Thursday, 31 January 2013
Leafy suburbia has oft been known for housing respectable, middle class families going about their mundane lives and only occasionally brightened up the odd spot of wife swapping. Surbiton in Kingston upon Thames fits this bill like a new pair of 501s, but between 1997 - 2001, one particular street was turned upside down by the high jinks of several A-list celebs. And Jimmy Hill. As you can imagine, this was no ordinary street. This was Stella Street.
Transmission: 1997 - 2001
Stella Street was a mockumentary taking in the daily lives of the rich and famous celebrities who had moved to Stella Street. John Sessions and Phil Cornwell took on almost every role, but Ronni Ancona was also on hand to help out with some of the female roles. A small selection of the characters and their various plights were: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ran the local corner shop, Joe Pesci played the local psychopath, Jimmy Hill bored everyone with his endless football chat, David Bowie needed his oven fixed, Dirk Bogarde found himself being stalked by a manic Geordie and Michael Caine tried to keep order amongst the residents whilst trying to film 'Bongo in the Congo'. As well as the celebrities, there were a few non-celeb characters in place to remind you this wasn't Beverley Hills: Mrs Huggett - A forgetful, crude, Cockney cleaner and Len MacMonotony - a disturbing, Geordie gardener with a penchant for fire and murder. Michael Caine (Cornwell) would usually talk directly to the camera à la Alfie to introduce characters and the latest goings on in the street.
Four series were filmed over four years with the first series landing in December 1997. The first series featured 10 episodes which were each 10 minutes long. The second series followed a year later with another 10 episodes, but with an increased running time of 15 minutes each. There was then a two year gap before series three in 2000, this time featuring 11 episodes. The final series aired in 2001 with a reduced series length of just 6 episodes. All series aired on BBC2 in various late night time slots. In 2004, rather out of the blue, a made for TV movie 'Stella Street: The Movie' aired which took a look at how the starts flocked to Stella Street and then the aftermath of a 'street warming' party which threatens financial ruin for the stars.
Tiger Aspect Productions were the company behind the show and on direction duties was Peter Richardson of The Comic Strip Presents fame. Sessions, Cornwell and Richardson conceived the concept of the show and were also the writing team behind it. Although being set in Surbiton, the series was actually filmed in Hartswood Road, London, W12 - fans still travel to the street to pay homage to the programme. As mentioned previously, the show was filmed in the style of a mockumentary using hand held cameras - the very first series appeared to have the look of a home movie your uncle would produce. Later series, however, possessed a more polished edge. The first three series were released on VHS and DVD, with the movie also following on DVD. For unknown reasons, series four has never seen a commercial release.
Curious British Telly are huge fans of Stella Street. The first series was fairly well advertised, but as it arrived on our screens over Christmas, I found myself too busy to watch it until the final three episodes. Those episodes, though, were hilarious and I was really taken by the low rent and surreal edge the show had. The juxtaposition of banal, everyday life with glamourous celebs really captured a unique strand of humour - for example, Michael Caine preparing a roast lamb dinner for Joe Pesci's mother and having his pride dented when she rejects it is priceless comedy. Pathos was also present, constantly bubbling beneath the veneer of several characters - Jimmy Hill appears tortured by loneliness and his desperation to connect with others is truly tragic. The main power behind the show, though, is surely the magnificent impersonations - something that could have sunk the show if they haven't come off. In fact, it's a testament to Cornwell and Sessions abilities that they're still plying their trade on mainstream television. Producing the show in 10 - 15 minute nuggets was also a shrew move as it kept the concept snappy and fresh - the TV movie suffered due to its length which had the effect of watering down the show's concept.
Despite it's genius, the show was fairly overlooked by the general public - although Damon Albarn declared his love for it on the main stage at Glastonbury 1998. Why it was overlooked is difficult to determine - the late timeslot and explicit language probably contributed, but it retained a dedicated cult following throughout - Curious British Telly remembers once stumbling across a Stella Street website where the members had met up and hosted a Zulu party as per Michael Caine in series 1 - truly the sign of hardcore fandom. The show was rewarded with four series though, so someone in the upper echelons of the BBC was obviously a fan.
Curious British Telly thoroughly recommends the first two series to anyone reading this blog as it's a delightful and wonderfully British piece. By the third and fourth series, however, it seems to have run out of steam. Unsure of what to do with the characters next, the writers place them in increasingly bizarre scenarios and frequently venture away from the hallowed confines of Stella Street. Series two can also be accused of this to some degree, but the balance between everyday foibles and the absurd was just right. We gave up on Stella Street early on in series 4 when we saw Mick Jagger dressed as Ali G and trying to be street - maybe not that unusual for Mick Jagger to be doing, but it was a step away from what the charm instilled in the earlier series.
Sunday, 27 January 2013
Before we begin, younger readers (if there are any) may not be aware what a video is or even what a video store is. Well, if you can imagine illegal torrents in a physical state the size of your head and then being sold, not on Amazon, but in a poky shop, then you're ready to appreciate the manic genius of Vids.
Genre: Review Show
Channel: Channel 4
Transmission: 1999 - 2001
Vids was a late night review show which took a look at the latest videos/DVDs to hit the shops. The show aired as part of Channel 4's 4Later strand which also included the computer game show Bits. Fronting the show were the tall, hairy Scotsman known by his name of Stef Gardiner and the manic, peroxide Welshman Nigel Buckland.
Both devotees to the curiously wide scope of what was lurking within the twin wheels of VHS tapes, the pair worked from a fictitious video store based in Hamilton where they would deliver in-depth, but sometimes corrosive reviews of what their eyeballs were dragged through. Nige would attempt to arrest viewers' attention with an aggressive manner which almost made the camera shake whilst Stef was more sedate, like a softly spoken Barry Norman on mogadon, if you can imagine such a thing.
Life, in Vids, wasn't merely contained to the video store though. A number of locations were employed with a cheap and cheerful vibe to help give the show an eccentric edge, but still feel like you were chatting to a couple of mates down the boozer - in fact, many reviews were carried out at the pub.
The reviews contained the seed of genius, but it really bloomed when we ventured into the surreal mindsets of Stef and Nige. In between the reviews, there were often little sketches based upon the films they were reviewing and advocated the fact that film review shows didn't have to be such serious, high brow affairs. Sometimes these short interstitials may have simply involved an anarchic sequence where Stef drives a car into Nige, but it created a sense of quirky rebellion against the establishment of prime time television.
A total of six 12 episode series' were produced between 1999 and 2001 by the Scottish production company Ideal World Productions. Stef and Nige were the only constant characters in the series, but occasionally there would be supporting characters popping up such as a gimp, Nige's brother Lingus (also played by Buckland) and even Aleks Krotoski - one of the presenters of the aforementioned Bits. The show was filmed in rather run down areas of Hamilton, Scotland - recently revealed as the murder capital of Scotland - which helped to contribute to the low rent feel of the show.
Rewinding the Video
Curious British Telly were firm fans of Vids when it originally aired. We remember those halycon days of being on the dole and staying up to catch an episode. If we were employed then we fiddled about with VideoPlus+ and prayed it didn't cut off the last five minutes. Anyway, the internets hadn't quite hit the mainstream yet, so Vids was important in teaching us about the undiscovered world of cinema lurking out there.
This was the show's beauty, in that, it didn't just review releases of contemporary films either. They would often look at cult classics being released such as El Topo by the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky. No genre was left untouched with reviews taking in Britcoms, Soft Porn, Manga and Video Nasties to name but a few. It was an astounding lesson in film and the breadth of titles they looked at inspired us to reprogram our algorithms of taste to more challenging procedures in the escapist world of film.
Stef and Nige managed to a draw a world where the pomposity of cinema could be punctured and leave, in its place, an accessible world of delights for the everyman. Not only was there a sense of unhinged and hilariously absurd humour on display, but Stef and Nige - tucked away in this curiously attractive low-rent universe - managed to create an allure for the unknown with rowdy aplomb.
Friday, 25 January 2013
2002 saw the UK slap bang in the middle of a housing boom where prices were sky rocketing and mortgages were being flung at those with ridiculously poor credit ratings. Earnestly helping to guide homeowners to the house of their dreams were courageous and, to say the very least, exceptionally trustworthy estate agents. Contributing towards the eventual collapse of the housing market towards were three talented individuals working at Embassy Properties in London. Together, they were known as The Estate Agents.
Channel: Channel 4
Transmission: 07/02/2002 - 14/03/2002
Working from a cramped office in South London, The Estate Agents was a Channel 4 sitcom which followed the unfortunate and somewhat surreal adventures of Mark England, Mark Devlin and Jerry Zachary. Mark England (Cliff Kelly) is a professional, upstanding chap and obviously gay - although very few of the other characters cotton on to this. Mark Devlin (Adam G. Goodwin) is portrayed as an incompetent, unlucky 'goon' who possesses an unhealthy attraction for violence. Jerry Zachary (Dan Clark), meanwhile, epitomises exactly what being a duplicitous, unscrupulous estate agent about town is all about - sex, drugs and a one bedroom terrace house just perfect for a family of five. In charge of this trio of malcontents is the dodgy - and potentially dangerous - Tony (Mark Arden) who has many famous friends and no doubt uses the shop as a front for something else. Also making regular appearences is Roy Dance (Barry J. Gordon) - a deceased estate agent who Mark England often reminisces about.
Episodes usually saw the trio getting themselves into precarious situations involving dodgy properties on their books, Tony requesting the team carry out a task and Mark Devlin usually coming a cropper. As with most sitcoms, these setups - more often than not - are accompanied by hilarious consequences. Despite reading like a traditional sitcom, The Estate Agents plots had a surreal edge to them - one episode features Tony selling a Bolivian six legged mountain cat to Michael Jackson. There were also heavy lashings of violence which often came knocking at the face of Mark Devlin. Running gags were sprinkled through the series and these took in Jerry's outlandish excuses to get the angry customer Mr Tent off his back, Mark England remembering Roy Dance's manic wisdom and Jerry's liberal use of the word 'goon' and the Cockney rhyming term 'a donald'.
The Estate Agents was conceived by the writer/performer team known as Electric Eel. By a happy coincidence, these just happened to be Dan Clark, Adam G Goodwin and Cliff Kelly - always a boon when it comes to sharing out the commissioning fee. After a few years of working together, Electric Eel were lucky enough to snap up one of the prestigious slots on Channel 4's Comedy Lab showcase series. Their effort was an early incarnate of The Estate Agents which went under the name of Roy Dance is Dead and was produced by Angel Eye. Essentially a pilot, Roy Dance is Dead aired in 1999 and impressed Channel 4 enough to commission a whole series.
The Estate Agents finally hit the air in February 2002 running for six episodes in the 11pm slot on Thursday evenings. Reviews for the series were mixed and Dan Clark has even stated that "a lot of people hated the show". Scripts were written for a second series, but sadly the show was never recommissioned. Channel 4 found Peep Show just over a year later, so I guess they didn't have too many sleepless nights over abandoning The Estate Agents. Perhaps due to the lack of success, a DVD was never released, but the series lives on as part of 4OD's programming. The pilot episode is also available on YouTube.
Curious British Telly caught a couple of episodes of The Estate Agents when it aired - being 19 at the time, 11pm on a Thursday night usually meant I had been out drinking with my mate Sam. Therefore, The Estate Agents will forever be connected with youthful drinking and having a damn good laugh.
Several years later, Curious British Telly met a mysterious, but beautiful stranger on the internet called Alan who passed us an unofficial DVD of the series. Unfortunately, it was scratched and wouldn't play, but Alan soon got another copy out to us which worked just fine. Rewatching the series after several years, my initial thoughts were that I was surprised there was never a second series.
The dialogue between the three main characters is always very snappy and the timing is spot on - it's easy to see they've been performing together for several years. Additionally, whilst The Estate Agents doesn't possess the most sophisticated strand of humour seen to man, it's still got a likable, irreverent charm which manages to hit some manic heights. In some ways it's got a strong influence from The Simpsons as the cartoony feel to the show is pushed to the fore - for example, the bouts of frequent violence are rarely taken seriously and impossible feats of physics are commonplace.
After watching the series and having a think, though, the cartoon edge does begin to blunt the characters emotional cores, so you rarely feel for them. Mark England is perhaps the most likable, but even then, you barely scratch the surface of his no doubt 'in the closet' angst. It's one of the few negatives that Curious British Telly has about the show, but highlights one reason why the viewing public didn't hold it close to their dear breast. However, if you want a quick burst of easy going laughs, then head over to 4OD and get streaming.
TODAY'S CHOICE~ Radio Times 2 - 8 February 2002
This bizarre surreal new comedy series – imagine The League of Gentlemen meets The Office – will doubtless be an acquired taste for many. But Channel 4 has a fine record for edgy, barking-mad sitcoms (just think of the wonderful Spaced and Black Books), so it’s at least worth a look.
The estate agents of the title are three very odd men who work from a run-down office. Here, they are at the mercy of the business’s psychotic, sex-obsessed owner, played by Mark Arden. In tonight’s opening episode, they are put under pressure when a rival, very groovy estate agents opens up around the corner. Abode, as it is called, has everything: “a cappuccino bar, chill out area and a resident DJ”.
Naturally our estate agents’ business plummets, so they have to find ways of winning back their customers. They fight back with a dirty-tricks campaign.
The actual “plot” matters little: it’s the individual mad moments that count, such as the hopelessly out-of-date estate agents’ training video, and the efforts of one of the estate agents, who has both legs in a splint after being shot in the knees, to show a couple round a house. It’s all very nihilistic, but it’s fun. One to watch.
Monday, 7 January 2013
Society works best when we're all working towards a common goal as it promotes a healthy sense of organisation. It's when a little bit of chaos and rule-bending comes into play that the foundations of society wobble a little bit.
However, I'm all for a bit of a free will. Well, as far as 'free will' can actually be realised. Anyway, yes, we need a little bit of freedom as it elevates us above the status of a subservient drone. And, it's this relative freedom which allows mankind to advance and develop new ideas.
What if, though, this free will was suddenly disabled? Sure, we'd be organised, but to a sinisterly mundane level of herd like efficiency. And, just consider for a second, what if this free will was curtailed by a gang of three legged, bulbous cyclops eyed aliens with a rather dubious taste in club culture?
The answer, of course, lies in The Tripods.
Transmission: 15/09/1984 - 23/11/1985
Will Parker (John Shackley) and his cousin Henry Parker (Jim Baker) are both hurtling towards that magnificent adolescent milestone of hitting 16 years old. However, whereas in the present day this entitles the individual to an enhanced sense of freedom, Will and Henry are facing a rather different proposition.
Around 100 years previous, a mysterious alien force, travelling in enormous, three legged metal machines, invaded Earth and comfortably took control of the entire population. Through a process of 'capping', whereby a metal cap is implanted to the skull, the Tripods have managed to wipe out concepts such as war and greed, but all at the expense of humanity's free will.
And it just happens that this capping process takes place on humans when they reach 16. Will and Henry aren't entirely keen on the whole capping process, but their doubts are magnified exponentially once they meet a seemingly crazy vagrant with tales about what the Tripods are really up to.
A vagrant, of course, is one whose capping went wrong, resulting in their brains being permanently scrambled and being pushed to the edges of society due to their manic uselessness. However, the vagrant that Will and Henry encounter has an unrivalled wealth of wisdom and knowledge about the society they live in.
Naturally, Ozymandias (Roderick Horn) is most definitely not a vagrant. In fact, he's part of a collective known as the Freemen who plan to bring down the Tripods and re-install man as the shaper of his own destiny. Ozymandias advises Will and Henry to skip their capping and head across the Channel to join the Freemen in the White Mountains.
Along the way, Will and Henry will pick up their trusted ally Beanpole (Ceri Seel), a French youth with a curious and inventive mind, as they make the long and arduous trek to the White Mountains. Once there they will begin planning to not only infiltrate the Tripod's domed base, but also bring them crashing down on their three legs.
Bringing The Tripods to Life
Broadcast between 1984 - 1985 over the course of 25 episodes, The Tripods was a joint adaptation by the BBC and Australia's Network Seven of the trilogy of Tripods novels authored by John Christopher in the 1960s.
Producing the show - and catalyst for it's inception - was Richard Bates who brought in Alick Rowe to adapting the trilogy. The menacing score to accompany this adaptation, powered by an army of furious synthesisers, was Ken Freeman (no relation to the Freemen).
The show was handed the Saturday 6.30pm slot on BBC1 which had previously been the home to Doctor Who for many years. As a result, The Tripods was privy to a heavy round of promotion which involved numerous TV slots and the front cover of the Radio Times.
And key to the buzz surrounding The Tripods were the lavish special effects which would become the sole focus of all promotions. Utilising a Quantel Paintbox workstation, the team behind The Tripods could manipulate video images in a way which Doctor Who could only dream of.
However, despite The Tripods being built up as revolutionary take on TV sci-fi, it was to fall foul of Michael Grade's war on TV sci-fi. Therefore, despite The Tripods' narrative being comprised of a trilogy of books, only the first two were adapted for TV before the project was cancelled.
The viewing figures hit a peak of 9.5 million viewers, but the average audience was around 6 million. Not terrible for the time, but disappointing when compared to the viewing figures that The A-Team was achieving on ITV. Michael Grade explained the decision to drop The Tripods thusly:
"Response to the first series of The Tripods was very disappointing both in terms of popularity and appreciation. The second series has shown no improvement"
Perhaps the biggest and most heartfelt tragedy relating to The Tripods was the death of actress Charlotte Long who portrayed Will's love interest, Eloise de Ricordeau, in the first series. After Charlotte's death in a motor accident, she was replaced for a non speaking scene in the second series by Cindy Shelley
An Exploration of Free Will
I was still in nappies by the time the first series of The Tripods aired, so missed the whole affair the first time round. My introduction to sci-fi TV came around a year after the second series of The Tripods finished when I started watching this little known show called Doctor Who. I often wonder what happened to that.
Anyway, I soon become addicted to sci-fi and was particularly intrigued by these strange VHS tapes I started seeing in shops for some show called The Tripods. It looked intriguing, but my pocket money wasn't enough to purchase one of these mysterious videos which featured an array of beguiling images.
A few years later I started secondary school and, nestling in the school library, was a compilation of all three books from The Tripod's trilogy. And, best of all, it was a TV tie-in version of the story and featured a large screenshot on the front cover along with some suitably retro 80s fonts.
Unfortunately, I didn't get far reading it as I was beginning to forego books for the pleasures of late night TV that I was now aware of thanks to finally getting a TV in my bedroom. A clear case of TV trampling all over literature, but I just had to watch The Vicar of Dibley, okay?
I never forgot about The Tripod's, though, and it's dystopian vision haunted my thoughts regularly. Thankfully, 2009 finally saw the complete series released on DVD, so I could finally hold The Tripods up to the light and examine all its resplendent glory whilst cowering in the shadow of its chilling bleakness.
Now, the biggest accusation attributed towards The Tripods is that it's overlong and takes far, far too long to get from A to B. And, you know what? It's a damn good point. The first book in The Tripod's trilogy comes in at around 200 pages, but on TV this is stretched out to six and a half hours.
Whilst certain sections are quite, quite amazing - such as the abandoned Paris scenes which contain the same terrifying shivers as The Walking Dead - other passages feel like a slow trudge through treacle. Perhaps the most mind numbing are the Chateau sequences which drag on for an interminable amount of time, but add barely a footnote to The Tripods' narrative.
The episodes at the vineyard are also frustratingly dull, but they do feature some fascinating scenes where Madame Vichot (Anni Lee Taylor) reveals her capping was not 100% successful in eradicating her sense of wonder. More interesting revelations such as this sprinkled throughout the first series would have made for much more engaging viewing.
The first series also contains a number of episodes which see Will, Henry and Beanpole walking long distances with very little happening, but I've always found these episodes resonated strongly with me. They evoke that gang like mentality we all fall into during our youth and recall, for me anyway, many endless walks where crushing mundanity was the norm.
Much more exhilarating, however, is the second series which starts at a brisk pace with our heroes planning an audacious expedition into the heart of The Tripod's main city. Although there's still a sense of wandering boredom at times, the length of the second series is packed full of variety thanks to the shifting narrative and this goes some way towards atoning for the first series' sluggish pace.
Perhaps most captivating in the second series' narrative (and indeed the entire series) is the friendship which Will strikes up with his Master (named 468). Despite the nefarious intentions of 468 and his associates, he appears to be genuinely interested in Will. This interest however, is just as nefarious as his end goals, but Will must persevere with this facade to glean what precious information he can.
The second series also contains a particularly trippy scene where Will meets one of the most powerful beings in The Tripod's city, the Cognosc. A particularly high brow piece of sci fi, it's a mind bending piece of TV which sees Will's conscience being invaded and analysed by this high level consciousness. It's disturbing, but also helps to kick start Will's dramatic escape from the city.
The fear and bewilderment generated by The Tripods isn't purely limited to cerebral exercises either. There are also a number of visual scares for kids to peek through their fingers out.The forest scene featuring filthy hordes of cannibal vagrants is akin to something from a horror film and the late night Tripod hunts are dizzying displays of predator-prey relationships.
However, the accusations of prolonged thumb twiddling levelled against The Tripods are most certainly fair. It was moving in the right direction, though, and maybe the third series would have been a particularly pacy beast. Sadly we'll never know.
The special effects employed in The Tripods are, of course, one of the big talking points, so let's take a look at these. Well, yes, they're certainly leagues ahead of Doctor Who and Blakes 7, so it's encouraging that the BBC were ready to explore new techniques. However, it would have been even nicer had they been a bit more generous with the special effects.
They're certainly impressive, for the time, but the majority of the first series allocates less than a minute per episode to these eye-catching effects. The rest of the time, all we're treated to is the bottom third of a Tripod's leg which must have been nothing short of a nightmare to transport about and position.
Again, much like the plot, the second series seems to pick up in this respect and the special effects are much more prevalent. In particular, the scenes set within The Tripod's city are exciting little slices of visual delight and hint at a level of design Doctor Who could benefit from, but never did (Trial of a Timelord opening scene aside).
The non-computer generated effects, however, are your typical archaic BBC designs of the day which still appear to be stuck in a Jon Pertwee era episode of Doctor Who. I'm always particularly irked by the amateurish 'Monster Munch' design of the Masters which undo a lot of the goodwill built up by the computer graphics.
Special mention also needs to go to Ken Freeman's soundtrack which conjures up the required emotional smorgasbord of aural delights to match the action beat for beat. Anything less broody and electronic would have felt like an anticlimactic score, but here it's a wonderfully aggressive stab of electronic coldness which embody the sinister movements of The Tripods.
And what about the young actors journeying through this landscape of slow thrills and sumptuous visual delights? Well, as with most British TV of the 1980s, the acting is a suspect mixture of the decent, the wooden and the downright monotone.
Our three leads, thankfully, manage to be an engaging bunch. Although Jim Baker takes a little while to get going, he's settled into his groove as Henry Parker by the end of the first series and grows throughout the second series. Beanpole, meanwhile, has a geekish, intelligent charm which Ceri Seel conveys through a mixture of natural smarts and charismatic patter.
Most exciting, though, is John Shackley who displays an impressive range of emotions whilst playing Will. From rallying against The Tripods wicked ways, to infiltrating The Tripod's inner sanctum and his romantic liaisons with Eloise, Shackley demonstrates he's a capable young actor, but sadly acting wasn't for him and he departed the world of showbiz shortly afterwards.
As I've already mentioned, there's also a lot of sub par acting on offer and it's difficult, and rather unfair, to single any particular actors out. If we're going to highlight anyone else for their acting then it would be Roderick Horn as Ozymandias whose time on screen is only fleeting, but he always retains that aura of an old, trusted friend you're delighted to see.
It's a charm which is missing, perhaps, too often from The Tripods but reminds you that there's some magic contained deep within the show's DNA.
Triumvirate of Brilliance?
Whatever you say about The Tripods, you can't say it's boring. Well, you can, but that's all part of it's curious charm and underlines its cult appeal.
Being based upon a fantastic trilogy of books (and they really are rather splendid), the BBC found themselves in an enviable position with The Tripods on their hands. Unfortunately, the adaptation process, for rather inexplicable reasons, has gorged itself on an excess of banal, humdrum adventures.
Although this appeared to have been rectified by the second series, it's no surprise that the viewing figures were so disappointing. A more streamlined episode run, maybe 6 - 8 episodes, could have created a tighter narrative to keep viewers on course, but this was not to be the case.
Nonetheless, The Tripods contains plenty to explore and there's the unfettered imaginations of how the third series would have unfolded to keep you busy for years to come.
Jim Baker interview from Fantasy Image issue 3, 1985