Thursday 22 October 2020

It's good to be sceptical

James Randi has died. It comes as no great shock - he was 92, after all, but I'm sad nonetheless, for Randi was something of a hero to me.

Starting his career as a magician, he quickly developed a style in which he told the audience that he was tricking them, rather than performing magic. It seemed a logical progression, then, to move from performing tricks to debunking others who claimed that they were magical, or paranormal or, in the case of Peter Popoff, receiving messages from God. Randi famously exposed Uri Geller on TV in the Seventies as a complete chancer (hooray!) - but it speaks volumes about people's gullibility and willingness (desperation?) to believe in something (anything?) that Geller continues to profit from his bunkum to this day (boo!). Depressingly, even Popoff was able to make a comeback. There will always be some who prefer snake oil to science, I guess...

A few years ago there was a BBC Storyville documentary about James that is most definitely worth watching. It's currently unavailable on the iPlayer, sadly, but you never know, they might reshow it now he's died, so keep an eyes on those BBC4 schedules. There's also the film An Honest Liar, which covers a lot of the same ground (and takes its title from a decription Randi applied to himself as a trickster who was open about the fact that he was tricking...)

There's oodles on YouTube too, of course... like his TED talk, for example:

And there's loads more. You can do your own search, I guess. You won't regret it, but you might find you've been on YouTube a lot longer than you'd planned. Sorry (not sorry) about that.

Oh, and James's One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, which offered a prize of a million US dollars to anyone who could demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event under test conditions agreed to by both parties, remained unclaimed at the time of his death. James Randi, RIP, after a life well led.

Monday 19 October 2020

Public service announcement

Pixies had a new single out on Friday, co-penned and sung by non-Deal bassist Paz Lenchantin. And it's alright, maybe even a slow-burn grower.

If you're interested in this, or the T-Rex cover on the B-side, you can pick it up right here.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

About sadness

For obvious reasons, I've been at home a lot more this year than might otherwise have been the case. And unlike all the worthy individuals who have used their extra time at home to get jobs done or learn new skills, I seem to have pissed most of the time away. Although since I feel like I'm always either busy or tired, have I really had so much free time? Probably not, but that's not the point I'm here to make. Because what I have done, what I have found the time for, is watch television.

First off, I rewatched all five series of Line of Duty. It's brilliant, such an accomplished and cohesive long-form body of work, and a credit to all involved. But you know that already.

I've also started rewatching Heroes, courtesy of iPlayer. It seemed groundbreaking when it started back in 2006; now, not so much. I raced through the first series, and am now remembering that the second series is where it started feeling like they were making it up as they went along. I don't know yet if I will persevere through series 3 and 4. But the first series was good. Anyway, I digress - I don't want to talk about that either.

There are two programmes I do want to talk about though. The first is Us, the recent four-part BBC adaptation of David Nicholls's novel of the same name. As you would hope/expect of a drama starring Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves, it's very watchable. The second programme (and I appreciate that I'm a little late to the party here) is Ricky Gervais's After Life, on Netflix. Now I appreciate that Gervais can be something of a Marmite figure, but I think he can be terrific... and, whisper it quietly, I think After Life - the tale of a widower's struggle with grief and depression - might just be the best thing he's done.

So, aside from both being TV programmes that I have watched recently (still watching, in the case of After Life), why have I bracketed these two shows together? Well, they are both very sad programmes to watch, albeit in different ways. Warning: mild spoilers ahead. Us concerns the breakdown and dissolution of a 25yr relationship between straight-laced scientist Douglas and artistic free-spirit Connie, whose marriage cannot survive the adulthood and departure of their son, Albie. Now that feels terribly sad to me; okay, so divorce rates suggest it will resonate with many, perhaps regretfully, perhaps painfully. But I imagine it may be even sadder for couples or families watching who perhaps fear they are glimpsing their future. But it's sad with a BBC/bestselling twist or two, for light is left at the end of the tunnel for the protagonists, with the suggestion of new relationships for them both. Better still, in the course of the show Douglas rescues his relationship with his son. So it's a terribly sad reflection of modern life, but with an upbeat twist that enables you to watch it and still feel okay by the end of part four (unless, presumably, you are one of those viewers foreseeing their own future).

And then there's After Life. Gervais plays Tony, struggling with colossal grief after the death of his wife. To make matters worse, his father resides in a care home, where some form of cognitive failure renders him unable to recognise his son. It's a grim combination indeed (and if you've read my novel, you'll know I've explored similar themes myself - still waiting for the call from Netflix, mind). It's very different to Us - no punches are pulled and, though I still have the last episode of series two to come, there's little in the way of positive endings on display. It's hard watching in places, as Tony's grief plays out before us in high definition. He is suicidal, and we're shown that, unexpurgated. You might think that sounds unpleasant viewing, but you'd be wrong - uncomfortable, yes, but compelling. I guess everyone's experience of grief is different, but this feels plausible. Awful, but relatable.

So two very different programmes but with one thing in common - the sadness they portray, the heartache and hreatbreak, the misery ... is seductive. Gervais touches on this in After Life, with Tony observing that he was been wallowing in his grief because it's comfortable - he knows where he is with it. For him, moving on, leaving his sadness behind, is inconceivable - it has so consumed him that it has become him, and the idea of feeling okay again is scarier than remaining depressed.

Coincidence or deliberate, I wonder, that Tony's pet is a black dog?

I don't have any conclusions to end with, sorry. Just watch both programmes, they're better than their trailers. And don't wallow; that way lies disaster.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Time-Capsule TV II - John Noakes interviews Ronnie Barker

Ask anyone about John Noakes and they'll talk about elephants relieving themselves in the Blue Peter studio, climbing Nelson's Column on a rickety wooden ladder and Shep. But there was a lot more to him, Blue Peter and children's television in general, back in the 70s, as this clip illustrates. There's so much to love here, from John rocking up at Elstree in a grubby white Marcos Mantula, having a chat with the uniformed security guard on the barrier, having a tour of the Porridge set and finally sitting down to interview the comedy genius that was Ronnie Barker. I think what's most noticeable, for me, is that John didn't talk down to the Blue Peter audience - this could just as easily be a piece for an adult magazine show (and is certainly more watchable than the dross that gets served up on The One Show and similar). Also, note how there was no need to drown the piece in intrusive backing music, as is usually the case on kids' TV these days.

What else? Aside from John and Ronnie, there's Richard Beckinsale, Fulton Mackay, Ronald Lacey and, behind the camera, Sydney Lotterby. All gone now, of course, but then this was 1977.

Forget kid's TV, I'd watch this now. And keep watching, and listening carefully, around 7m15 - John asks Fulton if he gets any reaction from prison warders, not anything else, however it might sound...

Thursday 8 October 2020

Everyone's getting old

Having read Jez's post over at A History of Dubious Taste yesterday, I had to remind myself that Susanna Hoffs (insert obligatory "sigh" here) is 61. Christ. How is that even possible?

To add insult to injury, I've just remembered that today is Sigourney Weaver's birthday. Her 71st birthday...

Happy birthday Ripley (and the anti-Ripley...)

Night watchman

Here's a curious thing.

I have quite a lot of watches. None of them are particularly rare or collectable or even expensive (I think the dearest was £108 new, twenty years ago). But I like watches, and can't bear to part with them. I wear a watch every single day, and feel naked without one. Example: aged 16, starting my first Saturday job at a now-defunct department store, through nerves I forgot to put my watch on, and only realising half way there. In a panic, I borrowed Mum's slightly feminine (though all black, at least) Casio digital and wore it for the rest of the day, rather than be watchless. Similarly, a few years later on a lads' holiday to Spain, quite early in the week the waterproof seal on my watch failed, and so did the watch after a dip in the pool; I then wore a non-functioning watch for the rest of the holiday week, rather than have a bare wrist.

So I am tied to wristwatches, in a way that the youth of today are not. Why wear an anachronism when you can just look at your phone screen to tell the time, right?

Anyway, one of my watches is a metal analogue, powered by a kinetic mechanism. I used to wear it to work, back in the dim and distant past of actually going into the office rather than working from home. It was my work/formal watch, because it is quite smart (or was - the tale of how I scraped the edge off one corner of the crystal face is a little too, erm, racy for this blog post). However, it has been lying, unworn, by my bedside since mid-March. The kinetic mechanism, by which the wearer's movement charges the battery, ran down in May, so it isn't even telling the time at the moment (other than twice a day, ha ha). But I digress; last night, I went to bed and, as ever, the last thing I did before getting under the covers was take off the watch I had been wearing all day, a solar-powered digital confection that is my casual/active/knockabout watch. And when I woke up this morning, six hours later... I was wearing my work watch. Some how, at some point in the night, I had reached out in the dark, found the watch and strapped it on, no mean feat in itself given that I was asleep and the watch has a locking fold-over clasp. Weird, eh? I've never sleepwalked or anything like that before... but I quite like the idea of putting a watch on in my sleep. And all without moving enough to restart the kinetic battery mechanism...

This watch-based nonsense is all the excuse I need to post a live performance of Watcher of the Skies by Gabriel-era Genesis. Always good to remind ourselves just how "out there" they, and particularly Gabriel, were back then. Multi-coloured, sequinned cape? Check. White gloves? Check. Bald stripe shaved down the middle of the head? Check. Giant, er, bat wings sprouting from behind the ears? Ch... jesus, Peter! Anyway, here it is. I love early Genesis like this. You might not (probably won't) though, so... sorry... Regardless, what's the weirdest thing you've done in your sleep?

Monday 5 October 2020

Time-Capsule TV I - The Style Council review the morning's papers

This might be the start of a new blog theme, even if only sporadically. YouTube throws up all kinds of weird and wonderful blasts from the past, things that I forgot even happened. I might embed a few, not least because it's a quick and easy way of keeping the blog ticking over without too much effort on my part (which sits perfectly with my current mood and interest levels).

To kick off, here are Paul Weller and Mick Talbot from The Style Council appearing with Partridge-favourite Sue Cook on BBC Breakfast Time (not TV-am, as the video's title suggests), reviewing the day's newspapers. Yes, really. Paul doesn't seem too pleased to be there and looks, the way he's sitting, to be in physical discomfort. Mick, on the other hand, is a bit more engaged, although seems mindful of the need to maintain a healthy cynicism. And poor Sue seems to be struggling with Paul's antipathy. I'm not sure who thought this was a good idea, but it's real time-capsule television, not least because I'd forgotten about the fuss that Come To Milton Keynes generated. Anyway, here it all is, from 1985 - how we used to live, eh?

Friday 2 October 2020

What's not to like?

I make no apologies for what amounts to just another embedded-video-without-context post (even though I've served up loads of those lately). For here are The Wedding Present and Louise Wener, performing a previously unreleased Sleeper song in a locked down, stripped back session for At The Edge Of The Sofa. And it's a song about being together (well, sort of... or not... maybe should be together, at

Anyway, what's not to like?

And if you don't enjoy the chorus harmonies between Louise and David, for example 46 seconds in, well, there's basically no hope for you...