Posts from 30th December 2004

Dec 04

“In my box are such delights…”

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“In my box are such delights…” (Part 3 of 3)

It may be a conservative programme that’s responding to a vanished world, but that doesn’t mean The Box Of Delights is bad television. In my view it sidesteps its potential pitfalls and stands as one of the most charming and engrossing children’s programmes ever.

Why? The glossiness of the production is part of it, but only a minor part. TBOD is a hotch-potch of effects – live-action, animation, CSO, animal costumes, primitive computer graphics – not all of which have aged well and not all of which work together. The whole thing still looks expensive, but it’s the lush location work and attention to period detail that carries the scent of money, not the cartoon phoenixes and flying sequences.

No, what really sets Box apart is, simply, the acting and direction. The story has a lot of adult characters, and what’s more, adults who have a narrative life beyond simply befriending/chasing/antagonising the children (the villain is laid low not by the forces of good but by in-fighting and betrayal among his henchpeople). This creates plenty of space for meaty, melodramatic acting – and that’s exactly what we get. A wonderful bunch of character actors get to ham their parts up and the whole production has a stagey, pantomime feel (which is probably why the occasional effects lapses don’t seem to matter much). Glorious pick of the bunch is Robert Stephens as the villain, Abner Brown, in perhaps the fruitiest performance ever seen on the small screen. Stephens plays the villain like a cross between Dick Dastardly and Oscar Wilde – switching between manic and louche in the course of a sentence or a gesture.

Crucially, two of the three most important child actors are also good (the general strike rate in these productions being zero). Devin Stanfield as the hero is indeed outrageously posh (“But where were the servants?” he cries after a burglary) but also has a good line in confused decency and manages to convey wonder rather well. The girl who plays gun-obsessed Maria manages to make her one-note character amusing rather than annoying. Only best friend Peter strikes a bum note and he spends most of the serial kidnapped.

The direction is superb throughout. It’s very easy to aspire to making something “magical” or “Christmassy”, but in practical terms how do you achieve it? Renny Rye does it by giving us long, indulgent scenes of snowscapes, midnight Mass, lavish Christmas parties…he’s pressing buttons very obviously but it is effective, and it gives TBOD a sense of event, of being something richer than just an ordinary drama serial. Rye can switch up the pace too, and is particularly good at dropping in a sudden, almost subliminal image to shock or frighten the audience (his dream sequences are wonderfully creepy, too). The best example of how well he understands the material is his use of cliffhangers, which you can only enjoy on the new DVD. He doesn’t generally stop the action at the most exciting point – instead he chooses a moment that’ll give his young audience something to think about for a week, a stimulating situation or image that’ll get their minds working and drag them deeper in. It worked for me back in 1985, anyhow.

The reviews of the serial on split two ways – a majority of people who love it and a few who say that you can’t go home again, and that happy memories should stay just that. As the less-than-proud purchaser of the complete run of Blakes 7, I’m not unsympathetic to them, but The Box Of Delights really is just as special and enjoyable as I remembered it being. A lot of the Amazon respondents claim that they watch it at Christmas every year, and I can see us following their example.

The White Hart, Drury Lane

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The White Hart, Drury Lane

The initial stop on yesterday’s pub crawl claims to be the oldest licenced premises in London. But evidence for its antiquity is in short supply – it’s been refitted three times in the last decade and while the latest version is an improvement on its previous ‘It’s A Scream’ status, The White Hart is still a difficult pub to love.

The interior seems to have been put together without much thought as to practicality. It’s possible to block off the back end of the pub almost entirely just by filling a couple of tables; odd steps and banister-like barriers can restrict the drinker’s movement; and the touchscreen quiz machine has been placed right in front of a pillar so that only the lankiest of punters can properly use it. There’s a slightly pompous notice on the wall explaining that the refurb is designed to help customers “rediscover the art of conversation”, how the slightly bilious colour scheme and oddly non-specific decor fit into this I don’t know. There’s a weird atmosphere to the White Hart, a feeling of impermanence – it was only towards the end of my drink that I hit on what the place reminded me of. “It’s like a lobby in search of a Harvester”.

Jesus Shit, yet again.

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Jesus Shit, yet again.

Raymond and I were walking from Nathan Phillips Sqaure towards Dundas in downtown Toronto last night, talking about things we usually talk about, rambling about a newish city—when we walked past the Marriot (owned by the richest mormon in the world), outside was a a priest in a black coat smoking and waiting for a cab–after talking to him for a few minutes, he told us that there was a catholic youth conference happening in one of the basement ballrooms, and he had just finished saying penance.

We walked into a hotel that looked like a rip off of Michael Graves in Toyko, all mirrors and bad accents, and down the escaltors, and i heard the praise band–the update, post modern spectacle of 70s folk masses, with the same songs and the same delivery as the modern music baptist services–the kind of thing the Hidden Cameras mock in there live shows–and i started singing along, i was at the edge, looking at all of these people, with hands raised, like farmers waiting for rain, and i knew the lyrics and i started singing, humming really softly.

I was seduced, it was never the power of christ that compelled me and when I was leading that shit, sorting out speakers, teaching lessons, going to board meetings and bitching about the sameness of the music, i was trying to refute its hypnotic power. Being in that place though, in the dark, with the over head lights, and having 1000 charasmatic catholics sing w. their throats like islam at mecca–but having it happen in a downtown ballroom…it seemed at least partially a betrayal of catholic history, but also a recognition that music seems to be less and less about “skill”; even (esp ?) religous music and more and more about spectacle…and if one isn’t careful, one will be pulled in.

Freaky Trigger End Of Year Pick N Mix

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Death Cab: “Boo fucking hoo”
Romo: “how elastic the human mind can be when it’s decided it wants to like something”


Super Bowl Halftime Show: “the car commercial featuring Metal Machine Music and giant spiders”


“Follow Follow”: baile funk botched crossover attempt
Kids songs and hymns: “the hipsterly correct degree of witty unmovedness”
Histories of Pop: a still unanswered question


The state of the boyband: rock is back!
Poptimism Vs TOTP: The Cheltenham Jazz Festival??
How to swear: a taxonomy
The Wilkinsons: Nashville struggles with selling out


A Grand Don’t Come For Free: who do The Streets actually sound like?
Screwed And Chopped: Jess isn’t convinced.
Our First Lady: understanding Britney


Monolingualism of the Other: “what does Petridis’ choice of Derrida text reveal?”


World music: “fight branding with branding” (also features my worst mistake of the year!)
Smash Hits: a lament
Early music reviews: Anthony time travels
A brief fumetti fantasy…
Big And Rich: This is not country. This is country.”
“Hey Headmaster”: introducing Carmodism


How To Do A Cover Version: including the Microhouse Pederast
Music and Shelves: “a blissful, uncontrollable mess”


Discos vs Clubs: Theorising on the fly
Teddybears STHLM: Dancehall goes catwalk


Pop Science: Smash Hits top trumps
Beatlesploitation!: three songs
RIP: “That, I suppose, was John Peel for you”


RIP: John Balance and ODB
Band Aid: The secret history


Worst of the year: caution – features Damien Rice