The Seven Ages of Binge Watching 

Reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016):

Since the dawn of time, man has dreamed of watching many imported US television shows at once. Indeed, many now believe monuments such as Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Cheops were in fact primitive attempts to generate a Wi-Fi signal.  So how did we get to here from there? The truth is fascinating…

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THE DARK AGES: NO TV WHATSOEVER (Pre-1936)

Incredible as it may seem to the vast majority of people in the past, the idea of binge watching a popular TV show such as Lucifer on Amazon Prime  would have been a wholly alien concept.

In fact, if the entire history of the human race is condensed into a single 24-hour period, then people would have only been watching TV from around 11.59pm onwards. Which is ironic as that’s actually about the time many of us stop watching TV and go to bed.

People thus wasted thousands of years throwing bones into the air, making tapestries, having crusades, plagues and renaissances and essentially creating scenarios which would form the basis of many TV shows once TV came along. They didn’t binge watch anything.

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THE GREY AGES: (1936-1978)

The BBC began broadcasting TV in 1936 with the medium really taking off in the 1950s. But binge watching was still nor yet a reality, chiefly because there was still no means of watching TV shows outside their scheduled weekly or daily instalments. Not only would a fan of a popular 26-part series like The Forstye Saga be forced to tune in every week between January and July 1967 to see it, but if they missed one episode because they forgot, wanted to watch something else, were on holiday or were giving birth, there was nothing they could do about it. In fact, the “giving birth” example isn’t entirely a joke. According to his memoirs, the mother of comic Rob Brydon delayed going to hospital to give birth to him in 1965, despite the fact she was clearly experiencing labour pangs until the episode of The Fugitive she had been watching had finished. Of course, some things –including The Forsyte Saga in fact – were repeated. But many were not. At any rate, binge watching at home was still not possible.

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THE VIDEO AGE (1980s)

Video changed everything. For the first time, we could rent films, watch them, rewind them and return them to the shop. Or if we felt malicious, rewind them to a critical plot point (for example, the “reveal” bit in The Crying Game) and then return them to the shop, thus spoiling the film for whoever borrowed it and started watching at that point next. We could also tape whatever we wanted off TV: the Live Aid concert, royal weddings, World Cup finals to watch again whenever we liked (i.e. never). We could also tape whole TV series (cutting out any commercial breaks if we were canny enough). Binge watching was thus now possible. Legally, stuff taped off TV was only supposed to be retained privately for a year but provided you didn’t attempt to sell tapes of “Minder Series 3” you’d recorded yourself, down the market, you would probably get away with this.

Viewing habits were changing. It is no coincidence that the three highest rated TV shows of all time all date from 1986 and 1987. All three were Christmas editions of soap operas. The age of everyone watching the same shows art once was passing. Soon there would be Sky TV. Yuppies would be carrying brick-like mobile phones. People were also starting to buy home computers too. Most people didn’t link these three things together at the time but one day they would. The 21st century was on its way.

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THE COMING OF THE VIDEO BOXSET

Americans were slower to take to video than Britons were. There’s a discussion between two characters in the 1991 film City Slickers over whether it is possible to tape a show which you weren’t watching. This is of course the whole point of videos and even allowing for character stupidity, this would have seemed very out of date to UK viewers, more than half of whom has video recorders by the end of the Eighties.

For whatever reason, however, the sale of TV series to own and keep didn’t take-off until the 1990s, however, although when it did, a new era of binge watching was spawned.

“Re-record, don’t fade away” was the slogan of one advert for video recorders. But in truth, like communism and Kevin Costner’s film career, VHS was to prove largely a 20th century phenomenon. After twenty years, the age of video was soon about to fade away forever.

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THE DIGITAL AGE

The coming of DVD in the first years of the 21st century was important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it meant that if you had bought anything on video, you now had to buy it again in the new format if you wanted to keep hold of it as VHS was ultimately doomed. Secondly, you no longer had to rewind things after watching them. Thirdly, the lightness of the new digital versatile discs meant that newly formed companies could easily distribute discs by post. Some were even given away regularly with magazines like DVD Monthly or even for a brief period, newspapers, as millions rushed out to get their “free” copies of Babette’s Feast. The other nice thing about DVDs was and is their menu screens with their helpful “Play all” option. DVD player ownership is currently at around 59% of the UK population.

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BLU PERIOD

The arrival of Blu-rays around ten years ago changed little. If you had already bought anything on video or DVD, you could usually buy it again for slightly more on Blu-ray. But even this was optional as DVDs thankfully still worked on Blu-ray players anyway. Blu-rays look a bit better than DVD perhaps but frankly there’s not a lot in it. It really depends on how comfortable you are with having different sized Blu-ray and DVDs living alongside each other on their shelves doesn’t it? A surprising number of people aren’t.

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THE AGE OF STREAM

Today we are truly a blessed generation. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime and the rest, we can enjoy all our favourite films and shows almost to our heart’s content. Want to watch Modern Family, The Waking Dead or House of Cards tonight? Chances are you can. Many of us even have virtual mini cinema systems in our own homes but even when away we can usually watch it on a train on a lap top or on the phone.

So forget all that stuff with candles: binge watching is the true Hygge of the 21st century.

After centuries of struggle, Leonardo Da Vinci’s dream of a binge-watching society was finally achieved. And who’s to say he didn’t dream of this?  He probably just forgot to mention it.

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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.

 

Blu-ray review: GIRLS: The Complete Fifth Season

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Girls is back! And with rumours abounding that this will be the the final season of Lena Dunham’s award-winning comedy drama, it remains to be seen whether it’ll be a case of “happy ever after” for anyone involved. I’m guessing not. But let’s begin at the start of the season.
First up is Hannah (Dunham herself) who despite embracing the life of a teacher with, if anything, rather too much enthusiasm is already tiring of her long suffering but admittedly far from perfect, somewhat pompous boyfriend Fran (Jake Lacy). Only concerns about the dating habits of her newly “out” father distract her. That and fears about her ex Adam (Driver, now in Star Wars).
Meanwhile, though traditionally probably the bitchiest main character English Jessa (Jemima Kirke) genuinely seems to be achieving herb goal of being a nice person as the season starts. That’s if she can keep her hands off her best friend’s ex.
Meanwhile, in what seems like a remarkably poor life choice even by her standards, Marnie (Allison Williams) is set to marry her emotional car crash of a music partner as the season dawns. Of the four girls, only Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) seems to be doing well, having found a new life in Japan.
Sharp, surprising and funny as ever, Girls maintains its status as one of the great HBO shows of the decade.
Let’s hope this isn’t really the end…

Blu-ray review: High-Rise

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Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Elisabeth Moss, Reece Shearsmith. Director: Ben Wheatley. Released: June 18th 2016.Studio Canal

Anarchy has often made material for some surprisingly dull films.

As exciting (or depending on your viewpoint) terrifying as a good riot may be, its difficult to maintain the sustained energy of a genuine rumpus for long on screen. It’s true Quadrophenia was enlivened by a memorable battle between Mods and Rockers while Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was essentially all a big build up to an urban riot. But JG Ballard’s celebrated 1975 dystopian drama High-Rise is all about a riot: essentially a sky rise building’s not so gradual descent into violence and barbarism. How long can a film continue to shock, titillate and surprise you over a two hour period?

Quite a lot as it happens. Hot British director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers) is in many ways a perfect fit for this sort of thing and ably assisted by a cast of beautiful and not so beautiful people, this just about works while never quite scaling the heights of a novel which has influenced everything from the Blockmania of Judge Dredd to David Cronenberg’s early tower block based horror Shivers.

Indeed, as the accompanying featurette on author JG Ballard reminds us, Cronenberg is one of a number of directors (along with Spielberg) to tackle the late author’s books before. Set in a futuristic version of the Britain of the 1970s and featuring audio commentaries and interviews with cast and crew, High-Rise probably won’t be your favourite film of this year. But it will probably be one of the more interesting.

 

 

DVD review: Upstart Crow

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You could feel the shockwaves reverberating around the British comedy world for days afterwards: Ben Elton had written a good sitcom.

It should not have been a shock, of course. Elton co-wrote two of the best British sitcoms of all time, The Young Ones and Blackadder, indeed, the three best series of Blackadder. The ghost of Blackadder II hangs over Upstart Crow which also has an Elizabethan setting. It is not as good as Blackadder II (few things are) but it’s a noble attempt.

David Mitchell plays William Shakespeare, a man torn between the demands of his rather lowbrow Stratford household and that of London and his pursuit of a career as a playwright and a poet. At home, he has a loving wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck), a permanently grumpy teenage daughter (the excellent Helen Monks of Raised By Wolves in an underwritten part) and his elderly parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox). Much to his frustration, all of Shakespeare’s family react to his work rather as many modern schoolchildren would. His father openly admits to finding his son’s plays dull while the others tire of his fondness for clever wordplay.

“It’s what I do!” Mitchell’s Bard defends himself, in what almost becomes a catchphrase. “If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny.”

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Programme Name: Upstart Crow – TX: n/a – Episode: Upstart Crow – Generics (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Greene (MARK HEAP) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Colin Hutton

His London life, meanwhile, involves Kate (Gemma Whelan) who longs to act  (a profession not then open to women), his manservant Bottom (Rob Rouse, a cleverer, cleaner version of Baldrick) and Marlowe (Tim Downie, excellent), Shakespeare’s doomed contemporary, here played an arrogant but charming womaniser (“a clever girl is an ugly girl, ” is his advice to Kate). There are elements of Blackadder in all of this: Kate has similarities to “Bob,” a reference later made explicit. Marlowe is also reminiscent of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashman and some of the scenarios and jokes involving potatoes and dungeons are reminiscent of the earlier series deliberately or not. Future sitcom scholars may also wish to compare the openings to episode 2 of this to the start of Blackadder II’s final episode Chains.

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Upstart Crow goes wrong when it goes down the predictable route of showing how Shakespeare  finds inspiration for his plays in real life. This isn’t a bad idea in itself but it rarely works here. Other quibbles? The always brilliant Mark Heap (Spaced, Friday Night Dinner) although impressive is never given much chance to be funny as Shakespeare’s rival Greene and the scenes involving the rehearsal of the actual plays are less good, the exception being Spencer Jones’ spot on piss take of Ricky Gervais.

Twelve years ago, the idea of Ben Elton taking the piss out of then post-Office comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but his stock has fallen and Elton’s has risen since then. Upstart Crow is far from flawless but it provides David Mitchell with his best sitcom role since Peep Show, contains some laugh out loud funny one liners and marks a definite return to form for Ben Elton, one of Britain’s most unfairly maligned comedic talents.

p03vbsb4Released: BBC Worldwide. Out: now. Starring: David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck, Gemma Whelan, Rob Rouse, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox, Tim Downie, Helen Monks, Mark Heap

DVD review: This Life: The Complete Collection

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BBC Worldwide

Out now

Cast: Amita Dihri,  Jack Davenport, Jason Hughes, Andrew Lincoln, Daniela Nardini, Ramon Tikaram

It has now been twenty years since we were first introduced to the five twentysomething London lawyers who made up BBC drama This Life.

Who could forget them? Anna (Nardini): perhaps the most memorable character, sharp tongued feisty, yet ultimately vulnerable and fixated on university end of term one night stand Miles (Davenport), posh, misogynist, homophobic and snobbish, but one senses, as human as anyone else underneath. Then there’s Egg (Lincoln), perhaps the nicest character in the house  although clearly not cut out for a career in law as his sexy, ambitious girlfriend Milly (Dhiri) seems to be. Last but not least comes gay Welshman Warren (Hughes), inclined towards  regular visits to a therapist and occasional moments of madness. He is later joined by troubled bisexual Ferdy (Tikaram).

The show did not really catch fire during its first eleven part run in 1996, perhaps because many episodes were written by Amy Jenkins, who despite creating the series was never one of its strongest writers. But during its longer 20 episode second series in 1997, something magical started to happen. This Life  grew to be cult viewing: totally unmissable and was much mourned after its spectacular Series 2 finale.

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Has This Life dated? Yes, of course. It would be odd if it hadn’t. Everyone seems to smoke more than they do today (at least on TV) and the house enjoys a constant backdrop of music by the likes of Radiohead, Suede and the Sneaker Pimps. The internet is spoken of only as a distant futuristic thing as proven when Miles becomes one of the last people on Earth to post a dating ad in an actual magazine.

On the other hand, the “shaky” naturalistic camerawork much commented on at the time is barely noticeable now (though the camerawork remains interesting and occasionally prone to close ups). A young Martin Freeman crops up in one episode. But the show was ahead of it’s time in its attitude to gays and drug use and one suspects it has dated far less than a 1976 drama series would have had that been screened twenty years later in 1996.

Twenty years on (and ten years after the slightly underwhelming 2006 This Life +10 one off  also included in this DVD set). the saddest thing is that while the principal male cast are all still a regular presence on our screens  – particularly Andrew Lincoln who now stars in hit US drama the Walking Dead – Nardini and Dhiri have never become stars. Still, the smaller female parts such as Natasha Little (who plays the bane of Milly’s office existence, Rachel) and Luisa Bradhaw-White (sassy office temp Kira, but now an EastEnders regular) have all done well.

And the really good news is that This Life is either a) as good as you remember or b) very watchable if you’ve never seen it before.

As Warren would say: “Hysterical.”

This Life

 

 

 

DVD review: Alan Partridge Mid Morning Matters Series 2

3D_MMM S2_2EDVD0859_CMYK.jpgBBC Worldwide

Bonus features: Outtakes

155 minutes

Starring: Steve Coogan, Tim Key, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt,  Rosie Cavaliero, Phil Cornwell, Monica Dolan, Katherine Jakeways

Hurrah for Alan Partridge!

A full quarter century after his first appearance as a nasal East Anglian sports commentator on Radio 4’s On The Hour, the socially maladroit, Daily Mail reading North Norfolk disc jockey returns in his second series of Mid Morning Matters. Although it has been five years since Alan last appeared in this format – his book, I, Partridge and generally successful big screen outing Alpha Papa coming in between – little has changed for Alan in the ensuing period, despite occasional visits from his girlfriend Angela (Monica Dolan, introduced in the film).

Otherwise, Alan is his usual barely tolerable self regardless of whether he is getting drunk and tucking into a “beef sponge” during an on air book group feature, subjecting his captive audience to his own dramatised version of the lives of William and Kate, revealing his darkest fantasies about TV presenter Julia Bradbury or simply tormenting the hapless “Sidekick Simon” (Tim Key), this is often awkward but always enjoyable.

Alan remains a great comedy creation, often sympathetic (unexpectedly bringing out the softer side of a loathsome opinion former played by Reece Shearsmith) but just as often sickeningly egotistical, politically incorrect and tyrannical, this format (which never sees Alan leaving the radio studio) works well.

Lovely stuff. Roll on Series 3…

 

 

 

Blu-ray review: The Walk

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Many people have a hobby. Some collect Smurfs. Others do DIY. Others like to record their opinions of recent film releases for public consumption.

But not everyone’s the same. In the 1970s, Frenchman Philippe Petit directed all of his free time towards achieving one single goal: walking by tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

In addition to the obvious perils: the great height, unexpected crosswinds, the possibility that Jeff Bridges might be attempting to climb the towers at the same time to rescue Jessica Lange from King Kong in a poorly realised remake – Petit and his chums also faced the added complication that the WTC was not yet officially open in August 1974. Also, what he was planning to do was technically illegal. He not only had to sneak in but risked serious jail time afterwards.

Just as the real life Petit (for this is a true story) faced plenty of obstacles, so too, did onetime Back To The Future and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis in seeking to dramatise this for the big screen. For one thing, many people watching will probably know the outcome of the famous walk already, potentially robbing the film of any dramatic tension. The story was also already filmed as the 2008 documentary Man On Wire. This shouldn’t be confused with Bird on a Wire which is something else entirely.

The film begins rather whimsically with a few scenes filmed in black and white with occasional flashes of colour rather like a cheerier version of Schindler’s List. This doesn’t last long.

Others may start to worry when it emerges that US actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing Petit with a French accent, narrating the film while overlooking the towers from the vantage point of the top of the nearby Statue of Liberty. But they need not worry. Levitt is great. His accent is excellent and as the accompanying featurette reveals he quickly demonstrated a rare aptitude for tightrope walking himself.

While one would expect all the drama to focus on “the walk” itself, the film does a good job of being compelling throughout its running time helped by a good cast and special effects which recreate the doomed World Trade Centre with a strong sense of authenticity. Petit himself seems to have been a somewhat temperamental character, his desire to complete the walk which he sees as a great work of “art” sometimes bringing him into conflict with his long suffering girlfriend (Le Bon) and equally temperamental mentor Papa Rudy (Kingsley). The latter sees the walk as performance only and urges the younger man to wear a safety harness to no avail.

In the end, Petit’s timing was rubbish from a publicity point of view. His exploit was knocked off the world news headlines by the news of the resignation of President Richard Nixon the following day, one of the biggest news stories of the century.

Ultimately,  Zemeckis’s touch is as sophisticated as Petit’s own rare sense of balance, the film only subtly alluding to the tragic events which most of us primarily remember the World Trade Centre for today.

Review: 4 out of 5

The Walk

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sir Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Running time: Deleted Scenes

First Steps – Learning To Walk The Wire Featurette

Running time: 123 minutes

DVD/Blu-ray review: Peter Kay’s Car Share

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DVD/Blu-ray review: Peter Kay’s Car Share

BBC Worldwide

Out now

Starring: Peter Kay, Sian Gibson

The year 2015 was, amongst other things, the year it became okay to like Peter Kay again. This was partly down to his recent winning turn as Danny Baker’s cockney father in the Seventies-set Cradle To Grave. But it was also undoubtedly achieved through this, his first ever BBC 1 sitcom, performed with his own accent and the less well known but no less excellent actress Sian Gibson.

Gibson (actually a long term Kay collaborator, appearing as one of Paddy’s conquests in Phoenix Nights) plays Kayleigh, a supermarket sales rep thrown together with assistant manager John (Kay) by the company’s car share scheme. The premise of each episode is simplicity itself. John drives them both to work in the first half, and then drives them home in the second. And everything occurs against the nostalgic sounds of the 80s and 90s provided by the authentically amateurish soundtrack of Forever FM (surely a more sophisticated version of Phoenix Nights’ Chorley FM?) billowing perpetually through the car radio.

Both John and Kayleigh are single and approaching the forty mark, yet otherwise seem like opposites. John relishes order and claims to like being on his own, after a series of bad break ups. Although pleasant, he is easily riled by pedantic issues such as adults using the lollypop man to cross. Kayleigh, in contrast, often seems to live in a state of chaos, insulting John on their first meeting by wrongly thinking him gay and by accidentally spilling a urine sample over him. A later episode where she goes to work drunk seems a little overdone and she is occasionally a bit too squeaky. But this odd couple work together brilliantly: this is ultimately Peter and Sian’s Car Share, not just Peter Kay’s.

But there is little to fault here. Even the occasional fantasy sequences, notably a Bedknobs and Broomsticks style underwater imaging set to the tune of Hanson’s MMMBop (which occurs when Kayleigh has a panic attack in a car wash) work even though they feel like they shouldn’t. These are marvellous comic creations (Kayleigh doesn’t believe dinosaurs ever existed and thinks doggIng is something different to what it actually is).

Belter. Roll on Series 2.

 

 

 

DVD review: The Moaning of Life 2 with Karl Pilkington

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Warning: Karl Pilkington does not moan like he used to.

Don’t worry: he hasn’t stopped completely and still retains his distinctive, unique and often hilarious world view. But, on this evidence, his reputation as a serial moaner is undeserved. Pilkington is often understandably bewildered by many of the strange people and bizarre practices he encounters here, but he embraces most of what he sees and confronts many challenges – night club dancing, ironing in a remote and precarious American location and even going on patrol as a superhero, head on.

Probably the main difference from his earlier series An Idiot Abroad, is the absence of the sometimes cruel presence of Pilkington’s old compadres Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Rather than being sent to random locations as to their whim, here Pilkington is able to travel to some marvellous locations to meet some often very odd people in the hope of gaining enlightenment on a range of topics including Art, Identity and How To Live Your Life. Through it all he remains, his usual self: both very ordinary and also unique, devoted to his girlfriend back in the UK and often and seemingly unintentionally, very very funny.

He meets some strange types here including as Utah man who has five wives, an Indian who offers an unconvincing argument on the merits of drinking urine, a 91 year old woman skydiver and a young lady who specialises in vomiting up her own works of art. If some of this sounds crude, well, it sometimes is. The worse thing about the show is that the director seems obsessed with showing someone vomiting at least once in every episode.

But Karl whether railing against solar power, defending Ebeneezer Scrooge or being totally astonished to find that he actually quite likes wearing a wig, is the key to the show’s success.

And despite what I said earlier: her does still moan a bit.

DVD: The Moaning of Life 2 with Karl Pilkington

Release date: November 23rd 2015

BBC Worldwide