television

Daytime TV Killed the British Bank Holiday

What do the following film genres mean to you?

  • War films
  • James Bond
  • Carry On films

To me they all scream Bank Holiday TV. You may have had plans to go out somewhere, but an annoying drizzle meant that you’d rather stay at home and see what’s on the box.

But in fact, that’d be wrong.

Maybe the Bank Holidays of yesteryear were like this, but these days you’d be hard pressed to differentiate a Bank Holiday’s output from any other Monday’s programming. No longer do we get much in the way of specials, one-offs or film premieres. There’s relatively little live sport left on free-to-air TV, and instead, the regular daytime schedule is extended into the Bank Holiday regardless.

Is the family at home? Or are you having a bit of a lie-in? No longer do you get to feast your eyes on anything different. It’s the regular diet of Jeremy Kyle, Homes Under the Hammer, Escape to the Country and Loose Women.

Indeed flicking through the dreary line-up during the recent May Day Bank Holiday, I had to sense-check that I hadn’t somehow taken a standard day off work by accident. It was wet outside, and if I wanted some actual entertainment, it’d be either be a DVD or Netflix.

But perhaps I was wrong? Was Bank Holiday TV that good in the past? I decided to find out by exploring previous listings.

I’ve taken a look at the TV on Spring Bank Holidays – the last Monday in May – over the last forty years by looking at the Radio Times every ten years from 1977 to date. (I didn’t have access to the TV Times, so ITV and Channel 4’s listings only start in 1997.)

1977

I said above that the last Monday in May is the Bank Holiday, but in 1977 the Spring Bank Holiday was the following week because this was also the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration weekend. The Radio Times featured an embroidered image of the Queen on the cover of their Souvenir Issue.

BBC One’s daytime schedule was sport focused. Following a Laurel and Hardy film, it was one-day England v Australia cricket and then Frank Bough presenting a Bank Holiday Grandstand that also featured Powerboat Racing (Murray Walker on commentary duties), Racing from Chepstow and Athletics from Leicester.

BBC Two opened at breakfast for some Open University programming, before closing down at 7.55am. It opened again briefly for Play School (Julie Stevens and Brian Cant), before closing down once more. It only reopened after lunch for the film Holiday in Mexico, before showing the end of the cricket.

The BBC One early evening started with Disney Time presented by Noel Edmonds, a showing of the film Scott of the Antarctic, The Music of Morecambe and Wise and a regular Starsky and Hutch. After the news, it was Silver Jubilee: Fires of Friendship, featuring live coverage of beacons being lit spreading out from Windsor up and down the country. Raymond Baxter presented it, and the Radio Times carried a handy map of all the bonfire sites. The evening ended with the film I Start Counting starring Jenny Agutter and Bryan Marshall.

BBC Two was also showing a patriotic film that evening with Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. That was followed by Neil Diamond, an episode of Women at War and a short play under the banner of Second City Firsts.

1987

In 1987, Noel Edmonds was the Radio Times cover as host of the SOS Star Awards on Saturday evening. But we’re going to concentrate on Monday’s TV.

For BBC One, that meant a Monday edition of Grandstand featuring England v Pakistan one-day cricket, the golf PGA Championship and coverage of The Milk Race cycling (with Phil Liggett and Hugh Porter on commentary duties).

BBC Two’s daytime saw You and Me, followed by several hours of Pages from Ceefax, before a Walton’s TV-movie spin-off, and continued cricket coverage took over.

Later in the evening, BBC One had Wogan, Bob’s Full House, Ever Decreasing Circles and then the film Staying Alive. After the news, there was an all-star celebration of 100 years of Hollywood.

BBC Two gave over the entire evening to the opera Turandot, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House and simulcast on Radio 3. It ended the evening with highlights of some the day’s earlier sport.

1997

In 1997, the cover featured Lenny Henry.

BBC One had Herbie Goes Bananas, followed by Disney’s Robin Hood. After a brief visit to Ramsey Street for Neighbours it was three hours of Spartacus.

Over on BBC Two there was Steve Rider presenting the PGA Championship from Wentworth for much of the day. But there was still time for Teletubbies, The Phil Silvers Show, and the film Rancho Notorious.

ITV was basically showing films all day. A fantasy film called Master of the World, starring Vincent Price and Charles Bronson (together at last?), Captain Ron with Kurt Russell, and then a true classic in Rio Bravo.

Channel 4 had a series of repeats including Bewitched and The Crystal Maze, before the film Challenge to Lassie and then Racing from Sandown Park. They did find space for Fifteen to One and Countdown.

Channel 5’s schedule looked more normal than most with regulars like Leeza, The Bold and the Beautiful, Family Affairs and Sunset Beach. But it did have the premiere of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III in the afternoon (Strong competition for that I’m sure).

Into the evening and BBC One had Red Nose Awards, Auntie’s TV Favourites, and Here and Now, with Sue Lawley interviewing The Spice Girls. A regular Eastenders was followed by Radio Times cover star Lenny’s Big Amazon Adventure and the start of a new series of Birds of a Feather. Following a later than usual news, it was the premiere of the film Staggered with Martin Clunes. Carry on Camping rounded off the evening.

BBC Two had Computers Don’t Bite with Carol Vorderman and Adrian Chiles, Mr Bell Goes to Westminster following Martin Bell taking on Neil Hamilton in Tatton, The Antiques Show with Francine Stock and Tales from the River Bank. The big film was Lorenzo’s Oil with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon.

ITV had regular episodes of Wish You Were Here…? and Coronation Street. Then it had A Royal Gala for the Prince’s Trust, hosted by Sir David Frost and Joanna Lumley and featuring Gary Barlow and Jennifer Aniston.

Channel 4 was celebrating Sitcom Weekend all that evening, including Desmond’s, George and Mildred, Rising Damp, Father Ted, Cheers, and the film Up Pompeii.

Channel 5’s evening saw the premiere of, er, Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love, and an episode Jack Docherty’s chat show.

2007

In 2007, Daniel Craig (as James Bond) was the cover star, and the magazine included a free “Giant Springwatch Wallchart.” It also asked the question of the latest Doctor Who episode: “Is this the scariest episode ever?” (Talking about the episode Human Nature).

By now, the schedules were feeling a little less special. BBC One had a morning of Animal Park, Homes Under the Hammer, To Buy or Not to Buy, Cash in the Attic and Bargain Hunt. Not that different to 2017 in some respects. After lunch it was old episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo!, Keeping Up Appearances and Murder, She Wrote. Then we got films of The Parent Trap and Father of the Bride Part 2.

BBC Two began with blocks of CBeebies and CBBC programming before running the popular TV movie High School Musical. This was followed by the John Wayne film, The Comancheros, followed by regular episodes of Living in the Sun, Escape to the Country, Flog It!, Eggheads and Weakest Link.

ITV was also now running a nearly normal schedule of The Jeremy Kyle Show, two episodes of 60 Minute Makeover, Loose Women, half an Inspector Morse repeat (part one had been the previous Friday), and For the Rest of Your Life. At 4.00pm it ran the 1983 film, Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide.

Channel 4 broke up its regular morning block of sitcom repeats with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: the Movie, a Pirates of the Caribbean 3: T4 Movie Special and the film Alaska with Thora Birch and Charlton Heston. It ended the afternoon with Countdown, Deal or No Deal and The New Paul O’Grady Show.

Channel 5 was showing a standard set of The Wright Stuff, Trisha Goddard, House Doctor, House, and then the films/TV movies, The Madness Within and Perry Mason: The Cast of the Lost Love.

BBC One’s evening was basically a standard issue Monday evening with Celebrity Masterchef, an Open All Hours repeat, EastEnders, Panorama, New Tricks and Not Going Out.

BBC Two’s evening was also standard fare, with a new series of Springwatch, the third in a documentary series Power to the People and only The Pledge with Jack Nicholson being an unusual film addition. At midnight viewers could spend two hours with Springwatch Nightshift.

ITV’s evening was mostly identical to any other, with Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Airline, more Coronation Street, and then the film Ocean’s Eleven. The evening was rounded off with The Championship featuring play-off highlights.

Channel 4 at least had a film in early peak with the premiere of Star Trek: Nemesis before the documentary Brits Get Rich in China. Then it was ER, Sport’s Dirty Secrets and late night repeats of Sex and the City.

Channel 5 had Airplane! Before highlights of the cricket (long gone from free to air TV), Fifth Gear, Paul Merton in China, Prison Break and the film Anaconda.

2017

Which all brings us right up to date, and I’m embedding some of my patented* (*they’re not patented) annotated Radio Times pages into this blog. This week’s edition has a The Beatles and Sgt Pepper because, er, there’s a re-issued CD boxset out?

(Click through if you can’t read what it says)

Radio Times 29 May 2017

This is near enough a completely usual Monday. All the daytime staples are there. The tiny amount of sport consists of highlights packages. The PGA golf, long a Bank Holiday tradition, now finishes on a Sunday like every other tournament, and is live on Sky, like every other tournament.

Only Channel 5 actually makes an effort, running a classic film in the afternoon (The Searchers), and launching their new mini-series sequel on The Kennedys.

The only way you’d know it was a Bank Holiday from these schedules would be to notice that the news is either shortened or completely missing from the schedules. Otherwise, it’s as you were.

Summary

The shift away from holiday programming to regular scheduling hasn’t been a fast one, but in recent years it feels like it has sped up.

In the 70s and 80s we didn’t really have daytime TV – indeed channels might actually shut down for a bit. But that left space for sport, for which there was no satellite competition. And the end of the football season meant that there was a range of sport available. There have always been films, but truth be told, they’ve not always been great. There have been some titles here that the best film critic would need to go away and look up.

Yet today, we’re almost at a point where the most you can expect is that the news might get shortened a little, BBC Two might run a film in place of Newsnight, and that’s about it. We don’t get special events, or one off specials any longer. Daytime and evening schedules run year around, and make little to no account for anything else. Certainly, if I’d been examining the May Bank Holiday, I’d have included the World Snooker Championships, long a staple of BBC TV over the period. But it feels like schedulers don’t really make the effort any longer.

Undoubtedly, Britain’s Got Talent and Springwatch are big draws for their respective channels, but there’s not even a non-soap drama to be found (unless you count Channel 4’s Loaded which is more drama-comedy).

It is true to say that we don’t get nearly as many repeats as we used to (a curious Guardian piece recently asked if the age of repeats was at an end. I would argue that this has long happened). Most drama on the main channels is first run in primetime. Even massive hits like Line of Duty or Poldark don’t get peaktime repeats.

And it’s also true that we have more access to entertainment. In the seventies, you’d have to wait until ITV showed Jaws before you got a chance to see it. Only with the rise of VHS, satellite TV, DVD, downloads and Netflix, did the audience gain control. However, ITV will still run one-off Maigrets, while the BBC and Channel 4 can have premieres of some of the films they’ve backed.

We’re said to be in a golden age of television; indeed “peak TV.” There’s so much good stuff, or “must-see TV” that we struggle to keep up. Are you watching the new seasons of House of Cards? Or The Leftovers? Or American Gods? Or Twin Peaks? Or The Americans? Or Doctor Who?

Season 7 of Game of Thrones is coming soon, perhaps you want to binge watch the previous six seasons? Or seven seasons of The Walking Dead?

Instead of moaning that ITV hasn’t bothered to change its Bank Holiday schedule from a normal one, perhaps I should understand that they know beyond their regular audience, anyone else watching TV will be doing so on their own terms. Watching iPlayer, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, ITV Hub, Now TV or Walter Presents boxsets.

Bank Holiday TV is a thing of the past.

Grand Tour

We’re several weeks into Amazon’s megabudget Top Gear remake, “Grand Tour,” and you can’t fail to have noticed it has arrived. There have been ads everywhere from the sides of buses to TV, and of course, all over the front page of the Amazon website. Even Amazon’s packaging covers their grinning faces right now.

We’ve even managed to have a “presenter says something stupid” story, with mild-mannered Richard Hammond somehow implying that eating ice cream as an adult is “gay.”

Cost estimates for the new series vary wildly, but what’s clear is that a lot of money has been spent on this series.

And yet, I confess I’ve been utterly underwhelmed by Grand Tour so far.

They’ve got a lot more money, but I’m not sure they’re spending it wisely.

They’ve been hopping around the world for, well, basically no reason at all. After a few long-haul outings in the US and South Africa, they’ve stayed in Europe. But apart from a seeming product placement deal with DHL (does that PP logo need to appear in the UK streaming world?), there seems little to no point. In South Africa they managed a single short feature in which James May watched a bunch of locals do donuts, while he didn’t do any himself.

And, er, that’s about the extent of it.

Look, I realise that the bulk of the show is made months in advance, and these are just the last bits, providing an over-arching narrative to otherwise unrelated features. But really, what’s the point?

Is it really only that they have to use a tent, and can’t broadcast from a single location because that infringes the BBC’s intellectual property?

The car features are basically the same as Top Gear’s.

They’ve got a UK track to test cars and time them – the same as Top Gear.

There’s a new racing driving who does now speak but is basically a new Stig – the same as Top Gear.

We don’t have “The Producers,” instead “Mr Wilman” sends texts. That’d be Andy Wilman, the show’s producer, reinventor of Top Gear with Clarkson, with whom he went to school.

The only thing they don’t seem to have is the star interview. Instead they have a “joke” sequence that has already got very boring very quickly (along with a “drone crash” at the start of each episode).

Then there are the awful attempts at comedy. The worst of these must have been a singularly unfunny section segment the RAF with the USAF.

There are other gags, and they’re totally laboured. It feels like nobody has the ability to reign in the stars and say, “Look, this isn’t funny. We’re dropping it or editing it out.”

And I’m really disappointed that they’ve not tried to do a few more different things. If you’re going to dart around the world, do it for a reason. Do some new features that make use of your locales.

Yes, we want the presenters’ chemistry, but what we’ve got is a version Top Gear that’s as close as possible to the original without infringing the aforementioned IP, but with much more money thrown at it. And not for the better.

I’ll be honest and say that I never watched Top Gear for reviews of supercars. They were easily the dullest.

I wanted silly challenges, races, and journeys. The presenters were never that funny, but I kind of thought they knew that. Yet now we seem to be getting more of their “comic” turns.

It feels as though they’ve been given a massive amount of cash and allowed to do what they like with no Amazon interference. Indeed I suspect that’s exactly what has happened.

Sometimes a network keeping you on track is actually useful.

Their two-parter in the Namib desert was better, although a seasoned watched understands that they’re never in the peril they claim to be.

But overall I don’t think they’ve stretched themselves creatively, and indeed I think they’re just coasting doing more of their usual act. It’s not that this is a terrible series – it’s still well made and looks great.

But given the freedom and budget they have, I expected better.

In the meantime, James May’s The Reassembler on BBC Four is probably a better watch.

Radio Times – Boxing Day 2016

So you’ve made it through to Boxing Day. Assuming you’re not hitting the shops for the sales, or off to some sporting or outdoors activity, you’ll be settling in at home looking for more entertainment.

Here are my choices and anti-choices for Boxing Day from the Radio Times.

As ever, click the link below to see a larger-scale photo.

Boxing Day TV

Click here for larger TV page.

Boxing Day TV 2

Click here for larger “digital” TV page.

Boxing Day Radio

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The Music Industry As Depicted in TV Dramas

We may currently being experiencing peak TV, but even that doesn’t really explain the recent glut of TV series set around the music industry.

A couple of weeks ago, Netflix’s new magnum opus was released – The Get Down from Baz Luhrmann. The series is rumoured to have cost a record amount, at least on a per episode business. And based on the first 90 minute episode that I’ve watched so far, this is sort of understandable.

It’s set in 1977 and seems to focus on a group of youngsters basically discovering the birth of hip-hop. The characters are part fictional and part based on real characters like Grandmaster Flash, who is also an executive producer.

Meanwhile HBO has cancelled the at-first-renewed Vinyl. This also had a lot of weight behind it, with a pilot from Martin Scorsese, and input from Mick Jagger. This was set in a New York record label slightly earlier in the 70s, as they basically started to discover disco and punk. The series mixed fake bands on the fake record label, but was set against the backdrop of real artists like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.

Meanwhile Showtime’s Roadies, comes from no less than Cameron Crowe, but is this time set in the present day. But even it has callbacks to the 70s, an episode featuring a flashback to one of the crew’s early life when he was supposedly working for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and in particular Ronnie Van Zant. Another episode revisited the tragedy that occurred in 1979 at a concert by The Who in Cincinnati.

It is peculiar that all of these big projects, each backed by major Hollywood directors, should all arrive on the small screen at the same time. In Hollywood lingo, they probably all count as “passion projects” because part of the reason they’re made is that big names, and often, big stars come attached. Networks love the glamour and commission them. But why now, and why all at once?

I suspect that it’s because at a certain level, studio executives are in their late forties and early fifties, and this period has a particular appeal because these people were discovering music then. Plus the music industry was rawer; there were groupies and drugs, and there was an enormous amount of money to be made.

I’m not saying that’s not still the same, but not to the same extent. Sure, if you’re Taylor Swift (who in Roadies, has seemingly performed a concert in space!) the glitz and the glamour is perhaps bigger than ever, but let’s face it, what money there still is in the music industry is far more polarised, the rich getting much richer, and everyone else having to work harder to make a living.

I confess that I’m watching or have watched all these series. Vinyl was probably rightly cancelled as its direction just wasn’t clear enough. While Bobby Cannavale’s coke snorting record exec Richie Finestra was an entertaining and off the wall character, tales of excess only go so far in storytelling. Plus when a character is murdered after a drink and drugs binge, you haven’t really got anywhere else to go. And the series missed a trick in not properly developing its female characters, with Olivia Wilde as Richie’s wife Devon, being particularly underutilised.

I’ve enjoyed Roadies a lot more. It doesn’t take itself quite as seriously, and I suspect presents the dullness of life on the road with a band relatively accurately. I’m not sure who the fictional Staton-House Band are supposed to be analogous to, but there are lots of those white middle-of-the-road bands in the US that basically don’t cut through much beyond the US market. The Dave Matthews Band perhaps? In the final episode, a number of stars playing themselves appear and I found myself Googling an awful lot of them, trying to work out who they are. Cameron Crowe has clearly pulled in lots of favours from lots of friends.

Indeed throughout, the series had a nice line in including real musicians constantly showing up to be support acts for a night or two, and they get to perform a song or two – just enough to get me to tempt me into learning more. The series is probably too reliant on a couple of will-they/won’t-they relationship teases, meaning that the through story struggles a little. But the characters are fun with Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino running the show, while Imogen Poots and Colson Baker mess around. Rafe Spall’s character is a bit one-dimensional, only slowly emerging from a caricature. And while I completely believe that labels do have someone like him constantly running a spreadsheet against tour costs, I’m not sold on the idea that he’d be touring with everyone else. If Roadies gets a second season, it’ll have to work hard to keep his character in the mix.

Interestingly, of the three series here, Crowe seems to have been most closely attached. While Luhrmann and Scorsese directed their respective first episodes, and probably determined the overall direction of their series, Crowe has directed four of his series, and is credited as a writer or co-writer on six of the ten episodes.

Having only seen the first episode of The Get Down, I can’t really determine its direction, but they’ve found a good selection of largely young and unknown actors to populate the series. The show is edited to within an inch of its life, and although that first episode runs to more than 90 minutes, it does fly by.

Conjouring up The Bronx in 1977 is never going to be easy – or cheap – and a lot of visual effects are used to manage this. But despite upwards of 10 VFX houses being listed in the credits, I’m uncertain that they’ve carried it off. They pictures are graded to appear like stock footage from the time in places – because they mix them with lots of real stock footage. But this means that when we see a city block being burned down (for the insurance), the fire just doesn’t seem real.

Of course things are never real with Luhrmann. He doesn’t do verisimilitude. That means we get at least two dazzling set pieces in the opener – one set in a club, and the other at the eponymous “Get Down.” They’re both excellent.

What all three shows share is excellent music soundtracks, and I say that despite not really being a fan of any of the genres depicted. Indeed the sheer reverence shown towards some of these artists feels a bit forced and fan-boyish. But I am enjoying listening. Vinyl seems least reliant on music, although there’s plenty of it. Roadies presents its music with complete technical assurance, and is superbly sound-mixed. Everyone sounds simply superb. Each episode features a “Song of the Day”, part of the crew’s routine, and these are standout moments acoustically, usually deftly worked into the plot. The music on The Get Down just doesn’t stop. You get a barrage of music almost non-stop. The music “sync” rights for the show must have been massive.

Roadies is on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, and interestingly Kill Your Friends recently popped up there too, the movie adaption of John Niven’s searing novel set in the UK music industry of the mid-nineties. That too was a period of excess, because Napster, Limewire, eDonkey and AudioGalaxy hadn’t quite yet arrived , so piracy was not yet rampant, and people were still buying music to own (as opposed to stealing or renting it).

The film is relatively to the novel, with its anti-hero Steven Stelfox doing literally anything to get a leg-up in the biz. In the book, there are wonderful little chapter intros that seem to be real press-releases sent out to Music Week announcing big money new signings in the 80s and early 90s. We readers, of course, know that none of these signings would pay off. Having over-dosed on versions of seventies American music, it was refreshing to see a British take on affairs. Yes, the excess is endless, but it feels believable while incredibly cynical – nobody actually seems to like music. This level of cynicism would be impossible in any of the aforementioned US series, because there’s too much musical reverence.

I’d like to see Roadies open up its world a bit more, and it’ll probably need some new characters if it gets renewed. But of the three, this is the series I’d like to see more of.

Christmas TV… and Beyond

You may or may not have seen my Christmas Radio Times scans with my helpful annotations, but what did I actually watch over the period?

Oddly, one of the most captivating programmes was All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride!. This was the BBC’s latest example of “Slow TV” and remarkably our family sat down and watched all two hours of it non-stop. Originating on Norwegian TV, the idea is that something is broadcast at great length and with minimal interruption. Earlier last year, BBC Four broadcast a two hour canal trip through the West Country. This time it was a two hour sledge ride, with two Sami women transporting three reindeer and their sleighs through the wintry taiga and tundra. Precisely how the programme was made was unclear, but essentially there were cameras attached all over one of the sleighs, with long takes from each of the cameras. There is no voiceover or music, just the rhythmic sound of the hooves on snow, the bells the reindeer wear, and the occasional shouts to get the animals to behave. Along the way, we came across other tribes-people, a solo cross-country skier, and an ice fisherman. The short Arctic days meant that over the course of the two hours, we went from twilight to twilight, the sun never rising much above the horizon. I genuinely love this stuff.

As an interesting corollary there was an excellent Natural World documentary from 2007, Reindeer Girls, which followed across a year, a pair of teenaged Sami girls, Elle and Inga, who are following the traditional Sami life as reindeer herders. Their family has a herd of several hundred reindeer (precisely how many is not stated since to Sami folk, asking for a precise count would be like me asking you how much you have in your current account) who they have to move between summer and winter grazing grounds. The documentary showed that there is a modern slant on Sami life in the 21st century with snowmobiles and the hiring of a ferry to transport the herd with their young calves across the open water.

And Then There Were None was one of the BBC’s big shows for the season, with an all-star cast arriving on the island for one of Agatha Christie’s less plausible settings. However the set-up is so deliciously good – ten people on an island, getting bumped off one by one, that it deserves the production it got. I could only vaguely remember an earlier film version which played around with the setting, so I actually read the original novel just ahead of the TV adaption. You can’t not note the original name of the novel, based on a racial slur, and the way it was linked to an actual song performed since the end of the 19th century. It seems to have only been since the mid-eighties that the books other pejorative title was also finally dropped and it became And Then There Were None.

I thought that the cast was really decent in this version, with the story being very truthful to the original Christie plot – not something that all of her adaptors have felt the need to do. The strong cast helps since you’re getting to grips with ten characters at the start and you do need to stay on top of them. There are definitely hints of horror films, with so many featuring casts being whittled down one by one. Indeed the “Final Girl” is now a horror trope. The 2009 series, Harper’s Island, mixed this source and the horror format very explicitly.

There were a few changes here and there, and Aidan Turner seems to be contractually obliged to get shirtless in every series he makes. Yes, it’s all a bit too perfectly wrapped up, but it’s a chocolate box confection and shouldn’t be seen as any more or less.

I’ve enjoyed Not Going Out since the start, and the Christmas one-off – the first since they married off the two main characters – was very silly, set in a department store on Christmas Eve. To be honest, it did feel as though it was a bit of a stop-gap with the BBC commissioning it, and an uncertainty of where the series is going. That all said, I hope that they do come back with some more, resetting the overall premise.

We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story is curiously timed, coming a couple of months ahead of a new feature film. In essence that means that we have two separate sets of actors recreating characters we know and love within the space of a couple of months! This production was much more about the actual background to the series being made, with Jimmy Perry originally creating the series to give himself a part before David Croft stepped in with him to co-write it, and “persuade” him to step away from featuring in it.

Like An Adventure in Time and Space which similarly told the story of the origin of Doctor Who, this production took delight in recreating a late sixties/early seventies BBC production. Much of the story comes from the relationships between the various cast members, all of whom did an excellent job of recreating their characters. Paul Ritter and especially the ever-excellent Richard Dormer were great in the lead roles, but I also enjoyed John Sessions’ Arthur Lowe, Julian Sands’ (!) John Le Mesurier and Keith Allen’s Paul Fox.

Christmas isn’t Christmas without a festive Doctor Who. Just now he’s on his own, so a familiar face in Alex Kingston’s River Song popped up for this one-off. I’m glad that they didn’t set this on earth for once, and to be honest, they could have safely dropped the Christmas setting altogether as it felt a bit bolted on. We had Matt Lucas and Greg Davies playing roles in this one, but it was really all about the relationship between the Doctor and Song. The 60 minutes sped by, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens next time around.

Harry Hill returned as Professor Branestawm, based on the Norman Hunter character who’s books were famously illustrated by W. Heath Robinson. I loved these books as a child (and hope that kids today are still reading these books), so I was happy when the BBC brought him back last year. This year, there’s another all-star cast including no less a figure than Diana Rigg at the very start. Hill is great as the absent minded prof, while Steve Pemberton was glorious as Professor Algebrain the evil inventor from a “non-specific European country.” The cast also included Vicki Pepperdine, Simon Day, David Mitchell and many more, all giving lovely, over-the-top comic turns.

War and Peace is a novel, that like me, you’ve probably not read. Last year, Radio 4 did a ten part dramatisation in a single day, then repeated over ten weeks, which was supposed to be very good. I’d decided that I’d read the book first, and because I didn’t, I failed to listen to the drama. I’ve got it saved up though, and this new TV version from Andrew Davies might just be what I need to get me to finally read the book.

But let’s talk about this new version. I thought it was excellent – really looking the part. I can’t say yet how well the novel has been broken down to fit into six hours, or whether that’s enough. But on screen it looks wonderful, and the multi-country shoot (Russia, Latvia and Lithuania) really pays dividends. The sets and costumes look exquisite and the dialogue feels real. Yes, it’s 21st century dialogue being spoken by 19th century characters, but that doesn’t actually matter. It’s better than than some cod ye-olde-English language. Especially as the source is Russian!

Casting is excellent all the way through, with a noticeable overlap between this and Dickensian being the only issue. Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton are all over our screens at the moment as Nicola Walker was at the end of last year.

Crucially the battle scenes felt real. This is incredibly hard to do without a cast of thousands and feature film budgets, but they felt visceral, and although there were CGI elements, they didn’t detract. I’ll be hooked over the next five Sundays on a very strong night for television.

Deutschland ’83 is the first drama to air under Channel 4’s new “Walter Presents” banner. I’m still curious about this conceit. “Walter” is Walter Iuzzolino and he’s watched a lot of TV. Perhaps he’s spent too long at places like Mipcom watching TV from around the world. It sounds like a good gig. Basically C4 has carved out a bit of their All 4 catch-up service and they’ll be putting lots of foreign language drama up there to watch boxset-style. Indeed there are already a number of series up there. Some of the bigger series will get outings on Channel 4 as Deutschland ’83 is getting – or More 4, as French drama Spin will be getting later this week. How audiences will get to know “Walter” is unclear, and whether the standard can be maintained across the board is not an easy question to answer. However I love the fact that so much non-English language TV is now available to us – ironically at a time when so much good English-language TV is also available.

But to Deutschland ’83 itself. It shares many traits with The Americans, being set in a similar time frame, and dealing with East German spies in West Germany, with us again seeing it from the perspective of the hero – or is he the anti-hero. In this instance, Martin is a young serviceman who is somewhat reluctantly pressed into espionage by his aunt. He quickly gets up to speed and we see him perform his first mission against a backdrop of 99 Luftballoons and New Order. Overall an impressive start, and I’ll be staying the course on Sunday nights when I’m not watching War and Peace (ITV’s Endeavour, which I’ll see on catch-up, is losing out thus far).

Beowulf – Return to Shieldlands was a real disappointment. This is one of ITV’s big new shows that has been in the works for sometime and looks like it was quite expensive. Except at times it also looked quite cheap. First of all, I should say that I’m a fan of Beowulf, and although many of the previous dramatisations of it have left something to be desired, I was really keen to watch this. They’ve filmed it in Northumberland which has some beautiful scenery and wide open wind-swept landscapes, and yet on the evidence of the first episode it’s just missed the target completely.

The opening titles would suggest to you that it wants to be Game of Thrones, but it’s also trying to be Doctor Who. It’s on pre-watershed, so it has to be careful in how much blood and gore it can show, yet the story and script are not pitched at a high enough level. And it’s chock-full of some pretty average CGI monsters that inhabit this world. My heart sunk a little when just about the first thing we saw was a chase across a beach with said CGI creatures. The problem is that CGI is incredibly hard to do realistically, and on a TV budget, no matter how big. I had the same problem with ITV’s recent Jekyll and Hyde from which I also bailed out of. I’ve no doubt these things will do well to an extent internationally, but it’s a shame that ITV has not aimed an awful lot higher with this.

Longmire is a series that I suspect few in the UK are watching. It’s broadcast on TCM, having been picked up in the US by Netflix when original network A&E dropped it. We’re currently on the fourth season and I really enjoy this modern take on the Western. Australian Robert Taylor plays Walt Longmire, the grizzled sheriff of Absaroka County, Montana, alongside Katee Sackoff’s Vic Moretti and Lou Diamond Philips’ Henry. I think as much as anything, and like quasi-western Justified before it, it’s the non-coastal America that we so rarely get to see in US TV shows that appeals. Even the landscapes are different, although the show is actually filmed in New Mexico, I suspect largely for tax incentive reasons. The pace of the show is different too – and although there are crimes of the week, there are also longer arcs that play out sometimes over several seasons.

My only slight negative is that like much of US television, there do seem to be some overly negative depictions of Native Americans. Yes one of the key characters is Cheyenne, but the bad guys are clearly those on the “res” who run the new casino and are involved in various criminal enterprises. Then there are the tribal police who of course don’t get on with the local sheriff’s office and make life difficult for one another when chasing suspects. The same was true of many of the characters in the last series of Cinemax’s Banshee. By no means are all the Native American characters depicted thus, but it sometimes feels a little lazy – a bit like those cop shows that always show internal affairs as the bad guys. It is an issue because you see little enough US TV reflecting these lives.

None of this should put you off however. The cast is good and it’s a weekly escape to somewhere familiar but a bit different.

Flesh and Bone is a Starz mini-series that has found a UK home Amazon Prime. It’s set in the world of ballet in New York, and to be honest, is full of the kind of sterotypes you might expect. To some extent, you’ve seen this series if you’ve seen the 2010 film Black Swan. Claire (Sarah Hay) runs away from her home and troubled past to New York City where she manages to win a place at the American Ballet Company in one of their open auditions. Artistic Director Paul (Ben Daniels) spots something in her and thinks he has his new prima ballerina. But it’s not as simple as that. Meanwhile Claire is garreted with Mia (Emily Bialy) who doesn’t really like her. And so we get a series full of dancing, back-biting, medical and psychological disorders of varying degrees, money, sex (this is a Starz series after all), and so on. It may be a little hackneyed, but I’m still working my way through the series as although you’ve seen some of the characters a thousand times before, I’m still interested to find out what happens to them. What’s clear is that nobody is happy, and that’s probably the biggest issue I have with the series.

This does mean that I’ve yet to watch series two of Mozart in the Jungle, which is set in a similar environment, in a New York Orchestra and also starts with a female outsider working her way in. But I enjoyed the first series immensely and it’s not nearly as dark, with many more laughs along the way.

Danny Baker had a couple of one-off TV shows on over the period. His Sky Arts special was on some of the less-familiar Christmas songs. To be honest, I found myself fast forward through the songs, and concentrating on the links. Much better was Danny Baker’s Player Lounge on BT Sport, and while I’d tweak the format a bit, I reckon there’s a series in this. Essentially three ex-pros and three football-loving comedians sat on a pair of sofas with the latter asking the former less-usual questions. For example, what do you say to the trainer when you’re faking an injury? Or can you hear what the crowd is saying to you? The latter had a brilliant answer from Harry Redkmapp who said he’d once got a loudmouth out of the crowd and onto the pitch in a pre-season friendly. The loudmouth actually scored! Baker has a great interview technique and gets a lot of out his guests as anyone who’s listened to the interview slot on his Saturday morning show might know. We probably didn’t need the phone messages from some of his mates like Peter Kaye and Chris Evans – for the most part because I’m not convinced that they’re massive football fans. But I reckon there’s enough material in this to sustain more episodes if BT Sport wanted them, and as long as the quality of guests can be kept up. (I suspect that many of these hoary old tales do form parts of the guests’ respective after-dinner circuit routines however!)

A Sky 1 comedy series that completely passed me by was After Hours, which I watched largely because of its radio setting. Willow has been dumped and he finds solace in an internet radio station broadcast locally from a houseboat. He gets involved with Lauren and Ollie who run the station, and over six episodes their story plays out as they put on local concerts and love is found, lost, and so on. I binge watched the whole thing in a couple of days and it was lovely.

Sky has been trying hard at comedy, but it struggles to maintain a strong foothold because it still doesn’t sit naturally on channels like Sky One. It has dutifully recommissioned series like Trollied, Stella and Moone Boy, but you sometimes think that it’s because of the credibility it has working with big stars rather than from a commercial standpoint. In some ways that’s to be admired, but it does mean that it’s incredibly hard getting these series to break through.

I finished watching Sky Atlantic’s big drama series of the autumn, The Last Panthers, and overall I was a little non-plussed. It started out strongly with the diamond robbery in Marseilles and somehow drifted away. I think my main problem was the story was actually too ambitious and we ended up with completely disconnected elements. So while the cast was excellent with Samatha Morton, John Hurt, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan all on good form, it felt both drawn out and in the end a bit unsatisfactory. I must admit that it wasn’t quite the series that I was expecting on the way in either.

Not remotely new, but Drama has been sneaking a few interesting morsals hidden away at the outer reaches of its service. One night before Christmas I couldn’t sleep, and channel hopping ended up watching a very early episode of Rumpole of the Bailey. Those repeats have stopped, but they have just embarked on another run of the Dorothy L Sayers Mysteries. These date from 1987, which is probably when I last saw them and star Edward Petherbridge of Lord Peter Wimsey, and Harriet Walters as Harriet Vane. There were only ten episodes, adapting three of the novels, but they’re well staged and Petherbridge is terrific as Wimsey. The scheduling is a bit random however, with the first three going out on consecutive nights in the small hours, whilst the next four episodes go out one after another next Saturday afternoon. A PVR is essential then. I note that they’re also on DVD – although as the releases are from 2002, they’re very expensive. No sign of them at the BBC Store (although its search engine is so poor who really knows).

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride was an utter delight. When news broke that this episode was to be set in 1895, it was unclear how it would work. Mark Lawson in The Guardian, managed to pen a long, and at times completely inacccurate, piece about how it was probably “non-canon” because that was the sort of thing that TV liked to do occassionally. Well, as we now know, it most certainly was “canon” and led on directly from the last regular episode.

There were some complaints I saw, particularly in social media, about the series being either too complicated or the writers being overly silly. Yes, there were elements of Inception in there, but the story certainly wasn’t complicated. What I would reiterate is that if you spend your time trying to be clever on Twitter while you’re watching something like Sherlock, then you’re going to miss stuff. You can’t do it. Multi-tasking is a myth – we do one thing at a time – so you’re not giving the series proper attention if you’re tweeting your way through it, or checking Facebook updates as you go. I think we do need to put down our phones, tablets and laptops a little more if we’re going to properly enjoy good drama or documentaries on TV. “Second screen” is fine for Strictly, X-Factor or The Apprentice, but that’s because these are essentially undemanding shows from a viewer’s perspective.

I have a theory that some of the popularity of imported Scandi-noir series like The Bridge and The Killing is that as viewers we have to concentrate. Unless we speak Swedish or Danish we have to actually look at the screen or we simply won’t know what’s going on.

As someone said they were going to do on Twitter, I’m going to make a real effort not to interact with my devices during “proper” television this year.

Incidentally, I see that iPlayer is now running trailers for programmes, and this popped up in my player a couple of times. However I confess that I mostly watch up catch-up TV via my Sky box, because I can fast-forward ads and don’t suffer any buffering (a problem even with fibre on occasion).

Luther was really over before Christmas and was as bonkers as ever, with a criminal who went around eating parts of his victims beyond just killing them. Sadly Alice is now dead – yeah, right – but she was still at the centre of things. I do hope we get more of Luther as it’s now Idris Elba’s defining role in my view. Nothing beats seeing him take out a couple of assassins on a motorbike with a bin! There is talk of a US TV version which Elba wouldn’t star in, and then rumours of a movie. We’ll have to see.

Dickensian was a real delight. I wasn’t sure how I was going to find this, but the scripts are top-notch, and the casting is sublime with no expense spared seemingly. I was worried that this could be something of a pudding of a programme – mixing and matching characters at a whim, but it has proved to be very smart, potentially introducing many people into the world(s) of Dickens.

The only thing I’d say is that its scheduling really has been all over the place. The first two episodes were broadcast on Boxing Day in the run-up to the first episode of And Then There Were None, but not back to back, but with a gap in the middle for Eastenders and Still Open All Hours. Then there were another two episodes the following day, this time broken up by a single episode of Still Open All Hours. The next outing was a single half-hour on New Year’s Day, followed by two more episodes on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

In other words, it’s all over the place. Unless you series link I’m not at all sure how viewers can be expected to follow all twenty parts!

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe is always unmissable, and makes you wish that we had a more regular slot for satire beyond perhaps six half-hours of these a year, and Have I Got News For You.

I previously enjoyed Levison Wood’s series on Walking the Nile, so his ambitious sounding Walking the Himalayas was a must-see for me. One of things I do like about how this programme is made is that it does acknowledge the presence or absence of a crew. Walking for miles in and of itself does not make great television, but there is some arduous country to be covered here with the first episodes including stretches in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including travelling through the middle of Kashmir and attempting to cross the Line of Control that divides the region. My only real criticism is the constant need to keep us on the edge of our seats about what’s coming next!

On a more leisurely basis, The Adventure Show is a regional BBC Scotland series presented by Cameron McNeish, that I check in from time to time. Over Christmas, a two-parter explored some of the west coast of Scotland, with walking, cycling and canoeing. This includes some of my favourite parts of the world, and I came away really wanting to get hold of a packraft (essentially an ultra-light inflatable canoe) at some point as it looks like a splendid way of exploring some of the water around Britain.

I continue to generally avoid the New Year including Jools Holland, although I did watch the fireworks on BBC1. Instead I tend to catch the bizarre but strangely addictive Le Plus Grand Cabaret Du Monde Bonne Annee 2016 with French crooner Patrick Sébastian on France 2. It gets rebroadcast on TV5 internationally, and as ever features lots of variety acts that you can enjoy regardless of your level of spoken French, alongside interviews with lots of French stars that you don’t know all plugging various books, films and albums, alongside dancers the Moulin Rouge!

Finally, there was of course the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna, without which, the New Year hasn’t really arrived.

PS And yes, of course I’m watching Making a Murderer on Netflix. It’s simply superb and it reminds me of both The Jinx and Death on the Staircase.

Current TV

No, not Al Gore’s ill-fated network, but what I’m enjoying on TV currently:

Show Me A Hero – A drama series about housing policy in an upstate New York city doesn’t sound like it’s going to be compelling television, but it really is. It’s based on a non-fiction book and tells how some of Yonkers’ city council chose to ignore a judge’s ruling that social housing needed to built across the city and not ghettoised in a single place. This was fought hard, with many middle class local residents believing that should the housing be built their property prices would plummet and they’d be surrounded by crack houses and the like. Oscar Isaac is excellent as Mayor Wascisko, who initially campaigns on a bill against the housing but slowly seems to come around to it. The broader cast is excellent and the story is compelling. In the US HBO showed it in 3x 2 hour blocks, but Sky Atlantic is showing it in 6 weekly episodes. I’m hooked.

Last Week Tonight – Essential viewing every week, especially since Jon Stewart went off the air. He’s on a break at the moment, but will be back in a couple of weeks. I’ll be curious to see how Trevor Noah gets on with his take on The Daily Show, but perhaps Stephen Colbert even more so. Sadly, we probably won’t get to see either of these in the UK. Even James Corden’s show isn’t getting an airing here – surely ITV2 or E4 might want that?

Taskmaster – I very nearly didn’t bother with this, but Dave is on good form at the moment with its original comedy series. This series is a curiosity, and it continues to confound me with how good it is every week. Simply put, Greg Davies is the “Taskmaster” ably assisted by Alex Horne (who actually created the format). Each week, the same group of comedians – Frank Skinner, Roisin Conaty, Romesh Ranganathan, Josh Widdicombe and Tim Key – are given various things to do. Except it’s all been pre-recorded, and most instances each comedian completed the task on their own. The producers found a sort-of house somewhere to record the attempts. Example task include getting a teabag in a teacup from the furthest distance, empty a bath as quickly as possible or draw a picture of a horse while riding a horse. They sound stupid, but it’s rather brilliantly done and laugh out loud funny. The casting is really good, with a spread of comedians taking very different approaches to the task. So much better than sometimes slightly lazy panel shows. A real gem. The current series has just finished, but Dave has a new series of Dave Gorman starting next week, so they’re on a roll!

Partners in Crime – OK, this might not be as good as the LWT versions of these stories from the early eighties with Francesca Annis and James Warwick, but they’re still perfectly good Sunday night fare. I’ve not read the original novels, so I’m not sure how many liberties have been taken with the plot, although moving everything into the fifties is away from the first novel’s original twenties settings (the final book was actually written in 1968!). Yes David Walliams may have more than a bit of the Frankie Howerds about him, but I like Jessica Raine’s Tuppence, and the series seems to deliver on a post-war feel fairly successfully.

The Americans – I must admit that despite loving the first series of this, I essentially forgot to watch it again. So I’ve been frantically catching up on Amazon for the second series. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are a husband and wife KGB team undercover in America in a Reagan era 1980s. The series has to carefully walk a line between making us care about KGB officers, and the want to see them unmasked. They have two children who don’t know their background, and there’s an FBI team after them. The series references real events – the attempted assassination of Reagan, the illegal training of Nicaraguan Contras and the development of Stealth technology – and we get to see things from inside the FBI and inside the Soviet residentura. The series doesn’t pull too many punches, and although the various wigs and facial hair that our heroes wear sometimes seem a little over the top, every so often they act brutally just to remind you that they’re not on your side. After two seasons on ITV, the third has just shifted onto ITV Encore frustrating at least one friend of mine since that’s a Sky exclusive channel.

Only Connect – While I might catch the concessional episode of Pointless, this is the only gameshow – or more accurately quizshow – that I watch. A Monday staple.

Parks and Recreation – Also a Monday staple is the fourth season of Parks and Recreation which Dave has picked up after BBC Four dropped the ball. This is actually a razor sharp look at American politics with a cast to kill for.

Veep – Also a razor sharp look at American politics. Armando Ianucci is stepping down from this now, but it will continue on HBO, still with plenty of Brits who worked on The Thick of It continuing. This series introduced Hugh Laurie’s character and it’s my own fault that I binge watched the entire series over a weekend when Sky made it all available ahead of a week by week broadcast schedule. Unmissable stuff.

Dag – How many Norweigian sitcoms have you seen recently? Well this is the one you’re missing. Dag is a couples therapist who broadly speaking thinks most of his clients should end their relationships. But he himself lives a fairly lonely existence, locked away inside his apartment with his enormous DVD collection, his black satin sheets and his gadget collection. He has a sister who’s marriage has broken down, his sister’s friend who takes a shine to Dag, his curiously chipper receptionist, and his best friend Benedikt who’s basically a womanising fool. I’ve probably not sold this to you, but it’s simply terrific. Although there are slapstic elements, the series also takes a serious look at birth, death and relationships. Sky Arts has just finished series 1 and is heading straight into series 2. It looks like there’s been four series so far in total.

Ripper Street – Ripper Street always took me a while to get into. I half-watched the first series, and then let the second series mount up on my PVR. Sometime around this point the BBC cancelled the series and I started catching up since I’d read a few positive comments about the direction the series had taken. It’s true, it was getting really smart towards the end of the second series. At which point Amazon came along and commissioned a third series, with the BBC a minor partner and getting delayed broadcast rights. Somehow I didn’t properly watch the series when Amazon released it at Christmas, but caught up again with the BBC’s broadcast. I quickly overtook the Friday night broadcasts by watching the slightly longer Amazon versions, and I think it’s fair to say that this has been the best series yet. The cast is excellent and the writing and story arcs are really well put together. Nothing is a given, and even the slightly antiquated language fits the bill beautifully. I’m delighted that the series has been renewed by Amazon for at least another two series.

And a couple of series that even if I’m not recommending, I’m sticking with:

Odyssey – Yes, it’s a sub-Homeland story, and quite how they’ve contrived to keep Anna Friel’s character away from a phone for so many episodes is beyond belief. But I’m sort of enjoying it. Lots of French actors you know from other things seem to pop up. My question is whether I should catch up with Homeland ahead of season 5. I think I’m at least two series behind…

Aquarius – A bit of an oddity that aired over the summer on NBC and that Sky Atlantic is showing over here. David Duchovny is decent and it’s set against Charles Manson building his group up. It set in an interesting timeframe, and they’ve paid a bit for music from the period. I notice that we’re getting the “unrated” version for international markets (ie. more toplessness than NBC can show).

Mozart in the Jungle

A mini-review of this new Amazon series, because I think it deserves it!

First things first: there’s no doubt that this is a terrible title for a TV series. It’s supposed to shout something like “classical music in New York City” but I’m really not sure it does. I complain when titles are boring, but this one is a bit lousy. It comes from the book of the same name, a 2005 memoir from Blair Tindall who spent many years in the New York classical music scene performing with various orchestras.

The book seems to have simply been a jumping off point for the series which is set around the fictional New York Symphony, who is just saying goodbye to its old “maestro” (Malcolm McDowall) and welcoming its new South American genius, Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal). There’s a feeling that new is replacing old on a slightly faster timetable than old would like.

We largely follow things from the perspective of Hailey (Lola Kirke), a young oboist who is striving to make a career for herself. She lives with her friend Lizzie (Hannah Dunne) in one of those preposterously large apartments that everyone seems to get in US TV shows even when they’re living hand to mouth (cf. Girls).

Amazon pitches the show as a comedy, but comedy drama would be a better way of describing it, with the show neatly divided into ten 30 minute episodes. At first it seems as though Hailey is going to dramatically get her dream job with the symphony until some real world concerns come into play. This is a heavily unionised world, where even a new conductor doesn’t get to hire and fire at will. We get to know various members of the orchestra over time, although the scale of the personnel limits things somewhat.

Notably we get to know Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) who’s had a relationship with the outgoing maestro, and is very welcoming towards Hailey as she struggles to make her mark. And we also meet Gloria (Bernadette Peters) the long-suffering manager of the orchestra, constantly juggling the financial realities of what they have to do with the needs of the musicians.

I’ve got to tell you that in spite of that awful name, I really enjoyed Mozart in the Jungle and binged on the whole thing in a couple of sittings – thirty minute episodes are very more-ish.

I did read an hilariously testy review of the series elsewhere which bemoaned some of the things that would “never really happen.” But this is something that anyone who’s ever worked in any profession that’s featured in television or film has known for many years. Do we really think any cop show bears more than the faintest reflection on reality? Or a medical show? Or a legal show? I know that scenes set in Frasier’s radio station were some of the least convincing portrayals of a radio station ever committed to celluloid. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love the show and find it funny.

They obviously did make a couple of changes after the pilot episode though – reining in on classical musicians playing shot games with flutes and oboes and so on. And yes, it doesn’t make sense that a musician could do double duty performing in a concert hall and then dashing across town to play in the pit of a Broadway musical (shows start around the same time). But I’m pretty sure that musicians do supplement their income performing in other places. Whether the players in the premier orchestra would is a separate question, but these people have to make a living, and I’m pretty sure that in the UK your average violinist isn’t on six figures even allowing for currency conversions.

I found it interesting to see the hoops you have to go through to constantly bring in money – having lunches with elderly well-off ladies who bid to support your work.

Rodrigo, incidentally, is surely supposed to be Gustavo Dudamel, now at the LA Philharmonic. I suspect though, that while he may well do some things differently, he isn’t quite the madcap diva that Rodrigo seems to be, with his even crazier wife.

But this is a comedy drama, and so we shouldn’t take it all too seriously. It comes from Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman (who’s Bored to Death was wonderful), and Alex Timbers. Schwartzman shows up in a couple of episodes as the presenter of a classical music podcast with ideas perhaps a little above his station. And John Hodgman continues to refine his eccentric billionaire act (as seen on The Daily Show), playing an eccentric millionaire in a couple of episodes here.

There’s a light frothy air to the whole thing. The music is well handled, and you tend to be left wanting to hear more. The closing credits point out that much of the music is available on Amazon Music, although I didn’t find any direct links on their website, so they may be missing a trick. Give viewers a list of the pieces heard and direct links through to buy them! (Given that the producers are working with a real orchestra, I’d almost be tempted to fully film some of the pieces and offer them as streaming “extras” if they could find a way to do it.)

[One final aside. The pilot episode was obviously produced many months before the rest of the series. Invariably some things change between pilots of full series. Notably, producers decide to change their credits – either in style, or creating themes or stings. What I never understand with US series is why they don’t later go back and re-edit the credit sequences of the pilot to match the rest of the series. Yes, the pilot has long been available on Amazon, so that doesn’t make it as relevant. But this commonly happens with network fare, where beyond executives, nobody has really seen the pilot before it hits the screens, and then the first two episodes look different.]

Unbundling HBO

I find it really interesting what was announced today by HBO. Essentially from some indeterminate point next, HBO will sell a service direct via the web.

Now in a world where we have Netflix and iTunes, this might not seem like a big move, but the pay TV market – and the American one in particular – is an interesting beast. HBO is a premium cable channel. That is, you buy it via a cable or satellite operator. But those operators will only it sell it to you in addition to a basic cable package. In other words, even if you only want to watch HBO, you have to take a big package of channels to be able to subscribe.

The US isn’t alone in this. It’s the same way that Sky and Virgin Media retail their channels. You take some kind of basic package, and then you can add, say, Sky Sports on top of that. The difference is that “basic” cable packages in the US tend to be bigger. And the US equivalent of Sky Sports, ESPN, tends to be included in that basic package. ESPN, incidentally, gets a decent chunk of your cable bill – probably somewhere around $6 a month. They use that pay for their sports rights. But before you say, “Wow – $6 a month is pretty cheap,” you need to think about the economics. It’s only that “cheap” because every customer is effectively forced to pay for it. If you’re not interested in sport at all, you’re still paying $6 a month for sport. If it was an add-on, then fewer than the 100m+ households that take cable (or satellite) would pay it. The costs would remain the same, so the price would go up. That’s why in the UK we have to pay £24+ a month for our Sky Sports package.

There’s a lot of talk in the US about “cord cutters” – those who don’t want to have to buy a full $80 a month cable TV package. They still want to watch Game of Thrones at the same time as everyone else though. So it’s a question of how they get it.

Many channels of course provide what the industry terms Over the Top (OTT) services. But these services tend to be within the walled gardens of the cable TV operators. It’s obviously not in cable TV comapnies’ interests to let that programming just swim around free. Indeed, they don’t really like letting customers pay for it on their own. If we can all start just buying the shows we want, then why should we have to pay for dozens of channels we don’t want? That ecosystem does support a broad range of channels. But it’s arguably propping them up too. You’re paying perhaps only a few cents a month for a channel, but that makes it profitable.

So OTT services like HBO’s HBOGo work hand in glove with your cable supplier. You have to enter your subscriber details to get access to the service. Typical you’ll be limited to a small number of devices to prevent you giving out your details to all and sundry. Although that doesn’t stop lots of kids who moved away from home using their parents’ cable bills to get their HBO. The so-called “millennials” are particularly likely to do this.

Ironically there’s also the problem that it’s those same cable TV companies that are about the only place you can get internet connectivity in the US. It makes them effective monopoly suppliers, and even triple-play phone/broadband/TV packages are still vastly more expensive than in territories where true competition exists, such as the UK.

But time marches on, and cables are being cut, although probably not to the extent that is sometimes portrayed.

And viewers still want to watch Game of Thrones regardless of whether they have cable or not. A campaign called “Take My Money HBO” was even launched.

Well it sounds like they’re now going to do it. And this is where it gets interesting. HBO is an enormously profitable part of Time Warner. Once upon a time, Time Warner also owned a big cable operation, but Time Warner Cable was spun off in 2009. Today Time Warner’s big divisions are Turner (including basic cable TV channels such as TNT, TBS, and the CNN stable), Warner studios (the movie and TV production divisions), and HBO.

HBO itself is enormously successful. In the 2013 Annual Report, it saw revenues of nearly $5bn – a combination of subscription fees and content sales (sales of programmes to non-HBO owned channels, and home video revenues). That generates about $1.8bn of Operating Income. But the Turner division generates nearly $10bn revenues and an Operating Income of $3.5bn. So in other words, there’s a sizeable chunk of business still being done in the cable TV market.

That’s important because of the potential ramifications that annoying cable operators could have. Could we see consumers cutting the cord and just buying HBO?

I suspect that while some will, it won’t be all that many.

There’s a lot of good TV these days, but it’s spread thinly over many channels. I got very excited about the forthcoming new series of Twin Peaks the other day. But that will be on HBO’s premium cable rival, Showtime (owned by CBS). Customers who cut the cord and want to watch Homeland or Twin Peaks will need to subscribe to a similar service from Showtime – assuming they make one available.

Then there’s the cost.

Looking at what HBO tells us about their revenues, based on the 2013 Annual Report, it turns over $4.231bn in subscription revenues. Now the report doesn’t break that out by territory, and there are other versions of HBO around the world. But it does note that HBO Nordic and HBO Asia combined have subscription revenues of around $48m. I’ve plucked $50m additional revenues from other territories out of the air. But to be honest, even if I’m $30m out, it doesn’t make much odds to the maths.

We’re left with $4.133bn for US subscription revenues.

According to this Variety piece, SNL Kagan (a company who model these things closely) say that HBO has 29.2m customers.

So if you divide $4.133bn by 29.2m and then by 12 months, you get a cable bill for HBO of $11.80. And that sounds right. This piece from last year has a range of prices for HBO broadly between $15 and $20 a month. But there are lots of offers, bundles and other things. Plus there’s almost certainly a cable company mark-up. So $11.80 feels right.

Interestingly, an Atlantic piece from 2012 suggested it was $7. I suspect, even allowing for a couple of years of Game of Thrones, that this was low.

What this all says to me is that consumers can be looking at something more like $20 a month when the new service launches.

This will appease cable operators who can say, “Hey, HBO is cheaper with us.” And yes, it’s at a premium compared to what Netflix charges, or Amazon Prime’s implied cost (Amazon did a big $100m+ deal for older HBO programming recently), but it’s not out of the ballpark. There are 70m cable households not currently paying for HBO. And even if some of them only subscribe for limited periods – the ten weeks of Game of Thrones – then it could make sense for all concerned. Yet another reason why those Game of Thrones DVDs take such a long time to get released.

I’m not sure that there are many other companies who could do this. HBO revenues aren’t related to advertising, and cable companies can’t get too annoyed and pull HBO. If they did, then they’d simply lose customers. It’s certainly an interesting move!

This whole piece is probably a bit academic for a UK audience. But it’s interesting that Sky is effectively already doing this same thing with Now TV. £9.99 for a day’s sport is a rip-off compared to £24 a month. But £10.99 for the Ryder Cup weekend might be something of a bargain.

TV Ignorance

There’s a lot of ignorance both on television and around it. That’s why I’ve never watched an episode of Gogglebox (and almost certainly never will). But that’s not what I’m talking about.

It seems to me that as I live more and more of my TV life through a combination of PVR and On Demand playback, I’m becoming much less aware of what’s coming up – even though I’d be really interested in the programmes. Now behaviour may be atypical – news and sport being the only two things I usually watch live – but I think that this is still true even as a generalisation.

Two recent cases in point.

On Sunday night there’s a new three-part Simon Reeve programme – Sacred Rivers. The first episode is about The Nile. I only learnt about the series a few minutes before I started writing this piece. If I hadn’t seen a preview on the BBC’s intranet, I honestly wouldn’t have known it was coming up, even though I’m certain it has been heavily trailed.

Then on Tuesday, the new Brian Cox series starts – Human Universe. I’m 99.9% certain that this has been massively trailed – but I’ve seen none of them. Again, it was an internal communication that alerted me to it (And I also saw Cox himself, alongside, I think, Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, being “mobbed” in the building yesterday).

To be clear, these are both programmes that I certainly want to watch.

Now to be fair, I think I’d have spotted both of these when I made my weekly PVR selections from The Guardian’s Guide supplement on Saturday. And because I read a daily newspaper, I’d have got a second opportunity on the day of broadcast. I might even have spotted the programmes in the EPG. And even if I’d missed the transmission, I might have found out about the series after the event and caught up on iPlayer.

But I do think that all broadcasters are going to have to carry out cleverer marketing to alert viewers to upcoming shows. It always amazes me, if you visit a big city in the US, the extent to which outdoor advertising is used to promote upcoming TV series. Indeed, if your show doesn’t get that advertising, producers often hold it against the network if the show is subsequently cancelled.

What I don’t want to see is more intrusive in-show advertising. But one thing strikes me as interesting – I think the BBC has less of an opportunity for PVR watchers like me than the population as a whole. Because while I might fast-forward through ad-breaks, the sponsorship break-bumpers and the invariable trails either side of those, means that Sky Atlantic is able to do a much better job of alerting me to The Knick during the season ending episode of Ray Donovan, than the BBC can during Doctor Who.

Horizon

Horizon Transcripts

This year BBC2 is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and as part of those celebrations, its long running science programme, Horizon, is also celebrating being 50.

I must admit that until the last week or so, and I hadn’t known that Horizon started right at the birth of the channel. To celebrate its half-century, Horizon has got heavily involved with the Longitude Prize 2014 – an attempt to replicate the famous prize won (eventually) by John Harrison when he showed how building a watch would solve the major issue of the day, ships knowing their longitude at sea.

The key part of that prize was that anyone could enter, and there was a big cash reward to encourage new ideas and thoughts.

The new initiative seems to be a two step affair, with members of the public determining which current problem of science should be addressed before a multi-year competition is opened to entrants who can solve that problem. Again, the thought behind the prize is that entrants may not always come from the obvious places.

The shortlisted areas are Antibiotics, Water, Flight, Dementia, Food and Paralysis. All worthy subjects, but I’ll be voting for Antibiotics* in the main part because I fear that in the very short term, a lack of antibiotics is going to kill many more people than anything else.

Alongside the Longitude Prize, the BBC has put up a series of classic episodes from Horizon’s history. Highlights include:

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out with Richard Feynman. I’ve seen it before, and I’m going to watch it again. Utterly wonderful.
Fermat’s Last Theorem. Telling the story of solving of one of mathematics greatest puzzles.
The World of Buckminster Fuller. The very first ever episode, which I’ve never seen before.
Strangeness Minus Three on the discovery of a then new subatomic particle in 1964. Again, I’ve not seen it before.

They’ve also released an interactive ebook in iPad, Android (tablet) and Kindle editions. It’s a nice little addition, although be warned that it does take a while to initially decompress itself – at least with the Android version on a 2013 Nexus 7. Just be patient.

The book includes a list of every Horizon ever made which is a nice touch.

Now I’ve got to admit that at times I’ve been quite down on Horizon. But it can still be quite brilliant. Its biggest recent successes (in terms of reaching the popular consciousness), have surely been in areas of nutrition. There was an edition that effectively kick-started the Five/Two diets – it’s included in the collection on the website. But in overall terms, I think the standard is better than it was back in 2007 when I wrote that piece.

The thing is – I cling to Horizon dearly because I love it. It’s the only really serious science programme the BBC airs on television. I’m delighted that Bang Goes The Theory exists and that it goes out on prime time BBC1, but the range of subjects they cover have to be limited. So we need programmes like Horizon to delve into other areas. Yes radio has excellent science programmes, but sometimes you need visuals to explain a subject.

Equinox on Channel 4 is sadly long gone. And multi-channel hasn’t really helped. While theoretically channels like Discovery could be a boon, they tackle mostly simplistic topics. Oh, and naked people surviving on desert islands. To be honest, the best science I’ve seen outside of BBC One and Two is some of the maths problems on Dave’s School of Hard Sums with Dara O’Briain and Marcus Du Sautoy.

It’s also important that we have some way of communicating current science with the wider public. When there are major scientific breakthroughs that really aren’t easy to get away in a three minute news bulletin, it needs a programme like Horizon to allow a curious public the opportunity to delve deeper into something that for them is quite probably very new. We live in a world where everything is phenomenally specialist compared with our forefathers, and most people probably couldn’t even to begin to explain how some of the things they live their life by – phones, cars, televisions – work. We need “explainers”. These are the programmes that will intrigue future generations into upholding Britain’s strength in science. And at the very least help politicians understand the importance of science, the value of it to the economy (and why we shouldn’t sell our national assets to companies that are only in it for corporate tax advantages at untold cost to the country).

One final thing. As part of Horizon’s birthday, I’d really love them to go back to it’s old theme music – or a modern updating of it. It has been through a few iterations, but I think it could return to a closer approximation of Wilfred Joseph’s composition. Today it doesn’t really have music – just a sound effect. Oh, and like some of the linked YouTube commenters, I really would be happy to pay for high quality versions!

The picture above is of some transcripts that the BBC used to produce for Horizon. You could send away for them after shows aired – I think for a small amount of money. And obviously, I was a regular subscriber. Later transcripts were published online, but these days they aren’t published at all. Externally anyway…

*I will be voting because at time of writing, I’d failed to get the BBC Horizon website to display the voting panel in spite of being logged in with a BBC ID as required. Here’s hoping they get it fixed!

[Update] I did manage to cast my vote the next day.