4 December 2012

A final shift at Television Centre


My friend Callum, whom I've known for ten years, has just finished his final shift at Television Centre before he and his BBC News colleagues decamp to Broadcasting House. He took the opportunity to write a note on his Facebook page detailing his memories of the place. It's absolutely immaculate and he has generously given me permission to reproduce it below:-

(I'm in the middle of my final shift in the newsroom at BBC Television Centre. You know the address off by heart, I expect. Wood Lane, London W12 7RJ. My job is moving to Broadcasting House in central London next week. For all the hue and cry about my employer selling off the home of showbusiness, there has been remarkably little said about how to many people, this is not much more than a nicely-shaped office block, handy for the Central Line. It's riddled with asbestos and mice. There's nothing for miles around, except for the gargantuan cathedral of retail which opened across the road a few years ago. There is, it has to be said, a bar on the fourth floor, thank God. I'll be quite pleased to leave. But I'm also quite pleased to have worked here. I've written a few thoughts about it.)

I didn't want to work at TVC because it was the home of the biggest and most famous news operation in the world. I wasn't that attracted by Graham Dawbarn's doughnut of brilliant and brutalist glamour. I wanted a job there because it was where my girlfriend worked.

So one Wednesday in the summer of 2005, eight days after terrorists had gone to blow up the Tube, and couldn't, I was shown through the glass gates of Stage 6 and told to get some news on the World at One.

I wasn't terrifically successful. A few hours' work experience didn't cut the mustard when I returned a week later for an interview. A fellow candidate I'd chatted to that morning in reception beat me to the job.

A couple of months later, there was a phone call and a sleeper train arranged hastily from the north. This time, I passed the interview and on December the 28th, 2005 I sat down next to Brian Perkins (Brian Perkins!) for my first day proper.

My girlfriend still worked at TVC. Her job was in what I came to realise was the "showbiz end", where work also meant laughter and lunch. Soon afterwards she left the BBC but, thankfully, not me. (As the saying goes, reader: I married her.)

The newsroom became my routine. Three on, three off. On that first day there was Champagne after the six o'clock news. There was none on the night shifts. The need to deliver quality first means there is none at any time, now. But 2am breakfasts are still on sale in the Foyer, and I've shared plenty.

There followed seven years, on and off. Once, we snuck into the empty Newsnight office for a peek at the Paxman empire. It was at TVC in the humour-deprived small hours that I wrote an inconsequential news story which gave Charlotte Green a fit of the giggles. You can find it on YouTube now.

Other memories: a colleague hacking into the first-floor chocolate dispensing machine one humid weekend and filling his Panama hat with Minstrels. Christmas carols rehearsed in the basement and performed in the church on Uxbridge Road (St Stephen and St Thomas: the martyr and the doubter.) That basement was the venue for a few angry union meetings, too. I always got lost trying to find the right room. We walked out on strike at midnight more than once, and for a few months we walked out every Monday in support of our colleague Alan Johnston, kidnapped in Gaza. There was a weekly silent vigil, 3pm in the car park. I was here when he walked around the newsroom, free again, and shaking hands.

I was up all night on Up All Night. Occasionally, I was embarrassed on air by Dotun Adebayo. Ben Jacobs fed us so much honey cake once, in honour of Rosh Hashanah, that I couldn't speak. My first time presenting half an hour of national radio and the weather forecaster, due on at 28 minutes past 5, failed to appear. I can't remember what I said or how I filled the space. I don't want to remember, that much.

I made too many friends at TVC to write down now, for fear I'd miss someone and offend them. I miss the brilliant Julian Krause. There was a story told at his funeral about the time he took a roll-your-own smoking break under a balcony just as the Real IRA blew up a taxi on Wood Lane. With his ears ringing and bits of black cab raining from the sky he turned to Corrie Corfield, fag aloft, and asked: "Blimey, Corrie. What did you put in this?"

At 3am on a Sunday there was not a lot of showbiz to be found at TV Centre. Thankfully, there was a lot of wit.


Brilliant. 

19 November 2012

"It involves cables, but I'm not going to say any more than that..."

We're now at the stage of this year's Strictly where the block vote is starting to take effect. This year's block vote isn't because of heart-throb status or great legs, but because of sporting heroism.

 

Victoria Pendleton has improved markedly as a dancer, but is unquestionably the weakest in the field now, combining a remarkable ability to lose her steps and never recover with a general lack of personality on the floor. It's quite tough to watch her now, as she comes across as chirpy and competitive and approachable when in the training room or on Zoe Ball's settee, but gets all serious and flinchy at showtime. And yet the public saved her.

She deserved to be in the dance-off after Saturday's showing at Wembley Arena (which Tess Daly called "iconic"; two words - it isn't) but did the regular thing of crawling from the bottom two after the lines closed, leaving the dull but effective Nicky Byrne on one of the rungs. And the show lost its funniest and most effervescent character in Richard Arnold as a result.

The Pendleton block vote comes from her Olympian achievements, of course; as a sportswoman who is also decorative, one can't imagine she's getting loads of votes from that sector of women that claim partaking in physical sport to high levels ruins your femininity. But for the majority who see sports people as just that, especially ones who took gold at the biggest event on earth, she's seen as someone who deserves to stay in the competition because she was brilliant on a bike. It must be the reason, as she isn't justifying her survival as a dancer at all.

Arnold's exit is a shame as he transformed the notion that someone half-noticeable on ITV should remain half-noticeable during their tenure on Strictly. Camp as a teepee and as funny a man as the show has ever hired, he ultimately paid the price for his lack of rhythm in the latin section. That he could have fun as a latin dancer and rack up points with the ballroom disciplines was a trait that could only take him so far, though with Pendleton still surviving, it's disappointing that he didn't carry on at least another week. And he wasn't helped, I'm sure, by the singing of Club Tropicana being subject to some kind of technical failure in the arena.

Still, if the man has ambitions left in telly, his handful of weeks mugging to the crowd, outwitting Bruce Forsyth and the judges on a week by week basis and generally managing to progress as a dancer while always happy to send himself up will help him achieve those ambitions.

Pendleton and Byrne are the next obvious knockouts though much depends on whether the remarkable Michael Vaughan can maintain his improvement levels and get somewhere in the latin rounds. His American Smooth on Saturday was superb, and to see him third overall and therefore a shoo-in for the next stage was a feeding time moment. He, along with Byrne and Pendleton, won't make the last three, irrespective of what order they exit the show, but as for who will, that's entirely up for grabs. And I rather like that.

The obvious three seem to be Denise Van Outen, Louis Smith and Kimberley Walsh. The former is relentlessly delivering each week, but there are issues for the other two - Smith is dividing the judges and his marks are inconsistent, while Walsh found herself in the dance-off the other week, suggesting a public apathy (though it could be just because Cheryl Cole was in the crowd). A continuing uncertainty for either of these two should act as music to the ears of my own dark horse, Dani Harmer, whose potential seems to have been entirely lost on people. Lisa Riley is probably too reliant on being a "character" to make the final but has real hope for it nevertheless.

As for the show itself, it looks like Craig Revel Horwood has been instructed to end any negative reviews with at least one positive, something which takes the gloss off his candour as a judge, though if he means it, then there is no reason to grumble about it. The panto booing really gets on my nerves, especially as it's obvious the contestants - and their professional partners - are far more interested in what he has to say than the other judges.

Two other things from the Wembley Arena show: firstly, Girls Aloud were actually great, and secondly, why did we need half a dozen close-ups of Rory McGrath in the crowd? Is he Dani Harmer's uncle?

13 November 2012

Patten down the hatches

The D-G has gone, senior news executives have gone, the self-flagellation levels are at an all-time high, and still it's not enough, or not right, for some people.

What's that you say? Chris Patten should go too? But he's not an executive or employee, you bozos. He heads the BBC Trust - he represents the licence payer, not the organisation.

Inevitably, the naturally left-leaning self-appointed guardians of our lives on social media have just thought of Patten's politics first and decided he has to go, without actually noting what job he does. He's a Conservative, therefore he must be wrong/unsuitable/culpable/dishonest. Grow up.

29 October 2012

"That was more than magical - it was a miracle!"

And three weeks in, time to talk about Strictly. Given that I'm usually prone to babbling on about the show once a week, it perhaps shows just how uncontroversial this current run is, without ever being uneventful.

 

Things have altered for me though in the opening spell, mind, such as my opinion of Richard Arnold. Didn't like him at first, as the regular crowbarred-in-from-ITV contestant who will guarantee discussion of the show on the main rival channel. But he is someone I've warmed to. He isn't especially charismatic, but my goodness does that man have wit. He genuinely makes me laugh. He isn't a good enough dancer, especially when forced to turn on the machismo, but his self-deprecation and side-ordered one-liners will earn him votes for a little longer. He's learned how to take the show seriously without taking himself seriously, and that's tough.

Beyond that, the rest of the bunch have pretty much evened themselves out and now it's a proper contest. The three who have gone have not been surprising, especially with the welcome if rather boring return of the dance-off, and as a result Johnny Ball and Jerry Hall got their deserved cards, one by dint of being not very good, the other by dint of being not very dedicated. Sid Owen's exit yesterday was simply about not being good enough, irrespective of his attitude or experience of stage performance. He didn't seem to be having much fun either.

Michael Vaughan's quickstep represented probably the most extraordinary transformation we've ever seen in the space of seven Strictly days. In the dance-off last week and surviving by a whisker, he skipped about the floor in his penguin suit at the weekend as if he'd been doing it for years. Like Robbie Savage last year, he seems to be developing as a ballroom man, and his continuing presence is dependant on his performing properly in the ballroom disciplines while doing enough in the less predictable latin.

Vaughan's one glorious display doesn't yet make him a dark horse; I'd love him to win, as he's a great sportsman and a smashing bloke, but he's the definite outsider still, and goodwill for the man as a cricketer and leader of the finest England team in a generation will keep him afloat for a bit, but not forever. The other blokes vary from the unexciting but competent, such as Colin Salmon; and the over-eager buck who'll survive through his fanbase, like Nicky Byrne. Louis Smith, meanwhile, is the Ricky Whittle du jour - he'll sail through to the last stages but lose out because ultimately he isn't very interesting.

Calling the female competitors is much harder as, now that the awful Hall has gone, they're all pretty good. Victoria Pendleton can still resemble a chick whose stilettoes have snapped when she misses a step, but get her through a whole dance and she does well. Fern Britton will get better by the week and has national goodwill that a minority sports star, even one with Olympic gold medals, can't manage. Lisa Riley is very entertaining and not unaccomplished either, while Dani Harmer and Kimberley Walsh have that youthful confidence and focus that will take them far, though Harmer for me is treating the competition with more respect.

That leaves Denise Van Outen, who has had to cope with criticism for being too good too soon, which is a tad unfair, and it's almost as if she's deliberately toned it down in order to level off the flak, when a competition is just that. She's still the obvious winner at this stage.

As for the show, the dance-off's return - good for dancers, bad for entertainers - will at least make sure that the brief that the connoisseurs demand the show sticks to will be retained, and so far nobody has controversially gone through at the expense of someone better in the dance-off. On the judging panel, it annoys me that Bruno Tonioli feels the need to stand up and gyrate with every single comment he makes, though it actually annoys me more that Len Goodman hams up an irked reaction his way next to him every single time. I'd like to think that Darcey Bussell demanded to be sat away from Tonioli when she agreed to become the new judge. She's following Craig Revel Horwood's lead by being honest and practical in her criticisms - though not brutally so, of course - and her stay is working wonders.

They've tried to take it on a step this year with extra props in the dances and extra-curricular duties for others - Revel Horwood as the Tin Man, Anton du Beke as Frankenstein - and the 'abracadabra' gag from Vaughan after his quickstep made me laugh a lot. It at least shows that the production team is afraid of going stale. No such thoughts from Bruce Forsyth though, who seems to be playing along with the idea that he is going stale. More and more fluffed lines keep a-coming, but to combat that he seems to be improvising more than ever, and when he does an aside to the crowd or the judges he gets it largely spot on. Ultimately, however, I still think the only reason he is doing the job is because nobody at the BBC has the guts to tell him it's over.

20 October 2012

Ruby at ten

She may be going blind, but she's still my gorgeous, lazy, mischievous, manipulative, stomach-of-clockwork Basset hound - and yesterday she was ten years old. Here's Ruby basking in the glow of her double-figured awesomeness after breakfast yesterday.

I sing her name every day to the intro of Hot Chocolate's Every 1's A Winner. Try it. No, go on.

12 October 2012

Leppings Lane



In 1989, society and the establishment hated and mistrusted football fans. If the disaster at Hillsborough hadn't happened, it still would have done somewhere else before long, just as devastatingly, and just as rife with recrimination and bitterness afterwards.

I've been to Hillsborough four times as a supporter and once as a journalist. The latest visit as a supporter was last Saturday. Away fans are given the infamous Leppings Lane end. The road itself is residential, predominantly, and a huge roundabout with a standard Highways Agency sign leads up to it. It's called, somewhat doggedly, the Leppings Lane roundabout. It's a road with national significance but still local meaning. People who live or work on Leppings Lane will be proud of their locality, and there's no reason why not. But that stand, that away end, especially now as the horrors of that semi-final day return to the public psyche, is unmatched as the most gruesome place in football.

It's not the actual viewing area that's the problem. Clearly the crumbled terraces that were divided into three cages - cages, that word still makes me shudder - with inadequate emergency exit facilities have long gone. The stand is now divided into two tiers of seating, with the lower tier not taking up half the allocation but much less of it. And they don't even allow that lower tier to be used. The upper tier only is where away fans go, and to access that tier you have to go through the same turnstiles, up the same staircases, into the same cramped concourses and up the same narrow walkway tunnels to reach the open air that greets you with the game that Liverpool fans used in 1989.

It's not just that these are the same - you can tell they're the same. The concrete floors in what is by some distance the most unroomy concourse I've ever experienced in nigh-on 80 grounds is ancient. The catering staff stand behind age-old cages, like exhibits in a Victorian asylum, dispensing the pies and ale from under a hatch measured at just big enough via millimetres to fit an open bottle of beer through. The walls are undecorated, the toilets awful, the whole place dusty, unloved, untouched, utterly bleak. I'd been before, in similar numbers with other Hull City supporters, but perhaps because - no, absolutely definitely because - the lethal combination of rank facilities and an attitude by the authorities ranging from suspicious to evil had finally been fully exposed to the world, 23 years after 95 funerals had been held and one life-support machine was ticking over, I felt at my most queasy and uncomfortable there.

Sheffield Wednesday own this ground, and this end within the ground. I have no idea what the facilities are like for home fans in the other three stands at Hillsborough. They may be similar, they may be totally removed from what the visiting supporter paying £28 to watch his team has to endure. But the very notion that they haven't actually touched the access and indoor sections of the most notorious stand in football since it contributed majorly to the deaths of 96 people, even after all this time, is pretty much unforgivable. Maybe they have plans to do so - if so, these plans are long overdue. Maybe they should raze the whole damn end to the ground and start again. Not one person would mourn it.

Hull City won the game and I left the stadium with very mixed feelings indeed. Satisfied with the result, shocked at what we had to put up with. This is without the continued stinking attitude of South Yorkshire Police, whose current incarnation seem hell bent on putting football fans in their place for daring ever to question their authority, judging by the relief sent to look after men, women and children of all ages who wear black and amber scarves and wanted to watch their team play in comfort, safety and - lest we forget - with a bit of fun. Football is sport. It should be a fun experience to watch it.

Hillsborough's fateful Leppings Lane feels and looks like the self-same Leppings Lane end that produced English football's darkest day. I now don't want to go again.

8 October 2012

Love, love them do


It is impossible to criticise the Beatles, I find. So elevated is their status as life-changing purveyors of art that altered Britain forever, that any attempt to make a negative comment about them is quickly refuted, shouted down or taken as coming from someone who doesn't know what's good for them.

See, while my mum and dad were exactly the right age to idolise the Beatles, they didn't. Mum thought they were good. Dad thought they were acceptable. Neither thought, even when the bandwagon's tyres had been deflated by the weight of the world jumping on it, that they were this colossal, uber-positive phenomenon that most people of that generation would have us believe.

There were people born in the 1940s and 1950s who disliked the Beatles, there really were. They disliked the hairdos, the repetitive choruses, Lennon's attitude (or McCartney's boyish cheekiness, but probably not both), the domination of the radio when they wanted more Motown or Perry Como or Cliff Richard. They weren't controversial or anarchic, they just had an opinion. It differed from the norm, but an opinion it was. These same people exist today, and their opinions won't have changed. It's just that nobody who controls the flow of information can believe for a moment that their view has relevance. They're the Beatles! Everyone loves the Beatles, don't they? So let's say so!

I get disappointed when people do that excruciating thing of claiming Ringo Starr was a crap drummer, I think I Want To Hold Your Hand was pretty much unrivalled in the trite and twee stakes until the Corrs turned up, and I think John Lennon was disturbed and overrated. Yet I like the Beatles. But, as the stuff written last week about Love Me Do's anniversary showed, we're not allowed to just like them, let alone scorn them, however articulate our argument. We've got to idolise them, adore them, not question them, because, well, that's just what the world does, isn't it?

27 September 2012

Ruby update

Ruby was in quite a happy, frisky mood this morning when I went to give her and the others their breakfast, so perhaps a Ruby update is in order.

Her eyesight is continuing to decline, but it's hard to tell exactly the speed or the extent. Some days she can walk perfectly in line with anything when it's pitch black, while on others she can barely see her paw in front of her face in bright sunshine.

She's never been a complex dog but she's proving quite baffling here. If there's a sudden change in conditions, like switching a light on at night or putting her outside in the evening, this confuses her. It's as if her sight is at its strongest once it has had time to get used to the conditions around it. As such, Ruby can get out of bed when it's dark outside and, despite the light being on, walk into a wall a couple of times before eventually finding her water or the dog door. It's endearing but obviously it is a little heartbreaking each time too.

Her demeanour, however, hasn't changed despite her occasional frustration and her nose touching brickwork when it shouldn't, and that's key, I think. On top of that, she's as fit as she's ever been despite approaching her tenth birthday - pensionable age for a Basset - and there's nothing wrong with her appetite or her other faculties. She can still bark the place down when Boris won't let her into bed and still roll on her back when she's feeling too lazy to have her lead put on.

On her walk the other evening, she tripped over a kerb, even though she and the others have got used to me saying "ups!" every time we approach a kerb after crossing a road. I've said it to them for as long as I've had them. Her timing let her down and she sprawled a bit. Bassets aren't entirely expressionless, even though the happiest dog still always looks as miserable as sin, and the look she gave me was one of weary embarrassment more than anything. She didn't hurt herself though, and didn't look particularly upset.

Ruby has made it her mission to live the simplest of canine lives since she walked through the door as a puppy who tripped over her own ears and stole an entire chicken pasty off the coffee table while I answered the phone. Somehow, bless her heart, she is continuing to do that despite gradually losing the benefit of the most important sense of all. I love her even more for it, and as the one thing she doesn't experience in all this is pain, I suspect she might be with us for some time to come, even if her sight isn't.

18 September 2012

Pooling your resources

Note to ITV4 and its viewers - when Wimbledon FC players shoved Martin Tyler and Dave Beasant into a Torremolinos swimming pool during a TV interview, it was 1987, not 1988. Telling us it was the way they prepared for an FA Cup final was disingenuous, at best.

This is the sporting pedant in me, sorry. The reason I know is that Tyler is asking Beasant about his manager Dave Bassett seconds before the rest of the players joined in, and Bassett quit at the end of the 1987 season to go to Watford. Also, one of the cutaway shots of the squad relaxing by the pool included Nigel Winterburn, who also left Wimbledon in 1987 to join Arsenal, where he stayed for 15 years.

I don't know why it was felt necessary in Ned Boulting's narration to claim that this was the Wimbledon squad preparing for the FA Cup final - a 1988 event in which they famously beat Liverpool - as it would have been perfectly okay to use it as flashback material instead. Wimbledon were promoted to the top flight in 1986 and so the 1987 season allowed us the first view of the Crazy Gang ethos. To admit to the true antiquity of the footage, even in relation to the FA Cup success, would not have shamed anyone.

It's nitpicky, but to nostalgists and sports lovers - I tick both boxes - it's important, and it further strengthens ITV's reputation for carelessness when making factual stuff. And it's a pity, because the World Of Sport archive shows, decade by decade, mixing Steve Davis and the first televised 147 with lethal double decker bus racing, have been great fun to watch.

17 September 2012

Grace of God


My tally of collisions in motor vehicles grew at the weekend, after a prang on the car park at Hull City's stadium left my car with ruined driver's side doors, another with a crushed bonnet and a third with a scratched wing. The courtesy car is on the way today and I dread to think what it will be.

However, that's nothing compared to what happened elsewhere, in a borrowed car, ten hours later. I was running a few minutes late as I wearily headed back to the M62 from the club night, longing for my pillows and quilt. The matrix above the motorway informed the handful of nocturnal motorists of a closure near Oldham, and I blasphemed loudly within the confines of the car.

Sitting in a motorway traffic jam at 3.30am is the weirdest feeling on earth. That journey is one I make at that time every week and sometimes you don't see another vehicle for 20 minutes. But there were plenty of them huddled into two lanes as the police and highways people closed the carriageway.

Eventually we headed off the motorway and snaked slowly up hills and around unlit sharp bends across the old New Hey Road that took traffic across the Pennines when the M62 was still a transport minister's little pet plan in a ring binder.

With every slowdown, every traffic light, every brief pause because a truck could only negotiate one bend at five miles per hour, came a curse from me. And undoubtedly from many others too. Ahead of us, we knew that a further, planned closure was in place between Brighouse and Bradford for interminable roadworks so we'd have to go through this all again.

Eventually, we re-emerged on to the M62, close to its highest point at Ripponden and re-established proper progress through the night. The second closure duly arrived four junctions later and by now I was as weary as I'd ever been. Over the years I've learned how to cope with it and stay alert, but as I progressed, eventually crossing from West Yorkshire to East near Goole, I needed help. The last service station had gone and the next turnoff was some distance away.

I stopped and sent a tweet, asking anyone who had my number and was still up - it was 5.15am, half an hour after my usual hometime - to ring me. The one thing that always perks this tired boy up during a long drive at the wrong end of the day is conversation.

A few minutes later, Louis rang. We had a chat about anything and nothing really; subject matter wasn't the issue. Then he retired for bed, and I returned a call to John, a fellow broadcaster who'd got my voicemail when trying to ring. He was up due to work at the Great North Run and joyful new fatherhood and so again we had a chat about something and anything. By the time he left for his duties, I was 15 minutes from home and made it quite comfortably.

A few hours later, I was scouring the news pages with my first brew when I saw that a young woman had been killed on the motorway in a collision with a car apparently being driven in the wrong direction by someone who subsequently failed a breath test. The accident happened at 3am; had it happened 20 or so minutes later, I'd have been right there.

When your brain is tired, it doesn't always function logically, and even though it was the police running the show, barely for a moment did I consider something serious had happened; all I could think of was my long journey home being made even longer. I feel awful about that now.

13 September 2012

"Mourning, mourning, Jameson here..."

"Ian, your foursome goes like this...

Cyril Smith...

Marilyn Monroe...

Derek Jameson and, back by popular demand...

Robert Maxwell."

"Well, Robert Maxwell, erm, it was alleged, was murdered by Mossad. Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the FBI. Derek Jameson murdered Radio 2..."

("...and the English language...")

"Is it that Cyril Smith's ate (sic) the other three?"

"Well I can tell you that Cyril Smith, Marilyn Monroe and Derek Jameson were all born out of wedlock, whereas Robert Maxwell was, of course, a different sort of bastard."

My grandma loved Derek Jameson. I can't pin down the dates when he was doing the Radio 2 breakfast show, but at 7.30 each morning following the death of my grandad, I'd arrive at her house in my school uniform to walk her dog just as his dulcet tones were chiming out of her radio.

My abiding memory of him on the telly was from that ghastly journalism quiz he did on ITV in the mid-80s, called Headliners, when he once said to a female team captain: "That's the wrong answer, but I'll give you the points because you're so beautiful." Somewhere at an adjacent desk Nigel Dempster was calling him a twat, and if you could irritate Dempster then you were pretty good in my eyes.

Otherwise, I didn't really know much about him, but he always seemed, well, affable. I don't know. He was married a lot, and issued at least one stupid libel writ, but beyond that he seemed decent, a bit old-fashioned, and quite ordinary. And that was the point.

11 September 2012

"God know why Sid Owen was codenamed 'Sushi'..."


There are 14 people needed for Strictly Come Dancing each year and you can usually guarantee that particular categories of celebrity have been sought in order to fill the show's criteria for a strong line-up.

We have no retired politician this year - I suppose after Edwina Currie and Ann Widdecombe there would have been nothing but comedown in getting Hazel Blears - but otherwise generally we're there with this year's rollcall, I think. Let's see.

Retired sporting hero? Yep, there's Michael Vaughan. If he's bobbins he'll still have time to join the TMS team in India. But cricketers have a very good Strictly record - two of them won the whole thing.
Youthful pop star whose band aren't as good as they once were? We have two. Nicky Byrne from Westlife and Kimberley Walsh from Girls Aloud. Given the success (note: not the talent, just the success) of their two bands, it's an impressive pairing though neither were the main focus of their groups and could walk down my street without me knowing who they are.
Popular soap star of yore? Two of these - Lisa Riley and Sid Owen. The former will also fit the "obese person who will use it as a weight loss experiment" category. The latter, meanwhile, didn't have much rhythm when dancing to his version of Good Thing Going while briefly being a pop star, so may be a bit of a dud.
TV royalty of yore? Sir Johnny of Ball, who obviously the whole nation over 35 will want to win.
Current BBC A-lister? Er, well Dani Harmer, I suppose. I've never heard of her but she seems to be big in kids' telly.
Person from flagship ITV show to guarantee promotion from rivals? And Daybreak again submits one of its stooges, some dude called Richard Arnold. The recruitment of Fern Britton, despite her currently inconsistent career on the light channel, is helpful here too.
Macho sporting beefcake who "needs" to "discover" his "softer" side? Yep, Louis Smith. Though I'm not sure how macho he is in personality, judging by the soft tones of his interviews after winning silver in gymnastics over the summer. But the muscles alone will assist him get votes, even if he can't transfer his rhythm from the pommel horse to the cha cha.
Famous for association with someone far more famous? I don't wish to belittle or undervalue Jerry Hall's modelling career, or her Bovril adverts, but...

That leaves Denise Van Outen, whose role in life is currently hard to pin down but after many years of being really good on telly, even in really bad telly programmes, is now a West End and Broadway star and, to be truthful, it's a surprise to see her doing this. That said, as the longest-standing celebrity crush I've ever had, I'm chuffed she's going to be on there. Get her on the It Takes Two settee on a Tuesday night with Karen Hardy and I may not survive.

Colin Salmon, who has three Bond films behind him, is another one whose recruitment seems quite a coup. I don't know much about him. Victoria Pendleton, meanwhile, was unable to make it more plain she wanted to do Strictly unless she'd invaded the Newsnight studio with a huge placard saying 'GET ME ON STRICTLY'. And after her posturing there'd have been a mild outcry if she hadn't been asked, especially given that she's now retired from her sport.

They get introduced to their partners on Saturday. You just know that Anton du Beke is going to get Fern Britton. This Strictly junkie will be watching every week, as ever.

6 September 2012

Striking oil

Okay, I watched Dallas. I did so reluctantly, because people were tweeting about it, because there wasn't much else on, because I was curious. Etc.

It was absolutely brilliant.

5 September 2012

Supervising Producer - Calvin Clements Jr



I've no real interest in the return of Dallas to our screens, though I was fascinated to see Larry Hagman in such good health considering his age and endless list of ailments and appearances in operating theatres. It's good that he is still willing to bum about talking to any presenter or hack with an interest in the revival of a show that, at its peak, was brilliant and ludicrous in equal measure.

Compared to some American dramas, as well as soaps generally from the world, I always thought Dallas was especially well acted, the pouting ham-ups from Linda Gray notwithstanding. Hagman was always tremendous and for as long as his health allowed, and as long as JR Ewing was within his motivation, the show had to keep going. As batshit crazy as the plots and storylines sometimes became, somehow JR was always reassuringly believable and bad.

I can still feel the thump of my heart reaching breakneck speed when, after months of teasing, we saw for the first time the return of Bobby Ewing in the shower. We all knew how mad it was to re-cast Patrick Duffy and pretend his death in the previous series was all dreamt by Pam, though then and now I still thought it woeful that Pam had the briefest of cries in front of her naked ex-and-soon-to-be-again-current-or-was-his-proposal-part-of-the-dream-too husband about how she'd imagined him being mown down in a car, and then everything returned to normal. Or as normal as it could be in Dallas. Years before, I remember my teenage babysitter shrieking "Oh my God, he's killed Pamela!" (he hadn't) when a Saturday night episode concluded with Victoria Principal lifeless in the Southfork pool, while I confusedly carried on shoving my Matchbox cars along the carpet.

The guff about Who Shot JR? passed me by as a piece of drama though I remember the madness that engulfed newspapers and TV bulletins and that famous shot of "the tapes" arriving in the UK that featured the episode which would tell all. We all knew by then, of course, as our charming press found out and chose to reveal it. During the same period, I remember the death of Jim "Jock Ewing" Davis being announced most sombrely by John Craven one teatime.

Beyond the characters and plots, I loved the way the show loved itself. The opening and closing titles combined rolled in at almost three minutes. There was clearly some serious posturing going on when it came to actors' and crew members' statuses, as proved by the appearance of Dack Rambo - acting's most mental name - in the prestigious three-way opening titles after just one series as Jack Ewing. And yet the character didn't last a great deal longer than that second season. After the three-ways had finished and the first scene began, we'd get some senior production crediting and then the crucial but short-term characters in name only ("also starring Deborah Shelton as Mandy Winger" ... and John Beck as Mark Graison") prior to the first words being spoken.

At the other end of the extreme, the actors who played regular but decidedly peripheral parts were relegated to the end credits, often after various production members and the theme music writer had been given their due. After JR, Sue Ellen, Ray, Bobby and Pam, there can't have been many more characters who appeared in the show more often than Teresa the Southfork maid (standard line: "Telephone call for you Mr Farlow") or JR's efficient fox of a secretary, Sly, and yet they were right at the foot of the rollcall. After the production bods, you'd get the "Guest Starring" list (people you'd never heard of unless it was Ian McShane), the "co-starring" list (jobbers on a one-off, playing bartenders and waiters at the Oil Barons Ball) and finally, the "featuring" list (those Teresa and Sly characters that glued scenes together week on week; also the point where the children that played John Ross and Christopher Ewing would appear). And then the remaining credits just went on for aeons, all soundtracked by that fantastic title music.

I did go off Dallas for a bit and missed the series when JR met Cally and married her, then ended up in an asylum. But I was back with it in time for that doolalley final series and the episode where the devil on JR's shoulder re-introduced him to everyone who he has conned over the years, prior to the final scene where he shoots himself (out of sight) and Bobby brings down the curtain with a final "Oh my God" as he opens the bathroom door to find his brother's "corpse" there. Though knowing Hagman's habit of trying to test the straight faces of his fellow actors during heavy scenes, Duffy probably filmed that final take while looking at Hagman showing his bare arse.

I hope it's good, the new Dallas, or at least pays homage to its history by being incomprehensible and daft. In its heyday, incomprehensible daftness made it what it was, along with skilled actors who could make incomprehensible daftness seem normal and sensible.

3 September 2012

Auntie Nellie



On September 1st, 1895, Edith Eleanor Sutton was born in Hull. She would be the tenth of 11 children born to her parents, and so would begin the life of the only centurion I've ever known in my family.

September 1st of this year has just happened, and on that date I always think of her. Nellie, as she became known to all, lived quite a life and managed to do so without ever moving away from her home city.

She worked as a nurse and eventually became a matron prior to her retirement at 60. This was a suitable vocation for a lady who was always very quick to see the good in people. She needed to be, as the stick she took when she was around 30 years old shaped her for life thanks to her nerve at having a child out of wedlock.

Single mums to this day take loads of unwarranted stick. Can you imagine what it was like for Nellie when, in the late 1920s, she got pregnant by a man who was not only not her husband but, as it turned out, the husband of someone else? As far as we know, he never told her the truth until it was too late.

Families, martyrs to their religious beliefs and the puritanical attitudes that came with their Victorian upbringing, were all too often quick to usher away any girl who got herself into trouble like this. But not, I'm proud to say, my family. Nellie gave birth to a little girl, named her Brenda, and brought her up with the aid of her extended brood.

I wrote here two and a half years ago about my great-grandma of Italian ancestry who was a genuine pariah in the family, imposed entirely by herself, after she gave birth to two kids just before World War I and then left them with her husband to go off with another man, rarely staying in touch afterwards and dying in her 90s still an unknown, unloved and largely unforgiven figure.

Well, when she abandoned her kids - my grandma among them - it was Nellie, and her younger sister Doris, who prevented them going to the workhouse. The kids' father was their elder brother and he was able to continue working and providing because Nellie, though especially Doris (who never worked due to ill health, and so stayed at home), became their figurative mums, initially with their own ageing mother.

So when Nellie had her own bit of brainstorming news, and Brenda came along, the family rallied round. They were used to doing that anyway, but in this instance the family member who needed the support had damned well earned it. Brenda ended up becoming a favourite cousin to my (then teenaged) grandma and great uncle and when Nellie retired, Brenda was divorced and single again and so the two of them, plus Doris, clubbed together to buy a fine, multi-roomed terraced house on a major thoroughfare in east Hull.

The reason I'm telling you all this is because of two events occurring this month. Firstly, that house in east Hull has just been sold as Brenda, now in her mid 80s, has decided to move into more suitable accommodation with her gentleman friend and so a house that has meant so much to the family for half a century has now gone.

Secondly, my mum turns 70 at the end of the month and a family Sunday dinner to celebrate has been planned. The senior figure in attendance will be Brenda, that illegitimate child of the late 1920s that was born and raised into a family that never cared what others would say about it.

Nellie spent 40 years in retirement, most of which was spent gossiping and reminiscing from her big armchair in the TV room of that terraced house, with Doris jumping in every so often to offer a catty and brilliant comment of her own. The two never married and even shared a bed together for life, something that only ended with the death of Doris in 1986, a year after Nellie's 90th birthday. At the party for that event, Nellie made a speech that thanked her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren prior to Doris bringing the house down with the interruption "What about your bloody sister?"

We'd visit regularly when I was a kid. Nellie and Doris would never tire of singing songs from their childhood and recall events in intricate detail; their collective memory was as clear as geriatric storytellers as it was as children. Brenda worried that Nellie wouldn't recover when her little sister died, but she carried on stoically for nine more years. She was bedridden but still wisecracking by the time she turned 100, and died three months after reaching the milestone.

She's the only centurion my family have ever known, and she was a genuine phenomenon. I suppose there were more single mums in the 1920s than we might assume, but my guess is that the majority weren't as bloody-minded or determined as her, nor did they have the great good luck to have a family who put the feelings of those they knew ahead of those they didn't.

Blogging back on

In the month of August 2012, I presented 41 radio programmes, hosted four club nights and drove somewhere in the region of 5,300 miles.

Hopefully this explains entirely why this blog has been untouched for so long.

It really *is* all work, work, work...

31 July 2012

Coach of an Olympic champion


Jon has been the head coach of Plymouth Leander since he was 19 years old, and after 23 years of graft, sacrifice and considerable measures of both joy and setback, last night he watched one of his swimmers become an Olympic champion.

Ruta is amazing and now set up for life; she will never want for anything again. My brother is just amazing. It's one of those moments where pride as a family member is simply beyond definition.

25 July 2012

Conditional Bale


Bit annoyed with Tottenham Hotspur. They pulled Gareth Bale out of the Olympic football squad through injury and then took him on their pre-season jamboree to the USA and played him in a match.

FIFA, with their usual inability to take any decisions for themselves, say that Bale could be banned from playing for Spurs in all games, including friendlies, until the Olympics are over but only if someone - ie, the British Olympic Association - makes a complaint.

I hope they do. Bale is the finest footballer from Wales since John Charles and should have been in that squad. He even posed in the Olympic kit when it was revealed a few weeks back. There should be 100 times the outcry over this than there was over the non-selection of David Beckham. But it's hardly on the radar at all.

23 July 2012

We can rule the w......*clunk*



Occasionally, people ask me if I can DJ at an event that they're having, which is very nice of them. Generally I say no, as I've never been a mobile DJ and don't have any equipment at all, just the music. Plus almost all requests I get will clash with my residency. But I made an exception at the weekend.

Andy and Katie got married on Saturday and I played their music in the evening. They met while both at my regular Saturday haunt in Stockport and, despite both being born in the mid-80s and therefore not exactly "target", became exceptional regulars to the 80s night as their relationship blossomed. Occasionally they came in with a stack of their mates but most of the time just the pair of them, with Guinness, bottles of oddly coloured beverages and lots and lots of dancing.

Any number of years on and they got married at the weekend. As I was the bloke onstage when they got it together, I couldn't say no when they asked if I'd do their wedding evening. It was a privilege to be asked. But the eternal problem remained: what about the gear? Most venues don't have their own DJ gear and their choice of evening setting was no different. But Andy, with determination that flatters me stupidly, patiently noted the stuff I needed and organised a contact of his to supply it. I booked the night off my regular gaff, turned up with laptop, three wallets of CDs and my cans, and got to work.

Their faith in me was immediately tested when, having untroublesomely played background music as the guests began to arrive and get their drinks, the first major responsibility of the night befell me as the lights dimmed, I announced the happy couple's first dance and pressed play. On came Take That's Rule The World and the handsome pairing took to the floor with guests surrounding them, pointing their cameras. All was well for two and a half minutes and I took a few steps out of view to grab my soft drink. Just as I did, there was a buzz in the speakers, then a gap, and then after a brief resumption, the CD stopped and recued itself.

The last time I felt as embarrassed as this was when I said "Party Mix next" on the radio instead of announcing the death of the Queen Mother.

A couple of playful (I think) boos sounded and quickly I started the next CD, which contained their second song of choice - Marry You by Bruno Mars. Playing this man endlessly on the radio has not warmed me to him, but as his song carried through its duration without a hitch and the guests made a circle around the happy couple, I found myself very grateful to him. Subsequently, I played three hours of varied stuff, only cleared the floor entirely once (Dub Be Good To Me, which is usually a shoo-in) and followed instructions to recreate the atmosphere they were used to when on my dancefloor in Stockport town centre. Whatever stance you take, there are still few more enjoyable sights than a group of men of various ages, sizes, capacity for alcohol and perspiration levels, all in identical whistles, waistcoats and cravats, trying to keep up with one another on One Step Beyond. Especially as Katie's mum, shoes cast aside, out-danced the lot of them.

Take That did make a more tangible contribution at the end, as Katie wanted the full six minutes 30 seconds version of Never Forget to finish with. Those who remained when that time came surrounded the pair of them on the floor once again and did the actions, everything. Gary Barlow and his dopey mates had redeemed themselves. I remained mortified in part that the one song - and it was the only one all bloody night - to not manage its duration was the single most important song of the occasion, but the bride and groom - and, perhaps more significantly, the bride's parents - were full of thanks as I packed my CDs away and headed into the night. My last action of the evening was to take this pic of them:



Andy is on Twitter at andywarring1on and Katie is (now) katiewarringt0n - if you get a moment, do tweet them some congratulations - not just for their special day, but for their capacity to forgive...

16 July 2012

Meee-OW


I witnessed a full-on, no-holds barred catfight at the weekend. It was vicious, caused injury to one party and ended up with a hell of a mess on the floor. And it took place in my kitchen.

So we're not talking the vernacular here (though I've seen plenty of them too - I broke one up between two female snooker referees at the Waterfront nightclub in Hull in 1998), but an actual, literal, catfight.

It was a shock. The four cats in the house tend to get on famously, though one of the cream shorthair boys sometimes chases Sox, the lone female, around the kitchen without causing harm. Yet the scrap that Sidney, my youngest, started yesterday was something I never thought would happen.

He wandered in from a few minutes enjoying the garden in the sunshine and went potty. I wondered if he'd chewed on a plant that does to cats what aniseed does to dogs? Whatever it was, this daffy, peace-loving, perennially sleepy cat suddenly darted into the house, tail as wide as a telly, and began chasing blameless, random fuskers around. Out came the claws and teeth and the fur of four cats went everywhere. Only when they took the fight underneath the dining table and I was able to bang my fist on the table very loudly did it frighten them into ceasing. Sidney's tail remained in its angry state for some time afterwards, and poor Sox needed some warm cotton wool on a nose scratch.

Half an hour later, all was tranquil again (once the vacuum cleaner had done its job, that is) and Sidney was fast asleep in his bowl while Harvey and Oliver stretched out on a windowsill and Sox slept on her favourite cushion. Sidney, when he chose to wake up, knew he was in bother and spent the rest of the evening cosying up to all. And, of course, he succeeded.

29 June 2012

Bit of a knockbeck


Only people who don't get the concept of sport are outraged over David Beckham's omission from the GB Olympic football squad. This, for all its irrelevance to football as a whole (football in the Olympics is a hideous notion), is a winnable competition, and so Stuart Pearce has to pick what he sees as his best 18 players. Beckham is not among them.

Sport is about winning, first, foremost and last. Beckham has been a winner in the past but ceased to look like one the moment he left the European game to play in the USA. That wasn't a sporting decision, it was a decision based on his image, his future and his desire to increase his showbiz profile. That he loved, and loves, playing for his country is not relevant; even less relevant is the work he has put in through the whole Olympic bid and plan. He has to be good enough. He isn't.

Beyond his diminishing ability, he is such a megastar that the majority of the players in the squad - the ones under the cut-off age of 22 - would be ludicrously starstruck by him. He'd be a massive distraction. But all arguments against him, such as this one, are also irrelevant. It's sport, it's about ability and Beckham doesn't have it any more. Pearce has got it bang on, and those who moan that Beckham "deserved" it, or would have helped shift the 1.3 million unsold football tickets, are missing the point entirely.

20 June 2012

I remember when they had such fun and everything was fine



The rumours that Wham! were reforming started last night; this morning they appear to have been confirmed. The interim period had fans now in their late 30s and early 40s contemplating the possibility of a tour, but it's actually for just one gig.

Almost every major act of a past era reforms at some point or other, even the Beatles managed it. But I never thought Wham! would do it, even as a one-off designed to promote, with some cynicism, an ailing George Michael's latest solo work. George himself spent the first decade of his solo career bemoaning and publicly denouncing everything he did with Wham!, while Andrew Ridgeley was never a musician or performer but merely an effective pop star and wing man. Still, there is the 30th anniversary of their first release this year, so the official reason for doing it is sound.

Unlike every other all-male band or duo of that early to mid-80s era, Wham! at their peak were pretty much impossible for boys to like. They were, in their music and image, so tailored towards adolescent girls that lads, in public at least, found it too much of a credibility (or, more likely for 12 year olds) sexuality issue to say that they could dance to Freedom and not be embarrassed. This was especially so during that specific era of Wham!, when they ditched the leather jackets and put on the Hamnett T-shirts and luminous gloves, lost the gel and got out the hairspray, and George wrote about sex rather than arguing with parents or lolling about on the dole. It was as if these two lads - 19 and 20 at the time - had been told in 1983 that the next album had to stop inspiring their male peers to stand up for themselves and instead start inspiring their female peers to chase them down the street. From the beginning of 1984, everything was about girls. Ironic when one takes a long term view, of course, but there was actually no act more heterosexual than Wham! in that period, when examining their song content and reading their interviews. George was seeing an Oriental model called Kathy Yeung, Andrew had begun the relationship with Keren Woodward of Bananarama that still thrives to this day.

But I liked Wham! It was hard for me not to, really - I was an 11 year old boy obsessed with pop music, buying Smash Hits and No.1, watching Top Of The Pops religiously and listening to Bruno Brookes reveal the new chart on a Tuesday evening while doing my homework. But while my classmates knew of my liking for Howard Jones and Duran Duran, the Wham! thing was all about the girls. There were a couple in my class, and in every class, who were crazy about them.

The material now is still very slick and approachable (a retrospective review in one of the inkies called Wham!'s sound "juvenile Motown", which sort of works) and with a grown-up head on shoulders, one can see the songcraft in stuff like Young Guns (Go For It) and Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do) - the seven minute version of which I absolutely love - and then later material like I'm Your Man and Everything She Wants, the latter of which could easily still be the best pop song George Michael wrote, given how much of a moody bore he threatened to become in his solo career.



In between, there was Wake Me Up Before You Go Go - the first number one, the biggest seller, the least enjoyable today - and the aforementioned Freedom. I still think the reason they brought out Careless Whisper in the autumn of 1984 as a George solo single was a) to provide an antidote for what Wham! had released in the same year; and b) to prove that George was capable of writing "proper" stuff. And yet, and yes, that particular song, his first proper masterpiece of pop, was co-written by Andrew, unlike almost everything issued by Wham!. They and those representing them did like to confuse us.

I saw a Wham! tribute act once. I didn't intend to; they were doing a gig at the student union bar of Hull University in 1998 and I was seeing an undergraduate at the time. We went along the the union for a Friday night drink, unaware of any gig going on, and found this bunch of mid-30s blokes, plus two female singers, wearing the Hamnett T-shirts and performing Wham! songs - and they did all of them too, the full repertoire. I loved it, though I felt slightly self-conscious through it - not because of the boy-likes-girlie-act reason this time, but because as a 25 year old in a room full of 19 and 20 year olds, I appeared to be the only one who knew all the words. The following week, the union bar had the Lo Fidelity Allstars on. I was bored shitless. The lass I was seeing passed out at that gig and dumped me a few weeks later.

If rock fans of the 80s are still gagging for the return of the Smiths (who will be the exception to the rule of major acts reforming - ie, they'll never do it), then pop fans of the same era have always wondered about Wham!. It seemed possible, as George's solo career became more of a sideshow and his attitude to Wham! softened, and now it's taking a step closer. I have a CHOOSE LIFE T shirt that fits, so...

12 June 2012

It's quite unusual



After the jubilee concert, the critics and wider public were banging on about Stevie Wonder's class, Paul McCartney's ability to woo a crowd just by dint of his existence, Grace Jones' physique, Cheryl Cole's nerve and Gary Barlow's crashing dullness.

The comedians were panned (rightly, though I thought Lee Mack was okay) and Rolf Harris was the ultimate pro, treated a bit callously. The opera singers were impressive and immediately reverted to obscurity afterwards, while Elton John's voice disintegrated with every syllable. He really should stop performing, or write a few more versions of Song For Guy.

Nobody mentioned Tom Jones.

Why is this? The guy is not treated as the icon that he is. He could outsing Elvis in his day, by the King's own (apparent) admission. His vocal cords have never subsided through age, he has lived a clean (if not always moral) existence, he always acts the good sport, he seems fundamentally decent and, without fail, he is always a good turn.

But beyond anything else, he never misses a note. He did two songs on that stage - Mama Told Me Not To Come and Delilah, and didn't even come close to a bum moment. And yet he barely registered.

Maybe the fact that he was pitch perfect was the reason. He has had his share of reasonable publicity of late thanks to providing the one true bucketful of credibility on The Voice, and so rather than pile it on, the press decided that ignoring him was the best way. A great singer, singing greatly, doesn't garner good copy.

More than anything though, I think it is because Tom is "just" a singer. I don't think he gets credit because he isn't a musician or composer - he sings. He learns the melody and the words and then sings. Other people do the "work" and he takes the plaudits.

Okay, so in the 1970s and 1980s he preferred to swan around Las Vegas rather than graft in a studio and on a tour bus, but since his full-tilt return around the mid-90s, it seems every youthful pop star has wanted to embrace him and learn from him. His records have been strong, if not necessarily earth-shattering, and he hasn't tried to project himself as someone trying to stay young around these bucks and flighty female singers who worked with him. He stopped dyeing his hair and allowed himself to be the father figure.

Ultimately, like with a lot of pop singers, you can have all the charisma and composition talent and generosity and newsworthiness as you like, but there is still only one thing that will maintain your fame and fortune in the long term, and that's your voice. Tom Jones has his, at 72 years of age. We should treasure him a bit more.

Have some vintage, floorfilling Tom from the 1960s...


7 June 2012

Peter Norman - my favourite Olympian

With the Olympics coming, the papers are doing the rounds of reminding us of great Olympic occurrences of the past. They are slightly skewiff towards British successes, understandably, but even those not entirely interested in sport can find enlightenment behind the stories of some of the most famous and infamous Olympic moments.

I'm currently fascinated by the Black Power salutes of 1968, unaware for a long time that the iconic images of Messrs Smith and Carlos raising their gloved fists during the American national anthem caused such a massive stink.

But, as they would say themselves, they knew what they were doing and why they were doing it, they were aware of the risks and the possible consequences (though the actual consequences suggested they had underestimated American prejudices considerably). The same perhaps couldn't be said of Peter Norman, the silver medallist from Australia who wore a pro-human rights badge on the rostrum and was consequently shunned and called by his home nation for almost the rest of his life. His comparatively mild contribution to the most politicised moment of Olympic history is an astonishing story which his nephew made into a docu-film after his early death.





5 June 2012

"You're about as real as that plastic cigarette you puff!"

There was a phase during a series of the great Just Good Friends in which Vince, trying to stop smoking, used a plastic cigarette in an effort to wean himself off the real things.

On Saturday, a woman arrived at my club night and appeared to be clutching a tab between her fingers. Before I could establish anything for certain, she'd brought it to her lips and taken a draw - and the end of the 'cigarette' turned a flourescent blue. I've never seen one of these fake fags before. Are they a sophisticated stop-smoking device, like Vince Pinner's plastic smoke, or just the latest cosmetic accessory?

Smoking doesn't look cool any more, but this did. She was still putting it to her mouth four and a half hours later, so I assume they come with a rechargeable battery and you can specify a glow colour of your choice. If it's getting her off smoking the real things then good on her - and, unlike Vince, at no point did she drop it on the floor without thinking and stamp on it. I only hope that when she did go outside for a breath of fresh air, some idiot on the sniff didn't try to light it for her.



31 May 2012

No unfunny jokes about lavatory paper in the fridge, either


How are you with curry?

For years I wouldn't touch it; spicy food generally has never agreed with me but I always felt like I was missing out. I was an old-fashioned type who decided that I didn't really want to eat food that caused me pain - I know, lightweight that I am - and this ruled out other people's favourite takeaways, restaurants etc because I wouldn't go. And yet every curry dish I saw looked absolutely delicious.

In the last couple of years, however, I've got a taste for it. I'm not exactly shovelling down double helpings of vegetable phal every night, and I'm quite restricted by not liking either lamb or prawns (and that will never change), but I can get to jalfrezi, biryani levels of hotness (is that a word?) and learn to appreciate the spiciness in my throat rather than go demanding glasses of milk* and threatening to sue**. I've had a couple of curry nights with some of the lads I go to football with recently and the food, though I still chose carefully, was fantastic. I now find myself wondering what on earth I've missed.

Takeaway number one of choice is still a pizza, but now I'm far more prone to ordering a curry than a Chinese, especially as the Chinese in our village has gone right down the tubes, with the food now actively removing all the moisture from the mouth the moment you put it in. Give me a chicken dopiaza instead of a chicken chow mein any day, and don't skimp on the bhajis. Blimey, I really mean that too...

*I've never done this.
**I've never done this either.

28 May 2012

"Kicks from the penalty mark", apparently


Sepp Blatter's been opening his gob again, this time once more declaring that penalty shoot-outs as a means of declaring a winner in a football match constitute a "tragedy".

He hasn't a clue what "tragedy' means, evidently. John Helm no longer uses the word in football commentary when describing an own goal, a missed penalty, an undeserved defeat and so on, because he was in the commentary box when Valley Parade caught fire just over 27 years ago.

Blatter's true intentions, according to his fiercest critics, seem to involve trying to prevent a German side from going through what Bayern Munich did against Chelsea - it is a rare occurrence indeed for a German club side, let alone the national team, to fail in a shoot-out - and also burying the untidy, unfulfilling debate about goal-line technology, which everybody in the professional game except FIFA seems to want. FIFA's own status as a corrupt, scruple-free organisation also provide Blatter with a motive to keep the debate about football.

But the penalty shoot-out must remain. It isn't ideal, and losing it in the most important of games is deeply scarring to a football fan, but there isn't a better alternative. It's the best of a bad bunch of suggestions, the rest of which vary from the unworkable to the utterly deluded.

Count the number of corners forced? A team playing for a draw will just keep kicking the ball against full backs' ankles rather than force an attack. Count the shots on goal? They'll be shooting from their own half, never in a month of Sundays likely to score but adding another point to the tally. Take a man off in extra time every five minutes? You'd end up with five players per side on an enormous pitch, already knackered. Take off the goalkeepers? Oh yeah, because football isn't about good defending or keeping, is it? It's purely about the goals, goals, goals.

All of these suggestions are dire. They interfere with the laws of the game, the set-up of how a football match should be played. Removing players, changing their priorities from goal acquisition or prevention to winning corners or belting the ball wide from 50 yards makes a mockery of the skill and tactical acumen that flourishes at the game's highest level. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with playing 90 minutes of football, plus the extra 30 (depending on the competition) in order to find the winner without ever compromising the credibility of the game.

A while back we had the Golden Goal experiment. It was used at Euro 96 (it, in fact, decided the winner of Euro 96) and France 98, as well as some domestic knockout competitions, and I rather liked it. I was present when English football's first ever Golden Goal was scored, by a player called Iain Dunn, who was at Huddersfield Town at the time. It encourages attacking football from both sides without changing the actual fabric and foundation of the sporting occasion.

It has one issue though: that of the celebrating team when the ball goes into the net. All instances of ball entering net are immediately deemed to be goals unless it's obvious that the referee has blown for an infringement beforehand. But plenty of the game's disallowed goals become so after the player has wheeled away in celebration and the crowd are going potty. If a referee needs to disallow a Golden Goal, he has the prospect of doing so and then informing not just the players but the coaching staff, subs etc, all of which will have sprinted on to the pitch to form a human pile-up in celebration. Not to mention a large chunk of the crowd. Imagine trying to tell that lot, just on a practical level, that the game isn't over yet. In such circumstances, you can imagine a match being abandoned.

So it's back to penalties. People suggest changing the way the shoot-out is done, such as having it before the game, but you would surely prefer a game of football to commence at the 0" mark entirely equal, rather than with one side knowing that a spot of bus-parking, at which they may already be very adept, will guarantee them victory. Perhaps change the number of takers, or have an earlier sudden death element, but whatever cosmetic changes may be of benefit, ultimately there is no "tragedy" about penalty shoot-outs, whatever interpretation of the word you use. They aren't ideal, but there is no alternative. For the neutral, they are capable of being a phenomenal sporting spectacle - the weekend's play-off final between Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United proved that - and the ultimate winners feel joy and relief that goes beyond the feeling of winning in 90 standard minutes.

And all of this from an Englishman whose national team (that, thanks to the new dignified brand of management installed, I rather like again) are globally renowned for being totally useless at penalty shoot-outs. They absolutely should remain, even though we've been involved in six, and lost five of them - the true highlight of the one we won is below.

24 May 2012

"If you want to stop the Bee Gees singing..."



It's impossible to fathom what Barry Gibb is going through now, having lost all three of the brothers born after him. Robin's death on Sunday night has rightly brought out much tribute in terms of his contribution to a songwriting dynasty comparable with that of Lennon and McCartney.

Ultimately, a combination of beards, disco, falsettos and mild humour bypasses - as well as long fallow periods - made sure the Bee Gees were not ever given quite the credit they deserved.

I couldn't immediately think of anything that hasn't been said by cleverer, more qualified people than me. But one observation I've always enjoyed making about the Bee Gees whenever I play certain records written by them on the radio is their shamelessness when it comes to picking up the royalties.

If a song written by the Bee Gees was not recorded by them, but by someone else, then they would make a point of still appearing as backing vocalists. Emotions by Samantha Sang is a stark example, not least because I think they actually sing on it more than she does. They are on Heartbreaker as backers to Dionne Warwick, Islands In The Stream by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers and, of course, Chain Reaction with Diana Ross. None of these songs had enjoyed a Bee Gees-only recording by the time they became hits, but there they were, picking up performing royalties as well as those earned as composers.

All of these songs, with the exception of Chain Reaction (to my knowledge) they did eventually do themselves. Beyond all this, acts like Take That, Tavares, Steps, Candi Staton, Kim Wilde, Boyzone, Jimmy Somerville and Destiny's Child all took Bee Gees songs back into the charts. George Michael did one under a pseudonym, while dance acts N'Trance and Blockster put 90s beats behind two of their disco fillers.

Everyone has a favourite. I'm actually rather keen on this, which I remember commercial radio generally refused to touch "because it's the Bee Gees". I still get annoyed about that. It was their last hit.

23 May 2012

Bordering on the mundane


I'm fascinated by borders, me. Really. When you drive through Europe now, the old border stations are now derelict, with the land just used as standard rest areas for lorry drivers. You have to remind yourself just how authoritarian they once were.

I remember as a kid going to Spain by coach on holiday, and having to wait at the border control for ages while men with moustaches, uniforms and absolutely no sense of humour checked passports and under seats before letting us through.

I'm now fascinated more by the people who live on borders. That France-Spain one for example; if you have a house on one side of the border, does it mean that through your neighbours you grow up bi-lingual? In the old days, did you have to take your passport with you to retrieve your football after kicking it over the garden wall? It must have been hellish, as an understatement, to be quietly living on the border of two countries who then went to war. Your country was on one side, your friends on the other.

Border controls in America are, I understand, pretty strict. The unofficial border stops, the bits that separate Texan fields from Mexican ones or Montanan bridleways from Canadian tracks, still have geezers with guns wandering up and down in case someone tries to enter on foot surreptitiously and, undoubtedly, carrying something unlawful.

I've never been to either side of the Irish border, but I can't imagine it has ever been comfortable living on it, irrespective of which side. The Scottish border made me laugh after I visited Edinburgh four years ago. It was only the second - and, so far, last - time I'd visited Scotland, and though the border from Cumbria on the M6 was unremarkable as I journeyed up, the one on the eastern side coming back (it wasn't the A1, but can't remember which road it was) had a big snazzy sign up with various facts about Scotland and England's history, prior to another sign saying 'drive on the left'. Which, of course, everybody was already doing.

It wasn't meant to be funny, and of course to you it probably isn't funny, but it tickled me at the time and I laughed as I re-entered England.

21 May 2012

"You took your time with the call, I took no time with the fall..."

I like the Carly Rae Jepsen single, Call Me Maybe, that is currently riding high in the hit parade and A-listed on all pop stations. The video is on 4Music a lot, and so I tend to catch it whenever I'm at the gym (as it now seems to be against the law to switch channels there).

Anyway, I was at the gym on Friday. It was me pressing a few kilos while a couple of early twentysomething lasses, evidently together judging by their chatter, pounded the two treadmills. On came the video to Call Me Maybe, and if you've seen it, you'll know that the young Canadian singer is directing the song towards a hunky young chap who is doing various outdoor tasks - gardening, car washing, etc - and early on, takes off his shirt to reveal a not untoned torso underneath. Essentially, it's pornography without the sex (a phrase someone once used to describe Eldorado, but I digress); kind of a modern pop take on the premise of the Diet Coke break.

As the young lady onscreen began to lust after this chap following the removal of his shirt, one of these twentysomethings on the treadmill bellowed, very loudly and shamelessly indeed, the words: "In your dreams, bitch."

Why?

Why? Not only because, er, she can't hear you through a television set, but, just, well, why? What does that achieve? I was genuinely aghast.

Fortunately, they'd exited the treadmill before the video ended and we got the twist of the semi-naked chap offering his phone number to one of the male musicians playing in the garage. I dread to think what they'd have shouted at the telly if they'd been around for that.

Video here if you want to watch it. It's quite sweet.

18 May 2012

Summer moved on



My favourite Donna Summer story concerns the recording of No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) with Barbra Streisand.

Unlike a lot of big celeb duets, these two worked on the song in the same studio at the same time. It was 1979, so we had a major Broadway and Hollywood star singing alongside the media-styled 'queen of disco' and, while it's understood the two got on, there was certainly a clash of egos and styles that made for interesting recording time.

At the beginning, there is that long, percussionless, slow scene-setter as the two swap segments of singing, ending with Streisand singing a very long last syllable on the word 'tears', prior to the disco beat kicking in for the remainder.

Streisand, the older professional, had prepared for the session in her own sensible way. Summer, not yet 30 and arguably the most famous solo female singer in the world at the time, had prepared by being out on the sauce the night before. As Streisand hit that final note, Summer next to her collapsed with the after-effects of a heavy night of drinking and partying.

But Streisand was not to be distracted. She held her note, raised it a semitone (as we hear on the record), and only when given the thumbs-up by those in the production studio did she stop singing and attend to her companion behind the microphone. Summer had only momentarily passed out, and a few glasses of water and (possibly) a slap around the chops later, they continued.

I love that story. I love the ruthlessness of Streisand's professionalism and the contrast in lifestyles that it shows. I also love Donna Summer's work, from the pure filth of Love To Love You Baby (all subsequent versions have succeeded in removing the sex from the song, and therefore the point of it too), to the daft calypso of Unconditional Love (from Streisand to Musical Youth) and the impossibly catchy This Time I Know It's For Real, arguably the best pop song that Hit Factory combo wrote. I played Dinner With Gershwin, with that menacing vocal, on last week's Q The 80s.

She was known as an outstanding singer, a great partygoer and a workaholic. That's a pretty good trio of qualities for a pop star.

17 May 2012

"Yes, we're very handy for the NEC..."


I absolutely loved watching The Unforgettable Noele Gordon last night. Crossroads was deservedly the butt of many jokes but we forget, or never fully appreciate, just how much of a hold it had on the nation in (especially) the 1970s.

Even I watched it. I didn't have a choice, really; the Thursday evening trips to my maternal granparents' house always began with half an hour of "Ssssh!" noises as we usually arrived just as Crossroads was starting. Eventually, beaten into silence, this young lad began to wonder what the fuss was about.

I was too young to read grown-up publications like tabloid newspapers and telly magazines - and we never got telly mags anyway, except at Christmas - but even I knew that "Nolly" had a hold on the nation somehow. She'd travel the country doing supermarket openings and the like, and you'd see her on the news. Only last night did it dawn on me just how individually popular she was when those negatives of her in front of a table full of TV Times awards, which she won each year without fail, were put on show.

The Christmas scene where she breaks into song was hysterical, but I loved the comment from Susan "Miss Diane" Hanson, who said that as Nolly wasn't embarrassed, neither was I. I expect that all this time later, however, revisiting that scene on telly last night was uncomfortable. We got familiar anecdotes about the odd form of crediting on the show, her improvised one-way telephone calls to extend episodes that were too short and those cliffhanging last scenes that ended each episode just before the ATV symbol came up. All very much about Crossroads rather than Noele Gordon, you would think, but it was evident from the tone of the documentary and the comments from her co-stars and associates, that she was Crossroads.

I remember her exit on the QE2 and my grandma's actual tears as both Nolly and Jane "Jill" Rossington cried at the end of her last scene, and the outcry that made the national news. The footage of her immediate interview with Russell Harty was magnificent; she was haughty and confused and angry as she replied with a curt "I don't know!" when he gently asked her why they had let her go. It still seems like the single most pointless sacking in soap. The show divebombed for the rest of the 80s and was cancelled in 1988, by which time Noele Gordon had long succumbed to cancer. When you think of the ribbing Crossroads took, usually using the twin motive of wobbly sets and clunky acting, then firing its one superstar for no apparent reason was essentially killing the whole show. Nobody is bigger than a soap? Noele Gordon was, at the very least, of the same stature as hers.

I watched Crossroads for the last three years or so of its run. I remember with a bit of fondness the likes of Charlie Mycroft, Ann Marie Wade, Tommy Lancaster, the Grice family (one of whom was also appearing in kids' anarchy show Your Mother Wouldn't Like It, which was most off-putting), Mr Darby and the chain-smoking cleaner Mrs Tardebigge, but even still having Jill and Adam Chance there as head couple couldn't save it. Crossroads was essentially handed its notice by ATV when the bosses chose to ditch Noele Gordon, and the show itself essentially died when she did. Last night's documentary was unashamed in making that perfectly clear.

15 May 2012

Squad mentality


Roy Hodgson announces his England squad for Euro 2012 today and it's genuinely intriguing even for casual observers of the national team like me, as he is brand new to the job and therefore there has been little opportunity to gauge what he thinks of the players.

He can take 23 players to Poland and Ukraine next month, and is likely to name a few on standby as one or two injury issues have yet to be sorted, and a handful (ie, half a dozen at Chelsea) still haven't finished their club seasons yet. In total, probably 40 players harbour hopes (assuming players still hope to represent their country, something that many journalists would seek to cast doubt upon) of being selected.

I enjoy squad announcement days, as it's fascinating to compare your own thoughts on players and formations with what the main man himself is actually thinking. In the past there have been supposedly glaring omissions, downright baffling inclusions and the odd side story thrown up by the apparently simple act of choosing 23 very good football players.



Back in 1982, Ron Greenwood threw up something of a shock when he left out his most experienced defender in Dave Watson, who was in the team regularly up to and including the very last friendly prior to going to the World Cup in Spain. Watson had been an England player since 1974 and, although a little long in the tooth, was still accomplished, ruthless and eternally hard as nails. Greenwood left him out in favour of the youthful, headbanded Steve Foster and Watson's international career came to an end with not a World Cup appearance to his name. He remains the most capped England player never to have played at the tournament. England went out in the second group stage although ultimately defending wasn't an issue - in fact, they were a little too good in a way as their gameplan was largely based on caution and negativity, and they came home without losing a game, beaten by their inability to score goals.



In 1986, Bobby Robson's squad for the World Cup in Mexico was notable for being unproblematic, but two years later in 1988, he surprised everybody by including uncapped left back Tony Dorigo in his squad for the European Championships in West Germany, though ultimately the selection of somebody without any international experience was forced upon him, as he needed left back cover - two specialist left backs are a must in any squad - and the regular chap, Stuart Pearce, had suffered an injury at the end of the domestic season and was unavailable. Dorigo, at the time a Chelsea player, was a most unusual case as a) everybody thought he was Australian (he qualified only through his duration of residency in England); and b) he actually didn't get to win his first cap until well over a year later. He was, in a way, England's answer to the new laws on recruitment for national sides that had been exploited clinically by Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland side, which contained a stack of Englishmen and at least one Scotsman as it beat England in the first game. Given the form of England's first choice left back at the tournament, the long-serving Kenny Sansom, it may well have been wise (after the event) to put Dorigo in the team, fearless and fresh. Sansom never played for England again and Pearce took over with Dorigo as his deputy.

In 1990, Robson again had a squad to pick after his side enjoyed an unbeaten campaign to reach the World Cup finals in Italy. Much had been made during the qualifying matches of the form of Paul Gascoigne, the gifted new boy of the team who made a passing contribution to qualifying but cemented his place in the friendlies afterwards, and so seemingly content with Gascoigne's inclusion, attention turned elsewhere. In the end, the biggest name to miss out was that of Arsenal defender Tony Adams, captain of his club and inspirational to a man, but at the time something of a political bugbear owing to his recent imprisonment for drink-driving. Ultimately, Robson didn't take him just because he thought he had better options which, when one considers Adams' merits was quite a bold thought, and it would be another eight years before Adams would finally play in a World Cup. His England career took in 13 calendar years during which period he won a (comparatively) meagre 66 caps. England's legendary sweeper system, featuring the three centre backs Robson chose over Adams, was a key factor in the team getting to within two penalty kicks of the final. Along with Gascoigne, of course.



Two years later, the belief that Graham Taylor preferred graft over craft was epitomised by his decision not to take Chris Waddle, a rare British success at the top of the European game with Marseille, to the European Championships in Sweden. Waddle was only 30 when Taylor took over and with his move to France hit some truly sparkling form, but Taylor simply didn't fancy him - and this remained the case even after John Barnes was ruled out of the tournament with injury. Taylor instead used Andy Sinton - skill but no pace - and Tony Daley - pace but little skill - as his wide men and got conclusively found out. This was one of those occasions when expectations were lowered via the way England played, not the players who did that playing. England scored once in three group games and went home very early.



In 1996, with a new broom under Terry Venables and status as host nation meaning there was no qualifying campaign to act as a form guide, it was difficult to say which inclusions or exclusions would count as a shock when he announced his squad. He liked enthusiastic youthfulness, however, and the likes of Phil Neville, Nick Barmby and Sol Campbell all made the squad when ageing players still with ability such as Mark Wright and Peter Beardsley missed out. Perhaps the biggest shock, if there really was one, was the exclusion at the very last moment of Robert Lee, the in-form English midfielder of that mid-1990s period who had been of frequent usefulness through the course of the previous year or so as the team progressed from friendly to friendly. As it turned out, Venables didn't do a lot wrong and just those wretched penalties got in the way of a triumph that became more than just a dream.



Two years on, with a third head coach in three tournaments, and an omission that rocked football and the back pages for many a week between the announcement and the World Cup finals themselves. Glenn Hoddle, never left out of a finals squad for which he was available but regularly not utilised properly, was now in charge while barely 40 years old, and although his star performer had been excellent in the qualifying campaign that had got England to the finals in France, the antics off the pitch of Gascoigne meant that, in a move nobody saw coming, he was one of the quintet that was trimmed from the final squad. The setting and aftermath of Gascoigne's exclusion is well known - Kenny G on the stereo, a tearful tantrum, broken lampshades - but although much debate ensued from the football press, they heavy-heartedly realised Hoddle was right. England went out with ten men in the second round, thanks again to penalties, and even though the exit was earlier than expected, there is no doubt that Gascoigne's looniness would have been of no use whatsoever.



Two years later and another coach was in charge, with Kevin Keegan now selecting the squad, the populist choice that to this day haunts the FA to the extent that picking Harry Redknapp last month would have looked like they hadn't learned a thing. Keegan had a relatively settled squad even though he had no real tactical plan for them, but his apparent refusal to believe that decent left-sided players existed, beyond the injured ones that he actually wanted - Pearce, Jason Wilcox, Graeme Le Saux - was a major ingredient in his downfall. England played its three group games at the European Championships in Belgium with Dennis Wise and Phil Neville on the southpaw flank, both right footed and contributing little more than anonymity and one infamous tackle respectively that went some way to guaranteeing a typically early exit. Ashley Cole and Steve Guppy, not to mention a teenager called Gareth Barry, first choice left back at Aston Villa, would have all been much more sensible choices; their comparative inexperience alleviated by their actual ability to balance a defence or midfield by being natural on the left. More galling was that Barry was actually in the squad and could have played in either position, but Keegan simply overlooked him.



Keegan soon did one, in typical Keegan manner, not long after the tournament ended, and Sven Goran Eriksson arrived. For all his controversies over leadership, tactics, nationality and - ludicrously - what he did with his private life, his actual selections for the first two of the three tournaments to which he led England were pretty much without parallel in their lack of controversy. He picked exactly the squad available to him for the 2002 World Cup in the Far East, choosing obvious deputies when Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard were ruled out with injury, then chose precisely the right man in John Terry to deputise for the suspended Rio Ferdinand in Portugal for the European Championships two years later. Then, the Swede had his squad pretty much nailed for everyone to guess prior to the 2006 World Cup in Germany - but with one extraordinary exception. The 23rd player, as announced at the lavish FA do by a John Motson voiceover, was one 16 year old attacking wide player called Theo Walcott. He had only just begun playing first-team football, had no senior caps and yet had managed to get into Eriksson's squad for reasons that absolutely nobody to this day can still understand. Jermain Defoe, hardly proven at international level but certainly older and with some semblance of a scoring record at the top level in the club game, stayed at home. Walcott travelled with the squad and came nowhere near to actually being involved as England, like in 2002 and 2004, exited in the last eight.



Fabio Capello's arrival two years later prompted a new wave of discipline and boot-camp mentality to the England set-up, so it appeared. Proven as a club coach around Europe, he never really got to grips with the requirements and limitations of coaching within the international game, not to mention the English language, but nevertheless there were no real surprises when he announced his squad of 23 that travelled to South Africa in 2010, especially once David Beckham's Achilles injury had taken one major decision out of his hands. The fact that England were truly awful didn't reflect at all on Capello's selection, though the players ultimately shouldered more blame than that taken on by any other preceding squad of underachievement.

So, Hodgson has decisions to make that, given the hard time his appointment has afforded him from the press, could make or break his spell as head coach before any player has even kicked a ball in his name. His goalkeepers and midfielders should be a cut and dried choice, but he has massive decisions to make regarding his centre forwards, especially as Wayne Rooney is banned for the first two games, and also his defenders, thanks to the extra-curricular tensions involving Terry and the Ferdinand family, with many suggesting he should just ditch both factions and start afresh. Whatever he does, or doesn't do, will be criticised because of the current relationship between the press and the FA, and Hodgson is stuck in the middle. But ultimately, the wisdom after the event regarding those who go and fail, coupled with those who don't go and therefore could have made a difference, will as ever provide the post-mortem to a tournament that Hodgson, and the rest of us, know we probably can't win.