Sunday, 15 February 2009

Scots on the Box

“New Town” BBC 4, 9pm, February 14th

There is a story, more than likely apocryphal I’ll admit, about the radical UCLA graduate who washes up on the Glasgow shores sometime in the late 1960s to teach. Being entertained by a local in one of those fuckin’ awful buckets of blood that the city used to specialise in, our naïve American friend says “Hey, I never realised that Glasgow was such a radical town.” Meaning what, his Scottish contact enquires: “Well, I see Fight The Power graffittied all over the city. You know, FTP?”

Cue long embarrassed silence…

I was reminded of just how wide the Atlantic can be and how long people can take to dry off, as it were, after watching Annie Griffin’s latest offering on BBC4. Annie, an American, has been resident here in God’s Country for some time. As a writer she gave us TV’s “The Book Group” which was brilliant, she gave us cinema’s “Festival” which wasn’t. The Book Group worked because, despite being set in Glasgow it concentrated on the minutiae of interpersonal relationships and didn’t rely on the Glasgow setting for comic effect.

Festival, set in Edinburgh in any August, was all about luvvies and consequently sucked big time.

With New Town, a murder mystery set amongst property wheeling and dealing types, Annie returns to TV and Edinburgh but the script lacks the intimacy of Book Group without fully convincing the viewer that Annie has a confident grasp of the warp and weft of the broader Scottish culture. Leave aside the uncertainty of tone, (Realist? Fantastical? Black comedy? Modern Gothic?) and there are still questions to be asked about how sure Annie’s grasp is.

Irritating little errors abound in the show which I’ll leave to others but there are two absolute humdingers that I can’t leave alone.

First, casting. For some reason, Annie has put a blonde wig on the Anglo-Iranian comic Omid Djalili and asked him to play a Scottish-accented property developer. Er, why?

No offence to Omid Djalili‘s abilities but I’m sure there are a lot of Scottish actors who could’ve handled what’s not an especially demanding role and by default, made a better job of the accent. When Djalili concentrates he carries it off but too many times his accent slopes off to somewhere east of Armenia. The actor is just miscast, pure and simple.

And then, second. there’s the character “Rhian from Vatersay”.
Remember the movie Brigadoon? Well, imagine that the producers cryogenically froze one of the supporting players, accent, other-wordly feyness, weird dress and all. And then imagine that Annie thawed the actress out, gave her a cup of tea and invited her to just carry on pretending she was in Brigadoon. The character, Rhian, come to Edinburgh to study art, floats around in a state of faux naiveté that suggests the population of contemporary Vatersay are all subject to learning difficulties.

I can see what Annie’s possibly going for here, some idiot-savant shtick, whose innocence contrasts with the avarice and stupidity of contemporary Edinburgh society, blah blah blah. But Idiot-savant? Well, at least she’s got the first part nailed. It's just possible that Rhian is really a criminal mastermind, but I wouldn't bet my hoose on it.

This is maybe risking digging up the bones of Monarch Of The Glen again but who is this character meant to be kidding? I don’t know of anyone in modern Scotland who thinks that people from the islands all sound and think as if they’ve just stepped out of the 18th century. Maybe viewers who live in The Home Counties but think Scotland is just lovely. But otherwise? Fuck off.

I’ve no idea the status of New Town, whether it’s a one-off or a pilot, but if it's designed to get a series, there’s a lot to sort out. A show that has the ex-Episcopalian bishop Richard Holloway guesting as a blind minister is a bit up itself if you ask me.

Needs work, a lot of work.

PS: I’m sure BBC 4 will repeat this show, so let me know what you think. I’d especially like to hear from the solicitors who read The JT what they make of the show’s (ahem) casual ”explanations” of how Scots Law works.


Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

A Scottish solicitor somewhat bemused by the various descriptions of law (blogged about it earlier tonight). The errors on the profession (barristers?) judges (Lord Justice?), the conveyancing system (oral contracts for the sale of land? Binding after a day? Accepting an offer when there are notes of interest - professional rules require a closing date? ); the planning system (listed building consent lies with the Council not with SNH or HIstoric Scotland (The Scottish heritage being some amalgam of the two as well as satirising possibly the Cockburn Trust) . When wee things like that can be checked easily, and most are familiar to anyone who has bought or sold in the Scottish system, the erros were infuriating. As for the rest of the show I enjoyed it (the school seemed a pretty accurate parody (as a child of the state sector who encountered a few from other bacgrounds when at Uni), Howeverm, I didn't enjoy it as much as The Book Group.

rogerhoughton said...

Well it's always a problem watching or reading something of which you have particular knowledge (see Hustle's interpretation of English LBC a couple of weeks ago) but the verbal contract being binding was necessary for the plot. And I don't think it was suggested that the Scottish Heritage man decided LBC, only that the planning department would follow his advice. Again, necessary to the plot (otherwise it might be necessary to kill off the entire planning committee).

Incidentally, it was a pilot. The scripts for a six-part series are written but not yet commissioned. I hope it will be.

Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

When essential to the plot to my mind it makes it worse. They could have made the solicitor put the offer in in writing - trying to withdraw it after verbal acceptance and playing games would be unprofessional and could potentially lead to sanction. A threat to report him to the professional body, suggest that he was playing fast and loose with professional rules would have damaged his reputation and his new business and may effectively have tied him into it. The same personal confrontation could have taken place - the same consequences stem from it, but it would have been more accurate.