Monday, 9 February 2009

Going Postal

We all know about character development over the course of a drama, it's something we all strive to do, and to do well. But there's another kind of character development, a rarer, non-deliberate kind, where a character endures in a popular medium through many years, multiple writers or production teams, and through multiple trend changes in that medium and in the wider culture. Big Russell, who I seem to be referencing a lot these days, acknowledges this in The Writer's Tale. It's not so much Doctor Who I'm talking about, though there's an echo of it that series: the changes in The Doctor's look and personality are a deliberate function of an individual script, and they are used to prolong the series beyond the presence of one actor. This is more the other way round, when an actor or character stays in place, and the series changes around them, The whims of unfeeling Father Time, and even more unfeeling New Broom Producer inadvertently cause the character to change, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much.

For example: Dot Cotton used to be a hell of a causal racist. She's not anymore. We all know why this is, and we know it isn't a deliberate change of character on behalf of any one writer, but it's nice to take it at face value and imagine that maybe life has mellowed Dot in that one particular way. Extremely long-running soap characters like Ken Barlow and Ian Beale are rare, but fascinatingly rich: we've seen them young, and we've seen them grow older, and we may even see their (fictional) death one day. The totality of the character's fiction is bigger than any single imagination, and – like life – it can't really be appreciated as a whole, it can only really be glimpsed in little half-hour shaped pieces.

Some types of shows can throw up quirks when their characters are measured against real life. For example, Ken and Ian at least age. Doctor Who fans have to face up to the inevitability that a Doctor's going to come along that's younger than they are. It'll happen to me (and loads of other people - he's so young!) when Matt Smith takes over at the end of this year (David Tennant is about four months older than me, so I've avoided this until now). The writing is clearly on the wall: the show is bigger than any one of its fans (or writers, or producers, or stars). The fictions will go on, when we're all dust. We didn't know how lucky we were when Who was off air, not to have this ever-present ticking clock to measure out our mortality.

Then, you have to feel for the poor people who work on animations, where nothing and no one ages: I remember hearing one of The Simpsons' show-runners (maybe Al Jean) bemoaning the day that he overtook Homer in the age stakes. Homer may be old, bald and fat, but he'll never get older, balder or fatter (except in the episode King Size Homer, before anyone mentions it: I am aware of King Size Homer). We aren't quite so lucky.

All this is as it should be - if a little maudlin for me, but I seem to be in a bit of a 'Oh Shit, I'm getting old' mood at the moment (must be the weather). But what about when this supra-character development makes a well-loved character less interesting and less rich. What if this process causes character un-development? What the hell – if I might be so bold – happened to Postman Pat?

If you're reading this, you probably haven't seen Postman Pat recently. Even if you have because – like me – you have a young child in the house, you might only have seen the most up-to-date version. But, through the beneficence of his older relatives, and charity shops, my boy has accumulated a collection of these things called videos (remember them?!) from every era of Postman Pat. The show has been going so long, it's like a history of children's television over the last twenty-five years. And therein lies the tragedy.

The earliest episodes are quite slow, have very basic hand-made animation, and no lip-sync. Just one male voice doing narration, and putting on all character voices. They remind one of the Sixties and Seventies stop-motion shows like Camberwick Green and The Flumps, and were clearly a continuation of that tradition. This is the incarnation that my son likes the best.

A few years later, the colours seem a bit brighter, the animation a but slicker, but it still has the same wonky charm. Pat has got married (from the episodes I've seen from the early days, it's not clear what his marital status is, but it looks very much like he's a single man who spends a bit too much time with his black-and-white cat). And on the production side, the first major innovation: a woman has become the co-narrator, voicing all the female characters. Still no lip sync, though.

As the years roll on, the show enters the caring sharing late nineties/early twenty-first century and the changes get more pronounced: lip sync arrives, with different actors/voices for each character. Pat's postal patch, Greendale, which once was a small white rural community of stereotypes (vicar, posh lady, spiv, farmer, old washer woman), is now a much more cosmopolitan town peopled by multi-ethnic and disabled stereotypes. This, depending on your outlook, is either an admirable stab at diversity or Burger King kid's meal gang tokenism, but ultimately the widening of the supporting ensemble allows a broader range of stories, so it seems to be a worthwhile thing . Also, Pat has acquired a son, and the children in the cast are pushed much more to the foreground of the stories. Fair enough, again, it is children's show after all.

The final regeneration brings us to the present day: the show has got a new name - Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service - and a new theme tune (although they still use a section of the original theme at the beginning, you couldn't mess too much with that). And now Pat has kit. With a small 'k', I mean: he doesn't have a talking car. Although that's pretty much all he doesn't have: the SDS allots Pat a van, a motorbike with a sidecar, and a helicopter. He even has a mobile phone and SatNav. If this was a podcast rather than a blog, this is the bit where I would half cough, and half say the word 'merchandising' under my breath. But again, don't think I'm being Grumpy Old Man here. Merchandising is great, kid's TV is no longer the cottage industry it used to be in my day, and my boy has lots of Pat toys which he loves. I wouldn't want it any other way. Plus, it's still a good and well-made show.

But what of the star of the show in all this? What of Pat? Reader, I'm afraid to say, he's become a buffoon. And that's the bit that I don't like. Somehow, all of the changes detailed above have had the effect, without anyone necessarily wanting it to be so, of diminishing the main character's intelligence to a very low level. At the start, Pat is a good postman, who no matter what obstacles are in his way, will always get the letters delivered. He even rises to the occasion with a healthy dose of heroism and derring-do when necessary. By the end, though, he is reduced to delivering one package at a time, which he has an alarming inability to do without losing or breaking what's inside. However, he usually improvises some compromise solution at the eleventh hour, which heavily relies on the good will of the people of Greendale, and he keeps his job by the skin of his teeth.

A favourite example is the episode where there is a film festival, and Pat has to deliver the film can of the single movie they are showing. Pat is racing to get the print to the cinema before the screening, when he drops it in a muddy field and ruins it. The package that Pat has been given responsibility for delivering has not only been opened but its contents have been completely destroyed. And for this, they give the man control of a helicopter? Luckily, Pat's son has been making a home movie during this chaos, and this is what is shown at the festival instead. (This is not like any film festival I have ever been to: I couldn't help worrying for the members of the audience sitting at the back thinking 'I paid £350 for a delegate pass for this!')

I'd love to think that there is subtext at play here: that this is a comment upon the effect of increased technology to erode common sense, or a political statement about the deterioration of the Royal Mail's service over the last twenty-five years. But it isn't. They've just turned Postman Pat into a blithering idiot, and it shouldn't be allowed. Tell someone!


Tim Clague said...

Welcome to Tim Clague's blog summary service. Today I present to you your post in a shortened format more suitable for today's generation ;) audience.


I am old.


Thank you for using this service.

Stuart Perry said...

Tim - so it was you who invented Twitter then?!