Friday, August 04, 2006


Time Trumpet: Play Loud

Yes, I’m taking a short break from looking at television from forty years in the past by bringing you television from twenty-five years in the future (or “thirty,” if you read all the publicity from media who can’t do the sum ‘2031-2006’). The most exciting thing I saw on TV last night was still a trailer for I, Claudius (1976) being repeated on BBC4 at 9 every night from Saturday, though, so you needn’t worry I’m getting too modern. Anyway, is Armando Iannucci's new TV series any good? Well, like many sketch shows, it depends which three minutes you watch.

Driven to fury by all those ‘I Love the Day Before Yesterday’ shows featuring alternately banal and bemused celebrity reminiscences, Mr Iannucci is now beaming a look back at the next few years from a couple of decades later. We get a brief shot of 2031’s Leeds after the floods that killed millions, a futuristic city set in a huge lake that could have fitted in snugly as a shot from Doctor Who: New Earth, but it concentrates ‘looking back’ at years such as 2007 and 2008; like all satire and much sci-fi, it’s all about today.

If you hoped to see the ‘Terrorism Awards’ fulminated against by the Daily Mail (hat-tip to The Whiskey Priest), they’re still to look forward to in a future episode. Shocking, isn’t it, that a programme should release details way in advance just to build up shock value? Most of the ‘shock’ in last night’s edition came not from politics but from ‘celebrities’. There was Charlotte Church vomiting her insides out, which featured an engaging actress doing interviews as the older Ms Church but went on quite a way too long, and an extended joke building on David Beckham’s tattoos and perceived androgyny; the ‘older Mr Beckham’ didn’t cut it, and on the whole it seemed a tired attempt to get ‘Oh, I’ve never been so / too disgusting to print in a family newspaper’ headlines. But, really, David Beckham? Even I gave up making jokes about him several years ago, so 2031 is well past their laugh-by date.

Much more successful was CBBC’s children's plastic surgery show Spicy Slicey, with cutting remarks from a rather unimpressive ‘older Anne Robinson’. It worked, though, because the ‘celebrity’ was an aside rather than the main target, and it seemed horribly plausible in a Nigel Kneale sort of way. Particularly the advice that to reset your bone structure at home, one good whack with a hammer is worth several tentative taps. A bearish old Jamie Oliver still being shocked that it can’t be healthy for the kids raised a smile, too.

On the other hand, I do wonder how they can miss a comic target as big as Newsnight’s feeble Martha Kearney. But, in ‘Honey, I Shrunk Martha Kearney’, with her reduced to one-third of her original height, they seemed to think Ms Kearney being small and squeaky was funny enough on its own. It wasn’t, you know. Question Time fared slightly better, with members of the audience haranguing rather well-selected clips of Boris Johnson and Harriet Harman.

Following on from that, the art of the video montage provided the real gold in the programme and those most effectively targeted were, appropriately, Mr Blair and Mr Cameron. It’s all too plausible that Tony Blair sees ghosts wherever he goes, and David Cameron making sure his ‘England’ wristband is visible, then glancing up at the camera, didn’t even require editing. I know the two most important lines in a speech – the first, to get people listening, and the last, to get people clapping. Now, I don’t remember what opened the programme, but they undoubtedly finished on the best bit, to get you tuning in again next week. With an elderly and – unusually for the programme and for the writer of The Thick of It – less foul-mouthed Alastair Campbell to point out just how much Mr Cameron was copying Mr Blair, the closing minutes scarily cut together speeches from the two. Word-for-word, gesture for gesture, only missing a trick in giving Mr Blair a red background and Mr Cameron blue (when I’m sure they’ve both used purple), it climaxed with a stunning sequence in which, between them, they delivered David Bowie’s Changes from the podium.

Uncannily, when we switched over from BBC2 to BBC4 for Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe – full of satirical voiceovers on current television and unflattering edits – it was like we were still watching the same programme, only with more swearing. I had to keep reminding myself that the programmes in the later show weren’t actually made up.

Time Trumpet is going to face a mass of comparisons with The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci's very funny minister-in-a-panic series (I’d call it a sit-com, but in television today that’s virtually a synonym for ‘rubbish’), and it’ll suffer from that. It’s much more patchy, and from its sketch-like format it has an uphill struggle to build up such vivid characters. The two programmes I’d most compare it to are surely the greatest satirical sketch show, Not the 9 O’Clock News, and Nigel Kneale’s satirical look at TV from the future, The Year of the Sex Olympics. No, it’s not as good as either, but at least it has a stab at it. It has the virtue that there wasn’t much in it that was ‘mildly amusing’ in the standard BBC comedy way, though; it was either very good indeed, or just feeble, and it’s worth tuning in for the great bits alone. Even if there are apparently no Liberal Democrats in 2031.

Accidental satire of the day: Lib Dem Blogs published my review of A Surfeit of H2O immediately above Colin Ross’ serious story, How much water do you use?

I loved Time Trumpet, everything Ianucci says and does is gold.

The dilaogue with with Stewart Lee was fantastic (What is more disgusting, a girl singing with her guts hanging out and her intestines slung over her shoulder… or the institution of the monarchy?)
Partly disgusting, partly unfunny, partly comedy gold. You can't have everything it seems.
I enjoyed it.
The old Alistair Campbell was the best bit I felt, reiterating the tired refrains we hear today when asked if Blair went mad, and then claiming Cameron just copied Blair, "I mean, he became Prime Minister, Blair had the idea to become Prime Minister first".

The commentators were great too, just like the inane commentators they get out for such programs
"...or the institution of the monarchy" was the first laugh-out-loud bit for me, and I giggled for a while afterwards. The Beckham bit was pants but there were enough funny bits (and I thought the future Anne Robinson was very good) to keep me entertained.

Oddly I saw a YouTube video only the other day of Blair doing Changes.

I had exactly the same reaction watching Screen Wipe, having to remind myself that it was all real. Hurrah was Iannucci and Brooker.
All right, I laughed at the line about the institution of the monarchy, too. Not that it was the sort of thing I might have said in my younger days. No, noooo.

And I’m glad it wasn’t just me at Screen Wipe
I'm appalled to realise that, contrary to the BBC website etc., it's called Screenwipe. It's up there on the screen and, with my cataloguer's hat on, that's the primary source for TV programme title information.
Here's a satirical take on "The War on Terror" that is even more topical and controversial now that bottles, jars and cans have been banned from flights.

Fans of Brass Eye, The Daily Show, Time Trumpet and The Colbert Report have all loved it.
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