Friday, February 27, 2009


The New Avengers – Dead Men Are Dangerous

12.30, tonight, BBC4 – stay up, set your DVD recorder or set your alarm! There’s been much to enjoy in BBC4’s repeats of The New Avengers, but tonight’s haunting Dead Men Are Dangerous is the one I enjoy the most. A beautiful, tragic character piece, with a disturbing opening sequence and a nail-biting conclusion, it’s the best episode by a long way. The series’ strangely friendly Cold War rivalries give way to the bitter, deadly rivalry of a friend. This is simply magnificent television.
“The only thing that can’t be replaced is the love and life of an old friend.”
It’s been an interesting week for slightly or very off-beat programmes on TV, whether you call them comedy-thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, horror… I can never quite warm to the artificial umbrella of “telefantasy,” can you? Anyway, last Sunday we had the gripping penultimate episode of Being Human – a striking series that defies categorisation, and which I’m pleased to say has this week been recommissioned. Demons, on the other hand, had just one episode that hit the mark (the one with Mina’s vampire son) but several that were just rubbish, and after nosediving ratings ITV have this week cancelled the series. It should have been better, but the right series will be back.

Less off-beat – unless you count the distracting ‘Ooh, which Tory MP is that weirdly made-up actor of a cast of thousands meant to be? And why, with all the people they got right (Geoffrey Howe was uncanny), did they mess up John Sergeant so badly?’ effect – was last night’s Margaret, which I found rather gripping and even made me feel a twinge of sympathy for her. I can still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of her fall, and who I was with; a Green who I’ve not seen for many years and a hard right Tory who shed a tear, then had a brief moment of rejoicing when news broke that John Major was to stand as the continuity Thatchianity candidate (within months he was snarlingly calling him a “bloody social democrat”). That second chap’s a Lib Dem these days… Still, looking back at that time, House of Cards still knocks spots off Margaret.

For me, though, the really stunning shows this week have been in the repeats. On Tuesday, ITV4 showed The Prisoner’s finest hour, Dance of the Dead, with its intricate plotting, insane ending and commanding Number 2 (though they mucked up the transmission); on Wednesday, ITV3 showed Robin of Sherwood’s greatest episode, The Greatest Enemy. The last half of that is still one of the most compelling and moving TV experiences I’ve ever had, and like Dance of the Dead – and unlike most ‘action’ shows where death is common but disposable – it’s an intelligent meditation on death. So, too, is The New AvengersDead Men Are Dangerous with its lingering death and killer nostalgia, beating Dance of the Dead for twisty foreboding and vying with The Greatest Enemy for elegiac tragedy, all making three very fine series which have each had their very finest stories repeated within a few days of each other, remarkably. Next Friday (concluding the Monday after), as it happens, BBC3 is repeating the best story since Doctor Who returned to the screen in 2005. Human Nature is more about love than death, though death and, particularly, war still come through.

But back to tonight, and the main thing that comes to mind is that Patrick Macnee is simply outstanding in this story; funny, gentle, wounded, authoritative, even athletic – he’s lost some weight between seasons and looks really good on it, and he’s extraordinary whether standing mourning his destroyed memories to sombre brass or dashing desperately through the woods to trace a chilling loudspeakered message. His old friend turned jealous enemy Mark Crayford is an equally brilliant performance by Clive Revill, though Mark’s bitterness offers fewer layers for his character. The episode hinges around their two gripping face-offs, beginning and ending the story, each stolen by Steed’s heartbreaking reply to Mark’s challenge.

After so many New Avengers episodes in which an old friend of Steed’s lurches in and dies on the carpet, to be avenged by our heroes through the rest of the story, Dead Men Are Dangerous both gives that recurring theme its finest ever treatment and turns it on its head: while for once you can genuinely believe that Mark was Steed’s oldest and best friend, this time the old friend is dying because Steed shot him (reluctantly but efficiently, as you’ll see in the opening scene), and his death is to be avenged not by the Avengers but on them. It’s an especially fine use of the top Avengers cliché ‘a dead man who isn’t dead’, too, with a twist to that as well…

I love Dead Men Are Dangerous so much that I would love to spend hours on my usual sort of long, discursive review to tease out every subtle moment. And the ones with Gambit. But I’m having a bit of a time today – though not as much as Steed, obviously – so I’m having to write rather more quickly. Were I writing a longer review, there are all sorts of issues that I’d be discussing in detail. Instead, I’ll mention some of them to whet your appetite and see what they prompt you to come up with when you watch it:
Just think how long I’d have gone on if I were writing this properly, eh?

Instead, I’ll finish with a word from someone else. I usually enjoy Cornelltoppingday’s The Avengers Dossier (originally published and pulped as The Avengers Programme Guide), but I very often disagree with them, not least on my favourite episodes. Just this once, though, our tastes converge, and their review puts it beautifully. If you ever chance across a copy of the book, do pick it up, but if you can’t find it, here’s a sharply edited extract:
“This is by far the best episode of The New Avengers. The difference is in the fondness with which it’s written… Steed and Purdey have a bittersweet relationship with real heart. But mainly this is Steed’s story. The damage done to his property is horrifying, but he doesn’t care a jot as long as the people he cares for are safe. It’s all rather wonderful, and is written with a nostalgia and grace that could have got the show another season if this had been the new format. Very special.”

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Oh, Lord Mandelson, Give Us Post Office Privatisation – Or Not – But Not Yet

The Labour Party is in revolt this morning over proposed part-privatisation of the Post Office, complicated by news that the pension fund is apparently in crisis, and by signals that, if Labour MPs don’t vote for the Labour Government’s proposals, Tories and Lib Dems will. Now, I’ve written before that I’m agnostic on Post Office privatisation; I’ve always been economically pragmatic rather than ideological, looking at what works. Where there is privatisation, I instinctively favour increased competition and decentralisation, which it strikes me would make a bigger difference than painting the words ‘under new ownership’ onto a big state monolith.

All this means I find myself sceptical of the Labour Government’s sudden headlong rush into another privatisation. On first hearing the way this was reported, it sounded like a partial sell-off. Well, I thought, show me why that would work, but for goodness’ sake don’t do it now. We all know of several privatisations in the past that have got a very bad deal for the taxpayer – rail, in particular, was both grossly undervalued at sell-off and has consumed even more state subsidy since, a Tory tax double-whammy at one remove – and it seemed crazy that you’d think of floating part of another big state-owned outfit when the market’s in a ditch.

But no, I discovered as I listened to more of the story, this won’t be a matter of shares being available to the public, but of one private ‘partner’ being invited to take partial ownership. Uh huh? I thought. This doesn’t sound like a massive increase in competition to me. What sort of competitive bidding will there be, at least, to see who offers the best deal? Ah. Apparently, the Labour Government really hasn’t got the hang of this competition thingy. When they say they’re interested in one private sector partner, they really do mean one. They’re planning to just bring in TNT. So, an effective reduction in competition; no decentralisation; everything decided at the most top-down level; no searching around to find the best deal for the taxpayer; and no private company is going to be asked to underwrite the pension fund anyway, so that threat’s pure spin (either way, if it crashes, we taxpayers foot the bill).

So, remind me – what exactly is this part-privatisation supposed to achieve? Because it sounds precisely like that sort of stitch-up where a big state corporation and a big part-private company are indistinguishable, except that some of the profit can be siphoned off by a private company no doubt grateful for the gift in an economic downturn. How does this work better, and how does it make a difference to either the taxpayer or the customer? Because it sounds like the very definition of just painting a different name on the door. And if so, why support it?

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Friday, February 20, 2009


‘Cut Their Goolies Off’ – Balls

Though I’ve not blogged for a bit before today, bulletins from round the world have still been catching my eye – there may well be a flurry of late news at some point, but as a quickie from Valentine’s weekend, did you hear “Children’s Secretary” Ed Balls’ particularly fine example of politicians’ Daily Mail-friendly hyperbole without actually engaging his brain? In all the outcry over a thirteen-year-old dad, Mr Balls sonorously pronounced that it was “awful” and “unusual,” and that
“I want us to do everything we can as a society to make sure we keep teenage pregnancies coming down.”
Having children so early in life is no doubt a bad thing for the bodies, emotions and finances of all concerned, but while young teens should certainly be discouraged from having sex through much better information on the consequences (and at the very least on how to make it safer if they do it), some of them are always going to find a way. It’s not like it’s a new idea, is it? All that’s new is that nowadays the press are allowed to print it, and then get in a tizzy because the one example they’ve found and showered money over is proof that the entire country is breaking down (sex! It’s awful! Turn to Page 3 for more!). It isn’t. It’s just evidence that one pair of kids had more hormones than sense, which is not exactly news. Mr Balls’ pledge to “do everything we can” is as daft and out of proportion as the Labour Government’s knee-jerk overkill when they “DECLARE WAR!” on anything the Daily Hate Mail goes on about: drugs; binge; dog-fouling…

Obviously, led by the press, most politicians have been falling over themselves to say how appalling, reprehensible and unique / universal [delete as applicable] this is, despite Britain’s teenage pregnancy rate actually falling. There was a sign of hope on last night’s Question Time, though. One-of-the-most-loathsome-men-in-the-media Piers Stefan Puke-Morgan spewed out a stream of repellent authoritarian drivel, only to find that as usual he was taking the ‘popular’ out of ‘populist’ when the audience clapped less the further he raced from reality. Mr Morgan’s attempt to get on the David Cameron “Broken Britain” bandwagon was shot down in flames by Sarah Teather, who challenged the idea that Britain was in any way broken and said that she’d rather live today than in any previous time, in a more tolerant age than ever before, and got a storm of applause for it.

If you didn’t catch last week’s Any Questions on Radio Four, grab it in the few hours remaining on the iPlayer; the debate there was even more enlightening. Jonathan Dimbleby, made a prat of himself as usual, saying it was a “sombre” issue – it’s not a funeral, it’s a birth, you pompous idiot. Denis MacShane, to no-one’s surprise, couldn’t open his mouth without blaming everyone in the world except the Labour Party, having somehow missed who’s been in government for the last dozen years. Janet Street-Porter went breathtakingly off her rocker, saying that the real problem was “all these disgusting men in their sixties” having children with women in their twenties (also far from a new phenomenon). Imagine! Yes, this Morgan-a-like newspaper editor wants to almost literally infantilise women – if they fall in love with or are otherwise enamoured of older men (the famous interview line “So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” springs to mind), she thinks that’s a terrible social problem and Something Should Be Done. Well, Ms Street-Porter, grown-ups should be treated like grown-ups and allowed to make their own decisions, so it’s none of your business, you ludicrously authoritarian busybody. David Davis gave the lie to anyone who doubts “liberal Conservative” is an oxymoron, by blaming it all on sex education – despite the fact that the better-educated a country is, and particularly the better the education about sex and relationships, the later young people are likely to start having sex, and the more protected they tend to be when doing it. But the show was stolen throughout by the brilliant Jo Swinson, talking sensibly about education, contraception, confidence, self-respect and there being no standard “ideal age” to have a baby.

But despite all of those thousands of words frothing around the subject, I keep coming back to the first time I heard the story. It was on the Today Programme a week ago, and I still can’t get over my first impression of Mr Balls’
“I want us to do everything we can as a society to make sure we keep teenage pregnancies coming down,”
which I couldn’t help but instantly translate as
‘Cut their goolies off!’
A Difficult and Controversial Topic

Earlier this afternoon I wrote how the Labour Government bear an uncanny resemblance to a famous moment from Dad’s Army. On hearing Mr Balls’ promise to do anything and everything, though, I couldn’t help thinking of a famous panel discussion on Not The Nine O’Clock News, which sadly isn’t available on YouTube. But cast your mind back, and you may remember a serious examination of a difficult and controversial topic by Professor Duff of Cambridge University and Sally Barnes, community worker from the Borough of Lambeth, looking into the problem over the last few weeks. Professor Duff’s team had concerned themselves fundamentally with a statistical analysis of the problem as a whole, in tandem with and related to a psychochemical and behavioural analysis of over a thousand individual teenagers:
“And we came to the inevitable conclusion that the one course of action the authorities must take is… To cut off their goolies. Cut their goolies off!”
And Sally Barnes?
“Look, I know these kids, I’ve worked in the areas we’re talking about – round Lambeth, Lewisham – I know their problems, I know their frustrations – lack of community facilities – I know their parents… And in my opinion, Professor Duff’s suggestion that we should cut off their goolies is the only solution.”

“Absolutely. I mean, cut the goolies off! Cut them off!”

“True! Whip off the goolies.”

“Well, there we have it. Expert opinion seems to be in favour of –”

“Cutting off their goolies!”
Place your bets for the next Labour Manifesto now.

Update: Hurrah! That sketch has since become available on YouTube. Try it now (it may disappear).

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If They’ve Nothing To Hide, They’ve Got Nothing To Fear

The arrogant, self-important, holier-than-thou, über-bossy bullying Labour Government famously has no sense of irony (the last two words may be superfluous there), but today’s news brings joy for taxpayers, friends of freedom and ironists alike. Labour’s position is very clear: only criminals and terrorists have anything to fear from their humongously expensive ID cards and databases holding every scrap of personal information on every citizen (all the better for thieves, blackmailers and newspapers to get hold of it); but only criminals and terrorists could possibly have any interest in exposing what the Labour Government is up to in our name. And they see no contradiction in that.

The Labour Government’s fervour in poking into, preaching at and misplacing our every personal detail is only matched by their religious fervour in preventing any of us finding out how badly they’re doing it. They’ve entirely forgotten that the Government is employed by the people, rather than the other way round. And so the Labour Government mounted stitch-up after stitch-up to try to stop anyone being able to find what MPs’ expenses were, while coincidentally the Cabinet member with responsibility for bossing the police about and inventing stupid new crimes was thieving from the taxpayer; they still refuse to hold an independent enquiry into the Iraq War; they put pressure on the courts to cover up torture evidence; they block court cases altogether to cover up bribery over BAE; they refuse to tell us how much money they’ve wasted on horrendous messes of private sector contracts because of “commercial confidentiality”; trying to change the law so they can bar the public from coroners’ inquests, sack independent coroners and bribe their appointed placepeople to make sure they give the ‘right’ result; they make it a serious crime to photograph a police officer so no-one can supply evidence of the effects of the Labour Government’s appalling new laws…

Today, however, exposes the most hilariously ironic of all the Labour Government’s irony-bypass operations – despite threatening every member of the public (starting with ‘foreigners’ and, er, Mancunians) with prosecution and bankrupting fines if we don’t regularly disclose every detail of our lives to their insanely huge ID cards database, they’ve been fighting for four years to prevent any member of the public seeing the two independent reviews the Labour Government themselves commissioned… Into how the ID cards scheme was working.

The Information Tribunal has at last ruled today that the Labour Government’s attempts to say Freedom of Information doesn’t apply to them are wrong, and that the results of both reviews into the ID cards process must be published within 28 days. So, to have spent so much taxpayers’ money on four years of lawyers’ fees to try and stop us finding all this out, how bad will the decision-making process have been? How many practical errors have been uncovered? How much money has been wasted? And how many Labour Government Ministers will be revealed to have lied to Parliament about how well, and how cheaply, it’s all been going? Meg Hillier, for one, must be eyeing her smoking undergarments apprehensively.

Don’t hold your breath, though. These reviews were carried out way back in 2003 and 2004, so the vast bulk of the billions upon billions of pounds wasted and the amazing extent of the Labour Government’s ineptitude will barely have been scratched. And if you think this ruling means that we can see the results of any other in-depth examinations of the Labour Government’s in-depth examinations of our lives, again, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. A Labour Government spokesrobot announced after the ruling:
“It has made clear that its decision refers only to this specific request and does not set any precedent. We are currently assessing the detail of the Information Tribunal's decision and will respond in full in due course.”
But, surely, if they’ve done nothing wrong, they’ve got nothing to fear? The rest of us can only conclude that the Labour Government’s got plenty of wrongdoing to hide from its employers – all of us – or that they were lying when they repeated that mantra to stop us objecting to their prying and bossing. The answer is ‘probably both’.

Let’s just say no to ID cards now.

Update: despite me being the Dad’s Army fan in the household, my beloved reminds me that one of the nation’s favourite comedy moments features the awesome Philip Madoc issuing a demand for personal information – which is definitely regarded as not very British. There is, however, a very British precedent for the pompous buffoon in charge to be careless with our personal details.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The High Life #1

Yesterday, Caron revealed the horror of Alex Salmond’s attempt a Scottish independent Eurovision entry. Tonight, instead, you can see the proper Scottish entry on BBC4 at 9pm (well, probably more like 9.25, as it’s the climax of the show). And unlike Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s postmodern ‘Please let me win’ song, Pif Paf Pof is a proper Eurovision song about shagging. The High Life was perhaps the Nineties’ finest sit-com, and tonight it’s Dug, one of the finest episodes – Alan Cumming shooting to stardom, Forbes Masson somehow not, Siobhan Redmond and Patrick Ryecart showing just how very funny they can be.

Alan Cumming is Air Scotia trolley dolly Sebastian Flight with Forbes Masson Steve, his partner in crime and Siobhan Redmond their ferocious chief stewardess, Shona Spurtle. They’re all brilliant, though for me the show’s persistently stolen by Patrick Ryecart as posh but probably still Sixties drug-addled pilot Captain Hilary Duff (no, really. You’ve no idea how difficult I find it to listen to the later one). Tonight mixes pop fame, giant dog costumes and Shona’s unhappy love life to spectacular effect. Being a sit-com, albeit a more than slightly off-the-wall one in which (for example) Captain Duff’s occasional Star Trek delusions give him the ability to teleport, of course everyone is unhappy in love. Shona, Steve, Captain Duff… But, in one of the few aspects that dates the series, not Sebastian. Yes, the flamboyant and blatantly gay lead character is said to be “celibate”. As if. Still, though he may sympathise with Steve’s doomed attempts at female companionship, we all know they’re shagging.

There are only two episodes to go in the BBC4 repeat season, so do yourself a favour and pick up the DVD to see Winch, the third of the six episodes made; probably my favourite, and probably the cheapest. With hardly any speaking cast barring the four regulars, it has the time to let them all let rip. There’s an obvious secret just waiting to explode; an unreliable narrator supplying a memorable version of Love Is the Drug; and Shona finally – she thinks – getting the ammunition to take Sebastian down:
“Themed breakfasts, my Auntie Arse. I will have you over a barrel!”

“You will have to chloroform me first.”

“Silence, you insolent toe-rag. You are a waster, Sebastian. You are a lying cheat. You are a fibster, a fabulist, an equivocating shim-shammer, a cozening card sharp, a pathological mythomaniac, a yarner, a poulterer – who perjures – a whited sepulchre, a cantering serpent, a rat!”
It’s so unfair, then, that the show’s stolen in the final seconds of the episode and the flight by Captain Duff emerging from the in-flight loo with his usual affable, slightly disorientated beneficence and the inspired closing line:
“Have we landed yet? [Pause] Oh bugger!”
There’s still the most surreal of the lot to come next week, as Molly Weir, Batman, an Avengers villain and delicious tablet combine in Dunk. Oh, dearie me! In the meantime, here is tonight’s main event – Pif Paf Pof

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