TV Review: My Failed Novel and Grantchester

You’re a writer, people often proclaim, why don’t you write a novel about all the places you’ve visited, all those characters. But the truth, when push comes to shove (as it so often does), is that hacks are not really writers. Only hacks, editors and the cleaning ladies in newsrooms know this unpalatable truth – but it’s good to play along. Obviously, the ladies love a writer – dark, mysterious, eccentric, grey shallow bags and thin wristed. The contrary is true of hacks. Almost no one likes hacks, not even hacks. We killed Princess Diana, remember – and almost everyone liked her.

What hackers and writers do have in common is the constant unedifying steady sludge of rejection, disappointment, failure and moments (or sometimes weeks) of that dreadful paranoia that at any moment you’re going to be caught out, uncovered, for the obvious fake that you undoubtedly are. And even when you do reach the dizzy heights of a daily national, I’m only guessing here, there’s still that nagging sensation that this is merely a stop gap, a day job – imagine an air hostess pretending she’s anything other than a glorified cocktail waitress and you’ll be close to the mark.

The remarkable thing about Giles Coren’s new documentary Giles Coren: My Failed Novel (Sky Arts) is that it captures all of the insecurities and nagging self-doubt of a wannabe writer perfectly – but only just, and almost certainly not intentionally, more as a natural matter of course.

Giles – we should get this out of the way – is one of Britain’s most successful restaurant critics and columnists; but it turns out that none of this matters, when you’ve always dreamed of being a novelist, and your first and only novel was a commercial and critical flop selling only 771 copies in hardback and 1400 copies in paperback – everyone from his agent to Jeffrey Archer smirks at the dismal sales.

So, Giles goes around in his annoyingly affable boyish way, meeting lots of publishers, authors, critics and women in book clubs to find out what makes a writer successful and why his novel was such a disaster. And what begins as a resignedly jaunty exploration into the publishing world bizarrely turns into self-analysis and pursuit for the soul of the artist (ok, I exaggerate – this is Giles Coren we’re talking about, but you get the idea.)

I have to say, I did feel sorry for him when his book was being scrutinised, ridiculed and ultimately tossed on the bonfire by a group of awfully patronising creative writing students; who basically said it’s all bollocks and you were only published because you’re a famous journo (and hacks, as we know, are not writers) and you should stick to your day job.

The usually confident and opinionated Giles was at pains to read it out loud and red-faced when they tore it to pieces. “If you can’t live through the failure, then your screwed,” Howard Jacobson said to him. Maybe, but he isn’t a failure – it’s just that his first novel wasn’t very good. I was ambivalent about Giles before this, now I quite like him.

Since everyone now accepts that all men (especially noble prize winning scientists, and those of a catholic disposition) are sexual deviants, predatory rapists and just all round nasty misogynists, apart from, of course, Arab, Muslim and North African men, who are all just lovely, thank you very much. It’s quite fitting that we should kick off this year’s spurge of new detective shows with a drab crime drama set in the 1950s, to remind us that men were just as awful and sleazy back then and fifteen-year-old girls just as randy.

What is baffling about the new series Grantchester (ITV, Wednesdays) is why the village vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) – who was at the beginning accused of sexual offences against a child, who then turns up dead – plays at being sleuth with local detective DI Geordie Keating (Robson Green); are the police low on staff, or is this just how it was back then? And back then is just another problem. I’m tired of back then. I want a back to the future, or a Phillip K Dick style drama set sometime in the next 5 minutes.

It’s not that Grantchester is particularly bad, and isn’t a perfectly amiable way to flitter away a Sunday afternoon (only it’s on Tuesdays – which might make you think twice). It’s just that it’s so dreary, laboured, been-there-done-that and certainly on a period (so to speak) that it made me want to either scream to wake up or hit myself to pass out. The best character was the dead girl’s father played by Neil Morrissey – I haven’t seen him for ages – because he looked like Hitler – if Hitler had decided to swap his trademark toothbrush moustache for a more socially acceptable variety of facial hair. But other than that, I’ll give this one a miss.



Restaurant review: The Beagle (Manchester)

Food 0/5     Atmosphere 3/5

So it’s settled then. Manchester needs a kick up the arse – a how’s your father, an eke-name, a moniker, a diminutive term of endearment. London has Londonistan, Las Vegas went for Sin City; Bangkok pegged the City of Angels and Berlin The Grey City. It’s more of a US of A thing, isn’t it? We’re not as grandiose, freewheeling, riding off into the sunset to the beat of Fleetwood Mac as the ‘ol gas station smudges into the vista. That’s not us. We’re more subdued. Don’t want to blow our trumpets – didn’t know we had one.

But it’s time here in Albion that our reserved cities, towns and even small hamlets, buckled up and promoted their very own affectionate appellations – Manchester in particular. So, here goes: what about Madchester or Gunchester? (been there, done that) – never again, too nineties. The Rainy City? Boring, and besides, I think Seattle got there first. Cottonopolis? Reasonable and has a nice ring – but out of date. Granadaland? Forget it. Manny. Man Many Manny. Manchesterford? Spluttering and too eighties. Warehouse city. Manky. Manky mess. Manky mess messy? Manky messy public transport?

Obviously, nothing works.

How about a nod to our illustrious musical heritage? Again, out of date – nobody likes music anymore. What tickles our fancy? Drinking – yes that’s it! We love drowning our sorrows; lurching out of watering holes four hours too early, staggering into our hangovers as we hunt down some questionable halal certified eatery.

Eating, do we like to eat? Tough one that, it appears we do. There are restaurants popping like acne all over the Cottonopolis these days. Baying like jackals, a siren call of chain Italian restaurants, fusion street tapas, cocktails with hefty burgers, NQ this that and the other, New York inspired bold cartas brimming with hope – promising anything but Fish and Chips, black pudding, hot pot, anglicised curries and shepherd’s pie. And at 12 quid a smack it better be good – especially if it’s on an Ikea wooden chopping board – rimmed perfectly for collecting those lukewarm crimson juices.

It happened about 10 years ago. Mancunians decided they didn’t really like depressingly authentic public houses, music, bands and all that stuff to do with being a miserable Northerner. No, what really got their rocks off was playing at being restaurant critics – connoisseurs of the palate. The problem is, they’re awful at it. Watching Mancunians go out to eat is like watching partially blind lemmings stumble about in total darkness (obviously with a decent pair of night vision goggles).

Is it a bar or a restaurant? It’s a…look love, there’s some sort of la-di-da fusion food on offer if you can be bothered – the bar’s on the right, near the entrance/exit. Be sure to have a few pints on the way out. In fact, The Beagle in Chorlton, Manchester advertises as such: craft beer, cocktails, terrace, wine and vibes. Notably, there’s no mention of food, and for good reason – it’s awful.

It also appears to be Mexican, which is bizarre considering it’s called the Beagle, instead of the Chihuahua; and the walls are decorated with birds – not obese Mexican birds (I’m talking about women here), just your average bland English variety. ‘The birds’ bring plates of food to you, and the service is…well, they managed to bring it to the table without dropping it among the boozy revellers, which I suppose is commendable. The problem is what they stick in front of you makes you regret not spending it on booze.

The Al pastor pulled pork burrito was bland, stuffed with red cabbage, way too expensive at £8 (two beers, imagine) and almost definitely not spit roasted as advertised. We also went for the Lawndale burger – another £8 – a terrible idea of halloumi and soggy aubergine – the less said about that the better. The pick n’ mix snacks (3 dishes for £9.95) looked like pre bought frozen convenience lumps of charcoal.

After that, we decided like everyone else in the place, to just buy drinks. Only avoid the cocktails, they have really stupid names like Tommy’s Margarita and Jalapeno and Cucumber Margarita and ‘classics’ like Godfather and a whole list of other waffle. By closing time, we were all authentically pissed. I can’t remember, I think we went for a giant £4 greasy pizza at some nasty takeaway – you know, the kind that’d make you cringe if you were the opposite of paralytic. But what could I do? I was starving.

The Beagle, 456-458 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton, Manchester, M21 0BQ. (0161 8818596)


Restaurant review: Urban Cookhouse (Manchester)

Food 0/5     Atmosphere 0/5

What is commendable, and indeed ‘unique’, about this place, is that everything they put in front of you tastes of nothing at all; and when I say ‘nothing’, I truly, from the bottom of my heart, mean no-thing.

With a mind-boggling array of new dining experiences seemingly opening up at the rate of one an hour in Manchester, the city is currently in the throes of an eating revolution. Although with abstract names like Artisan, Scene and Poop (that last one’s mine) the casual eater can be forgiven for being somewhat confused even after they’ve paid the bill.

So, once you get over the initial ‘What does that mean?’ and ‘What is this?’ – then comes the even more difficult soul searching question of whether you like any of it. Because it used to be easy didn’t it. Deciding whether you like Fish and Chips. The fish is moist and succulent. The batter light and crispy. The chips nicely seasoned. Or a steak – was it juicy? Cooked just how you like it?

It is of course more difficult deciding if a Japanese twist on Spaghetti carbonara sates your palate; or whether drinking a cocktail with a burger is a good idea; or indeed, whether forking out a tenner for fusion street food, in a restaurant, inside, is really worth the hassle.

Anyway, with a new menu, Urban Cookhouse, located on Princess Street, on the fringe of the Gay Village, definitely falls into the ‘baffling’ category. Baffling, because it claims to bring: Inspiration from New York’ and ‘a taste of downtown Manhattan to central Manchester’. Yet does nothing of the sort.

As you’d expect the place is nice enough and has the sort of urban feel that we’ve come to expect – shiny Meccanoesque patterns; ghostly, slightly camp purple haze with the occasional hint of classical Greece; shiny grey everywhere; high stools you’ll need a stepladder to access; purple candles and dangling energy efficient lights. It’s lunch hour on a Thursday and the place is almost empty.

In fact, it is so dim that we opt for a window highchair. The menu is grey and bleak and surprisingly contains very little. I opt for the Gin Cured Salmon for starter. If it was ‘gin soaked’, then it soaked any flavour out of this sweet delicate fish. It is mushy and bland. (And I’m guessing defrosted about a half hour before we arrived.) The pecans, being earthy and crunchy, make no sense at all, the same with the accompanying pancakes, which were dry and added nothing to the dish. My companions choose the Potato Gnocchi – which was drenched in oil – and the Sweet Potato Soup, which was bland, way too grainy, and came with two dry half bitten morsels of coconut.

For mains I went for Rhode Island Chowder, which contained no clams and tasted – when push comes to shove – of tinned vegetable soup. It came with a side order of cock and bollocks, that is: two balls of some tasteless starchy substance and a burnt stick of streaky bacon stuck in the middle. We also had the Seared Duck Breast, one piece of which was raw, the dish was covered in a sickly sweet marmalade sauce; a burning cinnamon stick completed this uninspired dish – the ash gracefully fell all over the meat.

As I said the menu is sparse, but the dessert option contains almost nothing. With three options, none of which was slab of New York cheesecake, it doesn’t look promising.

Now, I don’t know what the chef was smoking when he came up with Mexican Rice Pudding, or whether I was high when I ordered it. But, it was undercooked and went doolally on the cinnamon. The lovely waitress – hands down for staying positive throughout the whole experience – informed us that the tequila in the accompanying chocolate paste made it Mexican. Maybe, but I couldn’t taste it; and besides, I was expecting something with chili anyway. The Midnight Manhattan, strawberry soufflé, was nice, but the Pumpkin Panna Cotta, you’ve guessed it, missed the mark, and didn’t taste of anything.

Even more baffling than the food, is that the kitchen seems intent on arranging your food into various phallic symbols – possibly a talking point – but personally I only found marginally funny.

The Mancunian weather: The rain falls hard on this humdrum town

When Mr Manchester himself, Tony Wilson, said ‘Jazz was the last refuge of the untalented’, what he really meant to say – to quote Oscar Wilde – was that ‘conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative’.

Tucked away in a precipitous bowl shaped area of land, bordered to the north and east by the Pennines and to the south by the Cheshire plain, here, every day is like Sunday – we are forever destined to be the umbrella capital of the country

But the mercurial nature of Mancunian weather isn’t just an icebreaker. It’s a mood, a memory, a sound, an errant child and a naughty mistress. It’s an atmosphere, an emotion, an expression and era – and in this age of globalisation, it’s the weather that still ties us down to one specific place. It’s who we are and where we come from.

The relentless drizzle of our beloved city has inspired our greatest writers from Thomas de Quincey – who described his mental landscape as a terrifying cloud structure bubbling up beyond control – to our greatest painter L.S Lowry, whose unforgivably bleak, grey and unchanging skies were the expression of a generation of matchstick men destined to toil in this most industrial of cities.

Without the rain, Manchester would never have been the powerhouse of the industrial revolution (the damp air means the cotton is less likely to snap) – there would be no decaying mills and silent chimneys – which haunt, like ghosts, the psyche of our city’s writers, lyricists and artists. Rumour also has it, that the damp air is responsible for our slight nasal diction.

When Morrissey sang – “The rain falls down on this humdrum town, this town has dragged you down” – he owed much to the post-industrial romanticism of the city and the people that roamed its damp wet streets. The lethargic Well I Wonder, another Smiths song, ends with the sounds of falling rain, evoking the sense of a lazy rainy day. The same with Joy Division and their bleak claustrophobic mechanised melodies – both bands could only have come from the manufacturing capital.

But is it all a myth? Does the city really deserve the accolade of the ‘rainy city’?

That beacon of climatic common sense – The Met Office – defines a ‘rain day’ as being a day on which one millimetre or more of rainfall is measured. Manchester has on average 86.7cms of rain every year, compared to Britain’s wettest cities, Cardiff (115cms); Glasgow (112cms); Preston (103.36); it even rains more in Blackpool (88.27cms). In fact, Manchester barely makes the top ten – we do, however, have more rainy days than most with 150 sodden days a year (Glasgow still beats us with 170, as does Preston with its commendable 153).

If it is a myth, then where does it come from? Perhaps a document, dating to 1926, can provide the answer.

Discovered by researchers a few years ago, the 90-year-old record contains a map showing that some parts of what is now Greater Manchester experienced 139cms of rain a year, but only 78cm fell over Manchester. In 1926 the average rainfall in England was 91cms. The map was shaded blue – one of the first of its kind in the North West – to denote annual rainfall. It was printed widely in the press, including the Manchester Guardian, and experts believe it was instrumental in reinforcing the city’s reputation for dismal weather – and of course, once something sticks it’s difficult to shake off.

But then, myths are more potent than history; and if it’s a choice between legend and fact, always go for the legend.

Some rain enthusiasts disagree with the naysayers, pointing out that Manchester has, in fact, been getting wetter over the past 100 years – even going as far to suggest that Tuesdays are the wettest, Saturdays are getting wetter, and Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are the driest.

And besides, if you count any form of wet like: drizzle, sprinkles, mizzles, dew, light showers, intermittent spots, mists, sprays, breezes, splashes, puffs, scuds and even a squelchy ground – it is ‘technically’ always raining in Manchester, even if you don’t necessarily get soaked.

So, there you go: the rain – the tippling, the pelting, and the plothering – luttering from clouds the colour of cigarette ash. It has inspired, amused, dampened our hair and spirits, razed our sense of fashion to the ground, besmirched our weekends, muddied our floors and revolutionised our textile industry. Whether we are the ‘rainy city’ or merely the ‘somewhat rainy city’, the rain still deserves a place in all Mancunian hearts. So, you see, Mr. Wilde, there’s nothing unimaginative in conversation about the weather.

(Published here at

A brief encounter with an African in Cairo

I’m not one who’s ever been able to sleep on long tortuous bus journeys. The intermittent light of passing streetlights punctuated by desolate clusters of makeshift homes, then a stretch of darkness longer than you’d hoped, as you desperately try to gather your bearings – how long left?

The anonymity of the bus traveller, a gilded cloak acting as a protective blanket shielding one from the strangeness of the surroundings. Nobody likes turning up free style in a foreign country, no matter what they tell you, and I’m no exception. No matter how much I’ve tried to convince myself, I’m human too.

Anybody who’s spent a significant amount of time in Cairo – although most won’t admit it – will attest to the sear palpable sexually energy which oozes it’s narrow streets. A good half hour stroll around the block is enough to sate any sexually starved deviant. One can physically feel the repression. Furtive glances of covered wives verses the seemingly rampant homosexuality of, it would seem, most Egyptian men.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Cairo is one big massive gay club. Groups of skinny Muslim boys skip hand in hand through Tahir Square, massive grins plastered on their faces; all they’re missing are the daisy chains. Apparently, I’ve been told, they only consider themselves gay if they’ve the receiver rather than giver – I can understand why William Burroughs spent so much time in Morocco.

The 80 pence a night hostel I found was conveniently located on a 24-hour market street in the centre of Cairo. Situated on the second floor of a dilapidated British colonial building that also housed, it later transpired, two other hostels, one of which seemed to be home to some bizarre Japanese cult. The lift had stopped working since the Suez Crisis and was now home to a group of stray kittens that survived on day-to-day handouts from the tourists. Ironically, modern day Egyptians have no great fondness for cats – or animals of any nature, from what I understand.

The sleeping arrangements resembled more a stable than a hostel. The mattresses were as brown as mud mixed with coffee, and were the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen in my life. Clearly the last time the place had been cleaned was when the British pulled out in ’57. I scattered my 80 pence in front of the ‘receptionist’ and within a few minutes slumped on the bed – I was sharing a room with two Africans and young Japanese guy.

When I awoke the next day, one of the Africans was staring blankly at me – a distant resigned expression. I was a little apprehensive. His name was Coco and he came from Togolese. He explained he’d travelled to Libya but was unable to find work and so came to Egypt.

“There’s nothing here for me here either,” he said with a pompous French air, “I’ll go to Israel, but I don’t have the money yet.”

Coco’s native language was French – Togo being a French colony – it was remarkable how he’d actually acquired that French arrogance: expressive, moaning, arms in the air, bottom lip sulking. He was well dressed, groomed and clearly middle class. He wandered around the place in these lurid colour garments, a striking contrast to the black and white monotone of Cairo’s streets. He was funny, smart and friendly, but also prone to long spasms of depression; he’d lie in bed staring at the broken ceiling fan, which rotated intermittently like an abandoned propeller attached to a rusty helicopter from some forgotten war.

He wasn’t particularly impressed by the hostel living standards either. The 80 pence was supposed to include breakfast – taken on the balcony in the morning with a cup of sweet tea; breakfast was really just stale flat Egyptian bread with jam.

“What do you think I am? An animal?” he flipped out one morning. “I’m a tourist, and this is not a tourist hotel. It’s a pig sty.”

He stood up and started pacing around the place, pointing, “look at this mess, clean it, I’ll call the tourist police on you.” He never did.

Poor Coco also hated eating locally – you don’t know what those people put in it, he explained. Preferring to cook sardines in tomatoes with a handful of chilli chucked in for good measure.

One evening, as we ate, he explained to me that my grandfather was a thief.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He came to my country and took everything, he’s a thief.”

“My Granddad was a history teacher in secondary school.”

“Well, his father then.”

“We’re not French.”

“Always, Washington and London,” he made a whispering sound, “planning and plotting. One day I’ll come to your country, you’ll see.”

A month later, he managed to pay a trafficker to smuggle him into Israel. It was, as he said, his last chance.

“I don’t know why, but I feel like we are brothers,” he told me, “We’ll meet again one day, I know it.”

I never saw him again.

Cairo, Egypt, 2008

Manchester’s Neglected Hero – Anthony Burgess

If there’s one thing Mancunians resent, it’s a sell-out. Whereas Lowry hung around, etching his working class roots into everything, Anthony Burgess, forever the rebel, abandoned the grimy industrial city for the more exotic Malaysia and Brunei, and later to Malta, Italy, America and finally to Monaco, where he is now buried – his home city never forgiven him for it.

The writer once said of Manchester: “As a piece of civic planning, or rather unplanning, I think it’s terrible.” Despite his ambiguous relationship with the place, he remained proud of his northern working class roots to the end.”

“It’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it,” he said. “To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going.”

Manchester has never shown any great enthusiasm in celebrating its greatest writer. Surprising, considering how loudly we boast of our cultural and historical achievements. Compare and contrast Burgess with so many lesser figures who have have become cultural icons of Manchester.

Burgess, by contrast, has a small museum devoted to him – The International Anthony Burgess Foundation (opened in 2010) and a hardly noticeable blue commemorative plaque at Manchester University (unveiled in 2012) – which, incidentally, is the only British tribute to the author. As the writer himself said: “I’m ignored in England.”

“Manchester meant a good deal to Burgess,” says Andrew Biswell, professor of Modern Literature at MMU. “Even when he was living abroad, he wanted people to know he was a Mancunian, as it was so much at the heart of his identity.”

Forever the raconteur, Burgess claimed to have introduced the word ‘Mancuniense’ to the Italian language, and to have been kicked out of Whitworth Art Gallery, as a boy, for assaulting a modernist sculpture.

He was born in 1917 in Harpurhey, Manchester, were he was brought up by his piano playing father and stepmother who ran a pub, the Golden Eagle, in Miles Platting. He was educated at Xaverian College and the University of Manchester – leaving the city for good in 1940 after he graduated with a degree in English literature.

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To say that Spain is in the mierda is a bit of an understatement

“Why do English people say sorry, when they don’t mean it?” asked a Spanish man outside Sinclair’s Oyster Bar in Shambles Square. It’s a popular rendezvous for the Spanish community in Manchester.

I shrug. “I don’t know, maybe they mean it. What other cultural differences have you noticed?”

He pauses, clocks his surroundings and then says, “Going out at 7 and finishing the night early. At home we don’t go out until 10, sometimes later.”

Suddenly, and typically English, a fight spills out on to the street. It’s not even closing time. The barman tries to defuse the situation as the tattooed drunk stumbles around, shouting obscenities into the warm night air.

“Do people here drink more than in Spain,” I ask, a little embarrassed at our national stereotype, knowing full well the answer.

“Don’t ask me, I’m from Italy,” he replied. “The English drink more than anybody, don’t they?”

To say that Spain is in the mierda is a bit of an understatement. It has one of the lowest birth rates in the world at 1.2 children per woman; an unemployment rate hovering around 24.8 per cent; a shrinking and ageing population, with hundreds of thousands of young people fleeing to look for work elsewhere. Understandably many are worried that their countrymen are lost to their host nation.

How many have left Spain is difficult to tell. Suffice to say mass emigration on this scale hasn’t been seen since the Second World War. Before that – apart from those fleeing Franco’s regime – emigration from Spain had been rare. As an attractive half- Colombian Spanish lady tells me, “things are so bad in Spain that people are actually relocating to South America.” This time they’re looking for jobs, not gold.

Not everyone sees this exodus of Spanish youth as a bad thing. A case in point is Yashin Dadashnejad, an affable and articulate man from Tenerife who moved to Manchester ten years ago. He tells me it’s been good for both Spaniards and Mancunians that so many of his fellow citizens have relocated here.

“Before, you had many Asians but perhaps the city was lacking people from different parts of Europe. Now, Manchester has people from other cultures it didn’t have before.”

Having originally worked in one of the Spanish restaurant chains – “you know the ones I mean, where it’s not really Spanish food, and quality is poor” – he wanted to bring some of the authentic stuff to the city, so eight months ago he opened La Bandera with his brother. The restaurant has received rave reviews and has become popular with Spanish footballers resident in the city.

So, how’s the Spanish community changed since he arrived?

“When I first came to Manchester, at Uni there was a Spanish society of only six people, and another online community run by a guy from Barcelona, we used to meet up every Thursday, at a place called the Retro bar.” Times have changed. “Now you can find Spaniards all over the place. Sinclair’s is popular.”

In Spain, corruption and welfare are a major issue. “You can work for a year and live off benefits for a year after that – with something like 90 per cent of your wage. I don’t think that helps.”

(Read the rest at

TV Review: Britain’s Spending Secrets and School Swap

(Published here at

It’s always the nouveau riche who are the worst: crass, vulgar and tasteless – it’s the same everywhere. Money and what people spend or don’t spend it on – tells you everything about them. “Money”, as Somerset Maugham said, “is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five.” But enough pointless literary references – this is a television review.

So, Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks (bear with me) is a hilarious comedy about rise and fall of a couple of nouveau riches. Half way through the movie, Ray’s (Woody Allen) wife Frenchy throws a big party for her new ‘friends’; keen to impress, she goes all out, turning her mansion into a massive out-of-proportion Tutankhamenesque tomb – i.e. vulgar as hell. During the dinner party, she overhears her guests making fun of her decorating taste and lack of sophistication. She is, as they say, common muck. Frenchy then asks art dealer David (Hugh Grant) to verse her in the cultural ways of the American upper classes. Needless to say, Ray hates it, and the couple separate.

Why am I telling you this? Well the movie makes a good point: whatever money can buy, it can’t buy class (it can probably buy you love, don’t believe the Beatles), and that no matter how much money people have, they’re still the same. I was reminded of Allen’s movie when watching Britain’s Spending Secrets (BBC 1). Presented by Anne Robinson – who incidentally is way too comfortable poking around people’s fridges, wandering around their houses and mansions, shifting through their spending budgets, and generally being a nosey beggar – we are introduced to a cross section of Britain’s spenders, i.e. the general public.

Oddly enough I’d reckoned on hating all of them for either having too much money or too little – but the programme was pretty balanced (unusual for the beeb). There are a few annoying jerks along the way though. Chief among them, Darren Stevens, who lives off his wife’s 90 grand a year (she commutes four hours a day) and spends his days playing pool and hanging about in his ‘office’. When he’s not doing that he’s avoiding ASDA, shopping in Waitrose (better standard of staff, apparently) and spending £150 a month in Starbucks. Call me old fashioned but I don’t think a grown man should be living off his wife.

The best bit is when the Stevens meet the Addicuts, a family of six living on 25 grand a year. Life’s tough for the Addicuts who seem to spend most of their days discount hunting, lurking in charity shops and being generally miserable. (Mr. Addicut looks like he’s been sucking on a lemon and is thoroughly ashamed of it.) Darren shows off his holiday snaps of a £5000 Peruvian adventure, whilst Mrs. Addicut moans about her £200 holiday in St Ives. Class resentments bubble and nobody gets along.

Robinson also meets single mum Charlotte, she is living on benefits and credit and obviously spends every waking hour watching trashy television and scanning the Argos catalogue for really crappy jewelry. She can’t keep up her repayments and owes £500 in rent arrears. Charlotte loves her really big expensive blue light fridge (especially getting ice cream out of it) – and that’s all that matters.

But it’s the super rich and the upper classes that come away the most sensible and prudent. Entrepreneurs Alfie Best and Laura, while squandering like drunken sailors, have earned their money and have every right to spend it as they wish. Charlotte on the other hand is sponging off the taxpayer.

On the back of BBC2 and Channel 4’s educational experiments (Chinese school and sexy Belgians in class), ITV – obviously feeling a little left out – has come up with School Swap – The Class Divide (ITV). State school kids swap with some posh kids. This week, three kids from £27,000 a year Warminster school spend a week at state school Bemrose in Derby. Bemrose is your typical city state school, that is: half of the kids speak English as a second language and so have a reading age of about seven, crap discipline (panic buttons in rooms) and lots of head scarves.

Obviously every culture is pandered, except the white kids who underperform and lack self-confidence – I wonder why? Even the end of term leaving ceremony resembles something foreign. There’s this really odd bit when an Osama Bin Laden look-a-like is teaching a ‘special morning class’ of white boys about eating healthier and then goes on to say something like they’re not motivated enough. Well, it’s not their fault they don’t speak Urdu now is it.



The week in TV: Witnesses and The Spoils Before Dying

(Published here at Celebmix)

It’s finally saturated itself – the postmodern neo-noir-thriller-crime-drama, or whatever it’s called. What is noir anyway? Anything now remotely crime related is noir. The dictionary informs me it’s a genre of crime film or fiction characterised by cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity. That list could pretty much cover any television detective series, from Inspector Morse to Colombo, (ok, maybe not Colombo, but you get the idea).

I’d proffer another definition: a crime drama with a central brooding nihilistic character (or the entire cast in the dismally poor True Detective Season 2); panoramic shots of highways or lonesome dead trees in dry meadows (saturated film); long drawn out shots of people inhaling tobacco; solo jazz singers in down and out bars surrounded by strangely inanimate shadowy figures slowly sipping hard liquor. Did I mention that the new series of True Detective is crap?

In this vein, then, The Spoils Before Dying (Fox), a follow up to last year’s Spoils of Babylon, parodies film noir and the subsequent French La Nouvelle Vague reworking of it. Jazz pianist Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams from The Wire) turns private eye when singer Fresno Foxglove goes missing. That’s basically it for the 20-minute opening episode; that along with Will Farrell’s wearily unfunny prologue and epilogue (stupidly mocking Orson Welles), and we’re left with around 10 minutes of content. Not a waste of time then.

So, noir, booze, bills, clubs, coppers and dead people – everything you want in a noir parody right? Well, no, because none of it makes any sense at all. Stylistically it is spot on: smoke drenched scenes in boozy nightclubs, a woozy jazz soundtrack, a brilliant cast; the problem with this noir parody, ironically, is that it’s a parody. It would have been far more successful had they cut out the lame Airplane type humour, which irritatingly disrupts its elegant style, and took itself more seriously like LA Confidential – now that was a film parody worth watching.

In keeping with the French connection then, anybody who’s ever sat through an afternoon of French television will be frankly amazed that the nation ever invented anything, let alone modern filming techniques; but don’t worry this isn’t going to veer off into a spiel of Le French Bashing, as crime drama Witnesses (Channel 4) was rather watchable, it ticks all the right boxes, albeit in a conventionally obvious European noir way (a bit like American noir, but not as cool).

My favourite bit had to be the opening credits, which reminded me of a mix between an 80’s pop video and the opening credits to Gordon Ramsey’s Hotel Hell. Either way, it was as tacky and sticky as blue tack: the music, the blowing hair and the bizarre appearance of the wolf from Game of Thrones – which, I’m guessing was stuck in to add a bit of dark mystery (It’ll have something to do with her dreams). Of course, the bird’s eye panoramic shots of highways and deserted bleak landscapes were lifted straight from True Detective and lead detective Sandra (Marie Dompnier) is based on every television detective ever – she’s got OCD instead of commitment/alcohol issues or whatever it usually is.

Witnesses shoves mysterious down our throats like it wants to chokes us. It begins with the discovery of three bodies carefully arranged in a show home to look like the perfect family. And if that’s not mysterious enough, there’s also a photograph in the upstairs bedroom of mysterious retired police officer Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte), who behaves very mysteriously throughout (in fact, he barely speaks or even moves his head – a bit like a French Roger Moore).

They shouldn’t have called it Witnesses though, because there are none, which makes everything even more mysterious. I guess since there are more detective dramas now than Chinese people, you’re inevitably going to run out of catchy titles. Even more mysterious than anything else are some of the subtitle translations, “We’re in deep shit” reads one and “some bloke” reads another, “bastard copper” says one – not very French noir then. I’m sure the British public with its insatiable appetite for European crime dramas, will love it. Just give me Colombo any day.

The week in TV: Married at First Sight

Published here at Celebmix

It used to be a staple of Saturday nights, along with a pot noodle; watching a singleton question three other singletons, who could hear but not see them, to choose which one they wanted to hook up with, ‘The choice is yours’, the voiceover bellowed.

(However, these days, I’d rather empty the contents of a vacuum cleaner into my mouth than eat a pot noodle.)

Cilla would then whisk the lucky couple away to East Berlin or something for a holiday, while she performed covert operations for the Soviet Union, and we’d find out how the date went and whether the couple could stand each other – those were the days.

I am of course talking about Blind Date, a bit of harmless tat, which sadly ended in 2002.

Apparently, a few couples did get hitched and lived happily ever after; and it all started with those initial idiotic questions:

“Listen sweetheart,” rapturous applause. “If you was a animal, right, which animal would you be?” Stamping of feet.

“If I was an animal, I’d say, I’d be a…Lion.” More screaming.


“So then I could claw your eyes out.” Frenzied laughter.

Imagine that. But these days we’re too sophisticated for that carry on. Nowadays, you only get married if you’re absolutely perfect for each other. And by perfect I mean down to the atomic level perfect; that science can prove with numbers, stats, psychology, emotional history, careers, face symmetry and yes DNA, that you’re the perfect match.

Forget, all that old school stuff about meeting people through friends, going to bars, socialising, and getting to know somebody; just hand the whole lot over to science. Science knows everything.

That is essentially the idea behind Married At First Sight (Channel 4). If you’re expecting a group of nut jobs (again), living with their mummies and collecting guns and ammo magazines, you’re going to be disappointed. The ‘contestants’ (let’s call them that) are ‘ordinary’ thirty-something, successful professionals, who can’t seem to find ‘the one’.

So, Channel 4, whittles 1500 applicants down to 15, (half of 15 is 7.5, the science is exact, you see), then science gets to work on them, until the experts (including a priest), come to an unanimous decision about which couples are the best match. They then go through the process of telling their families and friends that they’re getting married to a complete stranger for television.

There’s one poignant moment when contestant Jason breaks the news to Mum, who then cries in the kitchen over sausage rolls and miniature pork pies, “I’m finding it all a bit difficult,” she sobs.

“This is what happens when Jason goes to London,” comments his brother.

Devon boy Jason recently moved to London, for work, and is finding the place a bit too much, life’s hard there – the dating scene isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Incidentally, Jason looks about as out of place in his family home as a crocodile being kept as family pet. The nasty city has changed Jason beyond recognition – he’s so sophisticated and metropolitan, he now needs science to decide his perfect partner – that’s how special Jason is. “I’m not sure what I’m looking for,” he says, as he picks out his suit for the big day, in some really expensive shop in London.

The contestants then go on stag and hen nights: one last frolic before the big day. By the way, if you’re not finding this really weird, then you should, it is very odd.

Everything about it is odd. From city high flyer Jason and his red neck family (I’m still wondering whether he was adopted); the posh girl he’s marrying, whose initially shocked Mum is now really excited, and even helping her pick out wedding dresses; the blonde girl with the brown teeth, who seems to spend all her time in the gym, who’s marrying that other bloke with the beer belly; to the bloody priest who seems to be condoning all this madness.

But why marry? It’s a bit extreme, right? Yes, but that’s what makes this ‘ground breaking social experiment’ (yeah right) so entertaining. Of course, it makes a mockery of the institution, for the sole purpose of chasing viewing figures, and speaks volumes about the empty atomisation of our culture. But, it is entertaining – at least in a baffling way.

Here’s what I will think will happen: it won’t work out. For the simple reason that the ‘experiment’ is still part of this virtual, depersonalised dating culture that the contestants claim has alienated them – it’s just been taken to another extreme level. That, and something tells me marriage is a little more complicated than the stats and results would have us believe – no matter how scientific.