Friday, 15 December 2017

The Crown Proves That TV's Future is Online

Like many people I've been binge watching the new series of The Crown on Netflix this week. It is every bit as good as the first, which is quite an achievement given the heights that it soared to and the dramatic storylines it told. Not that this second series lacks dramatic storylines, it was just that the first series was new and thrilling. This second settled into the same groove, but it was a groove we had been in before. Here however familiarity has bred only fondness and admiration.

The world of television and film is changing and changing rapidly. That probably explains why Rupert Murdoch has decided to go back to what he knows best and sell large parts of his empire in a mega deal with Disney. The future is going to be dominated by digital colossi like Netflix and the upcoming Amazon, along with new entrants like Apple and Google. These services have deep pockets, endless ambition and shareholders seemingly entirely content to receive no dividends for the foreseeable future as empires are created and extended. Mature companies like News Corp must see the writing on the wall. Only an empire as huge and well regarded as Disney can possibly hope to compete. Even Sky, which has been such a hugely successful new entrant in the world of television must now fear that its glory days are over. If one of the aforementioned IT giants chooses to compete for sports rights, in particular Premier League football then all bets are off.

The Crown is a case in point. No conventional broadcaster can possibly hope to compete with Netflix's spending power. This is not a drama that can be funded by advertising alone. It needs subscriptions and lots of them. But this has proven that people are prepared to pay for quality content. And it's not just the quality but the depth and breadth of them too. Netflix gave us The Crown but has also given us Stranger Things, a new Star Trek series on which I have become hooked, not to mention House of Cards, now sadly killed off in the wake of allegations against its star, a decision that is regrettable if understandable from a purely PR standpoint.

As one of the most renowned centres of excellence in the world for acting, writing and technical talent, Britain can do nothing but benefit from this new model for television production. It does however give the lie to the propaganda that the BBC routinely trots out about public service broadcasting. People are prepared to pay for quality and so there is simply no excuse for the Beeb not to move to a subscription model. Indeed given its huge archive this is something it should be doing with urgency. It has been genuinely innovative and at the cutting edge with its iPlayer service. Yet it now risks being left behind. The days of old fashioned schedules and event television are dying. The future is online. Indeed the only events likely to get us to watch together in the future are likely to be sports and very occasional national events. The Queen's coronation was famously televised in a revolution that began the television age. Maybe, in an ironic twist, her funeral will be screened by Netflix. They could include it in the last series of The Crown.

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Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Rebel Alliance

Many of us have criticised the negotiating efforts of the Government and Theresa May, notwithstanding the deal done last week. But let's face it, it is hard enough negotiating with the intractable arrogance of the EU and their fanatical zealots who leak and criticise, berate and impugn and then complain piteously when Britain indulges in some politics of its own for the domestic consumption.

But the efforts of Theresa May have not been helped by those on her own benches on both sides of the Brexit divide. Last night's vote on the endlessly supercilious Dominic Grieve's amendment giving the Commons a 'meaningful vote' on the deal was the first defeat, but there have been many moments that have undermined her.

We get it. Many on the Tory benches are very angry about Brexit. They are apparently angry with the British people and consider that we have made a terrible mistake. But it is a decision that has been reached and they claim to accept this. All of which makes their efforts to constantly frustrate and undermine Theresa May so baffling. What are they trying to achieve? Why are they behaving like fifth columnists?

Please don't mistake me. I am not like the Twitter trolls who call Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry names anonymously and threaten and berate them. They are perfectly entitled to vote any way they choose. But what is their gameplan? What are they trying to achieve? Because from here it looks an awful lot like they are trying to stop Brexit altogether or land us with a deal that means we will barely be leaving at all. These are Tory MPs who are undermining their own Government and making its already difficult task worse. What effect does that have on the Tory brand? How will it affect their own chances of re-election? And what effect does it have on the Government's ability to get a deal with the EU and take us out? What effect does it have on our ability to leave at all?

That remains what the EU want. They have extracted some money from us and are pretending to care about Northern Ireland. But their ultimate aim is to either ensure we stay umbilically linked to them or don't leave at all. If we do leave as planned on whatever terms they would then hope that we rejoin at some point in the future and be treated as returning prodigals, proof that you can check out but never leave. Is that what the Tory rebels want? It certainly appears that way.

As the Government argued, all that a meaningful vote means now is that the EU are empowered to play their usual games of timing and pressure and watch as the Government squirms under the unrelenting pressure from both sides. It means we will end up with the worst deal imaginable so that the country will likely wonder why we are bothering to leave at all. That is the EU gameplan and this vote facilitates it.

This has nothing to do with Parliament asserting control over Brexit. It has already done so by voting for the Article 50 process and of course authorising the referendum in the first place. Now they are claiming the right to insert themselves into the negotiation process. Yet how does that work? What happens if the deal the EU condescends to give us is unacceptable to a majority in Parliament? Do they then demand that we start a new negotiation? Do they demand that we stay in until satisfied? This looks more and more like an attempt to stop Brexit happening at all.

The likes of Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve et al are the sort of MPs who tell us that they are passionate Europeans. This is a perfectly respectable position to take, except that they are rarely honest about what it means. Because what does it mean? Are they passionate about ever closer union? Or just about the Single Market? The customs union? Free movement? Because by forcing this vote they make it all the more likely that we will end up with one or all of them permanently, something that the British people definitively voted against.

Remainers are fond of telling us that the leave side told lies during the referendum campaign, something of course that they were in no way guilty of with their project fear tactics. Yet their lies were also lies of omission. Because they never told us what they are for. They never argued for their vision of our staying in a club that is trying to forge a path towards a country that is Europe. They hide behind our need to be close to the market and forget what that means. But by forcing this vote they make the chances for our negotiating a decent trade deal all the more unlikely. This was not a vote for our democracy, it will undermine it.

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Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Trump Watches 4 - 8 Hours of TV A Day

Revelations in the New York Times over the weekend show what a fruit loop Donald Trump truly is and how he is practically begging to have the 25th amendment invoked for his own as well as the world's protection.

It's not just that he is a narcissist. We know that, although in my own defence I would never have voted for him even if I was entitled to do so.

It's not just that he is an ignoramus. We knew that too.

It's not just that he is so stupid that he keeps getting himself into legal jeopardy thanks to his stream of consciousness angry tweeting.

It's not just that he is a bully and a sexual deviant. We knew that too.

It's not just that he is a serial bankrupt, a sociopathic liar, a corrupt, crooked, treacherous half wit. We knew all of that, although I refer you once again to the first answer above.

Now it seems that not only is the most powerful man in the world obsessed with watching cable news channels endlessly. We knew that. But it seems that he is living in a fantasy world in which he is starring in a TV show. Seriously.

Now I am no psychiatrist, but that sounds, to me, like the man is in the grip of an out of control psychosis that would make him dangerous in many jobs, but particularly in his. What happens if he regards, as well he might, his approval rating as being like the TV ratings? What happens if he decides he needs a big end of series moment to create a cliffhanger to boost those ratings? There is a pattern to his big moments since he became President and they all fit the pattern of him playing a role rather than governing. That is the only way to explain his decision last week to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there. Nobody was pressurising him for it and nobody supports it. The State Department has said it has no immediate plans to actually implement the decision. Trump is playing a role. God help us if he decides he wants his own Vietnam.

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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Irish Wedge

It was understandable of course after a fraught week, but perhaps our relief that a deal had been done may have blinded us to just how desperate the PM was to do a deal, any deal. It was the best deal available to us under the circumstances, but has almost certainly kicked the can a bit further down the road. Ultimately they will either have to build more road or plunge us all headlong over the cliff.

It becomes obvious now why the EU was so insistent, at variance with logic, that a deal had to be done on Northern Ireland. That was the fatal weakness. They claimed to be concerned about peace. In  reality it was a wedge issue and they deployed it with great skill to the extreme discomfort of the PM. This was fudged last week with language over full alignment. This means that either Britain has the softest of soft Brexits or something else has to give.

People like me are going to argue in increasingly vitriolic terms that there really is no point in our leaving if we effectively agree to align with the EU's regulations and standards. If that is what is being proposed then better that we had walked away. It's understandable that the Irish held out for  this because it is in their interests to do so. But they should never have been allowed to be used as a wedge.

What is required now is for us to create some wedge issues of our own. The Irish are prime candidates. Perhaps that is why the briefing is now emerging that the British interpretation of what is agreed is that full alignment is legally unenforceable and that the only way to get what the Irish want is for them to ensure we get the trade deal we want. Otherwise we walk. That will have an effect of course in the Province, but that too is a wedge issue. There is no need for a hard border in Northern Ireland. Unless you want a border that you want to use to extract concessions.

If Britain really did make a deal last week that is not really worth the paper it is printed on then I applaud the Government for their impressive sleight of hand. The suspicion remains however that they would rather play fast and loose with the truth as told to we the British people and to Parliament than to our 'partners' in the EU. That is certainly what David Cameron did and he paid for this duplicity with his job. The same will be true of Theresa May if she is trying the same game and is intent upon offering us a deal that amounts to the Norway option rather than the Canada +++ option we all want and expect.

The PM made all the right noises in Parliament yesterday vis a vis the so called Brexit bill and our deal with Ireland that is not actually a deal. Not yet anyway. That is a reasonable way to proceed. It was a statement of intent rather than a binding commitment.

For now I hope that Mrs May did her deal last week just because she needed to get past the EU's asinine compartmentalisation of these negotiations. Now the hard part starts. They have the promise of money, but that is contingent upon a trade deal. Otherwise we walk out. If need be we will do so with a new PM leading us out.

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Monday, 11 December 2017

The Grand Tour Goes Back to Basics

The biggest televisual events of the weekend weren't actually on the TV, indeed for those of us who loathe Strictly with every ounce of our being, this was a welcome distraction. No heterosexual male with any self respect should be found watching Strictly anyway and so the alternative of the new series of The Grand Tour came as manna from heaven. Also this weekend the new series of The Crown was released on Netflix. I'll review that separately.

I was a big fan of The Crown. To my mind it was the best TV series of last year in a year in which normal television discovered it had much to fear.

The Grand Tour was a different proposition. It was a reboot of something that had decamped from TV to a computer or similar device near you. It also had a budget that TV can only dream of. As a consequence it often tried a bit too hard, forgetting that what made Top Gear under Clarkson, Hammond and May so entertaining was good old fashioned and cheap wit, badinage and iconoclasm.

On first impressions this new series looks like it has settled down from that first bombastic attempt and has remembered what made them so popular in the first place. Gone is Celebrity Brain Crash, which was funny the first couple of times but then became tedious. This was Clarkson making fun of the fact that the BBC now owns many of the items and features that he and Andy Wilman came up with for Top Gear. The lawyers told him he couldn't have celebrities driving an ordinary car around a race track for fear of being sued. And so he had them turn up and then suffer a terrible accident. It was a little amusing. But that is all.

Now they have relaxed and decided to let rip. Gone is reasonably priced car to be replaced with a rather gorgeous looking Jag. And it will be 2 celebrities instead of one (although TG tried this for a while too). This part, along with when the 3 boys just chatted in the studio was by far the funniest part of this first show thus proving that high production values are not necessarily the be all and end all.

The film that took up the bulk of the show was the same film we have seen done umpteen times before, but with different cars. This was, we were told, the past, present and future vying with one another in the form of a Lamborghini hypercar with a good old fashioned petrol engine, the Honda NSX hybrid car and an electronic car from Croatia of all places by the name of a Rimac. The boys bickered, raced, drove their hyper cars on motorways and tracks and through the narrow streets of a beautiful Swiss town, often struggling to fit them through the narrow streets. This had been done before on more than one occasion.

The point of this contrivance was actually just a gag about the fact that Hammond was driving an electric car and needed to keep plugging it in. In the end they solved this problem by driving it to its destination, a hill climb event, on the back of a lorry. It was safer that way though because, once there, Hammond infamously crashed it. Not that we saw this because the cameras missed it.

As ever the production values were first rate, the scenery stunning, the jokes often very funny and sometimes risqué. It was not vintage stuff, but it was certainly better than much of the first series and all of the new Top Gear under Matt Le Blanc and co and their continued attempts to create chemistry between him and Chris Harris and Rory Reid. Clarkson, May and Hammond have it in spades. It is frequently what saves the show.

We're told that The American has been despatched for this series and that is a relief. We have yet to see what will be done if they want to put a car through its paces on the test track. Will the test track even be used again since the new track the celebs will be driving around is now in rural Oxfordshire and is part gravel?

This is still not the very best of what the boys are capable of. It could be that they are simply not capable of reaching their former heights. There is a definite suspicion that they are repeating themselves and are struggling to come up with new ideas. Of course there are always new cars to test, new items of news to riff around. But the old show became so popular because it invented the idea of the races and the challenges in which the cars themselves became mere props. This show was a conscious attempt to recapture past glories, it didn't quite take the chequered flag but it certainly, unlike one of its expensive props, didn't crash and burn either.

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Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Bible: A Very Grim Fairytale: Numbers: Chapter 36 - God's Rules About Marrying Outside Your Tribe

And so we reach the last chapter of Numbers and you might imagine that it would see the chosen people reaching the promised land with lots of happy cheering going on, fanfares, rainbows, God being a little less grouchy and a feast or two. Nope. He's still got a few more administrative measures to talk about. The promised land? Are we there yet? No, we're not.

Now back in Chapter 27 God briefly became a feminist when he accepted that it would be unfair on women whose father died without a son to not be able to inherit land. So God duly gave them that right. The daughters of Zelophehad were duly given property rights.

But now some members of the tribe objected. What if, they said, those daughters then married outside the tribe? That meant the tribe lost some of its land because the land would belong to their husband once they married.

Well Moses pondered this and had a conference with God about it and God agreed. Losing land through marriage would be against the law of God who had gone to great trouble to ensure that the land was divided equally. So it was agreed that the daughters of Zelophehad could marry anyone they wanted, but only in the same tribe.

The daughters in question were fine with this because they all wanted to marry their cousins, as you do. But it was a bit of a retrograde step for feminist God wasn't it.

And that's it. The end of Numbers. No promised land. We're just told that God had told all of this to Moses on the plains of Moab. So they must be saving the promised land for the next book of the Bible right? Well, I wouldn't get your hopes up.

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