Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Great British Holiday

Alan Bleasdale is in my top-five of great British TV drama writers. Others on the list include Jimmy McGovern (Cracker), Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) and Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk). Paul Abbott is probably the fifth.

I mention this because you NEED to switch on to More Four on Saturday at 10.15pm.

The show is G.B.H. It's over a decade old. And it's probably still going to be the best thing you see on TV this year.

Bleasdale wrote what is, on the surface, a political thriller. (G.B.H. appears to have been a huge influence on the more recent State of Play.) But it's really a study of power versus strength, and the signs of madness. It's a study of people.

Okay, so maybe you saw this thing go out the first time. Or maybe, like me, you just picked up the DVDs (which I had intended to write about before finding out that the repeats were starting). If it anyway. Watch it again.

Because in a country that lacks a left wing, that's stuck with a soundbite leader and more conservative (small c) global influences than can be entirely healthy, Bleasdale's voice isn't just an echo. Right now it plays like prophecy.

G.B.H. tells a story about a guy whose principals, while not exactly bought, are sacrificed for a bigger standing. For ego trips and the promise of yet more power. Michael Murray (played by Robert Lindsay) makes claims to a Labour revolution that he doesn't necessarily want. He doesn't want change so much as he wants to WIN.

Caught in a scheme conjured by yet more powerful men, Murray starts strong and crumbles right in front of our eyes. Piece by piece his facade peels away - the women he beds (throwing away spare condoms to pretend he used more than he did), the prefect physical appearance (he's balding up top and desperate to hide it). And with it goes the power.

As his world crumbles - his chauffeur (and brother) kicks him out of the car, takes his mother away, leaving Murray with a wife we never see beyond some terrifying heels and a loud, loud voice - Murray develops ticks. A wink in the eye, and a spasming hand one step away from Dr Strangelove.

And for all this pain and tragedy, G.B.H. is the funniest damn thing you've seen. It WILL take you to the borderline of hysterics as Michael, unable to control his ticks, swings around his hotel, accidentally hitting things, trying desperately to borrow condoms ("Borrow? I wouldn't want them back!") while avoiding his wife...right in the middle of a Doctor Who convention. ("Durex! The greatest exterrrminator of them all!")

It's a powerhouse performance from Lindsay. It will make your sides ache. And afterwards, you may just cry.

Playing Murray's polar opposite is, of all people, Michael Palin.

Seriously - Michael Palin. Parrot sketch, chips up the nose, globetrotting - THAT Michael Palin.

God knows who thought to cast him. It seems such a bizarre idea - why not go all the way and have Cleese doing Michael Murray's saluting-in-hotels schtick? But it WORKS. And not in some 'decent effort' way. Palin is gobsmackingly good with dialogue that's just the right side of poetic melodrama...and sometimes brilliant sitcom.

Jim Nelson teaches at a 'special' school. He has no power, but he does have acres of familial responsibility, masses of inner strength, and a genuine love of others. He is, in no uncertain terms, Murray's opposite; still where Murray is frantic. He's also a little crazy, in his own way (hiding in the wardrobe or the shed, naked and sleepwalking). But he's everything Murray is not - including a pillar of true socialism.

(For the record, I don't care where your politics lie. You shouldn't care about mine. Let's just agree that good drama is good drama, and we can accept those merits regardless of the message you choose to take away. (That message, by the way, could be 'Right wing politics are by nature cruel, selfish, devious and deadly' or 'The left is a fundamentally weak position that will inevitable never succeed, doomed to cave in on itself'.))

Murray and Nelson, though. These two in a room together - it's everything that DeNiro/Pacino scene in Heat should have been. It crackles. A string of fast-played banter lines, constantly backed up by character and purpose. Palin all stillness, Lindsay perpetually about to explode.

Lump in the throat. Every time.

By the end, as we reach Jim Nelson's empowering speech to his Labour club - "Proof that the further left you go, the more right wing you become" - you will have been through tragedy, comedy, intrigue. You will have seen the press and politics and celebrity and life all weaved together with breathtaking style. You'll have seen a master at work.

Every character, it seems, gets a beginning, middle and end in G.B.H. From the major characters to bit-parts and cameos. Murray's hired researcher is bribed with a hooker...who he falls in love with. The wine waiter goes from comedy prop (perpetually delivering to the wrong rooms because he's "numerically dyslexic") to Murray's ally to victim and political tool. The borderline-psychotic holiday resort owner who plays Electrical Storm Russian Roulette with an umbrella.

Everyone is a hero in their own small story. And ain't that just life.

I implore. I BEG. I know it's a digital station, I know it's Saturday night and you'll likely be out larging it up. I know decade-old drama isn't on the top of your viewing list. But please, try it. Set the video. Try episode one - it does everything the series will do in a microcosm.

And you won't be able to resist coming back.


Oh, by the way - the title? It's the G.B.H. that Bleasdale initially wrote about - his half-novel the TV drama was to become. The Nelson family take a holiday and are robbed of an important file while the manipulators hold a gathering inside their empty house. But this isn't just about bodily harm, it's about the harm done to hearts and minds. And it definitely isn't about two holiday-based episodes. So - the title was reduced. Quite right too.


At Thu Jul 06, 11:14:00 am, Blogger China Blue said...

I wish I could write reviews like this! If your blog has taught me anything, it's that I'm far too passive when watching TV.

More4's a good channel but I don't get to see it often enough - The Daily Show is the only thing I catch on it.

At Thu Jul 06, 12:03:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

Come round to my place sometime - I'll teach you how good telly is really watched.

I'll leave you breathless. promise. ;-)

At Thu Jul 06, 01:34:00 pm, Blogger China Blue said...

Ooh, I say. Just make sure you have something to keep my hands busy with. You know how easily distracted I get ;-)

At Thu Jul 06, 10:02:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

Okay - popcorn it is, then.

Hang on, that IS what you meant, isn't it...? ;-)

At Fri Jul 07, 04:00:00 pm, Blogger China Blue said...

Oh, of course. *clears throat* Popcorn. Yes.

So I'll be left breathless, huh? Now that's some good telly - the sort that leaves me panting. ;-)


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