Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir detailing O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win and the story of that period as related in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning only one small majority in any of the last six General Elections. And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after Iraq. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against an unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under Brown and Miliband was hardly a joy to behold for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him with out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing of the Jeremy Corbyn leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even as when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader.

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Book review: How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb (Published by: Canongate)

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It’s probably more than a decade now since most of us became familiar with the comedy actor Robert Webb.

As Jez, the more laid-back but less responsible half of the flat-share arrangement in Channel 4’s longest running sitcom Peep Show between 2003 until 2015, he was the perfect foil to David Mitchell’s more intelligent but thoroughly anal Mark Corrigan. Although brilliant, Peep Show was never a ratings success. It did, however, lead directly to the sketch show The Mitchell and Webb Look which, though patchy as many such shows are, pushed the duo into the mainstream.

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Webb’s career is obviously linked to Mitchell’s: the two met at Cambridge in the Nineties and are currently appearing together again in Simon Blackwell’s aptly named comedy, Back. A straight comparison of the two men’s careers has led many to assume Webb is the lesser talent of the two. Mitchell has been a prolific columnist and clearly has a massive aptitude for comedy panel shows. Aside from his spectacular victory in the 2009 Let’s Dance for Comic Relief and his early performance in the TV series The Smoking Room, most of Webb’s biggest successes have been with Mitchell.

But any lingering doubts anyone might have about Webb’s talent should be vanquished by a reading of this genuinely funny and touching memoir. The title might seem to count against it: the “how to” prefix has been overused in comedy books in recent years (How Not To Grow Up by Richard Herring, How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Grown-Up by Daisy Buchanan, How To Be A Bawse by Lily Singh and the forthcoming How To Be Champion by Sarah Milican) but in fairness to Webb, the title is pretty essential to the book’s structure. The seemingly well-worn “having an imaginary conversation with one’s younger self” device, previously deployed by Miranda Hart, amongst others, is also used well here.

The book is boosted by Webb’s vivid recollections of his painful teenage years, doubtless helped by his enjoyably pretentious diaries (“Is there any romance greater than the one a teenage boy has with his own loneliness?”) which he bravely reproduces fragments from here. He is also refreshingly open about his drinking problems and his early experiments with homosexuality.

But as with Hugh Laurie who, likewise, has always been in danger of being overshadowed by his brilliant co-star, this book serves as a valuable reminder that Robert Webb is a major talent in his own right.

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Book review: A Very Courageous Decision. The Inside Story of Yes Minister, by Graham McCann

Published by: Aurum Press.

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Two truly great British sitcoms appeared in the Eighties. Blackadder began in 1983, getting into its stride two years’ later. But the first, Yes, Minister, had began almost at the very start of the decade in February 1980, having been postponed for a year after industrial action had prevented its broadcast in early 1979. Yes, Minister would thus appear on screen under Margaret Thatcher but it had been conceived under her predecessor, Jim Callaghan.

It didn’t matter. The greatest political comedy of the Thatcher era was in fact non-partisan. Jim Hacker, though a “Jim” who eventually became Prime Minister was not supposed to be Callaghan. Indeed, he wasn’t originally even supposed to be a Jim. Creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn had planned the series around a Gerry Hacker who is elevated to the Ministry of Administrative Affairs. When Paul Eddington, best known for his recent role as the amiable but henpecked Jerry in The Good Life, the name was changed to remove any association being made between what would turn out to be the two most famous roles of his life.

The casting turned out to be a masterstroke but it was the writing that provided Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister with its backbone. Antony Jay (an older man and a Tory who died in 2016) and Jonathan Lynn (a left of centre figure still in his thirties when the show began) wisely decided to make their minister’s party affiliations unclear. There were occasional references to contemporary politics. For example, Sir Humphrey refers to a potential triumph for Hacker: “this could be your Falkland Islands,” although on a different occasion criticises another suggestion as “a Bennite solution.” In another episode, they also meet a London “loony left” councillor called Ben Stanley (“that odious troglodyte with the wispy moustache. The press hate him”).  In reality, the moustached left winger Ken Livingstone led the Greater London Council at the time. The name “Ben” does sound a lot like “Ken”. While the missionary David LIVINGSTONE famously met the explorer Henry STANLEY. So is Stanley, supposed to be Livingstone? I think we can presume so.

That said, such references (which McCann makes no reference to) are rare. The story was really about the battle between transient “here today, gone tomorrow” politicians in government and their battles with the mandarins of the civil servant personified by Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) who basically seek to obstruct everything and prevent any real change occurring.

The series had surprisingly few teething problems other than the initial selection of an unsuitable director for the pilot episode. Eddington, a wartime conscientious objector and leftist political animal was initially keen on the role of Humphrey, recognising the part had the best lines. Thankfully, he was persuaded instead that he was perfect for the role of the initially well meaning but increasingly cynical Hacker.

Hawthorne, brilliant as Sir Humphrey, became famous for his part in exchanges like this one from the first episode:

Hacker: Who else is in this department?
Sir Humphrey: Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Hacker: Can they all type?
Sir Humphrey: None of us can type. Mrs Mackay types: she’s the secretary.

The South African born Hawthorne reportedly lacked confidence perhaps stemming from a fear of his homosexuality becoming public (as eventually happened, much to his annoyance, at the time of his Oscar nomination for The Madness of King George in 1995). A less political man than Eddington, he was reportedly occasionally irritated by the latter’s supreme confidence.

The trio was completed by Derek Fowlds as Sir Bernard. A man until then, best known for co-starring with Basil Brush, Fowlds, the only one of the three still alive, comes across as a man refreshingly lacking in vanity.

Veteran comedy writer Graham McCann does a good job of detailing the history of the two series here. He goes too far in rating the series’ wider significance however : “Government in those days (1980), was rather like a tree falling in a forest with no one there to witness it,” he says. This is largely still true. Great as Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, they didn’t change the world that much.

There are unfortunately constraints on just how much sitcoms can really do. Just as there are with ministers.

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Book review: Monty Python’s Hidden Treasures by Adrian Besley

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Published by: Carlton Books
It is a sad fact that the world today can be divided into two groups. Those who, like me, will always be amused by the likes of the Dirty Fork Sketch (punchline: “A good job I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife as well!”), the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest (“Nigel Incubator-Jones. His best friend is a tree. Works as a stockbroker in his spare time”), the quiz show Blackmail, the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Funniest Joke in the World and, of course, the Dead Parrot Sketch.

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Then there are those, perhaps a majority now sadly, for whom the humour of Monty Python’s Flying Circus will always be a mystery. Like The Goon Show which is now largely incomprehensible to anyone born after 1960, MPFC is increasingly dated.
Disparate members of the first group even those like me who were born after the series finished are thus forced to eternally roam the land muttering catchphrases (“nudge nudge, wink wink, likes photography? I bet she does! I bet she does!”) which are totally incomprehensible to the second group and trying to convince them it was funny.
In truth, although patchy as all TV sketch shows are, it really was often very funny. The cause was helped by the films too, particularly the Life of Brian, which have by and large aged better than the series.
This book attempts to bridge the gap still further with (if I may quote from the press release) “22 removable facsimiles of rare memorabilia from their official archives, including hand-scribbled scripts, cue sheets, character lists, posters, and animation artwork”. If the aim is to introduce the uninitiated to the ways of Python, I’m not sure it succeeds. Would anyone who didn’t know the series well buy it anyway? I doubt it.
But for any Python fans out there, this is a lovely book and a beautifully crafted treat for them.
And let’s not forget the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects…oh bugger.

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DVD review: Inside No. 9 – Series Three

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Cert: 18. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Tamzin Outhwaite, Peter Kay

Continuing in the richly darkly comic vein of the previous two series, onetime League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith write and perform in six more one off stories, all linked by the fact that they involve the number nine.

For the 2016 Christmas special The Devil At Christmas, we join the Devonshire family (including Pemberton, plus his pregnant wife played by Jessica Raine and mother-in-law Rula Lenska) as they embark on an alpine holiday in 1970s Austria. Ingeniously, the episode is presented in the form of a 1970s film apparently being accompanied by a DVD audio commentary supplied by the production’s director (voiced by Derek Jacobi). There’s thus more than a shade of Acorn Antiques or perhaps Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as continuity errors within the slightly shoddily made film within the film abound. But this not detract from an undeniably dark undercurrent. As local guide Klaus (Shearsmith) tells of the legend of Krampus (a sort of demonic anti-Santa), it becomes apparent something very sinister is going on both within the film but also behind the scenes. Ironically, this episode also comes with its own audio commentary on this actual DVD.

The second episode, The Bill deals with a perhaps more familiar setting as a group of businessmen including two played by Philip Glenister and Jason Watkins, meet for dinner. Matters escalate dramatically and alarmingly during negotiations over payment of the bill at the end of the night.

Series Two’s third episode The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith was the standout episode and the same may well be true of The Riddle of the Sphinx in Series Three. Both terrifically clever and ultimately quite horrific, the story sees Pemberton playing a legendary puzzle compiler known as “the Sphinx” tutoring a wayward student (Alexandra Roach) who has broken into his quarters in the ways of the cryptic crossword. Like most such crosswords, nothing is quite what it first appears to be.

Empty Orchestra is, of course, as cryptic crossword fans will know, the literal meaning of the Japanese word karaoke. Set at a somewhat turbulent office party situated in a karaoke bar, the increasingly acrimonious mood amongst the work mates, all under threat of redundancy, is cleverly matched by the selection of songs.

To say the penultimate episode of the series Diddle Diddle Dumpling dealing with a husband (Shearsmith’s) obsession with a stray number nine shoe which he has found, is the weakest of these six episodes is no insult. The standard is very high.

Finally, Private View set in a sinister art exhibition features the distinguished likes of Morgana Robinson and Felicity Kendall, plus a bizarre cameo from Peter Kay. It combines horror and comedy just as brilliantly as Series Two’s finale Séance Time did and satisfactorily brings to an end another superb series.

 

Book review: Viz Annual 2017 The Bookie’s Pencil

Viz has been available nationwide for well over thirty years now, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’ve never heard of it, as surprisingly, many people haven’t. The first thing to emphasise is that this is anthology based on an adult comic and so not suitable for children. Or, for that matter, prudish or sensitive adults.

Once upon a time, Viz annuals were called things like “The Big Pink Stiff One”. This one is called “The Bookie’s Pencil,” a euphemism which I’ve never heard anyone use. Can we conclude from this that Viz has grown more subtle over the years?

No, it hasn’t.

The formula has remained largely unchanged. Comic regulars include:

Roger Mellie: The Man on the Telly:  A TV presenter who is notoriously foul mouthed when off air (and sometimes when on).

Spawny Get: A character whose luck varies dramatically from frame to frame, usually ending with him implausibly having sex with a large number of attractive women.

The Fat Slags: Two promiscuous overweight Geordie girls.

Spoilt Bastard: Almost self explanatory. A git who bullies his pathetic elderly mother into getting whatever he wants. This is generally one of the cleaner stories as is Mrs Brady, Old Lady, a geriatric who complains that no one will give up their seat for her on the bus and thus stands throughout even though the bus is virtually empty.

Often it is the newspaper, Top Tips and Letterbocks pages which provide the highlights.

In short, enter if you dare. A lack of squeamishness and an understanding of the traditions  of British comics and north-eastern regional dialects will all prove an advantage.

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Book Review: Gilliamesque by Terry Gilliam

For more on Terry Gilliam, see my feature The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam in issue 14 of Geeky Monkey magazine.

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Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam, published by Canongate, 2016

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Terry Gilliam has always stood out from the crowd.

Even when in Monty Python, he stood out somewhat as the one American. Slightly odd looking, he mostly remained off screen at first, producing instead the celebrated animated sequences (for example, during the series’ opening titles sequences) for which he became famous. Nearly fifty years on, this book, his memoir is illustrated throughout in a similarly unique style.

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Like many people called Terry (Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, fellow Python Terry Jones, er, Terry Scott?). Gilliam found himself drawn to the fantasy genre. His directing career began awkwardly with co-directing Python ventures with Jones. Although mostly good films in the end, they were tough shoots with Jones and Gilliam gently wrestling for overall control and the likes of Cleese and Palin losing patience with the American who they felt treated them like they were bits of animated card.

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Gilliam really came into his own in the first half of the Eighties with brilliantly imaginative fantasies like Time Bandits and Brazil. He’s had many fine moments since – notably The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys  and has undeniably developed a unique visual style. Despite this, he has never developed a reputation for being a safe pair of hands, largely due to high profile flops like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Adventures of Don Quixote which never even completed filming.

Though he sometimes adopts an overly defensive tone when discussing his own films, Gilliam makes for an engaging likeable narrator on his own life. The world of cinema would certainly have been poorer without him.

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British Public Take BFJ To Their Hearts

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People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody really understands, like rambunctious and flibbertigibbet,” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically from leaving the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely not been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some had claimed.

Less popular recent characters from the same stable include George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.

News: Tom Daley to go weekly

Tom Daley to go weekly

After over twenty years, it has been announced that the Olympic bronze-winning diver Tom Daley is to go weekly. “Tom is very popular and has been a big success,” a spokesman said, “but some segments have been increasingly skimpy of late, particularly around the trunks section. Fans should still enjoy a less frequent and more substantial Tom in the years to come.” The announcement follows similar recent format changes for the actresses Honeysuckle Months, Keira Fort-Knightley and the gradual transformation of Gary Numan into Gary Oldman.

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Olympic results “unfair” claim protesters

Large numbers of protesters have gathered to complain about Britain’s medal tally at the Rio Olympics, with some arguing that the event should be completely re-staged. “It’s an outrage,” said one. “Many of the judges looked like they didn’t know what they were doing. I bet some of them were too working class or old to make informed decisions on such complex issues. I don’t think some of them had even been to London, let alone lived there.” “Perhaps the Olympics could be re-staged in another city in about four years time?” suggested another. “They could do that every four years, in fact, until we get the result we want.”

Tom Daley “wins entire Rio Olympics” single handed

Reports have been coming in that British diver Tom Daley has won every event at the Rio 2016 Olympics on his own. Some commentators have disputed this, one claiming, “Tom’s a damn good fellow but I’m sure in the synchronised diving event at least one other person was involved.” “There actually may have been someone else diving too,” admits one correspondent. “But our deadlines are very tight and I didn’t get the fellow’s name if there was anyone else there. It was also very hard to see: whoever it was was very awkwardly placed. Tom was right in front of them during the entire dive.”

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Film review: Dad’s Army (2016)

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Who did they think they were kidding?

A new film version of the classic BBC TV comedy series about the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard was never likely to win over fans of the much loved sitcom.

But in fairness, while certainly not great, this isn’t all bad. The casting is mostly successful, Toby Jones actually achieving the near impossible mission of filling Arthur Lowe’s shoes as Captain Mainwaring. Line of Duty star Daniel Mays is also excellent as the spiv Private Walker and Michael Gambon (despite a needlessly crude scene in which he pisses on another character) does an admirable job of evoking the spirit of the placid Private Godfrey (originally played by Arnold Ridley). There is an admirable attempt to expand the female cast (perhaps a slight failing of the original show) including Alan Partridge’s Felicity Montagu as the formidable and previously unseen Elizabeth Mainwaring.

There is quite a lot that is bad though. Although mostly competent, most of the cast such as Tom Courtenay as Jones (a genuinely old actor playing the character Clive Dunn played in middle age) and Bill Nighy’s Wilson generally remind you of the old cast just enough to annoy you rather than truly replacing them.Blake Harrison of the Inbetweeners completely misjudges Pike playing him more as a debonair lech than as the juvenile “stupid boy” Ian Lavender perfected despite both actors playing the role at a similar age.

Like the 1971 film, the movie errs in making the platoon face a very specific foe in this case in the form of spy Catherine Zeta Jones. In the TV series, the real but unseen threat posed by the Nazis overseas was usually deemed sufficient although in fairness this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of expanding Dad’s Army into a full length film.

Unanswered questions abound though. Why does the film start in 1944 when in reality that was the year the Home Guard ceased activity anyway? Why is one group of characters shown in fox hunting regalia, when hunting never occurred during the war? Why does the plot hinge on a civilian telephone call to occupied Paris, an impossibility at the time? Why does Jones suddenly start making a fairly deep philosophical point on one occasion? Why is Wilson suddenly revealed as an ex-university don?

This isn’t a disaster and is certainly respectful to the memory of the series. But forty years on from the end of the series, one wonders if even despite its surprisingly strong box office (mostly, like the Brexit result, due to older audiences) if this will be our final visit to Walmington-on-Sea.

Director: Oliver Parker. Cast: Toby Jones, Catherine Zeta Jones, Bill Nighy, Bill Paterson, Michael Gambon, Daniel Mays, Felicity Montagu, Alison Steadman, Sarah Lancashire