Category Archives: Television

Looking Forward to Doc/Fest 2015

Doc/Fest, it’s been a good while. 8 Years in Sheffield gave me more than ample opportunity to get to know you, heck I even remember when you still went by the more austere name of The Sheffield International Documentary Festival. One year as a volunteer, two years covering it for the Steel Press, and plenty more besides just stuffing myself with brilliant docs. A move away from the city and some absurdly-prohibitively-exhaustingly expensive rail fares have kept me away of late, but that’s not to say I haven’t missed you.

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Then something really quite special gets announced: my old boss is putting on the world premiere of The Greatest Shows on Earth. Which is to say an archive doc built wholly on materials from my archive alma mater. Directed no less by the Icelandic gent behind one of my favourite films of last year, and scored by an Icelandic duo who are also no mean shakes. Well I really liked their first album at least. An all-singing all-dancing multimodal spectacular at Sheffield City Hall you say? Well maybe that rail-fare bullet is just going to have to got bit, because I sure as shit ain’t going to miss that show. When Prof. Vanessa Toulmin decides to put on a show then you do well to clear the schedule and book early. On Sunday she will be repeating her famed inaugral lecture as part of Doc/Fest, and the show of her Twenty Performing Wonders is quite the sight to behold, not least for the chance to see the deeply uncanny Dancing Pig (1907) on the big screen.

DancingPigTerrifiesSheffieldBut hauling myself up to Sheffield for a long weekend of Doc/Fest is an exciting prospect, and while I will only be able to get a whiff of all the festival has to offer, there are a couple of films high on my hit-lists. On the back the Greatest Shows opening gala there runs an invisible strand with a carny theme of sorts, and I’ll be doing everything I can to catch them. A thumbnail sketch of Circus Dynasty paints it as a Romeo and Juliesque story of two young proteges of rival acrobatic clans coming together in a frought romance. How that plays out in a documentary remains to be seen, but I’ll be hoping for some breathtaking feats at the very least. The story of Tyke the Outlaw Elephant also looks like an intriguing one, being the archive re-telling of the American circus elephant that went crazy, killed it’s trainer, before rampaging through a city. The staged execution of colossal caged beasts is a spectacle that goes back to Thomas Edison’s notorious film, and as morbid a draw as the doc’s tragic conclusion is I’ll be interested to see how the story is spun. Maybe a land-based Blackfish is on the horizon?

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As an unimaginative sort I’m also drawn towards the Swedish productions which have been accepted to the festival, and perhaps most noteworthy of those is The Confessions of Thomas Quick, the serial killer that never was. A highly peculiar story of Swedish jurisprudence, Thomas Quick was the boogey-man of my youth: he who killed dozens and was sent down for a long time. Only it turned out Mr Quick’s only sin might have been a hyperactive imagination, being a mentally unstable fellow who for reasons unknown was more than happy to accept the blame for countless crimes he might not have committed. A justice system all to eager to close these cases took his word without following due process, and over time did it actually come out that Mr Quick might have been telling porkie pies. The story was an absolute sensation in Sweden, but struggled to break into the international press, so it will be interesting to see how these documentary makers repackage this story for a new audience.

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Being a huge fan of Hugo Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 I’m more than a little excited for the doc Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. A political movement that was meticulously captured by a terrified media, and tracked by an even more obsessive CIA, the cause was lionized and demonized in inequal measure. Being a subject that could either fall over into fawning imbalance, or into cold detached objectivity, there are plenty of pitfalls for the film to traverse so I’ll be going in with certain trepidation, but holding out hope for what could be a promising doc.

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Beyond that my eye’s been caught by a few odd films and the keywords that leap out about them: The Russian Woodpecker [Chernobyl, subjective], Containment [non-documentary, maybe extra-terrestrials?], Beyond Zero [Bill Morrison, WW1], Best of Enemies [Gore Vidal, pitbull politics], Good Girl [Norwegian, depression, performance art], Scrum [rugby, and rugby], Death of a Gentleman [India, cricket], Addicted to Sheep [sheep, and sheep], and somewhere out there there’s a short doc about Henderson’s Relish. That’s more than twice what I might be able to manage during my two and a half days out of six at the festival, but I’ll be having a crack at trying to blog about as much as I can muster. Sincerely hoping I might stumble across something brilliant that I can share with those who care to read about it. So come on Sheffield Doc/Fest, you’ve had good form in the past, don’t let me down this time.

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Finding Sheffield’s Loose Threads

Protect and Survive Mushroom CloudThe docu-drama you are about to witness is one of the most intensely realistic portrayals of nuclear holocaust ever seen. So daring is this British production, that it has never been scheduled on U.S. network television. Threads is not a polished Hollywood star-studded feature… it is an honest portrayal of events that could take place should there be a nuclear war. “Threads” is graphic and shocking, and may not be suitable for children. Viewer discretion is advised.

Between those who stayed up to watch it on the 23rd of September 1984, and a whole generation of children who were shown the film at school, the impact of the BBC TV play Threads seems to have left an indelible mark on viewers well beyond its original broadcast. The warning quoted above, given by the local Vancouver station CKVU, both captures the impact the film had on audiences while also overselling what is ultimately quite an understated film. It is indeed about the end of the world, but its power is its focus on two very average families and the domestic drama which ties them together. The horror is of course how a narrative so familiar from British soaps gets up-ended by thermo-nuclear war. Absurd as that sounds the film demonstrates that the abstraction of a truly global catastrophe can only effectively be told through a more immediately personal perspective.

For some audiences the horror is also inextricably wound up in the film’s use of location, and the familiarity of Sheffield plays strongly to locals, but also to a wider recognition of a location which is identifiably the North of England. As discussed a very long while back, the strength of Sheffield as a location on screen seems to consistently be that it is both visually striking yet on some level quite anonymous too. Threads bears this out, with a very limited number of wider establishing landscapes shots breaking up a string of location shooting which presses in to limit recognisable features. The trained eyes of Sheffielders on local history, and local interest forums have however done a fair bit of work identifying the city with the scant clues to be seen on-screen, and along with this information I did a rewatch recently to see what other locations I could work out. The results made for quite a satisfying google map:

The locations pinpointed are not all locked, and I’d be very interested to hear anyone’s ideas about other sites from the film in the comments section below. Threads Sheffield Radio Times CoverAdditions and corrections will of course be made to the map as suggested!

As for the status of Threads in Sheffield, it lives on with an eerie after-life that goes well beyond any form of ‘cult’ status that might be bestowed upon it. Over the years I lived in the city there was a consistent club night that took the name of the film, but which has since gone into retirement. The film also has an ever growing word-of-mouth reputation that swells with each new intake of students, and working in a university video library it was plain to see that the single copy we held got a lot of usage throughout the year as word got around about the uncanny post-apocalyptic tale set on those recognisable hills. It was after all from a battered VHS copy in the very same library that I first had a chance to see the film, and I’ll always quietly resent the friend who suggested we give this unknown film a go at ten to midnight on a weekday.

Anecdotally I’ve heard that a number of attempts have been made over the years to put the film on ‘officially’ at a cinema in Sheffield, but owing to a nasty mess of rights, and the fact that the contract wranglers at the BBC had never conceived that someone might want to show the TV play on the big screen, meant that a screening could never be cleared. Thankfully the brilliant Sensoria music and film festival in Sheffield have pulled it off this year, with a special screening taking place outdoors next to Park Hill in the city centre. Ruth in ThreadsThe fact that tickets for the event sold out 4 days before the screening stands as some testimony to the TV play itself, especially when tickets stand a few pounds North of what you might pay for a DVD of the film.

The final enshrining of Threads as a Sheffield classic has however been sealed in the week gone by the efforts of the ’30 Years of Threads’ project which deftly pulled together a number of comments and readings of the film by staging a co-ordinated twitter “live re-watch” of the film on the exact 30th anniversary of the film, down to the minute of its original broadcast! One of the curators behind the project, Rob Barker, did a good job of summarising the event and the film, and you’d do well to cast an eye over his notes and review of the event over here.

Add to this a curated film and audio work by Matt Stokes, which used contemporary performances from Sheffield locals to imagine and re-stage the long-term impact on the world well after the attack portrayed in Threads. The resulting installation, In Absence of the Smoky God, uses film and dialogue, alongside materials borrowed from Barry Hines personal archives, sounds riveting and original, and I’m gutted to be missing it. Those within reach of Sheffield would do well to get there before it closes on the 8th of November.

For a former resident stuck in another corner of the country with only a DVD to go on, the overflowing source of Youtube has proven a valuable distraction for all things tangentially related to Threads. A QED documentary from 1982 proved to be a spark which instigated the commissioning of Threads, and is well worth a look. As is the Newsnight discussion which followed the original broadcast of the TV play, which while being a bone-dry panel debate between experts on all sides of the issue, is still interesting as a historical document, in particular in showing the odd minutiae which the panellists get hung up on.

Overall it’s brilliant to see such a devastating film enshrined and lionised by the cultural establishment and the people of Sheffield itself. Unforgettable is an overused word, but the horrific images and the devastating story of Threads is not an easy one to block out.

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Staying in For A House of Cards

Beyond saying that it is just painfully good, how can I convince the undecided viewer that they really should make an effort to watch the new House of Cards? On its initial release last year the quality of the show came a hollow second to the sheer novelty of Netflix funding and debuting the show as a stream-only venture. The quality of the product itself was sold as a fortuitous matching of top film talent with unchallenged creative freedom, and a blank check from a new studio all to happy to spend. The whole exercise was of course underwritten by Netflix’s magical motion picture content algorithm/crystal-ball which showed that the Venn diagram of ‘Quality Drama’, ‘Kevin Spacey’, and ‘British Imports’ equals a surefire public and critical hit. Yet looking beyond the wild zeal of technology and entertainment reporters, and beyond the begrudging acknowledgement of TV critics, to approach the show itself a fresh is not the easiest proposition.

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At first glance the sceptic might ask how I can so wholeheartedly recommend something so bitterly cold in every sense. In its visuals, in its emotional heart, or digging further down into its moral core, the whole package is an incredibly frosty sell to the first time buyer. But crack the show’s shell and you’re treated to an intricate drama that rewards your investment exponentially episode by episode. To dance artfully around describing it as a ‘grown-up’ series, (a detestable concept in its own right), what makes the show refreshing is perhaps how utterly unfrivolous it is. For all the clap-trappings, clichés, and cliff-hanger pomp of many other TV shows, the first season of House of Cards just took an assuredly good story and let it play out over the course of thirteen episodes. The greater arc of the show is drawn up to carry over into the second season, which debuts in its entirety on Netflix today, and the promise of another thirteen ‘chapters’ in a third scheduled season after that is a more than dizzying prospect in its own right.

That it’s a political drama set in the heart of the American executive may spook the more lackluster viewer, but again don’t let that put you off. As with all good political dramas or satires, the crux of the show is the viewer’s curiousity in the human and extremely petty world of personal politics which we normally only glimpse and through cracks in the noble and selfless veneer of public politics. From the flying expleitives of Malcom Tucker in The Thick of It, to the endless bumblings of Jim Hacker in Yes Minister, Kevin Spacey in the role of Congressman Frank Underwood outdoes them all as the shrewd and obscenely calculating politician who can manipulate every man, woman, or child to his every beck and call.

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Kevin Spacey himself might rub you up the wrong way, and his gentle Foghorn-Leghorn Suuthern draawl might stick in the ear of someone who knows the accent, but just by the same measure he piles on the gentlemanly charm with a callous glint in his eye, the glint of a man with his eye on far higher prizes. The show’s central device of having Underwood constantly confiding with the audiences in secret yet candid asides stands out from the usual televisual convention and is thrilling as a device in its own right. The instant switch between cold public face and sarcastic and self-aggrandizing inner monologue plays right into our curiosity of wanting to know what politicians are really thinking and saying behind mask of their public face. Where the British original of the TV series saw the original Francis Underwood give nigh-on theatrical monologues straight to camera, Spacey’s approach is almost casual in comparison, addressing the viewer as confidant as opposed to spectator.

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And what of the American remakes association to the much vaunted original BBC series? The passage of time makes it hard to compare the two superficially, but what the original does hold is a slightly sharper satirical edge, especially in light of its close proximity to the politics of the time. Yet where Ian Richardson acted as a lynchpin for the whole series, the strength of the newer version lies in the knockout strength of its ensemble cast. Beyond Frank Underwood, the superb counterpoint played by Robin Wright as Claire Underwood broadens the drama, and balances out the almost sociopathic tendencies of her husband, and together they form one of the most terrifying power couples ever seen on screen. Add to this a dynamite cast of characters that Frank has in his pocket, like Kate Mara as the intrepid reporter, and Corey Stoll as the troubled congressman for South Philadelphia, and the push and pull of the conspiracy makes for an absolutely brilliantly taunt drama. A cruel casting manager might very well list these characters as secondary, but in their performances they’re anything but, and Stoll and Mara to name but two, have already had me chasing down the prior filmographies of all involved to see where I can catch them. (Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight In Paris being the standout example in an otherwise flim-flam flop of a film.)

What else is there to knock? Well there’s some egregious product placement, limited to maybe three occasions as when Spacey’s obliged to ask about another Congressman’s son’s PS Vita (“Oh I say, is that a portable games console? What games has he got?”), but if you can survive those sixty seconds, I’m sure you’ll live to enjoy the rest of the show.

In the middle of an awards season bogged down with films masquerading as give-me-an-Oscar actor’s workshops, the audacious prospect of a well-written TV series delivered by an outstanding cast comes as an almost rare treat. This really is not-to-be-missed television, and through the miracle of modern technology it’s always there should it take you fancy.

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The Bridge is Not a Documentary

“Come quickly, it’s Stockholm on the telly” my Mum shouts. It’s a BBC World documentary with a brief segment on the place of migrants in the city. Happy fruit and flower sellers on Hötorget speak proudly of how integrated they are, how their children have been born and raised as Swedes, and how glad they are for the opportunities afforded to them. Then the bright summery colours of the market fade as the voice-over concedes that “Sweden also has a darker side, as reflected in the recent popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction”. A bearded white baby-boomer is rolled out to read an extract from his latest novel, something about a dead woman, maybe strangled, something about the smell of flowers. This man’s books have sold well internationally, why is that asks the interviewer. Oh because it flies in the face of this utopian vision everyone has of Sweden, the sad reality that in some senses the country has become a “lost paradise”. Not that it took such a colossally ill-judged reference to Milton to raise the hackles of my family, as even the mention of ‘that’ genre had eyes rolling and groans rumbling.

The voice-over reflects that “this is of course fiction” with the qualification that it still “tells us something about the state of Sweden today”. Quite how well this crime novel matches Ulysses in capturing a city in a moment of time I’ll never know, as both will remain unread (or at least unfinished) for the foreseeable future as I busy myself unearthing the state of European relations in the 1930s from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

A Sunny Day on the Bridge Season 2

This of course is not to begrudge the relentless success of these marauding Nordic writers and producers, but rather an appeal against the endless, countless, and generally quite pointless one-note readings of the region spun out by tireless features writers everywhere. Social commentary is certainly a kernel to the formula of Scandinavian crime fiction, but it is not the sole point of the genre as boldly stated by at least one British journo. Maybe I’m too wound up as a half-native, but what can the average viewer hope to learn from The Killing, The Bridge, or indeed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Yes, Malmö and København are surprisingly close to each other after the opening of the Öresunds bridge. Migrant integration is a serious issue, look only to the Husby riots in Stockholm last spring for that. Racism is on many levels endemic, and worryingly institutionalised, although thousands have taken to the streets against this. Women are broadly speaking more liberated, but that isn’t for a moment to say misogyny has been eradicated. Likewise folks are generally a bit more open about sex, or at least not crippled by embarrassment at the hint of the subject, but neither does that preclude increasing levels of sexual violence.

Spelling out these issues in such ludicrously broad terms is making me feel like an idiot for even mentioning them, which is perhaps why I’m getting a tad fed up with crime fiction being taken as the outsider’s one true conduit to the ‘dark underside’ of the Scandinavian social model. To the uninitiated there is no doubt much to see and learn from a drama set in a completely new culture, yet for all this novelty and exoticism I doubt many will be blinded the simple fact that The Bridge is not a documentary, but rather an incredibly well paced thriller with interesting and three dimensional characters.

winter on the Bridge Season 2

The new season, like the first, is packed with flourishes, twists and seemingly ceaseless turns as the Danish Martin Rohde and Swedish Saga Norén again team up to solve a new sprawling mystery. Their collaboration, and their poles-apart approach to personal interaction cuts through the whole of their investigation, and it is their mutual drive which keeps the viewer interested and up to speed with every step of the drama. Although there are more than a few cheap narrative tricks along the way (last minute SUDDEN CLIFFHANGER warnings abound), the show steps far enough away from the recognisable conventions of the emerging Scando-crime TV format to keep things interesting and unpredictable. Dissect or analyse the narrative for whatever social commentary you can find (and good luck with that in the new series), the real strength remains the characterisation of the show’s two leads, and the new series does plenty of digging into both their psyches and their past. The culmination of this latest series and its absolutely dizzying conclusion will have audiences howling for answers, in the best possible way.

While the second series kicks off with a double episode on BBC4 tonight, the bad news for the newcomer is that you really really REALLY have to start with the first series, as the first two minutes of the new series completely gives away the game of the latter. The good news is that the whole thing is readily available on UK Netflix right now, so there are no excuses not to get stuck in right this instance. Any object lessons in Scandinavian culture picked up from either series will be gladly received on the back of a postcard, questions likewise so.

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A Swedish Crime Overlooked

No two ways about it, the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Easy Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.  

It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international  fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?  

By this measure Swedish critics easily dismissed The Girl Who Played with Fire, as well as the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and their origin as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, yet there are still critics who seem proud to champion the film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.  

The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.  

The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning  Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.  

Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: Insp. Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.  

The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.  

Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: Mannen På Taket (The Man on the Roof). Crudely pitched as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, ending in a dramatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. Another comedian assumes the role of Beck, and the older Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt underplays an already understated character brilliantly. As the frustrations of the inquiry slowly starts to unravel in Beck’s hands, the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.  

At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Branagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection‘s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.  

By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. The Swedish DVD release of The Man on the Roof idiotically doesn’t list that it has English subtitles, even when it does have them. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in the wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.  

Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Easy Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary, yet but my measure cringingly leaden original novel. At it’s heart the source material follows an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, desperately trying to maintain the façade of day to day life.  

  

The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the voice of two ethnic minorities, the whole thing rang thoroughly hollow to me. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension of it’s ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials. In the adaptation to the big screen a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.  

Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from anglophone market until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but it just goes to show that Swedish rights holders are still oblivious to the value of what they have in their hands.  

* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]  

hate to be one in a minority of Anglophones to say this, but the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Fast Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.  

It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?  

Accordingly Swedish critics absolutely panned Played with Fire, as well as the Dragon Tattoo, and the films origins as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the Anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The Anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, there are still critics who seem proud to champion this film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.  

The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.  

The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.  

Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: inspector Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.  

The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.  

Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: The Man on the Roof. Crudely billed as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, followed by a climatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. The frustrations of all their inquiry slowly starts to unravel at Beck’s hands, and the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.  

At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Brannagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection’s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.  

By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. While The Man on the Roof DVD doesn’t have English subtitles, there are fan translations out there. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.  

Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Fast Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary yet but my measure cringingly leaden source material. Focused on an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, while maintaining the façade of day to day life. The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the dialect of two prominent ethnic minorities range thoroughly hollow to this reader. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension to the tales ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials.  

In the adaptation to film a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.  

Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from Anglophone markets until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but just goes to show that Swedish rights holders still seem oblivious to the value of what they have.  

* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]  

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Rich’s Pickings and the wry double bill

First things first, if you haven’t seen Rich Hall’s ‘Dirty South’ then stop reading now, and go watch it. You have until 3:14am on Sunday 25th July 2010 to catch it on iPlayer, you’d be a mug to miss it.

Why? Because it’s a brilliant personal  treatise on cinema, a very particular strand of cinema close to stand-up comedian Rich Hall’s heart. As a proud Son of the South he’s more than a little fed up with the generalisations the region has suffered under the lens of Hollywood, and is tired of having to rebut himself against a stereotype which isn’t half as clean cut as would first appear. Did you know it actually rains in the South?

And it’s true, the notion of the South is almost wholly coloured by the films he cites, and the literature behind it. That and the ‘I SAY, I SAY’ of Tex Avery’s Foghorn Leghorn, but maybe that’s just me. Anyone who has any kind of spiritual connection to a city or a region will be all too familiar of having to kick against the clichés entrenched by popular media through the ages. And I say this as a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Swede sitting in a grey and miserable Sheffield in July. Things are a bit more complicated than how they first appear, are we clear on that?

There really is some unbound pleasure in just seeing someone knowledgeable and witty just riffing on some really great films, and the pillars of literature they are drawn from. Informative AND funny is a big ask, but Rich Hall brings a degree of irreverence and sincerity to carry it all off.

Heartfelt personal paeans to cinema are nothing new, and I’ve sat through a fair few looking for guidance on what should be sought out, and what should be avoided. The rather explicitly titled, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, is a fine example but for all the anecdotes and personal outpouring it’s still a little stilted, and perhaps too grand in its scope. Scorsese whips through the hundreds of films he touches on, but to criticise, it does exactly what the rambling title promises. Personal to the point of autobiography, and anathema for film fans not falling over Ol’ Marty in the first place.

To indulge on the heady fumes of nostalgia, what I really long for is the good old days of Alex Cox and his short, sharp and to the point Videodrome introductions. A curated series of films, introduced at nigh-god-forsaken hours, with a pinch of cool reservation and a pinch of insight. It’s as true then as it still is now, for the channels are awash with more films that you could shake a PVR at, and there’s great value in just having someone go ‘Oi, watch this, it’s good. Why? Because I said so.’

Rich Hall ultimately has come to serve this function, as two films mentioned in the documentary found a slot later on BBC4 on the same evening, namely God’s Little Acre and In the Heat of the Night. A repeat of another Hall documentary this week, How the West Was Lost, was also accompanied by a screening of John Ford’s Fort Apache. Unfortunately neither the doc nor the film is on iplayer, but the marriage of insight and relevant film should really be encouraged.

Much hoopla was made when the BBC announced that Claudia Winkleman was to take over the vaunted Film 20XX reviewers chair, the sceptics howls being hushed by the corporation’s desire to get away from the ‘old man in a chair’ approach to film reviewing. Some further hoopla was made by David Puttnam, when he criticised television producers for not capitalising on the growing hunger and interest for film that is being demonstrated at UK box offices.

It’s hardly rocket science to see a simple equation where you take the likes of enthusiastic profiles (Rich Hall, Mark Kermode, Alex Cox, a woman perhaps? Channel 4 news’ Samira Ahmed tweets and writes enthusiastically about her love of westerns. Someone give her a call) to either spend five minutes hyping an overlooked gem they love, or even perhaps going on a further exploration of some the bigger tropes in cinema. Charlie Brooker’s gotten good mileage tapping Stewart Lee and the like to reminisce about old televisual treasures for Screenwipe, would it be so hard to extend this into the realm of film?

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Lars von Trier and the North Korean Documentary

Simon and Jacob visit the statue of Kim Il Sung in PyongyangDocumentaries about North Korea are almost without exception brilliant. The troubled one party state lends itself perfectly to whatever approach of documentary you want to throw at it, if only by virtue of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s closed door policy to 99% of the world’s media. Some docs approach the place with the solemnity of tone expected of a country so adept at suppressing, if not just killing its’ own population. Others fall straight into the stop-point-laugh category of filmmaking, in which the sheer scale of DPRK’s sur-reality turns into a grand joke.
The BBC recently screened the amazing documentary Kim Jong Il’s Comedy Club (originally: The Red Chapel) and it stupendously manages to nail both the gravity and the inane hilarity of the matter. It’s amazing, and I’ll explain why in due course. [it’s on iPlayer until 4/4/2010 and you really should give it a look]
My entry into the rabbit-warren of NK docs started with A State of Mind, about two girls training for, and then performing in, the spectacular mass games held in honour of Kim Il Sung’s birthday. To be more accurate my first encounter with the film was on the Music TeleVision, as the music video to Faithless’ I Want More cannibalizes the film’s climatic performance to spectacular effect.
The closing game is strikingly shot, and Sheffield based documentary maker Daniel Gordon has pulled off the feat of capturing the individual cogs in this massive machine of perfectly synchronized children. A documentary of observation more than anything else.
Stepping aside from filmed documentaries, Guy Delisle’s graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea captures what it’s like actually living and working in the DPRK. Sent on commission to work for two months in a major ‘tweening’ studio in the capital, Quebecois Delisle recounts the culture clashes and the unfailing frustration of talking to citizens seemingly plucked from another planet.

An extract from the second page of Guy Delisle's Pyongyang

His relationship with his translators (the always-at-your-side state approved guides) are wonderfully telling, and his struggles deciphering opinion from indoctrined propaganda form an interesting crux. Does his guide really believe there are NO disabled citizens? “North Koreans are born strong, intelligent and healthy.” From the way he says it Delisle worries that his guide actually believes the rhetoric.
The book mixes the day to day interactions of the work place with the usual pre set tours that so often form the backbone of documentaries about North Korea. While a filmed documentary would obsess with capturing the scenes as they are passing by, Delisle has the luxury of hindsight when illustrating his own experiences.
Not managing the balance of in-the-moment footage with after-the-event reflection is The Vice Guide to North Korea. Coming from the broadcasting arm of hipster bible éternel, their infiltration of the DPRK is as irreverent as you might expect. While the Gonzo-lite approach works surprisingly well in the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, with North Korea the film strictly follows the increasingly familiar state sanctioned tour route, stopping to point and stare, and then adding a reflective interviews to underscore quite how head-spinning the experience really was.
It’s never really clear if the crew are allowed to film, and while the illicit game of trying to record what you really, really, shouldn’t be is quite a giggle. This naughty schoolboy approach is less effective when speculating on the fact that there my be containment camps just behind that forest, or reflecting that the Nampho dam was probably responsible for the devastating famines of the early 90’s. Oh but they shouldn’t be filming the dam, eek, what larks!
Which is why Kim Jong Il’s Comedy Club is all the more amazing, for taking an even MORE irreverent approach to the matter. Danish journalist Mads Brugger takes two Danish Korean comedians (Simon and Jacob) to NK to put on a comedy show. The regime leaps over itself to invite two South Korean orphans back to the North, and one of them has cerebral palsy! A chance for the nation to prove how tolerant they are towards the lesser abled! You couldn’t script a better piece of propaganda.
Jacob and Simon perform their sketch for the DPRK cultural aidesBoth filmmaker Mads and the regime try to play the two comedians as pawns in their elaborate game, which doesn’t really work as both defiantly kick against the pricks on all sides. Not having any Danish translators within the regime, the visitors can pretty much get away saying what the hell they like, and simmering arguments breakout as the tension rises, hectoring Danish flying back and forth as the visitors do their best to not let on that they are furious with each other.
Rehearsals are broken up with the ever familiar tour of North Korea’s proudest sights, but the trio’s running Danish commentary is brilliant, not just for pouring scorn on what they see, but also for laying bare come how crushingly uncomfortable the two comedians are at being shepherded around. Which is not to say they don’t have some fun along the way, constantly pushing the limits of what they can get away with. Before the show they have to pay due respects to the minister for culture, and having been decked out in the tailored work suits of the people, the trio sing the praises of the glorious leader and spit at the foul underhand dealings of the imperialist American dogs. A gift of a pizza shovel is made to the minister, to pass onto the beloved leader ‘as he loves pizza so much’. Short of asking what pizza is, you can tell no one has a clue what they are talking about.
Simon present DPRK's cultural minister with a pizza shovelIt was almost without surprise that I found out at the end of the film that it was bankrolled by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa production company.The irreverence of the concept has all the hallmarks of the man who takes such pleasure in splitting audiences, and good as the Beeb are for screening the film you can’t imagine any commissioner in their right mind backing this project. A crying shame at that.
Having gone down the same path of laughing in horror at the regime, Kim Jong Il’s Comedy Club pushes through the wall hit by the Vice Guide to, and comes through in sheer brilliance of observational satire. The joke is on the DPRK, the tragedy is that they can’t quite grasp irony the in the first place.
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Vidiotic (and other BBC Comedy Pilots)

vidioticmontageLiving in the UK I can quite unashamedly say that I am blessed with the generally fantastic services of the BBC, and better still the wonderful iPlayer. I pay my license fee and am more than content to do so for a standard of programming in television and radio which generally puts out enough to keep me contented while I whittle away on some boring and repetitive task at work.

Comedy comes high on my list of Beeb-based distractions, and for all the complaints regarding the perpetual broadcast of vapid crap like Two Packets and more recently the Horne and Corden Debacle there is some at-least-half-amusing gems that just sneak through. Some find their way into a whole series like Dan Clark’s How Not To Live Your Life. Others like the brilliant surreal Snuff Box, or 15 Storeys High will be commissioned for a series, perhaps two, but then end up unceremoniously buried in the arse-end of the schedules and never mentioned again. They inevitably end up finding a cult following on the interwebs, but it’s still a cruel disservice by the Beeb to the brains behind these shows.

A third breed will remain stuck in the realm of the single one-off pilot, and it is in this strangely cultivated forest of saplings that something truly new and leftfield can be found.

The flag first has to be raised for the truly brilliant Ketch! and HIRO-PON Get It On, a tale of friendship and alienation told from the perspective of two mohawked Japanese street performers. It first caught my attention on the iPlayer by billing itself as a silent comedy. On BBC3! Hard to believe I know, but there it was. Coming from a tradition of just larking of the streets of Edinburgh during the Fringe, the show was more comic mime than it was Keaton/Chaplin style slapstick, but it won me over with some brilliantly sweet characters and visual trickery which left me truly baffled. In an age where all inventiveness and camera trickery has been relegated to the backwaters of Youtube it is really refreshing to see some genuinely stunning acts of visual comedy. Their Backwards? sketch alone will live long beyond this so far singular pilot, yet it’s hard to imagine how they could stretch the concept beyond this one off. But still, more of the same would be more than welcome in the sea of bland otherwise known as BBC3.

The second lost pilot I want to highlight is Vidiotic, which was carefully buried at 02:15 last Wednesday morning. While my sleeping patterns are fortunately not quite so erratic anymore, I only came across it by virtue of the anytime/anywhere nature of iPlayer. And I’m so glad I did, because it’s brilliant in a delightfully cheap and naff way. To say shoestring would imply some semblance of a budget which was barely present, but its cheap nature gives an odd grounding. Being about two schmoes working a rundown video rental store, it had me in the first 30 seconds when I noticed that one of them was reading ‘Shite Unsound’ while wearing a MUSELY t-shirt. Cheap gags that felt as though pitched squarely at me. How could I not be hooked?

What followed was a rambling stumbling sitcom-cum-sketch show that took every chance to lampoon the nonsense of the film industry, and in particular the BBC’s rather glitzy-yet-braindead coverage of it. Highlights included voxpops for the fictional To The Manor Bourne and short film review asides on shlock horror films Body Melt (starring Harold Bishop!) and Shark Attack 3:Megalodon (starring Cpt Jack Harkness!) Both awful films simply and efficiently shot to pieces. A voice cameo from Andrew Marr and a guitar solo by Biff from the Back to the Future films also added to the shows slightly surreal edge.

I can easily see them pitching the show as a film reviews meets Clerks in the UK. ‘Think Peep Show but with films!’ they would no doubt say. Which is to perhaps over egg the pudding a touch, but hey a little ambition is no bad thing. I guess coming in with no preconceptions worked in the show’s favour, and without being too keen all I can say is give it a punt. Its kinda rubbish, but check it out on iPlayer, give them a few hits and maybe they can be granted some cash money to actually make a show of it. Why not? Rather more of this than more Packets of Crisps at two on a Wednesday morning.

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