Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Come on, let it all out

I've never understood people who enjoy a good weepie. Expressing your emotions might be healthy, but I struggle to see the appeal of being reduced to a sticky, gulping, sobbing mess in the name of entertainment. Then again, as a long-standing horror fan, I often find myself having to defend my genre of choice when discussing films with friends. "Ugh," they say, "why the hell would you want to watch that?"

I suppose it's a fair question - fear is also a decidedly unpleasant sensation, so why do people seek it out when choosing what film to watch? I'd like to think that there's an emotional catharsis in experiencing fear without any tangible danger or threat which might accompany the sensation in the real world. And even though the films might try every trick in the book to terrify you, they usually offer a sense of hope or relief along the way. Tearjerkers, on the other hand, seem to have just one objective - to cause upset and distress.

This is something that psychologists Robert Levenson and James Gross have spent the last two decades studying, in the hope of discovering the ground zero of tearjerkers. And they found it, in the form of Franco Zeffirelli's 1979 remake of The Champ. This wasn't just an excuse for a pair of movie buffs to wade through 250 of their favourite blubfests, it was part of a broader experiment to select the most effective scenes for testing on a bunch of subjects, in order to better understand emotional responses to various stimuli. The results of their study are documented in a fascinating article published by The Smithsonian, which details the most ethical ways of eliciting negative emotions in test subjects, "without punching them in the face".

According to Levenson and Gross, the closing scenes of the film, which see nine year-old Ricky Schroeder sobbing over the battered corpse of his boxer father, are officially the saddest three minutes in existence. And that's a scientific fact. There's no denying that seeing a blonde moppet weeping for his dead dad is a pretty devestating sight to behold, but there are a bunch of other films which could also squeeze a sob from the hardest of hearts. Here's my top five:


Anyone who thinks there’s nothing more pitiful than seeing a grown many cry was in for a shock if they went to the pictures to see Pixar’s masterpiece Up. The trailers promised a flying house, colourful balloons and an odd-couple pair up between an overweight boy scout and a cranky old man. Instead, what they got was an opening vignette that crammed more heartbreak into ten minutes than a Simon Bates’ Our Tune marathon. A love story told with almost no dialogue, just Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score and some of the most expressive animation you’ll ever see.

The Lord of the Rings - Return of the King

Peter Jackson got a lot of stick for the way he finished off his epic trilogy, with critics arguing that the denoument ran for longer than most ordinary sized movies. They have a point – once the ring has been safely dispatched, we get a series of reunion scenes where everyone gradually shows up to surprise their loved ones, until the only person missing is Cilla Black. However, the tears really start to fall when Aragorn takes his rightful place as the king of Gondor. The halflings drop to their knees in honour of the new king, only for Viggo Mortenson to state “My friends, you bow to no-one.” If Sam’s heroic offer to carry Bilbo up the slopes of Mount Doom didn’t have you blubbing like a five year-old with a scratched knee, this is definitely the moment where you found yourself telling your mates that you had something in your eye.

The Sixth Sense

Assuming that everyone now knows how this one ends, I feel safe talking about one of the weepiest scenes I’ve ever sat through. But it’s not the one you’re probably thinking of, where Bruce Willis sees his wedding ring drop, followed shortly thereafter by the penny. For me, the ultimate tearjerker scene in the Sixth Sense takes place in a traffic jam, as young Cole finally confesses his big secret to his frustrated mother. In less capable hands, the scene could have been mangled, but Toni Collete’s heart-breaking performance really nails the combination of grief, horror and shock.

Schindler’s List

Steven Spielberg’s finest film has a number of great moments in its three-hour plus running time. But the inane brutality depicted throughout the film leaves viewers either too numb or horrified to cry. It’s not until the end of the film, when Oskar Schindler finally breaks down and tells Itzhak Stern, “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just... I could have got more” that the tears start to fall. Stern reminds him that “There are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.” But you probably missed that line, because you were too busy hyperventilating into a brown paper bag.


A talking pig in a wig. Not exactly the obvious choice for a tear-jerker, but there’s something about George Miller’s magical adaptation of The Sheep Pig that just gets me every time. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve all had a Farmer Hoggett in our lives – an implacable, immovable father figure, immune to emotional outbursts or gestures of approval. So that one simple “That’ll do, Pig” is enough to send the sternest grown-up staggering into the street, blowing their nose like they’re warning ships away from the rocks.

So come on, which films get you reaching for the Scotties Mansize tissues?

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The best film you've never heard of

If your experience of Australian cinema is limited to ethereal supernatural dramas or abrasive comedies with a distinct ABBA bias to the soundtrack, allow me to broaden your horizons for a moment. This Monday saw the belated (14 years to be precise) DVD release of a little known Australian comedy that packs more laughs in its slim 82 minute running time than Adam Sandler's entire career. Then again, so did the Nuremberg Trials.

Released in 1997, The Castle tells the story of the Kerrigans, a blue collar Melbourne family who resist a compulsory acquisition notice from the airport next door. Arguing that "a man's home is his castle", family patriarch Darryl goes to court to defend his patch, eventually taking his case to the High Court of Australia. To the development company which plans to extend the international freight runway, Kerrigan's home is a shambolic eyesore, with faux "Victoriana" trimmings and a disturbing amount of lead in the soil. But as Darryl repeatedly points out, citing the land rights movement of the Australian Aborigines, "it's not a house, it's our home".

The film was a huge hit in Australia, netting over $10 million, on a budget that might charitably be described as meagre. In fact, the original shooting schedule was shaved from 20 days down to 11, since that was as long as its makers could afford to feed the cast and crew. Frugality was obviously the watchword on set, as the family was named Kerrigan so that the producers could borrow readily-painted tow-trucks from a real-life business in Melbourne.

Rising above its low-fi origins, the film has established itself as a comedy favourite with those who were smart enough to see it when it was originally released. Its appeal stems from the uniquely sympathetic depiction of a family who make up in love what they lack in intellect. The jokes never resort to mocking or cruelty, instead revelling in the unmitigated joy of a man who has discovered that the best things in life are either free, or available for a knock-down price in the Trading Post.

Despite a budget that wouldn't pay for the sequins in a Baz Luhrmann movie, The Castle managed to score an impressive cast, including sterling support from Australian legend Charles 'Bud' Tingwell and, in his debut, a pre-Chopper Eric Bana. However, the bulk of the film rests in the capable hands of Anne Tenney and Michael Caton, who both found fame in long-running Aussie soap A Country Practice. With hardly a cross word spoken between them, Darryl and Sal are the beating heart of the film - supporting and encouraging one another, even as their cosy life begins to unravel like the tassels that pretty up Sal's "ergonometric" chair.

In retrospect, it's clear that Caroline Aherne's Royle Family owes a debt of gratitude to the Kerrigans, with its grainy fly-on-the-wall style and an intuitive sense of pathos that never jars with the laugh-out-loud moments. And there are plenty of those - this is an eminently quotable movie that, like the Royles, finds an abundance of humour in the banality of repetition.

If the idea of sitting through another bloated, effects-filled blockbuster fills you with dread, The Castle could be just the antidote you need. And if anyone says it's not funny, "tell him he's dreaming".

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Back to Black

I'm sure the bookmakers at William Hill are expecting a tough few days ahead, as the morbid gamblers who predicted an early departure for Amy Winehouse show up to collect their winnings. And yet, despite the grim inevitability of her decline, there was something truly shocking about reading the news this evening that we'd lost one of our most promising and troubled music stars. Her own parents predicted it would end this way, and yet that doesn't make it any more acceptable.

Sadly, despite the inarguable quality of her minimal yet memorable ouvre, Amy's notoriety was based on her defiant drug and alcohol abuse, rather than her remarkable voice or songwriting talent. It's easy to say that we've lost one of the most amazing musicians of our generation, but the timeless quality of her voice, and her obvious love of sixties soul, suggest that she actually belonged to another generation entirely.

Like many people, I came to her music late in the day. Her debut album pretty much passed me by, with the exception of the breezily jaded 'Fuck Me Pumps' - it took Black to Black to really win me over. Mark Ronson's gutsy and authentic recreation of the sound of Atlantic soul perfectly complemented Amy's earthily blunt vocals, and together they created magic. Even back in 2006, the lead single 'Rehab' articulated, with unflinching honesty, Amy's issues with alcohol abuse, and her unwillingness to resolve them. As she started notching up the platinum sales and industry awards, the song took on a life of its own - a giant 'fuck you' to the people who worried that she was going off the rails.

With her career in the ascendent, her health seemed to be heading in the opposite direction as her toxically codependent relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil went from strength to Export Strength. At one point her knight in rusted armour even boasted openly to the tabloids that he'd introduced her to heroin and crack, the way a regular person might proudly present the Mrs to their new boss.

For the last four years, the fans waited patiently in hope that Amy would get herself clean long enough to produce the long awaited third album. Having already sidestepped the standard issues associated with the difficult second album by delivering an impeccable sophomore release, all bets were off in terms of part 3. And now I guess we'll never get to hear it.

No doubt Amy's record label will be quick to open the vault and release whatever demos and incomplete recordings they can get their hands on. Perhaps sensing that Amy's flame would burn out quickly, they had already re-released her earlier albums in deluxe editions to wring as much revenue as possible from a catalogue as thin as its creator.

She's now joined a depressing list of awesome talents who blinded audiences with a talent that burned bright, only for it to be extinguished before their 28th year came around. She told us "You know I'm no good", but the world begged to differ.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Seven down, wand to go

Spoiler warning - obviously

Is there really much point in reviewing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2? After all, if you're a fan of the boy wizard and his mates, you're going to see it anyway. And if you're not, you're going to wonder why I'm bothering writing about a children's movie. Nonetheless, this is the end of an era in film-making that spans a decade. There are kids who've grown up with the speccy spellcaster and, for them, this represents an emotional end point. In the same way that my peers reflect back on the impact of George Lucas' definitive trilogy, these youngsters will find it hard to separate their own growing pains from those of their scar-faced hero. Although hopefully, their teenage years will have involved fewer assassination attempts.

It's also worth addressing the misperception that these are 'kiddie movies'. Whilst I admit that the first couple were unapologetically juvenile, the series has grown progressively darker with every instalment. In fact, there are moments in this final chapter so dark that the Real-D glasses might as well have had lenses made of bonfire toffee. In one surprising sequence, Voldemort walks barefoot through pools of blood spilled in an (offscreen) massacre at Gringotts' bank. All we see is the aftermath - a pile of lacerated bodies. We may have been spared the details, but no doubt there'll be thousands of little 'uns shocked by the bloodshed.

Offscreen violence seems to a recurring theme in the two Deathly Hallows movies, and this has ruffled the feathers of more than a few long-standing Potterites. Their argument is that it does a disservice to the well-loved characters if we don't get to see their final moments. One minute they're waving their wands like a stripper at a hen party, and the next thing we know they're having blankets pulled over their faces by Madam Pomfrey in what remains of the Great Hall. But this simply serves to emphasise the impact of their loss on Harry - he's not around to see them, or to intervene. The realisation that he's inadvertently responsible for the deaths of his friends makes these final scenes that much more harrowing.

Aside from the death and destruction, of which there's plenty, the cast equip themselves incredibly well throughout. It helps that, thanks to J.K. Rowling's ingenious plotting, there's much less exposition to deliver in this final episode. Assuming that the audience has been with the franchise since day one, the spells don't need explaining every time someone casts one. Not only does this help keep the running time down (this is, after all, the shortest film in the series), it gives the action a greater sense of urgency. We know our Lumos from our Avada Kedavra, and even Hermione's Accio in Bellatrix Lestrange's vault makes sense if you've been paying attention. Like the kids in the movie, we've learned these spells through repetition, so we finally feel like they're a part of our world, and vice versa.

The performances may be more polished than in previous outings, but there are still some fundamental issues affecting the core story. When Harry enters the Great Hall to confront Snape over his murder of Dumbledore, it's no surprise to see the members of Slytherin calling for our hero to be restrained and Voldemort notified. They're locked in the dungeon for their treachery. But why was anyone surprised?

Given the amount of trouble caused by members of Slytherin, it's hard to understand why anyone would agree to keep that particular house open at Hogwarts. It's like a regular comprehensive setting up an after-school Al-Qaeda group, then being shocked when the school secretary receives a Jiffy bag full of anthrax. There's also an unintentional comedy highlight when the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw is prompted by Harry to remember who cursed her mother's tiara (this makes much less sense when written down). She recalls Tom Riddle and says, "He was a strange boy, with a strange name." As though Riddle would stand out in a world full of Slughorns, Flitwicks and Lovegoods - even Ian Fleming would have trouble keeping a straight face.

Ultimately though, the film offers ample rewards for those fairweather fans who gnashed their teeth through the turgid fifth chapter, and wondered whether they'd accidentally wandered into a John Hughes movie in part six. Secondary characters who served little or no purpose through the duration of the series, finally get their moment in the spotlight. In particular, Julie Walters' Mrs Weasley gets to obliterate Helena Bonham Carter (an act that many of us can enjoy vicariously), stopping the heinous harpy with the now legendary 'Not my daughter, you BITCH!' It's just a shame that her big scene is so rushed, especially since David Yates overuses slow motion to such a degree that the film would only run for an hour and a quarter, if played at normal speed.

Likewise, Neville Longbottom has bravely endured seven years of bad teeth and even worse knitwear, so that he could weald the sword of Godric Griffindor and save the day. However, this film really belongs to Alan Rickman, who finally gets the pay-off he deserves. Often relegated to little more than a sneering extra, his scenes with Voldemort and Harry show that he, and J.K., had been saving the best for last. With the help of an extensive flashback compilation, we see his true colours at last, and it turns out they're not just black, charcoal and anthracite.

Although the story of The Deathly Hallows has been well served by splitting the book into two separate films, it's still all too apparent that this was a commercial, rather than an artistic decision. Similarly, the presentation in 3D is Warner's last ditch attempt at wringing as much cash from the franchise as possible. Sure, Hogwarts and the wider wizarding world is given an unprecedented level of depth by the addition of that extra dimension, but it's largely redundant. Anyone who already feels the pinch at the prospect of buying cinema tickets for the whole family can easily shed a tenner from the cost of admission by seeing the film in 2D. The magic is just as tangible, even if it doesn't poke you in the eye.

When the series first launched back in 2001, there were concerns that these weren't really films, so much as slavish reconstructions of the novels - audiobooks with moving pictures. Finally, the producers have managed to tick every box and capped off the franchise with a genuinely memorable movie. They might not have a resurrection stone to hand, but they've secured their immortality with a fitting final entry. 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Pop culture round-up

Remember that scene in The Naked Gun, right after the assassin crashes his car into a fireworks store? As an eager crowd gathers to gawp at the spectacular explosions, Frank Drebin tells the onlookers "Move along please, nothing to see here."

It's a pretty apt metaphor for what's happening in the world of news media right now. According to News International and the Daily Mail, this story has been blown out of all proportion by a cabal of left-leaning Murdoch-haters. There are far more important stories out there, deserving of our full attention. And this has nothing to do with the potentially incendiary contents of Rebekah Brooks' Brabantia bin-liners. So, to keep them happy, this is what you missed while you were busy watching Rupert drinking unicorn blood from a bottle of Malvern Water.

Going in for the Kyle

The toughest thing about gardening leave, as I found out over the last three weeks, is resisting the temptation to channel surf during the day. One minute you're just having a quick look at Lorraine Kelly and wondering when she transformed from Groundskeeper Willie into a Celtic MILF, and the next thing you know it's four o'clock and you've got a banging headache from watching Jeremy Kyle scream at his guests until he suffers a rectal prolapse. Although I'm feeling pretty fortunate about resisting the inexplicable allure of televised Ritalin, it seems that I'm not out of the woods just yet, because ITV has now announced plans to bring the dark prince of confrontation to prime time broadcasting.

Having singlehandedly berated everyone in the UK with a missing tooth or a pair of gold hoop earrings, Jeremy Kyle has been signed up to present a new game show. It's hard to imagine how Jeremy's aggressive, acrimonious style will fit into the chummy, encouraging world of light entertainment, but the clues lie in the descriptions of 'High Stakes'.

Promising viewers a 'totally new format', the show will see contestants competing for a prize fund of half a million pounds in a game involving "knowledge, risk and tension", as they try to answer questions and avoid 'traps'. The only difference between this and his talk show is that the traps won't necessarily involve blood tests and lie detectors.

Then again, don't be surprised if the contestants start off playing as a family team, only to have a paternity test reveal that two of the kids have to sit out the big money round. And forget about quirky sayings like "I've started, so I'll finish" or "It's good, it's not right", Kyle will no doubt add his own unique twist to the Q&A. If he needs to articulate the entire question before taking answers, he can just shout "Oi, I'm talking now, you fat bitch."

Taking a bite out of Apple

This week gadget fans got their headphone cables in a twist, following the revelation that a number of Apple stores in China aren't strictly kosher. The story first came to light when an American blogger visited one of the shiny stores in Kunming city. At first glance it looked pretty authentic - with all the right branding, blue-shirted staff and a distinctive spiral staircase.

But on closer inspection, BirdAbroad noticed that the stairs weren't particularly well constructed, the interior paint job was sloppy, and there was a tell-tale sign outside that read "Apple Store". As she pointed out on her blog, "Apple never writes 'Apple Store' on its signs - it just puts up the glowing, iconic fruit."

Even so, she described the retail unit as a "beautiful ripoff - a brilliant one - the best ripoff store we had ever seen". So if the products are genuine, the staff are enthusiastic, and the experience is a positive one, why is this a big issue? Because it's just not Apple.

Unfortunately, this makes those of us who'd buy a shoe box full of possum skulls, if it had an apple logo and a couple of USB ports on it, look like the vapid, invisible-robe wearing wankers that we are. I can try and convince people that I choose Apple products because of their user interface, stunning design and quality finish, but the argument falls flat if I'm put off by the paint job in the store.

As for the staff themselves, they may not have realised that they weren't working for the real article, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. After the controversy about factory conditions in China where the iPad, iPod and MacBook are manufactured, you'd probably want to keep a nice, safe distance between yourself and that iconic fruit.

I'm gonna get you, sucker

When the licensing laws were finally relaxed in 2005, our papers had a field day predicting the widespread carnage and destruction that would ensue if we allowed people to drink Magners after midnight. Of course, once the initial hysteria about alcohol fuelled armageddon had died down, the reality proved to be somewhat different. People still got shitfaced, and our A&E departments continued to resemble the green room after a recording of Take Me Out, but ultimately, nothing really changed.

However, just in case the boozers of Britain are about to find their second wind, we should probably take note of a little experiment that the police on Vancouver Island in British Columbia tried out recently. They wanted to curtail drunken excess once the bars closed on Canada Day, so they took one Councilwoman's suggestion and handed out lollipops. She told the local paper: "The candy shuts people up and calms them down, both through the sugar hit and the pacifier effect. They got calmer after taking the lollipops." The police are now seriously considering permanently adopting the lolly solution, but only if they can persuade local bars to give out the sweets.

Since most of us act like disruptive five year olds once we've had a sniff of the barmaid's apron, why not pacify us with a Chupa Chup? And for those who like to round off their evening with something a little harder, maybe we should start lobbying Barratt to bring back the 'Dip Dab'. You know, just in case.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

How to win the SeX-Factor

It doesn't matter how proficient we think we might be at bedroom gymnastics, no-one really wants to know the truth. We might occasionally ask "How was it for you?" but only because we know our sexual partner will soften the blow if we weren't quite up to scratch. So the idea of having a third party critiquing our talents is enough to kill wood quicker than a nasty dose of Dutch Elm.

That didn't seem to stop one overconfident couple approaching Simon Cowell in an LA restaurant with an indecent proposal of their own. Rather than whoring themselves out to the music mogul for a million dollars, they just wanted Mr. Nasty to sit in judgement as they demonstrated their best moves. And they were willing to pay him $150,000 for his input. Ever the gentleman, Cowell politely declined the offer, but happily related the story to a writer from the Wall Street Journal last week. It's clear that Simon doesn't get out of bed for that kind of paltry sum, so he's certainly not going to sit at the end of one for the same amount.

Catching an eyeful of Simon's furry chesticles mid-thrust, would ordinarily be enough to put even the most hardened porn star off their stroke. So I can only imagine that this outgoing twosome had done their homework, and knew how give it 110 per cent. Actually, if you've been watching the X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent or American Idol, you should already know how to get Cowell standing to attention at the end of your performance.

Make an entrance

Simon likes to enter with a burst of Carmina Burana. So if you really want to pop his shirt buttons, make sure that the moment of penetration comes with a melodramatic burst of O Fortuna. That's sure to get him Orff.

Bust a move

The best decision Simon ever made, was dumping Brian Friedman from the judging panel and appointing him as the X-Factor's creative director. Now, every performance is camper than Dale Winton in a nail bar - a multi-colour kaleidoscope of awkward choreography, laughable costumes and shoddily built sets. Cirque du Soleil, sponsored by Aldi. In order to catch Simon's eye, you'll need to be willing to move around and show him that you're the full package. And don't just settle for waving around your full package, feel free to accessorise with a few props.

Stand out from the crowd

Simon wants to see you making it your own, so repeated shouts of "who's your daddy?" will prove to him that you're fully in control. It's also important to think about what position you want to try out. Beware of anything too predictable - if you stick to the missionary or reverse cowgirl, he'll just yawn and tell you that he's seen it a million times before in hotels around the world.

But equally, don't go too far in the other direction. It's fine to demonstrate that you take your shenanigans seriously, but if you show off your enthusiasm for autopederasty (literally fucking yourself), he'll tell you you're being self-indulgent. And he'd have a point.

Be a team player

Simon enjoys nothing more than spontaneously creating bands from a bunch of underperforming individuals. So maybe start your session off with some half-hearted solo play, and when it looks as though you're losing his interest, bring in a third member and call yourselves a group.

Show some emotion

One of the worst things about porn is the dead-eyed stare on the faces of its stars. There's nothing erotic about watching someone getting stuffed every way to Sunday if it looks as if they're barely conscious. If you want to make it memorable you have to commit to the moment, and an emotional backstory is the easiest way to win Simon's favour. So don't be afraid to burst into tears as you're getting onto the vinegar strokes. Or you could take a tip from Katie Waissel and drop to your knees with a despairing "Oh sod it." Then, while you're down there...

Stretch it out

When it comes to over-extended running times, Simon is the king of filler. It should only take five minutes to deliver the bad news and announce who's going home, and yet the average Syco-produced results show stretches to about 90 minutes. If you're usually arguing over the wet patch less than quarter of an hour in, you really need to practice your breathing, or swot up on tantric techniques. Don't worry if there's only ten minutes of actual performance in a two-hour set - he's used to that.

Finish with a bang

Simon's a big fan of the explosive finish, having overseen more key changes than a chain of locksmiths. It's all about making those final thirty seconds count - when you feel your toes starting to curl, get into position to make sure that your partner gets drenched in a glittering shower. And don't worry if you're all out of silver ticker tape, I'm sure you'll come up with something appropriate.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Say it like you mean it

“I’m sorry I cheated on you – it meant nothing and I thought of you the whole time. It’s just a phase I’m going through. Can we give it another go? I promise it won’t happen again.” Whatever. Just watch out for the flying Denby.

Elton John is a fucking liar. Sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word. It’s actually one of the easiest. It takes less effort than a Hail Mary, and is just as meaningless. I should know. I’m one of those people that apologises for everything. Timothy Lumsden without the overbearing mother. It’s become instinctive, like a reflex. I apologise when other people get in my way and I need to squeeze past. And if I have to interrupt a shop assistant who’s busy gossiping with a colleague, I’m the one saying sorry for cutting short the story about Donna’s tilted uterus.

So when the time comes to apologise for some actual wrongdoing, the word ‘sorry’ takes on a decidedly hollow ring. Every time we take stock of our actions, we come to a metaphorical fork in the road. The short cut involves saying ‘sorry’ and moving on. The longer, tougher route, means actually understanding what you’re apologising for, and genuinely feeling contrition for your actions.

As a child, my parents never let me get away with a simple apology. Anyone can shuffle into a room, keeping their eyes fixed on the floor, and mumble a half-hearted “Sorry”. In the few instances where an apology was called for, I had to admit my culpability in whatever misdeed had occurred, so it was clear that I knew why I was apologising in the first place.

So how should we feel about the fact that Rupert Murdoch pulled his best sadface and took out a full-page ad in every national paper over the weekend? Are we supposed to back off, douse our flaming torches, and throw the hunting dogs a pack of Schmackos? Well, I guess that depends on whether we think he means what he said. In case you missed the ad, here’s the full text:

"We are sorry. The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected. We regret not acting faster to sort things out. I realise that simply apologising is not enough. Our business was founded on the idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society. We need to live up to this. In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused, you will hear more from us."

I don’t know about you, but hearing Rupert Murdoch say “you’ll hear more from us” is about as welcome a prospect as “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too.” If you can stand to, read it again. Notice there's no real admission of responsibility. Or culpability, for that matter. Without any personal pronouns, all that bad behaviour becomes the activity of some intangible third party. A bad seed with little or no connection to Murdoch or his vast empire. It’s like a prison warden apologising for the fact that he runs a building full of rapists and murderers.

In this triumph of PR spin over genuine remorse, it’s not "our wrongdoing", merely "wrongdoing that occurred". Likewise, he says "we are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered" rather than "We are deeply sorry for the hurt we caused..." Small changes, big difference. It's clear from Murdoch's mealy-mouthed mea culpa that he doesn't know, or care, why everyone is so upset. He might profess concern for "the individuals affected", but the sentiment is undermined by his declaration that Rebekah Brooks was his first priority.

Then again, should we be surprised that he struggles to show basic human emotions, like empathy and compassion? Pretty much the only time I’ve ever witnessed cross-party consensus on BBC’s Question Time, was in the various panellists’ viewpoint of Murdoch himself. Without actually invoking the name of Beelzebub, they made it clear that this was a case of better the Devil you know. Even those willing to support the floundering News Corp readily admit that Murdoch could give Emperor Palpatine the willies. And the Star Wars parallels don’t stop there either. Spineless politicians of every persuasion have brazenly admitted that, sure, he’s a force for evil, but they’re powerless to stop him. Which just reminds me of Luke’s briefing from Ben Kenobi in A New Hope, when the naïve farmboy claimed: “Look, I can't get involved. I've got work to do. It's not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now...”

At some point, the furore over the phone hacking will die down, and things will return to normal. The sacrificial lambs will do their time, and then settle into a well-paid early retirement. No harm, no foul. As for News Corp, they’ll be too busy focusing on demonstrating how “a free and open press [can] be a positive force in society.” Need an example of how that’s going to work? Try Fox News, Murdoch’s ‘fair and balanced’ cable news channel. Right wing commentators are keen for Fox News to come to the UK in order to break through the ‘leftist propaganda’ churning out of the BBC.

So it’s interesting to note how Fox News has been ‘informing’ its viewers about the hacking story. In a segment called Fox and Friends, which is like listening to group therapy for psychopaths, the whole issue was carefully twisted by the host and his guest Bob Dilenschneider, to conflate the News of the World with other victims of hacking. At one point, after lamenting the broader threat of hacking, the PR consultant states: “Citicorp, great bank, Bank of America, great bank. Are they getting the kind of attention for hacking that took place less than a year ago?” 

Recently, John Cook at Gawker wrote a deeply disturbing article about the heritage of Fox News, revealing that plans for such a channel were initially drawn up by its CEO, Roger Ailes, back in 1970. Ailes, and a number of other Nixon aides, were tasked with getting around the problematic truth-telling of network news, in order to “deliver pro-administration stories” to viewers in the American heartland. As the initial memo stated: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.”

I think I’ll stick with the BBC, if it’s all the same. And if anyone wants to condemn the best broadcaster in the world as being a hive of "left-wing group-think", I’ll simply point them in the direction of Stephen Colbert, who once said “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” As for Murdoch, he can stick his apology where The Sun don’t shine.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The secret's in the sauce

Back when I was a student, financial hardship saw me spending the best part of a year working in McDonald's. At the time it seemed moderately more appealing than participating in clinical trials, and besides, the hours were pretty flexible.

When pushed for horror stories from that joyless period in my life, all I can come up with is the time a customer threw away a half-finished strawberry milkshake, not noticing I was on my knees cleaning out the inside of the bin cabinet at the time. It took two days to scrub the sickly scent off my skin, and my 'Dining Area Host' burgundy waistcoat had to be burned.

As much as I'd like to be able to tell my friends about the many abuses of basic hygiene that went on in the kitchen, the fact is, everything was kept tediously above-board. So I always marvel when I hear other fugitives from food service telling wondrous stories of the adulterated ingredients that featured in their own version of kitchen nightmares. And although I tend to take these stories with a sachet of salt, there's every possibility that they have their origins in truth.

For years, Viz got plenty of comic mileage out of the concept of 'Winner's Sauce' - a curiously salty batter that only a chef with Y chromosomes can whip up. As you may already be aware, the term was coined in honour of the obnoxious director, insurance salesman and gourmand. Because, if the stories are to be believed, Michael Winner has ingested more more spunk than Marc Almond (in that other notoriously apocryphal anecdote).

The number of professional cooks claiming to have personalised one of Winner's dinners would suggest that every meal the Death Wish director has ever eaten was frosted like a Belgian bun. But I find it hard to believe that someone with such a cultivated palate wouldn't notice the unusual viscosity of the aoili.

It might all sound like a bit of a lark, and there are few who would disagree that no-one is more deserving of a bukkake buffet, but it is actually a criminal offence to put the 'man' in someone else's Hellmann's. If only someone had pointed that that out to grocery store employee Anthony Garcia.

The Albuquerque-based retail assistant was indicted recently for giving a female shopper a nasty surprise at the Sunflower Farmers' Market by offering her a dubious yoghurt sample. According to police reports, the woman thought the sample tasted "gross and disgusting", commenting that it "tasted like semen". Maybe he'd been eating asparagus in the fresh produce section. Anyway, suspicious that Danone would consider launching a Brie-flavoured Activia, she allerted the authorities who sent the remains of the yoghurt off for testing.

Using blood and DNA samples from Garcia, the lab was able to confirm that the yoghurt did indeed contain an extra organic compound. And it wasn't Bifidus Regularis. Apparently Garcia has a considerable track record of sex crimes, from masturbating in public to wandering around Wal-Mart with his penis "hanging out of his pants". Although, as PeopleOfWalMart repeatedly demonstrates, stranger sights have been documented in the aisles. Nonetheless, if Garcia is found guilty of spoiling the yoghurt he could face three years in prison, as well as a further five for providing false statements to the police.

Now, next time you see one of those friendly sample ladies in the supermarket, don't get too excited. Think twice before reaching for the plastic spoon.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Red lights, camera, action

Anyone who hoped that the closure of News of the World might usher in a new era of responsible journalism is in for a big disappointment. This week, it was revealed that the producers of The Only Way Is Essex and Made In Chelsea are working on a new reality show that follows the adventures of five girls on the lookout for wealthy businessmen who can offer them 'financial assistance'. The air-quotes around 'financial assistance' are particularly telling since, by all accounts, any transactions taking place will be predominantly nightstand-based.

Maybe I'm counting my tricks before they've matched, but it certainly seems as though the producers are looking to cast their newest stars from the world's oldest profession. Leading the charge (and happy to charge for it), is Helen Wood, the escort who slept with Wayne Rooney - but not the one who looked like Ena Sharples after a heavy night on the milk stout.

She may only be 24, but Wood is clearly no push-over - that's an extra fifty - she even wrote an article for The Spectator earlier this year, in which she accused the law of a staggering double-standard when it comes to granting injunctions: "I've had many famous clients, so I was almost offended when an actor slapped an injunction on me. My first thought was outrage that he'd think I'd blab... I was never going to talk. When the papers started sniffing around, I applied for an injunction myself, but guess what? I was rejected. So there's one law for rich men - however badly they behave - and quite another for the women they sleep with."

Despite claiming that she'd hung up her escort gear, and was planning to write a tell-all memoir about the world she "briefly occupied", it appears that she's ready to go back on the fame game. Which is why she and four others will be trailed by cameras as they attempt to secure the benefaction of businessmen.

According to a story in The Mirror, the new series was inspired by a dating website called which successfully partners rich men with 'sugar babies'. The site is full of cheap photo library images of silver foxes waving fans of hundred dollar bills, as well as testimonials from satisfied customers like 'Successful CEO', who boasts "I am a very busy man. After using Seeking Arrangement, I met my sugar babies who have brought joy, excitement and passion to my life. Hugh Hefner isn’t the only man who is living the Playboy dream."

Likewise, the girls seem equally happy with the set-up, with 'College Sophomore' proudly declaring "My current arrangement is wonderful. Unlike other cash strapped students, I am pampered with expensive gifts. My sugar daddy is the sweetest man I know. He is my mentor, my benefactor and my lover."

And it must work, because the wily entrepreneurs behind the site have even claimed exclusive ownership of the term 'Mutually Beneficial Relationships', suggesting that anyone not paying by the hour is just kidding themselves if they think that they and their partner are happy and contented. To make matters worse, they're probably in breach of the trademark too.

As for Helen and her co-whorts, the show promises to give us an inside peek into the "exciting, lavish lifestyle" that can be provided by the right kind of arrangement, and it would appear that Channel 4 is chomping at the ball-gag to commission a full series. According to the paper's inside source, "They feel that with the headlines that Helen created from her work as an escort girl, she is perfect to be the face of the new programme." Although I doubt whether it's her face that anyone's particularly interested in.

Forget about 'Secret Diary of a Call Girl' and its tabloid-friendly titillation, this is the real deal. Although I have to question who in their right mind, would consider going on camera to admit that they're paying their arm candy to laugh at their jokes and feed them those little blue pills. Then again, it didn't seem to stop people happily appearing on Showtime's recent cable hit 'Gigolos'. That show focused on the all-male Cowboys4Angels escort agency, and depicted its stars giving their female clients the full service.

Interestingly, the pilot episode explained the legal fig leaf that helps escorts negotiate the thorny issue of prostitution: "We are a companion service and clients pay a rate per hour. First thing you're gonna do is collect the money from the client and then from there, whatever happens between you two is two consenting adults. It's illegal for you to take any money after that for any sort of sexual services or whatever." To paraphrase the Bard, aye there's the rub-n-tug.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Stop the presses

Typical. The News of the World finally has its hands on an exclusive story that the rest of the world is dying to read about, and for once it's not about Lauren Goodger's tits, Lindsay Lohan's ankle monitor or Jason Gardiner's hair transplant. Unfortunately though, it's unlikely to affect the paper's readership figures, since this is one flagship that's already sailed. Finding itself in the unfortunate position of making the news, instead of breaking it, the News of the World has been forced to shut up shop. And Rupert Murdoch must be kicking himself about the shitty timing of this super soar-away scandal.

You might not realise this, but Murdoch wasn't always a bad guy. He may have spent the last twenty years learning how to shoot lightning bolts from his fingers, but back in the 1950s he was something of a young radical. As the son of an Australian news magnate, Murdoch's first acquisition was the Adelaide News, which was pivotal in overturning the death sentence given to an Aboriginal man called Max Stuart. Despite his belief that Stuart was guilty of the rape and murder of nine year-old Mary Olive Hattam, Murdoch was opposed to the death penalty and wrote a number of editorials and headlines in support of commuting Stuart's sentence to life imprisonment.

As Murdoch's biographer Bruce Page observed, Rupert's activism in this particular case was pivotal in defining his future career: "Murdoch galloped into action, but it was a bad fight for him. The truth is it scared him off from ever taking on governments again. He reverted to his father's pattern of toeing the line." But as his power and influence grew, Murdoch realised that it's much easier to toe the line when you're the one holding the chalk.

For years, he's been the unassailable leader of the world's second largest media conglomerate (after Disney), repeatedly bouncing back from countless attacks, even those made by commentators within his own organisation. Popular Fox shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons regularly take pot-shots at their shadowy overlord, although Matt Groening did come under fire from his corporate colleagues for depicting the inexplicably popular Fox News channel as "your voice for evil".

Despite the weight of public discontent against his propagandist techniques and love of media monopolisation, Murdoch continues undaunted in his quest to seize full control of BSkyB, with the buy-out so close his forked tongue can almost taste it. So there's a delicious irony to the fact that a crucial chink in his armour has finally been exposed by one of his own bestselling red-tops.

When the News of the World's unethical practice of phone-hacking first emerged, the outcry was somewhat muted. Although people were incensed at the paper's illegal tactic for sourcing celebrity 'exclusives', no-one was able to muster too much outrage over the fact that they'd been listening to Sienna Miller's voicemails. If someone had to endure Jude Law begging for another chance, the public figured "better them than us". Similarly, no-one got too upset that Max Clifford had been bitten by the mouth he'd been feeding.

However, things took a much darker turn last week when the full scale of the scandal was exposed. According to reports, the families of Milly Dowler, the 7/7 victims and military personnel who'd been killed in service, had also had their voicemails intercepted. Interestingly, Murdoch and his chief executive Rebekah Brooks were quick to issue carefully worded statements about the scandal. But if someone declares that the allegations are "deplorable and unacceptable", is that a criticism of the phone hacking itself, or the fact that someone has had the temerity to accuse his venerable news empire of underhand practices?

Ultimately, none of it really matters, since this is clearly a case of closing the stable door after the horse has tapped in its four-digit passcode and pressed record. Since the story broke, News Corp share prices have been dropping rapidly, leaving Murdoch with no choice but to shut down the country's favourite chip-wrapper. In a statement today, James Murdoch announced that "The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. It failed when it came to itself. The good things the News of the World does ... have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our company."

This Sunday will see the final edition of the 168-year-old newspaper hit the stands, and not a moment too soon. No doubt the Murdochs hope that this swift action will quieten the voices of discontent and smooth the passage of News Corp's satellite take-over bid. Even so, the scandal leaves us with a number of troubling issues that still need reconciling. For instance, I'd always assumed that whenever the papers ran another feature about Katie Price citing an 'unnamed source', it was Katie herself who'd been phoning the news desk to plant the story. This whole phone hacking scandal means that people like Katie may actually be innocent victims in all this. And I refuse to live in a world where Katie Price gets my sympathy.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Lost in Found Footage

This seems to be the summer of revisionist history, as a number of blockbusters attempt to give their preposterous plotlines a little extra credibility by merging them with key moments that defined the twentieth century. X-Men: First Class managed to embroil its cast of youthful mutants in the Cuban missile crisis, whereas the latest instalment in the Transformers franchise suggests that loveable old Buzz Aldrin (who even makes a cameo appearance) explored a crashed alien spaceship when he and Neil first landed on the moon in 1969.

Up next is low-budget sci-fi horror Apollo 18, which details the exploits of a supposedly abandoned NASA expedition to the moon, and the shocking fate which befell its astronauts. Rather than using costly CGI to drop its cast into historically accurate footage, Apollo 18 is the latest addition to the burgeoning sub-genre of 'found footage'. 

Often unfairly dismissed as an amateurish way of making a horror film on the cheap, this relatively recent addition to the canon has been responsible for a number of genuinely unnerving movies over the last decade or so. It's interesting to note that the growing popularity of the sub-genre directly correlates with the impact of YouTube on popular culture. Think back to the major tragedies and disasters of the last decade - chances are, your recollections of them take the form of grainy hand-held smartphone footage, captured on the fly by would-be documentarians, even as they ran for their lives.

At first, this was seen to be the biggest flaw in any 'found footage' scenario - surely the moment we encountered danger or threat, the lens cap would be replaced and we'd run for our lives? But the reality is very different - fight or flight has become a triptych, with 'film' now the third, preferred option. Many people have attested to the fact that, when confronted with real-life horror, the view-finder offers the witness a comforting distance, as well as the illusion of control over the terrors that are unfolding. To paraphrase the strapline for Wes Craven's seminal exploitation film 'The Last House On The Left' - leaving the cameras rolling allows us to keep telling ourselves it's only a movie. Only a movie. Only a movie...

These films are not to everyone's taste, and certainly unsuitable for anyone who loves an artfully composed mise-en-scène. But if you can handle the occasional bout of motion sickness, and dialogue that wouldn't feel out of place on Made In Chelsea, there are some gems out there worth revisiting.

The Blair Witch Project

Filmed in eight days for around $25,000, The Blair Witch Project was a genuine phenomenon. Featuring an unknown cast of three, who were all listed on IMDB at the time as 'deceased', the film's greatest strength was the sophistication of its marketing. Its creators, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, created an entire mythology around the town of Burkittsville, and pioneered the use of the internet to drive word-of-mouth.

Although the film went on to gross almost a quarter of a billion dollars, it was in many ways a victim of its own success. Promised one of the most terrifying movie-going experiences of all time, audiences were disappointed to find themselves watching a trio of unlikable students stumbling around in the dark and getting freaked out by a pile of twigs. They could get that at Glastonbury. More than a decade after its release, the film itself still stands up to repeated viewing, particularly the closing scene set in the ruins of a house that belonged to child killer Rustin Parr. Even now, the final shot of Mike standing in the corner, facing the wall and awaiting his fate, is enough to send chills down the most cynical of spines. Heather's still an annoying bitch though.


In the last few years, Spain has replaced Japan as the source of some of the best modern horror films. And Hollywood has responded by dutifully buying up all of the most interesting properties and remaking them for audiences who have an issue with reading. Remade the following year as 'Quarantine', 2007's REC is a nerve-shredding twist on Night of the Living Dead, only this time our protagonists are stuck inside the building with the zombies. OK, technically they may not be zombies, but they're definitely infected with something that gives them a taste for human flesh.

What starts out as a late night news segment following an inner city fire crew, becomes a battle for survival as a reporter and her colleagues are locked inside a tenement block that's placed under quarantine by the military. To be fair, the mid-section of the film becomes rather predictable and repetitive as the background characters are gradually chomped and infected. But by the time our plucky heroine finds herself switching on the night-vision in a locked apartment, you'll be chewing your nails down to the wrist. 


Not all found-footage movies are low budget, they're just designed to look that way. Cloverfield, for instance, applied the techniques of the format to a much larger-scale story, as it attempted to depict the impact of a Godzilla-style attack from an everyman perspective. It doesn't get off to the most auspicious start, as we're introduced to the main characters at a party thrown for the most obnoxious person in their social circle.

Thankfully, just as you find yourself wishing a gruesome fate to befall all of them, the attack comes without warning. Appropriating the clouds of dust and debris, as well as the blind panic, of 9/11, the film cleverly puts your preconceptions on hold. Witnessing the chaos through the viewfinder of a video-camera, the viewer is caught up in the action. You might not care about the characters you're with, you just want to be able to turn a corner without staring into the dripping mandibles of the inscrutable sea monster laying waste to Manhattan. 

Diary of the Dead

For over forty years, George Romero has used his zombie cohorts to address every major cultural and philosophical issue facing society. Racism, consumerism, military aggression - they've all been slowly disemboweled by his lumbering, unblinking hordes. So it was probably only a matter of time before he turned the cameras on, well, the cameras themselves.

Skewering the YouTube generation, as well as the fine line between news and propaganda, Diary of the Dead offered him the chance to reboot his entire series and start back at day one of the undead outbreak. Although far from a masterpiece, the film shows that George still knows how to push society's buttons and give us something meaty to chew on, as his grey-faced army does exactly the same thing. 

Paranormal Activity

On the surface, Oren Peli's breakout hit is as dull as it sounds - 90 minutes of watching CCTV footage. If that's how I wanted to spend my free time I'd get a job as a security guard. Another low budget triumph of ingenuity over expertise, Paranormal Activity once again presents us with an unlikeable pair of protagonists, who set up a video camera to try and capture the weird goings-on that take place whenever they go to sleep.

The filmic equivalent of a spot-the-difference competition, Peli's movie invites us to scrutinise every inch of the screen looking for something out of place or unusual. It's the classic magician's trick of misdirection - the moment we take things for granted, he presents us with something new and it shocks us out of our complacency. Ordinarily, the idea of a door opening of its own accord would be about as terrifying as Saturday Kitchen. But once the film has drawn you into its static, wall-mounted world, the slightest movement might just launch you from your seat.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Cher or Cher-alike?

"It's not the winning, it's the taking part." That hopeless, condescending aphorism that rings in the ears of every chubby, asthmatic kid on school sports day. All designed to encourage a sense of camaraderie and team spirit, rather than the venal every-man-for-himself mentality that defines a true champion. Maybe that's why we're just not very good at winning in the UK. Perhaps those P.E. teachers were simply too effective in encouraging everyone to have a go, irrespective of talent or inclination.

It's a cultural thing - just look at Murray Mount (or Henman Hill as it used to be known). All those hopelessly cheerful people waving their flags and gulping down their Marks & Spencers sausage rolls, knowing full well that they'll be heading home long before the final, much like the object of their misplaced affection. They shrug, shake off their picnic blankets, and make a mental note to book tickets for next year.

Our TV shows are no better. Take Big Brother for example. The only rule of the whole show is that contestants are forbidden from talking about nominations. That means no allegiances, no tactical voting, and certainly no expressing a desire to win. Yeah yeah, you're just "in it for the experience". In the States Big Brother is all about winning - in fact it's all they talk about. Because in the good old U.S of A, there are no prizes for second place.

But the most disturbing side-effect of this culture of also-rans, can be seen in shows like the X-Factor. Listen to the contestants in the run-up to the final and they'll even admit that they're not really in it to win it. They're smart enough to realise that all they really need from the show is sufficient exposure to secure an audience, then they can sign up with a smaller record label and make it "all about the music".

And it's precisely that nauseating naivete that is responsible for the abomination that is Cher Lloyd. Having risen to fame last year as Cheryl Cole's nominated assassination decoy, she's now ready to unleash her debut single on an unsuspecting world. You can grumble all you like about the anodyne pap being churned out by the winners of the X-Factor, but at least someone's happily providing soundtracks for dentists' waiting rooms and lifts up and down the country. And within six months, they'll be dropped by Cowell's sausage factory, free to return to a life of pain-free anonymity. It's the runners-up, the ones with aspirations of 'artistry', that you really have to worry about.

So what are we to make of Cher's 'Swagger Jagger'? Aside from the nonsensical title, which makes you long for the narrative coherence of the Cheeky Girls, it's all about showcasing Will.I.Am's Machiavellian influence. Coming across like a sink estate answer to the Black Eyed Peas, the track combines a shouty, tuneless verse with a chorus that riffs on 'Oh My Darling Clementine'. All blended together with the subtlety of a cut-and-shut Vauxhall Nova.

All through the X-Factor, the judging panel repeatedly asserted that Cher was exactly what the British public was crying out for. And I guess they were right, which is why 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' was such a huge smash. Even so, it doesn't mean that anyone's going to rush out and buy 'Swagger Jagger'. But what would I know - I turned 36 last week, which means I'm old enough to be intimidated at a bus-stop by Cher and her hoodie-loving posse. Or I would be, if they didn't come across like a bunch of Pineapple Dance Studio rejects. They can strike all the poses they like, but I know they spent their weekend rinsing out Louis Spence's leg-warmers.

In fact, everything about the video, and the song itself, is utterly insincere. And for all her swagger (jagged or otherwise), there's something disingenuous about the big-haired faux-Fergie herself. The whole point of the song is that Cher's "haterz" are just jealous. That's why they're all so keen to steal her style. And yet, responding to negative reviews of her video over the weekend, Cher Tweeted "I have feelings. I come across as a hard faced bitch, but please give me a break. If someone can say that to me then they can say it to anyone! fight the bullies! Don't let them win! These people are not safe to be on the internet, many people are affected badly by this sort of behaviour!" Now, I may not be the world's foremost expert on the subject, but that doesn't sound much like swagger to me. Then again, my rhyming dictionary drew a blank when I looked up "petulant whining brat".

Monday, 4 July 2011

Stories you may have missed

The public sector's on strike, the high street is turning into some kind of Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland and Cherly Cole's getting back together with Ashley. It's a tough world out there - the pressure's on and we're all having to work twice as hard to earn less than we used to. That means less time to catch up on all the big news stories, so here's an overview to help you win back a few precious minutes of your day.

Pop goes the diet

For all of Jamie Oliver's attempts to get kids excited about cous cous, the obesity epidemic is still a hydrogenated time-bomb hanging over our heads. Now, just to make matters worse, scientists have discovered that all those diet soft drinks are probably making us fatter. Eploring the 'diet soda paradox' identified by researcher Sharon Fowler, the new study has found that the more zero-calorie pop people drank, the bigger they got: "For people who drink two or more diet sodas a day, their waist increase was five times those who drank no diet sodas—almost two inches."

The scientists claim to be baffled as to why these slimming options should be having the opposite effect, but they've obviously never stood behind an overweight McDonald's customer when placing an order that would leave the Waltons feeling over-faced. Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that you can order whatever you like, as long as remember to include a diet beverage in your hamburger haul. Despite the benefits inferred by its name, Diet Coke won't digest that supersize meal for you. At best, the only thing slimming about diet drinks is the carcinogens in the aspartame. And that's a pretty painful way to get into those skinny-fit jeans.

What a carry on

Barbara Windsor has been enjoying a temporary resurgence of popularity recently as her picture has been accompanying a host of stories about a new dress code being introduced by East and North Herts NHS trust. Fearful that patients are in danger of rupturing their appendectomy scars at the sight of a low-cut blouse, nurses are being told to button up on the ward, for fear that they might spill more than the cloudy contents of a bed pan.

The uniform policy states: ''Staff will not dress in ways that undermines the spirit of this policy and clothing that exposes the midriff, torso or excessive cleavage, along with wearing denim, shorts, leggings and mini-skirts, are not acceptable.'' Now, I don't spend much time on hospital wards, but the few times I've visited relatives, I haven't noticed an abundance of comely nurses with visible stocking-tops. And the only sound you're likely to hear is the incessant coughing of tubercular old men bringing up forty years of lung butter, rather than the cheeky whoop of a swannee whistle.

A bunch of grunts

Wimbledon's over for another year, and once again the press coverage was as depressingly predictable as always. The papers were all busy cheerleading for Andy Murray, despite the fact that it was about as futile as rooting for the blonde slut to survive a slasher movie. Thankfully, the women were on-hand to generate some more engaging, if equally predictable stories. Bethanie Mattek-Sands gamely threw open her dressing-up box to announce herself as the Lady Gaga of tennis, and Simona Halep's breast reduction surgery justified countless pages of before and after pictures of her Barnes-Wallises. 

Subscribing to the notion that female players should be seen and not heard, the BBC rolled out an ingenious innovation that gave viewers the chance to operate their own mixing desk. At the touch of a button, fans with sensitive hearing could lower the volume of the players' grunts and howls. Hopefully, the technicians are working on a 2.0 version of the software which will give viewers a similar degree of control next time Cliff Richard turns up at Centre Court to give an impromptu sing-along when rain stops play. Then again, this does seem like a rather wasteful use of licence payers' money, especially since the whole problem could have been averted by getting Carolyn Bourne to send a curtly-worded email to all the female players about on-court decorum.