Fun Freebies

I’ve said it before, and I have no doubt I’ll do it again, but London is a great place to find things to do that cost nothing. Sure, most of the time things are hideously expensive, but every so often, there’s a fun bargain to be found.

In fact, to quote myself at dinner immediately following one of last week’s freebies:
“London is all about going to free gigs in awesome venues, then spending a fortune on food afterwards.”

In the last week (well, just over a week if we’re being pedantic) I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from three such freebies. Unfortunately, as far as the first is concerned, I have no idea how to share the joy, but at least I can recommend a jolly good play…

1. Free tickets to Master Class
An actor friend subscribes to a website that distributes last minute tickets to shows at a cost of £2.50 per play. Apparently it takes dedication to grab a bargain, but when your trade is dependent upon seeing a variety of performances and networking, it’s worth it. An offer of a free ticket to a West End performance on an evening I actually happen to be free is a total no brainer. What’s even better is when, to your total surprise, it’s a brilliant play. (Oh, and when a celebrity has to clamber over you to get to their seat.)

Master Class is a play about Maria Callas – in fact, it’s almost a one woman show – the only other characters are a pianist and three opera students. The genius element is that the lead isn’t expected to impersonate Callas’ singing – the sound of Callas is Callas herself, on recordings that play while the character reminisces. It’s funny, breathtaking in its musicality (the students do sing and are stunning) and touching. But I won’t bother you with a full review as someone else on my row that evening has published one.

2. A free evening gig at the National Portrait Gallery
Tip number one is that the gallery is open late (till 9pm) on Thursdays and Fridays – a bonus for working types (it’s already doesn’t cost you anything to get in). On Friday nights there’s often live music in one of the galleries, which is how I ended up sat in the Tudor gallery listening to the rather spectacularly lovely Jo Mango and band last week. It’s a rare gig that takes place next to a portrait of Elizabeth I and in front of a painting of very serious Elizabethan men – it creates quite the atmosphere! You can find full details of the Late Shift programme on the NPG website, but it also includes lectures and art classes – a must for all culture vultures.

3. Watching a live TV show being broadcast
Regular readers may be aware of my occasional excursions to TV shows. Once upon a time there were a couple of visits to Have I Got News For You, then there was a series of Broadcasting House experiences – Just a Minute, Wittertainment live and The Now Show. But this year I’ve stepped it up a notch, my new student/pauper status meaning it’s worth my finding all the fun freebies I can.

On a bitterly cold night in January I queued outside BBC TV Centre for an evening watching a Room 101 recording (I think it’s on in a couple of weeks’ time – it’s the one with Rhod Gilbert on it). On an even more bitterly cold Wednesday night, I ended up in the audience of a live TV show at the same venue, though curiously it was for Channel 4’s 10 O’Clock Live. This was an entirely new experience – for the first time I was going to be in a visible studio audience, rather than way behind the cameras. To say it was daunting would be an understatement! I might have worried for nothing, but here’s proof that I made it on camera:

Ok, so top left corner – see the girl in white? That’s Becki. The long haired girl next to her? Me.
You too can play ‘spot Liz’ by watching Episode 1 of Series 2

Acquiring this type of freebie requires a few things:
  • Membership of several mailing lists.
  • Dedication to form-filling in.
  • Free time on the right days.
  • A love of queuing.
  • Or, a friend willing to do all of the above and type ‘2’ into the ticket allocation box.
After several years of getting to know the various systems, here are my tips for you:
  • Join the BBC studio audiences mailing list. You might get a lot of emails to things that you’re not interested in, but it’s worth it for what you are interested in. Jools Holland, Strictly, Radio 4 Comedy – they’re all on this list. (Oh, and they cater for people outside London too.)
  • But certain BBC shows aren’t! Fancy a Hat Trick production? (They’re the people behind HIGNFY and Room 101.) Then sign up to their site. Warning: HIGNFY tickets go like hotcakes on the day they’re released, but it’s always worth a go.
  • Or, you need Applause Store, if you’re yearning to watch QI, Never Mind the Buzzcocks or Britain’s Got Talent (I don’t). In fact, they have a wealth of shows to apply for – I was rather delighted to find An Audience With Will Young on there…
  • Finally, SRO Audiences is where you’ll find chat shows like Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross, plus Dancing on Ice amongst others. In fact, that’s where 10 O’Clock Live tickets can be found.
You’re very welcome.
Oh, and should you end up with a spare ticket to something – say a satirical comedy, for example – why not express your gratitude by offering it to me? No? Oh well. 

500 Days of Ranting

Nil desperandum readers, I’m not proposing a 500 day rant – promise! (Though actually, thinking about it I have a couple of other rants brewing, but perhaps I’ll save them for a lot later…)

A couple of weeks ago I gave in and tried watching a new show that I’d resisted – despite it containing many of the things I like in televisual entertainment: intelligent humour, hot men and dorkiness. The major stumbling block for me was Zooey Deschanel, an actress who is (at least in the world of Wittertainment) the definition of ‘kooky’, particularly (but not exclusively) as a result of her role in (500) Days of Summer.

However, a friend insisted that it was worth watching New Girl and, once I realised it was under half an hour, I thought I’d give it a shot. Episode 1 was quite pleasing; by the end of episode 2 I realised I actually cared about the characters and was actually noting when episode 3 would air. At the end of the third instalment, I tweeted: It’s taken 3 episodes of New Girl, but I think I’m now ready to forgive Zooey Deschanel for the hideousness that was 500 Days of Summer. The use of ‘hideousness’ proved to be rather divisive amongst my followers – some agreed, others came to the film’s defence.

Let me share my case for the prosecution:

When the film came out, I was keen to see it. It seemed like just the kind of thing a hopeless romantic like me would want to watch, plus it had the fabulous Joseph Gordon-Levitt in it, who I’ve loved ever since 3rd Rock from the Sun. I distinctly remember a male friend (whose opinion in films I value) telling me that he enjoyed it and he was sure it was my kind of thing, yet somehow I didn’t get round to watching it for well over a year. In fact, I think it was my first rental when I joined LoveFilm.

I was massively disappointed.

It’s not often that I viciously hate a film, but this is high on my least-liked list. On the plus side, it’s well shot; includes an excellent karaoke scene; and is yet another film that highlights my need to get myself to San Francisco asap. However, its (many) negatives outweighs these (few) positives:

  • The female lead – the ‘Summer’ of the title – is a mean, manipulative woman who exploits a man who’s hopelessly in love with her. She leads him on multiple times and breaks his heart again and again.
  • The male lead is, quite frankly, an idiot. Summer makes it clear on other occasions (when she’s not leading him on) that she’s not interested, yet still he spends 500 days obsessing over her. 
  • At the end of the film, when he’s finally gotten over Summer, he meets a girl called…Autumn. Honestly! I ask you. 
Several good female friends agreed with me that it was dreadful, yet a couple of male friends insisted that they’d liked it. Thinking about it, these guys are both hopeless romantics who would definitely emulate the film’s plot given half a chance, they are both idiots. Pre-Twitter debate, I’d decided that men loved it while women hated it – but those that decried my verdict on it were all female. Those that came to its defence were male. Curious. However, I must at least be right in my opinion as I discovered that Mark Kermode also disliked it – so I must be right!

Anyway, a warning: if you are a hopeless romantic, yet like to be treated fairly, with respect and without manipulation, don’t watch this film – you’ll only get angry and want to throw things at the screen. If you like a bit of mindless entertainment and have been missing quirky, apartment-based comedy since the end of Friends, then watch New Girl – episode 4’s on at 9pm on Friday night.

Festive films to love?

It’s not Christmas without some decent feature-length festive entertainment, so I’ve decided it’s time to dust off some classics in preparation for a girly night in next week. When I proposed the concept last week (it’s a simple one – girls, possibly clad in PJs, drinking hot chocolate and watching classic Christmas movies) there was much discussion as to which films should make the shortlist. I was shocked that some I felt were mandatory were vetoed, but I’ll watch them anyway, and share them with you for posterity…

Most shocking of all, was a negative reaction to Love, Actually. It’s been compulsory annual viewing since its release in 2003 (in fact, I babysat a child while its entire family was at the film’s premiere – jealous much?) and it’s a favourite for festive train journeys. However, it seems that there’s a sizeable number of people who hate it, actually – as the comments on this fabulous Hairpin article demonstrate hilariously. [Though it seems that even those who try to hate it end up loving it secretly and no one can resist the charm of “Eight is a lot of legs David”.] I may be slightly hardcore in my passion for this film – not only do I watch it throughout the year, but I usually watch the deleted scenes too, after all, Richard Curtis would want me too. Then I play this scene over and over and over…

Similarly, The Holiday is a film I can (and do) watch throughout the year. In fact, I tend to forget that the ‘holiday’ element of it is Christmas, despite the ridiculous quantity of snow in the English storyline. Just a few weeks ago I spent a happy Saturday night in watching it for the umpteenth time and couldn’t be bothered to turn the DVD player off when it finished and discovered that this meant that the movie would start again from the beginning – no matter, I thought, and watched the first half again. For me, this is a motivational film – I’ve done a version of Kate Winslet’s gumption speech twice now with two different men – and I’ll often watch it just for her storyline, skipping the Jude Law/Cameron Diaz scenes. Yes, it’s a chick flick and yes, it’s only tenuously Christmassy, but I adore it.

But what is Christmas for if not for watching films that make you feel like a child again? I suppose it’s no surprise that my other favourites all came out in the late 1980s/early 90s when Christmas was still a magical time for my innocent heart…

Home Alone and Home Alone 2 are both coming into their own as Christmas classics (we don’t speak of the third instalment), but controversially, it’s the second that’s my personal favourite – after all, it stars New York, and who wouldn’t love to be in NYC at Christmas? Plus, it has a lovely soundtrack (John Williams, quelle surprise) and the moment when the family’s reunited in the Plaza melts me every time. Oh, and it features a massive toyshop – what else does it need? [The first film features a church service, so it’s not as if it’s completely blasphemous!] Oh, and it’s got Tim Curry in it – although sadly it doesn’t involve him singing.

Also starring New York is the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. I’ve long preferred this version over its black and white predecessor, but probably because this was the version I saw one Christmas and the version we then owned on VHS and watched annually. However, it turns out that Mark Kermode also prefers the Attenborough version, so I feel justified. Cute children, cute lawyers and some legal drama – what’s not to like?

Finally, back to London, but in the company of some Americans, for the utter classic without which Christmas cannot be complete – The Muppet Christmas Carol. It has much going in its favour. For a start, my Dad adores the Muppets, so this was truly a film for our whole family. Plus, the year it came out on video was the same year that my sister and I were in an Am-Dram production of the classic Dickens’ tale. To this day, I think we could still recite the script in full (as we used to do, to our parents’ joy, on long car journeys). I was overjoyed last week to discover that the soundtrack is on Spotify and that it includes a song glaringly excluded from the DVD release (the scene wasn’t in the theatrical release, but was in the video, I still can’t believe they cut it). The whole thing is a joy from start to finish, but the real star is Rizzo the Rat, who has all the best lines – some of which are still firm fixtures in our family vocabulary:
“Hoity toity Mr Godlike Smarty Pants!”
“Light the lamp not the rat! Light the lamp not the rat!!”
Oh, and I defy you not to cry when the Ghost of Christmas Future takes Scrooge (Michael Caine – see, it’s a gem!) to the Cratchitt house after Tiny Tim’s death. Heartbreaking.

Clearly, there must be classics that I’m missing (though my mother does the entire family’s duty of watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year without fail), so what should I add to my collection?

For lovers of beverages…

Returning to studenthood has begun a quest for perfect studying spots. I’m a great believer in getting out of the house to work (rather like those ‘job’ things other people have) and avoiding quiet libraries unless I need the books held within them.

During our bizarre heatwave, the British Library courtyard became a favourite place, but with the advent of autumn proper, that will no longer be tenable. Starbucks are ok, as are Neros, but they often lack atmosphere and life…

London is awash with independent coffee houses and in my new neighbourhood I’m discovering more and more of them. But last week’s newest discovery is a little further afield. Working on my multi-tasking ethos, I did a few chores on Oxford Street, while toting Greek notes and theology articles in my bag so I could have an impromptu study session when my feet were weary.

One of my more local ‘discoveries’ (I knew it existed, I just had to have a reason to go there) was the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, on Leather Lane in Holborn. A couple of weeks ago, its owners opened Speakeasy – an expresso bar off Carnaby Street. Finding myself weary and in the vicinity on Wednesday, I thought I’d pay a visit.

As you may know, I’m not a coffee fan, so I can’t comment upon its brews, beans and filters. However, I can tell you that these guys love their coffee and do everything in their power to do it well – and to teach you along the way. I’m a tea drinker and they do that well, so I’m happy. Teapot, tea leaves that you place in the pot & you takeout when it’s brewed sufficiently – that’s excellent tea etiquette.

In some ways I preferred Speakeasy to DCSA – it seemed lighter and more open. Plus, downstairs in the filter room are two shelves of books – books of a variety that I adore. Penguin Great Ideas series – check. Virago ‘pretty books’ – check. Persephone books – check. Orwell – check. Plenty about New Zealand – check. Actually, the quality of their book browsing section is down to the fact that my good, bibliophile friend Katie was responsible for choosing them and she did a great job. The staff are friendly and enthusiastic and the tables are an excellent height for studying. One could say it was an oasis of calm in the manic West End.

At the end of the day, it’s just nice to be somewhere without banging and shouting; where staff aren’t simply trying to get you to buy a tasteless muffin; and where the aim is to ensure that you get the best beverage and drinking experience possible.

A pot of Earl Grey is perfect accompaniment to the task of creating Greek vocab flashcards. 

I wrote this post on and off yesterday, intending to finish it off last night – but I got distracted. Kind of lucky (and really only vaguely ‘kind of’) as this morning I experienced another joyous beverage experience during a pre-work coffee. [Yes, I managed a social engagement BEFORE work – this is all kind of impressive and not at all to do with the presence of workmen in my flat at 8.15am…] 
The Espresso Room is just across the road from Great Ormond Street hospital and is exactly what it says it is – a room that serves espresso (and other coffee based drinks, plus tea and rather yummy looking pastries). It’s tiny but has wooden stools and benches out on the pavement that are perfect for perching on and watching the world go by. Its proximity to the hospital is deliberate, and the owner hopes to open similar establishments near other London hospitals, which, given what I’ve heard about hospital cafeterias is probably an excellent plan. 
On reflection, I should have had the teapot in the foreground. 
It was eminently functional, with an in-built strainer. Delightful.