#CrazyStupidTV: ‘The Clangers’ (CBeebies)

11392924_899246476812340_715756508082713279_n

There’ll be two camps reading the title of this post, both of whom will think I’ve taken complete leave of my senses. The first camp will be thinking why a 25 – nearly 26 – year-old man is watching a show on CBeebies. The second camp – most of whom will be over 40 – will be wondering how the hell I know of the show in question. All will become clear as we go through this review so hear me out. This week saw the return to our screens of the Clangers, the wooliest inhabitants of outer space before or since the dawn of time. Originally filmed and created for the BBC by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin in 1969 from a disused cow-shed in Kent, it was a runaway hit with young and old audiences alike.

Now revived for a new run by Firmin, and Oliver Postgate’s son Daniel (Oliver himself sadly passed away in 2008), and with Python-cum-globetrotter Michael Palin at narration duties (William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, is the US voice), it now arrives in a new 52 part series for a new generation. So, you may be wondering how someone born in 1989 knows of a show that was on air 20 years beforehand? Through the magic of Channel 4, that’s how. They re-ran the original series in the early 90’s at lunchtimes after Sesame Street when I was growing up, and that’s how I came to know of it and I loved it instantly. Even now I have fond memories of Mr Postgate’s warm, comforting narration about space, time and the universe that pre-ambled each episode’s beginning and end.

11143706_899889286748059_4004183266256602579_n

So, like most people, I was naturally filled with dread at the idea of a remake of such a brilliant classic from a golden age of kid’s TV, particularly considering some of the awful ‘updates’ that TV producers have done in recent years. ‘Thunderbirds’ is now CGI animated so badly to the point that the likes of Lady Penelope and the Tracey brothers look like something from a dodgy porno. And Postman Pat in a flying helicopter? Let’s not even go there. Thankfully, though, a lot of early reports from Daniel Postgate and Michael Palin promised it was very ‘lo-tech’ and faithful to the original series, a little ‘oasis of calm’ amongst the brighter, brasher offerings that kid’s TV offers today.

And after watching the first five episodes of the new run downloaded to my BBC iPlayer app on my morning commutes this week, I am delighted to say that is exactly what they are. The Clangers are still knitted, and still communicate exclusively in Swanee whistle. The Iron Chicken still lives in a nest of junk. The Soup Dragon still abides in the Soup Wells. And the updates that have been made to the new series are complementary rather than clashing. Major Clanger for instance, now has his own workshop where he invents things. Mother Clanger also has her own garden, a suitably technicolour, trippy 60’s throwback that’s in keeping with sets from the original series.

11406892_902886156448372_3458858033781684587_n

And perhaps best of all, the storylines are still in keeping with a lot of Postgate’s originals – not just in what is happening in them, but with his own views of the world that we got glimpses of. Not a lot of people know that, outside of his TV creations, he was a renowned thinker, very into politics and theology, and he even briefly had a column in the New Statesman magazine prior to his death. This is best illustrated in what I think are two of the best episodes from this run so far: ‘The Little Thing’ and ‘The Knitting Machine’.

The former episode sees Small Clanger, presented with an odd object by a Sky Moo, search in vain for what it could be – until he finally reconnects it to a glittering, smile shaped asteroid in the stars above their little planet. The latter episode sees Granny Clanger, fed up with – and disgusted by the ugly creations of – Major Clanger’s new knitting machine, resulting in her challenging it to a ‘knit-off’, which she duly wins when the machine conks out and overheats, to the amusement of the others.

Palin narrates the new tales with the same warmth and wit of Postgate, but not in the sense of ripping him off. It’s lovingly done, and it’s pleasantly moving. At the end of ‘The Little Thing’ in particular, even though it’s not explicitly implied what the asteroid is, the closing line is so poetic – all about how the little thing is now back with the big thing, and it doesn’t matter what either of them are or were, because they’re complete again, and that’s all that matters.

It’s a real labour of love, a fitting tribute and respectful, and an end product that the late Postgate would be proud of, and makes it stand out, far above anything else either the BBC or ITV have produced for its younger audiences of recent times. As Joanna Lumley once observed to Jennifer Saunders on the widespread appeal of ‘Ab Fab’, ‘it’s very good and very well written, and when something’s good, it doesn’t matter who it is, or what it is about, if it’s good, it’ll be a winner’. And The Clangers are more than good. Even 40 years on, they’re breaking further new ground for young and old alike.

The new series of ‘The Clangers’ continues weekdays at 5:30pm on CBeebies. The first five episodes are available for UK viewers to watch now on BBC iPlayer. The US version of the series, narrated by William Shatner, begins on Sprout from Mondays at 7pm (check local listings).

Advertisements

Rachel Stevens’ “Come & Get It” at 10: celebrating a great lost pop classic.

image

All the acts from 2008-12’s great British pop renaissance either suddenly flopping hard in the charts and/or launching solo careers of varying degrees of amazingness this year, has led me back to reminiscing on the last time that happened. And when I sat down to work it out this week, I reasoned it must have been 10 years ago exactly. 2005 was a great year in some respects for pop music, but an absolute abomination in others. Charlie Simpson split Busted up against Matt Willis and James Bourne’s will. Kylie (understandably) cancelled her Showgirl tour after her breast cancer diagnosis. Britney had started going off the rails/marrying Kevin Federline. Cat Deeley stopped hosting CD:UK. And the guitar peddling singer/songwriter, blinged up, mumbling rappers and serious ‘n credible NME lauded rock types were suddenly the order of the day at the top end of both single and album charts.

And when they weren’t, drivel like an 800 year old Tony Christie song supposedly ‘made funny’ by the very un-funny Peter Kay, Crazy Frog and Akon were hitting number one, and these two rather odd, new fangled things called iTunes and MySpace were supposed to be the future of all that was great ‘n good ‘n credible about music. At least, in the case of MySpace, if your name was Zane Lowe. Not much consolation then, for the handful of pure pop acts that did remain, until by the start of 2006, only Girls Aloud, McFly and Sugababes when they weren’t changing line up yet again remained as the last real hopes for us all. So you really took your consolation where you could find it in such rubbish circumstances. And in that year, I took it in the form of Rachel Stevens’ second solo album.

When S Club had packed up the party and said goodbye in spring 2003, Rachel wasted no time whatsoever, swiftly resigning to Polydor and still being managed by Simon Fuller, only this time as a solo artist. Her debut solo single, the spunky, Cathy Dennis penned kiss off ‘Sweet Dreams My LA Ex’ came out that September, and zipped straight in at number 2. Her gold selling debut album ‘Funky Dory’ followed – however its title track bombed in the pre-Christmas rush, and after a quick rethink via her next single, Richard X’s seductive schaffel-electro ditty ‘Some Girls’, she was back at the top end of the charts and the public’s affections (we won’t mention THAT ghastly cover of ‘More More More’. The memories are still too painful).

Then something very odd – but pleasantly so – happened. In quick succession of three months’ distance between each of them, Rachel released three of 2005’s most dead on the mark pop singles of the year. First, in March, came the Rawhide theme meets Fischerspooner brilliance of ‘Negotiate With Love’ (still the only pop song to feature the word ‘Negotiate’ in its title, too. What a touch). Then in July, came the rave-tastic dance number ‘So Good’. And finally in October, she gave us the deliciously slutty glam rock throwback ‘I Said Never Again (But Here we Are)’. Musically, Rachel exploded like a one woman Girl Aloud, positioning herself right at pop’s cutting edge with singles to match. No longer was she the same bouncy cutey in a sports bra and flares declaring that there ain’t no party like an S Club party. She had grown up and was moving places, and suddenly, not only were the usual publications that welcomed her with open arms like FHM and Arena wanting her, so too, were the serious music press. She bagged herself a Sunday Times Culture cover piece and The Guardian were singing her praises.

Rachel+Stevens+PNG

But then something even more odd happened. Not one of those three singles got within a whisker of the top 3 – and worse still, for ‘I Said Never Again’, within the top 10 – and with each new disappointing chart position came a lot of people scratching heads and wondering what the hell was going wrong when everything was so so right on paper. It was even something Rachel couldn’t figure out. I remember very clearly her being interviewed on GMTV at the time, and when prepositioned with a question about her chart failures (by Kate Garraway, the most pointless excuse for a presenter ever), she just shrugged defeatedly saying ‘There’s just lots of different kinds of music out there at the moment’ as if she was beyond trying to find a reason. It’s a wonder then, that ‘Come & Get It’ – the album that held all three of those singles and ‘Some Girls’ – came out at all with the amount of what most perceived to be second chances ever given to an artist like Rachel.

I’ll touch upon The Guardian again, though, because it was their review of the album that highlighted the problem of why ‘pop that’s not popular’ was indeed a bit of a sad thing to behold. Even though it was meant in jest, it was also that review where they claimed that Rachel was the ‘first popstar to be media trained out of her job’. In other words, they were conceding with the common myth surrounding Rachel that really, she was just a ‘boring’ dolly-bird with some good songs, nice looks and nothing else to offer. It’s a view that I found myself, even back in the days of being a fan of S Club, struggling to challenge when I mentioned to some of my so called ‘popular’ classmates at school that I was a fan of hers (and had an all consuming crush on her, but we’ve touched on that before readers). One such female classmate – whose name I won’t mention, but who thought she was God’s gift and looked like a hamster in a wig – snottily mocked the idea that anyone could be a fan of someone with an album called ‘Funky Dory’.

Rachel+Stevens+RS4

Plenty of popstars before and since have made a career on being nice and approachable and down to earth. Olly Murs has built his whole career on that very asset. So why did Rachel get a kicking for it? Let’s focus on the man that made her. Simon Fuller himself has openly admitted that he exalted more control in what S Club said and did – little wonder, after the tough time he had keeping a tight leash on the Spice Girls that resulted in them sacking him at the height of their powers. Rachel even admitted that none of them were really allowed an ‘opinion’ as such and that they’d become caricatures of themselves by the end. And here lies the problem.

Coming from a pop band with more members than the average, when she went solo, Rachel suddenly had to build an identity of her own. But, and whether this was done out of fear or not, which I strongly suspect it was – she just gave the answer that she thought people wanted to hear, as she didn’t have six others to cushion any blows that came her way. And that’s a pretty horrid position to be in when you think about it. Particularly as she had more of a personality – and a much more rounded, down to earth one – than most gave her credit for. During the summer she was promoting ‘So Good’, a camera crew for Channel 4’s teen strand T4 followed her every move.

The end result – a 30 minute film called ‘My World’ – was a snapshot, albeit frustratingly brief, into the life of a woman who, all told, wasn’t half as boring as she was made out to be. With the likes of Cheryl (then still Tweedy) and Charlotte Church scrapping at each others’ throats in the papers that year, the public had got too carried away with the idea that to be a popstar meant you had to be feisty and gobby at all times, no questions asked. Here instead, was a lady who giggled at the word ‘testicles’, got excited about doing an M&S food shop, and whose idea of rock ‘n roll was ‘getting into bed with a cuppa and putting Sex & The City on’ and ‘having lunch with my girlfriends’. And – I maybe say this as somewhat of a Rachel stan – but sometimes, that’s a good thing.

Rachel was aware that, even though she loved performing and releasing music, it wasn’t the be all and end all of life. Hence her absence from the public eye in the two years that followed the album’s release, before she re-emerged to do the 2008 run of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. She’s always retained that level-headed mentality about her, through all phases of her career. It’s something that her Steps contemporary, Lisa Scott-Lee, would have been well advised to take on board before she committed to the self indulgent car crash that was her MTV reality show, ‘Totally Scott-Lee’, where her constant craving for solo fame and attention at all times was akin to that of Valerie Cherish, the flop sitcom actress portrayed by Lisa Kudrow in the US show ‘The Comeback’.

Even so, ‘Come & Get It’ was far from the depressing ‘pop that’s not popular’ listen The Guardian would have you believe, and it showcases Rachel’s personality in spades. It’s a grown up but fun poptastic riot from start to end. In fact, it was so ahead of its time that by 2008, when Lady GaGa and Britney Spears were suddenly going down the spiky electro route, I was a bit ‘Well, Rachel did this before you, and on a much smaller budget. And probably with better writers and producers’. Richard X stepped back in for ‘single-that-never-was’ ‘Crazy Boys’, with a brooding drum track evocative of Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Paninaro ’95’. ‘I Will Be There’ and ‘Secret Garden’ were all sparkly, haunting twilight themed, Air-esque dream pop. ‘Nothing Good About This Goodbye’ and ‘Funny How’ saw Rachel hook up with Xenomania at their wistful, shoes-shod-to-the-dancefloor best.

And even the B-sides from this album era were of note: the early work of a young rapscallion called Greg Kurstin cut his teeth on the Blondie meets Super Mario vibes of ‘Waiting Game’, and ‘Never Go Back’ utitlised a sample from the theme tune to an old 60’s spy show called ‘The Rat Catcher’ to wonderfully seductive, playful effect. 10 years on though, one thing is still true about ‘Come & Get It’, and indeed most of Rachel’s solo material: the quality of the music far eclipses any politics or shortcomings that may have blighted it back then, and continues to do so. I know that, even if I’d made an album like she did, I’d still be immensely proud of something so cohesive and just brilliant from start to end. And how many pop albums can you realistically say achieve that?

Listen to ‘Come & Get It’ on Spotify and see if you agree with me – and don’t forget to Tweet your thoughts once you’ve listened!

#CrazyStupidTV: “The John Bishop Show” (BBC One)

uktv-the-john-bishop-variety-show-episode-1

Perhaps thanks in part to ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – which, if you believe any of the papers this last week, should be renamed to ‘Britain’s Got Talented Dogs’ – it does rather feel like the good old fashioned variety show has made a bit of a comeback to our screens of late. ITV recently successfully resurrected ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’ – of which the second series is just about to finish airing.

Even the gods of the format, The Muppets, are staging their terrestrial comeback over in America on the ABC network in the autumn – and there’s a chance, as with their late 90’s series, the oft forgotten ‘Muppets Tonight’, it’ll end up airing over here too. And now the BBC have got in on the act, and have got the man we selected as our ‘Comedian of the Year’ in our End of Year Prizes last year to host it.

Scouse funnyman John Bishop has dabbled in this format for a few years now with his own successful Christmas specials, so you just knew a full series was always going to be on the cards. Filmed each week at the Hackney Empire in London, it’s John’s own inimitable, relatable take on stand up comedy – we were particularly amused by his joke in the first show about how his teenage sons are now blokes who he fails to have a legitimate argument with convincingly – with a whole host of weird and wonderful acts in between.

The_John_Bishop_Show

The wonderful on the first show, in this instance, was the Modfather himself Paul Weller, who performed his new single and an old classic from his Jam days to close the show. Jessie Ware and Leona Lewis are set to be future music performers on the show. The wonderful also amounted to a really promising new comedian – well, he’s new to me anyway – Trevor Noah from South Africa, who offered a very wry and side splitting routine.

And then there was the weird – in both good and awful senses of the word. Felicity Ward, an Australian comedian whose sole joke was about how all Australians are apparently racist, but that’s OK, because she actually is Australian, wore thin pretty quickly. Also bizarre: an acrobatic boy in silver trousers of some description at the very top of the show who John balanced on one hand.

Beardyman, the renowned YouTube beatboxing sensation, was a delight though, as he and John got audience members to participate in creating weird, off the cuff ditties using his synthesizers and loop pedals with strange details about the person’s life: e.g. ‘Why Don’t You Like Me?’ sang in an 80’s, Depeche Mode-esque manner, or ‘You Never Feed the Dogs’ set to jungle music. Utterly bizarre but wholly captivating – the best guest of the show by far.

And herein lies the beauty of having a full on variety show like John Bishop’s on telly: if there’s not something that appeals with one act, there’s always something that will appeal with the next. And – so far – with not one dancing/tightrope walking/fire-eating dog in sight. Not to mention he looks like he’s having an absolute ball doing it.

‘The John Bishop Show’ continues at 9:45pm, Saturdays on BBC One. UK viewers can watch back the first two episodes now on BBC iPlayer.

Inspiration: how do you get yours?

1234434_10153279263838662_7895511573742396559_n

Most of you who read this blog – or at least, I hope most of you – will know that away from here, I’m also a budding writer. All of you reading this will also know that I am a fan of the weekly vlogs on YouTube by the Fletcher posse – Tom, Giovanna and Carrie – and that I watch them religiously every week once they’re uploaded.

And in their vlogs last week, they all discussed the topic of inspiration and what inspires them in their day to day lives and passions. So with that in mind, I thought this would be a good idea to talk about my inspirations and how I get inspiration and yeah. This is just a little piece about my inspirations, that I hope will inspire you in turn. Enjoy!

  • REVISITING FAVOURITE BOOKS

1256655

A bit of an obvious one, this, but a relevant one nonetheless. As a writer myself and a keen reader, I’m always looking for new approaches to write from or ways to explore writing/talking about my passions. One such instance was recently, when I was wanting to take a bit of a break from a children’s book/TV vehicle I’ve been working on for the last 18 months, and wanted to do a bit of writing about music but not necessarily anything journalistic.

Which led me to re-reading one of my personal favourite books: ’31 Songs’ by Nick Hornby. It isn’t so much an autobiography in the conventional sense. It’s a collection of essays he wrote about, oddly enough, 31 songs that have made a great impact and significance on him, ranging eclectically from Bruce Springsteen to Nelly Furtado. It was an interesting idea, and one that inspired me to start my own series of essays in one of my many notebooks.

A new notebook is like crack to me basically. Hence why when I go to The Works or Paperchase (note other high street stationers are available) of an occasional lunch break or shopping trip and they have a sale on, I’ll inevitably come out of there with three new notebooks with quirky designs on them, two of which will end up getting written or half written in, and one left blank for ages whilst I decide what to do with it.

This was the case with a Paperchase one I bought and it now houses my series of essays I am writing about 25 albums that mean a lot to me or hold significance, such was my inspiration from Nick Hornby. Why 25? Because, like Adele, I have decided to tentatively call the collection ’25’ as that is my current age. If it gets to a stage where I’m happy with some of them I might publish some here – but that’s for another blog post.

  • LYING IN BED/HAVING A BATH

I should perhaps point out at this juncture that the above picture is NOT the actual bath in my house. It looks nice but it’s not that girly, it’s purely for illustrative purposes in the context of my next source of inspiration. I find that when I’m completely alone with my thoughts – which isn’t very often in my daily schedule – it’s when I’m just about to nod off, or when I’m in the bath. And also when I’m in the bath and not doing my celebrated rendition of Blue singing ‘If You Come Back’ (I didn’t just type that). And it’s also when a lot of my ideas – good or otherwise – come to me.

Which is why, again, going back to the notebook thing, I keep a notebook beside my bed. So if I wake up at any point and I have an amazing and vivid dream, I can write it down or sketch down bits of it quickly. Inevitably, this has occasionally led to me waking up the following morning, or maybe some months down the line looking back through it, and seeing a random scribble about being in a riot with one of my friends who was dressed as Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in her ‘Fight for This Love’ outfit whilst I wasn’t me and looked like Cheri Blair in drag and immediately question how much cheese I’d been eating before bed that night.

  • FUNNY THINGS ON THE INTERNET

One of the, I think, great, if potentially dangerous things about the internet, is how many funny things you can find it on now. Just sit me in front of YouTube for about an hour when I’m procrastinating from writing and/or have writer’s block, and what will start off as an innocent search for ‘impressions of (insert random celebrity’s name here)’ will lead me all to kinds of crazy hilarity.

kathy-griffin

A search for one such parody that the now defunct sketch show ‘MadTV’ did in America of Madonna c.2000 thus led me, last year, from that rotating wall of videos YouTube suggests for you at the video’s end, to a segment of a live show from the US stand up comic Kathy Griffin, pictured above. For people reading this that aren’t from the US, I’ll explain. She’s a well known comic and sort of reality show star in the States – she starred in her own show called ‘My Life on the D-List’ over there and she regularly tours her stand up show as well.

Anyway. It led me to the above clip of her from the turn of the millennium ripping the pee out of Madonna’s attempt at being British once she married Guy Ritchie (‘From Michigan, lived in New York, and yet somehow British? She’s like something from a Dickensian novel’). I then spent about three days watching all her live stand up shows in full and my parents must have honestly wondered what had got into me every time I started belly laughing at the mere mention of frequent targets of her lampooning, like Oprah Winfrey and Britney Spears. And I believe anyone who can make you laugh like that for days after is pretty inspiring. We need more laughter in the world.

  • PEOPLE WHO INSPIRE ME

11071132_10153824793808662_7910420476820225921_n

I’m going to try and end this blog on a more serious note now. Because it’s not just funny American comedians on YouTube, or notebooks with pictures of llamas with shutter shades on, hell it’s not even just bizarro dreams induced from a late night craving of Jacob’s and mature cheddar. Oh no. On a more serious note, there are so many people in my day to day life – whether I know them personally or not – who inspire me. And I’m a firm believer in expressing gratitude for these inspiring people being around in my life, so in no particular, or exhaustive order, here goes:

  1. My eldest niece, Mia (pictured with me above), my nephew Finley and my newest niece Indi. Being an uncle to all of you is one of the things I treasure and love the most and it’s so inspiring watching you grow and develop each day into funny, inquisitive, caring and totally rad nieces and nephews.
  2. My mum and dad. My rock and bookends, two of my best friends but also the very foundation of where I’ve got my work ethic and drive from, and perhaps the best quality of all to support others and appreciate family.
  3. My former A Level English teachers, Diane Howes and Rebecca Iciek. A lot of what I’ve gone on to do in the eight years since you took my classes is a result of you encouraging me and pushing me to do things like entering writing competitions, writing my own scripts, and to ultimately try something I didn’t think I had in me – to go to uni and pursue a degree in writing and ultimately, go onto do things like writing this blog – and for that I will forever be in your debt.
  4. Olly Murs. Ah yes. I suppose this kind of goes without saying, but even taking the fact I am as dedicated a fan as they come of this geez, he is the best idol to have. I won’t exhaust the reasons why as I’ve already said why many times on here but I can say that everything I’ve experienced and done through being a fan and supporter of his for these last five years has made my life that bit happier and fuller.
  5. Sebastian Faulkes. Yes. The Sebastian Faulkes of ‘Birdsong’ fame. I was so blessed to meet him briefly at my graduation ceremony in 2012, where he was receiving an Honorary Doctorate, and was so inspired by his speech he gave in terms of what he said about following his dreams, pursuing his passion and about standing out from the crowd and embracing what makes you you. That has stuck with me ever since that day and I just hope I can one day have a career as successful as his.