Friday, 30 January 2009

ITV: Making a crisis out of its dramas...

It was revealed yesterday (28th) that ITV will not be recommissioning their sleepy Sunday night drama series ‘Heartbeat’ and its hospital-set spin-off ‘The Royal’. 'So what?' you may cry – these shows are hardly the stuff of Stuff (if you know what I mean) – I tend to go for edgier, more imaginative TV and as I find both series to be the television equivalent of mogadon you might reasonably expect me to be a bit ambivalent about their passing (although ITV, playing the announcement down yesterday, stated that the shows were on hold for the moment because the former, at least, has built up such a backlog of untransmitted episodes that there are enough shows ready to be screened to last well into 2010) And in fact you’d be right – obviously I don’t watch either show but their disappearance from the screen is disquieting for all sorts of reasons, regardless of who watches them and why, particularly as the indication from ITV has been that these two popular dramas are likely to be replaced by cheaper, more cost-effective reality shows which, they will undoubtedly argue, pull in higher viewing figures.

ITV are in trouble. Observers of TV viewing trends (and I’m one of them) will have noticed, with some concern, that the Networks’s drama output has been struggling in the last few years. 2008 was a particularly poor year for ITV; a string of new dramas, highly-touted and with huge expectations, crashed and burned. The Palace, Harley Street, Lost in Austen, Britannia High – just four which come immediately to mind, four which staggered, unloved and barely-watched, to the end of their first and only series. Other long-running dramas are under-achieving – shows like Midsummer Murders and Taggart are now attracting substantially-lower audiences than they were a few years back (regardless of any issues involving falling terrestrial TV audiences in the face of the ‘rise’ of non-terrestrial) – and even the two flagship soaps, ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Emmerdale’ are feeling the audience pinch. But ITV’s raft of reality/talent shows – I’m a Celebrity, Britain’s Got Talent, the X Factor, Dancing on Ice – seem to go from strength to strength, year after year. As they say in some American dramas – you do the math. Comparatively speaking, reality/talent shows (and the string of cheap’n’cheerful documentaries ITV seems to run in prime time on too many nights of the week – things like ‘Help! I’m Too Fat To Talk!’ and ‘Builders From Hell on Holiday’) cost buttons to make. Drama, however, don’t come cheap. I’ve no figures to bandy about but I imagine that an hour of drama – writers, actors, designers, crew – costs a fair bit more than an hour of repellent flathead Simon Cowell (other opinions are available) pulling faces at deluded karaoke singers. Yet the latter can pull in 10 million viewers and the former might struggle to reach 4. It’s not, frankly, a situation ITV could be expected to keep tolerating. The logic – and it’s inarguable, really, from a commercial perspective – is that it’s pointless spending a fortune on a drama no-one’s really interested in when you can spend half the money on more weeks of a cheesy talent show people sit and watch in their millions. So shows like ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘The Royal’, sleepy Sunday night stuff, harmless and inoffensive and catering to a certain demographic at a certain time of the week, face the axe when their viewing figures start to fall (which they undeniably have – ‘Heartbeat’ once commanded massive audiences of up to 16 million; these days it’s lucky to get 5 million). It may be possible to argue that these shows in particular have run their course – ‘Heartbeat’ is set in the Sixties and yet the show has run for 18 years! But it strikes me that, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater ITV, if they feel they need to get rid of these shows, might be better served in at least trying to find a replacement or two – similar feel-good easy-watch shows – to satisfy the current audience and maybe coax back a few of those who have become bored by ‘Heartbeat’. Of course the risk they face – and recent experience suggests it’s not an insubstantial risk – is that their news shows will cost a lot to make and won’t find an audience. Better then, they seem to reason, to fill the time with a tabloid documentary or two or maybe a few new reality shows.

This genuinely disturbs me. I’m a fan of drama and while there may be certain genres I don’t really do – I’m a bit detectived out, if I’m honest – I’m always pleased to see dramas occupying prime time positions. And I’d always rather see a drama on the screen than some shouty, clap-along talent nonsense or a celebrity sign-along starring people from ‘Hollyoaks’ I’ve never heard of and have no interest in. But it’s clear that this is the path ITV is pursuing; as well as the ‘Heartbeat’ axing, the redoubtable old Police warhorse ‘The Bill’ is now losing an episode a week, being trimmed back to just one episode, to be screened at 9pm – the latter decision being used as a smokescreen to cover up the loss of 50% of the show’s yearly output with the promise that it’ll be “edgier and more hard-hitting” post-watershed. Just at the end of last year an expensive ITV remake of ‘A Passage to India' was abandoned on grounds of cost halfway through pre-production.

It's clear that our Tv companies are feeling the pinch these days - but then who isn't? The BBC is battling to be more cost-effective but seem to be making a better fist of it than the once-cash-rich ITV. I'd say that BBC Drama is in the best state it's been in a couple of decades - the Corporation's current raft of returning popular dramas is impressive by any reasonable standards. ITYv haven't been able to find a new drama with the potential to run for years (and this was one of Michael Grade's prime mission statements when he took controlling of the ailing Network a few years back) for some time while their slew if reality shows continues to prosper.

But I can't help feeling that ITV have blinded themseles as to why viewers have taken to deserting the Network, a handful of hits notwithstanding. The fact of the matter is tghat the british public have turned away from ITV because they're sick and tired of being patronised to and treated like simpletons by the Network. Cheapjack reality shows (and huge ratings failures) like Celebrity Love Island and Celebrity Wrestling a few years ago did huge damage to ITV's reputation. Carpet-bombing the weeknight schedles with episodes of 'Emmerdale' and 'Coronation Street' may have brought a smile to the faces of soaps fans but trhose of who can't be doing with these cheap, predictable dramas just got exapserated and turned away from ITV. Many haven't come back and now won't. Drama commissions tended to be salacious tabloid-inspired tat - 'Footballer's Wives' might as well have been serialised in 'Heat' Magazine for all it was worth as drama. 9pm, surely the centrepiece of any TV channel's night-time schedule, has slowly but surely been given over to hastily flung-together documentaries exploting some recent scandal or crisis or else from the interminable "...from Hell" series. Big audiences just aren't interested in stuff like that - but while new dramas also don't pull in big numbers, ITV can rest easy in the knowledge that the documentary about rip-off plumbers which only attracted 3 million viewers cost a damn sight less than a drama which might have attracted the same or less.

The problem is that ITV dramas have tanked because they've been rubbish. Even the ITV audience (it's not a demographic I care to think about considering the continuing popularity of Ant and Dec, Simon Cowell and assorted other broadcasting lightweights) can see through a sordid, grubby drama written and made to capitalise on some recent or current media obsession - Royal goings-on!! WAGs!! Sleazy doctors!! Compare and contrast with the encouraging figures some of ITV's new dramas have managed this year so far - short-run series like The Unforgiven, Trial and Retribution and Above Suspicion have scored good figures and they're clearly ITV's current drama strength. Maybe they've lost their magic touch when it comes to fashioning shows which can run year after year in long, regular series. And maybe that's how ITV sees itself in the future; a network with a few prestige serious drama mini-series dotted throughout the year, punctuated by hours and hours of soaps and with their Big Four reality titles tent-poling the whole year's schedule. It's a grim, grim thought.

So let's not rejoice at the passing of 'Heartbeat' and 'The Royal' because their going means more than just the killing-off of two rather twee dramas series - they're emblematic of a greater, more insidious malaise which sits at the core of British broadcasting like a cancer. If ITV really abandons its once-great drama tradition for the sake of the quick fix of big viewing figures for phone vote talent shows, it'll be a genuine cultural tragedy and an ITV reduced to being little more than the dumping ground for Simon Cowell's pet performers is, ultimately, an ITV that no-one really needs and surely no-one really wants.

Troubling times ahead for British television...

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

UK TV Charts - w/e 11th January 2009

A rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 11th January 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by *

1 Coronation Street (ITV1).................10.64 *
2 EastEnders (BBC1)..................... 9.22 *
3 Dancing On Ice (ITV1).................... 8.01 *
4 Above Suspicion (ITV1).................... 8.00
5 Emmerdale (ITV1)......................... 7.72 *
6 Wild At Heart (ITV1)...................... 7.71
7 Harry Hill's TV Burp Compilation (ITV1)... 7.18
8 Casualty (BBC1).......................... 7.14
9 National Lottery: In It To Win It (BBC1).. 6.89
10 New You've Been Framed! (ITV1)........... 6.59
11 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)................. 6.43
12 Trial and Retribution (ITV1).............. 6.29
13 Hustle (BBC1)............................ 6.27
14 Lark Rise To Candleford (BBC1)............ 6.13
15 The Bill (ITV1).......................... 5.85 *
16 Holby City (BBC1)......................... 5.84
17 Demons: The Whole Enchilada (ITV1)........ 5.58
18 The Life Of Riley (BBC1).................. 5.32
19 Your Country Needs You (BBC1)............. 5.14
20 Swarm: Nature's Incredible Invasion (BBC1) 5.12

Chart Comment: With no big 'event' TV shows dominating the schedules and the New Year doldrums stting in, the Top 20 reverts to its 'default' setting as Coronation Street and EastEnders reclaim their traditional top two positions. Coronation Street in particular had a good week with a couple of episodes rating over 11 million (but lower-rated episodes brought down the average). Elsewhere it's a ragtag bunch; ITV drama continues to thrive with the second episode of Above Suspicion rating higher than its first, the return of the dreary Wild At Heart pulling in a decent Sunday night tally and Trial and Retribution doing well on a Friday night. Despite losing over 600,000 viewers between episodes, even Demons manages to cling into a top 20 slot with its second episode. Episode three did worse again though and will be very lucky to squeeze into next week's chart. Good to see old ITV warhorse The Bill performing solidly and over on BBC1 the first episode of the new series of Hustle performed more than respectably and the show's figures, which look fairly stable for episode two, suggest its six episodes will remain a fixture in the middle reaches of the chart. BBC1's latest Saturday night vote-fest, Your Country Needs You, isn't needed by many but it's interested enough to elbow its way into the bottom of the chart and Dr Who fans can take heart from the fact that, although their (our) show is away for a few months, the David Tennant-narrated nature documentary Swarm did well to snatch a number 20 slot. Good on you, sir!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

UK TV Charts - w/e 4th January 2009

A rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 4th January 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by *

1 Jonathan Creek (BBC1).....................9.91
2 EastEnders (BBC1)........................9.46 *
3 Coronation Street (ITV)...................9.35 *
4 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)..................7.94
5 Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death (BBC1)...7.48
6 Above Suspicion - Episode 1 (ITV1)........7.31
7 Emmerdale (ITV1)..........................7.14 *
8 Total Wipeout (BBC1)......................6.56
9 Lark Rise to Candleford (BBC1)............6.53
10 Casualty (BBC1)...........................6.41
11 Doctor Who Confidential: The Eleventh Doctor (BBC1)...6.30
12 Demons: They Bite (ITV1)..................6.37
13 Film: Shrek 2 (BBC1)......................6.03
14 Harry Hill's TV Burp Compilation (ITV1)...5.98
15 National Lottery: In It To Win It (BBC1)..5.86
16 New Year Live (BBC1)......................5.83
17 The Royal (ITV1)..........................5.77
18 Celebrity Mastermind (BBC1)...............5.71 *
19 New You've Been Framed (ITV1).............5.58
20 Holby City (BBC1).........................5.54

Chart comment: After the highs of the Christmas week chart it's back down to earth this week with more typical figures across the board on a chart which is still quite healthy and diverse. Thrilling to see the long-awaited new 'Jonathan Creek' episode top the chart with over 9 million viewers; even though the episode was a good 30 minutes too long and wasn't really vintage Creek it was nice to see the old boy and his duffel coat back and of course it's always nice to see a non-soap drama top the chart. In fact, 'Coronation Street' would have taken the top slot as two of its episodes rated over 10 million but others dropped well below 9 million therefore dragging its average and chart position down. Elsewhere in the Top Ten it's amazing to see Wallace and Gromit, which topped the chart at Christmas with over 16 million, scoring over seven million a week later with a repeat of the same episode. I can't think of an occasion when that could ever have happened in the chart before. I've been known to outwardly smirk at ITV's dismal track record in the field of popular drama over the last few years but it's genuinely heartening to see the first episode of Police thriller 'Above Suspicion' scoring well - episode two, screened on the Monday with its final rating being available next week, did even better. This week's new thriller, 'Unforgiven' scored similar numbers so maybe ITV drama has turned a corner. Lousy ratings for this week's Trinny and Susannah/Extreme Slimmers Tuesday night double bill might help ITV realise that the audience actually does have an appetite for good drama and won't tolerate cheapjack lifestyle shows in prime time much longer. We live in hope...

ITV's new Saturday night drama 'Demons', despite being pretty dismal, managed a respectable 6.27m but you've got to take your hat off to the BBC for eclipsing the show's premiere with their announcement of the casting of the new Dr Who in a special 'Confidential' episode which just pipped 'Demons' with 6.30 m. The second 'Demons' episode dropped just under a million on overnights so it'll slip down the chart next week but may well stabilise at around 4-5 million, enough to be classified as a minor
hit. But it's surely a fairly costly show to make so will it have done enough to earn a second series? Frankly, it's a question which is more exciting than the series itself...

Monday, 12 January 2009

New Year, New Drama - Demons and Hustle...

Despite the fact the British media are all over the New Year new series of ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ and ‘Dancing on Ice’ like a rash (the return of the latter of which is being treated by some very down-market tabloids as if it’s actually the resurrection itself, not in fact another series of a tacky rip-off of an already-tacky BBC dancing show), there’s cause for some celebration because the early days of 2009 have seen the arrival of two much-anticipated new drama series to British TV screens for those of us not remotely interested in the trivia of reality TV. Over on ITV on Saturday nights we have commercial TV’s latest attempt to capitalise on the huge BBC success of ‘Dr Who’ with their second weekend family fantasy series, following on from the success of dino-romp ‘Primeval’ (back for series three in a few weeks). Over on BBC1 on Thursday nights it’s time to welcome back Mickey ‘Bricks’ Stone and his gang of crafty grifters in a surprise fifth season of the slick and glossy con artists drama ‘Hustle’.

I was tempted to jot down a few thoughts on ‘Demons’ after last week’s debut episode ‘They Bite’ but thought discretion might be best as it often takes high concept shows like this time to find their feet and opening episodes sometimes don’t show new series in their best light. But we’re on to episode two now, ‘The Whole Enchilada’ and I’m so sorry to say that things don’t look too good for ‘Demons’; they really don’t look too good at all.

The simple fact is that ‘Demons’ just isn’t working. There are many reasons for this but the main one seems to be that the show doesn’t have one original idea in its head. This is all stuff we’ve seen before, done far better elsewhere (generally in American imports) and churned out again here supported by a cast who are clearly almost all utterly uncomfortable with the show they’ve signed up for and the lazy, underpowered, derivative scripts they’ve been given to work with. Here’s the recipe the ‘Demons’ creative team (made up of many of the people who brought BBC1’s ‘Merlin’ to a rather more successful life); take two parts of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ chosen-one portentousness, add a bit of ‘Smallville’ teen appeal and mix liberally with some low-grade ‘Supernatural’ bad guys and stir into a thoroughly turgid cocktail of mumbo jumbo, badly-choreographed fights and creaky dialogue. Despite all its fizz and pizzazz, ‘Demons’ just doesn’t come to life; it’s not exciting, it’s not a thrill-ride, it’s got no characters the audience can care about much less believe in as real people. I have a feeling ‘Demons’ may become a bit of a stinker, possibly even of ‘Bonekickers’ proportions – and that’s sad.

Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke, most recently seen as UNIT grunt Ross Jenkins in last year’s ‘Dr Who’ Sontaran two-parter) is an ordinary teenage kid living with his widowed Mom (just like Buffy was). Rupert Galvin (Rupert Giles??), a mysterious man with an atrocious American accent and access to a huge underground library called The Stacks (not a bit like Rupert’s library in Buffy, oh no) meets Luke and explains that Luke is the last descendant of Abraham Van Helsing, the notorious vampire slayer from Stoker’s Dracula novel. Thus Luke is the ‘chosen one’ and it’s his destiny to fight the demons and vampires and half-lifes which swarm, unseen, below the streets of London. So far so what. In episode one Luke meets up with Mina Harker (Zoe Tapper, recently seen as Anya in ‘Survivors’) who is blind when she and the script remember; I’m not quite sure why she’s in the series and I’ve certainly no idea what she’s supposed to add to it. Then there’s Ruby, Luke’s potential love-interest who inadvertently finds herself involved in all the spooky-dos when the Vampire King Gladiolus Thrip (what kind of a name is that for a scary bad guy?) captures her in an attempt to trap and destroy Luke, the new Slayer in town. Thrip has a ridiculous ivory nose and he’s played by Mackenzie Crook who relishes the halfway decent dialogue he gets – but then, despite all his power and threat, he just gets shot and turned to dust the end of episode one. Galvin’s secret weapon against the ‘freaks’ is a pulse gun and already, by episode two, this looks like a narrative crutch which is going to become far more irritating that the Doctor’s oft-used sonic screwdriver.

Episode two seemed to have the potential to be better – but sadly it wasn't. Here a statue-like angel creature (and yes, I was briefly wondering if we were in for a cheap rip-off of Who’s ‘Blink’ episode too) kidnaps children for reasons of its own. Luke and his gang run around for a bit, there are one or two clumsily-staged action sequences (I’ve no idea what was supposed to have happened in the ‘ring of fire’ scene) before they find the kids chained up in a church (why would a demon chain kids up anywhere, much less a church?) and, in a fight scene which can really only be described as feeble, Luke…shoots the demon with his pulse gun.

If I sound less than enthusiastic about ‘Demons’ it’s because I just don’t find it interesting. The show looks as if it’s been flung together without care or caution; there’s no decent character interaction, Cooke may be a nice lad but he’s not series-lead material and if Philip Glenister wasn’t already established via a string of much better dramas, his disastrous American accent here would be enough to kill his career stone dead. One can only assume he chose the bizarre accent to try and throw the audience off the scent. The whole thing is characterised by its lack of visual dynamism; it has the requisite surfeit of seen-it-all-before special effects (CGI sprites leaping about the place, monsters disappearing into dust when zapped), which are decent enough, but the directors who’ve worked on the series so far don’t have any feel for or understanding of the sort of energy programmes like this need if they’re to stand a chance of working. The ham-fisted,laboured scripts don’t help but ultimately the whole series is just scuppered by the fact that it’s got nothing new at all to offer its subject-matter. Vampire and demon-slayers have been done to death, in all honesty, and by being so obviously ‘Buffy’ by any other name, ‘Demons’ can only be found wanting. I’ll keep watching because I really try to support this sort of show but I’m far, far from impressed so far (even the cheap-looking title sequence and dreadful cod-rock theme music are disastrous misfires) and with ratings sliding already – less than 5 million tuned into episode two and that’s not good for a high profile drama launch – I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a second series. There’s so much wrong with ‘Demons’ that it would take a miracle to fix it – and I really don’t think there’s anything here that would make the effort worthwhile.

Far more agreeable is the return of BBC1’s ‘Hustle’ to Thursday nights. When the rather drab fourth season stuttered to its end a couple of years ago, with Adrian Lester having jumped ship, it looked like the end of the road for Tony Jordan’s gang of lovable long con fraudsters. The fourth series tried to replace the immaculate Lester with ex-So Solid Crew rapper Ashley Walters – with disastrous consequences. Walters killed every scene stone dead with his flat delivery and he just looked totally out of his depth amongst professionals like Marc Warren, Robert Glenister and the legendary Robert Vaughn. So it was a bit of a surprise last year when the BBC announced a fifth series of ‘Hustle’, with Lester back on board but Warren and Jamie Murray (Stacey) out of the picture to be replaced with two young new faces.

If you’re not familiar with the series – and I admit I only caught up with it on DVD – it’s a slick, stylish show full of lovely visual tics and gimmicks and it’s shot in a way which actually makes London look fab, groovy and glamorous, packed with glitzy hotels and super-rich people just ripe for the ripping-off. Mickey Stone and his gang rarely target the man in the street; their targets are greedy, gullible businessmen, crooks who themselves deserve to be ripped-off and often, just really irritating people who’ve gotten too big for their boots. Episode one of series five sees the series back and in rude health; Mickey’s attempt to sell the Sydney Opera House has failed and he hotfoots it back to the UK where he finds his old crew scattered to the winds. Ash (Glenister) is back working the short con, the suave Albert Stroller (Vaughn) is locked up at Her Maj’s pleasure, having been rumbled during a casino con, and Danny and Stacey are still on the loose in America. Mickey sets about putting together a new gang – with Albert secretly pulling the strings from the comfort of his cell.

‘Hustle’ is wonderful, tongue-in-cheek fun. The scams are usually labyrinthian in their complexity and probably don’t stand up to close scrutiny but the enjoyment is in watching the show, as visually colourful and dynamic as ever if the first episode is any indication, and relishing the cast’s little asides to camera, the slow-mo sequences, and, in the first episode, director James Strong’s impressive visual feel for London which he captures almost breathtakingly in several sequences not least the final scene where the new gang – there’s a couple of new kids on board now, former soap stars whose names escape me but they seem competent enough – gather together on the Embankment with London in sharp relief behind them looking like some exquisitively-detailed painting.

‘Hustle’ is sixty minutes of glorious, forgettable nonsense. The performances are superb, the storylines are inventive if occasionally baffling and it absolutely looks a million dollars. It won’t ever win an award, the dialogue’s nothing to write home about, but it’s always a joy to watch and one of the few shows on British TV which actually looks as if it’s got American TV production values. Take my advice – give ‘Demons’ a miss and lose yourself in the world of ‘Hustle’ – it’s a far better bet.

Also seen on TV: Channel 4 is dead to me since it cancelled 'Brookside' and prostrated itself at the alter of cheap, horrible reality TV but it can still find the odd decent comedy when it makes the effort. 'Peep Show' and 'The IT crowd' remain unmissable (although the laugh-ratio in the latter can vary extraordinarily from episode to episode) and new to that list comes Plus One, a series which has sprung from a collection of comedy pilots C4 aired last year. 'Plus One' is the bizarre story of a bloke whose girlfriend leaves him and then get engaged to Duncan James from the boyband Blue. She invites her ex to the wedding...with the invite stating 'plus one'. The series, just five episodes, will see our cuckolded hero battling to find someone appropriate asnd dazzling he can take to the wedding. Episode one got off to a great start with the surrealism of 'Peep Show' welded to the bizarre situations of 'The IT Crowd'. Plenty of earthy swearing, a good supporting cast (good to see Steve John Shepherd from the classic 'This Life' back on TV) and some genuine laffs. One to watch. Over on BBC1, an extraordinary wildlife two-parter entitled 'Swarm'; I don't usually watch stuff like this (creepy crawlies, yeurgh) but the second episode was astonishing stuff, demonstrating the amazing and uncanny ways birds, animals and insects communicate and 'swarm' to find new homes and new food supplies. The sequences with the wildebeest and zebra crossing the river was just incredible and my hat is off to the cameramen who manage to capture such mind-blowing footage.

Finally, sad to hear of the death of actor John Scott Martin who passed away on January 6th. Not exactly a household name John remains a legend to longtime 'Dr Who' fans as one of the operators of the Daleks throughout twenty-odd years of the TV series. John also appeared on screen in other episodes and found himself jammed into all sorts of uncomfortable plastic costumes over the years, suffering in the name of his art. John was most recently seen as the befuddled Grandad in Russell T Davies's ITV comedy-drama 'Mine All Mine' a few years back.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Christmas Week UK TV Charts - The Top 20 w/e 28/12/08

A busy week for chart-collaters BARB with figures for Christmas week in the UK just published on their site. I've broken these down into the Top 20 Tv programmes of the week (see previous post) and remember that shows marked * represent average figures for multi-episode shows (generally soaps)... Interesting figures...

1 Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death (BBC1)....16.15
2 Dr Who: The Next Doctor (BBC1).................13.10
3 The Royle Family: The New Sofa (BBC1)............10.60
4 EastEnders (BBC1).............................9.64 *
5 Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special (BBC1)...9.46
6 Coronation Street (ITV1).......................8.61 *
7 The 39 Steps (BBC1)............................7.73
8 Have I Got News For You (BBc1)..................7.65
9 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)......................7.57
10 Film: Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
11 My Family (BBC1)..........................7.31
12 Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special (BBC1).......7.19
13 The Queen's Christmas Speech (BBC1)............6.97
14 Film: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
15 Top Gear Vietnam Special (BBC2)..................6.70
16 Film: Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and
the Wardrobe (BBC1)..................................6.55
17 Harry Hill's TV Burp Review of the Year (ITV1)...6.45
18 Casualty (BBC1).................................6.38
19 Shrek the Halls (BBC1)..........................6.32
20 National Lottery: In It To Win It (BBC1).........6.03

Chart chat comment will be added later!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

NEW STUFF for 2009 - the UK TV Top 20....every week!!

I've always been a bit of a fan of charts. Even now, in these crazy download days, I still have a residual interest in the UK Top 40 'singles' chart and, whilst I don't exactly hang on Reggie and Fearne's every word of a Sunday afternoon on "the Nation's favourite" I usually track down the Top 40 Singles and Albums Chart on Sunday night just to see what's going up and what's going down and which charisma-free ex-karaoke singer spewed out by flathead Simon Cowell is clinging on to the 'top' spot this week. Ahem.

Similarly with the TV charts. I check the BARB site (BARB collates all the TV ratings information and updates its chart for two weeks previously every Wednesday, these figures including what's known as 'timeshift' figures, ie people who have recorded a show and watched it later, added to the raw overnight data produced the morning after broadcast). The chart, which is collated by monitoring and keeping a record of programmes watched by a broad, demographically-balanced selection of people across the UK, is used to estimate the numbers of viewers of any given show by extrapolating from the sample figures how and what the whole British public is likely to have watched. Of course like any chart of this kind it can't be entirely accurate but it's probably as fair a snapshot as we're ever going to be able to get as to the nation's viewing habits.

BARB's chart, for those unfamiliar with it, is usually broken down into the figures for each individual channel and there's never a Top 20 chart combining all these figures. Not to suggest that I have too much spare time on my hands (!) but I have been known to sift through BARB's figures and, purely for my own interest (and sometimes for the interest of visitors to 'The Dr Who Forum' where there's a lively thread in their TV section TV ratings and viewing trends....God, this sounds a bit lame...!) collate a Top 20 of TV programmes for the most recent week reported by BARB. I've decided to resurrect the idea and post it as a regular weekly feature here on the World of Stuff just because I think it's interesting (so there) and maybe some of you will too.


Here's how it works because I like it this way. BARB's chart records the individual episode figures of every edition of every programme. Hence, inevitably, the BBC and ITV charts are dominated by endless episodes of EastEnders, Coronation Street and the one vaguely set on the farm. That's a bit dull, frankly. My preferred chart includes figures for multiple-episode shows averaged out (ie totalling the figures for each episode and then dividng by the number of episodes screened: e.g add together the figures for, say, six episodes of Coronation Street shown during the week and divide that total; by six to give an average figure for the viewers of the entire week's output of the show). The idea is to compile a chart which demonstrates the most popular TV shows, rather than TV episodes. There's a subtle distinction and it works for me! As far as the talent/reality shows are concerned, where there's a regular show and a 'finale' show or a second show or 'catch'up' (or however these damned shows work) in the same night, that counts as two editions of the same programme for the purposes of my chart. News broadcasts are omitted because they're so frequent and rarely rate highly enought to be likely to creep into the chart.

So that's how it works. I'll be highlighting 'multiple episode' shows by the simple expedient of *. Are you with me so far? Let's begin with the most current available figures, for the week ending December 21st, 2008 (BARB's figure run from Monday - Sunday). So here's the UK's most popular television programmes for the week before Christmas...

1 Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1)..............12.50 *
2 Coronation Street (ITV1)...............9.58 *
3 EastEnders (BBC1)...............8.75 *
4 National Lottery (Saturday) (BBC1)..........7.82
5 Royal Variety Performance (BBC1)..........7.75
6 Casualty (BBC1)..............7.34 *
7 Emmerdale (ITV1)..............7.02 *
8 Outnumbered (BBC1)..............6.87
9 Lark Rise to Candleford (BBC1)..............6.58
10 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)..............6.32
11 Taggart (ITV1)..............6.18
12 Clash of the Santas (ITV1)..............6.11
13 Out-take TV (BBC1)..............6.02
14 Holby City (BBC1)..............5.65
15 Survivors (BBC1)..............5.62
16 The One Show (BBC1)..............5.26 *
17) The Bill (ITV1)..............5.22 *
17) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)..............5.22
19 All Star Mr and Mrs (ITV1)..............5.04
20 The Royal (ITV1)..............4.96

Chart comment: Interesting to see BBC1 dominating the chart these days with a broad range of programming, claiming 13 of the Top 20 slots. The final of 'Strictly' inevitably topped the figures for the week with the soaps claiming their usual 8 - 9 million viewers (but some distance away from the 12 million plus the Big Two used to reach even a year or so ago). The 'Strictly' finale helped the penultimate episode of the second series of the superb BBC1 comedy 'Outnumbered' double its usual figures and hopefully will alone be enough to secure a well-deserved third series. The first Christmas shows appear in the chart - BBC1's 'Lark Rise' (a Christmas special and the first in a new series) and ITV's saccharine-sweet 'Clash of the Santas' - both of which pulled in decent figures and proved there's still an audience out there for the right kind of non-soap drams. BBC1's 'Survivors' is still doing well with over 5.5 million...a decent figure considering the poor 3 million figures posted by other new high profile drama launches on both ITV1 and BBC1 this year. Shame the finale episode was a bit lost in the pre-Christmas rush, being screened on December 23rd and, with an overnight of around 4 million, unlikely to feature in next week's chart (unless there's a huge timeshift). Still, the second series is already in the bag. Finally, the BBC's 'The One Show' is doing remarkably well these days, steadily gaining ground on the ailing farm soap 'Emmerdale' The smart money is on 'The One Show' closing the gap considerably when it returns from its Christmas break.

Any comments about the new TV Chart feature will be very much appreciated. Are you interested in this sort of stuff? Anything you want to comment about the chart and what's in it? Post a comment, you know what to do!

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Digging out a Dr Who classic: Excavating 'Tomb of the Cybermen'...

With the Cybermen back on TV in the Christmas ‘Dr Who’ adventure and stomping about the Royal Albert Hall in the brilliant ‘Dr Who Prom’ on New Year’s Day, I felt in the mood to do a bit of time-travelling of my own and remind myself of the glittering heritage of these silver giants, first introduced to the series as the first real rival to the Daleks, way back in 1966 in William Hartnell’s final story ‘The Tenth Planet’. So I dug out my DVD of the 1967 Patrick Troughton story ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ and, whilst not really intending to compare and contrast, decided to try and pinpoint exactly what it is (or was) that makes (or made) the Cybermen the number two on the Doctor’s most-dreaded list…

I freely admit that I haven’t really watched much ‘classic’ ‘Dr Who’ in the last few years. The consistent high quality and stellar production values of the 21st century version has made going back and watching the creaky, cardboard and tinsel episodes from the 1960s and 1970s an ever more painful experience and, in all honesty, much of the 1980s stuff remains as unwatchable now as it was then for entirely different reasons. But watching ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ again, two episodes at a time, has actually been a bit of a revelation. It’s been a bit cathartic. It’s also stopped me being so damned sniffy about a show which, even in the 1960s, was still just about the best show on TV – and episodes like ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ demonstrate just why.

Let’s get the silly stuff out of the way first. Yes, ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ looks seriously cheap; its entire budget probably wouldn’t cover David Tennant’s hair-gel allowance for one episode of the new series. As was the series preference at the time, the ‘money’ (such as it was) was spent on a couple of big centrepiece sets where most of the action would take place over four weeks. The sets here are fairly pitiful things; the ‘hallway’ to the actual ‘tomb’ is your fairly basic BBC 1960s studio with a few free-standing consoles (all those big flapping levers!)and tubes and a raised dais hatchway which opens fairly unconvincingly and leads the characters down into the tomb, itself comprising a few walls, computer terminals and bits of fake snow meant to represent the sub-zero environment of the tomb. By today’s standards it’s all pretty laughable. ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ is set in the far future but it’s all looking distinctly low-tech in a very 1960s style. And it’s all so wooden (and I don’t mean the acting). The great formidable entrance doors to the tomb itself are yanked open with the grating sound of cheap plywood dragging across a studio floor; at one point the Cyberleader is imprisoned in a steel revitalisation unit which he later bursts out of with all the grace of a man quite literally tearing his way out of a cardboard box. The Cybermen themselves, hidden in their admittedly-impressive ‘tomb’ (and there seems to be an army of about seven Cybermen hidden in this massive underground ice chamber) burst out of thin sellophane before going on their rampage and the unfortunate giant Cyberleader, freed from his years of frozen slumber, is revealed to be crouching there like a man who’s had the toilet stolen from under his…er…nose. Elsewhere guns whoosh and pop out of sync with their dubbed sound effects, fight scenes are gracelessly mounted (there’s no attempt made at all to hide the thick Kirby wire which lifts poor Toberman into the air as he’s hoisted aloft by the Cyberleader during their first struggle) and the cybermats (a nice idea and obviously the forerunner of the Cybershades from 'The Next Doctor' but, frankly, rather more impressive) look like clockwork mice with particularly big comedy eyes.

And yet…and yet.and yet two things conspire to make ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ somehow more than just a great piece of old telly. Patrick Troughton and the Cybermen. If you’ve seen Troughton in one of his criminally-few episodes left in the BBC Archives you’ll know what a great performer he was as the Doctor, imbuing the character with a deceptively-impish charm, a knowing guile which generally confounded his enemies who just thought he was a bit of a buffoon. It’s all here in ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’; he stumbles and bumbles about the place, part-clown part-incompetent and yet he’s always in control, he always knows what’s going on and, inevitably, no-one ever pays him much attention until it’s too late and people start dying. Troughton’s teamed up here with his classic companion pairing of Jamie the feisty Scot (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) in her first trip in the TARDIS. Victoria is practically the stereotype of the screeching girl companion of the 1960s, light years away from the wild and independent real people characters of Rose, Martha and Donna from the new series. Yet despite all the screeching and panicking, Victoria still displays a bit of gumption here and there and is more than capable of sticking up for herself against some gun-toting murderous logician.

And the Cybermen. Ah, yes, the Cybermen; that’s why we’re here, that’s why I’ve revisited this particular story. The reasons why Russell T Davies and his team gave their series a different sort of Cyberman with a different sort of backstory, have been chronicled again and again over the last few years. The new Cybermen are huge and militaristic, stamnping about clanking and hissing and muttering their ‘Delete’ catchphrase in their gently-modulated voices. They’re an impressive bunch and they’re as cool as Hell. But they don’t hold a candle to this lot, they really don’t. The Cybermen here, subtly updated from their earlier appearances, really depict the essence of the creatures as originally envisaged. These are people, humanoids, thinking beings who, for various reasons, have had to abandon their ‘humanity’ and transfer themselves into powerful robotic machines. They’ve exchanged fragile flesh and bone and blood for near-indestructible, indefatigable cybernetic limbs and organs – whereas the new Cybermen are just brains transplanted into machine bodies. The 1960s Cybermen, particularly in ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, really come across as people who have surrendered their humanity. They don’t move with the style and grace of their modern counterparts but it’s all there in those emotionless, unchanging faces, the mouth-flap which drops open during speech, the clipped, buzzing, monotone voices; they sound like malfunctioning machines as they chase after the humans who have invaded their tomb, buzzing animatedly and furiously. The ‘electric shock’ treatment they dish out to their victims may not have the flash of the 21st century variant – depicted here as a crudely-imposed electic charge crackling between Cyberman and victim – and yet it seems entirely in keeping with the slightly clumsy, proto-technology feeling that the Cybermen have at this point. It’s almost as if they’re being portrayed as ‘work in progress’, a species which has taken a drastic and dehumanising step without really quite having the technology to pull it off properly. Basically, here the Cybermen look like aliens, we can see their strength, their cold and icy logic (excuse the pun) and their ruthlessness and devotion to their one cause – turning people into Cybermen for the sake of their race and their future.

‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ was missing from the BBC archives for years due to the Corporation’s bizarre 1970s policy of ‘junking’ (ie wiping) old tapes for reuse in the mistaken assumption the episodes recorded would never be of any further use to them. Tapes of ‘Tomb’ resurfaced years ago and the story was hastily released onto VHS where it was met by a wall of ‘erring’ and ’ahh, well…’ from the fans who’d always held it out to be a ‘Dr Who’ masterpiece based on a few black-and-white stills. Perhaps we were all looking at it from the wrong perspective, focussing on its visual shortcomings rather than the things which really made it work. Viewed now, randomly, and away from the white heat of 1992 expectation, and with the new Cybermen well-established, it’s possible to go back and see the strengths underneath the cheap visual exterior. Yes, some of the acting’s a bit wobbly (the pilot of the spaceship banging on about “the rocket” may look like Andy Patridge out of XTC but he gets my vote as one of the worst actors ever seen in the series) and the baddies are a bit pantomime (George Roubicek and Shirkey Cooklin chewing up the thin scenery as Klieg and Kaftan) but it’s Troughton’s charming, captivating performance and the raw power and eerie threat of the Cybermen that keeps the whole thing going and makes it actually rather compelling.

If you’ve not seen ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ for a while – or, indeed, ever – it’s worth taking a look as it really is quite a lot better than its more recent reputation might suggest.

SOON: Demons…Hustle series five…the Bill…and a film you must not miss!!!

A new last! The new Dr Who: first impressions...

So here we go. In typical bravura high publicity fashion (and not stealing the thunder from ITV's new Saturday night fantasy show Demons, oh no..) the BBC, in a special edition of the documentary series 'Doctor Who Confidential', have just ended months of increasingly-tedious and eye-rolling media and fan speculation about the identity of the eleventh Doctor. It's been an amusing few months since David Tennant confirmed he was "handing over the keys of the TARDIS" (phrase copyright the entire UK media) and the usual suspects have been trotted out as obvious replacements - Robert Carlyle, James Nesbitt, David Morrissey - and even though the role has been played by proper actors since the series returned in 2005, some dafty tabloids have still been banging on about Dawn French and Gordon Ramsey and, in reality, any other minor celeb they happened to have an unpublished picture of laying around the office. Even the most 'respected' (if over-hysterical) Dr Who fan forum (the one which also posted confirmation from, oooh, such a reliable source, a few months ago, that David Tennant had definately agreed to stay on for the fifth season and hey, maybe even the sixth!) recently allowed one of its members to announce with absolute certainty that they'd been informed by an impeccable source that actor Chiwetel Ejiofor had agreed to take the role just before Christmas. Fact. Wait and see. Meanwhile, Paterson Joseph from 'Survivors' was also the obvious choice. Apparently. The moral of the story, of course, is take everything you read on even the most enthusiastic amateur fan site as at best fanciful guesswork, at worst downright lies. Because the new Dr Who is this bloke...

Matt Smith, 26, is the youngest actor ever to have taken on the most iconic role on television . Who hell he? I admit I'm not hugely familiar with the name (full potted biogs are undoubtedely already popping up all over the internet so you don't need Stuff to regurgitate his life-story for you right now) - although it's cropped up a bit the last few weeks and even last night, having seen his name bandied about on another forum, I googled him and had a look. Interesting face, maybe a bit young though... But what do I know? Having seen tonight's 'Confidential' I'm quietly optimistic. I recall his performances in the Billie Piper/Sally Lockhart mysteries and being impressed by him and the clips shown on 'Confidential' tonight, and his interview soundbites, suggest a broad, lively, mercurial actor who, as new show runner Steven Moffatt says, manages the feat of looking simultaneously old and young. The series is clearly keen not to lose the 'young' demographic it's nabbed with Tennant and there are some superificial similarities, although on first sight Tennant seems the 'prettier' of the two. But Smith looks like he might have an indie boy charm and may drag in a few angsty teens and early twenties who, despite Tennant's geek appeal, might have felt a bit uncomfortable about watching a sci-fi show the rest of the family loves.

In restrospect, it was never really going to be someone like Joseph or Ejiofor or Dawn French - although there's really no creative or narrative reason why it couldn't have been. But Moffatt is a fan of the old school, he's a traditionalist (and no matter how iconoclastic his stories for the series have been so far, they're been shot right through with the absolute essence of what the series is all about). It was always going to be someone male, white, odd-looking and probably quite young. Smith's clearly a good, quirky actor - but so much depends on his choices in playing the role and the scripts he's got to work with. He's got his work cut out following David Tennant, who has not only made the role his own but made it everyone's (if you see what I mean) and I just hope Smith will be given a chance and not dismissed out of hand. But somehow I don't think 'Dr Who' attracts viewers who are so shallow and undiscriminating. Smith begins work on his first series in June and we'll have to wait over a year to see him debut properly. I can't wait to see what he makes of it and I wish him all the very best as he embarks on an exciting new chapter of his life in a role which will stay with him forever and as 'Dr Who' itself enters a new and challenging phase as it remains the best damned TV show on the box.

So...what do you think of the choice of actor for the new Doctor? Any hopes or fears? Post a comment, let me know what you think!

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Dr Who Book Review: Beautiful Chaos by Gary Russell


Since ‘Dr Who’ returned to British TV screens in 2005, BBC Books have scored a notable success with their new run of chunky, pocket-sized hardback adventure novels written in the zesty style of the regenerated TV series. Gone are the angst and hard SF of the ‘old’ cumbersome BBC paperbacks which took the series – and the character – off into previously-uncharted territory as adult writers strove to make a family character into something he was never really intended to be. The new series of books, generally running to a manageable 235 pages, are aimed at a lower age range and yet are still able to tell witty, exciting stories which it’s perfectly possible to imagine as part of the TV series they’re inspired by – which is more than can be said for the most of the impenetrable novels published prior to 2005. I’ve dipped into the new series of books now and again – they tend to be released in batches of three and there’s usually at least one which captures my attention (and these books are so successful they even feature in the Top Ten weekly best-seller lists now and again, how mad is that?). The latest three titles include The Eyeless, a space adventure which sees the Doctor travelling alone post-Donna, The Story of Martha, an intriguing anthology of short stories filling in the events of Martha’s ‘missing year’ between the third series TV episodes ‘The Sound of Drums’ and ‘The Last of the Time Lords’ and Beautiful Chaos, a modern day Earth story featuring Donna Noble and her family. Written by long-time fan and series script editor Gary Russell, this is the new title which has most recently caught my eye and helped me pass a pleasant few hours in that odd dead-zone period between Christmas and the New Year.

Having risen up through the ranks of 1980s/1990s ‘Dr Who’ fandom, becoming one of the driving forces behind the popular ‘Big Finish’ range of original full-cast audio recordings and by now becoming script editor on the series itself, it’s fair to say that Gary Russell knows his Who. As part of the current production team he knows exactly how the current/recent cast should sound and behave and in ‘Beautiful Chaos’ he’s written dialogue which you can almost hear the actors speaking. From a poignant opening sequence set post-‘Journey’s End’ we recall an ‘unseen’ Doctor and Donna adventure where Donna returns home on the anniversary of the death her father, ideally to spend some quality time with her Grandad Wilf (so brilliantly portrayed on screen by Bernard Cribbins) and spiky Mum Sylvia (Jacqueline King on TV). The Doctor, left to his own devices whilst all this family rebonding is going on, soon stumbles on a mystery…and the Doctor loves a mystery. There’s a new computer whizzkid in town, one Dara Morgan (think about it…) and in the space of a few short months he’s moved himself into a prime position in the world’s computer software market. His latest gadget, a brand new whizzbang MP3 player-type device, is about to be introduced to a breathless population. Meanwhile something very strange is happening to a group of random people with a very special Italian connection…and there’s an evil, twisted face in the sky…

‘Beautiful Chaos’ is a rattling old yarn, scarcely pausing to draw breath from its first page. I tend to be of the view that ‘Dr Who’ works best when it’s on Earth, telling stories about real identifiable people in real identifiable places. Russell’s story is set now, today (or tomorrow?) in and around Chiswick, home of super-temp Donna Noble, and areas of London the author seems to know quite well. It’s a story about today, as well; global computer networks, technology used as a weapon and real 21st century people dealing with real 21st century lives. Russell creates some interesting new characters but his heart is clearly with the Noble family and there are pages devoted to the frosty Donna/Sylvia relationship in dialogue which sharply and beautifully evokes the relationship as depicted on screen. The book picks up on some ideas barely touched on in the series – the death of Donna’s father Geoff (Howard Attfield, who played the character on TV, died during the production of series four which necessitated some swift rewrites and recasting to bring Bernard Cribbins back into the mix) is the catalyst for the story and for a studied exploration of the fractured nature of the Noble family relationships. There are times when Russell almost seems too interested in this and the story occasionally sidetracks for another snipey conversation between Donna and Sylvia but with dialogue as real and heartfelt as they’re given here, adding a depth to the relationship the TV episodes could only display in TV shorthand, it’s hard to complain too much. More interesting still is the development given to Grandad Wilf Mott; here he has a sort-of girlfriend, a fellow astronomer named Netty who, tragically, is suffering the early stages of Alzheimers. Russell builds up a sweet, sympathetic relationship between the two pensioners and whilst it becomes fairly obvious about halfway through the book that, in story about mental and physical possession by an alien entity, Netty’s condition is going to be fairly central to the resolution, the bond between Wilf and Netty is nicely developed and, like the best of the new TV series, even brings a little tear to the eye on occasion. Or maybe that’s just me being a Great Big Softy?

The Doctor, as portrayed by David Tennant, is a tough one to get down on paper. The whole power of the character on TV is captured by the fire of Tennant’s energised, manic performances, his rapid speech patterns, his mercurial quickfire wit and the fact that he seems to be almost always on the move. This is hard to translate into prose but Russell does his best. For the first third or so of the book Tennant’s character comes and goes – there are times when this is a generic Doctor, saying Doctory things without always sounding like Tennant saying Doctory things. But as the plot ramps up a notch and moves into high gear this is the tenth Doctor through and through, dexterously verbally and physically outwitting his opponents and remaining one step ahead when it looks to all and sundry as if he’s really several steps behind.

As a lifelong fan of ‘Dr Who’ it’s obviously too great a temptation to resist for Russell and his snappy, eminently readable text is peppered with dozens of references to the ‘Dr Who’ canon – some of it about as obscure and arcane as it might be possible to imagine. ‘The Fishmen of Kandalinga’ indeed!! But Russell balances it well – there are plenty of references to recently-screened TV adventures and a few discreet references to older TV adventures and even stories from non-TV novelisations and comic strips, none of which are particularly troublesome as to newer fans they’re just references to things they don’t know about and they’re a nice little wink for people like me who know far, far too much about this stuff. The whole story, of course, is a sequel to a 1976 TV four-parter starring Tom Baker….and that’s as much as I’m saying for the sake of the spoiler-sensitive.

Some of the early books in the new ‘Dr Who’ range have been a little bit simplistic, kid’s stories without a lot to engage an adult audience. Russell has ramped things up a notch here with a string of contemporary/post-modern references and even the potentially-troubling constant reuse of a very mild swear word (but then it’s one the TV show has used a couple of times in the last few years without causing a lot of fuss so I daresay it’ll go largely unremarked here). Beautiful Chaos is a lot of fun, a book which, with no disrespect to its audience, is a good, page-turning easy read. If, like me, you’re already missing the dynamic between the Doctor and Donna you won’t be able to resist this one (last?) fix of one of the best pairings in the show’s history and if the ‘Dr Who’ Christmas episode has left you yearning for a bit more of the show’s very special brand of magic and adventure, Beautiful Chaos is probably the best way to satisfy your craving until we land on the ‘Planet of the Dead’ around Easter.