Archive for the Television Category

The Remorseful Day

Posted in Biographical, Television with tags , , , on April 20, 2021 by telescoper

The final episode of Inspector Morse is on TV tonight, so I thought I’d reblog this post about it from over a decade ago.

According to the wordpress dashboard thingy that post has been viewed 44,412 times!

In the Dark

Not for the first time, I’m going to make an admission that will no doubt expose me to public ridicule. I can’t watch the last episode of the TV series Inspector Morse (The Remorseful Day) without bursting into tears at the end when it is revealed that the eponymous detective has died. Not that it comes as a surprise – the story has plenty of scenes that make it clear that Morse knows his days are numbered. Take this one, for example, wonderfully acted by John Thaw who was himself very ill while this episode was being filmed; he died in 2002.

The poignant quotation is from a poem by A. E. Housman. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

 Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think

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Old Blue Eyes

Posted in History, Television with tags , , , , , , on April 19, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday I watched the concluding episode of a fascinating two-part documentary series called The Burren: Heart of Stone, an extraordinary region of glaciated limestone klarst in County Clare. The landscape has a distinctly other-worldly look to it, yet humans have lived and farmed on it for at least 8,000 years.

Episode 1 was largely about the geology and ecology of the Burren which explained how the motion of glaciers across the area scraped away upper layers and revealed the limestone deposits formed by the bones and shells of ancient marine creatures who lived there tens of millions of years ago. The present-day Burren is windswept and rainy but is home to a rich ecosystem of plants, insects, birds and animals. Despite the heavy rainfall there are no rivers to be seen, but water flows underground through a complex network of tunnels and caves.

The first programme was interesting enough but Episode 2 was about the history of human habitation in the Burren, incorporating recent genetic discoveries, and that was absolutely fascinating.

The oldest population for which DNA sequencing has been possible were the mesolithic hunter- gatherers who lived in Ireland at least 8,000 years ago. Studies of the available remains show that these people had dark skin and blue eyes.

I only found out recently that the genetic mutation required for blue eyes arose in a single individual about 10,000 years ago; before that happened no humans had blue eyes. Having blue eyes myself, and in light of a recent discovery that I have a different mutation that arose more recently, I find that very intriguing.

Being hunter-gatherers these folk lived on the margins of the forests that covered most of Ireland, fishing and hunting animals as well as gathering nuts and berries. Their settlements were primarily impermanent affairs made of wood, so these people did not leave lasting impression on the landscape. Ireland probably couldn’t sustain a large population of these folk either, but the next people to arrive were the neolithic people who were the first farmers in Ireland. Their genetic profiles suggest they originated somewhere around modern-day Turkey and were also somewhat dark-skinned. They cleared the forests and set up permanent habitations involving stone structures, including the famous megalithic sites such as the tomb at Poulnabrone, which is at least 6,000 years old:

The Burren could have been popular with these people because, with its thin topsoil, it was much easier for them to get rid of the trees and start farming. They built stone walls to divide fields, and it is said that the walls which criss-cross the present-day Burren follow the line of these prehistoric structures.

Genetics reveal that these neolithic people and the mesolithic people intermingled and interbred, though the circumstances that led to this are of course unknown. It is hard to believe that a huge influx of people chopping down trees and clearing the land for farming would have caused no friction with the previous inhabitants. There may well have been violent struggles.

The neolithic culture survived and flourished in relative isolation until the arrival of Bronze Age settlers somewhere around 4000 years ago. These came originally from the Steppes of Russia, who took over many of the neolithic sites and adapted them for their own use before they were eventually abandoned. Evidence from the Burren suggests that the massive deforestation, combined with a climate downturn, led to catastrophic soil erosion; farming became impossible and the culture collapsed.

Incidentally, DNA studies of the Bronze Age people of Ireland are heavily mixed with neolithic genes but show no relic of the mesolithic population. Presumably these were diluted too much, as the neolithic culture sustained a much bigger population, probably around 200,000 in number.

All this was centuries before any Celtic people arrived in these shores, which was around 500 BC.

A fascinating programme, well worth watching if you can get to see it. There was a twist in the tail too: recent discoveries of apparent human activity on animal bones dated back to around 30,000 years ago, show evidence of a population of people in Ireland before the most recent Ice Age began.

Fascinating stuff!

R.I.P. Cousin Itt

Posted in Covid-19, Television with tags , , on April 19, 2021 by telescoper

I was sorry to hear of the recent death at the age of 84 of actor Felix Silla, best known for his role as Cousin Itt in the 1964 TV series The Addams Family in which he pioneered the lockdown hairstyle that is proving so popular these days.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Posted in Maynooth, Television with tags , , , , , on April 5, 2021 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog – both of them – will know that I am a huge fan of Jeremy Brett‘s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the Granada TV productions of the classic detective stories by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle first broadcast during the 1980s.

It turns out that Virgin Media in Ireland is now broadcasting the series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the first episode of which, The Empty House, was on last night (Easter Sunday). I watched it with all the pleasure of meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen for years. It’s hard to believe that episode was first broadcast way back in 1986.

For those of you not up with the canon, this story (based on the original story The Adventure of the Empty House) is set three years after Holmes apparently fell to his death, along with his arch enemy Moriarty, at the Reichenbach Falls.

Holmes’s body was never found, for the very good reason that he didn’t die! It turns out he escaped and spent three years on the run exploring the world and evading Moriarty’s confederates. Much of the first episode is taken up with an account of these goings on, and the case that brings Holmes back to London is fairly slight, really just providing an excuse for his return. A murder in London provides Holmes with an opportunity to trap the last of his erstwhile opponent’s associates.

I did however experience a little frisson of surprise when I heard the identity of the victim of the murder at the heart of the story, namely the Honourable Ronald Adair, the second son of the Earl of Maynooth*…

*The title is fictional, there was a title Earl of Kildare but never an Earl of Maynooth.

Now, for bonus marks, and without using the internet, can anyone tell me the connection between Sherlock Holmes and the field of astronomical spectroscopy?

To see the answer, click below

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In the Name of the Fada

Posted in Biographical, Television with tags , , on March 13, 2021 by telescoper

As we head into next week’s study break in the middle of which is the St Patrick Day Bank Holiday, I thought I’d share this video. It’s the first episode of a series in which comedian Des Bishop, who missed out on Irish language lessons at school, moves to Conamara for 9 months to learn Irish. In the Name of the Fada is not to be confused with famous film, the “Fada” of the title referrring to the síneadh fada, the only diacritic mark in modern Irish. I wrote about it here.

This programme actually covers quite a lot of the vocabulary I’ve learned in the last six weeks or so. The rest of the episodes can easily be found on Youtube too.

Bíodh deireadh seachtaine agus sos deas agaibh!

It’s The Sun..

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Television with tags , , on February 12, 2021 by telescoper

Episode 4 of It’s A Sin is broadcast on Channel 4 tonight. I’ve already watched the series and I thought I’d post a quick comment, but don’t worry – no spoilers. Tonight’s episode is set in 1988 – when I was living in Brighton – and to give you an idea of what attitudes were like at that time here is a typically foul “opinion” piece published in The Sun in 1988:

I hope you can understand why many of us are still angry. Times have changed, but we need to be aware that they could easily change back. The Tories were not, are not, and will never be our friends.

The series has had a big impact on me, which is why I keep posting about it from time to time. It has reminded me of many terrible things that happened, but perhaps surprisingly my recollection of that period is that there were very many good times too and I am glad that it made many happy memories come back too.

The Angelus

Posted in Television with tags , , on February 10, 2021 by telescoper

It’s been a tradition in Ireland since 1950 for the main TV station (RTÉ One) to broadcast The Angelus at 6pm just before the main news . Initially this involved the Angelus, a Catholic prayer along with religious imagery and the sound of the bells of St Mark’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin (originally live, but then later recorded). Nowadays the bells are still heard, but there is no explicitly religious content. Instead, there are short films of everyday life lasting about 70 seconds.

Here’s an example of one of the Angelus films. I think it’s rather lovely.

I know many Irish people think the Angelus should be ditched on the grounds that it is foisting religion on people. Although I am not religious I find it a wonderful haven of tranquility in the one minute and ten seconds of the Angelus broadcast each evening, especially in these days of Covid-19. It’s good to pause and contemplate the simple pleasures of life before heading into the news. The secretary of the Clonskeagh Mosque in Dublin and the Chief Rabbi of Ireland have supported keeping the Angelus. As an atheist I agree with them. Long may the Angelus continue. It’s one of the very few things I watch regularly!

My Acting Career

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Mental Health, Television with tags , on January 30, 2021 by telescoper

Out of the swirling mass of cathartic memories unleashed by watching It’s A Sin there suddenly popped this one which had been buried away in the dark recesses of my subconscious for over thirty years.

Oh no, I can hear you thinking, not another one of those tediously self-indulgent posts. It’s not like that, actually. I decided to share it mainly because I think it’s quite funny!

When I was living in Brighton in the late 1980s I and a friend of mine decided to try a spot of amateur dramatics. I can’t remember what the play was – because neither of us succeeded in getting involved – but it seemed like it would be interesting so responding to an advert in a local newspaper we turned up for the audition.

The first bit was a reading. My choice of piece was a bit unusual. I did a bit of drama at school, but since I went to a single-sex grammar school all the female parts were played by boys, which is why I ended up playing Lady Scottish Play in the Scottish Play. I remembered some of Mrs M’s speeches – an do to this day – so did for my audition piece the one that begins “The Raven himself is hoarse…” and has bits about “unsex me here”, etc.

Surprisingly I got through the reading bit.

For the next part all the survivors (about 15 of us) sat in chairs on the stage. The Director bloke then announced that he wanted us to “act” somebody crying. I sat for a moment, then looked at the others, who were making what I thought were very hammy attempts to do a cry and I thought to myself “I can do better than that”.

I may have been quite young then, but I’d quite recently been beaten up, spent weeks in a psychiatric hospital, and seen two friends die from AIDS. I had, therefore, under the surface, acquired quite a reservoir of sadness to draw on. I’m not a trained method actor or anything like that but I knew that I could summon up something very easily. So that’s what I did. I shut my eyes and thought for a moment, and started crying my eyes out. The group of prospective actors around me all stopped and stared.

Eventually the Director came on stage looking very concerned and asked if I was all right. I said “Yes. I’m fine. I thought you you wanted us to cry.” He looked amazed.

The audition ended and I assumed I had wowed everyone enough with the deep emotion of my performance to get the part. On the way out, though, I was told that I hadn’t passed the audition.

The reason given was that it’s absolutely no good portraying grief or pain in a theatre – even a small one – by sitting in a chair actually crying. The audience won’t really see the tears, so you have to do a lot more with gestures and movement.

The production went ahead without me in it, and I’ve thought so little of it until now that I’ve even forgotten what the play was!

It’s not much of a talent to be able to turn on the waterworks on demand, but I thought I’d share this experience here to point out (a) that I can still do it and (b) if there are any TV or film directors looking to cast a (hopefully lucrative) role for a middle aged guy who can cry in close up and is not required to do much else then they need look no further!

Perhaps I should hire an agent?

It’s a Sin – Review

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT, Television with tags , , , , , , , on January 28, 2021 by telescoper

Left to Right: Omari Douglas (Roscoe), Nathaniel Curtis (Ash), Olly Alexander (Ritchie), Callum Scott Howells (Colin) and Lydia West (Jill)

Since I posted a kind of prelude a few days ago I decided that I would bite the bullet and watch the entire Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. Although only the first episode (of five) has been broadcast all the episodes were released on the Channel 4 app so I decided to binge on it. Part of the reason for doing that was that I wanted to finish it before term starts next week. I’ve waited for a couple of days before writing a sort of review of it, or more a reaction, really to get over the impact enough to write something even vaguely sensible.

Because a lot of people won’t have seen the whole series yet I won’t give away any of the plot, but it won’t come as any surprise to discover that it is steeped in tragedy and at times a very difficult watch. Before you ask if I cried, the answer is yes, I did a lot, in every single episode, partly because of the actual drama but also partly because of the memories it brought back. The catharsis wasn’t unwelcome, however. You don’t deal with the past by hiding from it.

The word tragedy is frequently misused but I think it is very apt for It’s A Sin. People often refer to unpredictable or accidental events as tragic but the power of a theatrical tragedy comes from the sense of remorseless inevitability. From Episode 1 you feel the threat approaching and you know what is going to happen because you know the historical context. It still hits very hard though. If you can get through Episode 3 without crumbling you’re a stronger person than me. It reminded me of a paraphrased quote from Herodotus I first heard in 1986:

Call no man happy until he knows the manner of his death.

So what can I say about it as a piece of television drama? Well, first of all, it’s beautifully written and produced. Writer Russel T. Davies is just a month or so older than me so would also have been 18 in 1981 when the first episode is set and it clearly is a very personal piece. That gives it great authenticity, and the production goes to a lot of trouble to get the atmosphere and detail right. I moved to London in 1990 and the last episode, set in 1991, depicts that time very accurately indeed. While I was living in Brighton (for the five years before moving to London) I did travel up quite a few times to sample the gay scene either alone or with friends. The music, the design and the clothing is all very much on the mark. The one thing you can’t do on television is recreate the smell. Gay clubs in my memory were awash with poppers and sweat. I had also almost forgotten the ubiquitous clones (gay men in tight jeans, checked shirts, cropped hair and moustaches), a look that was de rigueur in the late Seventies to mid Eighties. The lingo was generally quite different, actually. There weren’t any twinks in those days, for example, and far fewer gym bunnies. I also remember that for me in those days the London scene revolved more around Earls Court than Soho. I particularly remember a place called Bromptons.

But I digress.

The acting in the series is also very good. I have to pick out Olly Alexander‘s stellar performance as Ritchie Tozer. Being an old fogey I didn’t know about his musical career and I’ve only seen him a little as an actor, including in an old episode of the detective series Lewis but to be honest he didn’t really register. I was much more aware of him as an activist and advocate for LGBT+ rights, work for which I admire him enormously. The role of Ritchie is clearly one that means a lot to him and which is no doubt why he gives so much of himself. The result is one of the most generous and commited performances I have ever seen on television, as funny and charming as it is, in the end, heartbreaking. He has a presence in this series that is utterly compelling.

Among other qualities, Olly Alexander has remarkably expressive eyes. That’s always a great asset for a screen actor, because so much is done in closeup and, in this series, he does quite a lot of work directly to camera which are intensely moving. Although the whole cast is very strong – and it is really an ensemble piece – Olly Alexander steals the show more than once. He deserves every bit of the praise that is being heaped on him right now.

Russel T. Davies was very clear that he wanted the gay roles in this series to be played by gay actors. I think he was absolutely right in that, for two reasons. One is personal. I don’t think I would have responded in anything like the same way as I did to, e.g., Ritchie Tozer if I hadn’t known that the actor playing him was gay. It made the character immediately real to me. More importantly I think playing a gay role must be liberating for a gay actor too. The actor does not have to pretend to be gay so they can concentrate their energy on other aspects of their performance, which can only grow as a consequence.

I was amused to see some comments on social media after Episode 1 complaining about the “graphic” sex scenes. I think they were done very honestly, showing things as they are. HIV is sexually transmitted so why tiptoe around the reality of gay sex. I thought some of the scenes were rather nice, actually. Anyway I wonder what the people complaining think gay men do in bed, play tiddlywinks perhaps? I’ve never understood why it is acceptable to portray shocking levels of violence on television, but showing two cute guys getting it on is considered anathema. Straight people can be weird.

I suppose one of things I was a bit worried about before I watched It’s A Sin was that it might have been mawkish or preachy, a trap some AIDS dramas have fallen into. Davies avoids that by ensuring that all his characters are very human. Richie, for example, may be cute and sexy but he is also at times a bit dim and rather annoying.

The other characters are similarly human. They all have their faults, but who doesn’t? You don’t have to be an angel to deserve respect. All are very real, presumably because they are partly based on people Russell T. Davies knew back then.

I’ve described some of my own experiences during the Eighties elsewhere on this blog. I don’t propose to repeat them at length here, but will say that I grew up in the 1970s at a time when the only portrayals of gay characters on screen were camp stereotypes to be mocked. That mockery extended into everyday life for gay people, with the added possibility of real physical violence. My reaction to that was to assume that straight people would never be really accepting of us and would never be our friends, so it was a waste of time trying. When I wasn’t at work I avoided straight society, shopping in gay shops, eating in gay restaurants, and generally being a scene Queen. That may seem a bit extreme – and it probably was – but one positive I felt at the time was a sense of belonging that I had never felt before and haven’t felt much since. That sense pervades It’s A Sin: the characters suffer family rejection and discrimination as society turns its back on them but they have each other, at least for a time.

Curiously it was because I got involved a little bit in the battle against AIDS that I changed my view about gay separatism. After doing some training I got involved as a volunteer in doing sexual health workshops, phone counselling, giving out information leaflets and fundraising. As a matter of fact it was the AIDS crisis that led me to take up long-distance running. I did my first half-marathon in 1988 to raise money for the Terence Higgins Trust.

To my surprise a number of straight people were involved in these activities too, and I began to realize that there was such a thing as a a straight ally. If someone had told me in 1991 that in less than 30 years same-sex marriage would have been legal I would have laughed my head off. But there you are. We wouldn’t have got that without building alliances. I was wrong, and am happy to admit it.

One of the people I worked with at that time was a nurse called Gill. The character Jill Baxter (wonderfully played by Lydia West) made my jaw drop not just because of the similarity in name but also because some of the things she says (warning the risks from AIDS) which were almost word for word some like expressions Gill used. I’m sure* that must be a coincidence!

*I’ve now read an interview that explains that Jill is indeed based on a real character called Jill (not Gill) who was a nurse who cared for people with AIDS, as Gill did but was not her. I hope this clarifies the situation.

The hostility and misrepresentation I mentioned above got even worse during the AIDS crisis, with the occasional added flourish that AIDS was sent by God to punish sinful behaviour. The best that most dramas achieved was to create a sense that gay men were victims to be pitied, rather than perverts to be despised. That seemed to me to be hardly an improvement. At least now we’re on a path towards equality and acceptance, although there is still a long way to go: there are some who don’t seem to have learned very much at all from this terrible period, judging by their attitudes towards transgender people.

I think that’s enough rambling. I’ll just make one last admission. This series made me feel very old! The first episode is set in 1981, which is “only” forty years ago, but it struck me in Episode 2 that it was a bit like watching one of those historical costume dramas that appear so often on the telly and then realising that you were alive at the time being depicted! But I can cope with being old. At least I made it this far. This series is a testament to those who didn’t.

Imagining an Eighties Coronavirus Pandemic

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, History, Television on January 25, 2021 by telescoper

Thinking about the TV series It’s A Sin I blogged about on Saturday a couple of things struck me in relation to our current situation trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the early 1980s we had no access to the internet – it only really get going until 1983 and most households didn’t get connected until much later. There wasn’t even email either. And nobody had mobile phones – smart or otherwise, so there were no text messages.

Had the Covid-19 pandemic occurred forty years ago we would have had to face it in very different ways. Working from home for most people would have been impossible so any kind of lockdown would have had dire economic consequences.

In the education sector, in which I work, the existence of the internet has allowed us to switch to remote teaching and learning (and assessment). Although it has been very far from ideal, at least we have been able to do something. What would we have done in the 1980s? I really don’t know.

One possibility is to have used the TV to broadcast some form of educational service. But until 1982 (when Channel 4 arrived) there were only three channels in the UK so it would not have been easy to devote a lot of time for live broadcasts. On the other hand people did have video recorders, so programmes could have been transmitted during the night for later consumption. I guess also that some materials, assignments, etc could have been delivered using the regular mail rather like old-fashioned correspondence courses. The Open University was already doing that, of course, but expanding it to include every student at every level in the country at very short notice would have been very difficult indeed.

The number of people in other sectors who would be able to work from home would also have been very small, so the economic cost of a lockdown would have been even higher than at present. I suspect that Governments wouldn’t even have tried, with the resulting increase in mortality.

And there is also the social dimension. During this pandemic people have been able to use software such as Zoom to stay in touch, including with elderly relatives who might otherwise be completely isolated. That would have been impossible in the Eighties.

In any case socializing for young people during the 1980s – which is what I was then – was very different. We didn’t (because we couldn’t) use texts or mobile phone calls to arrange nights out or other things. I didn’t get my
first (very basic) mobile phone until the 1990s – and I think I was an early adopter. I kept in touch with my friends in normal times by frequenting the same bars and clubs as my friends. We’d often meet up without arranging anything specifically.

There were no dating apps then either, so people used to hook up in bars and clubs (and frequently elsewhere). I suppose that has changed a lot over the past couple of decades (although I don’t go to such places any more, being an oldie).

Suffice to say that compared to today the impact on social lives and wellbeing would have been even more drastic had we had lockdowns in the 1980s.