The South Bank Show- Jed Mercurio (Sky Arts 2019) A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With fortuitous timing, later on the same evening that BBC1 scored the largest television audience this year when 9.1 million tuned into the Series 5 “Line Of Duty” finale, Sky Arts opened its new series of “The South Bank Show” with a profile of writer Jed Mercurio in conversation with Melvyn Bragg.

I haven’t watched “The South Bank Show” for years, certainly not since it was revitalised on the Sky Arts Channel seven years ago.  Most of us will remember it from its original run from 1978 until it was axed by ITV in 2010.  I tuned in because I wanted to know more about this man who has had us on the edge of our seats with “Line Of Duty” and “Bodyguard“.  I was both heartened and a little depressed that the opening music taken from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Variations” was still intact, even if in a slightly different version from the one I remember and depressed because it brought me back to Sunday nights of my teenage years when it signified bed-time and the end of the weekend and back to school on Monday.

Even though I have been avidly glued to every episode of “Line Of Duty” and to “Bodyguard” I realised I did not know much about the man who has put pen to paper and given us these examples of very high standard writing for television.  I do have an unread copy of one of his novels “American Adultery” (2009), which I recently obtained, sat on my shelves but that was really about it.

southbankshowMelvyn Bragg and Jed Mercurio

We began with a montage of clips from the shows that have elevated him up to the highest category of TV writing and was told by Melvyn Bragg that Mercurio’s work is known for exploring the “dark side of institutions and the morally questionable characters that hold them up.”  This certainly holds true for his two most famous productions as well as two hospital dramas, his debut work for television “Cardiac Arrest” which I don’t remember and “Bodies” which began in 2004, which I do.  What Mercurio wishes to challenge is the “drama of reassurance” which is what most TV  police drama has traditionally been.  Cleverly, with “Line Of Duty” he has achieved this by focusing on the arm of the organisation which is exploring the corruption, if he had shown just the corruption he feels so strongly about there would have been outcry from the police and politicians.  By having AC-12 as the investigating body he certainly does not have to water down any message he wishes to get over about the state of our institutions.

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The hospital dramas which came first were written from an insider’s point of view.  Mercurio was brought up in the West Midlands, the youngest son of Italian immigrants and went into medicine after being inspired by a contestant on TV’s “Blockbusters”(!)  He went to medical school in Birmingham as well as joining the RAF and training as a pilot.   He experienced the difficulties of life in an NHS hospital, which all of us who have read Adam Kay’s “This Is Going To Hurt” will certainly know about and responded to an advert in the British Medical Journal from a TV production company looking for a different story from the one we were used to in hospital soaps (which is largely that “drama of reassurance” again).  The success and recommissioning of “Cardiac Arrest” led him to drop medicine and to come out of the Air Force to be a full time writer.

We were told this was not an easy move “The Grimleys” was a 1970’s West Midlands set comedy which lasted a couple of series and using the name John MacUre he penned the six part BBC science fiction series “Invasion Earth”.  He hit big again by returning to the hospital wards in an examination of negligent practises, “Cardiac Arrest”, which was a success and from what I remember a pretty difficult watch.  “Line Of Duty”, the series which has certainly kept his name to the forefront and generated so many column inches and workplace discussions began its run in 2012 and between this and “Bodyguard” there has been a TV hospital drama for Sky “Critical” which was a little too much for me and a  TV adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.

There were interviews with cast members (was I the only person not to know that Martin Compston who plays Steve Arnott speaks naturally in a Scottish accent? It took me completely by surprise as it did by how young he looked in the first series) who spoke highly of Mercurios’ total involvement in bringing his dramas to the screen, which he himself acknowledges many writers do not get the same opportunity for this level of on-set participation. It fell into place for him when he became Medical Advisor for “Cardiac Arrest” thus giving him a hands-on role which most writers who don’t know what has been done to their work until the production is finished can only dream of.

This was a very interesting hour in the company of Jed Mercurio and Melvyn Bragg shows why he has been at the top of his own personal game for decades by asking the questions that viewers want answered.  I certainly wouldn’t add “The South Bank Show” as a Series Record on the Sky Planner but I am very pleased that it is still going strong and if the subject matter appeals as much as this one did I will certainly watch.

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The South Bank Show: Jed Mercurio was first shown on Sky Arts on Sunday 5th May.  It is available to watch on Sky Catch-up services.

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What You Have Been Reading – The Top 10 posts of 2016

Christmas and New Year plays odd tricks with you.  First day back at work yesterday and on journey home it seemed as if the festive season was ages ago.  I was surprised to still see the twinkling lights from the bus and even more so when I got home to see the Christmas tree and decorations all up.  It only takes a couple of days of the New Year to get us all moving on………..

But before I crack on fully with 2017 I want to take just one more retrospective look at 2016.  Personally it was pretty momentous.  At the start of the year I was getting myself prepared for a 10th season at my guest house on the Isle of Wight.  Well, since then, books have taken over.  Following months of uncertainty the guest house has been sold and I have moved to a new house in the same town and have begun working with books (as well as being surrounded by them at home) working within the Isle Of Wight Library Service.  The reviews, interviews and magazine assignments have kept coming and at the times of upheaval, of not knowing where I would be living, of winding the business up, of dealing with the loss of close family members reading has very much kept me sane.  If insanity was threatened it was due to BT Open Reach and EE my internet providers who took forever between them to get me a phone line and internet access – but that’s all sorted now and after a few years of feeling life was on a bit of a plateau 2017 feels a very positive change of year.

I’m delighted with the way reviewsrevues.com has gone from strength to strength (despite erratic postings towards the end of the year- thanks again for making this so difficult, BT).  In fact compared to last year there has been an astonishing 76% rise in traffic on the site.  That’s thanks to you all reading this.  Let’s finish 2016 off with a countdown of your ten most read of the 158 posts I published during the year. Just click on the links to revisit the full reviews.

10. The Author Strikes Back- Benita Jayne – Author of “Sacred Crystal Pyramid”and old school chum makes it into the Top 10 with our interview held back in July

9. The Author Strikes Back – Chris Whitaker – The most read of the author interviews I’ve published on here this year.  Chris had to put up with me interviewing him twice, once for here and once for the Nudge site.  He was charming both times.

8. Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker Showing that the author interviews drive traffic to the original review.  Chris’ crime debut was also a hit on Nudge which has led to a nomination for the Book Noir book of the year.  If you enjoyed his book you can register your appreciation here.

7. The Evenings – Gerard Reve– I had quite a lot of reservations about this book which I reviewed in October but the review of this Dutch translation has attracted a lot of attention.

6. The Rovers – Sky 1 football themed comedy with Craig Cash and Sue Johnston.  This was funny and attracted enough reads on here to suggest a second series is a serious proposition.

5. Giles Coren: My Failed Novel – Sky Arts one-off programme on the perils for a first-time novelist.  A real eye-opener.

4. Make! Craft Britain – Another one-off programme, this time on BBC4.  There’s a lot of crafters out there (and yes I did finish making my Clanger)

3. Lets Groove- The Best Of Earth Wind & Fire– I actually posted this in October 2015 but the lasting legacy of this group and the sad passing of Maurice White (one of the seemingly vast number of celebrities who were imporant to me who died in 2016) has ensured that this has had high readership figures throughout the year.

2. Scott and Bailey – ITV series.  People seemed to be facing up to the disappointment of there being apparently no more by reading about it.  I’ll say it again…  I love Scott and Bailey.

 

 

1.The Level – ITV.  My review of this appeared after the first episode at the start of October.  I moved not long after and lost track of reviewsrevues for a time.  I was astonished to see that views for this had gone through the roof whilst I was doing other things and it is the most read review  on here by a clear mile.  Over 1300 views ahead of the number 2 read.  The series started promisingly but lost its way a little at times but the readers keep coming.  There’s certainly a lot of interest in this series, ITV, if you are thinking of recommissioning or looking towards overseas sales.

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Right. that’s enough 2016.  Let’s get on with 2017!

Giles Coren: My Failed Novel -Sky Arts (2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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As part of Sky Arts’ “Failure Season” (as good a season as any other to have I suppose, it seems a very British thing to celebrate failure!) came this hour long documentary in which journalist, restaurant critic and TV presenter Giles Coren recalled his failed attempt at the literary novel.   Back in 2005, Coren, with a £30,000 advance (a very healthy amount for  a debut literary novel- his high profile helped) had published “Winkler”.  The experience put him off novel writing. 

He knew he had a failure on his hands once he saw the reviews but was shocked to discover during the programme that his total ten year sales were 771 in hardback and 1400 in paperback.  His agent tried to reassure him that these were acceptable figures for a literary debut (staggering that) but perhaps not one from a high-profile figure with a publishing company keen to recoup their advance.  During the programme Coren had to face up to different aspects of the failure of his novel – a tale of “an angry young man who hates everyone…………a sexually frantic coming of age novel.”

Along the way there were a number of revelations especially from Alexandra Pringle, Editor in Chief of Bloomsbury who said; “Quite a lot of books that are published are no good, let alone the ones that don’t get published” and “It’s perfectly possible to publish a book and not get any reviews at all” a fact which those of us who indulge in the mad scramble for titles with review allocators such as Netgalley will no doubt register some surprise.

Coren went to visit a reviewer who had savaged his book, having read “some of it” and sorted through his knife drawer! He met author Rachel Johnson at her book launch who said; “People want the same thing over and over again.  Don’t ever try to do anything new.”  Jeffery Archer talked about his god-given talent, drive and determination (!) all of which he felt that Giles Coren lacked and Archer certainly bucks the figures of the average author’s earnings of £4,000 a year.  Hanif Kureishi, David Mitchell, Rose Tremain and William Nicholson also gave their views.

By this time I was feeling sorry for Coren, squirming as a book group found his work challenging (but in the marvellously constructive way of book groups thought he had it in him to write a better novel) and students from a MA Creative Writing course were so sniffy it made for excruciating viewing and with lack of success almost guaranteed for most of them it did make you wonder why they just didn’t do Geography instead!   Coren looked at the effects of literary prizes but acknowledged his sole accolade (The Bad Sex Award) hadn’t really helped sales.  He also admitted that he hadn’t thought about his readers at all when he wrote the novel (obviously the most resounding nail in his literary coffin) but felt that the process of re-examining failure might just have re-lit a tiny literary flame within him.

This was actually a fascinating hour and Giles Coren is open and likeable enough for the viewer to feel amused, annoyed and sorry for him.  I’ve revealed more than I would normally do regarding the programme details because tucked away on Sky Arts it’s likely that this did not attract that large an audience and I think there were a lot of very interesting points made.  Let’s hope the audience figures were higher than the number of purchasers of his book.  For the many of us with at least one finished, unpublished novel stuffed into a cupboard this was essential viewing.

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Giles Coren: My Failed Novel  was first broadcast on Monday 29th February on Sky Arts.  It is currently available on Sky catch-up services