Media studies has a bad name in some circles. Only this week, The Daily Telegraph has, first, reported that Cambridge University and the LSE are planning to refuse places to students with A-levels in "soft" subjects, and has cited claims from unspecified critics that schools are boosting their exam scores by concentrating on "subjects which lack academic rigour". In each case, media studies was named as one of the culprits. Which makes me wonder if these people have actually studied any media lately. Even a programme as shabby and simple-minded as Hollyoaks employs a web of references, multiple layers of irony and perpetual subtle shifts of register between realism, melodrama and coarse comedy to generate its effects. Any teenager who can unpick the plots and explain the appeal in terms both coherent and convincing deserves a place at Cambridge. What worries me isn't media studies in academe, it's when media studies gets loose and and starts running television.
Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach are an entwined pair of series from ITV, but whether it's a loving embrace or a death-grip, I'm not sure. Moving Wallpaper is a comedy set behind the scenes at a new ITV soap opera, which is supposed to be happening in Cornwall but is filmed in an industrial shed in Chertsey. As the first episode opened, the production was in crisis. Two weeks to launch, the producer was being escorted off the premises (nutting a photo of Michael Grade along the way), and major casting decisions were still untaken. The man hired to fix the mess was Jonathan Pope, who stormed in talking about making a show with "wit, class and a permanent erection", and adorned his desk with a photograph of Simon Cowell. "Polnarren", which was to have been a searing drama in which sexual betrayal became a metaphor for the betrayal of Cornwall by successive governments, was swiftly converted to Echo Beach, a story of sun, sand, surf, sex and dynastic feuding, starring, because they were deemed to appeal to the core demographic, Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon. And, after the break, Echo Beach was what we saw.
This is intended to work on about six levels, but in fact only works on one of them. Jonathan is a bloated ego precariously supported by a tiny talent and an acute instinct for self-preservation; and watching Ben Miller play him is an uncomplicated pleasure. As a satire on media manners, though, it is too unrealistic to work. Apart from anything else, it's impossible to imagine anything as dreary and earnest as "Polnarren" being commissioned by ITV, a company whose view of Cornwall is be summed up fairly accurately by Doc Martin. I'm not at all sure, either, that Jonathan's supposedly shallow, ratings-grabbing fantasy of Cornish life – "Turn the café into a sort of surf-shop/diner thing... give the kids on the beach some dope to smoke" – isn't closer to social realism than what it was replacing, surf shops and dope-smoking kids being, in my experience, an integral part of the Cornish experience.
As for Echo Beach itself... There was some fun to be had from spotting, in the opening scenes, how the scenarios set up in Moving Wallpaper played out. When Jason Donovan, returning to Cornwall after years in exile, sighed over the wrecked condition of the beach café he'd just bought, we knew that it was because most of the scenery budget had gone on Jonathan Pope's marble-lined en suite shower. When a customer in the pub asked for a brandy and soda, we knew that the actress had got a line to speak because she had given Jonathan a blow job, and we knew that the barmaid serving her was called Narinder because ITV needs to meet its ethnic quotas (as the head of continuing drama instructed Jonathan: "The pressure's off black, but the channel's still struggling on Asian"). But as it continued, the hard truth dawned that watching a wooden and derivative soap isn't necessarily more fun just because its intentions are satirical. It needs to be either a bit more Acorn Antiques or a bit more Dynasty.
Never Better doesn't seem sure what tone to adopt, either. Mostly, this is a standard-issue sitcom about a slightly feeble middle-class male whose desperate attempts to salvage his dignity always have hilarious consequences; but Keith is also, we gather, a recovering alcoholic. We are given no reasons for this, nor any sense of its impact on his life; what we do get are a series of quite funny scenes at AA meetings, where Keith's whinges seem pathetic next to everyone else's tales of child abuse, prostitution and prison rape ("Always the bridesmaid," Keith muttered bitterly when a fellow alcoholic pointed this out). In character terms, it just doesn't make sense, even with Stephen Mangan from Green Wing as Keith and Kate Ashfield from Shaun of the Dead as his predictably long-suffering wife. But Finton Ryan, the writer, does know how to orchestrate a farce: the final shot of this week's episode turned out to be the punchline to at least three or possibly four slow-burning gags. I don't suppose he learnt that in media studies.Reuse content