Thursday, 26 July 2012

Russell Crowe's Bill Hicks Biopic

This blog was first published in The Scotsman on 25th July 2012.

The news this week that actor Russell Crowe is to direct a biopic of the late American stand-up comedian, Bill Hicks, triggered within me the Pavlovian response that always greets such news: whatever the film's potential merits, it's highly likely that the scenes depicting the comedian performing his material will fall embarrassingly flat.

That's not because Hicks wasn't funny – far from it, at his best he was hilarious – but because few dramatic actors are capable of accurately capturing the unique timing and delivery of the comic persona they happen to be inhabiting.

Take, for instance, Dustin Hoffman in Bob Fosse's Lenny, who, despite skilfully mimicking the cadences of Lenny Bruce's speech patterns, singularly failed to emulate the soul of his material. That, after all, is a tough call for any actor, even one as deft as Hoffman, which is presumably why there have been relatively few big screen biopics of comedians over the years, certainly when compared to the amount that have been made about musicians.

It's easier to recapture the spirit of a great musician on film, if only because lip-syncing to original recordings at least allows an actor to hide behind – and crudely celebrate - the actual art of the person they're portraying. But without the safety net of miming, an actor playing a comedian needs to somehow channel their comic essence using dramatically trained bones. I don't envy them.

This is why musical tribute acts are ten-a-penny, and why comedy tribute acts are almost unheard of. You can close your eyes and fleetingly believe in the former, but if the latter deviates even slightly from the familiar, nuanced delivery of the original artist, then it sounds like a woefully off-key cover version. Where the best comedians are concerned, their material is so much a part of their own personal outlook, it sounds awkward and false when emanating from anybody else.

That's presumably why the only truly successful example, at least as far as I'm concerned, is Jim Carrey's performance as situationist genius Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's Man On The Moon. Carrey actually knows what it's like to perform comedy on stage, and that background must surely have informed his ability to recreate Kaufman's idiosyncratic routines and, crucially, make them funny.

So if Crowe has any sense – and interviews demonstrate that he at least has a sense of humour - then his best bet is to cast an actor, possibly an unknown, who has a strong understanding of the dynamics of stand-up comedy. Or Michael McIntyre, if he's available.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Curious Case Of Ricky Gervais

This bauble of thought was first published in The Scotsman on 19th July 2012.

NOTE: the following isn't intended as another article about a celebrity behaving like a prat on Twitter, because frankly who cares? But the car-crash antics of Ricky Gervais on the popular social networking site are so beyond the pale – yes, even in a world where Charlie Sheen exists – that they practically demand special attention.

In any case, they're symptomatic of a wider malaise within the confused mindset of the formerly chubby funster. Gervais isn't the first celebrity to let fame go to his head, but he's a fascinating example of someone who's obsessed with the trappings and pitfalls of celebrity, and yet who now fully embodies the very nightmare he once warned against.

I regard The Office as one of the greatest TV comedies of the last 20 years. Beautifully co-written, directed and performed by Gervais, it was an astute study of an embarrassing, needy, thin-skinned idiot who desperately craved affection, but who constantly caused offence due to his staggering lack of self-awareness. And yet here we are a decade later, where the line between David Brent and his creator is barely distinguishable.

Gervais spends most of his time on Twitter pompously instructing us on what we should and shouldn't be offended by, while obsessively deleting his more aggressive tweets and calling upon his vast army of sycophantic followers to shower abuse on anyone who dares criticise him. Perpetually on the defensive for crimes he's in the process of committing, he simply will not be challenged on anything.

You don't like his comedy? That's because you don't “get” it, and not because you think it's a load of poorly constructed rubbish with no consistent moral or logical centre. You're offended by his use of the word “mong”? That's because you haven't realised that it's no longer a derogatory term for someone with Down's Syndrome, despite an earlier stand-up routine about Susan Boyle proving that he clearly understands the specific connotations of the word.

The complex evolution of language and nuance of meaning are areas upon which Ricky Gervais is the sole arbiter, and woe betide anyone who disagrees. For someone who professes not to care what his critics think, he spends an awful lot of time getting upset over what his critics think.

Is it any coincidence that the heavily criticised “mong-gate” incident and catastrophic failure of Life's Too Short – in which he empowered the dwarf actor Warwick Davis by placing him in a toilet twice – was followed by Derek, a clumsily manipulative and overbearingly mawkish sitcom about a kind, gentle man with learning difficulties? But wait, hang on, he doesn't have learning difficulties at all, because Gervais says so. And what Gervais says is gospel. Not that he believes in gospel, given that he's an atheist who never tires of promoting his beliefs in the manner of a dim adolescent who believes he's blowing minds with every iconoclastic utterance.

Oh Ricky, what hast thou become?

TV PREVIEW: The Churchills, 4 Goes Mad, Head Case: Treat Yourself To Better Mental Health

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 21st July 2012.

Thursday, Channel 4, 8pm

Days and times vary, Channel 4

Friday, BBC2, 7pm
Paul Whitelaw

Let us ponder for a while upon the many moods of Channel 4. Firstly with THE CHURCHILLS, a new series in which loveable bigot David Starkey draws striking comparisons between Oor Winston and his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough.

Although largely forgotten today, the latter was also a great war leader, who led Britain against the dictatorial tyranny of Louis XIV of France, much as his heir would do against Hitler. And it was, Starkey argues, Churchill's immersion in his expansive biography of Marlborough, written over nearly ten years, that transformed him from a jobbing back-bencher into the almost Godlike statesman he became. 

As much as I abhor Starkey's attitudes, I can't deny that he's an engaging orator (mind you, they said the same about... nah, I won't bother) whose visual essays rarely drag. He has a knack for spinning gripping historical yarns, the factual rigour of which I'll leave for the experts to debate.
Yes, the usual accoutrements - the melodramatic score and crash-zooms, topped by Starkey's hammy delivery as he wanders around stately homes like a bewildered tourist – are all present, but I find them amusing in their absurdity. And his enthusiasm, bordering on lust, for his subject is never in doubt.

But it says a lot about the sorry state of Channel 4 in 2012 that a risible buffoon presenting a history show counts as heavyweight programming, at least compared to the “dude, where's my soul?” guff they mostly churn out.

Now, before I go on I should point out that, since preview copies weren't available, I haven't seen any of the programme in 4's mental health awareness season, 4 GOES MAD, and it's quite possible that some of them will be of merit. But let's just consider that title, shall we? Jaw-droppingly insensitive, is it not? But then what should we expect from a channel that – to take a random example from many - titles its supposedly sensitive series about physical disfigurement, Beauty and The Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice?

4 wasn't always this way, of course. Tell Young People today that it was once a fantastically varied channel that prided itself on its bravery, wit and originality, and they'd say, “Why are you telling me this? I'm not interested.” But the point still stands.

The existence of 4 Goes Mad is indicative of its sorry decline into cheap sensationalism, where even the most serious of subjects must be tarted up with comedians and entertainment formats. It would doubtless argue that, by employing such a glibly light-hearted title, they're merely removing the stigma surrounding mental illness by treating it with a refreshing lack of austerity. But that's not what it's doing at all. It's not being clever and ironic. It's not being boldly provocative. It's being what it always is – a corporation without a whiff of class that systematically belittles important issues while laughing at gypsies. I hate to evoke that tired old phrase, “dumbing down”, but 4 is so dumbed down now it makes a BBC3 documentary about vajazzling look like The Ascent of Man.

On the one hand, it's good that it's drawing attention to this subject in a decent timeslot, but giving it that title is a particularly cruel, disingenuous case of having one's cake and eating it. “Hey, look, we're fulfilling our remit to present programmes of social value, but... imagine being mad! That would literally be bonkers!”

At the horrifying risk of echoing A.A. Gill's tiresome “Tristram” conceit, I think of 4 as a single entity, specifically a clueless middle-class man in his thirties called Ben who frequently describes things as “genius” and who's never met anyone who isn't like him.

Ben is responsible for the crassly titled likes of Ruby Wax's Mad Confessions (Monday, 10pm), in which the comedian encourages people to talk openly about their mental health problems, Jon Richardson: A Little Bit OCD (Tuesday, 10pm) in which the comedian investigates obsessive compulsive disorder, World's Maddest Job Interview (Wednesday and Thursday, 10pm) in which The Apprentice attack-dog Claude Littner has to guess whether applicants are mentally unbalanced or not, and Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder: The Big Clear Out (Thursday, 9pm) in which a man empties his home for his own safety.

Again, these may be perfectly legitimate programmes in themselves, but the overall demeanour of 4 stinks to high heaven. And yes, it does still occasionally produce excellent programmes, but the snide, superficial identity it's carved for itself tends to overshadow its better work. And, admittedly, those insensitive titles aren't usually the fault of the programme-makers themselves. That's 4's fault. That's Ben's fault.

Even the usually reliable BBC Scotland have been tainted by his influence. They're showing a mental health awareness documentary this week too, but in a moment of, well, madness, they've named it HEAD CASE: TREAT YOURSELF TO BETTER MENTAL HEALTH. It's a shame, because it's a sensitive and valuable programme in which young people talk frankly about the mental health problems that afflict one in four UK residents. Relaying their experiences directly to camera, they provide ultimately hopeful accounts of depression, anxiety, anorexia, bi-polar disorder and addiction. But oh, that title.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Newsroom, Adam Buxton's Bug and Sinbad

This TV preview originally appeared in The Scotsman's Saturday magazine on 7th July 2012.

Tuesday, Sky Atlantic, 10pm

Monday, Sky Atlantic, 9:30pm

Sunday, Sky 1, 7pm

Paul Whitelaw

Another week, another raft of new offerings from Sky, whose steamrollering mission to claim every major US import together with every comedian formerly employed by the BBC continues unabated.

Their latest trumpet-blaring acquisition is THE NEWSROOM, written and created by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing renown. Despite being a television critic, and therefore automatically expected to kneel before the altar of Sorkin, I've never been a fan of his work. His signature writing style – that frenetic, mannered, pseudo-screwball dialogue – has always irked me with its self-consciousness and tacit self-regard, and his penchant for speechifying schmaltz only serves as a reminder that he isn't the modern-day Frank Capra of his dreams. I just find it very hard to enjoy writing that explicitly draws attention to itself.

What really staggers me about The Newsroom, however, is how it manages to confirm every criticism I have of Sorkin's writing to the extent that it borders on self-parody. Set within the confines of a fictional cable news channel, it's a typically sanctimonious and hectoring fable in which Jeff Daniels stars as a long-serving anchorman with a reputation for being bland and non-confrontational.

But his uncontroversial image is dramatically blown apart one day when, exhausted by the bickering partisanship that passes for mainstream political debate, he snaps during a live Q&A and delivers a rousing tirade about how – gasp! - America isn't actually the greatest country in the world. Scored to plangent piano, it's a laughable set-piece, mired in corn, and typical of Sorkin's worst excesses.

On and on he types, piling one unlikely contrivance onto another, as his ciphers clumsily declare their traits and motivations while failing to be even half as witty or clever as he thinks he is. There is absolutely no subtext to his writing, everything is so on-the-nose and mechanical. It's obvious that The Great Writer has no-one around him who's prepared to tell him to redraft his scripts, hence the sloppy, unconvincing, dramatically inert drivel he ends up with.

His only saving grace, in The Newsroom at least, is the vague sense of self-awareness that permits him to have characters dryly undermine some of the impassioned speeches he's so fond of writing, but that's hardly enough to excuse his prolix self-indulgence.

Steeped in cloying nostalgia for a non-existent epoch of American “greatness”, The Newsroom is just another Sorkin fantasy populated by idealised heroes who can barely get through a sentence without trumpeting their integrity.

The only highlight is Daniels, whose flinty charisma transcends the material, although British actress Emily Mortimer is miscast as his idealistic producer and – wouldn't you know it? - former lover. Sorkin's “sassy” dialogue sounds particularly excruciating when delivered by her. What's more, he completely fails to capture the surging excitement of a crack newsroom breaking a major corporate scandal - a rather significant failing given that that's the backbone of his story. Quite simply, it doesn't work on any level.

Whenever Sky Atlantic isn't busy importing disappointing HBO dramas, it likes to concern itself with producing vehicles for talented comedians that very few viewers will actually watch. Their latest is ADAM BUXTON'S BUG, a straightforward adaptation of his popular series of live shows in which he plays innovative music videos, and parodies the comments left beneath them online.

On paper it sounds like the laziest idea in the world – cheap TV writ small – until you factor in Buxton's natural wit and charm. Sarcastic but never cruel, his mockery of the pompous, insensitive and grammatically wayward idiots who congregate on the bottom half of the internet feels entirely justified, especially when tempered with a pleasing assault of childish silliness.

Mostly stationed behind his laptop throughout, Buxton displays a near heroic willingness to
behave as stupidly as possible in the pursuit of laughs. A sunny riot of daft voices, songs, and tortuous puns, he's an underrated clown who deserves to be better known. Sadly, I doubt that this slight yet often very funny show will bring him that attention.

Finally, Sky once again attempts to establish itself as a producer of homegrown drama, this time with a twelve-part adaptation of SINBAD. Billed as a family show, although evidently aimed squarely at children, it's an energetic yet curiously humourless fantasy adventure in which our sea-faring hero battles mediocre villains and unconvincingly rendered CGI monsters. And despite its target audience, it's surprisingly violent and nasty in places. Hardly the stuff of nightmares, perhaps, but the tone is inconsistent.

What's more, with his slippers, culottes and eyeliner, the young actor playing Sinbad looks more like a crestfallen underwear model on a gap year than a hardy adventurer. He isn't bad exactly, just bland.

Filmed on location in Malta, it tries its best to position itself as an epic, but ultimately lacks that all-important sense of wonder. All the key elements are in place -

from soothsayers babbling portentous nonsense to dramatic rooftop chases and acres of skulduggery – but that's the fundamental problem: it all feels very familiar. But it may well capture the attention of some of the younger viewers who actually tune in to watch it. Good luck with that, Sky.