Square Eyes #2

Posted in TV
By Mansoor Iqbal on 1 Jan 2010

It is inevitable that over Christmas many of us will find ourselves in a near supine position with our eyes glued to the rectangle in the corner. Aware that to an extent this subservience hinges on not being challenged or made to feel uncomfortable, the box glows with the familiar light of Christmas episodes, Wallace and Gromit and old films. A deluge of talking head shows featuring minor celebrities giving their views on other minor celebrities can be counted as a low budget addition to this seasonal mix. It’s hard to imagine there ever being a top ten countdown of the best top ten countdowns.

In the midst of Top Gear and soap opera specials, the notion of an RSC version of Hamlet (BBC 2, iPlayer until 02/01) starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart certainly warmed my cockles. In such powerful hands it’s hard to see how this could go wrong. Unfortunately it does. Tennant, who played the lead role on stage in 2008, is a mixed bag. When he is brooding and serious he is compelling, but when he is jumping around he threatens to cheapen the role. Perhaps his performance is an attempt to capture the energy of stage performance, but this is a different medium that allows for more subtlety. Here what should be intensity comes across as petulance. The modern dress is inoffensive when characters are in formal wear, but once the jeans and t-shirts come out it smacks of faux ‘edgy’ youth theatre. Sure, Baz Luhrmann pulled it off, but his Romeo and Juliet was cinematic at heart and therefore could get away with such stylisation. Asides and soliloquies aimed straight at the camera are reminiscent of Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the suggestion of constant CCTV surveillance is clumsy and adds nothing. However Patrick Stewart’s performance alone could justify the existence of this production. It is by no means poor; it is simply that it fails to live up to what it could have been.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, Channel 4 showed Mark Dowd’s 2005 documentary Tsunami: Where Was God? (4od until 25/01) Dowd is not necessarily the most charismatic of men, and the attempt to use the trajectory of his own faith as a backbone for this programme seems self indulgent. This aside, the steadfastness of faith in the light of tragedy is a poignant and fascinating topic. Dowd’s attempt to try to understand a strength of religious faith as foreign to most of us as the tsunami itself is intriguing. The decade we have just come out of began in earnest with an event that brought the rift between Eastern and Western religious practise to the forefronts of our minds. Attempts to properly understand the faith of ordinary people are praiseworthy and important in this light.

A much cleverer man than me once suggested Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is the most perfect thing ever written. Its psychological intensity means that it is a mainstay of English degree reading lists as well as the fact its author bridges the gap between Victorian and modernist writing styles. It is however an overwrought and histrionic text and pretty brutal to read as result. An adaptation for the screen has the advantage of being able to bypass James’ tedious style and therefore the BBC’s adaptation (BBC 1, iPlayer until 06/01) was an appealing prospect. It’s a shame they felt the need the play it as a jumpy horror piece, with freaky children. Divested of the intensity and uncertainty of the book, The Turn of the Screw loses its best features and becomes tawdry and shallow. James’ complex and sensitively painted protagonist is transformed into a tedious bore. I’m not sure what made the BBC think they could improve the on the source material, but I wish they hadn’t bothered.

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