Why we love the John Lewis Christmas ads

Why do we love the John Lewis Christmas ads so much? For me, it’s the music as well as the general schmaltz which I’m prepared to tolerate at Christmas. The Telegraph has handily put together this round up of John Lewis Christmas ads since 2007 when the retailer put out its first spot shot especially for the biggest shopping spree of the year.

2016 John Lewis Christmas ad

John Lewis 2016 Christmas ad with Buster

The Telegraph tells us that it was in 2009 that John Lewis’ ad agency first got a contemporary artist to sing an iconic song and it’s this tradition, more than any other, which makes the ad for me each year.

In 2009 it was a version of Guns N’ Roses Sweet Child O’ Mine but I have to say my favourite tune was Lily Allen’s version of Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know in 2013 over the bear and the hare animation. For tear-jerk value and the overall storyline my favourite film is the 2011 Christmas ad The Long Wait, in which a boy cannot wait for Christmas morning just so that… he can give his parents the present he’s got them (the details of how he got the present remain unclear).

It’s a great legacy of work for John Lewis and its ad agency Adam & Eve DDB. I’ve joked in the past about changing my bio to ‘John Lewis target audience’ but, even so, these Christmas ads work so well with a classic song and a touching story that they’re impossible to resist. Now all I want to know is how the agency got all those animals to bounce on the 2016 trampoline together. Presumably the footage is edited and the badger didn’t actually feature at the same time as the two foxes? Answers on a postcard or in the comments box.


Broadchurch 2

Broadchurch series 2

Broadchurch series 2

I couldn’t watch the first series of Broadchurch. Even though it was filmed on part of the beautiful Dorset coast just near where I used to live and despite the excellent cast that included David Tennant and Olivia Coleman, I was put off by the subject matter. The story of a boy murdered is just too close to my worst nightmare of something happening to one of my kids and I’ve reached that age where I don’t want to be distressed when I watch TV any more than I do in day to day life.

I did watch the first and the last episode of the first series, just to see what was going on and to spot the locations. Then there was so much hype about the programme that I felt compelled to watch the second series. I was disappointed.

The second series of Broadchurch descended into just any old courtroom drama and, as one colleague, put it nothing happened for weeks then it was all wrapped up in a matter of 60 minutes in the final episode. Which ended with the words ‘Broadchurch will return’.

It already felt in series two as if writer Chris Chibnall was deliberately unravelling threads that had been tied up in series one to spin the story out for a bit. Is he seriously going to do that again for a third series? Will the audience stick with it?

It’s a shame that a ratings success cannot breed another, different but equally well acted programme rather than pointless extensions of the same show.



Cucumber on Channel 4

A friend and colleague yesterday asked me if I still write. I haven’t written anything other than marketing copy or emails for a few years but I have been watching a fair amount of TV. Not as much as I used to but this January and February I’ve followed three series: Broadchurch, Wolf Hall and Cucumber.

As I tried to go to sleep last night I couldn’t get the latest episode of Channel 4’s Cucumber out of my head. It was shocking, in the sense that I really didn’t see what happened coming and it was disturbing. It felt like the sort of thing that could happen in real life and I had to remind myself I’d watched actors working with a fabulous script by Russell T Davies of whom I a fan.

Davies of course wrote Queer As Folk back in the late 90s about a group of young gay men in Manchester. That series was shocking at the time in its portrayal of fairly explicit gay sex and Cucumber comes in the same vein, if you will, only this time it’s about a group of middle-aged gay men in Manchester.

I could try to write something serious about why I’m interested in a drama about northern gay men. But instead I’ll say something glib which is who wouldn’t want to watch a drama about a group of people of roughly similar age to you but with relatively few responsibilities and a lifestyle which is subtly different from the one you find yourself living. TV is about escapism after all.

But last night’s episode, which I won’t ruin too much for those watching on catch-up, was a kick to the guts and a reminder that people can face danger in the most mundane circumstances as they go about their lives, socialising and working, simply because other people can be unpredictable even to themselves.

It will be fascinating to see how the next episode deals with the storyline of Lance, the gay black guy who moved to Manchester for work and who fell in love; who had a hard time with his partner and whose story was last night told over an episodic hour of flashbacks and present-day action. Thought-provoking and visceral but never sentimental it was easily one of the best things I’ve seen on TV for some time.


Friday 29th June

Hey party girl. Try and contain your excitement

You know how it is. It’s Friday, it’s the end of June, you’re getting ready to go away for the weekend and you think (again) about how you haven’t updated your blog for while.

I have been meaning to write about the Leveson inquiry since at least 22 February when Michael Gove said something about freedom of speech that I felt sat oddly with the nature of the inquiry into press ethics and practices. So that’s on my list.

Then I thought about sharing news of a briefing I went to on the Olympic torch relay and how it either will or won’t affect Salisbury and its many businesses when the relay comes through on 11 and 12 July.

This week I visited a care home to interview the manager for a county magazine and thought I’d write something about that. I filed to the magazine but haven’t updated this blog about that either.

Instead I’m simply going to wish everyone a great weekend. I hope it doesn’t rain too heavily on your parade; enjoy yourself and see you on Twitter next week.


Contemporary opera

I am not an opera buff. The last and I think only time I saw any opera was some 20 years ago when I was a student. It was something in Italian (I think) and one of our party fell asleep.

But this week I have twice seen the most amazing new piece of opera, composed by Jonathan Dove who I’d never even heard of until this week but whose work transfixed me.

The performance was 50 minutes long and took place in Salisbury Cathedral as part of the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival. It’s called The Walk from the Garden and is based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost but specifically the very end of that epic poem, the last 18.5 lines or as librettist Alasdair Middleton wrote in the programme “a hundred and thirty-five of the best words ever written”.

You have to put aside – as I did – any reservations about the story of Adam and Eve. Forget truth, forget feminism for an hour. It’s a very old story and a very well-known one.

The Walk from the Garden is so moving as a piece of music and a performance by two superb voices, backed by a choir, that you simply have to go and see it if you can.

It’s very loud to start with: the choir of angels sing out Adam and Eve’s condemnation. Then poor Adam (Nicholas Sharratt) and Eve (Anna Dennis) burst through steel grey double doors wearing just white underwear and socks. The doors are marked ‘Exit’ which reads back to front. The audience, although in a cathedral, is already sitting in perpetual banishment on the other side of Eden. There is no going back.

The pair assess their new situation and surroundings: “Ash… Trash.” They recall with terrible anguish the “shattered harmony” they knew; they remember with leaping joy hearing “the voice of God walking in the garden”.

But anguish, desperation and loss dominate the piece. The voices are exquisite. At times Dennis’ voice as Eve seemed to literally grow out of the few stringed instruments playing the piece.

Gradually the pair get dressed in modern-day walking gear, put on their waterproof capes and hoist rucksacks on their backs. Slowly, they walk down the central aisle, past the incredible rimless font that sits in Salisbury Cathedral, and out of the west doors. For a few seconds their forms are framed by the medieval doors and they catch dying rays of summer light as the pair walk into a rush of greenery in such contrast to the penumbrous cathedral interior. Some of the angelic choir emerge through the steel grey doors to sing Adam and Eve on their solitary way.

I found it incredibly moving. I think you can see Adam and Eve’s walk from the garden as both a liberation and a condemnation.

As Milton wrote, “The world was all before them.”


Henry V directed by Dominic Dromgoole

Shakespeare's Globe presents Henry V

Henry V directed by Dominic Dromgoole

The Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival is on this week and next and, as well as helping out as a volunteer steward, I have been getting a rush of culture from it.

Last night I watched a production of Henry V at the Salisbury Playhouse, directed by the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole.

I approach these things as I approach most “gritty” TV drama: I kind of think I ought to see it. It was only as I went into the auditorium I saw the notice that said, “First half 1 hour 30 mins. Interval 15 mins. Second half 1 hour 23 mins.” “Three hours,” said another theatregoer behind me, echoing my own thoughts. My partner would definitely not want to have been there.

In Act One Scene Two I was remembering that I find Shakespeare’s history plays a bit tedious, certainly compared to the tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear) which I know far better and find more compelling. That scene of courtly advice; the lengthy contemplations of the relationship between France and England. I felt, not for the first time, that Shakespeare could have done with a better editor when it came to staging. It’s one thing to read the poetry of this verbal jousting; another thing to watch the same point being made several times in different ways by people on a stage.

But the staging was impressive. With one set – basically a rendition of what we imagine the original Globe stage to have looked like – and very few props, the cast and particularly Brid Brennan as the Chorus brought the action to life. The start of the battle of Agincourt was brilliantly wrought by four archers; the battle scene became a piece of music and movement featuring King Harry, Exeter, Westmoreland and someone else. I particularly loved the final bit of stage business, a cross between and a dance and a curtain call representing the marriage of Henry and Catherine.

Jamie Parker (The History Boys, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2) was good in the lead role. He has the brow for a king and a young king at that. Catherine was impossibly beautiful with lovely French. Best of the supporting cast was Brendan O’Hea as a very amusing Captain Fluellen. The musicians were also fabulous and, to me, very “period” playing a couple of wind of brass instruments I’ve never seen before.

As the final applause died away, a lady to my left who hadn’t held back on her opinion of the production at interval time turned to her husband and said, “He did the main speech very well.” I struggle to think which the main speech is in Henry V as there are so many. In Dromgoole’s production last night there was, I think, only one or two moments when Harry was completely alone on the stage giving a soliloquy. It was the eve of the big battle and it was well done, although I found another moment awkward when Henry’s emotion continued on stage as the Chorus began her link.

I gather Salisbury is the last stop in a tour of this production that has taken in Liverpool, Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Bath so far. Dromgoole’s Henry V moves to The Globe theatre in London on 7 June. I’m sure it will be highly rated.


Rebekah Brooks

Photograph: Carl Court/AFP c/o guardian.co.uk

Rebekah Brooks and husband Charlie

I am fascinated by Rebekah Brooks who was editor of the News of the World in 2000 and of The Sun in 2003 and who in 2009 became chief executive of News International which publishes The Sun and The Times. In those years I was having babies and bringing up young children in a country town. Brooks is, I think, three years older than me.

Brooks has had to give evidence to MPs about phone hacking and to the Leveson inquiry about her time at News International, her relationships with politicians of the day and meetings and social occasions she attended. Yesterday she, along with her husband and four others, was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice, accused of removing documents from News International and concealing material from the Metropolitan Police who are investigating phone hacking claims.

Look at today’s newspaper headlines, neatly rounded up by Roy Greenslade and The Guardian.

It will now be for a jury to decide if Brooks is guilty of trying to cover anything up at her newspapers or if she is the victim, as she and her husband insist, of a witch hunt.

It is hard to see how an editor, even a former editor gone into management, would not know how certain stories in their own newspapers were stood up or proved to be true. But she and other senior folk from News Corp insist there is no evidence to suggest they knew about any malpractice.

Brooks is a striking figure who was very successful at a relatively young age within a controversial organisation, News International – part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. That has attracted as much jealousy and spite as admiration and this may now be manifesting itself as glee and determination from some quarters as people observe Brooks’ current predicament.

I understand from experience how important it is for a newspaper editor to have good relationships with the power brokers of the day. I also know what it is like to be courted by people in an industry, some in positions of power, others seeking power, when you edit an influential publication. And I know what it’s like when a journalist does something either deliberately or by mistake that someone else doesn’t like.

Libel law exists to try to police the difference between something that is untrue and will damage others by being published and something that is true and published in the public interest. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry may change all that. Let us pass over thoughts about where the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to charge Mr and Mrs Brooks leaves David Cameron, supposedly a close friend of Charlie Brooks.

Largely I feel that in many cases, let’s say all but those involving murdered people, the journalist, editor or newspaper is just the messenger of a story and you know what they say about shooting messengers. Don’t do it.


Homeland. Good, wasn’t it?

Clare Danes in Homeland

Wow. I totally struck gold with that last post. I’ll admit I did no research before writing it and initially thought Channel 4’s bought-in US series Homeland was a two-parter. ROFL etc.

Yet here we are some 12 weeks later and the excellent series has just ended. Already I want to watch series two and am remembering why box sets after the event are a good idea. As the C4 continuity announcer said when the totally tense final episode of the first series ended last night, series two will appear on C4 sometime in the future. We don’t know when; it hasn’t even been made yet.

Why was Homeland such a hit? Because it didn’t strike any bum notes. On the relatively rare occasions that US drama producers make a good drama – when the drama is airing on a smallish cable network like Showtime and isn’t under pressure to get all schmaltzy – it is really good.

Our own Damian Lewis was excellent as the conflicted and last night very sweaty Sergeant Brody. Clare Danes was even better as the reasonably mad CIA agent Carrie living with bipolar disorder. More than Stephen Fry I suspect Danes will make forms of manic depression cool from now on, as in: “I’m just in my manic phase, it’ll pass.” [Cue insight of unimaginable profundity.]

Of course the nub of the series and of last night’s episode in particular was that there was method in Carrie’s madness. She did indeed crack the conundrum, she worked out the link between Brody and terrorist master Nazir just as she succumbed to anaesthesia and electro convulsive therapy which will wipe her short-term memory at the start of the second series.

I also loved Mandy Patinkin as Sol (that’s how all the characters pronounced his name, even if it’s meant to be spelled Saul). You had to feel for him last night, losing Carrie to ECT just as he lost his wife back to her native India earlier in the series. Like Toby Siegler in West Wing or Dr Green Bean in ER he’s the gruffly lovable, intellectual character totally wedded to his work and therefore unlucky in his private life.

Anyway, we got resolution in that mad Carrie did thwart a terrorist suicide bomber mission, even if she, the authorities and most of the people involved were unaware of the fact. Aside from some Mitchell and Webb-style camera work which could have been comic in other hands, scenes of Brody fiddling with his ball-bearing and explosive-loaded vest in the toilet of a secure bunker with half the US government a few feet away were tense indeed. My palms are sweating again as I think about it.

Great stuff. I now see why Lewis couldn’t say on Graham Norton’s UK chat show a few weeks back whether he would be in the second series or not. I hope he is, he’s brilliant in this part and a second series won’t typecast him forever. Just get on and make the thing.


Homeland on Channel 4

Homeland on Channel 4

Damian Lewis as Brody in Homeland

So many things to post about but for now I’m thinking of Homeland, the US drama featuring Brit actor Damian Lewis that started on Channel 4 on Sunday.

I find Lewis an interesting actor. He’s not my favourite person to look at on TV but I always enjoy whatever he’s in. He definitely has talent (like he needs me to write this, he was nominated for a Golden Globe). He carrys off this American supposed war hero part without a flaw. The female lead Claire Danes actually won a Golden Globe for her performance in this drama as a rookie CIA agent who has been “dealing” with her issues via anti-pyschotic drugs since she was 22. I hope her story turns out to be just as interesting as Brody’s.

The Homeland plot revolves around a particular piece of contemporary American paranoia: that one of their own soldiers may have been “turned” by radical Islamic treatment and torture into a terrorist who is out to commit an atrocity on American soil. C4 is even running an online vote on the matter, such is the intrigue about whether Lewis’ character Brody is a friend or foe. For my money, at the end of episode one, I reckon he is a terrorist but we’ll have to stay tuned to find out.

Thanks to C4 for buying in this production. It made me miss Upstairs Downstairs on BBC 1 but I didn’t see the first series of that drama anyway. Amazing how the reworked classic has been eclipsed by Downton Abbey.

I admit I did get sucked into Call the Midwife and was one of the 9 million or so watching the final episode earlier on Sunday. In some ways it was middle of the road, mumsy, feel-good Sunday night TV. But you can’t argue with the lyrics of the closing song, “Why do fools fall in love?” And you can’t ignore something featuring Jenny Agutter. A part of me will always want to be her as Bobby in the Railway Children.


Belated Happy New Year

BBC 1 adaptation of Birdsong

More than a month since my last post. Feels like a confession. Belated Happy New Year to you.

Great Expectations, Edwin Drood, Sherlock, Birdsong. BBC 2’s Stargazing Live. What haven’t I been watching of late? I’ve even found my box set of Mad Men and picked up where I left off in season two.

But what did we make of Birdsong last night? I found the book graphic enough and certainly shots in last night’s BBC 1 adaptation of a shelled soldier with literally all his innards hanging out were stomach turning. The sex was also quite explicit – my aunt and I (watching together) suddenly found cushions to plump and reasons to leave the room for a minute or so…

I shall be watching Birdsong again next week, not least because I can’t remember much at all of the story from the book. Except I remember a difficult scene in which our hero sits in a crater on no man’s land for some time with an expiring corpse. Or was that Pat Parker’s Regeneration trilogy? I confuse the two.