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.

 

End of

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So, 2016 then. Everybody begins everything they say now with the prefix “So …”, as if perhaps what they’re about to say is a continuation of a previous statement, but actually isn’t. I can’t be the only person to have noticed this. You hear correspondents doing it when asked to comment on the news. You hear contestants doing it when they’re asked to describe the dish they’re about to prepare on Masterchef. Young people seem unable to start a sentence without it. It’s a tick; more like a punctuation mark than a word – a deep breath if you like. Like “like” it has crept into common verbal usage (you’ll note that nobody uses it in written text) and it means literally nothing, as with so much in contemporary dialogue.

So … it was way back in that prelapsarian age that was the second week in January when Squeeze, a band whose original members are around 60 years old, used a performance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show to protest against fellow guest, then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

They changed the lyrics of hit Cradle to the Grave to sing the line: “There are some here who are hell bent on the destruction of the welfare state,” with that preening waste of space Cameron watching. Glenn Tilbrook also slipped in the line: “I grew up in council houses, part of what made Britain great.”

It did not bring down the venal Tory government. In fact, the Tory government continued to destroy the welfare state, along with much else when it held a referendum without at any point thinking through what might happen if the British public voted “Non!” to staying in the European Union. Cameron did way more than kill the welfare state, he sleepwalked the electorate into an abyss, and then resigned five minutes after the votes had been counted so that he could spend more time with his money. The political picture has largely been dominated by quitting, and not quitting in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, who is Westminster’s mystery man. They seek him here, they seek him there. I stuck with him for way longer than he deserved, if only to disavow his fellow Labour MPs who sought only to stab him in the back while Rome burned all around them. It has been a shoddy display from them all.

You’ll note that 10 January, the day Squeeze made their valiant protest, is also the day David Bowie died, and with him, the universe. This year has been fucking awful. From Brexit to Trump, via Brietbart, post-truth, alt-right, fake news, black lives not mattering, saying that ice cream is gay, and acts of terror that almost became business as usual amid more unexpected deaths of the supremely talented than any other in living memory, the only response to the passing of 2016 is to say, “Fuck you!”

So, here are my books of the year.

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What was once a refrain has hardened into a truth. Most of my reading happens between the covers of the New Yorker magazine, which has the temerity to arrive on a weekly basis on my doormat (and which feels even more vital since Trump was voted in). However, a nice man at the Mail on Sunday called Neil took it upon himself to send me three books to review in 2016, all of which I enjoyed. They are almost half the books I read. Of the other four, two are by people I know, but both stimulating in their particular fields. And the sixth and seventh are by people who write for the New Yorker, with roots in work they did for the New Yorker: Jeffrey Toobin and Clive James (one of the chapters in the delightful Play All is reprinted verbatim from the New Yorker).

I almost wrote a cover story for Radio Times, but – typically for 2016 – it was rightly superseded by a last-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who had died. Interestingly, they left Peaky Blinders on the cover in the Midlands, and here it is.

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Which takes us to the best telly. With Telly Addict cancelled by the Guardian in April, and revived by UKTV in June, I have spent a lot of the year watching television professionally. And these have been my personal TV shows of the year. Firstly, in pictures.

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And here they are, in pointless list form.

1. The Crown, Netflix
2. Fleabag, BBC3/BBC Two
3. Versailles, BBC Two
4. Westworld, Sky Atlantic/HBO
5. The Young Pope, Sky Atlantic/HBO
6. Masterchef: The Professionals/Celebrity Masterchef, BBC Two
7. Line of Duty, BBC Two
8. Dickensian, BBC One (cancelled by idiots)
9. Happy Valley, BBC Two
10. The Missing, BBC Two

11. The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, FX/Fox
12. Peaky Blinders, BBC Two
13. Trapped, BBC Four
14. The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
15. Gogglebox/Gogglesprogs, Channel 4
16. The Code, BBC Four/ABC
17. National Treasure, Channel 4
18. First Dates, Channel 4
19. Modern Life is Goodish, Dave
20. The Night Of, Sky Atlantic/HBO

Oh, come on. It’s self-evident from here that these brilliant shows could be in any order:

Game of Thrones, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Thirteen, BBC3/BBC Two
The A Word, BBC Two
The Knick, Sky Atlantic/Cinemax (season two aired at the end of 2015, but early 2016 here)
Deutschland 83, Channel 4
Mr Robot, Universal/Amazon Prime
Planet Earth II, BBC One
Taskmaster, Dave
Grayson Perry: All Man, Channel 4
Billions, Showtime, Sky Atlantic
Ballers, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hypernormalisation, BBC iPlayer
The Durrells, ITV
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hillsborough: The Truth, BBC Two (updated after the inquest verdicts)
Brief Encounters, ITV (cancelled by idiots)
Rillington Place, BBC One
Parks & Recreation, Dave (ended in 2015 in the States, but this year, here)
Victoria, ITV
NW, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon Prime/BBC Two

And a special nod to Escape to The Country (BBC One/BBC Two), the show whose 15 series exist forever on a loop, providing harmless dreams to people in towns and cities. Also, Top of the Pops (BBC Four), whose interrupted loop continues apace, racing through 1981 and 1982 this year, and giving constant pleasure to the musically disillusioned.

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So … from music on TV to the best LPs. Like books, a finite field.

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It’s been a slow year for albums. Once again I’ve relied on 6 Music and Later for information and inspiration, with the added input this year of subscriptions to both Mojo and Uncut, whose compilations have been a source of joy, and helped create this Top 12 in no order. No single album put all the others in the shade, but without C Duncan’s A Midnight Sun (and his previous album Architect, which we only cottoned on to this year; likewise Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness), Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Black Star by David Bowie, a few car journeys would have been less enjoyable. Nick Cave’s beautiful, personal, dissonant dirge Skeleton Tree was hard to listen to, and hard to stop listening to. The Kills did it again. And Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos has proven impossible to listen to on headphones while simultaneously reading, as it demands your full attention. I like that about it. Dickensian was my favourite TV score LP of the year (the show sadly cancelled), and A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here … comeback the only hip-hop record I’ve listened to from one end to the other.

For self-evident reasons, I spent much of my waking life listening to film scores, old and new, and doing so has brought peace to my soul. If you’re interested in my Top 10 Film Soundtracks of 2016, and my Top 10 Videogame Soundtracks of 2016, click on these Classic FM links.

Now, my other day job: films.

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I’m always torn as to whether or not to put my favourite films in a numbered list. It always seems so arbitrary. My ongoing system is this: I put an asterisk next to every film I see that’s in some way exceptional, and of the 223 films I’ve seen for the first time in 2016 (not all of them films released in 2016), around 80 are starred, although my Top 10 was easy enough to cordon off. The bulk of the films I see as a rule are in English, but the ones that often stand out and stay with me are not. Six out of the Top 10 are English-language (one of them, The Witch, in 17th century English); the others are not. It’s good to see so many unfamiliar names of directors so high up; I don’t believe I had ever typed Grímur Hákonarson, László Nemes or Robert Eggers in previous years, and they made my Top 3 films – and two of those are debuts! Pete Middleton and James Spinney, who co-directed the unique Notes on Blindness, a stunning film, don’t have Wikipedia entries, and neither does their film. I have to say, without Curzon cinemas and, more pertinently, Curzon Home Cinema, this list would be considerably less colourful and varied.

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1. Rams | Grímur Hákonarson (Iceland/Denmark)
2. Son of Saul | László Nemes (Hungary)
3. The Witch | Robert Eggers (US/Canada)
4. Spotlight | Tom McCarthy (US)
5. I, Daniel Blake | Ken Loach (UK/France/Belgium)
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Gareth Edwards (US)
7. Mustang | Deniz Gamze Ergüven (Turkey)
8. Embrace of the Serpent | Ciro Guerra (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina)
9. The Clan | Pablo Trapero (Argentina)
10. Notes on Blindness | Pete Middleton, James Spinney (UK)

11. The Childhood of a Leader | Brady Corbet (UK/France)
12. Fire at Sea | Gianfranco Rosi (Italy)
13. Life, Animated | Roger Ross Williams (US)
14. Hail Caesar! | Joel Cohen, Ethan Coen (US)
15. The Survivalist | Stephen Fingleton (UK)
16. Victoria | Sebastian Schipper (Germany)
17. Arrival | Denis Villeneuve (US)
18. I Am Not a Serial Killer | Billy O’Brien (Ireland/UK)
19. Paterson | Jim Jarmusch (US)
20. Chi-Raq | Spike Lee (US)

21. The Revenant | Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (US)
22. The Hateful Eight | Quentin Tarantino (US)
23. I Am Belfast | Mark Cousins (UK)
24. Wiener-Dog | Todd Solondz (US)
25. Cemetery of Splendour | Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)
26. Sully | Clint Eastwood (US)
27. Julieta | Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)
28. Green Room | Jeremy Saulnier (US)
29. Things to Come | Mia Hansen-Love (France/Germany)
30. Room | Lenny Abrahamson (Ireland/Canada)

Thanks to my continuing tenure at the helm of Saturday Night at the Movies on Classic FM once again I was lucky enough to speak at length to these people about film music this year.

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It has been a terribly busy year, and I did not get out to art exhibitions. Which makes Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern a rare and thrilling treat. In the perfect pairing below, you can see O’Keeffe’s painting of the same Manhattan view captured in a photograph by her then-husband Alfred Stieglitz, one of the many illuminations in the way the exhibition was laid out.

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I went to the theatre twice and loved both productions I saw.

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Hangmen at the Wyndhams in London’s shittering West End by Martin McDonagh (whose film In Bruges I loved), a terrific black comedy about the last days of hanging, with David Morrissey as Britain’s last hangman, now running a boozer. The cast was further ennobled by Craig Parkinson, Andy Nyman, Johnny Flynn and Sally Rogers, and newcomers Bronwyn James and Josef Davies – not to mention the ingenious set. Because I know David and Craig, I met them for a drink afterwards in a theatre hangout and bathed in the cast’s glow. It must be tough doing the same thing at the same level of intensity every night. Mind you, they may not have any lines to learn, but we must give thanks to the dancers from Matthew Bourne’s company who threw themselves hither and thither in the name of bringing that beloved Powell and Pressburger film-about-a-ballet The Red Shoes to Sadlers Wells and turning it back into a ballet-about-a-ballet. This was our Christmas treat. It may not have been Christmassy – in fact, as you may know, it’s a tragedy – but it lit advent up all the same. I love watching dance. It’s not just the sight, it’s the sound of their physical exertion that makes it so special. Watching it on telly just doesn’t capture it. theredshoessadlers-com

In terms of live entertainment, I was privileged to see Billy Bragg and Joe Henry premiere their Shine A Light album at St Pancras Church in London in August. It’s a fine item to own, but seeing and hearing it essayed up close and personal was a rare pleasure. I’ve hosted a number of panels and Q&As, which means I was lucky to meet a whole host of interesting people in the arts: James Buckley, Paul Kaye, Louise Emerick and Ken Collard from the Dave sitcom Zapped; Maxine Peake and the original stars of The Comic Strip Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer for their latest escapade Red Top, also featuring Stephen Mangan and Eleanor Matsura; plus, the entire cast and crew of Peaky Blinders on two occasions: at the press launch and at the BFI (greedy!), an association with an ongoing show that I’ve loved being an ephemeral part of.

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It was a hell of a year. Enough to turn your hair grey. George Michael, Liz Smith and Carrie Fisher finished off the year in the manner in which it began. I was glancing down the UK “trending” topics late on Christmas Day and felt warm inside when I double-checked that all ten were related to telly programmes, on the telly. No capital cities, no celebrity names, no hashtags that began with #PrayFor. I went to sleep before 11pm satisfied that we’d made it through one day at least without the death knell tolling. I woke up on Boxing Day to the news that George Michael had been found dead, alone, at his home, the previous afternoon.

Feast, if you can, on all the amazing art and culture that was produced by the still-alive in 2016. It has to give us hope that perhaps the human race en masse isn’t hellbent on self-destruction, just a toxic few.

I am slightly fearful of pressing the “PUBLISH” key with three days left to go. But nobody ever won Masterchef that way.

 

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Inevitable Postscript: Debbie Reynolds, died a day after her daughter, on December 28, aged 84.

Commie Roots

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Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016

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.

2014: My Top 50 Films

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I have a simple, private, binary grading system with films. Once I have logged a film as “seen”, I either give it a star or not. This is quite a relief after the minefield of having to award stars out of five for professional reviewing purposes. Either a film feels like it was worth seeing, or it wasn’t. I sometimes go back and add or remove the star, depending on how I feel at a later date about the film. This makes collating an end of year list much easier, as it sifts the wheat from the chaff before I start. (This is why a bit of airborne nonsense like the Liam Neeson thriller Non Stop gets into the Top 50; I liked it enough at the time to give it a tick.)

Of the 142 films I saw in 2014, 92 were new, in that they were released in the UK for the first time this year. (For quick but odious comparison, of the 153 films I saw in 2013, 122 were new. I don’t know why I saw less films, especially less new films, but it may have something to do with having worked harder for less money in 2014, and having to make some tough choices simply in terms of sparing the time. I regret this.) Here they are, in order – and I have been tinkering with this for about a fortnight. An important note: I did not get to see Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Winter Sleep in December, as it is three hours long and I had no-one to go and see it with. I know in my bones it would be in the list, possibly near the top. Its absence is glaring and unbalancing. So it goes.

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1. Boyhood | Richard Linklater | US
2. Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev | Russia
3. Stranger By The Lake | Alain Guiraudie | France
4. Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski | Poland/Denmark
5. 20,000 Days On Earth | Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard | UK/US/Canada
6. Dallas Buyers Club | Jean-Marc Vallée | US
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson | Germany/UK
8. Two Days, One Night | Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne | France/Belgium/Italy
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 | Lars Von Trier | Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium
10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh | Ireland/UK

11. American Interior | Gruff Rhys, Dylan Goch | UK
12. Under The Skin | Jonathan Glazer | UK
13. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras | US
14. Lilting | Hong Khaou | UK
15. The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US/Australia/Denmark
16. Starred Up | David Mackenzie | UK
17. Showrunners | Des Doyle | Ireland/US
18. Belle | Amma Asante | UK
19. Locke | Steven Knight | UK
20. A Story Of Children And Film | Mark Cousins | UK

21. Nightcrawler | Guy Gilroy | US
22. The Rover | David Michôd | Australia
23. 22 Jump Street | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US
24. Inside Llewyn Davis | Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | US
25. Noah | Darren Aronofsky | US
26. Jimmy’s Hall | Ken Loach | UK/Ireland
27. Cold In July | Jim Mickle | US/France
28. The Past | Asghar Farhadi | France/Italy
29. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes | Matt Reeves | US
30. Chef | Jon Favreau | US

31. ’71 | Yann Demange | UK
32. X-Men: Days Of Future Past | Bryan Singer | UK/US
33. The Wolf Of Wall Street | Martin Scorsese | US
34. August: Osage County | John Wells | US
35. Only Lovers Left Alive | Jim Jarmusch | UK/Germany
36. Northern Soul | Elaine Constantine | UK
37. Her | Spike Jonze | US
38. Edge Of Tomorrow | Doug Liman | US/UK
39. Non-Stop | Jaume Collet-Serra | US/France
40. A Most Wanted Man | Anton Corbijn | UK/Germany/US

41. The Riot Club | Lone Scherfig | UK
42. Maps To The Stars | David Cronenberg | Canada/US
43. The Guest | Adam Wingard | US
44. The Armstrong Lie | Alex Gibney | US
45. The Unknown Known | Errol Morris | US
46. American Hustle | David O. Russell | US
47. The Heat | Paul Feig | US
48. The Two Faces Of January | Hossein Amini | US/UK
49. Easy Money III | Jens Jonsson | Sweden
50. Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

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Really, I don’t think there has ever really been anything like Boyhood, but its technical and logistical achievements might just have been that had it not been for Richard Linklater’s guiding hand and a cracking cast, most remarkably Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, respectively seven and eight years old when shooting began in 2002. Rarely have 165 minutes passed in a cinema without anybody looking at their watch. This film singlehandedly made a case for the occasional preeminence of American filmmaking in the 21st century, where noise and surface are often all it’s got. (I say that, but the US dominates my list, if not the Top 10, as the bulk of the films I saw were American, or American co-productions. As ever, a bit of Danish or French often rises to the top.)

In a year without Boyhood, Leviathan would have sat comfortably at the top of a the pile. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere, symbolically rich tale of contemporary smalltown corruption plays out as a David and Goliath struggle between a car mechanic and a grotesque mayor on the coast of Northwestern Russia over a patch of land (the mechanic, Alexei Serebriakov, lives on it, in a house he built himself; the mayor, Roman Madyanov, wants it). A slow, downbeat, naturalistic and unshowy slice of life, Leviathan nonetheless rears up into moments of pure beauty and portent, not least when one character glimpses an actual whale breaking the surf in the bay, or when the teeth of a JCB tear into a house like a dinosaur searching for prey. It’s all about scale.

I’m pleased that a large number of UK and Irish releases made the final cut – Starred Up, Belle, Locke, Calvary, Under The Skin, American Interior, Jimmy’s Hall – as well as a clutch of documentaries, although I can think of half a dozen I’ve missed, too. I also missed Pride, which I feel might have been in there, had I seen it. Feel free to tell me yours, but don’t take it personally if a film you’ve loved this year isn’t in my Top 50; I might simply have missed it. And I really didn’t like Mr Turner.

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A postcript: I continue to hold a Curzon cinemas membership, and it is my lifeline. It should be noted that in 2014, the chain announced that it had finally recognised the union Bectu and agreed to pay its workers a living wage. So far, this agreement seems to have held, and no funny business has emerged. I am in touch with the previously aggrieved Curzon workers via Twitter and have heard nothing to the contrary. I sincerely hope this continues to remain true. Other cinema chains have not been as willing to compromise, and it blights the whole business of cinemagoing.

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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2014: My Top 50 gigs

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I didn’t see 50 gigs this year. I saw one. It was one of the all-time greats, though, so that counts for a lot. It has been some years since going to music gigs was a regular outing for me. Let’s be honest: a large percentage of the music gigs I have been to since 2007 have been Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine at Brixton Academy. But this one, on November 22, was the Final Comedown, that is, their actual farewell, on home turf, to a home crowd. I was proud to have been among the 5,000 who communed there, some of them (not me) in original Carter shirts, many more (not me) in reproductions, more still in brand new ones for the occasion. (For the record, I wore my only band t-shirt, the Space Cudette one that Cud gave me two years ago when I played the drums with them, when they supported Carter at Brixton.)

I have written before about the almost metaphysical experience of seeing two men fill a 5,000-capacity amphitheatre using only their still fairly skinny bodies, a couple of guitars and some backing tapes, but whatever works. Carter USM have the hits, and a fanbase to sing them back at them at the tops of their ageing lungs. They used to have Jon Beast, whose passing was one of the sadder bits of news in 2014, but whose memory lives on in the chant of “You fat bastard!” We’re all fat bastards now. In tribute. The Final Comedown was less of a gig, more of a loud vigil. It allowed me to queue up for what might have been my last time down the side of the Academy, collect my pass from the little window, and stumble up the stairs in the dark to the “VIP bar”, where bottles of Carslberg or Tuborg sell for £3.80, but where you might, as I did, bump happily into Michael Legge, Danielle Ward and Simon Evans, not to mention Adrian, Carter’s old manager in the days when I was a cub reporter for the NME. I saw the gig itself from the right hand side of the front (where the exit from the backstage bit comes out). I am definitely getting too old for this shit, though, as even amid the unfettered joy and untrammelled shouting and air-pointing, I found myself slightly irritated by people blocking my view and filming everything on phones. But the magic was not destroyed.

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So, that was my gig of the year. I await the official DVD with anticipation. You can pre-order it here, and the company that lovingly make it, Nyquest, kindly supplied all the photos, via Carter’s manager Marc.

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As for other live gigs, well, I went all the way to the Edinburgh Festival for three days but I was working, so I only saw one comedy gig. It is, by definition, the best comedy gig I saw in 2014: Josie Long’s groundbreaking Josie Long show Cara Josephine, which I highly recommend, especially if you think you’ve got her sussed. Depths of honesty and autobiography are revealed in this show which makes it one of her very best, I think. I am glad to say that I saw my only comedy gig of the year at The Stand in Edinburgh, one of the greatest venues in the world.

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I saw two plays in 2014. Do they count at gigs? They are live entertainment. One was Daytona at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London’s busy West End, courtesy of my friend Harry Shearer, who’s in it. As a very infrequent theatregoer – mainly due to price – I must say I love every minute of any play. Daytona, written by Oliver Cotton, who also stars in it, is set in Brooklyn in 1986 and, through two estranged brothers (wayward visitor Cotton and Shearer, who’s happily married to ballroom-dancing Maureen Lipman), it examines Jewishness down the ages, from the Holocaust to that which exercises modern Jewry. Having met Harry through 6 Music and relaxed into his company ever since, it was a joy to see him act, which is what he does, in such exalted company, and in such an unfamiliar milieu.

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As I always say, I see too little theatre to judge with precision, but I know I enjoyed watching these three superb actors lead me through a story whose outcome was unknown to me.

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Later in the year, we paid good money to see Ballyturk at the National Theatre, inspired to do so, I must confess, by the pleasurable experience of meeting and interviewing Cillian Murphy for Radio Times in Dublin, by which time he had already premiered his longtime confidant Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in Galway. By the time it arrived in London, we’d purchased tickets, in a moment of fiscal madness. Acting alongside the physically committed Mikel Murfi and – in an extended cameo – the great Stephen Rea, Murphy was a revelation to those of us who’d only seen him onscreen, in films or Peaky Blinders. This is a hard play to pin down, but it seemed to be part hallucination, part something else, set to the great tunes of 80s pop (Living On The Ceiling, The Look Of Love etc.), and set inside the mentally suspect head of one of the two characters, who may have been part of the same head. Murphy’s voice was ragged by the time we saw him (and for which Mike Leigh and Karl Johnson the actor were in separate attendance), but this screechy imperfection added to the dislocated verve of the piece.

That’s it for gigs. I like to see people performing, live, in front of me, but I see this less than I’d like, in a world where money is very much an object.

2014: My Top 50 books

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I did not read 50 books in 2014. But then, neither did I in 2013. Or 2012, so there’s a pattern forming. In truth, I haven’t read ten books in any year since 2005 when Stuart Maconie gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday, which I have slavishly renewed every year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the books I did read this year was The Unwinding, by New Yorker scribe George Packer, a patchwork quilt of American stories that cumulatively and incrementally describe the fall of a once great nation. Oh, and when I say “read this year” I don’t mean read to the end. That’s another cold, hard reality of my literary life. I am about halfway through The Unwinding, as it’s a hardback and thus too cumbersome to cart around in my bag, and I find I get tired much earlier than I used to, so late-nite reading is at a premium. I like the cut of its jib, but I find it difficult to get back into each true and meticulously researched story as the book’s narrative cuts back and forth between, and I have to re-read the previous installment to get back in the groove. My guess is that to read The Unwinding in one sitting would be preferable to the way I’m doing it. (You can see why I have only part-read eight books!)

You can find fuller reviews of my friend Jim Bob’s latest novel (the only work of fiction I read in 2014 and thus number one) and my friend Mark Ellen’s life story here. I finished both of them, which says something about them. I also finished the nerdily entertaining history of TV Armchair Nation, even though it was a hardback, which says something about The Unwinding. This may have come out in 2013, but such administration means nothing to me. I bought Martin Gilbert’s self-explanatory slice of history Kristallnacht a couple of years ago (it was published in 2006), but picked it up this year after a documentary on TV inspired me to and I hope to finish it – cheery as it isn’t – before Christmas. I accept that I will never read Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, one of the most talked-about books of the year in its English translation, even though, as advertised, it is a readable tome about the failure of capitalism; it’s just too forbidding, and a hardback, which actually hurts my wrists when I try to hold it up to read in bed. But I’m happy to have it in my house. I read Kevin Bridges’ likeable but premature memoir (he turned 28 while writing it) on a train journey to Glasgow, which seems apt.

James Meek’s Private Island isn’t really a book; it’s the collected essays of James Meek from the London Review Of Books and the Guardian about the failure of privatisation, and it’s a proper page turner. I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. (It was a paperback, so I didn’t have to put it down in order to protect the joints in my old hands.) I recommend it highly if you’re in the mood to shake your fists at the sky and scream, “Why?” at regular intervals. Meek thinks there are some things in this world that shouldn’t be privatised. Most the ones he writes about in detail have been, and the others are in the process of being done. I happen to agree with him, but he did the research and we on the left should be truly thankful.

I am just about to renew my subscription to the New Yorker. Sorry, books. But congratulations to the eight that managed to break through the barrier around me that looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline.

Writer’s blog, Week 40, Thursday

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It is Thursday. It was quiet when I came into this coffee shop in a department store and secured my pleasant window seat just after it opened at 9.30am, but it is now noisier than the trading floor of the stock exchange, except with crying babies. Which is not to say I am getting any less done. When you’re a have-laptop-will-work transient, you learn to shut the noise out. I put my earphones in and thought seriously about listening to the new U2 album, which arrived for free in iTunes, but I couldn’t bring myself to press play. That’s what happens when you give something away for free. I’d rather hear the noise of babies actually crying and toddlers doing that whining thing that isn’t really crying, more a chorus of disgruntlement. I channel my disgruntlement through my fingers into my laptop.

I read a really good blog this week from Danny Brocklehurst, the blessed younger-than-me writer with a CV that gleams with Clocking Off, Shameless, The Street and Accused – the sorts of strands I’d love to have written for, had I not backed myself down the cul-de-sac of comedy – and is now crowned with The Driver, a project I’ve known about for a long time as I occasionally have a coffee with David Morrissey, its star and co-producer. Danny’s blog (I’ve never met him, by the way, but feel sufficient writerly solidarity to call him by his first name), was on the fabulous Writers’ Room website, and was mainly about writing The Driver. Read it here.

I always find the story of a project’s genesis interesting, as I’ve been there myself many times, albeit predominantly these days with projects that do not come to fruition and therefore do not qualify me to blog about them on the Writers’ Room website! Danny says that once he and his co-creator had come up with the idea for The Driver, he sat down and wrote the whole first episode, without waiting for anyone to ask him to. This means he wrote it on spec, which means for free. I envy him, I can’t lie. To be able to afford to do that is such a luxury. I’d love to just sit down and write a script, but it’s not practical. If I was commissioned to write one – and I currently have one project “in development” – I’d be able to clear the decks and concentrate on it.

These were Danny’s wise words on being in development:

Development can be painful sometimes. But the secret to getting through it is to listen to others whilst trying to keep hold of your original vision. If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy.

I feel his pain – and recognise his truth. If you don’t have the time to read his blog, he says that of the three episodes that comprise The Driver, one of them had to be rewritten from scratch. No writer is too good, or too decorated, or too old, to have to do that. It’s part of the process.

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I am off to see the Head of Development at a very successful production company this afternoon. I’ve met him and worked with him before, but at another company, so it’s like starting again; I’ve also been in to talk about possible projects with at least two other people at the same successful production company in the past. One project actually expanded to at least three further meetings and a lunch, followed by a frenzied period of development with another writer, which led to a brick wall, and neither of us was paid a single penny for our time. So, Danny Brocklehurst was able to afford to write a whole episode of The Driver for free, and this other writer and I were expected to work up a storyline for an imagined comedy, also for free. If you’re a writer, you have to write and you don’t need anyone else’s permission first. If you don’t have to write, you might not be a writer. But when writing becomes your living, it’s sometimes irksome to have to do it with no guarantee of any recompense.

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I wonder if the small soya latte that you make last for two and a quarter hours is the most perfect symbol of a writer’s life? It costs money. So when you sit and write for two and a quarter hours with no guarantee of any recompense, you are literally down on the deal before you start. But what better inspiration to write something inspiring than having invested three pounds, and made yourself irritable with toddler whining and a laptop battery that tells you you’re down to 48%? (I was inspired to write this, but it’s better than nothing.)

I will pitch two things at the meeting. Unless it’s my lucky day, I have a sneaking feeling that neither will go any further, because producers and heads of development can always think of a reason why a commissioning editor won’t “go for it”. They are paid to know this, but it’s not an exact science, as commissioning editors a) change jobs all the time, and b) change their minds all the time.

I was planning to put a comedy idea in at the next “offers round” at Radio 4, having licked my wounds after the cancellation of Mr Blue Sky for long enough, but was tipped off that the commissioning editor didn’t want anything “media-related”, which my idea was. I tried to de-media it, but it made no sense without the media angle, so I stopped trying to bend it into a new shape, with Danny Brocklehurst’s wise words resonating around my head (“If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy”).

I don’t believe commissioning editors when they say, “We don’t want anything to do with the media,” because if they didn’t, why would Episodes or W1A be on my television?

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The project I actually have in development is moving at a slow pace. (Once someone is paying you some development money, they earn the right to ask, “How soon can you get it to us?”, but you are not entitled to deliver a draft and say, with similar urgency, “How soon can you get your notes back to us?”) Luckily, I pitched a feature idea to the Guardian last week and they said an immediate yes, so I researched and wrote it, and delivered the copy yesterday and they like it. When TV moves at treacle pace, it’s refreshing to write something for a daily newspaper (albeit for the weekly Film section, so the publication window comes round less often).

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On a similarly straightforward note, I had a job on Sunday which was paid, and yet entirely pleasurable: to host the Q&A after the world premiere of the first episode of the second series of Peaky Blinders in its spiritual home of Birmingham. That is a shot I took of my own access-all-areas pass as I sat, alone, in the green room beforehand, while stars like Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, creator Steve Knight and Benjamin Zephaniah soaked up the Brummie love on the red carpet. I’ve done a lot of Q&As, and if I could make my living out of doing it, sometimes I think I would. It’s fun. I find it thrilling rather than nerve-wracking, and I love meeting talented, creative people, even if we’re miked up in the process.

Being the host, moderator, facilitator, whatever, gives you a hint of importance, but you always know your place in the hierarchy, so it’s both elevating and humbling. But who wouldn’t want to see their name on a cinema seat?

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It goes without saying that Steve Knight, a prolific and voluble individual with internationally acclaimed screenplays as well as this vast civic passion project under his belt, is one of those writers who’s currently inspiring me to get out of the comedy cul-de-sac. For a man so busy, I was surprised and encouraged to learn that he starts writing very early and likes to knock off at around 2pm. God, at least he’s about five years older than me – that’s far less worrying when you think your moment might have passed. I genuinely don’t believe mine has, but it crosses my mind more than it used to.

Also, he’s among the three men who came up with the format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in the late 90s. So I guess – I hope! – he too can afford to write a script for free.

And U2 can certainly afford to chuck out an album for free. I wonder what it’s like?

 

 

Yes to Scottish independence

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Another year, another Edinburgh. It’s great how you can refer to a trip to what really is my Second City to coincide with the Festival, or Festivals, as “an Edinburgh.” We all know what it means. And it means mostly wonderful things. Before I prepare my report on this year’s three-day piped-bagpipe bagatelle, here’s the traditional shot of me at my first Edinburgh, in 1989.

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I feel sure I don’t need to go into detail, but I was two years out of college, one year in the NME art room, far enough into a hair-growing project to produce a nub of a ponytail, and part of a Tooting-based, medical-school-formed am-dram group called Renaissance Comedy Associates; our play, which I co-wrote with co-star Matthew Hall*, was called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out and one or two people paid to see it in a church hall on Princes Street – it was a great adventure, but I didn’t go back until 2001, when the show was Lloyd Cole Knew My Father and we looked like this.

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I have been up every year except one ever since. The big shift for me occurred in 2009, when, having been up to do an experimental week of live Collings & Herrin Podcasts at the Underbelly, I was also invited to host, or “chair”, my first session at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, which – after my heartfelt retirement from stand-up comedy in 2010 and a welcome year off in 2011 – has thereafter been my ticket up there. It being Guardian-sponsored, a short clip of me talking to Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin in 2009 is still available to view. My body language says: I am not yet confident enough as a “chair” to sit properly in one.

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I like to think I am now a far more confident host. Once you’ve done your first live gig as “facilitator” – whose brief is to introduce the session, get the best out of your interviewees (ie. “facilitate” their illuminating answers), move the thing along, hit the clips at the right moment, coordinate a short audience Q&A at the end and exude approachable authority – you start to get into a rhythm of being miked up, having a producer bark into your ear via an earpiece, knowing when to skip a huge chunk of questions for time, and being unclipped from your mic at the end (always courteous and grateful to the venue staff, as without them you would not be miked up, or able to reach for a sip of water, or even know where the hell to go in the warren of suites, green rooms and auditoria). I am not staff. I am not paid to do this work, but the Festival does pay my train fare and puts me up in a serviceable hotel (the one you can guarantee none of the big stars will be staying in – I know my place). Most importantly, it gives me the chance to be here.

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I have rhapsodised Edinburgh aplenty. In a way, I’m the wrong person to ask about the city as I’ve literally only ever stepped foot on the platform of Waverley Station during the Festival. This is clearly not what life is like in Edinburgh for the other 11 months of the year (except for the weather and the novelty drunks and the souvenir shops piping out bagpipe music). But I have made friends up here who do live in Edinburgh and adjoining Dunfermline, so it’s not as if I only hang out with London media wankers like myself. I made enough friends when I was a stand-up to be able to sneak in to see a couple of their shows while I’m up here, which is always a bonus, and I make an effort to conceal or remove my pink, YouTube-sponsored TV Festival pass when I’m walking down the street. I certainly stride maplessly about the place like I own it, which I hope stops me ever looking like a tourist.

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Because I always come on my own, what I do feel like is a travelling salesman. Especially at breakfast.

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I’ve been a regular at Apex hotels for the past couple of Festivals: no-nonsense places but a cut above a Best Western or Novotel (and I say that not as a hotel snob but as someone whose default, austerity overnight is a Travelodge if I’m paying the bill). This year, for no apparent reason, I was placed in a Hilton. I’m worldly-wise enough to know that the “Hilton” logo does not automatically speak of glamour and the high life. It’s just a hotel chain, a Premier Inn that fancies itself.

There are a couple of Hiltons in Edinburgh (which shows how exclusive they’re not) and I think I was in the least glamorous Hilton. I don’t expect to live like a king – all I require is a bed, wi-fi, a full Scottish breakfast and a free paper. The Hilton gives away the digest version of the Independent whose actual name looks like a mistake of you type it: the i. I’ve never had a minibar. Luckily, I don’t demand a room with light in it either, as this year I was in a non-air-conditioned basement whose windows were painted shut and which was illuminated only by tiny desk lamps (the only fitted ceiling light was in the tiny hallway). I did not complain. I was not paying for it. There was free shortbread with the tea- and coffee-making facilities. I thought: I am living the dream.

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The title of this blog entry refers not to Scotland’s forthcoming independence – a matter much discussed and a passion-fuelled debate I felt fortunate to have landed in the middle of at the height of national indecision – but my own current independence. Travelling alone, essentially being on holiday alone (even for three days), is replenishing for the soul, I find. I did plenty of solo travelling when I was a much younger music journalist, and it hardened me up. I flew to Dublin for three hours last week to interview Cillian Murphy for Radio Times and I felt a bit like an international jetsetter, albeit one too intrinsically stingy to pay for a fucking coffee on the plane, especially as the otherwise courteous Aer Lingus declined to offer any of us a free drink while we sat on the tarmac at Dublin for two hours, the mercenary bastards.

I arrived in Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon alone, declined to pay for a cab and thus walked, with my rucksack, to the Hilton, which was 30 minutes away, alone. Checked in alone, unpacked alone etc. etc., you get the manly picture. And within the hour I was back out, alone, marching towards my favourite venue, The Stand, to pick up my ticket to see my friend Josie Long, alone. I bought some fish chowder, which came in a bowl made of bread, from a stall at the new Fringe hub, St Andrew Square Gardens, whose convenience actually prevented me from making my annual day-one pilgrimage to the Pleasance. (This will be the first Edinburgh ever where I haven’t had a pint at the Pleasance. Time bends.) I bought my ceremonial first pint in a plastic glass and sat, alone, among booming revellers, to silently eat my soup and drink my lager. I was happy enough. Edinburgh is full of groups and couples and families at this time of year, but also solo artists, like me. You’re never alone with a plastic pint glass: it is your passport to sit anywhere and just be.

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I do regret only seeing one Fringe show this year (I usually squeeze in at least three), but I do not regret choosing Josie Long‘s. It’s been a few years since we were buddied up by 6 Music (and then let go with an empty promise to have us back on – not bitter about that), and even longer since I first met her in a pub basement and offered to hold her indie coat while she sang Nothing Compares 2 U at Karaoke Circus, so I feel I can praise her new direction without being too partisan.

After years of building up her unique and deeply-felt political persona, this year’s show, Cara Josephine (a title movingly explained in the final section), is a left turn. Or a right turn, since she’s already so far to the left. It’s a personal show about heartbreak and failed relationships and being “on the shelf” at 32 that’s quite a jolt if you know her stuff. But it’s delivered in such a way that, while contextually shocking in places (and actually really challenging at one particularly raw and graphic juncture, which I won’t spoil), it’s still Josie being who she is, with her American accents and her self-effacement and righteous ire always bubbling under the surface. It may even be her best show, although that needs to be taken in context. Nobody can accuse her of coasting, that’s for sure.

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Back to the picture at the top, which I repeat for reference and which, for all the world, looks like a triumphant stand-up gig, or perhaps a rally, but is actually me introducing an exclusive, public screening of the new Doctor Who episode, Deep Breath, at the mighty Filmhouse cinema on Lothian Road, which has been my de facto base for three years. We screened Asylum Of The Daleks two years ago, with a fabulous Q&A with Steven Moffat afterwards. This, blurrily, was it: ACSMEdTVFest12

No Q&A this time, but the preview itself was enough to pack the 280-seater auditorium of Cinema 1 with enthusiasts of all ages. I did a warm-up and by a show of hands (my fallback warm-up technique) established that we had kids in who were too young to remember when David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, and at least a couple of gentlemen who remembered seeing the first ever episode! It was pretty easy to get them excited before the screening, as they arrived pre-excited.

It was fun to be part of, and the episode itself is pretty damn good, with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor a real shot in the franchise’s arm – his very Scottishness seems to have reinvigorated Moffat’s writing: the 80-miute episode is overlong but full of great jokes, including a couple “about” the Referendum. On Friday morning, in the noisy lobby of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, hub of the TV Festival, I filmed a special Telly Addict review of the episode for the Guardian with my usual producer Tom, busked rather than read from autocue, as we didn’t have one, and it will go live right after the episode airs on BBC1 this evening.

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Thursday also had me manhandling the roving mic for an industry session back in the EICC and another exclusive screening: the pilot of a new, grown-up romantic comedy called Catastrophe, written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, produced by Avalon (who also manage me) for C4, and due next year. I “met” them both via Twitter on the train up to Edinburgh and we got on famously. This can happen. It was a buzz to see the creators of a show experience their work with a large audience of their peers, and to soak up the constant laughter. It was an easy Q&A, as it was always going to be, but you wouldn’t believe how panicky PRs and managers get beforehand, as if perhaps I was going to bypass how Sharon and Rob wrote the show in the 15 minutes available and ask them a series of improper, probing personal questions to make them squirm and stutter.

Having been out so late on Wednesday night with my two go-to Edinburgh pals Tony and Helen that two bars shut in our faces, forcing us to go to a much nastier one for a final round, I took it easy on Thursday and retired to my dark room early with a chalice of Stella from the hotel bar to sip with two free sticks of shortbread and watch the world burning on the news with the sound down. (Full disclosure: my manager bought me a posh burger and a beer in a posher hotel than my own, and I did a short spin of the National Museum of Scotland where ITV held their annual TV Fest drinks to discover that I only knew one person in the cavernous space, Badults producer Izzy, whom I was most grateful to talk to.)

EdTV14ACDynamoWe’ll come to the impish, slumped fellow to my right in a moment. Friday was the biggest mountain to climb, with the biggest names to facilitate. It was halfway through the afternoon when I remembered how easy it is to miss entire mealtimes when you’re working the Festival. I’d had my hearty breakfast of course, while weeping lonely tears into the Islamic State headlines in my i (simply doesn’t work, does it? What the hell were they thinking?), but the Guardian filming ran into a session I was keen to attend asking how the US “showrunner” model can be introduced into UK drama production (conclusion: it can’t), and that ran into my first session as host. I did the least imaginative thing possible in the world and ate a warmed-up panini in Caffe Nero for the loyalty stamp in about five minutes flat. Here is a photo of that session, taken by @Missread, my favourite photo of Edinburgh 2014:

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A year ago – inspired by seeing the popularity of a session with Vince Gilligan at the TV Festival – I wrote a piece for the Guardian about showrunners. In researching it, I discovered Des Doyle, an Irish filmmaker who was Kickstarting a feature-length documentary about the US TV industry called Showrunners. I plugged it and quoted it in the piece, as you could tell by the trailer than it was going to be an authoritative treat for TV geeks and Yankophiles like me. Well, the extra funding came in, and he finished it, and it’s being released here and in the States in October. It was a pleasure to be able to screen it for the public as well as delegates, as it’s a cracking piece of work, and we’d secured the great Ron D. Moore for a Q&A (he’s the genius behind Battlestar Galactica if you don’t know the name – a wise, softly-spoken sage who happens to be in Scotland to shoot his latest opus Outlander).

In the picture above you can see both Des and me looking adoringly at Ron. This is what a TV festival should be like. It’s all very well to be “industry” and all dry and po-faced about telly, but at heart we should all be fans of the medium and of those who make it, even if, technically, they are our peers. (Our Q&A was foreshortened by The Next Thing, as these events tend to be on this media merry-go-round, but it was great to be in his aura and chat offstage to him about “that” Portlandia sketch.)

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Thanks to @envypost for the borrow of the above moody photo, by the way.

Dynamo, boyish 31-year-old underground-overground star of Magician Impossible (whose forthcoming fourth series has been announced as his last for the channel Watch), is a different kettle of fish to anyone I’ve ever facilitated. Although the industry panel we did was conventional (see: above), with his producer/confidsnt Dan, Lucy from Phil McIntyre who manage him, and Richard from the channel, fanned around the coffee table onstage with me in the middle, and with clips playing on the big screen above, the subject – a television show – was not. How do you get under the bonnet of a show whose very beating heart is illusion (what Dynamo prefers to call “events” rather than “tricks”) and to which the question, “How did you do that?” is not only inapplicable, it’s downright rude.

For my intro, I borrowed the quote from Walter Bagehot, 19th century essayist, who warned, “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” And I hope we didn’t, and yet I hope we did a bit. If you’ve not seen Dynamo’s work – indebted to both the street style and spectacle of David Blaine, but without the wankiness – look him up on YouTube or Catch Up. It’s quite unique, as is the way he just walks off after doing something amazing, while Dan’s camera stays on the amazed. Dynamo might have turned out to be a tricky customer in real life, but he was sweet, funny and self-aware, and more than able to deal with a large auditorium. (He’s taking a break from TV to do a live tour, by the way.) When he did a bit of magic, and melted the hearts of even the stoniest TV miseryguts in the audience I think, I was right there next to him. I saw him turn some Lottery tickets into £20 notes by just shaking them. If they were “special” ones, I don’t know how they worked. He also turned his hand all the way round on his wrist, and swapped a playing card he held in his mouth with the playing card held in the mouth of a female volunteer. I know it’s magic, but Iogic disappears when you see someone as cool and casual as Dynamo do it.

The industry session was followed by a public screening, back at the Filmhouse. Sold out, of course, with a crowd that needed even less warming up from me than Doctor Who‘s. We watched Ep1 of his new, typically globe-trotting, celeb-packed series (showing on Watch in September), and Dynamo slipped into the seat next to me in the dark, mid-screening, to soak up the audience reaction. A small child in the row in front turned round and saw him and it was like he’d seen Jesus. After the Q&A, during which he did more magic, he was literally mobbed, enveloped, subsumed by disciples. He’s a star of the Instagram Age and he understands the power of that, but it was still incredible to see how patiently and diligently he gave them all the time they individually craved. Here’s a selfie he had taken with a volunteer, @DimpleMagician:

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His popularity, that kid-from-Bradford approachability and a superstar’s diligence combined to become a health and safety issue. I slipped out into the bar to have a chat to my Dunfermline pal Paul (whose daughter – who was such a fan she’d done a school project on Dynamo – queued patiently with her mum to get the now standard autograph/selfie) and realised that, without any warning, my working holiday was over. And it had stared raining.

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It was with a little sadness that I ate my last breakfast this morning, and packed my bags. I got absolutely soaked through on the walk home last night in the statutory proper Edinburgh downpour, but along the way (I was too mean, and too wet already, to hail a cab), I saw women without jackets or coats, let alone umbrellas or kagoules, determined to have a Friday night out regardless. You have to love the north. The Scots are already independent, spiritually and behaviourally, and Alex Salmond’s million signatures were reached yesterday, but I still fear the don’t-knows will win the day and Scotland will remain adjoined more than just geographically to the bit of the country that votes in Tory governments. (Capaldi’s Doctor blames the English for his woes in Deep Breath.) I will still love them as anyone might love a different tribe who almost speak the same language.

My last memory of Edinburgh 2014 will be sitting in wet jeans in the Hilton bar with a burger and a chalice of Stella, reading Charlotte Higgins’ brilliant, eloquent but depressing final analysis of the BBC in the Guardian, the newspaper that sponsors the Festival that pays my train fare and gives me the golden opportunity to see auld acquaintances annually, and asks me to busk a review of Doctor Who in a lobby. See you in 2015, yes?

Or should that be: see you in 2015, YES.

 

 

 

*Oh, Matthew Hall changed his name to Harry Hill. Whatever happened to him?