Wednesday, October 12, 2011


The Art of the Trailer

Charlie Brooker laid into the BBC the other day for spending too much money on glossy trailers at a time of cuts. And that sounds reasonable, in the way that a 22-word summary can be more persuasive than a thousand original words of bile (along with a subtle and reasoned critique of David Cameron, sure to sway wavering voters). But it’s not just that he goes increasingly over the top to hide the fact that his argument’s a bit short – I know the technique only too well – but that I don’t agree with it. I actually like trailers.

Mr Brooker’s acceleration runs from questioning how much the BBC spends on promotional trails with “I'm not talking about the on-air trails consisting of edited highlights” to frothing at the very idea of trailing programmes:
“All that time and money to advertise a show which everybody knows about anyway. You could hold a bit of cardboard with "STRICTLY'S COMING BACK" scrawled on it in front of the lens for 10 seconds and it would have 10 times the impact. Madness.”
You know, I’m not sure it would. But either way, it certainly wouldn’t be as much fun to watch. So is it not really just “bespoke mini-movies” of “specially-shot glossy nonsense” that he’s against, but trailers in general? And isn’t it difficult to trail a live show like Strictly Come Dancing in advance with “footage from the shows themselves”, which he puts as an alternative? Personally, I’d go for more exciting trailers between programmes to keep us watching, and fewer simple cards saying ‘This is going to be on’ covering the end credits of shows, which is when they tend to appear on TV and wind me up.

The heart of his argument, though, is that he loves the BBC and thinks it’s throwing money away when it really needs not to. I love the BBC, too, and think it should always be alert not to throw money away – but, for me, the trailers aren’t doing that (and I’d much rather licence fee money is spent for something on screen, rather than managers’ salaries). Obviously, they’re encouraging people to watch programmes; not just letting us know they’re on, but creating a feel for them that makes us want to watch them. And that’s where I disagree with Mr Brooker:
“These things turn me silver with rage. Yeah, silver. I TURN SILVER. And they turn me silver not because they're bad – on the contrary, they're often very well made indeed – but because they have absolutely no right to exist in any civilised universe.”
Well, that’s me told. But doesn’t that just boil down to ‘This is something I don’t like to watch. Make something to my taste instead!’ And shouldn’t the BBC be a bit more diverse than just Charlie Brooker’s personal taste?

‘Preposterous,’ you might say. ‘No-one watches TV for the trailers.’ Not entirely, perhaps. But the more that trailers are creative works in their own right, the more likely I am to enjoy them. Yes, that’s often about the anticipation, where tantalisingly edited highlights can make a fine trailer, often cut to specially selected music (oh no! That costs money to license!) – I thought the thrilling music on the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy trailer really made it, for example – but there’s something about a “bespoke mini-movie” that often appeals to me more than the programmes it’s shown between. I realise regular readers may be amazed at this, but who says for something to be any good it has to go on a bit?

I don’t like every trailer, just as I don’t like every other sort of programme, but if you’ve never thought, ‘Ooh, that looks good,’ or ‘Actually, that’s better than the programme,’ I worry about your critical taste. Over the years, I’ve several times drifted in and out of watching Hollyoaks: sometimes it’s an unusually stylish and creative soap (I’m not an habitual soap watcher); sometimes the relentless teenery bores me and I turn off for a year or two. Recently, I’d picked it up again after a long gap after someone told me Jeff Rawle was in it as a quietly underplayed psychopath, and I’d started to lose interest again now he’s off in France. But I love the Hollyoaks – The Wedding trailer. In part, that’s because of the anticipation: hooray! Evil Jeff Rawle’s back. But largely, it’s because it’s nothing like Hollyoaks, and is almost certainly more entertaining than the episode it’s trailing. But so what? It’s a miniature masterpiece of Gothic camp, brilliantly conceived and put together. And, yes, it probably cost quite a bit of money. It’s probably driving Mr Brooker spare. Entertaining me as it does whenever I watch Channel 4, for me it’s money well spent.

Just in case you think that this is all about art, though, and that Mr Brooker is against one form on artistic grounds, it’s also, of course, about money. Not saving it – making it. ‘Oh,’ you might think. ‘Charlie thinks all these trailers make the BBC too commercial, and he’s got a point.’ But no. In fact, he’s against them because they’re not commercial enough:
“And it's not just madness in the short-term: what about legacy? If all that time and money and street-closing and dancing and filming had been used to create a show instead of an advert, they might've created something they could broadcast again, or sell on DVD, or flog to the Swiss and the Kenyans. Instead they blew it on a promo that'll air for a few weeks before getting tossed on to the ever-mounting stack of other never-to-be-shown-again adverts, which sit there gathering dust in nobody's memories…”
A lot of trailers linger in my memory, as it happens – because that’s what they’re intended to do. Short, stylish, attention-grabbing? No wonder that for many people they’re more memorable than the programmes. But also, what contradictory rot. How does criticising a trailer as something that can’t be “broadcast again” and admitting it airs “for a few weeks” stack up? And should the BBC only ever aim to repeat, or sell, rather than produce something new, for ordinary viewers? Most BBC programmes are never shown again. Most BBC programmes are never sold to other countries. Most BBC programmes are never released on DVD. Yet trailers are shown many times – so, if it’s a financial argument you’re after, surely they often give more bangs for their buck than the programmes do? And, again, sometimes the trailers are better than the show – because some of us like some trailers as works of art in their own right.

Lost in the middle of his article, Mr Brooker makes some effective points about how cuts and pressure for “value for money” make it less likely the BBC will take risks, yet it’s taking risks that creates many of the best programmes. But that has nothing to do with the rest of his argument. After all, one of the examples he cites of a risky programme was Doctor Who, which the BBC thought an enormous risk in 2005 and almost everyone expected to fail. And what was the biggest way the BBC encouraged people to start watching it? A brilliant bespoke mini-movie, The Trip of a Lifetime. Which was then sold as part of the DVD, and which I still watch and enjoy today. How’s that for a legacy?

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