I read the news today, oh f**k

In Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters, the great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow channels Bergman as Frederick, the older, existentially curmudgeonly artist. When his younger partner Lee (Barbara Hershey) gets home from an illicit liaison one night, she discovers him in a characteristic funk, having watched a “very dull TV show on Auschwitz.” He continues:

More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?”

This line has never left me. It’s the wrong question. Why doesn’t it happen more often? Even if it was placed in the mouth of a fictional pretentious grump to satirise him and his sort, I detect Allen’s own voice in this declaration. It’s also a clearly loaded statement, as it was written by a Jew.

The reason I bring up this minor diatribe from a mid-80s Woody Allen film (one of his later, funny ones) is that I keep repeating that line over and over in my head. Our holocausts come in shorter, sharper blasts, with more imaginable numbers of casualties, but they really do seem to be happening more and more often. The toxic dust has barely settled on the previous attack or atrocity before the next one flares up in another part of London, or another part of the country, in a street that looks like every other street, except for the police tape and the news vans and the community spirit.

As I type, a “Day of Rage” protest is taking place across the capital city I happen to live in. That’s not its official title, it’s something to do with the Queen’s Speech, which this year came on a the back of an envelope. But barely a day goes by without me feeling some degree of rage about something or other. We’re having a heatwave in the South of England, too, which reminds me of the mid-80s Siouxsie and the Banshees album Tinderbox, one of whose standout tracks was called 92°, a reference to the temperature on the Fahrenheit scale at which human beings go mad  (“I wondered when this would happen again/Now I watch the red line reach that number again/The blood in our veins and the brains in our head”).

You wonder if the heat got to the dumb-f*** Islamophobe from Cardiff who drove his hired van into Muslims at prayer in Finsbury Park, North London. I mean, who does that? And why don’t they do it more often? Well, in fact, Frederick the fictional character, they now do. I can’t remember a time when I was more nervous about hired vans. (I was like this about planes flying overhead in the months after 9/11.)

These surges in negative cosmic energy, often leading to death or injury, and always leading to panic and overreaction, are not Holocausts. Instead we have major incidents, geographically labelled, and thrown into the 24-hour news cycle like it’s a tumble drier: Westminster Bridge, Manchester Evening News Arena, Borough Market, Finsbury Park Mosque. It’s the cumulative dread and the speed at which they line up that really take the breath away. I feel breathless as a kind of default setting in this escalating age of catastrophe. One death toll rises, when another, new death toll is started before the previous one has been finalised. (We have no idea how many people perished in Grenfell House, other than it’s more than we are being told.) I guess there’s no better word for what many of us feel in these special circumstances than terror. (The terrorists have won, by the way, whether they come in networks or cells, as martyrs or “lone wolves”. But maybe the tide will turn and we will win in the end.)

London skyline

I have lived in London since 1984. I arrived in the city full of hope and dreams. Those hopes and dreams have long since migrated away from London. It’s too crowded. It’s too divided. It’s too vulnerable. Also, it’s full of high-rise buildings that do have safety features, like sprinklers, because they are soulless stacks of glass units sold to foreign investors, who generally don’t even live in them, and who can blame them? Who would choose to live in a tower? If you take an overground train into Central London and pass the Thames, you can no longer see the Thames. All you can see is ugly, protruding glass and metal tubes. They block out the gorgeous old buildings on the other side of the river, and monstrosities nicknamed things like “the Walkie Talkie” and “the Cheese Grater” stand testament only to the excess testosterone coursing through the pinched veins of male architects who have no intention of living in them. (Grenfell Tower is not like these buildings.)

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I have a longtime fascination with disaster movies, in particular those made during the genre’s first cycle in the 1970s, when glamorous movie stars were half-drowned for our delectation and amusement. It was interesting to me that one of Grenfell Tower’s luckier residents – ie. one who got out with his life – spoke of wrapping his children’s heads in wet towels before they fled their flat. This is more than likely something learned through watching dramas about fires. I will never forgot Robert Wagner’s philandering PR Dan Bigelow adopting the wet-towel survival technique in The Towering Inferno – fruitlessly, as it happened, as the fire had got out of control due to corners cut with wiring and safety features, so he burned to death, while his lover, Lorrie (Susan Flannery) threw herself out of the window. The Towering Inferno was critical of cheaply built skyscrapers, and showed the dangers, but this was Hollywood fantasy, not the news, right?

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When Huw Edwards sat in total silence at his large, round, glass desk last night, unaware, due to a technical issue, that News at Ten had started and filled the air with silence, it was a blessed relief. For four silent minutes and eight silent seconds, with no news. And no news is good news.

We may soon have to start planning moments of silence in advance, maybe every Thursday. There’s a daily need to stop and think and remember those who’ve suffered.

I’m sick of all the violence, and the hate, and the murder, and the name-calling, and the corporate greed, and the municipal incompetence, and the political dismantling of the public sector and the good it does for ordinary people when properly funded and looked after, and I’m sick of people in government being terrible at their jobs, whether it’s looking after the economy or having an empathy at all or knowing what the inside of Lidl or Aldi looks like. Some Tories are clearly just cruel, and uncaring, and mean. Some are merely useless at their jobs. Many of them are both. One of them, Theresa May, is what Frankie Boyle described her as on his New World Order show for BBC Two: “a f***ing monster.”

I hate it when politicians accuse other politicians of politicising terrible atrocities, the kind that happen on a weekly basis currently. Tragedy is political. Terror is political. Neglect is political. And greed is certainly political.

I am not on the Day of Rage, but I’m having one privately. I rage at 22-year-old men who are disaffected and bored, just like most 22-year-olds, but who choose to vent that disaffection and boredom by taking innocent lives. I rage at people who see harm done by individuals from one religious group on individuals from various religious groups and surmise that it’s all the fault of just one religious group, because a man or a woman with thin, purple lips and a tumour growing inside their soul said so in a newspaper opinion column, which, if written by a different man would see him accused of hate speech. I rage at the disparaging term “snowflake”. And I rage at members of UKIP still being asked onto BBC political discussion programmes, despite having no MPs. They made this mess and I would rather they f***ed off while the rest of us got on with clearing it up.

I have no answers. I’m like the beautiful short-sleeved bowling shirt bearing a Chinese dragon design worn by a contestant on a recent Pointless and met with admiration by Alexander Armstrong. He said, “It asks more questions than it answers.”

But let’s keep asking them. The right questions.

 

 

++++++STOP PRESS+++++

One national newspaper has found a way of cheering us all up! By ignoring all the terrible news and offering combined monarchism, voyeurism and objectification of women.

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A great leap forward

Squeeze are a band who were formed in 1974, when I was nine and the eloquent East Midlands firebrand Grace Petrie was around ten years away from being born. They were invited onto BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday to perform their splendid song Cradle To The Grave (the theme tune for the splendid BBC comedy of the same name), and a few days before, singer and co-songwriter Glenn Tibrook found out that they were going to be on the same edition as the Prime Minister. But not until ten minutes before the live performance did he decide he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t slip in a new verse. So, without the rest of the band knowing, he did. It was sung, live, to a visible audience of two: Andrew Marr and David Cameron (who’d been on to smarm about how his government’s dismantling of council housing wasn’t that at all, even though it is).

I grew up in council houses
Part of what made Britain great
There are some here who are hell bent
On the destruction of the welfare state

As an act of protest it was calm, collected and heartfelt. You can read Tilbrook’s full account of why he did it here. Even if Cameron wasn’t paying attention, we were. (It was Danny Baker, old pal and co-writer of the series that bears the song’s name, who tweeted about it, and interest among the righteous snowballed from there.) I think the fact that it went a bit viral is due to a broader thirst for protest in the arts. I have loved Squeeze since Cool For Cats, and although their best known songs are beautifully observed social documentary, rather than out and out socialist anthems, a beating heart is always audible, and anyone who had a heart would surely be on the side of people who can’t afford to buy their council houses rather than the side of the developers and landlords who will cash in on their blameless misery.

My blood was stirred by Tilbrook’s stand. It must have been even more exciting to catch it as it went out. What a thrill such subversion provides. If he’d sworn, or thrown down the mic, or stuck two fingers up at Cameron, it would have been less of a moment. To instead attack him with poetry, which is what it is, is poetic. This government will cut the subsidised arts down to the bone if they have their way, as they believe, in the space where their hearts might beat, that if the arts can’t pay for themselves in a free market, they have no place in the public arena.

I tweeted in the heat of the moment about Squeeze, but was defeated in my constant aim of clarity by the 140-character limit, and it didn’t quite come across, which is why I’m expanding upon the fire in my belly here, and will keep typing until I’ve finished! Anyway, out of a self of righteous dismay with the generally apolitical malaise of today’s mainstream pop and rock music, this is what I wrote:

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I called Squeeze “old” because, well, they are. The band itself is 42. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are 58 and 61. They have been around. And the truism goes: you get more right wing as you get older. I have personally found this not to be the case, but you do see people’s priorities change when they have children and find themselves inevitably sucked into the system, with less time for the luxury of dissent. (Do you know that quote by literary critic Cyril Connolly? “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”)

I find myself getting angrier and angrier about injustice, cruelty, materialism, privatisation and lack of compassion. Some days I wish I’d calm down. I may not have been on a march since 2003, but this is chiefly because that particular protest’s failure to change the course of history knocked the protesting stuffing out of me. (I even tried writing letters to my MP and to the PM but they had no effect either, and Iraq was duly invaded, as planned long before anybody tried to stop the war.)

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So the sight of a band who’ve been around since the mid-70s seizing the moment on a live political discussion programme and having their say warmed my heart. My tweet was not aimed at “young bands” who are politicised. I’m well aware that a pocket of young artists are as pissed off as I am. I may not know all their names, or be au fait with their politically charged music (as I’ve long since stopped going to gigs on a regular basis), but as Billy Bragg’s official biographer I keep abreast of political music via him. We collaborated on a new chapter to my book only two years ago, and in writing about Billy’s endorsement of Jake Bugg, Grace Petrie and others, I felt a connection with them. Having first heard Grace Petrie through Josie Long when we did a 6 Music radio show together, it gave me enormous pleasure to type “Petrie, Grace” into the updated index of Still Suitable For Miners. (I still wonder to this day why Josie and I were not invited back. We were told that the station had loved what we’d done, but the call never came.)

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Anyway, true to form, my Tweet was read by some as a sweeping generalisation against all “young bands”. It was nothing of the sort. But Twitter can be a cruel interpreter of raw feeling. To me, there is no difference between what Squeeze did and what Petrie, Seán McGowan and Chris TT do. I remembered this dispiriting moment from a 2011 article by Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian. We join Grace Petrie onstage at the University of London:

“You guys at UCL,” she says. “You’re pretty political, right?” A handful of students raise a feeble cheer, and Petrie’s face falls. “That’s not quite what I expected.”

She wins them over in the end, but the message is: it ain’t easy being political. One of her first songs was Goodbye To Welfare, so it’s easy to see the link with Squeeze. My dismay was clearly never with her, or the others who fight the good fight. It was with the general state of pop and rock music made by the young and aimed at the young, but to my ears bereft of struggle or friction. I actually sometimes think that the mobile phone age has bred an intractable complacency. You can’t blame a generation for succumbing to the touch-screen intimacy of the smartphone and taking their eye off the bigger picture – after all, nobody even looks forward when they’re walking along now. Their face is in that little glowing oblong, their ears plugged, their attention all used up. This victory for the system makes political artists all the more rare, and all the more vital.

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Sam Duckworth (formerly Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly), who raises a “Stop Bombing Syria” placard in his Twitter avatar, wrote to me of “the death of the counter culture in the under-30s.” It sort of breaks my heart. In a better world, protest artists would be on television. Maybe not on Andrew Marr, but somewhere on the BBC, with its public service remit (although I guess the BBC has bigger fish to fry, what with the Tories bearing down hard at charter-renewal time). When I was a teenager, we had Something Else on BBC Two, a “youth” magazine show that introduced me to so many things, not just Joy Division live (something it’s now famous for doing), but also political poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke and Craig Charles. I may be remembering it – and the subsequent Oxford Road Show – through a rose tint, but I was a “youth” and somebody was speaking to me. Also, there was nothing else on and no mobiles, so I went out on my bike and listened to records with my friends, and talked.

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Nothing more boring than a man in his fifties hymning his childhood, but I hold the youth of today to a high standard. I don’t expect Adele (whose music I like) to bring down the government. But I don’t hear any politics in the dreary music of Ellie Goulding or Florence Welch either (and they seemed to come up via 6 Music with a certain degree of credibility), or in any of the acoustic singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran, or James Bay, or whatever the other ones are called. They’re the worst; they come on like troubadours, one man and a guitar, and they say next to nothing.

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People on Twitter started listing bands and artists who are political for me, and the fact that I’d not heard of many of them tells you a lot. Enter Shikari and the King Blues I’m familiar with, but (and I’ll try and put links in to their websites here) less so Tim OT, Against Me!, Gecko, The Lagan, Josiah Mortimer, Dru Blues, Brigitte Aphrodite, Chas Palmer-Williams, Ducking Punches, Perkie, Colour Me Wednesday, Onsind, Will Varley, Itch (from the King Blues), Grant Sharkey, Beans On Toast (thanks to Seán McGowan for most of those, but others chipped in).

It’s an underground movement, as it has to be. But the very technology that seems to be turning the populace into zombies, unable to communicate verbally or emotionally, also empowers unknown or unsigned artists to get their music out there, often for free, via Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Squeeze are a well-established band from another era of contracts and distribution and copyright and Walkerprints, and for them to make their stand, on live television, in the daytime, on the BBC, puts them in the same boat at Grace Petrie and the others mentioned here.

That’s what I meant.

I’ll end with a self-referential couplet from a song by Billy Bragg written and recorded in 1987 for the Workers’ Playtime LP:

Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses …

Now form a band!*

 

* Sorry, another ancient reference.

2015: the year in TV

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It’s been a momentous year for television. Mainly in the sense that I entered the world of a TV show that I love, Gogglebox, which proceeded to take over my life when I was tasked with the labour of love that was writing the official Gogglebox book for Christmas. When I say it’s a show I love, that love has not been reduced or tainted by the privileged position of having met, interacted and forged modest bonds with its participants. Do you get me?

Although I have met, interviewed, interacted with on Twitter and worked in real life wife a large number of actors, writers, directors and other key crew on TV shows, and toil silently in the backroom on scripts for most of the time (most of it, this year, in the basement of development), my most important relationship with television takes place in my living room, or at my computer. And that’s fine with me. For the time being.

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There is always a danger when you meet your heroes that they turn out to have feet of clay. As a viewer, I always regarded the Gogglebox families and couples not as heroes, or gods, or celestial beings, but something even stranger: as close friends. Being invited across their threshholds during April and May this year to meet their pets, drink their coffee, eat their biscuits and use their facilities was a cosmic experience unlike any other in my quarter-century in the media; not only does Gogglebox infer intimate knowledge on the besotted viewer (and there are more of us now than ever before), it makes you feel as if you know your way around the houses, even though you don’t, as you only ever view them through one permanently fixed frame. Thanks to the book publisher Macmillan, I was able to go through the looking glass. It has been a rare treat, one not to be repeated. I’m proud of the book. I hope it raised some smiles this Christmas.

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Back in front of my own TV, on the appropriate side of the glass, I watched loads of great telly. I shall list my Top 26 in no particular order, although you may have heard me say already that season two of HBO’s The Leftovers was my favourite show of 2015, just as season one of this beguiling, heartbreaking drama about loss and grief was my favourite show of 2014. The news that HBO have ordered up a third (albeit final) season made my year. It’s also right and proper to name two talented British TV writers, each responsible for two dramas in my Top 26: Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers; This Is England 90 – co-written with Shane Meadows), and Sarah Phelps (the adaptation of And Then There Were None; one episode of Dickensian, story by Tony Jordan). There are two shows with Peter Kay in. Two with the actor David Dawson in. Two with Jerome Flynn. And so on. It’s natural to genuflect to America, but we’ve still got the old magic here.

The Leftovers, HBO (thus Sky Atlantic)
Detectorists, BBC Four
First Dates, Chanel 4
The Last Kingdom, BBC Two
The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic
Fargo, Fox
Catastrophe, Channel 4
Gogglebox, Channel 4
Wolf Hall, BBC Two
This Is England 90, Channel 4
Unforgotten, ITV
Cradle To Grave, BBC Two
The Walking Dead, Fox
Dickensian, BBC One
The Bridge III, BBC Four
1864, BBC Four
The Game, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon/BBC One
Peter Kay’s Car Share, BBC Two
Masterchef: The Professionals, BBC Two
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO
Game Of Thrones, HBO
The Frankenstein Chronicles, ITV Encore
Sound Of Song, BBC Four
Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
And Then There Were None, BBC One

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Having sifted 26 to the top, let’s doff the cap to another batch, all of which have entertained or informed me, in some cases both, and gripped me to the last episode (or in the case of the single drama The Go-Between, gripped me to the end of the only episode). In another year of countless first episodes dutifully watched and second episodes left untouched (From Darkness, River, season two of The Returned, Witnesses, Cuffs), sometimes through sheer bulk of telly to get through but mostly due to failure of engagement, I really appreciated those shows that pulled me back in and had me ’till goodbye.

Inside No. 9, BBC Two
Poldark, BBC one
Toast Of London, Channel 4
The Hunt, BBC One
True Detective, HBO
Broadchurch II, ITV
The Go-Between, BBC One
The Saboteurs, More4
Prey II, BBC Two
The Good Wife, More4
Penny Dreadful, Sky Atlantic
Lewis, ITV
Mad Men, Sky Atlantic
The Daily Show (prior to Jon Stewart leaving), Comedy Central
W1A, BBC Two
Veep, Sky Atlantic
Looking, Sky Atlantic
The Man In The High Castle, Amazon
Togetherness, Sky Atlantic
Show Me A Hero, Sky Atlantic
Silicon Valley, Sky Atlantic
The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
Dawn Chorus, BBC Four
Bitter Lake, BBC iPlayer
Fear Itself, BBC iPlayer

I must pay tribute to North One TV, the production company which keeps asking me to be a talking head on shows like The Best Of Bad TV on Channel 5, and – one for the New Year – The Greatest Animated Movies. I really enjoy doing these, as it’s basically talking about telly and films, which I’d be doing anyway! I’m not on the screen that much any more, except for the little one on the Guardian website, so it’s a pleasure to be asked.

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It curdles my insides to say it, but I think this is the first year for some time where my name didn’t appear in the credits for something on TV (or at the cinema, like last year, hem hem), unless you count the reruns of Not Going Out on Dave, which are on a loop. Oh, it goes without saying that I am still co-developing a TV drama, the one I was co-developing this time last year, but as anybody who’s been in development will concur, it’s better to still be developing it than no longer developing it. It’s not dead until pronounced so by the broadcaster. And, just before Christmas, another drama I was co-developing but which had been on ice all year, suddenly reared its pretty head again after a fortuitous coffee. So here’s to another year of it. All of it.

First …

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First they came for BBC Three, and I did not speak out –
because I don’t watch Snog, Marry, Avoid.

Then they came for BBC Worldwide, and I did not speak out –
because I don’t really know what that is, or does.

Then they came for Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice, and I did not speak out –
because I mainly listen to Radio 4 and watch BBC Two and Wimbledon and Question Time.

Then they came for the whole of the BBC, including Radio 4 and BBC Two and Wimbledon and Question Time and Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice
and there was no one left to broadcast that fact in a trustworthy manner.

After Pastor Martin Niemöller, 1946

Whatever | September 2009

Whatever | Festivals and work/life balance
Why blanket media coverage of Glastonbury has puréed its spirit

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Thanks to extensive coverage in all BBC-hating national newspapers – ie. all national newspapers – we know that the Corporation dispatched “almost as many” reporters, presenters, producers, technicians and support staff to cover this year’s Glastonbury festival as it did last summer’s Beijing Olympics: about 400. Sky News described it as a “sun-soaked event” (counter to the newspapers’ preferred caricature of a “mud bath”), as if to underline the mealy-mouthed assertion that this was a massive “junket”; Matthew Elliott of the purple-faced TaxPayers’ Alliance announced, “All 407 staff can’t be there doing proper work.” Well, sorry, but I think providing three days of output across three channels and red-button interactive services as the festival’s worldwide broadcast partner probably counts as proper work, even when it’s sunny and Dizzee Rascal’s doing Bonkers. And I bet the toilets and mobile reception were better in Beijing.

The question mark hangs not over whether 400-plus BBC employees were working, but whether what they were working on is any longer worth the almighty faff. I find myself in a relatively decent position to judge: a moderate veteran after half a dozen working Glastonburys between 1989 and 1995, I had retired from the annual pilgrimage with no inclination to return. Then, after a rash, sherry-influenced decision at Christmas, I agreed to return, older and wiser and ready to be dismayed by how, hey, corporate and sanitised it had become. I camped for five days without the aid of a backstage wristband or freebie ticket. And guess what? It was just as vast, unfettered and bamboozling as before, the cumulative effect quite unlike either the family holiday or wartime conscription of modern shorthand. Having happily kept up in the intervening 14 years by watching Glastonbury on telly, I was struck by the vast sensory chasm which – more than ever – exists between the event itself and the way it comes across on BBC4, or Sky News, or in a pullout souvenir in the Observer. More Glastonbury coverage does not mean better Glastonbury coverage.

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The armchair music festival season now begins in early June with the Isle Of Wight – broadcast partner ITV2; hosts Fearne Cotton, Rufus Hound; Absolute Radio “set up camp [no they don’t] … to bring listeners around the UK exclusive live performances, interviews and backstage news and gossip.” Come September, the home festivalgoer will have “experienced” T In The Park (BBC3, Edith Bowman; Radio 1; Radio Scotland), Reading/Leeds (BBC3, Edith Bowman, Zane Lowe; Radio 1), V Festival (4Music; Absolute), Bestival (C4; 4Music; Radio 1), Latitude (Radio 2, Stuart Maconie, Dermot O’Leary, Claudia Winkleman, Janice Long; Radio 4; 6 Music), Cambridge Folk Festival (Radio 2) and T4 On The Beach (C4, Steve Jones, Miquita Oliver). Although “Glasto” – as even Andrew Marr now calls it – continues to occupy a regal place on the calendar, it too gets puréed into indeterminate, flag-and-kagoule mush by all this relentlessly upbeat, uncritical, blanket reportage of anything that steps onto a stage, or into a puddle. Festival season is to a certain type of thirtysomething, jeans-wearing, Ting Tings-loving presenter, what pantomime season is to dwarfs. For the rest of us, it’s a surefire way of growing bored of live music. I texted civilisation during Neil Young’s set on the Pyramid Stage and ascertained that he was “boring” on TV; in situ, on a warm evening in Avon, he was mesmerising.

The sad fact is, Glastonbury and the other major pasture-based gigs are now part of the arts furniture, slotted in between Glyndebourne, Hay, Edinburgh, Cannes, the Proms, even the non-horsey bits of Ascot: all subject to their own set of visual and written clichés. A glance through the Telegraph’s online “picture gallery” from Glastonbury is dominated by fragrant young ladies and apple-faced kids in the mud, despite the fact that it only rained once and the ground was bone dry by Saturday. I particularly liked, “Two girls walk through the site with blow-up airbeds.” Pictorially, Glastonbury is the new A-Level results for newspapers like the Telegraph with no real interest in the music or the vibe.

ACGlasto89In 1992, the NME made music press history by turning its Glastonbury coverage round by – gasp! – the Wednesday after the festival, rather than waiting a full week to call in all the copy. Why hurry? Nobody expected to read about it the moment they got home in those pre-enlightenment days. Nowadays, Q magazine comes out daily, onsite. And yet, if it didn’t, the festival would go on. When Michael Jackson died, reporters were desperate to tell the world that a grief-stricken hush had fallen across Worthy Farm. It hadn’t. We were a bit surprised, and then got on with eating a burrito and joining the queue for the Orange phone-recharging chillout tent.

In short, I shall treat all coverage of Ascot with extreme suspicion from now on.

Published in Word magazine, September 2009

2014: My Top 50 TV Shows

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Now we’re talking. For almost four years now, I have been required to watch television for a job. It is a lovely job, even in the weeks when it is an uphill struggle to find anything to rave about into a camera at the Guardian offices in King’s Cross. (You surely know me well enough by now to know that I am a bad TV critic because I have too much empathy with people who make TV programmes and thus find it difficult to slag them off for dramatic effect. So be it.) I cannot lie to you: when, in November, I appeared as a talking head on Channel 5’s Most Shocking TV Moments, I was inordinately proud to be captioned for the first time ever as “Andrew Collins, TV critic”.

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Most Shocking TV Moments was not one of the Top 50 TV shows of 2014, although it wasn’t at all bad, and was important in its own way.

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I can definitely list 50 TV shows that I loved this year, which is a first for my cultural roundup of the year so far, currently a bit undernourished. That’s because I watch a lot more telly than I listen to records or read books. It’s best to get used to that, and not worry about it. Telly is in the best shape it’s been in for years and we should give thanks for that, while music’s in a parlous state and films are struggling to keep up with the small screen. You know it’s true. I’ve had a rethink since first publishing this list, which is a pointless qualitative exercise in any case, and instead of a Top 50 (or whatever the total is up now), I’m reverting to the Top 10, followed by all the rest, as, frankly, after that it’s a fairly random list of television programmes that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2014. There’s no way of measuring which was my 21st favourite and which was my 22nd favourite. (Also I caught up with two episodes of Toast after first composing the list and tried to move it up the chart, but it threw everything else out of whack and I conceded my folly!)

In its present state, it can do no harm, especially if it prompts debate or that warm feeling of “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”

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1. The Leftovers, HBO/Sky Atlantic
2. Gogglebox, C4
3. Peaky Blinders, BBC2
4. Detectorists, BBC4
5. Hinterland/Y Gwyll, S4C/BBC Wales/BBC4
6. The Newsroom, HBO/Sky Atlantic
7. Game Of Thrones, HBO/Sky Atlantic
8. The Code, ABC1/BBC4
9. True Detective, HBO/Sky Atlantic
10. Gomorrah, Sky Italia/Sky Atlantic

The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies, ITV
Looking, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Missing, BBC2
Boardwalk Empire, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Happy Valley, BBC1
Line Of Duty, BBC2
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Walking Dead, AMC/Fox
Intruders, BBC America/BBC2
Mad Men, AMC/Sky Atlantic
Toast Of London, C4
Olive Kitteridge, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Good Wife, CBS/More4
Babylon, C4
Stammer School, C4
The Mimic, C4
Marvellous, BBC1
W1A, BBC2
Boss, Starz/More4
Veep, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Penny Dreadful, Showtime/Sky Atlantic
Utopia, C4
Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience, Comedy Central
The Honourable Woman, BBC2
Cilla, ITV
The Strain, Watch
Nixon’s The One, Sky Arts
The Legacy, Sky Arts
Plebs, ITV2
Scot Squad, BBC Scotland
Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, C4
The Bridge, BBC4
The Mill, C4
A Very British Renaissance, BBC2
The Village, BBC2
Uncle, C4
Suspects, Channel Five
The Great British Bake Off, BBC1
Dave Gorman’s Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
The Trip To Italy, BBC2
The Art Of Gothic, BBC4
The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern, BBC4
People Just Do Nothing, iPlayer/BBC3
Modern Family, ABC/Sky1
Rev, BBC2
Hannibal, Sky Living
Sherlock, BBC1
Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, BBC4
Louie, Fox
The Daily Show, Comedy Central
House Of Cards, Netflix

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Glib conclusions? Thank the lord for HBO, and by definition, Sky Atlantic. Also, what a year for drama. And not just American drama. In the Top 10 we find an Australian drama, and an Italian drama, as well as one from the UK (Peaky Blinders, which I hymned at length for the Guardian’s Top 10 TV here), and more specifically one from Wales, in Welsh (which premiered on S4C, in its native language, in 2013, but expanded into countless other territories, from Denmark to the US and Canada, in 2014). Other notable British entries include The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies (which reminds us that ITV is the equal of the BBC when it wants to be), The Missing, Happy Valley, Line Of Duty and Intruders (a co-prod with BBC America).

I find it intriguing that a number of dramas in the list have been based on novels: The Leftovers, Game Of Thrones, Intruders, The Strain, The Walking Dead (a series of graphic novels). Great long-form TV drama is often referred to, with critical reverence, as “novelistic”, and this seems now to be literal. I’ve often felt that a 90-minute feature film, the usual resting place for a novel, is the wrong medium; eight hour-long parts seems so much more conducive to capturing a book’s essence. (Hey, that’s why Lord Of The Rings was made into three movies.) Anyone see The Slap, another all-too-rare Aussie import, in 2011? That was a novel; it worked on telly. I guess the weird bit – and this will be true for my favourite show of the year The Leftovers – is how to produce a second series when the source has dried up.

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Telly drama made the news in April when “Mumblegate” saw the BBC in the firing line – again – for the questionable sound quality of its latest original British drama, a three-part dramatisation of a novel, Daphe Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. This was mere weeks after I’d sat on the Bafta jury for Best International Programme with its talented writer Emma Frost (I really liked her adaptation of The White Queen in 2013). I enjoyed the first episode of Jamaica Inn, and said so in my Guardian review, but having viewed it on catch-up I think we missed out on the technical problems that bedevilled it for those who watched it live. Also, we watch so much mumbly drama in our house, we had no problem straining to hear what Sean Harris was saying. Others had a bigger problem, and a storm in a teacup brewed. Harris redressed the balance with his sweetly self-conscious acceptance speech for Southcliffe at the Baftas. But I felt sorry for Emma, because I am a writer, and there but for the grace of executive whim, go I.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the coverage of The World Cup on ITV and BBC in June and July, and you can re-read my enthusiastic but clueless reports, Braz1l, Bra2il, 3razil, Br4zil, Bra5il and 6razil here. That’s a lot of hours of television, right there.

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My own contributions to the small screen have been limited this year. I was thoroughly proud to have script-edited the second series of Badults on BBC3, and – a new gig – the second series of Drifters on E4. One of my in-development sitcoms bit the dust, but not through want of effort and lateral thinking and getting Simon Day in to help gag it up.

My talking head was on the aforementioned Most Shocking TV Moments on Channel 5, also, for the same channel, I did Greatest 80s Movies, which I didn’t see, but I assume went out? More covertly, I added my two-penn’orth to Crime Thriller Club on ITV2, as I like the kind of crime thrillers that are on that channel and quite fancied talking about them with my head. Apart from that, I’ve been busying myself writing and rewriting my dystopian thriller, which is, yeah, yeah, in development. Here’s hoping it does something slightly more meaningful than get rewritten in 2015. Reuniting with Simon Day has been a positive thing, and I’d love to think we can do something together in the near future.

Telly Addict continues, of course, which is a bit like being on the telly, isn’t it? Here’s your static moment of Zen …

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A lobby of green-ink heart attack candidates in the Sunday Times Culture section’s You Say TV forum (to whit: “What about the 50 million licence fee payers who don’t like football?”) have been wishing for four weeks that World Cup 2014 was all over. It is now. Thanks to the fleet left foot of the German substitute who looks like my niece’s boyfriend Shane – Mario Götze – who misshaped the bottom corner of the Argentinian net in the 112th minute from a cross by André Schürrle, Germany are now four-times World Cup champions, and this is their first team to win it since the Wall came down. A new star will have to be embroidered onto their shirt. Götze already is one, a 22-year-old symbol of Germany’s “New Generation.”

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The Maracanã, pulsing with coloured lights from above like a sea anemone as the sun went down, hosted a thrilling final, whose single goal and singular lack of shots do not quite describe the action within. Having ungratefully humiliated the host nation and sent the whole of Brazil spiraling into despond – forced, by default, to cheer them on – Germany were the stronger side, but Argentina’s defence was stout. Unfortunately for the South Americans, their “demigod”, as Alan Shearer describe him, Lionel Messi, was only occasionally the best player in the world, and couldn’t finish.

However, and this is now a commonplace, Germany were a team: unreliant on demigods or talismen, they were eleven men, who simply looked for each other, passed clearly and cleanly, cleared some space, created chances, and, more often than not, converted those chances into goals. Only one last night, but it only required one. Stoically, they dealt with the zero-hour loss of Khedira – injured during training – by replacing him with Christoph Kramer, who was himself rendered dazed and confused by a shoulder to the bonce, and replaced by Schürrle. This is how a good team works. It is a sum of its parts. Brazil, as we have seen, cannot function without Neymar. Argentina, in this instance, couldn’t win without Messi. Messi was there, but not quite.

Let us not sanctify Germany; one or two of them did their fair share of diving (albeit not at the theatrical level of Holland’s Iron Robin, whose supercilious grin made him one of the most difficult to like stars of the tournament, right through to the pointless Third Place Playoff against an undead Brazil). But there are eleven reasons why Germany are the first European side to win the World Cup in South America. Oh, and one of those reasons happened to be the best keeper of the last four weeks.

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As Gary Lineker said to the shy and retiring Alan Hansen during the suited-up half-time mull, “You like stats.” Here are some I’ve lifted from the BBC Sport website:

Germany have won the World Cup for a fourth time. Only Brazil (5) have more wins. Argentina conceded a goal in extra time at the World Cup for the first time.
Argentina failed to have a shot on target in a World Cup game for the first time since the 1990 final v West Germany. Germany are the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas.
Germany’s total of 18 goals is the most in a World Cup since Brazil scored 18 in 2002. Argentina only trailed for seven minutes in the entire tournament.

It was, of course, over for Brazil a lifetime ago on Tuesday, just after Germany’s second goal from Klose, when they went to pieces before the eyes of the world. Or, if you prefer to dig back a bit further: the moment Colombia’s Zuniga high-tackled Neymar in the quarter final and put him out of the frame. Or, if you prefer, the moment in the same match when captain Thiago Silva got sent off, for surely it was the lack of a cohering skipper as much as the lack of what Sam Matterface later called “a goal-scoring striker” that took the legs out from under Brazil. (Or Brazeel, Brazeeel, as I still call them, after the ITV theme tune, an affectation that has taken on a melancholy air.)

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The semi final against Germany at Belo Horizonte has already gone down in the World Cup and even footballing annals as one of the most shocking ever played. And that’s according to people who’ve seen a lot more games than I have. It certainly left a lot of people horizonte. The word “humiliation” is an emotive one, but in the case of Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing – and that particularly surreal five minutes during which they scored four and the numbers went up like the counter on a pinball machine – it has hardened into cold fact. It really was all over before half time. Records were being smashed so often, there was no time to stop and appreciate the fact that Klose’s goal made him the World Cup’s highest ever scorer. (One of the reasons we didn’t have time to take it in was Kroos’s first of two, which he scored a minute after Klose’s.)

Over the last 20 years I have watched a lot of international football matches at two-year intervals, and there has been nothing like Brazil Germany, which was almost eerie. The volume on the majority Brazilian crowd dipped around the 20-minute mark and only recovered once when little Oscar pulled one back in the 90th minute. (Oh, and when they collectively booed their team off the park at the end of each half. Incidentally, you had to give shy and resigning coach Scolari some credit for taking the blame. He wore a “Forca Neymar” baseball cap as he went off, presumably with a lining of irony.)

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It has been a memorable World Cup, already fading away like a white Rubicon of referee’s foam. All those South American players crossing and prostrating themselves before God – and, conceivably, Christ the Redeemer – to no appreciable avail. Enough yellow cards to build a replica Yellow Submarine. Two African sides in the final 16. So much offside. So many talismen. So much pointless, Jonathan Pearce-flummoxing goal-line technology at the beginning, and so much less of it at the end. So little Phil Neville come the end, too. So many goal-of-the-tournament contenders! My own favourite – hope it’s one of yours – was catapulted from the toe of 23-year-old Colombian forward and ingenue James “Haymez” Rodriguez against Uruguay in the last-16. It was art.

He also won the Golden Boot with six goals in five matches, ahead of Muller and Messi.

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So much finely sculpted and greased hair. A few poodles. One or two headbands. In Neymar’s two-tone creation, a tribute to the drummer of Kajagoogoo. One ridiculous rat-tail sticking out at any angle from the otherwise shaven head of Rodrigo Palacio which, knowing my luck, will turn out to be a tribute to a dead member of his family, something he hasn’t cut since they perished, or something, in which case I’ll delete this aesthetic complaint. Apparently, Thierry Henry’s cardigan cost £505. You can’t buy that kind of style. And Adrian Chiles won’t stuff his tackle into those one-size-too-small M&S short again. He rather ruined the view when ITV’s gang were seated out on the Opinion Terrace. Only Fabio looked truly attractive with his legs out. But some kind of medal for the salmon-skinned Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon for being outside at all. I wonder if anybody watched the Final on ITV? I mean, anybody at all.

I like the fact that, come the Final, I was able to name ten out of the eleven starting German team from their faces during what I still controversially think of as Deutschland Über Alles – albeit less of the Argentinians during Canción Patriótica Nacional. It’s small personal victories like this that make the four-week commitment worthwhile. This means that, in two years’ time, I’ll know about four of them, of course. But it’s a start.

I still haven’t quite got to the bottom of why a taciturn Scot in his 50s is “retiring” from sitting in a chair and talking about football, but farewell, Alan Hansen, in any case. You picked a good one to go out on.