Friday, 2 May 2014


Photo: Fox/Sky

Large billboard ads are everywhere for the news series of 24: Live Another Day.   It was shot and is entirely set in London, giving Sky and added selling point ahead of its debut on that Channel and on Fox in the US next week.   Bet your life it'll contain a shot of the London Eye (every film or TV show shot in London has to contain the London Eye) and a dramatic action scene on the Underground (see Skyfall, Sherlock: The Empty Hearse, The Fast and the Furious 6, lots of episodes of Spooks etc). A large section of London will be destroyed during a major sequence (see Star Trek: Into Darkness, Thor: the Dark World).

It also features 24's most horrifying torture scene yet - Bauer spends an entire episode stuck in a London cab with the cabbie mouthing off his opinions: "I don't care if there's a nuclear bomb about to go off, I'm not going south of the river at this time of night. I once had that Jason Bourne in the back of the cab."

And Live Another Day is just the latest in a long line of ‘Must see’ TV events which makes modern television so compelling.  Brilliant as many TV shows were in the 1970s (and I've got quite a few on DVD), on a night by night basis you'd be shocked how little there was to watch. ITV always appeared to have on endless piss-poor US TV movies and mini-series, or shows with Cannon and Ball or Jim Davidson and game shows. The late Barry Took dismissed the rose-tinted view of TV past when he said that people forget that for every Morecambe and Wise there were 20 Mike and Bernie Winters. I've no time for people nowadays who moan 'There's nothing on TV'. If you've got 400 channels and can't find anything to watch, I think that means you just don't like TV.

So here are some of the best recent shows to chas up on I-Tunes or Netflix. 

BAD EDUCATION made me roar with laughter longer and louder than anything on TV in 2013 and will probably do wonders for recruitment to the teaching profession

DEREK offeres Ricky Gervais's best performance (though I thought the series itself disappointing, rather like watching a Play for Today from 1976).

LINE OF DUTY.  If you think what the police do to the public is bad, you should see what they do to each other. The brilliance of Jed Merchurio’s scripts is that he constantly takes you by surprise with the totally unexpected, like he’s reinventing the wheel. It confirms the belief that there's one sure fire way to know when a policeman's lying - their lips move.

DAY OF THE DOCTOR.  Some things were sublime: the opening recreation of AN UNEARTHLY CHILD, the Tom Baker cameo, the final shot of all the Doctors and even the second long glimpse of the next Doctor. Smith, Tennant and Hurt were all compelling as the various Doctors. I suspect it's one of those episodes which needs to be seen more than once to take everything in 

BROADCHURCH - good, though I guessed the killer by episode 3 (superfluous supporting character who gets more screen time than they should - it's a common device in detective drama).

CURTAIN - the last Poirot was amongst the best ever.

THE HOUR.  Great 50s-set conspiracy thriller. Only 12 episodes were made (in 2012/13).   Disappointed there's not going to be a third series.

Best American show of the last few years is VEEP.

The most overrated drama of 2013 was SOUTHCLIFFE - slow moving, depressing and full of dislikeable characters.

Monday, 28 April 2014


The 20th Commonwealth Games will arrive in the wake of a hugely successful London 2012 Olympic Games. It can be said the London Olympics came to fruition in the right city in the right month of the right year, and the same may be true of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games — it will be happening within weeks of the Ryder Cup and the independence referendum. This prompted Lonely Planet's 2014 "Guide to the Top 10 Countries" to list Scotland 3rd, behind Antarctica and Brazil.

Glasgow will do its utmost to live up to the cliche of the "Friendly Games" over the 11 days of competition from July 23 to Aug. 3, welcoming 70 countries from the Commonwealth to compete in 17 sports.  There is yet no official number on the athletes participating, but the numbers are likely to match the 6,000 athletes who competed at the last Games in New Delhi in 2010. 

But in between the excitement of these events, the news is dominated by the Scottish independence debate – the referendum is on September 18.
Alex’s tartan army is moaning because they won’t be allowed to use the Pound Sterling after independence. They need to realise that once a couple divorces, the wife can’t go on using the husband’s credit card. The SNP’s independence campaign could be as successful as Scotland’s ill-fated 1978 World Cup campaign.

In addition to not having the Pound, it seems it would "extremely difficult, if not impossible" for an independent Scotland to join the EU, according to the European Commission President., Alex Salmond can be cheered by The Al Murray as Pub Landlord making a convincing case for separation. He says in his 'The Only Way is Epic' tour: “The relationship’s run its course…If you were in a marriage where one of you earned a great deal more than the other person and the other person had a problem with cholesterol, alcohol and Type II diabetes, what would you do?”

The problem with Alex’s tartan army is that they want independence entirely on their own terms. If anyone dares suggest (like George Osborne or Jose Manuel Barroso) that there are other people to consider, they throw a tantrum and start chucking their Tam o’Shanters out of the pram. Well, in addition no Pound or EU membership, maybe they shouldn't have the Monarchy either, and the always brilliant Peter Oborne in The Daily Telegraph back  in February suggested instead they should bring back the Stuart dynasty.  King James was the last king of Scotland actually, it was Idi Amin, who actually declared himself as the uncrownded King of Scotland.  Maybe an independent Scotland put him on their bank notes when they get their own currency.

Mewanwhile, the Yes campaign enjoys the support of people like The Guardian’s Kevin McKenna.  A typical Kevin McKenna pro-Nationalist comment piece is one in which he criticizes the No campaign for fighting a negative campaign, then spends the whole article slagging off anyone who opposes independence.

Both Irving Welsh and Brian Cox also support separation. They know about independence - they declared themselves independent and moved to the USA years ago.

Down South, it is wondered if the loss of its Labour seats after independence would make the return of a Labour government to the rest of the UK impossible.  Labour would still have won in 45, 66, 97 and 2001 without Scotland.  Though it would certainly make it much much harder for them to form a government without their large Scottish representation. What often gets missed in coverage is that Labour is the largest party in Scotland in terms of Westminster representation, not the SNP.

But remember the polls at the moment all show a majority in favour of the Union. Two nations who shared the same landscape, language and culture are not easily separated.

Saturday, 26 April 2014


Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game'

Last year he made the cover of the international edition.  Now, English actor Benedict Cumberbatch has been elevated to the status of one of the world’s most influential figures.  He features on Time Magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people, just published on April 24.   

In an accompanying piece, Colin Firth writes: “It’s rare to the point of outlandish to find so many variables in one actor, including features which ought to be incompatible: vulnerability, a sense of danger, a clear intellect, honesty, courage — and a rather alarming energy. I take no pleasure in feeling humbled, but there’s no getting around it.”

The ubiquitous Cumberbatch drew legions of fans from Birmingham to Boston to Beijing in the 9 episodes of BBC TV’s Sherlock made between 2010 and 2014.  Recently, we have enjoyed his performances in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Parade’s End, The Fifth Estate, 12 Years A Slave and August: Osage County.   Next up will be his Richard III (on BBC TV), his Hamlet (at the Barbican) and his Alan Turing in the film The Imitation Game, which will hear his name mentioned a lot during the awards season.

The winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar, English director Steve McQueen, also earns a place on the list.  His 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o’s tribute to him explains “His storytelling is all about creating genuine emotional exchanges between the actors. He’s always in search of the truthful moment that will give the audience real human access to difficult issues. He’s a visionary in that way…I think Steve is a genius at what he does, but he doesn’t impose his genius on you. It really feels collaborative and exploratory to work with him.” 

Thursday, 24 April 2014


Sajid Javid

Tony Benn left the stage in March.  His time in cabinet as Technology minister, Postmaster General, Industry Secretary and Energy Secretary was hardly remarkable and he never held any of the major offices of state.  Yet , as a politcain, he made a greater public impact than  many of those who did.  A devise figure in the Labour movement,  compelling orator and a prolific diarist, he was one of those radicals (Enoch Powell would be his nearest contemporary on the Right) without whom post-war politics would have been considerably less colourful.

It worth remembering that people like Benn made politics compelling.

In a year’s time, we’ll be in the midst of a relentless General Election campaign (the first Twitter campaign) and If the polls are correct, cautiously expect Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister on May 8 2015. But, credit where credit's due, the current Conservative-lead coalition government has increased the foreign aid budget to 0.7% of GDP (the highest in Europe) and brought in same sex marriages, both achievements it can leave office feeling proud of (and also achievements it can't highlight during the election campaign because they are the sort of thing the grass roots can't abide). 

The arrival in the cabinet of Sajid Javid is also important.  The son of a Pakistani immigrant who came to Britain with £1 in his pocket back in the 60s, Sajid Javid’s appointment  as Culture Secretary was a stroke of genius that pleases everyone. As a Thatcherite, he keeps the Right happy. As the son of an Asian bus driver, he’s a perfect example of integration and multi-ethnic Britain, so the Left are happy. Best of all, it’ll annoy the hell out of Farage and UKIP, so everyone will be happy.

An interesting question come the campaign: The Guardian came out in support of the Lib-Dems at the 2010 election. I wonder if they'll be doing so again in 2015?

If you’re a UKIP supporter , 12 Years a Slave  is less a brutal and harrowing account of slavery in the 19th century, more a warm-hearted evocation of the good old days (that Epps doesn’t do political correctness, does he). And a minority of the electorate would deserve Fragae as Prime Minister.   Given the relentless coverage the party enjoys in the media, any foreign arrival in the country might assume that Farage was the Prime Minister in waiting.   I love a bit of What If speculation.    It's May 8th 2015, the day after the General Election. That coalition of the angry UKIP have been unexpectedly swept to power with a working majority. During the campaign the party promised that once Britain left the EU we'd be able to restore the death penalty, something which earned them the votes of 90% of police officers.
Pint and fag in hand, PM Nigel Farage strides up Downing Street. He pledges that on Monday his newly appointed Foreign Secretary Godfrey Bloom will fly to Brussels to begin negotiations for Britain's instant withdrawal from the EU. A pledge is made that from midnight tomorrow Britain's borders will be closed to all incoming migrants. Farage, cigarette in hand, disappears into No. 10 saying "and we'll put an end to all this no smoking nonsense." Toby Young is seen weeping with uncontrollable joy live on TV.  It is The Daily Mail 's wet dream.

In the meantime, I'll only start taking them seriously once they actually have any MPs - or even an MP.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014


(Photo: BBC)

Radio 5-Live celebrates its 20th anniversary this month and I’m an unqualified fan of its breakfast show.  It feels modern, fresh and broadcasting from the year 2014.  Radio 4's Today programme, on the other hand, appears to be broadcasting from somewhere between 1973 and 1983 by increasingly elderly presenters who are totally clueless about the world outside of politics and economics (forget the digital revolution; John Humphreys hasn’t even entered the era of 4 channel television).  And, to me, this is a serious drawback for a current affairs programme. I dread to think what the average age of a Today listener is, but it must be somewhere north of 80.  On December 27 it ran a feature on the use of spy pigeons in World War 2, a story which would have been out of date in 1946 let alone 2014.  In the past couple of weeks we’ve been treated to non-stories about lighthouses and bagpipes.
And that sums up the whole Today programme – a belief the world revolves around Westminster, economic policy and the past

Over the New Year they experiment by having ‘guest’ editors from outside of the world of the media.  They kicked off 2014 with singer PJ Harvey.  There’s no problem with TODAY having a left-wing guest editor – somebody like Billy Bragg or Ken Loach would have made a decent and interesting programme. However, PJ Harvey’s programme was deliriously bad radio. I tuned in and honestly thought Radio 4 had brought back Chris Morris’s ON THE HOUR. It was unintentionally hilarious, especially Julian Assange delivering ‘Thought for ther Day’ as if it were the Sermon on the Mount or Ralph Fiennes reading that terrible, terrible Woody Guthrie poem. I’m old enough to remember in the 80s when the then MIDWEEK producer Victor Lewis Smith invited Arthur Mullard to host the show (something which promptly ended Lewis-Smith’s radio producer career). PJ Harvey’s TODAY ranks with dubious landmark.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014


(Ferguson and Moyes.  Photo: Sky News)

When Matt Busby retired from Manchester United in 1969 after 24 years as manager, his successor was Wilf McGuinness.  Under McGuinness United failed to win anything, he was gone after 18 months (being sacked in between Christmas and New Year 1970 following a defeat to Third Division Aston Villa) and is nowadays largely forgotten.  “If Moyes was the Wilf McGuinness of 21st century Manchester United, who is destined to be the Frank O'Farrell?” asked Jim White on the Telegraph website today, referring to the equally short-lived tensure of McGuinness’s successor at Old Trafford

The days of muddy pitches, football rattles and toilet rolls thrown onto the pitch as a means of critical expression have long been replaced by the era of Manchester United as a ‘global brand’.   So it was a voice the past to hear Tommy Docherty on Five-Live this morning talking about David Moyes departure from Manchester United.  The Doc!  I suppose in comparison with Moyes, Docherty’s time at the club (1972-77) seems like a golden era.   There’s been much talk of final nails in the coffin and writing on the wall – I image there’s been a lot of writing on the walls around Manchester about David Moyes, most of it unrepeatable.

Thursday, 19 December 2013


(Photo: Raymond Briggs)

Possibly the greatest and most enduring story ever written is the 1843 novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Numerous versions play on British television over Christmas (which are watched almost out of duty over the holidays): there are black and white versions, versions with Muppets, versions with songs, CGI versions, animated versions and updated to the present day versions. The numerous incarnations are invariably identified by the actor portraying Scrooge and the best I’d rate as Scrooge (1951, Alistair Sim), Scrooge (1970 with an unrecognisable Albert Finney singing the role), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, Michael Caine as the only human member of the cast and a terrific song score by Paul Williams) and A Christmas Carol (2009) with Jim Carrey surprisingly good.

However, the two best British Christmas movies aren’t variations on the Dickens story, but The Snowman (1982) and Love Actually (2003). 

The Snowman was directed by Dianne Jackson with a score by Howard Blake, which spawned a Christmas classic song in 'Walking in the Air' (the only spoken words in the film). Britain first made acquaintance with The Snowman on Boxing Day 1982 on the newly launched Channel 4 (it had only been broadcasting since November 2). It’s been broadcast on the station every Christmas since with the exception of 1985. Last year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day a sequel called The Snowman and the Snowdog, designed in the animation style of the original, appeared (and is repeated again this year) . Based on a Raymond Briggs book, The Snowman is the straightforward tale of a young English boy who builds a snowman on Christmas Eve and sees it come to life. They fly to the North Pole and meet other snowmen. But a snowman’s life is short lived. 

The film appeared the same month as ET debuted in British cinemas. The two are very much tailored from the same material, though the British one is chamber piece but no less enchanting and no less durable. The Snowman won the BAFTA for Animated Short was nominated for the 1982 Academy Award for Best Animated Short, loosing on the night to a Polish animation called Tango, which has since sank into obscurity. 

Love Actually is altogether a very different affair. Set and shot in a gorgeous looking London that looks so luscious you’d wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere else, it cross-cuts between the lives of various Londoners in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s about love lost, love overcoming language barriers, love withering.   A series of Christmas Eve pay-offs sees a succession of happy endings. It’s the third part of an unofficial trilogy of English rom-coms from the writer Richard Curtis (his other two being Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill), with Curtis directing for the first time and has a cast which numbers Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Kiera Knightley, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney and Bill Nighy. 

It was made on a budget considerably more substantial than The Snowman - $45 million – and debuted in British and US cinemas in November 2003, where it was a huge hit grossing $247 million at the global box office. Love Actually is nowadays a permanent fixture of the British Christmas TV schedule, with this year's annual outing on ITV1 at 10.45pm on Christmas Day. 

It won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor for Nighy as a sardonic ageing rock star aiming for a comeback with the song ‘Christmas is All Around’ – and succeeds by reaching the prized Christmas Number 1 slot. 

The film is cleverer than its detractors will admit and it’s a rarity – something which would benefit from being longer. The DVD contains nearly 30 minutes of very fine deleted material that really does improve the film. There’s a sequence with Liam Neeson trying to access online porn when his father-in-law (Edward Hardwick) turns up. The screen naturally freezes and Neeson blames his son. There’s a sub-plot involving Anne Reid as a headmistresses and Frances de-laTour as her terminally ill-partner. An extended and much improved airport chase segment in which Sam (Thomas Sangster) demonstrates his gymnastic skills to evade the security guards. There are even a couple of sequences in Africa which prefigure Curtis’s work with Comic Relief. 

However, it is also an uneven film: Kris Marshall finding Wisconsin is the casual sex capital of America is a joke without a punch line. But there are so many highlights, notably Thompson – in an ankle length skirt (the very definition of frumpiness) - discovering her husband’s infidelity through a Joni Mitchell CD. Hugh Grant as a Conservative Prime Minister called David, prefiguring Cameron’s accession to the Tory leadership by two years – and we know he’s a Tory because a portrait of Baroness Thatcher hangs in his office. There’s an effective scene summing up the US-UK relationship during the years George Bush Junior occupied the Oval Office (2001-2009) and the invasion of Iraq casts it shadow: David delivers a patriotic speech at a Downing Street Press Conference during the visit of a bullying and obstinate American President. 

“I love that word "relationship." Covers all manner of sins, doesn't it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship; a relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm... Britain. We may be a small country, but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.” 

Tony Blair name-checked it in one of his later conference speeches. Though speaking to Time on the occasion of the film’s release (November 3, 2003), Curtis described the rationale of the scene: “It’s meant to be a comic moment, that a Prime Minister would change policy because he thought he saw President of the U.S. kissing a girl he fancies. It certainly wasn’t intended as a large comment on American foreign policy.”
(Photo: Universal)