05 January 2007

The Ruby Up Its Smoke

I am so sick of PMI — postmodern "irony". If well done, it is captivating and amusing for about ten minutes, after that it starts to have the grating quality of squeaky chalk. The term "irony" is, in any case, one of the worst abuses of the English language of all time. 95% of the time when it is used, what is really meant is "mockery".

BBC drama productions seem to have a particular line in PMI. It's as if all BBC producers are nowadays required to attend some training course called "How to ensure all topics and themes are treated with sufficient nudge-nudge, we-are-so-past-this knowingness". Russell T Davies's Dr Who and Torchwood are absolutely predicated on this. Which is why, in spite of their wonderful production values which ensure a certain appeal, they are ultimately about as satisfying as strawberry flavour gruel.

Now, while PMI works reasonably well in things like Torchwood, there are some things it is absolutely fatal for. Obviously the classics can't really survive it, unless you want to turn them into something else altogether — which of course lots of people do. (Although, funnily enough, Shakespeare's 'comedies' might actually benefit from the treatment. I quite liked the BBC's recent treatment of Midsummer Night, for example.)

It isn't just classics, though, which are murdered by the PMI school of drama. Some contemporary novels, which derive their interest value from (anachronistically) taking things seriously, cannot survive the "ain't it all a lark, guv" approach.

A good illustration of this was the Christmas screening of Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke. Now Pullman may not be exactly great literature, but he is very good at conveying a certain kind of near-hysterical sense of tension. In the Sally Lockhart novels, this is even more crucial than in the Dark Materials trilogy, where the excitement is sustained largely by interesting fantasy elements.

The plot of Ruby is not terribly original. Without the emotional atmosphere that Pullman creates, what you get left with is so-so Victorian melodrama. And that is precisely what we got with the BBC's production. A rather tedious, pedestrian drama about Dickensian villains and villainesses.

For a start, Billie Piper was a spectacular piece of miscasting, though one can easily imagine how it arose: "We have to have a big audience for a Christmas evening on BBC1. Shall we (a) cast an unknown actress who would be really good for the part, or (b) a famous one who isn't?" Piper tried her best, and gave what I thought was a good performance, against her usual type. But the part calls for someone very sharp and resourceful — a bit like a more grown up version of HDM's Lyra — and this was either too remote from Piper's usual self for her to manage, or the producers thought this crudified version would actually appeal better to a mainstream audience, or both.

In any case, the atmosphere of the book was almost totally lacking. Where Pullman gives us a different take on Victorian London by adding surreal menace, the BBC gave us their usual PMI take. Which wasn't helped by Julie Walters doing her standard Mrs.Overall-CynthiaPayne charwoman act, with a bit of psychopathy added.

Possibly the PMI element was unintentional, but it was there nonetheless, adding a subtle note of mockery. (Er, note to producer, surrealism does not equal "irony".) Perhaps the BBC is so infused with the spirit of PMI by now that it just can't help applying it to anything PMI-sensitive it touches. ("Ooh, look at that poor bit of pre-postmodern culture over there! Let's go and apply a bit of PMI colour to it, I am sure that will cheer up the old dear.")

In complete contrast, ITV repeated just before Christmas (on ITV3) its 1999 production of The Turn of the Screw — the Henry James story about two children who may or may not be possessed. This, in spite of having a contemporised flavour, succeeded against the odds in reproducing at least some of the atmosphere of the original. While it wasn't perhaps as scary, it did capture the surreal quality of the story, with a minimum of gimmicks. Jodhi May was very good in a part that must be exceptionally difficult to pull off. (You need to seem sweet and caring, while giving just the merest hint that you may be a raving schizo.) Certainly I found the whole thing far more convincing than the 1961 movie co-scripted by Truman Capote and starring Deborah Kerr.

Incidentally, if they ever redo the movie with Nicole Kidman (they came close with The Others), I shall never be able to read Henry James again. Kidman's problem isn't PMI, it's something else again, which I think of as "flattening of affect". But that's a whole other post altogether.

Potted review of ITV's After Thomas: all you need to know
Boy is stroppy — mum can't cope — dad at wit's end — diagnosis "autism" — see friendly doctor — buy dog — boy bonds with dog — boy cured — the end. (Isn't Keeley Hawes lovely though?)