As a peppy antidote to Inland Empire, I also managed to salvage the first Britannia High DVD from the same bargain bin (one pound, well spent). In the feature-length “making of” that accompanies the four episodes presented here, there’s a lot of lip-service paid to the visionaries behind the show’s concept… but really, the whole thing can be summed up like this: It’s Fame, but set in London. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course… there aren’t many original ideas left, so there’s no harm in someone putting a fresh spin on an old one. Still, it’s unlikely that BH would be commissioned today, for fear that it would wither and die in the shadow of the superior Glee.
Personally, I found BH rather a tough slog. Watching a musical series like this is a lot like watching a cheap martial arts flick, in the sense that you’re just waiting for something to kick off, because the dialogue and plotting in between the action is so cheesy and banal. I watched the first two episodes all the way through, and it was rather like having someone sprinkle itching powder on my brain. The first episode, which followed a supposedly sloppy, unfit new student as she struggled to keep up with her more experienced and disciplined classmates, was engaging enough… but the second episode was just pure dreck. Unintentionally hilarious dreck, but irritating nonetheless. Essentially, the popular, pretty-boy dancer can’t read or write… and apparently no one noticed this at any point during the previous sixteen years of education, so the whole episode revolves around him trying to hide his secret shame from his teachers and friends… until he is publicly outed as illiterate during an informal Q&A session with Girls Aloud, which he ends up hosting after winning the election to become class rep by doing a fancy dance. As you do. Pure tosh, from beginning to end… made even worse by the fact at the end of the episode he’s taxied off to some special centre for dyslexics, and is miraculously cured by the beginning of the next episode, so they never have to mention it again. Or maybe they do, I don’t know. Once it became clear that the plot of the third episode revolved around the probably-gay-but-this-is-pre-watershed-so-he-can’t-actually-kiss-other-men character’s own dirty secret (he’s incredibly rich, but ashamed of it, and his father thinks he’s studying economics, not tap-dancing) I started hitting the fast-forward button pretty heavily.
As I say, the main appeal in a show like this is the razzle-dazzle… and there’s no denying the talent and commitment that the cast show when it comes to the song and dance numbers. Some of the acting can be a bit flat and wooden at times, but when the music kicks in, it’s like seeing penguins hit the water… suddenly everything goes from clumsy waddling, to graceful aquabatics. And for me, the star of these sequences was Rana Roy, an exceptionally beautiful and lithe young woman, who indulges in a lot of what the Glee kids call “hairography”. In the talky sequences, she’s lumbered with an underwritten “ditzy girl” character, called ‘Lola Jonze’, which doesn’t really seem to suit her… I mean, there are some actresses who can smoothly slip the word “like” into sentences, and there are those who overstress it like a contractual obligation they can’t get out of. For the first three episodes, Lola is shoved to the sidelines, occasionally dropping some air-headed non sequitur, so the others can mock her… but in the fourth episode she’s front and centre with an arc all to herself. No shameful secrets this time, just a cautionary tale about getting what you wish for, when Lola stumbles into the orbit of an (at the time) famous boy-band blockhead, and steals a little sliver of the spotlight for herself. The tabloids clamour to buy her (entirely fictional) “kiss and tell” story, and offer her all sorts of profile-boosting favours in return… leading to her clumsy metamorphosis from naive girly to star-stalking fame whore. Although they tried to leaven her moral decline with some wacky pratfalls and silly costumes, it was actually quite an uncomfortable watch, as the poor girl degraded and humiliated herself in a desperate dash across the shifting, sucking sands of Z-list celebrity. On the other hand, I think it was a decent showcase for Roy, because she was finally free to drop all the girly fluff, and grapple with more serious dramatic fare. As far as I know she hasn’t had much acting work since, which is a shame because I think she really rose to the occasion, and I’d be curious to see what she could do with a little more experience, and a better (straighter?) script.
I also think it’s a shame there’s so little proper dancing on TV these days. As a couch potato, I’m always stunned when I see athletes and dancers throwing themselves into shapes that would break me in half. It’s truly remarkable what a properly trained and toned human body is capable of… and if you slap a half-decent song over the top of it, then you’ve got yourself an art form, my friend. But outside of shows like Glee, or Britain’s Got Talent (But Very Little Dignity), there isn’t really a lot of room for it on our screens. Always plenty of room for dull men leaning over snooker tables in dark rooms, but not enough for fit young hoofers in tight outfits twirling their way around glittery sets. Where’s Alan Parker when you need him?