Monthly Archives: February 2012

We want information

OK, question number one: who the hell is watching this?

At last count (this morning) I’d had over 47,000 hits. That’s treble the count of anything else I’ve done. In YouTube terms, of course, it’s chicken feed. The stats are gratifying, but it’s no Double Rainbow or Duck Song. There are days when I envy the creators of those videos and wish I could produce something that would genuinely go viral. And then I remember that YouTube is a big place and that everyone is shouting at once.

Still. It’s quite a lot for my little corner of the web. Laura – who works in my team – has a ready answer: “drunk students”. And she’s probably right. I don’t know why there is such a strong connection between attendance at an institution of higher education and a sudden urge to delve into the cupboards of nostalgia, or even contemporary viewing. Put another way, I have no idea why students went crazy for Teletubbies, except that to a certain extent the Teletubbies – who loafed in a communal household eating vast amounts of toast and custard (and apparently nothing else), sleeping excessively, watching too much TV, occasionally venturing outside for a spot of dancing or game of volleyball, babbling away in an indecipherable language and having to hire a cleaner to keep the premises tidy – were perhaps a better representation of student culture than anything from Ben Elton or even The Young Ones.

I actually asked Laura about this just now, and she associates it with being on the cusp of adulthood but not quite beyond adolescence, “which means you regress. It’s also about shared experiences with a new peer group, and finding those common bonds. Plus eighty per cent of the time you’re spending the morning sleeping off a hangover, so it’s that or Diagnosis Murder“. All of the above would explain why, some fifteen years ago (and still living at home, studying as I did in my home town) I had a Teletubbies poster on the study door. It would explain why Bagpuss is so  enduringly popular. It would also explain the viewing figures for this particular concoction. Or perhaps it doesn’t. Either way, it’s odd.

For a good while, Joshua had a thing about Numberjacks. It stemmed from an episode where he saw Numbers 3 and 5 become trapped inside a puzzle bubble, and at the time he was experiencing something akin to claustrophobic reactions (becoming deeply uncomfortable at several points near the end of Finding Nemo, for example). By the time this had passed, Daniel – his youngest brother – was also finding it slightly unpleasant, happy to sit in the lounge armchair and watch pretty much anything on CBeebies until the opening credits rolled, whereupon he’d request that the channel be changed. I have no idea why this is, except that it probably stems from the fact that Numberjacks is quietly creepy. There is something frightening about it, for all the offbeat slapstick. For one thing, there are numerous periods of quiet and silence and several pregnant pauses – an almost languid pace in today’s heady world of fast cuts and rapid plot development. (Have you seen Postman Pat recently? It’s like an action movie. It’s like watching The Transporter in Cumbria.) There’s also a refreshing lack of background music, which is nice.

For another thing, the villains are downright sinister. There’s Spooky Spoon, a shrieking anthropomorphic baking implement; the slimy freshly-picked-bogey that is the Problem Blob, and the calm, Simon Pegg-like Puzzler. Then there’s the Numbertaker, who looks like Simon Day from The Fast Show, dressed up for a cult funeral where everyone wears white. Even the Numberjacks themselves are a little bit freakish. And yet it’s extremely popular and I have to admit I enjoy it very much: the central problem-solving concept is well-explored, the stories are structured without becoming dull, and the fourth-wall-breaking at the end of each episode is quite effective. I also think there’s a market for an adult version of Numberjacks, complete with Pi, differentials and the occasional quadratic equation.

Such was our familiarity with Numberjacks (when you have three boys you sort of have to learn these things), it’s probably no wonder that when Emily and I finally sat down to watch The Prisoner at the beginning of last year, the connections were made almost instantly. To create a society when everyone is referred to solely by numbers…well, let’s just say the mashup was inevitable. And it’s surprising that no one had thought of it before – I think it was Emily who said “I am not a Numberjack, I am a free man!” (I’d favoured the more predictable “I’m a Numberjack and I’m OK”), and it was one of those quips I was sure would have been made in abundance already, but I could find comparatively little connection between The Prisoner and the Numberjacks online, which is an ideal opportunity for flag-planting, if you get in quick.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know my hang-ups with the overused ‘iconic’, but I am prepared to make a welcome exception for The Prisoner. It is wonderful, wonderful television – by turns baffling, captivating, innovative and groundbreaking. (It is impossible to truly appreciate the Austin Powers films without a working knowledge of the show.) It wasn’t afraid to deviate from its formula – see the western episode, for example – or resort to ridiculous plotlines for the sake of producing a decent hour of television (the bedtime story springs to mind). It was clever, funny, exciting (the first time we see Number Six trying to escape the Village is still extraordinary over forty years later) and decently performed. The final two episodes alone are extraordinary simply by virtue of being utterly different – a heavy-handed psychological war fought between Number Six and Number Two (and so horrible to film, apparently, that it gave poor Leo McKern a nervous breakdown, or a heart attack, depending on which version you read) – followed by the final instalment, which reveals absolutely nothing of any real value and which was received so negatively that Patrick McGoohan had to flee the country to avoid the mob. ‘Fallout’ is quite brilliant, in its own way, but I don’t pretend to understand it, and anyone who tells you he’s figured out what was going on is frankly telling you a whopping great lie.

Technically, this was an easy one to put together. It was just a question of matching the opening theme with a montage of the Numberjacks on their adventures (and synching the lightning with the ‘Brain Gain’ scenes). The trickiest part was sourcing enough wordless footage of Numberjack Six wandering around the suburban areas where the show’s action takes place. By sheer luck, I managed to find footage of him actually saying “Where am I?”, which matched up perfectly with McGoohan’s delivery in the much-quoted opening scene. The net result was quite satisfying, if a little off the wall. I played it to Gareth, who said that my only mistake was including Number One, “and he wasn’t even <massive spoiler>”. Which is a fair point.

Written feedback (i.e. user comments) has been scant and spam-like, and people generally seem to be confused. I can’t help thinking that the bulk of people viewing this are the folks looking up Numberjacks on YouTube, and then clicking on the related videos button and wondering what in the name of Holy Moses they’re watching. Which is fair enough. I think I had exactly the same reaction the first time I watched The Prisoner, and thus the world is as it should be. Be seeing you.

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Dalek Cake

Having just been trawling through the archives looking for photos for my new blog, I found this:

My wife’s made many fantastic cakes over the years, but I think this one may top them all…

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If Swiss Toni were the Doctor

“You know, Paul, being a Time Lord is a lot like making love to a beautiful woman. You start out by developing an unhealthy fixation on a young girl. Next, you get her fixated on you and make sure she follows you around everywhere. Then you bring happiness to the entire galaxy armed with nothing more than your sonic screwdriver. You flit around the bed of time until you find a position you’re happy to stay in. Then you finally reach your TARDIS….you slide her open….and my god, it’s bigger inside than you’d ever thought possible.”

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Strangers in a strange land

In a parallel universe somewhere, Bjork and Kate Bush were lovers. Somehow they managed to combine their DNA and produce a child, whom they named Natasha Khan. The child then found its way back through to our dimension and, under the nom de plume of Bat For Lashes, she hit the charts. The rest is history.

Bat For Lashes first came to my attention back in 2009, after the birth of our third child – who shares names with the Ivor Novello-winning ‘Daniel’. It was, quite frankly, a better song than the number one hit on the day he was born, Calvin Harris’s ‘I’m Not Alone’ (I know Harris has his fans but I’ve frankly never understood the fuss). I’ve made a point of buying physical copies of the number one records that correspond to all three of our sons’ birth dates – Joshua, back in 2005, had the dubious honour of being paired with ‘Ghetto Gospel‘, a stretched-to-breaking-point vocal from the long-deceased Tupac Shakur re-edited by Marshall Mathers and paired with cuts from an old Elton John song. (That was the summer that a certain remix of ‘Axel F’ hit the top spot for weeks, and I maintain to this day that the reason Josh was two weeks late was because he didn’t want to be associated with that fucking frog for the rest of his life.)

A couple of years later, Thomas was born under an Umbrella. Ella. Ella. Eh? Eh? Eh? You get the picture. (Icture. Icture. Ict. Ict. Ict.) That song was everywhere. It really shouldn’t make me cry, but it does. I have my reasons, and they were threefold. But whatever the banality of some of the tripe that made number one, when Calvin Harris hit the top spot, I confess to feeling a little disappointed that Daniel had to be born to such a nondescript record – this despite the fact that the number one spot and the singles chart in general mean bugger all these days – and was therefore relieved when my sister-in-law suggested this as an unofficial replacement, even though it only peaked at number thirty six (which simply proves that the majority of the singles-buying public have no taste).

Now, cut to last year, when through circumstances I can’t remember – probably a sale – I wind up acquiring both Fur and Gold and its follow-up, Two Suns. Both have their merits, although it’s the latter that I prefer, feeling as it does like the album Natasha Khan wanted to make first time around. There’s less tinkly piano and more use of synths (God, she’s even developing like Kate Bush). There’s a schizophrenic theme running through, or at least an alter ego. It’s a crazy, mixed-up record. I play it, and I play it again, and then again. One song in particular, ‘Two Planets’, makes me sit up: its bold percussive texture, omitting the crucial bass line and not suffering as a result, is extraordinarily reminiscent of key tracks from Hounds of Love (a record we’ll come back to in a few weeks). And the very first time I hear this, driving home from work, I am suddenly struck by a flood of images from Doctor Who.

The album’s cover is a deep, resonant blue, and for some reason I have applied this same colour to Matt Smith’s 2010 season. I have no idea why this is except to say that a mooted, almost mournful feel seems to take hold. Every season has, I think, a different colour: Martha’s was green. Eccleston’s was fiery orange. Last year’s was rust – dealing with, as it did, the desert and a dead Doctor. As someone who typically thinks aurally, rather than visually, it baffles me that I occasionally come to these sorts of conclusions (although presumably if you were to examine them closely, you’d find they simply didn’t work). I’m not suggesting that the directors are tinting everything in sepia like in Traffic. But there seem to be recurring colour schemes, although perhaps they’re in my head as much as anything else. You see what you want to see.

Anyway: I cut and re-cut and eventually came up with something resembling a montage – one that came together faster than anything else I’ve done but one that even today I’m not totally happy with. It feels like the pacing is a bit off. Looking back I’m not convinced that the song choice was quite right; there are gloriously appropriate lyrics within it that marry quite well with the visuals, but I relied on fewer quick cuts than I have in the past, and there are times when I wish the whole thing would hurry up a bit. It feels sluggish and amateur. At the same time, I think it fits thematically, because the lyrics are an eye-opener:

Show me moonlight on the sunrise
I’ve seen so many planets dancing
I’ve seen too many people hiding
Show me sunset and I won’t forget
That I am one of two planets dancing
I am part of two planets dancing

Shallow man!
Sign your name
On my sun!

The song of Solomon
Died in the battleground
The song of Solomon
Died in love’s battleground

I am full
Shattered by this sailing time
For all your suffering by night
Oh warm, but under bright
And life is so much dark and light
When day cannot exist without a night
And you are not separate from me
I am a heart that’s full of life

And to be shared
On this night
Feel my hands
Feel my life
For the Sun
And the stars
Are my Mother
And my sister
I know where the form is changing
I know that the stars will follow me

At first I suppose the second and third lines, taken literally, reminded me of the Doctor, and that may be where all this came from. And I didn’t realise at the time, but it basically seems to be the story of Amy, at least during her first season (before she became less interesting), and so it was a quirkily appropriate, if imperfect union. But who said marriage had to be perfect?

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Up Pompeii

“Volcano Day”, courtesy of Joshua. The brown things chasing the Doctor are werewolves and the green thing on the top is the Absorbaloff. There is a Dalek there as well if you look.
 
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From the Archives #5

Tuesday, January 11th 2011

“No wonder I can’t clean this wall properly. This isn’t pencil, it’s a crack.”
“Ah.”
“That’s funny, it seems to be glowing. I hope neither of our two children find this.”
“Two? Don’t you mean one?”
“What was that? Listen, I wanted to talk to you while we’re both here. We’ve been married six years now, and I really think it’s about time we thought about starting a family.”
“Well, we could always get a cat.”

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The Gold Road

Something for Valentine’s Day…

I may be misremembering the classic series, but it strikes me that the new Doctors – particularly Tennant – are far more hands on than their predecessors. It helps that Tennant’s Doctor, despite his occasional cockiness, was a very human character. This was also the age of the Russell T. Davies soap approach, where every companion was embroiled in a story of unspoken love / unrequited love / love in denial. (I’m being a little unfair to the Doctor / Donna story, really, which – despite once more placing the companion at the centre of the universe, thereby negating our ability to relate to them – was one of the less irritating series arcs. The recurring “Oh no, we’re not a couple” gags were tiresome, but they were a darn sight better than Freema Agyeman’s incessant sulking.)

Actual moments of romance were (out of necessity) few and far between, and that’s as much a trait of the series in general as it is of the Doctor. I actually wonder if there’s a rule book somewhere in the dim and misty archives of the BBC (you know, the room where Terry Wogan did Auntie’s Bloomers) that dictates the Laws of Time:

  • The Doctor’s real name must never be announced. Never. We will at some point throw in ‘Theta Sigma’ as an old college nickname because some people will probably be stupid enough to think that’s who he really is.
  • If the Doctor kisses anyone, it doesn’t really count. (cf. ‘Journey’s End’, where the kiss is performed by a human Doctor clone, ‘, or ‘Family of Blood’, where he’s lost his memory.) The Doctor himself, on the other hand, may be kissed by someone else for awkward comic relief effect, as often as necessary.
  • The Doctor must never, ever be played by an actor who looks better with / is synonymous with having a beard. (And no, ‘The Leisure Hive’ doesn’t count.)

Anyway. Leaving aside the romantic slush, have you noticed the bear hugs? There are a lot. I mean an awful lot. There are comedy hugs, unnecessary hugs, farewell hugs laced with dramatic irony, bittersweet hugs, hugs that you really want to see develop into something else and hugs that you frankly didn’t want to see at all (Jack? I’m looking at you. Now sit down and put it away). Doctor Who has become very dark over the years, but there are moments of light and fluffiness, and when you put them all together it’s a bit like chomping through an economy size bag of Haribo: over in a flash, because they’re so compulsively moreish, but you feel sick afterwards.

About twelve years ago I was doing hospital radio. Our status as a registered charity meant we could play more or less what we wanted, within certain ethical parameters, and one of my favourite records to play on a Saturday was ‘Thank You For Being A Friend’ (notably used as the theme from ‘The Golden Girls’), which at the time I absolutely adored. It took a few years of detachment for me to realise that it’s a dreadful, dreadful song – it’s almost inconceivable that the man who could have penned ‘Lonely Boy’ could have come up with something so dire. (I actually blogged about this quite extensively some years back, so there’s no point going into my particular hang-ups again.) But when I was twenty and naïve, it was the best song in the world. At some point I went off it, and the CD then spent the best part of a decade on its shelf, sandwiched between Genesis and Goldfrapp, a safe distance away from anything that could turn those little bits of data into recognisable sound.

Then, when Andrew Gold died last year (somewhat prematurely, at the tender age of 59) I listened to it again, and realised it held a certain kitsch value. It’s nicely produced and competently performed; it’s just the sentiment I can’t stand. At the time I was in the middle of another Who video – that’ll come next week – but I suddenly had the idea of combining two different types of cheese. Because it strikes me that the Barney-like hugging of the family-friendly Whoniverse that Tennant’s Doctor inhabits – encompassing a whole network of allies and spinoff shows – was perfect for a montage. As a result this was extremely easy to put together, at least in terms of finding suitable clips, because it was just a question of forwarding through to the end of each episode, which is when the mushy stuff invariably happens.

Andrew Gold’s back catalogue is owned by the UMG, and their somewhat draconian stance on copyright meant that I originally couldn’t post this on YouTube, because it was blocked worldwide. I have thus placed it on Viddler instead, as recently as this evening when I uploaded a new version that got rid of a couple of old glitches that annoyed me. Looking at it again, I’m conscious that it didn’t actually start out as a love story – that was never my intention – but in some respects that’s basically what it became. A bit like my life, really. Happy Hallmark Day.

Edit, 3 Feb 2013: the UMG copyright stance appears to have shifted somewhat – I had a go at uploading this yesterday, purely on a whim, and it got through! The link has been updated as a result.

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Lego garden party

It may be winter outside. But in my heart it’s midsummer. Here’s what we did with our afternoon. (Rarely do I post the same thing in more than one blog, but tonight I’m making an exception.)

"You are a sad, strange little man. Well, two out of three."

Pete the Prospector gets down and funky

"I'm sorry Gordon, but I'm rather busy right now."

Joshua stuck this one on the pillar at the edge; it was only later I realised it bore an uncanny resemblance to Nelson's Column.

Out in the Styx

So now you know.

The ice bucket

The Peace Garden

Legolas Greenleaf

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Dalek Zippy

I always iron in front of the TV. This is because ironing is a therapeutic but monotonous task and I need some sort of stimulus. We don’t watch much of the tube (I really should stop calling it that; it seems hideously out of date, even though we still own a CRT TV) in our household, at least not in terms of collapsing in front of it of an evening; we’re more likely to play a game or chat over a takeaway. Exceptions are made for 24, The X-Files (or any other boxed serial we happen to be watching) and Doctor Who – and, for a few horrifying years, The X-Factor.

One evening last spring I was working my way through the extras for ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. The DVD bonus features for the 2 Entertain sets are generally great – whimsical, nostalgic and insightful, lacking the self-congratulatory air of the more recent stuff and pulling relatively few punches about the sort of problems the team would routinely encounter when producing episodes, whether it was Hinchcliffe coming under fire from Mary Whitehouse or Baker upstaging Louise Jameson. They’re fun and snappy and clever. (I recommend, in particular, the in-character interview with Sutekh the Destroyer in ‘Pyramids of Mars’, which someone has thoughtfully uploaded to YouTube.)

One of the extras in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is a potted history of the eponymous monstrosities, from design to execution to evolution, along with occasional dialogue masterclasses led by Roy Skelton. Skelton became synonymous with the Nation’s finest (you see what I did there?) in the 1970s and 80s, but anyone who watched children’s TV during this time will also recognise his name from the credit crawl for Rainbow, a show which catalogued the adventures of three anthropomorphic animals (a hippo, a bear, and a…whatever) who seemed to have taken on the role of foster children with obviously troubled backgrounds, now living with a patient father substitute with ridiculous dress sense. Throughout Rainbows long and memorable run, Skelton managed to voice both George and Zippy, often more or less at the same time, in a staggering feat of almost schizophrenic voicing, by turns making himself sound wet and effeminate, and then immediately brash and boastful depending on who he was doing at the time.

The funny thing about the ‘Genesis’ interviews is that when Skelton is doing his Dalek voice, minus the filters and the sound effects and the omnipresent hum that seems to pervade the ships and lunar bases that housed them in the TV series, he really does sound exactly like Zippy. Specifically Zippy when he’s playing a character in some fanciful game he may have invented – like the memorable episode where he dressed up as Zipman (with George playing Bobbin, the Boy Blunder), fighting against the evil Joker Geoffrey. (Watch it after you’ve watched this one, though, otherwise it’ll spoil one of the punch lines.) The Dalek voice is tinged with monotone, lacking some of Zippy’s rising and falling cadences – nonetheless, the raspy extrovert is there for all to hear and it’s quite apparent that he modelled the Zippy voice on the Dalek voice, or perhaps the other way around; we may never know.

So this set me thinking: what would the Daleks sound like if we took out their voices and dubbed them over with Zippy’s dialogue? Fortunately I had a lot of it. I will make no apology for the fact that the purchase of every single one of our numerous Rainbow DVDs pre-dates the birth of all three of my children. I got very nostalgic for old TV just after the millennium turned and all the shows that I watched in the afternoons after school or on lunch breaks during the holidays started coming out on DVD. Sometimes when you delve into these things again you find they’re not as good as they are in your head (as I recently experienced when I picked up a copy of The Family Ness in our local 99p shop, and found it a bit of a disappointment), but Rainbow – trust me on this – was every bit as good as I remembered it, with a formulaic approach that left plenty of breathing space for occasional variation.

There was only one obvious candidate for the Zippy re-dub, and that was ‘Destiny of the Daleks’. As Dalek stories go, it’s distinctly sub-par. Lalla Ward is as watchable as she ever was, particularly as it was her first story in the Romana role, and Tim Barlow lends decent support as Tyssan, but the Movellan robots are laughably camp, the story is inconsequential and the revived Davros is a huge let-down. The bad taste in the mouth was perhaps almost inevitable when you consider that the last time we saw Daleks was ‘Genesis’, which is arguably the finest Doctor Who story of them all, and certainly the best Dalek one – but really, Terry had five years to come up with something new, and you’d really think he could have done better than this (even if Douglas Adams, script editor at the time, rewrote most of it and may arguably have been more responsible for the mess we saw on screen). For all that, there are a couple of memorable moments – Romana’s interrogation at the hands of the Daleks in the second episode is chilling (despite the fact that all they actually say when they capture her is “DO NOT MOVE”, repeated for about a minute and a half) and despite all its flaws, the serial is arguably worth watching in its entirety purely for the scene in which the Doctor hoists himself up into a vent and mocks the approaching Dalek with the words “If you’re supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don’t you try climbing after us?”.

The longest job I had was going through every single Rainbow episode to lift appropriate soundbites. Zippy is forever spouting obnoxious boasts and singing ridiculous songs and there was an abundance of suitable material, but chopping out the .wav files took ages (although I did manage to rip out the Rod, Jane and Freddy songs at the same time for an iPod playlist). After that, I dumped them all in over some appropriate moments in ‘Destiny’, added a little ambient noise where it was needed, re-edited the thing (there’s no narrative progression, it was just a question of sequencing for pace and variety) and threw together a patchy reproduction of the Rainbow credit sequence to finish it off. I basically threw the whole thing together in an evening, although it was rather a late one. I uploaded in May 2011, and that was that.

Then Roy Skelton died.

I wouldn’t say it went viral. ‘Going viral’ is one of those terms that gets bounded about far too often and in the wrong contexts, much like iconic (which I’ve whined about before). But the hit counter went from a couple of hundred to over five thousand more or less overnight, and I got all manner of positive comments and a brief mention in the August WhoTube listings in Doctor Who Magazine. And then things settled down again, although it remains one of my most viewed concoctions, and perhaps rightly so – I really am quite proud of it. Someone even added a ring mod filter to make Zippy sound more Dalek-like (something I’d experimented with, but without much success), and it’s quite clever, but I suppose I’m always going to prefer the original – it’s the juxtaposition of Zippy and the Daleks that makes it work, I think, and I do think they sound even more frightening now. I’d never intended this to be a tribute to Skelton but that’s basically what it’s become, and perhaps it’s better that way – the man was a genius and we really ought to recognise that. I don’t expect for a moment that he saw this before his death, but I hope he would have approved.

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Is it just me? #4

Emily spotted this one.

Categories: Is it just me? | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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