Look Around You 2
This is Noise To Signal. And now, over to John Hoare for Look Around You.
But firstly, a quick note on NTS editorial policy regarding reviews - there isn't one. Unlike a lot of magazines or websites, we won't just review new DVDs. After all, people don't just buy new releases. We might review something that came out yesterday, two months ago, two years ago, or isn't even out yet. This is clearly in keeping with our woolly remit.
With that said, off we go:
Lovely. Admittedly, not as clever as the first series' reversable cover (speaking of which, you can probably tell exactly how geeky someone is from whether they stuck with the normal blue cover, or reversed it to the book one) - but a lovely group photo, with the excellent use of the stripey two logo. Covers for BBC comedy releases really are improving from the days of hideous stuff like this, aren't they?
Quite stunningly well-designed.
Again, they don't quite meet the heights of the Series 1 release (with its inspired use of diagrams and ambient classroom noise - truly one of the greatest DVD menus ever), but still gorgeous. Taking the stripey 2 as its starting point, unlike some DVD menus they're the perfect balance between being visually gorgeous and usability. And hilarious too - check the transition into the Commentary/Subtitles menu. And just check the detail - they've even added fake film grain...
Oh, and all backed with gorgeous electronica from Gelg, aka Popper and Serafinowicz (thereafter called Popowicz) - my favourite piece being on the Additional Items menu. I can just about cope with them being great at writing and producing, but the whole music thing pushes me into as yet uncharted fields of jealousy.
Ah, the episodes. These got a fair bit of flak at the time - check out the Off The Telly review - and I never understood why. The general consensus was that 30 minutes was too long, that the programme was padded out - that, essentially, there was 10 minutes of material in each half-hour show.
It's fair to say that there's an element of truth to this - indeed, quite a large amount of the commentary (of which more below) has Popowicz admitting they they didn't write enough material, and that the wanted to do a second series of 10 minute episodes. And yes - it's not quite as good as first series. But this is really down to the brilliance of the first series than any fundamental problems with the second - which was easily my favourite recent comedy until The IT Crowd came along.
Unlike some shows, you can't just dip into five minutes of Look Around You 2. Whilst starting this review, I watched the odd bit, and wasn't enjoying it as much as I thought I would. So, I sat down to watch one episode properly - and was soon shrieking in that rather annoying old woman way that I have a habit of doing. And before I knew it, I'd seen all six. It's a show that you really have to immerse yourself into the world of before you'll reap the benefits.
Indeed, that's the key to the series. At the time, some people complained that it wasn't an accurate pastiche of early 80s shows in all sorts of ways. But that's not really the aim the show has - in fact, if it was, the BBC might as well have stuck on some archive tapes of Tomorrow's World and saved some money. Yes, the show uses that kind of programme as a starting point - but it's also about Popowicz creating their own little world. Where Britan has a second sun. Where Happy Birthday has extra lyrics. Where Shakespeare wrote a play called Harlem Blues.
Indeed, this seems to have confused a hell of a lot of people when it came to the CGI doors that guests in the show enter through. Now, the effect isn't that great (as Popowicz admit on the commentary) - in particular, the way the guests are rather badly-rendered when they come through the doors, almost as if there's a field missing. But it was obvious to me that the doors were part of LAY's world - they weren't meant to be an 80s special effect, they were meant to be real. How anyone could think otherwise, I don't know.
Having said all of that, my major problem with the second series is a production issue. I'm sure the first series wasn't technically perfect from a period production point of view - indeed, I've heard people who know a lot more than me about television production say exactly that - but, to my eyes, it was more than convincing. Sadly, with Series 2, there is one major flaw - and that's some of the graphics. Take the title sequence - it's lovely and evocative, and whilst it's probably more complicated than they would have managed in 1982 I don't mind that - it's the clearness of the image that I object to. Where's the film dirt? Where's the slightly grungy atmosphere present in some of the filmed segments? It feels like it was done on a computer in 2004. As do many other graphics in the show - the Music 2000 bits, for instance, or all the LAY stings, or the Invention Of The Year graphic.
Now, as those of you who know me will know - I'm a gag merchant. As long as something is making me laugh, I'm generally happy. And the same it true of LAY 2. But comedies have their own little world that is important. When Red Dwarf VII shows a 2-D Starbug blurring across space, it brings me right out of the programme. And it's the same here - perhaps more so than with a lot of shows - and it jolts you out of the comedic atmosphere. It's such a shame, as (with the odd exception) the rest of the programme on a technical level is pretty much perfect. It really looks like the 80s.
Gorgeous. Well, a qualified gorgeous, at any rate. Let's look at them each in turn:
Commentary: Informative. Popowicz fall into that irritating trap at the start of NOT BEING VERY GOOD AT TALKING, but this soon passes. They're joined by director Tim Kirkby on Sport, Food, and Live Final, and editor Paul Machliss on Computers. The Computers commentary is especially interesting, as they detail the chaos behind the production - what's impressive is that it really doesn't show. But I won't wreck it for you - it's all well worth listening to yourself.
In fact, the commentary is extremely critical of the show - far more than I am. In fact, the only show that Popowicz seem to actually like is Live Final. But then, that is a stunning piece of television by anyone's standards.
Pages From Ceefax: If you've seen the Ceefax stuff on the Series 1 DVD, you'll know what to expect. Hilarious stuff. I smirk every time I think of Ian Pryce (43). They manage to fit more funny jokes on a 40x25 character grid than some people manage in an entire show.
Incidentally: An experimental Ceefax page from 1975.
Quizzes: Or: a series of Data Bank questions. Funny enough in their own right, but one after the other they rapidly begin to lose their appeal. Stick to one quiz a viewing session.
Scary Picture: I won't ruin it for you. Suffice to say that this genuinely managed to shit me up.
Birds of Britain: Best extra on the disc, with the exception of the commentary. An entirely new Birds Of Britain film, in exactly the same style as the one in Live Final, only if anything even funnier. Slightly ruined by the dodgy videotaped look of the final couple of scenes (obviously this was done to a tight DVD budget, but it does jar, and bring you out of the piece rather) - but overall, fantastic. "Here's a pair of tits."
What's impressive and lovely about this is that very few British TV DVDs manage to create something like this. Most of the effort goes into the production side of things (documentaries, commentaries, etc). Which is brilliant, obviously, but it's also nice to get something from the programme's own world as well.
Test Card: An amusing MED-I-BOT testcard (don't ask, just watch it), followed by some credits... and then an alternate take of Jack's reaction to his new face in Health. This is absolutely hilarious - but it's obvious why it wasn't used, as (for reasons that will become clear when you watch it), it would really dull the impact of the final episode. Hilariously, this extra is the reason why the DVD was upped from a 12 (programme content) to a 15. Kudos to 2 entertain for keeping the higher rating.
Subtitles: As with the Series 1 DVD, it's worth turning these on regardless, just so you can revel in the teletext font. Or maybe that's just me.
And that's your lot. A set of lovely extras.
The problem is, frankly, I'm spoiled with the Red Dwarf releases. Now, obviously they're not perfect, as nothing ever is - but they make a damn good effort to pack as much stuff as possible on there. So, we get documentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes, raw effects footage, music cues, galleries, trailers - all of which (bar one alternative scene) are completely missing from this release. What I would do to have a complete, 2-disc set, with that little lot on there.
Nonetheless, let's face it - compared to Dwarf, LAY is a niche programme. A 2-disc set is probably unrealistic. And the commentary does make up in part for any lack of other production featurettes. But I can dream one day of there being a three-disc release, including both series, and and a 3rd disc packed with extras. And when I say dream, I mean literally.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't buy this release. If you loved the series at the time, go and buy it now - if you didn't, buy it anyway and re-evaluate it. It's definitely in my Top 5 of favourite comedy programmes so far this decade. Sadly, Popowicz have confirmed this is the last series - but they will do something together in future. I can't wait to see what, and there's very few people in comedy at the moment I can say that about.