Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Sun, Sea and Shoot Me In The Head

After a long work week that started at 4am on Sunday morning, I’m finally able to sit down and watch the TV for an hour. Wednesday evenings don’t exactly constitute an embarrassment of riches, so I’m forced to choose between Two Jews On A Cruise, Claire Richards Slave To Food, or Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. Somewhere in West London, a cabal of commissioning editors are flicking through a dog-eared copy of Charlie Brooker’s TV Go Home and laughing their arses off.

Since I’m in desperate need of a holiday, I figure that I can at least live vicariously through the exploits of a bunch of teenagers caning it in Zante. Problem is, I’ve already endured The Inbetweeners Movie, so I’m not sure that I need another hour of gormless adolescents vomiting into a goldfish bowl full of Blue Curacao and WKD.

Picking up voice-over duty is Russell Tovey, who warns us that “Everyone’s up for it, and anything goes. Cheap booze, dirty dancing and that all important independence.” No mention of who’s paying for these holidays, but I think with shows like this, it’s best not to quibble the details. If you’ve never seen Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, I’m fiercely jealous of you. But let me outline the concept for you – two gobby teens hit the Club 18-30 for a week, unaware that their parents are just yards away, participating in some of the least convincing undercover surveillance you’ve ever seen.

If I really wanted to capture the tone and feel of the show, I’d cut and paste the previous sentence three times, since that’s exactly what the voice-over does. By the time Russell has scored his scene-setting hat trick, I’m wondering whether this is going to get really hard to follow. Like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but with more tramp stamps.

Not to worry, here come the spoilt teenagers to take our mind off all that repetition. Alex is from Newcastle, and is presumably modeling herself after Cheryl Cole, even if the effect is a little more Cher Lloyd. She has issues with her stepdad, because he perpetuates the myth that mums are allowed to have a life too. She’s going away with her best mates, including a hair-dresser who tells her to “Get on it like a car bonnet.” I’m not sure what that means, but I hope it’s been Supraguarded to protect from scuffing.

Sophie is 18 and rebelling against her strict Christian upbringing. To be fair, the parents don’t seem overly oppressive – Dad just sits in the conservatory leafing through Corinthians. Relishing every opportunity to shock, Sophie promises us lots of girlie snogging. Because nothing’s hotter than seeing a pair of overweight girls going at it like two dogs fighting over a Greggs Steak Bake.

By the time our excitable teens arrive in Zante, they’re enthusing about the most mundane details: “We’ve got a balcony. Yay!” “Oh my God, feel how actually hot it is.” Minutes later and Sophie hits the hotel pool, to check out the cock sizes of the Italian guests. Meanwhile, the parents meet up and express their concern about what they’re going to find out. Someone didn’t read the release forms before agreeing to come on this show. Sophie’s mum is especially worried that her daughter will get drunk and make a fool of herself. I’d suggest that her straining bikini took care of that.

We regroup with our teenage test subjects in a noisy bar, nestled between McDonalds and KFC. Alex is shaking a cocktail in a waiter’s pants and fighting with her friends. Sophie is spread out on the pavement, entwined with two other equally fulsome girls. They look like the Human Centipede, but made out of tripe.

As her best friend storms off in a huff, Mini-Cheryl is left in a bad mood. So we should be thankful that these aren’t the sort of bars that employ toilet attendants, otherwise it’d just get nasty. She cries that her friends are the only people who never judge her. But if being judged is her biggest fear, appearing on this show might not have been the smartest move.

The following day, Sophie sets out to organise watersports for her and her friends. I’d have thought a couple of plastic sheets and a bath-towel should cover it, but she’s thinking of a high-speed inflatable raft. Her parents are wearing cheap wigs and crouching behind a beach bar, watching her hijinks through opera glasses. Covert operations 101. Listening in on their conversations, Sophie’s dad speculates that “I don’t think Christianity is at the forefront of Sophie’s mind at the moment.” Which isn’t strictly true, because she’s looking at a bottle of water and wishing she could turn it into Mad Dog.

Elsewhere on the island, Alex and her friends wander off to buy “Vodka, and something to mix with vodka,” so her mum and stepdad sneak into her room for a look around. Our attention is drawn to a gruesome clump of purple hair on a pillow. They look disgusted, but to be honest, it could just be one of the wigs Sophie’s parents wore on the beach.

Later on, Sophie and her breasts head for another nightclub, so mum and dad sneak in the back to join in. It soon becomes clear that mum is a frustrated party animal herself. They may be here because they’re worried about whether Sophie has the where-with-all to live independently, but I’m starting to think that Dad might soon be the one learning to cook single portions.

Finally, it’s time for the parents to reveal themselves, which is ironic since their daughters have been doing that all week. In fact, Sophie’s laid out on a bar playing a “risqué game” when her folks appear. Dad keeps saying “I can’t wait to see her face”, oblivious to the fact that it’s the other end that’ll greet him first. As for Alex, she’s not exactly pleased to see her mum and stepdad interrupt the first sun she’s had all week. Not to worry, as mum tells her “You’ve been great, we’ve really enjoyed watching you.” At least someone did.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Telling tales

There are few things more frustrating than realising the writers of your favourite series are making it up as they go along. Take Lost for example. Throughout the show’s intermittently brilliant six-year run, its creators maintained that they always knew precisely what was going on, even if its viewers were none the wiser. So we took them at face value, convinced that all those inexplicable events would eventually coalesce in a climax that made sense of everything. Of course, the reality was somewhat different, leaving millions of viewers feeling cheated and let-down by its ‘throw shit at the wall and see what sticks’ approach to story-telling.

Which makes Armistead Maupin’s singular talent that much more remarkable. His long running series of Tales of the City novels (finally available in eBook form next month) started out as a fictional column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Written to meet a daily deadline, Maupin’s serialisation had no option but to follow the whims of his imagination. As a consequence, his growing legion of followers delighted in seeing where the twisting, turning story would take them. And yet, time and time again, his ability to craft fortuitous coincidence into a neatly-wrapped narrative never once let him down. Even now, the books read as though they were all meticulously planned right from the start, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

During the 1970s, Maupin’s books offered a joyous counterpoint to the seedy underbelly of San Francisco that movie-goers saw in the Dirty Harry series. Bewitched by the free-spiritedness of his newly-adopted home, Maupin depicted San Francisco as a modern-day Shangri La. A bohemian utopia of tolerance and bed-hopping, shrouded in an intoxicating fug of marijuana smoke. As seen through the naïve eyes of secretary Mary Ann Singleton, the city by the bay managed to be both welcoming and intimidating in equal measure – greeting newcomers with a patchouli-scented embrace, and then chiding them for serving instant coffee.

Although readers initially join Mary Ann on her voyage of discovery, hoping that she’ll eventually reconcile her prickly demeanour with her more laid-back surroundings, it’s not until we meet Mrs Madrigal that we discover the books’ real soul. The eccentric landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, Mrs Madrigal is a permissive, Tennyson-quoting mother hen who, when asked if she has any objection to pets in her building, replies enigmatically “Dear, I have no objection to anything.”

Over the course of the first book we meet a diverse cast whose sexualities inform and inspire, but never define, their characters. Rereading the books now, there’s a charming innocence to the way this eclecticism was depicted. So it’s easy to overlook just how revolutionary this was back in the 1970s, even for a city as progressive as San Francisco. Making room in his interconnected world for every conceivable sexual identity, Maupin stayed true to his intention that he be defined as a ‘gay author’, rather than a writer of ‘gay fiction’.

This issue hit home for Maupin when the studios came calling in the mid-eighties, with a big screen adaptation in mind. In a 1993 interview with the LA Times, the author recalled how “…a producer who bought the option invited me to dinner one night with the screenwriter he was proposing for it. The writer said how fabulously talented I was, then hit me with the idea that the gay gynaecologist be made into a serial killer." Another aborted attempt at turning the books into a drama series on CBS encountered similar problems: "They indicated they had no problem with the material until I was minutes away from signing the contract, when they said they might have to eliminate the gay and lesbian characters. As if this was a minor consideration from my viewpoint. I told them taking gay people out of Maupin was like taking poor people out of Dickens."

Over the years, that literary comparison has become increasingly prescient, as critics have compared Maupin’s output to that of Dickens, where once they were content to dismiss his work as well-written soap opera. Initially, perhaps, such a reductionist assessment might have been appropriate, since the storylines relied heavily on contrivance and coincidence. But as the carefree spirit of the 70s gave way to the materialistic narcissism of the 80s, and the spectre of AIDS loomed large over the city’s gay community, the storylines matured accordingly. Although many of the characters retained their irrepressible joie de vivre, the tone grew darker and the plotlines more dramatic.

Even so, Maupin’s decision to end the series with Sure Of You in 1989, left fans grieving for their fictional friends. Minimal concessions were made by allowing some of his peripheral characters to make cameo appearances in Maybe The Moon and The Night Listener, but it was clear that there was still life in the old dogs yet. When Maupin published Michael Tolliver Lives in 2007, he stressed that, although he was happy to revisit his old friends, this was in no way to be seen as the seventh Tales installment. Thankfully, 2010’s Mary Ann in Autumn came with no such caveat, and even managed the not-inconsiderable achievement of wrapping up a storyline that had been left open for over 30 years.

Maupin never wanted his books to be relegated to the ‘gay literature’ shelf, but this gave booksellers a different problem as they struggled to categorise his unique style. Many of the Tales have an unmistakable mystery thriller structure, but wouldn’t sit comfortably alongside police procedurals or grisly whodunits. Likewise, they’re unashamedly sentimental, but have a tart and pithy humour seldom found in conventional romances. Instead, what we’re left with is a series of carefully constructed stories that blend farcical elements like adultery, illegitimate babies and secret identities, with more hard-hitting concepts such as paedophilia, cannibalistic rituals and terminal illness.

Ultimately though, the secret of the books’ appeal, lies in what Maupin’s characters refer to as the ‘logical family’. These are the friends and loved ones we gravitate towards, as we move away from our biological families and define ourselves on our own terms. Free from hereditary obligation and expectation, these are the people we choose to spend our lives with. As the old saying goes, you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. In Maupin’s universe, you get to enjoy the best of both worlds.

When I visited San Francisco 18 months ago, the holiday became something of an extended pilgrimage, as we trekked from location to location, attempting to track down as many of the book’s landmarks as we could find. And although we managed to find the rickety wooden steps in Russian Hill which led to Anna Madrigal’s house, we soon discovered that there’s really no such place as 28 Barbary Lane. But that’s the real message at the heart of Maupin’s tales – it’s up to each of us to find our own.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Rolling In The Green

I guess it’s safe to say that Adele’s had a pretty good year. A standing ovation and an armful of awards at last week’s Grammys. Global sales of 17 million. The most successful UK record of the 21st century. Even the recent drama of her hemorrhaged vocal chords had a happy ending, as she proved that her voice has lost none of its power, for anyone who worried (perhaps unnecessarily) that she might be left squeaking out of a hole in her neck.

As she prepares to settle into a fancy mansion set in 25 acres of West Sussex countryside, she can probably afford to lock away that tear-stained diary once and for all, and watch the royalty cheques start piling up.

She’s even on the front cover of Vogue this month, albeit airbrushed so heavily that she looks like she’s half woman, half pebble. Let’s be honest, Vogue isn’t known for showcasing women who look like they’ve ever kept a lunch down, never mind asked for seconds. But this is Adele, the saviour of modern British music, so I guess the ordinary rules don’t apply.

It’s one thing to shift a bucketload of records, but it’s another thing entirely to enter the zeitgeist with your sophomore release. Recently, Saturday Night Live ran a sketch featuring comedy’s answer to Adele, Kristen Wiig, and guest star Emma Stone, as part of a posse of office women who like to cry and sing along with ‘Someone Like You’. Only twelve months old, and it can already take its place alongside ‘All By Myself’ as the go-to karaoke choice for Chardonnay-soaked singletons everywhere.

What’s interesting to me about the whole Adele phenomenon, isn’t the success she’s so rightly earned, but the credibility she’s garnered along with the sales figures. After all, it could have all been so different.

As a former attendee of the Brits school, Adele can count the likes of Dane Bowers, Leona Lewis and Jessie J amongst her fellow alumni. But whereas their names will forever be associated with disposable pop, Adele gets the credit as a true artist.

So what’s the difference? Look at Leona, for instance. Another spectacular voice from decidedly humble beginnings, Leona took the talent show route, correctly speculating that this was the best way of gaining some traction within the music industry. But in spite of how much acclaim her voice may muster, or however much Leona might contribute to writing her own material, her reputation will always be tarnished by the association with Simon Cowell’s pop factory.

Maybe Adele was right to avoid the Syco route – X-Factor and the like have never known what to do with a plus-size singer. The last time they tried, Michelle McManus romped to victory swathed in a hot pink muumuu, belting out disco cover versions like a regional drag act. Her subsequent album limped into obscurity, and within a year she was reduced to hitching up her skirt and shitting into a Tupperware for Gillian McKeith to poke with a stick.

Instead, Adele went the MySpace route (remember when that was still a thing?) and soon got signed to an independent record label. Her debut album, 19, was a critical and commercial smash, but nothing compared to last year’s world-beating follow-up, which spawned three enormous singles and broke sales records everywhere.

Although critics were quick to heap acclaim on Adele’s artistry and soul, it’s worth noting that 21 is just as much a ‘product’ as the output of her poppier contemporaries. The list of co-writers and producers on the album’s credits reads like a who’s-who of commercial pop, including such ubiquitous names as Ryan Tedder, Eg White and Fraser T Smith. Between them, they’ve notched up countless hits for Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Beyonce, Kylie, Will Young, James Morrison, Kelly Clarkson and Leona.

And yet somehow, these other works are lazily dismissed as derivative commercial fodder. It’s not as if Adele’s own sound is particularly innovative, since it’s clearly been cast in the sixties-throwback mold of Amy Winehouse, another Brits School graduate.

21 is full of impeccably performed, well-written pop music. But in many ways, it’s no better or worse than the output of many of her chart rivals. Perhaps there’s something in Adele’s raw vocal performances, and commitment to blue-eyed-soul that makes her seem somehow more authentic - it’s safe to say that, unlike many others, she’s never been a slave to Autotune.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Even great pop music is still pop music, and I say that as a true devotee. I’d just like to see a more even playing field, and a little more critical objectivity, when it comes to appraising the genre. Anything else is just pulling the wool-polyester blend over our eyes.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Oh Ricky, what a pity you don't understand

Getting any ad campaign past a client can be a tricky business. Often times, those who have the least to contribute to the creative process, are content to critique other people’s ideas, just so they’re seen to be playing a part.

Case in point, I once wrote an ad for a mobile phone company that attempted to offer reasons why some customers might occasionally miss the deadline for their phone bills. The innocuous image that accompanied the equally inoffensive headline, showed a woman relaxing on her couch in a state of exhaustion, surrounded by expensive shopping bags full of shoe boxes. We can talk about gender stereotypes in advertising another time. The point here, is that I showed the concept to the client, she took one look at it and shook her head disapprovingly. “She looks like she’s been raped.” There are very few times when I’ve been lost for words in a work context. That was one of them.

I suppose we live in a world where people can take offense at the slightest thing. So every idea has to be focus-grouped within an inch of its life, to make sure there’s no chance that anyone will pick up on some barely perceptible element and find something to complain about. Which makes Rick Santorum’s latest campaign ad a truly astonishing marvel of miscommunication. Is it really possible that no-one in his team piped up and said "Hang on a minute, doesn't that look a little like..."

Recently, I wrote about Rick’s slippery situation, brought about by his incessant (some might say obsessive) slights on the gay community. Without wanting to repeat the whole thing, the upshot of it is that his name has now been reappropriated as a word to describe ‘the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex’. The news networks know it, his campaign team know it, and even the internet-free octogenarians in Pennsylvania know it. Although they try not to think about it.

Unfortunately, the voters in Michigan have no option but to think about, thanks to Rick’s insanely ill-advised new advertising strategy. Titled ‘Rombo’ , the weirdest thirty seconds you’ll ever see, show a Mitt Romney look-alike “trying to fire a mud gun in the direction of a Rick Santorum cut-out. As the spot progresses the Romney character becomes increasingly frustrated with his inability to hit Rick Santorum with his mud-firing gun. The final visual shows the gun backfiring, and covering Romney in his own mud.” That’s the description from Rick’s own campaign website, by the way.

Now watch the ad. And you tell me what that ‘mud’ looks like:

Here’s a man who’s spent the last few years alternately complaining about ‘incivility’ in political discourse, and trying to sue Google for allowing his name to be so unequivocally associated with bum slurry. And this is the ad he chooses to run. Some people have speculated that it’s an inside job; that the Santorum campaign is being sabotaged from within. After all, how else would such a zealous homophobe end up with a fundraising campaign called Conservatives Unite Moneybomb?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Take a leaf out of Gwyneth's book

There is nothing, I repeat, nothing, entertaining about salads. Eating one is about as much fun as being stuck on a National Express coach to Aberdeen with a delegation of IBS sufferers.

It’s true that salads can occasionally be delicious, but only when they’re slathered in enough blue cheese or creamy dressing to give Tom Daley a heart attack. Otherwise, it’s just a bowlful of foliage, that you’re resigned to munching your way through, like a depressed dairy cow facing yet another day of cud.

So it’s bizarre that one of last year’s most amusing internet memes was the surreal ‘women laughing alone with salad’. Obviously originated by an eagle-eyed art director, it identified a curious new cliché in the stock photography archives. Anyone who’s ever spent a long afternoon wading through Corbis or Shutterstock will be aware of the uninspired trends that already exist – business men shaking hands in airports, pastel-clad pensioners strolling along the beach – but ‘women laughing alone with salad’ took things to new heights of surrealism.

Try Googling the phrase and see how many examples there are of this bizarrely popular scenario. Gorgeous women in brightly lit kitchens, sitting with a perfectly poised fork and laughing like lunatics, as though their cherry tomato is running through half an hour of Sarah Millican’s best material. Unlike most women, who’ve resigned themselves to sighing and grumbling their way through a plastic bowl full of Flymo cuttings, these tittering tits are chuckling heartily at their radicchio.

Well, now we can add Oscar winner, country singer and sanctimonious web mistress Gwyneth Paltrow to their giggling ranks, as it appears that Mrs Martin is now advertising salad in Austria. Accompanied by the caption “I’m not vegetarian, but I love veggie!”, everyone’s favourite A-list homemaker can be seen chowing down on a salad, with a grin on her face that suggests her 100 calorie lunch just told her the one about two nuns in a whorehouse.

Gwyneth has more than a passing familiarity with flogging healthy eating to the masses, but she usually does it on her website Goop. In between plugs for her favourite yoga instructors and Moroccan cushion embroiderers, Gwyneth tells us how to rustle up a tofu and nut loaf fit for Stella McCartney, or throw together a kelp and quinoa facial mask that can be worn during your morning vocal exercises. The only problem, of course, is that Gwyneth seems to think that her Excel-spreadsheet-controlled life, is attainable for the average housewife. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think Gwyneth’s ever wandered round Tesco, oblivious to the fact that her cardigan’s on inside out.

Even so, it’s nice to see that even Gwyneth sometimes finds preparing food from scratch to be too much like hard work. She’s just like us, and sometimes is happy to simply tear open a plastic bag full of pre-washed leaves. The difference is, she looks like she enjoys it.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Screw you, Cupid

It’s Valentine’s Day, so we can expect a torrent of articles bemoaning this ‘Hallmark Holiday’ and how it makes single people feel more unloved than a roast vegetable tartlet in a school canteen.

They’ll piss and moan about all those cruel reminders that they’ve yet to find their special someone. They’ll gripe about Interflora, suggesting that they're operating the kind of racket that would make the five families feel like underachievers. And they’ll probably have a go at the happy couples who choose a window seat in their favourite restaurant, so the whole world can see them demolishing a chocolate fondant with two dainty forks.

Well I say ‘fuck you’ and your cardless mantlepiece. Valentine’s no more fun when you’re in a relationship. In fact, it’s a cold, merciless invention, utterly bereft of the spontaneity and emotion that love is all about.

As you press your runny nose at the restaurant window, silently cursing the people inside, look closely at their body language. Stifling yawns, refolding napkins, and trying to talk about anything other than their day at work, they’re struggling to act as though they’re enjoying themselves. Because they're worried that everyone else looks happier than they are.

One of them is wondering when babysitters got so expensive, and the other one is probably working out how much money they could have saved by having the same meal at home. Christmas might be Santa’s busiest day of the year, but come Valentine’s Day, Cupid might as well be on a booze cruise to Calais, because there’s fuck all for him to do here.

Those couples who don’t brave the hordes for a specially overpriced meal could always have a night in with a DVD instead. The shelves of HMV are stacked with unimaginative, drippy rom-coms featuring the same tired plots, contrived scenarios and unrealistic bed-hair. But they’ve been helpfully repackaged in a pink cardboard sleeve, with a cut-out heart on the front.

And don’t fret about that big romantic meal, because Marks & Spencer is here to save the day with its ‘2 for £20’ offer. Fork out a couple of tenners and you can be enjoying a delicious ready meal, with a bottle of sparkling Cava that may be undrinkable, but it’ll put a shine back on your cutlery.

You’ll probably also need some romantic music, in order to set the mood for the first sex you’ve had since the clocks went back. Every year, the record companies helpfully repackage the same shitty ballads in a new 40-track compilation, as if anyone in the world needs another copy of Minnie Fucking Ripperton.

Oh, and don’t forget to spend twenty minutes in the card shop, trying desperately to find something that won’t make bile burn the back of your throat. It doesn’t matter that most cards show a crushing lack of awareness about how people in relationships actually talk to each other. Shell out your three quid, scribble a quick signature and try to imagine that the term ‘love machine’ applies to you, rather than the one that eats batteries by the bucket-load and lives in the bedside cabinet.

Face facts. Valentine is shit for everyone. Even if you’re happily settled down, it’s a point-by-point deconstruction of everything you’re doing wrong. It doesn’t matter how successful your relationship is, or how happy you are together. If you don’t look like you just fell out of an ad for Sandals Resorts, you’re a miserable failure. And chances are, you’re still going to die alone.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

A moment in time

Incomparable. Probably the best word to describe the woman who, along with Madonna, was responsible for transforming popular music in the late 20th century. The last decade may have been dominated by a pitiful series of revelations and scandals, but in her prime, there was no-one quite like Whitney Houston.

People like to throw around the word 'Diva' to describe anyone with a big voice, but Whitney typified the concept better than anyone. Her songs were packed with tremulous drama and heartbreak, delivered with confidence and control. And yet offstage, her life began to spiral into desperation and despair.

Those early revelations of drug abuse were hard for fans to swallow. Whitney had always seemed so clean-living, boring even. So when Bobby Brown's sister sold pictures of the R&B golden couple's crack-strewn bathroom to a tabloid magazine, the world was confronted with the grim reality of Whitney's fall from grace.

This was a million miles away from the timid and shy girl who'd made her TV debut on the Merv Griffin show in 1983, alongside her delighted mentor Clive Davis. Two years later, when her first album was released to great acclaim, critics lauded her "exceptional vocal talent" but commented that it was a somewhat conservative showcase for such a phenomenal voice.

For much of her early career, Whitney was dogged by similar criticism, even as she notched up record breaking sales figures for her accessible brand of MOR soul. Perhaps that's why Brett Easton Ellis dedicated a whole chapter of American Psycho to Whitney's second album, representing as it did, a high benchmark for that sanitised, slickly-produced R&B soul that was so prevalent in the '80s. Even so, the author correctly called out 'Love Is A Contact Sport' as a fantastically effusive piece of pop that deserved to be a single.

Away from the recording studio, Whitney was just as uncontroversial. We recall the look of horror on her face when appearing on Michel Drucker's French talk-show alongside Serge Gainsbourg, as the saucy old coot announced to the host "I want to fuck her." Several years later, on The Word, she struggled to understand Terry Christian's thick Mancunian accent as he asked her if Eddie Murphy (her one-time boyfriend) had "rung her up" during her stay in the UK. She smiled gamely, even mocking Christian's pronunciation, but seemed uncomfortable at the personal nature of the inquiry.

Her first film role, opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, saw her expressing discomfort with the profanities in the script, but committing herself fully to the performance. The role of Rachel Marron, originally intended for Diana Ross, was hardly a stretch, but she was convincing enough to provoke rumours that Costner had excised some of her scenes for fear that she might outshine him on-screen. Not that any of it mattered, since it's the soundtrack that passed into pop culture history, not the film. The album shifted over 45 million units, with lead single 'I Will Always Love You' scoring another 12 million sales.

Although her interpretation of the song had lost much of the subtle nuance that Dolly Parton had originally intended, the vocals were a masterclass in soulful balladeering, and arguably inspired a whole generation of would-be singers. That giant mezzo-soprano, capable of whispering tenderness, soaring heartbreak, or exuberant celebration, was a once-in-a-lifetime gift. Lining up on shows like X-Factor, American Idol and The Voice, these young girls might attempt to replicate Whitney's mastery, but almost always suffer from the comparison. Like the guitar store sign in Wayne's World that read 'No Stairway To Heaven', perhaps the audition rooms for these talent shows should have one that bans Whitney's back catalogue.

Of course, knowing what she was once capable of, makes her recent attempt at a comeback all the more tragic. The media prayed for a disaster, and that's pretty much what they got. After years of abuse, her voice had lost its warmth, range and power, leaving her shouting and out-of-breath. The 'Nothing But Love' world tour was supposed to represent her triumphant return to the stage, but the press focused on reports of weak performances and fan walk-outs.

Whitney died yesterday, aged just 48. And although she may not leave behind an extensive body of work (just six studio albums in 27 years) her singular influence and extraordinary talent will not be forgotten. 'I'm Every Woman' might have become her unofficial anthem, but in reality, she was anything but.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Why the US version of The Office is the boss

Let’s get something out of the way before we get started. The Office is undoubtedly one of the best sitcoms ever made, and in just 12 episodes (plus an extended Christmas special), managed to redefine what could be achieved in the once-stale format.

It rocketed Ricky Gervais to international fame, and ushered in a new era of more realistic, fly-on-the-wall comedies. A diverse range of shows, from Nighty Night and Curb Your Enthusiasm to Modern Family, all followed its influential lead, and clearly owe Merchant and Gervais’ creation a considerable debt. And yet, I can’t shake this nagging feeling that the American version is better.

It’s a controversial opinion, I know. I’m sure people will jeer at me in the street, and recommend that I spend the rest of eternity giving Maxine Carr home perms for my sins. But I wonder whether the people who protest the most, have ever actually sat down and watched it. Maybe they’re of the opinion that it couldn’t possibly compare to the original – that it’s just a lazy knock-off. If that’s the case, they’re missing out on the most consistently hilarious comedy of recent years.

It’s not just the American’s who recognized the universal appeal of a realistic workplace sitcom – remakes have also been commissioned in France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel and Sweden, with a Chinese version in the works. But the US version is far and away the most popular, currently in its eighth hit season, despite star Steve Carell hanging up his papier-mâché spare head at the end of the last season.

If you’re not already apoplectic with indignation at my opinion, allow me to address four of the most common arguments I encounter, when telling others that the exploits of Dunder Mifflin-Sabre beat Wernham Hogg hands-down.

Remakes always suck

When Gervais originally sold his concept to American network NBC, all the people who’d championed his unique mix of arrogance and mortification, predicted an early bath for the transatlantic version. The network didn’t seem to be much more confident, commissioning just six episodes as a mid-season replacement for a show that had already failed. By the time the pilot aired, everyone congratulated themselves on their prescient predictions – once again a much-loved show had failed to translate. The characters had been renamed, but everything else stayed the same, right down to 90% of the script. And some humour just doesn’t travel.

However, those earlier nay-sayers were proven wrong almost immediately, as show runner (and former Simpsons writer) Greg Daniels started to exert his own influence over the show. Benefiting from his knowledge of the UK show’s story arc, Daniels allowed the US incarnations of the characters we recognised, to stretch their legs and find their own voice. The writers were also encouraged to write for the actors, rather then the characters from the original show. Halfway through season 2, it was clear that the show had found its own style and tone, respectful of the original, but evolving in its own direction.

It helped that the supporting cast comprises a number of comedians and writers. In fact, three of the show’s lead writers are also permanent cast-members: B.J. Novak (Ryan the Temp), Mindy Kaling (borderline-psychotic Kelly Kapoor) and Paul Lieberstein (hangdog HR manager Toby Flenderson). In addition, Steve Carell wrote several classic episodes, and many of the other performers have a background in improvisational comedy. Rather than putting all the onus on a single pair of writers, this team-spiritedness has made The Office into a hothouse of comedy.

The Office IS Ricky Gervais

When David Brent first appeared on our screens, we marveled at the fact that a show had been built around such a grotesque caricature of the modern businessman. Gervais’ arrogant preening and tactless insensitivity was quite a revelation, compared with the fuzzily likeable staples of traditional comedies. Over time, however, Gervais has returned to the same well a few too many times. Irrespective of the project, he seldom plays anything other than an exaggerated version of his own stand-up persona – awkward and obnoxious, barely able to contain his own seething contempt for everyone around him.

By contrast, Steve Carrell made Michael Scott (Brent’s US equivalent) an entirely different character. Sure, they share some of the same interpersonal shortcomings, but Scott has a more appealing naivety as well as a desperate need to be liked. Both like to think of themselves as aspiring comedians, but in the US version of the show, we see a wide variety of ways in which this plays out.

Carell is also able to inject much more pathos into a character who might otherwise be gratingly unlikable. Whether he’s taking on a second job in a call centre to subsidise his monstrous girlfriend, or struggling to be creative in his improvisation classes, Michael feels much more like a fully-rounded human being. In contrast, David Brent was always such a loathsome cock, that it was hard to believe that anyone would hire him in the first place.

In addition, the US show is full of moments which subtly remind us that, despite his many shortcomings, Michael Scott is actually good at sales. For example, there’s a lovely scene in season four when Michael gives an ex-client a gift basket, but warns him not to let his daughter eat the nut brittle because she’s allergic. As the old saying goes, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

Shorter is better

The Offices of Wernham Hogg were clearly built in the shadow of Fawlty Towers, in that Gervais and Merchant clearly admired John Cleese and Connie Booth’s brevity. They called it a day after just 12 episodes, having exhausted themselves with their own perfectionism. The divorce can’t have made brainstorming sessions too much fun either. Of course, the main difference between Fawlty Towers and The Office, is that the former relied on elaborate farce, whereas the latter mined observational, character-based humour for its laughs. This means that the office-based scenario should lend itself to a longer-running format.

As the show has expanded, so too have the background personalities, gradually evolving into fully-fledged characters in their own right. Unlike their UK counterparts, who were little more than ciphers, Oscar, Kevin, Creed, Meredith, Phyllis and Angela have all had their own opportunities to shine during the show’s eight-year run.

For such an ostensibly simple concept, the show has also developed a rich mythology – filling out the world in which the characters live. Unlike conventional sitcoms, where the universe appears to reboot every half hour, this feels like a real world. Jokes play on subtle references to events that took place years ago, giving an extra degree of verisimilitude to the show. Rather than relying on contrived flashbacks or expositionary dialogue, the writers assume that the audience has been paying attention from the start, and exploit this familiarity at regular intervals.

Americans don’t get British humour

If there’s one thing that Americans know how to do, it’s write witty one-liners, filling their shows with photogenic smart-arses who always know just how to wring a laugh out of a contrived scenario. Where they tend to struggle, is in grasping the dark absurdism of British humour. And yet, there are few characters on TV as wonderfully surreal as Dwight K Schrute.

Far from being a lazy pastiche of Gareth Keenan, Dwight is a beetroot-grower of Germanic descent, who lives in a decrepit farmhouse that Norman Bates might charitably describe as a fixer-upper. Obsessed with bears and Battlestar Galactica, his matter-of-factness is often supplanted by an eagerness to get lost in how own nonsensical imaginings. It’s this tendency to over-engineer his own fantasy world that fuels some of the show’s finest exchanges, especially when he engages in a battle of wits with his nemesis Jim:

Dwight: I'm going to be your new boss! : It is my greatest dream come true. Welcome to the Hotel Hell. Check-in time is now, check-out time is never.
Jim: Does my room have cable?
Dwight: No. And the sheets are made of fire.
Jim: Can I change rooms?
Dwight: Sorry, we're all booked up. Hell convention in town.
Jim: Can I have a late checkout?
Dwight: I'll have to talk to the manager.
Jim: You're not the manager? Even in your own fantasy?
Dwight: I'm the owner. The co-owner. With Satan!
Jim: Okay. Just so I understand it: in your wildest fantasy, you are in Hell, and you are co-running a bed-and-breakfast with the Devil.
Dwight: Yeah, but I haven't told you my salary yet.
Jim: Go.
Dwight: Eighty *thousand* dollars a year.

Sometimes, we don’t even need to hear from Dwight himself, to get a sense of his curious survivalist instincts, as receptionist Pam explains a mix-up over the office keys: “There is a master key and a spare key for the office. Dwight has them both. When I asked, "what if you die, Dwight? How will we get into the office?" He said, "if I'm dead, you guys have been dead for weeks."

Although we’re a good year and half behind the US, the show’s first six seasons are available on DVD, with the five of them in a particularly affordable boxset. So go on, take a punt. You won’t be disappointed. That’s what she said.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Stupid is as stupid does

As anyone who’s ever watched A Few Good Men, The Social Network or The West Wing can attest, Aaron Sorkin knows his way around a barnstorming speech. One of the best examples of this came in a live televised debate during the final season of his presidential drama, between Democratic Congressman Matt Santos and Republican Senator Arnold Vinick.

After reeling off an extensive list of liberal accomplishments, Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) declared: “…when you try to hurl the word 'liberal' at my feet, as if it were dirty, something to run away from, something that I should be ashamed of, it won't work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and wear it as a badge of honour.”

Now, it turns out that liberals can wear more than just the label with pride. They can also take comfort in the fact that they’re smarter than their political opponents, according to a new study by Canadian psychologists. In a paper published by Psychological Science, the researches have determined that right-wingers tend to be less intelligent than their liberal counterparts. Finding that people with low childhood intelligence are more susceptible to racist and homophobic rhetoric, the study suggests that conservative politics act as a “gateway” into more extreme prejudices – in much the same way that conservatives believe a couple of joints invariably lead to a belt strap around the bicep.

Having studied the views and opinions of over 15,000 test subjects, the authors have concluded that right-wing rhetoric makes people with a low capacity for reasoning feel safer. The academics responsible for the study report that “Cognitive abilities are critical in forming impressions of other people and in being open minded. Individuals with lower cognitive abilities may gravitate towards more socially conservative right-wing ideologies that maintain the status quo [which] provide a sense of order.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the increasingly divisive world of American politics, where liberalism has been successfully portrayed as some kind of mental disorder by a political party which has managed to make a virtue out of being incurious. The Simpsons Movie scored a big laugh from ‘President Schwarzenegger’ telling his advisors “I was elected to lead, not to read.” But no-one was chuckling when one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain told supporters in New Hampshire "We need a leader, not a reader." Just imagine putting the big red button in hands that refuse to turn the pages of a book.

For the Republican party, such a celebration of wilful ignorance was nothing new. George W Bush spent eight years waging a one-man war against intellectual rigour, ultimately coasting into a second term because 57% of undecided voters felt that they’d rather have a beer with the incumbent President than Senator Kerry. When he made his famous "You're either with us or against us…” speech, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he was celebrated by his followers for taking such a decisive stance. But his unwillingness to understand the deeper objections behind aggressive military action was symptomatic of the black-and-white nature of the conservative worldview.

Meanwhile, the term ‘liberal elite’ was successfully forced into the political lexicon. This cynical move effectively branded those with a complex understanding of the issues as aloof intellectuals, out of touch with the common man. It’s easy to roll your eyes at those wacky Americans, until you consider how much of this anti-intellectualism is already seeping into our own political discourse.

In the mind of most conservatives, there’s only room for definitives and certainty. After all, why waste time debating the nuances and ethics of the issues, when you could be locking them up, sending them back or letting them hang? Of course, there’s also a worry that a more complex discussion of the issues might identify the root causes. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but that would involve much more hard work and soul searching.

Interestingly, the conservative press like to invoke the name of George Orwell’s Thought Police whenever the subject of political correctness rears its unconventionally attractive head. If they had their way, there’d be no need for ‘thought police’, in a world where people either refuse to think, or simply lack the capacity to do so. And that’s the main flaw with this otherwise illuminating research. It overlooks the fact that there are two kinds of conservatives – the leaders, and the mindless flock willing to trot along in their shadow.

“Don’t worry yourself with the facts and the detail,” they seem to tell the party faithful, “We’ll do the thinking so you don’t have to.” The true darkness at the heart of contemporary conservative ideology is that it hides its genuine intellect under a bushel of ignorance. Like Les Dawson pretending to be a shit pianist, it takes great talent to be convincingly inept. The conservative politicians and commentators aren’t as stupid as they’d like to look. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re playing a role, wearing the village idiot’s hat, in order to convince the voters that they’re in good, if simple, company. Like wolves in sheeple’s clothing. Which begs the question, if they don’t even believe their own rhetoric, why should anyone else?