Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Forward

As the minutes tick away, drawing Old Year’s Night to a close, the only thing left to do is to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Hopefully 2009 will improve on the past twelve months for one and all. If things haven’t gone well and you need bucking up, heed these words:

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.

-- Henry David Thoreau

Very little is needed to make a happy life.

-- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

Instead of gunpowder and sky, again courtesy of Hubble, here’s the colour and light of Starburst Galaxy NGC 1569

Happy Holiday

Well, that was interesting. Traditionally family Christmases have increasingly verged on the nightmarish but this year the five days spent in the Westcountry were perhaps the most relaxing I’ve had in a long while. Even the journey down there wasn’t too hectic, which made a change.

It helped that we weren’t spending Christmas Day at my sister’s. For a start she certainly looked much more relaxed, not having to be lumbered with the cooking, when she popped over in the morning. After swapping presents sis and I took their dog for a walk, sneaking a fag as we trekked along the old railway line, while my dad chatted with his son-in-law and my mother entertained her grandson.

Maybe it’s because of the lengthy intervals between visits, but every time there has usually been comments about my hair being far too short or too long, or me looking fat or even too thin (although that only tended to be during my student days). Not long after I was through the door my stomach was prodded and I was asked, “What’s this?” The strange thing was, after that one comment they kept pressing seconds upon me when we sat at the table.

It’s easy to forget how damn good home cooking is. The turkey, roast potatoes and parsnips, stuffing, vegetables and gravy were done to perfection, as were the hams and the feather-light dumplings that topped stews. By the time I left we still hadn’t even gone close to the Christmas cake or even the pudding. Why go for such traditional stodge when there was a more flavoursome selection of fruit crumbles made with combinations of raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries from the garden.

We worked off the meals by taking long walks along the promenade, bundled up against the cold easterly wind that sent the roiling waves crashing against the pebble beach. When relatives dropped by over the next couple of days we either strolled along the riverbanks, stopping at the platforms and hides to watch the bird activity in the estuary, or visiting the local churchyards to stop at the graves of aunts and grandparents that still leave holes in our lives after all these years.

On Sunday the Lovely Actress stopped by, spending a couple of hours chatting with my folks before we ducked out to a nearby pub that I’m not sure I had ever visited before. It had a wonderful flagstone floor, soft leather couches and low tables, and a very friendly black Labrador retriever that drank from a bowl by the Christmas tree before trotting around to see how everybody was. Until late into the evening the Lovely Actress and I settled down and caught up.

With all this activity, sitting down in front of the television and watching the usual seasonal crap the channels see fit to dole out was kept to an absolute minimum. We did make a point of watching Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death and The Man Who Made Eric & Ernie, the far too short tribute to the late Bill Cotton, the BBC former Head of Light Entertainment, which only illustrated how bad some aspects of television had become, especially at this time of year.

Now that I’m back in London there’s a few things to catch up with on iPlayer. First though, it might me an idea to get the heating fixed while I look forward to next year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Early tomorrow afternoon I head off to the Westcountry for a week. Even if Christmas feels like just another day, there’ll be home cooking and a beach to walk along. One or two relatives I haven’t seen in a long while will probably drop by, and I get to follow the path up the river to the village churchyard and visit my aunt.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday, hopefully in the company of the people that mean most to you, as well as using the time to enjoy a brief respite from the day-to-day world that nips at our heels. To my regular readers, I wish you the very best. Have a good time and I’ll see you back here after the festivities.

[Courtesy of Hubble, this is Globular Cluster M13, one of nearly 150 known globular clusters surrounding our Milky Way galaxy. 25,000 light-years distant and approximately 150 light-years across, M13 is home to over 100,000 stars that are so crowded together at the core that at times they slam into each other, forming a new star called a “blue straggler.”]

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I don’t have the Christmas spirit. I look for it. I try to find it. It just isn’t there. Looking back over the years, even when I was spending the holiday with The One That Got Away, The Blonde with the Butterfly Tattoo, or even in Burbank with the Dreamworks crowd, I enjoyed the company rather than the event itself, which never seemed to mean anything.

Maybe years and years ago, filled with that giddy enthusiasm you have as a child with no cares in the world, I eagerly waited for the day to arrive. For so long now I simply wait for it to be over, for the hullabaloo to die down and things to get back to as close to normal as can be. It’s not that I actively loathe the holiday. It’s just that it doesn’t mean anything.

Because I don’t focus any attention upon it, just like last year (and possibly years before that), yesterday morning I actually had to flick through the diary to see when Christmas Day actually was. A few cards had flopped through the letterbox during the past week so I figured it was getting close. And it turns out that it’s less than a week, which means there’s no time to return any cards and the cost of a ticket home is now probably going to be phenomenal.

Even if I had been incandescent with Christmas cheer, yesterday would have doused the spirit. It started with the guys coming to give my boiler its annual inspection. They came early. Still, at least they finally came, especially after I had waited in a week last Thursday afternoon, last Saturday morning and then Tuesday morning, only to receive a call each time that they couldn’t make it.

In recent months the boiler had developed a few quirks of its own but ultimately it still delivered hot water out of the taps and into the radiators, so its own peculiarities were no big deal. Except, by the time the check up was over, dials and switches had been pulled off, panels had come unscrewed to expose the spaghetti of wiring behind, and obviously there was no hot water available.

Later on I got a call saying that parts had been ordered but for some reason they had to come from Manchester, which already suggested that I would probably have to climb into the kettle if I wanted to wash in the next couple of days. Even before then the day was getting worse. Just after the engineer headed off the doorbell rang. Figuring he had forgotten something I bounded down the stairs only to find a very dour looking Jehovah’s Witness on the doorstep. It didn’t help make either of our days any better.

Still, there was a bright spot in the day. Mister Mark and his missus were coming down and I was expected an ETA call. Except, when the phone rang, it turned out to be someone wanting to talk to me about gas and electricity comparison prices. Obviously that was very nice of him to make my life better, even though my first instinct was to ask him to simply skip to the end and tell me what he was selling.

Even when I had told him that I didn’t care what utilities charges were in Southampton and the last time I swapped suppliers it turned into an utter clusterfuck because of employee incompetence he still kept going. So apparently I could get a better deal if I switched over to... oh, you know what, I didn’t bother writing it down. It was something to do with twigs and trees and things, I think, although there are good chances that I could be wrong.

Because of waiting in for the engineer I hadn’t got to the supermarket. I suppose I could have in the days before but I was vague about how long I was going to be here and I get put off being bumped along the aisles by shlubs loading trolleys up with enough crap to choke a whale. After Mister Mark and the missus headed out I nipped up the road to grab a bottle of spaghetti sauce. While I was out I bought a chicken samosa because I hadn’t eaten all day and figured it would make a good snack long before the food was cooked. That turned out to be a big mistake.

The last couple of days I found out I hadn’t been drinking enough. I don’t mean alcohol. Actually, there hadn’t been any alcohol. I was invited to a couple of informal soirées that book-ended the working week but cried off because I couldn’t even summon the fake bonhomie necessary for such a situation. Instead, having cut back on coffee and finding it too cold to neck down glasses of water, I simply hadn’t been drinking.

One thing I didn’t know about dehydration is that it turns your urine dark drown. Pissing Worcester sauce into the toilet bowl came as something as a shock. So socked in fact that I took a step backwards which didn’t exactly help matters. A couple of pints of water put that right, which was good because there are other factors that can darken urine and they’re not pretty. Shame overcoming the reaction to the samosa couldn’t have been as easy.

It was very tasty, making me wonder why I hadn’t eaten one for a long while. I even wondered if there was any point cooking later. Then, about an hour after I had swallowed the last corner it felt like my internal organs were in the process of rupturing. Having a bullock stand on your foot is painful, but you can holler and give the darn animal a push. With this there was nothing I could do.

Half a dozen trips to the bathroom and nothing happening, I was in a cold sweat and curled up on the floor in absolute agony. I’ve only just mentioned in the previous post that going to a doctor is never an option unless something major happens. After almost thirty minutes writhing in pain, I was reaching the point of calling for an ambulance. The epicentre of pain was close to my appendix and I wondered if had ruptured and lacerated my small intestine into the bargain.

Luckily once I dragged myself back into the bathroom again, this time I managed to vomit the offending article into the toilet. After an equally violent encore ten minutes later things finally started to calm down. Having earlier wished that I had managed to run a hot bath before the boiler magically crapped out, by then I would have preferred to have simply gotten around to shaving.

So I suppose the moral of the story is, if you’re a Scrooge to the festive holidays, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come can appear in many forms, day or night. Still, there’s always a bright side to the story, even if it doesn’t have me running merrily down the street shouting, “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”, which is of course a different story altogether.

I managed to book my ticket home cheaper online. This year I was hoping for a pass, hiding up here over Christmas, but since it turns out we’re not spending the day at my sister’s, it’ll be a whole lot better. Also the past couple years I’ve had calls from a lovely actress friend who spends the holidays with pals just up the coast from my folks to see if we could meet up. Either I’ve stayed up here or arrived back to London before I got the call.

This year she got in early and we’ve arranged a get together the Sunday after all the cracker pulling. On her suggestion it start with her coming over to meet my parents before we head out. So, that’s going to be interesting.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Seen, Not Heard

There are clear disadvantages to having the stubborn farming mindset that means you don’t bother seeing a doctor unless you’ve coughed up a vital organ or severed a limb. Because of that I’ve spent the past nine days with an increasingly irritating ear infection. The lack of hearing was no big deal and I figured it would all sort itself out when I was dead, but once it started to feel like I was being repeatedly stabbed in the side of the head with a white-hot stiletto and my sense of balance went a little screwy, I began to get just a little bit pissed off.

Although an occasional distraction, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from enjoying the annual Missing Believed Wiped event at the BFI Southbank, which, as expected, threw up some very unusual and enjoyable oddities from the past. Some of the material I was familiar with but most was new to me, originally broadcast either before I was born or too young to watch, and in equal measure hilarious, engrossing or just plain odd. So, in a way, it was no different from television of today. It may have become a cliché but you have to agree that there really are times when the more things change the more they stay the same.

The usual crowd was there and once the event was over we tramped back over the Thames and shuffled up to the bar of our usual haunt. Somehow I hadn’t seen most of the chaps since early summer, if not before, so there was a lot to catch up on. Luckily, because it was a Sunday night, there were fewer customers than usual. Without the loud din of numerous overlapping voices I had a better chance of hearing what people were saying.

The conversation ebbed and flowed over numerous topics, although rather than finding out how people were doing and whether they were well, the first, most important, question was whether they had seen the new James Bond film and what they thought of it. The consensus was good, even if H didn’t like the opening title sequence. As one subject turned to another, it was interesting to discover that as the pieces came together it turned out that not one of us could give a shit about Blu-ray.

I know that we should all raise a banner high and merrily applaud the onward march of technology. After all, every step forward makes our lives easier and happier, bringing a big sloppy grin to all our faces. But in this instance, not one of us cared one jot about high definition. It’s not that because as we become middle-aged, whether we feel like it or not, or even like it or not, there are far pressing matters on hand. It’s simply because we grew up at a time when home entertainment consisted of a television and a stereo. The arrival of affordable video cassette recorders was a big deal because before they turned up, if you missed a programme, you had to hope that some years down the line it would be repeated, otherwise it was gone.

So taping these programmes, buying films and television shows on cassette that we had missed was a really liberating experience. Then years later along comes the digital versatile disc. The sound and picture quality was spectacular compared to even the best images on video cassettes that had been repeatedly run back and forth over the years. For us this was like manna from heaven. From what we had had before, this was far more than enough. The image quality of Blu-ray might be better, but DVD ticked all our boxes. So did any of us what to upgrade? Nah, fuck that, we got another round in.

It may have been a tenuous link of sorts but the DVD issue connected to what good films we had seen that year. When that question was asked a few titles were blurted out to begin with but mainly it resulted in a lot of head scratching. First, because going to cinema seemed to be a rare thing nowadays. There is the travel time involved getting there and back. There is the rising cost of tickets and overpriced snacks. There is the fact that you get stuck in a room full of socially inconsiderate disease-ridden proles (which was my chief grumble).

When all those considerations are factored in, the last thing to do is pray that the film is going to be half decent. To go through all that ordeal just to end up watching a pile of dog snot like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s no wonder people are avoiding the cinema like it’s a medieval plague pit. Why go through all that crap anyway when the DVD release now comes virtually on the heels of the theatrical release? When I was in my early twenties, I’d go to the cinema something like 70-odd times a year. This year I think I went five times.

Watching a movie at home on shiny disc may be a far more comfortable option but it meant that we ended up asking ourselves if the titles that came up in conversation had actually come out this year. All I could think of were releases like Iron Man and Quantum of Solace that I had caught at the cinema, forgetting titles like No Country For Old Men, In Bruges, the headache inducing Cloverfield, or the simply godawful Wanted that I had eventually watched on DVD.

Still, it didn’t matter whether I had remembered them or not because there was one film that stood head and shoulders above everything I’d seen during the past months. As the awards season begins, it’s nice to see it getting the due respect it so obviously deserves. That movie is this

Saturday, December 13, 2008

NBC Sick

Ah, weekends in December! Beneath a cloudless sky the waves are gently lapping against a swathe of golden sand... Wait a minute, that’s the front of a postcard on my bookshelf that I’m looking at. If I look out of the window it’s grim and grey with rain pouring down and a blustery wind that bites right to the marrow, making everyone look even more miserable than usual. God, I miss spending December in Burbank, even when it means getting absolutely soaked through on Splash Mountain.

I may not “believe in America” as much as that cowering mortician at the beginning of The Godfather, but it’s always been a pretty good place to visit. They speak a reasonably good approximation of the mother tongue, which is always a benefit. Although there are more exotic locales around the world, in the United States you’re less likely to find yourself tucking into a family pet for dinner and the woman you pick up in a bar probably won’t reveal a cock between her legs when the panties come down.

Of course there are the occasional downsides. If you eat a Denny’s breakfast your first day there, half of it will be clogging your arteries by lunchtime while the rest will be wedged in your colon for the remainder of the trip; and the further west you go the more idiotic the pizza toppings become; and while big city bars have found a way to be more sociable that British pubs, the domestic beer is usually weak at piss. Still, there are always Buffalo wings to compensate along with an array of particularly lethal cocktails to bitch slap your brain toward ruin.

As long as you stay away from selected areas where the populace are deeply racist, appallingly homophobic, hopelessly inbred or just plain dumb as a bag of spanners – in much the same way that visitors to this country should keenly avoid East London, Essex, most of the Black Country and Newcastle – things should work out reasonably well. In fact, as I found out, if you avoid calling New Jersey “The Toilet State”, don’t get stuck behind a bunch of lardy-assed out-of-towners on the final ascent inside the State of Liberty, and stay the hell away from Texas, things should work out just fine.

While there were so many things about the country that I could embrace, like Philly cheesesteaks and watching the sunset from the Mallory Square Dock and the BART, the one thing I simply couldn’t take to my heart whenever I was over there was The Tonight Show. I simply didn’t get its appeal. Johnny Carson may have been a national institution but he always left me unimpressed, whether it was the opening monologue or the tame interviews that followed. Once Jay Leno took over behind the desk, after enduring a couple minutes of his shtick, I always had the urge to run out and fuck a woman who had coated the inside of her vagina with stinging nettles.

So when I read Bill Carter’s article on The New York Times’ website that once Leno steps down when his contract expires, rather than have him jump ship to another network, NBC was offering him five nights a week in prime time come Fall 2009, I felt like I had been dealt a massive cock punch from which I’m only just recovering. Obviously since I’m not decamped over there, why should I really care. Actually, in one respect I don’t. The problem is that with Leno moving to the ten o’clock slot is that five hours of drama will be tossed from the schedule.

In the past I’ve had some Patriot Weasels have a pop at me for not supporting British drama. Yes, the broadcasters come up with a few cracking ones a year, whether it’s a one-off from Stephen Poliakoff or a serial like the utterly stupendous Little Dorrit, but there’s always a nagging lack of inconsistency across the months. With more money and more of, well, everything to throw at the productions, American drama has come on in leaps and bounds for the last three decades, making it almost unrecognizable from the formulaic, hermetically-sealed stories of the 1970s and early 80s.

Over the past few weeks I’ve wondered whether the party isn’t over. With The Sopranos long gone and The Wire finishing this year, the HBO cupboard is bare. The Shield reached one of the most devastatingly delicious climaxes in television history last month. When The SciFi Channel decided to break the final season of Battlestar Galactica in two it unleashed a wave of outrage, but now it looks like a blessing in disguise. Without those upcoming episodes there would be little to look forward to next year, especially with the future of Matthew Weiner’s involvement in Mad Men hanging in the balance.

You’ll notice those were the US cable channels mentioned because the networks have either lost it or are playing safe with well made, but still somewhat formulaic CSI-style dramas. Lost may be picking up now that an end date has been finalised, but everything else either appears tired and flaccid or has gone off the rails. Compare the current slate of shows to those scheduled five or ten years ago and there’s definitely a marked drop in quality and inventiveness, especially since so many shows current shows are losing their way so quickly.

Maybe resting prime time drama for a while is the way to go, especially in NBC’s case. Once ER comes to an end after fifteen seasons, the remaining long-running shows are part of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise. Nothing else seems to be built to last. After a pretty disastrous new season, almost all the high-level network programmers at NBC Universal have been given the boot. Strangely enough Ben Silverman, a former agent who was made co-chairman of NBC Entertainment even though he had no experience of programming a network, still remains at his desk.

Worse, Silverman is expected to have his contract renewed, showing that nothing today succeeds better than failure. Together with Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal’s chief executive, still has some way to dismantling all the good work Grant Tinker did almost thirty years ago.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Campaigning Journalism

I was thinking about a comment made a couple of posts back about all the great television presenters with knowledge, authority, and gravitas that have either been retired or passed away. One or two remain but their voices seem to be drowned out by the gaggle of blathering imbeciles who carry no weight or real knowledge of their subject matter.

It’s probably not the fault of these gibbering, witless loons. If someone asks if they want to appear on television, what are they going to say? After all, being pampered in Hair & Makeup before gabbling in front of a camera is a whole better option than digging ditches for a living. But when these cretinous cunt rags pop up on screen, I can’t switch over fast enough because the only other alternative is to drive a spike deep into my left cerebral hemisphere.

Earlier in the week I flipped channels and came across that supercilious, bollock-headed leftie, Tony Robinson spouting the usual sensationalist gibberish. He’s a prime example of these smug, no-knowledge presenters drafted in simply because they have a recognisable face that I would be more than happy to see being repeatedly punched in the face by someone wearing a boxing glove made of anvils. Luckily, just to show that the work hasn’t completely fallen on its ear, there is a reserve of decent replacements able to step into the shoes of the original scholars, who actually have the education or enough years of experience to speak on the subject of their choice.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, either as an MP or the incumbent Mayor of London, but if he ever puts politics behind him there’s certainly a future for him in television. His calamitous appearances on Have I Got News for You showed that he can do comedy, whether intentionally or not, and portrayed him as a bumbling PG Wodehouse creation made flesh. But then in early 2006 he presented the two-part documentary The Dream of Rome in which he illustrated how the ancient empire of the Caesars united Europe in a way that today’s European Union is categorically failing to achieve.

After an engaging edition of the genealogical series, Who Do You Think You Are?, in which Boris learnt that he was direct, if illegitimate, descendant of King George II, he’s been back on our screens the past couple weeks with the equally fascinating After Rome: Holy War and Conquest, to investigate the less than harmonious relationship between Christianity and Islam. It should have been required viewing not just for anyone interested in history, geopolitics and religion but more especially any blinkered zealots who regard the two doctrines simply as the difference between the side of right and the infidels.

While Eastern Europe was scrabbling around in The Dark Ages, the sophisticated Islamic civilisation regained half the territories of the old Roman Empire in less than a century. Anyone who thinks of them as a second-class or primitive race only needed to look at how, during the three century-long occupation by the culturally superior Moors, medieval Spain became the centre of logic and reason. Once they finally surrendered Granada at the culmination of the Reconquista and were eventually expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, their glorious mosques were subjected to cultural and religious vandalism as they were turned into Christian churches. When Boris interviewed average Spanish citizens every one of them denied that the Islamic conquest had enriched their country’s heritage.

More damning indictments of the west came when the second episode concentrated on the consequences of Pope Urban the Second’s demented call to arms at the end of the eleventh century to retake Jerusalem. Taking the offer of a remission of all the sins they confess, which Boris referred to as their “get out of hell free” cards, 60,000 knights, peasants, religious cranks and assorted misfits marched on the Holy Land in the first of four bloody crusades. Those that made it to the gates of Jerusalem slaughtered everyone in sight, including the Jews, which were burnt alive in their synagogues.

By the fourth campaign, Latin Christians sacked Constantinople as they fought their Greek Orthodox counterparts, eventually installing a drunken prostitute on the throne as they carried out God’s work. If every there was a symbol of Western aggression in the Middle East, the crusades were it. When Boris talked to young Muslim students and mentioned how Britain we would have a crusade against drunkenness or a crusade against littering, the casual use of the word left them horrified. So when Bush called the war on terrorism a crusade, it was simply the last word he should have used.

When Richard the Lionheart led the ultimately unsuccessful third crusade to retake the Holy Land from Saladin at the end of the 12th century, Boris revealed that he got on well with Saladin’s brother after they discovered they had so many interests in common. Between the bloody conflicts Christians and Muslims coexisted quite happily in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions, which is perhaps more than can be said for today.

As the second episode came to a close, Boris decided that “If we don’t have the wit to escape from history, then at least let’s try to relive the good bits.” Call him a buffoon of you want, but those are probably the wisest words I’ve ever heard from a politician and a gifted television presenter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Worldwide Disbelief

With the recession ready to give us all a good kicking, it appears that it’s not only companies taking a massive hit but broadcasters as well. Today The Times reported that Channel 4 is currently circling the drain and will most probably go bankrupt within the next five years.

It’s not that surprising. When Channel 4 started up in 1982 its remit to produce distinctive, innovative programming and cater for minorities not served by the existing three channels. To begin with it introduced American football to English audiences as well as broadcasting the cream of American drama and comedy overlooked by the other broadcasters. Over the years Channel 4 has turned its back on what was good, pandering instead to simpletons and utter fuckwits.

Like Woolworths, itself in the middle of a fire sale, Channel 4 now offers plenty but ultimately, for people with any sense, provides nothing of any worth. Instead it’s now cluttered with idiotic lifestyle programmes presented by over-caffeinated imbeciles with no business being in front of a camera, too many fucking chefs, lame soap operas, crass comedies, and reality shows in which people nobody cares a jot about go on a worthless “journey”, all propping up yet another annual collection of celebrity-hungry arseholes in Big Brother. A breeding ground for rejects from The Island of Doctor Moreau, it’s no wonder the channel is utterly fucked.

As a state-owned public corporation, the proposal currently being discussed by ministers and broadcast regulator Ofcom is for Channel 4 to be merged with BBC Worldwide, the company that makes more than a tidy profit from selling the rights to popular BBC programmes to foreign broadcasters as well as lucrative DVD and magazine sales. Is it really a good idea handing over Worldwide’s annual profits of over £100 million to keep Jon Snow in colourful ties? Given that Channel 4, which made a measly pre-tax profit of £1.6 million last year, is already saying it needs half as much again just to keep going, the answer has to be no.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Be Golden And Bright

I’m sure there is something I’m supposed to be grousing about right now, but I’ve been sick as a dog the past twenty-odd hours. Either the noodles with meats and seafood from Sunday’s takeout or the meat feast pizza I picked up yesterday at a Tesco on the way back from an appointment entered my digestive system and lit it up, leaving me shuttling between bedroom and bathroom last night and most of today.

Finally up at about, and still a little confused about what time of day it is, I skimmed through the broadsheet websites to discover that Oliver Postgate had died. With his passing it seemed like another little piece of my childhood had upped and disappeared into the ether. Partnered with animator Peter Fermin in Smallfilms, the pair worked out of a disused cowshed, producing the shows like Pogles Wood, Ivor the Engine, The Saga of Noggin the Nog, Clangers and Bagpuss that played a large part of my television viewing as a kiddie.

Reading his obituary on the BBC website, while basking in the warm glow of nostalgia, I was taken by how remarkable their dealings with the corporation was once they became “established as reliable purveyors of children’s entertainment”:

It was a gentlemanly and rather innocent business, as Postgate later described.

“We would go to the BBC once a year, show them the films we’d made, and they would say, “Yes, lovely, now what are you going to do next?’”

“We would tell them, and they would say, ‘That sounds fine, we’ll mark it in for eighteen months from now’, and we would be given praise and encouragement and some money in advance, and we’d just go away and do it.”

When you read things like that, you realize how right L.P. Hartley was when he wrote “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Sunday, December 07, 2008

X Misses The Spot

Just to take a massive shit onto what had been a pretty reasonable weekend, I watched The X-Files: I Want To Believe. I think the extreme cold has seeped through my thick skull to freeze my basal ganglia, which otherwise would have stopped me from taking it down off the shelf. Either that or part of my thought process is to catch up with movies I studiously avoided during their cinema release, in which case it’s making me act like a complete tool.

Why I bothered to watch it is a question I’m going to be asking myself for a very long time to come. Why they bothered making it in the first place is something else altogether. I’m sure that’s being asked by many of the 20th Century Fox executives who, if not looking down the barrel of a gun, are probably ruminating over the question as they stare at the bottom of a whiskey glass.

I doubt the studio Christmas is going to be a barrel of laughs. While Warner Bros. Pictures have been raking it in, hand over fist, with The Dark Knight (which at least took some of the sting off the big-budget crash and burn of Speed Racer), and Paramount Pictures found a license to print money with the better than expected Iron Man, and worse that expected Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Fox just seemed to serve up one dismal flop after another.

From summer onwards, the studio failed to find an audience for the Eddie Murphy “comedy” Meet Dave (which, at a cost of $60 million made $50.5 million worldwide), science fiction nonsense Babylon A.D. (budget $70 million/$71.5 box office worldwide), and kids adventure City of Ember (budget $55 million/$12.25 box office worldwide). And the budget figure is the production budget, therefore not including all the millions spent on prints and advertising to try and drum up business.

The movie that made the most money for the studio was Alvin and the Chipmunks, which returned $360.5 million worldwide from a $60 million production budget, and that was actually released around this time last year. Their most successful film that came out in 2008 was Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!, produced by Blue Sky Studios who make the Ice Age movies, taking $297 million from an $85 million budget. I guess these are the kinds of films that will give Fox addition revenue from the home entertainment market as well.

If anything it shows that Fox has learnt to let someone else make their animated features while they just have the job of releasing them. After Dreamworks and Warner Bros. set up their own studios, the studio followed suit with Fox Animation Studios, based in Phoenix, Arizona, of all places. But all they could come up with was Anastasia and Titan A.E., and that was pretty much it.

So that brings me to The X-Files: I Want to Believe. With a budget of $30 million, it crawled to a worldwide box office of just over $68 million, with almost seventy per cent of that figure coming from foreign territories. At the UK premiere Gillian Anderson complained that the reason for the film tanking in the US was because it opened the weekend after The Dark Knight. That may have been the party line, but I suspect the real reason was because the movie was just bad. One reason for the preamble is because, hardly any time after watching it, I’ve been desperately trying to remember what it was actually about.

I’m sure I was paying attention while it was on. There was a lot of snow, Billy Connolly as a psychic paedophile priest who kept dropping to his knees, a severed arm, a severed head, a ridiculous chase in a building site, and a bunch of Russian surgeons doing some kind of shady operation. Mulder started with a beard then shaved it off, while Scully went around with a face like a slapped arse boring everyone senseless by yabbering on about religion. Gosh, why didn’t it work?

Like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the initial reaction to the film was surprise that it was being made at all. The television show finished six years ago, it’s all over. Apart from the handful of die-hard fans that saw it though to the end of nine seasons, and were salivating over the return of Mulder and Scully, everyone else had let it go and moved on. So why bother to bring it all back?

During its TV run, The X-Files got itself tied up in an ongoing muddle of alien abductions, weird paranormal activities, oddball psychic phenomena, and shady government conspiracies. Long before the end all these different strands had become knotted together in an utterly hopeless mess, but at least that was what the show was remembered for, which is why its odd that this second film ignores all the mythology the show accrued.

What we get instead is a rather confused serial killer narrative that would ordinarily make a quite boring movie of the week on some wayward television channel. Rather than Mulder’s search for evidence of aliens the majority of the film seemed to be about Scully questioning her faith. Is someone flummoxed about their religious beliefs what the audience was eager for? Based on those box office figures, the answer is obviously not.

Still, 20th Century Fox can put all that behind them now and look forward to all the money that will come flooding in from Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and their remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves. Ah.....!

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Do you know somebody you had a whale of a time with the first instance you got together, but then, when you crossed paths on a couple more occasions over the years, it became increasingly apparent that the bloom was already off the rose as relationships went? Something like that must have happened at some point in your life, right?

Much as you found yourself going through the motions of trying to recapture that elusive first flush it didn’t take long to realise it wasn’t ever coming back. Finally, after a long absence, you hook again and after a couple of minutes in their company you think: What the hell am I doing wasting my time with this idiot? Well, that pretty much sums up Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I only have myself to blame, going into this knowing that more than enough people have already lined up to blow raspberries at it, but nothing prepared me for how utterly lousy the film was. All the way through was I asking “Why?” Why had I rented it and why, during the filming schedule, had nobody on set raised a hand and suggested it was a bit rubbish? Surely, during whatever kind of crew screening was put on, people must have shrunk down in their seats thinking, Jeez, this sucks donkeys’ dicks!

Where do you start? Well, how about the very opening shot. Raiders of the Lost Ark mixed from the Paramount logo to mountains towering over the Peruvian jungle. In Temple of Doom it was a mountain embossed on a gong in the Shanghai nightclub. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opened on towering buttes in the American deserts. In this rich scoop of poop, the studio logo gets replaced by a prairie dog burrow. I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but how pathetic is that?

Back in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark paid tribute to the wonderful old Republic Pictures serials with its relentless chases punctuated by breathtaking cliffhangers. This fourth effort immediately indicated it was going to settle on lazily parodying that first film, especially when the fucking prairie dog pops right out of the burrow and scarpers. If I had any sense at all I would have followed its lead and saved myself two hours of grief.

I’m not one of these people wailing about how George Lucas raped my childhood memories by stinking up cinemas with the dreadful Star Wars prequels. I was already gone from there once those teddy bears turned up. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems to be a perfect example of the business side of Hollywood; putting together films by a committee apparently more interested in the bottom line than pleasing audiences.

While I’m all for people making a buck, especially when someone like Lucas can amass an absolute fortune on the bare minimum of talent, but at least give something back to the audience handing over their hard earned cash. So long in the planning, obviously another Indiana Jones movie is going to end up arriving in the wake of its many imitators like The Mummy, Tomb Raider, National Treasure and their assorted sequels, most which it already stood head and shoulders above. So why the need to play around at their level, I’ve no idea.

Rather than pore over the faults, I might as well mention what part of the film I enjoyed. Unfortunately it came down to the sequence in the motorcycle chase through the university down when Jones is dragged off the bike into the car, scuffles with the occupants, then climbs through the other window back onto the bike. Out of two hours, thirty seconds or so of entertainment doesn’t amount to very much does it?

But everything else, from Cate Blanchett’s accent that starts wavering in her very first scene, the idiotic incident with the fridge, the kid, the monkeys and red ants that interrupt the stupid jungle chase that concludes with the DUKW tipping over the succession of waterfalls, through to the whole alien sequence was just godawful. When even Indiana Jones himself seems uninterested in the quest he gets dragged into, you know it’s going to be an absolute stinker.

Going back to that first appearance of the prairie dog – one of many awful CGI creatures that appeared throughout the film – it reminded me of the gopher grooving to Kenny Loggins in Caddyshack, but obviously less lifelike. In that vein, if only they had replaced Ray Winstone with Bill Murray, back in the role of Carl Spackler, that would have been a much better option for the thankless role of the sidekick.

What Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ultimately boils down to is a catalogue of “Why...?” Why did they have the damn kid? Why didn’t they remember there’s a big difference between comedy and stupidity? Why didn’t they use Frank Darabont’s far better Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods script? Hell, why didn’t they drive up to Lawrence Kasdan’s house and knock on the door?

If there was one thing I did learn from idiotically pissing away two hours of my life, it’s this: I think I’ve figured out who George Lucas is. He’s the real life embodiment of The Haitian from Heroes. Any time he goes near creative people they instantly lose their talent.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


You know, I try my best to be productive with my time. It doesn’t always work out that way, especially of late. But this evening I stupidly pissed away a couple hours of my life that I know for a certainty I’ll be screaming for when it comes to wheezing my last dying gasps.

I’ll talk about it sometime soon but at the moment I’m beating myself mercilessly across the head with the Barnet & Enfield Yellow Pages and after that I’m going to hit the sack. In the meantime, here’s a clue about where the time went...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Three Down

I’m forever trying to work out what makes a great TV drama, poring over the evidence of both award-winning glories and abject failures to see why one held together while another came apart at the seems. Just when I think I’m close to an answer along comes something new and completely different that shifts the goal posts and takes everything back to square one.

Based on everything I’ve seen over the years, whether good or bad, the best I can come up with is that great television keeps you in your seat, eyes glued to the screen. Obviously this may not sound like much, and may in fact seem blindingly obvious, but with so much stimuli around to distract us television has a lot more to compete with nowadays.

On one occasion halfway through watching a drama, I flipped channels and fired up the games console without thinking about it, only wondering why the show had stopped at such an odd point after I was done with all the killing. Normally the litmus test for me is whether I reach across for the newspaper part way through the show and carry on with the crossword if it’s still unfinished at that point.

It happened last night as I drifted away from the third episode of Survivors to struggle over the last few cryptic clues that had been gnawing at me. It was only when the sole surviving member of the government put a bullet in someone’s head for whatever reason that I looked up at the television remembering that it was actually still on.

Halfway through its six episode run, Survivors is looking more and more like an idea that hasn’t been properly thought through. Given who came up with the idea, I suspect the original series suffered the same. The characters are turning into the kind of insufferable people you find in front of you in a Post office queue. Within a couple of minutes you just wish they were gone and forgotten about.

The fact is any post-apocalyptic event, in this case a global pandemic, needs to be the jumping off point for something more dramatic. From what I remember of yesterday’s episode, I would have preferred the spotlight to be on the chickens and the real scrapes they were getting into because the actual survivors would be better off dead. This why something like zombies trying to take a bite out of them is always good for upping the ante.

I suppose deadly plants coming after them could be an alternative but from the look of it that’s already being covered by the brains at BBC Wales deciding to piss away more good money by remaking John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. After all, the BBC has only made three television versions already, as well as four radio adaptations.

I mean, come on! Scary plants shuffling after me, how will I get away from them in this day and age? Well, I use a car or a bike or a skateboard. Or, if everything else fails, I suppose I could run. Or walk really fast. But if for some reason I couldn’t get away, what about keeping myself safe from the plants’ deadly whip-like stingers? If only there was some kind of helmet with a visor that was readily available, like the sort of thing motorcyclists or welders use, and a weapon like a sword or chainsaw to lop the stingers off...

What worked as drama back in 1951 doesn’t always work today unless you make radical changes to the story, and then you’ve got a very different story on your hands. So why not spend the money on something original rather than lazily raid the archives for old shows. I suppose that could be done, but then it would require the executive weasels to actually put in some effort. God forbid that should happen. If this is going to be the new policy, what the hell are they going to remake next?

Christmas Jeers

Somebody just sent me an advent calendar from Woolworths. The windows are boarded up and when I eventually managed to pry the first few open there was fuck all inside.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What Game Plan?

Some months back, around the time that the Beijing Olympics came to a close, I made a few more choice remarks about the 2012 games in London being a massive clusterfuck in waiting. The ensuing comments suggested I was being a bit unpatriotic and really should get into the spirit of things, even if it was simply just another excuse for this country to haemorrhage money.

I wonder, with the economy tumbling into the crapper and the costs still rising, if everyone is still so utterly cock-a-hoop? Will they still have those cheesy fuckwit grins plastered across their smug little faces now that The Game Plan has come to light? Here we have a 250-page strategy document, compiled by people who actually know what they’re talking about, that states hosting the Olympics would not bring significant economic returns or even encourage more people to play sport.

With that kind of summation, surely that should have been the end of it. Except, as soon as B Liar signed off on the document back in 2002, the government did a complete about-face and backed the bid, no doubt urged on by oily shit-stains-in-shoes like Sebastian Coe who we’ve since found out were simply banging the drum for their own interests. And what was the government’s justification for going ahead? That even if there was no social or economic justification for staging the event, it would still be “a morale-boosting national party.” Oh, excellent!

With the cost of 2012 now more than tripled from the original estimate and UK Sport still with a £79 million shortfall in its budget because private sponsors have run a mile (probably fast enough to earn themselves a medal), the Games chiefs had to meet today to agree funding cuts for various Olympic sports. No doubt, in four years time, it’s going to end up being utterly pathetic and a national embarrassment that will leave everyone hanging their head in shame.

Once it’s all over and we work out how much each medal won for this country cost, the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square can then be used as a stage for reaming these governmental cunts who “backed the bid” with a potato peeler or other blunt instrument. Once the blood spraying out of their arseholes has hosed down the front of the National Gallery we can all have a merry dance in the fountains.

If anyone wants to know why I’ve been against it, I remember the 1976 Montreal Olympics and its unfinished stadium, and how Canada got royally screwed by the immense cost overruns. Just “The Big Owe” alone, as the city’s natives since referred to the stadium, cost twice the initial estimates. Although, in checking out the actual figures, I was shocked to discover that the stadium’s costs were finally paid off only two years ago at a total expenditure of over 1.6 billion Canadian dollars. How long are we going to be paying for 2012?

If you think the Olympic site will be put to good use in the future and all the waddling kids will put down their Playstation controllers and be out kicking a ball about, this is from one of the articles in The Times today regarding four previous Olympic games:

Tarnished legacy

Barcelona 1992

At the time they were the most expensive Games ever and 40 per cent of their $11 billion cost was public money. But Barcelona is widely considered to be a model of Olympic planning because it revitalised the city’s image abroad and regenerated Spain’s eastern seaboard. Tourist activity went up but the stadiums have been underused and there is no evidence of increased sports participation.

Atlanta 1996

Written off as the Coke Games because of the overcommercialisation of the event for the benefit of the US soft drinks maker in its own backyard. Atlanta has been virtually airbrushed from history by Games chiefs and resulted in the creation of few sports facilities. There was little impact on participation but no public money went towards the $1.8 billion bill.

Sydney 2000

Hailed by the International Olympics Committee as the “best-ever” Games because of their carnival atmosphere. Once they were over, tourism and sports participation fell away. Obesity has increased among Australians, who had grown used to watching sport from the sofa. Taxpayers picked up the bill for underutilised stadiums in the middle of nowhere and the entire A$6.6 billion party resulted in a monumental hangover. A study afterwards put the net cost to the public at up to A$2.4 billion.

Athens 2004

The Greeks left everything to the last minute, pulling off a successful Games against all expectations. The €11.9 billion cost has been hard to justify, however, since the venues have become choked with weeds. The spruced-up city reaped tourist dividends but no more Greeks run marathons than did before the Games.

No doubt London 2012 will be joining the list. But then again, when the government gets involved in anything it turns into a monumental financial fisting. Just look at The Millennium Dome. Yes, it was conceived by the Conservative party, but St Tony’s newly elected Labour government expanded its scope and funding. With an original estimate of £399 million, the final cost came in at £789 million.

Supposedly “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”, by the time of its closure at the end of 2000 only half the projected 12 million visitors had gone through the turnstiles. After that it sat in Greenwich like a big white tumor for seven years before it was turned into an entertainment complex and rebranded The O2 arena.

As attractions go, compare that to the Eden Project near St Blazey in Cornwall. Beginning with just the biomes housing tropical and temperate plants, the site gradually expanded to include educational and arts projects as well as hosting regular concerts, probably because the scabby turds in Parliament never got their fingers in the pot.

While it has required £130 million of public funding since opening its doors in 2001, Eden Project has helped pump £800 million into the local economy. And it has car parks. Given the choice, I know which one I’d visit.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Bond Identity

It’s always dangerous for companies to screw with a money-making franchise. Then again, you have to admire those that decide to try something different rather than simply mix up the same ingredients every couple of years and sell it back to their audience.

For 44 years the Bond franchise had tinkered here and there – usually when a new actor took on the role of 007 – but it pretty much stuck to the same tried and tested formula. Although Die Another Day, released on the fortieth anniversary of Dr No, had its moments, the invisible car and that retched CGI in the para-surfing sequence really was the nadir of the film series. I mean, good grief!

Thankfully the trilogy of Jason Bourne films came along, raising the bar and showing that taking spy movies back to basics was more fulfilling than tipping over into fantasy, especially once Paul Greengrass got involved. Luckily EON Productions had the brains to figure out they had to follow suit, which lead to the reinvention of a far more brutal Bond in the guise of Daniel Craig, left to using guns and guile rather than the elaborate Q-branch gadgets for getting out of tight spots.

Of course the unprecedented success and praise heaped upon Casino Royale led to an even bigger dilemma: coming up with a worthy follow-up. Having skimmed various broadsheet and magazine reviews before heading out, many of which seemed to show a hint of disappointment, I wondered if I was watching the same film those writers had. I haven’t seen an inordinate number of movies this year, but Quantum of Solace was by far the best. While so many films weave their way around great big gaping plot holes, everything in this movie made sense.

A lot has been made of Quantum of Solace being a direct sequel to the previous film, rather than simply another adventure, but it soon becomes apparent that this continuation of the story is utterly necessary. Casino Royale saw the new, reinvigorated Bond go from a “blunt instrument” to the more familiar secret agent persona, but there’s more to accruing the physical manifestation through cars, tuxedoes and cocktails.

So Quantum of Solace is the final transform of the new Bond, getting past the urge for simple revenge to obtain a detached professional mindset. Like the final scenes of The Bourne Supremacy, Quantum of Solace is all about getting closure, which makes it all the more remarkable at a time when most action thrillers, much like the younger audiences they cater for, are so utterly empty-headed.

Finally saving the girl this time, from fire rather than water, while developing a particularly cruel streak that really needs to exploited, not only does the iconic gun barrel POV appear at the end of the film but they actually draw a lie physically across the screen. Of course this doesn’t mean that before leaving the auditorium everyone has to gather together like a bunch of eco-friendly Guardian-reading beardie-weirdies in need of a group hug.

With Gary Powell onboard as stunt co-ordinator it still incorporates everything to give an adrenaline junkie a real buzz. A couple of quick, close-quarter fights that includes head-butting and a quick wallop from a hardback book may invoke Bourne’s antics but each one is topped by harder action sequences; especially the rooftop chase in Sienna that ends in a tangle of broken scaffold and ropes and pulleys. With the windows of the Aston Martin bullet-proofed, what better way to make Bond vulnerable than ripping the driver’s door off.

Having Dan Bradley handling the second unit there are occasions when Quantum of Solace looks like a film co-directed by Sam Peckinpah and Terrance Malick. With everyone getting shot, beaten or burnt, for once the film showed how the evil machinations impacted on ordinary people, whether it was briefly returning to the Piazza del Campo in Siena after the shooting, or the sigh of the old dear after seeing her ingredients for a Bolognese sauce crash to the ground.

The script by Paul Haggis & Neal Purvis and Robert Wade rather than Casino Royale’s Neal Purvis and Robert Wade & Paul Haggis, makes all the difference. Luckily EON hired the Haggis of the morally ambiguous EZ Streets rather than the preaching to the converted Crash. After all, this isn’t the time for megalomaniacs intent on world domination fantasies, and thankfully Dr Evil put paid to the absurdity of SPECTRE demanding huge ransoms. Instead they concocted an enemy literally hiding in plain sight, which makes them all the more dangerous for it.

Nothing is perfect so there has to be one bugbear, In this instance the different typefaces used to identify each location bugged me a little, but that was the mildest of irritants. The second step in a back-to-basics reinvention, it was a darn sight better than The Dark Knight. In fact Christopher Nolan’s second turn in Gotham City had me pleading for the film to end. Once Quantum of Solace’s credits rolled I had the strongest urge to stay in my seat and watch it a second time.