You’d be hard pressed to find a more cynical show about American politics than the two seasons and then cancelled series “Boss”, starring Kelsey Grammar. Grammar plays a Richard Daley style mayor of Chicago, and plays it very convincingly. Many say they struggle to watch Grammar without seeing Frasier Crane, but I find him a very watchable dramatic actor, and he certainly puts his acting chops on display here. He manages to be charming, impressive, cold, neurotic and terrifying in the role of Mayor Tom Kane.
I’m not surprised that it was cancelled as a show, because it lacks charm. if there is one word to describe it, it’s bleak. The style’s similar to Glenn Close’s “Damage”, which was another great drama but was just so full of morally bankrupt or compromised people and completely devoid of humour. This is the problem with “Boss”. Having known as many politicians as I have known in my life, I just can’t believe that everyone in public office is an amoral, self-serving, unsmiling prick. Is US politics, and Chicago politics in particular different? Possibly, but I doubt it. The show lacked a genuine human angle.
Like “House of Cards” that came after it, “Boss” works on the assumption that almost everybody in politics is on the make, including Kane’s icy wife played by Connie Nielsen in a proto-Claire Underwood. It also assumes that voters are very easily manipulated by pretty speeches and handsome candidates and soundbites. Indeed, it’s a very fashionable view in media circles (outside of political correspondents, who actually know better) and indeed with growing numbers of voters, but it just ain’t true.
Kane as a mayor is convincing as the corrupt bastard who makes the buses run on time and keeps the streets clean, and I can buy voters holding their noses and voting for that. But the other candidates seem like stuffed shirts talking in soundbites, doing that thing non-politicians think is possible: moving votes by really subtle actions. You know the sort of thing: “Don’t forget to mention that your cousin was Polish. That’ll get the Polish vote on board.”
“Boss” is a watchable show, but does nothing to dispel the feeling that democracy is warping into something very very ugly.
“The Irish RM”, which ran for three series from 1983-85, has unfairly been dismissed in recent years as a bit of paddywhackery about the clever English been driven to despair by the stupid ways of the pre-independence Irish of 1897 to 1905, when it is set. I have to admit that until I rewatched the series on DVD recently I held that view myself, based on vague memories of it on TV as a child.
Watching it now, however, reveals that the show was much more subtle and balanced in its portrayal of the two countries and their views of each other. Indeed, if one is being honest, it’s arguable that there is one only episode, its final one, where the English score a clear victory over the Irish. As Yates himself discovers, what looks to an outsider like a bit of Irish stupidity is almost always revealed to be hiding some scheme behind it.
Set in a rural Cork district in 1897, the series tells in comedy drama form the tribulations of Major Sinclair Yates (Peter Bowles), a decent if unimaginative new appointment as the resident magistrate. Yates finds that not only does he have to deal with the Machiavellian smoke and mirrors of the local Catholic rural poor, but also the Protestant Anglo-Irish ascendancy who are often hand in glove with the Catholics against the stiff rule of Dublin Castle.
The show was well received in its first broadcast, not only for its entertainment value but also for the fact that it was one of the few major TV drama productions filmed in Ireland in the mid-1980s, and provided a platform for a Who’s Who of Irish acting talent including Bryan Murray in a career-defining role as the roguish but lovable Flurry Knox, Niall Toibin as his equally roguish henchman Slipper and Anna Manahan as the terrifying Mrs Cadogan. Everybody else from Mick Lally, Noel Purcell, Frank Kelly, Joe Lynch, Alan Stanford, Lise Ann McLaughlin, Pat Laffan, Eamonn Morrissey, Brendan Conroy, Virginia Lawless, David Kelly, Jonathan Ryan and others all got their bit.
In fact, it’s quite possible that no one in Ireland over 40 has not met someone who was in it at some stage. Off the top of my head I can think of three people I’ve met who had roles in it. Retweet this if you’ve met one of them!
The humour is gentle, and there is a little bit too much chasing a goose around a garden type shenanigans for my liking, but it is a charming show with some top class performances. Worth another look.
Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel “The Day of the Jackal” has already secured its place in novel history. The concept, about right-wing French fanatics hiring a professional assassin to murder President de Gaulle in 1963 is daring for two reasons. The first is that it reads pretty much as a cold heavily detailed step by step almost journalistic expose of the plot rather than a thriller. The second is that we all know the outcome: President de Gaulle survived a number of assassination attempts, but died peacefully in an armchair in his home. In short, not as much a Who-Did-It as How-They-Did-It.
It shouldn’t work, yet it does, and brilliantly. So brilliantly in fact, that one finds oneself reading it again despite knowing the outcome and pretty much every twist in the story. Forsyth’s great success is his ability (honed as a foreign correspondent) to communicate great detail in a absolutely readable and enjoyable manner. For years later many believed it was a true story.
The book (and even more Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 masterpiece movie) also conveys nicely the Europe and France of its day. The shadow of the war still there, yet a continent on the verge of huge integration.
The movie is a stylish joy to watch. Cold and methodical, with minimal use of music, Edward Fox as the Jackal and Michel Lonsdale as the French police chief pursuing him steal the movie. A wealth of British TV stars of the 1970s fill the background.
Both the book and the movie are an absolute treat.
“30 Rock” is like one of those tiny, cheap little neighbourhood restaurants you accidentally stumble across that turn out to be magnificent, and leaves you wondering why everybody isn’t raving about it. It was an NBC comedy show which ran for seven seasons about the comings and goings on a Saturday Night Live style comedy show filmed in the NBC New York studio at 30 Rockefeller Centre (Geddit?). As it ran, it got progressively more surreal but always funny.
The show got a much deserved boost thanks to its writer, creator and star Tina Fey’s very funny performance as Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign, but the fact is, the show can stand on its own. Fey is, in my opinion, quite possibly the funniest female comedian around, and went on after the show to write create Netflix’s equally whacky “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”.
Aside from Fey’s superbly self-mocking performance, the show boasted a brilliant ensemble cast including Alec Baldwin’s career-defining performance as the slightly mad conservative Republican Jack Donaghey, head of NBC’s television and microwave division. It’s up there with William Shatner in Boston Legal. Jack McBrayer as the mysterious page Kenneth, and extraordinarily versatile singing, dancing Jane Krakowski (Elaine in Ally McBeal) also steal scenes, as does Tracy Morgan as the unhinged star of the show.
The show was never a huge hit. It opened in the same season as Aaron Sorkin’s criminally underrated “Studio 60″ which covered very similar territory, and many pundits assumed that there was only room for one SNL-inspired show. They were right, although most of them guessed the wrong one.
“30 Rock” is one of those shows that people either love and rewatch, or turn off after 15 minutes. Me? I put it up there with “Frasier”, and that’s saying something. Netflix UK and Ireland: pay attention!
“Midnight Caller” ran from 1988-1991, and starred Gary Cole, who’d later become known to “The West Wing” fans as Vice President “Bingo” Bob Russell (and cult “Office Space” boss Bill “Yeah” Lumbergh). In fact, given that Gary Cole is pretty much in everything, one would be forgiven for thinking there is a secret protocol in the US Constitution that demands it. As an aside, his other great role was in the disgracefully cancelled after one season “American Gothic” where he played the sheriff of a North Carolina town who may or may not have been The Devil. But I digress.
Cole played Jack Killian, a former cop turned late night radio host. It was stylish for its day (especially as nearly every episode seemed to be set at night, which is hardly surprising, given its title), and was famous for Killian’s “Goodnight, America, wherever you are” signoff. Cool theme music too.
It was with huge excitement that I saw the first trailer for Guy Ritchie’s 1960s spy caper “The Man from UNCLE” released this week. In the early 1980s, this then 12 year old was fascinated by a TV show that had been off the air for over 15 years. It was kitschy by today’s standards, and ironically I only realised much later that I’d never even seen the first season which is hailed by fans as the best one, but rarely repeated because it’s in black and white. Although TG4 did, a few years ago, curiously enough.
What was it about the adventures of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin that caught my imagination so much? Certainly the international locations (actually all filmed in California. Every airport looked the same, save for a policeman in a different uniform and different tourist posters on the walls!), the derring-do, the wise-cracking of the two agents, and the beautiful yet sophisticated girls all played a part. But also, I was fascinated that UNCLE was international, the Russians and the Americans cooperating together against Nazis and megalomaniacs and of course the evil THRUSH organisation. It’s a concept that shaped my politics even now.
So, here’s hoping the new movie, out in August and starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Hugh Grant as their boss tips the hat a few times at their predecessor.
*”Open Channel D” was the standard UNCLE greeting when communicating with their New York headquarters.
“The Trip”, and its sequel “The Trip to Italy”, is almost certainly a very Marmite-y TV series, in that you either loved it or it just left you cold. I have to admit to loving it, but I suspect that’s more to do with the fact that I’m in my early 40s and recognise the bitter-sweet nature of both series.
The concept is simple, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalised versions of themselves, are commissioned to travel for a week through rural northern England visiting high class restaurants for The Observer. Along the way there is much room for celebrity impressions (their Michael Caine face-off is magnificent), banter, arguments and ruminations on two men realising they’re not young anymore. The sequel involves them doing the same in Italy.
The dialogue is both funny and melancholic, with both bringing their very considerable mimicry powers to the table, and willing to challenge public perceptions of themselves, and the scenery is beautiful. The food looks gorgeous.
The following is the transcript of a meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, by the Grand Council of the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terror, Revenge and Extortion.
Chairperson: …and with that in regard, let us turn to the December Proposal, prepared by our good friend Tony. We’ve all had time to digest it, and discuss it before this gathering. It is a radical departure from this organisation’s existing objectives. Yet I cannot deny that our friend has made a very cogent argument. Perhaps a short summary?
Tony: Thank you Ernst, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me today. To make a long story short, as my Irish friends would say, SPECTRE is about making money. The manipulation of power, law, politics and other extra-ordinary means to generate profit for this organisation and our shareholders. Now, what does an organisation need when it has all this money?
Mr. Stromberg: Henchmen? Underwater bases? Sharks?
Tony: Stability. The days of storing one’s wealth in gold or diamonds…
Mr. Goldfinger: (mutters)
Tony: …the days of storing one’s wealth in physical commodities or in cash or art are over. The sums of money are so vast as to make it an unviable proposition. Wealth is stored electronically, which makes it both safer but also more vulnerable. And not just hacking, but from terrorist threats to infrastructure too. After all, the Al Quaeda attack on our buildings in Manhattan seriously hurt our asset base.
Table: murmurs of approval.
Tony: The reality is that SPECTRE is now in the stability business. Our legitimate businesses generate more money than our off-the-book activities. Our late comrade Steve made us more money in five years than we had made in fifty. We need order. But what sort of order? The order that Putin brings in Russia, where your wealth can be confiscated by the whim of the FSB? China, where factions ignore the rule of law and confiscate private property? Then there is the threat of radical Islamic revolt, and the real threat of climate change which is endangering many of our prize real estate assets.
Dr. No: Please Tony, get to the point.
Tony: The point, my dear Dr. No, is that western democracy is the greatest defence available to us. You all saw what happened when we tried to rig the Russian elections. Putin rigged it better and confiscated every cent belonging to our allies. Xi is moving against our friends in Beijing. Only in the west…
Mr. Goldfinger: They’re trying to tax us!
Tony: Better taxes than dead, Auric. It’s an ugly world out there, and the west is our safe haven. That’s why I’m proposing that SPECTRE change its key objective from world domination to…
Mr. Stromberg: to what?
Tony: to defending western democracy. By improving our capacity to destroy the enemies of the west. The west’s enemies are now our enemies. We’ve started this already by taking over some key intelligence agencies.
Mr. Goldfinger: You’re not suggesting…
Mr. Stromberg: What are you talking about?
Tony: Your chairman Herr Blofeld knows that SPECTRE has been running British Intelligence since the late 1980s. Never you never wondered why MI6 hasn’t pursued SPECTRE since then?
Mr. Goldfinger: But that means..
Tony: Yes. Commander James Bond has been working for the people who murdered his wife Tracey for some years now, destroying our enemies, without ever knowing. James Bond is SPECTRE’s single greatest weapon.
Federal agents raiding a chocolate factory have uncovered evidence of the massive psychological torturing and poisoning of a small group of children at the direction of confectionary billionaire William Wonka. The world-famous candy manufacturer, who recently donated millions to the Republican party in opposition to “over-regulation in the workplace” was found to have drugged a number of children with experimental poisons. One child was transformed into a state of obesity and also suffered extreme skin pigmentation changes. One small boy was bombarded with radiation, and later died of cancer.
Files also revealed a shockingly casual approach to workplace safety, with one German national falling into an unguarded liquid chocolate manufacturing process and being sucked through industrial vacuum tubes. The child in question is still in residence in a leading German psychological facility. Two other individuals narrowly avoided being cut to pieces by a high speed fan. Another fell into a nut de-shelling device.
Federal agents expressed shock at the number and conditions of over one thousand pygmies, natives of a small African state, being held as an unpaid workforce. The pygmies had become discoloured by exposure to chemicals in the workplace, and had been turned a “grotesque” orange hue through daily exposure. Translators revealed that the pygmies had been told by Wonka that their homeland had been eaten by a giant monster. The state department is making arrangements for their return.
Wonka is believed to have perished later when he escaped in a glass sided rocket powered aircraft of his own design which, after failing to comply with instructions to land by federal authorities, was shot down by scrambled air force jets.
The American chatshow host Conan O’Brien remarked last year that he had noticed a significant change in audiences who attended the recording of his show on TBS. He pointed out that in the 1990s a guest who was the star of a successful show could assume that the great majority of the studio audience not only knew who he/she actually was, but would get references to their character and the plotline of their show. Everybody knew who Ross and Rachel were.
O’Brien pointed out that now, going by audience reaction, it is now possible to be the star of what is deemed a successful show and yet still have a large proportion of the audience have only a vague if any knowledge of the actor or their show.
Consider two numbers: “Game of Thrones”, arguably the most popular TV show on the planet, gets around 7m viewers in the US for new episodes. Now consider that “Only Fools and Horses” used to get up to 14m viewers in the UK alone. Sure, don’t go all mad: I know, I’m not comparing like-with-like. GoT appears on a cable network, OFaH was free to view. But the fact is, the huge choice we have now has completely fragmented TV viewing. There are exceptions: in the US the Superbowl gets over 100m viewers, but even that has to be taken in the context of the time. Why? Well, here’s another wild figure. The finale of “MASH” in 1983 got nearly 106m viewers, in a country with nearly 100m less people than the Superbowl broadcasts to now.
The media lock onto shows like “The West Wing” or “The Sopranos” or “Madmen” or “The Wire” but the reality is that relatively small numbers of people actually watch these shows, in whatever format they watch (Cable, download, etc). The finale of “Friends” 10 years ago got stateside 52m viewers. Seinfeld got 76m. Today, the biggest drama show on American TV (both cable and terrestrial) is “NCIS”, which gets, in a country of 320m people, an audience of between 16 and 20 million. True, they were finale shows, with huge amounts of publicity surrounding them, but the figures are still stark.
So what’s my point? I suppose it’s that we now live in a “television” (I use the word loosely, given the impact of Netflix and downloads) age where a huge increase in quality and choice has almost shattered the shared experience. It’s true that people now watch “Doctor Who” or “Downton Abbey” with one eye on Twitter, and that is a shared community, but the reality is that most people are not watching the show you are watching. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But we all (of a certain vintage) remember Ross and Rachel’s first kiss. On the other hand, I’m afraid to write about Ned Stark out of fear that some of my readers don’t know who he is, or his destiny, because they haven’t experienced it yet.