My perfect Strictly Come Dancing lineup

Peter Mandelson
Winona Ryder
Christiano Ronaldo
Werner Herzog
Tina Fey
Carey Mulligan
Sachin Tendulkar
Venus Williams
Mark Zuckerberg
Sarah Palin
Prince William
Scarlett Johansson
Tom Cruise
Condoleezza Rice

Obviously.

Afghan Star

Just a quick mention for this documentary, which I’ve owned on DVD for ages but only just got round to watching. It follows season three of Afghan Star, an American Idol type show in Afghanistan. It’s a brilliant idea for a documentary, because the glitz and bombast of those talent shows seem like the very epitome of a certain kind of western consumer culture. And in many ways it seems like the very worst of our culture: vulgar, shallow, manipulative and at least partially fake.

But in a country where quite recently music and television were banned by the Taliban, where people were killed for owning a television, putting on a music talent show — one where women compete against men! — suddenly becomes a powerful thing to do. And its not often that light entertainment gets to take a heroic role, but actually in a country oppressed by dry, moralistic theocrats, I think it is heroic to assert the value of lightness, of entertainment. And it may be the newly democratic Afghanistan, but it’s still the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and there are still plenty of angry, bearded, conservative men in positions of power, and those Taliban are still out there, and they still have guns and bombs. These people are risking their lives to bring people joy.

And yet, despite all the enthusiastic comments from people about the new freedom the show represents, when one of the female contestants does a little bit of very tame dancing on stage while singing, nearly everyone is genuinely and visibly shocked. Not just the beardy imams, but the other young contestants. The whole thing is fascinating on all kinds of levels.

And I watched it directly after watching some of the current British incarnation, X Factor, and it was intriguing to see something with many of the clichés of those shows — the embarrassingly bad early auditions, the queues of people waiting to audition, the dramatic pauses as they announce the results — but put together by people who are inventing a TV industry from scratch and have almost no budget. Although if you visit the show’s website and see some of the more recent videos, the whole outfit now looks a lot more slick.

The Ross/Brand incident and its aftermath

Yeah, I know, not exactly topical. But David Mitchell wrote a good article about it in the Guardian today and it seemed like a suitable moment to add my halfpennyworth.

It seems to me that the phone calls to Andrew Sachs were a special case. It bothered a lot of people who are not easily offended. I know that the outrage was orchestrated by the Daily Mail, but even so, I don’t think they would have been able to generate so many complaints if it hadn’t touched a nerve with a lot of people.

Leaving a message on someone’s answering machine making a joke about having slept with their granddaughter is just a dick thing to do. It would be a mean-spirited and distasteful thing to do even if you didn’t broadcast the message on national radio. It is in a sense as much bad manners as it is bad taste. And it was aimed directly at an individual who had done nothing to provoke or deserve it. If someone did it who wasn’t on the radio, just because they thought it was funny, it would be understood as harassment.

As you can tell, I think Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand crossed a line. I didn’t complain myself, but I can understand why people did, and an apology and some kind of disciplinary action was appropriate.

But that doesn’t mean that I support some kind of generalised campaign against bad taste at the BBC. An example: in the weeks after this happened, in the general climate of BBC self-flagellation, Frank Skinner made a little current affairs programme investigating the issue of bad language on television and particularly in comedy. To me, that’s a completely separate issue. I don’t care about bad language; sure, keep it off Blue Peter, but in an appropriate slot in the schedules I just don’t care. There is literally no amount of swearing you could fit into half an hour of television that I would find offensive. I might find it boring and unnecessary, but I am not going to be offended by it.

Or take the incontinent old women in Little Britain:

Now people might or might not find that kind of thing funny. They might well find it distasteful, in which case they can choose not watch it. They might even feel that there’s a serious social issue about the portrayal of the elderly, or the issue of incontinence, and that the show is actively harmful for that reason. But even if you find it offensive, it’s something which is performed by actors, which you have chosen to watch and which you can turn off. It is not the same as the BBC ringing your house and personally offending you, which is what they did to Andrew Sachs and the reason why so many people were angry.

It would be a tragedy for British popular culture if the BBC only ever made programmes which were completely inoffensive. The message I would want the BBC to take away from Sachsgate is not ‘don’t produce any material that might possibly offend people’. It’s ‘don’t call up individual members of the public and go out of your way to offend them personally’. Its the difference between a stand-up who makes fun of religion in a comedy club, and one who marches into a church on a Sunday morning and delivers the same material to the congregation halfway through the service.

The iPhone, Top Trumps, and widescreen TV

The BBC’s tech blog has posted a piece about the new iPhone, and, inevitably, the comments are full of people whining about how the iPhone is rubbish because it lacks some feature that competing phones have, or has inferior specs, and that people only buy it because of they are stupid fashion victims. 

This comment provides a particularly classic example:

What about MMS support -sure no one really uses MMS, but it’s kind of a missing feature don’t you think?

I’m not sure that people outside the UK ever had the pleasure of playing ‘Top Trumps’. The way it worked was that you had a themed deck of cards, which might be cars or footballers or whatever. And each card was scored with various qualities:

from the Pointless Museum

You had to turn over your next card and try to win your opponent’s card by challenging him to beat a particular score. With this set, the Horror Top Trumps (which I remember playing at primary school, incidentally), the scores are out of 100, so it’s very obvious that if it’s your turn to play and you have Dracula, you should challenge on ‘Horror Rating’. The winner gets both cards and gets to play again. Naturally enough, different sets had different kinds of scores. I assume that for Prehistoric Monsters, older is better.

from the Pointless Museum

This was all good clean fun, but it wasn’t a very subtle or nuanced way of evaluating which prehistoric monster (or sports car, or footballer) was really ‘better’. And I can’t help feeling that all those BBC blog commenters are just playing technology Top Trumps.

The idea that a technology product is more than the sum of its features is not a new insight. I’m just one of the many people who have been banging on about it for years. But it’s always worth reiterating because  those who are most fascinated by technology, and are the most vociferous about it, are exactly the kind of people who don’t get it. They are, in fact, the kind of people who would probably rather enjoy playing Tech Specs Top Trumps.

I have a favourite new example of the distance between those technology enthusiasts and the bulk of the public. I watched the Champions’ League final in a pub in Wales. The football was on a nice big widescreen plasma TV, and the signal was coming from Sky, so I know it was being broadcast in widescreen — but the picture was distorted. Presumably, at some stage there had been something on TV which was in a 3:4 ratio and they had changed the TV settings so that the picture was stretched to fill the screen, and had never changed it back.

I tried to explain what was wrong and offered to fix it, but unsurprisingly the barman was reluctant to hand over the remote control to a random stranger just before the biggest match of the season started. So Wayne Rooney looked even shorter and squatter than usual, and the ball was oval.

In other words, they’ve spent many hundreds of pounds on a TV, and however much it costs to get a Sky subscription for a pub, and are using it to distort the picture and cut off the edges. Because they can’t tell the difference? Because they don’t care? Or the most worrying possibility: perhaps they think that’s what widescreen is — a normal picture, stretched a bit.

There are probably many many people, all around the country, doing the same thing: using their expensive new equipment to distort the TV they watch. And the biggest favour you could do those people is not to provide them with more features: it’s to make sure they can use the features they have. If that’s true for something as simple as a TV, it’s even more true for a sophisticated smartphone. Ease of use and good interface design are so much more important for most people than the sheer number of features.

Look, it’s a good thing that there are people who go over these kind of technical specifications with a fine tooth comb and compare products against each other. It’s a valid kind of critique and provides useful information. But brandishing these numbers as though they are irrefutably The Final Answer is like saying “obviously the woolly rhinoceros is better than the archaeopteryx, because it weighs more”.

» All the pictures are taken from The Pointless Museum.

Mark Lawrenson: just SHUT UP already

It’s not that I want the football commentators to try and sell every game as a classic even when it clearly isn’t. I appreciate their willingness to be honest about their product. But having bloody Lawro gloomily commenting about how bad the game is every 30 seconds for the whole bloody match really doesn’t add to its value as a piece of entertainment. It’s like watching football with Eeyore sitting on your shoulder.

smoke-filled rooms

I do think it’s funny that the British, so temperamentally disinclined towards conspiracy theories that they even assume that referees are incompetent rather than corrupt, seem ready to believe in a shadowy international conspiracy to fix the result of the Eurovision Song Contest.

EDIT: and after posting that I read that Richard Younger-Ross, the Lib Dem MP for Teignbridge, has tabled an early day motion calling for the voting system to be changed, with the support of three other MPs. Thus proving there’s no subject so trivial that a pathetic, desperate MP won’t wrap it around himself if he thinks it’ll get him ten seconds of media attention.

Bare-faced cheek from Sky Sports

I was watching the football this evening (and no, I haven’t done my napowrimo poem yet, and yes, that’s probably what I should be doing now instead of this post), and all the players looked rather short and squat. And changing the format setting on the TV didn’t seem to help.

I came to the conclusion that what Sky had done was take a picture which was being filmed in the traditional 4:3 ratio, cut the top and the bottom off, and stretch what was left to a widescreen ratio. So they had reduced the amount of the game you could see and distorted the picture in order to produce fake widescreen, on the assumption that as long as the punters thought they were getting a widescreen broadcast it didn’t matter if they crippled the picture. Which, frankly, I took as an insult.

Oh, and I couldn’t help noticing that these days Solskjaer still has the baby features, but now they’re combined with the premature aging effect of sport played at the top level, he looks more like a baby who has been preserved in a Swedish peat bog for a few hundred years.

I know, I know, less wittering, more poem-writing.

David Tennant on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

Who Do You Think You Are? is a BBC series where they trace the family history of celebrities. There was a particularly good episode tonight with David Tennant (Doctor Who, among other acting credits). Good both because he’s an articulate, personable man and because they had some good material to work with; one branch of the family were cotters on Mull who were forced to move to Glasgow by the Clearances, and another branch were deeply involved with Protestant sectarianism in Ulster.

Two points spring to mind. One is that the appeal of the program is very much what I was saying about biography: sometimes history seems more vivid when you narrow the focus. You don’t really learn anything new about the Clearances by seeing David Tennant on the site of the town where his ancestors lived and where now there are only some stone walls standing amid the bracken, but it does help you understand the individual human cost.

The other point is that every time I see film of the west coast and islands of Scotland, it looks unutterably beautiful. If there’s a more photogenic place on earth, I don’t know where it is. I really should get up there some time, to see the phalaropes and corncrakes and sea eagles as well as the scenery.

Strictly Come Dancing & Darren Gough

I’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing which, for those who don’t know, is a BBC knockout pro-celebrity dancing competition. Last year it was won by a soap actress, the year before that by a newsreader. This year, for me the pleasure has been watching Darren Gough. Gough is a fast bowler (i.e. a cricket pitcher), and he’s a big beefy cheerful Northern lad. For years, when England were crap at cricket, Goughie could be relied on to wake up the crowd and lift his teammates – but I don’t think anyone ever would have guessed, watching him run in and try to knock the batsmen’s heads off with 90mph bouncers, that he was a natural dancer.

What’s been great, watching him, is that although his dancing is sharp and technically excellent [according to the judges], he never loses the sense of bloke-ish physicality. Doing the jive, he could be a GI at a local dancehall; doing the salsa he could be a Cuban stevedore on his day off. There’s nothing dancerish about it. And he always looks like he’s enjoying himself.

To go off at a tangent for a moment, Brazilians sometimes claim to play football ‘to the rhythm of the samba’. I’ve wondered sometimes if English clubs would do well to take that literally, and to teach the young trainees to samba as a kind of cross-training. If nothing else, it’s good practice at close foot-control and balance.

Reality. Sort of.

I’ve been watching The X Factor, and I was sure I’d met one of the contestants somewhere. University? A friend’s party? I spent some time trying to place her before resorting to Google – whereupon it turned out that she was in the first series of Pop Idol.

Television – almost like actually having friends.

Bob Denver & Americana

Bob Denver, the star of Gilligan’s Island, has died. Gilligan’s Island is one of those bits of Americana which feel familiar but I actually know entirely via hearsay. It’s one of the most frequently used pop culture references in other US pop culture – they mentioned it on House just last night – but I’ve never actually seen an episode because I don’t think it’s been shown on British TV in my lifetime (ever?).

Similarly, when I went to the US I felt it was very important to eat a Twinkie, to try and find out what it was about this confectionary that made it iconic. Answer – well, it’s certainly different. Bizarrely artificial and liable to send you into diabetic shock. The O. J. Simpson trial was odd, too. The whole thing was covered in detail in the UK news, partially because they tend to follow big US news stories anyway, and partially because the moment he was chased down the freeway on TV, it was a great story. But somehow, the whole point of the thing was missing; the premise of the story was that a Very Famous Man was accused of murdering his wife – but in a country where few people care about American football, he wasn’t actually famous before the trial. He’s famous now, but famous for being accused of murder.

hair and stuffing

I went to get my hair cut today, and the barbress said “Your hair’s nice and shiny – you obviously don’t smoke.” She’s right, I don’t, but I’m surprised she could tell by looking at my hair. The conversation turned to a documentary on TV last night that followed various taxidermists in their preparations for what they all called ‘the World Show’ and thus, inevitably, to Jeremy Bentham.

Dead Bentham

The head at the top of the picture is a wax replica, because the real head was damaged in the preservation process. In this picture the real head can be seen between his legs, but apparently it has since been put into storage as it used to be a target for student pranks.

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