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.

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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.

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Cucumber

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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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A robust BBC

Polar bear cubs in the wild or in captivity?

The briefest of posts, because I really want to go out to buy some Christmas stamps, to say how refreshing it was to hear BBC director general Mark Thompson being robust in his defence of the BBC at yesterday’s media select committee hearing.

It may just have been the way the Today programme’s Yesterday in Parliament slot was edited at about 06.45 this morning but Thompson came across as a staunch defender of both Jeremy Clarkson’s right to make a joke and of polar bears to be filmed in different places. If only Thompson had been this good at presenting the context for a situation when the Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs row exploded three years ago.

From what I heard on Radio 4 Thomson and BBC chairman Chris Patten expressly told MPs that Clarkson’s “joke” about shooting striking public sector workers in front of their families was a joke. A joke made, they said, as part of a comment on how far the BBC bends over backwards to get balance to any story. If the BBC sacked everyone who offended people with their jokes they wouldn’t have many people working for them. And, said Patten, MPs would have to explain to the many Clarkson and Top Gear fans (there are some) why their favourite presenter was no longer on TV. This, despite 32,000 complaints about Clarkson’s comment.

So different from October 2008 when Ross was suspended for six months after making a joke which only a very few people heard and complained about until the press whipped up a storm of protest. I felt there was no context from the DG back then.

Also amusing was Thompson’s single “no” to the question of whether narration from BBC 1’s Frozen Planet would be re-edited to more accurately suggest that footage of tiny polar bear cubs was filmed in captivity and not in the wild. I have watched all the Frozen Planet episodes and must admit I assumed the bear cubs were wild. At least I didn’t stop watching and wonder where and how the crew had got that remarkable up-close footage of two polar bear cubs feeding from their sleepy mother in a snow den. We had just seen a female polar bear begin to make a den, again I presume in the wild.

I was initially surprised to read this week that the cub footage had been filmed in a zoo but I totally buy the argument that those shots would have been impossible to capture in the wild and I wouldn’t have wanted my viewing pleasure interrupted by an explanatory caption about where the scenes were filmed.

So good on the BBC for being robust and defending its editorial practices. I suspect the fact the BBC got a difficult licence fee settlement from the government a year ago has sharpened its sense of independence and rightly so.

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Life’s too short

Neeson and Davis in Life's Too Short

Life certainly is too short to be uncomfortable. And I am uncomfortable watching the new BBC 2 sitcom by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

Life’s Too Short is a spoof documentary, in the style of Gervais’ first hit The Office, about a dwarf. Despite Gervais’ protestations to the contrary, it feels mean. Actor Warwick Davis plays a version of himself trying to get acting roles and running an agency for other people of short stature.

I liked the first episode of the series because it featured Liam Neeson imploring Gervais and Merchant in their spoof agency to get him into stand-up comedy. As with Extras, Gervais and Merchant are at their best when they get a major celebrity to send themselves up. Neeson kept drifting from the “comedy” into tales of death and despair. Very amusing.

But Warwick Davis sending himself up is another matter. Since the first two episodes, which also featured Johnny Depp, Davis’ futile self-aggrandising has been the basis of every scene. Gervais told the Guardian: “People confuse the subject of a joke with the target of a joke.” Yes they do. And it’s not a funny joke. Last night, I turned off.

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Downton Abbey

Behind the scenes at Downton

Lady Edith and the Dowager Countess

Let me be possibly the last person commenting on TV to say something about Downton Abbey. The truth is I didn’t watch first series because there was something better on the other side (BBC 1). There is again this autumn because Kudos Productions’ Spooks is showing on BBC 1 at 9pm on Sundays and Stephen Fry is doing a programme about language at exactly the same time on BBC 2 so I’m spending my time catching up with those things on the iPlayer.

But Downton Abbey suits me, as it does roughly 9 million other people, on a Sunday night when I’m in the mood for its sense of history and nostalgia, sweeping gowns and brocaded drawing rooms.

I do keep catching my shins on the language though, like so many commentators before me. In one of the first episodes of this second series I was moved to look up the use of “chuck it away” when lady Sybil was learning how to cook and ruined some kind of sauce. It just jarred, but our shorter Oxford English dictionary does say the word chuck was probably used by workmen to mean throw or toss as early as 1593. God, it’s hard being a pedant on a Sunday night. Last week I tripped up over someone, the Countess of Grantham or lady Mary, asking “So what?” in conversation. ‘Humpf’, I splutter into my hot chocolate. ‘They wouldn’t have said that in 1916.’

You only have to look at this Christmas speech by our present Queen, the first televised Christmas message shown in 1957, and compare it to last year’s delivery to see how speech patterns have changed, even among the very posh. What we’re getting in Downton isn’t a true reflection of how people spoke at the beginning of the 20th century.

But of course true authenticity has no place on TV and almost certainly none in Sunday night ITV drama. If the actors in Downton Abbey delivered dialogue as people in country houses actually spoke at the turn of the century no one would be watching. TV audiences want a reflection of how they see the past and certain people of the past more, in fact, than they want the reality. The reality would be a bunch of very dull black and white films. Downton Abbey is colourful, beautiful to look at, moves along at a decent pace and just very easy to watch on Sunday evenings.

Spooks, meanwhile, is another matter. Thank goodness for the iPlayer; if only I could watch it on my TV and not my  laptop.

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