My Plan for 2017

Last year, on January 1st, I did that thing most of us foolishly do. I wrote a list of goals I wanted to achieve that year. It’s fair to say [SPOILER] few of them made it out of the notebook.

2017 will be different.

I wanted to use this post to write down my intentions for this year. Far from empty promises, I’m so determined to achieve them; I started laying the groundwork in 2016 just to make sure they happened.

So, what will I be doing in 2017?

  1. Having Babies*

Not strictly writing, this, but still pretty important.

Last year my wife and I discovered we were expecting not one, but two babies – the ultimate BOGOF. I am beyond excited about the chance to be a dad twice and it remains the biggest, and scariest task of 2017 and, depending on how well it goes, beyond.

However, being a horrific show-off, I’ve already found a way to mine it for my own ends. Hence the second thing I’ll be doing.

  1. Writing a Parenting Blog

It’s been a while since I contributed a weekly column to Giggle Beats and I have missed that discipline, as evidenced by the poor upkeep of this site.

Introducing my new weekly parenting blog, Twinsights. It’s a chance to voice the ups and downs of raising two babies simultaneously, embracing the wonder of parenting and the thrill of childbirth.

It’s not. It’s basically an excuse to write jokes about cervix and make fun of two tiny things who can’t defend themselves. It’s going to be fun.

I’ve already made a start to check it out here:

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  1. Create a Web Series

And finally, the third and most exciting plan for this year (after the baby thing) is the return of Jerry Bucham.

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Jerry Bucham: Freelance Activist

For those who don’t know Jerry, and that amounts to a large percentage of the population, he’s a protest singer character I used to perform on the stand up circuit.

I’m resurrecting him for a web series and I’m very excited about it. I’ve been trying to create a web series for ages now but through one thing and another, it’s never really come off. Finally I hit on a way of doing it that got me excited, and I found myself laughing afresh at the material I was writing, which is nice.

The series will be launching imminently but for now keep up to Jerry’s whereabouts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

 

2016 was a year of ups and downs creatively for me. I’ve certainly lost some of my drive and a lot of my confidence, but I finally feel like I’m taking my comedy writing into my own hands.

Trust me to wait until I’m raising two babies to do it.

Bring it on, 2017. I’m ready.

 

* In all fairness, it will be my wife doing the ‘having’.

I’m working on something…

 

A red button with the words "Take action" on itI won’t mince my words: I’m working on an idea for a web series.

‘Why do you care?’ you’re probably asking yourself. Though ‘why do I care?’ would be a more obvious wording choice.

Well, to be honest with you, this blog post isn’t for you. It’s for me.

I’ve spent a great deal of this year (and the last couple of years) working on different ideas but lacking in any sense of decisiveness. So this is me nailing my flag to the mast. I need to make something. I miss it.

Some will know, but most won’t (or won’t care): I used to do stand-up. Did it for nearly four years. I loved performing. I loved writing jokes and standing up in front of an audience, trying them out, refining them and, most importantly, getting laughs.

There are few things I love as much as comedy (my wife mainly) it has always been my passion. If anyone tells you heroine is addictive, tell them to try cracking jokes about Ronan Keating to an assorted crowd in Newcastle on a Wednesday night. They haven’t lived!

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I quit stand up a couple of years ago because, amongst other things, my passion for it had started to wane. I loved the moment of being on stage but found myself fed up with a lot of the ‘other stuff’.

My goal has always been to write and perform on television, and stand-up seemed like good training for that. But I soon realised that for many, stand-up isn’t training. It’s the real deal. As I wasn’t shitting, I decided to get off the pot. Make way for others that wanted it more than me. That way I could focus on writing and performing in the things I love.

After a few small successes and some near misses and I find myself here: without much to put my name to and be proud of. I want this to change.

I’ve lost a lot of confidence in my own ability over this last couple of years. Creativity is always a tightrope walk between moments of inspiration and the realisation you’re a weird bloke in a stupid wig filming yourself in the bathroom. For some reason a lot of my ideas recently have been plagued with doubt. Worries it isn’t funny, or will be too difficult to pull off, a sense that someone else will be able to do the same idea but better. I never used to be like this but now I am and it’s exhausting.

So I’m working on a web series because I’ve always wanted to do one, and now I have an idea that I like and think will work. It may not; it might fall flat on its face. But if I don’t make a determined effort to make it work, I’ll probably end up wasting more time and energy worrying.

I’ve been inspired by a lot of great people on Twitter recently – I really recommend checking out Match Not Found, Cops and Monsters, Mina Murray’s Journal and Dear Jesus. All staggering achievements and it would be nice to make my own little contribution to the world of web series.

So I’m working on something. And I couldn’t be happier.

What the Piña Colada Song Taught Me About Writing

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If you’re one of the few people who’s forgotten to listen to Escape by Rupert Holmes, then I pity you. Not only are you missing out on one of the most powerful cocktail-themed songs of the seventies but you’ve overlooked one of the bravest performances in an M&S sweater/shirt combo ever committed to celluloid.

More than that, however, Escape open brackets The Piña Colada Song close brackets – to give it it’s full title – is a master class in story telling. Better than Dickens, bolder than Shakespeare and richer than a Julia Donaldson yarn, Escape not only awoken (awaked?) my love of music (and milk-based cocktails) but unleashed my inner writer.

Put simply, I learnt everything I know about writing from Escape (The Piña Colada Song).

So, let’s start with the basics. It’s got three verses. Three verses, three acts. Textbook. If that doesn’t hint at what Rupert ‘The Dreamweaverer’ Holmes is doing, then nothing does.

So, the first line:

I was tired of my lady, we’d been together too long…

BANG! In one line, Rupert has set the scene. The protagonist (himself), the antagonist (his ‘lady’) and the situation – a loveless sham of a relationship – it’s all there. Then he goes on…

Like a worn out recording of a favourite song…

This is both a nice bit of creative symbolism, and also Meta-commentary about the predetermined success of this very song. Tarantino couldn’t write that shit. The layers to this song are only beginning to unfurl.

So while she lay there sleepin’ I read the paper in bed

This line, more than any in the song, gets to the heart of Escape’s storytelling technique – misdirection. Essentially a ballad made up of exposition, Escape feeds you all the important information without ever showing its hand. You think this line is there to introduce the paper into this scenario – the media being a catalyst for most of the world’s woes – but actually; it slyly reintroduces the ‘lady’ into the narrative. After all, she’s The Piña Colada Song’s loaded gun. Cocked in the first verse, she doesn’t go off until Act Three.

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Checkhov would be jamming his pants.

Then you get the chorus. Not much storytelling going on there, you might think. WRONG! It is rich with character detail. Let’s unpick it, shall we?

If you like Piña Coladas and getting caught in the rain…

So this is someone who likes Piña Coladas. What does that tell us? They like a drink, they’re open to exotic things, they use alcohol as a means of introducing themselves. And where do these star-crossed lovers first meet? A bar, what else?

But what about the rain? Well, what is the rain but bad weather, and what are these two going through, but a stormy time in their relationship. Going deeper, rain is a part of the water cycle. These two reject their current relationship, yet accidentally reply to each other’s personal ads, proving their behavioural patterns are cyclical. Just like rain.

It’s. All. On. Point.

If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape…

This song reminds us we shouldn’t trust beaches. They’re deceptive. There could be fag butts in there, some broken glass, a dog turd – sand dunes hide the grim reality of summer holidays. A bit like personal ads do with their authors.

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A scene of passion

Verse two goes on to mention this elusive ‘lady’ not once, but twice, further cementing her presence in this song. For anyone who previously thought she was a passive character, you’re about to have your preconceptions blow away.

Let’s look a little more closely – does Escape pass the Bechdel Test?

Well, does it feature more than one woman? Theres the ‘lady’ AND the mysterious woman from the ad – so two. Do they talk about something other than a man? Well, considering they both keep rattling on about yoga and rum-based drinks, I’d say so. So is this song a unequivocal success for female representation? Yep!

The second chorus mainly revisits a lot of the themes of the first, but also manages to throw in this line:

I’ve got to meet you by tomorrow night and cut through all this red tape

…which has to be one of the more beautiful sexual euphemisms in the whole song.

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Erotic.

And so to the final verse, best to let this one speak for itself.

So I waited with high hopes and she walked in the place

I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curves of her face

It was my own lovely lady and she said “oh, it’s you”

Woah! What a twist, what a gut punch. Like many great twist endings – The Sixth Sense (it was Bruce Willis the whole time), Se7en (it’s in the box!) and The Crying Game (cock and balls) – the twist is so satisfying because you don’t expect it. And yet, somehow, you do.

Who would have thought that this hapless home wrecker would find love in the arms of an alcoholic exhibitionist? And what’s more, he’s already seeing her. The couple’s love rekindled through their appreciation of mutual deception. The romance of a generation.

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Bruce knew all along.

So there we have it. A masterclass in story telling. Tell McKee to do one, and chuck the Cat in the bin – this is everything you need to know about writing in one song. A story about reignited love, crafted using rich characters, deceptive exposition, bold plot twists, relatable emotions, coconut milk/coconut cream and 3 parts pineapple juice.

Stay tuned for more writing tips!

RIP Ronnie

When people talk about the ‘Golden Age’ it’s hard to know when they’re referring to. If one thing’s for sure, nobody’s talking about 2016.

It’s only the end of March, and already we’ve lost more iconic figures than is good for our national identity. Or our impressionists. Between David Bowie, Terry Wogan and now, tragically, Ronnie Corbett, we’re all but empty of national treasures.

In fact, in this last week alone, comedy has lost both Mr Corbett and Garry Shandling. You couldn’t get two comedians who sit more comfortably at either end of the spectrum. If the ‘rule of three’ is to be believed, then somewhere, Jethro is holed up in an oxygen tent.

For me, the Golden Age was in my teens. Not because it was a drug and alcohol-fuelled celebration of sexual awakening – far from it. At a time when I withdrew quite a lot, nervous, shy, unsure of myself, I was locked away in my bedroom watching comedy.

Why have a fumble outside the Youth Club when you could watch a creaky VHS of The Goodies and the Beanstalk?

While many people my age were embracing up-and-coming comedians, or better yet, living their lives, I was looking back at the decades I’d missed, drinking it in. And there, in the middle of it all were The Two Ronnies.

Quite simply two of the funniest men I’ve ever laid eyes on. Their shows were rich with comic invention – from their gag-based news items, technically flawless sketches, and their knockabout musical numbers; to the vocal dexterity of Ronnie B’s monologues, and the warm, personal setting of Ronnie C’s chats to camera. While many sketch shows struggle to nail one tone, The Two Ronnies nailed several, consistently, and always in the funniest way possible.

I often think back to when I watched those sketches for the first time, jealous that I can’t discover them afresh. There was something incredibly potent about that time. I was still forming my sense of humour and subjecting it to a diverse range of comedy. Each viewing brought new inspirations and new techniques, I was bubbling with ideas and bursting with laughter.

Soon the desire to watch Two Ronnies’ sketches wasn’t enough. Like an upwardly mobile crack addict, I wanted something better, something stronger. So I took to performing them at school.

Long before the Internet had become the encyclopedia of cack it is today, I would have to transcribe the sketches from VHS, obsessing over comic perfection in painstaking detail. Undoubtedly, the best sketch writing education you could get.

I’ve never had the experience of trying to sneak material past broadcast censors, but I imagine it’s not dissimilar to convincing your English teacher to let you perform the ‘OXO’ gag from the Crossed Lines sketch. With the help of a small group of friends, we performed several classic Two Ronnies sketches, including a pretty ambitious recreation of the Sailor Gals song. This was beyond a dream come true, performing these classics, paying tribute to the men that made me laugh.

Not long after, the itch came again and the writing started. I formed a sketch group with two friends. The blueprint was clearly, shamelessly, The Two Ronnies. I still believe the best thing I’ve ever written was a sketch from around this time. It’s not so much a blood relation to The Two Ronnies, more a morally dubious cloning experiment gone wrong.

I would rush home from school each evening, binge watch comedy videos (way before Netflix made it popular) then write until the early hours. This period was rich with creation in a way I haven’t matched since. While it’s worrying to think I may have peaked at 16, it remains a special time to me. It was the Golden Age.

So much of that is down to Ronnie Corbett, a man whose humour, excitement and passion were visible until the very end, as this tribute sketch proves. He was a man who separately, and with the irreplaceable Ronnie Barker (no offense Kevin Bishop), created numerous iconic moments of tearful laughter.

Ronnie Corbett was an utter perfectionist. Technically flawless, but rich with warmth and charm, open and encouraging of new talent, he was a true Comedy Legend. And living in a world without him? Well, that’s no one’s idea of a Golden Age.

Thoughts on BBC’s Comedy Playhouse – Hospital People

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So, where do I start with Hospital People? I have a lot of conflicting views about this episode of the latest Comedy Playhouse series. Not least because it’s the type of show I’ve spent most of my comedy career trying to create.

And now, having seen it, I’m glad I never did.

That’s not to say that Hospital People is bad, far from it. It has a lot of potential with some great lines and performances from character comedian, Tom Binns. However, for me, the biggest selling points of this show are also the reasons it doesn’t quite hold together.

Firstly, multiple characters. When I said this was the type of show I’ve always wanted to create, I say that as a former character comedian who spent far too much time trying to create personas that could work both on stage, and in a narrative show. In fact, I’m still writing scripts for these characters now, even though the chances of me playing them are slipping away faster than a greased up turd on a glacier.

But as for Hospital People, the collection of characters – while strong in their own right – feel like they struggle when in competition with each other. Some feel crowbarred in for the sake of it, especially the hypochondriac patient, while other larger than life ones, particularly live-favourite Ian D Montford, feel chronically undersold.

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Taking the psychic character away from all the trappings of that world – cold readings, healings, messages from beyond – strip him of a rich source of comic material. While these elements do feature, they seem more of like lip service instead of being the foundations of a character that’s either exploiting vulnerable people or who genuinely believes he has a connection to the other side. Both of which feel like fascinating, untapped subject matter.

And that’s my issue with the use of multiple characters, while I’ve always loved that as a concept, I feel these characters would be better served at the centre of several strong sitcoms, as opposed to juggling them in a documentary/sketch format.

This is especially clear when you get to Ivan Brackenbury. I’m a huge fan of Binns’ live work, and it’s great to finally see Brackenbury on TV. However, what worked for him live – his radio broadcasts – hold him back in this show.

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To have Ivan sitting behind a desk interacting with jingles and little else gives his segments an inert feeling that’s very tangible. While there are traces of story coming through, especially with his ambitious assistant Shaz played by Mandeep Dhillon, it’s not enough to really let us gain insight into who he is. Any pieces to camera feel like another opportunity to drop in a bit of stand-up, as opposed to revealing more about his goals and aims. In addition to this, his passion for Hospital Radio means that he has nothing to aim for, as he’s already achieved everything he wants to aspire to. The writers (Binns and Matt Morgan) are clearly setting up conflict with the arrival of the new ward TVs, but it comes so late in the episode that it’s not enough to feel like a mission for him.

Now, an Ivan Brackenbury sitcom in which he loses his position at the hospital within the first few minutes, then spends the rest of the episodes trying to claw it back – or better still, aim for a job on national radio – would help us invest in the character and his struggle. Especially for such a sad character, seeing him try and fail would make the comedy even stronger and add weight to his inherent tragedy. He feels bound by the restrictive nature of a workplace documentary.

And this comes to my second major issue with this show – the documentary format.

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As someone who’s recently re-binged the entirety of The Office: An American Workplace, I still feel like there’s a lot of life left in the format, however that usually goes hand-in-hand with having something to say about it.

The documentary, as set up by Hospital People, doesn’t feel real. I’m not convinced we really have documentaries like this nowadays, the real format has moved on, so the parody versions should do the same.

The difficulty is, when you look at The Hotel, First Dates or Educating Yorkshire, they’re pitched and structured like a narrative comedy so they leave very little space for parodies to occupy. But even then, reshaping Hospital People as a show like The Hotel would let you hit the ground running with a voice over that could easily drive the plot forward while connecting the dots between each character.

Ultimately, a documentary doesn’t feel right for these characters. The format seems to have been chosen as a way of bringing disparate characters together in one location, and giving them the opportunity to deliver jokes direct to camera. And it’s this reluctance to let go of that live format that hinders the show – and in particular Ivan Brackenbury.

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Programme Name: Comedy Playhouse: Hospital People – TX: 26/02/2016 – Episode: Comedy Playhouse: Hospital People (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Susan Mitchell (TOM BINNS) – (C) Roughcut Televison Limited – Photographer: Andy Hollingworth

Going back to my character comedy past, no matter how I detailed I was when creating characters, the difficulty would always be the jump from joke delivery to funny dialogue with other characters. It’s a tough act to juggle and, inevitably, you end up clinging to the material you know will work. But unless your character is Alan Partridge, you really can’t get away with reciting reams of hilarious monologues.

In writing scripts for my characters, the one thing I’ve come to understand is that in order to let your show flourish, you have to be willing to sacrifice certain elements you initially loved. And for all of Hospital People’s merits, it doesn’t seem willing to euthanise it’s flaws.

Thoughts on BBC’s Comedy Playhouse – Stop/Start

The other night I finally caught up with the recent series of Comedy Playhouse. I say ‘finally’ but truth be told, I didn’t even realise I’d missed it.

I don’t want to go full rant, but I love BBC comedy and feel like I’m pretty good at keeping on top of current developments, so it concerns me that the Beeb can launch a new series of pilots, and yet, it can completely pass me by. I’m not saying I’m the demographic they should be chasing, I just worry that if I can miss these shows on their first run, then the majority of casual viewers will miss out too. That’s a worry, seeing as this new series of Comedy Playhouse has a bit of something for everyone.

Firstly, Stop/Start, a new multi-camera sitcom from Jack Docherty. It follows the lives of three couples as they share their intimate moments with the audience, while dealing with the complications of being part of a committed relationship. A lot of people have compared it to Peep Show, and I can see why, but I actually think it’s closer in approach to How Not to Live Your Life. And even Craig David’s Seven Days video.

The show plays out like a standard sitcom, only at various times the characters ‘stop’ the action to explain their feelings to the audience. While the show has already enjoyed some success of radio, I personally struggled with its television format. I haven’t heard the radio show but I can image how the ‘stop-starting’ sounds, and that it feels natural within the context of the show, hearing internal monologues like Peep Show, yet when you’re watching it acted out in front of you, the constant pausing has a jarring effect, halting the action and character repartee in favour of jokes that don’t really add anything.

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Miranda was another show which routinely paused the action for direct to camera sections, and yet managed to pull it off with ease. I think the reason for that has to do, not only with Miranda’s character – which felt big enough to have an understanding of life outside the show – but also because it featured one clear P.O.V.

At any one time, Stop/Start offers up six opinions while trying to seamlessly tie them into a unifying narrative. It’s a tough job and while I did enjoy lots of elements within the show, I actually felt this hook was its undoing. There was something odd about characters competitively sharing their inner thoughts that actually made the show feel less ‘real’, stripping these relationships of warmth and honesty. A couple of moments really stuck out as being somewhat bluntly horrible; revelations I couldn’t accept as believable (even though they were) because I hadn’t warmed to the characters and format.

With Peep Show you’re privy to Mark and Jeremy’s thoughts, but they are informed by, and in turn inform, their actions. Large chunks of this show seemed to use these ‘asides’ to simply play out longer stand-up routines on a variety of topics, or to show that characters had conflicting views, which should be the least we’d expect from a sitcom anyway.

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All this sounds very negative, but actually, there was a warmth and playfulness that kept me onside for the episode. While it seemed to rely too heavily on the well-worn idiotic husband and nagging wife trope, often to the detriment of having anything interesting to say about relationships, the cast were uniformly great (although Laura Aikman seems miscast and struggled to generate the laughs she’s capable of).

For me, the stand out was Nigel Havers who really seems to have embraced self-mockery. That could be because he had a little more definition to his character than just ‘a bloke’. While there was nothing particularly remarkable about Docherty’s character, I’ll admit as a performer he’s endlessly watchable, and with stronger material he’d be an incredibly safe pair of hands to lead any ensemble.

I did feel the performances were pitched slightly too high for the show. I get that it’s a studio sitcom, but it does feel like we’ve lost the ability to combine subtle acting with broad humour. Despite bigger moments, Only Fools and Horses always managed to deftly balance ‘real’ performances. With a hook that’s designed to draw you out of the action, softer performances may have helped ease those transitions.

In addition to that, I did feel the show lacked any real diversity. What could easily have been written as a similar set up to Modern Family; pitting different character lifestyles against each other, Stop/Start chose to focus on three middle class, middle aged, white relationships. I’ve nothing against that, but especially with these broadly drawn characters, it seemingly offers less to play with in the grand scheme of things.

I do hope they make more of Stop/Start as I feel it has the potential to become a strong studio sitcom contender for BBC1, I just hope they can soften the characters a little and find some genuinely revelatory things to say about relationships.

Because, that’s the thing with opinions, they’re only worth hearing if they’re interesting.

I’ll be back later to discuss the other two episodes from the series, Hospital People and Broken Biscuits.  

My Thoughts on Zoolander 2

This review contains spoilers for Zoolander 2. (And the first one, but you’ve only yourself to blame if you haven’t seen it.)

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When I was young, a sequel to a much-loved film was to be cherished. Like Moses coming down the mountain with stone-based guidelines, it was a rare occurrence. Now, like a parish priest’s weekly sermon: it’s expected, often a little too long, and always underwhelming.

So it was that they announced Zoolander 2. My heart soared. One of my favourite comedies of the last 15 years, I took to the first film instantly, unlike most cinema-going audiences. There was something about the fusing of sheer stupidity and conspiracy ‘thriller’ that really caught my imagination.

Unfortunately, it seems few people’s imaginations were ensnared by Z2.

I’m not a person who usually goes into a film with low expectations, but it’s fair to say that, despite my excitement, when I sat down to watch Zoolander 2, my expectations were limbo dancing with Gary Coleman. As it turns out, that apprehension was well founded. Zoolander 2 was a bit of a disappointment. A few good moments and some excellent Zoolanderisms aside, it was a let down.

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Surprisingly for a sequel, it wasn’t due to a lack of ambition. I love Ben Stiller as a Director – I find him comparable to Edgar Wright in terms of visual kineticism (thank you Media Studies AS Level). In his vision and scope for Zoolander 2, he pretty much delivers. Yet when it comes to jokes and story, increasingly, I find him less assured.

The main issue for me is that this film has nothing to say. An odd criticism when you consider that the first one touched on topics like playful petro fights and whether or not saying ‘earth to…’ constitutes intergalactic communication. However, when you actually look at the first Zoolander, it had a very clear viewpoint.

The plot was centred on the fashion industry’s attempts to derail child labour laws in Malaysia. Well-known fashion figures were painted as Bond-esque villains, hiding in the shadows, dishing out executions to tip the political balance in their favour. Yes it was silly, but it was saying something. Compare it to Z2’s cameo-laden finale in which real fashion icons were invited to back-slap along with the start, and the filmmaker’s point of view starts to feel hollow.

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The same can be said of Matilda (Christine Taylor, given the shortest shrift of all returnees). In the first film, her great tragedy was her childhood struggle with bulimia at the hands of impossible body standards and fashion magazines. Again, no one’s saying Zoolander was the new Battleship Potemkin, but it’s definitely a more insightful approach than what Z2 does with Taylor’s replacement, Penelope Cruz, and her inability to break into catwalk modelling because her breasts were too voluptuous. Cue erection joke.

Without such a clear focus, the result is a sequel un-tethered from anything resembling reality. Fashion model assassins may have been moronic, but it was get-able. Eternal youth and human sacrifices feel like a film grasping at a plot – especially when the villain reveals it’s all made up anyway. And at one point, a woman swims with all the power of a genetically altered dolphin. Real, this isn’t.

The film flip-flops between half-telling an elaborate, mythical story and then undermining it. Everything is pasted over with pointless celebrity cameos and failed attempts at meta-humour. Characters that blatantly signal their emotional exposition isn’t a joke, it’s lazy writing.

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And that brings us on to Benedict Cumberbatch, in the first of his roles that no one really wants to see (soon to be followed by his turn in A Sort of Scientist: The Prof. Brian Cox Story). He plays (albeit briefly) the androgynous model ‘All’. The point of the scene, I’m assuming, is to show us Zoolander’s inability to grasp the modern fashion world, and indeed, society. But, unsurprisingly, it feels misjudged.

I can absolutely see why the transgender community would find this offensive, even if it’s played as wrong. But when you consider the fact that Hansel’s entire plotline is his relationship with members of an orgy (including a goat, a gimp and Kiefer Sutherland), then none of the characters’ views feel consistent, even in the admittedly ridiculous world the film creates.

How can truly pansexual characters (certainly compared to Deadpool) be unable to accept other members of the LGBT community? It’s this lack of consistency, as well as the unnecessarily harsher tone, that annoys me.

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Not only that, but in the 15 year interim it seems that while the writers, Stiller, Justin Theroux, John Hamburg and Nicholas Stoller, have remembered a lot of the jokes from the original – hence their endless repetition – they’ve forgotten why they were funny. The result is like watching your favourite meal being reheated by candle light – slow and lukewarm.

Many of the jokes don’t land like you’d hope they would, some being so sign-posted that you’re just killing time until they arrive. There are occasional flashes of the humour that made the first what it was (the ‘slash’ conversation with Billy Zane is a worthy successor to the aforementioned ‘earth to…’ scene) but they’re few and far between.

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One of my favourite moments from the original is Derek’s agent, Maury Ballstein (Stiller Sr. tragically absent this time), discussing zip disk files and whether he can reheat a casserole with his wife, via blue tooth during the film’s climax. It’s a moment of truthful comedy that nicely grounds the ridiculous elements.

There’s none of that here. It feels like the writers were throwing out jokes in the hope that they’d not only stick, but hopefully congeal into a faintly tangible plot. The first film was tightly scripted with a high gag rate and a story that at least played with the conventions of a mystery plot – this fumbles around hitting beats that should offer up moments of comic invention or intrigue, but rarely do.

It was always going to be compared to Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, but where that film had a new direction and a story to tell (the rise of 24 hour news channels), Zoolander 2 looks is still scrabbling round trying to find it’s pants by the time the credits role.

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All in all, I wanted to like Zoolander 2; and seeing Stiller, Wilson and Farrell return to those familiar roles was enough to plaster a smile of my face for the majority of the runtime. Unfortunately, despite what the filmmakers might think, that wasn’t enough. In a film that urges its main character to remember who he is in order to save the day, it’s a shame the Stiller and co. didn’t learn the same lesson.

If Found, Please Resuscitate

I just wanted to write a quick piece about the proposal to close Huddersfield Royal Infirmary’s A&E Department. In a word: don’t.

There doesn’t have to be just one way. 

I don’t often get on my high horse about things – let’s be honest, I barely blog at all – but this feels like a political horse worth mounting.

It’s OK, as long as we still have our dignity.

I don’t want to get into the politics of this decision, namely because I’m not really clever enough to comprehend them. But also because here isn’t the place to remind people that the poor management of the NHS, by the government, means that a national service we should be both proud of and thankful for, has been decimated and left to fester.

Nevertheless, the fact this decision is down to the financial mishandling of other hospitals, is frankly ridiculous.

So no, I’m not getting into the politics of it. I just want to mention that this issue – above everything – is about saving lives.

We’re obliviously fortunate to live in a country where everyone has access to free healthcare. That right is gradually being eroded away, and when all is said and done, this issue is not about tax money wasted or even, I’m sad to say, doctors, nurses and staff losing jobs, but it’s about endangering the lives of anyone who cannot afford to pay for healthcare. Which in these austeratorial (not actual word) times, counts for a great many of us

If Huddersfield A&E closes, it will put thousands of lives at risk. To go without access to emergency treatment on your door step, is not a shame, it’s a social injustice. No one – rich or poor – should be without that basic human right.

Santa’s more rebellious phase.

Of course, the idea is to move the emergency department to Calderdale Hospital but that’s no solution at all. It simply puts greater strain on already vulnerable people, at moments in their lives when time may be of the essence. If you think that sounds overly dramatic, this eye-opening article from the brilliant Standard Issue should show how, literally, minutes can count.

It’s a dangerous game to treat A&E departments like pieces on a Monopoly board, moving them round until the payments feel more manageable. For a start, Monopoly is dull as shit, but at least it doesn’t end with a string of dead bodies – overlooked elderly people in need of care, young vulnerable infants more susceptible to illnesses, and yes, even us averagely healthy people who can’t be trusted not to fall down stairs or bite the insides of our cheek. We all need protecting.

Who knew teething had a down side?

None of this is to mention the considerable strain that this decision would put onto Calderdale Hospital.

Now, in the interest of transparency, I live in Halifax. However, my reason for caring is not because I might have to wait a little bit longer when I go for my bi-annual stomach pumping, but because hundreds of thousands of people – in Huddersfield and Halifax – are at substantial risk. That’s in excess of 250,000* people who could find themselves needing assistance in one facility.

I urge you to do what you can to support this fight – at the very least, please sign the petition to stop this decision. (That rhymed, it wasn’t meant to.)

You may not see the point if you’re cosy and safe in Gateshead, or sitting in your ivory tower in Surrey, or even on a weekend away in Nantwich. The fact is, there’s also a proposal to close the Trafford General Hospital Emergency Care Unit – and no doubt others – so what’s to stop them closing more?

You can be sure that the vulnerable staff members at Huddersfield probably won’t find work in Halifax, and that any money saved during the closure will not then be ploughed into improving the level of care available to patients. The inevitable truth is, hospitals will become even more overcrowded, while remaining chronically underfunded and woefully under-staffed.

My heart goes out to all nurses, doctors, junior doctors and NHS staff in general. They’re at the front line of a job most of us wouldn’t, and couldn’t, do. Yet, if these proposals are the sign of what’s to come, pretty soon they won’t have jobs to worry about. Then the country really will be a dangerous place to live.

I pray for our inner cheeks.

 

Please sign the petition to stop the closure of Huddersfield A&E department.

 

*I Googled these figures so don’t quote me, it also claims that Leslie Nielsen has died again.

The First Post of the Rest of My Life

Starting off in style. Again.

So, I return to this neglected wasteland of self-promotion.

Sorry for the wait.

At the moment, I don’t really have much to report – other than this marks a point in time, where I feel I should start documenting my journey as I attempt to re-double my efforts and make a damn good go of this creative stuff. Hence the new-look site.

It’s not that I haven’t been trying this last couple of years, I have. And yet, for numerous reasons whenever I get a sniff of success or start to feel like things are heading in the ‘right’ direction (wherever that is), my nerves tend to kick in and my self-doubt really makes itself at home. So it is that, I start to doubt my abilities and convictions which, for someone wanting to sustain a creative career, is a bit of a shitter.

Anyway, I don’t intend this post to be too long – or indeed overly in-depth about my struggles with motivation and confidence, but suffice to say, I really feel like I’m starting to knuckle down now and making a determined effort to achieve the things I want to achieve. So here goes…

Of course, none of this is to suggest I’ll get any better at updating this bloody thing, but if I do, well then – huzzah!

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The Roles of Gender in Peep Show

Mark and Jeremy, played by David Mitchell and Robert Webb.
Mark and Jeremy, played by David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Hello.

Long time no blog. Apologies for that, but without a higher level of authority demanding I churn out posts; it’s really never going to happen. If you’d like to see how well I manage on a tighter rein; please see my weekly Giggle Beats column.

With that, on to the reason for this post.

Following a brief Twitter exchange, I happened to mention that, during my university years, I wrote an essay on the representations of masculinity in the sitcom Peep Show. I won’t lie; I’d been to the pub, I’d had a few and just wanted to sound clever. The fact I was boasting about my film-theorising skills probably tells you everything you need to know about the sort of drunk I become.

Anyway, a couple of people were interested in reading it – more so than at the time of writing it – so I’ve reproduced the essay below, including terrible grammar and severe predilection for the word ‘fundamentally’. I warn you; it’s a tad pretentious; but I was young, naive and excited to be taking a course titled ‘ Cultural Identities and British Television’, so what do you expect?

I got a First for it, which I’m still incredibly proud of. It may seem like bragging, but I failed the next module I took because I spent the entire word count of my essay referring to a noted female film theorist as ‘he’. This was very much the peak of my achievements.

Without further ado, here it is. Apologies for any and all ham-fisted descriptions of feminism.

‘Discuss masculinity and the roles of gender in Peep Show’

‘Peep Show’ is a modern single camera sitcom from Channel 4; it started in 2003 and is currently still being commissioned. It is a modern take on the ‘buddy’ sitcoms such as ‘The Odd Couple’ (1970), ‘The Likely Lads’ (1964) and ‘Men Behaving Badly’ (1992). Its key defining feature is that it is shot entirely from the point of view’s (POV’s) of the characters and that the audience is privy to the inner thoughts of the two main protagonists; Mark and Jeremy. The programme manages to play with the juxtaposition of what people think and what they say. It is an essential text to look at in regards to masculine representations as it offers new insight into not only how men act and behave but a more brutally honest reflection of the thought processes they make. As Mills (2008) states; ‘…It allows the audience access to Mark and Jeremy’s interior monologues only, thus focusing attention on the difficulties of particular kinds of masculinity’ The programme tackles, albeit comically, subjects such as racism, sexuality and disability from the perspective of somebody in the modern cultural climate. It toys with the difficulty that comes from trying to handle these taboo subjects in an acceptable way in public, and in particular attempts to paint a realistic picture of what it means to be masculine in today’s society.

The role of masculinity has changed dramatically over the past forty years, with men finding it increasingly harder to position themselves in society. This was an after effect of the rise of feminism, as women’s roles found a more dominant place and voice in the world it led to a complete turn around on the archaic idea of men as the providers and the world as a patriarchal society. While this was certainly a step in the right direction for women it left men unsure of their new place in the vastly changing world. If women were now confident and independent enough to be their own person and equal men in all manner of fields, from the work arena and socially to at home where did this leave the men? Even today this is a question that still remains fundamentally unanswered.

Social theorists believe that ‘Masculinity is the sum of men’s characteristic ‘practices’ at work, with their families, in their communities, and in the groups and institutions to which they belong.’ Edley and Wetherell, (1995, p.71) and these are precisely the areas that we view the characters of Peep Show through. We are present to every aspect of their world and the numerous personas that they need to adopt in order to survive in each. ‘Peep Show’ offers an up to date representation of masculinity, which is at once unsure of itself and constantly contradictory. Mark and Jeremy would at first glance seem to embody the binary opposites of masculine depictions. Jeremy the lay about ‘creative’ that begs and borrows his way through life foolishly convincing himself it’s in the name of art – deriving from the growth of 90’s Lad culture, and Mark the sophisticated, intelligent achiever that has his eye on the latest trends – a result of hegemonic masculinity and the more modern concept of the feminine male  – a reaction itself from 80’s ‘body culture’. They are as Mills states the ‘puritan and the playboy’, but as the series unfolds we begin to realise that it is never as clear cut as this. The two constantly flounder between these bench marks of masculinity never quite sure where they fit in, and this fundamentally is what lies at the heart of the modern male’s dilemma. It is not so much a case of what is masculine? but what is the acceptable version of masculinity to purport? So Mark constantly tries to be the ultimate modern man, aware of the needs to be emotionally aware and openly sensitive while being dependable and physically protecting but in fact the audience see how crippled he is by the embarrassment he suffers when it these types of subjects rear their head. One major factor resulting in this dilemma is the fact that Mark and Jeremy don’t really like or trust each other. ‘Friends give us a sense of belonging and provide emotional support. People without such relationships are more vulnerable to a variety of problems’ Spangler (1992, p .95). Spangler goes on to say that ‘most men expressed a fear of appearing homosexual.’ (1992, p.96) This shows that a lack of true friendship results in a vulnerability in individuals which in this case reflects Mark and Jeremy’s failure to possess a comfortable and honest masculinity, however this reluctance to attempt companionship is a by product of the hegemonic masculinity they have been subjected to from previous sources. Afraid to show any form of compassion for one another as previous incarnations of masculinity (the majority of which will have been through television) have deemed this to be unacceptable or at least showing weakness in character. This shows that the masculine roles that have gone before are just as much a cause of the masculine crisis as feminism.

As it stands ‘Peep Show’ represents every aspect of masculine identity without ever fully conforming or adhering to any one specific form. The characters undergo a vast number of attempts to be viewed in different ways. This plays in to the theory of masculinity as performance; ‘masculinity becomes seen as an act rather than an essence. It exists as a set of lines and stage directions which all males have to learn in order to perform.’ Edley and Wetherell, (1995, p.71). As the intellectual, the sensitive, the sophisticated or the butch and body conscious each attempt is undermined by the characters inability to fully agree with the accepted role. Mark attempts to appear more health conscious and fit by taking up jogging, this clearly harks back to the narcissistic urge of the body culture, but finds that he is all too aware of being ‘found out’ as not actually being that way. Mills discusses in his essay on Peep Show and the Surveillance Society the principal factor in humour arising from the characters is there inherent awareness of how others perceive them. This while siding with the idea of a society that is constantly being monitored also supports the idea of masculinity crisis. Mark and Jeremy can never fully fit into what a male ‘should be’ because they are too worry about how that looks. They are unsure of it themselves and this only makes it harder because they don’t want to be seen as being unsure. This is one factor that is amplified by the modern style of the sitcom that was previously missing in shows past. Gary and Tony in ‘Men Behaving Badly’ were happy to be the beer swilling louts they were because like most traditional comedy characters they possessed a blissful ignorance. In ‘Peep Show’ Mark and Jeremy purchase too much self awareness to the point of crippling themselves with it. With each new attempt to been seen in a different way they chip away at what true identity they have left leaving them completely unsure of the person they are let alone the person they are trying to be. As Davies and Harre (1990, p.46) suggest ‘An individual emerges through the process of social interaction, not as a relatively fixed end product but as one who is constituted and reconstituted through the various discursive practices in which they participate.’

In many ways the characters of Johnson and Superhans present the ultimate in terms of masculinity for Mark and Jeremy. Both are comfortable and in control of their own perceptions of what masculinity is. Johnson is the sophisticated and successful alpha male, while Superhans is an opinionated and vulgar ‘free spirit’ who constantly seems to have success with women and some minor success in the music business compared to Jeremy. Both Mark and Jeremy are left looking up to these idols of the male form, somehow blinkered to their imperfections, Johnson is a misogynist and dictator at work and Superhans is an avid drug user and pervert. Yet it could be said that these two clear examples of types of masculinity are shown to be wrong or at least not fully formed and that modern masculinity needs to be more than just one element. Johnson and Superhans show weakness in character as a result of their dogmatic ways, Johnson is discovered to be an alcoholic and Superhans is a constant drug abuser driven to pits of depression and paranoia. So maybe with the characters of Mark and Jeremy being unsure of what it means to be masculine they are somehow saving themselves from worse dilemmas of following one believed route.

One major criticism of masculinity in television is that the form is dominated by male opinion that most if not all programming is subject to the ‘male gaze’ this is where programmes view characters and situations from a male orientated perspective. This was true even of programmes with a much higher female demographic; audiences were viewing everything from that of a dominant male so that women were objectified and dominant hedonistic men were viewed either as aspirational figures or as competition. Meehan (1983) concluded that the ‘presentation of women always in relation to men, cheerleaders to the male players, is a male vision, the product of a medium in which male creators have predominated.’ One thing ‘Peep Show’ does is challenge this idea. While it is instantly easy to say that the text only serves to perpetuate this concept, after all we view everything from the male character’s point of views it also allows us to view them from others perspectives. So while we only hear Mark and Jeremy’s thoughts on subjects, when they provide social faux pas we also get a look at the situation from other characters around. So in the case of Toni in series one and two while we know Jeremy views her very much as an object of lust, when we view him from her POV we can instantly identify with her feeling of power and control over this love sick ‘puppet’ which her overt sexuality allows her.

There are a range of female characters on offer in Peep Show from mainstays to one offs and transient characters and they, it could be fair to say, offer more of an impact on the lives of Mark and Jeremy than any of the other male characters. One major narrative of the show is Mark and Jeremy’s attempts to find love, romance and sexual conquests. Mark is constantly jumping to the conclusion that he has found ‘the one’ within minutes of meeting any woman that shows a hint of interest while Jeremy is completely controlled by the suggestion of sexual intercourse even in some cases if he doesn’t reciprocate the attraction as in the case of Sophie’s mother in series four. Sophie too finds herself promoted above Mark in series two, which immediately opens up debate on the link between sex and status. This would seem to place the women in the driving seat which, apart from certain female led sitcoms (‘Absolutely Fabulous’, ‘Pulling’), is very rare in the genre. This could be seen as a refreshing element to the show and is also a clear indicator to the difference in gender roles. The males have yet to find an image and place in society but the females seem to have worked out their roles, successfully juggling their achievements and status’ with their need to still be regarded as attractive and feminine.

So Peep Show does seem to offer an honest and frank representation of masculinity and the different roles of gender in the Naughties. While its principal aim is to subtract humour from the situations encountered by its protagonists, a lot of the humour and the situations themselves arise as a result of the crisis of masculinity and clashing with those, primarily female, who have a firmer grasp on their role. Unlike shows such as ‘The Professionals’ (1977) or ‘Men Behaving Badly’ it does not subscribe to a singular ideal of the male, instead it provides an amalgam of personas and roles, encompassing all manner of perceived masculinity. The crisis of masculinity is not so much an era that males are going through but, in fact, the modern depiction of masculinity itself. All modern men are in crisis; it’s only Mark and Jeremy that let the world in on theirs.

References

Davies, B. and Harre, R. (1990) ‘Positioning: The discursive production of selves.’ Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 20(1): 43-64

Mills, B. (2008) ‘Paranoia, Paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me:’ Peep Show, sitcom and the surveillance society.’ Screen 49 (1), pp. 51-64

Edley, N. and Wetherell, M. (1995) ‘Men in Perspective: Practice, Power and Identity.’ Cornwall: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf

Meehan, D. (1983). Ladies of the Evening: Women characters of prime-time television. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow

Spengler, L. (1992) ‘Buddies and Pals: A History of Male Friendship of Prime Time Television’, in Craig, S. (ed) Men, Masculinity and the Media. California: Sage Publications, pp 95-96

Bibliography:

MacKinnon, K. (2003) Representing Men: Maleness and Masculinity in the Media. London: Arnold, pp 65-86

Armstrong, J and Bain, S. (2008). Peep Show: The Scripts and More. London: Channel 4 books.

Whannel, G., ‘The Lads and the Gladiators: Traditional Masculinities in a Postmodern Televisual Landscape’, in E. Buscombe (ed) British Television: A Reader (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000), pp. 290-302.

Hunt, L. ‘Drop everything… including your pants’: The Professionals and hard action TV’ in Osgerby, B. and Gough-Yates, A (eds), Action TV: Tough Guys, Smooth Operators and Foxy Chicks (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.127-142.

Hollows, J.  (2003). Oliver’s Twist: Leisure, Labour and Domestic Masculinity in the Naked Chef. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 6 (2) pp.229-248