29 January, 2012

The Fault in our Stars - John Green

'The Fault in our Stars' is successful American teen author John Green's latest offering, after the successful 'Paper Towns', 'An Abundance of Katherines' and 'Looking For Alaska'. The books are only started to have mainstream popularity here in the UK over the past couple of months but 'The Fault in our Stars' has had a big impact on the bookselling market, and as I understand, is doing very well on both sides of the pond.

Not being a huge reader of teen fiction, I've read a couple of Green's earlier books, and enjoyed them but much in the same way as I enjoyed 'Perks of being a Wallflower' - they were okay, had interesting plots, but sometimes they tried too hard to be 'about' the things that affect teenagers - drugs, drink, cigarettes and sex. In this regard, they're 'Skins'-like. But this novel was massively refreshing, very moving, and enjoyable in its own right, and not as a 'teen book' , though I do realise it's very good for its genre.

The book is exactly what I would have wanted to read as a teenager, with characters that are witty, well rounded and easy to associate with. Without spoiling you, the book is funny, heartfelt, surprising, heart-warming and Hazel's story is brought to life vividly and effortlessly by Green. The strength of the writing is unmistakeable - some of the lines are so pitch-perfect, in tone and observation that it is a shame this will only be featured in the teen section of a bookshop.

In 'The Fault in our Stars', Green manages to make observations about the value of life and the value of time mightily succinctly and is able to swing wildly between black comedy, romance and grief with such a deft touch. Everything in the book is multi-layered, themed and inter-linking. The title itself comes from a beautiful line from the Bard's 'Julius Caesar', and the motif of stars is one of my favourite in the novel, used to explore destiny, fate, death and the bright light of happiness. But what would take most authors a long and arduous process of re-evaluation and editing, the book and its completeness flows in a way where it seems as if Green could just be speaking the story aloud to you as he writes.

Many of the faults of other cancer pieces, and ironically the praise for this one, stems from other mediums 'allowing people to be saved' or 'not showing the harsh reality of the disease'. To say this is to share that you've had a narrow exposure to the cancer-focused work out there. Films like '50/50' and TV such as 'The Big C' (both excellent and worth a viewing) show a harsh depiction of the disease, and we are shown in no uncertain terms how the fatality of cancer destroys relationships. It is possible that this is one of the first teen books to be so explicit, in which case it should be lauded for its achievement in the field. But, Green is not the first author to write about cancer and 'include the bad bits', he is just another to do it in a different way. It would be wrong to let Nerdfighter fangirling rubbish the achievements of other pieces of work.

Things that struck me upon reading 'TFioS' were: the importance of the family unit and friendships, the importance of enjoying life, and a stress on our limited 'infinity' of time on the earth. In Hazel's words, 'Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this... will have been for naught'. In contrast though, the novel stresses the importance that we just keep going, and shows the excellent things - love, friendship, books - that we can enjoy in life. And I think this is an excellent message not just for teens, but for all of us. Well done, John Green.

Skins has just become crap really hasn't it

Skins rolled back to our screens this week with an opening scene straight out of a Mumford & Sons video. The attention-seeking dramatic Morocco episode, featuring sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and all the other bullshit that Skins used to do so well, is yet another desperate attempt to restore Skins to its 'iconic teenage series status' it once held. However, we've reached series six now and I don't know if it's me or it's the programme, but the programme is apalling and has become a poor parody of its former self. No, scratch that last, it's definitely the programme.

My main problems with the episode were how (apart from the intensely non-dramatic and heavily foreshadowed incident) there were no consequences for anyone's behaviour. In series one/two, Tony was a bastard and got hit by a bus. Simples. In this series, '18 year olds don't owe anyone anything' and should feel free to run away. I don't remember earlier series being so blatantly blasé about morals.

Now, I'm no child psychologist and I hate to be a killjoy, but I do think that Skins is becoming dangerous for the remaining audience - 13-year old boys who probably sneak onto 4OD for this to catch a bit of tit, and tv critics. Dangerous for me, because it's just shit now and dangerous for teens because the messages are just absurd - take drugs, have sex, smoke constantly and everything will ultimately be okay. The line 'Make it ounces... we smoke a lot of spliff' isn't really something to be praised, and there seems to be no discussion about how drugs affect teens or health or relationships, it is just taken as a way of life that one should be permanently off one's fucking head most of the fucking time. (In the words of the beloved Cocozza, you better 'know that shit').

Skins has also veered heinously away from the slight hint of realism that we used to have. Teens used to be shown as under the rule of their parents, a school system and potentially a work environment. None of this casts' parents are physically present, or leave any hint of morality in their kids when alone - for characters to be entirely free is to limit the potential of the series' scripts, because all we're seeing is pure hedonism and thoughtlessness, with no outside influences.

Just a brief list of the most ridiculous lines we encountered in this episode. Note: there were just 50ish minutes of episode this week, and this much apallingness was jammed right in there. They need little explanation.

1. 'Hey black bitch! Hey white bitch!'
(Noone says things as crass as this)

2. 'I'm getting stoned like a whore in a burka'
(' I'M SKINS! LOOK AT ME! IM CONTROVERSIAL STILL!' I won't give this line any more thought - it's just fucking stupid)

3. 'Let's get fucked!'
(Skins' solution to everything - would be useful if not used every episode)

4. 'Charles Manson on ket'
(More headline-grabbing contro quotes from Skins here. Shame the papers/none of the media give a shit)

5. 'If I catch anyone checking out our fanny festival...'
(Mini sets Feminism back about 6 years every time she speaks)

6. 'I've had a number of orgasms today and right now I'm completely happy'
(Again, ridiculously open here in a way that people aren't)

7. 'Is that what life's all about then? Not upsetting our boyfriends?'
(Cringey 2005-myspace comments here gals. Post it as a bulletin and shut the hell up)

We'll stop at seven because it'll just get embarrassing otherwise. Another embarrassing plot point is the phone that Ginge stole for porn - convenient that Luke's monthly T-mobile contract covered MOROCCO.

Ultimately, I actually struggled to watch this episode. Matty struggled to even attempt to STOP Frankie getting in the car which led to the ''chase'' and their friend's hospitalisation, and if the aim of this ''twist'' was to show the dangers of driving, why was there no comeuppance for the moped-sans-helmet-ing that opened the series? There was also a brotherly heart-to-heart which ended with 'sort it out, mate' - brilliant advice if I ever saw it. I would frankly rather watch the US remake, and that is really saying something. I can't see this making it to a seventh series - public interest is down, as is the quality of the scripts- e4 cannot even justify this on artistic merit. Bryan Elsley needs to end this, and come back to our screens with something akin to series one. Adios Skins, you were good in the heyday. 

Amor Towles - Rules of Civility

With 'Rules of Civility', Towles' debut novel, he presents a moment in time, between the World Wars, redolent of Mad Men, Fitzgerald, and all that JAZZ. Picking the visuals and the timepieces to make it realistic, he focuses on women, love and the sense of identity in the era, all under the harsh and inescapable umbrella that is the human life.

Kathy Kontent is our narrator, looking back at youth, a year of her life in which things changed around quickly, for better and for worse. This narrative has those who come and go - Eve, Dicky, Wallace Wolcott - in minor roles, a supporting cast with some of the best names around in the post-war era. The narrative kick-starts and arguably is held together by the almost unnervingly charismatic Tinker Grey, met during a chance encounter and alluringly '1930s'. The characters in Kathy's (spoken Kon-TENT, like 'the state of being') are thrust into a whirlwind year in this love-letter to Manhattan.

Our cover is infinitely better than this one.
New York is ubiquitous in all art forms, and Towles does not try to add yet another attempt at presenting 'another side' to the city - he resides in the glamour and fabrication of a filmic city. He harks back to the visuals of Gatsby's parties and the offices of Mad Men. In attempting to portray a snapshot of the city, the book contains snapshots of New Yorkers, and the novel contains the motif of photography, in attempting to pinpoint not just the images of ourselves mid-alteration but the images of our feelings and relationships at the time we remember them at their best.

In writing the book, Towles wrote and edited each chapter in two weeks. The brevity of this approach, compared with his luxuriant prose is striking. The confidence in the writing is remarkable - an 'assured debut' as they say. Towles has marked himself down as one to watch, both in the bookselling and the publishing industries (the UK publisher reportedly bid $100,000 on the novel).

Towles, an investment banker in modern day Manhattan.
Written about a time, post-Gatsby, when women were only just being allowed into some restaurants, like the exclusive Club 21, one theme in the book is the men and women divide of the 1930s and the competitiveness in sexual relationships at a time when women were beginning to be a new breed of high-flyers. Lines such as the following show the dichotomous path available to working women of the time, and we witness Kathy's journey first-hand, from a boarding house to her own apartment.

''If I were your age, I wouldn't be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie's [Jake's wife] shoes- I'd be trying to figure out how to get into Jake's.''

Towles took three years to hone the book to what it is. To attempt a New York vernacular, I'll call it a humdinger, and it truly is. A book about the past, and about the course of a human life, with the well-crafted backdrop of hedonism, opportunity and greed, Towles takes the 'Gatsby formula' and does something that doesn't surpass Fitzgerald's work (don't be silly now), but at least can stand proudly beside it. A novel of incompleteness, of social mores and the human condition, this is anything but chick-lit. Dark, funny, old and new - this is one to read in 2012.

19 January, 2012

Rough & Ready Reviews of Last Night's TV

This is essentially a 'Last Night's TV' column, except these weren't all on yesterday and I watched them online, not on a television. Enjoy!

Coppers (Channel 4)
The strength with 'Coppers', as with 'Educating Essex' and 'One Born Every Minute', is Channel 4's ability to make a documentary about ordinary lives so fascinating. These documentaries show exactly what goes into being a policeman, teacher, midwife, and show what we don't expect - the laughs, the difficulties and the true thoughts of these figures.

'Coppers' this week took a look at the infamous summer riots, and at a drunken teenage birthday gone wrong. What is most interesting about the series is to see the humour and camaraderie amongst the police ('the best gang to be in' they quip) but also the awful crimes and criminal people they deal with. The amount of vitriole directed at the police just in this episode was awe-inspiringly rude. Without being too political, it surely is important that people respect the police more than what seems to be the norm?

The first episode of the series cut it a little bit too fine for me in showing the true evil of child molestation - whilst I admire the police's response, the horror of seeing the perpetrator was I think a bit too much - fascinating, but stomach-turning. But this episode seemed to hit the right line between comedy and crime - I for one, would like to thank 'the fuzz' - thanks for dealing with all the crap.

Glee (Fox)
'In my mind, I can sound like whomever I want. So lay off, haters' says Helen Mirren in this week's Glee, speaking as Becky Jackson. 'Yes/No' centred around marriage and proposal, and for the first time in many episodes, on Will and Emma. What the episode did well was give Becky a proper role and story, in which the writers did not shy away from upsetting her, and had again some strong songs - the Grease re-enactment was near-perfect and a great Glee-style way to poke fun at their own storyline.
The plot was strong - but there was a bit too much to-ing and fro-ing with Will's concerns over Emma's OCD for them to continue to be believable. I also find it hard to believe that Will has no male friends he would pick as Best Man over Finn - really now? Similarly, Glee did another 'random sad story we'll throw in' with Finn's father, which felt a bit out of the blue and shoe-horned in. I hope the storyline about Finn progresses to an interesting point after this week's cliffhanger - but I also think we need to see that he can excel at something himself rather than relying on others, or it defeats Glee's message.
The songs in this episode were strong - 'Without You' is frankly a poor song, but stripped down to the basics and with Michele's vocal, it became something else, and perfectly brought together the themes of success, friendship and success in friendship - something which I think will become increasingly important in the final episodes of this season. 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' was well-done, but heavily cut-down - the scenes of their separate loves' beginnings was fantastic though, and will send the shippers mad. The Moves Likes Jagger mash-up was strong, but not something I would return to, and 'We Found Love' became something spectacular with the routine (despite it being a song I find intensely mediocre) and had some truly hilarious moments within the scene.
As for the cliffhanger, a predictable one, but something which will become increasingly interesting as the characters look to the futures and whether these will include one another.

Celebrity Big Brother (Channel 5)
This is not something I have watched since the programme left Channel 4. However, I have found myself increasingly drawn in by this series - by the tasks, the celebrities and the unbelievable behaviour of Michael Madsen.
The mix of housemates this series is excellent - the first week was dominated by the ridiculously deluded Andrew 'I'm great TV but I'm hard to read' Stone. His reaction to his nomination that week was one of my favourite Big Brother moments. The evictions this year have been hard to call, and thus brilliant. Despite my enjoyment of the nightly shows, evictions are hampered by the appearance of Brian Dowling who I think is a poor host. His presenting skills are minimal and as a result he seems very nervous and unsure. However, this is a small price to pay for the hilarity of Denise Welch's one-liners, Kirk's moodswings, and the conniving K-twins. Whilst entertaining, I do strongly dislike Michael. His moodswings and harsh tirades against Denise were encouraged by him initially, so for him to tell her to 'stay out of his way' is not a valid request.

17 January, 2012

Milton Jones' House of Rooms

Milton Jones, as a comedian, is hilarious. However, it is his odd, one-liner, surprise jokes which have garnered him such praise - the issue is whether this humour is applicable to a sitcom format, and how this could work.

The stylised shots and clever visuals in this episode, as in Brooker's, worked well with Milton's sharp humour. To say the programme is surreal would be an under-statement - the episode was bloody mental, but that's part of Jones' charm. Some of the best jokes were the gas-man at the door, the card-game banter and Milton's interaction with the day's post. The supporting cast were good, but not fantastic - Milton's mum was a little bit too stilted against an already awkward Jones, and the others brought little to the table - the episode stood on Jones' shoulders alone. What the episode did well was do something different with the general 'sitcom' blueprint, and take Milton's stage humour to an appropriate vehicle for television.

Unfortunately, we will get to find out if this pattern can continue well into a series any time soon - the episode was made as part of Channel 4's Comedy Showcase, and was a one-off. The premise could continue to a full series and beyond - the potential stands for a new lodger every week, and for the relationship between Milton and Alice (if she ever says anything) to blossom. Who knows if there will be further episodes? For now, all we've got is this funny, odd and charming half an hour of television. It will surely go down in history as one of Channel 4's quirkier attempts of 2012.

Black Mirror (Episode 2, Channel 4)

Everything Charlie Brooker does for Channel 4 is pretty good and 'Black Mirror' seems to have only furthered this trend. I've only watched the second episode (the only one my Sky+ actually recorded...) so will talk about the individual episode, as opposed to the entire series which I will have to 4OD.

The acting in this was superb. Daniel Kaluuya - as the main character, Bing - gave a heartfelt performance and fitted himself perfectly into the Winston Smith role of theis type of story - the protagonist who does not feel at ease in a 'regime'. His movements to control the screens about him were perfectly executed and believable also, adding an authenticity to a technology-heavy premise. All the other characters in the 'compound' were strong, believable and well-acted. One criticism would be that the actors playing the Hot Shot judges all seemed to be unable to play the scene at the right level just between 'heartless puppetmaster' and 'victim of society' - the three swung wildly between the two in nonsensical fashion from shot to shot.

The visuals of the episode were stunning - from the screens that pervaded Bing's senses from morning to night to the 'doppels' who looked wide-eyed as Bing threatened to cut his own throat. Many of the episode's shots stressed the importance of touch, in a world where one needn't even touch a screen. The origami penguin - a tactile, physical, man-made creation - compounded this sense of hollowness and inhumane clinical environment. There was strong emphasis on noise in the episode - Bing was constantly bombarded with incessant noise. This was sound from which neither he nor the audience could escape from, and any small pocket of silent only highlighted the intensity of Bing's lifestyle and surroundings.

Whilst I saw the final parts of the episode as a slight anticlimax - the speech was pretty timid and meaningless, and there was ultimately a lack of real danger from the glass shard - the final five minutes were very symbolic. Bing has become a victim of that which he stood against, as in '1984'. Ultimately, as the final shot shows, he may have more space, and he might be viewing prettier images, but he's still in a screen-lined box.

Brooker has made another entertaining hour or so of television, and it is always interesting to see his opinions on the reality television phenomenon. However, despite the visuals and a fascinating Bing, the only real message was how 'bad' reality TV is, and Brooker failed to really properly show how the world works in the episode, its logistics and limits. Whether these were deficiencies in the script or in the final editing, I am not sure. However, this high-concept programme was highly ambitious episode, well made and well-acted, with a strong initial concept. Despite its flaws, it's positives were too good for Brooker not to be rewarded. 

14 January, 2012

Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending

This book is one of the biggest hits of the year - critically and commercially. Not only that, but Julian Barnes has provoked discussion after he spoke in his Man Booker acceptance speech about the importance of the physical book.  The physical copy is a beautiful object (important in the war against e-books, notes Barnes) and is matched equally by the beauty of the writing inside. The book deserves the recognition it has gained - I'd never read any Barnes but the quality and poignancy of this writing blew me away.

The book describes a man in his 'autumnal years', looking back at his Sixth Form days, which parallel strangely and are intrinsically linked with his first love, and his later marriage. Coming in at a short 150 pages, this is a quick read - but don't be fooled. Every page is rich in consequence and connection, and as 'Part 2' hurtles to its haunting conclusion, you will want to go back and re-read every single word. The novel interests itself in the sense one makes of a life, using more than just the human memory, as Death approaches.

The strange dichotomy between how we remember, recall and reveal our own histories and how History plays out in the classroom is torn apart by Barnes. He reveals the sad and the optimistic about old age, and the constraints of the British upper-lip. The novel shows our change from the repression of the Sixties to a freedom today. He delves into marriage, sex and the human condition, the philosophy of suicide - all in 150 pages. It's a book of surprises and a book that resonates intensely. I can't say anymore - read this book.

12 January, 2012

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things - Jon McGregor

'If you listen, you can hear it.
The city, it sings'

I read this off the back of recommendations from work colleagues - they raved about the poetry in the novel and its study of 'the ordinary' so I thought I'd give it a go. Published in 2002, the book was long-listed for the Booker prize and won other awards.

The opening pages of the book are some of the most poetic I have read in a novel. The noise of the city is conjured not just in the words themselves, but by the sounds of the words and the rhythm of the sentences - McGregor is both a poet and lyricist, his prose sings with simplicity and sharpness. As with the rest of the pages, he tries to draw out the 'extraordinary' from the mundane. The book switches between two narratives - I won't spoil them or their connection for you - which serve each other in piecing together McGregor's modern fable.

The present-tense immediacy of the prose and the relaxation of punctuation rules give the novel a fluid rhythm and make it, I believe, a cinematic tale, only told in words. McGregor almost negates the presence of the narrator in that his words describe actions and images that allow the story and characters to present themselves without interruption. It is almost as if McGregor challenged himself to give a cinematic experience of life, but in a novel. Thus, the exposition is relaxed and natural; it takes time to understand how the nameless characters fit into the street-life and overall story, but it is a rewarding style worth sticking with.

The two stories head to a dénouement which explains both tales without forced exposition and comparison.  Not truly extraordinary by any means, the event, which finally occurs, draws the street together with short cinematic jumps between the actions of each character, almost all of whom fall completely silent; their actions speak their words. McGregor shows the way in which, in his own character's words 'if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?' The fluid nature of the prose, neglecting speech marks and any unnecessary punctuation, seems to show that McGregor is not committing life to print - he is showing life as it is, not as an art-form or representation. And, in contrast to that, the point is made that if nobody talks about our lives in the modern world, how will they be known and remembered as remarkable?

'There is no pause or rewind... the moment will never be again, the moment is gone'

A remarkable book (I went there), McGregor's first novel has been said to be something he has yet to match in his other pursuits but the writer has a spirit in him that seems to hard to subdue. The book, written in 2002, seems to portray a slightly dated and kitsch northern England, but this doesn't spoil how enjoyable a read the novel is. Having been criticised for being too anonymous and having characters it was difficult to care for, I read the book with trepidation but aren't these criticisms McGregor's point? We are not really endeared to all our neighbours and their troubles as maybe we should be; perhaps we should take more stock of the remarkable achievements and events around us, or our lives will be forgotten.

11 January, 2012

Christmas Picks #2

Londoners - Craig Taylor

I bought this at work on discount - which is lucky, because full-price RRP is an immense £25. Although hardback, I'm not really sure if it's worth such a price tag. I started to read, and finished in a couple of days. The book, by Craig Taylor, compiles a series of London lives - from the high to the low, the young to the old, with one thing in common: London.

The lives featured are varied and wide-spread across the city. Though contradictory in their opinions and approaches to life and to London, their common denominator is that they all say something important about the city. My one criticism is that they are, mostly, quite mainstream. Teachers, paramedics and taxi drivers make up the bulk of the stories; there is a sense that these are the people who talk about the weird and wonderful that contribute to London - they are not given a voice for themselves.

One of the most interesting points to come out of the book is that theatre and the creative arts are allowed to flourish BECAUSE of bonuses and those earning immense amounts of money supporting the arts. The speaker notes how the creatives and ''artists'' tirade against high-earners, but if they didn't have the money to spend, we wouldn't have the theatre and arts culture we have today. The point is, I think, an interesting connection between the big-earners and the protestors and artists who despise them. These polar opposites all exist alongside each other in London, walking the streets, sharing a tube train. If you want to hear their stories, this is the book for you.

The Gruffalo's Child (BBC One, Christmas Day)

The sequel to the previous animation 'The Gruffalo', this was, in my opinion, one of the few family-orientated things made for Christmas TV. This was a real Christmas treat, and one of the few productions that truly captured the festive spirit on screen.

Based on the second of Julia Donaldson's (the new Children's Laureate) Gruffalo books, the thirty-minute animation had a style, colour scheme and soul just as well-defined as 2009's 'The Gruffalo'. The snow, the wonder and the adventure is family-orientated, and immensely Christmassy - perfect for seasonal television.

The slight flaws in the story - its episodic style and lack of clear message - were the fault of Donaldson, not this production. But with the voice talents of Coltrane, Bonham-Carter and Hurt, who can complain? The animation was funny, exciting and heart-warming - exactly the sort of thing the BBC should be investing in. It's always refreshing to see animation on a large platform, and when it's as good as this, it's a struggle to see why there's such little animation on primetime. 

05 January, 2012

Issues With The Christmas Special (Doctor Who, Christmas Day, BBC One)

The Doctor Who Christmas special is a tradition - an annual 'tv event' where even the most anti-sci-fi family member will be forced to tune in with the rest of us. Amongst a pile of trash this Christmas, 'Doctor Who' was one of the few things we looked forward to, along with 'Outnumbered' and 'The Gruffalo's Child'. The story showed promise, despite Moffat's new tradition of changing an original story, which never seem to add much to the episodes.

However, this year, I couldn't help but feel that the Christmas specials have lost their way. Last years' adventure is something I can barely remember (that definitely says something about its quality) but I remember feeling happy and sad in all the right places. This year felt like a hastily-produced side-project, and was, if I'm honest, a struggle to sit through.

The set-up - the Doctor treats a family to a good Christmas despite their father's death - was a good one, wartime British spirit at its best. Claire Skinner portrayed excellently the stoicism and frustration of the mother, and both child actors did an excellent job in their respective roles. But you just knew the father would survive somehow. On that note, the guest stars for this episode - Alexander Armstrong, Bill Bailey - were horrifically underused. Starring in Doctor Who (almost always) denies you the right to appear again - I couldn't help but feel that you could use those two stars in a different episode, and to better use.

What the episode truly lacked, ultimately for me, was any kind of threat. The wood people didn't pose a risk to 'humanity' or to 'the human Christmas'. This, ultimately, is what made 'The Christmas Invasion' and 'The Runaway Bride' succeed - they showed normal people under threat of losing a 'normal Christmas' and made us all appreciate the festive season. That's not to say the episode didn't show the best of Christmas. It was Christmassy enough for me - the snow, the scene with the 'adapted' house and the hammocks had 'Doctor Who' written all over them. A critic described the lack of a villain as an 'experiment' - but is Christmas, your flagship episode, really the time to do that?

The last five minutes made up for the episode. I could have happily watched the Pond household's Christmas dinner in real time rather than the episode, had Claire Skinner been invited. Amy in a Christmas Jumper was an image which showed exactly how good the episode could have been, had Amy and Rory been invited. There was alot of intrigue (two years have passed? The Doctor can cry 'humany-wumany' tears now?) for the next series. But as we were recently told that the Ponds will be leaving mid-series seven, Moffat better have good replacements up his sleeve. 

A good episode, but not enough for Christmas. Claire Skinner and Matt Smith shone, but Moffat really needs to pull something special out of the bag next Christmas if the Christmas episodes are to be a staple of the festive period, and a staple of modern British culture.

Nerina Pallot Christmas Experience (Live at The Forge, Camden 18/12/11)

I've been a fan of Nerina Pallot ever since her second album Fires had it's first release, and in the seven years since, I've seen Nerina's popularity increase, and along with it, her talent. She released her fourth album 'Year Of the Wolf' in 2011, and has hit a level of appreciation and success among a small core audience, furthered by her writing credits on the albums of Kylie and Diana Vickers. Being 18, it is now within my power to do basically whatever the hell I like, so finally, in December, I was able to see Nerina live - an event I'd been looking forward to since I first heard the studio version of 'Sophia'. And it was fantastic.

The 'Nerina Pallot Christmas Experience' was the kind of intimate gig one dreams your favourite artist will put on. Held at the cute 'The Forge' venue in Camden, the day was split into two experiences. The first, a Christmas meal with Nerina, with a setlist chosen by the audience. I attended the evening performance, with mulled wine, canapés and a Christmas show - perfect for a December evening.

 I don't have a copy of the setlist, but it included songs from the fourth album ('Put Your Hands Up', 'All Bets Are Off') along with fan-favourites ('Mr King', 'When Did I Become Such A Bitch?'). Set to a backdrop of a black-and-white 'It's A Wonderful Life' (cheaper in Sainsbury's, Nerina tells us). The songs were beautifully performed, sometimes with bass/guitar accompaniment, and sometimes with Nerina alone, piano or guitar to hand. Beautifully performed despite a severe cold, the set was one of the best I've seen - pure musicality and feeling. Finishing with a fun and seasonal 'Last Christmas' cover, the performance ended with us all feeling we had seen something special.

Second row from the front, witnessing the height of Nerina's talent, and also her bantering with the audience, was an immense feeling. Nerina is gracious about her fans and fame 'I don't know why you all keep coming to see me' - but the crowd plays this down - 'because you're lovely!' they shout. Meeting her afterwards was a great experience - rather than a superficial 'hello, thanks, bye', Nerina enters into actual conversations with her fans - within two minutes we were discussing visiting Tehran and Nerina was recognising me from my Twitter account. Genuine and humble, she shone as a person and as a performer.

There's much discussion amongst Nerina's fans that 'she should be bigger!' and that 'let's hope 2012 is your year!'. But is this necessary? Nerina manages to sell out her tours, and has had moderate success with her most recent album, due to Radio 2 support. Would more mainstream success make her happier? She has a large core following who appreciate and support her endeavours - she managed to sell out 200 tickets for the Christmas events in mere days. Does she need anything else?

03 January, 2012

London's Burning (Channel 4, 22/12/11)

This drama, with new clips interspersed with news footage from the summer looting, seemed to be Channel 4's answer to a 'reflection' of the year. Whilst I initially feared that a drama had been too hastily put-together to have a chance to say anything meaningful about the events of the summer, I reserved judgement. Then I watched this ridiculous programme.

The news footage jarred with the kitsch and cheery images of real life. Zooming from place to place through fake computer-animated streets made the hour feel like an extended episode of Balamory, rather than a drama focusing on real-life events. The quaint and cartoon-like depiction of shops and salons did nothing to show the extent of the damage to real life people. A comical depiction of the hairdresser who became a spokesperson during the actual riots showed just how lazy this drama was in terms of doing anything beyond representing the summer's events.

The characters were piss-poor, making jokes about 'Twatter' as if the programme were made in 2008, and saying lines such as 'oh my son better not be in there' about a BURNING BUILDING. One redeeming feature of the episode were the middle-class Clapham couple, who showed how the riots affected the average joe. However, this promise was soon ruined by the 'We-made-artichoke-heart-sandwiches-to-show-our-class' line. The hour-long torture ran to a close wherein some gas canisters almost exploded, but didn't, and noone died. The last scene, in which Channel 4 seemed to ignore reasons for rioting, or to show ANY long-term damage of the violence, seemed offensive. The problems highlighted and causing the 'summer troubles' are not over. The only attempt at 'social commentary' was the 'you're too late' scream at the police, which seemed to be a biased approach to policing, when there was quite literally no blame put on the rioters themselves.

In all, the episode failed to say anything of worth about the riots, the rioters or society. There was no mention at all of the reasons for the violence, from anyone. Comments by the girl being treated in the hair salon were awkward and vague, and the policeman-civilian interchange about tear gas was the most ridiculous and stilted scene to have made it to screen. Do we really need a dramatisation of the summer riots, a reward to the rioters of more screen-time and a full-on tv programme? 'London's Burning' was a hastily thrown-together, poorly-acted and worthless piece of television and was, I would suggest, detrimental to society. You can do better Channel 4, we've seen you can.

01 January, 2012

Christmas Pick #1 - Adele live at the Royal Albert Hall DVD/CD

I have vowed to myself to post on here every day, and if not I have to have a reason. Something like that. 

Over the next few days, I will be posting reviews of things I have received/watched/been to over Christmas. I will also be attempting some journo-tastic news review and column features. Tell your friends!

Adele has had a PHENOMENAL year - quite possibly the biggest year someone could have had. The staggering global success of her sophomore album '21' has given her the height of fame and saturation others could only dream of, and astoundingly she seems to have managed to keep her feet on the ground. Filmed just after a period of cancelled shows due to throat nodules, the Royal Albert Hall show was one of the last before Adele undertook emergency throat surgery from which she is now recovering. And what a blessing it is that she performed.

The CD/DVD package is stunning. Simple, understated and attractive, it reflects the simplicity of Adele's talent, production and the entire marketing approach behind her. Gimmicks are not needed when your act has the voice, personality and songs. Though quite clearly a money-spinner at Christmas, I am more than happy that her record label decided to release the show - Adele live, as we saw at the Brit awards, is a new kind of talent altogether. I think the DVD shows both Adele's raw talent and how a slow-singer can have a well produced touring show. Most of all, the DVD shows the power live music can have - the shots of the audience, and of the effects the music has on them, are powerful.

All of Adele's hits are here, well-paced between her first and second albums, and well-broken-up by the chats in between songs. The DVD and CD act as a snapshot, a recorded memory of her incredible success this year, most apparent in her performance and speech about 'Someone Like You', which is an absolutely beautiful song, and to which she attached an absolutely inspiring message. During 'Rolling in the Deep', as Adele cries in a confetti tornado, you cannot help but feel glad that success has come to such a lovely individual, and be inspired by the success of one woman. Get well soon, Adele, the world cannot wait to see you live.