Tag Archives: Drama

“Derek” by Ricky Gervais: A review

13 Apr

In a week when a relative of mine passed away in a nursing home, I approached Ricky Gervais’ new show Derek (Thursday 12th April, 9pm, Channel 4) with an element of trepidation. My experience of nursing homes is a good one and my relative was always well cared for by the wonderful staff and was always the life and soul of the party. There has been a bit of negativity surrounding nursing home staff in the recent past, particularly due to the shocking Panorama revelations in the episode entitled “Undercover Care” from May last year, and I was worried (admittedly not knowing anything about Derek other than its setting) that we were going to witness a grotesque black comedy or an awkward point-and-laugh affair.

My basis for this fear was Gervais’ latest BBC offering, Life’s Too Short, which was a mockumentary about actor Warwick Davis and his dwarfism. Life’s Too Short received a lot of criticism in the press, partly because it was just plain unfunny, but mostly due to the awkwardness surrounding the absurd exaggeration of Warwick. The Independent‘s Robert Epstein put it best when he said even if you don’t find its content degrading, it is simply shoddily derivative. I simply wasn’t in the mood for a degrading or shoddily derivative comedy about an area I was particularly sensitive to. My scepticism wasn’t necessary however, and the programme, described by Channel 4 as a comedy-drama, was an incredibly warm affair.

The one-off episode follows the title character, Derek, a man with an unnamed condition that is similar (in my experience) to Asperger’s Syndrome, through his everyday life working in a nursing home. His day is a series of comic ups and downs, simplistic and repetitive conversation, and struggling to come to terms with death in his own way. Derek is surrounded by his friends, each one who he considers his favourite, and each one likes him back just for being him. His best friend and landlord, Dougie, played by the Idiot Abroad himself, Karl Pilkington, a typical worn-down-by-life caretaker, and Hannah, played by Kerry Godliman, equally realistic as the thoughtful boss of the home and object of Derek’s wide eyed affection, are the outstanding characters for me. Out of all of Gervais’ comic creations, across The Office, Extras, An Idiot Abroad, The Ricky Gervais Show, and Life’s Too Short, the characters in Derek are without a doubt the most real and the most loveable.

Other than its undisputed warmth I do feel there is much to be improved on in Derek. The first thing is that it needs to work out what it is. Channel 4, as I said, describe it as a comedy-drama. When I hear that term I automatically think of Cold Feet, of Doc Martin, and of Fresh Meat. Not only are these three programmes (at their best) extremely funny, but they also are driven by compelling narratives that give the comedy a well-structured backbone. Derek sadly lacked both in the comedy department, and in terms of a fleshed out story.

Having said that, there were some high points in both comedy and story, and it was by no means completely flat. My favourite comedy moment was shortly after the advert break, when Derek and Hannah were at the pub for a quiet drink. A bunch of rowdy (downright horrible in fact) girls were name calling towards the pair of them. Hannah tells Derek to drink up and they head to the door. Hannah tells Derek to wait there, and heads back inside to head-butt the antagonist in the face, a move that was obscured to Derek. This particular moment, though perhaps similar to an Andy and Lou Little Britain sketch (where Andy attacks a bunch of bullies behind Lou’s back), was real punch-the-air stuff – it was a character acting out something that we would all have liked to have done in the same situation.

The programme did attempt story in a couple of places, including the loose and under explored ‘Hannah fancies Tom but Derek fancies Hannah’ thread, but the commendable effort was showing Derek’s reaction to the death of an elderly resident. It was commendable because it was Gervais trying out a scenario with a real beating heart to it, an important and truthful story with raw emotion. It didn’t quite work for me though, and as a Twitter friend of mine pointed out the music was a bit OTT. In my opinion a simple drone would have worked better; it would have punctuated the scene and gently provided a mood without shouting “YOU MUST NOW FEEL THIS PARTICULAR EMOTION!” at us.  

The only other thing I am not entirely sure of is some of Derek’s mannerisms. I loved the character and the autistic innocence that was well-written, particularly in the ‘are you Secret Millionaire?’ and ‘Have you seen Hamster on a piano?’ There was nothing wrong with the dialogue, or the delivery for that matter. The thing that bugged me ever so slightly was his shuffle. I didn’t think it was necessary to walk with the shuffle. It wasn’t funny, and kind of detracts from the good stuff in the scenes. I also, controversially, wonder whether if somebody else were to play Derek, a series would work better.

For all its faults, and there were faults, I think Derek is a programme that is easily salvageable and I would love to see it come back. With more of a focus on story, and more moments of belly-laughter (like the pub scene), I think it could be a winner. I feel that much of the criticism surrounding it is due not to the quality of the programme, but due to an ingrained dislike of Gervais by some of the British press (case in point).

Watch Derek on Channel 4 On Demand

Short Film of the Week

12 Apr

I just wanted to say a quick thank you to everyone who has been so supportive to me over the last few days. I intend to get the site back up and running properly tomorrow. To say thank you properly I’d like to make you an offer.

I would like to start a weekly ‘Short Film of the Week’ feature. If you are a film-maker or a writer, with stuff on Youtube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, Veoh, or similar, then it would be wonderful if you got in touch. It could be a documentary, an animation, a comedy, a tragedy, a romance film, a reality TV show (it’d be interesting to see if anyone has done this well online!), a stand up comedy set, a music video, a vlog… or anything really, so long as it’s well crafted. No pornography though!

Every Monday, the film I consider to be the best submission will be embedded here with a short editorial from me. Tellybrain.com gets around 250 hits a day (on days with new content), and as the site is pretty new I expect this number to rise as exposure increases.

The best way to get in touch is Twitter. Link me to your film and tell me a little about it: genre, length, when you made it, and what your role was. My twitter handle is @Tellybrain.

In the meantime here are a few films that I have made in the past. This is shameless self promotion, I know, but some are actually quite enjoyable… others of dubious quality (with little bits of gold too!), but all were made with love and limited experience/equipment. I wrote all of them, with the exception of Reality Check which I co-wrote and created.

2012 – As Life Goes By (The Story of the humble park bench. Special thanks to the BBC Production Trainee Scheme for this one!)

2010 – I am The Doctor (An obsessive fan wakes up and thinks he is Doctor Who)

2009 - Radio Stars (Radio Play based on Steven Moffat’s Press Gang)

2009 – Spudz (A sketch show starring potatoes)

2009 – Lurking in Life’s Shadow (A short film/poem about Death)

2008 – Reality Check (Three short films about differing perceptions of reality – Also written by David Pallant and Iain Williamson)

2007 – Doss House (Sitcom set in a student house… my first piece of writing, so be gentle!)

Thank you very much for reading/watching. Feel free to leave a comment, and do come back tomorrow when hopefully I’ll have a proper blog for you!

Jack x

As Life Goes By

10 Apr

I intended to return to Tellybrain duties today, but due to a family bereavement I’m going to have to put that off for a few days until I’m in the right frame of mind.

In the meantime I would really appreciate it if you took the time to watch this three-minute video, rather poignantly (given my circumstances) titled “As Life Goes By”. I wrote it in 45 minutes, filmed it in 4 hours with my colleague, Ayshah Tull, and edited it over the course of the next day. It was written in memory of another relative that was dear to me, my great-uncle.

I’d like to thank the BBC Production Trainee Scheme and the Academy for allowing me to post this online, and for everything they have done for me while I was a trainee. I’d also like to thank you for your patience - I promise that Tellybrain will be back to business as usual as soon as possible.

Which is better, British TV or American TV? Part One: America

6 Apr

In the last couple of weeks Sky Atlantic have launched the latest HBO series of Game of Thrones and Mad Men, both of which have been extremely popular with their British fanbases. Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame) also launched his new show, New Britania, on the channel, which as you may have guessed is an exploration of the cultural differences between Britain and The United States of America. And this got us thinking… Often the question is asked “Which is better, British TV or American TV” and it is an argument that has never really been settled. Well, armed with passion, arrogance, and  brains full of loosely formed argument, Jack, the Tellybrain editor, and his mate David (of Den of Geek) hope to settle this once and for all. Flying the flag for Britain tomorrow will be Jack, but first here is David with his pro-USA argument. Enjoy!  

Why American TV is better than British TV by David Pallant

From watching The West Wing I know that any important debate can be won in one of two ways. The first is the positive campaign strategy where you focus on the issues at hand, and demonstrate the excellence of your point of view. Then there is the negative campaign. This debate strategy is based on the mantra “it doesn’t matter how bad you think we are; the other side is worse.”

The opinions I am going to express will be from the latter category, not because I don’t have confidence that American TV is better than British TV, but because I reckon it will infuriate Jack! I’m going to try and guess what he thinks the best things about British TV, and then explain why America still do it better.

I should add, as a disclaimer, I do not dislike British TV. There are some very fine examples out there of great British TV. However, I believe that for every one example of great British TV there are three examples of equally great American TV.

Jack would say that British TV is filled with talent…

He would be right. When you see Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais light up the little box in the corner of the room you know that the tiny island in the Atlantic is doing something right. Heck, when Monty Python went transatlantic decades ago, American TV was rife with cheaply-put-together imitations.

But right across the American TV networks at the moment you have over a dozen Oscar-winners working in-front and behind the camera. At this point the argument that British TV has talent becomes a little bit conceited. Martin Scorsese, Dustin Hoffman and Anna Paquin are just three I could name. The BAFTAs versus Oscars debate will rage eternal but it cannot be denied that when you line up the talent of the UK against the talent of the US it looks like Rotherham United versus Manchester United.

Jack would try and point out that British TV makes stories that are relevant to us…

Again, to some extent Jack would be right. Currently Titanic is beached on our TV screens receiving some praise (though not on this site!) and spinning a story that is relevant because of the ship’s centenary. Then you can look at shows like Hollyoaks and Casualty – the latter Jack worked on – that weave plotlines which are accurate commentaries on the UK’s social and economic climate.

Across the Atlantic, American TV also has socially-relevant programming. But they don’t work as well even in the USA; this is mainly because America is nearly twenty-times the size of Britain (give or take). What may make sense to a New Yorker could completely baffle a Californian.

Instead, America specialises in churning out (and in this scenario, the word is not meant negatively) dozens of viewer-friendly TV shows each month. Each one may sit nicely into a niche or genre, but they are designed and written to be accessible by every American. As a result they are accessible for us Brits too.

And when Jack says Doctor Who, I would answer Buffy, Lost and Fringe (Like I said it is a 1:3 ratio).

Finally Jack might try and land the knockout punch by talking about the unique brilliance of British comedy…

He would be absolutely correct. British comedy, when done well, is a feast for the ears, eyes and funny bone. However, the eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the clause in that previous sentence: when done well. We can all remember a side-splitting gag from BlackAdder, The Office or Only Fools and Horses. In fact, there are many creative minds out there that when you see them attached to a production you know it will be a guaranteed laughter-fest (I’m looking at you Steven Moffat). But how many comedies have fallen down at the first-series hurdle? Do The Royal Bodyguard, According to Bex and Sir Yellow sound familiar?

Then we look at the massive writer’s rooms of American Sitcoms. Britain has writing teams ranging from one all the way up to three or four. Any more than that and individual talent is stifled. That might be a fair point. But isn’t the bigger picture more important (or as Spock would say, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” – Star Trek, another American show) because as individuality dies, doesn’t the fruit of collaboration grows? Just think of Frasier, the most decorated sitcom ever. The more people involved, the more a comedy moment can potentially grow. That only benefits one person, you the viewer.

American TV is better. You can’t disagree with Jack’s logic.

On a side note, it should be acknowledged that this article has not made reference to Friends, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Angels of New York, Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Will and Grace, Saved By The Bell, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, The X Files, Gilmore Girls, 24, 30 Rock, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Dallas, Dukes of Hazard or Futurama, The OC, The Vampire Diaries, Battlestar Galactica, Cheers, Happy Days House M.D and Doogie Howser M.D. even once.

David Pallant loves film and TV almost as much as his pet tortoise, Monty. If you want to read some more of his opinions on TV, films, food and fine-living feel free to follow him on Twitter, @Twit_Pallant.

And you can check out Jack’s Pro-Britain argument tomorrow on tellybrain.com!

Doctor Who: A quick look at the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith

3 Apr

This article contains spoilers for Doctor Who series 5 and 6. Then again, if you haven’t seen it already it’s your own bloody fault, and you should be ashamed!

Two years ago today the Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, the youngest actor to take the role, made his full debut in the first episode of the fifth series of Doctor Who, The Eleventh Hour.

In the action packed episode, the newly regenerated Doctor crash landed the smoking TARDIS into the garden of adorable little girl, Amelia Pond. Amelia used the powers invested in her as a Scot to fry all manner of foods for The Doctor, who was having post-regenerative cravings, a new sensation for him. Upstairs in her bedroom, Amelia had been hearing voices from a crack in her wall. The Doctor opened the crack using his sonic screwdriver, and the voice was revealed to be the Atraxi – some sort of prison warden race who were after an escaped convict called Prisoner Zero. Upon hearing the cloister bell, an alarm system in the TARDIS that signifies that very bad stuff is going down, he rushed back and dematerialised, after promising to the tot that he’d be back in five minutes.

Several minutes later for The Doctor, though crucially twelve years and several psychiatrists for Amelia (now Amy), he returned, and immediately realised there was an extra room hidden behind a perception filter in her house, and that Prisoner Zero was hiding inside it. The Atraxi weren’t far behind and placed the Earth in a kind of planetary force field and promised to destroy it. Rory, Amy’s boyfriend, and a nurse at the local hospital, had been taking photographs on his camera-phone of coma patients that had been talking while unconscious. The Doctor borrowed this phone and popped off to do some clever stuff with computers in Margaret Meldrew from One Foot in the Grave’s house.

After luring Prisoner Zero to the hospital, The Doctor faced off with the shape-shifting alien. The clever computer stuff was actually a virus that was spreading like wildfire, changing every clock on the planet to zero – a message to Earth’s captors aboves. The Doctor then uploaded all the photographs of the coma patients, prisoner zero’s shape shifting disguises, to every social networking site around, including Bebo. Using these clues the Atraxi followed the trail and apprehended Prisoner Zero, before flying away.

Then the Doctor, after stopping to get changed, called the Atraxi (a great big eye thing) back and berated them for daring to destroy the planet he’s so fond of. He told them it is defended and then they flew off again, scared. The Doctor then checked out his new TARDIS, which had repaired itself and given itself a brand new look (and provided toy companies a way to make loads more money), and gave it a test flight. Two minutes later for the Doctor, and two years later for Amy, the Doctor returned and without struggle convinced Amy to come and travel through time and space with him. She accepted, and as they disappeared into the vortex we found out that she was getting married…

I must say that The Eleventh Hour is one of my favourite episodes of Matt Smith’s tenure. It was funny, clever, nicely paced, looked great (the grading was superb), full of jeopardy, and as barmily plotted as ever. It’s probably the best post-regeneration story there has been in Doctor Who’s 49 year history, beating The Christmas Invasion (10th Doctor), and Robot (4th), the closest competition, hands down. But how has Smith’s Eleventh Doctor fared since then?

For me Smith’s two series have been a largely smooth ride, but with some bumpy bits too. I’ll start with the lows because I don’t like ending on a downer. This will be an unpopular opinion… but occasionally, I find the current Doctor to be a little patronising, a bit too kiddy and bit too immature for my liking. I completely get that it’s a kids show, even if some people will argue that it is ‘for families’, but I do find this particular trait a little grating. Often kids shows can be more grown up than grown up shows – look at Press Gang, for instance. Then again, as the Fourth Doctor once said ‘what’s the point of being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes?’ Childishness is of course a quality that embodies a number of Doctors; the recorder wielding Troughton in The Three Doctors for example, or the gurning Eccleston in The End of the World. Some Doctors could pull it off, like Troughton, others couldn’t, like Eccleston. Smith for me is actually in both camps. Sometimes he gets it right, like in the early part of The Eleventh Hour with the fish fingers and custard, and sometimes he gets it wrong, like the revealing of the designer bedrooms in The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe, and all that stuff with the baby (Stormageddon) in Closing Time, both of which I thought were ever so cringe worthy.

Anyway, that’s the controversial bit out of the way. Now for the stuff I do like.

The high points for me were in The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone the weeping angel two-parter, The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang two part series five finale, series six openers The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon and in Tom MacRae’s The Girl Who Waited. I’ve singled out these episodes as they are moments when Smith is at his best and most versatile. In these episodes he’s funny (making the angels say “comfy chairs” was a classic), he’s dark (“No. She’s not real.”), he’s arrogant (“Who takes the pandorica, takes the universe, but bad news everyone, ‘cause guess who?”) and he’s surprising (“a mysterious summons. You think I’m just going to go?”). Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is at his absolute best when he challenges the audience, and shows you glimpses of the Doctor that you’re not used to seeing. He’s capable of making you laugh, making you cry, and shocking the time head off you.

If you’re a Doctor Who fan you’ll notice that six of the seven episodes listed there also star Alex Kingston as Doctor River Song, and are written by Steven Moffat (lets ignore the fact that he wrote one of the episodes that I criticised… everyone has an off day). Smith thrives with excellent writing and top notch acting talent to bounce off. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are very good, but Kingston is a cut above.

To summarise then, for Tellybrain, Matt Smith is an outstanding Doctor when funny, dark, arrogant, and surprising, when he’s written for by Steven Moffat and Tom MacRae (honourable mentions to Neil Gaiman, and Richard Curtis too), and when he’s opposite Alex Kingston… but he should perhaps leave off with the interior design and the babysitting!

Oh bugger, I ended on a downer… erm…  okay… why not watch the clips below that I believe show off Matt Smith at his very best.

The Eleventh Doctor being:

Funny

Dark

Arrogant

Surprising

For more information about the episodes mentioned you could visit the BBC programme pages:

The Eleventh Hour

The End of the World

The Christmas Invasion

The Time of Angels

Flesh and Stone

The Pandorica Opens

The Big Bang

The Impossible Astronaut

Day of the Moon

The Girl Who Waited

Closing Time

The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe

Titanic could learn from Scott and Bailey

2 Apr

In yesterday’s post about Zeebox I said that drama is “a genre that demands concentration”. I’d like to amend that claim, if I may, to “good drama is a genre that demands concentration”. Bad drama longs for it but often doesn’t get it.

Titanic by Julian Fellowes (Sunday, 9pm, ITV1) longed for my attention but didn’t work hard enough to get it. Dubbed ‘Drownton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs Drownstairs’ by critics, the series feels frightfully dull. So what’s wrong with it? It looks great, granted, with impressive sets and a decent cast, including Stephen Campbell-Moore (of The History Boys fame) and new Doctor Who girl Jenna-Louise Coleman. The problem with it is more deep-set than that. It has inherent story problems.

The nicknames mentioned above are unfair on the programmes they mock. Downton Abbey regularly captured more than ten million viewers, who loved the world, the characters, the storylines (both realistic and absurd). Similarly the new Upstairs Downstairs gets an average 6-7 million viewers per week for similar reasons.

The problem with Titanic is that I frankly do not care for the characters. There seems to be a sense of impending doom to them all, like they somehow know that their world is about to be torn to shreds. Their dialogue too, while well delivered, is ever so clunky, and the cliché counter has exploded through overuse. I half expected a ‘Good God man, pull yourself together!’ when the second class passengers burst out of their confinement to hustle for life boat space. It doesn’t help that this second instalment (of four) began again at the beginning of the tale and so we had to go through the build-up to the disaster all over again from a slightly different angle. This tactic worked for One Night last week because we only focus on one character per episode, but in Titanic it was never really clear who’s story was at the forefront, and why we needed to see it all again. It really didn’t work, and actually takes the disaster movie element out of a series which should be all about a disaster.

So if this series about the Titanic isn’t actually about the Titanic, then what is it about? Somewhat predictably, given that Fellowes wrote it, it seems to be about social standing and the British class system. Whoopdy doo! Way to suck the excitement out of a tragedy, out of a story of the failings of man, out of stories of heroism in the face of certain death. Every scene in Titanic seems to be about who is pipping who on the social ladder. Honestly, the class system in and around that period has been explored to death on TV of late, and it’s just boring me now.

Tonight at 9pm on ITV1 sees the fourth episode of the latest series of Sally Wainwright penned Scott and Bailey. Now there is a good series that demands concentration. The characters are brilliant, the dialogue sublime, and the acting is way up there. It is a detective drama that hurtles along at a decent pace. It’s a crime of the week affair with on-going serial elements throughout. Last series that serial element was about DC Rachel Bailey’s (Suranne Jones) war with love-rat-cheat-married-man-twat-ex-boyfriend  Nick Savage (Rupert Graves – Lestrade in Sherlock) which came to a satisfying conclusion in the sixth and final part when he was locked up for trying to have Rachel bumped off. All the while Rachel was constantly supported both professionally and personally by her best friend DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp).

If I were responsible for Titanic in the development stages, I might have suggested using Scott and Bailey for inspiration. The friendships and relationships in this Red Productions masterpiece, along with the sometimes witty, sometimes sincere dialogue, and the story of the week structure, would make for a drama you could care about. It would make for a drama that you would care so much about that your heart would be close to breaking when those you’ve loved for four weeks are caught in the middle of the ultimate tragedy.

Structurally I wouldn’t have touched the non-linear narrative style that Fellowes adopted. Instead I would have followed four sets of passengers (across thethree class systems if you really want, Julian!) each with their own warm unique crises, journeys, love stories, illicit affairs… whatever… which played out nicely over four weeks. The dialogue would be chirpier, friendlier, and less clichéd, and the four weeks would be set within a four hour time frame, from plain sailing, to grazing the ice berg, to the flooding of the lower decks, and finally the dramatic escape/sinking of the ship finale.

Oh, and I’d cast Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp in it too, of course!

Official Scott and Bailey Website

Official Titanic Website

Watch Scott and Bailey on ITV Player

Watch Titanic on ITV Player

One Night the schedulers went mad

30 Mar

Tonight sees the culmination of Paul Smith’s four part slice of life serial One Night. For those that have yet to see it, each of the four parts explores four characters’ crises on one  particular night. Ted, played by Douglas Hodge, let the pressures of 21st century life get to him in part one. Part two saw Rochelle played by Georgina Campbell finding out about the dangers of forbidden love on the estate. Carol, played by the wonderful Jessica Hynes, struggled with the burdens of single parenthood in the third installment. And tonight 12 year old child Alfie, played by the debutant Billy Matthews, comes to terms with the responsibilities of growing up before his time.

The series isn’t perfect. At times it feels laboured, a little fake, and occasionally lightweight, but on the whole it is an enjoyable four-parter  with big stars and newbees alike acting their socks off. It certainly didn’t, in my view, warrant the graveyard scheduling that the BBC gave it. Not only does that show a lack of faith in a script that has been discussed, developed, and drafted with love by the dedicated team at BBC Drama in the White City complex, but it also shows disrespect to the director, to the actors, and to the crew who fought slavishly to get the programme to the screen. The schedulers should be ashamed with their decision not to strip this at 9pm. Still, at least it was stripped. It’ll be interesting to take a look at the ratings for One Night over the four nights compared with the average for the 22:35 – 23:35 time slot.

You could do much worse than to watch tonight’s episode. Billy Matthews in his debut performance on screen is masterful. He’s definitely one to watch out for and I predict big things for the boy. My particular favourite bit in tonight’s episode is when he skillfully dispatches the woman from the Social Service. Great performance. In November I interviewed him at his house for the BBC and he told me (off camera) that his next big TV drama is written by another brilliant Billy – Shakespeare’s Henry IV. If you want to see the interview you can find it on the BBC website here.

Please do check out One Night on the BBC I-Player.

Episode One – Ted

Episode Two – Rochelle

Episode Three – Carol

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