Lost in London

A look at London and life in general through the eyes of someone who sometimes can't bear to watch.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The harsh reality

The demise of Big Brother has gained a large amount of coverage in the press. Channel 4's decision not to renew the show's run beyond its 11th series in 2010 seems to have been portrayed in various media outlets as a victory for quality programming and the death knell for the so-called reality TV genre.

In fact, Channel 4 haven't 'axed' Big Brother as such. They've just decided that when the current contract runs out, they won't be renewing. The lights in the Big Brother house won't be dimming for the final time until this time next year, so it's hardly the whipping off the airwaves that some would have you believe. The reality genre has mutated many times during its lifespan. From a gentle start filming families and workers going about their daily business, to the artificial environments created by shows like Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here, the genre has made heroes and villains out of a cast of thousands, has been going strong for the last 40 years or so and shows no signs of stopping, despite Big Brother preparing for its swansong.

I never really saw Big Brother as a reality show. Despite its early insistences that it was a social experiment, it was essentially a gameshow, at best a personality contest. The first two series did have a factor of the unknown about them: in the first, nobody thought so many people would be watching; in the second, nobody truly thought anyone would bother to watch it again. As production teams, sponsors and TV executives got wise to the revenue-generating power and PR potential of the show, the format was tweaked, contestants manipulated and the editing process polished to sway the viewing public. The role of playing God moved after the fourth series from the viewers themselves to the producers.

Even people who don't watch Big Brother have something to say about. Remember John Humphrys's frankly embarrassing tirade against Big Brother and the reality genre in the McTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival back in 2004? Denouncing the show as damaging, he was forced to admit a little later that he was not a regular viewer of the show. Most of the show's detractors don't actually watch it and the loudest calls for its removal from the airwaves are often from those who are already doing something better with their time when it's on. I stopped watching it three series' ago when the casting stopped being to my personal taste. I've seen three episodes of the current run and and am a little glad I haven't tuned into the whole thing, although I still found myself intrigued by the goings-on. It's quite an investment of time and energy and I don't think it's worth it to me any more.

That said, it does have an audience and is a massive hit with the 18-22 age group. As new generations grow up with Big Brother, there's still mileage in the brand and the potential cast is getting bigger and bigger. That Channel 4 has decided to have a creative rethink and focus on making dramas that the 18-22 year-olds currently glued to that slot will avoid is a brave move. Much braver than deciding not to renew a show that still generates revenue. Only time will tell if they've made the right decision. Five and Sky have so far denied that they have any interest in producing the show, but I doubt we've seen the last of Big Brother. Someone, somewhere is watching and waiting and when the time is right, he'll be back.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I lift my cup

I am usually late to any party, be it a mix and mingle at the neighbours' or the figurative kind. One particular party I'm rather glad I wasn't on time for was the viral video phenomenon that is 2 Girls 1 Cup. Friends have been banging on about it for years and I had always resisted watching it. Last night. however, I had something in a lull in my sanity and decided to premiere it in my very own living room. I won't 'spoil' it for anyone who's not seen it yet, but it does involve poo. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but go on YouTube and search for reaction videos: you'll get the general idea from the looks on the faces of the millions who've taped themselves watching it. The internet really *is* a load of shit, on this occasion at least.

I have always had a very weak stomach. As a child I would have to stand outside butchers' shops as the smell of dead animal sent to me into convulsions. Dog poo on the shoe- an all-too-frequent occurrence- would leave me speechless with fear and even the scent of a lemon meringue made me lose my breakfast all over the dining hall as 7-year-old. There was a boy who lived on my street for whom a weak stomach was simply not an issue. He, allegedly, had no sense of smell or taste; or if he did it was severely impaired. He had no fear, giving the bullies of the area ample fodder. All manner of dares would be batted his way and he would take part in them without flinching. This will of iron apparently extended to him putting faeces in his mouth, lending him the nickname of 'Shit Eater'. Being so young at the time, I can't remember if I ever saw him actually doing this, but the image has stayed with me. And every time I think of it, I heave. Watching 2 Girls 1 Cup brought it all flooding back. Ugh. Although I must admit a sadistic pleasure in watching my other half view it for the first time; I laughed for about a decade. And filmed it. What's wrong with me?!

And don't even get me *started* on 2 Girls 1 Finger. I don't think any amount of therapy will mindwipe that monstrosity.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

When extra toppings go bad

When you eat out, getting a little bit extra is always good. A bigger portion is always a nice surprise, but when your added bonus has dropped from the chef's head, the fun factor decreases significantly.

While in Edinburgh (I was in Edinburgh last week; did I mention it?), I stopped at a cafe for lunch with my other half and a friend. Unless you're laying out £££ for a spendy meal or in a half-decent restaurant, Edinburgh's not that great for food, especially lunches. When I lived there, hours would be spent counting off places to eat on our fingers as we dismissed every bar and cafe in the city because of some previous horrific experience. Either that or we would trudge around sulking at the lack of decent eateries and bemoaning the fact that we had had dreadful lunches from one end of town to the other. Things aren't much better in London, but at least we haven't exhausted every place just yet.

So we sat down and after waiting a while to be seen, we ask for menus. I liked up and down the menu with trepidation, picturing in my head as I read the words the limp-lettuced salads, greasy paninis and uninspiring burgers. Having plumped for a chicken burger, I was most surprised around three quarters of the way through it to find a coarse black hair poking out of the bun and waving at me. I closed my eyes and opened them again. Hair still there. More blinking ensued, but my burger refused to lose its burgeoning toupée. I started to feel a bit awkward. There was no way the burger was going anywhere near my mouth again, but I'd eaten quite a lot of it already. If I complained, would they think I was trying it on?

I bit the bullet and complained, as quietly as possible so as not to alert other diners of the possibility of finding something furry in their lunch. The waitress didn't seem to be that bothered. I said I'd like it taken off my bill. She went away and returned some minutes later saying they wouldn't take it off the bill but would make me another one. As we were with a friend, I didn't want to make a scene. I had something of a dilemma here. If I refused the new burger and demanded it be removed from the bill, it would embarrass my friend. If I refused the burger and paid for the hairy one, it was (to me) and admission that I had been trying it on and had put the hair in myself. If I took the new burger, I would have to eat it. I took the burger. I wish I'd complained now; the second one was even ranker than the first and just came on its own as they'd thrown my fries and salad away with its hairy predecessor.

I'm not a serial complainer but I do hate being ripped off. Was I unreasonable on asking for it to be removed from the bill? Should I just let it go and move on? Yes, I think I should.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The gentle touch

When I was in Edinburgh, I read an interview with comedienne Laura Solon where she said that people-watching wasn't a good way to get the basis for a comic act, as people don't tend to do very much when out in public. I couldn't agree more: people-watching is fun for the very first few minutes, but beyond that, you're just watching people walk past you.

What struck me about the article wasn't Ms Solon's observations, but the fact that throughout the article, she was referred to as a 'comedian' or 'comic'; the word 'comedienne' didn't get a look in. It's becoming increasingly common to ignore the feminine variants of roles these days. Actresses prefer to be called actors and even waitress seems to be slipping from favour.

I seem to remember reading some years ago that these words have been dropped as they're seen as sexist and women prefer not to have the gender distinction made. I'm not a woman, so it's not for me to say what they should and shouldn't be called, but as someone who loves words, I have to say that I would hate to see the death of comedienne, actress and waitress and all their fellow feminine words. Not only do they look better written down, they also sound more interesting and exotic when you say them out loud. If you put the emphasis on the second syllable of actor, it sounds almost sneery, mocking. Say it. Act-or. Act-OR. Not particularly affectionate, is it? The word actress, however, doesn't take any shit. You just can't mock it.

I speak French and one of the things I love about the language is that it has masculine and feminine words. In English we say 'calculator', which, if you translated directly into French using the rule that 'or' = 'eur', would make 'calculateur'. This version of the word does exist but the French prefer to girlify the common old calculator and now she's a 'calculatrice' and thus, if you want to be all literal and turn it back into English, 'calculatress'. A calculator plods its way through your mathematical problems: it's dependable but functional and essentially a dullard. Your calculatress, however, tears her way through your logarithms, destroys your algebra and polishes off your myriad multipications without so much as breaking a nail. She's the Alexis Carrington of the mathematical world.

While I accept that roles which define men and women may be a barrier to gender equality, I dare say lexicographers nationwide are going to miss those lovely ladies.

Monday, August 10, 2009


I have just got back from a short break in Scotland. I spent a few days in Carnoustie with my dad and his wife, but the rest of my break was taken up with the very serious business in doing as much of the Edinburgh Festival as possible. I have had a strange relationship with the festival over the years: I lived in Edinburgh for a few years from the late nineties and used to find the festival something of an inconvenience. Save for the odd show, the only goods I'd get out of the festival would be the extended opening hours of bars and clubs and, er, getting to know the strangers in town for the event. Edinburgh really is consumed by the festival throughout August: the population swells and the whole city is unrecognisable, transformed from a grey, proud capital into a fun, boisterous place. Dour grannies make way for enthusiastic performers and the place is all the better for it.

It is more or less a tradition for permanent residents of Edinburgh to hate the festival, at least outwardly. The influx of RP accents and bright young things prancing around in Victorian clothes or full theatrical make-up doesn't really endear the event to the Edinburghers. Many Edinburgh folk are turfed out of their flats by landlords who want to move in more-moneyed temporary residents for the month of August, prices seem to shoot up out of nowhere, taxis become scarcer than unicorns and the quantity of amateur bagpipers increases tenfold. Secretly, though, I think they love it. Venues spring up in the most unusual of places and the city seems surrounded by a warm aura that you don't get during the remaining dank months of the Edinburgh calendar.

This year, I managed to see 8 shows and missed around 10 more that I would have liked to have seen. Eight shows in 3 days may not seem like a lot, but going to see performances is extremely time-consuming. First of all, you have to pore over the umpteen festival guides to find shows you may be interested in. You have to then spend half an hour cursing that the show you really want to see has just finished 10 minutes ago. You'll then forget to see it the next day. Then it's time to queue for your ticket. For a full festival experience, your show should be sold out after you've queued for aeons. Once you do get your tickets, you need to get your drink to take in with you (the venues are notoriously hot *and* some shows are so bad they can be much improved by inebriation.) You think you're finally at the main event, but no: you have to queue up again, this time to get in the venue. Once you're in, you're in for at least an hour and then when you're out, there's the obligatory drink in the bar to dissect what you've just witnessed. And then the process starts again.

When I lived in Edinburgh I probably saw a maximum of 3 shows for the entire three weeks. I never bothered with the main International Festival, which was usually lots of opera, high-brow dance or Shakespeare. The Film Festival didn't really appeal, either, what with films being much longer than live shows and there being all that festival quaffing to do outside the darkened auditoria. So it was the Fringe that I would frequent, although my experience of it all was mainly confined to the various bars that pop up here, there and everywhere. Now that I'm an Edinburgh ex-pat, however, I try and fit in as much as I can in the few short days I have there. There's some great stuff to see, but, man, there's a lot of dross too. Going as we did this time in the first week meant that not many shows had been reviewed or seen by anybody else, so it was hard to get a feel for what was good and what was absolute bobbins. Last year, we went in the third week and got a much higher hit rate. You do pay less for tickets in the first weekend, though.

And now it is over, and here I am back, feeling a bit blah. I was quite proud of myself for managing to fly there and back (my heartfelt thanks to Diazepam for making this possible). I know that this makes my so-called carbon footprint considerably larger but, come on, I didn't fly for ten years until last year so I reckon I'm due a little bit of aviation experience. I have also come back hopelessly addicted to Kopparberg pear cider. I don't think I could have got through some of the shows without it. So all-in-all, a marvellous festival fuelled by tranquilisers (for the flight only, I assure you) and pear cider. See, you don't need 'Glasto' for rock and roll.