“Is this over yet then, Freddie?” enquired a hungry guest at what felt like the longest and worst catered tea party in TV history. This was episode one of Vicious, ITV1′s new Monday-night sitcom starring the absolutely fabulous Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as long-term lovers and antagonists, Freddie and Stuart. Freddie is a moderately successful thespian with an inflated idea of his own sexual magnetism. Former barman Stuart is the domestic one, though judging by those stale Digestives and teeny tiny sandwiches, he’s not a likely contestant for The Great British Bake Off.
The two stars may be septuagenarians and the intrusive canned laughter an unwelcome throwback to the 70s, but Vicious seemed intent on proving that it’s not Last of the Summer Wine. The high-energy opening credits sequence featured blotchy Gerald Scarfe-style graphics on a red background, accompanied by a burst of The Communards “Never Can Say Goodbye”. After a brief establishing shot of a posh Georgian town house, we were straight into the quick-fire, back-and-forth bitching between our elderly flat-mates. The plot revolved around the death of an unseen chum called Clive and speculation over the sexuality of a good-looking young neighbour Ash (played by Welsh actor Iwan Rheon).
It was when Frances de la Tour made her appearance as Violet, an old friend of Freddie and Stuart, that the feeling of déjà vu really kicked in. Watching her hand wander up Ash’s thigh, I was transported back to seedy bedsit land in the 70s, where the actress played the amorous Miss Jones in Rising Damp. Rheon’s Ash doesn’t have quite as much hair as Richard Beckinsale in his pomp, but his function as a gormless object of desire seems pretty similar.
Previewing this show, at least one commentator was enthusiastic about seeing two gay characters centre stage, rather than sniping or simpering from the sidelines. The fact that two of our most distinguished actors – both of them gay – are portraying Freddie and Stuart, should have been another positive in terms of visibility. But leaving aside the sexual politics, Vicious is just a lukewarm excuse for a comedy that is resolutely old-fashioned both in conception and execution.
As the battle of the one-liners commenced, you could almost smell the desperation coming off both distinguished leads and a studio audience who’d been primed to scream with mirth at every gag. I’m sure McKellen and Jacobi would be great company if you met them down the pub for a few pints. But here the timing was way off as they rattled around a set that looked as though it had been constructed from the bits left over from every sitcom from Steptoe and Son onwards.
I didn’t laugh, but there were there were a few moments where I couldn’t resist a wry smile. A couple of minutes into the programme, the hashtag popped up in the corner of the screen, inviting viewers to share their merriment on Twitter. (I was watching after the event, so I missed finding out whether anyone was actually laughing.)
Then there was that collection of urns on Freddie and Stuart’s mantelpiece, holding the remains of several long-dead pets. It was a reminder of how moribund this type of British sitcom is these days. No amount of feeble jokes about Zac Efron or references to Lord Grantham can disguise the fact that this would have been out of date in Lord Lucan’s day. Those weren’t canine remains in the jars – they were the ashes of Leonard Rossiter, Ronnie Barker, Arthur Lowe and all the other greats from an era when Britain made comedies than were funny and not simply embarrassing.
Instead of wondering whether DI Hardy would drop dead before solving the case, I found myself asking why Tennant was growing that rather unattractive beard.
As the final credits rolled on ITV1′s Broadchurch, teary-eyed viewers contemplated that yawning gap in their Monday-night TV viewing. Some probably headed to the kitchen for a consolatory cup of tea; others plugged into Twitter to share in the social networking postmortem (should that be rehash?) on what has been huge critical and popular success. There was another very late twist – it turns out that it’s not all over. A message flashed up on screen saying “Broadchurch will Return”. I was so relieved, I felt like planting a big kiss on my David Tennant poster.
For most of the eight-episode run, I wasn’t really convinced by this slow-burning mystery about the death of an 11-year-old boy in a quiet seaside town. For me it was more a case of “Boredchurch”, as the investigation led by ailing DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and his resentful sidekick DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace. There was antagonism between the cops and a lot of pent-up grief and anger amongst the dead boy’s nearest and dearest, but it wasn’t exactly compelling. Instead of wondering whether DI Hardy would drop dead before solving the case, I found myself asking why Tennant was growing that rather unattractive beard. Was it supposed to add gravitas to the character or did he just need something to scratch as he tried to pick his way through the list of suspects.
Throwing up (“barfing as the Americans call it) has now replaced crying in the shower as the drama writer’s stock way of showing a character in extremis
If you watched last night (or on ITV Player), you’ll already know that the killer of young Danny Latimer turned out to be DS Miller’s drippy husband Joe (played by Matthew Gravelle). Instead of staying at home playing devoted househusband and father to Ellie and their two boys, he was planning illicit “dates” with the object of his shameful affection, the bewildered Danny. Upon receiving the news that Joe would be unable to finish decorating their bedroom because he’d be bunking at one of Her Majesty’s prisons, poor Ellie resorted to blank denials, expletives and then vomiting.
Yes, it seems that throwing up (“barfing as the Americans call it) has now replaced crying in the shower as the drama writer’s stock way of showing a character in extremis. I can’t confirm whether Ellie actually left her breakfast on the floor of the interview room, because the merest hint of vomit leaves me feeling almost as nauseous as the sight of David Tennant’s cheek fuzz. Still, no dramatic clichés could detract from Olivia Colman’s superb performance as a woman who realises that she’s been harbouring a monster in her bed. I liked the fact that she was still trying to behave like a dedicated professional even as the case she’d been working on now threatened to destroy her own family. There was no self-pity: just anger at Joe and concern for her sons. Then, in an attempt to maintain a low profile, she put on her bright orange jacket and went for a walk.
This morning, Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall was interviewed on the beach at West Bay, Dorset, where some of the show’s most memorable scenes were filmed. It’s those West Country locations that have kept me interested, even when it seemed as though there weren’t quite enough subplots or twists to justify eight episodes. The fling between Danny’s father Mark (Andrew Buchan) and Aussie temptress Becca (Simone McAullay) might have fallen flat, but you were only ever a few minutes away from another lovely view. A stellar cast that included Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whittaker as Danny’s dysfunctional parents, and Vicky McClure as a tabloid journalist with a conscience, was the other big attraction. My favourite character was the caravan-dwelling cleaner, Susan Wright, played in very intimidating fashion by Pauline Quirke. Has anyone ever invested quite so much malevolence into the simple act of walking a dog?
The finale of Broadchurch delivered the murderer too early in the evening and left itself with nowhere to go, except for another long walk along the beach
I know this programme has taken some of its cues from the growing appetite for Scandi crime dramas like The Killing (Forbrydelsen), where the writers aren’t under pressure to wrap up the story in 40-odd minutes of neat Law & Order-style procedural. Chibnall is right to credit ITV1 – “They really took a punt on it” – for buying into the concept of a quality, long-running drama that is allowed time to build up an audience. Their reward has been a media frenzy over the last few days, with some over-excited publications trying to compare the finale of Broadchurch with the Dallas “Who shot JR?” cliffhanger.
The truth is that the finale of Broadchurch delivered the murderer too early in the evening and left itself with nowhere to go, except for another long walk along the beach. I would have thought the optimum time to reveal the killer was just before the final commercial break. Instead there was a brief preamble before DS Hardy finally caught the guilty man in his garden shed with the incriminating smartphone. I waited in vain for another twist or an even darker revelation about what Joe Miller might have been storing on son Tom’s battered laptop.
There will be one little mystery that tides me over until series two of Broadchurch. Was Ellie’s ruthless dispatching of the slug on the floor of the Miller house supposed to be symbolic? I like to think that trampling it ruthlessly underfoot was her own understated way of consigning her marriage to history. RIP.
Middle age can be tough on the hairline and murder on the waistline, but how good would you be looking after 30 or 40 years mouldering away in an attic? That was the ignominious
fate that befell Action Man, the must-have boys’ toy of the 60s and 70s. With his trim figure, “realistic” hair and livid facial scar, Action Man was popular with the girls, too. His female counterparts – Barbie, Sindy and the “pocket-sized” Pippa – might have been good for dressing up, but could they lob a grenade or drive a tank like Palitoy’s macho man?
Though the original “vintage” Action Man (VAM) ceased production in the mid-80s, he’s currently enjoying something of a renaissance – especially on eBay. Call it a nostalgia boom or a symptom of the economic malaise, but all over Britain Action Man figures are being unearthed from lofts, basements and cupboards. A ragtag army that hasn’t seen the light of day since the Thatcher years is proving that balding heads, missing appendages and moth-eaten clothes are no barrier to raking in the cash.
My own Vintage Action Man squad began when I “acquired” my brother’s Christmas present of a Talking Commander figure around 1972. (He got the Kodak Instamatic, in exchange.) Failing to foresee the advent of eBay, I offloaded most of my collection in the early 80s. So it was farewell to Brutus, the Action Man guard dog – though I still have the tasteful selection of canine wear fashioned by my mother. Then, last summer, I discovered a box with four of the Action Men and their clothes. I was hooked all over again.
If you’re going to sell your Action Men, do it quickly. Don’t allow them to lounge around your study, or you’ll start fantasising about whether a custom reflock could turn your favourite figure into George Clooney or (God forbid) Justin Bieber. Thanks to the high-quality flocking service offered by Flocktastic!, you can now give your VAM soldier a luxuriant ginger head, eyebrows and beard, or even a more age-appropriate grey look.
As you can see from the pictures above, I treated my worn-out blonde Paul Newman look-alike to something more befitting a 21st-century metrosexual. Now I’m wondering where I can get my hands on a spare left foot.
Action figure – a convenient euphemism that avoids having to admit that you play with dolls.
Blue pants is just another way of saying that your Action Man is one of the Dynamic Physique models, introduced in 1978. The muscled torso and pre-moulded blue trunks made him look a bit like a wannabe Mr Universe.
Cracks in the limbs are probably a sign that your Action Man really is vintage and not one of those 40th Anniversary figures from 2006.
Dog tags are those bits of metal or plastic that used to hang round Action Man’s neck. Now worth their weight in gold.
Eagle eyes, introduced in the mid-70s, gave Action Man daft looking moveable eyeballs and permanently ruined his good looks.
Flocking is the technique used from 1970 onwards to achieve what was optimistically described as “realistic” hair on Action Man. Seriously, have you ever seen anyone whose hairstyle looks like it was crafted by an electrostatic process? Novak Djokovic would be the closest equivalent.
Gripping hands were highly effective until they dried up and dropped off, giving Action Man the unfortunate appearance of a leper.
Hasbro introduced GI Joe (Action Man’s US cousin) in 1964 and licensed the design to Palitoy two years later.
Investing in a mint condition, boxed Vintage Action Man is a better idea than sticking your cash in one those no-interest bearing savings accounts.
Junk stores would be a great place to pick up VAM in mint condition, with dog tag still attached. In your dreams . . .
Ken dolls (made by Mattel) also started out with the classic fuzzy, flocked hair look. But who wants a Barbie boyfriend when you can have a real Action Man?
Longevity is the hallmark of a great toy.
Musty smell? Action Men who’ve been boxed up in a darkened room for decades tend to have a vintage whiff about them. Just call it “VAM”, the exclusive cologne every Action Man wants to wear.
New “vintage” Action Men were launched in 2006, when Hasbro licensed the reproduction of 40th anniversary figures with painted heads, fuzzy heads and all the other features we know and love.
Old Action Men never die – they just end up in a “Spares or Repairs” auction on eBay.
Palitoy was the Leicester-based toy manufacturer that produced the original Action Man from 1966-1984.
Quick sales are guaranteed on eBay if you start your Action Man auction at 99p . . .
Rivets and elastic were used to hold together the early Action Man figures. He held his poses pretty well until the Dynamic Physique came along.
Sideburns came with the George Best footballer Action Man, as well as the bearded figures. Of course Action Man didn’t have quite the same ball control skills.
Talking Commander – the Action Man designed to spout out stock phrases like “This is your commander speaking” when you yanked his dog tag.
Unbreakable? Though a bionic Atomic Man figure was once part of the Action Man stable, it wasn’t a good idea to run him over with a Scorpion tank.
Vintage is always better than “new” when it comes to Action Man.
Walther PPK – James Bond’s weapon of choice is also part of the Action Man armoury. It’s a lot smaller, of course.
eXpert (re)flocking is the best way to ensure that your fuzzy-headed figure still looks good in the 21st century.
Youthful good looks can survive 40 years in a loft — provided your Action Man didn’t get nibbled by rodents.
Zips break and buttons fall off, leaving many Action Man uniforms looking the worse for wear.
Vintage Action Man Resources
A warm welcome and a chilled beer greeted visitors to The London Group‘s Centenary Exhibition private view at Pitzhanger Manor last week. As snow blanketed the streets of west London, the heating was cranked up a little higher in the Principal Bed Chamber where artist Lydia Julien was performing “Agnes”. We’d been warned to expect nudity, but Ms Julien had only reached the topless stage of her piece about the ill-fated daughter-in-law of Sir John Soane. In this intimate and dimly lit setting it seemed impolite not to comment on the amply proportioned four-poster bed. Sadly, unlike Lydia it was not original.
Though the name is more suggestive of an august financial institution, The London Group describes itself as a “thriving democratic co-operative of artists practising in all disciplines”. Founded in 1913, the collective brought together young artists from the Camden Town Group and the English Vorticists. With Wyndham Lewis, Spencer Gore and Walter Sickert among its 32 founder members, the group set out to challenge the Royal Academy’s dominance of contemporary art exhibitions.
The posh boys of the RA had a head start of almost 150 years, but The London Group wanted to be apolitical, outward-looking and a bit different. Membership would be based on democratic elections, and the non-judgmental approach to members’ work continues into the 21st century. Surviving two World Wars and the vicissitudes of taste and fashion, The London Group has continued to attract distinguished names, from Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in the 1930s, to current members Frank Bowling and Dame Paula Rego.
Pitzhanger Manor was once the out-of-town home of neo-classical architect Sir John Soane, and it was extensively remodelled by him in the early 1800s. After further extensions, part of the building eventually became Ealing’s Public Library. Now those shelves of well-thumbed books have given way to the Pitzhanger Manor Gallery, currently displaying a selection of The London Group’s eclectic and sometimes exuberant work.
Under the big glass dome of the main gallery stands “Ta Muid Aontaithe” (We Are One), the magnificent double sculpture by Paul and Laura Carey. Cast in resin and metal filler, the figures of a man and a woman stand back to back, melded together like conjoined twins.
But the real interest lies in discovering how this exhibition of 100 works has spilled over into other corners, cupboards and fireplaces of this beautiful old house. Tommy Seaward’s piece, “Recovery of the Bounds”, is even sited outside on a balcony overlooking Walpole Park. He says its tripartite structure represents the “well-documented difficult relationship between Soane and his two wayward sons”.
Other artists, including Annie Johns, Susan Skingle and the Group’s current President Susan Haire, also reflect on the way former Pitzhanger inhabitants might have lived, breathed and even haunted these rooms in a more elegant age.
Talking of elegance, I particularly admired Suzan Swale’s “Ghost” – an eye-catching fusion of art and high fashion in red-painted canvas and lace. This sculptural piece is embellished with small images from Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress”, the celebrated paintings that once hung at Pitzhanger Manor and are now in Sir John Soane’s Museum. Eat your heart out, Lady Gaga.
The London Group Centenary Exhibition at Pitzhanger Manor Gallery & House runs from 23 January-9 March 2013. Entrance is free. For further information about Centenary year events see http://www.thelondongroup.com.
I try not to use this blog for promotional purposes, but I’m making an exception in the case of Standing up for James, a memoir written by Jane Raca. It’s the story of her second son, James, who was born 15 weeks prematurely in August 1999. Though he weighed just 1lb 12oz at birth, this tiny boy did survive — thanks to expert medical and nursing care and the love of his family. That was just the beginning of their ordeal, because James had severe brain damage and was eventually diagnosed as epileptic and severely autistic. Jane’s book is about coping with these devastating disabilities, while raising two other children and battling with her local authority for funding and help. At times the enormity of this challenge overwhelmed her.
If my preceding paragraph has made you dismiss Standing up for James as too depressing or not relevant to you, think again. Even if you’re not directly affected by physical, mental or developmental disability, the chances are that you know someone who is. Many people in the UK will be all too familiar with the day-to-day frustrations of trying to get help, or even a straight answer, from what can seem like a “don’t care” system.
I’m not going to review Standing up for James here, or even tell you what life has turned out like for James, who celebrated his 13th birthday a couple of months ago. That’s partly because there are critics, charity workers and professionals who work within the field of disability who are far better qualified to review this book than I am. Those experts include Rosa Monckton, President of KIDS, who contributed the heartfelt Foreword to Standing up for James.
The main reason I’m not reinventing myself here as a literary critic is that Jane is a friend and I was her editor on this project. We were fellow law students at Bristol University in the 80s, but we had been out of touch for several years when Jane emailed me in February, saying “I have written a book and could do with a bit of advice about publishing”. I’m sure there’s an unwritten law that says friendship and a rigorous editing process don’t mix well. But after reading a few sample chapters (not even in the correct sequence) I knew this was something I wanted to get involved with.
It turns out that editing a book is a much better way to get to know someone again than heading off to the pub for a lengthy session. It’s an intellectual, literary and emotional journey, which requires tact on both sides and a willingness to listen. Jane’s decision to self-publish Standing up for James meant that we found ourselves debating everything from the finer points of punctuation and grammar, to what to put on the cover. The final decisions were hers of course.
I would like to claim credit for contributing the first line of the back cover blurb: “How far would you go to stand up for your child?” In Jane’s case the answer is that you put all your resources — legal, financial, maternal — into supporting your own son and then write a book in the hope that it will help someone else’s child.
Standing up for James costs £8.99 and is published by Clarendon Publications. For details of how to order a print copy or the e-book, see Jane’s website: http://www.standingupforjames.co.uk
As Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins have blazed a triumphant trail in the 2012 Tour de France, Neil Stevens has been involved in another type of stage race. Neil’s a keen cyclist, but he isn’t one of the participants in this annual Race for Madmen. The Hertfordshire-based illustrator and graphic artist is a longstanding Tour de France fan, whose studio name is Crayonfire. So while Brad has been marshalling the peloton, Neil has been capturing the landscapes, the riders and the style of the world’s greatest bike race. I talked to him just before the start of this year’s race.
The pedal power of Twitter
When the 98th Tour de France ended on 24 July 2011, Neil Stevens was still a week away from tweeting — “Vive le Paris! Vive le Tour!” BMC’s Cadel Evans had won the race, but completing 21 days’ worth of illustrations was also a sporting challenge.
It all began a month earlier, when Neil decided to fill a gap between commissions with a project based around his favourite sport. “When you’re in a quiet period you’ve got to be inventive,” he says. “I had time on my hands to watch, so I thought, I’ll just illustrate every stage of the Tour de France.”
He announced his plans on Twitter, not realising that cycling fans, bloggers and lovers of vibrant, contemporary illustrations would get quite so caught up in the action. Towards the end of July, Sport magazine did a feature on the cycling prints and, as Neil recalls, “I woke up to hundreds of emails!”
Every second counts
Bradley Wiggins will enter Paris on Sunday with a cushion of more than three minutes — a huge margin compared with the eight seconds enjoyed by the 1989 Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. Time is also of the essence when you decide to draw every stage of a three-week, two-wheeled procession through the Alps, the Pyrenees and many points in between. So when Neil embarked on his 2011 Tour series, his style was “deliberately simple and geometric”.
The strategy for last year’s Tour de France was all about watching the action on TV, then sketching (with a tablet), scanning in and building up the scenery in layers “like a theatre set”. Finally he added textures and shading, to create 21 charming vignettes of the peloton racing across the French countryside.
The best-laid plans
Team Sky’s preparations for Bradley Wiggins’s 2012 campaign have been faultless. Neil also assembled some of the key elements for his prints before the 99th Tour de France got under way. “I’ve got a whole back catalogue of hills, mountains, cyclists, people, cars, flags, sun . . . ”
As well as the scenic prints that capture the landscape of the race, cycling fans can also buy Gallic-flavoured Tour Type illustrations based around each stage number. Though Neil says, “I don’t do humour or caricature”, he has also captured Tour greats Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Eddy Merckx in another series that evokes the vintage cigarette card look.
As of June 2012, more than 2,000 high quality digital prints of last year’s Tour de France series had been sold through Crayonfire Prints. That is largely thanks to Twitter, word of mouth (designer Paul Smith is a fan) and some timely pre-Christmas exposure in a Sunday Telegraph supplement.
J’adore le vélo
I wish I’d started earlier, but I only discovered the Tour de France in 2010. Neil’s introduction was around 1987 — the annus mirabilis of Ireland’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France winner, Stephen Roche. In the past 25 years there have been many doping scandals, disqualifications and days of shame for cycling. But British fans who’ve stayed the course will feel amply rewarded with a Wiggins win this year.
Like millions of TV viewers and roadside spectators, Neil Stevens is in love with the Tour de France. “The jerseys, colours, caravans and the whole experience of being in a mountain stage”, are an endless source of inspiration. As Bradley Wiggins leads the “Sky train” into Paris tomorrow, look out for Neil’s pictures of British cycling’s biggest day out.
To see Neil Stevens’s cycling prints and other work, visit the Crayonfire shop.
The Schadenfreude factor is a lot more fun than The X Factor and it’s a Simon Cowell-free zone.
“The 70s are remembered as a golden age of pop music” announced presenter Dominic Sandbrook in the final part of his BBC Two series, The 70s. But it was the immaculately coiffed figure of Margaret Thatcher and not the tonsorially challenging Phil Lynott who loomed largest over the final instalment, cunningly entitled “The Winner Takes It All 77-79″. This whistle-stop tour of our “offshore industrial slum” took in everything from utopian architecture, to Scotland’s 1978 World Cup debacle and the Winter of Discontent. There was also a lot of music.
Yes, please note my use of italics in the previous sentence, just in case you didn’t get the point. This tendency to over-emphasise certain words was an aspect of Dominic’s presenting style that became more irritating as the series (and the decade) wore on. My fellow blogger, Older than Elvis, has already voiced severe misgivings about this show’s dumbed-down and politically biased slant on recent history, which has provoked the usual mindless outpourings from the Twittersphere. I started out with a few reservations and by the end I had to agree with her conclusion that this series has been little more than “I love the 70s with a vaguely intellectual gloss”.
But The 70s hasn’t been all bad news. Last night’s references to widespread industrial action, 26 per cent interest rates and an 83 per cent top rate of tax are — to paraphrase Ian Dury — just three very good reasons to be cheerful about living in 2012. (It turns out that the Schadenfreude factor is a lot more fun than The X Factor and it’s a Simon Cowell-free zone.)
But it was the heavy-handed and over-literal use of music in this series that really made me smile. I was laughing out loud by the end of last night’s episode, and that’s not something I can say about BBC2 Two’s lame-duck Transatlantic sitcom, Episodes, which has returned for an undeserved and unnecessary second series.
There’s been so much music in The 70s, that you wonder why anyone bothered to schedule a further half hour of hits in Sounds of the 70s, the show that follows it. From episode one, Sandbrook’s thesis about the underlying malaise of the decade has been underscored at every point by some blindingly obvious selections from pop’s back catalogue.
Last night, as cuddly Dominic lamented the high-rise follies that blighted our inner cities you could hear the sound of Nick Lowe’s “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” playing in the background. Archive footage of Frank Bough at Nottingham’s notorious Hyson Green flats was scored to Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”. Best of all, Terry Jacks’s maudlin 1974 hit “Seasons in the Sun” brought a tear to the eye as those unloved tower blocks finally got on the “wrong side of wrecking ball”.
The Jacks sob-fest aside, some of the music in this series has been great. Last night The Specials got a look in as Dominic explained the links between music and multiculturalism in our melting pot nation. A burst of Tim Buckley’s “Morning Glory” made episode two’s section on Anne and Mark’s wedding almost watchable and sent me rushing to find my Buckley compilation CD.
But the songs weren’t supposed to be the main event in The 70s. You may have disagreed with Sandbrook’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of trade unions and the failure — apart from brief archive clips — to offer any alternative political viewpoint. But shouldn’t his argument have been allowed some breathing space? It’s very hard to focus on the content when someone keeps changing the record every three minutes.
The 70s was a big let-down and perhaps contributed to my decision not to attend a school reunion last weekend. I left North London Collegiate School in 1982 with three A Levels but not much in the way of self-confidence. Unwilling to commit to a mountain of reading and essay-writing I made a bad decision to give up studying history after just two weeks and took A Level Spanish instead. It probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time — like Britain voting in a Thatcher-led government on 3 May 1979.
My diary records that I, too, voted Conservative in our special school “poll” that day. If anyone can think of a suitable tune to illustrate my folly, please let me know!
Don’t ask about the app. I wasn’t the first person to enquire whether Step Outside Guides would be coming soon to the iTunes Store. But it turns out that co-creator Margie Skinner has problems just navigating her way around an iPhone home screen. She’s much more at home pounding the streets of the capital, which is why these new child-friendly London guides are firmly rooted in the real world of bridges, squares and landmarks you can explore on a cheap-day return ticket.
With the London 2012 Olympics just over the horizon, new books about London are even more ubiquitous than adverts featuring the great Usain Bolt. Some of these publications — like the pleasingly retro Ladybird Book of London — will appeal to those of us who were kids in the 60s and 70s. Step Outside Guides are old-fashioned, too, but in a good way. Margie and co-publisher Francesca Fenn are targeting families who want to explore London without getting sucked into wallet-draining attractions.
The first two Step Outside Guides, The London Treasure Trail (Holborn to Kensington) and Down by The Thames (Tower Hill to Embankment), were published in March 2012. Designed and illustrated by Francesca’s son Sam Fenn, these 32-page books are intended to put kids in charge of the trip. (This will strike a chord with anyone who spent their formative years being dragged round cathedrals, galleries and stately homes.) Scattering photos, maps and historical facts along the route, each Guide also has a friendly animal narrator, to help point out the location of the free loos and good picnic spots.
Step Outside Guides are interactive, though not in a way that involves swiping, pinching or leaving sticky fingerprints on a screen. There are boxes to tick, questions to complete and even a word search puzzle. But what you really notice are the humorous observations in the text and the willingness to embrace the quirkiness rather than the commerciality of modern London. According to Margie that’s reflected in feedback from the users: “Lily aged 6, told us her favourite thing on the London Treasure Trail was the public toilet on High Holborn, which we highlight because it looks very grand, but always seems to be closed!”
They know the market: Francesca’s background is in educational programmes, and Margie spent 13 years working for Dorling Kindersley when it was blazing a trail in innovative non-fiction for kids. This is a “mum’s eye” perspective of days out that anyone can enjoy — provided they have a Travelcard and a bit of curiosity about London. The emphasis is on exploring the city on foot, district by district, rather than heading straight for the Millennium Wheel or the teeth-rottingly ghastly M&M’s World in Piccadilly Circus. (It’s enough to make you feel nostalgic about the demise of the Swiss Centre.)
The book world is increasingly dominated by the rush to digitise, so it’s refreshing to find a publishing venture that’s rooted in old technology like ink on paper. With an initial print run of 1,000 copies, Step Outside Guides are unlikely to be outselling DK’s Eyewitness Family Guides. (The Times did offer a favourable comparison, though, in a recent write-up on guide books for kids.)
The third Step Outside Guide, The London Lion Hunt, is due out on 16 July and will cover Westminster, Trafalgar Square and Chinatown. There will be a special Christmas-themed Guide, too, but Santa is keeping the details under wraps.
If you’re producing a series of travel guides the most obvious question (apart from the app query) is “Where next?” Margie thinks there is scope for at least 10 Step Outside Guides to London, and after that they’ll consider adding other UK cities to their portfolio.
Right now it’s all about thinking local, rather than global. That might seem like a strange ambition for a travel guide publisher, but I got the impression this venture is putting the fun factor ahead of sales targets.
Step Outside Guides are £5.00 and are available from stepoutsideguides.com and selected shops in London, Essex and Hertfordshire.
Earlier this week a news report claimed that LOCOG has “barely put a foot wrong” in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. If you’re one of the thousands who lost out in the Great Ticketing Fiasco of 2011, you might find that statement hard to swallow. Meanwhile, in the fictional world of BBC2′s mockumentary Twenty Twelve, things haven’t been running so smoothly for the Olympic Deliverance Commission. In Friday’s concluding episode, perpetually harassed ODC boss Ian Fletcher wrestled with the logistics of the Olympic torch procession and the wisdom of wrapping a giant condom over Anish Kapoor’s Orbit tower. He didn’t have any tickets either.
I watched the first series of Twenty Twelve when it aired on BBC Four last year. With its high-quality cast led by Hugh Bonneville (moonlighting from Downton Abbey), Olivia Colman (Peep Show) and Jessica Hynes (Spaced), this promised to be the perfect antidote to years of Olympic hype. Laughing at bungling bureaucrats has to be more enjoyable than yet more BBC “build-up”. Yet despite writer John Morton’s ability to lampoon the idiosyncracies and irritants of modern office life, Twenty Twelve has never actually struck me as funny.
Like The Thick of It, with its expletive-ridden take on 21st-century British politics, Twenty Twelve is about “spin” and the search for the Next Big Thing trampling all over anything remotely resembling substance. The utter vacuousness at the heart of this non-comedy is personified by Ian Fletcher’s bête noire, Siobhan Sharpe, who is Head of Brand at PR Agency Perfect Curve. Jessica Hynes gives a note-perfect performance as a woman apparently bereft of the ability to listen or comprehend even the most basic instructions.
We’re not talking here about another loveable idiot like Friends’ Joey Tribbiani because the penny never actually drops with Siobhan. Like a BlackBerry-toting Barbie doll, she’s the poster child for the “Yeah cool” generation, who is programmed to keep repeating phrases like “OK, so the thing is . . . ” and “So here’s the thing . . .”, without ever getting to the point. She never has a point.
The catch phrases are funny to begin with, but a half-hour show built around the constant repetition of stock phrases and annoying mannerisms quickly becomes boring. Amelia Bullmore’s hapless and ironically named Kay Hope does elicit some sympathy for juggling her thankless role as Head of Sustainability with life as a single mum. Ian’s long-suffering PA Sally (played by Olivia Colman) is totally believable as a love-struck office drone, but she’d also be perfect fodder for an episode of 10 Years Younger or How to Look Good Naked.
While Twenty Twelve mocks the organisers of London 2012, the travails of the ODC run in parallel with Ian Fletcher’s midlife crisis and problems with his vengeful ex-wife (never seen). “So basically, it’s all good”, intones Ian, as yet another crisis is averted more by luck than through the good judgment of his myopic colleagues. But he’s not an optimist, any more than the eponymous middle-aged hero of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was.
I realise I’m becoming a 70s bore, but Reggie (played by the peerless Leonard Rossiter) turned the delays on his daily commute — “Overheated axle at Berrylands” — into something that was more poetic than self-pitying. Far from taking his secretary Joan Greengross for granted, Reggie was constantly lapsing into libidinous reveries about her.
Writer David Nobbs also gave us the pompous “CJ” (John Barron), whose catch phrase “I didn’t get where I am today” echoes down the years, along with those whoopee cushion office chairs occupied by yes-men executives Tony “Great” Webster and David “Super” Harris-Jones.
Surfing through a few clips on YouTube I was relieved to find that I hadn’t lost my sense of humour after all. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is still hilarious, while Twenty Twelve, for all its topicality, just makes me glad I no longer work in an office.
Recently I wrote that the BBC appears to be run by a bunch of 70s obsessives with dubious taste in music. Little did I suspect that BBC2 was about to join the party and — in the words of TV Choice magazine — whisk us back to the “decade of strikes, spacehoppers and Star Wars.”
Historian Dominic Sandbrook’s new series, The 70s, starts on BBC2 on Monday, and I for one will be tuning in to hear his take on what I call The Brown Decade. Perhaps I’m guilty of the kind of muddled thinking that afflicts BBC programme-makers, but my memories of that decade will forever be swathed in brown dralon, baggy oatmeal jumpers and mustard-coloured wallpaper.
It’s not simply that I’ve wasted too many hours watching repeats of The Good Life — surely one of the brownest sitcoms ever to grace our screens. Between 1975-82 I was a pupil at North London Collegiate School, located in Edgware, a drab north London suburb. Our school uniform, which was compulsory up until the Sixth Form, was mainly brown and came from a shop called Pullens in nearby Stanmore. I think it’s fair to say that those annual trips to Pullens with my Mum were only marginally less painful than visits to my (inconveniently located) orthodontist in south London.
The NLCS garb wasn’t the ugliest or worst-designed school uniform I’ve ever seen, but it has left me with mixed feelings about the merits of brown clothing. Does anyone really look good in it? Novak Djokovic sported a ghastly brown Tacchini ensemble in 2011, which did nothing to offset the effect of his “loo-brush” hairstyle. (I guess that’s what people mean by “winning ugly”.) I do own some brown cord trousers, but if you ever see me teaming them with a matching jumper, it probably signals the onset of a serious depression or a catastrophic lapse in taste.
It wasn’t all bad: we NLCS girls may have been desperate to get into stripes, polka dots or flaming red, but at least we all had one genuine cool accessory in the shape of the NLCS sling purse. It was brown, with gold lettering (see above) and was handy for storing wads of tissues, “emergency” money, keys and sweets. This design classic is still available from the John Lewis website, price £9.00. Sadly, these days it comes in 100 per cent “sponge clean” polyester and features the school logo — a rather naff-looking ship.
It will be hard to sell the 70s as a period of technological innovation to anyone who hasn’t spent the past decade in a Tibetan monastery.
The zip on my own recently unearthed NLCS sling purse is stuck, which rules it out of contention as my next iPhone case. (It is the perfect size, though.) When I posted a picture of it on Facebook yesterday, several former classmates from the class of ’82 were moved to share their memories of school days in the low-tech 70s.
In today’s Telegraph, Dominic Sandbrook explains that his new show will re-evaluate the 70s as a period that was “much more exciting” than we remember. He reminds us that consumers were “rushing to get their first colour televisions” so that they could watch horsey Princess Anne marry dim bulb Captain Mark Phillips in 1973. But it will be hard to sell the 70s as a period of technological innovation to anyone who hasn’t spent the past decade in a Tibetan monastery.
I also question Sandbrook’s reference to our ongoing “love affair with credit”, given that we’re now living in a (nearly) Bankrupt Britain, still afflicted by toxic levels of personal and national debt. Sorry, but I don’t think I’m ready to get teary-eyed over the thought of wallets stuffed with Access, Visa and Diner’s Club cards.
So when I watch The 70s on Monday I’ll probably resist being crushed under the wheels of the BBC nostalgia train. Instead, I’ll clutch my NLCS purse and think of my former classmates, now scattered far and wide but brought together again through the auspices of Facebook.