Having absorbed every episode of the first five series of ‘The Big Bang Theory‘, my latest obsession from the world of the American sitcom is NBC’s ‘Community’, a comedy about several pretty stereotyped characters (jock, repressed goodie-goodie, too cool for school hero, etc.) thrown together at an American community college. Despite the relatively broad characterisations, a distracting insistence on parodying various film and movie cliches (a la ‘The Simpsons’), and hit-and-miss writing, it’s still well above the average for current television situation comedy.
However, a web-search for the programme quickly uncovers the trouble and turmoil lurking behind the scenes of the show, which seems certain to be cancelled following it’s current, fourth series. The show was created by Dan Harmon, but he has already left following a very public falling out with the show’s most famous cast member Chevy Chase.
Chase has built a reputation for being arrogant, rude and difficult to work with over a 40 year career. ‘Community’ seemed to be his route back to the mainstream after two decades of dreadful TV movies and cameo appearances in 1980s throwback films, but the actor continually bad-mouthed the shows writing, the long hours of filming, and even situation comedy as a genre. By the third series there was rumours of physical confrontation with some of the other actors, and his continued clashes with Harmon culminated with the audience at an end of season party being encouraged to chant ‘fuck you, Chevy’ at Chase as he sat there with his wife and daughter.
The final straw for Chase was his alleged use of the ‘n’ word on set during preparations for filming a fourth-series episode. Shortly afterwards he announced he was leaving the show.
Now, whilst racism and racist abuse is not something I would ever condone, the context in which the word was used has to made clear. Chase’s character Pierce Hawthorne is an aging moist towelette millionaire with decidedly old-fashioned views when it comes to race, sexuality and female equality. He inherited his fortune and is not only a buffoon, but utterly devoid of any sense, common or otherwise. The laughs he gets in the show are derived from his ridiculous views and his habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong audience. As the series progressed, Chase felt the writers were going too far with this side of Pierce and following one boundary-pushing joke too far he is alleged to have said that the writers would be having him say ‘n*****’ in an episode before long.
Yes, he could have said ‘the n word’ or used another phrase to get across his meaning and dissatisfaction, especially with two black actors in the principal cast, and countless black people working behind the scenes, but to me it seems slightly harsh that he should be pilloried to the extent that he felt in necessary to leave the show when using it in the form of complaint about how offensive he feels the show is becoming. It’s a fine line, and I’m sure many of you will feel Chase crossed it. Me – I’m not so sure.
All of this means that the show has lost it’s funniest performer and, almost certainly, any future it had. Whilst it’s not the funniest thing on TV, ‘Community’ is head and shoulders above much that we are asked to laugh at on our screens and it’s small but loyal following will miss it – and Chase – if it doesn’t return for a fifth series.
Like many modern offices, the one I work in has a whole host of plasma screens around the walls, all of them tuned into one of the countless 24-hour news channels. Every now and again, when there is a sporting contest of national importance or interest taking place, the powers that be decree that to boost morale it is acceptable to switch the channels over to whatever regular station is showing the event. As a result I was sitting at my desk when London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, Usain Bolt smashed the 100 metres world record in Beijing, and when Rob Green ended his own England career by allowing Clint Dempsey’s daisy cutter slip into the net during the last World Cup.
One side effect of this is that the televisions are often left on BBC1 or ITV for the duration of the tournament. This means that every now and again ‘Bargain Hunt‘, ‘Loose Women‘ or ‘The Weakest Link’ will play every day for a month on multiple TVs in virtually every room and corner of the building. For visitors to the site this must make for quite an odd experience, especially when you consider that all of the televisions are muted. Come to my place of work during the summer months and the chances are that everywhere you turn you’ll be greeted by either David Dickinson, Sherrie Hewson or Anne Robinson silently going through their respective range of gurns, winks and smirks.
The strange effect this merciful silencing has on the programmes is most apparent when ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show‘ is on air. With the sound on, it’s one of British TV’s most shamefully dreadful shows with ridiculously stereotypical working class members of the public (none of whom appear to dress up for their day in the spotlight, doubtlessly due to instructions given to them by production staff) air their dirty laundry for viewers whilst Kyle wanders around the set tutting, goading and generally judging them. the contempt he shows his guests is so uber-Daily-Mail that it’s gone beyond parody. It’s amazing that Kyle manages to keep up his act as a disgusted moral guardian as the thought of how many Marks & Spencer ‘Autograph’ suits he can buy with all that advertising revenue.
With the sound taken away Kyle’s show takes on a different life. In fact it resembles a modern staging of a classic opera, something that is still apparent on every subsequent viewing whether the sound is on or not.
Kyle enters the stage like the narrator from Stravinsky’s ‘Oedipus Rex‘ and sets the scene of what we are about to witness. As the show goes on he takes on more of a fatherly role towards his guests, though admittedly a highly critical father like Melchthal from Rossini’s ‘William Tell‘.
The majority of episodes feature large, scowling women shrieking at each other at length over some crisis involving either variations on wife-swapping (‘Cosi fan tutte‘ by Mozart), a villainous love-rat (‘Rigoletto‘ by Verdi), a child with two possible fathers (‘Le filibustier‘ by Cui) or just a general disagreement between neighbours (Gounod’s ‘Romeo et Juliette‘). All the while the audience, like the chorus, howl their opinions from the sidelines. In the end there is normally some uneasy resolution that pleases only one or two of the participants (Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Mikado‘).
I am not alone in noticing this of course. Just a few years ago there was uproar over the perceived blasphemy in Richard Thomas’ and Stewart Lee’s ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera‘ and the principal is somewhat the same. What it all signifies is really that for all it’s claims to be about real people in real situations ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show‘ follows the oldest dramatic concepts. Good versus evil, affairs of the heart, threats of financial ruin, dysfunctional family life – these ideas are at the centre of infinite works of entertainment, literature and music. There really is nothing new under the sun.
The admission by production companies that ‘reality’ television has nothing more to do with real life than an episode of ‘Doctor Who‘ has reached its peak with programmes such as ‘The Only Way is Essex‘ where young people who are not actors are recruited from nightclubs or high street shops and are put into staged situations and encouraged to behave as idiotically, chauvanistically, or promiscuously as possible. Somehow, despite the obvious choreography, these people’s lives become something to aspire to for many.
The attraction of reality TV seems to be almost limitless, but I don’t really see the point in it all. As Jerry Seinfeld once said “if I want a long, boring story with no point to it I have my life”.
Poirot, Qunicy, Columbo, Taggart, Ironside, Kojak, Lewis…
The list of male, single-monikered, televison detectives (amateur or otherwise) is a large one on both sides of the Atlantic. Even those featuring in shows with titles that extend to more than just a single word (‘Midsomer Murders‘, ‘Inspector Morse‘, ‘A Touch of Frost‘) are commonly referred to by their surname (Barnaby, Morse, Frost). It signifys that this is a no-nonsense programme fronted by a sharp, brutal, equally no-nonsense detective. “I don’t have time for first names or titles”, they tell their assistant/ boss/ token wife “I’m trying to solve a murder“.
This has never been the case for female sleuths, especially those of a certain vintage. ‘Muder, She Wrote‘ wouldn’t have been as appealing as ‘Fletcher’ and no-one would watch a programme called ‘Wainthropp’ whether it starred the wonderful Patricia Routledge or not. Even the more hard-hitting, female-led police shows haven’t gone down the ‘last name only’ route, with the main protagonists from ‘Prime Suspect‘ and ‘The Killing‘ never called Tennison and Lund in everyday conversation. Women in crime fiction, as in tennis, are not to be referred to by their surname alone.
With this in mind, it is all the more puzzling that when in 2004 they started to re-film stories featuring the most famous, most genteel, most proper of all fictional detectives, ITV decided to transform Agatha Christie’s timeless Miss Marple into plain, ‘cut-the-bullshit’ ‘Marple‘. If there was one TV character who shouldn’t be reduced to her surname, it’s Miss Marple. The ‘Miss’ helps to shape the entire impression one should get when confronted with her. “Oh look. It’s Miss Marple, that nice, though slightly nosey, old lady who lives in that carming cottage in St. Mary Mead. I can definitely commit a murder here as the police are notoriously stupid and, quite frankly, if the place is populated with doddery, pleasant, church going women like Miss Marple then I’ll have no trouble getting away with it”.
Most of us when we think of Miss Marple think either of jowly, eccentric Margaret Rutherford, kitted out in a succession of hats, capes and pearls or prim, quietly observant Joan Hickson (left) staying just the right side of haughty. These two, taking life and murder at a pace slow enough not to interfere with afternoon tea, are the two most memorable screen Miss Marples. The name was as much part of the ‘dotty but brilliant and not to be underestimated’ image as the broches and the endless supply of victoia sponge
ITV have decided that someone (God knows who? Young people, presumably) will be put off watching a programme that is politely named after an old lady so we now watch ‘Marple’. Plain, earthy, ‘touch my rich tea biscuit and I’ll f**k you up good style and if you f**king come ’round ‘ere again trying to bump off your stepmother, you’d better think twice cos I’ll take my duck-head umbrella to your knees before giving your balls the once over with my tapestry needle‘ ‘Marple’. It’s all part of the channels rebranding exercise along with guest stars, lesbians and Zoe Wanamaker. She’s not a ‘Miss’ anymore because ITV know, just like those Hollywood executives who’ve cast 39 year-old Jennifer Garner (right) as the movies’ next ‘Marple’, that everything cultural needs ‘reimagining’, ‘rebooting’ or reconfiguring. Never mind that it’s worked for the best part 90 years, we need it to be a little bit cooler, younger and without a hint of ‘twee-ness’. All of which rather misses the point of the character. She is a book who is not to be judged by her cover. By eliminating the ‘Miss’, ITV have replaced the book with ‘Grand Theft Auto V: Streets of St. Mary Mead‘. The show itself is fine and Julia McKenzie is a very good choice as the lead, but please, ITV, give Jane Marple her ‘Miss’ back. After all, it’s only right to have respect for your elders.