How to Report the News

I spent much of today out in the rain, collecting footage for a little video project I’m helping with. With a video camera in your hand, it’s amazing how quickly you come to consider the city as your own private film set.

Pedestrians, traffic and background noise constantly interrupt your shots, and it gets a little frustrating. Next time, we’re going to call the police to shut down a couple of streets for us.

To help us construct a storyboard, we used Charlie Brooker‘s indispensable guide to “How to Report the News” as inspiration. Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s always worth watching again, because it’s very clever:

La règle du jeu

Humanity is blessed with the gift of play. OK, maybe dolphins, monkeys and baby snow leopards play sometimes too, but only humans have rules. And the more complex the rules are, the better the game. I was reminded of the joy of complex play when I found that the Les Inconnus had invented a wonderful game show called Simple Comme Bonjour:

Simple Comme Bonjour is in many respects the French version of that favourite British pastime, Mornington Crescent. While I always prefer playing under the 1897 Diamond Jubilee Rules, (in which shunting is only allowed in two-syllable stations, and double parallels are punishable by a penalty lap via Cape Town), here’s Humphrey Lyttleton and friends playing computerised Mornington Crescent in 2007:

While the grand tradition of complex play is a strong vein within British culture, it’s an activity that Americans largely discarded in the late 18th century. Thomas Jefferson famously described Mornington Crescent as a symbol of all that was most corrupt about monarchy – but that was only after Ben Franklin had beaten him in three minutes flat with a cheeky switchback through Seven Sisters on a bank holiday timetable.

However, one of the most advanced examples of complex play ever attempted on television is Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s Shooting Stars. Unfortunately, the game show has been in hiatus recently, apparently after an acrimonious breakup between George Dawes and his singing partner, the baked potato.

David Mitchell on Buying Stuff…

David Mitchell is one of the funniest people in Britain today – and very smart with it. His TV projects (Peep Show, Mitchell and Webb) and his now-established role as default panellist for radio and TV panel games (HIGNFY, News Quiz, Would I Lie to You?) have helped to build a comic persona very English in its essentials: self-concious and awkward, but possessing a logic of argument that never fails to reveal the absurdity of whatever he’s dealing with.

Generally, Mitchell’s Observer column is just funny: occasionally it contains some much deeper insights. This week, his column describes why his records collection contains just two titles (Phil Collins But Seriously… and Susan Boyle‘s new album), and he posits a piercing summation of why we buy things:

These purchases… aren’t about taste, they’re about identity. We flatter ourselves that we buy things based on our judgment of quality and price, but that’s a secondary factor. Fundamentally we buy the sort of things that feel appropriate, based on the class we come from, the groups we aspire to be part of, or the opinions we find attractive.

Our purchases are tribal, neo-religious signifiers.

And, for those who haven’t seen it, possibly the best Mitchell and Webb sketch, ever, which deals with tribal signifiers in its own way. (Warning: contains Nazis):

Five Things I’ll Miss About the UK

Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

I could talk about all the wonderful people I’ve met in England who I’ll miss when I leave, but that wouldn’t be very English, would it? One must control one’s emotions and remain self-deprecating in all social situations, including when blogging.

So here are five of the best THINGS about the UK that have made my time here unique and enjoyable.  Who knows, maybe I’ll miss these things so much that I’ll come back?

BBC Radio 4 – the best English-language spoken word radio station in the world? Some people accuse Radio 4 of being too white, middle-class, and biased towards the Home Counties.  But nowhere else can you hear John Humphries mercilessly grill  Gordon Brown, follow Sandi Toksvig up the Amazon or get advice on which side of the house to plant your camellia bushes.  Oh, and every night at 7pm Tom Archer will be worrying about feeding his cows.

Ale PintBeer – more specifically, ale and bitter, which I learned to love through many visits to venerable Oxford establishments such as The Turf and the Lamb and Flag. People must be truly mad to buy Amstel or Fosters when in Oxford. To drink lager in historic and well-oiled pubs such as these would surely be sacrilege. Bottoms up!

    Comedy – Like beer, comedy makes life in Britain tolerable.   The best British comedy and humour relies on self-deprecation, wit and a dose of surreal silliness, and there is so much of it to enjoy in the UK.  Personal favourites include Peep Show, the ubiquitous Paul Merton, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Private Eye and of course I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

    Choral music – I wrote about the long English tradition of choral singing in a recent post.  Even if most English people don’t realise it, English choirs are the envy of the world. Whether you believe the theology behind it or not, sung Evensong must be one of the greatest pieces of English art ever devised.

    Sandwich shops – Nowhere else in the world has sandwich shops quite like Britain. I’m not talking about Subway, Greggs or Pret. I mean the little independent shops squeezed into alleyways off high streets, where a husband and wife team (or their Polish assistant) will customise your favourite tuna and sweetcorn sandwich while you wait. Personal favourites include A Patch of Blue in Calne, Wiltshire and the Oxford Sandwich Co in the Covered Markets.

    Stephen Fry on Fiordland


    Image: mcaretaker

    Our friend* Stephen Fry is filming for the BBC at the the moment in New Zealand. Here’s what he twittered today after a helicopter flight over Fiordland:

    “Bloody hell!!! Fjordland [sic] ladies and gentlemen. What a spectacle. Earth Destination Number One. To throw words at it would be like throwing meringues at a charging rhinoceros. Fruitless. (Unless it’s banana pavlova). No but really. Stunningly dramatic. Best helicopter flight I’ve ever had. And we engaged with some kea too. I’m the luckiest devil alive. “

    Kea, contemplating engagement with Stephen Fry (Image: Jared Kelly)

    *Friend, as in “he follows me on Twitter”, which pretty much counts as friendship these days, right?

    Clive James on Silly Money

    Clive James is one of my favourite writers. When I was 13 years old I wanted to write like him.  I still do. Deeply funny and very, very well-read.  Cambridge educated, he wears his omniverous intellect lightly, rather like David Mitchell.

    He’s Australian, but like fellow brainy Aussie Germaine Greer, he left his native land early to forge a formidable reputation in the UK.  Occasionally Clive James does a series of talks for Point of View on Radio 4. (A 10-minute podcast each week – well worth subscribing to!)

    He nails his topic just about every time: last week he delivered one of the best atheist-agnostic descriptions of the continuing importance of Jesus I’ve ever heard.

    This week, he takes on the credit crisis, and makes one very serious point – why the heck do we need all this money anyway?  What WAS Bernard Madoff (already a wealthy man) actually going to DO with 50 billion dollars?

    James makes one prediction for 2009 – having lots and lots of money is going to look very silly.

    “We’ve reached a turning point. A madness has gone out of fashion: the madness of behaving as if only too much can be enough. There will always be another madness, but not that one. From now on a man will have to be as dumb as an petrodollar potentate to think that anyone will respect him for sitting on a gold toilet in a private jumbo jet.”

    Neil Young Live at the BBC, 1971

    Last week, as part of its Neil Young season, the BBC broadcast a rarely-seen TV special recorded by Neil Young at the Sheperds Bush Empire on February 23rd 1971. Young was 25 years old, touring in support of After the Goldrush, and previewing some of the material that would appear on Harvest.

    He starts the gig with a version of Out on the Weekend:

    The quality of Young’s voice at this age is remarkable – controlled, strong and yet sounding so frail… a frailty accentuated on later work like 1973’s Tonight’s the Night. Young’s dry Manitoba humour is still intact, too, as he engages in some easy banter with the studio audience.

    I watched the show in fairly hi-fidelity thanks to iPlayer – the sound and image quality is superb. Maybe one day it’ll be available somewhere as a DVD extra? The whole 30 minute concert is now available on YouTube (for how long, I don’t know).

    The Good Samaritan Sketch

    David Mitchell and Robert Webb are two comedians who are hard to avoid in Britain today. Mitchell in particular is carving out a niche on the panel show circuit, appearing on Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week and several Radio 4 shows.

    Mitchell and Webb’s best work as a double act is on Channel 4’s Peep Show (which is actually written by others), but occasionally their own sketch comedy approaches genius. This is a scene from That Mitchell and Webb Look on BBC2:

    The Stupid Man’s Doughnut

    The teams on the BBC’s Mock the Week take on Sarah Palin… the jokes are mostly ad hominem (ad feminem?), but very funny…

    “It’s a sad state of affairs when you make George W. Bush look like an informed progressive.”
    – Andy Parsons