Q: Are there good things in the world to think about?

I’m grateful for Victoria Coren Mitchell. The writer and presenter summed up a national mood in a piece she wrote in The Observer this weekend just gone, that I’m sure many writers and bloggers – present writer included – are feeling countrywide at present.

Political uncertainty and general turmoil following a snap general election, and a succession of horrific terror attacks in both London and Manchester – sadly ongoing it would appear, with the events in Finsbury Park – and suddenly, it seems too awful that all anyone wants to do is keep our heads in the sand. 

But as she so poetically put it, when there is not enough sand for everyone to bury their end, we have to face it head on, but suddenly discussion of trivial matters are hardly fitting either. Hence she listed, instead, all the good things that she could think of when she didn’t want to think about bad things. Hence my blog post today, which is attempting to do the same in honour of Ms Coren Mitchell.

  • Repeats of Dad’s Army on Saturday evenings.
  • Kermit the Frog singing Rainbow Connection in the original Muppet Movie.
  • Anything that stars Emma Thompson (especially if she’s written the screenplay. Sense and Sensibility, hello to you).
  • Eddie Izzard’s description of religion in his stand up show Dress to Kill.
  • The wings off a just out the oven roast chicken.
  • The view from the top of Edinburgh Castle on a clear day.
  • Popping a fried egg on top of a savoury dish, if ever in doubt.
  • The arrival of a new Lakeland catalogue in the post, which I promptly spend hours highlighting and putting sticky notes on only to buy nothing from it. Not even the pop art Marmite jar biscuit tin.
  • Simon and Garfunkel singing Homeward Bound.
  • Ant, Dec and Cat hosting SMTV Live and CD:UK in the late 90s/early 00s.
  • An impromptu dinner or drinks invite.
  • Scraps at the bottom of a fish and chip box.
  • Dermot O’Leary’s weekend show on Radio 2.
  • The first carpet of just bloomed daffodils in a country park in March.
  • The same country park being carpeted in ruby red and amber orange leaves in October.
  • A charity cake sale or coffee morning in a church/village hall.
  • The word “homogeny”.
  • Any song written by Cathy Dennis.
  • Stevie Wonder singing Sir Duke.
  • Apple crumble and custard.
  • The Eurovision episode of Father Ted where they sing My Lovely Horse.
  • Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.
  • Finishing a crossword.
  • Scented candles, generally.
  • Devouring an entire bowl of blueberries in one sitting.
  • An early finish.
  • Kirsty MacColl singing Don’t Come the Cowboy with Me, Sonny Jim.
  • Panini sticker albums.
  • Extra squidgy chocolate brownies.
  • The crust on a pork pie.
  • T.S Eliot poetry.
  • The sketch on Smack the Pony where Sally Phillips and Doon MacKichan, dressed as factory workers, attempt to out-sing each other.
  • Michael Palin travel documentaries.
  • The bed on clean sheet night, when it feels like a delicious new bed.
  • And, when all else fails: puppies.

    So, I ask my question again. Are there good things in the world to think about? Always.

    #CrazyStupidComedy: David Baddiel – “My Family: Not the Sitcom” (Playhouse Theatre, London)

    “I don’t even know what the sitcom is, son!” Those were my dad’s words when I surprised him with tickets for David Baddiel’s latest one man show in London for his birthday a couple of months ago. I had to explain that it wasn’t a sitcom we were going to see – hence the title – but that it would hopefully deliver with the same punch as a really good sitcom. Pa MacGregor wasn’t at all sure, but was up for it regardless. I will confess that booking for me and my dad to see David’s new show was sort of a deliberate ruse for me to see it. 

    When I sat down to write this review, I realised that, comedy wise, he has been an inspiration of mine for longer than I thought. I’m sure for others older than myself reading this, that their first encounter with him was as part of the satiricial sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, or Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, his double act show with Rob Newman that ran until 1993. 

    My first encounter of him was with the man I widely regarded as his partner in crime, Frank Skinner, in the mid-late 90s. When World Cup fever was at its height in the summer of 1998 (yes readers, even non-footie loving 9 year old me got swept up in the mania of it all), I remember watching their hilarious Fantasy Football series for ITV – specifically the notorious episode with Brigitte Nielsen, that has to be seen to be believed – and buying, on cassette from Woolies, a re-released version of the classic footie anthem Three Lions with Britpop upstarts The Lightning Seeds, that held the top of the UK charts for three weeks until, of course, England were knocked out by Argentina on penalties.

    Which thus brings us to the present day. For one reason or another, I didn’t get round to seeing David’s first critically acclaimed one man show, Fame: Not the Musical in 2013. My Family: Not the Sitcom, its follow-up, had a sold out run at the Chocolate Factory last year (the theatre, not Willy Wonka’s business. Ooh. Satire), and was midway through its second run in the West End when me and Pa Mac went to see it a month ago.

    Though the show was titled as it was (and Mr Baddiel himself advised me of this on Twitter when I mentioned I was coming to see it), and whilst he talks about his dad, Colin, who suffers from Pick’s disease, a form of dementia (more on whom in a bit), it is, for the most part, his own eulogy of sorts to his mum, Sarah, who passed away in 2014. He opened the show explaining his reasoning for this, when he was at her funeral. Chiefly, the idea that, when someone dies, the common or garden line used by loved ones and friends will be “They were a truly wonderful person”.

    David flips this theory entirely on its head, but in a way that’s surprising yet side splittingly funny. He reveals that his mum – who as a young German Jew, escaped Nazi rule with her parents as WWII broke out – proudly embarked on an extra-marital affair for the best part of two decades with golfer David White (proudly, she asserted, as it made her more glamorous than a housewife), that continued for some years as she built up a golfing obsession/shrine in the family home, all to the relative non-chalance of her husband and much to David’s mild irritation/borderline horror.

    I don’t want to give too much away for those yet to see the show, but suffice to say, his uncovering of emails and letters spanning the course of his mum’s affair with David White were a great source of much of the show’s humour. Chiefly, her use of inverted commas in steamy poetry sent to her lover, and also an interesting choice of pseudonym when she attempted to muddy her lover’s name in the golfing world following a brief tiff they had. But I also got the sense of her being a larger than life character through more anecdotal observations. 

    One of these, was through several clips extracted from David’s appearance on Who Do You Think You Are, the BBC history show where celebrities trace their family tree, including one clip where a cake she’d got him for his 40th birthday set alight from having, well, 40 candles on it – “she’d got me a reenactment of the battle of Dresden for my 40th”. And another, from a stand up show he’d done where he’d downed a pint after a dare from a couple of guys in the audience, prompting her to make the most motherly of heckles and enquire if he’d eaten something before downing said pint.

    He makes the point though, that the show is about memory, and keeping memories alive after people have gone or have lost their own memory, through humour. When talking about his dad’s Dementia, for instance, David recounts asking, upon being informed of his dad’s diagnosis of Pick’s, as to whether or not nurses were describing his dad’s condition or just his dad’s notoriously sweary and eager to shock personality (growing up, David and his brothers, Dan and Ivor, were referred to as “w***ers” by their dad, as his own term of endearment) – something that became amplified at the wake for his mum’s death, where his dad made a shocking preposition to a mourner paying their respects.

    The idea of memory, certainly comes in to play at the life affirming endpoint of the show, when another archive clip is shown of him and his dad backstage following his final show with Rob Newman at Wembley Arena in 1994, in a rare moment of warmth that is unexpectedly touching. But after opening up to audience questions, he also recounted two final anecdotes. 

    One from a friend of his, whose own relative suffering from dementia forgot they only had one leg following a fall at the care home they were at. The other, from Ruth Langsford, co-host of ITV daytime favourite This Morning which he appeared on last year to promote the showwhose own dad answered to the question “Who is the current prime minister?” at his GP assessment for dementia in 1997 the name “Blair”. Followed five seconds later by “Lionel”.

    Reading my programme with my dad on the train home that evening, David stated that there’s one memory he wanted the audience to take away from seeing the show: “That was a good show. I must remember to recommend it to my friends.” And that, dear readers of this blog, is what I’ve remembered to do for you now. 

    RATING: 5/5

    David Baddiel’s “My Family: Not the Sitcom” is on at the Playhouse Theatre in London until 3rd June. He will tour the show nationwide in 2018 from 29th January – full dates and tickets are available here. Twitter: @Baddiel

    Back to her roots: Una Healy’s found her solo groove

    Most people who know me know that I love my girl groups. Hell, I even write a weekly column about it for the music website Buzzjack. But one thing I love, perhaps even more so, are the solo ventures of former girl group members. In fact, if I went on Pointless, I can almost guarantee you I would nail a round asking for the names of solo singles by any former girl group member of the last two decades.

    I can talk at length about records like Cinderella’s Eyes, the critically lauded but commercially underperforming 2011 effort from Girls Aloud’s Nicola Roberts, or about former Eternal star Louise Redknapp’s 2001 cover version of ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’, complete with its Reservoir Dogs aping video. Of course, I draw at the line at some points, and can’t understand why Beyoncé is still deemed saviour of everything when her Destiny’s Child bandmate Kelly Rowland has made far more interesting endeavours musically, but each to their own.

    I think my fascination is with seeing members of these groups breaking out as their own entity, however successful or terrible they may be in doing so. When they’re brilliant of course, it’s all the better. So the recent arrival of the debut solo record from Una Healy has, as you can imagine, been something of great excitement for me.

    Up until a couple of months ago, the last time I’d seen Una was in September 2014, with the rest of The Saturdays, dressed as glitzy air hostesses at Wembley Arena for their greatest hits tour. They took a hiatus after that tour to pursue their own projects – although up until earlier this year, only Vanessa White and Mollie King of the Higher and What About Us hitmaking girl group had dipped their toes into solo waters, with distinctly disappointing results (Frankie Bridge and Rochelle Humes however, have moved away from pop, and are instead concentrating on TV and fashion vehicles respectively).

    County Tipperary born Una meanwhile, spent time as a judge on the Irish version of The Voice for two series, before she quietly signed a deal with Decca Records early last year. She spent the best part of two years writing and recording for The Waiting Game, which stormed into the top 10 of the iTunes chart upon release in February, on the back of some very positive exposure usually unreserved for someone with a pop past like hers.

    But anyone who knows of Una’s pre-Saturdays past knows that this is very much a return to her roots. Her uncle, Declan Nerney, is a well respected name in folk and country music in Ireland, reinforcing her pedigree in this field of music. She also extensively gigged and did the circuit around the Irish music live scene for some years before girl group stardom came a-calling. And as well as appearing as backing vocalist for Brian Kennedy at Eurovision, she even self released her own EP in 2006, titled Sorry, one of the tracks from which, Had it With Today, went onto be a B-side to Higher for The Saturdays in 2010, establishing her songwriting credentials. 

    Anyone that saw the girls’ tours will also know that she played guitar on their acoustic sets, proving her talents in that field. And all of which really comes across on The Waiting Game as an album. The opening track – and her new single – Battlelines, is a perfect example of this. Gently strummed and easy on the ear, it’s an upbeat and melodic number about staying strong in the face of adversity. Her last single, Stay My Love, a beautiful duet with Sam Palladio, a Cornish actor and country singer better known as Gunnar from the hit US series Nashville is also one of the highlights.

    But so too is the title track, and songs like the upbeat Staring at the Moon, which she wrote for her daughter Aoife Belle, Out the Door, a punchy number about not letting the travails of life get in the way of what really matters like love and family, and the haunting closing ballad Angel Like You, that talks about the spirit of loved ones being around even after they’ve gone.

    Her passion for her new solo venture really came across when I saw her launch the album back in February, at the beautiful but intimate Old Church in St Pancras, London. It was just the right venue to showcase the material, as well as a couple of choice covers that married perfectly with her original songs – amongst them, The First Cut is the Deepest, which Una’s long standing idol Sheryl Crow covered in 2003, and also the traditional Irish song Black is the Colour of my Lover’s Hair, which I remember from my mum’s Mary Black albums growing up.

    It seems as well that it’s not just her old Saturdays fanbase on board with her. The same audience her new music is aiming at that has sent the likes of sisterly duo Ward Thomas (whom Una supported last year) and The Shires up to the top of the album charts and sold out venues in the last two years have been accepting and welcoming of her new venture too. It’s safe to say therefore, that she’ll be making waves as Una Healy: the solo artist for some time yet.

    Una’s new single Battlelines and her album The Waiting Game are both out now on Decca Records. She performs at Bush Hall in London on 15th May, and will also perform at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville with Sam Palladio on 17th May. Twitter: @UnaHealy

    #CrazyStupidPlaylist: 15 Turning 15

    Pop music is a funny old game. One minute, you’re top of the charts and all over the radio waves and music video channels. The next, you’re in the folder marked ‘Where are they now?’. And it only takes you to hear a song from the distant past to sit and work out how long it’s been since you first heard that song – and then realise, perhaps with some faint horror, how much time has elapsed since then.

    Whilst a lot of other entertainment and music blogs and sites have focused on celebrating songs that are turning 10 or 20 years old this year, I have instead been indulging in a bit of even number time traveling for the purposes of today’s blog and playlist, and have decided to set my musical clock back 15 years ago, to 2002.

    I was 13 years old, about to start my third year of high school, and sound tracking that time were these 15 songs that I’ve chosen for this particular playlist. Some of the artists here have since lost record deals, or disappeared into the ether. Some have prospered. Some have even come back with new albums recently. One thing that remains true of them all though: they are solid gold classics. So sit back, hit play and enjoy…

    NO DOUBT – Hey Baby (from the album ‘Rock Steady’)

    The Californian ska rockers had previously enjoyed colossal success with their 1995 album ‘Tragic Kingdom’, which spawned the worldwide number one hit ‘Don’t Speak’ – itself turning 20 this year. But it wasn’t until they returned with their fifth studio album that they finally hit chart paydirt again, collaborating with the likes of The Neptunes, Bounty Killer and Lady Saw on a run of seriously addictive singles, all of which paved the way for their ever glamorous frontwoman Gwen Stefani to achieve her mammoth solo success just two years later.

    AALIYAH – More Than a Woman (from the album ‘I Care 4 U: The Definitive Collection’)

    There is something that remains colossally unfair about the trajectory of Aaliyah. Discovered when she was just a teenager by legendary hip hop producer Timbaland, 2000 had seen the release of her still timeless R&B banger ‘Try Again’, from the soundtrack to Jet Li flick ‘Romeo Must Die’, that she also starred in. Just a year later, in August 2001, she was tragically killed in a plane crash at the age of just 22, and six months later scored a posthumous UK chart topper with this smooth and effortless cut from what was to be her last studio album.

    A1 – Caught in the Middle (from the album ‘Make it Good’)

    Despite two UK number ones at the turn of the millennium, A1 criminally seemed to remain on the B-list when it came to the 90s/00s boyband pecking order. It was a shame more so, that they hit their creative and commercial stride just as their time at the top started to unravel. ‘Caught in the Middle’ eschewed the cheery, dance routine led power pop of their earlier material, for guitar led pop rock. It goes without saying that this remains a blinder of a pop single, the kind that had Take That released it as a single in the throes of their post-2006 comeback would be hailed by all as an instant classic. It is to me, anyway.

    SHAKIRA – Whenever, Wherever (from the album ‘Laundry Service’)

    One fun thing about doing this playlist is being reminded that certain songs, whilst sounding like they were number ones, were in fact not. Yes, despite Colombia’s finest launching with a bang for her English language debut – eye catching video, nonsensical lyrics and all, she ran into a far bigger force than non mountainous breasts on release week here in the UK – chiefly, Will Young’s Pop Idol coronation single ‘Evergreen’, which remains the fastest selling debut single in UK chart history. No matter, this Gloria Estefan penned booty shaker has more than stood the test of time.

    DB BOULEVARD – Point of View (from the album ‘Frequencies’)

    The 00s were, in many ways, the last hurrah for glittery disco house that was backed with a chorus and some commercial crossover. This oft forgotten number from an Italian production team even found success on the Billboard dance charts in America, as well as being used in an episode of Sex and the City.

    1 GIANT LEAP – My Culture (from the album ‘1 Giant Leap’)

    If a round asking for ‘Names of UK Top 40 Singles by Robbie Williams’ ever comes up on the BBC teatime favourite Pointless, it may be worth venturing this as a guess. Only reappearing at the year’s end for his million selling ‘Escapology’ album, the Robster was musically quiet for much of 2002, bar this appearance alongside Faithless’ Maxi Jazz for this obscure, yet blissful one off top 10 by this UK based trip hop act, who we’ve heard neither hair nor hide of since. Why Olly Murs hasn’t done a cover of this yet is beyond us.

    SUGABABES – Freak Like Me (from the album ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’)

    One of the greatest mysteries around the most successful female chart act of the 21st century (Guinness World Records 2006’s title, not necessarily mine) was not their headache inducing penchant for lineup changes, but more the way, following their being dropped after a well received but commercially under-performing debut ‘One Touch’ in 2000, they rose back from the flames even more successfully than before. Marrying the synth riff from Gary Numan’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’ to a new Jill swing jam by Adina Howard, via the much lauded electropop producer Richard X, ‘Freak Like Me’ marked the dawn of pop’s second golden age in the 21st century.

    HOLLY VALANCE – Kiss Kiss (from the album ‘Footprints’)

    In a year where Kylie Minogue was conquering all before her, a second wave of former graduates from the Aussie soap whence she came from (Neighbours) attempted to vie for chart glory. Amongst them were Delta Goodrem, Natalie Bassingthwaite, and also sultry Ramsey Street madam Felicity ‘Flick’ Scully, better known as Holly Valance. She rocketed to the top of the UK and Australian charts at the start of that summer with a rewritten English cover of an old Turkish megahit, whilst appearing virtually naked in its unforgettable accompanying video.

    LIBERTY X – Just a Little (from the album ‘Thinking it Over’)

    And from one anthem of that summer, to another. Just as their supposedly far luckier winning counterparts from the first series of Popstars, Hear’Say, were falling apart at the seams, Michelle, Kevin, Kelli, Jessica and Tony – aka Liberty X – rose through the ranks and scored an instant number one smash with this, their third single, and went onto win a BRIT award for ‘Best Single’ with it. A sexy, R&B flavoured pop gem, it came backed with its own eye catching video, with the girls memorably donning rubber catsuits whilst playing the part of diamond thieves.

    BUSTED – What I Go to School For (from the album ‘Busted’)

    There have been a grand total of no UK top 3 singles since 2002 that have included the line ‘And I fight my way to front of class / To get the best view of her arse’. But no matter, the recently reformed Busted’s debut hit continues to make as much of an impression as it did back then. A witty and borderline NSFW punk pop ode to their favourite teacher, whilst they weren’t to get their first chart topper until the following April, they single handledly prepositioned themselves as the new boyband force to be reckoned with.

    GIRLS ALOUD – Sound of the Underground (from the album ‘Sound of the Underground’)

    Reality TV pop was everywhere you turned in 2002. From Will Young and Gareth Gates’ mighty clash of the titans on Pop Idol, to the ‘REAL MUSIC, YAR’ bore of David Sneddon on the BBC’s cringey take on the format with Fame Academy. And then, just at the point it seemed to have died a death, the second series of the Popstars format, titled Popstars: The Rivals, produced the UK’s biggest and most poptastic girl group since the Spice Girls. Three and a half minutes of dizzyingly addictive drum’n bass, surf guitar fed disco, ‘Sound of the Underground’ was the single that started it all for Cheryl, Nadine, Kimberley, Nicola and Sarah, staying at number one for an entire month.

    JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE – Like I Love You (from the album ‘Justified’)

    Boyband members who go solo generally aren’t supposed to do well outside of their former pop glory days. They generally aren’t supposed to be the arbiter of cool, either. But newly parted from his *NSYNC bandmates, JT was about to change all that, and then some with his solo debut ‘Justified’. An effortlessly smooth mix of R&B, dance and pop, produced by Pharrell Williams and Timbaland to name but two, he became to his former band what Beyonce was to Destiny’s Child – a global megastar that set the bar high.

    AQUALUNG – Strange and Beautiful (from the album ‘Aqualung’)

    Used in a memorable TV advert that year for the recently revived Volkswagen Beetle car, Matt Hale, better known by his stage name of Aqualung released this, his only top 10 hit, a haunting and ambient number with very sparse instrumentation that reflects in the simplicity of this glorious track. It’s a wonder really that John Lewis didn’t get there first to use it for one of their overly hyped Christmas adverts – then again, there probably is still time for them to do that…

    OASIS – Stop Crying Your Heart Out (from the album ‘Heathen Chemistry’)

    Common consensus is that Oasis were poster boys for British rock uselessness beyond their Britpop heyday. Perhaps it was my sudden interest in them as a result of being a fan of Appleton, the post-All Saints side project of Nicole and Natalie Appleton, that made me think opposite to this, but no matter. A genuinely moving power rock ballad, ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’ was part of a run of glorious singles they released in this year, along with ‘Little by Little’ and ‘Songbird’ from their fifth studio album.

    COLDPLAY – The Scientist (from the album ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’)

    This was the moment when Chris Martin and pals ascended to the worldwide success that they have enjoyed ever since, with their second album shifting a phenomenal quarter of a million copies in its first week of release. This remains one of the most timeless singles in their back catalogue – even when they performed it at Glastonbury last summer, and the entire crowd sang it back word for word, it felt like a genuinely beautiful moment.

    What were your memories of the music of 2002? Are any of your favourite songs from that year featured here? Drop me a Tweet @ThePensmith10 and let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    After winning BBC’s Let it Shine, why pop music needs Five to Five

    Eight weeks later, and Let it Shine, the hit BBC One series looking to find a new boyband to star in a new stage show called ‘The Band’, based on the songs of Take That, has found its winners. But more than that, in Five to Five, as they are now called, Gary Barlow has found something that has potential way beyond the confines of the show they’ve been newly formed on.

    A bit of back history first though, before we reflect on the present. When Take That Mk I first emerged in 1991, leather jackets and cod pieces a-go-go in the borderline hilarious video for debut waxing ‘Do What U Like’, they were launching when straight ahead pop music had all but hit the buffers.

    This was the year of faceless dance acts and rave outfits like Bomb the Bass, Urban Hype, Heavy D and the Boys. It was a year when Kylie Minogue, in the twilight years of working with S/A/W but dating Michael Hutchence, started to struggle to get top 10 singles (hello to you, ‘Word is Out’, complete with its pre-fame cameo from one Davina McCall). Canadian rocker Bryan Adams was perched atop the UK singles chart for 16 – SIXTEEN – weeks with blockbuster power ballad ‘Everything I Do (I Do it for You)’. And perhaps worst of all, old dreadlocks himself, Mick Hucknall and Simply Red had the biggest selling album of that year with ‘Stars’.

    25 years on, and there are undoubtedly, parallels. Drake spent an equally tiresome 15 weeks at number one last summer with ‘One Dance’. Acts like Clean Bandit and The Chainsmokers, with their moody and tense ‘tropical house’ stylings are fine on the ever self consciously cool Radio 1 and Capital, but are utterly dull to write about. In fact it says a lot that last year, an old hat I may be, but the two new albums I was most excited by were All Saints and Rick Astley, both of whom haven’t troubled the singles chart in decades.

    And as for the boyband itself – the proper, old school, all harmonising, all co-ordinated, all high energy dancing variety, as opposed to the corporate ‘stand in a line and look moody in varsity jackets’ five man soap opera stylings of the currently dormant One Direction – the stock for that has never been lower. Which makes the Five to Five lads – AJ Bentley, Yazdan Qafouri, Nick Carsberg, Curtis Johns and Sario Solomon – something of a revelation.

    Admittedly, it’s easy when there’s a drought commercially and critically for certain styles of music, for fans of that to cling desperately to any new act that’s trying to keep it moderately alive. More so when that act has been formed on a TV talent show to an audience of millions like they have. But though Five to Five were formed in the manner they were, it’s clear to see from the get go that there was a natural chemistry betweem them, and strength as potential new stars in their performances then say, Drive or Neon Panda (God I would love have to been a fly on the wall in that meeting brainstorming the final group’s names).

    The same was true, and reminds me at a pang, of JLS, the last boyband to be launched from a TV talent show that actually did what they said on the tin, harmonies, backflips and all – and were bloody good at it into the bargain, and also had a genuine brotherly bond between them that few in their wake – yes, including One Direction – failed to possess even when they split in 2013.

    Obviously, the immediate focus for the guys now will be the intense rehearsals for The Band stage show that they have won, which opens for a national tour in September. But already several record labels are clamouring to sign them and release their own material outside the stage show. 

    If Gary plays his cards right – which he already has with them as the winners – and hooks them up with top quality writers and producers, we could potentially be looking at the launch of something very exciting indeed.

    Five to Five will star in ‘The Band’ which opens at the Manchester Opera House on 8th September, then tours nationwide. Tickets go on sale from 12pm on 3rd April at www.thebandmusical.com. Twitter: @FivetoFiveFans

    #ProjectHappyJanuary: Week 3/4 (and an apology)…

    Now. A small thing we need to address. The eagle eyed amongst you may notice that this is now the penultimate week of our little New Year happiness initiative, #ProjectHappyJanuary. And that last week, by and large, should have been week 3. But, for several reasons, week 3 went otherwise awol, which I shall explain forthwith.

    • Reason 1: I had a stinking cold/virus/flu all of last week and was not very well, hence I was lacking in energy to write any new blogs.
    • Reason 2: By the time I had the energy to write Week 3’s blog, it was very much the end of Week 3, and thus a pointless exercise.
    • Reason 3: When I looked back at my themes I had mapped out for the blogs each week, I realised that two of them shared a similar theme, and as such I have decided to merge them into one supergroup for next week’s fifth blog (and indeed the last in the series).

      So, with all this in mind, consider this as the week 3 blog in spirit, but very really the week 4 blog. Explanations over, this week our focus is mood boards.

      A frequent tool at the disposal of creative types – fashion designers, architects, new tech start-ups – the mood board does what it says on the tin, or rather board. For boosting morale and wellbeing, it’s a place on which to project ideas, inspiration, and bring all round good positivity into your everyday life.

      This is a particularly good one you can do, because it’s something you can continue even beyond January, so is a good new pasttime to take up into the bargain. To create a mood board, you’ll need the following:

      • 1 large cork pin board (available at most arts and crafts shops or pound stores)
      • Drawing pins
      • Some coloured card
      • Scissors
      • Felt tip pens

      1. Cut up the coloured card into squares about the size of Post-it notes – aim for about 8 x 6 cm.
      2. On the cards, write up little quotes in felt tip pen, or inspiring pieces of text, or little poems or song lyrics that mean something to you. Really this is for you to be absolutely creative and just go with whatever you want.
      3. Once you’re done writing up, it’s time to start pinning them to the board. Again, whatever way you feel is key here – the picture above will give you an idea of what you’re aiming for.
      4. Place the pin board in a central position that will be immediately noticeable – so maybe by your bed, or in the kitchen. The idea is it should be in a noticeable place so it’s the first thing you see – i.e. when you get up in the morning.
      5. You don’t need to necessarily fill it up with stuff there and then. You can add to it as you go along. You can put on photos, or printouts or even cuttings from newspapers and magazines.

      As I said, this is a really good one to do even when January is over, so is a nice little New Year’s resolution into the bargain too. Do let me know if you take up the mood board challenge and Tweet me your efforts using the hashtag #ProjectHappyJanuary!

      The last #ProjectHappyJanuary will be up next Monday – hope to see you then.

      😄 😄 😄 😄

      He’s on his way back: the mighty return of Ed Sheeran

      New Year’s Day, 2017. Just shy of two weeks ago, the world had just waved goodbye to a year of political unrest, the deaths of numerous icons like David Bowie and Prince, and Ed Balls doing “Gangnam Style” on Strictly.

      And as it woke up recovering from the all night hangovers, the social media accounts of singer/songwriter and all round good pop egg Ed Sheeran, which had been dormant since finishing his mammoth world tour in December 2015, were active again, as he shared the following short video.

      Two weeks later, and his new singles “Castle on the Hill” and “Shape of You”, which were released in the early hours of last Friday morning, and are his first new material in over a year since the release of the chart slaying “X” album in 2014, are occupying the top 2 of the iTunes chart in no less than 60 countries. 

      By this time on Friday, he’ll have sold over 200,000 copies of both singles – outselling the rest of the UK top 40 combined – and will be the first artist in UK chart history to debut in the top 2 positions with brand new material (“Shape of You” currently leads the way for number 1).

      My first encounter of Ed was, I suspect like most people, back in the summer of 2011. His debut single proper “The A Team” was all over the radio waves. I genuinely thought it was Damien Rice when I first heard it. Only until I saw him perform it acoustically, a wave of ginger tufts and blue eyes and soulful, gravelly tones on the now defunct hangover telly giant T4, did I put two and two together.

      That autumn, as I returned to university for my final year, he was about to release his debut album “+”, and my student’s union had booked him to do a gig over that year’s Freshers Fortnight. He also filmed the now legendary “Lego House” video that same night alongside Harry Potter star Rupert Grint. I remember being gutted that the tickets sold out for the gig as quickly as they did, but I also remember feeling like I was witnessing the birth of a superstar. The “+” album subsequently went onto be his first million selling album.

      Superstar seems an odd title to give Ed. Not in a glib way, of course. But, largely because the impression I get watching interviews with him, and from speaking to anyone who’s met him, is that he is the least starry superstar there is. This is a man who, when asked what his highlight was of a year in which he’d taken in two million selling chart toppers (“Sing” and “Thinking Out Loud”), a second multi platinum album and awards galore, said that having afternoon tea with Van Morrison was the standout moment.

      There is a very honest, unique relatability to what he does, and the music highlights that. Who else would pen an ode to their hometown with such nostalgic warmth and wit as he does on “Castle on the Hill”? Who else delivers such biting cheekiness to his critics but he on “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You”? And who else delivers such brooding emotion as he does on “Bloodstream” or “Small Bump”?

      And perhaps more outstanding, is the fact he has achieved all this with just one instrument alone as his backing. His documentary film, “Jumpers For Goalposts”, released in 2015, is a spine tingling must-see for anyone who appreciates good music. Seeing him pack out Wembley Stadium four nights in a row with just him, his guitar and loop pedal (we’ll pretend Elton John wheezing his way through a duet with him didn’t happen) is pretty f***ing amazing.

      Doubtless, as he readies the release of his hotly anticipated third album “÷”, on which both his new singles will feature, we’ll continue to hear plenty of that relatability by the bounty. And we’ve also resolved with ourselves that we’ll go see him live this time around – before his career goes even more stratospheric.

      Ed Sheeran’s new singles “Castle on the Hill” and “Shape of You” are available to stream and download now via Atlantic. His new album “÷” is out later this spring. Twitter: @edsheeran

      #ProjectHappyJanuary: Week 2

      So we’re now on week two of a new year, and thus on the second week of this here blog’s new initiative, #ProjectHappyJanuary. If you missed it last week, this is our one man/blogger mission to make the first month of a new year suitably awesome.

      Last week was all about bringing a bit of joy to loved ones, and this week is all about bringing joy to ourselves. It can be incredibly easy, with the days still short and dark and cold, to sit in darkened rooms and let the four walls get to us. So this is my little guide to embracing a lighter, more joyful lifestyle.

      When the Christmas decorations are down and packed away, first thing I tend to do is break out the candles. Oh yes. Usually I’ll have been plentifully supplied with a batch of fresh scented tealights – although these don’t have to be scented, standard ones work just as well. 

      Home value stores like Wilkinson or B&M Home Bargains often stock packs of 100 regular tealights for as little as £2, and placed in some inexpensive holders will add some friendly, warm light to your immediate surroundings. 

      It’s also a prime excuse to invest in a quirky light fitting. My most recent one, pictured above, is this carnival style lamp I got from Not on the High Street – again, inexpensive but looks great and makes for a real talking point.

      When the TV schedules and radio airwaves are cluttered with repeats or the same playlists of music, it’s always key to have some feel good stuff to wind down with or listen to on the go. These are just my personal choices, but hopefully they’ll give you a bit of inspiration.

      FILMS

      • Amelie (2001) 

      This French language film has English subtitles, but ups the heartwarming factor to 10, as Audrey Tautou stars in this charming story about a simple Parisian girl practicing random acts of kindness.

      • My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2003)

      One of the proper laugh out loud, romantic comedies of recent years, Nia Vardalos and John Corbett star in this tale of weddings, interfering families and ten bridesmaids in turquoise meringues for dresses.

      • Friends with Benefits (2011)

      Sharp, sexy and very funny, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis put in great turns here as two friends that try to eschew the unrealistic stereotypes of romance with a no strings attached approach.

      MUSIC

      • Stevie Wonder – “The Definitive Collection”

      There is something about Stevie – and Motown music generally – that I find so passionate and uplifting. Songs of his like “Sir Duke”, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Signed Sealed Delivered” are real good mood boosters for me because of their soul and energy.

      • Girls Aloud – “Ten”

      OK, I do realise I’m cheating here slightly having two greatest hits albums on my list of feel good music, but the mighty Aloud never fail to get me going, especially on early mornings where my energy might be at its lowest possible berth. “Biology” and “Love Machine” in particular, with their hotch potch structure and bonkers production, are as infectious as anything.

      • Jack Johnson – “In Between Dreams”

      I always refer to this as my “January album”, for no other reason than the fact that unseasonable music is one of the best mood boosters possible. And by that I mean listening to music that reminds you of better times. I can count on my hands the number of winters since I got this album in 2006 where I’ve listened to Jack strumming his ukulele, singing about banana pancakes and trains breaking down and imagining I’m on a hot sunny island instead of snowy rush hour traffic.

      Don’t forget to Tweet me and let me know what your uplifting music and films are, or how you’ve made your living space a bit brighter – use the hashtag #ProjectHappyJanuary when you do!

      The next #ProjectHappyJanuary will be up at the same time next Monday.

      😄😄😄😄

      #CrazyStupidTV: Let it Shine (BBC One, 7th January)

      With “The X Factor” now run aground into a pitiful former shadow of itself (Honey G. Let’s just leave it there, shall we?) and “The Voice” now having flown the nest to ITV where it’s become a harsher, duller version of what it did before (also dispersing of Marvin Humes and Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson in the process. Bad move), it now falls to the Beeb to deliver some feel good Saturday night viewing for the still wintry evenings of the start of the year.

      Step forward then, pop legend and the Captain of boyband turned manband giants Take That, Mr Gary Barlow. Promotion of new Take That music aside, Mr Barlow has been all but absent from our screens since bowing out of being a judge on “The X Factor” three years ago. Now though, he has returned with a new eight week series aiming to find superstars for a new stage show he’s developed.

      “Let it Shine” is looking for five young guys to be members of a boyband who will be in a touring musical, featuring the songs of Take That. So far, so “Mamma Mia”, cynics amongst you may be hollering. On the judging panel is the Captain himself, along with Dannii Minogue, Spandau Ballet and EastEnders star Martin Kemp, and Glee star Amber Riley, whilst Graham Norton and the ever delightful Mel Giedroyc host the whole circus.

      Each auditionee does their little interview with the judges, then gives their performance, after which each of the judges then score them out of 5. If they score a total of 15 or more out of 20 on the lit up walk of stars, they are through to the next round. 

      There is a definite undercurrent of the high camp and spectacle of musical theatre evident in this show, right from Gary’s self penned opening number in the first show that referenced power showers, tabloid kiss and tells, and even a rap (yes, RAP) from Mel and Graham. In fact, the feel good element is what makes this such a refreshing addition to Saturday nights.

      It’s polished and light like its title, and has an old school entertainment feel whilst being very current. The feedback to the contestants is constructive but not destructive, mainly because it’s objective is primarily to find stage stars rather than the latest chart topper (or rather, #149 charter. Again, Honey G, hello to you).

      Some of the successful auditionees on the first show had real potential – namely Gary Barlow superfan Tyler. He was admittedly a little rough around the edges with his song choice of Joe Cocker’s “You are So Beautiful to Me”, but his charisma and likeability shone through, and with a bit of work he could be a contender. 

      Also standing out was Welsh teenager Nicky, who gave a haunting rendition of “Say Something” by A Great Big World, and Jason, who tore the roof off – including a standing ovation mid-performance – for his version of “Run to You” by Whitney Houston. Others that were successful, however, like Jazzie, who sang slash breakdanced his way through Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”, seemed like potential band members. But more in the “standing at the back busting some moves” sense (hello to you, the members of East 17 that weren’t Brian Harvey or Tony Mortimer).

      Future shows promise further audition delights, as well as masterclasses with the contestants from Olly Murs, Kaiser Chiefs, Busted and Melanie C to name but a few. You’d do well to keep an eye on “Let it Shine”. Far from imitating the show Gary was once a judge on, it’s uniquely got the uplifting factor in spades.

      “Let it Shine” continues Saturday evenings at 7pm on BBC One. The first episode is available for UK viewers to watch now on BBC iPlayer. Twitter: @BBCLetitShine

      #ProjectHappyJanuary: Week 1

      I have a very strong feeling it may have been Bridget Jones, the comic creation of Helen Fielding who once said January was awful, just by virtue of the fact everyone is expected to snap back into a normal harsh existence like lean greyhounds after a season of warmth and merriment. Not to mention the overridden cliches of debt, despair and gloominess that accompany it.

      I pondered this more so over a cup of tea this morning whilst packing away my Christmas decorations for another year (read: until mid-November). We begin a new year at a time of year when none of us feel inclined to. The days are still short, the weather very much still chilly and unforgiving. 

      And we are almost forced by society at large into making outlandish resolutions at a time of year when our true willpower and desire to sustain these is on a par with a cat stuck in a room full of salmon and prawns. In other words, it’s just not going to happen. Obviously this isn’t the case for our friends south of the Equator, who ring in the New Year in searing heat and sunshine – maybe it is?

      But at this time of year, when lighter days and brighter times are still so far away, we need to be gentler on ourselves, and keep that same warmth and joviality going even with the festive season behind us. Which is why, all throughout January, I intend to bring you, dear readers, some weekly inspiration to make the start of the year a truly happier one. I’m calling it #ProjectHappyJanuary.

      One of the central themes at the heart of keeping this New Year goodwill to hand is that of gratitude and giving thanks. One of the most overlooked customs in recent memory, for me, is the art of the thank you note. Perhaps this is a marker of my upbringing, but no Christmas or birthday has ever passed without me sending out thank you cards or notes to friends and relatives for presents I recieved.

      High street craft shops like The Works do inexpensive but tasteful batches of ‘Thank You’ cards or just blank, open ended cards in a pack of 10 for £1 (pictured above) – just writing these and sending these out to loved ones will let them know their thoughtful gift was appreciated.
      On a similar snail mail note, invest in some good writing paper or a pack of quirky postcards, and send an informal line to a distant friend or loved one. Christmas and birthdays – along with the odd wedding, engagement or other life event – tend to be the only time of year we ever reach out to distant family or friends, which I have to say I’ve been fairly guilty of in recent years. A nice, friendly letter in the post could make all the difference to that friend who may be dreading coming in from a long day to a mat full of bills and junk.

      This is what I’ll be doing this week for #ProjectHappyJanuary – hope that you’ll join me in doing so too. Don’t forget to Tweet me your efforts using the hashtag if you do take part!

      The next challenge for #ProjectHappyJanuary will be up next Monday and every Monday throughout January.

      😄 😄 😄 😄