Tag Archives: tv

The benefits of home-working

The Guardian’s Saturday magazine has a column called “Things you only know if you’re not at work”. Being a home”worker” myself, so far one thing I haven’t seen mentioned in that column is the fact that during the daytime, Channel 5 turns into a kind of shopping channel. I turned on the TV to watch a video of last night’s ER while I ate my lunch but didn’t even get to put the video on because I was so fixated by a five-minute advert by TimeLife for a new series of dramatisations of Bible stories, collectively called – wait for it – The Bible. “These films are not available in the shops,” announced the gravelly-voiced narrator, which is always a bad sign. The first film available is called Jesus.  “Buy Jesus for £9.99 and get Joseph free!” went the offer. A lot of very good British character actors, including Gary Oldman (Pontius Pilate), Ben Kingsley (Moses), Dame Diana Rigg (Delilah) and Michael Gambon (er, Samson?) were shown looking serious in robes against dusty backgrounds while we were told over and over about how the offer of the films was exclusive, exclusive and exclusively exclusive. A phone number for emergency ordering of the films was given, but even more bizarrely an alternative phone number with an Italian flag next to it was also displayed in smaller print at the bottom of the screen…

Even worse, when the advert for The Bible was over, Starsky and Hutch came on. I used to love that when I was a kid – I had a toy car with the white flash down the side and everything – but, not having seen it for 20 years, I couldn’t believe the utter cheesiness of it. That’s the thing about Seventies retro – the revivalists retain the haircuts and the flares and the cool music, but they conveniently edit out the fact that about 75% of that era was given over to naff jokes about Starsky ripping his jacket or spilling his chilli dog on his trousers, while Hutch spent less time fighting crime than fighting off women. Give me The Professionals any day. Or check out They Fight Crime!, a brilliant site which generates random crime-fighting duos, such as: “He’s // a bookish gay // boxer // on his last day in the job. She’s // a transdimensional // nymphomaniac politician // looking for love in all the wrong places. They fight crime!”

Merton and Hislop on their way out?

Have I Got News For You has always been one of my favourite TV shows, and Paul Merton has consistently been one of the best people on TV. But watching HIGNFY last night all but convinced me the show has finally flown up its own arse. Merton has sat there for the past few shows of the current series looking as if he doesn’t really want to be there, barely speaking for the first ten minutes and only then to parody his trademark surreal free-association to such an extent that last night he suddenly broke off mid-stream and asked rhetorically, “What on earth am I talking about?” which got a bigger laugh than anything he’d been saying. Ian Hislop launched into a savage five-minute rant against Valery Giscard-d’Estaing, EU bureaucracy and Italian corruption, unprecedented even by his standards, ending by saying (I’m paraphrasing) “I know I’m sounding more and more like the Daily Mail, but it does actually make some good points now and then.” I mean, come on, Ian, especially after your own magazine Private Eye has spent so long pointing up the hypocrisy of that reviled paper (the Mail, not the Eye). When this rant itself was then parodied by his team-mate, comedian Mark Steel (“Those bleeding French and their fucking baguettes!”) Hislop’s face went even more po as he accused “the left-wing comedian” of  resorting to a cheap laugh by saying “fuck” a lot (which the BBC bleeped out anyway) and for putting words in his mouth (because Hislop didn’t say anything about baguettes). Merton may have run out of steam, but only because the show no longer inspires him, and I really hope he’ll quit while he’s ahead and concentrate on something new. Merton will always be a genius, and is therefore infinitely adaptable, but Hislop isn’t, and although I agree that we need people like him to expose corruption and hypocrisy at the highest levels, if he just ends up losing his sense of humour completely (he made a good start on Angus Deayton’s final show) and turns into the sort of self-righteous vicar he lampoons Blair for being in Private Eye then it’ll be a terrible shame. On top of all that, the show was hosted this week by some totally anonymous character who only proved the sad fact that as long as there’s a script, even the most chinless wonder can read an autocue and get a laugh. TV doctor Phil Hammond all but saved the day. Let’s hope it’s better next week…

Second Best is a winner

A lovely film on BBC2 last night called Second Best. Made in 1994, it starred William Hurt, improbably enough, in the role of a lonely, red-haired sub-postmaster of a tiny Welsh village who wants to adopt a troubled ten-year-old, played perfectly by Nathan Yapp (who, according to his IMDb entry, has done nothing since). Keith Allen also did a good turn as the boy’s vagrant father. Hurt’s accent oscillated wildly between Ireland and Somerset without touching Wales for more than a few syllables at a time, but otherwise he was utterly believable. Even though it was made nearly 10 years ago and shown on the channel’s graveyard shift, its simplicity, tenderness and quietness, as well as the excellence of the writing (by David Cook) and acting, reassured me a little that TV stations aren’t just obsessed with ratings and “dumbing down”. Things still ain’t what they used to be however – I remember in the eighties Channel 4 showing a great art-house movie every Thursday night. (Thanks must go to Metro Life‘s film critic Neil Norman for writing an enthusiastic review of Second Best, without which I might not have bothered staying up for it.)

The decline of civilisation

John Reid, leader of the House of Commons, is reported today to be under fire for saying of Iraq: “I believe there are weapons of mass destruction there. I know we haven’t found them yet, but because we haven’t found them yet no more means that there was not a threat than not finding the money stolen from the Great Train Robbery means that Ronnie Biggs was innocent.” This Prescottesque tongue-and-truth-twister is even worse than Jack “Short” Straw’s “rewriting of history” yesterday when he said “it’s not crucial” now to find the weapons. All this comes despite Tony Blair going on and on like a bloody scratched record for weeks before the war about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (the expression was of course used so much that he had to truncate it to “WMD”) being the pretext for military action, which we all knew was bullshit anyway. My respect for our politicans just gets lower – at the same rate, in fact, as their respect for the intelligence of the people they claim to represent disintegrates. How can people like Straw live with themselves? Why not just go and get an honest job like being a milkman or something? It might not pay as much but at least it’d be human.

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If you missed the BBC2 programme “The Nation’s Favourite Food” last night, think yourself lucky. My wife and I were watching it while we were eating… never again. This alleged top ten of the UK’s favourite “seduction” foods included strawberries in chocolate, and, of all things, prawns. They also interviewed an inarticulate 12-year-old DJ about champagne, filmed a bunch of sloane-rangerettes blowing up a kitchen in an attempt to make chocolate vodka cocktails, showed Melinda Messenger spitting out an oyster and, perhaps worst of all, filmed Peter Stringfellow. In his kitchen. Cooking a chicken casserole for his girlfriend. I mean, Jesus. It made us yearn for a Get It On bar.

For anyone who doesn’t watch TV or doesn’t live in the UK, this was just the latest TV show in recent weeks claiming to represent the UK’s favourite this-or-that as voted for by viewers. In the past few weeks alone we’ve had the UK’s top 100 film stars, the UK’s top 100 romantic films, the 100 worst people in the UK (all on Channel 4, it should be said), not to mention the soon-to-be-announced BBC Big Read, a poll of the UK’s favourite 100 books. I’m all for anything that encourages people to read, but even that’s a bit of a naff idea (especially as the number one will probably be something I haven’t read). Something else I haven’t read is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man but this total lack of imagination on the part of TV programme-makers is the Last Straw and would seem to bear out the feeling that The End of Television is nigh. How many more cruddy TV shows can they make on the basis of things voted for by viewers? More importantly, when are TV companies going to realise that the results of these programmes don’t represent the views of the UK but instead just the views of the six people who voted? Plus, the only people who do vote in these things are people who don’t do anything except watch cruddy TV programmes all day. It’s like that exchange in Woody Allen’s Manhattan:

IKE: You’re going by the audience reaction to this? I mean, this is an audience that’s raised on television. Their standards have been systematically lowered over the years… these guys sit in front of their sets and the gamma rays eat the white cells of their brains out… I quit.

DICK: All right. Just relax. Take a lude.

IKE: All you guys do is drop ludes and take Percodans and angel dust! Naturally, the show seems funny.

Stuff in the news

The Guardian reports that Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has topped a poll by Orange, the sponsors of the female-only Orange Prize for Fiction, as women’s best-loved women’s book. The news put me in mind of Bob Dylan’s song 1997 song Highlands, which contains the following exchange between the narrator and a waitress:

Then she says,”you don’t read women authors, do you?”

Least that’s what I think I hear her say,

“Well”, I say, “how would you know and what would it matter anyway?”

“Well”, she says, “you just don’t seem like you do!”

I said, “you’re way wrong.”

She says, “which ones have you read then?”

I say, “I read Erica Jong!”

Speaking for myself, one of the few “women authors” I have read is Jane Rogers, whose 1987 novel The Ice is Singing I found inspirational and very moving.

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There’s a lovely story in the Guardian too today about an amateur movie of John Lennon dicking about in New York in 1974 being put up for auction. The private footage, shot by a student who simply went up to Lennon and asked him if she could follow him around the city filming him all day, apparently includes shots of him taking over a New York ice-cream van and imitating baboons for startled children. Sounds like early Trigger-Happy TV.

Too much monkey business

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell says reality TV is being “flogged to death” at the expense of quality drama, comedy and current affairs. That makes two criticisms of crappy television in the Independent this week, the other by Dylan Moran (see previous post).

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The Guardian reports on an artistic experiment-cum-“performance” by Plymouth University’s MediaLab in which they put six monkeys in a cage with a computer to see what would happen. Not a lot, was the unsurprising result after four weeks. Supposedly a variation on the philosophical question of whether an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite amount of time and typewriters would eventually rewrite Shakespeare, in practice it appears that macaques simply type the letter “S” repeatedly, and, as test designer Geoff Cox says, “get bored and shit on the keyboard” – I know the feeling. The whole thing reminds me of Douglas Adams’ theory that the white mice humans have been experimenting on for years have in fact been experimenting on us all this time. The macaques were obviously onto Cox and his team and simply refused to play the game. Now that’s evolution.

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John Humphreys has been presented with the Gold Award in the 2003 Sony Radio Academy Awards, for his “outstanding contribution to British radio”, according to the Independent, who also featured an entertaining profile of the broadcaster, journalist and general damn fine political interviewer earlier this week.

Writing for the web

“New writing is blossoming on the internet”, writes Ben Hammersley in the Guardian, listing a dozen sites that promote fiction by obscure and/or unpublished writers. Anything that encourages writing has to be a good thing, but I have my doubts about whether, as he optimistically maintains, the next Dickens will be discovered online. It’s not that the quality of some web writing isn’t good – although a lot of it is, frankly, crap – but more that anything that is good enough to be published in conventional paper form surely will be. Also, the author of a real book actually gets paid for his or her work, and rightly so, whereas there don’t seem to be many instances of new writers making money publishing exclusively on the web – even Stephen King couldn’t do it with his online-exclusive serial The Plant. I do have a general fear that people are becoming too conditioned to the accessibility of the web, both in the sense of anyone being able to write almost anything on it and, by and large, not having to pay for any of it. Is it just a conspiracy theory that the world is being groomed by big business to become used to not having to pay for web content, only for us all to be royally shafted one day when the same businessmen demand payment for something we now can’t do without? Er, okay, it probably is actually.

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A lovely interview with comedian, writer and actor Dylan Moran in the Independent today. I especially liked his rant against the current swathe of reality-meets-personal-improvement TV shows: “There is a constant Gatling gun of nitwits being fired at you, programmes where they come and tell you you’re fat and your house is shit. Where else can it go? Celebrity critics turning up at Margaret Atwood’s house and telling her to write better novels?” Moran himself adds that he has been working on some prose. “It could turn out to be a novel… or a long and difficult-to-follow laundry list.” Sounds a bit like the thing I’m writing at the moment. Incidentally, there is a rather eccentric Atwood site at http://www.owtoad.com/ which features, among other items, an interesting piece aimed at potential authors called “The Road to Publication”.

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The Guardian reports that Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old journalist who was sacked from New Republic magazine for making up websites, conventions and companies to back up his stories, is to publish a novel about a young journalist called Stephen who works for a New Republic-type magazine and, er, makes stuff up. The Fabulist is published next week by Simon & Schuster.

Who wants to be a major fraud?

So the defendants of the Who Wants A Million Coughs trial have finally been found guilty. When it first opened, the case seemed to me a spurious PR stunt, especially when it was reported that a total of 192 coughs were heard throughout the show in question, of which only a dozen or so were supposed to have guided said military personnel to the correct answers. But as we know, mistakes are always made in wars, and now the case is closed, transcriptions of crucial bits of the show are emerging which help explain the jury’s decision, with the improbably-named “quiz anorak” Tecwen Whittock spluttering once for “yes” and twice for “no” at judicious junctures like some bizarre game-show séance. Sounds like they all deserve each other.

The reality of war

I happened to be indoors on the first morning of the war, tidying up the chaos of the flat after three days of redecoration. I sat down for a break and reluctantly turned the TV on, which I never do in the daytime, to be confronted with the reality of war – that there are huge chunks of time when nothing actually happens. Of course, these days, this doesn’t stop the main TV channels from continuing to broadcast nonetheless. Faced with this, Nicholas Owen found himself interviewing a ballistics expert on scud missiles. “We’ve heard a lot about the use of scud missiles,” said Owen to the expert, who, shot from behind, was revealed to be miked up so comprehensively that he looked like an android. “Can you tell us something about them? For example, what is a scud missile?” The robot-expert churned out a textbook definition of a scud missile, which seemed to be basically that it was a missile that exploded when you fired it at something. Owen then introduced a report from a journalist sitting in a tent in Kuwait wearing a gas mask. The despatch was also broadcast via the trendy new technology of videophone, which reproduces for the ordinary television viewer the exact experience of watching a movie downloaded off the internet on a 56k modem. “As you can see, I’m wearing my gas mask,” mumbled the flickering journalist. The rest of his report seemed to amount to little more than “not much has happened since last night”. Owen, keen to milk the despatch for as long as he could, said, “I see you’re in a tent. Can you pull the camera back a bit and show us what that tent is like?” I decided I didn’t really want to know what the tent was like, and turned off the TV.

I was sad and angry enough that the war had finally started without having to contemplate crap like this. The whole thing reminded me of something my Grandad once said: “War is ninety per cent total boredom and ten per cent total terror.”

TV cookery is all wrong…

We’ve got Martin Bashir grilling Michael Jackson, while Tony Benn slowly marinades Saddam Hussein. Surely it should be the other way around? Meanwhile, Tony Blair proves too slippery a fish even for a Paxo stuffing. Who’s going to step into the ring and make mincemeat of George Bush – “Laughing” Aynsley Harriott or “Naked” Jamie Oliver? Or could Delia Smith be persuaded to come out of her recently-announced retirement and give all these bananas a no-nonsense roasting? Yes – the global situation definitely requires the involvement of more women; Condoleeza Rice must not be allowed a monopoly. Too many men are spoiling the broth.