Imagine – Damon and Jamie’s Excellent Adventure, BBC1

by | Jul 4, 2007 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

A fulfilling if slightly disjointed amble through the chronicle of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s trial of staging an opera based on a Chinese fable.

What was good about it?

• The original inspiration for both Albarn and Hewlett, aside from the awfulness of MTV, was the late-70s TV show Monkey, which is based on the fable, which enraptured boys all over the country despite the fact that it resembled a school play.

• Hewlett’s book of ideas for characters that was brimming with garish grotesques and multi-coloured monsters.

• The show explored how scrupulous both Albarn and Hewlett were in ensuring the perfection of their opera. In order to overcome his “prejudiced” Western perspective of Chinese music, Albarn had musicians play every single note from Chinese instruments, which he then programmed into his keyboard. He also insisted that the lyrics be in Mandarin, although that didn’t seem to impair his talent for mellifluous melodies.

• Hewlett, meanwhile, was busy mentally constructing vast set designs in his head such as one that was essentially just a giant icon of a blue Buddha.

• Albarn’s mathematical method of composing which was based on the five points of the Chinese star, which resulted in sumptuous, serene and celestial songs.

• Albarn’s visit to the home of Thomas Bloch, who owns the weirdest instruments in the world, such as the glass harmonica, that Albarn wanted to use in the opera.

• Jamie Hewlett’s credo that “If you want to do something new you have to take giant leaps of faith”. A generation into the future with Tesco the biggest seller of CDs in the UK and Simon Cowell prime minister, the phrase ‘giant leap of faith’ may well have been evacuated from these shores, or indeed this planet, for its own preservation.

What was bad about it?

• As presenter Alan Yentob sat on some anonymous steps outside an equally anonymous London building, the camera zoomed back and forth as he enunciated a list; such vainglorious techniques are employed to make a TV show appear important when all it does is inject it with a riverful of pomposity.

• Yentob and Albarn’s puerile game of cultural one-upmanship. As Albarn recounted his trip to China during which he visited the “Dong and Miaow people”, Yentob quipped that they “could have come out of Monkey itself”. Albarn, paused, pondered and then pontificated: “Or an Edward Lear poem.”

• Hewlett and Albarn both perpetuating that snivelling delusion of the famous of wearing sunglasses when they’re not required. It is the contemporary equivalent of some medieval noble poking the serfs away with a big stick fearful he will contract some disease which only afflicts the unwashed rabble.

• The X-Factorisation of the auditions where Hewlett visited Beijing to try out for the lead roles but was greeted by a bunch of hopeless misfits, while Yentob affected his best Kate Thornton impression after a miserable ‘morning’ in Manchester, “Everyone leaves pretty fed up.” But brightens up with: “It’s a new day and after a ropey start to the auditions Jamie wants to cast the lead role.” The only difference was these auditions too were futile and it was eventually left up to director Chen Shi-Zheng to sort it all out by himself.

• The Britain’s Got Talent-erisation of the moment when the cast first perform live in front of Albarn and Hewlett. Instead of simply focussing on the marvellous acrobatics of the circus troupe, there were incessant interruptions and close-ups of Albarn and Hewlett’s impressed little faces that, as with BGT, was a craven effort to direct the viewer how to think rather than to make their own independent appraisal of what they were watching.

• Jamie Hewlett loathed the comically haphazardly dragon that was to form the centrepiece of an early scene, lambasting it as looking like it had come from Sesame Street. During the clips of the live performance in Manchester we weren’t shown if this problem had been resolved.

Imagine: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Studio, BBC1, Wednesday 2 February 2006

Did we like it?

The fact that Alan ‘You’re So Vain’ Yentob grasped the opportunity to show off a bit was off-putting, but there were interesting glimpses into the world of sitcom-making

What was good about it?

• Peep Show pairing David Mitchell and Robert Webb being funny as they talked about their show – and the look at the behind-the-scenes complications of making it

• It was a much more thoughtful programme than the similar Channel 4 enterprise fronted by the ghostly David Liddiment

• Armando Iannucci on his genius satire The Thick Of It

• Tamsin Grieg revealing how she thinks of old aunts to stop her giggling at Stephen Mangan’s improvisations on The Green Wing

What was bad about it?

• Ricky Gervais and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Merchant are obviously better at writing comedy than talking about it

• People being forced to say nice things about My Family and Yentob hailing it as one of today’s great comedies

• Paul Whitehouse was a little self-aggrandising as he spoke about BBC2’s brilliant Help

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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