Monday, 30 December 2019

The big TV costume dramas for 2020

"Belgravia" -- from the Julian Fellowes stable -- and of course unutterably posh.......

Here is a list of the 44 big TV dramas which we can expect in 2020:

Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) seems to be involved in far too many of them  -- spinoffs from the plush series which he wrote in order to satisfy the global obsession with British upper-class nostalgia.   Actually, he has the ideas and lends his name to things nowadays, and the bulk of the research and writing is done by his writing teams.......

Anyway, there are many good things to look forward to -- but nothing, as far as I can see, from Wales.

Highlights -- a remake of "All Creatures Great and Small", "Around the World in 80 Days", "Father Brown",  "Leonardo" (featuring Aidan Turner, looking as if he has just walked off a Poldark set), "The Luminaries" (set in New Zealand), "The North Water", and season 4 of "Victoria."  I'm looking forward to a second season of "World on Fire."

What does Gavin and Stacey say about Wales?

In Wales Arts Review, Gary Raymond doesn't have anything kind to say about the Christmas "special" featuring Gavin and Stacey and the rest of the gang.  I think he's being rather unkind -- after all, this was intended to be a family viewing programme at peak Christmas viewing time, and on that basis it hit the spot.  OK -- there was no character development, and there was nothing particularly adventurous in the script, and everybody behaved exactly as predicted, but there is a certain pleasure to be had in rediscovering old friends, and finding that they haven't changed one little bit.  And for some viewers, these characters would have been new and fresh....... so the writers and the actors delivered exactly what the BBC wanted.

Where I do agree with Gary, it's on the matter of the portrayal of Wales.  Quote:  Team Wales is a nebulous secret society that works out of the old underground Torchwood set in Cardiff Bay, and its main purpose is to pretend Wales is a global superpower. It doesn’t matter to Team Wales that the success of Gavin and Stacey, at least in part, has always been in the portrayal of Welsh people as simpletons.   Does "Team Wales" (made up of the top BBC brass and members of the political / cultural establishment in Cardiff) really believe that Wales is hugely influential in the world of TV drama?  Yes, maybe, if its own media hype is to be believed.   Does Team Wales conspire to portray Wales as a land of simpletons and clowns (and Celtic noir misery fests)?  I doubt that -- but it doesn't exactly work very hard at disabusing those who think that the Welsh TV industry is lacking in both imagination and commitment and that it is excruciatingly risk-averse........



Gary Raymond finds a surprisingly low-key come-back in the Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special.

The overnight figures are in, and 11.5 million people cannot possibly be wrong. The Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special has its place in history, doing something most TV execs had thought was a thing of the past, or even a myth handed down from tribal elders, harking to stories of times when families would gather around the television after the turkey was ransacked and the sherry cork was popped. But apparently there is still room in the hearts of the British public for the unifying TV festive special, something the generations who grew up with helpings of …Fools and Horses and Morecambe and Wise took for granted. Gavin and Stacey has managed to do something politicians have pretended to want to do all year, and that’s bring the country together.

Of course, this is only really true if you consider the country to be only 11.5 million people full. But the will/love of the people is something to be claimed rather than proved. Nobody needs everyone in order to profess unity. And so the BBC are very happy with the impressive stat, the best Christmas Day viewing figures for a single show in a decade. Another entity that is equally as happy, but one certainly less tangible, is that of Team Wales. Team Wales is a nebulous secret society that works out of the old underground Torchwood set in Cardiff Bay, and its main purpose is to pretend Wales is a global superpower. It doesn’t matter to Team Wales that the success of Gavin and Stacey, at least in part, has always been in the portrayal of Welsh people as simpletons. The exception, of course, is writer Ruth Jones’s now iconic character of Nessie, to many a sharp-tongued no-nonsense modern woman who knows how to get what she wants, but who is in actual fact just an updated version of the Welsh slag found in the slanderous Blue Books of the nineteenth century. Stacey herself is little more than an airhead, a glassy-eyed Barry Island cardboard cutout. Other Welsh characters don’t quite have that same depth. One saving grace is that the creators of Gavin and Stacey have always seemed to have the same affectionate contempt for cockneys as they do for the Welsh.

Here we have the same old faces back in their spots, almost entirely unmoved as characters, apart from some unavoidable children added to the mix who seem here like the inconvenient result of earlier plot points. But other than that Gavin and Stacey has no interest in trying out anything new. Not a step is made to trace outside the lines. And that may be why it is ultimately such a damp squib. No great cameos, no great set pieces, no outrageous heights, and no heart-wrenching lows. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever that is special about this Special.

It is strange that a show as hotly anticipated by an army of people still cawing “Wasss Occurring?” to each other all these years later, is such a disappointment. There was genuine excitement about its return, and some of the main figures involved in the show have now gone on to much bigger things off the back of it. Ruth Jones herself has become something of a matriarch of Welsh comedy, one of those celebrities who if Wales could give people a key to the country would have had it by now. Rob Brydon is a ubiquitous light entertainment presence, and is undoubtedly one of the few people in that current televisual landscape who never outstays his welcome. James Corden, of course, has conquered America and now does carpool Karaoke with the likes of Michelle Obama. (It is notable that Corden, hitherto one of the most obnoxious faces on television, gives a subtle, understated, and quite sweet performance in this Christmas special).

In fact the two who have really failed to use Gavin and Stacey as a springboard to greater things are the eponymous lovers. Hardly surprising, given the startling lack of charisma in both roles, and here their story is the least interesting. The spark has gone out of their marriage, as it has for much of the rest of the show. There are a few cracking lines (the towels like Ryvita, for instance), and the last thirty seconds have some heart, but as a climax to a show that’s been gone for so long, it’s hardly the fireworks a fan might have hoped for.

The Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special is, overall, decidedly undercooked. There is a moment when we think we might finally find out what happened on that fishing trip between Bryn and Jason, but the confession is scuppered by nagging kids. But the sad thing is, we don’t care anyway. Elsewhere, as the show continues its peculiarly dated relationship with queer issues, Bryn and Nessa duet at Karaoke on “Fairytale of New York”. In a wink at subversiveness, Bryn, of whom it has been constantly insinuated is a closet homosexual since episode one all those years ago, is given the “faggot” line to sing, originally Kirsty MacColl’s lyric. It is a strange moment, when it seems the show’s creators are trying to say something, but what it is remains unclear. Is it about Bryn? Is it about censorship? Is it about language? Is it about working class attitudes to LGBTQ issues? Whatever it is, it is half-hearted, half-baked, and the message, water it might be, is lost. The vultures of Twitter have given the show a good pecking around this subject, and they have a point. But rather than homophobic, the moment feels symptomatic of a show that has come from a place of lukewarm enthusiasm for the project as a whole. It has no new ideas, nothing new to say about the characters. That is partly because the characters were flimsy to begin with, but perhaps it also has something to do with Team Wales’s greatest failing, and that’s a problem with shouting out that our emperors are sometimes in the buff.

BBC -- to what extent is it rooted in the Welsh landscape?

Gavin and Stacey -- the BBC's most-watched Christmas show of 2019.  Very jolly, 
and thoroughly entertaining -- and set in Wales -- but where is the 
BBC Wales commitment to sell Wales to the world?

This is an interesting review of the BBC Writers Room Festival, held this year in Cardiff.  As the review points out, there was much emphasis on Welsh writers and on TV productions (like "His Dark Materials") made in Wales -- and that's something we should all be happy about.  

Quote:  The day was certainly a testimony to Welsh presence in the media. Half of the parallel panels had a Welsh focus, and even those events with a less local flavour testified to the BBC’s current effort to root itself in the Welsh landscape.

Quote:  Less present in the discussion was the question of what representations of Welshness are perpetuated on screen........

Sadly, not much has changed over the past few years -- Wales now has a substantial TV industry, but the BBC in Wales is still open to the charge that it promotes Wales as a great place for the telling of other people's stories -- and does relatively little to "represent Welshness" on the screen, or to sell the Welsh narrative to the world.  Cash constraints may have something to do with this, but as I have said many times before on this blog, this deficiency must be addressed at a POLITICAL level as well as at the level of BBC Wales strategy formulation.



Marine Furet reports from a day of discussion on industry and craft at the BBC Writersroom Festival in Cardiff.

The air is still buzzing from a keynote given by Russel T. Davies. In the entrance hall of the National Museum of Wales, experienced showrunners, budding screenwriters, and busy executive producers are rubbing elbows under Dippy the Dinosaur’s tail, desperately trying to get through their cup of scalding tea in time to attend the day’s next showstopper, a plenary panel given by the creative team behind His Dark Materials. Everyone is a playwright with a business card at the ready. Congratulations, you have made it to the 2019 edition of the BBC Writersroom Festival.

The BBC Writersroom is a redub of the TV Writer’s Festival. First created in 2010; the event has gradually expanded to include comedy and, this year, radio drama. The Festival is an invaluable hub for anyone wishing to meet industry leaders and gatekeepers while garnering advice from some of the BBC’s most successful writers. It is also an opportunity to showcase some of the BBC’s new writing talents. Last but not least, it is a TV and radio geek’s paradise. This year’s events included a flurry of prestigious names and newcomers. This was the festival’s first stop in Wales, and at a time of expansion in the Welsh arts and media scene, the event undeniably had a lot of questions to answer. The first, and foremost, is perhaps to know whether we are now to expect a more diverse cultural landscape.

The day was certainly a testimony to Welsh presence in the media. Half of the parallel panels had a Welsh focus, and even those events with a less local flavour testified to the BBC’s current effort to root itself in the Welsh landscape. In addition to including some guest-talks by revered Welsh figures, such as Russel T. Davies (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Queer as Folk), Rhiwbina-born Andrew Davies (House of Cards, Pride and Prejudice, Les Misérables), Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon (Gavin & Stacey), the programme put the spotlight on a number of Wales-engineered production successes. One of the first was evidently His Dark Materials, the BBC’s current hit adaption in collaboration with HBO, produced by Cardiff-based Bad Wolf.

For an enthusing hour, Bad Wolf’s co-founder Jane Tranter, script editor Xandria Horton and production designer Joel Collins go through their creative process. It was hard not to feel some degree of excitement every time the trio casually referred to Philip (Pullman). We quickly got into the practical details of bringing a show of this amplitude to the screen from inception to end. Tranter emphasized the Britishness of His Dark Materials – a ‘complex, knotty, gnarly’ work – and the importance of a good, visual writing to bring the books’ universe to the screen. Tranter remarked that this often implied going in and out of each volume of the series, rather than reading them linearly, and occasionally embracing their gaps and inconsistencies. Joel Collins also brought fascinating insights, particularly about the role of design to crack open visual issues in the book and script. Mrs Coulter’s apartment, in particular, was fully brought to life in its full icy luxury. The set was a mix of Cardiff locations and London views, and employs Welsh skills and craft, partly thanks to a partnership between Bad Wolf and Wales’s Higher Education sector.

Tone was also of great concern – allegedly 46 drafts had to be binned before the show came to life – particularly for a show employing a huge team of creatives, and aimed at a public potentially unfamiliar with science fiction and genre drama. In Tranter’s words, His Dark Materials functioned not as a democracy, but definitely as a collaboration. The desire for authenticity of tone and for a univocal feel to a show strongly came through in another panel on writing multilingual drama, which featured Welsh writers Roger Williams (Bang) and Caryl Lewis (Craith/Hidden). Writing in Welsh and English with a team of writers comes with its own host of challenges: not only to ensure that all writers ‘get it’ and do not divert the show from its natural voice, but also to find the right balance between the shows’ idioms Both Bang and Craith allow for experiments with language and identity, and as Caryl Lewis observed, some ideas can feel different in English and Welsh. Less present in the discussion was the question of what representations of Welshness are perpetuated on screen: at a time when the National Theatre Wales, for example, has introduced Located residencies that question, among others, the role of migrant communities in constituting contemporary Wales, such discussion might have also proven a relevant addition to the day. This debate, however, is also determined by material considerations. For example, all present agreed on the difficulty to produce a show entirely in Welsh, particularly in view of the financial constraints involved in such an endeavor. Even despite the success of bilingual enterprises like Bang and Craith/Hidden, sourcing the necessary funds for a show in English and Welsh remains a challenge, and an all-Welsh screenplay risks being met with raised eyebrows.

Indeed, the financial implications of writing and producing were a recurrent topic throughout the day. In short, savviness to the funding market is a must, and multiple bids are needed to finance a single show. While His Dark Materials owes a great deal to Welsh locations, the involvement of international funding, a prestigious cast, and high production quality mean that the show balances both local and global scales. It is, as Jane Tranter put it, ‘a mighty amount of money’, which meant for example that the show’s pilot had to be ready for money to be secured. The same preoccupation weighed on BBC Drama commissioning editor Ben Irving, whose presentation was a reminder that good television is also a number-crunching game. The current scarcity of $$$ is of course the reality of all areas in the creative world. The academic in me could not help but shiver at the mention of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, one of the biggest funding organisms for higher education, during the panel on radio drama. However, the finance question is a particularly significant one for Wales, as the new concentration of production societies and artistic talents of all provenances in the nation can only be perennial if followed by an expanding funding pool.

From masterclasses delivered by industry giants to an exhibition fayre including BAFTA Cymru and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, the day was an opportunity to hear from some major figures of the television and film industry. In a context of increasing competition, the concerns of young authors in the audience were telling: the question of how to best pitch your writing is on everyone’s lips. Andrew Davies had the last word on this, encouraging writers to “stick up for [their] own ideas, producers and editors don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about” – much to the delight of said producers and editors, no doubt. Davies’s charisma and his knack for storytelling shone through even during a Q&A-style conversation, but insights on the craft of writing also came from less established players. On a panel dedicated to audio drama, writer Janina Mathewson (Within the Wires), writer and composer Timothy X Atack (Forest 404) and Welsh actor and filmmaker Darragh Mortell (I Am Kanye West) reflected on the intimacy of radio storytelling, and its connection to musical composition. With I Am Kanye West, a podcast fiction dedicated to the famous rapper, Darragh Mortell experimented with a mix of narration and sampling. Mortell’s suggestion that the audio drama sits halfway between the film and the novel was a good way to think about ways in which we consume radio both as an immersive and mobile medium. As an expanding form allowing for forays into narrative experimentations, the podcast genre has drawn much attention to itself in the last few years. With the development of new technologies, coupled with the BBC’s desire to address itself to younger and more diverse demographics, it will be interesting to see how radio drama develops into new and experimental shapes in the next few years.

Overall, the festival reflected the tensions and transformations currently changing the writing industry. In the last few years, Cardiff and Wales have increasingly claimed their own seat at the table, and the crowd in attendance on the day was a testament to the bustling creativity waiting to be tapped into by the industry. The BBC’s gradual turn towards new mediums and technologies, and its asserted desire to speak to new audiences may also be an opportunity for creative talents of all kinds in Wales and beyond. While a success of the scale of His Dark Materials should give us hope for the future of arts and media in Cardiff, the city’s growing creative scene must now rise to the challenge.