TV COLUMN: Twin Peaks, The Handmaid’s Tale, and John Noakes

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

Columnist James Waller-Davies gives his view of some of the recent events on television.

If there’s just not enough weird in your life, then Twin Peaks (Sky Atlantic) is for you. Back after a 25-year break, David Lynch’s avant garde art-house genre-mishmash has returned, and maybe after such a long interlude mainstream audiences might have finally caught up with Lynch.

Back in 1990, when Twin Peaks first emerged it generated a fanatical cult audience, but alas not a sufficiently large mainstream one to keep it going. The simplified description would be small-town detective drama – the un-simplified version would take more space than the internet can currently handle.

The 1990 Twin-Peakers were a curious bunch, odd-ball loners who wore too much purple and believed the X-Files to be a documentary. They held séances for Laura Palmer, the show’s murdered Prom Queen, and looked everywhere for conspiracies to theorise about. Twin Peaks and weird went together like cherry pie and ice-cream.

But they were right. If genius is more obvious by its influence than its impact, then Lynch’s Twin Peaks was a television genius rarely seen. It spawned the insidious small-town detective series, employing time-shifts and dubious moralities. It spawned paranoia and mythology as drama. Initially, penned as cinema, Twin Peaks broke the ground for television to express itself as art.

As for Twin Peaks, 2017, it’s possibly an artistic paradox for avant garde to pull the same trick twenty-five years later, but nonetheless it has artistic brilliance.

It is a Grant Wood’s American Gothic as graphic novel, reanimating a Puritanical grotesque into modern sensibilities. Some of it is surreal parody of 1950’s B-movie Sci-Fi. The cinematography combines distortion with almost still-life static composition. As for the plot, I’ve absolutely no idea what is going on – but it’s the most absorbingly hypnotic television I’ve watched in years.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision of a fanatical patriarchal future, The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4) began its disturbing path this week. I’ve always found The Handmaid’s Tale a bit of a blunt tool, a little one dimensional, as a feminist allegory, but as science fiction, more imaginative than reflective, it is compelling.

Set in a post-apocalyptic America of the near future where human reproduction is collapsing, the remaining fertile females, the handmaidens, are owned by powerful men to provide children.

Fertility, in thought as well as body, is a metaphor that this television production plays well. The heroine, Offred, speaks with an external sterility of learned and enforced religious mantra, but her internal monologue is vibrant, individual and fertile.

The scenes of coerced conception which is nothing more than ritualised rape are disturbing for their cold absence of exterior emotion – no internal monologue is needed from Offred as to what she is feeling through it.

The religious zealotry may seem of a seventeenth century Puritanical kind in a European context, but The Handmaid’s Tale feels far more twenty-first century in the current neo-conservative, alt-right, American one. Only this week, a US government announcement is expected to allow company health care provision to have a free contraception opt-out on religious grounds. Truth and fiction continue their uncomfortable dance.

John Noakes, the former children’s television presenter, died this week. Noakes – and his disobedient dog, Shep – were from the golden age of both Blue Peter and 1970s children’s programming.

Noakes, a one-man health and safety nightmare, was renowned for almost foolhardy escapades, from climbing Nelson’s Column on a rickety ladder, sky-diving with the Red Devils and crashing out of a bobsleigh.

Noakes spoke never spoke down to children – indeed as a kid, watching Noakes made you feel like a grown-up. He was reflective of a better age, when kids weren’t wrapped up in cotton wool, carried pen-knives without fear of arrest and were allowed beyond the end of their road without the need for surveillance and body guards.

The outpouring of love in the obituaries this week is as reflective of our time as it is of back then. A generation of adults nailed their nostalgia to John Noakes.