Friday, January 30, 2009

Bully For Me - Virgin On The Ridiculous

Odd morning. Really odd. 'Unwelcome-blast-from-the-past' odd. I went into town to do some shopping and, it was only upon getting to the bottom of Northumberland Street and seeing the shutters up on Zaavi and a hastily printed note cello-taped to the door, flapping gently in the breeze which said THIS STORE IN NOW CLOSED in less-than-comforting bold letters that I realised a significant part of my past has gone just like that. The original Virgin Records store in Newcastle, which opened in Eldon Square in the mid-seventies, was a strange, otherworldly place. I remember it was always far colder than it should have been because of an industrial strength air-conditioning unit that blasted artic currents of air down the neck of your parka every couple of minutes. It was somewhere that punks, skins, rastas, disco Stus and dirty stinking lice-ridden hippies gathered in a kind of uneasy truce thereupon to listen to the latest releases and chartbound sounds and, occasionally, buy some of them.
It was where I bought my first ever punk single - 'All Around The World' by The Jam. And, most of the singles (punk or otherwise) and LPs that I purchased over the next twenty years came from there. (HMV was sometimes cheaper, the now long-departed Callers' was better for twelve inch singles, but Virgin always had a far wider choice - stuff you simply couldn't get elsewhere - and, by no means a minor consideration, had far cooler carrier bags. Lurid orange, they were.) It was in Virgin that I first saw The Clash in the flesh. During the summer of 1978 they turned up to do a signing (I think for the 'Clash City Rockers' single) having been banned by the local council from playing at any venue in the city after two riotous gigs the previous year (a ban that stood until 1980, incidentally). I subsequently worked quite a bit for Virgin Books and it would always annoy me to go into a Virgin Megastore and find that they didn't have copies of any of my stuff on their shevles. That was, kind of, the way that Virgin as an organisation seemed to operate - left hand never knew who the right hand was doing. When they became Zaavi a few years ago I still carried on shopping there on the very odd occasions when I still bought CDs or DVDs over the counter, rather than online. That was more out of a sense of loyalty than anything else. But, of late, they've been massively hit by a combination of online trading (which I'm as guilty over as anyone), the recession and, most cruelly, their distribution deal with Woolworths/2-Entertain. And now, they're gone. It's very sad.

So, anyway, there I was looking blankly at the metal shutters having a 'Ah, dear old Virgin's gone...' moment when someone behind me tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and there was this guy, early forties, slightly greying hair, whom I didn't recognise. He asked 'excuse me, are you Keith Topping by any chance?' 'Yeah,' I mumbled, somewhat defensively - as you do in such circumstances (I almost said 'I might be!') - and he replied 'I listen to you on the radio. You're very good!' Ah, gee. I was really (almost embarrassingly) pleased about that. I thanked him, most genuinely, and then he said 'you probably don't remember me, I was in your year at Middle Street.' Then he told me his name. And I remembered him all right. I was bullied at school. From being about seven or eight years old right the way through to Sixth Form and my A-levels a decade later there were a succession of nasty, thuggish, eyes-too-close-together twat-bastards who made my school life one, seemingly never-ending, miserable day after another for ten bloody years. There were different sorts of bullying at different times and not all of it was purely physical (it was mostly intellectual during my time in the Sixth Form, for instance) but it was always - as bullying is - upsetting, cruel and emotionally scarring. I'm not fishing for sympathy here, I am not alone in having to suffer this by any means. Not even remotely close. Millions of people have dealt with bullying as a de facto part of their lives and emerged from the experience as stronger and better people directly as a result. I like to imagine, in my more philosophical moments, that I'm one of them.

I rarely think about my time at school these days, dear blog reader and, when I do, it mostly tends to be the somewhat less horrific moments (and there were some) than the time some cretin thought it was, like, the funniest thing in the world, ever, to get me on the ground, punch me a few times and then draw all over my face with a marker pen.

But, back safely in the comfort of all-grown-up 2009, when this guy said his name, suddenly, I was there again. As a scared fat fourteen year old in 1977 in the Walker Comprehensive schoolyard rolled up into a ball and having seven grades of shat kicked out of me by this chap and a couple of his wretched sneering cronies because I'd ... well, to be honest, I can't remember exactly what I'd done to deserve it on that particular day. 'Looked at them in a funny way,' possibly. That was usually near to top of the list for reasons to explain any shoeing I received. 'Worked my ticket' was another one. That was usually verbal shorthand for very occasionally instead of just cowering in the corner and saying 'please don't hit me any more' actually trying to stand up to them and confront their actions. You know, like you're always told that you should when you're being bullied and are confidently assured by parents and by teachers alike that, if you do, the bullies will be unable to handle it and will leave you alone. Because really bullies are all cowards underneath. Well, let me assure you dear blog reader that, in fact, no they sodding well aren't and, mostly, if you DO try standing up to them that will simply assure you of an even greater spanking than the one you'd've gotten anyway.

Suddenly, I saw this guy as he was back then, a wiry teenage skinhead numbskull who seemed to take the greatest of delights in terrorising those less hard than himself. And I flinched. For the first time in probably close to thirty years. I'm not sure if he saw me do it, but I know I did.
So, I merely said to him 'Oh yes, I remember you. How are you doing?' and, whilst he blathered on for a couple of minutes about how he was now working for some insurance company or other and was married with kids, I formulated my 'make-a-quick-excuse about having an important appointment to go to and getting-the-hell-away-from-here' plan of escape. Which I did, subsequently and we left, both of us I think, with fake smiles plastered on our lips. I can imagine him walking away thinking 'Jesus, what a stuck up prick he's turned into. Does a bit of local radio and it's gone to his head. Mind you, he was always a little that way. That's why me and Tony and Jonesy [not the real names of either of the indivudals involved, I hasten to add] used to give him so many chinnings. He hasn't changed.' Or, he might not have been thinking that or anything like it and I'm doing the man a huge disservice. He may well be reading this and be thoroughly shocked by the pain and angst that our brief encounter this morning has awakened in me. He's, possibly, feeling contrite and remorseful having remembered what a thoroughly nasty thug he was when he was young. Or, maybe he's forgotten all of the violence, the taunts, the hurt he inflicted on me (and, I'm sure, others) and is just getting on with his life, quietly, and as best he can, trying to make an honest quid and not hurt anybody in the process. If he is, he has my hope that he manages it. And that his children (I think he said he had three who, I imagine, will all now be in their early twenties or late teens) managed to get through school without, themselves, being bullied. Or, being bullies.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Week Five: Wounded By The War Or Touched By The Hand Of God

According to James Clerk Maxwell’s Third Law of Thermodynamics which deals with the unstoppable march of entropy, the universe is gradually slowing and will, eventually, collapse inwards upon itself thus rendering all past, present and future human endeavour, ultimately pointless. Just something for you to think about if you're looking for a reason not to put up that set of shelves in the kitchen this weekend. Anyway, here's some Top Telly Tips.

Friday 30 January
Tonight sees the opening episode of the second (and, sadly, last) series of Pushing Daisies - 10:00 ITV - the quirky American drama about a man blessed (but, at the same time cursed) with the ability to bring dead people back to life. This was the last, and ultimately biggest, casualty of last year's writers strike as all of the momentum which the series had built up to that point was pulled from under it by having to shut down production for six months after a mere eight episodes had been made. So, tragically, we've only got thirteen episodes of this delightful show left to enjoy. The candy-coloured sets and costumes, the rhythmical Doctor Seuss-style dialogue (with Jim Dale splendid as The Voice of God), the numerous pie-flavoured puns and the brilliantly inventive plots are all back and all still working. First, however, there's a lengthy recap to bring any newcomers up to speed on the story of how Ned (the splendidly sympathetic Lee Pace) can bring the dead back to life and, just as easily, kill them off permanently and how, having revived his deceased childhood sweetheart Chuck (Anna Friel), he can't ever touch her again or she will die. Then, we plunge head first into a typically insane story about a murder at Betty's Bees, a honey-based skincare product manufacturer, although there's also a glance back at last season's cliff-hanger about the true identity of Chuck's mother and a subplot - including an outrageous The Sound Of Music pastiche - about the cloistering of Olive (the wonderful Kristin Chenoweth) in a nunnery. Charming, whimsical, escapist nonsense with just the right degree of self-awareness as to how delightfully batty it actually is, cherish this show whilst you've still got the chance before it's gone for good.

Saturday 31 January
Alfie was absolutely raving on Top Telly Tips a couple of weeks back about Anne Frank Remembered - repeated at 7:00 on BBC4 tonight – Jon Blair’s Oscar-winning documentary about the life and legacy of the 15-year-old whose diary records two years in hiding in an Amsterdam office building during World War II. With interest in Anne's life at an high following the BBC's recent (excellent) serial adaptation of her story, this film combines personal testimony, family letters and rare archive film with contemporary footage, telling her story from her childhood in Frankfurt and Amsterdam to her capture and death in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh.

On a related theme, if you’re not going to a match anywhere this afternoon, it's worth noting that BBC2 are starting a repeat of the entire twenty six episodes of Jeremy Isaacs' groundbreaking 1973 documentary, The World at War starting at 3:15. If you've never seen it before (or even if you have and you know it almost word-for-word) I defy anyone to watch the opening sequence of the first episode as Larry Olivier solemnly tells the story of the SS's massacre at the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane without having your heart broken to fragments ('Down this road on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now.') The World at War is not just the best documentary series ever made, it's the best documentary series that will ever be made. If you have never seen it before, trust me, your life will be enhanced by putting that right. 'They never rebuilt Oradour,' concludes Sir Laurence. 'Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, China, in a world at war.' And then you get Carl Davis' music and that remarkable and chilling title sequence and you find yourself in a time when this stuff still, actually, meant something.

There's a new sitcom on BBC1, The Old Guys at 9:30. It's from Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong who wrote Peep Show and it sounds like a kind-of geriatric version of Men Behaving Badly, starring two genuine sitcom veterans, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Clive Swift as a pair of suburban pensioners who share a home and both lust after their glamorous neighbour played by another nostalgia figure, Jane Asher. Quality cast, good writing pedigree, I really hope this works. It's about time the BBC found one decent sitcom to go with Outnumbered.

Sunday 1 February
Passionate Darwinian David Attenborough, who sees evolution as the cornerstone of all the series he has ever made, shares his personal view on Darwin's ideas in Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life - 9:00 BBC1. Journeying through the last two hundred years, he tracks the changes in our understanding of the natural world, and asks three key questions: how - and why - did Darwin come up with his theory? Why do many people think he was right and why do some still continue to insist he was wrong? This is a bit of a departure for David getting into areas of science-versus- theology. Interesting move and, as a huge admirer of both the man himself and his extraordinary body of work, I'll certainly be watching. I understand from Radio Times that David's been getting a bit of stick of late from the God Botherers. I really find that sad. I mean, apart from the thought of anybody abusing David Attenborough in the name of the Lord is just sick. As an Agnostic, I like to think that I'm wholly open to all extreme possibilities but I do find it rather tragic that many Christians, seemingly, never bother to read the text that they're supposed to be following. Or, rather, they do but they pick and choose which bits to focus on, which bits to rant about, loudly, outside abortion clinics for the cameras and which bits to completely ignore because it/they doesn’t fit in with their life. Like the bit in Leviticus that makes the wearing of a garment woven from the threads of two different fabrics punishable by stoning to death. I take it, therefore, that polyester and cotton shirts aren't big with the fundamentalist right. If there is a God (and, as I say, I'm still perfectly open-minded about that), I imagine He/She/It is rather more pissed-off with those that do sinister naughtiness in His/Her/Its name than those who just get on with their lives without the need to (mis)quote Him/Her/It every five minutes. Mind you, aggressive Atheists are just as bad (if not worse). At least Christians have a faith in something greater to comfort them in times of stress and heartache - something which can, occasionally, move me greatly. What's Richard Dawkins got to keep him warm at night? Err … Lalla Ward. Okay, silly question, let's move on…

Monday 2 February
On its day Who Do You Think You Are? - 9:00 BBC1 – can be just about the best thing on TV (we all remember the numerous classic episodes of past series, I'm sure). Rory Bremner didn't know his dad very well. He was an older father, who was somewhat distant and who died when Rory was eighteen. In researching his father's life, Rory discovers some of his father's wartime letters, in which he talks about a battle for the Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch. Rory travels to Holland and then on to Germany. He learns about the part his father played in the post-war reconstruction and discovers that he managed to find time to get to know the locals. Look out for an episode later in the season featuring Wor Kevin Whately (nice bit of local interest there) and another I'm really looking forward to, Zoë Wanamaker. Next week is that luscious pouty vision on minxy goodness, Fiona Bruce.

Competing with that at the same time are not one but two excellent-looking crime drama series (it's at times like this that one appreciates the invention of recordable devices, iPlayer and, erm, "posties"). On BBC2, there's the three-part Moses Jones. When a brutally mutilated body of an African is discovered in the Thames, streetwise Detective Moses is put on the case by his superiors at Scotland Yard, simply because of his ethnic background. Paired with the young and inexperienced DS Dan Twentyman the new partners are initially met with a sinister wall of silence from the local community, until they are offered a clear lead from a very unlikely source. It stars Matt Smith - and is thus guaranteed an audience of curious Whoies quite apart from anyone else! - and the excellent Shaun Parkes in the title role with a quality support cast that includes Tom Goodman-Hill from Ideal and good old Dennis Waterman. Sharp.

Somebody (in fact, probably a couple of somebodies) wants a damned good kicking, however, for the crassly idiotic scheduling of the previous series opposite Whitechapel - ITV 9:00. When ambitious DI Joseph Chandler is assigned what looks like a simple case of domestic violence, he thinks a quick result will line him up for promotion. But when the investigation runs out of suspects, Chandler finds an alternative theory from Edward Buchan, an expert on Jack the Ripper. Buchan points out the similarities between the murder and the Ripper's killings, and the race is on to catch the copycat before he strikes again. Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis star and, again, the support cast in mouth-watering – Steve Pemberton from League Of Gentlemen, Claire Rushbrooke and Alex Jennings among others. Record one and watch the other is yer actual Keith Telly Topping's solution to this scheduling dilemma.

Tuesday 3 February
Recently upgraded to a Class B substance again, Cannabis is said to be the world's favourite drug, but it’s also quite possibly one of the least well understood. Can cannabis cause schizophrenia as is often claimed? Is it addictive? Can it lead the user on to harder drugs? Or is it simply a herb, an undervalued medicine or, as the Rastas insist 'the weed of the field' as mentioned in the book of Genesis? In Horizon: The Evil Weed? - BBC2 9:00 - addiction specialist Doctor John Marsden discovers that modern science is finally beginning to find some answers to these, and other, questions. John traces the cannabis plants birthplace in Kazakhstan; finds the origins of our sensitivity to cannabis in the sea-squirt and finds out just what it does to our brains.

Doctors and Nurses at War - 8:00 ITV – is a documentary series going behind the scenes at a front-line hospital in Afghanistan for the first time. The cameras follow NHS trauma specialists who have volunteered to help run Britain's military hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province and to give first aid on the front line to those injured by the Taliban. Many are ordinary hospital doctors and nurses in the TA. Orthopaedic surgeon Hugo Gutherie and nurse Sue James are shocked when they meet children who have become casualties of war and nurse Vanessa Miles flies into enemy territory to help civilians wounded by a suicide bomb. Narrated by Robert Lindsay.

It's a jolly good night for documentaries, actually. Boys and Girls Alone - 9:00 Channel 4 – is a series in which ten boys and girls are given the chance to live without their parents for a fortnight to prove they can take care of themselves. The children arrive in their new village surroundings and get to know each other. Each sex appear to quickly conforms to stereotype with the girls enjoying cooking and the boys getting into a water fight and happily eating junk food. But, after forty eight hours there's chaos and anarchy and the boys soon begin to miss their mums, whilst the girls start to get all stroppy like a bunch of proper little madams and split into a couple of squabbling factions. Will the watching parents stay out of it, or will they step in and help? This was a very controversial production when it was announced last year. A lot of the newspapers made a big thing about Channel 4 encouraging irresponsibility and all that. Which was inevitable really. I wouldn't have normally bothered with this – it's got all of the hallmarks of some bollocky "what haven’t we tried yet?" concept meeting at Channel 4 towers. However, if the tabloids have problems with it then, on general principle, I think I'll watch the first episode or two.

Wednesday 4 February
Bestselling author Terry Pratchett has early onset Alzheimer's, a disease he is prepared to tackle head-on. In Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimer's - 9:00 BBC2 - we will join Terry as he confronts living with his uncertain future and faces a world ultimately without words. Following Terry's progress through his first year with Alzheimer's, we will explore some cutting-edge science and weird treatments to reveal what it is like to be diagnosed with this terrifying illness. Now, this next bit could be controversial and, if it upsets anyone then I – genuinely – apologise in advance. I have to say, upfront that I really do admire Terry not only as a writer but also he seems, from his interviews (most recently a very fun piece in the Radio Times, for instance), to be a thoroughly likeable and decent chap too (witty, thoughtful and humane). And I do, again genuinely, sympathise with his condition. But, I've got to say, I don't remember him being the great champion of Alzheimer's sufferers before he discovered he had it. Last year he made a very bitter and angry speech in which he criticised various world governments (and, particularly Britain's) for not spending more on Alzheimer’s research than they do. Since then, he's become heavily involved in charity fundraising for the cause (recently being knighted for his work in this area) and good on his for that. What a pity he wasn't doing all that twenty years ago when his input might - just - have made a difference to, not only his own life, but also lots of other people who've had this awful, soul-destroying, dignity-stripping condition and not had access to the media to highlight it. And to their families. I'm sorry Terry's got it, I really am, but he's by no means alone. Like most things in life, it's only when somebody well-known suffers from something that anybody even notices it's there.

Nevertheless, only if you've recently had a frontal lobotomy, are you likely to prefer Minder - 9:00 Five – to Terry Pratchett's story. This is, of course, the first in a new series of Leon Griffiths' classic comedy drama of the late 70s/early 80s. Archie Daley (Shane Ritchie), the legendary East End entrepreneur Arthur Daley, enlists the help of taxi driver Jamie Cartwright (Lex Shrapnel) to settle his debt to a pair of menacing property developers. Some TV remakes, re-imagingings or sequels work and work well – we've recently seen that with Survivors, for instance and there's no finer example than Doctor Who. Some, however, you just look at on paper and think "NOOOOOOOOOOO!!" This would appear to be one of the latter.

Kirsty Wark interviews legendary French film actress Catherine Deneuve about her career and the directors that shaped it in Catherine Deneuve Talks to Kirsty Wark - 8:30 BBC4. From her early success in Umbrellas of Cherbourg to her notorious roles with surrealist director Luis Buñuel (in the classic Belle de Jour, and others) and in Roman Polanski's Repulsion, Deneuve has been not only a film star but also a genuine icon for the French for almost half a century. She talks frankly about this iconic status and her one hundredth film, A Christmas Tale. She reveals her distress about a book published in France claiming that her late father was a Nazi collaborator during World War Two. Hot subject. Hot lady (even in her late sixties). Make it a date.

Thursday 5 February
10 Years Younger: The Challenge - 8:00 Channel 4 – is a makeover show presented by Myleene Klass whose taken over from former presenter, the "I'll put you over my knee if you don’t do exactly what I say" dominatrixess Nicky Hambleton-Jones - much to the latter’s annoyance. (Which, I must say, I found hugely ironic to the point of rolling about on the floor laughing. Nicky having seemingly forgotten the period when she was Channel 4’s "hot young thing" at the expense of older, more experienced presenters). Fifty-year-old cleaning company manager Mary tries to turn back the years by undergoing cosmetic surgery, while Forty Nine-year-old Civil Servant Kathleen attempts to take an alternative route to youthfulness. Sounds wretched. Probably will be, too, but you never know...

Animal Rescue Squad the wildlife series with Michaela Strachan and Matt Baker - 7:30 Five – is a show we've mentioned a few times before (normally on nights like tonight when there's virtually bog-all else on). Conservation officers mount a rescue mission when a mother bear and her two cubs wander into a Vancouver garden. Matt is there to assist in getting the lost creatures back to their mountain home.

Cutting Edge: Killer in a Small Town - 9:00 Channel 4 – is a remarkably grim-looking documentary about the murders in Ipswich in 2006. One by one, the small community of sex workers that worked the dark streets around Ipswich Town's football stadium, Portman Road, began to disappear. At first it was a barely reported story of missing prostitutes, but then the bodies of murdered women began to turn up in the brooks and woodland of the surrounding countryside. Louise Osmond's film follows events as they unfolded and explores the lives of those who became victims of Steve Wright, the Suffolk Strangler.

Remix, Remodel, Repackage

Just heard the remixed version of 'Thou Shalt Always Kill' by Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip featuring Plug One from De La Soul. I dunno, I prefer the original. More raw. More bitter. If you're going to slay a bunch of sacred cows, you've got to do it angry. Does that make this blogger an elitist snob? Yeah, probably. I can live with that. I hope it's massive hit this time, though. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Crimes and Missed Demeanours

Gosh, but Frost/Nixon is a fine movie. Michael Sheen's great in it (that wonderful Frostian mixture of feckless charm and hard determination), Matthew MacFadyen (far more handsome and charasmatic than the real John Birt!), Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Kevin Bacon all give fine support but the guy who really deserves his Oscar this year is the wonderful Frank Langella. He doesn't look, especially, like Richard Nixon but he's got the voice and, more importantly, that unlovable arrogance barely hidden behind the eyes absolutely spot-on. I know they've taken some liberties, via careful editing, with what was actually said and the context in which it was said (I noticed one critic describing it as "self-congratulatory revisionism") but, when viewed purely as a piece of cinema rather than a historical documentary, it's damn near perfect. Watch this straight after The Right Stuff, JFK, Almost Famous and All the President's Men and you've got a potted history of US cinema's view of its own social recent history. I must say, also, I was very impressed with the way Ron Howard filmed the thing. It's very easy for a director adapting a stageplay to go mad with his locations when "opening out" a script that's previously been confined by the theatre that it takes place in. Ron - a beautifully sympathetic director of claustrophobic situations (Apollo 13, for instance) - here keeps the temptation to be maddeningly over-the-top in check. Highest recommendation.

Mind you, I'm starting to become very annoyed by the experience of going to the cinema these days. Not so much for the fact that a cleaner chucked the seven - perfectly comfortable - paying punters out of the screening room five minutes before the due start time because the place hadn't been cleaned from the last movie the night before (and, it's not like it was a breakfast showing, it was twenty past noon!) But rather it's that, seemingly, it has now become impossible for me to sit still for two hours without my bladder screaming out in impatience at me. When did I get old? How did that happen? Did I miss the memo or what?!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Fortysomethings' Guide To TV's Great Sporting Moments - A Second Extract

4 August 1975

Over to Our Live Outside Broadcast From: Lord's Cricket Ground, St. John's Wood, London.

Action Replay: There is much to remember from the four-test 1975 Ashes series. England, on their knees - and with the cream of a generation of test batsmen having had their confidence (and, in David Lloyd's case, his knackers) shot to fragments after a winter's hammering by the fearsome pace duo of Dennis Lillie and Jeff Thomson - lost the first test (at Edgbaston) by an innings. Immediately afterwards, they sacked their captain, the hapless Mike Denness. His replacement was the best England cricketer of the era, the brash South African-born all-rounder Tony Greig. As a tactician, Greig was a complete novice - especially compared to Ian Chappell, his wily Australian counterpart - but, as a leader of men Greig could (given the right circumstances) be inspirational. His first team selection proved to be just such a moment, calling up the thirty three year old Northamptonshire batsman David Steele. Bespectacled and with greying hair Steele was an unlikely figure as 'the saviour of English cricket' – the Sun's Clive Taylor comparing him to 'a bank clerk who went to war.' Yet over the following two months Steele would become a national hero, averaging over sixty in three tests and becoming the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year in November. And, all of this after he got lost in the Lord's pavilion on his way out to bat on the first morning and ended up in the basement toilets.

From being 49-4 at one point (including, sadly, a third failure in three innings for the young Graham Gooch playing in just his second test and who would not feature in the national team after this for another three years), England recovered magnificently. Steele's 50 was followed by a true captain's innings from Greig who fell just four short of a deserved century. With valuable contributions from Alan Knott (69) and another débutant, Bob Woolmer (33), England saw off the much vaunted Australian attack of Lillie, Thomson and Max Walker to reach 315. Then their own paceman, John Snow, got stuck into the Australian top order, taking four wickets and, with help from Peter Lever, Deadly Derek Underwood and Greig, reducing their opponents to first 81-7 and then 133-8. A valiant 99 from the under-rated Ross Edwards and a big-hitting 73 not out from Lillie (including three massive sixes durng a last wicket partnership of 69 with Ashley Mallett) pushed the Australians to 268. England's second innings was steady rather than spectacular, John Edrich anchoring himself for the best part of two days at the crease to score 175. As Monday wore on, England's push for runs increased, with Greig hitting an entertaining 41 in quick time. At 3:20 England had just passed the 400 mark with six wickets down.

What Happened Next?: It was a stiflingly hot afternoon – temperatures reached ninety three degrees at one point (hotter, it was noted, than the temperatures in North Africa that day) - with many of the crowd bare-chested. [Note 1]. Jeff Thomson was bowling to Knott from the Pavillion End when, after several hours spent in the Tavern, a friend bet Michael Angelow, a twenty four year old merchant seaman and cook from St Albans, twenty quid that he wouldn't dare to streak across the pitch. Angelow politely waited for Thomson to finish his over, then whipped off his kit and set off, wearing only plimsolls, black socks and a sheepish smile, on a mazzy run from the corner of the Tavern Stand towards the Nursery End athletically hurdling the stumps (and startling umpire Tom Spencer in the process) with one fist raised in triumphant salute. 'He's going to be greeted when he gets back. Probably pick up a ten pound note from somebody,' chuckled Jim Laker on the BBC, seeing the funny side of it, along with most of the Australian team. [Note 2]. Angelow was certainly luckier than a streaker at a later cricket match, who was pursued by a sour-faced Greg Chappell and dealt a resounding cover drive across his bare backside.

[Note 1]: This author, attending his first ever day's test cricket in the Nursery End, ended up in bed that night in Southampton with a very nasty sunburn that lasted for most of the rest of his subsequent family holiday, on the Isle of Wight.
[Note 2]: Although our primary interest in this book is television, it's worth reporting the reaction from BBC Radio's Test Match Special. 'It’s a freaker,' noted the great John Arlott, a true master of the dryly comedic one-liner. 'Not very shapely and it's masculine, I'm afraid!'

Back to the Studio for a Summing Up: Angelow had, indeed, seen his last cricket for the day. He was nabbed by the bobbies (steady) at Long Leg and carted off to Marylebone Magistrates' Court where he admitted 'insulting behaviour' a'fore the beak. When he revealed the exact amount that the escapade had won him from his bet Lieutenant-Colonel William Haswell, chairman of the bench, proved that he enjoyed a good joke too. 'The court will have that £20,' he told Angelow. 'Please moderate your behaviour in future!' A few months later during their Christmas TV Special Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, brilliantly, parodied the event (using cleverly edited footage to suggest that Eric had been the streaker). England eventually declared at 436-7 setting the Australians an improbable target of 484 to win. The game ended the next day in an entertaining, but predictable, draw. As were the next two tests [Note 3] and Australia ended the summer retainaing the Ashes.

[Note 3]: This included the hugely controversial climax to the following - third - test, at Leeds. With the game finely balanced for a classic last day finish (Australia needing two hundred and twenty runs to win, England requiring seven wickets), supporters of the imprisoned bank robber George Davis broke into Headingley overnight and vandalised the pitch leading to the game's ultimate abandonment.

What the Papers Said: I Declare, a Streaker at Lord's was the Sun's predictably hyperbolic headline. The Times was rather more dignified, and humorous, noting 'Woolmer hit Mallett for two large sixes towards the Tavern, whence the streaker had, of course, appeared … he was caught on the boundary.' Wisden completely ignored the incident at the time but, many years later when writing the obituary for Tom Spencer they noted that when the umpire retired,the photographer Patrick Eagar had given him Eager's famous photograph of Angelow hurdling the stumps. Spencer, it was said, would show the photo at his local, the Seaton Delaval workingmen's club, to "give them a bit of a laugh."

Also That Day:

- In Music: The Bay City Rollers' 'Bye Bye Baby' remained at number one for a third week but the lads in tartan were about to be replaced by Typically Tropical's 'Barbados.' It's 'in de sunny Caribbean sea,' apparently. It's hard to tell which was the more disturbing, The Goodies' 'Black Pudding Bertha' (the queen of Northern Soul was at no. 34) or Roger Whittaker's 'The Last Farewell' (no. 29).

- On TV: One good thing about summer was, of course, daytime telly. Wacky Races, Casey Jones and Here Come the Double Deckers on BBC1, The Tomorrow People on ITV. And Graham Kerr in The Galloping Gourmet. Okay, maybe it wasn’t all great. The Roger Moore movie The Man Who Haunted Himself was the BBC's evening highlight. Opposite that was the quiz Whodunnit? (hosted by Jon Pertwee) and Mark McManus in Sam. The story of Big John Cannon and family, The High Chaparral, topped BBC2's entertainment for the night.

- In The News: Anti-communist riots took place in Portugal. The site for the new British Library was announced. Three female 'professional pickpockets' from Chile on holiday in London were jailed after being caught 'loitering' in an Oxford Street store. The scoundrels. A military coup took place in Bangladesh. The hot summer continued with temperatures in the nineties. John Stonehouse, the MP who attempted to fake his own death before running away to Australia was refused bail at Bow Street magistrates whilst awaiting trial on fraud charges. Despite having her election as Prime Minister in 1971 declared invalid by the High Court, Indira Gandhi and the Congress party still clung to power in India.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A (Short) Public Service Announcement. With Guitars.

The BBC being what it is, an institution where self-promotion is, rightly, frowned up as vulgar and unbecoming ("... and nation shall speak peace onto nation" and all that) I thought I'd use this opportunity on a non-affiliated blog to highlight the fact that today's sketch on The Alfie Joey Show was written by - and co-starring - me(!)

In it, I play Mark Hughes, who would seem in danger of becoming the world's first Welsh-Pakistani whenever I do him. (There's lovely, lovely, lovely, Boyo, isn't it?) I sincerely apologise to Mark and, indeed, to Welshmen and Pakistanis everywhere! Dylan Thomas, Neil Kinnock, Gareth Edwards, Zaheer Abbas, General Musharaf can you hear me? Your boys all took a hell of beating ... I'm sorry to say.

As you may have gathered from the character whom I play, as with the last sketch I wrote for the show a couple of weeks back concerning Christiano Ronaldo's driving, this one is marginally football-related. If you want to tune-in and listen (and then harshly but fairly criticise the accent) after about 5pm today, go here: -
click the Listen Again feature
click the Alfie Joey Show icon
click the icon for Thursday 23rd January
then seek out the sketch which can be heard around one hour, nine minutes and twenty nine seconds into the show approximately (straight after 'Love Really Hurts Without You' ... and the Stuart Hall trail).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Week Four: What's More Appertising Between Two Slices of Bread, Fiona Bruce Or Jamie Oliver?

And so, dear blog reader, we reach that funny time of the year (that's 'funny peculiar' rather than 'funny ha! ha!' per se) shortly after 'Blue Monday' when staying in bed all day, every day suddenly seems like not only an option but, actually, a valid lifestyle choice. All the enthusiasm, drive and hope that we had coming into the year has pretty much dissolved and evaporated in a cloud of gloomy indifference. You don't know whether to be apathetic or not about life and, frankly, you don't much care. The weather's been crap and looks likely to remain crap for some months to come; your football team's already out of the FA Cup and just two points above the relegation zone and you don't know where the next point is going to come from; it looks like you might be out of a job before the end of February and you can't even be bothered to do the one you already have most of the time. Getting as drunk as skunk on junk might help a bit but that isn't really an option either because you're pink-lint. Your back is playing up something rotten, as is your knee and you've developed a really annoying limp whenever it rains - which is most of the time, of course - and you've got this niggling pain in your chest and down your left arm that might be indigestion but, if it is, it's the longest recorded case in medical history. You feel like crud all the time and there are some mornings where you can barely be bothered to get out of bed to make a cup of tea. Not that you've got enough money for the electricity to switch on the kettle to make a cup of tea, of course. And, even if you did there's no milk in the fridge (and you're down to your last tea bag). You can't even really afford to get the bus up to Morrisons to stock up on a few essentials because, like pretty much everyone else in the country who isn't a member of royalty or in the Celebrity Big Brother house, you currently haven't got a pot to piss in ... despite, apparently, owning several banks. The once affluent, open and (relatively) safe Western Democracy in which you live feels, suddenly, like it's a part of the Third World - and in some respects, part of the Soviet Bloc - and everybody you meet on the streets is aggressive, depressed and looking for easy answers which, seemingly, do not exist. Plus, there are seditious hippies with their sinister agendas at work telling you that you can't do this, you can't do that (you can't go forward, you can't go back). Do you know that sort of feeling at all? Yeah, me an'all. Frequently. Well, British telly usually has a big - conceptual - dose of it sometime around week four every year. And you'll be delighted to know, I'm sure, that 2009 is no exception.

Friday 23 January 2009
Is TV Too Rude? is a question that I get asked in the course of my work about once every day. My normal reply is, “sh*t, no” … usually with an even stronger expletive of contempt afterwards just to reinforce the point that TV might not be but, TV reviewers, generally speaking, are. Take Charlie Brooker, for instance. On Tonight, at 8:00, ITV get in on the act. "With sex, gruesome violence and profanity a norm in TV schedules" (allegedly), this programme sets out to explore whether or not broadcasters have "gone too far" in stretching the boundaries of taste and decency. Hang on, can we just go back to that statement? Where? Please show me where, exactly, sex, violence and profanity is anything even remotely close to being "a norm" on British television. This is one of those crass and utterly ridiculous comments that gets trotted out every so often by some ill-informed glake - usually writing to the Daily Mail website and with no supporting evidence whatsoever - and yet many seemingly sensible people still buy into it as accurate. Well, what I say is what a right load of old codswallop. Take my advice as somebody who watches a hell of a lot more TV that you probably do (what can I say? It's my job). Try tonight, as an average night of British TV, to find an example somewhere of proper sex, proper gratuitous violence or real, genuine, offensive-to-most-people profanity anywhere on British television - certainly pre-watershed. You'll be looking for a long time before you find even one, trust me on this. Still, why be balanced and considered in relation to important matters of discussion such as this when you can spout headline-grabbing trashy hyperbole and blatant lies instead? Congratulations Tonight, it's taken you three weeks into the New Year but you've managed to make me even more cynical than I already was in 2008. Well done. Jolly well done. I hope your mothers are all really proud of you. Scum.

Speaking of rude telly (and, you simply have to wonder if this, specifically, is why ITV have scheduled the preceding show for broadcast tonight of all nights), we've got the return of Friday Night With Jonathan Ross - 10:35 BBC1 - with a guest list that includes the wonderful Stephen Fry, Lee Evans (who I think's a bit over-rated, personally, but I know he's very popular), the world's best Big Country tribute band Franz Ferdinand and some bizarre teeny-tiny person named Tom Cruise. Get your complaint forms ready just in case Wossy sneezes in the wrong place. They're already available from the Daily Mail website, apparently. Sinister agenda-based conspiracy from right-wings thugs? You may well believe that. I couldn't possibly comment.

Saturday 24 January
I’ve mentioned Qi a couple of times this season on Friday nights and it's been - as usual - awesomely tremendous so far. (Not to mention just a bit rude in a thoroughly satisfying way that's guaranteed to get up the noses of the average Daily Mail website reader.) It’s only fair, therefore, that we should also highlight Qi XL - 10:30 BBC2 – which are the extended versions of the Friday episodes (about fifteen minutes longer in most cases). Tonight, Stephen quizzes Alan Davies, Phill Jupitus, Jo Brand and first-time guest Mock the Week's Hugh Dennis on all things French. Did you see Johnny Vegas's performance last week? Outstanding. In reply to Pam Ayers' complaint that when she joined the R.A.F. and they asked her what she liked doing, she replied "drawing" so they put her in a tech-drawing and mapping department: "Same thing happened to me when I went to school," noted Johnny. "They said 'what do you like doing?' I said 'maths' so they put me in a maths class. Couldn't they see I was built for dancing?"

Sunday 25 January
A much more serious subject is dealt with in what appears to be, anyway, a suitably sensitive and dignified way in A Short Stay in Switzerland - 9:00 on BBC1. This is a dramatisation of the true story of Dr Anne Turner, played by Julie Walters, who took her own life in a Zurich clinic, surrounded by her children. Her ("assisted") suicide made headline news in the papers and television around the world. This film is inspired by Anne's journey to her death; it's not an easy one to view by any means, but it's an incredibly touching and human one. I hope this gets a good audience because it's a subject that requires a serious - and more importantly informed - debate.

The fifth season of the popular American serial-drama Lost commenced in the US on Tuesday. It's one of my particular favourites and I know many listeners to Top Telly Tips and, indeed, many readers of this blog, have also been captivated, charmed and intrigued - if, occasionally, annoyed - by its many twists, turns, cul-de-sacs and general strangeness. The first two new episodes in the best part of a year are shown in the UK on Sky One on Sunday (and they've been a long time coming). If you've never seen it before, then where the hell have you been for the last four years?! Get yourselves to a DVD shop and buy all four previous seasons, you'll thank me in the long run. Lost, for the uninitiated, tells - in a series of very unusual and admirably non-linear ways - the stories (past, present and sometimes even future) of a diverse group of survivors from a fictional air crash - Oceanic Flight 815. And, of the damned strange island upon which they find themselves. (It, seemingly, took many viewers the best part of four seasons to work out that the island, itself, is actually a - major - character in the on-going drama rather than merely its setting.) Several of the character were rescued and/or left the island at the climax of last season. These included some of my favourites characters, the complex and driven Sayid, the humourously good-natured Hurley, the sinister-but-funny Ben and, tragically, that thoroughly boring bastard Dr Jack. At least, though, all Lost 'shippers fanatasies were well fulfilled when the wonderful Desmond and his long lost girlfriend, Penny, were reunited in one of the most touching scenes on TV in many years at the climax. Those who are still stranded (led by the series' best character, the fantastic bad-boy-with-a-conscience Sawyer and duplicitious-bitch Juliet) have, seemingly, disappeared to an unknown location (and an unknown time) along with the island they inhabit. According to Lost's Executive Producer Damon Lindelof, the season is going to be all about "why [the people who have left the island] need to get back there." Seventeen episodes this year, seventeen more next and then it'll be gone, forever. Cherish Lost whilst it's still here because, like the island on which the majority of it takes place, you might never find another one quite like this.

Monday 26 January
Bill Gates: How a Geek Changed the World - 7:00 BBC2 – is a special one-hour edition of The Money Programme profiling the man who has (quite literally) changed the world that we live in but who has also sparked major controversy due to his, alleged, ruthless business leadership. Every single person reading this blog, for example, has had their lives changed (directly) by Bill Gates. If not, necessarily, by myself. Ah well, it's my cross, I can bear it. That pouting vision of mature and minxy loveliness, the thinking man's totty Fiona Bruce gained exclusive access to Gates as he prepared to step down from his full-time involvement with Microsoft in June 2008. I'll tell you what, I'd be thoroughly prepared to give her exclusive access to me if she wanted to tell The Keith Telly Topping Story in her sensitive and dignified way. One can dream, can one not? Dreaming, as Blondie once said, is free. 'bout the only thing in this country that is free anymore. Here, Fiona presents the definitive profile of Gates as he embarks upon his latest challenge - that of giving away the billions he has amassed. Hey Bill, if you've got a few thousand spare and lying around the house, marra, I'm just a click of the mouse away. Genuinely. I'm not greedy. Here's a thought for all readers: Bill Gates, John Logie Baird and Hitler - the three men who definitively shaped the 20th Century (not for the same reasons, obviously). Anybody got any other suggestions? Who will be the three men who will defintively shape the 21st? Clarkson, Hammond and May? Don't bet against it, frankly.

The world is affected by an obesity epidemic, as we are reminded on an almost hourly basis by various gobby know-all experts. (The definition of an expert, of course, is "someone who knows more and more about less and less until, eventually, they know everything aobut nothing.") But, why isn’t everyone succumbing to this epidemic? Errr … because they’re not eating as much as those of us who are? Or, is that far too simplistic an answer for TV? Anyway, Horizon: Why Are Thin People Not Fat? - 9:00 BBC2 – suggests that medical science has become obsessed with this subject recently and is coming up with some unexpected answers to the question. It turns out that it’s not all about exercise and diet. See! That’s what I’ve been telling people for years – finally, some vindication. At the centre of this programme is a controversial overeating experiment which aims to identify exactly what it is about some people that makes it hard for them to bulk up. Pfft. Lightweights. I mean, literally...

It’s the last part of Unforgiven - 9:00 ITV – Sally Wainwright’s quite superb thriller starring Suranne Jones and concerning the effect that a woman's release from prison has on three seemingly unrelated families. This has been brilliant, frankly. In the final episode, Ruth opens her heart to Izzy and offers up some shocking revelations about her past. Emily's plan to reunite Ruth with her sister works, but not in the way she would have wished. Ruth is forced to approach Lucy when Steve bungles his revenge plot. Will a desperate Steve find a way out of the chilling mess he has created?

Tuesday 27 January
In Oz and James Drink to Britain - 8:00 BBC2 – the lads cross the Irish Sea. Having had enough of whisky in Scotland (how can one ever have ENOUGH of whisky?) they decide to concentrate on Irish beer and head to a genuine Dublin landmark, the Guinness brewery. The only problem is Guinness is one drink that James really doesn't like. Me neither, actually. Too thick, I've always found. It’s like drinking gravy. Only, you know, Guinness flavoured, obviously. I've been enjoying Drink to Britain so far, however. It has a very amiable, gentle quality to it that sets it far apart from similar gastronomic travelogues.

The Culture Show - 10:30 BBC2 - comes from the Old Fruitmarket in the heart of Glasgow's Merchant City, one of the main venues in the city's Celtic Connections festival. To mark the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth, they've brought together some of Scotland's finest actors to perform Burns' most striking and rarely celebrated works. Wor Luscious Lovely Lauren Laverne also profiles British theatre's rising star, the director Rupert Goold whose controversial Liverpool/Everyman production of King Lear - starring Peter Postlethwaite - comes to the London and the Young Vic on 29 January. Plus, the world's best Big Country tribute band Franz Ferdinand perform material from their "much awaited" (not by me, I hasten to add) third CD. And, Big-Quiffed Marky Kermode has a look at this week's big cinema releases (including, hopefully, Frost/Nixon).

The sixth series of the darkly comic Shameless starts tonight at 10:00 on Channel 4. After Ian is attacked, he is left wondering how he could have provoked it. Well ... let's examine this - he’s a Gallagher and he’s gay whilst living on a rock-hard Manchester estate, I'd've said a brutal kicking kind of goes with the territory for the poor lad, doesn’t it? After being beaten up for a second time, Ian is hospitalised and wakes up with amnesia. As Debbie turns sixteen, Tom decides that the time is right to go public about their relationship. Kelly has bad news for Shane concerning her pregnancy, whilst Frank and Monica are faced with an almost impossible challenge. The latter is a particularly great subplot about Mad Frank trying to find at least one "good" person on the Chatsworth Estate to prove a point to pouty Stella. It's one of the funniest (and yet, oddly, one of the most touching) things they’ve done in years. Ah, it's really good to have this one back.

Wednesday 28 January
Mark Dolan comes face to face with some of the world's most incredible humans in The World's Cleverest Child and Me at 10:00 on C4. In the first of four documentaries, Mark attempts to find out whether their amazing mental capacities are a product of nature or nurture – so, this is a blatant rip-off of the BBC’s The Making of Me from last year. Hey, Channel 4, make up your own ideas, eh? Oh no, hang on, this is Channel 4 we're talking about, that's a complete contradicition in terms.

Grand Designs - 9:00 C4 - is the property series which follows householders as they build their own homes. And, in today’s harsh financial climate that’s looking like an increasingly good idea to many. Anyone know where I can get some bricks and mortar, cheap? In this episode, Sarah and Dean Berry return to their native South Wales from London, attempting to restore an 18th Century hilltop castle near Newport. Yeah, I had a feeling it wasn't going to be, you know, normal people from a council estate, say, renovating their normal two-up-two-down house. Because, of course, as all Americans know, everyone in Britian lives in a castle...

Unfortunately on very late, 1929: The Great Crash - 11:20 on BBC2 – is a documentary (repeated from last Saturday) exploring the causes and effects of the Wall Street Crash. Over six terrifying days in October 1929, shares crashed by a third on the New York Stock Exchange. More than twenty five billion dollars in individual wealth was lost. Sound familiar, any of this? Later, three thousand banks failed, taking many people's savings with them. Surviving eyewitnesses describe the biggest financial catastrophe in history (to date). And you know what the biggest selling song (in sheet-music terms, anyway) was in the US for about the next two years? Brother, Can You Spare a Dime. Chilling.

Thursday 29 January
It’s been a while since we mentioned The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (8:30 on More4) which is big favourite of all of those on the Top Telly Tips slot. It’s back after a deserved break for Christmas and still hitting hard in all directions, with its slogan "One anchor, five correspondents, zero credibility!" Their current favourite target is the strange-haired Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (always over-pronounced in amusing Jerry Lewis fashion by Stewart), currently facing a raft of corruption charges for, among other thing – allegedly - trying to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder. But that brings up an interesting point, how – exactly – are Jon and his team of writers and colleagues going to deal with the Obama administration? Will they get as much comedy material as they got with the last lot, for instance? I mean, Hillary has her odd Sarah Palin-like moments, it's true, but most of the rest of them seem vaguely sensible. That's, presumably, why they've got the lovely John Oliver on hand, to provide a bit of good old fashioned British cynicism to the mix. (I did enjoy Oliver castigating Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News last week for doing exactly that when he was interviewed on the subject of how long Obama's honeymoon period with American satirists was going to last!) It’ll be interesting to watch what calamities the Democrats provide them with. It’s certainly noticeable that every time The Daily Show has featured a clip of the departing George Bush or Dick Chaney recently, Jon’s usually followed it with an almost heartbroken comment along the lines of “I’m gonna miss you guys SO much!” I also love the occasional segment they do where Jon tries to deal with various youf issues, Jon Stewart Touches Kids! And, again, it's worth pointing out that, all World Class comedy moments aside, this is primarily a political show (which happens to feature jokes). Their various discussions on the complexities of the conflict in the Gaza Strip and on the potential for Israel to be accused of war crimes, for example, was one of the most balanced and well-presented pieces on the subject I've heard - stripped of much of the immotive language and hand-wringing that, say, the BBC's Newsnight or Channel 4 News often brings to the table on this issue. The general consensus of Stewart and several of the show's guests was that the ceasefire will happen wholly on Israel's terms, but that nobody has any power (or, more accurately, any political will) to force Israel to do anything that it doesn't want to. Least of all, the knackerless UN. The only external power which ever effects Israel's foreign policy is the US. It's been America's foreign policy since 1945 to allow Israel to protect itself from its neighbours - even pre-empitvely if that's what they say is necessary - and whilst Barack Obama may be making noises about that changing, it isn't going to happen because, quite simply, he's not stupid. He knows that the amount of Jewish-American voices (and, more importantly, Jewish-American money) in US politics far outweigh the hypothetical public support he may get for any moral crusade which he may wish to initiate. As Stewart pointed out when talking to a guest from Al Jazeera, when was the last time any (non-fictional, I'm not including Jed Bartlet in this) US politician of any party criticised Israel? For anything. It just does not happen. Ever. From left-wing liberal Democrats across to the hardest of hard-line Neo-Cons they all know that in terms of where the money and power in US politics is, Israel is the third rail - you step on it and you die. Plus, of course, the second that anyone attempts to accuse Israel of anything even approaching "war crimes", every Jew, worldwide will - with more than a tiny bit of justification - ask "interesting theory. So, remind me, what were you doing in 1943 to stop the Holocaust?" At which point everyone else's moral arguments promptly lie shattered on the kitchen floor. These, The Daily Show noted, are just a couple of the many reasons why Israel will, in terms of the West Bank, Gaza and the Lebanon, continue to do exactly what it's done since the 1960s. Essentially, whatever the hell it likes. I found that a refreshingly honest thing to hear on TV, actually (albeit in many ways utterly horrifying and repellant at the same time). We need someone, occasionally, to articulate some of the realities of the world which we actually inhabit just to remind us that we're not living in The West Wing universe, however much we'd like to be.

We also haven’t featured EastEnders for quite a while on Top Telly Tips. Not much happening in Albert Square at the moment, I’m afraid – it’s in one of those occasional static periods which most soaps go through from time to time. And this, after some quite good episodes around Christmas. The acting’s still – mostly - very good but, as with all soaps you need some good meaty conflict at the core and, just for the moment, Easties seems to have lost its ability to put on a good punch-up. Tonight, if you're bothered, Janine gets her own back on Jack, leaving him chained to the club. Meanwhile, Bradley is not impressed with his dad's idea of entertainment, and has Jay had enough of the Square?

Lastly, in Jamie Saves Our Bacon, that thoroughly wretched Oliver fellow aims to find out why British pig farmers are having such a hard time. Apparently, it’s because higher welfare standards have left Britain open to cheap EU imports. So, let me see if I have this straight? Jamie Oliver who spent most of last year making TV shows about how terrible and morally indefensible it was that British chickens were kept in such poor conditions before they're killed and eaten is now the champion of British farming methods when it comes to pigs? Hypocrite. Anyway, with the help of industry insiders, he also follows the pig farming process from birth to slaughter. Don't get too close to the revolving knives, Jamie, we wouldn't want any messy accidents on our screens.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Week Three: CSI, NCIS, FBI, CIA, JFK ... and other things you can spell with your Alphabetti Spaghetti [®™]

Friday 16 January:
January is, traditionally, that time of the year when a lot of the superior US drama shows start their latest runs on British terrestrial (and Pay-Per-View) TV. We talked extensively about 24 and CSI last week, Bones has been running on Sky for a a few weeks and several more of your favourites like House, Lost and Battlestar Galactica will be returning soon, either to Five in the case of the former or to Sky One for the latter two. However, one American drama which often gets forgotten about in round-ups such as this is NCIS – 9:00 on Five tonight. Despite featuring many of the same letters in its title, this one is nothing to do with the various shows in the CSI franchise, rather it's a spin-off of a show which never really made much of an impact over here but which was very popular in the US - JAG - and concerns the navy's police force. It's made by Donald Bellisario who did Magnum for many years and the wonderful Quantum Leap (and the rather tragically forgotten Tales Of The Gold Monkey - anybody remember that?). It stars Mark Harmon and the great David McCallum and it's really rather good in bite-sized chunks. Just don't think about the plots too much because, like a lot of US crime drama, they're often completely bonkers, if annoyingly entertaining. In tonight's episode the murder of a petty officer leads Agent Gibbs and his dysfunctional team on a frantic search for a missing child and Big Butch Tony (he's the one who looks like he’s just stepped out of The Village People’s ‘In the Navy’ video) struggles to deal with the fallout from his undercover mission. Recommended.

Saturday 17 January:
The BBC’s replacement for the genuine 24-carat disaster that was Hole in the Wall is, essentially, another It’s a Knockout-cum-Gladiators rip-off from Endomol, Total Wipeout. This is based on an Australian TV format and sees competitors journey from "across the globe" (or, across the Home Counties, anyway) to a purpose-built assault course in Argentina to put their strength, balance, bravery and - frankly - common sense to the test in the hope of winning £10,000 and being crowned The Champion of … not-falling-in-the-water. At least this one has a bit of variety to its obstacle course - something which Hole in the Wall utterly failed on at the first hurdle - and, let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy watching smug young professionals who introduce themselves with all the po-faced bravvado of a minor Bond villains falling off a big red rubber ball and into the claggy mud below? And, as a bonus, we’ve got Richard Hammond providing a pithy, rather postmodern commentary on it all. But, is it just me or does this kind of thing seem entirely designed to appeal to, you know, The Man in the Pub? And not just any Man in the Pub either - that sort of thing can sometimes work on a larger scale - but to the sexist gobby bloke at the bar whom nobody else can stand. Let’s just say this one is somewhat better than Hole in the Wall and leave it at that, eh?

Sunday 18th January:
ITV’s big Sunday night drama for the next few weeks will be Wild at Heart the series about a vet in Africa starring Stephen Tompkinson who seems fated to go through his entire TV career never even getting close to matching the early peak of Drop the Dead Donkey. His cause isn’t exactly helped by a show in which he often gets out-acted by the animals that he’s supposed to be treating. In tonight’s episode Danny and Evan discover a sick hippo whilst on the run – as you do. They trace her illness to a local farm and risk discovery in order to save her. Meanwhile, Rosie meets Vanessa the glamorous new owner of Mara (Juliet Mills – this season’s nostalgia figure who replaces last year’s model, her sister Hayley), who needs help with her sick lioness.

I meant to mention the start of the fourth series of Ideal - 11:00 BBC – last week, particularly as Wor Alfie was in one of the opening two episodes – the flashback one which was one of my favourite bits of TV in 2008. Well, sadly, if you weren't watching then you’ve missed that mini-gem (check it out on iPlayer) but tonight there’s two more episodes. As ever, this series won’t be to all tastes – if you’ve never seen it before it’s a sitcom about a small-time Manchester dope dealer (Johnny Vegas) and his downright bizarre collection of acquaintances. Sometimes it's a bit near the knuckle (come to think of it sometimes it's way past the knuckle and half-way towards the elbow) but when it's funny it's really funny. And if you like say, Shameless, for instance then chances are you'll love this. Despite Moz and Jenny's best efforts to keep their affair secret it seems like everybody knows what's going on. Especially Cartoon Head – he knows everything. Meanwhile, the builders remove Moz's broken boiler, but what will happen to Lee who is still trapped inside? Mad as toast!

Monday 19 January:
The ONE Show – 7:00 BBC1 – returned after its Christmas break last week and it’s, genuinely, good to have it back filling that post-news slot to kick-off the night in a gently amusing and eccentric way. I have to say, yet again, that I never thought such a format would work in this day and age but it has – and I'm delighted to have been proved wrong. I think that, possibly, the reason it has worked so well (apart from the fact that it's opposition, Emmerdale, is currently going through one of the worst slums in its history) is almost entirely down to the effortless chemistry of Chiles and Christine and the quality of some of the regular contributors. (Hardeep Singh Kohli’s charming and effortless wit, for example, more than balances out the vastly annoying qualities of the world’s least funny man, Iain Lee or, indeed, the world's least charismatic woman, Carol Thatcher.) And, of course, there's the studio guests. In the absense of Wossy, they – along with Top Gear - have been getting the cream of anybody who has got a book, a CD or a movie to promote. It’s an ill wind that blows somebody a bit of good, it would seem.

It’s the second part of the BBC’s tense Five Days sequel Hunter tonight at 9:00 starring Hugh Bonneville and Janet McTeer. I like this one – dark, well-paced cleverly scripted and with a really scary central storyline about child abduction. When the kidnappers demand that a film promoting their cause is shown on national news bulletins, Barclay unsuccessfully argues with his commanding officer to persuade the powers-that-be to show the film, leaving his team with a race against time. When one of the perpetrators snatches another child, this time a young girl, the pressure mounts and Barclay's team struggle to avert a tragic outcome.

Channel 4 starts its Great British Food Fight tonight – you’ve probably seen the ridiculously over-the-top, Barry Davies-voiced trailers for it already. In Big Chef Takes On Little Chef at 9:00 Heston Blumenthal - the only one of the channel’s four alleged celebrity gastronomic experts that I, personally, can stand - tries to revive the Popham branch of ailing roadside restaurant chain Little Chef. In the opening episode (of three), Heston goes on a fact-finding mission and meets Little Chef boss Ian Pegler for the first time, proposing that they scrap their entire menu and start from scratch. Heston constructs his own menu of old British favourites with, inevitably, elaborate twists. But, will he be able to convince motorists to stop and give the new nosh a try.

Tuesday 20 January:
It’s presidential inauguration day in the US and, to celebrate this momentous occasion Clive Myrie presents Obama: His Story – 7:00 BBC2 – which examines how the son of a Kenyan student and a woman of Irish-American descent emerged from a broken home in Hawaii to became America’s first black president. Clive also looks at Obama’s political awakening in the rough neighbourhoods of Chicago's South Side and his arrival in Washington, an extraordinary journey that transformed a poor black boy into the most powerful man in the world. And, if you don’t fancy that then you could do a lot worse than get out a DVD of the final episode of The West Wing (‘Tomorrow’), because that’s got pretty much the same plot.

Too Posh to Pay – 9:00 ITV – looks at the growing phenomena of middle-class criminality – a crime-wave which, it is alleged, is costing the country billions of pounds each year. Offenders and victims speak out openly for the first time and we discover how “the respectable” have become the new criminal class. In today’s difficult economic climate, this show reveals how those often regarded as pillars of society are, actually, the most likely to commit offences such as fraud. Cor, the dirty rotten rascals, eh? Well, that makes me feel a whole hell of a lot better about being working class. Because, like the new President (Matt Santos, not Barack Obama) noted, "I’m just a poor chile from the ghetto", me…

Speaking of the ghetto, there’s another documentary on the subject of illegal activity – this one rather more serious – in Stabbed: The Truth About Knife Crime on BBC1 at 9:00. This goes behind the headlines to meet both perpetrators and relatives of victims, exploring what is to be done on the ground to tackle this worrying crime epidemic. Mothers, sisters and survivors reveal why they are releasing CCTV footage of fatal stabbings and opening coffins to shock the nation into action, while the police unveil a new anti-gang strategy to warn parents of their sons' secret lives. In Scotland, teenagers involved in gang-driven knife violence talk for the first time about being stabbed.

Wednesday 21 January:
Stockwell – 9:00 ITV – is a powerful-looking drama-documentary about one of the most tragic and infamous incidents of recent years, the shooting by police of Jean de Menezes at Stockwell tube station on 22 July 2005. It’s done a bit like 24, told from multi-viewpoints and focusing on the confusing and chaotic events leading up to the fateful decision to shoot first and ask questions later regarding a man the police believed to be the failed suicide bomber (Hussain Osman). Of course, the victim turned out to be nothing of the sort but rather a wholly innocent Brazilian electrician who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Let's hope that the subject is treated with respect, dignity and (most important of all) balance - after all, do we want justice when it comes to catastrophic mistakes like this or do we want revenge - it's sometimes difficult to tell? There were no "winners" or "losers" in this story - regardless of what some sections of the media with an agenda may try to convince you. Everybody lost.

There’s a Celebrity Big Brother: Live Eviction tonight at 8:00 on Channel 4. This year most of the focus so far has been on class tension, which is novel at least (albeit, I'm not entirely happy at the thought of Terry Christian being a spokesperson for anyone, let alone me). I must say, this year’s event really hasn’t caught my imagination - Coolio's seeming desire to slap his Bee-atch up like a mo'fuggin' Ho nothwithstanding - and it seems, from the evidence of the ratings so far, that I'm not alone. Still, it could be worse, they could be getting Trinny and Susannah's level of ratings, then they really would be in trouble.

When the comedian Dave Gorman was first in America he was rather depressed to find it a country of, seemingly, never-ending chainstores and restaurants all of which seemed, to Dave anyway, to lack individuality. In American Unchained – 10:50 C4 – Dave (a really funny chap whose work I admire a great deal) sets out to drive across America in a second-hand car (a bit like a cut-priced Stephen Fry!) but with the challenge of only eating in local diners, stocking up for supplies at family-owner stores and getting his petrol from independent garages. Needless to say, he finds it a lot harder than you might expect as a journey which was meant to take under a month becomes an eight-week odyssey taking in eighteen states as Dave's adventure unravels in the heartlands of the US. I love this sort of thing and I'm expecting to be both entertained and surprised by this documentary.

Thursday 22 January
In The True Cost of Cheap Food – 8:00 C4 - the food critic Jay Rayner examines what goes into budget food products and asks why low cost often means low quality. Enlisting the help of Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal (good grief, he's been on telly more often than The News, this week), Jay discovers some of the tricks that retailers use to make products look more attractive and finds out just what goes into a 5p sausage. (Oh ... do we really want to know that?!) Jay argues that, given their market dominance and huge profits, supermarkets have a responsibility to provide more nutritious, cheap food in tough economic times. Yep, I'd agree with all of that. Particularly if it helps to put that spotty oiyk Jamie Oliver out of a job. Oh, he's back next week by the way. The joy.

You may prefer to watch Cowboy Builders – 8:00 Five – in which Melinda Messenger and Dominic Littlewood come to the rescue (it says here) of homeowners who have been let down by shoddy builders. The pair head to Plymouth to assist a family with an unfinished extension. I'm guessing that they're not going to arrive armed with bits of two-by-four and plenty of cement, however, which would've probably been slightly more useful to the homeowners in question than making a documentary about trying to doorstep the people who've stiffed them in the first place. Revenge (or justice, if you prefer) is all very well and good and may, indeed, be a dish best served cold but, you know, having a roof over their head to keep the cold out is probably their major priority.

Fashion Versus the BBC – 9:00 0n BBC4 - sees a team of fashion writers and commentators looking at the often uncomfortable relationship between British fashion and the BBC over the past fifty years. In the 1950s we had programmes debating whether men should decide what women wear and the 1960s saw Alan Whicker unleashed upon the 'silly and superficial’ world of French couture. It wasn't until the 1980s that TV treated fashion with any kind of appreciation, in the form of The Clothes Show. Peter York, Colin McDowell, Ted Polhemus and Hilary Alexander, among others, sort Auntie's wardrobe for her and get rid of the old bloomers. Or something. Kipper tie? Yeah. Milk, no sugar thanks...