ITV’s experimental Isolation Stories is a novelty, but nothing more
It goes without saying that these are strange times in television land. The faintly surreal nature of life at the moment is reflected in what we see on the screen.
News is the one area that hasn’t been drastically affected. Bulletins look much the same as they always have. The only noticeable difference, apart from social distancing in the studio, is the increased use of apps like Skype and Zoom for interviews.
But since the technology was already in limited use anyway, long before the coronavirus crisis hit, the effect has been minimal.
Everything else has changed utterly. In the name of keeping calm, carrying on and keeping viewers entertained amid all the disruption to our lives, broadcasters have had to resort to all sorts of contortions to keep popular shows on the air.
The trouble is, most of them aren’t working at all — and especially the ones that rely heavily on the vibe of a live studio audience.
The absence of a laugh track in a sitcom is fine. Ever since The Office and The Royle Family, most of them have been shot more like straight dramas anyway. Subtract the studio audience from the equation in a comedy panel show like Have I Got News for You, however, and the result is eerily unfunny.
Without spontaneous studio laughter, all you’re left with is a video conference of comedians sitting at home, chuckling at one another’s jokes while the viewers squint and try to make out what books Paul Merton has on his shelves.
The Graham Norton Show, now cut back to a half-hour and moved to an unsuitable 9pm slot, is using the same approach, and it’s disastrous.
Norton usually feeds off the energy of the crowd and the spontaneity of his face-to-face interactions with a sofa full of stars. Sitting in a room and talking to one guest at a time on a screen just doesn’t suit his style.
That said, it’s kind of comforting to discover that some A-listers’ internet connections can be just as crappy as anyone else’s.
The Late Late Show, the only chat show on air using a mixture of physical guests (though seated at a suitably safe distance from Ryan Tubridy) and video link-ups, soldiers gamely on. With the best will in the world, though, it feels a little desperate and cobbled-together — which, of course, is exactly what it is.
Seeing familiar programmes adopt unfamiliar formats was interesting at first; the novelty wore off pretty quickly, though.
I suppose some credit is due, then, to producer Jeff Pope for trying something different with ITV’s Isolation Stories, a series of four new 15-minute drama vignettes shown on consecutive nights this week (the final one is tonight).
Filmed entirely in the featured actors’ homes, using sterilised camera equipment delivered to their doors, and with the various directors providing remote supervision, they’re snapshots of fictional lives under lockdown.
I’ve seen only the first two (ITV didn’t provide previews). ‘Meg’, shown on Monday, stars the heavily pregnant Sheridan Smith as the heavily pregnant title character, who’s depressed by the prospect of having her baby alone, the child’s father having deserted her.
Lashing out at everyone and anyone, Meg leaves an angry voice message on an old friend’s landline number, then receives a call back from its new owner, a kindly woman who offers her support.
The call abruptly ends with what sounds like domestic abuse at the other end of the line. Weirdly, this development isn’t followed up at all. ‘Meg’ ends self-indulgently with Smith singing a song to her unborn baby.
Tuesday’s episode, ‘Rob & Russell’ written by Pope himself, stars Tom Glenister as a young man looking after his father (Tom’s own father, Robert), who’s in the early stages of dementia and has also contracted Covid-19. There’s a touching twist involving the weekly clap for the NHS. It’s wispy fare, though.
Isolation Stories is ultimately a gimmicky technical exercise. It’s probably heretical for a TV critic to say this, but the channels might be better off sticking on a few classic movies until the Covid cloud clears.