Monday, 28 November 2011

John Cleese is a comedy legend. Discuss.

This originally appeared in the Batrh Chronicle on November 17 - the night John Cleese switched on the Bath Christmas Lights

Tonight, thousands of people will line the streets of Bath to see the comedy legend that is John Cleese officially kick off Christmas in the city at the lights switch-on.

It is easy to throw around the word “legend” but I think the instantly-recognisable Mr Cleese deserves the term because he has genuinely touched everybody’s funny bone at some point in his career. And with comedy being every bit as subjective as music and art, that is no mean feat.

For many of us, of course, Mr Cleese will always be the tall spindly-legged one from the greatest comedy team ever assembled – Monty Python. Legions of teenagers have discovered Python and made a lifelong pact with them, and few groups of men of a certain age cannot do verbatim impressions of pet shop owners selling parrots, Yorkshiremen explaining how tough their lives were or people trying to stay optimistic while being, ahem, crucified.

And yet not everyone got it. No siree. For every Python devotee you can always find a nay-sayer, a non-believer for whom the knights that say Ni were just, well, silly (which, of course they were, which is the whole point). But silly without being funny. And from my experience (limited I grant you but stick with this) most of them were female. Monty Python is, I believe, predominantly a male manuscript of funny. And if you don’t agree with me I will hit you with a big fish while standing next to a canal.

So, to some heretics Monty Python wasn’t a feast of hilarity, so Mr Cleese & Co couldn’t be “comedy legends”. But then came Basil Fawlty. Trying to find someone who didn’t find that funny should be as hard as finding someone who thought a rat was a hamster or a chef who is fresh out of Waldorfs. Often voted the best sitcom of all time and repeated as often as the weather forecast, Fawlty Towers made our light switch-er-on-er a national treasure.

Our man’s status as a comedy legend was therefore sealed in that Torquay hotel reception – but if you are still not convinced then I give you the films. Aside from Python’s big screen outings (which are their best work anyway) I offer you the twin peaks of A Fish Called Wanda and Clockwise, two beautifully crafted, expertly written movies that were both funny and intelligent – something sadly which is often mutually exclusive.

Among all that – and I haven’t even mentioned the books, tours, film cameos or, er, AA adverts – there is something for everyone and that is why I feel we have something quite unusual in front of us tonight – a man that has probably made every single one of us laugh at different times. And how many other people, past or present, can we truly say that about?

Of course, I am sure none of this debate about his status means a fig to Mr C and he is just happy that he can still make people smile. But in a world where none of us seems to agree on anything, to have someone do their bit for Bath who is so universally admired and respected and whose work will be making people laugh when we have all sang our last Always Look On The Bright Side of Life chorus, should give us all a warm feeling, no matter what the temperature is tonight.

So what is the new 'is the new'?????

This originally appeared in the Bath Chronicle on November 17

I’m sure we are all aware of that strange but now well-worn cliche where people describe something as being the ‘new’ something else.

We’ve all heard phrases such as ‘brown is the new black’ and ‘staying in is the new going out’ and just a quick check on the internet revealed other such curious uses of the term such as ‘green is the new red’, ‘Bono is the new Pope’ and ‘climate change is the new fat’.

No, I don’t get them either.

However, as readers of this column/blog will know, I’m not worried about rehashing cliched phrases so I’m going to give you two more ‘is the new’ phrases to add to your library.

The first is one I heard on the radio recently when the boss of Marks & Spencers was talking about his company’s latest financial results. He said that their range of meals for two had done particularly well because “Saturday night is the new Sunday lunch”.

His argument is that as society has changed and the traditional Sunday lunch where all the family gather around a table has become less of a permanent fixture, many such communal eating gatherings are now on a sofa on a Saturday night as we consume The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing along with our chicken and steak.

And I think he may have a point. The Sunday lunch ritual was once as clearly defined in my grandparents’ household as a religious observation and the idea of my nan, for example, not having a highly traditional roast with the family around at almost exactly the same time every single week was as unheard of as, well, an X Factor without someone saying “this means everything to me . . .”

So is Saturday night the new Sunday? Not quite I think. But perhaps not far off.

However, I am prepared to offer you my own ‘is the new’ based on my reflections of last week. And that is that in the UK now Hallowe’en is the new Bonfire Night.

When I was growing up, the anticipation for November 5 was enormous. Everybody talked about where they would be – be it at a major organised event such as the excellent one at The Rec at the weekend or in the back garden with a few sparklers – and Guy Fawkes night was a big, big occasion. Hallowe’en? A side show ignored by all but real witches I imagined.

Now, however, the tables are turned. I can’t remember a quieter build up to November 5 than this year (although it was with some gratitude that we didn’t have to hear people setting off fireworks for weeks before the big day). OK, the night itself still seemed lively enough but compared to November 5s of old it felt as if the flame was going out.

And yet look at Hallowe’en now. For weeks supermarkets had been selling all kinds of ghoulish outfits and large packets of mini chocolates for us to distribute to trick or treaters and you get the impression youngsters have really circled October 31 as their big autumn date now with good old November 5 as a mere dessert on the menu.

Ah well let’s just hope some things never change. Let’s hope no one says something ‘is the new Christmas’ and also that no one ever claims that anywhere ‘is the new Bath’.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Jim fixed it so none of us knew him - but we all knew his work

It is said that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news that Princess Diana had died. In fact, I suspect that all of you who are reading this, just had that image flash into your mind. And depending on your musical taste and age, I imagine the same could be said for some about hearing of the demise of John Lennon, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Some deaths, especially when they’re cruelly premature, are as defining a memory as that person’s life.

In years to come, however, I suspect not everyone will be able to instantly recall the moment they heard that Sir Jimmy Savile had passed away. I was in the car heading to Bath and although I immediately stopped and rang my partner to tell her, I didn’t give it too much more thought at the time.

Strangely, however, as a I read various tributes over the ensuing days, I started to think more about Mr Savile because I realised that he was one of those very rare creatures that we all thought we knew but none of us really did. At all.

The legendary DJ was a remarkable self-publicist and for many decades his face and his catch phrases were engrained on the public’s consciousness. We all thought we knew exactly what ‘good old Jim’ was like but the reality is none of us really had a clue.

And that’s what makes him such an intriguing personality – in death as well as in life.

As I read some of the things he did during his 84 years, it reminded me a lot of my favourite character in my favourite film – George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. In that movie George is given a chance to see what life would have been like if he had never been born and it was truly astonishing for him to realise (and for us to realise in our own lives through him) just how many people we touch during our relatively brief time on earth.

Jimmy Savile’s life touched thousands of people. Yes, he ‘fixed it’ for lots of youngsters to meet their heroes in his long-running show and yes, we will always remember his Top Of The Pops appearances and his radio work but his real ‘work’ will surely be that through his actions he helped to raise an estimated £40 million for Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

He used the fame he knew he had to publicise the causes he supported and to raise as much money as possible. And if it meant at times that his bizarre behaviour and outlandish look made us all secretly mock him, he didn’t mind as long as we were still putting our hands in our pockets as we did so.

Jimmy Savile was a genuine one-off, a genuine British eccentric. A man who did so much caring work yet claimed to have no emotions and no close friends and someone who kept all his mother’s clothes after she died and had them dry cleaned annually. He was an odd character in every sense of the phrase but a character he was nevertheless and if you ever doubt that he deserves to be remembered, I suggest you pay a visit to Stoke Mandeville Hospital and see what one eccentric can actually achieve.

Oh and can I ask people not to make Jimmy Savile jokes now? That means you and you and you.