Friday, 11 April 2014

Adrian Mole - A Hero For Our Time

My fifteen year-old self is lying on his bed. In front of him, spread out across the duvet, a collection of binders and barely legible hand-written history notes. My mum pops her head through the door: “Are you revising? Your exams are only a week away.” She’s a teacher, so this kind of behaviour is not unexpected. Fifteen year-old me sighs as dramatically as he can, before assuring the retreating face that, yes, I’m getting stuck in.

As the door closes behind her, he reaches under the canopy of school work, and extracts a dog-eared copy of The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. It’s been read so many times that the binding has all but given up. The pages have been carelessly jammed back between the covers, like a half-written manuscript in an Oxford Don’s leather satchel. Young me looks at his watch. “I’ve got a good half-hour before dinner; I can probably finish this and start Secret Diary again,” the conspiratorial voice whispers inside his head. Revision will have to wait. Adrian’s on his way to Skegness, and I can’t wait to rediscover the singular joys of Bernard Porke and the Rio Grande Guest House.    

Although there are other books that may have moved me more; some have even changed my life; none have maintained as constant a presence as the Adrian Mole diaries. I first met Adrian when I was about nine. My Grandma had taken the first volume out of the library, and enjoyed it so much, she allowed me to read it before returning it. And although I was a few years younger than Adrian, I felt he was a kindred spirit. Sure, he was pompous and laughably naïve, but we shared a love of the written word, and a general air of confusion about the way that grown-ups behaved.

Whereas an older reader might have picked up on the foreshadowing of future events, a standard device in most epistolary novels, I shared Adrian’s innocence - although even I could spot Mr Lucas’ intentions before Adrian did. Of course, each time I revisited Adrian’s diaries, which was a lot in those days since there were only two volumes to choose from, I’d pick up on more of the detail. The politics of the time, the complex familial relationships, and the coruscating social satire, all added fresh layers to every rereading. Adrian was the ideal commentator on society – all seeing, if not exactly all-knowing.

Aged just 14, he diligently reported the outcry that occurred when he accidentally delivered tabloids to the tree-lined middle class avenues, and broadsheets to the council estate, but expressed surprise at their response: “I don’t know why everybody went so mad. You’d think they would enjoy reading a different paper for a change.” Neither did it escape his notice, in True Confessions, that on the day of Andrew and Fergie’s wedding: “I passed the Co-op where the Union Jack hung upside down, and the Sikh temple where it was hung correctly.” Tiny moments, that spoke loudly about the tensions of modern British life.

As the years passed, Adrian and I both grew up, but never apart. I kept track of his first, ill-fated move to London. I shared his heartbreak as his beloved Bianca left him for his stepfather, Martin Muffet. And I delighted in his, albeit short-lived, success as a TV chef. Crippling debt, appearances on reality TV talkshows and a particularly threatening swan, all played vital roles in Adrian’s tragicomic existence.

But, once a diarist, always a diarist. With his maturity came a newfound awareness of politics, not least when his fearsomely ambitious old flame Pandora Braithwaite became one of Blair’s Babes. Even so, his unerring ability to miss the point never seemed to fail him. Most of the time, his lack of prescience was mined for ironic humour, but things took a dark turn in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. Having tirelessly campaigned in support of Blair’s war, putting his unwavering trust in the Labour leader’s integrity, he’s shocked out of his ignorance when Robbie Stainforth, his son’s best friend, is killed in a bomb explosion in Iraq. Adrian’s grief is palpable, reflecting a raw anger that we hadn’t encountered before. Gone were the playful jabs at British politics; in their place, a profound sense of betrayal.

The last time I saw Adrian, he seemed to be on the road to recovery, following a gruelling battle with prostate cancer. Middle-aged and once again separated from another wife, he seemed to have finally made peace with his life. Able to set aside three decades of unrealistic aspirations and underwhelming accomplishments, he was looking forward to life as a grandfather, perhaps alongside Pandora – the one that never quite got away. And that’s how I’ll chose to remember him, even though I know he’s gone forever.  

He and I were more alike than I’d perhaps care to admit. But then, wasn’t that always the secret of his enduring appeal? Adrian Mole truly was an everyman. Reflecting the frustrations, obsessions and idiosyncrasies of this weird and wonderful nation. Cataloguing its foibles with alarming precision, and yet managing to spectacularly miss the point, more often than not. Adrian Mole; a hero in idiot’s clothing.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The BBC Gets Its Rocks Off - The Voice Grand Final

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this series of The Voice, other than the fact that Kylie could probably flirt with a park bench, it’s that I miss commercial breaks. There’s something about the relentless pace of these talent shows that requires regular respite; without it, they can become incessantly draining. So it’s a weakened husk of a man that sits down to recap tonight’s grand final. It’s taken 14 weeks, but we’re finally at a stage where there are few enough contestants that we can actually remember all their names. But before we get to them, we’ll have to sit through another performance from our judges. As they launch into a self-congratulatory rendition of Get Your Rocks Off, Ricky leans on a motorbike, Will models a rather fetching parachute harness, Tom sits on a throne, and Kylie’s suspended on a neon pair of lips. This is either the BBC’s idea of Saturday night primetime, or I ate a wheel of brie right before my afternoon nap. Weirdly, the film keeps switching to slow motion, as if the producers are attempting a metaphor for the sensation of actually watching the show.

Emma’s wearing a curious evening gown/trouser suit, that looks like something Heather Locklear might have worn before pushing someone down the stairs. “Are you ready to meet the best of the best?” asks Marvin angrily, before introducing our four finalists with no small amount of hyperbole. I’m all for encouragement, but it’s a little premature to be calling Christina Marie a superstar.

Speaking of Bristol’s answer to Katy Perry; she’s gone home to undo all the hard work she’s put into those elocution lessons. Her homecoming is less than spectacular, and amounts to little more than hanging around on someone’s driveway with an assortment of Vicky Pollards. Her opening performance is Coldplay’s Fix You, accompanied by a strange floor projection that looks as if she’s doing karaoke in a smelting plant. It starts off nicely enough, but the constant threat of shouting is always there, and by the second half of the song, one of my dogs has left the room in search of a quiet space. Thankfully, all of the over-singing is redeemed by an admittedly impressive falsetto run. Emma is feeding the judges their lines and giving the contestants more non-questions for them to shake their heads at. Meanwhile, Ricky has an emotional breakdown and starts pointing at the camera and commanding us to vote, like Kitchener in a tweed waistcoat.

This week, Sally was crowned the new Queen of Leicester, with no word on what happened to the old one. Presumably, Rosemary Conley’s been thrown into a dungeon to live out the rest of her days eating low calorie ready meals with her fingers. Sally tells us how much she enjoyed visiting home, but she still scowls like she’s been stuck in all morning, waiting for the aga repairman. Her family have printed a banner to implore people to vote, but it’s so politely worded that it’s unlikely to have much of an impact. It seems that enthusiasm is in short supply in Sally’s family, as they attempt to convey their excitement about her success without changing their facial expressions or the tone of their voice. As for Sally, she’s actively resisting the effects of her TV makeover, and looks like the RNLI just fished her out of the North Sea. Of course, feedback on her image is purely academic, since this is The Voice, and on that front Sally has it nailed. Her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now is hauntingly melancholy. It’s clearly one of those songs she’s been performing for thirty years, so she deserves credit for picking something that’s personal to her, with a wider audience appeal. Tom repeatedly references the fact that Sally has touched him, and hopes that she’s touched everybody in the audience. Poor Will is still struggling with the pressures of live TV and fumbles a compliment, ultimately comparing Sally’s performance to “something from a Disney cartoon.” Like most of his back catalogue, I imagine that sounded a lot better in his head. 

Introducing Jermain, Emma comments obliquely that “all roads lead to Hackney,” but that really depends on which exit of the A12 you take. Jermain heads home to you-know-where and heads straight for a community centre full of well-wishers. Well, I say full. There’s certainly a good turnout, but Jermain’s claim that he struggled to fight his way through the crowd represents a true politico’s misremembrance of events. Performing Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, he’s flies into the studio on something that’s part microphone stand, part ski lift. The song suits his voice surprisingly well, although the obligatory baritone notes are more than a little comical. The key change is better, but it all falls apart on the last few off-key notes. Will stops giving his feedback to take a call from Cheryl Cole, who obviously hasn’t read the small print in her new X-Factor contract about fraternising with the enemy. Ricky adds that “Jermain brings a different vibe to the show; he’s a guy with a social conscience.” Meanwhile, Sally’s out back, burning tyres in the car park, as Christina Marie beats a swan to death with her shoe.

Jamie’s thrilled to be in the final of the Voice, but he’s so smiley and happy, he probably pisses himself with excitement when he fills out a Road Tax form. His performance of Missing You is pretty good, but the loud bits are a little too shouty, and the softer bits a little too quiet. Emma’s excited to see “all the Johnsons out in the audience,” which makes me wonder if she has to picture the crowd naked, to conquer her nerves. Will references Justin Timberlake in his appraisal (more on that, later), but I think Joey Fatone makes for a more effective N*SYNC simile.

Remember Marvin? He’s been dumped back in the V-Room where he can play Candy Crush on his iPad and keep out of trouble. With all four singers having performed their first song, Marvin’s ready to give them a light grilling. I could recap these conversations for you, but every time I do, a little part of my brain dies. If I tried to transcribe everything, I’d forget how to tie my own shoelaces.

With the solo performances out of the way, it’s time for the finalists to sing with their mentors. Christina Marie and the Kaiser Chiefs sing the band’s new single Coming Home. It’s a song that suits both their voices well, but the arrangement could see Ricky sued for plagiarism by U2 and Simple Minds. Ricky has an awkward smirk on his face, like he’s a little too pleased with himself about being able to get into those size 28 trousers. As for Christina, she’s still struggling to sell sincerity, especially when she does her “Oh my God, I’m so honoured…” humility giggle.

Sally and Tom have gone off to church and she’s still wearing that fucking anorak. Fair play to her; at least she’s more pragmatic about the nature of her relationship with her celebrity mentor: “My highlight has been working with Sir Tom. It feels like we’re friends, and I hope we are.” Their duet of Walking In Memphis is lovely, but Tom’s booming voice has a tendency to drown out Sally, leaving her only the harmonies to distinguish herself. Tom promises to sing on Sally’s album, and she’s already thinking “Maybe a bonus track, if you’re lucky.”

Will and Jermain head off to Buckingham Palace to launch a new social initiative with Prince Andrew. Jermain’s surprise that the Prince knew who he was betrays his naiveté – surely he knows that these people are briefed by advisors? Their performance of Pure Imagination is weird and stilted, with awkward dancing, stuttering beats and Will’s utterly terrible vocals. Will talks about the song choice as representing how it feels to try and get out of a ‘nightmare neighbourhood,’ which probably has the good people of Hackney feeling a little down in the mouth.

Kylie takes Jamie to the O2 to meet Justin Timberlake, before singing on stage to an empty auditorium. Is this a commentary on the kind of success that the winner can look forward to? They’re doing The Eurythmics’ There Must Be An Angel, and although it starts with an odd tempo, it’s much better once the beat kicks in. They’re quite well suited as a duo, with Kylie handling the basics and Jamie rocking the big gospelly notes.

With a little time to fill before the last round, Paloma Faith takes to the stage to do her Tori Amos-on-ecstasy routine. The song has attitude to spare, but melody is in short supply. And her RnB “come on wi’it” growl, seems a little disingenuous, given her plummily eccentric speaking voice.

It’s standard, at this stage in the show, to give us a quick recap of the season. This largely involves seeing viewers at home trying to turn their own chairs, which is great if you always wanted to peer behind someone’s DFS sofa. As the phonelines are temporarily frozen, Jamie gets the news that he’s out of the competition. Emma asks Kylie if he’ll be going on tour with her, and she diplomatically avoids answering the question; choosing instead to thank everyone who was part of the show. With a final call for phone votes, Emma implores us to pick up the phone: “You can change someone’s life by taking them from this show to the charts and beyond.” That seems a little ambitious for a show that’s never troubled the inside of the top 30.

For her final performance, Christina Marie sings The Power Of Love, and it brings out the sweet clarity of her voice. Sally has also picked her battle song; Olly Murs’ Dear Darlin’. Her dress looks like a fortune-teller’s tablecloth, but the vocal is mesmerising. The only downside is that we only get half the song, which means the performance winds down, rather than reaching a crescendo. Finally, Jermain bellows And I’m Telling You, and it’s a smart song choice for his last ever performance. Get this one right, and the vocal fireworks can all but guarantee those all-important final votes. Despite its ubiquity on these talent shows, it’s not a track that works well as a 100 second showcase – sounding more like a greatest hits compilation of massive notes, rather than an actual song. After wiping his eyes, Will volunteers his dead grandma as part of Jermain’s new entourage. Still, at least he won’t have to spring for a seat in business class for her.

Aloe Blacc is here to make use of that monochrome photographic effect that the producers of The Voice like so much. He’s singing The Man, which is on course to be number one tomorrow. It uses the refrain from Elton John’s Your Song, but at this stage in the game, I’m just relieved it’s not Ellie Goulding’s version.

After two hours of edging, we’re finally ready to announce the winner – it’s Jermain. His mum’s praying, Will looks pensive, and Sally seems entirely thrilled for him. Will gives him counsel on how to go about achieving his goal of being the first black British Prime Minister, which doesn’t give much of a hint of what his first album will be like. Jermain gives thanks to God, which has the production team scrabbling to check whether this warrants recategorising The Voice under its Religion and Ethics banner. There’s just time for one more facepalm, as Jermain sings his recap of the song from Dreamgirls, but changes the lyric to “you’re the best Mum I’ve ever known.” Cue the cameraman cutting to Jermain’s granny in the audience. Well done everyone.