How Gameshows Reveal the Sorry State of the British Public

British television is a constant topic of debate in my house. As I live alone, however, this means that most of these debates revolve around me standing in front of a mirror discussing that day’s episode of Jeremy Kyle. When people talk about the sensationalism found in modern television in showing the decay of society, it is quite often poor ol’ Jeremy at whom the finger of blame is pointed. There is much to say about Jeremy and the class (in many definitions of the word) of guest that he often brings out on to his stage. Much, too, can be said about the state of a government that allows a subsection of society to live in such a condition, and about the audience, who seem to use Jeremy as its own proxy for berating the poor and the toothless for their lack of money and molars.  

But it is my view that there is an even worse group of people who feature very prominently on television, spanning all hours of the day, who highlight the real failings of Britain. Those people are gameshow contestants.

For one, tabloid talkshows are far less prevalent than you might realise. For all of the criticism Jeremy Kyle receives, his show is only on for one hour a day; and his show’s personal popularity has had an adverse impact on the genre at large, to such an extent that outside of his own slot there is nobody else like him on a British network. Trisha, the poor soul, had to flee like a rat from a sinking ship when Jeremy arrived on the scene, fleeing to America where sometimes, if she’s lucky, she gets to stand in for Maury while he’s out doing the gardening.

Gameshows, on the other hand are everywhere: Pointless, Tipping Point, The Chase, Tenable, Catchphrase, Family Fortunes, £100k Drop, the one hosted by the charisma vacuum that is Rick Edwards, the one hosted by the Scottish comedian—no, not Ronni Ancona, the other one. There’s also another one on the BBC which apes the Pointless formula in that it has a woman sitting at a desk reading facts off a laptop. You can even add in the tedious Alex Horne’s even more tedious The Button. On and on the list goes, covering morning, noon and night, and most of which sharing the same premise: take a group of people (sometimes individuals, sometimes teams) and whittle them down round by round until one reaches the final and a chance at a big cash prize.

Now, it is this ‘chance at a big cash prize’ where the real problem lies. The idea of competing for a Big Cash Prize is an enticing one. It brings in a lot of applications, and the more applicants, the more shows that can be made. The more shows that can be made, the more money to be made from advertising. But with each additional show they make, then the more Big Cash Prizes they have to offer. The more prizes they have to offer, then the less money they are making from the advertising. So, how do the producers of the show solve this prize problem? Simple—they only let simpletons appear on the show. The more simpletons on the show, the less chance of the Really Big Cash Prize being won. It’s a win for the finalist; he or she gets a bit of added cash in their pocket. It’s a win for the producers; they get advertising money which outweighs the small expense they just handed out. It’s a win for the audience; it gets to laugh to at the man who thinks Paris is the capital of Italy. The only losers are those who do not get to the finalist—and me, the poor sap who comes to the realisation of just how much of a failure the education system in this country really is. 

Of course, some shows, particularly those where a cash prize is not guaranteed, do manage to avoid this issue somewhat. Whenever it does have a stupid person on, it seems more for the sake of comedy rather than to protect an investment. The Chase, for instance, can afford to have a more erudite competitor as the show can be pretty confident that no matter how smart the contestant is, the Chaser is still more likely to win. In a similar vein Pointless, whose final round becomes something akin to Mastermind, is often likely to have its jackpot roll over for multiple episodes regardless of the team’s intellect, only giving up their Big Cash Prize when they stumble across the one man on the planet who has memorised Luxembourg’s 1952 Olympics squad. 

The worst offender, though, has to be Tipping Point. This is a show where there is a guaranteed sum of money to be won by the contestant (unless the contestant is on an entirely different plane of stupidity and chooses to gamble their winnings for another shot at the Jackpot). As such, it’s a show where the bottom of the barrel is too highbrow—it’s the swill moulding away on the underside of the barrel that gets their attention. During one show a contestant was asked: “The word ‘Neptunian’ refers to which Roman God?” to which the contestant responded, “Poseidon?”. In another example one was asked the question, “Which Anglo-Irish boxer defeated Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 to become the unified heavyweight champion?”. If you don’t follow boxing or sport in general, this might be a harder question to answer. The contestant, however, did—or at least he had sufficient knowledge of it to say the following: “I know Tyson Fury has represented England and Ireland. I know he beat Klitschko a few years ago and I know he became the champion… but I’m not sure so I’m going to pass.” 

It is at this point where I have to question if ringers are used in these gameshows. Perhaps a train got cancelled or somebody fell ill at the last minute and there was no reserve contestant so they stuck an intern on the show to make up the numbers. I have to hope it is because I would much rather be defrauded by the show than have to entertain the reality there are people who think Hungary is in South America, that two plus two equals five, or that the reigning monarch is Elizabeth the Third.

Of course, the fact that I watch enough of these shows to have these thought processes says much about me and the free time I have on my hands. I could try to apply to one of these shows, but the fact that I can write my own name in cursive means my application will be thrown in the shredder just as quickly as it hits the producer’s desk.

A Perfect Slice of Banana Bread

Over the course of my soon-to-be twenty-nine years on this planet I have eaten many slices of banana bread. I have eaten other foods in that time too—but none of them have brought me as much joy as banana bread. This is perhaps why, despite not yet having reached thirty, I resemble Robert Paulson. Unlike Paulson, I cannot claim hormonal imbalance for my gynecomastia. People are less forgiving when the giant blob in front of them is that way because of his avarice.

One benefit to this constant eating of the bread that is not really a bread but is a cake, is that I have gone some way to perfecting the method for the perfect slice of banana bread. When one sits down to eat a slice, washed down with a honeyed tea or, if one wants to really go to excess and make themselves more Threadingham than Poppy, a hot chocolate topped with cream and chocolate sauce, then these are the rules to follow. Seven rules, all of equal importance, separate a good slice—and loaf—from perfection.

  1. Bake one’s bananas. Some consider an overly ripe banana important to a good banana bread; for ripeness means flavour. However, if one bakes one’s bananas until the skins are black, flavour will come regardless of ripeness. Further, a baked banana will begin to break down, adding more liquid to the mix, preventing a dry, stodgy slice. A more flavourful, aromatic banana bread one will not find anywhere else. 
  2. Use more medium eggs, not fewer large eggs. Whether it is the egg white, the egg yolk or a mixture of the two, more egg in general contributes to a spongier, moister slice. Two large eggs is not enough, three large eggs is too much. Medium eggs are a mixture’s best friend.
  3. Add vanilla extract to your wet ingredients. You may not notice the addition of vanilla in the final slice—but once you have added it, you will certainly notice its absence in all future attempts.
  4. Cinnamon is king. Cheese and onion, egg and peanut butter, banana and cinnamon—some flavours are simply designed to complement one another. A perfect slice of banana bread will invariably contain more than a pinch of cinnamon. Banana bread without cinnamon is passable, but only those containing the spice will come close to perfection. For the best results, fold three quarters of your cinnamon into the batter and layer the remaining quarter on top before placing it in the oven.
  5. One should fill one’s baking tin only half way. In all perfect banana bread recipes self-raising flour is the flour of choice. Filling higher than half way risks the mixture rising over the edges of the tin making it vulnerable to blackening, burning and cracking. Raising out its container also leaves the banana bread aesthetically displeasing. One tastes with one’s eyes just as much as one’s mouth.
  6. Grease, flour and lay parchment in one’s baking tin. The last thing one wants after baking the perfect banana bread is to have it stick to the tin and fall apart when removing it. Sometimes accidents are unavoidable, but one can always minimise the risk by taking proper greasing precautions.
  7. Allow the banana bread to cool completely. Some wish to tuck in as soon as it is removed from the oven, unable to resist the warm, sweet-smelling fruits of their labours. Resist. The bread is still cooking and will continue to do so for some time. Watch a documentary, pre-emptively work off the calories, care for your loved one. Do anything but cut the bread before its time. One would not eat a chicken still pink, nor should they eat a still cooking slice of banana bread.

Banana bread is a serious business, and its methods of baking should be treated with the appropriate seriousness. These rules go a long way in ensuring that outcome. It will take a special, determined mind to adapt to these rules. But once they do, then never again will they eat a slice of banana bread and react with an: ‘Oh, that wasn’t as good as I was hoping’. 

Historiography and the Rise of Docudramas

The age of documentary is over. Docudrama is the new king. No longer is it acceptable for a tweed-wearing Classicist to wander the halls of famous houses and abbeys, to trek across battlesites, to sit in archives holding deteriorating binders of yellowing pages of fading ink. Simple facts are not sexy. To tell history is boring. Now you must show it. And to show it with run-of-the-mill actors (who, for some reason, are Australian, New Zealandish or, ever increasingly, Welsh). It is left up to chance whether the events shown are an accurate representation of what happened.

David Starkey’s Monarchy was perhaps the precursor to this. Though, in Starkey’s defence, he is a tweed-wearing Classicist and his use of actors was nothing more than people standing out in fields or sitting in chairs, doing nothing and saying nothing. Some, if they were the ‘villain’ of the piece, would stare menacingly at the camera. The ‘hero’ would wave his sword or clasp the hand of a comrade in an act of solidarity. The schemers—and there were a lot in Starkey’s Monarchy—would turn and look off-camera, smugly: a move from which Lena Headey would take great inspiration in her turn as Cersei Lannister.

More recently, 1066: A Year to Conquer England, Britain’s Bloody Crown, Roman Empire and Hitler’s Circle of Evil have drifted more into the realm of drama, swathes of the show devoted to the aforementioned Oceanic and Welsh actors taking up large chunks of screen time. Every so often, an ‘expert’ will prop up, always in close-up in a dark room, like a captive, to give some context to the scene. Captive is perhaps what they are, for they offer up anecdotes as fact without blinking, as if a gun is held aloft just off camera. In the case of Netflix’s Roman Empire, one expert reports as fact the story of Crassus being executed by having molten gold poured into his mouth, an anecdote that first appeared some two hundred years after his death. (For completion, Crassus died during a skirmish when peace talks between he and the Parthians went sour.) In two separate scenes, Pompey and Caesar, both consuls of Rome, kneel to a foreign king, a vassal of Rome no less, and not one historian calls out this absurdity for what it is.

The worst offender of these is Hitler’s Circle of Evil. As the title suggests the focus is on the non-Hitler members of the Nazi party. Himmler and Heydrich, Goebbels and Göring, Bormann and Hess and Speer, each man gets an episode dedicated to himself, examining his life before the Nazis, his reasons for joining and the legacy he creates for himself while in the party. It is through these personal developments that the history of the Nazi party itself, from its beginning as a ragtag collection of angry shouters in a Munich beer hall to its collapse, is shown.

Like Monarchy and 1066 and Roman Empire, the producers of Hitler’s Circle of Evil clearly thought the information put out to the audience too dense. In order to break it up, and to distinguish the similar sounding names of some of the members, dramatisation is used. And it used a lot. And it is used repetitively. Goebells, the Minister for Propaganda, is regularly shown sitting at his desk, thinking up some speech to write. Heydrich, architect of the Holocaust, walks menacingly down one long hallway after another, smiling a smug, evil smile as he wanders closer to the camera. Himmler, head of the SS, slowly brings his gaze to the camera after signing off on some document that the narrator of the piece tells us is the order for the liquidation of some ghetto or the opening of another concentration camp

The worst part of Hitler’s Circle of Evil is its lack of objectivity. It is an odd thing to suggest the terms ‘balanced’ and ‘objective’ and ‘when talking about the Nazis’ but historiography is, or should be, objective. Too many times the show portrays this Circle of Evil as bumbling and pathetic. Himmler is a ‘pretend soldier’ with a ‘weird’ obsession with the occult, Speer is a whipping boy for the other members of the party, through whom they fight a proxy battle for Hitler’s ear. The worst of these is given to Rudolf Hess, the party’s deputy: he is a moronic, braindead, besotted sycophant who does not understand politics but rises to the top because he happens to be in the room from the beginning. These are men who took part in some of the worst atrocities known to humankind, men who would have taken part in countless more if it were not for the intervention of other forces and yet this is not enough in the mind of the producers to make them appear unsympathetic. Being evil people who perform evil deeds is not enough: they need to appear incompetent while doing it. If it does anything, it detracts from their actions. Cold, calculated, thought-out decisions fuelled from a twisted ideology of a perfect world carried out by smart, calculating men were the cause of these atrocities. Yet the show acts as if these layabouts and vagabonds merely stumble into an electoral victory and onto the decision to genocide groups of people and conquer Europe. The overwhelming if not entire majority of people watching will conclude that the Nazis are the bad guys. There is no need to prefix every act they perform with ‘weird’, ‘bizarre’, ‘insane’ or, as in the case of every mention of Göring, ‘drunk junkie’. 

When these shows do document historically accurate information it is surface-level at its deepest, the type that is often covered in baby’s first history lesson. Weirdly—to take one their own words—, the producers of Hitler’s Circle of Evil try to deny this by putting up a disclaimer that these shows are not suitable for children or teenagers. It makes you wonder, then, who exactly is the audience for these programmes? The same disclaimer points to the content found within the following fifty or sixty minutes that makes it ‘unsuitable’ for a young audience. The footage of emaciated Jews, of corpses piled atop one another in the street, of the mass execution of ‘undesirables’ is of course uncomfortable to watch, yet worse is found in a GCSE course book. These docudramas are perhaps best suited for that age of audience; the way in which the episodes and themes are separated would certainly support classroom learning. Key moments in the history of the Nazi party are carved up into short, digestible, retainable segments. As annoying as the repetitive shots are, they serve to split up the information relatively well between narration and reconstruction of events. And—if one has to find credit from somewhere to give—making one member each episode a particular focus, it does highlight personal ambitions of each member. Goebbels joining because he was a failed writer and was offered from the outset the chance to edit the party’s newspaper, or Heydrich only joining because he was unemployed and had debts to settle are important. It illuminates to people that people don’t always align themselves with issues because they believe in something; they do it because it is convenient to them. It is an important lesson to know, one that, unfortunately, many never seem to realise.

The issues of a lack of detail are the same for the less graphic, yet equally as vacuous shows on the Wars of the Roses, the Norman Conquest and the Roman Civil War. “Caesar and Pompey were at war with one another?” Why were they at war? “Oh, lots of reasons… hey, look over there—Mark Antony and his all forehead actor is going to do something cool.” Civil wars and dynastic disputes very rarely ‘just’ prop up but these shows do very little to highlight that. Perhaps because it is hard to make the Senate arguing amongst itself look interesting. HBO’s Rome manages it though, often with far more accuracy too.

Then again, these shows are often fronted by some combination of Dan Snow, Dan Jones or Janina Ramirez, the unholy trinity of the tele-historical age. And if you’re scraping beneath the barrel to hand off another show to any one of them, you’re not going to push the boat out for a competent research team, are you? 

Celebrity Spotting in Ipswich Town

How do we explain the phenomenon of celebrity spotting? What is the biological, psychological or, indeed, metaphysical reasoning behind the response—that jolt in the senses—that comes with seeing someone who lives in the public eye? Is it a feeling akin to passing by a friend or an acquaintance—a neurological response indicating that you know this person and should say ‘hello’ before your conscious takes over and reminds you that while you might know him or her, he or she does not know you? Or is it something more philosophical? Perhaps it is the primal essence of Man coming to the fore, that innate knowledge that some are superior to others, that those who are recognisable must be in some way better. For, if they were not better, how would they be recognisable? It is the inner pleb, the inner serf, the inner slave revealing itself. We all secretly wish to be controlled by the superior. Modern society has just distorted that feeling, confusing exposure for intellect and genius. Freidrich the Great, Napoleon, Gustav III, Voltaire–all would now have to appear on The Only Way is Enlightenment before their words and actions were taken seriously.

Some might try to say that celebrity means nothing to them, that they care not if someone comes from the television or radio or sport or whatever those types who come from seemingly nowhere, pre-made with ten- to fifteen-million subscribers on whatever the most popular Social Media site of the day is. They might be right; they might not care in the long-term, but they still will, without fail, have that moment of ‘Oh, I know that person from somewhere’ when they pass them. I know this, because I claim to belong to that camp, and yet I can remember every single experience of encountering a celebrity.

Living in Ipswich, and often refusing to go any further than Felixstowe, I have found my sightings of celebrities limited to Ipswich Town footballers, present and past. I can recall the time I saw Alex Bruce coming out of a Subway, Luke Chambers and Jon Stead (on separate occasions) going into Debenhams, George Burley, looking very tan and silver-haired, walking past me in the street. I even made erstwhile loanee David Healy feel very uncomfortable as he walked into a bar just off the Buttermarket. ‘It’s David Healy!’ I screamed from across the road while a friend was getting money out of the ATM by Sainsbury’s. He gave an awkward thumbs up and disappeared inside. Once, in my brief time working at JJB Sports, I was approached by none other than Willie Donachie, the then assistant manager of the club. He asked me where the swimming goggles were. I pointed them out to him. He said: ‘thank you’. This story was later bested by my good friend who, while working at the wildlife park Jimmy’s Farm, told me that Alan Lee, God-King of East Anglia, had visited. ‘Is the wildlife park worth the money?’ Alan Lee is reported to have said. ‘Nah, it’s shit,’ my friend replied. Alan Lee laughed, and the world, if just for a day, felt a little brighter. Also my brother saw Roy Keane eating a Big Mac in the McDonald’s opposite Portman Road.

I have, however, had a celebrity sighting out of Ipswich. It happened to be yet another footballer. I was on a flight to Glasgow, going to some training conference as part of the pre-checks for a job I was soon to be starting. The flight itself was nothing out of the ordinary, which, I am sure you will agree, is how any form of travel should be. The biggest issue during that flight, save for a brief bit of turbulence, was that the person sitting beside me was eating a particularly foul-smelling cheese sandwich. There are stories of planes being grounded because of a stinky poo: I have to imagine that if our flight was longer than the hour or so from Stansted to Glasgow then we would have been grounded, too.

Once the plane had landed I immediately jumped from my seat. I had to; I could not be near the epicentre of that cheese bomb any longer. While waiting for the doors to open so I could get off and breathe some ‘fresh’ air of the Glasgow night I scanned the cabin and my eyes met with those of Anton Ferdinand. He was sitting at the window seat, almost haunched over as if attempting to hide himself away from the gaze of others. Unfortunately for him he’s a very tall man so his head was still in full view. The seats beside him were empty. I like to think he bought all three seats so he could have some space to himself. For a man whom in his youth was known to casually spend five figures on watches, buying two additional seats on a budget airline does not seem quite the stretch. Of course, long gone were the days where he earned large wages despite playing terribly in turn for West Ham and Sunderland, before somehow managing to perform at an even lower level for QPR. And long gone were the days of receiving time after time the benefit of doubt, getting chance after chance after chance in the hope that maybe today and maybe this game would be the game that he started playing more like his brother.

I stared at him a little too long, wondering what he was doing heading to Glasgow on a cold October night. My first thought was that he might have been heading up north to sign with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers who at that time were signing up any player who had even the most tangential link to the slipping scouser. But I then thought that unlikely. If he was coming up to sign, I thought, then surely he would not be traveling alone? And surely he would be traveling in slightly more luxury than EasyJet?

In all of this time, he looked back at me, his eyes glazed in a way. I could not read his expression. Perhaps he was worried that I was going to reveal myself a crazed fan, that I would repeat the David Healy incident and shout at him. Or maybe he was thankful in a way—thankful that somebody on God’s green-and-blue earth had any idea who the fuck Anton Ferdinand was. We will never know, unless he responds to this of course. The doors opened. I left the plane. He was still in his seat as I did. I never saw him again. A few days later I remembered that I had seen Anton Ferdinand on a plane and checked to see if there was any news on why he was up there. It turned out he had the week prior signed for St Mirren. That solved that mystery, then.

I wouldn’t like to be ruled by Anton Ferdinand though. But I would Alan Lee. After saving us from relegation in the 2005/06 season and scoring the goal to relegate Leeds in the 2006/07 season, he can do what he likes.

The Madness of Enjoying The Mask of Zorro

I recently wrote an article in which I expressed a fondness for the film Highlander. This, I thought, was a rather uncontroversial statement. Especially in light of my call for the government to effectively mug international students. Yet, to my dismay, it was this assertion that Highlander is an enjoyable film that met with the ire of an unknown assailant of indeterminate gender. And what was the reason for the tirade of this man (or woman)? He (or she) prefers The Mask of Zorro

My first issue with this attack is that I cannot for the life of me fathom how anybody could say with truth in their heart that they enjoy The Mask of Zorro. I do not mean that in an ‘enjoy it more than Highlander’ way. I mean it in a ‘how could anyone under any circumstances ever think it is a competent movie?’ way. It is a tacky film. Yes, tacky is the perfect word for it. It feels tacky, it feels cheap, it feels rushed. It does not surprise me that, when I look at its development cycle, Anthony Hopkins did not sign on until a month before filming began. Anybody who has suffered through the first few minutes can see that Hopkins acts as if he has accidentally wandered onto the set and the director has decided to roll with it. Perhaps he truly had wandered on by mistake. I see no other reason why the film would attempt to sell to me—and to you—the idea of a Hispanic noble of Spanish or Mexican descent having a very thick Welsh accent. I consider it an even greater injustice than Sean Connery’s Edinburgh-accented Egyptian. At least in the case of the latter he is in his scenes roaming around the Highlands and can perhaps claim that he is putting on the accent to blend in with the locals. Does Mexico-controlled California have a strong Welsh community that is otherwise unmentioned?

This EntirelyForced, if that is his (or her) real name, attempts to sell to you—and to me—the idea that this is a fun romp, one of expert choreography and good action. He (or she) dares to compare it to a Batman film. Yes, perhaps—if the Batman in comparison is the Adam West version. It is a campy affair that would have even Cesar Romero himself blushing in embarrassment. Antonio Banderas spends the entire film doing a parody of what a racist thinks a Mexican sounds like. Banderas is Hispanic, his look is Hispanic, his accent is Hispanic; and yet it seems that either he or the director or a combination of the two felt that he wasn’t quite Hispanic enough for this Hispanic character. So he spends the film ‘putting it on’. It’s as if his preparation for the character was to spend his days and nights watching The Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man on repeat.

For a man (or woman) who claims that Zorro is good film, he (or she) is sorely lacking in any details beyond stating that it is “exciting and entertaining” while belying his true feelings in the next paragraph with much more negative adjectives. The dialogue “isn’t anything overly special,” the plot is “cut-out,” the acting is “hammy”. I ask you: are these the words used to describe a good film? No, they are the words of the psyche, of the id, coming to the fore to betray the reality. The reality that Highlander is the better film, a fact that he (or she) knows all too well but refuses to acknowledge out of some misguided sense of contrarianism, like Socrates at the court of Athens, choosing to drink the hemlock of bad swashbuckling action rather than admit to being an up-jumped nobody with delusions of grandeur.

Such is this EntirelyForced’s delusion, that his (or her) response to facing this fact is to pull out his (or her) best Michael Gove impression, discrediting hard-working critics for having the gall to rank Highlander as a better film. “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts,” he or she says while slamming closed the laptop on which the evidence is shown, “with organisations from fruit-based reviewers saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” Perhaps his (or her) Michael Gove tribute act does not end there. Indeed, one would need snort Escobar dry to reach such a state of mind as to consider Zorro not only good, but better than Highlander. For a man (or woman) who has spent the better part of his (or her) adult years attempting to prove that he (or she) is not an idiot, he (or she) unravels it all with one ludicrous statement.

This EntirelyForced claims an imperviousness to nostalgia, a one amongst the billions who can look at the past with no sense of that tingle one feels when remembering the happier part of one’s life. But what else other than nostalgia can explain such love and admiration for such mediocrity? Perhaps this EntirelyForced does not want to re-open the wounds of the past, when he (or she) was left to fester in the hovel of his (or her) home, hoping—praying even—that a Zorro, either the Welsh version or the stereotypically Mexican one, would come and rescue him (or her) squalor. He (or she) is Elena, and the world is Montero and Love. Whatever the real reason, it is strange to me that one who would tell others not to express their feelings would choose to ignore that advice and offer to the world the tripe that Zorro is better than Highlander. 

I am afraid, Mr (or Mrs) EntirelyForced, that, when it comes to arguing that Zorro is a superior film, your argument is entirely forced.

Oh Highlander, you perfect movie you

Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pin holes in the curtain of night, who knows? What I do know is that because you were born different, men will fear you… try to drive you away like the people of your village.

Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez

Highlander is a film that I can watch time and time again. Every single time I see it advertised on the telly box I have to tune in. And I have to tune in every single time because I don’t actually own a copy of it. I often see the DVD in the local charity shop, and every time I pass it by to purchase something else. But even if I did own a copy I would still watch it on television. There is just something better about watching a film on telly—wouldn’t you agree? 

Everybody should know the story by now, even if they have never seen the film. It has such a cult following, such a place in the zeitgeist, that everyone is at least aware of what it is and what it is about. But for the sake of clarity and completion I will add a brief summary: A group of immortals Gather in New York for a final battle that will see the victor win the Prize. The focus of the film is the life of the five hundred year old Connor MacLeod, the titular Highlander, and his relationships over the course of his many centuries of living. The battle for the Prize sees him reach the conclusion of his longest relationship: the war between him and fellow immortal the Kurgan.

It is a rather silly in premise in truth. But it works. Oh boy, does it work. The acting is wonderfully stilted by some; others leave visible bite marks in the props as they make their way through the scene. The choreography is nonsensical—a fact they seem to have realised during filming and ‘fixed’ by stripping all the fight scenes of light and competent camera placement so you cannot see what is happening anyway. Much is made of Christopher Lambert’s accent. It’s not his native French, it’s not the Scottish that his character should have, it’s not American, a country in which he has been living since shortly after it was colonised, save for that short time where he was running around Nazi-occupied Amsterdam for some reason. It’s not an accent that works in his past scenes in Scotland. But in the present day scenes it does. It makes sense that a five hundred year old man who has lived in many places would have something of a mutt accent: he’s an unplaceable man in an unplaceable time with an unplaceable pattern of speech. It certainly fits the character better than Sean Connery, who uses his native Scottish accent despite playing an Egyptian masquerading as a Spaniard who serves at the court of a Flemish emperor.

The lore is not entirely fleshed out. A pedant might raise the perfectly reasonable questions of ‘What exactly is a Quickening?’, and ‘Why is Holy Ground a thing a group of immortals concern themselves with?’. They might even ask what triggers immortality and what are the rules for ageing. The film lays out that immortality is triggered by the immortal experiencing a violent first death. Yet Connor doesn’t have that experience: he gets seriously wounded yes, but it is made clear in dialogue between other characters that it his not dying from those wounds that causes his banishment from his village. Supposedly damage to the head, neck and brain is fatal for an immortal. But the Kurgan’s first death is a result of him having his head crushed by a boulder. In that case, the Kurgan should not even exist within the film to be an antagonist. MacLeod ‘dies’ at the age of eighteen and stays at that physical age for the next five centuries. His mentor, Sean Connery’s Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez suffered his first death as a child, but is an old man. Not fully detailing the lore to the audience—or indeed the characters—is not itself the issue: what is the issue is that the writers appear not to have fleshed it out for themselves, which leads to all of the above quibbles about a fantasy movie. In the end the questions are just waved away with a line of dialogue from Ramirez. It’s a nice line, poetic in its way, but it’s still a waving of the hand.

And yet, despite all of that, I love it. In those opening moments, when that poorly edited fight scene begins with Fasil switching between backflipping his way across an underground parking lot and running between cars, I knew I was in for something special. I truly cannot decide whether Lambert’s performance is atrocious or sublime. It’s certainly captivating either. Clancy Brown’s Kurgan is one of the finest villains of any medium. He is evil and eccentric and over-the-top and he is loving every minute of it. The film was fortunate enough to come out a year or two before Sean Connery stopped caring about the craft and just turned up to cash the cheque. I must say, I have never been a fan of Connery—and I include his Bond performances in that. His thick Scottish accent regardless of whether he’s playing a British Secret Service agent, a Russian submarine captain or an Egyptian pretending to be a Spaniard has always riled me. He is serviceable though: he is the Old Mentor to aid the Hero complete his Journey and he does it well enough to make you care at his inevitable death. As for the rest of the cast, they are there to fill out the time before the climactic battle and the script treats them as such. Roxanne Hart is there to be a love interest and show an interest in metallurgy who performs the role of the love interest while being knowledgeable about metals. The antagonistic cops are just that: antagonistic cops. The crazy old Vietnam veteran is there to provide some comic relief and add to the body count when the Kurgan gets around to skewering him. Ultimately, it is a story of Connor and the Kurgan, something that is proven true by being the only two characters who get some form of development.

As for the soundtrack—well, it’s Queen. Is there much more that needs to be said? There’s not a dry eye in the house when ‘Who Wants to Live Forever?’ plays over the scenes of the ageing Heather and the stagnant Connor. Perhaps if the soundtrack wasn’t what it was these other flaws could not be overlooked? Fortunately, it’s not a hypothesis towards which we have to pay any mind.

So where exactly does Highlander stand? Is it a good bad movie? A bad good movie? Different people will of course say different things. But journalists and film critics deserve scorn in any case so who cares what others thing? Good and bad are subjective to the individual. And as an individual I love the film. Badly written, poorly acted, sloppily edited as it is. It is an interesting premise made in a way that makes it charming despite—because?—of its issues. It’s the reason I watch it every time it is on, and why I will carrying do so. And it’s the reason why I will never spend money to own it. 

If I were a hack, I would end this with: ‘When it comes to fantastic cult movies, There Can Be Only One’.

But I’m not a hack so I’m not doing that. 

The Decline of the Local Museum

It seems a revolutionary idea in this day and age to think that your local museum should have a focus on local history. Your local history, your local culture, the development of the town in which you live and how it came to be—all of these things are important. And yet, museums in towns up and down the country fail to deliver this information. Too many times I have been to a local museum or heritage site, only to discover that I am learning about general history and not the specifics of that particular area. Whether Hertford, Shrop or any other -shire, you are told the same, limited, often irrelevant information. It’s akin to getting kidnapped and placed in a Wetherspoons. You could be in any part of the country but you’d never know where. A Wetherspoons is a Wetherspoons is a Wetherspoons; and, increasingly, a museum is a museum is a museum. Knowledge of the wider world and global events is important, of course—but that is for the realm of the classroom and the curriculum. 

When it comes to my local museum it is sad to say that it falls woefully short in the ‘learn about your little part of the world’ mantra that I like to see. Now my town, as terrible and decaying and dilapidated as it these days, does have history—and a strong one at that spanning centuries. Its geography and proximity to both Scandinavia, the North Sea and even more eastwards to the Baltic brought it to the attention of foreign visitors (read as invaders) across the ages. In later centuries that position made it a vital port for trade: it served as a Kontor town for the Hansa, and merchants including the ancestors of Geoffrey Chaucer among others made their wealth through the town’s trading network. Several men and women who have had an impact on British, European, and even global affairs have come from the town. The issue is, unless you already knew that, you remain unlikely to know it after visiting the museum. 

It’s a drab little building, this museum—an old Victorian sort that seems to suck out the energy from your very soul the moment the tired brickwork comes into your view. I enjoy an old building. Just a few days ago I was at Dover Castle, where the twelfth-century Great Tower is positively modern compared to some of the other locations in its grounds. This Tower, along with the pharros, the Roman lighthouse, and the sites dating back to the Iron Age create in you a sense of wonder and in their own way a sense of living history. The local museum, however, is an entirely joyless affair. On the warmest, brightest, summery day where there is a slight calming breeze and the birds from the nearby park are chirping away in their song, the museum still sits as a dull, lifeless carbuncle. If Dover Castle is a vibrant elder full of vigour regaling eager listeners with tales of his glorious past, the local museum is an atrophied pensioner labouring towards his final breaths. 

Inside, the museum fares no better. A tacky over-lit gift shop greets you, selling its overpriced tat. One might find a bookmark with the local museum’s name on it, or a postcard, or a fridge magnet. Along the back wall, an assortment of gifts based around the central attraction of the museum. Of course, nobody buys the tat so an overstock soon begins to occur: stuffed toys and books and puzzles and all other assortment of items lay listlessly over hastily erected tables with signs handwritten scruffily on some lined paper. The person behind the counter looks half-dazed as they stand in the lonely isolation of the booth, their monotony only broken up by the half-glance of a new visitor eyeing up the store before passing into the museum proper.

Walking through the museum, the exhibitions are sprawled out in such a meandering way that there is no sense of chronological or even simply logical progression throughout the building. At best the exhibitions are uninformative, some appear as if they have never been updated since the grand opening of the museum; and at worst counterproductive to learning. The World War displays are intermixed, meshing items from the First with medals and stories from the Second. It’s a good thing the Germans were kind enough to fight against us both times otherwise there would be even more confusion. The Anglo-Saxon section is nothing but mannequins that were not being put to use, displayed in ways which are meant to show how people in the past live, but offering no explanation to what those ways were. I don’t need a reconstruction of a kitchen and a grave to know that people in the past ate food and buried their dead. To add insult to injury, a rather groundbreaking discovery relating to the Anglo-Saxons was unearthed in this region of the world. The only evidence of that in this museum? A sign saying that if you want to see those items, you have to go to London. The Egypt and Roman sections—naturally two subjects related to this rural English land—have the same lack of description with their mannequins. The Egypt section has a bust of an Egyptian burial mask, by the side of which there is a headset that apparently you can put to your ear to listen to a story of this bust’s life and death. Naturally, the headset is broken. Yet even worse, is that in the Roman section one of the mannequins is of a rather angry red-haired woman, standing with teeth clenched, as if in the early stages of some war cry. Newcomers to the museum might simply take this as a rather angry Roman housewife, one angry at her husband who seems far more interested in his mannequin goat. Those who have visited the museum over a longer period will know that the mannequin is actually of Boudica, queen of the Iceni and enemy of Rome. Paulinus is no doubt laughing in his grave at this added humiliation to that proud woman. There is a taxidermy room of birds, so shrouded in darkness that the museum must assume that all the residents of the town suffer from ornithophobia. It is said that this room is dedicated to animals who are—or were at previous periods in history—local to the area. I must say I have never known pangolins, sea lions, or giraffes patrolling the high streets. 

But all of this is only if you can see the displays to begin with. The halls are so dimly lit that it’s hard to get a firm grasp of exactly at what you are looking. A museum is a very visual experience, to lack visibility is a fundamental issue. Along the way, someone working within that museum has confused ‘low light is necessary to preserve the condition of the artefacts on display’ for ‘treat the museum as if it were a dark room for photographs’. Of course, you cannot ask staff to assist you with your viewing because they are never around. There is a very high chance that you could spend an entire day circling the same exhibit and never see a member of staff. The only one who is ever there is the one in the gift shop, and they are instructed at the threat of death and dismemberment to never answer a question that is not related to the supply of plush toys. When you do happen to pass one, daring to interrupt their day by asking them about the display earns you a look as if you have just punched your hand through the display case and ground up the bones into a fine sand. I made the mistake of asking about an item in the display case once. The exchange went like this:

‘Do you know if there is a transcript of this anywhere?’

‘I wouldn’t; no. I can’t read Latin so it would have to be sent away first.’

‘The sign right there says it was transcribed, so it seems someone has already done it..’

‘Yes, I suppose someone must have.’

‘Would you know if there is a copy of this somewhere else? I can read Latin so either a copy of this or the English transcription would be appreciated.’

‘I suppose there is, but I wouldn’t know where to look.’

‘Do you know of anybody here who would know?’

‘No.’ And then he walked off.

Lovatt and an unnamed museum worker, 2017.

In my youth I would have assumed that a requirement for working in a museum would be some knowledge of some sort of history, interpreting history, and exhibiting that interpretation to the public. But evidently I was wrong.

It’s a shame, really. I like my town. I like the history of my town. I wish the people and the premise dedicate to sharing that history did, too. 

The Cap on Tuition Fees in the United Kingdom

Taking a short break from its quest to be the most incompetent administration in the country’s history, the current government of the United Kingdom has today published the Augar Review, the long-awaited report on the state of tuition fees. In it, Augar suggests the cost of university tuition to be cut from its current cost of c.£9,000 a year to £7,500, due to many courses not providing ‘value for money’. To cover the costs of the potential reduction in fees, the cancellation of student debt would be raised from its current state of thirty years to forty years; the wage threshold at which loan repayments would start to be repaid would also be reduced from £25,725 to £23,000.

Theresa May, who has already cemented herself in the history books as the most incompetent Prime Minister, has welcomed the report — but has carried on as she always has: burying her head in the sand and saying that the decision on whether or not to follow the review is for somebody else. As yet there is no response from Labour on the review but given its pre-election promise to not only scrap tuition fees but also cancel all existing student debt (for those who cannot remember that far back, it was the promise that they made a few short days before the people went to the polls, admitted that they hadn’t costed how they were going to finance it, and then once the polls had shut announced they were very unlikely to have ever followed through on the promise), one can assume they are not particularly happy about the findings.

Following the Dearing Report, published in 1997, which paved the way for tuition fees, and the Browne Review of 2010 which called for the increasing of fees, the Augar Review, if heeded, marks a potential new turn in the cost of higher education on this fair isle. Those previous reports have, as no doubt this one will too, raised question after question about the socio-economic impact upon students from a poorer background and the value for money of courses provided by universities. And they are questions that have never been satisfactorily answered, which of course is the intended result of any policy: just umm and ahh your way through five years of government, make a pledge and then umm and ahh again if the public is foolish to vote you in a second time.

When it comes to the rhetoric, debate and whining that has come from all sides since the introduction of fees, the thousands upon thousands of words and syllables and sentences, arguments and counterarguments, points and counterpoints can be amalgamated into two thoughts. The first is that eduction is the best means of removing inequality in society thus the social consequences of any change in policy should be the primary concern. The second is that education is a commodity to be bought and sold in a (preferably free) market thus the ‘producers’ (the universities) and the ‘consumers’ (the students) should be free to negotiate amongst themselves over the cost of that education.

For those who argue the first point, the main concern appears to be that by removing the cap on fees (or, indeed, having them in the first instance) it impacts upon the accessibility to education for the poorest members of society. The impact is made worse if in addition to costs going up, subsidies, as in the case of the maintenance grant, are abolished. However, if that were the case then it would stand to reason that the number of applicants from these poorer backgrounds would decrease in the aftermath of fees rising. Yet the statistics not only counter that claim, they show the opposite happening: there is an upward trend of students from ‘less privileged’ backgrounds applying to university. ‘But the overall figures for applications are falling,’ a potential figure from the ether might call out. Well, that is wrong, too. First-time applications remain constant—it is those reapplying to university that are falling. Simply put, fees do not serve as a disincentive to applying no matter one’s social background.

Regardless it is impossible in reality to focus solely on the social aspects for grounds to pursue or reject policy. It is further impossible when the funding of higher education goes beyond the funding of the tuition itself with loans for living expenses also on offer. In order for the government to offer that financial aid then the government must have some means of raising revenue—and that means of raising revenue is diminished with the imposing of a cap on the maximum fee. Now, perhaps there are some who would argue that viewing those in higher education as cash-cows ready for milking a repugnant idea. But the reality is that the United Kingdom government is already doing this to the International Students who in their thousands every year enter the system. In their evaluation of higher education policies around the world the OECD reports that the UK is one of several nations that has taken the ‘revenue-generating’ approach to education, placing a greater emphasis on attracting foreign students who are not subject to the tuition fee cap than its domestic students. Figures for the 2017/2018 academic year report that of the two-point-three million students in UK higher education, some half a million came from outside the UK.

Why, then, if fees do not serve as a disincentive to domestic students and the government attempts to circumvent the cap in any case by appealing to international students, does the cap exist? With this question we can lead onto the second statement, that education is a commodity and the individual institution and individual student are, at the base of it, two people engaging in a transaction.

It is not—at least it should not be—a controversial statement to say that education is not homogenous. Yes, some students are more intelligent than others. Yes, some universities are better than others. Yes, some professors are more knowledgeable than others. In such cases, those demonstrably better universities and professors and students should be able to reap the benefits that come with those better skillsets. Yet the state treats its approach to education and funding as if it were. Bad universities are able to charge just the same as the good universities and yet suffer no consequences of providing subpar content. It is of course worth noting that the Browne Review attempted to argue that this would not be the case, and that only the ‘good’ universities would increase their fees, a point repeatedly stated by the government as they voted through the policy to raise the cap on fees.

Unfortunately for the students, the standards of the universities to which they are applying is only revealed once their decision has been confirmed and their students have begun. In an open market, one can—with some natural discrepancies—judge the quality of something by its cost. A prime cut of steak costs more than a McDonald’s meal for a reason. But in the world of education, the uniform costs mask the content. Beyond the ancient universities in the land, it is hard to gauge where one university excels and another fails. Ranking tables are often arbitrary and a university’s rank can wildly differ depending on which table one references.

With all that said, the Augar Review has reached the wrong conclusion. Fees should not be reduced because of a lack of value for money—most students have not been getting that regardless. Instead, the cap should be removed completely; it is what the government really wants though it is scared to admit it. But May is off soon, and in time the current Tory government will no doubt follow her. Remove the cap, let Oxford and Cambridge and St Andrews and all the others charge six figures a year for their tuition. The reality is they are probably worth it.

Soup, Soup, the Magical Doup

If nothing else, I am a man of habit. Changes in my routine only come about when I am at wits end and must change something or risk becoming homeless. Even then I will resists until the bailiffs are drilling out the locks on my door. As such, my routine has been consistent for most of the past two years. Of course, that routine amounts to little more than waking up at around seven or eight in the morning under the self-deluding guise of doing something productive with my day, only to do nothing more than bemoan my inability to do anything other than moan. Some would tell me to change, but to them I say: no.

In the short lulls between the moaning ending and the existential dread beginning I allow myself some lunch, to refuel myself for the angst that is to fill my afternoon and, indeed, most of the evening, too. Being the man of habit  that I am, I keep to the same meal for almost all of my lunches. Dinner is a different matter, however; dinner is the food time for creativity: bread and chips, burger and chips, chicken and chips, chicken and pasta, tuna and pasta, pasta and sauce–anything goes!

But for lunch, there is only one thing I will eat: soup. Not just any soup mind; only tomato soup. Offer me chicken and I will politely decline. Offer me oxtail and I will pull a face and say no. Offer me minestrone and I will punch you in the throat. It has to be tomato soup. Sometimes if I am feeling particularly crazy I might add a slice or two of bread for dunking. I may even stretch to toast from time to time, though I do prefer the softer dunking of a bread, particularly if it’s a thicker slice that can absorb more liquid but still keep its integrity. And sometimes, when all sense of decorum has gone out of the window, I might even buy a small salt-and-pepper baguette, like the ones found in Asda and have that with my soup. I don’t often go for the salt-and-pepper baguette though, not least because it’s a rather greasy thing and I hate having grease on my fingers. I do not believe that I am in any way acting dramatic when I say that the psychologiclal pain inflicted on me by having greasy tips is far worse than the physical pain of childbirth.

All of this is to say nothing more than I quite like tomato soup. If it were up to me (and quite frankly it should be), then tomato soup would be the only option in the supermarkets, the markets, the corner stores, and that guy who sometimes comes up to my house asking if I’d like to make an order for the food van coming around. “Is a man not entitled to choose chicken soup?” asks the man in the link. “No,” I say. “There is much too much chicken soup on the shelves, all of them terrible and bland and in the weird state of simultaneously being too watery and too thick.”

And while I’m at it, ban tomato with basil too. I have lost count of the times I have unwittingly picked up a can thinking it plain tomato to only realise my mistake much later when an ungodly taste is attacking my buds. The only Basil I want is the one in the Towers.

Heinz Tomato Soup did not sponsor this blog. But I really wish it had.

Banana Bread: A Panegyric

Of all the foods in the world that I have eaten, it is fair to say that I prefer banana bread the most.

I think that is also safe to say that when it comes to banana bread, I am quite the fan. It is a love affair that began when I was eight or nine, the first time I ever had some of that sweet banana-ery loaf. It was made by my grandmother, this particular loaf, during the free time before her hopping from one cult to another. She had some bananas going spare, she said, and her spiritual leader at that time had recently outlawed the consumption of bananas in the fear that Be’nanner the Accursed would return to the world via increasing levels of potassium. As a result, she baked them all into a bread and foisted them off on me and my family. I must say that now looking back on this it seems rather unethical of her to risk her grandchildren’s souls. But I didn’t think of that at the time; instead, I did what I was told I had to do: thank her for the gift, then close the door as quickly as I could before she begin her recruitment pitch.

Back then I was just a stupid boy, unawares of the knowledge that bread came in any other flavour than bread flavour–white bread flavour at that. The idea of a banana bread confused and appalled me–but I was hungry so I cut off a slice and took a bite. And what a bite it was. I do not possess the lexiconical capacity to provide verisimilitude with explicit elucidity the sensation expressing itself within the confines of my orifice, but it tasted nice.

I was hooked like an addict from that moment on. Now all I do is make banana bread, regularly upping the dosage of banana that is to be added to the mix. Sometimes I add other spices and flavours: I swap out normal butter for almond butter, add in some cinammon, sprinkle in some other spice, change milk to butter milk, and so on. It is a veritable speedball of flavours. I half-imagine my death will be me found in some cheap hotel room surrounded by flour and salted butter. In a way, I welcome it.

The scent of cinnamon floats through my house. It is not because I have those weird scented candles but because I currently have a banana bread in the oven. It has peanut butter chips in it too, a hint of vanilla and honey, and baked and glazed banana, an experiment I am trying for the first time to try to enhance the natural flavours of the banana. When it is cooled I will eat it and enjoy it with perhaps a cup of tea or a hot chocolate.

I’m beginning to understand why I’m so fat.