Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A Look at the Conduct of Graham Linehan and Others on Twitter


(The follow-up to this piece is here: )

 (For an explanation of why I tweaked the title -  the piece itself is unaltered -  see the update below)

"Twitter made me", says the heading on The Guardian's latest interview with Graham Linehan (much to his consternation), but the question is, what has it made him into, and what kind of monster is it making of media bigshots? 

When I first followed Graham Linehan (@Glinner), we had a nice chat about Clive James, another hero of mine. He talked about his love of James's TV criticism, and I recommended his literary criticism, specifically the pieces on Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, and he then followed me back, sending me this: "Looking forward to your tweets." later on, we had another lovely exchange about One Foot in the Grave's placing in the great sitcom canon. I'd already been working on a heartfelt essay about Father Ted for my blog, championing it as the greatest sitcom this side of the Atlantic, and along with Seinfeld the greatest of all time. When I finished, I sent him a link to the piece by private message, and he sent me a warm private message back. That was a sunny day. 

I was excited that someone whose life's work I admired was following me, and paid attention to his tweets. He used Twitter intelligently, spotting good causes, new revelations and cutting through bullshit excuses. His takedown of the vile Toby Young after Young dismissed the Milly Dowler hacking story as "balls" and his campaign to challenge Fox News's lies about the NHS were good reasons for joining twitter in the first place [January 2015 update: the same goes for his other stances against rightwing scum such as Gamergaters or climate change deniers]. 

Around the same time, I noticed his weird attitude towards anyone who sent him a less than reverent tweet. Now, it is true that a flaw with twitter is that the "@" symbol and the word "mention" don't normally denote or even connote sending a message, but even so to send several bad-tempered tweets to a woman who told him he tweeted too much, or "and don't come back, shithead" to someone who put @ before his name in a tweet saying they had decided not to follow him anymore was not the kind of behaviour I joined twitter for. I couldn't imagine any of the other people I followed and interacted with on it (Lauren Beukes, for example, and Anne Billson: I've never seen a mean tweet from either of them) behaving like this. It got worse when I noticed that the hideous phrase "blocked for stupidity" was something of a catchphrase for him. He also wielded a blocking as a threat for anyone merely on the threshold of getting out of line: "hoping for a blocking, you two?" "Gah, gave you a chance. Blocked." "I'll overlook that obvious bit of trolling."

Things got worse when some poor devil - @jezwelshmon - tweeted to him that the films of Woody Allen were overrated: "Even the early films are shit, IMO.'#justsaying" . Glinner retweeted this with the word Blocked clamped over it. The Woody Allen heretic's subsequent tweets were like those of a lot of members of the public that have received public admonishment and blocking from this media figure: bemusement, unease (perhaps mindful of the army of supporters that Glinner has, that will take his side and could send further tweets the heretic's way) before ruefully changing the subject. Another tweeter, @culley25, had the guts to send this:

Grow up Graham for gods sake, blocking someone for having an opinion? Some advocate of free speech you are #hypocrite 

to which Glinner replied:

Only reason not blocking you is because you didn't write #justsayin, but I am going to try out this 'mute' option on tweetlogix

@culley25  pointed out:

He's not God, he doesn't have a divine right to have everything he says agreed with. [...] Also, Graham is not an idiot, he has a sizeable influence and by doing what he did he opens Jeremy [AKA @jezwelshmon] up to a lot of abuse. How rude and unnecessary is that? 

He later told me on Twitter that he hadn't even tweeted to Jeremy before, which increased my suspicion that the public, in sharp contrast to people in who work in the media, don't like bullying.

After sleeping on it, I realised which two people Glinner had begun to remind me of. One was Tommy Boyd, who was a presenter on the horrific TalkSport station in the years when I listened to it in insomniac hours (before the "so bad it's good" effect wore off). Boyd differed from the others in, as far as I remember, not being explicitly political: there was little stuff from him about the brilliance of George W Bush, the evil of Ken Livingstone, the non-existence of Global Warming and the madness of Political Correctness. Instead, Boyd would lose his temper with callers, indiscriminate of age or gender: "You'll probably hear him bullying an old woman in a moment" said my Dad, when he caught me listening to him, and it was this sentence which had come back to haunt me. I realised that scanning Glinner's Twitter feed was like listening to Boyd's show: waiting for an explosion towards a fairly innocuous member of the public.

The other was Ian Levine, a blight on the Doctor Who fan community for decades who violently insults anyone who disagrees with him about a television show. A man who, to use a quote from that very show, is "king of his own little world."

The crisis point came when Giles Coren was sent this tweet by Alice Vincent regarding an article of his:

Columnists basing their opinions around their children. So yawn. Your column today is one step up from a mumsnet blogpost 

Coren replied "Go fuck yourself, you barren old hag." Astonishingly, Glinner and two other media big cheeses - Charlie Brooker and Ben Goldacre - took the view that this was an understandable response to a very rude tweet, and that if one of those tweets was really was more offensive than the other, it wasn't Coren's. Glinner was angry and got angrier:

Looks like she set out to offend and upset him, so she shouldn't be surprised when he got offended and upset [...] that's not criticism, it's an obnoxious bit of trolling. I've no sympathy for trolls. 

Significantly, he pointed out that he too had problems with "trolls": “I just have sympathy for people who get nasty things sent to them on Twitter. Because it happens to me.” The rise of those plebs who wouldn't stop sending him inappropriate sentiments about the quality of Woody Allen's films clearly rankled. As his anger grew, he started to make more ludicrous claims for the integrity of Coren's tweet. He sent the Twitter equivalent of a telegram of congratulations to Coren

Just a quick congrats to @gilescoren for standing up for blogging mums last night. cc @trollsandtheirsupporters 

He now claimed that Alice Vincent had displayed a "casually contemptuous tone [...] towards Blogging mothers" and that Coren's wife and children had been insulted. Oddly enough, as that "cc" makes clear, this was clearly motivated more by spite against those that wouldn't stop Answering Back, hence his solo game of Chinese Whispers regarding Vincent's tweet. Indeed, Glinner pointed out he'd never met Coren. His dislike for those that supported the "blogging about your kids again/so yawn/mumsnet" comments had led him into bed with the devil, or at least a restaurant critic. An odd moment came when someone questioned whether someone who does what Coren does to restaurant proprietors should demand no criticism. Glinner replied: "it's completely different because he doesn't send the restaurant owners the review and ask that they read them." One might point out it's also completely different because Vincent's single tweet won't affect Coren's livelihood. Restaurant owners at the mercy of hacks like Coren are hardly comforted by the fact they don't have to read the paper: their customers will. Would Graham Lineham normally be defending a man like this?

Things got desperate when Linehan tweeted:

I'm sure his sister and wife will be surprised to hear that he HATES WOMEN 

 As one startled tweeter put it, Glinner was now reduced to the old "how can I hate women: my mum's one" defence. It seems unlikely someone that smart genuinely believes only the unmarried and sisterless ever make misogynistic remarks. Glinner was so determined to put these impudent puppies in their place, he was abandoning his usual reason.

The hideous term "trolls", previously reserved for the kind of racist or neo-Nazi filth people put in YouTube comments sections to get a reaction, was now being used to apply to the phrases "yawn" and "one step up from a mumsnet post". Unfortunately for Glinner, the trolls weren't shutting up. Eventually, he posted a blog account - "Incident at an otherwise enjoyable party", which put paid to any notion that the obnoxiousness of his tweets on this subject was due to the 140 character limit. Here, the closest he could come to condemning Coren's tweet was to say that he wished it had been more Wilde-like. Bizarrely, his attempts to reimagine the incident as if it had occurred at a party in order to make his point actually made his defence of Coren's foul outburst more inexplicable. What has happened to Graham Linehan if he genuinely thinks that if a young woman mocked Coren's latest article at a party and he roared "Go fuck yourself, you barren old hag", the people standing around with drinks would sympathise with Coren rather than either give him a wide berth or remonstrate with him?

Meanwhile, Alice Vincent, who had taken little part in the subsequent argument, had by now been called "shitty" "cowardly" "crap" "dickish" "obnoxious"' "no-class" a "twat" , a "prick" a "moron", a "dope" and a "troll" who had a "lot of growing up to do", all by Graham Linehan on the basis of "so yawn" and "one step up from a mumsnet post". Those that defended her were told to "fuck off", were "blocked for stupidity", were called "morons", "trolls" and "twats", all the time subject to what Glinner called " a spring-clean with the block-button".

Not long afterwards, a tweeter - @hallor - dared to send Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat a tweet that wasn't sycophantic. Moffat had decided to claim that River Song, a character on Doctor Who, was bisexual, and the tweeter raised the point that if her creator has to point this out, is it really much of an advance:

appreciate the thought but I don't understand how River works for bisexual visibility when people need to be told she is bi

Unnerved by these stimulating points, which attempted to complex questions to him rather than praise his work, Moffat replied the only way he could:


Hallor replied:

If people need to be told she's bisexual, she's clearly not contributing to bisexual visibility. How is this hard to grasp?

Moffat replied:

When did I say I thought I was contributing to bisexual visibility?? Please stop being rude to me, you have no reason to be.

Hallor replied:

I've been nothing but polite. Disagreeing with your opinion on something does not automatically mean I'm being rude.

At this point Tom Spilsbury, the editor of Doctor Who Magazine, chipped in with:

The comment that was rude was the 'hard to grasp' one. I know, because I get strangers who talk to me like this too. It is rude.

Yes, "Why is this hard to grasp": it's the new rude. Personally, I'd rather have someone ask me "why is this hard to grasp?" then respond to an interesting point with "?????" (and what else does that denote if not an inability to grasp the point?)

One shudders to think what Moffat's followers then tweeted to @hallor. Heaven forbid that someone should say something heartfelt and interesting to Moffat about his work. If only they'd said "Matt Smith's brilliant! Are the Daleks coming back? Rory's my favourite." This wasn't the first time this had happened, although it was a new low that something so blatantly civil should be termed rude. A while back, someone tweeted Moffat asking if the next series of Doctor Who would feature a plot. Moffat blocked him, then unblocked him and sent him tweets asking him to go away. When several of the tweeter's friends pointed out he was perfectly entitled to express an opinion about his work, Moffat's media chum Caitlin Moran said to her friend: "And you're perfectly entitled to tell them to fuck off." Then faithful Tom Spilsbury sent the Moffat-offender tweets pointing out he had been a little rude: and reminding him that it was awfully stressful for a busy TV showrunner like Moffat having criticism of his work sent to him (One might put to Spilsbury the notion that the exciting thing about writing is stimulating debate, and interacting with people who don't quite see things your way. Or am I being rude?) (But see update below) As with his tweets to @hallor, his overall tone was of a primary school teacher that wasn't angry, wasn't telling you off, but just thought it's something you should have a little think about when you get home.

Goldacre and Brooker played this role in the Coren/Glinner affair. Brooker pointed out that Coren hadn't hit anyone, and suggested that both sides should "have an ice cream". Goldacre heard out the objections to Coren's tweet - all the time arguing that they were mistaken, and that most people would act as Coren had were they so provoked - and finally sent the tweet "cheerio" to four tweeters at once. This wasn't because he had to go: at that moment he continued to tweet to someone else on a different subject. The "cheerio" was a remarkably feudal gesture, half-heartedly disguised as chumminess, a hand raised to dismiss the subjects pleading their case from the throne room.

What's striking here is the sense of hierarchy. Moffat and Glinner at the top, dispensing admonishments to proles who get impudent, their friends Moran, Goldacre and Brooker slightly below, offering support and in Moran's case equal admonishment to those that disrespected their friend, and much further down, those members of the Gentry like Spilsbury or IT Crowd Script Editor Andrew Ellard (who sent a sighing tweet of sympathy to Linehan during the Woody Allen row, complaining that the old free speech argument was being used as an excuse to shove people's opinions down their throats, identical to a tweet of Spilsbury's reflecting on Hallor) who each own a smaller estate. Those with TV shows are annoyed. Those who get to script-edit or run the offical magazine on those TV shows are merely exasperated.

The central problem with Twitter is that we the proles are allowed to freely mingle with the first-class passengers. This causes tension when we fail to know our place. If you send a tweet to Graham Linehan or Steven Moffat, it will show up in his @ list hand-in-hand with those from his friends. This results in panic, and bruised egos. It's significant that the main row with Glinner didn't take place between him and Alice Vincent herself - a Huffington Post journalist - but between a group of non-media people who forgot who they were damn well talking to. "Tell your friends to be civil if they expect civility", Glinner ordered @mary_hannon at one point. A twitter cap-doffing button may have to be installed, or a first-class area to keep us from getting too familiar with the celebs.

I received a feudal tweet myself once. Not long after I joined Twitter, my hero Terry Pratchett had written a magnificent piece on Doctor Who for SFX, which The Guardian had crudely turned into "Pratchett attacks 'ludicrous' Doctor Who", and Cheryl Morgan - an interviewer and convention-organiser - had posted a link to The Guardian's piece. Eager to talk about this, I sent her a tweet saying "He didn't attack it! He wrote reasoned and thoughtful article!" and sat back waiting eager to have a conversation about this collision of two of my interests. I received a very stern tweet indeed: "take it up with the Guardian, not the person RTing the tweet." Bemused by this, and wondering if I'd made a social faux pas due to my Asperger's Syndrome and newness to Twitter, I sent back a tweet so bemused it ended up close to a grovelling apology. After sending it, I found myself hoping that Cheryl might sense my nervousness, realise she'd been a little snappy, and withdraw her comments, but her reply was horribly regal: "understood, but twitter is not best forum for that. Too much scope for misunderstanding." I might have pointed out that I knew what I'd joined Twitter for, thanks, and everyone else had been perfectly friendly to me, but let it go.

I can imagine Tom Spilsbury's response - You were a little rude, you shouldn't have used an exclamation mark. I then saw Morgan chastising some poor fellow who'd also assumed that retweeting something means you're interested in it, and therefore in conversing with a human being about it (this guy didn't even use an exclamation mark, but as Morgan angrily told him, she had already had to deal with this once. Her next tweet announced her "New Pet Hate", which was people who bother you about stuff you merely retweeted ). I unfollowed her (without sending any mean messages: I couldn't tell people they are "blocked for stupidity" in a million years). I've no time for the aristocracy. There are more interesting people on Twitter.

To state the obvious for a moment: it goes without saying that hasn't made Graham Linehan's work any less delightful for me, not should it for anyone else, even if they've actually received a feudal tweet from him. But the reason I can't follow Graham on Twitter any more is simply this: uppity is good. Cheeky is good. Knowing your place, aside from in courtrooms, is always bad. I'd rather talk to ordinary people whose idea of rudeness is "Go fuck yourself, you barren old hag" than to media stars whose idea of it is "that piece was so yawn, one step up from a mumsnet post." One of the most telling moments occurred when Glinner, noting that several people objecting to his defence of Coren were interacting with each other, jeered:

Haha. Do all you people with no class hang around together?

Maybe we should, Graham. Twitter belongs to the people, not the sitcom writers, columnists and script editors (let alone the restaurant critics - now there's a candidate for an underclass). Only tyrants boast of their ability to mute and block.

N.B If you think I'm making this up, below are are some links to the tweets or conversations themselves:

(Update September 4th 2013:)
A number of people have wondered why the piece was called "A Look at the Conduct of Steven Moffat and Graham Linehan on Twitter", when so much of the focus is upon Linehan. The answer is that when I started writing this piece, the Moffat/Hallor exchange had lodged in my mind and I underestimated how much worse Linehan's behaviour was, how much more of it there was, and how central it would turn out to be to the argument. I still stand by my criticism of Moffat's reactions to Hallor but I accept that it's unfair for the title of the piece to tar Moffat with the same brush as Linehan.
It also occurs to me that an alternative interpretation of Moffat's decision to leave twitter later that year might be that he realised the problem on some level and was keen to avoid further clashes. While Linehan (and indeed Goldacre and Ellard) have continued to tweet in this way, it seems only fair to acknowledge that Moffat has not, and therefore it would be overkill to leave his name hext to Linehan's in the title.

I should also mention that Tom Spilsbury - who comes in for rather  a lot of ribbing in this and the "Hey fandom" piece - got in touch with me and was very thoughtful in his responses to this piece. He said he regrets what happened, and that ever since he takes to care to think about how he reacts on twitter.

(Update, October 2012:
Neil from subsequently wrote this fine piece:
It's on a more pressing concern - the danger of telling your followers to insult those with less influence - mentions Graham Linehan only in passing and not as part of the main topic, but led to numerous unpleasant tweets from Glinner. Jonathan M's comment on this blogpage - scroll below - and the replies from myself and Neil, all of them posted before his piece, shed some light on this.
This piece by Edward Champion is superb as well:
This piece is also worth a look:  )

An Essay on Alan Partridge.

Knowing Me Knowing You, broadcast on Radio 4 in 1992, is probably the finest radio programme ever made. A six part spoof chat show (a later seventh episode, Knowing Knowing Me, Knowing You, was a faux-documentary following Alan behind the scenes) hosted by Partridge and with the guests played by the fabulous ensemble team of Patrick Marber, Doon Mackichan, Rebecca Front and David Schneider, it extended the possibilities of developing narrative and character through comedy, and invigorated that most overlooked medium, the sitcom. This point might seem odd, but it really is a sitcom rather than a spoof: to demonstrate, just compare KMKY with the show in which Partridge first appeared - as a supporting character - On the Hour, and its tv version The Day Today, which shared the same cast and producer Armando Iannucci. Those extraordinary shows also support the 1990s' claim to be the greatest decade for comedy (and that includes Plautus), but they are a very different beast. On The Hour/ The Day Today is a spoof of a pack-leading, highly successful news programme. KMKY is a portrait of an unsuccessful chatshow.

On the Hour was about the medium becoming the message; in KMKY the people keep getting in the way of the medium and message. One episode sees Alan allowing a hypnotherapist to demonstrate her techniques on him. Under hypnotic control, Alan regresses to his young self. "What can you see?" "a pair of plimsolls," whimpers Partridge in a child's voice. It emerges that little Alan is at the bottom of Tandell Hill lagging behind in a cross-country run. "It's colllllld," he says plaintively, "it's very colddd," "why are you so cold if you're running, Alan?" "I haven't got any shorts on.... Steven McComb's taken them off me. He's running around waving them about. He's saying "Smelly Alan Fartridge! Smelly Alan Fartridge!" I'm not smelly! "Smelly Alan Fartridge!"". The hypnotherapist then tries to move little Alan to a happier time in his life: "The headmaster's come in: he"s looking very pleased! He says someone's won an essay-writing competition! Someone's written an essay on sport and it's one a prize! He's saying, is there an Alan Partridge in the room!" As Partridge accepts the prize, the plaintive child's voice disappears and a familiar tone replaces it: "I'm Alan Partridge: I've won the competition, of that there's no doubt." Not many sitcoms could get so much character detail into a few minutes. The chat-show format allows the writers and actors to control the nuances with which they disclose from the characters' memories and private lives.

The subsequent TV version of Knowing Me Knowing You - which, like The Day Today, used new material instead of recycling scenes from the radio scripts - written by Iannucci, Coogan and Marber, was also outstanding. Here, the catharsis was explosive. Marber, who played the more overtly antagonistic guests, has a knack for building up a sense of simmering resentment within a broadly comic performance. My favourite is probably Gordon Heron, a golfer who has retired following a lightning strike which has left him wheelchair-bound, in the Christmas special Knowing Me Knowing Yule. Alan asks him about his accident: "how did that feel?" Gordon replies: "Sort of felt a bit like ‘AAAARRRRGH! AAAARRRRGGGHH!’" He then grins to show that's he's joking, but the tension stays, and the crisis comes when Gordon reveals his wife Liz (Doon Mackichan) is pregnant. Alan offers his congratulations, including "a special congratulation to you, Gordon...well done." "I can have sex!" cries Gordon in angry disbelief, "'I can still shag!" As Partridge attempts to suppress him, Gordon passionately declares that no-one seems to want to talk about disabled people feeling desire, but that since his accident he's actually felt more sexual desire than ever before: "I'm a better lover too, aren't I?" he asks his wife, who nods fervently (McKichan, too, moving effortlessly from a broadly comic portrayal of a wife with an irritating giggle to sincere emotion) before his contempt for Partridge's lack of interest takes over, and he responds to his interruptions by blowing raspberries. There you have it: a genuinely forceful and touching treatment of a neglected issue delivered in stealth by two actors in comedy wigs to disguise their resemblance to Alan's prevous guests. No British comedy of the next decade would reach these heights.

Another superb device for building up to catharsis in this way was Partridge's carefully crafted relationship with his resident houseband Glenn Ponder and Chalet (and, throughout the series, Glenn Ponder and Ferrari, Bangkok, Lazarus, Debonair and Savoir Faire). They talk over each other a little bit in the first episode, have some innocuous chat in the second (Glenn's looking for a house in the Chiswick area), then in the third episode Glenn adds a sound effect without Alan's permission. "Surprise me in a reversal, Glenn, not a live TV show. Little bit naughty, that." In the fourth episode, it reaches boiling point. A trip to the Follies Berger went ahead without Alan. Glenn insists he left a message informing Alan that the trip had been brought forward by one night, but Alan didn't get one. At the end of the episode, it emerges that Glenn invited the band, Alan's guests and Alan's crew, and didn't really leave him a message at all. Alan sacks Glenn onstage, and proceeds to insult each of the guests as he wraps up the show. It’s a relationship as carefully constructed as in any play.

The setup of 1997's I'm Alan Partridge may seem at first glance mainstream and broad in comparison to its predecessor: Alan in a straight sitcom. However, while it does demonstrate the pre-Office virtues of a studio audience and no "film-look" effects, its scripts (by Coogan, Iannucci and Peter Baynham) are just as ingeniously constructed, and its depiction of the Linton Travel Tavern in which Alan is stuck following the end of his TV career remains a masterful exercise in evoking a fictional environment. You can't watch it without getting trapped in that motel, with its lift, its bar, its minibar, its Corby trouser press, its paper bags full of complimentary sanitary towels, its complementary biscuits. The Tavern maps out Alan's psyche: the mysterious drawer in his room which causes horror, fascination or merriment to those who look at its contents, seems to contain his id. The box on top of the TV which, when disconnected, forbids Alan from watching any more Pay-per-view movies like Bangkok Chick-boys is his super-ego. The dining area, where he asserts his individuality and impresses a date by sneaking in a bigger plate for the -all-you can eat buffet or insulting Susan and the hotel while trying to impress a couple of TV producers, is the ego.

Sadly, all are invaded. Everyone looks in the drawer. "Hello Susan? Can you make pornography come on my telly please?" asks Alan on the phone to reception after the events of an episode have yet again defeated his resolve. "Got your big plate, Alan?" says Susan as Alan returns to his room with a romantic conquest. The staff of the Travel Tavern are superbly written and cast. Susan (Barbara Durkin) is the archetypal hostess: joylessly smiling, endlessly efficient, but no friend to Alan. "Will you excuse me, Alan, I have to leave the desk unattended.” Ben and Sophie are youth personified. Sophie (Sally Phillips), another receptionist, can't speak to Alan without giggling. Ben's worldliness (his better taste in music, success with the ladies and barely-concealed amusement at Alan's unsavoury choice of pay-for-view movies) eats away at Alan, but he has something of an equal in Michael (the splendid Simon Greenall) a Geordie and former soldier who does a variety of odd jobs at the Tavern. Michael is an unhappy man: there's a tense moment during Partridge's misjudged attempt at a practical joke (which we'll come to later) when he raises a fist to Alan, while in a supreme example of bathos he tells him an old army anecdote of how he returned to find his pet monkey had eaten all his fags, and threw it in the sea. Alan had been hoping for a funny story, but that was the punchline. Like most episodes of IAP, it ends in bathos: a whimper far louder than a bang.

Lyn (a remarkably controlled comic performance from Felicity Montague) is Alan's PA. Her face is tightly shut as she represses Alan's cruelty, convincing herself that she deserves this. There are affecting moments when the veil lifts: her impromptu impression of herself - “Shall I let you walk all over me, Alan? Sorry, Mother, can’t help you of the bath because I’ve got to go down to Linton Travel Tavern to sort out Alan’s problems” - and the subsequent look of pride on her face when Alan praises it is an astonishing moment, as is her heartfelt but brutally Partridge-curtailed recollection of childhood holidays in Skibbereen. Lyn and Michael feel indispensable from the moment we meet them: they are the only friends a failure could believably have.

The middle four episodes here are perhaps the jewel in the Partridge collection, and episode 4, inevitably known as the one where he steals a traffic cone, is probably the masterpiece. In this episode, Alan has nothing to do, and the tavern becomes a coffin. At the same time, his relations with the staff reach breaking point. Susan responds to Alan's horribly coy flirting by calling his bluff, ("are you getting out here, or are you going all the way with me?", she asks him) and he finally overhears the staff doing Impressions of him, hurls a crisp packet to the floor, and considers sacking Lyn for laughing with them. The artistry here lie in the way mundane physical objects or the layout of the Travel Tavern itself always accompany these moments of psychological probing. "What's back there?" asks Alan, indicating the door behind reception. "Some traffic cones and an old mattress,"' replies Sophie. A moment later he overhears Sophie suggesting to Ben that they retire back there for youthful indiscretions. He leaps out of the lift and asks Ben for a sandwich with "a crescent of crisps... cooked meat...and a hot egg...anytime within the next fifteen minutes." Grinning to himself, he returns to the lift.

In his hotel room, the plate with the crescent of crisps lying forgotten, he peers out of the window, sees Ben and Sophie kissing, and attempts to peep while draping himself in the curtain. They spot him and run off. He sees Michael, rubbing his head in frustration at his suffocating job, Michael looks up and the pair engage in a mock-shooting mime. He phones up Currys, gazing at his stereo system, and asks about achieving surround sound. After checking that no-one wants to come with him, he walks down the Dual Carriageway to the petrol station to buy bottles of windscreen washer fluid. He goes for a drive, and talks to Lyn on his hands-free: "Just bought a bag of tungsten-tip screws: never gonna use 'em, Lyn, never gonna use 'em. [pause] I'm going nowhere Lyn - well literally, I'm on the ringroad."

He attempts to make up for his crisp-packet tantrum by playing a little joke on the staff: dressing up as a zombie and pouncing. His costume consists of complementary biscuits (acting as dried skin) the flex from the electric kettle, and the shower curtain as a cape (Partridge is quick to point out that he made sure he could reattach the rings later on: "nothing has been broken"). The glorious punchline is the appearance of those Tungsten-tip screws as talons. Partridge has attempted to rebel against the tyranny of these objects over his equilibrium by reshaping them into something fun and social. His failure to do so is funny, bizarre and rather moving. Drowning his sorrows later at the bar, he finds that Michael too yearns to rebel, and proposes driving off and stealing a traffic cone. The police catch them in the act, Michael runs off, and Alan, let off by a lenient PC, returns to the Tavern. What could have been a cathartic escape from the oppression of the Tavern and the motorway has become a somehow even more cathartic moment of incomparable bathos: of crushing defeat.

The second series of I'm Alan Partridge is easily criticised, but by the time you've finished listing all the odd terrific lines here and the odd terrific scenes here and there and odd deft character-studies here and there, you struggle to care about the flaws. But they are present: for the first time, this is the same Partridge we met in the previous series. The character has stopped evolving, and it's clear that Coogan, Baynham and Iannucci can't follow on from Alan's "down-on-his luck" phase (something that continues in the more recent “Mid-Morning Matters” shorts and the I Partridge book: good, but not up to the glories of KMNY or IAP series 1. One wonders if rebooting him superhero style and making Partridge a TV broadcaster again would reinvigorate the character...?) The setting (Partridge lives in a caravan with his Ukrainian girlfriend Sonia while builders complete work on his new house) is messier and less effective than that of the Travel Tavern. The show has to fall back on safe bets like Coogan playing air-guitar, shouting "Dan! Dan! Dan!" or dancing to the theme from Return of the Saint, which are fun but a long way from Partridge's incomparable tribute to Robin's Nest - "the man who did the washing-up only had one arm, which, when you think about it, is ridiculous!" - in the radio series or Dream-Tony's hair disappearing as he roars "Blue Nun!" in IAP (we'll come to that). Episodes 5 and 6 are clearly rush-jobs, and the unofficial 7th episode, Anglican Lives with Alan Partridge, with Alan interviewed by a spoof of a regional reporter, is a damp squib, with Partridge's dialogue comparatively anonymous:

Q:What's your favourite film?

A:Titanic. I thought what James Cameroon [sic] did with that film was extraordinary. I normally go for a curry after a film but when I saw that I went straight home. Of course, it was three hours long and no-where was open.

Q:Your least favourite film?

A:Gorillas in the Mist. I thought it was a tragic waste of Sigourney Weaver, but if you mess around with monkeys you will pay the price.

Hardly "I punched Jessica Tandy" (we‘ll come to that too). As Christopher Hitchens remarked about later Wodehouse books, daylight is being let in on magic here. The same goes for Alan's uninterestingly disastrous attempt to to make a toast at Lynn's baptism in Episode 6 (" - who remembers Tiswas?"), while the scene where he insults Kate Fitzgerald (Julia Davis) in a radio interview is a reprise of the scene with Chris Morris as Peter Baxendale-Thomas in series 1, ep 3 without the careful buildup or the fabulous vocabulary. (The bitter relationship between Alan and his fellow DJ Dave Clifton, which begins in the previous series, is also not as well-written as that with Glenn Ponder).

Episode 5 is broken-backed: the first story sees Alan visited by the Inland Revenue: a promising enough idea, but both inspectors are played by miscast, visibly uncomfortable actresses. This plot is then abandoned (which never quite makes sense - is Alan in trouble with the inspectors or not?) and we have a rather insulting scene in which Alan attempts to placate his girlfriend Sonia by taking her to a National Trust home and claiming that it's Bono's house: an idea mirrored by the farce of the cast and crew driving there and persuading us they've come up with a plot for the rest of the episode.

But then... there's the bear. This episode contains that scene with the bear. A scene anyone interested in comedy should be thankful for. Sonia, who wants Alan to take her to London, keeps buying him toy taxis and Beefeater teddy bears. They enter the caravan, and Alan is confronted by a gigantic Beefeater bear. He screams, grabs a spike full of tax receipts and plunges it into the bear's torso. "It's a bear - I've killed a bear!" he rants at Sonia. When he realises it's just a doll, he comes up with the immortal line "It's not an appropriate gift for a man approaching fifty." Upon realising that Sonia has been out and about with it, he protests: "Sonia, anyone who knows us would think it was me in there! Me in a bear costume! They'd think I'd lost it again!" Depression and aging are somehow evoked through symbols that any novelist or playwright would kill for, and yet only work within the context of a sitcom.

Episode two, similarly, is at first glance clearly based around slapstick of a lower calibre than the previous series, albeit still funny thanks to the cast's selling of it and the writers' gift for the ridiculous line or object. Partridge impaling his foot on a spike and subsequently vomiting his way through a corporate presentation and a scene where he holds a business meeting with a toilet door resting on some bricks disguised as a table are clearly not comparable to the finely-wrought, carefully constructed lunacy of the previous series (just as the unexceptional way episode 3 lurches from Partridge's friendship with the Partridge-lite Dan into straightforward gags when the latter is revealed as a wife-swapper can’t hold a candle to the genuinely frightening situation Alan finds himself in with Jed the stalker in series 1 episode 5).

What lifts this episode from forgettablity however, is the scenes with Michael. Michael now works in a petrol station and there's less tension between him and Alan: they seem used to one another. Michael is staying with Alan, as his front door has been stolen. As Alan looks in on Michael to wish him goodnight, the two have a discussion about helicopters. Michael says he'd like an Apache tank helicopter, and delivers a dark monologue in which he imagines using it to return to school, blow up the science labs, and then hunt for "Tom Donaldson". His grim face illuminated by lamplight, Michael imagines strafing Tom's Triumph Stark and garden pond with gunfire, causing coy carp to spiral into the air, killing Tom and crashing into the sea in a big ball of flames. This brilliantly-performed monologue gets a deserved round of applause from the studio audience, but Alan's rather more apprehensive: "Sleep well, Michael...who's Tom Donaldson?" "Ah, he's just a mate," says Michael cheerfully. This little scene is as well-structured a moment of television and as good a piece of characterisation as you find in a drama, and yet it manages to be simultaneously both unnerving and joyously daft, (as opposed to the self-consciously 'sad' or 'dark' style that Saxondale and the second series of Marion and Geoff fell into) and yet above all funny: only a sitcom could have achieved such a scene, just as the elation the viewer feels at the episode's closing scene, with Michael attempting to cheer up a morphine-addled Partridge with a chalked helicopter landing pad and Alan offering him some sugar puffs, is one that drama or prose could never replicate.

This delightfully acted and written relationship also makes episode four shine, as Alan finds out Michael has another friend at the petrol station - Tex, who prefers John Wayne to James Bond, and has a USA-style horn in his car - and throws a lover's strop: "Your petrol's a little bit petrolly: a little bit obvious," says Alan as he walks out.

Much has been said, by the critics and makers alike, of Partridge's trust in The Daily Mail, his conservatism and prejudice based on idiocy rather than malice, of his love of a cheesy, forgotten England via Roger Moore, Chris De Burgh, The Eagles, Mike Oldfield, Wings and Robin's Nest, and his status as Norwich's most vociferous apologist (the line "Lyn, some of these people have come from Stoke!" seems to capture this aesthetic best). This ground is probably too familiar to go into further. I'd like instead to point to two further qualities essential to the genius of the Partridge oeuvre.

Firstly there's the yearning for connection. The poignant sense that Partridge could be anyone's friend is often hidden within innocuous lines. When discussing graffiti on his car, and asked if he's referring to the hotel, Alan replies there's never any graffiti in the hotel, although someone has drawn "a lady's part" in the toilets, but that it was quite detailed - "the guy obviously had talent," adds Alan. When informed by Lyn that the actress standing in for his estranged wife in a corporate video won't be available for any more filming, and Alan asks irritably why not, he's told she's landed a part in The Bill as a shoplifter. "Ooh, quite good," concedes Alan, and a genuine sense of goodwill flashes before us, as when he asks the person in the phone from Currys: "What time do you knock off?...Got time for a drink...? Ok. Just thought I'd ask."

Secondly, there's the endless list of things. Partridge is the ultimate materialist. Right from the first episode of the radio version of Knowing Me Knowing You, the world he lives in - and that Coogan and his writers build around him - is metonymic - indeed, attempts at metaphor in either the radio or tv versions of KMKY are often checked by his sensibility-defining line "not literally, that would be hideous" (many Post-Partridge sitcoms, like those of Gervais, have subsequently run the “trapped in a bad metaphor" trope into the ground. Even Coogan and co. are using it less elegantly by the time we get to the "I realise I'm just talking about drinking now, not power" line in Anglican Lives).

In Partridge's world, the Rover V-Tesse Fastback, the Lexus, leather-driving gloves, the Bang and Olafson stereo system, Littlewoods, Dolphin bathrooms, Ikea, A "battery for an Ericcson", Dixon's and Curry's are everything. A visit to Tandys every Christmas, as shown on Knowing Me Knowing Yule, resembles that of a devout believer at a holy temple: "it's here that I truly know who I am. I'm Alan Partridge." The sight of him repeatedly pressing the "open" button on a stereo and watching the CD compartment rise - "nice action. Quality action. [pause] I've got one, though." - is delightfully funny, yet cannot be reduced to metaphor: it is what it looks like.

The bizarre homoerotic daydreams throughout series 1 of I'm Alan Partridge, in which Alan asks BBC commissioning editor Tony Hayers for a second series while lapdancing for him, should plunge us into metaphor, but the metonyms follow us even into Alan's subconscious: the bottle of Blue Nun Alan has just ordered in his lunch with the real Tony reoccurs a moment later when his concentration slips (intriguingly, dream-Tony howls with laughter at it: Alan seems to have some sense of self-ridicule after all, albeit suppressed).

Alan even loves and hates by the metonym: one of the most moving scenes in the canon sees Michael, after Alan's previously mentioned sulk over Michael’s new friend, return Alan's Spy Who Loved Me video. Alan invites him in, but Terry's horn is sounded. "Michael, you could have blown the horn on my Lexus! You could have sat in the passenger seat an reached across! It's not on the end of the stalk, it's on the central steering-wheel boss behind the airbag..." "Ah well, that's precision engineering, eh? It's like you always say, it's the Japanese Mercedes," says Michael with glowing loyalty. "God, I've missed you," sighs Alan.

Alan takes revenge on his ex-wife Carol in series 1 by reading a review of her lover's car in Top Gear magazine down the phone. He identifies Dan in series 2 as a friend from his Lexus, Lynx Africa, Dally Mail and taste in flavia. In an extended scene on the video and DVD release of series 1, he considers sacking, but then re-contracts, Lyn on the basis of whether he could afford air conditioning in his car on the savings it would make (Lyn keeps her job by pointing out she could hold a hand-fan to his face). He sacks his entire production company rather than downsize his choice of car ("I'm not driving a mini-metro I'm not driving a mini metro I'm not driving a mini metro") A mental breakdown is triggered by the destruction of his James Bond Videos. "You really have got a lot of issues," says Kate Fitzgerald. "Yeah, of What Car magazine," replies Alan.

In both versions of Knowing Me Knowing You, interviews with Yvonne Boyd (Rebecca Front, wonderful again - has any comedy show been blessed with such a chameleonic actress?), a distinctly Vivianne Westwood-ish fashion designer, result in a cultural battle, as Partridge (with a fair amount of the viewers' sympathy here) attempts to deflate the preposterous metaphors of Boyd's outfits with the trustworthy metonymy of his own distinctive clothes-sense, which he defines as "sports casual" (the "Alan Partridge Tie and Blazer badge combination-pack" he often gives to his guests is the perfect synecdoche for Partridge himself). "That man has no dignity!" he declares as one of Boyd's models walks back and forth catwalk-style clad in an orthopaedic-brogue-and-suit hybrid. "What is dignity?" asks his Derrida-quoting French intellectual co-host. Partridge responds by marching back and forth himself: "that, that," he emphasises, "is dignity." Aren't we laughing with him rather than at him here (as we are in the radio show when he responds to a sex therapist's claim that anxieties of men in unhappy marriages are all down to fear of castration with "No, it's not")?

He's actually courageous in another episode of the radio show, all down to the same insistence on countering euphemism with metonymy : interviewing Shirley Dee, a Barbara Windsor-esque actress, Partridge counters her defence of her "lovely" (and distinctly Kray-esque) Uncle Dennis by reading a pathologist's report on his victim. As Shirley attempts the in-with-a-bad-crowd defence, Alan calms repeats each of the details "barbaric, forensic attack...massive internal injuries...organ malfunctions..." and Coogan somehow turning these hideous phrases into that extraordinary poetry we find only in comedy. Partridge’s stubborn literalness allows him to make a profound moral point: until a moment later, when he realises Uncle Dennis will be listening, addresses hum directly and grovellingly retracts his comments.

Even emergencies don't take priority over metonymic addiction. When driving away from Jed, a psychotic stalker threatening to rip his head off, in episode 5 of IAP series 1 and having to abandon his car, Alan, running madly, raises his key and we hear the reassuring click of his Rover's electronic doorlock behind him. When being shown a creepy video of Dan and his wife rutting and realising he's being groomed for group sex, Alan still notices with interest the kitchen surface he was hoping Dan could get him a discount on. When berating his employee Jill for attempting to bring chocolate mousse into their lovemaking - which he regards as an obscene assault upon his person - he still remembers to call the part of the bed covered in mousse "the valance", which confuses Jill.

These two qualities - the yearning for kinship and dominance of consumer products - sometimes meet. In the second episode of the TV version of Knowing Me Knowing You, Alan interviews Tanya Beaumont and Gary Hills (Front and Marber), a vaguely Hugh-Grant-and-Liz Hurley-esque couple. Gary, sulking behind sunglasses once belonging to James Dean, sneers as Alan reads out the list of his Kiefer Sutherland-esque pranks. (He adds one of his own: "I punched Jessica Tandy.") Alan then reveals that Gary was once "office equipment maintenance of the year" before he became an actor. Alan has a broken photocopier from his office brought to the studio. Gary won't even look at it at first. After Alan suggests perhaps he isn't able to mend it, Gary asks "what make is it?" and then snaps "Mono or multifeed?" He walks over. "Yeah, it hasn't been reset after a paper jam." He fixes it, and, a note of happiness and gregariousness coming into his voice, asks Alan where he keeps his paperclips, demonstrating a magnetised compartment where he would be better of storing them. "nice little feature...nice little machine, this.." and as the traces of a happier life and a nicer person fade, he sighs "I don't do that shit anymore" and walks off.

During the aforementioned zombie prank disaster, there's a sublime moment when Alan, responding to a quibble about his costume, replies "You've made two major errors there: number one..." at this point the others notice the talons on his fingers. Alan reveals them to be Tungsten-tip screws: "number one..." at this point Partridge notices the effect of counting on his fingers with the Tungsten-tips and a note of warmth comes into his voice "quite for making a point, actually, aren't they...". His bleak comment to Lyn on the ring-road earlier has turned out to be untrue.

Alan Partridge is unlike any other fictional character before or since, and the two shows in which he is the protagonist achieved things with comedy one could never have imagined. Regardless of how broadened and familiar Partridge gets in his present phase, or whether or not Coogan finds a character to match him, whenever we rewatch or listen to Knowing Me Knowing You and I'm Alan Partridge, we learn something new about comedy, and therefore about life.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Wire in 13 Characters

(This piece contains spoilers for all five seasons of The Wire, so watch them first)

As with the 19th century novel, The Wire is a seamless blending of the personal and the political, the emotional and the social, the story of the individual with the story of the city. It is at once the story of how you run a police department, tackle a city's drug problem and teach children in deprived areas; and the story of a an addict who goes clean, a police district commander who adopts the son of an imprisoned gangster, a dockyard union leader who takes money from the wrong people, a reformed con who opens a boxing club for kids and the nephew of a gangster with the guts to say no to his uncle and his way of life.

Enough has been - quite rightly - said about what a fine actor Dominic West is and how cool Omar is and how Idris Elba rocks. Let's examine The Wire through some of the relatively lesser-known of these brilliantly acted and scripted characters. Perhaps then we can understand how The Wire engaged so profoundly with the world that it put the contemporary novel to shame, and made a nonsense of the idea that tv drama can never be high art.

Bodie An immensely likeable guy who kills a 16-year old kid - Wallace - for snitching in the show's first year - an act that never really bothers him - but continues to get more engaging with each season. Bodie sees himself as a soldier. He's the victim of a regime change: Marlo and his enforcers Chris and Snoop don't play fair, as he believes the Barksdale crew he served did. As far as Bodie is concerned, the new crew are murderers (their victims including his friend Little Kevin), not soldiers. He's deluding himself, of course. Wallace's murder was certainly no more justifiable than Little Kevin's, but we're distressed at Bodie's death on Marlo's orders because we've come to know him enough - and actor JD Williams puts enough work into him - to at least respect these values.

D'Angelo Barksdale
Has any actor managed to convey self-disgust as convincingly as Larry Gillard Jr? D'Angelo's path away from criminality is an ambitious, tricky piece of characterisation to pull off, and Gillard Jr truly sells it. He's Avon's nephew, but has the integrity to face up to his own complicity in his uncle's murderous empire. When the police show him snapshots of the bodies of Avon's victims, Gillard Jr leaves no viewer unconvinced of his horror: the character's redemption doesn't feel schmaltzy or too-good-to-be-true.  "Where the fuck is Wallace?" he roars at Stringer in an electrifying scene after he finally realised he's been turning a blind eye to his young friend's disappearance and obvious murder.

The scene where he discusses The Great Gatsby in a prison reading group could so easily be trite or sentimental (it's usually a bad idea to use reading groups to try and deepen characterisation: one thinks of the fatuous scenes in the film Little Children or the best-forgotten Channel 4 series The Book Group) but here Guillard's intelligent screen presence and the slow, steady, never over-egged tone of the writing give it the kind of verisimilitude that adds shade and depth to these characters in between the crime, the busts and the violent deaths. D'Angelo, who's decided at this point to turn his back on Avon for good and reject any aid from him, offers this:

[Fitzgerald's] saying that the past is always with us [...] Like at the end of the book, you know? Boats and tides and all. You can change up, you can say you're somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story, but what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened. And it don't matter that some fool say he different because the only thing that make you different is what you really do or what you really go through. Like all them books in his library. He fronting with all them books, but if we pull one down from one of the shelves, the pages ain't never been opened. He got all them books and he ain't read near one of them.
These are great comments: genuinely intelligent, and yet not implausibly literary, and believably matching D'Angelo's own personality, situation and worldview. You can't reread The Great Gatsby without thinking of them.

Roland Prysbylewski
A textbook example of the fine art of characterisation that should be given to every tv writer in Britain. Everything we find out about Prez surprises us, and yet it makes sense. When we first meet him, he's accidentally fired a shot after neglecting to empty his gun before demonstrating it to another officer (we find out later that he once shot up his own police car). He's also supposedly only there because his father-in-law, Stan Valchek, is a police commissioner. In a drunken attempt to prove himself in front of two "alpha male" cops, he gun-butts a 14-year-old and leaves him blind in one eye. In disgrace, he keeps a low profile amongst the wiretap paraphernalia, but here we discover he has a talent for maths. The perfect example of a man who comes alive in his work, his watchful, intelligent face amongst the buzz, click and burr of the wiretap computer screens become an icon for The Wire itself. He makes an invaluable contribution to the attempts to bring Avon, and later The Greek and Marlo, down. Valchek sees this as a waste, and interferes, leading Prez to punch him. The nepotism is ruining his work as it aids his career.

Then he answers a call for backup following reports of a gunmen on the loose, and shoots a fellow officer dead. Was it because the officer was black? Prez doesn't think so: as far as he can remember, he fired when he saw the other man's gun, but he isn't sure. Prez rejects offers for help and leaves the police force. He becomes a maths teacher, and his struggle to teach children whose lives are shaped by violence, neglect and drugs is portrayed without an ounce of cliche or sentimentality, and is therefore genuinely moving. The detail that actor Jim True-Frost and the writers put into Prez make the theme of the school arc - the way that decent teachers who want to actually help their students are betrayed by a system that prefers standardized tests and results that can be expressed in figures - as powerful as any investigative report.

This kind of attention to character-building is simply par-for-the-course in The Wire, yet why are there no characters on British television who feel like human beings in the way Prez does?

Avon Barksdale. The crime kingpin on whom the investigation is initially based. Yes, of course Idris Elba excels as his right-hand man Stringer Bell, but what Wood Harris does with this character shouldn't be overlooked. Avon, unlike slick, business-literate Bell, is a creature of the street, but the skill of Harris's performance lies in the way he lets us gradually realise Avon is smart enough to know that you can't pretend thuggery is a business. He and Stringer grew up together, but Stringer deludes himself with dreams of business and marketing and "going legitimate", while Avon understands the streets are the streets. Harris conveys Avon's love for his nephew D'Angelo, his resentment at Stringer's betrayal, his horror at D'Angelo's death and his regret at having to give up Stringer to Brother Mouzone and Omar without easing down on the heartlessness of a man who distributes poisoned drug stashes throughout a prison - with lethal consequences - so that he can frame one of his enemies for it and  get his parole earlier by snitching. A vile man, and also a complex one.

Dennis "Cutty" Wise A performance of stunning empathy and presence by Chad Coleman. The show's quiet compassion for Dennis - who does as much good as anyone in The Wire - is the equal to its despair at the Marlos, Rawls(s) and Burrells of Baltimore (aka the world). The technique here is patience: we see Dennis taking gardening work, we see him attempting to make contact with an old girlfriend, we see him apologetically saying that he can't vote after being canvassed, we see him decide to start a boxing club for deprived kids in Baltimore to keep them off the streets, we see him struggle to hold the children's attention, we see his one weakness - he over-indulges himself with the kids' flirtatious mothers following the lonely bout in prison - we see him succeed in winning the kids' respect as a trainer, we see him at his most admirable when he stands up to corner thugs and appeals to the wayward Mike (qv) to come back to his club.

We also see his brief flirtation, before he settles upon the boxing idea, with getting back into crime. He's taken advantage of at first, then he's required to take out the very same thug who conned him. He can't pull the trigger, but his accomplice assumes it's his fault for obscuring the view of Dennis's shot. One of the greatest scenes in The Wire then occurs when Dennis informs Avon Barksdale that it isn't in him, he had a clear shot but couldn't fire, and he wants out. Avon suggests they just need to start him out with less hands-on stuff, but Dennis looks him right in the eye: he wants out. There's a tense pause, and Avon, impressed, wishes him well. After he leaves, one of Avon's underlings comments that Dennis used to be a man: "No, he a man today," counters Avon, and the viewer heartily agrees.

Cedric Daniels
Ok, he's not perfect, he's just closer than any other cop in The Wire. The shift commander in charge of the central wiretap investigation, Cedric does have a few faults. He tells Herc, Carver and Prez to lie following a nasty act of stupidity that sees them potentially in trouble for police brutality. His superiors have some kind of dirt on him from earlier in his career, but he has the guts to stand up to them, though not as often as McNulty and Freamon would like. Lance Reddick's screen presence (is anyone better at radiating discontent?) and his character's occasional moments of wounded pride ("What is my rank, detective?" he snarls when McNulty nags him once too often) make the moments when the anger is directed at a more worthy cause, such as standing up to Burrell and keeping his murder investigation back on track despite bureaucratic attempts to divert it to something that will produce stats, all the more invigorating.

As with all drama for adults, the conflict between Daniels and McNulty is about opposing but understandable viewpoints rather than right vs. wrong. McNulty wishes Daniels would have the guts to say 'fuck you' to the system, Daniels wants to be sure he succeeds in putting the Avon Barksdale and Marlo Stansfield crews away rather than blow his chances (and his career) making grand gestures.

He also has a successful relationship with Rhonda Perlman, an Assistant State's Attorney who serves as his team's legal liaison. A few words should be said here about the deft, unpatronising way The Wire handles mixed-race and gay relationships. There are no scenes of innuendo and disparagement among others regarding Cedric and Rhonda's relationship, and both are portrayed as happy with one another's company rather than riven with doubts about their own or others' prejudices (so many shows would have gone down the latter path). The difference in skin colour is mentioned in one scene, where Cedric is talking about dealing diplomatically with his politically-minded soon-to-be-ex-wife by avoiding going public about the relationship until after her election, but that’s it. Most importantly, it is not portrayed as any kind of Big Deal, in much the same way that Omar and Greggs are not defined by being gay.

Challenging prejudice towards minorities is achieved by fiction in two stages: Firstly, the characters should be unashamed and unconflicted with this aspect of their lives (unless such conflicts are part of legitimate drama) and secondly it should not define them. British TV has managed the former but not the latter. The Wire uses more black actors than any other show on television, but just as important is the full range of characters they play: decent men like Dennis, Daniels, D'Angelo, Colvin and the Deacon, vicious killers like Chris, Marlow and Snoop, spiteful cynics like Burrell and Clay Davis. No British show would dare to make petty, thieving, child-brutalising Officer Walker black: The Wire does because its writers know skin colour has nothing to do with a person's flaws or merits.

Similarly, the random, trivial nature of sexual orientation is demonstrated by the celebrated moment when we glimpse Major Rawls during a visit to a gay bar. That's it. Rawls is no different in subsequent scenes, there's also no anguished "outing", no scenes of furtive glances and homophobic mutterings whenever he enters a room, (just a single piece of graffiti on the wall in the men's room in one scene) no pandering to stereotypes. Gene Roddenberry, when asked by fans why there were no gay characters in Star Trek's version of the future, replied - not entirely convincingly - that this was merely because in the future no-one was labelled by their sexual orientation (really, one suspects it was because the Networks would have said no), but The Wire achieves something closer to this, because it has mastered the art of the uncoy, explicit but “so-what?” glimpse.

Bubbles Bubbles's triumph over his drug addiction is the greatest victory in The Wire, but he endures a great deal of pain before we get there. Andre Royo is a master of the art of empathetic acting. At first, we tend to see him in connection with others - his street-peddling of any goods he can lay his hands on with his dead-loss buddy, his snitching work for the police - but then, as we've come to care about him, the pressures mount up. He attempts to go clean and gets a sponsor. No-one has ever captured the sheer physicality of gnawing addiction as Royo does here, sitting on a park bench distracted by every noise and attempting to ignore dealers.

He falls off the wagon and returns to street-peddling, training a new protégé. He suffers at the hands of an addict who beats and robs him of his takings every time he lays eyes on him. After the police fail him, he's reduced to putting rat poison in a stash intended for the bully. His protégé falls victim to the poison instead, and the pain Royo conveys when Bubbles discovers his friend's body makes the scene hard to watch. He subsequently goes clean for good, but this path is again dealt with patiently, as Bubbles gets back into contact with his sponsor, conquers his nervousness over taking an AIDS test, and lives in the locked basement of his sister's house. She's adamant the door stays locked: the last time he was there he pawned most of the furniture. Even with the door locked, he's not allowed to stay in the house at all when she's out.

His final triumph over his mistakes is very simple: he tells the truth about them. His sister reads the newspaper interview he gives about addiction, and the death on his conscience. The moment - wordless, and within a montage - when we see the unlocked door, and then Bubbles sitting down to dinner with his sister and her daughter is one of the most joyful moments in The Wire, conveying so much in a single glimpse.

Ervin Burrell
There are no stock-characters in The Wire, and no-one without motives and a way of seeing the world. In other hands, Burrell would be the standard "Your loose-cannon antics are backing up my Goddamn paperwork!" figure from Dirty Harry and Die Hard. Here, he feels real. Frankie Faison can simultaneously convey, through those nasty little mirthless smiles, someone who's first instinct upon meeting someone is to wonder how they can help him and how he can screw them over, and a sense of a day-to-day life of such immense pressure one has to feel his pain. A unpleasant man in three dimensions.

Ellis Carver Initially a macho, kickback-taking cop, Carver finds himself with more responsibilities than he imagined: his attitude to the "little hoppers" becomes not merely an antagonistic good cop bad cop routine but a paternal relationship. The scene I find most unbearably moving in the whole series - one which haunted me for days afterwards -  comes at the end of The Wire's 4th season, when Carver takes Randy - a kid in danger after being outed as a snitch - to a juvenile home, after he has been unable to find him a foster mother following the hospitalisation of the current one after a firebomb attack, and his own bids for adoption have been rejected. In the previous episode, as his foster mother lay in intensive care, Randy was scornful of Carver‘s attempts to help him. Now he's understanding, which is even more painful. Carver, leaving him in the tightly-packed room with a bunch of tough kids who will obviously hear of Randy's ’snitching’ if they haven‘t already, returns to his car, and thumps it in an impotent rage that everyone watching feels too. Seth Gilliam's performance moves so seamlessly from his "against the wall, shitbird!" policing techniques to compassion and remorse, he seems to capture the heart and soul of the show. Why does this guy not have an Emmy?

Namond Brice A playstation-playing, joyful kid whose dad - Wee-Bey - is one of Avon's lieutenants, serving a life sentence. His mom wants him to be a man: to get out on those corners and push the package rather than waste time with school, and thinks any time in juvenile detention will be well-spent. Julito McCullum's performance switches between the swaggering and cockiness his friends and family push him towards and his basic good-natured demeanour with ease, so that the moment when Namond, after trying to play the bully, weeps because it simply isn't in him is entirely convincing.

Mike Lee Part of the same story, Mike's trajectory veers away from Namond's. Throughout Season 4 their arcs make a single pattern. When we first meet them at the start of the season, he's a good friend to Namond, Randy and Duqan and a loving older brother to Bug. He's admirable in his stance against his unscrupulous drug-addicted mother and abusive father, and the need to protect Bug from the latter is what leads him to call on Marlo for help. By the end of the season, as Namond has chosen to reject a life of crime, Mike has become an efficient hitman. They were both decent people, but one was saved, the other wasn't. Mike can accept a path of violence, Namond can't, but the latter's ultimate fate - he essentially becomes the next Omar - suggests that he will end up, like his predecessor, attempting to do the best he can within a life shaped by violence and the wrong decision.

Howard "Bunny" Colvin Beautifully played with world-weary intelligence by Robert Wisdom, Colvin is a guy who tries to change the system. Commander of the Western District, he’s the flipside to The Wire's fatalism, its preference for the Aeschylean over the Shakespearean. He's defeated by the Fates in the wider battlefield - his attempt to keep crime away from bystanders by setting up an area for legalised drug-dealing is inevitably crushed - but gains some small victories. His adoption of Namond - and his audacious persuading of Wee-Bey to let Namond go - is one of the biggest triumphs portrayed in the show, and though his educational programme is quashed by an uninterested system, it's still shown to have had an effect: the difference in the kids' behaviour when they're returned to Prez's class is subtle but unmistakeable.

Frank Sobotka
The Secretary-Treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores at the Baltimore docks. Played with instantly captivating, gruff, bull-necked compassion by Chris Bauer, Frank is an intelligent, courageous man determined to do right by his men. Bauer wins us over in a wonderful scene where he faces off against Stan Valchek, an exceptionally petty police commissioner who's angry because a stained glass window in the local church has been donated to the Stevedores rather than himself. Used to bullying to get his way, Valchek starts impounding the Stevedores' vehicles, and then demands Frank surrender the window. Frank gives an angry, brilliantly acted and splendidly dignified speech, pointing out that if Valchek had simply asked him he would probably have let him have the lousy window (Later, while Valchek starts a police investigation into his finances out of spite, Frank hijacks a shipment containing one of his police surveillance vans, and has his men send Valchek cheerful postcards of the van to as it arrives at each new location).

Bauer and the writers have shown us the courage, wit and integrity of the man, which will make his subsequent mistakes and their consequences all the more devastating. This is a scene which is entertaining and stirring purely on its own, but which allows us to get to know these people before the main storylines kick in. As with Avon, Dennis and Prysbylewski, this attention to characterisation is a sorely-needed alternative to British TV’s tendency to give the viewers a ready-assembled cliché package from the  character's first scene.

He ends up in the pay of a murderous but untouchable crook, The Greek, and his right-hand man Spiros, agreeing to ship containers with illegal goods inside for them. When one of these crates contains 13 suffocated prostitutes, Frank realises he's done a deal with the devil. The moment when he heads off to a final meeting with the Greek and Spiros, determined to put things right and not sharing the audience's knowledge that they have decided to kill him, is along with the fall of Stringer Bell one of the most successful moments of classical Tragedy in modern fiction, and this as much due to the integrity and sustained empathy of Bauer's performance as the deft scripting. Rounding off his story nicely is a moment when Valchek receives the final mischievous picture of his van, and as he looks at it his contempt and exasperation turn to something that might just be affection, maybe even an awareness of the poignancy that there won't be any more pictures. Getting to know Frank Sobotka over 12 episodes will tell you far more about the effects of economic systems upon people than any amount of charts and figures.

The Wire makes these people real. It brings life to the individuals who populate the structures that we see on the news every day, and who suffer first hand from the problems we spend our lives wondering how to solve. Most of the likeable people in The Wire do something bad, and most of the dislikable do something admirable. The vicious Major Rawls won't let a distraught McNulty think for one second that a shooting of a fellow officer is "on” the latter, Avon respects Dennis's decision to run a boxing club for street kids and even puts up the money for it, Bodie despises Marlo's ego-driven killings. Conversely, Daniels allows the beating of an exceptionally unpleasant suspect, Prez makes two terrible mistakes which leave others harmed, Carver is also partly responsible for one of them. These people, plus many others, make up David Simon and Ed Burns's Baltimore, which is as universal as Joyce's Dublin or Dickens's London. These people aren't there to do what you'd prefer them to do: they're there because they feel real.

In a wretched climate which actually regards Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars, Homeland and Mad Men as Proper Drama (and in which those of us in Britain, bereft even of the exceptions to the rule like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad or Deadwood, wonder if we really did make I Claudius or if that was just a dream), we have to remember The Wire for achieving what increasingly seems impossible: it put human beings on our television screens.