Thursday, 29 July 2010

Toy Story a kids' film? such thing now!

There is no doubt that over the next few weeks of the summer holidays one of the most frequently visited places will be the local cinema.

Whether it’s Bath’s excellent multi-screen Odeon or my favourite movie house in the world –The Little Theatre – countless parents will be taking their offspring along in the hope of two or three hours of peace as their children remain engrossed and out of mischief.

In the past, I suspect many parents were happy to take their youngsters to what were called ‘children’s films’ so they could have a quiet snooze, safe in the knowledge that their young charges were being royally entertained. Now, however, there is less of a distinction between a children’s film and an adults’ one and as a perfect example of this genre I give you the latest Toy Story film, Toy Story 3.

The whole Toy Story trilogy – the Shrek films are very similar – has helped created a whole new style of film which is aimed (on the surface) at the younger market but which contains so much material and clever writing that an adult can be fooled into believing this film is almost exclusively for them.

On Sunday we, that is two grown adults with no children present, settled down to watch Toy Story without any fear that someone would point to us and say “you’re too old to be in here!”. We did, obviously sit quite close to children so we could pretend we were related if challenged, but the reality is we didn’t need to because I would estimate that half the audience could be classified as adults without families. I saw many couples of different ages and even a group of teenage goths piling in eagerly awaiting to see Woody and Buzz in action.

A kids’ film? Nah . . .

It is, of course, all an example of brilliant marketing – after all, if you can write a film that a six-year-old and a 60-year-old can laugh along with at the same time then you have struck box office gold. Different generations have always enjoyed films together but what makes the Toy Story/Shrek concept different is that the writers have skilfully engineered the scripts so sometimes you are laughing at different lines to your offspring or there are double entendres which means you’re both laughing at the same time – but at different things. (As an example, does anybody else who has seen Toy Story 3 agree with me that Ken isn’t quite, ahem, Barbie’s ‘type’!)

I think what these films show is that, above all, it is great writing that makes a great film and there is something particularly impressive about people who can write a script that has such universal appeal that a wide-eyed four-year-old can be grinning next to a black-clad emo and both of them feel entirely comfortable with what they’re watching.

Incidentally, I saw Toy Story in its 3D form and even this made all of us of different ages feel united in a shared experience. With 3D you all look that little bit silly anyway which puts you in the perfect mood as you prepare to go on a glorious journey to infinity and beyond . . .

Thursday, 22 July 2010

My summers with Casey Jones, The White Horses and Tarzan

They say that youth is wasted on the young – and that will never feel more true than over the next six weeks.
For I am today contemplating the seemingly endless summer holidays that our young people can look forward to. And I do so from a perspective of being incredibly jealous.

I’ve often beseeched my children not to take these six weeks for granted. I don’t think it has yet fully registered with them that when they enter the wonderful world of work they won’t get as much time off in a year as they now can look forward to before heading back in September.
Cherish it, I cry!

However, although I still look back with affection to my old summer holidays I have to confess, I totally wasted most of mine.

I always remember having great plans of how I would spend every day – plans that took up much of my thinking in May and June but were all but abandoned when the end of July and August arrived as I got into that rhythm of doing as little as possible and as often as possible.

The days always began in the same way, however, with the treat of the summer holiday TV. Without sounding all Monty Python, if you tell the kids today that children’s TV was incredibly limited in the 70s particularly, they would not believe you. Now they have endless channels dedicated to their every hobby or whim – we just had Champion The Wonder Horse, Casey Jones and that weird badly-dubbed German/Yugoslavian thing called The White Horses.

These programmes seemed to appear every summer and set your day off to the perfect start, particularly if you were given the bonus of an hour in the company of Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky (that’s The Banana Splits to you). I also recall the morning’s entertainment ending with a black and white film and I particularly loved the old Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller. They were wonderfully unsophisticated movies and, when you watched them, on a daily basis you soon realised they had only one piece of footage of a man fighting a lion or a crocodile and they endlessly repeated them. Me Tarzan, you the same lion.

Of course I don’t want to give you the impression I spent all my summer holidays watching the TV – because the whole point is it went off at about 11 and that was your lot. So, then it was a case of what can we do for the next few hours and in my case, it usually involved a football, a book or spending ages trying to find something more interesting to do. And usually failing.

My worst idea ever was collecting car number plates for a whole afternoon with my mate Gary Hirons until we looked at each other at about 5pm and said ‘what is the point?’

At that point we probably trooped home for our baked beans on toast and started thinking about the important event tomorrow – i.e. would Johnny Weissmuller fight that same old crocodile?


250 words for £250

This appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, July 15, about a competition within the paper. If you live in the Bath area, feel free to enter...

'I wanna tell you a story' . . or rather, I want you to tell me one.

For, as you may have seen if you have read the Bath Chronicle last week we have just launched a special short story competition which we want as many of you as possible to enter.

The competition is part of our celebrations of the fact that the Chronicle will be 250 years old in October. And so, because I am at heart a simple soul, to mark our 250th we have come up with a single prize of £250 and we are asking you to write, yes, 250 words.

That means whoever wins will be paid a pound-a-word and there can't be many other authors that could command such a fee.

The subject of the story is entirely down to you but it must have, at its start, a sentence that we've given you about the Bath Chronicle newsroom. After that it is all down to your imagination and from the entries we have already received, there is no shortage of that out there.

Of course, unless you work in industries such as ours, you may not have a concept of how big or small 250 words is but I suspect many of you will quickly discover it's not nearly as many as you think. This column, for example is around 580 words so I am asking you to come up with the beginning, the middle and the end of an engaging and entertaining story in less than half of this column's length. And trust me, it's not easy.

I know this fact because I have been accused (extremely unfairly in my opinion) of speaking and writing to great excess. It got so bad recently that one of my colleagues looking at the length of someone else's story described it as 'Holliday-esque'. I thought he meant it was a beautiful article full of dazzling insight but it turned out he just meant it was very, very long.

Harsh, very harsh.

Writing in a highly-succinct way does actually take great skill and I always remember being very impressed when I heard that at one time The Sun used to try to have a maximum of 12 words per sentence. Again, that may not sound too scary but just try it. Look at a story in one of our 'heavier' newspapers and try to distill it in Sun-speak into 12 words a sentence with not many paragraphs. Suffice to say you can't be Holliday-esque.

As for our contest, the first entries started to come in earlier this week and I have genuinely been impressed with all of those I've seen although many, sadly, seem to think life is somewhat more exciting in our office than in reality.

So, put your thinking caps on, find a bit of paper (and it doesn't need to be a big bit of paper!) and start weaving your story of an event connected with the Chronicle.

It could be something that has happened in the past, the present or the year 2050 but all you have to do is to make it as entertaining as possible, stick to the word limit and you could find yourself £250 richer.
And that will mean the Chronicle won't be the only people celebrating the number 250 this year...

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Winning the Brain of Bath - by a nose

As a generally quite amiable chap I definitely subscribe to the theory that it is not the winning that counts it is the taking part. However, I have to admit that winning is, on the whole, rather better.

I certainly felt that last Thursday at about 10.15pm in the Assembly Rooms when The Bath Chronicle stormed to victory in the always hugely enjoyable Brain of Bath quiz to raise funds for Julian House.

When I first arrived on these shores nearly five years ago, I was quickly made aware that The Brain of Bath was the big one. The quiz of quizzes in this city. The one to win. And, crucially, one we had never won before – even with the huge advantage of having my fellow blogger Hugh Dixon as our not-so-secret weapon. Hugh, as I opined in a column the first year I tested my brain at the Brain, knows things that no one else knows. He can come up with answers when mere mortals don’t even understand the question, and he is worth his weight in the wine he consumes on the night to help him ‘think’.

And yet even with him and fellow boffin-esque quiz addicts Graham Holburn and Paul Wiltshire in the team, the Chronicle had been continually forced to settle for the ‘it’s not the winning that counts...’ line as we trooped out sadly from yet another defeat.

Well, it all changed in 2008 when we won for the first time. Winning definitely felt rather good and so even though we weren’t able to defend our title in 2009 we went for this year’s event quietly hoping for a repeat success. It was tough stuff though because, if you have ever tasted one of Julian House’s quizzes, you will know they don’t make it easy. Indeed, when a question seems a bit too easy you pause before writing down the answer because you can’t believe Cecil Weir and his Julian House team would give such ‘gifts’.

How many I wonder have not put the obvious answer down because it seems too easy and suffered accordingly. Oh, he’s a tricky one that Cecil.

This year we had the usual rounds such as a picture one (who the heck was that Todd Stephens fella anyway)? a fiendishly difficult science round, a testing sport one and the quiz’s undoubted highlight – the ‘smells round’. This is where you are all given little pouches with smells embedded in cotton wool and you have to let your nostrils do the work. This year we had Chanel Number 5, coconut, Brut and banana, for example, and this provoked some fierce sniffing and often fiercer debate. I think I must have had a bit of a cold to be honest because everything smelt to me like apple or Vim. Weird, I know.

By the end of the night, as Cecil tantalisingly counted down the top places, we realised we had won it – albeit by a tiny margin. As a team we trooped up to receive our prize but tried not to look too smug because we all knew everyone else watching was already thinking either ‘damn them’ and ‘oh well, it’s the taking part that counts...’ depending on their mood.

So, here’s to defending our hard-earned title in 2011. And here’s hoping that next year Cecil will save my blushes by putting both apple and Vim into the smells round.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Why I enjoyed my second Glastonbury.....

I had the pleasure of going to a very jolly outdoor birthday party at the weekend.

My party was for someone’s ‘40th’ and the hosts had kindly invited a few people around to their home and were offering the odd glass of cider and a bit of live music to keep us all amused.

But, I have to confess, this was a somewhat bigger party than I usually attend. The ‘few’ guests totalled around 180,000, the amount of beer drank was expected to be over one million pints and as for the live music, well there was an estimated 2,000 acts on.

For this was the Glastonbury Festival’s ‘40th’. And it was the biggest, noisiest and cheeriest party on the planet.

Like all the best outdoor parties it was also helped by the somewhat unexpected appearance of the sun which kept a watchful eye on proceedings throughout and almost dared the storm clouds to be party poopers. They didn’t of course – they knew they were (weather) beaten which meant that the huge £12.99 I had invested in my essential last-minute pair of wellies was totally wasted. And I bet they don’t do ‘Glastonbury no-mud’ refunds.

I have done a review of the musical delights elsewhere but as I said last week in this column the joy of Glastonbury is that it is about so much more than what comes out of those enormous speakers. And for those yet to taste the festival’s bountiful offerings I just want to re-iterate that it is never too late to join this seemingly never-ending party.

You may still be thinking ‘Glastonbury is OK for other people but for not for me’ but trust me you are wrong. The answer to the question ‘who goes to Glastonbury’ is an easy one – everyone does. It is, I think, impossible to feel out of place.

People genuinely don’t seem to care what you look like, what age you are, or what your background is – there is an equality here that I have rarely seen elsewhere. Sure, there are ways of ‘upgrading’ your experience a bit but by and large the corporate side of things is kept to a bare minimum in the search for a kind of Utopian, democratic equality. The ethos is ‘we are in it together’ – come rain, shine or England defeats (I watched that one with 50,000 fellow sufferers). And it is hugely refreshing.

The other thing that struck me again on this my second visit (is there anything worse than a late convert)? is how safe the whole experience feels. Despite the fact that people didn’t exactly, ahem, hold back on their alcoholic intake, I saw no evidence of any trouble, no aggression, no fights, not even any cross words. It is as if once people enter the ‘Royal Borough of Pilton’ the Glastonbury spirit descends on them and encourages self-policing.

Overall I returned tired, hot but far from bothered and I thought again how lucky we were to have all this fun right on our doorstep. So, go on, try it next year.

For if you can find nothing to enjoy at Glastonbury then I am afraid the problem is yours – not the festival’s.

Glastonbury - my 'shocking ' review

The Glastonbury Festival of 2010 turned out to be a rather shocking event.

The first shock was that not only was there not a millimetre of rain (causing misery only to the many waterproof-sellers on site) but the heat was on from start to finish. Indeed, at times it was so hot that I am sure that on Saturday afternoon in particular that if the punters had been offered the choice of a miracle Beatles reunion or a ‘tad more shade’ many would have seriously opted for the latter.

The other big shock of course occurred on Sunday afternoon and had nothing to do with music. It was England’s abysmal capitulation to the Germans in the World Cup, a match watched by more than 50,000 of us concert-goers in a weekend where even in the Pilton fields you couldn’t truly escape the footie. We had already been warmed up (aha) by Dizzee Rascal’s Shout and the Lightning Seeds Three Lions on the previous days and everyone was in good spirits sensing England’s glory. Once again (of course) we were left high and dry but what makes Glastonbury so special is that once the final whistle had blown people just sighed, dressed themselves down and then went to hear the music again. No fights, no riots, no chaos.

England may have disappointed on the fields of South Africa but England was at its best in the fields of Pilton that afternoon.

So the sun and the football may have shocked us all but the one thing that stays the same is that the music at this most incredible of events never lets you down.Once again I was delighted to immerse myself in a sea of wonderful sounds and wonderful moments and this year I made sure I saw many acts that were well out of my comfort zone.

Of course when it comes down to it, it is always the headline acts on the biggest stage that define a festival and it is those sets that are remembered in the months, years and yes decades to come. And on this special occasion, to quote Meatloaf, ‘two out of three ain’t bad’.

First the (very) positive. Stevie Wonder charmed and delighted the audience with his warmth and warming Sunday night performance. This is a man who oozes charisma and has more tunes in his locker than England’s footballers have excuses and his performance will be remembered for its quality and professionalism. Long before he got to his expected Glastonbury Happy Birthday finale he had already ‘won’ the audience totally and the smile on his face mirrored tens of thousands in the audience. We often use the word ‘legend’ too glibly in music but this is a man that definitely deserves that title.

Saturday night’s headliners, Muse, are probably too young to be classed as legends but there is a good argument to say that their performance at Glastonbury could have legendary status. They were simply outstanding from start to finish and the power, passion and purpose they displayed was truly thrilling. Tunes such a Time is Running Out, Plug in Baby, Knights of Cydonia and Uprising were all dazzlingly good and when The Edge appraised for an impromptu version of Where The Streets Have No Name it as like the final glistening cherry on the top of an extraordinarily bountiful cake. It was THE great set of one great weekend.

As for the third headliners, The Gorillaz, well, the truth is despite deserving great credit for playing at short notice following U2’s withdrawal – and also managing to persuade stars of the calibre of Lou Reed to join them on stage – it just never quite clicked. They started promisingly enough but then went on to prove that it IS possible to be too eclectic and too diverse. The wide variety of their material meant it struggled to get any momentum and at times the audience seemed baffled. Yes, it was a brave and honest performance but – and it seems remarkable to say this considering it featured two members of the Clash and Blur’s front man – it was often a tad dull. For Gorillaz, read Gorillazzzzzz. Sorry.

Beyond the headline acts I saw many bands that excited and enthralled me. The National, America’s great Indie hope, produced a stunning set as did Manchester’s finest The Courteneers and my own fave raves The Stranglers but beyond my normal sphere, I absolutely loved Dizzee Rascal’s show, found my toe tapping throughout The Scissor Sisters (was that really Kylie up there?) and couldn’t resist the large slice of Snoop Dogg that was served up.

One thing that did make me smile about both the Rascal and the Dogg was their continued plea to the crowd of ‘make some noise’. Err, isn’t that their job?

So, that is just a bit of a snapshot of how I saw things but the great thing about Glastonbury is with 180,000 people there you will find 180,000 different experiences. And all will be equally valid. It is a festival like no other – an ell-embracing, feel good event where not even the need for Factor 100 sun cream or Matthew Upson can ruin your weekend.

So Glastonbury I salute thee again. And here is to the next 40 years.

Make some noise!