A Word of Advice for David Mitchell

Fame’s a fickle thing. Many people manage to stay famous their entire working life; some by re-inventing themselves (Bowie), others merely by the fact that we can’t really forget about them, no matter how hard we try (Princess Diana, and yes, I know she’s dead, though I also suspect that most Mail readers think about her many times daily).

Fame comes late for some people; what did Richard Wilson or Thora Hird do before they were 60? Others find that fame comes to them early, and then leaves them just as quick; note the cautionary tale of Macauley Culkin, or Corey Haim (or was it Feldman?). There seems to be a real problem with over-exposure, and never was this more true than in the 1980s. The 80s spawned the Hollywood brat-pack, who churned out film after film in the latter part of the decade; then the decade ended, and the curtain came down on the career of Ringwald, McCarthy, Nelson and the twin Coreys. Incidentally, lest you think that this happened only in America, and only to glamorous people, the very same fate befel the ‘never-sure-why-you-were’ popular Tony Slattery. His brylcreemed side-parting and lavicious grin were rarely far from our screens, and then…nothing: he’d been whisked away as we heralded in a new decade.

Of course much of this instant fame followed by an similarly instant fall from grace is more about our inability to stick with something and our low boredom threshold than it’s to do with any lack of talent on the part of the performer. We also don’t like to see people at the top for too long (Kevin Costner), and we get bored of the same old face beaming out at us for too long. Some folk do have an uncrushable longevity about them (Forsythe – unfathomable, or Monkhouse – a legend), but most people come and go as we build them up just to sweep them back under the carpet.

And this is what I see immimently about to happen to David Mitchell. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but he does seem to be everywhere. What started out as a comedy actor playing a lead role in a funny original sit-com has now become: flogging said sit-com long since it went over the hill, writing an Observer Column, appearing on almost any panel show going and hosting a raft of 10pm-ish moderately watchable nothingish comedy gameshows that seem perfect for the ‘it’s not time to go to bed but I have nothing else to do’ slot. He was undoubtedly funny in peep show (series 1-5), but that was largely because he was playing himself, and we identified with him; his vulnerability and insecurities were there for us all to see, and they were funny whilst at the same time making us feel better about ourselves. Now though he’s gained confidence, and he’s starting to take the piss out of other people. Surely this shouldn’t be allowed; and we’re giving him just the platform from which to do it, with his column, new-found presenting skills and occasional one-liners on mock the week.

Can it last? History is against DM, and my advice is not to over-expose. Get back to playing yourself in sit-coms, written by other people, and we promise to laugh, and mostly with you. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Slattery. I wiki’d Tony S just now, to see what he’s been up to in the last 5 years. Here’s the sum total:

In January 2010, he appeared with Phyllida Law on Ready Steady Cook.

The future’s not bright.

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Making the Grade

It’s A level results day, and the same lazy hackneyed news stories have been trotted out. I feel guilty for boring you with them, but if anyone has missed any of the following during the course of this day, you must have been living under a rock. Or maybe you were watching Trisha on 5.

We’ve had:

1. News footage of pupils opening their results. Some whoop, some cry.
2. Discussion on the news about grade inflation, and the fact that A level passes have gone up for the 28th consecutive year. This isn’t news, it’s just something that happens, like the sun coming up, or someone going to the toilet.
3. The ‘scramble’ for university places, a question of how much debt is accrued whilst doing a degree, the fact that graduates earn far more in the course of a career….

It’s almost as if it’s a public holiday for all TV and newspaper journalists, and they can re-print word for word the uninteresting waffle that they paraded out 365 days ago.

So are A levels getting easier? Are kids getting brighter?

Well, here’s some facts. In 1980, 8% of all A level grades were awarded an A grade. In 2010, 8% of all A level grades were awarded an A*. When I went to Durham University in 1994, my offer was BCD, albeit for a pretty uncompetitive subject. Nowadays we have pupils rejected on AAB.

So more pupils get higher grades, this much is true. This isn’t the pupils fault, and far too much vitriol is chucked their way by the older generation, who had it ‘so much easier’ in their day. No they didn’t; granted, you had to absorb lots of information, which could then be regurgitated onto the answer paper before promtly being forgotten (how many 30-somethings can remember much about covalent bonding?), but in order to ensure that skills of complex communication and problem solving do not disappear from the workplace, papers these days need to test more than just rote learning.

We are preparing our pupils for jobs that do not exist yet. No-one wanted to be a nanotechnologist or web designer 15 years ago, because these jobs did not exist; it’s the same with today’s crop of pupils. They don’t need to carry vast amounts of irrelevant information around in their head. We have google for that. They do need to know how to get by when presented with problems or situations with which they are unfamiliar, and that’s the most important thing.

Another problem faced by pupils today is that it’s so much more difficult to stand out. 30 years ago three A grades marked you out as something very special. Nowadays (and I’m talking pre-A*) there are so many pupils pushed up to this top end that it’s difficult to differentiate, and consequently the upper-middle quality pupils get mixed up with the high quality pupils. Has the A* solved things? Of course not. Is a pupil who scores 90% significantly better than one who scores 85%? We did have a system where many pupils were able to secure their A grades and still have plenty of time for independent research, sport, music, drama etc. We are now rewarding the ‘t’ crossers and ‘i’ dotters, and it’s become more important to write like a markscheme rather than an intelligent human being.

Are pupils becoming significantly more able and intelligent? It would seem unlikely, and certainly not noticeably so in the last 30 years (a limited time period for human evolution). It’s also interesting that they seem to be becoming more intelligent by a similar fraction each year. What is happening is that pupils are competing against greater numbers, in exams which generally fail to differentiate appropriately.

So we’ve confirmed that pupils have it tougher than many of those who criticise. But what about the other side of the argument? The side that justifies the increase in A level performace? This is the argument that it’s actually the quality of teaching that allows for these increases; as teachers get better, so do the pupils they teach. It is fair to say that in recent years there has been a greater interest taken in the philosophy of education in Schools (largely in the state sector), and we are now starting to question how pupils learn rather than simply ‘drilling and skilling’, which is the bit we’ve become good at over the years. It’s a fallacy to say that teachers have lead to this improvement however, and it’s insulting to the pupils too. Many of the same teachers have taught exactly the same way for the past 28 years’ worth of increased results.

How much do results even matter? Does it matter if someone who was capable of getting the grades for Durham actually ends up going to Manchester, or Birmingham? They might meet better friends there, have a nicer house, find a great tutor. In the end, there are so many variables, it’s impossible to tell. I’ve taught many pupils who have achieved AAA in their A levels, and I knew they’d do just fine for themselves. I just wasn’t all that interested in what it was they ended up doing. I’ve also taught some underachieving pupils, who failed to get the grades of which they were capable. For some of them, I really do wonder what they’re up to, and for some, I know it’ll be something impressive. They may not have shone academically at School, but they had something about them that told me they’d be successful. There’s a bit of inner personal quality that can trump pretty much everything you’ve got written on paper. Would the people with the top ten best academic qualifications amongst my colleagues match with the top ten best teachers?

But back to the reporting of this total non-story: thank God for the recession, otherwise it really would have been groundhog day.

Face the Music (2)

Here it is, the long awaited second installment of my ‘Top Ten Albums’, this time from 2001 right up to the present day. The only feedback I had from my related post was that ‘it was a bit dull’ (thanks brother), so I’ve decided to listen to advice, and to improve things by justifying the choices, as well as putting a few thoughts down about music in general. Remember, faithful readers that these are the albums that I’ve listen to most regularly, rather than being those which I judge to be the best musically.

Just before the albums themselves, here’s some ramblings. I hope they prove cathartic for me:

  • I don’t actually seem to buy albums very much any more. Is this a bad thing? Not if you don’t like masses of filler (Raw Like Sushi still has my vote for the greatest load of rubbish outside the singles), but there was something nice about listening to a singer/band all the way through the album, especially if there was some concept to the album (Mansun, The Streets). Concept. How pretentious. Sorry.
  • You will always be judged on the music you listen to. This is unfair, but it’s going to happen. If you listen to Snow Patrol, you don’t really like music, and your opinion on what’s good or not is not worth listening to. You probably like elevator music too.
  • Why the argument about whether musicians write their own music or not? Why does it matter? Elvis didn’t write his music, and he’s pretty good. Granted, if the music is hugely emotional, and the performance is anguished, then you find out it’s been written by a load of grey suits, you might feel a little cheated, but we don’t expect actors to write the plays they appear in, and the same should apply to musicians.
  • You have a right to feel proud when a band you ‘liked before they were famous’ subsequently becomes famous. There is, however, nothing wrong with liking a popular band, and it’s not time to ditch them for something more obscure just because some other people like them too. Coldplay are good, aren’t they?
  • Why do so many bands now have the definite article in their names? I’m sure that we’ve reached saturation point on the number of ‘The….’ that are out there. Is ‘The Drums’ the worst name for a band since Hootie and the Blowfish, or is that just me?

Anyway, here’s the music:

2001: Royksopp – Melody AM. From one’s mid-20s, it’s time to start thinking ‘which music would go best with my sophisticated dinner party?’. Air and Zero 7 were early favourites, and I determined early to never go back to anyone who played Norah Jones, even if their basil parfait was to die for. After a couple of listens to Moon Safari, you can’t help wanting the washing up to come a little faster, and the only time I went to see Air, I fell asleep. Royksopp seemed a whole lot cooler, and I stayed awake throughout their Somerset House gig.

2002: The Streets – Original Pirate Material. Is this the last album that genuinely didn’t sound like anything that had gone before? I think so. Living in London at the time probably helped, and the beat on ‘has it come to this?’ always reminds me of the tube, in a good way.

2003: Goldfrapp – Black Cherry. ‘Felt Mountain’ is far better, but ‘Black Cherry’ still has its moments, and I did fall in love with Alison Goldfrapp one night in Hammersmith. So did Jez.

2004: Kasabian – Kasabian. The most swaggery bunch since Oasis, and just as exciting as Oasis when they kicked off. Coming from uber-sh*thole Leicester and still being good gains extra points. LSF, Cutt Off, Cluc Foot and Processed Beats would make it a good album even if only a couple of these songs were on there.

2005: Picaresque – The Decemberists. Must have been a pretty weak year. I like the Decemberists, and I don’t care if the singer has an irritating voice, and they’re not as cool as other such alt-country fellows, according to muso yank Ryan.

2006: Whatever people say I am… – Arctic Monkeys. Obviously. They were very exciting indeed, and if only for ‘still take you home’, the anthem of 2007’s Ireland holiday, they deserve the vote.

2007: Cross – Justice. Not sure if I’m too old for this, but ever since phantom no.2 was used on channel 5’s awful football Italia, they’ve had a hold over me. French music is cool these days. Who knew?

2008: The Age of the Understatement – The Last Shadow Puppets. The Arctic Monkey’s chap’s other band, and definitely more of a grower, even if it’s not so catchy. Sounds a bit like the AMs meets Bowie, which can never be a bad thing.

2009: West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum – Kasabian. Kasabian’s second album wasn’t much cop, and they seemed to be a real one album wonder (at least in my eyes). I can’t describe the sadness with which I watched ‘shoot the runner’ on the Friday Night Project, thinking how incredibly awful it was. WRPLA is even better than the debut album, and even though Noel Fielding was in the Vlad the Impaler video, it’s still a great album.

2010: One Life Stand – Hot Chip. Only for ‘I feel better’ really, and I probably haven’t even listened to the whole album more than once, but 2010’s not even over, and I’ve had enough of this list, and you have too. Probably.

But is it Art?

A few weeks ago, the new Government announced a £19M cut in funding for Arts Council England. Jeremy Hunt followed this up by binning the UK Film Council, since when we’ve had British film and theatre luminaries such as Sam West and Mike Leigh bemoaning these philistinic acts, and even aged Hollywood megastar Clint Eastwood has had his say; he doesn’t like it either, incidentally. It’s hardly surprising that in tough times this film funding quango has received the chop. It is clearly regarded as inessential, and a luxury, and in many ways it is. Farming in this country receives a significant amount of Government subsidy, and no-one would argue against this; we all do need to eat, after all. I can’t think of another industry which is funded to a similar extent to the Arts, and many would argue that the industry needs to become self-sufficient. If exhibitions are put on, plays are written and performed, and films are made that people want to see, they will pay good money to do so, and the industry can be considered a success. The League football industry, for example, receives no funding from the Government; in one sense the opposite is true, and the expectation is that the clubs will give back something to the local community.

But what are the plays, films and Art that make the money? Here are some examples (off the top of my head admittedly): Titanic, Harry Potter, Spiderman, films with Will Smith, films adapted from Dan Brown, The Mousetrap, things by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Monet exhibitions, Dali on the Southbank. What purpose do many of these serve, save to while away a couple of hours of passive entertainment for the proles? They’re certainly not pushing the boundaries, not making people think, not challenging anyone. They get massive backing because they are bankers. People know they are going to be successful. If nothing existed in the Arts but this, we’d continually be moving in a cycle of blockbuster films, the last night of the Proms and singalonga Joseph. Plays like Enron certainly couldn’t make it to the West End, because no-one’s going to take a punt on a play like this, it’s simply too much of a risk. In fact, the play is brilliant; thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. It informs, it educates, it keeps you gripped. This is why the Arts Council needs funding; it’s to promote Art which otherwise would have no outlet. I have no interest in seeing funding for traditional art; if someone paints pretty seascapes, and sells them to people who want it on their living room walls, that’s fine, but you have no need to be funded. So long as Government money is being used to fund ground-breaking, thought-provoking Art in any form, then hurrah for that. One might argue that producing something which few people might wish to see (or think they wish to see) has little point, but that view is discredited by the ‘Enron’ argument, which is a play that made it to broadway. Is the job of the Arts to pander to the public? Certainly not, otherwise we’d be piling money into the sort of tosh mentioned above.

Of course much of the problem lies with the fact that the Arts are seen as elitist in this Country, but that’s more to do with the perception than the reality. There’s no dress code for any theatre in London that I’m aware of, and top prices tend to plateau at about £60. You can often get a decent seat for around the £20 mark. Sam West was on the radio this week talking about his campaign to get a minumum wage of £400 per week for the actors in a recent Shakespeare. Compare this with a visit to Chelsea FC (or any of the top clubs). This is the home of the working class individual, and lacks the elitism of the Arts world. Here you pay around £60 for a ticket, and for this you get to watch people entertain who earn around £100,000 per week. Hasn’t elitism been turned on its head? Football used to be for the people, but now it’s for the people who can afford to shell out £1825 for a season ticket at Arsenal.

You could go and see the Moustrap about 50 times for that price.