Obviously, if I’d known at Christmas what I know now, my “things to be happy about” series of advent posts would have included things like “the pubs are open” and “supermarkets sell toilet roll” and they would have been much easier to write. But we’re not called Glad All Over for nothing (yes OK, it’s because of Crystal Palace, but if the official CPFC song was, I don’t know, Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter then I wouldn’t have named my blog after it) and so in these exceptionally trying times I am going to do my best to start bringing you doses of good news, fun links and just cheering things, however small.
And also, things to do when you can’t leave the house! A couple of weeks before This All Started I found myself randomly watching an old episode of Death In Paradise and then somehow helplessly watching episode after episode, completely entranced. Death In Paradise has been going for almost ten years, a fact I only know because the original writer, Robert Thorogood, was the brother of my then-boss who told me his brother had only set it in the Caribbean so that he could go to the Caribbean. This seems entirely sensible to me and it obviously worked, because the next best thing to going to the Caribbean is looking at the Caribbean from afar, and since looking at things we like from a long way away is the new normal I think you should follow my example and watch it all on iPlayer. (But don’t follow my example of starting with S4, because I don’t know why I did it and now I don’t know what series to watch next. Just watch them from the beginning like a normal person.)
I should warn you that it is racially problematic (the comedy characters are all black; murder victims and murderers all white) and every episode follows exactly the same formula (though this in itself is also sort of comforting, especially when you find yourself saying the lines along with the characters), but it is so sun-filled and light-hearted that I can just about forgive it its many flaws, because watching an episode and seeing all of that outside is very much a tonic for being stuck on the sofa in a cold and grey Greenwich.
(Although the best thing that’s happened so far this week was going to the park yesterday and staying socially distant from my sister, but being allowed to say hello to the dog. Outside is outside, after all, and there is, as you know, literally nothing better than a dog.)
Can you do me a favour? It’s for a thing. Below are two clips of middle-aged men dancing. One is less than two minutes long, the other is less than three minutes long, so in total I promise I don’t need more than six minutes of your time, unless you feel compelled to write a comment, in which case I will read it carefully and almost certainly reply. In the meantime, could you vote for whichever clip you like better? There is also a “neither” option in case you have an objection to middle-aged men dancing, for which I couldn’t blame you at all.
Do you remember that old joke about the child (in some versions he is German, but I don’t think that’s essential) who doesn’t speak until the age of nine, when one evening at dinner he says “not enough salt” and his amazed parents say “you can speak! Why have you never spoken before?” and he says “Until now everything was satisfactory”?
Well, that’s where I’m at, more or less. Glad All Over has always been a blog about nothing, largely powered by my occasional need to rant about Things That Pissed Me Off. And nothing much has pissed me off recently, or at least nothing that merited more words than could easily fit into 140 characters. But a recent lifestyle adjustment has turned me into someone who watches TV, and it turns out there’s loads on TV that pisses me off. Yay!
Proudly topping the list is The Apprentice, which I have managed to avoid for the last decade, whilst still knowing quite a lot about it. I don’t know why I find its innate cynicism more offensive than that displayed by, say, The X Factor, except that X Factor has as a redeeming quality its contestants, who are by and large sweet and charming and easy to root for. (My favourites so far, in case you need to know, are Fleur and Andrea.) The Apprentice features famously awful people so there is nothing to distract me from the fact that it’s a horrible, lying, ugly programme. It teaches us that the way to get ahead in business is to be a bully; to relentlessly push one’s own agenda and to ignore or trample on anyone who gets in the way. That may well work for some people in some contexts, but it makes the world a nastier place, and having had more jobs than most I can assure you that being polite, respectful and knowledgeable works too, and doesn’t result in half the workforce being signed off with stress.
So it’s an unpleasant show, but it also treats us, the audience, like idiots. I am actively embarrassed every time Lord Sugar is presented like God, as though he isn’t as beholden to the production schedule and technical requirements of making the show as anyone else involved. I don’t mind being lied to in the name of entertainment so long as an attempt is made to make it entertaining, but this isn’t. It’s just silly. And practically speaking, the tasks are ridiculous. In last night’s show candidates were asked to come up with an item of wearable technology and pitch it to buyers from John Lewis, J.D. Sports and Firebox. I mean, honestly, can you think of a single item, wearable or otherwise, that those three retailers would all stock? So the premise was ridiculous and the criteria for success a nonsense. The week before, the winning team (and why split them, in this day and age, into a men’s team and a women’s team, FFS?) made something like £50 more than the losers, who were subjected to a torrent of contempt bordering on abuse as a result. £50. It’s a joke of a show. And if you were to ask the founders of the most successful companies launched in the last couple of decades whether their primary motivation was to make money, I doubt a single one of them would say yes. Here’s Mark Zuckerberg in a letter to shareholders two years ago:
“Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services. And we think this is a good way to build something.”
Anyone who thinks Alan Sugar is a better role model for success in the world of business today than Zuck probably deserves to – well, to be on The Apprentice.
I mean, I don’t mind silly TV shows. At the moment I am particularly enjoying The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Come Dine With Me and Gogglebox, all of which, in different ways, shine a light into something real and human and vulnerable. Shows about people need real people in them, and nobody and nothing in The Apprentice is real.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to install the X Factor voting app.
Radio is just about the best thing in the world. It’s free, it’s made brilliantly well on the cheap by people who love it, it’s the original social medium (we were doing phone-ins, requests and community events before the web existed), you can do it while cooking or running or commuting, and – even though some stations and presenters boast listeners in their millions – it’s still the most intimate and immediate medium of all.
With the advent of on-demand listening and the explosion in ways to get hold of audio content radio has more competition than ever, but it’s still doing what it does better than anyone else does it, and it is still uniquely placed to deliver an experience that your Spotifys and Last.fms can’t get anywhere near – a personally-curated listening experience hosted by a trusted, human, person; the opportunity to be introduced to music you might never have heard about otherwise, to become an active part of a community both virtual and real, to have a friendly voice accompanying you as you drive through the night or fight insomnia. Radio is just about the best thing in the world.
So in case you are not a radio listener, or in case you are one of those radio listeners who sticks devotedly to the same station at all times, I have put together a listening guide for a day’s worth of radio featuring some of my favourite programmes, as well as some ways to get more from radio than you do today. Even if you just try one of these shows, I think you’ll be glad you did.
I have listened to just about every London-based FM station first thing in the morning over the years; starting in the eighties with Capital, then moving on to KISS, XFM, Magic and Virgin Radio (now Absolute) before eventually settling down to Radio 4’s Today programme, which I endured for several years before deciding I didn’t need to be made that angry that early in the day. So these days, to keep my blood pressure down, I start the day with Chris Evans’ Radio 2 breakfast show (6.30-9.30am), which has enough news and sport to keep me interested, but is also funny and chatty and has songs. It’s the biggest breakfast show in the country, and in this case nine million people aren’t wrong.
This is the one I’m most excited about sharing with you, because unless you are a cab driver you may never have spent much time listening to LBC, but James O’Brien (10am-1pm) is just simply the best broadcaster I have ever heard – thoughtful, interested, not afraid of silence or of awkward moments. He starts each show with a fifteen-minute monologue on the subject of the day, and listening to him talk on, seemingly unscripted, never gets old (he would, I am sure, do very well on Just A Minute). Then he goes on to host the only phone-in show I know in which people’s opinions are genuinely changed as the conversation develops. He is the very opposite of a shock jock, and he should be on twenty-four hours a day.
I know we haven’t had much music yet but bear with me, because for your grown-up Radio 4 shot of news World At One (1-1.45pm) is a far better and less hysterical bet than the Today programme.
Absolute, Virgin as was, competes with Magic as the station whose musical tastes most closely match my own, but Absolute is (it pains me to say) a little bit cooler, and Andy Bush (1pm-5pm) is a good and funny presenter. They promise no song repeats between 10am and 5pm, so you can while away the afternoon knowing you won’t be subjected to the same Taylor Swift song once an hour.
…but if Magic is more your bag, then the time to listen is 5pm to 8pm when Angie Greaves, one of the UKs only standalone woman presenters (we are mostly on the radio as sidekicks, sadly), presents a mixture of music and features through which her warm personality shimmers at all times.
We haven’t had any classical music yet, and if you’d like to add some to the mix then switch over to Radio 3 in the evenings for Live In Concert (times vary), which this week features live performances of works by Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, Britten, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak, among others.
I’m going to offer you a choice here, depending on your mood. On XFM John Kennedy’s Exposure (10am-1pm) is the station’s showcase for new music and the closest it gets to the XFM of old. Over on Planet Rock, though, the mighty Alice Cooper hosts three hours of rock classics interspersed with interviews and anecdotes. I’m not always a fan of celebrity radio presenters, but Alice is an inspired choice.
Should you be awake between 1am and breakfast time, the World Service is the place to be. The calm, unfrantic style of presentation – which I assume arises from the fact that many listeners don’t have English as a first language – is very soothing, and the station’s remit allows it to cover stories which you simply wouldn’t get anywhere else.
These are the shows which don’t fit into my prescribed day of radio listening, but which you should listen to anyway.
KISSTORY (11am-12pm) is KISS’s old-school hour. There’s nothing like hearing the dancefloor classics of your youth to liven up a dull morning.
The Archers (R4, 1pm and 7pm). You may be able to get into it: I still haven’t managed it, but I continue to try, because the people I know who love it love it SO MUCH. I have learned the names of at least four characters, so perhaps I’m getting there.
Radio 4’s comedy slot at 6.30pm is very much a mixed bag, but if you haven’t ever listened to Just A Minute or I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue then you must certainly remedy that very quickly.
Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on 5Live (times vary) is a once-a week affair, and I’m never sure when it’s on, but that’s OK because instead of listening live I download the podcast, which has extra bits, and listen to it later in the week.
And, brilliantly, now more than ever you can listen at a different time from when something is broadcast, so you never need miss anything, and you can download podcasts and listen to them offline, and you can listen online or via mobile apps so that you no longer need to be in Glasgow to listen to Clyde 1 or in Manchester to listen to Key 103, or even in the US to listen to NPR: my favourite podcast, other than Kermode and Mayo, is Click and Clack’s Car Talk, which – being a US phone-in show about cars – doesn’t on paper sound like something I should enjoy, but actually I really, really do.
You can also listen online via aggregator services like TuneIn – which is a bit of a confusing mess, but gives you access to thousands of radio stations from all over the world – and UK Radioplayer – which works beautifully and gives you access to all UK radio stations from one place, so it’s the perfect starting point for your day of radio discovery. Now, get listening.
You know those times when one coincidence follows another, and you suddenly get the groundless notion that the threads of your life are more closely and weirdly bound together than you thought? And then it turns into a really vivid dream, and you get reality and your dreamworld confused?
It started with Primo Levi (who, by the way, is the one writer who makes me want to stop writing, because he writes so beautifully that I think I might as well give up trying). I picked up Other People’s Trades, a collection of his essays, as we were leaving for Naples last month, because you’re not allowed to read your Kindle during take-off and landing, and I thought I might as well read something Italian. When we got home I broke off and started reading the Kindle again, so I’ve been progressing through the Levi in fits and starts, and on Sunday I started to read an essay called The Language of Chemistry, which reminded me that Levi was a scientist as well as a writer – specifically, a chemist (and if you haven’t read it, you must immediately go and read The Periodic Table, which I think includes his most beautiful writing of all).
Later that day, after dinner, we watched some Breaking Bad (the beloved has seen it all before, but I am new to it and loving it), in which, as you’ll know if you’ve seen it, the main character is Walter White, another chemist. The episode we watched, the last in season two, ends – I am trying to do this without spoilers, but if you really mind, look away now – with Walter looking into the sky, followed by an aerial shot of the New Mexico desert, while something spins rapidly through the air above it. We’ve been watching for a few weeks and it was sheer coincidence that we reached that episode minutes before turning the TV over to see Felix Baumgartner spin rapidly through the air above the New Mexico desert during his freefall descent to earth from 128,100 feet, which might be the most exciting thing I have ever seen happen in real time. I almost didn’t want to watch, but in the end the thrill of seeing someone do something so brave and brilliant won out over the fear of seeing someone fall to his death, which was always a possibility.
And then, when I went to bed that night, I picked up the Primo Levi again and carried on reading, and when I went to sleep my dreams were full of tortured chemists falling to their deaths in a brightly-coloured desert, and then I woke up with a start and remembered that Primo Levi did fall to his death, in circumstances which remain unclear. And I shivered, and read myself back to sleep with Stephen King, who at least is supposed to be spooky.
Last night’s dreams were even more vivid, but I don’t think I can bring myself to tell you about them. Maybe one day, after everyone implicated is dead, but not till then.
I had a bath this morning, which is very unusual on a weekday but I was cold and aching from running in the rain a couple of evenings before, and – well, frankly, I wasn’t ready to be vertical.
Having a bath meant I listened to the Today programme, which most mornings I don’t any more, and listening to the Today programme reminded me why I don’t any more. I can’t have listened for more than 15 minutes but in that time it made me feel quite separately cross about three things, and I came out of the bath less relaxed than I’d gone in, which is all wrong. So to make me feel better, I’m going to make you cross about them too.
NUMBER ONE. John Humphrys exclaiming that nobody in authority had shouldered the blame for the child sex abuse gang uncovered in Rotherham last year. Nobody, that is, apart from the PERPETRATORS WHO WENT TO JAIL. I can’t bear the journalistic tendency to assume that when vulnerable people are harmed, it’s social services’ fault, as though the social care system isn’t full of desperately overworked and underfunded people trying as hard as they possibly can to stop people from coming to harm. Do the job yourself, Humphrys, and live on a social worker’s salary for a year, then start blaming them for organised criminal activity.
NUMBER TWO. David Cameron, on Letterman last night, was asked what “Magna Carta” meant, and apparently didn’t know the answer. Now, I didn’t know the answer either, but I know what Magna Carta is, and I speak English which means I can understand some Latin, so I was able to work it out. If I can do it, bloody David Cameron should be able to. I knew he was stupid, but I didn’t think he was stupid.
NUMBER THREE. A piece on Jamie Oliver’s new 15-minute dinners book, in which the nonsense argument was made for the sake of controversy where none existed (this technique will be familiar to regular listeners) that the target audience for the book was owners of Jamie’s earlier 30-minute dinners book, and good grief, were we really so desperate for time that we needed to claw back another fifteen minutes in the evening, and what was wrong with spending an extra quarter of an hour doing something useful and enjoyable like cooking? Somebody (I have no idea who was being interviewed about it, except that none of them was Jamie Oliver) tried to make the OBVIOUS POINT that the book is aimed at people who don’t cook at all, and not at people who already enjoy cooking, but this was shouted down in the general frenzy.
I think tomorrow I shall return to comforting silence.
Do you watch a lot of period drama? I don’t, generally, but as it happens I have watched several hours’ worth this weekend, and I have noticed that there is a way people talk in (most) period drama which has nothing to do with the script: a mannered, diffident style which seems to transcend both character and chronology, so that it doesn’t matter if it’s rural Edwardian England (hello, The Woman In Black!) or 1950s London (howdy, Call The Midwife!) or – well, frankly, I have no real idea when Upstairs Downstairs, currently playing at a screen near me, is set, nor where, but everyone is speaking that way.
It wasn’t always like this. Nobody speaks that way in Room With A View, nor even in the 1990s TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It seems to have sprung up since the early 2000s, which leads me to suspect it’s probably mostly Keira Knightley’s fault.
If you don’t like a TV programme, you should probably stop watching after the first episode, rather than keep watching and getting a bit crosser each time. Although, actually, I quite liked the first episode of Sherlock. It was the second, startlingly racist, episode that put me off, but somehow I kept watching, even when the third episode was unsatisfying and then we had to wait a year for number four. I can’t really explain it, except that I kept hoping it would get better.
And it wasn’t awful. There was lots to like about it: the casting is uniformly excellent and everybody does the best they can with the script. It looks good, and it sounds good, and it makes London look better than it does in real life.
But ugh, it’s so pleased with itself! The joy of the Conan Doyle stories comes from how clever Sherlock Holmes is, not how clever Arthur Conan Doyle is. It’s a small, but important, distinction. Sherlock is delighted by itself more than it is by the character, which makes it feel all wrong. I don’t want to be able to hear the programme-maker breathing down the back of my neck when I watch a drama, and watching this show I can feel him looming sweatily over me throughout.
(I’m not talking about anyone in particular here, but he is definitely a “he”. Drama on British TV is currently in the grip of a chummy group of clever-clever, white, middle-class men who are all jolly pleased with themselves and each other for being smarter than normal people. Unfortunately they are all quite good at making TV, damn them, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them.)
The problem the programme has, when it gets very overexcited about being clever, is twofold. Firstly, it loses sight of the beautiful simplicity that sits at the heart of the best Holmes stories. This show has more plot in ten minutes than an entire Conan Doyle novel. Secondly, if you’re going to be self-consciously clever, you’d better make sure that you are, in fact, being clever, and this is where Sherlock falls down for me. Quite apart from the dangling plot points and the baffling improbabilities, which flit by so fast that you can mostly ignore them, the show is terrifically excited about Technology, which somebody somewhere in the bowels of the BBC has clearly decided is going to be used as a Metaphor. The problem is, they haven’t bothered to get anyone with an actual grasp of the technology they’re talking about to act as an advisor on the show, with the result that we, the audience, are expected to be delighted by Feats of Technology which in real life are either ridiculously unimpressive or so improbable and unexplained as to be plain silly. Just as The Archers needs an agricultural story editor, Sherlock could have done with a technology advisor. And somebody should have sacked whoever decided to give Watson a “blog”. I put it in inverted commas because so do they, every time they mention it.
But that’s all nit-picking. What I really object to is the idea that the source material needs to be improved upon, when (a) it doesn’t, and (b) whatever description you might want to give of Sherlock, an improvement on the original is not it. At one point, during the entirely nonsensical denouement of last night’s show, Moriarty (wince-inducingly described in BBC1’s preamble as “Holmes’s ultimate nemesis”, as though you can have grades of nemesis) said to Holmes: “…that’s your weakness, you always want everything to be clever”. And I thought: you got it in one.
(I had a separate rant last night at the TV and the beloved about what they did with Moriarty, but since it included the words “postmodern” and “non-linear” I shan’t repeat it here, or we’ll both go away thinking I’m the most terrible kind of wanker.)
I dunno. You wait ages for a post-watershed sitcom about a Jewish family starring a well-known Simon, then two come along at once.
In case you haven’t seen them, the two sitcoms in question are Grandma’s House, starring non-actor Simon Amstell, which went out towards the end of last year; and Friday Night Dinner, starring, frankly, non-actor Simon Bird, which started this weekend. I liked Grandma’s House a lot; nothing ever really happened, but it made me laugh, and its matter-of-factness felt real, even though the characters were caricatures. And everyone except Simon Amstell could act, and Simon Amstell not being able to act was sort of part of the joke, so it was OK.
And I liked Friday Night Dinner, too. It had more proper laughs than Grandma’s House, and the wonderful Mark Heap who is such a brilliant physical clown that I could just watch him moving around silently for half an hour. And Simon Bird plays his likeable self, which is just as well. Had I seen it without seeing Grandma’s House, I would have given it a resounding thumbs up, if gestures can resound, which I suspect they can’t.
But they are really, really startlingly similar! The characters in Grandma’s House may be more overdone than in Friday Night Dinner, but they are, fundamentally, the same characters. There is a Simon (although he’s called Adam in Friday Night Dinner); his irritating younger relative (Jamal Hadjkura in Grandma’s House and Tom Rosenthal in Friday Night Dinner); the married couple whose house it all happens in, who are fond of one another deep down but can’t help squabbling (Geoffrey Hutchings and Linda Bassett/Paul Ritter and Tamsin Greig); the overbearing and dowdy Jewish mother whose main occupation is nagging at the rest of her family (Rebecca Front and Samantha Spiro both play this character in Grandma’s House; in Friday Night Dinner it’s still Tamsin Greig), and the weird outsider who turns up halfway through each episode and unsettles everybody (James Smith/Mark Heap).
Coincidentally, in each case the overbearing mother and the weird outsider have also jointly starred in an earlier sitcom (The Thick Of It and The Green Room, respectively), but that really must be down to chance. Well, of course it’s all down to chance – the creators of Friday Night Supper must have had their scripts complete and ready to go, if not filmed, by the time Grandma’s House aired – but the two are so very alike that I almost wonder why, having seen Grandma’s House, they didn’t go back and rewrite.
But I’m not really complaining; as I said, I am delighted to be able to watch a Jewish sitcom that isn’t Seinfeld, and I like both programmes a lot (although I’ll like them even better if they manage to introduce a comedy Jewish woman who doesn’t look like a 1970s Geography teacher). And anyway, there’s only been one episode of Friday Night Dinner, so it’s a bit early to judge. If episode six is set on an aircraft carrier and Simon is fighting Godzilla, I promise I’ll eat my words.