So, the first blog of the new year. Perhaps it should be about Christmas and television, a reminiscence of the supposed golden age when the nation was united around the tv set? But to be honest, television was a bit boring over Christmas and other people can write better about the two big moments: Matt Smith’s departure from Dr Who and Benedict Cumberbatch’s return from the dead as Sherlock; though it’s worth noting that in rating terms both were beaten by old-fashioned television – Mrs Brown’s Boys (2011-) and the 15 minutes of (live and spectacular) New Year fireworks from the Thames.
But here’s something. Into my Tivo box pops Psychobitches; it’s being repeated somewhere (at 2 in the morning, it turns out) and, since I recorded it when it was broadcast last year, it re-appears into ‘My Shows’. I’m delighted to be re-acquainted with it but it gets me thinking about how television programmes fail to get noticed.
‘Content is king’ is a familiar mantra from television executives and broadcasting experts who go on to explain how the viewer is now increasingly in control. Freed of the restrictions imposed by channels and their wicked controllers, consumers can pick and choose what and how they view. And in finding good television, the viewer now has different means of support through the ‘suggestions’ made by digital suppliers and the nudges, ‘likes’ and tweets of friends. It is, potentially at least, a perfect market in which the fickleness of over-night ratings is overcome by the faithfulness of subscribers and it has its own myths of viewer power in which good programmes are found and supported by fans using social media. Many a television reviewer, looking back on 2013, has cited how Breaking Bad (2008-13) survived near-cancellation over series 2 and triumphed as, apparently, the best television series ever.
But perhaps Psychobitches is more typical than Breaking Bad? I have been proselytizing about this comedy series since it was first broadcast in May/June 2013 but I have yet to meet anyone who’s heard of it, let alone watched it. It’s a Tiger Aspect sketch show, directed by Jeremy Dyer and produced by Pippa Brown, in which a (nearly) all-female cast play famous women who find themselves on the couch of the warm, friendly and sorely-tested psychiatrist, wonderfully played by Rebecca Front. Sharon Horgan, Samantha Spiro and Julia Davis appear most frequently as the patients but others who put in appearances include Frances Barber, Kathy Burke, Selina Griffiths, Katy Brand and Zawe Ashton. Harry Enfield and Mark Gatiss are among the men appearing as female characters.
Of course like any sketch show it has its up and downs but a number of things help sustain its comedy beyond the basic premise. Firstly, while the show includes some impersonators’ favourites such as Joan Crawford/ Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, its real originality lies in its guying of a wild range of historical figures (Eva Peron, Boudica, Catherine the Great), mythic characters (Eve, Old Mother Shipton, Mona Lisa), relatives of famous men (Freud’s mother, the wives of Abraham and Alfred Hitchcock), female pioneers (Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Curie) and feminist icons (the Bronte Sisters, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath). And some choices are truly specialist subjects – Barbara Castle trying to control her sexual fantasies about Harold Wilson’s cabinet, for one.
Secondly, despite being a series of sketches, each episode is held together by the rhythm with which it embeds the patient interviews into the overall structure. Between each consultation, the lively signature tune sparks up again and an object of primitive art hung on the psychiatrist’s walls is picked out. The longer sessions are split up across the episode so we return to them with relish. Sometimes, the psychiatrist asks a general question (‘Describe yourself in five words’ ‘What’s your earliest memory?’) and the cutting gives us three or four patients responding in outrageous or inconsequential ways. We get glimpses of the waiting room where everyone stands up to offer Rosa Parks a seat and mice creep out of Madame de Pompadour’s elaborate wig as she waits her turn. Patients make their entrances and exits and Lady Diana Spencer pops her head round the door to enquire ‘Am I too early?’; she is. This weaving together of jokes, music and characters means that watching those clips which are available on Youtube isn’t the same as watching the whole episodes.
And then there is the pleasure of performance. Julia Davis is perhaps the standout performer as the silent Mary Pickford, Helen of Troy, Joy Adamson, Enid Blyton and Sylvia Plath (channelling Pam Ayres) but, among many, the favourite in our house is Michelle Gomez (The Book Group (2002-3), Green Wing (2004-6), Bad Education (2012-13)) as a drug-addled but curiously delicate Mary Queen of Scots whose Glaswegian, consonant-free drawl is accompanied by bowdlerized sub-titles.
Set against the over-the-top characters is Rebecca Front’s nuanced performance as the psychiatrist, her exasperation, irritation and sympathy smoothed out under a professional veneer.
The show was actually well reviewed in the press (see the British Comedy Press’s review here) and it was commissioned as part of a push being made by Sky TV since 2012 to expand into original drama. Stuart Murphy, Director of Sky Entertainment (previously head of BBC3), commented last September: “We’re so happy with the dramas we’ve made so far, and I hope our new programmes will underline how much we put a premium on creative endeavour at Sky.’ Julia Davis was among a number of writer-performers recruited for this and her sit com Hunderby (2012) had been screened in the previous summer. And Dracula (2013-14) with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which is just finishing on Sky Living, is another example of Sky’s attempt to boost its reputation for drama, this time on one of its more mainstream channels.
So why didn’t Psychobitches get the buzz that would have got it talked about? Well perhaps because the power of channels is still too strong and it required some digging out which the flickering attention of the social media wasn’t up for. For many, drama on Sky means HBO on Sky Atlantic but Psychobitches was British drama on Sky Arts 1. This channel used to be a premium offering but is now available in many non-Sky packages. Its audience figures are not high as this story of a recent ‘success’ shows:
Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe’s pairing in A Young Doctor’s Notebook proved an unsurprisingly popular combo for Sky Arts, . . . The four-part comedy drama . . . attracted an average audience of 252,000. Viewing of the first outing of the series . . . had a five-minute peak of 307,000.
This is the biggest audience the channel has attracted since BSkyB acquired Artsworld in 2005 . . . according to a spokeswoman. The previous biggest audience for the channel is understood to be about 100,000 for another Playhouse Presents production, featuring David Tennant, in April .
This success (if a quarter of a million viewers counts as a success) seems to have been down to the pull of Daniel Radcliffe rather than the Playhouse Presents branding which Sky uses for its new drama on Sky Arts 1. This overall heading brings together single short plays (often with starry casts or a well-known actor trying a hand at directing) and short serials. It was a bit confusing for Psychobitcheswhich needed to establish its own status if it was to become a word of mouth success. And its length was against it; five episodes isn’t long enough for the word to be spread. And perhaps its title didn’t quite work for on-line recommendations.
But here’s the good news. If you’ve got to the bottom of this blog and I’ve persuaded you that you ought to try out Psychobitches, you can catch up on some of the repeats if you can find them. Episode 4 is to be repeated on Thu 16th Jan 2014 (9:00pm, Sky Arts 1) or Fri 17th Jan 2014 (12:30am, Sky Arts 1). And episode 5 might be on sometime after that.
Christine Geraghty is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Glasgow and an Honorary Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her publications on television include a contribution to the 1981 BFI monograph on Coronation Street; Women and Soap Opera (Polity, 1991); and My Beautiful Laundrette (I B Taurus, 2004). Her BFI TV Classic on Bleak House (2005) will be published in October 2012. Her BFI TV Classic on Bleak House (2005) was published in October 2012. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of British Cinema and Television and sits on the advisory boards of a number of journals, including Screen.