Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

All that is formulaic does not have to be bad.  When sports teams hit on a winning formula either of personnel or tactics they would be foolish to move away from it.  And of course there’s something to be said for sticking to what you know (incidentally, I notice that Feeder have a new album out).  TV seems to work on a similar principle, namely that you should be inventive only until you stumble across something that people like, then you make sure to give them more of the same until they are sick of it.  For evidence, see Popstars, Popstars (the rivals), Pop Idol, American Idol, Fame Academy, The X factor, Britain’s got Talent.  The name changes, but generally the product stays the same.  Of course ITV are most guilty, but the BBC have to hold their hands up in at least two areas.  The first is the now-ubiquitous travel/cookery programme, many of which tend to focus on the British Isles in a sort of upmarket Man v Food manner, including vast quantities of whitecurrants, samphire and cob-nuts, whilst Giles Coren or the Hairy Bikers tell us what we should be eating more of, and isn’t it a shame how what used to be orchards is now a ring-road around Stoke.  The second is the nostalgia shows, and keen to live up to their name, the nostalgia shows have been away for a time but are now back with a vengence.

The BBC decided to go large on the nostalgia show around the year 2000 (a sensible time to look back), and spent every Saturday night with a programme entitled ‘I love 1970’ one week, followed by ‘I love 1971’ the following week.  The feeling was that they knew it was possible to cobble together an entire night’s TV on one of their two channels by simply showing repeats, as long as the repeats all happened to be from the same year.  The glue that held these programmes together took the form of various comedians and social commentators (wherever else would Stuart Maconie and Gina Yashere come together?) whose role was to exclaim ‘I can’t believe we all used to wear leg-warmers’ at the end of a clip where people wore leg-warmers, or ‘I can’t believe we all used to wear 3-foot high top-hats with mirrors on them’ when a clip of Slade was shown.

The popularity of these programmes was such that when the ‘I love 1970s’ series came to a close in late 2000, they simply wheeled out an ‘I love 1980s’ series.  This was followed by the ‘I love 1990s’ series.  It was more difficult to class the ‘I love 1999’ programme strictly as nostalgia, bearing in mind that the show aired in 2001.  I can’t believe I used to wear that?  Not really – clothes from 1999 made up the most fashionable items in my wardrobe at that time.

The Beeb have re-introduced the nostalgia again recently with a series called ‘The 70s’.  Apart from the fact that something from 1972 might turn up alongside something from 1976, rather than being separated by four Saturday nights, it doesn’t smack of anything original.  But people still seem keen to lap it up.  But who is actually allowed to feel nostalgic whilst watching kids bouncing on space-hoppers or riding Rayleigh Choppers?  Surely only those people that were bouncing on space-hoppers or riding Choppers at the time?  So anyone from the ages of about 5-15 in, say, 1976 can feel nostalgic, which means that only those people aged between 41 and 51 now really be experiencing a feeling of nostalgia, or at least a heightened sense of nostalgia.  These people are experiencing genuine nostalgia; they are whistfully remembering a time gone by, a happy time, a simpler time and a time about which they can say ‘I was there’.  I’m not nostalgic for space-hoppers because I never bounced on one, nor did I know anyone that did.  I’m no more nostalgic for those squidgy orange balls than I am for penny farthings or Arkwright’s spinning Jennys.

But nostalgia affects us all, and it seems that we’re able to feel nostalgic about the past, even if it wasn’t our past.  I watched a programme about George Formby last week, which included clips of many of his bawdy songs (most of which seemed to be about his penis, or his desire to spy on women through windows).  Yet by the end of the programme I was convinced that the London riots were pretty much a direct result of the decrease in the number of people playing the ukelele and that what this country needed was a mass-exodus to the Blackpool ballroom to listen to a load of George’s old music-hall classics.  I got rather carried away, as you can probably tell.  

We’re all keen to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, and tend to remember just how bad today is compared to the halcyon days of yesteryear.  Wattle and daub houses and rampant syphilis, that’s when times were truly great.  Mind you, things can be taken too far.  The Happy Mondays are back on tour.

Bruce’s Britton

I’m no social or cultural historian, as if you hadn’t noticed already, but I do take an interest in fashions and fads; in particular the question of whether the sort of fads that seem to grip the nation are dictated by what people actually want to wear, watch or listen to, or whether there’s some kind of conspiracy by higher powers to see what people can be made to wear, watch or listen to.  I can understand the popularity (past or present) of X Factor, Downton Abbey, Masterchef, Ugg Boots, Take That in boy and man incarnation, jeans tucked into boots (Uggs or otherwise), small plates of food and pop-up restaurants and cinemas.  I can even just about comprehend the very short lived fad of staying up half the night to watch some hatchet-faced Scottish Grandmother win a Curling medal at the Winter Olympics (it was only a one-night thing, after all).  I’m not sure why my ‘Dead Pool’, in which one predicts which celebrity deaths will occur over the next twelve months has not caught on yet, but it’s got time to become a fad that’ll grip the nation, and my next blog will feature the crop for 2012.

The latest TV fad seems to be the travel + food-umentary, and it looks as though everyone’s cottoned on to this sure-fire ratings winner.  The Hairy Bikers, Oz and James, Jamie Oliver, Michael Portillo, Ade Edmondson, Rick Stein, some posh twit mates of Hugh F-W, Rory McGrath and Paddy McGuinness and the soap dodger from single-serious curate’s egg ‘One Man and his Camper-van’.

The premise is quite simple, and by this, I mean cheap.  It involves a man, or maybe a couple of men, or sometimes even three men, driving around Britain, meeting local people, usually doing a bit of cooking along the way and generally reminding us what a great place this island nation is to live.  The rules seems fairly simple, and consist of the following:

1.  A regional stereotype must be wheeled out at every opportunity.
2.  The vehicle in which the man/men travel around the country must be ‘vintage’, ideally caravan/campervan.
3.  Any cooking must be done on location, ideally using a mini-stove from said campervan.
4.  (optional) – some kind of challenge might be involved, presumably to add a competitive edge.  This might involve the protagonists needing to cook only food that they can catch/barter/work for/steal.  It is never explained why this should be necessary.

A perfect example of how one can cram all three of the above rules into just 5 minutes of television came from the truly awful ‘Ade in Britain’, starring Ade Edmondson.  This show seems to have been put together simply because someone thought the title was good, and there’s only one famous Ade out there of course, which at least keeps him in work.  One stop on Ade’s trip was Morecambe.  He pulled up in his Mini Cooper, complete with small cavannette/stove being dragged behind.  He visited a local man that made potted shrimps, obtained the recipe, re-created it from his very own camper-stove before feeding the fruits of his labour to four buck-toothed men from the George Formby appreciation society (we knew this because they each had a ukelele); all this took place in the shadow of the Eric Morecambe statue.

Why has there been a sudden explosion of TV shows of this kind?  Has there been an outcry from the public, demanding a fusion of game-show, travel and al fresco culinary travails?  Or have a group of media moguls suddenly come to the same conclusion that this is what our screens have been missing?  Or are they just cheap, and require little or no budget/planning?  I think I know which one it is.

Hugh F-W seems to have had the best idea, in that he doesn’t even appear in his latest culinary road-trip.  Instead, three snaggle-haired photogenic posh-boys hammer round the South West in (you guessed it) a camper-van, with no money, eating only food they have earned, before cooking it all up on a ring-burner in the back of their vehicle.  Hugh merely provides a voice-over, and even that looks to associate him a little too closely with this rot.

I await the next installation of the format with baited breath.  ‘Bruce’s Britton’ perhaps, featuring Bruce Forsyth and Fern Britton.  Bruce and Fern drive around the country in a 1973 Austin Allegro, compete with the sort of caravanette you used to win on Bullseye.  They visit artisan food producers, but can only eat the food if they manage an arm-wrestle win.  Voice-over by Vernon Kay.  I’d watch it.  Wouldn’t you?


It’s worth getting one thing straight before I start: children in need is a good thing. Anything that raises nigh on 30 million pounds for various children’s charities cannot be anything other than a good thing. Whether one finds dancing newsreaders a little bit hackneyed and probably best left in the 70s with Angela Rippon and Morecambe and Wise, and whether it’s patently obvious that Sir Terry should have been mothballed along with Sir Bruce years back, that doesn’t make CiN anything other than a good thing. It’s a British institution; it’s proof that we’re not all greedy bankers and we’re willing to give to a good cause; it’s a good thing. Have I protested too much? Probably. Have I made my point? Hopefully.

I’ve just watched ‘teardrop’ by ‘The Collective’, which is the official CiN single. It’s a curious mix of young black British musical talent, Ed Sheerin rapping (well, speaking) in a sort of ‘mock-ghetto public-schoolboy in his bed-sit with pictures of Tupac on the wall’ accent, and an occasional focus on Gary Barlow doing what I presume is the face he would do were he to come across a run-over, though still partially alive, kitten.

It’s a terrible cover of what is a very good song. It’s basically the same music, with a lazy rap done over the top. It’s got some strings in it; you can tell this because of the Gormenghast-relic bearded chap doing some conducting in the middle of the video. But, with CiN being a good thing, even this poor song represents a case of the end justifying the means. And if one sees it as nothing but a bad song making some money for a good cause, well, it’s probably a good thing too, all in all. At least it’s better than ‘The Stonk’.

The mistake I made was to listen to the lyrics. They’re such incredible dross. It takes a while to get going, but it’s as if by the two minute mark, the lyricists decided that it was time to get all insprirational. Thus we have gems like:

1. ‘you can be anything you dream of…’

This is patently untrue. I’d like to be a professional footballer thanks. What’s that? I’m not good enough at football? But Ed Sheerin said…

2. ‘value everything you own, somebody probably dreams of the bed that you sleep on’

Nice guilt trip. As long as I own a bed, that should be enough to make me feel guilty. Unlike the rabble of x-factor types in the video, who have really had to struggle with the instant fame and fortune conferred on them.

3. ‘be anything, it’s your choice’

A similar conundrum to point 1. It may be your ambition, but very rarely is it your choice. You can be a writer, but you still need a publisher to get your words out there. You can be a singer, but you still need a record deal to get your music heard. And you’ll never be an astronaut or a footballer – best just get used to it.

4. ‘always speak your mind’

This is a bad idea. Questions such as ‘do I look fat in this?’ and ‘isn’t he such a cute baby?’ may get you into a awful lot of trouble for speaking your mind. There are times when speaking your mind is a good idea, and no-one’s trying to suggest you should be a wall-flower at all times, but there will be times when the advice is plain irresponsible.

5. ‘you can turn silver into gold with 4 coins’

A mathematical question. With one 50p coin, two 20p coins and a 10p, you can indeed turn silver into gold (a pound coin) though I’m pretty sure that they’re not made of gold. Then again, the ‘silver’ coins mentioned above are mostly nickel-alloy; nevertheless, it works mathematically, despite the confusion between colour and value of coin. Having said it, this is probably the only true part of the song, though I doubt many people will be inspired by the basic metric system of currency.

Maybe I’ve looked into things in too much depth. In fact, I know I have. But sometimes things aren’t glamorous, they don’t represent instant gratification and they don’t always end with the success you’ve worked towards or the success you deserve. Sometimes things only come with hard slog, and even then, you’re not going to be famous doing them. But you should be happy with your own achievements, even though you have to realise that you can’t do anything you want, or be anything you wish. Better to hear the truth now.

If you’re after inspiration, eschew Barlow, and head to another great man, Marcus Aurelius:

‘Be like the Rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest’

Confusion reigns

Life is confusing.

It’s confusing from a philosophical point of view (what is our purpose in life?) but it’s also pretty confusing from an everyday point of view (what’s the difference between all these coloured nespresso capsules, and how does one operate the machine anyway?)

Many people manage to avoid this confusion by choosing the simple life, and by this I don’t mean heading off into the wilderness a la ‘into the wild’, or tagging along with Paris Hilton through the hick backwaters of the US. I mean the simple life from yesteryear, where all that mattered was having a menial job which enabled one to put food on the table, and raising a couple of kids who stayed on the straight and narrow. One can add to this the watching of X factor and the occasional KFC bucket and some lottery tickets, but for many, this is life as it should be lived in little Britain. This mass of people are required to keep the country going. They are the gammas and below of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and they represent the glue that binds society together.

There are others that ponder the big questions; the questions that are concerned with the advancement and future of mankind. Crucially, they also end up in a position to be able to do something about it. These are the betas and upwards of BNW, the thinkers and do-ers in Douglas Adams’ ‘The Restaurant at the end of the Universe’. In a demoncracy, these are the people (and those around them) that we rely on to get the big decisions right in order the safeguard the future of nations.

In ‘The Restaurant at the end of the Universe’, the residents of a planet whose future was known to be doomed, decided to leave the planet via spaceship to colonise another. They left the ‘useless third’ of the population behind, having taken the ‘thinkers’ and ‘do-ers’ away with them.
So can we isolate the useless third of our planet, those that are left when all the thinkers and do-ers are taken out of the equation? Not quite that simple, but with the world population having just hit 7 billion, we can’t afford too many passengers on this over-crowded planet.

I’m more concerned with the state of ‘protesting’ in general. There’s a lot of protestors out there at the moment; granted that there’s certainly plenty to protest about. However, whereas you can do a menial job very well without too much thinking, to protest without thinking can be quite a dangerous thing.

If you’re in any doubt what I mean, have a look at these chaps in this clip:

They’re from the ‘Occupy London’ protest. Their names are confused person 1 and confused person 2 (not really, but that’s how I like to know them). They are protesting against corporate greed, which is generally taken to mean bankers. Fine. But if you listen to their ramble, they’re also protesting about lack of political intervention and control, Murdoch’s control of the media and the ‘rule’ of the aristocracy (as if they have any actual power?). Is this precisely what all the people outside St Paul’s are protesting against? I very much doubt it. At least the second chap is articulate, albeit in a rather stereotyped student way; the first guy seems to have no idea what he’s protesting about, except to say that there’s a lot of anger on the streets (well there is if you live in a tent on the streets around St Paul’s); he seems to have been dragged along in this current of anger. He’s a rebel without a clue.

More confusion: I heard a group of protestors at Aberdeen airport speaking on the radio recently. They had chained themselves to one of the runways (not sure how this is done…), and were protesting at the emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels in aircraft leading to global warming and its associated environmental problems. They had attached themselves to the runway to stop the planes from landing. That’s right, landing. Not taking-off, but landing. Their protest ensured that the planes either had to stay in the air, burning more fuel, until another runway becamse available, or they had to be diverted to another airport entirely, with similar consequences. The group seemed rather crestfallen when this was pointed out by the interviewer.

Yet more confustion, from abroad this time: I was in Vienna this week, where their version of the ‘slutwalk’ was taking place. For the uninitiated, this involves a group of women (and men) marching the streets in protest against the remarks made by a Toronto policeman at a safety lecture earlier this year. He suggested that women should avoid ‘dressing like sluts’ to minimise the risk of attack from men. He has since apologised for this incredibly crass statement. I’m not sure that anyone would argue that rape is good (hence this is akin to a protest against murdering people), and I’m also unsure that one idiotic statement from one policeman should be taken to mean that every nation in which the protests have taken place gives out the message ‘don’t get raped’ as opposed to ‘don’t rape’, but what was more interesting was the level of confusion displayed by the participants of the protest. Some clearly seemed to have understood, and were scantily clad in ‘slut-wear’, which is the point of the walk, namely that individuals should be free to wear what they like without fear of being judged, or fear of assault. Others held banners of ‘support feminism’, which I guess is related, though I’m not sure it’s a key feminist principle. Others held ‘smash capitalism’ banners. Surely these people are confused? Does a capitalist society promote rape? Or were they just keen to piggy-back one protest for another?

Confusion brought about by a lack of thinking. Dangerous stuff.

Man of the People

I’ll start with a ‘snob disclaimer’, in that the following musings are not intended to appear snobbish or judgemental, although I guarantee that they will.

I’ve just been staring, dumbstruck, at an X-factor medley of ‘Shut Up’ by Pink (I presume the irony was lost on the show’s producers). It was worse than bad. The desperation in the performers faces bordered on the insane, as Simon Cowell smiled smugly like some modern day Pontius Pilate. There was a jovial black chap, a few pre-pubescent teens, a couple of pin-up boy-banders, some old fat woman and a mahogany-tinted man who looked as though he had been doused in cuprinol. This, I have since found out, is Wagner, which explains a lot of recent tweeting. When did TV stoop so low? Even the ‘light channel’, ITV, which has always pandered to the lowest common denominator looks to have hit rock-bottom. It’s ostensibly an old-fashioned talent show, a la New Faces, except minus the talent. There’s nothing original, bearing in mind that all the songs are covers, and the performers looks like a mixture of earnest School revue jazz-handers and working man’s club lags. I remember Take That getting a whole load of stick in the early 90s because they played on their looks and were seriously stylised, but at least they wrote and performed their own music; they are now hailed as demi-Gods for doing so.

We seem to have lost all interest in the product (ie the music) somewhere along the way, and have become more interested in the process of making someone a star; this contrived manufacturing of an individual merely to sell records is exactly what used to be seen as a kind of cheating. The ‘journey’ of the wannabe star, the tough family background, the ‘I’ve wanted this, like, forever’ tearful speech. This is what we pay to see, because once we’ve got the star, we tend to forget about them (McManus, Sneddon, Parks, Gates, Leon something, anyone?, anyone?). It’s a music show, but with little focus on the music. Get the song out of the way, and then let’s boo or cheer the judges, depending on whether they chastise or praise. ‘That’s your best performance’ (cheer), ‘I didn’t really feel that performance’ (boo).

So no interest in music, and no interest in finding real talent. But let’s examine the alternative. Let’s say that we are after real talent, and we take the most original, exciting, dynamic musicians out there, and judge them against each other for a record contract on a saturday night. I’d hate it. Why? Because it would make ITV (or ITV1, now) credible, and I wouldn’t have anything to rant about. I also don’t want to see genuine musical talent being mentored, going up in front of judges and being told about image and choice of song. I’m interested in the music, not in the process that gets the music to the people. Real talent should come to the attention of people through the quality of the music, not through the over-blown production and stories of troubled childhoods.

There’s also always something pleasing about knowing the masses are wasting their time with such tosh as X-Factor, whilst I’m watching something about British Art on channel 4. Orwell was fascinated by the working classes, and even noted a certain nobility in them. But even he said that ‘the problem with the working classes, is that they smell’, so man of the people he certainly wasn’t. I loved chatting to a nice old couple in the pub last saturday, just before the Palace-Swansea game, but that was enough of a dip into working class life for me thanks, and I’d prefer to leave them to their X-Factor and KFC mum’s night off bucket saturday night treat. If everyone gained some taste, and stopped watching Eastenders and Strictly Come Dancing, I wouldn’t be able to feel superior in my niche intellectual interests. If everyone started listening to Nick Drake or The Smiths, I wouldn’t be able to bemoan the lack of interest in proper music; I’m not sure we need a music show for people who don’t like music, but if it keeps them happy on a cold winter night, who am I to criticise.

It’s still better than watching Dean Gaffney eating a dessicated Kangaroo penis.