Sunday, January 13, 2008

Beach balls

(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.


Rimshot said...

Man, I love/hate reading your stuff Sir. I love it because you have a certain stylistic canter to your prose and know just when to deviate to stress a point, as well as the clever turn of phrase skills.

I hate it for very much the same reason.

Now to the topic at hand: its that same suspension of disbelief that allows us to be drawn into a novel. I, personally, can't stand watching a film with someone who gets up to do something (anything) other than watch the film once its begun. It breaks the 'spell'.

I suppose that for mass consumption, the Larry Sanders and 30 Rocks of the world must fight for space with "Reality TV" such as Survivor and Celebrity Fit club. All about as "real" as my $25.00 Rolex.

I read/heard (can't recall) a very interesting hypothesis about entertainment media and how it's affected the population. They posit that after seeing so very many faux tragedies and surprises and events, one is no longer able to achieve the proper emotional state/response when significant events happen in the actual real world.

I tend to agree.

patroclus said...

Oh super, thanks for that. Incidentally, the trailer for MW/EB has a voiceover that goes 'He writes it. They star in it.', with the 'he' referring to the Jonathan Pope character. But he doesn't write it - he's the producer. Are they trying to make us believe that Jonathan Pope writes it, in the same way that we're supposed to believe that Jay Leno et al come up with quips all on their own, even though the Moving Wallpaper programme itself plainly shows that he doesn't write it? Or did ITV's marketing department just not put very much thought into the trailer, and I'm overthinking it?

Brecht used the Verfremdungseffekt to make political statements (I forget about what exactly, it was a long time ago and it was all in foreign), but these days it's all just done to be trendy and clever, isn't it?

Unless the whole thing is a topical statement about television and artifice and deceiving viewers...which would be quite prescient given that EB and MW have been 12 years in the making. I guess if Ant & Dec turn up on Echo Beach we'll know for sure.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice if MW/EB had an increasingly manic Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter style relationship as they unfurled but I doubt that will happen. The trouble is, Echo Beach neither works as a drama or as a single-gag comedy beyond the first two seconds.

Tim F said...

I've always known exactly when and how to deviate, Rimshot. And thank you for noticing my "stylistic canter".

Your point about TV audiences getting numbed by the media ties in with the political edge to Brecht to which Patroclus alludes. Essentially, the masses need to maintain an emotional detachment so they don't lose sight of reality. Debord argued that this was the big battle of the age; Baudrillard seemed to suggest that the battle has already been lost.

I'd forgotten Aunt Julia, Wyndham. But since (as P points out) nobody at ITV seems to know what producers or scriptwriters or dolly grips etc etc actually do, the chances of such an in-depth analysis of the scribe's art seem minimal.

Although I was amused by the line about ITV viewers having slightly-above-average intelligence. What do thick people watch?

patroclus said...

>>What do thick people watch?<<

Sadly, I think it's Channel 4.

Dick Headley said...

How do you manage to keep up with post-modern entertainment in Bangkok? When I lived there I had to make my own.

Flirty Something said...

thanks for saving me the trouble of watching it and be very happy you don't have to watch Irish TV

Tim F said...

Patroclus: Ouch.

Ah yes, DH, the joys of getting tuk-tuk drivers and noodle vendors to act out the latest episode of Emmerdale soon palls. How do I do it? Well I could admit to have sneaked back to Blighty, but then I'd only have to organise a bloody blogmeet.

Irish TV's great, Flirty. Well, that clip of Boyzone on the Gay Byrne show, which gets re-run on about 50,000 clip shows a week. That's great.