15 January, 2008

What the Papers Say: "Moving Wallpaper"/"Echo Beach"

"Martine McCutcheon as cheeky Cockney sparra falling foul of no-good Albert Square hardmen we can take. Martine McCutcheon as prime ministerial Sarf London bobby dazzler we can just about work with. But Martine McCutcheon in knitwear? Martine McCutcheon as Celia Johnson spouting cut-glass vowels? No. And Jason Donovan, equally cut glass and careworn (although admittedly looking better than the drugs and take-me-seriously-as-an-artist years)? Well – splutter – it’s all wrong.

Is this the idea? A colleague reckons Echo Beach (ITV1) is deliberately bad and should be appreciated as such. Certainly, it comes packaged with a postmodern wink; preceding it, Moving Wallpaper supposedly follows the behind-the-scenes making of Echo Beach. The show about the show, while not great, has at least some spark, whereas Echo Beachis so laughably bad you start to think it must be the joke show, the one we’re not really supposed to take for real.

Echo Beach, according to the producers of Moving Wallpaper, is a glamorous new soap: a bit of Dallas made by us Brits. The problem is we have tried it (moderately successfully) before with Howards Way – OK, the Mermaid boatyard wasn’t Ewing Oil but the credits and theme music rocked. But the really bum note is that it doesn’t even play like a nighttime soap. It feels distinctly daytime – despite the presence of McCutcheon and Donovan and the gorgeous, sweeping shots of Cornish countryside and coastline, the concerns are resolutely domestic and teenage: how weird it is for children to be calling Martine and Jase “Mum” and “Dad”.

The Cornish setting is an almost literal transplant of Home and Away. And the script? Ouch, ouch, ouch: “Go and never come back,” cries Martine to Jason above the punding surf. Into the pub waddle Mike Baldwin and Mrs McCluskey from Grange Hill, speaking of doomy events past, revolving around Donovan and a death at sea. Hang on, didn’t Neighbours’ Harold Bishop disappear at sea? Might he again wash up at Echo Beach?

The teenagers do their best, cavorting at beach parties and hunting for “pussy”. But McCutcheon and Donovan, the central couple you are meant to root for, are somnambulant. Only Hugo Speer, playing McCutcheon’s husband and the most inevitable cuckold on television, serves up some spikiness. Part of the minuscule pleasure of Echo Beach is seeing the things that the producers in Moving Wallpaper have inserted, sometimes ludicrously:the Asian barmaid (a nod to ethnic minority quotas insists the megalomanical producer Jonathan Pope, played by Ben Miller); and instead of a salty seadog harbour master, a young hunk pacing the sea wall. Pope wants glamour and cliffhangers and tits and pecs. He wants gorgeous young people. He is vile and you root for him.

When one writer complains that the show’s romantic betrayals are intended as a metaphor for the economic betrayal of Cornwall he looks at her as if she has rabies. He thinks in terms of British Soap award-winning categories. Susie Amy, formerly of Footballers’ Wives, offers her sexual services just to get a speaking role. There is a lot of bravely indiscreet and biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you talk of ITV1 and its demands and expectations.

But even this satire isn’t as spot-on as other behind-the-scenes-on-a-soap films such as Tootsie and Soap-dish (in which the story chief Whoopi Goldberg memorably cried that the producers couldn’t bring back a character as he had been decapitated – they did). As Mistresses also showed this week, the British covet the pace and wit of Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty but just can’t do it. Maybe we should give Echo Beacha chance, maybe a beautiful butterfly will emerge. But Martine, lose the knitwear."


Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

"Today this column will be written in the style of Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach (ITV1). So the first half of the column will cover the process of how it came about. I will describe the thoughts that went into it, the changes of mind, the discussions and arguments with my editor. There will be some in-jokes about journalism and newspapers, which I'm afraid you probably won't get. Then the column proper will begin. It will be tired and lame and cheesy, full of cliches, but that will kind of be the point (I think). And although you'll realise it's rubbish, you may enjoy some of the references and nods back to the first part, the preamble, and think the whole thing is devilishly clever.

Actually, maybe I won't do that. Mainly because it would be annoying. And also, I've really confused myself now: writing about writing about writing about a TV show about another TV show.

Better to start at the other end, the second of these two conjoined TV shows. Echo Beach is pretty standard soap fare. We're in Cornwall, there's a pub, hordes of young attractive surfer totty, love rivals, skeletons in every cupboard, family feuds, stereotypes, an ethnic quota, and a baited hook at the end of the episode to snare you for the next. A couple of real former soap stars - Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon - have even washed up on Echo Beach.

Standing alone, Echo Beach would be very uninteresting. Why, you might wonder, has ITV tried to rescue itself by relocating Home and Away to the west country? But it doesn't stand alone, because it's preceded by Moving Wallpaper, which makes it a different thing altogether.

Moving Wallpaper is a behind-the-scenes show about the making of Echo Beach. It's still fictional, though: a sitcom about the making of a soap, if you like (I don't very much). It's a bit darker and more knowing than its sister ship. Ben Miller plays an obnoxious producer parachuted in to rescue the ailing soap a couple of weeks before it's due to go out. So we get to see him doing things in Moving Wallpaper, and then the consequences of those actions in the show that follows. We know why the cafe in Echo Beach has no furniture: because Miller spent the entire prop budget on a wet room for his office in the previous show. And Susie Amy (who you may remember as Chardonnay in Footballers' Wives) only has a part in the soap because, playing herself in Moving Wallpaper, she gave Miller a blowjob.

It certainly makes watching Echo Beach more entertaining - spotting stuff that refers to things in the previous show. But I can't really see that being enough to sustain interest throughout 12 episodes of what is otherwise a lame soap.

And Moving Wallpaper isn't so great, either. Miller is good, but what he's working with isn't. If TV writers can't write about TV writing, what can they write about? Take that blowjob, for example. Amy makes the offer in a whisper, which Miller mishears. "Snow job?" he asks, looking puzzled. "What, like gritting the roads?"

That's wrong in so many ways: well, at least four. One: you would never mishear blowjob as snowjob. Two: if someone just said they'd do anything you wanted, including something ending in -owjob, you'd probably guess what it was they were offering. Three: snowjob doesn't mean anything at all, certainly not gritting the roads. Four: it's not even funny, anyway.

Maybe I'm missing something. Is it supposed to be bad? Another pastiche? Bad writing about bad writing? I'm getting so confused now, about what's real and what's not, and what level I'm supposed to be watching it all on. I'm bound to be missing things, quite possibly the whole point.

It all looks like it's an attempt by ITV to copy Extras, with which it shares a lot of ground: TV about TV, in-jokes, real celebrities happy to makes arses of themselves and display their own precious neediness (though Martine McCutcheon and Jason Donovan possibly can't really compete with Kate Winslet and Denzel Washington). But it's not as well-written, nor as funny. And it tries far too hard. The result is a mess.

I'm also slightly worried about this obsession that TV currently appears to have with itself. What will happen if it continues? I think it may turn into one giant impenetrable swirling vortex of onanism."


Kathryn Flett, The Observer

"I do believe in the smart, modern, middle-class television executives who are portrayed in ITV1's high-concept, genre-busting comedy-satire (and brave experiment in viewer flattery-cum-befuddlement), Moving Wallpaper, in which Ben Miller is Jonathan Pope, a ruthless, egomaniacal TV producer who, in the first episode, was hired to sort out a fictional ITV1 soap, 'Polnarren', which, though not yet on screen, was already looking like a cross between Eldorado and Triangle

His solution was to turn dull 'Polnarren' into sexy Echo Beach, starring Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon, while ensuring boxes were ticked for every category in the British Soap Awards.

'What else have we got?' demanded Pope, halfway through his revamp.

'Most Dramatic Episode and Best Comedy Performance...'

'Talk to the writers, see if we can blow up something funny. Double whammy.'

The first episode of Moving Wallpaper was, metaphorically, all about blowing up something funny, which made for a very amusing 30 minutes. It is also - and this is the high-concept, genre-busting bit - followed by the soap it portrays. If this is rather less successful, it's partly because soaps take a while to get going - a luxury not afforded Echo Beach, which is a 12-part series pretending to be a soap - but also because the show only exists as a self-referential adjunct to Moving Wallpaper. None the less, Moving Wallpaper will make you want to see the heroically naff Echo Beach (played with a combination of knowing delight by the soap veterans and appropriately wide-eyed enthusiasm from the newbies), if only to keep tabs on the results of Pope's febrile executive string-pulling, while the stars of Echo Beach will increasingly slip their sudsy leashes to send themselves up in Moving Wallpaper

For ITV1, this is all very brave; not only is TV about TV notoriously difficult to persuade viewers to love (Vivienne Vyle anybody?), but even the broadest of satirical brush strokes may end up, counterproductively, painting over the artfully designed Wallpaper. And that would be a real shame. For an industry in the midst of a bout of nervous navel-gazing, there's far more riding on this kind of innovative commissioning than the life (or indeed death) of one or two smart little series. I really hope it works. And if it doesn't? Well, what would Simon Cowell do?"


Gerard O'Donovan, Daily Telegraph

"Rather more original was ITV1’s new back-to-back combo Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach. In fact, it’s hard to believe there will be a more intriguing piece of programming in the whole of 2008. Moving Wallpaper is a snappy, knowing, tongue-in-cheek comedy set behind-the-scenes on a TV soap called... well, Echo Beach, actually. The opener centred on a producer-from-hell (Ben Miller), as he took a dull, dated soap-series idea, shook it by the neck until the cast, crew and writers fell about screaming, then reformed it as a glamorous OC-style soap set in the idyllic, sun-washed, surf paradise that is, er, Cornwall.

The ultimate media in-joke, Moving Wallpaper was a tart little dish of puffed up egos, knowing nods and rampant ratings-related amorality (and far funnier than either Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or 30 Rock). Yet, just as we were getting over the news that soaps are jokes played on viewers by cynical TV execs and advertisers, we got Echo Beach itself. It featured Jason Donovan, Martine McCutcheon and a legion of pretty beach boys and girls, complete with all the bells, whistles and outrageous little tricks we’d seen planned and perpetrated in Moving Wallpaper. But played absolutely straight and, actually, not half badly.

So what’s the big idea? Will the two shows eventually merge? Diverge? Collapse into each other and form the first televisual black hole? All I can say is, I’m genuinely dying to find out. I mean, what a novel idea: putting something on the telly that’s so intriguing you can hardly bear to wait for the next couple of episodes (tonight), and maybe even the next again (next Friday). And what the hell is all this doing on ITV1, anyway?"


Daily Mirror

"After all the years presiding over those miserable EastEnders, former story consultant Tony Jordan is having a laugh at soap's expense.

He's set this in Cornwall, a lifestyle as far from Walford as you can imagine - though it looks just as cold.

It's rare that you see something totally new onTV and this two-shows-in-one concept is a real revelation. I reckon you'll love it.

Moving Wallpaper shows the (fictional) behind-the-scenes birth of soap Polnarren - soon to be renamed and sexed up by incoming producer Jonathan Pope (Ben Miller). In Echo Beach we see the finished product, starring Jason Donovan, Martine McCutcheon and Helen Lederer's daughter, Hannah Lederer Alton.

The deeply cynical and very funny Moving Wallpaper is the most enjoyable. Pope rewrites the show with the sole intention of cleaning up at the National Soap Awards.

Daft as it sounds, it's hard to care about the Echo Beach folk once we know they're made-up characters.

But I'll carry on watching to see if Pope makes good on his promise to blow up something funny - clinching Most Dramatic Scene and Best Comedy Performance in one stroke."


Daily Mirror

"If Moving Wallpaper is an accurate picture of Eastenders production meetings, then it's a pity they didn't shoot those, and not actually bother with the programme they were supposed to be making.

The only thing that doesn't quite ring true about this behind-the-scenes set-up is the timeframe.

Yesterday we saw them still casting for the soap Echo Beach just days before they went on air, so are we meant to assume that Echo Beach is done entirely live?

That quibble apart, the second episode is as brilliant as the first.

Producer Jonathan Pope (Ben Miller) is appalled at the lack of interest in the whip-round for his birthday, there's a scathing dig at Casualty and a very funny sight gag at the expense of Ross Kemp.

Echo Beach which should be the punchline to this shaggy-dog setup still suffers from thinking it's a serious soap.

And as for Martine McCutcheon playing a 40-something mum and Jason Donovan's Pommy accent, the jury's still out on whether they're meant to be jokes or not."


Fridays, 9:00pm, ITV1 for 12 weeks


Bingethink said...

Wasn't sure about the first Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach. Like the newspaper reviewers I was struggling to gauge the tone - not of MW, which we've seen before (better, and also worse)in... Larry Sanders/The Show with Bob Mills/Bob Martin/Extras/Anually Retentive/30 rock/Studio 60etc etc, but of the real Echo Beach. Was it bad, or supposed to be bad, or badly good, or bad because of or in spite of Moving Wallpaper?

But the second Moving Wallpaper was much, much laugh-out-loud funnier (not written by Jordan), and as a result, I think, Echo Beach was more watchable as a contrast. I think Echo Beach is possibly brilliant, sitting on a fine line between engaging and awful. I really hope it's the subtlest parody I've ever seen - stuff like the caravan park, seen once from a swooping helicopter shot to be perched on a Cornish clifftop, but then every other angle seemingly filmed in a field in Teddington (?) is either a brilliant joke of setting, or just a cheap way to shoot a soap. I don't know. Maybe it's both?

Robin Kelly said...

I wish I had seen Echo Beach without seeing Moving Wallpaper first but I think "sitting on a fine line between engaging and awful" sums it up quite well.

It's watchable but it's like Eastenders when it should be more like Coronation Street or Emmerdale. Or rather a proper post-watershed version.