Empty World: Revisited

If you studied English at secondary school during the 1990s, there is every possibility you will remember reading the book, Empty World, by John Christopher.

The book tells of a disease which originates in Asia before rapidly spreading across the world and devastating the global population. Although published in 1977, with the world currently seeking to combat the spread of the Chinese Coronavirus pandemic, the book obviously has plenty of resonance to anyone reading it in 2020.

The novella focuses on a teenaged boy, Neil Miller. Neil is living with his elderly parents after having been orphaned in a road accident when he first begins to hear news reports of a new mysterious disease coming out of India. Initially, just a minor story chuntering away in the background, concern rises as the ‘Calcutta Plague’ spreads further and further across the world. Soon there are rumours it has arrived in Britain. Neil’s grandfather is old enough to remember the Second World War. He suggests spreading rumours should be made into a punishable offence again, as it was then.

Soon the Calcutta Plague’s presence in Britain is beyond doubt. One of Neil’s elderly teachers succumbs to it as do both his grandparents. The disease takes the form of a fever, before generating symptoms which appear to emulate a very rapid version of the ageing process. This is not very similar to COVID-19 at all, although the fictional plague does attack older people first. Eventually, it becomes clear that it is infecting pretty much everyone including some children Neil knows of his age (fifteen) and younger. This resembles the progress of COVID-19 in some respects. The elderly are undoubtedly being hit harder by the virus although contrary to early rumour, children can get it badly and die from it too.

The key difference, however, is that while the vast, overwhelming majority of people who get COVID-19 survive, with the exception of a few random people like Neil who get the initial fever but subsequently seem to be immune, the fictional Calcutta Plague kills anyone who gets it. As the title suggests, the book is essentially apocalyptic. Neil finds himself roaming or driving down completely empty streets, looting empty shops and  battling an inevitable brief explosion in the rat population, the disease having killed nearly every human on the Earth.

As terrible as COVID-19 is, we should be grateful it is not quite as bad as that.

Book review: The Art of Comic Book Drawing

“Look! Up there in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it plane? No, it’s…er…well, I’m not sure who it is actually. Do you know?”

It’s true: you won’t see any superheroes you recognise in this illustrated guide to drawing comics. Though undeniably superhero-orientated – the guide begins by encouraging the reader to draw basic cartoon images before instilling in them the techniques necessary to draw and create images in the familiar superhero comic style – the book does not feature any established characters from either the Marvel or DC universes.

Your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman is thus not here: he has presumably moved to another neighbourhood. The X-Men have gone ex-directory. Instead, we get a bunch of superheroes who are in no need for secret identities. They are already completely unknown.

But this is not to disparage this book. For one thing, the artwork throughout is consistently excellent. The book’s creators have conjured up a plethora of characters who not only look good but bear no real resemblance to any existing characters. There are no Incredible Bulks or Superbmen to be found here.

More importantly, the book does what it’s supposed to do, guiding the reader step by step through the stages necessary to achieve the level of comic book artist excellence.

Perhaps you won’t get all the way there? Well, never mind. It’s good fun and as much of the world continues to endure an enforced period of social distancing until the COVID-19 outbreak is over, there are certainly worse things you could be doing that this.

Besides: if you really do want to draw Doctor Strange, Thor, Wonder Woman, Black Widow or Batman, nobody’s stopping you getting some practice in by attempting to recreate their adventures by sketching some images inspired by one of their comics.

But if you want to do it well, you’ll probably want to look at this book first.

The Art of Comic Book Drawing. Published by: Quarto. Maury Aaseng, Bob Berry, Jim Campbell, Dana Muise, Joe Oesterle. Out: now.

The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Spaced (1999-2001)

Spaced is the story of Tim and Daisy, two young people in need of somewhere to live.

Daisy is a frustrated writer, keen to escape life in a squat. Tim is a small-time cartoonist who has been forced to move out after discovering his girlfriend has been having an affair with his best friend.

Together they hatch a plan. Despite not being a couple or even friends really (they have met by chance in a café), having spied a reasonably priced flat to rent advertised as being only available to “professional couples only,” they decide to present themselves as a happily married couple to the apartment’s landlady.

This in essence is the premise of Spaced. Although as Tim himself would say, “it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Spaced ran for two series on Channel 4 in 1999 and 2001 and proved the perfect calling card for its two writers and stars, Simon Pegg (Tim) and Jessica Stevenson (now Jessica Hynes, who plays Daisy) with the show’s unseen force, the hugely talented director, Edgar Wright also making an impact.

Straddling the millennia, technically only the second of the two series is a 21st century sitcom and thus eligible for this list. But who cares? Both series are great anyway, for a number of reasons…

Firstly, whether its Tim railing against the evils of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (a film which Peter Serafinowicz who plays his hated love rival, Duane Benzie actually features in), Daisy attempting to write her masterpiece to the theme from Murder She Wrote, or Wright skilfully evoking memories of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Spaced is packed to the brim with clever popular culture references.

Secondly, many of the episodes are masterpieces in their own right. Tim and his war-obsessed friend Mike played paintball, long before the guys on Peep Show or US shows like Big Bang Theory and Community did it. Another episode skilfully turns the TV show, Robot Wars into a real life conflict while ‘Gone’ sees the stars engaged in an ingenious mimed gun battle governed by ‘masculine telepathy’ at the end of a drunken night out. And that’s not to mention the celebrated Epiphanies episode in which Tim’s odd friend Wheels (Michael Smiley) takes the gang clubbing.

Then, there’s the brilliant supporting cast. Pegg’s real life best friend and flatmate, the then unknown Nick Frost plays Tim’s war-obsessed pal, Mike, a man once expelled from the Territorial Army for “stealing a tank and attempting to invade Paris”. Or Brian (Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap) an eccentric artist who has an ‘arrangement’ with landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin). There’s also a supporting cast which includes a whole host of rising comedy stars including David Walliams, Paul Kaye, Bill Bailey and Ricky Gervais.

But finally there’s the best reason of all: Spaced is likeable, endless quotable, highly watchable and very, very funny.

The heroes who saved Exeter

The news was alarming, to say the least.

At just past 1am on the morning of 4th May 1942, radio operators based in Exeter, reported that forty German bombers – Junkers – had taken off from Nazi-occupied Paris and were now heading for Exeter. Although the news was not totally out of the blue –  Exeter had already been suffering as a result of the Baedeker Raids and had already experienced serious attacks late in April –  this promised to be the worst attack yet.

Thankfully, a small but valiant band of heroes were on hand to defend Exeter that night. Demonstrating incredible bravery and facing terrible odds, the 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron went into battle despite having only four serviceable Beaufighters available. As we know, Exeter did not escape bombing that night. However, without the actions of the Polish fighters, the consequences would have undoubtedly been worse. By 2.30am, the squadron were accredited with shooting down four Junkers including one which had crashed near Topsham cricket ground.

In short, the role of the Polish Night Fighters in defending wartime Exeter, is too often overlooked.

Always faithful

The story of the Polish Night Squadron essentially begins with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: the event which triggered British involvement in the Second World War. With Poland defeated, many Polish pilots made the hazardous journey to Britain. Eventually realising their worth, the RAF soon had the Polish pilots flying with them, initially stationed in Blackpool. In Lincolnshire, a  new division was formed under Squadron Commander Stanislaw Pietraszkiewicz. It was named the ‘307 (City of Lwow) Night Fighter Squadron’. It arrived  in Exeter in April 1941. The location was fitting. The city of Lwow, now known as Lviv is now part of the Ukraine. By coincidence, the city has the same motto as Exeter: “Semper Fidelis”: always faithful.

The division had another name too: they were known as the ‘Night Owls’ or the ‘Lwow Eagle Owls’. An owl, a plane and a crescent moon were included in their emblem.

The Night Owls remembered

The Night Owls remained  in Devon until they were moved to Swansea in April 1943. Their role in Exeter had extended way beyond the actions of May 1942. Many of the pilots suffered death, not just in combat, but often as a result of technical faults on their planes. They also came to play a vital role in city life. Some of the pilots married and had children during their time in Exeter.

2019 was the 80th anniversary of 307 Squadron and in November (14-15 November) 307 Squadron held a major exhibition at Exeter Guildhall to mark the anniversary. The Polish flag was raised on 15th November over the Guildhall as has happened every year since 2012.

Extra: What were the Baedeker Raids?

The Baedeker Blitz was a series of air raids launched during April and May  1942, in response to the RAF attack on the undefended city of Lübeck. The German high command reportedly used the 1930s edition of the Victorian Baedeker series of guidebooks to help them identify English towns which were valued primarily for cultural value, rather than for their strategic or military importance. Exeter – in fact, a city of cultural value but also not strategically insignificant either – was targeted first. The overall campaign was abandoned fairly quickly but nevertheless cost some 1,600 lives in total and destroyed many buildings.

Chris Hallam wrote the 2019 book, A-Z Exeter – Places, People, History and co-wrote, Secret Exeter (2018). Both books are available now from Amberley.

The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Peep Show (2003-15)

Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) is a straight-laced sort of chap. “Socks before or after trousers, but never socks before pants, that’s the rule,” we hear him thinking in the first episode. “Makes a man look scary, like a chicken.” Later, he eats some toast: “Brown for first course, white for pudding. Brown is savoury, white’s the treat. Of course, I’m the one who’s laughing because I actually love brown toast!”

For all this sweetness, Mark can be weird and quite history-obsessed, sometimes constructing strange analogies to explain his relationships with women.”Sophie is the one. Toni is Russia: Vast, mysterious, unconquerable.,” he reasons. “Sophie is Poland: Manageable… won’t put up too much of a fight.” He is a loans manager, boring, neurotic, anal, and as the above indicates, obsessed with his work colleague, Sophie (Olivia Colman).

His flatmate, old Uni friend, Jeremy (Robert Webb) is a very different character: jobless, vain, promiscuous, irresponsible, convinced against all the evidence of his own musical genius, (he envisages a band called, “Danny Dyer’s Chocolate Homunculus). He falls ‘in love’ with any pretty girl he meets and is too much under the influence of his dubious friend, Super Hans (Matt King). “If I don’t think about it, there’s always a chance it didn’t happen,” is a typical thought.

“If it feels good, do it!” he suggests to an outraged Mark, at one point.

“If it feels good, do it?” Mark repeats incredulously. “And what is that? ‘Gaddafi’s Law?'”

Peep Show is still the longest running sitcom in Channel 4 history. Two things particularly (other than Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s brilliant writing) elevate it above the usual odd couple style flat share set-up. Firstly, the unique way it is filmed, enabling us to not only see the world through Mark and Jez’s eyes but hear their (often not entirely flattering) thoughts.

The other is that as a comedy vehicle, it introduced most of the world to the world of David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Or as Jez would put it: “This is good. This is exactly like watching a porno. Except I can’t see anything, I haven’t got a hard on and I want to cry.”

Netflix, All 4

Peep Show quotes:

Mark: Jeremy, there are many things I would do to help you. But digging a hole in the wintry earth with my bare hands so that you can bury the corpse of a dog you killed is not one of them.

Jez: Justice is done. Not actual justice, but what I wanted to happen, which is basically the same thing.

Jez: Crunchy Nut cornflakes are just Frosties for wankers.

Mark: Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.

Jez: No more drugs! I don’t need drugs. I mean, what great music was ever made on drugs? Bowie, obviously…The Floyd…The Prodge. Aphex, the list is endless really.

Super Hans: People? People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis! You can’t trust people, Jez.

Mark: So what if I don’t really love her. Charles didn’t really love Diana and they were alright. Sort of.

Jez: Brilliant, Mark! My mate and your woman have just gone off to fuck each other. What are we gonna do now? Go and make a tent in the living room and eat Dairylea? Is that what you want? ‘Cos that’s what’s gonna happen!

Mark: There’s the familiar gut punch of pain and confusion. Hello, old friend…

Jez (on vaginas): She’s got one. She’s got one. She’s definitely got one… she’s pretending she hasn’t got one. But really she has..

Mark: Well, listen, I’m sorry if I didn’t do it right and I’m sorry if you assume that I eat red meat and don’t necessarily think money or Tony Blair are a bad thing, but if there isn’t room here for people who stand against everything you believe in, then what sort of a hippy free-for-all is this?

Jez: Come Mr. Taliban, tally my bananas.

Mark: The perfect combination of beauty and low self esteem.

Big Suze: My friend Otto had a very bad trip one time. He put his head on a railway track thinking it was a big steel sweatband.

Jez: Why can’t I just have everything I want? All the time? Isn’t that democracy?

Mark: I guess doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.

Jez: Aren’t we supposed to be living in a multicultural democracy? And isn’t that the point? You know, the Jews, the Muslims and the racists all living together happily side by side, doing and saying whatever the hell they like?

Mark: Do a Columbo! Do a Columbo!

Super Hans: The twins! I’m always going on about me twins, am I?’ Course I have! The twins, the fucking twins. I’m always on about them! I bloody love ’em too. Hey – I’ve got them on my phone. Oh, hold on, have I…?

Mark: This was definitely a good idea. There’s no chance this wasn’t a good idea.

The Best British sitcoms of the 21st century so far: The IT Crowd (2006-13)

Jen, Roy and Maurice make up ‘the IT Crowd,’ the IT support team located in the basement of a large London corporation. Jen (Katherine Parkinson), is the boss. Hopelessly out of her depth having bluffed her way into a job she knows nothing about, she is even unsure how to pronounce the word, ‘computers’ correctly. Roy (Chris O’Dowd), meanwhile, is nice but lazy. He tends to answer every IT enquiry with the question, “Have you tried switching it off and on again?” Finally, there’s Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade), an intelligent geek.

As with Graham Linehan’s other sitcoms, Father Ted and Black Books, The IT Crowd’s main characters arguably adhere to a comedy formula: an inept boss who would rather be somewhere else (Ted Crilly, Bernard Black, Jen), an amiable subordinate (Dougal, Fran, Roy) and a weirdo (Father Jack, Manny, Moss). But if it is a formula, it’s pretty loose: none of these characters are really anything like each other. And it works.

The casting of Chris Morris, as company head, Denholm Reynholm generated much comment when the show started.  Why was Morris, the man behind Brass Eye attaching himself to such a mainstream vehicle? Such statements proved misplaced. Morris, although fine, was never the best thing in it. All the main cast proved their worth on their show and have flourished elsewhere since. Morris, at any rate, soon left to be replaced by Matt Berry as his son and heir, Douglas. As the lecherous, unreconstructed “sexy Hitler,” Douglas, Berry (in fact, only twelve years’ younger than Morris) delivers an almost career-defining performance.

Although patchy at first, The IT Crowd was a rare sitcom which steadily improved as it went on. Standout episodes feature Roy’s emotional game of Dungeons and Dragons, Moss’s appearance on Countdown, Roy and Moss tricking Jen into believing a box contains the entire internet and a work’s outing to see ‘Gay! A Gay Musical.’

And for the record, the title, The IT Crowd is apparently pronounced to rhyme with ‘high tea crowd’ not ‘bit crowd’. Although, frankly, it probably doesn’t really matter.

All 4, Netflix

The Best Sitcoms of the 21st century so far: Friday Night Dinner (2011 – ?)

Despite a surprisingly funky theme tune and title sequence, Robert Popper’s long running sitcom works on a deceptively simple premise: a family of four, Martin, Jackie and their two unmarried grown-up sons, Adam and Jonny, meet up for their regular Friday evening meal.

Dad Martin (Paul Ritter) is the most eccentric of the four; endlessly taking off his shirt (“so bloody hot!”), recycling the same lame jokes (“a lovely bit of squirrel, love!”), reacting with confusion and terror if anyone attempts to ‘high five’ him (“Jesus Christ!”) or hiding from his wife, Jackie (Tamsin Greig). Although in their twenties, the sons (Inbetweeners’ star Simon Bird and Ton Rosenthal from Plebs) revert to their childhood selves whenever they visit, putting salt in each other’s drinks or feuding over such trifles as the possession of a childhood cuddly toy.

The meal is also reliably interrupted by oddball neighbour Jim (Greig’s old Green Wing co-star, Mark Heap) who has an ill-concealed crush on Jackie and until recent series, a pet dog, Wilson, who he is clearly terrified of. And then there’s Horrible Grandma. And Lovely Grandma (the late Frances Cuka). And the horrible Mr. Morris (“I will not be slandered!”)

Writer Robert Popper and an excellent cast have created a frequently hilarious world of their own.

Channel 4, All 4, Netflix.

The Top 20 Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…This Country (2017-20)

Cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in an unnamed village in the Cotswolds. Although both have finished school, they are both poorly educated and are still yet to break out of their childhood habits. There is literally almost nothing to do in the village and the suspicion is that the longer they stay there the more likely they are to turn into one of the assorted eccentric weirdos who already roam the landscape. Indeed, they are already well on the way.

The cousins are in fact played by real-life brother and sister, Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper who also wrote the series which is filmed in a mockumentary format. The Mucklowe’s only real ally in the world – although a much underappreciated one – is the well-meaning local vicar (the excellent Paul Chahidi).

Kerry is almost invariably dressed in a football t-shirt and lives with her mother, who rather like Howard’s mother in early episodes of the US sitcom, Big Bang Theory, is an unseen presence (in this case, voiced by Daisy May Cooper herself) endlessly shouting inane instructions or complaints to her daughter (“KERRY!!” “WHAT??) in an agitated rasping voice.

The show is something of a family affair with the Coopers’ real life father, Paul Cooper playing Kerry’s dad and their uncle, familiar character actor, Terry Cooper playing local oddball, Len.

Kerry is, a formidable presence in her own right:

“I’ve got enemies in South Cerney,” she boasts boldly at one point. “I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick. I’ve got enemies in Bourton-on-the-Water. There’s a tea rooms there and under the counter they’ve got a panic button and if I take one step inside, they can press that.”

Both she and the hapless Kurtan often act, as the ever positive vicar notes, “somewhat younger than their years.”

“Have you ever looked up at the clouds and the sky?” Kurtan reflects thoughtfully, at one point. “It really makes you appreciate how insignificant they all are.”

Both are, at times, selfish, childish and immature. But they are essentially good-natured and there is a real sweetness to them. Kerry, in particular, completely worships her father. The fact, that he is clearly an incredibly selfish loser, keener on relating crude and unlikely anecdotes about his supposed sexual exploits than showing any affection for his daughter, makes this relationship quite poignant.

In truth, these are great comic creations. This Country is not a series that benefits from extensive hype: it is perhaps best discovered for yourself, either on DVD or on the BBC iPlayer.

But it is nevertheless, quite brilliant, a wonderful, low key, comic delight.

The Top 20 Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge

I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Mid Morning Matters With Alan Partridge (2010-2016), This Time With Alan Partridge (2019- )

Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge with Jennie played by Susannah Fielding. Photograph: BBC/Baby Cow/Colin Hutton

Like the great man himself, Norwich’s finest broadcaster makes a slightly awkward appearance on any best 21st sitcom century list, partly because many of his finest offerings occurred well before this millennium began (he first appeared on BBC Radio 4 in 1991) but also because he has switched formats so many times. Happily, whether accidentally outing his interviewer during an ‘Anglian Lives’ interview, berating his co-host ‘Sidekick Simon’ (Tim Key) on North Norfolk’s Mid Morning Matters, attempting to flirt with fellow presenter Jennie (Susannah Fielding) on The One Show-like This Time or asking the questions that matter (“just why did Herbie go bananas?”), Alan has remained as consistently a brilliant comedy creation as Alan the presenter himself is awful.

Indeed, as Alan himself says of his own (fictional) memoir, Bouncing Back “Lovely stuff,” adding carefully, “not my words,” he clarifies: “the words of Shakin’ Stevens.”

TV review: The Stranger

2020. Available on Netflix.

Seemingly happily married with a nice house and two children, Adam Price (Richard Armitage) has a good life. Or at least, he thinks he does. That’s until ‘the stranger’ (Hannah John-Kamen) turns up.

One day, while he’s watching one of his kids play football, a young woman in a baseball cap approaches him and starts to make troubling and damaging accusations about his wife (Dervla Kirwan). Upsetting though this is, the stranger’s allegations cannot be easily dismissed. She clearly has insider knowledge and her claims seem to have the ring of truth about them. What should Adam do?

This is just the starting point for Netflix’s British-set crime drama, The Stranger which is based on US author Harlan Coben’s 2015 novel. And while never hard to follow, there’s a lot going on in this intensely plotted, incredibly gripping thriller.

Coben isn’t Albert Camus but his story certainly raises lots of interesting questions. Should Adam confront his wife or leave things be? Who is the stranger anyway? How does she know so much? Is she a force for good or evil? Does Adam have any skeletons in his own closet? Furthermore, what exactly happened at the wild teenage party Adam’s son attended? Why did a teenage boy end up running naked through the woods? Can Adam save ex-cop Stephen Rea’s house from destruction? And, most bizarre of all, why did someone decapitate an alpaca in the street?

Totally compelling from beginning to end, The Stranger also features a rare straight role for Jennifer Saunders.

Veganuary 2020 Restaurant review: Comptoir Libanais, Exeter

Written with the assistance of Nicky Hallam

Guildhall Shopping Centre, Queen St, Exeter EX4 3HP

Three months after our last visit, my wife and I were happy to return to the Exeter branch of Lebanese restaurant chain Comptoir Libanis on a special trip in honour of Veganuary.

Although neither of us are practicing vegans, we are both sympathetic to the vegan cause. My wife, to her credit, at least, had a fully vegan meal. I caved and chose to have some meat. But I won’t dwell on that.

The restaurant is, as before, welcoming and pleasant to visit. Staff are friendly and attentive. Even the toilets are nice with paintings of Hollywood stars of yesteryear adorning the walls. As a writer for Yours Retro magazine, I appreciated this.

The restaurant was also as good as it was before in catering for my nut allergy, removing all pistachios from the first course. Most restaurants have improved their standards on this recently, but there is still room for improvement at many.

Not here! They were great about it.

The restaurant seemed fairly quiet for a Friday night. January is, of course, traditionally a quiet month for restaurants. The other restaurants we passed looked quiet too. Comptoir Libanais looked quieter still.

First course:

The aubergine was very tasty, soft and held together well and each bite was accompanied by a pop of pomegranate freshness. This heat situation was, for me, made worse by the meal having far too much chilli on it. It practically blew the back of my head off and got my meal off to a rude start.

I much preferred the hommos, which had a smooth, creamy texture. The falafel was crunchy and the pink pickled turnip and mint provided a colourful combination. The spicy harissa sauce made it impossible to eat in full (for me anyway) though.

Second course:

The tagine was perfect comfort food. The vermicelli rice made a nice change and there were peppers with aubergine, chickpeas, a tasty sauce with tomatoes and pomegranate seeds on top.

Overall: a good experience, but too spicy for me!

The 2020s vs the 1920s

Which key events of the Roaring 20s are likely to happen again in the next decade?
1. A General Strike: possible but unlikely.
2. Stock Market Crash: very likely, but hopefully on a smaller scale.
3. Silly dancing trends, fashion and slang adopted: certain.
4. Republicans win 3 presidential elections as US retreats into isolationism: sadly seems very plausible.
5. Italy descends into fascism: I hope not!
6. Brits triumph at Olympics after running in slow motion to Vangelis music on a beach: er…
7. The Queen and Sir David Attenborough are born. Unlikely. In fact, probably quite the opposite?
Happy New Decade readers!

Book review: Viz: The Trumpeter’s Lips 2020

As the rosette emblazoned (or, at least, drawn) on the cover reminds us, Viz has been doing this for forty years now.

Yes, that’s right. There have now been four whole decades of the popular British adult comic, which is ‘Not For Sale To Children’. In theory, this should mean it has now reached middle age or at least some semblance of maturity?

Has it though? Well, as Viz’s longest running character, the foul-mouthed TV personality, Roger Mellie, The Man on the Telly would say: “Hello, good evening and bollocks.”

In other words, “no”. As another publication which lasted in print for roughly half as long as Viz’s 40 years to date once memorably put it, this is a magazine “for men who should know better.”

This edition of the Viz annual, promises “a brassy fanfare of crowd pleasing blasts from issues 262-271.” So what’s included?

Roger Mellie appears opposite Gemma Collins on a celebrity version of Channel 4’s Naked Attraction. Aldridge Prior, The Hopeless Liar gets his perfect job: as President Trump’s press secretary: (“The President can do a one inch punch just like Bruce Lee and it would instantly kill you. FACT!”). Raffles, the Gentleman Thug is up to his usual tricks, (“Don’t forget your red flag, Bunny! We’ve got to absquatulate before the Scuffers get here!”). Old favourites return (“There is precious little sunshine for those living in the shadow of The Bottom Inspectors”), alongside strange newcomers (“Wally Walton’s Emergency Scorpion Squad and Wall To Wall Carpet Warehouse”). If you’ve read Viz before, you’ll know what to expect.

Viz has never been just a comic, however. Nearly half of it is made up of features usually satirising the celebrity-obsessed culture of the tabloid press. Highlights in this book include ’20 Things You Never Knew About Hats,” and a spoof of ‘Take A Break’ magazine called ‘Take A Shit’. There’s also a special festive edition of Roger Mellie’s Profanisaurus.

Mrs. Brady: Old Lady. Letterbocks. Gilbert Ratchet. Big Vern. The Broon Windsors (a bizarre amalgamation of the family from the long running comic strip, The Broons and the Royal Family). Mr Logic (“He’s An Acute Localised Body Smart in the Rectal Area”). I’ve really only scraped the surface of the world of Viz here.

Perhaps you think Viz is crude, vulgar and disgusting. Perhaps you think it is sometimes or often quite brilliant. You are both right.

Or as senile Daily Telegraph reader Major Misunderstanding says to an estate agent and his clients who he has mistaken for a group of young anti-Trump protesters, “Go back to your bedrooms and play on your ‘You-Tubes. Nobody cares tuppence for what you think.”

Chris Hallam has written a feature on Viz for the magazine, Comic Scene Volume 2, Issue 11, published in mid-December 2019

Exeter 2019 General Election Hustings Debate

With the General Election just ten days away, around 300 people chose to brave the cold December Monday evening air to see four of the six candidates competing to be Exeter’s next MP answer a selection of selected questions submitted by the general public inside Exeter Cathedral.

Two of the candidates were absent: Former pantomime star Daniel Page who is running as an independent and the Brexit Party candidate, Leslie Willis did not attend.

The Liberal Democrats (who performed very poorly in the 2015 and 2017 elections in Exeter) also did not attend as they are not fielding a candidate in this election. The party agreed to step aside to the give the pro-Remain Green Party candidate Joe Levy, a clear run. The Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw is also very pro-EU. However, Labour’s overall position is seen as less unambiguously pro-Remain than the Greens. (This paragraph has been amended as of 8th December 2019).

None of the candidates are women: the first time this has been the case in Exeter since 1987.

After some initial sound problems, proceedings began. Although each candidate answered each question individually, I’ll deal with each candidate, one at a time:

Ben Bradshaw (Labour)

This is the seventh election in Exeter for Labour’s Bradshaw and as he won his biggest ever victory in 2017 with 62% of the vote, it must be assumed he is the favourite to win again his time. He performed strongly on questions ranging from climate change, homelessness, transport, Brexit and the party leadership. He lamented the fact that Labour’s successful record on reducing homelessness had been completely undone by the Tories since 2010 and complained that environmental targets would be threatened by us leaving the EU.

He resisted attacking the Labour leadership or predicting a heavy Tory win nationwide as he did in 2017 and provided a convincing defence of Labour’s proposed nationalisation programme. He criticised the First Past the Post system which he campaigned to reform in the 2011 referendum. He argued that the best way to stop Brexit was by electing as many Labour MPs as possible and followed Green candidate Joe Levy’s lead in deriding the notion that a Tory win would mean a quick and easy end to Brexit as a nonsense. He also asked voters to judge him on his record as MP for Exeter since 1997.

John Gray (Conservative)

The Conservative candidate began with an interesting question. How many of the audience had actually read the Conservative manifesto? Very few hands were raised. This would doubtless have produced a similar response if he had asked about the other party manifestos too. But it was a welcome piece of audience participation in an evening which generally did not involve much audience response, aside from clapping and occasional grumbling. Perhaps it would have been a different story if the pantomime man had turned up?

Elsewhere, Mr Gray gave decent, worthy answers, some of which were undermined by the government’s record. He was predictably negative about nationalisation, although not very specific on why and gave good answers on the environment. He argued, as the UKIP candidate did, that the 2016 Brexit vote represented the will of the people. His claim that an overall majority for Boris Johnson’s Tories would lead to a quick and easy end to Brexit was derided by Joe Levy and Ben Bradshaw. His portrait of a Labour government torn apart by coalitions and confusion was similar to the ‘coalition of chaos’ arguments deployed by Tories in 2015. Some in the audience might have reflected that the decade since 2010 has been spent almost entirely under Tory rule and yet has been almost entirely spent in coalition or/and hung parliaments. The last three years particularly have seen more political chaos than anyone can remember.

Later, he was laughed at by many in the audience after he asserted that “a vote for Labour is a vote for Jeremy Corbyn, while a vote for me, is a vote for a Conservative government.” Bradshaw and others were quick to note his failure to mention Boris Johnson at this point. Later, he attempted to endorse Boris Johnson again. It did not seem entirely convincing. However, in general, Mr. Gray performed well.

Joe Levy (Green Party)

As in the 2017 campaign, Joe Levy, though still in his twenties stood out as one of the most impressive figures in the debate, making a convincing case for such concepts as the introduction of a universal basic income and, of course, the urgency of the need to combat climate change.

He drew particular applause for his passionate advocacy of EU membership, arguing his grandparents had supported it for the simple primary reason that they remembered the Second World War.

He also made a mockery of the general Conservative claim that a Tory win will automatically lead to a simple straightforward Brexit. Mr Bradshaw, picked up on this, agreeing that it was one of the biggest and most persistent lies of the Tory campaign.

Duncan Odgers (UKIP)

Arriving slightly late, Mr Odgers annoyed many in the audience, by asserting early on that contrary to popular belief immigration is a major problem in Exeter, in fact, largely explaining why house prices are high. Elsewhere, he performed well on other issues, even acknowledging climate change exists. He argued against nationalisation and argued Exeter (which voted 55 to 45 to remain in the EU) should respect the will of the nation as a whole on Brexit even if the city mostly did not support it itself. He spoke of Brexit as if it was something destined never to happen now and called Jeremy Corbyn’s position of neutrality on the issue, “a disgrace”. Occasionally, he rambled slightly. He blamed overpopulation for many of our environmental problems, but did not say what could be done about it.

A persistent charge, which many would agree with, was that many people today have lost faith in the current crop of politicians. A wider issue which wasn’t addressed was whether the upper ranks of UKIP who have included the likes of Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall in the past are really any more trustworthy.

Chris Hallam has written A-Z of Exeter: People, Places, History and co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter with Tim Isaac. Both are published by Amberley and are available now

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 3

On October 21st 1966, after a period of heavy rain, 30,000 cubic yards of coal sludge collapsed on 19 houses and a primary school in Aberfan with predictably devastating results. Episode 3 of The Crown focuses on he disaster and its aftermath. The Queen herself reacts slowly to the tragedy, forcing her to confront her own apparent tendency to react with the traditional stoicism and reserve to such events, rather than the public show of emotion which might be expected or even needed by the watching public in the media age. The monarch would, of course, fall foul of similar issues following the death of Diana, 31 years’ later.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 1

The Crown is back. We rejoin proceedings at the dawn of a new era.

For after two glorious seasons with the marvelous Claire Foy playing the Princess and young Queen in her twenties and thirties, we now give way to the new age of Olivia Colman. The transition is neatly symbolised by a tactful discussion of a new Royal portrait for a new range of postage stamps. It is 1964 and the monarch is in her late thirties, what might normally be seen as her “middle years.”

“A great many changes. But there we are,” Colman’s Queen remarks. “Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”

Other changes are afoot too. Then, as now, a general election is in progress, resulting in the election of the first Labour Prime Minister of the Queen’s reign, Harold Wilson. Jason Watkins captures Wilson’s manner perfectly, although not yet his wit. In time, we now know Wilson would become the favourite of the Queen’s Prime Ministers. At this stage, however, both figures are wary of each other: the working class Wilson seems socially insecure and chippy while the Queen has heard an unfounded rumour from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies – a good likeness) that Wilson is a KGB agent.

Elsewhere, another age comes to an end as the elderly Churchill breathes his last. In a rare piece of casting continuity, John Lithgow briefly resumes his role.

Suspicion also surrounds Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt. Although not exactly a dead ringer for the art historian and Soviet spy, Samuel West is well cast as Blunt. West is a fine actor anyway but his lineage here is impeccable. His mother, Prunella Scales played the Queen in the Alan Bennett drama, A Question of Attribution, which was about Blunt and which parts of this episode strongly resemble. Blunt then was played by James Fox, whose brother Edward, incidentally played Churchill in The Audience, the Peter Morgan play which inspired this series. West also played the Queen’s father George VI in the (not very good) film, Hyde Park on the Hudson. His wife, the future Queen Mother was played by one Olivia Colman. West’s father, Timothy, of course, famously played George VI’s grandfather, Edward VII (and also played Churchill, several times), while Colman won an Oscar for playing the Queen’s ancestor, Queen Anne in The Favourite, earlier this year.

Fellow Oscar winner, Helena Bonham Carter is, of course, now cast as the Queen’s glamorous but troubled sister, Princess Margaret here, replacing the excellent Vanessa Kirby. The makers clearly feel obliged to feature Margaret frequently in this episode, presumably because of Bonham Carter’s star status, but aside from much drinking, rudeness, singing and fretting about her wayward photographer husband Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels), who is pictured motorbiking about a lot, she does little of interest.

The next episode promises to be much more Margaret-orientated…

The Crown

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman. Published by: Atlantic Books.

As British voters prepare to go to the polls for the fourth time this decade, it is well worth bearing in mind: the way we select our politicians is awful.

You don’t actually have to be rich to become an MP, but as Isabel Hardman’s book highlights, the process of standing for parliament is so expensive, time consuming and arduous, it’s a wonder anyone ever does it in the first place. Most candidates in the current general election campaign will never become MPs. And even if they do, the labyrinthine world of Westminster offers so little support to new members, that many of them will find themselves falling victim to alcoholism or marital breakdown. Of course, many also often find themselves subject to personal abuse, on Twitter, on nastier versions of blogs like this or in what is sometimes referred to as “the real world”.

Hardman (the Deputy Editor of The Spectator) admits to some well-intentioned sleight of hand here. Despite the book’s title, she is not actually attacking politicians as a class. She does not pander to the popular stereotype that all or even most MPs are lazy, out of touch or corrupt. Although she does not shy away from recounting examples of abuse, she reminds us that the vast majority of MPs are hardworking, dedicated people. Attending regular surgeries and hearing constituents’ problems arguably puts them more in touch with ordinary people’s problems than the average person.

Hardman’s argument is that the current system is deeply flawed, often resulting in unsatisfactory laws.

It is an excellent book and a difficult argument to refute.

Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.

The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.

Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.

Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.

The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.

TV review: Toast of London

Steven Toast (Matt Berry) is an actor. He is not a very good actor or, indeed, a very good person. He is arrogant, short-tempered and a womaniser. He has no real sense of humour and doesn’t even seem to fully understand what a joke is. He has odd gaps in his knowledge: for example, he has never heard of ten-pin-bowling or Benedict Cumberbatch. For these reasons and more, he sorely tries the patience of his agent, Jane Plough (rhymes with “fluff”), played by Doon Mackichan.

He is the creation of star Matt Berry and co-writer Arthur Mathews. Three series of the sitcom ran on Channel 4 between 2013 and 2015 and are now on Netflix. A fourth series is on its way.

Most episodes of Toast begin in the same way; with Toast in a studio where he reluctantly fulfils a range of voice over commitments. This is one thing the real life Berry and the fictional Toast have in common (aside from both having a surname which is also a type of foodstuff): Berry, previously a star of The IT Crowd and subsequently a regular in vampire-based TV mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows, has a gift for projecting his voice in an unusual and comedic way. Although his voice is now very recognisable, he has been recording voice overs, both serious and funny, for years.

These studio scenes provide some of the funniest moments in the series. At one point, Toast is inexplicably required to say “YES!” over and over again into the microphone. This may not sound funny, but is: trust me, few people can infuse the word “yes” with as much fury and gutso than Matt Berry.

Toast’s other voice over assignments include recording orders for a submarine, (including the sinister, “fire the nuclear weapons” delivered in a variety of accents) and dubbing a gay porno film.

Toast’s world is peopled by many strange characters. He lives with Ed (Robert Bathurst), a retired actor, living off royalties and permanently in his dressing gown. Toast’s brother Blair Toast (Adrian Lukis) meanwhile, is extremely reactionary and has a military background. He always refers to Toast as “Toast” rather than “Steven,” even though he is called “Toast” himself.

Then there is Toast’s nemesis, Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), also an actor who wears a white suit, in contrast to Toast, who always wears black. The two despise each other, no doubt in part, because Toast is openly sleeping with Purchase’s wife, always referred to as “Mrs. Purchase” (Tracy–Ann Oberman).

The cast is excellent. Berry’s House of Fools’ co-star Morgana Robinson appears at different times in three different roles and Vic and Bob make appearances. There are also an impressive range of cameos. Amanda Donohoe plays Toast’s faithless ex-wife while Brian Blessed, Timothy West, Jude Law, Jon Hamm, Peter Davison and Michael Ball all make appearances.

The series is not quite set in the real world: even the people sitting in the background in Toast’s pub are dressed bizarrely and the deaths of Bob Monkhouse and Francis Bacon, as well as the fact, the Globe Theatre burnt down in the 17th century, are deliberately ignored.

Personally, I could have done with fewer musical interludes from Berry. Although I enjoyed the theme tune (which he composed) and the version of Ghost Town by the Specials which he performs in one episode (now sadly removed), too many of his songs are too melancholy in tone for what is essentially a zany comedy series.

But this is essentially a class act from one of the leading British comedy acts to emerge this century. More please! Encore!

Book review: Quentin Tarantino – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work

Quentin Tarantino – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, by Ian Nathan. Published by White Lion

One day, nearly thirty years ago, a young bearded man in a black suit ran across a road and was immediately hit by a car. Despite flying into and breaking the car’s windscreen, the hoodlum is soon on his feet again and pointing a gun at the unfortunate driver. As the scene is filmed from the driver’s perspective, it almost feels like we, the ones in the audience, are the ones being carjacked.

The carjacker was one ‘Mr Pink’ played by Steve Buscemi. The film was Reservoir Dogs and with its release, the career of film director, Quentin Tarantino had begun.

The years ahead would see the film’s director, Tarantino become so cool that for a while, it seemed possible that the name ‘Quentin’ might actually become cool in itself. In the end, despite the continued popularity of artist Quentin Blake, this never quite happened. But, as with his earlier fine, nicely presented coffee table books on the Coens and Tim Burton, distinguished film critic, Ian Nathan’s book on the video shop employee turned director, reminds us why Tarantino largely deserved all the subsequent fuss that was made about him.

The 1990s was a great time for Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs, a film about a robbery we never see and notorious for an ear removal scene we also never see, featured career-best performances from all its excellent all-male cast. Perhaps only Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi have done better work elsewhere and even they are better in this than anyone else.

Why is it called Reservoir Dogs? The book suggests the issue – as with the answer to the question, “who shot Nice Guy Eddie?”- is a mystery known only to Tarantino himsel). My own theory: the main characters’ behaviour resembles a pack of wild, stray dogs living near a reservoir, fighting each other, betraying each other to survive. But I’ve no idea whether this has any basis in fact. Do stray dogs even live near reservoirs and behave like this? I’ve no idea.

The Nice Guy Eddie ‘mystery’ is more easily explicable, however. The ‘shooting’ of the character, played by the late Chris Penn, was actually the result of a technical error. The ‘squibs’ which stimulated his gunshot wounds went off, exploding prematurely. Tarantino, cannily recognising the potential for controversy, deliberately left the mistake in the finished film. So basically nobody shot him.

Next up, was Pulp Fiction, the film where Tarantino fulfilled his promise. Then came Jackie Brown, the Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, the westerns and this year’s triumphant but flawed Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. I am fully aware I have not covered Tarantino’s body of work fully here. Rest assured: Ian Nathan does. The lone exception is Once Upon A Time… which is touched upon, but was obviously released too late for the book.

But in every other respect, as a crash course in Tarantino, this is second only to watching the films themselves.