My distrust for people who eagerly await ‘eagerly awaited’ televisual events knows no bounds. In my experience, it is furtive and secretive experiences with the telebox that tend to yield the sweetest fruit (hidden gems and guilty pleasures), whereas the communal braying that surrounds marquee programming is the reason that so many view television as the harbinger of the end times (I like to cross myself when I see Cowell). But of course there would be no need to make such wildly exaggerated and spurious claims if I wasn’t about to admit that nothing less than a billboard advertising a new series on one of London’s main thoroughfares filled me with an untrammelled sense of joy. But come on, This is England ’86 (C4)! If that’s not an exciting prospect then I don’t know what is (TV-wise at least).
But anticipation is one thing, and experience another. It is perhaps slightly cruel to call a series one episode old to account when it is clearly designed to be appreciated as a whole – and it does feel like there is better to come – but call it to account we must. It is also harsh to view it through the lens of one of the best British films of the past decade (if not longer), but it is a direct sequel, and so the almost impossibly high standards of its predecessor are the inescapable measure we are obliged to use. And by that measure This is England ‘86 feels…insignificant; a soap opera carrying the name of an opera. The film was packed with distinctive and colourful characters, both loveable and hateable in equal measure, but it wasn’t about them. It wasn’t even about the young protagonist Shaun, although it is his search for identity that gives the film its shape. You could exhaust a dictionary of abstract nouns trying to say what is encapsulated in those 101 minutes and still struggle to capture the scale of the thing and how important it feels – and is.
And that’s what’s lacking from ’86. The characters no longer feel like divergent parts of a whole. The camera has become too familiar with them, it lingers and looks them in the eye, lends too careful an ear to their personal issues – confirming it is their show now. Even the medium works against it. The length of the film compounded by the relentless grey of the surroundings raised the stakes – this was the characters’ only birthright and the totality of their existence. The shortness of an episode is too easily escaped and forgotten and the scooter fetish implies the possibility of too easy a flight, despite any period accuracy. But let me reassert an earlier point – these are impossibly high standards. This is England ’86 is burdened by its own name. I’d be leaking praise like a catholic priest at a school play if it wasn’t for that. The retained cast are still brilliant – and still a delight to look at. And plus the most compelling and repulsive character from the film is yet to show his ugly mug. One feels Combo’s appearance will be a game changer, which might justify my continued optimism in the face of disappointment. Hopefully there is a lot more to be said on this subject.
Continuing in the vein of water cooler television, I thought I’d give Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1) a go. I’ve never had the pleasure before, mostly due to my intense dislike of Bruce Forsyth – a man who doesn’t realise that people only ever liked variety because stuff was shit back then. But in the interests of science I thought I’d give it a go. The thing I saw wasn’t a conventional episode, but instead a launch type thing, before the celebs go off to practice for three weeks. Holy shit, who is this for!? As far as I could see it was just some people in an area, albeit people wearing spandex (I haven’t felt so little attraction for people wearing so little since I last looked through a Cliff Richard calendar). Seriously, who actually enjoys watching big crappy dance routines (ballet and the Step Up films excluded) apart from parents at the school performances of their children, and the accompanying members of the Catholic clergy? In amongst the Coronation St and Eastenders slebs there was actually quite an impressive slew of B listers – and the third one from Destiny’s child!? Really, Michelle, what are you doing – music is still an option, listen to how horrible Beyoncé’s music is. Brucie is brutal to watch, and still repeating the same catchphrases he was using in the Renaissance. A small part of me wanted him to have a (non-fatal – I’m not an animal) heart attack and just watch the ensuing panic. I’d much rather see that than watch ballroom dancing on TV. In fairness it can be impressive in real life but this doesn’t carry over to the screen. Everything from Bruce’s horrible sense of humour, which meets with polite applause rather than laughter, to the way the dancers (male and female) line up like hookers, doing their best to provide a dictionary definition for rictus grin, and do a corny little dance step on their way to their allocated sleb filled me with despair. Why do this!? And you (I’m sorry, it’s probably not you, but just in case)! Watching this horrendous crap – you need to reconsider how you spend your life. And also stop asking me if I’ve seen the latest instalment, I was too busy posting a turd through your letterbox. F*ck sake.