Book review: Early Morning Riser

Meet Jane, a young teacher living in Boyne City, Michigan at the start of the 21st century. In addition to a consistently embarrassing mother, Jane has an on‐off relationship with Duncan, an older man who not only seems surprisingly close to his ex-wife, Aggie, but who seems to know every woman in town. Then there’s Jimmy, Duncan’s nice but childlike co-worker. Spanning a period of nearly twenty years, which naturally sees many changes for both Jane and those around her, Katherine Heiny’s novel is a hugely addictive visit to a charming and enjoyable small-town world.

Book review: Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny. Published by: Fourth Estate.

Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World

As far as the world of comics goes, Stan Lee was probably the most important person to have ever lived. Born to a Romanian-Jewish family in New York in 1922, young Stanley Lieber became involved in the world of comics early. An office boy in the 1930s, by the end of a frustrating 1950s, Lee came close to quitting the world of comics forever until his Newcastle-born British wife suggested he create a new crop of comic superheroes to challenge the near monopoly then enjoyed by Superman and Batman creators, D.C. In a remarkably short space of time, Lee created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The X-Men and The Avengers essentially establishing Marvel as the incredibly profitable global media powerhouse that it remains to this day. Happy ever after?
Well, no. Partly because, as Adrian Mackinder explains, the extent to which Lee can really claim complete credit for creating all these amazing characters remains hotly disputed. This is not a hagiography and while Lee was careful to cultivate a loveable avuncular image amongst Marvel’s armies of ‘True Believers,’ Mackinder, though clearly a big fan himself, does not shy away from exploring the less desirable elements of Lee’s character.


In short, Mackinder not only does a commendable job of detailing the highs, lows, creative explosions, fallings out and film cameos which made up Lee’s almost 96 years on Earth but also does a commendable job of explaining the cultural context in which they occurred. In addition to Lee’s life, we also learn a lot not only about the history of Marvel comics, but also get much on how vaudeville declined in the teeth of competition from radio and cinema in the 1920s and 1930s and much of interest about ALL comic adaptations on TV and film over the decades, not just the Marvel ones. It is easy to forget, despite the renaissance in comic book based films in the 21st century,, just how many flops there also were (Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider, to name but a few).
I must admit: I have sometimes written about the history of comics myself. But ultimately, I must put aside any feelings of professional jealousy and concede: Adrian Mackinder really has done an exceptional job here.
Nuff said.

Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World, by Adrian Mackinder. Published by: Pen & Sword, White Owl.

Book review: Delicacy: A memoir about cake and death

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Katy Wix’s book is not actually very funny.

This is not because Katy Wix herself isn’t funny: she definitely is. On TV series like Not Going Out, The Windsors, Ghosts and as a contestant on Taskmaster, she has consistently demonstrated herself to be incredibly talented, likeable (even when playing unlikeable characters (such as the snooty Carole in Miranda or bossy estate agent Carole in Stath Lets Fllats) and amusing. In truth, she is probably one of the finest comedy actresses working in Britain today.

But this memoir – which links a number of key events in Wix’s life to various cakes – is not only not especially funny but is generally not only not very funny but not even for the most part, really aspiring to be so. The book deals with serious issues: Wix’s own struggles with her weight, her deeply unpleasant grandfather, the death of a friend, a serious car accident Wix was involved in and her mother’s struggle with cancer. The book’s cover comes emblazoned with a quote from Simon Amstell (another very talented figure) describing the book as “painful, raw and incredibly funny.” Painfully raw? Yes. But to describe this as “incredibly funny” honestly does Delicacy a disservice. It is possible to make a troubled memoir very funny indeed as demonstrated by Georgia Pritchett’s forthcoming, My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life. But this isn’t that book.

This is not to detract from the honesty of Wix’s writing or to diminish the genuine heartache she has clearly experienced. But if you want a funny book, look elsewhere.

Photo by Idil Sukan

Book review: Delicacy A Memoir About Cake and Death, by Katy Wix. Published by: Headline.

Book review: Devon and Cornwall’s Oddest Historical Tales

Although it has the light, readable feel of a storybook, this book by John Fisher featuring 22 short stories from the county of Devon, followed by a further 20 stories from neighbouring Cornwall, is nevertheless history pure and simple. Both counties have a fair degree of myths and legend in their storytelling traditions and these tales which occasionally mention mermaids or weather-based folklore occasionally reflect that. Despite that, the stories which included that of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee (otherwise renowned as ‘the man they couldn’t hang.’) the legend of the pirate queen of Penryn, the amazing story of a lion attack on Regency-era Exeter stagecoach, the life of John Opie ‘the Cornish Wonder’ and the bizarre story of Napoleon’s post-Waterloo visit to Torbay, are no less incredible for being true. A light volume, ideal for holiday reading.

Book review: Devon and Cornwall’s Oddest Historical Tales, by John Fisher. Published by: The History Press.

70 years of Dennis the Menace: A timeline

1951: Dennis the Menace first appears in The Beano, drawn by Scots cartoonist, Davey Law. There is no Gnasher yet and Dennis’s distinctive stripy black and red jumper do not appear for some weeks. He is not yet on the cover but has a half-page black and white story inside the comic. The character and strip have a more real-world feel than many Beano strips which makes it instantly popular. Biffo the Bear remains on the cover where he has been since he knocked The Beano’s original cover star, Big Eggo off in 1948. Eggo (an ostrich) had ruled the roost since The Beano started in 1938.

By a staggering coincidence, a new American strip also called Dennis the Menace created by Hank Ketcham appears in US newspapers almost exactly simultaneously. The first Beano featuring Dennis was dated 17th March although in practice wold have been available five days earlier: the exact same day the US Dennis debuted! The American Dennis is blonde, has a dog and a neighbour called Mr Wilson. He too is still going strong. He is usually referred to as just ‘Dennis’ when he appears in the UK while the UK version is called, ‘Dennis and Gnasher’ in the US to avoid confusion. Just to be clear, this feature is only about the British Dennis the Menace, although both are now seventy.

1953: Dennis has now been promoted to a full page colour story on The Beano’s back cover. Dennis’s enemy Walter also makes his first appearance (Dennis’s friends, Curly and Pie-Face have already arrived).

In the same year, Minnie the Minx and Little Plum first appear in The Beano while Beryl the Peril appears in the new title, The Topper. Beryl and Minnie are clearly intended to be female versions of Dennis. Beryl and Dennis are both drawn simultaneously by Davey Law for much of the 1950s. Leo Baxendale, the creator of Minnie and ‘Redskin’ Dennis, Little Plum (amongst many other strips, including The Bash Street Kids) credited Dennis with inspiring him to join The Beano.

1955: The first Dennis the Menace Book or annual appears. Of all The Beano characters, only The Bash Street Kids have been granted the same honout.

1968: Abyssinian Wire-Haired Tripe Hound, Gnasher makes his first appearance as Dennis’s canine companion. The story becomes Dennis the Menace and Gnasher and later just Dennis and Gnasher.

1970: Davey Law retires (he dies in 1971). David Sutherland takes over.

1974: Dennis the Menace replaces Biffo the Bear as The Beano’s cover story. He remains there to this day after nearly 47 years, well over half the duration of The Beano’s 83-year run. Increasingly old-fashioned, Biffo ceases to appear regularly in The Beano at all after 1987.

1976: The Dennis the Menace Fan Club begins.

1977: Gnasher’s Tale, a spin-off story begins.

1979: Dennis’s pet pig, Rasher makes his debut appearance. He appears in his own story from 1984 until 1988 and intermittently afterwards.

1986: In a well-publicised storyline, Gnasher briefly goes missing and (though male) returns with a litter of puppies including Gnipper, a puppy with a single large razor-sharp tooth. Gnasher’s Tale is replaced by a new story, Gnasher and Gnipper.

1996: A Dennis the Menace cartoon appears on TV. Voices include Billy Connolly and Hugh Laurie.

1998: Birth of Dennis the Menace’s sister Bea.

2004: Dennis the Menaces surpasses the record previously set by Lord Snooty to become the longest running Beano character ever. Only Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger come close to rivalling his longevity.

2009: Another new TV series, Dennis and Gnasher begins. It continues until 2013.

2021: Dennis the Menace celebrates its 70th birthday.

Audiobook review: The Ballad of Halo Jones Complete Edition

Few stories from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000AD, are remembered with such affection as Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s mid-80s classic, The Ballad of Halo Jones.

This new audiobook does an excellent job of retelling the adventures of Halo, an ordinary 50th century girl who escapes the restrictions of a depressing teenage existence in vast urban settlement, The Hoop to find work on a space cruiser, the Clara Pandy. As in the original classic comic story, she ultimately becomes embroiled in the affairs of the sinister General Luiz Cannibal and the horrors of the Tarantula Nebula War.

As with the first of the three books adapted here is less accessible than the others, largely because of the futuristic slang spoken by Halo and the other Hoop dwellers is slightly off-putting. There is also a bizarre error here in which one character, Lux Roth Chop, who is clearly supposed to be a child in the story is voiced by a grownup actor.

But, generally this is a first-class production which generally follows the original version very closely. Sheila Atim, in particular, does an excellent job of voicing Halo herself as she grows from being a naive teen into a cynical thirtysomething.

As with Halo herself, this is just out.

Netflix film review: Moxie

Moxie is the story of how a group of teenaged girls band together to defeat the sexism endemic in their high school.

The sexism is everywhere. The school American football team are treated as all-conquering heroes, even as they slap girl’s behinds in public and send out lists of which of the female students has the “best rack” or is “most bangable.” One suspects both this behaviour and the language used – though undeniably unacceptable – is actually fairly mild compared to what actually goes on in many schools in both the US and UK.


Worse still, a serious complaint of harassment made by new girl, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) against bullying sports star, Mitchell (who, in an interesting piece of casting is played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) is not taken seriously at all by the school’s head, Principal Shelley (Marcia Gay Harden). Another girl is angry over being unfairly penalised for wearing a tank-top, others are irritated by the lack of support given to girls’ sports by the school. A trans student is also annoyed to be excluded from the school production of Little Shop of Horrors. Long-suffering liberal teacher, Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz) amusingly ties himself in knots by trying to retain a neutral stance amidst the rising tide of rebellion.


One student, Vivian (Hadley Robinson) has had enough. Inspired both by the defiant attitude of her new friend, Lucy and by tales of the 1990s riot grrrl activism of her mother (Parks and Recreation star, Amy Poehler, who also directs this), Vivian single-handedly conceives, devises, writes, produces and distributes MOXIE! an underground magazine designed to tackle directly the plague of male chauvinism which infects the school. She manages to keep her own role in producing the new journal entirely secret from friends and family, an element of the story, I personally didn’t find entirely convincing. At times, Vivian exhibits signs of the intolerance which occasionally emerges in such movements. She also comes close to alienating her best and oldest friend, Claudia (Lauren Tsai).


Based on Jennifer Mathieu’s novel, I did not find every aspect of the film entirely convincing. The name Moxie or MOXIE! really works as a film title.


But as a well-acted and potentially inspiring call to arms against the evils of everyday sexism, Moxie is definitely worth watching.
Moxie is available to watch on Netflix now.

Book review: The Official History of Britain

A history of Britain in statistics? Boring surely? Well, no actually. Believe it or not, this is actually a very informative and a genuinely very readable and yes, sometimes very funny read, packed full of “did you know?” type facts which you will instantly want to share with anyone nearby, regardless of whether they want to hear them or not.

Providing numerous insights into how our way of life has changed in the last 200 years – what we are called, what jobs we do, how long we live, when and if we marry, how many children we choose to have, what we choose to call them, how likely we are to divorce, when and how we die and what of and so much more.

The book also makes a compelling topical case for the importance of statistical information. During the recent Coronavirus pandemic, the public need for regular up-to-date and accessible data has grown dramatically. How, after all, could we ever defeat the virus without knowing how many people have it, where they live, who its affecting the most, how fast its spreading, how many people are dying from it and how many people have been vaccinated?

Mark Twain is often quoted as referring to “lies, damned lies and statistics.” But this is a nonsense. Assuming the figures are correct and the listener is fully aware of the context, statistics should not be seen as the same thing as lies, damned or otherwise. They are close to being the opposite of lies. This quote is too often used as a lazy rebuke by people who are either too stupid to understand the statistical data they’re being provided with or by people who want to undermine its credibility because too misquote Jack Nicholson’s character in the film, A Few Good Men, “they can’t handle the truth.”

Or as the comedian Stewart Lee quoted a sceptical taxi driver as saying, “you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”

This is an engaging, amusing and well-written book, but it’s interesting for another reason entirely: it’s the story of us.

Book review: The Official History of Britain: Our Story in Numbers as Told by the Office For National Statistics, by Boris Starling and David J. Bradbury. Published by: Harper Collins.

Book review: The Real Hergé: The inspiration behind Tintin

There has probably never been as successful European cartoonist as the Belgian, Georges Remi, aka Hergé (1907-1983). The man behind the twenty-four hugely popular Tintin adventures is justly celebrated as a formidable creative talent. Yet the real Hergé was a more complex and often much less lovable character than his most famous creation. Prone to overwork and occasionally extramarital affairs, Hergé’s life and career have been clouded in controversy with the cartoonist accused of racial stereotyping and of collaborating with the occupying Nazi regime in Belgium during the Second World War.

The truth, as detailed in Sian Lye’s well-researched and very readable book is fascinating.

Book review: The Real Hergé: The inspiration behind Tintin, by Sian Lye. Published by Pen & Sword, White Owl

Book review: The Magic of Terry Pratchett

A former local journalist who later moved into public relations, Terry Pratchett grew from being a cult comic fantasy author in the 1980s to becoming the bestselling author in the UK of all in the 1990s. Biographer Marc Burrows does an excellent job detailing the prolific Discworld and Good Omens author’s busy life and extensive back catalogue – no mean feat as the Discworld series alone comprises 41 novels – successfully emulating Pratchett’s own literary style as he does so, with numerous witty footnotes throughout. Burrows also details the progress of the Alzheimer’s disease which sadly blighted Pratchett’s final years leading to his death in 2015, aged 66.

I spotted only one mistake: Pratchett never reported on the assassination of Egyptian President Nasser as this event never happened. Perhaps the author meant Sadat? At any rate, this should not detract from Burrows’ achievement. Apparently, Pratchett’s official biography has not been written yet. Whoever writes it will have their work cut out surpassing this.

Book review: The Magic of Terry Pratchett, by Marc Burrows. Published by Pen and Sword. White Owl (2020)

TV review: Dead Pixels, Series 1-2

Meet Meg and Nicky. Both are young, in their twenties and are friends. Both were effectively in Lockdown long before it was fashionable.

For Meg and Nicky are gamers, hopelessly addicted to the huge online role-playing computer game, Kingdom Scrolls in Jon Brown’s winning E4 sitcom. Kingdom Scrolls is not actually a real game, but you would be forgiven for thinking it was from watching this. The fantasy world in which Meg and Nicky are drawn into is fully realised on screen in graphic detail. Although we see Meg and Nicky in the real world a lot: almost invariably in their flat or at work, often speaking to each other via portable headsets, we often see them as the fantasy warrior avatars they play as in the game fighting battles, hunting for treasure and generally living their lives vicariously through their characters in the game.

This isn’t the first sitcom to feature gamers as leading characters: remember Spaced, The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory. But none have portrayed their high-tech fantasy worlds in as much vividly realised, carefully crafted visual detail as Dead Pixels does.

Needless to say, neither Meg (Alexa Davies) or Nicky (Will Merrick) are normal, well-rounded people. They never date, eat out, go to the cinema, go on holiday, read books, go clubbing or do any of the normal things pre-Lockdown twentysomethings did. Instead, they devote every spare minute of their free time to Kingdom Scrolls. They neglect their diet and are uninterested in their work. Meg, in fact, genuinely seems to be very good at her job and keeps getting promoted. This only annoys her as it leaves her with more responsibilities and less time to play Kingdom Scrolls.

They are endlessly scornful about the activities of their friend, Alison (Charlotte Ritchie). Although only slightly older than Meg and Nicky. she is a non-gamer who lives something close to what most of us would consider to be a normal life. She is baffled and slightly troubled by Meg and Nicky’s obsession and does what she can to gently draw them out of it. She achieves little success in this, however. Meg and Nicky continue to treat such developments as the release of a new expansion pack or the casting of the long-awaited Kingdom Scrolls film as if they are matters of life and death. We soon learn Alison is not above making bad life decisions herself too.

Incidentally, there is a neat twist revealed quite late in the very first episode. I have avoided mentioning it here.

There are other characters too. Usman (Sargon Yelda) is a slightly older US airline pilot whose obsession with Kingdom Scrolls clearly comes at the expense of family life. He never meets any of the other characters in person during the programme although he speaks to them often.

Russell (David Mumeni) is a Kingdom Scrolls newbie, who Meg as met at work. Russell is embarrassingly unworldly in both the game and real-life and is still amused by such japes as sheathing and unsheathing his character’s sword repeatedly to make it look as if his avatar is masturbating. The other more seasoned gamers have long since ceased to be amused by such antics. There is an ongoing story about Meg fancying Russell at first, finding him very physically attractive despite disliking his personality. Nothing is really made of this after the first series, however. Other supporting characters also crop up in the second series played by Al Roberts (Stath Lets Flats) and New Zealand comic and actress, Rose Matafeo (Taskmaster, Baby Done).

The first series of Dead Pixels was released in 2019 and the newly released second series which is now showing is just as good as the first. Genuinely funny, very watchable and boosted by impressive visuals and strong comic performances from Davies, Mellor and Ritchie especially, Dead Pixels is guaranteed to keep you glued to the screen.

Series 2 of Dead Pixels is currently being screened on Tuesdays at 10pm on E4. Both series are available to watch in full on All4.

Book review: How To Break Into The White House

As it turns out, the title of this book now seems a little unfortunate.

In fairness, author Ann Bracken had no way of knowing that two weeks before her book was published, an overexcited horde of psyched-up Trump supporters unreconciled to their fallen leader’s defeat in the November 2020 US presidential elections two months’ before would overrun the US Capitol Building, resulting in five deaths.

Let us be clear: there is nothing in this slim volume which even remotely encourages anyone to physically break into any government buildings or indeed anywhere else. To be strictly accurate, it’s not even a guide on how to “break into” the White House by legitimate, democratic means either. It is merely a brief memoir of Ann Bracken’s life so far which includes a chapter on her years working as a secretary in the first Bush White House. Interesting as her life may have been, I can see why she opted for this title as it ‘s a good deal snappier than ‘My Years Working for Bush (no, not him! The okay one) and some Other Stuff’ by Ann Bracken. It’s just unfortunate that given the current climate, even working from Britain, I could not help feeling a little nervous as I typed the book’s name into a search engine.

My search didn’t bring up much anyway. I don’t think she is a well-known figure currently. Perhaps this book will change this? It is a pleasant, readable account of how Indiana-born Ann rose to work as an assistant to Senator Richard Lugar and then for the US’s second most recent one-term Republican, US President George Bush (now usually referred to as George HW Bush or POTUS41 to distinguish him from his less than distinguished son) before settling in the UK.

I should say, I am not on her political wavelength at all. She thinks the first Bush was a more historically important leader than Clinton, thinks the fact that the US has reduced emissions in recent years justifies withdrawing from the Paris environmental agreement and is clearly prepared to gloss over the fact that disgraced former President Trump was not only a horrendous human being but an almost total disaster in office. Her views do not seem generally abhorrent, however, and I will try not to hold them against her as I review her book.

It is readable enough but is short and can easily be finished in an hour or two. There are some anecdotes about her ongoing obsession with the musician Sting and about her friend precipitating a famous public relations disaster during which the Queen’s face was completely concealed behind a microphone during an address from the White House lawn.

There seems to be a self-promotional aspect as there are a surprisingly high number of pictures of Bracken herself in it (around twenty). Some are, as you might expect, old pictures of her meeting luminaries like the late President Bush and his vice president, Dan Quayle, who like Bracken is also Indiana-born. Other pictures seem to have been specially commissioned for the book and are quite glossy. One shows her in a swimsuit, another is labelled “pretending to be a Brit” dressed up like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. The tone is a bit odd.

The comments on the back of the book would sit more appropriately on a CV than on the cover. “I am grateful to have you on our team,” (President Bush), “She brightened up the White House…you have been a real asset” (other Bush people).

As I say, I am not on Ann Bracken’s political wavelength at all. But even were she a former Clinton or Obama staffer, there’s just no real getting away from the fact: this is very thin stuff.

A fine, very slight read. Her name may be ‘Bracken’ but don’t expect this to set the world on fire.

Book review: How To Break Into The White House, by Ann Bracken. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.

Book review: Wes Anderson – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work

As the man behind films such as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson has established himself as one of the most original, imaginative and endlessly inventive filmmakers of the 21st century so far.

Frequently collaborating with Bill Murray (who is in all but one of his eleven films), Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and Jason Schwartzman, Anderson’s body of work is always visually pleasing regardless of whether he is producing a full blown animation (as in the case of The Fantastic Mr Fox or the often bizarre Isle of Dogs) or in one of his never ordinary live action films.

With an impressive range of pictures and extra features (for example, detailing the recurrent visual motifs in Anderson’s work) this book by film expert Ian Nathan is the perfect coffee table accompaniment to the director’s work doing full justice to him, just as Nathan’s earlier volumes on Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers and Ridley Scott did for those talented filmmakers.

Wes Anderson – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, by Ian Nathan. Published by: White Lion.

Book review: No Shame, by Tom Allen

Tom Allen is well-established as one of Britain’s best-known comedians. Incredibly camp and always impeccably dressed in a tweed suit, Allen’s quick wit and sharp tongue has made him the ideal choice to front high end reality TV spin-off shows like The Apprentice…You’re Fired! and The Great British Bake Off: Extra Slice. He also presents the popular Like Minded Friends podcast with his friend, comedian, Suzi Ruffell and can often be seen on panel shows like Mock the Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and QI.

As this winning memoir confirms, Allen’s camp TV persona is no act. He was an unusual child and in his own words was “always forty-six years old.” He, in fact, won’t turn forty-six until 2029 (he was born in 1983), but with his unusual, distinctive dress sense, interests and manner made him stand out. Unlike most 1990s teenagers (indeed, unlike most teenagers from any decade), he avoided the traditional adolescent activities preferring to organise dinner parties for middle-aged women while pretending to be a butler.

Even his accent is a mystery. Although not exactly Received Pronunciation, it is definitely plummy. But it seems to have come from nowhere. He apparently sounds nothing like anyone in his family and went to school with fellow comedian Rob Beckett and former EastEnders actor, Charlie Clements, neither of whom sound anything like him either. “If the Daily Mail built a theme park, it would probably look a bit like Bromley,” he says of his birthplace, although as of the current Lockdown, he still lives there with his ageing parents.

(A surprising number of famous people, in fact, come from or have lived in Bromley including H.G. Wells, Enid Blyton, David Bowie, Jack Dee and Pixie Lott. But that’s another story).

“When I was sixteen,” he recalls. “I dressed in Victorian clothing in a bid to distract from the fact that I was gay.” Twenty years on, he recognises this strategy was “flawed” and indeed, had less to do with trying to do with attempting to distract attention away from his (presumably very obvious) homosexuality than it did attempting to escape from the difficult realities of his daily situation altogether.

This is a very funny book, shedding light on what, in reality, clearly must have been a very unhappy period for Allen. For all his occasional on stage bitchiness, he is clearly a very sensitive person as well as a good writer. Though the book takes us up to the present, there is relatively little about his comedy career. The best bits of the book chronicle his awkward teenaged experience in exquisite detail.

By coincidence, Tom Allen’s memoir comes hot on the heels of To Be A Gay Man, by the musician, Will Young, who is around four years older than Allen. As with that volume, Allen’s enjoyable book should provide an invaluable source of inspiration to any young gay readers, hopefully ensuring that feel able to advance to a position where they feel “no shame” themselves.

No Shame, by Tom Allen. Published by Hodder and Stoughton.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 2: The Balmoral Test

Balmoral: 1981. And the holidaying Royal Family are buzzing with excitement at the news a computer-animated stag has been sighted, limping across the nearby landscape. Who amongst them will be the first to fell the wounded beast? This episode is entitled, ‘The Balmoral Test.’ It could just have easily been called, ‘Stag Party.’

The Windsors also have other prey in mind too, as the Prime Minister and her husband are set to join them for a few days of socially excruciating fun and games. Will Margaret and Denis Thatcher (Gillian Anderson and Stephen Boxer) prove up to the challenge? Will they, in short, pass ‘the Balmoral test?’

Spoiler alert: no. They don’t.

As usual, writer Peter Morgan presents a balanced view of things. On the one hand, Margaret Thatcher was clearly a workaholic, with little sense of humour and no sense of fun. In real life, she described Balmoral as “purgatory.” She commits a number of social gaffes, notably turning up for a rural excursion to hunt the stag in a brilliant blue suit more appropriate for addressing the Conservative Party Conference. The woman who, in reality, spent nearly every New Year’s Eve of her eleven-year premiership in the company of Jimmy Saville, leaves after only a few days with the Windsors. She has better things to do: the country is in the grip of recession and her Cabinet, some of whom were in ‘Allo ‘Allo (Guy Siner – Gruber in the sitcom, sir Francis Pym in this) are in open revolt.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why any outsider might struggle to get involved in the long established traditions of a close-knit family, particularly one as jaded and weird as the Windsors are. The Royal Family treat the Thatchers with frosty disdain, never explaining anything and assuming everyone else already knows their silly little rules. It is easy to see why Thatcher might not enjoy playing ‘Iggle Piggle’ or enjoy the delivery of Princess Anne’s (Erin Doherty) spirited animal impressions at close quarters. It also doesn’t help that two of the Royals, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip (Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies) are amongst the rudest people to have ever lived.

Later, Mrs. Thatcher diminishes herself still further in the eyes of the Queen (Colman) explaining her purge of the Wets (Tories, uneasy at the severe consequences of her economic policies) occurred almost entirely due to a lack of resolution on their part resulting from their privileged social background. This would have been an odd tactic to adopt when talking to the Queen, of all people, and doesn’t really do justice to the stubborn self-belief which enabled the Iron Lady to cling doggedly to such policies, even as society was devastated by mass unemployment.

Back at Balmoral, however, another new arrival – Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) brings a new subject for the family’s scrutiny, young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). There is a slight sense of manipulation in the way Diana wins over the Royals – for example, she tells Philip (falsely) she is essentially a country girl at heart. But this isn’t overstated. Diana soon helps the Duke kill the stag, effectively winning over all the Royals (except Margaret) in one fell swoop. She has passed the Balmoral Test with flying colours!

Next time we see her, she is Diana as most of the wider world in 1981 first saw her. A beautiful but seemingly ordinary young woman at the centre of stories about her relationship with the Prince of Wales, smiling self-consciously as she walks down the street surrounded by a growing number of snapping photographers, seemingly slightly irritated by all the attention, but also rather enjoying it at the same time.

And so, it begins…

The Crown. Episode guide: Season 3, Episode 6: Tywysog Cymru

It has long been accepted that just because someone holds the title Prince of Wales, it does not mean that they are necessarily Welsh or have much to do with Wales.

Indeed, not since an early medieval example, who later became King Edward II, no Princes of Wales have been from Wales at all. No, being Prince of Wales just means is that you will probably be King some day, and even then, the odds are not great. Looking back, only about two in every three Princes of Wales have ever made it to the throne. These are much better odds than the average person faces admittedly, but still not exactly a shoe-in.

In 1969, Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales at a lavish ceremony at Caernarfon Castle, as a young man. Over fifty years later and Charles is a grandfather in his seventies. He is still waiting to be King. As Alan Bennett wrote in ‘The Madness of George III,’ “being Prince of Wales isn’t a position. It’s a predicament.”

As his ceremony approached, it was decided that Charles (played here by Josh O’Connor) should be taken out of Cambridge University, where he seemed to engage in constant amateur dramatics and be temporarily transferred to Aberystwyth where he could brush up on the Welsh language. This would serve him well as he would have to speak in Welsh during the ceremony.

According to The Crown, Charles had a difficult time at Aberystwyth, encountering some hostility from the burgeoning Welsh nationalist movement and enduring an initially awkward relationship with Edward “Tedi” Millward (Mark Lewis Jones), the Plaid Cymru politician, dedicated republican and tutor assigned to inculcate the future King Charles III in the ways of the Welsh tongue.

Incidentally, on a personal note, I could relate to some aspects of this as I studied at Aberystwyth myself. It was thirty years after Charles was there though, I did not study Welsh while I was there and I did not undergo an investiture ceremony to become Prince of Wales shortly afterwards.

Good though this episode is, in some ways, the later scenes are most interesting, revealing a colder, harder side to the Queen (Olivia Colman) than we have seen before.

And ‘Tywysog Cymru?’ It just means ‘Prince of Wales.’

Book review: The Problem With Men, by Richard Herring

Some years ago, the comedian Richard Herring noticed something funny happening on Twitter.

Many unusual things happen on Twitter, of course, but Herring noticed this particular trend always occurred on March 8th, the date officially designated as International Women’s Day.

“When is international men’s day?” one tweet would typically begin. “Or am I once again being positively discriminated against?”

Other such tweets would be more argumentative in tone. “Imagine the uproar if there was an international man’s day…” Or “Is there an international man’s day? #askingforafriemd” or even “When’s international men’s day then? Of course there isn’t one. So much for equality!!”

Lots of these tweets appear every year. The vast majority are posted by men. All have been prompted by news of International Woman’s Day. Perhaps they make a reasonable point?

Well, in fact, no. In fact, they do not.

Because firstly, as Richard Herring points out, all of them have been tweeted simply in an attempt to spoil International Women’s Day. This is a silly and childish response, the equivalent of a child having a tantrum at another child’s birthday party, which they have been invited to, simply because it is not their own.

Second, almost everyone tweeting may be safely presumed to have some sexist intent (e.g. to rile women or feminists).

And thirdly…there is an International Men’s Day already! There has been for years, a fact any one of the multitude of idiots sending out the army of tweets on the matter, could have found out simply by Googling it within seconds. It is on November 19th.

Richard Herring is one of Britain’s most likeable and intelligent comedians and often likes to set himself these little challenges. Years ago, he set himself the task of replying to every single tweet asking the inane question always with a witty response informing them that the big day is on November 19th.

Two years ago, he started doing this for charity. If I may quote Wikipedia:

“On 8 March 2018, in aid of International Women’s Day, Herring raised over £150,000 for domestic abuse charity Refuge by responding to anyone on Twitter who asked when International Men’s Day was (it is 19 November).He did the same on 8 March 2019, raising almost £130,000. He repeated the exercise for the final time on 8 March 2020 and streamed himself responding to tweets live on Twitch. He raised a further £70,000.”

Three cheers for him!

In fact, four cheers as this short book detailing his experiences is a treat. Extending into such topics as why many men confidently believe they could score a point against Serena Williams on a tennis court (they couldn’t), why female leaders have a better record on dealing with COVID-19 than male ones do and whether a man can ever be considered a feminist, this is thought-provoking, intelligent and lots of fun.

The Problem with Men: When is it International Men’s Day? (and why it matters), by Richard Herring. Published by Sphere, November 5th 2020.

Richard Herring is politely trolling people on Twitter on International Women's Day.

Book review: Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood

It was perhaps her finest moment.

The song (apparently fiendishly difficult to perform) takes the form of a conversation between a husband, Barry and his wife Freda as she, following a broadcast of Gardeners’ Question Time, cautiously at first but with steadily increasing passion and verve attempts to initiate sex. Ignoring Barry’s pleas to abstain, (“I’m imploring: I’m boring, Let me read this catalogue on vinyl flooring,”) the song builds to an impressive crescendo with Freda ultimately suggesting he “hit me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly.” “The Ballad of Barry and Freda” often referred to simply as “Let’s Do It” is undoubtedly Victoria Wood’s most famous and popular song. It also provides the name of this thoroughly researched and well-written, authorised biography which arrives four-and-a half year’s after the much-loved comedian, actress, writer and musician’s premature death in 2016.

Victoria Wood’s career was not short on magic moments. Many came during her memorable ITV performance, An Audience With Victoria Wood in 1988, with which that song is often strongly associated. Many others come courtesy of her series, Victoria Wood As Seen On TV (which introduced the world to the deliberately amateurish delights of soap opera parody, Acorn Antiques) while later high points included Pat and Margaret, the sitcom Dinnerladies, Housewife, 49 and That Day We Sang.

Many of her finest moments, in fact, came from other performers such as Julie Walters, Celia Imrie and Patricia Routledge, the hardworking Wood almost invariably providing the scripts.

This comprehensive biography provides Wood with a well-deserved celebration of her hugely accomplished life while not glossing over her unhappy childhood, difficult rise to the top, her sometimes infuriating perfectionism, her marriage break-up as well as her heartbreaking final illness.

Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood, by Jasper Rees. Published by: Trapeze.

Book review: More Than Likely: A memoir

TV comedy writers vary in their habits. Some work best writing in groups (as with many US shows, ensembles like The Fast Show and Monty Python). Others seem to work best alone (the late John ‘Only Fools…’ Sullivan, Simon ‘Men Behaving Badly’ Nye, Roy ‘Summer Wine’ Clarke). Others work best in twos, bouncing ideas off each other and finding comfort in their shared humour.

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are definitely in this final category and since the mid-1960s have achieved a record of success which has established them as legends in their field.

In the 1960s, they achieved their first major sitcom triumph with The Likely Lads. In addition to the writing itself, they also deserve unexpected credit for selecting James Bolam and Rodney Bewes for the key roles, Dick poring through Spotlight and eliminating anyone who looked like they could only be “serious, romantic or menacing” and being attracted by the fact both had been in films (Bewers had been Billy Liar, Bolam was in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). Controversy has long reigned in comedy circles over the Rodney Bewes and James Bolam’s real-life relationship with recent revelations suggesting the late Bewes may have been very difficult to work with. But they were undoubtedly the perfect choice for the time.

In the 1970s, Clement and La Frenais struck gold again, producing a full-colour follow-up, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? With the writing now focusing on how the two previously fairly interchangeable young friends were. by their thirties. gradually drifting apart – Bewes’ Bob marrying the woman Clive James described as “the dreaded Thelma” (the excellent Brigit Forsyth) and growing into a potential Thatcherite of the future while Bolam’s Terry remained much the same, even still living with his elderly mum, Clement and La Frenais produced a sequel which, for once, surpassed the original.

The hits kept on coming. The prison-based black comedy Porridge starring Ronnie Barker may actually be their greatest work of all while in the 1980s they scored major hits with Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Lovejoy. The last of these isn’t mentioned much at all here surprisingly, although its star, Ian McShane, who they also worked with on the 1971 crime thriller, Villain, is mentioned quite a bit.

In the meantime, of course, they’ve had their fair share of failures, unrealised projects, creative successes which received insufficient attention (their excellent 1998 rock reunion comedy film, Still Crazy and the mostly unseen Beatles-music inspired film musical, Across The Universe spring to mind) and disasters.

They have written more than you think.

They’ve also travelled around the world a lot and met many interesting and often famous people. Which is what this book is mainly about. It is not a straight cradle to grave biography, so much as a selection of anecdotes about the many famous people they’ve met on their travels e.g. Tracey Ullman, Marlon Brando, Anne Bancroft and George Best. If that isn’t your sort of book, then I’d probably give this a miss. But they have met lots of genuinely interesting characters over the years and they are good anecdotes. Clement and La Frenais are clearly good natured coves and are very rarely spiteful about anyone. They even seem to have found the famously volatile Peter Sellers okay to work with although Michael Winner does come across as having been a bit of a knobhead.

Each chapter is written either by Dick or Ian, with the other man occasionally inserting his own thoughts at the end. It’s a format which works well. Surprisingly, bearing in mind their long successful history together the very occasional chapters which they both collaborated on here actually work less well. This includes a slightly tedious opening chapter in which they construct self-indulgent fictional scenarios about how they first met, before revealing the commonplace but perfectly agreeable real one (they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend in a pub in Notting Hill).

Now both well into their eighties, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais often sound as if they consider themselves at the mid-point of their careers and are fully expecting to be writing together for decades to come. It is a good attitude from two inspiring likely lads who have done much to enrich our lives during the last fifty-five years.

More Than Likely: A Memoir. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Published by: W&N. Paperback published: September 15th 2020.

2000AD timeline 11: 1987

1987 (Prog 503 – 554)

January (Prog 505): The vampish Durham Red makes her debut appearance in the new Strontium Dog (Grant/Ezquerra). Slaine The King and Bad Company are also appearing at this point. The Dead (Milligan/Belardinelli) begins in Prog 510.

April (Prog 516): The cover price rises to 28p.

May (Prog 520): Tenth anniversary prog! From now on 2000AD is no longer printed on newsprint but on slightly larger, highly quality paper stock. Rogue Trooper returns (Simon Geller/Steve Dillon), as does Anderson PSI (Wagner and Grant/Barry Kitson), Torquemada the God (Mills/O’Neill). Judge Dredd appears in a special Ten Years On (Wagner and Grant/Garry Leach).

Richard Burton replaces Steve MacManus as editor. MacManus has edited the comic since 1978. 2000AD develops an increasingly ‘grown-up’ sensibility in the years ahead. It is an exciting time for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic!

June (Prog 525): D.R and Quinch’s Agony Page begins. Creator Alan Moore is no longer involved (Jamie Delano and Alan Davis/Alan Davis and Mark Farmer).

August (Prog 533): Bradley makes his first appearance in a Tharg’s Futureshock (Alan McKenzie/Simon Harrison).

(Prog 534): P.J. Maybe makes his first appearance in Judge Dredd: Bug (Wagner and Grant/Liam Sharp). Nemesis appears in an unusual one-off photo story (Mills/photos: Tony Luke).

(Prog 535): Zenith arrives (Grant Morrison/Steve Yeowell). The character (a pop star and superhero) himself doesn’t appear until Prog 536.

(Prog 537): Universal Soldier arrives (McKenzie/Will Simpson).

September (Prog 541): Mean Team ends (Alan Hebden/Belardinelli). Most of the main characters are killed off.

October (Prog 545): Oz begins (Wagner and Grant/Cliff Robertson). It is the first Dredd mega-epic in five years.

November (Prog 547): Bad Company II begins (Milligan/ Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy).

December (Prog 554): Last appearance for the old 2000AD logo.

Elsewhere:

February: Be afraid. Be very afraid. David Cronenberg’s The Fly lands in the UK.

April: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home sees the crew of the Enterprise visiting 20th century Earth. Star Trek: The Next Generation arrives on US TV this year but does not appear on BBC 2 until 1990.

July: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace proves a massive flop.

September: Sylvester McCoy debuts as the Seventh Doctor Who. Fantasy adventure, Knightmare debuts on Children’s ITV.

November: Robocop receives its UK cinema premiere. Many see a resemblance to Judge Dredd. Predator is also released this month. Terry Pratchett’s Mort is published. Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels also appears this year.

Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines including Yours Retro, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (amongst other things). He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and wrote A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He was also wrote the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars annuals as well as the 2015 Transformers annual.