Le Quatuor: corps à cordes

Muchas apologias. Writing on the blog has been intermittent lately. The last week has been a blur of trains, meetings and sleeping in strange beds. And somewhere among all this I’m pushing towards handing in a thesis at the end of September. Things have been kind of busy.

If anyone wants a clue about what’s going on in Montpellier, read Ed’s blog, because I’m kind of out of the loop.

However, I was introduced to Le Quatuor last week – and thought it was worth sharing: four highly accomplished classical musicians who have turned to physical comedy… well, for laughs.

I think the entire performance on their DVD is funnier as a whole, rather than the few excerpts you can find on YouTube. I’m surprised they aren’t more known outside France: most of the jokes are physical or musical, and their dialogue-based sketches are carried out in a surreal mélange of German, Italian, English, French and Spanish (check out their music lesson sketch).


The part of parenthood that Dr Spock never told you about

In between pretending to finish my dissertation, I’ve discovered a low-cost summer activity that doesn’t involve going outside and sweating: catching up on half a decade of television. After 4 years of not having a TV at home, I’ve realised there are actually a few good things I’ve missed.

So I borrowed the first four seasons of Weeds off a friend, and have been working my way through it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. If Weeds is a sitcom, the “situations” are twisted, and the “comedy” even more so. In Seinfeld, we laughed at Soup Nazis and George’s lack of luck with the ladies. In Weeds, people get shot dead and dissolved in baths of acid – and we still laugh.

Growing shedloads of pot in suburbia – what could possibly go wrong…?

In case you haven’t seen it, basically, Weeds is a show about suburban mom Nancy Botwin – after her husband dies suddenly, she turns to dealing marijuana to her friends and neighbours in order to make ends meet. But her efforts to support her family via a modest weed-pushing operation rapidly fall apart as alcoholic friends (Celia), idiot accoutants (Doug), DEA agents and couch-surfing brothers-in-law (Andy) foul her every move.

There’s something refreshing about a TV comedy that tracks the slow disintegration of a suburban family and their hangers-on. Weeds is very much a show for our time: at the end of season 3, (screened in 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to hit), the Botwins’ identikit suburb of easy-credit homes burns to the ground (something to do with Mexican mafia revenge, biker gangs and Nancy with a petrol can… oh never mind).

The last thing you want to deal with when you’re on the run from the Mexican mafia..

Illegal immigration, Mexican drug wars, euthanasia, police corruption, narcotics (lots), and sex (even more): life is complicated in Schwarznegger’s California. We’re a long way, geographically and spiritually from Saturday evenings with Bob Saget or the amiable but inane antics of Friends.

If occasionally the storylines lacks energy, the series is kept alive by a dynamite script. Andy spouts unlikely slacker wisdom at crucial moments, Nancy’s best enemy Celia goes postal every few episodes, and Shane (borderline sociopath and Nancy’s 13 year-old son) makes the most of being on cable with a dirtier mouth than the rest of the cast combined. And could you imagine Clifford Huxtable having this conversation (NSFW) with Theo?

Celia is actually stabbing Nancy in the back in this photo

But the show belongs to Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Nancy. Her character, who has the best of intentions but no business plan, seems only capable of digging her family into deeper trouble. Although her problems are of her own making, you feel truly sorry for Nancy, and somehow responsible for her predicament as her world teeters on the edge of the abyss.

So, Weeds has been well worth staying inside for. Maybe TV isn’t completely useless. I’ve heard The Wire‘s worth seeing too – anyone have some DVDs I can borrow?

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.

    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

    Podcast Heaven

    If you haven’t heard Ricky Gervais‘ new podcast yet, I recommend you check it out. Three guys talk about absolutely nothing for half an hour, and there’s a new show every week. I’m not sure I like the way they treat Karl, but it is pretty darn funny.

    Also, Radio France now has most of their weekly shows available on podcast! (Note, that’s “le podcast“, not “la baladodiffusion” as they’re trying to enourage in Quebec.)

    France Culture and France Inter on demand is something close to pure podcast heaven if, like me, you’re trying to retain your French language. Now I can listen to what I want, when I want, and don’t have to put up with a streaming live version of Le Fou du Roi at 11 o’clock at night. Like Lionel Dersot in Tokyo, I am grateful for this new small pleasure.

    Funny Kiwis

    Sometimes you just have to show a bit of pride in your fellow countrymen. Flight of the Conchords is a musical comedy duo from Wellington. They rightly claim the title of New Zealand’s 4th most popular folk parody act, and here they are blowing up all over the world. An HBO special, sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and now, they’ve even been on Conan O’Brien.

    They are not only very funny, they are also very fine musicians. Their David Bowie “song” is one of the best things I’ve ever heard live on stage. And Brett McKenzie played/plays in The Black Seeds, who are world famous in New Zealand.

    I seriously recommend you download/watch their Conan appearance [.avi file, 22MB]

    And make these guys superstars, please. We need more entertainment heroes in this country beyond Peter Jackson and Chris Knox.

    Kiwi kids are Weet-Bix kids.