Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Memories of Pop Culture Past

Slowly but surely, I'm succeeding in finding the sources for various fragmented images I've had in my memory since childhood.  All are derived from stuff I saw on TV during my formative years.  Often, being a young child with a limited attention span, I never saw the entire programme, more often than not, I probably wasn't even aware of what I was watching.  In the past it was difficult to track down what I might have been watching: detailed listings of TV programmes from the late sixties and early seventies just weren't available, let alone recordings of the actual programmes.  Nowadays, thanks to the internet, vast amounts of information on pop culture from this era is publicly available.  Even some of the actual programmes can be found on You Tube or the Internet Archive.  Many others are now available commercially on DVD.  Some are finally turning up on TV again, on channels like BBC Four.  Indeed, it is thanks to such a repeat a couple of years ago that I was able to finally identify the late sixties BBC adaptation of M R James' 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' as the source of a remembered image of a sheet rising menacingly from a bed, it is then pulled away to reveal that there is nothing at all under it.  It was an image that had freaked me out for several years when I was a child, although I had no idea of its origin - I just knew that it was something I'd seen on TV that had terrified me.

During this holiday season I've taken the opportunity to track down some more of these pop culture fragments which swim around my subconscious.  Specifically, I was able to watch, for the first time since childhood, the two late sixties 'Bulldog Drummond' movies with Richard Johnson, which tried to transplant the old anti-Semitic, proto-fascist bully boy British hero of the 1920s and 1930s into the swinging sixties, as some kind of sub-Bondian super-spy, bedding bevys of 'birds' inbetween saving the world.  Beyond some of the character names, the films had little to do with the original novels.  (To be fair, earlier Hollywood versions starring the likes of Ray Milland and John Howard as Drummond had already transformed him into a fairly standard urbane, but two-fisted, crime fighter).  They also, as executed, resembled Bond movies less than they did the 'Eurospy' Bond knock-offs that were flooding the market around this time.  Anyway, I had a childhood memory of a scene where a business man is paralysed with a drug by a pair of female villains, which leaves him aware of what's happening, but unable to move.  They then throw him off of the balcony of his penthouse to make it look as if he'd committed suicide.  Whilst I knew that it originated with one of these films, I was sure it was the second, Some Girls Do.  This was for two main reasons: I was convinced the unfortunate victim was played by James Villiers, who I knew was in the second movie, and the fact that I knew that the second film involved a villain using female 'robots' to assassinate people involved with a supersonic aircraft project.

However, watching the films back-to-back on You Tube on Christmas Eve, I realised that I was badly mistaken.  The scene was from the first film, Deadlier Than The Male.  Moreover, the victim was played by Leonard Rossiter, not James Villiers.  To be fair to myself, it isn't difficult to get confused - the two films are remarkably similar in many ways - in both the main villain Carl Petersen (plated by Nigel Green in the first, James Villiers in the second) employs a pair of sadistic female assassins as sidekicks and both culminate with Drummond held prisoner in the villain's lair before turning the tables.  Anyway, whilst watching the first film, I suddenly came upon another scene I vaguely recognised but had never associated with either movie: Drummond's irritating American nephew is captured by the two deadly women, tied to a table and tortured with lit cigarettes.  Pretty strong stuff for a film of that period, which is probably why it stuck in my young mind when I saw the film on TV some when in the early seventies.  All of this left me wondering whether I'd ever actually seen the second film.  Upon watching it, though, I definitely recalled the whole business with the supersonic airliner and the scene where Villiers dresses as the Duke of Wellington.  That said, whilst much camper than the first one, Some Girls Do has fewer truly memorable moments than its predecessor. 

So there you are - some more fragments of pop culture memories fall into place for me!  I'll be returning to the subject soon.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Under the Weather

"We must be better prepared", declared our hapless Prime Minister as he visited a storm-struck part of Kent last week.  "These things are happening more frequently."  Hmm, I wonder why that might be, Dave?  Could it have anything to do with climate change (which various prominent members of your party deny is happening)?  And could that climate change be, at least in part, the result of human activity?  In which case, if you really want to do something about these all too frequent extremes of weather which keep disrupting the UK, why, Dave, are you telling your lackeys to "get rid of all the green crap" with regard to energy?  Because, in reality, the only long-term response we have to these weather changes, which has any chance of being effective, lies in tackling climate change: all that "green crap".  Otherwise, I really don't know what he expects people to do in order to be "more prepared".  Should everyone be made to have an inflatable dinghy in case of floods?  The fact is that you can be as 'prepared' as you like, but the reality is that there is nothing any of us can do to actually stop the storms which do the damage.  Weather doesn't respond to threats or government edicts.  That said, I'd love to have seen Dave standing on a South Coast beach last Monday, arms held high trying to order the  storm raging around him to go back out to sea, King Canute style.

But a lot of his wittering at last week's ill-judged photo-opportunity focused on the supposed failures of the power companies and insurers to respond in a timely fashion.  However, as all of these nowadays lie in the private sector, like the weather, they are not directly accountable to the government.  Situations like last week's storms highlight one of the many problems which result from the privatisation of public utilities: profit comes before customer service.  From their point of view, having lots of emergency equipment and engineers on stand-by awaiting a major outage simply isn't cost-effective - so their response teams are pared to the bone.  Which, of course, means that when you have a major incident like last week's storms, they simply don't have the resources to adequately respond.  To be honest, they can't seem to adequately respond during normal conditions, as I can attest from my personal experience of having been without electricity for twenty hours once after a problem with my local substation.  The excuse was that the specialists they needed were on another job somewhere else - you'd hope they'd have more than one team to cover a large chunk of the UK, although I suspect the power company's reluctance to pay overtime had something to do with it.  But that, along with more and worse bad weather, is the face of the future under this government: more privatisation, less environmental protection.  So there you go, I hold Cameron entirely responsible for the state of my roof after it was hit by the storms last week.  The bastard.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Spurred to Failure

As I always do at such times, I feel that I have to reiterate that this is not a football blog.  However, there are times when I feel I have no choice but to comment on the latest developments at the 3-D living cartoon that constitutes Tottenham Hotspur.  As ever, I should caution that I'm strictly an armchair fan of Spurs, I'm not one of the season ticket owning faithful.  But, even though I haven't paid the club an extortionate amount of money to watch them live at the Lane, I still feel ripped off in light of unfolding events.  The merits of Andre Villas Boas as a manager can be debated as nauseum, but the fact remains that - despite embarrassing and heavy losses to West Ham, Manchester City and Liverpool - at the time of his sacking the club was still seventh in the League, were in the quarter finals of the League Cup and had just qualified, unbeaten and top of their group, for the knock out stages of the Europa League.  We've now slipped to eighth in the league, have been knocked out of the League Cup by West Ham and, as far as I can see, might as well just concede defeat in the next round of the Europa League here and now.

Sacking a manager perceived as under-performing is any club chairman's prerogative, but one would hope that when they do so, they already have a credible replacement lined up.  However, Tottenham being Tottenham, it turns out that chairman Daniel Levy's plan B was simply to hand technical co-ordinator (or whatever his title was) Tim Sherwood an eighteen month contract after only two matches - the cup defeat to West Ham and a fortuitous victory over Southampton.  Two matches which constitute Sherwood's only managerial experience.  After this inauspicious start, we stumbled to a dour one all draw with West Brom who, with no disrespect to them, we should have thrashed.  Sherwood's obvious lack of any tactical awareness, his troubling team selections, ineffective substitutions and stubborn adherence to the prehistoric 4-4-2 formation do not bode at all well for the rest of the season.  Particularly problematic is his refusal to deploy a proper holding midfielder - it's rather reminiscent of Captain Redbeard Rum in Blackadder II on the matter of whether you need a crew:  "Opinion be divided on the matter - I says you don't, all the other captains says you do!"

Sherwood reminds me of Tony Adams when he stepped up to replace Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth - like Sherwood he was full of talk of moulding the team to a new shape and style, but was rapidly revealed as tactically clueless.  And, to be fair to Adams, (even though he's an ex-Gooner), he at least had some previous managerial experience at Wycombe Wanderers.  So, what does Levy's appointment of Sherwood tell us?  That the job has become a poisoned chalice, with nobody credible prepared to take it on?  Who could blame prospective candidates from shunning Spurs?  Not only do we sack managers when they are failing, like Hoddle and Ramos, but also when they are successful, like Martin Jol, Harry Redknapp and now Andre Villas Boas.  The words 'laughing' and 'stock' sadly come to mind.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

After the Festivities...

So, how was it for you?  Did Santa's Magic Bum fart you everything you asked for?  (I know, I know, that last reference will mean nothing to anybody other than my four year old great niece, upon whom I tried out my latest idea for a children's book before Christmas).  I had my simplest hope fulfilled: a couple of days respite from the rain and gales.  Particularly the gales.  That said, even as I type this, the wind is building up again outside.  I'm bracing myself for another sleepless night and more damage to my roof.  Still, I've got a roofer coming round on Monday to assess and hopefully repair the damage from earlier this week.  At least I only have to worry about external damage to my property - judging by the sounds coming from next door late on Christmas Eve night, there was a tornado raging inside the house.  It really sounded like furniture was being hurled around their living room.  This was followed by the sound of their back door flying open and then something being sawn up in the back garden.  I'm afraid I didn't have the courage to go and take a look at what was going on - I feared what I might see would drive me insane.  It was all getting a bit too much like an M R James story for my comfort.  Perhaps Mark Gatiss could adapt it for TV for next Christmas?

Speaking of Christmas TV, I was pondering yesterday as to how much the Christmas schedules have changed over the past couple of decades.  I remember the days when the festive season saw the BBC and ITV premiere lots of big feature films.  In fact the Christmas Day schedules back then were basically constructed around two big films on each main channel, at least one of which would be a premiere - usually the evening film.  On ITV, one of the movies would inevitably be a Bond film.  For the BBC, the films would be more varied.  Over time, the bigger of the two films would be shown in the afternoon - I seem to recall Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade being premiered in such a slot - with something less high profile being shown after ten o'clock.  These changes were to accommodate the growing number of Christmas specials of popular TV series which were beginning to become popular and now dominate the seasonal schedules.  Back in the day, of course, it was generally only sitcoms and light entertainment series that got seasonal specials - these days everything gets them.   Nowadays we're down to just the afternoon film, which is generally a family-friendly piece of animation.  Which is why, over the past few years, I've resorted to providing my own Christmas afternoon movie, usually on DVD.  I always try and find something with no discernible Christmas connection - this year it was Big Wednesday, the greatest surfing movie ever made.  I must admit that I can't decide whether or not our current Christmas schedules are an improvement over their predecessors or not, but with subscription movie channels making film TV premieres seem commonplace, I don't foresee any return to the old schedules.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians



Like I was saying yesterday, tradition is going by the wayside this Christmas.  In past years, I've offered a round up of Sleaze-related seasonal activities on Christmas Eve.  But this year I'm feeling at all Christmassy and I have no plans to do anything this evening other than stay at home.  Even if had planned anything, I doubt I would have been able to go through with it as I'm exhausted as a result of a lack of sleep.  Late yesterday night my roof was damaged by the gales, resulting in me standing outside the rear of my property in the early hours of the morning, with the wind whipping around and rain bucketing down, trying to assess the damage.  Whilst, at present, the damage seems confined to one area over the bathroom and no water seems to be seeping in, I still barely slept last night.  I then spent a large part of today trying, and failing, it is Christmas Eve, after all, to get anyone to come and properly assess the damage for my insurers. Whilst I'm sure the roof will be OK for the next few days, I'm worried that, with further high winds forecast for later in the week, it will sustain further damage if I can't get someone out to effect even a temporary repair.  I really don't want to spend another night of worry like last night again in a hurry.

But enough of my woes.  I thought I'd ignore tradition and present for you today another seasonal random movie trailer, for the marvellously titled Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.  Whilst it is fashionable to sneer at this 1964 low-budget holiday cash in as one of the 'worst movies ever made' and for supposed sophisticates to claim they only watch it ironically, in truth it is a pretty entertaining piece of fluff if you are in the right mood.  Sure, it's made on a shoestring budget, (just check out the cardboard box robot early in the trailer), but that's part of the charm.  It's aimed at kids, for God's sake, and as such is perfectly adequate.  It also features an early occurrence of product placement - according to the titles the 'special toys' were provided by the Louis Marx corporation.  I well remember the days when virtually every toy you had as a child was manufactured by Louis Marx.  But if a story about Santa bringing Christmas to the Martians wasn't enough, it also has a tremendously catchy theme song: 'Hooray For Santa Claus'.  I defy you not to sing along with it.  So, this Christmas, give in to your inner child and watch Santa Claus Conquers The Martians - there are several versions on YouTube, none running over eighty minutes, so it won't take up too much of your time.     

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Breaking With Tradition

It just wouldn't seem seasonal if the run-up to Christmas wasn't dominated by bad weather, now would it?  Obviously, it is always better if the weather in question is snow or the threat of snow, but in lieu of that, gale force winds and torrential rain are always a good substitute.  I mean, just look back to this time last year, when we only had the rain - it was quite boring, wasn't it?  People could make their Christmas journeys with relative ease, but this year, with added gales, it is so much more exciting.  For the news media, that is.  They just love to be able to fill up their pre-Christmas bulletins with reports about massive weather-related travel disruption.  Personally, I'd like to get back to those Christmases of my youth, which were characterised by dry cold weather with a mild overnight frost, which didn't inconvenience anyone's travel plans.  Not that people seemed to travel as much at Christmas back then.  That's another trend we should resurrect - there's nothing worse than being stuck in traffic jams on Christmas Eve as the light begins to fade.  Not that such things will be worrying me, as I'm travelling absolutely nowhere this Christmas.

But if extreme bad weather is a Christmas tradition we can't seem to avoid, I've decided to ditch several of my own seasonal 'traditions' this year.  In part, this is because I felt that I was doing them, not because I enjoyed them, but simply because I'd 'always' done them and consequently felt obligated to do them again.  Which is rather pointless.  In the case of one, relatively recent, 'tradition', I simply couldn't be arsed.  If, for some reason best known to yourselves, you are a regular reader, you'll have noticed the absence of a special Christmas edition of our resident podcast.  Bearing in mind that I haven't managed to produce a regular episode of The Sleazecast in months (season three has stalled after just two episodes), in large part due to the fact that the current format is so time-consuming to produce, I thought a seasonal special would be taking the piss.  Besides, I've produced special editions for the past two years and the fact is that nobody bloody listens to them at Christmas, rendering the concept rather pointless.  Sure, they listen to them during the Summer, but by then it's a bit bloody late, isn't it?  Hopefully, I'll get back to podcasting next year, possibly with a simplified format.  (That said, I haven't stropped recording entirely - I've produced several segments for various Overnightscape Underground shows over the past few months). 

I've already decided that this will probably be the last year I produce one of those 'Christmas Lights' films (see previous post for the latest), so, as of next year, I'll be looking to establish a whole new set of 'traditions' for this blog.  God knows what they'll be but, like they say, a change is as good as a rest.  As for the real world, I've already broken a few personal Christmas 'traditions' this year and aim to drop a few more between now and New Year.  The bottom line is that I'm feeling restless and need a fresh start - beginning a whole new Christmas!     

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Merry Christmas, Crapchester!


So here we are again: our annual visit to Crapchester to marvel at the fabulous Christmas light displays adorning its streets.  This is the third year running I've produced one of these films.  It could be the last.  Maybe its the evil spirit of austerity which seems to pervade our public discourse these days, but there don't seem to be as many of these light displays as there were a few years ago, and those which remain don't seem to be as spectacular as they used to be.  Obviously those energy price hikes are biting.

The other problem, as ever, is the weather.  As in previous years, much footage has been ruined by torrential rain. Then there's the fact that the camera I use simply isn't up to night shooting (it's just a pocket camcorder), resulting in lots of fuzzy images.  Finally, there's the fact that some people just don't like you rolling up in a car and filming their Christmas lights, (which begs the question of why they put them up, if not to show off to other people).  But, for this year at least, let's just enjoy those fabulous Crapchester lights!

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Home for the Holidays

Well, that's it.  I'm home for the holidays.  My working year ended this afternoon and I don't return to the circle of Hell that constitutes my employment until January.  A quick seasonally-related aside: only yesterday I heard Chris Rhea's 'Driving Home For Christmas' on the radio whilst I was driving and it occurred to me that I had never heard the song whilst I was actually driving home for Christmas, (I wasn't headed for home at the time, although it was, obviously, the Christmas season).  Then, this evening, as I was driving home after doing some shopping, the song came on the radio.  So, I can at last say that I was driving home for Christmas whilst listening to 'Driving Home For Christmas'.  OK, I know that was a spectacularly pointless diversion, but this whole week has felt like a pointless diversion, something to be gotten through with as little hassle as possible before the holidays started.  It has been an exercise in keeping my head down and doing just as much as necessary to keep things turning over.  The fact that, as usual by this point in the year, I'm feeling exhausted, just made it seem all that more pointless.

Still, whilst I might have just been going through the motions this week, the world has kept turning.  Usually over the Christmas period something happens to make us all feel guilty about enjoying ourselves - a disaster along the lines of the Boxing Day Tsunami a few years ago.  This year I thought that it had come early, in the form of the Philippines hurricane, but even after that, stuff has just kept happening.  Only this week, in London alone, we've had theatre roofs collapsing on audiences and a serious bus crash.  Both come hard on the heels of that helicopter crashing on a pub in Glasgow.  What's going on?  Have government spending cuts really affected public safety this much?  Then there are the celebrity deaths: first Peter O'Toole, then Joan Fontaine.  Not to mention the death of writer and all-round crackpot Colin Wilson (although his crackpot books are highly entertaining and, compared to latter-day crackpots like David Icke, he seems quite sane).  It all leaves you wondering what disaster will strike next and which celebrity will pop their clogs next.  Of course, the reality is that these things are happening all the time, it just that at times like Christmas they seem to take on an added significance and appear to us to be much worse than they would at any other time of year.  It's always worth remembering that tragedy is all around us all year round and we shouldn't just be concerned with natural disasters and the like just because they happened at Christmas and make us feel guilty - for the victims the results of such events are the same, regardless of the time of year.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Out On My Own

We gain insight from the unlikeliest of sources.  Some weeks ago I was watching and episode of Neighbours, in which Toadie's son, Callum, realises that his supposed best friend actually sees him as some kind of sidekick, a role he is understandably unhappy with.   At this point it occurred to me that this was exactly the problem I had with some of so-called 'friendships' - the 'friends' in question, (who hadn't been in contact for an age), clearly viewed me, not as an equal partner in the relationship, but as some kind of sidekick.  The more I thought about it, the clearer it became: meetings and venues were all at their convenience, conversations always about what they wanted to talk about.  Anything I wanted to do or talk about was sidelined.  I was left wondering how on earth I had allowed myself to be put in such a position?  Was I that desperate for human company that I was prepared to give up my independence and be relegated to the role of sidekick?

The answer to the latter question was, of course, a resounding 'no'.  The problem, I realised, was that I had been trying to conform to some conventional notion of 'normality', where we all have to have 'mates' we 'hang out' with.  A version of 'normality' where to enjoy your own company, to be bold enough to go out and enjoy yourself on your own, is seen as strange.  So, I decided to reassert my independence.  I've gone back to doing my own thing, going to the places I want to go to, when I want to.  Not surprisingly, these 'friends' have pretty much vanished altogether now.  I'm also a lot happier - I've got back to being myself.  I've also forged new acquaintanceships, (if that's a real word), based on mutual respect.  I've stopped being someone else's sidekick and got back to the role I'm happiest with - the independent loner.   All that from watching an episode of Neighbours.  Who says soap operas can't be life-changing?

(In the event of actual friends - many of whom I only have intermittent contact these days - reading this - I obviously don't mean you).

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Santa Claus: The Other Movie



With Christmas just around the corner I thought it was time to look at some more seasonally-themed random movie trailers, starting with Santa Claus (1960).  Not to be confused with the later Dudley Moore film of the same name, this is actually a Mexican movie produced in 1959 and distributed in this US version by K. Gordon Murray.  Just watching the trailer tells you that we're a long way from the traditional North Pole based Father Christmas familiar to US and UK audiences.  This guy lives in the clouds and has a surveillance operation to rival the NSA and GCHQ - designed to check who has been naughty and who has been nice, of course.  He's also pals with Merlin and opposed by Satan.

Which brings us to the perennial problem of trying to dramatise Santa - the lack of conflict inherent in his story.  In fact, he doesn't really have much of a story in his modern iteration - he's just some old guy who goes around delivering presents to kids at Christmas.  So, in order to create a dramatic narrative for a film, all sorts of other elements have to be brought in, particularly some kind of adversary.  As Santa doesn't have any natural foes, filmmakers have to invent them: evil capitalist John Lithgow, out to commercialise Christmas, for instance, in the Dudley Moore film.   Clearly, in Mexico, mere human rapacious businessmen weren't considered a worthy enough enemy for Santa, so they co-opted Satan instead.  Which, when you think about it, makes a certain degree of sense.  Whilst Santa's origins might be pagan, he is also the most visible and enduring manifestation of an ostensibly Christian festival, a substitute for Christ himself, even.  So, it is natural that his activities be opposed by the Devil himself.

All of which is undoubtedly an over-intellectualisation of a cheap exploitation film.  That said, from the trailer at least, it still looks a damn sight more entertaining than the aforementioned Dudley Moore film with its saccharine sentimentality.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Licensed to Sell Intoxicating Liquors...

So, if James Bond was a real person, then the level of drinking he indulges in during the course of the Ian Fleming would leave him impotent and incapable of doing his job.  Whilst this 'study' in a medical journal doesn't mention the character's smoking, I'm pretty sure that his daily intake of cigarettes would probably have left him gasping for breath in response to any physical exertion.  Whilst I know that the article in question was intended as a jokey seasonal piece, I can't help but feel that it misses an important point.  No, not that James Bond is a fictional character in a series of popular novels and films, meaning that his drinking (and smoking) habits aren't necessarily meant to be realistic, but rather that during the period the books and earliest film adaptations originally appeared in, similar drinking (and smoking) habits probably wouldn't have seemed unusual.  Nowadays people seem to take for granted our current obsession with alcohol awareness and healthy living, accepting lower levels of alcohol consumption and the demonization of tobacco as being the norm.  In reality, these are relatively recent phenomena.  I remember that when I was a child in the seventies, (long before I started drinking alcohol, I hasten to add), nobody seemed to think twice about downing half a dozen pints even at normal social occaisions.  Drinking in pubs was even more hardcore - and let's not forget that opening hours then were severely restricted compared to now.  Oh, and adults who didn't smoke were considered weird. 

Back then it was considered normal to have a drink and a smoke, not just at social gatherings, but at meals, when watching TV or just when you were lounging around at home and generally relaxing.  I remember that earlier this year I got quite a shock when I watched some reruns of seventies sitcom Man About The House, and saw the amount of casual drinking and smoking that went on.  Characters were rarely without a drink and/or a cigarette in their hands in any given scene.  But, looking back on my own memories, I realised that it was simply reflecting the social norms of the times.  That said, people probably a bit more aware of the potential health risks posed by excessive alcohol consumption - certainly the drink-driving campaign was gaining momentum in the seventies - so all this boozing probably wasn't  up to Bond's levels.  Indeed, by all accounts alcohol consumption in the fifties and sixties was even worse.  So, if the Bond article is to be believed, it is amazing that people were able to function at all during this period as the entire population of the UK must have been staggering around in an alcoholic stupor.  Yet they did function, perhaps because all that boozing have them a higher tolerance to alcohol.  And when they weren't drinking, they were smoking.  All of which was reflected in the popular culture of the day - just watch films and TV series from the period.  Not to mention print media: I recently bought several copies of Lilliput magazine from the forties and fifties and was amazed by the number of advertisements for alcohol and tobacco products.  It really was a different time - an era when people with drinking habits which would now mark them down as alcoholics, such as Errol Flynn or John Barrymore, were considered heroic male role models for their antics.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Seasonal Signals

Christmas really must be just around the corner - it's the BBC Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday.  For as long as I can remember, it's been a big TV experience for me.  Not that I ever watch it, you understand.  No, it just marks the point in December when Christmas is close enough to put up decorations.  It goes back to my childhood, when the Sunday of the Sports Personality of the Year would be when my father got the tree and decorations down from the loft and we put them up.  Even during the many years when I didn't bother with seasonal decorations in my own house, that Sunday would always stir the old memories.  Nowadays, my minimalist decorations don't go up before the Sports Personality weekend. 

The other big TV signifier of Christmas being imminent when I was a kid was the appearance of the BBC's seasonal idents between programmes.  Traditionally, they didn't appear until Christmas week itself and we'd look forward to seeing what bizarre variation on the regular idents BBC1 would come up with every year.  To be honest, I don't think that the rotating Christmas pudding which replaced the then regular rotating globe of the world back in the early seventies has ever been surpassed.  Nowadays the Christmas idents seem to appear earlier and earlier in December - this year they've already been running for days - and are less and less imaginative.  This year's red background and Christmas card style robins and the like are probably the worst yet.  Still, at least the BBC still makes the effort.  I can't remember the last time ITV made any effort to produce decent seasonal idents. 

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stories That Never Were

Christmas is hurtling toward us like an oncoming express train and we stand, transfixed by its lights and power, directly in its path, unable to jump aside.  At least, that's how I've felt this last week, as I've tried to complete my Christmas shopping.  Late evening shopping after working late in the freezing cold is a bad combination, as I found yesterday.  Not that I allowed the consequent exhaustion to deter me from completing another story for The Sleaze.  Still not a Christmas themed story, I'm planning that for next week, but there's nothing wrong in staying topical, even in the run-up to Winterval.  Anyway, the story, Wage Slaves, also isn't the story I'd planned for this week.  For most of this year I've had this idea for a story involving President Obama, the 'birther' movement lunatics and time travel, tentatively titled Black in Time, but every time I've decided that I was going to write it up and post it, either I've been struck by another idea which is easier to develop into a story, or something happens in the real world I feel compelled to respond to with a new story.  Subsequently, the Obama story has been constantly bumped to 'next story' status.  I meant to write it last month, but the whole Nigella cocaine allegations broke and I came up with High Office, instead.  Then it was going to kick off December's slate of stories, but just didn't have the energy to write it up, so expanded a post from here into Queen of Hearts

I felt sure that Black in Time would finally see the light of day this week.  But then I did that piece here at Sleaze Diary about Workfare and modern slavery earlier this week and decided that would make the basis of a better and more topical story.    Now, with the Christmas story slated for next week, the time travel story has even lost its perpetual 'next story' status.  In fact, it isn't even 'next story but one', as I already have the story I want to kick 2014 off with planned.  So, will Black in Time ever see the light of day?  Well, it remains a strong possibility for publication sometime in January or February, but if it never happens, then it will join the ranks of those 'stories that never were' which haunt the dusty archives of The Sleaze.  Down the years I've abandoned or shelved a number of stories for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it is clear that they simply won't work.  Other times, they get postponed and their moment of topicality passes.  Sometimes I'm able to cannibalise ideas from them for new stories.  Nonetheless, many simply linger in my memory, never to see publication.  Falling into this category are Tales of the Sea, a story about mermaids which was quite advanced before being abandoned and a football transfer story involving Harry Redknapp which I eventually dropped for reasons of taste.  There are others which might yet come to fruition in some form, such as that story about disabled sex I've toyed with for years, or the political fan fiction idea, not to mention the Angry Men story.  Perhaps 2014 will be their year... 

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Work Unfair

"These poor people were being forced to work in the worst of conditions for next to no pay, it was absolutely disgraceful," Superintendent Charles Grinder of Middlesex Constabulary, following a series of raids on business premises in the Feltham and Sunbury areas as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged slavery offences.  "I have no doubt that we've broken up a vicious modern slavery ring, where down on their luck individuals have been trapped into hard labour schemes by unscrupulous and vicious organisations."  The premises raided included several branches of Poundland, Tesco and Primark, with at least thirty 'slaves' being taken away from them police and anti-slavery charities.  "These people, predominantly young, but including several in middle age, were being forced to work long hours, carrying out monotonous physical tasks, often allowed the most cursory of breaks, with their every action being closely monitored by overseers, or, as the 'employers' liked to call them, 'supervisors'," Grinder told a press conference.  "Any perceived 'slacking off' would be met with threats of punishment, principally the withdrawal of their pay - which was well below minimum wage.  In fact it was the same level as Jobseeker's Allowance, normally paid only to the unemployed!"   As well as being forced to endure forced labour, the rescued individuals were also found to be living in appalling conditions.  "They were typically living in unheated bedsits running with damp. All of the properties were in poor states of repair," the top cop explained.  "Many were subsisting on cheap past-its-sell-by-date food, others on cat or dog food."

Whilst no arrests have so far been made, Grinder assured the press that his force were hot on the trail of the organisation behind the slavery scheme.  "The companies whose premises we raided all claimed that they had been assured by the organisation supplying these 'workers' that it was all above board and legal," he explained.  "They also said that the organisation was 'heavily connected' and apparently 'protected' at the highest level."  The shadowy organisation in question has been tentatively identified by detectives as being called 'Workfare'.  "As far as we can make out, they recruit these people from the dole queues, when they are at their lowest ebb, with no money or prospects," Grinder claimed.  "They are given all sorts of promises of proper jobs at the end of their indentured service and told that it can be arranged for their benefits to be stopped if they don't comply.  However, our investigations are yet to uncover a single case where a 'Workfare' slave actually gained paid employment through this 'scheme'." Relatives of the rescued 'workers' have expressed their relief at finding that they are safe.   "He just seemed to vanish," Mrs Agnes Janks, whose twenty one year old son was found by police stacking shelves in a Feltham Poundland.  "He'd been claiming benefits since he'd lost his job with the council as a result of spending cuts. He was so depressed by the lack of work that when he disappeared, we feared that he'd topped himself. Then we heard that he was on some kind of 'work placement scheme', which sounded positive, but he never seemed to be home when we called. It now turns out they had him working all hours for no pay!  It's like some kind of cult!"  Grinder believes that his investigation was well on the way to identifying the individuals behind 'Workfare'.  "We've managed to get some names," he says.  "Apparently the 'Mr Bigs' at the top call themselves 'Smith', possible with the first names 'Ian' and 'Duncan'."

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Monday, December 09, 2013

Searching for Perfection

"The biggest problem with web search has always been the human factor," declares Google spokesperson Ezekiel Fring at a Mountain View press conference to introduce the company's new robotics initiative.  "People are simply unable to make logical judgements as to the quality of the sites brought up in any search result - then they blame the search engine because they end up clicking on some crappy site which infects their PC with malware or corrupts their children with porn."  The search giant's solution has been to develop a series of new robots to carry out searches for human users.  "These are autonomous units, uploaded with the latest in Artificial Intelligence, which not only will be able to type in the search terms on behalf of the searcher - using the most efficient and unambiguous wording for the query - but will also interpret the results for the user, clicking only on guaranteed high quality sites," explains Fring. "I suppose you could say that it is an actual, physical, Googlebot!"  The company aims to start producing the new robots next year, with the aim of getting one into every internet-connected home and workplace within a decade.

"We hope that by using our machine learning technology, over time the robots will be able to predict their hosts' search needs, carrying out searches and selecting sites before they even realise that they want to search for something," Fring enthuses. "Think of the time they will be able to save - with the robots even typing in the search terms, people will be able to save an average of two minutes a day!" Google's ultimate aim, apparently, is to make the search process perfect, removing any of the vagaries caused by human interaction with the search interface.  "Our research has shown that the biggest problem with web searches is that, left to their own devices, people search for the wrong things,"  opines Fring.  "By using our robots to, quite literally, take things out of their hands, we will be able to ensure that people only use the search terms which bring up the correct type of Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) - those which have a front page composed entirely of results from Amazon, eBay and YouTube, with the second page composed entirely of Blogger blogs recommending the sites on the first page, with everything surrounded by paid ads for the same sites.  These are the very definition of quality results - no ropey independent sellers or information sites trying to sell you or tell you something better, cheaper or different." 

Astonishingly, Fring claims that most of the web is, in fact, a complete waste of time.  "More than ninety percent of the sites out there are completely irrelevant - they aren't selling anything.  They are just full of obscure and esoteric information and opinions.  Either that, or they are trying to be entertaining - if you want entertainment, watch TV,"  he claims.  "For God's sake, most of them aren't even monetized with Google ads!  Why would anyone want to build a website which doesn't make them money?  More to the point, why would anyone waste time looking at them?  The main reason people go online is because they want to buy something and we need to ensure our SERPs reflect this.  It's what we've been trying to do with our algorithm changes over the past few years, but persisted in searching wrongly, meaning these non big-business sites kept getting traffic that rightfully belonged to the likes of Amazon.  The introduction of our search robots will, hopefully, correct this!"

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Friday, December 06, 2013

News Overload

Unlike every bloody z-list celebrity the TV news can dredge up, I'm not going to use the occasion of the great man's passing as an excuse to trot out my Nelson Mandela story again.  I've related it here before, so in the unlikely event that you are interested, you can search the blog for it.  Whilst Mandela's death has, rightly, taken up much time on TV and space in the newspapers, I'm afraid that I've been bogged down by more mundane matters.  There have finally been some developments in the ongoing eBay issues I mentioned yesterday - one of the items has finally turned up, two days later than expected, but at least it is here.  The other item is still missing and I've now been forced to raise the issue with eBay.  I'm currently awaiting the seller's response, although I doubt any will be forthcoming - I've found he has a bit of form for this sort of thing.  Not that I'm saying he's dodgy or anything, but he doesn't seem to have a lot of luck with the mail as they are forever losing stuff he posts. 

But getting back to the news, what a difference a week makes.  Last weekend, desperate to fill up the twenty four hour news services in the absence of any international crises, royal births or political assassinations, the media gleefully descended on Glasgow to give us continuous coverage of the helicopter crash there.  Of course, they didn't have any footage of the crash itself, which they would have loved and played on a loop, so instead they devoted hour after hour of footage of their reporters interviewing the same shell-shocked witnesses and victims over and over again.  Which seemed pointless as all they could tell us was that they were drinking in the pub, then a helicopter fell on it.  Which is what happened.  This is the sort of tragedy which is straightforward, with very few angles for the news to explore, so blanket coverage quickly becomes repetitive and pointless.  By contrast, this weekend they have two major stories - the death of Mandela and the storms battering parts of the UK.  The latter, which they were clearly gearing up to lead with and try to turn into a national crisis, have been pushed down the running order by the former.  All that rather tasteless footage of the reactions of homeowners to seeing their houses sliding into the sea has had to be relegated from Newsnight to the One Show.  If only a third big story had broken, these sad, intrusive and exploitative scenes might have been pushed off our screens altogether.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Testing Times

So here we are again, hurtling toward the end of the week.  To be honest, I won't be sorry to see the back of this particular week.  It's seen me having to waste time dealing with eBay 'sellers' who are happy to take my money but seemingly reluctant to actually send the goods, (oh, one of the two clowns says he's sent the items, but not even second class post takes nearly two weeks to arrive, particularly as he is only twenty miles away).  It is the sort of thing to put you off using eBay for good.  On the other hand I've had someone else claiming that they haven't been receiving stuff I've sent them and wanting me to fill in the forms in question and send them again.  And again.  However, after attaching a note to the latest version, telling them that I had no intention of filling in their forms again, I received an acknowledgement of receipt today.  On top of all that, the first half of this week saw some of the worst traffic for The Sleaze in over ten years, as Google referrals hit an all time low as they continued with their war against the web.  But today it started to pick up again.  Oh, and Spurs won last night.  Despite these developments its been a lousy week which has left me feeling exhausted.

None of which gets me any closer to posting about Boris Johnson and his call for people of low IQ to be gassed, which I've been meaning to talk about all week.  Not that he actually advocated the culling of society's less fortunate members in his Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher speech the other day.  Although he might as well have, judging by the reaction.  The problem was that, for a self-styled 'intelligent person', Boris failed miserably to get across his point, which was nothing more than the usual tired old reactionary mantra that economic and social equality is impossible as people themselves aren't equal in their innate qualities and abilities and that trying to help the less abled too much holds back the truly gifted.  Boris' mistake was in invoking the notion of IQ as a measurement of intelligence and then linking the possession of a higher IQ with material success.  The problem is that all an IQ test really measures is how good you are at taking IQ tests.  In reality IQ tests (and I've taken a few myself out of curiosity, yielding a range of scores from - as I recall - 131 to 120, none of which prove anything about my intelligence), are nothing more than middle class mental problem solving exercises.  Which some people might have an aptitude for, but others might not.  In truth, we all know that intelligence manifests itself in many different forms: a skilled motor mechanic, for example, might not be able to score highly at an IQ test or answer the questions on University Challenge, but, in addition to a range of manual skills, they'll be able to analyse complex mechanical problems, then rectify them.  Which requires a kind of intelligence which, say, an Oxford classics educated politician probably doesn't. 

As for Boris' complaint that the 'gifted' are somehow disadvantaged because the less abled are given so much help, I would say that it was idiotic and beyond contempt, but I think it needs addressing in a bit more detail, as it is an increasingly frequent right-wing whine used to justify cutting welfare and education spending.  Most obviously, it is contradictory - if these natural elites that Boris believes exist are truly 'gifted' than they don't need help to succeed.  Surely they are natural-born winners?  Indeed, based on my (admittedly limited) teaching experience, the most able students in any class were likely to succeed and achieve high exam grades regardless of how much attention I gave them in class.  In fact, I could have been the world's worst teacher and they would still have done well.  It is the average and weak students who need the help and encouragement.  They are the ones a good teacher can make a difference to by nurturing the abilities they have and showing them that they can overcome the things that hold them back - often just a lack of confidence - and achieve decent grades.  Not, perhaps, grades as high as the really gifted students, but still good grades.  Which brings us to the whole concept of 'success'.  Clearly, Boris thinks this is measured primarily in material terms.  However, most of us know that success is always relative, it can be measured by many different criteria, not just money and possessions.  Or even exam results.  Especially IQ test results.    

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Without Warning



I remember watching this on TV back when I was in my late teens.  I can't remember whether it was on video or it was being shown on TV - I suspect the latter.  I do remember that the version I saw was billed as simply The Warning, rather than Without Warning or It Came Without Warning, the titles it is more commonly shown under.  Regardless of the title, I also remember that I found it, if not actually frightening, then definitely somewhat unsettling.  This might be because of some strange shifts in tone, (for no good reason, there's a comic turn by Larry Storch as a scoutmaster early on, culminating in him being abruptly killed, for instance), or it could be because of the creepy atmosphere director Greydon Clark succeeds in conjuring up, despite his obviously low budget.  Then again, perhaps it is because you never seem to know where the movie is going to go next.

It starts out like one of those new-fangled (in 1980, at least) slasher movies, with its unseen killer and remote backwoods setting, where 'civilisation' consists of run-down filling stations and decrepit shacks, populated by assorted rednecks and hicks.  However, it quickly becomes clear that the killer is actually an alien come to earth for a hunting trip, with the local human population as its prey.  Yes, I know, that sounds like Predator.  But Without Warning predates that film by several years, although the actor playing the alien predator in both films is Kevin Peter Hall.  Whilst Predator may have had a bigger budget, name director and Arnold Schwarzenegger, it isn't necessarily the better of the two movies.  Without Warning is faster moving, less pretentious and, to be frank, scarier.  Whilst you never have any doubt that Arnie is going to beat that pesky alien and survive, while watching Without Warning for the first time it is by no means clear that the humans will triumph, let alone survive.  The body count is high and the victims sometimes surprising.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure Without Warning has to offer is watching its supporting cast of veteran character actors ham it up like crazy.  Jack Palance and Martin Landau give particularly over the top, but highly entertaining, performances, with exploitation regulars Neville Brand and Cameron Mitchell giving them a good run for their money.  Between them, they more than make up for the vapid juvenile leads.  It also has a reasonably decent monster, by the standards of the time, which the director wisely prevents us from seeing too clearly, which also has a unique way of killing its victims, by throwing flying organic discs at them, which eat the unfortunate target alive.  I must admit that it those discs which have lingered in my memory over the years.  All in all, Without Warning was, in my recollection, a pretty entertaining ninety minutes or so, certainly better than a lot of the contemporary low budget horror flicks I saw back then.   

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Monday, December 02, 2013

There's More...

Do you ever have those idle moments, often in the empty hours of darkness when sleep won't come, when your mind wanders to strange places, dredging up memories of times and personalities past?  I certainly do and, of late, I've found myself wondering whatever happened to Irish comedian Jimmy Cricket.  Back when I was in my late teens and early twenties, he seemed to be ever present on TV, appearing on everything from children's programmes to those Summer time variety shows they used to film at seaside resorts.  At the height of his success I seem to recall that the comic from the town of Ballygobackwards had his own TV show which co-starred Rory Bremner.  Whilst Bremner has gone on to become a much-lauded TV satirist and comedy royalty, Jimmy Cricket just seemed to vanish from our screens.  Maybe I stopped watching the kind of programmes he appeared in, certainly they stopped making a lot of them, but he just seemed to abruptly fall off of the radar. 

Today, unexpectedly, my question was answered by a stack of flyers by the free newspapers in Sainsburys.  As I walked away from the checkouts after doing my shopping earlier this evening, I spotted the flyers in question, advertising a live performance by Jimmy Cricket at a local theatre only a couple of streets from where I live.  It was ten quid to get in with part of the proceeds going to the 'Help for Heroes' charity.  Just to prove that it really was the Jimmy Cricket, the flyer even had a picture of him emblazoned on it.  Sadly, time doesn't seem to have been kind to him - he looked about a hundred years old.  Mind you, he was still wearing that battered hat and his  trademark gum boots.  Even sadder was the fact, when I looked more closely at the flyer, that the show had already come and gone - nearly a month ago, yet huge stacks of the publicity material was still there in the supermarket, completely ignored by shoppers who neither knew nor cared who he was.  He may not have been a great comic, but he surely deserves better than a Friday night slot at a provincial community theatre.

But the question remains: just how did he go from prime time shows on national TV to a small venue in Crapchester in a period of thirty years or so?  I guess the answer lies in the kind of material he was known for.  Back in the eighties you could still go a long way with the kind of mild, family-friendly gags he purveyed.  Despite the rise of alternative comedy, there were still plenty of people who wanted to see a 'character' stand up whose persona was that of an amiable and na├»ve small town Irishman engaging in traditional, but gentle, cultural stereotyping.  I suppose the attempt to yoke him together with someone like Rory Bremner indicated that even back then TV executives could see the writing on the wall and realised that the tide was running against acts like JImmy Cricket.  Certainly these days I doubt that there's an audience for his kind of comedy - TV and live venues seem to be full of more aggressive stand ups pushing more contemporary and 'edgier' material.  Assuming that Jimmy Cricket hasn't changed his material radically, (I'd hate to think of him coming on stage in his hat and welly boots effing, blinding and telling us about his problems with erectile dysfunction - 'I told her, don't go, there's more, really, there's more..' - for instance), I can't see him pulling in the big audiences any more.  I'd imagine that his main audiences these days are nostalgic middle aged gits like me.  That said, I'm not sure I'd be willing to pay a tenner to indulge my curiosity as to what happened to him...

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