Sunday, October 26, 2008

No smokey, no writey, writey

Until Vicus poked me in the Comments Box, I hadn't realised how much time had elapsed since my last post.
The reason for the silence is that I've been busy stopping smoking.
An unfortunate side-effect is that it's almost impossible to write without a cigarette. These three sentences have taken me 15 minutes. I even have to set aside an hour each morning to compose my shopping list.
I suppose I could write something about the difficulty of writing when you stop smoking.
No. Hang on. There's a logical flaw in that idea.

If you wish me to resume regular blogging, feel free to start an online petition to get me smoking again.
In the meantime, do drop by occasionally to see if I've managed to string a few thoughts and sentences together.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Laugh? I Came Close a Couple of Times

I was expecting to be disappointed by Peter Kay's talent show spoof The Pop Factor...... (C4) and I wasn't disappointed.......if you see what I mean.
The reason this idea should have been instantly dismissed is very simple: you can't parody something that is already beyond parody.
They spent shedloads of money on this spoof to make it almost identical to The X Factor - same studio, same set, real judges from the days of Pop Idol. But the appearance of not just Paul McCartney but real pop royalty in the form of Rick Astley couldn't save it from tedium.

Peter Kay played a female contestant called Geraldine who the tabloids had discovered used to be Gerald. To prove my point (above) a tabloid last week 'revealed' that one of the male contestants in the current X Factor wishes to change sex. From reading just the front page (and not pages 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9) this claim appeared to be based on no more than the boy having once sung a song in drag. But this was a case of reality imitating art that was imitating reality.

When the partly fake 'reality' of a reality show is so funny itself, parody is pointless. But if you must attempt parody, it's best to avoid an exact imitation of the original. The more perfect the imitation, the less funny it becomes. In this case, the exaggeration was only about 5 or 10% and that wasn't enough. Someone like Chris Morris would have got the style of the progamme spot-on but then pushed the content to a mind-boggling level of absurdity - and possibly obscenity too. But this programme had no edge to it. It was so safe and cosy it felt like a comedy spectacular from 40 years ago. Again, at the risk of labouring the point, I've seen edgier things on the X Factor. Remember Sharon Osbourne flirting with Shane Ward and saying "I've got something warm and wet for you"? Or the elderly lady auditioning this year who sang "We're having a gang bang!"

So tedious was this programme that I didn't stay up for the second part, the results show. I was not the only one. The main show had 5.5 million viewers but that dropped to 3 million for the 'results' show. They're still huge figures for Channel 4 but that's hardly surprising given Peter Kay's track record and fan base.
I was interested to see that the Guardian's blogger found that 50% of people in the office hated it.
I didn't hate it. I just didn't laugh at it.
In contrast, this audition from the real X Factor this year never fails to make me laugh.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Beautiful People

With no more Chris Lilley imports to watch and Gavin and Stacey a distant memory (and whilst carefully avoiding Little Britain USA), Thursdays are now bringing us the compensatory pleasures of 'Beautiful People' (BBC2).

Based on the book by Simon Doonan, it's written by Jonathan Harvey, recently of Coronation Street and previously of Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, and the play and film Beautiful Thing. The last was about the love affair between two teenage boys on a south London housing estate. So Jonathan Harvey was the perfect choice for the screenplay of Beautiful People which is a comedy about a gay boy growing up in Reading. I gather the book was set in the 1950s but the TV series is set in the 1990s.

Centre stage are young Simon and his mixed-race best friend 'Kylie' (real name 'Karl') who have created a camp, make-believe world amid the drabness of a Reading council estate. It's my belief that some gay kids adopt a persona of affected campness in the same way that their peers may become punks, emos or goths, a case of trying on identities for size. It's also one possible response to stigma and prejudice: take hold of the stereotype, push it to its limits and make it as in-your-face as possible.

There are two terrific performances from Luke Ward-Wilkinson as Simon and Layton Williams as Kylie. They make the characters likeable and funny when they could easily have been just irritating.

I was initially concerned at the central character also being the narrator because it's a technique so associated with the brilliantly produced but nauseating The Wonder Years. But with Jonathan Harvey scripting it, we don't have to worry. He can do sentimentality but also savage humour of a kind you'd never find on a mainstream American show.

My first impression was that this was a gentle comedy-drama but there are plenty of laugh out loud moments. Last night, Simon was lying on the sofa with a broken nose.
"Fetch me a looking-glass", he said.
"What?" said his father.
His mother said: "He means 'mirror'".
Coincidentally, 'looking-glass' was the answer to a Guardian crossword clue last week and I remember thinking that younger people would not have heard the term. I think that 'looking-glass' was the preferred term of the upper classes, 'mirror' being considered vulgar like 'toilet' or 'serviette'. It used to feature in those How To Speak Like A Toff books that were popular forty years ago.
For Simon, it's another linguistic attempt to put clear blue water between himself and his family. Yet his family are touchingly indulgent towards him, to the extent that his mother floors the drama teacher with a right hook for calling Simon effeminate.

The series really got into its stride with this week's second episode, partly because of a wonderful dance sequence. If you like song and dance numbers set in a street with aerial shots, then this was a collector's item. It had Simon, Kylie and a girl neighbour singing Take That Look Off Your Face, Tomorrow (from Annie) and Don't Rain On My Parade respectively. Singing across each other, of course, in the best tradition of musicals and eventually morphing into a joint rendition of Ease On Down The Road.

When Kylie emerges singing from his house, his mother shouts "Hey, batty boy, you forgot your gym bag." Said bag is hurled at him, knocking him to the ground. But Kylie leaps straight up and does some of the highest kicks you've seen since the Tiller Girls hung up their tap shoes. This boy is one hell of a dancer.

The standard template for such street scenes is that you have a supporting cast of dancing traffic wardens and lollipop ladies (I once worked on a stage musical that had exactly that). But this one didn't and it rather gained from having just half a dozen characters and a dog in an otherwise deserted street of 1950s council houses.

To borrow the argot of Simon and Kylie: girlfriend, it was fabulous. So fabulous that I fear nothing else in the series will be able to match it.
I'm not sure I'd have let the CGI man sprinkle the street with stardust and colour the road yellow but Kylie's mother's final comment cut through the feyness and whimsy like a knife through butter: "Fuck me! All we need's a yellow taxi. It'll be like the kids from frigging Fame."

That's why we tip our cap to the great Jonathan Harvey. And it's why we allow him to get away with lines like this:
Simon: "the auditions are in the Terry Waite Annexe".
Mum: "That reminds me: that radiator's playing up."

Olivia Colman is excellent as Simon's mother, Meera Syal has a ball with blind, eccentric Aunty Hayley and next week sees Brenda Fricker appear as the grandmother.
Oh, and the older Simon is played by Samuel Barnett who was Posner in The History Boys.

Whilst I was writing this, some kind person has put the dance number on YouTube. Three minutes of pure joy.
All episodes are on BBC iPlayer for the duration of the series.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Cameron's Speech

When David Cameron spoke of his wife - the posh-as-a-quail-egg-omelette Samantha - the TV cameras couldn't find her so the director gave us a shot of Theresa May instead. This must have confused some viewers, particularly as Cameron had just said he woke up next to an entrepreneur every morning. Was he confessing to an affair?

The director was more mischievous when Cameron condemned the scandals around MPs expenses. The camera settled on Caroline Spelman who is under investigation for allegedly using taxpayers' money to pay her nanny on the grounds that the nanny also undertook secretarial duties - e.g., answering the telephone when nobody else was in the house. Not surprisingly, Mrs Spelman, although applauding, had the pained expression of a woman who has just been told by the News of the World that her husband has been photographed in bed with a rentboy and a Thai transexual.
(Legal note: this is an analogy and does not imply that Mr Spelman has ever strayed from the fragrant embrace of his wife).

The cut-away shots of the audience are always the worst thing about watching the leader's speech. If I had a swear box, it would end up with enough money in it to bail out a small High Street bank. I start with 'bastards!' and rapidly move on to the next letter of the alphabet. These are some of the most obnoxious people in Britain.
Let's be honest: with many of them you couldn't get a cigarette paper between their views and those of the BNP. But it's nod-and-a-wink nationalism and bigotry, the 'are you thinking what we're thinking' of Michael Howard's election slogan, a self-styled 'common sense' nastiness in a garden party, Church of England, Daily Mail-reading, gin-and-tonic, blazer and flannels, twinset and pearls, Waitrose-shopping world.
Yeah, yeah, there are now a few Asian businessmen in the hall and Alan Duncan has just celebrated his Civil Partnership ("I said to Daphne: I know he's queer but he's got a good head on him").
I sometimes see seagulls in my garden but that doesn't mean I live on the coast.

The fact that the Tory party in the country hasn't changed very much is one reason why Cameron's was the most Thatcherite speech I've heard since the lady herself was in her pomp. For smoothie-chops it was more important to throw these people red meat than to expound actual policies, most of which they probably wouldn't like very much.

"Man with a Plan" must surely be the most naff political slogan ever coined, especially as we haven't been told what the plan is. Do you think they plagiarised it from the cut-price removal company 'Man with a Van'? At least the latter has an actual van and can tell you what he can do and what it will cost. With Cameron's 'plan' we are still none the wiser.

Party Conference speeches now all follow the same template. Perhaps you can download one from the internet like a website template.
One feature in every leader's speech these days is people they have met. Cameron had met a young soldier in Afghanistan and will never forget him saying that he was doing his duty. Nick Clegg, a few weeks' earlier, had met a young mother and he had seen the anxiety in her face. (She was probably thinking "I must be mad if I think this public school ponce is going to get the fucking bailiffs off my back.")
"Look", they are saying, "I meet real people. I feel their pain. I understand their problems. I help them. Sometimes I'm inspired by their courage and achievements."
Oh, fuck off.

Cameron used a letter from a man whose wife had died from MRSA to condemn the entire NHS. Apparently, the staff are totally demoralised. Having recently been in hospital, I've never met staff who were more chipper, friendly, amusing and dedicated in my life. And, whilst I disagree with PFI schemes, the foyer of our new hospital is more like the foyer of a top hotel.
The Tories' priority is to increase the number of single rooms in hospitals. That would be nice, but notice how it has nothing to do with improving actual treatment or increasing the drugs budget. I suspect it's because middle-class Tories don't want to share a ward with a load of chavs who, in their view, have brought their misfortunes on themselves.

Cameron persisted with his assertion that Britain is a 'broken society'. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then denigrating your own country on the basis of a falsehood is the most despicable act of an ambitious and unprincipled politician.
Iraq is a broken society. We and the Americans broke it, strongly supported by Cameron and most of his party.
Boris Johnson, in one of the few instances of him saying something sensible, said that talk of Britain being a broken society is 'piffle'. With Andrew Neil this week, Johnson embarked on a rambling and incoherent analogy with a broken computer. If I may help him out, I think it's the difference between a computer that you've smashed to pieces and a computer that has one or two software malfunctions.

Cameron, for his own self-serving motives, repeatedly generalises from serious but relatively rare crimes to suggest that civil society has completely collapsed. Blair never went that far but, hungry for office, Blair could not resist exploiting the murder of James Bulger for political gain.

Having condemned Labour's 'nanny state' (the Tories know a lot about nannies), Cameron proposed recruiting thousands more Health Visitors to assist mothers after the birth of a child. Some contradiction there, surely?
But the Tories don't really believe in a 'small State', just a State that will interfere in different ways from Labour. Remember Section 28? A massive increase in State power and centralisation took place under Thatcher. (Read Simon Jenkins' excellent 'Thatcher and Sons').

Speaking of Thatcher, if we must, Cameron said that if experience were a prerequisite for becoming Prime Minister, we would never have had Margaret Thatcher nor Tony Blair.
Well, there's an appealing thought!
Let's make previous experience of high office for prospective Prime Ministers a constitutional requirement immediately.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Tory Conference (LOL)

You really would need a heart of stone not to laugh at what's happening to the Tory Conference.
Swept off the headlines by the financial crisis, they're now much less likely to get a post-conference bounce in the polls.
They are also on a sticky wicket in calling for more regulation of the financial markets, something which they have not only consistently opposed but which most of them have an ideological, visceral aversion to.
Presumably, we'll hear no more of that fatuous phrase "sharing the proceeds of growth" since in the medium-term there won't be any fucking growth.
They have, however, made billions of pounds of spending commitments (including a new high-speed rail line) despite George Osborne asserting that the coffers are empty.

Meanwhile, on Panorama, David Cameron was challenged by a voter on the wealth and privilege of most members of his shadow cabinet. His response was to cite William Hague, describing him as, I think, "a tough Yorkshireman."
You have to be pretty desperate to try and portray William Hague as an ordinary bloke. It's true that he went to a state school but his parents were relatively affluent, having their own soft drinks business. And young Hague was the ultimate precocious political nerd, famously addressing the Tory Conference at the age of 16. Then there's that bizarre, strangulated accent, a kind of 'posh Yorkshire'.
Unlike many other upwardly mobile Tory brats, Hague never mastered the accent thing. Unlike, for example, John Major, whose first employer once told a friend of mine, rather unkindly, that he used to speak like a "little Cockney guttersnipe." Still, both Major and Hague, in their different ways, have added greatly to the gaiety of the nation.


Overheard: a solicitor speaking on Radio 4 last Saturday:
"Once you put something on the internet, the world and its oyster can see it."
Does that include the oyster's wife?

Getting your words in the right order is as crucial as not muddling your metaphors. During a trail on the Today programme this morning, a "spanking new show" was described as "a brand new spanking show."
Ed Stourton said that wouldn't work too well on radio but I'm not so sure. Isn't the sound of the 'thwack' an essential ingredient in that particular fetish? I only ask. It's not something that rocks my boat.

When I left my last employment I was reasonably au fait with fashionable jargon and could swap benchmarks, beacons and key performance indicators with the best of them. But time marches on and the bullshit generator never sleeps. So my jaw dropped a few centimetres when I read the job title of a woman writing in the Guardian yesterday:
"Gifted and Talented Strand Co-ordinator for the Great Yarmouth Excellence Cluster."
What fresh, titular, linguistic hell is this? What a fool you'd look at the Team Meeting if you got your strands mixed up with your clusters.


The Chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference which represents 250 private schools (no non-gender specific 'Headteacher' nonsense for them) was on Today this morning. A bloke called Tim Quicksticks-Smith.
Sorry, that should be Tim Hastie-Smith.
He's the chap who said this week that The X Factor had replaced God. I think he meant, more plausibly, that Simon Cowell has replaced God.

Anyway, he said this morning that the psychologist Oliver James was addressing the Posh Twats' Conference this week. This intrigued me because, as I mentioned recently, Oliver James has written of the harmful effects of putting babies and small children into nurseries. So he surely can't be an enthusiast for parents shunting eight year olds into boarding Prep Schools. I shall look out for reports of his speech and if he doesn't give it to the private school industry with both barrels, my respect for him will be considerably diminished.

As it happens, there was a much-praised but depressing documentary on More4 last night about sexual abuse at Caldicott prep school. It consisted almost entirely of now middle-aged men talking directly to camera about the details of their abuse.
I watched it for less than half of the full two hours. This wasn't so much because of the subject matter but because it felt prurient, voyeuristic and inappropriate to have these complete strangers revealing these details directly at me. I don't question the motives of either these men or the programme makers in doing this. But it's the sort of thing a close friend might divulge to you after a few drinks to share a burden with someone they felt would be understanding. On at least two occasions, people have confided such things to me; in one case, someone who had been abused by an older boy at boarding school. That may well be even more common than abuse by teachers.

But given how many such cases of abuse have been reported in private schools, it's all the more amazing that parents can put children into these places with equanimity.
And although the climate has changed and there's much greater awareness of abuse, the astonishing fact is that private schools, unlike State schools, have no obligation to report abuse to the police.
Indeed, yesterday's Education Guardian reported that a much more recent case of alleged abuse at Caldicott was never reported to the police or social services. This was partly because the parents were never informed that anonymity for their child was guaranteed.

The aforementioned Tim Hastie-Smith boasted to his conference that the private sector was "free from political control, free from the red tape and dictates which can smother our collegues in most of the maintained sector" and that's why private schools are so wonderful.
No Sir, that is the problem. Try telling your self-serving garbage to the abused, the bullied and the emotionally stunted and traumatised who will still be appearing in television documentaries in thirty years time if parents continue to have the right to buy privilege and pain in equal measure.