From Imagine… Marina Abramovic: The Ugly Duckling, BBC Television. I caught this on BBC Four the other night and was particularly struck by this image. She breathes and the external skeleton flexes gently. It’s the simplest thing, but it somehow has levels and powers.
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For me, the most thrilling moments in I CLAUDIUS remain those when Claudius drops his public persona and that fearsome intellect emerges untrammelled. This scene in episode 11, and especially that earlier scene late in Livia’s life. Screenwriter Jack Pulman’s special skill was adaptation, but he loved genre too, and summons that energy in these moments.
If that line was in fact written by Sean Tretta and Kiley Rossetter, and not actually just tossed out by Patrick – the change in his diction for “the carpet” is either Terry Matalas catching Patrick fucking with his friends or a perfectly weighted reading of a nice joke – then I applaud them for that as well as the structural grace of this episode and the other well placed quips.
It feels like it took the creators and producers of PICARD a couple of seasons to steel themselves to do this season — the one where the old gang is put back together. That said, the previous two seasons gave this season the always authentically raw-nerved Michelle Hurd and the regal intelligence of Jeri Ryan. But it’s really all about STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and revisiting those characters. Which leads me to thank the creators for giving Michelle Forbes the space and script to stop the fucking show with her appearance: it pleased me on personal and professional levels to watch an older Michelle go toe to toe with Patrick in tight, tense scenes and emotionally burn the room down.
All credit to Matalas and his team for pretty much landing a season of television that could so easily have been a complete disaster. I note also the QUATERMASS tones of the young people becoming the threat and the old people being the last chance.
I imagine a great many words have been expended elsewhere on this episode.
Connor is getting married on a boat. The wedding party is boarded first – the people who hold the “red invites.” Jesse Armstrong wrote this episode, and you can see him having a little fun around the edges of what is otherwise a searing piece of work.
Roman’s last words to his father. The episode is just loaded up with emotional mines. Kieron Culkin, Alan Ruck and Matthew Macfadyen in particular do some magnificent work here, and Zoe Winters has about a minute towards the end that steals the whole episode. The whole thing is stacked up with awards contenders, from writing and directing and all the way across.
The fascinating thing is that it absolutely reverses any expectation you may have had for this event in this show. You don’t see it coming and you don’t see it playing out like that. It’s a model of questioning your own narrative and building an incredible piece of work out of taking only the difficult choices.
I return to this from time to time. Dennis Potter was one of the great television writers. In 1994, he learned he had cancer. He resolved to finish his last works, and undertook a final interview with Melvyn Bragg for Channel 4 just before completing them, to close out his writing life. Afterwards, a transcript of the interview was released, which I still have somewhere. I remember being spellbound in front of a little tv set, watching it without getting up once.
There’s a piece early on when he talks about, in full knowledge of his impending death, looking at the plum tree in blossom outside his window, and seeing it anew as “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be.” And that’s when I started spending five minutes every day for myself to just look around.
This remains, for me, both an elevating and a heartbreaking watch. Even now.
I’d love to hunt down a copy of this one day. Check out that cast. It also included Ciaran Hinds. I remember Tim Roth’s performance being one of his most exuberantly evil. It was a tv play on BBC 1 in 1990, part of The Play On 1 strand that I think was a belated and brief replacement for Play For Today. Because, back then, we could do strands of hour-long standalone originals on tv.
Written by Malcolm McKay, whose Wikipedia entry surfaces this note about another play in the Play On 1 strand that he wrote, AIRBASE:
His writing has always dealt with extreme behaviour and includes the controversial BBC play Airbase which dealt metaphorically with drug abuse on a USAF base in England. The play achieved notoriety after it was mentioned in Parliament and the Lords after Prime Minister Thatcher demanded a copy, the Chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey publicly apologised for the content, and Mary Whitehouse, of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, issued a second apology to President Reagan on the behalf of the British people.
Anyway, this is what YELLOWBACKS was about:
Chilling drama set in the future when draconian powers have been given to the authorities under the new Secret Emergency Provisions of the Dangerous Disease Act. Dr Juliet Horwitz finds herself hooded, handcuffed and interrogated by a ruthless pair, as does a scientist Alex McPherson, both of whom are the key to finding Martin Pitt, a virus carrier who has disappeared.
I watched it on the night it was broadcast, and haven’t ever seen it since. The AIDS-inflected plot had faded from memory, and I just retain the sense of its British Dystopia atmosphere, its clever details, the recollection of its grim tension, and some immense acting. We have a vast amount of lost gems in the televisual history of this country. Imagine: The Play On 1 alone generated thirty plays – 60-90 minute films, is my memory – in two or three years.
MONSTROUS is a six-part Korean tv show. It concerns the excavation, in a small Korean town, of an ancient statue of the Buddha that has a curse locked inside it. This was of particular interest to me, because it’s a classic English folk horror set-up – digging up something that was buried for a reason and everything goes to shit. It has everything the English version typically has – the archaeologist, the genius expert who sees patterns, the idiot politician, the local young psychopath. Even the “mad monk” – in this case, amusingly, a monk who pissed off the head of his order by doing interviews about supernatural folklore for shitty cable. It is quite European in some of its details – I especially note the painting that weeps blood — although these things could prove to me more international than I’m aware of.
The whole thing is, in fact, structurally and materially very reminiscent of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. The ending could even be read as a specific reference to that story. As is the release of a curse that reverts the victims back to a state of atavistic, uncontrolled fear, grief and anger. This gives the writers, Yeon Sang-ho and Ryoo Yong-jae, license to have some fun with zombie-like activity in the style of Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows’ CROSSED (and my own minor work BLACKGAS with Max Fiumara). It does get pleasingly violent, and it is very nicely shot. It occasionally gets a bit too twisty and reversal-happy for its own good, but it is generally well paced — and each episode is about a half-hour long, just like the original QUATERMASS tv series. Six half hour episodes really does make me think they knew what they were about. An impressive fusion.
I watched it on Sky Sci-Fi. Doubtless it’s on cable or streaming somewhere else.
These two boxes contain what were for me very formative hours of my youth. They probably surround half of the way I learned to think about non-fiction writing. Possibly even half the way I learned to think.
A particular kind of television that doesn’t really exist any more, except perhaps in very dilute forms. (I also have THE ASCENT OF MAN in the house somewhere, but I didn’t see it as a kid.) Or mutations like the Adam Curtis style.
There’s a thing that’s sometimes called “rhetorical television”: where someone walks around on screen, basically, and tells you what they think on a given topic. Here’s how I perceive the world, they say, and here’s the history and the evidence to back it up. It’s what we in Britain call Reithian, after Lord Reith of the BBC; the idea that tv can be both compelling and educational.
Obviously, I cannot help having grown up in the 1970s: as in the examples above, this form has, as a matter of era and biases, most often been a white guy of a certain age walking around on the screen.
Though this train of thought has suddenly reminded me of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s incredible history of ska music documentary he did for BBC Radio 1, and now I need a copy of that too…
Anyway. Yes. All cultural queries and problems understood and accepted, but I loved these things nonetheless, and am glad to have copies of them.
And, if you’ve not heard me talk about CONNECTIONS before, can I take just one minute and eleven seconds of your time?
Yes, it was co-created and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and I will die on the weird poisoned hill that is VALHALLA RISING and its perverse glory. But as far as I’m concerned, the banner for this imminent new series on Amazon Prime is that it was co-created and written by my friend Ed Brubaker, better known to you as the creator of Captain America’s Winter Soldier and the line of CRIMINAL crime graphic novels with Sean Phillips.
Feast your eyes. Give thanks.