Review 2008: Steve Coogan

Keris wanted me to write to this popular comedian.

Dear Mr Coogan,

I’ve never really been a fan of yours.

I know that's a blunt way to begin a letter to a total stranger, but I want you to know what you’re dealing with right at the top. I should qualify the statement by adding that I did in fact like Alan Partridge very much but that I think that you’ve done some of your best work in the more serious film acting you’ve tried out in recent years.

I enjoyed your turns in both 24 Party People and A Cock and Bull Story and was very impressed with Happy Endings, so much so, I wrote one twelfth of my post-graduate dissertation about it. In other words, when I say I’m not a fan, I mean that I don’t go out of my way to see everything you do and haven’t loved all of your ideas.

In that way, you should consider me a hostile witness, or more specifically you could quite rightly describe this as an anti-fan letter.

I’m actually writing to you on behalf of a friend who’s quote “bewildered by what direction he thinks his career's taking...” Since I’m not a fan, with the exception of your film roles, I haven’t actually been following your career though I notice, judging by your CV you’ve been very busy making films on both sides of the Atlantic, and starring in a sitcom called Saxondale for the BBC. The last thing I think I saw you do was the very funny cameo in Hot Fuzz and before that Marie Antoinette. I hear that Kirsten Dunst is a lovely actress to work with.

But I do know what my friend was referring to. Having found yourself in demand in cinema, you took the rather interesting decision of going back to stand-up and in particular a stadium tour during 2008. I imagine the idea was inspired by rock bands who tour even when they don’t need to and play their greatest hits so that they can reconnect with their fans.

This is an area worth exploring.

You probably thought that you could go out there, resurrect some of your old characters and remind the public why those who loved you, loved you in the first place. Partridge in particular should be interesting since at 43, you’ve reached the age that he would have been when you started playing him.

The reviews have been mixed to say the least, and seem to be based on expectation. Those turning up with less than high expectations were pleasantly surprised; those who saw your live shows ten years ago or earlier and are, well, fans, have been disappointed and it’s not uncommon to read comments online to the effect of “spent over a hundred pounds on this. It was a waste of money.”

Reading the official reviews there seems to be a general agreement that the first half is a bit patchy, but the second with Partridge is far funnier. I’ve also noticed a couple of patterns – the reviews are far better later in the tour and much frostier in stadiums than the smaller venues were you could presumably more closely interact with the audience.

As a Liverpudlian, I’m bound to focus particularly on the gig you gave at our new(ish) Echo Arena. Venue excitement has calmed down a bit now, so it’s not often that you get much of a public reaction to something which is stopped there. Your show was different. The following morning you could almost hear a collective sigh across the city and then the local media went into overdrive reporting the reaction.

The comments on this attached review at a local comedy blog (written by the person who saw it for the Daily Post) are a good survey: the prevailing view is that you were under rehearsed, the transitional sketches were awful and the ticket prices were far too high for what was on offer. As the thread continues, others who’ve seen the show elsewhere chime in with similar opinions. You do have a couple of people defending, but even they have criticisms and admit they didn’t laugh all of the way through.

Anyway, you disappeared into the night, the tour continued and we’ve already talked about that. Then I opened the Metro on December 8th and you’re the person being subjected to the 60 second interview. This is often quite entertaining, since because of the brevity of the chat, the interviewer usually goes for the jugular or else throws in a few offbeat questions to make things interesting.

After a couple of easy questions about largest show at the 0h-two arena and asking why you’re doing stand-up again (I was right) he hits you with a question about bad reviews. Given the circulation of the paper, which is read on buses and trains across the country and more influential these days than many paid for dailies, this is just the moment to be a bit contrite, laugh it off, or at the very least admit that you were under-prepared earlier in the tour. The Pete Postlethwaite in King Lear approach in other words.

Sadly, you do the version which makes you come across as a bit of an ass.

You suggest that the reviewer from The Telegraph Dominic Cavendish was desperate to give a bad review no matter the quality of the show and that he essentially sneaked in after you’d decided you didn’t want any press there. First of all, even if this was the first night and assuming that Cavendish isn’t lying, spending the evening checking over your notes is just unacceptable if people have paid good money to see the show. Secondly, it’s all a matter of taste but Cavendish offers a very balanced review in the circumstances. Thirdly, though the review in the local paper, The Sentinel, punches up the good bits, admits:

“there was something slightly lacklustre about last night's performance which, although hugely entertaining at times, appeared to be something of a rough gem compared with the polished diamond it could have been.”

Are you saying Tamzin Hindmarch is grinding her axe as well? Do the people from Stoke who echo the Liverpool comments (literally admittedly in once case)?

You then go on to mention this Liverpool Echo review by Jade Wright (note that both the Post and Echo sent someone). It gives you 5/10. You say that they gave you a bad review because the screens weren’t used in the show “a technical error”. Wright doesn’t even mention the screens. You go on to suggest that the poor reception was because “Scousers hate Mancunians and the feelings mutual”.

As Liverpool Confidential notes, Oasis played the venue a couple of nights later and ‘brought the house down’ and reading around online it seems that the audience wasn’t exclusively Liverpudlians and in any case, are we (the royal we) so nutty as to spend thirty pounds a ticket plus booking fee to see someone if we’ve already got preconceived ideas about hating all the same.

Um no. The people who paid to see your show were fans; the city they came from had nothing to do with it and assuming you’re actually right about this, you should be appreciating that the thousands people who crowded into the arena that night worked past their apparent prejudices to see if a Manc could make them laugh.

The very same people who were then insulted reading what you said about them on the bus or train into Liverpool city centre on the morning of the 8th of December, especially later when you single them (us) out in saying that “people in Britain – apart from Liverpudlians – can laugh at themselves”. You’re describing the city which produced Arthur Askey, Mitch Benn, Les Dennis, Ken Dodd, Tommy Handley, Tom O’Connor, Jimmy Tarbuck and Alexei Sayle, some of whom started out in working the pubs and clubs telling jokes at the expense of other Scousers.

Only you can really answer the question as to what’s going on with your career. You’ve plenty of films coming out and it is good that you’re willing to take risks with this live show and as I’ve said, there are reports that the show has improved and developed during its run. You’ve just got to be careful not to say nasty things about the very people who are buying tickets and keeping you in a wage. Otherwise, what’s the point?

On reflection, it doesn’t seem to be that we can’t laugh at ourselves. It’s just that on that night we didn’t laugh at you.

Take care,


[Why am I doing this?]

Of course he did.

Film Judge In 'Watchmen' Case Rules For Fox. Of course he did. I don't this will delay the release; it'll more likely mean that Fox's ident will appear in front of the film as well as Warners and they'll be entitled to some of the profit if not all. I can't imagine they'll want or even get any creative control.

Yes, it really is him.

Obituary Of course in the meantime, Eartha Kitt left us and Harold ... Pinter.

They have, or rather have an Oracle of Bacon score of 2. Pinter acted to a script by John Cleese and Peter Cook in the film The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970) with Cleese, two decades later appearing in Erik the Viking (1989) along with Kitt.

My favourite work of the playwright's was his elegant screenplay for The French Lieutenant's Woman (which I wrote about briefly ... in here). If you really want to hear what a good sport he was, seek out his contribution towards the end of Tachyon TV's podcast for Doctor Who's The Stolen Earth. Yes, it really is him.

I'll still be smiling.

That Day Happy Boxing Day, or what's left of it. It's difficult to really describe the past couple of days. A sense of routine, perhaps, but also the rest I needed. Even at the age of thirty-four I'm like a child at Christmas. We still have loads of presents under the tree and it takes us a couple of hours to unwrap them, one at a time so we can see what each of us have got. I like that; after months of preparation I've never understood why people would want the best part of the season to flash-by so quickly.

My new Sony CD Walkman (not a discman these days apparently) is much better than the Goodmans which died recently. Accompanying cds? A couple of Doctor Who soundtracks, Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A Changin' and Highway 61 Revisited and exotically a three disc set of Gospel music because "We know you'll listen to anything..." Which it turns out is true; no matter how cheesy the synthesiser backdrop, the 103rd Street Gospel Choir have predictably turned out a half decent version of Down By The Riverside.

And now it's nearly over. Except it really isn't. I realised a couple of years ago that the best way to deal with the usual festive anticlimax is to not think of Chrimbo as finishing at midnight on the 26th. There's still new year to come and plenty of time to catch up on the usual backlog of films and food and the holiday isn't really finished for me until the 10th when I go back to work. True, the tree will come down, and the decorations, but iuntil I'm back behind that desk or counter, I'll still be smiling.

I almost, very nearly, lost it.

Waiting, originally uploaded by quintinsmith_ip.

Life I don’t like to think of myself as being a quick tempered person. I like to think that when I get angry, it’s for a proper reason, like the person I’m dealing with being an arrogant so-and-so who won’t see both points of view or if I’m faced with something which is clearly ignorant or wrong. I like to think I can be perfectly rational about most anything. But today, in Marks & Spencers Food Hall, trying to fight my way through everyone else, I almost, very nearly, lost it.

I was walking up the aisle searching for some cranberry pickle (and the more I write, the more this sounds ridiculous) and found myself caught in a pincer movement between two baskets carried by two other shoppers looking in opposite directions. I too had a basket, a bag and backpack and I was literally wedged between them. I couldn’t move, just for a moment, just long enough for my teeth to clench and I could feel the heat burning into the back of my eyeballs.

I shoved myself forward, and I know I said something out loud like “It’s alright, I’ll get out of your way now…” as I stumbled into a wide open space (well as wide as the aisle). Seconds later, I was calm, placid, and slightly embarrassed. I looked backwards and couldn’t even see or remember who I’d been stuck between, and I good naturedly carried on shopping, asking an assistant about the pickle which we charged off together to find.

What is that Christmas does to us? It’s supposed to be a time for a rest, perhaps some calm reflection, on the previous year and what’s to come. Yet if we’re not careful we can all become cretins and jerks, desperate to create our ideal version of the holiday whatever the cost, and as happened in my case, I think, assuming that the world is out to make my life harder, which is clearly isn’t, at least not on purpose.

Happy Festivus.

a little bit too close to home

I'm jiggered after writing some of this year's compact Review 2008, wrapping my christmas presents and watching and loving the surprisingly poignant Never Been Kissed (even if the title strikes a little bit too close to home), so I hope you'll forgive me if I just offer you the following headlines.

Danny Wallace says he can't tell when he's standing on a movie set.

Twitter is nearly five years old.

King Kong to be broadcast with alternative soundtrack on the BBC.

David Tennant gives away plot of Christmas Doctor Who during radio interview
(I knew it!).

Sarah Palin thinks she should have 'been aloud' to do more interviews during the presidential campaign. Satirists agree..

Girls Aloud perform very live on GMtv and gain a little respect from me for ploughing on through even as everything goes horribly wrong, then joking about the horror afterwards.

Fake Alison Graham is confused.

Luis Guzmán likes to strip himself of everything and go for it.

Naomi Watts prefers Tampax.

Liverpool has new city centre bus network.

Merseyside Maratime Museum has photos of the opening of the Queensway Tunnel in 1934.

Lily Allen's cover of Womanizer is better than the Britney Spears original.

Man fails in bizarre attempt to discover who visited BBC TV Centre between the hours of 8:30 am and 10:30am on 26 January 2006.

VHS is dead.

Liverpool's La Machine features in The Big Picture blog's round-up of the year.

Dr. Ian Malcolm thinks you should get a life.

I'm Walking Backwards for Christmas, across the Irish sea.

elf lay-offs

Christmas Santa Claus writing for The Guardian is funny enough. But then there's the reader comments:
"Dear Mr Claus,

Could I please have £1,000,000,000? Honestly, I've been good all year. That whole financial crisis thing was really my boss's fault.

Hope all is going well with the elf lay-offs.

Best regards,

A. Darling, Esq."
etc etc etc


Elsewhere Eyeless is the description given to the gene which controls the development of eyes across the animal kingdom, the term a victim of a scientific naming convention which describes the effects of not having that gene. They discovered this by engineering fruit flies with the gene plastered all over their bodies, resulting in one having fourteen eyes and as best as they can tell they all worked, since they were sensitive to light. You can read more about that here.

All of which is an irrelevant preamble to this link to a review for Lance Parkin's latest Doctor Who novel, The Eyeless, which is ace, even though it doesn't feature any fruit flies.

Female Student 746781

TV TV Tattle was one of my favourite link blogs, a useful way of keep an eye on US tv without having to wade through pages of opinion and spoilers. It's now gone, replaced by a link farm and Female Student 746781 (or the other Everywhere Girl). Does anyone know what happened?

Update! "It's all right. It's back!" Thanks Rob!

The Eyeless.

Books I’m well on record as being something of a fan of Lance Parkin’s Doctor Who books. The Dying Days helped to define the fundamentals of the Eighth Doctor and his later Father Time I described on here as “awesome” and “one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. Period…” so the idea of the author writing a Tenth Doctor novel is a tantalising prospect. Unlike most of the other novels in the range, it’s impossible to read this without any preconceived notions. For the past nine months Parkin has been keeping blog, in which he’s described the processes of writing The Eyeless (no spoilers!), from commission through to publication.

So as I sat down on the train with these two hundred and forty odd pages I had a fair few questions. How would he really cope with the all too restrictive but necessary rules regarding content and particularly continuity? Would this still read like a Lance Parkin novel or would he, like many of the other writers, find themselves ultimately subsumed by the format and produce something that could have anyone’s name printed on the cover? Would I be able to see how he reorganised the structure of the second half? Some answers below, though for those who want to skip the rest of the review until they’ve read the book I will say that Parkin has yet again delivered, with a story that intrigues and excites and even if you’ve not read one of these novels before, this is one to make time for.

Parkin is all too aware that when fans see his name below the title they expect a different kind of story and he doesn’t want to disappoint them, but he also has to produce something which can be picked up by the general audience who doesn’t give a toss who he is and are just looking for a good story. Parkin has gamely offers a middle ground, producing a story which has many of the elements you’d expect in one of these novels but with the kind of twist he’s known for so that The Eyeless becomes something which is totally unlike any of those books and yet containing elements which could only be achieved in prose, both challenging the format of these novels, but always in an accessible way.

The Doctor already has his game face when he lands near this Arcopolis, on a mission to deactivate the deadly weapon at its heart of its fortress so there’s none of the usual fumbling around trying to justify his cause. He’s without companion, but instead of introducing a one off, an Astrid-Peth-alike as an exposition magnet, he seeps the timelord’s observations of this charred world in the prose, producing a near stream of conscience which puts the reader in the traditional companion role, giving the events great immediacy. When he first meets the fragments of humanity who survived the first devastation, it’s through their children, who’re about as impressed by this stranger as the cast of the Star Trek episode Miri were by the crew of the Enterprise, relying on a similar kind of taunting and casual violence.

The rest of the book is structured in this simplistic style, the timelord’s indomitable journey to the Fortress forever interrupted somehow by this outpost of humanity who, like the passengers of the shuttle bus in Midnight simply can’t be convinced that the he knows best because he’s clever. But knowing there are survivors, the Doctor’s first instinct is to continue on his journey, the weapon’s potential effect on the universe more important than these few lost souls, Parkin wonderfully capturing his head full of stuff and that he can see the cause and effect of the universe, time constantly in flux, almost feel galaxies forming. Through the humans the author also offers some entertaining discussion about the relevance of culture in this kind of situation, of whether education should be set aside in favour of breeding and perpetuating the species.

His best creations are the titular alien threat, the Eyeless, a translucent alien race that would be impossible to convincingly portray on screen no matter how many man (or woman) hours The Mill set aside in the attempt. Their secrets are one of the intrigues at the heart of the book so it would unfair to give too much away, except to say that Parkin uses them to enrich our understanding of why the Doctor travels the universe, contrasting how he experiences a new culture and situation with the the Eyeless’s less than benign processes. Of the human characters, it’s these children who are best developed, naturally smart enough to understand the implications of their own existence and the personality politics being conducted between the adults, all vying to imprint their mark on the future of their race. Kids should love that.

As ever with these shorter form novels, there’s little more that can be said without ruining all of its delights. Despite Parkin’s reservations about continuity references, there are a couple which will have McGann fans punching the air again, and I agree with him, I can’t believe he got away with the second paragraph on page forty-six and you won’t either. When I read it, my eyes fittingly nearly popped out my skull. If the conclusion is complicated to the point of confusion, I think it has more to do with the situation than the clarity of the author’s prose, which is never less than lucid, as we discover that there’s more to the Fortress than meets the eye. As the Doctor nears his goal, everything snaps back into focus and in one of the Tenth Doctor’s best ever scenes in any media, we’re reminded again of the decisions he has to make, and their cost, and that we should never underestimate his ability to see the bigger picture.

The Eyeless, by Lance Parkin, is released by BBC Books on 26th December 2008. ISBN 9781846075629.