Sunday, 28 February 2010

Retreading Familiar Ground: Craig Ferguson and Stephen Fry

Yes, yes. We’ve spent a lot of time lately trying (forlornly, as it seems) to win everyone around to the brilliance of Craig “Creg Ferguson” Ferguson’s marvellous Late Late Show on CBS. But here, right here, is how far he’s prepared to take things. He’s not just content with fucking with the concept of TIME ITSELF (several of his recent shows have toyed with the concept of ‘structure’, putting the denouement right at the start of his talk shows, or saying “wow, what a great show we’ve got for you tonight, see you after the break!” right at the end of his timeslot). This week, he decided to tweak the nipples of CBS to a PSI so tight he could spend an entire episode of his chat show interviewing just one guest, Stephen Fry (who, for some unfathomable reason, isn’t a household name to US citizens. Why, many of them have probably never even seen Happy Families), without an audience AT ALL And here, presuming CBS haven’t killed those involved, is it.


Go Bing Hitler. Never has a comedian rejected from a Sunday night ITV 10pm pilot slot fared so well. Come on, Comedy Central UK/Bravo/ITV4/BBC3, etc, done so well.

[edit] We put all that together before even watching all that. We’ve now watched (some of it), and it deserves further cackhanded investigation. We, assuming few others will bother, will attempt this (or just link to someone else doing it much better than we could ever do). Stay, possibly, tuned.


Thursday, 25 February 2010

Coming Soon From BBC Worldwide

Well, we now know what we want for Christmas.



Monday, 22 February 2010

The Sixth Best Television Programme Of The 00s

Hello to all the people who’ve visited here from the link on UK Resistance. This might not be the best update to try and judge the worth of the blog as a whole, because we’re going to spend an update thrashing around frantically in the waters of global politics. We’re normally more… ‘interesting’ probably isn’t the right word. Sarcastic would be closer. Anyway, pull up a chair, and please think twice before leaving a comment saying how we don’t know anything. We already know that.

[Update: Well, that’ll teach us to post the article after only re-watching 2 hours and 40 minutes of a three hour long series. Addendum in italics below.]

imageThere have been a few Adam Curtis documentaries we really could have chosen to make the list. 2002’s The Century Of The Self, 2007’s The Trap, or 2009’s web-only It Felt Like A Kiss (an ambitious mixed-media documentary ‘broadcast’ at one point on the BBC website, which we’re saying would have counted) were all more than deserving of a place here, but we’ve gone for the series that really made us stand up and take notice (metaphorically. We didn’t actually get off the sofa). While John Pilger has still been putting together memorable, thought provoking work, it is now Adam Curtis who we would say is the most arresting documentary maker on British television, and The Power Of Nightmares is his crowning moment.

If there has been a central theme of the last decade, it was pretty much “be afraid, lots of people you’ve never met want to kill you. We can help”. This theme was perpetuated throughout much of the decade, not only by the people in power, but also by the media, able to use the fears of ordinary people to move more units, to sell more advertising space, and keep their audience so engrossed by the ongoing threat they’d keep paying attention. And that hasn’t just been the case in the West, but as Adam Curtis points out in this compelling series, in the Middle-East too – and not just since 2001. While 9/11 proved to be the point where the politics of fear became huge, it has been going on since the birth of contrasting ideologies Neo-Conservatism and Islamism in the 1950s and 1960s.

imageScreened on BBC Two in 2004, and commendably released into the public domain soon afterwards, The Power of Nightmares compared the rise of the Neo-Con movement in the US with the radical Islamist movement throughout the world, comparing their origins and noting the similarities between the two. Controversially, documentary maker Adam Curtis used the series to argue that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of in the form of al-Qaeda, is in fact a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries - particularly American Neo-Cons - in an attempt to unite and inspire their people following the failure of earlier, more utopian ideologies. The route to this point takes in a number of stops that make absolute sense. The downfall of the Soviet Union was seen as a victory for the US, but that left the Neo-cons with a desperate need for a new bogeyman.

Curtis touches on themes seen in his most recent offering, the short film from Newswipe on how “we’re all turning into Richard Nixon” – high-ranking officials in the Whitehouse could engineer national defence policies based purely on suspicions, assumptions and paranoia, even if it would prove to be costly, controversial and deadly. However, this wasn’t necessarily carried out with any malicious intent - the underlying thought was originally that overstating the menace of the Soviet Union was necessary to help rescue the USA from falling more deeply into moral decline, to reassert the McCarthy-era feeling of being The Good Guys, up against The Bad Guys.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, an underground grass-roots movement was taking place to overthrow a president seen as corrupt, and bankrolled by Western banks. As President Anwar Al Sadat took part in peace talks put in place by Henry Kissinger, the growing (self-proclaimed) Islamist movement were able to portray the president as in league with the West, and a traitor to Islam. From that point, things got… well, even if you’re not a keen follower of Egyptian history, you can probably guess it doesn’t involve a lot of hugs and a talking cartoon camel.

imageAs you might have been able to tell by the way we write with much more authority when the programme we’re talking about is a sitcom or cartoon, we aren’t keen followers of Middle Eastern history, and have only really taken an interest in US history for the relatively tiny part of it that we’ve been adults. While we have spent a lot of time over the last decade trying to fill the canyon-sized world history gaps in our brains since then, maybe too much of it has been filled from mainstream news reports, asides on The Daily Show, or the bits we’ve been able to understand when talking to people who know more about these things than us (we generally nod, and try to turn the conversation around to football or Seinfeld).

It’s this that makes The Power Of Nightmares all the more engrossing for us. If we point out that Curtis, aided by his stellar ability to find the footage to illustrate each point perfectly, helps dimbulbs like us understand much of what has really been going on, it might make us sound like the kind of people ready to fall for any crackpot theory (like the guy at the local car boot sale with a stall of conspiracy theory DVDs). He really does go beyond that, looking at each event from both sides, questioning the people who really did hold power at the time, and never straightforwardly saying Group A is right, or that Group B is wrong, at least not without overwhelming evidence to back it up.

While The Power Of Nightmares hasn’t been able to question everyone directly involved in the story (after all, Donald Rumsfeld isn’t the type to be questioned like that, and Osama bin Laden probably wasn’t returning his calls), there are a number of illuminating interviewees. For example, Irving Kristol, the founder of the Neoconservative movement speaks openly on why he feels Christianity is the central tenet of his ideology, and why it was so important to get Christian fundamentalists back into the polling booths. Hard to believe now, but until that point the religious right in the USA largely abstained from voting, having felt that the US Government in general was corrupt. The Neo-con movement pandered to them from the late 1970s onwards, and it was with their support that Reagan swept to power for two terms. Similarly, Curtis speaks to people as diverse as Abdullah Anas, General Commander of Afghan Arabs in the 1980s, to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Neo-cons didn’t have everything their own way. There was a belief within the movement that all global terrorism was being orchestrated by a hidden network, controlled by the Soviet Union. The CIA refused to buy into this, because they’d made up that whole thing in the first place, but after repeated badgering, Reagan finally bought into the Neo-con theory, and used covert operations around the world to fight terrorism (well, apart from in Northern Ireland). After this success in shaping policy, the Neo-cons started to believe their own propaganda more and more, setting out to transform the world as they wanted, even convincing the Reagan administration into teaming up with the Islamists in order to rid Afghanistan of the Soviets.


However, it’s not all one-sided. The programme also tells how bin Laden and his cohorts also bend the truth in order to maximise the impact of his deeds, hiring gun-toting renegades by the day in order to be seen surrounding him in propaganda videos, and how media outlets around the world inflating the threat of Al Qaeda actually helps him to portray the image of himself as the head of a huge multi-national terrorist organisation, as opposed to the ragbag of loosely affiliated, much smaller terror cells around certain troublespots of the world.

We’re not going to carry on spelling out what happens in the programme here, so instead we’ll state how great it was to see a documentary series of this magnitude going out on the BBC. While one could ordinarily expect a documentary series on a matter of global importance to be sold to broadcasters around the Anglophone world, few broadcasters took the risk here, such was the hottedness of Curtis’ factual potato. Curtis has remarked that while the heads of several US networks admired the show, one such boss (his name kept secret by Curtis) remarked that “we would get slaughtered if we put this out”. Even in more liberal Canada, a CBC broadcast of the series was first postponed, then only aired alongside a contrasting account from Peter Taylor, The New Al-Qaeda, as a counter-argument.

With so many broad proclamations contained within the documentary series, there are moments where Curtis tempted fate a little too much. Towards the end of the third and final episode, Curtis proclaims that (at the time) of the 664 people arrested in the UK under the Prevention of Terrorism Act since 2001, not a single one had been convicted of trying to carry out a terrorist act. Fair enough, you might say, but he then underlines his point (after a few examples of people being arrested on laughably tenuous grounds) by dismissing the prospect of a terror attack being carried out on the London Underground as “a fantasy which swept through the media”. Possibly true at the time, but events less than twelve months later would prove to undermine the idea of this merely being a press-invented fantasy. However, that does little to dilute one of the main points of the documentary, that the threat of Al Qaeda as a tightly controlled organisation was overstated by people with a lot to gain from that fact, including those hoping to exploit disaffected Muslim youth already living in target nations.

One additional thing strikes us about The Power Of Nightmares (and indeed, the modern work of Adam Curtis as a whole) – it commendably kept well clear of the more sensationalist style of documentary making becoming increasingly popular in the US. Where Michael Moore would have used a rock soundtrack and appeared in as many shots as possible trying to look sympathetic before blaming everything on George W Bush (not to mention the part in Sicko where he spends five minutes telling everyone how great he is for paying the healthcare bills of someone who hates him), Curtis keeps his involvement to the voiceover. At only a few points through the entire series can Curtis be heard directly questioning interviewees, in favour of simply letting their replies speak for themselves, and he doesn’t appear on camera at any point. His tone throughout is never bombastic – everything is delivered in a matter-of-factly comforting tone.

In an age where you can find documentaries supporting pretty much any viewpoint you’d like to believe (as a glance at old Tinfoilhat McConspiracyvideo’s stall at the car boot sale will prove, providing Black Ops haven’t grabbed him), Adam Curtis has continued to show that if you want any great number of people to pay attention to what you’re saying, you really have to show your workings. You have to speak to the right people (people who were certifiably present at the events in question, as opposed to self-appointed ‘truthers’), to put yourself across clearly, and to let the facts speak for themselves. And while it could be argued that the politics of fear have taken the back seat to The Great Depression II, a fleeting glimpse at Fox News’ treatment of Barack Obama confirms that even now, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

WATCH IT NOW ON: As we’d mentioned, the full series is now in the public domain, which means you can legally download and watch it in full from With the programme never broadcast in the USA, it’s splendid to see that the site also offers a download of an entire .iso DVD of the series, in NTSC format, which will also play on all but the very tackiest UK DVD players. Hugely commendable, and something we wish more documentary makers would consider.


Friday, 19 February 2010

The Seventh Best Television Programme Of The 00s


image Mainly because we’re a bit annoying, we love it when a television series makes you do a bit of mental legwork before you can properly appreciate it. Quite often, it’s obvious when this is happening – for example, every other person on the ‘web seems to be going on about The Wire, and how you need to sit through about six hours of it before you can really begin to enjoy it, as if it’s an Xbox 360 game where you need to ‘unlock’ the good levels by playing through a load of infuriating ones first. But when it comes to Lost (not to be confused with the 2001 Channel Four reality-series-cum-gameshow, of course), it really seemed like it was a colourful exciting caper that everyone could enjoy right from the off. The first episode attracted a huge 8.5 million viewers in the UK, despite it being promoted via a slightly annoying trailer specially shot for UK cinemas, which saw the Lost characters gyrating artistically to a gratingly pretentious cast voiceover (“one of us is a killer, one of us is a cop […] one of us is a sinner, one of us is a saint […] all of us are Lost”), giving the impression of the series being the most expensive Calvin Klein commercial ever. Since then, viewing figures have remained high (for an imported series), with it currently the most-watched show on Sky1 – admittedly on a figure well down on the first season, but still extraordinarily high for Sky1, with 1.4 million tuning in for the start of the final season. Even in this multidigital age, it’s still rare for a programme on Sky1 to get more than a million viewers, and Lost smashed that barrier quite comprehensively.

imageThe fact the show is still hugely popular with its loyal fanbase is a good indication of the series’ high standards, considering the way the story arc would have been easier to follow if it were written in Braille, then printed onto a monochrome Rubiks cube, and encased in concrete. The first few series made heavy use of cutaway flashbacks. Then just when everything was starting to slide into place, it added “flash forwards” into the mix. And then the Lost puppetmasters employed a third dimension for their flashes to manoeuvre in, yet somehow, providing you were paying enough attention, were taking careful notes, or were keeping an eye on Lostpedia, it still made perfect sense. Sort of.

From the start of episode one, the disinterested cynic could be mistaken for scoffing “oh, right! A load of superficially attractive people have crash-landed on a island, only for us to discover they’re all meant to be ‘deeper’ than that, like that rubbish Linkin Park video where the camera zooms into different members of the crowd and it’s revealed they’ve each got their own network-friendly ‘issues’ to deal with. Oh HOW VERY BLOODY ORIGINAL. And how come the fat guy never seems to lose any weight on this desert island, eh? Eh? EH?” Hang on, did we say ‘mistaken’? We meant, ‘a cock’. Keeping with the show for a number of episodes (and indeed, events sped up immensely once the producers knew roughly how long the series would last) revealed that, to paraphrase Stewart Lee, the answers are there, it’s just that some of you might have to raise your game.

Of course, to keep things interesting, each big answer was accompanied by a new, even bigger question, but that was all part of the journey, and it certainly helped that the journey towards each answer was so tremendously entertaining. We’re going to go light on spoilers here, as we’re hoping to convert at least one of our readers to revisiting the series if they’d given up on it (we’ve already hooked four families on the Lost-pipe that is our DVD boxsets, a 100% conversion rate), so we’ll keep things appropriately cryptic, and in bullet form. Don’t worry, we won’t use any charts, and you won’t need to load anything into PowerPoint.

  • Lost is a programme brilliant enough that some events of episode two won’t be fully appreciated until the final (and current at the time of writing) season. Now, that might sound utterly daunting, but as long as you’ve got the mental capacity to become captivated by the series, you’ll cope (given the fact that, if you’re new to the series, it won’t take you six years to get through it all, this is much easier than it used to be).

  • You like hidden depths in your television drama?  You thought it was quite good the way David Tennant’s last Who episode rewarded the viewer for remembering past events from earlier series? Yeah, welcome to Lost. Most brilliantly of all, even if you’re a bit crap at picking up on these things, it really doesn’t matter that much. But – it does add to the overall experience (it’s like when a smart-arsed stand-up comedian makes a joke based on an obscure reference that not many people will get, but you;re one of the people who do get that reference. You know how that feels? Good, isn’t it? Much of Lost is like that.)



  • You want deep? You like deep? Okay, a few of the recurring themes with Lost are: the eternal philosophical quandary between fate versus free will, science versus faith, good versus evil, black versus white. Redemption.  Isolation. Imprisonment. Parapsychology. Rebirth. Religion. Revenge. Salvation, secrets, daddy issues and a load of guns. And, one of the most pivotal issues in the entire series begins with a central character listening to Pixies’ “Gouge Away” on their car stereo.

  • Demented obsessive internet geekery? For a television programme that doesn’t involve anyone being in outer space, being a vampire, or being a vampire slayer, Lost racks up a comprehensive EPIC WIN in this regard. Bewilderingly verbose fanboy wiki Lostpedia currently contains a total of 6,077 different pages exploring the entire ethos of the Lost universe (probably even more by the time we click ‘Publish’). Several of which we’ve blatantly ‘borrowed’ from for these very bullet points.

  • Even if you’ve sat through the series, and scoffed at the more outrageous parts of it, you might be surprised to discover that some of the more surprising twists are grounded in actual proper scientific theory. Top sci-fi website pointed out that the central tenet of Lost – a big spooky island containing magical magnetic powers and which might just be able to travel through time and space – covers many theories hoping to be explored more deeply by the physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider. And yet, Lost began several years before the LHC became news. And you thought Lost was a drama series, it’s actually a documentary beamed back from the future. Er, starring the guy from Party Of Five, and the kid from Hetty Wainthrop Investigates.

  • Io9 also posits theories that Lost might merely be an extrapolation of events previously seen in Quantum Leap, and in Red Dwarf. These however aren’t quite as impressive, and we probably shouldn’t have bothered mentioning them,

  • Even though the series is now in its final season, crackpot theories still abound. The aforementioned Io9 has compiled fifty of their favourites, but we’ve got one of our own, which you can read in the comments section (providing you’ve seen the first two episodes of the final series, otherwise it might ruin your enjoyment of everything. Actually, it will anyway, because we’re definitely right. You’ll see.)


imageWe haven’t even mentioned anything specific about the heroes and villains from the Lost characters throughout all that, and this is partly because, the way things have gone so far, we possibly may not yet know who exactly is a hero, and who is a villain. Sawyer started off as the most obvious bad guy, but as the series went on (in keeping with the whole ‘redemption’ thing), he became a hero. And, at the time of writing this, well, “erk” seems to sum things up.

We’ll wrap things up here. It’d be more proper to actually round this entry off with an actual summary of the series as a whole (well, we say ‘proper’, you might say ‘less insulting to your intelligence’. Tomayto, tomarto), but the truth is, we’re still not entirely sure what the ruddy flip is going on. One thing is for sure, though. Lost has kept us completely captivated for more hours than any television show over the last decade (other than Seinfeld, but we were very late to that party), and it’s that fact more than any other which means it’s our Seventh Best Television Programme Of The 00s.

(Remember kids: our crackpot theory on all of this in the comments.


Tuesday, 16 February 2010

These New Channels On Sky Are Getting Out Of Hand


(Click for full-sized Execovision.)


Friday, 12 February 2010

The Eighth Best Television Programme Of The 00s

Go, Team Venture!

imageAlongside BBC Four, our favourite new TV channel of the decade must surely be Adult Swim, an offshoot of Cartoon Network in the US. Originally a twice-weekly programming strand shown at night on the channel from 2001, it became a standalone channel of its own in 2005. In the UK (which briefly had it’s own equivalent, CNX*), Adult Swim took up a nightly block of programming on Bravo between 2006 and 2008, and played host to many of the same programmes as its US counterpart, with the occasional repeated UK animation, such as Modern Toss. Anyway, Adult Swim has been the source of many of our favourite programmes of the 00s, such as Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo from slightly earlier in our rundown.

(*CNX sadly lasted less than a year between 2002 and 2003, and showed a mixture of Adult Swim shows from the US, and action movies, including several greats from Hong Kong, including the UK premiere of 2012. With ratings being lower than anticipated, the channel switched to more teen friendly shows, rebranded as Toonami, and shifted off to the ‘kids’ section of the EPG. A great pity, as it was a brilliant little channel. But then, this isn’t about CNX.)

Adult Swim also played host to several others narrowly missing our shortlist, such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force (which we suspect a few people might’ve expected to make our hundred), Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show precursor Tom Goes To The Mayor, utterly superb Hanna-Barbara-fest Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, the misanthropic cel-shaded majesty of The Drinky Crow Show, or the (sadly pilot-only) show from genius cartoonist Michael Kupperman, Snake ‘n’ Bacon. All fantastic comedy shows, every single one of them groundbreaking in different ways, and each of them very, very nearly taking up space in our top hundred of the decade.

The greatest programme of them all however followed the fortunes of a pair of gormless but well-meaning all-American teen twins, their self-centred scientist single father, the family’s ultra-violent  mulleted bodyguard, and their robot helper. At first glance, The Venture Bros. is a fairly traditional half-hour animated series about heroes and supervillains from the old school, but it has a darker, grown up, more realistic edge than any animated comedy we’ve ever seen. And we don’t mean that in a self-consciously shocking “AIDS LOL” Family Guy-type way. There’s a whole friggin’ infrastructure at play here. AN ENTIRE INFRASTRUCTURE.

imageThe gist of the programme deals with the adventures or the, er, Ventures, and largely with the efforts of butterly-fixated supervillian The Monarch to bring down self-styled superscientist Dr Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, a bald, embittered former boy adventurer, forever trying and failing to live up to the reputation of his famous father. Despite the show’s title, Dr Venture is the real focal point of the series – as a child he had been star of the ‘Rusty Venture’ television series, following his heroic, chisel-jawed, ultra-successful scientist father (Dr Jonas Venture) on a number of thrilling adventures, but at this point he has grown into a middle-aged misanthrope, struggling to live up to the reputation of his heritage, struggling to keep his late father’s company Venture Industries afloat, and struggling (albeit not very hard) to be a father to his two sons.

Rusty is assisted by secret agent bodyguard Brock Samson, a blonde man-mountain of throbbing gristle, able to kill scores of assailants with a biro, who despite which proves to be more of a father figure to the two boys than their biological pater.  The twins themselves prove to be characters more suited to a Saturday morning ABC line-up – both relentlessly optimistic and misguidedly loyal to their father, Hank sees himself of the more daring of the pair (a less annoying and more human Scrappy Doo, if you will) while Dean is more of an introvert, though in practice both of them are equally clueless, not helped by their only formal education being delivered subconsciously in the special beds developed by their father.

imageThe lives of the supervillains at play are equally interesting. Main baddie The Monarch is beset by jealousy that his Number Two and current squeeze – gravelly-voiced vixen Dr Girlfriend – might go back to her ex-boyfriend, the suave, pencil-moustachioed evil mastermind Phantom Limb, while his henchmen are mainly made up of unfit geeks desperately trying to avoid reality. Rival bad guy Doctor Hatred turns out to be a chemically ‘cured’ paedophile, bound by law to mention his previous convictions whenever meeting a prospective arch-enemy.

That’s only to name a few of the magnificently rounded characters taking part in the series, we haven’t even got to the likes of the brilliantly named femme-fatale assassin Molotov Cocktease, the Venture’s necromancer lodger Doctor Byron Orpheus, or Teutonic man-machine evildoer Baron Werner Ünderbheit, and we could carry on with these descriptions for several paragraphs yet. More interesting is the way the series’ protagonists are allied to one of two organisations, the good guys being assisted by the Office of Secret Intelligence, the baddies being controlled by shadowy umbrella organisation The Guild Of Calamitous Intent, controlled by a shadowy figure later revealed to be David Bowie. Except, of course, there are power struggles and internal politics inside each of the two organisations, just to take things to yet another level of interestingitude.

imageA poorly described synopsis of the Venture Bros universe from the witless wordsmiths of an unpopular television blog like this doesn’t really do justice to the multilayered Venture background, so we’ll move on to the deliciousness of the script. Real-world angst is hugely and entertainingly evident here, so in a meeting between rival teams of supervillains, the host megalomaniac bickers with his Number Two over whether she’d bought regular cola or diet for the refreshments table. Their plans for world domination are presented to henchmen using PowerPoint documents, providing the criminal mastermind in charge doesn’t accidentally load in a Microsoft Word file. Megalomaniacal masterminds are restricted by the conditions of a treaty between the trade unions of the good and bad guys, meaning the bloodiest vengeance they’re able to wreak on certain nights might be restricted to pissing in their fountain. And all this just becomes clear for the first few episodes, it’s after that things get really interesting.

In short, The Venture Bros looks at the world from the perspective of a 1960s Jonny Quest cartoon adventure series that carried on existing long after the cartoons stopped being shown, with everything becoming more corporate, but with the main players becoming increasingly flawed. As show creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer point out in the commentary track of an early episode, the series is “about the beauty of failure. it’s about the failure that happens to all of us. Every character is not only flawed, but sucks at what they do, and is beautiful at it”. Stock cartoon conventions are given an unsettling realist edge regularly – one scene see masked goons storm the Venture compound, leading Brock Samson to creep around the building, silently slaying them with his trusty blade. As he dispatches one such goon, the fatally wounded hench pleads that Samson stay with him, as he doesn’t want to be alone when he dies. In a slightly unsettling way, that is quite beautiful, and something you just wouldn’t see anywhere else.

imageMoving on to the look and feel of the show itself, it’s way more gorgeous than an animated show on a cable network ought to be. The digitally painted backgrounds are lusciously detailed, with the appearance of old-school cell animation being given to the foreground characters (even though modern animation methods are used). From the offset, the look of the thing is so great, when we saw the opening scenes of the first episode we assumed Jamie “Gorillaz” Hewlett was somehow involved (mainly because we don’t know very much about current animators – we don’t have many go-to references). This attention to detail even extends to the DVD sets of the show, each featuring  some brilliant concept art. Indeed, we’ve used some of it as the background to our own Twitter page.

We could easily carry on about how brilliant The Venture Bros. is for thousands more words, about how the all-encompassing story arc takes in a number of superb references to 1990s British and European pop music, or how it has one of the greatest theme tunes and title sequences of all time, but we’d suspect you’d all stop indulging us long before we got that far. In fact, you’ve probably stopped reading already, and we can only hope it’s because you’ve skipped to the end in order to find out how you can experience the show for yourself. So, here’s that bit now.

WATCH IT NOW ON: Since the Adult Swim block stopped making up late night Bravo, there hasn’t been a way to watch The Venture Bros on British television for a few years, though Adult Swim UK does live on through their website. Sadly at the moment, only short clips from the series are available on there, but full episodes from season four are due to appear soon. For those looking to see the programme from the start (definitely the best option – there are a number of recurring characters and multi-season plot arcs), only the first series is currently available on Region 2 DVD, though this is happily offset by the fact it can be yours for just £6.85 including postage from both The Hut and Zavvi.

imageFor sensible mutli-region types, the first three seasons are available, with the third also available in glorious sex-o-vision on Blu-Ray. The best price we can find for these is currently Deep Discount, who offer the season one, season two and season three R1 sets for around £13.50 each, including shipping from the USA. If it’s the season three Blu-Ray you’re after, it’s around £22.16 including shipping from the same place, though that does come with a bonus audio CD of J.G. Thirlwell’s wonderful music from the show. If you’ve already seen season three on “television” (i.e. downloaded it from the internet), it’s worth pointing out that the DVD of that series features completely uncut episodes, with the pixellation and bleeped-swears of the TV broadcasts removed, making for an even more enjoyable experience.

image (The full Venture Bros. cast of characters, circa season three. Click for full-sized image.)


Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Ninth Best Television Programme of the 00s

Jambo, hepcats!

imageYou know, sometimes we find ourselves racked with self-doubt. Surely it can’t be the case we’re completely right about everything, especially when we pick up on telly programmes that don’t get broadcast in the UK, and we get all overexcited about how good they are so we look clever for even knowing about them. After all, we’ve spent a huge amount of time banging on about NEWStopia and the work of Shaun Micallef in general, but what if that’s just our subconscious desperately trying to compensate for the way we were so roundly mocked for telling everyone about this great new comedian we’d discovered in 2007 called Bill Hicks. What if NEWStopia actually isn’t that good? We might just have to re-watch the entire first series in order to check. So, until we do that, here’s a picture of some music.

imageWelcome back. Phew, we were right, NEWStopia actually is great. Always a relief, that.

Clocking up an impressive three series and thirty episodes in just over eighteen months, despite being armed with a moderate budget and intimate writing team (only three writers worked on all thirty episodes, though others contributed to varying degrees), NEWStopia was a tremendous combination of fast-paced satire, intricate wordplay, inventive sketches and superb parody, all under the umbrella of a pretend news show.

Normally, comedy programmes having anything to do with news would usually go in one of two directions – a Daily Show-y nose-thumbing of genuine events, or a Day Today-ish meander through invented stories. NEWStopia combined the two approaches. So, while one episode might kick off with a Not The Nine O’Clock Newsesque montage of news clips taken out of context (er, which is the third approach), and then a monologue on the then-current 2007 Australian Election (“Well, 72 hours from now the victor will make his victory speech, and the vanquished will make his vanquishedy speech…”) and a wordplay-soaked report on the political situation in Pakistan (“Bhuto – the ‘H’ is silent, but she is not…”), it could be followed by the completely invented tale of the inept incumbent of a safe Liberal stronghold seat, or a murderous supervillain cricketer. It can even spend time deconstructing proper news coverage (a bit like Newswipe does now, if you’re looking for a handy referential hook to hang your brain on), such as examining the use of panning shots starting from an object deemed apt for the person being reported on. And that’s a fourth thing.

There are even nods to Chaser-type stunts, such as where the team subvert conventional thinking that if a politician doesn’t know how much a loaf of bread is they’re out of touch with public opinion, by visiting shopkeepers and pressing them on their knowledge of the costs of running a national government. The team are however undone when a newsagent correctly points out that the annual cost of supporting the Australian industry productivity centres is 351.8 million Australian dollars.

imageWithin the confines of the show, a number of characters are allowed to develop. Shaun Micallef’s principal role is of avuncular anchor Shaun Micallef (pronounced differently, with more emphasis on the final syllable), but he also takes the roles of reporters like Pilger Heston, a crack investigative reporter suspicious that monkeys are trying to wrest control of the world from humans, or Paralysie De Martin, a loud Englishman fond of cramming tortuous wordplay into his European correspondent reports, or even John Gielgud. The other players get a look in too, playing reporters such as the magnificently named Washington correspondent Wanda Knee-Babcock, Fiona Koopop (NEWStopia’s fashion reporter, often sent to places like warzones when no-one else is available), or Harmonica Thirsty (NEWStopia’s sports geisha, preceded by 17th Century French Fabulist Jean De Le Fontaine).

The reporters spoke to a mixed bag of newsworthy characters, largely played by the same band of supporting players, with the most notable being performed by Micallef himself, especially when it affords him an excuse to use his top-notch mimicry skills – sometimes as an actual person (John Lennon, the Dalai Lama, Billy Connolly), sometimes just borrowing their voice (Abraham Zapruder taking the tones of Woody Allen to wish he’d had a second take on his most famous work, The Pope borrowing the sinister vocal chords of Doctor Strangelove). It’s all done remarkably well, and helps lend weight to our pet theory that the very best impressionists on television aren’t the people working as impressionists (see also: Rob Brydon, Peter Serafinowicz, Steve Coogan).

imageWe should probably make clear that we aren’t actually trying to get Shaun Micallef to sleep with us before adding yet another point about how great he is, but his little physical tics even manage to squeeze extra giggles from the moments when nothing is really happening, be it eagerly lapping at the tip of his pen as the camera pans out in a cut to commercial, narrowing his eyes at a bothersome off-screen voice as the screen fades, or just pulling a silly face while muttering something incomprehensible before immediately returning to deadpan mode. There are also nice little fourth-wall breaking exchanges that deal with the productions of such a show (“…and 6% said victory could be declared when US deaths become less regular. Shaun.” “Yes?” “Nothing, it’s just a rhetorical device to motivate cutting back to you.”)

NEWStopia also makes the most of each half-hour episode by sneaking spoof adverts and trailers onto the end of each genuine commercial break, taking in spots for Fanta (“Thank you, Hitler!”), made-up SBS shows like Tyrants And Their Pets, or the most disturbing Colgate advert you’ll see in your life. This proved to be a great way for the writing team to flex their creative muscles, with some of the more memorable moments from the entire series managing to not really be a part of it.


(Does that previous sentence make sense? We aren’t sure.)

One of our favourite things about Newstopia was the way it'd be happy to surprise the audience, no matter how hard it'd be to pull off. The best example of this would be the final episode, where a technical problem knocked the regularly scheduled episode of the show off-air, leading (SPOILERS!) to SBS replacing it with an alternative programme - a full-length episode of pretend Russian police drama Inspektor Herring, a show previously shown in the jokey fake SBS trailers throughout the series' run. Herring itself was a parody of German series Inspector Rex, broadcast with subtitles on SBS, and the spoof kept in with that, with all spoken lines being in faux-Russian (with the occasional genuine Russian word thrown in, so that it might seem genuine to non-Ruskaphones. A bit like The Kevin Bishop Show did with jokes).


All in all, utterly wonderful stuff. It seems that the programme may well have continued for a fourth series, only for the surprise success of Shaun Micallef’s primetime panel show Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation on the Ten network to keep him too busy to do much else. In a way, we don’t mind, with the programme having clocked up thirty brilliant episodes – the last of which having ended with a special Death Dance from the host – maybe it really is better that the NEWStopia team leave us all wanting more. Hey, it’s what we’re planning to do with this list – it’s going to finish when we reach number four.

“NEWStopia is filmed in front of a live studio audience. Clearly, they hated it.”

WATCH IT NOW ON: Your own computer having illegally downloaded it from somewhere, as it’s unlikely it’ll ever get a full release on DVD, what with the show being packed with other-broadcaster footage that would be near impossible to clear for a commercial release. While it seems the programme is currently being repeated on SBS for those lucky enough to live in the part of the world where that is, Despite our efforts, it seems unlikely that the programme will be seen in full in the UK, though we suspect there might well ‘best of’ compilations shoved onto shiny disc and BBC Four if we all close our eyes and use up all our birthday wishes.


Friday, 5 February 2010

The Tenth Best Television Programme Of The 00s

image You know you’re in the presence of a special television programme when it can include moments like this:

“As I tried to kick a ball properly in front of the fit and the dying, it dawned on me how many words we have to express our contempt for others. Wazzock. Spanner. Ninny. Clot. Heggy-head. Manger. Fivepenny twammer. Assheap. Numpty. Village Branson. Fat chest. Hucksucking witch. Furry titcake. Twit. Prannock. Joey.”

If there is a remit for The Armando Iannucci Shows, it’s that the show aims to explore some of the mundane aspects of everyday life – fretting over the low quality of your banter at dinner parties, it becoming painfully clear that you know nothing about cars at the local garage – and then stretch them just beyond the realms of reasonable logic. So, while Armando struggles with his Europolitical quippery over soup, he soon realises the wittiest person in the dining room is actually pulling his witty rejoinders from a pie, and garage mechanics will refuse to service the car of anyone listed in their big book of local twats.

The bulk of the series features Iannucci himself, cheerily pointing out the oddities that make up his life as they occur, such as a washing machine repairman who turns out to be an East End thug (played by Alan “Snatch” Ford), who merely threatens kitchen appliances into working. This isn’t too far from the material penned by Iannucci for his 1990s Guardian columns, collated in the book (and audiobook) Facts And Fancies, only that the format allows Iannucci (along with co-writers Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil) to stretch things out to an even higher level of absurdity, all delivered in a deliciously lo-fi, measured manner. It’s like Chris Morris’ Jam, except really funny. Of course, Armando Iannucci has the sort of voice that makes pretty much anything sound witty and clever. Go on, read this blog entry again only in the voice of Armando Iannucci – it’ll seem somehow well written and interesting second time around.

‘Shows’ also sees a great collection of uniquely warped sketches, like Sammy, a man with a condition that means he’ll die if he experiences the same thing twice, or Alistair, a drug sniffing dog in a rut who sneaks aboard a flight to Bangkok in order to look for a good time. The vast majority of these are brilliantly shot (especially so considering a modest Channel Four budget), taking in scenes like a grandiose song and dance number by dozens of dead people, an appeal by villagers in Africa to support British theatre, or the superb vision of Heaven Except For The Dead Of Scotland, Who Have Their Own Heaven.

The (S)show(s) is (are) also packed with great little blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em Armando moments too, such as the emergency Battenberg affixed to his kitchen noticeboard, his prison tattoos as he steps into the shower, or unremarkable ten-second linking pieces to camera being shot on location in Rome. While us saying this is fast becoming an unremarkable cliché, it’s another of those programmes that rewards repeated viewing, which would have been welcome news to people watching repeats of it on Channel Four’s digital offshoots, if only it’d had been repeated, at all, ever. To compound matters, the bulk of the series went out just after September the 11th  2001, when a lot of people were too concerned about everything getting blown up to worry about quirky skits from the mind of a Scottish-Italian satirist, meaning it’s not anywhere near as well known as it should be.

“What’s big and small at the same time? A big egg!”image



Sadly, the programme isn’t yet on 4OD or Seesaw, but there are dozens of clips from the show on YouTube (as you’ll have guessed if you’ve hovered over any of the links we’ve added), but it is available at a stupidly low price online. The cheapest we can see right now is Amazon’s price of £4.38 delivered, though if that’s sold out by the time you read this, The Hut are knocking them out at £4.85.


Recap: The 100th to 11th Greatest TV Shows Of The 00s

If we’re honest, there’s a decent chance at least some of you stopped paying attention for at least some of the time we were writing about the 11th to 100th best TV shows of the last decade. We know we did – we typed the summaries of numbers 24 to 27 completely at random with our eyes closed, so here’s hoping it made some sort of sense. Anyway, in best Bruno Brookes fashion, before we enter the top ten we’re going to give you a rundown of the ninety shows not quite good enough to make what people who only speak in binary would call The Top 1,010.

100. Frank Sidebottom's Proper Telly Show in B/W (Channel M, 2006)
99. I Am Not An Animal (BBC Two, 2004)
98. Penn and Teller: Bullshit! (Showtime, 2003-Present)
97. The True Story of the Internet (Discovery, 2008)
96. Never Never (Channel Four, 2000)
95. Louis and the Nazis (BBC Two, 2003)
94. TV's Believe It Or Not (BBC Four, 2008)
93. Not Going Out (BBC One, 2006-2009)
92. The Mark Steel Lectures (BBC Four, 2003-2006)
91. It Started With Swap Shop… (BBC Two, 2006)

90. The Mitchell and Webb Situation (Play UK, 2001)
89. Comics Britannia (BBC Four, 2007)
88. The Peter Serafinowicz Show (BBC Two, 2007)
87. George Orwell: A Life in Pictures (BBC Two, 2003)
86. The Real Hustle (BBC Three, 2006-Present)
85. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle (BBC Two, 2009)
84. Tetris: From Russia With Love (BBC Four, 2004)
83. The Smash Hits Story (Channel Four, 2005)
82. The People of New York vs Jerry Sadowitz (five, 2001)
81. The Big Match Revisited (ITV4, 2008-Present)
80. Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned (ITV1, 2000-2005)

79. Jekyll (BBC One, 2007)
78. Big Brother (Channel Four, 2000-2009)
77. Deal Or No Deal? (Channel Four, 2005-Present)
76. World of Pub (BBC Two, 2001)
75. The Two Ronnies Sketchbook (BBC One, 2005)
74. The Knights of Prosperity (ABC, 2007)
73. Frisky Dingo (Adult Swim, 2006-2008)
72. Return of the Goodies (BBC Two, 2005)
71. videoGaiden (BBC Scotland, 2005-2008)
70. Phoenix Nights (Channel Four, 2001-2002)

69. The Punk Years (Play UK, 2002)
68. Attention Scum (BBC Two, 2001)
67. Fantabulosa! (BBC Four, 2006)
66. Comedy Map of Britain (BBC Two, 2007-2008)
65. Biffovision (BBC Three, 2007)
64. Forty Years of Fuck (BBC Three, 2005)
63. The Story of Light Entertainment (BBC Two, 2006)
62. That Was The Week We Watched (BBC Two, 2003)
61. Tiswas Reunited (ITV1, 2007)
60. The Story of ITV: The People's Channel (& ITV50 Regional) (ITV1, 2005)

59. The IT Crowd (Channel Four, 2006-Present)
58. Who Killed Saturday Night TV? (Channel Four, 2004)
57. The Chaser's War on Everything (ABC1, 2006-2009)
56. Land Girls (BBC One, 2009)
55. Days That Shook the World (BBC Two, 2003-2007)
54. Stephen Fry in America (BBC One, 2008)
53. Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain (BBC Two, 2007)
52. Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (Channel Four, 2004-Present)
51. Testees (FX. 2008)
50. Doctor Who (BBC One, 2005-Present)

49. Grass (BBC Three, 2003)
48. The Sarah Silverman Program (Comedy Central, 2007-Present)
47. Robert Newman's A History of Oil (More4, 2006)
46. Sealab 2021 (Adult Swim, 2000-2005)
45. Pierrepoint (Not shown 'til 08) (ITV1, 2004)
44. Michael Palin’s New Europe (BBC One, 2007)
43. Maxwell (BBC Two, 2007)
42. Britz (Channel Four, 2008)
41. Chapelle's Show (Comedy Central, 2003-2006)

40. Life On Mars (BBC One, 2006-2007)
39. Look Around You (BBC Two, 2002-2005)
38. Early Doors (BBC Two, 2003-2004)
37. Dead Set (E4, 2008)
36. That Mitchell and Webb Look (BBC Two, 2006-Present)
35. The Riches (FX, 2007-2008)
34. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (CBS, 2005-Present)
33. Bored To Death (HBO, 2009-Present)
32. Mad Men (Showtime, 2008-Present)
31. 24 (Fox, 2001-Present)
30. Black Books (Channel Four, 2000-2004)

29. American Dad! (Fox, 2005-Present)
28. Not Only, But Always (Channel Four, 2004)
27. Adam and Joe Go Tokyo (BBC3, 2003)
26. Malcolm in the Middle (Fox, 2000-2006)
25. Flight of the Conchords (HBO, 2007-Present)
24. Charlie Brooker's News Wipe (BBC Four, 2009-Present)
23. QI (BBC Two/BBC One, 2003-Present)
22. Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-Present)
21. 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-Present)
20. House (Fox, 2004-Present)

19. My Name Is Earl (NBC, 2005-2009)
18. 15 Storeys High (BBC Choice/BBC Three, 2002-2004)
17. The Showbiz Set (Channel Four, 2002)
16. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, 2005-Present)
15. Still Game (BBC Scotland, 2002-2007)
14. Peep Show (Channel Four, 2003-Present)
13. Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (Adult Swim, 2007-Present)
12. Frontline Football (BBC Two, 2005)
11. Timeshift (BBC Four, 2003-Present)

Yes, we know it’s taken a long time, but just like World War I it’ll all be over by Christmas. Hopefully sooner, but it is us we’re talking about here.


Monday, 1 February 2010

SeeSaw: Virtual Tour

As recently reported, new video-on-demand service SeeSaw has now entered a month-long closed beta stage, and thanks to a complicated ruse involving disguises, carefully doctored door access cards, a bit of Tom-Cruise-in-Mission-Impossible-style lowering ourselves from the ceiling, leaping from moving vehicle to moving vehicle, and pre-registering on the SeeSaw website, we’re in there.

For those not up to speed with these things, a while back BBC Worldwide announced plans for a multi-broadcaster video-on-demand system, with a working title of Project Kangaroo (a subtle nod to Hullabaloo and Custard, the 1960s marsupial launch mascots for BBC-2, we suspect).The plan was to offer back catalogue content from the Beeb, ITV and Channel Four to anyone willing to pay a fee. Based largely on the engine already used for BBC iPlayer, it would have brought together VoD content from the three main UK broadcasters for the first time.

However, while Project Kangaroo was still being developed, it was referred to the Competition Commission by the OFT, with concerns that “the platform could be too powerful”. With a lot of work already completed on the project, the technology was put up for sale, finally being purchased by Arquiva in July 2009. Amongst the assets purchased was the name to be used once the project launched fully: SeeSaw (probably not a subtle nod to the 1980s BBC pre-school programme, we suspect).

So, what is SeeSaw, we type rhetorically? Well, much the same as was planned, with deals having been signed with BBC Worldwide, Channel Four and Five to provide content, though instead of content being paid for by the end user, it is to be supported by advertising, much the same as you’ll see on 4OD and ITV Player, only with a friendlier, iPlayer style interface.

Thus far, presumably due to their rampant successophobia, ITV have yet to sign up for SeeSaw, but SeeSaw have signed content deals with a number of indies, making independently produced ITV drama series such as Bad Girls, Doc Martin and Footballers Wives available to the service. But enough of us copying things we’ve just read on MediaGuardian’s website, on with the screenies. Click on the images to see full-sized versions:

PRE-EMPTIVE DISLCAIMER: These shots and such are from the closed beta version of SeeSaw, and as such aren’t necessarily indicative of what the finished service will be like. It’s probably very close though. It’s not as if they’ll take it this far then redo the whole thing using 320x240 RealVideo windows and only carry programming from BBC Alba.

[4.45PM UPDATE: There are now a few updates to this article, helpfully marked ‘UPDATE’.]

image Here’s the main window you’ll se as soon as you log in. The “highlight windows” at top can be moved around by clicking on the arrows, though they move from left to right automatically after a few seconds anyway. As you can see, a list of recent programming is shown beneath that (containing only Channel 4 and E4 shows right now), alongside buttons for the three broadcasters signed up thus far, and three genre icons, which we suspect will be used to contain the bought-in non-BBC/Four/Five programming when the whole thing goes live.

[UPDATE FOR FIREFOX USERS: One thing we’d meant to mention here. If you’re using Firefox and the AdBlockerPro add-on, you may well need to whitelist before you can watch anything. If not, it seems the whole thing hangs when it’s not allowed to access the streaming adverts. It’s easy enough to fix – right click on the ABP icon (bottom-right of your Firefox window), and select “Disable on”. Given the presence of adverts is how SeeSaw are paying their bills, it’s fair enough really.

Additional performance tip, this time relating to all Flash video on Firefox but worth pointing out here: You might notice a short pause every ten seconds or so when watching streaming video through Firefox. This is because the program takes a few microseconds out every ten seconds to save the state of your tabs. You can’t really stop this without losing the ability to restore your session after a crash, but you can reduce the impact by increasing the frequency of saves:

The following from the relentlessly excellent

“By opening about:config in your Firefox address bar, then typing browser.sessionstore.interval in the filter box, you’ll see a value of 10000, which is in milliseconds. (Meaning your session is saved every 10 seconds.) I changed this to 300000, or every 5 minutes, as I don’t have the urgent need for tab restoration. If you feel like being more on the safe side, try increasing it to something a bit lower, say 120000, or every 2 minutes.”

And there you go.]

image If you leave the highlight window alone for a moment, a short clip from the programme being displayed plays out. This is politely muted, but you can move the volume slider to hear the clip.

image The SeeSaw content can be viewed by genre, if you so wish. Because we’re nice people, we’ve screengrabbed lists of the shows under each category, but we’ll come to that later.

imageYou can also browse content by broadcaster. Hopefully this will grow to cover more than just three broadcasters as time goes on, and it’d be really good if the service eventually expanded to cover programming not deemed popular enough to be shown on ‘proper’ telly in the UK. We’re thinking of The Colbert Report, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, Newstopia, all the stuff we’ve been banging on about endlessly for the last few years, basically.

image Once you select a programme, you’re presented with a familiar iPlayer-ish interface, with a listing of episodes to choose from. Where more than one series is available, each series is given its own sub-menu.

image Much as with iPlayer, there’s a standard “Are You Sure You’re Old Enough To Watch This, Sonny?” warning for mature content, which we can’t help but feel completely fails to stop any kids watching this sort of thing. We just wish the VoD services had been around when we were tiny, we could have been secretly watching Spitting Image even after our parents realised just how unsuitable it was for an eight-year-old. Interesting to note that SeeSaw (currently) seems to be going with the BBC iPlayer “honour” system, as opposed to the 4OD system that offers parents the chance to set a PIN for age-restricted content.

We’re secretly hoping that when the full service launches, a little CGI Simon Bates will appear, telling you just why Nathan Barley is rated 18. It could pop up in the corner of your screen, like Microsoft Office’s popular animated paper clip.

image Before each programme, one or two adverts are shown. It seems to us that you’re served one advert before the programme if it’s a BBC show, two if it’s from a commercial channel. For anyone used to watching BBC output on iPlayer, it can seem a little strange having your viewing of BBC shows interrupted by commercials (“Bah! I’ve already paid for this – abolish the entire BBC!”), but then if you were watching the exact same programmes on Dave, you’d be sitting through much longer breaks, so go figure. There’s another ad break halfway through each show, but again, a much shorter one than you’d see on a digital channel repeat. With programmes on the commercial channels, these are in the regular predetermined ad slots, but with BBC shows the commercial breaks crash haphazardly into the end of a scene (in the case of The Young Ones, just in time to bugger up a cutaway joke). So, pretty much the same as on Dave, GOLD, or Comedy Central, then.


The adverts themselves seem to be programme specific. Of the Young Ones episodes we watched, each was preceded by that annoying advert for vodka, where a bunch of insufferable trendies (the sort that only exist in adverts for aimed at Apple Mac-owning types) have a jolly old party in some woods. With the episodes of Nathan Barley we looked at, the commercials were for a hair-related product and a Jamie Oliver-fronted supermarket. While that could be down to coincidence, and will almost certainly change once the service grows in popularity, it could be annoying if you want to sit through an entire series of the same programme and have to sit through the same booze-related tale of some aspirational lifestyle twats.

While the adverts are being shown, the user interface is restricted to ‘pause’, ‘play’, ‘volume’ and ‘full screen’, to prevent you forwarding through them, or indeed, rewinding them to catch any interesting information you’d missed about interest rates. Interestingly, in the beta, outdated adverts occasionally crop up. We’ve been treated to an advert for Brüno (“in cinemas 17th July!”), and one of the bank adverts featuring Kevin Bishop that didn’t seem to appear quite so often after he’d acted like a colossal bellend at the 2008 British Comedy Awards.

Personal note: if the adverts being served up were also collected from the archives, we’d flipping love it. Now, this clearly isn’t going to happen (why would companies pay a fortune to advertising twonks for new ads if they were going to re-use old ones on here, a potential Future Of Television?), but just think how much more attention you’d pay to the commercials if classic Tango or Guinness spots were likely to be delivered. Hey, they’d still be advertising current products, and tapping into the mindsets of people who, by the very fact they’re using SeeSaw, are happy to meander down Recollection Crescent.

imageBroadcasts of Channel Four shows are preceded by the 4OD ident, zooming out to reveal a traditional Channel Four ident (council flat version). This is accompanied by Channel Four Announcer Lady telling you that you’re watching a 4OD programme on SeeSaw, which makes it feel a little bit like you’ve somehow unlocked an easter egg for ‘proper’ Channel Four. Sadly, BBC shows are only preceded by a generic BBC animation, with no announcer. Five programmes are… well, we didn’t bother with anything from Five, and won’t until The People Versus Jerry Sadowitz makes up part of their roster.

image In what we assume is part of the beta process, some programmes are bookended by additional ‘sponsor’ bumper advertising. This seems to be taken from the original broadcast (Grolsch were sponsoring Four’s comedy output at around the time of Nathan Barley, weren’t they?), which is bad news for anyone looking to revisit shows from 2009’s Annoying Three Mobile-Based Stand-Up Routine ad bumpers era.

imagePolitely and quite splendidly, once you stop jiggling your mouse pointer around the screen and just watch the programme on offer, everything but the programme itself fades modestly into darkness. A lovely little touch. And yes, we did specifically pick the episode of Nathan Barley where the opening credits were a Spectrum loading screen, just so we could screen capture it here.

imageAs the programme is running, many programmes also offer subtitles, which are clean, crisp and unobtrusive enough. We suspect that by the time the full service goes live, all available shows may well have subtitles on offer, or at least those made in the UK, where the original Ceefax/Teletext subs should be available for use.


One of the main selling points of SeeSaw is that it plays host to many ‘classic’ Doctor Who stories. with one serial each from Doctors two through seven. While we admit we don’t really care about ‘classic’ Doctor Who, several of you probably do, so here’s a rundown of the stories in question: 1967’s Tomb Of The Cybermen, 1974’s Planet Of The Spiders, 1977’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang, 1984’s The Caves of Androzani, 1985’s The Mark of the Rani, and 1989’s Survival. As the screenshot above shows, the series are separated by year, which seems to be the case for most (but not all) BBC shows. 4OD programming tends to be sorted by series number. Not very interesting that fact, but a fact nonetheless.

You’ll note the similarity between the video pages for SeeSaw and…

 image…BBC’s iPlayer, which was (of course) the genesis of SeeSaw. However, where the programme information on iPlayer is tucked away in a drop-down info box, SeeSaw gives you the first few lines of the synopsis, cast list and so on. Again, not interesting, but still true.

imageOnto the content of the programmes themselves. Pleasingly, the service offers up full, uncut episodes of The Young Ones, with the episodes here being up to 35 minutes long, retaining the full band performances. This might sound a bit obvious, but in the past when shown on UK Gold, Paramount and even sometimes on BBC Two, episodes of the show have been crudely trimmed to 29 minutes (even less, in the case of commercial channels) in order to fit a half-hour slot. We get the full versions here, with (quite crucially) everything left uncensored too. Again, that might sound obvious, but even now channels like Dave hack a certain word from the “Kelloggs representative is pestered by a policeman in sunglasses” scene, in case we’ve missed out on the blindingly obvious point that it’s making, and somehow walk away from the episode actually thinking racism is cool.

image In the case of older shows, a pleasing amount of supplementary data is made available. Yes, much, much more could have been included for trainspottery types like us, but we’ll try and keep things realistic. We can’t really expect deleted scenes and half an hour of rushes for every episode, and a full list of cast, writers and so on aren’t a bad compromise. If it helps any, fellow trainspottery types get over that, we’ve checked the cast list on SeeSaw for the Young Ones episode ‘Time’, and Paul Merton is credited as “Paul Merton”, not as “Paul Martin” (as seen in the actual end credits of the episode, with it being his pre-Equity name, as every schoolboy knows).

 imageNote that for the BBC shows we’ve looked at, you have the option of Low, Medium and High bandwidth video options…


…while for the Channel Four output, this was missing, but you do have the option of subtitles on 4OD programmes, which you don’t get for the BBC programmes (we’d expect that to change by launch).

So, what programmes actually are there so far?

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but with no huge surprises. Don’t expect to see Emu’s Broadcasting Company or The Imaginatively Titled Punt & Dennis Show on there, for instance. We’ve screencapped lists of the shows by genre, so you can see what to expect in full:

COMEDY: Includes Brass Eye (but not the 2001 special), Peep Show, The Young Ones, Bottom, Big Train, Desmonds, Absolutely, The Adam and Joe Show, Father Ted, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and surprisingly, ABC (Australia) show We Can Be Heroes, which we don’t think has even been shown on TV over here.

DRAMA: Includes Teachers, 56 episodes of Shameless, Social Secretary, Traffik, Nick Broomfield’s great one-off Ghosts, Quatermass, Cold Lazarus, (the 1981) Day Of The Triffids, and all that Doctor Who.

ENTERTAINMENT: Including Celebrity Big Brother (only 3 episodes), Distraction, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Shrink Rap (including the uncomfortable Chris Langham episode), Derren Brown’s Mind Control, and utterly devaluing the word ‘entertainment’ by its very inclusion in the category, Balls Of fucking Steel.

FACTUAL: Amongst other shows, Bodyshock, 2001 John Cleese and Liz Hurley BBC documentary series we’d utterly forgotten The Human Face, 1990 Attenborough series The Trials of Life, Michael Palin’s Around The World in 80 Days, The Root Of All Evil? and more Time Team than you could shake a pickaxe at.

LIFESTYLE: Not our bag, but it does include Kitchen Nightmares and Big Chef Takes on Little Chef, amongst lots of other shows we can’t really be bothered to list.

SPORT: A tricky thing to make available in such a service, what with sport being (a) best enjoyed live, and (b) very expensive to get the rights to broadcast, in many cases. Only four shows on offer, all from 4OD, with single episodes of Olympic History, Track and Field, Stars of Torino and Beach Volleyball on offer. We’re expecting the range to grow a lot when the service goes live, and if ITV do finally clamber aboard we’d love to see The Big Match Revisited here. If SeeSaw could get a deal with ESPN in place, output from ESPN Classic could be a very useful thing to dip into.

Right now, we count 32 BBC shows, 104 Channel Four shows and just ten from Five.

[UPDATE: Except, not for the first time, we’re utterly wrong – the screengrabs we’ve taken are only the highlighted shows by genre. By using the A-Z tabs, you’re able to uncover more surprises, such as the full series of Frank Skinner’s 1994 sitcom Blue Heaven, Dead Set (under ‘comedy’, when surely it’s more of a drama), all of Drop the Dead Donkey, That Mitchell and Webb Look (mentioned in a lot of the pre-publicity, so it’s a surprise it’s not on the “featured’ section), and The TV Book Club, amongst others.

We certainly hope that when the series goes live there’s a “view all” option on the drop-down box for the A-Z, or at the very least “view A-M / view N-Z” options, as trawling through each letter in case you’ve missed something you like is a bit of a chore.]


And there you go. Potential improvements? Well, a “play all” option for each series could be handy, especially for people pumping content from their computer to their ‘proper’ telly. After all, it’s a bit of a mood killer having to get up and dick around with your computer just when you’re nice and comfy on the sofa. Meanwhile, for people at the other end of the geek scale (hello!), it’d be handy if viewing full-screen video on your second monitor stayed full-size when you click on something on your primary monitor, though to be fair that’s likely to be an issue with Flash itself. Maybe a way of putting SeeSaw content through VLC would work here, but likely to cause issues with DRM.

While the selection of shows is likely to grow as time goes on, there is a notable lack of BBC programmes right now. This is almost certainly down to the fact all of the archive 4OD shows have already been Flashed up to the gills for, well, 4OD, while the BBC’s output would have to be prepared anew (which might explain why many BBC shows have three picture quality settings, and the 4OD shows don’t – the Beeb shows have been prepared especially for SeeSaw). We can but hope there’s a lot more BBC content up there not too long after the full launch, along with the rest of the Channel Four archive on 4OD.

With the whole enterprise geared towards maximising ad revenue, it’s likely only the most popular archive programming will be converted for the service, but we can only hope SeeSaw does the more honourable thing, and strives to become the Spotify of television. If the company are looking at a revenue model of free-with-ads, ad-free-with-sub (a la Spotify), it’d make huge sense to host as much content as possible. Would we pay £10 per month just to see a few dozen programmes that are on Dave, Comedy Central, E4 and More4 all the time anyway? Nope. Would we pay £10 per month for the chance to revisit Carrott’s Lib, The Pall-Bearer’s Revue or Who Dares Wins whenever we want? Yes, we certainly would.

All in all, SeeSaw does look like a very promising service. Even at this stage, there’s a lot there for people with all manner of tastes – even people stupid enough to like Balls Of Steel are catered for. Providing the service becomes popular, it would be great if it could reach a number of new platforms, such as the iPhone, Xbox 360, Wii, or maybe even a range of web-capable TV sets, such as Samsung Series 8, 9 or beyond [FAO Samsung – we are willing to mention your TVs as often as it takes to earn us a free one]. If SeeSaw does things correctly, who knows how successful it could become in the future. The interface is certainly slick enough to be made operational on a touch screen, suggesting it could become a killer app for the forthcoming iPad. Here’s hoping everything works out successfully.


No ITV, then?

It’s a bit of shame that ITV haven’t seen fit to get involved yet, given the fact they’ve got the UK’s most impressive programme archive outside of the BBC. Sadly, it seems they don’t really want us watching any of it. ITV have recently revamped their own ITV Player (itself now looking not unlike iPlayer, though running on Silverlight, presumably in order to annoy people), and taken the opportunity to remove almost all of the interesting shows from their “classics” section. When we looked at the service last April, archive gems like Catweazle, Whicker’s World, Press Gang, Doctor At Large and The Army Game were available. The “new and improved” ITV Classics section has removed all of those, replacing them with the likes of ‘Piers Morgan On’, ‘The Justin Lee Collins Show’ and ‘Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend’. The name of that section again: “TV Classics”.

Oh, ITV. Is there anything you won’t make a complete and utter bollocks of? Really, there's got to be a 40-50% chance that ITV Plc is all one big Producers-style scam, hasn’t there? Either that or everyone at ITV just wants the internet to go away, meaning it would somehow become 1980 again, and they can get their viewers and Muppet Show back.

image Pop Fact: “Piers Morgan On” is so called because by the time to continuity announcer says “Now on ITV1, it’s time for Piers Morgan On” everyone will have switched over anyway. Giving it a longer title would merely have proved pointless.


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