Posts from 4th September 2003

Sep 03

The first three things that strike you about the rerelease of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

Do You SeePost a comment • 267 views

The first three things that strike you about the rerelease of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator are that his voice isn’t really that bad, that his acting is really that bad, and that movies have gotten a lot better in the last 60 years. It’s an influential film (my eyes couldn’t help seeing Mel Brooks’ villains in Chaplins’ blustering Adenoyd Hinkel) and a brave one – enjoyably loopy in places, and features a fine turn by Henry Daniell as scene-stealing SS controller Garbitsch. None of this changes the fact that there are too many gags set up too long in advance, too many speeches directly to camera and too many wrong-headed choices (having Chaplin’s other character, a Jewish barber, tip a pile of coins belonging to his sweetheart into his pocket or compressing the non-cartoon violence of the Jewish persecution into a few hours’ car-ride) to recommend it to anyone today. If you have two hours to kill, the price of a ticket in your pocket and a wish to enjoy a film rather than study it, you could do much better.

What do we learn

Do You SeePost a comment • 222 views

What do we learn from Mike Reed’s appearance on Life Laundry? Once again, the show serves up actually quite powerful psychological renewal, disguised as a simple exercise in house-clearing. Read’s refusal to empty his boxes of rubbish did turn out to be a symptom of a wider refusal to share his life with anyone ‘ and the closing scenes of Read and his fiancee in their newly lovely home were even quite touching. However, the ongoing unravelling of celebrity culture ‘ a “we make ’em, we break ’em” principle operated by both media industry and public ‘ continued apace as well. Read appeared either too lazy ‘ or too mean ‘ to have cleaned up and put into use just the sort of luxury swimming pool we might imagine him to own; while his 4 hour radio shows, broadcast from his own garage thanks to ISDN, looked more unglamorous even than his brown-stained Radio 1 Roadshow shirt. More shocking still ‘ Read has written 32 books! Count ’em! With an alarming new tendency away from Cliff Richard and towards Rupert Brooke. Read clearly thought himself quite cultured, in the bumbling middlebrow kind of way that imagines quoting monarch’s last words shows class. But then, if Mark is correct below, perhaps Mike Read IS as much a historical authority as a TV academic with a university post; in which case is it any surprise that someone brought in to tidy the garage would end up spring-cleaning your love life? Like ‘Would Like to Meet’, ‘Life Laundry’ is one of those makeover shows that always seems to end up telling us much more than the folks who signed up for them intended.

If Alex is right

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If Alex is right about the BBC’s faux-populist ploy (see post re Fame Academy three entries down), it’s certainly further evidence of its long-running self-vivisection project. In its early days it could rely on the same system as the rest of the Empire for the production of knowledge and judgment (not to mention right-thinking improvisational resourcefulness): the old-boy networking of the Public Schools and Oxbridge, where a chap knew a chap (and anyway management and bureaucrats all had the same cultural compass as the creatives). In the 50s and 60s, this set-up, aware of its own deep problems but still latently self-sure, engineered an uneasy but deliberate collision with red-brick outsiders, of different class and cultural background: result, a Golden (because unsustainable?) Age of inventive television. The widespread popular distrust today of the Expert – it extends way beyond “culture” in the narrow television sense, into politics local and international, medicine, science generally, ethics and (topsyturvily) even religion – isn’t seamlessly reactionary and barbarian, after all : and its emergence as the front-central subject even of the Light Entertainment strands – props to Pop Stars and my lovely Kym Marsh’s spat with Nasty Nigel all those months ago!! – suggests the issue is reaching some kind of public boiling point. Who claims to know, to judge quality correctly? Why should we take this on trust? What happens when we STOP taking it on trust? BLOBBY BLOBBY BLOBBY!! Oh wait…

CHEAP FOOD I LOVE: The Gregg’s Sausage Roll

Pumpkin Publog3 comments • 1,545 views

CHEAP FOOD I LOVE: The Gregg’s Sausage Roll

I was first introduced to the Gregg’s sausage roll while living on Record Exchange wages in Wood Green. The deal was 4 of them for 99p, which would keep me going for most of a Saturday. Nowadays it’s 2 for ‘1.10 or 60p each but the product itself seems not to have changed. There’s no way I could stomach 4 at once now, but a single specimen is an unhealthy snackist’s dream. Gregg’s rolls are the very quintessence of sausage-based wrongness: warm, greasy, crunchy pastry, and meat which is pink and worryingly juicy with just a touch of spice. The meat crumbles and dissolves in your mouth, leaving you with a gobful of unsubtle, comforting flavour. As with most low-rent food, thinking about where the meat comes from and what it will be doing to you is liable to lead to shudders of guilt and horror but as an amoral treat now and then the Gregg’s roll is scarily addictive.

(No.1 in an occasional series – also watch for the companion piece Great Ready Meals I Have Known coming soon!)

Writing teenage fiction – it’s a funny old game.

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 1,136 views

Writing teenage fiction – it’s a funny old game. If you hit the right notes, fortune and glory shall be yours. More probably, you’ll cock it up completely, because after all, who really understands teenagers except other teenagers. But there is one thing on your side – all children read up. So while the 16 year olds you think you’re writing for may not read you, 12 year olds will. 10 year olds read Louise Rennison and Seventeen. 8 year olds read (past tense, probably) Judy Blume. If you want a 17 year old reader the worst thing you can do is write something ‘targeted’ at him.

I use ‘him’ because I’ve just read Doing It, Melvin Burgess’s novel about teenage boys and sex. Try as I might, I can’t imagine this book speaking to a teenage boy (or girl for that matter). I can imagine them reading it, because after all it’s fairly explicit hur hur. But is anyone really going to feel that, yes, these are my problems, and the terrible burden of my hormones has been lightened by being understood?

Junk (Burgess’s equally controversial 1997 novel) was a very good book about heroin addiction, escapism, first love, and music, amongst other things. It had an important message and it conveyed it through a good story. Doing It is so determined to tackle the taboos surrounding teenage sex that not much else gets a look in. I felt exhausted by the end, as the four main characters lurched from one sex crisis to the next. There are other things going on – one boy’s parents are splitting up, so they appear in some detail, but all the other families, classmates etc are vague ciphers. And as for authenticity, let’s just say I can’t imagine a streetwise 14 year old exclaiming “I told him the most monstrous pack of lies!”

But Burgess is very successful, so someone out there is reading. And he does ‘get it’ in a way… He certainly conveys what sex education has for the most part woefully failed to, that sex has insanely complicated emotions attached to it and you can’t avoid them, that there are double standards, that no means no but it can also mean ‘I don’t know’ (a tricky one that in a world of potential rapist hysteria), that we have brains as well as genitals and we have to listen to both but it’s ok if the brain goes quiet sometimes…

But if I’d read this book when I was 15 I don’t think I would have appreciated those insights. I would have thought “hm this isn’t much cop, I’ll just go and read Wuthering Heights and then rifle through mum’s dirty books later.” And I turned out just fine.

Test The Nation

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Test The Nation is back again – like the Sunday Times Rich List (exactly as meaningful and a fiftieth as fun), TTN is showing every sign of turning into some kind of imposed ‘tradition’ that supposedly comes round once a year but in fact seems to appear every three months. Can it really have been only twelve months ago that the nation was last tested? Will ‘our’ ‘IQ’ have ‘risen’ this year (it might work like GCSE results – ten years of TTN and on paper we will be a nation of Mekon-like superbrains)? Test The Nation’s original run was responsible for one of my favourite ever TV moments, when Anne Robinson was going through the results, got to “No. 69” and was interrupted by an enormous cheer. The camera followed the noise – straight to the Students panel. Maybe this year’s show will provide similar cheap laughs – I won’t find out, I’ll be in the bar for Pete’s birthday. Chin chin!

‘Got your number!’

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‘Got your number!’ yell the drunken oafs in the bar, harassing some hapless woman who has dropped a glass; ‘Got your number!’ shout the kids in the park to anyone who passes; ‘Got your number!’ cry yet more children, sat astride a gun-barrel in the unfinished municipal Napoleonic theme-park. Seen the advert, yelled the catch-phrase, bought the T-shirt’ this is one of the more extraordinary side-effects of the directory enquiries anarchy unleashed by that unlikely harbinger of apocalypse, the telephony watchdog.

Is this popular culture? The adoption of a message designed to sell you something as a badge? A humorous and sophistication negotiation of cultural codes? Just fucking boring? You tell me. The original adverts smack of Royal Tennbaums cod-70s retro styling and a horrible little-Englandism (count the non-white faces): a fitting soundtrack to a summer which has seen the wholly reverential and entirely non-ironic resurrection of the bloated corpse of Elton John. This is a Britain in which the behemoth of the culture industry really has got all our numbers.

I’m biting back the urge to deliver a pompous sermon on the evils of the advertising industry when a passing mother, clearly trained in the handling of infants, beats me to the better response: ‘Oh yeah ‘ what is it then?’ Doesn’t shut the little fuckers up mind.

Call me old-fashioned

Do You SeePost a comment • 187 views

Call me old-fashioned, but stand-up rows on prime-time Saturday night TV strike me as unedifying and unprofessional. Which is probably why ITV is coming out so solidly on top in the Pop Idol vs. Fame Academy stakes: it’s got less to lose, less to prove. But watching crusty head-man Richard Park spitting at vacuous fop-top presenter Patrick Kielty it strikes me that there is something more unsettling going on here than just the BBC trying and failing to do ‘popular’ TV.

Park tells Kielty that the latter just wants a feel-good family show in which everyone is ‘brilliant’: which is why his criticisms are getting jeered by the mic-wielding man of the people. Whether or not these rows are scripted and rehearsed, Park inadvertently puts his finger on what Fame Academy’s Saturday-night show-downs represent. The studio audience, composed largely of friends and relatives, will cheer each competitor however poor their performance: and consequently shout down any of the judges who might dare to differ. In the form of a seedy talent show, The BBC have put the very principle of critical judgement on trial, and rigged the court-room in favour of mob-rule.

This might at first appear to be a showdown between populism and elitism, between the vigilante gangs who don’t care about the difference between a paedophile and a paediatrician, and the stuck-up snobs who dare believe that ‘ shock horror ‘ some things are better than others. But like the New Labour ordinary-bloke rhetoric so accurately skewered by Nick Cohen in the Observer, the insidious erasure of all critical standards does not serve the public but those same elites which always profit off the false transparency of the market.

All right for Kielty to root for whatever no-mark loser happens onto his stage ‘ his number is already quite cushy enough, thank-you. The man of the people is always the overman: turning the tables on the judges makes for crowd-pleasing spectacle, but when the game runs its course, the people have still lost, while the principle of criticism, the possibility of speaking truth to populist power, has been buried for good.