Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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Book review: Those Were The Days by Terry Wogan

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Terry Wogan has been a feature of the media landscape for so long now that it is almost impossible to imagine how it ever existed without him. The author biography on the inside cover of this book states that his “stellar career in TV and radio has spanned forty years”. Given that it is now 2015 and Wogan has been working non-stop in the field since at least the mid-1960s, this seems like something of an understatement.

Is this funny, slight novella, almost more a collection of short stories really “the best of the best” as actress Joanna Lumley claims on the cover? Not really. Would this book have been published were Wogan not already a household name? I doubt it.

But I’m glad it has been for this is as Lumley also notes a “funny, touching and charming” book which centres on thee reflections of an ageing Irish bank manager (yes, really). Given that Wogan himself worked in the Bank of Ireland early in his career, one wonders if he is musing on the alternative life he might have had. One of the characters indeed, does desert his hometown for a career in radio.

But, though short, and less Christmassy than its cover suggests, this is a book as charming and highly readable book, as whimsical and inoffensive as the persona of the author Wogan himself.

Those Were The Days

Published BY: Macmillan

Release date: October 8th 2015

Book review: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by John Crace

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If, as is often said, a week is a long time in politics, then ten months must be a lifetime. For back in November 2010, when this humorous book was published, Ed Miiband was not just the unshaven backbencher he is today, but a party leader widely reckoned to have a real shot at being Prime Minister. What’s more, the Tories, then in something called “a coalition” with a party, apparently the third party in Britain back then, called the Liberal Democrats, were looking quite vulnerable. Many still had high hopes for Nigel Farage and UKIP back then too. They don’t now. Fewer expected the post-referendum SNP surge to last, perhaps not even their new leader elected in that month, Nicola Sturgeon. What’s more such luminaries as Douglas Alexander, David Laws, Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls were all still members of parliament. The last figure, indeed, had reasonable hopes of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jeremy Corbyn? He is not mentioned here at all.

How times have changed! This is not to criticise this funny, informative and still highly enjoyable book. Guardian writer John Crace must have known this book would always have a brief shelf life but this is still well worth a read. Crace is funniest in constructing imaginary conversations between political figures and is refreshingly even handed. He is as harsh on Miliband’s automaton type ways as he is on Cameron’s gaffes (why on Earth did he appoint Andy Coulson? What on Earth was Andrew Lansley’s health care reforms supposed to be about? Why do Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith have to exist?).

Excellent.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election. Published by: Corgi, 2014 by John Crace

The Tories: A poem

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We’re the Tories; hear us sing!

Blame Labour for everything.

The last thing we’d do is confess,

That we’re to blame for this whole mess!

Ten years past, our chief complaint,

Was that the markets faced constraint,

We’d have made the markets stronger,

The recession harsher, deeper, longer.

Never mind the crash elsewhere,

It’s easier to blame Brown and Blair.

Our public services are now a mess,

We’re iffy about the NHS,

Shall we “reorganise” it again? Well, we may,

But we won’t say a thing about that before May,

The press is safe from real reform,

While Rupert’s Sun keeps us all warm,

“Vote Tory” stories every day and

Silly pictures of Ed Miliband.

Frankly, we’ll do what it takes to win,

Even invite old UKIP in,

We’ll attack the scroungers, play the race card,

Kick the weakest good and hard,

Our leader Cameron’s liberal underneath,

A bit like Major or Ted Heath,

But like them he’s weak, you’ll see what we mean,

He’ll even sacrifice the European dream.

So if you don’t care about the national health,

Care only really about yourself.

We really are the party for you!

(Though we’ve not won since 1992).

Don’t get us wrong: we love the UK,

We just wish all the people would go away.

Have you just been born?

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Then look no further! If you’ve only just been born, make sure you read and absorb the following key points…

1. When things cease to be within your range of vision, do not assume they have disappeared forever.
Sometimes, of course, they will have genuinely disappeared, but more often than not, they will just be behind you or somewhere else. It is tricky. Old people get similarly confused if you use the mouse to move the screen down while they are on the computer. Just because you cannot see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there!

2. You are not actually the universe. Things around you are not necessarily part of you and cannot be controlled directly by you. Try to get a measure of which bits are you (e.g. your arms and legs) and which bits are not (everyone else, your cot, the window). You will soon learn that while you can control your arms by thinking in a certain way, you cannot control when the sun rises or the passage of a nearby car. You are not the whole universe. Some people never fully understand this (for example, George Galloway MP) but it is better to get a handle on this early on.

3. Try to develop a sense of humour. There is your mum. Hang on – where’s she gone now? Oh look! There she is! If babies ran the Edinburgh Festival, BBC3’s schedules would be full of this sort of thing. However, it won’t pass muster in the real world. You might get a Golden Rose of Montreux for it though.

4. Older brothers and sisters will inevitably be initially better than you at everything namely walking, running, reading and doing sums. Do not be disheartened! In due course, you will eventually catch up and ideally overtake them. If you are really lucky they might end up failing in life completely, making you look even better by comparison.

5. A lesson for later in life: This is important. If you see an odd looking potato on your plate, be warned! It could be a parsnip. In due course, you will probably find that these are actually quite nice too. Just don’t expect them to taste the same, that’s all or you’ll be in for a shock.

6. Kitchen rolls and toilet rolls are not the same either! Technically, they can be used in the same way but some people will look down on you if you do. I actually only realised this when I was 26.

7. Finally: don’t expect to remember all this. Be sure to bookmark this page and re-read it in 2020, as most people forget nearly everything that happens to them in their first few years of life. Treat this period like a long drunken night out: even if you forget it yourself, lots of people will be happy to post pictures of you on Facebook during this time and will embarrass you with stories of your behaviour for years afterwards.

Five things that don’t make any sense at all once you think about them…‏

Some things seem to make sense at the time. Others, make less and less sense the more you think about them…

1. What did “Nasty” Nick actually do?

In 2000, “Nasty” Nick Bateman was sensationally thrown out of the first ever Big Brother house. His crime? Bateman was accused of “plotting” and “writing things down using a pen and paper”. Just imagine! Thank goodness nobody on any of the subsequent series of Big Brother has done anything as sneaky as attempting to plot against any fellow housemates in the years since.

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2. The Royals

Little about the royal family makes sense when you think about it. The Queen’s husband is always a Prince as with Prince Philip but the King’s wife is always a Queen, not a Princess. The Queen’s mother was called “the Queen Mother”. But there is never a Queen Father or a King Mother or King Father, even though Philip might still be alive when his son Charles becomes King. Also why is the Queen called Elizabeth II throughout the UK when in Scotland, there has never been another monarch called Elizabeth? And why is it called the United Kingdom when for most of the last two centuries. we’ve been reigned over by Queens?

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3. Pardon?

Sending a parcel by road? It’s a shipment. Sending something by ship? It’s a cargo. Let’s face it: the English language makes no sense whatsoever. Why are the terms “public school” and “private school” used to describe what is essentially the same thing when they should mean exactly the opposite? Why does everybody use both the Imperial and Metric systems at the same time? And a starter for ten: why is Magdalen College pronounced “Maudlin”? Is it simply to catch the non-posh people out?

4. Old TV was crap

Imagine it’s 1990. Want to know what’s on TV tonight? Easy! Look in the Radio Times. But what if you want to know what’s on ITV or Channel 4 (or, heaven forbid, even one of the early satellite channels)? Tough! You’ll have to get the TV Times as well! And even that only listed the commercial channels. So unless you were one of those people who only ever watched the BBC or in contrast, only ever watched ITV and Channel 4 (i.e. nobody on Earth) until 1991, you were forced to buy two separate magazines. For decades, this bizarre situatiion was accepted as normal. And even today, twenty three years later, your dad probably still automatically buys both every Christmas.

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5. Politics is confusing

Okay. So there are two houses of parliament right? The House of Commons and the House of Lords. So members of both houses are called MPs (Members of Parliament) then? No! Only members of the House of Commons are called MPs. The Lords never are. Even though both are literally members of parliament. Got that? Is it any wonder people get confused?

Peers wait in in the House of Lords for the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II, and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to conduct the State Opening of Parliament

Man of Steel: A poem/review

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Look! Up there in the sky!

It’s time to get cape, wear cape, fly.

Is it a bird, is it a plane?

No, it’s Superman returning (again).

Truth be told, though not a flop,

The last Superman was not much cop,

So now it’s time for a British actor,

To try and win the Krypton Factor.

Henry  Cavill looks the part,

His accent’s decent for a start.

He doesn’t play Clark Kent enough.

But cheer up girls! His shirt comes off!

Michael Shannon excels as Zod,

An evil, contemptuous, little sod.

A tyrant, he is reviled and feared,

(To show he’s aged, he grows a beard).

Young  Kar-El  is under threat from birth,

And becomes the brat who fell to Earth.

Russell Crowe saves his son from Zod,

And doesn’t try to sing (thank God).

At school, Supe faces constant derision,

Cannot control his X-ray vision.

Saves school bus but is often sad,

Attack of wind still kills his dad.

Like this poem, it goes on too long,

Special effects are overdone,

Miss Adams is okay as Lois Lane,

(The best one lived in Wisteria Lane).

That said, this summer, you will see,

No better film than IM3,

For while okay, it’s hard not to feel,

We’ll soon forget this Man of Steel.

I’m sure it’ll make lots of money,

But like Batman should be a bit more funny.

Three out of five is my final score.

Interesting and yet also a bore.

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Iain Banks : where to start?

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Iain Banks, who died this month, was one of my favourite writers.

In a career spanning twenty-nine years, he wrote an impressive twenty-nine books including the science fiction Culture books (as “Iain M. Banks”: his middle name was Menzies). To my shame, I’ve largely not read very many of these though I would recommend The Player of Games (1987).

But, to the uninitiated, which of Banks’  “mainstream” novels is best to start with? Let’s take a look…

The Wasp Factory (1984)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.”

The first book Banks was published when he was still in his twenties and might seem the obvious place to start. Indeed, it’s the first Banks book I ever read, aside from the first Culture novel Consider Phlebas (which I didn’t enjoy).

Be warned though, while brilliant, this is a darker offering than any of Banks’ other books. Frank, the “hero” is a sexually, confused, isolated and, indeed, homicidal teen. His older brother enjoys setting fire to dogs and Frank himself lives in a superstitious dream world, many of his activities (which include fighting a real life giant bunny) are dictated by the factory of the title, a bizarre construction of his own. The book generated a tabloid furore and Banks did well to escape its shadow.

Fact: A stage version of the book has been produced and performed.

Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986)

Both fairly outlandish books and Walking on Glass is not a total success. I would not recommend either book as a starting point. Yet The Bridge, dealing with the aftermath of a road accident, is one of Banks’ best.

Fact: Iain Banks frequently cited The Bridge as his own favourite of his own novels.

Espedair Street (1987)

“Two days ago I decided to kill myself. “

A tale of rock and roll excess viewed from its aftermath by bass guitarist Dan “Weird” Weir of fictional band Frozen Gold. Despite the grim opening line (above), it is one of Banks’ cheeriest novels and an excellent place to start.

Fact: Banks admitted he did no research for this book whatsoever.

Canal Dreams (1989)

Banks recently said this attempt at a political thriller was one of the few books he was unsatisfied with. I would agree that it is a disappointing. I would argue A Song of Stone (1997), The Business (1999) and Transition (2009) also represent rare Banks misfires.

The Crow Road (1992)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Banks’ masterpiece, a time jumping family saga centring on teen Prentice McHoan and his conflict with his atheist father and quest for his long lost Uncle Rory. The book spans fifty years ranging from Prentice’s own father’s wartime childhood to Prentice’s present. The usual dark humour, discussion of politics, piss-ups, drug use and a murder mystery element are also thrown in. Brilliant.

Fact: A decent TV adaptation appeared in 1996 featuring Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi (later of The Thick Of It).

Complicity (1993)

A rival to The Wasp Factory, for the title of Iain Banks’ darkest novel this centres on Cameron Colley, a journalist addicted to drugs, computer games and sex who finds himself under suspicion after a series of bizarre murders. Excellent.

Fact: A film version received a limited release in 2000. Most felt Jonny Lee Miller (of Trainspotting), then in his twenties and best known for his marriage to Angelina Jolie, was too young for the main role.

Whit (1995)

Teenaged Isis leaves her small Scottish cult to explore the outside world. Plot-wise, a bit iffy, but an enjoyable book nevertheless.

Fact: Also known as “Isis Amongst The Unsaved”.

Dead Air (2001)

An intriguing premise; the main character is a left-wing British shock jock DJ, but the novel feels a bit rushed.

Fact: One of the first novels to deal with the events of September 11th (an event cleverly evoked by the cover).

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)

The Wopold family made rich by the board game Empire! meet to discuss their future. A return to form for Banks with similarities to The Crow Road.

Stonemouth (2012)

Stewart Gilmour returns three years after being chased out of his home town. Highly enjoyable.

My review of The Quarry (Banks’ final book) will appear shortly. I am thoroughly enjoying it, however. My only sadness is that there will be no more Iain Banks books to come. He was truly a great author.

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The Owl and the Pussycat II

The owl and the pussycat filed for divorce,

Seven years after their voyage abroad.

There was no more singing or dancing anymore.

They were vindictive, embittered and bored.

The owl whinged: “Oh Pussy! This house is a tip!

“It’s knee deep in furballs and lice!

“And I don’t mind money. But what’s with the honey?

“Both cats and owls traditionally eat mice!”

The cat came back: “You’re not the owl I once knew!

“Oh how did I get in this fix?

“You leave the toilet seat up. My mother was right.

“Birds and cats just shouldn’t mix!”

The owl mused: “What about an appearance on Jeremy Kyle?

It’s on “Animal Divorces” next week.”

The pussy laughed: “I would do it if I only I could believe,

“One single word that comes out of your beak!”

She went on: “I was seduced by your charm, your boat,

“And that trick where you rotate your head.

“You know where you can stick your pissy green boat.

“You bastard. I wish you were dead.”

The owl and the pussycat went to court,

The judge favoured Pussy the most,

She took her “honey” for plenty of money,

Then retired to a home on the coast.

(Chris Hallam with apologies to Edward Lear).

Media manifesto

Ten great ideas to transform the world of TV, film and music…

  1. A new series of 24 should be made in which Donald Sutherland plays Jack Bauer’s evil estranged father.
  2. A new Bond film should be made in which an elderly Bond played by Sean Connery is called out of retirement for a final mission.
  3. All theme tunes should include a version which includes the title amongst the lyrics in the manner of Anita Dobson’s Anyone Can Fall In Love (for EastEnders) if they do not already do so. Particularly: Star Wars, the 70s and 80s Superman films, Coronation Street and Last of the Summer Wine.
  4. Why Do You Think You Are? A new documentary series which forces celebrities to justify their existence.
  5. None of the Carry On films (with the possible exception of the first one Carry On Sergeant and the later Carry On Regardless) feature any characters saying the title of the film at any point. This is disappointing. Digital technology should be used to insert a character (perhaps Charles Hawtrey) saying the line at the end. This should occur even when Hawtrey is not actually in the film, regardless of whether the film is in colour or not or whether the film’s title makes grammatical sense (as with Carry On Follow That Camel or Carry On Again Doctor).
  6. Some films and TV shows feature characters who have the same name as the actor playing them e.g. Jack Torrance (Nicholson) in The Shining, Rik (Mayall) in The Young Ones and Miranda (Hart). This should be made compulsory for one character in every production from now on as it will reduce time wasted by actors missing their cues.
  7. The use of robot voices in songs, such as in ‘Something Good’ by the Utah Saints, once commonplace, have sadly become a rarity. All songs past and present should feature a robot voice at some point including instrumental classical pieces. Please sort this out.
  8. Films in which samples of dialogue are used as the title are always rubbish and should be banned. Consider: Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Slap Her She’s French, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot and the obscure Dustin Hoffman film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me? An exception should be made for Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (and all Carry On films: see above).
  9. Doctors In The House: New sitcom in which all the surviving ex-Doctor Whos plus K9 share a house in London. Tom Baker is the zany one and is constantly frustrated when the other characters interrupt his attempts to narrate each episode. David Tennant is the charming likeable one. Christopher Eccleston is the moody, artistic one. Colin Baker is the pompous one. His glasses are occasionally knocked out of line rather like Captain Mainwaring’s. An old Tardis is used as the house phone which forms a central part of the set as does a dartboard with a photo of Matt Smith’s face attached to it. In episode one, a family of Daleks move in next door.
  10. Not A Penny Moore… New sitcom about the Moore family. Demi is the cougar of the household, desperately competing with her younger sister Mandy. Roger plays the elderly granddad, wheelchair-bound and always with his cat. Alan plays the moody bearded uncle who rarely leaves his room. The late Sir Patrick Moore plays the eccentric great uncle perpetually spying on his neighbours through his telescope in the attic who he suspects of being German. He is constantly bothered by young children looking for cheats for Zelda III.

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