for a moment and refer to, complete with disarming scare quotes, as “little people”.

Most famously, there was Mike Walling and Tony Millan's A Small Problem for BBC2 in 1987, positing a future height-based apartheid Britain. Nine years before that, though, Good Life writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey contributed a comic entry to the Play for Today canon, A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts, that bears re-examination.

The premise: in a Hounslow terrace, mild-mannered Ray Collis (Ray Brooks) is woken by his wife (Judy Cornwell) to confront a burglar downstairs. Finding what he assumes to be a “crouching figure”, a startled Ray lashes out with a conveniently placed Zulu knobkerrie only to find his felled victim is dwarf Tiny Hackett (Rusty ‘Britain’s Bounciest Weather’ Goffe).

Word naturally gets around about the incident, covering every detail aside from Hackett's stature. At work, he's hailed as a have-a-go hero in predictable tabloid fashion. (“It's about time someone stuck up for us mortgage owners!”) The previously anonymous Ray becomes the toast of the engineering firm. Stan, a workmate and confidant full of saloon bar swagger, puts himself nobly at Ray's disposal. (“I'm empowered to use the telephone in this office any time I want to, you know that.”)

Unfortunately, a snooping neighbour has witnessed the crucial detail, and the next morning the local rag reveals all. “We're in, Prince,” he excitedly tells his dog. “Look at that. Three inch double column – upper and lower case bold headline. And we're on the same page as the air tragedy!”

The cat out of the bag, allies become enemies with astonishing ease. The irascible Old Spud, initially Ray's strongest champion, suddenly becomes a staunch defender of midgets (“... and I will maintain my right to use that word”), reminiscing about a highly unlikely tolerant past. (“We used to have respect for midgets in the thirties. The old Queen Mary built a home for them out of her own pocket. Nowadays, anybody with a bit of a drawback, he's at the mercy of society, isn't he?” “You wanted to hang him yesterday.” “He was normal size yesterday!”) A meek-looking accountant approvingly hands Ray a National Front leaflet. Ray's boss (Patrick Newell), a conspicuous champion of what he calls “unfortunates”, calls him in for a carpeting. (“You have torpedoed my credibility!”)

It soon becomes clear that nobody is acting with remotely noble intentions, merely taking up whatever moral stance suits their self-regarding purposes. None of Ray's shop floor colleagues have a moral compass worth tapping. His boss, it's implied, is only taking on “unfortunates” to reduce his wage bill. Strong, reliable Stan turns out to be having an affair with Ray's wife, pathetically feigning angina when Ray confronts him. Only Ray himself makes any kind of progress, and even then it's pretty feeble – from weak-willed ditherer to slightly more self-possessed cynic.

It's by no means a faultless play. Some scenes are forced, and Goffe himself only gets a handful of lines, the main confrontation being between Ray and Hackett's mother (Brenda Bruce) outside the magistrate's court. But Esmonde and Larbey explore the issue intelligently, making their comedy from the characters' moral panic, logical confusion (there's a great argument about “degrees of crouching”) and egotistical posturing rather than taking the easier path of cheap “transgressive” stereotyping or off-the-peg scenes of social embarrassment.

Produced at a time when mainstream comedy was making one of its periodic retreats into a reactionary comfort zone, A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts questioned everything within its purview. Many have argued today's comedy is undergoing a similar malaise, and Life's Too Short may well provide a similar corrective breath of fresh air. On the evidence of the past week, though, it's doubtful we'll even get a decent knobkerrie gag.