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.

    πŸ˜„ πŸ˜„ πŸ˜„ πŸ˜„

    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 around 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 “Γ·”, 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 “Γ·” 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 Β£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.

    πŸ˜„πŸ˜„πŸ˜„πŸ˜„

    #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 Β£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.

    πŸ˜„ πŸ˜„ πŸ˜„ πŸ˜„

    #CrazyStupidTV: Ethel and Ernest (BBC One, 29th December)

    Illustrator and author Raymond Briggs’ best known works have forever been associated with December – those of course, being ‘The Snowman’ and ‘Father Christmas’, the animated film adaptations of which have been shown every festive season on Channel 4 since 1982 and 1991 respectively.

    Now though, one of his more recent creations has made the leap to the small screen. Originally published in 1998, “Ethel and Ernest” tells the story of Briggs’ parents, from their first meeting in 1928, right up until their sad passings within a few months between each other in 1971.

    With his parents voiced melifluously by Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent, it starts in off quite humble beginnings, with the early courtship of Ernest, a cheeky, happy go lucky milkman, and Ethel a prim and very proper chambermaid – a role she eventually leaves to wed Ernest and move in with him into a terraced house in Wimbledon Park.

    There’s a cosy, wholesome bygone feel running throughout this. It’s over half an hour longer than “The Snowman” was, but then there is more story to work with and as a format it holds up beautifully well. There’s a very British humour in the instances where say, Ernest is taking out their old Aga and singing the Cockney song “Any Old Iron”, or when they’re watching “Dixon of Dock Green” on one of the first televisions, and debating over good and bad actors.

    However, as is so often the case with Briggs’ work, there is a touching undercut of melancholia that is delivered with such poignancy and respect, particularly in the scenes that focus in on the outbreak of World War II in London, where the young Raymond is evacuated to relatives in the Dorset countryside, all the while with Ernest serving as a fireman whilst bombs descend on the capital, which has a profound psychiatric effect on him.

    But it is also the sadness and devestation I felt with the later years of Ethel and Ernest’s lives that were shown, as health began to fail them both with dementia and stomach cancer respectively. Here we see a bit of Raymond’s own regret seep through – having haughtily pursued an art school apprenticeship which eventually led to the career he now has today, it touches on the idea that whilst we all have moments where we believe we’re above our own station, family and the love this brings is what matters most of all, and that we should never take this for granted.

    If you see in the New Year with one film this year, then make it “Ethel and Ernest”. Even make it a weekly viewing. So life affirming in its outlook, it can’t fail to warm the heart.

    RATING: 5/5

    “Ethel and Ernest” is out on DVD tomorrow from Universal Pictures, priced Β£9.99.

    Alex’s End of Year Prizes 2016

    Happy Boxing Day one and all! Hope you are having a lovely Christmas so far, whatever you may be up to (cue festive emojis πŸŽ…πŸŽ…πŸŽ… 🎁🎁🎁 πŸŽ„πŸŽ„πŸŽ„). Today’s blog sees the third annual giving out of my End of Year Prizes. 

    2016 has, it’s safe to say, been an odd mistress of a year, but has been regardless packed full of some great music, TV, film and books. 

    So plump a cushion up, make a cuppa and grab some more Fox’s biscuits / Quality Street / Twiglets as I dish out my awards to the great and good of this year…

    SINGLE OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: DNCE for “Cake by the Ocean”!

    It was a very close run thing deciding between this and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” as my overall favourite of 2016. However, the former Jo Bro, Joe Jonas, rose from the embers of his Disney Channel past in his new band this year, with a unabashedly upbeat, funk driven pop anthem that was just a little bit rude but a sneakily charming track regardless.

    BAND OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNERS ARE: All Saints!

    10 years ago, with the relative underperformance of their third album “Studio 1”, it would have been incredibly easy to dismiss the notion of the 90’s coolest girl group ever doing another album. But following on from a successful stint supporting Backstreet Boys in 2014, Melanie, Nicole, Shaznay and Natalie reconvened to record and self release their blinding fourth album and top 3 smash “Red Flag”, as well as sellout a headline tour (which I met them on in Southend. Go 9 year old me!). And 2017 promises to be even more exciting for the ladies as another new album is in the pipeline, as well as supporting Take That on their summer stadium tour. Bring it on, bring it bring it on now!

    WOMAN OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: Joanna Lumley!

    The ever ageless, ever fabulous national darling not only hit the big screen in style this year (more of which later), but also continues to reposition herself as a one woman Michael Palin with her brilliant travel series on ITV, this time taking in Japan and the Transsiberian railway, with all the captivating, witty and engaging insight we’ve come to expect from her.

    TV SHOW OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: Strictly Come Dancing!

    In a series that’s been, as now departed head judge Len Goodman put it, better than a bit of cheese with a pickled walnut, this year’s Strictly has dazzled as the strongest and most memorable series it’s had in years, with a high entertainment factor, dazzling contestants and a brilliantly gifted Glitterball trophy victor in BBC sports commentator Ore Oduba (that Jive. Nuff said). And serious props especially, has to be given to any primetime Saturday night show that gets former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls doing a samba to Gangnam Style. More than a SEVERRRN from me for sure.

    BOOK OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: Sue Perkins for “Spectacles: A Memoir”!

    Again, very close run battle this category, with Miranda Hart’s long awaited “Peggy and Me” also in contention for the title, but the now departing host of “The Great British Bake Off” and one half of one of Britain’s funniest double acts with Mel Giedroyc published an autobiography that was as riotously hilarious as it was genuinely touching. The chapter recounting her filming of a TV show about off road Land Rover driving in Asia with Liza Tarbuck is an absolute hoot in particular.

    ALBUM OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: Olly Murs for “24 HRS”!

    Seven weeks after we heralded it the best album of his career, Olly scored his fourth consecutive UK number one album, and is now hurtling to another platinum disc with a record that stays true to his very ethos as an artist and performer that is packed with hits in waiting as usual, but with his most mature and confident approach to date. Expect this to be another million seller by this time next year!

    SINGER OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: Rick Astley!

    The Northern legend who started his career as a tea boy for Stock Aitken Waterman in the 80s, before going onto become an actual pop legend in his own right with “Never Gonna Give You Up” on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987, made a blinding return to the top of the UK charts this year with the excellent “50” album, his first new material in over 10 years. With a new tour planned for next year, he remains as timeless now as he did 30 years on from his debut.

    MAN OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: Tom Fletcher!

    McFly frontman, singer, songwriter, guitarist. Vlogger. Twice winner of Dad of the Year. Wedding speech legend. Joining that little pool of Tom’s endless talents this year was “children’s author”, as following on from his “Dinosaur that Pooped” series of picture books with bandmate Dougie Poynter, he published his beautifully heartwarming first novel for young readers in “The Christmasaurus”. This time next year he’ll take to the stage for a sold out run of a live adaptation of the book at Hammersmith Apollo – which if this preview at this year’s Royal Variety Performance is anything to go by, will be equally epic.

    FILM OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: Absolutely Fabulous – The Movie!

    So as we mentioned earlier, Joanna Lumley is (sort of) a double prize winner this year, as along with her partner in crime/comedy Jennifer Saunders, they returned in some serious style as Edina and Patsy for a successful big screen jaunt of Ab Fab that proved to be as hilarious as the original TV series was. It’s a two hour caper with gags and cameos a plenty.

    COMEDIAN OF THE YEAR

    AND THE WINNER IS: Michael McIntyre!

    One of Britain’s best stand ups of the last decade ventured unsuccessfully into judging Britain’s Got Talent and hosting a short lived chat show, but he finally came into his own this year with the launch of his “Big Show” variety series filmed at the London Palladium for BBC One, which has already had two successful runs and returns for a third in 2017. The “Celebrity Send to All” game in particular (here’s Geri Halliwell’s one), is the most inspired feature in a primetime entertainment show since James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke.

    COMEBACK OF 2016

    AND THE WINNER IS: Craig David!

    In a year full of some almighty returns, the Southampton boy who bought UK garage to the world’s stage all the way back in 2000 made a triumphant return this year after half a decade out of the spotlight here in good ol’ Blighty. He scored himself a number one album with his comeback release “Following My Intuition”, highly praised live turns from Glastonbury to Ibiza, and top 10 hits a plenty with “When the Bassline Drops”, “Ain’t Giving Up” and “One More Time” to name but a few. And with 2017 boasting a sold out arena tour and further future hits to come, Mr David is well and truly the comeback kid.

    SPECIAL AWARD: ICON PRIZE

    AND THE WINNER IS: David Bowie!

    It’ll be hard not to think of 2016, in years to come, as a year when we lost some of the most recognised and best loved figures in music, TV and film. As I sit here writing this today, the world is coming to terms with the passing yesterday of George Michael, at the age of 53.

    But the one that had the most profound effect on me this year, and who is the deserved winner of my Icon Prize is David Bowie, whose first anniversary of his death at the age of 67 is but a few weeks away now. 

    It’s easy to dissolve into platitudes, but his music, his innovation, his artistry and his vision broke down barriers and paved the way for much of what followed in the pop culture spectrum in subsequent decades, and it’s unlikely to be bettered or replicated by anyone. He will remain an icon for years to come.
    Congratulations to all our winners, and thank you to everyone for reading and supporting the blog this year. See you all in 2017!

    Much love always,

    Alex  πŸ˜„ πŸ˜„ πŸ˜„ x x x

    Strictly the Best: My Top 5 Routines as head judge Len Goodman bows out on top

    This weekend’s final of BBC One’s ever entertaining pro celebrity ballroom contest Strictly Come Dancing will be topping off a series to remember. Ore Oduba and Joanne Clifton’s spectacular Jive. Louise Redknapp and Kevin Clifton’s seriously hot Argentine Tango. And Ed Balls doing a Salsa to Gangnam Style. I’ll say no more.

    But it’s also tinged with sadness, as this is the last series for the show’s evergreen, quick witted head judge Len Goodman. Yes, after 14 series of hollering “SEVERRN!”, pickling of walnuts and “all that mucking about”, he will raise his score pavelboards one last time tomorrow and of course, on this year’s Christmas Day special.

    With that in mind, I thought I’d present to you my own “10s from Len” and take a look back at what I believe to be the show’s five greatest routines of all time…

    5. JILL HALFPENNY AND DARREN BENNETT’S JIVE (SERIES 2)

    I’d watch bits of the first series of Strictly when it arrived on screens in spring 2004. But it was when the show returned for its second series that autumn that I became a fan. And this fun, fast and uplifting jive from the EastEnders actress and original professional Darren – that also scored the first perfect 40 in the show’s history – was why.

    4. HARRY JUDD AND ALIONA VILANI’S QUICKSTEP (SERIES 9)

    The McFly drummer proved he had the moves as well as the rhythm when he went onto win the show’s ninth run in 2011, and he had many memorable dances that saw him top of the leaderboard week after week, but this dazzling and athletic quickstep he and Aliona did to The Pretenders’ hit “Don’t Get Me Wrong” was his personal best for me.

    3. KIMBERLEY WALSH AND PASHA KOVALEV’S ARGENTINE TANGO (SERIES 10)

    Len himself once said that if the regular ballroom tango is a man dancing with his wife, then the Argentine tango – fierce, fiery and full of passion – is the man dancing with his mistress. It’s probably why it’s for me, when it’s done really well, my favourite dance on Strictly. When Girls Aloud star Kimberley reached the final in 2012, she and Pasha gave plenty of striking attitude and poise, with a great routine to Prince’s “When Doves Cry”.

    2. RACHEL STEVENS AND VINCENT SIMONE’S RUMBA (SERIES 6)

    It’s safe to say the rumba gets the hardest rap of all the dances on Strictly, partly because of how precise all the moves have to be and the slow, sensuous nature of it all – ask any male celebrity who’s done it, they always say it’s hard going. But Rachel – who, biased though I may be, was robbed of the glitterball trophy in 2008 – and Vincent’s seriously sexy and sophisticated routine to Paul Weller’s “You Do Something to Me” for me is the gold standard when it comes to this particular dance.

    1. CAROLINE FLACK AND PASHA KOVALEV’S CHARLESTON (SERIES 12)

    Pasha has made it to the final three times in the past, but he finally struck glitterball glory in 2014 when the ever lovely Caroline Flack was his partner. She got consistently better and better week after week. But it was their spectacular and sprightly Charleston to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” that was the crown in their Strictly jewel.

    The live final of Strictly Come Dancing is tomorrow night at 6.40pm on BBC One. “Strictly Len Goodman”, a tribute to the show’s departing head judge is on BBC One next Friday, 23rd December at 7pm, and the Christmas special of Strictly is on Christmas Day at 6.45pm. Twitter: @bbcstrictly

    My Ultimate Christmas Toys of Childhood

    It’s fair to say I had some pretty spiffing Christmases growing up. Being in a family of seven as well, always meant that our living room on Christmas morning was a Technicolor haze of wild wrapping paper strewn abandon, like some sort of elf convention on steroids.

    But we also had our traditions as well – we were always allowed one present before church, and then endured an agonising wait in our forever overheating Peugeot – named Betty for reasons best known to my dad – whilst our parents gasbagged to various friends and relations before we could finally get home to unwrap the rest of them.

    It’s these memories I always think of most fondly of at this time of the year, especially with my niece and nephew who excitedly tell me about what they’re hoping to get from Santa this year. With this in mind, I thought I’d revert to my 5 year old self for this blog (pictorial evidence of actual 5 year old self napped out on Christmas Day above. I loved that jumper I’m wearing) and unwrap and recall my ultimate Christmas toys from childhood.
    1. HORNBY FLYING SCOTSMAN TRAIN SET


    I think I may have talked before on this blog about the Christmas when the then Thomas the Tank Engine obsessed 4 year old me got the Hornby clockwork set of Thomas with Annie and Clarabel, with an “Island of Sodor” layout set up by my dad on Christmas morning. 

    The following year, I got the big boy electric upgrade, with the classic 4472 LNER Flying Scotsman passenger train set. It only ever saw daylight the grand total of three times during the course of my childhood – and on all occasions under supervision from Dad (although really it was probably just an excuse for him to play too. Needless to say I still have it in our loft in supreme condition to this day.)

    2. PINGU IGLOO PLAYSET

    That same Christmas that the LNER’s finest steamed into my presents was also the same year I got this bad boy. Pingu was one of my favourite TV shows growing up – I watched my much loved VHS tape of it countless times over to the point that, if you are fortunate enough to meet me, I can do impressions of all the voices from it perfectly.

    This playset of his igloo house from the series, along with figures of Pingu, his baby sister Pinga and Robby the Seal meant I could reenact my favourite episodes time and time again, and this was also my “before church” present that year as well. I believe my sisters all had jewellery as their “before church” present. The joys of being the only boy…

    3. THUNDERBIRD / THUNDERCOP 2

    People of my age will doubtless remember the eternally grinning, frighteningly insincere Stepford wife-esque Anthea Turner making Tracey Island, the headquarters of Gerry Anderson’s cult puppet series Thunderbirds, out of household items on Blue Peter in the early 90s. 

    I had one better however. I had the mini diecast models of the various Thunderbird rockets, but I also had this bad boy, which for some reason was renamed Thundercop 2 despite looking for all the world like the actual Thunderbird 2. An all spinning, rotating, bleeping and LED flashing haze of joy, I had many a happy hour playing with this, pretending I was one of the Tracey brothers – or Brains.

    4. GUESS WHO?

    I was always one for a good board game or two over the festive season when I was little – a tradition I really miss and want to bring back in some ways. And one Christmas, my godparents got me what I believe to be quite simply, the God of all board games.

     MB’s Guess Who was a genius guessing game, with you and your opponent using “yes/no” questions as a process of elimination to determine who your mystery person on your tiled board was. (Mine was always Maria, on account of the fact the boy on the box pictured above looked a bit like me, 90s curtain hair and all).
    5. CLOCKWORK MOUSE

    This is on here purely for a funny family story – and by that I mean the stuff of legend and relentless ribbing in our house for several years after. One year – I have a feeling in one of the later childhood Christmases – myself and my sisters all got a furry white clockwork mouse, not too dissimilar to the one you see above.

    I was born after Anna, our parents’ beloved Golden retriever passed away, so I, like Harmony Parker in The Queen’s Nose, was always a bit desperate for a pet of my own, to no avail despite my constant pleas to my parents.

    However, I was less Harmony and more Lenny in Of Mice and Men when it came to tending for my clockwork mouse. To the point where, an hour after christening it Lawrence (after Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen from Changing Rooms), I wound the clockwork mechanism a bit too hard and broke it. Thus resulting in my sisters renaming him as “Ken Broken”, much to my 9 year old disgust.

    What were your favourite Christmas toys from childhood? Leave your comments below or Tweet us @ThePensmith10 and let me know!