14 January 2008

'Blondes Make the Best Victims'

One snowy night years ago, when a girl I rather fancied at the time was foolishly wearing some decidedly inappropriate high-heeled strappy shoes, one of my friends related to me with great enthusiasm and an excess of detail the entirety of 'Think Fast, Father Ted' while we blundered about in the January snow. I'd not seen Ted at the time, and I'm afraid my friend's description didn't whet my appetite any.

Curiously enough, when I finally got round to seeing Ted for the first time, that was the very first episode I happened to stumble upon. I wasn't exactly swept away by it; Dermot and Ardle were great as Ted and Dougal, and Pauline McGlynn was fine as Mrs Doyle, but why the hell was Frank Kelly being wasted -- in so many senses -- as Jack? I was to be a few years before I changed my mind on Ted, and started to appreciate just how good it was, although even now I'm not convinced by Jack. I still think he's the one weak point in the series, but I rate its strengths rather higher now than I did at the time.

In the summer of 2006 I worked my way through the whole series, watching an episode each day while I ate my lunch, or listening to a commentary while I was cooking; this had the rather odd side-effect of reviving my Irish accent to the point where people took to asking me whether I'd been home at any point. No, I'd grin, I've just been watching lots of Father Ted.

You might remember my mentioning the commentaries the other day, when I was talking about RTE's brilliant Art Lives documentary on Graham Linehan. I described them as a 'comedy masterclass', and I'd really hold to that: aside from being very funny, listening to them and thinking about the episodes teaches an immense amount about the structure and timing of comedy, about the sitcom as a form, about the transformation of a written script into a full show, and about how actors realise and reinterpret the writers' vision.

'Think Fast, Father Ted' has a scene where the priests' car is -- for no apparent reason whatsover -- attacked by a flock of birds. In the commentary, Graham remarks that:
Arthur was obsessed with The Birds. He’s still obsessed with The Birds, ‘cause the special effects look so bad in it, and it’s considered such a classic. It’s just such an odd film in many ways. But, there’s a scene where there’s some schoolchildren running down the street and the birds are attacking in the background: it looks really fake, and Arthur just really wanted to have birds attacking them. Actually he specifically wanted that shot - he wanted that shot - and I didn’t really know what he was getting at, and neither did, y’know, neither did anyone else working on it, so he never quite got what he was after, and I felt bad because suddenly one day I saw it - I saw The Birds - and I thought, y’know, I had seen it but I hadn’t quite grasped what he was after, and I saw The Birds, and I thought, ‘Aww, okay. It’s the running really fast and the obvious fakeness in the background, and the camera slightly at a low angle looking up, and all this, and I didn’t realise he meant exactly exactly like The Birds.’
Arthur evidently carried his obsession for Hitchcock's apocalyptic fantasy over to Big Train; a few years back in Manchester I remember being nearly sick laughing at his brilliant parody 'Alfred Hitchcock's The Working Class'. It's absolutely spot on, right down to Simon Pegg being briefly replaced with an egregiously fake dummy.

Of course, The Birds is a film that's almost too easy to imitate; it's so distinctive in its look and tone, and contains so many unforgettable moments. It's hardly suprising then, that it was so perfectly drawn on in 'A Streetcar Named Marge', surely one of the best films in what really looks like the Golden Age of The Simpsons. You must have seen the scene towards the end of episode, where Homer goes to retrieve Maggie from the Ayn Rand School for Tots, only to walk into a room with every surface covered in babies, the only soundbeing that of hundreds of babies all sucking on their soothers; he gently picks up his daughter and then backs out of the room, and as he leaves the building Alfred Hitchcock can be seen strolling past, walking a couple of dogs. It's pretty much a shot-for-shot homage to The Birds.

I couldn't help but think of all this yesterday afternoon, looking out my window to refresh my eyes, tired from being glued to the screen: in the garden, and the adjoining gardens, and on the telephone wires, were hundreds of birds. There was at least half a dozen magpies, several jackdaws, a few starlings, a handful of jackdaws, a thrush or two, a blackbird, too many crows, and far too many terns for my liking.

I was only glad there weren't any seagulls.

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