overthinking the idiot box

May 8, 2006

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in...

London Calling
Billie Piper Makes Good (TV)

by C.J. Quinn

Marry UP, Billie lass, marry UP.
Let me take you on a little trip back in time, friends. The year is 1998. Paula Jones accuses Bill Clinton of sexual harassment. Titanic wins eleven Oscars. Google is founded (no, really — that one surprised me too). And in England, a teenage girl from Swindon with blonde hair and black eyebrows inexplicably gets a number one chart hit with her first single, a shouty, catchy and incredibly annoying piece of manufactured pop called 'Because We Want To'. That teenage girl, Leanne Paul Piper, who for some unfathomable reason chooses to release her singles under the name Billie, goes on to have two years in the limelight, dating boy-band members (and being booed by their fans at the Smash Hits Awards), releasing two eminently forgettable albums, nominated for two Brit awards, and finally disappearing from the public eye in 2000. She gets a brief season in the sun again in 2001, when she elopes to Las Vegas to marry the largely washed-up irritating ginger TV and radio presenter Chris Evans, sixteen years her senior, but by and large, it seems that Billie was just so last millennium, content to disappear into beer-swilling, badly-dressed obscurity as the has-been wife of a has-been.

Little did we know, eh? Let's jump in my TARDIS and return to the golden moment of the now, where Billie Piper has a hatful of awards for her acting work, despite the fact that pop stars who try to turn themselves into serious actors generally end up getting lightly flame-grilled by the British public and press, and is widely agreed to be one of the best things on British television today. Who would have foreseen this five years ago, and who among us would ever have guessed that this second swing at the fame piñata would come about for Billie due to the revival of a long-dormant sci-fi tea-time serial adventure show with wobbly sets and tin-foil monsters?

The Doctor, surely, belonged to a more innocent time, when a tin can with a rubber plunger stuck on the front could terrify a nation of kids into hiding behind the sofa, despite its complete inability to get up the stairs.
The regeneration of Doctor Who, and with it the career of Piper, has been one of the BBC's unlikeliest success stories of the past couple of years. Doctor Who, after all, had been gone from the scene for even longer than Piper, stuck between regenerations since 1989, and when I heard it was being revived by the Beeb I confess that I was deeply skeptical. The Doctor, surely, belonged to a more innocent time, when a tin can with a rubber plunger stuck on the front could terrify a nation of kids into hiding behind the sofa, despite its complete inability to get up the stairs. When the casting of Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor and Piper as his Companion was announced, things seemed to be heading for a catastrophe of galactic proportions: a dour, bald Northerner with sticky-out ears, and a peroxide former pop star? Really?

This, of course, just goes to show how little I know, and how I should never be allowed to work in the TV industry as I clearly wouldn't know a potential hit if it bit me on the arse. Rose aired to an unbelievable 10.5 million people on BBC One (that's one person in every six across the country watching — Eastenders, one of the nation's most popular serial dramas, gets an average audience of about 16 million) and the rest is history.

There's still something faintly embarrassing about being caught watching Doctor Who, but perhaps that's part of the charm. Friends popped round for a cuppa recently as I was watching a re-run of The Long Game, and had a good giggle at the slightly rubbish CGI and overly shiny, amateurish sets, but I still didn't switch off. The monsters are still often a bit too silly for words, but it's not really about the monsters anymore, so much as the chemistry between the Doctor (Ninth or Tenth) and his sparky, sexy sidekick. This is sci-fi for people who think they hate sci-fi, because you don't have to take the monsters and the aliens seriously to enjoy the show.

Both Eccleston and Tennant make good Doctors — the jury's still somewhat out for me on whether Tennant's floppy-haired, manic Doctor can be as smoulderingly sexy as Eccleston's bald, big-eared and tortured Time Lord — but Piper, I have to admit, is just brill. Her eyebrows don't match her hair, and her stage-schooled vowels sometimes slip through the veneer of her Sarf London council estate accent, but who cares? Piper's Rose has enough electricity with her Doctors to power a TARDIS, and strikes just the right note between wide-eyed wonder and arse-kicking. She's the Companion we'd all like to think we'd be, taking it all in her stride, embracing the new, the odd and the downright mental and choosing the red pill over a life of unremarkable obscurity and safety. She also, I suppose, just looks hot in a tracksuit, and you can never overestimate the worth of that in viewing figures.

As well as some cracking casting, the BBC also scores big in my estimation for having put the Who revival into the hands of Russell T Davies; his earlier projects, after all, have been well-written but often also dark and/or controversial (Queer as Folk, anyone?). Davies has written stories for the new Who that don't rely on viewers being obsessive fans with encyclopaedic knowledge of the Who mythology. The stories soar above the sometimes cheesy special effects, passing comment on real-life issues of concern (genetic engineering, ecological change, the beauty culture, media ownership, the just war) but generally having a rollicking good time doing it. The scripts don't shy away from jokes, even in the middle of the tensest action, nor from downright weirdness.

Like other great tea-time family hits of the past decade or so (The Simpsons springs to mind) there's something for everyone, proving that the concept of 'family viewing' isn't entirely dead in our multi-channel, multi-set households. When you get down to brass tacks, it turns out, people will watch celebrity-padded, reality trash, but if you give them strong stories, multi-dimensional characters and witty writing, they just might tune in in their droves and prove that what viewers really still want is TV with a little heart, mind and soul. Thank God, the BBC and Russell T Davies — the Doctor will see us now.

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