Television Festival and Nail Bar

The Conference Centre in Edinburgh, a sort of METROPOLIS building only a bit smaller, pays host to the TV Festival every year. Unlike the Film Festival, it’s not a public event so I can’t go, but this year I got a day pass through the auspices, if auspices is the word I want, of T.V. sitcom messiah Graham Linehan(Father Ted, The I.T. Crowd), so was not only able to hear Graham dispensing invaluable wisdom on the craft of situation comedy, but I then took in a masterclass/chat with Stephen Moffat, incoming script editor of Dr. Who.

Apparently Whovians were clamouring to gain access to this event, but as they’re not big media people with production companies, they couldn’t, so there were empty seats instead. The people who COULD have attended were presumably off hearing some exec talking about the Future of Television in an Interactive Age or some bollocks. You know you’ve inadvertently crashed a seriously elitist event when you’re in a partially vacant auditorium listening to a fascinating and hugely successful writer with an incredibly important job who could probably sell out the Albert Hall. I felt vaguely indecent being there, although in fact I’m a longterm Whovian myself, so in a way I was striking a mute, useless and limp-knuckled blow for fandom.

Further evidence that I was in a part of Soho that had drifted off and landed in Scotland came when I crossed the road to get a sandwich, and was asked if I wanted a receipt. I should stress: this has never happened to me before in my life. You don’t get OFFERED a receipt with your sandwich. So obviously the poor deli had been serving people all weekend who were on expense accounts.

In the conference centre I felt like the only Scot in the world, but that wasn’t strictly true because Stephen Moffat is a Scot, and I saw Robin McPherson from Screen Academy Scotland and Carole Sheridan from Scottish Screen. I also saw a nail bar in there, which was fascinating and kind of surreal. “We’re hosting television execs — what do they want? Coffee, fruit, little sandwich things, and somewhere to do their nails. Right.”

If this sounds alienating and fish-out-of-watery, it was a bit, but everybody was actually pefectly nice so I resolved to dismiss my prejudice and just enjoy myself. Graham being such a fun person to talk to helped that enormously — there’s nothing elitist about most of the people actually doing T.V. What with Graham being a stranger more or less to Edinburgh, I could show him a very long and actually incorrect way to get to Starbucks after his talk.

His lecture is going online so I don’t want to write down my garbled memories of it here, but a few spectacularly useful tips for writers emerged which I could, perhaps, summarise and elaborate on:

Censorship is Good: working within parameters, including the kind laid down by TV censors, is actually great discipline and can make things better. When I (me, not Graham) wrote for kids’ TV I likened it to juggling in a straitjacket. There were so many things you couldn’t do, and sometimes you felt people were saying “No” just out of fear, rather than out of any genuine risk of upsetting anyone, but very often the funniest stuff came out of being unable to do things the most direct and obvious way. Looking at classic Hollywood comedies kind of confirms this. MY GOD the tight strictures they worked under, and MY GOD the quality of the end product!

Taboo Subjects Are Good, But: you have to find the right way to do it. The examples Graham gave, from DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, Seinfeld, and Malcolm in the Middle, beautifully illustrated how dark and sensitive material can be presented in a way that, as he puts it, “doesn’t force Dad to leave the room to make a cup of tea.” Abusing the disabled, child abduction, and sexual violence were all suggested by the scenes cited, but in such a way that it was safe to laugh. You get the slightly forbidden quality of laughing when you shouldn’t — remember how that felt at school? — but you don’t feel horrible afterwards because there’s a contradictory innocence to the presentation in all three cases. You’re actually NOT laughing at the horror, you’re laughing at something relatively O.K. that bizarrely RELATES to the horror.

It’s kind of dark, but not actually.

(I think a lot of writers and directors like the IDEA of pushing the audience into uncomfortable places and making them feel bad, or awkward, or whatever. But why? As Maurice Chevalier says in LE SILENCE EST D’OR, “Some people think the artist’s job is to give the audience a hard time.” That’s fine, IF THERE’S A REASON. But maybe some of us just like the idea of doing “dark” as a status thing? I think there should always be a little malaise with the pleasure, as a kind of seasoning, but some modern T.V. is JUST UNPLEASANT.)

Traps are Useful: sitcoms depend on traps, both physical and emotional, so that characters are forced to clash together consistently throughout the series. Farce depends on trapping characters in awkward situations. When it doesn’t work is when the audience can see a way out. (Personal taste means some people have problems with this where others don’t: my friend Simon would get frustrated by Laurel & Hardy because it’s so obvious what they’re doing wrong.)

There was more, much more, and in fact when I overheard Linehan and Moffat chatting together between shows, the insights were flying so thick and fast I wished I could decelerate time so I could jot down all the great stuff being flung out.

The Count.

In the evening Fiona and I swung by Count Arthur Strong’s show at the Assembly Rooms. Count Arthur is a comedy act based on the concept of a raddled old music hall comedian in the final stages of senility, still carrying on his hopeless career and remembering glory days that never were. There have been a few comics patterned on the old-style music hall comedian, from Tommy Cockles to Arthur Atkinson of T.V.’s The Fast Show, but Count Arthur takes things to a new level of grotesquerie, with his hunched back, flushed face and irascible disorientation (wandering aimlessly around the stage, he spots his own image: “Oh, so that’s who that is,” he remarks, senselessly). A favourite moment among many: Arthur strains furiously to recall the name of Cliff Richard’s most famous film, then finally yells in triumph, “SUMMER HOLOCAUST! That’s it!”

A good example, I think, of taboo material done in an acceptable way.

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10 Responses to “Television Festival and Nail Bar”

  1. I like Barrowman. Impressive how bi-accented he is, able to sound completely Scottish. Depressing how nobody has found a part for him to play in Scottish film or TV.

  2. He’d be perfect for the Roger Livsey role in a remake of I Know Where I’m Going. (He wore kilts to his wedding.)

    All you need is a male Wendey Hiller and directors up to the level of P & P.

  3. Petula Clark could play Pamela Brown’s role.

    Not sure who would play Petula’s. Maybe Dakota Fanning.

  4. A male Wendy Hiller seems just about possible. Directors at the P&P level do not!

    IKWIG just screened at Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton’s film festival up in Nairn, which I didn’t make it to, but which I’ll be reporting on by proxy.

  5. I’m immediately suspicious of areas ‘forbidden’ to the public on subjects that are ostensibly public services, such as television. It always makes me think people have something to hide, and from the blog postings at the Guardian Media website it seems mainly to do with dazzling other media types who don’t watch television with another amazing idea that they can peddle to the general public. Something that if it were told to anyone outside that circle they would immediately see how flawed/bland/just plain stupid it was before they commissioned an entire series. No wonder television is so slow to react to a changing world and that things like the phone scandals occur since it all seems to be about pleasing other tv execs and an imaginary ideal audience member than actually producing a variety of programmes on a number of different subjects. Just easier to copy a successful format I suppose!

    I didn’t particularly like Torchwood in its first season. For a supposedly more grown up series it seemed particularly childish in the excitement it displayed in being able to show vigorous sex and casual swearing. Not that I’m complaining but it felt like it was done for its own sake not to add a sense of ‘adult realism’ to the show. It showed a strangely conservative attitude in the sense that they were revelling in the “look at how naughty we’re being” attitude that showed up how much they considered the adult material as being out of the ordinary. As much as I liked Barrowman’s character I also thought that the gay kisses were sadly dealt with in the same way – not portrayed in the programmes casually and as a simple fact of the character (though I think Barrowman does extremely well to convey a certain matter of factness in his performance) but as a major ‘moment’ in the show through the way the show is edited. Perhaps it was intended as a celebration of the character’s sexuality whenever they linger on this issue but to me it just showed how far we still have to go that it needed to bring up the possibility of a gay kiss as being something shocking and ‘naughty’.

    However I was more pleasantly surprised by the second series which seemed to downplay the adolescent shock tactics a little more.

    I’m very much looking forward to what Steven Moffat does with Doctor Who, since he often provided the high points of previous seasons (though it might be time for him to move away from creating faceless characters who repeat lines of innocous sounding dialogue until they become disturbing. After The Empty Child and Silence In The Library, good as they were, it might be a good idea to rest that concept for a little while)

    I’m not sure that I’d fully agree that censorship is good. I can see Linehan’s point that it forces you to be more creative to overcome obstacles but some of the best artists are masters in creating their own constraints to then push against without the need for an outside force to lay down the law for them – see Lars von Trier for a great example, especially his series of challenges to Jorgen Leth in The Five Obstructions.

    The best thing about creative freedom is that you are free to create your own constraints – just because you can, you don’t have to make your comedy as broad as possible and mug at the audience all the time. Look at The Royle Family – I don’t think budget constraints were the main reason most of every episode was set among characters sat watching the television. The creators made the choice to do their show that way when I’m sure they might have been allowed to do lots of street scenes and establishing shots to bring the wider world into the show if they’d wished to. They just didn’t wait for the ‘opportunity’ created by some head of comedy at the BBC ‘censoring’ them by cutting costs to produce a stripped down comic series.

    On modern TV being unpleasant for the sake of unpleasantness ties in with the the above on censorship. I think one of the reasons TV makers revel in the taboo is the chance to push against censorship or to rejoice in the freedom of saying and doing the forbidden, sometimes at the expense of the quality of their show (or film) itself. Rather than thinking this means that the world’s going to hell and we need more censorship to control it I personally feel the opposite: that censorship has led to the arts going through a much more protracted adolescence than they normally would have. Every time things relax a little and the programme makers have tired of shock tactics that were previously unavailable to them and are about to move to a more adult take on ideas of sex and violence stuff being a part of life but not so obsessionally important as to be the entire point of a show, there’s a big scandal and everything gets reset so the cycle begins again. The same would apply to films. Censorship keeps the mystique of the ‘taboo’ alive as much as it works to repress it.

    I don’t know about whether it is necessary to show a way out of a ‘trap’ or not. On the one hand you risk boring people who figure out a solution while your characters are still ignorantly bumbling around. On the other if you suddenly spring a twist solution to a solution on them, the audience will feel cheated. It would seem more a case of trying to find a way to let the situations arise and resolve themselves in as natural a manner as possible, though I can’t shake the feeling that a truly great artist or creative type can make even the shakiest material work by their approach, the way they film something and the playing of their actors! See To Have And Have Not!

  6. Agree with most of what you say. Somehow Torchwood never seemed more EMOTIONALLY adult than Dr Who, despite the sex n violence.

    Of the TV execs I’ve met, several are perfectly bright and therefore reasonably good at critiquing TV ideas, several are kind of dumb and NOT good at critiquing anything, several are bright and also have a particular gift for thinking about TV, and a small number are UNUSUALLY BAD at TV, ie they’re not too bright ordinarily, but have a particular lack of ability when it comes to their speciality. Those are the ones that surprised me.

    As far as censorship goes, Graham particularly stressed the value of self-censorship, and self-imposed rules generally that force you to be creative. Like in Father Ted they decided never to show Ted preaching or doing any actual work. This led to some interesting problems and productive solutions when the story was actually ABOUT Ted’s job.

    The traps thing: what Graham likes is the NO EXIT trap, where no solution is possible and the character just has to make the best of a bad deal, as with Steve Martin in the DRS clip.

  7. I should stress that those TV people who are less good at telly than the average person would be if handed the job, are definitely a minority. Much TV is bad probably because it’s sometimes quite hard to do.

    Also: even though it’s a “behind closed doors” event, I didn’t actually see anything suspicious going on: the TV people didn’t seem to be saying anything in private that they wouldn’t admit to normally, although perhaps late at night…

  8. So you missed the live animal sacrifices that took place after the main speeches? :D

  9. Come to think of it, BBC3 controller Danny Cohen does smell slightly of brimstone.

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