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Eurovision 2012 Preview Part 8 – Malta, Belarus and Portugal

Time to preview three more countries all bidding to qualify from the second semi-final on 24 May. Unlike any of the other trios being previewed this year, none of today’s threesome have ever won the contest, although the first country, Malta, has come very close on a number of occasions, most recently in 2005. This year, they’re sending Kurt Calleja (who appears to have the same stylist and wardrobe as Marcus Collins), singing This is the Night. The video starts with what appears to be a resurrection of those grisly Doritos “Friendchip” ads from about a decade ago, in which Kurt and friends watch a home video of him somewhere very cold. It then turns into a riot of quiffs, bow-ties, floodlights and Tulisa on drums. Really it just needs the shouty voiceover man to go “KURT CALLEJA!”

It even has the vibe of an X-Factor runner-up’s debut single (i.e. okay but fairly unmemorable). On now to everyone’s favourite European dictatorship, Belarus. Last year, they sent someone telling everyone how much she loved her home country. The rest of Europe wasn’t buying that one, but undeterred Belarus are sending another self-aggrandising entry, as boyband Litesound (who appeared to have pilfered from will.i.am’s wardrobe) perform We Are the Heroes.

A testament to the perils of overusing straighteners (apart from the one with the blond hair, who’s testament to the perils of using eyeliner). Incidentally, they actually came second in the selection contest, only for the winner to be disqualified after it was discovered there had been shady dealings in the voting process. Ironically, this was uncovered by the country’s president.

Last up today are Portugal. The Portuguese are arguably the greatest under-achievers in the history of Eurovision – they’ve been entering almost every year for nearly half-a-century, and have still yet to achieve a Top 5 finish. Indeed, it’s 16 years now since they last made the Top 10. This year they’re hoping to restore their fortunes with Filipa Sousa, who sings Vida Minha, or “Life of Mine”. Potentially this is quite a powerful ballad, but unfortunately it’s serially undermined by backing singers who look like they’ve stepped out of the Apprentice boardroom; a pair of dancers whose peripheral presence keeps forcing the cameras away from the singer; and by increasingly enthusiastic deployment of a wind machine towards the end.

Given the rule about not having more than six people on stage at any one time, something will have to give at the Contest itself between the backing singers and the dancers. As that performance stands, you get the feeling there’s a lack of confidence in the song and the singer in themselves being enough to get Portugal through to the final.

And that’s it for today. Next time, the 2012 efforts of Ukraine, Bulgaria and Slovenia will be getting a thorough examination. See you then!

Chris x

2011 in Review: Part 1

So, 2011 has come to an end (more or less), and it’s time for one of those round-up of the year things. For me, 2011 has been a year of big change, with a move to Manchester and a new job after eight years in Leeds. For the world at large, 2011 has been a year of even bigger change and considerable tumult, from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to the Arab Spring and the August Riots, from Hackgate to Catgate, all against a background of ongoing and increasing financial turmoil where apparently only the wealthiest will survive.

My review of the year will focus on art stuff. Tomorrow I’m going to run down my songs and albums of the year, but today I’m going to focus on TV and film. The first half of my TV 2011 was dominated by a show that finished in 2005, but which I only discovered after being given it as a box set for Christmas last year. Six Feet Under was the show, and over the course of six months I voraciously consumed its five seasons. As luck would have it, Jon Hickman was on the same journey, and so we frequently swapped notes on the show via Twitter, our exchanges culminating in this blog post.

As for the television that was actually on in 2011, we’ll first deal with Doctor Who. This was the most ambitious series yet since the show’s return, with a story arc centred around River Song and a season split in two. Accusations abounded that the show had become too hard to follow and that ratings were plummeting as a result. These accusations were unfounded for two reasons:

1) The ratings quoted as “evidence” of Doctor Who’s decline in the media were overnights – factor in all the time-shifters and the show’s audience figures were very healthy
2) Anyone with half a brain should have been able to make sense of the whole River business – we were hardly talking Wire levels of complexity here

Anyway, the season was overall a good one (although could happily have lost the pirates, the little boy on the estate and the second half of the Gangers). If I do have one concern, it’s that the show has become over-reliant on shock twists, in particular of the “you thought the Doctor/Amy/Rory was dead, but… TA-DA!!” variety. Crying wolf like this is going to have a damaging impact should a regular actually be properly, permanently killed off, as we’ll just assume they’ll be miraculously resurrected via some timey-wimey device in a few episodes’ time. Rule number one: the Doctor always lies. Rule number two: the Producer and Head Writer needs to tell the truth a bit more.

It was of course a sad year for Doctor Who fans, with the loss of two iconic figures in Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen, the latter’s death meaning a premature demise for hugely successful spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, a rare example of children’s television that treated its audience like adults. As opposed to Doctor Who’s other spin-off, Torchwood, the latest series of which was an all-too-common example of adult television that treats its audiences like cretins. An attempt at a transatlantic storyline based around an immortality scenario, Torchwood: Miracle Day was a hot mess, moving from one plot strand to another, the writers blowing up anything that bored them after a while. The nadir came with an episode that broke new ground for bad sex, mainly by including spying and blackmail. Far better were BBC3’s sci-fi/fantasy offerings: Season 3 of Being Human, which expanded that show’s universe and built towards a powerful and moving climax; and The Fades, a compelling, bleak and kinetic tale of the dead returning to life. Whilst Being Human had an excellent third season, Channel 4’s Misfits wobbled rather badly. It could have managed the loss of Robert Sheehan had Nathan’s replacement been likeable. Unfortunately Rudy was misconceived and repellent, whilst the season itself suffered from a lack of a defined story arc: Simon’s story was eventually resolved, but only after being left hanging, unattended, for several episodes; and the constant swapping of powers meant the characters’ abilities no longer felt special or defining.

As far as the media were concerned, 2011 was the year that European detective drama became cool. Chiefly, of course, this meant The Killing, but as well as Sarah Lund and her jumpers I became enamoured with another deeply flawed continental policewoman, namely Laure Berthaud, heroine of French series Spiral (although excelled as a character by the magnificent Judge Roban). Some of that dark, morally shady flavour leached into the most singular of this year’s new British dramas, The Shadow Line. A thriller with no happy ending, only dead or compromised good guys and one generation of corrupt criminals replaced by another, The Shadow Line was dominated by two contrasting depictions of psychopathic evil: Rafe Spall as the childishly demonic, giggling, cat-bothering Jay Wratten; and Stephen Rea as the icy, meticulous and calmly terrifying Gatehouse. Gatehouse felt like an anachronism, a character from a 1950s spy drama, and as such could happily have slotted into The Hour, in which espionage and fears of “reds under the bed” were a nice hook on which to hang a smart drama about a young female producer and her pioneering current affairs show. The producer in question was played by Romola Garai, who had a pretty good year as she was also the star turn, playing Sugar, in a superb adaptation of Michel Faber’s Victorian-era novel The Crimson Petal and the White. The general theme of corruption, cover-ups and shameful secrets also pervaded The Promise, a drama that asked some very difficult questions about how the situation in Israel/Palestine may have come about. And, right at the end of this year, Joe Gilgun made up for nearly ruining Misfits by turning in another heartbreaking performance as Woody – in amongst a whole raft of heartbreaking performances – as Shane Meadows reconvened his ensemble for a third time in This Is England ’88.

The above may give the impression that my TV year was light on laughs, but it wasn’t so. Friday Night Dinner was the second sitcom in the space of six months to shine an affectionate light on a Jewish family getting together every week, although it was received rather more kindly than Simon Amstell’s effort Grandma’s House. Acutely (but very affectionately) observed and at times hilarious, it also provided life after The In-Betweeners for Simon Bird; whilst his co-star from that show, Joe Thomas, similarly found a winning new vehicle in student houseshare comedy Fresh Meat, although the real star of this show was newcomer Zawe Ashton as Vod. Psychoville served up dark horror and even darker comedy for its second season (which should be the last – a third would only spoil things), and on the other side of the Atlantic the comedy was similarly black with Nurse Jackie (a show that BBC2 never did know what to do with) and The Big C. The latter started out in uncertain fashion, as if acknowledging the questionable nature of trying to make comedy out of terminal cancer, but then became as much about redefinition of the self and appreciating life rather than avoiding death. However, no comedy was as black, and no drama as bleak, as that in Black Mirror. Trust Charlie Brooker to push things to their furthest extent, particularly in a year when the unfolding events on the news continually outdid the efforts of any writers of fiction.

Finally we turn to reality TV, which this year looked increasingly tired. The X-Factor limped through four months of a judging panel that never gelled, contrived scandal and bullying allegations. Big Brother was reborn on Five to the sound of one person watching. The Apprentice produced candidates who questioned whether French people like their children, and who didn’t know what a cloche is. So it’s hardly surprising that Strictly came out on top by firing Russell Grant out of a cannon, although the person who really needs firing out of a cannon is the individual who decided that the VTs of the couples in training should now consist of hideously contrived (and profoundly unfunny) “comedy” scenarios. On a more positive note, Hilary Devey brought an injection of life and realness to Dragon’s Den, whilst Four Rooms, which initially came across as a rather odd hybrid of Dragon’s Den and Dickinson’s Real Deal, ultimately proved to be rather addictive. Love Thy Neighbour could have been a great experiment in social cohesion, but ultimately reeked of cynicism, as the producers attempted to portray Grassington’s inhabitants as Daily Mail-reading bigots reacting angrily to the deliberately chosen array of potential new villagers (single mum, gay couple, black couple etc), only for this to rather blow up in their face. Much better, and far more constructive, was My Transsexual Summer, a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of the lives of seven trans men and women at various stages in their transitions. Trans people are still the subject of an appalling amount of bigotry (not least from the gay community), and documentaries like this, however much they might at times fall back on the various reality TV tropes, are a vital means of educating the ignorant. Sometimes, however, reality doesn’t need mediating in order to provide us with drama and spectacle, as Frozen Planet demonstrated with added poignancy by being suffused with a “last chance to see” sensibility – wonders we are only now seeing, just as we move dangerously closer to the point when the changes wrought upon the climate by our activity may run away from us.

From the small screen to the big screen. I’ll admit that, as tends to be the case for me, much of my film-going activity was at the start of the year, tailing off a bit afterwards, thanks to the scheduling of awards hopefuls in January and February. Of these, the big winner, The King’s Speech, was pleasant enough as a Sunday afternoon film, but the greatest cinematic achievement since the last Oscars? Hardly. Nor was Darren Aronofsky’s frankly demented Black Swan a cinematic tour de force, although I predict it’ll enjoy the sort of cult audiences in years to come enjoyed by the likes of Mommie Dearest. Far better was Blue Valentine, a real, raw, honest and beautifully soundtracked portrayal of a relationship alternately coming apart and coming together in front of our eyes. Films that scratched the veneer of humanity to reveal savagery beneath the surface seemed to hold a lot of appeal to me this year: hello, then, to Animal Kingdom, Tyrannosaur, Wuthering Heights and We Need To Talk About Kevin (all far more successful in that regard than Black Swan). Those last three also demonstrated, along with darkly comic coming-of-age film Submarine and gay romantic drama Weekend, the real face of British cinema, as opposed to the stultifying heritage face shown by The King’s Speech (but if you wanted heritage with real class, then Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was the go-to film). Providing the best foreign language treats, meanwhile, were two seasoned veterans: François Ozon with Potiche; and Pedro Almodovar, reunited with star Antonio Banderas for The Skin I Live In, yet another parable of how civilised behaviour is, in this case literally, only skin deep.

I’m not going to attempt to make ranking lists out of any of the above, save to say that Blue Valentine was my favourite film of 2011 and The Crimson Petal and the White my favourite TV show (except for Six Feet Under. Obviously). I will however be attempting to rank my favourite songs and albums tomorrow, in one of those hilariously subjective exercises, the results of which will no doubt be the subject of much disagreement. Not least by me.

Chris x

Howard has his chips

Sadly, last night saw the end of the road for Apprentice hopeful Howard Ebison. Howard effectively got fired for not being enough of a risk-taker, despite also being efficient, organisational and reliable and someone who has consistently enabled tasks rather than blocking them or trying to force his opinions on others.

The task itself was that old Apprentice favourite, the shopping channel. This was first used in the first series, providing viewers with the iconic sight of James Max modelling that paragon of sartorial chic, the Wolf Spirit fleece jacket. The task appeared again in Series Three and provided an hour of unalloyed comedy gold featuring people struggling with floor sweepers, messing about in wheelchairs – and eventual winner Simon Ambrose turning the apparently innocent procedure of screwing the legs on to a trampoline into an obscene act. The infamous Katie Hopkins meanwhile suggested that your average shopping channel viewer is a buxom woman called Mavis who rests her knitting on her ample bosom.

Like those previous occasions, the teams had to choose items from the channel’s warehouse that they thought they could sell in front of the cameras the following day, and then decide who was going to sell and who was going to guide over the microphone. Empire began with a stand-up row between Debra and Yasmina over who was going to be project manager, James’s input to the discussion swept away like twigs on a tsunami. Having won the battle, Yasmina then led her team to focus on low-price items that they could shift easily – these included the “polo-poncho”, a bizarre mutated scarf that came in rainbow colours, and a leaf collector dubbed the “grab-o-saurus”. Yasmina and James pratted about like some lo-fi comedy double act, getting their prices wrong and tripping over the scenery, whilst Debra’s often destructive energy was finally channelled into some positive results, as she shifted ridiculous quantities of the acid trip headscarf.

Howard decided to put himself up for leader of Ignite, wearing a red shirt to match Lorraine/Cassandra’s red jumper (the appearance of which is always a bad sign for anyone daring to stand in her way). Lorraine’s “instinct” said that the team should go for products that reflect their personalities, which leads one to question exactly what product would reflect her personality. Howard ignored this input, which would be fair enough given such a suggestion, but in Lorraine’s case is never a good idea. What they went for instead were: a hideous metallic leather jacket, covered in gold, silver or bronze leaves, and which made the Wolf Spirit number look like something from the house of Dior; a low-fat fryer; an infra-red air guitar; and some weird craft kit that involved sticking sequins in polystyrene cats. The latter was chosen over a cute dinosaur that responded to being touched, and reminded me irresistibly of this product:

Howard decided that Lorraine should present with him, as she had crashed and burned spectacularly during rehearsals on the first day. Some awkward banter about going to a party accompanied their attempts to sell the jacket, then a lot of wibbling about chips when they moved on to the low-fat fryer – at which point Irish Lorraine came out of the woodwork, doubtless to the bemusement of the Mavises of the world: “Havin’ two daughters maself, Oi dorn’t achly let dem have chips, Oi have ter say”. Fatally, they failed to ram home the price and the phone number and website for ordering the fryer, and this impacted on their sales of what turned out to be two of the channel’s most popular products.

In the end, Ignite lost by about £200, and whilst Empire went off to enjoy some aerobatics, Howard, Kate and Lorraine faced the boardroom. Sir Alan worried that Kate was a one-trick pony and had taken her eye off the ball. He brought up (as he had done before) the fact that Lorraine’s complaints that a task was going in the wrong direction always came after the event. However, it was poor old Howard who got fired – and here’s where this run of the shopping channel task had something in common with the previous two appearances, as they also culminated in an unfair firing (calmly consistent Miriam in Series One and competently professional Naomi in Series Three). Lorraine, to my way of thinking, held Howard back in this task and may have been playing a bit of a game in order to get rid of someone she possibly perceived as a threat: she seemed to spend much of the task being rather useless whilst heaping flattery on him, and her remark in the boardroom that he was “a great operator” had a definite edge to it. After all, he could have just left her to flounder in front of the cameras – but, as before, he tried to hold his team together and take them with him, rather than letting weaker candidates fend for themselves. That quality seemed to get ignored by Sir Alan (and by Nick, who clearly didn’t take to Howard at all, accusing him of not being a “brave warrior”, whatever that means), as did the fact that Howard had successfully led his team to victory in the first week – a large team that included such difficult personalities as Ben and Philip – and, had he been allowed a bit more oxygen by Debra, could probably have made good the Gay Margate concept a couple of weeks ago.

Howard, like all the firees, departed in the back of a taxi, observing that maybe he’d be a bit more of a maverick (although hopefully not in the Sarah Palin sense) in the future. He didn’t even seem particularly bitter on You’re Fired, although he obviously still felt (quite rightly) that it should have been Lorraine facing the panel. I suspect her turn will come next week when the interviews culminate in a triple firing before the final. I’m sad to see that he hasn’t made it all the way – but on the other hand, I think it’d be a shame for him to be stuck in some back office in Brentwood handling some project that nobody else wants. He’s young enough to do pretty much anything he wants and seems to have a quiet intelligence that perhaps would be wasted in Sir Alan’s organisation. And, as my friend Rob observed, he can certainly work a suit…

Chris

Gay makeover

News today that the city of Canterbury has been accused of not doing enough to create an LGBT community:

http://anglicansamizdat.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/canterbury-is-not-gay-enough/

Hmm. Can’t say this surprises me. Back in 2003, before I moved up to Leeds, I went to Canterbury, having been told of one or two gay (or at any rate “gay-friendly”) venues. Ascertaining these required looking out for a little rainbow sticker in the doors, not much of a move on from going down a dark alley, knocking on a back door and being asked if you’re a “friend of Dorothy”. And as it turned out, one had been closed for several months and the others were gay-friendly inasmuch as you probably wouldn’t get beaten up for going in there, but you could forget about kissing, holding hands or any nonsense like that. Canterbury did have a Pride march a few years ago, but quite frankly anywhere can have a Pride march. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a visible community except on that day.

The news seems quite pertinent as last night’s Apprentice saw the candidates tasked with rebranding the Kent seaside town of Margate which, like my childhood home of Folkestone, is a once-popular resort fallen on hard times. The episode had been trailed a few weeks previously (in a blog post by me, for one) due to a supposedly homophobic comment made by Mona Lewis about gays, causing upset to openly gay candidate Howard Ebison. Whether this remark was made or not is still up for conjecture, as it didn’t appear in the final edit (instead, Mona merely expressed reservations about putting off other people by rebranding Margate as a gay resort, although this doesn’t appear to have done Brighton any harm). On screen, Howard was rather more put out by Debra’s insistence that she be project manager, although she agreed to make him the creative lead – before proceeding to ignore or override any ideas that he or anyone else came up with.

The real fun started when Empire had to produce the promotional literature for their rebranding. Howard and Debra (a woman with piggy eyes and a very small mouth from which a great deal of noise nevertheless emanates) auditioned some models for the photos, whilst Mona and James (his village still missing its idiot) decided to gauge the feelings of the local population. The impression given was that the people of Margate were all up for the idea, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some less positive comments ended up on the cutting room floor. Mona herself looked completely out of her depth, particularly when meeting a pre-op transsexual in a gay bar, and grappling with notions of gender and sexuality that were clearly beyond her frame of reference. Yet even this paled in comparison with a deathless sequence in which the (straight) models posing as the gay and lesbian couples were asked to throw some shapes in a nightclub. An empty nightclub. In the daytime. They were, in the words of the incomparable Nick Hewer, “stiff and wooden – if I can put it that way”.

The resulting, over-worded poster, rather like the doors of those venues in Canterbury, encoded the gay references (women with arms around each other’s waists, a rainbow map of Britain) so as to make them largely missable, and Empire’s situation was compounded by a half-finished leaflet: Debra, in her extremely finite wisdom, only got stuck into this twenty minutes before the production deadline; when presenting their idea to industry experts, the team claimed that the blanks on the leaflet were advertising space. Needless to say, they lost, although winners Ignite hardly covered themselves in glory, with a series of posters asking people to see Margate “through a child’s eyes”. The largest of these was a large shot of a beach – no children with buckets and spades, just an empty beach. Beautiful and serene, yet also desolate, it looked more like an advert for euthanasia than local tourism. Despite this, and project manager Yasmina being serially undermined by Lorraine (with her “instinct”, strange lipstick and bizarre tendency to suddenly start talking like Mrs Doyle from Father Ted), they won. Debra lied her way through another boardroom (although she did at least have the decency not to take Howard back) and Mona, her mind probably still undecided as to the gender or orientation of her new-found friend in Margate, was fired.

So, the gay idea was a nice one, but needed to be shouted rather than mumbled, and Howard’s still in. As for Kent, it’s still largely this weird, arid chunk of non-gayness between London and Brighton. Plus ca change…

Chris

Homophobia on the box

A couple of articles to consider:

http://tinyurl.com/c9ge64

http://tinyurl.com/d6s6v9

Of course, one has to say that, in the case of the latter, this may be an attempt to use controversy to generate ratings, rather like the racism incident on the show a couple of weeks ago. If it isn’t, then there need to be seen to be consequences for the person who makes the offensive remarks, as there have been in the former, otherwise it’s using unpleasant and outdated views as cheap viewer bait, which is unforgivable.

The other question it begs is: is H from Steps now making the jump from pop star to heavyweight journalist..?

Chris

I’d hire Howard

Proving that I tend to be rather behind the curve with TV gossip, I finally picked up today on the fact that Apprentice candidate Howard Ebison happens to bat on the same team as myself. A somewhat inaccurate report in one of the Sunday red tops claimed Howard was the first-ever openly gay man on the Apprentice – which he isn’t. Previous candidates Lohit Kalburgi (Series 3) and Nicholas de Lacy Brown (Series 4) were both out and proud moxes, although as Nicholas was fired in the first week of his series after selling lobsters for five quid (not to mention wibbling on at the former chair of Tottenham Hotspur that he found it hard to relate to people who like football), it might be best to draw a veil over him and his ill-advised facial hair. And before any of the boys of course, there was The Badger, back in Series 2.

Back to Howard though, and after leading his team to victory in last week’s car cleaning task (despite being consistently undermined by passive-aggressive whinger Philip), he found himself hauled back in the boardroom last night by losing project manager Rocky after the boys suffered a catastrophic defeat thanks to a corporate catering event in which the team wore sports gear (and later togas, exposing some very spotty backs) and served bizarre canapes with a vague “Olympic” theme. Despite being criticised for not using his experience as a pub manager to put the brakes on the food costs, Howard scraped through after Sralan decided that Rocky had made too many errors as team leader (including bringing back him and James, who proceeded to spew forth a mighty torrent of word vomit and subsequently disclosed releasing a small torrent of something else).

Howard himself is emerging as one of the more likeable candidates this series – admittedly not difficult in the Apprentice, where demonstrating the mere vestige of a soul tends to put you at a spiritual advantage to everyone else. Plus he’s in a happy, long-term relationship – doubtless a source of enormous frustration to the more prurient sections of the media, who were only too pleased to drool their righteous saliva all over the details of Ruth Badger’s personal life. I hope he progresses a lot further in the competition, without resorting to any dirty tactics, whilst creating a positive role model for young LGBT people who want to succeed in a business world that still seems to be dominated by machismo and aggression.

Chris