Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Up the War Wall – Sky News’ Afghan war coverage

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

In conducting its attacks on Afghanistan, it can be argued that the Americans have relied too much on flashy technology and not enough on old-fashioned, on the ground intelligence. But they’re not alone – you can level the same charge against the TV channels reporting the war.

It’s a standard American mistake to confuse technological superiority with real superiority, but of course smart bombs are only as smart as the people aiming them. Spending lots of money on kit and then not being able to use it without making a huge mess of things is something that Sky News knows a fair amount about as well.

Sky’s NewsWall, SkyStrator and video stings complete with martial music must make Chris Morris wonder why he bothered at all. Murdoch’s executives obviously watched ‘Brass Eye’ with their notebooks out, muttering ‘Oh, that’s a good idea’.

But behind all this nonsense is a marked lack of joined-up thinking. Some of Sky’s journalists in the field are doing a pretty good job – David Chater, for example – but despite having all the time necessary for some intelligent analysis back in the studio, instead we see the same stories repeated on top of an underlying set of assumptions that are never questioned.

The military analysts they wheel on can discuss the effect of a daisy-cutter bomb, and the designers in the graphics studio can do up a nice graphic of this monster being lumbered out the back of a Hercules on a pallet, but you’ll not see anyone on Sky asking whether it’s a good idea to be dropping such devices in the first place.

The anchors on the shows are so lightweight that it’s no wonder the coverage drifts aimlessly around. While a tape of Osama bin Laden is dismissed as ‘Taliban propaganda’, the clip of a gung-ho George W. that immediately follows is presented as ‘the latest news’, as if it were inherently more reliable.

Like the middle-market tabloids in the UK like The Mail and The Express, Sky News accompanies its selective accounts of events with a limited range of opinions that won’t upset its viewers. Just occasionally a guest will make a more interesting point, and the anchors look aghast before it’s back to Francis for the weather.

Of course it’s my own fault for mistaking quantity for quality. Despite its immediacy, I find it a waste of time watching Sky News, because I only have to check everything they say against a more reliable news source later. Watching what the BBC and Channel 4 can do with a couple of videophones and a commitment to fair-minded broadcasting is a heartening contrast. And when David McWilliams is talking to Noam Chomsky on TV3’s Agenda programme, you begin to see that there is a wider range of opinion about events in Afghanistan than Sky can imagine.

When the BBC’s John Simpson is sifting through the rubbish in an abandonned terrorist training centre, or reporting on the hoof as he follows the Northern Alliance into Kabul, you know he’s asking himself ‘What is really going on here, and why should I believe what I’m told?’. 

Meanwhile, Sky’s James Forlong is on board a US aircraft carrier getting excited over all the cool bits of kit. Chiselled pilot Chuck is telling him, ‘I’m going out on these missions and just doing my job,’. Well at least one of them is.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision

Articles Film Square Eyes

What is says on the tin – Harry Potter reviewed

Monday, November 12, 2001

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ is that rarest of birds – a big-budget adaptation of a successful book that works. And it not only works, it also remains true to the plot, vision and values of the original.

Normally, ‘based on the novel by . . . ‘ means ‘well, it’s got the same title’, or at the very best ‘it was all going fine until we did the test screenings, and then we had to reshoot the ending’.

But here the film does exactly what it says on the tin. Aside from the most minor changes to the plot, we get the full story told in a faithful way, even down to the set design, where everything we’re told about Hogwarts is included (candles floating in the air over the dining hall tables, for example), and augmented by sympathetic details not in the book (like the medieval feel for the quidditch stadium).

And the casting is excellent: Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart (that’s John Lennon in ‘Backbeat’, not left back at Elland Road), Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, John Cleese, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane and Zoe Wannamaker. Some of them have no more than a handful of lines, but they add such heft to the film that you can forgive the three child stars when they falter a little.

If there’s heft from the cast, then there’s even more solidity from the story itself, an unlikely collision between a universal myth and an English boarding school jape. The narrative as Harry moves from neglected orphan to chosen one in a fight between good and evil is a classic mythic trope, and any similarities with ‘Star Wars’ are entirely deliberate, as they both draw on the same sources. Where George Lucas added space ships and blasters, Rowling adds dormitories and house points, but it’s a tribute to the film-makers that they left well alone. Voldemort is Darth Vader – the talented master of magic who went over to the Dark Side – but he’s also Lucifer, Sauron and any number of other examples of hubristic evil. And no prizes for seeing Harry as Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins.

My fear with the film version was that this sense of real badness would be toned down, but the movie is appropriately gruesome, and doesn’t pull any punches with some of the more graphic elements in the book. As one little girl remarked after the showing I saw, ‘it’s scary, disgusting but good’.

One result of this fidelity to the book is that the film runs for two and a half hours, but the thing is so carefully plotted and well-played that you scarecely feel the time drag. After the great immediacy of the quidditch match things get a little slow for a while, but in a cinema packed with kids, I didn’t see much restlessness at all.

So if you like the books, you won’t be disappointed in the film. If you’ve never read Harry Potter, the film gives you such a faithful version of the first book that you may as well just jump straight in with this. And don’t believe anyone who tells you that the book’s better, because what you’re seeing _is_ the book.

Posted by David in • Square EyesFilm

Articles Square Eyes Television UK

Sharp Cards – Late Night Poker reviewed

Monday, November 05, 2001

It’s 1am in the morning. Why would you want to watch complete strangers sitting around a table playing a card game you don’t fully understand? Because ‘Late Night Poker’ is the best game on TV, that’s why.

The premise is brilliantly simple. Stick serious poker players (some gifted amateurs, many hardened professionals) in a studio and record them playing cards. Add engaging expert commentary and the cool feature of being able to see what’s in everyone’s hand (there are cameras under the glass table), and you’re quids in.

Watching it, you’re being given an insight into a shadowy world that would normally be closed to you. The players are a diverse bunch, from Malaysian playboys to Irish builders, from glamorous Austrian women to a guy from Hull called the Devilfish, but they all share a few characteristics.

Firstly, the obligatory poker face. When you know they’ve got nothing in their hand, watch them try and bluff, or even more impressive, watch them feign uncertainty and fear when they’re on a strait. Remember their skills the next time you take your mangled bike to the shop and try a blank, ‘I don’t know what happened. I was just riding along. I’m sure it’s still under warranty.’

Secondly, the players take chances with the air of people who understand more about the world than the rest of us. In poker, you can play perfectly and still lose, and you won’t win anything without luck. In other words, these prodigiously calm risk-takers use their abilities as well as they can, in the full knowledge that it’s not completely down to them what happens. A lesson for us all.

Helping you understand all this is the excellent Jesse May, a commentator with the Technicolor vocabulary of an old Wild West movie. He describes the play as if it’s a bar-room brawl – when the river card is turned over on the table and someone’s just got slammed by a flush, he’s yelling, ‘say goodnight and call me a doctor!’, and after a fine piece of subterfuge sees a player bet big in the mistaken belief that they’ve got the best hand, Jesse reflects, ‘he had him sucked in like a dead dog.’

The play is remarkably dramatic when you consider that it’s just a few chips and some bits of card being passed around. The type of poker they’re playing means that there’s always some uncertainty, and glory or disaster can hinge on the revelation of the last card. 

The immediacy is enhanced by the judicious use of the under-table cameras. We see what one or two players have got, but are left guessing about some of the others. This puts us in the same position as the players, trying to read their opponents, and deciding how far to back their own hand. 

If this all sounds like I know loads about poker, I’m just bluffing, as I’ve never played in my life, and all my knowledge has come from a couple of episodes of the programme. But I’m hooked, and can’t wait for next week to hear Jesse wailing, ‘Here comes the flop, and ohhh, the Devilfish’s two sevens are down in flames, as Anand’s matched his eight with the eight on the table. Two snowmen freeze out the Devilfish!’

Posted by David in • Square EyesUKTelevision