My Twittersphere already know about The Big Red Button, and the time has come to share it with you. I use it to start and stop my scanner in an instant. It’s much quicker and easier than clicking a mouse, and infinitely more satisfying.
You can use it to help give money to Comic Relief. Go on, give it a click. You know you want to. Be like Stimpy. Give in to the urge.
The producers and cast of most recent TV SF shows are at pains to point out that their programme isn’t actually science fiction at all. They tie themselves in semantic knots to make sure we don’t think that their show is anything to do with that woo-woo spacy stuff. This is as true as ever when we look at the press for the BBC’s new drama, Outcasts.
Set designer James North has said “This is futuristic drama with the focus on pioneering humans who, out of necessity, just happen to be living on a planet that isn’t Earth.” Showrunner Ben Richards elaborates, making it clear that the new world of Carpathia is “… an alien planet without scary monsters. Little green men and fearsome creatures isn’t what Outcasts is about at all.”
Which to my mind is a bit of a shame. A first contact show might be more interesting than the programme we’ve ended up with, a frontier drama with a simple message. We can’t ever make a fresh start, because wherever we go, we have to take ourselves along. It’s not a new theme for an SF show. Look at Battlestar Galactica. It’s clear Ben and James have.
When a producer, writer or actor disassociates themselves from SF, they’re really backing away from the furniture. Look out for phrases like “flying saucers,” “space aliens” “ray guns,” or indeed Ben’s own “little green men.” And of course, the dreaded “sci-fi”. But at the same time they’re happy to use the tropes and themes that have been part of the genre since Wells and Verne started marking out the territory.
I guess it’s the G-word that’s the problem. Somehow the idea that SF is either kid’s stuff or entertainment for the socially inept is still a belief that informs the way films and books are marketed and sold. For “genre” read “ghetto”, and if you can make a semantic little wiggle that ensures you don’t get stacked up in the racks at the back where all the pimply, friendless people go, then so be it. This is especially important for the literary types. It’s taken the best part of thirty years for Margaret Atwood to “out” herself as an SF writer. Jeanette Winterston still has problems with the terms, although her novel The Stone Gods is set on another planet in the future.
It seems crazy to me. You wouldn’t set a story in Arizona in the 1860’s, populate it with cowboys, chases on horsebacks and a climactic shootout and say “oh, but it’s not a Western.* It’s a ridiculous stance, and hopefully one that’s on the way out. Michael Chabon’s alternative history The Yiddish Policeman’s Union won a Pulitzer Prize, and Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic vampire story The Passage is a genuine hit on all levels. There’s a misunderstanding about the people that enjoy SF, fantasy and horror that seems at least 30 years out of date. It makes the attempts of creators like Ben Richards all the more silly. Why would you cut yourself off from an big potential audience that can prove itself to be loyal and supportive to the right show?
The thing is, at a deep core level, Ben and James are right. Strip away the silver foil and spandex, and SF transcends it’s often low-budget set dressing. (Not an accusation I can level at Outcasts, by the way. It looks great.) SF acts as a mirror on the times in which it was created. It becomes a pretty relevant document of the hopes and fears of the generation that made and consumed it.
In the 50’s, it was all about the fear of infiltration by a foreign power and nuclear destruction. I Married A Stalin From Outer Space. Invasion Of The Atomic Leech-Women.
In the 60’s, SF began to explore the inner spaces of the mind, and the implications of massive shifts in societal influence. The first inter-racial kiss on TV was on Emergency Ward 10 in 1964, but it’s the second one that everyone remembers – on the Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.”
In the 70s, things went dark and creepy as the promise of the Age Of Aquarius melted away, and we were left with three day weeks, Vesta curries and The Generation Game. Sapphire And Steel was un-nerving and bleak. TV’s eternal optimist Gerry Anderson went live action, and in UFO and Space: 1999 crafted shows that were in equal measure silly and almost unbearably harsh. The latter show starts with the moon being blasted out of orbit, effectively ending all life on Earth and dooming the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha to a nomadic life. Even Doctor Who went steampunk and gothy, and featured sequences that are still carved in my psyche today.
SF’s role as social and political commentary is often overlooked, which is a pity but in some ways a major strength. The deep stuff is in disguise, the way a concerned mum will sneak veggies into a pasta sauce for her fussy kid, giving the viewer something to chew on after the end credits have rolled. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Ben Richards can claim all he wants that his show isn’t SF. When the first shot has a spaceship gathering speed towards a strange new world, we all know what we’re looking at. What he’s trying to make clear is that there’s meat on the bones, that his show has substance and depth. Personally, I think audiences nowadays are sophisticated enough to make up their own minds about whether a show is worth watching or not without caring about the genre.
I’ll leave the last word to Jeanette Winterson, who I unfairly sneered at earlier. She nails the argument on her website, thusly:
People say to me, ‘so is the Stone Gods science fiction?’ Well, it is fiction, and it has science in it, and it is set (mostly) in the future, but the labels are meaningless. I can’t see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.
(The quotes from James North and Ben Richards come via a Daily Mail piece on January 29th – an article I picked up via Ansible, I hasten to add.)
Cookery shows are entertainment gussied up as having some educational value – which for the most part they do not have. Important steps in the preparation of a delicious meal are either skipped, glossed over or mangled. I speak from bitter experience. There’ve been too many times when I’ve served TLC something barely edible that I’ve taken from a cooking sketch. The expensive hardbacked books that these shows are designed to hawk have the same problem. As Nigel Slater says, recipes don’t take your kitchen into account. Your oven might be calibrated differently. You might not have been able to get hold of all of the ingredients. The more precise the recipe, the greater the chance that it’s going to go wrong somewhere down the line. If you’re trying something from Heston Blumenthal, you’re SOL unless you’ve got a laboratory and a tame hunchback to hand.
A real annoyance is the moment when, when in the interests of entertainment, a cook will take a stone classic and needlessly muck about with it. TLC doesn’t cook much, but her specialties have a purity and forthrightness of purpose that shines through. When a TV chef starts throwing bacon, double cream and breadcrumbs into a mac and cheese, her disdain is palpable. She’s right, of course. There’s no need for it. Better to teach the viewers how to make food properly. Here’s TLC’s tip for perfect mac: “When in doubt – MORE CHEESE.”
Frankly, a philosophy to live by.
You can get valuable tips and tricks out of cookery shows, though, if you’re prepared to watch out for the telling details. The way a TV cook handles a knife, for example. Compare the cack-handed way Nigella chops an onion to the way Gordon Ramsay renders it down to fine dice in instants. Watch the pro chefs at work, and you get some inkling of the short cuts they use to make their lives simpler.
I always get something useful out of Jamie Oliver. He grew up in a professional kitchen, cooking for punters. And it really shows. He’s a natural around a rolling pin. I’m embarrased to say that it was Jamie that showed me the right way to crush a clove of garlic (twat it with the flat of a big knife, while still in it’s skin. Peeled and chopped in one easy move, without the un-necessary investment in presses, rollers or those funny neoprene sleeves. Yes, ok, you have to pick the garlic out of the skin and maybe chop it about a little more. If you have a problem with touching garlic, then maybe you shouldn’t be using it.) Watching him and others like him at work has moulded the way I operate in a kitchen environment, taught me the importance of sharp knives, solid implements and a worktop that can take a beating.
Every so often the shows will come up with a recipe that you just know is going to hit big. in that case, it’s going to be everywhere. Both Nigel Slater and new girl on the block Lorraine Pascale (the perpetrator of the criminal mac and cheese) have featured a no-knead quick soda bread made without yeast. It’s the reappearance of a great idea (it’s in Mrs Beeton, donchaknow), and means you have a warm loaf on the table 40 minutes after putting flour in a bowl. I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism. In the culinary world, as in fashion, ideas are there to be taken and tweaked. But this one is going to run. Betcha the Hairy Bikers grab it next.
In fact, sod it, here’s my take on it.
Rob’s Sody Bread
Half and half measures of strong wholemeal and plain flour to make up 500g or 18oz go in a bowl.
Throw in a teaspoon of sea salt, another of sugar, the browner the better, and one more of bicarb of soda, and mix the dry ingredients together.
Throw in 350ml or 12 fl oz buttermilk, and scoosh it into a soft dough. Don’t got buttermilk? Add a tablespoon of lemon juice to ordinary milk before it goes in, and leave for five minutes. Now you got buttermilk.
Tip the dough onto a floured surface, and shape it into a ball. It’ll be sticky. Flour your hands too.
Score the top in a cross with a knife. Go deep. Imagine your enemies while you’re doing it.
Place your slashed dough on a baking tray, then into a hot oven 200C/400F/Gas6 on the top shelf. Give it half an hour.
When it’s nice and brown and risen and filling the kitchen with that bread smell, you know the one, the one they use in supermarkets only this is real, this is YOU making that smell you delicious creature, take the bread out and let it cool slightly, before rending it asunder and using it to scoop up the juices of the casserole I didn’t tell you how to make. It’ll last a day or so, so you have my permission to be greedy and wolf the lot in one go. You’re worth it.
Cookery shows have very little to do with the fine art of gastronomy. They’re aspirational, set in the kitchens that we want, in the houses we dream about. If you try making a dish out of the recipes shown on these shows, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come a cropper. Either that, or the washing up afterwards will be of biblical proportions.
I reckon there are three different kinds of cookery shows. First, there’s the celebrity chef show, which is as close as you get to a standard cooking sketch these days. They take all their cues from the master of the form, dear old Keith Floyd. Four or five dishes will be prepped in a modicum of detail. If there is shopping to be done beforehand, the chef will go to a picturesque deli in an upmarket street, and definitely not Asda.
There will be very little chopping. Some of the ingredients will be in bowls, in tiny dice. Everything will be impeccable. There will be no limp mushrooms or half open packs of bacon here. The kitchen will be spotless, and the size of an aircraft hanger. The chef will waft through it all, airily informing you what a simple mid-week supper a samphire and duck liver souffle can make. Oh, and the word supper gets used a lot. The only supper I’ve ever been interested in is the one that comes out of a chippy.
Then we have the travelogue, where the chef goes on holiday and cooks a few meals along the way. Wacky transport will be involved here – giant RVs, motorbikes, barges, specially adapted VW campers. Inevitably, the cooking sketches are either on a beach, a harbour or in a town square. The food will be cooked on a tinpot gas range, and there will be tame locals on hand to taste whatever comes off that grill and mildly insult it. There will be lots of shots of very pretty scenery. it will be very nice, but faintly dull.
At the bottom of the barrel there are the reality shows. These attempt to redefine cookery as combat, pitting one chef against another in an orgy of ego, tantrum and spilt dairy. There will be lots of fast cutting and sweaty closeups. The host will frown a lot.
The music will be better suited to an action movie, and there will be a pause before the winner of the show is announced that lasts for the length of the last ice age. They have as much to do with cookery as The Weakest Link, and are about as entertaining. Except Iron Chef. That’s so lunatic that it’s crossed over into genius.
Delia is the exception to the rule, but she’s more of a national institution than a cook these days.
Come back tomorrow, when I’ll discuss whether it is actually possible to get decent cooking tips from a TV show. Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this talk of grub has made me a bit peckish. I’m off for a zebra carpaccio with smoked green tea foam on rye. So easy to make, you know.
While watching Channel Four’s new attempt to resurrect That Was The Week That Was, Ten O’Clock Live last night, I had a minor epiphany. Or a dose of meat sweats, but I think it was an epiphany. David Mitchell, one of those blokes that I’m certain Douglas Adams was thinking of when he coined the phrase “brain the size of a planet”, was interviewing David Willetts, Evil Bastard In Charge Of Destroying Further Education As We Know It.
Although David M slung out a few tough questions, you could see that he was struggling with the fact that he had to remain at least partly civil towards his interviewee. He also only had five minutes, which the hateful Willetts used to his advantage, throwing out great screeds of smokescreen, cant and bullpucky that served no decent purpose other than to use up time.
Politicians are trained to do this, of course. You’ll never get a straight answer out of them, and it’s a rare interviewee that’s able to cut through the fat and expose the meat. I’m thinking John Humphries and the brutal Jeremy Paxman. But they have to resort to an attack dog style, battering their opponent into submission. This leads to accusations of bias and bullying, and frankly a pitched argument is not the sort of nuanced political discussion I want to hear.
There is a better way. If the buggers want to talk, let em. My political slot would be called Explain Yourself. It would work like this. Say, for the sake of argument, I managed to talk George Osbourne onto the show. He would be asked:
“Mr Osbourne. You have asked the country to dig deep and pay extra tax. You claim that we are all in this together. And yet you quite happily use questionable methods to dodge £1.6 million in tax.”
There would be a second’s pause. And then the interviewer would simply say “Explain Yourself.”
The interviewer would not say another word. They would simply listen to Osbourne (or whatever moral void we managed to talk into appearing) as he exudes the usual fog of fibs, with a look on their face that suggests the appearance of a very bad smell in the studio. Osbourne (or another foul waste of valuable resources) would eventually tail off. The interviewer at this point is permitted one last sentence. “Is that it?” Depending on the previous response, this can be delivered in an air of intense boredom, astonished nausea or sheer unadulterated disbelief.
Then there would be silence again. And because politicians abhor a silence, especially when it can be filled with the sound of their own voices, Osbourne (or some other mouth-breather in a nice suit) would begin to talk again. From that point, all you have to do is watch as they dig themselves a bigger, wider and deeper hole. They’ll say something they don’t mean, contradict themselves and their policies. You might even get a hefty dose of racism, social prejudice or plain stupidity.
This will work, and it will work because you’re pitting a politician against their own worst enemy. Their big fat mouths.
I dunno about you, but I’d watch the hell out of something like that.
I realise that Jools Holland’s annual dose of comforting musical cheese has dropped below the radar of a lot of so-called serious music critics, but I still find it worthwhile of a little attention. TLC and I don’t do The New Year Thing, choosing instead to stay in, cook (fish pie), watch a movie (Hot Tub Time Machine, beer-spittingly hilarious) and doze out in front of that good ole boogie woogie pianna.
This year, something went wrong, and I switched off at half past twelve. The exact point? Halfway through Roger Daltrey’s painful version of Mannish Boy, backed by the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. This was the moment where I got heartily sick of every other bloody song being a bad cover version from the band with a “special guest” who more often than not turned out to be … another member of the band.
Now, they’ve been pulling this trick for years. It’s fine, especially as the quality of musicianship in the Orchestra is so good, and includes some genuine legends. But the balance was so fatally skewed towards them that you have to ask the question: where was everyone else? Bellowhead and Vampire Weekend were fine when they could get a word in edgeways. Plan B was fine. He was smart enough to stick to the singles, and delivered them with energy and verve. And that was it. Everything else just blurred into an endless, major-key exercise in ho-hum.
In times past, the Hootenanny has grabbed my attention by the star power of the guests they could bring up, or by the sense of discovery and surprise they could bring to an essentialy mainstream music show. Later… is still the best place on telly to catch the greats along with exciting new voices, and I still think the Hootenanny should reflect that. This New Year’s Eve, it didn’t. It felt, smug, outdated, and fatally caught up in a net of nostalgia. Alongside the endless tranche of old soul and R&B, the new acts were for the most part looking backwards rather than forwards. The Secret Sisters, two sweet Nashville gals, were doing nothing that the Carters hadn’t done fifty years previously. Rumer was another one of those chantooses that Joolsy seems so enamoured with, spooling out smoky Dustyisms in a creamy contralto. It just all seems so… lazy.
Look, the Hootenanny has given me a lot of pleasure over the years, introduced me to a ton of new music and been the soundtrack to innumerable New Year’s Eves. I’m disappointed, and I hope the “will this do?” exercise I was subjected to this year doesn’t happen again. It’s the first time in a long time that I haven’t watched it to the end, and I’ll be wary of doing so again. It’s a low down dirty shame.
It is perhaps the BBC’s biggest money-spinner, generating millions of pounds in revenue. You can buy books, a monthly magazine, toys and games and even cakes emblazoned with the images of the hosts. It’s enormously popular, boasting a loyal and worldwide fanbase.
It’s Top Gear, and I hate it. It’s a prime example of safe Sunday programming that just plods on and on and on doing the same old stuff week after week. It’s turned into a smug, bloated cliche. It’s not even interesting enough for satirists and comedians to have a pop at it now. It just sits there, taking up a chunk of primetime scheduling, getting in the way and stinking up the joint. It’s like Last Of The Summer Wine for petrolheads. Songs of Praise for the sort of person that buys every new Clapton compilation, regardless of how many versions of the same songs they own.
I loves me a bit of old school Doctor Who on a weekend morning, especially when Tom Baker lurches on screen and gives me that classic wide, wild-eyed grin. I watched a few stories back to back recently, cherry-picked from different points in the run, and something struck me (TLC, persuading me to do the hoovering, but that’s another story). In each, the companions served a specific and carefully maintained position. Sarah Jane, Harry, Leela, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa were on the show to ask questions and get themselves into trouble. Maybe hold up a hatch while the Doctor went at whatever was inside with the old sonic screwdriver. That was pretty much it.
Compare and contrast this with the companions in the new shiny version. Frequently the show will be about these characters. We will find out about their home life and their love life. We’ll meet their family. If you’re Martha Jones, you’ll get your own theme tune.
More importantly, they are on an equal footing with the Doctor. They will become part of the solution to the problem of the week. They can no longer be seen as bumblers or screamers. Sometimes, they will save the day after the Doctor has given up. Rose Tyler, I’m looking at you and your bonding with the Tardis here.
And then there’s the sex. The days when the Doctor would have entirely chaste relationships with the ever-changing panoply of pultrichude that swanned through the Tardis control room are long gone. He either falls for his companion, or the companion falls for him, hard. Martha’s unrequited pash for the Doctor became a defining part of her time on the show.
So let’s look at Amy Pond. A girl who grew up with an image of the man in the box that gradually twisted and mutated, developing a crush which turned into – something else. I have no idea exactly what it is Amy feels for the Doctor, but it sure as hell ain’t healthy. In the new series, Bow-Tie Doctor (I’m sorry, but the easiest way to refer to them is by costume. Long Scarf Doctor. Dandy Doctor. Cricketing Doctor. Which makes Christopher Eccleston Leather Doctor, and there’s an image that’ll be with me for days) has to struggle with a companion that has developed some very strange ideas about the nature of love. Dropping everything to run away the day before your wedding with a figure you built childhood shrines to is not normal behaviour.
The love triangle that’s emerged as Amy’s fiancee Rory has joined the crew brings Doctor Who closer to soap opera than it’s ever been. The most recent episode, Amy’s Choice, in which she’s forced to choose between which of “her boys” survives is genuinely new territory for telly Who, and it’s telling that no punches are pulled in the acting or writing. The villainous Dream Lord is played by Toby Jones, one of the finest actors of our generation. It’s written by Simon Nye, a new name to Who but an enormously respected name in the industry, and a man who can track the path of the dysfunctional heart with more sytle and aplomb than most. This is hardly the Doctor Who of memory and archive.
You can track this change in direction to Doctor Who’s most interesting period – that 15 year chunk when there was no televised Who at all. The franchise lived on in audio dramas and books, and explored new and strange directions, unencumbered by budgetary constraints or duff special effects. The lives of the supporting cast could be explored at whim. The main players in TV Who nowadays, Russell T, current show-runner Steven Moffat and writers like Paul Cornell all come out of this explosion in creativity, and their influence is clear. It was a time of tacitly endorsed fanfic, with all the strangeness and charm that comes out of that arena. These were new stories told by writers that had no agenda other than a love of the show, and a wish to see it done right. And of course, the sexual tension that’s now a part of the show is a big feature of the fanfic scene.
While I’m on the subject of sex and Who, I found the whole furore about Amy Pond being a “sexed-up companion” to be Daily Fail over-reaction. Not only was Moffat veeery careful with the definition of Amy’s day job – kissagram, not strippergram – but there was an almost deliberate blindness to the fact that feamle companions have always been eye candy in the show. Consider Louise Jameson in her torn chamois leather.Peri Brown in her bikini. Wendy Padbury in the skin-tight sparkly catsuit. THAT picture of Katy Manning. Something for the dads, although that ignores the fact that boys of a certain age would also discover that funny feeling in their tummy while watching supposedly innoculous Saturday afternoon telly. I know I did.
The companions are key to the success of the new Doctor, not just because they are avatars for the watching audience. Their role has changed, and they are now interesting and involving characters with their own motivations and needs. You would never see Sarah Jane Smith throwing herself at the Doctor the way that Amy does, largely because she was never written to be anything more than the standard bit of fluff. I never really thought the episode where she and Rose bumped up against each other rang true, because I never really saw her having those kind of feelings for the Doctor. Or indeed any real feelings whatsoever. The focus of the show was simply not on her. She screamed, asked questions, and got loomed at by a tall bloke in spray-painted bubblewrap. That was it. Curiously, it’s only in her starring role in kid’s show The Sarah Jane Adventures that she comes across as a grown-up with feelings and responsibilities. Once again, the show-runners of Who always understood that you could sneak adult stuff into kids shows as long as you were ever so slightly subtle. Look at Moffat’s Press Gang – to my mind still one of the best TV shows out there. No-one could ever accuse that show of lazy writing or characterisation.
Doctor Who has expanded it’s remit. It’s a central part of the BBC schedules, which is exceedingly sweet to fans like me who could always see the charm in the wonky sets and air of slight silliness, and could enjoy the stories and writing. The fact that Who is now so very writer-driven, despite the Mill’s endearingly cheap special effects, is the reason it’s doing so well. It’s never been a cold show, and wears it’s faith in humanity boldly and without irony. By turning the focus a little away from the ancient alien in the blue box, and towards the boys and girls who share his life however briefly, that faith and warmth have only become more obvious.
But you do have to wonder about what’s going on with The Doctor and Captain Jack…
I was saddened. but not really that surprised, to hear that Oliver Postgate has died. Along with his partner, Peter Fermin, he was the creator of some of the finest children’s programmes ever created. Bagpuss, The Clangers, Noggin The Nog and Ivor the Engine were gentle, hand-crafted and beautifully atmospheric. His work is the antethesis of the loud, bright kid’s shows of today (although I still detect some of his surreal influence in some of the shows for tinies like In The Night Garden). His voice was always incredibly evocative, a big warm sonic hug. The animation was never the smoothest, but the charm of the storytelling pulled you past all that and into his world, a safe, nurturing place.
I was lucky enough to meet them both when I remastered the Smallfilms Archive for video release in the mid-90s, work of which I am still enormously proud. Oliver in particular was a little frail, but the perfect gentleman. And as I was screening the work I’d done on an episode of Bagpuss, he started doing the voices. I got chills, I tell you. Professor Yaffle, sitting right next to me.
As he gives a big yawn and settles down to sleep, I’ll leave you with a little clip that sums up everything I’ve always loved about Smallfilm.
A converstaion with a workmate led to the conclusion that not everyone feels the way that I do about Smallfilm. She hates Postgate’s stuff, specifically his voice, which she said “creeps me the fuck out.”
You’ve got to admire the sheer gall, if you’ll excuse the pun. After Bruce Parry’s Amazon was accoladed to the skies last week, it seemed like the smiley ex-Marine could do no wrong. He’d come up with a perfect bit of telly, thrilling, moving and thoughtful.
So how does he follow up last weeks masterful episode? By spending most of it throwing up, noisily and on camera. I had to turn the show off after half an hour, especially as I was becoming uncomfortably reminded of the bout of food poisoning I’d suffered over the weekend.
Shame, really. I was quite looking forward to seeing Bruce in a dress, which had been promised in the trails. Actually, thinking about it, that might have brought on my own Achuar purging ritual.
You do have to wonder about a tribe that thinks it’s natural and healthy to throw up copiously every single morning. It seems like officially santioned bulimia to me. It was certainly clear that the regime wasn’t doing Bruce any favours. I’m really in no place to comment on the rights and wrongs of other cultures, but I don’t think that’s something I’ll be trying any time soon. It’d ruin the taste of my morning coffee, for one thing.
I wonder how long it’ll take an Internet scamp to edit out everything but the puking and put the unexpurgated highlights up on YouTube? End of the day?