Thursday, 22 April 2010

Politics is boring? You CANNOT be serious

Go on, admit it. This election is turning out to be far more exciting, fun and unpredictable than you ever imagined, isn’t it?

Now, I know not everybody subscribes to my long-held belief that politics is the most underrated sport in this country but I really hope that more and more people are enjoying what is turning out to be a splendidly confusing electoral battle.

Let’s be honest, for the past few elections we’ve pretty much known who was going to win before a vote was cast. It’s a bit like watching Premiership football – if you’re a Wigan fan you have great hopes but you always secretly know that Manchester United or Chelsea are going to dash them spectacularly.

But in this General Election absolutely nothing is fixed and all the bosses of all the teams in this year’s campaign must be feeling suddenly very hopeful at the moment.

What really set the rabbit running in the whole campaign was last week’s first ever TV debate between the three main party leaders. I said in this column last week (perhaps more in hope than expectation) that I hoped people would tune in – and millions duly did. And, if that wasn’t enough, many of them clearly changed their vote (or at least their current thinking) on the basis of what they saw.

It was once said in a very different age that a week is a long time in politics – nowadays just 90 televised minutes is all it takes to change a political landscape.

If we agree (and let’s be honest we all agree) that Nick Clegg was the victor on the first night, then both of the other leading candidates shouldn’t panic. Instead they should feel encouraged that a good performance can totally transform perspectives – as Mr Clegg proved last week. It was, after all, only the first of three gruelling boxing rounds.

Before that debate the opinion polls had been steady, if a little inconsistent but afterwards they became confused, if a little crazed. What this showed above all was that none of the parties have clearly made the big breakthrough they yearn for and the electorate is as volatile as an Icelandic volcano.

The national debate has obviously helped keep up the local interest as well and the seats we are covering are very lively indeed.

In Bath, for example, no sooner had we finished putting together a page in the Bath Chronicle asking ten questions to all the candidates we knew about, than another four candidates duly emerged at the last minute to give us all an extraordinarily and unexpectedly diverse choice.

One of the new candidates whose name and identity are not being revealed, certainly caused a stir when he walked into our office looking vaguely like an extra from The Magical Mystery Tour/Mad Max/Rock The Casbah video (take your pick) and from that point on we realised that this campaign was truly a one-off.

Now I know I will never be able to convince everyone that this is all more fun than a night out with Alan Partridge but I just think this election is one that we should revel in because it is just so hard to call. And it is changing by the minute.

The truth is, the only thing that is certain about this election now is that nothing is certain.

Politics fun? You better believe it.

You can't be in three places at once .. .

This was my column in the Bath Chronicle of April 15

I don’t want to give the impression that I have a spectacular social life or I am greatly in demand – both statements, sadly, would be wildly inaccurate – but I have found myself ‘triple-booked’ tonight (Thursday, April 15)

There are three major things going on which I have been invited to and which I said I would love to attend (two in Bath and one in Bradford on Avon) and unless I do what the Vicar of Dibley once famously did when she ate several consecutive Christmas dinners for fear of offending people, I am not going to be able to be everywhere.

The real problem is, however, that although all the events I’ve been invited are very tempting, I would really love instead to be sitting on my sofa watching the first of the big leaders’ debates which are probably going to dominate this General Election campaign.

I know many of you would probably do anything to avoid such debates – and would accept six invitations if it meant being sure of doing so – but I just can’t help it. I like politics and I like debates – there, I’ve confessed it.

To be honest though I’m not entirely sure what to expect as we see Mr Brown, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg take off their boxing gloves and attempt to land killer punches on their opponents’ chins.

In America these debates are not only the main part of the campaign, in some ways they are the only part as millions of people tune in and presidencies can be won or lost on the strength of what we see. In Britain, as a colleague who also loves his politics but will be running a mile from these debates pointed out, it is different because we get to see our political leaders at each other’s throats week in week out at the House of Commons. Seeing Obama verses McCain would have been a unique sight to America viewers in the last campaign – for us seeing our leaders trading blows is pretty old hat.

And yet, these debates will, I believe, be quite a different experience for all of us watching. The House of Commons battles are often spoilt by the ludicrous cat calls from those who belong in short trousers on the back benches but this will be a proper and (hopefully) quite dignified debate where the lack of interruptions should mean we get to hear a bit more depth to the political arguments than we have seen so far with the release of those three dreary and somewhat idea-free manifestos.

So who will win tonight? Will it be the heavyweight in the red corner, the pretender-to-the-throne in the blue or will it be that cheeky up and coming youngster in the yellow? All bets are off – I just hope all television sets aren’t as well!

Of course, all of this doesn’t help my dilemma of how to be in three places at the same time so if you are reading this and you know I should have been with you tonight and you didn’t see me, I humbly apologise. I will be somewhere else – and that is not on the sofa. Honest.

Oh, and of course there is one other thing. Tonight’s debate is on ITV – and is slap bang up against two of the Beeb’s best programmes, Have I Got News For You and Outnumbered.

Choices, choices, choices – it’s worse than deciding who to vote for!

Friday, 9 April 2010

Sad day for us proud old punk rockers....

So farewell then Mr McClaren.

As many of the people reading this will know, I am very much a child of the punk revolution. I was a babe-in-arms (well 13ish) when punk really took off in 1977 and it is fair to say it truly changed my life. The music excited and inspired me (it still does incidentally) and it put me on a musical journey that has never ended to this day. I may not look as 'punky' as I used to but in my heart that is what I still am.

Therefore I was sad to hear yesterday of the death of Malcolm McClaren, the svengali manager of the pioneering punks The Sex Pistols.

He may have been a bit of a wide boy and a player (although to be fair he never pretended to be anything else) but this guy had a massive influence on all the lives of those of us who believe punk truly changed our lives forever.

My own favourite band, The Stranglers, may have pre-dated them (and American heroes The Ramones certainly did) but it was The Sex Pistols that propelled punk to the surface and as a result many of the bands we all know and love got deals, made records and the rest as they say is history. Glorious, unpredictable history.

This sad death has also prompted some great punk nostalgia. Nicky Campbell on Radio Five this morning was talking about his punk days (he called himself Nic-O-Tine in 1977) and he talked about his first 'pogo'. I can still remember mine – I was on holiday with a friend, Nigel, in Prestatyn in 1978 and I bounced up and down on the spot to Five Minutes by The Stranglers and Ca Plane Pour Moi by Belgian pop-punkster Plastic Betrand. Bouncing up and down on the spot..yep, we called that dancing. Happy days.

To be honest I would never list The Sex Pistols in my 'best ever' bands list (when I saw them again a couple of years ago on their comeback tour I realised they had made four killer singles and a couple of cracking album tracks but there was a lot of 'filler' too) but, like every pop fan who acknowledges The Beatles I know the debt I owe to those boys. And they simply wouldn't have broken through without Malcolm's guiding (manipulating?) hand.

So farwell Mr C. A genuine original. A genuine character. A genuine loss.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Can we do a 'Doctor Who' for On the Buses?

What is it about Doctor Who?
Why is it that this once relatively modest, cult TV programme has now become the biggest thing on the box and every time he changes his identity, his assistant or his inner-Tardis it has become front page news and is hyped by the Beeb to ridiculous levels?

We saw further evidence of the TV dominance of the Time Lord again on Saturday when his new reincarnation appeared in all its glory on what was probably the most watched television programme over Easter.

To be fair I thought the show was jolly fun –- and I was particularly impressed with the new 'doc' and his glamorous assistant – but still I wondered what it is that has made this show such a phenomenon in the noughties and the current (as yet un-named-to-my-liking) decade.

The reason this all surprises me is that the glories of multi-channel TV – and that is not a phrase I suspect everyone in Bath is using this week now that we've gone digital – meant that we were able to go on our own time travel over Easter with one station showing endless re-runs of old Dr Who episodes.
I only saw glimpses of these (the not-so-glorious days of Sylvester McCoy in the title role), but it was enough to convince me that I wasn't going mad – Dr Who was once a fairly cheap-looking and decidedly low-budget sci-fi yarn.

Fun it may have been but Dalek-style planet domination it certainly wasn't.

Talking of television 'golden oldies,' I had the fatal combination on Bank Holiday Monday of time to kill, a remote control in my hand and nothing I particularly wanted to watch.

So I alighted on another 70s 'iconic' programme – On The Buses.

Now, I never remember that being terribly good but I'd forgotten how terribly bad it really was.
I watched a film version of the series and sat stoney-faced through the, ahem, jokes, of the decidedly strange trio of Reg Varney, his oddball side-kick conductor and, most scarily of all, the truly weird Blakey.

So here's a challenge. Can the producers who have taken Dr Who from being a mildly entertaining post-football-results diversion on Saturdays to being a national icon do the same for On The Buses?

Can they find us a new Reg, a new Olive and a new way of making bus drivers as entertaining as time travelling Time Lords?

Or is that Mission Impossible?

The joke wasn't on you this year

No doubt many of you looking at the Bath Chronicle of April 1 would have been on the hunt for that classic old newspaper trick - the April Fool joke.

Perhaps you're thinking our story in that week's paper about an owl found sitting on a doorstep in the hope of finding its owners was such a story? Or perhaps you were suspicious about our yarn about a proposed exhibition on how your choice of shoes can reveal your personality? Or, perhaps, you were convinced that our April Fool joke this year was that we have given publicity to a man who has written a book about . . . how to get publicity.

Well, you would be wrong in all cases and it is because fact can often be stranger than fiction that we didn't actually do an official April Fool's Day joke at all this year.

I'm sure over the years there have been many great ones in newspapers on this particular day but the truth is they can also fall spectacularly flat – or worse.

I remember many years ago as a sports reporter in Tamworth writing an April Fool joke about a Tamworth FC player – by the name of Willie Gilmour – whom I 'hilariously' claimed was being scouted by many big clubs.

Willie, bless him, wasn't exactly the greatest player to ever grace a pitch and I assumed most of the fans of the team I was writing about would guess this was something of a wind up. However, when one of Willie's relatives rang up in a flurry of excitement to ask for more information as she didn't know about this 'story', I felt pretty bad and realised my joke hadn't exactly hit the mark.

There was, however, a much worse one in a local newspaper that is still often brought out at training courses to let us all have a collective wince.

It was a paper based in the north which had devoted its entire front page on one April 1 to a story about how the local council had gone bust and all services such as daycare, education and bin collection had been suspended with immediate notice.

Apart from being spectacularly unfunny, the problem with this is that too many people believed it and the newspaper (an even more so the entirely innocent council) were bombarded with calls from tearful people worried about the implications of this disaster.

Suffice to say, the real joke was on the editor who was allowed to spend more time with his family soon after . . .

No, if you want real comic fun this then can I point you in the direction of the Bath Comedy Festival which began its second year of hilarity on April 1?

The festival has been put together by the energetic and enthusiastic Alex Timms who has once again produced a fantastic and varied programme which will see all manner of comic turns in venues throughout Bath and indeed on the streets of the city.

We wish Alex and his comic entertainers every success and we hope that their jokes are funnier than councils going bust...

Clapping at the cinema? Not cricket is it?

Apologies for the delay in posting. This appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, March 18.

Something really unusual happened at the Little Theatre in Bath at around 10.15 on Sunday night.

And that was as the credits went up at the end of the film, people did something you are not expected to do in a cinema.

They clapped.


At a theatre show when the people who have entertained you can hear your response then this is fine. But what about for a film where none of the participants was within, say, 3,000 miles of the screening?

Now that IS unusual.

The film in question was Michael Moore's latest polemic; Capitalism – A Love Story. For those who don't know, Mr Moore is that rare thing in America, an out-and-out 'lefty'. He has made TV programmes and films which are always interesting and full of ideas and no matter what your politics you will find something that either raises your spirits or your blood pressure.

Like all good political performers he has the ability to equally engage those who love his philosophy and those who loathe it. And his latest work is no exception – it earned applause in Bath but, I suspect, will earn an avalanche of rotten tomatoes in Alabama.

I did enjoy the film but that clapping lark still came as something of a shock. It is hardly a British thing to show our emotions at the best of times but to do so for people who can't even hear you?
That's just not cricket.

It did, however, remind me of why cinema remains a golden medium. This spontaneous applause was a rare event but not nearly as rare as people clapping in their own homes after a good TV show or film.

Imagine Jeremy Paxman ending Newsnight with the words 'that's it from us....good night' and people leaping off their sofas in their jim-jams shouting 'bravo Paxo!' Unlikely isn't it?

The fact that cinema can offer this power of collective experience is what contributes to its magic.

I have sat in films where no one wanted to speak at the end (I recall watching Schindler's List where people felt almost reluctant to leave their seats as if it was somehow disrespectful), films where people have stood up and cheered (ET when Elliot's bike flew into the sky) and even films where people started dancing.

The last time I saw dancing in a cinema was, however, a bit embarrassing.

I had gone to see Mamma Mia at the Odeon in Bath and the film replicated the end of the stage show where there is a Dancing Queen reprise and people are encouraged to stand up and jig along. When the film reached the same point two girls leapt to their feet assuming everyone else would do the same.

They didn't.

Our intrepid super troupers were faced with the awful choice; do we carry on dancing and look a bit silly or do we sit down and look a bit silly?

They went for the former.

And duly looked a bit silly.

To be honest I almost felt like clapping when they had finished to make them feel better.

But then again you can't do that in the cinema, can you?

Choice? It's just an illusion . . .

Apologies for the delay in posting. This appeared in the Bath Chronicle on March 18.

The subject of this area's switchover to digital TV has been well-commented upon. The reason the 'big switchover' has generated so much news print – and indeed air time – is that we will all be affected by it and we will all, apparently, benefit. We are set to get better TV reception and more channel choice, they say.

Aaahh, choice.

That five letter word which has become the golden ticket that every political candidate of every party has to offer the electorate. Choice is the new mantra – the concept that we, as citizens, can pick what we want, when we want it and where we want it when it comes to the services that are important to us.

But, I'm afraid, I increasingly think choice is just an illusion.

We are told, for example, that we can now choose which schools our children attend or which doctor we can have to treat us and at which hospital. That's great then – I think I'll send my son to Eton and the next time I have a major ailment, I will ask for the leading doctor in the field nationwide to treat me.

But, of course, that won't happen.

Choice is there in the most part as a principle rather than a reality. Even in an area such as Bath and north east Somerset, where most parents get their first choice of school, it is still mainly down to where they live, whether there are siblings already at a school or even what faith they are that decides their "free choice"
The other illusion about choice is that more is better. But is that really the case?

For example, I discovered at an early age that there was one tin of beans which I preferred above all others (I don't want to give free advertising but let's just say there are 57 varieties of this brand). If I go into a supermarket and I'm now offered 20 different brands at similar prices, I will still go for this one – the rest are irrelevant. You choose if you want to, I'll stick with Heinz (damn, I mentioned it).

Which brings me back to the 'digital' choice – because it's exactly the same. I was an early subscriber to Sky because of my love of sport and so I can now choose at home hundreds of channels even though I don't have the 'full' package. And yet the truth is television (like baked beans) is about quality, not quantity, and so I still spend the vast majority of my TV-watching time looking mainly at the same channels I used to watch in the days when there was no remote control and if you wanted to flick between the three channels on offer, you had to get up off your sofa to do so.

So for all those of you who are about to discover the 'joys' of a variety of new channels, I hate to dampen your enthusiasm but I wouldn't get too excited.

The choice may be greater but when your new Freeview menu includes BBC Parliament, Rabbit Chat & Date or price-bid TV you may start to agree with my idea that less can actually be more.

Tin of beans anyone?

Hurt Locker reminded us of the men behind the uniform

Apologies for the delay in putting this up.
This is the column I wrote for the Bath Chronicle and was printed on March 11.

The last time I used my columns to talk about war/ peace et al, it created a healthy debate on our letters pages – and, to put it mildly, not everyone agreed with my views. But provoking debate is one of the main reasons such columns as this exist so here I go into battle-station mode yet again.


I have been provoked to do so after being truly delighted on Sunday night to see the remarkable Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker grab the two most important Oscars for best film and best director.

This was definitely my choice of the film of 2009 but I feared that the esteemed Hollywood Academy would have been so bowled over by the multi-millions raked in by 3D epic Avatar that they would have gone for that overlong slice of Pocahontas-in-space sci-fi nonsense instead.

But, thankfully, they didn't and The Hurt Locker was rightfully given the star billing it truly deserved.

For those who haven't yet seen the film (and I do hope it now gets a wider release following its Oscar success) it follows four ordinary American soldiers who just happen to have one of the worst jobs in the military – bomb disposal.

In often painstakingly intricate detail, it shows how every decision they make could literally be of life and death proportions and you can't help but put yourself in their shoes and just feel eternally grateful that you don't have to put on such footwear.

Where I think the film also triumphs is that unlike many dramas to do with wars past and present, this film makes no social or political commentary about the reasons why the soldiers are where they are. We all may have our own views about the need for our fellow countrymen to be in Iraq or Afghanistan but the real power of The Hurt Locker is to remind us all that behind the politics and the big debates are just ordinary men and women who are asked to do extraordinary jobs in inhospitable surroundings.

The film works because you look beyond the uniform and just see the men instead.

I personally think we should try to do that with all our soldiers who are currently fighting in the terrible conditions of Afghanistan. Whatever people may think of the rights and wrongs about this conflict, we should never forget that the people who have a Union Jack on their uniforms were given no choice about being sent to the front and must therefore be treated with respect for their work there regardless of our views on whether it is right or not that they are caught up in this strange and often bewildering campaign.

Men and women choose to join our forces for all kind of reasons but as Jack Nicholson's character in the film A Few Good Men pointedly says, they are sometimes doing the sort of work that we may not want to even think about but may just be making it that bit easier for us all to sleep safely each night.

The Hurt Locker is important because it shows that it is politics that causes wars but it is men and women that have to fight them.

We should never forget that.