The grunt work of carving out a TV episode

June 25, 2013

I loved this quote from David Chase, the brains behind The Sopranos, featured in a longer GQ article about James Gandolfini:

“Other people have good ideas. And they’re hard to come by. But in another sense, they’re a dime a dozen,” he tells me. “Turning an idea into an episode—that’s the grunt work. The organization can rest for a day or so, secure in the notion that we’ve got an idea. But eventually the showrunner’s the one who has to look at his watch and say, ‘How do we fill up forty-two minutes?’ We can all sit around and decide we want to make a Louis XIV table, but eventually somebody has to do the carving.”


RIP James Gandolfini

June 20, 2013

As for everyone who loved fine acting and great, great dramatic television – most of the people I follow on Twitter by the look of it – news of James ‘Soprano’ Gandolfini’s death came as a huge, horribly sad shock. Here’s a beautiful little vignette about the respect and joy he inspired, from Armando Iannucci’s account of filming In The Loop, in which Gandolfini starred.

We start off with the UK government, and then we see a whole new cast of American politicos at the US State Department, and follow their own office politics. So I had to bring in a whole new team of actors I hadn’t worked with before. James Gandolfini was someone I’d spoken to several times about an HBO project I’m working on, and he mentioned how much he enjoyed and “got” The Thick of It. When we wrote the part of a Pentagon general who sounds like he can talk the talk but never really manages to walk the walk, I instantly thought of him, simply because it was casting a little bit against type. I liked the idea of him being authoritative but pointless. And, it turned out in rehearsal and the shoot, James is very, very good at slapstick. He’s a natural comic performer, with a deep love of WC Fields. For many on set, though, he was their hero from The Sopranos and I’ll never forget the look on people’s faces when James turned up in the middle of the wet north London car park where we were all stationed, with a basketball, asking if anyone wanted to shoot some hoops with him. Suddenly, even the most unsporty nerd within a mile had developed a passion for the art of basketball and queued up to play. It was great to see excitement detonate so instantly over that wide a radius.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Colston Hall, Bristol

June 2, 2013

I’m writing this on the last train back to Swindon having seen musical/lyrical hero Elvis Costello and his Imposters at the Colston Hall in Bristol (although unfortunately having had to leave before the encore, thanks to a train timetable that seems expressly designed to make gig-going as impractical as possible). So in the spirit of semi-live blogging, here are a quick three personal takeaways. In no particular order, the gig was…

Fun – and this was, I’ll admit, something of a surprise. Not that I wasn’t expecting an enjoyable evening – I was – but I hadn’t expected Elvis himself to be having so much fun. You see: without much concrete evidence (aside from all those songs of bitterness and heartbreak of course) I’d formed an image of the man behind those famous specs as a pretty tortured fellow. And yet here he was as literal ringmaster of a stage bedecked with circus-themed props including a strengthometer, massive spinning songwheel and caged dancing showgirl. Inviting audience members up to grip the wheel and spin, thereby choosing the next song for the band to play whilst – on two occasions – gyrating alongside the sequinned dancer in her cage. The audience members that is, not Elvis (I didn’t mean he was having quite that much fun). And in amidst the songs chatting away about their origins, about Bristol, and about the rules of the whole spinning thing.

Strong – the Imposters are a four piece, with Elvis on vocals and sole guitar (and the other three on drums, bass and keys respectively) but make a pretty colossal racket. Steve Nieve pounds piano, then Hammond, then synth; often all within the space of one song. And as other bloggers have noted Elvis’ guitar work is blistering, but delicate and dextrous as well, when playing folkier acoustic numbers. Which brings me to number three…

Fresh – this gig really brought home to me how well Elvis’ more recent material (everything from 2004’s rootsy return to form The Delivery Man onwards, say) stands up against Classic Costello. And in fact my one critique of the set is that the band’s volume and apparent over-familiarity with the older tunes – Alison, Oliver’s Army and so on – rendered these segments a little blastingly indistinguishable, with one footstomping 70s/80s anthem blurring into the next. The more modern songs on the other hand were subtler, often beautiful: Bedlam, A Slow Drag With Josephine, and Jimmie Standing In The Rain (the last two from the excellent 2010 album National Ransom) were knockout.

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