Out with the old, in with the noo

Frosted fennel 

lucecannon is stirring from the pit of mince pies and chestnut-flavoured flatus in which she has lain since last posting, to wish you all a very Happy New Year. Recession aside, I can’t help but feel 2009 could actually be better than the outgoing year has been. Forget the even years; they’re for plodding. The odd years are where it’s at. See, I’m an optimist at heart.

Before segueing hangover-free into the New Year, it remains simply to review a few bits of Christmas telly. I do this with a child sliding around the sitting room in plastic, high-heeled shoes singing Abba songs. Forgive any misspellings or inattention to detail.

Wallace & Gromit was the top-rating programme of Christmas day, with an astounding 14.3m viewers. Its scheduling at 8.30pm helped but I can’t help but feel it got a lot of hype for a 30-minute programme, even a painstakingly clever animated one. Feature films last longer, cost more time and money to make but don’t do so well on TV. The Beeb and Aardman Animation must be rubbing their hands with glee. What with re-runs of Nick Park’s other specials The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, the BBC has made a Wallace and Gromit mountain out of not very much new material. One-off specials plus a load of interstitials, some of which were presumably helped by the Pyrex and Kingsmill deal, are clearly the way forward.

As for The Royle Family’s Christmas special, I have distinctly mixed feelings. Maybe it’s the recession, maybe it’s the advent of things like Gavin & Stacey and Outnumbered in the two years since the Royle Family was last on air but I found its brand of ‘poor but happy’ family comedy distinctly depressing this year. The hot water on the cuppa soup for Denise and Dave’s starter was just that, hot water. The turkey still frozen and sitting in the airing cupboard perhaps a bit too close to real-life experiences of finding potatoes still sitting cold and uncooked in their oil and adults asleep at the table, just when you hoped to be sitting down to a meal.

Dr Who was OK. The kids enjoyed it. We knew what to expect, got what we expected and nothing more. Couldn’t quite work out if David Tennant was quizzickly standing aloof from David Morrissey’s over-acting or just being Dr Who. But it doesn’t matter because we all know he’s not the Doctor for much longer anyway. On which note, the BBC 1 schedule felt bereft of new ideas with Wallace and hound, Royle Family, Dr Who and EastEnders dominating Christmas day.

Among the gems were Lead Balloon on BBC 2 with Rick temporarily full of festive goodwill and the Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special where the supporting cast now easily outshine the two central characters and Mick’s battles with Nigella’s instructions to soak a turkey pre-roasting were an inspired yet subtle backgrop to the angst inherent in getting two families together at Christmas.

Finally for lucecannon, Rupert Everett made an unexpectedly good Sherlock Holmes on BBC 1 on Monday night playing the slightly aged roue he probably is. Loved it, let’s have more.

That’s it. The rest of the time was spent eating, drinking, walking and mostly making merry. Adieu, 2008.

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Merry Christmas one and all

Home is where the hearth is

 

There probably won’t be much action on this blog over the next 2 weeks given that the school holidays start in less than an hour and one of the perks of freelancing is taking heaps of time off when you can least afford it.

Suffice to say, then, that I wish a very merry Christmas to everyone who has read, commented on or otherwise supported this little blog so far on its exciting journey. I have no idea where we’re going, but things are definitely spiralling away: up, down, possibly just round the bend.

Goodbye, God Bless and have a seriously good Yuletide.

I will probably be back on Monday spouting another load of rubbish, depending what I’ve watched on TV or whether a major TV scandal breaks over the weekend. Unless it’s Strictly nonsense, in which case you’ll have to go elsewhere.

For those who somehow make use of the Weekend Media Briefing, the next one will be on 5 January.

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Jamie wins battle of Christmas foodies, hands down

Jamie Oliver's turkey & sweet leek pie. Channel 4 

Jamie Oliver, who ‘cooked’ Christmas in an hour-long special last night on Channel 4, has come out top of the TV Christmas cooks for me this year.

Regular readers will know that I like Jamie anyway, but his brand of no-nonsense, mash it all up and use the leftovers cooking is both inspirational and realistic and that’s what I love about it. Partner and I sat through the whole thing from 9pm to 10pm, a rare primetime slot for cookery, and have come up with our analysis of the Christmas chefs. Here it is.

Hugh is too worthy. We live in the country but even we don’t eat suet. (And his Christmas special voiceover was bogged down by leaden puns. Serious leavening is needed.)

Nigella is too perfect, distracted by the overall impression given of her recipes and lifestyle.

Gordon is shouty (although I quite like that) but ultimately focussed on the restaurant trade, which must surely die on its feet next year.

We won’t mention Wonky Willie Harcourt-Cooze coz we’d never heard of him before yesterday and who, apart from Hugh FW, is going to cook lamb in a pit in the midst of their lawn?

Jamie is real, his recipes look absolutely great and totally doable. Chestnut and sage pastry with turkey and sweet leek pie (above). What’s not to like? He even insists that at this time of year, or at any time of year, it’s too much fag making puff pastry so just buy the half-decent stuff. Hear hear, my man.

OK, he comes out with all the “wazz it up” lingo but we all have our idiosyncrasies. I do actually wazz up stuff in the food processor and the kids love a bit of “Slap in on there, Gerald” talk. The lighting and camera work on Jamie’s food programmes are to die for, with the food positively glooping off the screen into your saliva glands. River Cottage Christmas special made the Gardeners’ World mistake of spending too much time filming the team eating their own food and forgot why we were watching the programme in the first place: to see good food being made.

So thanks, Jamie; thanks, C4. We’ll be doing that turkey pie on Boxing Day and more power to your processing elbow for next year.

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Willie’s Wonky Christmas

Willie's Perfect Chocolate Christmas. Channel 4

Verily, Christmas on TV is now officially all about food. There’s too much trouble and strife in the religion side of things, so let’s just eat and be merry. This is a winter festival, after all. We have Nigella on BBC 2; Hugh Fearnley-Whatshisname on Channel 4; followed by Jamie Oliver tonight, also on C4.

Last night, after River Cottage Christmas, we got Willie Harcourt-Cooze. You’re right. He’s a bit posh. Lives in a Georgian mansion somewhere in Devon. But here’s the great bit: he’s a bit hopeless. He has all these plans (like setting up his own chocolate factory in Devon, which he did in his first C4 series) but they invariably go a bit tits up. His long-suffering wife Tania stands by calmly, perhaps waiting for him to disappear off to Venezuela again to source some more ‘cacao’.

Willie’s Perfect Chocolate Christmas (that P word again) saw him digging a hole in the middle of the lawn, right in front of the big house, in which to bake half a lamb in hay. Wifey Tania watched with arms crossed, wondering why it had to be done right in front of house (she was good enough not to demand, on camera, why this had to be done at all). Later, in a piece to camera, she admitted life was unpredicatable with Willie around.

But Willie was determined to be around, to spend quality time with the family instead of slaving away in the chocolate factory. His idea of spending time with the kids involved waving them off as mum took them to choose a Christmas tree and racing around outside the house stringing up lights while mum entertained the kids inside. In other words, he made a great display of being with the family but was in fact just doing what all men do, getting his own fun while mum and kids were expected to coo appreciatively once it was all finished.

And so to the Christmas feast, with 30 friends for lunch. As lunch was cooking slowly under the turf it was naturally dark by the time it was ready to eat. Still, everyone seemed to enjoy it. I expect producers Liberty Bell and Doris Productions edited out scenes of the children branding each other with sparklers as they hit a blood sugar wall while waiting for the food to appear. If only that had been included, we would indeed have had a ‘perfect’ Christmas programme: aspirational and a bit flawed.

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Channel 4.5

Seems the government is considering either privatising Channel 4 or merging it with Channel Five. A reality check with the viewing public (ask your aunties and some mates) shows some already think C4 is privately owned, given it has ads on it. Some think it’s somehow owned by ITV. It isn’t, but ITV used to sell C4’s ads for it.

A merger with Five makes huge sense given that, basically, C4 is going to have to be even more commercial to survive in future, as is everything, even the BBC.

The government is considering two further options for C4 – that it teams up with the commercial arm of the BBC, the bit which publishes magazines and sells programmes outside the UK. Or that it somehow gets some more public money. That last one seems the least likely outcome, given even the BBC didn’t get all the money it asked the government for last time round.

I’m not against privatisation of C4 and doubt the viewing public would notice much difference unless the few serious programmes left on C4 disappear. Even then, viewers might not care. But what would a merged C4 and Five look like? Channel 4.5 with Big Brother, Dispatches and CSI. That probably sounds OK to most people. It would have over a tenth of all TV viewing and an even bigger slice of TV advertising.

If C4 chief executive Andy Duncan doesn’t secure the public funding he’s been asking for he can always resign in a huff. He’s not a programme-maker, hasn’t been a TV person for most of his career and some people don’t expect him to remain in the TV industry forever. So Five’s team led by Dawn Airey could run the next biggest commercial broadcaster after ITV. Beauty. Go for that, Mr Carter, broadcast minister, sir.

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A touch of the Bah! Humbugs

Nigella's Christmas Kitchen. BBC

I’m not ‘doing’ Nigella this year. Her Christmas Kitchen series started on BBC 2 last week with more than 3m viewers but is in fact only three new films and two old ones, repeated from “the hit 2006 series of the same name”. Not for me to accuse the BBC and Ms Lawson of milking the same material to death. You, the viewer, will decide.

I lost faith with the beautiful but nevertheless big-eared chef when she suggested immersing an uncooked turkey in a bucket of water and sticking it outside the back door overnight. Does Charles Saatchi shoot all the foxes and rats in their neighbourhood? Around these parts there would simply be an orange-tinged carcass and a puddle of cloves left in the morning.

Nigella has become a parody of what she once was: the delectably yummy mummy, capable of anything including guilt-ridden raiding of the fridge in the middle of the night. She may be curvy but she loves her food, shares it with her family and friends and we loved her for it. Now it’s all close up sucking on a chocolate-covered digit and moueing at the camera before swirling off to a glamorous party and then knocking up the ingredients for Italian bonbons or chilli jam before she hits the sack. But she doesn’t even go out, if we’re to believe the interview she gave to the Guardian Weekend magazine recently.

It was the same in her summer series, in which she merrily trotted off to the park with her Cath Kidston-esque 1950s flask (an original, of course) having assembled a feast of sticky chicken wings and god knows what else for her presumably grateful children who would shudder at the mere mention of the words ‘Asda’, ‘precooked’ and ‘sausages’.

Lawson comes out of the Guardian interview far better than she does from these programmes, sounding like an honest, compromised but getting-on-with-it human being. The reality is that she’s a very bright Oxford graduate from a well-connected family who must realise this sort of TV is beneath her. But it’s her current niche and she’s mining it.

I am, in truth, suffering from a touch of the bah! Humbugs and I’m sure it will pass by the weekend when I’ll be knocking out the homemade mince pies with the best of them. But, people, NOBODY LIVES LIKE THIS! At least, not all of the time. Of course lifestyle programming is aspirational and we all aim in our own ways to be the best, blah, blah, blah. But in promising to “help viewers cook up the perfect Christmas”, the BBC and their ilk are just feeding our modern neurosis about unattainable perfection. Where’s the programme that shows us how to have a ‘good enough’ Christmas? Good enough for us adults, good enough for the kids and good enough for the world at large.

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Dickens curiously good on ITV

The Old Curiosity Shop. ITV 

Too busy to post with school Christmas concerts to attend, a house to de-fluff before guests descend and, well, just the two presents to wrap this year. But they will look nice in their brown paper and string.

Just enough time to observe that ITV did a fine job with its repeat of Charles Dickens’ Old Curiousity Shop on Sunday, despite the adaptation coming hot on the heels of BBC 1’s disappointing Little Dorrit. Why are broadcasters so deeply conservative? Christmas = costume drama = Dickens on TV. “The other side is doing something so we’d better do it too.” I could have done with a more contemporary drama that wasn’t Kenneth Branagh’s no-lips Wallander, but at least Dickens was in his place at 9pm last night. Viewers didn’t agree, with twice as many watching Wallander as the Curiosity Shop.

My partner in life and crime actually watched this with me, which is unusual, especially in our house. He observed, and I reckon he’s got a point, that 1840s London is about the only setting where modern broadcasters can get away with casting such satisfying pantomime villains, complete with squints and spittle. (Apart, perhaps, from Nationwide ads.) Toby Jones as Quilp didn’t disappoint.

I watched the whole thing wondering what, if anything, is the difference between a BBC and an ITV costume drama. And I’ve got the answer. It’s the hair. Derek Jacoby as the inveterate gambler Trent still managed a feathered crop. Little Nell was positively bouffant. So different from Amy Dorrit’s bangs greased to her head over on BBC 1 these last few weeks. Trust commercial TV to make even Victorian poverty play well on the screen.

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Watch this: Evacuees Reunited

Evacuees Reunited. ITV

Guys, guys. Not to depress you on a Friday or put a downer on the coming weekend or anything. But you must watch Evacuees Reunited on ITV 1 on Monday (15 December) if you can. Just because I hardly ever recommend ITV programmes (Tiswas or Swap Shop? We were always Swap Shop in our house) and because it’s really quite a good programme about something we try to be blase about but which has had an enormous effect both on individuals and on two generations since who have ushered in a new style of parenting.

In the second world war almost 3m people, mostly children, were evacuated from their homes and families. Imagine any of us today packing our children off for up to five years to somewhere far away where they might not even be welcome. Tempting, perhaps, particularly in a recession. But, really, it’s not going to happen ever again, is it?

Operation Pied Piper, as it was chillingly known, was the largest movement of population in UK history and it happened just two generations ago. Today, people are displaced in other countries, not ours. Over one weekend from 1 to 4 September 1939 the first wave of evacuees were packed mostly onto trains with a luggage label, a gas-mask, a case perhaps containing one toy and a paper bag offering biscuits, condensed milk and chocolate to the host family. The chocolate rarely survived the journey, children being what children are (unconcerned with the future). Also in the bag were stamped postcards so that the children could write to their parents with their new address. Neither parents nor children had the foggiest idea where they were going or who they would be living with after waving goodbye to each other on a station platform. Often, they were moved several times during the war. The unlucky ones, including all the bed-wetters, ended up in hostels where staffing was “mixed”, in the words of the programme’s one expert. Some staff were trained, others were just taking the money and slapping the faces of those kids they didn’t particularly like. Different mores, different times.

This film from producers Leopard is full of under-statement and British stoicism. “I don’t know what it was like for the mothers. They tried not to cry,” says one former evacuee, now in her 70s. “Now that’s enough of that. Big boys don’t cry,” said a mother to her returning son as he tearfully bid farewell to the family that had looked after him for five years.

How parenting has changed and how society’s attitude to emotional trauma has changed. The three evacuees featured in the first episode don’t offer up the shower of tears we’ve come to expect from Who Do You Think You Are? Tragedy slips out in a few stray lines about the loss of two babies full-term before a woman had the daughter she’d always wanted and briefly got when housing an evacuee. Or about the sister who was separated from the two brothers she was meant to look after during their evacuation and who died herself of meningitis aged 18 at the end of the war.

As a film, it’s frustratingly low budget featuring the same clips replayed up to four times and the various stories are chopped up with the inevitable ‘Still to come…’ teasers that commercial broadcasters feel they must include to keep people watching after the break. It would be better if the individual stories were explored in more depth and more chronogically, rather than being constantly inter-cut with each other.

But the evacuation, 70 years ago next year, is a fascinating story and – unlike so-called reality TV – it has affected real lives. Presenter Michael Aspel (above left) was himself evacuated to the Somerset village of Chard, just down the road from me, but we have to wait until Monday 22 December to hear much of his story. Major downpoint? Evacuees Reunited is on at 5pm. But there’s always the online catch-up service.

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Final verdict on Little Dorrit

Johnny Vegas as Krook in Bleak House. BBC

I stuck with the BBC’s Little Dorrit in a standard ‘I must appreciate Dickens on TV’ way. But I was robbed of some of the subtleties of the story which must lurk in the original novel. OK, the plot was all explained in the last episode but if the scheduling and overall production had been better, my engagement with this adaptation would have been better too.

For the record, a friend who usually likes these sorts of things but usually expects them to be on at 9pm on Sundays also missed it. Somehow the 30-minute episodes worked for Bleak House but didn’t here. I’ve checked and Bleak House was scheduled in exactly the same way as Little Dorrit – in twice weekly half-hours. Why didn’t it work this time? Tess, on the other hand, on Sunday nights at 9pm worked.

The ratings for Little Dorrit suggest I’m right (2.5m and 10% of the audience on Wednesday 3 December, which is terrible for BBC 1 in primetime and was immeasurably improved by being replaced on Thursday 4 Dec by the Panorama special on Shannon Matthews which got 5.6m viewers).

Eddie Marsan was brilliant with his prosthetic hair lip and nasal snorting tick. I never quite got Clare Foy (Amy Dorrit) as the unacknowledged beauty (that fringe!) and her head was far too small to be next to Matthew MacFadyen’s (spelt correctly) in the closing scenes. That shouldn’t be a criticism, but it is. Casting is half the battle in costume drama.

Effects, scenery, costume and make-up constitute the rest of the battle and here again Little Dorrit was inferior to the multi craft award-winning Bleak House. The disintegrating house of Clennam shop always looked like a bit of bad panto scenery and its eventual collapse appeared to involve more explosives than death-watch beetles. Whereas Johnny Vegas’ bottle shop in Bleak House (above) was all gin-soaked atmos and his spontaneous combustion as Krook was a joy to watch.

Perhaps Bleak House was just too good for imitation a mere three years on.

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Why lucecannon is a reality TV-free zone

Joe Swash wins I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here Dec 2008. ITV

lucecannon.co.uk is a reality TV-free zone for lots of reasons. One: reality TV and coverage of it is everywhere so it doesn’t need to be here. Two, three, four, five and six: it’s just not my particular tasse du the and I shall attempt to explain why. But it will have to be quick and possibly not very thought-out, as I’m about to do some real, live, face-to-face net(not)working. A friend is coming round for coffee.

By reality TV I mean ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here (above), Channel 4’s Big Brother and I include all the TV talent shows (Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor, Any Dream Will Do etc etc) because they involve people in so-called ‘real’ situations: learning to dance, learning to play an instrument, going on a journey of self-discovery. Blah. Sometimes they are ‘real’ people; sometimes they are celebrities. But it’s all (more or less) unscripted, which is the term they use for this sort of TV in the US and that’s a much better term than ‘reality’. There is nothing actually ‘real’ about this stuff – the moment it’s screened on TV it is removed from reality as most mortal people (viewers) experience it.

So if you want the latest news and gossip on the latest reality TV programme you can pick up any tabloid newspaper, or check the headlines when you login to Hotmail or whatever. It’s ubiquitous.

I will sound pretentious and superior by saying this, but part of my lack of appetite for these shows is because I want something a bit more from my entertainment and visual diversion. I want a certain knowledge which, like hard cash, I can trade in for something elsewhere in my life or in all our lives. Something that will resonate elsewhere in life or the world or our experiences of it. Something that will help navigate through life a little more happily or smoothly than if I didn’t have it.

Pretentious, moi? (Where’s Stephen Fry when you need him?)

I haven’t the time or headspace to keep up with which celebrity is in which jungle doing which trial. I’d rather gen up on plant names (oh dear) or literary classics which still inform our culture today. I don’t do that because I’m not a total twat and I don’t have the time. But I’d rather spend any spare time reading or gardening than watching stuff I don’t get anything out of.

Call me a counter-culturalist (some people do) but I’ve never liked mainstream, shiny floor TV entertainment – even as a kid. All those tinselly curtains behind ‘The Comedians’ drove me to my bedroom, where I’d let my imagination free with a book, rather than fester over whether Isla St Clair looked fetching in that week’s frock. I don’t like Brucie, even in an ironic, kitsch, throwback way. I can’t be bothered to gossip about people who I don’t know and who become unreal for me the moment they’re on TV. Nor do I waste precious mental energy on situations which have nothing to do with life as I or the vast majority of people live it.

Escapism and catharsis are vital, of course, but I don’t find them in this brand of TV entertainment. Sauce for the goose, or whatever. I choose literature, drama and the sort of comedy that strikes a nerve with me. I get distraction by dancing stupidly, on my own or with others.

I don’t mind that millions of others enjoy reality and Strictly Come Dancing TV and I’m sorry I make myself sound so culturally superiour by condemning this as entertainment for proles. I can enjoy X Factor or Strictly when watching them with people who are also enjoying it. I just don’t seek these things out. I also listen with interest when someone stages an argument about Big Brother, say, putting a mirror up to modern society. I don’t buy that argument because it’s too simplistic and wrong to suggest a show made for commercial reasons (ratings and advertising) has a wider social purpose. Big Brother is part of popular culture just as Facebook is, and that’s it’s place in history.

I am fascinated, from a TV industry point of view, when there’s a glitch in the system as when John Serjeant (how do you spell his surname?) quit Strictly because he was no good and BBC 1 controller Jay Hunt was torn between defending the integrity of a ‘talent’ show and an inevitable desire to protect her ratings with a popular character.

So there’s loads to say about reality and other entertainment TV – but plenty of other people to say it for you. There’s loads to say about lots of other things, too. I’d rather be a loose cannon, firing in different directions, as well as sometimes running with the masses.

Now for coffee, and a break to sort out those mixed metaphors.

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