The Granola Times

Scepticism, Cynicism & Random Musings…

Strictly X Rated

A quick look at this morning’s headlines revealed that Strictly Come Dancing has once again nudged ahead of X Factor in the ratings battle, although with both shows garnering average audiences of over 9 million, both production teams should be feeling largely satisfied.

However, given the suggestion that a lack of any genuine ‘A’ listers on the Strictly lineup this year might inhibit its success, bosses over at ITV1 must be wondering why their much-hyped, Osbourne-reinfused product still hasn’t quite got what it takes to overhaul its permatanned BBC1 adversary.

Could the answer be in reality of the competitions themselves?

SCD has a simple format: Hire celebrities, pair them up with professional partners, teach them to dance, let the audience pick a winner. Sure, some of the ‘celebrities’ increase professional exposure, briefly reignite careers, or remind people that they haven’t died- but, ultimately, one couple wins, and their prize is a naff trophy and heartfelt congratulations.

X Factor’s format used to be simple: Hold open auditions, sift some talented wheat from comical chaff, have the contestants sing-off week after week, before allowing the public to vote for a winner who’ll receive a multimillion dollar recording contract.

Yet, whilst Strictly (save for the odd change to voting procedure) has retained its solid, straightforward format with clear-cut outcome, X Factor has rather lost its way.

Firstly, they’ve given up on using themes to test versatility and star quality- now it’s all about ‘making the song your own’, and essentially conveyor belt-crafting nobodies into ready-made somebodies. But secondly, and most importantly, winning X Factor isn’t everything.

These days, catching the eye of Simon Cowell or music industry bigwigs seemingly has much more baring on post X Factor success than actually being crowned the winner. Exhibit A: One Direction.

X Factor has drifted into an entertainingly cynical manufacturing process, producing half-decent pop music fodder aimed at swelling the coffers of a music industry obsessed with commercial viability, and tabloids desperate to fill their pages with bright young things.

Which brings us to the third problem- that this is precisely how the music industry has always worked. X Factor’s selling point used to be that it somehow acted as an intervention, presenting an opportunity for both audiences and contestants to gatecrash their way through the closed doors of the music industry; when, in reality, it merely packages the workings of the industry and presents it as television. X  Factor used to promote the ‘winning’ as the ultimate achievement, but as this has become less intrinsically relevant, it doesn’t bother so much anymore- and this does create a problem in terms of narrative, and the credibility of purpose of the format. It’s not as if the X Factor is being dishonest; if anything, it’s being very honest about the nature of commercial music success these days. But maybe it is the disingenuity about the overall outcome which is affecting the ‘edge-of-the-seat’ unmissability the show once had.

Manager’s Special

Having the eponymous owner drunkenly crash his motor car before the credits rolled capped off a fine episode in which ITV1’s Mr Selfridge finally hit its stride. After weeks of setup, plotting and the occasional slice of clunky dialogue, Sunday night’s instalment proved that the drama has enough depth and quality to attract regular custom.

Twisting the established pattern, episode five switched its focus away from the store and publicity stunts, and instead chose to foreground the relationships between the characters themselves. In practice, we were treated to a collection of excellent two-handers shared among the cast, featuring scenes of tension, humour and startling sexual chemistry.

In a masterstroke of casting, Jeremy Piven (and his terrific beard), now more relaxed and less scenery-chewing than before, contrasted brilliantly with Aisling Loftus, making Mr Selfridge’s empathy and outpouring of responsibility towards employee Agnes entirely compelling. His confrontation with taken-for-granted wife Rose (Frances O’Connor) was fiery and passionate, as was her encounter with yearning painter Roddy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen); and Rose’s calm dismantling of Zoë Tapper’s scorned bunny-boiler Ellen Love was a simple, yet effective, exercise in exploiting shifting power dynamics.

Yet alongside the highly charged set-pieces, there was room for subtlety and humour. Henri Leclair’s (Grégory Fitoussi) mentoring of Agnes was tender and romantic, whilst Katherine Kelly’s Lady Mae continued her manoeuvring, her presence peppered with caustic put-downs and blunt observations.

Mr Selfridge may not quite match up to some of the illustrious dramas which have characterized the resurgence in quality television, but it is beginning to justify the razzmatazz which heralded its opening on our screens. Time to throw away that receipt and sign up for a reward card instead.

Muzza’s Magic Major & Me

As I lay staring into the ceiling, the radio announces three o clock, and I smile. What a difference four hours and fifty-four minutes makes…

Monday night begins rather innocuously. At dinner I casually brush aside the idea of switching on the US Open final- after all, they’ve only just started warming-up, no rush. Besides, you know I can’t listen to Andy Murray. It makes me tense, I won’t enjoy my food.

I don’t remember what I ate that evening.

I settle down to write a blog post, and decide to open up BBC Radio Player and drop in on the match. A break up already, a fast start. Encouraging. He then promptly surrenders his serve and a long first set ensues. Indigestion kicks in, so I collapse the window and remove the headphones.

After several minutes, the sofa beckons, as does the DAB. Tie-breaker. Chances to take the opener blown, he now typically finds himself in a coin toss, I complain. At a mini-break down I start to get annoyed. Then frustrated. And against Djokovic, of all people, I think. A man who struggled in the wind during the semi-finals, only to be reprieved on the resumption of play. Of course, he’s going to step it up for the final, but really Andy, you should be beating him, especially now. I start to become exasperated.

But the only thing worse than Murray losing, is Murray winning.

With the mini-break recovered comes the momentum, the feeling of expectation and, most perilously, the renewed hope.

I’m no longer sunken, but perched rigid, hands and fingers clasped, head down and chuntering. The commentators are getting louder, the rallies are lasting longer, and the intensity of the crowd is swelling. Set points come and go. Six all. Seven all. Eight all. Then comes the panic. Nole hasn’t had a set point, not a sniff, and yet you just know he’ll take his first chance. Come on Andy, you need to take this, you must take this. Now. Why isn’t he listening?

At twelve-ten, a set to the good, I calmly rise from my seat and remove myself to isolation. This isn’t healthy for me, and it’s deeply unpleasant to watch for everyone else.

Set two is played out in the bedroom, each attritional baseline exchange mirrored by pacing and swishing. I’m playing imaginary points, thumping away winners, sometimes entirely oblivious to everything other than the score. And what a score, two sets now to Murray, surely an insurmountable lead, even for the great champion flailing on the other side of the net.

But the only thing worse than Murray losing, is Murray winning.

A sloppy service game. A Henman-esque mid-match mental lapse. It’s forgivable, I think, this is uncharted territory for the British number one (yes, Sir Sean, he is British) and he’ll sort himself out. Tarango and Lloyd acknowledge that Djokovic is going to fight, of course he is, the kitchen sink, the whole nine yards, every last drop of sweat, blood and emotion possible will be exhausted in the quest for glory. This is Novak Djokovic, the Staminator, the man who thinks two sets-to-love down is a mere inconvenience, that six hours of blisteringly gobsmacking tennis is a given, not an exception.

And boy does he fight.

The name Pancho Gonzalez is uttered. Repeatedly. The thought starts to cross my mind, as life crosses into Tuesday, that history is being made, only the wrong kind, the kind where Serbia’s finest crafts another epic fightback, claims a shattering blow and crushes the dream yet again. I can’t listen to Andy throw it all away, can’t bear the thought of him losing in five. Curse the tennis scoring system, damn the defiant Djokovic.

Darkness fills the bathroom. I’m ignoring the piercing drama emerging from the radio. Then suddenly, a break of serve. And another. Shocking. It’s like a thunder-clap of reality, as Murray powers into a decisive lead. I rush upstairs, assume the prayer position, and berate God for making this so bloody hard.

Yet, then calm.

Whether it’s the commentary, or the sense of finality, but the tension suddenly begins to evaporate, as if a blanket of expectation which has been crushing and encompassing has been lifted way into the heavens.

Djokovic goes wide, the crowd applaud and it’s all ultimately, finally and most gloriously over. I shout something out of the window, tweet excitedly, and bask in a glory and success entirely not of my own. I’m useless at tennis. I’ve never met Andy Murray. I’m not even sure I believe in God. But at zero two thirteen, as I watch a man from Scotland lift a  glistening trophy, everything make sense in my mind, and I’m content.

Well done Andy Murray, and thank you.

 

 

London 2012: What Did We Learn?

It’s crazy to think that the Olympics have come & gone. Seven years of build-up; the protests, lawsuits, controversies, scandals and genuine fears that it would prove to be a monumentally calamitous disaster, have disappeared in the extinguishing of a flame.

So, what exactly have we learned from the experience of hosting the Olympics in London? Here are (currently) 8 things to get us started (all suggestions welcome):

  1. We worry too much. Seriously people, all that hand-wringing, fear and constantly focussing on the negative (yes, you Adrian Warner) proved unfounded. Turns out, we can actually plan & organise stuff properly. So what if a security firm forgot about fulfilling their contract, that organisers can’t tell the difference between North and South Korea, and that the London mayor is called Boris? The fact is, everything ran relatively smoothly, competitors & commentators seemed impressed, and TFL’s campaign of instilling the fear of God into commuters worked. Well done us.
  2. Ticket fiasco? What ticket fiasco? The public seats were full. The Olympic Park was heaving. Everyone had a good time. The British crowds did the nation proud by cheering enthusiastically in all the wrong places, whilst watching men in spandex grappling with each other, women in bikinis flinging themselves across sand and people doing things with ribbons and in explosions of pink dust. Anyone who missed out in the first ballot and *still* didn’t get to see anything simply didn’t try hard enough; there were re-ballots and re-re-ballots, not to mention the free events which saw streets and hills rammed full of spectators. It was never going to be a perfect ticketing system, but in hindsight it worked quite effectively.
  3. Britain is good at everything except tactile ball sports. Football, Handball, Basketball, Volleyball, Beach Volleyball, Water Polo, Shot Put: total medals = zero. It’s time we gave up wasting times on these anomalies, and instead focussed on the sports which we excel at. Namely, everything else.
  4. The BBC is worth every License Fee penny. Ok, it’s not perfect- there were a few too many presenters, some questionable editorial decisions and, well, Paul Dickenson (great knowledge, questionable race commentary skills). But on the whole, across all the platforms, the Beeb did an outstanding job of trying to cover everything the Olympics had to offer. A few people have criticised the corporation for being too jingoistic, of only showing GB performances and of being overly pally with the British team. This only goes to prove that some people are paid too much to write too little of quality.  The BBC are the national public service broadcaster, so of course they are going to focus on the national team. And of course some of the reporters know the athletes competing- they’ve followed them for years, witnessed their pain and efforts, successes and failures; which is precisely why the athletes have such a welcoming/open relationship with these media. Let’s not confuse impartiality and the BBC’s remit, with reflecting the interest of the viewing public and forging strong relationships with contacts. If you’re still unhappy with the BBC’s coverage, try watching something else. Like NBC for example. They should be showing Usain Bolt in the 100m final about now…
  5. Team GB exists. Despite its awfulness, the term has caught on. I’ve actually overheard parents telling their offspring to get ready as “Team GB (individual marathon runners) will be coming through soon!” Sigh. Even winning medals hasn’t helped Northern Ireland remind everyone of their existence. Which, given the history thing is, well, poor really.
  6. Wenlock is a divisive character. Never, in the history of workplace discussions, has one mascot split opinion in such a demonstrative manner.
  7. We all want to adopt Ian Thorpe.
  8. Everybody loves GamesMakers. How brilliant were the GamesMakers? I feared cloying falseness, but their boundless enthusiasm and energy won me over. So much so in fact that I think Boris should consider hiring them permanently. Seriously, just think how much nicer London would be with enthusiastic helpers 24/7? We shall call them DayMakers.

I’m sure I’ll think of more learned things, but these will do for starters. Oh, I have learned that Olympic Withdrawal is a REAL AND SERIOUS AFFLICTION. Unquestionably the biggest lesson learned thus far. Now, where’s that iPlayer…

Planet Earth Live: Quality Wildlife Programming Dead.

If you’re a David Attenborough fan, look away now.

Planet Earth Live, BBC1′s latest flagship wildlife programme, roared across my television screen this evening… well, it would have done, if they’d spent more time showing the bloody animals! Instead of a thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, edge-of-our-seats thrill-ride through the natural world, we were treated to 60 minutes of mind-numbing tedium designed for an attentionally deficient and perpetually ignorant audience.

Let’s get a few things straight: animals are not humans, they do not have names like ‘Luca’ and ‘Sophie’, and they are not fixated on dealing with interpersonal drama. At times it was like watching an episode of Eastenders, or reading a copy of Heat magazine, such was the inane commentary provided by Julia Bradbury and Richard Hammond, fine presenters who deserve better.

“If you were watching earlier, you will have seen Debbie struggling to feed her young, having had a falling out with the father of her children, then picking a fight with her sister in-law, before eating the neighbour’s offspring.” Ok, so I might be embellishing somewhat, but honestly, how could I not remember what you showed me THREE MINUTES AGO? And they are not having a family crisis, she’s a Brown Bear with cubs, not a single mother living in downtown Minneapolis.

Why can’t television be made unfussily, focus on the subject and provide insightful, calm narration? Why do we have to endure rampant hyperbole, cloying sentiment and idiotic close-ups? If Attenborough has taught us anything, it’s that documentary and the natural world are best shown naturally- they’re dramatic enough in themselves; all that the silly antics, tricks and flashing lights do is dumb down (yes, dumb-down) the content. And don’t even get me started on Julia ‘marking out her territory’… live!

Planet Earth Live is obviously geared to someone who isn’t me. It’s as if This Morning has rocked up on the Serengeti and, whilst I’d quite like them to dump Eamonn & Ruth smack in the middle of the jungle and leave them to fend for themselves, that’s not the point and not the window onto nature I want to peer through.

Please, save some money on expensive transcontinental folly BBC1, and try spending it on quality output instead.

 

The Voice of Reason

Battle commenced on BBC1 tonight as The Voice hit the sing-off stage to determine which acts reach the live shows. I am still watching with my back to the television, a winning formula which I recommend everyone to try (yes, I know they can see the contestants now, but it’s still quite fun, especially when the person doing poorly isn’t the person you think it is).

I’m quite surprised at how much I’m enjoying the show, seeing as I’d written it off as a one trick pony. I’m also surprised by its continual trouncing of Britain’s Got Talent in the ratings, and I’ve come to the conclusions that The Voice is winning because it’s not mean.

It’s really noticeable how friendly, supportive and un-bitchy The Voice is. It’s upbeat, praising of the participants, there appears to be little in-fighting, the judges seemingly reach a consensus and, above all, there’s no mockery or denigration.

Refreshing.

The classic format of confrontation, pantomime slanging matches and formulaic devices (à la X Factor) is made to look decidedly old hat. The Voice doesn’t waste time with backstage shenanigans, artificial tension, endless retelling of emotional backstories and, best of all, neither Ant nor Dec appear. In fact, the presenters are so low-key and unimportant, you’d be forgiven for forgetting who they were. And that’s not a bad thing, I like Holly & Reggie, but it’s not about them.

The Voice has found its voice, and I’m starting to like it.

Try A Little Defensiveness

The fact that the score was Saracens 3 – 22 Clermont Auvergne went largely unnoticed yesterday, as the front few rows of Vicarage Road’s North Stand were engulfed by celebratory French supporters doing the Conga.

Clearly, the Saracens fans knew the score.

As an impartial observer (sat next to a Clermont fan with a penchant for Morgan Parra) I didn’t mind who won. Well, at the kick-off. After about 10 minutes, it quickly became clear that the visitors were vastly superior in almost every department, particularly in their ability to hold onto the ball and score points, which it seems to me are the two most crucial elements to rugby.

And I’m no expert.

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Saracens’ biggest downfall was their lack of defense and inane predisposition to giving away penalties within kicking distance of three points, a problem brutally exposed time and again by Brock James. I’ve no idea if the decisions were fair or not; though given the referee was a certain Mr A. Roland, quite a few people were offering a different interpretation of events.

But not the French, who sang, blew their horns and waved their flags with bright abandon. Some of them, in their costumes and wigs, may have indulged in a little too much sponsored beverage, but frankly after a pint of cider and two halves of one-way traffic I was almost ready to join them. Almost. Certainly, Olivier and his bearded mate were keen for my partner-in-attendance-crime Charlotte to join in, as well as accompany them for  little post-match tête-à-tête. She declined, politely.

At £10 a ticket I had a great day out, though a little more stadium information would have been helpful; and, if I’m being honest, although our pitch-side seats were amazing, it was often difficult to appreciate what was happening, and I frequently found myself glancing up to the big screen in order to keep up with the action.

The Heineken Cup was certainly passionate and entertaining, and I’d definitely be up for some more rugby. It’s a valuable cliché to state that the atmosphere is completely different to football. Of course there’s aggression and conflict, but without the feeling that a load of frustrated drunk blokes are about to start throwing punches having spent 90 minutes baiting one another. I don’t recall a single racial slur (unlike at Crystal Palace vs. Forest last week) nor homophobic remark. There were a few chauvinistic comments directed at the half-time cheerleaders, bordering on the leery, but overall, the youngsters needn’t have had their ears covered. In fact, we could have done with covering ours, such were the screeching cries of “Come on Sarries!” sadly in vain.

Thumbs up to Rugby, and full marks to Saracens for encouraging newcomers. Oh, and totally love the camel by the way.

(Note to David Strettle: Posing is not the same as doing…)

One Door Closes, Others May Open

End of year two.

Back in November, I actually didn’t think I’d make it. But here we are, halfway through a part-time undergraduate degree programme, closer to the finish than the start. I’ve learned a lot about myself this year, and what I now need to do to make year three a much better experience all round. Here are my thoughts:

  • I actually enjoy studying: It’s taken me two years, but I think I’ve finally rediscovered that part of me which enjoys reading & learning.
  • Unfortunately, I rediscovered this sat in the library at 22.00, having been there since 10.00, frantically studying in a last-ditch attempt to meet deadlines I had weeks to meet.
  • I need to stop leaving things ’till the last-minute. Much as feel I perform well under pressure, I’m working full-time and it simply doesn’t work anymore.
  • To help this, I need to stay on top of readings week-by-week. This means going to the library, using my lunch and after-work hours more constructively when I need to, and generally making more effort.
  • I found using the library to study really beneficial. Fewer distractions, more focus, better time management.
  • Time management: I need to get me some. Combining study with work this year proved harder than last, partly a result of moving teams at work. I need to find a better balance between the two.
  • This could mean re-evaluating my approach to work & study. At work I’ve felt under pressure to prove myself and work hard, and in study I’ve suddenly found myself under pressure & been found wanting at times.
  • Part of my problem is beating myself up when things go wrong or I make mistakes. I need to stop this. I need to stop being negative about my performance.
  • Though, I could be a little bit more professional at times. It’s one thing to feel confident enough to speak one’s mind, it’s another to pick the right moments to do so.
  • Accepting help from friends works. Who knew? And I’ve had some great friends around me this year, who’ve really made the difference, when it counted.
  • Leisure time. Fun. These are good things. But in doses. And not on school nights.
  • I’m me now. Not ten years ago, or ten years into the future. This is me, now, today. I need to understand this better.
  • But the ‘me in ten-years’ scenario needs consideration. I’ve always said I’ll think about my future after I’ve finished Uni. Perhaps this needs a rethink.

So, goodbye year two. It’s not always been fun, at times I’ve wanted to throttle you, and frankly I’m relieved it’s all over. But you know what, bring it on three.

Bring it on.

Open Ended

The Australian Open gets under way tonight, the year’s first tennis major. This excites me. I like tennis. Sadly, I will be unable to watch any of the early action as the BBC have cut their red button coverage to the semi-finals and finals only. Costs apparently. This follows their decision not to bother with covering the French Open, thus allowing ITV to nab the rights.

It’s a good job I love BBC Radio 5 Live’s skillful and engaging tennis commentary.

Tennis, rightly or wrongly, is an Olympic Sport. So too is Athletics. And Swimming. Football. Even Golf now. The list is lengthy. Yet the Beeb, in their wisdom, have decided that there’s no reason to invest any time and money covering these sports outside of the Olympics themselves. The major selling point of the London 2012 bid was youth participation, legacy and the future of the Games themselves. The Olympic broadcaster here in Britain is the BBC. Yet unless parents are prepared to stump up exorbitant amounts of money on Sky/Cable television, the majority of the nation’s children won’t have a clue who any of the sports stars going for gold this year will be.

I know that Tennis is a comparatively lesser sport in this country, and I know everyone can pick a gripe with decision-making at the Corporation. I could complain about their willingness to support minority programming on BBC 3 & 4 (on subjects like science and arts) but not sport. I know we live in austere times. I know the BBC is under pressure from Government.

I could just buy a damn Sky subscription.

What really frustrates me is that the BBC’s decision to scale back virtually all of its sports coverage is symptomatic of the spineless way the Corporation’s bosses display a singular inability to stand up to successive Governments.

First, they rolled over following the Hutton Inquiry, and now they’re allowing themselves to be bullied by the Tories.

Who is making the case for the License Fee? Who is explaining the value for money and, more importantly, the inherent national interest case for maintaining it? Who is responding to the accusations of media & cultural dominance levelled by Murdoch and commercial rivals?

Yes, the BBC are supposed to maintain impartiality- but impartiality is too often assumed to necessitate adopting a negative, reactive and subordinate position. It doesn’t. Impartiality should mean proactive, positive, assertive behaviour too. It’s about time the Director General and his plethora of Vision Heads sorted themselves out, rediscovered some backbone and knuckled down for a fight that’s winnable.

 

 

 

 

Strictly Came The Dancing Librarians

Last week on Strictly Come Dancing… Me! Well, ‘Us’ actually.

Yes, thanks to the wonders of random balloting, me and my work-mate ditched the misery of our humdrum lives and waltzed our way into BBC Television Center for a night of glitz, glamour & gloriousness! I’ll forget the tedious preamble about me being late, leading to a tension filled hour waiting to see if we’d make it in- we did! Balcony seats, adjacent to the stage next to the stairs. You can see us on tv if you find the right moment and press pause. And stare intently. Squint a bit. Bit more. See? Whatever…

Anyway, we bore witness to the demise of Desperately Dullsville Dan. Someone told me he wanted ‘out’ of the series. Well he gawn.

Strictly is a lot of fun, but it’s long. We arrived at 3 and left at 10. Seriously.

Highlights included; seeing bits of equipment fall off the ceiling; the cameraman tripping up the stairs in a mad crazy dash to reposition himself for Footloose; and being this close to Harry Judd. Ooh, and walking past the Fonz in the car park.

I resisted the urge to boo Lulu, but I refused to applaud on the grounds that she’s awful. We did boo the judges, clapped like lunatics (my hands were still tender on Monday) and sat bemused through a performance by SuBo. Funniest moment of the evening came when the M.C. told us that they’d booked Michael Bublé, only to smack us round the face with the reality.

Honestly, sweet lady, but SuBo didn’t look like she knew where she was. Sad.

Finally, note to Auntie Beeb: sending us off for an hour’s interval is great, but please, please, pleeeeease- re-open the frickin’ bar in the Foyer! Not all of us are fortunate/unfortunate enough to be whisked off to the BBC Bar.

Water and Merlin after three-and-a-bit hours is not cool.

 

 

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