Monday, November 10, 2008

Power Push

President-Elect Obama is a fast learner.
I've just seen footage of his visit today to the White House. After the photos, Bush and Obama turned and walked into the house. Obama placed a hand on Bush's back and pushed him through the door slightly ahead of himself.

This is a well-known assertion of superiority and precedence amongst world leaders. Sometimes a curious gavotte takes place as two leaders struggle to be last through the door.

Among lesser mortals, it's more usual for the host to usher their guest through the door first. But different rules apply in international politics. Last over the threshold is top dog. And the usual means of achieving this is the hand on the shoulder or the palm in the small of the back.

I think it was an Australian Prime Minister who caused controversy a few years ago by manhandling Her Majesty The Queen in this way. This was partly because he aimed too low and some thought he was attempting to pat her bottom. But he didn't realise that the Queen, although a Head of State, is an exception to this rule. Because she has no actual power she is exempt from the power push. (And safe from a putsch, of course, for the same reason.) There's also the atavistic absurdity that to touch the British monarch is considered an act of lesé majesté.

That Bush allowed himself to be gently pushed through his own door even a few centimetres ahead of his guest is a sign of how quickly power has drained from his Presidency.
And we'll be able to judge the relative power of Obama's new America by how many world leaders Obama sweeps through doors with the deft touch of a basketball player's hand.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

X Factor

Being an unashamed fan of TV talent shows I usually write something about X Factor (ITV1). People have strong feelings about the contestants so this is always guaranteed to upset some readers.
Right. Let me start as I mean to go on. This week's special guest was Mariah Carey. I had never seen Mariah Carey before. Her first song was tedious beyond belief. If she'd been a contestant the judges would surely have said "you're going to be in trouble tonight." But the judges gave her a standing ovation. She said she'd written the song herself. If I'd been her, I'd have kept quiet about that. Simon Cowell said she is the biggest star in the world today. If so, then the world's gone fucking mad.

Anyway, people*, Dermot O'Leary managed not to upset her. Last year he managed to upset Celine Dion by saying she talked too much. There was a wonderful shot of Miss Dion standing behind him scowling and shaking her head. One longed for Dermot to turn round and say "Why the long face, Celine?" But even Dermot isn't that stupid, even if he thinks 'hyperbole' is pronounced 'hyperbowl.'

* If you are Dermot or any of the new generation of presenters you must address the audience as 'people'. Whatever happened to 'Ladies and gentleman' (or as Mel Brooks always said when addressing showbiz audiences: 'Ladies and Jews').
As a viewer, I resent being addressed as 'people'. I'm one of the third of households in single occupancy. The plural is inappropriate. I am a single person, or saddo, who is spending Saturday night watching junk TV presented by morons.

Talking of which, ITV2's Xtra Factor is presented this year by Holly Willoughby. Although less irritating than last year's Fearne Cotton (you'd rather spend an evening with Dot Cotton than Fearne Cotton), Holly still struggles with some of the minor details of the presenter's craft like reading the autocue. Or getting the name of the guest artist right - she recently called last year's winner 'Leo' instead of 'Leon'.

My biggest problem this year is Cheryl Cole, the new judge. Today's Observer has a full page profile of her headlined "The nation's sweetheart." Well, count me out on that one, sweetheart.
I can't bear to look at this woman with her sickly, patronising smile. A smile that perfectly matches her patronising comments which are typically something like: "you're so cute. And you've got a lovely little voice." I've just glanced at the article in the Observer, a paper that boasts some of the best writing, and I alighted on this:
"When Daniel, 38, revealed that his late wife had urged him to try out for the programme before she died, Cole's tears glistened fetchingly on her beautifully bronzed cheekbones. She cried. We cried. But she looked prettier than us when she did it."
No, I don't mean Hello? I mean Hello as in Hello, OK!, Heat, - celebrity mag rags. Has the Observer gone fucking mad as well?

What of the contestants?
Well, last night we had a 'first'. A contestant was too ill to perform. The good news was that it was Diana so it's an ill wind. The bad news was that the producers exempted her from the elimination vote. But she is inexplicably popular. She forfeited my vote at the beginning by performing bare-footed. Not only do I consider this a silly affectation but I dislike feet. Put some socks on or put a sock in it.

To put it bluntly, most of the girls this year are shite. Last night, both Rachel and Alexandra were off key though, astonishingly, none of the judges mentioned this.
The Spanish bird, Ruth, is a good old-fashioned belter but as Louis Walsh said, 'not so much Mariah Carey as Mariah Scary.'
Daniel 'Dad-does-karoake' is staying in on the sympathy vote and also because a key voting sector are those old enough to yearn for a new Max Bygraves or Val Doonican.

Eoghan Quigg, the youngest contestant, has the Aahh! Factor and is always rather better than you expect him to be, though surely not good enough to win. But remember that the last time a contestant's name began with the letters Q-U-I he made it to the Final. (Raymond Quinn, oh ye of short memories). Next year I'm going to enter under the name of Clarence Quince.

The best of this uninspiring bunch are the boy band JLS. 'Boy band' is the wrong term because they hark back to a much older tradition of vocal harmony groups like The Four Tops. They're already the complete package, ready to go into the studio tomorrow and record their first album. Louis Walsh is clearly hoping they have the Obama Factor and referenced Obama last night. And I get the feeling that Simon Cowell is secretly hoping they're the act he'll be signing.
All of which means that the public will probably choose yet another wailing Mariah Carey wannabe with the personality of a partially defrosted plate of scampi.
I'm sorry, people. It's best to prepare for the worst. And please God, let it soon be over so we can move on to Britain's Got Talent.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Beautiful People: A Beautiful Thing

I hate the phrase 'cult comedy' but I suspect Beautiful People (BBC2) may have merited that tag more than most. I'm surprised that I enjoyed it so much given that I'm generally resistant to the charms of camp men. (I belong to that class of gay men who argue that if we found femininity attractive then we would be heterosexual).
But in this case, the drama was heavily dependant on the 'differentness' of the two lead characters and the two boys who played Simon and Kylie (Luke Ward-Wilkinson and Layton Williams) were both jaw-droppingly brilliant and immensely likeable. Nobody will be at all surprised if they develop into major stars. Arguably, Layton Williams is already a star, having played Billy Elliot in the West End.

The dance number I mentioned in my previous piece remains the series' finest moment. But last night's final episode also had a great dance number:

On reflection, to say that the two boys personified gay stereotypes is too simplistic. There was an episode where Simon's Dad is prevailed upon by his wife to "macho him up" by teaching him football. This began with Simon flapping his arms and screaming every time he kicked the ball. It was very reminiscent of Renato teaching Albin to butter toast in the cafe in the film La Cage Aux Folles - one of the funniest scenes in one of the funniest films ever made.
But then came Simon's epiphany when he realised that football is just another type of choreography. He goes on to become the star player in the school team.
This was wonderfully perceptive. For the dancing feet of Christiano Ronaldo are just that: dancing feet. And a football match is nothing if not a piece of theatre. That's why I love it so much. That's why it's The Beautiful Game. There's that word 'beautiful' again, albeit not a term one would apply to all its exponents. Wayne Rooney, anyone?

The football episode also provided another example of writer Jonathan Harvey's trademark style. The school bully and Simon's former tormentor presents him with a Spice Girls doll, knowing he will like this more than a silver cup. Just as we're all reaching for the Kleenex, the boy says "one more thing" and punches Simon in the face. "Sorry", he says, "force of habit."

This series will long be cherished as one of the finest gay-themed comedy-musical-dramas. But it reached out beyond a niche audience because it dealt with universal themes - the power of dreams, family relationships and the audacity of hope (©B. Obama).
It frequently moved me to tears because it was suffused with love, optimism and human resilience.
One of its heroes was Simon's Irish plumber father, reluctant to try and change Simon because "we said we wouldn't be like our own parents." And because "he's my son and I love the bones of him."
That's one of the reasons why Simon's concluding thought is: "wanting to find the beautiful people when maybe they were closer to home than I thought."

I've mentioned that Jonathan Harvey can rarely serve up sentimentality without immediately puncturing it. But as his play/film Beautiful Thing showed, he usually eschews cynicism at the very end. Thus it was that Beautiful People ended with the adult Simon putting a hand on the shoulder of his younger self and whispering "It's going to be all right."
Those six conjoined words being the most priceless in the language, the six words that we had all longed to say to Simon and Kylie for the previous six weeks. The six words many of us would like to have been able to say to our 14 year old selves.

And having just watched the last ten minutes again to get my quotes right, maybe my praise for this series hasn't been lavish enough. It had its flaws and sometimes misfired but it also had moments of genius and was a magnificent achievement by everyone who created it.
Thank you, BBC.

DVD available from all good Amazons.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Yes You Can. With Nicorette.

I have discovered a point of connection with the President-Elect. No, not that. The intelligence, charisma, etc, go without saying.
I've discovered that, like me, he uses Nicorette chewing gum. From this I assume that he's an ex-smoker.

Just as well, when you think about it. If getting a 'black' man elected President was an achievement, imagine the difficulty of getting a smoker elected in contemporary America.
(Oh, hell. Just thinking about the anti-smoking lobby makes me want to light a cigarette. Quick. Where did I put the Nicorette?)

Somebody said the only thing that could have derailed his campaign was if he was found to be sleeping with a gay terrorist. But the other thing that would have finished him would have been a photo of him having a sly fag (in the British sense) behind his campaign bus.
The anti-smoking nutters in America would probably have assassinated him long before election day.
Now he's leader of the free world and surrounded by a ring of steel he can do what he likes. For example, lighting one up in the Oval Office on his first day.
Go on, Barack, strike a light for liberty.
Yes, you can.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Not A Day For Cynicism

There will be a time for cynicism. Tomorrow, probably. But today is a time to savour one of the biggest political events of my lifetime, one that was worth sacrificing a night's sleep for.
Had I not done so, I would have seen only the edited version of Obama's victory speech and missed hearing him say that he represented everyone, "gay or straight." I never thought I would hear those words from a new American President, still less a black President. It was a moving moment that proved, for now at least, that Obama has genuinely inclusive and liberal instincts.

I spent the night zapping between the BBC and CNN.
The BBC coverage was, as decreed by statute, in the increasingly bumbling hands of David Dimbleby. I'm not renowned for my sporting knowledge but even I, unlike Dimbleby, know the difference between baseball and basketball. He thought a basketball game had been played in the Chicago park earlier in the day until a colleague pointed out that basketball is played indoors.

After one guest change in the studio he looked at the new person next to him and gave a little jump. "Oh, hello!" he said, looking startled.
"You've got some new visitors, Mr Dimbleby. They're from Hospital Radio. Tell them your favourite Rodgers and Hammerstein and they'll play it for you."

At one point, he actually forgot which city he was in. After a long struggle to say where he was, the only thing he could manage was 'DC'.
The final blow was dealt to Dimbleby by Gore Vidal who said to him witheringly "I've no idea who you are." Unfortunately, I'm not sure Dimbleby knew either.

The CNN coverage appeared to be coming from a studio the size of a small American state. It was the satire of American election coverage that Chris Morris would have done in The Day Today if you'd given him the entire licence fee income. But it was undeniably impressive, especially when juxtaposed with the BBC's amateurish effort with its frequent technical glitches.
I was particularly intrigued by Dana Bash, reporting from Phoenix, one of those extraordinary blonde avatars with big hair and even bigger teeth. Her face appeared to be moulded from wax. I'm sure if she'd gone near a naked flame she'd have melted.

The main studio anchor was a man called Wolf Blitzer. How wonderful a name is that? Isn't Blitzer one of Santa's reindeer? (At one point, Blitzer actually interviewed Rudolph. Giuliani, that is, the former New York Mayor).
There's a double improbability in that name. Firstly, the existence of a Mr and Mrs Blitzer. Secondly, that the Blitzers decided to name their baby boy 'Wolf'. Maybe they intended to call him 'Wilf' but had bad handwriting.

Back in the BBC's Washington studio, one of the oddest double acts in the history of TV punditry was making its debut: neocon John Bolton and historian Simon Schama. It was like watching a bad-tempered walrus being baited by a badly-designed puppet. There were moments, as Simon Schama jerked and lunged in his chair, when he seemed about to lay his head in Bolton's lap and look up and pull faces at him. Had he done so, you'd have needed the supercool Wolf Blitzer to restore some calm. But then CNN would never have sat a commie, academic Brit next to a rabid Republican neocon.

If it's not a day for cynicism, then neither is it a day for gloating.
Oh, sod it. Just one little gloat as we spare a thought for the evangelicals who had held prayer meetings and confidently told journalists that their god would ensure a McCain victory.
Oh Lord, thank you for forsaking them!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Just When You Thought It Was Safe........

With Russell resigned and Jonathan suspended, BBC Radio must surely now be safe for a middle-aged gentleman like myself, particularly one who mostly sticks to the safety of the erstwhile Home Service.
Well no, actually.

I often listen to Radio 4 in bed, sometimes falling asleep with the radio still on and being rudely awoken at 1 am by the strains of Sailing By and the start of the World Service feed.
On Friday evening, I had not quite fallen into the arms of Morpheus but Morpheus was certainly edging over to my side of the bed when I was jerked back to consciousness by talk of sodomy and oral sex.
But Today in Parliament hadn't even started yet. This was the supposedly gentle aural nightcap of A Book at Bedtime.
Someone called Piers was on his knees simulating fellatio on a chap called Edward. What's more, he was doing this in front of an Archbishop. Happily, this wasn't our own Beardy Williams who has suffered quite enough gay-related trauma of late. It was a 14th century prelate and this was the story of Edward II and his lover Piers Gaveston, as fictionalised in a book called The Ruling Passion by David Pownall.

It's read by David Horovitch in the dry, supercilious tones of Bill Nighy on the Yorkshire Tea commercial, the tone and the diction meaning that he didn't make a meal of the fellatio. And it least it was fellatio, which one suspects would not be the term of choice for Russell Brand or Jonathan Ross.
There's a chance that using the Latin term rather than English vernacular might have allowed more innocent listeners to picture Piers demonstrating a fencing move to Edward although that would not explain why the Archbishop left the room in fury and disgust.

Fury and disgust was not my own reaction. But gay old liberal that I am, I neither expect nor desire to have sexual imagery piped into my bedroom by Radio 4, even in the context of a 14th century historical drama. Not least because it feels like 700 years since someone was on their knees in front of me simulating fellatio.
(Actually it was 1974, backstage in a London theatre. I was eating an egg mayonnaise sandwich at the time and the simulator was passing the time till curtain up with some improvised mime. No archbishops, either stage or real, were present but I think Timothy West's father dressed as an undertaker walked past with a disapproving frown. Happy days, as they say.)

By placing this in the (sort of) public domain of a blog, perhaps it will be picked up by the Mail or the Sun.
Thousands who didn't hear it can complain to the BBC.
There'll be Questions in the House.
The Director General will have to resign.
And Edward II and Piers will be pulled off prematurely.
Oh, what fun!