Monday, 9 April 2012

ON DIRK GENTLY, ONE THING AND THE OTHER



Well I quite enjoyed that mini-series of 'Dirk Gently'. Like it's title character, who may be deranged genius or charlatan on the make, it's never quite possible to pin it down...

I mean, obviously you can get things. A bizarre and seemingly random succession of people and events will find their way onto a white board, and link up into a formula. Which will elude Gently for roughly 55 minutes. He will entreat everyone to watch out for coincidences, but not look out for the one coincidence he should have been looking out for. And so on.

But if you can often guess what's happening, where you're wrongfooted is over what you're watching. You know, not the things, not the building blocks, but the tone and spirit. A scene will look like knockabout comedy, chases and capers and all, then you're smacked by a sudden left hook. "Seventy years," comments a young woman after a recent death, "it's neither one thing nor the other." Which, at the end of the day, it isn't.

All smart and genre-defying stuff. But, on the other hand, are we just being given what we want? You know, us media-savvy types who want our TVs to tell us that we're clever. Too much of a good thing. Doesn't that start out as a plus, become a glut and then finally, inexorably a clog?

Let me explain this by taking a tangent...


As a kid, one of my favourite TV shows was 'The Avengers'. Of course, I'd never actually seen it or anything. It had long been off the TV and home recordings were a crazy futuristic dream. Instead I had to rely on my parents to tell me about it. This process might seem rather roundabout but actually added to the show's elusive quality. Unlike most stuff then on the TV, it seemed both one thing and another. It could be spy adventure andabsurdist comedy and surrealist vision. It didn't live inside those neat little genre boxes that confined most other shows. Like Mrs Peel and the traps set by felons for her on a weekly basis, it sprang free of all that.

In that sense the new 'Doctor Who' would seem to owe more to 'The Avengers' than to the old 'Who'. As does 'Sherlock.' As does... and you may well be ahead of me here... 'Dirk Gently.' Like people and events on a white board, it's all starting to link up.


Let me explain this by taking a tangent...

I grew up in the late Seventies and early Eighties, a foreign country if ever there was. Take for example our school music lessons, where our teachers would lecture us on their classical music and how it was objectively superior to our silly pop music. We didn't understand their music, all this stuff about time signatures and recurrent themes, and that proved its worth. They didn't understand our music, which proved it's foolish irrelevance. The whole thing was self-evidently ridiculous, even to us eleven year olds.

They seemed guardians not only of an archaic style of music but the very model of society, which was predicated on everything staying inside it's neat little box, or else anarchy would ensue. So naturally, shaking it up seemed not just desirable but my whole mission in life. If a rock band (say Led Zeppelin) referenced classical music that was just one more step to breaking down those walls. Like Mrs Peel, they were staging a breakout.


Now fast forward to a more contemporary character, such as the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who calls Beethoven a "cat" and makes a point of liking both him and Led Zeppelin. In one sense, fair enough, I like both of them too. But as soon as the thing is taken up in that execrable way the limits of it dawn on you. I like them in different ways. They don't live in different boxes, but they come from different places. They work better apart, as one thing and the other. As soon as you start to imagine them as interchangeable you start to file off at the edges of what made them individual, and what's left is simply homogenous.

Dirk Gently, Sherlock, the Doctor... a dynamic lead who may be genius or deranged, with a plodding, blokeish sidekick in tow. They embark on adventures from rollicking thriller to poignant drama to self-aware comedy and back. Two out of three gain traction from reminding us they were based on an original text which did none of this, back in that black-and-white past. And we, the audience, make the leaps with them. We are, after all, modern and sophisticated and want TV screens which reflect us.

Let me explain this by taking a tangent...

Robyn Hitchcock's original band, the Soft Boys, played psychedelic music at the height of punk. Except what they played was psychedelic music crossed with punk, when the two were held to never mix. He compared it to playing with plasticine which somehow kept it's different colours. Except, he reflected, finally the plasticine all went browny grey, and the band had to split.

Which is my point. We should beware of too much of what we fancy. If we keep playing with the different-coloured plasticine like we are, it will all go browny grey. It will be neither one thing nor the other.

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