...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Day 2566: The Mayoral Debate: Soap and Flannel


Oh dear, a DREADFUL confession: we have been watching ITVnone, Britain's Tackiest TV channel.

It would be nice to say that it was ONLY to watch the debate between Mr Brian, our top quality candidate for Mayor of London, and that pair of ASBO-monkeys from the other parties.

But NO, we have been having a bit of a Ben Millar-fest too, with the return of schlocky Doctor Who wannabe "Primeval" and of course ITV's new Fourth Wall Bulldozer: "Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach", hilarious in the way that Mr Sorkin's "Studio 60 on Sunset Strip" was meant to be (but wasn't).

"Studio 60" took most of the first episode to TEARFULLY remove the old producer of the show and woo in the series' real stars, Josh from The West Wing and the one from Friends who can act. "Moving Wallpaper" does this in ten seconds flat, and features the defenestrated ex-producer head butting a photograph of Mr Michael Grade and calling him a bas bad word! This wins hands down. Instantly every Dr Who fan in the land loves it (and that's even before the two Doctor Who references in the second episode).

And, of course, unlike "Studio 60", "Moving Wallpaper" actually has the BOTTLE to show us what all the fuss has been about. And wisely rather than the show-within-the-show being the bestest bestest wittiest wisest comedy in the whole of cuddle town, it's a ghastly soap who plot and characters have all been entirely derailed by the producer's megalomania. Wise, and also brave!

The TRULY terrible thing – among MANY terrible things – about the 9.30 soap "Echo Beach" was the nagging worry that Mr Grade had succeeded in commissioning ANOTHER turkey of similar magnitude to the last time anyone tried to mix SUNSHINE into a British soap opera – I mean of course "Eldorado", anagrammatically if unkindly remembered as a "Real Dodo" – and the only way to save the channel from going onto the rocks was to apply heavy IRONY.

British people, famously, do not like their soaps to be "happy". EastEnders and Consternation Street vie to bring gales of misery down upon their inhabitants in between the reigns of terror of the local murderers. (At one point, I tell you, there were more SERIAL KILLERS than GAY DADDIES living in Consternation Street!) Sunshine is UNNATURAL in this context. Usually, the only way around this is by application of wall-to-wall Australian accents. And obviously – even if Jason of Jason'n'kylie wasn't in it – this is why the model for "Echo Beach" is meant to be "Neighbours" (although so far the production standards are managing to make "Home and Away" look CLASSY and "Hollyoaks in the City" look like DRAMA). With the exception of Mr Hugo Speer and (perhaps astonishingly) Mr Jason himself, no one up to and including Tiffany can actually act (though she can tremble a lower lip with the best of them). What you are left with is a load of what my disgusting daddies insist on calling "totty" in not very many clothes.


But you cannot escape from the awfully impressive cleverness of placing GIGANTIC AIR-QUOTES around the whole edifice through the addition of "behind the scenes" show "Echo Beach Confidential". Er, "Moving Wallpaper".

With more laugh-out-loud moments in the first ten minutes than in "Studio 60's" first ten EPISODES (literally: three!) it centres around Mr Ben as "Jonathan Pope" the "producer" of ITV's new "hit" soap. In the first episode he crushes a little girl under a stack of lobster pots, spends the design budget on his own office so announces that the surf shack will have to be derelict, and puts Tiffany in the pink dress to avoid "diva tendencies". I thought he was VERY funny. But having seen the second episode – when he beats up a CUDDLY PANDA – I now realise that he is the UTTEREST BAST BAD WORD on television! (I am sorry, Mr Charlie Brooker, your crown has been taken.)

The "clever clever" part, of course, is to spot which bits of "Moving Wallpaper" will appear in the subsequent episode of "Echo Beach". Little girl, derelict surf shack, pink dress and panda all do.

Although pitched as a "comedy drama", "Moving Wallpaper" is a SATIRE – satirising television production itself, and just as mercilessly as, for example, "The Thick of It" skewers the government. That is why it appeals to "smart alecs" like my Daddies. Then they watch "Echo Beach" to play "spot the jokes" and feel quite clever about this. People who do not like that sort of too-clever-by-halfness can skip it and watch "Echo Beach" IRONY-FREE.

This, I believe, is called a "double whammy"!

For genuinely BAD television, then, you had to wait for later in the evening.

The Mayoral "debate" on ITV's "London Talking" (presumably they couldn't afford the more iconic "London Calling") was BAD in all the ways you EXPECT ITV to be bad: cheap set, dreadful format, Blue Peter presenter being patronising to the viewers in exactly the way that she wouldn't be when playing with terrapins.

Each candidate gets to make a little speech, then they get cross-examined by the other candidates, then they take questions from the floor (where everyone wears a handy badge so you know they are all party supporters and you only get questions from the OTHER two parties).

But rather than taking turns at each stage, what they did was have Mr Brian do all three stages and then Mr Mayor Ken do all three and then Bonkers Boris do all three. It meant that it was more like watching three JOB INTERVIEWS rather than generating any sense of DEBATE between the candidates. MY suspicion is that this is because they could only afford one LECTERN!

Mr Brian was jolly good, in spite of this format not playing to his strengths. To see how good he REALLY is, you want to see him CHAIRING a meeting and fielding questions, often with a dryly WITTY response and always with the facts and policies at his fingertips. It is JOLLY IMPRESSIVE.

In the studio, he was not able to set the audience ALIGHT in the way that the two seasoned hacks were. That is his strength and his weakness – he is an ordinary person, with extraordinary talents. And not a huge gob with legs attached. (Also hair, if Boris.)

His best moments were when facing the audience, as he was able to make a real connection with them, even if they were supporters of his rivals. Possibly a note to the other parties: if you want to try and trip Mr Brian up, maybe best not to try to "surprise" him with details of his police career – he really was really, really good at that job, you know, and he WILL have answers.

The other candidates, though, were bad, and in quite different ways. The Mr Mayor started with a very GOOD pitch – no, really – "if you think I've not improved London then don't vote for me". The problem was he was REALLY cross-patchy if anyone actually referred to his record – promises that haven't been met, opinions that have been switched. At one stage he was asked why he had said a mayor should only serve two terms and was now running for a third: "this will be the last job I do in politics," he said – well yes, Mr Ken… unless you change you mind AGAIN and do another one! Also, it SERIOUSLY isn't on to say that youth crime in the city is because those kids' PARENTS grew up under the Queen Maggie government. I mean, obviously, the answer is because they have grown up under a Thatcherite government TOO: the Thatcherite governments of Lord Blairimort. But since he's broken ANOTHER promise and rejoined the Labour, Mr Ken can't seem to say THAT any more.

Boris is all FOR blaming Lord Blairimort, but doesn't really have any ANSWERS as to what to do. Bus conductors… no, maybe not bus conductors, that was Mr Ken believing his own press releases… well maybe SOME bus conductors. He didn't half old school tie himself in knots. And while it seems the Labour's record is fair game, he didn't have a lot of defence of his OWN, particularly on the subject of race ("let's just move on," hmmm) and then Mr Ken fair bludgeoned him with his voting record: number of speeches in the House about London – none; number of debates about London attended – none; number of votes cast on motions about London – none; number of MENTIONS of London – n… oh, one actually, but in passing and about something else. Oops.

More subtle were Mr Brian's quick puncturing of Boris's ego: "Boris, you need to pay attention, I've already said all that!" was one; and another was replying to the assertion that if you needed experience then no one would ever stand: "But Boris, we ARE standing and we're trying to choose the BEST candidate." Terrifyingly, though, Mr Boris still thinks that he can run London the same way that he ran the Spectator.

The only "news" coverage to come out of the debate was the somewhat unedifying SPAT between Boris and Ken over teenage murders. "What are you going to do about these 27 murders in the last year?" thundered Boris. "I'll try to get more of the buggers next year," Mr Ken IN NO WAY REPLIED!

And it is a SHAME, because the Mayoral race needs people to be serious about London.

This election is an important one, one that concerns the lives of six or more million people and the governance of the world's TOP city. It deserves better coverage than some rubbish late-night slot on ITV.

What it needs is a big advertising campaign to get people watching and a prime-time slot for a huge audience and, and, and… and a "behind-the-scenes" show to show the drama and the comedy of the teams producing the mayoral run… now, hang on: there's an IDEA there!

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