TV extends the exercise ground of the psyche. Does cinema?

November 19, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

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Over the past few years the consistently high-quality output of HBO, Netflix and even the BBC has ignited a largely tedious debate about the merits of television versus cinema. This debate largely centres on the false dichotomy of television as low-art and the cinema as high-art. As though cinema was born with Ingmar Bergman and not with proto-GIFS of pretty girls falling over in the Nickelodeons of Manhattan, and as if ‘White Chicks’ had never existed. The variations of this argument rest on the shaky foundation that either television or cinema have ever been driven purely by artistic merit.

Let’s not split hairs on this point, television and cinema are money making industries and quality is a selling feature, not an end in itself. Hollywood and Bollywood are just the most obvious examples of the excesses of capitalism when transposed to art – the product placement, automatic franchise triggering and micro-marketing of stars. Even the art house is not immune. From the Nouvelle Vague to the Sex Pistols we have learned that those claiming to aggressively reject the mainstream tend tend to have their own product to sell. Television without advertising – howsoever funded – can avoid the worst manifestations of capitalism in a way that film cannot. Case in point, HBO stalwart ‘Sex and the City’ (whatever your feelings) was a groundbreaking and original show when on television. On the silver screen, I think we can all agree that it was the worst thing that ever happened. At least until there was a sequel.

The true mark of the effectiveness of any cultural form is how deeply it permeates the public psyche. If this is how we grade ‘better’, and that’s more than debatable, then the idiot box sends cinema home with its tail between its legs every time.

Both cinema and television are hugely reliant on audience expectation. This means a reliance on shorthand establishment scenes (it’s a council estate, it’s dishevelled, it’s grey, it’s raining – this is gritty), characters (a woman walks through the streets, she is alone, grubby and scantily dressed – she’s a sex worker), shots (POV of someone standing behind her, the camera lingers jerkily and uncomfortably – she turns, there’s a moment of recognition – she’s so dead, and she’s neither the first or last) and plot (the scene switches to a police station, there’s a man behind a desk, he looks moody so obviously he has internal vulnerabilities that will be caressed by the love of a good woman while he gets on with battling through the psychological maze of the serial killer and so on and so forth.)

In film, the balancing act is reshuffling the various tropes and stock situations in a way that looks new but never takes the viewer too far from comfortable ground. If there is nuance or subversion of expectation then this becomes the centrepiece of the entire narrative and the depth of the complexity is inevitably going to be limited. This comes down to a simple matter of constraints in the running time. Television is not so constrained. When it does fall into cliché, which is more regular than not, the perpetration of these tropes (which may be genuinely harmful – particularly in terms of stereotyping of marginalised people) is far more pernicious. Television lacks the event sensation of the trip to the cinema and the gradual drip-drip in the corner of the living room is far more effective at blinkering a viewer’s internal eye.

But there is an antidote to all this tenacious perpetration and it comes not only in high quality dramas (a good example would, of course, be ‘The Wire’) but also in the most maligned and despised genre of all – the soap opera. To say that the soaps are free from cliché is obviously ridiculous. In terms of predictability, the narrative arcs are only out-ranked by ‘Scooby Doo’. But in terms of character development, nothing compares to a soap. Soaps focus on supposed real people – the disenfranchised, the grotesque, the boring and the unglamorous, all in and all on prime time. These are not characters that could set the box office on fire but in the hands of television, they are not only front and centre but also allowed years of space for character development.

Take an episode of ‘EastEnders’, aired in 2009 titled ‘Pretty Baby’. Influenced by Samuel Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’, the entire episode was a monologue delivered by Dorothy Branning, played by June Brown. She discussed her life, her faith, sickness, old age and deeply unattractive and deeply human traits – selfishness, self-loathing and resentment. It was excellently written and deeply sensitive to the complexity of the human condition. After twenty four years of emotional investment in a character, this is the stuff you can get away with. This could never have found a place in mainstream cinema. The audience would not tolerate a woman in her eighties rattling on about boring shit like marital duty and Jesus for half an hour. But on television, this received the highest audience share of the night.

When it comes to profoundly impacting the collective psyche, cinema cannot compare. A good film can knit its way into the cultural Zeitgeist, it may create icons, but its effects will always be superficial in comparison to even the most mediocre television. Television at its worst can perpetrate the nastiest, stupidest and most pathetic stereotypes – and don’t underestimate how harmful these can be to be to people’s lives. At it’s best, it can show the viewers the true spectrum of human experience and make you listen to an elderly woman in banal psychic pain for a half an hour and come away altered.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 80 – Kill la Kill

November 17, 2014 by  
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As we continue to look into the vast and curious group of anime set in schools that would never exist in real life, we have a series with like last week’s anime, Princess Princess, deals with an unusual look at school uniform. But this series has more sinister subject matter, dealing with fascism. It’s a lot stranger, a lot bigger, a lot more revealing, and pretty bonkers. This not surprising given that the director of this series is the man behind the enormously brilliant Gurren Lagann (No. 50).

Kill la Kill is directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, who also directed the adult comedy Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (No. 19). Running from late 2013 to early 2014, it was the first TV series made by Trigger, a company formed by Imaishi after he left the highly regarded anime studio Gainax. Like Imaishi’s Gurren Lagann, this anime is also big, action-packed and highly comical. It’s a new take on the “magical girl” genre, it’s totally preposterous, but it’s still loads of fun.

Kill la Kill is set at Honnouji Academy, a school situated on top of a hill somewhere in Tokyo Bay. It is however not run by the headmaster or teachers, but is governed under the fascistic rule of the Student Council led sword-wielding Satsuki Kiryuin, daughter of the school’s director, fashion mogul Ragyo Kiryuin. The school has a caste system where those higher up wearing “Goku Uniforms”, school uniforms made out of a special material called “Life Fibres” that give the wear superpowered abilities.

After Satsuki, the next most powerful students are the wearers of the three-star uniforms made out of 30% Life Fibres. These are the #2Four Generals”: kendo exponent Uzu Sanageyama (Athletic Committee Chair), music-loving Nonon Jakuzure (Non-Athletic Committee Chair), techno-savvy Houka Inumuta (Information and Strategy Committee Chair),  and gigantic Ira Gamagoori (Disciplinary Committee Chair); then there are the two-star uniform wearers who are mainly the heads of school clubs; one-star uniform wearers who are general loyal servants; and last the no-star uniforms worn by most of the school population, who are treated terribly and live in slums on the foot of the hill.

Enter into the mix a new transfer student: Ryuko Matoi, a 17-year-old girl who has arrived at Honnouji Academy for one purpose – to find out from Satsuki who killed her father. To do so she has on her a powerful weapon, the “Scissor Blade” that is able to cut Life Fibres. At first she easily loses to Satsuki and her allies in a fight, but then in the ruins of her father’s house Ryuko discovers a sentient talking uniform called Senketsu. Senketsu is a “Kamui”, an outfit made entirely out of Life Fibres, who forces Ryuko to where it. This proves useful as whenever Senketsu consumes Ryuko’s blood it can transform into a more powerful (and more revealing) outfit, which allows Ryuko to take on Honnouji Academy on an equal playing field.

As the story plays out, Ryuko battles Satsuki and the rest of the Goku Uniform wearing students to find out the truth about her father’s death. In the meantime she is assisted by her teacher Aikuro Mikisugi, who we learn is actually a member of an anti-clothing paramilitary group called “Nudist Beach”, plus hyperactive student and best friend Mako Mankanshoku, a zero-star student whose father runs a clinic in the slums. Ryuko moves in with her and together they plan their various rebellions.

There are several reasons for why Kill la Kill makes for a fun watch. For starters there is the traditional trademark of Imaishi’s work – that bigger is better. There is no way that this series was going to be as big as Gurren Lagann, but as the series progresses the story not only effects the school, but later the country and the planet. The only thing that is short is the cut of Ryuko’s transformed uniform, which has a revealing gap starting from right below her nipples (which are neatly covered up by a pair of braces) all the way down to her hips, where she wears a tiny microskirt.

The series may seem lowbrow, but there are interesting themes connected to the anime. In Japanese, the words for “fascism” and “fashion” are almost identical, these being “fassho” and “fasshon”. Not only that but in Japanese the words for “school uniform” and “conquest” are homophonic, both being pronounced “seifuku”. While in Japanese “kill” is pronounced “kiru”, but the word can also mean “to cut” or “to wear”.

Aside from wordplay, there is a mixture of humour on-screen. Mako is the most comic of the characters. She will often interrupt an important scene to deliver a motivation speech to inspire Ryuko on, and her bizarre family also add to the humour. There are also moments where the comedy plays around with television. This comes across with the use of subtitles. When a character, item or important part of the plot is introduced, large subtitles appear. The camera will often then cut to a different angle, where you still see the subtitles standing but at an odd angle.

What at first seems to be a series where you can just watch a girl wearing a very revealing costume is actually an anime with various comic elements and themes working together. Not only that, but this was a show from a relatively new company with a small budget, plus the plot is full of twists that grab the viewer’s attention. It is one of the best anime to be broadcast in 2014.

The entire series of Kill la Kill is available on Netflix. The series is being released on DVD and Blu-Ray by All the Anime over three parts. The Part 1 DVD is out now. The Part 1 Blu-Ray comes out on 24th November.

Breaking Down The British Comedy Awards

November 17, 2014 by  
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The nominations for this year’s British Comedy Awards have been announced and, as is traditional, if you look hard enough you can find a twinkling gem of talent amidst the grey sludge of interchangeable panel games, banterrific sketch shows and sitcoms about being middle class in socially awkward scenarios.

There are two new categories this year, Best Internet Comedy Short and Best Comedy Moment, although as to what the latter entails and what ’8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown’ could possibly have to do with it remains unclear.

This year appears to be the year of Matt Berry, who appears in almost every category he could be shoehorned into. His sitcom ‘Toast of London’, with its small but devoted following, has garnered four nominations with a further nomination in the new Best Internet Comedy Short category for ‘Lone Wolf’ and, as if that wasn’t enough, he’s also been nominated a la Emo Phillips in the Best Breakthrough Comedy Artist for ‘House of Fools’, despite having been on British television screens for the better part of 15 years.

Speaking of small, devoted followings, Stewart Lee has made two, presumably begrudging, appearances; for ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’. Perhaps more excitingly, two of his Alternative Comedy Experience co-stars have joined him in the nominations with Isy Suttie and Bridget Christie joining Aisling Bea and the fantastically weird Nina Conti in the Best Television Female Comic category. With such a wealth of original talent this is the category that’s likely to cause the judges the most trouble when it comes to picking a winner.

You’ll be glad to hear that the public nominations for the people’s choice King or Queen of Comedy are still open. This is the only category open to voting by the general public and therefore the most dramatic by default. Will someone come along to take Jack Whitehall’s crown? Or has he appeared enough times in Room 101 to scoop the prize for the third year running? The tension is killing us all.

Here’s the list of nominations in full.

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The British Comedy Awards are a joke

November 15, 2014 by  
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Every November the nominations for the British Comedy Awards are announced and every November people complain about the nominations, and for good reason. Now, before I go on I should point out I happen to know one of the BCA judges so I have to be careful about what I say, but this is not a personal attack on the judges, but on the way the awards are given out.

One of the main complaints about the BCA is the lack of diversity. For example, if you look at all the categories in which individual people are nominated there is only one black nominee: Zawe Ashton for Fresh Meat. Then there is the issue of trying to figure out which show goes into what category. Is Uncle a sitcom or a comedy drama? In the eyes of the BCA it is a comedy drama, but many people say that’s wrong. Lastly there is the issue of all the shows and people that did not get nominated, but probably deserved to be.

But for me, the diversity problem is the main issue. I think that the clearest evidence for this are the nominations for “Best International Comedy Programme” – all four nominees are American shows, and two of them are either created or hosted by Britons: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Armando Iannucci’s Veep. It should be pointed out that the shortlist for each category is picked by only a few of the total number of judges and that all voting is secret, so it is possible that not all the judges will agree on the outright winner.

Given that this is an “International” prize though, there should be some programmes that come from more than one country. There must be at least one comedy show outside of the USA that is good. The winner of the Rose d’Or “Comedy Award” was an Israeli show called Little Mom. In Iraq there is currently a comedy show that is taking the risk of mocking the Islamic State. There is no mention of either these shows in the BCA, but perhaps that is not surprising as British TV broadcast so little foreign language comedy.

According to the BCA Rulebook: “This  award  recognises  all  exclusively  non-UK  produced  broken  (i.e.  sketch)  and  unbroken  (i.e.  sitcom  or  comedy  drama)  narrative  comedy  programmes  and  comedy  entertainment  programmes,  one-off  or  TV  films  in  the  English  language  which  have  had  their  first  UK  transmission  during  the  eligibility.” But that is unfair on shows that are only streamed. Comedies only available on websites like Netflix are ruled out.

This is a big issue. British TV is more than happy to broadcast foreign language dramas like The Killing, but foreign language comedy hardly gets a look in. The most recent ones I can think of are Anglo-Norwegian Lilyhammer which aired on BBC Four; Næturvaktin (The Night Shift), an Icelandic sitcom also on BBC Four whose star Jon Gnarr later became mayor of Reykjavik; and French sketch show Vous Les Femmes (WOMEN!) on late-night BBC Two, which was like a cross between Smack the Pony and The Fast Show.

I would love to see the BBC and other broadcasters diversifying into more shows like this. I myself already have a head-start when it comes to this sort of thing. As regular visitors to this website may already know I write a column for On the Box covering Japanese anime, and I can tell you that I have seen plenty of comedy anime that is funnier than stuff from either Britain or the USA. There are ideas in anime that you could never imagine occurring over here and all sorts of characters, ranging from rubber pirates, headless bikers, demonic Victorian butlers, students with fascistic fashion sense, and the stereotypical personifications of almost every nation on Earth. However, unless the BCA change the policy and allow online streamed shows to be nominated or more TV networks expand their range, I sense that the chances of the BCA covering anything that is not from the States are around nil.

Now, while I do work for the British Comedy Guide, which earlier this year held the nominations for the “Best Internet Comedy Short” for the BCA, I feel that the BCG’s very own Comedy.co.uk Awards are a much better set of prizes (although I do admit to being biased obviously). While we don’t have any international awards however, the Comedy.co.uk Awards have other advantages.

For starters, we have no shortlists. Because of this, every single British comedy that year automatically gets nominated for its relevant categories. Secondly, we are more democratic as all but one of our prizes is voted for by the public – think the National Television Awards, but aimed at dedicated comedy fans. Lastly, not only do people get the chance to vote for which shows are the best but also for which shows were the worst. We are the only comedy awards in Britain where you can pick the “Worst Comedy of the Year”, where you can’t help but feel that this year the winner is going to be somewhat predictable.

In summary, the Comedy.co.uk Awards is the voice for comedy fans. The British Comedy Awards is the piss-up for the comedy establishment.

The British Comedy Awards will be presented live on Channel 4 on 16th December. Voting for the Comedy.co.uk Awards will begin on the British Comedy Guide in January.

Five reasons to get excited for the return of The Fall

November 13, 2014 by  
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Today marks the highly anticipated return of eerily-cool crime drama The Fall to BBC Two, bringing with it the perfect accompaniment to a chill winter’s evening.

The show was the channel’s highest rated drama series launch in eight years, with an average of 3.5 million viewers tuning in every week to watch its compelling tale of hunter becoming the hunted.

If you haven’t seen the first season, make your excuses and settle in for a day of catching up – it’s available for free on BBC iPlayer right now.

In return for angering your boss or missing a catch-up with friends, you’ll be rewarded with a gripping psychological thriller, as Gillian Anderson’s enigmatic detective superintendent is pitched against Jamie Dornan’s exacting serial killer.

Don’t worry that the killer’s identity is revealed pretty much from the off – this isn’t your average procedural whodunnit, but a dark insight into lives entangled by a particularly horrific series of murders.

So here’s why we should all be excited at spending the next five weeks checking all the doors and windows are locked at exactly 10pm every Thursday night:

1. Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson

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With roles like Miss Havisham in the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations and Blanche DuBois in the National Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Anderson has already done more than enough to escape the shadow cast by The X-Files’ Agent Dana Scully. But DSI Stella Gibson really is her crowning glory. Clearly the intellectual superior of her colleagues, a feminist, fearless and sexually liberated, The Fall would be nothing without her at its centre.

2. Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector

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Sure, the whole world and its husband and wife now know Jamie Dornan as actor cast to play 50 Shades Of Grey’s Christian Grey. They should also get to know Dornan as Paul Spector, the psychosexual killer in The Fall. On the face of it, his character is ridiculous – an impossibly handsome bereavement counsellor who lives at home with his wife and two children…and also leads a double life as a murderer of women. It says everything about Dornan’s acting chops that he still manages to make Spector so utterly believable.

3. It showcases powerful female roles

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It might sound counter-intuitive for a show that revolves around the brutal murder of beautiful women, but The Fall puts women in control at the heart of a world beset by terribly flawed men. The police investigation into Spector’s crimes would be hopeless without Gibson, who in turn needs the analysis of pathologist Reed Smith (played by The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi, pictured above) for essential clues. And the first episode of series two features two great scenes where the aggressive male/submissive female gender roles are quite brilliantly reversed through the subtlest of actions.

4. It’s the best non-Scandinavian Nordic Noir yet

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When trying to replicate the success of Scandinavian hits like The Killing or The Bridge, English-language television went for straight remakes, losing the originals’ essence in the process. The Fall certainly attracts comparison with the likes of The Killing – its detached, female detective, washed-out palette and haunting, ambient score for starters. In actual fact, The Fall’s script was developed long before Sarah Lund and her natty line of sweaters ever appeared on British screens.

5. The Fall is a British drama that can compete with the best US television going

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If you look at the market for box sets right now, it’s no surprise to see it dominated by US shows. Going head to head with the likes of Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards and The Walking Dead, British drama still struggles to compete with the budget and brains behind them. While it may not have the resources of its US counterparts, The Fall is a show that punches well above its weight among any of the top televisual contenders. How do we know this? Well, as with all great series, no matter how late the time is, try getting to the end of an episode without thinking: “Oh go on, just one more.”

The Fall starts tonight on BBC Two at 9pm

Follow Nick Norton on Twitter @OnlyForKoolKids

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 79 – Princess Princess

November 11, 2014 by  
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Despite the title, Princess Princess is actually set in a boys’ school. The original manga ran from 2002 to 2006, with a 12-part anime broadcast in 2006 as well. Although the manga is set in a boys’ school, this manga is written for girls, and has is created by a woman under the pen-name of Mikiyo Tsuda. The anime, unlike the original manga, is also an example of “shonen-ai” – gay romance (for another example see No. 69 – Tokyo Babylon).

Set in the Fujimori Boys’ School, the best school in the area, the main character Toru Kouno has just transferred to the institution. When he transfers, he gets a job at the school as one of the “Princesses”. The Princesses get lots of benefits: more free time, free school meals, free school supplies, and some money made from modelling for photos.

The downside, as you might have guessed from the job title and the image above, is that they have to dress up as girls. The reason for this job is because the students get bored being surrounded by boys all the time, so they a select few boys to dress up as girls for special occasions and to motivate the other students.

Toru decides to become a Princess because of all the free stuff that he gets. Aside from Toru there are two other Princesses: Yuujirou Shihoudani, who has no problems at all with crossdressing, but is rather distant from his family whom he considers perfect; and Mikoto Yutaka, who is more reluctant than the others about the job because he does not want his girlfriend Megumi to find out what he does.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Princess Princess is simply the premise of the whole thing: boys having to dress as girls in order to make the rest of their male colleagues feel less bored with their environment. It’s hard to think of how many boys who would do such a thing, even with all the freebies you would get. Don’t get me wrong, there would be some people who would be more than happy to do it (my transgender lover Jared for one), but I doubt there would be that many who would do it voluntarily.

Thus, some people have complained about the “forced” crossdressing aspect of it, as well as being unrealistic, which let’s be honest it is. You can’t imagine a British boys’ school doing such a thing, and even if such a school did do it you could argue the thoughts would be rather disturbing. Eton is the most famous boys’ school in the country, so imagine what it would be like if notable students there had to dress up as girls. Could you picture in your mind’s eye the sight of David Cameron and Boris Johnson being made to crossdress for all the fags? If you can, I can assure you that this is a mental image you won’t be able to get out of your head for a long time.

Some people do like the series however for its characters and humour, but it must be said there are probably one or two people fantasising what is below the skirts. To be fair, I think most of the boys at Fujimori are thinking that too, even if they know who the boys are. This is therefore a very niche series.

But perhaps most interestingly of all is that this anime has a live-action version. Imagine auditioning for the lead roles in that – or the pushy parent forcing their son to take the role.

Princess Princess is available on Region 1 DVD from Media Blasters.

A Defence of “The Blackadder View of History”

November 11, 2014 by  
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Earlier this year there was debate sparked between historians, politicians, journalists and entertainers about the historical accuracy of Blackadder Goes Forth . Critics of the series believe that the sitcom was too critical of its portrayal of World War One. This has led to one form of critical attack dubbed: “The Blackadder view of history”.

Originally this was simply a debate between historians and that’s fair enough. After all they are experts of World War One. These are the people who should be debating whether we should have entered WWI or not. The problem really started were other people got involved in the debate. Jeremy Paxman was one of the first people to be critical about, having written a book about the conflict last year and attacking schools for using Blackadder as a teaching tool.

However, the problem really started to escalate when the then Education Secretary Michael Gove said in an interview with the Daily Mail that left-wing academics were using Blackadder, as well as other series and films like Oh! What a Lovely War and The Monocled Mutineer to teach a biased view of history.

This resulted in Blackadder star and left-wing activist Sir Tony Robinson attacking Gove. Robinson said that Gove was “slagging off teachers” and, “it’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War. When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool.”

Most recently Ben Elton was inspired by Gove’s comments to write his latest novel, Time and Time Again, which is about a man who travels back in time to try and prevent World War I from happening. Although one cannot help but think that what most people secretly want to see Elton write is a fifth series of Blackadder, because it’s the only way we will forgive him for all the other detritus he’s written since then.

There are several problems with this debate. For one, people are just going to agree with who they like more. If you like Tony Robinson, you will agree with his views that Blackadder is helpful and fair; if you like Michael Gove, you will be more inclined to his argument about the sitcom being biased. Some readers might be perplexed at the idea of people liking Michael Gove, but at least 31,326 people in Surrey Heath did in 2010.

Blackadder is a sitcom, and the point of a sitcom is to make people laugh. Most people trying to claim some deeper meaning are likely being pretentious or reading into things that aren’t there. Of course, there are some serious moments, the most famous being the ending in which Blackadder, Baldrick, George and Darling go over-the-top and are presumably killed in No Man’s Land. The ending famously failed to make an impact when it was recorded, and it was not until it was being edited that it became the iconic scene we know today, with the slow-motion footage and the image of the poppies coming into view.

Yes, it’s somewhat stereotypical in terms of its attitude towards World War One, but you have to remember that people believe what is being said because they find it engaging. People are always going to be more interested in a topic if it is presented in way that connects with them. It may be cynical, but I believe that people normally go for personality rather than substance in terms of ideas. Viewers are more likely going to find a comedy about World War One more enticing than a documentary about it, and there’s going to be a lot of documentaries in the coming years.

Thus, I would argue that if you want to people to engage with history or any academic subject it is best to follow the BBC’s original motto: “Inform, Educate and Entertain”. Perhaps it is not surprising that John Lloyd, the producer of Blackadder, went on to create QI. To the people critical of “the Blackadder view of history”: make a show that is informative, educational and entertaining about WWI and which portrays the conflict in the way you think it should be shown.

However since Blackadder is so iconic, any show about WWI is likely to be seen as derivative and judged harshly. The most recent WWI TV comedy series is the Sky1 sitcom Chickens about the only three men left in a village who are not fighting in the trenches: one for health reasons, one for moral reasons, and one for seemingly no good reason whatsoever.  The show got mixed reviews.

“The Blackadder view of history” is just one view. If you are against it, then come up with a more persuasive argument.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 78 – Baka and Test

November 4, 2014 by  
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We continue to look at anime set in schools that would never exist in real life. This time we look at a school which combines currently non-existent technology with what has to be the most extreme form of educational streaming imaginable.

The title of this anime also features my favourite Japanese word. The word “baka” fits into that small category of words like “feck” which sound rather rude to English ears but is not too offensive. Say it out aloud and it sounds a bit like “bugger”, but actually “baka” simply means “idiot”.

Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts, often just shortened to Baka and Test, began as a series of novels written between 2007-2013 by Kenji Inoue, with several manga versions also made. Two anime TV series and original video anime were made between 2010 and 2011.

The school setting is Fumizuki Academy, where the school is divided into six classes, Class A, Class B and so on down to Class F. Class A has the brightest students, who are also given the best equipment and all the luxuries they could want. Class B is slightly less luxurious and the students are slightly worse academically. The series however follows the students in Class F, where the dumbest students are forced to study and are given the worst, most basic equipment. However, classes are able to challenge each other in order to capture or retain better facilities. This is where the technology comes in.

Each class can summon a battle, overseen by a teacher. The students fight using special avatars, aka “Summoned Beings”. Each Summoned Being has a different strength, based on their academic scores in the field of study the overseeing teacher specialises in. So if you being overseen by a maths teacher, your strength is based on scores in maths tests. The Summoned Being loses points each time it is hit. While you can flee battle and take extra tests to boost your score, the student still has to be careful because if they reach zero, they lose the battle and a forced to take remedial lessons under the Fumizuki Academy’s strictest teacher, Soichi “Iron Man” Nishimura.

The central story revolves around Class F student Akihisa Yoshii, the titular “baka”. He is hopeless academically, but dreams that one day all students will be treated the same in the academy. His one useful feature is that his Summoned Being is tangible and can do things in the real world like carrying things. The problem is that when one gets hurt, so does the other. Akihisa finds himself in the middle of a love triangle in the class between two female students. One is Mizuki Himeji, who is actually one of the smartest students in the school, but ended up in Class F because she fell ill on the day on the entrance exam, meaning she scored zero. The other is Minami Shimada, a student who has spent most of her life in Germany and thus while clever has difficulty reading Japanese. She has a seemingly hostile attitude, but is more caring on the inside.

Aside from these three, the other main students in Class F are Akihisa’s old school-friend Yuji Sakamoto, who is actually very smart but did not bother to study when he entered the academy and now works as the class representative; Hideyoshi Kinoshita, a male student who actually looks incredibly feminine and keeps having to correct people about his gender; and Kota Tsuchiya, the class pervert who spends most of his time taking rude photos of his female classmates and selling them on, often to Akihisa.

As you might have already gathered, one of the major flaws of this series is the complicated nature of the situation. You have this mixture of extreme (lack of) academic ability, combined with this fighting element. It does get rather confusing so understanding where you are at any given point can be difficult.

However, put that aside the actual plots between the classmates are more interesting. This becomes true when the love triangle between Akihisa, Mizuki and Minami starts to play out. Mizuki and Minami both have their own comic areas. Minami is violent and often takes out her frustrations on Akihisa. Meanwhile Mizuki is totally oblivious to the fact that she cannot cook at all, despite the fact that every dish she makes tends to poison anyone who eats it.

The other characters are also equally comic. Feminine Hideyoshi is a brilliant actor and thus his acting and mimicry are useful in battles, while Kota’s extreme perversion leads to plenty of over-the-top reactions to anything that sounds remotely sexy. Yuji meanwhile has problems with one of the Class A students, a girl called Shoko Kirishima who is madly in love with him and acts violent if Yuji even so much as looks at another girl.

If you can get past the bizarre situation, you have a rather fun, somewhat zany comedy anime.

The two TV series of Baka and Test are released on DVD by Manga Entertainment.

Mad Men – What Don, Peggy and Betty did next…

November 3, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

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As Matthew Weiner’s stylish, critically acclaimed and brilliantly nuanced series draws to a close, we’re taking a look at the cast that shaped the iconic series over the years, and how their careers have progressed since taking up their roles at Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce.

Jon Hamm – Don Draper
Jon Hamm’s defining role as the tortured, brilliant Don Draper has won him legions of fans, and elevated him to the A-list, but success wasn’t easy to come by for the Missouri-born actor. He was dropped by the famous William Morris Agency and saw his audition for Mad Men as his final shot at success. Since winning the role of a lifetime, Hamm has taken on a diverse range of roles- including a scene-stealing performance as Kristen Wiig’s lecherous love interest in box office smash Bridesmaids, a hardened FBI agent in the Ben Affleck-directed crime drama The Town, and a maverick sports agent in Million Dollar Arm. He’s also jumped behind the camera, honing his directing skills on a couple of episodes of Mad Men.

Christina Hendricks – Joan Harris (nee Holloway)
Hendricks’ role as the office queen bee and eventual partner in the agency was originally intended to only be a guest role. However, Matthew Weiner was so impressed with her screen presence that she was promoted to a cast regular. Her career has stepped up a gear since taking the somewhat iconic role of Joan Harris, with roles in Nicholas Winding-Refn’s critically-acclaimed Drive and Sally Potter’s drama Ginger and Rosa. She’s also starred in two high-profile directorial debuts- fellow Mad Men alumni John Slattery’s crime drama God’s Pocket, and Ryan Gosling’s urban fairy tale Lost River.

Elisabeth Moss – Peggy Olson
Arguably the real central character of Mad Men, Moss’s turn as Peggy Olson has garnered her five Emmy nominations, and countless other awards. Olson’s evolution from shy office secretary to ambitious, confident and complex Copy Chief is handled masterfully by Moss, and she shows no sign of slowing down – her recent work includes award-winning performances as Detective Robin Griffin in mini-series Top of the Lake, and as one half of a struggling married couple undergoing unusual therapy in The One I Love.

John Slattery – Roger Sterling
Slattery was born to play the suave, charismatic and irresistible Roger Sterling, a character who is often cited as a fan favourite for obvious reasons. Since the series began, Slattery has expanded an already impressive filmography, with roles in Charlie Wilson’s War, Iron Man 2 and The Adjustment Bureau. He’s also directed several episodes of Mad Men, and made his feature directorial debut with crime drama God’s Pocket, which starred the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and fellow cast member Christina Hendricks.

Vincent Kartheiser – Pete Campbell
One of the most loathed characters in the series, the moral complexities of Pete Campbell are reflected in the audience’s equally complex relationship with the character. Vincent Kartheiser’s brilliant portrayal has often left viewers disgusted, frustrated, and occasionally elated (particularly when taken down a peg or two by Don Draper). Over the last few years, he has starred in an impressive range of both high-profile features and indie shorts, including Alpha Dog (the drama based on the life of drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood), short thriller Waning Moon, and sci-fi blockbuster In Time.

January Jones – Betty Francis
Jones originally auditioned for the role of Peggy Olson, but was eventually cast as the icy, Grace Kelly-esque Betty Francis (formerly Draper). Her difficult relationship with ex-husband Don, as well as her increasingly strained relationships with daughter Sally and husband Henry provide much of the drama in Season 7, as her inability to connect or empathise becomes increasingly problematic. Jones has since starred alongside Liam Neeson in action thriller Unknown, as well as Marvel super-villain Emma Frost in X Men: First Class.

Jessica Pare – Megan Draper
As the third Mrs Draper, Megan has proved a thoroughly divisive character, garnering sympathy as she struggles to deal with Don’s indiscretions, and also derision for her sometimes petty, immature behaviour towards others as she pursues an acting career. One thing that most agree on, however, is that Pare’s casting breathed new life into the show. Pare has since shown a penchant for comedy, starring in The Trotsky, Suck and Hot Tub Time Machine among others.

Kiernan Shipka – Sally Draper
Kiernan Shipka’s pitch-perfect performance as the troubled, wayward adolescent Sally has won her critical acclaim, and at the age of 14, she is one of the youngest to appear on rite-of-passage Inside the Actors Studio. Shipka’s portrayal of Sally’s teenage rebellion is masterful, and her scenes with on-screen parents Don and Betty are key highlights of Season 7. The fact that she is able to hold her own at such a young age amongst acting stalwarts is commendable in itself, but her recent appearances in TV movie Flowers in the Attic, and shorts A Rag Doll Story, Squeaky Clean and We Rise Like Smoke have further cemented her status as a formidable acting talent in the making.

Robert Morse – Bertram Cooper
Founding partner and self –assigned godfather of the office, Bertram Cooper’s eccentric ways often mask his wily and self-serving true nature, while frequently providing comic relief in tenser moments. Robert Morse is an acting stalwart and Broadway veteran, earning multiple nominations and wins for Tony’s, Drama Desk awards and Emmys over the course of five decades. Since joining the cast of Mad Men, he’s taken roles in dramedy-western The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, as well as lending his voice to animations The Legend of Korra and Sofia the First.

Christopher Stanley – Henry Francis
Since joining the cast in 2009, Stanley’s character has evolved from Betty’s saviour to a subtle menace. Season 7 sees him slowly revealing an insidiously misogynistic side, leaving Betty considering the unpalatable idea she may have simply swapped one prison for another. Since 2009, Stanley has expanded his resume by starring in the critically acclaimed Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, as well as short film The Terrain.

Mad Men: Season 7, Part One is available to pre-order now, and is released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 3rd, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

Stephen Tomkinson: Welcome to retail

November 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

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Stephen Tompkinson is one of the country’s most beloved actors, from starring in Ballykissangel back in 1996 to the string of TV hits he boasts today, including Drop the Dead Donkey, Wild at Heart and DCI Banks. He now joins Sky1’s Trollied, as the egotistical pharmacist, Brian.

Why did you sign on to Trollied?
I’d seen the show and liked it a lot. I’ve been doing DCI Banks for a while now and, this year, was looking to do some comedy. Banks rarely cracks a smile so this is a nice antithesis. Plus, the fact that I’d never done anything for Sky. I had a meeting with my agent about what my wish list for 2014 would be and I said, ideally, I’d like to do a comedy for Sky, and, honestly, the very next day was when Nick Goding [the producer], who I worked with on Wild at Heart, rang up and asked whether I’d consider joining Trollied. It was a twist of fate I couldn’t ignore.

How would you describe your character Brian?
He’s absolutely delusional. They’ve introduced a pharmacy into the set and that’s Brian’s world – he sees the rest of the supermarket as an inconvenience. A GP might save three or four people a day and then go and play a round of golf, but Brian’s at the frontline of medicine. Every pill he dispenses is a potential life-saver, so that’s hundreds of people. He diagnoses everyone and sees himself as the House of the pharmaceutical world. Delusions of grandeur, certainly. It’s lovely and to be partnered with Rita [May, who plays Margaret] has been a joy.

So Brian and Margaret are partners in crime?
They sort of need each other. She calls him Doctor Brian, which he doesn’t object to because he failed medical school. All his family are doctors, his mum, dad, wife, brother, his other brother, their kids – he’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder about that. Margaret, meanwhile, calls herself Nurse Margaret, so, yes, they’re well suited. It’s a great springboard to develop a fully-fledged double act, which I’m thrilled about.

What has the atmosphere on set been like?
They welcomed me with open arms. Having Nick producing and Paul Harrison directing – who I’ve worked with more than any other director – plus I’ve worked with Rita before, and Jason [Watkins, who plays Gavin] on a three-part BBC thing called In Denial of Murder. I’ve known Jason since I was at drama school anyway. We used to meet on the football field 20, no, 30 years ago. Good lord! He’s a wonderful, detailed, classy actor. Then there’s Miriam [Margolyes] of course. She’s a unique force of nature, just terrific.

Have you got any ambitions you’d still like to fulfill?
My career has been better than I could have possibly imagined, so I’d like to keep that going. There is unchartered territory wherever you look in the acting world and I’m more than happy to have a go. I’ve never wanted to be pigeonholed and am always curious about things I’ve never done before.

How about playing an out-and-out villain?
As soon as you get slightly established you want to spread your wings in another direction and I’ve never really done an out-and-out villain on screen. I have on stage, though, which I thoroughly enjoyed. That’s something that would be on the wish list for next year.

What was your first job, out of curiosity?
I used to work in a fruit and veg place.

Ah, so you’ve got some retail experience?
Oh, yeah. We also did poultry and fish. One of my lovely jobs was to deliver all the scraps we didn’t need as pigs’ swill. It was a very glamorous start to my career.

Trollied returns to Sky1 on Monday, November 3rd.

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