Thursday, 29 September 2011

So, are you Downton or Spooks?

In days gone by, facing a ‘TV schedule clash’ was a very serious business.

If there were two television shows you desperately wanted to see (and Betamax video recorders hadn’t been invented let alone Sky+), then you simply had to miss one of the programmes. It would often cause fury and debate within the national press as people let off steam about those horrible, faceless TV schedulers who had so little respect for people’s viewing habits. How dare they!

Of course, nowadays this shouldn’t happen. Most people have ways of recording two or even three shows at the same time and many people almost ignore the TV schedules now and record shows to watch when they actually want to.

Even so, there is still something about watching a programme at the same time as you know others are watching it, particularly if you know it will be the subject of the office, school or bus stop conversation the following day.

In recent years that particular ‘what to watch’ battle has been fought mainly with Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor – the big Saturday night battleground –- but now those pesky schedulers have done it again by plotting two of the most engaging modern TV dramas up against one another in the normally genteel 9pm Sunday slot.

For, as you will have seen from debates in the press and on the radio, we are still capable of getting angry when two highly-watchable shows go out at the same time and that is certainly what is happening at the moment with the battle between the modern day Upstairs Downstairs – Downton Abbey – and that wonderful spy feast Spooks.

Although both shows have been criticised for not being completely accurate in terms of the scope of the areas they cover, what unites them both is they are just great fun and real ‘talkabout’ TV.

Downton is glossy, colourful, bright and expensive to look at (all of which makes it something of a surprise that it is on ITV) while Spooks has been a genuine televisual feast for many years now and has made us all feel safer in our beds knowing that Harry is protecting us from all those nasty people in the world.

On the surface these two shows are very different but they have attracted similar audiences – and hence people who are angry about the scheduling – because they share the qualities of good writing, good production values, good acting and good story telling.

We may have more television channels than we’ve ever had but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have more quality – both of these shows are exactly that and that’s why we care about them both.

So far in the great battle I’ve gone for watching Downton ‘live’ and Spooks the night after but as the latter was utterly brilliant this week, I may be tested again when Sunday night arrives.

Of colurse nowadays TV is not something many of us watch all the time as we may have done in the past but what this shows is we still do make an effort to watch or record things that interest us. We have all become television schedulers now – and you could argue we’re better at doing it than those whose actual job it is.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Fighting against The Vinyl Countdown

There is nothing more annoying than middle-aged people (OK, men) grumpily saying that things were better in the past and citing boring examples to back up the point. And, so, if you truly believe that, then I’m afraid you may need to start reading another column quickly.

For, although I still don’t believe I’m middle-aged (47? I’m only just getting started!) I fell back into that Grumpy Old Men nostalgic trap again at the weekend when, while clearing out an attic, I laid my hands again on the glories of my vinyl record collection.

Yes, despite the fact that I haven’t had a record player for at least 15 years, I have kept the absolute cream of my vinyl record collection which is covered in dust but also, crucially, smothered in happy memories.

Encouragingly, while once you were considered a dinosaur for even talking about vinyl, the format has had something of a comeback. Thanks to DJs on the dance scene particularly, young people no longer look totally bewildered when you talk about ‘records’ in that way they do when you wax lyrical about Tiswas or Aztec bars.

Indeed, you may be heartened to hear that vinyl is regarded as being on the rise. Last year in America an improved tally of nearly three million shiny bits of plastic were sold. This may sound impressive until you realise that this is in comparison to 325 million album sales via a CD or digital format.

Still a way to go then!

As someone with a large CD collection and a healthy enthusiasm for digital music, I’m not going to pretend I don’t see the huge advantage of both formats but I truly believe that vinyl was just so much more, well, fun.

Vinyl looked, smelt and felt different. There was nothing better than carrying home a 12 inch record, placing it on the turntable and then reading the sleeve notes and lyrics that were in more than the three point font size on today’s functional but unlovable CDs.

Last week I revelled again in those delicious big gatefold double albums like The Clash's London Calling and marvelled again about the wide variety of coloured vinyl, picture discs and even odd shaped records that I never got round to throwing out. My precious unthrowawayable Stranglers vinyl collection alone is littered with such items (a burger shaped disc for instance!) and all theoe multi-coloured joys seem ironic considering this is a band famous for just one  colour - black, the true home of vinyl.

But it wasn't just the look of records that made them superior to today's formats. What vinyl also gave you was a greater understanding of the rhythm of an album and the mechanics of putting it together.  One of the sad things about CDs is that they take away any concept of a ‘side A’ or ‘side B’. Among the joys of vinyl was hearing how an artist mixed and matched the songs so each ‘side’ felt complete and had the right opening and closing tracks.

You may be surprised to learn that the best-selling vinyl album in America last year was Abbey Road by The Beatles. In a way that does make perfect sense because that is a classic example of how well put together a record can be. Side two had a seamless quality that made it so different to side one. On CD you just don’t ‘get’ that as much.

But, perhaps most importantly to me, I really think vinyl (far more than CD and far, far more than digital) acts as a wonderful calendar of your life.

As I picked up a particular album last week I could almost instantly remember where I was when I bought it, how old I was and what was going on in my life. In future if all we ever do is download from the computer the ‘where’ in that equation is instantly forgotten.

A grumpy old man? Maybe. But vinyl was better wasn’t it?

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Empty Nest Syndrome begins..

To have one child leave home in a week might seem unfortunate. To have two looks pretty careless.

But that’s the situation I have faced this week as my two (and only) children both headed off to university – a situation faced by hundreds of local parents over the next couple of weeks who will be waving their hankies as their beloved youngsters head off to a brave new world.

On Thursday, I hurtled up the M5 to take ‘Child A’ off to Liverpool. A long day was then followed by an even longer one on Friday when I had a day full of meetings at work and then on Saturday it was back on to that pesky M5 again to take ‘Child B’ to Derby.

Although I’m immensely proud of them both and pleased they got positions in a very competitive year for university places, I was also very well aware that the moment I started to begin the whole 750 miles of back and forth travelling I would begin to suffer the first pangs of the phenomenon known as “empty nest syndrome”. This is traditionally only usually associated with mothers but a report recently showed that many fathers can also get hit by this dramatic change to their lifestyle. And I am under no illusions that if only ten per cent of dads suffer from it, I will be that one in ten.

The reality is as we all know from being parents – or even from being children of course – your relationship with your offspring changes all the time. Now, at this age, I’ve got into a wonderfully comfortable relationship with both my children where they are friends as much as family members and the thought of losing two of my best friends as well as my two closest family members over a 48-hour period seems pretty depressing.

Of course people tell me it’s not as bad as in the old days as we can communicate so much better now by texts, mobile phones and lovely inventions like Skype. But the truth is – and I have to admit to being exactly this type of person when I was a student – when you’re away and your life starts to become so much more involved with new-found friends and new-found towns, talking to the folks back home does not necessarily become priority numero uno.

The temptation to constantly text and email may initially be quite strong on my part but I suspect it is a temptation I will have to resist because the one thing above all that university is supposed to give is independence – and if you don’t give your children independence when they go to university, when can you?

But, of course, that won’t stop me worrying. Will they eat enough? Will they make friends? Will they like their accommodation? Will they like their new city? Will they like their university? Will they be able to survive on their limited budget? And, how come I’ll probably be spending more money on them when they’re in another county than now when they’re just in another room?

The truth is I guess we never stop worrying about kids whether they’re five, 15, 25 or, dare I say it, 55 or 75. It is what we are programmed to do but I can’t help thinking that to have two of them leave at the same time is probably too much for one doting dad to cope with.

Ah well it is only three years.

Pass the hankie.

It's the end of the holidays....

Bath, and I am sure Britain as a whole, felt a bit like the passenger pick-up point outside Bristol Airport this week.

I was there on Tuesday night picking up my daughter and three of her friends who had just come back from ‘Costa Del Nightclub’ after a week-long break which I prayed was nothing like The Inbetweeners Movie.

All four of them were in very good spirits on the night – but many other people I saw clearly weren’t. For while I was waiting for the dancing queens to return, I looked at the faces of other people who had arrived back in the UK, saw them staring out bleakly at the driving rain and high winds and felt their pain. They looked brown – but browned-off.

That sense of disappointment is, I suspect, how a lot of other people felt this week as we all collectively realised that the holiday summer season was now well and truly over. And if we did need reminding, what better, crueller symbol could there have been than the clouds opening and pouring down on those poor youngsters trundling back to school for the new term earlier in the week.

Wimbledon? A lifetime ago.

The best thing about having a holiday is not only the event itself but the anticipation of it so, conversely, the worst is actually coming back and waiting at that pick-up point knowing that the party is over for a while at least.In the office this week, for example, it was the first time for more weeks that I can remember that most of the team were back at their desks. But it was also noticeable that as and when people returned from their breaks, one of the first things many started to do was to think about the next one.

Holiday forms were filled in, calendars stared at and people started counting how many days they had left from their allocation. And that is amongst a bunch of people who by and large love their work – I can’t help wondering how much tougher PHB (my newly-invented Post Holiday Blues) is for those for whom every work day is a virtual trial.

Of course people will always say that they don’t get enough time off but the reality is Britain is actually not bad in terms of its annual holiday allowance. Most people in the UK are allowed a total of around 33 days off including Bank Holidays which is, on the downside, somewhat less than countries such as Brazil, France and Russia which all pip the 40 mark. However, spare a thought for countries such as China and Singapore, which only get in the 20s and even more so, perhaps surprisingly, for the USA where 15 days is the average holiday with a few Bank Holidays thrown in. And worse still, pity our poor old Canadian friends who get only ten statutory days off plus nine public holidays. Imagine those bleak Canadian faces at the pick-up point in airports in Toronto and Vancouver . . .

Ah well holidays over – what’s next? Why, we have Christmas to look forward to now of course. Pass the travel brochures. Quick.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Mark Kermode - is there a Good Doctor in the house?

One of Britain’s most outspoken, entertaining and best-loved film critics will make a welcome return to Bath on Monday night to talk about his passion for everything to do with the cinema.

Mark Kermode – known to his legions of fans as ‘The Good Doctor’ – has become, for many people, the first port of call about whether a film should or shouldn’t be seen as a result particularly of his highly-popular Friday afternoon Radio 5 Live show with Simon Mayo. The show recently celebrated its tenth anniversary and such is its popularity that the station devoted a whole series of programmes to mark the occasion.

On Monday night, however, Kermode will abandon the studio and take centre stage at the Little Theatre in Bath to talk about his latest book – The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex. And, although he’s famous for his never-ending stream of comments and conversation, it is a night where the audience are very much going to be part of the proceedings…

“What I do is talk for 45 minutes about stuff in the book in a free form way and then I do 45 minutes of questions which is always different every night.

“For me that’s the best part of the evening, the bit I enjoy most. People always raise stuff that’s interesting and that is an extension of the radio show which is very much dialogue between us and the listeners. I would say something, they would reply, email and tweet – it’s all a very interactive thing which I like. So in a way, when we’re doing the radio show it’s kind of like doing it in front of an audience anyway.

“Doing it on stage people just ask you questions directly, people are very up front, people ask very interesting questions, they’re happy to take to task and say you’re wrong about this, you’re right about that and that’s what I enjoy most. The first 45 minutes is meant to be entertaining, it’s not just me standing up and moaning, but I like the second half even better.”

Kermode’s Bath show is part of an 18 date tour around the country talking about his book. He did a similar set of dates to promote his previous book – It’s Only A Movie – which also saw him appear at the Little Theatre and he said that even though he thought he thought he knew what sort of questions people would ask him he was nearly always surprised.

“The funny thing is you think you can anticipate it more than you can – but the truth is you don’t know what’s coming,” he said.

“At first I found that quite worrying, quite a scary thing but then it became very exciting.

“One person might say ‘I saw a Swedish movie in 1975 and the only thing I remember is that it had a bloke who had a bat – what was the movie?’ I would have no idea of course so I might ask ‘does anyone else have an idea’ and a bloke in the audience might pop up and say ‘I know, I seen that – it’s called A Bloke With A Bat’. That’s what happens. I really like it now; you genuinely don’t know where the questions come from. People argue with you and question you – and I like that”.

Kermode’s forthright views on the cinema are well known and loved by his followers and he’s particularly famous for his occasional on-air rants. If you ever want to see examples, just try and look up his rant about the Pirates Of The Caribbean or Sex In The City 2 to see him in full critical flow.

However, he is not just interested in what actually appears on the silver screen – he is passionate about every aspect of the industry he loves. For instance, he is touring mainly at small independent cinemas – he says he really liked The Little last time he visited – and that is why bigger, multiplex cinemas are something he may not instinctively feel as comfortable with.

So, is he against them?

“The idea that I’m against multiplexes in general is like saying I’m against supermarkets,” he said.

“There’s nothing wrong with them in principle, it’s what happens in them and around them.

“Here’s an analogy. If you live in a small village, which I do, and you have a small grocers selling organic veg and along comes a supermarket, well you think great if I want to get my processed food there it’s open until 11pm at night and I can get Air Miles but I can also get my veg at the same time. All very well but anyone who lives in the village knows that if starts competing with the village shops it will put it out of business.

“On the one hand with the multiplexes they’re for many people they are the only thing. Multiplexes over the last ten years particularly due to the 3D revolution have started to treat cinema performances like they’re not real performances. You don’t need a projectionist – you just press go.

“The cinema auditorium has gone from being a place that was close to the theatre in terms of the way in which people would treat the films, properly projected, properly manned auditoriums, watched by an audience who were respectful of the movie into basically a big front room with a video screen and that’s not cinema.

“I keep saying that multiplexes keep firing their projectionists because they don’t need them anymore but it is so sorry to see a big building which doesn’t have a projectionist but does have a confectionery counter. That’s not a cinema – it’s a sweet shop.”

Considering ‘The Good Doctor’ is such an authority on film and has to see so many for his weekly show with Simon Mayo, he admits to having been on a summer detox where he was determined to try and free his mind. He thinks this will be a good thing in the long term.

“The only two things I saw when I was off was Mr Popper’s Penguins which I saw at a nice cinema in Truro and then Super 8 and I’m going to see Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes on Thursday. I literally had four weeks out of the loop so I could detox, I had finished writing the book and the book had gone to the printers. We’d gone through all the tenth anniversary celebrations with Radio 5 and I just needed a break so I just literally spent the four weeks watching nothing other than those two films I mentioned.”

So, if you want to try and catch Kermode out on Monday night then you have a golden opportunity by asking about films that came out in the summer. But be careful – this is a man who famously gives as good as he gets. And you can bet he now knows all about that 1975 Swedish film of the bloke with a bat…

One thing, however, is certain. If you can get a ticket for the Little on Monday or pick up The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex, then you are in for a roller coaster ride of entertainment that will probably be far better than the vast majority of films you will actually see this year. And oh yes it will certainly be better than the awful Sex In The City 2.