What is a sex party? “Well,” says Sandy – first time orgyist and Sloane extraordinaire, “It’s a party where everyone has sex.” Is there a little more to it than that? Not really. Sex Party Secrets focusses on the apparently new phenomeon of turning up at a stately home, having a complimentary drink, flopping out your genitals and offering them up to whoever wants a grope. It’s swinging with a fine emphasis on posh furniture.
Lots of the participants are sexually enlightened; clearly at ease with their desires, bodies, and boundaries. Some of them are even managing to uphold the whitest unicorn of all sexual relationships – the happy and functioning open marriage. Then there’s Sandy and Poppy. God only knows why they decided to go to a sex party because even they seem confused. The only thing they apparently learned from their experience is that if you give oral sex to a woman your mouth will taste like pussy afterwards – a shock, apparently.
The other party goers are much less irritating when probed on their reasons for going to sex parties. But all of their answers can be summarised as; “There was a point in my life where I wasn’t having that much sex, and it was rubbish because I really like sex, but now I have lots of sex with lots of different people and I like that.” Some of them really string out this answer, often with bizarre consequences. John, a sex party host who constantly appears on the verge of tears, is definitely worth a look. In between gushing about how human beings shouldn’t be embarrassed about their sexuality, he also goes into strange tangents about his previous job (mating fish) and how establishing ambience and playing Barry White is important for both species.
If John has built a successful business model on making fish horny, Chris has a different ethos. Chris filters the people allowed to attend his sex parties so that only the ‘elite’ can attend. The ‘elite’ means ‘people Chris and/or his girlfriend want to have sex with’. Essentially, he’s getting women he wants to have sex with to pay him so that he has sex with them; which is basically genius. At one party he says that he had sex with fourteen of his elite girls so it’s hard to deny he’s getting job satisfaction.
Louise, another sex party host, has a much more egalitarian attitude and people of all ages, shapes and sizes are encouraged to pile in, leading one of her guests to have a mindblowing relevation of his own. “The human race is all kinds of ages. You’re born young, then you get older. That’s life.” I, for one, am glad he had the opportunity to share such a valuable lesson.
On a totally unrelated note, the planet may be overpopulated.
Sex Party Secrets will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursday 8th of January 2015
“We don’t have any questions, or even an intro…”, chuckles Alan Davies, shortly before his guests join him for the second series of As Yet Untitled. It’s the show that brings together some of Britain’s favourite comics for a few pints and directionless chit-chat. If you’re lucky you’ll hear them spill some juicy secrets from the past. If not, you’re still in for an hour of unscripted comedy gold.
Don’t worry if you failed to catch the first series, it’s a pretty easy concept to get your head around. An ensemble of comedians are gathered around an old table, plied with alcohol, and left to talk about pretty much anything and everything.
Although Davies is now more commonly known as the Yin to Stephen Fry’s Yang, the show is a great reminder of his natural ability for comedy, providing a throw-back to his earlier stand-up career. His role as guide, as opposed to presenter, means that he can surpass the usual question-answer routine, while also allowing for his usual moments of forgetfulness and confusion.
The first guests of series 2 are panel show favourites Jimmy Carr and Holly Walsh, Edinburgh fledgling Seann Walsh, and comedy veteran Tommy Tiernan. The usual mix of comedians old and new, Oxbridge and non-Oxbridge, and of various ages, always creates a great combination. It’s surprising to see how well they all bounce off each other in an unscripted environment, and this is part of the magic of the show.
Overall it’s the individual stories about how each comedian made their way into stand-up that really proves to be the gem of episode 1, giving you a unique insight into their lives that you often don’t get within the time restraints and promotional requirements of prime-time chat shows. Expect a mixture of university comedy troupes, an escape route from the mundanities of corporate life, and long-twisting tales of mishaps and marriages.
As Yet Untitled isn’t just a journey through the lives of Britain’s best comics. It’s an insight into the magic of old formats, long before Ross and Norton dominated the celebrity-sphere, and proof that they can still work.
As Yet Untitled will air on Dave, Thursday 6th January 2015.
This the best sort of yearly review: one which takes place after the whole year has taken place, because you never know what sort of events are going to take place on the last few days of the year… and indeed something did happen which caused a bit of conflict between host Adam Hills and the viewers.
The Last Leg, described as the show in which, “three guys with four legs talking about the week” has rolled along impressively since it began, when it was covering the 2012 London Paralympics. Hills, along with Josh Widdicombe, Alex Brooker, and the wide range of guests that have appeared recently (in this edition it was Richard Ayoade), have made this probably the most entertaining chat show around.
This being a review of the year, there was not only the #isitok questions tweeted in by the viewers, but there was also the bigger issue of this year’s “Dick of the Year”. Last year it went to Vladimir Putin, and now it was up to the viewers and the guests to make their choices. These ranged from the Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood who were nominated by Widdicombe; Ayoade’s choice of Max Clifford – partly for his sex offences and partly for his terrible autobiography which he wrote entirely in the third person; while Hills had originally wanted to name Rolf Harris because Hills’s favourite childhood song, “Jake the Peg”, has now been ruined.
However, in one of his trademark rants, Hills turned his attention to Katie Hopkins because of her remarks about Ebola and Glasgow as well as all the other things she has said over the year. The problem was however that Hills did not want people to vote for Hopkins on the grounds that she is such an internet troll that she would enjoy being named the “Dick of the Year”. In the end, the viewers did vote for Hopkins, but an executive decision was made to not give her the prize and instead give it to second-place Nigel Farage (in case you are wondering, I voted for Darren Wilson, the Caucasian police officer who shot African-American Michael Brown dead in Ferguson, Missouri and thus started a wave of rioting and racial tension across the USA).
Voting was another subject that came up in the show, as The Last Leg looked forward to this year’s General Election, and the fact that Brooker, like so many people in Britain, is so apathetic that he probably won’t vote because all the major party leaders are so unappealing. Thus a #pollalex hashtag has begun to try and get politicians on the programme to try and get Brooker to vote – and if anyone can make Brooker vote they probably deserve to win.
The original focus on this show is the subject of disability, but I feel that The Last Leg is somewhat biased in covering some disabilities over others, and I say this as someone who has a disability. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and I feel that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and indeed people with mental and learning disabilities in general are overlooked by TV. Without wishing to sound crass, I feel that I’m not represented because I don’t “look” disabled. I think TV – and I’m worried that The Last Leg is sadly guilty of this too – are only willing to show people who are missing a limb, are vertically challenged or have some sort of “hardware”, whether that be a white cane, a hearing aid, a wheelchair etc. because TV executives think that the public are only going to judge someone by their looks. People need to discover what is going on inside people’s heads, their bodies and their souls to make a full opinion of someone.
I believe this extends into sport and sports coverage too. In the Paralympics people with ASDs are rarely included because the effects of it are so wide ranging, but the rules are so rigged that only a small number of people meet the requirements to enter, such as having an IQ below 75. Some autistic people do make it however, one being gold medal winning swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate (congratulations to her), but the numbers are still very small. Also, while Channel 4 is happy to show the Paralympics, no-one in the UK is televising this year’s Special Olympics, which does feature people with learning disabilities.
To help address this, I would like to ask an #isitok question of my own right now. It probably won’t get read out on the show and it probably won’t be read by any of the presenters, but I want to ask it anyway: #isitok to apply to be a mental and learning disability correspondent for The Last Leg or Channel 4 News in general? I want to help address the problem by working alongside you: mental disability, learning disability and physical disability, working hand-in-hand-in-artificial-hand to promote greater understanding amongst all.
Score: 4 / 5 (but it will go up to 5 / 5 if you give me the job)
This New Year’s Day sees the beginning of Conquest of the Skies 3D, the latest instalment in Sky 3D’s seven part Attenborough marathon. The series, which Attenborough himself has described as his most complex and challenging to date, delivers a comprehensive overview of the evolutionary history of flight, mapping the progress from the very first insects that once dominated our planet, through to the early winged lizards pre- and eventually post-feathering, and onto the present day aerial-masters.
The cinematography is jaw-dropping, which probably goes without saying based on Attenborough’s track record. It’s a visual feast from start to finish. A bit of a cliché I know, but maybe that’s appropriate; the standard is so unflinchingly perfect, that we can use clichés safely without fear of insincerity. Show me something else that deserves the label more and I’ll find some more original language.
In spite of an insect hatred, I sat completely transfixed as creepy-crawlies glided and pirouetted around with the most oddly beautiful grace. From the delicate yet precise acrobatics of newly metamorphosed dragonflies (am I the only one who didn’t realise they did this?) and the blundering, clumsy flight of a giant beetle (suspended in motion before Attenborough as he explains its adaptations) to the common housefly, expertly outmanoeuvring Sir David’s attempts to swat it away from his steak dinner with effortless agility. I’m not a fan of 3D in general but maybe this is the kind of thing we should reserve it for. Combined with the HD and frequent use of slow motion, the result is startlingly immersive. It feels almost like an invasion of privacy, like we’re truly stepping into the domain of nature’s aeronauts.
It’s often joked that Attenborough does not feature an awful lot on location these days (pretty ungenerously considering he is getting on a bit), but these jibes are made a little redundant in this series which shows us, in one remarkable segment, the 88-year-old harnessed up and suspended 200ft high in the Gomantong caves in Borneo, as hundreds upon thousands of bats swarm around him in an astonishing dusk time exodus. Sir David did note that during the first 30 seconds the crew were very concerned for his welfare and comfort, before realising they’d been a bit trigger happy, and drifted into indifference. Left swinging around in lonely solitude for the next half an hour as they awaited the bats’ arrival, who knows if he will be quite so willing a volunteer in the next project.
Of course, the majority of the skies are dominated by one particular group; Birds. Sir David’s personal favourites, Birds of Paradise, are missing from the series, but many others from the vast array of bird species do feature, each with their own unique evolutionary features. The series takes us from Rome to Borneo, Scotland to China and introduces us, to pick just a few examples, to the method whereby vultures catch a ride on rising pillars of hot air with the most minimal of effort, how hummingbirds are able to hover both stationary and laterally to collect nectar from a moving source, and the aerial warfare between predatory peregrines and swarms of starlings in the air above Rome.
The series is not without some mild detractions, though. One sequence wherein a long-ago extinct pterosaur was brought to life with the help of CGI did cause some confusion in terms of realism. I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone had too much trouble sussing out that the dinosaur was a fabrication, but problems did arise later with some of the more remarkable real life shots, one in particular seeing Attenborough streaking along in a speedboat inches beneath a swan in flight. Some viewers seemed to have difficulty deciding whether CGI had played a part in this shot too, but no, it’s very real and completely stunning. Perhaps this taps into concerns about the future of natural science broadcasting; are we heading down a more computer-animated path that could detract from the verisimilitude of documentaries? Will form eventually outweigh content? Or are the viewing public’s perceptions likely to place restrictions on the evolution of the documenting process?
Attenborough, who himself has always been quick to embrace and pioneer new technology and techniques for documenting the natural world (the move to 3D being just one example), seemed to understand these concerns when they were raised in the post-screening Q&A—“God forbid we let our enthusiasm for technology outweigh our love of the animals we’re documenting,” to paraphrase his response—but ultimately believed that the outsourcing of technological development to specialist partner companies did still allow for the documentarians’ focus to ultimately centre on the animal subjects.
No doubt the team are busy brainstorming for next Christmas—I personally can’t wait to see what’s next.
The first episode of Conquest of the Skies 3D will be broadcast New Years Day at 7pm on Sky 3D and Sky1
When American Dad! began in 2005, it was a satire of post-9/11 America under the Bush administration, using the ultra-conservative character of CIA agent Stan Smith (Seth MacFarlane) to poke fun at the right-wing zealots that the show’s creators believed were running the country.
During its first few seasons, the series tackled many controversial issues, such as the threat of domestic terrorism (in Season 1’s Homeland Insecurity), gun control (in Season 1’s Stannie Get Your Gun) and government surveillance (in Season 2’s I Can’t Stan You). Now in its 10th season, American Dad! has long since abandoned political satire in favour of surreal riffs on popular culture. While still amusing, it increasingly resembles the zany Simpsons replica its detractors have always accused it of being.
The Season 10 première, Steve & Snot’s Test-Tubular Adventure, is a parody of various science fiction films that focuses on nerdy teenagers Steve (Scott Grimes) and Snot (Curtis Armstrong) attempting to clone a pair of high school girls in order to lose their virginity. When the clones emerge from their pods, helpless and looking for guidance, Steve and Snot find themselves torn between paternal love and raging adolescent lust.
The plot is as distasteful as it sounds, but writers Jordan Blum and Parker Deay manage to avoid turning the episode into a hateful piece of misogyny. It’s clear that Steve and Snot are meant to be the butt of the joke, as they struggle to cope with the consequences of having the sex they so desperately crave, and the show repeatedly highlights the stupidity of female objectification through the characters of Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane) and Roger (Seth MacFarlane). In most cases, the absurdity of the episode’s storyline makes it too silly to be genuinely offensive, and lines such as “oh my God, I wish I had your eating disorder” succeed on audacity alone. However, the sequence in which Stan inflicts violence on the clones, who exist solely to fulfil the male characters’ sexual desires, is more problematic and undermines the episode’s larger message. It’s almost as if the writers are trying to have their cake and eat it, laughing at violence towards women while disingenuously telling viewers that they don’t really mean it.
Steve & Snot’s Test-Tubular Adventure is a so-so episode of American Dad! that sticks closely to the show’s familiar formula of bad taste gags and fantastical plots. The homages to Weird Science, Blade Runner and many other iconic sci-fi films are well executed and will entertain movie buffs, but the main storyline feels tired (Steve has been concocting elaborate schemes to lose his virginity since the pilot) and simply an excuse to run through a catalogue of pop culture references. Season 1’s A Smith in The Hand dealt with teenage sexuality far more successfully, examining a contentious political issue with satirical humour in order to make an important ideological point. That episode followed Stan as he learned self-acceptance through the joys of masturbation and, in so doing, realised the importance of proper sex education for young people. There is nothing with that level of insight in Steve & Snot’s Test-Tubular Adventure.
A subplot involving Stan and a cloned Dodo in this episode is symptomatic of the show’s biggest flaw – it’s no longer interested in anything except wacky adventures. Far removed from the climate of fear and paranoia that existed in America in the mid-2000s, MacFarlane’s satire of the War on Terror and neoconservative politics feels outdated and irrelevant. Recognising this, MacFarlane and his team should either have brought the show to an end or found new political targets to lampoon, instead of relying on ever more surreal scenarios to keep viewers entertained. As it enters its 10th season, American Dad! is a shadow of its former self – sporadically funny but long past its best.
American Dad! Season 10 Episode 1 is on Fox at 10pm on 01/01/2015.
*Warning: Contains spoilers*
The Christmas special of Call the Midwife is the first without Jessica Reine and it isn’t diminished for her absence. Jenny Lee may have been the locus point of the action, but Call the Midwife has always been an ensemble piece. Jenny is still there in one form, with Vanessa Redgrave as the narrator who now receives a bit of screentime as she considers writing her memoirs.
The books that the television series is based upon are a good deal darker, nastier and more sinister than what we get on screen but you can still count on Call the Midwife for a bit of seasonal misery. This year, the theme is archaic and inhumane institutions of the early 20th century. Very festive.
And so we are reminded that the poor are always with us at Christmas. This year’s paupers in question are the always excellent Kacey Ainsworth and her lover. They are both former inmates of a lunatic asylum and they live a life of desperate poverty. Thankfully for them, a nurse has come along to patronise them and feel sad on their behalf. You can’t eat moral platitudes, Cynthia, but thanks for that.
The second storyline concerns a home for errant girls, where young women in the family way used to go to discreetly give birth and pass their children on for adoption without arousing the sneers of the neighbours. This home is run by a bad woman. We know she’s bad because she immediately declares herself to be a stickler for hygiene and that’s a clear insanity signifier. As it progresses, she reveals herself to be cruel, imcompetent and a gin-soaked lush. Thankfully, all it takes is a bit of sass from one of the pregnant girls and she’s away with the wind and the girls from Nonnatus House are on their way to provide maternal care, morally dubious emotional blackmail and lashings of ginger beer.
Call the Midwife is essentially an exercise in nostalgia for a time that never existed except perhaps in Ann Widdecombe’s wet dreams. The good and the bad are easily distinguished, and all it takes to vanquish evil is a jolly good ticking off, poverty is a tolerable inconvenience and sometimes even a blessing, love is pure and forever and every woman is a perfect mother in waiting. Or a nun.
Yes, it’s sentimental, mawkish and morally vacuous at its worst but it’s almost impossible to dislike. There is no malice or cruelty and it has a heart which makes it more than bearable. Besides, it’s an impressive feat to make blood, guts, gore, destitution, and unyielding human misery into something so sweet and wholesome.
Call The Midwife is on at 7.50pm on BBC1 on Christmas Day.
When it comes to comedy 2014 has been a year of revivals and remakes. You had the Monty Python reunion, ITV has revived Birds of a Feather, and on Radio 4 they brought back Dead Ringers and re-recorded some episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour that were missing from the archives.
On Boxing Day 2013 another classic comedy was brought back; Open All Hours. However, like with Monty Python there was the minor issue that one of the stars was now dead. Is it at all possible for such a show to maintain a high standard even when a major figure cannot be brought back? Judging by the viewing figures from last year, yes. The pilot for Still Open All Hours attracted over 9 million viewers. Given that this just about outdoes almost all other sitcoms around today, it is not surprising that a full series has been commissioned.
Still Open All Hours is still set in Arkwright’s corner shop in Doncaster, albeit with the late Albert Arkwright (Ronnie Barker) no longer behind the counter – although everyone seems to believe that his spirit and miserliness has become manifested in the shop’s dreaded till. Arkwright’s picture still hangs in the backroom of the shop, looking over everything and everyone. Now Granville runs the shop, inheriting his uncle’s miserly tendencies, assisted by his illegitimate son Leroy (James Baxter).
Granville is trying to woo his long-term love Wavy Mavis (Maggie Ollerenshaw), but her sister Madge (Brigit Forsyth) seems intent on preventing any relationship between the two. Granville still has some of his regular customers like Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron), and the black widow Mrs. Featherstone (Stephanie Cole), who is constantly trying to court him. There are some other relatively new customers such as henpecked Wet Eric (Johnny Vegas) and intestine-troubled Gastric (Tim Healy).
This first episode of the new series, which like the pilot is on Boxing Day, confusingly is set on Valentine’s Day. In it Granville tries to have a night out with Mavis, while trying to match up Gastric with Madge in order to create more opportunities form himself and Mavis – this storyline become a recurring plot in later episodes in the series.
It has to be said that Still Open All Hours is rather good. While Ronnie Barker is of course sadly missed, much of what still makes the series funny is still around: we still have most of the main characters; many of the jokes are recognisable, but not too obvious; the new characters are also funny and played by reliable comedy performers. Aside from Vegas and Healy, there are also people as varied as Nina Wadia and Barry Chuckle (under his real name of Barry Elliott).
Much of the credit has to go to the writer Roy Clarke. It must be said I was slightly worried when he decided to revive Open All Hours originally, because while Clarke is a funny writer, he is not good at deciding when a project should stop. His other famous work is Last of the Summer Wine which may be the longest-running sitcom in the world and one of the most repeated shows on British television, but was past its prime a long time ago. Open All Hours suffers from this problem a lot less because there were only four original series, so when it was revived there was plenty of time to develop new ideas.
Many people complain that reviving such sitcoms shows a lack of imagination on the half of TV commissioners. I would argue that if this show can still pull in the viewers, modern comedy writers need to up their game in order to attract people’s attention.
Gather round, gather round! Bring your family and friends and come join me at the hearth with a warm glass of cocoa (is that still a thing anymore?) to watch the festive edition of Mrs Brown’s Boys!
I wish that were how I could honestly begin this review, but the truth is that the Christmas special is a bit like an awkward family gathering at Christmas; it can be okay at times, but there’s almost certainly something else you’d rather be doing. The special is a watchable, light piece of TV, but it’s unlikely to appeal to anyone outside its established fanbase.
The problem with the episode is arguably a problem with the format of the show. For those unfamiliar with it, Mrs Brown’s Boys is performed live in front of a studio audience, and any mistakes made are caught on camera and kept in the television broadcast. The show is at its funniest when someone forgets a line and the rest of the cast improvise around them; and the frequency with which this happens in previous series is what makes the show easy to love. It shows that there are real people behind those performances and we laugh at their misfortune. But therein lies the rub; it’s easy to laugh at Mrs Brown’s Boys but it’s difficult to laugh with it.
The cast’s ability to adlib is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Yet for almost certainly its biggest audience of the year, the cast have stayed rigidly on script. As a result, a lot of the humour is lost and a weak script that relies too much on innuendo and fourth wall breaking for laughs doesn’t provide any relief. The innuendo quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome. The jokes are often predictable, and even when there are ideas with great potential (SPOILERS: a talking Christmas tree), the comic opportunity is squandered and quickly descends into cringeworthy farce.
The Christmas special is some mildly amusing if unsatisfying comedy that’s an easy watch if you want to put something on the TV, but this is a present that’s best put back under the tree.
Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special will broadcast on BBC One on Thursday 25 December at 10.05pm.
The popular opinion about Ricky Gervais is that he co-wrote and co-directed one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, but that he has produced mediocre work ever since. While Gervais’ output since The Office has lacked that show’s incisiveness and originality, to dismiss Extras and Derek as substandard vanity projects is to miss out on some quality writing and fine comedic performances. Besides, if Gervais hasn’t created anything quite as good as The Office in recent years, then neither has anyone else and his “mediocre” work is still superior to many writers’ best efforts.
Set in a nursing home full of eccentric residents, hard-working carers and socially-awkward volunteers, Gervais’ offbeat Channel 4 sitcom Derek tells the story of a kind-hearted outsider (played by Gervais) and his struggle to answer life’s big existential questions while coming to terms with various emotional traumas, from the death of his elderly friends to estrangement from his long-lost father.
In what may be Gervais’s most melancholy and sentimental piece of work since the Extras finale, Derek: The Special wraps up the series with an hour-long episode based around Hannah (Kerry Goldiman) and Tom’s (Brett Goldstein) unconventional wedding. As the bride and groom prepare for a grim, no-thrills reception in the nursing home, cartoonish supporting character Kev’s (David Earl) longstanding battle with alcoholism and depression reaches crisis point and Derek is forced to confront the possibility of losing his best friend.
It’s not traditional sitcom subject matter, but then Derek isn’t a conventional show, using its odd blend of naturalistic faux-documentary and broad farce to explore heavy themes of grief, loss and survival in the face of despair. It mostly works, with the cast’s uniformly impressive performances smoothing over occasionally jarring transitions in tone, from touching sentiment to gross-out toilet humour. Godliman in particular is excellent, grounding the show in a reality that is otherwise missing from its outlandish scenarios and gallery of oddball characters.
Gervais is still capable of writing funny lines (“butterflies are the gayest insect”), and his imaginative staging of scenes, particularly Derek’s romantic candlelit dinner surrounded by on-looking pensioners, ensures that the laughter quotient remains high. It would only take a slight misstep to turn the series’ jet black humour into full-blown horror; and several sections of The Special are painfully bleak, but Gervais manages to successfully walk the fine line between tragedy and comedy.
Much has been written about Gervais’ lead performance as Derek, with critics disagreeing as to whether the character is intended to be learning-disabled, and then whether his performance casts disability in a positive or negative light. Guardian journalist Tanya Gold once wrote that “[Gervais] feeds bigots their lines”, and that his comedy “feels more like lazy cruelty than satire”. Prominent disability campaigner Nicky Clark disagrees, saying of Derek: “I’ve laughed and cried…I haven’t seen cruelty, I haven’t seen Gervais “playing disabled”. For his part, Gervais has always denied that the character of Derek is supposed to suffer from a developmental disability. Watching the series, this denial feels more like an attempt to deflect criticism than an honest analysis of his performance, as Gervais’ Derek is reminiscent of every famous screen portrayal of autism from Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Main.
However, to fixate on whether or not Derek is disabled is missing the point. It’s apparent from the outset that Gervais is attempting to champion the marginalised and vulnerable members of society, rather than mocking them. Over Derek’s 15 episodes, the show has continually extolled the virtues of kindness and compassion over cruelty, selfishness and greed. This message is either mawkish and patronising or profound and inspiring, depending on your point of view, but at the very least Gervais deserves credit for moving on from his ironic egotism to something approaching heart-on-sleeve sincerity.
If you’re already a fan of Derek, there is plenty to enjoy in The Special. It’s a downbeat, if cautiously optimistic, ending to a show that has always been preoccupied with life’s darker aspects. It may prove too gloomy and peculiar to win Gervais any new fans or to impress his doubters, but that may be the point. After all, he stopped paying attention to popular opinion a long time ago.
Derek: The Special is on Channel 4 on 22nd December 2014 at 10pm.
BLIMEY BUT THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS
It’s an odd idea, a “Black Mirror” Christmas special – one starring Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, no less – but Charlie Brooker’s Amicus-style, festive anthology revels in its incongruity. In the story’s first segment, Hamm is a dating guru, dispensing “The Game”-worthy advice to nervous would-be players. The role is pretty typical for him, but that seems deliberate. The character is your internal cool-guy fantasy, externalised and given the face of Don Draper. Because that’s how you always pictured him, right?
It’s the first example of a theme that runs through “White Christmas”: social media as a metaphor for relationships. The wingman on your mobile, couples ‘blocking’ each other out. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t replace social interaction: they make it almost constant. We live in public (and that will prove to have a tragic flipside later in the story).
In the second segment, we learn Hamm’s day job is duplicating the minds of rich customers and conditioning those copies to work as home hubs. Brooker acknowledged in the Q&A that followed last week’s preview screening that this could be read as a comment on Western consumers’ easy reliance on slave labour, but there’s also a fascinating question in there about ‘artificial’ intelligence.
If we make computers as smart as humans, can we still treat them like computers? To steal the words of science fiction author Lance Parkin, the mind isn’t what the brain does: it’s what electricity does while it’s in the brain. You don’t really even need the meat bit. Only last week, the OpenWorm project announced it had successfully simulated a worm’s brain and placed it into a Lego robot. Duplicate a music file and you’ve got two music files. Putting aside the comforting, obfuscatory hogwash of ‘a soul’, why should a duplicated human mind not be a human mind all the same?
In the concluding chapters of the story, we learn that, while Hamm and Spall might not actually be in the same situation, they do share a fate: social isolation. In our modern, constantly connected world, it is a cruel punishment. The pair exist in full view of others while divorced from them. Hamm’s character, a charismatic guy, constantly in control, meets that with confusion: a player isn’t much use if he can’t interact with the people he wants to play.
For Spall, it’s crueller still. He is, as Hamm’s character observes, a good man. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of doing bad things, but it does mean he understands with vicious pain how bad they are. The mental torture of the ill deeds done against him, jumbled up with the guilt of what he has done. His dreams, his pain, do not matter except to condemn him for what amounts to eternity. The cruellest sting of his isolation is the knowledge that he deserves it. Begin unpacking that final scene, and you’ll never sleep this Christmas night.
Black Mirror: White Christmas iss broadcast on 16 December at 9pm on Channel 4.