six times seven

Elsewhere Usual Doctor Who review. See what I did there?


TV In a homage to the plot of this week's Doctor Who, I shall be attempting to write this review in forty-two minutes. Since I'm not actually on a space ship plunging into a sun, I will instead be using a rather fetching egg timer. When it rings, I'm done. My time starts ... now ...

It would be an understatement to say that I've never been a fan of Chris Chibnall's writing; he somehow managed to turn out the very weakest episodes of Life On Mars and I certainly didn't find very many positive things to say about Torchwood once he really took the reigns as show runner. It was a mess in fact and so I was pretty disheartened to hear that he'd been given an episode of Doctor Who to mess up. So it comes as a pleasant surprise to say that on this occasion he's delivering a blistering little script that managed to pack an emotional punch as well as genuinely had this writer hugging a cushion.

Granted the story was fairly generic stuff, a reworking of plot elements from a myriad of texts, everything from Lem's Solaris to Doctor Who's own Planet of Evil, throwing in the real time element of tv's 24. And if I wanted to be critical I could note that yet again there was a bunch of people turned into killer zombies via some kind of alien mind control, with masks once again hiding away the individuals humanity. At least on this occasion they didn't march on mass, but there was certainly a goodly amount of striding through corridors.

What I think set it apart were the thematic and emotional elements; this was a story about comradeship and togetherness, from the brilliant idea of making the security questions for the doorlocks based on information about the crew who would then have to remember each other's lives in order to survive, the disbelief from Michelle Collins that her husband could be gone and that final choice to use that togetherness in her final fate to the fact that this was the first story in which the Doctor and Martha really seemed to care for each other and needed each other's help to survive.

I don't know if sight unseen you could tell that this was a Graham Harper directed episode, but it was still a brilliantly put together piece of work, genuinely looking like a feature film in his shot selection, the cameras forever moving. There's no comparison in the action choreography and editing here to something like Evolution of the Daleks, the cross cutting between stories superbly achieved, never riding over the mini-cliffhangers inherent in the story from the first reveal of the dead husband walking to Martha drifting towards the sun in the space craft (which incidentally might be one of the best moments in the series, even if to a degree it too was inspired by the Soderbergh version of Solaris).

Really stonking lighting design too, the set and actors often reduced to primary colours, faces shaped from deep reds and blues. It's refreshing to see the series experimenting with such things and a much prefer this to the rather flat lighting that has greeted some of the other stories in this latest series. I've been rewatching some of the earlier new Who stories lately and it's pretty amazing to see how such fundamentals were being tossed about early on but somewhere along the line became so uniform (insert more grumbling about the over lit Tardis set).

The Radio Times weren't very nice about Michelle Collins' performance. Having not actually seen her in anything other that Sea of Souls (really), I can't say that she looked too incongruous as the Captain of a space ship and she worked really well within an ensemble that also included the wonderful William Ash, whose career I've been following for years since Children's Ward (oddly enough). Of course they were all mostly there to be picked off by the alien force and unlike The Satan Pit mostly without much heroism.

But I think a measure of the confidence of much of this new series is that in the midst of this race against time it still managed to progress the Mr Saxon story. Again, this was another repeat of one of the elements of the first series, the call home from the far future, but twisted. Frankly, I miss Jackie; but then we haven't seen enough of Francine yet to make a judgement, just lots of moaning. Watching the agents of Saxon tracking the call, of course brought to mind the mind control of a certain man who must be obeyed and I can't ...


Time's up. But I've got so much more to say! The clever way that the Tardis was kept out of reach! The deadlock seal's effect on the sonic screwdriver being Doctor Who's plot condition along the lines of not being able to transport through shields on Star Trek! The lack of a proper Hitchhiker's reference considering the title! The dodgy science - shouldn't the ship burn up before it reaches the sun? I've seen Danny Boyle's Sunshine you know! Those amazing CG effects! Plus I wanted to say some more about all of the business to do with the Pub Quiz machine as door opener...

You're breaking my heart.

Elsewhere Another review of a half remembered production of Hamlet, this time with a personal dimension.

11 Carl Wharton

Hamlet played by Carl Wharton
Directed by Ian Karl Moore

Regular readers might remember I wrote last year some time about meeting someone called Claire Jones on the bus and telling them how much I'd loved their portrayal of Ophelia in a production of Hamlet ten years before. It was in a production by the Black Box Theatre Company at the Unity Theatre some time between 1997 and 1998.

To explain how I could possibly remember something like that, Claire was a friend of a friend and I'd actually gone to the production with another friend of that friend, because the friend didn't want to go with her. If you see what I mean. I've confused myself with that sentence. Feel free to email for more details if you too are confused. But I was going anyway because, ironically now that I'd left university I was even more interested in Shakespeare's work than I have been at school and productions were and still are pretty rare in Liverpool.

Looking at the cast list this was a pretty pared down version of the story - no Fortinbras for example and a single gravedigger. It was pacey. That was more than likely because of the space - this was in the smaller of the two auditoriums at the Unity, the studio. The set was minimalist too, I think everything was done with light - I remember lots of deep reds and blues being thrown again the black curtains at the back. Sorry that my recollections are so hazy but I was still trying to get a grasp on the story. Plus I quite liked the girl I was out with and pretty nervous.

But what I do remember is Claire Jones' Ophelia. I recall thinking at the time that she was acting everyone else off the stage. I'm not sure I've seen Ophelia's madness moments rendered as intelligently many times since; a tour-de-force as she shuffled about in her bare feet passing flowers around. It was that night I began to construct my fantasy cast for a production pegging her permanently for the role and when I later saw Kate Winslet in the Branagh film it looked like she'd cribbed from Claire. I think or know that I would still have remembered her performance even if she hadn't been a friend of a friend. Totally captivating.

In the way my mind works though, my Claire memories have rather overshadowed the rest of the cast. I can't tell you how good Carl Wharton was as Hamlet, I simply don't know. Does that mean he and this production doesn't count for the purposes of this adventure? Since it's my journey and I'm making the rules I've decided not. The spirit of this thing is that I should be able to say something about each of these quasi-Danes. So the thing I can say about Wharton's Hamlet is that wore Ophelia the trousers in that production.

Flexible. Maybe.

Architecture Book launches like exhibition private views tend to fall into two categories; those in which you happen to know people and those in which you don't. For me at least tonight's launch at the RIBA bookshop of Robert Kronenberg's new book Flexible: Architecture That Responds To Change was the latter. I'm on their email mailing list and the subject seemed interesting enough to spend some time listening to the accompanying lecture.

Inevitably I was the second person there. After taking a glass of white wine and a crisp I sat down and flicked through a brochure. Within about ten minutes an impenetrable phalanx had developed of people greeting each other -- the handshakes, the hugging, the cheek to cheek kissing, the kind of group in which its intensely difficult to make an impression because everyone is catching up with each other's lives.

In the past this kind of thing has really bothered me and bad things happened, but then I just didn't know how to interject coherently. But this is an older version of me, the one with the higher self-esteem and with a bit of effort I could have made some substantive small talk but on this occasion I simply chose not to.

Which is different. Maybe.

Instead I browsed through the books and found a small volume of photos of people with their favourite rooms in houses and stumbled upon a picture of someone's impressive collection of Doctor Who videos (yes, sorted into transmission order). Its funny how people who can say which year Pyramids of Mars was broadcast, who directed it and composed the music are called geeks. People who know the score line of a football match played by their favourite team that same Saturday, who made the goals and even who was sent off isn't.

Kronenberg's book is a survey of architecture designed with flexibility in mind - in other words it can be moved relatively easily, or constructed in unusual spaces or has the ability to be transformed in situ. The author presented photographs of apartments in which the internal walls are entirely shift able, so that the dweller can change the internal configuration to suit their needs - a giant lounge and master bedroom or a lounge, a study and two smaller bedrooms? It's the occupier's choice.

There was a giant glass community centre in a relatively minor town in Japan with four or five large, initially empty, floors (looking not unlike the Pompidou Centre in Paris) and it was up to the local people to utilize it just as they wanted to. Within a few years it had developed exhibition spaces, a library, classrooms for further education, an internet café and simply spaces were people could gather which were outside of their houses, private but still amongst people.

But there were also portable exhibition spaces using the inflatable technology of a bouncy castle or a new material as flimsy as polythene but as strong as stone and with a surface that could be manipulated to aid whatever it's purpose is; warehouses constructed from the kinds of containers used on ships that are a portable as their cargo; huts and houses created swiftly in disaster areas and designed using found materials such as beer crates and the cardboard tubes found at the centre of giant rolls of carpet.

The geographical placing of these constructions revealed cultural differences. Most of these structures could be found in the Far East, predominantly in Japan and generally, especially in relation to the houses they expected the householder to have a more relaxed attitude to privacy as the walls are made of glass or Perspex and the primary light source within the spaces is the sun.

The suggestion throughout is that most simply wouldn't work here because we value the fact that we can shut out the rest of the world - in these houses there's a totally different relationship between the interiors and exteriors which reflects that culturally there's more of a community spirit even in the giant megalopolises of Tokyo or Shanghai.

As I walked to the bus stop afterwards, having not stayed on for more drinks and doo-dats I wondered if my attitude before the lecture was a sign of me turning into a misanthrope - not in a psychopathic, I hate the human race kind of way but that embraces social alienation by not even trying to make small talk. I'm turning into a reflection of a society that doesn't tend to like glass houses.

Really, I was over thinking things. I'm really not like that. I can talk to anyone. There was the man who sat next to me thirty seconds before the show began and shook my hand and we swapped names and job titles and the time of day (literally). It was just generally on this occasion I felt like a bit of an interloper.


Same but different.

TV Is the BBC working against itself or has The Restaurant been renamed? I’ve just spotted this advert on Gumtree, the online classified ad service:
“If anyone is looking for the chance to own their own restaurant for a day and show off their signature dish then this could be the opportunity. BBC1 is filming a new series this summer called Making A Meal Of It. They are looking for 10 pairs of amateur cooks to have a go at running a restaurant as head chef and front-of-house manager. The BBC will provide the restaurant, the staff and the diners. This is ideal for anyone who has dreamt of running there own restaurant, but has never had the time or money to do so. The restaurant will be yours to cook whatever you want, whether it be a ultra-modern sushi bar or a cheery organic café, nothing could be too wild.”
“But it will be important to impress as the diners will be judging the value of each meal on taste, presentation, service and overall dining experience. Each restaurateur will be up against 4 other contestants and the couple that turns over the highest profit wins the total earnings. This could be a life changing opportunity and you could find out if you really have what it takes to run a restaurant. If you think this is the opportunity and challenge you are up to, then email the team at”
The formats seem incredibly similar, don’t they? There are a couple of differences. The suggestion here is that the restaurant will be a closed environment, they’ll only have it for a day and that the contestants won’t be actually running a business – which is the point of The Restaurant. Any thoughts?

I don’t believe it!

TV High Stakes, along with Believe Nothing and Hardware, was part of ITV’s attempt at re-establishing their Sunday night “edgy comedy” slot a couple of years back. Starring Richard Wilson and written by Tony Sarchet (This Is David Lander), this highbrow sitcom set in the financial world was not quite in the same league as its more celebrated ’80s counterparts, and suffered from some unrealistic and overblown pre-transmission publicity, but it was a likeable enough effort and it came as some surprise when the muted response to the first run led to the already-recorded second being shelved and eventually never transmitted.

Now, surprisingly enough, both series have been released on DVD. While there’s hardly likely to be queues of devoted fans filling up their nearest high street DVD shop, this does bode well for other series that were haphazardly scheduled or just not transmitted at all. Any chance of a Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married box set?

'Look, it's God.'

Life You might remember my awestruck visit to Liverpool Cathedral a couple of weeks ago. I was back again today for the fifth of the lunchtime lectures; this time historian Peter Kennerley talked about the place from the perspective of the Deans and Bishops and worshipers and the breath of life that infuses the space.

Imagine my surprise when his opening ice breaker was something like: 'I've found myself talking in the Cathedral on a great number of occasions. I remember seventeen years ago when fifteen hundred Liverpool school children had piled in to sing for the Queen and I was roped in to keep them entertained. As I walked before them, a boy from the lower sixth of the Blue Coat School said: 'Look, it's God.'

I was at that concert. I remember that actually happening. Small world. I approached him afterwards and told him and he named the boy and mentioned that actually his granddaughter was in the choir too -- and when the boy said that, someone else said, 'No he isn't -- he's Rachel's granddad.'

“What’s happening to me?”

TV Those who are still freaked out whenever they see Alan Dale (Jim Robinson from Neighbours) appearing in the likes of 24, The OC and Ugly Betty won’t love this survey from Rob Buckley of upcoming US genre series, since it includes preview clips from the remake of The Bionic Woman featuring Michelle Ryan (best known over ‘ere as Zoe Slater in EastEnders) playing Jamie Sommers.

There’s something distinctly unnerving about hearing her new American accent, but that’s as nothing compared to seeing her in the same scene as Katie Sackoff (new Starbuck in new Battlestar Galactica).

Insert Star Trek quote

About Should anyone want one, I have three invites to Spock the social networking site thingy.

"Not exactly the best start to any top-class production."

Elsewhere I was flicking through some old school magazines and found an excellent article about the production of Hamlet which I have, of course, posted you know where.

09 Update!.

I found some copies of my old school magazine, The Squirrel the other day and what should I find on page 36 on the 1993 issue but this article about number nine on my list:
In the depths of winter when people are overcoming those 'post-panto blues', a notice was posted on the Dramatic Society notice board - 'HAMLET-AUDITION'. These were held, the majority of the cast decided upon and the scripts dished out for the lines to be leant for the New Year.

Back in school after the holiday few lines had been learnt, but Mr. Gleave, our dedicated director, started rehearsals nevertheless. These always followed the same format: Tracy Owens, the valiant production assistant would sit herself at the front of the hall, place her script on her lap and smile intelligently up at the stage. Meanwhile, at the back of the hall, Mr. Gleave would perform his own full-blooded interpretation of Shakespeare's hallowed script for us, the aspiring actors, to attempt to reproduce up on stage.

After a couple of weeks we were making very slow progress. Movements were still being mapped out on stage, Mr. Gleave could not find the 'right' Laertes and still lines had not been mastered. Not exactly the best start to any top-class production.

Spring half-term come and went , and we were still struggling through the final scenes of the play. Rosencrantz, the lovely Alankar Sharma, was continually late for rehearsals and Polonius, Ricky Morton, still knew few of his lines. But, despite these problems some parts of the production were improving. The set was beginning to take shape under the steady guidance of Mr. Preston and Steven Simpson; and the cast itself, was also starting to get its act together; most notably Hamlet (the inspiring Merfyn Cave), who had mastered his soliloquies and was becoming increasingly impressive in the lead role.

The final week of rehearsals arrived and the tension was mounting; would we be ready in time? The lighting had been installed, the set was on the verse of completion and the sound had finally got its cocks to crow; all that was needed was the actors. Well, after our mighty rehearsals under the surprisingly calm influence of Mr. Gleave, we were at last starting to look like a true Blue Coat production.

The Friday before the week of the play a small band of the cast and crew kindly accompanied by Mr and Mrs Halton, took a rest from their hectic schedule to take a trip down to Stratford to see how good Kenneth Branagh & Co. really were. After four and a half hours in the theatre the general consensus was that they were excellent - but not a patch on us (though we would not mind the money) and we returned to Liverpool with some fresh enthusiasm).

On arriving at school on the Sunday for the dress rehearsal, the male contingent in the cast was distraught to discover that their costumes entailed the wearing of tights (some of which were the most putrid shade of orange, green and blue). This being a new experience for most of us, we required instruction in the art of putting them on from those skilled seamstresses, Mrs. Harcombe and Mrs. Holiday, not to mention the actresses of the play. When the laughs over our attire had died down (some of the girl's headgear was also amusing), we began. The Sunday afternoon dragged on, because Mr. Gleave's tireless striving after perfection, with the majority of the problem rearing their ugly heads in the final scene. But, we managed to leave just before darkness with most people quietly confident of a successful production.

The next day, the problem scenes were attended to, so that their standard was on par with the rest of the first-rate production, and so we were ready(?) for the opening night and the show to begin. After some final encouraging words from Mr. Gleave, we were up on the stage in front of the light and an audience acting our hearts out. Unfortunately that first night had too many faults, including a personal one of waiting on top of the battlements of a Danish castle in the freezing cold for what seemed like hours, for a ghost to appear. But the true professional approach of everyone involved meant that these weaknesses quickly disappeared and by Friday night we had reached perfection!

It just remains for me, the honourable Horatio to thank Mr. Preston for his never-ending efforts; the stage, lighting and sound crews; communications; props; make-up; our seamstresses' special effects; and the large group of dedicated teachers, without whom it would never have been. And finally, the inimitable Mr. Gleave, whose dedication and perseverance turned a group of sixth formers into a company of Thespians with a production to remember.

It's a wonderful piece and certainly fills in many of the gaps in my memory. I love the detail of some of the production attending Branagh's 1992 RSC production, the precursor to the film and the indignation at having to wear tights.

Still bookcrossing after all these years...

Books A few years ago I had a life laundry -- I was moving house and I didn't want to have to move quite so much of it. Many of the books went to charity shops but some I bookcrossed, an obsession which developed over many lunchtimes and daytrips as I spread my ex-library across the land. On the blog I'd mention when a book had been picked up or indeed when I'd actually given a book to someone on the bus.

Imagine my surprise today then when I received an email explaining that someone had found a book that I'd left at STA Travel on Bold Street in Liverpool nearly four years ago:
"haven't read it, found under the travel brochure shelf - covered in dust! Gave it to a mate who's off on one!"
I think they must mean a holiday. I've passed that travel agents hundreds of times in the past four years and it's just amazing to think that my old book was sitting were I left it all this time. Perhaps all of these other books really are all still out there somewhere, waiting to be found.

Did The White House read this blog?

Politics I suspect not. But. Last week, I registered my disdain at Bush's remarks about the settlement at Georgetown during that infamous speech next to the Queen and the lack of a mention for certain events in US history. Today President Bush was at a ceremony to commemorate the landing and said:
"Not all people shared in these blessings. The expansion of Jamestown came at a terrible cost to the native tribes of the region, who lost their lands and their way of life. And for many Africans, the journey to Virginia represented the beginnings of a life of hard labor and bondage. Their story is a part of the story of Jamestown. It reminds us that the work of American democracy is to constantly renew and to extend the blessings of liberty."
Which still seems a bit contradictory but at least it's not the complete white house wash we heard last week.

eerie fairytale

Elsewhere Last year some time I interviewed an artist for a local cultural magazine. The article is now up at the Nerve website. I think you can tell it's me because of all the film references, even though I'm not credited.

Testing time.

About Since my last process for posting delicious links on the main column has gone belly up, I'm trying something else. If you see lots of strange things then it'll be that.

A serious discussion of Eurovision. No really, I'm annoyed.

There was a bitter tone to Terry Wogan's commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest last night. For the first time in years, he actually didn't sound like he was really enjoying himself -- I think he even said at one point as the Eastern Bloc voting really hit that it simply wasn't as much fun anymore, and you can't but agree. With the western European countries knocked out in the semi final you're left with a vote that, with the winner as perfect evidence, has little to do with the quality of the actual music and more to do with national brotherhood.

It was always thus of course -- the Scandinavian countries always congratulated one another and it'll be a cold day in Athens when Cyprus doesn't fork over twelve points to Greece. But this just seems even more insidious, especially since, with that semi-final system it's a process which is bound to be repeated year on year, until, and I suspect if any more countries join it can't be too long, there are two semi-finals (lord help us) one for each end of the continent.

Of course, you can't take the thing too seriously when an Ukrainian Christopher Biggins lookalike wrapped in bacofoil is the favourite. But there does seem to be some attempt being made of late to at least present some kind of musical diversity, even if the genres on display have little or nothing to do with their origin countries. I love that in the midst of the trashy europop you can hear the likes of jazz, blues, opera (sort of) rock and swing and those entries were perhaps the most credible coming from the last two.

Finland's Leave Me Alone sung by Hanna Pakarinen was less ROCK! than last year's Lordi but the woman had a powerful voice and it was refreshing for there not to be a drum machine anywhere in the track for once. But the most curious and probably success was from Germany, a full on swing number Frauen Regier'n Die Welt sung by Roger Cicero, a name that's difficult to forget, since it was blasted across the massive electronic backdrop.

The reason it stood out is because despite being sung in the native tongue, it actually sounded like the real thing not the synthesised version that can be Eurovision's stock in trade, a real band on stage who could obviously play and there was a practiced cohesion to the thing which other performances lacked.

As soon as this foursome won the song for Europe thing, we were on to a loser. Big Brovaz were obviously the best group there. The problem with the Scooch entry is that like the French entry, it was so carefully crafted to fulfill a formula, an expectation of what a Eurovision song is supposed to sound like, all pop and costumes and high camp. It was silly. It was inane. And in the cold hard light of day it was a mistake.

Since I'm apparently misguidedly taking this analysis seriously, by fielding an entry like this, we were essentially giving viewers in other countries a reason not to vote for us. As has been demonstrated year on year since the turn of the millennium, the rest of Europe hates us. But I have a feeling that if we actually pitched up with something rather good, and importantly sincere, we might have a fighting chance at the top ten.

As it stands when the only marks we get are a seven from Ireland (who came last) and twelve from Malta (because, I have on authority, of the second world war) we're in a hole that we'll never find our way out of. I've always enjoyed the Eurovision Song Contest, but it really is more fun if you have an entry you can get behind, but if we continue to enter the likes of Daz Sampson and Scootch we might as well withdraw and leave the rest of Europe to it.