Character Equity and Ripper Street

A quick post while the tea brews….

It’s excellent, really excellent, that more episodes of Ripper Street will be made, thanks to the intervention of Amazon. The deal, according to Variety, involves Amazon part-funding new episodes in return for rights to both of the first two series, and first-broadcast rights in the UK, a few months after which the BBC will screen them. No news yet on how many episodes, or when, or the window between Amazon’s screening and the BBC’s. But this is good news – as I wrote here, I thought Ripper Street was a really excellent and lively addition to the BBC schedules, and I was appalled when it was canned.

jerome flynn ripper streetBut let’s be clear about something: Amazon’s been quite clever here. Because it hasn’t just bought a programme brand, an onscreen look-and-feel, a high-class cast and a high-quality writing team. It’s bought a set of characters. Those characters have been etched out, with growing clarity and assurance by actors, writers and directors alike, over two series. They’re now worth actual cash money.

When television drama is done right and done well, this equity investment in characters pays growing dividends (at least, it does until it doesn’t). Which is why it was so bloody scandalous of the BBC to drop the show in the first place. Yes, audiences could have been higher (so why change the broadcast night and schedule it against more popular fare on the other side?). Yes, it must have been an expensive show to make (so why change the…. oh, you get the idea). But the hard work had already been done. Reid and Jackson and Drake and the rest had had come alive. We cared about them. And that, more than anything, is I think why Amazon have come in on this.

ripper_streetBecause characters have value. Characters pull in audiences. Look at Breaking Bad, which I am so nearly at the end of (five episodes to go) that I can barely stop thinking about it enough to write the book I’m supposed to be working on. Those characters were built, knocked down, re-established and refined over five series, until I’m not sure whether Walt is evil or Jesse is good or Skyler is sly, just in the same way I’m not sure about real people. It’s the power of serial television (and, ahem, serial books). And it’s characters that drive it.

So back to my own serial. For which this has been a very, very discreet form of advertising.

In praise of tying things up

Whenever and wherever the split between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction occurred, it was accompanied by a new fashion for ambiguous endings. In some circles, there’s something a little bit geeky and uncool about a story that ties all its loose ends together. Ambiguity is valued as more representative of ‘reality’, of being somehow more true. A similar aversion for the neat ending applies to film and television: a well-crafted movie with a mysterious conclusion seems to draw critical approval more easily.

In genre fiction, be it on the page or on the screen, a satisfying conclusion is almost always essential – ambiguity isn’t particularly valued here. And when an ending is promised and not delivered upon – as happened, spectacularly, with Lost – fans will turn away, disgusted and feeling rather used and cheated.

Fringe-Poster

Last night, Fringe came to a close – for me, at least. And it did so by tying things up – as much as any series that had perambulated along the random and the impossible could be said to be ‘tidied up.’ I think it did it with some style and a lot of heart, and even some humour along the way. The ending of a longish-running television series is a difficult thing to pull off – so many loose ends to tie up, so many writers along the way, so many characters and motivations, so much mess. Those great critical darlings of television, The Sopranos and The Wire, took two approaches: one knowingly and joyously ambiguous, the other tired and sad and acknowledging how little things change. Both were celebrated for their ambiguous endings.

Fringe won’t be remembered in the critical sections of the broadsheets in anything like the same way. But I will remember it as a clever and committed bit of genre telly, wildly uneven at times but always unafraid to go after the surreal and the insane with gusto. Its ending was appropriately and wilfully neat – as satisfying as the last bite of a very good sandwich which wasn’t particularly healthy but you really, really enjoyed.

Thanks, Fringers.

 

On censoring the Major

There’s a little bit of a ‘why-oh-why’ storm brewing over the BBC’s decision to censor a scene from Fawlty Towers repeats – the one where the Major corrects a woman for incorrectly using the word ‘n*gg*r’ when she should be using the word ‘w*g.’

Major Gowen: Fawlty Towers's resident bigot.

Now, the fact that I feel slightly queasy just typing those words – and have replaced the vowels, at least partly to prevent over-friendly indexing by our search engine friends – should show how much attitudes to language and comedy have changed. It’s now a fairly safe bet, I think, that a lot of people recognise that words have power to change cultures, and we need to be careful with them.

But there’s also an immediate gag reflex at the idea of cutting anything from a cultural creation, particularly one as popular as Fawlty Towers. Mark Lawson, for one, thinks people are ‘sophisticated enough’ to recognise the comedy.

However, the objection to those shows is that the assumptions behind the characterisation and writing date from an era of different attitudes to race and therefore risk causing offence now. In contrast, Cleese and Booth, when they wrote the character of Major Gowen, were clearly not being unthinkingly racist; rather, they were satirising an English upper-class bigot. The joke depends on the audience first thinking that, when the Major rebukes his companion “No, no, no”, he is condemning her for inflammatory language, when it turns out that he is simply a particularly pedantic racist. A liberal pedant might object that it was odd of the BBC to cut just that one line from the episode in question as the entire premise of The Germans is English post-second world war humour and hostility towards the country. But, while the show will never win a prize for encouraging Anglo-German cultural understanding, Cleese is comically depicting – rather than politically promoting – fear of “Fritz”.

via Fawlty Towers isn’t racist. Major Gowen is | Television & radio | The Guardian.

But the interesting thing here is that John Cleese’s ‘management’ has apparently agreed to this cut. Does that mean Cleese has? I don’t know. But it’s we can imagine why he might have agreed to it. Might it be that the Major’s character, as imagined by the writers, depends on the audience taking those words in a particular way? A Seventies audience would have found them wrong, I think, but amusingly so; more anachronistic than immoral. The words did not have the capacity to shock that they do now. A generation ago, the words suggest a character who is out-of-touch, pedantic and a fool. Today, they suggest a racist thug whose grandsons are in the EDL. Not what the writers had in mind. So perhaps changing it is sensible, creatively.

Another point: increasingly our cultural heritage is one of performance, not just words and pictures. Shakespeare comes down to us as words; Fawlty Towers as a finished performance, words and pictures and sound within a 30-minute whole. It becomes increasingly difficult to edit, change, adapt those things and they perhaps ossify as a result. We can refresh Hamlet through putting him in modern dress; I can’t see, a hundred years from now, Fawlty Towers being restaged on a Mega City One block to restore its relevance. Thus, Shakespeare survives – through being hacked about and reimagined. Fawlty Towers does not.

On my night as a Ripping pillock

So, Ripper Street. Did you watch it?

jerome flynn ripper street

Or did you perhaps do what I did?

Did you:

1. See that BBC1 had a Sunday night drama set in the 19th century coming up, and ask yourself if we really needed another costume drama?

2. Sigh a little that this drama was apparently based on Jack the Ripper, on whose unknown bones countless previous stories had been staged, to little purpose? Did you check this fact?

3. Note that the opening episode featured a cut-up woman?

4. Read Grace Dent and Caitlin Moran on this subject, and nod wisely at their complaints that yet another 19th century woman was being cut up in the services of televisual entertainment?

5. Watch the first five minutes on iPlayer, just to have these suspicions confirmed (despite the unexpectedly kinetic action and the rather good titles, which did give you some pause)?

6. Switch off and go on Twitter to say glibly “nah. Didn’t like it.”

Well, I did. I did all that.

And ended up with social media egg all over my face when someone I know and like turned round and said “my husband worked on that, you dozy dickhead.” Well, she didn’t say that. I’m transcribing. But she was very hurt, and I was about as embarrassed as I’ve ever been. Not so much by her annoyance (though that was fierce) as by the knowledge that I’d cast an airy two-star rating over the work of a good many people based on little more than wanting to be seen as cool and down with Grace Dent.

You see, this is what happens when you lazily follow a herd and assume you know how things are. It’s what happens when you stop thinking for yourself. It’s what happens when you use social media to unthinkingly slag something off, even when that kind of unthinking slagging drives you nuts when it’s applied to your own work.

Because, here’s the thing. I’ve just watched the first episode of Ripper Street.

And it was really good.

Oops.

I thought it was brilliant to look at, pacy, exciting and smart. Compared to most BBC drama, it got on with stuff, it didn’t take itself too seriously, and it had dialogue which didn’t sound like it had been filtered through an Archers script editor. It didn’t say “now, I’m going to show you THIS” and then show you it and then say “remember when I showed you THAT.”

It was dirty and salacious and occasionally silly – in a good way. It wasn’t Deadwood (as I’ve seen it described by some), but then it wasn’t on HBO – it was on BBC1 in primetime on a Sunday night. It wasn’t supposed to be Deadwood. But for primetime on BBC1 on a Sunday night, it was about as Deadwoody as I’ve ever seen the BBC get.

As for Dent and Moran – well, I just didn’t recognise Grace Dent’s description of it. Reading it again just now, I think what she wrote was, with the hindsight of actually having watched the thing, pretty dishonest. I can’t read what Caitlin Moran wrote – it’s behind a paywall. Perhaps she was fairer. But Dent’s central point – that Ripper Street was somehow designed to appeal to those who enjoy watching women being ripped up – was really unfair.

I won’t speak for the show’s historical accuracy – I don’t know enough to talk about that (see, I’ve learned from my experience already). All I’ll say is that, for this punter, it certainly seemed historically plausible enough for a BBC1 Sunday night show in this post-Downton age. A good deal more so, actually.

So, to the person who I offended with my tin-eared, big-headed, tone-deaf, pig-ignorant prognostications last night – I’m sorry.

To anyone involved in making Ripper Street – nice work, you must be chuffed to bits.

To Grace Dent – pull the other one, it’s got bells on.

And to me: don’t comment on things you haven’t seen. Don’t assume people who make television are less deserving of your admiration.

And, to quote a bunny rabbit with strong ankles: if you can’t say nothing nice, don’t say nothing at all.

ripper_street

Laura Morgan on ITV’s Poirot

A quite lovely and very perceptive ramble around ITV’s adaptations of Poirot, in honour of the final series, which is coming this year:

At her best Agatha Christie is very funny, and this is often evident in the pairing of Poirot and his hapless sidekick. The early ITV series, in which both characters invariably appeared, were – violent deaths notwithstanding – feelgood TV. They were light-hearted and witty and they spoke of an age of elegance, and painted an affectionate and studiedly beautiful portrait of an England that we would have liked to know, even if it never really quite existed. The attention to detail, both in the scripts and the production, was impeccable; the 1930s costumes and interiors almost – almost – as pleasing as the plots.

via Curtain Call « MostlyFilm.