The Comedy Universe

‘Sounds of laughter, shades of life, are ringing through my opened ears
Inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns,
It calls me on and on across the universe’

John Lennon on heroin, 1968

fawlty camera

I’m a big fan of Fawlty Towers. Not a very original declaration, I know, but I love it. Quite clearly the finest sitcom ever made. Like The Beatles, it’s probably underrated if anything.

But there’s one rubbish thing about it that’s always bugged me: its title.

It is, with the possible exception of The Daily Politics and Have I Got A Bit More Old News For You, the worst title ever coined for a television programme. And the fact that the show itself is so magnificent only makes it more painful. What were Cleese and Booth thinking?

For a start, it’s not even a pun. There’s no such surname as Fawlty. It’s a single entendre; an innuendon’t. Its like Ronnie Barker’s character in Porridge being called Norman Stanley Cryminell, or Michael Crawford playing Frank Keepsfallingdownthestairs.

But here’s what irks me most: why did the young Basil never change his name? He’d presumably been mercilessly mocked for it throughout his bog-washed childhood, so it’s not as if he’d be unaware of its risibility. Why didn’t he change it by deed poll to something less embarrassing, like Basil Smith or Basil Tompkinson or Basil Hitler? One might speculate that he’d become proud of the surname and had decided to defiantly reclaim it – fair enough, but then that brings up another issue: why did Sybil agree to take the name as well? And not only that, but agree to name the fucking hotel after it?

I briefly wondered if, perhaps, the word ‘faulty’ simply didn’t exist in the Fawlty Towers universe. Maybe we hear the Fawlty/faulty pun but the characters don’t? Nice theory, but it’s not true – in the episode Communication Problems, Mrs Richards (now that’s another sensible surname Basil could have picked) refers to it directly: ‘The manager’s faulty?’ she barks at Polly. ‘What’s wrong with him?’. Which is an understandable reaction, seeing as it’s NOT ACTUALLY A NAME.

This got me thinking about comedy universes in general, and how they never really bear close scrutiny, even when the comedy itself is excellent.

universe

The universe yesterday, sharing a joke

John Shuttleworth, for example, is one of the finest comedy characters ever created. Graham Fellows’ sublime performance is so utterly believable that there’s a part of me which adamantly refuses to believe the character doesn’t actually exist. I feel the same way about Dame Edna Everage and (in his early years at least) Alan Partridge. These characters sometimes feel more real than real people; surreal in the original ‘beyond realism’ meaning of the word.

And yet there’s a conceptual flaw behind them all. With Shuttleworth, it’s a simple one: his songs are really good. They’re not only catchy, but musically inventive and lyrically witty. As tunesmiths go, he’s as good as Paul McCartney. If Shuttleworth really existed, he wouldn’t still be living in a suburban house posting out cassette demos and being managed by his next door neighbour – he’d be huge. At the very least, he’d have a lucrative career writing ad jingles. For the joke to work, Shuttleworth has to be a ‘failure’, but for entertainment purposes the songs can’t actually be bad.

I’ve seen Shuttleworth in the theatre and the crowd has quite rightly roared throughout. But who are we, the audience, in this fiction? Do we exist outside of the Shuttleworth universe? No, because Shuttleworth responds to our reaction; he doesn’t say ‘Hang on, why do you all know the words to Pigeons in Flight?’. Nor does he acknowledge the incongruity of him playing a sell-out residency in a major London venue. So what is the conceit?  It doesn’t work. Except of course it does.

shuttleworth

On Dame Edna’s chat show, the guests simultaneously play along with the idea that the character is real and giggle along to remarks that they’d only find funny if they knew full-well she wasn’t. Again, the presence of the audience complicates things – who are they? They laugh at Edna, but they (as characters in the universe) would presumably only attend the recording if they (as characters in the universe) genuinely thought Edna was talented and worth seeing.

Indeed, in the Edna universe, the joke rests on the premise that Edna is simultaneously a megastar and not a megastar: on one level, the joke is about her delusions of grandeur and lack of self-awareness, and yet…she still has a primetime ITV chat show boasting big-name Hollywood guests. Those guests play along as if she is a megastar, and yet the programme is only funny because she isn’t.

dame edna

There’s a running joke in Alan Partridge’s chat show Knowing Me Knowing You that the programme is constantly losing viewers. But if Knowing Me Knowing You really existed, it would be a massive so-bad-it’s-good cult hit; millions would tune in to see Alan’s latest gaffes and disasters. We, as viewers, have to willingly suspend our disbelief here, or the entire conceit collapses. And again, the studio audience plays two roles: they operate both as extras (applauding the guests and being in shot during certain scenes) and as outsiders who laugh at a remove.

What’s odd is that sometimes these universe issues are a ‘problem’ and sometimes they’re not. My friend has always been amused by the Mr Bean exam sketch – not just because it’s superb, but because of the implied back-story that Mr Bean spent three years studying mathematics. Possibly with Rudolph Walker marking his trigonometry assignments. Another friend of mine once talked about how the cast of Hi-De-Hi! were clearly never briefed on whether they should remain in character during the ‘You have been watching’ end credits. It is, after all, unclear whether it’s Spike Dixon or Jeffrey Holland holding up the rubber octopus as if to say ‘Do you remember the laughs we had with this six minutes ago?’.

In contrast, I’ve always felt slight dissatisfaction with the Brian Pern mock documentaries: its universe often feels inconsistent, specifically in regard to how famous Pern and Thotch are meant to be. If Pern is meant to be a crap version of Peter Gabriel, he wouldn’t have the clout to do half the stuff he does, but if he’s meant to be well-loved then half the jokes don’t work. Also, we now live in a world where pretty much every dinosaur from every music genre is respected as a legend/national treasure, but Pern still seems to be set in a world where such people are routinely mocked.

I’ve also always had a slight problem with The Rutles. Neil Innes’s pin-sharp pastiches seem to belong in a different film to the broad gags coming out of Eric Idle’s mouth.

But it’s in sitcoms where comedy universes are particularly interesting. On one of the commentaries for the 1980s Channel 4 sitcom Chance in a Million, lead actor Simon Callow talks about how sitcoms exist in ‘a sort of never-never land’. He was responding to the notion of sitcoms ‘dating’, arguing that the programmes are never really set in the present to begin with – instead, they’re set in a slightly woozy mixture of the past, present and future, a bit like A Clockwork Orange or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I’d cite Bottom as a good example sitcom here – a show that’s notionally set in the 1990s, but also seems to co-exist in an alternate reality which feels more like the 1950s.

I think Callow hits the nail on the head with ‘never-never land’, and it partly explains why comedy universes ‘work’ even when they theoretically shouldn’t.

chanceinamillion.jpg

Found this earlier. Promotional photo. Thought it apt.

Chance in a Million, in fact, is a fascinating case study. It was a conscious attempt by writers Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss to semi-lampoon the conventions of traditional sitcom by making coincidence itself the central joke. When you no longer have to contrive plausible reasons for coincidences to happen, interesting things start happening – a bit like how entire ‘worlds’ are visible when you look at a speck of dust under a microscope. You can do jokes that you couldn’t do in a more naturalistic show.

As a (slightly strange) child I always used to wonder two things about sitcoms. Firstly, why do the characters never laugh at the funny lines? And secondly, what happens after the programme ends? And indeed before it starts? Is their life normally ‘serious’, but only funny within that 30-minute window? Or is their life constantly funny and we’re privileged to experience a tiny sliver? Are they like refrigerator lights, where we cannot determine if they exist after we close the door? If Del Boy falls over in an empty wine bar, does anyone hear him plummet?

As a  comedy fan, I’ve pondered on these questions all my life, and I think my conclusion is that comedy is a bit like opera.

You see, in an opera, the characters sing throughout, but at no point does anyone say ‘Why are we all singing? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just talked normally?’. This is because, within the universe of the opera, the characters don’t hear the singing as singing. To them, it sounds like spoken dialogue – only we the audience can hear the music. I think comedy operates the same way: characters in a sketch show or sitcom don’t hear the jokes as jokes, and if they did then the comedy universe would implode.

It’s why I’ve always had a problem with ‘serious bits’ in comedy shows – they always feel like an imposed genre-change. I used to think ‘comedy’ and ‘serious’ were two sides of the same coin, but I’d now go further and say they’re the same thing. After all, we generally only bother to make jokes about things which (in a broad sense) trouble and terrify us  – there’s a good reason why there are countless jokes about death but very few about rainbows. We primarily laugh at stuff we take seriously, so to suddenly have a ‘Let’s get serious’ moment feels not only redundant but also a nonsensical category error.

It’s also why I have a problem with comedians doing adverts. Not for earnest Bill Hicks reasons (although I still think he had a point), but because I think the comedy universe and the ad universe are incompatible. Adverts are, by definition, humourless: even if they’re really funny (and many are), they’re still existentially humourless. Lots of you will be howling at the screen now, but hear me out. You’ve come this far.

Within the universe of an advert for Colin’s Crabsticks, the one thing the comedian cannot say is ‘Colin’s Crabsticks are bloody awful’. Their job in the ad is to carry the message that Colin’s Crabsticks are brilliant. That’s what they’re paid for, and that’s what they do. Even in ‘ironic’ ads, the message is still a positive one: ‘Buy this, it’s good.’ As something of a romantic comedy fan who believes a comedian’s job is to blow raspberries at the king and say ‘That’s not true’, something about this always sticks in my throat. A comedian in an ad is no longer a comedian. Or, to quote George Constanza in Seinfeld, ‘Worlds are colliding!’

fry ad

Fry and Laurie in their famous sketch about building societies being wonderful 

But anyway, that’s all we’ve got time for on ‘What the Fuck Are You Talking About, Mike?’.

Now that really would be a good title for a show.

 

 

 

 

TYPICAL BLOKE: The day I did a runner from the Slits

slits colours

‘A walk in the park can become a bad dream’ – Bananarama, Robert de Niro’s Waiting

Last time, I indulged in some sickening name-droppage when I talked about my private audiences with Ivor Cutler. By way of contrast, I thought I’d write about the time I completely failed to interview Ari Up from the Slits. And indeed completely failed in my first (and to date only) rock journalism ‘assignment’.

A bit of background. I knew very little about the Slits until I was 25. By that age, I’d long lost interest in music, particularly new stuff. I tried hard, but my arms remained goosebump-free. After all, hadn’t everything had been ‘done’ by now? Surely  we’d passed peak pop long ago?

The fact that jaded twentysomethings have felt this way ever since The Andrew Sisters split up didn’t shake me out of this mindset. In fact, it used to irritate me when people my age were still breathlessly evangelical about new music, particularly when they rolled out that dismal phrase ‘There’s loads of great bands out there’. I always expected them to add ‘Apparently’ afterwards, because I suspected they were trying to convince themselves more than me.

You see, I used to love pop as a kid because it was an escape hatch. It was a sliver of fun after your maths homework; a chink of light at the end of a dentist appointment; a chocolate rush after your liver and cabbage. It’s no coincidence that one of the most enduring 1980s clichés is that of neon lighting – florescent tubes spelling out the Top of the Pops logo, or perhaps a suitably exotic word like ‘COCKTAILS’. But people forget why such images existed and endured in the first place: it was because normal life in 80s Britain was dusty and battleship-grey. These day-glo flashes were the exception. It was undoubtedly the same for 70s kids – Noddy Holder’s glittery top hat glittered ever brighter in the candlelight of the three-day week.

By the time I reached my 20s, this counterpoint no longer worked. Music now seemed as drab as life itself. Few genres depressed me more than Britpop, which seemed backward-looking in the most joyless way possible; people archly pastiching bands from the past, but without any sense of fun – like the Rutles without the gags. Even the pop stars themselves didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves, and they often looked slightly annoyed to be famous. Why would I want to listen to them? I wanted records which took me away from the hum of the office photocopier – not ones that sounded exactly like it.

Then one night in 1999, during a TV documentary celebrating John Peel’s 60th birthday,  I saw this lot:

slits-four

The grotty 16mm footage – originally from The Record Machine, an October 1978 edition of the BBC arts strand Omnibus – captured singer Ari Up, guitarist Viv Albertine, bass player Tessa Pollitt and drummer Palmolive raising hell in a London squat. To the accompaniment of Shoplifting   – the finest song ever written about stealing cheese – the band jump up and down on beds, try on junkshop clothes, dance sarcastically, masturbate sarcastically, take the piss out of each other, gob at posters of Rod Stewart and gleefully rip up ABBA album sleeves.

The latter felt strangely refreshing at a time when we were all meant to throw aside such snobbery and doff our caps to the rock bores and easy-listening giants of the past. By the humourless 90s, there was no such thing as ‘the mainstream’ and ‘the counter culture’ – it was all just ‘great music’, and we were urged to put away our childish tribalism forever. Hey, we can all like everything now – all that matters is whether it’s good, right? I always felt there was something drearily conservative about this phoney open-mindedness, this self-conscious signalling of one’s eclecticism. It was a wag of the finger disguised as a V-sign; a party pooper masquerading as a party popper. In contrast, here was a reminder that pop music used to be…dare I say it, a bit of a laugh.

The goosebumps were suddenly back. And they’d been provoked by a band who split up 17 years earlier. I had discovered the Slits.

But what also made me sit up was Peel’s words following the clip:

If I was to make a list of the ten best sessions of all time, the [first] two Slits sessions would be in that top ten – they were just mesmerising. Their inability to play coupled with their determination to play…the kind of conflict between these things was magnificent.

which I think sums them up brilliantly. That said, the claim that they ‘couldn’t play their instruments’ was always a bit of a myth, and probably one inevitably rooted in sexism. Sid Vicious, after all, wasn’t exactly  Julian Bream. Watch early footage of the Slits (eg, in Don Letts’ fascinating but near-unwatchable cinefilm The Punk Rock Movie) and it’s clear they could bash out a tune just as well as the average Rut, Buzzcock or Voidoid.

By the time of the Cut album, they were tight and disciplined musicians, and often inventively avant-garde ones too. On Ping Pong Affair, for example, spoons are struck against ashtrays to create both percussion and a sort of druggy in-joke. Ari Up was an astonishing, octave-straddling vocalist, and I really don’t know why she isn’t as famous and critically acclaimed as Bjork.

I won’t spend this blog wittering on about the history of the Slits. Better writers than me have done so countless times. It’s a story you can read elsewhere, and it’s a very odd one – for example, the fact that Ari Up was John Lydon’s stepdaughter will always be something of a mindfuck in punk’s messy timeline. If you want the full story, Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits is the place to go, as is Viv Albertine’s excellent memoir.

All I’ll say is that I immediately loved them, and this was mainly because they didn’t seem to belong to any obvious genre. Unlike the Britpop dullards, I couldn’t spot their influences. It was pop from another planet.

Were they a punk band? Ari Up always dismissed this label. ‘If we’re punk,’ she once asked, ‘why are we always written out of punk history?’ It’s a fair point, and it’s also worth remembering that they never actually made any punk records. Those 1977/78 Peel sessions, made while Palmolive was still on the drums, are the only hi-fi recordings of ‘the Slits Phase 1′ – by the time they made Cut as a three-piece in 1979, both they (and punk itself) had moved on. They took elements from reggae and African music and from the likes of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, but there was tons of other stuff going on. Even within the ever-expanding diversity of the post-punk/new wave scene, categorising the Slits’ sound is almost impossible.

slits mag

They were always visually arresting too – it’s certainly hard to find a photograph of them where they don’t look in some way spellbinding. The famous image on Cut, showing the statuesque trio, bare-breasted and caked in mud, standing outside a picturesque rose-covered farmhouse) remains one of the world’s most extraordinary record covers. Most punk bands were satisfied simply snarling by a brick wall, but the Slits were doing something more complex and ambiguous, fusing sex and violence in unsettling ways. It’s the kind of image Mick Travis in If…. would have hidden under his pillow.

‘Come on then, if you’re hard enough’ was the intended message according to Albertine, but even that war-cry contains a sly double entendre. In the same way that Throbbing Gristle made dance music that was impossible to dance to, the Slits had seemingly made a pin-up you couldn’t pin down.

slits naked cut.jpg

One afternoon in 2009, when I’d been a Slits obsessive for almost exactly a decade, I was contacted by a bloke from the music website God Is In The TV. A writer of theirs had been taken ill, so would I go down to University College London next week and review the all-new Slits for them? The band had recently reunited, or at least two of them had – Ari and Tessa were back in the saddle alongside three younger protégés, one of whom was Hollie Cook (daughter of Sex Pistol Paul). Sure, I blurted. I’d seen this new line-up several times by now, and the idea of penning a review tickled my ego. Oh, the bloke added, can you interview them as well?

The tickle quickly turned to something else. I think it was blind terror.

You see, I’m not a music writer. In fact, I’ve always been simultaneously envious of rock journalists and glad I don’t have their job. Partly because writing about music – particularly about what music sounds like – is a difficult skill (one that the ego-tickle had made me forget I didn’t possess), but also because I don’t think I could pull the right faces. In the dressing room I’d either be a starstruck loon or an embarrassed uncle. I’ve written before about being blasé meeting celebs when working in London bookshops, but in an interview situation the dynamic’s totally different – you’re not in control.

And apart from anything else, how exactly was a nebbishy bookseller like myself meant to hang out backstage with the a rock band, particularly the bloody Slits? My mind raced back to that Omnibus footage. Maybe I was to suffer the same fate as those ABBA sleeves? Maybe I was to be their Rod Stewart?

When the day came, I was a gibbering bag of nerves. I think I spent most of it in the toilet, which I guess was pretty punk. What on earth was I going to ask them? The sage advice ‘Never meet your heroes’ continually rang in my ears. I cringed at the image of me standing there timidly in my glasses while they cackled and jeered and spat into my notepad, possibly while making satirical remarks about my penis. I mean, I’d seen what Toyah had done to that poor policeman in Jubilee.

At the very least, I imagined they’d stare at me like this:

slits new.png

But somehow I made it to the venue. I gave my name at the desk, and shortly afterwards an ents officer came down to meet me. The one good thing about tonight was that I was doing the interview before the show, which meant I could at least enjoy the gig afterwards. He took me down several corridors and up endless flights of stairs, before we eventually arrived on some kind of scaffolding gangway – it was (and I’m not sure why this popped into my head) a bit like the one I’d viewed the wreck of the Mary Rose from on a school trip.

‘Ari, I’ve got a guy from the press here’ the ents officer said cheerily.

I looked over the gangway into a makeshift dressing-area, and…there she was. Ari Up herself – lying on a chaise longue quietly reading a novel.

‘Hi,’ I said, greeting her in much the same way that I’d greeted the Mary Rose.

‘Hello,’ she said, in much the same way that the Mary Rose had greeted me. ‘Are you from the radio?’

‘No, I’m, um…writing for a website.’

‘A what?‘ She sounded tired.

‘A website. God Is In The TV.’ I grew puce. Somehow I didn’t think Lester Bangs had this sort of trouble.

‘Can we do this afterwards?’ she said to the ents officer, before turning to me again and pointing at her throat. ‘I need to save my voice, you see.’ She took a swig of Evian.

‘Yeah, no worries’ I heard myself say, as if I had any kind of choice, my heart sinking at the realisation that my ordeal would be prolonged. Come on, bring out the rubber sheeting and get it over with.

‘If he comes back after the show, he can talk to me then’ she said. It was like I was on Jim’ll Fix It.

‘Yeah, cool, no worries’ said the ents officer, jangling his keys in a come-on-let’s-go type way. And we left. But as we did so, Ari said goodbye and flashed me one of the sweetest and kindest smiles I think I’ve ever seen.

This was the last I saw of her. The post-gig interview never happened, and I never met the rest of the band. To cut a long story short, the security guard (understandably enough) didn’t believe my ‘I’m here to do an interview’ story and wouldn’t let me backstage. I called the ents officer repeatedly, but all I got was ents voicemail. A better, more punk-rock anecdote would involve me scaling a fence and breaking into the dressing room in defiance – I’m sure that’s what Julie Burchill and Nick Kent would have done. But no, not me. The evening was over.

Had I been snubbed, or was this just bad organisation on everybody’s part? A part of me didn’t really care. As I walked from the venue, I felt warm clouds of relief soothing my veins as the autumn air cooled my sweat; the interview probably would have been a disaster, or at the very least an anti-climax. I’d never been more pleased I wasn’t an actual rock journalist – mainly because, if I had been, I’d probably have been sacked.

I just kept remembering that smile.

Just over a year later, Ari Up was dead. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had terminal breast cancer when I spoke to her. The zen-like dressing room now made slightly more sense – why would she have wasted her precious time talking to someone like me? The gig, of course, was as riotous as ever.

My review is still archived  on the God Is On The TV website. Looking at it again now, the puce hue returns to my cheeks. It’s almost impossible to write about music without using all the obvious clichés; in fact, the harder you try to avoid them, the more of them you use. I see I praise Tessa Pollitt’s ‘faultless bass work’ (because obviously I’m an acknowledged expert on how to play the guitar and can spot a stray finger immediately). I also notice I couldn’t resist getting in a little dig about the support acts being ersatz. My jadedness with ‘new stuff’ has never really gone away.

Mortifyingly, I end the review by describing Ari Up as ‘a performer who, literally and figuratively, enjoys stripping to her knickers only to reveal further knickers underneath’. I have absolutely no idea what I meant by this, but please get in touch if you have any theories.

I hope Ari’s at peace now. She was a legend, and I hope this article has – to some extent at least – warmed her ghost.

ari up now

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(The incomplete) Ivor Cutler at the BBC

ivor drawing.jpg

As an appendix to my previous blog on Ivor Cutler, I thought I’d attempt to assemble a chronological list of Cutler’s BBC radio and television appearances. Oh yes.

At the moment, this is only a skeleton guide. There’s stuff missing. An awful lot. At the moment, I’m relying mainly on the BBC’s Genome site for information – it’s a superb resource, but it has a few drawbacks. Firstly, it only lists what was physically published in the Radio Times, so I’ve only been able to list appearances where Cutler was (a) scheduled and (b) billed. His first TV appearances were on Cliff Michelmore’s Tonight programme, for example, but right now I have no details on them. Secondly, scanning technology is never perfect, meaning that the likes of ‘Ivro Cvtler’ will fail to be picked up by the search engine. To do the archaeology properly, I’d need to visit the BBC’s Written Archives Centre and go through all the programme-as-broadcast sheets.

But it’s a start. My hope is that this guide will gradually get fleshed out as more information comes to light. If you know immediately of any glaring omissions, please let me know. (My thanks already to Justin Lewis for the Whistle Test tx date.)

Even with the gaps, it’s an interesting guide. His major radio work (Cutler the Lax, A Wet Handle, Jelly Mountain et al) are fairly well-known, but it surprised me how many one-off radio oddities he did – often erratically scheduled late at night on Radio 3. I didn’t know he and Phyllis King did a show together in 1981 before King Cutler, for example. It’s also pleasing to know that he was in the first full-length programme broadcast on BBC2.

A few notes. I chose not to include ‘needle time’ appearances  (eg, ‘My Disposition’ in the first edition of Blue Jam, or the clips used in Radio 4’s Archive Hour ‘Stuff and Nonsense’), restricting the guide to original/exclusive appearances only. I also decided not to include all of the BBC7/Radio 4 Extra repeats.

I’ve listed the Radio 1 sessions separately, and for this information I’m indebted to the research of Ken Garner. His 1993 book In Session Tonight (revised and expanded as The Peel Sessions in 2007) was described by John Peel himself as ‘an extraordinary work of scholarship’ and he wasn’t wrong.

So anyway. Strap yourself in.

1 (i). RADIO

ivor-harmonium

MONDAY NIGHT AT HOME
Home Service, Mon 8pm (7:30pm from 1960)
Sometimes repeated later in the week as HOME ON SATURDAY

Note: Cutler was often billed as ‘Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup’ or ‘Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, OMP’. This 60-minute show ran from April 1959 to July 1962 – these are Cutler’s billed appearances, with the titles listed if known:

19/10/59
26/10/59: First Love
9/11/59:  Egg-Meat
16/11/59: Coughing Competition
23/11/59: Gruts for Tea
30/11/59: Windpipe MacDonald
7/12/59: The Way
14/12/59: Turkish Bath Play
21/12/59: Gruts for Tea
28/12/59: New Nose
4/1/60: Fish-Fright
11/1/60: The Tureen
18/1/60: Grass Seed
25/1/60: Bespoke Children
1/2/60: The Prisoner’s Secret
22/2/60: Unknown
29/2/60: Songs of an OMP
7/3/60: Songs of an OMP
28/3/60: Songs of an OMP
11/4/60: Songs of an OMP
25/4/60: Songs of an OMP
9/5/60 : Songs of an OMP
23/5/60: Songs of an OMP
13/6/60: Songs of an OMP
20/6/60: Songs of an OMP
27/6/60: A Red Flower
11/7/60: A Beserk Leg
31/10/60: A Steady Job
14/11/60: Spoon Control
21/11/61: A Distant Pain
28/11/60: The Feather Field’
5/12/60: Cold Potato
19/12/60: Scratch My Back
26/12/60
2/1/61: The Embarrassed Handywoman
9/1/61: I Want to Join
16/1/61: Letter from a Grannie
23/1/61: The Footkerchief
20/2/60: How to Make a Friend
27/2/61: The Hoorgi House
6/3/61: The Human Awl
3/4/61: Dirty Dinner
1/5/61: The Impressario
8/5/61: Old Cups of Tea
29/5/61: The Ouch-Stoppit Merriman Quartet
5/6/61: The Thinker
19/6/61: The Jamme-Beanabody Affair
10/7/61: The False God
17/7/61: The Tum-Tum Reader
16/10/61: Shapely Balloon
23/10/61: A National Disgrace
30/10/61: Beatrice and her Dirty Knees
6/11/61: The Fickle Sago Scrooper
13/11/61: Jellypocket
25/61: The Distant Pain
15/1/62: The Aimless Dawn-Runner
22/1/62: Push-Kidney
29/1/62: Agitated Pianist
5/2/62: Two Weary Professionals
19/2/62: Mary’s Drawer
5/3/62: The Aggressive Onion Seller
12/3/62
19/3/62
26/3/62: Suskia Copier
2/4/62: The Youthy Rubbish Judger
23/4/62: Not Again!
7/5/62: Frontways Flute
28/5/62: Meaty Bones
4/6/62: The Bemused Woman-Chaser
11/6/62: The Jeopardised Farm
18/6/62: What’s Your Price
25/6/62: Venus in Room XVIII
2/7/62: Nothing for Sale

Note: Re-recordings of some of these pieces were included on the 1986 album Gruts.

PARENTS AND CHILDREN
4/12/61 (30m)
Third Programme, Mon 7:30pm

THE I.C. SHOW
Broadcast over one week, 6/1/64 – 10/1/64 (5x15m)
Home Service, Mon-Fri 10:30pm

POETRY D-DAY
23/5/70 (45m)
Radio 3, Sat 6:45pm

IF IT’S WEDNESDAY IT MUST BE…
4/4/73 and 11/4/73 (2x40m)
Radio 4, 9:35pm

SILENCE
4/1/79 (20m)
Radio 3, Thur 10:35pm
(Repeated 23/2/79 and 14/8/79)
Note: Released on the 1986 album Gruts

POETRY NOW
7/12/79 and 8/2/80 (20m)
Radio 3, Fri 8:20/8:15pm)

IVOR CUTLER AND…

SERIES 1
Broadcast across four consecutive nights, 21/6/80 – 24/6/80 (4x10m)
1. ‘…the Mermaid’
2. ‘…the Mole’
3. ‘…the Princess’
4. ‘…his Dad’
Radio 3, Sat-Tue; various times around 10:30pm
(Repeated weekly, 14/11/80 – 5/12/80)

SERIES 2
Broadcast over Christmas 1981 (6x various durations between 5m and 15m)
1. ‘…a Barber’ (22/12/81)
2. ‘…a Paper Seller’ (24/12/81)
3. ‘…a Storeman’ (26/12/81)
4. ‘…a Small Holder’ (28/12/81)
5. ‘A Miner is Approached by Ivor Cutler’ (30/12/81)
6. ‘A Sheet Worker is Approached by Ivor Cutler’ (3/1/82)
Radio 3, Tue- Mon; mostly 8:55pm (final show 7:15pm)
(Repeated 30/10/82 – 4/12/82)

Note: For both runs, each edition is billed with its own separate title. The final two programmes don’t fit with ‘Ivor Cutler and…’ but are clearly part of the same series.

Note: All ten pieces were released on the 1986 album Prince Ivor.

KING AND CUTLER
22/5/81 (30m)
Radio 3, Fri 7pm

ASPECTS OF THE FRINGE
19/12/81 (45m)
Radio 4, Sat 11:15pm
(Repeated 6/1/82)

PRINCE IVOR
20/3/83 (20m)
Radio 3, Sun 3:40pm
Note: Released on the 1986 album Prince Ivor.

PROFILE
17/11/84 (20m)
Radio 4, Sat 9:30pm

BAT BLUES
5/3/87 (20m)
Radio 3, Thur 7:40pm
(Repeated 29/12/87)

CUTLER ON EDUCATION
30/3/89 (15m)
Radio 3, Thur 9:35pm

KING CUTLER
11/1/90 – 15/2/90 (6x30m)
Radio 3, Thur; various times around 9:30pm
(Repeated by BBC7, 17/1/08 – 21/2/08 and 20/9/09 – 25/10/09, although individual episodes were first included on Comedy Winners, broadcast 11/8/07, and Tom Robinson’s shift as Comedy Controller, 22/9/07)
Note: Programmes originally given numbered billing as ‘King Cutler I, King Cutler II’ etc.

CUTLER HAS 15
(‘…minutes in the archives!’)
27/7/90 – 10/8/90 (3x15m)
Radio 4, Fri 11:45pm

CUTLER THE LAX
2/8/91 – 16/8/91 (3x15m)
Radio 4, Fri 11:45pm
(Repeated 10/4/92 – 1/5/92)

KALEIDOSCOPE
4/10/91 (40m)
Radio 4, Fri 4:05pm

IVOR MEETS CRAIG [Murray-Orr]
12/6/93 (10m)
Radio 4, Sat 12:15pm

CULT RADIO
20/7/93 (90m)
Radio 5, Tue 8pm)

A STUGGY PREN
Broadcast over one week, 30/5/94 – 3/6/94 (5x15m)
Radio 3, Mon-Fri; various times around 9:30pm
(Repeated by BBC7, 15/7/08 – 26/8/08)

LOOKING FORWARD TO THE PAST
16/5/96 (35m)
Radio 4, Thur 12:25pm
(Repeated 12/7/97)

JELLY MOUNTAIN
Broadcast over one week, 20/5/96 – 24/5/96 (5x15m)
Radio 3, Mon-Fri; various times between 8:55pm and 9:30pm
(Repeated on BBC7, 7/11/08 – 5/12/08 and 13/8/09 – 10/9/09)

THE AFTERNOON SHIFT
10/9/96 (60m)
Radio 4, Tue 3pm

STANZA ON STAGE
9/11/96 (30m)
Radio 4, Sat 11:30pm

A WET HANDLE
Broadcast over one week, 2/6/97 – 6/6/97 (5x15m)
Radio 3, Mon-Fri; various times between 8:50pm and 9:30pm
(Repeated by BBC7, 8/7/08 – 5/8/08; one episode also picked by Armando Iannucci for BBC7’s Comedy Controller sequence, 24/1/09)

IN TUNE
26/6/98 (150m)
Radio 3, Fri 5pm

GLASGOW DREAMER
4/2/03 (30m)
Radio 4, Tue 11:30am
(Repeated 8/11/05 and 26/3/06, and by BBC7 on 14/10/07)

POETRY PLEASE
9/2/03 (30m)
Radio 4, Sun 4:30pm
(Repeated 15/2/03)

2 (ii). THE RADIO 1 SESSIONS

ivor flat.jpg

These are Cutler’s Radio 1 sessions (recording dates in brackets) as listed in Ken Garner’s The Peel Sessions. I haven’t listed the tracks – if you want those, buy the book.

Note: Genome lists Cutler as a John Peel’s Night Ride guest on 9/5/68 (Radio 1, Thur 0:05pm).

7/5/69 (Wed 8:15pm; rx 5/5/69)
27/2/71 (Sat 3pm; rx 15/2/71)
24/11/71 (Wed 10pm; rx 8/11/71)
25/9/73 (Tue 10pm; rx 3/9/73)
28/11/74 (Thur 10pm; rx 14/11/74)
14/10/75 (Tue 11pm; rx 25/9/75)
31/8/76 (Tue 11pm; rx 17/8/76)
17/8/77 (Wed 10pm; rx 10/8/77)*
12/4/78 (Wed 10pm; rx 3/4/78)
27/2/79 (Tue 10pm; rx 20/2/79)
22/4/81 (Wed 10pm; rx 15/4/81)
3/3/83 (Thur 10pm; rx 23/2/83)
22/2/84 (Wed 10pm; rx 15/2/84)
15/7/85 (Mon 10pm; rx 30/6/85)
21/5/86 (Wed 10pm; rx 11/5/86)
15/6/87 (Mon 10pm; rx 9/6/87)
6/7/91 (Sat 11pm; rx 9/5/91)
15/12/91 (Sun 11pm; rx 31/10/91)
8/1/93 (Fri 11pm; rx 25/11/92)
8/1/94 (Sat 2pm/4:30pm*; rx 16/11/93)**
29/4/95 (Sat 5pm; rx 8/3/95)

*Released on vinyl by Strange Fruit, 1989

**A joint Andy Kershaw/John Peel session, shared between the two shows on the same afternoon

After the mid 90s, it gets a bit messy. The following appearances are listed on Genome but not recorded by Garner:

8/4/94 (Fri 10pm): A live appearance on Peel’s show as part of Sound City

16/7/95 (Sun 10pm): An Andy Kershaw session

1/4/96, 2/4/96 and 3/4/96 (Mon/Tue/Wed 10pm): Peel sits in for Mark Radcliffe – Cutler listed as a guest

Seven further Kershaw sessions (the last three for Radio 3), although some of these may have been repeats:

21/7/97 (Mon 10:40pm)
12/11/98 (Thur midnight)*
17/6/99 (Thur midnight)
29/7/99 (Thur midnight)
2/11/01 (Radio 3, Fri 10:15pm)
22/3/02 (Radio 3, Fri 10:15pm)
6/12/02 (Radio 3, Fri 10:15pm)

*Garner lists a session recorded on 12/6/98 and broadcast across various Peel and Kershaw shows (tx dates unknown). This was possibly one of them.

2. TELEVISION

ivor black hat.jpg

TONIGHT with Cliff Michelmore
19/2/57 – 18/6/65 (40m)
BBC TV, weeknights; originally 6:05pm
Cutler’s appearances unknown

LET’S IMAGINE: ‘A World of One’s Own’
2/2/62 (35m)
BBC TV, Fri 1:30pm

THE ACKER BILK BAND SHOW
Fortnightly 14/6/62 – 23/8/62 (6x25m)
BBC TV, Thur 5pm

THE ALBERTS’ CHANNEL TOO
21/4/64 (25m)
BBC2, Tue 7:30pm
Note: Part of BBC2’s postponed launch night – originally scheduled for 20/4/64
(Repeated 6/12/64)

SIX: ‘Diary of a Nobody’
12/12/64 (35m)
BBC2, Sat 10:10pm
Note: Cutler composed the music for this Ken Russell adaptation.
(Repeated 23/9/67)

OFF BEAT…
5/2/65 and 3/9/65 (2x30m)
BBC2, Fri 9:15pm and 9:35pm

MUSICSTAND
15/6/65 (25m)
BBC1, Tue 5:05pm

PURE GINGOLD
27/12/65 (30m)
BBC2, 9:30pm

LATE NIGHT LINE-UP
13/1/66 and 9/7/66 (2xc40m)
BBC2, Thur/Sat 11:25pm/11:20pm

MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR [Beatles film]
26/12/67 (50m)
BBC1, 8:35pm
(Repeated on BBC2, 5/1/68 and 21/12/79)

SIX AND SEVEN-EIGHTHS
17/9/72 (?30m)
BBC2, Sun 11pm

THE END OF THE PIER SHOW: ‘Rig O’Doom’
1/12/74 (25m)
BBC2, Sun 10:35
(Repeated 24/1/76)

THE INNES BOOK OF RECORDS
12/10/81 (25m)
BBC2, Mon 10:25pm
Note: Filmed performance of ‘Gruts for Tea’

YOU AND ME
1/11/84 (15m)
BBC2, Thur 2pm
Cutler’s ‘Meal One’ is the featured story
(Repeated 27/5/85, 27/10/86, 31/3/87 and 28/11/88)

WHISTLE TEST
3/6/86 (60m)
BBC2, Tue 6pm
Cutler performs ‘Shoplifters’ and ‘My Wee Pet’

HARTY’S CHRISTMAS PARTY
24/12/86 (55m)
BBC2, Wed 10:50pm)

TURN THAT RACKET DOWN [Part of JOHN PEEL NIGHT]
29/8/99 (65m)
BBC2, Sun 9pm

ARENA: FRANCIS BACON’S ARENA
19/3/05 (100m)
BBC2, Sat 9:10pm

LOOKING FOR TRUTH WITH A PIN
15/4/05 (60m)
BBC4, Fri 10pm
(Repeated 16/4/05, 30/12/05, 24/3/06, 26/3/06 and 11/11/06)

CUTLER’S LAST STAND
15/4/05 (30m)
BBC4, Fri 11pm

ivor painting.jpg

 

 

 

 

Ivor My Engine

It had been a bad day at the bookshop. The boss was in a stinking mood, the heating was broken, and there was a huge pile of Schott’s Miscellany in need of new stickers.

Looking up, I noticed an old codger loitering by the reference section. He sported a tartan cap with a sunflower in the brim, and was studiously leafing through the latest Who’s Who. Oh god, I thought, another local loon – I’m really not in the mood right now. Catching my eye, and perhaps feeling I was owed some kind of explanation, he raised his head and said only one thing: ‘Just checking.’

It was no longer a bad day at the bookshop.

ivor-cutler

My first experience of Ivor Cutler was a common one: it was on the Radio 1 John Peel programme, for which he recorded 23 sessions (a record narrowly beaten only by The Fall and, in various guises, David Gedge). 1991 had already been a pretty good year for Peel sessions, showcasing everyone from the Charlatans to the Shamen, Bongwater to the Ragga Twins, Helmet to Dr Phibes and the House of Wax Equations. I used to tape them religiously and compile elaborately felt-tipped cassettes of highlights. It  was the sheer variety of artists that mainly thrilled me, but nothing had quite prepared me for Ivor Cutler. Out of my radio came this slightly unsettling Govan voice, crooning the following over a doleful piano:

Why is your coat so thick, Joe?
Why is your coat so thick? It seems thicker every day.

“What’s it got to do with you?
That’s the way I like my coat.
My coats have always been thick.”

What’s the material called, Joe?
You told me yesterday but I forgot.

“I’ve forgotten too.
But I’ll tell you the colour – it’s a darkish blue.”

Oh don’t go on, the colour’s grey –
It’s only the light from the street.
Do let’s go for a walk, Joe,
I’d like to stretch my feet.

Why is your coat so thick, Joe?
Why is your coat so thick? It seems thicker every day.

It was deeply strange, but I found it hard to put my finger on precisely why it was strange. Even allowing for Peel’s famous each-record-completely-different-from-the-one-before-it eclecticism, Ivor Cutler was unusual. With the precision of his inflexions and the daringness of his silences, it was as if Radio 1 had – unlike my cassette deck – been put on pause. It was as if the weather had changed. ‘Ivor’s great at dreich’ Billy Connolly once said, referring to the Scottish slang for drizzle.

But the thing with Ivor Cutler was that you had eclecticism within eclecticism. He didn’t seem to fit into any one box. He wasn’t a ‘cosy’ poet, but he wasn’t an overtly ‘alternative’ one either. He was neither John Betjeman nor John Cooper Clarke; neither Pam Ayres nor Patti Smith. His work was very funny, but it seemed to carry a peculiar weight on its shoulders that the work of other ‘humour poets’ (even the very good ones) often didn’t.

In his world, nothing was quite what it seemed. The cover of his 1976 Jammy Smears LP sees Cutler bare-chested, apparently in a southpaw sparring pose, as if he’s snarling ‘You talking to me?’ into a mirror. Look closely, however, and his fists aren’t actually clenched. His face is melancholic and afraid, like a haunted figure in a Samuel Beckett play. His boxing shorts are pyjama bottoms.

ivor jammy.jpg

Cutler was Scottish and  Jewish, although he seemed to contradict Arnold Brown’s famous joke about these being ‘two racial stereotypes for the price of one’.  I often tried to piece together his ‘story’, but it was a slippery one. Who exactly was he? His recollections and observations were rooted in Scotland, but they also seemed to take place in a bigger, far woozier world. He belonged to Glasgow, but also to other planets. This is, after all, a man who was once grounded by the RAF for ‘dreaminess’.

It’s interesting, listening to Cutler’s early work (his first three records are currently available on CD as An Elpee and Two Epees), how his delivery arrived almost full-formed. Those 1959/61 recordings have a slightly more Milligan-esque knowing wink, and you can hear how they wouldn’t have frightened too many Home Service horses, but it’s still the Cutler we know. As far as I can tell, he’s an artist with no juvenilia.

As the years rolled on, the voice (and face) became unmistakable – when it comes to TV ‘hauntology’, he was exactly the kind of weirdo you’d expect to see popping up on Late Night Line-Up, Whistle Test or The Innes Book of Records. He was also terrific as Mr Bloodvessel in Magical Mystery Tour (‘I am concerned for you to enjoy yourselves, within the limits of British decency…if you know what I mean’), although it always annoys me how much they underused him dialogue-wise.

As he grew older, Cutler’s work – like Samuel Beckett’s – matured into a sort of crisp minimalism, and his imagery became even odder and more oblique. Here’s his 1991 prose poem Seaweed:

Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to determine where a woman’s face ends and the air begins. As though flesh and air shared the area, like high tide and low tide.

So when you lean forward to kiss her, your lips touch sand, or else they plunge into the sea. It’s always a surprise.

I prefer sand, with a bit of bladderwrack on the lip.

The phrase ‘flesh and air shared the area’ is brilliant there. Cutler doesn’t just have a poet’s eye – he peers intently at the world, and at language, as though through a jeweller’s eyepiece.

It always comes back to that voice, though – a voice that works very well on the page, but only if you already know what it sounds like. I remember when Cutler was about to collaborate with some indie band, the NME reported a telephone conversation between him and the singer. Sadly I can’t recall the name of the band, but I vividly recall the transcript:

SINGER: When shall we meet?
IVOR: Well, what time do you surface?
SINGER (Laughing): Well, we don’t usually surface till about ten!
IVOR: In that case I shall meet you at nine.

I also remember a Radio 4 announcer asking him about his plans for Millennium Eve: ‘I’ll climb over my books and try to get into bed,’ he said. ‘Then I might sneer.’

Much as I adore his poetry, the autobiographical Life in  a Scotch Sitting Room and Glasgow Dreamer monologues are probably my favourite works. I love the line about the family eating herrings, about how they’d wolf down the batter first ‘to take the edge off our appetites so we could eat the herrings with respect’. I never tire of the story about his father taking them for an instructional walk (‘There are lots of thistles in Scotland – we were soon well-acquainted with them’). And I’ll certainly never forget the line ‘I extended my puny finger and sank it into his fluted scrotum’. How much of it was true autobiography, and how much was invention? Again, Cutler blurs the lines.

I remember one winter I got ill with a fever (‘hugging the wall to escape the worst effects of the fresh air’) and my company under the blankets was the Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume II album, recorded at the 3rd Eye Centre on Sauchiehall Street in 1977. It remains one of the most blissful evenings of my life. Never mind listening to Pink Floyd on acid – you should try digging Ivor Cutler when you’ve got flu.

ivor scotch.jpg

When I moved to London and began working at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I got used to seeing incredibly famous people. When you work in London retail, you very quickly become blasé about talking to celebrities – they’re just part of your daily routine. I could fill a whole book about my experiences behind the counter, serving everyone from Clare Grogan downwards (or, if you like, Rod Liddle upwards). I could tell you about the time a grumpy Ken Dodd asked me to look after his suitcases or the time Nicole Kidman pushed past me on the stairs. I could tell you that Michael Heseltine and Jerry Sadowitz were both very friendly but Harriet Harman wasn’t. I could mention the week I served three different Doctors Who. I could recall the day a heavily-masked Michael Jackson generously tipped the security guards with chocolate but then had his credit card declined. Only two celebs have ever really made me truly starstruck, though: one was Tom Courtenay (who asked where the  Anglo-Saxon dictionaries were), and the other was Ivor Cutler.

Foyles stocked quite a few of Cutler’s volumes, a selection of which had just been republished as miniatures, and Ivor (who lived locally) would periodically pop in to see how they were getting on, a bit like a restless gardener tending a greenhouse. I remember the way he first introduced himself: ‘I’m Ivor – would you like me to sign anything?’ he said, carefully dismounting his bike. ‘I’m apparently Scotland’s foremost poet.’

During my time at Foyles, I got to know Ivor quite well. He’d come in fairly regularly, and I often volunteered to work in the poetry section in anticipation of his visits. He was somehow frail and full of beans at the same time. His official live performances were rare, but I had a private audience with him every week; he’d hang about by the till reciting poems, stories and songs, most of which seemed to be world exclusives. I remember one time a police helicopter could be loudly heard overhead and he ad-libbed a routine about the ingenious methods he was using to escape capture.

Did I discover ‘the real Ivor Cutler’? Not really. Or if I did, he was the same chap who’s on the records. He did confide that he didn’t think John Peel should be wasting his time with Home Truths, but that’s the closest I’ve got to gossip. It was very odd talking to him ‘out of character’, though – he usually had a smile playing on his lips, and I suspected that, like most eccentrics, he was fully aware of the eccentricity-buttons he was pushing. (How long had he planned that ‘Just checking’ line? Had he used it before?) I’ve always felt the same way about John Peel, Alan Bennett and Vivian Stanshall – there’s a trick to making all that quotability seem natural. Which isn’t to say that any of those people are frauds; quite the opposite, in fact – they’re simply very skilled at speaking the truth.

His visits became gradually less frequent, and I last spoke to him about a year before he died. As he left, he handed me a sticker (as he often did), which read ‘To remove this label, take it off’.

To most of my colleagues he was ‘that weird Scottish poet guy’. To me, he was…well, that weird Scottish poet guy. But he brightened up my days anyway. There’s certainly a lot less dreich in the world now he’s gone. (Or a lot more, depending on how you look at it.)

ivor-sunflower

I was always touched by how protective he was of his own books, which is why it maddens me how little of his stuff remains available today. Most of his poetry and prose is long out of print, for a start, the tiny volumes he signed in Foyles now commanding colossal sums. The albums have fared slightly better, although not all of them are available – the material’s all owned by several different labels, so even an Essential Ivor Cutler compilation may be a problematic endeavour. The Peel sessions, however, are surely long-overdue the boxset treatment.

What really puzzles me is why nobody’s ever commissioned a proper Ivor Cutler anthology. Not necessarily the collected works (which would be a glorious doorstop) , but a ‘Selected Poems’ volume at the very least. This goes back to what I was saying before about me being unsure of Cutler’s status. Is he considered a ‘proper’ poet? How is he viewed by the gatekeepers of the literary canon? It’s hard to get any real frame of reference, but his absence on the bookshelves remains scandalous.

With this in mind, I advocate that every January 26th we should celebrate Cutler Night. We toast Rabbie Burns on the 25th as usual, but the next day we raise a class to Scotland’s other national poet. And instead of haggis, neeps and tatties, we tuck into egg meat, gruts and pickled knees.

All within the limits of British decency, of course.

ivor big.jpg

If you know what I mean.

 

How to Cook Eggs

three eggs.jpg

Eggs. Yes, eggs.

About ten years ago, my wife and I were big fans of the UKTV Food series Market Kitchen – a sort of low-rent version of the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen – hosted by the twinkly (and very posh) Matthew Fort. Discovering that they shot the series down the road from us in Camden, we applied for tickets to be in the ‘audience’.

I say audience, but in reality we were more like stooges: during the ad breaks, we were endlessly shuffled around the tiny studio like ballroom-dancing extras in a costume drama, the production team trying in vain to disguise the fact that there were only nine of us. But we were more than happy to comply, whether an item required us to lounge about on sofas tucking into jam roly-poly or to sit awkwardly on patio chairs and prod at bits of quiche.

market kitchen fort.jpg

Matthew Fort (left) and Tom Parker Bowles, about to prepare daffodil surprise

I was initially asked to sit at the ‘breakfast bar’, where Brian Turner was later to be cooking duck. Around us were rustic crates groaning with fruit – all real, but covered in so much furniture polish that the crew issued a heath and safety warning saying we should on no account attempt to scrump anything. I tried to adopt a casual elbow-on-the-worktop pose. If anybody gave me a lemon pie, I was more than more than ready to say ‘Mmm, you can really taste the lemon’ with appropriate feeling.

Matthew Fort was buzzing about the studio, convivially chatting to everyone, and eventually he came over to us. His opening line was about cheese – specifically whether one should refrigerate it or not. Fearful that I was being tested, I said that I did indeed refrigerate cheese, but always brought it to room temperature an hour or so before serving. This was a lie. Fort seemed impressed, though, which gave me a gust of confidence. I then heard this come out of my mouth:

‘But do you put your eggs in the fridge?’, I asked, my carefully-positioned elbow wobbling slightly. ‘That’s the big debate.’

Yes, ‘That’s the big debate’. Only ten minutes on a daytime TV show and already I’d perfected the lingo. Maybe later I would ‘go on a mission’ to find out what ‘the people of Britain’ thought.

Fort said he didn’t put his eggs in the fridge. If I’d been quicker, I would have said ‘Does your butler do it for you?’, but my dalliance with razor-sharp media bantz was over. He started to mingle elsewhere and I wondered if I’d touched a nerve. After all, cooking always comes back to eggs. When Delia Smith devoted three whole episodes of her 1998 series How To Cook to the subject, she was roundly condemned. Come on, Delia, everyone knows how to cook an egg, they said. What next – how to boil water, huh huh huh.

Well, a lot of people don’t know how to cook eggs. More to the point, knowing how to cook eggs is essentially about knowing how to cook full-stop: if you can master eggs, you can master anything. Well, maybe not Brian Turner’s duck.

So the purpose of this blog is to give you my foolproof methods for cooking eggs the four basic (or, to quote Basil Fawlty, extremely different) ways: boiled, fried, scrambled and poached. You may have other methods, and you may disagree violently with mine (perhaps you may even throw eggs in protest), but they’re my methods and they’ve generally served me well.

BOILED EGGS

Boiling has one disadvantage over other egg-cooking techniques: without x-ray vision, you can’t monitor how well they’re doing. There are, after all, few things grimmer than cracking open the shell only to find a rock-hard yolk or (far worse) gloopy uncooked white. As with baking, timing is everything – you can’t just wing it. But the following usually works.

For a hard-boiled egg, put the eggs in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil, then take the pan off the heat and leave for eight minutes. When the eight minutes are up, put them in an ice bath or run them under very cold water. This will set everything nicely, but won’t produce the pebble-like powdery yolk that UKIP voters probably get nostalgic for; the yolk will have a slight squidge, meaning that it’s perfect in things like caesar salads but will also be firm enough to slice or chop.

For a soft-boiled egg, bring the water to a boil first, then add the eggs. Leave them boiling for five minutes, and then it’s cold shower time. This will produce a solid white with a creamy yolk tailor-made for dipping.

And if you’re doing the latter, do it properly, with the appropriate ‘theatre’ – ie, make some buttered soldiers. Get some decent bread, as well – I’m no snob when it comes to the cheap stuff, but floppy soldiers are a bit…well, I’m reminded of Malcolm Tucker’s line about the marzipan dildo.

You’ll need salt, too. Just a pinch at the top and it’s nom city.

egg soldiers.jpg

FRIED EGGS

There are three main methods here: sunny side up, over-easy, and exploded.

The exploded method (intentionally breaking the yolk and cooking it on both sides – a bit like an unmixed omelette) is fine if the egg’s going in a sandwich or will be otherwise disguised by other foodstuffs, but it’s not pretty. I knew a hipster food stall which would break the yolk at the end of the frying process, after which it would be poured onto hamburgers and bacon butties as a kind of sauce. Whoever came up with that method clearly remembered this revolting shot from Withnail and I:

withnail-egg

Sunny side up (where the egg is only fried on one side and the yolk sits proudly naked on the top) is difficult to get right. Lots of otherwise excellent eateries do it badly because it’s a tricky balancing act: the white has to be fully set on the top without being overcooked on the base, while the yolk must remain not only runny but piping hot as well. A disastrous sunny side up egg has a burnt bottom and slimy raw white surrounding a tepid yolk.

So how do you do it? The best method is to baste the top with the oil as it’s cooking. But do so gently – spooning huge amounts of boiling fat directly onto the yolk will not only cook it far too quickly, it’ll also lose that lovely orangey-yellow glow. Take a teaspoon and slowly baste the outside of the yolk rather than the yolk itself. Keep the temperature at medium too, so the process is nice and steady. (In order to spoon up the oil easily, you’ll inevitably have to add more oil than you really need, but that’s life.)

Sunny side up is tricky, but worth it. After all, few savoury dishes aren’t cheered up by sticking an egg on top.

egg wok.jpg

Over-easy is when the yolk is covered with a thin film of ‘white’ (it’s not actually egg-white, the surface of the yolk just turns that colour) while the yolk itself remains soft. This can be achieved by flipping the egg and cooking it for a  few seconds, but there’s obviously a strong chance here that the yolk will break – a better method is to use the basting technique again, but with oil gently applied to the yolk itself. The advantage with this method is that you can be sure that all of the white is cooked; the disadvantage is that it doesn’t look quite as attractive on the plate, although you do of course have the delayed pleasure of breaking into it.

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A quick word about oil. Sunflower’s the best, I think. I never think olive oil works that well with eggs, unless you’re having a huevos rancheros party. Butter’s no good either – it burns too easily, and the nutty flavour isn’t really what you want.

Oh, and frying pans. There’s no real getting away from the fact that you can’t successfully fry eggs in a crap pan. It’s a miserable experience, the eggs will fall to bits, and the bloody thing will take an eternity to scrub clean. So if you really love fried eggs, you need to invest in a decent non-stick pan. They’re pricey, yes, but they’re also essential for:

SCRAMBLED EGGS

There are countless methods for scrambling eggs. The Australians tend to do them in a very omelettey way, folding together the mixture into a sort of egg duvet, whereas Delia Smith (working from an old Savoy recipe) famously caused mass nausea with this tribute to Salvador Dalí:

delia-eggs

I’m not keen on either, to be honest. I’d say perfect scrambled eggs ought to be somewhere between those two extremes, and ideally look like this:

scrambled eggs.jpg

(Yes, including the bacon.)

There are two basic rules: keep the heat low and don’t stop stirring. But as with all rules, these come with footnotes: I find, in order to avoid the Dalí experience, the low heat needs a quick boot up the arse every so often and the spoon needs an occasional rest; this means the eggs firm up slightly, allowing them to be broken up and stirred again. And go easy on the butter too: yes, you need a generous knob (forget my fried egg advice – butter is an essential here), but too much and you end up with babysick. On no account use milk or cream.

The important thing to remember – and this is something chefs endlessly wag their fingers about – is that scrambled eggs continue cooking after you take them off the heat. So get them to the point where they’re not quite as firm as you like them, then remove the pan and continue stirring. (You can always return it to the heat if you’ve removed it too soon.)

This is the point where I add the salt and pepper. Some chefs warn that adding salt to the egg mixture before (or during) cooking can make the eggs watery – I’m not sure if this is actually true, but I tend to add it afterwards anyway. You should be tasting the eggs for seasoning at that point anyway.

You need robust, well-toasted bread with scrambled eggs, I think – it certainly needs to withstand the wetness of the mixture. So again, no Mother’s Pride.

POACHED EGGS

This is the trickiest of all. I thought for years I couldn’t do them, until I hit upon the three basic rules. And none of them involve those annoying silicone pouch things.

Firstly, always use fresh eggs. Older ones don’t poach well. I mean, don’t stress out giving your eggs the witch-dunking treatment with bowls of water or anything – just avoid using eggs that have been hanging around in Matthew Fort’s larder for ages. Buy some new ones.

Secondly, use simmering water. If you dump an egg into a raging boil, it’ll break up immediately and you’ll be fishing annoying strings of white out of your saucepan for hours. Poaching isn’t the same as boiling – it’s meant to be a gentle method.

Thirdly, use the ‘whirlpool’ technique. Stir the simmering water in a brisk circular motion and then immediately drop the egg into the centre. (I usually crack it into a cup first, which is slightly quicker and easier.) At first, it’ll look a bit of a mess, but you’ll quickly see the egg shape forming – there’s something particularly pleasing about the final moment, when the last few strands of white wrap themselves snugly around the yolk. Leave this for about four minutes, and you’ll have the perfect poached egg – here’s one I made earlier (on the day Donald Trump was elected, actually):

Some people recommend adding vinegar in order to stop the egg breaking up, but I’m not so keen. Mainly because it makes the egg taste of vinegar.

So there we are. That’s eggs for you.

Next time on cookery corner: Brian Turner’s duck. Because that’s the really big debate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathless for Beckett

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I first encountered Samuel Beckett in my school library when I was 15. I knew his name from a joke I’d recently heard a comedian make following his death (one I’m sure was recycled when Harold Pinter passed away): ‘I hear Samuel Beckett died, after a long battle with a pause.’

The collection I found was Faber and Faber’s Collected Shorter Plays, the title of which made me snigger slightly. ‘Don’t worry, these ones aren’t too bad’ it seemed to be saying. Maybe they’d brought out another anthology called Chaucer: The Slightly More Bearable Stuff.

I flicked through it, and the plays were indeed short. Some were very short. They mostly had neat one-word titles, sounding more like albums than theatrical works: Endgame, Embers, Footfalls, Catastrophe, Rockaby. One was simply called Play.

Some of them didn’t have dialogue. Some didn’t even seem to have characters. They all appeared to have stage directions of some sort, but even these were written in a slightly strange tone: both pedantically complex and enigmatically vague. Some plays looked like pages of algebra. One seemed to be instructions for a square dance.

As a slightly precocious – but very naïve – GCSE student, I understood playwrights sometimes penned weird fare. I was fully aware theatre didn’t have to involve a proscenium arch; I knew it wasn’t solely women in ruffs saying ‘Aye my lord’ and posh men shouting ‘They’ll be here any minute, darling’ through French windows. But this was something else entirely. I mean…were they even plays?

The work which made my jaw drop the most was a piece called Breath. I’ll reproduce it here, because – as shorter plays go – they surely don’t come much shorter:

BREATH

Curtain.

  1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold for about five seconds.
  2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds.
  3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in I) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold for about five seconds.

And that’s it, apart from the following notes:

  • Rubbish.  No verticals, all scattered and lying.
  • Cry. Instant of recorded vagitus. Important that two cries be identical, switching on and off strictly synchronized light and breath.
  • Breath. Amplified recording.
  • Maximum light.  Not bright. If 0 = dark and 10 = bright, light should move from about 3 to 6 and back.

Try as I might, I simply couldn’t picture what on earth the play looked like. Not only visually, but as a theatrical experience. How can a play be 25 seconds long? How can it have no characters, plot, dialogue or movement? Did audience members demand their money back? When was the interval? What was it about? Was it a joke?

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The answer to the last question is ‘Yes and no’. (Which sounds a bit like the title of a shorter Beckett play.) Breath, the anthology informed me, was written in 1969 for inclusion in Kenneth Tynan’s New York revue Oh! Calcutta!, although I later heard Tynan decided the piece would be improved immeasurably if it featured a few naked women lying amidst the rubbish.

Beckett appeared to present Breath as a serious work, but then nothing in Beckett’s world is quite what it seems. It appears to be an exercise in extreme minimalism, yet there’s an awful lot going on. And how self-parodic are those stage instructions? The stipulation ‘No verticals’ always makes me smile, reminding me of Van Halen’s famous instruction that their rider should be free of brown M&M’s.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my Beckett epiphany in the school library was actually my second encounter with the great man. One of my earliest TV memories occurred one Sunday morning, where I chanced upon a strange group of characters in tatty clothing playing silly buggers around a tree. It resembled a sort of chilling post-apocalyptic circus routine, and it was perhaps my first experience of what some people of my generation call ‘hauntology’.

Over the years, I gradually worked out that this must have been Waiting for Godot I’d seen – or at least an extract from it, presumably shown as part of an Open University module. But the memory freaked me out for years, and it was a huge privilege some 40 years later to see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production starring Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving. (Never mind teachers pretending to laugh at Shakespeare – Vladamir’s ‘Well, THAT passed the time’ produced one of the biggest bellylaughs I’ve ever heard in a theatre.)

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I’ve become a bit of a Beckett groupie over the years, seeking out performances whenever I can. Everything from Juliet Stevenson’s Happy Days at the Young Vic to a Tower Hamlets performance of the radio play All That Fall where the audience were required to don blindfolds. (I must admit I kept peeking.) I was also lucky to see Lisa Dwan’s superb trilogy of Footfalls, Rockaby and Not I – very much a Beckett party bucket, that one.

I’ll also make a beeline to see archive screenings. I remember attending a double bill at the BFI Southbank a few years ago: the first half was Alan Clarke’s 1982 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (starring David Bowie), and the second was a Beckett miscellany. There was inevitably a mass exodus of Bowie fans after Baal finished, and audience members gradually started to drift away even more as the Beckett offerings continued. By the end, it was pretty much me and one other bloke watching a black and white production of Ghost Trio: a work which opens with a very long static shot of a room. Eventually the camera started to slowly zoom in, to which the other bloke emitted a slight sigh of disappointment, like he’d just seen Dylan go electric.

Included in the Beckett miscellany was Billie Whitelaw’s performance of Not I, which I’d first seen during BBC2’s cutely-titled A Wake for Sam season in 1990. This had been another work which had haunted me in the Faber and Faber collection, and again it was a work I struggled hard to visualise. The stage is pitch black except for a single beam of light which illuminates a human mouth hovering several feet above the stage. Whitelaw’s performance (a television adaptation directed by Beckett himself in 1975 and broadcast by the BBC two years later) is mesmerising enough, although it – unavoidably – breaks all the rules laid down in the theatre script. The mouth is in extreme close-up, for a start, with the vulva symbolism being somewhat on the nose. I remember a university lecturer of mine saying she was unsettled by the production, largely due to the volume of spittle.

beckett_not_i

It also omits the other character from the piece – a cowled figure who periodically shrugs at the dialogue ‘with helpless compassion’. This character (‘The Auditor’) had always intrigued me, because I couldn’t work out how the figure could ever be seen by the audience. If the light was only meant to illuminate the mouth, how could they be seen without the effect being spoilt? Was this, I wondered, another joke? Had Beckett created a character who couldn’t possibly exist? A theatrical version of a tree falling in  a deserted forest? Beckett later conceded that the Auditor character was optional, so take that how you will. I was, however, thrilled to hear that, during his Royal Court days, the role was once played by Mel Smith.

It was exciting to see Lisa Dwan’s performance in 2014. The cowled figure was absent, but what struck me was how small the mouth was on stage. I don’t know why I was taken aback by this – after all, I know full-well how big mouths are. But it was a surprise, having been used to Whitelaw’s visceral gob in 16mm monochrome, to encounter Dwan’s glittery lips flickering restlessly about the stage like a tormented butterfly. She wasn’t better or worse than Whitelaw – she was just different, and certainly faster.

I was also intrigued by the techniques necessary to pull off the effect. In order for the mouth, and mouth alone, to be illuminated, Dwan had to be made up like this:

beckett-dwan

and, to ensure the mouth never veered out of the spotlight’s beam, she had to be strapped into this contraption:

dwan-board

The second photo, of course, could well be another Beckett character…

What is it I love about Beckett? I’m not entirely sure, and that’s probably why I love him. People say he’s ‘bleak’, which he is, but I also find his work oddly restful. Like Bach, the near-mathematical clarity of his work is often strangely soothing. But Beckett’s world is also a frightening one: it’s a world of shadows and silences; of panic and pain; of black drapes and creaky chairs; of sunken eyes and frozen faces. A world between sleeping and waking, often on stained mattresses. It’s M.R. James taken up to eleven, but without all the guff about ghosts. I think what I admire about Beckett is the integrity of his voice – there are ambiguities, yes, but no fakery or party tricks. He means it, man.

Back to that book for a second:

beckett-shorter

What had also attracted me was the picture of Beckett himself. ‘Striking’ would be a rather insufficient and banal word for describing his extraordinary features. Try typing his name into Google Images and you’ll get endless photographs of The World’s Coolest Man: with deep-drilling eyes and skin like bark, nobody could pull off the rock-and-roll ‘sitting in a café’ pose better than Sam:

beckett-cafe

(I don’t know about you, but I think the effect would have been ruined if Beckett had actually ordered one of their ice-creams. Then again, I think he could just about pull it off.)

Beckett himself, you see, is an enigma. He was never publicly interviewed, and film footage of him is almost non-existent; only in 1987, during preparations for a television adaptation of What Where, did someone finally manage (with his permission) to capture a few slivers of him talking on camcorder. It’s often said of fiercely private celebrities that ‘it’s impossible to imagine them going to the supermarket’ etc, but with Beckett it really is. When I picture his life at home, I find it hard not to imagine him sitting silently at a bare table (with no verticals), pausing only to open and shut the curtains every five minutes. But this perception of Beckett is obviously nonsense: those who met him speak of a warm and convivial man, always happy to talk about his work to fans and scholars alike.

beckett colour.png

He was a contradiction, and that’s what we see in his plays. What are they ‘about’? Everything and nothing. There’s no shortage of musicians, writers and comedians I admire, but Beckett takes me to a unique and special place. He’s my church.

Theatre keeps his body of work in rude health, although television has treated him very poorly in recent years. The  Beckett On Film project in 2000, an RTÉ/Channel 4 collaboration which saw 19 of his plays broadcast in primetime, was a noble endeavour (Penelope Wilton’s performance of Rockaby being a terrifying highlight), although it’s unimaginable that it would happen now. It was with some dismay, but little surprise, that I saw BBC4 totally ignore his centenary in 2006.

His  TV and radio work doesn’t enjoy the respect it should, much of it unavailable or contained within expensively long-deleted boxsets. I sometimes think Beckett’s the wrong kind of ‘highbrow’; a figure that the likes of Will Gompertz and Alan Yentob are keen to doff their caps towards, but whose work isn’t coffee-table enough to actually repeat. This is maddeningly ironic, since the people who really keep Beckett alive on TV are often mainstream comedy writers: Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson of course (check out ‘Contest’, the pilot episode of Bottom), and later David Renwick with One Foot in the Grave. In fact, most sitcoms – whether they know it or not – owe a huge debt to Beckett.

The dearth of Beckett on the small screen is sad, because Alan Yentob had once, as editor of Arena, acquired the German production of Quad (the square dance I mentioned earlier) and considered it suitable fare for BBC2. And it wasn’t broadcast particularly late at night either – it was just one item lined up in the Thursday night schedule alongside Yes Minister and Russell Harty. An image from it forms the banner at the top of this blog, and I also use it as my Twitter avatar. For me, it’s symbolic of ‘old-school BBC’ – something which, like a Beckett spotlight, is gradually fading.

beckett-quad

Anyway, that’s my personal Beckett ‘journey’ (to use current BBC2 parlance). I very much hope it passed the time.

 

 

 

 

 

Curate’s Xmas: Ten terrible moments in otherwise excellent festive songs

Cue the Pick of the Pops theme with overdubbed sleigh bells…

10. The line ‘The snowman brings the snow’ from Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

i-wish-it-could-be-christmas-everyday-wizzard

Lucie Trombone on Twitter mentioned this recently, but it’s annoyed me for years. Because the snowman doesn’t bring the show, does he? He’s made of snow. He is snow. I mean, he might inadvertently bring some snow into your house, if he popped in to get a new carrot or something, but Roy Wood’s assertion introduces a whole ‘So who made God then?’ paradox, one that neither he nor the Stockland Green School choir fully explore.

Justin Lewis argues it’s a pun, and Wood means snowman as in ‘milkman’, ‘coalman’, etc. Well, maybe. But as with the ‘eggman/egg man’ gag in I Am the Walrus, I’m not sure it quite works.

Talking of jokes that don’t quite work:

9. The triple pun at the end of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody

Slade.jpg

It starts off so well with superb lines like ‘Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?’ and the bit about the granny, but then we get this:

Do you ride on down the hillside
In a buggy you have made?
When you land upon your head
Then you’ve been sleighed

Sleighed/slayed/Slade – geddit? Nope, I’m calling the joke police on this one. For a start, if you accidentally fall off a sleigh you haven’t been ‘slayed’. And ‘you’ve been sleighed/slayed/Slade’ isn’t even a phrase.

‘It’s Christmas’? It’s gobbledygook more like.

8. The implied threat in Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy

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It’s this couplet:

Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care

The use of ‘made’ there. Chills the blood far more than Bing’s cardigan ever could.

7. The key change in Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone

Shakin'_Stevens_Merry_Christmas_Everyone_single_cover.jpg

In his excellent Popular blog (where he reviews every British #1 single in order), Tom Ewing writes: ‘Shaky for me is the sound of Christmas shopping, jingling on the Tannoy while you cross names off your list and look at the plastic reindeers in the shopping centre diorama. Still part of the experience, but never something you look forward to.’

I think he’s being a bit harsh there – amidst all the rotten 50s revivalists that cluttered the charts in the early/mid 80s, Shaky’s stuff always had a certain sparkle. My only complaint about his festive chart-topper is that key change, and I consulted Jason Hazeley for advice here – he tells me it goes from A major to B major. Meaning it’s a key change that literally takes Shaky from A to B. Probably with the aid of a wobbly Ford Capri gearstick.

6. The ‘OK, you lot – take it!’ bit from Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

i-wish-it-could-be-christmas-everyday-wizzard

Roy’s second sin is his toecurling instruction to The Kids. The type of thing that could only put a great big smile on a UKIP voter’s face.

5. Andy Williams referring to ‘scary ghost stories’ in It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

andy-williams

Like Slade, he starts off brilliantly:

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow

but then we get:

There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

Hmm. See, what you’ve done there, Andy, is you’ve mixed up Christmas…with Hallowe’en, haven’t you?

I mean, alright, he (or, more accurately, the song’s writers Edward Pola and George Wyle) could be talking about A Christmas Carol, but…it’s ‘stories’ plural. And in terms of high-octane scares, Dickens’ tale isn’t exactly The Howling III: The Marsupials.

Some of you will be yelling ‘M. R. James!’ at your screens. But try as I might, I can’t quite picture the Williams clan having an annual ritual where they settle down with Jonathan Miller’s production of Whistle and I’ll Come To You.

4. The word ‘faggot’ in Fairytale of New York

'It's for the underdog' … Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan promote Fairytale of New York.

Obviously.

3. Boy George’s joyful ‘Oh-oh-oh’ bit in Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Band aid .jpg

There are many offensive and terrible lyrics in this record: the ‘clanging chimes of doom’, the geographically illiterate claim that Africa has no rain, rivers or snow (maybe Roy Wood’s snowman could have brought some?), the repeated neo-imperial use of the third person, the strange line about ‘banishing shade’…but I can forgive most of it because it was written in a rush and Bob and Midge obviously had their hearts in the right place. It saved lives, which is more than this sneery blog has ever done.

But what’s very odd is Boy George’s soulful purring after (of all lines) ‘The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life’. He sounds really pleased about it. Bananarama were hungover as hell, but they’d never have dropped that kind of clanger.

2. The ‘satirical’ cash register at the start of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

i-wish-it-could-be-christmas-everyday-wizzard

Because, like, Christmas is getting a bit, like, commercial, yeah?

Well, if you feel that way, don’t make a Christmas single. You just sound like Roger Waters in a santa hat.

Despite its many offences (it’s far too long as well), I still adore I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. That’s how brilliant it is. How many other records can you say that about?

1. The opening line of John and Yoko’s Merry Xmas (War Is Over)

yoko xmas 2.jpg

Altogether now:

So this is Christmas
And what have you DONE?

Yep, we’re going to start our Christmas single by telling you off.

Notice the horrible ‘So’ at the start too, like he’s a weary YouTube vlogger about to complain that there’s too many women in Star Wars. It gets worse, though:

Another year over
And a new one just begun

Which is right up there with Macca’s ‘ever-changing world in which we live in’.

And so this is Christmas…
I hope you have fun

Yeah, you too, you passive-aggressive twerps. Bet you spent Christmas in bed anyway.

Well, there you are – that’s my list. Please feel free send in your own suggestions. (Or ‘OK, you lot – take it!’ as Roy would say.) And remember: no matter how good or bad a Christmas record is, just be thankful it’s not this one:

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Why I still watch Question Time

NB: This is an ‘answer blog’ to a (much better) piece written by Justin Lewis on When Is Bins, which you should read first.

question-time

Right, a question from the gentleman in spectacles…

Firstly, everything Justin says in his article is obviously correct. I don’t disagree with a word of it. Question Time’s bloody awful – of course it is. It’s the TV equivalent of a screaming carsick toddler. It doesn’t work as news, analysis, debate, entertainment, drama or comedy. It’s pompous, dull, depressing, bombastic and silly. And it goes on for AN HOUR. Why would you waste your precious Thursday night sitting through the thing? When it comes to Question Time, the advice of the Why Don’t You? gang has surely never felt more sage.

Well, I still watch it. Every week. With a large glass of whisky of course, but I watch the whole thing. Why? The short answer is because I enjoy getting irritated. But let me unpack that a little.

My first experience of Question Time was as a 12 year old in December 1986, when I was bequeathed a black and white portable TV for my bedroom (to date, this is still the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me). Channel-flipping one evening, I caught Robin Day’s closing remarks on the final show of the year, where he wished the viewers a merry Christmas. Being Robin Day, this greeting sounded like a reprimand – as if he was somehow telling us off for being on holiday. This both amused and intrigued me; here was a show so impressively adult that it was annoyed by Christmas. What could they possibly have been talking about?

As the years rolled on and I gradually understood a bit more about politics, Question Time became appointment viewing. I found the subjects and the arguments interesting, but I found the behaviour of the participants more so – I enjoyed seeing how politicians moved; I liked spotting their facial and vocal tics; I became fascinated by the rivalries, but also by the moments when sworn enemies found tiny pockets of agreement. There was, as people my age will remember, a near-tangible tribalism to politics in the 1980s and early 90s – you could switch on Question Time halfway though and it would be immediately obvious who was from which party, something which is far trickier today.

I’ve always found confidence a fascinating thing, and Question Time panellists have a particular kind of copper-plated confidence that I find both mesmerising and slightly unsettling. After all, why on earth would you put yourself through it? What if they asked you a question about Northern Ireland or Afghanistan and you couldn’t remember who was on which side? What if you forgot who Oliver Letwin was? Politicians answer such questions every day of their lives, of course, which is why the show holds no fear and why you never see them stuck for an answer.

I haven’t rewatched any of those old editions (although I often wish BBC Parliament would repeat them the same way BBC4 show old editions of Top of the Pops), so I’ve no idea how much of my rapture was down to innocence. Maybe those shows were terrible as well. In fact, I’m pretty sure they were. But they were interesting, the same way a slowly-healing scab is interesting.

Once politics started to get more manicured and stage-managed under Alastair Campbell and co, it became harder to enjoy the theatre. Or at least it became meta-theatre, best viewed at a remove. There was so much smoke and so many mirrors in the 90s that it eventually became impossible to decode what politicians (a) were saying, (b) were actually saying, and (c) wanted you to think they were saying . But then that in itself is interesting. Blank canvas phrases like ‘Let’s be clear about this’ told you a lot.

It all comes back to Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase about the medium being the message. A show like Question Time tells you nothing about the news, but – by becoming the news – it tells you everything. Want to know why the Tories won the general election in 2015? Watch editions of Question Time from 2014. It’s all there. The whole story.

The other reason I still watch it is because of David Dimbleby. I think he’s genuinely good, and people never really talk about how good he is. A bit like The Beatles, he’s so ingrained into the broadcasting establishment that he’s actually quite underrated. For a start, he has a far sharper bullshit-detector than Jeremy Paxman ever did, and I’m continually impressed by his velvet-gloved ‘But hang on, earlier you said…’ pouncings. Everyone else nods off, but he never does. He’s doing actual journalism, and we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Question Time’s followed by This Week, the same way a stuffy wedding is followed by a drunken conga. Now there’s a lot to criticise This Week for – its trivialising of serious issues, its cosying of political discourse, its tastelessness (eg, persisting with a Ghostbusters parody a few hours after a terrorist attack), and of course it’s questionable why exactly Andrew Neil – a man who owns an apartment in Trump Tower – gets to present so many political programmes on the BBC. It also annoys me that, because they’re a current affairs show rather than an entertainment one, they’re allowed to use House of Commons footage for laughs when comedy shows can’t.

But I’m a fan. Mainly because This Week is the dying embers of a genre of programme that’s almost entirely disappeared in the 21st century: the shambolic late-night chat show. Transmitted live from Broadcasting House, it feels very old-school in a way that no other show does. It has the same DNA as The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross or The James Whale Radio Show (programmes I also watched on my black and white portable), and Neil’s very good at the Wogan-style ‘Oh dear, so you can’t sleep and you’re up watching this old rubbish again are you?’ self-deprecation. Nobody else on TV talks like that. Not any more.

The TV geek in me also enjoys watching This Week with subtitles because they’re sometimes taken from early/abandoned drafts of his links. But that’s another detour entirely.

But anyway, back to Question Time. The show’s an awful mess, but then so is the world. Avoiding it feels like avoiding that world; as fruitless and Canute-like as putting a ‘NO JUNK MAIL’ sign on your letter-box. I could stop watching it, but it would still be there.

Justin’s right that the show is hopeless at dealing with grey areas – it has no time for ums or ers or well-I-can-see-both-sides conciliation. Like arts review programmes, Question Time wants your opinion and it wants it NOW, come on come on, quickly quickly. But that in itself is why I watch it: seeing people try so hard to nail their colours to different masts without any of them clashing is a captivating sight, and it ultimately helps me sort out my own views. I go to bed rested rather than angry  (although that’s maybe down to the whisky).

As I get older, I’m increasingly comfortable with cognitive dissonance – the ability to hold two or more supposedly contradictory opinions in my head at once. To talk about a different programme entirely, I remember hearing two people argue about Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies – one of them thought it was an exploitative freak show, the other thought it raised crucial awareness about important health matters. What do I think? I think both of them were right. Both those statements are true. And thankfully, because I’m not a politician or a rent-a-gob pundit, I can say this without breaking into a sweat.

It strikes me, of course, that ‘Why do people still watch Question Time?’ would be a great question for an audience member to ask. Perhaps one day they will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Visit from the Charcoal Wasp

 

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A few years ago I was stood on a railway platform at Wandsworth. It was late, it was cold, and I was already a bit annoyed.

Opposite me was a poster for Hot Chip’s latest album. Now, Hot Chip are one of those bands who get played on 6 Music a lot. They’re the kind of act that gets featured on the front of Time Out and the Guardian with the caption ‘Britain’s most unlikely pop stars’ (usually accompanied by a photo of them looking extremely likely indeed). They make the kind of music that Lauren Laverne loves, which is meaningless because Lauren Laverne seems to love everything. They’re one of those groups who’ll do anything to sound like they’re from the early 80s – anything, that is, except write a song as good as Come On Eileen.

As I say, I was already annoyed, and now I had to contend with Hot Chip scowling at me. In Wandsworth.

Almost immediately, a Hot Chip-style racket started pumping away in my head. As with most bands I dislike, I find it hard to name any specific tracks of theirs – I can, however, conjure up the general noise. It’s a trick I can also do with Arcade Fire, Florence and the Machine and various tiresome solo projects by ex members of Blur. I began to imagine Hot Chip’s trademark synth-trudge: on it went for countless barely-changing bars, the tedium only mildly relieved by an ‘Ooh, ooh’ sample in the background.

I could feel my palms getting clammy already. Here I was, stuck in Wandsworth, imprisoned by this phantom Hot Chip longueur, with no obvious escape route. It was the worst track in the world, and I’d written it. I could already picture them headlining Glastonbury with the bloody thing, bringing the mic down so that the crowd (including Lauren Laverne) could chant the ‘Ooh, ooh’ bit. My toes curled inwards.

And then I had another thought: I bet they’ve made a really annoying video. I bet it features them ironically bouncing up and down on little trampolines. I bet it shows them in a fake apartment with vinyl copies of David Bowie’s Low carefully positioned against the sofa. I bet they put on monkey masks and stand in dustbins doing the ‘See no evil…’ triptych. I bet they pull really punchable expressions when they mime to the ‘Ooh, ooh’ bit, with their sunglasses and their beards, and their…

Actually, no, even worse. Here’s what’s happened: someone’s made a viral fan-video for the song. Oh god, yes. Some bored vlogger (not even a student, a 36-year-old graphic designer who should know better) has cut together a bunch of LOL-tastic TV footage: the exploding shark from Jaws, random clips from Trumpton, a couple of dancing dogs, Basil Fawly hitting his car, and its pièce de résistance: a clip of Richard Osman from Pointless synched up so it looks like it’s him doing the ‘Ooh, ooh’s.

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Well, by now I was furious.

Not only was this earworm here to stay, but so too was Richard Osman’s face. The video, of course, had been put together very badly – in terms of the technical skill involved, it wasn’t exactly Zelig; it was just one crudely looped clip of Richard Osman with his mouth making a sort of oo-shape. Perhaps he’d been saying ‘Ian Woosnam’ or something. Every time the track got to the ‘Ooh, ooh’ bit (which was often), back we’d come to the same hilarious shot. And it was in the wrong aspect ratio as well, obviously. With a ‘Dave+1’ ident in the corner.

Nevertheless, this video became a meme incredibly quickly. Graham Linehan tweeted the link one afternoon (hashtag ‘Oohsman’), and suddenly it was everywhere. Copycat videos quickly sprung up of other songs with ‘Ooh, ooh’ in them, all of them synched to the same footage of Richard Osman going ‘Ooh, ooh’. Time Out and the Guardian ran pieces entitled ‘Hot Chips with everything: How the Oohsman revolution taught us to love the Brexit blues’. It eventually became so mainstream and ubiquitous that even Have I Got News For You sat up and took notice.

So I was still stuck there in Wandsworth, seething in a state of apoplexy I hitherto never knew existed. Never had I wanted to shout ‘FUCK OFF’ at a piece of cultural flotsam quite so much. Its popularity enraged me. I mean, we’ve always had to contend with rubbish, but never has rubbish been quite so openly celebrated as it is now, and here was a textbook example. I could picture the entire country cheerily re-playing the video ad nauseam wearing big Cheshire Cat grins, and I wanted to machine gun the lot of them. I wanted to wash the scum off the streets with a water cannon, hopefully knocking off Richard Osman’s specs as I did so. That’d make him go ‘Ooh, ooh’.

A few moments passed and the absurdity of all this suddenly hit me. Here I was, boiling with rage about something that didn’t actually exist. Not only did the hysteria surrounding the video not exist, but the video didn’t either. In fact, not only did the video not exist but neither did the track. I’d made it up. And where the fuck did Richard Osman come from? What did he have to do with anything? The Hot Chip poster existed, that much is true, but – as my train glided into view – I realised I wouldn’t have to look at it much longer. Or indeed at Wandsworth.

So that was that.

Winston Churchill famously called his depression ‘the black dog’. I call mine the charcoal wasp. I’ll be going about my day, and then I’ll suddenly hear it faintly buzzing away in the background. Once it flies up your sleeve, all hell breaks loose. The picnic is ruined.

Hey, what you’ve described isn’t depression, some will say. If you were really depressed, you’d have jumped in front of the train, rather than invent a bizarre dystopia involving a boring synth band and a quiz-show sidekick. You’d have curled up into a ball, rather than written a terrible episode of Black Mirror. But no, that’s exactly what depression can involve. Stupid thoughts. Really stupid thoughts. Thoughts so stupid you know full-well how stupid they are but you have them anyway. Ones you’d have severe difficulty explaining to NHS Direct.

Depression, after all, doesn’t usually come accompanied by a sad tinkly piano. More often than not, it puts on a silly hat and dances to Yakety Sax. Trouble is, you’re incapable (mid-attack) to enjoy the absurdity, the same way a migraine sufferer is unable to enjoy their free kaleidoscopic light show.

That being said, the video does sound horrific doesn’t it? If it’s in your head now, I can only apologise.

But I mean…just look at them. Sometimes the charcoal wasp has a point.

hot-chip

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekend Update: Saturday Night Live in ‘pretty good actually’ shock

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Until recently, I’d never had much time for Saturday Night Live. To me, its legacy seemed largely baffling: lots of over-long, under-written, badly-paced sketches, undeservedly egged on by an insufferably easily-pleased studio audience. Limp and unmagical, a bit like Who Dares Wins.

But that’s mainly because I hadn’t actually seen it. Well, not properly anyway.

You see, there’s a received opinion about many sketch shows (but especially SNL) that the original programmes are more miss than hit, full of longueurs and a real struggle to get through, but they make for very good clipshows and compilations. In the case of SNL, this is not only twaddle but the actual opposite of the truth: as we know from various attempts to repackage Monty Python’s Flying Circus, supposed ‘best of’ selections seldom succeed; deprived of all context, the sketches no longer swim freely but instead flap about like landed trout.

The first five seasons of SNL (1975-1980) were released on DVD a few years back, and I avoided buying them for a very long time. I suspected I’d stick on the first show, watch it in a semi-curious ‘Hmm, interesting historical snapshot’ type way, and then never return to it again. A bit like Who Dares Wins.

But I took a punt on the first season, mainly because I knew I couldn’t really call myself a comedy fan and not own it. Also, I was in the NBC gift shop, and it was either that or a ‘No soup for you!’ apron.

The glorious thing about the SNL boxsets is that they’re uncut. Given the show’s ludicrously famous alumni (in terms of both cast members and guest stars), this is nothing short of miraculous. The first show was hosted by George Carlin, for god’s sake. Later ones feature Frank Zappa, Jodie Foster, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, ABBA, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin…well, you can look up them up for yourself.  Lord knows what kind of contracts were signed at the time, but it appears nobody has been in a position to block anything. Not even Sissy Spacek or The Kinks. Everything’s intact and in order – the final ad break of every show even retains each week’s beautifully-designed caption card, something lesser DVD sets wouldn’t bother with.

What this means is that you get to see the show unfold almost in real time. And it’s a huge privilege to do so. As with the DVD of Spitting Image series one (also uncut), you have the pleasure of watching a learning curve: you see precisely when certain elements and ideas were introduced, abandoned and/or reconfigured. You also see how exactly Chevy Chase fucked up his back, and which weeks he was in hospital. For me, after years of sighing through very ‘meh’ greatest hits selections, the mists have cleared and the show finally makes sense. I see a young comedy team learning on the job, and it’s fascinating. As ever, the moronic and philistine question ‘Does it stand the test of time?’ becomes irrelevant.

Let’s remind ourselves of the original team in that opening season: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris and Jane Curtin – the so-called ‘Not Ready For Prime Time Players’. They’re all great, notably Chase and Curtin, but it’s Radner who really jumps out for me – someone who can create comedy fireworks even when the script’s somewhat drizzly. She’s extraordinary, and it breaks my heart that she’s no longer with us.

But who were these people, and what was their comedy status exactly? As a Brit watching them from a distance of 40 years, this remains a disorientating question. Not least because the show became a hit incredibly quickly, meaning the tone of that ‘primetime’ gag changed with it. What, after all, would have been the equivalent of such a show/team in the UK? There arguably wasn’t one. The Pythons is the obvious suggestion – SNL certainly sets its heights high with some unapolgetically esoteric references (one of my favourites being a prisoner convicted of ‘setting fire to the only surviving answer print of To Sir With Love’), but SNL clearly comes from a very different TV world, one so alien to the UK that the comparison is meaningless. The Pythons might have been on BBC1 in 1969, but there was no danger of their second-ever programme being a Simon and Garfunkel special.

This is the interesting thing, though. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is often cited as an influence on early SNL, but what struck me was how the show seemed influenced very specifically by first-series Python, the episodes of which had yet to be networked in the USA. The killer bees, always played with a  sort of knowing weariness, reminded me of the knight who periodically hit characters with a rubber chicken – a lacklustre running joke that’s abandoned almost as soon as it’s established. The  interview sketches have a very Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson feel to them. Jim Henson’s superb (but short-lived) Land of Gorch gives the show a woozily Gilliam-style texture, as do the weekly films by Gary Weiss. And what are Chevy Chase’s ‘Live from New York…’ cold openers if not Michael Palin’s It’s Man?

So far, there’s no indication that the DVD releases will venture beyond 1980. Season six saw creator-producer Lorne Michaels leave and the cast change completely, meaning it effectively became a different show. I’ve heard it’s terrible, but I’d still be curious to see it. I’m curious to see the whole lot, to be honest. In full. And in order. With all the ad breaks.

For now, though, I have more than enough early editions to unwrap, and I eagerly look forward to those very pleasant tomorrows.