Saturday, 20 April 2013
The old cliché goes that rock stars should live the lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. This is a fair summary of what rock stars - and maybe even polka stars - invariably get up to. It only tells half a story though as No Excuses revises the cliché to sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, family drama, class warfare, christenings, self harm and a drop of incest. To be fair, rock 'n' roll probably covers all these revisions - apart from christenings - but we need an introductory paragraph.
Transmission: 17/05/1983 - 28/06/1983
No Excuses was a rock 'n' roll drama which unfolded over the course of eight 50-minute episodes on ITV in 1983 and was produced by Central. The main focus was upon flame haired rocker Shelly Maze (Charlotte Cornwell) - frontwoman of the late 60s band Angels. After 16 years as a professional musician, Shelly is tired and at a creative crossroads. Looking for comfort and somewhere to rehearse - she buys up a large stately home which is later revealed to have been the venue of her big break. Surrounded by a rockstar circus, we witness Shelly leaping upon a seemingly neverending carousel of tragedy which touches all around her.
In amongst the various dramas, were interstitial videos of Angels performing live in concert. These songs were written by real life keyboard player Andy J Clark and performed by Charlotte Cornwell - who has a surprisingly good rock voice. Central appeared to have invested a large amount of faith in the songs as the final episode of the series was a compilation of the live videos and an LP release followed. This LP can easily be found on Ebay and other music marketplaces.
One of the most iconic images in No Excuses is the stately home that holds unresolved issues for Shelly. The stately home is better known as Kentwell Hall and is located in Long Melford, Suffolk. Dating from the 11th century - in some shape or form - the house had fallen into a state of disrepair until being purchased by Patrick Phillips who began restoring the building in 1971. Due to it's attractive exterior, Kentwell Hall has been used in many TV/film productions over the years such as Witchfinder General, The Wind in the Willows and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
Following hot on the heels of The Long Good Friday, No Excuses was the latest project from writer Barrie Keeffe. The origins of No Excuses actually started as a four act play entitled Bastard Angel and first produced by the RSC in January 1980 at the Warehouse (now Donmar Warehouse) in Covent Garden, London. Keeffe had been writing plays since the early 70s and would carry on penning dramas well into the 00s. Producing the series was Simon Mallin who would later go on to produce Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire - a TV film about a snooker playing vampire which truly, truly boggles the mind.
Curious British Telly was pleasantly surprised to find a good standard of acting present for an early 80s British TV series. Not to say that the acting is up there with Ben Kingsley and Meryl Streep - Oscar winners that year - but it's decent fare compared to some of the horrors we've been subjected to. Charlotte Cornwell has the look - and voice - of a female rock star and she captures the freewheeling highs and the desperate lows of rock stardom authentically. David Swift - playing Maze's manager, Brian - steals the show whenever he's on screen with his well rounded, almost brandy like, tones and wonderful hats. Unfazed by all the maelstroms caused by Shelly, Brian has seen it all before and knows what's best for Shelly. Paul Barber pops up only fleetingly as Bonner, but he manages to linger in the memory with his warmth and charisma - something missing from the majority of the supporting characters. It's frustrating that, given his ability, Paul Barber never rose above supporting roles. He gives masterful performances in Gangsters and Survivors, but after establishing himself in Only Fools and Horses, he was never pushed into any leading roles. Still, The Full Monty made him internationally famous and was probably a nice little earner, so we doubt he complains too much.
We found there was a lack of tightness to the plots in No Excuses and this left us feeling a little muddled. For such a short series, the plots seem to come and go with little reverberation into future episodes. The purchasing of the stately home reopens old wounds, but is soon forgotten once sold - apart from one section where Shelly returns to witter on about Pim's ashes which felt a little disjointed. The plot strand which sees Shelly engage - unknowingly - in incest with her unknown son, is a curious piece which could have been examined more, but again is mostly glossed over afterwards. Lacking little reflection or acceptance of these events portrays Shelly as a cold character willing to forget the past and live selfishly in the present.
There are a number of two hander scenes throughout the series and these give Barrie Keeffe time to bring some strong dialogue to the screen full of nuances. The standout two hander is between Shelly and her father (Tony Melody) in episode 7. This twenty minute scene gets deep into one of the more interesting elements of Shelly's life - namely her family. Unable to comprehend the appeal of an international rock star, Shelly's father bitterly grouses that the family are nothing but an afterthought. Shelly attempts to justify and explain her way of life, but the two characters are from different planets. It's a telling scene which paints Shelly as an alienated figure within her own family and hints at why she left the family to join art school down in London.
Curious British Telly loves some gritty, bleak television and No Excuses is fairly generous in feeding our dirty habit. Following the revelation of her incestuous relationship with her son and the re-emergence of drug shattered, former bandmate Pim, Shelly suffers a manic depressive breakdown in the lonely echoing halls of her stately home. Some dark scenes follow which feature drug abuse and self harming. The most disturbing scene, however, comes earlier with the ritual humiliation of the home's in house butler Max (Alfred Burke). Shelly had played a gig at the house back in 1967 for the owner's daughter, but it appears Max had looked down upon Shelly and this cut deep into Shelly's memory. She gets her revenge by stripping - literally and figuratively - Max of his grace and dignity at the dinner table. It's a nasty scene which sees the 60s rebel spirit going too far in attacking the establishment. We wanted - at one point - to jump inside the TV screen and level several punches to the crowd attacking Max and it's not often we get this emotionally involved.
The music throughout the show is a good reproduction of the music being produced by 60s stars in the 80s - turgid adult rock in our esteemed opinion. However, that may be your cup of tea, so might be worth seeking out the LP release if you liked it that much. The decision to make episode 8 a compilation of all the live performances from the previous seven seems like a ludicrous idea. As we began to watch the episode, we thought "Is this it? Really? Just the videos?! This is a complete waste of time!". Frankly, it annoyed us and we imagine that the audience of 1983 were equally bamboozled to be subjected to 50 minutes of music from a fictional band. To be fair, the series did seem long at seven episodes, so we were glad that we could skip episode 8. Thanks for that, Central!
Our overall impression of No Excuses is that it's a bit of a mixed bag - much like The Beatles 'White Album' if you want a rock analogy. There's the good acting which draws you into some of the deeper two handers, but this is cancelled out by the loose structure of the piece and the lack of compassion raised for for Shelly. There's very little mention of the show online and fewer memories from the viewing public too. This makes us think that it didn't score that highly in the viewing figures or appreciation indexes. This must have been a disappointment for all involved as Central and ITV seem to have put a lot of effort into it. Ultimately, it's not that entertaining though and is perhaps why it never saw a commercial release. All eight episodes are available on YouTube and we would recommend searching out the scenes we've praised above, but it may be a step too far to watch the whole series.