Film 2018

It’s been quite a year for films. Not least because of Netflix and Amazon, both of which I feel a pressing need to subscribe to. Not every film that lands on either is worth watching to the end (although I tend to see them through out of professional pride, unless they are Nappily Ever After, and I have been halfway through the doc Chasing Trane for what must be five months for no reason whatsoever but inertia). But Netflix in particular possesses a voracious appetite for funding or distributing feature-length documentaries and A-list Originals that seems at present unquenchable. Frankly, I’m in, at least while that means luminaries as luminous as the Coens, Ben Stiller, Nicole Holofcener, Alfonso Cuaron, David Mackenzie, Gareth Evans, Paul Greengrass, Tamara Jenkins, Jeremy Saulnier, Duncan Jones, Andrew Niccol, Susanne Bier and Alex Garland sign up to make hay with the streaming platform.

It’s a subscriber’s market, as well as an artist’s. I still relish the chance to see big films on big screens – ironically, one of the most jaw-dropping this year was They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s trenches documentary, which I saw in 3D in a screening theatre, while most saw it in 2D on telly – but no technology can substitute inspiration. Heavyweight documentary was ubiquitous in 2018 (which is why I’ve cordoned it off and given the doc its own rundown), while the series or serial is dominated now by true crime that unfolds in visual podcast form – and there’s plenty of this on Netflix, to an extent that each rolls into one another. At least fictional, dramatic films still occasionally seek new territory, while Making a Murderer and its less original ilk merely slice the cake more thinly. So, to feature-length films.

I keep a strict diary that indicates at a glance the films that stand out – which, believe me, is vital when cinema has almost literally run out of titles. I know I saw Only the Brave, The Bachelors, Let the Sunshine In, Kodachrome, Cargo, The Rachel Divide, Dark Crimes, Bad Samaritan, How it Ends, Madame, The Last Witness, Final Score, Operation Finale and Hearts Beat Loud but I have no idea what any of them were about from memory. Maybe that’s just as well.

So here are my Top 10 followed by the Next 26, in an order that makes sense as I sit here, but may change and who would notice? I note that two of my Top 10 films – in fact, Top 5 – are in a foreign language (Spanish and Mixtec; Polish) and shot in black-and-white. Four in the Top 10 are not in the English language, and eight nations are represented. Only one entry is British; another a British/American co-production. One is both a drama and a documentary. I don’t know what that says about 2018.

  1. Roma | Alfonso Cuarón | Mexico
  2. The Old Man and the Gun | David Lowery | US
  3. American Animals | Bart Layton | UK/US
  4. Cold War | Pawel Pawloski | Poland
  5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri | Martin McDonagh | US
  6. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead | Ben Wheatley | UK
  7. Lady Bird | Greta Gerwig | US
  8. Western | Valeska Grisebach | Germany/Austria/Bulgaria
  9. The Florida Project | Sean Baker | US
  10. Wajib | Annemarie Jacir | Palestine

The next 26 are in no qualitative order; they are all excellent.

Peterloo | Mike Leigh | UK
Journeyman | Paddy Considine | UK
Apostasy | Daniel Kokotajlo | UK
BlackKkKlansman | Spike Lee | US
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs | Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | US
Disobedience | Sebastián Lelio | UK
Incredibles 2 | Brad Bird | US
Lean on Pete | Andrew Haigh | US
Zama | Lucretia Martel | Argentina
Phantom Thread | Paul Thomas Anderson | US
Lucky | John Carroll Lynch | US
Ghost Stories | Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson | UK
Deadpool 2 | David Leitch | US
Call Me By Your Name | Luca Guadagnino | Italy/US/Brazil/France
Yardie | Idris Elba | UK
Dark River | Clio Barnard | UK
A Fantastic Woman | Sebastián Lelio | Chile
Shirley: Visions of Reality | Gustav Deutsch | Austria (pictured above)
The Senator | John Curran | US
A Prayer Before Dawn | Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire | UK/US/France/China
My Friend Dahmer | Marc Meyers | US
Beast | Michael Pearce | UK
Custody | Xavier Legrand | France
Leave No Trace | Debra Granik | US
Dogman | Matteo Garrone | Italy
The Breadwinner | Nora Twomey | Canada/Ireland/Luxembourg

I’m taking documentaries out and giving them their own list, as it’s near-impossible to meaningfully compare the life story of a tragic superstar with a fiction about boy saving his horse from the knacker’s yard, and it’s been a strong year for non-fiction.

Springsteen on Broadway | Thom Zimny | US
The King | Eugene Jarecki | US
The Eyes of Orson Welles/They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead | Mark Cousins/Morgan Neville | US/UK (when two fantastic documentaries on the same subject but from different angles come out in the same year, it’s OK to group them together)
Whitney | Kevin Macdonald | UK
McQueen | Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui | UK
They Shall Not Grow Old | Peter Jackson | UK/New Zealand
The Man From Mo’Wax | Matthew Jones | UK
Score | Matt Schrader | US
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story | Alexandra Dean | US
Filmworker | Tony Zierra | US

There are a few days to go, and with more leisure time in than usual, but I suspect I’ll be watching old black-and-white movies on Talking Pictures and TCM and DVD from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, as that’s what leisure time is for.

 

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You go, girlfriends

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This is not a regular film review, as Women: A Success Story is not a regular film. “A liberating tale for a new generation,” inspired by Joanna Williams’s book Women Vs Feminism, it was made by volunteers and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Youth Social Action and the Jack Petchey Foundation; a community project that demands to be seen and shared and discussed, by women and men (there’s more about it here). Directed by Ceri Dingle, it has been put together by 100 volunteers, with 40 talking heads, all women, simply discussing and recalling their lives and experiences over nine decades of feminist progress. Its optimistic conclusion is somewhat foregone. This is not a time to niggle.

Each witness – ranging in age from 16 to 90 – is named in a caption, along with their date of birth, to help place them in their era. The documentary’s oldest participant is Elsie Holdsworth, born in 1928, and one of seven kids. She paints a vivid picture of life at the sharp end of the century, listing “one gaslight, two bedrooms, six children, no radio, no TV, no car, no hot water.” Her memory is pin-sharp and she provides valuable testimony from a pre-enlightenment age when, as a young woman, a job she took at Woolworth’s caused others to say she’s “climbing the social ladder, joining the elite.” (The loaded E-word is being bandied about again by today’s political class in this self-negating age of Brexit, but Elsie’s treatment at the hands of her peers seems almost comical to our modern ears – there’s a touch of “know your place” about such snarky opprobrium.)

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Among the more millennial talking heads is Caroline Cafasso, 21, an American who reflects the #MeToo generation when she observes that in her experience young women “consider many men to be dangerous towards women” and is rueful about being “stuck in hook-up culture.” Further insight from the young comes from Millie Small, 16, who offers another blithely alarming insight: “I don’t think pregnancy is a very big fear for people.”

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The film is split into clearly titled chapters – The Sexual Revolution and Freedom; Contraception: Free at Last; Mind the Gap – and makes sparing use of public-domain archive from patrician public information films to grout the witness footage (some of the more alarmist ones are from the binary certainty of America’s postwar period). This is not a film that dazzles with bells and whistles; it’s all about the content. That it was borne of a collective effort dovetails into the very subject matter. If there is a sisterhood, it might well be found herein.

Among the reassuringly ordinary witnesses, we meet the extraordinary Nadine Strossen, the first woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (she objects to women who report rape being classed as “victims” in what she regards as a “persecutorial culture”); also Ivana Habazin, a nun who watched Rocky and took up boxing, thereafter becoming IBO middleweight champion; we may not be too surprised to see Joanna Williams herself, at a Suffragette Picnic in East London – where else? Activists abound. Take Mally Best, thrown out of school at 15, she took an engineering course at college, specialising in aviation and navigation (she was the only woman among 79 men). When she took her exam onboard a warship, male seamen were put on a three-hour curfew so they wouldn’t come into contact with a woman.

For ideological balance, there’s a former beauty queen, Miss Severn Diamond, now in her 50s, who discusses the rights and wrongs of calling female friends “honey.” A proud pageant finalist at 22, she embodies a different strain of female empowerment, saying she “never found men intimidating”. (She discusses motor racing’s hot-button “grid girl” issue too, failing to see the harm.) Meanwhile, Hilary Salt, a member of Council of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, declares herself against boardroom tokenism that she thinks is “degrading”. “To me,” she boldly states, “it doesn’t seem be of any advantage for me when I’m sitting on the Council, to be there with my vagina.”

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Other, more opaque issues are addressed, from FGM to man-hating and whether or not glamour modelling is simply just “a personal choice” (one participant says she thinks of herself as a woman “from the neck down”).

There’s also a fascinating tour of the now-closed Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition, where we learn that in 1918 the first woman MP Constance Markievicz, never took her seat in Parliament as she was a member of Sinn Fein and as such “would never take an oath of allegiance to a power I meant to overthrow.” (The first sitting MP was Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919.) Wallflowers are not in evidence.

Shocking facts arise; domestic abuse was not even investigated by the police in the 1950s, and wasn’t until the 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act – although rape in marriage continued to be legal until 1990s. Within that context it brings you up short to hear a 1967-born West Midlands bank manager stating, “If you see someone brushing your knee as sexual assault you have seriously lost the plot.” Another woman of similar age is strident on the subject: “We didn’t feel cowed, or worried, we just said no.”

All this and the memory of using a mangle to clean nappies in the 1960s. You might optimistically conclude that men have gone a long way towards being house-trained in the interim. You might prefer to come away from the film with the lingering and powerful image of the daughter of an Eritrean freedom fighter who emigrated to the UK in the late 60s and “grew up with the idea that there was no difference between women and men.”

Either way, man or woman, whatever your view, or gender, or vintage, this film gives plenty of food for thought, and deserves to be shared.

What We Started (2017)

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WHAT WE STARTED (2017)
RATING: ★★★
DIRECTORS: Bert Marcus, Cyrus Saidi
STARRING: Carl Cox, Martin Garrix, Pete Tong
CERTIFICATE: 12A
RUNNING TIME: 94 mins
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: US

A documentary about dance music feels like a contradiction in terms; to document what is an intuitive, primal, physical activity risks robbing its essence. That said, the form’s history is as colourful and politically charged as the well-worn, hoary old saga of rock, and co-directors Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi give a decent, star-witness-studded account of the evolution of sexually-liberating New York disco to the more consumer-led EDM (electronic dance music) of today. Fresh footage of fiftysomething Carl Cox working a crowd over a ten-hour all-nighter in Ibiza is contrasted with 18-year-old, laptop-enabled Dutch bedroom wizard Martin Garrix inarticulately awed by a dance festival’s tens of thousands whom he will coax into ecstasy with EDM’s signature move, the pause and climactic “drop”. What We Started pays respect to pioneers Paul Oakenfold, Louis Vega and Pete Tong, and teases old-school opprobrium from them as they accuse today’s “superstar DJs” of lacking their hard-won turntable skills in a USB-stick age. Does the technology matter? The jury’s out in what is two-sided account. But the granddads certainly have better war stories to tell.

 

 

NB: We are experiencing technical problems at Radio Times and are unable to post this review. So I’m putting it up here for the time being.

They shoot, they score

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My review for Radio Times of the new, feature-length documentary Score (released on DVD 2 April in the UK)

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SCORE (2016)
RATING:
DIRECTOR: Matt Schrader
STARRING: Hans Zimmer, John Debney, Tyler Bates et al
CERTIFICATE: PG
RUNNING TIME: 93 mins
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: US
AVAILABLE: DVD

 

Matt Schrader’s first feature Score leads the slender field of documentaries about the work of film composers. Anyone whose interest runs deeper than humming the Darth Vader march will delight at the sheer who’s-who lined up for this tantalising insight into an artform that leading light Hans Zimmer reminds us keeps the world’s studio orchestras in work, while director James Cameron refers to the score as a movie’s “heart and soul”. Talking heads seated on swivel chairs on laminate-floored control rooms offer downhome wisdom like, “Bernard Herrmann had balls!” (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Tyler Bates) and “The reverse echo is really cool” (Scream king Marco Beltrami, who’s placed an old piano on the roof of his Malibu studio and wired it to a water tower for The Homesman). With its Kong-to-Jaws potted history out of the way, Score luxuriates in footage of crack musicians at Abbey Road giving life to Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace and Patrick Doyle cheerfully bashing out the Harry Potter Waltz on his piano. The notes of a motif from Lord of the Rings appear graphically onscreen, but apart from that, it’s sheer indulgence for audio-cinephiles yearning to see Tom Holkenborg call up the drums from Mad Max: Fury Road and play them on his keyboard. Zimmer speaks for every insecure composer when he imagines panicking, “You’d better phone John Williams, I have no idea how to do this!”

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The abridged version, on the page:

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LPs 2017

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Oops. Forgot to arrange my LPs of the Year into a neat shape. So here it is, for what it’s worth.

With great inevitability, soundtracks and scores have dominated my listening horizon. Curating a two-hour radio show of film music every week for Classic FM means I now habitually listen to a disproportionate amount of orchestral and instrumental music, with the bulk of it written in the 20th century ie. the past. I’m comfortable with this immersion, as I have lost touch with the modern sounds of the charts, and have trouble remembering the names of acts I hear for the first time on 6 Music. I heard a track I really liked yesterday in the car, for instance, by Mr Jukes, but I have no idea who that is.

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I know who Sleaford Mods are, and keep up with their prolific output (the documentary Bunch of Kunst was essential viewing), but it stands so far apart and above anything else I have heard in the last few years, it makes life almost impossible for the other bands! It may seem rather conservative to hold the new material of such established acts as Arcade Fire, Royal Blood, Billy Bragg and – eek! – Sparks, but I have long since stopped trying to impress anyone, and spend my CD money with caution. I probably played the Horrors album V more than any other non-orchestral, non-instrumental this year. It is, like English Tapas, fabulous, if not, like English Tapas, groundbreaking.

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Hold the front page. No, really, hold a newspaper with a front page on it and cherish its existence. For if nothing else, the year from here can once again be read through the front pages of its newspapers. Against all millennial odds, we still have nine national newspapers (eleven if you count the Morning Star and the New European) that arrive in papery bundles every morning across this sad land to be sold for money in shops, read and then folded up and recycled, seven of them essentially right-wing and pro-Brexit, four of them essentially left-wing and pro-Remain. (I’m told the right-wing free-sheet the London Evening Standard is not virulently pro-Brexit, but I don’t see a lot of evidence, possibly because I never pick up a copy.)

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The cover above, from the Daily Mail on Wednesday April 19, is one of the most striking, memorable and terrifying of the year. Not because of the Maleficent-style Disney villainess who graces it, against funeral black, or the aggressive use of the words “crush” and “saboteurs”, but, in retrospect, the hollowness and hubris of its pantomimic pomp. By the 5 October, after May’s farcical, psychosomatic speech at the Tory Party Conference, where she was handed a P45 by the comedian Simon Brodkin, our newspapers were united in hilarity against her. Even the Mail had its cake and ate it, splashing on the PM’s woes but sugar-coating with a quote from toady-in-chief Quentin Letts, who congratulated “the old girl” for essentially not curling up into a foetal ball and rocking back and forth on the podium. The “old girl”? Surely her days were numbered?

But no. We end 2017 with the same ineffectual Prime Minister we started it with, albeit minus three disgraced confidants. May’s story is Brexit Britain’s story: a sleepwalk over a cliff, and a lot of repeated words and phrases that mean very little. If she has an ideology, it’s based on a pathological lack of compassion, despite her weekly visits to church. (Her recent response to the rough-sleeping crisis was typically callous and cold. I can only assume they don’t have homeless people in Maidenhead.)

After last year’s flurry of Trump covers, he seems to have found himself less than front-page news in 2017. The ones I’ve saved and logged this year have generally featured our beleagured Prime Minister, the ghost who haunts Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson’s netherworld and whose response to an opinion she does not like is to laugh, an action which her facial features are completely unqualified to pull off. Her resting expression is one of disgust in any case. As far as I can tell, she is only Prime Minister because, within her party, the notion of Johnson, Gove, Rees-Mogg or – call an ambulance – Hunt is too grim to contemplate, and even more likely to lose them the next election. (Also, because even with Momentum behind him, Jeremy Corbyn struggles to make a case against her, as he doesn’t want to be in the EU.)

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You have to admit, the Mail has an unceasing energy. It shouts louder than the Sun, and has more conviction than the Express, which, like a small baby, is easily distracted by colours and noises. Once it gets a chew-toy between its teeth – “Remainer universities”, Corbyn’s terrorist sympathies, the eleven “self-consumed malcontents” who voted against the party whip – it presses all the right buttons for that considerable swathe of readers who have swallowed a blue-passport, bendy-bananas, overnight-ethnic-cleansing Brexit and see it as nothing less than a return to a Britain that never existed outside of Ealing comedies, when friendly coppers blew whistles, old maids bicycled home for warm beer and women and the coloureds knew their place.

It only very occasionally drops the chew-toy, such as when it allows the insidious misogyny often propogated by female columnists like Sarah Vine to run amok. In March, the paper actually lost its mind over the fact that two powerful women had legs.

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The next day, Sarah Vine told her critics to “get a life,” which is as relevant as saying “Not!” You cannot accuse the Mail of not understanding its readers. This is what one of them says about the return of the blue passport:

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I should credit the anonymous Tweeter DM Reporter, who thanklessly collates Daily Mail comments for the rest of us to despair over without having to give an all-important “click” to the website.

We should be proud of our national press, cherish its continued place in the daily discourse, and even welcome its extremes. We should certainly support it by parting with money for it, rather than greedily consuming it online for nothing. But we shouldn’t always believe it.

 

TV 2017

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The kiss on Victoria (ITV) was the image of the TV year. Not the one between Alfred and Drummond, but the more impromptu one between the Queen’s new puppy and Prince Albert’s wolfhound in Episode 4. As an armchair historian, I’ve continued to enjoy Daisy Goodwin’s royal drama, secure that when something weird or on-the-nose happens, it usually turns out to have actually happened. A similar current of historical accuracy floats The Crown (Netflix), once again my favourite drama of the year, and an absolute life-saver this Christmas. I never want it to end, and we managed to sit on all ten episodes in order to save it for the actual three or four days of Christmas, at no more than two in one sitting. It rewarded this loyalty and restraint with more elegantly plotted sub-plots ripped from the news headlines and reenacted with just the right amount of speculation and dramatisation. It will be sad to lose Claire Foy and Matt Smith as the royal couple, but life moves on, and latex might have been distracting. Now that House of Cards is a tainted brand, The Crown must reign as the safest bet on the streaming service.

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This was the year in which I truly embraced streaming. Without Netflix and Amazon, these would have been a less rich 12 months of screen-time. I think I’d got to episode four of season five of House of Cards when the allegations against Kevin Spacey took any last vestiges of pleasure from it. (I’m glad it’s continuing without him, though – it may be the injection of change it needed.) But other delights have filled the vacuum, not least Strangers Things, which has been a revelation and an unalloyed joy, even if season two is essentially a re-tread of season one. It’s sufficiently charming, nostalgic and Easter egg-filled to keep my interest.

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A big tick, too, for Mindhunter, Medici: Masters of Florence, and RTÉ’s Rebellion, which aired in Ireland in 2016 but on Netflix in 2017.  I’m just realising that it’s been a good year for period dramas. I felt Ripper Street (Amazon/BBC Two) went out in a blaze of glory, too.

Back on regular TV, I won’t painstakingly create a chart, or a list, but drama has been enriched this year with some fine returning series, not least season three of Fargo (Fox), whose dual Ewan McGregors was only one of its singular pleasures, a second helping of Unforgotten (ITV), and season two of The Frankenstein Chronicles on ITV Encore, soon to be pulled, which also gave us Moira Buffini’s Harlots, which I hope re-emerges on another channel. HBO/Sky Atlantic gave us the awards-magnet Big Little Lies, whose principal female cast were exceptional, once again proving that all the best parts are on TV now, more Game of Thrones, which I shall stay with until the very end, and The Deuce from David Simon and George Pelecanos, which is everything the similarly 70s-set Vinyl wasn’t. British drama was ennobled by Steven Knight’s mud-caked Taboo, ripped-from-the-headlines three-parter Three Girls, and Broken, from high priest Jimmy McGovern, giving Sean Bean the best role of his career. And all hail Mark Gatiss for curating and directing Queers (BBC Four), and the similarly anthological Urban Myths (Sky Arts), exemplified by Eddie Marsan as Bob Dylan.

My appetite for non-fiction TV [see: montage above] continues to revolve around war documentaries (highlights: Five Came Back on Netflix, The Vietnam War on BBC Four) and cooking competitions, both the miraculously improved C4 revamp of Bake Off, and the sensibly un-revamped Masterchef (BBC Two) brand extensions. I should note here that, since the Brexit vote, one of my old standbys Question Time has become literally unwatchable. I lament its passing, and the passing of something even more profound. Presenters like Neil Brand and Howard Goodall brought more knowledge and urbane wit to BBC Music, and you  might be surprised to learn that I was a sucker for Carry On Barging (Channel 5), just one of many “reality” formats in which ageing celebrities are thrown together for a merry travelogue. There was one in motor-homes too.

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Oddly, I have found 2017 to be notably weak for comedy on TV, but this may be just me. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has been joined by Real Time with Bill Maher (both HBO/Sky Atlantic), the only real antidotes to the United States of America as it stands, or rather gropes around on the floor searching for its soul. I mean, I still laugh. Jack Dee’s Bad Move (ITV) was good enough to watch through to the very end, something I rarely do with sitcoms any more, and the quietly devastating Detectorists (BBC Four) was so courageously light on comedy, it was as good as a drama. And I enjoyed seeing Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out (BBC Two), but its very existence felt regressive. I think I’ll go out on a limb and name Frankie Boyle’s New World Order (BBC Two) as my comedy show of the year, even though it’s the dark heart at its centre that makes it unmissable in a pre-apocalyptic age.

Behind the scenes, I have been developing a television project of my own. But that’s for another day. I would like to thank North One and Crook Productions, who have revived my talking head career in fine and constant style on Channel 5. I love talking on camera, about anything really, and they keep asking me to do it. It stops my Mum and Dad worrying about me to see me pop up on a regular basis in a nice shirt.

See you on the other side. No flipping.