Friday, 10 October 2008

Life on Mars American Style: Actually not that bad

After the qualms expressed here several months ago (Life on Mars American Style), after looking at the earlier (dreadful) trailer, my hopes were not high when the first episode of the new, American version of Life on Mars aired on the ABC network last night. That earlier trailer looked like a joke, a "Comic Strip Presents" style parody of an attempt to Americanize a superb British series. I was ready to watch the total fiasco of a series that that trailer suggested would be on offer. And yet the reports were already coming in, before the first episode aired last night, that they might have been able to pull off the impossible, and turn it into something decent. Ten minutes in, and most of my worries were laid to rest. As the American Sam Tyler got hit by a car in 2008, waking up in the New York of 1973, it was already clear that the programme itself was not going to be a car crash that had earlier been threatened. It looked like it might actually be quite good.

The move from LA of 1972 (original pilot) to New York of 1973 (the episode that aired last night) was a masterstroke, not least because of the powerful moment when Sam Tyler gets up to see the twin towers still standing in all their glory. For those who loved the British original, moments like that punctuated a script that otherwise was pretty similar to the original; and sometimes individual shots were identical, and beautifully recreated.

One warms straight away to the new Sam Tyler, and to the new blond Annie, even if the latter's hair cut looks just as ridiculous as the British Annie's, perhaps more so. The big question at this stage is whether Harvey Keitel is going to work as Gene Hunt. Certainly he already seems to be an improvement on the Colm Meaney casting of the earlier pilot, but there are still a few worrying signs. He is much older than Philip Glenister, the British Gene Hunt, and he is smaller in stature, not the kind of imposing figure that Glenister still cuts, now in the Life on Mars sequel Ashes to Ashes. Glenister's performance was the key to the success of the original. He is a bully, a rogue, a bigot and yet still lovable, funny and sometimes right. Keitel is playing the bully and the rogue in such a way that it is difficult to imagine how we are ever going to grow to like him, still less to laugh at his absurdly brilliant quips. Keitel's Hunt had one such line, something about sperm dancing towards some eggs, but it was hastily delivered and unfunny.

On the whole, though, it was not at all bad. I doubt it will be as successful as the American Office, the first really successful adaptation of a British original, but you never know. Given the clear progress that they have made since the original disastrous pilot, perhaps this can continue to improve. It will be interesting to find out.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The American Presidential Debates: Time to Let the British in

BBC America is running an advertising campaign at the moment in which it characterizes itself as The Birthplace of American TV, citing great British programmes like Life on Mars, which are now being remade for an American audience. Britain's most successful imports, though, often carry over key personnel to make sure that they survive the transition. American Idol, the hugely popular American TV series, is a version of the British Pop Idol, and carried with it Simon Cowell. I have just finished watching the second of the presidential debates between candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, styled as a "town hall" debate, and I think the time is ripe for the injection of some British television expertise to refresh what has become a tired, over-rehearsed, over-polished and frankly tedious format.

The fact is that candidates for the presidency do not at any point face a decent public grilling. They are not held to account or pressed on issues of importance. They are allowed at these debates to give a series of mini-presentations, the over-rehearsed nature of which only presents itself when the candidates trip over a phrase, or introduce the second half of their response too early. Each debate has a "moderator" but this figure is essentially a facilitator, a coordinator who provides invitations for the candidates to begin each of their mini-presentations. There are rarely serious follow-up questions and rarely the encouragement to get the candidates actually debating with one another. On one occasion tonight, the moderator, Tim Brokaw, acted to close down debate at a moment when there was a flicker of interest, as Obama asked to respond to McCain and Brokaw pleaded time constraints.

It is time, then, for the injection of some British expertise and experience. At British General Elections, all candidates, and especially potential prime ministers, will expect to be get some serious grilling from the masters of the art. Let's bring Jeremy Paxman over for several weeks before each presidential election, and let's test each candidate's mettle. Let's find out what they really think about the key issues, with every dodge exposed, every evasive manoeuvre challenged, every question repeated until we get either an honest answer or an embarrassed candidate. Just as Simon Cowell was imported to give wannabee American idols a hard time, let's import Jeremy Paxman to give the presidential wannabees an even harder time.

Jeremy Paxman: the new Simon Cowell?

The success of this move will reignite interest in the presidential debates and will encourage more of the same. Once Americans have got used to Paxman, we can introduce them to John Humphrys. British politicians are afraid of Humphrys. They would rather do anything than be interviewed by him, and yet they know that they cannot duck their responsibility to the British public to be held to account by him. Give the candidates an hour with Humphrys and then we will have a serious test of character and a genuine series of searching, rigorous questioning.

John Humphrys: how would McCain and Obama cope?

The injection of this kind British expertise into the the race for the White House would serve to knock the candidates off the stride of their prepared answers, allowing the voters to understand what makes their potential presidents tick. And having strong British interviewers could add some extra distance from the all too easy clich├ęs of the candidates' appeals to the American "middle class" (everyone in America is apparently middle class). Presidential candidates talk over and over again about "Americans"; a non-American interviewer could press them on international issues in a way that could dismantle these easy appeals.

Tonight's debate was billed as a "town hall" debate. This means that there is some input from members of the public. But the handful of questions that come from the audience, like the moderator's questions, act only as prompts for the candidates to give mini-presentations on the broad subject. The lack of applause or broader audience participation leads to an eerie, unreal kind of stage-managed experience that cannot engage the viewer. The audience are waxworks, everything is restrained. Sometimes politics needs passion. If new voters and apathetic voters are to get energized, the current format is missing the mark. If there is going to be an audience in a "town hall" format, let's bring on David Dimbleby and let's have a full Question Time style programme, with a large, intelligent, passionate audience, allowed to speak, allowed to ask follow-up questions, with strong chairing and holding to account from Dimbleby.

David Dimbleby: could he show them a passionate "town hall" debate?

Good politicians have nothing to fear from robust interviewing and thorough grilling by professionals who represent the public's interest. In a world where politics is becoming ever more glitzy, ever more stage-managed, thorough and rigorous debate is more important than ever. Strong, honest, passionate debate should be at the heart of our politics. If we are committed to democracy, it is too important to neglect.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Portmeirion vs. Swakopmund

(Portmeirion, location for The Prisoner, 1967)

(Swakopmund, location for The Prisoner, 2009)

The remake of the Prisoner continues apace out in Namibia (see also The Unmutual for news; my take here), It is headed for ITV next year, with Ian McKellen as Number 2 and Jim Caviezel as Number 6. One of the things that differentiates the remake from the 1967 original is that we already know where it is being filmed, in Swakopmund, Namibia. This is something of a contrast with the original series. It was apparently something of a mystery to many, when The Prisoner first aired, where on earth they could have filmed the action. When the final episode, "Fall Out", aired in 1968, it began with the on-screen announcement that the series had been filmed on location in Portmeirion, North Wales, by permission of Mr (later Sir) Clough Williams-Ellis. Indeed, the hasty resolution of that mystery lead many to think that the rest of the episode would unravel other mysteries, an expectation that some felt was unfulfilled.

One of the obvious charms of the original series is Portmeirion, as well as the Portmeirion-inspired enhancements to the village that they recreated in the studio, so it will be interesting to see whether the new location, Swakopmund, can live up to its predecessor. Portmeirion is one of my favourite places, and we were going on family holidays there before I had even seen The Prisoner (I first caught it on the 1984 Channel 4 repeats), so it is unlikely that Swakopmund will ever rival Portmeirion in my affections. Nevertheless, to go to google images on Swakopmund reveals an amazing architecture that does have some echoes of the magic of Portmeirion, and it is easy to see why it was chosen for the location filming. I must admit that I am intrigued. AMC's website on the remake offers some tantalizing insights into the new series, video diaries, blogs and the like, but they are being careful to point the camera away from what we will see on screen.

Now in the original, Number 6 is imprisoned in "the village", of course, and not in Portmeirion, but the other major location is London, seen at the beginning of almost every episode and again at more length in other episodes like "Many Happy Returns" and "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling". There is no word yet on whether Caviezel's Prisoner will begin in London. Caviezel himself is American, so perhaps not. I would love to see London retained as the Prisoner's home, though.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Lewis Carroll Society of North America Spring Meeting

In April this year, I spoke at the Lewis Carroll Society of North American's Spring Meeting. My topic was "Charles Dodgson and the Conventions of Victorian Piety". It was a most enjoyable weekend, all the more so as I was able to travel up with the family, and also to meet my Mum and Dad up there. I enjoyed getting the chance to speak about something different from the New Testament, for once, and everyone was very encouraging and friendly. One of the attendees put together this nice little video diary of the event, which even includes a few seconds of me waving my arms around in my talk:

The main website also has a report and a nice photo montage. Don't miss the picture of our Lauren helping out with the audition, about two-thirds of the way down.