Monday, March 27, 2017

5 Things I Loved This Week

I've become a believer in praising what you want to see more of in the world. If I've enjoyed something I'll try and tell the person behind it. Because....

- Creative types are stereotyped as praise-guzzling egomaniacs but more often are shy worrywarts who put heaps of work into something and are anxious about how it's received.

- People assume others are doing the praising. Often nobody is. 

- Sometimes they tweet back! (I know this is not cool but I am not cool.) 

- It's a nice thing to do.

In the spirit of sharing great stuff here are 5 things I bloody loved this week.


1 Edith Bowman's podcast 'Soundtracking' where she chats to directors about the music used in their films. It's that simple but Edith makes it brilliant. She's clearly done her homework on each director's filmography and they in turn clearly love joining her for a deep nerdy dive into the choices they agonised over but often nobody appreciates. 

'Kong: Skull Island' director Jordan Vogt-Roberts said it was one of the most enjoyable conversations he's had in a long time - further specifying he didn't just mean while doing press junkets, he meant in life. I particularly recommend Edith's recent joyful catch-up with Edgar Wright which just went up this week. 

If you're a fan of films you'll love it. If you're a fan of music you'll love it. If you're a fan of good conversation you'll love it. 

2 A few years ago over pints at the BBC, 'Harlots' (Hulu, ITV Encore) co-creator Alison Newman quietly tipped me off that she had a great wee idea stirring for a drama but wouldn't be drawn further. 

At the time she was trying to track down Lucy Beale's killer as DI Samantha Keeble. Keeble failed (damn you Bobby!) but Alison has far more bloody-minded determination. She and Moira Buffini have turned a spark of fascination with the hidden history of 18th century prostitution into a hugely acclaimed series. 

As you'd expect from a lavish drama, the cast is impressive (including Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, and Jessica Brown-Findlay of 'Downtown' fame) and every costume and location is on point.  But 'Harlots' doesn't feel for a second like a politely dull but worthy costume drama. This 18th century is fresh, colourful and new (as it should be, most dramas seem to forget that the clothes and houses were brand new at the time). Packed with rivalry, bitchiness, sex, lust and backstabbing, this is not your gentle bookish Sunday night viewing, it's gripping gutsy telly. 

Judging from my housemates gasps & curses at characters (she watches telly like an American watches the Super Bowl) this is going to be huge. Probably best not to watch it with your mum though (there's lots of thrusting and wobbly bits). 

3 Bowing out this week was series 2 of 'The Great Pottery Throw Down' or 'Pots Win Prizes' as it blatantly should have been called. Like 'The Great British Bake Off', which it will forever be compared with, Pottery Throwdown beavered away in the background for the first series before really hitting its stride and capturing the Twitter audience in the second. 

Like Bake Off, the magic is in the casting - the contenders are all likeable, quietly quirky (but not in a 'I'm mad me!' way), impressively talented, and do care for each other (when Elaine left Nam sadly reflected "Elaine is the only one who actually took care of me..."). 

Unlike Bake Off there's a thumping soundtrack of 1960 British rock, a male judge who will cry if a plate feels nice, and with Sara Cox presenting there are cheeky nods to the obvious innuendos (rims, bottoms, handles being 'well hung') but it feels far less self-conscious. 

The finale has played and the winner declared but catch up on iPlayer if you missed out. I promise you will not look at a mug handle the same way ever again. 

4 'Walking music' doesn't sound like much of a compliment but for years The XX have been my soundtrack to aimless wandering whilst feeling big profound emotions about nothing in particular. They carved out their own distinct line in ambient tunes to muse to - so much so that for me their second album felt just that bit too similar to the first. 

I expected their third album 'I See You' would be yet more of the same but instead it's proved a quick addiction and I would wager their best yet. There's still the distinctive XX sound with Romy and Oliver's vocals dancing in and over each and it does move at the pace of hungover soul shuffling from the sofa to kettle, but the album feels much more robust  - there's more muscle in the flesh. Or to put it another way, it's damn catchy. 

5 'Yoga with Adriene' also comes recommended as Caitlin Moran's YouTube tutorial of choice and has been my weedy body's saviour. After decades of avoiding public exercise for fear that I'll be utterly shite at it, this easy home yoga series has helped me feel that my body isn't entirely defective. It's just a bit lazy and non-stretchy.

Adriene is a perky and insanely positive Texan yoga instructor and actor. I know, how insufferable does she sound already? BUT trust me you'll love her. She guides with a laid-back encouraging attitude and occasional tangents into rap, pop or a TV reference she can't quite remember (one of her more frequent phrases is 'Okay...shuttup Adriene'). 

Last year I tried her 30 day challenge and made it to the heady heights of Day 6 before jacking it in, this year I'm at Day 18 and counting - and that's mostly down to the fact that Adriene doesn't make me feel like a useless dolt when I fail. She will stretch you both literally and figuratively but won't frustrate you. 

You will never stand up without hearing 'head over heart, heart over pelvis' again. 

Anything you loved this week you'd like to share?

I'm on Twitter @theRoryJohn

Saturday, March 25, 2017

How Simon Amstell Changed My Sandwich

I do not have a fond history with Simon Amstell. A few years ago he got irked with me (& the rest of the audience) for not laughing on cue. 

Simon repeatedly reminded us that his live-recording of a show was not for really for those of us who had paid to be there but for a future DVD audience. He berated us for not laughing in the same spots when he lost his place in the script and repeated his jaunty off-the-cuff anecdotes over and over. And over. And over. 

This week he changed my life. Or rather this week he temporarily changed my options when I go to Pret. 

His mock-umentary 'Carnage' arrived on BBC iplayer. It's set in a 2067 where humans choosing to eat animals is a long forgotten shame. Talking heads and a mixture of fake and real footage charts our meat obsession over the last century and how we eventually woke (or will wake) to the magic of a salad bowl. 

When I hear vegan, mostly due to a few bad egg(plant)s, I think of a droning bore who clings to a holier-than-though label to compensate for a very apparent lack of personality/humour/success. While they profess to being on planet-saving mission I suspect they dread veganism becoming the norm as that would mean they don't have their quirky better-than-everyone 'thing' any longer. They would *gasp* be the same as everyone else. Just duller. Until they find a new thing that everyone else does wrong.

But 'Carnage' isn't hectoring or virtue-trumpeting, it looks at society from an outside perspective and says 'hang on lads, is this insane?'. 

Real clips taken out of context hammer this home in a light but oh-shit-we-are-weirdos way. One sees Gordon Ramsay and friends enjoying the sight of sheep frolicking about a garden and musing "I DO think happy meat tastes better". Another sees Nigella Lawson casually cracking a chicken's skeleton and putting the dead bird in her oven, seen from the year 2067 as resembling "a documentary about a lunatic". 

I've always felt that eating meat is a moral choice but have wimped out from owning that choice with various excuses such as 'I love fried chicken', 'There's not enough other options', and 'Seriously though fried chicken is yum'. But after watching the documentary I've decided to try a little experiment and instead of running from meat in horror I'll just see if life is easily survivable for a week or two without it. A positive choice to see what else is on the menu. 

So a few days in and I'm taking baby-steps by going meat-free but not completely dairy-free (dammit I need that cheese) and am surprised by how easy it's been. There's loads of alternatives and they don't all taste like mushed grass. Without milk, coffee doesn't churn heavily in my stomach, I feel lighter after meals but admittedly a lot hungrier by bedtime - which is okay as you can pretty much eat as much as you like, so long as what you're eating didn't once have a face. 

All in all, it's a piece of piss. Roll on 2067. 

Preview of next week's blog: F**k it fried chicken is good. 

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn

Saturday, March 18, 2017

22 Things You May or May Not Know About Siobhan Fahey

This month marks 25 years since Shakespears Sister reached the UK & Ireland number 1 with this wonderful wailing power ballad.

The video was reportedly banned in Germany for promoting witchcraft (??) and those who were younger at the time (which is everyone who was alive) will remember that how mesmerising, dangerous, dark, powerful and demonic Siobhan Fahey looked in the video. 

If she was a witch (and she wasn't, she was an Angel of Death) then she was equal parts terrifying and alluring. You would be easily tempted into her gingerbread house for a piss-up even knowing she was going to eat you and wash you down with Strongbow & Ribena.

Afrer falling down a internet hole of exploration and appreciation, here's my quick tribute to this trailblazing no-fucks-given Irish rebel.

Below are 22 things you might already know about her but perhaps don't. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Dark Truth behind 'Row Your Boat'

A supposed human family live above my new home. A mum, dad, toddler, and baby. 

Through the ceiling they sound to all the world like the Honey Monster reenacting a WWE Smackdown between Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker, but I was assured they are actual civilised-ish human beings. Then I saw one. 

I caught first sight of the mum as she ambled past my window with the youngest in a buggy. She was singing - 

"Row, row, row your boat, 
Gently down the river, 
If you see a polar bear, 
Don't forget to shiver."

Inhuman! I was outraged on two levels. 

- Windows are a two-way system. You may stop to peer in at me as you sing your ditty, but notice how my eyes are fixed in the direction of your face. That's me seeing you. I am watching you do this. You don't know how windows work. 

- Those are not the lyrics. You're child will be mis-informed and will only realise your rogue nursery rhyme antics when it comes up during a quirky student pub chat 20 years hence. Your child will undoubtedly come to resent you as much as I do. 

The nursery rhyme 'Row Your Boat' is precious to me on two levels. 'Rowtheboat' is my dad's nickname for me because the first syllable of my name is 'Ro'. Very well thought-through and witty, as are all dad's nicknames for kids. 

Then there's the underlying message. I think 'Row Your Boat' is second to none when it comes to nursery rhymes with a powerful philosophical thrust. Even more so than that battle cry of socialism 'Baa Baa Black Sheep'* 

"Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, 
Life is but a dream."

The rhyme is presenting us with a cold and bold wake-up call; Reality is not real.  

It does not matter what you do in this world because reality itself is a mirage. Keep paddling away down that stream trying to get to wherever you think you're going but ultimately it's pointless. There is no end destination. 

One could dip headlong into existential despair at the realisation we are taking part in a elaborate farce but the rhyme offers another solution - go merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life may be meaningless but fuck it, have some fun as you slip downstream. 

And this the mum upstairs substituted with a highly-doubtful polar bear sighting on a river!? The 'neighbours from hell' saga has just begun... 

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn

*Notice how despite the signalled power structure, the master, dame, and little boy who lives down the lane are all treated as equally deserving in the eyes of the black sheep. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Disney's Death Obsession

Another wild weekend of mine rolls from hard-lived reality into the stuff of whispered legend. Future biographers will feast on tales of how I occasionally checked if the socks on the clothes-horse were dry yet whilst watching 'Cinderella' on Netflix. 

It's another one of those Disney's live-action money-churners which I'm quietly intrigued by but never so much so to spend 15 quid on a cinema ticket (I won't forgive you 'Malificent'). Again it features a simperingly perfect Pollyanna lead but is worth a watch for Cate Blanchett alone. 

She is a deliciously camp flash of evil but never strays into hammy pantomime. This arch villainess could become cartoony but instead we get an understandable human - a bitter twisted grasping human, but a human. With great clothes. 

What also struck me was the aggressive amount of parental death chucked at the audience. Elle's beloved mother dies but luckily she has a loving and stable father, who then dies. Meanwhile Prince Kit's mother is presumably already dead, and so he only has his beloved father, who promptly dies. The lesson seems to be 'if you love your parents they will die'. A comfort to any child.

Of course we have learned to brace ourselves for this kind of thing in a Disney film. 

For instance: Simba's father is trampled to death in 'The Lion King', Bambi's mother is shot dead, Tarzan's parents are eaten by a leopard and his adoptive father is shot dead, Shan's father killed in battle in 'Mulan', Quasimodo's mother beaten to death in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', both Cinderella and Snow White's mothers are dead, Tiana's dad is killed at war in 'The Princess and the Frog', Tod's mum is hunted down and killed in 'The Fox and the Hound',  Lilo's parents were killed in a car-crash in 'Lilo and Stitch', Arthur has no parents in 'The Sword and the Stone', Ariel's mum is dead in 'The Little Mermaid', Belle's mum is not mentioned in 'Beauty and the Beast' and she's held captive away from her father, Cody's dad is dead in 'The Rescuers Down Under', the parents drown in 'Frozen'  Mogli's mum was killed by Shere Khan in 'The Jungle Book', Dumbo's mum was locked up for supposed mental health problems, and more recently in 'Big Hero 6' both the hero's parents are dead. 

So what's that about?

I'm very far from the first person to notice Disney's mummy-death obsession and there's a great article on 'Hopes & Fears' here outlining the main theories. The most frequently raised is that Walt Disney was acting out his guilt over the death of his own mother. He bought his parents a swanky new home in Hollywood, but a year later his mum died by breathing fumes from a faulty furnace. Walt reportedly never forgave himself. 

Hmm. The issue there is that most Disney's stories are adaptations of stories written hundred of years before that faulty furnace. It may have been a subconscious personal fixation for Walt but to be fair, fairytales and fables have been bumping off parents since writing began. 

It's a simple story need. Stories are about change and parents represent stability. This is not just a Disney issue, Luke Skywalker, Oliver Twist, Annie, Dorothy Gale and Harry Potter are all orphans who follow the same route to independence. 

For our main character to grow they have to be thrust into a state of change. The archetypal story follows a hero as they go from stable contentment to a fragile state of uncertainty, to overcoming these fears and obstacles and becoming triumphant and self-sufficient. This is the outline of many stories because it's the outline we tell ourselves about life itself. It's one story we all relate to. 

If parents are in the story then the hero has no reason to tackle the world alone. We need death of stability as the catalyst for growth. 

As Disney producer Don Hahn says "One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They're about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. In shorthand, it's much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi's mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It's a story shorthand."

It does sound darkly morbid but if that uplifting story is going to work, there has to be a parental bloodbath.  

I'm on Twitter @theroryjohn