Merry Festivus, one and all! In a special present to you all, here’s the next part of our big countdown. Admittedly, it’s not a brilliant present. More a three-pack of handkerchiefs than a full instrument set of Beatles Rock Band , if you will. But, hey, there’s a recession on. We’ve kept the receipt in case you don’t like it.
We love TV programmes about advertising, us. Well, unless they’re ITV1’s ‘Ads Of The Decade’ (ITV1, 2009), and it means we’ll have to put up with Paul Ross telling us why the Honda ‘Cog’ commercial is good, and how he likes it when the meerkat says “simples”. Luckily, the programme at number 32 in our rundown is so far removed from ITV1’s ‘Ads Of The Decade’, you’ll actually find yourself wondering if Paul Ross and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner are even members of the same species. Additionally, had the creatives at Weiner’s fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency been consulted for said ITV1 programme, we’re quite sure the bloody price-comparison meerkat wouldn’t have been voted into a higher position than “Cog”.
Mad Men, then. Those shagtastic residents of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Why, if they’re not playfully slapping the butt of some cutie from the typing pool with a cigarette hanging assuredly from the corner of their gob, they’re whipping up a slogan that’ll somehow convince Middle America to buy a breakfast cereal called Trotsky-O’s. If Gene Hunt had been to Harvard, he’d be them. And where Life On Mars had Annie, Mad Men has Peggy, played wonderfully by Elisabeth Moss. On her expositional introduction to the firm in episode one, she appeared to be the very personification of innocence, but she soon displayed just how sharp a tack she really is. Then, stuff happens with and to her. We’re not saying quite what, in case you’ve not seen the programme. So go watch it. We think if you download a torrent of it on our say so, you can’t be prosecuted, so go do that. Now.
In essence, and this isn’t just us making the best of a bad analogy, Mad Men is pretty much Life On Mars, only with advertising. “Life On Mars Bar Brand Awareness Campaigns”, we’d say here, if we didn’t suspect you’d stab us in the eye for doing so. In main protagonist Don Draper, you’ve got your Sam Tyler figure – the smartest guy in the room, with his own dark reasons for never letting in on his past. A huge difference between Life On Mars and Mad Men is that while the former tended to dangle its self-satisfied coolness in your face just a little too often (“see how we jump over this desk in slow-motion, like we’re in a Roni Size video!”), Mad Men managed to ooze below room-temperature cool quite effortlessly, right from the hypnotically gorgeous title sequence, soundtracked by RJD2.
In short: Mad Men: It’s Toasted. (Reader’s voice: “That doesn’t make any sense.”) Shush, you.
A tricky one to place, this. Back when the show started in 2001 (or 2002 in the UK), it was quite simply the most thrilling import from US television since, ooh, The A-Team. Indeed, it went down so well when it was shown each Sunday night on BBC Two, the official reason given for Chris Morris not collecting his 2003 BAFTA for best short film (for My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117) in person was that he was at home awaiting the opening episode of season two (admittedly, it was all part of keeping in with the Chris Morris ’brand’, but still). Not only that, but we’re pretty sure 24 was the very first television programme shown in the UK to utilise the scheduling tactics of “pop over to our flailing digital outpost NOW to see the next episode a week early” and the lesser-spotted “late-night monthly-omnibus of the previous four episodes in case you missed them”. And not only that, but for the second series, each (week-early-‘preview’) episode on BBC Choice was followed by a half-hour studio discussion show, where assembled D-listers could gabble on about how great it all was (and by extension how with it they are for liking 24). Now, apart from Big Brother, we don’t think any other television show has ever attracted that level of coverage – even Doctor Who Uncovered is merely a repackaged ‘making of’.
Sadly, as is so often the way, once the second season was out of the way (to a relatively modest audience, but “the right type of modest audience” if you’re a BBC suit) on BBC Two/Choice, the UK rights to the third season were nabbed by Sky One. Not helped by the action being interrupted by mood-shattering ‘wacky’ sponsor bumpers by Nivea For Men every twelve minutes, it didn’t really settle on the channel – the premiere episode of season three (12 Feb 2004) attracted a reasonable 1.05 million viewers, but after that the show struggled to sneak past the likes of Stargate SG-1, Dream Team and repeats of The Simpsons into the weekly top ten ratings for the channel. It took until 4th March 2004 until the show sneaked back into Sky One’s weekly top ten, with 710,000 viewers. After that, 24 really struggled, it being bossed by the less-heralded Angel and Road Wars until it reappeared back in the weekly top tens a few more times (on around 500,000 viewers) in June, July and August. Compare that to the show’s performance on BBC Two, with the finale of season one attracting 3.17 million viewers on the 18th of August 2002, making it the most watched BBC Two broadcast of that week (and for the record, the season two finale bagged 2.78 million). The finale of season three was watched by just 620,000 hardy souls on Sky One, even though the standard of the show was (at that point) as high as ever.
Oh, and yes, we are well aware that us going on about ratings and scheduling in such disgusting detail is really rather boring, but then everyone already knows what 24 is about, and how it became pretty rubbish after season five.
(Source for all our ratings based tedia: barb.co.uk)
Created by Dylan “How Do You Want Me?” Moran and Graham “Ted” Linehan, with episodes written by (over the course of the series) Moran, Linehan, Arthur “Also-Ted” Matthews, Kevin “Armando Iannucci Shows” Cecil and Andy “Also-Iannucci Shows” Riley, you’d expect it to be more than merely a bit good, especially with it starring Moran alongside Bill “Is It Bill” Bailey and Tamsin “Love Soup” Greig. And happy, it was more than merely a bit good. But then, you’d probably guessed that. We’re into the top thirty, we can’t really expect to be surprising anyone by saying “and it did turn out to be a good show” at this stage.
Black Books – a programme centred on a moody inebriated Celt with floppy hair, who snaps at any people wandering into the room expecting him to perform the duty for which he is paid. Now aside from the fact that Hat Trick probably owe us image rights… ("Reader’s voice: “you’ve done that gag already”) …oh. Anyway, in the subset of Linehan (co- or solo-) scripted sitcoms from the 00s, we’d rank Black Books well above The IT Crowd mainly due to the brilliant character of Bernard Black. One of the deftest tricks to pull off in the world of sitcom is that of the Fawlty-esque lovable bastard. Bernard Black was a great example of that – for all the moments where he gives Manny, Fran or his customers woozy drunken hell, the parts where he ventures out into the ‘real’ world and turns into a naive man-child, totally win you over. Moments like the scene where he visits a betting shop for the first time, filling in a betting slip with the words “please may I have a bet on a horse at the Lingfield race at 3:30 this afternoon? I will bet ten pounds that this horse wins. Here is my ten pounds. Thank you. I hope it wins. Yours faithfully, Bernard Black”.
Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig also put in great performances as Manny, who is effectively Bernard’s non-sexual wife, and Fran, Bernard’s oldest (and only) friend. The situations experienced by the trio range from the Seinfeldesque (Fran goes to absurd lengths to gain revenge for being ‘blanked’ by an acquaintance) to something approaching Milligan’s Q (Bernard and Fran hide under a restaurant table during an uncomfortable meal with Manny’s parents, only to find a tiny pub under there). It’s that, combined with more excellent little gags that you could shake an Eric Morecambe at, plus the traditional Rising-Damp-ish studio-audience based set (which is always best*) that make Black Books such a winning compound of all-over splendidness.
(* One thing we really wish is that British sitcoms wouldn’t ape the US one-camera set up so often. Done properly, it can work magnificently. Done badly, which most Channel Four Comedy Showcase pilots or BBC Two sitcoms will tell prove, it fails utterly, a case which is all the more frequent, and it just looks cold, dreary and rubbish. It has been said that traditionally, US television would try to be cinema, but UK television would try to be theatre. That really ought to be the case more often.)
No Family Guy on the list, what with it starting in 1999 and all, but Seth MacFarlane’s second animated sitcom for Fox is well worthy of a place here. Indeed, in a lot of ways American Dad is preferable to its more popular sibling. Each episode of Am Dad has a sturdy, well-crafted plot, rather than the bedraggled tissue with which to throw the unrelated cutaway non-sequiturs and pop culture references that comprises your average Fam Guy plot. Plus, a clear majority of Am Dad jokes are on-topic, rather than about Huey Lewis or Melissa Joan Hart or Airwolf or something. Even when the writers want to work in a joke about furries, it’s relevant to the plot.
“Steve, look at those kids. They’re athletes – when was the last time you ran anywhere? And I mean with your actual legs, not by pressing ‘X’.”
If often remarked that the central characters in Family Guy are far more entertaining than in Am Dad, but really, aside from the marvellous Brian and Stewie, are they really? Really? Peter Griffin is basically a brain-damaged Homer Simpson (yeah, searingly groundbreaking insight from us there, eh?), and the remainder of the family rarely get to even do anything interesting. At least the central characters in American Dad are all of at least Europa League standard (UEFA Cup, if you’re reading in black and white). Anyway, if it’s a group of bland animated characters you’re after, there’s always The Cleveland Show. Commendably, Am Dad is always willing to introduce interesting new characters to the mix, such as Dale, the fey Southern dandy once forced into marriage with a brainwashed Hayley – who are likely to appear in just one episode, and never be seen again, even though they could be used for a quick and easy joke at several points.
“You look like a two-dollar whore. And keep in mind the dollar is weak right now.”
Of course, and this where we go all “Jeremy Clarkson after he’s just spent the first eight minutes of the review slagging off a new supercar”, we do admit that Family Guy is the funnier show. After all, chuckles obtained via shock references to abortion count just the same as giggles gleaned from cleverly worded political gags. So, despite the Fam Guy writing team spending too much time pointedly copying jokes from cult comedy films without even adding a twist of their own (from Office Space, Back To The Future, etc, etc) – cynically targeted for those extra self-congratulatory “ha ha! I get that reference!” yuks – it is the slightly more enjoyable show. However, American Dad follows it very closely indeed, and that is why it is utterly deserving of 29th place on our big list.
See? BBC Four didn't have the monopoly on dramatising the troubled lives of great British comedians after all. This one-off drama was largely based on Harry Thompson's biography of Peter Cook, so while this was supposedly a docudrama looking at the lives of both Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the action was mainly centred on the former. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course - people who generally tended to fuck things up are always more entertaining topics for drama. In fact, it's the philosophy central to our very existence. Film rights still available, Hollywood!
Admittedly, the programme didn't fit everything in from the life of Peter Cook - Private Eye was barely mentioned, his solo ITV show Peter Cook & Co, his roles in US sitcom The Two Of Us and Hollywood flop Supergirl were passed over completely - but then, that's probably the fault of the late Peter Cook for having done so many things, the awkward fucker. Mind you, it might have been interesting to see who would have been cast as Chris Morris if they'd included Why Bother? The non-Cook career of Dudley Moore was barely even mentioned, but it could reasonably be argued that his own filmography is a little more widely known anyway.
Back to Cook, Not Only, But Always did fit in important moments like him having to play the ‘Hank Kingsley’ chat show sidekick role next to Joan Rivers on her 1986 BBC yapathon ‘Can We Talk?’, resulting in the frankly horrid sight of Cook being talked down to by Bernard fucking Manning, and later touching on his (happier) appearance on Clive Anderson Talks Back, along with his calls (as Sven the Norwegian fisherman) to LBC Radio. All well worthy of inclusion here.
Now, while we can't claim to be experts on the lives of Cook and Moore, we'd guess there are a number of inaccuracies. For one, we don't think Dud was ever mortified that the Derek & Clive recordings were given a release, or that Pete felt utterly lost without the presence of Dud. But hey, in situations like that, we suppose we ought to go with Tony Wilson's ethos of "go with the myth every time" . Also worth mentioning is that Rhys Ifans puts in a brilliant performance (maybe even career-best – yeah, take that, fans of Rancid Aluminium) as Cook. Meanwhile, Aidan McArdle manages a good portrayal of Dud, though some real-life moments (such as where Dud corpsed winningly during the “Greta bloody Garbo” Pete and Dud sketch) aren’t portrayed as well as we’d have liked.
Triv corner: according to the director’s commentary on the DVD, most of the cast – aside from those playing the Fringe-Beyonders and Elanor Bron – were from New Zealand, where the entire thing was filmed. Yep, the blog men done a research.
See also: Peter Cook: At A Slight Angle To The Universe (BBC Two, 2002). A proper documentary looking at the work of Peter Cook in much more detail, including his time working on The Two Of Us, his booze-fuelled departure from same, the quite honestly unsettling footage of a simpering Cook playing third fiddle to both Joan Rivers and Bernard Manning on ‘Can We Talk?’, and his live shows with Mel Smith. A perfect companion piece to Not Only, But Also in many ways, and a shame that the differing source networks prevent the pair from ever being broadcast together.
Also see also: Peter Cook: A Posthumorous Tribute (BBC Two, 2002). Filmed on the 29th of September 2002 (more research, there) and broadcast immediately following ‘At A Slight Angle To…’, this theatre performance included turns from Sir David Frost, Terry Jones & Michael Palin, Griff Rhys “Have Your Apocalypse Now” Jones, Josie Lawrence and Clive Anderson, alongside then-new gagsmiths like Jimmy Carr and Jon Culshaw, who just did their own material in order to further their careers, so less said the better, there. And even less really ought to be said of Dom Joly and Angus Deayton’s mauling of ‘One Leg Too Few’. In fact, strike the previous sentence from your brains.
The best bit of the performance, as far as we’re concerned, was when Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson popped up as Eddie and Richie, trying to make the best of their misunderstanding of the evening. “This parrot is dead, you cunt!”, indeed.
A programme from the early days of BBC Three (it having recently regenerated from the twitching corpse of BBC Choice) with several episodes also repeated on BBC One, Adam And Joe Go Tokyo was the most recent (and to date, last) joint TV project for messrs Buxton and Cornish. The programme saw A&J relocate to a studio in Tokyo for eight weeks, reporting on the most fascinating and bewildering aspects of Japanese life. Sort of like Lost In Translation, but centred more on things like squid flavour ice-cream, alongside interviews with interesting local figures and glances at Japanese television.
As might be expected from the minds behind Song Wars, ‘…Go Tokyo’ included a marvellous regular feature called Big In Japan, where Ad and Joe would try to become major celebrities in the land of the rising etc. Perhaps the closest they came to genuine popularity was when they formed “Gaijin Invasion”, a pop band performing a song (partly in Japanese) about how overwhelming Japanese pop culture can seem to unsuspecting western visitors. After initial performances in a local park, the ‘band’ were spotted by producers of a Japanese pop music programme, leading to them performing the song live on the very same networked Japanese pop show. Another memorable episode saw the chaps attending the Japanese premiere of The Matrix Reloaded in eye-catching outfits – Adam with several cardboard clones of “Agent Buxton” attached to his back, Joe in a Kenny Everett inspired backless “agent” suit.
Another enjoyable aspect of A&J Go T was the selection of brilliant Japanese bands who would play out each programme. Amongst others, there were live performances from Polysics and Guitar Wolf - thrilling for us, as we were already fans of those acts (yeah, look at us, we used to be cool). Best of all, the final episode closed with a great turn from the marvellous Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, performing ‘Early Riser’, a song then being used to advertise Powerade in the UK (in a strange Japanese-avant-garde-alterno-pop-energy-drink advert face-off with Cornelius, whose “Count Five Or Six” was being used to advertise Lucozade at around the same time). And here is that Plus-Tech Squeeze Box performance.
Hopefully, what with the pair being easily the most popular show on 6 Music (figures printed in the Guardian last February put their show on 69,000 listeners, some 29,000 ahead of the next most popular show on the digital station), and their podcast being one of the most popular from the entire BBC, they might well get another bite at the TV cherry in the near future.
[Merry Decemberween, y’all. Back in a few days with the next thrilling instalment.]