Tag Archives: television

How we lost The Great Egg Race

So my wife and I were talking about old TV programmes this evening (to be honest, this was more me fulminating about how no-one seems to remember the TV programmes I used to watch as a kid on account of my great age and policeman getting younger every day, you get the idea), and our conversation settled on The Great Egg Race. I decided to show her a video of it to demonstrate how it had The Best TV Theme Tune Ever, but we ended up watching the entire episode. It was oddly compelling:

What’s interesting about this programme is that it marks an era when people could be intelligent on television without having to apologise for it. The basic format is essentially the same as any other modern “reality” show such as Masterchef or the Apprentice in which a group of people are set a challenge with limited resources and a limited amount of time and then get to square off against each other in a final contest. But beside that basic format, all other resemblances end.

Much of the programme consists of boffins muttering to each other under their breaths about how they plan to build their contraption, followed by Professor Heinz Wolff and his expert guest having discussing the week’s challenge without worrying especially about whether the audience was keeping up or not. The presenters do a rudimentary job at explaining things, but the viewer is pretty much left to it. There’s no Sean Pertwee sexily explaining what’s going on every thirty seconds. Neither is there much in the way of conflict; it is possible that they had their own equivalent of the Baked Alaska scandal, but I’m not aware of it.

The most striking contrast is with The Apprentice, and I think it says a lot about how our society’s values have changed over the past 30 years. While widely mocked as a piece of car crash TV, I can’t help but think that one of the reasons The Apprentice continues to be popular is that the corporate executive is now what we are meant to believe is what the ideal job to aspire to looks like. We might not all buy The Apprentice’s portrayal of corporate suits behaving like idiots and stabbing each other in the back to get ahead, but we at least buy into it as being a caricature of something real.

The Great Egg Race on the other hand is about engineers being set a similarly impossible and ridiculous challenge, who go about it by working together collaboratively and just getting on with it. They aren’t steered by the nose by producers who desperately want to drag a narrative into it all, and in the final challenge even the losers have a certain amount of dignity; they might have failed – they might even have failed badly – but even the biggest loser emerges from The Great Egg Race with a degree of dignity.

And they were engineers! A profession which our modern culture appears to simply ignore. Scientists are of course lauded, especially if they’re pretty ones like Brian Cox (sorry Heinz Wolff), but engineers seem to be pretty much invisible. Yet somehow our transportation systems, computers and widgets continue to get built.

There is, to be fair, a continuation of programmes which emulated the Great Egg Race. In the 90s we had Robot Wars, in which amateur engineers to pitch their robot creations against each other in a Thunderdome style arena. It was never really about the engineering however as much as it was about the occasional metallic carnage. It was an interesting programme to follow as both the robots and their builders evolved. You got to see the robots get slowly better over successive series and the builders become more and more up their own arses as their minor celebrity statuses (which appeared to involve opening the odd village fete and visiting children’s parties) reached their peaks. You would see them slowly coming out of their shells, wearing increasingly extroverted clothing. Some of them even (gag!) started to flirt with presenter Philippa Forrester (believe me when I say that this lead to some of the most excruciating television ever broadcast).

Scrapheap Challenge was perhaps more of a true spiritual successor to The Great Egg Race, just on a somewhat bigger scale. In so many ways, where The Great Egg Race was tweed and elastic, Scrapheap Challenge was METAL. With the number of bikers who took part in the latter, despite the years separating the two series, the amount of hair on both was about the same – they just wore t-shirts rather than suits.

But Scrapheap Challenge was ultimately a lot more like a modern reality TV show as well. Aside from the narration, there was a much greater focus on controversy and conflict, both inside the teams and between them. It did indeed have it’s own share of Baked Alaska Incidents. It was, to be fair, better at explaining concepts than its predecessor, but it was ultimately much more self-conscious about the fact that what it was ultimately about was a “boring” topic like engineering; it was certainly dressed up more. You can sort of see this in the team names; while the teams on The Great Egg Race were simply named after their place of work (Kontron Electrolab Ltd), the teams on Scrapheap tended to have jokey, ironic names like The Anoraks. I enjoyed it as a series, but it ultimately came across as a much less simple pleasure.

What am I saying here? Nothing more than that I feel that in the 20 years between The Great Egg Race and Scrapheap Challenge we somehow lost the ability to celebrate cleverness for its own sake and to simply take delight in people working together to do a good job under trying circumstances. Whether “we” have lost it or TV producers merely perceive we have is of course a moot point, but watching that episode did leave me feeling oddly nostalgic.

Resting on the Laurels of the Doctor

Note: there are no actual spoilers in this post, but there is some speculation about this month’s Christmas Special of Doctor Who in the last paragraph.

doctorwho50
I have a confession to make: I don’t entirely get Doctor Who.

It’s not that I don’t like it; I’ve watched pretty much every episode that has been aired since, as a young child in the late 70s, I was aware of its existence (and quite a few others besides). I wept buckets at the end of both “The Day of the Doctor” and An Adventure in Space and Time last week, and laughed like a loon during The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. What I don’t understand is quite why it seems to inspire as much passion as it does.

What I find with Doctor Who is this: a lot of the older stuff which is frequently cited as “classic” and the best that Who has to offer often leaves me non-plussed. At the same time, while I often feel that New Who gets a far worse rap from its Old Who critics than it deserves, as often as not it underwhelms me as well.

Take a specific example: “The Caves of Androzani”. This is cited by multiple sources as the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. Yet when I watched it a couple of years ago, it left me cold. The acting was weak, the sets poor (I know, cheap shot), the pacing all over the place (despite having a fondness for Old Who-style cliffhangers, a lot of the time the episodic format seemed to lead to a lot of padding out), the drama was nowhere. At around the same time, I also saw “The Awakening” – a Peter Davison story which is variably treated as awful or indifferent – and really enjoyed it. I genuinely don’t understand why Caves is considered a classic while Awakening is a flop.

Lest you think I’m just having a go at Old Who, I have a different problem with New Who. The new version solves a lot of the issues that the old one had, namely acting, special effects, pacing and theme, but has created some new ones of its own. To a lesser extent with the Russell T. Davies era and a much greater extent with the Stephen Moffat era, a formula has become established whereby the Doctor faces a problem, the stakes are raised to a ridiculously high level, there are lots of emotions, and then the Doctor solves everything with a lot of hand waving and Murray Gold’s score doing all the heavy lifting. After seven seasons of this formula, I feel like I’m done with it. There are episodes which follow this formula and yet transcend it, and I do feel that “Day of the Doctor” achieved that (partly I think because of the odd pacing which rather broke it up), but it has certainly been the case that for the last couple of years it has felt as if it has been stuck in a timeloop and being edited by an 8 year old with ADHD. I often feel like the subsequent animated gifs that emerge online after each episode of Doctor Who are more worthwhile than the episodes themselves.

(I’m sounding very anti-Moffat hear so let me say this: his worst episodes and best episodes are better than Davies’s worst and best; it’s just his average episodes that let him down. I also think that while he deserves a lot of criticism for his portrayal of women, I also think it is true that he is probably the most feminist of Who’s showrunners thus far and that it is odd that Davies didn’t get more stick than he did.)

There is plenty about Doctor Who that I love. The TARDIS is a beautiful concept, wonderfully realised (and for me at least evokes childhood memories of excitedly spotting the last few genuine police boxes before they were removed from British streets). The enigmatic nature of the central character, together with its endless potential for renewal, has proven itself. I’m frequently taken in by the series’ charm, especially in the case of the Hartnell, Troughton and Tom Baker eras (Pertwee has never really done it for me). At its heart, the programme is about hope and believing in alternatives. Perhaps more so than any other science fiction or fantasy franchise, it is fundamentally, unashamedly liberal, with an emphasis on social justice and the dignity of the individual, and a deep distrust of authority and dogma.

I suppose that ultimately my problem with Doctor Who boils down to this: somehow it appears to have ended up with a status that places it above a lot of other fandom for no other reason that there is so much of it. As a kid, Doctor Who pretty much lost me in the 80s and yet as an adult I feel that I’m often told it was my fault for not giving Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred et al more of a chance. I think you need to squint a little too hard to see the genius of this era; it’s not that I can’t comprehend what people are talking about on an intellectual level, it’s just that it still isn’t that enjoyable – and this is meant to be entertainment after all. With New Who I almost have the opposite problem: I appreciate that the reason the series comes across like a hyperactive toddler is that it is a kid’s show, but at the same time I feel I’m supposed to also appreciate that it has depths at the same time, even when those depths seem to have been done by the numbers. Both incarnations seem to get let off the hook because of Doctor Who’s privileged status as the Grand Old Man of British genre television rather than appreciated on their own merits. To a certain extent this is echoed by Colin Baker’s intemperate “for the fans” remarks, complaining about the fact he and the other 80s Doctors weren’t invited to be involved in the 50th anniversary programme directly; what ought to matter is what makes good television, not nostalgic fanwank.

Fundamentally, right now I think the series is in a rut. I can almost guess how “The Time of the Doctor” is going to go: the Doctor is given the choice between dying a final death (because he’s on his twelfth regeneration of course) and saving the universe, or letting something awful happen, it all gets terribly emotional and then he waves his hands around and cuts the Gordian knot, only to realise that he has to die anyway but – cue more handwaving – gets to regenerate after all. Oh, and there’ll be snow and sleigh bells at some point because Christmas. Hopefully it will transcend the formula again, but I think it will be hoping too much for it to actually subvert it. I pray that the Peter Capaldi incarnation will lead to a greater variation of tones and plotlines than we’ve seen in recent years; if it doesn’t then I might just be forced to give up on it.

Borgen: how realistic is it?

Birgitte Nyborg ChristensenI’ve spent this weekend catching up with Borgen and probably reading about it a bit too much. In particular, this critical review by Rachel Cooke came to my attention yesterday via political academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg’s twitter feed, prompting this exchange:


Personally speaking, while I wouldn’t say I’m “gripped” by Borgen, I’d say it does a pretty decent job at reflecting not just the reality of Danish coalition politics, but politics more generally. It doesn’t get everything right – I agree that some of the portrayals of journalism are unrealistic (spending a whole episode angsting over a single newspaper article – taking up days in real time – is simply ludicrous), but the way it actually reflects on why idealistic, principled people often end up failing to do the right thing or end up getting eaten alive, is very accurate.

By contrast, while much of The Thick of It rings true, for the most part it reflects on the kind of sofa-style politics which dominated Tony Blair’s government and which has to a large extent melted away (to be replaced by something which much more closely resembles Yes, Ministerplus ca change) – and it got coalition politics horribly wrong. The West Wing was famously “liberal porn” and is probably more successful for creating a modern mythology for the US Democrats to aspire to than in its ability to reflect reality. Also, is it me but does it feel that Nyborg has achieved more in two years than Bartlet achieved in eight?

We live in very consumerist times and so much political discourse is dominated by that. The left, in particular, appears to have been utterly hobbled by a lack of humility or civic duty and a mindset that is dominated by the fallacy that the customer (in this case, the angry activist) is always right. The inability to accept that bad things are sometimes done by good people on all sides leads to a conceitedness that leads people to simply repeat the same mistakes again and again. Nick Clegg is a perfect example of this, but so too are many of his critics.

I think this idea is dominated by journalists as well, and Rachel Cooke seems to struggle with the idea. It’s interesting that she chooses to criticise the second episode of the second season of Borgen and not the first, on the basis that it’s topic – choosing a Danish European Commissioner – is boring. In fact, the episode was anything but, exploring a whole range of fascinating themes such as how appointment to the Commission can be a career boost for some politicians and career suicide for others. The fact that stuff isn’t always straightforward is the definition of interesting. By contrast, the previous episode, while superficially about the war in Afghanistan and therefore “more” interesting, was remarkably pedestrian, with very little to say about the nature of politics.

Of course, understanding the difficulties of getting things done in politics is not the same thing as condoning mistakes, bad behaviour and outright treachery when they happen. But if we had a better grasp of this reality, I think we’d make a lot more progress in this country.

Where Cooke might be right is that somehow people can stomach a programme like Borgen when it is about another country and has subtitles in a way that we would struggle to accept a UK version, at least today (Professor Steven Fielding points out that we didn’t seem to have this blind spot in the recent past). I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the way we seem to distrust anything designed to promote political understanding in this country. Citizenship education never seemed to enjoy much support even amongst the teaching profession; the Electoral Commission was forced to scale back its citizenship and voter inclusion work. My own baby, Vote Match, struggles for funding despite – or rather because – while the general public seem to find it useful the political class distrust its simplicity.

If Borgen in its small way is slightly reversing that trend towards ever more impotent cynicism, then I can only welcome it.