Friday, February 08, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jules Verne


If you pop over to the European Tribune website to sign the 'Stop Blair' petition (and if you haven't done so, then please do, and tell a friend too,) you will see a little note to say that on this day exactly one hundred and eighty years ago, the great French writer Jules Verne, the father of science fiction, was born.
I loved reading Verne when I was a child and I also loved watching the various films and tv series made from his books. One particular favourite was a dubbed Czechoslovakian series called 'The Secret of Steel City', (Czech title: Tajemství ocelového mesta,) based on Verne's novel Begum's Millions. It concerned two feuding neighbouring countries, and lots of espionage and suspense and was broadcast in the early 1980s. Are there any other readers who remember this series? (Sadly, there are no clips available of it yet on You Tube).
Wouldn't it be great if the BBC repeated some of the classic series from western and eastern europe that it screened in the 60s, 70s and early 80s? The problem with the Beeb is not that it shows too many repeats, but, as I argued in a 2005 article for The Times, that it shows far too few.

17 comments:

Karl Naylor said...

True, but more repeats on BBC and ITV might might be 'counterproductive' to the idea that you can create 'prolefeed' like Big Brother, the X Factor and other drivel like this-voyeurism, cheap vacuous sensation, and a streak of cruelty, manipulation and the humiliation of members of the public as 'entertainment'

When I grew up in the 80s we always watched repeats and people DId complain if only because they wanted more quality but newer sitcoms and drama which was delivered in some cases but in many not.

With deregulation and new technology, too many repeats would not cater for 'the market'. For UK Gold can cater for those who want repeats. The mass audiences of the past are just that-a thing of the past.

What we do have on terrestrial TV is so dismal that it has now to be advertised on billboards to remind people it might be interesting because it isn't.

One more point , though. It seems to me that the decline of the sitcom as great popular culture also reflects the decline of the common culture that gave rise to it-eg music hall, radio, and also the rise of an overdependence on TV itself at the expense of reading.

In other words, the TV viewing habit carried within it the seeds of the demise of the very common culture which now, in retrospect, seems very obviously part of the reason why TV sitcoms and dramas were better and funnier.

A nation of passive viewers is not one of doers.

Social changes are part of this , as well as Americanisation. All great sitcom characters in the 60s, 70, and 80s were, frankly, quite eccentric failures in life. They are anathema to the ubercult of 'success' and sterile glamour demanded today or the puerile level of cool 'n' cocky sarcasm.

Sitcoms such as Steptoe and Son were great performances, but, as with all great comedy, contained an undertone of sadness and melancholy because the schemers and dreamers were those who were trapped in their claustrophobic lives always wanting to escape and get out.

'Alternative comedy' has also died because it was based on ridiculing the Establishment. But as Blair and New Labour are skilled manipulators of popular sentiment and leftist kitsch, they seem right on to those like Ben Elton ( no satire now then about 'bugger alls in suits )or beyond satire.

Karl Naylor said...

Has Wajda's Kanal about the doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944 ever been shown on BBC 2 ?

It should.

We also need other Teledons other than Ferguson. Despite disagreeing with Ferguson, he is, whether people like it or not a talented historian, though Colosuss was an often odious book.

The War of the World is very good , though.

I wish Norman Davies could do a programme on central European history Simon Schama gets on my nerves a bit, to be honest.

More history programmes like those of AJP Taylor.

Also more programmes devoted to REAL political debate. Question Time is generally pathetic, though ( deep breath ) I was impressed by the Hitchens' Bros performance against Shirley Williams, especially over the knighthood isssue for Rushdie and appeasing Islamism.

There could, of course, be a new version of Alf Garnett, but this time an Islamist. Somehow, the idea of humour or laughing at one's own culture might be taken far more seriously. If you get the irony here.

I used to like that programe the Rock 'n' Roll years on BBC. All those scratchy and grainy imperfect colour TV pictures of current events set to pop music made me reflect on Milan Kundera's view of nostalgia and kitsch, of which few of us are ever free from.

1968 and so on.

I'm off to You Tube to listen to J'Taime again before reading Houellebecq and nodding off...

Minden Jot

Karl Naylor said...

70s sitcoms are the best.

But one endearing thing I noticed was how innocent sexual relationships were in series like 'Man About the House' and 'George And Mildred'.

Richard Sullivan was a sex symbol. Yootha Joyce played the role of the frustrated middle aged woman to perfection.

There was an undercurrent of tragedy about her life. She died of alcoholism , I think' before she reached 50.

Yet Rising Damp was the same-Rigsby and Miss Jones were great charachters , utterly frustrated by their lives but remaining recognisable eccentrics and characters of depth that people might laugh at-but who really did have a side that was not so far from the way we all live, if we are honest.

Sexual frustration, snobbbery, and so on . Rigsby's racism is forgiveable because we see it as pathetic in relation to Don Henderson's wonderful role and yet the man remains loveable because Rigsby remains a character we can still identify with.

Squalor, failure, voting Tory, the obsesion with respectability.....I love it.

As far as I'm concerned it;s the 70s in Slovakia ( Neil I moved ). It's the birds....

Do Videnia

slapheads anonymous said...

To answer Neil's point directly, the reason the BBC used to show Eastern European films and television in the 1960s and 1970s (not so much the 1980s) was that they were extremely cheap to licence, as their owners (i.e. the relevant state agencies) were keener on getting hard currency than in charging the proper market rates.

Neil probably thinks that this is a good thing, but those who actually work in the industry and who rely on receiving a fair share of the proceeds for their efforts might beg to differ.

The other reason we're most unlikely to see this stuff on terrestrial channels again is that there are plenty of other outlets that didn't exist thirty years ago.

For instance, Andrzej Wajda's complete war trilogy (not just Kanal) has been screened at least twice on Film Four in the last few months - and that's a de facto terrestrial channel these days, as it's freely available to anyone with a digibox.

And I believe The Singing Ringing Tree is out on DVD for those who don't take the far more sensible decision to rely on fond memories. (Trust me, it's pretty toe-curling if you're an adult!)

Neil Clark said...

Karl:
"It seems to me that the decline of the sitcom as great popular culture also reflects the decline of the common culture that gave rise to it-eg music hall, radio, and also the rise of an overdependence on TV itself at the expense of reading."
I couldn't agree more, and also with the point you make about the negative social changes which have occured since the 70s and they way this has been reflected in sitcom characters. Steptoe and Son, like mch of the comedy of the period was terrific. There is an incredible episode of S & S in which Harold wants to become adopted as the local Labour candidate, but is given the cold shoulder because the party is going 'middle class', and Harold is too working class. There's so much pathos in it and sadly, so much truth.

"More history programmes like those of AJP Taylor. " Hear, hear"
I can't bear to watch QT these days. Talk about narrowing the paramaters of debate..
Rock and Roll Years? You're a man after my own heart. A fantastic series- can you imagine it being made today?

Slapheads: "To answer Neil's point directly, the reason the BBC used to show Eastern European films and television in the 1960s and 1970s (not so much the 1980s) was that they were extremely cheap to licence, as their owners (i.e. the relevant state agencies) were keener on getting hard currency than in charging the proper market rates."

But what about the western european tv programmes that were shown? Robinson Crusoe? Belle and Sebastian? I think it was terrific that there were so many good European programmes on our tv screens back then and it's very sad that we don't show hardly any European imports today (of course since the changes of 1989, eastern european tv industry, which had produced so many good programmes in the 60s and 70s has been starved of money.)
The Singing Ringing Tree is available on DVD? You really have made my day!

slapheads anonymous said...

There is an incredible episode of S & S in which Harold wants to become adopted as the local Labour candidate, but is given the cold shoulder because the party is going 'middle class', and Harold is too working class. There's so much pathos in it and sadly, so much truth.

And there's just as much pathos and truth in the episode of The Office when David Brent is given his marching orders, announces that head office will have a mutiny on their hands, but instead is greeted with total indifference. Or in the following episode when he's finally got rid of and is cockily confident right up to the point when he realises that his plans to become a management guru aren't going to bear fruit, whereupon the façade crumbles and he begs for his job back.

In other words, I've seen very little evidence that the sitcom has declined. After all, the so-called "golden age" of the 1970s produced as many truly ghastly sitcoms as classics (Love Thy Neighbour? Mind Your Language? Cowboys?), and David Renwick, Graham Linehan, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Simon Nye and Armando Iannucci have contributed just as much to the genre as your beloved Perry & Croft or Galton & Simpson.

The major difference is that because we have far more channels, they're never going to achieve the same viewing figures as a long-running megahit like Are You Being Served? - but I don't think anyone would seriously argue that The Thick of It (tiny budget, BBC4 debut) suffers as a consequence. I know which I'd rather watch!

Talking of which, do you ever actually watch anything made after the 1970s? I can't help noticing that more or less everything you namecheck on this blog dates from some point between when you stopped wearing nappies and your early teens. I suspect a psychologist would have a field day with this.

Neil Clark said...

"Talking of which, do you ever actually watch anything made after the 1970s?"

Of course I do, and I'm sad to say that most, but not all of it, is vastly inferior. I liked The Office, but I thought Alan Partridge was even funnier.

"I've seen very little evidence that the sitcom has declined".

That's like saying you've seen little evidence that the Iraq war has been a disaster. Let's go: On our tv screens in the 70s:
Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Steptoe and Son, The Good Life, Rising Damp, Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, Fawlty Towers, Porridge, Yes Minister(ok that came right at the end of the decade). These shows are still very funny thirty years on. How many of today's comedies will we look back on with such affection thirty years from now? Of course there were duds in the 70s, but there's a lot more duds around today. “The most important thing about a situation com is that that the situation’s real and you care about the characters", said Jimmy Perry, today's comedy characters are too grotesque and repellent to be funny. Today's comedy writers think their first priority is to shock us: it isn't- it's to make us laugh.

slapheads anonymous said...

That's like saying you've seen little evidence that the Iraq war has been a disaster.

No it isn't.

Let's go: On our tv screens in the 70s:
Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Steptoe and Son, The Good Life, Rising Damp, Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, Fawlty Towers, Porridge, Yes Minister(ok that came right at the end of the decade).


OK, here are nine sitcoms that made their debut in the last ten years (so I can't even cheat by including One Foot in the Grave, Father Ted or anything with Alan Partridge): Black Books, The Office, Extras, The Thick of It, Green Wing, Peep Show, Phoenix Nights, dinnerladies, The League of Gentlemen.

And that's British stuff only - do you want me to throw American sitcoms into the mix? Or do you not fancy a Brady Bunch versus Curb Your Enthusiasm standoff?

The most important thing about a situation com is that that the situation’s real and you care about the characters

Well, I'd argue that the most important thing about a sitcom is that it's funny - but even taking Perry's strictures as gospel, were you really totally unmoved by Tim and Dawn in The Office? Or Maggie in Extras? Or even the hapless Hugh Abbott in The Thick of It? Talking of which, the latter achieves a level of realism that makes Perry's work look like Teletubbies.

Roland Hulme said...

I love Jules Verne. Around the world in 80 days was one of my favourite books as a kid.

Jock McTrousers said...

I tend to go for the 70s myself, as far as Britsits go, but I agree about Father Ted and Green Wing. I agree that the main 5 terrestrial channels have never been worse, but over all there is more really quality TV than ever, mostly American, however, especially anything from HBO.

I find the Office and the Thick of it more clever than funny; the office is actually painful to watch; it reminds me of too many horrific work experiences, and the characters in the Thick of It are just unlikeable. Comedy is more than cleverness. I got dvds of some Citizen Smith series recently, out of curiosity, because they were dirt cheap. I never really watched tv much before the mid 90s, so I only have vague memories of catching these old shows; I was curious to see how they depicted left-wing politics - they don't! The writer doesn't seem to know more about it than 'some of these young chaps get involved in demonstrations and things at university'. It's really just the Alf Garnett show (I've forgotten the name of that one) slightly relocated; the stories are feeble, the dialogue is stilted, but it sort of works - because the cast make it LIKEABLE. Even though I know it's rubbish, it leaves me with a warm glow. The Office and the Thick of It just depress me.

Neil Clark said...

roland: pleased to hear you're a JV fan too. Around the World is a great book and has an wonderful last couple of closing sentences.

jock: brilliant post, I couldn't agree more. Yes, shows like The Office are technically very clever, but as you say very few of today's comedies leave you with that warm glow that you get when watching 70s sitcoms. Even if it isn't the best episode you can't come away from watching an episode of Dad's Army, It Aint HHM, or the Good Life, without feeling in a better mood than you were half an hour earlier. As you say the 70s sitcoms were likeable and they had charm. Whatever happened to charm, I wonder? I think it was abolished some time in the 1980s, when money - and the ruthless pursuit of money took over.

Douglas said...

I didn't know it was Verne's birthday. I consider Arthur C. Clarke to be the Jules Verne of the 20th century. I don't think the Jules Verne of the 21st century has emerged yet. It will be someone who deftly ensconces the shocking ideas of quantum mechanics into readable fiction.

Neil, I believe you should start a fleet of fan sites for these classic TV shows you love. Unlike slapheads, I don't find anything odd about your love for 70's TV. But I think you should translate your passion into action. You're much too young to be old and cranky about things.

slapheads anonymous said...

Yes, shows like The Office are technically very clever, but as you say very few of today's comedies leave you with that warm glow that you get when watching 70s sitcoms.

What absolute twaddle. In what way are The Royle Family or dinnerladies less heartwarming than, say, Reginald Perrin - a series about a suicidal manic depressive whose supporting characters are essentially caricatures defined largely by their catchphrases?

(Don't get me wrong - it's a brilliant show, but it's hardly designed to leave you with a warm glow!)

Even if it isn't the best episode you can't come away from watching an episode of Dad's Army, It Aint HHM, or the Good Life, without feeling in a better mood than you were half an hour earlier.

Actually, my reaction to an episode of The Good Life is more likely to be revulsion at its appallingly smug middle-class tweeness. Give me Black Books any day.

Comment edited by moderator.

a very public sociologist said...

I'm with you on *some* repeats, Neil. I'd love to see a return to our screens of the 80s children's classic, Cities of Gold. It had a degree of depth I've never seen in a children's series, and of course it had the best theme tune ever.

I'll stop lowering the tone now ;)

Jock McTrousers said...

''Allo, 'Allo'' was a good one, too.

Robin Carmody said...

I'm of the absolute last generation (I'm a 1980 baby) to have been exposed to mainland European imports, and I can honestly say that one in particular - The Moomins - is very largely responsible for what I am today. Without it, I would probably think napalming Iraqis is cool just because it comes from the same country as Soulja Boy (ha!). Had I been only two or three years younger, I'd never have seen it, or anything else from the continent. And then what? Well, we (tragically) see the results all around us.

There was also a BBC children's drama series called 'Moondial' which had an immense impact: a lot of music I listen to now, from Current 93 to Belbury Poly, I relate to because I can sense in it the atmosphere of that series' extraordinary nocturnal scenes (and who would dream now of making a children's series which alluded to what Hallowe'en originally was before, like "gotten", we bought it unrecognisably back?). To see that when you're seven is life-changing. And, again, those even slightly younger had no such experience.

I came right at the end. No wonder I've yet to meet anyone younger than me who shares my belief in European social democracy.

McTodd said...

As usual, with my finger on the pulse I've made a contribution ten months late...

But it's nice to see someone else remembers 'The Secret of Steel City'!

And someone has recently posted a clip on YouTube (in Czech):

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=d9HjoLSaFpw

It's even possible to get an 85-minute edited feature length version on DVD - again in Czech, and only from Czech-language websites!

Now, if only someone who speaks Czech could help me order a copy...

By the way, I share my birthday with old Jules - I should have left this reply to my next birthday and been exactly one year late...