Saturday, 31 March 2012

Britain's Got Talent, But They're All On The Voice

A lot can change in a week. Jessie J has eased up the Child Catcher-chic she was rocking in the debut episode, adding a bold purple rinse to soften her edges. However, because this is pre-recorded, she's not yet revealed her current hairdo, which looks a partially washed set of net curtains. Danny O'Donaghue has spent the last few days trending on Twitter, admittedly with the hashtag #whothefuckis... And Tom Jones is busy learning his lines for the remake of Driving Miss Daisy. Last week The Voice got off to a storming start, showing up Britain's Got Talent as the mean-spirited freakshow that it so clearly is. So let's see what episode two has in store for us.

Tonight's first act is Heshima, a triple-threat who claims to be a singer, dancer and actor. He's already a BBC staple, having appeared on EastEnders, Spooks and Holby City. Ten seconds into his performance and Danny and Will have already turned around, which is lucky, because the moment they do, the dance beat kicks in and his vocals fall apart. bigs him up by telling him he's a global world-wide performer, which may seem a little premature. He chooses Will, who looks relieved that people are finally remembering that he's there.

Glasgow granny Barbara is wearing an electric blue evening gown, over a bra that must have been made in Scotland from girders. Her voice is powerful, but I get the feeling she's spent too long watching Bette Midler DVDs. Her microphone technique is also pretty ropey - at times it almost sounds as if she's bashing it against her uvula. Tom likes her, and she's more than happy to reciprocate, telling him that he's always been a legend in her house. Validation comes in all shapes and sizes. 

Kerry Ellis is a big West End star, and even recorded an album with Bryan May. Then again, so did Anita Dobson, so no need to hang out the bunting just yet. The album wasn't a big seller, so she's here to raise her profile. She's got an impressive set of pipes, but her song choice is woeful - as if the world needed another karaoke cover of Son Of A Preacher Man. It's about as subtle as her pleather leggings and red boots combo. The chairs don't turn, because the coaches are all busy scrambling for the Nurofen. Tom tells us that the hardest part is saying 'No' to people, "I mean, how many do you pick?" That would be ten, Tom, it's in your contract.

David is here to sing a song by The Script, so Danny will be pleased that at least one person in the studio didn't have to Google him. David works the night shift in a supermarket (sound the 'poor me' klaxon) and looks a lot like a chubby Matt Cardle. His voice is so good that Danny unwittingly gives us a disturbing peek at his vinegar strokes face. Will's playing his 'conquer the world' game again, whereas Danny stresses that it's all about the artistry. David umms and ahhs for a moment, but it's not exactly shocking when he picks The Script frontman.

Vince has nerves, and tells us that sometimes he thinks "Nah, I can't do this." Unfortunately, he didn't suffer such doubts when selecting his outfit. Picture a short, scruffy Billy Idol impersonator, with facial piercings seemingly placed at random. He's singing Like A Virgin, in a Prince-meets-Usher style, and it's just weird enough to be interesting. All four coaches pick him, and he starts to cry. Despite the fact that Tom's "I Want You Sign" is clearly illuminated, he hasn't realised that the Welsh wonder had turned his chair. I guess there'll be an empty place setting at South London's next MENSA meeting.

Shansel wants us to know that she "definitely ain't posh". As if we needed the prompt, having seen footage of her family at home, yelling "Keep it down gel, we're tryin' to watch the telly." So of course, it's a huge surprise when she comes out wearing a leopard-print dress and bursts into a rendition of Nessun Dorma. I know nothing about opera, but it certainly sounds good. Sadly, the coaches don't have a clue what to do with her, so no-one turns around. After the fact, Will is kicking himself for missing an opportunity to 'reinvent radio'. And I think that's something we're all hanging out for. After a couple more artists fail to spin anyone's chair, it becomes clear that this show's catchphrase is going to be I'm Kicking Myself. Now that's the kind of audience participation I could really get behind.

Vince has a handlebar moustache and Union Flag cowboy boots, which get ditched in favour of a barefoot performance. He tells us he's thrown everything he's got at being successful. So, glad that worked out then. The voice is good, but it's like watching an accountant trying to entertain colleagues with an impromptu number at the Christmas party. While we're on the subject, let's add Sex On Fire to the list of songs we need never here on a talent show again, along with anything Adele ever wrapped her ruptured chords around.

Oh dear, I'm having Frankie Cocozza flashbacks as we meet Aleks, a cocky little 'bad boy' lifeguard, who walks into the BBC acting as though the world owes him a living, and three hundred quid. His voice has a nice tone, but he doesn't have nearly enough ability to hit all the notes in the Jason Mraz song he's struggling to own. Jessie sits next to him while he attempts to articulate the fact that he would rather work with Danny, but she refuses to kiss him. Probably wise, who knows where he's been?

Frances is cute and from Wakefield, but she's wearing a bobble hat that suggests we're going to have to pick her out of a crowd in a picture book. She's singing Black Eyed Peas, and has what Cowell might describe as a 'commercial voice', but Will leaves it to the last note before turning around. Since he's the only coach to pick her, there's no need to make a sales pitch, which leaves him seeming oddly underwhelmed with his own selection. Anyone would think that this show was more about the coaches' egos than the performers. Perish the thought.

Matt and Sueleen are our first couple - he looks like a nudist who lives on a canal barge, and she's the swinger off Benidorm. They do a very weird folksy cover of a Beautiful South song, and Tom and Jessie swing their chairs around just in time for an awkward "Oh bollocks, one of us is going to have to work with them" moment. In the end, the performing duo flip a coin to decide that their fate rests with Tom Jones. He looks delighted.

Holly is 16 and has come dressed as half stripper, half crow. Preconceptions suggest that we're in for a Siouxsie Sioux tribute, but she actually goes for Ed Sheeran instead. She sings too much in her low register, so it's all pretty unremarkable. And I guess that's what Danny's referring to when he keeps pointing at the studio lights and saying "Go up." He tells her, "You took me to the limit but you didn't let me see the view." Helpful note for Danny's real estate agents there.

Deniece from Five Star is in the house. She's turned up with brother Stedman, who's almost completed his transformation into a genderless waxwork. The situation doesn't seem overly optimistic when she attempts to harmonise with an old Five Star record, and it sounds as though she couldn't find the note with both hands. On stage, things come together better as she tackles Christina Aguilera's Fighter, and sounds a lot like Nicole Scherzinger. Tom picks her, and as he gives her his feedback, it's clear that she's got her work cut out learning to be a humble beginner again.

Tonight's final contestant is a construction worker called David, who does a passable rendition of Superstition, which scores four yeses from the coaches. He even gets a standing ovation from them, which may have damaged the mechanism in those specially constructed fairground chairs. Please keep your hands and feet behind the safety bar at all times. He picks Jessie, and then Holly Willoughby's on hand to say nothing in particular about nothing specific. Well done BBC, that was money well spent.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Ice, Iceberg Baby

I suppose it's a natural fit. The creator of Downton Abbey, who knows more about Edwardian class conflict than pretty much any other writer working today, and the story of the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage. So we shouldn't really be surprised that ITV has commissioned Julian Fellowes to knock out a four-parter to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the ship's sinking.

As James Cameron readies the 3D version of his Oscar-gobbler for a cinema re-release next month, the pressure's on for Fellowes' retelling to add another dimension entirely. £11 million might be a big budget for a TV production, but it wouldn't have covered the cost of the crockery on Cameron's opus. So it's all down to the script to elevate this above the Hollywood interpretation. Then again, it shouldn't be too hard to top classics like "Something Picasso? He won't amount to a thing." From King of the World, to Master of the 'ouse.

If anything, Fellowes' biggest challenge will be to give audiences something new - as one crew member told a writer from the Telegraph recently, the Titanic is "as much of a television staple as Nazis and sharks”. Nazi sharks, now there's an idea that would get the punters tuning in. Unfortunately, we'll have to make do with pithy dialogue and an abundance of cruelly ironic foreshadowing. The first three episodes each focus on a different class on board the luxuriously appointed liner, with the final part showing what happens when the ship hits the fan.

The first episode gets off to a predictable start, with a discussion between Joseph Ismay, President of the White Star Line, and Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer. As well as introducing us to two key figures in the story, it's a handy opportunity to remind us that the woeful lack of lifeboats was an aesthetic decision, rather than a practical one. 

On reflection, I may have missed a trick by not devising a drinking game for tonight's viewing - taking a swig every time we get a scene straight out of Cameron's film. Moments after Ismay and Andrews' exchange, a woman gazes up at the magnificent ship, adjusting her hat as she steps out of her car. Ten minutes in and I'd already be shit-faced. 

Elsewhere on the ship, we're given a fleeting glimpse of the characters who'll be our focus in the subsequent episodes. At this early stage, it's hard to tell who's who, except to say that Arg from TOWIE appears to be responsible for running the ship's furnace.  

One thing Fellowes knows how to do, is stick gloriously withering dialogue in the mouths of imperious actresses. So the Countess of Manton, played by Geraldine Somerville, is clearly intended as an analogue of the Dowager Countess. Her down-the-nose delivery is suitably bitter, but since her mouth doesn't ruche like a drawstring duffel bag, she's not fit to steep Maggie Smith's afternoon tea. 

Our focus for the first episode is Lady Georgiana Grex, daughter of the Mantons and, to all intents and purposes, a Kate Winslet equivalent. Despite her impeccable breeding, we're first introduced to her as she's released from jail, having been arrested for participating in a suffragette demonstration. When she's not flirting with the Italian waiter in the dining room, she's telling an industry heir that "writers and rebels" are more her type, or requesting Autumn by Archibald Joyce from the string quartet. The band are happy to accomodate, no doubt relieved that she didn't ask for 'Sexy, And I Know It.'

Meanwhile, the Countess seems to spend her time gliding from one awkward social exchange to the next, reserving particular scorn for Celia Imrie, whom she dismisses as a glorified seamstress. It's hard not to empathise with her rudeness though, since Imrie's accent is laughably awful. I guess you can take the girl out of Manchesterford...

As if that's not bad enough, the poor Countess also has to endure tea with her husband's lawyer Batley and his bolshy wife, even as her neck struggles under the weight of a hat that deserves its own state room. We've barely had time for a little more contrived flirting and some extensive hat-pin management, before the iceberg comes looming out of the darkness. 

With water flooding into the engine room, and the lights flickering ominously, Linus Roache comments "We can't be in any danger, not on this ship." *Drink. He tries to rouse his wife, but she's weary from a day of exasperated judgement and lip-pursing. Still, he pushes on and recommends that they take a short cut through second class in order to get up on deck and safely into a lifeboat. Unfortunately, this brings them straight into the path of an agitated Mrs Batley. Picking the wrong time to be haughty and superior, the Countess finds herself on the receiving end of a fierce smack-down from Batley, who tells the assembled crowd about her husband's philandering and his "dirty little secret in Dulwich."
That's the last straw for our Countess, who decides to drop any pretence at politeness. Up on deck she even refuses a seat in a lifeboat, declaring "You can't make me sit in a boat with a drunken prostitute!" oblivious to the fact that it's likely the most fun she'd have on the whole trip. Figuring that revenge is a dish best served on ice, she opts to stay on the boat and torture her husband until a watery grave seems like the easier option. Her daughter, on the other hand, has dropped her initial reluctance and is now racing into a relationship with the persistant heir she dismissed a few minutes earlier. They're not even on first name terms yet, but they're already making declarations of love and getting misty-eyed about their survival prospects. 

And with that, the first episode draws to a close. It'll be interesting to see how the class-focused approach will flesh out the story, but taken as a stand-alone piece of drama, this felt oddly rushed. Say what you like about James Cameron's short-comings as a script-writer, but his sense of pacing and structure was right on the money. All $270 million of it. 

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Voice makes itself heard

You know, what Britain really needs is a talent show. Some kind of weekly broadcast that would enable undiscovered singers to showcase their love of Adele songs, perhaps including a panel of industry mentors and the prize of a recording contract with a major label. So hurrah for the BBC, which has spotted this egregious shortcoming in the schedules, and commissioned its own version of US smash hit The Voice.

As the name implies, this one's all about what you sound like, rather than frippery like appearance and stage presence. So the auditions are 'blind', with wannabes performing to a panel of "Four of the biggest names in music" who have their backs turned until they decide that they want to mentor the artist. It's also a handy bit of wish-fulfilment for anyone that's keen to see the back of Jessie J.

Joining Jessie on the coaching panel are, Danny O'Donoghue and Tom Jones, who has almost completed his transformation into Morgan Freeman. Will weighs in on the concept to declare that this is "not a traditional karaoke talent show" - unlike the one he happily appeared on two weeks ago. Before they take to their big red pilot seats (high-backed, so as not to distract the singers with the size of Tom's bald spot), the coaches team up to perform 'I Gotta Feeling'. They sound OK, but visually it's a mess - more Addams Family than Black Eyed Peas.

The coaches take their seats, giving us the chance to check in with our aspiring hopefuls. It's cliche o'clock as they rattle through some of their favourites - This is the moment, It's now or never, Many a mickle makes a muckle.

Seventeen year-old Jessica from Belfast is up first. She's got enormous hair and too much makeup - because remember, it's all about the voice. She's singing Price Tag, by Jessie J. Now, can anyone guess whether Jessie's going to spin her chair? Actually, all four coaches opt in, which means that Jessica can take her pick. She'd probably be more excited if she could actually see them, but it's going to take a couple of production runners to lift those false eyelashes. tries to impress her by naming all the countries he could launch her in, but it starts to sound like a Eurovision roll-call. Tom's pitch wouldn't get him through the screening stages of Dragon's Den, and Danny can only offer the fact that he can play guitar. But he's raised one of his legs and he's winking at her, can we get a close-up on camera 2 please?

Sean Conlon is from boyband 5ive. He's on a personal journey to find out "Who Sean Conlon is." Hopefully, his destination will be a town called "Don't speak about yourself in the third person." None of the judges spin their chair, but it's hardly surprising, because it's all unimaginably bland. Still, Reggie Yates is on hand to tell him "That was a step in the right direction." I'm not sure he's grasped the concept of the show yet.

Samuel Buttery is "jolly", which he admits is just a nice way of saying fat. Looking like Amy Lame in man-drag, he should be popping up on any day now. He's singing an Adele song, giving this underrated artist some much needed exposure. His idol is Tom Jones, so it's probably just as well that Welsh wonder picked him for his team.

Toni is 34 and has alopecia, giving us our first taste of the tearful sob stories that we like from our talent shows. She's an attractive woman, and looks stunning with her bald head shining in the spotlight - thank God she ditched the headscarf, which made her look like Bib Fortuna. Her voice has a great tone, but some of her phrasing is a little cabaret. Weirdly, Jessie J commends her for not over-singing, which is like Nigella Lawson giving someone props for cooking with Elmlea.

Aundrea, is a backing singer who's worked with some of the biggest names in R&B. She's got a big personality (polite euphemism alert), and when she gets her sass on, she sounds like Rusty Lee without the mangos. She bellows Crazy, and although it's big and loud, it's like she's trying to parallel park a JCB. Tom's a fan though, so after picking Aundrea and Sam, let's hope the producers have given him the biggest dressing room.

Alan is described as an 'indie guitarist', which is enough to get me humming ABBA in my head. He looks like Russell Howard, and he's doing The Stereophonics, but without the gravel. likes him, because "You remind me of the cats I hang out with at home." Someone get Office Dibble on the phone. Alan has to choose between Will and Tom, who tells him a lengthy anecdote about the fact that he spent time in Elvis' house, then Will responds with a house-share story about Michael Jackson. If time spent in other celebrities' homes is enough to qualify you for this show, Lloyd Grossman would be a shoo-in.

Sadly, the BBC has also caught the 'coming up next' bug, trailing what's going to happen later in the show, without any commercial breaks to justify the technique. After that pointless detour, we meet a couple called Max and Twinnielee (no, me neither), who have applied to the competition separately. Up first is Max, who's rocking his best busker chic, and sings like Adam Levine. Will and Danny both like it, spinning their chairs like they ought to be nursing a white cat on their laps. Jessie joins in, by hitting the button with her ankle, giving the unsuspecting singer a glimpse of her price tag as her chair rotates. Danny keeps plugging the Irish connection, effectively casting himself as the Louis Walsh in this show. And who wouldn't relish that kind of comparison?

Before we get to see Twinilee fail to wow any of the judges, we meet Ben, who's already something of an internet phenomenon, and not just because he could take pride of place on His curious ensemble is topped off with a bow-tie, that gives him the look of a 17 year-old amateur magician. He's got a great voice, think Jake Shears without the post-disco affectations, and he scores approval from all four coaches. Jessie tells him "Your licks are mad clean," as though he's an attentive housecat. Jessie scores yet another mentee, leaving Will to wonder why no-one's picking him. It's probably because the show's called The Voice, and they all think he's going to get them in the studio and say "Hey, check out this cool software that makes you sound like Stephen Hawking."

Phil is a delivery driver and he's brought his Nan to weep all over Holly Willoughby in the green room. The voice isn't bad, but his diction makes him sound like his mouth is full of Marlon Brando's cotton wool balls. Closing tonight's show is J Marie, who's picked another Jessie J song. She's got lots of power in her voice, but there a touch too much theatrical anger and shoutiness in her delivery. I keep expecting her to burst into 'He Had It Comin' from Chicago. Will complements her on making him feel the pain. I think it's called tinnitus. Once again, the judges take it in turns to give their sales pitch, and she finally chooses Will because he turned round first. So after an hour and a quarter, we finally get our first surprise of the night. Roll on episode two.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Hunger strikes

When you watch as much reality TV as I do (strictly out of journalistic interest, you understand), it's easy to perceive the prevalence of unscripted idiocy on our screens as a harbinger of the impending armageddon. Even worse, I'm haunted by the notion that, not only will our hunger for mindless drivel spell the end of humanity; it'll also constitute the only lasting record of our once-formidable society. Future civilisations will sift through the remnants of our existence and shudder at in pitying disgust. Admittedly, this is a worst-case scenario, but if you've ever had to sit through a couple of episodes of Desperate Scousewives, you'll know it's not too much of a stretch.

Interestingly, science fiction writers have been predicting the link between lowest-common-denominator television and the end of society, as we know it, for years. But rather than seeing these endless broadcasts as the reason for our downfall, they foresee such shows helping to anaesthetise us to our collective despair and uniting our fragmented post-apocalyptic society. So although we might spend our days crawling through the wreckage and gorging on live rats, but at least we'll still be Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

Just recently, Charlie Brooker took his own swipe at the grey area between reality TV and dystopian despair, with the second episode of his mini-series Black Mirror. Characteristically scathing and predictably bleak, 1000,000 credits showed us a not-too-distant future where X-Factor rules the world. And it all felt worryingly conceivable.

But let’s treat that as the sorbet to freshen the palate, as Hollywood lines up its own big-budget take on the genre. Next week sees the sees the release of The Hunger Games, the first part of a highly anticipated trilogy of films, based on the best-selling novels by Suzanne Collins. Since the books were aimed at a teenage audience, there's been a lot of talk about this being the franchise to rival Twilight (which thankfully only has one more instalment of lip-chewing, skin-twinkling, abstinence-advocacy left in it). However, critics seem to agree that this is a far more compelling and hard-hitting series than Stephenie Meyer's sexless saga. Then again, so was Alvin and the Chipmunks.

The books follow the adventures of a resilient sixteen year-old called Katniss Everdeen. Not only is she stuck with a name that would make Spongebob Squarepants point and jeer, our luckless heroine finds herself thrust into the limelight to fight for her life in the eponymous contest. With society in tatters, and the nation divided into twelve districts around Capitol City, the Hunger Games sees two teenagers selected from each district and entered into a kill-or-be-killed scenario. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, the whole thing is televised.

These are not entirely unfamiliar concepts to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with sci-fi but, in a refreshing twist, Collins has been pretty honest about the films that influenced her trilogy. As something of a genre magpie, she’s taken elements from a number of sources, several of which were showcased in a short season on Film 4 this week. Having said that, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that all it took was a weekend of watching Jersey Shore to inspire a story of teenagers taking an arrow to the neck. Even so, here are the films rumoured to have informed Collins’ action-packed trilogy.

Battle Royale

Although not actually about a reality show, Kinji Fukasaku's notorious adaptation of Koushun Takami's novel depicts a similar scenario to The Hunger Games. A society on its knees, an endless pool of pubescent cannon fodder and a ruthless 'survival of the fittest' game format, in which there can be only one winner.

The prologue declares that "At the dawn of the millennium, the nation collapsed. At fifteen percent unemployment, ten million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence and, fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act." Also known as the Battle Royale Act, this involves a class of students being selected at random, shipped off to a deserted island, and given three days to kill each other until one student is left standing. Don't be surprised if Michael Gove tries rolling this one out in Croydon.

With the majority of the cast dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways, the final scenes of the film see the two survivors escaping the island and depicted as fugitives from the law by a complicit news media. The moral of the story is that even when you win, you lose - a lesson currently being learned the hard way by 'Signed By Katie' winner, Amy Willerton.

The Running Man

Based loosely on a book by Stephen King (writing under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Running Man takes place in 2017, a world in which the global economy has crashed and American society has devolved into a totalitarian police state, devoid of culture. When the film was originally released in 1987, this all seemed rather fantastical - now, looking at the Republican presidential hopefuls, and the majority of Hollywood's output, it smacks of grim inevitability.

The government chooses to pacify its agitated and poverty stricken population by broadcasting non-stop reality TV game shows, that see criminals fighting for their lives. Having been wrongly convicted for opening fire on civilians, Ben Richards finds himself in the spotlight, fighting for his life against a batch of camp, second-tier wrestling villains.

As you'd expect from any mid-eighties Schwarzenegger movie, the film is little more than a relentless sequence of kill scenes, each one capped with a torturous pun that would shame even Bruce Forsyth. Although it bears little resemblance to its source novel, especially the ending which sees Richards suicidally piloting a jet into a sky-scraper, there are a few touches which manage to raise it above direct-to-video schlock. Perhaps the best of these, was the genius decision to cast Richard Dawson (genial host of Family Feud, the US answer to Family Fortunes) as the venal, corrupt host and producer of the show. I’d like to see Vernon Kay pull that one off.

Series 7 - The Contenders

Taking a more low-fi, found footage approach to the concept, this micro-budgeted thriller hit our screens the year after Big Brother made its TV debut. Presented as the marathon edition of a reality show, The Contenders, the film follows six people picked at random by a national lottery and forced to hunt each other in-front of the cameras. 

Starring the woman who refused to “put the fucking lotion in the basket”, the film opens with a shocking execution in a convenience store, carried out by a heavily pregnant woman. And it gets darker from there. Testicular cancer, abortion guilt and euthanasia are all stirred into the mix, in between shockingly random acts of violence.

Adding an extra dimension to the plot is the fact that this film takes place in the ‘real world’, with enthusiastic viewers taking the opportunity to interact with their favourite stars. Interestingly, this theme played out in an alternative ending that can be found on the DVD, where fans react angrily to the anticlimactic resolution to the show and savagely beat the heroes. Anyone else fancy a trip to the Geordie Shore?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Coming up Trumps

Somewhere in Los Angeles, in a luxuriously appointed but otherwise characterless room, Richard and Kathy Hilton are stuffing bath oils and bran muffins into a gift basket, taking occasional pause to high-five each other at their remarkable good fortune. The small card, which will be added to the basket before it's mummified in crinkly cellophane, reads "To Donald Trump, thanks for stepping up and assuming the title of worst celebrity parent. It's been a long decade." Once the package has been collected by the courier, they'll call Paris and tell her that the coast is clear for her to resume her one-woman assault on all that is good and decent, free to once again leave a viscous trail of awfulness across all the West Coast's most exclusive nightspots.

Meanwhile, in his towering edifice of gaudy excess, Donald will be left scratching his head - taking care not to dislodge the wooden spars that keep his thatched roof in place - and wondering where he went wrong with his two sons. Every possible opportunity, and the best education that money can buy, just to produce an unsightly stain on the gusset of humanity.

Donald Jr and Eric, a pair of loathsome pseudo-alpha-males with all the likeability of a discoloured melanoma, have been all over the news this week, as images of their recent jaunt to Zimbabwe went viral. Of course, they're not the first to be caught out by a few unfortunate holiday pictures finding their way onto the internet. But we're not talking about Facebook-friending an ill-advised holiday romance, or snapshots of you losing your swimmers while parasailing. The Brothers Trump favoured a different kind of extreme activity on their trip, signing up with a company called Hunting Legend, in order to help a few endangered species edge a little closer to a permanent exhibit in the Natural History Museum.

Keen to demonstrate their rippling masculinity and potent virility, the lads posed alongside their victims, which included an elephant, a crocodile and a leopard. Looking through the pictures is more unpleasant than working in Gary Glitter's local Snappy Snaps - the most offensive image being a shot of Donald Jr holding a knife in one hand and a crudely severed elephant's tail in the other. These once majestic beasts were all bagged close to Victoria Falls, a place where wealthy hunters pay upwards of $10,000 for a licence to kill. And Donald's boys are defiantly defensive of their actions, with Junior tweeting "I hunt and eat game. I am a hunter, I don't hide from that... I can assure you it was not wasteful the villagers were so happy for the meat which they don't often get to eat. Very grateful." Let's try not to think how much food ten grand would have bought the same community, if this is really about benevolent sharing. Besides, they still had to skin and butcher the enormous fuckers.

It's important to stress that no laws were broken. The hunting lodges which operate in the area maintain that they need to control animal populations, and that the money raised through licensing supports the local area. That's all well and good, but as a representative of the Zimbabwe Conservation Taskforce pointed out to The Independent this week, "The government deliberately overestimates how many animals we have so they can grant more licences and make more money."

Ultimately, the legality of the Trumps' actions is somewhat moot, since anyone who can look through a rifle-scope at an elephant and calmly pull the trigger, clearly has bigger issues to contend with. Whereas most people might view these gentle giants as one of nature's most awe-inspiring marvels, these cunts only see a matching set of umbrella stands.

Maybe I'm prejudiced, since I've never understood the appeal of hunting as a pastime. If I wanted a natty red jacket, I'd go and work at Butlins. And I certainly wouldn't want to spend my time charging through the countryside with a troupe of braying idiots, in the hope of seeing a terrified dog get ripped to bits. You can argue till you're long in the face, but hunting simply isn't a sport. Unless you're willing to concede that firing squads should be added to the Olympic agenda. In a competitive context, the word 'sport' implies a matching of equals, but until the animals get a Humvee with a roof-mounted shotgun, let's not try to convince ourselves that it's anything other than the troubling manifestation of our primordial blood-lust. Donald Jr might declare proudly that "I have no shame," but it's the gaping void where his soul should be that I'd be more concerned with. 

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Worshipping False Idols

After ten years as America's favourite TV show, you'd be forgiven for expecting American Idol to be running on fumes by now. In fact, this has been one of the most dramatic seasons to date, with more collapses than a controlled demolition, and a surprising number of genuinely impressive voices. Furthermore, for the first time in recent memory, the talent is evenly dispersed between the boys and girls.

This week sees the grand unveiling of the final thirteen, after what seems like weeks of merciless culls. More importantly, there's a distinct male vs female vibe, as the women will be paying posthumous tribute to Whitney Houston, whereas the boys will be taking on Stevie Wonder's back catalogue. It's always nice when a legendary artist gets a well-earned tribute, but this mash-up of the living and the dead feels a little distasteful. Without wishing to pre-empt a tragedy, Stevie might want to stick to showers for the time-being.

Joshua's up first, and he can at least take comfort in the fact that, if this doesn't work out, there's a lucrative career in Barack Obama impersonations ahead of him. Thankfully, he won't be practicing his State of the Union just yet, since he's far and away the best singer they've had on this show since Carrie Underwood was still stitching fringes onto her evening gowns. His interpretation of Stevie's I Wish has a lazy cabaret feel to it, but his voice sounds like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding competing in a sing-off. It's not a patch on his extraordinary performance last week, but he's sure to sail through to the next round. Jennifer loves that the music "doesn't just come through his mouth" - but that's because hers usually comes from a box underneath the mixing desk.

Following Joshua is Elise, who's going to tackle The Greatest Love of All. Guest judge Mary J Blige flinches like someone just snapped the elastic on her underwear, so she and Jimmy Iovine tell her to have a go at I'm Your Baby Tonight instead. It's a deceptively simple song - the melody is pretty straightforward, but the timing's a bitch. It takes Elise half the song to catch up with it, and her flat, raucous delivery, coupled with the unfortunate choice of a spangly mini dress, gives her performance the feeling of being shouted down by a short-changed hooker. Jennifer tells her that she could have murdered it, but the fact is, she just left it for dead.

Next up is Jermaine, who'll be wrapping his beefy baritone around 'Knocks Me Off My Feet'. If you can picture the voice of Luther Vandross, dripping out of the mouth of the Honey Monster, you'd be right on the money. He's a great singer, but it's all so low and rumbly that it's not so much a musical performance as the soundtrack to a tectonic shift. Steven Tyler tells him that the song fitted him like an Armani suit, except that Armani doesn't tend to charge by the square yard. Gigantic Jermaine even manages to make Ryan Seacrest look like a finger puppet when standing alongside him, which is ridiculous since everyone knows that Ryan is happier taking the whole fist.

Erika has chosen I Believe In You And Me, one of the blandest ballads in Whitney's back catalogue, but her voice is naturally raspy so she's putting a Kelly Clarkson spin on it. Although she's an attractive girl, a couple of poor styling choices make her look like an overweight newsreader, and I'm unnecessarily distracted by the curious blue stain on her tongue. The judges are oddly enthusiastic, with Jennifer drawing attention to the 'goosies' on her arm. She can't wait until Erika "stops thinking", but this is American Idol, so it's not as if she's sitting in the green room contemplating the ethics of stem cell research.

Colton plays one of his own songs for Jimmy and Mary, to help them understand his singing style. That helps them build an arrangement that suits his voice, and it's safe to say there's a good reason they're both as successful as they are. Lately is a classic and Colton's performance is pretty good, distinctive enough to be individual, but sticking respectfully close to Stevie's melody. Now he just needs to work on the ridiculous parakeet mullet he's been showcasing since the early stages of the competition. It doesn't matter how well you sing, if you look like Jim Carrey dressing up as Adam Levine for a lark.

Shannon will be tackling I Have Nothing from The Bodyguard. It's a giant of a song, and she's a little too characterless to dominate such an enormous song. She hits some of the right notes, but spends much of her time lost in the mix. Worst of all is the key change, which is about as professional as jamming a nail file into a Yale lock.

Deandre is the Terrence Trent D'Arby of this year's contest, combining earthy gravel with a sweet falsetto. It works perfectly for Master Blaster, and showcases a side to him that we've previously seen precious little of. Also well within her comfort zone, against all the odds, is country sparrow Skylar. Despite never having sung a Whitney song before, she's having a bash at Where Do Broken Hearts Go. Her tone is pure and clear, so she nails the key change as easily as tipping a sleeping cow. Jennifer tries telling her that she's the "definition of composure", then gives up on her description when it becomes clear that no-one has a clue what she's talking about.

HeeJun is performing "All In Love Is Fair", and he sounds surprisingly good, given that he was dismissed early on as the joker in the pack. His dry sense of humour and occasionally clumsy phrasing make it seem as though he's not taking any of this seriously, but his tone is perfectly suited to the song and he nails it. He even reserves a little sass for J-Lo, chastising her for "playing hard to get."

Hollie looks like an American Sheridan Smith, but there's an enormous voice inside her tiny blonde frame. All The Man I Need starts off well, but the chorus and key change are lacking sophistication, mistaking power for performance. It ends as a solid seven out of ten, not bad, but not exactly memorable either. This was always supposed to be a tribute to Whitney Houston, and let's face facts - there's no better tribute than pointing out just how effortless she made this shit look.

Jeremy is a nice kid, and just one Hunny Pot away from being Winnie The Pooh in human form. He's singing Ribbon In The Sky, and it's what Simon Cowell used to describe as a 'hotel performance'. I guess that means that it's in tune, in key, and tastefully delivered, but about as dynamic and exciting as a Corby Trouser Press.

Someone had to do it, I guess. So it might as well be Jessica, who has the closest thing to a diva voice this season, to take on I Will Always Love You. She hits all the right notes, and manages to score the first standing ovation of the evening. But it still felt as though she was racing through the song to make sure that she hit all the money shots in a minute and fifty. Randy reminds the audience that this is one of the hardest songs in the world to sing. He's right, but not for the reason he thinks. It's hard, because there's a wealth of complicated emotions to convey. Instead, audiences were watching closely, but only to count off the big moments like they were playing a drinking game.

Closing tonight's show is Phillip Phillips. Yes, that's his real name. He's part Paul Rudd, and part Giovanni Ribisi, wrapped up in an erratic bundle of weird. Unfortunately, he's trying to make Superstition sound like the kind of angry rant used to summon a demon, rather than sticking to the effervescent funkiness of the original. It's what might ordinarily be described as self-indulgent, but the judges tend to get swept away in this kind of strangeness. True to form, Steven tells him "You just are", which as about as eloquent a critique as anyone could muster.

The results show, like most others, involves twenty minutes of recaps and twenty minutes of people being asked to sit on bar-stools, in between a couple of lacklustre guest performances. There's a momentary shock as Joshua is revealed to be in the bottom three, but he's barely walked out to the middle of the stage before he's sent back to rejoin the other 'safe' acts. In the end, it's Jeremy who's going home, and he seems about as surprised as the audience at home. Which is not very.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

White Heat gets warmed up

This feels weird, watching a show with no repetitive voiceover, a complete lack of fake tan, and sentences that don't begin with "I'm not being funny..." The BBC has come under fire lately for chasing ratings with tawdry reality shows, so I suppose we should all give thanks for a high profile new drama series from writer Paula Milne. Even better, White Heat is a period drama, but without the crinoline or endless scenes of servants stewing tea around a massive oak table.

Billed as a blend of This Life and Our Friends In The North, this epic six-parter follows the lives and loves of seven eclectic housemates, from the turbulent sixties right up to the present day. We open on a house in Tufnell Park where someone has recently died. Juliet Stevenson is waiting anxiously outside, wearing a familiar expression that suggests a combination of grief, confusion and irritable bowel syndrome. Last time I saw her mourning in an empty flat, I had to suffer an hour of Alan Rickman's paranormal jazz combo. So this doesn't bode well for the next hour.

The lawyer who shows her around the property helpfully explains that she's there because the deceased's will left the flat to his "former flatmates". "We lost touch over the years" Juliet adds, neatly setting up the format for the series, as we piece together how they all fell apart. We're not told who is dead, only that it was "two weeks before they found him." Better get those windows cracked open and rub some Vanish into the carpet.

This is going to be a flashback-heavy series, so Juliet gazes wistfully at a group photo to introduce us to the seven main characters. Taking a lead from Atonement, it's important that no matter how much societal change takes place over the next fifty years, the main characters will keep the exact same haircut so that it's easy for us to tell who's who.

It's 1967, and young Charlotte (now played by Claire Foy) is being shown around the flat by handsome proto-hippy Jack. After a bit of mild flirting with Charlotte, who's come dressed as the homicidal midget from Don't Look Now, he leans in the doorway and cheekily asks her if she likes what she sees. She nods accordingly, but the low camera angle prevents us from seeing whether he's doing the hilarious elephant impression with inside-out trouser pockets.

Poor old Alan has been given the thankless task of delivering all the expository dialogue, so he helpfully explains that Jack is conducting some kind of social experiment in the flat. He's selected a variety of diverse people to live with him, in the hope of testing their boundaries and seeing how a more egalitarian society might operate. Jack elaborates with a house rule that no-one's allowed to sleep with anyone else in the house for more than three nights in a row, in order to reject "the corrosive exclusivity of relationships." This is going to be a laugh-a-minute.

Charlotte's our main focus for this first episode, so we see her having an uncormfortable dinner with her parents, before retreating to her room to read Lady Chatterley's Lover and listen to The Who. Symbolism alert - there's a giant doll's house on the windowsill, to remind us that her parents still see her as a child who belongs at home. Later on, Charlotte hitchhikes back to Tufnell Park, and smokes a joint on the roof with Jack. She even manages to look unperturbed when he grabs her tit and asks if she feels anything yet. To be fair, it was a fairly thick sweater.

Back in the present day, and our second housemate arrives. If that sounds like I'm describing Big Brother's opening night, there's good reason. This may be a big budget scripted drama, but it clearly owes a considerable debt to Endemol's long-running reality show, with its eclectic housemates thrown together in an artificially antagonistic environment. As Charlotte and Lily embrace awkawrdly, the new arrival ominously announces, "There's not a day when I don't regret what I did to you" neatly foreshadowing the drama to come. Even so, Lily's not the sharpest tool in the box, as she asks whether "it happened upstairs", oblivious to the black and yellow police tape sealing the door immediately to her right.

The rest of the episode takes place back in 1967, as we're introduced to the rest of the main characters. There's Orla, who's supporting her family back in Ireland by working as a chambermaid, and trying to survive on other people's scraps. Given the way she fills out her clothes, I'd say she's squirreling away more than just the odd bread roll. Lily is an artist, who likes to strip naked and cover herself with paint. But she's Northern, so her parents come to visit in a flat cap and headscarf, to point out that such a lifestyle is "not for the likes of us". Victor is a Jamaican scholarship student who can't do the washing up without being accused of endorsing slavery, and Jay is a young Asian partial to helping other young men out of their chinos. All we're missing now is a page three model and a secret mission.

There's lots of social history to cover in 55 minutes, so Charlotte has to do most of the heavy lifting. She goes to the doctor to get a prescription for the pill, then gives herself a quick once over after listening to a feminist debate on the TV. Having witnessed her father indulging in a daytime dalliance with a random blonde, she attempts to tell her mother. Unfortunately, Mum's the kind of woman who drinks gin at midday in a housecoat, so Charlotte's forced to confront him herself with the painful truth. Standing on her doorstep in the shadow of a billboard advertising a Hoover steam iron, our minidress-wearing heroine accuses her father of double standards, before defiantly telling him that it's her right to dress as sluttily as she likes.

By the time we're introduced to Jack's Conservative MP father, it's clear that White Heat is going to be a whistle-stop social history tour, rather than a compelling or realistic drama. In the first episode we've had racism, Churchill's death, the Pill, homosexuality, clashing political ideologies, the generation gap, liberal guilt, communism, adultery, mid-life crises, the rise of feminism, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And that's before we've had a chance to learn all the character's names. Attention to detail is all well and good, but Milne needs to decide whether she wants to create an engrossing story, or try and compress fifty years of politics into a six-hour documentary. By attempting to do both, she's as doomed to failure as Jack's social experiment.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Carrie on regardless

If you managed to suffer through the 147 minutes of torture that constituted the last Sex and the City movie, you may well be hoping you’ve seen the back of Carrie Bradshaw – much like the majority of New York’s eligible bachelors.

Despite the fact that it was about as much fun as euthanising kittens with a brick, the film still managed to turn an impressive profit. And that means that studios believe there’s still an audience out there for Carrie’s further exploits. However, to paraphrase the old saying, you can’t teach an old dog to turn new tricks. So what’s the answer? How do you keep things fresh, when six seasons and two movies have made the franchise feel staler than last week’s Kingsmill?

Thankfully, no-one had to wrack their brains for too long, since creator Candace Bushnell had helpfully written a prequel to her original novel in 2010, called The Carrie Diaries. So let’s all do the timewarp and revisit our equine heroine when she was still a foal, and able to suck down a red Marlboro without her mouth creping like Maggie Smith sipping a Lemsip.

Given that the show is being developed by the CW network, home to Gossip Girl 90210 and The Vampire Diaries, it’s safe to assume that no one’s going to take a load of old-man spunk to the face. Likewise, it's doubtful that there’ll be any ginger merkins on display. In fact, the show promises to be as watered down as a virgin Manhattan.

Which makes me wonder what the appeal is going to be, and who’s going to watch it. As portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker, Carrie was never a particularly likeable heroine – often managing to be obsessive, deceitful and petulant all at once. Throw in a teenage sense of entitlement and this could be more painful than jogging the wrong way up an escalator in a pair of Manolos.

When Sex and the City first appeared in 1998, it was a genuine revelation. Its four main character archetypes might have been lifted wholesale from The Golden Girls, but the refreshingly frank discussion of sex and sexuality was entirely its own creation. Over the years we grew to love Carrie and her gang, so much so that we were even able to forgive her for going out dressed like a hooker trying to pay her way through clown college.

Eye-watering fashions aside, Carrie was an everywoman, made distinct only by her ability to knock out a sharp pun in a peignoir. With Gossip Girl already cornering the market in bitchy teen sexuality and scathing commentary, it's hard to see what will make the adolescent Carrie distinct from any other teenage girl with a gel-bra and a MacBook Air.

With a new group of friends to help her split an egg-white omelette four ways, and whole host of fresh relationship dilemmas to resolve, The Carrie Diaries won't be short of material. And at least we can be thankful that this is one prequel that George Lucas won't involved in - no-one needs to see Jar Jar Binks having a pregnancy scare.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Getting the Humperdinck

In times of recession, the last thing anyone needs is another extravagant expense. So perhaps the news that we’re sending leathery crooner Englebert Humperdinck to Baku in Azerbaijan isn’t all bad. At least it practically guarantees that we won’t have to stump up the cash to host the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013. Everyone knows the trouble Ireland got into during the early 1990s, when an unprecedented hat-trick saw the Emerald Isle checking its wallet and lamenting its knack for wistful sing-along ballads. It’s no wonder the last few years have seen them put forward an aggressive rubber turkey and the Jedward as its representatives.

Then again, it’s not just the expense of hosting the show that we’re concerned about. Here in the UK, we like to scoff at the whole idea of Eurovision. We laugh at the woeful presenting skills of the host nations, we titter at the curious routines, and we cheer along with the BBC’s derisory commentary. We like to think we’re better than all that flag-waving, key-changing nonsense. And then every time we find ourselves rounding out the bottom of the leaderboard, we bitch and moan about the politically-motivated voting patterns, like UKIP taking another pop at the European Union.

It’s not as if we haven’t tried either. Every year, someone attempts to crack the Eurovision code, and design a song that will appeal to voters from Moscow to Malmo. But whether its cheesy disco, power ballads or generic boybands, we consistently fail to hit the mark. Even the supposed A-team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren failed to raise much interest on the continent.

The thing is, as much as we might gawp in disbelief at all those Eastern European countries with their funny hats and ability to power through a chorus in the face of a wind-machine that would register on the Fujita scale, they’re doing something right. In short, they’re giving a shit.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re all fully aware of how ridiculous the whole show is. They know it’s cheesier than Paula Radcliffe’s insole. But they’re committed to the moment, even if the whole thing makes about as much sense as Joey Essex. You only need to look at how the Scandinavian countries select their acts to see the difference. Melodifestivalen in Sweden, Melodi Grand Prix Norway and Melodi Grand Prix Denmark – they’re almost as popular as the main event, and certainly run for longer. Some of their biggest pop stars battle to fight it out in the weekly heats, and the week after the final, it’s not unusual to see the singles chart utterly dominated by the competing entries, which cover a wide range of genres. Last year, we had Blue singing a bland will-this-do effort called ‘I Can’. In short, they couldn’t.

When the news was announced last night, Englebert told journalists "When the BBC approached me, it just felt right for me to be a part of an institution like Eurovision. I'm excited and raring to go and want the nation to get behind me!" Well, someone has to push his chair. Meanwhile, Katie Taylor, the BBC’s head of entertainment and events commented: "Not since the 70s have we had such an established international musical legend represent the nation.” Of course, she neglected to mention that’s also the last time Englebert had any kind of musical relevance.

So once again, we mosey into battle, biting our thumb in contempt at the entire concept. The critics get to chunter that a septuagenarian crooner is all the contest deserves, and the genuine fans once again find themselves without a worthwhile act to cheer on. Boom bang-a-bang-bang - job done. As Johnny Logan once sang, what’s another year?