10 December 2010

"Get rid of that shirt..."

Could be a spoiler here, careful...!

So, the Coronation Street tram crash. I don't think it was flawless, but I do think it was brilliant. The live episode was a triumph for every performer and crew member with a role to fulfil.

Beyond the hysterics over the explosion and crash itself, I think more praise should be offered to the notion of keeping storylines going that were brewing before the Joinery smithereened. John Stape, the most mild-mannered, gentle, caring abductor, body-concealer and brain-caving thug in existence, had just battered Charlotte over the head with a hammer and was considering how to hide the evidence when the Joinery went up. Steve and Becky were searching fruitlessly for an apparently runaway Max when the Joinery went up. Molly was escaping from Tyrone after dealing the body blow about baby Jack when the Joinery went up. Gary was going through the worst throes of post-traumatic stress when the Joinery went up.

And, as people escaped, or found themselves further trapped, or sipped brandies in the Rovers while a GP that made Dr "call me Fred" Fonseca from EastEnders of yore look positively charismatic dabbed wounds and wondered where ambulances were, these stories continued. Gary was going through hell via flashback and double vision as he heard the bangs and crashes from within the sanctuary of his family home; Max's evil mother turned up and admitted to taking him to "test" Steve and Becky's compassion; Molly breathed her last via a confession to Sally about Jack's true parentage; John managed to accompany Fiz to hospital to see the premature birth of their daughter while also eventually dragging the supposedly lifeless Charlotte from the house just far enough for a dopey cop to assume she had been caught in the blast.

I wonder how much running Graeme Hawley, as John, must have done during the live episode to get from scene to scene? It's well known that the outdoor scenes of Coronation Street are filmed in an entirely different area of the Granada complex to the indoor studio sets. He had to be at the hospital, then back home, then in the back alley. There were fewer than two minutes between his last scene indoors and the moment he appeared back on the street and feigned emergency services duty in order to get past the cops and into the house to get Charlotte's body away. At the very least, he did amazingly well to deliver his lines with both full-blooded conviction and a lack of breathlessness. If a star of the show must be singled out, this is the man. And Jennie McAlpine's performance as a frantic mother-in-waiting was excellent, even though if there is one role an actor wants in the event of a one-off live performance in front of a third of the nation, it's that of a woman in childbirth, as deviating from the script is easy.

And the other titbit observations that one makes during a live episode; firstly, there were no kids at all. Ashley's two, Dev's two, plus Russ, Max, Amy and Simon, all made no appearance. Even Molly's rescued baby, or the plastic version of, wasn't seen in the hospital. Ten years ago a ten year old (ish) David Platt, in school jumper and with football, was the first person seen on the 40th anniversary live episode. Perhaps the nature of it was too much for them; perhaps in the case of each they're not child actors to any real extent (with the exception of the lad who plays Simon, who out-acts most of the adults a lot of the time) and therefore in the real world their scenes are filmed and re-filmed and chopped, dubbed, edited, spliced, everything.

Simon's absence also ruled out an appearance from Deirdrie in the live episode. She was looking after him while everyone else attended Peter's bedside. I wonder if Anne Kirkbride had ruled herself out of appearing, prompting the storyline, or if the scriptwriters had to tell her that the plot demanded she was deemed unnecessary? There was also no Emily in the live episode, despite an appearance in the build-up edition the previous evening. Is Eileen Derbyshire not up to live telly?

There has been a bit of jumping on those who dare to praise these actors for their performances by pointing out that actors in theatre do live performances all the time. Well, yes, but in front of a few thousand, not 14 million. And if they get something wrong, they have the next night's performance to get it right. Live television acting is such a novelty even to high-calibre performers that it won't feel like theatre at all. I genuinely couldn't see or hear a mishap, and that's both a credit and a relief. Some people tune in for the car-crash possibilities (or tram-crash, if you prefer) whereas I hate the thought of something going wrong. I'm a Coronation Street nut and I want it to be spot on all the time. I don't want them to be actors, I want them to be people. And if any of them get it wrong, they have to live with it forever. Scott Maslen declared on Strictly... that he knows he will always be remembered as the guy who cocked up on the live episode of EastEnders, irrespective of the heights his career still has in wait for him.

Realism wise, I do wonder why Sally wasn't given a helmet once she was under the rubble with Molly, even though the fireman had been heard asking for one for her prior to leading her through the cordon. Could it be to do with the wig that Sally Dynevor has to wear? Also, given that it was clearly a gas leak that had caused the explosion, I suspect that all gas to the area would have been cut off afterwards, hence my confusion at Roy being able to use his hob in the cafe.

I loved the live episode, and I've been gripped by the whole project. It's had its faults - Mary's comic turn in the cafe was, for once, out of place last night, and there wasn't a single real tear as the performers tried desperately to cry properly - but all involved deserve the sort of praise usually reserved for the elements of theatrical performance that are upheld in the name of snobbery. Soap or not, this was outstanding stuff. Now to realise Rita is missing. She's not in some gin den, damn you all...!

My only gripe now is that the TV listings mags for Christmas and New Year are in danger of giving stuff away - not through synopses, but through their insistence on listing the cast...

9 December 2010

Your commentary team is Andy Cole, Paul Merson and Phil Neal

Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain, Ian Botham, David Gower, Michael Holding and Shane Warne are the six commentators looking after the Ashes series for Sky. Over on the BBC, Jonathan Agnew, Michael Vaughan and Geoffrey Boycott are among the Test Match Special team bringing their ball-by-ball banter to overnight listeners.

They all have something very basic in common that even non-cricketists will know. They all, very simply, used to be international cricketers themselves.

Cricket, along with snooker and athletics, is fortunate enough to have a whole range of educated, articulate and knowledgable guys coming out of the game who are broadcasters in waiting. In fact, these three sports have always done this.

Now look at football. Every commentator is still a football-loving communicator and journalist first and foremost. They have never played the game for a living and so their insight comes from research, observation and understanding of the mechanics of the game rather than direct experience of it.

The only ex-footballer in the major broadcast media whose role isn't either as a summariser or pundit is Gary Lineker, and although he took to presenting well, that is all he does. He doesn't describe, he doesn't comment. He reads autocue, tells dodgy jokes and makes the weekly claim that Alan Shearer has something insightful to say. The get-out for Lineker against those who don't rate him is his former England team-mate John Barnes, who was simply the worst presenter on any kind of television at any point ever, although as he was on Channel 5, people often didn't notice.

I have to say I'm in favour of both practices at work here. I'm assuming that the reason footballers haven't become leading commentators is because none of the ones expressing interest in television or radio work have the intelligence to do it properly. It's easy and sometimes forgivable to trot out the usual artless soundbites but so much harder to put pictures into descriptive, emotive and accurate words all while dealing with talkback, checking notes, communicating with your co-commentator and still spotting the ball while all this is happening. I can't think of a single regular football pundit or summariser who I'd expect to be able to do this job. Andy Gray is a possibility, if pushed, though I suspect he gets too much fun from telling referees they don't know the laws of the game to have to go impartial and professional. In fact, Stan Collymore leaps to mind as someone who could commentate if given the opportunity, but only if a) people were finally prepared to put his private indiscretions aside; and b) he could keep his opinions to a minimum. He's very, very good on talkSPORT, even though it's not a station I actively choose to hear very often.

But in the case of cricket, ex-players make up the majority of voices they have hired to lead the commentary since the days of Arlott and Johnston. Even Henry Blofeld, the mainstay of BBC radio coverage until recent times, had a decent university career and only missed out on the pro game through injury. These former cricketers have the wit and intellect to combine the role of both describer and commenter, and switch roles frequently in order to do so. There isn't the jingoism from them either, even though we know how much patriotism exuded from the likes of Botham and Hussain when they played.

Perhaps it says more about footballers than it does about most other competitors that no ex-footballer has been trusted with the kind of responsibility in retirement that many of their peers in other sports have. The only other reason I can think of is that most high-profile footballers quitting the game are set up for life and don't actually need to work any more.