Wednesday, 21 December 2011

It's A Wonderful Life when you can get to hear the real Zuzu!!!!

On Tuesday morning, driving into work, I got very excited when I heard someone being interviewed on the radio.

While many other people were probably tuning into other stations and getting exercised about the death of the Korean leader or the euro crisis, I was instead immersed in an interview with a woman whose name I didn’t even know but who has just happened to play a small but highly significant role in a cultural phenomenon which has always had a big impact on me.

For yes, I was listening to the voice of Zuzu.

You know –- Zuzu.

Zuzu of “Zuzu’s petals” fame?

Come on you must know!

If you are still wondering what on earth I am prattling on about (and fear not, I get that a lot) Zuzu was the name of one of the children in the ultimate Christmas film. It is mine and many other people’s favourite movie of all time – it is, of course, the truly magnificent It’s A Wonderful Life.

I got to hear the voice of the legend that is Zuzu – real name Karolyn Grimes – when she was talking to Nicky Campbell on Radio Five Live.

The ever-entertaining Mr Campbell is a man who has effortlessly interviewed world leaders, royals and stars of stage and screen and yet for once he seemed genuinely star struck and somewhat humbled. For he knew as I did that this was Zuzu – the one who said “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”.

And I shared his sense of awe.

It isn’t hard to see why this film means so much to so many and why it will have millions weeping into their Christmas puds as it is shown again over the festive period (it is also at the Little Theatre in Bath on Christmas Eve). It is just one of those remarkable films where once it gets you, you stay ‘got’.

I remember seeing it for the first time on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon when I was just keen to watch anything and it appeared unheralded on the BBC2 schedules. As I sat open-mouthed in admiration it became, from that day forth, (and it is about 30 years now) my number one film.

I watch it at least once a year and if I ever want to remind myself what a softie I am I will just watch the last 15 minutes again and blub like a Gazza. Frankly, if you don’t cry watching It’s A Wonderful Life it is not because there is anything wrong with the movie – it is because there is something wrong with you.

As Zuzu and Nicky Campbell pointed out this beautiful fantasy piece has a timeless quality. It features a man in financial problems (2011 – check) being screwed over by an evil banker (2011– check) who is only bought back from the brink by a loveable angel (2011 – err, not quite).

The thing that ‘saves’ him is to see what life would have been like if he had never been born and I can guarantee there isn’t a single person who will have watched this film who won’t have asked themselves that same question afterwards.

It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.

So I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas but if you do need a lift then just say hello to Zuzu and her petals again. Atta boy Clarence.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Feeling 'Christmassy'? No, well sing a carol . . .

Are you feeling ‘Christmassy’ yet?

This is a question that people often ask each other throughout December and it is usually, in my experience, asked by people who feel somewhat nervous that they aren’t yet in the ‘zone’ that leads up to December 25 and want reassurances others aren’t too.

I must admit I didn’t feel ‘Christmassy’ at all this year until – and I can almost name the exact time – about 6.40pm last Thursday, December 8. That was when I first heard the line ‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed’ being lustily sung at the Chronicle/Rotary Club of Bath’s annual carol service at the abbey.

And it ‘got’ me.

For those who were around last Thursday night you will remember it was a horrible, cold, wet and miserable evening.

If ever there was a reason to not attend an event in the city centre on an evening, Mother Nature had provided the perfect one and it could have been entirely understandable if the abbey was half-empty for the proceedings.

But it wasn’t. Oh no.

There wasn’t a seat spare to be found and the abbey was packed to the rafters because people know that this annual city centre carol service is the one that can actually kick off Christmas for Bath people – and it certainly did for me.

The key to its success I think is revisiting much-loved carols in a communal atmosphere. There is something about Christmas carols that really seems to move people – whether they are regular church-goers or just those who attend such places for weddings or the odd funeral.

Our love for carols probably goes back to the fun of doing school nativity plays – a Christmas tradition that, if anything, seems to be getting stronger. Next week’s Chronicle will feature no fewer than 24 pages worth of pictures of such nativities and all will reveal the sheer joy that young people have in taking part in this special event at this time of the year. And no decent nativity is complete without a carol or two. There are many new ones these days –- and probably a lot of them are rather funkier than the ‘old faves’ – but the traditional tunes are still as popular as ever and just as nearly everyone still knows the Lord’s Prayer, everyone also seems to know what follows the words ‘the cattles are lowing’. . .

These tunes are just something in our consciousness now and you don’t have to be remotely religious to know that carols can touch the parts other spiritual songs can’t.

Of course, for many people the impact of even some of the ‘top of the pops’ in carol terms has been diluted by the fact they seem to be on a permanent loop in the shops at this festive time. You go from Noddy Holder in one shop to Hark The Herald in another and both, after a while, can get equally annoying.

But, put in the right context – and there is no possible better context than the Bath Abbey on a December evening – carols can truly touch the heart, lift the spirits and can really make people stop and think amidst all the other Christmas chaos around them about what is the actual ‘reason for the season’.

Christmassy? Yep, I am now.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The great fun of TV adverts - Sky plus-ed to death?

Last week I  had the pleasure of introducing – for its first ever big screen outing – the DVD film Bath The Way We Were which uses the Chronicle’s archive to back up a series of films which give a whistle-

stop tour of the city’s history.
The screening took place at the Little Theatre, in Bath, and its manager, Martin Jennings-Wright, came up with a wonderful idea of getting everyone into the nostalgic mood for the film by showing some long-forgotten TV adverts from the 1960s.

These ads were both a joy to behold – and something of a revelation. We saw Tony Blair’s father-in-law encouraging us to look smart by buying from ‘Temple man’, we saw Lulu (who I swear looks younger now than she did then), encouraging us to wear a particularly natty pair of shoes and we also saw a very detailed advert extolling the virtues of a new bra which showed a woman dancing and saying ‘when things get moving you need to stay in control!’

It’s fair to say they don’t make them like that any more.

The TV advert has been a staple form of entertainment since television began and the sheer quality of many of our favourites over the past few decades have surely led us all, at some stage, to say the phrase ‘the ads are better than the programmes’.

Sadly, however, I do fear that the art of a great TV advert is being missed by a whole new generation and that’s because of that marvellous invention we call Sky +.

Nowadays many people hardly ever watch a television programme ‘live’, they simply record it on their magic digi box and watch it at a more convenient time. And what happens as a result? They merely zap through those ad breaks and I think miss out on telling snap shots of our culture – let alone finding out about new products.

Of course you’d expect someone in my profession to promote the importance of advertising – and this I do – but I genuinely feel adverts can also bring their own unique pleasures. Think of the remarkable Guinness adverts which saw horses appearing out of the sea, think of Melanie Sykes asking if you would like “a flake with that” and think also of how tempted you were to buy R Whites after encountering the ‘secret lemonade drinker’.

Of course the odd ad still does get through and into the public consciousness. Think gorillas playing drums to a Phil Collins backing track or (if you must), those now hideously over-exposed meerkats. But, by and large, I fear the great days of communal TV advert enjoyment may have past. And if you see Sid, tell him . . .

Oh, one final point before you move onto the next programme.

The best and most artistic ads you see at this time of year concern perfumes and after shaves. There are some beautifully crafted mini-epics extolling the virtues of French-sounding fragrances urging us to buy into a glamorous image.

But surely, the only thing that matters is how these products actually smell? So, therefore, maybe the next invention we need for TV ads to come alive is smelly-vision television.   

It’s not to be sniffed at.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

I am sorry Gary Lineker for my Movember mistake

This appeared in the Bath Chronicle on December 1 - the day 'Movember' ended

I feel I owe an apology to Gary Lineker.

Ok, I know the splendid Mr Lineker will have no idea that I’ve apologised to him but I still feel I needed to publically get it off my chest.

And it’s all because of that curious but rather wonderful invention we call Movember.

Years ago, someone told me that Gary Lineker, he of Spurs, England and Match Of The Day fame, was incapable of growing a moustache or beard. I was told (and probably tellingly I can’t for the life of me remember who by) that he couldn’t grow any facial hair at all and that is why his chin always looked as smooth as a billiard ball when he was on the telly.

And I have told loads of people this 'odd fact you may not know about a celebrity' ever since.

So, when Movember began and someone suggested I tried growing a tash, I said I thought I would look ridiculous and said ‘no’. I also added that I actually wished I could be like that nice Mr Lineker and not have to even bother with dragging a naked blade over my face every morning.

So imagine how much egg yolk I felt on my still clean shaven face, as I watched Mr Lineker join in the Movember campaign and go on to grow more facial hair in  a few weeks than I think I could muster in six months.

Gary's Gillette-avoiding month is/was of course all for a good cause  – as it is with all the other people who have signed up for the Movember initiative.

If you aren’t aware, the idea of the Movember campaign is to get people to grow taches to raise funds to highlight male health problems – particularly sensitive cancers such as prostate and testicular. Men aren’t very good at talking about their health but when it comes to those difficult bits “down there” we find it even more uncomfortable.

So the Movember campaign aims to raise money to fight these cancers – and just as importantly get us talking about them as well. And that is why you will have seen many people sporting uncharacteristic facial growth during last month.

Of course, this situation does lead you into somewhat tricky situations.

At the Bath Chronicle business breakfast last week there were two particularly hairy ‘mos’ on offer but I had to gingerly ask both people if they were sporting them for the cause or not. If of course I got it wrong it it would be the equivalent of saying were they were wearing their lip adornment for a bet when it may well have been a prized permanent feature. And it could also lead to the sort of embrassment to be found by asking a slightly overweight lady when the baby was due...

The truth is moustaches definitely suit some people better than others and I have to confess I haven’t got involved in Movember because I’m convinced I would fall into the “others” category. I suspect I would look like some bad 1970s German porn actor with a wispy bit of blond fluff on top of my lip.

Of course, the whole point is it shouldn’t matter what you look like. It’s all about raising funds and awareness – and so I hereby offer my column/blog as part of that awareness campaign and salute all those braver souls than me who have collectively raised more than £50 million in recent years as a result of throwing away their razors.

Today, December 1, should see all those unwanted taches disappear but let’s hope, however, that debate about the male issues involved does not end.

We owe it to all the ‘mo’ wearers to keep talking – and I particularly owe it to Gary “The Tache” Lineker.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Center Parcs - a Center of excellence 12 months a year?

This is a travel piece about a trip to see if our local Center Parcs really can deliver in the winter as well as the appeared in both The Bath Chronicle and Somerset Standard - the Longleat resort's two local papers. 

As we all know, the British weather is an unpredictable beast. In recent years especially we have seen all sorts of bizarre weather patterns and hardly a month goes by without some bright-eyed forecaster telling us excitedly that we have just seen the hottest/coldest/wettest/ strangest month since (and here comes that legendary phrase....) ‘records began’.

And yet, despite the unpredictability we privately cherish, one thing has remained absolute in people’s minds – if you want to holiday in Britain you had better do it in the summer. Or, at a push, at least the spring or maybe a bit of autumn. But holiday in the UK in winter? Forget it.

For Center Parcs, however, that is one concept they have never accepted.

And so when they first hit our unsuspecting shores some 24 years ago, one of their keenest philosophies was that they would aim to provide holidays and breaks of the highest quality 365 days a year. July and August are big months for them of course but unlike our beloved seaside resorts so indeed are January and February. It’s an all-year round holiday offering and, luckily for us, we have one of them at Longleat, right on our doorstep.

I have been to the parks before but always in those summer months so when I got the chance to spend a weekend at Longleat to sample Center Parcs outside of the cricket season I enthusiastically took it. So many people have said to me that the Center Parcs experience truly comes into its own when the nights draw in and having now experienced a November weekend there I can fully see what they mean.

I made the ‘huge’ journey down the A36 (told you we were lucky!) mainly to see how Center Parcs embraces the Christmas period, which comes in the shape of their 2011 all-new Winter Wonderland. It is a six week celebration of snow, lights and Santa and is designed to make everyone feel in the mood for the big day while not detracting from all the other traditional, amazing attractions on offer at the site.

The Winter Wonderland this year includes everything from an outdoor ice skating rink, a sumptuous festive firework display and a woodland Santa visiting experience to a host of different practical activities including a chance to design Christmas gifts and baubles and even a cracker making workshop.

But just as importantly to my eyes is that the whole woodland site is given a lovely slice of fairy dust too and there are an array of beautiful, simple Christmas lights shining throughout and one or two elegant and expertly put together displays dotted around. Throw in Longleat’s own panto and Christmas activities at a lot of the restaurants and main attractions and you have a real feel for the whole festive period. And, as you would always expect with Center Parcs, there isn’t a hint of tackiness or overt cashing-in – it is all there to enjoy if you want it but if you are more of a fan of Ebenezer than Rudolph then you can simply enjoy the rest of your break without ever feeling you are an enforced extra in a Christmas TV commercial.

So, the Winter Wonderland clearly hits the mark but what about the park itself? Does it ‘work’ as well when the sun is a somewhat rarer visitor and can you truly have as much fun in the middle of November as the middle of the summer holidays?

Well, if my visit is anything to go by I say a hearty yes. To me the sheer beauty of Center Parcs has always been that you can do as much or as little as you want and yet you always return feeling you have been well looked after and been given a myriad of opportunities to stretch yourself and try a wide amount of different activities.

And the calendar has no impact on any of that.

As ever I was enormously impressed with two things that can make or break any holiday – the quality of the accommodation and the staff. Center Parcs treats each of its woodland lodges like hotel rooms rather than traditional holiday camp chalets or caravans and our lodge was scrupulously clean and had everything we needed to spend our break in comfort.

And the staff? Once again I was so impressed with everyone we encountered who showed professionalism and care at every turn - and considerable passion for their areas of expertise. As just one example we dined on the Saturday night at the impressive Grand Cafe where we all enjoyed great food in a lovely atmosphere. But what impressed us just as much was that our server (Phil) on seeing that one of our party wasn’t eating and hearing he had heartburn immediately came up with his own private solution/concoction that took away the problem in seconds.

It was thoughtful and kind and exhibited the qualities we saw in so many of the staff we met over the weekend, many of course who are local to our patch and hopefully may see this as a result.

The Grand Cafe was a splendid place to eat and there are plenty of other top choices too (we particularly enjoyed our trip to Oretga’s for a sangria-led feast to remember) but as with everything at Center Parcs you can spend as much or as little as you want.

It is entirely possible to have a totally self-catered weekend (an on-site supermarket helps) and although Center Parcs isn’t cheap – and I mean that in every sense of the phrase – it is possible to enjoy so much it has to offer without breaking the bank.

If you don’t want to sign up for the bewildering choice of activities/sports you can spend time enjoying the amazing free indoor water world – still the beating heart and soul of the whole park for many – or just wander or cycle around the site and revel in the fresh air, the many lovely trees and all the other beautiful natural attractions that only a park in such a glorious forest setting can offer.

At Center Parcs if you love nature then the best things in life truly are free.

However, if you do have a bit of extra money to spend there are so many amazing ways to spend it and I would recommend you think of booking them well before you arrive as seasoned visitors do.

My partner and I had three hours of total relaxation in the glorious Aqua Santa, a place to leave your problems at the door and just unwind at a spectacularly peaceful pace. There are plenty of top quality treatments on offer for that extra investment and my partner tried one of them – an unforgettable Facial Decleor Aroma Expert Facial. She left feeling a million dollars – without thankfully having spent that sum to feel that good.

If all that sounds too relaxed for you then fear not – Center Parcs has a massive list of indoor and outdoor sporting activities to try and once again the fact that so many of them are under cover means that even if that famed bad weather does its worse then Center Parcs can cope and can still provide you with a schedule of high-energy activities that would impress Action Man.

But you don’t have to just take my word about how good our local 365-day-a-year holiday truly is – the proof of the pudding (Christmas or otherwise) is when you eat up the numbers.

Center Parcs has had a particularly good year by all accounts and occupancy in these winter months is as high as any other times of year. And that is because with their well thought out range of activities, great eateries, superb settings and top quality accommodation choices, Center Parcs has pulled off that unique thing for a British holiday resort – it has created a weather-proof break.

So yes, Longleat may currently be enjoying a Winter Wonderland but as far as I can see it is a wonderland whenever you go.

Twelve months of the year this truly is a Center of excellence.

A 'typical' week in a newsroom? Hardly.

This originally appeared in my Bath Chronicle column on November 24 after a crazy week in the office....

On Monday night, November 21, I had the pleasure of talking to the Weston Local History Society on the subject of the local and national media – past, present and future. It was, hopefully, an informative evening for everyone but there was one point when I was literally lost for words. And that was when one of the members asked me to describe ‘a typical day’ in the life of an editor or a newsroom.

The reason I couldn’t answer immediately is that I realised there is no such thing as a typical day and although we are governed by strict deadlines, what happens between the end of one week’s paper and the publication of the following weeks is totally unpredictable.

And this week has really proved the point.

I was away for a few days last week, only popping back into the office in advance of the Christmas light switch on. I therefore expected that on Monday all the talk would be about John Cleese and the Christmas extravaganza but by the time I came in again the agenda had moved and we have gone on to have a truly remarkable week in the newsroom which really reiterates why the best jobs are those where you never quite know what is going to happen next.

For a starter, we were very short staffed due to holidays and sickness. We all assured ourselves we could cope – and cope we somehow have – but what we weren’t expecting was the astonishing amount of important news stories that had flowed into the office for our small team to deal with.

As hopefully you will may seen in the paper of November 24, it was a big week locally filled with both tragedy (the story of the soldier David Boyce killed in Afghanistan and the sad story of the woman who died at a Bath petrol station) but also with triumph in the shape of the light switch on which brought the whole community together – as did the moving march through our city by the servicemen returning from the Middle East. Throw in the fact that we had some fascinating news about expansions to two of our biggest supermarkets, an RUH fire, the build up to Bath City’s big FA Cup match and so many other stories that  put the whole team on full alert and that really was a week where I can feel even more proud than usual of the small but dedicated team who do everything they can to give you the best possible newspaper, website and Twitter updates.

Of course, we can only produce the news service we do by the fantastic support we receive from you all as our readers and this gives me one of those rare chances to say thank you for that. We care passionately about our community and because you also care passionately about how your community is represented this ‘teamwork’ means we can hopefully always rise to the occasion on weeks like the one we have just seen.

I was out talking again on Friday, November 25, this time to a group of students at Kingswood School about journalism. And one of the points I  made to them is that this is a job where you never quite know what is going to happen next and that is why it is so hard to answer the question ‘what is your typical day’.

And next week? I have no idea.