A few programmes that did or didn’t entertain me in the last few days:
Penn and Teller’s Fool Us was everything The Magicians wasn’t. With the straight magic show being considered far too straightforward for a 21st century audience, producers are constantly looking for spins that’ll make programming “acceptable”. Sadly, for BBC1’s The Magicians, the route they’ve gone down is using celebrities. In the second episode that meant Peter Jones from Dragon’s Den, Adrian Edmondson who was once of the Young Ones and Bottom, but is now more regularly appearing with his folk band, and Amanda Byram who was fresh from the preceding programme, Total Wipeout.
This was an improvement on the first programme, and it’s not really the quality of the tricks that’s wrong, it’s the use of the celebrities. The reality is that most of these tricks have been performed many times before by the magicians involved, and they’re not used to working with these people. They’re generally surplass to requirement, and it shows as they have to be forced into being part of the illusions. That’s particularly the case with Barry and Stuart who already have ready banter between the pair of them as part of their act. Shoehorning a third person into it is therefore nearly impossible. And the forced banter actually makes the acts more awkward and brings down the impressiveness of some of the tricks.
The reality facet that’s been applied in Penn and Teller’s one-off is the judging aspect. I wouldn’t pretend this show is perfect, but it’s a lot better than The Magicians. We have Jonathan Ross completing a hattrick of appearances across major channels this week (Channel 4 for the Quiz of the Year, and BBC Two for Stargazing) who presents fairly deftly, while Penn and Teller invite British magicians to “Fool Us” – by which I mean, perform a trick that Penn and Teller can’t explain.
The thing I was wondering most about going into this show was how Penn and Teller would explain how a trick was done without actually destroying the trick entirely for that magician and indeed others performing the same trick. This aspect was reasonably handled with Penn – never Teller as he’s the silent partner – either throwing a technical phrase out or suggesting how it was done without quite explaining, such as a trick deck.
In practice this meant that they mostly knew how the tricks were done. They did get very annoyed that one comic magician with a trick involving money in envelopes was baffling to them. It was probably quite simple, but they were forced to concede defeat. But for another magician it was less smooth. Backstage there was an independent arbitor who was also a magician and had obviously earlier been let in on the techniques employed in all the tricks. It was his job to determine whether or not what Penn and Teller thought was the process was close enough to the actual process used. That fell down with one competitor where Penn and Teller believed that they knew how he did the trick, while the arbitor said that they hadn’t properly explained it. There was almost an argument on stage, and producers, perhaps sensing that a bad taste had been left in viewers mouths shot a “backstage” piece of Penn talking to Teller and agreeing that they knew how he did bits of the trick, but the big finish had indeed fooled them.
I suspect that if this one-off went to series, they’d develop a better understanding about how to get through that section of the show.
The programme was topped and tailed with some great Penn and Teller tricks employing their brand of sort-of-explaining how tricks are done, and then wowing you anyway.
Above Suspicion was back for a third series and the writers have been watching too much Ashes to Ashes – let me explain what I mean. These stories are based on Lynda La Plante novels and she obviously has a certain view of the Metropolitan Police. That is that they’re a sexist backwards organisation where lots of people shout and march around a lot, not necessarily doing any detective work. The sole female detective (Kelly Reilly) smoulders around driving all the men around her wild with desire, but essentially technology is an anathma to these people. Indeed it’s almost as if it becomes a class issue with the working class detectives and the upper class forensic scientist. When a witness with a photographic memory provides a list of 40 or so number plates, it’s considered a massively time-consuming piece of work to go through them. Obviously popping them through a computer as fast as they can be typed doesn’t appeal. I’d have thought that it’d take 15 minutes at the outset to check them all – at least superficially.
The story is fun involving a dangerous new drug hitting the streets, lots of murders and someone who seemingly escaped from Miami Vice in the eighties. Julian Sands even makes an appearance at one point. Ciaran Hinds is at his “cor blimey” best, and can basically only bark orders. Everyone who works for him are idiots. I did feel sorry for a sequence right at the end where he has to chase a light aircraft along the runway on foot. He’s probably past his best sprinting days.
I think I’d point Lynda La Plante towards 2009’s excellent The Force from Channel 4 which shows the real way a murder case is detected in a somewhat more humdrum and scientific manner.
Episodes is the new BBC comedy in association with US premium cable network Showtime. The two channels are showing the series just about simultaneously with Showtime airing it on Sunday evenings (alongside Californication and their new US version of Shameless) while on BBC Two it follows Horizon. The premise is that Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangen play Bev and Sean, the successful writers of a BBC hit comedy series, Lyman’s Boys. An American TV exce signs them up to write a US TV version and they’re whisked off to La La Land where they’re opulantly housed as they cast and write a US version. Matt Le Blanc only appeared minimally in this episode, but he will become the person cast in the lead role replacing the somewhat older Richard Griffiths (“Julian”). Hilarity will no doubt ensue.
Depsite the pedigree of the producers who include Friends’ David Crane, I’m not yet sure about this. They had a lot to set up, and we do need to get beyond that. So I’ll give this a chance. But there weren’t quite as many laughs as I’d have liked, and the performances perhaps weren’t as subtle as you’d have found in other behind-the-scenes comedies like Entourage or Larry Sandler (I’m afraid to say that Daisy Haggard was particularly annoying, looking utterly gormless everytime the camera cut to her). Still, comedies always take an episode or two before they’re firing on all cylinders.
One programme that you certainly didn’t need to watch was BBC Three’s Great Movie MIstakes 2: The Sequel. This two hour show was one of the laziest bits of television you could imagine. I only watched about five minutes of it, and that was plenty. Essentially this is the “goofs” section of IMDB made into an interminable programme all linked by an unfunny dead pan Robert Webb commentary. The section I caught showed various tiny continuity errors in various James Bond films. They’re not “Great” in any sense of the word. A tie’s not present in the close-up. A stunt man was used for a stunt – and if you freeze frame the action, you can see. There’s no snow on a dam. It’s pointless. And there’s TWO HOURS of it. The reality is that in every drama you’ve ever seen there are continuity errors. You mostly don’t notice, and generally don’t care. So why does Robert Webb take part in these programmes? How big is his mortgage? This comes hot on the heals of the equally unfunny Channel 4 series, Robert’s Webb, in which Webb produced an unfunny dead pan commentary to accompany various viral videos taken from YouTube and the like, with a smattering of out of context Tweets from various people. To say that this is lowest common denominator humour is unfair to numerators and denominators everywhere.
If there’s one programme you do need to watch if you haven’t already, it’s The Secret Life of Bob Monkhouse. To be honest, I found the title very off-putting, but powerful reviews from others after the Christmas break meant that I caught the weekend BBC Four repeat of this, and it’s terrifc. Monkhouse was a serial collector, and he kept tapes and videos of everything he did, often being the only person to still retain copies. So while this was about Monkhouse and his life, it was illustrated terrifically, with useful and reelvant interviews with people who knew him. Really worth catching on the iPlayer before this weekend.
Television I Have Been Watching
A few programmes that did or didn’t entertain me in the last few days: