file_0004A long time ago now, I worked in record shops for nearly a decade: eventually for two nationwide chain stores, but before that, in a tiny independent shop which specialised in heavy rock and indie but which was on the list of shops for the Gallup charts as used by Music Week, Radio 1 and Top of the Pops. So every time someone bought something you scanned the barcode, or entered the catalogue number on the back.

My first day was Saturday, 25 June 1988. I had just left school, having performed disastrously in my A levels and knowing full well that I’d have to retake them. The main thing I remember about my first day, apart from writing up the masterbags for cassettes to be stored under the record racks, was having to listen over and over again to one of the week’s new releases: a plodding heavy metal instrumental version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz. It sounded like some testcard music for when they lost the signal for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show.

The worst thing about this tiny shop was that it was tiny. It was the size of someone’s living room. It was so tiny that we had no stock room area away from the shop floor to process deliveries. We had to crouch on the floor and open the boxes while the customers were there, squinting in panic at invoices while impatient youths stood over you wanting to be first with that copy of Iron Maiden’s new shaped twelve-inch picture disc of ‘Eddie on fire’ or something.

I ended up working there all the way through college and even university vacation. I rarely listened to metal at home, but I had to concede that it was refreshing to listen to something different at work (we didn’t just play ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, we even stocked some other things). Plus I was undoubtedly a useful presence as I knew the poppier stuff, and we sold a lot of that too.

And, in every shift, more senior colleagues introduced me to stuff I didn’t know and hadn’t heard. We had no iTunes, or Spotify, or Wikipedia, where you could check What People Had Released. All that existed was a frantically well-thumbed Music Master catalogue behind the counter, there was a phone, and your own memory where you’d incrementally archived gobbets of info from the music press, radio and TV. And this was a time when a lot of long-deleted records were reactivated via this burgeoning new format: the compact disc. Every day, then, was an education, albeit a badly paid education, during which you might even be subjected to LPs by Helloween.

I would never claim to have an infallible working knowledge of music, but I would say I was – then, at least – brilliant at working in a record shop. Partly because I was polite and helpful, but also because I knew about music that I didn’t necessarily like but which customers did. You’re there to help, whether it’s someone who only visits a record shop once a year, or someone who is in every day, and yes we did have people who were in every day. Mainly, admittedly, the youth who wanted all thrash metal LPs ever and who wondered aloud who’d win in a fight between Joey Belladonna from Anthrax and Kerry King from Slayer.

All the while, in your head, you were absently continuing to fill in a rough exploratory map of music for your own use and pleasure. Facts, figures, tunes and lyrics were stored away for daily pop quizzes with customers. Their questions would be cryptic but usually could be boiled down to: ‘What is this song I’m looking for, and can I buy it, please?’ They would often sing bits of it at you while other, louder, different music was blaring from the speakers. Perhaps my finest achievement was being asked, ‘I heard it on the radio, it’s got a banjo on it, I think’ and replying, ‘Is it “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” by Del Amitri?’ It was. ‘Yes, we have it. Would you like the album?’ SALE. Kerching.

BBC4’s The Secret Science of Pop, shown this week, also began in a record shop, albeit a deserted one (it might have been the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill, west London). In this rather annoying programme, the evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi was seen rifling through the racks while declaring that although he had little knowledge of pop, he had extensively studied fruit flies (‘earworms’, yeah, see what you did there), and so he was embarking on ‘a journey’ to measure pop through algorithms. He assembled a team of data scientists to analyse five decades of hits and sounds, to reduce pop to its bare essentials, aiming to try and make the ultimate pop song. In practice, what it did was suck all the mystery, joy and spontaneity out of recorded pop: the effect was akin to Johnny Ball on Think of a Number chewing some sheet music.

Although the programme was not made by BBC Music but by the science department, it felt as if this wasn’t just an attempt to make a mean/average pop song, but also an attempt to do the same with the whistle-stop tour of pop’s history documentary. I’ve lost count of how many versions we’ve had now of ‘When BBC4’s Ageing Demographic Slumbers Through The Bill Grundy Clip Again and Again’. It might be time to give these things a rest for a while.

For pop isn’t a science (and in any case, there wasn’t a lot of incisive scientific analysis in this programme either). Those who truly excel at pop are conscious of its past but always bring something new to the table. But this programme seemed to encourage the homogenous, the average, like getting a focus group to make a record. Inevitably, the weird and the unusual were left on the fringes. By the end, a young singer called Niké Jemiyo and the record producer Trevor Horn, who both agreed to participate in the process, looked as though their time had been royally wasted. Because it had. ‘Non-linear effects – they’re the hardest to get at,’ concluded the scientist presenter. ‘Given enough data, we will work it out.’ Nah, you’re fine.

Pop expressed as statistics and graphs and formulae is fun in passing, but it’s a bit like memorising Guinness Hit Singles books for trivia quizzes while never listening to the music. The amateur map I was internally constructing in my years in record shops is, I’m afraid to say, now out of date; I took my eye off the ball at some point in my mid-thirties, so to speak, and though I know the map’s changed, and I remain interested in new stuff, I know I could never really work in a record shop again. Because even though all the information is out there, what’s gone is my playful ability to connect it all up, even if those connections only made sense to me. My map is still full of landmarks, but I’ve never been so aware that it’s also full of holes.




Tall people really stink. According to research carried out at the University of Otterglans, Idaho, which is a real university and a real place that I’ve just made up, which means that the research probably doesn’t exist either, tall people are statistically more likely to absolutely stink.

I mean it. Or do I? It doesn’t matter – the main thing is, if you are tall or one of those liberal snowflakes that saw a tall person once, you will be offended, and will leave outraged comments underneath this blog entry, so we can have a debate about this, which (don’t forget) is based on something specious that I invented simply to provoke and enrage you. 

This is how the news works now. And, although I have really tried not to discuss Twitter on this blog so far, it’s increasingly how Twitter works. About two years ago, when professional trolls had already become the rotten meat and pissy drink of the service, I decided to conduct a part-time experiment, to see just how they liked it if you tried to distract them, or insulted them, or badgered them, or simply laughed at them and took the piss out of them. 

What I didn’t do was actually argue with them. There’s no point arguing with them, partly because of the limited character space on Twitter, but also because their argument is frequently based on lies. Lying is what you do now. The so-called President of the United States does it. The Leaves campaign did it last summer and still do it. Tabloids do it every day. So there’s no point wasting energy trying to engage in discussion, because they just want a reaction. 

The first person I trolled was third-class brain Toby Young. I asked him ‘what night is bins’ quite a lot (hence the title of this blog) because of some stoopid column he’d written. Since then, I’ve bothered everyone from 90s radio oaf Jon Gaunt (who now looks like Kenny Rogers disguised as a neglected hill), to gelled wanker Milo Yiannopoulos (asking him his favourite Pacman Ghost), to that masked recruitment douche Old Holborn (it’s easy to find out that coward’s real name). 

And many of them blocked me. You can see the full list at the top of this blog post, although technically Aled Jones blocked me because he searched his name after I was rude about his barely broadcastable TV review show for BBC2. The rest are all deliberate, conscious wind-ups. (And before you ask: Hopkins, Farage, Morgan, Hannan and a few others have surely muted me.)

Is this a thing to be proud of, in the cold light of day? Perhaps debatable. While I am thrilled to have annoyed several Sun staff, including its editor-in-chief, showbiz hack, political editor and even its entire politics twitter feed, is it energy well spent? Probably not. But I hate bullies, especially when they’re paid bullies.

Ignore them. That’s what you’re told. And it’s true that taking the piss out of them is still engaging with them. But the point is, they are going to carry on doing this because they will lie and yet they will still get mainstream exposure. And reporting them is almost always a fruitless exercise.

And then this week, I discovered that – according to Twitter rules – you can be spectacularly racist and misogynistic and bully people and troll the grieving and vulnerable and Twitter seems to do very little. But if you call a professional troll a ‘cunt’, you get a warning immediately, which explains that only your followers can see your tweets for the next 12 hours. It’s not clear if the word itself triggers an automated response, or if someone complains. But the warning pops up with immediate effect, which leads me to conclude it’s automated.

copy-of-file_000This morning I did the same to Nigel Farage, who claimed that Malmo was ‘the rape capital of Europe’, presumably another piece of research from the Otterglans team. So I told him to ‘cunt off, you ashen liar’. I’ve dreamed up better insults, I know (for instance when I called him ‘a grasping dead-eyed toad of shit’), but I stand by it. And I appreciate that not everyone likes the c-word, even though according to research at the University of Otterglans, it is by far the best, most effective swear word. The point is, his tweet – extremely unpleasant, and designed purely to stir up ‘debate’ – is allowed to stand. My response seemingly is not. Which leads me to wonder: are people cautioned for insulting the disabled, for racist language, for Nazi support?

And this is where I wonder where we are going with this toxic atmosphere of provocation, that apparently as long as you can have an argument about it, that’s healthy, oh and also it’s lots of traffic on Twitter. What is the point of having an argument based on something that is specious? Isn’t that a waste of breath? Because Nigel just does it to get people to ring his shit radio show. And having James O’Brien on the same station, by the way, is not balance, LBC.

I keep being told that once you tell someone to ‘fuck off’, you’ve lost the argument. But what if there is no argument to have because the premise is bollocks or needlessly inflammatory? Then you have to spend a lot of unpaid time presenting evidence which they won’t read anyway, proving beyond doubt that Otterglans isn’t a real place. 

I have two basic Twitter rules. Be polite, because after all many people I come across are lovely, and interesting, and funny. But if they’re a git, you are allowed to tell them to go fuck themselves. Because according to extensive study at the University of Otterglans, telling them they’re a‘ cunt’ and to ‘go fuck themselves’ does officially mean you have won the argument. And if your opponent protests that decision, you are allowed to cite this blogpost as official evidence.

Next week: why brown bread is more dangerous to our national security than white bread. 


file_000Maybe because it’s felt like the 24-hour news media has been laughing at us for months, but I’ve started to be plagued by the memory of a most disturbing record. ‘The Laughing Policeman’ by Charles Penrose is the aural equivalent of being poked in the ribs by The Sun. You rarely hear it nowadays, but in my childhood in the 1970s, Junior Choice on Radio 1 was still playing it. It was already fifty years old, yet no child I knew liked or enjoyed it, and I suspected that grown adults were writing in to troll us by requesting it.

Even now, it makes me feel queasy for several reasons. As an infant, I shunned an ITV children’s show with the same title, even though it featured Deryck Guyler off Sykes and whom I liked, because of its inevitable theme tune. If it came on the radio, I would make a quick getaway, defeated by a mixture of embarrassment (‘Stop doing it, this isn’t funny’) and alarm: ‘Why is he laughing, again and again? He doesn’t sound happy. Why?’

What did this police officer, one presumably in busy full-time employment, find so uproariously funny? Miscarriages of justice? Assuming he was ‘always on the beat’, what sort of weekly targets was he expected to meet? Did his laughter impede his ability to arrest potential suspects? (We discover, at least twice, that yes, it did.) Did his colleagues in the force suffer from other behavioural quirks, like the Crying Desk Sergeant or the Petrified Superintendant?

Is this the ultimate example in comedy of ‘You had to be there’? Because nothing, not Duck Soup, not Seinfeld, not even Three Up Two Down, is that funny. Nothing warrants four ferocious choruses of whooping and barking that makes Kriss Akabusi sound like Droopy the Dog. And it brings to mind another tiresome record that Junior Choice patronised: ‘I’ve Lost My Mummy’ by a now-disgraced Australian entertainer, which replaced the machine-gun laughter with furious mock-sobbing. Who on earth was this rubbish for?

‘The Laughing Policeman’ has no sincerity. It’s the cabaret at Trump Tower. You can imagine Nigel Farage miming to it; it doesn’t laugh with its eyes, only its lungs, a kind of physical exertion like clearing your throat. It’s laughing at nothing – whereas at least David Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’ attempted puns with an ‘-ome’ suffix. One of my favourite bits of laughter in pop, though, is Bernard Sumner on New Order’s ‘Every Little Counts’ where he splutters over the line ‘I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo’. Here the laughter sounds genuine – because he’s trying not to laugh.

If only ‘The Laughing Policeman’ were an isolated offence by Charles Penrose (aka Charles Jolly). But no, for this was a self-styled ‘laughing comedian’. Its B-side on its 1926 release, ‘Laughter and Lemons’ is, disconcertingly, a barrage of forced mirth over the Open All Hours music. There were, still, others: ‘The Laughing Major’, ‘The Laughing Ghost’, ‘The Laughing Monk’ (sadly not a Trappist one), and – a sure sign that someone will not shut up – a sequel: ‘Laughing Policeman Again’ in which the policeman finds a girlfriend who also laughs inanely. As that Glasgow Empire heckler perceptively said of Mike and Bernie Winters, ‘Oh fuck, there’s two of them.’

It seemed appropriate, in the week that Desert Island Discs celebrates 75 years on the radio, to check if anyone had ever chosen ‘The Laughing Policeman’. Four people have, including Twiggy and Hugh Grant, and I shudder to think of having that in your list of eight for ever more. What is it there to do – maybe it was to remind company-starved hermits of how to laugh? And it reminds me why I dislike that laugh certain comedians do: not the laughter of amusement, more the laughter of existence, tediously and constantly reminding you they’re still in the room while other people are speaking. At least Paul Whitehouse’s Chuck Perry character on the radio phone-in parody Down the Line has a point to his relentlessness: formless laughter simply at the inappropriate or even mundane subject under discussion.

It has given me an idea for a new TV drama series, though:

‘The Laughing Policeman’: Like Midsomer Murders but set in the fictional village of Hillarity. DI John Lafferty (played by, I dunno, Robson Green, it often is) tries to solve crimes of murder, except he can’t because he’s laughing. We don’t know why yet. Theme tune is ‘The Laughing Policeman’ but slowed down, like off a John Lewis advert, and sung by Emeli Sande. Repeated Fridays on ITV3. Be there.




blog-diary-mockup-150117It is strange to read of a time when, technically, you really were alive, yet remember nothing about it. I often wonder why no-one can consciously recall their early life. Perhaps it’s because, as infants, we are so busily absorbing the basics – of feeding, bathing, dressing, our surroundings, understanding and then adopting vocabulary and meaning – that there is no capacity in our mind to record even seismic events. We are so enthralled by the present that there is no space to look back. I can barely remember a thing before the spring of 1974, when I turned four years old, and so to read of 1971, in daily vivid detail, is disconcerting. I was in the world, after all. But what was I doing?

Sarah Shaw’s 1971 is wonderfully brought to life in her book, Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary, published last summer. It dutifully records every single day of her professional and personal life that year. She began the year aged nineteen, working at the BBC’s Schools Broadcasting Council at the Langham Hotel building. At the time, the BBC had just begun to experiment with sex education programmes on television and radio for primary school children, and it is startling to read some of the complaints and reactions that the SBC received. It feels like prehistoric times, and the kind of sexual politics that Sarah encounters often reflect that too.

Meanwhile, she writes about her own romantic education, after meeting an Irish lift attendant called Frank, who is much, much older and married. With empathy and humour, it nails the obsessive thought processes of what happens when you meet someone special, and details all the strategies of how far to go, like a chess game. It’s about falling in love, then out of love and back in again, at times even wondering if it’s love at all.

What gives Portland Place an edge over ‘celebrity diaries’ lies in its fearless openness, which stems from the teenage Shaw’s assumption that these contents of these entries would never be shared. When Alan Bennett and Michael Palin write their entertaining, thoughtful diary entries, deep down they know that this stuff will eventually connect with a wider public. There are no ‘Had lunch with Cleese at the Ivy’ entries in Shaw’s story, and though a TV personality or two brushes past, these are cameos that are barely at extras level. This is not a book about celebrities.

For most of 1971, Sarah lives in a hostel close to London’s Victoria station. She goes to see films and plays, listens to music, writes her own songs and plays the guitar, reads avidly, socialises with colleagues, and sometimes returns to suburbia at weekends to see her family. Even so, at times not much happens, and she describes watching Morecambe and Wise on TV with such relief that it reminds you how unforgiving and drab a Sunday could be in those days. Furthermore, when an entry appears like ‘My challenge today was to find out the date for Good Friday in 1973,’ it hammers home how tough it was to research something Wikipedia could clear up today in five seconds.

Meanwhile, the lift of the Langham acts as a secret compartment for her life with Frank. It is the starting point for their adventures, and offers them a freedom of sorts. On Monday 9 August she writes:

‘Is life like a lift? We are on ground floor when we are born, and reach the top floor when we die, and in between we go up and down at different speeds, stopping at different floors.’

It’s a striking observation. But the lift is also a metaphor for a confined space, and sooner or later, one she must escape from. (Fortunately, Shaw does reveal in two postscript chapters what did happen next.)

I have rarely kept a diary. I used to joke that there was no point; I can eerily recall to the exact date when something happened. I even once tried writing a diary in retrospect, trying to remember the content of each day of 1988. I can’t bring myself to tell you what that was like to revisit years later. But reader, I shredded it. With relief.

One’s diary is not an act of memory until you re-read it; writing a diary is about a near-instant reaction. These days I sporadically write a journal, for the downside of not writing about one’s life isn’t that events go unrecorded. It’s that they remind you of how you thought, and even more crucially, how you felt. I definitely had a squeamishness about emotions when younger, and had I bothered to keep a diary for when I was nineteen (1989–90), it would make for painful, lonely and needy reading: stumbling around university on an unsuitable course, longing for friendship and romance, but mainly hiding in the arts library reading back copies of The Listener, or shuddering in bed. That year felt like being in a trap: stifling and dangerous, but aware that admitting defeat and leaving would feel like regressing. So you stuck at it, somehow.

It is almost miraculous that Portland Place’s raw material survives at all. Sarah Shaw had never written a book before, and she only found the diary when clearing out her attic. It’s not just a compelling, novelistic account of someone’s life as an independent young woman, but it’s packed with detail, subtlety and humour. I’d like to read more by her.

Sarah Shaw’s Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary is published by Constable. Sarah Shaw also has an excellent blog, which you can find here.


room-101-illustrationIn early 2015, Len Goodman off Strictly Come Dancing and the Farm Foods advert was on the TV panel show Room 101, more than ably hosted by Frank Skinner, in which celebrities and sometimes comedians compete to have their pet hates consigned to oblivion. Len’s selections included ‘all foreign food’, ‘the Metric system’ which was introduced in the UK forty-six years ago, and, most remarkably of all, ‘too much choice’. I’m guessing he voted Remain.

For me, Len’s appearance underlined the shift between the attitudes of millennial Room 101 – too often a howl of despair at ‘modern life’ (it even has a regular category called that) – and those attitudes of its early incarnation. Because when the programme began, in January 1992, it was less about banishing the Present Day than rejecting the Past. Back then, it was a low-key lunchtime radio series, with one guest not three, and no studio audience. Somewhere between a comedy show, a chat show and a game show, Room 101 launched just a fortnight before Desert Island Discs celebrated its golden jubilee on BBC Radio. And it’s probably one of the funniest radio series ever made.

For its origins, it’s back to the summer of 1990. After BBC Radio 2 aired a short series about all-time worst films, called Talking Turkey, its producer Harry Thompson received some feedback. ‘Two people sent a letter the same week, both suggesting a “bad records” show,’ remembers Room 101’s original producer Lissa Evans. ‘One was called “Devil’s Island Discs”, the other “Desert Island Discards”. And Harry said, “Does anyone want to do something with this?”’

Evans immediately thought of the stand-up and actor Nick Hancock as a presenter, ‘because he’d always made me laugh, he had this emphatic delivery’. She had previously booked him for a spot on a series called The Cabaret Upstairs in 1988, and for a topical sitcom called Little Blighty on the Down. But Hancock had also been a relatively early exponent of comedy about trivia, thanks to a double-act with Neil Mullarkey – where they, with limited resources, recreated title sequences of old television shows – and a series for the satellite station BSB called La Triviata.

A show about hated records had been done – Radio 2’s Hit List in 1982 and 1984 with guests including Kenneth Williams, Denis Norden and Claire Rayner – so Evans and Hancock expanded the idea to also encompass terrible films, books, people, places, TV programmes and objects. Both of them fans of George Orwell’s books, it was the host who hit upon the final title, and which resulted in probably the only comedy show to boast a theme tune by Eurythmics.

Despite what its producer rightly describes as ‘a perfect pilot’ (with Paul Merton as the guest), Radio 1 inexplicably turned it down, and so the series would battle with cruddy medium wave reception over on the newly-created BBC Radio 5. For a show that asks a lot of a guest, Merton grasped its sense of humour almost immediately. When subjected to Kenneth More’s laugh from the film Genevieve, his groan contains proper horror.

Stand-up comedy in the 1980s had been political, observational or surreal, but rarely directly autobiographical. This gave way in the 1990s to a more personal take on comedy, and guests on Room 101 were encouraged to choose items that could evoke personal experience, a way of forcing them away from pre-prepared material and into some quite revelatory and individual anecdotes. The result was not just good comedy, but a superior kind of talk show.

So when Jo Brand chose ‘Angie’ by The Rolling Stones, it was less about the record itself than a misguided early relationship her parents disapproved of. Frank Skinner remembered awful bus journeys in the West Midlands. Caroline Quentin recalled her unsung days in the original West End chorus of Les Miserables and the modest role of ‘Blind Beggar’. Danny Baker lambasted his brief spell as a presenter on a consumer TV show. David Baddiel brought along a lo-fi tape of his own teenage band with a future indie rock guitarist on lead vocals. Jenny Eclair shivered about her early 80s attempt at recording The Kinks’ ‘Tired of Waiting for You’. Steve Punt reminisced about the harsh limitations of the Bontempi keyboard as a Christmas present (‘Look, I’m sorry – I asked for this, but this is rubbish.’) And perhaps best of all, the late John Walters harked back to his personal nightmare: in a recording studio playing trumpet for the Alan Price Set.

This was an exercise in catharsis and closure, about safely transferring one’s past hell from the jail of one’s mind into a dustbin of a room. And relax. Assuming, of course, that Nick agreed your argument was strong enough for the selection to be banished.

In radio days, it was easy to collar willing victims. ‘It was so last-minute,’ says Evans. ‘We’d get the guests the week before, perhaps even the day before recording. Then I’d rush down to the record library to find clips.’ For occasions when the guest’s suggestion was accepted, she would also find material to put ‘behind the doors’, such as Derek Jameson, ‘Seasons in the Sun’, Norman Tebbit and the showjumper Harvey Smith’s rendition of ‘True Love’. Sometimes, she would mischievously rile the host, like the time she put in footage from a cup defeat suffered by his beloved Stoke City.

In all, Radio Room 101 lasted twenty-seven episodes, including a terrific Christmas special where the tables were turned, and Hancock finally got the chance to suggest his least favourite things: ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ by the Singing Sheep, an excruciating single by Gordon Banks, Scrappy Doo, and his own adolescent song lyrics. Guest custodian Danny Baker was aghast: ‘No, don’t read anything called “Dreamland”.’

Partly because ‘no-one listened to Radio 5’, Room 101 in radio days was left alone. When it moved to television in 1994 on BBC2, booking people became trickier. Lissa Evans: ‘I once drew a Venn diagram: people who are funny, people who are famous, people who want to do Room 101. [The intersections were tiny.] It was absolutely nightmarish. [But] it’s very exposing. And a lot of people, especially actors, are so frightened of exposing their personal opinions.’ In Hancock’s words, some traditionally candid performers suddenly went coy in recording mode, and were reduced to choosing ‘supermarket trolleys with wonky wheels’.

Though the television incarnation – hosted by Hancock, then Merton and currently Skinner – has had many memorable moments, I prefer the radio version, partly because there is no studio audience, simply a conversation where the two participants could actually be outside Room 101 itself. On medium wave.

On one level, comedy about trivia and nostalgia has a poor reputation:

‘Do you remember Deputy Dawg?’ ‘Yes, shut up.’

‘Who remembers those crisps?’ ‘Yes, we still have crisps, I had some yesterday.’

‘Remember dogs?’ ‘No, I don’t, but that’s hilarious.’

‘Do you remember eggs, for God’s sake? Come on!’

But, when on form, Room 101 has risen way above this kind of hackery. Sometimes, it’s not just the stuff you love from childhood that stays with you – it’s also the stuff you hate or even fear. Even if the dogmatism has palled with age, it still reminds you of what you used to be, and what you are now. Don’t be Len. Don’t look back. Embrace that Metric system.

Special thanks to Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) for her time and her memories. She now writes fantastic novels, notably Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (now adapted for the big screen as Their Finest), and her books for younger readers include the recently published Wed Wabbit.

The television version of Room 101 continues on BBC1 and Dave. Apart from the links to a handful of radio episodes, most aren’t currently online, but hopefully that’ll change.


fullsizerender3In a radio tribute to George Michael earlier this week, there was an extract from some old interview where he recalled how, with little contemporary music in his family home, he was compelled to rely on Radio 1 in his youth. And then I remembered an interview from Saturday morning TV in the mid-80s, when Wham! were probably the biggest group in Britain, and when a fellow pop star (perhaps Gary Kemp – equally perhaps not) marvelled at his enthusiasm for, and knowledge of all pop: ‘He knows the lyrics to everything.’ That was the thing with George Michael: he really was one of us. He was a pop fan.

Before the Internet, if you had no disposable income or wealthy parents, you had two options if you were a kid into music. Either you latched on to one band and aimed to buy every record, poster and T-shirt they ever put out, or you generalised and sampled a bit of everything – a record collection of oddities is the truly honest record collection. I was struck by how, when first famous, George Michael reminisced about not only liking The Sweet in his formative years but also buying Carly Simon’s ‘The Right Thing to Do’ on holiday, almost as if by accident. To be a pop fan, I reckon – and I suspect George agreed – is to be open to anything. Even if you don’t like it, you hear it anyway – because who knows, thirty years later, a song you thought you detested brings back fond associations of that holiday, that job, that crush, that partner, that family member who perhaps did like it.

Memories occur by accident, and it has become commonplace for professional contrarians to tut away at our reactions to celebrity deaths, as if such things are cordoned off from our real lives. It is immature, it seems, to mourn someone’s life and celebrate someone’s passing, and instead we should return to the usual ten phone-in subjects, like revisiting the same ten stale farts you once locked away in the shed. I wonder if these contrarians secretly resent that few things they say or write will be remembered in a week, let alone after they pass on. Note too that even when they do recognise someone’s death, they rarely refer to the work, merely their behaviour or that they met them. Yet the detail of pop culture is what furnishes our recall, what intersects with our own lives, and are often the elements that help to bring our missed loved ones back to life in our imaginations, momentarily perhaps, but vividly.

As we grow older, so the power of nostalgia grows with us. It unlocks your past, and often makes sense of it. It reminds you of euphoria, of despair, of a need for escape, a craving for entertainment and colour. And for George Michael to die on Christmas Day itself, when we are already at our most nostalgic thanks to family members (both present and absent), is a haunting irony.

George’s death alone evoked several specific snapshots from my own life. I thought of my dad blasting out Wham!’s ‘Freedom’ (off The Hits Album) while he was working on the bathroom and saying how great it sounded – I know you’re meant to hate your parents approving of stuff in the charts, but I’ve always believed it shows they haven’t lost interest. I also thought of buying my first compact disc player at eighteen and choosing, amongst other things, a Wham! compilation – two years after they’d split up. In turn, that CD reminded me of being thirteen, and obsessively playing their Fantastic! LP, which I borrowed off my brother – he never asked for it back. A particular favourite track on that album was ‘A Ray of Sunshine’, a joyous song emphasising the power of pop music.

At the time, thirty-three Christmases ago, I was also a fan of Thriller and The Beatles’ ‘Blue’ compilation, and how I’m now struck by how we lost important contributors to those records too in 2016. And the memories and connections don’t stop there: That time your dad helped Paul Daniels in his live act by being stuck to a chair; when you scoured record fairs seeking twelve-inch import copies of ‘Mountains’ and ‘America’; when you were traumatised by Watership Down, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ and that bit in The Deer Hunter; when you all but wore out your VHS off-air tapes of the As Seen On TV special and Fawlty Towers.

Furthermore in this tapestry: the best Willy Wonka, the first cheery weather forecaster, what the producer said to Ronnie, Hilda Ogden wishing she didn’t live at number 13, the theme tunes to Soap and Diff’rent Strokes, ‘this is the theme to Garry’s show’, ‘down down deeper and down’, ‘‘Ello darling hahahaha’, The Liver Birds, Equus, Shoot the Damn Dog, ‘Nasty Girl’, Yes Minister, Shoestring, Postman Pat and Chigley, ‘first we take Manhattan then we take Berlin’, Skating to Antarctica, Hotel du Lac, ‘you spin me right round baby right round’, Unhalfbricking, ‘September’, The Brady Bunch, ‘I Scare Myself’, Postcards from the Edge, Singin’ in the Rain, ‘Wedding Vows in Vegas’, ‘What’s the recipe today, Jim?’, ‘it’s a wonderful, wonderful life’, ‘Sound and Vision’.

Sound and vision – the fabric of our lives. Once, when a celebrity passed on, if you were lucky, you got a repeat of something they were in, or a compilation of clips. As Spitting Image once put it in a parody of TV news obituaries, ‘The scheduled episode of Quincy has been postponed, unless it was Quincy who died.’ But online interaction now means we can celebrate how moments from their lives enriched ours. Because we lived through such an extraordinary age of popular culture, because we ourselves are ageing, our presents and pasts are going to keep colliding. But it is these passions that keep us young and lively – and in an era when apparently ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ is supposedly a grown-up maxim and where a President-elect wears a fucking baseball cap, we need all the rays of sunshine we can find. If that means seeking out comedy, music, literature and cinema that warms our heart one more time, so be it.


fullsizerender2Desolation Jests is a new Radio 4 sketch comedy series which reunites the actor David Jason and the writer David Renwick. The last time the two worked together for radio was in 1980. Back then, Jason was a guest performer in the final episode of The Burkiss Way, a tirelessly inventive series in the vein of Monty Python, and scripted by Renwick and Andrew Marshall. It was, incidentally, the teenage Armando Iannucci’s favourite radio show. Jason’s one-off role in Burkiss was as an oleaginous continuity announcer who persisted with grovelling links regarding the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. Radio 4 panicked after its first broadcast, and the repeat a few days later snipped out all of Jason’s royal links, consequently running several minutes short. (It has never been repeated in full, but you can listen to it here.)

Neither David has made a new radio series since the early 1980s. Both became giants in television – Jason as Delboy Trotter, Skullion in Porterhouse Blue, Pa Larkin, and Detective Jack Frost, while Renwick continued his association with Andrew Marshall on Whoops Apocalypse, Hot Metal and Stuff with Alexei Sayle, before creating the hugely successful Victor Meldrew and Jonathan Creek.

In fact, Desolation Jests is Renwick’s first full series of anything since BBC1’s Love Soup. His pursuit of the perfect intricate plot in his television work has somewhat obscured how gloriously anarchic his sketch writing can be, so it’s a pleasure to announce that he’s revived that latter quality. Like Burkiss, Desolation Jests is all about the elaborate, conceptual spoof. In a distortion of Desert Island Discs (note the rhythmic similarity of the two titles), John Bird plays the Plomleyesque host and invites a guest to imagine that the world has been obliterated, that they are the last human being alive, and that they’ve been given the keys to the history of comedy. Which sketches would they choose? First to unlock the archive is the gangster Frankie ‘Flesh Eater’ Harris.

Demonstrating his versatility and superb grasp of pastiche, Renwick has of course created all the archive material, aided by Gareth Edwards’ sensitive production. Harris (Jason) revisits favourite sketches like the legendary ‘endoscopy scene’ from the Klutz Brothers’ classic ‘A Day at the Proctologists’, and a send-up of Mastermind from the 90s series ‘Fatman and Littlegirl’, itself a nod to Renwick’s own classic sketch on The Two Ronnies, in which a contestant’s specialist subject was to answer the question before last.

Renwick’s mastery of form and content has not deserted him, and completing the illustrious cast are Rory Bremner and Jan Ravens. Most encouragingly, his taste for silly character names and angry imagery remains, most notably in an item that imagines a more punitive Honours system, in which recipients are awarded a subscription to the Daily Express, or (in Kelvin Mackenzie’s case) deserved recognition as a health hazard.

The connection between Renwick and Jason stretches way back to October 1971 when the former began contributing to Radio 4’s weekly satirical series, Week Ending, in which the latter was already a cast member. Renwick was a 20-year-old reporter on the Luton News, and was not at university – unusual in an Oxbridge-dominated radio comedy world. When Ian Greaves and I wrote our exhaustive history of Week Ending, he stressed how important the show was to his development as a writer, especially when writing material for regular performers like Jason: ‘It was an early lesson that people are funnier than jokes.’

Forty-five years later, and Renwick is back writing for Jason. And it’s worth bearing this in mind – most comedy sketch shows are the work of several people. Rare is the comedy writer who is flexible and resourceful to shine in so many different styles, although there are a few: Victoria Wood, John Finnemore and (in his great Radio 4 series of monologic items, One) David Quantick. Now – belatedly – we can add David Renwick to that list.


Desolation Jests is on Radio 4 on Tuesdays at 11pm, or on iPlayer. My 2008 book on the history of Week Ending, Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me?, which I wrote with Ian Greaves, is available from here.



qt-panelWhen I first went on Twitter, probably around the middle of 2009, livetweeting disposable TV shows was an attraction of the site. Question Time was undoubtedly one of these. But it gradually became an endurance test where not even Twitter accompaniment could detract from its deathly formula of rehearsed quips, point-scoring and gassy pub opinions you hoped had been silenced with the progress of civilisation.

Question Time began in October 1979 on BBC1 and is likely to continue in its late Thursday slot, along with Andrew Neil’s cartoon series This Week, until we all die. Maybe it is intended to be a release, a cathartic summing up of the week’s talking points, but for many years, it’s felt like a groaning messageboard thread that cannot be locked. The current climate urgently needs a discussion programme heavy with explanation, detail and nuance, but Question Time’s lust for beige spectacle – yes, almost live from a civic hall and part-time theatre in Knobham – means that it both lacks the depth of a documentary and the pizzazz and glamour of a talk show.

Current affairs is complicated and god knows, we need experts to make sense of it all – not just to explain but to explain why it’s complicated. But there is no time for explanation on Question Time. The panel table must (must? really?) house five guests and a Dimbleby, plus an audience baying for blood and exposure. With a maximum of 10 minutes for most questions, there’s little room for much beyond upping the anger ante. No-one is really listening to each other, or even to themselves, and they spend a lot of the allotted time complaining that another subject is being ignored. (Though my favourite – as noted by a friend – is when people call for a discussion on immigration during a discussion on immigration.)

As we know, the loudest, most certain, most provocative voices dominate. The audience are bellowing eggs; the panel a queasy mix of reluctant ministers, frightful backbenchers and people off of Dragon’s Den. The glittery lift twat Neil Farridge is perhaps Question Time’s archetypal panellist these days; despite failing to win seven by-elections, his leathery pillar-box face and ashen racist patter has appeared 32 times on the programme (so far), and its producers know that, quite cynically, if he appears, their ratings will go up. You wish that more measured political voices would appear, and then you reason that the more measured wouldn’t want to do it. Why would they? I wouldn’t want to.

At some point about three years ago, I could stand Question Time no longer. It helped that Thursday nights now had a distraction for me: a weekly pub quiz, a more benign, harmless kind of question time. But my frustration with Question Time already ran deeper. You could laugh at, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s head, but then powerlessness took over, and then anger – and it seemed to me that going to bed angry was a bad idea. (So was waking up angry, and eventually, I dropped the Today programme like a boiling turd for the same reason.)

Anger is fine if it leads to explanation and analysis and understanding. But if Question Time used to manage these emotions properly and usefully, it no longer seems to bother. It and others like it confuse ‘balance’ with ‘extremism’. I would be more interested if more effort was taken to engage with the ‘don’t knows’, the ‘not sures’. Surely they are the ones who could inspire fruitful, expansive discussion. But in an environment where we are encouraged to create outrage or to react to it, subtlety is insufficient.

The problem may lie with the word ‘argument’ or ‘debate’. I prefer the word ‘discussion’ in which two or more people (but better if it’s only two) test each other’s viewpoints and their own. Listening to oneself is as important as listening to one’s ‘opponent’:

‘Am I making sense?’

‘Have I changed my mind, and can I admit it?’

‘Am I not sure, and can I admit it?’

Imagine if people said this kind of thing more often on Question Time or Any Questions or Today. Some call it dithering. I simply call it thinking.


fullsizerender1Andrew Sachs, who died last week aged eighty-six, was an actor of remarkable versatility and experience. Born in Berlin in 1930, he had lived in Britain since the age of eight, when his family fled Germany to escape the Nazis. From the 1950s onwards, he became a regular fixture on radio and then television, and his ability to inhabit a character so completely meant that he was perhaps not always immediately familiar. Much later, so ubiquitous was his voice on TV documentaries in the 1990s that he was an obvious choice for the role of a dry narrator on Peter Kay’s breakthrough television series. That Peter Kay Thing consisted of six individual pastiches of docu-soaps, the most famous of which – ‘The Club’ – spawned Phoenix Nights.

As far back as 1958, Sachs was also cutting his teeth in the world of physical farce, as part of Brian Rix’s repertory company, both in theatre and sometimes on television. Several members of Rix’s company (his wife Elspet Gray, Derek Royle, Joan Sanderson, as well as Sachs) would later become associated with a 1970s series now so famous that it’s sometimes forgotten that it is also in the grand tradition of farce.

Technically, Sachs did not write Fawlty Towers – his co-stars John Cleese and Connie Booth did that, combining logic, structure, absurdity and psychologically rich characters – but Cleese has been careful to point out how much he, as Manuel, helped expand and enrich their scripts, along with the rest of the cast, to give the end product a profoundly hilarious emotional truth. Manuel’s physicality, gesticulations and faltering attempts to communicate and understand were a joy to watch – especially when he began to absorb his surroundings, as when he adopted Basil’s exasperated ‘cuh, cuh’ grunts in times of crisis. (Basil’s own grasp of Manuel’s native tongue, incidentally, despite his claim of learning ‘classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he seems to have picked up’, relies heavily on adding the lettter ‘o’ to French words, and shouting ‘arriba’ from Speedy Gonzalez cartoons.)

Or the moment in ‘Communication Problems’ (aka ‘Mrs Richards’) when, having been compelled to keep a secret by Basil, he is then told he can reveal the truth after all. Cue a theatrical clearing of the throat, and the proud declaration: ‘I know nothing.’ Manuel has painstakingly learnt and reproduced his crucial line. Unfortunately for Basil, he has delivered it at exactly the wrong moment. As Cleese has remarked, if Manuel were sullen and uncooperative, it just wouldn’t work: ‘It’s his sheer eagerness that makes all the incompetence funny.’

We are now so word-perfect on Fawlty Towers that it’s startling to recall that, like many hits, success was by no means guaranteed. The Internet has made the wider public aware of a brief memo sent in the BBC Comedy Department on 29 May 1974. Ian Main, a script editor in the department, had been sent a draft of what became the pilot of Fawlty Towers. He wrote the following terse reply to the then-Head of Comedy, James Gilbert:

‘I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title.

It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.’

Cue hails of derisive laughter. Imagine turning down Fawlty Towers, comparing it to some short-lived Ronnie Corbett vehicle. What a fool! How could Ian Main have missed out on the genius of the greatest sitcom ever made. Etc etc.

Except it’s hard to tell from such a brief response what Ian had actually been sent. After all, there is no cast yet (certainly no Sachs or Prunella Scales), he has no pilot episode to relate to (‘A Touch of Class’ was taped just before Christmas ’74), and so he is reading it cold, save for knowing that it was the bloke from Monty Python and his then actor wife. Was it even a final draft, as we would know it? It would surprise me if Cleese and Booth, in the face of that damning response, hadn’t snatched that script back and rewritten it substantially. They were, after all, perfectionists; they would spend at least two months writing an episode, withholding any attempts at writing any dialogue until three weeks into the process.

Ian was right about the title, though. It’s terrible. ‘Fawlty Towers’ sounds like a Crackerjack spin-off starring Peter Glaze running a funny hotel assisted, or should that be hindered, by some annoying gonks.

Furthermore, Cleese may be a comedy giant, but not everything he produced was automatically gold-standard. As evidence, check out ‘No Ill Feeling’, a proto-Fawlty half-hour he submitted in 1971 for the ITV sitcom series, Doctor at Large. The series’ lead character Dr Michael Upton (played by Barry Evans) is booked into a hotel run by an officious, humourless and near-robotic proprietor and his equally forbidding and much taller wife. He is then plagued by a ghastly wise-cracking fellow guest (a thankless task for guest star, Roy Kinnear).

It demonstrates that if you get farce even marginally off-balance – if the mathematics are approximate rather than exact – it becomes grotesque and shrill and unfunny. But while it beggars belief something so mirthless came with Cleese’s name on it, it must be stressed that Doctor at Large wasn’t his creation: he was one of many writers on the series, and the Doctor format was a production line like a US sitcom, where up to 25 shows a year were taped. Compare with the time and care Cleese and Booth gave to writing Fawlty Towers – although even there, each episode had only five days allotted for rehearsal, and just two hours on a Sunday for a studio audience recording.

It’s possible that Ian Main had simply not noticed Fawlty Towers’ potential, but it’s easy to ridicule his judgement in hindsight. Few artistic creations immediately emerge fully-formed: think of each of your favourite books, films, albums and TV shows and chances are, there’s an embryonic version somewhere that ‘wasn’t quite there’. Teamwork made Fawlty Towers a thing of brilliance and Andrew Sachs, as Manuel, was as much a part of that process as anyone, whether it was how he elegantly poured cream into Mr Hutchison’s briefcase; how he performed “She” with rudimentary guitar accompaniment; or how he laughed along with Sybil’s ‘Uncle Ted’ anecdote, vainly standing on tiptoe to share the joke.

Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection is widely available on DVD for under ten quid these days, and not just from Amazon, and it also contains John Cleese’s audio commentaries, which are a masterclass of the genre, even if his laughter levels can be alarming.


146It’s still early days for this new blog. Design-wise, it’s far from ready – it’s like moving into a new house but you’re undecided on the decor or furnishings, and there’s that back room which urgently needs a floor. As for subject matter, I could have gone with a specific theme, but I felt uncomfortable with that. I decided that, after several years away from blogging, it would be best to just see what ideas came up and run with those. So, for a while at least, these pieces may have little in common. This in itself, though, feels exciting. You have to start somewhere, after all.

But while I don’t want to start laying down rules for what will and won’t feature, I hope to keep the ‘hot takes’ pieces to a minimum. There are too many columnists already, battling to be first with their opinions on why Eric Bristol ‘had a point’, why they always knew Dennis Trump would win but never bothered saying anything, and why ‘that thing you think you like is rubbish’ (copyright, The Guardian, most days). I have stopped reading the columnists. They are all useless. Even the good ones. They are as well. Yes.

We’re in an environment where instant reaction is key, where that tweet doesn’t have to be nuanced or thoughtful, just quick. (Guilty as charged, m’lud.) Yet sometimes it’s hard to have an instant reaction to something. Sometimes you’re simultaneously too close to the event, and too far away from it, to make any coherent sense of what’s going on.

Five years ago this afternoon, I was in a crematorium, saying goodbye to my brother. He had died two and a half weeks earlier, and I was one of a handful of people whose job was to pay tribute to him and his life. I hadn’t had long to write something, but was aware this was a golden opportunity to sum up a life, one curtailed cruelly early.

I have my eulogy written down somewhere. It may even be on the same laptop I’m typing these words on. I could go and look. But I somehow can’t. Because whatever I said that day was likely to have been filling space. I was the first to speak. I think I spoke for barely two minutes, a fraction of what the other speakers said. I can remember my voice cracking when I got to the bit that emphasised that he enjoyed a full, fruitful life despite narrowly missing his fortieth birthday by a matter of days. I can remember saying what extraordinary people his family were – though I may have left myself out of the list.

I do recall two things, though. One was that I couldn’t quite believe how many people were there: perhaps four or five hundred. Some were outside in the cold as the crematorium simply didn’t have enough space for seating.

The other thing I remember, while I squinted at an ocean of faces, was a soup of an alternative speech I was writing in my head. It went something like this:

 ‘What I’m reading out now is filler. This isn’t what I want to say at all, but I am in shock. I remember the joy and laughter but I can’t express that now, not yet. I remember the complications and occasional friction from our childhoods. But I doubt you want that today, either. And then there’s the illness he had, and – well – let’s not go there. It’s not that I have nothing to say. It’s just I can’t put it into words yet.  All I can do is to cling on to the words that I am capable of reading out, right now.’

I’m not suggesting for one moment that the other speakers’ eulogies were insincere. Far from it – I recognised and believed their anecdotes, stories and feelings far more profoundly than my own contributions. But whatever I really thought about the death of my brother would just have to wait. But even though I had nearly forty years of his life to draw upon, whatever I felt and thought about it still felt like a hot take, and my truer reactions would take time to surface.

These past five years, I may not have blogged publicly, but privately I’ve crammed notebooks with feelings, reflections and observations, often about the process of bereavement but also about other issues surrounding it. Truth be told, I felt uncomfortable sharing these matters with the wider world. It’s probably just as well I held back, because one of the trickiest things when sharing grief is knowing what to leave out.

Now, I have a better idea of what to leave out. Sometimes you just have to step back and wait, to see what you really think and feel about something. And I may revisit this subject again, but – come back! – not exclusively.