This Week in TV land

Between dragging myself to work, lying in a bed with my eyes wide open unable to drift off to peace sleep, and trying to drink away my constant existential angst, I’ve turned my back on society and started catching up on all the TV shows that I missed while I was at university. This was mainly due to my not having any access to live cable, barring the rugby that I’d watch in the pub, because who needs a television license when you have a DVD collection that covers your largest wall.

I’ve been dusting off the boxsets that the almighty BT TV Bundle gives me access to, and I’ve been slowly working my way through them, as well as a live broadcast or two, but who really watches television when it’s actually been carefully scheduled and designed for a specific time slot?

I thought, especially as this is my first real foray into new television for a good few years, that I’d best start this odyssey with the classiest, most acclaimed show I could find. Would it be Game of Thrones, a series so hyped that if it doesn’t cure cancer I will be severely disappointed, Breaking Bad, because the American healthcare system is so knackered you need to sell meth in order to get treatment, or The Wire, a bit old now but still regarded as the finest television series of all time? I made my choice.

Taskmaster is a made for Dave exclusive devised by the bearded Alex Horne, based on a very popular Edinburgh Fringe show he performed in 2010. But as Alex Horne wasn’t a household name when the show first aired, the producers thought that he couldn’t front it alone and turned to a comedian who is fast becoming my favourite, Greg Davies. With Alex Horne as his ‘Beta-male lackey”, Greg acts as the titular Taskmaster, getting 5 comedians per series to perform utterly insane tasks for his delight in reward for points, from getting 4 yoga balls up a steep hill, emptying a bath as quickly as possible, sliding the furthest, and getting rid of a 50kg block of ice the fastest. On paper the series seems destined to be a failure, and I reckon it would be if it wasn’t for the extreme competitiveness and creativity of the contestants, and the carefully worded tasks that normally have a trick way of winning that wasn’t defined within the very loose rules they are set.

The mix of Alex Horne’s characteristic playful nature added to his occasional terrified looks to camera, normally around the time that Noel Fielding tries to eat him as the filling of an exotic sandwich, added to the cutting banter of Greg Davies that never strays too far into being cruel, you end up in tears laughing. Last night, during a segment where   Mel Geidroyc had to eat a two-foot-tall chocolate sandwich and ended up getting and M&M stuck in her nose, I all but choked on my toast.

Although some of the games are a bit too silly at times, it’s a brilliantly simple, utterly wonderful idea that anyone could have thought of, but you didn’t, Alex Horne did, and that’s why he’s rolling in all that UKTV dollar dollar bill yo.

Speaking for idiotically simple ideas that should be too puerile to make good television, Robot Wars is aired on BBC2 [8pm on a Sunday] and is now into its tenth series, and somehow is stronger than ever. This, the third series of the reboot, has been so far, the most coherent and well produced, with a format that makes sense and has managed to build suspense throughout all the episodes. As someone who can still name all the winners and runners of up of all 7 of the original UK Championship series’ (no one cared about Robot Wars Extreme), to see Robot Wars back and as a good series, this thrills me to my childish, violence loving core.

The highlight of this series so far, without really spoiling anything, is how all the roboteers have turned everything up to eleven, and, in some idiotic cases, 12. One robot in particular turned up with a spinning bar weapon so heavy that no only was it entirely ineffectual but it destroyed itself, throwing the 35kg bar through the bullet proof arena wall and far too close to the audience. It was superb.

Dara O’Brien and Angela Scanlan have also matured as hosts, with Dara’s destructive glee coming through more and more, ditching his normally calm scientific demeanour, and Angela is letting her natural sass come through, dishing out withering put downs to every team that goes into the area and leaves in pieces.

It does have its drawbacks – too many of the bouts are over with one hit, and there is a definite and obvious gulf in class between the robots that have been made by school groups, or students with a budget of eight pence, and the trained engineer millionaires who have spent a hundred squillion quid on their perfectly machined mechanical killers, but it’s fun, raw, and childish.

Next week, there’s a ten-robot rumble that only ends when there’s only one robot left moving in the arena. Please, BBC, I can only get so hard.

 

 

Aspiration Lied To Us All

Everywhere I have ever looked, and where you have ever looked, we have been bombarded with images that link excess with success – and even more images that show that only the failures in life have got no material possessions of value. You don’t have the latest things? Well aren’t you useless. Not dressed in the finest clothes? Then get away from me peasant, it’s clear to see you aren’t worth my time. But how, or why, has this occurred, and why the hell am I feeling it so much now?

There was a time when everyone was happy with their lot and were told to live within their means. The poor lived in tiny hovels, 12 to a room with the whole family, trying to Four Yorkshireman themselves into even more poverty to experience the pride of humility. The middle classes lived in the suburbs with houses you could actually stand up in, occasionally sending a child to private school, then university, all while working as a middle manager in a faceless company and retiring to the golf course. And finally, the landed gentry lived-in vast houses behind very high walls so no one could see how wealthy they really were, or how they were using the servants as furniture and family members as condoms.

This system was by no means fabulous, but no one really minded because everyone was happy, or at least everyone important was, and no-one else really mattered. People just bumbled along, content in the knowledge that they were already in their allotted place in life.

Then along came aspiration, and it was fabulous. Social mobility has never been something that Britain excelled at, but with a few social revolutions, one industrial revolution, and some rather impressive modernisation, we got to a place in the middle or the 20th century where you could try to better yourself. Couldn’t afford your own house? That’s fine, we’ll build vast swathes of council houses for you. Want more money? That’s fine, here’s a free education for you to the age of 21 and a degree for your troubles. No work? It’s fine, you’ve still got that degree, right? Brilliant, here’s a job and £12,000 extra per year for life.

People moved from all over the country, the world even, to get the best they could from life. They moved for work, for love, for fun, and every time they did people would desperately improve their lot, and rightly so.

Then along came Aspiration 2.0™, this time sponsored by television and exploitative wankers.

Aspiration 2.0™ was a shift away from the classic Aspiration that your mum used to have when she was young. This was no longer about letting you improve, but rather pressuring you into thinking you were improving, when in reality you were simply stuck in your rut, drowning in social pressures, aggressive marketing, and debt. So much debt – but that’s fine, because credit bubbles never bust.

Television was first. It was so innocuously sat in the corner, gaining our trust over decades, and then it turned into a bigger royal Bastard than Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury combined, but with more staying power and a shinier facade.

Shows like ‘Dallas’ were the front runner, showing the masses into how the other half lived. Well, less a full 50%, more how the very top echelon of society lived, only with large swathes being dreams, and slightly less murder. It accentuated the truth, made caricatures of the real people, and was larger than life in almost every regard, but the world ate it up. And suddenly, people wanted to be like them.

Not totally, obviously, that would be utterly bizarre. But the glitz, the glamour, all looked so brilliant, so clean, that it was desirable. People were fascinated by the lives of those at the top, and television realised it could be a very easy window into their lives. Shows like ‘Through the Keyhole’ pushed it forward a tad, a free and brief glimpse into a room of a celebrity, and then the concept was pushed wide open by MTV’s Cribs, where the “famous” and wealthy would show off their houses, full of all the shiny things they’d been able to buy with their huge wealth, all while talking about how much they deserved it because of that thing they were good at or could do.

And if that was it, it would be fine. People who were talented, musicians, actors, politicians, lawyers, could afford the finer things for their services were in demand and they are good at what they did. And the rest of us, well we can aspire to be them.

But that’s not what happened – things slipped down the line. M&S started making their adverts sound like they were not just selling you a processed meal, it was a luxury that you didn’t deserve but ooh go on since you asked so nicely give me a tenner and I let you have it. It was no longer good enough to just use bog standard toilet paper, this stuff is like velvet wrapped about a rare puppy, and your fabric conditioner is now scented like diamonds – which is odd because I’ve never noticed them to be that whiffy. And we became obsessed with anyone with wealth, whether they got there through talent or luck, or by being a ditsy racist idiot on a TV show. People became famous for being on television rather than the other way around, and made careers by just being that person from the third season of that show I can’t remember the name of. The louder and more brass they were the more of a character they appeared and the more they were on screen to show off their gains. The Kardashians take a beating for this, and to a degree it’s justified, but they are not the cause, or the worst. They are geniuses at what they do and the careers they’ve built, but by letting the cameras in deeper and deeper and flashing their seemingly endless and easily obtainable wealth, we all lust for what they’ve got, more and more.

And what if you can’t obtain these items or achieve these goals? Well you’re not a member of the elite. Go get more credit cards and pay for the items you desperately want but don’t need but that we’re going to pressure you into thinking that you need.

This still would be relatively okay if the goalposts stayed the same – but that wouldn’t be fun. Still want that degree? Sure, but enjoy your £40,000 of debt. Would you like a house? Good luck with that, you need a deposit worth more than your legs. And a job too? Still got that degree? Cool, it’s useless now. Put on this apron and work until you die.

And then you finally get your own place. Your house doesn’t have a conservatory? Then get off my property and don’t come back until you’ve bolted a white plastic greenhouse to your dining room in a vain attempt to add some value to your house. The house you keep being told is just rocketing up in value, making even owning a house something that only the elites can be seen to be doing, so you throw yourself into hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt in order to get it – but it’s okay because the price is only going up and there’s in no way that’ll ever reverse.

Then the credit bubble popped.

But that’s okay, you can sell your house, and move into the conservatory full-time as a one bed, studio flat. Don’t cry though, you can always buy a fancy mattress cover to hide the tear stains and repurpose some old newspapers to keep yourself warm in the winter, but do try to make sure it’s The Guardian and not some poor rag like The Daily Express, because remember, above all, You’re Worth It.

 

 

 

Improv, or Why I was a Terrible Stand-up

As I mentioned in an old blog (and by old, I mean I ‘published’ it last wee), I have been taking part in a local Improv comedy group’s lessons, The Same Faces, and loving every minute of it. Whether that’s due to the group themselves (hint, it is), or the fact that it’s a fun way for me to let off my creative steam (hint, it’s that too), I feel like I’ve found a home in what I’m doing. You get the joy of making people laugh and creating a whole new piece of ‘theatre’, without the need to spend time panicking and stressing over trying to write things that are both witty, relevant, and not shite, or remembering the words.

Some back story, as it’s generally been known to help. I used to do stand-up comedy, albeit briefly, and even that is being very generous. Over my year long “career”, during which I made no money and about 8 pints, I performed my very unique brand of comedy   about 8 times at 7 different venues, all over the 4 corners of Shropshire and Hereford. It was the big time. But when I came to Leicester, I did one night, found that my brand of comedy and themes did not work at all with a cosmopolitan audience that weren’t Shropshire people, accidentally offended the whole audience of 6, and then point blank refused to ever do it again.

Since that terrible night, I did a few more semi-comedy things, helping devise a Fringe show, twice, hosting a Proteus sketch show a couple times, and in both cases I used improvisation very sparingly, just to flesh out ideas in the early stages of what we were doing, and then letting the words that others had written for me take control. I had written a few sketches as well, neither of them were particularly funny nor worth any note at all, despite the polite applause they received from the audience.

I was very happy to leave stand-up alone, and just work doing the odd bit of writing and enjoy doing the 14/48 twice a year if they asked me. This was fine, but it didn’t really satisfy my needs to make people laugh, and I’d always found Improv highly curious.

This curiosity in Improv comes from the comedy I was brought up on – a healthy diet of BBC Radio comedies such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, The Masterson Inheritance, and The Goons, and, like every Improv fan, Whose Line is it anyway?, both the Radio 4 show, and the Channel 4 incarnation. The ability of these immensely talented people to create whole worlds, people and plots without any planning or writing amazed me, and the way that the cast of ISIHAC could so easily weave joke after joke after joke on the fly, seemingly endlessly and effortlessly. It was always fabulous to experience, and I’d loved to be able to do that.

This is not to say that I thought that stand-up is easier, I’d argue that it really isn’t, as you haven’t got any proven material to fall back on. It’s just that I was a terrible, terrible stand-up – I hadn’t found my voice or style at all, and my writing was either not funny or ranting. But I’m quick with a joke or pun, and like to run away with ideas in mad directions, so I though that improv would surely be something worth trying properly, at least once in my life.

So, realising that I have little time left to odd and weird and get away with it, I took the plunge and turned up one week. Admittedly, I turned up an hour late and missed most the planed session, but I loved it. I’d like to say that I made an impression on the people there, and I highly doubt that happened, but they definitely made an impression on me. It felt brilliant, and all we really did was go through a few simple exercises, a game or two, before doing a number of scenes each. I don’t think I was too terrible, and even managed to get the room to crack up a few times, and, although my inexperience was plain to see, I don’t think I was too terrible in stopping the scenes flow.

I left that session skipping, literally skipping.

The next few lessons were different, the more experienced members turned up and we did a more long form exercise. I was completely in over my head – I was blocking the scene a few times, I didn’t build upon the other suggestions, I get describing and not showing, and a couple times we restarted the whole scene because I got the whole idea completely wrong.

And I left the session skipping.

Why? I was learning. It felt fantastic to be so stupid in the room, and to be shown where I was going wrong so I could improve, again and again. The next week I went I felt brilliant. I was open to the others suggestions, both guiding the scene and being lead through it, and even trying to take things massively absurdist to suit the style of comedy I love. It was brilliant.

Was I perfect? Hell no. But I was better than I’d been before, and that was all I needed.

I was… no, I am learning. And the more I go and am open to suggestions the better I will be.

It’s good to be doing something you’ve respected and been impressed by for years.

 

Timing

Last week I wrote my first blog post for about 6 months, and as I was tapping away at the keyboard I told myself that I needed to get a blogging routine going, preferably to write something everyday.

The way to get any routine to feel natural is to to something every day for 21 days, so that when you do stop or miss a day you’re better inclines to start again, and the fact you missed out will feel unnatural to you.

So here we are, nearly a week later, and I have not bothered. I can put this partly down to awful timing on my part, this weekend just gone was a 14/48 weekend (you can read about that experience in an earlier blogpost of mine), and my hobbies seem to have suddenly got very emotional – A D&D campaign got far too deep and sad, I may go into that later, but at the moment the wound is too fresh – but mostly my lack of any writing issue to me having the planning abilities of a dead fish. A dead fish with a particularly busy week but who recently lost his diary.

I cannot honestly say that I haven’t tried to be more organised; I bought a planner, I have filled the planner up with things, and I keep it on me whenever I’m at work. But I suffer from one awful trait – I genuinely don’t care to remember what I write down. I wrote something down, followed everything up, repeatedly checked the diary and knew it was coming up…. and then didn’t bother doing it. And that doesn’t even go into the number of things I’ve done and not popped in the diary, or popped in the diary and missed, or just slept through.

The issue may not be that I plan poorly, more that I don’t prioritise my time and say ‘no’ to more people. I seem to allow my time and attention to be taken by almost any cause or event, to the point where I’ve devalued it. I feel that it may be best for me and my planning if I put things in order of importance, more than in calendar order – at least then I can feel bad for missing the big stuff and only not care about missing the useless things.

Of course, there is the third option that I just stop being useless and actually keep an active record of what I have planned and stick to it, but then I wouldn’t be able to moan about my natural inability to plan my own life.