Television: The short cut to the TV critic's art

Who (I thought to myself) is a clever reviewer then? Halfway through the first episode of Tony Marchant's new contemporary drama series Holding On (BBC2, Mon & Tues), I had scribbled "Robert Altman - Short Cuts" in my A4 notebook. The technique of using intercut stories, where the disparate strands of very different lives are choreographed into collision, was exemplified by the American director in two of his films - Nashville and Short Cuts. In particular, both movies allow tragedy to occur as a horrible consequence of mundane events and everyday coincidences. The death of Diana as filmed by Altman might start out with the parallel lives of a photographer, the wife of a hotel security man, a Parisian road sweeper and an American tourist.

So Marchant interweaves seven or so tales, ranging from the northern lass staying with her sister in the Smoke, the young black guy struggling against his estate upbringing, the increasingly dangerous paranoid-schizophrenic and several more. But he adds one ingredient that distances him from Altman's very consistent world - that of the bulimic restaurant critic, Gary (a cynical, meretricious combination of Tony Parsons and Will Self), played with insinuating campness by Phil Daniels. Gary steps outside the conventions to speak (or so it seems) directly to camera, like a Groucho Club version of Francis Urquhart, making him a sort of unreliable angel, the guide who turns up only when he feels like it.

Enough of all this intellectual guff. Imagine (having been so immensely brilliant) my pleasure when I happened to notice that Marchant had placed the denouement of the first episode - nutter stabs northern lass in random act of violence - outside a cinema showing ... yes, Short Cuts. This was my big moment as a TV critic, the moment when I was in on the sly arty joke that everyone else missed.

Except that they didn't miss it. In fact, just about every single reviewer this week (from the very good to the piss-poor) zeroed in on both the likeness, and - indeed - upon the cinema. And one of the probable reasons that they did was that the BBC press pack (which I hadn't consulted) had explicitly mentioned both the writer's admiration for - and debt to - Altman, and the shot of the film poster.

Well, I smell a rat here. One of the odd features of TV criticism is the convention of reviewing the first programme in a drama series. This is analagous to leaving a theatre at the end of the first act, and telling your readers what you think of the play thus far. And I suspect that old Marchant has lured us into the Altman trap, and will suddenly branch out into something else entirely in subsequent episodes, probably based around the character of Gary. Serial murder, perhaps.

In the meantime, so grateful was I to get out of drama crinolines that I found myself - despite some of its flaws - deeply engrossed in the modernity of Holding On. And while its bleakness (murder, madness, infidelity, harassment, breakdown, sororial betrayal, and, worst of all, car-radio theft) suggests a one-playwright campaign to bring down house prices in the capital, the storyline involving the stressed-out tax investigator Shaun (great, taut performance from David Morrisey, this) is verging on the remarkable. One line in particular managed to illuminate both the character, and to achieve an insight into the way we are now. Shaun is reflecting on the man who gives to charity, yet cheats on his taxes. "We [the Inland Revenue] are involved in a number of good causes, too: hospitals, schools, pensions. Any contribution gratefully received."

As a Londoner myself I was intrigued by a Marchant character's advice to her (doomed) sister. "Down here," she suggested, "you need other words. The main two being 'fuck off'." Allow me to tell visitors that in fact it is not really a good idea when asking for things in shops, say, or greeting new acquaintances, to tell people to fuck off. But there is one metropolitan situation in which I think the phrase is wholly appropriate, and - indeed - is badly underused. I refer, of course, to when ITV companies approach the ITV network controller with a proposal for a new drama series starring a vet.

"No!" he or she should scream, "Go away! I do not want yet another show with tinkly piano and wistful clarinet; with opening titles of sheep a- grazing, Land Rovers a-cornering and smiley empathetic doctors a-grinning. And I particularly don't want one about a father-and-son relationship, showing how they find each other through crisis and then hug. Spare me scenes of clever cats, wounded badgers and delivering foals in the old barn. If I ever witness another craggy farmer on the verge of tears, or another nubile vet's assistant give the unmarried doc the admiring once- over in the middle of a hamster's appendectomy, I shall spew. So please, please, please "fuck off!"

But they didn't say that, and so this week we got Noah's Ark (ITV, Mon). The writer, Johnny Byrne, has also written Heartbeat and All Creatures Great and Small and was clearly told this time to produce something less intellectually demanding, less complex, less dark. And he has succeeded, for - compared with Noah's Ark - Heartbeat is positively Strindbergian. In fact nothing on earth is less complex than Noah's Ark. There are transparent, monocellular organisms in the depths of the ocean that hold more surprises, more secrets, than this vapid new drama.

For one scene, however, I will always remember it with affection. It was when - inevitably - father and son were taking it in turns to stick their arms up to the shoulders in a mare's fanny. Two main shots - of the two opposed ends of the horse - were used during this sequence. The first was of the lachrymose owner holding the horse's bridle, and comforting a seemingly unworried and calm gee-gee. The other was a shot of the horse's flank, with the vet at the far end, his head leaning against his equine patient's substantial derriere, grimacing as (presumably) his hand encountered slimy entanglements deep, deep inside.

But if the head of the horse was pretty still, its rear was completely inert. It didn't move at all, not even to breathe. Now, horses are not exactly like us - they are more stoical - but even so, imagine for a moment that some burly chap has his arm halfway up one of your (unanaesthetised) passages, and is pulling and pushing with all his strength. Would you not - at the very least - allow yourself a little shiver? A shuffle from leg to leg, perhaps? No, you have anticipated me - the answer is: not if you were stuffed, you wouldn't.

Egyptologist John Romer is definitely not stuffed. Nor, recently, has anyone - a producer, or an editor, for instance - told him that he should think about getting stuffed. For, as the credits of his new series Byzantium (C4, Sun) indicate, there is no one who has such power of suggestion over him. Romer writes, he produces, he series produces. He doesn't executive produce, it is true. But his wife does.

So there wasn't really an authority who could tell him that his writing is fabulous, but could do with a bit of structural discipline; that his pieces to camera are minor works of art, but that it would be good if the viewer could understand them and if they lasted less than a minute per throw; and that - with relatively unfamiliar material - enthusiasm must be tempered with the desire to communicate. The truth about telly is that charisma is essential, but not sufficient; it absolutely must be disciplined. It has to be told when to get stuffed.

The anti-change Jeremiahs were certainly told where to go by the Scots on Thursday. My favourite sentence of the week was, "Clackmannan is about to declare!" I half expected it to be followed with "and Badenoch is raising the glens!" The sentence was heard on Scotland Decides (BBC1, Thurs), in which Kirsty Wark in the studio, and Peter Snow on graphics, took us through what broadcast journalists invariably describe as a "momentous" night.

It was also an opportunity to watch Scotland's parallel punditry in action. I particularly took to the psephologist who mused (during one of the considerable longueurs) that he was puzzled by "the 10 per cent who have voted yes- no. They are the, er, psephologically interesting people. One wonders exactly who they are, these people, these yes-no people. But we can't know till we've done the surveys." Ye-es.

From Clackmannan onwards, it was clear that the result would be Yes-Yes. As I looked at Kirsty, with her figure-hugging red dress, her mischievous, sparkly eyes, her sardonic lips, I couldn't help reflecting what a pity it was that there wasn't a third question in the referendum. I would have found it uplifting - at 3 am - to hear Kirsty say, over and over again that it was "Yes-Yes-Yes!" But I fear that her reply might be ...

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

    Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

    Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

    Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

    £50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices