Friday 21 January 2011

Cryptic Friday #2

Last week I set the question:

A noisy thief? 7 letters.

To confirm, the answer was... Rustler.

This week the question gets a bit more cryptic:

Will he end the thaw for the mixed up lout? 6 letters

Wednesday 19 January 2011

It makes me laugh - In praise of The Preston Front

I've just finished re-watching the 1990s BBC tv series The Preston Front. This is the first time I've watched all three series in one go and this near-perfect drama / comedy impressed me even more than when I saw it originally.

I find it hard to understand why the series has been largely overlooked. The BBC have never repeated it, most of the actors haven't appeared in much since (although I did see Diesel dressed as an orange in a tv advert), and even IMDB can’t be bothered to list the cast list correctly. Despite this, I can’t think of many shows I've enjoyed more, as it harks back to those dim and distant days when tv series weren't filmed in shaky vision, and the price of petrol in Diesel's garage was 55p a litre.

The premise, or at least the premise on which the series was sold, was that it's about a group of people in the Territorial Army (part-time, volunteer soldiers), and explores how they cope with having different levels of responsibility in their two very different careers. In reality it was a look at life in a small town, featuring normal people who grew up in the small town, are destined to spend their whole lives there, and who will never achieve anything because they're quite happy with their lot. Unlike most BBC productions that have used the small town premise, the series isn't twee and neither does it portray everyone as country bumpkins from up north. Instead, the characters are believable and the comedy always develops naturally from their behaviour.

The cast work as an ensemble with several main characters and about twenty other memorable recurring roles with each episode usually centring on one of the main cast. The first central figures are best mates Eric and Hodge. I reckon it's likely that when writing the early episodes Eric Disley was meant to be the central character, but quickly it was realized that having a passive, moody, no-hoper as a hero wouldn't work, which is sad as Eric is an interesting character. He has no job or ambitions through a stated reason of having to help look after his ailing father, but his responsibilities come over as an excuse for why he's always failed to grasp opportunities. All his enjoyment in life comes second-hand from the exploits of his popular mate Hodge, who works at the local garden centre. Eric keeps him company in the rare interludes when he doesn’t have a girlfriend, an achievement that seems as if it'll always be beyond him.

Then there's schoolteacher Spock, so named because he's less stupid than everyone else, who tries to champion being called Kirk. But he's not one of life's Kirks, so it doesn’t take. The improbably large 'walking eclipse' Lloydy, whose catchphrase is 'it makes me laugh' and who has a secret job before he invents the board game Gurkha Tank Battle, can always be relied upon to counteract Spock's cleverness by being stupid. While my favourite character (not sure why) Polson is a short, put-open, aggressive failure both at the army and at life. Then there's Spock's sister who is stuck in a bad marriage while pining after Polson's boss while Polson's boss pines for her and her best friend pines after Eric who is oblivious to... Or as the title music (the superb Here I Stand by the Milltown Brothers) says, round and round and round we go and around again once more, never stopping to think just who we are.

For 19 episodes the series details their interacting lives with stunningly good writing, although I was amused to see that the dvd extra acknowledges that the opening scene of episode one features a terrible bit of tv writing. It's usual for the first episode of a series to hit the ground running and in the opening ten minutes set up the scene, the characters, the situation and provide a hook that'll keep you watching. Unfortunately the writer Tim Firth hadn’t written for tv before and he didn't appreciate this requirement. So the opening scene involves the army on a silent and unspecified manoeuvre in an unknown location, in the middle of the night in pitch darkness, with everyone in camouflaged clothing and blacked-up faces. After ten minutes it's anyone's guess what’s happening!

Happily the series quickly settles down and demonstrates some of the best foreshadowing and plot developing I've ever seen. A minor character, for instance, might repeatedly state for no apparent reason that 'they just never read the sign' until later in the episode at a key moment someone gets wheel-clamped and you realize which sign wasn't getting read. Or there'll be a kid who only says 'na-na na-na' until you find out later that he sets fire to things because he likes to hear the fire engines go 'na-na na-na'. Except he didn't because the teacher who ran out of the school to shred a book of poetry set off the fire alarms as she was having an affair with… oh the stories always eventually fit together in clever ways without you even realizing it. Even a key plot point shown in the opening title credits of the opening episode doesn’t get explained until the final episode.

Also, the series is a perfect example of how to make every single character memorable, even if they get only one line, such as the restaurant owner who's the second most famous Black Scouse Chinese Marvin Gaye impersonator... in Ormskirk. Or the bloke whose only line every week is to turn up at an inopportune time and ask 'is this a bad time to discuss grass seed?'. Or Freddie 'Parrot-face' Davies (once a familiar face on tv) who offers deadpan comments such as 'what colour were his eyes?' after being asked if he's seen a suicidal, drunk German dressed only in a black bag with a bin strapped to his back running down the street.

The German episode is probably the best one and it always leads to me saying 'Opposite the hotel' (the German is told that this is a common British phrase) for days afterwards. And the best scene perhaps comes in the final episode where Polson, after drinking several pints of wine at a dire wedding reception, climbs on the table and launches into a stirring speech about how Eric may be the most useless, worthless, stupid, inane and pointless piece of pond life that has ever crawled out from under a rock, but he's a soldier and he's been trained to die for his friends and that means he's a better man than every person who has ever sneered at him. But in truth there's not a bad episode or scene in a series that could have run for years, except it ended all too quickly and so ultimately, what was filmed was perfect.

Friday 14 January 2011

Cryptic Friday #1

I have a daily ritual of attempting the cryptic crossword in a Scottish newspaper. One of things I like is that the compiler must be a western fan because occasionally the clue or answer incorporates a western element. An example would be 'Hot trademark?' 5 letters, with the answer being... Brand.

So, for a bit of fun, I've been noting down the western cryptic crossword clues recently and for the next few weeks I'll post a question. If anyone wants to provide an answer, please do so in the comments, but if nobody gets it, I'll reveal the answer next Friday along with a new clue.

So, to repeat, the answer is either a word familiar to western fans or incorporates a western element, and I'll start you off with an easy one:

A noisy thief? 7 letters.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Sharpshooter McClure - Linford Western

My complimentary copies of the large print version of Sharpshooter McClure finally battled their way through the snow, ice, cold, blizzards and all those bank holidays to land on my doormat, and I'm delighted to see it.

Usually the only thing I need from a cover to make me happy is that the cover image depicts a scene that could have happened somewhere in the story. In this case the picture is of a bloke with a gun along with someone who has been shot up and, yeah, even though I can't remember much about this story now, I'm fairly sure that it does feature a bloke with a gun and someone getting shot up. So I've got no cause for complaint.

What really pleased me though was that the image of Mike McClure is of a fresh-faced young man, and the fact that he's fresh-faced is vital to the plot... Anyhow, here's the shortened blurb for this Linford Western that will be available in all good libraries at the end of January for anyone whose eyesight is even worse than mine:

US Marshal Jesse Cole sends deputy sheriff Mike McClure to infiltrate the hired guns harassing the homesteaders of Harmony. But a night of bloody carnage ends in failure with the marshal dead. Mike escapes but, trailed by the gunslingers, Mike assumes a new identity, working with Brandon Webb's Wild West Show. However, memories of that terrible night ensure his return to Harmony. He'll need all his gun skills to bring the guilty parties to justice.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust...

...if Xavier doesn't take any wickets, then Hilfenhaus certainly won't.

Last month I made some considered and well-thought out predictions on the likely result of the Ashes test match series based on a lifetime following the game and my embarrassingly vast knowledge of cricket statistics. I was so utterly wrong I don’t know why I bothered, other than to prove once again why I actually like the game. Few sports can match test cricket for its ability to make fools out of armchair pundits.

I predicted Cook would fail miserably again as he doesn't deserve the title of FEC (Future England Captain) that he had foisted on him from the moment it was discovered he could speak properly and he was called Alastair (always a good cricketing name). Accordingly, Cook set a new record by batting for longer in a series than any cricketer in history at around a day and a half. This is even longer than Boycott batted in 1970-71 and slightly longer than all the Australian batsmen put together.

I predicted that Anderson would fail in the unhelpful conditions down under. Accordingly, Anderson took the most wickets in the helpful conditions down under.

I reckoned Pietersen would be a prima donna again. He hit his first double hundred. And I didn't expect anything from Bell, and he was sublime.

On the other hand I thought our only possibility of winning would come from Swann bowling everyone out, but he had his worst ever series. And I thought Collingwood might save us from ignominy with his robust batting, except he was so bad he wouldn’t get in the Australian team and he's now faced with the decision of whether to retire or to wait for the selectors to retire him.

Ah well! But anyhow, a big well done to the players for keeping the Ashes in England until 2013. I might do the sprinkler dance later (don’t ask) to celebrate, or then again I might settle for getting some sleep.