Monday, 31 October 2005

total:spec: Desperate Housewives

When both Friends and Sex And The City finished in 2004, it seemed Channel 4 would never be able to replace them. The two American shows had captured the imaginations of a whole generation who discussed the ins and outs of each episode at work water coolers the next day. Both shows seemed impossible acts to follow and yet American television managed it. Within months of Friends and Sex And The City finishing two new shows were the talk of the airwaves - survival thriller Lost and, on an even bigger ratings scale, Desperate Housewives. Both have, of course, been picked up by Channel 4 and repeated their US success here in the UK. When the first episode of Desperate Housewives was screened here at the beginning of 2005, it garnered the channel the highest ever audience share for a US series launch, including ER, Sex And The City and Friends. So confident were Channel 4 of its success that they bought the rights to the second series, which is due on screens here in January, before that first episode was even screened.
Desperate Housewives has become a TV phenomenon to rival that of Friends. For a year it's been untouchable, the shining star of the TV schedules that everyone loves. Despite constant negative press about the rumoured rivalries between the show's five female stars - Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Eva Longoria and Nicollette Sheridan - the show itself has only received positive coverage. Critics love it as much as the millions of viewers that watch it, and it has been showered with awards, including six Emmys and one Golden Globe. But as the show powers on through its second series in America, the first rumblings of a backlash have begun.
Critics in the US have been quite scathing in their comments of the new series, saying that it's lost its campy sensibility, its eye on realism and the originality that marked it out from other TV dramas. A new storyline involving actress Alfre Woodard - who joins the cast in series two as Betty Applewhite, a new neighbour who imprisons someone in her basement - also came under some negative scrutiny. One critic said that it "has not only wasted Woodard's talent, but our time as well". The most common accusation is that the show is resting on its laurels. This was being said even as far back as when the last episode of the first series was being screened in the UK. Russell T Davies, the writer who this year resurrected Doctor Who, a self-confessed fan of Desperate Housewives, said in one interview he felt the season finale "was good but it didn’t really build to a good climax. It was quite secure in the knowledge it was coming back next year so it relaxed at the end, I thought. I think that’s a mistake as you want to leave people punching the air."
The lack of punch that American critics say beleaguers the new series of Desperate Housewives has been put down to the apparently diminishing involvement of the show's creator and executive producer Marc Cherry. Cherry didn’t write any of the new series’ first three episodes and Touchstone Television, who make the series, recently announced that Cherry had signed on as co-producer of another series, a murder mystery show called Kill/Switch. There have even been rumours that Cherry is working on a spin-off series called Desperate Husbands, but Cherry himself says this is untrue and that the speculation about his involvement has been blown completely out of proportion. He says he is still a major contributor to the show’s scripts and plans to be with the show for the next three series.
“I am as involved in the writing process as I’ve always been,” says Cherry. “I help come up with the storylines, I give notes and, indeed, I write things constantly. I take the credit and the blame for everything that goes on screen.
“Yes we’re trying new stuff. Some of it might work, some of it might not. This, of course, is the nature of episodic television. They can’t all be gems. Rest assured I’m paying attention to my audience’s response and am trying my darndest to please them. And I will do so as long as I’ve got that executive producer credit above my name.”
Cherry’s been through worse periods in his career than this. Starting in TV as a writer on The Golden Girls in 1990, Cherry, who’s 43, went on to write a number of sitcoms throughout the 90s, all of which flopped. The end of the decade saw him virtually unemployable. Not only did have a bad track record, reality TV had become the viewer’s genre of choice over comedy and drama. But he didn’t give up. He began work on Desperate Housewives, a project he toiled over for two and a half years only to have it turned down by every channel he approached. And then more bad luck. His agent Marcie Wright was jailed for embezzlement, which included thousands of dollars of Cherry’s. He borrowed money from his mother, got new representation, and things began to change. His new agents Paradigm pitched Housewives again, this time as a soap with comedy elements rather than a satire. It worked. ABC, a channel who weren’t exactly doing well themselves and were losing viewers at a rate of knots, went for it and found themselves with the biggest TV hit of the year.
“ABC helped me and I helped ABC,” says Cherry. “We were both very desperate entities, to be sure.”
Cherry got the idea for Housewives from his own family background. Brought up one of three children of successful oil executive Truman Cherry and his wife Martha, Cherry had a good childhood despite the obvious problems between his parents.
“At some point they became two people who really had in common only their children,” says Cherry. “That was the bad part of their marriage. The good part was that so much love was poured into us kids.”
Martha is the obvious inspiration for Lynette, played by Felicity Huffman. Before Cherry and his siblings came along, Martha was a fashion designer, but gave up her career to become a housewife and bring up her children. Lynette’s story comes from a moment when Cherry and his mother were watching a programme about Andrea Yates, the Texan mother who drowned her five children. Cherry’s mother suddenly blurted out that she’d experienced similar desperation.
“It hit me so hard,” says Cherry. “I thought that she was always happy.”
But Cherry’s mother is also the inspiration for Bree, played by Marcia Cross. Cherry says his mother was obsessed with creating the perfect home and life for her family. A similar incident to that in the penultimate episode of the first series, where Bree makes the bed as her husband suffers a heart attack on the stairs, saying to him, ‘I never leave the house with an unmade bed, you know that,’ before taking him to hospital, actually occurred between Cherry’s parents in real life.
“But thank God for my family’s weirdness,” says Cherry. “Now I drive a Lexus because of it.”
The success of Desperate Housewives has been staggering. It’s become a pop culture phenomenon around the world, made huge stars of its five main protagonists and in doing so single-handedly resurrected the career of Teri Hatcher, who plays Susan. It garnered an average of 25 million viewers a week during the first series in the US, becoming the most successful show there since ER. Even Laura Bush referenced it in a speech she gave at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, is quite straightforward about the show’s success.
“It’s an incredibly entertaining show,” he says. “It has great comedy, great drama, great mystery and great intrigue.”
Others have looked for deeper meaning to the show’s success. Naomi Wolf, described as America’s leading feminist, is one.
“First, it says the unsayable without apologies – about female unconscious and, by doing so, makes Sex And The City, its obvious antecedent, seem quaint, even demure. Second, it lets hard-working women explore a retreat fantasy – of a work-free life in suburbia – and then emerge from it refreshed and with an appetite for their own tough, bracing, more independent lives.”
Susan Douglas, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan has a slightly different take on the show’s ability to engage so many viewers.
“It rips the veneer off the myth of suburban domestic bliss,” she says. “In the process, the show punctures the notion that in a post-feminist world women have achieved full equality and can choose freely how they want to live their lives. The choices women make are anything but choices. Women watching can easily relate to that.”
Media analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner echoes that.
“It’s not about the angst of young life, it’s about the angst of real life. It’s figuring out where you are in terms of the choices you’ve already made. It’s [American 80s drama] Thirtysomething, but more domestic.”
The cast, however, refuse to get bogged down in all the theory.
“I don’t care about any of that,” says Hatcher. “For me it’s just pure entertainment.”
“It’s very entertaining and it moves fast,” agrees Steven Culp, who played the now deceased Rex Van De Kamp. “Beyond that there are things about the characters that people recognise, and that resonate in their own lives.”
So everyone loves it, that’s obvious. But how long will that last? Aside from the criticism thrown at the new series in America, the show has had to deal with trouble on the inside as well. Much has been made of the reported in-fighting between the five main cast members – there's been alleged jealousy of those who did pick up awards for Desperate Housewives and those who didn’t, for example. It was given further credence by a scathingly funny article in Vanity Fair telling the story of the difficult photo shoot for the accompanying cover picture. It seemed the success of the show had turned these five actresses into huge divas.
“The reporter caught them on a bad day after a really, really bad week,” explains Cherry. He says there was tension over the subject of Hatcher supposedly being thought of as the show’s lead. “The culmination occurred, sadly, in front of a Vanity Fair reporter, who played everything up to the hilt and made everything a little more dramatic than it was. Not that there wasn’t some truth there, there was. It happened and we got over it, and then about six weeks later the magazine comes out and we had to relive it. It really hurts my feelings because all the girls, Teri included, really do treat each other not only professionally but with love. Four or five bad days does no reflect what went on the other 240 shooting days where everything was hunky-dory.”
“I have to take my hat off to the Vanity Fair writer,” adds Huffman, “because he made this great thing out of a tempest in a teapot. Actually, we do all get along. People have been waiting for us not to get along from the minute this went on air. I remember doing press conferences with people saying, ‘That’s a lot of women on the set, there must be a lot of fighting.’ They’d been waiting for the fur to fly and now suddenly they found they had made something up to sink their teeth into.”
And so, in accordance with Huffman’s theory, the stories of on-set tension continue as the second series continues in the US. Rumours that former Baywatch star Kelly Monaco is set to join the cast has prompted stories that the five main stars are worried about their future due to the introduction of a younger female cast member. There may be some element of truth to these stories – similar reports dogged the Sex And The City cast members for years and it was eventually revealed that not all of them were untrue. But like Sex And The City, Desperate Housewives has the staying power to survive them. For despite all the criticism currently being levelled at the show in the US, the viewing figures tell a different story. The first three episodes were watched by an average of 27 million people in the US, beating the 24 million average for the whole of last series.
Cherry has no reason to worry about his baby, but he is. It’s nothing to do with all the criticism, however. Instead of worrying about the quality of the show, he’s worrying it may get a little too controversial this series. He’s preparing himself for a backlash concerning a storyline where Andrew Van De Kamp exacts a horrible revenge on his overbearing mother.
“It will be about as bad as anything on TV,” says Cherry. “Andrew resents her tremendously. He’s going to get back at her. We’ve got something just hideous planned. I’m going to get letters.”

Friday, 14 October 2005

PA - Chris Rea

I will always be a Boro lad

By Wil Marlow

Chris Rea is no stranger to hospitals. Pottering about his home-cum-studio, he tells of his latest visit, which was for a not very pleasant sounding operation to remove a blockage in one of his sinuses. Despite repeated visits, thanks to a string of health problems, he says he never gets used to going to hospital.

"It's always hard to go back. Just because of all the scenarios that have happened to me. In 1994 I had a big colon operation, and in 2001 I lost my pancreas, duodenum, and gall bladder."

That followed a cancer scare, and it goes on. "You're very much aware of post-operative infection, especially in hospitals now because of the MRSA stuff," explains the Middlesbrough-born musician.

"I'm always on at the doctor, driving him mad. I'll say to him 'I feel something.' He'll say 'Yes, it's called pain.' I'll say 'I've got an abscess,' and he'll say 'No, it's not an abscess,' and I'll say 'Prove to me it's not an abscess.'

"I do give the doctors a hard time. It's my paranoia, but I have a right to be paranoid."

He certainly has. The 54-year-old, who has sold 30 million albums worldwide, has just been back in hospital again. He developed an abscess on his leg following an infection from the insulin injections that he has to administer daily. He became diabetic after nearly dying following the major surgery of 2001.

Chris, who famously wrote The Road To Hell, is now on the road to recovery again but still leads a difficult life.

"It's tough," he says. "I train very hard to keep everything going as much as possible. I do a lot of weight training to keep my muscles the right size.

"I don't want big guy muscles but because the pancreas converts so many things into the whole life blood of your body. When you don't have one, lots of things go missing.

"In order to maintain muscle ratio, I have to do 50 press-ups to your 10, otherwise I'd start wasting away.

"I'm type one diabetic and certain foods can give me the effects of food poisoning very easily. What else? Oh yeah, my circulation's not good. So I train about five times a week. I hate it."

He makes it interesting by playing football games on his own. "I can play ball against a wall and invent a rule that means I have to keep running to keep it up. I can play for an hour."

Chris's health problems do not stop him working, however, much to his family's concern. His wife Joan and daughters, Josephine, 21, and 16-year-old Julia, were not overjoyed when he began work on a mammoth 11 album project which took him a year to complete.

Blue Guitars sees Chris and his regular band of musicians traverse the story of the blues from its origins in west Africa through to modern blues.

It's all original material written by Chris and his cohorts, but he did sample heavily as well as make use of old and modified instruments and electrical equipment.

"This was my first ever guitar," he says, picking up a battered looking instrument, "£28 it was. We used it on all of Blue Guitars.

"We found all these old instruments in silly little shops as well, and we got ourselves some great little amps from the 50s on eBay. One of them was a real pain actually but we managed OK."

Blue Guitars is an epic project but Chris is keen to point out it is no history lesson. He is looking at the blues timeline, and how it has changed over the years, then he is mixing it up to show the connections - like taking a jigsaw and putting it together in a different way while still getting the same picture. He famously does not like listening to his own music but it is obvious he is immensely proud of this.

"It's the first one I've ever taken home. It's different to all the others because there's been nothing in the way of what I wanted to do.

"I'm actually hearing my musical idea whereas, when I used to have executive producers, everything got watered down, shortened, strings added for the wrong reason. There's no compromise on Blue Guitars."

Chris, whose early ambition was to be a journalist, went to St Mary's College in Middlesbrough and was a latecomer to music. He did not pick up a guitar until he was 19 and joined his first group only at 22.

He is the son of Camillo Rea, the Italian immigrant whose family ran Middlesbrough's biggest ice-cream business and he even worked in the old family ice-cream factory at Brambles Farm.
As his career developed, he lived in a flat above Rea's famous Park Bar opposite Albert Park which was beloved of footballers and football fans on their way to Ayresome Park.

His first big success came with the album Whatever Happened To Benny Santini and the magnificently haunting single Fool (If You Think It's Over).

He married Joan, the former Stainsby Girl he immortalised in his song about the pupils of the old Acklam secondary school, and the successes kept rolling out including Driving Home For Christmas which will soon be ringing out from everywhere.

He moved away in 1983 and the family now lives at Cookham just outside Windsor.
Despite the 22 year gap, he still has that distinctive smoke and gravel Teesside accent.

"A lot of people are amazed I haven't lost my accent," he says, "but I don't mind. I'll always be a Boro lad."

A versatile one, too. Blue Guitars is not just a musical project as, for each album, he used his painting skills for the cover, creating a visual representation of each style of blues he experimented with. The paintings are to be shown at an exhibition in London.

"When somebody was doing the engineering technical stuff, or someone was learning a part, I'd be in the kitchen doing the paintings.

"I was working on this project all day every day for a year. The family weren't happy about it. After the illness I'd said I wasn't going to do much, that I wasn't going to chase the company line anymore. I ended up chasing my own line," he laughs.

"I'm on a promise now that I won't do this type of thing again in terms of how I did it. But to me it's not work. My bad moments are when I don't have anything musical to do.

"It's because I genuinely love doing it."

Blue Guitars will be his last release under the name Chris Rea. His tour next year with most dates - including Newcastle City Hall - sold out, will also be a last. Afterwards he will be part of a three-piece called The Fire Flies.

"I don't want to be hindered by my health," he says. "I love touring, it's the best job in the world - if I had a different body.

"My health is hard to forecast and I can't guarantee things aren't going to get any worse. I need to find a different way of working."