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Tuned In: BBC America series bursts into song
Friday, October 21, 2005

BBC America's British import "Viva Blackpool" (10 p.m. Monday) is a murder mystery, a character drama and, by the way, it's also a musical.

Before you bust out with a refrain of, "Didn't we already have to endure 'Cop Rock?' " "Blackpool" is different. The characters break into song, but they sing familiar tunes along with professional recordings artists.

That difference makes "Blackpool" a unique television experiment. Viewers will be divided over the musical concept and whether it's worthwhile or a drag on the story. I'm open to the idea (I found "Cop Rock" to be an interesting curiosity), but even I found the murder mystery more compelling in "Blackpool" most of the time.

Sometimes the energetic song-and-dance routines work well (a cop and suspect face off while singing "These Boots Were Made for Walking"), other times you're apt to want to fast-forward. But at least the series features entertaining, enjoyably disparate tunes (Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now," Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler," The Smiths' "The Boy With the Thorn In His Side").

Set in the seaside community of Blackpool, blustery businessman Ripley Holden (David Morrissey) has grand plans for a hotel-casino, but his project's prospects look bleak after a dead body is found in the arcade he plans to expand.

Det. Peter Carlisle (David Tennant) starts snooping around Holden's family, getting close to his wife, Natalie (Sarah Parish).

At a BBC America press conference this summer in Beverly Hills, Calif., "Blackpool" writer Peter Bowker said he was inspired by the musical numbers in "Ally McBeal," the musical episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the box office success of "Moulin Rouge." Those projects helped him see he could escape the long shadow cast by England's TV musical mainstay, the late Dennis Potter ("The Singing Detective," "Pennies From Heaven").

"I thought it would be interesting to see how far you can push that on a television screen," Bowker said. "Obviously the sheer scale of the thing is smaller, but because of that it means that the whole thing can burst out of the screen."

He said seeing Potter's "Pennies" as a 17-year-old sparked his imagination.

"It was like somebody had invented another color and put it on the palette," he said. "There was another part of television language and it was there to use."

Initially Bowker planned to have the actors lip-sync to popular tunes in "Blackpool," but he felt it was too awkward without their voices as part of the soundtrack.

Sometimes the music is used to advance the story, other times it's just "a celebration of an emotional moment" or a way around scenes that have become cliche, as in the cop-confronting-the-bad-guy moment captured anew in the "These Boots" scene.

The six weeks of episodes tell a self-contained "Blackpool" story, but Bowker is planning a 90-minute sequel following up on Ripley. No word on when or where that might air.

When the initial series aired in England, the program was called "Blackpool." BBC America general manager Kathryn Mitchell said the title was changed to "Viva Blackpool" to avoid any misconceptions: "I was worried that people would think it was a thriller about some sort of lake of death."

'The Colbert Report'

Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," a spinoff of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," had a strong start this week, but it still needs time to find its footing, which is typical for most new series, particularly a show that's essentially creating a new subgenre: The talking head parody.

The insufferable Stephen Colbert character, an egomaniac blowhard reminiscent of Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, can be funny when he's on his own at the anchor desk pontificating, but it's more an intellectual, in your head, "hey, that's clever," than a laugh-out-loud funny.

The show is better when Colbert gets to interview segments or when Colbert and NBC's Stone Phillips engaged in a competition to see who could impart a news story with the most gravitas.

Colbert's self-centered character is a riot (he soaks in audience applause, drops the "T" in "Report" to match the pronunciation of "Col-bear"), but too much Colbert can be suffocating, as it was Wednesday night.

"The Colbert Report" needs air; it needs contributors and taped pieces (like Colbert's hilarious interview with a Georgia congressman that was on Tuesday's show). Without them, the joke of "obnoxious TV news guy" will quickly get old.

Come on, get happy

If you like TV show theme songs, particularly the cheesier ones from the 1960s and 1970s, tomorrow's CLO Late Night Cabaret presentation of "Christine Laitta's TV Toons Sing-a-Long!" should be appealing.

Local musical theater actress/middle school teacher Chris Laitta conceived of the project and will serve as host.

"It's a whole audience participation show," Laitta said. "A lot of the audience will get up on their feet and be re-enacting the beginning of 'Gilligan's Island,' 'The Brady Bunch' and 'The Partridge Family.' Our hope is it becomes something that gets picked up and done on a more regular basis."

Wallflowers, never fear -- you won't be forced to participate.

"Nobody's going to drag them up on stage," Laitta promised. "Each person who comes in will get a song sheet and everything is on a volunteer basis. We are hoping the kind of people who come may want to play around, be loose and have a good time."

Laitta said the cabaret sing-along will focus on the different kinds of families represented in TV show theme songs. "This is something I think there's an audience for, " she said. "We want it to be fun, silly and over the top."

The show, beginning at 9:30 p.m., will feature music director Paul Thompson on bass, Thomas Wendt on drums and David Presseau on piano. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door. Details: 412-456-6666.

First published on October 21, 2005 at 12:00 am
TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv.
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