Saturday, January 07, 2017

New Blog: Oh, the things I've seen

Hey you! It's 2017. Crazy.

Tumblr is lovely for gifs but, not so great for regular writing, so please come and join me at my new 'Oh, the things I've seen' blog at

Hopefully updated every week, it'll feature (surprise, surprise) little round-ups of TV shows, theatre, comedy, films, exhibitions... Hope you enjoy it, here's Week 1.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Arrested Development. Again.


When I wrote my first piece about Arrested Development, I said that my plan was to watch the final episode of S3 the day before S4 is released on Netflix. Thanks to a hiatus I did manage to stretch out my viewing rather longer than I genuinely expected (I finished up last week), but I’m now actually pretty pleased that I have time to revisit some of the early episodes before we all settle down to devour the new ones.

Reading it back, I gave a pretty luke-warm reaction to the show, and that was basically because I hadn’t quite got my head around it yet. I *saw* that there was a silly, farce-y side to it, but I didn’t really *feel* it. It all felt pretty low-key and, well, luke-warm in itself. This despite the fact that I’d already seen Tobias “blue himself”. Because that’s not silly at all.

The fact is, I wasn’t looking beyond the straight face.

Luckily, even I couldn’t fail to see an absurdist side to the show when Buster got his hand bitten off by a seal in a yellow bow-tie, or a character called Bob Loblaw was introduced. But in reality I was hooked way before that. The show, clearly, does indeed have a sense of the ridiculous, and more than that, real heart - all those things that make me really fall for a comedy.

And in fact, there’s proper joy to be had in these surreal plot-twists being sold completely straight. And when - occasionally, but increasingly in the 3rd series - they *do* metaphorically wink at the camera? Well that’s just beautiful. The little discussion about where Gob actually lives is an audience-pleasing delight - “I always pictured him in a lighthouse”.

The one element of the show I did speak rather evangelically about was Will Arnett’s portrayal as Gob - and I do still have a real soft spot for that performance. In lesser hands, the ‘dumb philanderer” character would be fun, but unremarkable. Arnett makes him a lovable, infuriating, hilarious anti-hero.

But one of the main reasons I now agree with everyone else that AD is, frankly, a bit of a masterpiece, is the reason I would happily say the same about Blackadder, Friends, Frasier, Spaced and Community: the whole ensemble cast is *exquisite*. There are no weak links. There is as much fun to be had with Maebe working as a studio exec as there is with George going slightly mad in the attic; as many laughs from Lucille getting hammered as there are from a Gob illusion going predictably wrong. I know it’s clever, and ambitious, and layered, but without these performances, all of that would count for nothing.

On one hand, it’s a real shame that it’s taken me so long to get round to watching Arrested Development - all those years of enjoying a stupendously entertaining show missed out on. On the other hand, what better time to be in the early stages of adoring a show? With brand new episodes just around the corner, there’ll be, presumably, loads of interviews and features to read, and apparently the banana stand in central London was only the start of the marketing stunts being planned.

Series 4, then. COME ON!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Arrested Development

(Here's one of those "cross-posted from my Tumblr" updates I mentioned....)

Never knowingly ahead of the curve, I'm currently in the middle of watching the first season of Arrested Development. For the first time. I know, it's Mean Girls all over again. You'll all be envious when I'm watching the last episode of season 3 the day before it starts up again on Netflix, though. (That's genuinely the plan, but whether I can really stretch my viewing out until May is, let's face it, doubtful.)

Coming to the show completely cold - I didn't even know the premise when I started watching - I don't think AD is particularly easy to connect with in the first few episodes. I now see that that's partially intentional (I've got used to the fact that I'm going to have to find some of the gags myself) but it's in stark contrast to, say, Community which, for all its smarts, is perfectly happy to shout "love me" at the top of its voice.

My experience of watching Arrested Development has so far been a case of "come for Tobias, stay for Gob." Is that pretty much par for the course? David Cross gets the first big laughs, but ultimately Gob is just magnificent, and Will Arnett insanely watchable. Gob could easily be one-dimensional and - 99% of the time - pretty much is. Arnett's triumph is leaving that 1% that makes you believe one day Gob is going do something massively sweet and heroic and you're going to punch the air with delight. I'm only 15 episodes in, though, so you'll have to be gentle with me if it transpires I've called him completely wrong...

On one level, I love the fact that I've almost certainly missed a healthy percentage of the jokes so far, and I get that that's part of the show's charm and genius. But at the same time... I *like* it when it's overtly gaggy. Gob struggling to use his Segway on the Bluth building site? That's just funny.

I appreciate, by the way, that picking apart a decade-old show based on relatively few episodes must be an intensely annoying read for those who have been fans for since it first aired and know the whole thing inside out. Sorry you guys; I'll be all caught up soon enough (way before May, no doubt). Til then, I'll look forward to the honour of getting to know this clever, increasingly likable and occasionally absurd show a whole lot better. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

That Was The Year That Was 2012

You wouldn't know it from looking at this blog (sorry) but there has been so much cultural stuff to enjoy this year, and - precisely because I've been a bit on the rubbish side - it's probably worth rounding it up...

Kudos to producer James Lowey for putting together School Night, a lovely club night that kicked off in January with a barnstorming performance from Humphrey Ker, whose 40 minute rattle through British kings, queens and (a lot of) wars genuinely reignited my interest in history.

In Edinburgh, Tony Law and Pappy's were rightly lauded for their hilarious, thoughtful and clever shows while David O'Doherty delivered an angst-ridden hour that is probably his best ever.

If you were after sweet, witty and hugely satisfying movies this year there were three that ticked each of those lovely boxes: The Muppets (loads of laugh out loud moments even after mulitple viewings), Avengers Assemble (funny, great fights, massively entertaining), and Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson with heart. Seriously).

I became a Ben Folds Five fan in 2001, which is something of a shame, seeing as they'd split up the year before. It was a long-awaited delight, then, to see them back together and having loads of fun at my favourite music venue Brixton Academy a few weeks back, along with 5000 other devotees. Thanks to a great, generous set list that included the likes of Alice Childress and Song for the Dumped alongside tracks from the new album, and an excited audience in fine voice, it was, probably, my favourite ever gig.

Elsewhere, Jack White proved himself to be the ultimate, timeless rocker at Alexandra Palace, Rufus Wainwright had an uptempo hoot at Hammersmith Apollo and Neil Hannon celebrated his 42nd birthday at the Royal Festival Hall. The whole of Promenade complete with a string quartet? Alison Moyet singing Don't Go and The Certainty of Chance? Party hats for the audience? Yes please.

I didn't get to the theatre as often as I'd have liked this year, but 2012 was bookended by two delightful productions: the charming, inventive and visually beautiful Swallows and Amazons in January, and Twelfth Night which - while not faultless - provided an always-cherished opportunity to see the masterful Mark Rylance in action.

With Grandma's House, The Thick of It, Peep Show, Horrible Histories, Fresh Meat and The Thick of It all returning, there's been some staggeringly great comedy writing on offer this year. And as for debuts, it's hard to look beyond Jenna-Louise Colman, who sparkled as souffle girl, and then out-Doctor'd the Doctor in terms of curiosity, fun and sheer love of life as Clara. The Doctor's smitten, and no wonder. A quick tip o' the hat to the producers of the first Eight out of Ten Cats to air after Jimmy Carr's taxgate too, as normal service was suspended to give time and space for a proper, sincere discussion.

Oh, and the Olympics? With that opening ceremony, and all those fab montages, and Murray winning Gold, and Chad's dad? Not bad.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Twelfth Night - Apollo Theatre

It's been much too long since I saw a straight play, but a combination of Shakespeare and Mark Rylance was always going to tempt me back - albeit a little late, since this is a transfer of the original Globe production.

I'm hardly alone in being a fan of Mr Rylance, but that's only because he's so genuinely, uniquely, charismatically brilliant. Since watching that BBC Four live broadcast of Richard II I've loved his ability to give such an unexpected but utterly natural cadence to Shakespeare's language, and away from the Bard I've also had the pleasure of seeing him as the British Bacchus in Jerusalem, and in La Bête, with that notorious, hilarious 25 minute speech.

It's a real thrill, then, to see him as the mourning Olivia in Twelfth Night. I didn't study the play, but have seen it once before when John Lithgow played Malvolio with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and as far as I can tell, that's usually the role that gets the "big" casting. With Stephen Fry playing the pompous - but harshly treated - steward, maybe that's the case again here, but enjoyable as he is (and he really is a commanding presence), Fry is well and truly trumped here in the 'comic performance' stakes by Rylance.

Should Olivia be the big comic role in Twelfth Night? Should she be more ridiculous than Malvolio? Than her household of scheming fops and drunks, even? Maybe it wasn't Will's plan... but it sure is fun. And it's all there in the text to be exploited, with Olivia switching from pious mourner to a love-struck girl hopelessly obsessed with the cross-dressing Viola (Johnny Flynn) in an instant - Rylance, as ever, just turns it up to eleven.

Away from Rylance and Fry, there are lovely performances to be found throughout the production though. In particular, the ever-fabulous Samuel Barnett shines as Viola's long-lost brother Sebastian - making the most of a role that could easily get lost thanks to his perfection of an incredulous "what the heck is going on?" expression.

There's also a gorgeous scene during which Viola's lord Orsino (Liam Brennan) sees his "page boy" in a whole new light - Brennan's comic timing is a delight as he tries to steal a glance or two, and is surprised at what he finds, and what he feels.

Like the RSC production, this again struggled to deal with the drawn-out "reveal" of the final act when the characters finally work out what we've known all along, but it's a minor quibble buried in a production that is big on fun, and full of performances to revel in.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Things I have enjoyed recently

I think it's fair to say I've been a bit lax at updating this blog recently. Near on three months without a post certainly counts as "a bit crap". So, more for my benefit than yours, here's a round up of some very lovely things that I've had the good fortune to read/watch/experience in the intervening period, in handy tweet-sized slices...

Andy Murray winning the US Open
AMAZING. Listening to 5Live deep into the night gave it a real 'event' feel, and #takeyourtimeyoudick is undoubtedly the best hashtag of the year.

Sam Fletcher at the Hen & Chickens 
Bad magic and counter-intuitive inventions have rarely been so fun. Sam has bags of charm and loads of ideas - basically it's a big old smile of a show.

Rubicon by Tom Holland
The real triumph of this book - which covers the transition from Roman republic to Roman empire - is that you actually care about the people involved. Cicero has been murdered? NOOOOOOOO!

Treasures of Ancient Rome on BBC Four
Fortuitous timing meant I watched this while reading Rubicon and it was BRILLIANT. Who needs characterless Greek sculptures when you can have flabby old Pompey?

The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind by Ben Folds Five
BFF are back together! Hooray! Til their Brixton Academy gig in December, we've got this little gem to keep us going - Away When You Were Here is my favourite by a mile.

The last ever Karaoke Circus
Let's hope it's not actually the last ever, but if so, Chris Addison singing The Rainbow Connection followed by Pappy's leading the audience in Take That's Never Forget is a good way to go out.

The Thick Of It on BBC Two
Another 'last ever' that might actually come back with a special edition every now and again. Brilliant dialogue, incredible performances, something to say... an important bit of TV, basically.

Tony Law's Shitbox at The Lion
Mr Tony Law trying out some new stuff, the Behemoth performing an extended version of their Stand By Me sketch and Tom Bell throwing out bad Stag do ideas like MEATHAMMER. Nice.

The Time-Traveller's Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
This book doesn't tell you one thing that "happened" in the Middle Ages. Instead, it tells you how people lived - what they ate, how they earned money, what they spent it on. Really different, and really good.

Jack White at Alexandra Palace
The former White Stripes dude is a proper rock star who would have shone in any era, and while Ally Pally isn't great for the vertically challenged, just hearing Hardest Button To Button live is enough.

Fresh Meat on Channel 4
I completely missed the first series, but have caught up since the second has started airing, and it's just so much better than a comedy-drama about a bunch of students has any right to be.

Djokovic vs Tsonga at the ATP World Tour Finals
Live tennis! At the O2!

Neil Hannon's 42nd birthday gig at the Royal Festival Hall
A teeny-bit-tipsy Neil Hannon is a wonderful thing, and even better when combined with fluffed lines, Promenade from start to finish with a string quartet and appearances from Tom Chaplin (below) and Alison Moyet.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dissecting Frogs With Stewart Lee

I had a lovely bank holiday, thank you for asking. I went to see dodos and dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum with my one-year-old niece Dorothy, and I read Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate from cover to cover. The latter I should have done much earlier; the former was reasonably timed.

The book is partly a look back on Lee's return to stand up - having quit in 2001 - and partly an in-depth analysis of three fully-transcribed shows. I should say that when I've seen Stewart Lee live, I've often found myself buying into the cool, superior character he portrays on stage far too much, taking it to heart, and, ultimately, pushing back against it. But among several things his book has prompted me to do - look up the acts he mentions that I don't know about, for example, and generally Be Better Read - I'll certainly be heading to Go Faster Stripe to buy a few of his shows. As he says, so much is in the performance that it feels like that's the proper way to round off the book.

I am the last to say this of course, but How I Escaped My Certain Fate genuinely is, as the quotes suggest, a book that all comedy fans would do well to read. The passages about his career are honest and entertaining, he's really generous in his praise of peers from Michael McIntyre to Simon Munnery, and, in the annotated transcriptions, the book takes my previously-discussed love of dissecting comedy frogs to the nth degree. It's completely fascinating.

Sam Simmons says that people often describe his work as "random" but that it's quite the opposite - everything's there for a reason. I'd love to read his annotations on one of his own shows. Tony Law actually does it to some extent as he goes along of course, though he certainly doesn't give everything away on stage, and there's loads of swan's feet stuff going on beneath the surface too. Claudia O'Doherty's thesis on The Telescope would be a hoot, and it'd be wonderful if John Luke Roberts were to explain in devastating detail exactly why every single one of his mild insults is funny.

I've only really given any thought to the mechanics of comedy over the last few years, but it occurred to me recently that there were little seeds planted much earlier than that. When I was doing A-level English Language, we were asked to analyse a tv or radio interview from a linguistic point of view, and I chose two comics: Jim Carey, who spoke to Richard and Judy, and Johnny Vegas, who was on The Jonathan Ross Show.

For my essay, I essentially tried to explain how they were using language to subvert the conventions of the chat show and derail the interview, by asking questions themselves, for example, or referring to things happening off camera. I was trying, in a rather simple way, to explain why and how they were funny, and I loved doing it, spending much more time on the assignment than was necessary. I enjoy doing it now too with live comedy - in fact, I find that when I'm writing about an act I really love I do the analysis bit first because I've so enjoyed how they shaped and elicited the laughs, and then I have to go back and add in the glowing value judgements later.

There's a great passage, late on in the book, where Lee stresses the importance of "rhythm, pitch, tone and pace" in stand-up, and while I have, genuinely, attempted to include these when writing about comedy, I'll certainly be making even more of a concerted effort to do so in the future. So: seek out influential acts, read more, spend money with laudable boutique online establishments and try to give a more rounded report of the shows I see. That's my personal response to How I Escaped My Certain Fate.