Article made by Mark Kermode
Sunday 23 September 2007 12.23 BST
His first and only love was for cinema. Film critic Mark Kermode didn’t even own a TV, let alone watch one. He was a cinematic snob, convinced that the small screen had no redeeming qualities. So what happened when we asked him to watch some of the most acclaimed TV in recent years?
It began with a reprimand from Harry Shearer, best known to me as the brilliantly gormless bassist from This Is Spinal Tap (a movie), but better known to millions as the voice of several characters on The Simpsons (a TV show). ‘Of course, Mark’s never seen The Simpsons,’ said Simon Mayo, host of the Radio 5 Live show on which Shearer and I happened to be appearing together. ‘Mark doesn’t do television – he thinks it’s fundamentally inferior to cinema.’
Shocking as this may seem to a nation where there is now one TV set to every two people, it was none the less true. For years, I had effectively renounced the idiot box, claiming that, as a film critic, I had no time for such frippery. ‘It’s not that I’ve got anything against television,’ I lied to Shearer. ‘It’s just that I’ve always felt that films were a… higher art form.’ ‘I see,’ he mused. ‘So what you’re saying is that Bad Boys II is somehow more artistic than The West Wing?’ Put like that, my argument sounded pretty dumb.
Shearer wasn’t the first person to scoff at my innate hostility towards TV. Having worked as a film critic for nearly 20 years, I had frequently been accused of movie myopia and asked how I could possibly pass judgment on the new big-screen releases without any awareness of what was happening on the small screen.
Just as the National Theatre’s Nick Hytner recently accused theatre critics of being out of touch with reality, so broadcaster Mark Lawson has regularly upbraided me for being a cinematic snob when it comes to TV. My answer has always been that film and television are entirely different mediums and while other film critics may care to flirt cavalierly with television – citing actors’ past TV roles as if they in some way formed a seamless continuum with their movie CVs – my love of cinema has been deeply monogamous.
Sign up to our Film Today email
Looking back, I blame the beginning of my break-up with television on Driller Killer and the rise of the ‘video nasty’. As a child, my TV habits were fairly normal: John Craven’s Newsround and The Magic Roundabout daily after school; Top of the Pops on Thursday night (something to talk about in the playground on Friday); and Doctor Who on Saturday evening, hiding behind the sofa in terror at the Autons. Occasionally, the whole family would stay up and watch the Eurovision Song Contest, but that was about as exotic as it got in our house on the TV front.
Cinema, however, was different. Throughout my childhood in the Seventies, I spent every weekend traipsing round the local picture houses, catching everything from reruns of Ben-Hur to new releases such as Brannigan and Blazing Saddles. Then, in the early Eighties, the advent of the VCR brought movies into the home and it was effectively over for me and television. After all, who wanted to watch a mere TV programme when you could watch a ‘VHS Home Movie’ – better still, a ‘VHS Home Movie’ that someone wanted to ban! Alongside unrated copies of Cannibal Holocaust and Zombie Flesh Eaters, every two-bit corner shop now stocked a bizarre range of more mainstream movies (many of them foreign) available to rent for £1.50 a night, less than the price of a cinema ticket.
At university, I didn’t own a set and for six years my only contact with television was my Sunday visits to the local laundrette, which were strangely timed to coincide with the EastEnders omnibus. As the machines whirled, the inhabitants of Albert Square would go about their sudsy business on the crappy black-and-white TV that hung over the soap-powder dispenser and to which all eyes, including mine, were inexorably drawn.
It was like a scene from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and it pretty much confirmed my belief that TV was the audiovisual equivalent of heroin – an Orwellian drug designed to stupefy the population, the neo-opiate of the masses.
Years later, when I was reviewing videos for the completist publication Sight & Sound, I actually destroyed the aerial connection to my television, turning it into a ‘video monitor’, thereby eliminating any potential televisual distraction from the serious business of watching films. No TV-am time-wasting for me, oh no.
Instead, I could watch a movie on video during breakfast, be in town for preview screenings between 10.30am and 8.30pm, and then get home in time to knock off another movie on video before going to sleep, a total of six films a day. And, as has so often happened, what began as a practicality soon mutated into a twisted ‘philosophy’ – that movies were good and television was bad. Gradually, this belief began to inform my entire world outlook. Whenever anything went wrong with my personal life (which was quite often), I would remember Woody Allen’s wonderful observation that ‘life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television’.
If I knew one thing for sure, it was that I didn’t want my life to be like bad television. I wanted to live in a movie – like Casablanca or Rebel Without a Cause or even Quadrophenia. For while, TV seemed to revel in mundanity, typified by Dirty Den’s perpetual soapy traumas; movies dealt in dreams, even really bad movies, of which there were plenty.
Although I firmly believed that dismissing TV bolstered (rather than undermined) my faculties as a film critic, missing out on so many potentially interesting programmes over the years did make me something of a social pariah. ‘Our Friends in the North? Never seen it. Queer as Folk? Don’t ask me.’ The closest I came to TV drama was watching Question Time, a treat I still relish, but which provides lousy material for ‘water-cooler’ conversation (‘Hey, did you see Ming Campbell on Question Time last night. No? Oh, OK. Bye then…’).
In the late Nineties, I adopted Noel Coward’s fabulously snotty maxim that ‘television is for appearing on, not for looking at’ to justify my increasingly frequent stints presenting movie documentaries and cropping up on arts programmes such as BBC2’s Review (now Newsnight Review). The latter, which requires contributors to look beyond the boundaries of their specialist subjects, proved an invaluable lifeline because it meant I got to watch some really great TV shows under the cover of professional necessity. After all, this was work. Thus I got to enjoy Shameless without any sense of shame and to be reassured by the likes of Robin Hood that television could still be just as crap as ever.
Then came the challenge. After the worst summer of movies on record, in which my usually enjoyable stint standing in for Philip French as this paper’s film columnist had seen me groaning through Hostel Part II, Shrek the Third, Die Hard 4.0 and other such bores, The Observer demanded that I finally put my anti-television snobbery to the test. The mission: to shut me in a room with a truckload of DVD box sets representing ‘a cross-section of modern TV’ and see whether, at the end, I could still sensibly claim that cinema had the upper hand.
A few ‘rules of engagement’ were established, most importantly that I was not going to watch any reality TV, which I consider to be the new pornography; nor any game shows, ‘talent’ contests or programmes in which celebrity chefs swear at each other while people redesign their houses. News and documentaries were out, too, because I never had any problem with them in the first place.
This left mainly comedy and drama, the two areas in which sensible comparisons with movies were possible. I’d actually had a fleeting cameo in the second series of Extras (which, of course, I’d never seen) in which Germaine Greer and I played pundits slagging off Andy Millman’s sitcom, When the Whistle Blows
I thought I’d set the bar high and start off with The Office, widely regarded as the most influential TV comedy of the last 10 years. It is, indeed, admirable stuff, clearly indebted to the work of Shearer’s Tap-mate Christopher Guest, but demonstrably groundbreaking in its brand of painful docudrama pastiche. Yet as I embark upon ‘The Complete First Series’, I realise with a sense of mounting dread that I’ve heard so many people doing terrible impressions of these scenes that I can’t shake off the sense of deja vu. It’s like watching Monty Python after hearing your schoolmates reciting the parrot sketch in the playground. I realise, too late, that I’ve missed the bus. I’m depressed already. This is going to be tough.
I cheer myself up with Entourage, which is far more recent and reassuringly rubbish. The premise, as you may know, is that an up-and-coming Hollywood star is surrounded by a coterie of tiresome buddies, liggers and hangers-on, all of whom bask in his reflected glory. The style is flippant, vulgar and solidly unamusing. I don’t care about, or believe in, any of these people. Every scene is structured around an ad-break and the entire venture seems aimed at viewers with the attention span of a gnat. It makes the dismal James Woods legal-eagle ‘drama’ Shark seem positively heavyweight in comparison.
Movie star Mark Wahlberg takes an executive producer credit and so is dutybound to make a fleeting cameo appearance in the smug first instalment. I’ve always had a soft spot for Wahlberg on the big screen, from his career-making turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful Boogie Nights to his more recent Oscar-nominated supporting role in Scorsese’s The Departed. In the cinema, in front of the camera, he’s great. Here, as the guiding light of a fatuous, flashy TV show, he’s simply an embarrassment. Conclusion: movies are still best. I’m back on track!
Evening up the balance sheet is The Sopranos, which I start watching just as the final series is drawing to a close in the US, prompting several high-brow elegies mourning its modern Shakespearean brilliance. Presumably it takes time for the show to mature into such a heady vintage brew, for the Series One box set, while boasting a growing dark charm, hardly seems the stuff of legend. Until, that is, one compares it with its contemporaneous big-screen cousin Analyse This and its limp-as-lettuce sequel, Analyse That.
While James Gandolfini and Lorraine Bracco make the emotional most of their respective gangster/shrink roles, wringing touching tragicomic satire from their awkward encounters, Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, playing essentially the same characters, never put their heads above the parapet of mediocrity. I know from the glowing newspaper obits that Gandolfini’s latterday Godfather became an unlikely mouthpiece for the hopes and dreams of modern America, but De Niro, who once played Vito Corleone himself in The Godfather Part II, merely convinced moviegoers that he had finally sold his thespian soul to the box-office devil. The creative void between the Sopranos and Analyse This is every bit as chasmic as that which separated the lousy Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie from the genre-busting TV show. I realise with dismay that it probably would have helped my work as a film critic to have been up to speed with The Sopranos from the outset. Bother.
And then it’s on to Six Feet Under and my first real inkling that television has been quietly kicking cinema’s arse for several years. A jet-black satire set among a family of dysfunctional morticians, Six Feet Under is a taboo-breaking joy (I know you already know this, but it’s my first time – be gentle with me) that recalls the dark soap-operatic pleasures of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Even in this tentative first series, there is simply so much to love. Death, sex, race, politics – it’s grist to the mill as a succession of cadavers provides the dramatic thrust for each episode. The narrative tone seems genuinely subversive and the visuals knowingly Rockwellian, evoking the filial squabbles of modern urban Americana alongside the gothic legacy of Ed Gein.
Better still, the show functions as the perfect stylistic retort to the emotive manipulations of ER, a show popular with other members of my household, the very theme music of which causes me to run screaming from the room. I can’t stand ER, with its succession of hapless victims, whose chances of survival are somehow inversely proportional to their age (every kid entering Chicago’s most famous emergency room always ends up dead). In Six Feet Under, the ‘protagonists’ come in feet first, having met sticky (and frequently ‘deserved’) ends before the opening credits roll. This is my kind of entertainment – at home with the spectre of death, repulsed by the spectacle of sentimentality. I think I’m crossing over to the Dark Side.
So much for the Americans; what of home-grown fare? I already know that I liked the first series of Shameless and I loved the later Christmas special, which boasted a touching restaging of the Last Supper, replete with Frank Gallagher as a drunken Messiah. Thus I had high hopes for Paul Abbott’s political thriller State of Play, which is currently being made into a movie by Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald.
There’s a whiff of jittery televisual histrionics about the series, a sense of the soapy overstatement that so often seems characteristic of the small screen. Yet what troubles me most are reports that Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are down to reprise the roles of the beleaguered politician and fraught journalist excellently essayed here by David Morrissey and John Simm. Don’t get me wrong – I think there’s loads of room for improvement in State of Play’s transition from TV to cinema – but Norton and Pitt versus Morrissey and Simm? Hmm.
Different arenas, however, require markedly different skills. Although John Simm made a cinematic splash in the rave culture Brit-pic Human Traffic, it’s significant that his very best work (more of which later) has all been on television. Similarly, David Morrissey’s big-screen CV, which includes flops such as The Reaping and Basic Instinct 2, has never showcased his talents as effectively as TV productions such as The Deal, in which he tore up the screen as a power-bartering Gordon Brown.
The Deal, it seems to me, is a perfect example of what television does best and the fact that its unofficial sequel, The Queen, ever found its way into cinemas remains a source of bafflement and irritation. Film and television are not the same thing and despite Helen Mirren’s Oscar success, it’s impossible to shake off the sense that The Queen, like The Deal, was tailormade for the small screen. Why? Because its guiding aesthetic is primarily televisual, full of intimate scenes of people talking in rooms which gain nothing from being projected on to the vast screen of a cinema auditorium. No matter how much you blow up the picture, The Queen still looks like a TV show.
Which brings me to Bleak House. I’m excited because everyone’s told me how great this is and, with its smog-bound London streets and gas-lit vistas, this beautifully filmed adaptation is certainly ‘cinematic’. Shame about the boxy picture; I’d love to see this on the big screen. Diana Rigg looks great and Denholm Elliott’s cracking and… hang on a minute – Denholm Elliott? They’ve sent me the wrong version! This isn’t the ‘new’ Bleak House, as adapted by Andrew Davies. It’s the BBC’s old mini-series from 1985! And, you know what? It’s really good!
The ‘new’ Bleak House is one of the BBC’s flagship ‘high definition’ productions and thus looks spanking. Yet neither version would have any place in a cinema because both take full advantage of television’s authentically Dickensian episodic structure. There’s a good reason why so many film adaptations of his novels, such as Polanski’s recent Oliver Twist, leave the viewer feeling unsatisfied. However inventive the direction, cinema’s two-hour, single-viewing format demands such a compression of the source material that Dickens’s numerous diversions – often the raison d’etre for his writing – simply fall by the wayside. This is an area in which television will always have the upper hand over movies and it is an advantage which is beautifully exploited by both the BBC’s versions of Bleak House.
Back to America and the behemoth that is The West Wing. Like The Sopranos, The West Wing has so thoroughly infiltrated modern popular culture that you feel like you’ve been watching it for years, even if, like me, you’ve never seen a single episode. Having been launched at the end of the Clinton administration, Season One reminds me of Mike Nichols’s terrific 1998 movie Primary Colors, a Lewinsky-era satire in which personal, political and sexual subtexts swirl around a flawed but essentially decent political animal. There are even hints of Rob Reiner’s featherlight The American President, in which Michael Douglas played the eponymous dashing hero, breezily blending personal politics and romantic intrigue.
Yet since the election of George W Bush, an element of liberal wish fulfilment has haunted Martin Sheen’s benign West Wing leadership, a sense that this is how America should be being run. Having skipped painlessly through the upbeat Season One box set, I skip forward to the soul-searching, post-9/11 ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ episode that many consider the series’ creative tipping point. It’s earnest, awkward and (inevitably) overburdened by its own self-importance, but I still get a sense of the ‘looking glass’ world that has set my American friends’ hearts aflutter. On this evidence, I don’t think The West Wing is the milestone its fans claim it to be, but I’d happily vote for Sheen (or Travolta, or even Douglas) over Bush any day.
And now it’s time to reveal my guilty secret. Because lying amid that huge pile of TV DVDs is a box set that I was given for my last birthday and which I must confess I’ve been cherishing as much as any movie. It probably says more about my age than the abstract artistic qualities of the show, but I have officially fallen in love with Life on Mars and cried my way through the final episode of Series Two when it aired earlier this year. If ever there was a show custom-made for a 44-year-old Ford Capri-owning, sci-fi enthusiast with a penchant for male bonding and early Seventies glam rock, then this was it. It’s like The Sweeney meets A Matter of Life and Death. John Simm and Philip Glenister are fabulous as the timewarped good cop/bad cop odd couple and the writing is as smart, witty and ultimately moving as anything I’ve seen in recent years – on TV or in the cinema.
It gets worse. Even now I am counting down the days until the return of Doctor Who, which has again become a Saturday evening fixture. I even bought the entire Series Three DVD set the day it went on sale (I pretended to be buying it for my son) and am currently using them as a stop-gap till Series Four begins. Say what you like about The Sopranos being modern Shakespeare, but even the Bard (who, coincidentally, crops up in one episode) would have appreciated the Romeo and Juliet-style tragedy of the Doctor’s plaintive parting declaration of love for Rose Tyler getting lost forever in the gaping void of an alternative parallel universe.
And I defy you to find me a more withering pre-battle taunt than the Daleks’ genocidal declaration to the Cybermen: ‘This is not war – this is pest control!’ For proof that Russell T Davies’s reinvention of this once-hokey kids’ TV show is reason to double the TV licence fee forthwith, check out the Season Three finale, in which John Simm (him again) plays that evergreen dark lord the Master to David Tennant’s achingly beautiful Doctor, rising Christ-like from the grave to save the world with a sonic screwdriver. It is magnificent and I’m getting shivers just thinking about it again.
So has television actually got better or am I just facing up to the fact that I’ve been guilty of mere movie-purist pig-headedness for all these years? Well, on one level, TV clearly has improved, with the move toward the rectangular 16×9 widescreen image meaning that modern TV dramas no longer need look ‘boxy’ or ‘cropped’, a long-standing aesthetic barrier. Just as cinema’s evolution from the old 4×3 ‘Academy’ screen ratio to the more elongated ‘widescreen’ format was as significant as the advent of colour, so television’s new picture dimensions are broadening its creative horizons immeasurably. Put simply, TV is no longer square. This is a major improvement and it’s significant that my strict policing of my kids’ TV viewing habits allows them to watch programmes on CBeebies and CBBC but only in the correct aspect ratio (‘How many times do I have to tell you, Tweenies is anamorphic 16×9!’).
Also, with more than 75 per cent of UK households now linked up to the growing plethora of digital channels, it’s hard to argue that cinemas (which remain in the stranglehold of Hollywood studios) offer a more diverse range of entertainment for the discerning viewer. OK, there’s still a whole lot of crap out there – what Bruce Springsteen memorably called ’57 channels and nothing on’ – but when The Simpsons Movie represents one of the more adventurous highlights of the summer cinema season, does any self-respecting film fan have the right to look down their nose at TV? Of course not.
If the 20th century was the age of cinema, perhaps the 21st century will prove to be the golden age of TV, a time in which the handsome possibilities of high-definition digital programming allow television to become an art form every bit as adventurous as cinema. And just as the recent spree of televisual documentaries (An Inconvenient Truth, The War on Democracy, etc) have no place in the cinema, so modern TV dramas are increasingly proving that it’s no longer true that the best thing you ever could watch on TV was a movie. I don’t think I’ll renounce my first love of films – I still get a thrill walking into a cinema that no sofa-bound experience can replace. But the time has come to stop trying to put my metaphorical foot through the TV; to stop trying to smash that ever-expanding ‘small screen’ and embrace it as cinema’s strange sibling – equal but different.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a Dalek.
… and here’s what our television critic thinks of big-screen bias
I enjoyed Mark Kermode’s journey away from the blowsy big screen to the intimate treasures of telly – and it’s one that a lot of people who don’t have the excuse of being a film critic but none the less display an automatic bias towards anything viewed from the comfort of a tip-up chair with built-in popcorn holder, may want to take in his footsteps. The two mediums are, as he observes, equal but different, but they inform each other to such a great degree that to love one and deny the other is as perverse and short-sighted as having a favourite among your children.
I confess I’m no cinemagoer – watching telly for a living means that hiring a babysitter to go out and sit in front of a bigger screen isn’t ever going to feel like the best use of my free time. However, I’m very keen to catch up with Atonement and The Bourne Ultimatum, which both feel as if they should be seen on wide screens with the ‘Dolby’ turned up to 11, as both Mark and Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer would doubtless agree.
I understand Mark’s bias (and yet how interesting that his love of film was effectively instigated by the arrival of video) but I’m still surprised that it translated into such a dramatic rejection of television, and for such a long time. It’s worth remembering that Steven Soderbergh’s excellent Traffic (2000) started life as the multi-Bafta-winning C4 series Traffik, way back when Catherine Zeta-Jones was still hoofing in the West End. And how does a film critic go about appraising the big-screen oeuvre of the brilliant Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) without the benefit of having seen his previous, equally compelling, work for TV?
Greengrass is, indeed, a spectacularly good – albeit rare – example of someone whose skills seem not to be compromised in either medium. Sure, the budgets are bigger in Hollywood, but his fine Bloody Sunday (2002, starring James Nesbitt) was such a filmic piece of television that it eventually premiered at Sundance days before its ITV terrestrial airing, and went on to share first prize with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (one of my top five favourite movies) at the Berlin Film Festival later that year.
Kids’ movies aside, I’ve only seen one film at the cinema this year and, ironically, it was The Queen. Mark is correct that this film’s ‘guiding aesthetic is primarily televisual, full of intimate scenes of people talking in rooms’ – but I saw that as a strength when viewed on the big screen, because the scale and intimacy, even claustrophobia, of the production was maintained while the individual performances, notably Mirren’s, felt as if they grew to fill the available space.
Unlike Mark with regard to television, I don’t have to be persuaded of cinema’s strengths – for example, watching Apocalypse Now on DVD is completely different from seeing it in the cinema and much less satisfying – but I also tend to avoid pre-broadcast press screenings of TV programmes for the same reason. When viewed on an outsize screen in the comfort of a screening room and surrounded by other critics, television tends to get ideas above its station. I made an exception a few years back for the final episode of State of Play, and regretted it. While I don’t agree with what Mark describes as the ‘jittery televisual histrionics’ of that series, if I were to be persuaded otherwise it would definitely be on the basis of that last episode.
In return for some tips from Mark (I’d love five recommendations for recent movies that wouldn’t suffer too horribly by being viewed on DVD), here are a few more for him – some old, some new: The Day Today, Marion and Geoff, Peep Show, The Thick of It, House, Sex Traffic, 24, Dexter, Heroes… I could go on, and so should he.