Browsed by
Month: January 2008

It pains me to admit this, but I’ve become jaded, musically speaking. This chap, who once pored over release schedules and went to the record shop most Mondays to pick up something farm-fresh, hasn’t bought anything new for ages. Don’t get me wrong. I still love a nice tune, but there’s just nothing being made today that makes me go ‘bloody hell, who’s that?’. The next CD I buy (do you want woofers and tweeters with it, grandad?) will be something from the Sensational Alex Harvey Band catalogue, to follow up on my recent purchase of a ‘best of’ compilation (although how it can claim to be a ‘best of’ without including ‘Boston Tea Party’ is beyond my comprehension), but I’m currently undecided which one to go for.

The first problem is that when I hear something ‘new’, I can usually pick it apart and identify all of the influences. In particular, it rankles that so many bands have done well by sounding like a pale imitation of XTC or Squeeze, while either band has yet to receive even 1/10 of the kudos and royalties they deserve. I admit that it’s always been the case. My mum would come into my bedroom (never bloody well knocking, until a traumatic incident made her very punctilious in this regard) asking “Is this Three Dog Night?” when I was listening to something I thought was wonderfully original. I’ve just crossed over to the other side of the fence.

Secondly, there seem to be a lot of artists who have become successful not by exciting anyone’s passions, but by being acceptable to a large enough number. I’m sure it’s always been the case, but it just seems more obvious now. Even the wock and woll webels are crushingly ordinary. The Kaiser Chiefs seem to be about the best we can manage, but the strongest reaction they provoke in me is ‘meh’. Does anyone really get passionate about them, or have they become big because nobody really minds them? Meanwhile, who let that mumbling bore Jack Johnson – for people who find John Mayer a bit too edgy – become famous?

I’m not asking for uneasy listening. As I get older, I find myself unapologetically reaching for my Dean Friedman (Maturity = realising what a bloody clever song ‘Lucky Stars’ truly is, wisdom = realising that he did loads of other songs that were even better on that album alone, including ‘The Deli Song (Corned Beef on Wry)’ and ‘Rocking Chair’), Andrew Gold (‘Hope You Feel Good’ from ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’ being a real stand-out) and Rupert Holmes (I’ll see your ‘Pina Colada Song’ and raise you the sublime, cynical ‘Him’ – complete with ‘my Mini-Moog’s broken’ comb and paper solo) records. Even Peter Skellern. Stuff like ‘You’re a Lady’, ‘Hold On To Love’ and ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’ is quirky pop of the highest order. I can take or leave the faux-1930s stuff he did later – it’s nice, but it comes across as a good musician relieved to find a lucrative niche after years of struggling with his own original material. I just find their modern equivalents paralysingly dull.

Or maybe it’s just me.

I’m just working my way through Q6, Q7 and Q8, Spike Milligan’s BBC2 shows from the second half of the 1970s. A gangling presence in many of them is Chris Langham. His recent conviction makes no difference to my ability to enjoy his work as a comic performer. Judge the work, not the man – if the reverse were applied consistently, the world’s art galleries would be empty.

Langham’s encounter with Dr Pamela Connolly on More4’s ‘Shrink Wrap’ made infinitely more uncomfortable viewing than any of Langham’s comedy. Whatever the erstwhile Ms Stephenson’s qualifications, the whole programme seemed a nasty, cynical exercise – tabloid prurience hiding behind a skimpy veil of serious, scientific enquiry. Nonetheless, I’m glad that Langham was allowed to discuss his situation at length. On many Internet forums, the prevailing view seemed to be ‘no platform for nonces’, with anyone arguing otherwise being painted as either an apologist for child abuse or a potential abuser themselves.

My problem with the knee-jerk reaction is two-fold. Firstly, we stand even less chance of understanding and preventing child abuse if we don’t listen to its practitioners, however distasteful we find what they say. Secondly, I don’t think that Langham is a paedophile. While there is obviously considerable room to doubt his ‘research’ mitigation, gratification is not the sole motivation for looking at any unpleasant images. I looked at the Ken Bigley beheading video when it was on Ogrish. Does that make me a terrorist or a decapitation fanatic? Or just someone trying to understand the unpleasant world he lives in a little bit more?

There is no doubt that Langham was wrong to access the material that he saw. There is also no doubt that a legal redress of some kind was appropriate, although I believe that an especially heavy sentence was doled out, as this was a high-profile case and a perfect opportunity to present a deterrent example to others. However, to state unequivocally that Langham has to be a paedophile is not something that any of us outside the psychiatric team that evaluated him, post-trial, is in a position to do. I can only speak in terms of my perceptions, thoughts and beliefs with regard to the matter, and I am careful to do so. The most I can do to support my view is to suggest that Langham being allowed to return to his wife and young family – one of 11, one of 13 – indicates that the assessors concluded that while he is undoubtedly many things, he is not a risk to children.

I respect the right of others to doubt Langham’s sincerity, but I condemn their tendency to present their own ill-informed surmises as unassailable fact.

There are times when I’m ashamed to be a journalist. This is one of them. How is ’75 year-old man goes shopping’ a news story? I bet the photographer has a whole memory card full of pictures where Mr Bough’s looking perfectly happy with his lot, but “Oooh, look. There’s one where he’s looking a bit pissed off because they’re out of sun-dried tomatoes/his pound jammed in the trolley. Let’s call it the tragic life of a forgotten broadcaster”. I’m guessing that this sort of crap is exactly why he avoids the limelight. Sure, he did some foolish things back in the day, but his worst crime was getting caught. I’m sure that no Daily Mail journalists or executives have ever taken cocaine or paid for sex. Take no notice, Mr Bough. He was a consummate professional on Nationwide and Grandstand, and quite frankly no scandals can take that away from him. I hope that he and Nesta are having a lovely retirement.

Ricky Gervais needs to make up his bleeding mind. Is he the ‘aw shucks’ regular guy that declares “I’m more famous than I should be”, or is he the hideously arrogant knob-end who states that he’s too good for British television? No, really. The exact words being “You know when you play tennis with someone who’s nowhere near as good as you, and you have to say, ‘Okay, you can play in the doubles area and I’ll only use one arm’? That’s what me and Steve feel like when we’re doing comedy in England”.

I suspect that the former is closer to Gervais’ real attitude, and that the latter is merely the sort of thing said by a man who’s been watching too many Muhammad Ali interviews. Maybe he knows precisely how limited he is and how incredibly lucky he has been. Lucky not only to parlay up a successful career out of such a meagre act, but also to convince apparently intentional, rational people that the meagre act is a performance of depth, range and integrity. Keep saying you’re the best and some people will begin to believe it, however overwhelming the evidence to the contrary.

Gervais is right to say that the British comedy scene isn’t in the rudest of health, but throughout his career, he has relied on the deficiencies of others to make his own mediocrity look like spun gold. Channel 4’s Eleven O’Clock Show was one of the worst comedy programmes ever made and Gervais was the best thing on it. Amid such rubbish, a mediocre comic could only shine. He must also share some of the blame for the current malaise. There were some nice moments in The Office, but it wasn’t the greatest sitcom ever made, as many seem to claim. It wasn’t even as good, funny, clever or innovative as the now-largely-forgotten People Like Us, which beat it to the mock-docusoap format by a good few years. However, it has come to be regarded as the gold standard for modern TV comedy, and with the bar set so low, the state of the rest of the industry is a natural consequence.

Festive lethargy led me to watch the Extras Christmas special from beginning to end, where I’ve only managed to stomach one episode from each series of the normal run. It reinforced my conviction that Andy Millman = David Brent = a slightly amplified version of Gervais himself. It also reinforced my view that Stephen Merchant is the brains of the outfit, both as a writer and performer. The joyous sight of him, Shaun Williamson and Dean Gaffney dancing to ringtones like a Care in the Community version of Wilson, Keppel and Betty bought the whole show a hell of a lot of goodwill on my sofa. Goodwill that was, sadly, pissed away when Gervais/Millman went into his rant on the nature of modern celebrity while in the Big Brother house. When Merchant and Gervais gave Brent his moment of redemption at the end of The Office – standing up to the odious Finchy, and possibly on the verge of real love – it was worthy of respect. It was an about-turn in the character’s development, but it didn’t jar. In contrast, Millman’s apparent redemption was over-blown, cloying and seemingly calculated to show what a serious artist Gervais is.

Or believes himself to be. While obviously not a stupid man or completely without humour, I don’t believe that Ricky Gervais is either as clever or as funny as he thinks he is. Witness his tendency to bring race and disability into his comedy at the drop of a hat, while hiding behind the slenderest ‘comedy of embarrassment/confronting attitudes’ defence. A spaz joke’s a spaz joke, and there are some good ones in existence – just be honest about your motivations.The hype machine has meant that expressing this view in public has been the modern equivalent of an HM Bateman cartoon. However, it seems that the backlash is getting underway. If his next big project is about a slightly different tubby man with a Reading accent, maybe the scales will fall from the eyes of even his doughtiest defenders. The conclusion of the interview in which he claimed to be bigger than British TV comedy is very very interesting.

“When I first came into this, I was scared of the press. Now, I’m not scared of them. How can they hurt me? Them saying I’m rubbish can’t hurt me. Them not liking me can’t hurt me. Them saying I’m fat and stupid and not funny can’t hurt me….Only I can ruin my career. Only I’ve got that power. Only I can ruin this. Only I can ruin it.”

He’s wrong, of course. Many comedians have seen their finest work decisively ignored by the public. He seems rattled. Maybe it will spur him on to create something that finally convinces people like me that there’s more to him than has been previously displayed. Maybe he’ll realise the game’s up, and he’ll just sit back and count the money. We shall see.