Author: notreallyworking

U is for utopian: Ladybird by design

ladybird abc postcard

Ladybird by Design has landed at the House of Illustration, near King’s Cross station in London. This scaled-down version of the exhibition from earlier this year at the De La Warr Pavilion, celebrates the centenary of the educational imprint that gave us everything from Peter and Jane (aka the Key Words Reading Scheme), to books on science, history, fairy tales and the Bible.

As an atheist, I have no hesitation in labelling the Bible as the ultimate “Big Book of Fairy Tales”, but there’s no place for irreverent observations like that in the wonderfully wholesome World of Ladybird. This exhibition focuses on the imprint’s golden age – from 1958 to the early 70s – the mid-century period in which I grew up and began to discover the world through the brilliance of Ladybird illustrators like Robert Ayton, John Berry and Charles Tunnicliffe.

Though you won’t find the word “icon” in the meticulously rendered illustrations of the Ladybird abc, critics do tend to characterise some of the imprint’s most well-loved creations as iconic. Take Harry Wingfield’s gorgeous series of tableaux for Shopping with Mother (1958). Mummy, smartly dressed in hat and gloves, guides her rosy-cheeked offspring down an old-fashioned high street (butcher, baker, greengrocer) in those halycon days before Decimalisation, the Internet and the Tescofication of Britain.

In the real world those kids would have been throwing a wobbly, pilfering sweets or just demanding to be taken home immediately. But in Ladybirdland everything is serene and pristine, like Tunnicliffe’s beautiful renditions of the changing seasons in the What to Look for series.

I recommend the Ladybird by Design exhibition if you’re a Ladybird collector, or you’re interested in mid-century British illustration, or you’ve reached that (middle) age when you want to wallow in nostalgia for the childhood you never had.

If Ladybird is too squeaky clean for your tastes, the spoofers have also thrown up some gems, including the De La Warr Pavilion’s Ladybird Reworked exhibit and artist Miriam Elia’s controversial “We go to the gallery” book.

I was surprised to find that Ladybird did have an edgier side. I picked up a copy of man and his car, a Ladybird Leaders title from 1974 that presents the automobile in a distinctly dystopian light.

“Cars seem to be everywhere” declares author James Webster, before linking these four-wheeled menaces to a wide range of rude, antisocial and criminal behaviour.

Man and his car, Ladybird books

Man and his car, Ladybird books

Man and his car, Ladybird books


Note how the author tactfully omits to mention those big old guns that the police (in their “fast cars”) are firing at the thieves.

Well how else are you going to keep the utopia that is Ladybirdland safe for all the boys and girls?

Plastic fantastic!

Not blown away: my dandelion seed head from the 70s.

I can never walk past a dandelion head without thinking how much I’d like to spray it with Elnett, encase it in plastic and preserve it for posterity. That’s because some of my happiest afternoons in the 70s were spent getting high on the fumes from my Plasticraft set.

There must be thousands of fiftysomethings like me, who unwrapped a box of Plasticraft one Christmas during the mid-70s and became hooked on what the manufacturer, Turner Research, tantalisingly described as a “fascinating new educational hobby”.

Inside the box was a ceramic mould, a tin of plastic resin, some hardener and a rather intimidating set of instructions for how to “create fascinating castings”. The idea was that you could take small objects – shells, coins, small toys – encase them in plastic and create paperweights, key-rings or even items of jewellery.

With a little help from my Dad, I was soon making artistic arrangements of our pre-decimal currency, garnished with sprigs of fake seaweed (helpfully supplied by those nice people at Turner Research). Sometimes I tinted the final layer of plastic with one of the supplied colours, so the miniature sea shells appeared to float on an ocean-blue background that was straight out of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.


A youthful Queen Elizabeth preserved for posterity.

Plasticraft was great for churning out Christmas and birthday presents for your relatives, without making inroads into your pocket money. I duly obliged by producing a series of paperweights that graced the mantelpieces and shelves of my nearest and dearest for years to come.

The dandelion cubes were a particular favourite, as it seemed miraculous to be able to preserve something as delicate as a seed head, without turning it into a soggy mess. (The trick was to harden it first with some of my grandmother’s hairspray.) I didn’t keep any of the dandelions, so it was a welcome surprise when my Mum recently returned the one pictured above.

Plasticraft dates from an era when mums and dads up and down the country were keen get their kids hooked on Origami or turning out innovative craft products in their spare time.

We also had an Enamelcraft set (possibly a Turner Research product) that was used to customise matchboxes with swirly patterns, which we then presented to the heavy smokers in the family. The candlemaking set proved a bit of a let-down, though I did enjoy experimenting with the scented wax products.

But Plasticraft was my favourite and it was an obsession that lasted for about five years. I think I got my set for Christmas around 1973, and I was still using it in 1977 when I created a glittery gold-backed souvenir from the Rock Follies TV show.

The smell of the plastic resin was highly addictive, though I don’t remember anyone suggesting that I open the windows during my crafting sessions or refrain from sticking my nose too deep into the mixing beaker. Those were the heady days before every remotely hazardous activity came with a Government Health Warning or was outlawed by interfering EU bureaucrats.

There’s not much information out there about Turner Research (a Leeds-based company) or what happened to them. A Plasticraft set sold on eBay earlier this year for £16. That seems like a small price to pay for one of the classic toys of the 70s.

I’d love to get back into plastic casting but I fear my best work may be behind me.


When Glenn Close had the edge

Glenn Close (By Mingle Media TV [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Glenn Close (By Mingle Media TV)

Earlier this week an ex-colleague tweeted that Jagged Edge was on TV that night and that he’d suffered nightmares after “accidentally” watching it on video back in the mid-80s. I knew exactly where he was coming from because this expertly crafted thriller made a big impression on me when I first saw it 30 years ago. The two big ‘reveals’ – involving the misaligned ‘t’ on a vintage Corona typewriter and the peeling back of a ski mask – still give me a frisson, even though I’ve seen the film a few times.

Watching Jagged Edge again reminded me that I’ve developed a prejudice against 1980s films in recent years. A quick scan of my shelves reveals that Risky Business, Raging Bull and The Big Chill are among the few 80s classics to have made it into my DVD collection. I’m not sure whether it’s the hideous fashions – perms, mullets, leg warmers and monstrous padded shoulders – or the dated synthesizer scores that put me off, but I rarely experience a warm glow of nostalgia watching a movie from the Decade that Taste Forgot.

Jagged Edge is a hugely entertaining movie, and not just because it’s set in picturesque San Francisco and stars Jeff Bridges as glossy-haired newspaper magnate Jack Forrester, who is accused of slaying his wealthy wife and her maid so he can get his hands on her money. Joe Eszterhas wrote the screenplay and would go on to pen the gloriously trashy Basic Instinct and Showgirls. But it was Glenn Close who made the biggest impression as Jack’s defence attorney and love interest, Teddie Barnes.

Watching Close’s Teddie in her power suits running rings around her courtroom opponent Krasny (the splendidly named Peter Coyote), I couldn’t help flashing forward to her more recent TV role as the Rottweiler lawyer Pattie Hewes in Damages. I shudder to think of the scorn that the steely-hearted Pattie would heap on Teddie for allowing her emotions to cloud her judgment.

Teddie Barnes may be a tigress in court, but Close also brings warmth and humour to her secondary role as the hard-working single mom to two cute kids. She’d already proved convincing as the smart, well-rounded soccer mom, Dr Sarah Cooper, in 1983’s The Big Chill. Other than her gut-wrenching sobbing in the shower scene, this isn’t one of Close’s showier roles from the period. Sarah and on-screen husband Harold (played by Kevin Kline) are the emotional support to a bunch of neurotic, boozing, pill-popping narcissists in Lawrence Kasdan’s well-observed mid-life crisis drama.

Bad news through the grapevine. Glenn Close in The Big Chill.

She heard it through the grapevine. Glenn Close gets bad news in The Big Chill.

Jagged Edge might be a nightmare-inducing movie for kids but it’s positively U-certificate stuff compared with the full-on, knife-wielding horror that was 1987’s Fatal Attraction. A lesser actress than Glenn Close might have found herself typecast as a “bunny boiler” after playing the unhinged Alex Forrest, who refuses to let Michael Douglas’s Dan Gallagher off the hook after a brief affair: “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan!”

I must admit that I haven’t watched Fatal Attraction for years. In its day it was the ultimate, Friday-night, edge-of-the-seat movie experience, from which you were likely to emerge shaken and with ear-drums still ringing from all the screaming – both on- and off-screen. But it’s also manipulative, misogynistic and nasty (did we really need to see the dead bunny?), with characterisation subordinated to the needs of the wildly over-the-top plot.

For memorable endings I far prefer one of Glenn Close’s greatest roles, as the scheming, predatory Marquise de Merteuil in 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons. Opinion was divided about whether John Malkovich was miscast as the priapic Valmont, the ex-lover she goads into seducing and destroying Michelle Pfeiffer’s virtuous Madame de Tourvel. But Close is magnificent and terrifying as the amoral aristocrat whose uses her intellect solely for the purpose of avenging herself on a man who jilted her.

With her heaving bosom, scarlet lips and deathly pale complexion, Close’s Marquise delivers her barbed dialogue with the precision of a cut-throat razor. At the climax of her bitter final encounter with Valmont, she chooses “war” over capitulation to his sexual demands. Has any woman ever injected so much venom into a three-letter word?

The wordless final scene of Dangerous Liaisons is an even better example of what made Glenn Close such a powerful, charismatic presence in 80s cinema. Valmont is dead and the Marquise is now a pariah after her machinations have been exposed. She sits in front of her mirror, scrubbing off her make-up in a fruitless attempt to cleanse herself; a single tear rolls down her face. It’s quietly devastating.

Adios Rafa?

Nadal wins in Paris in 2014 (pic By François GOGLINS (Own work)

‘Thank you very much': Rafael Nadal conquers Paris in 2014 (pic by François GOGLINS (Own work)

Journalist and tennis fan William Skidelsky has written a book called Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession, which will be published next week. I don’t think I’ll bother reading it because I’m a Rafael Nadal fan, and life is just too short to waste time reading about some middle-aged guy’s obsession with the sporting superhero I like to call the Federator.

While you Fed fans are reading about Skidelsky’s desire to ‘luxuriate in the silky wondrousness of [Roger’s] play’, I’ll be mulling over the dimming prospects of ever getting my Rafael Nadal book off the ground. Can the tennis book market really stand a second volume of memoirs about a long-distance love affair with one of the game’s superstars? I fear that Skidelsky has stolen my thunder, just as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and just about every other player of note has stolen the Spaniard’s thunder during his inglorious clay court campaign of 2015.

Skidelsky writes that ‘it wasn’t love at first sight’ when he first clapped eyes on the wondrous Roger Federer back in 2003. I can’t say I’m surprised because back then Rog was still sporting that ponytail and stubble, which made him look like a total dork (albeit one with great racket skills).

By contrast, I was totally smitten when I first saw Rafa on TV in 2006 playing at Roland Garros. It was the year he scooped his second French Open title (defeating Federer in the final) and he went on to lose in the Wimbledon final to (you guessed it) the imperious Monsieur Federer.

What was it about the young Spaniard that captured my imagination and has continued to do so during a decade of triumphs, disasters, debilitating injuries and fruitless attempts to get control of his sweaty underwear? I’ve got to be honest, it was the combination of his perma-tanned pirate look and his take-no-prisoners style of tennis.

With his biceps busting out of those day-glo sleeveless tops and flowing headbands worn with the same panache as the great Suzanne Lenglen, Rafa cut quite a dash as he topspin forehanded his way across the clay courts of Europe. Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Paris were all conquered as he rose to Number 2 in the rankings and then, in 2008, defeated King Roger in the gathering gloom on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Some called it the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played. Others were dismayed that this tennis barbarian had brought down the Federator.

Other things I love about Rafa include his lack of facility with the English language. His interviews have never been as polished and articulate as those of Federer or Djokovic. He stumbles over his sentences and resorts almost as frequently to his stock phrase – ‘Thank you very much’ – as he does to running round his backhand or fiddling with his shorts.

Rafa’s never going to win any prizes for making victory speeches in fluent French either. It may bother the snooty crowds at Roland Garros, but I couldn’t care less. You don’t need words, witticisms or faux wisdom when you have the most expressive eyebrows in the history of tennis (during interviews they’re permanently at a downward angle of 45 degrees).

Talking of angles, commentators have spent an inordinate amount of time analysing how Nadal positions his drink bottles at the side of the court. They’ve dissected the growing number of tics that make up his lengthy pre-service routine and speculated on whether his game would implode if someone kicked over the bottles or gave him a time-violation warning.

Yes, Rafa Nadal is more than a little obsessive-compulsive. If he’d spent less time towelling off over the past decade I might actually have written that long-delayed novel or found time to learn another language. He’s not perfect and neither are his knees, back or wrist – any or all of which may bring his career to a premature end.

Sadly, it’s not just Rafa’s eyebrows that have been heading the wrong way lately. His ranking has plummeted (he’s currently 7 in the world) and his recent string of defeats has attracted even more analysis than Labour’s recent meltdown in the 2015 General Election. If he loses his French Open crown this fortnight will it be the beginning of the end for this Spanish superstar?

Timing is everything – both for sports stars and their fans. In hindsight I wish I’d gone out at the top and ‘retired’ from tennis fandom when Rafa won his ninth French Open crown in 2014. But I lingered too long and now the rot has set in for both of us. I’d love to be proved wrong but I can’t see him emerging victorious from a potential quarter-final dust-up with Novak Djokovic. That’s assuming he even gets to the second week.

I’ll spare myself more afternoons of sweaty-palmed misery watching him lose on the courts where he has reigned supreme for so long.

Adios Rafa and thanks for rocking my world.

TV lawyers – the real superheroes

A good man for a crisis? Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul (pic Netflix)

A good man for a crisis? Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul (pic Netflix)

In “Hero”, the latest episode of the new Netflix drama Better Call Saul, lawyer Jimmy McGill turns superhero as he rescues a worker dangling precariously from a giant advertising hoarding. The sweaty-palmed drama is just a stunt; Jimmy (better known to Breaking Bad fans as Saul Goodman) is after some free publicity in his ongoing battle with deep-pocketed rivals HHM. “Compared to them I’m just a kiddie lemonade stand trying to compete with Walmart,” he admits to some potential clients.

It’s great to see the brilliant Bob Odenkirk getting top billing in a show that explores the origins of the lugubrious attorney who became so integral to the criminal enterprises of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. On the evidence of four episodes, I think I’m going to enjoy this show more than its over-hyped predecessor.

With his ingenuity, self-deprecating humour and ability to talk the hind leg off a donkey (handy when Tuco is threatening to snip off his digits) Jimmy is a relatable figure for the average viewer who knows nothing about the law. It’s his innate likeability, combined with his down-at-heel appearance, that makes him the antithesis of most TV attorneys, who look as though they’ve been gelled, waxed and groomed to within an inch of their lives.

Despite Jimmy’s episode 4 heroics in Better Call Saul, TV’s law practitioners are not usually renowned for their acts of derring-do.  Even more versatile than the likes of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman, they spin a web of arguments, run rings around the opposition (in court) and destroy evil corporations through their intricate knowledge of the legal system.

Since I was a teenager I’ve loved TV legal dramas, with their irresistible of combination of expensive tailoring, high-stakes cases and verbal pyrotechnics. It all started in the late 70s with The Paper Chase, which followed the trials and tribulations of a bunch of Harvard law students.

James T Hart (James Stephens) and his fellow students were desperate to impress the intimidating, patrician Professor Kingsfield (played by the equally intimidating John Houseman). All I remember now is the Seals and Crofts theme song and the references to Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co – a contract case that came up during my own legal studies a few years later.

I was a law student at Bristol University in the mid-80s, but by 1986 I had opted for a career in the glamorous and low-paid world of book publishing. That was just around the time that Steven Bochco’s blockbuster legal drama, L.A. Law, was beginning its eight-year run.

The shoulder-pads, big hair and criminal over-use of blusher now seem as over the top as some of the cases tackled by the firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak. (I remember one episode – “On the Toad Again” – that focused on the narcotic secretions of a cane toad.)

I couldn’t get enough of L.A. Law’s resident Lothario/raging egotist Arnold Becker (Corbin Bersen) or the never-ending love triangle involving power-suited Michael (Harry Hamlin) and Victor (Jimmy Smits) and the lovely Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey).

In the 90s I was hooked This Life, the BBC series about a bunch of young London lawyers and barristers, who had to fit law in around their endless bickering, drinking, shagging and drug-taking.  

I can’t remember much law being practised in This Life, but I did love those movie-themed episode titles – “The Bi Who Came in From the Cold”, “Diet Hard”, “Apocalypse Wow!”. The talented but tempestuous Anna (Daniela Nardini) was one of the best female characters on TV in that decade.

When The Good Wife began in 2009 I wasn’t that excited. As Alicia Florrick, the humiliated spouse returning to her legal roots, Julianna Margulies just seemed to be giving us a slight variation on aloof nurse Carol Hathaway from ER (another show set in Cook County, Chicago). She’d swapped the philandering Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) for the philandering and disgraced State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth).

But over the course of five seasons (I’ve just started watching season 6 on More4) The Good Wife has just got better and better. Creators Michelle King and Robert King have succeeded in balancing internecine warfare within Lockhart & Gardner with courtroom shenanigans (quirky judges and salacious cases involving Colin Sweeney), and the “ripped from the headlines” topicality of that NSA storyline from season 5.

All that wit and cleverness would be less satisfying if The Good Wife didn’t also have real emotional depth and complexity. Much of that is down to the nuanced performance of Julianna Margulies, who I had totally underestimated as an actress. Adroitly switching between managing her teenage kids, sparring with her estranged husband and setting up a new law firm, Alicia has become a superwoman who is mistress of her intellect and (most of the time) her emotions.

Just three weeks ago I belatedly started watching Suits on Netflix. Nine days later I’d watched all of the first two series and I’m about to order season 3, though I’ve heard it’s a bit of let-down.

Suits stars Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter, the ferociously ambitious corporate lawyer and “closer” of deals at the Manhattan firm of Pearson Hardman. Harvey reveres vinyl (records not furniture), collects sports memorabilia and wears more hair product than all those other TV lawyers put together. Less well-groomed is his young associate, Mike Ross (Patrick J Adams), who has an eidetic memory but no law degree.

Much as I love The Good Wife, I think Suits might be the ultimate TV show for viewers who enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching lawyers with an almost superhuman ability to argue their way out of any situation.

Suits also boasts Gina Torres as the imperious Jessica Pearson and one of the great comic creations of 21st-century TV in the monstrous but lovable Louis Litt (played with relish by Rick Hoffman).

If the TV gods ever bring Harvey Specter and Alicia Florrick together their offspring would be a lawyer of truly superheroic proportions.

Suits star Gabriel Macht (pic Genevieve)

Suits star Gabriel Macht (pic Genevieve licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

On the shelf again

My parents first met in a library in North London in the 1950s. In the following decades they acquired a house filled with hundreds of books and three well-read children. The fact that my mother values antiquarian volumes more than antique jewellery may go some way to explaining why I’m a bibliophile with a love of all things mid-century.

Though many traditional libraries in the UK are in danger of becoming little more than superannuated wi-fi hotspots, I still think of them as places you go to enjoy peace, quiet and the written word.

I like order on my shelves, which is one reason why moving home last autumn was such a trauma. Over the past six months, the bulk of my book collection went from this neat arrangement:


. . . to this semi-ordered chaos.

Finally, this week I have some custom-made shelves in my attic/study room.


The bad news? Picture three doesn’t show any of my film, architecture or sports books, or some the colourful volumes featured at the Taft Hotel. They remain scattered around my flat in various corners and on non-matching shelves.

Earlier this week, The Guardian reported on a decline in the market for tablets like Apple’s ubiquitous iPad. According to Apple’s Tim Cook, one of the reasons for this worrying drop in our appetite for slim ‘n’ shiny gadgets is that “the upgrade cycle is longer”. All that means is that consumers aren’t ditching their tablets every 12-18 months, along with their smartphones.

That’s one of the reasons that I love my books. They may get a little bent or dusty over the years, or be superseded by film and TV tie-in versions or digital downloads, but they’ll never succumb to an obsolete battery or the lure of a higher resolution screen.

Books are for life. So next time you think about upgrading your phone, why not invest time and money in paper and ink instead. Treat your book collection to some decent shelving.

Happy reading!

The Oscars 2015 – the usual suspects

Julianne Moore at the  2009 Venice Film Festival  (Pic Nicolas Genin)

Julianne Moore at the 2009 Venice Film Festival
(Pic Nicolas Genin)

If I had to use just one world to sum up the Oscars 2015 coverage so far it would be “dickpoo”. Announcing the nominations yesterday with actor Chris Pine, AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs mispronounced the surname of British cinematographer Dick Pope as “Poo”, before hastily correcting herself. Thanks to Cheryl’s blunder, Mr Pope is now guaranteed a footnote in Oscars history, even if he fails to secure an award at the 87th Academy Awards on 22 February.

In her defence, Cheryl had just made a decent stab at not mangling the names of Polish cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski (Ida), before falling headfirst into the doodoo (metaphorically speaking) with the ludicrously straightforward Pope.

If I’m being picky, I’d also question why Cheryl Boone Isaacs chose to overemphasise the director of Boyhood as Richard LinkLATER, or why she inserted that painfully long pause in the middle of best actor in a supporting role nominee JK . . . Simmons. Perhaps, like me, Cheryl was just super excited at seeing the name of the man who used to play Will Poop (sorry, I meant Will Pope) in The Closer finally getting some recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for his role in Whiplash.

Of course crappy pronunciation wasn’t the only aspect of yesterday’s nominations that incensed moviegoers, journalists and Twitter users. As Peter Bradshaw admitted in The Guardian, this is the time of year when movie critics are even more prone to whingeing, crying and stamping their feet like a bunch of spoilt toddlers at the Academy’s failure to recognise their favourites.

For the British media no amount of excitement at having five nominations in the acting categories – Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Rosamund Pike Gone Girl – can make up for the snubs to Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall (Mr Turner) and David Oyelowo (Selma). For the Brits, the glass remains half empty.

I stopped paying much attention to the Oscars more than a decade ago, when Julianne Moore was cruelly robbed of an Oscar for the magnificent Far from Heaven by Nicole Kidman and her ugly prosthetic nose in The Hours. So it was no great surprise to me when Channing Tatum’s cauliflower ears were trumped by co-star Steve Carell’s hook nose in their private battle for best actor in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. (That film has, inexplicably, been overlooked in the best picture category.)

When it comes to awards ceremonies in general and the Oscars in particular I expect to read a lot of flawed “analysis” and inflammatory headlines on top of the fashion and fun stuff. This year the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag has drawn attention to the lack of ethnic diversity in the nominations – particularly marked after last year’s success for 12 Years a Slave.

There’s absolutely nothing new about the Oscars being found wanting as a showcase for ethnic diversity or the talents of female film-makers. Just four women have been nominated for best director in the 87 years of the Oscars, with Kathryn Bigelow the only winner to date.

The statistics make for depressing reading, but what do you expect from the middle-aged, middle-class and predominantly white institution that is the Oscars?

Whatever Cheryl Boone Isaacs and her colleagues might tell themselves, the Academy Awards are not a reliable barometer of artistic merit – let alone a reflection of global achievements in film-making. They remain essentially parochial, an annual popularity contest and marketing junket, showcasing the unerring ability of certain female stars to pick the least flattering outfit for their red-carpet moment.

I realise that plastering the words “Academy Award winner/nominee” on a movie poster guarantees a lot more bums on seats, but it really doesn’t affect my decision to see a film. If the Oscars were cancelled, film-making and watching would continue all over the world, though certain people might be less inclined to churn out yet more “Oscar bait”.

Yes, like flies swarming around dickpoo, the Academy voters are powerless to resist heartwarming sob stories. This year their predilections have been well catered for, with films about the disabled (The Theory of Everything), tortured and misunderstood genius (The Imitation Game) and early onset Alzheimer’s (Still Alice).

Most important, the Oscars remain fiercely loyal in their worship of the multi-talented, multi-accented Meryl Streep. She’s just received her 19th Oscar nomination, for Disney’s Into the Woods. I’m willing to bet it won’t be her last.

Election 2015 – Coming Soon to a Doorstep Near You

Our next PM? Ed Miliband By Department of Energy (WhatDoTheyKnow: Photographs of Ministers (file)) [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Can 4 million conversations really save 
Ed Miliband’s bacon?

Don’t be surprised if Labour leader Ed Miliband turns up on your doorstep in the next few weeks. He’ll probably be wearing a rosette – though he’d be wise not to team it with one of those controversial “This is what a feminist looks like T-shirts”. Whatever you do, don’t offer to make him a bacon buttie or ask him if he’s read today’s Daily Mail.

It’s not just Ed or his former Shadow Cabinet colleague Emily Thornberry who have taken a pasting in the media recently. Across the spectrum, politicians face a constant battle not to look ridiculous every time they open their mouths or step out of the Westminster bubble long enough to stick 2p in a beggar’s cup.

Even the usually media savvy UKIP leader Nigel Farage failed to see the funny side of the recent Ukik app, branding this parody “pathetic” and making himself look pretty risible in the process. So it takes some chutzpah for the Labour Party to announce that the battle for the 2015 General Election will be fought on Britain’s doorsteps.

In Manchester yesterday, Ed Miliband declared “Our campaign is setting the goal of holding four million conversations with people in just four months about how we change our country.” Yes, he really does mean face-to-face chats – not leaflets, phone calls or (God forbid) tweets to potential voters.

Long before we get to polling day, I’ll be wishing that “Nicholas Fromage” would put me out of my misery by booting me off the White Cliffs of Dover

Though it’s only the first week of January, I suspect many people will already be as bored as I am by the 2015 General Election and everything that entails. The long-suffering British electorate must now endure the full four months’ worth of electioneering that follows five dismal years of coalition government.

Long before we get to polling day, I’ll be wishing that “Nicholas Fromage” would put me out of my misery by booting me off the White Cliffs of Dover. Suck it up voters!

It’s bad enough having political mouthpieces spouting the same clichés, false promises and dodgy statistics from now until Election Day on 7 May. The Tories with their feeble “Let’s Stay on the Road to a Stronger Economy” slogan (it’s not even a British road in the poster), and Labour with its “Cost of Living Contract”.

At least on TV you have the option to switch off or employ one of our greatest inventions – the mute button. What will you do if the candidates turn up on your doorstep?

Labour’s dim but well-meaning Tessa Jowell appeared on BBC’s Daily Politics, insisting that UK voters want the “intimacy” of doorstep conversations. If by intimacy, she means the opportunity to swear, throw eggs or stick one of those rosettes where the sun don’t shine, there might be some truth in her statement.

I think what most voters want is genuine change in our political system. What we don’t want is the dismal spectacle of one bunch of Oxbridge-educated, intellectually feeble, self-serving career politicians being replaced by some slightly younger models.

In the run-up to the 2010 poll I was living just down the road from Hammersmith. All the parties wisely opted to save money and reduce their carbon footprint by not bothering to canvass. There were no leaflets (until the final week) and not a single caller: it was the most blissfully low-key election campaign I can remember.

Unfortunately 2015 could be very different.

Sorry, Mr Miliband, but I’ll be treating canvassers from all parties the same way I treat representatives from the Jehovah’s Witnesses brandishing copies of Watchtower magazine. My front door is staying closed until after 7 May.

Have yourself a Morecambe and Wise-free Christmas

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

70s comedy giants Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

Excluding Morecambe and Wise from the festivities would be as unthinkable as sticking cigarette advertising on the side of the manger, or pouring sweet and sour sauce over your turkey dinner

Nothing says Christmas quite like yet more repeats of Morecambe and Wise. In a post-Christmas-lunch-induced torpor I sat through some of Morecambe & Wise In Pieces on BBC2. This hour-long show was billed as a celebration of the duo’s “most memorable and well-loved sketches”.

This year Morecambe and Wise were served up with a delectable accompanying dish of Dame Penelope Keith – aka the imperious Margo Leadbetter from vintage BBC sitcom The Good Life. All three are icons of the (now very tarnished) golden age of BBC TV in the 1970s and 80s – that innocent time in which Jimmy Savile was still venerated as an altruistic, cigar-chomping eccentric. How things have changed.

By Boxing Day night, the late lamented comedians (Eric Morecambe died in 1984 and Ernie Wise in 1999) had skipped over to Channel 5. There Morecambe & Wise Live! 1973 formed the meat in a cross-generational comedy sandwich of Rob Brydon and Tommy Cooper.

Of course Eric and Ernie are a Yuletide institution, and only a Scrooge like me would suggest otherwise. Excluding them from the festivities would be as unthinkable as sticking cigarette advertising on the side of the manger, or pouring sweet and sour sauce over your turkey dinner before flambeeing the Brussels sprouts.

But as you’ve probably guessed by now, I don’t like Morecambe and Wise. I didn’t find them funny in their 70s heyday, and despite my advancing years I’m still not moved to helpless laughter when they sidle back onto our screens during December.

So I deliberately didn’t use the word “watch” in my opening paragraph because Eric and Ernie form part of a rarely changing backdrop of Christmas TV that doesn’t demand my attention.

On the plus side,  Morecambe and Wise are reassuringly inoffensive by today’s expletive-ridden standards. Their schoolboy humour and ritual mockery of each other and their guests – Andre Previn (“Mr Preview), Shirley Bassey and Glenda Jackson – is still family friendly. You wouldn’t feel embarrassed to watch them with your granny, although she would probably have to explain who those 70s A-listers were.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate TV nostalgia at Christmas. I used to look forward to watching Judy Garland warbling her way through Meet Me in St Louis, or staying up for BBC2’s post-midnight offerings from the world of film noir or the House of Hammer. As a kid I could even enjoy a Yuletide season of Elvis Presley musicals – it helped pass those awkward hours between opening my presents and sitting down to lunch. I was less discerning in those days.

No, my gripe is that the diet of rehashed repeats is so predictable at this time of year and so heavily dominated by the 70s, a decade from which BBC executives and schedulers in particular seem unable to extricate themselves.

The ongoing veneration of 70s TV reminds me of “The Speech”, an episode of a more recent comedy classic, The IT Crowd. Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Roy (Chris O’Dowd) con clueless IT “relationship manager” Jen (Katherine Parkinson) into believing that the whole of the internet is contained in just one small and rather unimpressive-looking black box that has recently been demagnetised by none other than Stephen Hawking.

I imagine that the bosses at the BBC are a bit like those gullible (non-techy) employees at Reynholm Industries. They’re all in thrall to a small box in which a whole decade of 70s TV has been lovingly preserved for future generations. Every year they bring it out and pray over it, before once again revealing its treasures for the telly-watching masses.

So let’s go cold turkey next year and just cut Eric and Ernie from all the channels, along with The Good Life, the Carry On films and the execrable On the Buses. If you love this stuff (I am a big fan of the early Carry Ons) you can still get your fix on other “platforms”.

By Christopher William Adach from London, UK (WiPe - random_) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Have you tried turning him off and on again? The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd (pic Christopher William Adach)

In our house we had the internet on loan for Christmas Day so we could watch back-to-back episodes of The IT Crowd. My nephew, Gadget Boy, had a new smart watch and his dad had just been given a Chromecast, to convert the box into a wi-fi enabled wonder.

Our comedy fix was handily streamed from Gadget Boy’s wrist to the TV screen, without any interference from schedulers or 70s obsessives.

I wonder what everyone will be watching in 40 years time. I hope it’s not Morecambe and Wise.

Growing Up with The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman

Life in the goldfish bowl: Dustin Hoffman and William Daniels (left)

The Graduate is the movie I would nominate as my “Desert Island disc” if I were unfortunate enough to be marooned somewhere with limited home entertainment options.

When director Mike Nichols died last month, aged 83, I wanted to write a blog post but was hampered by a serious case of writer’s block. You might even say that I was overcome by ennui – much like Benjamin Braddock, the hero of Nichols’s most famous movie, The Graduate. I found myself adrift in a seemingly endless 60s montage of my own making, scored by Simon & Garfunkel songs.

Even people who haven’t seen The Graduate know that it features songs by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence, Scarborough Fair, Mrs. Robinson. But how many are aware that the rest of the soundtrack was composed by the brilliant Dave Grusin, whose later work includes Tootsie (also starring Dustin Hoffman) and one of my all-time favourites, The Fabulous Baker Boys.

Most film buffs have at least one movie or franchise that they return to regularly, luxuriating in the familiarity of plot, dialogue and performances, while also finding something new every time. The Graduate is the movie I would nominate as my “Desert Island disc” if I were unfortunate enough to be marooned somewhere with limited home entertainment options.

The danger of familiarity is that it can breed boredom. I can honestly say that has not been my experience with The Graduate. Since I started blogging about cinema I have enjoyed and appreciated the film more than when I first watched it in the mid-80s.

I was only four when Nichols’s sophisticated comedy was released in December 1967. By the time I was ready to sit through the whole film, I had recently left university with a law degree and the crazy idea that I could have a meaningful career in publishing. In reality I had a boring job, a miniscule salary and, like many of my friends, regarded work as an interruption to my social life.

At least I wasn’t living at home. That put me one step ahead of Benjamin, the aimless hero of The Graduate, who soon finds his post-university idyll threatened by his overbearing parents (played by William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) and the predatory alcoholic Mrs Robinson (the unforgettable Anne Bancroft).

The age-old problem of the generation gap is handled with great sophistication by screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. From the opening party scenes, the Braddocks are rather too eager to parade their newly returned son like a prize heifer in front of their affluent friends and neighbours.

Nichols skilfully employs close-ups and point of view shots (Ben lumbering into the pool in his new diving apparatus) to emphasise how he feels both smothered by and alienated from the world of his parents. The degree of misunderstanding is never more stark than in Ben’s “half-baked” engagement announcement to his bewildered parents. This sums up the alternative reality in which he now exists.

For later generations weaned on the comedies of Judd Apatow, the sly humour might prove too subtle. (The sad clown picture hanging on the landing of the Braddock house.) But I think The Graduate still strikes a chord with underachievers who feel that they haven’t quite lived up to their education or their parents’ expectations.

Now that I have reached middle age, I find I am more sympathetic towards Mrs Robinson – seducer, relationship-wrecker and all-round bad mother.

In reality, Anne Bancroft was a lithe and beautiful 36-year-old when she played the “broken-down alcoholic” Mrs Robinson. But as her affair with Benjamin sours she’s portrayed as a termagant, determined to keep him away from her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) even at the cost of destroying the family.

She’s made to look not just deglamorised but almost monstrous in the rain-drenched scene where she hijacks Ben’s date with Elaine. In the climactic wedding sequence, Mrs Robinson is reduced to flailing hysteria as she screams at her daughter and then hits her.

Katharine Ross, The Graduate

Home truths as Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross square up in church

Despite all this, two earlier moments do emphasise Mrs Robinson’s vulnerability and how she “lost interest” in everything apart from booze and illicit sex. First, when Ben insists on some pillow talk during one of their trysts and quizzes her about her life. He can’t see the reaction, but her expression reveals the sadness at a shot-gun wedding, a husband she loathes and college studies in art that never went anywhere.Later, during the montage when Elaine leaves for Berkeley, she stands apart from the family – there’s no goodbye from her daughter.

The Graduate doesn’t allow her a redemptive moment, but I’d like to believe that Mrs Robinson eventually made it to the Betty Ford Center, kicked the booze and took up painting or charity work.

Finally, I recognise that I’ve grown increasingly anti-religion in the years since I first watched The Graduate.  (No, I’m not singling out any religion in particular.) I love the fact that this film ends with Ben locking the baying crowds inside the church with a large cross, as the runaway couple make their getaway.

Who needs churches, religion, parents or unquestioning obedience to outmoded ideas?

“Elaine, it’s too late!” shouts a desperate Mrs Robinson following the marriage to stuffed shirt Carl Smith. “Not for me!” shrieks Elaine.

It’s the last line of dialogue and sounds a note of defiance and optimism, though for all we know her happiness may not lie with Ben.