The Pyriten Age of TV

Ignite Cardiff — January 29th 2014

This is what my talk was supposed to say — god knows what I did end up babbling about ☺

Depending on what you read you’ll be told it is a Golden Age. Not of philosophy, science or art. No. It is a golden age of television.

It started with HBO and the rise of the box set and was perfected by Netflix and their concept of releasing all the episodes of new shows in one go — perfect for binge watching.

You know the shows they are talking about. The Sopranos. The Wire. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. Game of Thrones. I’m sure the majority of you own the DVDs or bought at least a few of them on iTunes.

The funny thing is that when they first came out nobody watched these shows. Critics loved them but viewers? Well they were busy elsewhere. Except Game of Thrones because everyone loves boobs and beheadings.

It is a bit like the legend that evolved around the Woodstock concert in the US in the 60s. I once read that if everyone who claims they had been there that weekend actually were it would have filled the entire State not one farm.

I’m not here to talk about those shows. I’m here to talk about the pyrite — fools gold — not the gold. TV is all about guilty pleasures and for me that is all those TV teen dramas that go on forever..

Was there ever a better looking bunch of middle aged people playing teenagers in the history of television than the cast of Beverley Hills 90210.

Though they clearly made some kind of devils pact at a crossroads somewhere as the main cast never seem to have actually aged and there isn’t enough Botox in LA to account for that.

This show is remembered for many things — where Tom Cruise first spotted a future child bride, the first role of a future Oscar winner (and that can’t have happened often) and scripts that made teenagers sound like post-docs..

…but these days it is mainly remembered for James Van Der Beek and his ability to cry. Like really cry. To be fair to Mr Van Der Beek he has embraced his status as walking meme and plays along..anything for 5 more minutes of fame.

The one thing Dawson’s Creek did achieve though was to convince the powers that be to start casting people in teen shows who could at least remember being a teenager..

What I remember most about the O.C. is the fact it seemed to burn though every storyline ever used in other teen shows in about 4 episodes. It was relentless and simply rewrote characters to fit ever crazier storylines..

Actually that isn’t true — what I most remember about the O.C. is that everyone was always getting pissed. Or high. Or pissed and high. Like the fantasy of someone who never went to a party when they were a teenager.

I love this show. Sorry but I do. In the West Wing Aaron Sorkin famously wrote so much dialogue the actors had to learn to speak faster. Compared to the women in this show they were in slow motion.

My love of this show has nothing to do with the fact that it stars Lauren Graham. Nothing. Just like the fact that I am currently watching a show called Parenthood (occasionally on 5 somewhere) as well has nothing to do with her..

This is a funny one. Basically the creator of Gilmore Girls + all the cast who basically didn’t get jobs after that show ended all turned up in this weird little curiosity that didn’t quite last a full season.

There are no words for how much I love this show. Well clearly there are as here I am. Veronica Mars took every teen high school show cliche mashed them up with Magnum PI levels of cool and produced a classic..

Such a classic that fans clubbed together on Kickstarter to the tune of $5.7 million to make sure a movie got funded. I might have even contributed a little bit to that myself *cough*200 bucks*cough*

I guess one of the big differences is that HBO and Netflix shows. They want to win an Emmy. Or get a nice review in the New York Times or the Guardian. My shows, my shows just want to decent write up on Television Without Pity.

Thanks for listening. I realise the talk jumped the shark 5 or 6 slides in but like the best teen shows I had to drag it out to the bitter end..

15 books that matter (to me)

in no particular order

Inspired by something I saw on Facebook I’ve spent this morning trying to come up with a list of 15 books that for one reason or another are important to me.

I’ve stuck to fiction and despite finding it difficult I haven’t added any comic collections (that is likely to need a list itself!).

This list just represents my (slightly hampered by a hangover) thinking this morning and I will surely change my mind the minute I press publish.

It is pretty clear I don’t exactly have ‘intellectual’ tastes but I stand by them ☺

The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald

I wrote my dissertation on the works of Fitzgerald and for a long time I re-read this book once a year. I hadn’t done that for a while but I revisited in light of the recent movie. I’m glad I did as I still love it and it helped ease the sour taste the film provided.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — Micheal Chabon

I love this novel. If I am honest I originally picked it up based on a half read review which suggested it was loosely based on the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster story (the guys who created Superman.) It may have some parallels with their history but this book is so much more, dealing with big topics in a beautifully crafted manner.

The Big Sleep — Raymond Chandler

One way or another the classic, ‘hard boiled’ style of US detective fiction still pretty much dominates my reading list. Sure it hasn’t really evolved since this early classic but why mess with a working format ☺ I also love the fact that even Chandler never really kept track of the mystery at the heart of the story — it was so complex even he lost the thread and just wrapped it up without worrying about the logic!

The Player of Games — Iain M. Banks

The Culture novels from the late, lamented Iain M. Banks are amongst the greatest science fiction ever written in my opinion but they require a certain…commitment?…due to their complexity. This is the book that opened up that universe for me. Slightly more accessible than some of the other books in the series it is nonetheless a cracking read, full of examples of incredible imagination and storytelling.

The Fortress of Solitude — Jonathan Lethem

It is hard to describe this book. It is part coming of age tale set in Brooklyn at the birth of hip hop. Part fantasy tale with elements of classic superhero tales. It pulls no punches in covering issues like race tensions and drug abuse.

It is also about graffiti.

Microserfs — Douglas Coupland

I haven’t read this book since about 1997 but it remains something I remember fondly because in many ways it was the introduction to the culture that was about to become my world. I was never really that interested in computers and certainly not video games. Then the web came along and everything changed.

A Red Death — Walter Moseley

Another ‘hard boiled’ detective novel but one of the few to really start to try and do something more with the genre. Easy Rawlins is a complicated hero in these books and this story is no exception. All of this series are worth reading but I think this is the most interesting with its portrayal of a part of US history ripe for investigation.

American Gods — Neil Gaiman

Let me share a secret. I think Gaiman is over rated as a comic book writer. Sandman has moments but I don’t believe it deserves to be in the same elevated company as things like Watchmen. None of his other comic work is even close.

This novel though is fantastic and I love the very premise. These fragments of ‘gods’ wandering the US because of the way it became a land of immigrants but these ‘gods’ following their worshippers.

It’s Superman! — Tom de Haven

Despite the profile of the character as perhaps the most recognisable superhero in the world there are actual very few truly great Superman stories even in the comics.

This novel is brilliant though. Treating the classic origin story as a tale of the US depression and grounding the book as much as possible in the realities of that period.

Fletch — Gregory McDonald

Thank you Chevy Chase. If it had not been for the movie based on this character I would never have discovered this series of funny, clever stories. I remember discovering them at my local library in my early teens and devouring as many of them as I could. Ordering missing titles from all over Bristol.

Years later I discovered they were out of print in the UK and I found myself flying home from a trip to San Francisco with a full set of them in my luggage!

King Suckerman — George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos is my favourite current author. As well as writing many amazing novels he was also one of the lead writers on ‘The Wire’ and now ‘Treme’.

His stories are based in a very different version of Washington, D.C. than you would ever know existed from television and the way he peppers his novels with references to the musical tastes of his characters is educational. One of these days I am going to create Spotify playlists for each of his novels.

Miami Blues — Charles Ray Willeford

The Hoke Moseley stories are both dark and amusing. Hoke is an unlikely hero and the rogues galleries he inevitably encounters are always just a little bit off kilter.

The books are like a twisted reflection of the more popular Carl Hiaasen stories.

He was also clearly an influence on Tarantino.

Freaky Deaky — Elmore Leonard

This is the first Leonard novel I remember reading. At this point I think I have read all of his stuff (including Westerns) at least twice. Nobody ever wrote dialogue better and his stripped down writing style influence my taste ever since the first time I encountered his work.

His writing rules are all that needs to be said on the topic.

The Puppet Masters — Robert A Heinlein

In my teens I was obsessed with the science fiction of Heinlein. His stories seemed fantastic but they were also about adventures rather than just ideas. I never enjoyed Asimov anywhere as much even though it always seemed more…worthy to read the Foundation stuff.

I think this was the first of his novels I read. I often get elements of it mixed up with the various version of the Bodysnatchers movies I’ve watched over the years and I am pretty sure it is far from his best or most influential work but it got me started.

The Godfather — Mario Puzo

One of those rare occasions when the movie far outstripped the book it was based upon but the film is my all time favourite and so the novel deserves a little bit of love as well.

I think the amazing thing about the story (both the book and the film) is that they created much of the mythology of the ‘mafia’ that people now treat as gospel when much of it was little more than imagination run amok. Then it became something for these criminals to live up to so fiction became fact.

Heroes of Hell’s Kitchen

The comics behind the Marvel/Netfix announcement

I think it is well established I am a comic book geek who also loves his ‘genre’ television shows so it probably comes as no surprise that I let out a little squeal of delight when I read the recent Marvel/Netflix announcement.

I have never really had the connection with Marvel that I have with DC but there has always been one little corner of the Marvel universe that has always held a special place in my heart.

The so-called ‘street level’ heroes of the Marvel universe mainly operate in a stuck-in time version of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. A version where Starbucks didn’t move into every corner and dive bars didn’t become craft beer emporiums.

Daredevil is far and away the best known of these characters. A Marvel stalwart since the 60’s and the recipient of *that* movie it is a character that has attracted some of the great comic book story tellers over the years. My favourite Daredevil stories are;

Born Again — by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli. I actually believe that after Batman: Year One (with the same artist) this is the best work Miller has ever done. A truly piece of intelligent story telling which also stays true to the history of the characters.

The Bendis/Maleev run — Brian Bendis basically rescued Daredevil from the C-list in the 90’s and made his own reputation in the process. With Alex Maleev on art he wrote 50ish issues of an interlocking storyline that is a must read for even the slightest fan. The art was also stunning and really matched the ‘noir’ take that Bendis brought to things.

  • Guardian Devil — by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada. Kevin Smith makes fun movies and has a great podcast but is mainly known by comic fans for his inability to ever deliver scripts on time or finish stories. This collection is the main reason people keep giving him more chances though. Coupled with beautiful art from Quesada (who was about to become Marvel Editor-in-Chief) this is a fun read with some nice twists which plays up some of the religious undertones always running through the character.

Iron Fist is a character that so clearly spun out of the 70’s kung-fu craze it is a little bit amazing that the character managed to keep appearing over the years (although rarely in his own book.) The character was a regular part of the Daredevil supporting cast throughout the run on the title by Ed Brubaker (who followed Bendis). This led to the definitive take on the character;

  • Immortal Iron Fist — Ed Brubaker & Matt Fraction and Travel Foreman. This run manages to take the, even by comic book standards, nonsensical origin and history of the Iron Fist character and turn it into a riveting tale spread over decades with a mix of mystical and pulp science stylings.

Iron Fist was almost always seen in the comics next to his partner, and fellow 70’s pop-culture spin off, Luke Cage: Power Man. Probably still best known as being where Nic Cage got his name from when he decided he didn’t want to be a Coppola on screen Luke Cage has taken decades to escape the characters ‘blaxploitation’ roots. Bendis, though, clearly has affection for the character and dragged the character in to the A-list with him (albeit an A-lister still unable to sustain his own book — race remains a real issue in comic sales 😦 ).

New Avengers — Brian Bendis and David Finch. When Bendis took over the Marvel flagship team book, the Avengers, he brought Cage with him and made him a leader amongst the traditional A-listers. This is far from the Avengers now made famous by the Marvel movie but was an interesting take on things and gave Cage a chance to shine (he is currently leading the Mighty Avengers book though that is a bit ‘meh’)

Of all the characters mentioned in the press release the most exciting for me is Jessica Jones. The least well known of all the characters and the one with the shortest history. Bendis created the character in 2001 as part of the ‘adult’ Marvel MAX line. The series was called Alias (nothing to do with the JJ Abrams TV show starring Jennifer Garner, who was in *that* Daredevil movie!) and was a genuine attempt to do a noir style detective comic slap in the middle of the Marvel universe. I firmly believe it remains the best work Bendis has done (and I love a lot of his stuff) and given it was essentially written like a TV show from the start I have high hopes (I think it has been through a few development options already.) Luke Cage was a supporting character in this series (the characters went on to have a child and marry in the books) and has never been portrayed better.

As the appeal of the character widened there was an initial attempt to move the character into the mainstream Marvel universe with the series ‘The Pulse’ which lasted 14 issues. I actually think this was pretty underrated and continued the Jones/Cage relationship that continues to underpin the portrayals of the characters wherever they turn up.

I am planning on rereading all these books in the weeks ahead and highly recommend them to anyone.

10 things only Bristolians visiting London will understand

Inspired by the UsVsTh3m post 🙂

  1. You thought your accent was barely noticeable, but to people in London you’re basically Ian Holloway

I say this as someone with an accent that makes his seem like Prince Charles!

2. And if you have a genuinely broad accent, you have to say everything twice so people understand

Especially London cabbies — I am *never* sure where I’ll end up!

3. People are just generally friendlier out West

Though to be honest people are friendlier *everywhere* outside of London 🙂

4. Everyone you meet thinks you sound like a farmer

Legends. ‘Nuff said.

5. Whereas anyone with a brain knows you sound like a pirate!

See Aardman know the score!

6. People who haven’t visited think it all looks a bit like this.

I’ve actually never seen a farm!

7. Or if they have visited they think it looks like this.

Clifton is basically Zone 7 — i.e. ‘Little London’.

8. When actually it looks more like this these days..

Bansksy who?

9. You can never get a proper cider.

It is ‘DRY’ Blackthorn — otherwise you might as well be drinking Strongbow.

10. The moment of relief when you pass Didcot and know you are halfway home!

Especially when you are doing the split fares 🙂

Easy Like Sunday Morning (Football)

I was 10 years old the first time I played organised football on a Sunday morning. Long before the advent of smaller pitches and goalmouths for children I played on full sized pitches barely able to see the cross bar let alone touch it and I was lucky to clear the penalty area with my kicks. I loved it. The team I played for, St.Vallier, were dreadful and we regularly suffered heavy defeats. I didn’t care. I just wanted to play and feel a part of something. Sickly child that I was that was huge.

I continued to play until I was 15 and then drifted away as I discovered all the things that distract teenage boys and to be honest I had started to fall out of love with actually playing. I got so worked up before a game I was often physically sick and I needed to make a change.

I played a little over the next couple of years but it wasn’t until Uni that I really started to take it seriously again. Then one Valentines Day in 1994 I broke my leg in two places and really that was that for another couple of years.

After I graduated I struggled a bit. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and didn’t show much aptitude for working in an office and missed the camaraderie that uni provided. I am not sure I was depressed but I certainly wasn’t in a good place.

Football found me again. I started playing for my family team. I guess it was a pretty unusual situation — a team named after an uncles business and including my brother, three cousins and a number of other players I had known my entire life. Again it gave me something to be a part of. My confidence started to return and the changing room was an education in of itself.

The word ‘banter’ has developed all sorts of negative connotations over the last few years — much of it related to sexism and misogyny. The thing is I don’t really know how to describe the changing room activity as anything else — it was banter in its purest form. No one was off limits and at times you could be brutally be brought down to earth — it was no place with the faint of heart and I soon needed to toughen up and learn to fight my corner. There was only so long I could let my ‘little’ brother stick up for me!

I still found playing incredibly stressful — honestly speaking in front of large audiences is easier for my than playing football in front of one man and his dog — and at this point my abilities could at best be considered…limited. Still I kept turning up, I paid my subs, took my knocks (physically and verbally)

Over the years I moved from being the quiet one in the corner to a dressing room leader (though I had to move clubs to achieve that) and eventually to a sideline warrior — so injury prone that the only contribution I could make was running the line.

I played, managed, refereed — anything to stay involved. Even today, fives years after I finally ‘retired’, I am looking forward to start of the season and watching friends who still have the energy and ability to continue — and lets be honest I look forward to the pub after where the banter starts again.