The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Quiet Life

Ooh, I haven’t posted a blog for ages. I am abject and contrite, faithful reader. But I’ve been busy, writing words which people will pay me for, and at the end of the day I find I’ve run out of things to say and my fingers are all tired from typing.

And on top of that, it’s been cold, and apart from work, not a lot to say. Yesterday the Mrs and I visit the British Museum. Having read up a bit on African history, I was wondering what relics they had from the empires of Mali and Ethiopia – two of the most successful empires in the history of the planet – but it turned out all they had a couple of masks. But they had some bronze bits and bobs from the Empire of Benin which were marvellous. And which clearly demonstrate that what I was taught at school – that in Africa everyone was living in the jungle and hitting each other with sticks until the Europeans turned up – was a load of nonsense. They had empires, they had cities, they had bronze bits and bobs while we were all still hitting each other with sticks.

After that we went to a Privet Function. I had a privet function once, it was late, I needed to go desperately urgently, there was a hedge nearby. I think, if anything, the Privet Function demonstrates the limitations of the spellchecker. Though as it was followed by an Appology for the Inconveineance so I’m not sure Mr Clippy was firing on all cylinders.

Telly-wise, currently watching ‘Big Bang Theory’ – excellent episode this week – ‘Pop Star To Opera Star’ – really enjoying it, and getting quite indignant when they sing a song which isn’t proper opera – and ‘How I Met Your Mother’. The episode this week, ‘Drumroll Please’, was one of the most perfectly-written, beautiful episodes of a sitcom I’ve ever seen. Seek it out if you’ve not already seen it. It’s like an American version of ‘Coupling’, but really funny, so completely unlike the American version of ‘Coupling’.

Started going for jogs again. Bloody hell it’s cold out there. Can barely see where I’m going what with my breath condensating all over the place. It’s so cold that when I get home I have to count my nipples to check I haven’t lost one on the way.

Discovered a fantastic new band called Dragonette. They’re like Little Boots but even better. Can’t understand why they’re not more well-known. Oh well, they can be my secret. The words ‘kiss of death’ spring effortlessly to mind.

Oh, finished reading John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Exasperated History Of Modern Britain, which was lots of fun, particularly on what really happened during the 1970s compared to it’s portrayal in TV clip shows. Occasionally John’s relentless search for the ‘gag’ becomes a little wearisome – though there’s a sequence in his The Best A Man Can Get about the correct way to make a cup of tea which made me laugh my head of insanely in Gatwick airport, drawing the attention of passers-by – and I think he’s completely wrong about the Iraq War.

Speaking of which, watched a bit of young Tony Blairs on the telly on Friday. Reading Nick ‘Chairman Of The Young Conservative’ Robinson’s blog on the BBC site you’d think that Tony turned up trembling with fear and stammering in terror and desperately hoping no-one would notice the spreading dampness at the front of his trousers. When actually he came across as confident, self-assured, thoughtful, statesmanlike and absolutely bone-dry in the underwear department. Why aren’t you still Prime Minister, Tony? I’ve stuck some thoughts I wrote last year in a gap in last year’s blog.

So, yes, not a lot going on, and I think this blog’s probably going to be weekly, or very occasional, from now on.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Get A Grip On Yourself

Just finished Ben Elton’s latest novel, Meltdown.

It can be hard work being a Ben Elton fan. After all, this is a guy who started out ranting about the evils of Mrs Thatch and ended up compering the Queen’s birthday concert; the guy who wrote angry plays about the evils of capitalism and then wrote musicals for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Rod Stewart; the guy who wrote The Young Ones and The Man From Auntie and progressed to Maybe Baby and Get A Grip; the guy who never shows his teeth when he smiles so everybody accuses him of being smug.

But it’s not the peer pressure that’s so much the problem. It’s two other things. Firstly, the wide variability in the quality of his work. I mean, up there (I’m indicating about head level) you have The Young Ones, Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line (“oh, you’re so mean”), Gasping, Popcorn, High Society... and then about here (I’m indicating about waist level) you have his Queen rock panto, and his previous novel, Blind Faith, and then about there (I’m indicating ground level) you have the unmitigated stinkers like Chart Throb and Blessed. And then about here (I’m shrugging as though to indicate I’ve forgotten) you have Blast From The Past and Past Mortem.

The other problem is the amount of material he recycles. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t follow his work so closely, but it can feel a little like one is being ripped off when the same gag turns up in a stand-up show, a musical, a novel, a sitcom and a TV show... there was a period when everything Ben wrote had to include a shoehorned spiel on how large chocolate bars and fizzy drinks are getting at the cinema, or how you can’t get normal toothbrushes these days, or how a woman has waxed her bits so smooth they could be laminated.

Oh, that’s the third problem. The obsession with female genitalia.

(If there’s a fourth problem – it’s the fact that the solutions to his whodunits are so bloody obvious he might as well not bother. I remember working out who the murderer was in Dead Famous from reading the cover inlay)

To begin with the negatives, Meltdown does feature the usual Ben Elton flaws. Whole chunks of the novel are reworkings of the ‘isn’t it hard bringing up kids, you never get any sleep’ stuff which left so many of us stony-faced in his mercifully-forgotten sitcom Blessed (which was later used by Armanda Ianucci as an example of why some types of sitcom don’t work if they’re not filmed in front of a studio audience). I also could have done without the ‘humorous’ digressions into leaky nipples and stretch marks – Ben, get a grip!

But the big surprise with this novel, and the great thing about it, is that Ben has found something he cares about again and has got a bit of moral fire in his word processor, not seen since High Society (probably his best novel). I mean, The First Casualty was pretty good, while Chart Throb was pretty abysmal (and recycled the twist of Silly Cow) and Blind Faith, although including lots of good stuff about moral relativism in a world of the vacuous, was basically a rewrite of Fahrenheit 451 by someone who hadn’t read Fahrenheit 451 with leftover nuggets from We Will Rock You thrown in.

With Meltdown, though, Ben has found a strong subject – the credit crunch, and politics in general over the last few years, taking in the futile hypocrisy of Live 8 (which gets quite a kicking), the cash-for-peerages thing and the MPs-expenses thing. It’s a great idea, and (unlike with Chart Throb) he’s found a good way into the story; a group of university friends who made good while the going was good, who each made a Faustian pact with the gods of mammon and then got bitten on the arse when push came to crunch. You have the property speculator, the architect of silly phallic skyscrapers, the New Labour MP...

Oh, and that’s the other surprise – Ben has remembered how to be left-wing again! I mean, all the characters are well-drawn and sympathetic with their own voices, but (I hope) there’s a bit of the author’s voice coming through in the condemnation of ludicrously high salaries for people who work in the public sector, the virtues of state education, and in particular both the compromised morals of a Labour government that gets into bed with the financial services industry, and the sheer momentumlessness of a government that hasn’t done a great deal to be proud of since banning fox-hunting ten years ago (where the only Big Idea they have left is to ban smoking).

My one suggestion would have been that the character who is killed in a road accident should have been swerving to avoid a fox. That would have been a lovely little extra irony.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

I'm Going Slighly Mad

Finished watching Bonkers on DVD, a comedy drama thing from a couple of years ago starring Lisa Tarbuck and written by the genius Sally Wainwright, the best writer in television at the moment. I know, ‘comedy drama’ makes it sound dreadfully half-baked and fairy-lights-on-the-stairs but it’s what comedy drama should be – where the comedy is big, silly and funny and the drama is heartbreaking and suspenseful and it’s all about beautifully well-drawn characters all played by great actors. It’s the sort of thing that ITV has done very well over the past decade, largely by employing Sally Wainwright and Mike Bullen.

The premise of the show was a bit Life On Mars; Helen (Lisa Tarbuck’s character) is having a mid-life crisis, having discovered that her husband of twenty years (Mark Addy) has been having an affair with a teenager with whom he has fathered a three-year-old baby. The next day, her film star of her dreams, a Hugh Grant figure called Felix Nash, appears in her kitchen. Only she can see or hear him. On top of that, her son is sleeping with the neighbours, her brother has burned down his house and is being investigated by the police for the murder of his fiancée, her other brother is unhappily married to a woman who is convinced he’s gay, while Helen’s boss at work is in love with her... if only soap operas were as fast and rude and imaginative as this. Throughout, everyone is drinking copious quantities of red wine, and it all ends with a wedding; the two obligatory requirements of an ITV comedy drama.

I don’t remember it doing particularly well, I missed one or two episodes at the time so I’m guessing it was badly scheduled, but it’s certainly up there with At Home With The Braithwaites, Jane Hall and Unforgiven.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Lost And Found

Off to the BFI for Missing Believed Wiped. After a thing about Bob Monkhouse’s extraordinary and unrivalled collection of Bob Monkhouse’s television appearances, a presentation on programmes shown on BSB which are now lost. Odd thing to watch, as I was one of the lucky (spoiled?) few to get BSB, via the squarial, and I’d seen all the ‘lost’ programmes before when I was about 16. If only I’d known then... that Noel Gay Television would dump almost their entire video archive in the nearest skip, I might have video-ed more things. As it is, I recorded William Hartnell episodes of Doctor Who, rather than now-missing editions of La Triviata (a rather jolly magazine show with Nick Hancock, like Mel and Sue’s Light Lunch), Laugh Lines with Nicholas Parsons (with guests including the ubiquitous Tony Slattery) and goodness knows how many editions of Up Yer News with Steve Punt (Up Yer News was an abysmal topical comedy show, like the Eleven O’Clock Show but even worse, if you can imagine such a thing). Instead I just taped pop videos, doing my very best to cut out the bits with the presenters in-between, and I ignored Keith Allen’s tedious, homophobic and right-wing sketch show and Rob Brydon’s delightfully laid-back movie review show and all sorts of other marvels now lost to posterity. Although they seem to have kept every episode of Jupiter Moon, such was their lunacy. I remember Spike Milligan doing a few editions of Up Yer News from the Edinburgh Festival which were quite funny. Anyway, I must have thrown away all the tapes, so call me Pamela Nash.

We did see the first episode of Ronnie Barker's long-thought-lost sitcom His Lordship Entertains which was, surprisingly, very funny. Surprisingly because it died a death at the time and was quickly wiped, despite being written by a pseudonymous Ronnie Barker, with David Jason in a supporting role as a grotesque elderly hotel porter. The characters were stereotypes and the plot was wafer thin, but it was all seaside postcard jokes – including some very obvious, un-pc stuff about a busty waitress’s dumplings – all played extremely broadly, like an end-of-the-pier farce, but great fun all the same; much better than the impression given from the published scripts. It’s not a Fawlty Towers Mark I, as Ronnie like to claim; it’s closer to Up Pompeii or On The Buses.

This was followed by a recently-discovered episode of Till Death Us Do Part, State Visit, in which Alf rails against bloody Wilson who has invited the Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin, to meet the Queen. To be honest, it wasn’t the best episode – the first twenty-five minutes was a repetitive first-draft (albeit one certainly written in a mad dash to be topical by a half-cut Johnny Speight) with Alf endlessly throwing away a copy of the Daily Mirror in disgust and Mike constantly pointing out to him that the UK was no longer a first-rate power, with Dandy Nichols pretty much stealing the episode with a ramble about the next-door neighbour’s new fence. After about five minutes argument about West Ham, the episode then has Alf and Else going to visit Downing Street and Buckingham Palace before a tag scene where a bit of contrived slapstick indicates the episode has completely run out of steam. It’s lovely it exists, and to be treasured, but it wasn’t nearly so much fun as His Lordship Entertains.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Give It Up

Today's LoveFilm choice was The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. It opened with about five minutes of scene-setting narration, as related by an old lady in a hospital. This was illustrated with flashbacks to the early part of the twentieth century; with that annoying made-to-look-like-old-newsreel-film effect (annoying, because what we’re seeing is supposed to be memories, and not old newsreel – I hate it whenever TV shows or films do this, making footage look like old super-8 movies to indicate memories of the 70’s, even the bloody news has started doing it). Anyway, then your man out of Primeval, his wife gives birth to this baby, except it’s all old and wrinkly, and then after about another quarter of an hour it’s grown up to be a kid and AAARGH WILL SOMETHING BLOODY HAPPEN PLEASE GOD ANYTHING WOULD BE NICE

That’s when we stopped. After twenty minutes. Couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting for another god-knows-how-long before someone in the film noticed the bleedin’ obvious, that the baby was growing younger, not older.

But does this make the Curious Case one of the worst films I’ve ever seen? Or am I only allowed to count films I’ve seen all the way through, such as the truly dreadful remake of The Time Machine, or Kill Bill Volume One? But surely all those films I’ve given up must be worse, because I’ve physically been so bored, irritated or disgusted that I’ve stopped watching – or, in the case of Lemony Snicket's A Serious Of Unfortunate Events, left the cinema after about an hour (couldn’t stand any more of Jim Carrey’s mugging). Other films I’ve stopped watching... Hook, Hannibal, Yellowbeard, I’ve never got more than half an hour into Tommy and as far as I’m concerned Bedazzled ends with Dudley Moore on Top Of The Pops. And yet I’ve seen Southland Tales all the way through.

The film I gave up on after the least amount of time – which may not be the worst film I’ve seen, as I am in no position to judge – was The History Boys. I gave up on that after about five minutes – before most of the cast had even appeared on screen. Let me describe the opening to you. It begins with Gracie Fields singing Wish Me Luck As I Wave You Goodbye. This is to establish people are leaving home and is intended to be an ironic juxtaposition. Or at least, if you were a moron, that’s what you might mistake it for, anyway. Then we see a kid in eighties clothes cycling through some Up North town, before meeting up with a mate. Then there’s a caption ‘Yorkshire 1983’. What, the whole county? The whole year? Apparently so! And we hear the opening thumps of Blue Monday by New Order, in order to establish that this is the early eighties for anyone who HASN’T READ THE SODDING CAPTION. Anyway, they get their exam results, they’ve all done terribly well, when who should walk in but Clive Merrison as a headmaster. ‘Why are you dressed as a milkman’ he asks one of the boys. The boy answers ‘Work, sir. For the ‘olidays’. Yes, he actually says ‘olidays’. Because even though this is Yorkshire in 1983 he is a BLOODY COCKNEY. Clive then tells the boys (all obviously in their mid-twenties) that they will be coming back after the holidays to try for Oxford and Cambridge WHY DON’T THEY KNOW THIS ALREADY? because they are the best results the school has ever had SUBTLE EXPOSITION, THERE, ALAN and you have to study an extra term to get into those universities WHY ARE YOU TELLING THEM SOMETHING THEY MUST KNOW ALREADY?. Then Miss Jones from Rising Damp turns up, to give the boys a hug to the braying cries of ‘three A’s, three A’s!’ followed by Uncle Monty from Withnail And I who is CLEARLY A LOVEABLE PAEDOPHILE who then talks some shit. And then we hear This Charming Man by The Smiths because it is STILL THE EIGHTIES IN CASE YOU HAD FORGOTTEN IN THE LAST SIXTY SECONDS EVEN THOUGH THAT SONG WASN'T A HIT UNTIL THE NINETIES. Anyway, we see Miss Jones taking a lesson, stressing that this is ‘Oxford and Cambridge’ before we cut to Clive Merrison saying ‘they’re clever... but they’re crass. And were it Bristol or York I’d have no worries – ’ OH CHRIST THIS WHOLE FILM IS GOING TO BE ONE LONG SMUG PATRONISING ELITIST EXERCISE IN SELF-GRATIFICATION WITH ALAN BENNETT WORKING HIMSELF INTO A LATHER ABOUT HOW MARVELLOUS OXBRIDGE IS AND HOW IT’S OKAY TO FIDDLE ROUGH WORKING CLASS BOYS IF IT MEANS THEY GET INTO A POSH COLLEGE.

Six minutes thirty seconds. No more.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

He's Misstra Know-It-All

I’ve been in several ‘fandoms’ over the years, and irrespective of whatever-it-is the fans are fans of, the same personality types tend to be present. There’s Mr (or Ms) Relentlessly Negative. There’s Mr (or Ms) Relentlessly Positive And On Message. There’s Mr (or Ms) I Was Here First And Have Spent More Money Than You, So My Opinion Counts For More Than Yours. All well-intentioned types, in their own way.

But then there’s another type of fan, Mr (or Ms) I Know Something You Don’t. He (or she – but let’s assume maleness for simplicity) is the fan who claims to be In The Know. Who has Access To Future Plans. Who knows all the Scandalous Secrets.

Now, you may think I am talking about someone specific. Well, yes, I am probably talking about exactly the person you’re thinking of, but I’m also talking about a dozen or so others too.

Talking of being specific – that’s something Mr IKSYD would never do. Because, after all, knowing something that people other people don’t is no fun if you tell them whatever-it-is you know; then you would no longer no something that other people don’t. No, you have to crow. You have to gloat. And most of all, you have to hint.

Hints can come in many forms. They’re all smug and annoying. Generally, it’s a way of saying, ‘Oh, I know something about that’ without ever revealing what you know. The ellipsis is the friend of Mr IKSYD, he uses it at the end of every sentence. ‘Oh, I think you’ll find there’s more to Kalid than meets the eye...’ ‘Oh, I think you’ll find there will be an unexpected surprise for fans at the concert...’

Why aren’t they more specific? Two reasons. Neither of which are because they wish to protect their source. No. Firstly, the pleasure of gloating is all in the sadism of teasing, and secondly, because Mr IKSYD is often utterly wrong. So he needs to cover himself for that – extremely likely and frequent – eventuality. Secure in the knowledge that people will only remember the few morsels that he got right.

It’s pathetic. It’s a grown-up still playing that game you play when you’re five, the game of ‘I know a secret’. Where someone asks you ‘What is your secret?’ and you say ‘Guess... and I’ll tell you when you’ve got it right!’. The game being, the person with the secret doesn’t even need to have a secret at all. Oh, grow the F up!

But I’m confusing the issue – because there are two distinct types of Mr IKSYD, the Munchausens who are simply bullshitting like they’re back in the playground, and Mr IKSYD, the Deep Throats who actually do know stuff. Because, you know, it’s not difficult to find stuff out. It’s actually very straightforward; all it takes it a certain type of obsessive, calculating, mendacious persistence.

That said, they’re both equally pathetic. How tragically atrophied their genitals must be if getting one-up on their fellow fans is the only way in which they can feel significant. ‘Oh, I managed to steal a script from a bin and post it online... so from now on I wish to be known as The Shadow!’

The ones who drop hint though, the ones who do the dot-dot-dot, they’re the worst. Why? Because they don’t think they giving away spoilers. But – and this is a crucial but – when a story is constructed, it’s a carefully-planned trail of exposition and misdirection, where the author has chosen what to hint, what to conceal. And even the smallest hint can destroy all that hard work. Just tell someone to ‘pay close attention at the scene where Bruce Willis is shot...’ and you’ll see what I mean.

The irony being, of course, that fans who are genuinely In The Know tend to shut up about it, because they would be horrified at the idea of ‘spoilering’ the enjoyment of others.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

No Values

Former Archbishop of Canterbury says politicians must do more to limit net immigration to the UK.

He so very nearly has a point. But he’s got it wrong.

Of course it would be a bad idea for the UK population to rise to 70 million. That’s more cars, more congestion, more electricity and gas consumption, longer queues at the post office and the expansion of towns into green belts. Irrespective of any of those things, just do the maths – if the population increases by about 15 per cent, then either the economy is going to have to increase by at least 15 per cent or everybody, on average, is going to be substantially worse off, with a poorer standard of living.

Where he’s wrong is in talking about ‘immigration’, as though it is the cause of the problem. The problem is one of world wide over-population, and the only solution is by reducing the birth rate. And the best way reduce the birth rate is by campaigning for sexual equality and, in particular, for women to have access to contraception (including medical termination). Is that a priority for the Church of England?

In terms of the UK population, there isn’t any difference at all whether one extra bum taking your seat on the tube belongs to an immigrant or someone born here; but how do you reduce the birth rate, when having as many children as you like (whether you can afford to look after them or not) is considered an inalienable human right?

Carey seems rather cloudy on what his point is; he says he’s not in favour of a points-based system or in favouring Christians but also feels it is important that potential immigrants should be given priority if they understand our culture and parliamentary democracy which he claims, with scant regard for historical accuracy, to be based on a Christian heritage (rather than, say, the Chartist movement). One wonders also that if Christianity and parliamentary democracy are so profoundly interlinked, why there isn’t a parliamentary democracy in every Christian nation (such as the USA) and why so many non-Christian countries have adopted the system, from Sri Lanka to Bhutan. He says immigrants should be favoured if they understand British history; something which he clearly has trouble with.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Kinks Choral Collection

Top Xmas present – The Kinks Choral Collection, as performed by Ray Davies And The Crouch End Festival Chorus. I’d listened to it on Spotify, and thought it was so marvellous that I put it on my Xmas list. There, you see – free services like Spotify do lead to CD sales, turns out the music industry has nothing to worry about after all.

The idea of a creaky old rockstar performing updated versions of their old hits would normally not appeal; too many bad memories of cheapo compilations ‘re-recorded by the original artist’. And with the original versions of every Kink song being definitive and sublime, what would be the point in re-interpreting them?

But rules have exceptions, and this is one, because it’s absolutely transcendent. Ray is still in great voice, and plaintively and persuasively carries each tune (when so many singers get bored of singing the same old melody and start to free-wheel ‘around’ it). The choral backing gives each track a more epic, yet more pure and etheral quality, so you’re getting the Kinks songs you know and love with added umph.

The chorus covers most of the harmonies, and the arrangements tend to stick pretty closely to the originals (save for a Parisian take on Do You Remember Walter?). It’s most effective on the ballads, Days, Waterloo Sunset, Celluloid Heroes and Village Green; the tracks aren’t quite a greatest hits, as we get almost half of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and a couple of new ones (which again, is normally bad news on a compilation, but these acquit themselves admirably).

Village Green Preservation Society reminds me I was going to do a blog of my top ten songs that sound like they were recorded by The Wombles. Like Mr Blue Sky and See My Baby Jive. One for another day.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Tables Have Turned

Spent today in a recording studio, second day of a thing which has sort-of already been announced but which I’m not going to say what it is. It went well, everyone was marvellous and I drank far too much black coffee.

Speaking of things being recorded, though, I can now begin plugging stuff for 2010; the first being the audio tale Jago & Litefoot: The Spirit Trap, as announced in Doctor Who Magazine. Out in June as part of a ‘Series One’ box set. Litefoot and Jago are, respectively, a professor of medicine and a theatrical entrepreneur, first seen many years ago in the Doctor Who adventure The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and more recently heard in the recent, absolutely terrific, audio adventure The Mahogany Murderers. They’re portrayed by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin (who was a terrific Falstaff at the Globe a couple of years ago).

It was written in late November last year and recorded on December 18th, so follow this link here to read the relevant blog. That’s a pretty fast turnaround, which suits me, as it means there’s less time for procrastination and vacillation. In the story, our heroes investigate the phenomena of table-tapping...

As ‘research’ I read Matthew Sweet’s fantastic book on the Victorians, which was utterly useless for my purposes as Jago & Litefoot is set very much within the fog-and-gaslight world of the twentieth century’s romanticised version of that era; the world of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu. I also read The Table Rappers by Ronald Pearsall, which was a useful, if awkwardly-written, account of nineteenth century spiritualism, séances, clairvoyance and so on; largely from a sceptical viewpoint, though Pearsall (bizarrely) concludes that a few practitioners, such as D D Home, were probably genuine. Well, I suppose it’s good to keep an open mind...