Tuesday, 28 December 2010
Sunday, 5 December 2010
This journalist says that weeks of snow and ice in the UK, even as early as this, are a good thing, basically because it looks pretty and children have fun! Evidently she's forgotten the frustration of people who have to try to get around in these conditions, the number of people who will end up with broken limbs after falling on the ice, the people who will lose their lives in road accidents as a direct result of awful driving conditions, or the many who will suffer because they can't afford to heat their homes properly - particularly the elderly. Even worse, her article contains the phrase "and yes...I work from home now"! Words fail me.
Sunday, 14 November 2010
Monday, 18 October 2010
Anyway, the real point of this posting is that The People Who Know keep saying that the film is vastly better in 3D. On hearing the recent hype about the new 3D process, I've groaned on more than one occasion. I'm sure it's fine in the cinema, but it really is the last thing we need or want on UK TV.
Why? Putting aside the fact that everyone has been persuaded to buy new flat panel TVs over the past couple of years and, to watch in 3D, would have to buy another new set, the main issue is bandwidth. There just isn't enough of it. The BBC has been widely criticised for dropping both the bitrate and the picture quality on its "flagship" channel, BBC HD, and any person with average vision can see that the average standard definition programme on digital TV, whether received by aerial or satellite dish, suffers badly from compression and "pixellation".
Commercial concerns mean more and more pressure to pack more channels into the same space, and the systems we have in the UK at the moment simply won't support 3D TV at anything like the required quality unless there is a major reorganisation, and more bandwidth is somehow discovered. With the economic "squeeze" only set to tighten further over the next few years, that seems highly unlikely.
Monday, 30 August 2010
I'm not sure about this. Certainly the service we got in the USA was in general more attentive, but I'm not sure that it was much more polite or, overall, any better. Yes, it's nice to be asked "How are you today?" when you arrive, but we never quite believed the asker was interested in the answer.
In one establishment we stood at the counter for about three minutes while the person behind it carried on making some sandwiches, looking up at us occasionally but not acknowledging our presence. Finally she came and said "Hello. How are you today?" as if we had just that second arrived! On another occasion, I was amused by the waitress who served us water from a jug pouring lots of it down the front of her own apron on every occasion and appearing not to even notice. She was very polite but, unfortunately, disappeared completely after leaving us the bill. When about twenty minutes had passed with no-one near to service us, we had to go and find another member of staff to pay. Ironically, our friend from the guest house told us a story of the amazing rudeness he had experienced in a restaurant in Provincetown, so obviously the higher service standards he talked about are not universal. Overall, it seems to me that service in this part of the USA is just as variable as it is back at home.
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Trawling around for more information on the programme and the Whitehouse legacy (she died in 2001), I found this very interesting article about Whitehouse's relationship with her family.
Sunday, 9 May 2010
Perhaps our best hope (although it's a slim one) is for the Tories to form a government with the LibDems which might last a year or so. That would give the time for Labour to regroup under a new leader and, hopefully, come back to power at the next election.
Of course, anything could happen to the economy in the meantime but, if there's to be any hope of a real economic recovery, we obviously need a government that's as stable as possible soon.
Monday, 3 May 2010
Something we hadn't seen before was Mary King's Close, a sobering reminder of the lives that many people had to endure a few centuries ago. More photos of the city in general on my Flickr pages.
Saturday, 1 May 2010
As you'll have gathered, I'm not a Conservative supporter. The LibDems have, in the past, seemed to me to have some sensible policies. However, Nick Clegg has shown himself completely out of touch with a large segment of the public on the issue of immigration, by suggesting an amnesty that would give the right of residence to families of some illegal immigrants.
The perception (accurate or not) is that immigration is already out of control in this country, and that many asylum seekers choose Britain as a "soft touch". This idea may not stand up to scrutiny but, then, why do so many non-European asylum seekers end up in the UK when the rules say that they should seek asylum in the nearest "safe" country to their country of origin? This is not a question of racism or xenophobia. No-one can deny that we are a small, overcrowded island facing some severe economic problems. When many retired and working class people see immigrants every day who are not allowed to work because they are still being processed by a dysfunctional system, and those indigenous people are themselves on a low income, then resentment builds up, and this has worrying implications for social cohesion in the UK. We need to be able to discuss immigration levels without being called bigots. While I've no wish to sound like Enoch Powell, surely the minimum the new government has to do is to tackle the Daily Express' "immigrant invasion" perception, even if this doesn't lead to a reduction in immigration?
Like many of us, I've lost most of my faith in policitians. I'll put my cards on the table and say that Labour seems the least of the evils to me, and I've already cast my postal vote for them.
I'm a bit baffled by the idea that people need the recent TV debates to help them decide how to vote. Surely everyone who watches TV or reads (proper) newspapers knows the policies of the main parties? If we make the decision on which party to vote for on the basis of a TV show and how well its leader performs there, isn't it all sinking towards the level of a "beauty contest"? I'm haunted by the fact that the voters in the USA (where the "TV political debate" idea originated) first saddled the world with George "Dubya" Bush on a very narrow majority, then - incredibly - voted him in decisively for a second term.
Monday, 19 April 2010
First there was the economy, with the spectacular failure of some financial institutions. The Labour government's "prudence" with the public purse suddenly looked like a complete illusion. Despite the fact that this is meant to be a global recession, for some reason the Pound has fallen to an unprecedented low against the Euro and looks weak even against the US Dollar.
Then there was inflation, with certain items rocketing in price to an extent that doesn't tally at all with the official figures - some foods in my local supermarket have gone up by 20% or more in one jump, and margarine actually increased by 100% in a matter of months. We were assured that the leap in fuel prices was due to an increase in the cost to the suppliers but, while oil fell in price, we are still waiting for a reduction in domestic gas and electricity prices.
This was followed by the coldest winter for decades, exacerbating poor people's "fuel poverty", making it impossible to walk normally for weeks and with frosts so long and penetrating that the roads and pavements cracked up. We've got used to mild winters and, with all the talk of Global Warming in the news, for most of us this was particularly unexpected.
For months we have had dire warnings of the huge size of the National Debt, and savage cuts in spending to come. Now an election is close, and we've been told not only that a Hung Parliament is likely, but also that this will alarm "the markets" to such an extent that the value of the Pound could collapse completely.
The latest source of uncertainty is the Europe-wide flight stoppage caused by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, in its fifth day as I write. As if the state of the European economy wasn't bad enough, something else to disrupt things and shake our old "certainties". (Guess who decided to splash out on a holiday to the USA this year, and booked flights with BA?) This also revives old fears of volcanic activity and the possibility of a volcanic winter...
Incidentally, despite my comments on economic management above, I don't trust the Conservatives and, as I work in local government, will be voting Labour anyway: I'm not stupid enough to vote myself out of a job!
Thursday, 18 March 2010
There are two reasons why I say this the perfect film for Blu-ray. Firstly, it's the best and most detailed transfer I've ever seen, with an astonishing amount of detail and excellent contrast range. I don't have a full surround sound system, but the soundtrack seems to make full use of the frequency range (my Rel sub-bass speaker was certainly working). Secondly, the aspect ratio is 16:9 or as near to it as makes no difference. This means that the picture fills the whole screen. I'm certainly not one of those people who would stretch a picture to fill the screen, and I'm not averse to having black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, or the sides, if that's the way the material is meant to be seen. However, I do think it's a pity that most films - even ones that don't demand huge, panoramic vistas - are shot in 2.35 or 2.39 to 1. These just don't translate so well to TV (unless you have an enormous screen) as ones that have a more modest widescreen ratio such as 1.85 to 1.
Storywise, this is way ahead of the much-hyped Wall-E (I could never understand the idea of a cute, loveable robot, particularly as this didn't even look humanoid). Several scenes in Up stand out: the early montage of Carl and Ellie's life together; the takeoff and flight above the city; Carl's realisation at the end.
The film is far from perfect - there's a certain sterility to CGI animation that I've seen mentioned by various people; the "adventure" storyline is not as compelling as the framing story; and, for a film otherwise so technically adept, the sounds of the dogs' voices are strangely unclear and difficult to understand. For these reasons I wouldn't put it in my top 5 films ever, but it certainly goes into my top 20. If you enjoyed Monsters inc, Toy story or Wall-E and haven't seen this yet, what are you waiting for?
Wednesday, 10 March 2010
The major problem in my opinion was the casting of Nickolas Grace as Vincent Price. Mr Grace seems to have played "camp" parts on a number of previous occasions and certainly brought this quality to his portrayal of Vincent Price. Unfortunately he sounded nothing like him; his American accent was unconvincing and there were few nuances in his vocalising. The other actors were much more believable, particularly Kenneth Cranham, as good as ever as producer Tony Tenser, although he wasn't asked to do much more than narrate. While it's hard to believe that Vincent Price was quite as camp in real life as the script suggests, this was an amusing play. As I post this, it's still available on the BBC iPlayer for a couple more days.
Saturday, 27 February 2010
The "Christmas Specials" in particular seemed to be pandering shamelessly to the lowest common denominator. Do we really need to have it hammered home that it's Christmas with references to the season or snow every few minutes? In The runaway bride we had not only Christmas galore but a whole sequence of the Tardis flying along a motorway (did RTD forget what the Doctor's ship actually was?). As if credibility wasn't already strained enough, there was shot after shot including trees clearly visible in full leaf - a sequence obviously filmed in the summer. The 2007 episode included Kylie Minogue (obviously for no reason other than publicity) and the immortal line "It must be after midnight on Earth: Christmas Eve." Did RTD stop to consider whether his dialogue made sense? The following year we had snow, a Victorian setting, Cybermen and a giant version of a Cyberman that was wedged uncomfortably into the story to please the kids, again with no thought of its place in the plot. I know it's important to please the audiences, but does this always have to be done by lowering standards?
Time and again, RTD relies on a "deus ex machina": in The parting of the ways Rose acquires miraculous powers from the Tardis and saves the day. In Last of the Time Lords the Doctor is imbued with superpowers because the people of Earth believe in him, and literally flies out of trouble to "zap" the Master. In Midnight (otherwise an interesting story) the Doctor fails completely and another character has to sacrifice herself to save the day - similarly, in the following episode Turn left, it is Donna and not the Doctor who acts as the hero.
Time and again RTD tells us that something is an absolute and cannot be changed, only to then change it: in The parting of the ways, the Daleks have won and killed Captain Jack (Rose turns back time, kills the Daleks and brings Jack back to life); in Doomsday, Rose makes her exit trapped in a parallel universe and can never see the Doctor again (she returns several times); the Doctor cannot save the Mars colony in The waters of Mars because their deaths are a focal point in history (he saves them).
Possibly the worst of all RTD's stories was David Tennant's departure, where any possibility of emotion was killed by his chaotic plotting and oversentimentality. The whole two-parter had a plot riddled with holes in a story that was meant to be about the return of the Time Lords but gave them nothing to do. Why was June Whitfield's group of senior citizens in the story? Why (other than that it might amuse the kids) does the Master suddenly have the ability to fly? What was the point of reintroducing Catherine Tate as Donna, then to do nothing with the character? How could the Doctor survive a fall of hundreds of feet, then just get up and walk away? Since we've already seen that editing has progressed way beyond the 1970s, why do we get shots of characters pointing a gun at each other and waiting several seconds, unable to decide what to do? If the Doctor is dying of radiation sickness, how can he heal all his wounds and then carry on as if nothing has happened, with time to take a whole series of trips around time and space before regenerating? This was all particularly sad since the performances (with the exception of John Simm) and the direction ranged from good to excellent. I have just one plea to Steven Moffat at the moment - please find a new composer! Murray Gold's music may go with RTD's heavy-handed storylines, but better writing deserves a vastly more subtle accompaniment than MG has ever given us.
I realise I could do no better - I have tried in the past and failed. You might be interested in the letter shown below (a larger version is linked on my own web site). In this, the script editor who was undisputably the "old" Doctor Who's greatest writer outlines to me and a friend the important factors in constructing stories for the programme. Does anyone spring to mind who regularly breaks all these rules?
Saturday, 20 February 2010
Having heard of Isherwood in connection with the brilliant film Cabaret, I remember browsing the book in a bookshop many years ago but deciding that it was too depressing for my taste. Although the film was sometimes self-consciously "arty", it was beautifully shot, impeccably acted and emotionally quite affecting. The very well-chosen cast including Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult ironically has a Brit playing an American and an American playing a Brit, although you wouldn't know this from the accents. The novel may well have been of only marginal interest to my younger self. I seem to remember it being sexually explicit - the film isn't and (I think) benefits from this. However, the book is certain to be back in print now and, as soon as I've posted this, I'm going to order it via Amazon.
Thursday, 18 February 2010
For me, this portrayal of Rome works much better than, say, the film Gladiator because it isn't so "po-faced". I love the colloquialisms that others criticised - to hear a character say "She gave me a look like Medusa on the rag" just makes it all the more real for me, a reminder that ancient Rome had its everyday side, easily forgotten when you go into a museum and see only great statues or buildings.
I'm not a huge fan of TV and film violence, and there are moments in the series when I have to look away, but the brutality and casual cruelty that feature largely in the programme seem to me exactly right for the time and the society that are being depicted.
Saturday, 30 January 2010
In case anyone reading this has never heard of Laurel and Hardy (unlikely but possible) they were a comedy film double act who started in silent movies in the 1920s around the same time as Charlie Chaplin, had their greatest successes with their sound short films of the 1930s and ended their joint career in the 1950s with stage tours of the UK. While Chaplin's films have dated fairly badly and now come across as clever but very rarely funny, L&H's films are still hilarious for people with a certain sense of humour.
At their best (which means in the 1930s Hal Roach films, almost all of which are included here) they aren't just funny - behind the slapstick is a warmth, somehow an affection for each other and the viewer. This also comes across in Stan Laurel's replies to fan letters, being collected and shown on line in the fascinating Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project. The films are also fascinating as social history, painting a vivid picture of life in the early 1930s and offering some bizarre insights into Stan Laurel (the thin one and the "brains" behind the act) and his relationships with women. Almost without exception, the women in Laurel and Hardy films are suspicious battleaxes, vengeful when deceived (which they frequently are) and liable to attack the duo with axes and guns!
Laurel and Hardy - The Collection contains perhaps 80 short films (20 or 30 minutes, probably around three quarters of them with sound) and approximately 7 feature films. It's difficult to be specific about the numbers as there are foreign language versions of a few films that duplicate the content, and some of the silent films are incomplete.
There are a few niggles about this box set. The animated menus feature the same scene (from Way out West) on every disc in the set. Why? This very quickly becomes annoying. The crudely colourised versions are also a waste of disc space, and the final disc contains a shoddy documentary. This runs around an hour and a half and is very lazily produced, including large chunks of the colourised films and featuring clips of various US TV personalities praising the duo. None of the films and none of the interviewees (apart from the presenter, Dom DeLuise) are identified! Worst of all, at the end, DeLuise says "Stan Laurel was holding Hardy's hand when he died in the hospital". I can only think the filmmakers made this up - by all accounts, 'Babe' Hardy died at his mother-in-law's house in the early hours of the morning. Stan knew that the end was near but didn't hear that his partner had died until some hours later.
Despite all this, at its current very low price (I think I paid £40 from HMV) the box is a must for lovers of Laurel and Hardy.
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
My sincere condolences to his family and friends.
Saturday, 9 January 2010
More than once lately I've noticed meteorologists indulging in the habit of revising a 5-day forecast downwards as the day approaches. Midweek they were telling us that the maximum temperature in Newcastle on Saturday (today) would be the magic 5 degrees celsius. Just a day later this was down to 2 and now to zero - as it happens, exactly as it is now according to my thermometer. Congratulations for being able to tell us the weather by the time it's arrived! It certainly seems that meteorology is not an exact science - but if this is the best they can do, why bother at all with "monthly outlooks" and forecasts for seasons ahead?
And do they really need to rub it in? On our local news broadcast the other evening I actually heard the forecaster say "no let up in the freezing weather - and there's plenty of time for it to get even colder!"