Whatever happened to Ben the Boffin?

Debra Winger: The return of a class act
I missed Debra Winger, though as she says "I've been working all along, just not in things that interested you, obviously." Well yes, but they've also been on the other side of the planet.

Will this include the moment one morning on The Big Breakfast when Chris Evans was so pissed off with their constant interruptions he swore at them. Loudly. Whatever happened to Ben the Boffin?

Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones present a solution to the global economic crisis.
Cue sudden and misguided wave of nostalgia for NY:LON, which, by the way is currently being prepped for a US remake, with Elisha Cuthbert as Edie. Point missed already I feel. I wonder if they'll manage to resolve any of the story problems with often spending half an episode simply getting one side of the couple to the other side of the pond.

For your ears only
Survey of the Bond songs that never were. I actually liked the Sheryl Crow Tomorrow Never Dies. It was certainly better than her bloody Wallflower album.

The Problem With Phileus Fogg
"This is no hero, Readership. This is a sociopath. Phileus Fogg is desperately unstable, unable to relate to the outside world in a normal fashion, and frankly seems one rash, ill-thought decision away from killing himself and taking his travelling companions with him."

Stephen Poliakoff's feature film 1939, featuring stellar line-up of UK's finest acting talent, starts shooting
The story is in the title, though David Tennant is in their in what looks like the Matthew Macfadyen or Rupert Penry Jones type role. Though quite how he's going to fit this in around the Shakespeare and what's left of Doctor Who is anyone's guess. He's a busy bunny. Me? I'm excited to see who we'll have in 2010. No matter what the pundits say, with a new producer, main writer and now actor, series five is bound to have a different feel. Whilst we're on the subject:

Sylvester McCoy on Doctors.
... mostly sending himself up. It's like a Whoniverse Lead Balloon.

This is Dubai
"Dubai is a city of extremes and wealth has a lot to do with it. On one hand: rich Emirati kids driving their Lamborghinis to university. On the other: hundreds of low wage workers queuing at the Bur Dubai bus station on a Friday evening, being beaten back by the crowd controllers. That's putting things too simply, but how else would you?"

Who Ya Gonna Call? Hopefully, These Ladies
Bustin' makes me feel good, indeed. I think what makes this really work is the Mr Staw Puffed.

to an extent

That Day It's my birthday today, and I've nothing very profound to say on the subject, other than when I first woke up this morning I had a panic attack of sorts when watching a news report about the lonely elderly. The reasons:

(a) I looked at that woman, sitting alone at home, the most exciting thing to look forward to being the mail and hoping that I'll never be like that.

(b) Even though to an extent, right now, I do feel a bit lonely.

(c) At 34, I'll be forty in six years, fifty in sixteen years, sixty in twenty-six years and seventy when I've lived almost as many years as I have already.

(d) I don't feel like my situation's change much overall since I was in my early twenties.

(e) I still need to do something.

In other words, I'm Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally during the crying scene. Which is disturbing. Unless I can trade Billy Crystal for Mary-Louise Parker.

Update Good god that's a depressing post. I've actually had a very good day. Was given a boxset of swing music (Frank, Billie, Nat, Dean, Bing, Ella, Louis and the like) and loads of chocolate, watched some more of The West Wing, went to the Waitrose in Formby and bought some nice coffee, muesli and pasta, had chinese/indian for tea and just saw Tom Baker going quietly even more insane on Have I Got News For You. I'm ok really.

unenviable task of filling in

Radio And the unenviable task of filling in for Jonathan Ross tomorrow goes to ...

Richard Allinson

With night owl Alex Lester shifting into Russell Brand's spot. It's ages since I visited the Radio 2 website. What's going on with Claudia Winkleman's fringe?

a truck nearly ran me over

Liverpool Life I don’t remember being as cold as I was earlier tonight. I know it’s the winter, and there have been a fair few times when I’ve sat on lonely railway platforms waiting for trains that might not come and I’ve shivered through minutes which seemed like hours but stations, even those open to the air still seem to have a warmth, even if it's because of the internal glow of knowing that home and a warm bed will be in the future. Tonight I stood for an hour and a half in the one place, my feet where numb, my cheeks raw and even hiding my wrists within my armpits underneath my coat didn’t work. I couldn’t move, but didn’t want to move and grim determination was forcing me to stay until the end.

Especially because as a film fan, there was no way I was going to turn up to watch Murnau’s ‘vampire’ film Nosferatu on the Big Screen in Clayton Square in Liverpool and leave in the middle (though some did). Tonight was the Biennial’s The Long Night, and galleries throughout the city opened their doors until late with events including poetry readings at FACT, a short film festival at the Open Eye Gallery and this Halloween presentation in one of the most public squares in the city. Of course I selected the outdoor option on a night like this. In case you need to picture the scene, the BBC Big Screen sits between a Tesco Metro and a Zavvi and is one of the main thoroughfares through to bus stops and Lime Street Station.

This is not the perfect situation in order to see any film, even if it is a silent and yet it’s also the perfect place because it’s so unlikely. As the crowd gathered, people dashing past with their shopping also stopped to look and asked what we were watching. Cars drove through, a large van at one point threatened to park directly between the viewers and the screen (you can imagine the jeers which greeted that possibility), various teenagers turned up and poked fun at the images or rode about on bikes.

Photographers queued up to take pictures of us, looking up at the screen on mass. I’ve seen spontaneous crowds develop in this same spot whenever a big news story breaks, but that’s different to our collective sense of purpose, of watching one of film history’s most unusual films in unusual circumstances. Which isn't to say that everyone stayed until the end; whilst some were doggedly sitting on the floor under blankets, others walked away visibly shivering.

It’s a measure of what the director achieved that somehow some of his images pierced through despite the conditions, the noise, the lights, the distractions. By cranking the camera in experimental ways so that Max Schreck’s movements in the title role become unnatural, despite the obvious make up, he’s a chilling presence, though the directors has already noticed that the best way to show your monster is hardly at all and to let the victim’s fear project the image of what their seeing and it’s that we’re repulsed by.

Taboos seem to stop Murnau from showing Nosferatu actually killing anyone, so the director instead emphasises the details of his killing and also introduced a plaque which spreads in his stead, allowing for lashings of coffin imagery and religious iconography. Considering the film was made in 1922 it still holds up remarkably well as a horror film, if not more so because the production design and values are alien to anything we’re accustomed to seeing a decade under a century later.

There's no doubt the temperature helped with the atmosphere too, as steam rose from our mouths, though I'd be lying if I said there was no chatting, especially at the points when the film repeats story information (we know what happened on the ghost ship, we saw it) or is just plain incoherent (who are all these new characters? What happened to Hutter?).

The new soundtrack provided by Liverpool group a.P.A.t.T. was a multi-textured accompaniment, which oscillated wildly but cleverly between a rural folksy sound to at one point, when the context within which that kind of beastie can exist in the real world is being explained by scientists, a dance piece with BBC Radiophonic Workshop influences. We saw the band as the film played, either cross faded with the action or in a small box at the corner of the screen.

I think I actually lost track of the story during one of these moments and the effect was rather like watching Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs with the whoopee making replaced by German Expressionist motifs. But it didn’t matter – this wasn’t a time to be investigating Murnau’s use of lighting, but just to be in a place, enjoying an experience so that one day I can say to someone as we’re passing through:

“You know what? I watched Murnau’s Nosferatu here one All Hallows Eve. It was freezing, and a truck nearly ran me over.”

punching the air

Life I was listening to Camille Saint-Saen's Symphony no.3 (Organ) earlier with that amazing fourth movement finale, which seems to appear from nowhere and jangles your brain. It also sounded very familiar. I decided I must have heard it before in film. I decided it had to be something from the seventies or eighties, a political thriller or a teen sports film, the triumphant moment when the hero completed their task, punching the air as they remember how great life is. I thought of Dustin Hoffman perhaps in a tracksuit.

An internet search later I discovered the movie in question was ...

Which is even better somehow.

"I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

TV David Tennant to step down as the Doctor.

He'll be completing the specials then he's off to pastures new. So in 2010, we've both new producers and a new Doctor. It'll be like series 7 all over again. Though with shorter stories. And time travel. Presumably.

Let the speculation commence. Rupert Penry-Jones or Laurence Fox, anyone?

Unseen Liverpool.com City Links column

Liverpool Life There wasn't room for my City Links column in the November 2008 issue of Liverpool.com magazine, but I have permission to publish it here instead.

Liverpool Architecture: Archi-tours
Archi-tours offers an interactive walk through the city offering short but detailed explanations of some our greatest buildings. It’s no replacement for
the local Pevsner guide, but it is sleekly designed and an excellent way of quickly showing visitors the sheer quality of architecture that the city enjoys.

Hovis Commercial filmed in Liverpool
You can see that range of different buildings in Hovis’s new television advert which was lensed in and around Liverpool. It’s online now at the breadmaker’s website. See if you can spot the locations in an epic film that manages to show the city’s last century in just over two minutes. Amazing.

The Liverpool Lantern Company
The Liverpool Lantern Company are the group behind the amazing light sculptures which grace Sefton Park each Halloween. They’re gearing up for the next parade but in the meantime, here, you can find video of their previous creations and news of upcoming events.

Liverpool-based Thunderchunky highlights cool design concepts from inside and outside the city. Writing since 2003, the blog’s four authors Jon, Mike, Stephen and Zotos63 also interview illustrators about their work, including Buck who’s contributing designs to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.

Liverpool Astronomical Society
As the nights draw in, weather and light pollution permitting we’ll all have a better view of the night sky. The Liverpool Astronomical Society’s website is a good place to look for information on the best places to look. If your interests are further afield, Liverpool’s own telescope can look to the cosmos.

Secrets of the Stars (Part One)

TV When I was about eight years old, I had a nightmare, which was unusual for me because I never had nightmares, I usually slept very well. In this nightmare, I was being chased around the streets of the suburbs where I grew up, not by Daleks or Cybermen or the Nimon, not even by Darth Vader but by Russ Abbot in his C.U. Jimmy guise, ginger wig, braces and kilt, shouting his catchphrase as he repeatedly almost caught up with me, in the fog. Years later I interpreted it as my subconscious reminding me that I’m not really Scottish no matter what my surname might tell me, but the image stuck and I’ve always been tetchy whenever I’ve seen Abbot ever since. Essentially, whilst I’ve nothing but good memories from my childhood of seeing Tom Baker’s teeth and curls and Leela in whatever that was she was wearing (I began young), Abbot’s Basildon Bond guise gives me shivers and I’m thanking whatever it is I believe in that his single Atmosphere has been consigned to history, not even resurrected by TMF during their Guilty Pleasures slots. Yes, I might not have had a fear of clowns. But I did have a fear of Russ Abbot.

Watching his performance in Secrets of the Stars, I wonder if my young subconscious wasn’t just afraid of Russ Abbot as the bogeyman but also as a performer. Now, I’ve only vague memories of the Madhouse, certainly less vivid than that dream, but if he was as appalling then as he is in the first half of this, I’m not entirely sure how that lasted for seven whole series (Barry Cryer's jokes?). With the exception of that just about ok moment in the opening, when his astrologist character Martin Trueman is being himself and chastened by the fraud he’s wrought on his clients, Abbot offers what might charitably be described as almost the worst performances in the role of a villain in the history of the franchise. We’ve already established that as a kids series, the acting in The Sarah Jane Adventures will always have a certain pantomime quality; as we saw in the previous story with Bradley Walsh, that can pay dividends in taking the villain in sinister directions. But Walsh modulated his work, whereas Abbot is going big but not in a funny way, and certainly not in a so bad it’s hilarious way (step forward Joseph Furst); there were moments here, usually whenever he was consulting with his hypnotised assistant, the lovely Cheryl, when I just wanted to rip the skin off my own face.

Did no one give him notes? Did no one say, actually it’d be more interesting here, Russ, if you adapted your performance, keyed it down a bit, so we can see your thought processes. At the risk of getting Behind The Sofa hauled in front of the blogosphere’s imaginary watchdog for insulting a pensioner, I know that Abbot’s not known for his dramatic acting roles, that I’ve stunk the place up myself in Shakespeare and that nu-Who has a propensity for hiring comedians and light entertainers and having great success. But Abbot was never Bernard Cribbins, and you really do have to protect the programme even if it means bringing in a slight unknown. About the only time Abbot seems comfortable here is on-stage addressing an audience, as Trueman introduces himself and his powers to the public. This is Abbot the entertainer and he was delightful, particularly when throwing out revelations about the attic crew. Quite why he felt the need to do his whole performance like that we might never know. Perhaps if we’d seen less private moments and like Odd Bob he’d simply been a figure our regulars went to, more of the public man in other words, he might have been more bearable.

It’s certainly the regulars who made this episode worth watching and even writer Gareth Roberts seemed more comfortable writing for them than his villain (which isn’t me trying to spread the blame by the way). Though he made Luke the bearer of exposition, explaining what horoscopes are with the help of Mr. Smith for any kids who haven’t been sneaking a look at the local paper, he also gave him that really quite wonderful scene calling back to Robert’s first story, Invasion of the Bane, as he realised he was never born, has never had the childhood his friends lived through. Tommy Knight was extraordinary here, perfectly underplaying this small tragedy which had clearly been bubbling under, with this incident acting as a trigger for him to have to deal with it. And once again Liz excelled herself as we saw Sarah-Jane again dealing with much the same issues she experienced in School Reunion of a life lost, though she’s obviously come to terms with these feelings and I wonder if in the next episode Trueman’s mistake will be to assume that he’s hurting her with emotions she’s already buried.

The fact that it’s possible to talk about it in these terms suggests that despite Abbot’s supersizing, Secrets of the Stars wasn’t/isn’t a dead loss. The rest of the regulars were/are very good and I really enjoyed the production design details within Trueman’s own top room, including the signs of the zodiac painted haphazardly on the walls. Abbot certainly looked the part in his white suit that obviously had certain evangelical cues. And despite not starting well with a direct quote from the other Rani at the cliffhanger of Dimensions In Time (and why would we want to be reminded of that?) there were some interesting ideas at the core of Roberts’s story which wouldn’t have disgraced the mother series – our universe being infected by the laws of the horoscopes so that someone can’t just predict the future but know for sure how it will turn out and even take measures to affect it. So far, that’s only really resulted in some parlour games, hypnosis and magic hands but who knows what might happen next week. It’s just one of those curious occasions when one element, in this case the boggle eyed performance of the main guest star, almost derailed the whole experience. Truly, the stuff of nightmares.

And now a recipe.

Food And now a recipe. Whilst I was Christmas shopping in Chester yesterday I was thinking about omelettes. Just one of those random thoughts which rattles about inside your brain while you're deciding if someone will like the doo-dahs you're considering buying them (and I decided they would which is why I'm not spoiling it here). I thought about omlettes and potatoes and what they would be like together, and realised I must have tasted that before, but couldn't remember how. Last night I tried this: fried some onions, cooked some potatoes, added some ham then filled the cracks with a beaten egg. It worked out ok, but not quite, I tried flipping it and a mess ensued, like it had been disavowed and becoming an operative of the fu yung corporation.

Then I thought, this must have been done before. And it has. It's a frittata (or sorts), which even as I type I know sounds foolish since everyone else reading this blog is more food cultured than I am and already knew this. In a mood of practice makes perfect I had another go this lunch time, and this was the result:

I suppose it's a Breakfast Frittata.

2 large eggs
2 rashers of chopped smoked bacon
1 small chopped potato
1 small chopped tomato
1 quarter chooped onion
a couple of sliced mushrooms.

I've never written a recipe up here in all the seven odd years of writing, and I'm not sure how best to describe the process. But: I heated the pan and added little bit of butter and oil, remember the to put the former in before the latter so that it doesn't burn. I added the potato, let that cook until softer, though in truth it was probably a bit too hot and it burned around the edges a but. I added onion which softened after a while. I sliced the bacon too big, but the fat seeped out nicely anyway when I let them fry together. Added the mushrooms.

Fried some more. Added the tomato, and amazingly they didn't disintegrate. Let that warm together until everything looked pretty much done. Poured on the egg, though I don't know if I'd beaten it enough - as you can see, some of the white cook separately. Cooked some more. It was still liquid on top, so, and this is what I didn't do last night, I put it all under the grill. This is broiling, I discover after thirty four years on the planet, about twenty of which I should have cared. The top browns. Made sure the handle of the pan didn't melt. Then that was that.

Oddly enough I thought of adding a cheese topping, but I was already worried about the calories which were already in this monster and decided against it. It's nice. The egg absorbs some of the taste of the bacon and onion, but both still jump out when you find them in there, though it only really sings with a bit of salt. It is still basically an omelette with some potato in it, but I've always found omelettes a bit insubstantial, whereas this ... isn't. Apparently in Italy, the potato is often substituted with pasta. I'll try that next.

I let it sink in for a moment.

I haven't used my mobile phone since cancelling my cards last Tuesday. The replacements are yet to arrive and as far as I could tell there was no other way to get credit onto the thing. Desperate to be connected to the voice world again, I strolled into an Orange shop today and asked the following question:
"Can I top up my mobile phone using cash somehow?"
"Well I could sell you a voucher." Said the man in black shirt.
I let it sink in for a moment. I always used to use vouchers. It says on the automated top up services 'press 2 to top up using a voucher'. How could I forget or ignore this? Sometimes I think the left and right sides of my brain have had a disagreement and I'm experiencing the fall out. Some unrelated questions:

What are you thinking Kelly Reilly?

And you Wahlberg?

Why can't the Sugababes be more like the All Saints?

Why can't all oddball celebrity child names be this clever?

Do they use dictionary themed toilet paper at the Grove?

What has Stephen Fry been putting himself through?

How does this work?

Why do so many evangelical teenagers become pregnant?

Why won't the government leave us alone for two seconds?

How easy would it be to send someone the other way?

How come this didn't take off here?

Is this it?

Why worry?


Max Warp.

Audio I wasn’t really looking forward to Jonathan Morris’s Max Warp. A Top Gear parody you say? Ugh. But you know what? It's ace.

The problem with television parodies is that unless they’re done particularly well they can fall very flat and also run the risk of missing the mark simply because the reader, viewer or in this case listener might not be too aware of the thing which is being lampooned. Desperately trying not to alienate anyone, parodies tend to be broad and clich├ęd, only really taking the piss out of the stuff that the general audience might be aware of, and the really bad ones are put together by people who are also only aware of the broad strokes too. As fans, we’ve seen a fair number of horrendous Doctor Who satires, most recently that version of the show during the chrimbo Extras in which it was fairly clear Ricky Gervais hadn’t watched the programme since the 1980s and still seemed to be under the impression that actors saw the show as a last resort which couldn’t be further from the truth. Even the cast lists of this audio series should disprove that.

Morris’s impression of Top Gear seemed fairly accurate. As we discovered in the post-match summary Beyond The Vortex, his original script included even more specific nods, and Briggs suggested he dash to the middle ground, but the shape of the show was all there, with that photo board thing, the shouting and the dynamic between the presenters. There’s no arguing about this – aided by the writing, Graeme Garden’s interpretation of at least Jeremy Clarkson’s screen persona was spot on, the sexism, the anti-environmentalism, the cruelty. Likewise James Fleet’s James May was suitably dull, though his presenting jobs outside of the car show demonstrate that there’s rather more to him than being a but smelly and trying to chat up young girls. In terms of accuracy, this was nu-old-Who’s equivalent of a John Lucarotti historical, just close enough to get a flavour of what it’s supposed to be about.

In case your wondering about the lack of car metaphors so-far in this review, I should admit that I can't actually drive, rarely see the inside of a car and that I tend to agree with Lucie and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, when she was still with theaudience in fact, "It's all to do with who you are, it's all to do with penis size and cars." I've watched Top Gear in both of its incarnations, but like most viewers it's for the personalities rather than the automobiles. But I can't really understand why certain presenters would risk their lives to prove a point on television. It's in Max Warp favour that it isn't so toothless as to not try and address these issues, even if, it has to be said, if certain presenters hadn't been quite so lucky, Morris's play couldn't have been made, at least not in this form. And there certainly wouldn't be the same rodent metaphor. I tend to assume that like Harry Hill, we’re never seeing the real Jeremy Clarkson, so I can’t find it in myself to hate him completely, but I do with the man would take public transport once in a while. Good god, I'm po-faced.

It takes some skill to work out how to turn something like this into a Doctor Who adventure, and expectedly we’re handed a whodunit and unlike The Unicorn and the Wasp, didn’t see much need to justify itself. Instead, the Doctor simply and clearly ran through the tropes of the genre with Lucie, keeping us up to speed to; the gathering of evidence, interviewing the suspects, the final reveal. This is just the kind of Doctor Who I like, a stripped down genre piece, in which the Doctor plus one land somewhere in space and time, something bad happens and they throw themselves into deal with it, no half an hour spent with the timelord trying to convince himself as to why he should become involved, and no need for some contrived reason for him to be engaged such as the TARDIS being at stake. And this was a proper mystery too which kept me guessing through to the conclusion, falling completely for the multiple "murders", simply because of the franchises propensity for death. I didn’t even work out who the “killer” was, though on reflection it was fairly obvious and probably not the point given the overall paucity of the cast.

Perhaps the weakest element of the script was the hostilities between the Varlon Empire and the Kith Oligarchy, though to make that conflict more complex would probably have confused matters. The President was a fairly typical blustering leader, though Morris was able to inject a few good barbs about how leaders these days can’t seem to function without their advisors, who lets face it are basically robots even in the real world and Samantha Hughes’s portrayal seemed at have something of the Blair about her. This is exactly the kind of part which seems to be abbreviated in this shorter episode format, though in this case, any more would have been a distraction. Her enemy, the Kith, weren’t so sinister sponges and it was difficult to envisage them as the war mongers described by Geoffrey Vantage. Presumably they were quite good as water torture. Still, they can enter the pantheon of Big Finish aliens insanely difficult to realise convincingly in-vision, though I would like to see Neil Gorton have a go. There would be endless shots of bedraggled extras being hosed down, their every movement in shot closely followed by an intern with a mop.

After last week’s deeply unfocused runaround, Max Warp might not have been particularly brave or especially original, but it was entertaining, and as we’ve learned successive times over the years, some jokes, a bit of mystery and an the potential intergalactic civil war can go a long way. The sound design had depth; you genuinely got a feel for this spacy motor show, and that scale was continued into the expansive. True, now and then, the plot took a back seat for what amounted to sketch comedy – the lengthy scene in which Lucie Vauxhall Nova (!) failed to convince Geoffrey that she should be a tv presenter – but I’d much rather that than another disappointingly fake moment of jeopardy. True, the resolution of said potential war wouldn’t give J. Michael Straczynski sleepless nights, but at least it wasn’t the be all and end all; the virus didn’t end the problem and the Doctor still needed to use his wits and stay a step ahead in order to trap the culprit, and it was about something, even if its that war is stupid etc.

And, unlike last week, with given more to do, Sheridan seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself, relishing the one liners and standing toe-to-toe with Fleet and Gardner, in a kind of comedy juxtaposition you’re only likely to see inside Doctor Who, and you can see why Russell T Davies was thinking of poaching her for television (cf, The Writer’s Tale). Lacking the plot arc which haunted in the first series, she’s become the kind of girly companion who’s just out to enjoy the adventure and the Doctor’s friendship; unlike Sam she’s not in love with her tour guide, unlike Izzy she’s neither a fish or a lesbian (as far as we can tell) and unlike Charlie she’s not a temporal anomaly. That’s quite refreshing in this day and age; even Anji had her “issues”. Lucie doesn’t seem to have any. Similarly, it’s great to hear Eighth enjoying himself again and not in that kind of guarded pretend, I’m laughing as the weight of the galaxy, I’m life’s champion dontchaknow kindaway and paradoxically since he’s reputed to relish the darkness, Paul’s responding with one of his most buoyant performances in years, proving once again that he has just as much right to be called the Doctor as anyone.

Next week: “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today.”