Monday, November 28, 2005

I seem to have been silent for quite a while

A combination of holiday and actually being expected to work of a living has kept me away from these pages for a while, and so I thought I would mark my return by bringing to your attention some things that are good, rather than the usual bile I peddle.

Literary corner: A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry is probably the best novel I've read all year. It tells the story of Southern Irish soldiers who went to fight for the British Army and combines describing how they came to lose the support of their countrymen back home while acquiring the distrust of the Army for which they had gone to fight with brilliantly capturing the game of pure chance that was survival in the trenches. Nominated for the Booker, it is less self-consciously literary than John Banville's Ghosts and tells a better story, and as such should probably have won. Also worthy of a mention from this year's shortlist is Kazio Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a moving consideration of the humanity of children bred for organ farming. Finally, the excellence of Harry Thompson's biography of Peter Cook has long been acknowledged but given the author's recent horribly early demise (as noted in an earlier post) it seems only right to repeat it on these pages. In an interesting parallel with the recent eulogies for George Best, it is amazing how many of the people Thompson quotes could find nothing bad to say about his subject despite a considerable number of instances of ghastly behaviour fuelled by drink and drugs. As with Best, I have yet to decide whether this says more about the fundamental charm of the individual or the naivity of the people swept along in their wake.

Music: Not a huge amount out, and in the interests of being nice we'll gloss over the Take That reunion for the time being, so I shall finally get round to singing the praises of The Pipettes. I've been meaning to do this ever since I saw them support the Go! Team earlier in the year, but now I've even managed to miss celebrating the release of their first single proper, Dirty Mind, which came out a couple of weeks back and is available from Amazon, iTunes and no doubt a good number of other on-line stores. Never mind, now is the time to note their uncanny ear for a catchy tune and a waspish lyric, the wonderful harmonies and (live) the 60's style party dresses and Supremes-eque dance routines. Music guaranteed to put a smile on your face and as a result to be cherished.

TV: An honourable mention in dispatches here for BBC3's Man Stroke Woman. The acting is possibly stronger than the writing (with Spaced's Nick Frost a particular stand out) but the first couple of episodes have made me laugh out loud five or six times, which is five or six times more than the Sketch Show has managed in several series. I particularly like the recurring motif where a group of men hang on the every word of a woman before she mentions her boyfriend, at which point they all immediately leave. Given that the first episode of the new series of Little Britain (and what in God's name has happened there?) unfortunately looks like further proof that all sketch shows have a limited shelf life after which familiarity breeds contempt, it is perhaps only a matter of time before catchphrases such as "you can never just say I look nice" start to jar on the nerves. For the time being however, Man Stroke Woman is fresh and funny and to be enjoyed while that lasts.

For those missing my usual service, I will shortly return to explain why the Madonna single is a complete load of crap.....

Sunday, November 27, 2005

'Tis The Season To Be Cheesy

Good grief, it's very nearly December. And how do we know this? Because songs are getting progressively slower, schmaltzier and have the distinct whiff of sleighbells about them. Yes, the race for the coveted Christmas Number One spot is about to begin.

What's unique about the Christmas Number One is that just about anyone can have a go. The traditional big guns line up against reality TV chancers desperate to prolong their fifteen minutes, flavours-of-the-month covering previous crimbo classics, X-factor winners getting their one shot at selling records, comedians shoehorning their catchphrases into songs about santa, and the odd wild-card left-field nobody. Musical ability, taste, even fashion take a back seat.

This year is no exception. We have Westlife releasing their usual bucket of sick, this time roping in Diana Ross for wailing-diva novelty value. Robbie and Girls Aloud are peddling their weepiest, cheesiest fluff. Tony Christie clings on with a swing-based cover of Slade's classic "Merry Christmas Everybody". There are even festive efforts from (God help us) Crazy Frog and what-on-earth-are-you-thinking Andrew Flintoff. And this year's long shot is The JCB Song - diverting and amusing on first listen, twee and icky on the second, and Digger-driver-killing-spree-inducing by the third.

So why is it that yuletide hits are so godawful? Is the record-buying-public more adventurous, or just more forgiving? Are they looking for something that will get the family smiling and end the post-turkey conversational cul-de-sac? Or are they just caught up in the pre-festive hype that always accompanies the race for the number one? It's the only time of the year that bookies actually care about the charts, the race is always covered exhaustively in the press, and the excitement is infectious.

So maybe we should just embrace the cheese and, hey, stop taking it all so seriously. Well, that would be easier if these records were as much of a laugh as they used to be. It seems the time of the unironic, fun Christmas record is long gone. Maybe we need today's stars to get into the spirit. Kaiser Chiefs could probably pull it off. The Darkness should do festive singles and nothing else. Pete Doherty could do it - Christmas In Albion, with a video featuring him and Kate roasting spoons on an open fire. Then we'd actually have something to pass down for future flavours of the month to cover. How about it?

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Very Maw Of Hell

Normally I'm a fairly upbeat, positive person. But now I have stared into the abyss, I have abandoned all hope and I have embraced despair. Because on Friday Night I saw Peter Andre and Jordan perform "A Whole New World" on Children In Need.

I can't begin to describe to you quite how horrible this was. Being a Disney song, the subject matter was already fairly saccharine, but they managed to bring a whole new level of pain to it. Coming on dressed head to toe in white, looking like they walked in from Wife Swap:The Musical, they began by crooning to each other in a predictable and thoroughly sickly manner. But then the singing became - well - I don't know what it was. If it was emoting it was oddly emotionless. With their eyes screwed up, they each violently squatted with each syllable, as if trying to force out a large pile of poo (which of course is exactly what they were doing). Their I-can-sing-louder-than-you-can screeching gradually became more and more competitive, almost a duet to the death (something that would make The X Factor far more interesting), until it became so overblown it made Mariah Carey look like Kraftwerk.

Yes OK, they're technically decent singers, but that means nothing - they're both technically human beings, but Jordan increasingly resembles one of those killer shop dummies from Doctor Who, and Andre is so lacking in soul there is no way he has a reflection. And yes, it was for charity, but it was so self-obsessed and self-serving that it seemed very out-of-place in an otherwise entertaining and generous evening.

Terrifyingly, things could get worse. Imagine a world where, encouraged by positive reaction, the grusome twosome release this musical dysentery as a Christmas single. Imagine that, and pray for armageddon.

Give to Children In Need

Thursday, November 17, 2005

You Pissed It All Up The Wall

This week finally saw the release of the Babyshambles album, Down In Albion, the record that Pete Doherty has been promising since he was unceremonially booted out of The Libertines for being a complete liability. It's really not very good. We shouldn't be that surprised though, because if anyone epitomises failed potential, it's Pete Doherty.

When The Libertines' first single appeared, it was like a shot in the arm (and that's the last drug-related similie I will use, I promise). The Jam-like ranting of What A Waster and the Deptford Beach Boys of I Get Along sounded fresh, adrenalised and contained some fantastic lyrical touches (the phrase "two-bob cunt", the word "Div"). Can't Stand Me Now was a great pop song, tackling their recent problems with dignity, wit and a killer tune. Live, they were a visceral experience, and the backstage drama just completed the package.

Babyshambles are like The Libertines drained of blood. Everything about them has a half-arsed, will-this-do quality, from the "minimalist" album packaging to the revolving-door personnel, from the anaemic, sedated delivery to the lottery-like gigs. Pete looks terrible, half asleep, pale, sweaty and impotent. His songs are still stuck in the sub-William Blake Albion fixation he had on the first Libertines album, only now they're set to tuneless meandering dirges. This, kids, is what heroin does to you.

Pete is a junkie in the truly addicted, desperate sense. He asks journalists for money during interviews, he burgles his bandmates, he can't get it together enough to turn up for gigs, he does the bare minimum to survive and buy more heroin. He's alone, surrounded by sycophantic leeches and zealotic fans. There's no-one to tell him "actually Pete, that song may need a bit more work."

Yes, what about those fans? The Libertines worked hard to break down the barriers between band and audience, and Pete has taken this to the extreme - he flatters them by fraternising with them, and they love him all the more for it. And the kids do adore a romantic, doomed hero. They deify him and his lifestyle, and hysterically rail against anyone who dares to criticise him. They are very much part of the problem.

With Carl Barat, Pete Doherty made some wonderful records, and it seems the pair had a Lennon/McCartney-like balancing effect on each other. Now that it's just him and the heroin, his talent has been squandered by drugs, ego and hangers-on. And that's just sad.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Obituaries, Politics and Self-Congratulations

A few brief points:

After writing that diatribe about panel games, it became apparent that my timing could have been better, co-inciding as it did with the death of their creator, the great producer Harry Thompson. I suspect he would have shared some of the views expressed though, seeing as how he moved on from all of these projects years ago. He helped create them, made them the successes they were, then left well before they became stale. His last project, Monkey Dust, was easily the most original piece of British TV comedy in recent memory. Remember him for that.

Whatever your views on whether to detain terror suspects for 90 days, when even Michael Howard is saying "Actually that's just a bit too draconian for me" then you have to question the idea. And The Sun calling the Labour rebels "traitors" is just silly - they're just a little uncomfortable about locking people away for three months without any evidence. Not exactly Guy Fawkes, are they? For some very good points on this, from people much more politically aware than The Distractor (who is frankly uncomfortable with the subject and quite keen to get back to slagging off easy media targets), go here. So anyway, how shit are Westlife?

Finally, a bit of autotrumpeting. Good to see Arctic Monkeys getting some success, although the air of hysteria surrounding them in the music press is a little worrying. Of course, The Distractor knew all of this back in July...

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Panel Beating

A look at Monday night's TV schedules brings a bit of a surprise - apparently someone is still producing new episodes of comedy panel games. Never Mind The Buzzcocks followed by Have I Got News For You followed by They Think It's All Over. Didn't they die a natural death years ago? No, we fought the new comedy wars and it turns out we only managed to take down It's Only TV But I Like It.

These shows were fantastic, cutting edge television in their day. When HIGNFY first appeared in 1990, it was like nothing else. Irreverent, satirical, surreal, hilarious. The three principles were new, up-and-coming stars, and a breath of fresh air on screen. Hislop's rapier cynicism balanced with Merton's lightning silliness perfectly, and Angus Deayton - much maligned these days - could deliver witticisms with charming ease. Phrases like "allegedly" and "withered old tart" became part of the national lexicon (For an exhaustive account, go here).

The show became massively successful, and inevitably spawned imitators. The music version (Never Mind The Buzzcocks) began in 1995, and thanks to some again up-and-coming talent (the brilliant Phill Jupitus) and some inspired ideas (the intros round for one), quickly found it's own following. The sport one (They Think It's All Over) started in 1996 at the height of Lad Culture, and, at least in the early days, had just the right balance of blokey humour and genuine wit.

That was ten years ago. Governments have come and gone, whole careers have burned out, but these shows remain. Why? They're cheap, easy to make and perennially popular. They're so familiar that we're almost compelled to smile in a sinister pavlovian manner. Almost.

HIGNFY soldiers on with the odd flash of brilliance, but is more likely to produce a smirk rather than the belly laugh of the Tub Of Lard glory days. The Guest Presenters Gambit had saved it from being completely smug and predictable, but it's also made it wildly inconsistent. For every Alexander Armstrong there's a Jeremy Clarkson. There is just about life left in it, though, which is more than can be said of it's imitators.

Never Mind The Buzzcocks is only really worth watching to see Mark Lamarr's increasingly desperate attempts to keep it relevant, which mainly consist of him bullying young female pop stars. The format remains unchanged and tired, Phill Jupitus looks bored and Bill Bailey smiles wearily every time Lamarr refers to him as Gandalf. They stare balefully from the screen, as if in some terrible light entertainent groundhog day, doomed to repeat the same jokes each week until the end of time. You can almost see them mouthing "help me".

They Think It's All Over really is pushing it's luck. It's always suffered from the fact that sporting personalities are chronically dull, and couldn't deliver a witticism if it was pre-packaged and handed to them, which it always was. One by one the even-vaguely-funny ones have bailed out, leaving just Rory Mcgrath to recycle knob gag after knob gag. Jonathan Ross surely doesn't need to do this. It's lame, it'll never race again, take it outside and shoot it in the head.

The point is, when these shows started they used new talent, seemed fresh, and so succeeded. The new talent is out there - HIGNFY flickers into life when people like Ross Noble, Marcus Brigstocke and David Mitchell appear. New panel games like Mock The Week and 8 Out Of 10 Cats seem to have the right idea, even if they do labour under the misapprehension that Jimmy Carr is an appealing TV presenter. But still, the world has moved on, and new ideas need nurturing. They're there, they're just stuck on BBC3, BBC4, radio 4 and other cable backwaters. Why show these dinosaurs when there are perfectly good series of The Smoking Room, The Thick Of It and The Mighty Boosh waiting to be shown on BBC2? Why not promote comedy discussion shows like The Last Word or The Late Edition? Only then we can finally consign panel games to comedy pergatory (or UKG2 as it's otherwise known).

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What Adverts Really Tell Us

Adverts. We happily let them drip their milky goods into our gawking mouths until the programme begins again. But what are they actually saying to us?

  • The employees of Barclays Bank are hapless doofuses, with enough time on their hands to go inventing evil robots or invisible cards rather than look after our money.
  • The designers of DFS designer sofas think the most important aspect of their job is design. We know this as four of them tell us this fact successively. Actually one of them does also mention Colour. Which is another aspect of design. Oh, and while we're at it,
  • No-one ever, ever bought anything because Linda Barker told them to.
  • Being informed about terrible natural disasters, impending world war and our inevitable death by Bird-flu is made much more palatable if they throw in a free DVD.
  • The AA is actually a shadowy, sinister organisation whose employees, sorry operatives, walk in slow motion through doorways so we can get slightly cheaper car insurance. In fact, all people who work in insurance seem to have much more exciting lives than we had all assumed.
  • If I ever buy a Citroen, I will be sorely disappointed if it doesn't turn into a giant robot and do a little dance.
  • Drinking actimel live yogurt makes you hyperactive, assault random people in parks and completely ignore your children (presumably the son isn't allowed any of Mum's stash).
  • We absolutely love being insulted by Jamie Oliver. No Jamie, we're not feeding our kids properly. Yes Jamie, we do always buy the same thing at Sainsbury's. He appeared with a black eye recently. Anyone surprised?
  • Smirnoff's "Triple Distilled" vodka gives you such frequent blackouts that you miss vital parts of conversations, thereby completely misinterpreting the scene you are watching. Wheras,
  • Drinking WKD just turns you into an annoying tosser.