Jacob Knowles-Smith settles down for an original American comic and some not so original British drama
It might be a cliché for fans of Bill Hicks to reminisce about the man and wonder what he might have to say about the present day, but it isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination: he wouldn’t have to change much more than the names in his routines and, perhaps, amp up the bile. In American: The Bill Hicks Story (BBC 4) fans old and new were treated to an in depth account of the life of the comedian; from footage of his first gigs at the all-too-precious age of fifteen right up to the famous performances that most viewers will probably have known by heart, and find all the more hilarious for this.
The most interesting aspect of the film was the insight into how Hicks’ most well-known jokes – set pieces? – evolved into their final form; particularly so when noting that the anger first emerged as a result of seeing how much alcohol he could consume when first on stage and later honed this feature into a fine art when sober. A whiff of hagiography has been associated with the documentary but his unpleasantness as a drunk is noted and what would there be to gain by scrutinising his ‘dark side’ other than a cautionary tale that would be anathema to Hicks himself?
Visually, the film is an innovative and smooth blend of animations put together through family photographs and video footage of his live performances that give an extra aesthetically pleasing element to a fine film made by the people who loved the man most, and should stand as a primer for many years to come for all those who will fall in love with Hicks and his message of individualism and not giving those in charge an easy ride.
Less than a week since the final episode of The Hour the BBC seems to have known they were onto something and split the still-warm corpse of the programme down the middle, creating a period drama set in a newsroom and a spy thriller. Sadly, neither can be modified with tags such as ‘high octane’ or even, for that matter, ‘thriller’. The former was the adaptation of the novel The Field of Blood (BBC 1), the story of a jobbing young reporter trying to get to that ever elusive truth, and the latter was Page Eight (BBC 2), a tale of MI5 high jinks and skulduggery.
In The Field of Blood Jayd Johnson, who admirably carries the show on her young shoulders, plays plucky young copyboy-come-investigative journalist Paddy Meehan, embroiled in a murder implicating a family member. Whilst she seeks the real story, she subsists on a diet of hardboiled eggs and there are plenty of hardboiled reporters in the world of a 1980’s Glasgow-based newspaper to help – mostly hinder – her quest. However, even in this most unglamorous of settings the influence of Mad Men prevails – within the first five or so minutes there is gratuitous shot of some grizzled hack taking a nip from a flask – realism is one thing, but this felt like an all too knowing nod to Madison Avenue.
The dialogue rolls fairly well and amusingly along; though one look at McVie – another hack – and you could see the words “You’ll make a journalist yet” tumbling out of his mouth a few scenes later, which seems all too easy if one of the themes they’re trying to portray is the struggle of a young woman making it in a boy’s club.
This is forgivable though, when confronted with the clunky and often glib script of Page Eight: “Wake up, Johnny – 21st century” or, when musing on who has true power, “The bankers did, and look what happened to them.” Well, what exactly did? Such leaden lines were fortunate to have Bill Nighy, as Johnny Worricker of MI5, around to carry them even if he does curiously swing sociopathically from flat monotone speeches to sudden bursts of rage. And he walks a lot. Walks from this scene, walks to that scene. Is this to show his isolation, that he’s a man out of time? Or a clumsy attempt at pointless establishing shots?
The characters Worricker meets, between stumbling upon ‘too much information’, are equally random and bizarre: shoved together from clichés that are, one supposes, meant to be so blunt they trick us into assuming they’re some fresh take. There’s a predatory homosexual Financial Times journalist, a very wised-up Muslim secretary, and Johnny’s attention-starved artist daughter whom he just doesn’t ‘get’ but – dash it all – he never could refuse. And, not to forget, Michael Gambon keeps popping up, until he dies, before Nighy goes for another walk. I wonder if the BBC thought we should be grateful for this as our Bank Holiday treat – given that it undermines the goodwill of The Hour – flawed, but charming – and proves the sameness of both programmes to everything else on TV at the same time.