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TV Today


It is with no small amount of ambivalence that I write this, my final TV Today post. I’m not leaving The Stage — heaven forfend — but over the next few days we’ll be moving the editorial sections of the site (news, features and blogs/columns) to a new, unified platform that will allow us to run a wider range of exclusive online content. We’ll have an expanded range of regular columnists - some names familiar to The Stage, and several new ones.

Part of the restructure means that TV Today as an entity will go. In its place, our experienced broadcast reporter Matt Hemley (who you can also hear every Sunday during Elaine Paige’s Radio 2 show) will be writing about TV and radio in his own regular column, while I will be writing about how the arts is changing with the onset of new technologies.

It’s been a great six and a half years, and a period full of change. Looking back to our earliest posts, Channel 4 was announcing that it was going to trial live streaming of its channels over the internet; the BBC was gearing up to cast the lead role in a musical for the first time; and shows such as Glee and Accused were but a glint in some commissioner’s evil eye. In the intervening years, it’s on occasion been weird to write about people or interview them and end up keeping in touch. I’ve made some great friends within the TV industry and look forward to continuing those well beyond TV Today’s lifetime.

When the story has to stop

Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition

There are many things I love about Doctor Who — and, by extension, its recent spin-off series — but, unlike most of the millions who now watch it, a huge proportion comes from exploration of its production. BBC3’s behind-the-scenes documentary series Doctor Who Confidential may be no more, but there are still ways of investigating the passion and drama on the other side of the camera. And not just for the main series: in its current special edition, Doctor Who Magazine looks at the final series of CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, which came to an unexpected and premature end when its star, Elisabeth Sladen, passed away from cancer in 2011.

So far, so usual: I know regular readers will be rolling their eyes and wondering why I’m writing about Doctor Who again. But the DWM special issue, with its forensic reconstructions about the shooting schedules and script changes by Andrew Pixley, ends up — unintentionally, perhaps — becoming something rather unique. When Lis Sladen died, there was no question of the show continuing without her, so production came to a halt.

But it did so at a time when the production team were already considering major changes to the show. Multiple questions were hanging in the air: would Sladen’s young co-stars want to stay on? Indeed, should they? If they left, how would the producers stitch new characters into the tapestry of the show in a believable way? And with BBC Wales moving its drama production to new facilities at Roath Lock, should the on-screen show change location, too?

If Sladen had survived to see her show continue into a sixth series, those questions would have been answered behind closed doors, existing maybe only as a footnote while we spent more time looking at the programme that was constructed out of the answers.

Instead, we end up with a look at a series that will now forever be in flux. A series of production questions that will now never be answered, a TV show eternally preserved in amber. On screen, the series ended with a caption saying “The story goes on… forever.” But in the real world, what can the series’ sudden cessation tell us?

Life must be tough for EastEnders producers. In any other Olympic year, three weeks of sporting coverage would have dinted, but not eliminated, the audience for their soap opera. With a Games hosted in the UK’s capital city, though, TV audiences have been lapping up the BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage: all day, every day, on BBC1, throughout daytime and early evening on BBC3 (with the channel mysteriously finding the Freeview bandwidth to broadcast in daytime) as well as streaming video coverage of every single sport online. While BBC2 and BBC4 have provided plenty of non-Olympian content — including many shows, including EastEnders, which normally reside on BBC1 — and there is much radio and commercial TV still out there, the truth is that most TVs at the moment are glued to the sport.

It must be especially galling for Easties, as the Olympics is in “their” borough. The fictional postcode for Walford, E20, has now been formally adopted by the rejuvenated Olympic Park area. So the decimation of EastEnders’ regular viewing audience is being conducted by a neighbour.

It’s unsurprising, both geographically and in terms of attracting audience attention, that the EastEnders production team have tried to reflect the Olympics’ presence in East London on the sets of Elstree. An audacious episode which combined standard prerecorded scenes with a live segment showing Billy Mitchell (actor Perry Fenwick) carry the Olympic torch through Albert Square worked well, gimmick though it was.

However, last night the production team went a step further, and included a topical conversation about Team GB’s gold medal success. And so the Olympics joined topics including the death of Michael Jackson to be indulged with a topical scene that, with the best will in the world, can only be watched through one’s fingers.

When you’re a theatre person like I am, writes Oliver Tompsett, you can never fall out of love with the business. We continue to have a passionate and fruitful relationship with all things theatre for our entire lives. As in any healthy successful relationship, there will be changes we must adapt to. Anyone who still thinks we need the Spotlight ‘book’ should not only learn to open a web browser, but should also open their eyes to the future.

I am changing my approach to how I can increase my chances of employment in musical theatre. I’m not the only one who is taking such measures, and I want to explain why.

Theatre — and musical theatre in particular — is obviously dominated by the need to sell tickets. For producers, that means raising the profile of their show, ensuring that word of mouth is good, and making people come and see their show over the rest. One of the most popular tactics is to use “names” or “celebrities” in the principal roles of their show. With recognisable faces pasted all over their advertising, the public is promised not only an evening’s entertainment but a glance at someone off the telly. This isn’t a new tactic at all, but has been on the increase for some years now.

So, how do actors, like myself — or even the undiscovered talent from around the country, that already have only a few ways in — even get half a chance, when nearly every lead role that’s going is almost certainly heading toward the next winner of Dancing on Ice? (A show which, by the way, I would love to be on!)

The answer is to continue to be the best you can and take every opportunity to not only improve your craft but also make people sit up and watch what you can do. The paths you take to raise your profile can be anything between making yourself available for the local cabaret and showcasing your talents to a small audience, to the other extreme of auditioning for a nationwide talent search that might showcase your ability to millions — as I tried to do with ITV’s Superstar.

Superstar: Could we start again, please?

To open this post, I cede the floor to Mary Magdalene, as imagined by Tim Rice for the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar:

I’ve been living to see you.
Dying to see you, but it shouldn’t be like this.
This was unexpected,
What do I do now?
Could we start again please?

I’ve been very hopeful, so far.
Now for the first time, I think we’re going wrong.
Hurry up and tell me,
This is just a dream.
Oh could we start again please?

I’m a firm believer that, for all their flaws, TV casting shows have so far produced net gains for the industry as a whole. They do come with their faults, of course, but on the whole they’ve combined enjoyable television with increased awareness of musical theatre to an audience that wouldn’t normally consider such things.

Or at least, that’s what I thought before Superstar. The whole show, which finishes tonight, seems to be setting itself up to fail, doing so many things that both prevent the programme from being as entertaining as it could be, and from it being taken as seriously in the industry as it could have done.

Now, for the first time*, I think TV casting is going wrong. Dear ITV, could we start again, please?

No? Oh, well, here’s what I’d change if we could.

* NB: I didn’t watch Grease is the Word.

Review: The Hollow Crown - Henry V

Have you tried larping? If you’ve never heard of it, it stands for live action role playing, a hobby where enthusiasts recreate famous battles. With all its gruesome boys’ toys, the medieval period is one of the most popular.

It’s generally regarded as a bit of harmless make believe, but when you take part and someone thrusts a weapon at you that could skewer a manatee, you get a sense of the very real thrill and terror of 15th century battle. It was with this in mind that I sat down to Shakespeare’s bloodiest play of all, expecting “the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries, the dead men’s blood, the pining maidens’ groans for husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers” in all its glory.

Sadly, in this department director Thea Sharrock’s Henry V isn’t up to scratch.

Review: The Hollow Crown - Henry IV Part 2

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 2

This weekend Richard Eyre’s contribution to the Hollow Crown came to a hefty conclusion — with more pomp, more ceremony, and, you’ve guessed it, even more of the rotund Simon Russell Beale making Sir John Falstaff’s foibles unexpectedly unjolly (a performance that’s been splitting opinion, but I’m still a fan).

In Part 1, you didn’t see as much of Jeremy Irons as you would like. This time, playing King Henry like Joe Cocker auditioning for Lear, all those memories of Brideshead Revisited, and that dashing, edgy Charles Ryder come flooding back to remind us that if you want calculated, gloomy or edgy, a dead-set Mr Irons is still one of the best. I suspect when Geoffrey Palmer’s Chief Justice warns Falstaff not to “wake a sleeping wolf”, he’s talking about the man whose eyes put the hollow in the hollow crown.

The other side of the Superstar question

Over on his daily theatre blog, Mark Shenton lays into ITV’s new theatre reality casting show, Superstar:

It’s certainly depressing that established talent feels it’s necessary to submit themselves to the indignity of a public popularity contest. Where will this pandering to public taste end?

Over the last five-and-a-bit years on this blog, I’ve reviewed most of the BBC’s output in this genre, from Any Dream Will Do onwards. And while I’m not going to be writing weekly reports for The Stage this time round, I’m still going to be watching every episode.

There is much wrong with the format, as I’ve repeatedly noted over the years. On the basis of Superstar’s first two episodes, which aired on successive nights last weekend, those largely remain: the audition process and boot camp stages, both of which could be entertaining to the general public as well as instructional to those who want to learn both what to do and (more importantly) what not to do in the audition room, are ridiculously shortened in the hurry to get to live shows and revenue-generating premium rate phone voting (the BBC’s phone votes raised money for the Corporation’s Performing Arts Fund - what ITV does with its cash has yet to be determined).

Review: The Hollow Crown - Henry IV Part 1

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV in The Hollow Crown

Henry IV is packed with glorious bawdiness and drama, but for some reason screen adaptations are rare.

The BBC took it on in 1960 with mini-series An Age of Kings, casting a likeable Sean Connery as Hotspur. Then came Orson Welles who, in a realisation of his lifelong ambition, played Falstaff in 1967’s Chimes at Midnight, a sumptuous combination of the tetralogy for the big screens.

Kenneth Branagh dreamed of Robbie Coltrane in the same role in his rousing Henry V from 1989, Michael Pennington’s masterful seven part stage series came a year later, and then Gus Van Sandt’s My Own Private Idaho sparked thousands of teenage girls’ Own Private fantasies of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in 1991. But since then, more than 20 years of silence, and I can’t work out why. Where else can you find an aspiring leader who, while plotting his way to the top, wins the support of his “pitiful rascal” underlings by pretending to like pints? Oh, wait, hang on…

Review: The Hollow Crown - Richard II

Starting on Saturday and continuing for the next three weeks, BBC2 is showing a sequence of Shakespeare’s historical plays under the umbrella title of The Hollow Crown. Writer and theatre reviewer Jonathan Watson will be reviewing each film every Monday.

Ben Whishaw as Richard II

The last time the BBC spent this much money on the monarchy, it was a right royal you-know-what. During the jubilee, thousands braved the horrible weather and lined the Thames in soggy formation, as “so many greedy looks of young and old through casements darted their desiring eyes” to the Royal Flotilla. The more sensible among us stayed at home to watch it unfold on telly. After all, we’d been promised a perfect vantage point, expert analysis and essential viewing without getting soaked or crushed by a stranger in a Union Jack tuxedo.

What we didn’t bargain for, however, was Fearne Cotton and Jake Humphreys presenting the jubilations like they were a segment on Saturday morning children’s TV. At one point, as Prince Philip jigged about on the top deck of the Spirit of Chartwell, I thought Dave Benson Phillips might show up and gunge the right royal husband, before a panning shot back to Cotton who, as she gave two thumbs up, would shout ‘wicked!’ into the camera.

Well, maybe not, but you get the idea.

And, after a flood of more than 5,000 complaints including Stephen Fry calling it “mind-numbingly tedious” on Twitter, the pressure was on the Beeb not to make the same mistakes with The Hollow Crown, its major contribution to the Cultural Olympiad. Thankfully, this time around there’s no such cock up, despite the fact the Bard and TV don’t always make for successful bedfellows. In fact, Rupert Goold’s film — the first of four spanning Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V — is a camp, luxurious triumph.

Today, the BBC launched an additional feature to its online live TV player. Live Restart allows for those situations where you join a programme midway through, only to wish you hadn’t missed the first ten minutes. With a single click on a large purple button, you can switch to a timeshifted replay of the programme from the start. If even that’s not good enough for you, you can ‘rewind’ up to two hours of television.

Live rewind is nothing new for users of Sky+ or other, similar devices — but generally their replay buffer only goes as far back as you have been watching a particular channel, or further if you’d already set the show to be recorded.The new BBC service doesn’t depend on you having watched a programme already, but instead relies on advances in internet transmission systems which make it a lot easier for the BBC to record its outgoing video data.

For the tech-heads amongst you (by which, I mean me and anyone else as nerdy as I am), the BBC’s Henry Webster goes into some of the details on the BBC Internet Blog:

The technology that allows us to offer this new functionality is part of a wider strategic move to embrace HTTP chunked streaming for delivering our online video.

Instead of using a point-to-point streaming protocol such as RTMP as we have done in the past, this method breaks up the H.264 video into chunks and delivers them as HTTP packets in much the same way as the we deliver our text rich web pages today.

… The live restart functionality that we are launching on the iPlayer today is typical of the cool new interactive features that we can drive using HTTP streaming.

As we can keep all the video chunks as we distribute them, we can offer them to be viewed again later, or even store them more permanently.

… To do this we have linked up the programme schedule data with a rewind-able live stream which means, where rights allow, that you should easily be able to navigate back to the start of the currently live programme, pause and resume a live stream or look back at anything that happened in the last two hours.

The key phrase in that last paragraph will, I suspect, turn out to be “where rights allow”. Live streaming of a current TV channel and iPlayer availability post-transmission do seem to often be subject to different contracts. That’s all well and good when watching live, or watching iPlayer, are two discrete operations by the viewer — but if the BBC’s new techniques catch on, there are all sorts of implications.

Not least of these is the implication for liability for paying the licence fee. As it stands, to watch live simulcasts of TV channels requires a valid TV Licence, whereas watching iPlayer does not. With this new hybrid system, where does the licence fee requirement kick in? The fact that this question can even be asked shows how outdated the licence fee system is becoming in the age of increased online watching.

Radio 4's Bloomsday Ulysses: Yes, I say, yes

Anybody who’s listened to Radio 4 (or 4 Extra, or watched BBC2 or BBC4) at all over the last couple of weeks can’t have escaped the trailers promoting tomorrow’s Ulysses adaptation.

James Joyce’s literary masterpiece is one book I’ve never managed to read. Its 265,000 word count would be intimidating enough, but Joyce’s use of different styles — including some chapters written in a stream-of-conscious style, and one written as a play script. The tale of a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, his philandering wife Molly, and writer Stephen Dedalus — often taken to be an alter ego of Joyce himself — is celebrated each year on “Bloomsday”, June 16, the day on which the book’s events unfold.

To mark the occasion, Radio 4 is devoting much of Saturday’s output to a new dramatisation of the work, starting at 9.10am within Saturday Live and concluding just before midnight. The BBC has assembled a great cast: Henry Goodman as Bloom, Niamh Cusack as Molly, Andrew Scott as Dedalus and with Stephen Rea narrating.

I’m not usually a fan of having a narrator in a radio adaptation of a novel - too many a production has been marred by dumping chunks of dull exposition into the narrator’s mouth, rather than finding ways for the drama to extend out of the characters. For Ulysses, though, getting rid of the narrator would be criminal: there’s poetry in every line, and Rea’s warm presence throughout the day is a comforting guide to those who, like me, are coming to the characters and situations within the drama for the first time.

After getting a preview copy of all seven parts last week, I’ve devoured them — I’m currently about two-thirds of my way through listening to the whole thing for a second time. All the episodes will be available as MP3 downloads after transmission, and it’s really worth taking the time to download them.

The BBC’s website for this project also has some great supporting material, including interviews with the cast and creative teams behind this production. After Matt expressed his justifiable frustration with BBC television’s arts commissions yesterday, it’s worth noting that when the Corporation gets it right, as it has done with Ulysses, it’s unbeatable.

Today the BBC held what it described on an invitation as its “annual arts and music television briefing”. And giving its annual nature, you might expect the Corporation had called the two-hour launch event in order to highlight its ambitions for the next year and, of course, announce plenty of exciting new arts commissions for its channels.

Sadly, none of the shows announced (of which there were far from plenty) are ones that, to my mind anyway, can be labelled exciting, and, perhaps more worryingly, arts shows.

There’s The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood, about “the story of the man who revolutionised English pottery” (which sounds to me like a heritage programme), and then there’s Northern Italy Unpacked, which will look at “the art, culinary culture, and landscape of the north” (which sounds to me like it will be a travel and/or cookery programme).

The History of the World in Three Colours which explores how the colours gold, blue and white have “changed the way we behave and even altered the course of history”, while David Dimbleby will explore “the rich heritage of Britain’s maritime arts and culture” from the comfort of his own boat.

Now I may be wrong, but shouldn’t arts include programmes about music, dance and theatre?

The CBBC channel dilemma

I’ve been away from the world of TV news, by which I mean news about TV, for the best part of two weeks. Part of my job at The Stage, apart from burbling about the world of telly and editing the rest of our paper’s online content, is overseeing our web development strategy. That’s taken up a huge amount of my time recently — and will continue to do so, as we’re looking at rewriting every single line of code that drives the various sections of our website throughout 2012.

Last week, for example, I was out of the office every day, working with a company that is developing a new website for The Stage that will launch later in 2012, or possibly early 2013. This has little to no relevance to the TV Today blog, other than to explain why last week’s news that CBBC and CBeebies shows are to be phased out from transmission on BBC1 and BBC2 went uncommented upon.

In hindsight, maybe that’s a good thing. Because if I’d been commenting at the same time as the overpaid, overindulgent, underinformed commentators in the mainstream press were divulging their opinions about the “demise of Blue Peter on BBC1”, my main response would have been “what kept you so long from noticing a trend that’s been building for years?”

Britain's Got Talent's second screen

This evening sees the start of Britain’s Got Talent’s live semifinals, after a series of prerecorded auditions which, the addition of new judges Alesha Dixon and David Walliams aside, have been punctuated by several social media and second screen campaigns. The most visible characteristic element of these has been the use of on-air hashtags, encouraging Twitter users to use specific terms in their tweets.

At the tail end of this week, Peter Cassidy, Head of FremantleMedia UK Interactive kindly took time out from preparing for this weekend’s live shows to talk to The Stage about the series’ social media strategy.

TV Today: In terms of the lead-up to a show like Britain’s Got Talent, how early does the social media team get involved?

Peter Cassidy: It’s pretty much a continual process, to be honest with you. Social media on our big shows is pretty much a year-round activity. It really ramps up when the auditions are taking place and being recorded, which was way back in January, February time, and we work pretty much hand in hand with the production team.

While every show seems that it must have Twitter, Facebook and even app development these days, what piqued my interest was the use of on-screen hashtags, highlighting not only the acts involved but, say, a joke David Walliams has made. Who made the decision to take the approach that you did?

It was a joint decision between the interactive team and the executive producers of the show. People tend to use the act names anyway, so you don’t need to cite that. And we don’t want to be littering the show with hashtags, we try to keep the number down for people who are not on Twitter or don’t care. We don’t want it to be in their faces the whole time.

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