Friday, February 29, 2008

Dr Lupin Will See You Now

Lord Mancroft's diatribe in the House of Lords against the nurses who looked after him in a Bath hospital inevitably brought to mind Catherine Tate's character Bernie, the Irish, nymphomaniac nurse.
They were, said His Lordship, dirty, drunk and promiscuous and talked across him about their exploits of the night before.

For a lot of people, this kind of badinage is one of the few highlights of a stay in hospital. And, given the role of nurses in heterosexual male fantasies, less sensitive souls than Lord Mancroft hearing two nurses talking dirty over their supine form would have thought they'd died and gone to heaven.

It reminded me of an experience of my own which has echoes of Catherine Tate's character Nan Taylor. When I was about 20 I was visiting my grandmother in hospital when a very camp male nurse arrived to attend to her.
To my amazement and horror my grandmother said: "This is my grandson. He hasn't got a girlfriend..........he's never had a girlfriend."
The male nurse smiled and our eyes met across a full bedpan.
"Would you like a grape?" I said to him, beads of sweat trickling down my forehead.
He made his excuses and left.
I was so traumatised that I've avoided male nurses ever since.

My own problem with hospitals, apart from needing a cocktail of tranquillizers just to step through the door of one, is that I'm often mistaken for a doctor.
When visiting my mother, an old lady in an adjacent bed demanded that I remove her intravenous drip. Nothing I said would convince her that I wasn't the doctor who had been summoned to do this. "Of course you can do it!" she screamed at me, "it's quite a simple thing." Purely to calm her down, I began inspecting her vein in a doctorly manner before being shooed away by a nurse who then had to be dissuaded from calling Security.

When my mother was dying at home, one of her carers called in to see how we were coping. I was a little puzzled that she kept seeking my agreement with her advice about the process of dying. The reason only became clear when she left and said to me "Goodnight, Doctor."
But it was pleasing that one of the last sounds my unconscious mother heard was raucous laughter.

The third occasion this happened was even more bizarre. I had gone to a house to buy my dog, a puppy that was just a few days old. The confusion may have arisen because I had taken an old leather briefcase to carry her in. The people who answered the door said "She's upstairs" and led me into a bedroom where their ten year old daughter was lying ill in bed. We stood by the bed and nobody spoke or produced a puppy so I said "I didn't really want a bitch but I think you said she's the last of the litter?"
"Bloody hell! You're not the doctor?" said the man and rushed me downstairs to the kennel in the garden.

When Hugh Lloyd said to Tony Hancock "Are you a doctor, then?", Hancock replied "No, I never bothered". (The Blood Donor).
Well, I never bothered either but it doesn't stop people thinking I'm one.
I suppose it must be my Dr Kildare good looks, my keen intelligence and the deep love of humanity that oozes from every pore of my body.

The Budgie Formerly Known As Prince

The media agreement (or conspiracy, if you prefer) not to report that Harry was in Afghanistan is nothing new. Indeed, it's remarkable how little has changed in 70 years where the royal family are concerned.

When the Duke of Windsor was getting jiggy with Mrs Simpson, the British press chose to keep their readers in ignorance but it was big news in America. In a less connected world, they got away with it for a long time.
My father was aware of this affair, which was to threaten the monarchy and lead to abdication, because he was making transaltlantic crossings at the time and able to read the American press. No doubt many seafarers came home with tales of what Edward was up to but in those days nobody could rush to their blogs and spread it round the world.

More recently, the identity of the official with whom Prince Charles was alleged to have performed a sexual act was withheld in the British media but published in an Italian newspaper and also on its website. Crown Equerry to the Royal Wanking Chamber sounded so much more mellifluous in Italian.

Of course, a media blackout to save lives seems perfectly sensible although it's right to point out, as Jon Snow has done, that in no other liberal democracy would it be possible. It's also not an argument that inhibits the media in other contexts - for example the sensational reporting of the recent spate of teenage suicides in Bridgend.

Last night, News at Ten flew Mark Austin to Kabul so that he could interview by satellite link a retired army officer in Salisbury. What madness was that? Anyway, the said frigging Brigadier, or whatever he was, claimed that the preceding report about the extreme dangers of the front line in Afghanistan - being shot at and blown up by suicide bombers or roadside bombs - would do wonders for recruitment to the army.
Who, in the name of the piss artist formerly known as Prince, are these people who think 'that sounds great! I want some of that!'?
Are they fucking crazy?
Or do you suppose that they can't distinguish the awful reality of war from a computer game?
Actually, from last night's TV footage it seemed that Harry spends most of his time hunched over a computer screen, joshing with Harrier pilots, all of them using whacky nicknames (Harry's nickname is 'Budgie') like kids in a chat room.
It was a reminder of how technology has de-personalised the slaughter of human beings in warfare.
It's a de-personalisation that was exemplified by the legend on Harry's baseball cap: 'We Do Bad Things To Bad People'. That one was straight out of George Bush's Principles of Political Philosophy. It would be a fitting inscription on the gates of the prison camps where British and American troops have tortured and murdered prisoners of war.

But it wasn't ever thus. The history of more ancient conflicts is full of tales that show how many soldiers never lost sight of the humanity of the enemy and never forgot that they too had mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.
The armies of the two World Wars, of course, consisted largely of conscripts whereas today's volunteer army consists of careerists, those on an adrenalin kick and a small percentage of delinquents and psychopaths.
Plus the odd Prince who is probably a fundamentally decent bloke who, thanks to the absurdity of monarchy, finds shitting in a hole in the ground (as he put it) in the killing fields of Afghanistan is the only way to experience anonymity and ordinariness.

Now the media blackout has gone pear-shaped, here's my advice to Harry. Don't walk out of the army. Walk out of the monarchy. You've got millions from your mother's will. You could go anywhere in the world. Keep your head down and the media will eventually lose interest. If people say you're being irresponsible and damaging the monarchy, quote the Human Rights Act: the right to privacy and family life. They're universal rights, you know. They should apply equally to those unfortunate enough to be born into the anachronism of hereditary monarchy.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bonfire of Broadcasting Values

BBC1 has launched a new children's series called The Smoke House in which six young children and their parents move into a special house full of cameras and the children attempt to get their parents to stop smoking.
Sounds familiar? Well yes, it's an amalgam of Big Brother and programmes like The House of Agoraphobics.
I caught just the end of Friday's programme, just in time to note that it is made by Endemol, who also make Big Brother and nonsense like Can Fat Teens Hunt?

I declare an interest: I am a smoker. It may be no excuse but I grew up at a time when 'sweet cigarettes' were sold at the kiosk in the local park. When I was a small child one of my favourite Christmas presents was a Junior Smoker's Kit, which included not just 'sweet cigarettes' but confectionery in the shape of pipes, cigars and tobacco. It was all the better because my non-smoking parents clearly disapproved of it.
However, I fully accept that smoking is a Bad Thing and that if children can persuade their parents to stop - in the interests of the health of both - that can only be a Good Thing.
The question is whether this type of exploitative 'reality TV' has any place in children's programming (or in adult programming, come to that).

In recent years, children's channels have proliferated but quality, British-made, original children's programmes have declined to almost nothing. ITV1 has abandoned children's programmes completely. The BBC still makes a few children's dramas, usually comedies, but has now axed both Byker Grove and Grange Hill.
Now it seems that they've decided to copy some of the trashiest formats that infest adult television and inflict them on the under-12s, no doubt claiming that they have an educational value and omitting to mention that they are vastly cheaper to make than original drama.

The Smoke House puts a new twist on the concept of 'pester power', encouraging children to use emotional blackmail against their parents. The child psychologist who works on the series says: "it's hard for a parent to resist when their child tells them 'I don't want you to die'."

What follow-up series can we expect from this?
The Booze House: children persuade their alcoholic parents to stop drinking?
The Fat House: children persuade their overweight parents to stop eating so much?
The Abuse House: children persuade their parents to stop physically or sexually abusing them?
The Pushy Parents House: children persuade their parents to stop forcing them to violin lessons or ballet classes?
The Workaholics House: children persuade their parents to step back from consumer capitalism and spend more time with them?

Jonathan Meades, writing in The Independent, described The Smoke House as "a bit of social engineering masquerading as children's TV".
It's worse than that. It's an absolute disgrace that the BBC should commission such a programme. And to exploit young children in this way is almost as abusive as forcing them to inhale cigarette smoke.

The only smoke in The Smoke House comes from the bonfire of quality children's programmes and decent broadcasting values.


My sidebar has dropped to the nether regions of the blog.
This happened once before but I think it corrected itself. It doesn't happen if you go to older posts.
Are there any techies among my readers who know how to correct it without blinding me with html?

Always Room At The Inn

Not for the first time viewers will have decided that the Rovers Return is as deceptive as the Tardis: it's a small backstreet pub on the outside but with as many bedrooms as a medium-sized hotel.

With Liz and Vernon and Steve, Michelle, Ryan and Amy already living there, one would think there was no spare capacity. But then young Alex moves in and doesn't even have to sleep on the couch. I assume he's not sharing with Ryan because of the animosity between them. So, if Amy has her own bedroom, we're now up to five bedrooms, two of them doubles.
From the external views of the pub this is simply not feasible, unless they have secretly tunnelled through into Ken and Deirdre's attic. Didn't Les Battersby once do that and when Ken went to investigate he fell through the ceiling and ended up in a threesome with Leanne and Nick?
I may have got some of those details wrong so rely on more nerdy Corrie fans to correct me.

It was always easy to spot the Corrie actors who had just returned from holiday because their complexions were ghostly white. Unless an overseas holiday had been written into the script, the make-up department would smother their sun tans with white make-up.
However, this week David Platt, who hadn't been anywhere, suddenly appeared with a dark tan in the middle of the Manchester winter.
This time they resorted to a new tactic. When his girlfriend Tina remarked on his tan, David said he had been to a tanning salon. This sounded like a late addition to the script. I never had David down as the type of boy to go to tanning salons and, in a street where all the other boys have the skin colour of a maggot, why would David want to look as though someone had dipped his head in a tin of Ronseal?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Drugs, Crime and Choice

The conviction of Steve Wright for the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich has led to another outbreak of commentary on prostitution and the assertion that most prostitutes are 'driven to' prostitution by their drug addiction and have therefore not 'made a choice' to become 'sex workers.'

I don't dispute for a moment that many (though not all) prostitutes have turned to prostitution to help fund a drug habit. But I don't recall this argument ever being used in the same way in relation to young men who fund their drug addiction by burglary and other forms of property crime.
In recent years, most forms of property crime have fallen sharply. A large proportion of what remains is accounted for by multiple offences by people with expensive drug habits. Whilst nobody in possession of the facts disputes this, you will never hear people say that a young burglar or car thief (usually male) was 'forced' to commit the crimes by his drug habit or that he had 'no choice' but to resort to theft or that he is in some way a 'victim' and that society should be doing more to help such people.
(Some male addicts may also practise prostitution to fund their habit. That they do so less than women is probably partly because males are usually required to do more sexually than lie back and think of where the next fix is coming from).

I don't want to get into the question of 'choice' in these matters, partly because I'm not sure what I think. Hardline moralists would argue that even drug addicts have a choice about whether they sell their bodies or resort to theft or other crimes.
I'm more concerned with our old friends 'double standards', 'generalisation' and 'gender-based judgements'.

These also appear regularly in relation to pornography. The feminist line is that 'all pornography degrades women', regardless of whether free choice has been involved - although the extreme position is that there can never be a free choice. (It is, of course, a legitimate moral position to say that all pornography degrades both participants and users).
But the standard feminist line is deeply flawed. How does male gay pornography degrade women? How does lesbian pornography, made by and for lesbians - not the male fantasy stuff, degrade women? If men who appear in pornography are also degraded or not making a free choice, you don't hear feminists saying so. That's because, as with prostitution, it's portrayed as part of a male conspiracy against women.

There's no doubt that gender inequality means that women are more often victims than men in prostitution, pornography and other areas (not forgetting the second-class status that many religions assign to women). But the problem with the outbreak of comment at times like this that comes from a 'feminist' perspective is that it's an 'ism'.
It's an ideological view of the world that ignores inconvenient facts, uses sweeping generalisations and focuses on 'gender' when it should be focusing on 'people'.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Burdens of The Bill

Writing for The Bill must be a good job. I'm sure it's well-paid and you also get to spend time with real police officers in order to make your scripts as authentic as possible.
The downside is that you're forced to write some really clunking dialogue.

In order to explain points of law to viewers, senior and long-serving police officers will often stand around reminding each other of things they would have learned in the first week at Police Training College.
Take this from last night's episode:
Inspector Gould: Clever boy, using kids under the age of 10 - below the age of criminal responsibility.
DC Perkins: And any kid under 14 is only going to get a caution.

Secondly, in the opening minutes of an episode, officers often have to remind each other of things that happened only 'yesterday' but that happened last week for the viewer.
So you get this kind of thing (not from an actual script):
PC: Guv! I've just had a visit from Wayne Harris.
DCI: Wayne Harris? He was the drug dealer you arrested yesterday for beating up his ex-girlfriend who's been having an affair with his brother but we had to release him because Joe Clark who runs the cafe on Acton Road gave him an alibi?
PC: Yeah, but DC Carter discovered that Clark's got form for drug dealing and once shared a flat with Harris on the Jasmine Allen, so you asked Mickey Webb to set up an obbo on Clark's cafe.
DCI: OK. Bring Harris back in.

But this kind of stuff may be as helpful to the actors as the viewers. With several units shooting several different stories concurrently, it must be a nightmare for the regular cast. One former cast member said he had to keep asking the director in every scene what frame of mind he was meant to be in because he had lost all track of which story they were shooting.
Like real police work, it's a nasty job but someone has to do it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Issues: Part 536

Heard on the radio this morning:
"They've got issues with hunger."

Translation: They're starving.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

There Is More Rejoicing In Heaven, etc

Today is an historic day in the history of British broadcasting.
Two of the BBC's biggest egos have admitted the error of their ways.

Nick Robinson, Political Editor, has now backtracked in the row over what Alastair Darling did or didn't say in reply to a Parliamentary question.
And John Simpson, pomposity in human form, has said on a Radio 4 programme this morning 'I got it completely wrong' about China.

Yesterday, both Nick Robinson and John Humphreys were slavering like starving Rottweilers released into a children's creche because they'd found a Parliamentary answer by Alastair Darling which they thought showed him condemning nationalisation of Northern Rock as a disaster.
Debate about what Darling had actually said raged on Robinson's blog.
The truth seems to be that Darling was agreeing with the first part of the question, condemnation of Lib Dem policies, but not with the second part, a criticism of nationalisation.
But Robinson's retreat this morning amonts to: 'Yes, I got it wrong but it wasn't my fault.'
It was all the fault of the Hansard reporters.
This isn't entirely convincing because yesterday Robinson put a link on his blog to the actual recording of the Parliamentary debate. He now says that it was only on listening to it a second time last night that he realised his interpretation was wrong, as was the written Hansard record.
I imagine there must have been a lot of Government pressure on Robinson in the last 24 hours to get even this qualified retreat. But it was grudging, qualified and unapologetic. As for Humphreys, he just harrumphed.

You may think this is all a storm in a teacup. But it has to be seen in the context of concern about Robinson's impartiality.
It is said he was in the Young Conservatives when at Oxford. That may tell us something about his political leanings but shouldn't have any relevance to his career as a political reporter. His predecessor Andrew Marr had previously been a left-leaning journalist.
The real issue is the role of a political reporter in an organisation like the BBC with a duty of impartiality.
The job has two parts: to report the facts of what has happened and to explain and analyse. It's the second part that is problematic. It seems to me that Robinson and others are often including in their analysis statements that are contentious and partisan. This is fine if preceded by the qualification "The Tories would argue that.....", but not when simply handed down to the viewer or listener from the Olympian heights of the reporter's political expertise.

Take Robinson's line on nationalisation, peddled repeatedly over the last week: nationalisation is a 'toxic word'; it terrifies the public; it terrifies New Labour; it evokes memories of disastrously-run State industries.
How then do you explain that opinion polls have frequently shown that a majority of people would like to see the railways taken back into public ownership?
Or that many people are unhappy with the privatisation of other public utilities which was supposed to bring lower prices and greater efficiency but blatantly hasn't?
Or that there have been many other successful, temporary nationalisations of failing companies by Governments of both parties?

It's time the BBC reined in flashy correspondents with big egos like Robinson who confuse analysis with opinion. When BBC reporters start sounding like the Opposition or stating as fact things that a sizable chunk of their audience will strongly disagree with, something has gone badly wrong.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sunday Shorts

When I was ruminating the other day about the meaning of the term 'Family Butcher' you may have thought I was being silly. I myself wondered if I was being silly but dismissed the possibility on the grounds of my frequently acknowledged high intellect.
A couple of days later, Laurie Taylor on his Radio 4 programme 'Thinking Allowed' was musing on the meaning of 'Family Hotel'. Was it an hotel run by a family or an hotel that welcomed families?
The ensuing interview with a fellow sociologist who had made an academic study of Family Hotels (yes, really) did not really provide a definitive answer although it seemed to be a combination of both meanings.
Of course, trying to get a definitive answer from a sociologist is like trying to get an unambiguous opinion from Rowan Williams.


On the 'Moral Maze' on Radio 4 last night a Muslim spokesman was saying there was a case for polygamy being allowed in English law. But do we need to legislate for every single preference and lifestyle?
There's nothing illegal in having multiple wives so long as you haven't married them in a legal ceremony. Take Lord Bath, for whom I have always had a soft spot, not least because he once wrote me a charming letter about an article I had written. Lord Bath has a large number of 'wifelets', as he calls them. Some estimates put the number of wifelets as high as 73. He's probably not sure of the exact number himself and probably needs a prompt card on the bedhead to say the correct name during love-making. (There's also a joke there about having 73 mothers-in-law but I'll let that pass). It's an arrangement that seems to work well enough for all concerned. Why would he need the cost and inconvenience of 73 marriage ceremonies? Of course, there is no religious dimension to Lord Bath's lifestyle.
The minority of Muslims who believe in polygamy can surely go through their own religious ceremonies and settle any financial disputes according to their own rules. Providing legal polygamy to everyone would surely destroy the frisson of the traditional 'bit on the side'. Next thing you know there'd be designated dogging areas and municipal cruising sites, complete with an all-night Starbucks and MacDonalds.

The Guardian Diary used to refer to Melanie Phillips as "the clinically sane Melanie Phillips." However, losing all touch with reality is a symptom of insanity. I had the misfortune to catch Ms Phillips on Question Time this week. In a rant about young people she said "we can't hit them......we can't lock them up."
FACT (as the tabloids say): it is still legal to hit children in Britain, so long as you don't cause visible bruising - or nobody discovers such visible bruising.
FACT: Britain locks up more young people than any other country in Europe.
She was, of course, in favour of 'the mosquito', the high pitched signal being used to disperse gatherings of teenagers. So was the equally deranged Minister Caroline Flint.
Never mind that it breaches every principle of justice, being directed indiscriminately at everyone under 20, including babies, and at those who have committed no offence and have no intent to commit any offence.
At least Melanie Phillips is mostly confined to the pages of the Daily Mail. But whenever I see Caroline Flint I wonder if I could ever vote for a Government of which she is a member. She makes Hazel Blears seem almost endearing.

Jane Fonda has said 'cunt' on live television in America. In Britain, many people said 'cunt' when watching Jane Fonda fronting those L'Oreal commercials. The ones where she said "I'm 68, you know!", like some mad old woman at a bus stop who mistakenly thinks you give a fuck what age she is.
Still, poor soul. She must be losing her marbles if she thinks you can say 'cunt' on American television. Apparently, it only went out live and uncensored on the East Coast, thus sparing the Bible Belt from thousands of cardiac arrests.

On the last occasion that I used the illustration above, I was inundated with a request to publish a picture of myself wearing those shorts.
To forestall a repetition I must make clear that they are not my shorts. (I've washed enough of my dirty linen on this blog already). They appear only for the purpose of a pun on the word 'shorts'.
Anyone desperately disappointed by this should visit:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Choir

The Choir - Boys Can't Sing (Fridays, BBC2) is the sequel to last year's series (which won a BAFTA) in which Gareth Malone started a school choir from scratch and took them to the World Choir Games in China. It struck me as odd that it was called the 'Games' but maybe choral singing is for many people a competitive sport. As a non-competitive person I find it strange that people need to turn music, literature, art and every other damn thing into a competitive activity, however inappropriate that might be.

But the first series of The Choir was unexpectedly compelling despite - or perhaps because of - Gareth the choirmaster being so intensely irritating. This time round, I find him less so, possibly because I've got used to him and because so far he hasn't worn any of those calf-length trousers and flip-flops.
The Guardian's TV critic Sam Wollaston described him as an "irritating little twerp". I think that's unduly harsh. Certainly the noun is unjustifiably insulting. But the phrase does sum up my opinion of Sam Wollaston, a reviewer who never lets the facts get in the way of a sneer. In the same review he said the boys thought singing was for gays. But not one person said any such thing. What they said was "singing is gay", meaning 'uncool'. I don't like this new usage but now most people (apart from Mr Wollaston) understand it, it will probably disappear from youth culture as quickly as it arrived.

In the first episode Gareth stood in front of the assembly, 'got a note' from his recorder (the very word 'recorder' chills the blood) and sang what sounded like a medieval, romantic ballad. Some of the boys (this is a single sex state school - I didn't know they still existed) remarked on the fact that he did this without blushing or any sign of embarrassment or discomfort. I wish I could say the same for myself. I blushed, I sweated, my toes curled, my fists clenched and I emitted a strange keening sound that may have made the neighbours think I was engaging in tantric sex. In that excruciating few minutes I had time-travelled back forty years and our far more bonkers music teacher, a gangling man with a Hitler moustache, was singing some equally insipid Elizabethan ballad to a group of 13 year old boys who had just bought The Beatles' Hard Days Night album.

I am one of those people who simply cannot sing. I can't even sing along to records in the privacy of my own home without telling myself to shut the fuck up.
But my school had a weird alternative to singing which was all-inclusive. It was called 'choral speech'. It involved standing in choir formation and reciting a poem in unison while the music teacher stood in front and gesticulated wildly like Simon Rattle on acid. I had no escape from this particular torture, despite the fact that, even today, nobody hearing my voice would ever find the word 'mellifluous' at the forefront of their mind. That's why I've never ventured into podcasting on this blog.
But one day I found myself on the stage in front of the entire school, along with all the other singing rejects, clutching a book in clammy hands and reciting a poem by Walter de la bloody Mare in the rasping tones of a newly-broken voice, while the music teacher's bony fingers sliced the air as though he were addressing a Nuremberg Rally. And I knew that whatever life had in store for me, it couldn't get much worse than this.
Have any of you ever endured the oxymoron that is Choral Speech?

But back to The Choir. If Gareth's first appearance before the school was certain to put most boys off signing up for the choir that may be because there were four hours of television to fill and a 'narrative' to be created in the editing suite. Resistance must be overcome. There will be setbacks and tantrums and tears but also group hugs and high fives and lives changed forever.

As with all forms of 'reality TV', the reality that dare not speak its name is the presence of the camera crew. This must surely heighten the nervousness and embarrassment of some boys and also lure others into participating. It would be interesting to see how Gareth fared in a series that relied entirely on secret filming.

But that's a minor quibble about a programme that is entertaining and inspirational. It also raises questions about the neanderthal image of masculinity that teenage boys have to contend with.
A number of boys are closet singers. One or two sing in cathedral choirs but keep this secret from their school friends. Many others secretly sing in their bedrooms. The first episode had some moving footage of 11 year old Michael, who had been bullied at school, with a karoake machine in his bedroom, singing I Will Survive. It reminded me of an Oscar winning film (I've forgotten the name) about a young, gay American boy which had a similar scene of him singing in his bedroom. I'm not suggesting that Michael is gay. But a love of singing seems to be as much a stigma as being gay and that's odd after 50 years of pop-dominated teenage culture and the recent popularity of shows like Pop Idol and X Factor.
It may be worse at this particular school which is a specialist sports college and I think the whole concept of specialist colleges and academies, be it in sport, business, technology or music, is seriously misguided.

I hope tabloid journalists have been watching this programme. For this is a large multi-ethnic, state school in Leicester, but you would search in vain for the feral youth that have dominated the tabloids this week. Plenty of moody teenagers, some with educational and behavioural problems no doubt. But they seem to be the same diverse collection of boys as my contemporaries over forty years ago, no better and no worse. Yet recently the demonisation of young people seems to have reached the same level of hysteria as the paedophile scares and the 'war on terror'. The programme does carry a warning about 'strong language' but so far all of it has come from the saintly Gareth and none of it from the boys.

The Choir is comfortingly predictable in a way that life usually isn't. It's as predictable as a McDonald's meal though vastly more satisfying. You curse the production team for manipulating your emotions so effectively. But in the end it's the glorious sound that the boys make and their joy in doing so that will have you reaching for your handkerchief - and never more so than next week's finale at the Royal Albert Hall.
I hope it has a wider impact on the value of music and arts education in schools and I hope another BAFTA is on the way.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Helping Out On Valentine's Day

For many years other Radio 4 programmes have derided 'Quote, Unquote.' This both annoys and puzzles me. I have collected quotations all my life in what used to be called a 'Commonplace Book'. The criteria for writing down a quote are:
1) It makes me laugh
2) It expresses a truth about the world
3) It surprises me by putting a new twist on reality.
The best quotes may do all three.
If you keep such a book (and I've done so since I was a teenager), the selection of quotes reflect the different stages of your life. Some of the early ones in my collection reflect the morbid pessimism of the teenage years.
And if you write, whether as a blogger, journalist or novelist, your personal collection of quotations is a more valuable reference source than any published collection.

As I am spending Valentine's Day sowing seeds of the botanical variety and don't want to get compost in the keyboard, I'll save time by offering you a selection of quotes on the general theme of love and sex.

First off, this from Katherine Whitehorn, from this week's 'Quote, Unquote':
"Outside every thin girl, there's a fat man trying to get in."
A nice twist on an old saying.

Here's Kingsley Amis' typically cynical take on the old 'across a crowded room' scenario:
"Ronnie was wondering who the hell she was. And what she was. Not that that really mattered. He would forgive somebody who looked like that anything in the world. Even if she turned out to be a folk singer he was going to screw her."
(from 'I Want It Now').

One always has to include Ambrose Bierce's definitions in these collections:
"Love: a temporary insanity curable by marriage."

And when love is not a temporary insanity, that's a small miracle, as explained by Somerset Maugham:
"We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love.
It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person

A different take on deviance:
"An Irish queer is a man who prefers women to drink."
- Flann O'Brien

Which leads me to one of my favourite quotes of all time. Michael Caine was asked if a Hollywood neighbour was gay and replied:
"Well put it this way: he'd help out if they were short-handed."
That one meets my criteria (1) and (2) above. It also reminds me of the old gay joke: What's the difference between a straight man and a bisexual? Answer: 6 pints of lager.

Here's something that young people know but adults will never tell them:
"Sex without love is a meaningless experience.
But, as meaningless experiences go, it's pretty damned good
- Drew Carey

A decided lack of romance in all of the above. Sorry.
So I'll end with a real life quote that touched me deeply at the time.
About 25 years ago I was having a drink with a young Indian boy who asked me if I were gay. I said I was and that I hoped that wasn't a problem. His reply was:
"It has no more relevance than if one of us liked roses and the other liked lupins. It's no reason for me to hit you over the head with my roses."
People don't usually talk like that except in drama. And 18 year olds don't usually show that degree of wisdom and tolerance, not to mention grasp of metaphor.
How strange that one of the most memorable things said to me came from a brief encounter where neither love nor sex were on the agenda.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mind What You Say

I was going to write 500 words on Rowan Williams' thoughts on Sharia Law. But I couldn't concentrate because a woman was going "Whoo hoo!" in the street.
Why do women make that strange noise when they call after people? It's actually more like "Oooo-ooooh!"
I accept that "Oy!" might be considered un-ladylike, although 'ladylike' is a pretty redundant concept these days anyway.
But there must be plenty of alternatives that would be less irritating than that shrill, ridiculous "Oooo-ooooh!"

And what the hell is a "family man", that term so beloved of the media? We've had it again this week in its most common context: "The victim was a family man."
What does it mean?
The man had a family. Big deal. Most of us have got families.
The man had a wife and children. Oh, I see. That narrows it down to a characteristic shared by at least 50 million people.
The man spent every waking hour with his family and had no other interests in life. Quite possibly. But that is pure speculation.
No, I'm sorry. 'Family Man' is gibberish. It seeks to create a defining category where none exists. Rather like 'pedestrian' or 'motorist'.
It may also be part of that media tendency to divide crime victims into sheep and goats. That victim was 'a prostitute'. This victim is 'a family man'. But the inconvenient truth is that most clients of prostitutes and quite a few of their murderers are 'family men'.
And why does the term 'family woman' not exist?

The opposite of 'family man' now seems to be 'singleton', although this can be used of both sexes. But I don't like it and we don't need it. I am 'single'. I am a 'single person'. But I am not a fucking 'singleton'.

On the subject of families, I've never been sure what the term 'Family Butcher' means. Is it a butcher who supplies meat to families? Or is it a family who all practice the trade of butchery together in a family business? The two meanings are not mutually exclusive but if the former is the correct meaning then a family who are wholesale traders of meat could not be a Family Butcher.
And equally, a retail Family Butcher would be precluded from selling meat to a single person like myself.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but should I infer from the single pork chop that you are not a Family Man? You will observe from the gold copperplate on our fascia that we are a Family Butcher and therefore unable to supply singletons such as your goodself."

'A passing policeman was called to the shop, a Family Butcher, by the victim's wife going "Oooo-ooooh!"
The 49 year old butcher, a family man, told police: "It must have been something I said."
His attacker was ordered to undergo a course of neuro-linguistic programming and pay £50 compensation for damage to six black puddings, two pork tenderloins, a tray of kidneys and a shoulder of lamb.'

Sunday, February 10, 2008

What The Hell Has Happened To Casualty?

There's no pleasing some people. Especially me.
For years I sneered at the formulaic nature of Casualty (BBC1). But now it's gone all weird and pretentious, I yearn for the old days.

I was never a regular viewer but would sometimes watch the first 15 minutes which traditionally involved a slow and predictable build-up to an accident. As soon as the dodgy window-cleaning cradle had plunged from the skyscraper and we were back in the hospital with someone screaming for two pints of cross-matched and Charlie standing around scratching the back of his head, I would usually switch to something a little lighter and less likely to put me off my dinner.

Like The Bill, Casualty no longer does stand-alone episodes. They don't like elective viewers. They want to lock you in to long-running storylines. So last night's Casualty made little sense if you hadn't seen the preceding episodes. I'm not sure it made any sense, full stop. Much of it was flashbacks based on the diary of a nurse who had killed herself the week before. These were shot in strange, subdued colours like a dream sequence. It was one of the most annoying scripts I've heard in a long time with dialogue so unnatural it could have been written by someone from another galaxy.

The Radio Times is mightily impressed with Casualty at the moment. But I think the programme has forgotten that, despite its often grisly subject matter, it was always basically light entertainment. That's why there were often guest appearances by aged comics like Hugh Lloyd and Norman Wisdom, people you thought were dead. And by the end of the episode they usually were.
But the 'makeover' obsession extends to TV programmes. Casualty, it seems to me, has now inserted a lubricated, gloved finger into its backside and is stimulating its own prostate. I hope they're enjoying it. But it's not so much fun to watch.


"Midwives are often working literally in the dark."
- midwife speaking about lack of Government guidance, Radio 4
Couldn't the NHS at least provide them with a torch?
I believe many babies are conceived in darkness, which is understandable as the process is somewhat distasteful to anyone who plays for the other side. But to yank out the resulting progeny in darkness is another kettle of fish altogether and surely a tad dangerous.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Right On, Russell

"...........we live in a consumer capitalist society, look out your window - that's consumer capitalism out there, as far as the eye can see. If it annoys you then we'll have to have a revolution, which I'm well up for. It doesn't matter if Hillary wins or Obama or McCain so let's stop getting excited about people's genitals, pigmentation and age; they are all tools of the consumer capitalist system that we tolerate and endorse with our apathy.
It will only get worse, they will always want more money, it's the nature of the beast, except it's not a beast, it's a machine, a machine designed to take our money and shut our mouths. The other day I was offered a million quid to do a car commercial, I turned it down because I know that once you take that money they own you.
One could argue that by working for this paper or British TV or companies like Universal I'm already compromised and that's indubitably true. But this is the context we all live in and presently fundamentalism is beyond me. The possibility for change however is perpetual........."
- Russell Brand, Guardian (,,2255089,00.html)

Yes, I like Russell. If you don't, stop here. There'll be another post along soon.
I first saw him in the last Secret Policeman's Ball gig and he was the funniest person on the bill. Then I enjoyed his Big Brother companion programme where his interaction with the audience was like Barrymore taken to an extreme. Before I could shout "Shut up, you mad bitch!" at a woman in the audience, Brand would scream those exact words into her face. Yet with a complete abscence of malice. Sitting on someone's lap and clearly bored by what they were saying he would interrupt with "Are you a young lesbian?" or "Are you a gay gentleman?" He used to open the programme with a monologue of staggering obscenity but which was full of the most eclectic mix of literary and historical references that must have been lost on a large portion of the audience.

It would be impossible for me not to like someone with such a passion for language. He sometimes uses words incorrectly and, as you'll see from the quote above, his Guardian football articles show that, like many people today, he doesn't know the difference between a comma and a full stop. There's also that Scottish use of 'presently' in the quote above, which is odd for an Essex boy.

In a recent interview with Dawn French, he said that he deliberately avoids the artificial delivery of most TV presenters and tries to talk as people do in everyday life. This endeared me to him even more, although I suppose it's slightly undermined by the actual content of his speech which has been compared to that of an eighteenth century fop.
On his recent visit to Britain, Chris Rock singled out Russell Brand as one of the best British comics. After that endorsement, he could probably retire now, a happy man. And his early autobiography went straight to the top of the bestseller list.

The colossal sales of his book, on top of his TV earnings, have to be taken into account when we evaluate that revelation that he has just turned down a million quid for a car commercial. I suppose you could argue that the damage to Brand's 'brand' would be more than a million quid if he did do a commercial. Yet I still find it admirable and he anticipated any cynicism by accepting that he's already 'compromised' and not yet ready for a fundamentalist rejection of capitalism. How many of us are? But how many of us, in his shoes, would turn down a million quid for a 30 second commercial?
Laurence Olivier refused to do commercials in Britain because of the possible damage to his image but then sneaked off to America and did some there. In a less connected world, few people in Britain ever knew about it.
The fact that someone can well afford not to do commercials rarely seems to stop them doing so. Don't you feel a little less respect for Victoria Wood and Julie Walters now that they have taken a large wad from WalMart Asda?
So respect, Russell.

Finally, I mentioned recently that wonderful image of Russell shaking hands with the Queen after the Royal Variety Show. He has since done a very funny piece on TV about that encounter and how he had this powerful urge to do something shockingly inappropriate like grabbing her left tit. We all have those kind of urges, though seldom in relation to the monarch.
My father once spoke in rather too familiar terms to the Queen Mother at a function. I only discovered recently that one of her officials came up to him afterwards and told him off, saying he shouldn't have spoken to her in such a way. My father had done no more than compliment the gin-sodden old bag on her appearance, a piece of flattery that surely merited at least an OBE. Instead of which, the self-important old trout wagged her finger at him and he got a bollocking from some jumped-up courtier. If he'd succumbed to an urge like Russell Brand's, he'd probably have been taken off to the Tower.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Caption Error of the Week

Tonight's Six O'Clock News on BBC1:
Muslim woman in burka captioned as representing the British Humanist Association.
Bet she loved that.

These errors are now so common on the BBC (and never corrected or apologised for), why do we still pretend that this is the most professional broadcaster in the world?
Is the newsroom gallery full of kids on work experience or is everyone pissed?

Larging It: 'The Day Today' Is Always With Us

Listening to last night's PM programme on Radio 4 I had a feeling of deja vu. They were reporting on the Archbishop of Canterbury's ravings about Sharia Law. Eddie Mair was interviewing The Sun's Political Editor:
Mair: How big a story is this?
Sun Political Editor: It's very, very big!

Then it hit me. Not for the first time I was hearing echoes of the wonderful The Day Today.
Thanks to cutting edge technology - VHS tape retrieved from the back of a cupboard - I can bring you The Day Today covering a punch-up between the Queen and John Major. Chris Morris is interviewing Spartacus Mills (Steve Coogan), Crisis Correspondent:
Morris: Spartacus, this is huge history happening, isn't it?
Mills: It's bigger than that, Chris. It's large!
The exchange concluded in a way that the PM one sadly didn't:
Morris: We're pushed for time. Can you sum it up in a word?
Mills: No.
Morris: In a sound?
Mills: Wurrgh!
This was followed by a soothing film to be broadcast at times of national crisis featuring, among other things, stockbrokers skipping on the steps of the Stock Exchange to the strains of Elgar. It's a small masterpiece.

If you've never seen it, The Day Today is now available on DVD from all good Amazons. Money well spent as it bears repeated viewings. The opening titles alone are worth the price.

Footnote: I noticed that the Executive Producer of The Day Today was Peter Fincham. That would be the same Peter Fincham who resigned last year as BBC1 Controller over mis-edited footage of the Queen that purported to show her storming out of a photo-shoot. Life's little imitating art......etc.......etc

Desert Island Tears

That bloody Beryl Bainbridge! She chose Jim Webb's MacArthur Park on Desert Island Discs this morning. They only played about a minute of it but that was enough to have tears rolling down my face and dripping into the washing-up water.
I have a kind of Pavlovian reaction to this song. Play it and I cry. I've no idea why. It's not as though I'm a lachrymose person. If I were an actor and needed to cry I would have this song piped into an earpiece. The problem would be that I'd shed so much fluid that at the end of the scene the stage would need mopping and I'd have to be put on a saline drip.

And stupid Beryl Bainbridge too! She said she didn't understand the song but someone had told her it was about drugs. It is NOT about drugs. And you would think that a writer, of all people, would understand metaphor.
When I wrote about this song in November 2004 (in a very angry, sweary post) I quoted Jimmy Webb himself explaining that if you look at the park with tears in your eyes, the distortion of vision makes the park appear to be melting.

The song has always made perfect sense to me ever since I first heard it on a jukebox in the back room of a provincial pub in 1968.
It has often been voted one of the most hated songs of all time. But there are also many of us for whom it will always be in our top ten favourite songs. Maybe we should get together occasionally and have a group weep.
Because as you get older, you cry much less - or almost never. And crying, like laughter, is quite therapeutic. ("Let it all out, dear. You'll feel better for it.")
Thanks to Jimmy Webb and Richard Harris, a good cry is available at the touch of a button. And the great thing is that you're not crying at anything specific or personal, just the fact that life's a bitch, love doesn't last and things go wrong.

I think I'll play it now, once I've checked the Kleenex stock.
After six minutes of angst and anguish, the sun will still be shining, nobody will have died, no lover will have left me and I can finish the washing up refreshed and dry-eyed. Lost recipes banished for another few months. No more sweet green icing flowing down. Just sweet green Fairy Liquid, untainted by tears.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Me and Me Mates

If very young people call me 'mate' is it because:
a) I look much younger than I am.
b) It is the only form of address they know.

Today a 16 year old boy in a shop called me 'mate' but the record is held by a 6 year old who bumped into me and said "sorry, mate."
Anyway, after long and careful thought lasting, ooh, all of two minutes, I have decided the answer to my question is (a).

And even when the rest of my hair has fallen out and I can no longer pass as 49 in a bad light, I'd rather the little bastards called me 'mate' than the 'Mister' of days of yore.
Much friendlier, don't you think?
A little rope bridge across the inter-generational divide. A small stick of dynamite up the arse of demographics.........
[That's enough metaphors and verbless sentences - Ed.]

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Our Boys

It was suggested this week by, among others, Lord Tebbit that shooting should be introduced in schools. Learning to use guns, it was argued, would turn troublesome teenagers into responsible, law-abiding citizens.
Today we learned that on Friday British soldiers in Cyprus had once again run amok, wrecked a pub and were awaiting trial.
Enough said?

Well, not quite.
For today the Telegraph's defence correspondent went on BBC News with pleas of mitigation. Our Boys needed to "let off steam." And they "feel under-valued."
It's not a defence or explanation I've ever heard the right making about the underclass in the inner cities. From which, of course, many of our soldiers come. And, of course, all that firearms training teaches them discipline and self-respect and rescues them from violence, vandalism and crime.
Or possibly not.
Ask the long-suffering residents of Cyprus.