Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Who Does That (The Third*)?

Look, I wasn’t intending for this to become a running series but either the universe is telling me something or I just work in a particularly unpleasant building.** I’m also well aware that this isn’t necessarily a subject that everyone is interested but the analytics would seem to indicate that these are more popular than the rest of my drivel so who am I to deny a depraved audience their dirty treats?

This time, the offence was instantaneous upon the opening of the cubicle door and provoked a number of simultaneous reactions. Disgust was, of course, first and foremost (with a side scraping of nausea to go along with it). Indignation at the person who had felt that it was acceptable to leave the toilet in this state in a working environment. A kind of grudging respect was also there for the sher scale of the spectacle on display.

Let me paint a visual picture***. Imagine, if you will, that a very large boat that is sinking. For those that have seen the film Titanic, this should be relatively easy, especially as it takes about ninety minutes of the ludicrously long running time doing that. This boat has split in two and the back half of the boat has now tilted to the perpendicular with the aft pointing straight up into the sea. Gravity takes it toll and the whole things begins to sink down into the depths. Hold that image there. Now imagine that the boat isn’t made of wood or metal but is instead made of human fecal matter and is residing, unflushed, in the bowl of the toilet in front of you. A goodly proportion of it is clear of the water but the rest is hidden beneath the waves****.

I use the boat imagery here largely to invoke a sense of scale. This thing was big. We’re talking freakish big here. “Big” in the sense of “how-does-this-even-fit-in-a-human-colon-big”. As I said earlier, disgust and grudging respect were fighting themselves here. There was a brief microsecond of an instinct to take a picture of it for proof, in much the same way that you would if you were to discover Sasquatch, but disgust fortunately won out on this one. I backed away slowly and closed the door.

I’m beginning to think it might be better all round if I just hold it til I get home nowadays…

* Hilarious rhyming slang-based pun there. Thinking about it, I really should have called the last one "Number Two"...

** Further disclaimer - the building in which I work is occupied by many different companies so the blame for these could rest with any one of a number of companies. I am in no way singling out any particular company as the chief perpetrators of bottom discourtesy.

*** Probably didn't need the word “visual” there - if I’m painting you a picture, it is by default visual and, as this a written blog, I’m unlikely to be painting you an aural one.

**** Waves used metaphorically here. All was still.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Overlooked Cult UK TV - The Owl Service

If yesterday’s example skirted with themes that were surprisingly adult for a kids show, today’s goes merrily dancing around waving a big old adult banner.

One thing I forgot to mention and should definitely have gone in the “tropes” spot is that there are a large number of single season stories from the 70s. A lot of serials told their story in six to eight episodes and then were done, complete, finished. In these days of endlessly rolling series (Supernatural is hitting its fifteenth series next year) or the far more common example of series cancelled mid-cliffhanger, it’s quite refreshing to watch things that simply stop once their story is done.

So What Is It? The Owl Service, an eight episode single serial; aired in 1969/1970.

What’s It About? This is the sort of series where answering that could take up whole essays… It follows Alison and her stepbrother Roger as they stay for the summer with their recently married parents in a house owned by Alison’s uncle. Alison discovers a dinnerware set in the attic with an owl pattern (the titular Owl Service) which begins to have strange effects on her. Soon, Alison, Roger and local boy Gwyn find themselves beginning to re-enact the local legend of the tragedy that befell the flower woman, the king and the magician…

Why’s It Good? It’s pretty densely layered stuff, particularly for a show which has been ostensibly commissioned under the banner of children’s TV. In fact, ITV had second thoughts about it appearing in their regular weekday kids slot and moved it to the slightly later family slot on a Sunday. They were clearly also concerned about viewers following the plot as each episode opens with a narrated recap of the previous one which actually explicitly states some things that weren't immediately obvious before! It starts with an ominously creepy title sequence - a blend of music and disturbing sound effects - and builds a fairly unsettled atmosphere. It’s a complex story about the cyclical nature of myth and legend as well as people being trapped by the past into repeating mistakes and also tackles the fairly heavy theme of teenage sexual awakening-  definitely not the sort of stuff you find on CBBC!

70s Tropes:- Dead/Missing Mothers (Alison’s mother is there and often impacts the plot but is never shown on screen which makes it seem as if she might be a figment of their imaginations…); Creepy Theme Music (as mentioned above); May Contain Adult Themes (basically the whole thing)

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Overlooked Cult UK TV - King Of The Castle

Doctor Who. The Prisoner. The Avengers. Blake’s 7. Space: 1999. All massively well known classic British sci fi/fantasy series and all much picked over, discussed, debated and analysed. So let’s not talk about them*. During the 60s and 70s (and to an extent the 80s), there was a wealth of cult TV scattered all over the schedule, most of which don’t get a lot of coverage. Let’s do a little bit in this tiny corner to redress the balance , shall we? Yes, it’s time for another theme that will probably drop by the wayside after a week or so. (Still, keeps me off the streets for a bit, eh?)

I’m going to start with a selection of series made ostensibly for children’s television but don't seem like the sort of show that would be ear-marked for kids nowadays. It seems that, in the 70s in particular, television executives either weren’t afraid to expose young minds to concepts that might be tricky to understand or paid so little attention to what was going out in the kids slots that the programme makers could get away with murder (I suspect a little from Column A and a little from Column B depending on the show).

So What Is It? King Of The Castle, a seven episode single serial; aired in May/June 1977.

What’s It About? Roland, a smart child who doesn’t quite fit in at his new private school as he’s not from an affluent background, is also bullied at the tower block where he lives with his dad and stepmother for going to that very same school. To escape the bullies, he retreats into a broken lift and finds himself plunged into the dungeon of a strange fantasy world, the Castle, peopled by twisted versions of people from his real life. To escape, he must find the King Of The Castle…

Why’s It Good? The first episode sets the tone and is surprisingly stylish, being mostly shot on location and film, and with lots of dynamic camera work (dutch angles, a hint of fish eye lens) accompanied by some full-on performances (Fulton Mackay in particular is very much enjoying himself). The world of the Castle itself (while looking a little cheaper given that it’s studio-based and shot on video) is realised with a nice sense of surrealism and feels suitably nightmarish. The elements tackled within are surprisingly adult - the stepmother analogue’s entreaties for him to love her are weirdly Oedipal and the episode dealing with the frustrating circularity of bureaucracy has the feel of Brazil if it had been made a seventies kids show. While there are obviously shades of both Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard Of Oz within it, the writers have stated that Kafka was more of an influence (and which current kids shows are likely to say that??).

70s Connections:- Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin wrote for both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker on Doctor Who (and were the creators of K9).

Extra Trivia:- Bob Baker also co-wrote for Wallace And Gromit.

70s Tropes:- Dead/Missing Mothers (seems to come up a lot in 70s kids telly); May Contain Adult Themes (being wooed by his stepmother and having to defeat his father; spirit-crushing bureaucracy); Creepy Theme Music (children's choir singing about being King Of The Castle to organ music? Yup, it's definitely on the creepometer)

* Apart from the times that I have and/or will talk about them, that is. As always, I reserve the right to both make and break the rules around here.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Six Zero Zero

It prowls hungrily, belly rumbling. Always the need is there. Content. It must have content or it will starve. No matter how slight, no matter how slim, it will take whatever it can for sustenance. Nothing is forthcoming, no prey in sight. There must be something... Out of the gloom, a thin sliver of potentiality appears. It crouches, poised. The content is ragged - thin and anaemic-looking - but it hungers. It pounces and, finally, the blog is fed…

All of which is to say that sometimes inspiration is thin on the ground so here’s a post about posts to celebrate a good old-fashioned utterly meaningless milestone. This is the six hundredth blog post on this here site* and how much has it changed in the eleven years since it was started? Has this site charted a journey of growth and maturity from the chap in his early thirties obsessed with film , TV and pop culture in general through to someone pelting headlong into middle age with a more diverse, cultured and refined air about him? Given that the last post on here was about toilet behaviour, I think we can all guess what the answer is to that one…

Let’s double-down on the navel-gazing given it’s an especially navel-gaze-y post today. What’s this blog for? Does it have a point, a purpose? Should it have one? Should it be more focussed in its approach, narrowing itself down to be about something specific instead of a rambly grab bag of tat?

In a rare display of clarity, let’s answer those questions for once:- It’s for me to exercise the grey muscle lurking behind the eyes. It keeps me amused first and foremost with any subsequent amusement derived by others being a nice side benefit. That’s a good enough one for me. It might well be that it should be more focussed but it’s not going to; I like it being a rambly grab bag of tat and being about whatever it is that I want it to be about on that particular day.

So there you go. Carrying on as it started - with a load of old toot that may or may not mean something and may or may not be read. If there ever was a mission statement for this infinitesimally tiny nook of the internet, that’s as close as you’re gonna get. Give it another six hundred, I reckon, see how it goes...

* Whack another two hundred and twenty on top of that if you count the MySpace (yes, that was once a thing) blog posts from way, way back in the day which have long since disappeared into the great neverwhere of vanished corners of the web. (They still exist, of course, as I’m the sort of ludicrous obsessive who keeps offline copies of absolutely everything…)

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Who Does That Too?

I see. I’ve got the measure of you all now. It turns out that the most read post of the last few months was the one in which I talked about unusual behaviour whilst visiting the little boys room. Alright then, you scatalogical sinners, let it never be said that I don't give the audience what it wants. Time to follow it up with something else of a lavatorial nature. As before, if you have no interest in things of this nature (which clearly isn’t the case as borne out by the previous post), please do come back again next time when it’ll probably be… films or something, in all likelihood, innit.

I am beginning to wonder about some of the people who work here in [OFFICE BUILDING REDACTED]. It’s entirely possible that I am the strange one here (shush now, this isn’t audience participation) but I suspect not. The latest breach of water closet etiquette is nowhere near as egregious as the first example but it’s still a major no-no* as far as I’m concerned. 

I am settled in the cubicle in the traditional pose a la Rodin’s Thinker. I hear the stall next door become occupied. Shortly afterwards, a phone rings (actual ringing, not the frantic buzzing of silent mode**). 

“Ah,” thinks I, “that’ll be probably be switched to voicemail.”

On that count, I am absolutely wrong as, unbelievably, the phone is answered and a conversation ensues. Now, I don’t know about you but this is not a time that I:- a) want to be having a conversation with any other human being (the word “occupied” is entirely appropriate here); and b) want anyone else to hear what I’m doing at this moment in time. I know that it’s traditional to bash men for an inability to multitask but this is one occasion where I feel that unitasking is more than acceptable.

I mean, there’s a certain sound quality to a toilet cubicle. Particularly a public one where you may be picking up the ambient sounds of the other cubicles. It’s a move that says that you are either remarkably assured or possessed of a complete lack of self-awareness (and I suspect I know which way it falls on this one).

The kicker? After finishing all business (phone-related or otherwise), the cubicle was exited and then the toilets as a whole without the sound of any taps being run.

I think I’m going to have to give up shaking people’s hands.

* I think that Major No-No would be a good character to deploy if the old public information films were to be rebooted. He could firmly and sternly inform children of the dangers of walking slowly in front of people in Central London, playing your shit music out loud through your shit mobile speakers and just generally not being little pricks. I reckon I’m on to a winner there.

** A small side rant here - anyone who has their phone ringer volume up throughout the working day is an absolute psychopath. There’s one on a desk not too far away from me and they always leave their phone on their desk, filling the air with the jarringly loud (and it is turned up to max by the sound of it) and intensely irritating sound of their ringtone. Just switch it to silent. You will still notice it.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

In Defence Of - Going To The Cinema

Does is need defending? It certainly seems that, as an experience, it’s been under threat for some time now. First VHS then DVD and now streaming; all of these things have, according to the press over the years, signalled the imminent demise of the big screen film. I don’t think that’s true, however, and I don’t think it ever will be (in much the same way that the advent of ebooks hasn’t completely obliterated the good old fashioned paper variant).

Before we get on to the defending bit though (and by “we”, I mean me - you haven’t got any say in this), let’s get the bad points out the way because there are some and it would foolish to gloss over them. Let’s tick them off in bullet-point style because who doesn’t love a list?

  • The wrong food. Popcorn is noisy. Why the thundering heck have we decided that this is the best thing to have with us when trying to listen to something?
  • Other people smells. As a recent trip evidenced, not everyone has the same standards of hygiene and this can be nasally distressing.
  • The mobile phone. There are still people who insist on checking their phones during a film or “arseholes” as they’re more commonly known.

All of these things can be irritating, sure, but they don’t detract from this, the main argument:-

  • It transports you somewhere else.

There is something about the big screen, the surround sound, the darkness, the shared experience of something unfolding for a group of you at the same time - all of these things combine to take you away from everyday life and into whatever world, be it real or imaginary, that the filmmaker wants you to inhabit for the duration. There’s a convenience element to watching something at home but that takes away from the film. You could pause it, you could stop it and watch the rest of it later but, in the cinema, you;re there start to finish exactly as was intended when it was being made.

There’s still a love for and a demand for it, from newer blockbusters to older classics. I’ve been in a full house for the biggest Marvel blockbuster on the year (which was accompanied by spontaneous cheering, whooping and sobbing) and I’ve been in a full house for a film that’s turned forty years old this year (and was surprised at how much I laughed at it given that I practically know the script).  So I’ll be spending a fair amount of time through the remainder of this year heading in, sitting in the dark (phone definitely off) and letting the big screen take me away to somewhere else...

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

WatchLookViewSee - Pain And Glory

I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of my renewed BFI membership. Not many other cinemas where you would get to see a preview screening of an acclaimed director’s new film with the director in attendance afterward for a (bilingual) Q&A.

Pain And Glory (Dolor y Gloria)
Dir. Pedro Almodovar / Dur. 112 mins

In A Nutshell:- An ageing film director whose career has stalled takes stock of his current and past life.

The Good:- I’ve only seen a couple of Pedro Almodovar films but one of the things I particularly liked about them was the sense of narrative surprise - at no point did I have a strong sense of where this was going to end up. The same was definitely true here - which made for a satisfying feeling when it did come to a fitting conclusion. There’s a strong sense of the meta in it - there’s a thread of autobiography running through it given that it deals with a film director (although it is still a fiction as Alomdovar did say in the Q&A that he’s weaved together elements from his own childhood as well as other friends and family members). The cast are uniformly strong but the highest plaudits must go to Antonio Banderas here who delivers a great performance - measured and understated. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen him in before and actually made me keen to see him in something similar. It looks great - Almodovar has a very keen visual style (and apparently tries out actors in costumes in front of different set elements until he gets the look he’s searching for!). It’s also very funny in places with the scenes around reconnecting with an old actor with whom he’d fallen out with as well as the scenes with his mother being some of the standouts.

The Bad:- The only very minor criticism that I would have is that there seems to be a very heavy amount of coincidence involved in propelling things along but that is a minor complaint indeed.

The Verdict:- While the film itself may be a meditation on a director who believes himself to be past his prime, there’s no such worry here with Almodovar. This is a filmmaker at the top of his game and is definitely on the list for my top films of the year. 

Monday, 12 August 2019

WatchLookViewSee - Brightburn

Alongside the overwhelming omnipresence of the superhero film on the big screen at the moment, the horror film seems to be making something of a resurgence. Let’s see what happens when you put the two together.

Brightburn (2019)
Dir. David Yarovesky / Dur. 90 mins

In A Nutshell:- Superman’s origin played as a horror story.

The Good:- Given the familiarity with young Clark Kent’s upbringing in Smallville that the majority of the viewing public has, it’s surprising that something like this hasn’t been brought to the big screen before*. It’s also surprising how well the elements of that story fit into a horror framework - child arrives mysteriously to parents who can't have children; child is not quite right; secrets relating to the child’s origins are looked away in the family barn… The cast are generally strong with the standout being Elizabeth Banks (who’s always good value). The film also has fun playing around with those standard sort of questions people have asked over the years - if Superman wasn’t a force for good, how would he use/abuse his powers? What would really happen if you gave a hormonal teenager with personality disorder the powers of a god-like being? As it is a horror. There is one particularly gruesome scene in a diner that you definitely wouldn't find in a superhero movie (and which exhibits some nice directorial touches in the way that it’s shot too).
There’s also a nice tongue-in-cheek nod during the end credits sequence to the current trend of teasing a new superhero universe at the end of any current comic book film (and a blink and you’ll miss it link to James Gunn’s Super - not surprising as this film was written by his brothers).

The Bad:- Overall, it doesn’t quite feel like it fully adds up to the sum of its parts. The ending feels a little like a full descent into a fairly standard full-blown horror film and doesn’t quite feel like it fully delivers on the promise set up early in the film.

The Verdict:- While maybe not as successful as you would hope, this is still an intriguing take on the superhero origin by filtering it through the lens of a horror film. Worth a watch.

* It’s certainly the sort of thing that’s been done in comics before, just not on the big screen

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Comedy Archeology - So Much Stuff

This seems like a good point to take a hiatus from these. I’m such a ludicrous comedy obsessive that, the more I write, the more I realise that this could just run and run and run until really I’m the only one that’s got any interest left in what’s being spat out onto the page here. There are a lot of key things that I still haven’t covered off. If I do come back to it, here are some of the things that I’ve missed out.

- Stand up throughout the years; live and pre-recorded; favourites seen live including Bill Bailey, Ross Noble, Harry Hill, Eddie Izzard, Greg Davies, Daniel Kitson plus more
- More classic 80s comedies like The Princess Bride, Back To The Future*, Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure
- 90s comedy films - Groundhog Day, There’s Something About Mary, Austin Powers, The Big Lebowski
- Overlooked comedy shows - Chelmsford 123, Mr Don And Mr George, Fairly Secret Army, Paul Merton: The Series, Whose Line Is It Anyway?
- Silly for the sake of being silly - Reeves & Mortimer, The Mighty Boosh, Adult Swim
- Trey Parker & Matt Stone - Alfred Packer: The Musical, South Park, Orgazmo, BASEketball, Team America, The Book Of Mormon
- Cartoons of the 90s - Rocko’s Modern Life, Johnny Bravo, Ren And Stimpy, The Tick
- Comic novels - PG Wodehouse, Sue Townsend, David Nobbs, Tom Sharpe
- Classic American sitcoms - Cheers, MASH, Roseanne, Soap, Frasier
- Comedy songs - Flight Of The Conchords, Tenacious D, Weird Al Yankovic, Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes

And many, many , many more. For everything I write up there, I’m probably leaving out two other things that I’ve enjoyed / have had just as much of an impact on me. If you’ve been wondering, “Why hasn’t he mentioned ?”, it may well be on the list up there. If it isn’t then it’s egregiously slipped my mind. Don’t worry, it may well come up when I eventually get round to covering all these topics. 

(Disclaimer:- The above list does not constitute a guarantee that any of these things may well eventually be written about and any expectations raised upon said list are entirely the responsibility of the reader)

* Hmm, the more I’ve been saying that sci fi and comedy is tricky to mix, the more I’m finding excellent examples of it.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Comedy Archeology - Is It Still Real?

It’s become almost the default style for a lot of comedies but here are some of the examples of show-within-a-show / mockumentary comedies that have a strong rewatch value for me.

The Larry Sanders Show
As has been belated on about time and time again in this series of witterings, the core of any long-lasting comedy is a strong dynamic between the central characters - you understand exactly why they need each other and exactly what drives them to frustration about each other. The central trio of Larry, Hank and Artie in The Larry Sanders Show are a fine example. It also helps that the three are backed up by strong performances and some cracking writing. Add in a selection of extremely famous often more than willing to poke fun at themselves and you’ve got a winning formula.

The Office (US)
“Hmm”, I imagine you’re thinking, “he’s mentioned the Amercian one but seems to have left off the UK one. Is that an omission?” Nope, it is not. I tried watching the original Office when it was first on and I just couldn’t find Ricky Gervais funny. I’m in a minority on this one as clearly millions of people love his stuff but he just leaves me cold. The American version, on the other hand..

Well, OK, a small caveat here - the first season is not great, largely because they are direct remakes of the UK one. However, once it hits the second season, finds its own voice and allows the supporting cast to expand and become an ensemble, it really hits its stride. The most satisfying part is the development of the relationships between Jim, Pam and Dwight and the fact that is gets brought to a conclusion (that even involves the documentary crew who have been unseen  up until the final season).

Parks And Recreation
Of the three in this post, this has to be my favourite. In much the same way as The Office, it takes its first season to find its feet* but, once it does, it’s an absolute cracker. With the exception of Mark Brandanowicz who they never really seemed to know what to do with, the whole ensemble brings something to the table here. As with The Office, once it expands out a bit more to include the supporting characters in a stronger way (particularly Donna and Jerry), it becomes something immensely rewatchable. It’s also fairly optimistic and hopeful - something that’s not always to be found in a sitcom but an element that has carried forward into producer Michael Schur’s follow ups, Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Good Place.

* Where the first season of The US Office was too much a copy of the UK one, the first season of Parks And Rec is a little too much like a copy of the US Office (unsurprisingly given that it was created by producers who worked on that show and was potentially going to be a direct spin-off at one point)

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Comedy Archeology - Is It Real?

Come the nineties and we enter a period where comedy so closely resembles the thing it is spoofing in look and style that it takes a moment to process that what you’re seeing isn’t actually what it looks like.

The Day Today / BrassEye
I have to admit, when I first saw the trailers for The Day Today, I wasn’t fully paying attention and thought that it was about a news programme launching on BBC2. The attention to style and detail that Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Steve Coogan and the cast all exhibited, both in terms of performance and look/feel are what make this a bona fide classic. References to famous people of the time aside, it’s differs from a lot of other satirical programmes in that the target isn’t those people but the absurdity of news reporting itself. Much of the material itself is of an abstract and surreal nature (as with a lot of my favourites, concerned with the sounds and uses of language and their inherent silliness) and still stands strong over 25 years later (as does the original radio version, On The Hour). 

Chris Morris was to combine this with a fondness for pranks (as developed on his radio shows) when he launched BrassEye on an unsuspecting nation. It’s definitely more savage and targeted in its attacks and, by duping unsuspecting celebrities to take part, creates an even more heightened sense of realism. However, despite its more topical satirical nature, it contains a strong sense of silliness and love of language.

Alan Partridge
Originally a bit part character in On The Hour / The Day Today, Partridge graduated to his own chat show, first on radio and then on BBC2, and perfectly captured that particularly English brand of small-minded low tier celebrity (who would become targets of Chris Morris in BrassEye). It’s the minutely observed character details and fully fleshed out background (the wife who ultimately leaves him, the ABBA-themed children, the name dropping of equally D-list celebrity friends) that have made him an enduring presence in many forms - sitcom, film, autobiography and back round to chat show host again).

Over the years, the mockumentary has become something of a default setting. Across the pond, having made it a definitive comedy style with Spinal Tap, the Americans were to come up with some sterling TV examples of the genre...