Smashed

One of the criteria I like to apply to my present purchasing for family and friends is “is this something I would like to borrow in the future?”. For example, my sister, mother and I have very similar taste (and actually my Dad too, but to a lesser extent as his wishlist usually consists of very weighty biographies), and therefore we tend to do a certain amount of inter-family loans as far as books and DVDs are concerned.

[In case you think I’m too self-centred, other criteria I use include: “I love this, therefore my sister/mum/friend will probably love it too”; “they’ve mentioned wanting this in the past”; and “this is random…they’ll love it!”.]

This year, I bought my sister Miranda Hart’s live DVD with the express purpose of borrowing it at a later date (actually, that sounds a little too mercenary – I actually thought it would make for quality Christmas family viewing, had we got around to it while in Belfast). Last year, I spotted a TV series on her wishlist which sounded intriguing – something about a musical being staged on Broadway – and figured that giving it to her could only benefit me in the long run. Sure enough, once she had finally got around to watching it, it was then passed on to me with enthusiastic recommendation!

smash-musical-drama-nbc-poster

Smash is effectively Glee for grown ups. Now, I know that Glee is for grown ups too, but it is set in a High School, which gives something of an indication of its intended audience. Smash is set on Broadway, featuring the kind of people the students in Glee aspire to be – members of the chorus ensemble; divas; directors; and composers/lyricists. The first season revolves around the writing a brand new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, beginning with a workshop process, just like many a Broadway or West End show.

Those that know me and my penchant for musicals should begin to see why Smash was an instant hit with me. To be honest, I probably would have sped through its first 15 episodes regardless of its cast. The tunes are catchy [the soundtrack for season one is playing as I type this], the acting excellent, and they play the Glee trick of bringing in exceedingly appropriate guest stars. For goodness sake, Bernadette Peters plays the mother of one of the wannabe Marilyns!!

The icing on the cake is that the main cast is fabulous. I sat down to watch the first episode with no idea of who was in it, and practically yelled when I discovered that Debra Messing (aka Grace in Will & Grace) was a lead. The mean British director who appeared later that episode seemed familiar too, but it took a bit of Wikipedia-ing to discover why. Turns out Miles from This Life did good. So good, he was playing a Broadway director and looking like he had aged very well! [Incidentally, it turns out most of This Life is on YouTube. If you can handle the realisation of just how long ago 1996 was, I highly recommend the nostalgia trip!]

Most of them have a background in Broadway, so it’s real. As is my custom, I hit Wikipedia hard to discover some juicy factoids about the cast (well, initially to work out who the dishy Brit was), while avoiding plot spoilers. It turned out that the composer to Messing’s lyricist had originated the role of Emmett in Legally Blonde. Most of the ensemble had been on Broadway in some shape of form. If you watch the documentary in the DVD extras (yes, I am *that* person), you discover that the real-ness of Broadway depicted in the show was a motivating factor in them getting on board with the project. (The fact that Spielberg is Executive Director can’t have hurt either.)

Anyway, the point of this post is that I’d have never known about Smash, were it not for my sister’ wishlist. [It was on Sky, which I do not have.] I can’t bear the thought of other musical theatre nerds being without this gem, so felt the need to share the love. It’s not on the streaming services of choice in the UK, so you may need to go old school with DVDs, but it’s SO worth it.

Don’t you need a duet between Monroe and DiMaggio in your life?

[I actually wrote this post a month ago and left it sitting in drafts. Since then, series 2 has wound its way to me. Having resisted the temptation of opening it for a few weeks, last week it became the ideal remedy for a season of life that featured frustration; big freelance projects; and essay writing. A couple of episodes of Smash at the end of a long day is exactly what this soul needs!] 

Lessons we’ve learned from GBBO 2014

Tonight it ends. We’ll be left with another 10 month gap in competitive baking scheduling. (Aside from that all too brief week in January when celebrities take up the challenge.)

But this year’s Bake Off will become legend in the history of TV baking – what with bingate, THE pencil and a prodigious 17 year old.

Bake Off 2014

Over the last two months we’ve learned a number of valuable lessons which are worth remembering as we prepare to bid the tent of baked goods a fond farewell…

1. Pesto is exotic and a lovely Scot called Norman was the perfect antidote to a fiercely fought Independence campaign. (See Buzzfeed for more reasons why Norman was brilliant.)

2. The BBC has discovered the loveliest teenager in all of the UK. Martha Collinson not only bakes with a skill way beyond her years, has an excellent sense of humour, did her AS levels during filming, and is a campaigner for Tearfund! All time favourite Martha moment? When she looked into the oven and uttered the words: “I could have practiced this”. Twice.

3. The Guardian could do with improving the quality of its Bake Off reporting. Now, I appreciate that there are bigger issues going on in the world right now, but the Guardian has set itself a high standard to meet with its consistently excellent live blog of every episode. [Hats off to you Heidi Stephens.] It’s just a shame that the side was let down by not one but two articles.

The first, an interview with the “russet Gandalf” (we’ll be returning to him, have no fear), included a piece of utterly bizarre logic regarding last week’s semi final. Apparently, star baker Richard had ‘come second’ and Luis had come first. I may have tweeted my quibble to the article’s author…


Several friends & family members have assured me that I was right, so I’m feeling ok about it. I just wish my first Twitter discussion with Zoe Williams had been about something a little more worthy!

The second article is a delightful run-down of all the Bake Off contestants ever. As with so many countdowns, the most recent series is too fresh in the memory to be objective about. Thus we have the tragedy of Jordan placing above my all-time favourite baker ever – fair isle devotee James Morton (12 to 13). A travesty!!

4. Always make your own fondant!

Mary Berry death stare

5. Howard (from series 4 and custardgate fame) needs his own baking show, stat! His two appearances on Extra Slice were a delight to behold – the world has a new talent and his name is Howard. [Incidentally, well done BBC for Extra Slice – that was a brilliant decision!]

6. No one’s worked out how to pronounce ‘baklava’.

7. Some people don’t understand that Bake Off isn’t Bake Off without the innuendo. Honestly, there’s a reason I don’t watch Masterchef (actually, there are several…) – what makes this show the genius it is is Mel & Sue’s endless punning and the way Mary & Paul knowingly join in. John Whaites (winner, GBBO 2012) wrote brilliantly for The Telegraph on the subject of essential innuendo“innuendo only enters the level of lewd when it is endorsed with a response”. The whole point of the baking double entendres is that they’re not deemed worthy of a retort!

8. Doughnuts can be turned into cocktails. (And this is when all Mary Berry’s baking dreams come true.)

9. A cake made up of several pancake layers with no icing or ganache in between really doesn’t look that attractive. Also, there’s no point making your own Princess Cake when Ikea serves it in their cafe.

10. Always label your creations when placing them within a communal freezer. Always check when moving tins around in a communal freezer that the owner of the tin you’ve removed knows that it’s no longer in the freezer. When a bake fails, don’t throw it into the bin. The British get VERY upset when they perceive that a baking injustice has taken place.

BBC Complaints AugustCredit. Honestly, when I saw this I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

Incredibly, this is the first time bingate’s been mentioned on this blog (it’s been a tough summer/autumn). I have very strong feelings about it, not least because Iain of the beard was one of my favourite contestants this year. (Beard + NI accent + baking skills = highly desirable man.) Yes, Diana’s actions may have been exaggerated thanks to the editing, but really, did he deserve to go? Especially given prior mistakes (John Whaites nearly cutting his finger off and custardgate) which resulted in fairer judging or no one leaving. I felt so, so sad for poor Iain – not least because throwing a failed bake into the bin is totally something I’d do. [I once threw a lemon drizzle that had got stuck to the tin onto the floor and stamped on it in a rage. True story.]

At this point in the series the winner almost becomes irrelevant. For the first time, this year I don’t have any terribly strong feelings about it. (Unlike the previous three series when I had definite ‘I don’t want them to win’ feelings.) I’ve liked Richard and his pencil from the start; Luis has real skills; and quite frankly, if Nancy can win after her microwave antics the other week, then excellent! (Although what ‘the male judge’ will think is another matter.)

Mary, Paul, Mel, Sue, the GBBO 2014 contestants and everyone on social media who has made this year a delight – THANK YOU! Let’s do it again next year.

The quirks of regional programming

[Another brilliant example of my ability to completely forget to publish something, even though it’s finished. Pretend this was published a week ago, it’ll work much better…]

The UK comprises many parts – as we are increasingly aware as September 17th and the Scottish referendum approaches – but it can be the most mundane things that highlight that it is not simply one, monochrome whole. Travel into Wales and immediately road signs are twice the size and only half as comprehensible. Go north of the border or over the Irish Sea and the currency stays the same, but the notes change colour. Even within the entity that is ‘England’, things are different – try buying the humble bread roll in 5 different counties and you’ll probably need 5 different words in order to manage it. [Bap, barm, cobb, bun, muffin…]

As a child, one of the most obvious differences whenever away from home was on the TV. Regional news bulletins involved unfamiliar accents and places I’d never heard of. Holidays in Llandudno provided The Smurfs and Superted in Welsh, which was rather disconcerting to a 6 year old. When we moved to Gloucester, we discovered that our house (thanks to an aerial on a building over the road) was alone amongst our friends in that it picked up BBC South West and HTV as opposed to Midlands Today and Central. [It might not seem like much of difference, but it did mean that we got classic NZ hospital soap Shortland Street, which wasn’t shown on Central – it’s the little things!]

Fast forward to 2004 and my parents’ move to Belfast. Move to another province within the UK and things change considerably. Many Brits of my generation will remember with fondness the Broom Cupboard of CBBC which was the lynch-pin of weekday evening TV. A daily feature, before that day’s Neighbours was shown (an essential part of 1980’s/90’s TV viewing), was the presenter bidding Northern Irish viewers goodbye several minutes before Neighbours started. I didn’t give it much thought at the time (I was more concerned with what Brad had been up to in Erinsbrough), but once subjected to TV in Northern Ireland on a regular basis, I wondered what they were watching when we were indulging in Ozzie high jinks…

[I’ve just Googled it. According to this interview with Andi Peters, they had Neighbours an hour later than us. At 5.30pm they had local news instead. Who knows why!]

BBC1-2012-XMAS-ID-TREE-2-NI-1

There are a lot of differences in the scheduling of TV in Northern Ireland. It becomes a bit of an issue at Christmas, when the rest of the country is watching something significant – one year it was the Gavin & Stacey Christmas Special – and instead, viewers in NI are treated to a local comedy like The Folks on the Hill. (That’s not to say that this satirical cartoon isn’t quality entertainment – it is – it’s just that I’d rather have been watching a keenly awaited show that everyone else was enjoying!) Regularly, Mock the Week is shown over an hour later in the province, a fact that led my mother to inadvertently tweet a celebrity for the first time. [Chris Addison had tweeted something witty about the time of that night’s episode, which I had retweeted. My mother (thinking that the ‘Chris’ in question was my friend Christopher, not an award-winning actor/comedian) tweeted back: “…except in Northern Ireland, when it’s on at 10.40pm – it takes longer for the boat with the tape to get here”.] 

I’ve been over in Belfast for most of the last week and spotted a trailer for some interesting looking drama on BBC1 (it’s got Olivia Colman in it, so it’s got to be good) but noticed that they were being shown at 10.40pm. Lauded new dramas are not broadcast at that time of night – they’re on at 9pm. What was Northern Ireland getting instead? On Monday night, I experienced the schedule shift for myself. While the rest of the country was (potentially) enjoying New Tricks (can’t see the point myself), we settled down to a BBC documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire.

I was rather surprised that such a programme wasn’t on the national schedule. [You can catch up with it on iPlayer – there’s a dedicated Northern Ireland section there.] When I was growing up, and for decades before that, the Troubles were usually the top item on the news. Living in London, I experienced at first hand some of the effects of the IRA’s actions – feeling the tremors of a controlled explosion of a bomb in John Lewis Oxford St during my first term at secondary school; being prevented from taking my usual route to school because of overnight bombs; the secret service protection of a neighbour who worked in the NI Office; not to mention the shock and horror everyone felt at the atrocities carried out by both sides over the years. Without the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and everything else that has paved the road to peace, I wouldn’t now be travelling to Belfast on a semi-regular basis.

The Troubles were not solely a Northern Ireland issue, they were a national issue – an international one in fact. This documentary was an important reminder of how far things have progressed in a comparatively short space of time and thoroughly deserved a national airing. But as I watched, I realised that it was far more detailed than most of the programmes I’ve ever previously seen on the conflict. It was made with those who had lived in and with it year after year after year in mind. For a population where everyone knows someone who has been directly affected by it. Maybe it wouldn’t have made much sense to the typical 9pm BBC1 audience?

As a result, I’ve been somewhat reconciled to the peculiarities of regional scheduling. Clearly, Northern Ireland deserves programmes that cater to their knowledge and experiences, that would probably go over the heads of many people in England, Scotland and Wales. They deserve to watch them at a sensible hour and on a ‘normal’ channel. But, we need to be careful not to exclude the rest of the nation. What happens in one province doesn’t leave the others unaffected. We are – for now – a United Kingdom.

Thoughts, 15 years late

This week I am most celebrating the fact that I don’t need to hand in any more essays and that my final presentation has been done. By way of celebration, I’ve indulged in something I’ve meant to indulge in for a very long time:
The West Wing.

Now, I realise I’m pretty much a decade and a half late to this party, but I have much to say in my defence…

Firstly, when the show first aired in the UK, I was a busy student (the first time around). I was already committed to shows that I *had* to be at home to watch – Ally McBeal, Friends, ER, Dawson’s Creek, Neighbours… – and this was a time when we didn’t have DVR’s or iPlayer. If a show clashed with a regular commitment, it was likely you’d never get to see it. I can’t be sure, but I think The West Wing was usually on on a night when I was out. Box sets were prohibitively expensive, so catching up before a new season was nigh on impossible. Given that I was (and still am, to some extent) a US Politics junkie who’d just sat an A-level in the subject, those are the only reasons I can think of to have totally passed it by. I certainly was not having one of my (occasionally) irrational “I won’t get involved in this insanely popular cultural phenomenon because I resent cultural phenomenons” moments.

West_Wing_S1_DVD

I appreciate that box sets of the show have been easily available for quite some time now, and still I haven’t watched it. My excuse? I knew I was likely to get addicted  and there are seven whole seasons of it. That’s a lot of time to lose to a classic TV show. A few years ago, a friend lent me season 1, so I was ready to give it a go. Then my sister acquired seasons 2, 3 & 6 on my behalf. I could have given it a go last summer, yet the opportunity never quite presented itself.

But, on Sunday night, knackered beyond belief, I ran myself a bath and chose The West Wing as my bath-time entertainment. I watched 2 episodes before emerging and had laughed out loud multiple times throughout. Since then, I’ve watched almost the entire first series, and have had the following thoughts. (Think of this as a series of tweets that might have been tweeted had Twitter existed in 2000.):

  • Wow, that was a very long continuous shot.
  • Blimey, this script writing is even wittier than Gilmore Girls.
  • Where do I know that irritating marketing woman from? [Answer: it’s Moira Kelly, as seen in The Cutting Edge, one of the best films ever made about ice skating. Incidentally, whenever I recognise someone in TV/Film it’s never from the most obvious thing – it’s usually the trashiest credit on their list!]
  • What do I need to do to become CJ? And why was White House Press Officer never on my list of possible careers??
  • I’ve only watched 2 episodes and already there are multiple potential sermon illustrations.
  • Where is Stockard Channing?
  • Oh, there’s Stockard Channing and she’s flipping awesome! Rizzo always was the best character in Grease…
  • This bit feels familiar. I wonder if I’ve seen it in someone’s sermon?
  • That bench looks familiar. Maybe I had lunch there in 2009?
  • I really, really want to be CJ.
  • Back in the day, the Apple logo was the other way around on the Macbook lid.
  • Hah! The Indian Ambassador went on to be Principal at McKinley High – of Glee fame!
  • Please can CJ and Danny get together?
  • Being the President is really, really hard. Being Chief of Staff is harder. 
  • Paris Geller did good!! [To explain: Paris is a Gilmore Girls character who is a massive try-hard and would have loved a job at the White House. Liza Weil, who played her, is in one episode of The West Wing – coincidentally filmed just before Gilmore Girls began. Like I said above, I always recognise people from the weirdest places.]
  • Hmmm, I appear to be on the penultimate disc of the series.
  • It’s amazing how different politics was in a pre-9/11 age.
  • I wonder where my Obama/Biden bumper sticker is?
  • It’s definitely time I re-visited Washington DC.

In short, this is the wisest TV watching move I’ve made for quite some time and I’m delighted that I have another six seasons of joy ahead of me. I’ve managed to avoid a lot of spoilers and have received a lot of encouragement from friends – much along the lines of “I’m so jealous that you have all this ahead of you!”

Essentially, this is delayed gratification on an epic scale. And right now, that’s just what I need.

In praise of Karen

There was more than a tinge of sadness this evening as I caught up on last week’s episode of Outnumbered. As the final episode of series 5, it’s almost certainly the last ever episode and all in all [no spoilers] I think it rounded off the series well. The fabulously awful Aunty Angela returned; Grandad was involved (although not seen); past incidents were referred to; and ultimately, things seemed to be working out ok in the Brockman household.

I wasn’t just mourning the end of a TV series that I’ve always enjoyed (despite those who criticised it for being the epitome of middle class England – I loved it for the fabulous children and their use of improvisation), I was mourning the growing up of children I’ve known for seven years – when the youngest was just 6. Unsurprisingly, given that these are real children, not Simpsons characters, they had to grow up.

OutnumberedOutnumbered, 2014

When this last series began last month (which is also when I began writing this post, albeit on a slightly different angle) there was much consternation amongst fans regarding just how much this youngest child – Karen – had aged. Quite why we were all surprised is a mystery. It had been nearly 2 years since the last series, and was now at secondary school. She wasn’t going to stay 6 forever…

Outnumbered 2007Outnumbered, 2007

Everyone in my family has had a soft spot for Karen. Her ability to say just the wrong thing at exactly the right time was in evidence right from the off. When the last episode ended this evening, I went straight back to episode 1 of series 1. [Thank you iTunes freebie several years ago, which slightly makes up for the fact that I have no idea where my DVD of series 1 currently is.] In it, Karen regales her bemused father with words she learned the night before, when over-hearing her parents argue. It’s fabulously real and utterly hilarious. Throughout the early series, all the best moments were Karen’s. Two of the best also happen to involve the church…

First up, series 2 episode 2, ‘The Dead Mouse’. Hands-down the best example of how liturgy meeting a modern context, and an excellent use of a cheese sandwich. Karen conducts a mouse’s funeral:

“Dust to dust. For richer and for poorer. In sickness and in health. May the force be with you. Because you’re worth it. Amen and out.” Genius.

Secondly, why you should be careful in getting involved in theological discussions with children. This is more a Ben moment, but Karen’s interjections are fabulous:

But do you know why my family particularly liked Karen? Because in many ways she embodied some of the things that me or my sister did while growing up. The guilt-tripping of a mother after the mouse death? Totally my sister. The grilling of a vicar? Me. My Dad even brought it up in the letter he sent me on the eve of my selection conference for ordination! His tip was to treat everyone with respect, even idiots – a reference to ongoing list of idiots that Karen kept in early series, which was reminiscent of something I had done at the same age. (I think I may have had an idiots’ notebook…)

However, series 5 Karen was different. I did not have as much in common with a 12 year old Karen. A Karen who intimidated her swimming competitors in an effort to win, because she was that competitive. [Well, I’m competitive, but not psychologically intimidatingly so…] She didn’t use punctuation correctly. [As if I would stoop to that level!] She was struggling with school. She was convinced her lost hamster was alive and living in their home’s crevices. Life was not going brilliantly for Karen.

It wasn’t until the penultimate episode when a chink of light appeared in this darker world. Karen had a brief return to classic form, having written a detailed letter of improvements her school could make, and sent it to the school governors. The Headmistress (played fabulously by Rebecca Front) wasn’t impressed and called her in to talk, giving her a talking to that seemed to do what nothing in the preceding 7 years had done – repressed the irrepressible.

Maybe, just maybe, Karen will turn out to be as well adjusted as those who preceded her. She too could be an eccentric, but well loved, secondary school drama teacher or a vicar-to-be ready to answer a new generation’s precocious questions.

Here’s to all the Karens of the world – may they not tolerate fools gladly for as long as they live!