Saturday, 21 May 2011

"Gradually Japan will revive itself"

Not exactly comedy but worth a look...

Two months after the earthquake, Japan-watchers are beginning to make their predications about the country’s recovery. Bill Emmott, former Tokyo correspondent for
The Economist, recently visited the Tohoku region to investigate the prospects for himself. He was struck by the speed at which some disaster victims returned to work and carried on with their lives.

In contrast, the disaster has highlighted the slow pace of Japanese politics. Major spending for the reconstruction effort will require cross-party support but Emmott doubts that Prime Minister Kan has the authority to build consensus.

“I could imagine a grand coalition under a different leader or after another general election,” he said. With the next election scheduled for August 2013, Japanese politicians are in no rush to compromise for the good of the electorate.

Fortunately, the electorate is willing to make sacrifices. Opinion polls respondents say that they will accept higher taxes to finance reconstruction but Emmott fears that tax hikes will discourage consumer spending and hinder the recovery. He recommends a ‘deferred tax,’ where the government issues bonds now and raises taxes in a year or so.

At the same time, Emmott says: “an environment where people are willing to pay higher taxes could be one where established workers would be willing to have reform to their labour rights.”

His previous work has indicated that Japan’s employment situation – whereby veteran employees notch up high wages on permanent contracts, while new entrants to the labour market struggle to find even low-paid temporary work – is a barrier to growth. The reconstruction effort could provide a premise for labour law reforms but Emmott suspects that this will not be a priority.

Despite the political obstacles, Emmott is optimistic about Japan’s economic future. “Even gradual reforms will give Japan a chance to revive itself,” he remarks.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Armando Interview-cci

I stole a few words with the writer of The Thick of It, Alan Partridge and Time Trumpet in the ITV press centre just before the first live TV debate between the leaders of the three main political parties. It was a big day for democracy and an even bigger day for comedy.

Why do you think that we’ve finally got to the stage where Brown has given in and we can have these debates?

When people are in the lead they never agree to a debate but I think he thought he had nothing to lose. It was one of those strange situations where he was so far behind that he thought it might be worth a gamble. He might regret it. The great thing is that once that decision is made you can’t unmake it. Once the debates have started, it will be very difficult in four or five years time to come back from that.

Who do you think has got the potential to be the funniest? Who will get the most laughs?

Well, according to the rules, I’m not sure if the audience is allowed to laugh. Who is funniest? I don’t think Cameron’s very good at jokes. I think people will be surprised if Brown comes out with jokes. That's probably his secret weapon. One joke.

Are you here picking up ideas for the next series of The Thick of It?

I’m here to witness the mechanics of how it all works. I’m not so much here for the debates but for the aftermath in 90 minutes time when [Peter Mandelson, George Osborne and Danny Alexander – senior cabinet and shadow cabinet representatives of the three parties –] swoop on all the journalists and claim that their guy won. It’s spin alley. This has never happened before so no one quite knows how to do it. The rules are being formulated as we speak.

Who do you think will come out best from tonight’s debate?

It could well be Nick Clegg, simply because not many people know anything about him. As long as he doesn’t make an arse of himself, just by dint of being human and still standing at the end, that might impress people.

Spookily, most of his predictions played out. Perhaps that just shows how scripted these little debates are or how wonderfully perceptive Armando Iannucci is. I’m so looking forward to seeing Malcolm Tucker spin his way out of a terrible debate result. Ollie and Glenn should prepare for a verbal pummeling.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Voyeuristic Anti-Voyeurs

I recently attended a repatriation procession in Wootton Bassett to gather some information for an article that my boss was writing about the war in Afghanistan. Dead soldiers from Afghanistan are brought from RAF Lyneham to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Members of the local British Legion started to salute the coffins as they came through Wootton Bassett. Locals and people connected with the dead soldiers later began to attend these memorial events. Then the media got wind of the story and now every procession is recorded by hoards of cameramen and journalists. It was quite an unsettling experience. I am not just referring to the sadness that one feels watching the coffins of five young men who died for a political cause with which they may or may not have agreed. It was something quite separate from that. The collection of people that gravitate towards the small Wiltshire town and their fraught interactions with one another are somehow darkly humorous. Unsettling situations breed comic characters, as some of the best sitcoms prove.

Firstly, there is a large contingent composed of the families and friends of the deceased. Perhaps these people have more right to be there than any of us. They are using the repatriation as an opportunity to say a final goodbye to their loved ones. But isn't that what a funeral is for? Then there are the veterans. It is they who started to salute passing coffins. Having experienced and survived the horrors of war, they feel a greater sense of duty than most to honour the war dead. Many veterans long for the days when the repatriations were 'quieter' affairs without the 'intrusive' media presence. But there is a permanent war memorial in Wootton Bassett and veterans are free to attend the individual memorial services of the war dead if they choose, so is there any point in saluting coffins as they happen to pass through the town?

The media are out in force (and I don't discount myself from this mob). They take pictures of the coffins, interview the bereaved and film tearful faces. Journalists can justify filming the processions by saying that their viewers should be allowed to participate in honouring dead soldiers even if they cannot make their way to Wootton Bassett. I am fully aware, however, that repatriation coverage is just a way for 24-hour news channels to fill broadcasting schedules cheaply and easily. There are others too. A hotpotch of hangers-on from surrounding towns who regularly come to watch the processions for reasons I cannot fathom. An excellent example was a middle-aged middle-class woman who approached me as I was waiting quietly for proceedings to begin. She was suspiciously au fait with journalistic terminology and I got the feeling that she had made it her mission to expose the inhumanity of journalists to the world at large. As if people needed this fact emphasizing. I call her the voyeuristic anti-voyeur.

VAV: God, you know, it's tragic.

Me: (not sure if this woman whom I have never met is talking to me or someone around me) Erm...Yes, it's terrible.

VAV: D'you know, I was here last summer and I never thought I'd be here again.

Me: (not sure whether her previous visit to this picture-book English town was for sightseeing purposes or to rubberneck at the passing hearses) Oh, you've been here before? Do you live in the area?

VAV: Yes, yes (irritated that I couldn't somehow have gleaned this fact from her enigmatic pronouncements) I'm from Bath (with a long 'a').

Me: (Figuring that, as she approached me, it would be polite to continue the conversation) So, are you connected to one of the soldiers who passed away?

VAV: (frowning) Well...not directly connected. It's sort of a friend of a friend of a friend.

Me: (getting the awkward sense that she probably didn't really know the deceased at all, I decide to move on.) And, er...why were you here before?

VAV: (incredulous at my inquiry that I felt obliged to make) Why do you think?! Because soldiers are getting killed (unwilling to specify which particular soldier's death made her drive the 30-odd miles from Bath today and on one day last summer, when soldiers have been continuously dying in Afghanistan since last summer and, indeed, since 2001).

Me: Yes, there are quite a few today. Five in all.

VAV: (venomous, now, as if this fact is somehow my fault) It's too many. It shouldn't be happening. (Noticing that I am holding a notebook) Oh, are you a reporter?

Me: Well, I work for a Japanese newspaper.

VAV: (dispensing with all politeness) Well, you shouldn't be here.

Me: (wondering who she is to judge who should and shouldn't be attending when she can't even name which dead soldier she is supposedly here to commemorate) Erm...well, we're writing a piece about how the war has dropped out of political debate, even though there are so many people pushing for us to withdraw.

VAV: (scoffs) Well, the Japanese haven't had any war dead since the forties.

Me: (unsure as to why she thought it relevant to mention this fact and too unconfident in my Japanese history knowledge to try and contradict her) Well, the war is something that our readers would be interested in.

VAV: There's no story here. There's no point in covering it. You watch this lot (pointing at a row of cameramen standing along the road where the coffins will pass). You watch where they point their lenses when the procession starts. It's disgusting.

Me: (wondering how a cameraman can make footage of a hearse
disgusting) Oh really?

[Procession begins. There is complete silence and respectful bowing of heads. Camera bulbs begin to flash and tapes start rolling]

VAV: (in one of those loud stage whispers that is not really a whisper at all) Look at them (pointing at the cameramen). They're all over the families. Those people are just here to grieve. They don't want to be filmed (squeezing her face in between the cameramen's tripods to get a better look).

Me: (noting that there are tearful faces everywhere and that the cameramen cannot but capture this fact) Mmm.

VAV: (attempting to whisper again) Look! Look at them! Scum, the lot of them.

Me: (visibly reddening and wishing that I never took the conversation bait) Mmm.

The only genuine local that I met - as in someone who actually lived in Wootton Bassett itself - was the Mayor. He was an extremely affable chap. He was neither scathing of the media or sycophantic towards the bereaved families, as one might expect. He seemed weary but resolute, as many of the people of Wootton Bassett must be, not that they made a song and dance of their presence. In that sense, they have the best attitude out of all parties concerned. Grief should be a private matter. There are mechanisms in place for people to commemorate the dead privately and momentarily (i.e. funerals), as well as publically and lastingly (i.e. memorial statues and gravestones). Creating a shoddy compromise between the two mechanisms feels awkward and actually generates superfluous grief, which will not necessarily help anyone.

No one asked for any of this. Now, in Wootton Bassett, everyone watches and complains about being watched. Where is the sense in that?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010


The quandry that I have been considering most recently is whether canned laughter and good comedy are mutually exclusive. Perhaps 'canned laughter' is not quite the correct phrase for the phenomenon that I am thinking of but it is a useful generic term for 'actual human chortles that eminate from within the fabric of the programme but outside of the theatre of action.' After the great sitcom revolution of the 1990s (post-dinnerladies), shows like The Royle Family ushered in a new naturalistic style which encouraged less reliance on and greater disdain for the laughter track. Canned laughter began to sound desperate, as if the producer needed to prompt the audience at home to laugh at appropriate moments.

Now, Peep Show would feel ridiculous with a laughter track. It would shatter the illusion of imprisonment inside the warped minds of the the El Dude brothers. Being a mockumentary, Summer Heights High would feel disconcerting if a laughter track were added. Enforced merriment would destroy the delicious mix of consternation and amusement that an audience feels in responce to Mr G's impropriety. So, is it fair to say that recorded laughter no longer has a place in modern comedy? On the one hand, I am very much of the opinion that good comic writing should speak for itself and I acknowledge that in many cases a laughter track is unnecessary and awkward but there are occasions when its use is justified.

I would cite I'm Alan Partridge as a prime example. The reason that a laughter track works on this programme is that it naturally follows on from the chat show format of Partridge's previous offering Knowing Me, Knowing You. I'm Alan Partridge charts an egotist's desperate struggle to regain attention from a public with which he has no hope of connecting. To watch the carnage of his life unfold without the audibly amused response of an audience would feel empty. The beauty of Partridge is in the attention to detail. Everything from the make of Alan's car to his favourite Bond Film have been meticulously mapped out in order that his every utterance oozes comic potential. The utilization of the laughter track is no different. Even though I'm Alan Partridge is not a studio sitcom, Armando Iannucci maintains that key scenes originally shot on location were later recreated in a studio and filmed in front of an audience. The studio laughter track was then fitted in on top of the original scenes so that the 'audience without' hears the authentic and immediate reaction from the 'audience within'. Partridge is a wonderful model of how to balance old-school stage atmosphere with new-school naturalism.

The League of Gentlemen is an interesting laughter track anomaly. As an offbeat and reasonably dark offering, one would not expect The League to include anything as artificial as a laugther track but for the first two seasons this was the case. Those who are familiar with the programme may not even remember the presence of recorded laughter in the initial stages. So why did the commissioners/producers/directors/Gentlemen themselves make the decision to include it? Gatiss, Shearsmith and Pemberton would be the first to admit that their show was somewhat tasteless and there is a theory that the programme-makers were so nervous about how the bizarre characters of Royston Vasey would be received that the laughter track became something of a security blanket for them. However, The League of Gentlemen is essentially an old-style sketch show, albeit a very unique one. Some characters never reappear after one episode, there is very little cross-sketch group interaction and there is only minimal plot advancement throughout the series. Quick-fire sketch shows often suit, nay, require the atmosphere of sponteneity afforded by studio laughter. In the end, if the presence of recorded laughter is not distracting enough to render it noticeable, then there is very little basis on which to criticise it.

The League eventually dropped the canned laughter for the third series. If you follow the afformentioned security blanket theory then this must mean that the programme-makers had become more confident in their work by this stage and felt ready to weigh their mainstream anchor. In my opinion, the decision to remove the studio audience was made because the third series is fundamentally a different entity from those which came before it. Each episode focuses more sharply on an individual stories. The depth created by detailed characterisation dispenses with the laughter vacuum and also advances the programme in a new and intriguing direction. Canny decision, boys.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Can women by funny?

Having recently watched 2009 Unwrapped presented by the divisive Miranda Hart, I felt it was high time that I wrote something about female comedians. Firstly, I would like to draw attention to the fact that, in my humble opinion, Miranda is funny. Many may disagree with me. She is certainly not the edgiest performer to have ever lived. Her timing is not perfect (see this introduction section to Unwrapped with the frying pan incident, which doesn't quite work). She does, however, possess many of the qualities one would expect to find in a talented comedian. Her grasp of slapstick is impressive. Fall after fall in her self-titled sitcom left me laughing till my stomach hurt. Her one-liners are also extremely memorable. For example, after being manhandled by a friend when she drunkenly attempts to imitate the Queen, Hart quips: "Ooh, what would Prince Phillip say?! ...Probably something racist." Last and perhaps most interestingly of all, for a female comedian she derives little to no humour from the fact that she is a woman. And that, my friend, is how a successful female comedian is born. No one wants to hear any more jokes about female hormonal ravages (take note, Victoria Wood), men being useless (see Jo Brand), annoying mothers (oh dear, Ruby Wax), or a hideous mixture of all of the above (please stop, Joan Rivers). Deeply disappointing stuff.

It is a sad fact of life that there are fewer funny women in the world than men. I know I have had debates on this subject with many people and opinions vary as to the validity of this statement but, in my experience, it is the case. This is certainly not because women are inherently less funny than men but merely because women are not expected to be as funny as men. In social situations, women are given fewer opportunities to be funny and therefore do not develop their comic talents to the full. The feminine drought on the landscape of comedy continues ceaselessly. Whatever your opinion on this issue, I guarantee that you will struggle to come up with suggestions when asked to name your favourite funny ladies. With this in mind, I thought I'd prepare a highly edited and by no means exhaustive list of women who make me laugh.

Julia Davis

Julia's deliciously dark sitcom Nighty Night contains some phenomenal characters, not least the leading lady Jill (whom Julia plays). I absolutely love that she attempted to get Colin Firth to play the role that was eventually filled by Angus Deayton! Apparently she sent him a rehearsal tape and never received a reply from him. Her partnership with Mark Gatiss's character, Glenn, is particularly inspired. One can see from their scenes together that Julia enjoys working in an environment where she is constantly on the verge of laughter. Notably, she has worked on the macabre Jam with Chris Morris, the underrated Human Remains with Bobby Brydon and the short film black whispers in an elephant sky with Rich Fulcher. She also happens to be married to Julian Barrett with two children called Walter and Arthur, who must have the most potent comic genes in the land. I want those genes, dammit.

Rebecca Front

Wonderful Rebecca had her most recent success as the hapless minister in Armando Ianucci's The Thick Of It. At the other end of the spectrum, she played the deeply unempowered Cath in the aforementioned Nighty Night - a woman 'crippled by politeness.' Rebecca also sparkled in Alan Partridge's Abba Medley which combines two of my great loves (Norwich's chattiest export and Swedish pop icons).

Pauline McLynn

In her thirties, Pauline somehow managed to convince everyone that she was the elderly housekeeper of Craggy Island Parochial House. My favourite moments in Father Ted all involved Mrs Doyle, from her hysterical outburts to her moralising speeches (watch from 12:45). She is a truly classic character.

Caroline Aherne

It seems to be fashionable to criticise The Royle Family at the moment. Perhaps this is because the past two Christmas specials have been of lower quality and because Ralf Little (aka Anthony Royle) has turned into a bit of a nob-end. Nevertheless, Aherne's writing and acting in this and other shows are first class. The Royle Family episode, The Queen of Sheba, which charts Nana Royle's terminal illness and death, is bleak and poignant but, of course, it works beautifully. Aherne has an on-off relationship with the entertainment industry, which is perhaps why she has been sadly absent from our screens over the past few years. Her early work on The Fast Show displays her talent for creating believably funny characters. Aherne's genius is summed up simply by the famous Mrs Merton line addressed to Debbie McGee: "What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" Elderly people can get away with anything.

Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson)

Jessica first came to my attention as Daisy in Spaced, which contains the only good example of on-screen sexual tension exploited successfully for comic effect. She is especially adept at playing pathetic characters, as exemplified by her subtle but brilliant performance as Cheryl in The Royle Family.

Sarah Haskins

Sarah presents the Target Women segment on the programme Infomania, in which she analyses ludicrous lady-aimed advertising. Be careful. Once you pop, you just can't stop. I recommend you begin here.

Kristen Schaal

I hesitate to use abhorrent words such as 'quirky' or 'twee' to describe Kristen, who plays Mel the stalker in Flight of The Conchords. Although she is a peripheral character, she always manages to steal the show. The chemistry between herself and Noel Fielding on Never Mind The Buzzcocks was beyond beautiful. She also does lovely bits of stand up.

Tina Fey

Tina went global after her impressions of Sarah Palin on SNL during the 2008 election campaign. More interestingly, she wrote and performed in the sitcom 30 Rock, which is chock full of marvelous misfits, and the film Mean Girls, which captures (someone's) high school experiences perfectly. Who cares if I relate to it or not? It's funny.

Perhaps I have just defeated my own argument...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe: Review of the Year 2009

I always enjoy a bit of Charlie. This is perhaps less to do with his level of insight than the simple fact that I want his job. For what could be more fulfilling than trawling through endless clips of trashy TV and making snide remarks about it all? Perhaps I admire the format more than the presenter. His schoolboy-ish delivery and his predilection for wanking jokes, though enjoyable, are somewhat inappropriate for BBC4. He endears himself to his audience by coupling an air superiority with extreme self-loathing. How very British of him. I am afraid his charms are often lost on me.

The appeal of the show is in its analysis. For example, Brooker's dissection of the political-correctness-gone-mad fist-wringing moan-fest that was Noel's HQ, presented by the mental Noel Edmonds, struck a particularly tuneful chord. Dodgy TV clairvoyant Derek Acorah's Michael Jackson Seance was also a high point. Who knew such programmes even existed? Half the fun of Screenwipe is the ability of Brooker (or Brooker's research team) to unearth hilariously awful programmes that have surreptitiously made their way into the TV schedule. The vitriolic rants on how poor quality television is a manifestation of a society in decline are often unnecessary, since we, the audience, do not need to be reminded how terrible these programmes are. They speak for themselves. The writing in Screenwipe is witty and engaging, so hats off to Charlie for that, but perhaps he could do with drafting in a professional presenter.

I am not an avid follower of Brooker's other work but I do occasionally dabble. There have been five series of Screenwipe (to my knowledge), which has given him ample scope to discuss every area of television imaginable. Some of the best bits include Series 5 Episode 3 where Brooker spends the entire episode interviewing TV writers whom he admires (including the lovely Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain of Peep Show fame), his analysis on childhood obesity in relation to class and his expose on the horrors of American TV. At this point, I should reveal that I learnt most of what I know about the broadcasting industry from Charlie. Screenwipe is infotainment at its best.

In a similar vein, Brooker also wrote and presented Gameswipe (interesting but mainly aimed at computer game fans) and Newswipe (absolutely mind blowing). Newswipe has much smaller target of critique than Screenwipe (i.e. the television news media rather than the entire of humanity) and therefore works better. Every episode is more enlightening than the last, ridiculing the all-singing all-dancing interactive reality TV game show that the news has become. I can particularly recommend the episode about America's right-wing media. Charlie also writes a column for The Guardian which, though I don't read it every week, seems to be a bit patchy. Sometimes it is a joy to read, sometimes it is simply a page of venomous venting and occasionally it is incoherent, clearly having been thrown together an hour before the deadline.

His occasional journalistic slip-ups do not undermine his overall talent. Brooker manages to present not only the follies but also the joys of telly, putting paid to the view that television is an instrument of evil, corrupting our children and killing our brain cells. Afterall, television has given us such delights as the hard-hitting drama The Wire, landmark documentarist Adam Curtis, and life-shaping kids programmes (see Stewart Lee's take on this - watch from 5:30 minutes.) Ultimately, Charlie fuels the fire of my most shameful vice - watching shows on telly on telly - without making me feel geeky.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Daniel Kitson at the Union Chapel in Islington

Daniel Kitson is the finest comedian performing in the UK today. I have done little of use with my life so far expect obsessively consume comedy, so you can safely assume that I do not bestow this compliment lightly. For a man whose job it is to make us laugh, Kitson spends an unbelievable amount of energy tackling bleak subjects. His whimsical monologues plumb the depths of tragedy but emerge all the more euphoric for it. His gig at the Union Chapel, We Are Gathered Here, focused on death, particularly that of his Auntie Angela from terminal cancer. I know what you're thinking. Little bit heavy for a weeknight's entertainment. Stay with me. It gets good. Kitson manages to prove that even in life's darkest moments when we are reminded that everything is meaningless, there are tiny beacons of light that appear to us and remind us that being alive is worth something.

As a man who displays some misanthropic tendencies, he may hate me for describing his work as accessible. He has a remarkable gift for simplicity of language without dumbing down and for intellectualising without excluding. Most observational comedy seems to involve the performer pointing out a widely understood but universally unacknowledged nugget of truth. The comedian says what I was thinking all along, which validates me and gives me a sense of camaraderie towards him. I feel gratified that I am not the only knowledgeable fish swimming in a sea full of idiots. Kitson is bigger than this. He truly enlightens his audience as he performs. He is a breath of fresh air.

The first time that I saw Daniel was in Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights. He played the ditsy 'Spencer'. Though I am a closet fan of Phoenix Nights, Kitson's part in this programme by no means does justice to his wonderful performances on stage. Even Peter Kay has acknowledged that Phoenix is the project of which Daniel is least proud. I struggle to understand why he originally accepted the part. I suppose that there is always a difficulty in balancing the need for exposure and the desire to maintain one's integrity, as an artist. Being neither an artist, nor one in possession of much integrity, I feel as if I have very little right to comment. What I can say is that after I saw Daniel Kitson on stage for the first time (The Stand, Edinburgh 2007) I actually started to believe in people again and to believe that comedy could really be a force for good.

Despite his talent, Kitson is still an underrated performer. Perhaps this is how he prefers it. His cult status ensures that for every performance in a quaint back-end venue he will be surrounded only by adoring fans. I, for one, relish the intimacy and ambiance of Daniel's small-scale performances. But somehow I find it unfair that only a very few people will ever accidentally happen upon this gem. I suppose it all boils down to the cult vs mainstream debate. We're so intent on being unique little snowflakes and holding an interest that no one else shares (or very few other people share). We dismiss things that are too popular but we shun things that are too obscure. Laughter is supposed to be a communal experience. What else is comedy for but to make us forget that we exist for a while and convulse in the social ritual of mutual mirth? Though I could never imagine (or condone) 'Kitson at the Albert Hall,' I wish that a everyone had the opportunity to bask in Daniel's celestial glow.