GoggleZelig

ACSASRadioTimes

I thought it time to publish my entire, exclusive, self-taken portfolio of Gogglebox portraits, which I collected on my Grand Tour, this spring, while writing Gogglebook: The Wit & Wisdom Of Gogglebox (Macmillan, £16.99 hardback, but cheaper if you order via Hive and support your local bookshop here). They are not, technically, selfies, but I took them myself, using what used to be known as a camera, and its “self timer” feature. I tried to stand my camera as close as possible to where the camera usually is when Gogglebox is being filmed. (Insight: at the Malones’ house in Manchester, I was invited to stand it on the box containing their dog Joe’s ashes – “Joe won’t mind,” Julie assured me.)

And then I inserted myself, Zelig style, into the frame. The results are mixed, artistically, but all record a unique, near-religious pilgrimage, which began at the Tappers’ in North London on April 26, and ended at the Michaels’ in Brighton on May 26. That represents a packed month of my life, and one I shall never forget. I calculated that I covered 1,942 miles as I zig-zagged from Nottinghamshire to Merseyside to Yorkshire to Derbyshire to Lancashire to Wiltshire to Greater London again and Sussex. It was achieved in a number of legs and took military planning. Not a single household let me down. (Except Steph and Dom, whose guest house I was unable to visit, due to their extra-curricular schedule.)

I hope you like the book. You have to be a Gogglebox fan to fully appreciate it, but if you are, there are delights both nostalgic and new within its covers, and the illustrations by Quinton Winter are phenomenal.

Here are the portraits, presented in the order in which they were taken.

GoggleboxRevKateGrahamGoggleboxJuneLeonGoggleboxJennyLeeGoggleboxBillJosefGoggleboxTheWoerdenwebersGoggleboxTheMalonesGoggleboxTheMoffattsGoggleboxTheSiddiquisGoggleboxStephenChrisGoggleboxSandySandraGoggleboxTheTappersGoggleboxGilesMaryGoggleboxTheMichaels

What a rare and lovely month it was. I shall never forget it.

The little pic of me surrounded by Sandy and Sandra was taken by professional photographer Nicky Johnston for Radio Times.

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I warn you not to fall ill

ElectionDCpumped Tomorrow in this country we vote in a general election. I hope you’re going to vote. You should vote. Even Russell Brand has done a U-turn on this issue. And unless you have literally not a single thought or care for anyone but yourself and your immediate family, then you must not vote for this man.

There is a high probability that this man, who is called David Cameron, hates you. He wouldn’t care if you died – in fact, if you are not a “wealth creator”, he’d probably prefer it if you did die, as you are probably in the way and more likely to put pressure upon the state. He hates the state. He can see no better way of running a “society” than on the lines of a private company. He does not care about you unless you are already well off, or would be prepared to do anything to become well off (including voting for him – or at least, for his party, as he’s already confirmed that he’s not even going to stick around for the full five years).

He is not interested in politics, simply in feathering his own nest and the nests of those whose nests are already also pretty well feathered, but could always do with some extra feathers. In the far-off days when the Labour party meant something but found itself unelectable in the new Thatcherite climate of self-interest (except in places like Wales and Scotland), Neil Kinnock made a speech on 7 June 1983 in Bridgend, Glamorgan, that belatedly touched me deep inside and shaped my adult politics. Speaking two days before the election, he said:

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.

It still rings true today, except perhaps even more so. Whether you vote Labour, or Green, or Plaid/SNP (depending on geography), or for an independent, you will be voting against David Cameron and another five years of destruction: of the state, of communities, of the NHS, of the BBC, of the ordinary, the young, the ill and the old. I am neither young, nor ill, nor old, but I’m voting for more than just me and my immediate family.

I am pumped up, actually. The Tories do not believe in compassion, or a safety net, or assistance, or local services, or local amenities, or loving thy neighbour. They would happily see a library close if it wasn’t profitable. The only useful public sector to the Tories is one that’s shriveled and decimated. They would privatise the health service on Friday if they thought they could get away with it. (They’ve already privatised the Royal Mail, something Thatcher wouldn’t even do.) They hate the arts. They hate humanities, and humanity. We know they’re going to cut £12bn from the welfare bill. We don’t know how, but we know they will. They’ve actually announced it. I can’t think of a single pound of that bill that isn’t going to make someone’s life less worth living. Possibly someone ordinary, young, ill or old.

He bangs on about the “chaos” of Labour, because it’s a soundbite and it works on a very basic level, which is the only level politicians like to work on (the deficit, immigration, jobs, waiting times). Such binary thinking is unquestioningly broadcast by the print media it owns until people in vox pops on the news actually start to parrot stuff about “getting the deficit down” without knowing what the deficit is, or why it needs to be “got down”. These same people think Nicola Sturgeon is the most dangerous woman in Britain. And that Labour caused the global financial crisis of 2008, which they didn’t, but were too timid to say so after Gordon Brown, because he had – it’s true – failed to regulate the banks and a cloud of embarassment fell upon the centre-left. The people who read the Sun and the Mail and the Telegraph think Labour will bring “chaos”. But I see “chaos” now. It’s going to be messy on Friday and in the weeks after, but let’s just do what it takes to keep this man out.

He is Margaret Thatcher without the ideology. Margaret Thatcher without the effort. Margaret Thatcher without the struggle. I did warn you.

Attention: scum

KeepBritainTidy

Remember Keep Britain Tidy? It was a ubiquitous campaign when I was growing up, emblemised by this enduring, rudimentary graphic figure dropping litter into a wire bin. Apparently, Keep Britain Tidy became a limited company of the same name in 1984 and expanded to cover various environmental issues in this century, including beaches, anti-social activity and tree-planting. Good for them. It’s hard to argue the case against keeping Britain, or anywhere, tidy. Like charity and barbarism alike, you might say that tidiness begins at home, but it doesn’t. I actually don’t care if your house is tidy or not; it’s the outside of your house that I’m worried about. The part I have to look at as I walk past. The part that’s in public; in Britain.

BLbags

The term “scum” is overused. It is also misused. Too often it is applied to denote a social class and is thus implicitly snooty, when in fact scumminess knows no economic boundary and comes in many forms.

The photo above, which I took last month but could be taken any day of the week, shows the tip of an iceberg. As I’ve mentioned before, at the British Library, patrons of the reading rooms are required to use supplied, reusable, transparent bags. This is to reduce the import and export of forbidden items into and out of the reading rooms, such as pens, umbrellas, food and drink on the way in, and books belonging to the British Library on the way out. As such, you collect your bag from a neat stack in one of the boxes pictured, and return it to the same place.

These bags can easily be patted back into a flat shape for stacking. I do it every time I go into the library. It takes seconds to do: empty, pat, flatten. However, as you can see from this pictorial evidence, even by mid-afternoon, misshapen, unpatted bags are already being frankly chucked in the general direction of the box, as if perhaps the litterbug imagines his or her mum to be coming round to clear up after them. A polythene volcano effect is the result. British Library cleaning staff – and not patrons’ mums – must then collect them all up and pat them into shape after the library’s inconsiderate, lazy patrons have left, to prepare them for the next day. In the meantime, an ugly eyesore is created. Even a patted-flat bag cannot be neatly stacked once this transparent cancer starts to grow, so the mess snowballs in mocking imitation of chaos theory.

I mention this again, with illustration, because I’m getting increasingly sick of the attitude of people who create mess or litter in places that aren’t their homes. I have re-joined a gym after about four years away, and although the gym itself is well tended, and the staff there vigilant in terms of cleaning, I have noticed some very bad habits on behalf of the club’s members. I can only vouch for men, as I use the men’s changing rooms, but despite the near-spotless surfaces at the beginning of the day, which is when I opt to use the facilities, pre-work, it amazes me how often I go into a shower cubicle and find the wet floor already littered with discarded membership wristbands (which are disposable, but disposable in the bins provided), empty shower gel bottles and – eek! – sticking plasters. It’s clear that some men, like British Library users, think it’s acceptable to drop these things for someone else to sort out.

A gym is a communal space. It requires a certain degree of spatial and social awareness for it to run. You wait for someone else to finish on a piece of resistance equipment; you do not crowd other members on the exercise mats; you put exercise balls and dumbbells back on the rack after use; you wipe your sweat off the machines; and so on. But you have to take this courtesy into the changing rooms with you, and treat the showers and locker areas as if, hey, someone else might be using them after you.

favorite-takeaway-menu-fried-chicken-potters-bar-menupage2

There is a copycat fried-chicken outlet on the parade of shops I walk to each morning to pick up the newspaper, or to take the bus to the station, and rare is the day when I don’t walk past some discarded takeaway packaging from this outlet. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the scene: drunk bloke, late at night, staggering home, gets the urge to eat something and the only thing to eat is some fried chicken, starts eating it, stops eating it, drops packaging where he sways, staggers home. These places thrive on late-night custom and I seriously do not blame the shop for the litter. Equally, it’s hard to blame drunkards. We’ve all been pissed and bought some takeaway food we barely knew we were buying, let alone eating. It’s an occupational hazard of the leisure society. But this doesn’t stop me seething at the dropped boxes, paper bags, cups, plastic stabbers, napkins and polystyrene coffins. They really are a ghastly symbol of the throwaway culture of capitalism.

Mind you, a simple walk down the street where one lives is rarely a happy occasion, even on a lovely day, as litter creeps in from all angles. I’ve lived in more deprived and depraved areas of London than the one I’m in currently, but there are left plastic bags of dog shit in the gutter, all tied up and ready to be collected by someone else; cigarette butts and those cellophane sheaths from around the box which are often just dropped because they’re see-through and almost not there; and assorted flotsam from the refuse collection, a ritual now so complicated by the compartmentalisation of recycling and composting it takes a number of visits by a number of refuse collectors to scoop it all up, and old flyers and menus and flaps of card tend to be carried off by a gust and left for dead until a resident snaps and picks it up themselves.

And it should not be the responsibility of the refuse collectors to have to gather up all the rubbish that has been nosed by hungry foxes out of bin bags left out by fools the night before. (The main bin collection does not happen until well after breakfast, so there’s no excuse for putting the bags out the night before.) Foxes do not recognise or respect the boundaries of a thin black plastic membrane; they smell food, they get food, assuming it to be food for them, which it is if you handily leave it out at night. I’ve defended foxes before. It’s not their “fault” if your path is decorated with licked-out readymeal trays and tuna lids. Think about it.

brokenwindow

I have written before about “broken window theory”, which I first read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point but originated in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by two criminologists: “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows.” This eventually leads to a rip in the fabric of order – the building’s broken into, squatted, set fire to, and so on. But the line I’m interested in is this one:

Consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

I’ve seen this in action. You must have, too. There’s a minicab firm nearby whose drivers habitually park up in nearby residential streets as there’s no room for them outside the cab office. As long as they don’t leave their engines running or have their radio on loud at night, I don’t begrudge this. But I do begrudge their habit of eating snacky food and dropping the litter out of the driver’s door into the gutter. Which some of them do. This minor starting point of litter is the broken window. It says: litter has been left here; little can be left here; litter should be left here. (I say: take it with you, you scumbags.)

There are troubles in the world more grave and lethal than litter. Governments using pepper spray and chemical weapons on their own citizens springs to mind. Moronic “revenge” attacks on mosques in this country. A disabled man going on hunger strike to protest against being declared fit for work by Atos and losing all of his benefits. But if society breaks down, it has to start somewhere. Every inferno begins with a spark. And that spark might be a dropped gym wristband, or a lobbed British Library bag, or a surreptitiously squirrelled sandwich wrapper at a kerbside.

I used to live near a railway bridge, under which cars and vans would pull up by the cover of darkness and empty out all sorts of rubbish. This is fly tipping, by definition: “the deposit of any waste onto land … with no licence to accept waste.” This includes any path or pavement. It also includes the area outside a charity shop which has had the temerity to have regular opening hours and to close on Sundays, so that you were left with no option but to dump your unwanted clothes and a jigsaw outside their door. The often voluntary, always nice people who work in charity shops don’t deserve to have to pick up discarded junk, often soaked with rain, on a Monday morning. They are not your mum either.

Tidy Britain, tidy mind, tidy democracy.

There’s been a murder

Broadchurch

This time last Monday, ITV premiered a major new drama, Broadchurch, the first of an eight-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community revolving around the death of a child. What I’m supposed to say now is that, on the same night, at the same time, in the same slot, ITV’s arch ratings rival BBC1 broadcast what was the second episode of a five-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community, Mayday (shot I believe in Dorking, but never specified as Surrey). Actually, it’s impossible not to the say all of that, because it is factually correct. If I add that both major new dramas were produced by Kudos, the production powerhouse whose reputation was built on Spooks, Hustle and Life On Mars (and with whom I have worked in my capacity as Q&A host and, once, as TV presenter), again you won’t need to hold the front page. These facts are now self-evident, and old news.

Mayday

However, I’ve worked up some kind of unifying overview now. I watched Mayday through to its bitter end – it ran over five consecutive nights, which is always a risky strategy, as to exploit boxset-binge orthodoxy you’d better have the goods to back it up – and saw the new, award-winning British film Broken over the weekend, which isn’t about a child murder, but hinges on our grim fascination with children in peril.

Now, the murder mystery dates back to the 19th century in literary terms, with a boom in the whodunit in the first half of the 20th, and has been a fallback option in film since the silents. There is nothing new in a TV serial being predicated on a crime being solved. Indeed, take away the crime and police drama from contemporary and you’re left with a pretty patchy looking set of listings for the terrestrial channels, and a blank screen with a white dot in the middle on Alibi and ITV3.

The publicity for Broadchurch has been very effective, from hoarding to cinema advertising (a brave excursion into the dark for any TV show), making the most of its largely original setting, Dorset’s magnificent Jurassic Coast – which I know well from visits to Billy Bragg’s house and walks along the fossil-filled beach with his old dog, Buster. The limestone cliffs make a thrilling backdrop for David Tenant, Olivia Colman and the rest of the fine cast, plus some police tape. (We are also initially led to believe that the victim, 11-year-old Danny, fell to his death from the cliff.) Chris Chibnall, the writer, who was instrumental in Law & Order UK and wrote the superb single drama United, has lived in Bridport for ten years, which has acted as a template for Broadchurch itself (although filmed in Avon, not Dorset).

With Danny, and the pivotal disappearance of 14-year-old “May Queen” Hattie in Mayday, this was TV drama risking that all-too-common hazard: the news overtaking fiction. Had a boy or girl gone missing in similar circumstances, or been found murdered, it’s feasible that both “major dramas” would have been pulled from the primetime schedules for reasons of sensitivity, or over-sensitivity, arguably. (Ghoulishly, a 16-year-old girl, Christina Edkins, was stabbed on a bus in Birmingham, but this happened on the Thursday morning, and was clearly adjudged to be different enough from the more ethereal events in Mayday, where pagan ritual was certainly implied in the build-up to the reveal of the murderer.)

I guess that “every parent’s worst nightmare” is frequently used as a hook for popular drama because of the fact that children are all too often victims of violence or abuse or abduction. It seems to me – and I’m not an expert – that the “classic” literary whodunits generally involve the murder of an adult, and not a child. But there’s nothing more dramatic than an “innocent” in danger. Why else would the disappearance of Madeleine McCann capture the world’s imagination so? Why else would we all have heard of a place called Soham? Or named a law after Sarah? We live in a world where the spectre of school shootings in America are matched here only by an all-engulfing paranoia about marauding paedophiles, grounded or otherwise.

Broken, directed by Rufus Norris and written by Mark O’Rowe (Boy A, Perrier’s Bounty), hints at this, as a grown man with unspecified mental problems is – in the opening scene, and in the trailer, to be fair – attacked by a next-door neighbour while cleaning his car in the suburban London cul-de-sac the main characters share. This, to borrow a phrase from screenwriting manuals, is “the inciting incident” and it happens almost before anything else has been established, other than a young girl lives on the same street at the childlike man.

I won’t divulge any specifics, as Broken has only just been released, and it’s better if you don’t have too much foreknowledge. But the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl, Skunk, one seemingly much less “adult” than Hattie the May Queen in Mayday (who is played by a 20-year-old actress, and at no stage convinces as a 14-year-old – she plays her surviving twin sister, too). Skunk is played by the actually-14-year-old Eloise Laurence, a real find, and she conveys as much as anything else a sense of sensitive resilience, which is handy, as the street she lives on seethes with resentment and violence. Where Mayday revolves around a creepy forest (the screenwriting manual, or meta-manual, I am currently reading is called Into The Woods, after the Joseph Campbell mythic concept of the dramatic “journey”), where all manner of unsavoury events either occur, or are rumoured to occur – voyeurism, dogging, assault, murder – Skunk’s refuge is a vacant hulk of a caravan in the back of a breaker’s yard. No picturesque woodland or limestone cliffs for her, although this publicity shot suggests otherwise.

broken

Because Mayday has finished, I will mention some of the specifics of its plot, so if you haven’t seen it, please look away now. Hattie disappears, and her body is not found until over halfway through – there’s a red-herring item of clothing in a lake, but that’s all it is – so the absence of a body absolves the writers of having to deal with the usual, formulaic procedural detail, and one assumes this was a deliberate de-cluttering of the form. It’s clever, as the mystery of abduction is in many ways more potent than the mystery of who murdered her. There’s also a red-herring “sighting” of her, alive, on the news, which again is a simple sleight of hand, and a bit of a swiz. There are plenty of false leads and loose threads in Mayday, which is a shame, as five nights of your life is a big commitment, as I’ve stated. Also, without a detective – except for Sophie Okonedo’s retired policewoman, who doesn’t really count – there’s no plodding investigator to tie up the leads.

Broadchurch, of which we’ve only seen one episode, looks far more conventional, and Chris Chibnall told me it was “aggressively plotted” to every ad-break, and it already shows. I’m guessing Mayday was commissioned as a five-night feast, as one-a-week series don’t usually get commissioned in fives, and it’s an unforgiving brief, as there’s no time for audiences to forget anything, hence higher expectation about continuity and pay-off. It had some really nice writing in it, not least the opening scene in which Lesley Manville’s developer’s wife found out that her husband, Peter Firth, wasn’t in fact walking their fat dog for two hours each night after the dog had been subjected to tests at the vet’s. What an original and clever way of her suspicions that he was “up to something” to be aroused.

Because we know that Danny in Broadchurch was out at night, on his skateboard, when he should have been tucked up in bed – or, at least, the police currently think he was – we don’t yet know what to think about his death. Forensics already shows that he didn’t fall at the point where he looked to have fallen from. So murder is suspected. (Unlike Madeleine, he wasn’t abducted from his bedroom window; we always think of Madeleine now.) In the unnamed village in Mayday, no reporters descend, and the police take a seemingly peripheral role, while the villagers search the woods and threaten lynch-mob justice. In Broadchurch, it’s already all about the media, local and national, and their muddying of the waters of truth.

We fear our children going into the woods, or out onto the cliffs, or, in the case or Broken, into derelict caravans in breaker’s yards. We are told we must always know where they are, but we don’t. Do we mollycoddle our kids and wrap them in cotton wool, and thus leave them unprepared for the big, bad world they will inevitably have to enter? (The symbolic “woods” we must all at some point have to enter, like Campbell’s mythic protagonist.) There are three sisters in Broken who are worldy and streetwise, and yet disruptive and abusive, and old before their time. They bully and they swear and they shout across the cul-de-sac. And yet, through the cleverness of the plot (which, by the way, is utterly depressing in its depiction of ordinary folk), we feel sympathy for them, and their violent dad (Rory Kinnear), as they have lost their mum.

The scene in episode one of Broadchurch where Andrew Buchan, the father, is called upon to identify the body of his son, Danny, is harrowing, and beautifully acted, and will haunt any parent watching. (“He’s only little,” he observes.) I’m not even a parent and I can see the hurt, so acutely is it written and played. We who are not parents are children, so it’s universal stuff.

Sometimes, I wonder if British drama, whether urban, suburban or rural, isn’t just a little bit depressing? Death is so often the driver of the narrative. Violence so often the inciting incident. If a TV series reliant on corpses turning up on a weekly basis, whether it’s the pitch-black Silent Witness, or the more bucolic Lewis, they only use a dead child as a real trump card. It’s obvious why. A dead adult is a tragedy, but at least they’ve lived some of their life. A child? So much life left to live. (How shocking was the beginning of Utopia when an innocent child in a comics shop was gassed to death by hitmen? A trump card played so early! It also had a school shooting that was one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen on television for years – and stunning for all of that.)

The epic tragedy of Broadchurch. The concentrated, mystically informed tease of Mayday. The painfully raw reality of Broken. A small town, a close-knit community, a cul-de-sac, all “wrapped up in secrets” and bound in police tape. Don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into an alley. Don’t go near that cliff. Don’t go into that comics shop.

Don’t have nightmares.