The Seven Ages of Binge Watching 

Reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016):

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

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

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

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

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

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THE GREY AGES: (1936-1978)

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

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THE VIDEO AGE (1980s)

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

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

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THE COMING OF THE VIDEO BOXSET

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

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

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

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THE DIGITAL AGE

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

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BLU PERIOD

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

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THE AGE OF STREAM

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

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

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

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Book review: A Very Courageous Decision. The Inside Story of Yes Minister, by Graham McCann

Chris Hallam's World View

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…

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Book review: A Very Courageous Decision. The Inside Story of Yes Minister, by Graham McCann

Published by: Aurum Press.

ym2

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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Film review: Ghost In The Shell

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Ghost in the Shell is out now on Digital Download.

106 minutes

Directed by: Rupert Sanders

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche

First, the good news: in 2017, for the first time ever a superhero film starring a genuine actual woman person proved a big hit at the box office.

However, it wasn’t Ghost in the Shell. It was Wonder Woman.

The mystery, of course, is not so much why this happened but why this hadn’t happened before. There are a few possible explanations:

Explanation 1: Cinema audiences are all similar in character to Donald Trump. They claim to like women but secretly fear and despise them (even the ones who are female themselves): Happily, FALSE. Resident Evil, Underworld, Tomb Raider and other female-led non-superhero films have done well with audiences after all. As did Wonder Woman…

Explanation 2: No one outside the Geekzone knew about characters like Elektra, Aeon Flux, Catwoman and the franchise Ghost in the Shell. Everyone knows Wonder Woman: Probably TRUE, yes. Except in the case of Catwoman, who everyone knew but which was truly dreadful.

Explanation 3: That’s just it! Wonder Woman was actually good. All those other films were bad! Surprisingly, this is generally TRUE too (although Ghost in the Shell, as we shall see, isn’t bad). But why should this be…?

Explanation 4: Women are just bad at playing superheroes. FALSE! Garner, Theron, Johansson were and are all good actresses. It’s not just Gil Gadot, great as she is.

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Explanation 5: Filmmakers really haven’t got the knack of making superhero films for women until now. Oddly, this is more likely to be the explanation than anything else.

Perhaps I am wrong to group Ghost In The Shell alongside these other films. It is arguably a different kettle of fish. It is science fiction, a direct remake of the Japanese anime which is  in fact one of the most successful animes there has ever been. it’s Blade Runner type setting is reasonably visually impressive and the film is certainly action packed. Johansson is fine as the synthetic human who has been transformed into an anti-terrorist operative  although it is difficult to reject the widespread criticism that an Asian actress would have been more suitable for the part.

Ghost In The Shell is never awful but it isn’t especially original, lacks a sense of humour and is sometimes quite boring. Great films do sometimes fail at the box office. This did fail but ultimately really isn’t great.

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Why 2016 was a great year after all

Chris Hallam's World View

150806212843-07-fox-debate-trump-0806-super-169Don’t believe me? Then, consider the following…

  1. Much attention has been focused on the large number of celebrities who died in 2016. But what about the much larger number of celebrities who DIDN’T DIE during the year? These include former US president Jimmy Carter, actor Tom Baker, Bjorn Borg, puppeteer Bob Carolgees, Arthur Scargill, Deliverance star Ned Beatty, Olivia de Havilland, Roger Moore, Brigitte Bardot, Ross Perot, Frank Oz and Hugo Chavez. Chavez, admittedly, was already dead at the start of the year. This still counts.
  2. Sadiq Khan was elected mayor of London. His opponent Zac Goldsmith’s campaign floundered, proving decisively that racist and dishonest tactics will never succeed in a western political campaign. Ahem…
  3. For the first time in over two centuries of history a woman was nominated as the presidential candidate for a major US political party. Hurrah! Admittedly, she lost to a man accused of sexual offences…

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Book review: How To Stop Time, by Matt Haig

Chris Hallam's World View

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…

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Book review: The End Of Asquith by Michael Byrne

Chris Hallam's World View

herbert_henry_asquithA political drama set amidst the upper echelons of the Asquith Government might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea and indeed probably isn’t. Author Michael Byrne nevertheless deserves credit here for almost achieving the impossible task of being both almost wholly historically accurate (as far as I could tell anyway) and being dramatically engaging. The novel often reads like a film or TV script. Anyone planning a drama based around  the very British coup which saw Herbert Asquith usurped as wartime Prime Minister by David Lloyd George in 1916, could do worse than using this book as a starting point.

First world war: British troops go over the top in the trenches during the battle of the Somme

Even with the absence of  “middle aged man in a hurry” Winston Churchill, who has resigned as Lord of the Admiralty after the Gallipoli disaster and gone to the western front, there are plenty of colourful characters here. Byrne does a good job of seeing everyone’s point of view. Asquith…

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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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Book Review: Modernity Britain Opening The Box 1957-59 by David Kynsaton

Chris Hallam's World View

ImageThe Fifties are often remembered as a serene and peaceful, even slightly boring time, but as David Kynaston’s book reminds us, it wasn’t all like that.

The Notting Hill riots of 1958, for example, were amongst the most serious racial disturbances of the century.  British football reeled from news of the Munich air disaster which seemed to have robbed English football of the talented names that had seemed set to dominate the Sixties. The Wolfenden Report, meanwhile, recommended decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. This wouldn’t actually happen until 1967.

The beauty of David Kynsaton’s book, the first of two making up Modernity Britain covering 1957-1962 (his previous volumes Austerity Britain and Family Britain detailed the period from 1945 to Suez) is how they seem to cover nearly everything that happened in the UK at the time. On the one hand, we get the big, obvious events: Macmillan pulling the Tories back…

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Book review: Modernity Britain Book Two A Shake of the Dice 1959-62, David Kynaston

Chris Hallam's World View

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Book review: Modernity Britain Book Two A Shake of the Dice 1959-62, David Kynaston. Published by Bloomsbury.

They sometimes say that if you can remember the nineteen sixties, you weren’t there. Well, I genuinely wasn’t there, I know this for a fact. But after reading this, the second part of the third volume of David Kynaston’s masterful collection of books spanning the period from the Attlee victory in 1945 to its bitter denouement in May 1979, I sort of feel like I lived through it.
Or at least the first part of the Sixties. For this book takes us to the half way point in Kynaston’s saga. It is a nation in transition. The colossal changes of the Sixties have not quite began at the end of the book. The Beatles are no longer The Quarrymen. They have been to Hamburg but they have not fully taken off yet. Dudley…

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