Friday, 3 July 2009

'I Just Need a Place to Kip for a Few Nights, Stan'

All the recent talk of people going 'to hell with it' and voting for celebrity candidates in the next general election is worrying, despite Esther Rantzen's sterling attempt to put paid to the whole idea with her embarrassing performance on Question Time. Celebs simply aren't suited to office - they neither know nor care about anything other than themselves. That is, in most cases, the main reason they've become celebrities.

There is a kind of public office, though, to which the stars of stage and screen are perfectly suited: the kind no-one knew existed in the first place. Called things like High Sheriffs and Lord Lieutenants, they don't appear to do much apart from turn up on the news occasionally in furry robes to mug at local businessmen or kids in a newly-built youth centre. ('Sounds like Gordon Brown! LOL!')

Celebs make ideal candidates for this job - not much paperwork, lots of getting out and about and pressing the flesh, and those robes, darling! The High Sheriff of Surrey was the benchmark for celeb dignitary action for ages, with both Richard Stilgoe and Penelope Keith holding that unaccountably sexy-sounding office over the past few years.

But now there's a new challenger, as we hear Eddie Yates off Corrie has been made Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight! This is, of course, the best celebrity political appointment made thus far, and we wish Mr G Hughes (if that really is his name) all the best carrying out his many ceremonial duties, which include:

  • Brewing bitter in Hilda Ogden's bathtub
  • Failing to flog white goods of dubious provenance at the bar of the Rovers
  • Turning up fresh from the nick desperate for somewhere to kip with iffy mate 'Monkey'
  • Covering a shortfall in hookey wallpaper with an equally dodgy alpine 'muriel'
  • Scanning the classified ads in the Weatherfield Gazette for 'investment opportunities'
  • Running a book on whether or not Annie Walker will pass her driving test
  • Rescuing a trapped budgie from Mavis Reilly's chimney
  • Burning the coq-au-vin at Ken Barlow's pensioners' supper
  • Trying to get Bet Lynch to sell him 2/3 of a pint of bitter after he's had his benefits cut
  • Selling cash and carry booze out of drinking hours from an ice cream van
  • Pretending he lives in Mike Baldwin's flat to impress birds he's pulled over the CB radio
  • Storing Stan Ogden's vintage tandem in an abandoned house which is promptly knocked down while he's having a swift half in the pub over the road
  • Winning the council's 'cleanest dustcart' contest despite a knobbling attempt from Fred Gee
  • Trouncing Alf Roberts in a slimming contest

I think he'll do juuuuuust fine.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

'Oh no my clothes have all fallen off, and The Clash.'

The other day I was challenged - by Does That Make Sense?, no less - to say something pertinent, or even just dim, about Transvision Vamp. Panicking like Blears, I plumped for the latter. Here goes.

Transvision Vamp were, essentially, Wendy James and - one of the best rubbish pseudonyms in pop - Tex Axile, an old punk who'd been in the fag-end version of X-Ray Spex and silly controversy-mongering non-band The Moors Murderers with Chrissie Hynde and Steve Strange. Tex provided the proto-Grunge mellow chiming verses and stock power chord choruses over which Wendy would alternately pout and scream in a manner often, and not entirely unfairly, likened to Bonnie Langford throwing a wobbly in Just William. In fact, most people's first encounter with the band was via James's thcweam at the start of their first big hit, I Want Your Love. The lyrics were textbook frowny bedroom nihilism, full of clumsy rhymes ('I love your motivation/And I love your desperation') which were - perhaps fatally - mixed high enough for every word to be intelligible.

They found themselves lumped in with a load of other bands who did vaguely power-poppy songs and had a blonde frontwoman, and all appeared round about the same time, as the '80s were being smoked down to the filter. Thus James was constantly compared to Andrea off The Darling Buds and - one of the worst rubbish pseudonyms in pop - Tracy Tracy off The Primitives. I don't know if someone tried to tie them up in one of those freshly-minted micro-genres that were all over pop journalism in those days. (I'm hoping 'peroxide power pop' is something I've just made up).

For better or worse, James was ahead of her time. Let's take the worse first. There are two things about Wend that got the music press's collective goat, which just wouldn't be issues today. First, and most obvious, was her willingness to shed as much clobber as possible if there was a cover shoot in it. Actually, it was all very chaste by today's standards - arms and militaria experts on the Antiques Roadshow have cavorted in less - but back then for an actual singer, rather than some model who mimed to Loleatta Holloway, to set the controls for 'shirtless' was an invitation to be priggishly lambasted in the pages of the inkies (who illustrated their thesis with copious examples of the evidence, natch). No-one, with the possible exception of Carol Decker, had a harder time from the music press in the late '80s.

Secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, The Vamp wanted to be 'credible' without being 'indie'. Explaining the arcane rules of the 1980s independent music scene to anyone under 25 is like summarising pounds, shillings and pence via the medium of dance, and it really is an unquestionably Good Thing that selling a few records now and again is no longer considered an instant bar to musical worth. But back then it still - just about - was. So Wend and Tex's bangings-on about Joe Strummer in interviews were reported with a vertiginously raised eyebrow. How dare these self-confessed wannabe chart-toppers flirt with the trappings of 'proper' music? Such snobbery was on the way out, though, for the good of all concerned (the staff of Melody Maker aside). It just came a little too late for the Trannies.

Best not to go overboard with the revisionism, though - there are few pop songs feebler than Born to Be Sold, for a start. But at a time when just about everything else from the 1980s has been salvaged, polished up and stuck on an ad (Westworld on the telly in 2009? I'm all for it, but... how?) it's odd we haven't heard those workmanlike power chords and that girlish 'Waaaaaagh!' being used to flog a Kinder Bueno or a Ped-Egg... yet.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

It's Not Fair and It's Really Not PG

It was easy in the old days (by which I mean before 1982). For films, you had your certificate U for the whole family, your certificate AA for over 14s (or 12 year olds who felt lucky)and your certificate X for over 18s (or two vertically mounted twelve year olds sharing one man's overcoat, trilby and burnt cork around the face). For everything else, it was safely assumed that anyone likely to take offence - children, the elderly, Lord Hailsham - would be safely in bed by nine. Simple.

Then things started to get mussy. Films certificates changed into new ones which were supposed to be easier to make out but weren't, then kept being added to every couple of years. The 9PM curfew became increasingly meaningless in the face of black and white portable tellies in bedrooms, and then the advance of VCRs, Sky Plussing contraptions and, finally, the Internet. Sending junior to bed the moment Old Man Steptoe unleashed his first 'Cobblers!' of the night was no longer an option - they could be watching Derek Jarman up there, and without that all-important 'parental guidance'. ('Look Billy, those two Roman soldiers are very good friends, aren't they? You know your Uncle Alan...')

So we got a stream of hastily cobbled together own brand censorship regimes, from the phoney (Red Triangle Films) to the earnest but ridiculous (those strange boxes on the backs of DVDs, with their invocations of 'scenes of mild peril' and other abstract concepts straight from the terrified mind of Norris Cole). Worst of all is the music-related stuff, which has gone far beyond those daft 'Parental Guidance' stickers that cluttered album sleeves in the '90s.

Try listening, for instance, to Lily Allen's new single 'Ed From the Chemical Brothers Shags Like an Invalid Penguin' on a selection of radio stations. The 'difficult' content is treated in various ways. Some just censor the word 'head', which became rude in about 1991, around the time the previously untouched 'Walk on the Wild Side' started suffering a similar fate. Some censor the word 'giving' as well, probably because cutting the word 'head' on its own might sound a bit like like having your decency cake and eating it. ('Giving what, eh, lads? Not blood, I bet! Woooorgh!') Some get rid of the whole offending line. Some, even, let their faders eat into the previous line, removing 'wet patch', a totally innocuous phrase to anyone who doesn't already know what might be the cause of said spillage. There are probably versions out there which cut even more in an attempt to take the world back to a pre-Are You Being Served? state of Edenic innocence.

Meanwhile, poor old Lily's song disappears bit by saucy bit, like a sexually explicit version of 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes'. It's all very subtle and barely raises an eyebrow these days. Back when music censorship was full of uniformed coppers raiding branches of Our Price and Mike Read going apoplectic over some 'raunchy Scouse combo' who had probably never even heard of John Betjeman, at least we knew where we stood. Now not only do we not know, it seems the people devising these things haven't got a clue either. God knows what they'd have made of Danny La Rue.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Duck Island LOL's a Mighty Fine LOL

Not so long ago, satire was the preserve of about half a dozen men with a First in Greats from Caius College, Cambridge. Now, thanks to the internet, radio phone-ins and The Economist's Joke of the Week spot, everyone's a satirist. Which would be great, if the level of humour got significantly better as a result. Sadly, the BBC's Have Your Say pages are only 2% funnier than the whole of That Was The Week That Was, and that's not good enough.

Things looked so much more promising a year ago. Gordon Brown was a gift - a politician who acts a bit like a clown, and whose name rhymes with 'clown'! The headlines wrote, typeset and distributed themselves. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief after long, drab years of the hopeless 'Blair'/'liar' construction, which wasn't even a proper pun, and never funny in the first place. ('It's not meant to be funny. I'm really angry, actually.')

Then things got better and better. There was the Credit Crunch, which was kind of serious but didn't involve anyone actually dying, and to cap it all had a silly name. No decent gags. Then Swine Flu, which kind of involved people dying but wasn't actually serious, and to cap it all had a silly name. Still nothing. And now we've got a continuous stream of comedy expenses, each one sillier than the last, which should provide ideal conditions for a fertile coupling of indignation and comedy.

Nothing, though. Zilch. Perhaps the MPs overdid it, with their moats and dog food and whatnot. The joke's almost already done for us, but not quite. (What brand of dog food? Does the moat have a drawbridge? Carp? We don't know, and these things are vital for comic detail.) Unable to work with the prime material they're given, the public overdo the indignation to compensate, as if diddling the electorate out of a couple of Habitat bread bins is the most grievous thing ever to happen in the name of Parliament. That sort of approach worked for Alexei Sayle, but not the population of Luton, who haven't got enough pork pie hats to go round as it is. Can we have an election for a new Great British Public? This one's rubbish.

But perhaps it was never meant to be, and now it looks like the material's running out. "Reporters in Buckingham Palace (Slight Return)" isn't going to get anyone choking over their morning raft of viral emails. The 24th satire boom since records began is bursting. Soon everyone'll be safely back to chuckling at TV's talent trousers man and the happy-go-lucky wit of Eamonn Holmes. Still, maybe in another ten years we'll have found a funny rhyme for 'Cameron', and the cosmic ballet can continue.

Friday, 15 May 2009

"We're supposed to be intelligent people, not the London School of Economics!"

The first episode of a TV series is incredibly difficult to get right, because it has to do everything. You’ve got to introduce your characters, their environment, their relationships, and the rest of the set-up for the next six/twelve/twenty episodes, while juggling a self-contained plot for that one episode which has to come to a satisfactory conclusion by the end, that conclusion summing up, if you’re doing it right, the series as a whole. A sitcom’s harder than a drama, as you’ve only got half an hour, and on top of all that you’ve got to cram in some decent gags.

With all this to do, it's small wonder few sitcoms manage to launch with a satisfactory bang, but Ever Decreasing Circles is a towering exception. Writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey hardly make things easy for themselves with the concept they have to introduce - humourless community busybody Martin Brice (Richard Briers) and his long-suffering wife Ann (Penelope WIlton) have their already crabby marriage shaken up by the arrival of suave, relaxed hairdresser Paul Ryman (Peter Egan), who possesses every redeeming feature Martin does have, from a sense of humour through to modesty. Not exactly 'fat bloke left in charge of bakery' in set-up terms, but they lay it out and sew it up in twenty-five-odd minutes without breaking into a sweat.

The performances are of course great, but it's not only Briers' one-man tornado of pointless energy that makes it. Penelope Wilton runs the gamut of Play for Today kitchen sink emotions from frustration to anger, while leaving just the occasional chink of warmth, enough to stop the viewer wondering why she didn't just pack her bags years ago. Very much in their own world are Howard and Hilda Hughes, not quite the cardboard comedy suburbanites they initially seem, but certainly full of the spaced-out detachment of people who write letters to Points of View - Stanley Lebor's Howard, in particular, talks as if he's reading out each 'frank exchange' from a previously approved crib sheet.

In the middle of all this, Peter Egan just has to act normal - easier said than done in such a madhouse. But he's not completely immune to the mania. His first encounter with Martin leaves him bemused at the torrent of unsolicited advice about British Telecom ("and the same applies to the gas people, but more about them anon!") Five minutes in, he finds himself starting to mimic Martin's OCD ticks, counting the number of steps in the hall stairway along with Ann. The freakish set-up is laced with subtle touches like this. It would be going to far to say the viewer can empathise with every character, but they're all certainly recognisable as real people, which is more than can be said for a lot of more celebrated 'realist' comedies.

Circles (well,why not?) is fairly well celebrated these days, but too often in conjunction with that dread comedy adjective, 'dark', often by punters who seem to have got their sense of humour by copying it off the boy sitting next to them in the exam room. What's really at the centre of it is a monumentally insecure, self-centered man who can't see how he drags down everyone he touches. Where Esmonde and Larbey really impress is in gradually making what starts out as a grotesque monster, cranking the duplicating machine in a maniacal frenzy, into a sympathetic, tragic figure. It's there in the first episode, in Martin's inability (or refusal) to share everyone else's jokes, and the lonely image of his one-man all-night vigil camped in front of a troublesome articulated lorry with a knackered portable telly for company.

It's something the writers have specialised in. There might not be much of it about in Brush Strokes beside the odd maudlin barside chat with Elmo, but it's there in spades in The Other One, a sitcom with Briers as a desperate bullshitter bluffing his way through a skirt-chasing package holiday - a theme made famous by John Sullivan with his medallion-toting Kirk St Moritz in Dear John (another 'before-its-time dark masterpiece' of course).

It's even there in The Good Life - both Margot and Tom are guilty of burying themselves in their own busy little worlds while real life goes on elsewhere. It's really the theme of all comedy, dark or light, noughties or forties, Avalon-approved or ENSA-affiliated - the man for whom the world's just that tiny bit too much. Or as Martin puts it in one of his stilted attempts at self expression: "I wish people wouldn't take me literally. I just mean... things."

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Bolls: Over?

Two Statcounter posts in short order is thunderingly bad form, but this is almost interesting. While poring over the sudden preponderance of Iranians searching for "bondage telly", this Twitter account jumped out of the listings. I'm not sure how 'official' this is - unlike this one, of course. Not that it matters, as this series of Ashes to Ashes is really cracking along now regardless, but this sort of thing seems to be standard practice now with a drama series of any decent size, so people must go for it. I can't say I'm convinced.

If Square One features in next week's episode I might change my mind, however.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Cover Aversions

David Quantick, that repository of chart-oriented bile, once memorably described Menswear's Johnny Dean as something you'd get 'if you wanted Brett Anderson for Christmas, but your mum had gone to the covered market in town and bought you a crap knocked-off version with the wrong hair and a leg that fell off as soon as you got it out of the box.' While this just about summed it up for Johnny, I’ve never forgiven his slight against that bastion of loose change consumerism: the covered market.

I’m not talking about those lovely Victorian covered markets like those quaint arcades you get in Leeds and Oxford. To get to the right kind of covered market you need to take a long walk down a shallow concrete ramp. It's about 4.15PM on a Saturday, by the way, the only time to pay a visit. It'll be a heavily overcast sky above, lowering clouds scudding lazily by forever teasing with the portent of a downpour that never quite arrives.

Atmospherically oppressed from above, overcoated folk hurry about to get their 'last minute bits and bobs' before the various joys of Saturday evening are upon us. Already it's getting dark. The Grandstand teleprinter is warming up, kegs of Hemmeling Lite are being plumbed into pub cellars, and the master tape of Russ Abbott’s Madhouse is being loaded into the ITV network's central reel-to-reel player. There's no time to linger, which, on the face of it, is just as well.

If the atmosphere above deck is one of gathering storms, unsupped pints, unclaimed dividends and unspooled impressions of Mavis Riley, at the bottom end of the ramp it's altogether more intense. I'm getting concrete, I'm getting sawdust, I'm getting freshly gutted mackerel. I'm getting... yes, all right, piss.

But the olfactory overload is nothing compared with the headache engendered by the criss-cross network of strip-lighting that illuminates the scene. Council officials have diligently ensured that a mandatory thirty percent of the overhead lighting is set to a permanent wild flicker, giving certain corners a definite 'epileptics keep out' air. God knows how the old dears manage to keep body and soul together as they browse the haberdashery stalls in ambient conditions that would have been deemed 'a bit much' at Studio 54.

The concrete cavern may be solid enough, despite being only twenty years old (FACT: all covered markets were opened by either Prince Michael of Kent or Vince Hill), but the stalls themselves are permanently on the verge of collapse. The favoured building material is pegboard. All the better to hang loads of packets of wool and rawlplugs off, certainly, but it doesn't half give the impression of a Mexican shanty town, eking out a meagre existence under the feet of the mighty 'proper' shops, which hum with an assured briskness that will never be echoed in these little numbered cubicles with the proprietors’ names spelled out in one-size-fits-all municipal stick-on lettering, those council men having dislodged a regulation one character in ten.

Quantick's hypothetical mother, despite sounding like something the Large Hadron Collider should be looking for, would head straight to the toy stall, a cubicle no more or less dour than those offering fresh meat or plumbing supplies. Eschewing a cutesy nom de commerce like ‘tots’ wonderland’ for the more reliable ‘Alan’s Playthings’, the range of products crammed into this 8 x 8 foot magic kingdom is not in doubt. But they’re Johnny Deans all the way.

Where Alan really excels is in the novelty department. The kind of practical joking tat eschewed by the more respectable emporia is here in abundance, making Alan’s gaff the nearest you could get to those mythical 'joke shops' the folk of the Beano were ever dashing into. Only without the abundance of on-premises chuckles. Novelty vending is a serious business, and customers implicitly understood that any joy to be extracted from said goods is only to be done when said goods are well out of the sight of Alan.

All this surly transaction is good practice for the progress from black soap to Black Sabbath, and a trip to the second hand record stall. The intimidating atmosphere of second hand record shopsis famed in novel and film, but the stall’s an even bigger ordeal. After all, in the shop the tubby know-all with the PiL t-shirt and the thousand well-argued reasons why compilation albums are for the mentally deficient is up to six feet away. At the stall it’s more like six inches. And he knows the contents of those punnets back to front - every hesitation you make in the lengthy flicking process is read, deciphered and facially disapproved of while you sweat. Bomb disposal operatives have a more placid time of it. Inevitably you leave with nothing, pining for a fantasy future where buying music involved no human interaction whatsoever.

In fact, best to get out of the covered market altogether. The stalls are battening down their unwieldy plywood hatches and that miserable bloke is disconsolately pushing a hinged double broom arrangement in your direction - a final ‘clear off out of it’ gesture if ever there was one. Time to get back to the surface people. The Pink Panther’s on in a minute.