Book review: How To Be Champion by Sarah Millican

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Book review: How To Be Champion by Sarah Millican: My Autobiography. Published by: Trapeze.

There is undoubtedly something very likeable about Sarah Millican. As with Jimmy Carr, she is blessed with an uncanny ability to switch from being sweet one moment to filthy the next. This tendency is certainly deployed to good effect in this autobiography.

On the other hand, despite being probably the most successful female stand-up in the UK, she retains a down to earth ordinary quality which Carr and most other comedians lack. Millican would doubtless be embarrassed by the comparison, but it is something she has in common with the late Victoria Wood.

It is undoubtedly a result of her background. In her early forties now, South Shields born Millican lived a relatively normal university-free existence for years, only turning to stand-up comedy as a means of coping with the collapse of her first marriage in her late twenties. Success came fairly quickly and she won the Edinburgh Best Newcomer award in 2008 beating off competition from the likes of Jon Richardson, Micky Flanagan and Zoe Lyons. Since her the success of her 2012 BBC TV series, The Sarah Millican Television Programme she has been unstoppable. She is now married to comic Gary Delaney (a regular on Mock The Week).

This is a funny, occasionally moving book perhaps slightly let down by its adoption of the overused self-help book format, a technique currently deployed seemingly by every comedy autobiography under the sun. Millican is very open about her difficulties with the harsher side of fame, refreshingly honest about her total lack of desire to ever have children and is clearly achingly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of often misogynistic abuse often directed at her by critics on Twitter and elsewhere. She quotes a breathtakingly rude Telegraph review of her 2013 Who Do You Think You Are? appearance by Christopher Howse (who she doesn’t name although I am happy to) in full. Referring to her “piping Geordie voice and dumpy frame,” it  is less a piece of journalism, than a sustained and wholly unwarranted personal attack. Howse should be utterly ashamed of himself.

However, this is generally a light, enjoyable read from one of Britain’s comedy national treasures.

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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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Philip K Dick: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Blade-Runner-2-DirectorArticle reproduced from Geeky Monkey issue 8 (2016): written by Chris Hallam

Make no mistake: science fiction author Philip Kindred Dick was a man like no other. Paranoid, difficult, prone to visions of pink beams of light and strange God-like heads looking down at him from the sky, yet somehow simultaneously charming and hugely intelligent. Dick somehow managed to produce a wealth of novels and short stories during his 54 years. Works which formed the basis of the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and TV series The Man In The High Castle. 34 years after his death we assess the legacy of a science fiction colossus…

Perhaps no man has had as much impact on modern sci-fi as Philip K Dick. Assuming your favourite sci-fi films were produced in the last thirty years, there is every chance they were either based directly on one of Dick’s 44 books or around 120 short stories, or at least strongly influenced by them. Admittedly, some adaptations have been better than others – is Paycheck or Next among anyone’s favourite movies? Probably not. But all are linked by common themes, which arose from the eventful life of a deeply troubled genius.

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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? 

“Ironically, he had gotten exactly what he had asked Rekal, Incorporated for. Adventure, peril, Interplan police at work, a secret and dangerous trip to Mars in which his life was at stake – everything he had wanted as a false memory. The advantages of it being a memory – and nothing more – could now be appreciated.”

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966)

Douglas Quaid: “I just had a terrible thought… what if this is a dream?”

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It is an all too common story. Or rather, it isn’t. A man dreams of going to Mars. This being the future he could actually achieve this in theory, but the planet is off limits to everyone except ‘Government officials and high officials’. Our hero Douglas Quail is nothing more than a lowly pen pusher, and being unable to afford the trip goes for a cheaper option: having false memories deliberately implanted into his brain by a company called REKAL. Quail will feel like he’s had the experience of enjoying a ‘James Bond in space’-style fantasy adventure as a secret agent on Mars, without ever having actually been there.

From the beginning of Dick’s short story, ambiguity reigns. Has Quail been to REKAL’s offices already? Is he in fact already a secret agent being controlled by REKAL, or is this just part of a carefully constructed fantasy too?

Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film adaptation of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall, picks up the initial concept and runs with it. Dick’s story remains only in essence, but in essence it is always there. Changes were made: Doug Quail becomes Doug Quaid, presumably because Quaid (like the actor Dennis Quaid) was a cooler name than Quail which in 1990 would have reminded people of the much mocked US Vice President, Dan Quayle.

Schwarzenegger’s hero now also becomes a construction worker, doubtless in recognition of Arnie’s unusually muscular physique. Yet even the notion of Arnie as a loser (or more accurately as the sort of ordinary Joe he appears to be at the start of the film) still takes a bit of swallowing, particularly as he’s married to someone who looks like Sharon Stone.

The film had a long gestation period with actors as diverse as Richard Dreyfus, Patrick Swayze and William Hurt all being considered for the lead role before Schwarzenegger stepped in and hired Verhoeven. The source material was not obvious cinematic gold either, being one one of 120 Philip K Dick short stories. The only significant previous Dick adaptation was Blade Runner, at that point still considered a flop whose reputation was only slowly starting to rise. It is easy to see why filmmakers might have been wary.

The end result is less cerebral than the short story. Packed with action, violence, special effects and typical Schwarzenegger one liners. “Consider this a divorce!” is memorably uttered, seconds before Quaid guns down his wife, or perhaps ‘wife’). Total Recall was in contention to be one of the most expensive films ever made up until that point, and it went on to be a smash hit at the box office. Although I would be wary of advising any readers to type the words “Dick films biggest gross” into a search engine to check this, it is a fact that on inflation-adjusted figures, Total Recall is the biggest commercial success from Dick’s oeuvre, surpassing that of Spielberg’s Minority Report in the following decade.

For like Verhoeven’s later sci-fi based on Robert Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers (1999), or if you’re a fan of politician Boris Johnson, Total Recall manages the clever trick of being both silly and clever at the same time. While it seems likely the intelligence underlying the film was lost on many viewers who just saw it as an Arnie shoot-’em-up set on Mars, both the film and the story tap into a long standing Dick preoccupation: the idea that there is another reality underlying our own.

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It is a concept explored again in Len Wiseman’s inoffensive but unnecessary remake of Total Recall (2012) starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale. It is also touched upon in some of Dick’s other works, notably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and the less well known Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974). The latter is a novel in which the main character, famous TV star Jason Taverner, wakes up to find that the world he lives in has forgotten him. Indeed, it is as if he has never existed. Colin Farrell would briefly experience the same thing after appearing in Oliver Stone’s Alexander later in the decade.

The idea has had an impact on cinema way beyond straight adaptations of Dick’s work too. For example, in The Matrix (1999) in which Keanu Reeves’ hero discovers that reality as we know it is merely a façade shielding us from a far more horrible existence. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2002) sees a young couple, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, deliberately choosing to have all memories of their relationship erased following a bad break up. Soon, without even realising that they have met before, they meet and fall in love all over again. Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1999) sees the main character Truman Burbank, also played by Jim Carrey, slowly begin to realise that his apparently ordinary suburban life is in fact an elaborate construct for a reality TV show watched by millions since his birth.

Original stories? Of course. But they all owe a debt to Philip K Dick.

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What if…? Alternative worlds

Few of us will ever forget the terrible history of the end of the second World War. With Franklin Roosevelt assassinated in 1933, the United States proved unable to defeat Germany and Japan. The former USA was thereafter divided between the Japanese established Pacific States of America in the west and the Nazi-controlled former eastern states.

Of course, this isn’t what happened. Roosevelt in fact narrowly survived an assassination attempt shortly before his first inauguration. The Mayor of New York sitting next to the President Elect heard the gunshots and immediately stood up. He was shot and killed. Roosevelt, crippled by polio and thus, unable to stand, remained seated and survived. And (spoiler alert!) Germany and Japan lost the war.

The possibility that it might have ended in victory for the forces of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan is almost too horrendous to contemplate. Yet this very nearly happened. Little wonder then that Dick’s The Man In The High Castle (1963), one of his most acclaimed novels and now a successful Amazon Prime TV series, is only one of a number of stories which explores this theme.

Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland (1992) for example, imagines a Nazi occupied Britain in which the dethroned King Edward VIII (he of the abdication crisis) had been reinstalled by the Nazis, receptive to the King’s fascist sympathies. Set in 1964, with Hitler preparing to celebrate his 75th birthday, the US president in this world is Kennedy. Not the famous JFK, but his father Joseph P Kennedy, who in our reality had seen his own political career flounder due to his anti-British and pro-appeasement tendencies during the war. In Harris’ world appeasing the Third Reich is still fashionable into the 1960s, much to the ageing (and corrupt) JPK’s advantage. Similarly, CJ Sansom’s novel Dominion (2012) sees Churchill crucially failing to become leader in 1940. The Prime Minister Lord Halifax ends up making peace with the Nazis after the British leadership loses its nerve in the face of apparent certain defeat in 1940. The war is thus dramatically shortened, but peace comes at a terrible price. Finally, Philip Roth’s acclaimed The Plot Against America (2004) sees the US coming under the fascist spell when the popular but pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindbergh unexpectedly wins the presidency in 1940, beating Roosevelt.

The Man In The High Castle predates all of these, but certainly was not the first book of its type either. Dick in fact seems to have been directly inspired by a combination of the revived interest in the Third Reich brought on by the high profile trial of the leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann, captured and ultimately executed in the early 1960s, and by a book by Ward Moore called Bring The Jubilee. This 1953 novel envisaged what might have happened had the Southern Confederacy rather than the Union won the American Civil War of the 1860s. This ultimately leads to Germany beating Britain and France in a shortened version of the First World War and the 20th Century world becoming divided between American Confederate rule and a German empire.

Dick’s The Man In The High Castle was to be one of his biggest successes. It also features a novel within a novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which imagines what the world would be like had the Allies won the war after all. Even this differs from what actually happened, Churchill remaining in power after the war (in fact he returned to power only in 1951, having been defeated in the 1945 election) and the 1949 Communist takeover in China never occurs.

Like most Dick adaptations, the TV series follows his writing quite loosely (the USA becoming a victim of atomic attack for one thing) and this seems likely to continue with a second season in the pipeline. But the essence of Dick’s vision: a living, breathing, authentic alternative world is apparent in every scene.

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Dystopia Limited

Regular Geeky Monkey readers will have already read an extensive feature on the making of Blade Runner in issue three (you can get a back issue from http://www.get-geeky.today). Despite this, it should be emphasised what an impact the collective vision of Philip K Dick and director Ridley Scott had on subsequent filmmakers.

We are now in 2016 and thus only three years away from the 2019 setting of the film, and while the Replicants and (as with Back To The Future Part II) flying cars are unlikely to become a reality by then, in other respects the film seems eerily prescient. Dick, who had set the novel in 1992, never lived to see the completed film, but was pleased with what he saw of Scott’s polluted neo-noir dystopian vision during his final months.

It is true, Dick can hardly be credited with inventing the notion of a dystopia. But despite the inherent pessimism of much of Seventies cinema (a time when it was quite normal for many films to have unhappy endings), much of the sci-fi scene in the early Eighties was still surprisingly optimistic. The visions of the future presented in the Star Trek or Star Wars films were all for the most part upbeat. The authentic-looking heavily polluted gloom of Blade Runner was, ironically, a breath of fresh air.

1982 was a big year for box office flops for seemingly every film except ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Blade Runner joined The Thing and Tron among the box office failures. The author was now dead and the prospect of more Dick adaptations initially seemed slim.

In an act three twist no one saw coming, the years ahead would see Blade Runner’s reputation slowly rise and its influence grow. The film has been credited with influencing everything from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Akira (1987), Kathryn Bigelow’s Millennium-set virtual reality drama Strange Days (1995), Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998), Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006).

Second Variety (1953) was another Dick story bought for movie rights before his death, but was slower to make it to the screen. Screamers (1995) starring Robocop’s Peter Weller focuses on soldiers being pursued by manmade machines designed to destroy them in the late 21st Century. Although badly received on its release, it did ultimately spawn a cult following and a sequel, Screamers: The Hunting (2009).

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The age of paranoia 

“Paranoia, in some respects, I think, is a modern day development of an ancient, archaic sense that animals still have – quarry type animals – that they’re being watched… And they’re being watched probably by something that’s going to get them… and often my characters have that feeling.”

Philip K Dick interviewed in 1974

Most people have a healthy degree of scepticism about the world around them. Dick, however, took this to unusual extremes. Initially, his paranoia seemed to have some foundation: as a young author soon after the end of the McCarthy era anti-communist witch-hunts, he was visited several times by FBI agents. This despite the fact Dick himself was never overly political, although he was enjoying something of a beatnik existence at that time.

Later he began to use amphetamines heavily and his mental health (though not his creative abilities) began to decline. By the early 1970s, according to his biographer Anthony Peake in A Life Of Philip K Dick: The Man Who Remembered The Future he was, “Extremely paranoid, believing at different times that communists, Nazis and the FBI were on his trail.”

Dick’s visions and hallucinations are too many and varied to detail here. While undeniably interesting – he once believed he saw a giant head floating in the sky, another recurring theme was a vision of a pink beam of light – they are really only relevant insofar as they influenced his work and increasingly turbulent domestic life. This probably peaked in an incident in which the author appears to have burgled his own house (what exactly happened will probably never fully be known).

Not surprisingly, this paranoid tendency was soon reflected in his work. The Adjustment Bureau (2011) is only based very loosely on the early Dick short story The Adjustment Team (1953) but both feature the recurring motif of the course of reality being determined by powerful external forces beyond human control. In the case of the film the mysterious bureau men and the lives of ambitious young politician David Norris (Matt Damon and his new girlfriend Ellise played by Emily Blunt).

This sense of paranoia extends into Minority Report (later filmed by Steven Spielberg with Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, the future star of the Total Recall remake) in which a society has managed to eliminate crime through the deployment of pre-cog psychics. They are able to predict crimes before they occur and thus prevent them from ever actually happening. This early Dick story is one of the most successful adaptations, although a recent attempt to make a TV series flopped. Richard Linklater’s animated A Scanner Darkly (2006) based on the 1970s novel also reflected strongly Dick’s descent into drug culture.

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Listen up Philip: PDK in the 21st Century 

“My God, my life is exactly like the plot of any one of ten of my novels or stories. Even down to fake memories and identity,” Dick once admitted. “I’m a protagonist from one of PKD’s books.”

Philip K Dick died only a few months before the first major adaptation of any of his works, Blade Runner, was released. Not all of Dick’s works have translated well to the screen. Paycheck (2003) sees Ben Affleck undergo a memory wipe, tackling similar themes to Total Recall. Next (2007) starring Nicolas Cage as a man employed by the FBI to predict and prevent terrorist attacks is only very loosely based on the Dick story The Golden Man.

While his novels and stories are undoubtedly still widely read, a second series of The Man In The High Castle already underway for 2016 and a Blade Runner sequel starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling coming in 2018, it is clear the screen has given his work a new lease of life. This is only fitting. For with most of his work still potentially ripe for adaptation, it is possible we could be seeing more Philip K Dick adapted films and TV series for many decades to come.

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What’s in a name? 

Why is Blade Runner called Blade Runner? It’s a fair question. There is, after all, no reference to the term in either the book or the film. Deckard is only ever referred to as a bounty hunter and Replicants are not mentioned by that name in the book at all. It is easy to see why director Ridley Scott wanted to condense the memorable but cumbersome Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but why Blade Runner?

In fact, The Bladerunner was the name of a book by Alan J Nourse from 1974 which Dick’s friend, celebrated Naked Lunch author William Burroughs, had written a treatment for a movie version of called Blade Runner (a movie). In Nourses’s book, the title made sense as the main character ran ‘blades’ as part of a futuristic black market medical supply operation. To cut a long story short, the film never got made but Ridley Scott loved the name and bought the rights to it.

Dick had very nearly called the book The Electric Toad, Do Androids Dream? or oddest of all The Killers Are Among Us Cried Rick Deckard To The Special Men. The book also had a strong influence on the 2000AD comic story Robohunter which was created before Scott’s film in 1978.

Philip K Dick, it is fair to say, had a flare for an unusual title. Among his many novels are The Man Who Japed (1955), Dr Bloodmoney or How We Got Along After The Bomb (1965), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1970), The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1970) and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (published posthumously in 1986).

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Paycheck! 

Some are great, some are bad. But which of Philip K Dick’s movies have done the best at the box office?

(Source: Box Office Mojo, March 2016)

Worldwide total grossing opening weekend figures, in millions of US dollars, unadjusted for inflation.

  1. Minority Report (2002) $358.4
  2. Total Recall (1990) $261.3
  3. Total Recall (2012) $198.5
  4. The Adjustment Bureau (2011) $127.9
  5. Paycheck (2003) $96.3
  6. Next (2007) $76.1
  7. Blade Runner (1982) $27.6
  8. Impostor (2002) $8.1
  9. A Scanner Darkly (2006) $7.7

Total:$1,161.7

Average:$129.1

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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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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.

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: How To Stop Time, by Matt Haig

Published by: Canongate, July 6th 2017

Tom Hazard has a condition.

For although he looks and sounds like any other forty-one year old man, he is older than he seems. Much older. For while most men of forty-one spent their childhoods rising BMXs and playing Spectrum computer games, Tom was born in the later stages of the Tudor era. In short, he is well over four hundred years old already and can expect to live into the 23rd century.

Anageria is the name given to Tom’s condition in Matt Haig’s excellent novel. He is not immortal and indeed does still age but just as dogs and cats are thought to live for seven years to every human’s one, Tom lives one year for every other humans’ fifteen. In short, he has only aged ten years since the age of Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln. He would only age five or six years in the entire period most of us spend on the Earth.

Like the hero of The Time Traveler’s Wife (who constantly finds himself jumping from random year to random year in the life of his partner), Benjamin Button (who is born as an old man and then ages backwards), Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (who like Tom, doesn’t age much from Tudor times onward but also changes sex) and the main character in the recent film The Age of Adaline (who remains in her late twenties for sixty years and ends up with an old lady as a daughter), Tom ultimately finds his long life less a blessing and a curse, particularly as he struggles to form relationships with any normal person (or “Mayfly”).

It’s a superb premise and a compelling read. Hazard undergoes all manner of human experiences ranging from the grim brutality of the 17th century witch-hunts to the joys of the Jazz Age. Like many characters in these situations, he has an uncanny Flashman-like ability to bump into famous people along the way, an encounter with author F. Scott Fitzgerald, recalling a similar encounter in Woody Allen’s time travelling film Midnight In Paris.

Matt Haig is one of Britain’s finest novelists and while this may slightly lack the emotional punch of some of his other novels (such as The Humans), there is still a simple joy in witnessing Tom’s experiences throughout the centuries as he struggles to find reasons to stay alive.

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Exeter 2017 General Election Hustings Debate

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Exeter Boat Shed, Tuesday June 6th 2017, 7pm

Which candidate will win Exeter in the General Election?

On the evidence of yesterday’s hustings debate at the new Exeter Boat Shed on the Quayside, it should be another win for Labour’s Ben Bradshaw. Bradshaw has represented the seat which was previously a Conservative stronghold for twenty years winning it five times since 1997. He may well be on course for a sixth win.

A good crowd turned out at the Exeter Boat Shed, a promising venue despite the current lack of toilets and shortage of seating. Devon Live editor Patrick Phelvin was adjudicating.

All six candidates standing in Exeter were present:

Jonathan West (Independent): A single issue candidate, Jonathan West’s candidature is entirely based around securing a second EU referendum. This position may have attracted some sympathy from the audience, as 55% of Exeter voters opted to “remain” in the 2016 Brexit vote. After a short introductory statement, Mr. West by prior arrangement, did not take part in most of the debate.

Vanessa Newcombe (Liberal Democrat): A former city and county councillor, Ms. Newcombe gave a fine, if occasionally too muted performance. She connected best with the audience in advocating electoral reform and in relating her own experiences of sexism during her political career.

Ben Bradshaw (Labour): By the simple technique of standing up to answer every question, Mr. Bradshaw gained an easy advantage over his rivals. He also gave the most well informed and punchiest answers reflecting his years of experience. Noting that the very first question, supposedly on national security was neither a question nor on national security (it was, in fact, a statement opposing UK foreign aid), Mr. Bradshaw attacked UKIP for not fielding a candidate in Exeter and thus effectively helping the Conservative candidate. The questioner (who claimed some theatrical experience) had admitted to being a former UKIP member and had made several factual errors in his statement. National security is a sensitive issue currently and a second question (this time an actual question) was asked. This debate was postponed from May 23rd due to the temporary suspension in all campaigning due to the Manchester Arena bombing. Later, Mr. Bradshaw performed well, attacking Theresa May’s stance on Brexit, her decision in 2011 as Home Secretary to abolish control orders and in advocating electoral reform. He was forced to defend his own lack of support for his increasingly popular leader Jeremy Corbyn, a potentially dangerous issue for him especially as Mr. Corbyn has grown more popular recently. Unusually for a Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw reaffirmed his view that the Conservatives are likely to win nationwide with an increased parliamentary majority.

James Taghdissian (Conservative): Although always competent and articulate, the well-spoken Mr. Taghdissian was playing to a tough crowd. His view that the Prime Minister is a better leader than Mr. Corbyn found little favour here despite the fact nationally, even after the recent slump in her personal ratings, polls indicate most Britons agree with him on this. A strong performance though Mr. Taghdissian might have benefitted from delivering punchier, less rambling answers. He fully conceded Ms. May had abolished control orders when she was Home Secretary.

Joe Levy (Green): A younger, soft spoken though always audible candidate, Mr. Levy made a good impression on the audience. Potentially a rising star, Mr. Levy could well be a man to watch in the future.

Jonathan Bishop (Independent): Although undeniably highly qualified academically, Mr. Bishop may have lost audience sympathy with his rude insistence on butting in to answer one question as he was “the only member of the panel qualified to answer it.”

Currently, Exeter is a lone island of red in a sea of Tory blue in the south west. Will it stay that way? After tomorrow, we’ll find out.

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Book Review: Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James

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Once upon time, conversations about TV used to be like this:

“Did you see Neighbours yesterday?”

“Yes, I saw most of it. Bouncer had a dream…” And so on.

A few years later, it would often be more like.

“Did you see Sex and the City last night?”

“Don’t tell me about it. I’ve taped it.”

Now, it’s more like:

“I watched Santa Clarita Diet yesterday.”

“Cool. I’ve not seen that. Or heard of it actually. Get back to me in 2020.”

For we live in the age of bingewatching. All of our viewing is laid out before us. In the 1970s, this would have meant whole series of The Onedin Line, Upstairs Downstairs and er, Poldark would have been presented to us in one go. Today, it means I’m bang up to date with some things (13 Reasons Why, Crazy Ex Girfriend, Transparent) and miles behind on others. I’m only on about 2013 in the story of The Good Wife. A shame as Mr. James unleashes a supermassive epic spoiler about this series early on! Be warned.

But otherwise, Clive James, once a famous TV critic before his own TV career is the perfect man to write this book. He has always been a superb writer and has taken the opportunity created by his recent illness to bingewatch a plenty with his family and as usual elevates this material far above the level an unknown scribe like myself has ever managed while writing for the likes of magazines like Geeky Monkey, Bingebox and DVD Monthly.

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As usual, with such things, it’s more fun if you’ve seen the show he’s discussing for yourself. He tackles the major shows of our time: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The West Wing, Homeland, The Good Wife and Game of Thrones amongst others. Most controversially, he thinks Breaking Bad is very overrated. He thinks Steve Buscemi isn’t quite tough enough for Boardwalk Empire (which should be renamed Boredwalk Empire in my view. Only Buscemi’s presence and Michael Shannon’s hypnotic voice kept me watching as long as I did). He is probably right to claim House of Cards goes off a lot once Frank Underwood becomes president (er, spoiler alert! Although surely everyone knows that?). He is also probably right about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s follow up to The West Wing. It probably suffered from trying to apply the same level of seriousness to a TV comedy show as Sorkin did to life in the White House. It also probably didn’t help that none of the comics on the show within a show (Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg aside) were actually very funny.

Occasionally, James shows his age. He dismisses anything with superheroes and zombies in outright. I, at forty, am only just starting to do this. He also makes it a little too obvious which actresses he does and doesn’t fancy.

But who am I to criticise? Nobody does this sort of thing better than Clive James.

He is the Master.

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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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