Saturday, 23 November 2013

Doctor! Doctor!

Well there is no escaping from the cultural highlight of the weekend. I daresay many people are now wholeheartedly sick of the BBC's Doctor Who love-in. For an entire week we have been bombarded with clips of grainy 1960s film depicting an old man in a daft hat (or if you were watching the JFK coverage, Jackie Kennedy in a daft hat).

Were you ever scared of Doctor Who back in the day? I'm speaking literally. My first encounter with the Time Lord was way back in he mid seventies during Jon Pertwee's tenure. His depiction of the Doctor scared me witless. It must have been the combination of old, slightly gummy man, big cape, mad hair. Forget Cybermen and what-not. It was the Doctor himself who scared me rigid.

I had no problems with Tom Baker though. For me this was the imperial phase of the show. Tom's Doctor could be chilling but was also a bit of a laugh. Once you had navigated yourself past his terrifying 'eyes and teeth' combo, all was well with his universe. Yet our general memory of this era is one of tacky sets and cheap-looking monsters. The Doctor and his assistant, the latter seemingly always a short-skirted hysterical woman, spent entire episodes charging up and down corridors and dashing through up-and-under garage doors sprayed silver. The baddy was inevitably someone of the Beryl Reid ilk, wearing a futuristic polo-necked jumper with a few bit of old hosepipe jammed on her head. She was always an inhabitants of a planet with a name like Tharg. Then the assistants got camper (day-glo jumpsuits, air hostess outfits) and even the poor old Doctor himself was either portrayed as a buffoon or horribly sinister. I switched off.

1996 film aside, the new batch of Doctor stories have been a must for me. They epitomise good drama that works on several levels. For the kids, a chance to be scared my creepy things from other worlds and for mum and dad, a slice of fine storytelling. The calibre of the acting has been wonderful too. We have had three very different Doctors - the northern one in the leather jacket, the toothy one in the suit and the current bow-tied madcap incumbent. For me, Billie Piper as companion Rose was a revelation as was Karen Gillen's Amy Pond. No more screaming down B & Q-standard sets.

Doctor Who has always been about escapism and perhaps it's better not to over-analyse exactly what the show has come to represent over the years. There is no doubting its cultural impact and its successful 21st century renaissance but for me it's just a piece of rather good entertainment.

On the day of it's fiftieth anniversary we find the Doctor in rude health and preparing to head off into an unknown future in the guise of Peter Capaldi. Will you be watching? I will - and hopefully not from behind a sofa.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Six glorious weeks . . .

It's the least wonderful time of the year. With a heavy heart this week came the realisation that school, as Alice Cooper once succinctly put it, is out. For the summer. God help us. Yes, the never-ending roster of discos, summer visits and end-of-term proms (don't get me started . . .) are over and the little darlings are now free to roam the streets until early September. In other words, they are free to blight our summer. By the time these precious darlings are safely locked behind the school gates, Blue Peter will be lighting the first candle on its Advent crown.

For those of us lucky enough to live in the nation's capital, this time of year offers something of a double-edged sword. I will rejoice, like Thatcher stumbling towards a bank of microphones, at the prospect of early morning Tube trains being a little quieter. Parents are off on their holidays which means more space for me to plonk myself down. Shops are quieter at the weekends, particularly Waitrose as all the teachers who normally fill the play are taking identical breaks in Provence. So far so good. However, the evening rush hour takes on nightmarish proportions. Already the Central Line, shimmering nicely in over 30 degrees of sweaty heat, must now find space for the weary, wan-faced grandparents hauling little Jake and Lucy back from a fascinating day at the British Museum. On they cram, jamming their bums on seats meant for haggard office workers with mean faces and thin lips. Enough of me for the moment though.

My own childhood memories of the six week break are, of course, bathed in the rosy glow of nostalgia. The break would always begin well, buffeted by the sheer relief that we didn't have to crouch over a slice of toast whilst listening to Wogan at 8 a.m. every day. Hurrah for that! There would be other signs of a change n the routine. Salads and the summery joy that was Instant Whip would make an appearance on the menu. Dad would suddenly be around for a week or so. Mum would shepherd us to the park with an array of tennis racquets and foiled-wrapped potted beef sandwiches. There would be the day trips to seemingly random places - Blackpool, Cheltenham and the ever-popular York. Also on the cards, the traditional visit to the local swimming pool with a friend and his mum, the latter of whom would appear poolside, decked out in a floral bathing cap and goggles. Oh the shame of it all.

Of course, there was always the chance to watch some holiday TV which back in the 1970s usually meant the insufferable Why Don't You? followed by the delights of Crown Court and Afternoon Plus where Mavis Nicholson would be looking at a new recipe for flapjack and saying 'womb' every few minutes.

The teenage years were much worse. I resented every day the sun shone and determinedly holed myself up in my attic bedroom, resplendent in heavy denim jeans and a jumper, playing pompous Ultravox LPs. A surly collection of us would eventually shuffle into town and slouch in front of Woolworths for a few hours, sneering at anyone who looked more than a year older than we were. Then on to the local park to watch the cricket we all loathed but which offered another chance to snort with derision. There would be the standard train journey to Blackpool, complete with the 'let's get lost in Manchester' option, those foiled-wrapped sandwiches, the Pleasure beach, the sunburn, the beer. Halcyon days!

Therefore, six week holiday kids of 2013, please remember to stay in doors and mooch around at home. get under your parents feet, whinge a bit about life being 'not fair' and endure the embarrassment of well-meant trips to the Natural History Museum. You have my full support but please, please don't be on my train at 5 p.m.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Malmo or bust . . .

Well, the musical joy that labours under the title 58th Eurovision Song Contest gets a little closer. As we meander through this bank holiday weekend, delegations from across the continent are arriving in Malmo, Sweden. For them, Monday sees the start of an exhausting round of rehearsals, press conferences and alcohol. I both pity and envy them at the same time. Having been a Eurovision delegate on numerous occasions, I can only confirm that by end he end of proceedings, your liver is knackered and your brain addled from the never-ending verbal ordure spewed out by press and entrants alike. One year I was party to a British journalist asking a singer "Although you haven't heard the other songs yet, what do you think about them?"

Anyway, time for us to have a quick look at the offerings in the second semi-final which will be beamed into your homes by BBC3 on May 16th. Amongst the entries are two of the pre-contest favourites. Norway are fielding Margaret Berger with the very bleak I feed you my love. This is a stark piece of electro-pop and it certainly stands out. Possibly a little too worrying for some European ears though. Also highly favoured in 2013 is Georgia's drab-fest, Waterfall. This sounds as though it has been churned out by a computer, having been fed with all the ingredients need to dish up a Euroballad. Singers Nodie & Sopho have little charisma yet this charmless ditty could easily hoover up the votes should it make the final. Which of course it will.

At the other end of the scale we can feast on a handful of duff old clunkers such as Romania's truly stupefying entrant, Cezar. The worryingly high-pitched warbling of this gent could have Europe tittering into its frites within seconds. This one is camp and then some. Another entry that should cause jaws to drop is Latvia's Here we go. Lurching into parody from the word go, the song manages to rhyme numerous lines and engage in a bit of cod-rapping too.

Fan favourites in Eurovision often come a cropper so it's worth keeping an eye out for San Marino's Valentina Monetta. She represented her country last year with a song about social networking. This time she performs a musical 'cut and shut'. Two separate songs appear to have been welded together and the continent may find it difficult to decide which one they are voting for. Switzerland's entry was chosen in a contest staged before Christmas, so this song is already approaching vintage status. It's presentation has been radically overhauled following rule-breaking references to the Salvation Army (yes, I didn't realise they were so controversial either). Their entry, You and me, is anthemic yet slightly lazy, as it wanders up and down the musical keys.

For fun, the Greek entry ticks many boxes. Alcohol is free, oh irony, is performed ska-style by a bunch of blokes in kilts. This one will have the Malmo Arena on its feet. Also watch out for FYR Macedonia's 69 year old singer Esma who gives it some welly whilst her twenty-something co-singer does his best to ignore her.

Amongst the rest there is Malta's Gianluca singing an Olly Murs B-side, a woman in a wedding dress from Finland, an X Factor style 'winner's song' from Azerbaijan and a busty woman with Deirdre specs from Israel.

I shall be throwing a few kroner at Iceland's Eyþór Ingi Gunnlaugsson with his endearing Celtic ballad. Of course, it stands no chance whatsoever but is in a different league to the Romanian Rylan and the tambourine bashers from Switzerland. I wish him and his long hair the very best.

Friday, 29 March 2013

The Terry Wogan memorial wig Eurovision preview

For me at any rate, childhood Easter holidays always equated with the appearance of Terry Wogan in a sports jacket, sat on a beige set sniggering at that year's entries for the Eurovision Song Contest. As a family, it was a guilty pleasure to sit down and snigger along with him. The preview shows have long since been dispensed with by the BBC. Post-Wogan, they shuffled between Gloria Hunniford (inane), Ray Moore (controversial) and Ken Bruce (rather good) amongst others before a final, unpopular tenure under that slice of Scottish stodge, Lorraine Kelly.

Well, I've decided to bring them back. You need to picture me wearing a badly fitting wig, sat by a 1970s smoked-glass coffee table with a smirk on my face. All of the ditties mentioned can be found on You Tube but I'm far too lazy to bother including links.

Viewers in the UK can vote in the first semi-final which includes the following masterpieces.

Austria start things off with the musical equivalent of a teenager having a strop. Natalia Kelly, hailing from the USA region of Austria, should sail through without too much of a problem though.
"It's not fair!" - Austria's Natalia Kelly

The clutch of dull-by-numbers ballads includes a charming if forgettable song from Estonia's Birgit Õigemeel and Russia's Dina Garipova who sounds as though she is just having a bit of a whinge. Cyprus also pitch in with An me thimase, a meandering effort, the memory of which evaporates as soon as you have heard the last note.

If you are looking for something different, try Anouk who's representing the Netherlands with Birds. It's a bit weird in an edgy, fairytale kind of way. Or how about Montenegro's rap act, Who See? The plucky Montenegrins still have not worked out what does and does not float the Euro-voters boat. Whilst daring to be different, it manages to marginalise itself out of existence.

Playing safe can also be a dangerous option as Denmark's Emmelie De Forest may discover. Her tin-whistle laden, breathy Only teardrops, is vintage middle-of-the-road Eurovision. Currently it is favourite to win the whole thing and it certainly has charm. Another one to keep an ear open for is Ireland's Ryan Dolan. it would appear that the Irish have finally escaped from their recent comedy entries and are taking things seriously. Only love survives is about as contemporary as dance numbers get.
Not Jedward for Ireland . . .

Slovenia pushes the envelope a bit further with some dubstep but singer Hannah Mancini gives a shouty performance. Near neighbours Croatia have assembled a bunch of blokes who specialise in the traditional klapa performance, often heard whilst staggering around Split. Despite the title, Mizerija doesn't wallow in self-loathing and it's quite a cheery performance from Klapa s Mora.

If it's Eurotrash that takes your fancy, then feast your eyes on Serbia's Moje 3. Take three unsure female vocals, add some inappropriate clothing and let them bellow at the cameras for three minutes. Their entry, Ljubav je svuda, could quite easily be the stuff of which musical car crashes are made of.
Cheap Spice . . . from Serbia

Of the remaining entries, there is something vaguely electronic and eighties from Lithuania's top-hatted Andrijus Pojavis, a truly nasty holiday song shoutalong from Belarus' singer Alyona Lanskaya and a droning ballad from Zlata Ognevich of Ukraine.

Ten of the sixteen masterpieces will qualify for the grand final in Malmö on May 18th. I'll take a dip into the second semi-final as well as taking a peak at the six guaranteed finalists, soon.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Mad march days . . .

I could use this blog to drone on about the weather. I could use it to drone on about the people I know who are forever droning on about the weather. It's weather. We have it every day. End of story. Still, living in the capital, I also have to contend with people chewing over every minute of their train journey into the city. "Ooh the 7.06 came in at 7.10 and so some other woman was stood in my space on the platform and I didn't get my regular seat three quarters of the way down the carriage and . . ." SHUT UP!! I don't need to know these excruciating details!

Anyway, enough of that. As a non-Catholic I was mildly interested in the election of a new pope this week, in the same way that an appearance of a new Blue Peter presenter still has the power to intrigue me. For BBC News, it was a chance to speculate, ad nauseum, about who the new pontiff might be. Would he be from Africa (flick to Oddschecker to see what's being offered on Peter Turkson)? Could it be the comedy cardinal from Boston. According to some grim-faced harridan in St Peter's Square, no. The church isn't ready for an American, she prissily stated. Long after the white smoke had been blown to the four winds, as my eyes focused on a balcony and my mind wondered if the new man would emerge in one of those papal Vera Wang gowns, out toddled . . . another old man. Yes, 85 year old Benedict XVI had made way for 76 year old Pope Francis I. The BBC frothed and waxed lyrical about his status as a Jesuit, his humility and so on. Would he be a liturgy man like Benedict or more approachable and jolly like John XVIII? By now it was time for Coronation Street so that was as far as I got. Anyway, I wish him well and hope that eventually, I won't keep thinking I'm looking at Jim Bowen in fancy dress.
More importantly though, I'm gearing up for the Eurovision season. In reality, the season began last autumn but by Monday we will have the full list of runners and riders from 39 countries. I think it's fair to say that 2013 is far from a classic year. Amongst the shrieking Bulgarians and prog-rock Albanians sits our own challenger for Malmö, Bonnie Tyler. For those of us of a certain age, she will forever be associated with doomy Jim Steinman tracks (let's draw a veil over that hideous duet with fellow Welsh crooner Shakin' Stevens) and turning around with bright eyes. For Eurovision though, a mellow, country and western tinged offering which while not sounding like a winner, will probably not lead to Engelbert-style meltdown on the big night. Bonnie will be up against kilted Greeks, a Russian power ballad, a brace of Americans and a former Nobel prize nominee so at least the chit-chat in the Green Room should be a little more cerebral than usual.

Bookwise, let me recommend the wonderful How I Killed Margaret Thatcher by Anthony Cartwright. Set in 1980s Dudley, the story tells of a young boy called Sean who watches in dismay as Thatcherite policies come to bear on his family life. Very funny in places but also heart-breakingly sad. Much of it is also written in Black Country brogue which makes for an interesting read. Like Sean, I spent much of the early 1980s expecting nuclear obliteration courtesy of the Soviet Union and wondering why our forces were being sent to rescue distant islands off the Argentine coast. I wonder what Pope Francis, native of Buenos Aires, has to say on the matter? We may never know.

Sunday, 20 January 2013


Yes, it's that time of the year again. Several days of weather that will be responsible for page upon page of withering news reportage about what a vile, unprepared hell hole the UK really is. newspaper editors will be harrumphing to such an extent that they will be on the point of heaving up their own ribcages.

TV news of course rubs its hands together with glee. Time to roll out the footage of vans stuck in piles of the white stuff, fruity young women in winter attire, posh kids flying down Primrose Hill on designer sledges fashioned out of marble, moribund scenes of passengers milling around airport terminals with courtesy cereal bars. A special mention has to be made in respect of the news reporter who is given that most glamorous of assignments, the live link to the gritting depot. Even the words make you feel slightly depressed. Gritting depot. It's to this joyous location that a woman in a puffa jacket and a bobble hat is dispatched.

Chatting with the foreman of the local authority highways department, she will indicate the mountain of road salt behind her. Look at her eyes though. Wet with forming tears, she will be wondering if the journalism degree had always been leading to this moment. This spot on the main news where she banters with a glassy eyed George Alagiah or a sagely nodding but ultimately disinterested Fiona Bruce.

Regional news is even more desperate. In London this tends to feature the annual shot of someone falling down the steps outside Waterloo station or a City worker struggling across the Millennium Bridge, desperately trying to juggle an umbrella and a skinny white latte.

Monday morning will bring forth an office filled with people in clunky boots and hideous knitwear, tomato-red faces and tales of their journey. I will respond my sticking my head in the photocopier. After burning several lever arch files, overdosing on coffee and weeping for a while, I'll don the clunky boots and 'struggle' home. Let's hope the gritters have done their job.