...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Day 2101: The New Pretenders, sorry, Outsiders


Yes, I KNOW this was on on Tuesday, but we RECORDED it in order that Daddy could get into a conniption about "The Ambitious Mrs Pilchard".

But this was MUCH more MY sort of thing, with SPIES and HELICOPTERS and VATICAN NINJA SECRET-POLICE and everything.

Not enough CARS though!

So what's going on here then?

Well, it is ITV so obviously they are breaking into the old vault and instead of filching an old detective ("Lewis", "Cracker", "Prime Suspect") they are going a bit further back and trying to steel the clothes of one of the classy classic ITC series "The [insert action word here]-ers": "The Persuaders", "The Champion(er)s", "The Preventers" (well, no, but it ought to be!) or ultimately (and admitting it's ABC not ITC but it's the daddy of them all) "The Avengers".

Unfortunately, they've boosted the wrong blueprints because what they've come up with is "Mission: Impossible"!

Check off the highlights: cat burglar is recruited by agent on the orders of mysterious head of unaccountable agency and they are sent to break into impenetrable fortress and recover stolen plans for vital drug worth billions. But that's enough about the plot of MI-2…

Why is this significant? Well, in the main the key to "The Avengers" is in the clash of WITS between Mr Steed and Mrs Peel and the DIABOLICAL MASTERMIND du jour. Or between each other! There's a de rigueur fight sequence but that's just incidental.

"Mission: Impossible" is about the achieving of the practical effect, the big STUNT, however outré or undoable it might appear at the outset. (Or it's about big gun fights if John Woo is not kept on a short enough leash.)

It is the difference between quality SCRIPT and SPECIAL EFFECTS budget.

So you COULD compare the sparkling dialogue, the onscreen chemistry of the leads or their dazzling performances from any episode of "The Avengers" (exclude the movie if you want onscreen chemistry) with the banal script or boring underacting of everyone who isn't Brian Cox from "The Outsiders" but that would be very UNFAIR.

It is true that one of my daddies thought the male lead (Nigel "wadda you mean Ross Kemp's career parabola" Harman as Nathan Generic-Spy) was passable but found the lady lead (Anna Madeley – who we are rather astonished to discover could in fact act because she was the annoying bossy young woman from the BBC play "Aftersun" – here playing Little Miss Naïve) was duller than ditchwater without the water…

("She's no Uma Thurman!")

…while my other daddy thought she was inoffensive and occasionally rather nicely tailored but he was more boring than flipping though Iain Duncan Smith's collection of home movies of paint drying.

("It does not matter how many times he's contracted to take his shirt off, he's still more Booze Cruise than Tom Cruise!")

So, something for EVERYONE there!

But that is hardly the point.

"Look at these EXPLOSIONS!" That is what you are supposed to think. Or, given the ITV board: "Look at these explosions THAT WE HAVE PAID FOR!" If you want dialogue, turn over to BBC Brecht!

So in those terms you could see the real STRENGTH of the format overwhelming the efforts of the ITV executives to make another hour and a half of BORING television.

Painting stolen from vault below Cathedral (Da Vinci Code special), check; escape from helicopter (chained together option), check; boss that you hate confronts you and offers you loaded revolver (more dressing with your scenery Mr Cox option), check; interrogate informant by scaring him to within an inch of his life (bungee jump method was novel though), check; infiltrate secret island by using drug to feign death (must be revived within two hours, old as the hills cliché option), check; punch up with villainous henchman (it's compulsory), check; great big CGI bang (did the hero die, enigmatic option), check; tag scene (no of course he didn't), ready to lead into series, check.

Also, there was Brian Cox.

Clearly the producers knew the old television truism: if you cannot afford a class act for the leads, at least splash out on a class act for a cameo. He took a good swaggering grip on his every scene with classy contempt for the material.

"I've been killed off by the X-Men!" he could almost have said.

Actually, the slimy merchant banker was also worth the money, greasily sweating his way though adding a bit of character to a role that had STEREOTYPE written right through it. Still, at least he got some practical dinner scenes!

On the other hand Mr Colin Salmon – the man who ought to have been the first black James Bond – was criminally wasted as "heavy #1". And Mr Anton Lesser was given a bare handful of seconds screen time so you cannot blame him much for only faxing over his performance.

Like most of the famous ITC series, globe trotting comes fitted as standard: that is to say globe trotting BACKDROPS with big bold captions to announce that the next studio bound scene will be in MALTA, LONDON, or THE VATICAN.

Modern technology being what a whizz it is, nowadays we can use GREEN SCREENS to insert moving almost-but-really-not convincing backdrops instead of big blow up photos behind our actors and grade the film so it is sunny if they are meant to be in Spain and cloudy if they are meant to be on a secret island off Scotland.

Nevertheless, you cannot JUST make a series out of a series of set piece stunts, so there was some effort to solder on a kind of back story about Nathan Spy's dead wife and his daughter who had been adopted but was now in the clutches of Mr Cox (and adopted mummy despatched to, in bad Mr Brian's words – the local "chuckle factory"!).

This probably meant we were supposed to think that Nathan Spy was SAD or DRIVEN or possibly going out of his tree and HALLUCINATING in the last scene. (Unless, in a REALLY weird twist, his daughter is going to turn out to have SUPERNATURAL powers of bi-location!)

Still none of that stopped him taking his shirt off, or doing something LOBSTER-ESQUE-LY post-watershed in the first few minutes. None of it really meant anything either and was probably just left over in the ITV bargain bucket of "character quirks for leading man in detective serial".

Little Miss Naïve's character arc was a little bit more, er, UNCERTAIN. She starts off as the one agent able to track down Nathan Spy by realising that he would be loitering around his lost daughter. Then next minute she's being told it's her first day and being told to translate an unreadable Kazakh novel. Except before she can sit down, there's Nathan being sarcastic and she's being whisked off to a mission briefing. Was the Kazakh novel thing some kind of office hazing joke? Or had they filmed the scenes and just decided they were jolly well going to use them anyway!

Nice Man-from-UNCLE style entrance to secret base, though.

So, you have to give them marks for making the effort: clearly ITV do realise that they've been doing something wrong and they are trying to change that, to make something worth watching again. Obviously this isn't IT.

But they've realised that the BIG CLUE is the BBC's smash hit DOCTOR WHO so they are looking in the right area now – what THEY used to do best.

Next time, try and make it FUN: leave the dour backstory for Inspector Morse/Frost/Tennison; you're thinking of the wrong genre, there. GIVE your lead actress something to SAY, anything that means she's not falling asleep on screen with the tedium of it all. And bring back the VATICAN NINJA SECRET POLICE, they were GREAT! In fact, let's have a series about THEM instead!

Oh, and the other thing that is really, really wrong: where is the THEME TUNE?!

You need a great big, punchy, wahh-wahh trumpets and kick the bottom theme tune that people will be humming for days. With a proper title sequence. Those slidey yellow bars and the logo are nice (if a bit Batman the TV series) but only for crossfades or the cuts to the adverts; they're not big enough for the opening!

Cue that trumpet fanfare!

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