Showing posts with label TV drama. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TV drama. Show all posts

Scotland or What?


That's the question.

Somewhere among my many books there's an old - a very old - Beano Annual. I was a big fan of the Beano when I was a child. My beloved grandad bought me a copy every week. There was usually a mild tussle with my dad over each new issue, because he loved it too. Mostly we would read it together. Come Christmas, there would usually be a Beano Annual in my stocking. In one of the cartoons, I forget which, but it may have been Lord Snooty, now only remembered every time Jacob Rees Mogg rears his head, there's an image of the Scottish border. Not that Lord Snooty was Scottish, but since the Beano and Dandy were published in Dundee by the redoubtable D C Thomson, the cartoons would, every so often, contain a small and faintly satirical reference to English perceptions of Scotland. 

The border was, as far as I remember, a very definite line, on the northern side of which were instant mountains, (lochs and bens) and men in kilts, leaping about, tossing cabers, and saying things like 'hoots mon'. It was, of course, a joke. A joke, moreover, at the expense of our English neighbours. A bit like that episode of Hancock's Half Hour, where Tony discovers that he has Scottish blood and becomes the laird of Glen Sporran. Or tries to. The one in which James Robertson Justice calls Hattie a 'fine wee woman'. 

I found myself thinking about all these things last weekend when I watched the first episode of a new TV crime drama 'set in Scotland' (sic). It was a television version of a well reviewed radio drama which, surprisingly enough, I hadn't heard. To say that I didn't enjoy this incarnation would probably be to underestimate the strength of my feelings about it, and it's safe to say that I won't be watching it again. But I'll leave the reviewing of it to more dedicated TV critics than I am. 

Besides, that's not really what this post is about. You see, for me, it demonstrated a very real and all too common disrespect shown to Scotland, far more often than is excusable. As though we live in some kind of cartoon country, where once you step over the border from England, you will find yourself in a vague, undifferentiated place where signs saying 'Benview' indicate that this is a land of bens and lochs. Watching an hour of this drama, from Scotland, was deeply frustrating, mostly because it was nothing at all like Scotland. 

The crime solvers were housed in what looked like an empty modern building in the middle of nowhere. So empty that I swear it echoed. There was a Norwegian detective and a Scotsman who thought she had taken his job. I mean I know this happened in reverse in the stunningly good Broadchurch but that was explicable in all kinds of ways. A (Clyde Coast?) marina seemed to have only one boat in it. My ex-professional sailor husband muttered mutinously over this one. Sometimes a vague city skyline or a few buildings hove into view. More often, there was a whole lot of sea, and a character who inexplicably goes to school in a small boat. There are lots of shadowy mountains, sorry, bens, in the distance, interspersed with sudden shots from the obligatory helicopter, of a single track road winding through dense forests. This place simply slides away from you all the time, like Brigadoon. It has no existence at all beyond this moment. 

Where the hell were we? This was Scotland for Dummies, produced by people who seemed to have no knowledge of the reality of this place that I love, in all its wonder and variety and complexity. 

And yes, I know it was a crime drama, not a travelogue, but it didn't need to be like this. I kept thinking about the always excellent Shetland. It doesn't matter that in real life there are (thankfully) few murders there and Shetlanders may be able to find fault. But most of us can willingly suspend our disbelief, because everything else is so lovingly scripted and filmed and acted. 

Instead, in the immortal (real) words of Mr Spock, this was 'no Scotland as we know it!' 

Playing Fast and Loose with the Classics

Kidnapped, with swords!

Christmas TV here has been a bit dodgy. Plenty of movies to enjoy, but very little good original TV drama, and most of what was touted as 'original' - wasn't.

This is, as ever, a personal opinion. And I'm coming at this from the point of view of somebody with my fair share of dramatisations under my belt, albeit for BBC Radio 4. These included Kidnapped, Catriona, The Bride of Lammermoor and even Ben Hur, chariot race and all, among many others. Some of them are repeated from time to time on R4 Extra, where you can catch them all over again, although I always forget to look, so the small cheque for residual payments comes as a pleasant surprise.

Dramatisation is fun, especially when you love the book you're working on, but it's also a challenge. Not something for beginners. You are not there to impose your own creative quirks on somebody else's creation.

One of the first things you have to decide is how you are going to set about translating that original into what is a completely different medium - and to do it without upsetting too many people. Scenes will have to be left out. Characters too.  But alongside the notion that you are creating a faithful realisation in a different medium is the notion that you should strive not to do too much violence to that original.

I could cite a dozen examples of excellent film and TV dramatisations, faithful to the original, but also wonderful dramas in their own right. Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility comes to mind but there are plenty more. I'd place the recent Poldark series in that category as well. I didn't watch it the first time round, and I know there are people who prefer the previous dramatisation, but I've read some of the books, and the newer dramas seem very faithful to the world Graham created.

The other form of drama that works well is where a writer takes a much loved original and uses it as inspiration for a wholly new piece of work, without ever pretending that they are doing anything different. The brilliant Bridget Jones falls into this category, as do clever, quirky, funny films such as Clueless. I've done it myself to some extent, with a novel called Bird of Passage that is a re-imagining of Wuthering Heights in the present day, while remaining a loving homage to the original.

But during winter 2019, here in the UK at least, we were treated to various dramatisations that took a much loved book and then skewed it till it was virtually unrecognisable, in some cases imposing a world view on it that would have been wholly alien to the original.

I hated all of them without exception.

Christmas Carol - why tamper with perfection? Dickens knew how to tell a damn good story if anyone did. Dracula? Why call it that? But it began much earlier with theWar of the Worlds that started off well but very quickly descended into such a tissue of incomprehensible nonsense that many of us were left feeling indignant and cheated. Sanditon was another one in which a writer indulged himself at the expense of a dead novelist. (Is this a thing over-confident middle aged male writers do? It might be so.)

I'm left wondering, don't these dramatists have an original idea in their heads? Or is it just possibly the notoriously conservative TV executives, paying the piper and calling the tune. Are they so scared of originality that they can only permit dramatists to piggyback on the classics?

After the brickbats, the bouquet.

Far and away the best TV drama of 2019 - probably of the decade - was Craig Mazin's Chernobyl. I still think about it with a combination of awe and admiration of every single thing about it: writing, production, acting. If you haven't yet watched it, seek it out. I have seen nothing like it produced here in the UK for many a long year. Maybe our systems no longer allow for such talent. But try not to binge watch it, or if you do, perhaps you should allow yourself some recovery time!