Monday, 28 November 2011

Liver's too short

I must be a sucker for punishment. As much as I might enjoy occasionally dipping my toe into the shallow waters of trash TV, the prospect of sitting through yet another scripted reality show, featuring an all-new cast of vacuous attention-hogs, fills me with dread. It seems as though every few weeks, a new one pops up on the EPG, like malignant melanomas on a sunbather’s neck.

This time around we're visiting Merseyside, to check in with another gaggle of fame-hungry wannabes. Why Liverpool? Well, I guess ‘Scouse’ lends itself more easily to punning titles than Aberystwyth. It also helps that the 'Pool is packed to the rafters with wannabe WAGs, models and stylists, all keen to elevate their 'minor local celebrity' status into something more durable.

With the stars of Made in Chelsea clopping over the horizon in their expensive shoes, and Mark Wright currently checking himself for ticks in the Australian jungle, the coast is clear for these new kids up on blocks (well, it is Liverpool after all) to take their turn in front of the cameras. Coming up in the next hour of ‘Desperate Scousewives’, we'll be meeting a couple of self-important bloggers, a gay 'power couple', the cousin of Abbey Crouch and a glamour model. Exciting times.

The name of the show is the only remotely creative thing about the whole enterprise, but even that falls apart when the opening credits begin. See, none of them are wives, and they’re clearly about as domesticated as a pack of feral dogs roaming a sink-estate. But that title has to be explained, so they’ve been dressed from the seconds bin of Ann Summers, and given a range of domestic cleaning utensils to brandish seductively. It does nothing for me, but I bet Ken Dodd’s got a rager.

Might as well start as we mean to go on, with a grating voiceover that’s like being kicked in the ear by a pantomime horse. This is Jodie, and she’s singing the praises of her home city, calling out all the things it’s renowned for, including “muzackhhhh, geyerrrls and billdins.” Jodie’s been away from the ‘Pool for too long, and now she’s back to stake her claim on the city. Her hair is whiter than Donnie Osmond, and the giant gold CND earrings seem like a last minute choice. But she gamely stands at the top of the steps outside the train station and bellows “Liverpool, I’m back”. It’s met with utter disinterest, except for one off-screen voice that mumbles “Gizzakiss.”

Later, Jodie complains to a loaf of Boswells (I believe that’s the correct collective noun) that in London, people thought she was Lady Gaga. Here in Liverpool, “No-one bats an eyelid”. That’s because they can’t – their lashes are simply too heavy. Undeterred by her hometown’s indifference, Jodie declares that she’s back in the ‘Pool to “smash it”. After one too many close-ups, I’m putting in money on the fact that the only thing likely to be smashed will end in seven years’ bad luck.

With our intermittent narrator now introduced, it’s time to meet the local bad-boy. Joe’s a player (we know this because every time he’s mentioned, someone points that out) and serial heart breaker. He’s currently trying to kick out Layla, having given her “a go” on his bed. Layla struggles gamely with one of the most artificial scenes I’ve ever seen on any of these shows, managing to muster a half-hearted sadface after Joe offers to walk her down to the cab he’d already called.

She’s left to stand on the street corner, all fur coat and no knickers – probably because they’re tucked behind Joe’s headboard. In a rare occurrence for one of these show, Layla finds herself with no-one to talk to, so she breaks the fourth wall and talks to the camera crew. She’s actually quite pretty, but her sullen demeanour makes her look like a depressed Thundercat. I shall call her Whine-O.

To perk things up a bit, we cut away to Debbie and Gill, who are out for a bit of early morning shopping with their hair in giant soup-can rollers. I imagine they’re supposed to be famous, so a couple of bystanders are goaded into approaching them for a photo with the opening line "We've seen all your modelling work and we think you're great." Remember the introductory voiceover that warned some of these scenes have been set up for out entertainment? I think this may be one of them. The two girls are browsing a dress shop, speaking in little four syllable bursts, every one of which? Goes up at the end? Like a question? But not really?

As Layla waits for her cab, another car whizzes past containing Elissa and Jaiden. She’s a ‘respected professional journalist’ and he’s the self-confessed ‘bitchiest blogger in Britain’. During the show, it emerges that Jaiden’s catchphrase is “I’m not being funny”. Having looked at his blog, I’m happy to confirm that fact. Since the two of them spend their days commenting on the other cast members, I suppose they’re our unofficial Greek chorus. Although I don’t recall Sophocles ever writing “Your hair extensions are shit.”

Jodie is now interviewing for a salon job with Mark and Chris. According to the show’s official website, Chris says "I think as a couple we will become a Power Couple. We have a positive image to promote amongst the gay community and hopefully help people who are yet to come out.” Someone should probably tell him that it takes more than a pocket-sized dog and a terraced house to be a ‘power couple’. In the only amusing exchange in the whole hour, Mark tells Jodie “We’re really looking at anal bleaching”, to which she responds with “That's a bit Hollywood isn't it. We're only in Anfield." She’s got a point, I can see plenty of orange twats, but not a single pasty arsehole.

In an effort to demonstrate her styling skills, Jodie gives a model what she calls ‘Scouse Eyebrows’ which end up looking like two strips of B-road running across the poor girl’s face. The boys don’t look too impressed, probably because the whole thing played out like a sketch on Russ Abbot’s Madhouse.

As the episode progresses, we realise that all of these characters are going to be attending the Juice FM Annual Style Awards. Perhaps there’s a new category for services to leopard print, in which case they’re all in with a shot. Even the boys. The editors insist on cutting back and forth between a bunch of people who all look the same, drinking Cava in push-up bras. I was going to laboriously describe each of these scenes, but it’d be even more boring to read than it was to sit through. So instead, let me tell you a story about the glory days of advertising.

Back in the 1960s, advertisers came up with a simple formula for selling products to housewives. The ads usually involved two women – an idiot, and the smarter neighbour who was here to show her the error of her ways, thanks to some miraculous new product. In advertising shorthand, this set-up was known as ‘Two cunts in a kitchen’, often abbreviated to 2Cs-in-a-K. Perhaps taking its cues from this tried and tested concept, Desperate Scousewives shows us 2Cs-in-a-bedroom, 2Cs-in-a-dress-shop, 2Cs-in-a-bar and 2Cs-in-a-hotel. It’s a shame they didn’t team up with QVC – a couple of product demos and they could have cleaned up. The only bright spot in these endless scenes of two women talking about bugger all, is when glamour model Amanda shows Chloe her sexy new calendar: “Ooh, how many pages are there?” asks her clueless protégé.

The less said about the ‘awards show’ the better, since it’s the least convincing event since Dale Winton married Nell McAndrew. The only people who seem to arrive are cast members of the show, and the two ‘paparazzi’ photographers look as though they’re probably on E4’s payroll. Meanwhile, our roving reporters Elissa and Jaiden hang out in the doorway snarking to people’s faces. Elissa says she’s waiting for “real celebrities”, so I hope she’s got thermals on under that green sack of a dress. She could be in for long night.

In a lazy attempt to initiate some fireworks, Elissa confronts Joe about their troubled history and Debbie makes a move on hotel magnate George. He tells her his family owns the Hilton hotel, but his last name is Panayiotou, so something doesn’t add up. Not to worry, I doubt Debbie does either.

The final scenes involve Amanda tackling Jaiden for his bitchy tweets about her. She tells Chloe she’s going to give him a piece of her mind, but I’m not sure she’s got enough to spare. “End of story,” she boldly declares, and I can’t help wishing that someone would. She and Jaiden argue about who ranks lower in the celebrity universe, accusing each other of being Z-list. In all honesty, neither of them even rank on the English alphabet. If there’s a celebrity list where these two belong, I think it starts with a Wingding.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Driving me Mad

This been a banner year for comic book fans with a taste for nostalgia. Spielberg’s Tintin adaptation has kicked off an extensive online debate between bande dessinée enthusiasts, over the relative merits of the bequiffed Belgian and his historically dubious Gallic neighbour Asterix. Likewise, Karl Urban's imminent Judge Dredd reboot has reignited an enthusiastic reappraisal of 2000AD. But there's one classic comic that deserves its own tribute - a title that unites fans across the generations.

Unfortunately, Mad is unlikely to experience a similar resurgence of popularity, since instead of inspiring movies, it was content to satirise them. Nonetheless, for those who fell victim to cover-boy Alfred E. Neuman's gap-toothed charms, it remains without equal.

Growing up, we all had our heroes. But whereas most of my contemporaries worshipped football icons like Ian Rush and Kevin Keegan, my idea of a dream team involved the legendary pairing of Drucker and DeBartolo. From the moment I first picked up a copy of Mad magazine in the summer of 1985, it was love at first sight. Whenever my schoolmates would wax lyrical about Hoddle and Waddle, I reimagined them as sound effects in one of Don Martin's classic cartoon strips featuring those characteristically floppy shoes. Unlike sportsmen, who are lucky to enjoy a golden period of ten years at best, Mad's cabal of artists and writers remained at the top of their game for over four decades. So it didn't matter to me if they thought the 4-4-2 formation was shorthand for the ideal panel layout.

For the next decade I never missed an issue, even saving my pocket money in order to buy up old back issues, as well as the quarterly 'super specials'. In fact, I still have every copy I ever bought, although they now sit gathering dust in a grey packing crate in the attic. So it'd been a good few years since I'd last opened an issue. But all that changed recently when I took the plunge and bought Absolutely Mad, a single DVD-Rom containing full PDFs of every single edition published between 1952 and 2005 - that's over 40,000 pages on a single disc. Even better, I realised that the issues could be easily transferred onto my iPad, which meant that I was able to take over 600 issues of my favourite magazine on holiday.

Swiping effortlessly through the decades, I was amazed at how quickly the memories all came flooding back, right down to some of the individual gags and illustrations. It was like attending an impromptu school reunion, only populated by people I actually wanted to see again: Spy vs Spy, Dave Berg's Lighter Side, Sergio Aragone's Drawn-out-Dramas, Frank Jacob's incredible rhyming skills and Al Jaffee's doubly impressive legacy of fold-ins and 'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions'. Good times.

And then there was all that breathtaking artwork. Jack Davis always had an army of fans, many of whom recalled his glory days as the flagship artist behind EC's gloriously grisly terror titles, such as Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror. But no-one comes close to Mort Drucker for his unnerving accuracy, and the ability to pack a double-page spread with more detail than could possibly be appreciated in a single viewing.

These days, the technique of caricature has been diminished by all those talentless hacks who knock out five-minute sketches for easily-pleased tourists. But Drucker was something else. In fact, he was so respected for his attentive artistry that he was even invited to create the official poster illustration for George Lucas' American Graffiti. Which stood him in good stead a few months later, when he found himself revisiting the film for Mad's inevitable spoof of the movie. By contrast, Angelo Torres always felt like something of an also-ran, his sketches lacking the warmth, shading and appeal of his more fondly-remembered colleague. 

Revisited as a complete archive, rather than in monthly instalments, Mad becomes more than just a knockabout compilation of satire and spoofery. It's also a stunningly insightful document of social change, reflecting every major craze, fad and trend that emerged over five tumultuous decades. In particular, the seventies recorded shifting dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam, the indignation of a country betrayed by its Commander-in-Chief, and the escalating friction between the establishment and those agitating for social progression. 

Deserving a special shout-out is the December 1970 issue, which featured article after article satirising the "loud minority" and its impact on contemporary American society. Despite being aimed predominantly at school-age readers, the repeated references to civil disobedience, civil rights and drug use, vividly depict a country in crisis. Nowhere is this more evident that in Dave Berg's Lighter Side strip, usually the most conservative feature in any given issue. Having spent several pages criticising the counter-cultural movement for its double standards, the final strip offers up the depressingly downbeat admission that maybe the rebellious youth had a point. You didn't get that in the Beano. 

Despite his conservative leanings, publisher William M Gaines had built a solid reputation for his socially liberal perspective, populating his controversial horror comics with bitterly ironic stories that exposed prejudice and avarice in everyday life. Despite the criticism that the comics received for their grisly illustrations and macabre set-pieces, it was these moral subtexts which really stood out for their young readers. 

In contrast, as Mad grew into a comic institution, the editors took great care to ensure a more even hand on any topic, demonstrating a laudable commitment to exploring both sides of every argument. They even went so far as to run dual covers at election time, congratulating both candidates on their successful runs - a joke they repeated several times over the years. As long-time editor Al Feldstein explained recently, "We even used to rake the hippies over the coals. They were protesting the Vietnam War, but we took aspects of their culture and had fun with it. Mad was wide open. Bill loved it, and he was a capitalist Republican. I loved it, and I was a liberal Democrat. That went for the writers, too; they all had their own political leanings, and everybody had a voice. But the voices were mostly critical. It was social commentary, after all."

And yet, although the majority of articles ultimately pointed towards a more progressive point-of-view, revisiting them from a 21st century perspective, it's clear to see where the writers and artists struggled with the dawning of a new world order. The credibility of some great articles is occasionally undermined by a casual racism and homophobia. Blacks were often characterised as violent drug users, whereas homosexuality was carelessly conflated with transvestism and paedophilia. The fact that the editors were still comfortable in 1982 showing Christopher Reeve saying "I play a screaming faggot," when describing his role in Deathtrap, suggests that some attitudes took a little longer to evolve.

But these are really minor quibbles, since the 'Usual Gang of Idiots' set their own bar so high. If you want a comprehensive snapshot of the history of popular culture, politics and society, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more thorough or accurate representation. 

Looking back now, the jokes are often stilted and predictable. Likewise, some of the second-tier illustrators had a decidedly amateurish technique. But I'm reviewing them through adult eyes, which is never how Mad was intended to be seen. And that's really the reason it endured as a satire powerhouse for over half a century. Jokes may not be timeless, but quality is.

The consistency of its tone and style allowed subsequent generations to discover Mad for themselves, via their own cultural touchpoints. It didn't matter what decade you were born in, Mad peeled back the veneer to reveal how the world really worked.  It bit its thumb at marketing techniques. It exposed moralising leaders as venal hypocrites. And it happily deconstructed Hollywood's penchant for self-glorification. It introduced me to movies I was too young to see, told me about TV shows long before they were broadcast in the UK, and gave me a crash course in Yiddish slang. I didn't know what 'schmuck' meant, but I was convinced that my school was full of them. 

As much a rite of passage as your first drink or adult movie, Mad represents a specific period in time for anyone who ever got lost in its black and white pages. I still marvel at the fact that I reminisce with people twice my age about the same magazine. Our recollections may differ, depending on the era in which we read it, but there's enough commonality for us to connect across the decades. In our minds' eye, the pictures may have changed, but the names remain the same. 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Not much to be thankful for

It's amazing how much can change in a fortnight. Two weeks ago, it seemed as though the UK's entertainment reserves had run dry, with the X-Factor showcasing about as much 'world class' talent as your average episode of Rentaghost. Meanwhile, Simon's experimental debut season of the show's US equivalent was laughing in our face with an endless parade of precociously capable singers.

By the time I got back from my holiday (lovely, thank you), the world of TV talent shows had rocked on its axis. Having purged itself of all the headline-grabbing novelty acts, X-Factor UK was finally starting to resemble a talent contest. On the other hand, X-Factor USA had devolved into a tedious blur of self-indulgent over-singing and too much talk of performers' "inner light". So let's see what delights our transatlantic cousins have in-store for us tonight.

Tonight's episode is the Thanksgiving special, so they're going to be dedicating their songs to someone who's made a difference in their lives. Sorry Brian Friedman, I don't expect you'll be getting too many shout-outs. Let's give a nice, warm who-are-you-again welcome to our affable, sorry, laughable host Steve Jones. He's the TV presenter equivalent of those books that IKEA use to dress their Ivar shelving units - handsomely bound but disappointingly empty inside. You know you're on a downward trajectory when you find yourself missing Dermot's agent-may-care insouciance.

Steve's eyebrows are dancing with delight at the news that two acts will be going home this week. He should be thanking his lucky stars that the audience don't get to cast votes for the presenter. Here come our judges, and we need to give a special shout-out to Paula's leathery chesticles, which seem to be acting independently of the rest of her torso. Perhaps sensing that his lunch was about to revisit him, the cameraman whip-cuts to Simon, who's also drawing attention to his fun-bags with a single finger. Now I can taste my lunch again.

Tonight's first performer is Rachel Crow, who sings like an angel but occasionally looks like a Chucky doll. It's hard to be cynical about a kid who was born addicted to crack, and it certainly shames the UK contestants' woeful sob-stories about asthmatic cats or a bad case of the sniffles. Rachel's singing a song that's "inspirational rather than sad", which is nice. Unfortunately, it's also shouty rather than tuneful. And I genuinely feel bad for a perky 13 year-old forced to dress like something you'd find on Susan Boyle's knick-knack shelf. In typically overblown style, Nicole's talking about her shining light, Paula's seeing angels on Earth, and Simon's got funny little dollar signs pencilled onto his eye-lids.

Marcus is a nice kid, and we get to hear about the sacrifices his Mum made to give her kids "positive energy". We get lots of digitally-aged black and white footage of Marcus growing up, which would be fine if it weren't for the fact that these scenes are supposed to represent the late nineties, rather than the Depression. He's sitting on a perspex staircase and singing an uncomfortably literal Boyz II Men song about his mum, who spends the entire song fanning herself with her hand. I'm not sure whether she's overwhelmed with emotion or just in danger of asphyxiating in the plumes of dry ice. They're really overdoing the fog machine - all that's missing is Jamie Lee Curtis and a hook-handed pirate. You'll notice I haven't mentioned the vocals - consider yourself lucky. Tellingly, the judges spend more time praising his mum's performance.

Steve's doing his best, announcing "we're LIVE in Los Angeles" only to be met with utter indifference. I'm sure that if the camera had stayed on him, we'd have seen an audience member lean in and say "Sorry, this seat's taken". Melanie's dedicating the song to God, who never let her down and is the only person who really listens to her. Fair point - I tuned out halfway through. If nothing else, the VT serves to demonstrate what an amazing job the stylists and make-up artists do on this show when it comes to the performances.

She's doing a great job with R Kelly's The World's Greatest. It takes an impressive set of pipes to avoid being drowned out by a twenty-strong gospel choir, but she manages it. Melanie spends the last third of the song staring at the roof, which means she's either connecting with her Lord or she's spotted a sniper in the rigging. Strangely, she has a little outburst after her song where her speaking accent suddenly changes into a kind of Virgin Island patois. None of the judges seem to notice, so we're all good.

Chris is up next, talking about his methamphetamine addiction, which ended up in a nasty car accident. After that, he cleaned up his act thanks to his counsellor, who gets a song dedicated to him. Everyone's very nice and thankful, but that might change when they hear his early-90s hip-hop version of Let It Be. Even Marky Mark's Funky Bunch would have given this a thumbs-down. Three of the judges are dancing, can you guess which one's sitting down? Honestly, that Paula's a miserable bitch. In the feedback, Paula talks about "why we fell in love with you in the first place", whereas Simon references "why we first liked you". And we wonder why Mezhgan Hussainy is no closer to getting him down the aisle.

Poor old Paula - she only has one act left. They may sound like someone's piss-poor attempt at creating a porn name, but Lakoda Rayne are actually pretty good. Imagine taking Wilson Phillips, and splitting the fat one in two, you'd have a good idea of what this photogenic foursome look and sound like. Correction - what they usually sound like. This is not a good week for them, particularly since they've been overwhelmed by a Taylor Swift song. Not that any of it matters, since the judges loved it, and Paula's weeping again.

Nicole is proud to introduce LeRoy Bell, the uncannily youthful 60 year-old. He may only look as though he's in his mid-thirties, but at least this is one contestant whose archive footage didn't need to be artificially aged. He's doing this for his mum who died a couple of years ago - it's very touching, until you remember that she was probably in her mid-eighties, in which case she had a good innings. He's wrapping his gravelly tones around Sarah McLachlan's Angel. Apart from Melanie, this is the only song that's been in tune all evening. He's even mastered the Westlife-style barstool key change maneuver: no doubt about it, the man's a pro. Here comes the choir again - might as well make use of them if you're paying for the whole hour. Paula's crying again, and I'm surprised that she's got any moisture left. If anyone else pushes her buttons she's going to need an IV drip. Steve's on hand to say "Amazing, it felt like you were singing it for yer Mam". Way to go Steve, demonstrating just how much attention you're paying to the show.

Next up it's time for Astro, the petulant little shithead who briefly refused to perform in the sing-off last week. There's no denying the kid has talent, since he writes most of his own raps. What's less convincing is the act of contrition he gives in his intro. He starts his song saying "What are you gonna do? I'm fifteen... I'm from Brooklyn". Well, that's alright then. The stage is mostly empty, but for a set of silvery steps. I'm really rooting for a guest appearance from Jo Frost - make the stroppy fucker sit on the naughty one for ten minutes until he's ready to apologise properly. Paula believes that Astro is "well on the way to being prolific", which suggests that she's using her only dictionary to prop up a wonky side table. She wants to be an 'Astro-Naut', which shouldn't be too much of a stretch for a space cadet.

Simon's nostrils are flared with delight as he introduces Drew, Carly Simon's fourteen year-old mini-me. She's dedicating her song to her best friend Shelby. Their mums reminisce about when they were "little girls", which must have been about six weeks ago. She's singing Skyscraper and it's a great showcase for her quirky vocals. We even get a close-up of Simon's now customary 'fuck me' face, which he does every time he hears something that sounds like the ker-ching of a cash-register. LA Reid complains that Drew isn't singing age-appropriate songs, which is odd since Skyscraper was first performed by Demi Lovato, who still can't drink legally in most US states.

Closing tonight's show is Josh, who's singing for his thirteen year-old daughter. He may have a face for radio, but he's got a great gravelly tone. If the music career doesn't work out, he'd make a great voice-over guy for movie trailers. Vertical light beams, grand piano and a storming version of the Stones' Wild Horses, result in an across-the-board standing ovation from the judges. Or maybe DVT was just setting in after two hours in those leather chairs. It was a great performance but Nicole's teary declaration that "your music will change the world" might be over egging it a touch.

Steve ends the proceedings by saying "On a personal note, it's been a special night." Someone give this man an Emmy. And a one-way ticket back to Wales.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Recipe for disaster

There was a time when I couldn’t get enough of Come Dine With Me. I could happily waste four hours of a Sunday afternoon, listening to Dave Lamb sniping about posh housewives fucking up a soufflé, or ex-dinner ladies revealing their secret for a quick coulis – Robertson’s jam and a splash of hot water.

But the format’s starting to look a little tired, so lazy TV executives are keen to find a similar concept that will appeal to the same crowd, with just enough tweaks to make it feel fresh again. Like the telly equivalent of Monday leftovers.

And so it is that we’ve been invited to attend The Devil’s Dinner Party (cue ominous music). This new show mixes elements of CDWM, Big Brother and, my personal favourite, Without Prejudice, stirring them into a lumpy broth of snap judgements, bitchy backbiting and napkin rings. There’s also an ominous host – the unfortunately named Pip Torrens - who claims to be doing the devil’s bidding. Given that this is a Sky production, that might not be an entirely erroneous claim. Pip looks and acts like Lurch from the Addams Family, with a smidge of Evan Davies’ creepy ‘leather daddy’ vibe.

Pip explains that six strangers have been invited to dinner, and one will walk away the winner, having been voted the most popular guest at the table. Along the way, others will be eliminated. This is how Agatha Christie’s dinner parties usually ended up, so let’s see who’s going to end up on the business end of a shrimp fork.

After a burst of Apprentice-lite cab-porn, we meet our contestants. Francesca is a presenter “of mostly online stuff” which instantly gets the boys picturing her twiddling a phone cord around her finger and giving it the old come-hither. Amanda works with older people, and seems to have come disguised as one of them. Danny’s a recruiter in the city, and is so oily that he should come with his own breadsticks.

Layla is a brassy, take-no-prisoners Aussie, who claims to wear her heart on her sleeve. Unfortunately, she’s left the sleeves at home, along with a fitted bra. Since she’s going to spend most of the evening spilling out of her unforgiving LBD, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that no-one brings a melon-baller to the table, otherwise this dinner might end with a trip to A&E.

Tony is a commercial interior decorator and part-time actor, but gives the immediate impression that he’s not been overly successful in either venture. More on that later. Finally, there’s Ryan, who works in IT and promises to “have chemistry with all the women”. He spends most of his VT complaining how stupid and dull everyone else is. Which is a little odd, since if I was stuck at a dinner party with him, I’d sooner strike up a conversation with the curtains.

As his guests make their awkward introductions, Lurch looms into view to announce, “I make the Devil’s mischief. It’s time to play.” Strap on your ball-gags, tonight’s safety word is “crabcake”.

The set dressers have gone overboard with the gothic styling, but all the candles in the world can’t hide the fact that it still looks like a Barratt’s showhome. Suddenly, Lurch is back to hit the guests with their first nasty surprise. Someone’s going home without so much as an amuse-bouche. The diners quickly vote, and it’s revealed that Danny will not be joining them for dinner. He might have professed to “enjoy meeting people” but clearly the feeling isn’t always mutual.

As the guests take their seats, their host tells them “You’ve earned your first £1,000. But here is where you start paying.” Throw in some sweaty leg warmers and this could be Debbie Allen’s intro to Fame.

Over the next twenty minutes, each guest is taken away from the table to answer a probing question, with the barked instruction “Write an answer. Do. Not. Speak.” Meanwhile, the other guests have to guess how their missing member would answer the question.

Ryan is first in the hot seat, and has to decide who he would offer a room to – a family of refugees, a 16 year-old single mum, a rehabilitated ex-offender, or a single man who’d had a mental breakdown. I’m guessing he’s not an Express reader, otherwise he’d have just tried to slash his own throat with the answer card, rather than make the choice.

Having guessed Ryan’s answer incorrectly (he’d take the guy with a mental breakdown), it’s time for Layla to face a grilling. She’s asked how attractive she’d score herself out of ten. They think she’s an eight, but would probably score herself lower. In fact, she confidently declares that she’s an eight. All I can say is that Lurch must pour a pretty strong drink.

Now it’s Amanda’s turn. Who’s the most forgettable in the group? Once again, they get it wrong because they’re all trying too hard to be polite. No-one wants to tell Francesca that she’s pretty but dull. So they make up some bullshit about her being out of Amanda’s line of sight. It’s not like she’s spent the evening crouched behind a potted palm.

Lurch is back again, with the ominous warning that someone is certain to suffer. Given the line up around the table, I’d say that they’re all in the same boat there. Meanwhile, Amanda throws Tony a non-sequitur “If you’re a single dad, how old’s your child?” And that’s from a psychologist.

Tony takes the hot seat next, to reveal how successful out of ten he thinks he’s been in life. Divorced, redundant, running a failing business – is there a therapist hovering in the utility room? No need to worry, he’s a happy eight. That irks Ryan no end, who points out that if Trump and Sugar are tens, how can Jacko from Brush Strokes possibly score himself eight?

Lurch returns to ask gravely “Ladies and gentlemen, do you think you can win this complex contest?” I’m not sure where he got ‘complex’ from, maybe he’s watching Mr & Mrs on a black and white portable in the kitchen while his guests are making short work of the sorbets.

The guests all take a card from a pile and it’s revealed that Layla’s is marked. According to Lurch, she has an unpleasant task to perform. I hope she brought some mouthwash, just in case he’s been nibbling the asparagus when no-one was looking. Not to worry, it turns out she just has to select her least favourite guest for immediate eviction. In a less than surprising turn of events, she chooses Francesca, who grabs her coat and makes a hasty exit.

The group’s final challenge sees Tony trying to figure out which of his fellow diners is a member of Mensa. He guesses incorrectly, choosing Amanda instead of Ryan, who scoffs in his VT “No-one else around the table would have a snowball’s chance of getting into Mensa.” That’s hardly going to see their membership applications soaring, unless they’re still operating a cunts-only door policy.

Before the chocolate fondants have even been served, it’s time for the group to select a winner. And in time-honoured tradition, they choose the biggest wanker at the table. One small consolation is that Ryan only walks away with £1,000 since they were all so hopeless at guessing the answers. He’s happy enough, telling the camera “I cheated, I lied, I did what I have to.” Sensing that this isn’t exactly an upbeat ending for the pilot episode, Lurch warns us that the wicked find no solace in sleep. That may be so, but an easy grand could help them locate it in Spearmint Rhino.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Terminator to Governator to Commentator

It's hard to believe that DVDs have been part of our lives for over thirteen years now. In fact there's a whole generation of movie fans who never experienced the joys of buying ex-rental video tapes in giant display cases from dodgy market traders.

My first taste of the digital revolution came in 1999, when I snapped up a copy of The Exorcist on the shiny new format. At the time I didn't even have a DVD player, but I was so excited that William Friedkin's masterpiece was finally available for home viewing after years in the censorship wilderness, I couldn't resist splashing out the extra few quid. A few weeks later, with the necessary hardware duly connected (Scart-enabled plug-n-play, God bless you), I loaded the disc and sat in wonderment as a twenty five year-old film came to life, looking as pin sharp as the first time it gave ex-BBFC boss James Ferman the collywobbles.

But even better than the remastered picture and sound, was the promise of extra content. It used to be that the film itself was enough reason to buy a sell-through video, but DVD ushered in the era of bonus features. Out-takes, documentaries, gag-reels, EPK footage - all designed to gradually pick apart the magic of the movies, like watching a Nigel Slater cooking show in reverse.

As much as I love the behind-the-scenes footage, my favourite DVD extra has always been the director's commentary. A relic from the long-forgotten laserdisc format, commentaries invite viewers into an exclusive screening with the film's makers, as they lay bare the struggles and pressures of getting a film onto the big screen. Unlike the studio-endorsed promotional footage, where an endless parade of grinning actors wax lyrical about how "Rob Schneider is a true renaissance man", or how "Adam Sandler has singlehandedly transformed the concept of modern comedy", the director's commentary is where you find the real meat.

For instance, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre commentary features director Tobe Hooper and original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen, complaining about the fact that the actor who played Franklin was an insufferable arsehole. Elsewhere, you'll find film-makers bitching about studio interference, failed effects work and the perils of censorship. Locked away in a dark screening room, often with plenty of alcohol on hand, the artifice is stripped away, leaving you with a much clearer insight into what went on during filming.

However, not all commentaries are created equal. Robert Zemeckis might be a dynamic and visually inspired director, but his talk-tracks are about as much fun as giving Michael Winner a pedicure. Likewise, many once-vibrant auteurs quickly reveal themselves to be depressed geriatrics, less concerned with exploring the magic of movies than they are with staving off their inevitable return to the care home.

And then there are the literalists. The ones who can't help but describe what's happening on screen. Occasionally, this lapse in focus can be excused - when the film is truly compelling, it's easy to understand how someone can momentarily lose their train of thought and get hooked on what's taking place in the movie. Thankfully, most of them remember why they're there, and get the commentary back on track.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not one of them. His two-hander with Paul Verhoeven (usually a must-listen commentator, thanks to his unapologetically brutal honesty) on the chat-track for Total Recall is a sublime exercise in stating the obvious.

A 'best bits' edit is currently going viral and it's worth five minutes of anyone's time - it's almost as if he thought he was providing the audio description track for partially sighted viewers. Particularly entertaining are the moments where he explains the subtle nuances of his scenes with Sharon Stone. Clearly, these are two acting titans at the top of their game, so it's understandable that we'd need their inner motivations explaining in graphic detail: "Because she's trying so hard for me not to see the news, you can see here with the eye, and then no matter what I do - the kissing, the hugging with her, I'm more interested in what's going on on Mars." Let's just hope that James Lipton is taking notes.

Elsewhere, there are other priceless gems, such as a shot of Arnold on a jackhammer - "Here I am in my job, I'm a construction worker". And let's not forget the triple-titted hooker opening her blouse as the Austrian Oak babbles excitedly "She has three breasts hah? That's the one with three breasts."

I know that not everyone can understand the appeal of commentaries. Even Steven Spielberg refuses to record them because he hates the idea of anyone, even him, talking through one of his films. But next time you're at a loose end and can't face rewatching something you've already seen a million times, try changing the audio track - you might just get a completely new perspective on an old favourite. Unless Arnie's doing the voiceover, of course.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Thief in the night

The problem with the Daily Mail (as if that could ever be narrowed down to a single issue) is that it holds a morbid fascination for anyone who doesn't see life through the prism of Viz's Victorian Dad. Like the notorious 'Two Girls, One Cup' video, it draws people in with its hateful editorial stance and equally loathsome columnists. We know we're going to be disgusted, but we just can't help taking a peek. And then sharing with like-minded friends. It's the journalistic equivalent of trying those disgusting sweets that someone brings back from overseas, and then encouraging everyone else to have a suck, so they can experience the foulness for themselves. Meanwhile, Paul Dacre sits back in his throne and watches the web traffic spike.

It's happening again today, as Liz Jones continues her ongoing campaign of self-immolation by admitting that she stole her boyfriend's sperm and tried to impregnate herself while he was sleeping. It's bad enough being forced to picture her in flagrante, but the image is made a hundred times worse when imagining her staggering bow-legged to the ensuite with a used johnny full of man-fat and a hungry expression in her beady, lifeless eyes. She's like the Tooth Fairy, only armed with a turkey baster instead of a pair of dental pliers.

Since logic and humility have never paid more than a fleeting visit to Liz's door, I'm forced to contemplate the notion that she's actually a fictional creation. An impeccably drawn amalgam of Adrian Mole and Alan Partridge. Only a comic genius could rationalise sperm stealing from a prospective babydaddy with the bon mot: "I thought it was my right, given that he was living with me and I had bought him many, many M&S ready meals." Given her famous money worries, I just pray that she managed to score three courses for a tenner.

As Justin Bieber faces the consequences of thirty brief seconds "fucking the shit" out of a fan (someone should explain to him that's not how babies get made) he should perhaps heed Liz's words of caution for future reference: "I don’t understand why more men aren’t wise to this risk — maybe sex addles their brain. So let me offer a warning to men wishing to avoid any chance of unwanted fatherhood: if a woman disappears to the loo immediately after sex, I suggest you find out exactly what she is up to." In Liz's world, vaginal cleanliness is optional. 

In customary fashion, the succubus of Somerset gives herself a free pass, instead choosing to point the finger at women in general. Apparently most women in their thirties are "duplicitous creatures", conspiring to wank you in your sleep and run off to the loo with a fistful of your baby gravy - like Geri Halliwell in the throws of bulimia, covertly fishing chocolate cake out of George Michael's bin. 

Meanwhile, another classic Mail creation is busy pointing the cum-soaked finger of blame elsewhere, when it comes to illegitimate children. Amanda Platell, a woman who could curdle the milk of human kindness, has unleashed a vitriolic attack on Hugh Grant. She's still pissed off that the affable toff made a good showing on Newsnight and Question Time, speaking eloquently about the abuses of the press in light of the phone hacking scandal.

So she pulls no punches in accusing him of being a commitment-phobic lounge lizard who consorts with prostitutes and then dissolves into an "orgy of self-pity". Amanda has nothing but sympathy for the poor child, born to a "lonely, bitter" father. In fact, she fears for the day when Hugh's daughter "reads the lurid accounts of her father’s arrest for procuring a sex act in a car on Sunset Boulevard from a prostitute..." Hopefully, unless it's buried behind a paywall, she'll be able to find everything she needs in Amanda's many, many columns on the subject. 

And there you have it. Women are a bunch of baby-obsessed jizz snatchers, harvesting men's seed by the light of the moon, and men are thoughtless brat factories; existing only to plough their furrow and dash at the first sign of a late period. No wonder the Mail wants us to return to the 1950s, if this is the best that 21st century humanity has to offer.