Sunday, January 13, 2008
(Patroclus asked me to rub my chin in the direction of Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper. And you don't argue with Patroclus.)
I should have read the instructions first.
Confronted with the first episodes of Echo Beach (ITV's new post-watershed soap) and Moving Wallpaper (ITV's archly postmodern comedy about the making of ITV's new post-watershed soap) I assumed that the latter was the equivalent to the extras on a DVD, or maybe one of those spin-off shows for the benefit of people who can take more Big Brother or Dr Who than government nutritionists would normally recommend. So I watched the soap first, managed to stagger through half an episode and it was shit. I mean, not just Hollyoaks shit, not just cynical, falsely glossy, one-eye-on-the-gossip-columns shit, but Eldorado shit. Albion Market shit.
Then the lovely woman without whom I'd probably be unable to put on my trousers the right way up pointed out that Moving Wallpaper was broadcast first, so maybe I should watch that first. And Moving Wallpaper turned out to be a fairly amusing sitcom about media folk, a bit like Extras, maybe. Although, really, that's not the point, is it? The fact that one show is OK, and one is dire, is swatted into irrelevance by the high-concept 'aboutness' of the whole project. After I'd watched MW, I tried EB again and, although it was still very bad, at least we knew why the hunky harbour master and the Indian barmaid and her off of Footballers Wives were there.
The thing is, despite all the hoo-ha about ITV taking postmodernism to the masses, MW/EB is doing very little that other show-within-show shows (Extras, Larry Sanders, Annually Retentive) haven't done, apart from splitting the two components. All of them were predicated on the fact that the 'real' show (eg When The Whistle Blows) probably wasn't something you'd bother to watch. If the earlier shows were fruit yogurts, this is Müller Fruit Corner. Not so much groundbreaking, more like painting the floor a slightly different colour.
Of course, there's loads of fun here for media theorists to ponder over which shows and characters are simulacra of the other, and which of them are more real. Is the actress called Suzie Amy, played by the actress called Susie Amy, more real than the producer Jonathan Pope, played by Ben Miller, although the real producer of Echo Beach is called Jonathan Pope? Did someone really nut a picture of Michael Grade, and would they have mentioned if he did?
Unfortunately for the makers, the whole 'real'/'fake' interface has been overtaken by... I was going to say real life, but you know what I mean. Stuff on the news. The WGA strike in the States is an intriguing beast, not least because it's drawing people's attention to what writers actually do. There's a paradox here: when we're watching drama, we know that Bruce Willis or Judi Dench aren't making up their own words, but we suspend disbelief. We know we're doing it but, hey, it's all make believe, innit? But when we watch something that's meant to be 'real' (a talk show or an awards ceremony, for example) we also kid ourselves that Jay Leno or Jon Stewart is coming up with his own quips, and our enjoyment really suffers when we know the whole thing's scripted.
Of course, Brecht argued that the suspension of disbelief was a nonsense in drama as well, and deployed the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation technique) to remind people that what they were watching was just a bunch of people pretending. Which is what the people in Echo Beach are doing, and we know that, because the people in Moving Wallpaper told us - but then so are the people in Moving Wallpaper.
Maybe, if we ever get to see another Oscars or Golden Globes ceremony, we'll be forced to watch it in a Brechtian manner. In a strange way, it's not a strike - it's art.