Thursday, 28 July 2016

Seventies TV: Are You Being Served?

This post will mark something of a departure from a tradition I have unintentionally started on this blog. The tradition is that when I am writing about 1970s TV, I start by reflecting on the circumstances under which I first watched it, comment on how the humour and attitudes haven't work well with time, and then either decide it is rubbish or express my horror at how many of the cast have been posthumously convicted of child abuse. This pattern developed in a series of posts I did wome time ago on seventies TV.
Are You Being Served, however, will buck that trend completely. This post is actually occasioned by my finding the DVDs of Grace and Favour (the 1990s resuscitation of the show set in a country house hotel) and also the DVDs of Are You Being Served Series 1 in very close succession.
I actually have almost no recollection of the episodes in series 1 at all, despite the fact that Are You Being Served has rather been repeated to death over the decades. Almost no recollection, that is, except for the episode featuring Joanna Lumley as the representative of a unisex perfume sold in Grace Brothers. The vowels alone make her appearance worth the cost of the disc! It is funny to think that she was doing this before she became Purdey.
Naturally, being an icon of the 1970s, Are You Being Served is often remembered as one of the more regrettable relics of that tasteless time. Mrs Slocombe's pussy alone could be enough to label this show as a dated relic of a forgotten past. Personally I was relieved to find how well the show has worn. I recently watched the film and didn't find it half as amusing as the first series, so I suspect that Are You Being Served is one of those things which wore well for one series and then the same formula wore out through over-repetition.
The jokes are certainly of their age. I have a feeling that if you roll your eyes at the idea of a Carry On film, you wouldn't like this show. The large sexual element to the humour is also very much of its time. For me it recalls an adolescent prurient interest in sex, although with also the adult insight that actually everybody is interested in sex really.
Even in the first series the characters appear fully-formed. I love that Captain Peacock has an element of the bounder about him. I did not recall him as such a dirty old man as he actually is. I love the way that Mr Lucas is always trying to get Miss Brahms to go out with him and yet never succeeds in it, and of course Mr Humphries (who is obviously very close to his mother, although his actual predilection is never actually stated) is a figure of a type which probably doesn't exist in any walk of life any more.My favourite character, though, was and always will be Mrs Slocombe. A national institution, that's what she is. The plots are rather predictable, as is the behaviour of the characters, but that is what makes this comfort TV: you're not going to get any great surprises, and the characters inhabit a contained world. The characters are also more than strong enough to carry the somewhat insipid plots.
Perhaps the way in which the show is most dated, though, is the rigid hierarchy of the shop. I worked in a shop briefly myself a long time ago and don't recall it being half as hidebound as Grace Brothers. The staff's places in the pecking order are rigidly defined right down to where they stand on the shop floor and in which order they deal with customers. The number of pens you carry, what you do withe your tape measure, which lavatory you use, where and when you eat your lunch, are all set in absolute stone. I'm no businessman but I suspect any business of the time which was that petrified has long ceased to exist as being completely unable to adapt.
Unfortunately I don't have anything so good to say about Grace and Favour. It is as if someone took a collection of running gags from Are You Being Served, strung them together in a country house hotel, and let it loose on the world. These gags are also overused: whenever someone gets into a lift you just know that it will either stick or stop slightly short of the desired floor. The original series didn't overdo the running gags like that. To be frank, I just didn't find it funny, while the original series can still make me laugh out loud. Each episode of Are You Being Served feels like a mini masterpiece on its own, but with Grace and Favour, it doesn't even really get into its stride through the first series, it has a stronger patch at the beginning of the second series, before seeming to run out of steam again. Also the reality is that what was considered suitable in the 1970s should have been rethought for the 1990s. While the Are You Being Served formula is a winning one, trying to stretch it that far was just too much.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

How I Spent My Summer

Apologies for the lack of TV-based posts here recently. It has been the weather for getting out and about, and when indoors, the picture which illustrates this post will show where I have been! The pub is actually the Gunmaker's Arms in Birmingham's Gun Quarter, which sells proper beer, much of it made by the local Two Towers Brewery. 

Friday, 1 July 2016

Survivors: First Impressions

It is my day orff, I have done the little jobs I have to do and it is looking like rain, so instead of me sitting in the park reading Philip Heselton's new biography of Doreen Valiente (weird is my life), you lucky people get a blog post about Survivors. Survivors is a series which I have rather avoided so far, despite having looked at it in shops and on line multiple times, I have always metaphorically put it back and in fact am writing this post on my first viewing of the first series. It is having an interesting effect on me, in that it is making me question why I like the television that I do. In fact considering from watching The War Machines (see my last post) I got a warm comforting feeling that IT failings would almost certainly prevent the takeover of the world by computer-based machines, Survivors gives me the warm, fluffy feeling that the holocaust imminently-expected in the 1970s didn't actually happen.
You see if War Machines taps into a major fear of the modern era (namely, what if the computers actually take over?), then Survivors taps into another one, namely, What would it be like after the disaster we're expecting? I suspect that that is what has actually put me off the show for so long, because I was expecting it to be very much out of the Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm stable. We know full well how badly humans can behave in a crisis, and particularly how the said crisis magnifies some of people's more irritating traits, such as a tendency to order or dictatorship, or just being not bothered, but I personally don't find that trope of human behaviour after the disaster very entertaining. Naturally there is an element of observing the human behaviour in Survivors, but that isn't all there is to it at all.
Survivors manages to put a very subtle twist on the plot device of how humans would behave after a disaster, and also manages to avoid the 1970s fantasy of a return to the dark ages, by theorising a world in which the majority of the population is wiped out by illness, but the resources and technology of the modern world are left intact to provide a large but limited resource for the survivors. I like this very much, because while it also taps into another major trope of the 1970s - the fear of what would happen if the oil runs out - it avoids the sudden ending of the modern world while requiring the characters to be resourceful in adapting to the world they are left with.
I have a feeling that at the time this would have been one of the things which made Survivors so popular. While I find myself commenting here repeatedly on the naked fear which characterised much of the dialectic of the 1970s, Survivors is actually relatively comforting. The fact that a virus is chosen as the way to wipe out most of the population provides a less-frightening scenario than the much-mooted one of the nuclear winter. Strange that a show in which the majority of the world's population could be wiped out is nonetheless more reassuring than a major environmental concern of the time.
Yet this less-threatening scenario is haunted by the spectre of human behaviour. It is self-evident that in the scenario we have described, some humans will behave indescribably badly, some from mixed motives, and some will attempt to create a new community where the precious remaining resources are stewarded. Even though I have tried to paint Survivors as a less-threatening alternative to the major contemporary fear of nuclear holocaust, it is haunted by this simple uncontrollable fact, which gives it a whole layer of fearfulness. And of course Survivors is spot on to use human behaviour rather than the actual disaster as the source of fear, since disasters are frequently caused by human behaviour. Well after this show of course, the Chernobyl disaster showed this fear to be well-grounded: I mean sitting in the control room of a nuclear reactor and deciding to have a go at something which the instruction manual specifically says not to do, is never a good idea, is it?
Survivors counters this fear of disaster and the unpredictability of human behaviour with an undercurrent of pagan ideas, again plugging into a prevalent idea of the time. 'How far back in time can we go?' is the question asked repeatedly in this series, and a return to paganism is one of the ways in which this question is answered. And it is here that I find a personal criticism, which I also feel may be me being somewhat unreasonable. Overall the show does an absolutely superb job of showing a Britain where the majority of the population is dead. Particularly in the 1970s, without CGI, it must have required endless labour to remove people for external shooting, and I actually only have praise for that. But this is also a criticism, because what is shown is a 1970s landscape frozen in aspic. In reality there wouldn't have been enough people to maintain the landscape in its agricultural-era state, and of course greenery only takes a season to start growing back with a vengeance. I feel that that is a failing on the part of the show: while it draws on pagan ideas, it fails to draw on the reality that when you are competely dependant on the land for sustenance you gain an extra sense of vulnerability to the land's own power over you and this major fear is completely absent. Of course you may feel that the show concentrates more on human response to the disaster, but I feel that there is a real sense in which the survivors are too sheltered from the arbitrary nature of living on the land.
Otherwise the show is in my opinion a masterpiece of writing and production. It is one of the few shows which gets into my personal category of Stonking Good Television. The more-leisurely pace of 1970s TV exactly suits the unfolding disaster at the beginning, and gives a ruminative feel to the dilemmas faced by the survivors as time goes on.
It may be somewhat superficial of me, but major stars in this show are the cars. The Land Rover which appears at one point is exactly like one my uncle in Kenya had. There is a magnificent mark 3 Ford Cortina estate, and I particularly like a vintage Volvo. As the series goes on these icons of 1970s motoring accede to more utilitarian vehicles, but they are still wonderfully evocative of the 1970s for me. Naturally the scenes in cars would nowadays be seen as disasters waiting to happen - people blithely smoke in cars, even with children there, and of course there isn't a single seat belt in use. Anyone would think they weren't frightened of dying!
Another criticism I do have is the usual completely personal one that there are too many familiar faces among the actors. Even if they are not always big names like Peter Bowles, familiar actors always detract for me from the show I am watching. I want to be watching the show not the actors. For some reason, familiar models among the cars don't strike me as such a distraction!
My conclusion on Survivors (even before I have watched all the way through the first series) is that it is a thought-provoking show which ruminates over some of the predominant fears of my era of television. My quibbles are probably completely personal ones, since I would wish that just a few things could have been done differently, but nonetheless for 21st century viewers, it will provoke discussion while also providing a reassuring sense that things haven't turned out half as badly as the milieu of the 1970s believed they would be.