Sunday, 14 December 2014

Rescheduling Christmas Day

There's been much gnashing of teeth and clasping of hands over the past few weeks, particularly in the House of Commons, over something vitally important to the nation. Global warming? No. International terrorism? No. George Osbourne's 'Gladys Pugh' hairdo? Thrice no. MPs were having a collective strop about the state of Britain's Christmas TV schedule. A speedy calculation from some boff confirmed that 63% of TV output over the festive season consists of repeats.

As usual, there was the maudlin harking back to TV Christmas past and wonderful it all was. How we all gathered, bathed in nostalgia, to praise the programmes lovingly crafted for us by Auntie Beeb and her common sister-in-law, ITV. Was it all that great though?

Our first port of call then is 1974, a land of horrible clothes and multiple general elections. The BBC's festive fare had all the appeal of a scabby turkey. As ever, they kicked things off with one of those mawkish visits to a children's home. That particular year it was in the company of Rolf Harris. A-hem. With a Savile-fronted Top of the Pops soon to follow, it's a surprise that the entire schedule hasn't been consigned to a wicker man and burnt. The big film of the day was that Christmas favourite True Grit, boring us all nicely for almost four hours. For the Beeb, the big turn of the day was Frank Spencer in a festive Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Fifty minutes of misunderstandings and pratfalls.
Aside from a Parkinson special on Morecambe & Wise (there was no Christmas special from them in 1974), all BBC1 could offer was Bridge Over the River Kwai. Nothing like a bit of festive war to warm the cockles.
Given the BBC's shoddy line-up, maybe 1974 would be ITV's year? Well, they began with their perennial non-favourite, A Merry Morning. Here we had Leslie Crowther shuffling around the wards of a children's hospital. Another finger-wagging 'lest we forget' moment. Opposing 'the Pops' on BBC1, ITV had Kid Jensen fronting 45 (remember that?) with guests including  - the Bay City Rollers! One Direction in tartan flares,for those under twenty. At least ITV had the decency to wheel out a family film, namely Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Hurrah! However, this tactical lead petered away thanks to Meet Peters & Lee at 5.45. Thirty minutes of comedy and song . . . apparently. ITV then ploughed on with a Tommy Cooper special and This Is Your Life before admitting defeat with The Undefeated, another festive outing for John Wayne.

A fairly dreary mid-seventies menu of nothing then. Had things improved by 1984? BBC1 had ditched its 'weep for the children' slot in favour of Noel Edmonds and The Late Late Breakfast Show. Ninety minutes of live broadcasting from Telecom Tower in London may not have been the greatest of ideas but full marks to Auntie for trying something different. They did the same with Top of the Pops by ditching all involvement with Radio One DJs and thus the featured acts introduced each other. Mary Poppins was the day's big film, cheery family stuff, followed by Les Dawson's Blankety Blank. Dawson had replaced Terry Wogan earlier that year and had garnered an audience of twelve million. A decent figure then but massive by 2014 standards. The BBC evening rattled on with camp goings on in Hi De Hi, a Paul Daniel's magic show and the highly successful bitter-sweet comedy Just Good Friends. Wogan brought things to a close with guests including Elton John and Victoria Principal.

Over on ITV we were in the era of Roland Rat on TV-AM. Still probably better than cameras on paediatric wards though. Things rumbled on in a dull manner with the likes of a Torvill and Dean ice show and the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun - which had been ITV's Christmas Day film just four years earlier! To accompany the mince pies and hangovers, the parlour game Give Us a Clue was rolled out (Wayne Sleep, Julie Walters and Bernie Winters featured). ITV then spent almost two hours remembering the late Eric Morecambe before serving up Raiders of the Lost Ark. A decent stab at a festive schedule but nowhere near as good as the BBC.

Christmas Day 1994 fell on a Sunday and so BBC1 clung to some of its standard programming such as Songs of Praise (featuring Marti Caine in Lapland and a house party with Don Maclean) and rather oddly, the EastEnders omnibus at lunchtime. The Top of the Pops special was hosted by Take That and no doubt they will feature on the 2014 show too. There's progress for you. After the Queen, the Beeb gave us one of those Noel Edmonds weep-a-thons followed by Animal Hospital (really?) The Wrong Trousers, Keeping Up Appearances and the usual cheerless festive edition of EastEnders served as a warm-up for the big film, Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves. Yawn. Anyone fancy a bit of Christmas cake? Oh where was I? Birds of a Feather, a Victoria Wood special and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places followed. Well done the BBC!

ITV tried to tempt us with an early afternoon 'made for TV' movie starring Ed Asner. OK. Oddly there were regional opt-outs for the big movie, some showing Mary Poppins (again) while others plumped for The Empire Strikes Back. The Disney production of Sleeping Beauty followed and then we were into Coronation Street, the hoary old dating show Blind Date and pedestrian-yet-popular Heartbeat. Stodgy fare but a decent attempt to outdo the Beeb.

In 2004, Reggie Yeates and Fearne Cotton hosted their first Christmas Day Top of the Pops. They are still there today. Handing out the Christmas presents and weepy stories was Dale Winton, stepping into Noel's very tiny shoes. A popular concept which was perhaps outstaying its welcome by 2004. BBC1's big afternoon film was 102 Dalmatians after which Alistair McGowan served up a Big Impression. The came two and a half hours of Harry Potter. Someone must like it. Slap bang in the middle of prime time came an hour long EastEnders which managed to top the ratings despite being not so good. Both French and Saunders then featured on BBC1 - although not together. The Vicar of Dibley was followed by Absolutely Fabulous. Both great comedies but which were nearing the end of the line.

ITV's 2004 afternoon kicked off after HM with Martin Clunes in Goodbye Mister Chips, a period drama. Well it made a change from James Bond. Harry Hill was now in charge of You've Been Framed, a welcome addition to the big day unlike ratings juggernaut Who Wants to Be a Millionaire which was finally running out of steam. Only half an hour for Emmerdale in 2004 but a full sixty minutes for Karen McDonald's Coronation Street departure. ITV then waved the white flag and admitted defeat by throwing out Midsomer Murders and the newly-defected Parkinson. The BBC had won the day yet again.

There we go then. Christmas past. Whether the likes of Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing and Paul O'Grady's For the Love of Dogs can match the success of yesteryear is yet to be seen. We will probably have forgotten them by Boxing Day though.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Read all about it

It's that 'funny' time of year. I have now entered that zone where no further purchases can be made, 'just in case someone buys it for you for Christmas'. The advent of Peter Andre buying a prawn crown in Iceland and another slightly mawkish John Lewis ad (someone should dip that penguin in chocolate . . .) and we are just about ready to ding dong merrily on high.

No more book purchases then. Which is perhaps a good thing, given that there is a bookcase in the spare room stuffed with tomes waiting to be read. The epic hardback about the history of Jerusalem, some Stephen King pot-boiler a paperback about countryside walks in Palestine - some are new editions, others have mouldered on the shelves for years. Absolutely no reason to go out an buy more then.

The approach to Christmas, where reading material is concerned, has to be a carefully considered one for me. I've always though that the weeks leading up to turkey and the Doctor Who special require the literary equivalent to mood music. To this end, I've got Jostein Gaarder's The Christmas Mystery standing by. Previous years reveal other such festive offerings on display. There have been a couple of Stella Gibbons novels, namely Cold Comfort Farm and Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. If you really want to nestle down in a tale of family festivities, then there is none better than India Knight's Comfort & Joy. You can almost smell the mince pies and mulled wine. One year I opted for John Braine's magnificent Room at the Top. It's not particularly festive but has a kind of northern bleakness that resonates. Although I didn't grow up in the book's time-frame, it somehow reminds me of home and that's always a good thought to have at Christmas.

If you don't want to wallow in sentiment, then a good alternative is David Park's The Light of Amsterdam. This is a tidy little tale of various people heading to the Dutch capital in December, all with their own hopes for Christmas but also with their own worries.

Looking back over the year's reads and I see a fairly mixed bunch. Three of my highlights feature authors whose use of language was at best, sparing. Denis Johnson's Train Dreams is the beautifully written story of a labourer living in the unforgiving American west, in the early twentieth century. Also proving that less-is-more was The Bookshop, a taut tale of small town rivalries in Suffolk, penned by Penelope Fitzgerald. Brevity of language was also what endeared Tobias Wolff's Old School to me. Again, we are presented with a story of competition but perhaps the outcome is a little more positive.

 The worst read for this year was Richard Milward's Kimberly's Capital Punishment. The premise is fairly bleak to begin with (suicide) but the story evolves in such a nonsensical way that it was a joy to finish reading it. Maybe one for the charity shop or the recycling bin.

Otherwise, there have been one or two gems. In no particular order, here are ten that I have enjoyed in 2014:

Malcolm Bradbury - The History Man
Alan Johnson - This Boy
Peter Robinson - Abbatoir Blues
Kevin Maher - The Fields
J.L. Carr - A Month in the Country
A.M. Homes - May We Be Forgiven
David Sedaris - Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls
Armistead Maupin - The Days of Anna Madrigal
Bret Easton Ellis - American Psycho
Karl Taro Greenfeld - Triburbia

Just a selection then, but a few varied titles that have accompanied me on commutes into the City, holidays, train journeys and weekends on the sofa. Whether I attack the Mighty Unread in that bookcase next year remains to be seen.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

In Molly we trust

Twelve months ago I found myself in the delightful situation of travelling across the Oresund Bridge aka The Bridge from Copenhagen to Malmo. This wasn't just any old tourist trip but a sacred pilgrimage to the Eurovision Song Contest. Within the confines of the Malmo Arena I feasted on a lumpy German dance diva, a world-weary Dutch woman emoting about birds, a Norwegian feeding us her love and Bonnie Tyler. Poor old Bonnie. The highpoint of the UK's evening was seven hard-earned points from Ireland and just a further sixteen from the rest of Europe. Oh the shame. Again. Denmark won with the drum and tin whistle epic served up by the highly forgettable Emmelie de Forest. This year then, a trip back across The Bridge to wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen and some disused factory.

The BBC have seemingly risen to the challenge of finding a worthy UK entrant this year. No more flicking through their directory of cabaret contacts. Oh no. Instead we have Molly. Here's a woman who knows her craft and has written the entry herself. She's emerged from the same arena that launched Florence & the Machine and Jake Bugg onto the world. There is more to new talent than mind-numbing Saturday night talent shows. Ironic then that Molly now finds herself on the biggest Saturday night talent show of them all. Is Children of the Universe the right kind of song to appeal across Europe though?

The rest of the continent probably thinks it has it nailed too. To my weary ears, the overall standard seems to be much better than last year. Europe's legion of Eurofans seem to think that Scandinavia has it in the bag again. Sweden's Sanna Nielsen has certainly worked that ticket - she's been trying for the contest since 2001. Undo is one of those slightly depressing ballads that tend to surface on Celine Dion albums. Also rated is Norway's Carl Espen with a wrist-slitting dirge, the likes of which we haven't seen since the last John Lewis Christmas advert.

Maybe the pick of the ballads coms from Austria's Conchita Wurst, resplendent in golden gown and a nice black beard. Seriously. Conchita's campaign for tolerance is laudable but she also has a cracker of a song. Rise like a phoenix is Bond-esque but its success will depend on how voters cope with the visual aspect of Conchita.

Shouty, bold women are to the fore this year. Macedonia's Tijana (lumbered with a song which rhymes 'to the sky' with 'you and I') has been bested by Italy's top pop diva Emma  who in turn is succeeded by Israel's Mei Finegold. The latter is a one woman homage to strutting and meaty thighs. Mei's entry, Same heart, should see Israel in the final after a four year absence.

If it's pure fun that you are after then look no further than Poland. Saucy minxes perform a tongue-in-cheek slice of naughtiness which has already registered around 40 million hits on You Tube. Great tune too and the whole thing is in keeping with the spirit of Eurovision. Katie Boyle would be proud. Cash-strapped Greece are offering up some fun too with the kind of song that pumps out in gyms across the world. As if to emphasise the point, the singers have brought along an Olympic trampoline star to bounce along during their performance of Rise up. Silly but fun.

There are no real obvious 'nil point' contenders this year although Ireland's tin whistles and Riverdance effort may be down near the bottom of the Euro barrel. Add to that Latvia's paean to cake-baking (they need Mary Berry on the jury for that to work) and Switzerland's irritating whistler and there are your weakest links.

Who could win then? Hungary are highly fancied even if their song deals with the less than Eurovision friendly subject of child abuse. Running by Andras Kallay-Saunders is well-performed and as contemporary as you get. Dilara Kazimva of Azerbaijan has a superb, emotional ballad that may resonate across the continent. I'm sticking some money on Malta though. Coming home by Firelight has the right kind of Mumford-lite/Radio 2 sound to appeal to many. Importantly, they look as though they are enjoying themselves too.

For the hardy fan (me) there are a couple of semi-finals to plough through tis coming week before the main event on 10 May with Graham Norton taking on the delights of the disused factory, shouty women, Greeks on trampolines and the Go Compare man singing about his mother for Belgium. No doubt he will also be looking to see if the UK can sidle up the left-hand side of the scoreboard for once. In Molly we trust? Of course!

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Raining on the BBC's parade

I wasn't the only person who, last last night, heard a plane making a terrifying noise over north east London. Storm-force winds were battering the capital and for a couple of spine-chilling moments, there was the fear that an aircraft might be in trouble. Thankfully, all was well and for more than one reason, let's be grateful that nothing more came of it, otherwise we would now be knee-deep in over-the-top news coverage.

The rains came this week and the unfolding horror story of swollen rivers and flooded homes was covered, particularly by the BBC, with a manic zeal. In order to emphasise the Armageddon factor, BBC news teams were sent to the front line. Cue a never-ending roster of rain-soaked, wind-blown reporters, flailing around on promenades, wading through living rooms, striding through sodden farmyards and generally over-egging a rather damp pudding.

Most of us are grateful that there is coverage but some of it seemed inane and more than a little dangerous. Do BBC reporters really have to stand on a beach with fearsome sea waves crashing around them? Are we to continually be treated to some hapless woman clutching at her North Face jackets whilst attempting to interview a member of the local council? Add to that the BBC new anchors, forever gesticulating and slowly shaking their heads from side to side in amazed reaction. "Can you believe it?" they seem to emoting as they stride around their red, plastic set. Seemingly the days of a straightforward presentation of the news are long gone. Sky News is a non-stop visual nightmare of BREAKING NEWS captions and whooshing sound effects, a constant babble of non-entities sat on the sofa while a disinterested anchor peers down on them from some form of news throne.

Luddite that I am, I hanker for the days of the restrained tones of Kenneth Kendall or Richard Baker, of correspondents safely seated in the studio or observing from a distance, of news studios decked out in beige. I really don't need every utterance to be preceded by a screeching orchestral fanfare prior to the appearance of an over-emoting news anchor whirling their hands around like a windmill in a gale. It's not clever. It's not interesting. It's not Jan Leeming.