Saturday, 30 April 2016

Moments of silence: Eurovision goes to Stockholm

It's not often that a Eurovision Song Contest related story finds its way on to the main page of the BBC News website. Last week though, they updated us with Romania's expulsion from this year's event. An exasperated European Broadcasting Union, owed millions of euros by Romanian national broadcaster TVR, decided that enough was enough. Therefore the curtain came down on the hopes and dreams of one Ovidiu Anton, the singer who was busy packing his overnight case in preparation of representing his country in Stockholm. Europe will sadly not get the chance to vote on his particular slice of musical joy called Moments of silence. Plenty of quiet time for him and Romania from hereon in.

Overall, there seems to be a very competent feel to the 2016 entries. Nothing breathtaking, no real wow moments and only one very obvious clunker. Yes, step forward San Marino with possibly the worst song in the history of Eurovision. The individual elements are heinous enough - elderly Turkish man (yes, they must have run out of local performers in the micro state), talking rather than singing his way through a song with a hopeless 1970s disco backing track. At best, it's a comedy sketch but sadly, no one is laughing.

The only 'face' - and even that's stretching it a bit - taking part is Westlife's Nicky Byrne who will be flying the flag for Ireland. Sadly he does so with Sunlight, a flimsy and inconsequential slice of froth that leaves no trace.

Eurovision is often a reflection of music from the days of yore. Georgia has wheeled out Nika Kocharov and the Young Georgian Lolitaz (there are no women in the group) who have discovered some old Oasis tracks from 1995. The song may be doomed but at least it stands out. Also flying the flag for yesteryear is Poland Michal Szpak. Color of Your Love  - and yes, Michal favours (or should that be favors) the American variant - is some big, old-fashioned late 1980s Euro ballad which goes nicely with his big, old-fashioned late 1980s hair. Austria's Zoe seems to be harkening back to mid-80s Luxembourg entries and indeed, her song is performed in French.

There is a strong band of middling entries from shouty women this year. Azerbaijan's Samra trills her way through one of those contemporary 'oh oh oh' choruses and Australia's Dami Im serves up the musical equivalent to a bread pudding - stodgy, safe and generally unrewarding. On it plods. Switzerland's Rykka sings of being The Last of Our Kind and one can only hope so as she makes three minutes feel like six.

So who can we see as a potential winner this year? The bookies are favouring Russia's Sergei Lazarov. Apparently you pronounce his name as 'Sir Gay' which is just as well as You are the One seems to be flying the flag for gentlemen who dance at the other end of the ballroom. With recent Russian entries having been booed into submission by the middle-aged Holister t-shirted crowd, Putin has obviously succumbed in 2016. Dated it may be but the Russian song could easily take the title. Also keep an eye peeled for Sweden's Frans. It's sufficiently different to their winning song of 2015 to garner another victory. The Swedes are desperate to usurp Ireland at the top of the 'most winners' table and they seem to be well on their way. Another which may do well is Serbia's oddly named Sanja Vucic ZAA. Now Sanja has obviously been plugged into an Amy Winehouse back catalogue over winter and so this comes across as more 'homage' than original. A cracking if weirdly twitchy performance from Sanja.

Their's a nod to cod-rock this year too. Montenegro's band Highway attempts to be a tad grungy and shouty but it just sounds messy. Minus One from Cyprus are a sanitised, safe rock band. Nice song but a couple of earrings and a tattoo does not a Lez Zeppelin make.

I'm pinning my few quid on the Netherlands this year. The wonderfully named Douwe Bob could be on to a winner with the soft-country, Radio 2 friendly Slow Down. Europe tends to love this genre and to be fair, it's forty one years since the Dutch last won with the lyrically lovely Ding-a-dong. I've also a fancy for the Czech Republic's entry, I Stand. OK I'm a sucker for a shouty woman with a big ballad and Gabriela Gunčíková belts this one out with gusto. As does Finland's Sandhja complete with her jolly 'we're up for a laugh' backing singers. Sing it away will open the first semi-final on May 10th and it's fun.

The UK will be hoping, probably against open, for a place on the left-hand side of the scoreboard this year. Recent entries have been a bit of a disaster. We had tremulous old Engelbert Humperdinck followed by croaking Bonnie Tyler, 'rabbit in the headlights' Molly and then last year, Electro Velvet who performed well but failed on presentation. For 2016 it's Joe and Jake. No, they're not a couple of CBBC presenters but two personable young blokes who seem to have no problem in performing You're not alone live.  This one deserves some measure of success but this is Eurovision and seemingly the UK is just there to make up the numbers these days. Still we'll raise several glasses to them - and an extra one in memory of Terry Wogan during song number nine which was when El Tel used to break open the booze. Glasses charged folks - it would be wrong not to!

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Kitchen knives and caretakers

Well, it's been quite a week for high drama. No, I'm not talking about the Dear Leader's tax issues or the gasp-inducing news surrounding the Archbishop of Canterbury's parentage. Mere filler surrounding the the main course (tuna bake anyone?) on the news agenda. For this was the week that Helen Titchenor got stabby in The Archers.

Don't worry, I'm not about to enter into a detailed scene-by-scene synopsis of the whole grim affair. In a nutshell, dear old Helen, knee-deep in tuna bake and shop-bought custard, took a carving knife to her abusive husband, rotten Rob. The cast of The Archers deserve all the plaudits hurled at them, not only this week but every week. Yes, I'm a fan of long-standing and Sunday mornings would not be the same without the omnibus edition. A time for ironing, copious amounts of tea and the chance to hurl insults at a parade of fictional characters.

In Helen's hour of need, the powers-that-be decided to surround her with some of the show's less than sympathetic characters. Take Susan Carter for example. No, please take her as far away as you can. This shrieking spit-bag was soon to hand, knitting at the foot of the guillotine and enjoying the spectacle of Helen being whisked off to Cell Block H. Also pouring meths on troubled waters was the delightfully awful Peggy, Helen's gran, a woman who reinvents the word 'crone' every time she opens her mouth. For Peggy, the best way to support her granddaughter was to fuss about sending flowers to the abusive husband, languishing in Holby City hospital or wherever was nearest. The third in this triumvirate of hags-most-horrid was the mother-in-law, Ursula, who during one scene seemed to be channelling the voice of Su from the Sooty & Sweep Show. Ursula is a Disney-style wicked step-mother type but Home Counties style. When she cackles you can almost picture her tie-necked blouse quivering. Add to this Helen's hand-wringing mother Pat, uttering the line 'were we blind to what was happening?' ('Yes, you ridiculous old bat!' I screamed at the radio) and you realise that the accused has no chance. Weep for her.

Drama of a very different kind on Saturday night though. I was at the Old Vic for Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. This seemed to be a marathon undertaking as we were promised two intervals and a running time in excess of three hours. What a three hours though. For those not familiar with the story, there are only three characters involved. Timothy Spall took on the role of Davies, a vagrant helped by the damaged Aston, played  by Daniel Mays. Spall played Davies as initially confused, wary and subsequently wily as he attempted to manipulate Aston and play him off against his aggressive brother Mick, played by George MacKay. All three characters have set pieces. Mays was particularly engrossing as Aston attempts to explain the horror of the treatment he received in an institution. MacKay's plays Mick as a sharp, hard and violent man who has a rather worrying detailed knowledge of floor coverings and soft furnishings. Susceptible to flattery, he laps up the faux adoration of Davies. Despite Davies being, ultimately, a despicable old man, Spall breathes humour into the role and is rewarded with his fair share of laughs. Mays shoulders the heavy dramatic scenes with ease but the actor was visibly distraught at the close of the production.

Full marks too to designer Rob Howell for creating the dingy eaves flat in which the action, as well as the distinctive Pinter pauses, take place. All's well that ends well? Not in the case of The Caretaker but I headed back to the Underground in the knowledge that three hours had been well spent.