Strictly Come Dancing: Why the new trailer is so good

People who know me – and many who don’t – know that I’m a big Strictly fan. In the battle of the Saturday night TV voting shows, I’m far more likely to be watching Brucie than Dermot. When we started TV Today at The Stage, the weekly blogs were more to do with encouraging the celebration of dance, which at that time was under-served on television. The notion of celebrity involvement was tolerated rather than embraced, I’d say – but my summaries always tried to look dispassionately at how well the amateur dancers were learning (or not), as a direct response to blogs and message boards which cultivated fandoms around the famous participants.

After a few years, I had to give up the weekly summaries as they just took far too long to put together. But I’ve never stopped loving the show, have been lucky enough to be in the studio once or twice, and have seen many of the live stage shows which have capitalised on the BBC show’s popularity, whether drectly under the Strictly banner or by virtue of the programme’s pro dancers gaining their own celebrity status.

And that’s at the heart of the new teaser trailer’s genius. In previous years, we’ve been shown coy shots of the celebrities – whose head is that the back of? Whose ankle? Whose midriff, improbably squeezed into a sequinned bodice?

This time round, the trailer team have focussed on the dancers. The clever visuals, which render each dancer’s celebrity partner invisible, highlights that we don’t yet know the full roster of amateurs for this year’s series. But the emphasis is on dance – professional dance at that. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of talent. And yet, it’s still a celebrity-laden trail, because one of the strengths of Strictly is that it brings professional dancers into the spotlight and and makes them nationally recognised figures.

Compare that with the X Factor, whose pre-series publicity always tends to emphasise the bitchiness of the judges, the toe-curling awfulness of the preliminary audition rounds.

I know which one I’ll be watching this autumn.

Talking about Peter Capaldi

So I’m a guest on this week’s As Yet Untitled London Theatre podcast, talking about new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi’s acting CV and how the approach he’s taken to his previous roles in theatre, film and TV may – may – give us clues about how he may approach his fortchoming role of the Doctor.

Some of the stuff I talk about is based on the interviews The Stage has done with Capaldi over the years, extracts from which I featured the other day.

Peter Capaldi in his own words

So it turns out the bookies’ favourite was the correct one – Peter Capaldi is to be the next actor to play the lead in Doctor Who.

A quick scurry around The Stage archives finds several theatre and TV reviews, and three interviews. Two of these incorporate paragraphs which are interesting to contrast with each other.

First, from a 1990 interview with Jane Garner, connected to his role in BBC crime thriller Chain:

He enjoys comic roles as well as serious ones and has ambitions to do more film work.

“I am fascinated by that medium and I am not terribly attracted to Shakespearian roles or have any great ambition in that area. I like to do things that I am not really sure I can do and that stretches me – then I am working with something new.

“Chain was different for me because it was terribly serious and a lot of the time before, I had played a lot of rather comic roles which I love and I am comfortable in.”

And from 2007, as he prepared to appear in Absurdia, a trio of one-act comedies (two revivals by NF Simpson, and a new Michael Frayn farce) at the Donmar Warehouse, interviewed by Nick Smurthwaite:

“You do it for the challenge, the stretch,” he replies, “Generally in TV, you are employed to do what you are known for doing best. Here I’m doing things I’ve never done before, a lot of mime and movement. The Frayn play is about staging a farce in the middle of the desert, generated entirely in the imaginations of the two characters, with no props. I’ve never done mime before, so it remains to be seen if it works.”

You could, if you were being harsh, make comments about how once it was film and TV which stretched actors, and now theatre is more likely to give that challenge. But really, I see a man who’s only going to take on any role if it could push him in ways he’s never been pushed before. Given the self-confessed Doctor Who fan that he is, I can imagine that Capaldi is going to make damned sure that the BBC production team push him in his role as the Doctor.

More interesting is a quote from a 1995 interview, where the focus was more on his writing ambitions. On the back of winning the Academy Award for Best Short Film (for Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life), he was working on a feature-length screenplay. But this quote is, considering yesterday’s news, intriguing:

Being in a series for any length of time doesn’t appeal to me and I’m always trying to avoid it. I suppose the two series of Chandler and Co. that I did was the longest I have been in a show, but I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. I want a bit of variety.

In the eighteen years since, maybe he’s mellowed to the idea, especially for a role he’s loved since he was a boy. But Doctor Who is one of those roles where longevity and variety can go hand-in-hand.

It’s tough to be an actor, or anything else

Over the last couple of weeks, the acting world has lost several people – Paul Bhattacharjee, Briony McRoberts, Richard Gent, Cory Monteith – in ways that have thrown into focus the various mental health pressures that people in the entertainment industry share with others in other walks of life, as well as where the issues differ.

Mental health issues are rarely caused by one solitary outside influence. Everybody’s own personal health can have a myriad of contributory causes and pressures. That means that treatment and preventive measures vary, too. That’s partly why seeking help when one needs it is so imperative – another being that, if you are experiencing depression yourself, you’re rarely the best judge of your own illness.

The acting world in particular has pressures that many other professions don’t. Actors tend to have to move form short term job to short term job, often taking roles which pay poorly – if at all – in the hope that the exposure and/or experience will pay off with greater, better paid roles in the future. And far more than anybody in an office job – or even a backstage career within the entertainment industry – you are judged, judged and judged again.

Not being an actor myself, I’m limited to seeing my actor friends’ lows – and, it has to be emphasised, the highs as well. It’s far from all misery. But even on the best projects, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful ones, there are always avenues for individuals to encounter mental health problems.

In the first of a number of articles published recently on this topic, Matt Hemley wrote for The Stage, quoting Eddie Redmayne:

Although it looks great – and is great – there are also shoddy moments when you feel really rotten, and when it’s going well, you’re not allowed to complain.

While producer Richard Jordan, also for The Stage, emphasises that it’s not just actors:

It’s important we recognise that in our industry depression is not exclusively an illness affecting just actors but people across all sectors of the business. Those affected can also be great masters at hiding it, with a frequent fear that, by admitting being a sufferer, you might be viewed as unreliable and unemployable in this small and gossip-fuelled industry.

And today, over in The Guardian, Michael Simkins asks if the industry itself is too cruel:

The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What’s more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success.

Regardless of the potential pressures, actors put themselves through the wringer time and time again. The end result is usually great enjoyment for audiences of theatre, TV, radio, film – but we need to ensure that it’s not at the expense of anyone’s health and wellbeing.

Actress Katie Brennan has written a nice piece in direct response to Simkins’, which if I had to sum up in half a sentence, explores some of the positives to be found amongst the negatives:

 In no other profession would potential employees be treated this way, and perhaps the worst thing, is that we have learnt to accept it, that that’s just the way it goes in this industry, which makes me a little bit sad. We’re people at the end of the day, not just timestepping robots. I just like it when people are nice to each other…

…when [the industry] is glorious, it is wonderful glory UNBOUNDED. Seriously. There’s absolutely nothing like it. All those clichés about showbiz, the lights, the greasepaint, the applause, the comradery of castmates, the feeling of just standing on that stage and belting the shit out a brilliant, yielding money note- they’re all true on paper, but they FEEL even better.

I don’t have any pat answers: as I’ve indicated above, I think everybody has different triggers and anxieties, and their ways of dealing with their own mental health issues will be different. The key is finding the right support – nurturing friendships that last long after the curtain comes down, finding the people who will lift you up when you need it, and who you will walk over hot coals to help should the need ever arise.

And, of course, nor are the sort of pressures actors face unique to their industry. Short term, low paid, itinerant jobs are hardly the exclusive domain of the performer. Mental health issues, whether influenced by those pressures or others, need to be recognised better across all industries – but we can all of us start changing within the realms we work in.

Of course, no amount of talking about mental health will ever replace what the families, friends and our industry has lost in the people whose deaths have been reported over the last few weeks. But I’m beginning to see the start of conversations that will without doubt help others, and hopefully prevent similar headlines in future.

For information and advice, mental health charity MIND is a good place to start.

Rodgers & Hammerstein in London

Back in 2011, I wrote and produced a special podcast episode for The Stage, celebrating Rodgers and Hammerstein on the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music‘s debut in the West End. We no longer publicise or distribute our podcasts, so I’ve gained permission to include it here. Of the 90 or so podcasts I created for The Stage, this is by far my favourite.

Presented by Helena Blackman, who had just released an album of R&H songs (excerpts from which are dotted throughout the programme), the feature also includes contributions from The Stage/Sunday Express theatre critic Mark Shenton, readings from The Stage archives by Adam Lilley, an exploration of the legacy Oscar Hammerstein left to Southwark Cathedral – and an exclusive (if short) clip of Stephen Sondheim himself talking about the influence of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. More background on my original blog post about the podcast.

Presenter: Helena Blackman
Archive Readings: Adam Lilley
Archive Research: Catherine Gerbrands
Writer and Producer: Scott Matthewman
Excerpts from The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein by kind permission of Speckulation Entertainment

The podcast is copyright © 2011 The Stage Media Company Limited. All rights reserved. Uploaded and made available on this site with permission.

Wolfblood leaps the channel divide

Back in October, I was extolling the virtues of Debbie Moon’s werewolf drama serial for CBBC, Wolfblood, among other drama series on the children’s channel:

Young Maddy is a 14-year-old girl from a reclusive family ‘pack’ of wolfbloods (the series rejects the term ‘werewolf’). Her parents lock themselves away every full moon rather than risk roaming in the woods – partly to ensure the safety of the locals, but mostly to ensure that their family secret is not discovered.

Part of the reason for writing that post was to give publicity to an under-rated section of Britain’s TV drama output. It’s been wonderful to see news of Wolfblood’s ongoing success as countries around the world have acquired the series, and to know that a second series is imminent.

Part of the reason why shows on CBBC need as much publicity as they do is that, now that they are no longer shown on BBC1 or BBC2 in the afternoons, there’s less chance of grown-ups discovering their joys. When it was first announced that the strands would be phased out, I wrote in The Stage’s now-defunct TV blog, TV Today

These days, while CBBC content remains on air until 7pm, there’s little room to encourage the channel’s viewers to partake in shows on BBC1, 2, 3 or 4. Once the decision to not watch CBBC is made, their attention could wander anywhere else. With so much money being ploughed into good quality shows, particularly by outgoing CBBC commissioner Damian Kavanagh, it’s criminal that there’s seemingly little thought in how the Corporation can encourage the CBBC viewer of today to become the more general BBC viewer of tomorrow.

Maybe there’s a compromise that can be reached. On Freeview, CBBC shares digital spectrum space with BBC3 (hence why the former closes down at 7pm just as the latter starts up). As part of the BBC’s cost saving measures, why not free up an hour either side of the 7pm switchover to form a 6pm-8pm zone, repeating the best family friendly content that straddles that difficult gap between childhood and adulthood — the gap that the now-defunct BBC Switch brand was originally supposed to address? At least that way, CBBC’s regular viewers would recognise that their viewing habits needn’t drift away from the BBC as they get older, and parents would get a better chance to appreciate some of the love and care that the Corporation devotes to its programming for younger viewers.

Given that the 7pm BBC3 slot is so frequently given over to reruns of Doctor Who — itself a family-friendly show which, despite always being commissioned by the “adult” drama department, has never forgotten that children are at its audience core — such a solution would not be a million miles away from where we are now.

I’m happy to say that, while the concept of a formal ‘changeover zone’ isn’t quite in place, the principle is at least being put into play. From tonight,Wolfblood begins reruns at 7pm on BBC3.

Part of me feels validated for having an idea which somebody at the BBC clearly also had. But mostly, I’m just really chuffed for Debbie and the rest of the Wolfblood cast and crew, whose hard work is about to get seen and appreciated by a whole new set of fans.

Ten Things About Who: Aliens of London

Ten points of discussion inspired by the 2005 Doctor Who episode, Aliens of London.

It’s been a few weeks since we departed the Cardiff rift. Apologies – pressures of work, and all that. But we continue a revisit of 2005’s Doctor Who series with the TARDIS’ return to the Powell Estate.

A quick reminder that my collection of Ten Things About Who posts for the 2012/13 series is now available for Kindle devices and Kindle e-reader apps for the bargain price of £1.99 – that’s 14p per episode discussion Thanks to everyone who’s bought it so far – if you have, please do leave a review or, at the very least, a star rating. And if you haven’t bought it yet, you can do so at mtthw.mn/whoebook.

1. A quick recap…

OK, so I said that The End of the World starts with what is, for Doctor Who, a rarely-used device: a “previously…”-style recap, that has “rarely been needed since”.

And then, two episodes later, that device gets used again. Still, I’m right – it tends not to be used much after this. To be honest, its usefulness in a series where the setting can change so drastically from episode to episode is debatable. But notice, even here, that it’s a recap of events solely from Rose. There’s no glimpse of Platform One or Victorian Cardiff at all.

Conceptually, it fits – this episode is a thematic sequel to the first episode, and deals directly witht he consequences of Rose’s impetuous run into the TARDIS at the end of that episode. For me, the recap here feels alien, if you’ll pardon the expression.

While what we now call “classic” Doctor Who used the old B-movie serial of replaying the previous week’s hangover to remind viewers of where they’ve got to, this “remember this from three weeks ago?” style of reminder has never sat well with Doctor Who. And it really isn’t used much after this. I promise.

Continue reading “Ten Things About Who: Aliens of London”

Reviewed: Strictly Confidential

Over on The Stage, I review Strictly Confidential, Craig Revel Horwood’s new stage show based on the Strictly Come Dancing brand. Personally, I found that Ian, Natalie and Artem, while all fabulously charismatic dancers, don’t work quite as well when having to deliver monologues. It’s still fun – a pastiche of Lisa Riley’s seven years as a regular on Emmerdale works well, for example – but didn’t quite satisfy me in the ways that Burn the Floor or Brendan Cole: Licence to Thrill did. Still a fun night out, though.

Reviewed: Patti LuPone and Seth Rudetsky

Last night I went to see Broadway legend Patti LuPone being interviewed by Seth Rudetsky at the Leicester Square Theatre. My review for The Stage is now online.

Shows run until Sunday – see the theatre website for more details. I’m also going to be at Seth Rudetsky’s Deconstructing Broadway at the same venue on Saturday – if it’s anything like his warm-up routine last night, it’ll be an absolute hoot.

Review: Geek! A New Musical, Tristan Bates Theatre

My first review for Lisa Martland’s new publication, Musical Theatre Review. It’s an extended version of the 200-word version I wrote for The Stage.

It’s an interesting experience, writing essentially the same content to two very different word lengths…