John Walker's Electronic House

Slings & Arrows

by on Feb.17, 2007, under The Rest

I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while, and was reminded to when discussing with Kim the difficulties that come with teaching Hamlet to teenagers. (Kim’s a remarkable teacher – I’ve seen her at work, and she has an ability to connect with minds and communicate difficult subjects that I wish most my teachers would have known a fraction of).

Slings & Arrows is one of the most wonderful television programmes to have been made, and yet you’ve never heard of it. Made and broadcast in Canada, it’s only been broadcast on the Sundance Channel in the US, and never in the UK. Why never is a mystery (to which a possible answer might be something to do with Celebrity Come Dancing and Deal Or No Deal). [EDIT: Apparently it has, kind of. See comments]

It’s about a theatre in fictional Canadian town, New Burbage, and the New Burbage Theatre Festival – a season of plays put on twice a year, seen from both the perspective of the actors and crew, and the management. Paul Gross plays Geoffrey Tennant, a former member of the company who left almost a decade after a nervous breakdown during a performance of Hamlet. It was, we are told, the greatest portrayal of Hamlet since Burton. But it only lasted two and a half performances. Now Tennant, after some time in an asylum, is attempting to direct a run-down theatre company in something like a village hall, with no money and lots of debts. Back in the city, his former director, the perfectly camp Oliver Welles, is attempting to put on Hamlet once more. Jaded, mostly drunk, and having lost all fight against the corporate sponsors of his theatre, he has a medium-strong cast (including one or two terrible actors), and a male Hollywood action star looking to add a serious role to his resume.

By the end of the first episode Welles is dead, but not quite as dead as Tennant would like. Cajoled into coming back to fill in for Welles temporarily, Tennant finds that his former director hasn’t really left the building, and is instead haunting him as a ghost. (Paul Gross presumably has it in his contract that he must be haunted by grumpy old men in all his roles). And so, with the ghosts of his past literally hanging around him, Tennant sets about creating Hamlet from these scraps.

Everything is so utterly perfect. To give an example, the weakest aspect of Studio 60 is not the sketches, but the show’s depency on your believing its show-within is the funniest thing on American television. Clearly no one believes this, as they’ve yet to show us a glimpse of a convincingly funny sketch (maybe apart from that Dateline one). Slings & Arrows asks us to believe that Tennant, Welles, and lead actress Ellen Fanshaw put on the greatest Hamlet in decades, and then goes on to make you believe that they very much could have.

This is perhaps a large part due to a good number of the cast being involved in the real world Stratford Festival, and putting on Shakespeare productions for years. The programme was created by the wondrous Mark McKinney (former Kid in the Hall, also playing the pathetically malleable (and wonderfully named) Richard Smith-Jones, the theatre’s business manager), Susan Coyne (playwright and actress) and comedian Bob Martin. They all play characters in the show, and write most the scripts.

What makes it truly great, beyond the stunning acting, fantastically funny scenes, and joyful interplay between Tennant and Welles, is the passion for the plays. Series one (each series has a very British six episodes) is about Hamlet, with a splash of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, series two MacBeth, and the as yet unreleased (and therefore unseen by me) series three about King Lear. It is at its most magical when Tennant is helping an actor gain an understanding of his/her character, or trying to present choices for how to approach a scene. Two of my favourites are below.

This first clip is Tennant trying to convince the ghastly actor playing Ophelia to understand the madness her songs are meant to portray. Bear with her insanely annoying spinning for the first minute, and then wait for the spinal shivers as Tennant gets going.

The second is Tennant working with Hollywood star Jack Crew, attempting to get him to finally stop improvising his lines into modern language, and reveal the actor he believes Crew can be.

10 Comments for this entry

  • ellie

    just a couple of points….the wonderful ‘slings’ has been shown in the uk albeit only on artsworld,a rather obscure sky channel – indeed there was an episode on last week…alos paul gross being married to susan coyne will come as an awful shock to martha burns (aka ellen) after 18 years of thinking she’s married to him…..that aside please do watch it if at all possible…it is truly magnificent and season 3 especially will totally kill you

  • John

    Thanks Ellie.

    I’m dying to see season 3, but until it’s out on DVD (which will probably be at least six months) it doesn’t look possible.

    Without giving anything away, is it true that this is the last series?

  • ellie

    i would say so…the loose ends are tied up…there could be a couple of roads they could go down if they wanted a spin-off but it would be concentrating on one or other character rather than the whole group in new burbage

  • johan

    I have been told by one of the actors in the series
    that they are considering a second trilogy —
    three comedies.

  • John

    I have the best readers : )

  • Tim E

    Don’t diss Celebrity Come Dancing. Foo’

  • John

    I have the worst readers : (

  • Mr Chris

    Giood to see that Mr Gross is getting work since the untimely end to Due South. He is quite simply excellent.

  • Steve W

    Good to see David Marciano’s still getting work too, turning up as a regular in the last couple of seasons of The Shield. However, Due South’s demise was utimely only if you don’t consider the later material to be NAGAIUTB. Which I do.

    And as for Slings & Arrows, I find it odd that now it’s been mentioned here, I’m seeing references to it all over the place. Now I look, the Canadian blogs I read are full of it; I must have skimmed over such references the first time.

  • Simon Kaye

    Well, you sold it well, and I’m glad you did, because now I’m hooked. Very brilliant. We less clued-up people all owe you one, I suspect.