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.

 

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TV Review: Britain’s Spending Secrets and School Swap

(Published here at Celebmix.co.uk)

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.

“Why?”

“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.

The week in TV: A nation of eccentrics

(Published here at Celebmix)

Imagine you’re a television producer sat around a swanky Channel 4 board meeting, free rolling ideas, brainstorming knowledge, scoffing on croissants and trying to think of yet another way to entertain the masses while having to spend as little of the budget as possible.

Obviously, it’s going to be another reality TV show; the public are always in supply (there’s a country full of them); and what’s more, going by the lot you see on television, the internet, Facebook and twitter – most of them are nut jobs – quite a few have lost the plot altogether: watch a random ten minutes of Come Dine With Me – your gaping mouth will be dribbling in bewildered stupefaction – “Am I like those people?” You’ll be thinking.

So here’s the new pitch: each week, obsessive compulsives turn up at a country estate (we’ll get a good dose of class resentment in there too), where the eccentric owner, who has long since given up, cares about nothing, is clinically depressed and has allowed their home fall into disrepair – there’s shite (literally), dust and insects everywhere, it’s total hell.

The other wackos, the obsessive cleaners, are mortified when they see the dump, and have no option but to clean the place spotless. Sound like a good idea? Well that’s the thinking behind the new series of Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners (Channel 4).

Needless to say the house is a cesspit – even the scruffy old tomcat Toby thinks so, we see him wrench and vomit (poor thing), which in turn makes diagnosed OCD sufferer and obsessive cleaner Denise gag, which then makes fellow obsessive cleaner (undiagnosed) Vinny throw up, which in turn made me cringe and almost turn off the TV – the whole thing was like a vomit inducing domino effect.

The only person not affected by any of this putrid mess seemed to be the lazy resident owner Tiggy, who exclaims that they’re all exaggerating.

Apparently, Tiggy let ‘get go’ after the death of her parents, not just of the house, but also her appearance – she was quite a looker back in the seventies, as the old family photos attest; but now she looks like Anne Widdecombe and everything’s gone to pot. She’s also trying to flog the family home, but the estate agents are so disgusted and confused by the site of the place, that they’ll never be able to sell it – not even for free.

The obsessive cleaners have five days to put it all right – what could possibly happen?Since we’re on the topic of crackpots and cats, a new one off special 90 Cats and Counting: Cat Crazies (Channel 5), is about cat addicts whose lives have been overtaken by felines, often at considerable cost and to the detriment of personal relationships.

We meet cat breeder Kelly, who’s adapted her home and living arrangements to fit in with her 40 ‘friends’ and it’s costing her £14,000 a year. She also has a pet Chihuahua – only one though – dogs just don’t do it for her like cats do. Her two kids help out in the feeding frenzy before school, there’s no television, as one son said ‘Why have TV when you have all these cats?’ Her husband has long gone – it was either him or the cats.

We meet a 74-year-old lady, for whom ceramic cats have replaced the real thing, she doesn’t like ‘real ones’ kept in the house, they should be out hunting, she says. She has over 2500 cats in her collection, ‘the internet keeps showing me things I desperately need,’ she says, as she bids online for yet another addition to her collection. (There’s this really creepy moment when she’s gazing into the eyes of one of the statues – or ‘soul mates’, as she calls them.)

Next, there’s the British expat couple that roam the feral streets of mainland Greece, feeding and rescuing stray cats in the early hours, costing them up to £1000 a month, they’ve even set up a rescue shelter.

Then there’s the owners of a luscious boutique cat hotel (prices start at £19 a night), who spend all their cash on the up keep, while their actual house falls apart – cracked windows, broken shower, sellotape practically holding the place up; maybe when they save enough, they said, they can finally get round to the children’s bedrooms.

Finally, there’s Barbarella, the local Lanzarote eccentric, who’s decided to marry a couple of Tabbies, ‘It was love at first sight,’ she says, as she renews her wedding vows – she’s got a certificate and everything. Just one question though. How do they afford it all?