Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Public Transport Grumbles

Another rant, I'm afraid. I think I've said here before that the Tyne and Wear Metro doesn't provide the service it should, or that it used to. I have quite a list of grumbles: fares going up well above the rate of inflation every year; distorted station announcements with the beginning cut off for months at a time; ticket machines that don't work and no published timetable for the supposed investment in new ones; dirty and overcrowded trains; services that finish just when you need them most; having to wait 20 minutes on more than one occasion with the board saying "Next train 2 minutes" for the whole time and no spoken announcement. From the dismissive replies I've had to a couple of letters about Metro's shortcomings, I get the impression that the Metro management is not really interested in customer service.

The thing that gets my goat the most - and this applies to the buses too - is that there are no trains on Christmas Day or New Year's Day. On New Year's Eve, I've just discovered that, as on Christmas Eve, we get a reduced service, with only one train an hour from 6pm. Is this because of lack of demand? Hardly. New Year's Eve is potentially one of the busiest times of the year for public transport. People want to travel to enjoy themselves, are likely to be drinking alcohol, and walking is not an attractive option because of the weather. Where are the posters about the Christmas and New Year shutdown? I've been looking for the past couple of weeks and haven't seen any. I didn't know that "the usual" was happening until today, when the words "NEW YEARS EVE HOURLY SERVICE FROM 18:00" flashed up on the board at Gateshead.

If national and local government are remotely serious about reducing car usage and drink driving, then public transport has to be regarded as an essential service like hospitals and power stations - operating 365 days a year. I've no doubt passengers would be prepared to pay a little extra if necessary to give drivers a Christmas/New Year bonus, and I'm sure drivers could be found to work on these days. To go on year after year shutting down public transport at such important times shows an astounding degree of complacency. As some European cities (such as Berlin) manage to run public transport then, it'll be interesting to see if the proposed Metro takeover by Deutsche Bahn brings a change...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Moth Bollock Orus

There's a TV newsreader that arouses mirth or complete bafflement in me whenever I see them. The mirth is because this person's diction is so bad that the news reports often end up unintentionally hilarious. The bafflement is that anyone would employ a person who speaks so badly to read the news!

This person has a speech impediment like Jonathan Ross, but that's not all. It's coupled with a tendency to gabble incoherently for a few words at a time, so that the content is reduced to gibberish. Any news story is now impossible to follow because I'm listening for the next bit of 'Stanley Unwin'.

Anyway, this person usually pronounces "Yesterday" as "Yisterday", something I've never heard in any regional accent. I choked on my cereal a few months ago when a story about the Nissan Ka somehow came out as "the Nissan fuckaa". More recently, we had a sentence apparently about the "decisiona moth bollock orus-plant" - which turned out to be the tragic and depressing story of the Corus plant on Teesside shutting down. The person may be a perfectly good journalist but they are definitely not cut out for reading the news. If they were a member of the local amateur dramatic society I used to belong to (the Progressive Players in Gateshead) I would expect directors to say "X has got the looks, but isn't a good actor" . Unfortunately, we're talking here about a supposed professional. A newsreader with Tourettes? Quite a novelty...

I'm trying to be kind here by not identifying this person in any way. However, if anyone reading this knows who I mean, please message me privately and let me know if you agree!

Friday, 4 December 2009

The cause of "Scroogism"?

I often find that Christmas arouses "non-traditional" feelings in me, such as gloom and irritation. Since late adolescence I've found the whole thing a huge chore, and the traditional bonhomie of the time often strikes me as fake. Commercial interests have had their way in getting us all to believe that it starts earlier every year, to the extent that even local authorities now put up street lights in November - several weeks too early in my book. It seems so unfair on the many people for whom Christmas isn't all sweetness and light - I have an aunt and two work colleagues who've all been bereaved in the last few weeks: I'm sure all the exaggerated cheer is going to seem bitterly ironic to them.

Recently it struck me that one reason for my finding Christmas such a pain is probably SAD (Seasonally Affective Disorder). I can't remember ever enjoying winter much, and the excitement of Christmas probably fades for everyone from the age of about ten, but the following certainly rang a bell with me when I read it.

The symptoms of SAD usually recur regularly each winter, starting between September and November and continuing until March or April.

A diagnosis can be made after three or more consecutive winters of symptoms, which may include a number of the following:

  • Low mood, worse than and different from normal sadness
  • Negative thoughts and feelings
  • Guilt and loss of self-esteem
  • Sometimes hopelessness and despair
  • Sometimes apathy and inability to feel
Sleep Problems
  • The need to sleep more
  • A tendency to oversleep
  • Difficulty staying awake during the day and/or disturbed sleep with
    very early morning wakening
  • Fatigue, often incapacitating, making it very difficult or impossible to carry out normal routines
Cognitive Function
  • Difficulty with concentration and memory
  • The brain does not work as well, or as quickly
Social Problems
  • Irritability
  • Finding it harder to be with people
  • Tension
  • Stress is harder to deal with
Loss of Libido
  • Less interest in sex and physical contact
I've believed for some time that I suffer from this, but my slow brain (on account of the effects of SAD?) never really made the connection between this and my vague dread of the Christmas season. Once all the other spending is out of the way, my New Year's Resolution is going to have to be to investigate light boxes. Has anyone reading this found the use of a light box useful against SAD?

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Draculas

Recently I bought a DVD set of the ABC/Thames Television series Mystery and Imagination. Although this dates from the late 1960s, I'm (just) old enough to remember it. I particularly recall being scared out of my wits as a child by a scene in which a long-dead man was discovered preserved in a locked room, with cobwebs over his eyes! I now find that this was a tale called The Tractate Middoth from an M R James story, and that this programme was sadly lost (or thrown out) from the archives years ago. The surviving episodes were released this year on DVD, and watching Dracula (the remaining one I was most keen to see) got me reminiscing on its various versions.

Probably the scariest was the original Nosferatu (1922). Full of German Expressionism, this virtually invented a lot of horror film conventions such as long shadows, stark lighting and grotesque variations on the human form. Being a silent film, it's less accessible than one with a soundtrack and doesn't hold up too well with the short attention spans of today's audiences. The version with a score by Hammer Films' great composer James Bernard seems to me the best one.

I have distinctly mixed feelings about the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) and wonder if everyone who cites it as their favourite version is really prepared to sit through the whole thing more than once or twice. Admittedly, the opening scenes are atmospheric, but only the first twenty minutes or so are watchable before the film becomes unbearably slow and stagey. Lugosi's performance is certainly iconic and created the image of Dracula that still persists in the public consciousness - but was it any good? Again, it's a stage performance rather than a film one, and he's so determined to sound menacing that his heavy accent and laboured delivery of dialogue often become ridiculous. The line "We will be leaving. Tomorrow! Ee-ven-ing!" is probably more likely to elicit laughter than chills in anyone under about 60 these days unless they're a horror "geek". Don't get me wrong - I don't think Lugosi was a bad actor, but he really hadn't developed his craft by this time, and actually gave better performances in silly Ed Wood films like Bride of the Monster.

Hammer Films took the world by storm in the late 1950s with their then-shocking horror films in (never before seen) colour. These were faster paced and slightly more realistic, and Hammer's unflinching treatment means they work perfectly in 2009 as "adult fairy tales". Their 1958 Dracula condensed Bram Stoker's novel very effectively to work within its low budget and, of course, it had two of the most appropriate performers ever to work in this field in Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.

By 1968 it could be argued that the story of Dracula should already be permanently in the cold ground – done to death by repetition. However, the Thames TV production was quite different from the Hammer film series (that would soon go into a rapid decline).

Talky and slightly theatrical, it is – despite this – more interesting than either the 1979 John Badham version or the more recent Coppola one. Like other low budget versions, this one "scales down" the novel, omitting its more epic scenes but concentrating effectively on the middle part of the book. Denholm Elliott is no substitute for Christopher Lee as The Count (then, who is?) but he gives a competent performance. Colin Redgrave as Harker and Susan George as Lucy are both fascinating to watch, but Bernard Archard as Van Helsing sadly continues the tradition of silly voices in Dracula adaptations with a very distracting accent more redolent of Calcutta than Amsterdam.

Some scenes (such as the meeting with Dracula’s brides) are very eerily done, while Dracula’s final defeat is a strange mixture of clumsy staging and convincing effects work. The slight twist at the end is a nice touch, too. A minor version, but worth seeing.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Blu-ray: opinions

Six months after buying a Blu-ray player (and recently joining the "full HD" TV club) I thought I'd share my opinions with anyone reading this.

Plus points:
1) On a full HD TV, most films and programmes look and sound better than they do on DVD, considerably better than they do on Freeview TV, and slightly better than on BBC or ITV HD.
2) Given the right kind of connection and TV, a Blu-ray player will “upscale” your DVDs to 1080p (the highest HDTV standard available in the UK) better than most DVD players
3) Blu-ray players are now available at a similar price to DVD players (unless you think that £40 is enough to pay for a DVD player)
1) The choice of Blu-ray discs is still small
2) There is usually more than £3 difference (i.e. what I would consider a reasonable differential) between a Blu-ray disc and the equivalent DVD
3) Blu-ray discs can be slow to load and navigation is often more awkward than on DVD. This is hard to forgive, as disc designers have had a long time to get the ergonomics right
I only paid £120 for my Sony 350 Blu-ray player at Richer Sounds and am pleased with it. However, as we had a 32-inch HD-ready TV and I then wanted a 40 inch full HD set (which we’ve just got) it ended up costing my partner and I a lot more money than I first guessed. I really want Blu-ray to take off, but I think they’ll have to reduce the price differential.
Unfortunately, most people are so uncritical that they’ll pay a lot of money for a flash TV and still watch it on “vivid” mode, often with old non wide-screen programmes stretched horizontally to fill the screen. It baffles me that people prefer to watch a programme like that – a bit like the “colour snobs” who refused to watch any black and white programmes when they got their first colour TVs. If the photographer decided to “wide screen” their wedding photos so that the happy couple turned out 33% wider and ended up as happy hippos, would they still be so ecstatic? I think not.
Anyway, my worry is that, because the majority of people don't care about video or audio quality, direct-to-TV downloading will catch on faster than Blu-ray. If it does, this could well be the death knell for HD broadcasting. We’ve seen that ISPs and even the BBC are always penny-pinching on bandwidth, using more and more compression. The Beeb has just got new encoders for the BBC HD channel but simultaneously cut the bandwidth by 40%. Hardly likely to prove that it’s committed to quality… More on this at http://www.avforums.com/forums/hd-tv-programmes/720572-bbc-hd-not-up-required-standard.html (by the way, Ozzzy189 is not me).

In my opinion, Blu-ray has to succeed, or HD programming will eventually die out because “There’s no demand.”

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Windows 7 pricing: a rant

By all accounts, Microsoft's Windows 7, released on 22nd October, is everything that Windows Vista should have been. Why, then, is Microsoft ripping off customers who bought Vista, and not trying to win their loyalty by offering a reasonably priced upgrade?

I forked out a lot of money two years ago for Windows Vista Ultimate Edition. Several times I thought of downgrading to XP because it was so sluggish on a dual core desktop machine with 4GB of RAM. I stuck with it, installing a Service Pack that did not speed things up at all, and the frequent security updates that mainly exist to paper over design flaws. I naively expected Microsoft to be reasonable with its pricing when the upgrade to its new OS appeared.

A month before its release, the cheapest I can find an upgrade to Windows 7 Ultimate Edition is £169.98 - £10 more than the full version! Just what's going on?

Films That Stick With You

Here are the 15 films I find most memorable. Once again, these are in order by the (approximate) date that I saw them. I should add that I love all of them except number 10. I think this is an awful film that infuriates me in the way it threw out almost everything good in the original novel, and gets universally extravagant praise purely because Stanley Kubrick is treated as a god in the world of film.

Other films to which I've taken a strong dislike are Pulp Fiction (we don't need film-makers trying to make violence seem "cool"), The Evil Dead, The Descent and The Straight Story (the last one for completely different reasons to the others).

1. A Taste of Honey
2. The Knack and How to Get it
3. Bedazzled (1967 version)
4. The Wicker Man
5. Cabaret
6. Planet of the Apes (1968 version)
7. Carrie
8. Pardon Us (Laurel and Hardy)
9. The Terminator
10. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
11. A Room with a View
12. Pleasantville
13. The Sixth Sense
14. AI - Artificial Intelligence
15. Star Trek (2009)

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Books That Stick With You

On ThePickards blog, Jack Pickard suggests we should "name fifteen books that [you] have read that will always stick with [you], and also do the same thing for films that [you've] seen. In each case, we don’t have to be talking about favourites, merely stuff that has stuck with you for some reason."

I've put the books into rough chronological order based on when I read them, rather than when they were published.

1. The Silver Chair - C S Lewis
2. A Passage to India - E M Forster
3. Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A Heinlein
4. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole - Sue Townsend
5. The Shining - Stephen King
6. Caution! Inflammable! - Thomas N Scortia
7. The Front Runner - Patricia Nell Warren
8. The Death of Grass - John Christopher
9. Urn Burial - Robert Westall
10. The World According to Garp - John Irving
11. A Smile in his Lifetime - Joseph Hansen
12. The Cider House Rules - John Irving
13. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J K Rowling
14. Darkest Day - Christopher Fowler
15. The Subtle Knife - Philip Pullman

I'll post again with my films.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

England People Very Nice

We went to the theatre (National Theatre, Olivier auditorium) during last weekend's trip to London. England People Very Nice by Richard Bean, an episodic play about waves of immigration into the Whitechapel district and their effects on the locals, was entertaining and very well staged. I particularly liked the lighting effects, the projection of different settings and animations onto the basic box set. The performances were also uniformly good. The play itself was a bit more questionable, throwing out mixed messages. In the early stages - about the Irish and the Jews - it was "the poor, abused immigrants" but then the issue was thoroughly confused by the story of the Islamic militants and the Somalis who are given accommodation (according to the play, the tabloids etc.) ahead of the indigenous population.

Of course, this is a controversial area. If the tabloid newspapers are to be believed, there is a widespread perception that Britain is a "soft touch" when it comes to immigration, and that thousands of people make their way here because they believe they can claim benefits, and because the country's record on expelling illegal immigrants is poor. Whether it's accurate or not, the Government needs to address this feeling and it seems it isn't successfully doing so.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Photos of Spain

I've posted a few photos of my recent Spanish holiday up on Flickr - have done Granada and hope to add some of Seville in the next couple of days.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Holiday Happiness

I'm just back from Spain, with that extra self confidence I only get on holiday. It's hard to describe - a feeling that your life can be more than the humdrum existence at home, and that you're a brighter and more attractive person than you normally feel. It didn't work for me in last year's UK holiday, but I think Spain has a special magic. We spent ten days in Andalucia - flying to Málaga and then going to Granada (as advised, by bus) the next day, spending three nights there and then getting the train to exotic Sevilla, finally taking the train back to Málaga to fly home the next day. (Quick quiz: how many nights did we spend in Seville? ;-)) In part, of course, that feeling of well-being and optimism is down to the heat and the sun and, as this week so far has been nice and warm (if not always sunny) on Tyneside, I think that's prolonged the holiday effect.

If anyone is interested, I took more than 1,400 photos (!) while I was there, and will be posting a small (I promise) selection of these on my Flickr pages as soon as I've winkled out the best ones.

The temporary holiday "glow" has also boosted my libido no end but, as I've resolved to keep this blog clean, I'll say no more about that.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Sir Peter that never was

I was pleased to see in the Saturday papers that Christopher Lee is now Sir Christopher. I've resisted the temptation to go for a tabloid style title for this observation (Fangs for the Honour, Arise Sir (Count) Christopher)...I'm sure they were all trotted out yesterday when it was first announced, and it would only annoy Sir Christopher anyway if he were to read this. It was nice to see an underrated talent recognised. He is now 87, and probably more successful in terms of international recognition than he's ever been. While he would probably admit that he isn't the world's most versatile performer, he is a great personality with a sense of humour and ability to move an audience (Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy etc.). He has also (it has to be said) been the only convincing actor in the role of Dracula.

Sadly, Peter Cushing was never honoured in the same way. An even greater actor, capable of projecting a completely cool and callous persona (as in his Frankenstein films) or a strangely pitiful one (Grimsdyke in Tales from the Crypt), he was also renowned as a complete gentleman. No-one in the business ever seems to have had a bad word for him - something that can't quite be said of Mr Lee (sorry, Sir Christopher) who, on occasions, has been described as egotistical and bad-tempered. After the death of his beloved wife Helen in 1971, Mr Cushing lived only for his work. He gave some of his greatest performances in the 1970s but then became increasingly frail and went into semi-retirement in the 1980s. He never complained about being typecast as a "horror star". Peter Cushing died in 1994.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

MPs’ “gravy train”

Being a bit of a cynic, I wasn’t really surprised by the recent revelations about MPs’ expenses. I felt a vague sense of sympathy for Speaker Michael Martin when he was “grilled” in the House of Commons the other day, but he really did have to go: it must have been as obvious to him as to others that he had completely failed in his job. The House of Commons should feel collective guilt for their appalling attempt to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act but, in supporting this, the Speaker was going against the principles of democracy and, for this alone, deserved to be ousted.

Some MPs seem to feel it’s their birthright to take money from the public purse. I was amazed by the tone of some of the statements from Tory MP Anthony Steen, boasting about his large house and then asking “What right does the public have to interfere with my private life” – completely failing to acknowledge that it was his (and others’) misuse of public money, and their subsequent attempts to hide this, that caused the whole row.

I’m not a Tory supporter and dread the result of a General Election this year, but I definitely have some sympathy with John Wick, the man who passed on the details of MPs’ expenses to the Daily Telegraph, when he says that the official version due for publication in July had lots of details censored, and that the public has a right to know about MPs' affairs given how much information the government is collecting about ordinary citizens.

BBC's slipping standards

Comment sent to BBC via their web site this evening:

This morning on BREAKFAST there were at least two (I think three) clips in the feature on Morrissey where 4:3 footage was "stretched" to 16:9. I am not a follower of Morrissey, but this picture distortion was immediately obvious to me. For a professional broadcaster, this is simply shoddy. I'm sure your editors and engineers have heard of zooming and cropping - or, of course, they could have used pillarboxing with vertical mattes.

The analogy that always comes to my mind is wedding photographs - no-one would consider accepting these if the bride and groom were shown 33% wider than in life, so why does the BBC (that we expect to uphold broadcast standards) do this?

This isn't the first time I've seen this on the BBC. I get slightly irritated when I see spelling mistakes in BBC captions too (which seems to get more frequent), but they've probably got more of an excuse for that. The people who put out TV "magazine" programmes are trained in broadcast techniques - I'm not, and I spotted the distortion immediately. That must mean they can also see that it's not right, but just don't care.

I know lots of people actually have their wide screen TVs set to make all 4:3 material look "fat" but surely we can expect higher standards from the BBC than from your average, uncritical viewer?

Saturday, 2 May 2009


I've wondered what the bird is that's been waking me (in a rather soothing way) at 5am for the past few weeks. Every few seconds the musical notes go and it sings "Wicka - wicka - wicka", like a car alarm. I've read that song thrushes are very keen mimics of repetitive sounds and, if you hear a song that uses repetition, it will be a thrush. Could it be one of the same family that nested in our garden (in the fork of our drainpipe) a few years ago?

I'm more inclined to think that it's one of the blackbirds that are ubiquitous in our area. I know they're great mimics as well, and I've spotted one recently on top of one of the tall blocks of flats dotted around our housing estate.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Want to save money? Scrap the ID card

We've heard a lot lately about the desperate financial straits our country is in, and how eager the Government is to save money. All this is very worrying, and it certainly needs to try to ensure we're not deep in debt for a whole generation. There's one area where definite and large savings could be made with only a relatively minor degree of political embarrassment - i.e. by the Government admitting that its plans for a National Identity Card are misconceived and vague, and scrapping the whole project.

The aims of the project are very vague, and the Government has been publicly criticised by its own advisors for trying to do too many things. Every citizen who knows anything about information technology knows that all of our recent governments have been technically naive on databases, and have an appalling record in both getting large databases to work (at a cost anywhere near their original budget) and in securing confidential data. We are told that the scheme will protect us from terrorism, but without any convincing explanation of how it will do this.

The official projected cost of the project is currently around 5 billion pounds, with rumours that insiders believe it will rise to at least 10 billion. Unfortunately, David Cameron has said that the project should be cancelled, almost guaranteeing that it will not be dropped in the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it"

I really wish companies selling technology-based household appliances would adopt the above motto.

For some time I've fancied a DAB clock radio for my bedside. I've put off buying one for years because none seemed to have a design that came close to what I need: a clear display and simple alarm operation. Now I've been given one and, sadly, it's even worse than I'd expected. As a radio, it's great - good sound quality and much better reception than I've ever had on FM; as a bedside alarm clock it's almost useless.

So what are the problems? First, the display. Why does apparently no-one make a DAB clock radio with an LED display? This is fairly obviously the only kind suitable for bedside clocks. It's easy to see in the dark, even by short-sighted people like me, and it doesn't keep you awake by casting its light across the room. Every DAB clock radio I've seen (including the one I've got) seems to have an LCD display. This needs a backlight to be seen in the dark. Even on the dimmest setting, it's like having a light on in the room; regardless of the backlight setting, without glasses it's impossible to read unless I put my face right against it.

Then there's the alarm. My twenty year old FM radio with LED display has a simple slide switch to select between alarm off, buzzer and radio. I hold down a button to set the alarm and then press one button for hours and another for minutes. The new DAB clock radio has four alarms that can be set only when the radio is off; then I have to set them with a complex series of button presses (hold ALARM for 3 seconds, use up and down keys and then use ALARM again within a couple of seconds). Once an alarm is active, the display doesn't show this unless it's set to "small text" - then I can't see the time from bed. This means I can't set it with any confidence that it will go off at the right time. I need a reliable alarm clock so, reluctantly, I will have to give it back and revert to my old one.

I can think of other examples where things worked perfectly well until the powers that be decided they needed "upgrading" and, in the process, spoiled them. Microsoft is particularly prone to this. In versions of its Word software up to 95, bulleted and numbered lists worked perfectly. In Word 97, for some bizarre reason they decided to store the information for these in each PC's registry instead of the logical location, the document template: in every version since, creating a bulleted or numbered list using anything other than Microsoft's default settings has been a complete nightmare. Then there's Windows itself. XP was a rather bloated but still usable OS that was "upgraded" to Windows Vista, which offers no major improvements and slows down a dual core PC with 3 or 4GB of RAM to the extent that it runs like a dog with three legs.

What do you think? Have you any other examples of technology that has been "upgraded" and now doesn't work as well as it used to?

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Splashing out

I'm feeling a little bit guilty about splashing out on a Blu-ray player, since I'm still waiting to hear the results of my job evaluation that may mean a cut in salary. Blu-ray discs are still much more expensive than standard DVDs too. However: our two-and-a-half year old Cambridge Audio DVD89 has been playing up, showing shadows on light parts of the picture and what looks like randomly increased contrast (the dark parts of the picture suddenly look too black). I've also been trying to use it as a CD player and, despite favourable reviews of its audio quality, have found it cuts off the first couple of seconds of each track on certain CDs. Obviously that's enough to ruin the "musical experience".

I first had the idea of replacing the player when I saw that there were Blu-ray players from Sony and Panasonic that got glowing reviews - at under £200. Apart from the fact that I'm now sceptical in general of reviews in hi-fi magazines, at least they weren't telling me I had to spend a fortune. I would (in effect) get three players in one (CD, DVD and Blu-ray) for less than the price of the DVD89. The choice was between the Panasonic DMP-BD35 and the Sony BDP-S350. Both were in stock at our local Richer Sounds (for the best prices I'd seen advertised) and I plumped for the Sony - it was slightly cheaper and the remote control was more compatible with our Sony TV.

Although I only have two Blu-ray discs up to now, I'm impressed with BD image quality. The Simpsons Movie looks brilliant. The other one is The Company of Wolves and I suspect I should have plumped for a much cheaper SD disc here - it's a rather grainy film that seems to have had an indifferent transfer. With the continuing price gulf between DVD and Blu-ray, it looks as if care is needed when choosing which format to buy. Incidentally, this player seems to manage CD Audio fine, without any nasties like cutting off the start of tracks.

Saturday, 31 January 2009


We went to see Cabaret at the Sunderland Empire last night. This touring production (directed by Rufus Norris, featuring Wayne Sleep as the EmCee and Samantha Barks as Sally) really just served to show how brilliant the film was.

On the plus side, the stage show generally looked excellent, with appropriately tacky sets for the Kitkat Club and more subdued colours and lighting for the boarding house. Samantha Barks as Sally shows great promise and gave an impressive performance in the musical's better songs.

Unfortunately, attention to detail was sadly lacking. Anyone who knows a word or two of German can tell you that their translation of "Miss" is not pronounced "Fraw-line", and yet here, we had at least three supposedly German natives saying it that way. While that would be understandable in an amateur production, in the professional theatre it just isn't good enough.

The problems didn't end there. The whole thing didn't seem to "gel": while the female lead and the dancers were all thoroughly professional, some of the other major characters looked as if they weren't trying hard enough. Herr Schultz was given at least three songs but, sadly, Matt Zimmerman (playing him) showed no talent for singing. Jenny Logan's Fräulein Schneider sounded more like the cliché Jewish mother than a native of Berlin. Wayne Sleep seemed to forget to act at all for 50% of the time, and never came across as remotely convincing. Some of these problems are no doubt the fault of the musical itself, rather than the production: almost all of the songs omitted from the film came across as pointless and forgettable. "A pineapple for you"...what was that all about? The bottom line is entertainment value, and this one had us checking our watches more than once before the end.

Overall it was an interesting evening, but we're glad we didn't fork out for the more expensive tickets!

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Desert Island Discs

New Year's Day can be pretty grim - one way of lightening things is to go out for a walk (which I'll be doing soon); another is to listen to some good music (my plan for later on).

Catching the famous theme from Brief encounter on Classic FM one Sunday morning reminded me of how wonderful I think Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos are - and there are more reasons than that film why Number 2 is his most popular. Later on, listening to Radio 4's Desert island discs (and exercising my prejudices, thinking that some of the guests' musical choices are unbelievably poor) made me think of my own list of favourite records. Try it yourself - if you have any love of music at all, it's quite hard to get it down to eight!

  • Debussy's La mer (strangely enough, not all about his mother...). Debussy was a pioneer of a whole new musical sound, dubbed "impressionism", and this is probably my favourite example.
  • Finzi's Severn Rhapsody. An encapsulation of everything that's good in pastoral "English music" in less than seven minutes, this is an amazing piece. I only discovered this one about three years ago.
  • The Police's Message in a Bottle (from "Regatta de Blanc"). The eighties pop track that I think has stood the test of time better than any other.
  • Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto number 2. Enough said!
  • Ravel's Bolero. One of my eccentricities is that I collect different versions of this, and currently have more than twenty. It can be quite boring if it isn't played right, but a good performance is electrifying. However, contrary to Ravel's instructions, it sounds much more exciting if the tempo is slightly increased throughout. The best recording I've heard is a Decca recording from Riccardo Chailly conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.
  • Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. See my post Dark and Tempestuous for more on what I think of Vaughan Williams.
  • Villa-Lobos' Forest of the Amazon. I'm always going on about Villa-Lobos and how underappreciated he is, and this is one of his most colourful and uplifting orchestral/choral works.
  • Villa-Lobos Piano trio number 2. The wonderfully melancholy berceuse-barcarolla in this really speaks to me - its use of rhythm and conterpoint take chamber music to a level of sophistication I had never heard before, and it seems to be saying that even in a bleak and strife-torn world, there is always hope.
The presenter of the radio programme always asks which one disc the guest would choose if all the others were being swept away: this is even more difficult but, for me, I guess it would be Forest of the Amazon.