And Ever Shall Be

It was always difficult to work out the exact year in which a given episode of Victoria was taking place, given the series’ sloppiness with chronology. Series 2 ended with “Luxury & Conscience” in which Sir Robert Peel resigns as prime minister following the murder of his personal secretary Edward Drummond – events which actually took place three years apart. Series 3 picks up with “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown”, which covers the revolutions of 1848 and features Lord John Russell in charge. Dialogue indicates that the return of the Whigs to government is a recent development. In between these installments is the 2017 Christmas special “Comfort & Joy”, set in 1846 and showing, among other things, the adoption of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (which happened in 1850). The curious thing about the Christmas special is the absence of the political side of things. In real life Russell’s ministry had already been in place for six months but, in the series’ uncertain timeline, the political situation is simply ignored. This is almost certainly deliberate, as the intention is for the holiday special to be a purely family affair. Plus, with more than a year’s gap between the series it’s entirely possible that the later story arcs hadn’t yet been planned out, nor the relevant characters cast.

Flash forward to 2021: The Duke of Edinburgh had wished for a low-key funeral (well, by royal standards at any rate), and the pandemic meant that something on the scale of the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002 or even Lady Thatcher’s in 2013 would not be possible. Instead Philip’s coffin was driven a short distance within the bounds of Windsor Castle and then lowered into the vault. Hundreds of soldiers were still present outside, but COVID regulations forbade more than thirty attendees. Ordinarily it would be expected that prime ministers and other senior officials would attend, but Boris Johnson (and, presumably, any others concerned) relinquished his place to make room for more of the deceased’s family. The resulting guest list included eighteen descendants of King George V, eight spouses thereof, three other descendants of Queen Victoria and one spouse thereof. I had wondered if the family or the press would have sought to orchestrate a photograph of Prince George of Cambridge saluting the coffin à la John Kennedy, but it was decided that the great-grandchildren were too young to be involved.

While the masks and social distancing ought to be obvious giveaways, I actually found that the reduced attendance gave the ceremony a strangely timeless quality – it was effectively a bottle show. Other than Mssrs Mozzia and Brooksbank all the people there were the same people one would have expected to see there at had this happened at any point in the last ten years – admittedly Viscount Severn and Lady Louise would have been smaller. Justin Welby might be considered a semi-political figure and he took office in 2013, but as St George’s Chapel is a royal peculiar he played a minor role compared to David Conner, who has been Dean since 1998. Thomas Woodcock as Garter King of Arms could also be considered vaguely political given his role introducing new members of the House of Lords, with that office the public tend to remember the uniform rather than the face. The sounds of the past week, too, were those you’d expect to hear: steady footsteps, military orders, cannon blasts, church bells, and, from the studio, the interminable wittering of Gyles Brandreth. Now the burbling of a Land Rover TD5 has been added to the mix. Even that adds to the timeless effect, since the Defender was in production for a third of a century and without a number plate even I – a subscriber to Land Rover Enthusiast for a few years – could not guess at a glance the decade in which this one was constructed.

Those who have studied British political history know that long ago the House of Commons met in St Stephen’s Chapel, with the Speaker’s chair on the altar steps and the members facing each other in the choir stalls – an arrangement which has been maintained in subsequent legislative chambers in Britain and around the world. As a consequence today’s proceedings – with only a few dozen people carefully spaced apart – resembled a session of the hybrid house, or perhaps even the failed 1am prorogation in 2019. Hopefully on this occasion the ceremony won’t have to be repeated a month later.

Having already done a piece about television scheduling in light of COVID, it would be pertinent to review it in relation to the royal death. Of course major newspapers and broadcasters have documentaries and obituaries prepared years in advance of the event – not just for the Duke of Edinburgh but for a wide range of prominent public figures. Eye 1545 page 18 notes how, in the build up to his centenary on 10th June, contributors often had to do each interview twice – the first speaking in present tense wearing light suits, the second in past tense wearing black ones. It was also noted that, in addition to different networks’ documentaries often – and unavoidably – using the same stock footage and delivering the same story as each other, there were some instances of companies recycling interview footage from their own documentaries in 2011 or even 2007, with talking heads who nowadays are visibly much older or even who themselves have died in the intervening years.

On other occasions this temporal tangle would be cause for disdain, but to commemorate a man who has been “a constant” for longer than most of the world can remember, somehow it feels oddly appropriate.

UPDATE (20th April)

The video I originally embedded (from the firm’s own YouTube channel) has now been set to private. The BBC’s has also disappeared. I have replaced it with the Teletrece version.

UPDATE (1st May)

That one has gone as well. I’m now using the one from 6abc Philadelphia.

When I Looked North

BBC Yorkshire & Lincolnshire at Queen’s Court, photographed in July 2017.

It is often remarked that one cannot appreciate what one has until it is gone. The twenty-tweens are a good example of this in that few people at the time would have thought them a golden age, yet they can appear as such by comparison to 2016-19, let alone the pandemic era. Aesthetically that period is a little strange as well, being part of the transition from an analogue world to a fully digital one. Most of the major social media were well-established by then by then but had not yet achieved their current level of cultural dominance. High Definition video was widely available but still far from universally receivable, and web design was a few steps away from its current incarnation – photographs and videos shown online were much fewer in number and lower in resolution compared to 2014-ish and onwards when multiple large graphics can be chucked into every page with little care for data capacity.

The particular event to be covered in this article is BBC School Report 2011. Preparations at our school began weeks in advance when we were shown a promotional video by Huw Edwards. A letter was also sent out to parents on 15th February announcing a BBC Hull project called “Life on the Docks – The People’s Archive” for which they wanted pupils to look through old newspapers and interview elderly acquaintances. Most pupils would be completing the project at school, but four delegates would be picked to visit the BBC in person. News and journalism became the topic of our English lessons for most of that month. We were set a homework task on 9th March of watching and taking notes on that night’s broadcast news to then discuss in the lesson the next day. On 16th March my parents received another letter telling them that I had been picked as one of the four delegates.

That morning I was driven from school in a minibus with the three other pupils who were chosen. Along the way the conversation turned to television more generally and somehow we wound up singing the Family Guy theme song. We parked the van in an area of the city where the buildings were in a state of decay and the tarmac rather worn. I remarked on the general dinginess of the place only for one of my comrades to tell me I would get myself shot. When we arrived at the BBC building we were reshuffled into groups with pupils from other schools who had come. I was put into the television group because it was otherwise all-female. The two girls who had come with me were put into the online team and would stay at the office all day. The other boy was put in the radio team who would be walking around with the TV team for most of the morning.

From the way this has been set up you would be forgiven for thinking that we then devised a television segment for ourselves. Certainly that is what we thought going in, but we were a little disappointed to find that the script had already been written and the stock montages composed before we arrived – we were just going through the motions.

The location shoots were fairly close by so the groups traveled on foot. In what I think was the Hull Maritime Museum we interviewed an old man (called Jim in the script) about what the elder days. Amusingly there was a bit of a mix-up at this point and Jim was interviewed by one of the pupils assigned to the radio group, who didn’t realise until later that day that she was on television as well.

We also had to record short teaser sections, including one standing by the railings on the marina. I recall a couple of interesting moments during this time – one was that we were supposed to reference the Cod Wars of the 1970s only to find that the script had said 19070s instead, another was a discussion between our guides as to whether it would cause continuity problems if I took off my blue coat between shots. Early in the day I asked about the technical details of the production and was surprised to be told that news footage was still captured on videotape rather than digital cameras.

After we had finished the shoot we returned to the centre for lunch. It happened also to be the birthday of someone in the office and we enjoyed an excess of chocolate cake in addition to the packed lunches we had brought, which made it a little difficult to move around that afternoon. I also remember at this point getting a little lost on the way back from the toilet. It was also at this point in the day that I realised I had left a bundle of papers on a side table. These were the research notes than I and my classmates had been assembling over the past few weeks to take on the excursion, only for me to completely forget about them. Obviously my group didn’t actually need them, though the online team probably would have appreciated their availability.

All of thus were subsequently treated to a tour of the complex, including the Look North studio itself where I briefly sat in Peter Levy’s chair. My recollections of the end of that day’s events are a little hazy. I think I and some other children – not the ones who had been with me earlier – were seated around a boardroom table strewn with recent newspaper cuttings and we had a group discussion on journalistic ethics. The only piece of conversation I retain now is one woman – not sure if teacher or BBC staff – bringing up an anecdote of a struggling mother being interviewed for the news and saying she sometimes thought her children were worse off than third world kids. This was used an example of where reporters have to tread sensitively around things which their interviewees sincerely believe but which objectively are absurd – oddly prescient of the Brexit era.

We went back to school grabbing as many freebies as possible (I even stuffed post-it notes into my socks.) and arrived just in time for the big bus home. My segment was on local news later that night though my mother complains to this day that she was out at the time and never saw it.

Ten years later it is hard to find much record of our contribution online as even now iPlayer tends not to retain local news very long. The BBC even has a webpage listing all of the schools taking part in the event from which mine is mysteriously omitted. I didn’t take a personal camera with me and nor, to my memory, did any of the others. Until late last year I still had the flimsily-laminated BBC pass hanging on my bedroom wall, but now even that has disappeared. Happily I have been able to find the script we used for that day as well as many of the notes and research from the preceding weeks. I do not have any of them in digital form so will need to scan or photograph them (or, God forbid, type them out again) to show them here. Perhaps the bulk of the material would be better suited to the remit of Homework Direct, but recent experience with Monty on the Green has reminded me what a pain it is to update Wix, so I am reluctant to add anything more to that site without a major redesign.

I was a little amused, five years later, when ITV Calendar came to Wilberforce for a debate about the EU Referendum and once again I was scripted to ask about Hull’s fishing industry. Not wanting to be caught out by follow-up questions, I did a lot of hurried online research for that one as well, but that also proved entirely redundant.

Deutschland 89 in Brief

The natural result of trying to remember the plot.

I was not aware of Deutschland 83 when it first came out, only seeing it on 4OD in 2017, shortly after taking up residence at Ferens Hall. The plot of the first series is, in retrospect comparatively simple: Martin Raunch is recruited from East Germany to spy on West Germany and has to convince his home government that Operation Able Archer is not a real missile strike.

At Lambert Hall two years ago I watched Deutschland 86, set three year’s later when the GDR is facing bankruptcy and the Stasi must concoct wild schemes to acquire worthwhile currency. This includes selling weapons to both Iran and Iraq while they are at war with each other, as well as Botha’s government in South Africa whose policies and ideology are in sharp opposition to their own. Alongside this is the ongoing AIDS crisis, which is itself a money-grabbing opportunity as the East can sell its citizens’ blood to the West, as well as use them in less-than-ethical trials for potential cures. All the while Martin is desperately trying to get back home and see his toddler son Max.

This final series begins at the fall of the Berlin wall and the realisation that the entire Second World is in its death throes. The Stasi disbands and shreds its documents for fear of upcoming revolution. Martin is by now working for (and simultaneously against) three countries’ intelligence services and fleeing around Europe to avoid himself or his son being kidnapped or killed.

That summary barely scratches the surface of the convolution of the storyline, with a large recurring cast and constant switching of sides. Helpfully last autumn a promotional montage was released with Jonas Nay narrating (in English) a recap of everything that happened in the first two series in anticipation of the third’s release.

The series was more popular in Britain than its home country, with the highest ratings of any foreign-language drama in the history of British television. It was of particular appeal to me as much of my history course for both GCSE and AS-Level had been about communism, German division and the Cold War. My only real problem was that upon seeing Martin for the first time I was struck by his resemblance to Wesley Crusher. This thought never fully left me throughout the run.

The United Kingdom itself does not play a significant role in the series, bar the odd mention of Thatcher opposing reunification. The finale caps of with a rapid flash forward through international politics since 1990, including clips of Merkel, Farage and – of course – Donald Trump waxing lyrical about his southern border wall. Obviously that last part may have lost a little significance as Trump was voted out of office shortly after the series aired and construction of the wall has been halted. Obviously the franchise was launched long before the EU referendum, and even before the one on Scottish Independence, but watching it now from a British perspective the tale of a former superpower facing an increasingly-ungovernable population, looming threats of dissolution and a forsaking of its entire national constitutional philosophy makes for a rather uncomfortable omen.

Aren’t You Sitting A Bit Close?

This ought to date well.

Once again I find myself in one of the bits between, specifically the annual Christmas post-script that occurs in the final week of each calendar. It is an awkward limbo, in which the climax of the year has been reached and passed but normality has not yet resumed.

Christmas has always felt like something of a world unto itself, somehow separated from the rest of reality. For almost a whole month (much longer if you work in retail) websites are redesigned, new dress codes are imposed, all manner of buildings are redecorated and new song rotations are adopted for radio stations. We don’t normally treat Easter this way, nor indeed Halloween. In particular, an awful lot of radio and television series are insistent upon doing the annual Christmas special, which is broadcast (and possibly filmed) separately from the regular run, with the holiday often dominating the story, and sometimes even an altered title sequence – snow effects superimposed over the visuals and bells added to the music.

There are quite a few franchises that carry on getting Christmas specials even when they are stood down as regular series. Mrs Brown’s Boys, for instance, ended its last full series in February 2013 but continues to get double bills at Christmas and New Year with the result that “special” installments now outnumber regular ones. Miranda likewise had three series of six episodes each. Oddly the second series ended on 20th December 2010 and the third series premiered 366 days later. This meant there were two Christmas episodes consecutively but they were not specials as such. The third series ended with a cliffhanger on 28th January 2013, which was not resolved until a similar special double in 2014-15. Not Going Out had its finale in 2014 (aired on Christmas Eve, but the episode was not seasonal), yet came back for a Christmas special in 2015 which then essentially became the pilot for a revival and retool in 2017.

Paradoxically, the saviour’s birthday is also a way of nailing down the timeline within a fictional story – most episodes of a fictional series could be set at any time of year – especially if it’s a studio show with no opportunity to check the leaves on the trees – and it isn’t always clear how much time is supposed to elapse between them. If there are at least two episodes set at Christmas with at least one non-Christmas episode in between, then this establishes that at least one diagetic year has gone by. This occasionally leads to problems with the series’ setting. Dad’s Army is a story about the Second World War, but more specifically the Home Guard. That institution was established on 14th May 1940 and deactivated on 3rd December 1944 (although not formally dissolved until New Year’s Eve 1945), which means that only three Christmases occurred during its period of operation. I was not able to binge the entire series again to check, but from the brief summaries I read online it appears that there were at least four episodes released at this time of year (one as part of a normal series, three as specials), although only two were necessarily set at Christmas so perhaps the chronology is preserved. The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad all famously operate on a floating timeline – where the external year changes but the main characters never physically age or progress to different life stages. All have annual Christmas episodes year on year without acknowledging the implications. The latter is especially bizarre as the Christmas stories form an ongoing series in themselves which often involves traveling through time and warping reality.

Thomas & Friends** is a franchise in which time never progresses either externally or internally. Sir Topham Hatt’s grandchildren Bridget & Stephen never grow up, nor does the technology level (or indeed the clothing) move beyond the early 1960s. This is despite the inclusion of at least one Christmas (or at any rate wintertime) episode in each series, and indeed quite a few series in which the year apparently cycles around several times. For a long time the only real human (as opposed to real locomotives, such as City of Turo, Flying Scotsman or Rocket) to be written in the franchise was, quite aptly, our immortal sovereign. From Paint Pots & Queens until the start of this year, I think I counted forty-two separate winters on the island, which means that new episodes cannot logically be taking place any earlier than 1994. Her Majesty returned to the franchise in the 75th anniversary special Thomas & the Royal Engine, this time accompanied by her eldest son. Charles is dressed in what vaguely resembles his Gordonstoun uniform, which would place the episode in the period of 1962-1967, but his height and voice would suggest an earlier date.

This year’s coronavirus pandemic has made it painfully apparent which “new” television content is actually new and which was filmed months or even years in advance. The example most prominent for me is Channel 4’s long running panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats, whose Christmas special this year was apparently recorded back in January (i.e. just after the previous such holiday had finished). The studio had a full live audience and plenty of physical interaction between the panelists. The spin-off series, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, was even worse.

Already the programme had been subject to some creative scheduling in 2019 due to Rachel Riley’s pregnancy. Riley announced her condition on 24th May, and gave birth on 15th December. In scripted series this might have been hidden by careful framing or an oversized labcoat, but this was probably not feasible with a studio audience. The bump is not seen during the eighteenth season (26th July-6th September), but appears prominently in that year’s Christmas special (broadcast 23rd December), during which Carr decides to stake his reputation on the joke “Rachel is heavily pregnant, so let’s get a move on before someone unexpectedly slides down her chimney.”, as well as throughout the nineteenth season (9th January-14th February 2020).

The twentieth season ran from 31st July to 28th August, by which point the pandemic was well underway, and consisted entirely of leftover material from earlier years. Episodes 1 and 2 were filmed in “late 2019” and show Riley still pregnant. Episode 3 was filmed in “early 2019” and includes references to Richard Ayoade’s role in the “recent” LEGO Movie 2, which premiered over eighteen months prior. Episodes 4 and 5 were not new material, but “Best Bits” compilations assembled in 2018 (for confirmation, look at the title slides at the end of the closing credits to see the little “MMXVIII” and “MMXIX” notices). Quite why these episodes were released in so obviously the wrong order is anyone’s guess. There was something of a Funny Aneurysm Moment in episode 2 when Jon Richardson got “Corona” as his word and the other panelists didn’t really react.

From what has been said on Twitter by people claiming to have been in the audience, the 2020 Christmas special was actually filmed in February 2019. That may initially seem crazy, but on closer inspection it is reasonable, as Riley is clearly not pregnant, yet it cannot have been filmed after the birth as the title card still says “MMXIX” not “MMXX”*, so it must have been filmed before the foetus grew to noticeable size, which realistically means no later than July. Why the 2020 Christmas special was filmed before the 2019 one is, again, a question for the ages.

An example of this effect in fiction is the BBC sitcom Ghosts, whose second season was released on 21st September, having been filmed in January and February. Episode 2 has an eerily subplot about how one of the medieval peasant ghosts returned from a holiday outside his village and accidentally gave all of his neighbours the plague, which was originally planned to be much more graphic. This season also includes a Christmas special (released on 23rd December) in which, once again, there is no acknowledgement of the pandemic.

It would be pertinent to ask whether this really matters: current-affairs programming such as Have I Got News For You? or Mock the Week need to be filmed at short-notice, but non-topical material can be stored for any time without the quality being affected. I would say that it does matter at least a little, for all works are a product of their times even if that is not their intention – each new entry being on some level a reaction to what existed before. The longer in advance a program is made, the more those in it must hedge their bets with respect to topical references, social commentary or even acknowledgement of personal circumstances, with the result that a product which should feel fresh and contemporary is instead rendered oddly generic and distant. Furthermore a game show of any kind relies on the audience being invested in the competition while a fictional piece often strives for hype regarding story arcs and major plot developments, but the tension is inevitably dulled if it is obvious that the events on-screen are all in the past.

This year, of course, adds another dimension to this problem. When the general public have spent nine months largely stuck at home, deprived of social interaction and encased in protective clothing, it can be quite jarring – perhaps even a little cruel – to see people on television apparently carrying on as if nothing has happened. Charlie Brooker in his Antiviral Wipe said “many shows which would normally seem cozy and harmless suddenly look freakishly irresponsible” and many online discussions of recent media have comments to the effect that it was like staring into a parallel universe.

*UK Maternity leave is mandatory for two weeks and then optional for up to fifty more. Riley giving birth on 15th December means, that there would only be three remaining days in the year 2019 in which she could have returned to film the special, one of them a Sunday and another New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t seem very likely.

**This paragraph solely concerns Thomas & Friends on television. The Railway Series in print does not have these problems.

UPDATE (January 2021)

Another season of Cats Countdown has been launched. The end card still says MMXIX and Riley is still not pregnant so presumably this was filmed around the same time as the recent special. One wonders just how many advance episodes they could have banked in 2019 – especially given that the previous season already appeared heavily padded.

UPDATE (May 2021)

The Unlucky Tug has made a video attempting to construct a diagetic timeline for the CG section of Thomas & Friends, with particular reference to the implausibility of a middle-aged Queen Elizabeth appearing with a prepubescent Prince Charles. He also notes, as I neglected, that The Royal Engine, the last of season 24 to be produced (though Thomas’s Animal Friends was the last released) is effectively the finale of this section of the franchise, which will be completely rebooted as All Engines Go! this October.

UPDATE (September 2021)

I’ve seen it stated online (though only in some obscure and dubious-looking sources) that the ‘Cats Does Countdown Christmas Special for 2021 was recorded on either 26th June or 2nd July. Sean Lock was still alive at that time but he is not said to appear in the episode.

The New Spitting Image

I was born a year and a half too late to see the original Spitting Image when it aired on television. My first encounter with the series was, if I recall correctly, in late 2013 when I discovered clips from it on YouTube (a great many of which have recently been purged). Occasionally a clip show would include snippets of it, or there would be a nostalgic documentary, but watching the series properly was unfeasible.

Over my lifetime there have been a few attempts to provide a spiritual successor, but none had the staying power – or indeed the cultural weight – of the original. 2DTV (2001-2004) with its crude animation, was eventually cancelled due to low viewing figures. Headcases (2008) ran for just eight episodes. Newzoids, which used physical puppets with CG faces, appeared in advance of the 2015 general election and returned for a second series in late 2016, but then unceremoniously faded away.

Just over a year ago news broke that Spitting Image itself would be returning. Three weeks ago, it finally did. However, as before, I haven’t actually seen it. As with so many new productions, the creators have opted to bypass standard television and go directly to a streaming service. In this instance, the satirical puppet show will be the first original commission on BritBox, which was set up in 2017. It seems that Spitting Image is intended to be the “flagship” of the service which will tempt new viewers aboard. From what I have seen on various forums, there is some skepticism of this approach, with many expressing fatigue at having to juggle so many online subscriptions to get what they previously would have done from broadcast television.

The upshot of all this is that, as with the classic series, I must rely on the clips that are steadily dribbled out on the series’ YouTube channel. I had mixed views about the first few clips – while the visual design was on form, many of the vocal impressions felt lackluster and forgettable, with the action and dialogue not quite having the energy of the original. Still, it was nice to see a few nods to the older series, such as the giant portrait of Margaret Thatcher, Priti Patel reprising Edwina Currie’s role vampire portrayal, or Mike Pence copying John Major’s grey face aesthetic.

Many question now whether political satire is even possible nowadays, when public figures are rarely granted any dignity in the first place and various sectors of society are so offense-prone that any seriously biting comedy is liable to be swiftly shut down. We will have to wait and see whether this franchise is able to weather that storm. Already there is one instance of a sketch being withdrawn – whereas the original dropped a parody of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” from its 1987 election special, the new one has quickly removed a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious parody about Jacinda Ardern because the sketch ended with her decapitating a COVID patient, shortly before a real beheading took place in France. A similar incident befell the Doctor Who episode Robot of Sherwood due to the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Can the new Spitting Image succeed? Only time will tell.

 

Visual Details in the BBC’s Roadkill

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Recently I watched the new BBC drama series Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie as ambitious but morally-unsound cabinet minister Peter Laurence. Many have wondered how it would be possible to set political fiction in the 2016-2020 era without Brexit, Trump and now Coronavirus (although this series was filmed a little to early to know of that last one) completely dominating every character’s every thought, or indeed without those certain real names and faces with whom such events are so intimately intertwined. This series has the innovative solution of moving an unspecified time into the future, by which point these issues have supposedly been resolved and everything is back to normal. That alone would surely make it a utopian invention, but the purpose of this post is not to review the series on a dramatic basis. Instead, I wish to draw attention to the ways in which government location and insignia – including the royal arms – are depicted in television.

Television program-makers have to tread very carefully when depicting real life brand names, trademarks, uniforms or other insignia. This often leads to them creating slightly off-model versions for their fictional purposes, in the hope that the result will be different enough to avoid legal liability but similar enough for viewers to understand.

In Roadkill there are multiple shots in this miniseries of the grand staircase at 10 Downing Street, with its display of the portraits of former prime ministers. Exactly when the political history of this work diverges from real life is unknown, but the most recent leader seen on the stairs is Margaret Thatcher (whose premiership is likewise something of a fixed point in time). Comparisons to virtual tours of the real staircase (both taken during Cameron’s tenure) reveal that the portraits on set were from different photographs. They are also quite literally larger than life, as the real portraits from Baldwin onwards are seen to be rather diminutive within their frames.

Laurence begins the episode as Minister of Transport, and there is a shot of him pulling up outside his headquarters, with “Ministry of Transport” on plaques either side of the main entrance. In real life Britain last had an organisation by that name in 1970. Since 2002 it has been called the Department for Transport, though the initialism MOT is still used for vehicle safety tests. Later in the episode Laurence is moved to Justice. In his meeting with the Prime Minister she refers to “the Ministry of Justice” which is what it has been called in real life since 2007, yet later when we see our protagonist at his new desk his screensaver says “Department of Justice” instead. For the rest of the series he is called “Minister” rather than “Secretary of State” and there is no mention of him holding the office of Lord Chancellor. What’s striking about these examples is the subtlety of the change – the typeface doesn’t look any different, nor does the coat of arms, only the arrangement of the arms to the left of the text instead of above.

The current template for government letterheads debuted in 2012, alongside the rolling out of GOV.UK, in a drive to rationalise the costly and confusing sprawl of departmental websites and logos which had emerged over the past twenty years. Prior to that there was no consistency in branding – while some departments did use the royal arms, others just put their names in stylised lettering, or had some other unrelated imagery. While this looked rather poor for the real life institutions, it probably made things easier for creators of political fiction, who could plausibly make up just about any title design for their invented offices without having to carefully alter the official insignia. The DoSAC logo as used in The Thick of It, for example, is perfectly believable as part of the Whitehall lineup of that period.

A long time ago there was a Doctor Who episode called The Aliens of London, in which much of the action takes place at Number 10. There was an attempt at recreating the grand staircase – in this version the helical staircase ascends anticlockwise and the walls are red, with the portraits few and far between. A coat of arms can be seen printed on the window, but too distant for much clarity. A later scene shows a conference room in which the royal arms appear on a backlit screen. The crown, motto, garter circlet and shield are correct (albeit the tinctures are changed), but the supporters are swapped around so that the unicorn stands to the dexter of the shield and the lion to the sinister – as if in the Scottish version. The lion is chained this time while the unicorn wears the crown of Scotland. The unicorn is still gorged with a circlet at the neck.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I also have a distant recollection of a scene in Torchwood series 3 or 4 in which a much worse state emblem is seen – the supporters and motto of the royal arms but the shield just shown the Parliamentary portcullis badge. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down a screencap in order to check.

The Lockdown Specials

One of the more interesting phenomena to emerge since the start of the pandemic has been the proliferation of makeshift online productions by those who previously would have been on mainstream television. The gap between amateur and professional has been noticeable diminished as a result of the virus, as actors and presenters have been deprived of their studious, props and make-up artists.

Only this year did I discover the radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. In March the writer John Finnemore launched the online video shorts entitled Cabin Fever. In April David Walliams and Matt Lucas performed a Little Britain compilation with improvised costumes. This was warmly received despite the main show having ended thirteen years ago and despite an ongoing controversy about some of its content. On the same night Dawn French released a “Parish Update” based on The Vicar of Dibley.

Especially notable about these online substitutes is the extent to which their creators are open to public contributions for ideas. Earlier examples included Jimmy Carr’s Little Tiny Quiz of the Lockdown. After a while he began asking viewers to suggest questions. I sent in a whole slideshow’s worth, but got no acknowledgement. The latest one – actually three months ago but I only just found it – was on the Sid City channel, a fan channel for actor Alexander Siddig. He played Lt. Dr. Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from 1993 to 1999. Although the series ended twenty-one years ago the fanbase goes strong. Fans writing their own stories about characters from their favoured franchise is hardly uncommon, but convincing the cast themselves to perform it is vanishingly rare. The circumstances obviously prohibit the cast from physically interacting, so the stories are formatted as futuristic epistolary novels in which the characters interact through video link. The premise of Alone Together is very topical, of course, being that Cardassia has been closed off due to the spread of a disease – though this one attacks its victims’ thought processes rather than their respiration. A later story, Curse from the Prophets, is even more on-point in its commentary about immigration.

It will be interesting to see which franchise is next to have this treatment – perhaps The Thick of It, as virtual conferences are now so dominant in real-life politics, although Iannucci has said that his satire is redundant now, and how many of the main cast in 2012 would have survived to 2020 is far from certain.

A Princely Gift

I suppose there are worse things he could be wearing.

A few days ago I discovered the YouTube channel Documentary Base, whose content is what you’d expect. What particularly caught my interest was the series Crown and Country. The Prince Edward writes and presents a historical tour of England’s royal landmarks, one of many documentaries put out by his ill-fated Ardent Productions. This programme is about the same age as I, and now so obscure that its IMDB page looks to be mostly guesswork.

As far as I can decipher there were three series (in the years 1996, 1998 and 2000 – the former typed in the credits as such while the latter two are rendered as MCMXCVIII and MM). The YouTube playlist does not have them in broadcast order – and I think it may even mislabel a few of them, which makes it a little confusing. Series 1 and 2 are differentiated by swapping some of the clips in the opening title sequence montage. Series 3 switches from 4:3 to 16:9, and the title sequence is crudely cropped. The first two series credit the presenter as “Edward Windsor”, the third as “Edward Wessex”.

Technical details aside, the programme is pervaded by an otherworldly quaintness. As with so many films of this type it seems to be designed for international syndication rather than domestic broadcast, and while many specific events and locations are discussed the production itself is curiously timeless. It bulges with luxuriant panning shots of rolling countryside, weathered stone and ornately carved wood panels. The overall tone puts me in mind of Mitchell & Webb’s Sunday afternoon relaxation DVD. There are other curiosities, too, such as the title music which occasionally sounds like the middle eight of the Doctor Who theme.

The parts most interesting to me, as a blogger on heraldry, were the visits to the College of Arms and St George’s Chapel, neither of which get as much screen time as I would like.

In more recent news, the Prince of Wales has launched RE:TV, a channel (or platform, it’s not entirely clear) centered around his environmental projects. I also found this virtual interior tour of Buckingham Palace by interior design blogger Ashley Hicks.

Heraldry in Upstart Crow

Ben Elton’s BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, covering the life of William Shakespeare (David Mitchell), contains some interesting heraldic treasures. A subplot of the series involves the playwright’s attempt to elevate himself to the gentry with the acquisition of a grant of arms. Robert Greene (Mark Heap), Master of the Revels, seeks to deny him this, viewing the Shakespeares as of insufficiently high birth.

Success comes in the third season, Elizabeth I allegedly having been so impressed by Shakespeare’s latest play that she decreed “Only the son of a gentleman could have writ such wit!” and thus elevated the bard’s father accordingly.

There are other armorial treats, though also causes for confusion: At the theatre where Shakespeare and his troupe are seen rehearsing, there is a large cloth of the royal arms at the time – quarterly France & England – hanging in the background. There appear to be multiple versions of this prop used. On some occasions the arms are depicted in the correct tinctures, on others the field colours are swapped so that the fleur de lis are on gules and the lions on azure. There are other curiosities in that same set, for on either side are other shields which also get swapped out at various points. On the right, in seasons 1 and 2, is a shield resembling that of the Dauphin of France, though again with the background tinctures changed, while those appearing on the left are not those I can identify.

The Queen herself (Emma Thompson) appears at Hampton Court Palace in the 2017 special A Christmas Crow. Behind her is a large, colourful relief of the modern-day royal arms, showing quarterings for Scotland and Ireland but not for France, and featuring a unicorn argent as the sinister supporter. These elements would not be brought together until the union of the crowns, which of course occurred at Elizabeth’s death. The specific iteration shown in this episode, with the motto scroll floating in the air, would belong to the reigns of Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI.

NOTABLE CLIPS

FURTHER READING

A Strange Documentary Experience

In recent years several YouTube channels have emerged which play a large number of full-length old documentaries. One might be forgiven for thinking this was too good to be true and that these were pirate channels, but on closer investigation they appear to have been set up by the rights-holders themselves. The economics behind such a move are less than obvious – my best guess is that the content was not likely to be broadcast on television anymore and so there wasn’t much to lose by releasing them online.

One such documentary recently uploaded is the Channel 4 film from August 2012 The Girl Who Became Three Boys (here rebranded to changed “Girl” to “Woman”) about the late-teen aged Gemma Barker who created three online male personas in order to date her slightly-younger platonic female friends Jessica Sayers (who was extensively interviewed) and “Alice” (whose real identity was withheld). These relationships naturally ended badly and Barker herself wound up serving prison time.

I watched this documentary on the night it first aired. It was a confusing experience to say the least, and stuck with me for years afterwards. Almost nothing about the story makes sense: How did Barker’s victims not notice that she and her invented characters looked so similar? Why did Barker herself claim to have been assaulted? Why were all the adults in the girls’ lives (other than Jessica’s grandmother) eerily absent from events? How deep an emotional bond can you form with a man who has neither face nor voice (to say nothing of his other absent attributes)? If Barker had autism and “borderline learning disability” then how was she capable of manipulating her friends to that extent?

It might be expected, indeed hoped, that this film about two girls being abused in this way would be met with pity and grief, but instead the most common responses I found were confused frowns mixed with cackling laughter. The tragedy at the pinnacle of the narrative was greatly overshadowed by the farce of its foundations. The superfluous Sims-esque animated reconstructions did not help in this regard, nor indeed did Jessica’s contribution as a talking head in which, far from a sympathetic wounded victim, she often appeared to delight in milking our attention. Notably, her interviewer occasionally interrupted with incredulous requests to clarify the most especially outlandish points – such as how “Connor” would still communicate solely through text messages even when physically present. In online discussions of the documentary there were many who condemned the two victims for their apparent lack of intelligence or perception. Others found the events as presented to lie beyond plausibility, surmising instead that the documentary makers or the girls themselves were leaving out further details and fabricating their accounts.

What most fascinated me about the discussion, however, was that there were people who didn’t find this story absurd. A few even brought anecdotes from their own social groups in which girls whom they knew had pulled similar tricks. The most common refrain of this faction ran along the lines of “Well, that’s just what you’re like when you’re fifteen.” as if this kind of lunacy is to be expected as a standard part of adolescence! For as long as I can remember I have been fully aware that what most people assert as “normal” life is often sharply different to my own, yet here I cannot suspend my disbelief. Some months after the documentary aired it came up in discussion during an English lesson. I and the rest of my class were about the same age as Barker’s victims had been, yet all of us who had seen the documentary were baffled at the insanity on display. Our teacher’s reaction was little different. If what this documentary depicted is in any way representative of ordinary life then I am glad to be a freak.

UPDATE (December 2020)

The video I originally embedded has now been set to private for some reason, but the same documentary has also been uploaded whole here, and in pieces starting here.