Saturday, May 14, 2005

Sir Ian Gives Us His Mel

We must be about halfway through Sir Ian McKellen's stint in Coronation Street, and what a joy it has been.
McKellen plays a pretentious, third-rate (or even tenth-rate) novelist, Mel Hutchwright, author of Hard Grinding which has been read by the Street's Book Club. (As is depressingly usual, some viewers have been trying to buy the non-existent book at bookshops).

The intriguing thing is that whilst McKellen squeezes every drop of juice out of this wonderful comic part he also underplays it. I suppose that's why he's one of the elder statesmen of British theatre. One of the ways he achieves the element of understatement is by usually talking quietly. But - and this is the clever bit - because you sometimes have to strain to catch the nonsense that he spouts, he focuses attention on himself as effectively as he would with a roaring Falstaffian interpretation that many lesser actors would have gone for.

McKellen's character reminds me of a man I sometimes met in a pub many years ago who claimed to be a writer. So far as anyone knew he had never written anything more taxing than a shopping list but, peering over his half-rimmed spectacles, he would sigh and shake his head and explain that he'd had writer's block for the past twenty years.
He would then quote from letters he'd received that very week from different eminent writers who were suffering from the same affliction. He never explained how he came to be the confidante of these literary giants nor how, despite their writer's block, they were publishing best-selling novels every year while he was condemned to waste his prodigious talents by spending twenty years in the Dog and Duck boring the bollocks of people.

The greatest delight of this year's Soap Awards was the special award given to Coronation Street writer John Stevenson. I've mentioned (Sir) John Stevenson (hint for the next Honours List) here before. The most gifted of the Street's writers, and with the most recognisable 'voice', he has written almost 450 episodes. That's over 200 hours of television drama.
Although I think he's also written a few one-off dramas, he's mostly stuck with Corrie for which viewers should be very grateful. There's probably a lesson in that. If you're brilliant at something, there's no need to regard it as a stepping-stone to something that's regarded as more worthy or prestigious.


I watched three episodes of Father Ted on E4 the other night and noticed that the writers do something that may be unique in comedy writing (let me know of any other examples). They sometimes do self-referential gags about the process of comedy writing itself.

The most obvious example was the episode where Ted and Dougal are watching a television comedy that is an exact replica of Father Ted itself but without realising that they're watching a mirror image of their own characters and lives.

But I saw two more subtle examples the other night. Firstly, Ted tells Dougal he feels like a character in a movie. Dougal says he's never seen it and Ted replies: "Not many people have. That's why it was a bad reference."
The second one is even more extraordinary because they start a plot line and then reject it in front of our eyes.
A woman leaves a baby on their doorstep. Then she takes it away again saying that she's got the wrong house. Ted then muses to Dougal on how funny it might have been if they'd had to bring up the baby themselves and all the jolly japes they'd have had in the process. Then, on reflection, he says it wouldn't have really been that funny and we return to the actual plot of the episode.
I gasped when I realised what they'd just done there. I'd completely missed it on the first viewing. It proves that the best TV comedies often have hidden depths.
One day I'll write about the sub-text of Keeping Up Appearances.
Unless you beg me not to.


At 11:33 AM, Blogger patroclus said...

Ooo, a challenge! I can't think of any other British examples off the top of my head, but knowing references to the comedy writing process crop up quite regularly in The Simpsons. I was about to list off a load of examples, but it would sound like pretentious crap and take too long. Er, sorry. As you were.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I've never seen The Simpsons so I'll have to take your word for it.
I'm sure there must be other examples in sketch-based shows and things like Monty Python but I can't think of any other sitcom examples.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger robin said...

Enjoyed that. esp your 'writer' in the corner of the pub. It wasn't the Huntingdon Arms was it?

Simpsons yes, referring to Fox constantly. Python absolutely. Most of MPFC was writers dealing with the process of writing, philosophy about philosophy, TV dealing with TV, gay hunour abiut gay humour etc.

I particularly liked the 'killing joke' idea - a script writer's fantasy but seen from one step back. Woody Allen does this sort of thing too, less successfully recently.

No examples from me in the wider sit com genre. It doesn't really lend itself if there's any pretension to reality. Father Ted by contrast is mad/satirical enough toi be able to accommodate almost any twist of reality for the sake of a gag without destroying the premise or the characters. In that sense it's nearer the Goon Show than Steptoe or Dad's Army.

That's probably more than enough from me.

At 5:01 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

No, it wasn't. I didn't name the real pub to avoid identifying myself or the fantasist concerned.

I think we can safely say the internal joke is rare in sitcoms. But the 'abandoned baby' gag is a good way of not wasting any material. (It's just occurred to me that the abandoned baby is itself a metaphor for a rejected idea). I could blog for a month an scraps from the 'cutting room floor', as it were.
I always liked Graham Norton's comment on Father Ted. He said in England people thought it was a zany, surreal comedy but in Ireland people thought it was a rather amusing documentary.


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