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!

Comic Women

Last week, news broke that the BBC is cracking down on the gender imbalance of comedy panel shows – from now on, according to Danny Cohen (head of the BBC’s TV output), there will be no more all-male panel shows. All new episodes of series like QI, Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You will have to include at least one woman.

This is something of a victory, but an interesting situation for funny women to find themselves in. Will they want to be a ‘token’ woman, at risk of mockery from some of comedy’s most cutting men? Will they be able to find enough women willing to step up and take a seat on such shows?

The first is a question that is up to individuals to answer. (Jo Brand has already publicly said she won’t accept invitations to appear on Mock the Week because of its culture of having to “bite off someone’s foot in order to say something”.) The second though, surely shouldn’t be an issue. The world is full of funny women – the producers of such shows may just have to put some work into finding them.

It’s strikingly similar to the situation in the church regarding women speakers at Christian events. So often the excuse for all-male line ups is “we didn’t know of any women who could do it”. Just like the church, on the comedy circuit, there are far more men than women. Women get stereotyped as only being relevant to other women (although, even if this were the case, that’s still 50% of the population). There is a bizarre, yet widely held view, that women just aren’t funny.

In my humble opinion, this is ridiculous. I was once part of a conversation involving two (respected) male friends, one of whom – very sweetly – insisted that I was a funny woman. But, he also insisted that I was a very rare instance of such a creature. The other friend, while accepting that I was amusing, could not name any women he genuinely found funny on TV. We were en route to a pub and once we got inside, the debate continued, involving more people. I know that some of the guys were deliberately playing Devil’s Advocate, but it goes to show that the belief is a widespread one.

But, to get back to the BBC. It’s a good decision. In the whole intentional versus token debate, while some might argue it smacks of tokenism, I’d argue it’s actually a great example of intentionality. People have been complaining about the lack of women on theses shows for ages, but little has changed. Now that they have to have a woman (or more!), they will be forced to get out there and find them. In the process, hopefully lots more opportunities will open up for female comics.

Female QII think, but am not certain, that this is the only majority-female line up QI’s seen. 

Personally, I think some of the funniest QI’s have been when Stephen Fry and Alan Davies have been outnumbered by women. (Such as Kaleidoscope, featuring Toksvig; Calman & Tarbuk.) In fact, one of my all-time favourite QI’s saw a balance of genders amongst the panel  (Alan Davies, Revd Richard Coles, Sue Perkins and Victoria Coren-Mitchell in Knights & Knaves) which was only marred by Coles’ regular use of the term “clergyman” when a non-gender specific term could have been used just as appropriately.

HIGNFY could do better, but at least does a good line in having some excellent female hosts and regularly utilising Coren-Mitchell to great effect. As for the radio, I think the News Quiz does a pretty good job of being representative as far as gender goes, but there’s always room for improvement. The biggest improvement of all would be getting beyond the usual female suspects and discovering some new talent – as I’m sure they themselves would agree. I’d be happy to volunteer my services…

Camilla Long HIGNFYOne lovely Twitter friend suggested last week, when this episode of HIGNFY was shown, that I was Ian Hislop’s desk-mate. Apparently, Camilla Long is my doppelgänger…

When passions collide

WARNING: CONTAINS SHERLOCK SPOILERS

Few things have been so cemented into my diary in these early days of 2014 than the three episodes of Sherlock, beginning on the very first day of the year. Never has New Year’s Day been so eagerly anticipated by seemingly the entire country.

Come 9pm, I was settled on the sofa, all set (bar a drink which I had to dash off for in the opening credits – sometimes I actually wish the BBC had adverts!) for 90 minutes of televisual delight. I think that almost unanimously, Sherlock fans were not disappointed. Twitter was ablaze with activity and my phone beeped perpetually all the way through [it’s a good job I was alone in the flat] with tweets and texts that said edifying things like “Cheekbones!” and “LONGER CURLIER HAIR!”.

St Barts HospitalOne of the most famous rooftops in London…

I may have been a late convert to the church of Sherlock – after all, I’d only watched his momentous fall from Barts on Christmas Eve, having watched most of series 2 on the ferry to Dublin. (Where I had one lovely moment and one awkward one. Lovely: the old lady sitting next to me said, as we began to prepare for disembarkation, “What was that you were watching? It looked very exciting!” Awkward: Realising that episode 1 contained a naked lady for a long period of time, plus Sherlock clad in a sheet that then gets pulled away. Why awkward? See aforementioned lovely moment.) But my comparatively short-term commitment was richly rewarded by an episode that managed to combine two of my favourite things: Cumberbatch and disused tubes stations.

More than one person tweeted/texted me words to the effect of: “I think they wrote this episode of Sherlock just for you! Benedict Cumberbatch and the tube – perfect match!” I mean honestly! There really aren’t enough TV dramas based in and around the world of London’s ghost stations – a plot device I sensed might be on its way as soon as the tube cropped up. Brilliant.

What was not brilliant was the amount of bashing the episode received for its London Transport inaccuracies. Listen up tube geeks, if you were real tube geeks you would know two very important pieces of information:

1. There are only three places where filming can take place easily – the closed since 1994 Aldwych station; the abandoned Jubilee Line platforms at Charing Cross; and the Waterloo & City Line which is closed for longer periods than other lines. (There’s also the bit of track beyond Aldgate where Metropolitan Line trains could swap with East London Line trains. They no longer do that, so it’s closed.)

2. Londoners would NOT  be happy if their regular station was closed for a day just so the BBC could use it. Think of the lost revenue, inconvenience and general inadequacy of an excuse that would be!

Thus, Buzzfeed was probably quite right in this instance:

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 21.57.37

Yes, Watson’s journeying across London via tube was perhaps inaccurate. Yes, Sherlock’s mad motorbike dash to St James’ the Less (probably Pimlico) went unnecessarily over the river. But do I care? No. Because when it comes to creative, gripping and downright clever TV, I am perfectly happy to lay my geekery aside and just enjoy it – and I really wish some other nitpickers would do the same.

Returning to passions colliding. Hooray for opening so many TV viewers’ eyes to the world of disused tube stations. Now we can all be geeks together! (There’s been a fascinating increase in people sharing links to sites about them – lots more Friday Fun fodder.) Plus, anyone else notice that musicals even had their own role in the episode? Right towards the end, Les Mis – specifically Do You Hear the People Sing – playing at the start of the engagement drinks (at 1hr21 mins, if you want to go back and check).

Cumberbatch. Disused tube stations. Musicals.

Need I say more?

Well, just one more thing, and I’ll leave that to the lovely Laura who watched it at home with her family in Texas:

Lauren on InstagramWhat was she commenting on? This photo, of course:

Speedy's Sometimes, I like to take my runs along culturally interesting routes. (This is all of 15 mins walk from my flat.)

The lure of the Cumberbatch*

*Yes, this is as shallow as it sounds. I am but a mere human… 

“Don’t tell me anything else good about it him! I can’t like him even more than I already do!” 

Thus spake my lovely friend Katie when, apropos of nothing, we stumbled upon the subject of Benedict Cumberbatch during a conversation last Saturday. [Actually, there was a link – we’d been discussing New Year plans and her plan for January 1st featured the new series of Sherlock.] It emerged that this affection had only recently developed, almost entirely thanks to a recent video clip of Cumberbatch reading some song lyrics aloud.

These weren’t just any lyrics, they were words from R Kelly’s latest offering to the world of music, an album entitled ‘Black Panties’. That title, and the fact that R. Kelly has a shady past as far as sexual ethics are concerned, are clear indications that he’s not someone I’d usually have a lot of time for. Let’s face it, has there been anything decent since I Believe I Can Fly?? The title of the album also gives you a pretty good idea of what the song lyrics might have involved. Here’s the video, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…

If you are in the least bit attracted to men, I defy you not have been affected in some way by that video. Most women I know who have watched it go weak at the knees at the final wink to camera. Investing in R Kelly’s career is wrong (IMHO), but watching Cumberbatch act the heck out of his lyrics is absolutely ok.

Now, I was already a fully paid up subscriber to the wonder that is Cumberbatch prior to this video appearing in the world, but my friend Katie was not. I proceeded to tell her of other wonderful ‘batch moments one could enjoy on YouTube (such as his Chewbacca impression from a recent Graham Norton show), but she stopped me, insisting that any further motivation to enjoy his work would be a bad thing.

Explaining why this would be a bad thing would take too long (and was entirely irrational). But what is necessary is explaining why the lure of the ‘batch is so strong. People have asked (honestly, they have – some consider the attraction as mysterious as women’s love of Alan Rickman), so I feel it’s my duty to share…

Most people would begin with Sherlock. I do not. [Like so many hugely popular TV shows, I ignored it until one month ago. Having purchased seasons 1 & 2 for a bargain £10, I’m now saving the second series for my mammoth pre-Christmas train/ferry journey, ready for its 2014 return. Watching episode one in the bath earned the title of ‘Cumberbath’ from a fellow fan.] It is excellent, almost entirely thanks to man who plays the title character, but there is more to Cumberbatch than just Sherlock.

Instead, I begin with Parade’s End. Shown in the summer of 2012 and overshadowed by various high profile sporting achievements, it was a drama to warm the hearts of all those who know that the best episodes of Downton are in the first two series. Based on the Ford Madox Ford novel, Cumberbatch plays the misunderstood Tietjens [pronounced ‘Teejens’, obviously] and moodily marches through WW1 and emotional angst. It’s gripping, and rescued me from the otherwise unrelenting misery of being in bed sick while staying at a French monastery.

Then, there’s the fact that he’s simply a fabulously good stage actor. Frankenstein, anyone? (Movie version, directed by Danny Boyle, soon to come to a screen near you too.)

Plus, he’s an all-round good egg. Political activism in the right direction? Check. Good humoured interviews? Check.

Political Cumberbatch

Oh, and those lips…

And thus, I have reached the conclusion that I can watch pretty much anything, and enjoy it, as long as it features Mr C – including Star Trek films, or obscure TV series from early-on in his career. If you are anything like me, or my friends Katie and Lauren, you’ll appreciate the following:

Starter for Ten – Possibly the only film ever made about University Challenge, featuring BC as the incredibly nerdy team captain.
Fortysomething – Random TV series from 2003 starring Hugh Laurie. BC is his eldest son and really rather lovely. The whole series appears to be on YouTube.
Hawking – One of the brilliant BBC4 biographical dramas they’ve recently stopped producing (boo hiss) on the early life of Stephen Hawking. Cumberbatch *is* Hawking. (Worth searching for online.)
And, my favourite, this clip of Cumberbatch impersonating Alan Rickman. Enough said.

Finally, sometimes he looks like an otter:

Cumberbatch is OttersCredit.