29 July 2010


I like Outnumbered, but I'm not crazy about it. I've always found that type of agony-through-embarrassment comedy hard to watch. I have never heard the NB, however, laugh as much at anything as she does when Outnumbered is on. So it evidently has something.

There are exceptions, of course. The episode where the two younger kids act as umpires for a tennis match involving their dad was terrific, but I've worked out that it was probably because the kids were on their dad's side this time, rather than winding him up. Perhaps I'm too soft and idealistic as far as what comedy should be. My fault entirely.

The lad who plays the obstinate, lippy boy with the Bolan wig is now going to play the lead role in the latest television adaptation of the Just William books. It'll be a more dramatic role for him, of course, and he'll have to stick rigidly to the script rather than be given licence to toss about. Good on him.

It's a risk to feature young children as main characters in sitcom and, indeed, a rarity too. Outnumbered is helped by the lack of a studio audience and the tailoring of the script to allow the kids to improvise. This brings the best out of the adults, though despite this successful series Hugh Dennis will, to me, always be the bloke who did the "dad dance" on The Mary Whitehouse Experience.

You could argue about Please Sir! of course, but those alleged kids were all in their 20s or even 30s and pretending to be 14. My Family, which I thought was quite funny when Kris Marshall was in it, had just one school age child in it when it started and two who were experienced performers.

For a young kid in a regular sitcom role, I usually think of Nicholas Bond-Owen. He was initially Nicholas Owen when, as a seven year old with a massive blonde fringe and NHS spectacles, he was cast as Tristram Fourmile in George and Mildred. His double-barrel came along after the first series (did an aspiring newsreader complain or did his mother remarry?).

He was in every episode but peripheral, with rarely a major part to play in the twist of a plot which seldom left the safe-as-houses caper of Mildred-wants-to-better-herself and George-cocks-it-up-by-accident. He had an invisible dog ("he didn't really stroke him because he's over there"), destroyed George at poker ("I've got a running flush of shovels"), gave his own dad a black eye ("caught him with his guard down!") and, well, other things.

The only reason the Fourmiles seemed to be given a child was so Mildred could be hired for babysitting duties, allowing further snobbish tension to occur between the arrogant Jeffrey Fourmile and the oblivious George. And those NHS specs didn't tally with Jeffrey's principles; a man like him - Conservative club, golf, amateur dramatics, aversion to caravans - would have sent Tristram for eye testing privately and acquired a far snazzier pair of bins.

George and Mildred came to an abrupt end in 1980 with the early death of the great Yootha Joyce. Bond-Owen did a few other kiddish roles and starred as Charley Bates ("Dodger's my pal!") in a 1980s BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist but since adolescence, has not, to my knowledge, been seen. I assume that, like three quarters of child actors from that era, he decided that trying to make it in the business as an adult simply wasn't worth the hassle and did something else. And maybe once he was old enough to make his own mind up, he knew his heart wasn't in it. After all, I doubt a seven year old makes an active choice to become a child actor. It's usually because a parent has ambitions for them that way or a member of a television or film crew brings them along for casting.

I've always wanted to interview him. I once made a mild attempt to locate him but had no joy as I was told he'd long lost touch with the industry. Maybe he'll read this...

27 July 2010

"Did I ever touch you on the cheek, say that you were mine..."

This One by Paul McCartney. It was his last Top 40 hit of the 1980s, a decade when the fashion to scorn the most successful man in popular music had reached new heights.

I was 16 and, if McCartney was meant to mean anything to me, it should have involved discovering Beatles albums for the first time, rather than enjoying what became little more than a passable solo single within a career of passable solo singles. All I really knew about the music of the Beatles was contained on the cassette edition of their singles collection that had been in the family tapeholder for some time. I knew how big they were, though. I watched the documentaries and my parents, plus my maternal aunt, told the stories.

The first time I ever became aware of Paul McCartney was when Mull of Kintyre was number one. I was only four years old but I distinctly remember my mum sitting my brother on her knee (he's now 40) and teaching him the words. Looking back, I often wonder how she knew those words. The lyrics weren't printed in any publications back then and she didn't buy the record. My brother became a Motörhead and AC/DC fan at the age of ten and his McCartney moment remained just that.

Pipes of Peace was the first single of his I bought, having acquired it with Christmas money in 1983 and thereby aiding it to number one in the process. A significant number one in his ridiculously varied career, when one looks at the statistics. And not just because it finally rid us of the Flying Pickets garotting our festive season.

And through the 1980s we went until this period of his life, when Flowers In The Dirt was released and My Brave Face, written with Elvis Costello, followed by This One, were issued.

This One is a gentle, melodic, catchy record. It's very McCartney in that sense. And this kind of enjoyably trim pop had become both his signature and a major millstone as far as his 1980s output was concerned. There has been a lifelong frustration with McCartney that he has somehow chosen to appeal to the masses rather than innovate since the day his association with John Lennon ended. The pop fraternity didn't really want to know him because he wasn't doing something new and edgy and different with every song he wrote and album he released. Yet in his post-Beatles career, he wrote My Love, Band On The Run, Jet and No More Lonely Nights. These, to me, rank alongside some of his work prior to 1970. The problem was that Lennon, the more wayward and interesting as a personality, was producing Jealous Guy and Number 9 Dream during the same period (don't mention Imagine as I absolutely hate it) and so everything had to be a comparison and a competition.

Anyway, what's not to like about This One? The video is all very coloured and psychedelic, which is how people choose to remember McCartney, and features Linda - whom, lest we forget, was slaughtered beyond all comparison by the press throughout her marriage for the heinous crime of making this man happy - singing her backing vocals while keeping her eyes shut. The hand-jiving choreography is all a bit of a lark - I expect it took a while to come up with something to show a god riding on a swan's back - and we get McCartney with painted eyes and, for some reason, a lingering close up of one of his musicians at the end who looks like Roger Moore.

Lyrically, I do wonder whether this is about Lennon in some way. After all, even a prolific songsmith like McCartney must have found it difficult to write about failing relationships given that his marriage to Linda was solidity defined throughout his solo career until her death. So maybe the regrets expressed in this song were aimed at a partner of another kind. I particularly refer to the middle eight lyric: "What opportunities did we allow to flow by, feeling like the timing wasn't quite right; what kind of magic might have worked if we had stayed calm, couldn't I have given you a better life?". Then add to that the cross-legged imagery, complete with round scarlet glasses and you have to admit it's possible.

This One reached No.18 in the summer of 1989, the same position as its predecessor My Brave Face, a song that really was about a failed relationship but had Costello's influence all over it.

If you really do want to find a terrible McCartney solo composition, then the fairly recent Dance Tonight will do just fine, bland and shallow to the end. We should leave his 1980s body of work alone.

26 July 2010

The Hurricane

The reason Alex Higgins was so adored by snooker fans was because he played snooker like they did. He was in his local smoke-filled snooker club even when winning the world championship at the Crucible Theatre.

His technique, his stance, his tactics, his demeanour - all defied conventional advice that snooker players are told to adopt if wanting to make a career from the game. A game that was staid and silent was turned upside down by this remarkable figure, as wayward and idiosyncratic as any sportsman but, as is often the case with such individuals, a genius with it. A one-off.

I loved snooker as a kid. All kids did. And the reason I loved it was because of Alex Higgins. He paraded round the table at high speed, found and took on shots that only a teenager playing on a 6ft table in his parents' kitchen would try, and invariably succeeded with them. He was an anti-hero as much as a hero, and for all the scandals and indiscretions which afflicted his personal and professional life, the public essentially forgave him and loved him forever. That's how much of an impact he had on his sport; a sport that was then able to impact on society.

Even when all players smoked like chimneys and necked beer and spirits during matches, Higgins was out on his own. He'd have a jug of 'something' and Coke on his table for the duration of a match and would already be livened up by a few jars in the players bar prior to walking into the arena. He'd shake his opponent's hand, break the pack of reds and then sit down, undo/remove his tie and light a fag.

He didn't cut a healthy image. He once came from many frames down to win the UK Championship final against Steve Davis, just a fortnight after emerging from a coma brought on by drinking without eating. As he told the News of the World at the time: "I was living on lager, tea and fags." But snooker as a whole didn't do health. The game relied heavily on liquor and tobacco sponsorship. Higgins was only singled out because of what the drink turned him into. A great player - and an awful man.

Most people would prefer to remember the great player. I'm among them. Maybe this makes me morally bankrupt, I don't know. He did threaten to have rivals shot and inflict violence on officials and misery on loved ones. He paid a fortune in fines and saw two marriages end. But when his head was right, he was the man who pretty much single-handedly made his sport into a national phenomenon. People who didn't care for snooker would tune in when they knew he was on. There was a car crash fetishism about watching Higgins as he dashed around the table in a leggy manner that suggested that he would keel over and pass out if he stopped moving just for a second. But then he'd get down on the table and, well, the balls would just fly in.

He wasn't a traditional player at all; indeed, watching some of today's speed merchants put balls to bed without fear or thought suggests that Higgins created many of snooker's traditions of the modern day. His tactic seemed to comprise of potting the balls as quickly as possible in order to win the match as quickly as possible. It really didn't need to be more complicated than that. As snooker became richer and the players slowed down to accommodate that surge in financial importance, Higgins stood out. He was the only player who could come to a table needing four snookers, in a frame he could afford to lose, and promptly get them before clearing up and winning. He had nerves of steel, as his notorious break of 69 to take his 1982 World Championship semi-final to a decider proves. How very telling that it wasn't a 147 or even a century break that players and fans thought of when reminiscing on Higgins over the weekend, but a comparatively small 69. If you haven't seen this break, then you must. I've added it below. It is snooker that showed bravery, brains and remarkable fortitude that few players, of Higgins' generation or any other, could have concocted and pulled off.

When he went on to win the final, I was approaching nine years old and boys of my age were fast asleep at pushing midnight on a Sunday. But as Higgins began to clear the table for the final time and head towards victory, my mum called me downstairs, along with my brother, and we sat in our pyjamas, transfixed and thrilled. It showed a rare glimpse of humanity and vulnerability within Higgins too, as he burst into tears upon winning and eschewed the trophy and substantial cheque because he was desperate to hug his wife and baby daughter. It remains an iconic sporting image.

The way Higgins' body had subsided over the years, culminating in the multiple organ failure that killed him over the weekend, showed off a man who looked almost freakish, as if he was designed by an animator seeking a cartoonish villain rather than the cruelties of nature. And yes, he is as much an advert for the perils of tobacco - 13 years of throat cancer - that his Belfast compatriot George Best was for the consequences of alcoholism. But for as long as his name is remembered, the way he declined and the manner of his final demise will be a side issue when the topic of Alex Higgins comes up. His sport, and the way he thrilled and enraptured all who saw him partake in it, will be the legacy that lingers.

Here's that break. He's 59 points down to an opponent who only needs this frame to reach the final. It's just extraordinary what follows...