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.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

"kate bush home address wiltshire"

It's taken me a while to get a statcounter stuck on this blog, so bear with me while I plough through the sort of schtick everyone got fed up with two years ago. Still, for the record, the following search strings led to these doors in the past couple of days. Never has mass disappointment been so varied...

"80's chinese letter hat turn sideways"
Lord knows what mental process led to this. Something to do with Wang Chung, perhaps? As sought after from picturesque Everett, Massachusetts, no less - a town that ceremonially re-enacts Cuddly Ken's Bee Gees sketch on an annual basis, hopefully.

"lost art of bodging"
I'd have thought this blog was proof enough that the craft was very much alive and well, so hopefully this individual (from traditional US comedy hick town Boise, Idaho) left a happy man.

"milf derivation"

"bertice reading poster"
Well, why not? Landscape format, presumably.

"peter lorimer marriage"
If you like Leeds United so much, why don't you..?

"tesco mirrored sunglasses"
"cellophane bags cwmbran"
Sometimes the glamour of it all just gets too much.

"how old is a r whites bottle with a quarter shilling deposit"
From an employee of financial giant JP Morgan Chase in New York, this one. There's a terrible credit crunch gag in there somewhere.

"chas and dave supermarket"
It's a delightful notion, certainly. And the fact it comes from an employee of BSkyB bodes well for the future of digital television. How much rabbit will they have in stock? Find out tonight, on Sky1!

"roy castle big nose"
A consummate entertainer, singer, trumpet player, comedian, dancer and record breaker, and that's the attribute you're most interested in? Shame on you, unidentified bloke from Ilford!

"where can buy a woolworths charm"
A very good question. Not sure how lucky such an item would be, mind.

"pam st clement in caravan being gassed 1980s"
Self-explanatory, really.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

When Man 2 Man met Man Parrish

There’s just over half the year left before a new decade dawns - seven months to enjoy the last of those 1980s revivals we all thought would have given up and gone away by 2003. As it would be, even by modern standards, a bit much to go on celebrating the ‘80s for longer than they actually lasted in the first place, so retro festivities will be officially wound up on New Year’s Eve, before ‘90s nostalgia is inaugurated by Toby Anstis and Guru Josh on January 1st, 2010. In the meantime, here’s a handy social calendar of those revivals still to come.

Music channels receive a shot in the arm in June when scratch video makes a comeback. The forgotten craft of taking some old black and white film and cutting it up so the little men go backwards and forwards very quickly is lovingly revived by a new generation of artisans. All comedy programmes beginning in September feature at least one clip of Ronald Reagan going 'Look buster, b-bus-b-bus buster!' Classier broadcasts overlay all this with some abstract animated magenta triangles. The revival is deemed 'played out' when the Queen's Christmas Day speech is presented by HM sat on the floor in front of a bank of TV monitors, before the picture folds up into the rough shape of a saxophone and bounces around the screen for slightly too long to be interesting.

As the long hot summer (citation needed) rolls on, Saturday afternoons see the return of British wrestling. Not the glory years of Kendo Nagasaki and Jackie Pallo in the '60s, but the early 1980s fag-end, when Big Daddy had become more interested in appearing on the cover of the Buster summer special than giving the Kids his perfunctory two minute 'splashdown' appearance in the ring, and promoters looked to the third division likes of 'Cyanide' Sid Cooper and 'Gaylord' Steve Peacock to make up the tag team numbers. Panorama makes three earnest documentaries in a row suspecting that the matches might possibly be fixed. All bouts to be held in the Civic Centre, Aylesbury.

After what all pundits agree was A Bad Summer for Pork, the autumn sees the airwaves packed with old-style meat awareness advertisements. Shane Ritchie, Phil Daniels and Shaun Williamson (the amusingly tubby one on the end) line up for a series of cockney oompah hip-hop numbers where they burst into an undernourished wedding reception catered by militant vegans and demand the installation of a big plate of British pork, which has, of course, 'still got the lot'. All colours and creeds are whimsically represented in the commercials, including a sneezing Mexican in a big sombrero who's amusingly bundled out of the door by a nervous-looking Ritchie in a face mask. The trend catches fire in October, with the 'Do-It-All Three' reunited for a string of sell-out gigs, John Barrowman appearing in Very Very Tasty, a musical based on the Kellogg's Bran Flakes campaign, and Lily Allen tipped for the Christmas number one with her plaintive and moving interpretation of Laughing All the Way to the Leeds (Recession Edit).

By mid-October revivals are appearing so thick and fast there isn't the time to do many of them properly, so dozens get swept under the carpet, including: a line of designer paint-splattered Doc Martens launched by Paul King; 'sassy' girls from South London having about two cheeky pop-rap hits about snogging and then vanishing forever; chunky knitwear for men who know a lot about computers; The Mac Band featuring the McCampbell Brothers; song titles with more than one set of brackets in them; Trimphone impersonators; monogrammed pound coin holders; power ballads sung by women with their eyes screwed shut sat on a plinth in a completely empty white room in front of net curtains billowing through a set of open French windows; jokes about Channel Tunnel diggers surfacing in Catford by accident; Belouis Some.

November, and '80s nostalgia really nears the bottom of the barrel with the revival of '80s-style '50s nostalgia, as interpreted by advertising agencies at their yappy, annoying worst. So it's Day-Glo pink frocks and outsize beehives for the women; massive, American football player-style cardboard zoot suits and two-foot quiffs for the men. Somewhere along the line the two decades become hopelessly confused, and a generation of history pupils grow up convinced that the 1950s was full of cheery song-and-dance numbers set around a pink cardboard Cadillac about instant tea, the Brook Street job agency and going down to the Shell garage to get a scotch egg. Chris Moyles launches The Golden Oldie YouTube Channel which nobody visits.

Midnight, December 31st: Someone, somewhere, listens to Camouflage by Stan Ridgway and smiles a small smile to themselves.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Poetry Today

Eyebrows have been raised across the costlier postcodes of west London at the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as the new poet laureate, but I’m not surprised, as I fondly recall her sterling work as ‘script associate’ on Square One, Granada Television’s oddball 1981 daytime game show presented by Joe Brown.

This pre-teatime Tuesday treat is largely forgotten now, which is a bit of a shame. (Although the Queen - a woman of refined taste - was obviously a fan.) The premise was simple. “The action-packed quiz in which members of the public join forces with celebrities to win money for charity” paired two ordinary shlubs with two A-list stars - Magnus Pyke and Barbara Woodhouse, say, or Willie Rushton and Diana Dors. We’re talking the pinnacles of fame here, the centre seat on Celebrity Squares.

The ordinaries answered comedy questions, and the celebs, in a masterful touch, were reduced to acting as human counters on a giant floor-sized board, frequently called upon to balance objects, Crackerjack-style, on top of one another, do silly accents and other whimsical ’forfeits’ in order to chase that giddy prize of 250 quid’s worth of wallpaper for Great Ormond Street or neck braces for abandoned donkeys.

In between, Joe would banter away in full cockney verbal regalia (supplied, of course, by the future laureate) and take part in some self-deprecating shtick about his less-than-immortal showbiz career, tell a few ancient jokes ("Are you having that lobster for tea?" "No, he's had his tea, now he wants to go to the pictures!") and embark on an epic attempt to tell a meandering, endless gag about some geezer who goes into a boozer. No doubt these will all resurface once the Eng Lit dons get on her case - expect to see a fully annotated selection of Square One banter in next month's Times Literary Supplement.

In the meantime, I’m taking bets on the contents of the first Royally commissioned poem: ‘Enery the Eighth 7-1, ‘Walkies!’ 4-1, ‘There’s this geezer, an’ ‘e walks into this boozer…’ evens favourite.