Monday, August 25, 2008

Bonekickers: Patroclus Weighs In

As Mr BC and I took a shortcut through Truro Woolworths on our way to Caffe Nero for ye traditional Saturday morning coffee and bun*, I noticed that the Series 1 box set DVD of Bonekickers is now available and yours for just £24.97.

Now to some people, Bonekickers was just another TV series. To others, however, it has become a symbol and an icon, not to mention a cipher and a byword, for EVERYTHING THAT IS WRONG WITH THE BBC TODAY.

Never in the history of the Guardian's media blog, for example, has a single programme provoked so much ideological warfare among so many. In the blue corner, the cultural relativists, led by Guardian media editor Janine Gibson, with the argument that as long as a programme is enjoyable and people watch it, it has earned its rightful place in the schedules.

In the red corner, the cultural elitists, led by Guardian TV reviewer Gareth McLean, contending that the BBC ought to have some standards when it comes to drama commissioning, and that poorly-scripted, execrably-acted, laughably-plotted, historically-inaccurate drivel has no place in the repertoire of the finest broadcaster the world has ever known.

And for as long as the BBC fails to announce whether a second series has been commissioned, these two factions will remain locked in a largely pseudonymous, vitriol-flecked online battle, neither quite able to claim a definitive victory over the other.

For my part, while I can understand where the relativists are coming from - a lot of people *did* seem to enjoy it, and its ratings weren't terrible, and it's only television, after all - I have to say I'm with the elitists on this one, if only for the reason that the programme could so easily have been a thousand times better. And when I say easily, I mean as easily as doing one or more of the following:

1. Decide whether it was supposed to be self-aware comedy-drama or actual serious drama. Instead, it oscillated between one state and the other so frequently and so ineptly that it became impossible for the viewer to establish just how he/she was supposed to relate to it. Were we supposed to laugh at its evident parodying of Time Team, snicker knowingly at its ludicrous, sub-Da Vinci Code levels of historical accuracy and plausibility, or empathise seriously with the characters as they struggled with emotional baggage, professional challenges, family problems and borderline mental illness? It is possible to become genuinely emotionally involved with a self-aware, self-parodying TV programme - think The Simpsons, or Arrested Development - but only if the characters are lovingly crafted, well developed and behaviourally consistent. Rather than flimsy puppets who are only there to propel a number of ludicrously unbelievable plots towards an all-too-obvious conclusion.

2. Just have the one plot. Maybe, instead of having the team of archaeologists miraculously find (and subsequently destroy) a different priceless historical artefact each week, the programme could just have had them chasing one priceless historical artefact (Excalibur would have been fine) over the course of the six episodes. One artefact, one secret society bent on preventing its discovery, a tantalising build-up of clues, revelations and dramatic tension, lots of flashbacks to relevant historical events - none of this would have met with much complaint from me. But to have them unearth the True Cross one week, Boudicca's mummified body the next, and the corpse of Joan of Arc the next - before finally wresting Excalibur from its secret hidey-hole out the front of Wells Cathedral (and then promptly breaking it) - was taking things far too far, even for those who don't mind the old willing suspension of disbelief.

3. Have believable characters. I'm given to believe that Julie Graham, Hugh Bonneville and Adrian Lester can all actually act, so the fact that the whole programme was simultaneously wooden, melodramatic and implausible (not to mention 'stupid') must have been down to the script and characterisation. No archaeologist, I'm fairly sure, has ever said 'don't mess with me, I'm an archaeologist', or 'ground, give up your secrets!', or 'ride a little imagination once in a while'. In fact I checked with my brother, who has an archaeology degree, and he said that they're more likely to say things like 'who's nicked me trowel?', 'is it teatime?', and 'real archaeology is never as exciting as it is in Time Team'.

Also, archaeologists aren't known for being filthy rich (although they *are* known for being filthy), so you probably won't find too many of them owning penthouse flats on Bath's Royal Crescent. Plus, if you ask me, it's rare to find a woman with monomania; we're essentially multi-taskers, not given to single, overpowering obsessions. Well, about men, maybe. Or our weight. Or, if the chick-lit novels are to be believed**, chocolate, shoes or handbags. But not usually about swords. I find it very hard to believe that a woman could be obsessed with a sword. I could be wrong about this.

Anyway, all these things put together - and this is without even touching on the supposed postgraduate student Viv's total ignorance of anything to do with archaeology or history, or the fact that some bloke apparently buried a WW1 tank single-handedly, or that escaped slaves from America might have planted a Virginia creeper in the shape of a handy arrow pointing conveniently to the door to their secret underground cave, or that an archaeologist, when buried alive in a stone sarcophagus, might seek to keep his spirits up by reciting the dates of Agincourt and the Norman invasion - all these things put together add up to a programme that wasn't in any way clever, or dramatic, or emotionally engrossing, or consistent, or believable (even in a willing-suspension-of-disbelief way). For something that was supposed to be a drama, those are some quite serious failings.

We still don't know whether a second series is going to be commissioned, but if it is, it'll be a sign that the BBC isn't embarrassed to commission absolute rubbish. Which is fine if you think that 'if people enjoy it, that's the main thing', but not if you're relying on the BBC to display any kind of measure of actual critical judgment.

Maybe they're just waiting to see how many people fork out £24.97 for the DVD. I don't think I'll be among them.

* I am delighted to report that Truro Caffe Nero now serves the mighty almond pain au chocolat, Lord of All The Buns. Turns out that all we had to do was ask them to stock it. Woo!

** Do not believe the chick-lit novels.


John Cowan said...

Perhaps the whole problem could have been avoided if the BBC had simply given the series a more appropriate name: Shitkickers.

Tim Footman said...

Surely the only justification for it to continue is a sort of tired so-bad-it's-good irony. But since Echo Beach has been cancelled (while Moving Wallpaper carries on), it would seem the punters have grown out of that sort of thing.

GreatSheElephant said...

that's what my life is missing - a monomania. I think I could get obsessed with a sword.

Boz said...

...but secretly you love it, don't you?

I'm with you on point three all the way. What if they had an archeologist who was, ya know, shocker, like a real archeologist. Rather than a faux-Lara Croft trowel-wielding maniac. It would be much more interesting f they got things completely wrong, or didn't actually know what was happening - and not just as an exposition excuse for viewers.

It is amazing how many stories the Guardian can generate on a single TV programme. If you count blogs, there were at least four on the finale of Doctor Who alone.

patroclus said...

John: Yes, or just 'shit'.

Tim: I don't think they saw it in that way, though. I think Bonekickers was meant to be good drama, while Echo Beach was always supposed to be awful. I think Bonekickers could have been very good, in an X-Files kind of way, but was let down by the terrible script and the terrible characterisation, so perhaps that's what they're hoping for if they recommission it. That and selling it to the States. I will say this, though - it had some very lovely shots of the Somerset Levels at dawn.

GSE: Go for it. Just don't break it as soon as you find it.

Boz: Well, it did make me laugh, but the 'so bad it's good' thing does get a bit depressing after a while. And yes, I think the Guardian is attempting to kick the BBC when it's down, so it can assume the role of British Middle-Class Liberal Media Overlord. All it needs to do now is ditch the Observer, create the Guardian on Sunday, and launch its own TV channel, probably with Armando Iannucci as head of commissioning.

Anonymous said...

To solve the problem - and ramp up the irony - how about a Christmas special in which the team discovers *their own second series* in a booby-trapped catacomb beneath Elstree Studios?

In a thrilling denoument, Julie Graham puts the tapes next to a big magnet for safe-keeping ...

patroclus said...

TDT: Excellent plan, and even better if the mythical second series turns out to have been produced by Jonathan Pope. Metatastic!

John Cowan said...

Well, know about it ahead of time and you've got four arms, or something like that. When it pops up on BBC America (I'm a Yank) I'll know to run the other way.

patroclus said...

John: Well, I'd be interested to know what you think, seeing as glossy British TV shows that I think are terrible dreck - e.g. Torchwood and Doctor Who - seem to be going down very well in the US. And the other day I saw a commenter on Jezebel opining that the director of Mad Men, which to my mind is a work of televisual genius, should be sacked and replaced with 'someone from the BBC'. Blimey. I wonder what BBC production they had in mind.

Oli said...

"...and launch its own TV channel, probably with Armando Iannucci as head of commissioning."

*Tries desperately to resist thinking that would be really cool...*

Also, the next series of Moving Wallpaper is spoofing me. They may not think they are, but hoh yes. More on this later.

cello said...

Yes, yes and yes.

On the other hand, Hugh Bonneville's tummy...

Belladona said...

Yes. Indeed. Also, arggghh.

John Cowan said...

I quite (that means entirely) agree with you about those two.

I don't watch Mad Men at present -- ars longa, vita brevis -- though my wife and daughter do, though I think it's still on probation for them. ATM the only thing I watch on BBC-America itself is Robin Hood, and I thought the second-series finale was heartbreaking. (What does Wikipedia mean anyhow by "Jonas Armstrong will leave the program at the conclusion of the third series"? Is that the Very End, or are we going to have Hamlet without the Prince, or (shudder) a new Robin Hood will arise?)

That said, I also am a fan of a good many of the costume dramas and mysteries (some historical, some contemporary) that U.S. public television airs on Masterpiece. In particular, I am waiting with bait on my breath for the second series of Lewis, as I am a Morse fan from way back.

On the U.S.-produced side: L & O Classic and C.I., Monk (though I may drop it; the edge is vanishing fast), and Numb3rs at present. One now-dead friend that may return is Moonlight.

Lastly, I confess a sneaking fondness for Hyacinthe Bucket.

patroclus said...

Oli: It would be really cool. And I look forward to your Moving Wallpaper exposé.

Cello: I can't say that Hugh Bonneville's tummy really did it for me (or indeed that I even noticed it at any point), but I will say he acquitted himself the best out of all of them, mainly by hamming it up to the eyeballs - and by speaking better French than the supposed 'French' characters in the WW1 episode. Good work, Mr Bonneville.

Bella: Precisely.

John: I've just finished season 1 of Mad Men, and I loved it, but then I have a terrible weakness for long, slow, beautiful, ponderous things that have no discernible plot (see also Lost in Translation, Lawrence Durrell's Avignon Quintet, anything by Neal Stephenson). I haven't seen any of Robin Hood, though if I'm thinking of the right one (the new one?) it seems like the kind of thing I would file under 'terrible dreck'. Although I have just bought some vintage (1987!) Robin Hood lego. I don't know what Numb3rs is, but may investigate.

Anonymous said...

why not believe the chick lit novels, eh?

patroclus said...

Ahh, absolutely no offence RG, but I've never identified with the whole chocolate-and-shoes-and-handbags trope, never having been particularly interested in any of those things.

patroclus said..., although I *do* like fancy underwear. Or did, until I was forced into unwired (unwired!) maternity bra hell.