Monthly Archives: April 2011

John Sullivan

Between the late seventies and the mid-eighties John Sullivan created some of the finest, most popular and acclaimed comedies on TV. The first was Citizen Smith, about a Tooting-based revolutionary: “Power to the people!” He followed that success with Only Fools and Horses and Just Good Friends, consistently the highest-rated sitcoms of their time. His star faded more recently; the revival of OFAH after its natural finish was no match for the original. But this should not dull his reputation: those three sitcoms will live on long after others are forgotten.

A chunk of their success is no doubt a result of the casting and performances. Citizen Smith made Robert Lindsay a star. OFAH had David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, both sitcom veterans already. Just Good Friends had the charisma and chemistry of Paul Nicholas and Jan Francis. But an actor needs a character to inhabit and dialogue to speak; it is only through lines on the page that the character can come to life. That’s what John Sullivan was a master of.

A believable character has a distinct voice. Only Del Boy could say lovely jubbly. Imagine Rodney saying it: to me it sounds weird, wimpy, half-hearted. And that tells you about Rodney’s character too. Actors occasionally say “but I wouldn’t say that” of a line, and that’s only possible when the character lives on the page; when the character has enough character for a duff line to be noticeable.

Del Boy’s catchphrases and mannerisms certainly helped cement his fame and longevity. People like the familiar, the expected, the Exterminate! and the Nice to see you, to see you, nice. It’s a tribal thing: the sense of shared culture, the feeling of belonging. Those catchphrases can only emerge from strong, well-drawn characters. A strong character has a life of its own: it must do what it must do, not whatever is necessary to match a prewritten gag. The best comedy comes from the characters simply interacting in the situation.

Character is the unlabelled third leg of the sitcom stool. A good sitcom needs a compelling situation and decent gags – and also believable characters. Lose one of these and the stool topples accompanied by a sad trombone. Changing one of the three can prove a mistake – and OFAH wasn’t immune to this problem once it became successful and could afford a special in Miami, for example.

For me, OFAH’s finest moments are not the scenes we all know: the chandelier, the bar. Those are the standard Top 100 celebrifake clips, effective and classic but plain old visual gags, standalone and almost independent of character and situation. Sullivan’s best writing moved from comedy to drama and back in a heartbeat. When the actor playing Grandad, Lennard Pearce, died, Sullivan wrote Grandad’s death into the story.

My favourite sequence in OFAH is the birth of Del’s son. The story flips from Rodney’s panic about the impending antichrist to Raquel’s painful labour to Del’s first speechless, confused moments of fatherhood to the final, tender scene at the hospital window where Del talks to his new son – inevitably named Damien – about his future. It ends, of course, with Del telling him that “this time next year we’ll be millionaires”. And you’re laughing, and crying, and that’s writing.

John Sullivan’s best work remains the gold standard, the yardstick, the high bar with or without a tumbling spiv. He’s an inspiration, an ambition, a goal. A huge legacy; a great loss.

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5 CLS

One of the few non-spoilers I can relate about the new Duncan Jones film Source Code is that it’s not released under the GPL. Oh, and it has a 12 certificate rather than an X.509 certificate. Even so, I imagine someone from the smoking remains of Caldera/SCO is already, Terminator-like, reaching an immortal hand from a lava lake in a bid to claim that certain lines of the screenplay are copied verbatim from its priceless intellectual property – where by “lines” they mean “words”, such as “include” and “the”.

The truth is that Source Code is undoubtedly inspired by at least one other copyrighted work, as subtly acknowledged by one particular casting choice and a line delivered by that character. It’s part Groundhog Day, part Quantum Leap.

The Bill Murray/Scott Bakula role is taken by Jake Gyllenhaal’s big blue eyes. Other characters probably appeared. I found only two flaws in his performance: he was occasionally off-screen, and he kept his clothes on. I trust he can learn from this experience and rectify it in future roles.

sigh …

Sorry. Drifted off there briefly.

The Quantum Leap part: Jake-sigh wakes to find himself seemingly in another person’s body. But why? How? And then for reasons unknown he’s suddenly somewhere else, with the equivalent of the Quantum Leap character Al – some woman or other. It becomes evident he must go back, Groundhog-like, and repeat himself. We discover what’s going on as he does; indeed the film starts with no preamble bar some city-swooping scene-setting in the opening credits – we’re straight into the story, as confused as Jake.

As with Duncan/Zowie Jones/Bowie’s previous film, Moon, the screenplay doesn’t spoon-feed you or festoon the sets with neon arrows honking at plot points. It toys with you a little: a misdirection here, a surprise there. It’s more moving than you might expect. It’s an intelligent film that treats you as more than the slack-faced drooler Hollywood usually targets. And I’m pleased to say that it’s resplendent in all two of the traditional, sufficient movie dimensions.

One of the few nits I can pick in the film – ignoring Jake’s lack of lack of clothes – is the title. I’m sure no-one will settle down with their popcorn expecting ninety minutes of emacs pr0n or even Linus Torvalds’ life story (well, if they can make a film about Facebook), but it feels as though they couldn’t think of a better title. It’s not wrong, exactly, but nor does it feel entirely right. On the other hand, perhaps it puts off the droolers – who’d last about fifteen minutes before ejecting overpriced confectionery and bleating about the lack of nudity black and white hats.

Jones is quickly earning a reputation for intelligent, entertaining, genuinely thought-provoking movies. I look forward to seeing how he trumps this one with his next film, which I understand will be a subtle allegory about the Vietnam war called Underfloor Heating.

Avaragado’s rating: swiss cheese

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Inflection point

It was an eighties telly in a seventies wooden box – complete with shutters you could draw across the screen, like music hall curtains closing on Spandau Ballet. A boxy remote the size of Dagenham was optimistically labelled with the full range of digits, only three of which had purpose. The remote did have a red button: for turning off the TV. I pressed, and held, and a red light on the remote blinked furiously until an overlong timer fired and the TV switched off. Not standby: off. The power button on the TV popped out with an alarming clunk. The not-flat, not-square tube crackled with static.

“Lift.” Feet up for Mum’s hoover, a frantic round of pre-holiday housework.

I’d been parked in front of the TV for a couple of hours watching the special coverage of Columbia’s maiden flight, Live by Satellite from Cape Canaveral. But Young and Crippen wouldn’t be flying that day: the pocket-protected NASA techs were taking no chances. Even with the world watching, another few days of tests wouldn’t matter. The shuttle programme was several years late already.

By the time Columbia arced into the Florida sky, two days later, we were settled in to our cottage at the Coral Reef Club in Barbados. Fancy. Launch was at 7am EST, one hour behind us, and since that time on a Sunday was in those days purely a hypothetical concept I didn’t watch it live. I saw later replays on a snowy hotel portable, Barbados TV showing a feed from a US network. It was 12 April 1981, twenty years to the day from Gagarin’s flight, and three days before my twelfth birthday.

Later, I’m asked: “Do you want to go waterskiing?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t want to.” I’d been skiing on previous holidays and enjoyed it. Grab the handle, crouch in the water, let the skis pull you upright as the motor roars, lean back, bend the knees, relax the shoulders, smile for the instamatics. Push down a little with either foot to drift to one side, even over the wake into choppier waters. Keep going until your arms fall off.

This time, though, I didn’t want to ski. But I did want to. I just didn’t want to belly-flop forward when the speedboat surged, or to catch an edge while waving to the beach, or to lose my balance venturing out of the wake. I didn’t want to fail. Failure was not an option, I’d decided.

I watched from the boat and from the beach. “Your turn next Dave?” No. My bare heels dug deep in smooth Caribbean sand. I retreated into my head: to science fiction, or the notebook in which I scribbled snippets of rubbish eighties code.

But even though puberty was beginning to ensnare me, dragging me to surly adolescence from the cosy certainties of childhood, I was no vampiric, coal-impersonating minigoth. I sizzled gently in the April sun, and swam where the spiky, poisonous sea urchins had been cleared. I explored the coast a little with my brother and his friend Robert, here with his parents in a multi-family extravaganza. We played shuffleboard – essentially, man-sized shove ha’penny.

My family tried again to persuade me to go waterskiing. Again I refused. “I just don’t want to.” It had become a point of principle: the more they went on about it, the more I was determined not to do it, even if I secretly wanted to. I just didn’t want to enough.

At some point during the holiday, I don’t remember how or when, I became friends with a girl called Carrie. Or Kerry. Or something like that. She was about my age, maybe a year older, on holiday from Florida with her family. We, like, totally hung out.

By her last evening on the island, the now-twelve-year-old grown-up me was beginning to wonder whether this qualified as a bona fide holiday romance. Perhaps it was, I thought, but as far as romance was concerned I was still skiing resolutely within the wake. After dinner, just the two of us, on a beach cool and quiet bar the lazy Caribbean rhythm of gentle waves and broadcasting crickets, we lay on sun loungers under moonlight and talked about everything – nearly everything. It was getting late.

“So… can you stay out a bit longer?” she asked. It seemed an Important Question.

“Um…” A little downward pressure on one ski and I’d start to drift to the wake. Push left, go right. That’s all I’d need to do. Simple, easy. “Er, I’ll need to go and check.”

I caught an edge.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Mum back at the cottage. “Time to stay in now.”

I somersaulted into the sea, skis cartwheeling off, handle skipping away in pursuit of the boat.

I don’t think I saw Carrie again. Or Kerry. Whatever.

On our last full day in Barbados, the constant nagging finally broke me. That’s not strictly true. “I tell you what,” said Robert’s dad, “I’ll give you twenty dollars if you waterski.”

There’s a photo somewhere of my brother, me and Robert, skiing three abreast. Easy money. I fell over while peeling off to ski unpowered to the shore, but that’s life, I guess. I lost no time in collecting the cash.

That holiday was memorable for many reasons: for beginnings and endings, for decision and indecision. For an uncertain glimpse into a future not to be, from a present clinging to the past. And for one other thing.

On my twelfth birthday that Wednesday, I had a few presents to open. One was small, no bigger than a packet of cigarettes. It was a silver box with an LCD display, a volume wheel tucked along the short side, and a single small button on top. When you pressed the button the box spoke the time. “It’s nine forty-three AM.” And there was a stopwatch. “One minute, ten seconds elapsed.” And an alarm. “Attention please. It’s ten fifteen AM. Please hurry” – followed by a few bars of music. It seemed magical, impossibly small.

I still have it. It’s by my bed, as it has been for thirty years, now grumpily sharing space with my iPhone. It’s seen me through school, college and nearly two decades of work. I never sleep late enough for it to wake me these days; it’s a backup, chiming and talking at 8am, 8.05am, and 8.10am, reliably, reassuringly. Eighties technology in a tens world.

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