TV Eye: The Story of Musicals and Timeshift: The Smoking Years

Jacob Knowles-Smith tries to make sense of this season’s viewing

With the Christmas schedule now safely out of the way, viewers can settle into shows designed to ward off the effects ‘the lull’ and winter blues that come without an enforced sense of Christmas cheer. This year Charles Dickens, the codifier of our Christmas traditions, was more prominent in our minds than ever. Several documentaries and a sleek adaptation of Great Expectations (BBC One) are all very well, but none of this can really compete with The Muppet Christmas Carol. All we can hope from any adaptation of Dickens’s work is that people deduce from what they are watching on the screen that this might actually be a good book worth reading – rather than just a Great Book, gathering dust on a shelf.

The festive line up wasn’t, by any stretch, all bad but the sound of sleigh bells in the background eventually takes a Pavlovian toll that renders one unable to resist shoving a fifth mince pie into a mouth already aching from over-use. The standout Christmas special for me was ITV’s annual adventure with Poirot: The Clocks had a slightly audacious plot, stuffed full of red herrings but it wouldn’t be Christmas without David Suchet with a waxed moustache.

As we passed into the New Year, thoughts of Poirot turned to another detective, Sherlock Holmes. BBC One’s modern adaptation, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, doesn’t need more praise heaped on it than necessary here but I did find it interesting that the charge of sexism was levied against it. It was questioned whether – to say nothing of the nudity – the portrayal of the episode’s female antagonist was sexist because her plot was based on sexuality rather than intellect. We can reasonably assert that no woman should try to use her sexuality to get ahead in everyday life, but surely it’s perfectly natural for a villain to use any method to confound their adversary, especially as one would assume that in order to qualify as a villain at all they must have at least one variety of antisocial personality disorder. All sociopaths and narcissists use their sexuality as readily as any other attribute to achieve their goals, so this is really an effort to create needless controversy.

The Story of Musicals (BBC Four), innocuous as that title sounds, showed how sometimes controversy is very much necessary. This documentary series describes how British musicals took hold of global of the theatre industry. Putting aside for now the question of whether that was a good thing or not, it also portrayed how they challenged censorship, conventions and the establishment. Musicals seem to have supported the anti-war movement, through shows such Oh, What a Lovely War!, more than many of the rock and roll musicians who came to prominence subsequently. This latter group clearly influenced productions such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar – the first rock opera – but it was musicals that resulted in the Lord Chamberlain having his powers of censorship revoked and even predated The Beatles in leading the ‘British Invasion’ in the United States.

Leading the charge Stateside, and putting us at the mercy of Dickens’s once again, was Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s response to the sensational West Side Story. Oliver!, though, however much of a good knees-up it is, is a poor Dickens adaptation which strips all of the danger away from the real pivot of the story, Fagin. For commercial reasons, this is forgivable. Had they portrayed Fagin as the true bastard he is, the show would never have played well in New York and inevitable charges of anti-Semitism would have followed. (Indeed, Dickens himself fell short of describing all of the acts an actual Fagin character would’ve had his urchins engage in.)

When one does think of the musicals that started the British response; Oklahoma!, South Pacific, West Side Story, etc; and when one compares them to shows, which will presumably be discussed in the next episode, like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, it seems that British musicals ultimately had a pernicious effect on the genre, sapping the vitality from Broadway and the West End until all we’re left with is Wicked. At the very least, it confirms that people like Tim Rice or Andrew Lloyd Webber are no Sondheim or Bernstein.

The Rattigan Enigma (BBC Four), another theatrical documentary, neatly bookended British theatre at the other side of the war years. Benedict Cumberbatch was on hand– in rather lacklustre style, it must be said – to take us through the life of playwright Terence Rattigan from his days at Harrow through his struggles with repressed homosexuality and becoming acknowledged as a serious artist. I struggled to figure out what the ‘enigma’ of the title actually was; Rattigan’s life as an artist never quite coming to terms with his sexuality is no unique tale, and I suspect that ‘enigma’ was employed specifically due to Cumberbatch’s presence as presenter. Rattigan, though, deserved his own documentary even if was only to hear lines like “I’m glad we never made the mistake of falling in love with each other.” Few writers came closer to capturing the cold relationships between endured by faded Bright Young Things in the post-20s world.

Those same Bright Young Things came to age in what was, according to Timeshift: The Smoking Years, the golden age of ‘the smoker’. If that was true, then we smokers – there’s no point in hiding bias here – must now be in a stone age. Harried out into the cold streets, smokers of my generation may still remember when old cinemas, though they had banned smoking years since, still had ashtrays fitted in the backs of seats – relicts of a once great smoking civilisation. I’m being glib here, and that’s not entirely intentional, I would never encourage anyone to smoke, but it’s something of a response against militant anti-smokers who suffer from being far too serious. There was a leading anti-smoking campaigner in the documentary, and she managed to summon fond and humorous memories of the years when she did smoke.

One wonders what, now that smokers are banned from polite society, these people who must interfere in other’s lives are actually against. Instead of imposing moral superiority against the individual smoker, surely the bigger targets are the tobacco companies themselves, of course, but also the television and film companies. Where do you draw the line between realism and responsibility? An adolescent watching Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy or Mad Men is bound to find these depictions of smoking more attractive than the crumpled office workers, huddling against the wind, in their local city centre. I don’t mind smoking outside and I don’t think it’s an invasion of civil liberties but everyone minds being harangued because of their peccadilloes – where are the warnings against people who provide dull lectures?

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