'Our Friends In The North' at BFI

Report by Hedgehog

Apologies for this taking so long – someone at work decided if I had taken a whole week of holidays I might as well make up for it this week so I ended up with a hell of a lot of double-shifts. Plus, it wasn't quite as easy to tell the upcoming story as I thought it might be; partially because I was lacking words, but also partly due to digressing ever so often because new thoughts kept sparking up and last but not least deciding what to keep, when to refer to Jen’s report and what to leave out. But here we finally go:

There was a short introduction at the beginning of the programme, announcing the panel who were to join in after the screening (writer Peter Flannery, producer Michael Wearing, Christopher Eccleston). It also was mentioned that the discussion was to be recorded (let's hope there'll be a way to access that recording in the future!) and would the audience please not use any recording devices of their own. (Would have really *loved* to use a recorder, thankyouverymuch, but I had already ruled this out and was at that point just hoping not to get thrown out for using a very old fashioned 'recording device' called pen and paper – and neither can I screw off my head and throw my brains away. ;-) )
The panel was to consist of questions asked by Michael Billington of the Guardian with about 15 minutes of time allotted to questions from the audience at the end.

The room was full, about 150 people. At a guesstimate, the average age was about 40-45, with some in their twenties and some in their sixties or above, but mainly the age group between mid-thirties to fifties. Neither gender dominated by a noticeable margin. Interestingly enough there was a woman talking with a French accent, so I wasn't the only 'non-British-tax-payer' there (I think it was PF who at one point told the audience OFITN was paid for by *them* - the British tax payers). Sadly I didn't get a chance to exchange more than a few casual words, I'd have liked to know what got her there. Outward looks were everything in between casual jumper/jeans to decent suit/jacket-style.

People were highly attentive and disciplined. No mobiles ringing (*lets out grateful sigh*), no whispered discussions - but at a handful of scenes there was a collective response, many times a chuckle at the funnier moments, and a very emotional collective gasp and shock at the Rottweiler-scene. During the panel discussion they loosened up a bit, going with the flow so to say. In short, if I was a teacher that's how my dream of a perfect class would look like.

As for the screening itself, it was a great experience to watch OFITN on a big screen. There was a short 'what happened last time' which isn't on the DVDs, but I suppose it might have been part of the original telly version. And it's also just brilliant to have a large audience around you who all react to what's happening on the screen.

As Jen already wrote in her excellent summary, the panel started with a bit of a 'making-of'-discussion; Michael Wearing talking about among other things the time it took until it finally got commissioned and the legal issues surrounding it. Peter Flannery remembered at one time he was told he could perhaps "set it in a country called 'Albion'".
[When the scripts had to be 'legalled', Flannery admitted it was based on real people. At the time of eventual broadcast he said: "I was told to set the story in a fictional country called Albion, that I mustn't mention Labour, the Tories, Newcastle or any police rank above superintendent. I said no one would sue me - people had either been in prison and lost their reputations, or they had helped me, or they were dead and that, as this is a fictionalised account, anything I'd written was fair comment." // M. Eaton, "Our Friends In The North", BFI TV Classics]

In reply to MB's next question CE then recalled (after a remark about not wanting it to sound like namedropping ^^) it was Danny Boyle who'd brought it to his attention. He also highlighted the Rottweiler-scene as the one that he found outstanding.
[Danny Boyle was the first director attached to the series, but "he insisted on directing all nine episodes." Charlie Pattinson thought the task wasn't for one person to weather. After 'Shallow Grave's success Boyle got an all clear for 'Trainspotting', "so he pulled out. But he did leave behind one lasting contribution in the person of Christopher Eccleston". "When Danny Boyle had first approached Christopher Eccleston he was thinking of him as Geordie, but when the actor read the scripts he instinctively knew that the more complicated, anti-heroic part of Nicky was the role he wanted to play." // M. Eaton, "Our Friends In The North", BFI TV Classics]

Completely out of context, but I thought I'd mention it here: at one point during those first couple of minutes the usage of the word 'fantastic' got a very positive response from the audience. Quite impressive. Nice to know I'm not the only one completely unable *not* to laugh. I think if there were people in the crowd with qualms about a Vindici-style haircut, there were less of them afterwards.

There was more on the political issues connected to the episode shown (and on Nicky changing from an activist into a photographer), and the discussion considerably gained momentum when by and by it came to focus on the point of quality of TV-shows. I think it started with the question whether it was possible that a show like OFITN would happen today, and from there, the panel of three just sort of took over and there weren't many more questions from MB (and I think I haven't seen a reporter/moderator who just knows when to let things take their own course and not to interrupt an interesting, vivid discussion in a long time!).

There was a lot of laughter during that discussion, albeit it is a somewhat bittersweet topic (the demise of quality on TV), if you really look at it. I was fascinated with Michael Wearing's 'Edge of Darkness' when I was nine or ten years old. And only a few years later, that sort of stuff simply wasn't there anymore, and the then-nine-year-olds were fed 'Pokemon – the animated series'. Why has this changed? What makes someone decide the audience's average attention span is like 20 seconds or so, and why do they get away with it?

It's really hard to report on the details of the discussion – you'd have to have a word-by-word transcript or, even better, the audio recording to get the whole dynamics. Jen has done a fabulous job with summing up the contents, so I can really only add the three of them harmonized so well, that at times it felt a little like watching a ball game – passing the ball around, with ever so often a well-aimed shot that scored laughter from the crowd. They didn't mince matters much, to say the least.

I wish this 'vision of a channel' as MW called it, wouldn't stay a vision. Make it pay-TV and register me as a customer. ;-)

There was time for three questions from the audience before the panel had to be ended (because of something else being scheduled in the same room). The answer to the first question (I jotted down "series today" but can't get transferred back into what the question was) led to the discussion about stories having to have an ending, because that's where usually the meaning/message can be found, but today's recurring drama / soaps are just never-ending. The second question was connected to the original play.

After a brief pause from the audience when asked for a last question, a woman asked if (paraphrased) a series was possible today that dealt with dishonesty (iirc in connection to the whole media business). That would've been an interesting question for a longer discussion, as there are many different kinds of manipulation.

The first that comes to mind of course being the manipulation of facts and documentaries, but if you think about it films are a medium that lives by 'manipulating' the audience in some way (at least imho – that's because I do think 'emotionally moving' is a form of manipulation as well, although not in necessarily a bad way – it's up to the audience to recognize it and to decide how far we want that positive kind of manipulation; and of course, there are also negative examples). I think it was PF who at that point asked "What is truth?" (and thus ensured I had a Johnny Cash song playing in my head for the rest of the night, thankyouverymuch.)

Over far too soon, this discussion was.


- - - - - - - - -

And on this occasion, we'd like to invite you to share your thoughts on the topic.

Christopher Eccleston has always maintained that the viewers are often short-changed when it comes to industrial TV programming, and this time he remarked as well that "intelligent isn't hard for the audience", it's hard for the controllers.

Additionally, consider this quote from David Foster Wallace from his article 'E Unibus Pluram':
"TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I'm not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests. It's all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor Audience is faultable for quality."
Read also an excerpt from 'Sight and Sound' magazine (1996) on 'Our Friends In The North'.

So what is your impression of television these days? How is it changing? In your country, how are the television dramas profiled? What do you feel there should be done in order to improve the overall quality? And who do you think is responsible? What role do you as the audience have in this? What would you watch?


joanr16 said...

Short version: in the U.S., a sharp dichotomy has evolved between pay-TV and free-TV. The best place to find quality television drama is HBO (e.g. The Wire, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos).

And I agree with CE's point that dramas are best when the overall series is planned with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I enjoy Lost for the characters, but the series was, um, treading water until the producers convinced the network to fix an end date for the series. (And even so, the plot seems to have gotten away from the writers.) But American TV drama traditionally has been in the open-ended, story-of-the-week format, and only in the last decade or so has anyone dared to experiment with what I'd call "enclosed story arcs."

Jen and Hedgehog, thank you for venturing to this presentation, and sharing the experience with us. It sounds like you had a good time. Hooray!

Anonymous said...

Don't get me started on this topic, I get very passionate when it comes to the state of English television, particularly when the subject matter is drama.

Television am afraid has become sanistised, let's play it safe, no controversy, no outcries etc.

It's a sad state of affairs when commercialism and that the powers that be prefer dumbing down to get the maximum viewing figures possible. It was called in the 80s I seem to remember as "getting bums on seats".

The last thirty years has seen a dramatic (no pun intended here) and often dumbing down standard of high quality dramas, not only on terrestial television but with cable and satellite coverage too.

The golden age of television is too often viewed with rose tinted glasses that it often becomes a tedious history and social lesson to those audiences who can remember seeing the programme the first time around. Was for example, violence more visual than it is now? Or that the generation below me seem so immune to it instead of being horrified by graphic images.

Am also saddened the way that "instant" celebrity is cashed in too. I call it the Marmite effect, i.e. you either love it or hate it.

It's not just happened in television but in radio too. The extent of which can be clearly seen not only on BBC local radio but commerical radio too.

We need to make drama bite again. A dog that won't let go of it's bone, snarling, growling at it's enemy at the gate.

Being forced into a corner and being surpressed into submission and letting everyone watch the same formatted crease free drama is letting Big Brother getting their way of brain washing the majority!

Hedgehog said...

I'd like to add a (thought-)provoking question to the discussion: If the writers and the producers and the actors who know what quality means and could still make quality, but cannot, because they won't get commissioned - what can we, being the audience, do to apply some pressure from the other end? Is there actually any means of pressure we have left?

What happened to TV in Germany is as follows: when I was a child, there were only the two main broadcasting companies financed by license fees (ARD and ZDF), with the ARD's regional subcompanies. There was a lot of intelligent programmes around, including a wide variety of series, gameshows, infotainment and documentary.
Then two so-called "private" broadcasters entered the stage. They're owned by media-companies and finance themselves to a large degree by advertising. Apparently it is easier to calculate advertisement-slot prices if you're working with "safe" stuff - i.e., a series or a show-format that's a smash-hit in the USA will most likely be attractive to viewers in Good Old Germany. So what we got next was mostly a truckload full of old US-series (from 'Dynasty' and 'Bonanza' to 'Mission Impossible' and 'MacGuyver'. Oh, and 'Star Trek: TOS' on another repeat.) They'd mostly been shown on telly before, so no new expense for dubbing. In addition to that, some gameshows which were only a little bit more shocking/provoking/generally over the edge than the stuff the two big companies were broadcasting.
And a significant number of viewers switched channels. As was to be exspected, seeing different people have different tastes. By and by the "private" companies were then able to finance their own series and even tv-movies. Which were at first cheap and of no quality, and are now expensive and still have no quality at all.
In the meanwhile, the two license-fee-financed companies strived to win back viewer by matching the pace and content of their programmes to that of the private channels. And other private channels entered the market, and apart from one exceptional brave French-German co-production called "Arte" (which does indeed feature a certain higher level of quality), they're all just full of the same low-quality-high-action-embarrassing-entertainment crap.

I haven't had a telly set in five years now, and haven't actually missed it. The few representative examples of what's showing these days I get while at work or at friends have so far only convinced me I don't need the telly (all I need is a screen and a DVD-player ;-)).

I keep thinking though, there's got to be another way to get through to the controllers. I know all sorts of people of my generation or older who really wish there was something on again that one would like to watch.
So what do we do? Write petitions to the controllers? Use the new medium of the internet?

chiclit said...

Excellent write up Hedgehog thank you for giving us a real flavor of the event. What a unique opportunity.
Your questions are provocative-its hard to know where to begin, except to lament the loss of the kind of creativity, budgets and commitment that have given some of the memorable and even historic television (and Britain for that matter). At this point all we can do is appreciate it and rewatch. Just like the movie industry the television industry is buffeted by the winds of change-the internet and the economy have changed the game forever.
The good news in America, anyway, is that there is still some quality, creativity and risk taking on the pay cable channels, like HBO and Showtime. They commission movies and television shows-and promote them-they were forced to make “must see tv” it forces people to pay extra to subscribe. The other cable channels have also segued from all reruns all the time to some new programming-some of the more unique and popular series have started on cable. The other interesting thing is that many of these shows consist of shorter series-much like their British counterparts-and frankly I am starting to like that. Shows like Monk, The Closer, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Mad Men and most recently Glee are well cast and well regarded and catch the zeitgeist if not actual awards. They are cheaper to make because they are short series, and again become appointment viewing-allowing more ads to be sold and in some cases cross pollenization with conglomerates that own mulitiple “platforms”.
The bad news that when a new show does make an impression, its send in the clones time, and then there will be several similar shows developed-if not outright spinoffs (like the Law and Order Franchise, or CSI). The traditional networks, in particular seem very unwilling to take a risk or spend any money unless they know a show will be a success. And do not get me started on reality shows-cheap to produce and people watch them. Ugh.
I am not sure how we convince US networks to leave reality or clones behind-supporting shows in new media, by TIVO or DVRing (which is being counted now). In the US, supporting and writing to companies that buy advertising time on shows. Recommend shows to friends, not sure. Shaming networks..

joanr16 said...

The bad news is that when a new show does make an impression, its send in the clones time, and then there will be several similar shows developed-if not outright spinoffs

This is a particular peeve of mine. Lost is successful, so we get Flash Forward; likewise, the revived Battlestar Galactica wins friends and influences a revival of the early-1980s SF series V. But the copycat series are never as good as their inspirations. If Flash Forward and V (and Fringe) are to be believed, one in every ten Americans is an FBI agent! Good work if you can get it. The characters on these copycat series are poorly thought-out, and inevitably remind me of those little gingerbread guys my grandma and I used to make this time of year: they're all alike, and all two-dimensional.

Hedgehog said...

Sorry for this next post being so long again it's going to be split in two... ;-)

I think we can safely agree on the problem of declining quality on TV is rather widespread. It would be interesting to hear from other countries, f.e. Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Norway etc., but as the mechanism behind what's basically happened in our countries is very similar (could be simplified to "no risks - underestimate the audience - 'fast food' TV - copy formats"), I dare extrapolate it's happened elsewhere as well, if perhaps to a different degree and not as all-encompassing. Like HBO and arte, there are probably other rocks in the current that, for whatever reason, try to uphold standards. Arte, unlike HBO, is not pay-tv, as one of the concepts there is that culture should be available to everyone.
It’s a start – we can do all we can to support those existing channels. But seeing things are always harder for individual persons, I did some googling around and tried to see if there’s already a people’s initiative for quality tv or something like that – so far, came up with nothing. (Anyone else who’s done research into that direction?) Doh – an initiative like that could also write letters to the existing broadcasting companies, demanding qualitiy and throw some weight of numbers onto the scales.
Would that be enough though? Are there alternatives?

The resources you’d need for quality TV are still there – there’s good writers and filmmakers in every country, who, given the chance (translates as “financing”), could create an output of solid, better than average to exceptional quality.
On the other hand, the demand is there as well. But how big is that demand? We, the audience, who create that demand, are a disorganised, inhomogenous mass. And there’s no direct democracy. There is no direct communication between us and the broadcasters. It’s all very complex, could fill books (and probably already has). Broadcasters get viewing numbers, and viewing numbers translate into finance. However, they don’t tell: “That’s the lowest quality standard I can put up with, but there’s nothing better on, so I’ll watch *sigh*”, or “Hey, I like that, no artificial-over-gravitas stuff, and not too dumb either”, or “Hehehe, cool explosion! Lots of boom, really interesting, I don’t care about plot as long as things go boom”. In the end, it’s all about Gaussian distribution. Stray from the middle of that curve in any direction and you’ll lose numbers (oh dear, didn’t know Mathematical is so difficult to talk). So, on the bright side, I’d predict it can’t get much worse – they’ll start losing us. Or are already in the process of doing so. Which raises the interesting question: Can television really “dumb down” people? Or are people just people, and the Gaussian distribution only mirrors what’s happening with society and moves accordingly?

Hedgehog said...

Aaaanyway. Can we shift the curve in “our” favour on the risk of losing the other ends small bits (those who really rather want to be entertained and not challenged to think about what they see)? That’s where I’m getting into conflict with myself. On the one hand, I hold the strong opinion knowledge and culture should be freely available to everyone. Let’s just say life became extremely difficult for me when our public library raised their annual membership fee to some 40 marks. I was totally smashed when I discovered there are museums with no entrance fee at all in Britain this year – dreamland! But I’ve got a good job these days, and I’m willing to invest a bit more so that others can share. On the other hand, I realise we live in a world where “how do we finance it” is a central question.

On that panel discussion, there was a bit where they were talking about the status quo, writers being micromanaged and stuff, controllers not commissioning series like OFITN anymore, and somehow it came to what if there was a channel where all this is different, like we all wish it could be, and Micheal Wearing called that the “vision of a channel”. I was a bit quick in my report and commented, well, do it, go ahead and make it pay-tv. That was in the middle of a thinking process (I’m a slow thinker, you can actually see the whole process taking place). Now I think I’ve come to a first result, and I’ve been dreaming up a vision of my own:
We’ve got the internet. We’ve still got to learn how to use it.
What I’d like to see is a channel on the internet – it’s already being used for watching tv, so the technology is there. Make it a pay-per-view channel, but include the possibilities the internet allows for. Add an open forum so viewers can communicate both about the programmes as well as a community. Include a fund for donations to support the channel as well as the possibility of sponsorship – I could invite (a friend, or someone I’d “met” on the forum) someone to watch a programme and pay for them (as in “have a beer on me, mate”). Include indie productions – it’s all going to have to be “unrated 18” anyway probably, as ratings differ from country to country. People would have to register giving their full names and addresses, but could use pseudonyms to post (as it’s still an open forum and not one of the good old BBS-mailboxes). It’s a bit of a fan-project involved, for instance, if you have a Spanish programme, you could “commission” English subtitles from a project group of viewers both Spanish and English speakers, giving them benefits as rewards, like bonus points for the pay-per-view or sponsorship (invite a friend to watch). Perhaps you could get filmmakers involved, for bonus-contents online interviews, posting on the forums. And, as a dream in a dream, perhaps this channel would work so well that in time it could finance programmes of their own, with the help of regional film funds.
Just a hedgehog’s dream. ;-)

joanr16 said...

On the other hand, I realise we live in a world where “how do we finance it” is a central question.

Unfortunately, in the U.S. that remains the only question. For 60 years we've had television on the financed-by-advertisers model, where programs are developed to please the advertisers first, the viewers second. (Seems counterintuitive, but honestly, most people I know watch the most awful garbage on TV.) The American "subscription" TV system (HBO, Showtime, etc.) only began about 30 years ago, and I'd say only in the last 15 years or so, has real quality emerged from that sector.

We’ve got the internet. We’ve still got to learn how to use it. What I’d like to see is a channel on the internet – it’s already being used for watching tv, so the technology is there.

I think the future points this way as well. I can already think of one well-known example: during the Hollywood writers' strike, Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as you probably know) scraped together a relatively tiny sum of money, hired a few insanely talented friends like Neil Patrick Harris, wrote a script, cowrote a score and libretto with two of his brothers and his future sister-in-law, and put the mini-serial Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on the Internet... for free. Of course, there was no immediate exodus of great talent to Internet-exclusive projects, because the funding just isn't there. But Whedon has said publicly that he doesn't intend to work in television anymore, rather he'll create more projects directly for the Internet. And that could start a slow exodus to the Internet, because people like Russell T. Davies and JJ Abrams keep a close eye on what Joss Whedon is doing. So, imo, the "hope for change" rests with the creative types, at least in America, where they've had to be subversive for three generations already.