Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Cigarettes and Alcohol

There's not a Shakespeare sonnet
Or a Beethoven quartet
That's easier to like than you
Or harder to forget.

You think that sounds extravagant?
I haven't finished yet –
I like you more than I would like
To have a cigarette.

— Wendy Cope's Giving Up Smoking

Last night, something very exciting happened. I got very, very drunk and - wait for it - didn't smoke a cigarette. This is big news. Cigarettes and me go way back, so far I can't even really remember when I started smoking. What I can remember is that it was a long, hard road to being a proper smoker.

I'd tried some hideous Embassy No.1s courtesy of my friend Tamsin aged about 11, but I think I must have been about 15 or 16 when I first took up the habit properly. My mother once memorably declared that "any child of mine who smokes won't be allowed within 50 miles of my house," so understandably she wasn't that impressed when she caught me smoking on holiday, aged about 16. She believed I was doing it to impress a young gentleman (partially true) and was quite forgiving. She would have been less forgiving had she seen me in my first year of university, trying to say something profound about Derrida or whoever and sucking frantically on a roll-up every week on essay night.

That first year probably represented the zenith of my time as a smoker. There I was, away from home for the first time, keeping my own hours, spending every evening in the pub or in Bill's room, with likeminded smokers. God, it was great.

There was just one problem. I didn't really like smoking. Or rather, I liked everything about smoking except the smoking itself. I loved my mental image of me, cigarette in hand, fingers curled lovingly round it. In my mind, I had an ivory cigarette holder and looked like a flapper (OK, I was probably one letter out.) I loved illustrating a particularly impressive point (I used to think I made a lot of these) with a jab of the cigarette, or looking disdainful by combining a long, slow exhale with raising my eyebrows quizzically. I loved the fact it grouted over any holes in the conversation, and meant you had something to distract you when your companion started talking about epistemology.

But the actual inhaling of the tobacco was always a problem. I didn't like the taste, and every time I'd wake up with a hangover, I would experience the smoker's paradox: I desperately wanted the nicotine, but having a fag made me feel like death warmed up. Not to mention the 'fagover', a special kind of hangover induced by smoking twenty Lucky Strike silvers in a row. Also, if I stopped smoking for more than a few days, it would make me feel profoundly nauseous to start up again. Nevertheless, such was my devotion that I would always smoke through this stage. Feel the burn, I thought - if pain makes you beautiful, nausea makes you cool!

I first seriously tried to give up in the second year, and did a bloody good job too, if you discount every single time I got drunk. My resolve was stiffened by the fact that my housemate (the aforementioned Bill) was also giving up, and therefore we planned to shout and bitch at each other during the painful early stages.

Except it didn't turn out like that. Giving up was easy, really. I didn't feel any withdrawal symptoms - all my cravings were psychological rather than physical. I ate like a horse, though, and my weight soared to a number of stones I'm not going to tell you. (OK, it was about one and a half more than I weigh now, and I do not currently resemble Nicole Richie.) "I'm naturally curvy," I would grunt, stuffing another sherbet lemon into my drooling maw.

But I was determined. I was not going to die because of my innate predisposition to fidget, dammit. I would find something else to do with my hands - take up knitting, perhaps, or throw coins in the air and catch them again like a gangster. My rule was that I was technically a non-smoker as long as I never bought any cigarettes. Poaching the occasional fag from a friend didn't count; I could only rely on so much generosity from my friends, thereby severely curbing my intake.

Of course, there were several problems. Some wise commentator once observed that only twice in your smoking lifetime are you given free cigarettes. The first time is when you are just starting out; the second is when you are trying to quit. The donors' rationale is this: there is only so much lung cancer to go round, so encouraging more people to smoke swings the numbers game in their favour. Of course it's illogical. But then, so is setting something on fire next to your face and then breathing in as deeply as possible. Who came up with that idea?

My resolve also wobbled every time I tried to pull someone who smoked. Because, you see, smoking provides the perfect cover for a seduction attempt, particularly if the rest of your friends don't smoke. The two of you can sneak off together and huddle conspiratorially in a corner, feeling like you're rebels at the gates of dawn, flicking two fingers up at the Nanny State.

There's a great line in Radiohead's Thinking About You that I've always liked because of its fusion of attraction and smoking: "All the things you've got/ All the things you need/ Who bought you cigarettes?/ Who bribed the company to come and see you honey?" (Yeah, it makes sense to me.) Ah, Thom, I'd think. Sometimes I wonder if you are the only one who understands me.

But, like I said, things are different now. I can't claim that if someone had held a Marlboro light in front of me last night, I would have nobly rejected it. But I can say that I didn't miss it.

So perhaps this is it; maybe I really am a non-smoker. Maybe I'll mutate into my zealously anti-smoking mother, feeling the need to cough theatrically in restaurants if anyone within 50 metres lights up, purely to make them feel guilty. I feel sad, in a way - cigarettes have been a big part of my life, and we've had some great times together. Of course, they were always trying to kill me, but what's an agonising early death set against the pure pleasure of feeling like a femme fatale?

Now, if I only kick this damn crack habit...

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Shallow? Moi?

Last week, I was accused by Pia of being a Sloane, a criticism which stung me until I caught sight of myself in the mirror yesterday on the way to work and took in the lace headband, V-neck pearl-buttoned cardigan, knee-length flouncy A line skirt and my brand new grown-up pointy shoes with the grosgrain bows. All that was missing was the pearls - and that was only because I'd left them on the dressing table.

Obviously, my days of grubby student living are psychologically (if alas not fiscally) behind me. I blame my colleagues, who are constantly plying me with Marks & Spencers chocolate buttons ("They're low GI!"), telling me about vintage shoe shops in Notting Hill, and trying to make me drink champagne at lunchtime. My Scottish coal-mining grandfather is probably turning in his grave.

Anyway, I am feeling even less profound than usual this weekend. I'll spare you the story of how I fell out of a changing room in Zara on Friday half-in, half-out of a pair of skinny jeans (which, you'll be pleased to know, I did not buy). Instead, I'm going to embrace the Popbitch-y vibe, and give you a round-up of my Top Ten Best Ever Rubbish Celebrity Encounters.

1. Interviewing the Chuckle brothers with the world's most dangerous student journalist, P. Question: "You've done a lot of work for children - have you ever considered adult entertainment?" He then wrote that they looked like "the missing link between the animal and gypsy kingdoms", and was last seen trying to convince the university authorities to let him dress as a woman for his finals exams by posing as a transsexual.

2. Staring at David Blaine's unshaven neck. Honestly, man, you've come to talk to the cream (rich and thick) of Britain's young bucks at the Oxford Union. Buy a razor.

3. Watching Chris Eubank brandish his cane at a tramp, shouting, "Give you money? The only thing I'll give you is a plane ticket to Nigeria so you can see what real poverty's like!". Mere moments before he had answered my question, "What would you have done if you had not become a boxer?" by touching my thigh and saying, "I know.. I would have married you."

4. Rod Liddle looking down my top at a drinks party. If only I had known at the time that he was up for impregnating an impressionable twentysomething, I could be the proud mother of Liddle Jr and living in Bermondsey with him right now.

5. Playing the Elbow Game with Derren Brown at a performance of the League of Gentlemen pantomime in Hammersmith (more details here).

6. Interviewing Matthew Perry (aka The Day My Adolescence Ended). It is no overstatement to say that I loved Matthew Perry, or rather Chandler, with a passion I have never again experienced for a man. (That's teenage hormones for you.) So imagine my disappointment upon turning up to interview him to find him sitting in the corner, nervously sucking on a Marlboro Light and not being wry or deadpan at all. He compounded the offence by beginning his speech with the phrase, "Could there BE any more people here?" which rates as the cheapest laugh it's possible to get. Anyway, from that day on, I was a wiser and better person, for I knew that celebrities were intrinsically disappointing in person, and also smaller. (P.S. I actually have photographic evidence of this.)

7. Trying not to listen to Patrick Stewart's then-wife going to the loo. Yeah, I know that's a pretty weird celebrity encounter, and I swear it wasn't deliberate. She didn't know where the loo was, I did. I showed her, then realised I would have to stay to show her the way back. What the hell do you do in that situation - make conversation? Hum? Fake a heart attack? In the end I just stood there going slowly redder. When she came out of the cubicle, it was apparent that she was not in the least bit bothered, and I suddenly felt very, very British.

8. Touching Gail Porter's slaphead. (See number five.) She was so nice I wanted to tell her not to talk to journo scum like me.

9. John Rhys Davies' wife being humilated by an uppity 17-year-old. The Lord of the Rings and Sliders star came to the Oxford Union, and brought his wife, who seemed very nice. However, it quickly transpired that she was a Mormon. Cue Uppity 17-year-old, younger brother of a guest: "Is it true that Mormons believe black people have no souls?" She spluttered, and Uppity 17-year-old continued, "Because James Brown - he's the King of Soul!" Cue one very chastised-looking Mormon.

10. Arriving at the Pen Pusher party to find we were sharing the bar with the Grange Hill Cast Reunion.

For bonus points, celebrity encounters at one degree of separation: Weave being late for her hen party because she was in Sierra Leone with Midge Ure; Myleene Klass offering my ex-housemates a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts; A blogger who shall remain nameless making Rory Bremner wait half an hour to use the office loo because he was in the cubicle with his minidisc on, defecating extravagantly.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dispatches from downtable.

It's a great life being a reporter - your name's in the paper, you get to touch celebrities on a regular basis, and best of all you're constantly depicted in newspaper-based fiction (usually written by ex-reporters) as hard-working, hard-drinking and hard-assed.

It's different for subs. Ours is a lonelier, less acknowledged furrow. There's no subbing equivalent of All The President's Men. No-one will ever know it was you that came up with "Nice to CBE you, to CBE you nice!" on the story of Brucie's gong. (That said, my mother freakishly did know that I had written the side-splittingly funny "Nesting falcons are birds of pray" on a story about some hawks in a church tower. Am I really that given to bad puns?)

Subs are like goalkeepers - only noticed when we cock up in some extravagant way, such as printing a picture of a schoolteacher instead of a rapist, or printing an interview saying the defendant definitely dunnit just as the jury retires, or not spotting an horrific double entendre in a headline. (My favourite example: the story about a woman with dementia who absconded from a care home in the middle of the night. Cue picture of distraught family reunited with Nan, under the headline, "FAMILY'S HORROR AT GRANNY'S EARLY MORNING DISCHARGE.")

Yes, yes, there's Bill Bryson (an ex-Times subeditor) but he keeps suspiciously quiet about his time downtable, possibly because he worked in Wapping as Murdoch was breaking the print unions, and fears reprisals from hardened comps, armed to the teeth with leading and sharpened colour plates.

But I've now discovered that there is someone out there who also knows the pain of finding "Colleen McCloughlin" referred to in copy. His name is the Grey Cardigan, he writes for the Press Gazette, and he's the most miserable, cynical man in the world. So much so that sometimes I wonder if I'm living some kind of Tyler Durden-esque existence and actually writing the column.

Here he is on budget-vortex Liz Jones: 'I accept that the best advice to columnists is "write what you know", and I recognise the quality of self-revelation that allows the best of the breed to strike a chord with their readers. But since when has any bunnyboiling harridan been so willing to destroy their own marriage just for the amusement of onlookers? It's like being a spectator at Bedlam.'

And just for Artegall: "I would like to say that Professor Roy "Gotcha" Greenslade's weekly missive in The Daily Telegraph will be sadly missed.

Unfortunately, when the tea fund is £2.80 light, one of the NUJ dissidents has flooded the toilets in an attack on corporate greed and they've just banned smoking within 50 yards of the building, a shape-shifting lizard banging on at vast length about how many Chinese journalists are in prison in Beijing doesn't really cut the fucking mustard."

Sigh. What a man.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Back For Good

I have a question. How do fat neurotic girls in contemporary literature and TV ever manage to eat 'half a tub' of Ben & Jerry's? I have been belabouring a pot of Caramel Chew Chew with a heated scoop for fully ten minutes, and it has yielded but three smears of ice-cream. Gah.

Why the ice cream, you may ask. Well, that would be because I am feeling ultra-girly, having bathed in oestrogen last night at the Take That concert. The Manchester Arena played host to thirteen thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight screaming women (and two disgruntled boyfriends in the row behind us, looking very glum).

Drawn by the lure of reliving our adolescence and the pure joy of singing the choirboy bit in Never Forget far, far louder than we're allowed to in our living room, my housemate Anna and I had joined forces with Laura to spend all morning at our respective workplaces on the day the tickets went on sale hitting our F5 keys repeatedly. We kept getting more and more desperate and emails pinged around the offices. "London's sold out- Birmingham?". "Birmingham's sold out - Manchester???" (Of course, four hours after we'd justified the time and expense of going to Manchester, the bastards announced more London dates.)

Anyway, after a few personnel changes (Laura's boyfriend dropped out, perhaps because he had seen all the squealing and bailed out while he could) we set off. The Arena is huge, and resembles an indoor football stadium. Except this was like no football game I had ever been to. It was a sea of bunny ears and pink cowboy hats. Everyone was queuing in orderly lines - for WKD! "God," whispered Laura, awefully. "This is like the world's biggest hen night."

Bang on time, support act Beverley Knight tipped up, wearing an orange kaftan, black leggings and white stilettoes. Yeah, she was alright, even if she did scream "MANCHESTER!" for no real reason every five minutes.

She buggered off, they played some adverts. Thousands of women faced a dilemma over whether to nip out to the loos now, and risk missing the start, or hang on until Pray came on. (This, and Sure, were the two big toilet exodus triggers of the night.)

And then - it was time. The lights went down and the screaming reached an uncomfortable level. The back bit of the stage went blue. And, er, well then they sort of ambled on, really. It was only when they started singing that I realised they weren't stage crew. Even worse - I didn't recognise the song. What had happened? Were they (no) trying out new material?

Thankfully not, it was just something off the first album I was too busy falling off my first bike to have heard. What followed was an actual example of some new material (same as the old material, largely) then a romp through the old favourites we knew and loved so well. There was even a tango version of It Only Takes A Minute (hmm) and some Beatles covers (mm hmm).

My favourite bit of the concert was definitely the crowd's treatment of Gary Barlow. As previously discussed, I've got a bit of a soft spot for Gazza. He reminds me of a simpler, happier age when talent gave you a bye into a boyband and I simply will not brook any argument that he is a rubbish songwriter - neither would you had you seen the crowd's reaction to Never Forget, the night's final song.

When the tango-inspired strains of It Only Takes A Minute started up, Mark, Jason and Howard all had a crack at dancing with the Senorita, to polite cheering. However, when Gary sprang up from the piano, the crowd went wild. It's Tiger Tim syndrome, clearly - we love the slightly shonky more than any amount of gilded perfection. The rest of the band look pretty good for men in their mid-thirties, but Gary seems to have morphed into the manager of an office supply chain. In their white shirts and black trousers, the others looked James Bond-ish. Gary was more David Brent.

He knows this, of course, which is part of his charm. After they'd ponced round on a platform in the middle of the auditorium for a bit, they all retreated backstage. Some bloke with mad hair and a white coat came on - the Manager. He proceeded to intone his rules for making a boy band, as the chaps filed back out and did a bit of robot dancing.

As he proclaimed, "Rule 7. The boys should be able to dance," Mark, Jason and Howard spun, twirled and did other dancey stuff while Gary plonked away on a Yamaha. "Stop," came the ghostly voice. "*All* members of the band should be able to dance." Then The Manager man-handled Gary on to the end of the line-up. The noise was phenomenal. Go on Gary, bust that groove!

I don't know whether it was the demographic, or the Fab Four, but this has to be the nicest concert I've ever been to. Nothing more destructive than a teddy bear was hurled at the stage, and even the clamour to touch the band on their meet-and-greet was relatively genteel. The band all looked genuinely grateful (you must know how much I hate ungrateful misery-dick celebrities) . Howard summed it up: "I can't believe how lucky I am, when I think I was a decorator from Ashton-under-Lyne!"

Towards the end, I suddenly realised where I had felt this atmosphere before: the Wimbledon Veterans' Matches, when they wheel out Pat Cash and John McEnroe for a bit of a knock-about and some light banter. That's not to say the show wasn't professional - it was bloody impressive - it's just that they really looked like they were enjoying themselves. (Yes, mutter away, you cynics, about how Jason had spent all the money and was working in a chipshop and Howard had had a near-nervous breakdown. I care not.) The only downside? I'm afraid the quantity of hormones sloshing round will bring on an early menopause.

And God, I can't wait for the Spice Girls reunion. What? What?

Friday, May 19, 2006

a moment of sloane zen

Last night at 2am I was sitting in a colleague's Kensington flat on an unpronounceably named IKEA rug, sipping Veuve Clicquot, eating bread from Waitrose, listening to Crowded House and admiring his needlessly large plasma screen TV. "Yes," I thought. "This is what I always imagined living in London would be like."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

no different whined at than withstood

Deep consternation at the Media Organisation That Cannot Be Named about the BBC's plans to air an autopsy. Ick, we chorused, that's when they, you know, cut up a dead person. Eww!

Dr Dick Shepherd (which, may I add, is a particularly chilling name) will describe the process, including - horror - "the smell of cadavers". Well, we can't have that, can we?

Several thoughts: one, it's on BBC3, so only people who work in the media and four insomniacs will see it anyway. Two, what is this strange obsession with not showing on TV things that happen - in this case all the time - in real life?

It speaks volumes about our cosseted existence that news programmes are too squeamish on our behalf to show dead bodies from Iraq and other war zones. It's all very well for us to feel we'd rather our comfortable lives weren't intruded upon by seeing the gory evidence of man's inhumanity to man on TV - but what about all the people for whom that is their day to day life? Wouldn't we be more compassionate and concerned if we actually saw what they see?

I know that children need to be protected from explicit sex and violence, and that's fine - but this is a programme that's on after the watershed, and will no doubt be preceded with all kinds of warnings. Dear Gunther von Hagens' efforts on Channel 4 certainly were. So what we're talking about here is "protecting" adults from something that happens all the time, something that will happen to me, to you, to everybody. "Most things may never happen: this one will."

We try very hard to pretend that death doesn't exist, or that if it does it's a sanitary, clinical process. It's not, of course - I remember going to a French pharmacy with some generalised stomach ailment last year, creaking through in my rusty French ("j'ai une probleme digestif" I blurted out, gesturing vaguely). As I was getting nowhere, my sister (a doctor) said, "See if you can ask for Buscopan - that's what we give to dying people to dry them out."

NHS blog doctor is particularly good on this. He writes: "I hate the clap-happy way the hospice "movement" and the media leads us to belief that dying can be a "learning" experience, a "sharing" experience. It is not."

Coupled with this desire to keep death at arm's length is the strange emphasis on the sanctity of dead bodies. One of the most interesting things David Mitchell said on Mock The Week was something like, "Why do people get upset that, ooh, Grandad's organs have been removed without our permission? Oh of course, that's much worse than throwing him in a ditch!"

Of course, it's not healthy to become obsessed with death - although if you're Philip Larkin, you'll get some good poetry out of it. And perhaps I'm just saying all this because I've never seen a dead body, but I hope not. I do feel that if we stopped trying to hide death away, we'd treat the dying better (and I think the same goes for mental illness).

Monday, May 15, 2006

Liquorice Allsorts

I realise I've been a little lax recently so I thought I'd do four mini posts instead of one big one, in the style of that end bit the Guardian now give their columnists to show off how cultured they are.

This week I have been mostly watching: Prime Suspect.

Huge excitement that I've reached the fourth series, as I love watching Helen Mirren hitting tables and being emotional, whilst all policemen live up to 70s stereotypes around her. Even better, every series has a theme: the first was, broadly, 'it's hard to be a woman in the police force', the second 'it's hard to be black in the police force' and the third 'it's hard to be gay in the police force'.

So I was eagerly awaiting the discovery of which oppressed minority were going to be consoled this time round, but it seems to be a toss-up between 'it's hard to be an abused child in the police force' and 'it's hard to be a foetus in the police force'. God knows who it'll be next series.

Now, excuse me if I have this wrong, but Prime Suspect was on ITV, wasn't it? As was Cracker... Has anything ITV has commissioned since been anywhere near as good? (No, you can't have Touching Evil. A strong premise was ruined by charisma vacuum Robson Green.)

This week I have been mostly listening to: OK Go.

I have extremely narrow musical knowledge, and also 'the worst music taste in the world'. Not a good combination, which is why I almost never write about music. Besides which, as a former journalistic colleague put it, 'All music criticism consists of saying "X band sounds really like Y band with a touch of Z".' But yeah, I've been listening to OK Go, and it's, er, really good. Lovely tunes, nice lyrics, fantastic dance routines. The lead singer looks like a bit of a fittie too, which never hurts.

This week I have been mostly eating: Iranian food.

See that? Those are my horizons, expanding. Just as I reject 'world music', I tend to be a bit boorish about FFF (Funny Foreign Food), loosely defined as any cuisine outside Western Europe. I'm not proud of this, so at the further suggestion of the Man of Taste and Substance, I tackled my prejudice that all North African/Middle Eastern food was gristly (and grisly) meat embalmed in unspeakable slop by going to Patogh, a very bijou Iranian place off the Edgware Road.

I was surprised to discover that it was all very pleasant (apart from the mad Americans intent on getting us to join their cult, or talk to them about Eng-er-land.) The meat was not gristly; nor was there slop. There was even some very nice yoghurty drink, although I still remain to be convinced that raw radish is anyone's idea of a delicacy, even if it does come with free mint.

I think I've cracked my hatred of FFF, anyway: I don't like dry food, and in particular I like my meat to be positively wet. I also love dips, to the extent I used to refuse to eat McNuggets when there was no BBQ sauce available (now I refuse to eat McNuggets because I don't want to die aged 40 of high blood pressure). I get very stroppy with pizza delivery men if my requested Garlic and Herb pot fails to arrive. And obviously, chips are nothing without ketchup, no matter how budget a brand it is. And this doesn't just apply to cheap food: French and Italian restaurant food, being very keen on the whole sauce genre, suits me perfectly.

So, Iranian chicken kebab thing = great. But, frankly, I could have done with some sauce.

This week I have been mostly reading Kenneth Tynan's diaries.

I first encountered Kenneth Tynan in Christopher Logue's memoirs, Prince Charming. All I knew was that he smoked his cigarettes between his third and fourth fingers, and was a theatre critic. Anyway, his name kept cropping up and I eventually resorted to wikipedia, which revealed he was behind the groundbreaking sex revue Oh Calcutta and was the first man to say 'fuck' on TV. Fair enough, I thought.

Then I read Craig Brown's parody of his diaries in This Is Craig Brown. They sounded hilarious, a mix of intentional wit and unintentional pomposity. (Sample Brown-as-Tynan entry: "To see Waiting For Godot at the Royal Court. I doubt I could ever have full anal sex with anyone who didn't love Beckett." Sample entry 2: "Considered suicide. Checked diary - am entertaining Princess Margaret on Friday. Decided to postpone.")

Tynan's story is a tragic one in many ways. I want to write that he shot to fame as an undergraduate theatre critic, but somewhere in my head I can hear the voice of my boss saying, "The only person who shot to fame was the Human Cannonball." Zeitgeist could have been his middle name (although actually it was Peacock) and his early spunky, subjective, coruscating reviews fitted the revolutionary zeal that had infected the theatre in the 50s.

The diaries, however, date from the 70s (specifically 75-77), beginning as he finishes an unfulfilling decade as a dramaturg at the National Theatre, feeling he has discovered only one dramatist of any note - Tom Stoppard. They cover the subsequent decline of his health - through emphysema exacerbated by heaving smoking ("I must smoke to write," he agonises some way through) - and his eventual move to Los Angeles.

The diaries are full of shameless name dropping (Gore Vidal, Princess Margaret, Harold Pinter - it goes on and on, you should see the index!) and increasingly frequent bouts of self-loathing as the ageing Tynan struggles more and more to put pen to paper. There's also the small matter of Tynan's anal fixation and love of spanking, indulged over the years with a submissive named Nicole.

They're an entertaining read; but I am worried by them. Tynan is seduced by the glamour of the theatre and celebrity; but the only way he can become involved is by the essentially parasitic act of criticism. When this palls, he tries to become involved creatively (the stint at the NT) and fails. Thereafter, his relentless socialising is tinged with the realisation that his talent, such as it was, has largely deserted him: he is no longer the firebrand twentysomething who could churn out 6,000 words a week, but a 48-year-old racked with doubt, missing his copy deadlines by months.

For someone like me, also involved in a glamorous but parasitic job, my desire to identify with Tynan was chilling. Is this what will happen to me - conversations mired in anecdotes about semi-famous people, overwhelmed by the feeling my best years are behind me, so impressed with my own witticisms that I record them in some sort of journal which I force people to read....

.....Oh shit.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


One of my favourite comic actors, Chris Langham, has been charged with 15 counts of making indecent images of children today. It'll be fascinating to see how the media treat him - professionally, he's at the peak of his career, with armfuls of awards and plaudits for The Thick of It and Help - and he's certainly no panto villain-esque Gary Glitter figure.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

TV: a cruel, but occasionally delightful, mistress

I don't really watch many shows on actual television - with the hours I work, that would mean a continuous diet of chatshows and home makeover programmes, and I can't bear the feeling of quiet unstoppable hopelessness both engender in me. There was a great golden age when UKTV Gold showed an episode of Top Gear every day at noon, but I've come to the horrible conclusion that I have now seen every episode of this ever made. Twice.

Sometimes the gods of TV are kind, and throw me Scrubs or ER (I haven't got the commitment to watch Columbo in the morning, and the loss of Diagnosis:Murder from our screens is still deeply felt), but more often they don't. So what do I do - go out, enjoy myself, go on long walks and visit museums and appreciate the diversity of experience on offer in this great city? Do I balls. I tuck into something from the saved programmes channel on my cable, C1.

The joy and danger of this method is that I have no need to stick to scheduled times and ration myself to one episode of a particular programme every week. Oh no. I can gulp down entire series in a day.

And that is exactly what I have been doing. The first delicious televisual morsel down my gullet was Blackpool, a BBC mini-series set in, er, Blackpool and following the fortunes of bluff self-aggrandising arcade owner Ripley Holden, played by David Morrissey. (Yes, David Morrissey of Basic Instinct 2 fame. Did anyone else get horribly confused by sentences in the press such as "Morrissey gives a blisteringly sexual performance in the film..", or was that just me?)

The plot, according to the delightfully succinct IMDb entry, is: "Soon after local entrepreneur Ripley Holden (Morrissey) opens his arcade in his beloved home town of Blackpool, a murder investigation makes tears at the fabric of his personal and professional lives. "

Of course, Morrissey wasn't why I chose to watch this, rather than, say, Touching Evil. That accolade goes to The Sexiest Man on Television, David Tennant, who plays DI Peter Carlisle, instructed to solve the murder of a young man found dead in Ripley's arcade.

Now, I'm not going to bore you with explaining the allure of TSMOT, because I can't. Last time I tried, I ended up burbling something about his ability to wear a pinstripe suit and trainers, and not look like a twat. You may scoff, but relationships have been built on less. He also has amazing hair (so glossy and lustrous) and the most beautiful brown eyes. But I'm going to stop there, as I still have just enough self-awareness to realise that I sound like a mental.

Of course, apart from the fact he's Ever So Dreamy (tm), Tennant's a damn fine actor. But it's David Morrissey who really dominates Blackpool, drawing you into caring about his ego-ridden, violent character, and making you realise that there's more to Ripley Holden than an unreconstructed chauvinist pig. It's not an easy task: in one scene, Ripley visits one of the prostitutes who works in the flats he owns. After questioning her about the murder, he begins methodically undressing. "What are you doing that for?" she asks. "Thought I'd collect the rent while I'm here," he counters.

I wasn't that enamoured of Blackpool at first, finding the first episode a bit slow, and the musical interludes - where the characters sing along to pop songs, whilst otherwise going about their daily business - jarred initially. A great deal has been made of the influence of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, but as I've unaccountably missed this seminal piece of television, it all just felt a bit odd.

But by episode two I was hooked - the time taken to introduce the characters paid off, because these are real characters, with pasts and motives and hidden depths, rather than the parade of stock types that so often passes for psychological insight. So there's Ripley's daughter, Shyanne, who falls in love with a man her father's age; son Danny, brimful of sexual confusion and the desire to protect his dad; and his wife Natalie, oblivious to all the fact her husband has slept with "every woman over 40 in Blackpool" and racked with guilt over her burgeoning relationship with Carlisle.

Ripley and Carlisle make a great dramatic pairing, too - at first, you're sure who's the good guy and who's the villain (particularly as Tennant looks like a chirpy, clean-cut Scot, while Morrissey sports a shocking greased semi-mullet and an upsetting assortment of skull-shaped tie clips). But the roles become more ambiguous as Carlisle becomes more deeply involved with Natalie, and seems intent on removing the greatest obstacle in his path to her - her husband.

And suddenly, Ripley became more sympathetic. He was still a greasy showman, but the threat of losing everything he loved - his family, his arcade, his dream of building a Vegas-style 'casino hotel' - gave him a dignity that reminded me of Richard II, had Shakespeare's king expressed his resigned sadness through the medium of the power ballad.

As I said, bloody good writing - as was the scene when Carlisle tries to convince Natalie to leave her husband, and his world, and run away with him. He follows her along the seafront, declaiming: "Here are some of the things we'll never have - we'll never be together so long we forget how it started. We'll never go to bed in the afternoon on the strength of a smile across a room. We'll never go dancing and embarrass everybody but ourselves. We'll never argue. We'll never make up. We'll never have enough memories of our own to make it through the bad times. We'll never share a fish supper."

You can tell I was emotionally involved with the characters by this point, because this actually managed to penetrate the crusty carapace of sneering cynicism with which I usually treat love affairs on the tellybox. (Me watching Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet: "What's he doing looking at her through a fucking fish tank? How is that romantic?" Me watching When Harry Met Sally: "Oh will you just HURRY UP!") I may even have snuffled a little bit. I haven't been this emotional since Dr Green went to the big emergency room in the sky to the accompaniment of Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

As for the singing - hmm, it is a problem. I have to admit I didn't really like it until the very end of episode five, when a bloody but unbowed Ripley launches into Queen's Don't Stop Me Now. What a corker of a song, and how well-chosen. Even the supporting cast were excellent. There's Cold Feet's John Thomson as Ripley's best mate, one of the League of Gentleman as his slimy accountant, and David Bradley (aka The Caretaker in Harry Potter) as a Biblebashing gambling protestor.

Anyway, considering how much I whinge about British TV being stale and formulaic, I thought it only fair to tell you that it's not all doom and gloom. And it's very odd that two of the best (and oddest) things I've seen on TV recently – this and BBC Three's noirish Funland – have been set in Blackpool. So, TV execs, here's my recipe for ratings and critical success: more genre-busting David Tennant-starring TV dramas set in Northern seaside resorts, please.

Needless yet appealing photo of David Tennant.