Book review: The Year of the Geek by James Clarke

The Year of the Geek: 365 Adventures From The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Universe, by James Clarke. Published by: Aurum Press.

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When did it become fashionable to become a geek? Geekiness is, after all, surely after all, by definition a shameful, untrendy preoccupation. Does this mean that anyone who claims to aspire to be a geek is necessarily a pretender to the nerd throne?

Well, no. Some people blame this trend on things like US sitcom Big Bang Theory and the excellent but now defunct British near equivalent The IT Crowd. But, in truth, this tendency which has resulted in websites like Den of Geek and books like this, has always been there. After all, you can’t get Spider-man without meeting Peter Parker first.

This book takes a chronological approach with a different geek anniversary highlighted for every day of the year. This, it must be said, is potentially of some use to someone who writes professionally on geek issues like me.

May 25, for example, is the anniversary of Star Wars’ US release in 1977. Lord of the Rings’ author JRR Tolkien was born on January 3rd while even the fictional birthday of Harry Potter (July 31st 1990) is noted.

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Some of the anniversaries are arguably not very major (the fourth season premiere of Babylon 5 on November 4 1995 is commemorated – as if any of us would forget this date anyway?) Some are arguably not very geeky (the outbreak of the First World War in 1914) but are interesting anyway. There is some discussion incidentally of each anniversary.

What elevates this book above the norm, however, is the innovative use of infographics used to illustrate a rich array of charts which demonstrate everything from the longevity of respective Doctor Who actors to the box office success of the Star Trek films.

An excellent addition to the coffee table of every socially maladjusted maladroit in the land.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 2

Upstart Crow s2Familiarity, as someone once said, can breed contempt.

Happily, this is certainly isn’t the case with the second outing for Ben Elton’s Tudor sitcom, which aims to tell the story behind the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

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It’s not a dramatically original idea (the films Shakespeare In Love and Bill have all had a pop at it) but aided by a strong cast, this generally works well. As the Bard himself, David Mitchell does an excellent job of humanising a figure who can sometimes seem like some sort of 16th century superhero. Mitchell essentially portrays him as a likeable clever dick torn between the demands of his work, the acting ambitions of his friend Kate (Gemma Whelan), the roguish charms of contemporary Kit Marlow (Tim Downie), the rivalry of his nemesis Robert Greene who coined the term “upstart crow” to describe Shakespeare in the first place (Mark Heap) and the attentions of his more common but loving Stratford family (Liza Tarbuck, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox). Noel Fielding also crops up in one episode of this series as another real life figure, composer Thomas Morley.

The 2017 Christmas special is not included here although if you’ve seen it, you will probably agree this is no bad thing.

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A modern comedy classic then? Perhaps not quite, at least, not yet. But this is certainly enjoyable, clever fun with a top notch cast and a welcome return to form for the generally unfairly reviled talent that is Ben Elton.

And, no. The “familiarity breeds contempt” quote is not by Shakespeare. Although on this evidence, the man himself might have claimed it was.

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Book review: Viz: The Jester’s Shoes

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Viz: The Jester’s Shoes. Published: Dennis Publishing

Where would the world be without Viz?

Well, in truth, it wouldn’t actually be very different would it? Most people don’t read it after all even in Britain, let alone the world. Most of you probably aren’t even reading this review. I know I’m not.

But, for those of us, who do, it is a joyous time. For a full 29 years after the release of The Big Pink Stiff One (i.e. the first Viz annual anthology), The Jester’s Shoes (no. I don’t get it either) is out. The cover describes it as “a toe-curling stack of the best bits from issues 242-251”. It is also at 200 pages, the biggest ever anthology of the ADULT COMIC yet.

Yes, just to emphasise this is an ADULT COMIC, just in case the phrase “Big Pink Stiff One” didn’t alert you to the fact. Any children thinking of reading this can piss off.

So what’s happening in this one?

Well, to pick at random, Sid the Sexist falls victim to a stage hypnotist, children’s favourite Hector’s House is subverted into Hector’s Whores (“C’mon Kiki the frog, give the cash to Daddy”), Major Misunderstanding takes exception to the phrase “Winter Wonderland,” The Fat Slags star in On The Game of Thrones and Roger Mellie: The Man on the Telly (who has appeared in every issue of Viz to date) offends Ann Widdecombe by making an obscene suggestion while drunk on the live TV Election Night Special.

There’s also the usual newspaper parodies (“Fuck all on Mars” and “Pope’s Hat ‘Fundamentally Flawed’, Say Scientists”) and the usual fun with regulars Mrs Brady Old Lady, The Bacons, The Real Ale Twats and much much more.

 

Book review: Only Fools and Stories by David Jason

Only Fools and Stories: From Del Boy to Granville, Pop Larkin to Frost by David Jason (Published by Century)

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In 1980, as he approached his fortieth birthday, David Jason could look back on an enjoyable comedy and acting career. But he had never hit the big time. And there had been plenty of missed opportunities.

For a few joyful hours in the late Sixties, for example, Jason had been briefly cast as Lance Corporal Jones in a new BBC sitcom about the wartime Home Guard called Dad’s Army. Jason, was only in his twenties then, but already had a good reputation for playing old men. Jason’s euphoria at getting the role was short-lived, however. The casting director’s first choice, middle-aged Clive Dunn got back in touch and indicated that, on second thoughts, he wanted the part which would make him a star, after all. Jason was out.

He could also have very easily been a Python, having co-starred with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones in the 1967-1969 comedy sketch Do Not Adjust Your Set. But for whatever reason, Jason didn’t follow these three into the hugely successful Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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He was, at least, by the end of the Seventies, an experienced and highly recognisable comedy face. He had played the geriatric convict Blanco in the hugely successful prison-based sitcom,  Porridge. Appearing with Ronnie Barker again, Jason had excelled as Granville, the put upon Yorkshire errand boy in Open All Hours. But though now regarded as a classic sitcom (indeed, Jason appears today in its follow-up Still Open All Hours to this day), the Roy Clarke series was very slow to attract a large audience.

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It took Only Fools and Horses to make Jason a star. John Sullivan’s sitcom began in 1981 and like Open All Hours was to be a slow burner, getting what, by 1980s standards were considered low ratings. But the role of wheeler dealing market trader Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (a performance Jason based on a stylishly dressed cockney building contractor he had encountered in the Sixties) was clearly the role he had been born to play. By the end of the decade, the series was one of the most popular in the land.

Although less of a full blown biography than 2013’s book, My Life, this should be enjoyed by all Jason fans featuring countless anecdotes about Jason’s experiences on the show (notably a series of practical jokes carried out with his onscreen brother Nicholas Lyndhurst) as a well as stories about his other later works including A Touch of Frost, The Darling Buds of May and Porterhouse Blue.

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Book review: Father Christmas and Me by Matt Haig

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Book review: Father Christmas and Me, by Matt Haig. Published by: Canongate.

Matt Haig is undeniably one of the finest British authors working today.

His 2004 novel The Last Family in England presented an intriguing new insight into a family’s dysfunction, viewed through the eyes of their pet dog. 2013’s The Humans, meanwhile, arguably his best novel to date, saw an extra-terrestrial experiencing Earth for the first time by taking the form of a Cambridge University professor. This year’s How To Stop Time http://bit.ly/2twITK8 focuses on a man who is afflicted with a condition which leads him to age fifteen times slower than everyone else. Thus, despite being born in the age of Elizabeth I and real-life witch hunts, he still appears to be only about forty in the age of Netflix, Brexit and Twitter.

How To Stop Time has been optioned as a potential film starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Haig’s 2015 book A Boy Called Christmas also currently seems likely to be filmed. It is a charming seasonal tale for children, followed up by The Girl Who Saved Christmas and now Father Christmas and Me, beautifully illustrated by Chris Mould.

Haig is skilled at writing for children as he is adept at producing literature for adults. I heartily recommend all of his books.

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Book review: Movie Geek by Simon Brew

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Book review: Movie Geek: The Den of Geek Guide to the Movieverse by Simon Brew, Ryan Lambie and Louise Mellor. Published by Cassell, a division of Octopus Publishing.

This may come as something of a shock to my most regular readers but there are other websites out there. You don’t have to read this one. There’s apparently one called Amazon which is pretty popular and another called YouTube. There’s also one called Den of Geek.

Den of Geek have been a valuable dispensary of geek info for well over a decade now, long predating the likes of the excellent Nerd Like You site or my former employers, the sadly now defunct Geeky Monkey magazine. If you want clues about the latest series of The Walking Dead or a review of the latest Game of Thrones episode, the website is the place for you.

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This movie-themed volume is the site’s first soiree into the world of books (big papery versions of websites: ask your mum) but I doubt it will be its last. Film-related articles featured include How The 1990s Changed Blockbuster Cinema, The Movie Sequels You Might Not Know Existed, Films You Might Not Know Were Based On A Comic Book and A Few Remarkable Things About Some Remarkably Bad Movies.

Do these topics float your boat? I’ll confess they do mine. But then, I am a geek. What do you expect?

But I would recommend this, genuinely. It’s a great coffee table read. Buy it. And perhaps Den of Geek, will one day be as popular as the website you’re reading now.

Which, in truth, even I’ve forgotten the name of.

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Book review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas

Book review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas. Published by Canongate.

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“He’s a baby! He’s a baby!” These words were sung by Shooting Stars co-host Bob Mortimer just as an unusual looking man dressed in a full-sized pink romper suit homed into view.

This is probably how most of us got our first glimpse of Matt Lucas, then known as “George Dawes” (as in “What are the scores, George Dawes?”) in the anarchic Nineties quiz show Shooting Stars. He was not, of course, a baby, but it is surprising to reflect, just how young he was. Having started performing stand-up in his teens, Lucas was already a semi-experienced performer when he first appeared on the show in 1995. He was barely twenty-one. True stardom was to come with Little Britain alongside his comedy partner David Walliams, some years’ later.

As Lucas admits, he does tend to polarise opinion somewhat. If the sight of his grinning bald face on the front cover already repels you, this book is unlikely to change your mind.

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But Lucas certainly has a story to tell: even before his entry into the comedy world, he had to cope with sudden childhood baldness, parental divorce and family scandal, fluctuating weight and the growing realisation that he was gay. Then, there was the decade-long climb to fame, initially playing the fictional aristocrat Sir Bernard Chumley, his first teenage meeting with Walliams (they bonded by comparing their stock of celebrity impressions), George Dawes, Rock Profiles, Little Britain, Come Fly With Me and ultimately Hollywood.

Fittingly for someone who was recently jumping around in time on Doctor Who, however, Lucas avoids a chronological approach. Each chapter is in alphabetical order by subject, a technique which works very well. The second chapter B, for example, is entitled Baldy! and discusses Lucas’s hair loss while the tenth J, Jewish, discusses his racial and religious heritage. It’s not always as obvious as that however and you’ll have to find our for yourself what the chapters ‘Frankie and Jimmy’ and ‘Accrington Stanley’ are about.

There is also, the tragic end to his relationship with Kevin McGee, his civil partner who committed suicide in 2009, some time after the failure of his relationship with Lucas. Lucas makes no apology for skirting around what clearly remains a very painful subject for him and nor should he have to. When he does occasionally refer to McGee, however, it is always with sensitivity and affection.

Like anyone, Lucas has a love/hate relationship with his own fame. He is perhaps more comfortable in the US where he is better known for his brief appearance in the huge comedy movie hit Bridesmaids opposite Rebel Wilson than for anything else. Indeed, as he himself admits, with the UK version of Little Britain a decade in the past now and the failure of his recent series Pompidou, he is less familiar to younger viewers now than he once was. Indeed, of the two Little Britain stars David Walliams is by far the better known member of the duo now.

Despite this, it is hard to imagine the man who created The Only Gay In The Village or George and Marjorie Dawes, ever disappearing quietly from our screens anytime soon.

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Book review: How To Be Champion by Sarah Millican

how-to-be-champion.jpgBook 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 frequently 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 of 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. The story of the two decades since as covered  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 a  majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). 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 too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. 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 a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either 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 by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s 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 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 in the early 2000s 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 in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”

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

Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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