Monday, 24 December 2012

That was the year . . .

Got those sprouts on a low boil yet? Relatives driving you to distraction? Christmas tree looking balder than Harry Hill? 'Tis the season to be manic. As well as the festival of over-eating and binge-drinking though, this is also the time of year when we take stock. What's that phrase again? Oh yes, stock-taking.

Like the contents of some moribund round robin letter, it's time to foist opinions and comments about the past twelve months on anyone who will listen. Not that I'm going to drone on about home improvements, little jaunts out to the country and myriad health issues. No. This is simply me rounding up and spouting on about some of the things I've enjoyed in 2012.

Film of the Year for me was Argo, the Ben Affleck directed the true story of six US diplomats holed up in the Canadian embassy in Tehran in 1980. Affleck also starred as CIA specialist Tony Mendez who is charged with rescuing the diplomats. The frantic nature of the film had me gripping the seat edge for over two hours. I have never watched the Oscars but feel a certain confidence that this film will feature heavily on the big night. Which of course means that we will never hear if it again. Also worthy of a mention is Skyfall, possibly the best outing for James Bond ever.

My Book of the Year is John Lanchester's Capital. This si the tale of one, relatively affluent London street and its inhabitants. There are wealthy, upwardly mobile young professionals, newly arrived immigrants and also the last of a generation, bewildered by much of what is going on. Their lives cross - sometimes only briefly - but by the end of the novel, those lives are changed forever.

Theatre Experience of the Year (!) was Michael Frayn's 1982 farce, Noises Off. This is basically a play about a dreadful play and the hapless theatre company attempting to put it on. Starring the wonderful Celia Imrie and Robert Glenister, this Old Vic production had me weeping with laughter.

Most Played i-Tunes Song of the Year goes to Eurovision winner Euphoria performed by Loreen. Having seen this triumph in the Swedish national heats (a chilly weekend in Stockholm), the song then thrashed all opposition in Baku at the Euro finals. It's success was a  bit of a surprise given that it sounds like some leftover from a 1990s Ibiza foam party. Still, in comparison with the UK's entry from Engelbert Humperdinck, Euphoria was Grammy-winning stuff.

There were losts of contenders for Telly Programme of the Year but my eventual winner was Borgen, the Danish tale of government folk. It sounds like a nightmare but the story of the charismatic PM, Birgitte Nyborg, was compelling. Sidse Babett Knudsen had the line of the year when she referred to Queen Margarethe as "that old bitch". Special mention this year go to another Scando-noir effort, The Bridge and its loopy lead character, Saga Norén, a policewoman with a difference.

The BBC produced a few fine comedies this year including the relentlessly bleak hospital offering Getting On. BBC3's Him & Her managed to be both cringe worthy and sentimental but in a good way thanks to the thoughtful performances of Russel Tovey and Sarah Solemani. Thick of It came to an end and possibly did so at just the right time. Jewish family life also provided two winners in the shape of Grandma's House and Friday Night Dinner - outstanding performances from Rebecca Front, Linda Basset and Tamsin Greig.

Person of the Year has to be Claire Balding for her sheer enthusiasm for all things sport and for jollying the rest of us along during the Olympics. There are too many outstanding sportsmen and women to mention but they all brought joy to a spectacular summer.

Place of the Year for me was definitely Lucca in Italy. Bus-loads of British harridans aside, this was a spectacular town and a much more palatable alternative to the manic pleasures of Rome and the dreariness of Pisa.

A snapshot then of what I enjoyed in 2012. As for the dislikes? Oh - let's forget them! Here's to more enjoyment in 2013!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

It's beginning to look a lot like . . . oh what's the point!

According to the late, and most definitely great, Andy Williams, 'it's the most wonderful time of the year'. I tend to agree. I'm already scrabbling through boxes for left over wrapping paper from days of yore. The stuff that used to cost 2p a sheet on Chesterfield market and was a homage to Victorian carriages with headless drivers. That sort of thing. There's the first version of the Christmas cake (a surprising success), a Christmas card list (how many names can I take the red marker pen to this year) and the prospect of turfing the lawnmower and garden implements out of the shed in the search for the decorations.

The build up to Christmas is all part of the fun but I'm finding it a little heavy going this year thanks to ITV1. Misery, let thy name be Yuletide. Exhibit A is the Asda festive advert. It shows a housewife preparing for the big event. The woman is a loon, writing cards, stuffing turkeys and hoovering spare rooms at a frenetic pace. She's jammimg a tree into a car, un-tangling lights, sweating profusely.This piece of work is frothing at the gills by the time, zombie-like, she staggers into the dining room on the big day with the roasted bird, collapsing on a tiny stool at the far reaches of the table. Apparently, behind every great Christmas, there's Mum. She's the one hyper-ventilating with a bucket of merlot in the corner.

Exhibit two comes courtesy of Morrisons. To the jangling sound of Slade, the dead-eyed Morrisons mum awakens to her Christmas Day. Climbing into loft spaces, being annoyed by relentlessly festive editions of Blue Peter. In her beige cardie, she surveys a balding Christmas tree and then writes a Christmas card to a half-remembered couple she met on holiday in 1996. Tedious nativity segues into hollow-eyed staring at the turkey, the arrival of the relatives in knitwear, mountains of sprouts. Cue soaring orchestral music, mum looking like a heroin addict and the doleful words 'but it's Christmas . . ." Hope she's left the oven on - we can all form an orderly queue and stick our heads in it.

Just when you find yourself reaching for the Tia Maria and 400 asprins, John Lewis assaults your senses. A snowman sets out on a treacherous journey to buy a present for his snow wife. He encounters sheep, potentially dying ash trees, blizzards, rivers, mountains, motorways and the high street before returning to his lady with a hat and scarf set. All of this is set against the woefully melancholic musical backdrop of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit, The power of love. By this point, the nation is ripping the Christmas lights out of the plug and jamming their fingers in the socket.

Now I'm sorry to be old-fashioned but I want my Christmas adverts to be tat. I want glitter, the Young Generation in Santa hats, Lionel Blair grimacing next to a Ker-Plunk game and Leslie Crowther offering us something from K-Tel. Yes - I want a 1975 Woolworths Christmas. What I don't need is an army of menopausal drones, selflessly cutting crosses into sprouts and then going psycho on Boxing Day. It's not funny. It's not entertaining. And it's not Christmas.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Gym WILL NOT fix it . . .

It's a hard life - so why make it harder? Why, I keep asking myself, do Id rag myself out of the house at 6 a.m. several days a week, in order to torture my ageing frame. Why? The gymnasium is calling ...

A couple of years ago I made a concerted effort to shed a few pounds. This involved de-larding the fridge, waving goodbye to eating white bread forty times a day and tearing myself away from the bakery dangerously situated at the end of the road. Of course, overhauling your diet is only half of the story. The other half was played out in the gym. Two years on, I'm a few pounds short of having lost three stone but things have now ground to a halt. Maybe my middle years body has had enough. Maybe I should be hurling buckets full of fried chicken down my gullet. Somehow though, the lure of the gym remains.

Situated in London's Square Mile, it's hardly the most congenial of places. The very nature of the gym is that everyone goes about their business in po-faced silence, me included. My fellow gym buddies are a mixed bunch. There is the parade of tiny-waisted, hard-faced east European women, pounding the treadmill in a worrying fashion. There is always some ridiculous bint with her hair piles on top of her head, like a peroxide nest, stood beneath the "No mobile phones" sign, bellowing into her mobile phone - "Yes it's me! That's right, me. Look at me. LOOK AT ME NOW!"

The blokes are usually something else too. Many feel the need to parade around in their corporate t-shirts. "I work in derivatives and I'm a bit tedious" is what the narrative should read, preferably decked out in neon. Then there are the muscle marys, that pumped up breed who groan and shout their way through a set of bench presses. Fear them for they are in love with themselves.

Then there is the lumpy old slap-head, wearily collapsing on to various bits of equipment, unsure of what they do but hey, it's a chance for a sit down. That person is, of course, me.

Of course, I could always ask the staff for help. Some of them can string together sentences but most of them spend the morning craftily lifting their tops in order to admire their six packs. Or shouting. "Come on! Come on! Lift those legs up!" they scream at some hapless futures manager who's bobbing around in a river of his own sweat. The receptionists remain glass-eyed in a Stepford kind of way. There is always the temptation to throw a bucket of water over them just to see them fuse.

Instead, I stagger off to the malodorous showers and then off to work. Mission completed. I will moan about it forever but you can bet Britain to a dumb-bell that I'll be back for more next week.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Lady Sybil snuffs it . . .

And so the whole Jimmy Savile scandal rolls on. The man is dead yet his vile actions have had long-lasting repercussions, not only for his victims but for the BBC as a whole. As a kid of the 1970s, I was one of millions who would watch Jim'll Fix It with mixed emotions. Yes, there was always a twang of jealousy as someone my age got to meet a TV star, pop singer or speed around a wet track in a London bus. Even at that age though, there was something about Savile that left me uneasy. Speaking to to contemporaries, this seems to have generally been the case. Of course, as an eight year old I had no idea what caused this slight worry but Savile was never a comfortable presenter to watch. he has none of the avuncular fun of John Noakes, the jollity of Johnny Ball or the command of John Craven. Savile was, in hindsight, exactly the kind of man your parents told you never to speak to. Well, now the children of yesteryear are speaking out about him. I admire their bravery and although Savile himself cannot be dragged before a court, those who were in the know certainly have a case to answer.

I suppose mentioning a mere TV show after all that may sound like unnecessary froth. However, BBC2's The Great British Bake Off has yet again been a slice of joy this autumn. I now know what a pithivier is and realise that my kitchen is incomplete without a proving drawer. The final was a cook-off between three male contestants. James Morton, a twenty-something medical student from Scotland had spent weeks dazzling Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood with an array of tarte tatins and petits fours. For the final he made the major mistake of overcomplicating his chiffon sponge - or rather the five sponges he managed to produce. Brendan Lynch, who seemed to be channelling Catherine Tate's 'Me dear? Gay dear? How very dare you!' character, was criticised for his 1970s approach to cooking and often seemed to wreck his chances by slinging mandarin segments and glacé cherries on everything. Which left the field open for law student John Whaite, despite having several crises of confidences and almost hacking his hand off, to win through. Congratulations to him. Here's hoping he celebrates with a macaroon and a sponge finger.

There was sadness at Downton Abbey last weekend as Lady Sybil succumbed to a bad hairstyle. No, really - it looked as though a hairdresser with conjunctivitis and blunt scissors had been hacking away at her barnet. Sporting this hideous frizz, Lady Sybil gasped her last. Lady Mary, she of the alabaster looks and disinterested voice, shed the briefest of tears. Below stairs, camp footman Barrow wept as though he'd just heard of Judy Garland's demise. Mrs Patmore restrained herself from flicking through her Mrs Beaton for a Mourning Cake recipe and, for once, no withering comment from the Dowager Countess. Well, even she couldn't reduce this event to a pithy one-liner. Whether Lady Sybil's newborn will be fashioned into a Catholic firebrand or another ditzy English aristo remains to be seen. let's just hope she doesn't inherit her mother's hair . . .

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Forever forty something . . .

With a whoop of joy and a nice cup of tea, I celebrated the news this week that middle age is now offically classed as 55 years old. By whom, I've no idea. The BBC? The Coalition? Dot Cotton? Anyway, I'm now firmly below that target and look forward to a continuation of Cliff Richard-like eternal youth.

Of course, it's a load of old nonsense. Under a particularly harsh light (thank you gents toilets, at work . . .) I observed the knackered-looking face, bloodshot eyes and slap-head hairstyle. But enough of the bloke standing next to me. No, in reality that middle-aged mug in the mirror was mine. Phsically, there is no getting away from it. OK, so I drag my weary carcass down to the gym a few times each week but it's only putting off the inevitable. I may as well cut to the chase, shove a Fray Bentos pie in my gob and don a pair of tousers with an elasticated waist.

Musically, I'm all over the place. No change there then. Earlier this week I happened across a playlist for a hospital radio programme I presented twenty five years ago. It featured Nana Mouskouri, LL Cool J and Cilla Black amongst others. I should have been dragged out of the studio and thrashed with a copy of Smash Hits. I was a young fogey. Today, I'm peering at an i-Tunes playlist that includes The Strawbs, Julia Boutros (she's from Palestine) and the Slim Willis Band (thank you Uncle Alan in Manchester). It's an eclectic mix but I love it. There's a relief about being over forty in that you really don't have to bother with mainstream pop anymore. Not for me (or indeed for anyone who likes music) Beiber, Flo-Rida or Taylor Swift. I won't be purchasing anything by Little Mix or Cheryl No Surname Anymore. I can bask in a bit of David Guetta, indulge in Sergio Mendes and enjoy a bit of Noel Gallagher. I do reserve the right not to like Coldplay though.

It's all a bit more Radio 2 than 6 Music these days and that's how it should be. Who needs another forty-something saddo desperately "chillin'" with the kids? I recommend sticking to reminiscing about Echo and the Bunnymen albums, New Order twelve inch singles and Nena's hairy armpits on Top of the Pops. And let's do it with a lack of grace and a mug of Tetleys.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Summer is over . . .

With a misty-eyed expression, it's time for us to take down the bunting and stow away those Team GB t-shirts. No more treks through the Olympic Park, no more hastily grabbed meals of pie and mash, no more standing to attention for a screeching national anthem from a country you can't quite place. It's over. It's done. Move on.

That was a bit brutal wasn't it? On the wings of a joyous few weeks, we can now bask in the start of, hopefully, a mellow autumn. Message to M&S - it is 27 degrees outside and I DO NOT need to be presented with a shelving rack packed with Christmas puddings and mince pies! Take note local pubs and restaurants - I DO NOT want to "book early for Xmas", whatever 'Xmas' is.

To ease myself into the joys of pre-winter, I'm already hooked into BBC2's Great British Bake Off. Addictive in its simplicity, the show has me dribbling at the sight of various pies, tarts and tortes served up by an army of rather impressive contestants. Top of the cake stand at the moment is James from the Shetland Isles. Scientific precision is working wonders and this unassuming young man's chances of victory are rising like a loaf. Another to watch out for is mum-of-two Cathryn who seems to approach each recipe with an "it's all going to go wrong" face, only to create something special. The skill and dedication of the baking bunch is to be applauded and once again, I feel shame as I drag a ready-made sponge from the shelf in Waitrose.

How about a good read? I have an overflowing bookcase of things that I need to settle down to but last week I ploughed through Rachel Lichtenstein's On Brick Lane. Having lived in and around the Whitechapel area for several years, I was amazed at how much I had failed to pick up on. For me Brick Lane was often just a handy route from Whitechapel down to Bethnal Green. I knew all the obvious stuff - Truman brewery, bagel bakery, Krays blah blah blah. What I had not taken into account was the manner in which Jewish Whitechapel had seemingly disappeared over a few years to be replaced by the equally vibrant Bengali community. Lichtenstein explores the area in search of signs of the former but also celebrates the diverse and re-invented Brick Lane of today. Is it a sentimental read? Most definitely but that should not detract from the absorbing social history commentary that Lichtenstein gives. There's also a nice little walking tour in the back of the book so I'll be dragging myself off to Aldgate East station in the near future.

The Sky Box is currently full of things waiting to be watched, some good and some dubious. I've watched one episode of Charlie Brooker's Touch of Cloth which is a bit ho-hum in parts but laugh out loud in others. However, it is box set season for me and I decided on a re-watching of The West Wing. I'd forgotten how sharp Aaron Sorkin's tale of life in the White House was and it's been a pleasure to re-acquainte myself with CJ, Josh and Martin Sheen's terrific Prsident Bartlett. I suppose in some episodes, the swelling orchestral music and meaningful looks can be a little bit schmaltzy but overall, the series is a class act. Interesting that since its self-imposed demise in 2006, Sorkin has been unable to re-create the magic in his later ventures.

There you go then. No need to feel down. The gates to the Olympic Park may soon be locked but there are always reasons to be cheerful.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

After the Lord Mayor's Show . . .

I decided to wait a few days before waxing lyrical about the Olympics, thinking that by now, I would be more level-headed about London 2012. Wrong! The joyousness of the whole event remains with me and not, I hasten to add, in any melancholy kind of way. OK, so I didn't understand dressage (dancing horses?) and will probably never be au fait with the finer points of taekwondo. I did, however, soak up the effervescent atmosphere in the Olympic Park, Wimbledon and at Wembley. Thank you games makers, thank you sporting legends, thank you London 2012 shop for relieving me (willingly) of large sums of money.

And so the carnival is over but while we bask in the glow of shared memory, there are a couple of horrid, threatening clouds on the horizon. The first will blow by without too much trouble. Desperate old Channel 5 are wheeling out the non-entity of a show that is Celebrity Big Brother. I've never watched more than about two episodes of this old rot and, given that Big Brother proper was well past it's sell-by date in 2008, you only have to wonder about who could be bothered to watch. Fans (loons) have been promised the likes of Bet Lynch. They could promise me the late Bette Davis and I still wouldn't tune in.

To compound this gloomy post-Olympic televisual apocalypse, ITV1 shunts the terminally awful X Factor back on to the screens this weekend. Now last year I tried to bear with the nonsense for the entire series before running out of steam and declaring on these very pages that I would never tune in again. I aim to keep that promise. In fact, I don't even need to watch anyway because we all know that the format will be as rigid as a dead dog. The first few weeks will be the usual 'nuts and sluts' parade as teary 16 year old girls and assorted numpties parade before a baying audience in some provincial theatre. We will hear about their 'journey' and the audience will point and laugh at the tone-deaf spitbags hollering on stage. Laugh at them! Make them weep! Cruel, cruel Britannia.

Under the uninterested gaze of Dreary O'Leary we will meet the usual finalists. There will be the obligatory band of teen, male, muppets, masquerading under some lame moniker such as D-Mented or First Dimension. Then we have a woman somewhere between the ages of 20 and 45 who will resemble a hybrid of Myra Hindley and Jimmy Savile. She will be 'misunderstood' or 'hated' as the rest of us call it. Also on stage we will see a personable if dull twenty-something man who will appeal to 14 year old girls but who would be more comfortable in, a-hem, 'musical theatre'.

Of course the programme wouldn't be the same without some chub-armed, middle-aged supermarket harridan, taking to the stage with all the grace of a Belarussian shot-putter and bellowing a cabaret version of 'This is my life'. It will be painful. She will be offset by another of those Leona/Alexandra clones who reckon to be r'n'b but who are, in fact, Stars in Your Eyes versions of Celine Dion. Finally, a quartet of trolls, probably from Gravesend, three of whom will be quite pretty and the fourth will look like Heather from EastEnders.

Their chances will be rated by camp old Uncle Louis Walsh (played by Charles Hawtrey), Tulisa Triplewordscore and Gary (why is he doing this?) Barlow. They are joined by Nicole Sherryglass who must surely be an improvement on the Queen of False, Kelly Girlfriend who was last season's flowering dullness.

There you go then - I've saved you the bother. Instead of festering in front of that, why not take yourself off to see a film, settle down with a good book, discover a new restaurant or attempt a triathlon? Carpe diem, Great Britain!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Seven days to a holiday . . .

Oh yes, it's THAT time of year again. Time to start rattling around in the back of cupboards for knackered looking flip-flops and tired swimshorts. Time to haul the dusty suitcase down, still bearing the luggage lables from last year's distant memory of a vacation. Time to head off on holiday.

Of course, in the good old days, it all seemed so much easier. Well, it would do, given that by 'old days', I'm referring tonthe 1970s when my parents had to contend with all of the planning and packing. How I used to giggle at their endless checklists. Thirty-odd years later I find myself in a sea of paper and stick-it notes, attempting to manouvre myself from home to holiday. Looking at the billowing clouds and thunderous grey skies outside, I am resigned to packing everything from a pair of shorts to a Balaclaver helmet. There will be suncream, Lemsip, skinbalm and a raincoat. It's ridiculous. Did my parents ever go to such lengths? Well, yes they did.

A few of those glorious seventies holidays were located in self-catering caravans on the coast. Many is the time that the entire family, 'sans motor car', hobbled on to railway platforms clutching a set of bed sheets and a pressure cooker. I kid you not. Without coming over too 'Andrew Collins' though, those childhood vacations always seemed to be set against a backdrop of glorious sunshine. Actually make that blistering sunshine. Many was the time my badly sunburned legs came into contact with the over-heated plastic covered seating in the caravan.

The days were broadly organised the same wherever we stayed. A morning on the beach, a picnic meal, long walks along the coastline or a train journey to a nearby town, back for an improvised dinner or sea-front fish and chips, then "the club". The latter would always be some on-site, formica-tabled palace of entertainment, sporting a magician, a northern comic "Take my mother-in-law . . . no, go on take her", followed by a Rita Fairclough-style cabaret singer belting out "This is my life". We loved every minute and if we weren't swaying along to some slushy number then, as kids, we were darting in and out of the tables, glowing like neon lights with our worrying sunburn.

Our only dodgy holiday was the never-to-be-forgotten misery-fest in Caister, 1978. The caravan was seated in a field of mud to which more rain water was added each day. Well, apart from one where, under murky skies, we ventured to the beach and huddled behind a wind-break, dressed in jeans and heavy jumpers. The joyless episode was made worse by the dash back to the caravan in heavy rain which thundered down on the roof. In silence we watched Scotland play Peru in the World Cup. It couldn't get any worse.

These days, most of us work right up until the minute we leave the country, resulting in the first couple of days being given over to hyper-ventialting while we try to adjust to having no timetable. This follows the nightmare job of selecting clothes and then packing the grim articles. Clearing up the house is afforded a manic few hours of hurling the contents of the fridge into a bin bag and drenching every houseplant in a Niagra of water. Then there is the task of getting yourself from home to the airport and, once there, eating your body weight in all-day breakfasts while waiting for your flight. laden with purchases from Duty Free, Sunglasses Hut, Tie Rack and We Saw You Coming, you finally stagger to your economy class pigeon hole and so it all begins.

Maybe that caravan in Caister is still for hire . . .

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Engelbert or bust . . .

By this time next week, we will know who emerged victorious in the 57th Eurovision Song Contest. As of this afternoon, the ladies and gentlemen of the press have had to endure, and possibly enjoy, over eighty rehearsals. Speaking from personal experience, I always found that the rehearsal process dulled, rathen than sharpened, my focus. Songs that began the week as a heap of festering nonsense suddenly became treasured old friends. The entries I'd pinned hopes on tend to wither on the vine and die. In other words, I've hardly ever picked a winner in the past thirty years. With that cherished thought in mind, here's who I think will progress to next Saturday's final in Azerbaijan, Land of Fire and according to some media outlets, Land of Compulsory Eviction. Onwards . . .

First semi-final

Iceland - Never forget by Greta Samóme & Jónsi
Big, old-fashioned shouty ballad tarted up with a bit of fiddle playing. Rehearsals have gone well but there is something worryingly antiseptic and bland about the whole package.

Latvia - Beautiful song by Anmary
Lyrically not a beautiful song at all with it's odd references to Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. The melody is catchy though. In the rehearsals, Anmary was wearing a vile blue frock which made her hips look huge. The backing singers were dressed in pastel-coloured hotpants. Hello? 2012?

Albania - Suus by Rona Nishliu
First goosebump moment of the contest. This is a very dark song, emoted rather than sung by the bun-haired Rona. There are some very big notes in this performance and it is a cut above much of the other frippery on offer. Will probably fail horribly . . .

Romania - Zaleilah by Mandinga
Cheap and cheerful holiday music with a catchy (bordering on irritating) tune. The throwaway simplicity of the song should get it into the final and possibly to the top spot.

Cyprus - La la love by Ivi Adamou
She's only seventeen and looks as though she is having fun. Again, this is music to live your summer vacation too - cheery, catchy and well-performed. Cyprus has never won the contest - this could do very well for them in 2012 though.

Denmark - Should've known better by Soluna Samay
The Danes tend to steer a very safe course through the contest with bland, safe, middle-of-the-road slices of pop. 2012 is no different and this mundane number will offend no one. Well, perhaps me.

Russia - Party for everybody by Buranovskiye Babushki
Six old grannies have the time of their lives, gathered around a bread oven, looking twinkly-eyed. The generic Europop dance track is pure rot but Europe will love these little old ladies so it's a contender. President Putin may ever break into a grimace . . .

Hungary - Sound of our hearts by Compact Disco
A downbeat song which sounds as though it should be a Depeche Mode b-side. Despite goood rehearsals, this is only seen as a borderline qualifier.

Moldova - Lautar by Pasha Parfeny
This is the kind of cheery turbo-folk nonsense that goes down well in the former Soviet nations. Pasha and his cohorts perform this very well and rehearsals have been good.

Ireland - Waterline by Jedward
This is the kind of entry that sounds as though it has been written by a computer programme. It's safe and ridiculously bland. The twins are as irritating and, if the rehearsal footage is to be believed, woefully off tune at times. All that aside, it would be a major surprise if this did not qualify.

Are you still with me? Shall we plod on to semi-final two? Ok . . .

Second semi-final

Serbia - Nije ljubav stvar by Zeljko Joksimovic
This is a Balkan ballad-by-numbers, all moody verses and plaintive chorus. Definitely a case of the performance being better than the song but this is a big shoe-in for the final.

Netherlands - You & me by Joan Franka
Dubbed Indiana Joan by the delegates in Baku, courtesy of the Native American head-dress she is sporting. The song is catchy in a Eurovision 'oompah' way. Maybe Joan is channeling 1976 through her feathers . . .

Portugal - Visa minha by Filipa Sousa
This romantic slice of fado may just scrape into the final list. Filipa is a classy performer and she makes a good job of this ballad.

Ukraine - Be my guest by Gaitana
This one is all shrieking horns and beats. If we're being kind, then the performance is vivacious. If not, it's a mess.Either way, it's on it's way to the final.

Slovenia - Verjamem by Eva Boto
More Balkan melodrama from a 16 year old girl with an amazing voice. The song builds nicely to a big finish. The rehearsals exposed a nasty frock though, covered in sewn on flowers. Oh dear!

Sweden - Euphoria by Loreen
It's the favourite to win but to date, Loreen's rehearsals have been worryingly underwhelming. Her piece of mid 90s trance may not be the shoe-in voctor that most were expecting.

Georgia - I'm a joker by Anri Jokhadze
Larger than life performance from a powerful, if effete, singer. This song jumps from cod opera to disco with ease. It's weird enough to appeal. Probably . . .

Estonia - Kuula by Ott Lepland
This is a big atmospheric ballad that builds nicely and is presented gimmick-free. Possibly the classiest song of the year but than by no means guarantees a victory.

Norway - Stay by Tooji
He seems to be camper than Liberace's clutch purse but this booming piece of dance music is well performed. One journalist descibed the backing singers/dancers as 'rough' which seems a little harsh . . . if true.

Bosnia & Herzegovina - Korake ti znam by Maya Sar
A lovely, gentle ballad whose chances seem to have been wrecked by a harsh stage setting and a frock horror. Full length black lace with shoulder pads anyone?

Enough for now! We'll take a look at Engelbert and the other qualified finalists during the week.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Baku to 1993 . . .

And so the plucky journalists from around Europe are heaving their suitcases to the airport as they prepare to cross about 42 time zones in search of Eurovision joy in Baku. Do I envy them? Maybe not as much as I would have done almost twenty years ago. Back in the day, Eurovision was a very different animal. There were no semi-finals, no super-sized arena and the likes of Luxembourg rather than Lithuania were taking part. 1993 - a momentous year as I joined the throng and travelled to Eurovision as an accredited delegate.

The contest was being staged in the tiny village of Millstreet, County Cork as Irish broadcaster RTÉ wanted to try something a little different - and boy was this different! A showjumping arena had been transformed into a state-of-the-art music venue and broadcast centre. Yours truly dragged himself to Stansted for the flight to Cork and then the never-ending bus journey to Killarney. The following morning, another forty minute bus journey to the venue in Millstreet where everyone was accredited in the local primary school.

As well as the accredited press, the venue also seemed to have more than its fair share of nuns! They were everywhere, other than conducting the orchestra and singing the songs. En mass, they whisked through the auditorium, clutching press packs and Sonia CDs. Oh yes - this was the year when Sonia braved it for the UK. Her press conference performances were legend. When asked what European language she would like to record her song in, she burbled "Japanese" to a gasping audience.

One keenly anticipated moment was the daily totting up of delegate votes as they all tried to predict who was going to win. How uncomfortable it was to see the grim, uimpressed faces of the Danish delegation as their entry slid to the bottom of the scoreboard. Or the weary looking duo from Luxembourg, a country which hasn't participated since. Sonia polled in tenth place with the delegates and grinned inanely at the scoreboard until someone wheeled her away.

Politics reared its head at the 1993 contest. We were all rather amazed at the appearance of the delegation from Bosnia & Herzegovina, given that war was raging in the country at the time. Steely-faced head of delegation, Ismeta Kravavac when asked "How did you manage to get out of Sarajevo twice?" replied "Because I am a very fast runner sir". Indeed. The world's media gathered for the Bosnian press conference and Ismeta reminded them that the delegation were attending as musicians not politicians. We didn't really believe her. A few were worried that they sympathy vote would swing Bosnia's way and take the 1994 contest to a warzone. Saturday night would prove otherwise ...

Aside from the songs, Eurovision is also about partying and alcohol. Much alcohol. As well as music, countries are also rated on the quality of their party. The UK's, as ever, was a lacklustre affair. Dear old Auntie provided a free bar for around five minutes and wowed the international delegates with a selection of crudities smothered in Primula spread. Belgium cut to the chase and seemingly handed everyone a crate a beer at their party. Happy faces all round, although not on the faces of the Belgians on Saturday night as they headed home with just three points. The star party was given by Iceland who ensured that all attendees downed a vicious shot of something called Black Death before they had even entered the room. Result? Most people  staggered into the night and remembered little the next day.

Always fun are the odd (in more ways than one) delegates who turn up. Slovakia sent a team of one, Mrs Jasemova, to prepare her nation for its song contest debut in 1994. Resplendent in a designer jacket, Mrs Jasemova (and indeed the aforementioned jacket) became one of the enduring stars of the Eurovision circuit for a few years. A round of applause too for the husband and wife team commentating for Korea (presumably South . . .) and the British journalist who had travelled down to Millstreet in a camper van because his publication refused to foot the bill for expenses!

For the singers, taking part seemed to be a mixed experience. Sweden's teenage boyband, Arvingarna, looked perpetually bored and were accompanied everywhere by their parents. Burak Aydos, representing Turkey, had the air of someone who was out of his comfort zone. His song was disliked by the majority and his press conference was a lacklustre affair made worse by the song being handed to the press on cassette tape only. Other singers though were a total joy. The Netherlands' Ruth Jacott topped the delegates poll and shone in the way that only a true professional can. Patrick Fiori, representing France, proved to be fun and personable as did the Irish singer Niamh Kavanagh who had a ball on home turf. Portugal's sixteen year old Anabel was innocence personified but what a voice!

As for me, I made a beeline for the fearsome singer from Israel, Saraleh Sharon. Or Sara Lee Shalom as one fellow journo managed to pronounce it, making the poor woman sound like a bar mitzvah celebration cake. Anyway, old Saraleh was a scary piece of work, ordering her fellow singers around the stage like a headmistress with a bad attitude. Divisions grew as the week went on until one of Saraleh's co-singers barked "Does she not realise that I am an artist too?" rather loudly after one otwo sweet sherries. As contest night drew closer, the other singers hatched a plan. Those of us in the know kept quiet but I decided to seek out the harridan-in-charge for a cosy 'getting to know you' chat. Did she have any words of wisdom to impart for the viewers of Europe. Saraleh pulled me closer with a wintry smile and snarled "Sing and the whole world sings with you." I couldn't really argue with that.

Come May 15th and it was contest day itself. The previous night's dress rehearsal had been a disaster with delegation after delegation complaining about the camera direction and hostess Fionnuala Sweeney being less than happy with her, it has to be said, nasty pink party frock. Would it be all right on the night? Due to the lengthy journey into Millstreet and the security lockdown at the venue, we all had to travel in full evening costume first thing in the morning. It was a long day with only the final dress rehearsal to sit through plus a meal in a distant catering tent. By 7pm the place was filled with the local glitterati, the Irish PM and of course, Wogan. Would Sonia make the top ten? Would the delegates favourite Ruth Jacott top the scoreboard and could the downbeat Danes avoid last place?

The early leaders included Switzerland's Annie Cotton, belting out a halting mid-tempo number and incredibly tall Norwegian teenager Silje Vige who seemed to be channeling something Greek. However, it soom became a two-horse race, appropriate in this venue, between the host nation's Niamh Kavanagh and a surprisingly polished perfomance from the UK's Sonia. Not being a fan of the cheesy British entry and having already met the somewhat wonderful Niamh, I prayed for an Irish victory. The voting to-ed and fro-ed between the two and it was only the very last vote awarded by Malta that ensured the title stayed in Ireland. Relief!

The immediate after-show reception was something else. Jubilant bar staff were handing people not just a glass of champagne but a whole bottle. Not that I was there long before being herded on to a coach bound for the official winner's reception in Killarney. There I was, on a coach filled with inebriated journalists and performers. From the loud, unpleasant backing singers from one country to the indiscreet conductor from another, we all sang our way to a festival of even more booze. At the hotel, the singers began to pour in, some deflated, others jubilant and all relieved. It had been a long journey for most of them in more ways than one. For the sombre Danes, no last place but relegation. For Israel's Saraleh Sharon, an onstage revolt planned by her co-singers didn't bring any more than a sorry 24th place.

For me, the cold light of day brought the prospect of a journey back to Derbyshire. It had been an amazing week and one brought to a successful conclusion by a highly professional team from RTÉ. Rather than sit on their laurels, these same people now had to plan something even better for 1994.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Saturday night's all right . . .

Saturday night telly! Ah - I could rattle on for hours about the joys of yesteryear. In fact, why don't I do that anyway. Let's bathe the 1970s in golden sunlight and wistfully remember how wonderful it all was back in the day. Or was it?

I'm Inspector Darblay and I'm a woman
For me, the opener to the evening was always Final Score as Frank Bough and his comb-over led us through the footie highlights of the day. With tea (never dinner) out of the way, we could settle down to an evening of predominantly BBC1 fare. Doctor Who was still in its imperial phase, with Tom Baker clowning around for the kids and Leila and her bra top providing the entertainment for dad. Then on to the Generation Game, both the Brucey and Larry versions. The former, the consumate all-round entertainer. The latter, a beffudled camp comic from Nuneaton. I loved them both. Scores on the doors? After this frippery, BBC1 would usually serve up a drama. More often than not, this would be Juliet Bravo. Brave times for the Beeb as they depicted a woman - WOMAN - police inspector battling life in a 'grim up north' police station people by overweight middle-aged men. They would call her 'ma'am' (rhymed with 'spam') and roll their eyes every time she issued an edict. Aforementioned lady police inspector would then dash home at 6pm to get a casserole for her understanding (and usually feeble) husband.

"And it's goodnight from . . . oh you known the rest . . ."
The Two Ronnies was another fave in our household. Always the same week in, week out. Two sets of specs at a newsdesk, a couple of sketches set in corner shops or cocktail parties, some serialised story forever starring Diana Dors, Ronnie Barker in a frock and a song from the lovely Miss Barbara Dickson. That's entertainment!

I'm not going to suggest that these halcyon days have returned but at the moment, Saturday nights have shown a distinct improvement. BBC1's The Voice has, to date, performed better than expected. Unlike the dreary X Factor, the BBC have provided a panel who actually seem to care about music. OK, Will.iam may be a bit of a twonk but the other three are enthusiastic enough. Reggie Yates continually falls into the Dermot-like falseness of calling the lads 'feller' but other than that, well done the BBC! I feel an e-mail to Points of View in the offing.

A Bridge too far . . .
However, the real gem on Saturday is BBC4's wonderful The Bridge. I'm not the biggest fan of Copenhagen but maybe this superb drama will help reel me in again. The two lead characters are a joy - the overweight, fag-smoking laconic Dane and his uptight, socially inept female Swedish counterpart. I think the BBC should revive Juliet Bravo and have Saga Noren dispense some of her logic to the fat, northern policemen. And remember - don't call her ma'am.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Terry Wogan and a coffee table . . .

Hurrah! So the warmer days have arrived then. Fair enough, they have more or less disappeared overnight and the doom merchants at the Met Office are forecasting a White Easter. Oh well, it will bring me joy to see kids morosely looking for chocolate eggs under three feet of snow.

For me, Easter and sickly confectionery always heralded a high point of the Eurovision season. Yes folks, the songfest is on the horizon and some countries have been busy preparing their ditties. As is common song contest practice, they have also produced an accompanying preview film with which to whet the appetite. These tend to be slick, MTV-standard offerings but that wasn't always the case . . .

"And from Turkey this year, the Modern Folk Trio, a quartet"
Back in the 1980s, I would almost vomit in anticipation of the Easter goodies on offer from the BBC. Over two consecutive Sundays, the joys and horrors of that year's Eurovision would be laid bare. The action would take place in a depressingly small, and often beige, BBC studio. The camera would home in on Terry Wogan and a coffee table. Wry grin and best wig in place, Tel would meander through the entries and surpress a chuckle at the international preview videos. Looking back over those halcyon years, it would be easy to stereotype the films offered by many of the participating countries. For example . . .

Entrant wearing the pelt of some slaughtered animal, wandering around in the snow. Backng singers would emerge from pine forest and form a line behind her.

40,000 people gathered in an aircraft hangar near Munich, clapping politely as a hausfrau belts out a Teutonic anthem

Luxembourg and/or Monaco
Woman in vile evening dress superimposed against a backdrop of Monte Carlo or, oh the glamour, Luxembourg airport.

Singer is shown against a backdrop of white Orthodox churches on Mykonos and then later, bobbing around on a boat withe an eye painted on the prow.

Usually filmed in very weak colour, the singer is seen pararding around an eerily deserted Dublin Zoo or stranded by a waterfall. In the rain.

Young woman, given a make-under by a make-up artist with conjunctivitis, staggers out in front of a screeching violin-dominated cabaret band, wearing a brown or mustard-coloured frock. Centre parting optional.

The stuff of which nightmares are made. Woman travels down the side of a hill in a basket, jumps out, rolls the rest of the way down to a beach, jumps over a camera to reveal her undergarments and then settles down and lights a fag.

All performers are dressed in white and must re-enact Hava nagila at high speed. The set usually consists of numerous pieces of plastic on bits of string, violently swinging.

United Kingdom
Singers are seen in some dull part of London i.e. the Embankment, clutching umbrellas or wearing M & S macs. Against grey, leaden skies they do anything other than actually mime to the song.

Filmed in garish colour, the entrants are forced to pose with, on or under the Bosphorus suspension bridge before mysterioulsy pitching up in Ephesus where they emerge from behind 1000 year old stone pillars.

A tedious head and shoulder camera shot of the singer wearing over-sized earphones and reading the lyrics to the song from a piece of paper. Apart from 1992 when they didn't bother with any video and just submitted an elderly picture of the singer.

Singer shown in soft-focus due to their advanced age/humungous girth/receding hairline. Lots of meandering down side streets before huge plugs for Air Malta for the remainder of the film.

Sadly the BBC preview shows were axed many years ago. The last of the Wogan Euro shows was in 1994 and was filmed in front of a live audience and, oddly enough, yours truly was on stage with him. Why? Well, that's another story.

Of course, it's all much more professional now and this year we have been treated to some stark mini-drama from Iceland, a Bosnian woman on a steel girder playing a piano and a Montenegrin bloke running amok with a donkey. Somewhat reassuringly though, Italy's Nina Zilli is resplendent with over-sized earphones and a page of lyrics. She gets my vote . . .