Posts from March 2006

Mar 06

Norman Stanley Fletcher: The Hotel

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Hotels have bars. Right, that’s enough excuse for me to blog this here. I was on Oxford at the weekend, and managed to wander over to where the prison was in my day. It was still there and it still housed people. But these were paying customers.

There was an ongoing joke while I was at Univeristy that St Peter’s College were going to buy the prison and turn it into a hall of residence. And one might think that it takes a bold company to turn a prison into a high class hotel. And what is great about the Malmaison in Oxford is it is well aware that its unique selling point is that it used to be a prison. Hence the retention of what – when divorced from its penitential usage, is a remarkably light, airy and bright atrium. This is photo of A Wing, but you can stay in B and C Wing as well as the Governor’s House. And of course there is a chic bar and restaurant. And if you can’t afford the £130 a night rooms, you can just walk in off the street and wander around during the day as we did yesterday. But we didn’t go to the bar, it was too pricey…

A Matter Of Stuff And Nonsense

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“Position – nil, repeat nil. Age – 27, 27, did you get that? Very important. Education – interrupted, violently interrupted. Religion – Church of England. Politics – Conservative by nature, Labour by experience. What’s your name?”

I happened to watch “A Matter Of Life And Death” for the first time in about fifteen years at the weekend. I have always liked it, but watching it with more adult eyes it is a remarkably strange film. As a vague idea of a jolly and secular, Ministry of Death/Employment representation of heaven it is probably very influential in the undermining of the Church of England. The film is clear to start off that this is about Niven’s feverish imagination of heaven, and then buys into it totally. Why is heaven black and white, the Earth Technicolour – Wizard Of Oz did it the other way around? Where is God? Is heaven a meritocracy? And is the film about life and death at all, or the tricky relationship between the UK and the USA?

Clearly it is all about the latter: where a cricket commentary is deigned to be all that is bad and incomprehensible about Britain. Remarkably of all the things which could be chosen, this is probably something that has changed the least in the intervening years. The film tiptoes around the horrors of slavery and Empire, but suggests them. Gives its posh hero a social conscience, and is a bunch of clever blokes being clever at each other (the women have little to do). But what is it all about, and does it work as a fantasy? Yes. But it is a very strange film packed with remarkably good lines. You know where you are from its space-set off:

“This is the universe. Big, isn’t it.”

Mar 06

young, brum and full-on dumm

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when i wz young myself, a senior at my school got drunk, got behind the wheel of a car, and ploughed it into a tree, putting himself in hospital and killing his best friend, who wz sat in the passenger seat — another senior, and the two of them the only seniors whose names i still remember after all these years… (we all thought “uh-oh, there go we!”)

The clever counter at the moment to Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo seems to be that it doesn’t properly account for why the four teens from Tipton crossed the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan as a world-historical war wz raging (unless they wanted to take part in that war). But it depends a bit what “properly account for” is required to mean: i doubt the kid at my school, who wz much the same age, could properly account for the behaviour which led to the death of his best friend. “WHY did you do it? WHY did you think it wz a good idea to get drunk and drive a car?” — answer (most likely) = “I DON’T KNOW!” Tone somewhat truculent, somewhat defiant, plus guilty, ashamed, apologetic, humiliated, frightened of course, but never admitting it — the unspoken words being “I’M A TEENAGER! IT’S MY JOB TO DO STUPID THINGS– IT’S YOURS TO STOP ME! YOU’RE THE GROWN-UPS HERE! WHERE WERE YOU?”

as a default argument about motivation, “teens are complete idiots sometimes” accounts for quite a lot here, WHATEVER they imagined their politics to be — ie whether their story as winterbottom conveys it is true (pack of goofy young brummies abroad get COMPLETELY OUT OF THEIR DEPTH bcz they have no brains) or whether they were on a “radical” mission (DUDE WHERE’S MY JIHAD?) — and really it’s not as if their idiotic choices were the only ones at issue here: for any number of reasons, practical even more than moral, the guantanamo “system” is totally a rotten way of gathering reliable information, even about the people caught up in it (even when they mainly only have themselves to blame for being caught up in it) — teens ARE complete idiots sometimes, and there’s no way to read this film in which the tipton three weren’t nitwits, innocent and sinned against or sinister and blameworthy, but when the adults all around them are being so stupid also — dispensing with all the conventions and procedures long-evolved to SIDESTEP exactly these kinds of (avoidable) mistakes (i mean CHECKING ALIBIS for example) — then things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better

Mar 06

What an awesome title for a show

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Having just read about Pilot season, I now realise we are actually in pilot season, when the test shows are actually being made. And so sniffing around the web I came across the lacklustre suggestions of new shows. Lacklustre with the exception of
a) the real actual attempt at making Aquaman (Haw haw)
b) Al Murray’s pub landlord in the US pilot:

Set Up – No Joke

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 447 views

Rob Long’s Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke purports to be a no holds barred insiders look at being an American TV sit-com writer. Wait a second, does that mean there are holds barred, soft-soap stories of the tricksy world of American TV development where the secrets aren’t out in the open. Actually, wait another second: there are secrets? Surely everyone knows that US TV is a cut-throat business, where shows get cancelled all the time, demographics rule and the talent is squeezed in so many ways to leave little of the original plot left. We even know how the things are written, the team around a table bunging ideas in. All Set Up, Joke adds to the mix are some conversations with his agent, which is possibly why the book is no great leap from his previous one: Conversations With My Agent. And what do we discover from these: agents are unscrupulous flatterers…Hmm.

SUJSUJ is disappointing in that on the whole it lacks jokes. It is all set-up, and sketchy set-up around that. As a bunch of anecdotes around writing, making a pilot it would just about pass muster as dinner party conversation, but with someone who isn’t that funny. Stock situations pan out predictably, vanity and cynicism rules. Rob Long is supposed to be a comedy writer, on this evidence it is unsurprising that his shows get cancelled.

Mar 06

Nasty Brand Watch Special

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 410 views

In the alcopop boom, there was one brand which was the little engine that could. Vodka Kick, or VK, had one core selling point which marked it out from the other foul tasting liquids in the sector. It was considerably cheaper. Thus when the bottom fell out of the alcopop market, the VK brand remained in the chiller cabinets of cheap clubs and student union bars.

In the last dying thrashes of the alcopop wars, there was a boost in the foul tasting shots market, directly related in as much as people were quite used to linking sickly and alcoholic in their heads. And so the flavour chemists at VK set themselves a new challenge. Sickly cheap alcohol shots. Initially these too were VK Branded – but this diversification to a not well respected brand in the first place was seen as foolish.

Thus Corky’s Vodka Shots was born. (Beware of this “comic website” though it says much about the perceived market). What the site does not make clear is the range of foul flavours available. I can do that for you with a trust trade mag by my side:
Apple Sour
White Chocolate
Chocolate & Orange
Cola Cube

All pretty nasty, but nothing compared to the horror of the new brand:
Cream Egg.

Did we fight the alcopop wars just to be slaughtered by a bottle of liquid that looks like advocaat and tastes like sick sweetened with a ton of sugar. No – we did not.

That Was The Sixties That Was

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 138 views

Finally finished Dominic Sandbrook’s history of the late 50s and early 60s, Never Had It So Good. For a massive book – 700 pages covering only 7 years – it still feels a bit insubstantial in places, but it was an entertaining read. Sandbrook’s hypothesis is that “the Sixties” wasn’t the storm of change it’s sometimes painted as, but instead represents the acceleration or peak of a series of trends that were evident through the 1950s and in some cases for decades prior to that. This feels ‘right’ – it’s how most history works after all.

Unfortunately if your basic point is that things were less exciting than one might have thought you have a bit of a dilemma when it comes to holding the reader’s attention. Sandbrook is a breezy enough writer to duck this, and his waspish deflating of some of the era’s myths and egos is generally entertaining. He’s also lucky to have a particularly frothy set of primary sources to work with: he can relay the outrageously salacious details of the Keeler scandal as reported in the press, before demolishing them in favour of the boring truth. Even so there are occasions when he spends several pages detailing some popcult phenomena only to end by reminding us that more of the population preferred mowing the lawn or having a cup of tea.

Sandbrook seems at heart to be a political historian, and the most gripping parts of the book are his dissections of the Macmillan government and its travails, particularly the leadership contests which bookend the story. Surrounding these are a series of chapter-length essays on other aspects of the era – these are sound, but tend to read like introductory syntheses with a few jibes thrown in, and Sandbrook is more likely to wander into simple disdain or fandom.

The book’s out in paperback in time for the summer holidays, and would make good beach reading. The second volume, White Heat, takes the story up to 1970 and promises to fill in some of the gaps in this one.

A Pome About Capote

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Can’t you see
Harper Lee
Is better than thee?

Mar 06

God vs Zilla fite!

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Talking to other people about seeing the original Japanese Godzilla* I mentioned how dark the film was. The looked back incredulously saying that it is a film about a giant monster destroying Tokyo, of course it is dark. Perhaps my friends don’t get giant monster movies.

Dinosaurs vs robots = fun seems obvious to me, but perhaps enjoying a big meaningless fight is restricted to certain kinds of genre fan. Perhaps the nuclear holocaust subtext of Godzilla is so plain that it is impossible to enjoy the sheer (fake) destruction. But Godzilla, whilst played perfectly straight, is well aware of how much fun destroying buildings is. Whilst its anti-war, anti-weapon, anti-nuclear line is less a subtext than a raison d’etre, it becomes clear in the Tokyo destruction sequence that THIS is what the film is really about. Destroying stuff is safe on film because it is not real. Its almost as if halfway through making it, the film-makers realised this.

The ending with the underwater anti-oxygen bomb is therefore a massive anti-climax (also because it lingers on the hopeless love triangle storyline). It is also nicely paradoxical: inventing deadly weapons created Godzilla but an even more dangerous weapon destroys him. But Godzilla has already invented its own genre by this point, and later Godzilla films understand that it is the fighting and destroying that brings us in. A comparison with King Kong is instructive, but at this point at least there is no attempt to anthropomorphasize Godzilla. He is a force of nature: and nature is pissed off. And like King Kong, it has a great last line too: I have a feeling we have not seen the last of Godzilla. Unlike Raymond Burr.

*Well, I guess the original Japanese print probably did not have English translations of what the characters said at the bottom of the film.

SANDIE SHAW – “Puppet On A String”

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#232, 29th April 1967

In a sense the UK’s relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest mirrors its attitude to ‘Europe’ as political entity: a conflicted, pendulum-swing mess of amused contempt, cynical superiority, desperate attempts to play catch-up and a fundamental feeling that no matter how hard Britain tries to play the game it will never quite understand or accept the rules.

On the one hand, ‘nobody’ takes the Eurovision seriously. On the other, there’s a shallow-buried feeling that Britain is Better At Pop than the continent, which every so often surges into a public sense that we really ought to win it. Those surges tend to result in us recruiting a top songwriter, or producer, or performer or entrepreneur to win Eurovision – and Sandie Shaw, reluctantly, was the first example.

As its writer admitted, “Puppet On A String” was designed for Eurovision, not for Sandie, so of course Shaw hated it and feared its impact on her career*. It’s very efficiently tooled for Europe, a lively song on a jaunty bed of light orchestration – it sounds a few years out of date, and quite cut off from ‘pop’ as it had developed during the British mid-60s. But that doesn’t mean it’s a horrible record – the quick, brassy rhythms suggest jerky marionette movement very effectively, the hooks are good, and Shaw doesn’t let her distaste for the thing show. In truth it’s the kind of immediately catchy, mildly annoying song that would have had a good shot at Eurovision whoever was singing it.

*Shaw’s record sales were on the wane in 1967, so her career as a pop star was on shaky ground anyway, “Puppet” or no. In 1968 she launched a fashion line and got a TV gig – what is probably true is that “Puppet” became a millstone in terms of the kind of fans she attracted, and her reputation.