Let’s Reboot Television!

A man from Virgin Media came yesterday and fitted me with a Tivo box.  Whilst looking through the instructions, I was told that if it froze or got stuck, it would need rebooting.  My feeling, wading through the TV schedules in the UK these days, is that it’s not the Tivo box that needs a reboot, but television itself.   Somehow, since virtually every home has gained (to some degree) a multitude of extra channels, the main ones seems to rely more and more on tried and tested programmes, and tried and tested formulas.

While I can understand to a certain degree that people gain pleasure from watching those two-hour police dramas that move at a slower pace than the Lord of the Rings films, just how long can and should they go on for before something new comes along to take their place?  I shall be brutally honest, I blame “Morse” for everything.  After all, he was the one who started the now endlessly-recycled idea of a miserable old git taking 120 minutes (and at least 50 advert breaks) to solve a remarkably dull murder-mystery littered with remarkably dull characters.  When Morse got killed off in the final episode, I gave something of a silent cheer…while my Mother mourned.

But the death of Morse wasn’t the death of Morse.  Lo and behold, ITV came up with the idea of “Lewis” to cheer us all up with more of the same, and then we were treated to “Endeavour” which “entralls” us with the early adventures of Morse.  I am awaiting the announcement of a new series in which Morse’s spirit helps solves mysteries that baffle any policeman with a cheerful disposition and a relatively normal family life.

And Morse simply opened the floodgates for likes of “Frost” and “Midsomer Murders” – the latter now having waded through some fifteen series.  Even “Foyle’s War” couldn’t be allowed to finish with the end of the war – instead it wanders on in repetitive fashion with people watching possibly more through habit than enjoyment.    Likewise, ITV have insisted on continuing with their awful “Marple” series long after they ran out of actual Marple stories to destroy with their ridiculous adaptations.  Now they transplant the old busybody in mysteries where she doesn’t belong at all.  Agatha Christie must be turning in her grave.

This rant is somewhat caused by the receipt of next week’s Radio Times, which tells me that the highlight of the week (aside from Dr Who, which the magazine is obsessed with) is a new episode of Jonathan Creek.   Jonathan Creek?  Surely that’s the only programme in the world with more final episodes than “Only Fools and Horses?”   It seems to have been farewell-ing for over a decade.  We are also told in RT that Have I Got News For You is back for a 45th series.   That’s more series than “Casualty”, and I really thought nothing had been around for longer than that (a mere 27 series, in case you were wondering).   And yes, I know that BBC4 is “thrilling” audiences with various new crime dramas from mainland Europe – but surely these are just Morse/Lewis/Foyle/Midsomer with added subtitles.

ITV2 and ITV3 are even worse.  ITV3 should be renamed the “Poirot and Lewis” channel, as they appear to show little else.  And this is something I fail to understand.  With thousands of programmes in the vaults, the same 100 or so 2-hour dramas are just recycled endlessly – and still manage to receive 1.5 million viewers on a regular basis.  Is television so awful – and are we so easily please –  that we watch murder mysteries we last saw a month ago?

Of course, it’s not just dour murder mysteries than are recycled.  Since the success of Bargain Hunt, our daytime schedules are littered with antiques programmes. And since the success of Pop Idol we have been treated to around 300 series of X Factor/Britain’s Got Talent/The Voice/Fame Academy/Popstar to Operastar.  These are all enjoyable in their way – but they get less and less enjoyable with each series.  At what point exactly will the entire TV viewing public shout at their TV set “ENOUGH!  I CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE!”  There is, after all, less repetition when watching the BBC News channel, which shows us the same reports every hour.

What would I like in the place of these stalwarts?  I have no idea, and the problem seems to be that those in charge of the schedules don’t have much idea either.  Ideas and formats are always going to be recycled, but early evening viewing on BBC1 (centred around Casualty) seems to look the same now as it did 25 years ago, and eventually something has to give.  Surely a new schedule that avoids hospitals and police-dramas would be bliss?

On the plus side, the last of the Poirot books are being filmed as we speak, and so David Suchet will have to give up his impersonation of the Belgian detective at that point, after 14 series.  Unless, of course, ITV decides to transplant the character into a set of stories where he doesn’t belong at all…

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Ghost Ship (1952)

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Multi-channel TV is frustrating, isn’t it?  Half the channels aren’t in listings magazines, and the ones that are seem to show the same thing day in and day out.  Then you go channel hopping and find something you want to watch on a channel you can’t normally find listings for – only you find out the programme or film is half finished and is the only thing on any channel that is not going to be repeated again!  But occasionally, you find something unexpected, and so it was when I happened upon the Horror Channel showing Ghost Ship – no, not the Val Lewton film from the 1940s, or the dire special-effects laden concoction from a few years ago, but a perky little British B-movie from 1952.

Outside of the well-known British films of the period, we rarely see on our TV screens these little B-movie gems that move along at such a quick pace that all plot holes and questionable acting is forgotten.  The film tells the story of a couple played by Dermot Walsh and Hazel Court who go to look at an old yacht with a view to buying it to use as a houseboat.  However, they are warned off from doing so because of the rumours that the boat is haunted after a mysterious accident a few years earlier.  Needless to say, they buy the yacht anyway, and start to carry out repairs, but before long various strange events start to occur.

The film is an oddity in many ways.   The acting in the film is unusual.  The two leads are played by relatively well by Walsh and Court (despite dodgy accents) and yet I had to look up on IMDB to see if most of the supporting actors were professionals or amateurs.  The film was written and directed by Vernon Sewell, whose perhaps best film was the Second World War drama The Silver Fleet from a decade earlier, and starring Ralph Richardson.  Sewell’s script is unusual for a B-movie potboiler in that it includes not one but two flashbacks, one of which takes place during a seance!  But it also moves at a relatively leisurely pace too – which is rather difficult in a film lasting only seventy minutes or so!  Five minutes is taken halfway through during a party scene for a painful-to-watch comedy sequence involving a drunk guest (Ian Carmichael), and in another section a psychic investigator also takes the time to carry out demonstrations using tuning forks!

So why am I writing about this rather mediocre effort?  Well, because, despite its flaws, it’s all rather fun and amusing – from the Marie Celeste-type mystery element, to the hokey seance sequence, to the twist at the end (that you may have to watch twice to actually understand!).  Like the best B-movies, it doesn’t take itself  seriously, and the viewer feels as if much of the time the whole thing is being played with a wink and a nudge.  The plot is simple but intriguing and the lead players attractive and sympathetic.  In other words, should you come across this while channel-hopping, there are worse ways to spend 75 minutes.

It has to be said that the print on the Horror Channel left a little bit to be desired, with some rather odd framing in places that resulted in people literally losing their heads – perhaps it added to the charm!  But the film is also (rather surprisingly)  available on DVD from Optimum whose reputation would suggest has no such issues.

Frank Sinatra: Some Nice Things I’ve Missed

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In 1973, Frank Sinatra ended his self-imposed retirement with the release of a new album, appropriately called “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back”.  Despite the slightly jokey title, the album contains nine relatively lengthy ballads ranging from the My Way-esque “Let Me Try Again” through to the beautifully-realised “There Used To Be A Ballpark” in which Sinatra plays an old man showing a child the haunts of his youth and wondering where the world went wrong.  The album is stately, mature, even arty in places.  It was miles away from the swinging Sinatra of the 1950s and early 1960s; the voice was more vulnerable and the tone more serious.  Sinatra clearly cared about the nine recently-composed songs that he had recorded and the result is one of the singer’s more under-rated albums.

Bearing this in mind, Sinatra fans must have had high hopes for the next release which appeared the following year – and many are probably still scratching their heads.  “Some Nice Things I’ve Missed” is not only a wildly misjudged album, it also encapsulates everything I dislike about Sinatra in 1974.  With the comeback secured, Sinatra headed for the road (and the air).  Two concerts from the year stand out.  “The Main Event” was a TV special live from Madison Square Garden that found Sinatra at his most big-headed, brash and unlikeable.  While the singing was OK (but not great), he seemed to be in a generally bad mood, and is clearly distracted and annoyed by the various time restrictions placed on him by the TV network, snapping at the audience and admonishing them when it looks like their calling out is going to put him and the show behind schedule.  The so-called soundtrack album (actually taken from six different dates on that tour) fares better, but the playfulness of the 1966 live album is long gone.  Sinatra meant business, but not in a nice way.  The other infamous concert from that year was in Australia just a day or two after an outburst about the Australian press.  Sinatra joked that “Ol’ Big Mouth Was Back”.

“Some Nice Things I’ve Missed” is an album of ten songs which Sinatra is suggesting would have been perfect for him had he not been in retirement.   Considering the songs he chose include “Sweet Caroline” and “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Old Oak Tree”, one has to wonder quite what he was thinking.  The album starts off well enough, with “You Turned My World Around”, a slightly sappy ballad with a decent chorus that finds Sinatra in similar territory to “Let Me Try Again” from the previous album.  That “Let Me Try Again” was the most traditional pop song on “Ol’ Blue Eyes” is of slight concern, with the ambition of the other songs completely evaporating here.  Sinatra sings “You Turned My World Around” well enough, although the arrangement is overblown and the backing chorus are a bad idea.  Still, it’s pleasant enough.

And then comes the shock of Sinatra not only tackling “Sweet Caroline” but trying to turn it into a big band swing number.  Not only is this a bad idea, it is also shockingly executed with a by-the-numbers arrangement and Sinatra treating the song with such disdain you wonder why he bothered.  Starting with  “Ssssssssssweet Caroline”, he clearly either had no idea what to do with the song or hates it intensely – or both.  Sinatra sounds as if he believes the whole enterprise is beneath him.  Clearly he had no problem with Neil Diamond as a songwriter, recording a number of less well known songs by him during the “lost years” of the mid 1970s.

Sinatra treats “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” with similar contempt.  Over the years, the song has become a kind of jokey cheese-fest, and yet there are worse songs out there – and if there was proof needed that a silk purse can be made out of a sow’s ear, check out Harry Connick Jr’s Thelonious Monk-style rendition on his wonderful album “30”.  But a silk purse is not made here.  The arrangement is predictable, but serviceable.  Sinatra doesn’t sound like a man who just got out of prison, but a man who has just got out of a bar.  He seems remarkably devil-may-cure considering the lyrics of the song.  Sinatra built his career around his masterful reading of lyrics, and yet here and in “Sweet Caroline” he just sounds like he’s having a sing-along.  If the lyrics were not to his taste, then he shouldn’t have recorded them.  The whole thing gets worse as he growls his way through the final section and, to add insult to injury, on the line “the whole damn bus is cheering” an entire football stadium of cheers is overdubbed onto the recording.  It’s tacky, cheap, and Sinatra should have known better.

Nothing else on the album is quite that bad.  There is an infamous clip of a radio show in which two DJs are mocking Sinatra’s recording of “Satisfy Me One More Time” when the album came out.  They poke fun as he sings about being stripped naked, covered in kisses and having his ear nibbled.   While the thought of this happening to a sixty year old Sinatra is perhaps a little vomit-inducing, it’s not such a scary thought as if Sinatra was doing the ear nibbling himself, because the new pair of dentures he is sporting on the album cover could do some serious damage.  But this song, and “I’m Gonna Make It All The Way”, are delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, and Sinatra clearly relished the “you can go to hell now” line at the end of  the “I’m Gonna Make It All The Way” which finds the singer heading into country territory (he seriously considered recording a country album a couple of years later).  “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” often comes in for criticism but, again, it’s a masterpiece compared to horrors elsewhere on the album.

The LP is rescued to some degree by three ballads, “The Summer Knows”, “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life” and “If”.  These three worthy songs seem to be the only ones that Sinatra takes at all seriously on the album.  Rather oddly, the first two didn’t become part of Sinatra’s live repertoire, but “If” was still being performed by “Ol’ Blue Eyes” some fifteen years later.   “What Are You Doing” benefits from a beautiful arrangement, fine singing and the inclusion of the rarely-heard verse.  While these three songs are what Sinatra should have been recording, it is the crass, brassy material that “Some Nice Things I’ve Missed” will always be remembered for (and those dentures, of course).

Over the next five years, Sinatra would record in fits and starts, with material ranging from the beautiful (“Just As Though You Were Here”, the piano-only “Send In The Clowns”) to the unforgivable (the disco arrangements of “Night and Day” and “All Or Nothing At All”), but would release no albums until the mammoth three-disc “Trilogy”.  “Trilogy” finds Sinatra in fine form, with one album dedicated to songs from the American songbook, one dedicated to songs of the rock era, and one containing a forty-five minute semi-classical choral work.  That final disc has its rocky moments, but the entire enterprise at least shows that Sinatra regained his self respect by the end of the decade, and even “Song Sung Blue” on the rock era disc is more palatable than “Sssssssssweet Caroline!”