Category Archives: Television

Man versus Food

What we are eating and – additionally – how much of it we are eating is big news right now.

It’s certainly big news in this house where,  with just 2 weeks to go before I swan off to celebrate my 60th birthday in Sri Lanka,  I decided that unless I wished to be mistaken for Moby Dick washed up on a tropical beach, then losing a few of my excess pounds might be a good idea.  No problem, help yourself – I have plenty of those excess pounds to spare, unfortunately.

I know that, to some extent, the predilection for stacking on weight is about one’s genetic make-up.  Both my parents tended to be slightly or moderately overweight for most of their adult lives and to some extent this was about their body shape, which inclined toward short and stocky rather than svelte and slim.  Not surprisingly, I have picked up these genetic markers and have  probably been slowly piling on the pounds since my early 40’s.

My folks were also ‘foodies’ – they approached mealtimes with considerable gusto well into their seventies.  My Mum was a pretty accomplished cook of the traditional English type and, unfortunately, derived far too much of her self-esteem from what she put on the table.  In later years, with money a bit more plentiful, they took to eating out a bit more often and would frequently regale us with tales of meals they had recently eaten whilst on holiday in Cornwall or France,  even whilst in the midst of consuming a meal in this house.

Not that this offended me, you understand; both of my folks were always very complimentary about my cooking, which – to be honest – has become lazier and more uninspired as the years pass.  However, this ability to enthuse endlessly about meals already eaten was not lost on the Princess who grew up – perhaps unsurprisingly – to undergo an ‘eating disorder’ phase  in her mid-teens.  The two issues may not be connected, but I suspect that they are….

Giving up smoking a while back also accelerated this whole process; after all we all know about the compulsive oral aspects of sticking a cigarette in your mouth and once you stop that, food tends to take over and on go the pounds.

The other issue is probably lifestyle.  I do a reasonable amount of walking as a non-driver – that’s walking, not hiking – but have nonetheless became too sedentary for anyone’s comfort, least of all my own.

So, all in all, not a great recipe (so to speak) and I have slowly ballooned up to Zeppelin proportions over the last 12 months.  Finally, the penny dropped and I realised that the ‘I’ve quit smoking and now I’m fat but this will pass‘  mentality was just another example of false consciousness.

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The real situation is that gaining weight is not a corollary of stopping smoking but is, in fact, another manifestation of the same thing – in other words, my erstwhile and lifelong tendency to eat, drink, smoke and ingest whatever I wanted to,  in whatever quantity suited me,  without having to particularly cope with any adverse consequences.  That ship, like the one containing my carefree youth, is now hull down over the horizon and vanishing fast.  Bottom line: I just can’t live like that any more if I want to live much longer at all.

So, how to deal with this new and unpalatable set of circumstances?  Well, if I tell you that I live with a partner who is obsessed with her appearance in general and her weight in particular, you can probably guess that there was no shortage of advice on offer.  Trouble is, though, I’m not a Weight Watchers joiner or a calorie counting obsessive – it just won’t happen, no matter how many photocopied articles from mid-market tabloids shrieking about ‘New Year, New You!’ or ‘Try our new Miracle Diet!’ are left lying around for me to read.  Just not going to happen, I’m afraid.

Monitored by the Princess, I initially tried to be more judicious and make healthier choices about what I was eating and not to snack between meals.  I also tried to build in a 30-minute walk every day, but it just wasn’t working.  I was still taking on board too many calories for my lifestyle and my weight was such that even a short walk was playing havoc with my knees and lower back.  It got to the point where even getting dressed in the morning was a major effort and with a short walk to the local High Street now often leaving me wrecked, I could see the horizons of my world closing in.  This must be how it happens, I thought; before you know it, you’re housebound and can only get somewhere in a cab or when somebody offers you a lift.

So, about a week ago, I just decided on a radical solution which so far seems to be producing promising results.  I have simply stopped eating during the day and now just eat an evening meal.  I drink juice and coffee during the day and have been known to scarf down the odd tomato as I pass the bowl, but no solids really.It’s hard, of course; not as hard as quitting smoking but still pretty difficult.  The rewards after a week seem to be that I simply feel ‘better’ in a vague and undefined manner,  walking around is easier,  my clothes don’t  pinch so much and I have actually lost the best part of a stone.  My aim is to take to the beaches of Sri Lanka in a fortnight or so as a moderately walrus-sized obstacle rather than a genuine shipping hazard.

Strangely, all of this personal angst and re-assessment is going on at a time when the Government is telling us that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic.  We also seem to be eating quite a lot of horse-meat, apparently, which is blowing a lot of people’s ‘My Little Pony‘ dreams out of the water.  I seem to recall eating minced horse-meat a couple of times in Sweden in the 70’s and my recollection is that it was like a slightly more intensely flavoured version of ground beef.  Back then, I think the Swedes also sold a version of ‘biltong’ – wind-dried horse-meat in chewable strips.  Yum!

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I think my appreciation of life’s ironies only grows more substantial as I grow older (and larger).  So it is that I find myself more than a little amused by the fact that it is at this very juncture of my life that I have discovered the joys of  a TV show called ‘Man versus Food’, which is shown on cable over here and is a great favourite with the Princess and many of her friends.  The name of the programme  kind of encapsulates my current predicament whilst the content is the kind of stuff which will – for better or worse – always be beyond me.

The leading light of ‘MvF’ was Adam Richman, a genial actor from  Brooklyn in his late 30’s who between 2008 and 2010 travelled around the USA, seeking out local culinary specialities and the diners, bars, cafés and restaurants that serve them.  These places often come up with ludicrous ‘challenges’ that speak directly to the competitive drive of Americans.  Typically,  people are required to consume insane quantities of the local ‘delicacy’, often within a time limit.  The reward  for those attempting (and succeeding in) these challenges is often nothing more than getting their meal free or getting their name on a ‘Wall of Fame’ in the restaurant or perhaps a t-shirt (usually XXXL)  that promotes the establishment in question.

In a typical episode, Adam and the ‘MvF’ crew will descend on an American city having previously researched the local delicacies.  Adam will visit a couple of places to try out said local delicacies before the main event, where he visits a place specialising in one of these deranged food challenges.  He starts in the kitchen to chat with the owner/proprietor or manager, finding out how the local speciality is cooked/assembled.  He then goes out front and takes on one of these ‘challenges’ in front of a crowd of hooting shrieking locals who cheer him on like they were at a baseball game.

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Adam Richman attacks another ludicrous plateful in ‘Man vs Food’

For example, the show I watched most recently saw Adam up in Portland, Maine, trying out one of Maine’s famous Lobster Shacks before moving on to a burger joint that specialised in a ziggurat of a burger with 8 beef patties, foie gras and grilled pork belly slices, bookended by a bun and pinned through with a long wooden skewer to keep it all together.  Surprisingly, that was not the (ahem) ‘Maine Event’.    That turned out to be a giant 6-pound plateful of frittata with potatoes, onions, pepperoni, bacon, broccoli and cheese, all bound together by 4 eggs.  It’s a  bit of a blur now, but I seem to recall that the challenge was to take this lot down in 20 minutes or less; then again, I could be mistaken, but it’s hardly important.  The main point of the show is that we get to gawp at the colossal burgers, steaks and plates of barbecue served up to ordinary Americans on a regular basis.  All of this is mediated by our engaging host Adam, who as he says in the show’s intro is ‘an ordinary guy with a serious appetite’.  Certainly, he can boast a high success rate in terms of defeating these challenges and can certainly put away huge quantities of food.

On the other hand, my experience of the USA, whilst limited to New York City should have taught me that what goes on in ‘Man versus Food’ is hardly unique to that show.  I can remember one of my first ‘eating out’ experiences at an Italian restaurant in The Bronx where I ordered an Escalope Milanese –  generally a thin escalope of veal, dipped in a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and egg, then swiftly pan-fried.  My dish arrived in a rectangular cast-iron dish,  about 18 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep.  The majority of it was filled with a mixture of fried Mediterranean vegetables (tomatoes, capsicums, onions, aubergine etc), on top of which were perched 3 colossal Veal Escalopes, each one  beaten to a thin, irregular disc about the size of a standard dinner plate.  Just in case I was peckish, I got a huge pot of garlicky sautéd potatoes as well.  In Europe, this lot would have fed 3 hungry adults but this was mine, all mine.  It was indeed delicious, but my pleasure was diminished by the fact that I could only eat about half of what was on offer – and had to push myself to the limit in order to achieve that much.  This was hardly an unusual experience in New York and among the locals, there does seem to be the expectation that if you go out to eat, the ‘calibre’ of your meal is, to a considerable  extent, determined by the size of the portions.

Thankfully, living here,  I don’t really have to suffer the temptation of  American Diner food, though the ubiquitous Birmingham Curries are something I’m having to limit.    Of course, there will be plenty of curry in Sri Lanka as well, but just as much fresh fruit.

Crab Curry

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

However, even once I return from my 60th birthday expedition, I am going to need to be judicious about what and how much I’m eating and that is something that I’ll simply have to put up with from now on.  Just another of the delights of growing older…

The Ugly Duckling that never made the cut…..

For the last few years, I have ‘adopted’ a DVD box set of a TV drama series to see me through the long, dark winter evenings and this winter has been no different.

I’d set the bar pretty high for this, because in previous years I had chosen  (in 2010-2011) ‘The Sopranos‘ and (in 2011-2012) ‘The Wire’.  This winter’s choice was a little bit out of left field – a friend offered to lend me DVD Box of the first 4 series of ‘Fringe’, a rather obscure little sci-fi series made by some of the people involved in ‘Lost’  including J J Abrams, who also directed the most recent ‘Star Trek‘ movie and has now (apparently) been lined up to direct the first movie in the next phase of  George Lucas’ ongoing ‘Star Wars’ saga.

‘Fringe‘ was a series about which I knew little except that it had been chugging along on Sky TV in this country without ever threatening to break out into mainstream success.  From a distance, it looked more like one of those odd items that used to crop up on the SciFi channel – occasional pilots for potential series that never quite happened.  Yet for all this, as I began with Series 1 of ‘Fringe’, Sky were starting in on the fifth and final series of the show, so in the end the ‘Fringe’ saga would amount to 100 episodes.  I felt that, under the circumstances, that something good must be going on here, so although I’d been warned that the early shows were ‘a bit lame’ (to quote a friend), there was surely something here worth persevering with.  Armed with this conviction, I entered the murky worlds of ‘Fringe’.

Fringe’I soon discovered was shorthand for the ‘Fringe Division’ –  a small and marginalised sub-section of the FBI whose raison d’etre was to investigate all that weird stuff which Mulder & Scully left behind when ‘The X Files’ shuffled off to TV Nostalgia Heaven about 10 years ago.

Like ‘The X Files’, ‘Fringe‘ could boast a core group of dedicated individuals who would stick with the show throughout its five-series run from 2008 to 2012.  The inner quartet were headed by FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, played by Australian actress Anna Torv and she was aided and abetted by ex-hippie and (slightly) mad scientist Walter Bishop,  played by another Aussie, John Noble, probably best known for his portrayal of the deeply unpleasant and ultimately deranged Denethor, Steward of Gondor, in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings‘.  Also in attendance were Bishop’s son, Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Lab Assistant /Earth Mother/ FBI Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole).  In addition,  there were also regular guest turns from Lance Reddick, Blair Brown, Kirk Acevedo, Seth Gabel and – occasionally – even a craggy and rather infirm-looking Leonard Nimoy.

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L-R, Jasika Nicole, John Noble, Anna Torv & Joshua Jackson

So, after some initial manoeuvring, the Fringe Team set up shop in Walter Bishop’s abandoned lab at Harvard.  Obviously, Harvard isn’t subject to the same financial strictures as British universities; the idea that this huge space could remain mothballed for so many years with all Walter’s toys left intact defies any kind of logic.  In the UK, the lab would have either been converted and modernised or rented off as a Starbuck’s franchise.  But this is ‘Fringe’ and things aren’t always what they might seem.

So Season 1 chugs along after a promising pilot episode where a flight from Hamburg to Boston is taken over by some flesh-eating virus – or was it a giant mutant porcupine?  I cannot recall now, but I felt that it was worth persisting with the series – after all, it was that or multiple episodes of ‘Roller-Skating Celebrity Pets on Ice ‘ and suchlike.  It soon fell into a pattern – the Team get a call to go and check out some random piece of weirdness (mainly located in the northeastern USA), they resolve it and then move on to the next case.

Basically,  over the first couple of seasons,  ‘Fringe’   diligently set about fleshing out the back-stories of the leading characters, so we learn that there’s potentially (surprise, surprise) a big romance on the cards for Agent Dunham and Peter Bishop, and we also learn that Peter’s  father, Walter, before being locked up in a mental hospital for 17 years, had a fondness for blotter acid, psychedelic rock music and morally indefensible scientific experiments which would have brought a cheery smile to the face of Josef Mengele.  Even so, we are supposed to accept him now as a loveable eccentric who shows genuine remorse for his past misdeeds whilst acting as the Fringe team’s resident scientific guru, meanwhile  indulging a fatal weakness for all manner of American junk food – everything from strawberry milkshakes to red licorice sticks.

I suppose it helps if you are able to accept John Noble’s bumbling Worzel Gummidge persona and his apparent desire to atone for having experimented on and permanently damaged the lives of a group of helpless children with dangerous pharmaceuticals,  not to mention potentially destroying the universe back in his arrogant younger days.

However, it doesn’t really fly, I’m afraid.  Noble simply isn’t an accomplished enough actor to engender much audience sympathy or give his character the emotional depth that might make us think twice about him.   His passive/aggressive behaviour towards his son and his use of emotional blackmail to make himself the centre of attention soon render his performances a fairly constant irritant and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the ‘Fringe‘ episodes that work best are the ones where he barely features.  In fact, aside from son Peter, it’s difficult to fathom out why everyone seems so fond of him.

As for our romantic leads, this, too, is a romance made in hell, because  the ongoing love-fest between Messrs Torv and Jackson manages to whip up an emotional whirlwind that would have trouble blowing over a house of cards.

Miss Torv may have the regulation long blonde tresses and a trim enough figure, but she simply has no sex appeal whatsoever.  She plays a workaholic who radiates a kind of bovine lugubriousness that renders  her occasional romantic encounters about as steamy as a damp dishcloth.  Meanwhile,  Joshua Jackson puts me in mind of the former Swedish international footballer Tomas Brolin, who was once described by (I think) Mark Radcliffe as being like a ‘pretty pig’.   Jackson has the  porcine to go with Anna Torv’s bovine, which leaves only the diminutive Jasika Nicole, whose Agent Farnsworth gets to play the ‘straight (wo)man’ to all the others and does so very sweetly and effectively.  In fact, most of the supporting cast regulars do a great job by and large, but the lack of magnetism among the principals makes their job doubly difficult.

Donald A. Wollheim once wrote that science fiction was more important for the ideas it generated than it was for the depth of the characterisation of its heroes, so how does ‘Fringe’ fare on that level?  Last year I watched a much shorter series called ‘Terra Nova’ which featured an even more obnoxious cast but could boast some fairly nifty special effects.  It didn’t really help that much but it made the series marginally less grim to watch.

With that in mind, it has to be said that some of the pseudo-science dished up in ‘Fringe’ is quite interesting, if occasionally risible.  Best of all is the ‘parallel universe’ plot which runs for much of Seasons 2-4 before being summarily dumped at the end of Season 4.  The alternative Earth – well, we only see Boston and New York, really – has some interesting inversions and variations.  Anna Torv puts in her best performances as her  punky alter ego from ‘the other side’ and Walter Bishop is both sinister and megalomaniacal as the Secretary of Defence (with a ‘s’).

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The two Olivias – neurotic workaholic or punky go-getter?

In some ways, ‘Fringe‘ always struggled to build an audience and in many ways, it was remarkable that it survived for 100 episodes.  Clearly, towards the end of Season 4, the decision was made to run a curtailed Season 5 and wrap up the whole saga.  This final Season has only just ended and I’m still not sure whether to admire the boldness of the producers for the radical plot changes they made for that final 13 episodes.

Basically and as briefly as possible, a constant and (largely) unexplained feature of the whole saga was the role of the so-called ‘Observers’, a recurring group of bald and pasty-faced men with a weakness for dark suits and fedora hats who seem to crop up at important junctures of the plot throughout the first 4 Seasons.  These characters seem largely benign and neutral -hence the name they are given – but from Episode 19 of Season 4 (‘Letters of Transit’) , we are forced to view them in a different light.  They are – it seems – from our future and have developed the ability to travel through time but having been passive and benign for so long, from 2015 onwards, they become malign and aggressive, attempting to take over the whole world and imposing a totalitarian government highly reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘1984’  where they use mind control and torture  to keep the population cowed and submissive.

Having spent such a long time setting up the whole parallel universe storyline, it’s amazing to witness how it took the producers only one subsequent episode (Episode 20 – Season 4 – ‘Worlds Apart‘ ) to shut all that down and pave the way for the radical Season 5.  Such, it seems, are the effects of poor ratings…

Season 5’s thirteen episodes are set in the future – 2036 to be precise – and generally  feature only the central quartet – the two Bishops plus Agents Dunham and Farnsworth.  Blair Brown and Lance Reddick (as their older selves) appear far less often and the Parallel Earth makes only a fleeting appearance in the penultimate episode.  The series is notable for the appearance of Peter & Olivia’s grown-up daughter Henrietta, a member of the Resistance who are trying to stop the Observers from taking over and ruining the planet.  The Bishops plus Agents Dunham and Farnsworth have by 2036 been suspended in amber (don’t ask) for over 20 years until the resourceful Henrietta busts them out.  They are then free to resume their battle to defeat the Observers .

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Season 5 – Georgina Haig (L) joins the merry throng as Henrietta

At times, frankly, the plot – not for the first time – totters on the brink of disastrous absurdity, but having slogged my way through the general doldrums and occasional highlights of Seasons 1-4, I was in no mood to abandon ‘Fringe’ now.  With an almost grim determination I hung in there until the inevitable soft-sell conclusion where Walter Bishop finally got to redeem himself by saving the universe he once almost destroyed and Peter & Olivia were restored to a past where they got their lives and their daughter back.

As a series, ‘Fringe’ is like the Ugly Duckling that never became a swan.  It just never took off, possibly because the plot was initially too predictable, but then became too wild for mainstream viewers.   Possibly it was because of the leaden acting and the lack of chemistry between some of the principals.  I can’t help but wonder whether the ‘Fringe‘ fan-base felt cheated by the events of the final season or not.  I find it hard to imagine how anyone who sat down in 2008 to watch Season 1, Episode 1 and followed it week by week and Season by Season must have felt when all of that careful plot development effectively got thrown out of the window over the last 13 episodes.  Of course, you could argue that Fringe’ is just TV fluff and that we’re not meant to take it seriously, but the way in which the show promoted and projected itself would very much suggest otherwise.

Next winter, I think I may need to choose my Box set a little more carefully…

Welcome back my friends to the show that never, ever seems to end……

I am finding that getting old doesn’t actually have a lot to recommend it, by and large.  What’s more, it’s not just the physical battles engendered by a lifetime of bodily abuse, though it has to be said that those are challenging enough.

There are other aspects of ageing which are just as problematical as trying to cope with bits of one’s body that no longer bend or stretch or function the way that they used to.  These are often personality traits or behavioural tics that whilst considered amusing enough back in the day have now become entrenched and calcified.  For want of a better expression, this might be referred to as the Victor Meldrew paradigm. 

Thus far, I have managed to avoid mentioning the word ‘Olympics’ in this blog.  That I need to say this reminds me of the old jazz buffs’ joke about the definition of a gentleman being a man who can play the banjo – but doesn’t.  So, it might reasonably be asked why someone like me,  who is generally well-disposed towards a number of top-line sports – football, cricket, baseball – is so negative about the London Olympics. 

There are quite a few reasons, actually.  One of the main issues would be that I find  so many of the Olympic ‘disciplines’ unutterably tedious to watch – diving, fencing, archery, gymnastics, boxing, weightlifting – to name but six.   I have no interest in any of these sports generally, so why, during the Olympics, am I supposed to fill my day with endless hours of the BBC’s coverage of such events?  Then, there are the politics and corporate skullduggery going on behind the scenes, but I can (reluctantly) accept that without the likes of Microsoft and the Coca-Cola Corporation and suchlike, the Games probably wouldn’t be viable at all.  It’s the way of the modern world and whilst I may not like it, I just have to shrug my shoulders and deal with it.  Then again, I (happily) don’t live in London and won’t have to contend with an artificially inflated level of Council Tax for the rest of my lifetime in order to pay for the inconvenience and hassle and the Limo Lanes.

Watching paint dry – the latest Olympic ‘discipline’

So, having little interest in the Games as a whole, I just cherry-picked the bits I wanted to watch – specifically, the football and Usain Bolt – and ignored the rest.  Elsewhere in the house, the Partner was gung-ho for it all from the Opening Ceremony onwards, whilst the Princess slowly became an enthusiast as well.  I was doing pretty well, reining in my cynicism and disdain as the BBC milked the popular mood and ran the emotional gamut from A to B.  Somewhere along the line, everyone seemed to have forgotten that about a year ago, there were areas of London just a few discus throws from the Olympic Stadium that were going up in flames.  Instead, we were invited to join in this media-orchestrated Hallmark Cards Love-In which insisted that everyone in London was suddenly being nice to one another.  In the broadsheets, I caught a passing glimpse (and then avoided) articles by heavyweight columnists who were suddenly writing about ‘the Olympic effect’ and how we had ‘learned to like ourselves a little more’.  People even began to talk openly of ‘the mood of the nation.’  Oh dear. 

“I love everyone and I want to give all my cash to Boris Johnson”

Anyway, I was feeling quite pleased with myself, having avoided pretty much everything except the few events that did interest me – and, incidentally, all the gushing drivel from the BBC presenters.  Then along came the final day of the whole thing and we accepted an invitation to go and have dinner with friends – the only friends we have who have openly espoused the Olympics.   They had actually been to London to attend the Archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground and the Synchronised Shove Ha’penny or something similar at some other venue.   Fortunately, having not seen them for some time we had plenty of other stuff to discuss, but the TV  in their flat was relentlessly glued to Olympic coverage and I realised to my horror that dinner had been timed to ensure that we were all fed and watered in time for everyone to sit down and watch the Closing Ceremony.

I had heard much about Danny Boyle’s choreographed opening ceremony and the largely positive response it received.  Expecting something similar, I suppose I just thought ‘How bad can it be?’  and sat back in the hope that it wouldn’t be too long and that conversation could then resume or that we could then go home.

What I got was unmitigated Hell.  If anyone ever asks me – and they probably won’t – how I envisage Hell, I can now simply refer them to the three hours that ensued.  This was Hell made flesh and some of the participants – Russell Brand, Liam Gallagher, Brian May – are among its minor demons as far as I am concerned.  Of course, you can talk about the scale of the operation, the logistics of cramming thousands of athletes into the stadium during the course of two Elbow songs, the brilliant lighting and pyrotechnics and the willingness of the biddable audience to get on board with the constipated spectacle.  However, no amount of discussion could make any sense out of what unfolded.

Hell.  Note kitchen sinks being parachuted in…..

And, my, how it unfolded…and just when you thought it had finished unfolding, it unfolded a bit more.  Apart from the ceremonial bit at the end where Sebastian Coe thanked everyone for their efforts and support and the faux-sombre dousing of the Olympic pilot light before the fireworks started, the whole deranged smørgåsbord seemed to be built around British pop music of the last 50 years.  Having said that, everything still seemed to be locked into the 1960’s and 1970’s – thus, we got Ray Davies and The Who for real plus creepy necrophiliac footage of John Lennon and Freddie Mercury and The Kaiser Chiefs playing a respectably feisty version of ‘Pinball Wizard’, though, as  far as I know, pinball is not an Olympic sport – yet. 

There were those whose music was played – notably The Beatles and David Bowie – who were conspicuous by their absence and those whose music never featured at all – most glaringly, The Rolling Stones.  I was, however, pleased that rumours of an appearance by New Order proved unfounded; the last thing the happy-clappy throng needed was being serenaded by a load of miserable Mancs.  There was no reggae either;  instead we got a token rapper and some dhol drummers to remind us of  how multi-cultural we are.  

There was some surrealism as well – some of it may even have been intentional.  The Pet Shop Boys (well it was supposed to be them and they were possibly singing ‘West End Girls’) were whisked round the stadium in a dayglo rickshaw whilst dressed like a Salvador Dali vision of the functionaries of the Spanish Inquisition.  Then for some unknown reason,  we got a weird piece of video of the late Freddie Mercury doing a bit of rabble-rousing.   This was merely  a prelude to the full-on horror of the remains of Queen singing the loathsomely fascist ‘We will rock you’ – preceded by 2 or 3 minutes of ghastly guitar shredding from Brian May, whose grey curls now look like some kind of ‘Elephant Man’-type fungal growth.   More necrophilia came along via that weird video of John Lennon singing ‘Imagine‘ whilst Yoko does the dusting in the background.  ‘”Imagine there’s no countries…” sang John…….sorry John, but then there’d be no Olympics.   “Imagine no possessions….”   Err, right, John – better not tell the sponsors about that one.

The most stage-managed piece of lunacy came courtesy of Eric Idle who seemed to be dressed as a ‘Star Wars’ stormtrooper, affected to be fired out of a cannon and then treated us all to a rousing singalong of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’, which was about as normal as things got – ironic that  after all these years, it should be Monty Python making a stand for normalcy.  After the Spice Girls had stood on top of some modified black cabs and done a couple of  predictably shouty Spice Girl things about how we should take them seriously and not just ogle their legs and their tits in those micro-dresses they wear, things meandered on a bit and I have to confess to dozing through pipe bands, Annie Lennox doing her boring diva thing in a shipwreck, the band of the Grenadier Guards and some ballet dancers doing expressive dance – by this point it really was chuck in everything including the kitchen sink.  What woke me up were the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ and there was a moment of dislocation as I adjusted to the fact that this was the real deal and not a Kaiser Chiefs karaoke.

The Spice Girls. On top of taxis. In dodgy costumes.                They’re really serious about their art, y’know.

The Who played a medley of about three songs, concluding with a thunderous rendition of ‘My Generation’ – an interesting choice for the final piece of diced carrot in this musical minestrone, considering its lyrics tell the tale of young outsiders taking lots of drugs as a way of distancing themselves from society.

And then it was finally over.  I was grumpy and tired, an otherwise pleasant evening had been hijacked and I felt as though I’d been beaten up by the Teletubbies.  What manner of impression this ceremony created in the minds of anyone watching from Uzbekistan, Ecuador or Tanzania is open to speculation.  Personally, if I knew little about London and had watched that broadcast, I would have formed the inescapable conclusion that the whole city is essentially an open-plan lunatic asylum and would have shelved any plans to visit any time soon.  And so, the Olympic torch moves on to Rio de Janeiro – and as far as I am concerned, not a moment too soon .

Game of Adaptations…..

I’ve been reading fantasy novels for most of my adult life, though in recent years, my tastes have moved away from fiction towards travel books and historical biographies.  Even so, something will cross my radar now and again – such was the case last December when I was visiting my late father in hospital.  He had been moved to (essentially) a nursing facility in Daventry and as a non-driver, this presented something of a challenge in terms of access.  In the end I figured out a convoluted bus and train route that got me there and back OK, but with a good deal of hanging around.  Specifically, I had to wait around quite a lot at Daventry’s  ‘bus station’ – essentially part of a public car park, divided into bus bays.  When doing my regular visits to Dad, I always ensured that I was well-equipped with distractions – iPod, book, newspaper, water bottle, sandwich etc.

Even so, a local charity had opened up a second-hand bookshop in what looked like a disused office right next to the bus bays, so I wandered in one day, emerging  in time to get my bus with a well-worn US paperback edition of George R R Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, which I’d picked up for £1.  I’d become aware of ‘Game of Thrones’ thanks to a fairly modest publicity campaign launched by Sky TV to publicise the fact that they were screening HBO’s adaptation of the book; an adaptation whose promo posters featured a photo of a rather grim-looking Sean Bean staring out at us and looking for all the world like Boromir with a serious hangover.

Sean Bean  looking grim as Eddard Stark on the novel’s front cover

Dipping into ‘Game of Thrones’  on the way home, I was immediately hooked and have subsequently acquired a DVD box of the aforementioned (first) HBO series as well as systematically working my way through all of the ‘Westeros’ novels currently available.  So, you might say that I’m a fan, though I am some way from being an uncritical one.  I’ll return to the novels later, but I just wanted to pause long enough to express my admiration for the HBO adaptation, which is beautifully ‘dressed’ and well-acted and a worthy addition to all the other excellent HBO series of the last ten years.  Martin is actually involved in the adaptation of his own novels for TV, but only as part of a team of writers, directors and producers.  Collectively, they have done a great job in bringing Westeros to life .  However, not all such adaptations are handled so deftly…..

Back in 2009 I wrote about how,  among the sober volumes of Nevil Shute and   J B Priestley on my parents’ bookshelves, there was one glaring anomaly; a luridly purple hardback edition of ‘Thuvia, Maid of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I  knew Burroughs’ name from the better-known ‘Tarzan’  books he wrote, but they somehow failed to capture my imagination in the way this one did.   I worked through  ‘Thuvia’ at top speed, then headed off to the local library in search of the remaining volumes in the series.

In 2009, I wrote about the dreadfully lame movie based on Burroughs’ Martian series:  ‘A Princess of Mars’ ( ‘Watching……’Princess of Mars’……..‘ – Dec 2009) Recently, I caught up with the new ‘John Carter’ movie, based on the first novel of the series, but haven’t bothered to blog about it, mainly because I didn’t really know what to say. 

To say that the movie received mixed reviews would be an understatement and whilst I wish I could refute all the negativity………in all conscience, I can’t.  I would have loved it to be a great movie, but sadly it’s just average, rather than really bad.  For me, the main problem with it is that director Andrew Stanton is like the kid who wants to set off all his fireworks at once.  The movie leaps from set piece to set piece without too much regard for pacing, character development or mood.  It’s just one long breathless roller-coaster ride where some aspects of the plot aren’t adequately explained at all, whilst others  are done to death.

Green Martians try to shoot down a Red Martian flyer in Andrew Stanton’s hyperactive ‘John Carter’

Such are the perils of adapting your story from an existing text;  by contrast, George Lucas was able to take his ‘Star Wars’ characters wherever he wanted at whatever pace he chose because the storyline, though a bit derivative and occasionally somewhat cheesy, was essentially his own.  The downside of this of course was that the cheesy element remained right to the very end with the ghastly Ewok ceilidh at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’.  Tom Bombadil would have fitted right in with that.

Talking of which, in recent years, we’ve seen Peter Jackson and his New Zealand-based team of  actors, technicians, writers, designers, modellers, armourers, builders, costumiers etc, etc at WETA  take down the really big beast on the block with his adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Jackson did a pretty good job in re-inventing Middle Earth for new millennium audiences; get rid of Tom Bombadil and some other fringe passages, turn the relationship between Legolas and Gimli into something of a comedy routine and turn down some of the folksiness of the novels, crank up the CGI for the battle scenes….OK,  maybe Sauron and the Nazgul weren’t that scary, but Andy Serkis’  Smeagol/Gollum was inspired and the core cast members were generally first-rate. 

Jackson et al had some trouble with what were generally referred to as the ‘Tolkienistas’  – in summary,  elvish-speaking, self-appointed ‘Defenders of the Faith’ who quibbled with Jackson about plot details and character nuances, locations, elvish script and armour design plus a million other technical details  throughout the lengthy production.  By and large, though, I think most people would say that the action moved briskly along without those big chunks of Tolkienesque exposition to weigh it down and that the attention of the experts (like artist Alan Lee) and the quibbling Tolkienistas ensured accuracy and an attention to detail that surely made the whole trilogy the ‘best-dressed’  series of fantasy movies ever.

The great thing for would-be fantasy directors is, of course, CGI, whether that means stuff that is completely ‘rendered’ on computers, stuff that mixes miniature models and computer-rendered images or men in latex suits covered in lots of sensors, as per Andy Serkis as Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and both the returning Gollum and Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon, Smaug, in the forthcoming ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the first part of Peter Jackson’s take on ‘The Hobbit’.   Predictably, it’s becoming very fashionable to raise one’s eyes to the heavens whenever CGI is mentioned and there is no doubt that if used injudiciously (I’m afraid ‘John Carter’ is guilty of this) it does start to look somewhat fake. 

(Spoiler warning…beyond this, there is some discussion of the storylines of George R R Martin’s  Westeros novels , so if you are currently working your way through them, it might be an idea to stop now unless you want some surprises spoilt for you)

 I’m not sure how much CGI is used in ‘Game of Thrones’ – a minimal amount, I would think – because whilst the action of ‘Game of Thrones’ undoubtedly takes place in an invented location,  much of what passes for everyday life in Westeros has more in common with medieval European culture than anything else.  There are no elves or orcs or suchlike – just men, who – at the top end of the food chain – are kings and lords and knights in armour, complete with their retinues of squires and retainers, their fiefdoms and castles, their serfs tilling the fields and so on.

The main ‘fantasy’  (and CGI) element in  ‘Game of Thrones’  concerns The Wall, a monumental structure built by the men of Westeros from huge blocks of ice at some time in the indeterminate past.  The Wall is built across a neck of land in the far north of Westeros with the express intention of keeping out those living to the north of it in what seems to be a sub-polar wilderness of forest and mountain.  There are men here, too, usually referred to as Wildlings, but there is the hint of something else, supernatural beings of enormous potency known as ‘The Others’ , who seem to be growing in strength as Westeros’ lengthy cycle of seasons turns again towards winter.

Riders of the Night’s Watch head north of The Wall in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

The Wall is – nominally – guarded by The Night’s Watch.  This is a ragtag band of criminals, unwanted bastards and sundry riff-raff, committed to the defence of The Wall for life,  who are hopelessly unequal to the task that seems to be heading their way.

To the south lies Winterfell, the home of the Starks, who are allied to the King and control ‘the North’ for him.  Things start to fall apart when the King heads north to Winterfell with the express intention of recruiting Lord Eddard Stark – Sean Bean’s character in the HBO series  – as the latest ‘King’s Hand’  or chief counsellor.  King Robert and Eddard are old friends and recognising that his enemies – notably his wife and her relatives; the Lannisters – are intent on deposing him, he turns to one of his few remaining trusted allies.  

The Starks are our way into the world of Westeros – Eddard and his wife Catelyn, their children – Brandon, Robb, Sansa, Arya and little Rickon plus Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow.  They seem as solid and immutable as the rocks of their Northern hills and a refreshingly down-to-earth antidote to all the politicking and posturing that goes on further to the south in the capital, King’s Landing.  Yet by half way through the first novel, the family is already starting to fragment – Eddard is accompanying the King south to become his Hand and has taken his two daughters with him.  Brandon has been pushed out of a tower window by Jaime Lannister  – because he witnessed him having sex with his sister, Cersei, who also happens to be Robert’s Queen – and is hovering on the brink of death.  Jon Snow has decided to ‘take the black’ and is travelling north to join the Night’s Watch.   Before the novel ends, Eddard is executed , the Starks are scattered to the winds and the whole kingdom is descending into the chaos of Civil War. 

It gets worse for the Starks, too.  Robb takes over from his father and  becomes ‘King of the North’ but is murdered at a wedding feast.  His mother is also attacked at the same feast and left for dead but somehow survives as a ghastly revenant.  Brandon is crippled but is rescued by some kindred spirits.  Sansa is kidnapped and compelled to assume a new identity, Rickon’s fate is unknown and Arya ends up on another continent with a new identity and some potentially lethal skills.  In the most recent book  ‘A Dance with Dragons’, Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow, who has risen to become Commandant of The Night’s Watch, is stabbed by multiple assailants and presumably killed.

Is nothing sacred?

It seems to me, using ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a model, that what Martin has done here in narrative terms  is effectively to assemble his equivalent of Tokien’s ‘Fellowship’, then kill them off  piecemeal before Mordor is ever in sight.  Like George Lucas and his ‘Star Wars’ characters, he is of course entitled to do what he wants, but it is rather disconcerting for the reader to engage with a set of characters only to have most of them killed off in such a way. 

There are two things that make matters worse here; firstly, with the death of Robert Baratheon and the execution of Eddard Stark, Westeros plunges headlong into civil war with about 5 competing ‘Kings’ fighting each other for the right to rule the Seven Kingdoms.  The picture is necessarily confused and readers may struggle to keep up with all the twists and turns.  In addition, the regular demise of major characters means that Martin has to introduce new ones or develop existing ones, with whom we are clearly less familiar.

In this specific regard, Martin is also not helped by his insistence on adhering to an internal structure whereby each chapter is delivered from the specific point of view of one of the characters.  All of which is fine until said characters are killed off or until Martin needs to introduce a major new subplot.  In the latter scenario, we are sometimes asked to absorb major new plot developments as seen through the eyes of a character with whom we are largely unfamiliar.  This sometimes works  OK (Theon Greyjoy & the Iron Islands) but other times works less well (the whole subplot revolving round the court of the Martells in  Dorne.)

Then there is Martin’s wild card;  Daenerys Targaryen, the girl Queen and her three dragons who are now loose and ready to create havoc.  Her subplot concerns her efforts to gather an army on the adjoining continent of Essos and return to Westeros with her reptilian game-changers to reclaim the throne taken from her family by Robert Baratheon.  As things stand , she appears to be stranded in the city of Meereen, learning how to be a Queen.  Her dragons have made her a magnet in terms of men who would seek an alliance with her via marriage or treaty and her story and the destiny of her dragons may well be key in what Martin has said will be the remaining two books in the cycle.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

HBO have now made a second series of ‘Game of Thrones’ and such has been its success that further series seem likely.  What may concern HBO is that the whole Westeros saga grows increasingly fragmented and dark as it progresses.  Parallels with Tolkien’s work are tenuous at best – often, events in Westeros are more reminiscent of The Wars of the Roses as interpreted by Lucrezia Borgia. 

There is no doubting the fertility of George R R Martin’s imagination nor indeed his willingness to confound reader expectations by killing off major characters at regular intervals.  Nonetheless, the fragmentation of the Westerosi  kingdoms into anarchy and mayhem and the emergence of major new characters and  narrative threads have pushed Martin’s ‘point of view’ chapter structure beyond the point where it is useful.  Once the story progressed beyond the first two books, Martin was dealing with a geographically dispersed narrative and levels of detailed plotting that required manuscripts of unwieldy size and length if he was to adhere to this structure.  His decision to split the stories of certain characters into separate books  rendered an already complex storyline even more so.  I can’t help but feel that the overall impact of the novels has been diminished as a consequence.  The next novel in the cycle,  ‘The Winds of Winter’  is allegedly due this year and I will freely admit to a fervent hope that he is going to be able to start pulling the threads of this enormous and complex saga together. 

‘Game of Thrones’ and its sequels undoubtedly represent the most high-profile sequence of interlinked fantasy novels for years – probably Stephen Donaldson’s cycle of Thomas Covenant novels were the last cycle which exhibited such ambition.  However, whereas Donaldson painted himself into corners by virtue of  the complexities of his plot,  Martin’s bête noire seems to be the internal management of his storylines.  Hopefully, it will all work out well for writer and readers alike in the end.

The Waltons go to Jurassic Park

I will admit firstly that I am a sucker for a decent sci-fi series.  I get lured in by whizz-bang trailers full of monsters and lasers and all that stuff and before I know it I am knee-deep in something that is essentially the televisual equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger.  Only occasionally does something genuinely engaging come along.

And so it has been with Terra Nova, which ran on Sky last autumn and which has just been spoonfed to me on DVD by a friend with a warped sense of humour.  He’s like me – just can’t resist these trashy sci-fi potboilers.  I think his rationale was  that if he was going to suffer, he wasn’t going to suffer alone.

Briefly, Terra Nova is a story of time travel to a past but parallel Earth.  Parallel is good, because it means none of that nonsense about changing the future because you swat a butterfly in the Cretacaeous past. 

The story centres on the Shannon family – hunky Dad, sexy Mom and three kids – the sulky boy/man of about 18, the gawky teenage princess of about 15 and the saccharine brat of about 7.  They are all dreadful actors but  ludicrously photogenic and unbearably wholesome.  It’s like the Waltons moving to Jurassic Park. 

The Shannon family emoting furiously in ‘Terra Nova’

The story starts in 2149 in an overpopulated, polluted and dying Chicago where the annual ‘pilgrimage’  of about 100 souls back to the Terra Nova colony via the one-way time portal represents a ray of hope for the crowded masses.  Having more than 2 kids is a crime punishable by prison time and Dad the  Chicago cop ends up in the slammer after the family apartment is raided by the Population Control storm-troopers.  Mom gets off the hook because she is a super-talented doctor and some three years later she is invited to go to Terra Nova with 2 of her kids.  All that is needed is for tough, resourceful Dad to break out of prison ( a doddle, apparently) and smuggle himself into the ‘pilgrimage’ party with the youngest child stashed in a giant backpack.  It’s the kind of thing that I’m sure we’ve all experienced; my uncle used to boost me over the walls of football grounds when I was a mere tadpole so he didn’t have to pay for me and this isn’t much different really; just a bit more high-tech.

Anyway after a bit of drama and lots of thunderous music, they get whooshed through the time portal back to 85 million BC or whenever.  They duly arrive in a kind of sub-tropical version of Centre Parcs.  The Terra Novans live in twinky little chalets behind a big fence.  The fence is to keep out big and noisy dinosaurs who live in the forest and a bunch of renegades who, like the Elves of Lothlorien, live up in the trees and all look like extras from ‘Mad Max II’.  Their purpose in splitting away from the main colony emerges as the story meanders on, but I won’t vex you with the labyrynthine complexities of it all.  The renegades are sort of at war with Terra Nova, but there’a actually a bit more to it than that.

Steven Spielberg is involved with ‘Terra Nova’ as an Executive Producer; every now and again he does some slumming in the world of TV and has previously done so to better effect with 2002’s ‘Taken’, which ended a bit inconsequentially but was actually quite gripping for most of its run.  Spielberg often gets berated for some of his soft-focus, Hallmark  Card sentimentality, particularly about family life among the American bourgeoisie and, for however much he may be held responsible, the Shannons of ‘Terra Nova’ are right up there with the sickliest of his creations. 

The teenage boy gets involved almost at once with a pretty racy bunch who distil their own moonshine out in the woods and with one girl (called ‘Sky’ for pity’s sake) in particular.  He’s at loggerheads with his controlling Dad, but in the end they discover (shucks) that they really love one another and even get into some manly hugging before the series ends.  Middle daughter is a bit more of a straight arrow and she hooks up with a ramrod-straight military type with a crewcut who gets up when Dad enters the room and calls him ‘Sir’.  Mom just oozes maternal love for her brood and has no problem ejecting hunky Dad from the marital bed when the little one can’t sleep.  The little one, of course, gets the cheesiest lines and she is pretty much off the scale on the cute-ometer.

More troubling is the fact that the colony is presided over by an Action Man alpha male cum benevolent dictator – the first man through the portal – who makes all the big decisions on behalf of the colonists; no town meetings and no democracy here.  We’re just supposed to take it on trust that he has everyone’s best  interests at heart.  Richard Nixon would have loved this show.

Of course, we’re also supposed to be fascinated by the various plot-twists and the regular run-ins with dinosaurs and renegades, but I found myself distracted by quite a few of the assumptions made in the basic set-up of the plot – they’re either derisory or deeply suspect.  If this is Spielberg’s world-view, I’m glad I don’t live there.  Whatever happened to the Bill of Rights?

One of the CGI dinosaurs in ‘Terra Nova’ – not the most dangerous animals in the show.

What’s good about ‘Terra Nova’ are some of the set piece action scenes, the great scenery (Australia, apparently) and the CGI beasties.  However, it’s the hackneyed humans with their toothpaste smiles, their empty heads and their deeply conservative values who are the most dangerous of the animals we encounter in ‘Terra Nova’.

Remarkably, Fox are considering commissioning a second season….

 

 

Un-American Activities: ‘The Wire’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’

I came late to  ‘The Wire’, something fairly typical of me in the way that I ‘consume’ television series.  I’ve written before about this in pieces on ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘This Life’.  My preferred strategy is to wait until all the fuss dies down and then borrow or buy a few box sets of DVD’s and watch these series at my leisure, either one episode at a time or in multi-episode binges.   All of which makes me possibly the last person in the known universe to blog about ‘The Wire’ but at least it gives me a chance to think through what it is I want to say about it.

Just in case there is anyone reading this who has recently returned from 10 years of exile on a tropical island without cable tv, ‘The Wire’ was made by HBO with a star-free cast and across its five seasons (2002-2008) aimed to take a cold, hard look at the life of a strictly non-hip US city – Baltimore – through the eyes of its police, its politicians, its journalists, its drug gangs, its dock-workers and so on.  Though many of the ensemble cast appeared in all five seasons, each season took a slightly different focus; thus Season 1 was largely about the interaction between the police and the drug gangs, Season 2 focused on the plight of Baltimore’s shrinking docks and those working there, Season 3 concerned itself with City Hall politics, Season 4 with the school system and the final season with the print media.

Much has been written and said about ‘The Wire’ and most of what has been written and said – in this country at least – has been  extremely positive.  Most fans feel that it offers an unflinchingly accurate portrayal of black urban street life, of City Hall ducking & diving, of the slow death of print newspapers and of the travails of a city police department, to name but a few of the areas singled out for praise.  Across all these different facets of city life, ‘The Wire’ is, above all, feted for its apparent ‘authenticity’.  This is a drama that seeks to portray the harsh realities of life in a modern American city and spends much of its time concentrating on the choices and compromises that people make to get them through their daily round.  There are good guys and bad guys, mavericks and team players, there is friendship, even love, but then there is corruption and disillusionment, squalor and death as well. 

There is hope, too. ‘The Wire’ is a long way from being just a nihilistic hatchet-job on the life and body politic of Baltimore (or the USA).  Through the five series, characters are redeemed, either by circumstance or by their own efforts.  Junkies clean up, gangsters go straight, failed cops find themselves having far greater success in other walks of life.  The milk of human kindness does flow through the veins of ‘The Wire’ and the only characters with whom the writers appear to have little or no sympathy are the politicians. 

Among many of my friends, ‘The Wire’ has been lauded as the greatest piece of extended television drama of all time.  The socio-political insights, the finely-drawn characters, the shrewd and effective plotting – all of these factors are cited as reasons why ‘The Wire’ is so good.  It lacks the obvious Liberal/Democrat wish-fulfillment of ‘The West Wing’, it lacks the sentimental  clichés of Italian – American life littered across ‘The Sopranos’, but offers us instead what seems like a non-idealised view of Baltimore life at the sharp end.  The story arcs remain credible throughout,  whilst the characters generally develop in ways that seem consistent and realistic.

For all that, I am sure that there are many middle -class  people living in Baltimore who barely recognised their own city from ‘The Wire’ and who probably have a very different take on how it is to live in that city.  At the very end of Season Five, Dominic West’s  (ex-)Detective McNulty pulls over to the side of a road and looks out over the city.  Through his eyes we see snippets of  a possible future; characters move up or move on or sink into the mire, either regaining or losing their integrity along the way.  But we also see a Baltimore that we never really see in the other 59 episodes – we see long-shots of a city with broad avenues and grand buildings, we see bustling streets with a ticking heartbeat that is a long way from the ‘corners’ of the West Side or the grim post-industrial landscapes of the old docks.

I’ve never been to Baltimore so can’t really comment on the veracity of ‘The Wire’s portrait of a city in virtual meltdown.  However, I find it hard to believe that there aren’t other Baltimores where people lead lives that are quite different from McNulty and  Omar,  from Lester and Bubbles,  from Daniels and Marlo.  The fact is that Baltimore is really just a shop window for the themes of ‘The Wire’, themes that could probably apply to any large American city with a substantial black population and a fading blue-collar tradition – Washington DC or Cincinnati  for example.  Those themes – racial tension, political corruption, drugs, economic downturns, education, media manipulation of facts, broken homes and broken dreams are universal to all such cities.

McNulty, Bunk and Lester; allegedly the ‘Good Guys’

The status of ‘The Wire’ as a favourite of critics and huge numbers of fans across the world  cannot, however, disguise the fact that it was some way from being a mainstream hit in America.  Many people who didn’t subscribe to HBO wouldn’t have seen it anyway and many others were in all probability put off by what creator David Simon has itemised as  “the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast.” (Wikipedia). ‘The Wire’ would often find itself up against NFL games on the Sports channels and other more mainstream series such as ‘Desperate Housewives’.  Ratings were increasingly poor on a season-by-season basis, though HBO apparently accepted that many fans were picking up illegal postings of the series via the Net, watching it online via HBO On Demand or simply waiting for the box set to come out.

For me, there’s something else about ‘The Wire’ that would explain why it nearly got cancelled twice and why it was consistently overlooked by the people who dish out TV awards.  In my view, many Americans would have a problem with ‘The Wire’ because it paints the urban society of – in this case – Baltimore, but by inference most major American cities in such an unflattering light. 

If we backtrack to 1980, we can see another example of this phenomenon with Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – a movie that became almost a watchword for the excesses of the post-‘Easy Rider’ crop of ‘auteurist’  Hollywood directors.  Anyone who has read Steven Bach’s book about the movie (‘Final Cut’) will quickly have gained an appreciation of all the errors of judgement that Cimino made in making ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and there is no doubt that there were many of them. 

 Cimino’s arrogance and his cavalier attitude to cost and budget over-runs ensured that his reputation took a pounding even before ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was ‘in the can’.  His  hubris was probably the last straw for the studios, ensuring that the era of the Hollywood auteurs was effectively over.  From that point onwards, studios exercised far closer control over budgetary issues and prima donna directors.

However, what that left us with was ‘Heaven’s Gate’ itself. Despite being drastically cut in its initial 149-minute cinematic release, what was clear was that this was what David Thomson has referred to as a ‘wounded monster’ of a film and even expanded and revised versions continue to divide opinion – many people think it’s the worst movie ever, others that it’s a great film.

I definitely fall into the latter camp; for me, the cinematography (by Vilmos Szigmond), the music (by Bob Dylan alumnus David Mansfield) and many of the performances are masterful.  It’s a long way from being the perfect movie but it is pretty damn good on many levels . Most significantly, the fact that Cimino chose to plant a bomb under some of the most cherished myths of the American West was a brave and adventurous strategy that would have gone down a storm just a few years earlier.  Ralph Nelson’s ‘Soldier Blue’ from 1970, an infinitely less accomplished piece of work in almost every respect, had drawn a favourable response in its depiction of how Native Americans got well and truly shafted by the American ‘establishment’ – as I recall, it’s a depressing and not particularly well-made movie.  ‘Heaven’s Gate’  – a much better movie on every level – did a similar job for the plight of the poor European migrants who flooded west and began to set up homesteads on the massive ranges that had previously been the exclusive province of rich cattle farmers.  Even so, it got completely trashed by most critics.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ – the Harvard Waltz Sequence; the ruling class at play

‘Heaven’s Gate’ is based on events that happened during the so-called ‘Johnson County War’, which took place in Wyoming in April 1892.  The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) – an organisation of rich cattle farmers with links to the Republican Party – hired gunmen to stop the sporadic outbreaks of rustling carried out by starving migrant farmers.  These gunmen often dispensed summary justice, killing suspected rustlers without recourse to the mechanisms of the law.  The WSGA gunmen were eventually pinned down in farm buildings near Fort McKinney by a Sheriff’s posse of about 200 men , but were saved from annihilation when Wyoming’s Acting Governor sent an urgent telegram to President Benjamin Harrison who ordered the Sixth Cavalry, based at Fort McKinney, to intervene.  The WSGA ‘enforcers’ were close to being routed but the Army’s intervention meant that they were instead spirited away and held at an army fort near Cheyenne.  Documents taken from their leader implicated many of the leading lights of the WSGA in a plan to systematically murder up to 70 suspected ‘rustlers’.  Despite all this, the ‘enforcers’ were eventually freed on bail and many fled south to Texas.  In any event,  the case was dropped when the Johnson County authorities refused to pay for the upkeep of the ‘prisoners’ or the costs involved in bringing them to court.  The whole affair swiftly fizzled out, though feelings in Johnson County ran high for many years.

Many of these events form the basis of the action in ‘Heaven’s Gate’.  Kris Kristofferson’s sheriff attempts to mediate in the disputes but he is very much of the same social background as the WSGA and though he tries to do his job honestly, he clearly does not relish being seen as a ‘class traitor’.  Cimino depicts the WSGA leaders and vigilantes as the bad guys and the huddled masses of the incomers as the good guys.  It’s an almost Marxist take on the mythology of the West with the proletarian migrants taking on the fat cat WSGA and almost winning, but for the intervention of the Army at the 11th hour.  In a coda at the movie’s end,  we see an older, disillusioned Kristofferson aboard his steam yacht off Rhode Island.  He has returned to the East and re-assumed his position of privilege within the ruling elite.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ – the Roller Rink sequence; the huddled masses take to the floor

‘Heaven’s Gate’ was released in 1980 and it could be argued that a kind of Marxist Western was never going to play too well in an America where an old school ex-Hollywood cowboy was riding the range in the White House.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s popularity as President was probably approaching its zenith and for that reason alone, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was doomed as far as ‘middle America’ was concerned.  It portrayed some unsavoury truths about the American West, truths that many Americans saw as ‘unpatriotic’ at a time when gung-ho was the name of the game and pinko liberals were lying low.  No wonder it bombed at the Box Office, though predictably, the movie fared much better in Europe. However, in all likelihood, had the movie been released 5 years earlier, it might well have been received more sympathetically in a country still just about clinging to the tail-end of 60’s ideologies.  By 1980, the USA had changed and become much more conservative, Hollywood had changed and the studios were sick of all these bratty directors and their grand narratives of American dysfunction.  It was time for Rocky and Rambo and all those rugged American heroes; no-one had much time for class warfare in 1890’s Wyoming.

Returning (finally) to ‘The Wire’, it seems to me that there are strong parallels with ‘Heaven’s Gate’ in this specific area. Like ‘Heaven’s Gate’, ‘The Wire’ asks ordinary Americans to face some unpalatable truths about their history (in the case of ‘Heaven’s Gate’) or about their cities (in ‘The Wire’) and it seems to me that some conservative-minded Americans aren’t always that good at acknowledging the Elephant in the Room – same with the Tories in this country.  For some Yankee chauvinists (particularly those of the Rush Limbaugh school of twisted thinking), everything has to be wonderful from sea to shining sea and anyone that doesn’t think so is probably some kind of dangerous subversive commie terrorist (or similar) and should relocate to Pakistan or Eye-Rak.  Like Frank Zappa said all those years ago, ‘It can’t happen here.’

The fact is that for many middle-class Americans, the inner cities of their country have become no-go areas.  Drugs, violence, homelessness, life in ‘the Projects’ – all these issues are something that many Americans have just blanked out.  They’ll deal with as much of it as they have to and hope the cops can keep the lid on the rest of it.  Same story here, really; the recent Tottenham Riots showed a side of London life that many Londoners knew nothing of and didn’t really want to engage with.

The Wire: Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar; ruthless, driven, gay, feared, a loner with his own sense of morality and – allegedly – a favourite of Barack Obama 

In some respects, ‘The Wire’ – particularly in its final season – is even more damning of American society than ‘Heaven’s Gate’.  Season 5 is built around the idea of a lie that just gets bigger and bigger; there’s an element of black comedy in here somewhere. The Baltimore Police Department is suffering from budget cutbacks and overtime bans, so Detective McNulty effectively ‘invents’ a serial killer preying on the homeless, knowing that City Hall will be compelled to loosen the purse strings as this is such an emotive issue.  McNulty then surreptitiously diverts the resources and manpower he is given to continue the pursuit of drug lord Marlo Stansfield.  However, the lie just gets bigger and bigger; Mayor Carcetti picks up on the ‘serial killer’ case to use as a weapon against the State Governor’s lack of action on homelessness and promote his own claims to replace him.  The local ‘Baltimore Sun’ newspaper also gets involved, with an unscrupulous reporter further embroidering the story in order to advance his own career.  In the end, only a very few of those who are supposed to be on the side of truth and justice are free from the taint of this lie and by the time the truth emerges, it’s too late for anyone to unravel the multiple layers of deceit in which so many have become complicit. 

Comparing ‘The Wire’ to ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is  – of course – an idea that you can only push so far.  I have  a lot of time for both, but there’s no doubt that ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is deeply flawed on many levels whilst retaining an indefinable ‘je ne sais quoi’  that makes it a far more interesting proposition than many other movies of its type.  At the time of its release, the smokescreen of outrage at Cimino’s perceived excesses tended to legislate against any genuine appraisal of the film , but many contemporary analyses take a less polemical stance. Sure, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ has many flaws , but at times it’s an interesting and beautifully-staged movie and if you haven’t yet seen it, I urge you to do so.

By contrast, ‘The Wire’ – for me – offers a far sharper critique of American society – then again, it has a much broader canvas on which to tell its tale.  Across 60 episodes, it illustrated – often graphically – the crushing realities of life in the inner city, the bureaucratic minefields of police work and the institutionalised corruption of local politics.   ‘The Wire’  told a story that often exposes aspects of American life with which few establishment figures could be comfortable.  It also laid down a new standard of excellence for television drama and I think it could be a long time before we see anything that combines such a compelling story-line with so many insights into American society.

Bilzen Thrills……

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be , or so the saying goes, but that hasn’t deterred someone from putting together a series of DVD compilations of historic performances originally recorded at/transmitted from the  Bilzen Jazz Festival by one of Belgium’s TV companies.   The rationale behind this series is that Belgian TV has recently celebrated its 70th birthday.

The Bilzen Jazz Festival ran from 1965-1981 and was then superseded  by the Torhout-Werchter (now just Werchter) Festival.  Despite its name, the festival organisers were booking pop and rock bands from a very early stage and many UK-based bands played their first live gigs on the European mainland and got their first serious TV coverage at this festival. 

Many of these performances have now been collected on to a series of DVD’s under a  title even more contrived than one of mine; ‘British Rock Viewseum’, no less.  I’m not sure how many of these there are in total; initially I thought they were bootlegs, but they do seem to be commercially available via Amazon Japan, though not, strangely, via  Amazon UK, USA, France or Italy.

I’ve been watching # 5 of this series, mainly because it features some very rare black and white footage of the Bonzo Dog Band playing live – in 1969 at a guess.  As ever, things on stage are somewhat chaotic and the sound isn’t great, but it’s still a rare treat to be able to see the band lurch through a fair selection of tunes, including part of the immortal ‘Big Shot’, ‘You done my brain in’, Canyons of your mind’, ‘Urban Spaceman’ and others.  Neil Innes and Dennis Cowan hold things together musically – just – whilst Viv Stanshall manifests his usual stage persona, veering from choirboy to lecher, often within a single song.  If anything, the boyish Roger Ruskin Spear is the real wild card in this performance, rampaging across the stage in his ‘Wow, I’m really expressing myself’ spiral-painted sunglasses, orchestrating some of his ‘kinetic sculptures’ in a brief rendition of ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ and partially disrobing for the climactic ‘Trouser Press’.  British audiences might well have picked up on the band’s casual litter of pop cultural references and in-jokes, but quite what the good folk of Bilzen made of it all is open to conjecture.  Probably just reinforced the general European view that because we all live on an island, we’re essentially deranged.

The Bonzos at Bilzen, 1969; L-R: Vivian Stanshall,  (a headless) Dennis Cowan, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater

The earliest footage on this DVD comes from 1967 and features a handful of numbers from a very young-looking Procol Harum.  The band turn in creditable renditions of ‘Conquistador’, ‘ A Christmas Camel’ and the inevitable ‘Whiter Shade’, but the performance is most notable for the band’s costumes.  I’d like to say that they look like extras from ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’, but as I haven’t seen that film, I’d have to settle for  Danny Kaye’s  1955  movie ‘The Court Jester’ as a point of reference.  Gary Brooker is sporting a bizarre leather skullcap, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Terry Gilliam’s star turn as ‘Patsy’ in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ and there is a plethora of billowing satin sleeves and high-necked round collars.  There’s also a fight in mid-number as a guy at the back of the stage taking close-up photos of PH drummer B.J. Wilson is summarily ejected.

Costume balls-up:  David Knights and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum at Bilzen, 1967

The Moody Blues played at Bilzen in 1969 and are featured playing ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ and  ‘Have you heard?/The Voyage’.  The first song is a fairly straightforward ballad in typical Justin Hayward style and Mike Pinder’s mellotron is required only to provide a strings-type background.  Pinder’s ‘Have you heard?‘ is a rather different kettle of fish, however and clearly illustrates that in 1969, the growing sophistication of the way in which proggy bands like the Moody Blues were using the recording studio was in no way matched by the quality of sound available to them when they took to the stage.  With muffled vocals and wheezing mellotron, the pseudo-mystical claptrap of ‘Have you heard?/The Voyage’ sounds disjointed and daft.  Flautist Ray Thomas looks vaguely embarassed whilst the cameraman ensures that we get plenty of close-ups of Mike Pinder’s ‘comb-over’; surely an inspiration for Ron Atkinson in later years.

The Moody Blues on stage at Bilzen, 1969

The other act on the CD who are definitively playing live are Blossom Toes, who made 2 albums for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label in the late 60’s before disbanding.   They rattle through a couple of bluesy numbers quite impressively, something that has inspired me to check out their albums, which I failed to do at the time.

The remainder of the DVD is taken up with colour footage of two bands – East of Eden and Family – that is of a more recent vintage; 1970 or 1971 at a guess.  Neither of these are stage performances in the normal sense – in fact they are more reminiscent of rock videos from the 1980’s.  Some of Family’s songs are undoubtedly recorded live, but others feature them performing in what looks like a military museum, whilst East of Eden seem to be lip-syncing for the most part; certainly ‘Northern Hemisphere’ from the excellent ‘Mercator Projected’ album is a lip-sync, whilst there is one piece where Dave Arbus conspicuously fluffs a flute cue.  There is the unedifying spectacle of the band miming to ‘Jig-a-Jig’ on a (presumably) Belgian beach along with a motley crew of midgets and horses.  It’s as bad as it sounds.  There is also no apparent connection with the Bilzen Festival and it could be that this material was actually made for German TV, possibly as late as 1972.

What’s so fascinating about all this stuff is that it offers us an insight into an era before the BBC had ushered in the ‘Whistle Test’.  Sure, there was ‘Colour me Pop’  before that but most of that footage was a victim of the BBC’s ‘bulk erase’ policy and is thus lost to us for all time.  Most of our exposure to bands at festivals in this era came via the occasional movie like ‘Monterey Pop’ or ‘Stamping Ground’ or ‘Woodstock’ – something that worked wonders for the careers of people –  like Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Santana – who appeared in these films but did little for those – like Quicksilver Messenger Service (Monterey) or The Incredible String Band (Woodstock) who didn’t.  In fact, a week before their 1969 appearance at Bilzen, the Moody Blues should have been playing at Woodstock, but pulled out in order to play at a ‘rally’ in Paris.  Interesting to reflect on  how things might have gone for them had they stuck with their original plans.