Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Trip

After one episode of the BBC's new series 'The Trip' starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon I can safely say I enjoyed it.

Others weren't so keen; Sam Wollaston in The Guardian describing it as 'wanky' and 'self-indulgent'. I find that tagging something as 'self-indulgent' is difficult to justify; all projects have to begin with at least an element of self-belief to get off the ground, and the opening episode here showed more than enough quality and potential to rise beyond mere indulgence.

It is certainly a slow-burning show, and the comparisons to Curb Your Enthusiasm have done it no favours. It is not the same ratio of comedy to drama; Curb makes use of slapstick and absurd humour alongside the subtleties of Larry David's exaggerated sociopathic tendencies.

The Trip relies more on reading into Coogan and Brydon's interactions and an appreciation of the dialogue between the pair. They revealed in last week's Review show that the filming of several scenes, which are largely improvised, had to be abandoned when they became too personal. Coogan noted with a hint of disapproval that director Michael Winterbottom's editing of the show had removed several of the funnier parts to create something that was more 'prosaic'.

It struck me that because of the slower pace to the episodes, reviewing it at this early a stage is almost an impossible task. But there were moments of great humour here too; the impressions face-off with Coogan's anger channeled through his best Michael Caine, and the camp eyebrow raising that followed Brydon's example of how to taste wine amongst the highlights.

Most importantly it was never formulaic or predictable, which can be fairly leveled at too many modern comedies. I eagerly await the next episode.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


It's difficult to know what to make of the BBC's new comedy 'Whites'. On one level it's a very formulaic comedy show that's utterly predictable, but it somehow just about captures your interest until the inevitable conclusion.

This is partly down to the show's underlying potential. If it were less about the clunky plots and more about the characters the show would doubtless be far stronger. Davies' character Roland White, is played subtly and has intriguing mood swings and energy changes across each episode, whilst nervous sous-chef Bib, played by Darren Boyd, is similarly watchable.

There are hints that if this show had been made less for a mainstream evening slot, it could have been darker, edgier and a cult classic.

It is co-written by Matt King, otherwise known as Peep Show's Superhans, who appears in the kitchens as dodgy meat-supplier Melvin. King has the best lines in the show ('I hit a horse on the A4. Big, beautiful bastard he was, too.') and if the plots were more dialogue-driven than the use of slapstick body-language acting, it would be quality television.

It's worth sticking with Whites to see if this early potential is developed on and realised, or whether it remains slightly too simplistic to be memorable.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Reviewing the new Nike Pro Combat range

Nike has launched its second year of their 'Pro Combat' line of uniforms for various college football teams to the similar vague disinterest that their 2009 set mustered.

For those unaware, college teams in American football have for the most part retained very minimalist and classy looking uniforms for long periods of their existence, such as the blue on white of Penn State, and the crimson of Alabama.

In an effort to sweep all of that aside and line their pockets in the process, Nike last year introduced a set of uniforms for ten teams it provides equipment for to use in their rivalry games, traditionally the last week of the season.

The results were mixed, with Ohio State's white on grey throwbacks looking relatively stylish, Missouri's black on carbon looking like something out of Transformers, and others offering so little difference as to appear just plain unnecessary.

Clearly not content with producing fairly inoffensive first designs, Nike went back to the drawing board for this year intent on making jerseys that would be unavoidably garish and in your face, and the resulting sets are pretty vomit-inducing. Virginia Tech's burgundy stripes on black helmet is particularly sickly, but take your pick from Miami's orange pyjamas, Pitt's Dark Knight inspired robotic look and Boise's metallic grey.

There is something strangely appealing about the shamelessly bombastic marketing however. Wander around the Nike website and you are bombarded with images of players exploding out of fires, emerging from swamps to roar next to alligators, and taming wild Broncos. Accompanied by hyperbolic audio tracks that attempt to claim that Pitt's uniform is inspired by the tough guys from the steel city, the effect is laughably entertaining.

There is an element of frustration with Nike's constant website reminders that the uniforms remain true to the spirit of whichever city or area they represent, when in reality a designer in the office has been let loose to run riot with Photoshop and indulge whichever fantasy their mood provoked that day.

Graphically the production is spectacular, and if the designs remained mere concepts they would probably be perfectly palatable, but in the glare of a real game, they just look slightly out of place, like a child's crayon drawing that somehow found its way through the development process.

Maybe more importantly, at the Uniwatch website, ESPN writer Paul Lukas took issue with the use of comparisons between football and real military combat, arguing convincingly that such casual references for merchandising purposes are more than a bit tasteless.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Comedy podcasts

In addition to the recommendation of the Russell Brand Show as listening material a few weeks ago, here are several other shows worth catching up with:

Peacock & Gamble podcast

This developed in the aftermath of the Ray Peacock podcast, in which the eponymous Peacock and fellow comedian Ed Gamble mocked former Eastenders actor Raji James in what was half classic comic stooge conceit and half sincere frustration.

What made the original show so rewarding were these moments that the loose setup was lost and we saw behind the curtain, hearing stories of incidents involving the three and occasionally leading to what felt like genuine disagreements.

The show eventually began to feel as if it had run its course, and its fate was sealed when some listeners began to stray beyond the comic 'bullying' in the podcast to simply abusing James through other virtual channels.

It still remains worth listening to though, and the collection can be found here:

The Peacock & Gamble podcast that launched in 2009 loses James and has a distinctly different feel, with more reliance on both riffing on each other's material and taking turns to play the straight man and the foil. It is very funny, with an interesting mix of the puerile, wacky, intelligent and knowing humour, and seems to be getting stronger with every episode. Download if just to hear Ed Gamble's explosive laugh:

Collings & Herrin

This podcast, originally intended to be a comic breakdown of the week's newspapers, was a slow-burner that began to pick up momentum as the two writers/comedians Andrew Collins and Richard Herring found their feet.

Collins initially played the straight character with Herring providing more of the comedy material through his increasingly outrageous suggestions and reactions. In more recent podcasts we have seen Collins develop his own style of comedy, and this has contributed to and culminated with his recent Edinburgh fringe stand-up show.

At the same festival, the podcast produced ten live shows which should be listened to solely for Herring's daily heckling of select members of the audience in increasingly imaginatively abusive ways, later put down as the work of his comic alter ego 'Herrin'.

It's a podcast that is perhaps not as immediately accessible as the Peacock & Gamble material, but rewards the listener for sticking with it through multiple episodes with moments that will suddenly have you laughing out loud.

In addition, the duo have a 6 Music radio show which has a distinctly different feel, as Herring is suddenly reigned in by broadcasting regulations, a comic tension that he relishes pushing to the limits of its acceptable boundaries.

Gervais, Merchant, Pilkington XFM
All of their more recent work is well-known, but the real joys can be found in the entire back-collection of four series-worth of radio material they presented back in the early 2000s. All of the stories later rehashed on the podcasts made their first outings here in what Gervais frequently refers to as 'the most shoddy radio show' every produced.

The live factor leaves no doubt as to Karl's real character, occasionally knife-edged studio tension and anger, as well as moments of hilarity.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Travel hangover

There's something deeply unsatisfying about when traveling comes to a jarring end. Arriving back into a Yorkshire town after wandering around in the sweltering heat of New York in what felt like the same hyper-extended day is hard to both comprehend and accept.

It's not just the cultural differences between America and England, but the perceptions of people's ambitions having radically altered once you arrive back in your depressingly familiar home-town.

And it doesn't hit you until you reach that station, until you are finally stationary for the first time in what feels like the length of the entire trip. It hits you again when you wander out into the street and see the same places you've seen for too long already in your life, and once more when you wake up the following morning and don't have to make plans, don't have to fire yourself across into some distant part of an unexplored city simply for the sake of it, just because that's what you should do.

It hurts more when people you are now surrounded by, rightly or wrongly, have the look of those happy to be settled into the 9-5 routine, to trudge around the streets staring at their own feet, snarling at others and waiting until an hour early enough for it to be acceptable to start drinking.

To not be walking across New York today, standing swaying on the Subway or sitting in the shade to get away from the oppressive heat just feels mad. And horrible. Pass me a beer.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Remembering the Russell Brand radio show

It's rare that I get misty-eyed for a lost show, but it's with genuine sadness that I once again come to the end of re-listening to the back catalogue of the Russell Brand radio shows that ended so infamously in 2008.

What was lost in the aftermath of finger-pointing and false indignance was that we had sacrificed one of our best comedy shows on the radio, and one that has yet to be replaced.

The show that began on BBC Radio 6 Music in 2006 initially featured Brand alongside long-term writing and production partner Matt Morgan and fellow comedian Trevor Locke. By the following year, the show made a successful transition to Radio 2, and despite losing Locke to other projects, seemed to become ever more popular, hysterical and involving.

Brand's occasionally hyperactive narration of his life in the spotlight were perfectly counter-balanced with Morgan's down-to-earth and mock-scathing critiques of his friend's behaviour. Add in regular guests such as Noel Gallagher, unusual features 'Nanecdotes'-(where readers texted in odd and unintentionally offensive things their grandmother's had said) and the show's own talented poet who summarised each episode, and you had a fantastic and unique product.

Most importantly, the show essentially centered around the friendship of Russell and Matt, their differences, shared history, anecdotes and ability to make each other laugh, which added an element of intimacy beyond a typical scripted comedy show and made it that much more immersive.

And it was also very funny. A fundamental part of the show's appeal was that it felt as if it was constantly teetering on the edge of the comedic cliff; jokes and innuendo were frequently pushed to their absolute limits and it often seemed miraculous that it was reigned-in successfully.

Ultimately this proved to be its downfall. During Morgan's unexplained absence in the autumn of 2008, a run of shows culminated in the fateful Brand and Ross phone call to Andrew Sachs that the tabloid press would later gleefully set upon and bring about the end.

In retrospect it's hard to believe that the phone call to Sachs would have been repeated had Morgan been present as a check on Russell, but as Brand himself would go on to say when looking back on the show, it couldn't have ended any other way other than in a blaze of self-destructive glory.

It is still hard remembering that there won't be weekly updates from the pair, but at least they have left us with an archive of great comedy shows with which to look back on with real enjoyment.

The Russell Brand radio show collection can be found here:

Monday, 12 July 2010

World Cup review

The World Cup final came perilously close to delivering the ultimate sucker punch in the face of entertainment. After a tournament dominated by player cynicism, the Dutch produced a display that was both so unpleasant and negative that they were the true representatives of how South Africa 2010 should be remembered.

It has been a disappointing tournament no matter what the television coverage, frequently bordering on patronising African supporters, may have told us. It will be remembered not for great moments of emotion or skill, but for misplaced passes, hopelessly over-hit shots and badly controlled balls.

The new football, the Jabulani, will have played its part in this, despite commentators veering from raging against it in week one, to arguing that it wasn't having any impact in week two. The reality was not so much that the ball swerved wildly in the air, but that it arrived on goal with far too much pace for goalkeepers to have the time to react. Reassess the goalkeeping blunders across the World Cup, of which there were many, and you will see time and again shot-stoppers being unable to react in time when caught out by the speed of the ball.

Some analysts have argued that 2010 has been a great tournament despite the lack of goals simply because of the parity of the teams. In reality though, all this has meant is that sides have been cancelling each other out with ease, sticking to rigid conservative game plans and displaying little attacking intent.

We thought this malaise to be restricted to the opening week of games, but the lethargy and apparent apathy towards actively attempting to win games was evident throughout. There has been perhaps only one great game-Slovakia against Italy, and for every one of those, there have been plenty of Japan-Paraguay clashes.

The positive to come from the tournament is that the most technically-gifted sides ultimately came out on top. England looked completely outclassed and frequently incompetent against sides that many here had arrogantly predicted they would brush aside. Instead the real moments of joy came from watching Germany's attacking pace and accuracy, and Spain's (less frequent than usual) pass-and-move football.

Despite this, there are an astonishing number of supposedly world-class footballers that are completely one-footed. As a direct result we have seen less goals where strikers, even including David Villa, have been unwilling to take a chance on using their weaker leg. Arjen Robben of Holland is so easy to defend against because defenders know he is always wanting to cut inside and use his left foot. Against Germany in the quarter-finals, the Argentinian Angel di Maria was hilariously reliant on his left boot, twisting in ever decreasing circles in a desperate attempt to get to use it.

The entertainment provided by the final largely resulted from guessing how long both Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong would stay on the field. Somehow both avoided red cards, de Jong after a horrific chest stamp on Xabi Alonso, and van Bommel after a series of deliberate trips, diving challenges and a constant barrage of chatter aimed at Howard Webb.

Webb was not nearly strong enough with players from both sides, and by failing to show more cards or dismiss players earlier in the game, allowed the cynicism to go on unchecked. Some pundits have credited the referee with keeping more players on the field for the length of the game, but this isn't the referee's responsibility, and not appropriate given the level of the Dutch kicking tactics.

The one certainty that should emerge from the competition is the need for video technology. This shouldn't be solely limited to judging when the ball has crossed the goal-line, but to dish out immediate punishment for reckless challenges that may otherwise go unseen. The referee can only follow the ball, the linesmen may be some distance from the action and when an increasing number of incidents are off the ball scuffles, kicks and elbows, there needs to be a system to eradicate such behaviour from the game.

The unwillingness of FIFA to progress the international game with the use of technology that other sports have readily embraced is increasingly frustrating.

Relief is the watch-word then, that Spain managed to signify to the world that they play the best brand of football. One could only have feared for the future of the international game had Holland triumphed.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

'Tom English: 'The level of punditry is patronising and insulting''

Excellent article by Tom English that identifies more clearly the deficiencies in our punditry:

It raises the question of why we let ex-professionals rule our football coverage instead of having those both knowledgeable in foreign football and those prepared to do the research.

World Cup opening week review

Maybe my memory deceives me, but I don't remember a World Cup having started so slowly as the 2010 edition has. The pace with which I have rushed for a television when the games get underway has slowed noticeably with each passing day, draw, misplaced pass and over-hit cross.

It has been a tournament that has already filled its quota of dull games before even a week has passed, largely down to the conservative tactics of almost all the teams involved. Whenever a side has gone 1-0 down in their opening encounter there has, on-the-whole, been no concerted effort to attempt to draw level again, instead resigning themselves to defeat.

These tactics may be understandable when an unfancied team is losing to one of the favourites, but when sides such as Cameroon are losing to Japan, a team that they must be looking to beat to progress to the second round, it makes very little sense.

Talk of the nature of the new Adidas ball has cropped up at the World Cup once more, and whilst it is tempting to dismiss it as easily as it was once the 2006 tournament was underway, the new ball does appear to be bouncing too high, skidding too fast off the surface, and too unpredictable to strike from range.

In terms of the media coverage, it has been average at best so far. This is the first World Cup that I have made the effort to stray from the mainstream broadcast coverage to follow more respected print and online pundits, and it has made the gap between the best and the worst ever more apparent.

ITV's studio coverage has been improved immeasurably by the addition of Adrian Chiles, but still suffers from sub-standard commentary pairings. Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend were at their worst during the England-USA clash; praising Heskey regardless of when he played a poor pass or missed a chance, and claiming that England were asserting themselves as the Americans were playing the technically better football in the first half.

Most infuriatingly Townsend, whilst reminding the viewers that we hate to see players appealing to the referee for cards for opponents, said Wayne Rooney (of all players) had the right to complain to the referee over the treatment he felt he was receiving.

Peter Drury, a man given to hyperbole to hijack events, made the strangest comment of the opening week following Germany's opening goal against Australia: 'The German gene kicks in again!' he wailed, determined to stick rigidly to his cliched opinion of what German football should be about, despite the team providing the most skill and flair of any of the sides we have seen thus far. Sadly the co-commentator interjected at this moment, leaving us with a tantalising view of Drury's questionable racial politics that was sadly not expanded on.

ITV is not guilty alone of quality punditry paucity however. Mick McCarthy commentating on the Argentina-Nigeria clash for the BBC stubbornly maintained in increasingly uncertain tones that a challenge by a Nigerian defender was not a penalty even as replays were being shown clearly demonstrating that the Argentinian forward had been fouled.

The strange, rotating BBC studio is now filled with ex-pros to provide analysis, and aside from Alan Hansen, there is little worth listening to. Alan Shearer adds absolutely nothing of substance in his monotone drawl, and the old boys club that develops when Gary Lineker makes endless reference to his playing days is both not fulfilling his role as the anchor, and plain irritating.

Radio 5 Live have offered perhaps the best live commentary options, but this choice has to be balanced against the likes of Alan Green offering unwelcome and uneducated opinion (criticising Ivorian Gervinho's haircut), and David Pleat's inability to pronounce other people's names.

The directors in South Africa have become slightly obsessive in showing us endless slow-motion replays after the most innocuous of incidents; diving is aggravating enough when viewed live, let alone showing it frame-by-frame. Whether the showing of these replays is to promote high definition viewing, the effect on matches is to leave the viewer gasping for breath as live action is followed by replays of the same action immediately after.

So all in all it has been a frustrating opening week ruined by conservatism and petrol station quality footballs. As the second round of games begins tonight at last, we can only hope it will get better. And fast.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

June 12th

The traditional dismissal of the US football team has already begun ahead of England's opening encounter in South Africa tonight.

What most English fans are often unwilling to accept is that whilst America has a smaller football following than some nations, those that do follow the sport are just as passionate and knowledgeable about the state of the global game. Indeed, it's the second most played sport in the country after basketball.

Every four years a significant percentage of the American population tunes in to the games, and this time around ESPN has made a concerted effort in both securing the rights and providing extensive coverage of the matches. It is rare that our brand of football graces the front page of ESPN's website, as is the case today.

I'm fully expecting tonight's meeting to be tight, and it is not unimaginable to see USA winning given their strong international appearances of late, most notably in the Confederations Cup last year.

Media coverage
Later in the week I'll be blogging on the quality of the television and radio coverage the tournament has provided thus far. Primary shock two days in; ITV has not been unwatchable.

Meanwhile, I have crumbled and joined Twitter, primarily for the purposes of the World Cup, where regular blog posts are not necessarily appropriate given the ever-changing situation. You can follow my inane ramblings here. Or not.

World Cup predictions
Posted up slightly late, but here is how I saw the tournament panning out before it began:

South Africa

South Korea






New Zealand

North Korea
Ivory Coast



Monday, 7 June 2010

World Cup Daily arrives

The first edition of the Guardian's Football Weekly team's World Cup podcast has just been released. Usual informed analysis and a good preview of what to expect from the upcoming weeks:

World Cup Daily 

When a podcast opens with lines such as: 'What kind of message would it send to the world if England won the World Cup? What kind of template is that for being the best in the world? To have a bloated, over-inflated league, have a rubbish coaching structure, don't look after your youngsters and get a foreign manager in and you too can win the World Cup', it's clear that those involved don't pull their punches.

In complete contrast I made the foolish mistake of relaxing my guard enough to try watching BBC Three's 'World Cup's most shocking moments', still available for your own misery on Iplayer. Talking head shows are generally abysmal, and despite some interesting clip choices, getting in Mathew Horne from Gavin and Stacey to comment on incidents he clearly had not seen before making the show, as if recalling fond memories, was aggravating.

Any programme that can make Peter Crouch's wooden acting one of the least problematic issues of the production deserves a kicking, and getting third party 'celebrities' to repeat cliches about German efficiency is an impressive waste of money.

The programme is mildly symptomatic of a greater malaise in the general punditry knowledge base across our media as a whole. There are great analysts out there, but they are not in the mainstream. It cannot be right that we can send people like Ian Wright and Andy Townsend to such major competitions in place of pundits such as Sid Lowe and Gabriele Marcotti.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Coalition context

While many Liberal Democrat supporters are up in arms over the new-born coalition with the Conservatives, it's perhaps worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture.

Whilst the idea of the two parties working together is still slightly unbelievable and potentially alarming to the Lib Dem grass roots support, many of whom will have voted Lib Dem in order to keep the Tories out, some context is needed.

Firstly, it's worth remembering that this is the only way, given the currently flawed electoral system that we have in place in this country, that the Liberal Democrats were going to have any form of power in the forseeable future.

Secondly, such a coalition need not mean that the Liberal Democrats bow to the Tories on every issue. Providing they stand up and make their voices heard within the coalition, the effect could instead be that they are capable of muzzling the Tories on their more aggressive policy, whilst still offering the voters aspects of their own manifesto that they campaigned on.

So whilst having Cameron as the leader may not be pleasing to Liberal Democrat voters, in many ways they now have the lesser of two evils. It's the Conservatives in power yes, but tied to a party that will still involve Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, who won't let them run roughshod, and will have the ability to force them into fairly significant concessions.

Thirdly, from a neutral's perspective, this is politically exciting. We are truly entering a new era of politics following this deal, and we will only be able to evaluate the coalition, for better or worse, in the months and years ahead.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Election night BBC TV review

Election night is usually enjoyable television; as the night rolls on and the presenters become more tired, tetchy and unpredictable, it generally has the potential to create moments of unintentionally entertaining action.

The BBC coverage has been criticised in the days following the event, in some cases rightly, but some without justification.

Those who watched would largely agree that the idea of having a party boat on the Thames was very much misguided. Not only did the BBC manage to assemble a group of 'celebrities' and commentators who were very easy to detest (not to mention Andrew Neil) that by 2am most were hoping for a stray torpedo to latch onto the craft, but it added absolutely nothing of substance to the analysis.

Why would we want to hear from Joan Collins about David Cameron making the ideal next 'President' for our country, or a candidate for the most cringe-worthy moment of television for 2010 when Bruce Forsyth, drunk on a cocktail of his own ego and senility, quietened the guests behind him and attempted to engage them in his catch-phrase.

Back in a studio that featured the world's most unnecessarily large desk, David Dimbleby increasingly looked like an elderly man shrinking into the electronic scenery. In fairness however, he did a surprisingly good job in holding the presentation together for what seemed like an eternity, disappearing at 9am for what was presumably a short nap somewhere under that desk.

It boggles the mind that the BBC can somehow still manage to have communication systems with exceptional amounts of lag, so that when Dimbleby addressed presenters outside the realms of the main studio there was often a three or four second delay between question and answer.

This isn't helped when you have Dimbleby and the trigger-happy Jeremy Paxman, who frequently interrupted the silent delays to add additional questions, further complicating the resulting exchanges. Paxman finally exploded out of his patience zone when Lembit Opik lost his seat unexpectedly, leading to the first heated trading of words of the night.

Meanwhile Jeremy Vine's graphics were rendered largely redundant. The whole purpose of utilising graphics should surely be to simplify the results coming in and make the whole process more coherent. Instead, Vine had to explain every aspect of the confusing swirling mess unfolding behind him. It was as if Vine was stuck in some strange parallel universe comprised of terrifying white voids interspersed with flying coloured panels, and a House of Commons filled with computerised twitching MPs.

Back in the studio, Emily Maitlis and Peter Kellner perhaps did the best job of assessing the voting share and swing in each seat, providing some much needed brevity and clarity.

Whilst ITV were apparently quicker in both showing results and the swing in each seat, what I saw of Channel 4's alternative election night was disappointing. It felt as though the tone of the show was misjudged, not offering the expected Mitchell and Brooker led-satire as much as cheap jokes and average comedy shows. Mitchell in particular looked uncomfortable in the environment, short stand-up material broken up by a woman in the audience with a machine-gun laugh.

It would have been more productive to have had a full Channel 4 news produced show, with occasional breaks for Brooker to offer his more visceral take on the developing events.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

When the media indulges in overkill

It was a fascinating week in British politics, because the media started to realise that they no longer had complete control over the electorate.

The papers and television tried in vain to make the public angry about the Prime Minister calling Gillian Duffy a bigot, but the reality was that we could see through their tactics.

The media's problem is that that they are too transparently hypocritical. On the one hand they ask us to be cynical about our politician's actions, and the next minute, as on Wednesday, they ask us to hold them to impossibly high standards.

So whilst the 24-hour news channels and Jeremy Paxman were frothing at the mouth over Gordon Brown's actions, the opinion polls revealed that the majority of people were largely apathetic, or could at least see the humorous side.

In this regard, programmes such as The Thick of It have helped. When we see the ministers desperately struggling to positively spin events in the face of a savage media and impressionable public, it helps humanise their plight. On Wednesday we simply couldn't help but feel some degree of empathy for the Prime Minister.

The fact that Gillian Duffy did indeed sound bigoted when talking about non-descript immigrants 'flooding in' did little to help her cause. When Newsnight went onto the streets of Rochdale (15.53 into the programme) in the aftermath, they found plenty of other people willing to spout similarly prejudicial views.

It would be nice to think that this could mark the point in election campaigns where the media stops deifying the general public, and that we can stop holding ourselves self-righteously as if we are all-knowing on all matters political.

It would also be nice to think that the media in this country might also try and reflect the real opinions of people on the street and not try to set the agenda themselves, as if operating in a vacuum.

Murdoch press
Slightly out of date piece now, but interesting none-the-less. I link it at the risk of looking as if I am covertly campaigning for the Labour party.

Gary Younge
Good article. Go and read.

Thom Yorke
And to keep things unnecessarily varied, a typically powerful song from Thom Yorke.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

El Clásico review

Barcelona were more than comfortable in victory in last night's Clásico, a game that played in an entirely different manner to a typical La Liga game.

From the moment that the Catalans took the lead, they looked unlikely to relinquish it. Real created little danger, and were unable to keep possession for any meaningful length of time.

Typically in the Spanish game, defenders give more space to the ball carrier, stick to positions rigidly, and only attempt win the ball when they are certain they can.
They wait until the attacker runs at them before engaging, and even then usually to shepherd the player away from the goal rather than leaping in with two feet.

From the attacking standpoint, this approach rewards precise passing and moving between the more static targets, perhaps best exhibited by Barcelona's midfield and attackers, who play neat one-two's and take only the minimum necessary number of touches before laying the ball off again.

This style of play encourages players to run at each other and attack players one-to-one, as long balls and hopeful passes that are hit without thought (a sad mainstay of the English game) are easily intercepted.

It also shows respect towards the attacking game. The space is there if you make use of it, and defenders will only challenge for the ball when they are certain of winning it. This combination of factors creates a game that has the easy-on-the-eye flair, whilst providing more pace and tempo than the Italian variety.

However, this all went out the window last night as soon as the whistle was blown. Players closed each other down aggressively all over the pitch, responding to the sheer pressure of the occasion and the baying of the fans.

As a result, we were inevitably treated to a less spectacular game, but not without its stars. Indeed, those players who adapted best to the rough and tumble game were mostly wearing the red and blue shirts, most notably Xavi and Messi.


Disturbing to see that we have already reached the stage where Messi is becoming deified. Every touch now seemingly requires the commentators to comment on his brilliance. After a blatant handball in the first half, Sky Sports' Terry Gibson said that the booking had been harsh, despite having just admitted that the player was using his arm to gain a deliberate advantage.

Messi of course, is not new to causing handball controversies. I wonder what our pundits would say about that goal if it had happened last night.

To summarise; it would be nice if pundits could admire players without fawning over them blindly.

Messi's goal though, gets better with every viewing.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Election overload

Whilst the media constantly asks the question of how we can engage an apathetic electorate in the run up to an election, it would be nice if they could occasionally take a look at themselves as being where the blame may lie.

On Tuesday, the day that Gordon Brown announced the date of the election that we had already known for a year, the BBC saw fit to fill the entire one o'clock news bulletin with an election preview, despite there being absolutely nothing of interest happening.

This is on day one of an exhaustive month that lies ahead. There is such as thing as election overload, and even as someone who has an avid political interest, I found it tiresome after 10 minutes.

This is the week that England may finally have fully awoken to Lionel Messi's true brilliance. Although this blog can not be accused of having been guilty of such ignorance, I find it frustrating and shameful that it has taken many of our pundits this long to appreciate his ability, as did Sid Lowe. In this age where it is so easy to access foreign football coverage with such ease, it seems strange that we have waited this long to crown him as the world's best.

After all, he ran rings around Chelsea in the same competition back in 2006. It's yet another example of Britain's short-sightedness when it comes to acknowledging foreign football. This was further in evidence last night following Manchester United's exit from the Champions League. Both Mike Ingham and Alan Green trotted out the usual lines about United having fallen to an inferior team.

However you judge their relative strengths, the facts are that Bayern won and United are out. Whether Bayern are inferior has nothing to do with it. It was another case of English pundits bristling with irritation that the Premier League had failed to produce a European Cup semi-finalist.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Richard Littlejohn

It's easy to criticise, and Richard Littlejohn gave a perfect example of this on Question Time, exhibiting the expected behaviour of the obligatory right-wing columnist (see Starkey, Mackenzie, Hitchens) on the show.

While the party representatives attempted to dissect and argue the issues, every time Littlejohn assumed that the audience were getting lost in debate going over their heads, he leapt in and targeted a populist response with the familiar 'they're all the same' and 'what the British people want' rhetoric.

At one point in the aftermath of his attack on the Liberal Democrats, Littlejohn rested his hand on Sarah Teather's in a slightly sickening manner, bringing to mind the image of a lecherous news editor drooling over his new intern. Teather, to her credit, waited the moment out, although did subsequently struggle to formulate her subsequent argument, as any human would given the same position.

The most absurd moment was when Littlejohn had to bully a questioner into silence when the plausible suggestion that he was the BNP's favourite columnist was raised.

The Guardian writer Victoria Coren was also a weak link on the show however, offering meaningless throw-away points and pathetic jokes on serious issues. This does raise the question of why we need anyone other than politicians on Question Time. Why can we not have representatives from the Greens and UKIP and debate real policy instead?

The issue is that in this country we have a big problem with failing to hold our media accountable. David Dimbleby bumbles through in the manner of a Boris Johnson without the pseudo-charm, interrupting and cutting off the politicians, but consistently fails to cross-question the newspaper journalists on the points they make. When, at the end he turned on Littlejohn over the Daily Mail's reporting of Joanna Lumley, Dimbleby for a moment realised he had the columnist on the ropes, and immediately retreated.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Lionel Messi

Superb article from Sid Lowe as per usual on the utter brilliance that is Lionel Messi in his current form. As the article makes clear, whilst pundits often go overboard in their praise of players, Messi's skill, pace and awareness are something truly amazing to behold. If you can, get hold of a copy of Barcelona's game at home to Valencia last weekend, and away to Zaragoza's yesterday to witness it for yourself.

Despite the fact that his best play has been almost exclusively with Barcelona and not Argentina, football fans should be praying that Messi makes it to the World Cup this summer without injury.

Channel 4 election coverage

On the political front, another interesting article from today's Independent about Channel 4's plans for general election coverage this year, the only one of the main British news broadcasters (and arguably the best) not to be hosting one of the debates.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Forget the French resurgence, it's the Italians who will strengthen

The later stages of both European competitions inevitably produce the annual question of the relative strengths of the domestic leagues.

This last week has seen the surprise progress of CSKA Moscow after an away win in Sevilla in the Champions League, and Bordeaux join them in the quarter-finals, marking the first time that two French sides have reached the stage since the 2003-2004 campaign.

The Moscow result should perhaps be the most eye-catching, largely because it came away from home to a team from one of Europe's strongest leagues. CSKA's progress also comes in a year where Russian football is looking fragile, but should not come as a shock given the European successes of CSKA and Zenit since 2005 and the subsequent large-scale export of players, notably to the Premier League.

But the football world has instead reacted to Laurent Blanc's claims that his side's progress to the quarter-finals is indicative of a rise in the quality of the French league: "It could well mean that French football has bridged some of the gap behind the big countries like Spain, England and even Italy."

The problem comes when we attempt to utilise results in the European Cup as a barometer for the standard of a domestic league. The French teams that made the quarter-finals in 2004 did not go on to precede a period of Ligue 1 dominance across the continent. Indeed one of those sides, Monaco, have fallen away dramatically since.

Whilst the French media may be trumpeting the progress of Lyon and Bordeaux, the latter have not only been postponing domestic fixtures to increase preparation time, but beat Olympiacos in an unconvincing manner and are arguably the weakest remaining side. Lyon, meanwhile, are a side that has seen a huge financial backing from club president Jean-Michel Aulas and whose ambition has always been success on the European stage.

Ligue 1 however, is far from being a top domestic league in Europe. The current standard of play is below that of its neighbours, yet as Howard Johnson notes in the April edition of World Soccer, wages remain unfathomably high, leading to increases in fan disgruntlement, tensions and the threat of hooliganism.

UEFA is eager to promote the idea that the talent field in Europe is levelling out, which fits with the egalitarian approach adopted by Michel Platini since he came to Presidency; most notably reorganising the qualifying rounds for the European Cup and expanding the European Championships from 2016. On paper it appears to be working; teams representing six different nations have reached the final eight of the European Cup for the first time since 1999.

But the reality is that the Spanish and English leagues remain the 'big two' in terms of talent and revenues. Spain has it's own 'big two' issues to contend with, but the sheer scale and influence of both Real Madrid and Barcelona on Spanish culture and media rarely reduce the spectacle to being merely a two-horse dash for the title.

The Spanish league is home to more raw technical talent, players capable of playing a fast-flowing, one-touch game that can lead to extraordinary passages of beautiful football. The spread of competition is the Premier League's forté, where any fixture can produce any result. The Bundesliga is home to Europe's highest goals-per-game average and its best supporters, where standing areas are legalised and tickets affordably priced.

The Italian game is perhaps the most intriguing to watch over the upcoming seasons. Whilst the classic Italian strategy of absorbing opposition pressure and attacking on the counter produces league games that are difficult to watch to English viewers accustomed to a livelier pace, Internazionale's win at Chelsea on Tuesday night showed the possibilities of an aggressive tactical approach to the Italian public. It will be interesting to watch whether this approach begins to appear more regularly in the Italian domestic game over the course of the next few years, and if other Italian teams utilise a similar strategy, combining existing skills with a new approach.

In England we are often guilty of overlooking domestic leagues beyond our borders. As Cristiano Ronaldo left for Madrid, we pronounce Wayne Rooney as 'the best player in the world'. Just as we build up national expectations leading into international tournaments, we are so eager to protect our own game that we fail to appreciate the strong elements of others. With an increased appreciation of other leagues, results that occured this week could stop being analysed as 'the rise in strength of League X' and instead be appreciated as entertaining knock-out competition football.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Lyon defeat is a bitter blow for Madrid

This was truly a week of contrasting emotions for Real Madrid, as the highs of Saturday night at the Bernabeu met the crushing lows of Wednesday night's exit from Europe's elite football competition.

The spirit shown in the Madrid comeback win against Sevilla was in complete contrast to the listless manner in which they lost to Lyon last night. It is difficult to suggest reasons for two such differing displays, but the emotional momentum for the remainder of the La Liga season could have shifted once more towards Catalonia.

Spanish pundits had been suggesting that all was not well in the Barcelona camp during the 'slump' in performances in February, when even Pep Guardiola acknowledged that his team's efforts were not at an acceptable level. Furthermore, last weekend's events had left many commentators speculating that the title had taken it's first significant turn, Barcelona held 2-2 at Almeria, whilst Madrid took the three points against a competent visiting side that had edged to a 0-2 lead after 52 minutes.

And whilst there was talk of Real being the team of individuals that quarrelled over who was getting the ball passed to them enough times in the chase for the Pichichi, it seemed little more than tittle-tattle targeted at the side, of the big two, who were on the up.

The Lyon defeat will test these supposed player tensions in a way that even a La Liga defeat would not. The European Cup is Madrid's trophy, the competition that matters so highly in the club's priorities, that defines their legacy and image. The final is to be held in the Bernabeu this May, and Real will not be there to grace that stage, a bitter blow to the club's pride. God forbid for the Madridistas that Barcelona should make it that far.

Make no mistake, this Real team has the makings of a fantastic side, and they look more settled this season than they have for several campaigns of late. Players such as the explosive striker Gonzalo Higuaín should light up the World Cup come the summer, and even combinations of players that critics declared would fail, such as Ronaldo and Kaka, have largely proved to be successful.

But the defeat on Wednesday night marks the sixth consecutive season in which they have exited the Champions League at the first knockout stage, arguably when the competition really begins, a startling statistic given the financial expenditure in this same period of time.

The loss puts yet more focus on the one game that everyone in Spain is now focused on, despite the fact that 13 rounds of the league remain. The remainding Clásico of the season takes place in Madrid on April 11th, and will almost go a long way in deciding where the trophy is headed at the conclusion of the season. As things stand, it is a far more significant milestone for Madrid than their Catalan rivals.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Why Facebook 'charity' is costing lives but saving egos

Of all the negative aspects of human existence Facebook has inadvertently highlighted over the last half decade, by far the most repulsive are the 'causes' and 'charity group' collectives of egotistical creators and members, who either genuinely believe that they are doing good, or are simply making themselves feel better at the cost of having changed exactly nothing.

An example of the type of group can be seen here:

The premise of these groups is disturbing; they are invariably established by some unheard of 'philanthropist' who claims to have the financial clout to lend some real support to the 'up to 200,000 people [who] may have died in last week's tragic earthquake in Haiti, with countless others injured or left without a home.'

However, rather than simply stumping up the cash, this human being has decided that no, he does not wish to simply open his chequebook and give generously, as he clearly believes he has the power to do, but rather he is going to correlate the support he is prepared to give to the number of people who join his group.

This amounts to no more than a misery-fuelled ego boost : 'Hey there, you don't want to see people dying in anguish and poverty do you? No? Of course you don't. You're a person. So join my group, be my friend (because I am bloody great and noble and have sex with me?) and I will send some money to these poor starving (are they starving or just dying?) children...mothers...people...it's all about people. And I have the money to help, and I really want to help, but only if you and everyone else you know will be my friend and see how great I am.'

This, however, isn't the end of the problem. Because upon closer inspection of the monetary values offered per person in these groups it becomes clear that this philanthropist, far from being a wealthy do-gooder eager to give something back, is just an ordinary person who has decided he wants to donate a stunningly mundane sum, but in doing so has resolved that if he has to chuck a couple of tenners at an international crisis of some scale, he might as well try and buy some friends in the process.

For instance the above group offers a princely £5 per 500 members. £5. He currently has just over 2,000 members, so he will be giving £20, and suddenly this 'philanthropist' appears to have similar financial means to most people with an internet connection who is merely indulging in a sponsored friend making session. At the expense of a humanitarian disaster. Charming.

The fact that people join these groups shows there is a desire among the membership for help to be sent to Haiti, and that they wish to do their bit. However, people are lazy, and if they think they can help by clicking a mouse, then that's probably all they'll do.

They join the group, and suddenly their massive sense of guilt they potentially might have when they see a few corpses rotting by the side of the road in the scorching heat is gone. Because they did their bit. These facebook groups effectively nullify the potential to get people to actually donate themselves, rather than lend their name to a group in the belief that they are making an impact, when in fact the money being sent in their name, in this instance, is a penny.

Facebook 'charity' is a microcosm of westernised society's attempts at charity. Every crisis must have fundraisers or celebrity backers. It's not enough to give money, we instead expect to be entertained before we consider being generous. Yes, Haiti's been flattened, but where is Bob Geldof's live musical event?

The number of mouse clicks it takes to join these facebook groups is equal to the effort it takes to donate money to the appeal. Why is it not possible to donate generously and meaningfully? To donate and show humility? To donate without shouting it from your next facebook status?

Ben Parker and James Mayo

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


An odd decision, was my initial reaction to Home Secretary Alan Johnson's confirmation that the government were making the extremist group Islam4UK illegal.

Whilst some of the group's actions, such as the planned march in Wootton Bassett were certainly questionable on grounds of taste, there seemed to me a great deal of hypocrisy in the manner in which they have been treated by the British media.

High profile cases such as the British National Party appearing on BBC's Question Time have caused arguments in the media for balancing countering extremism against allowing for free speech, but the Islam4UK case has been afforded none of this depth of analysis.

The fact that Islam4UK have been made illegal under anti-terrorism legislation is also puzzling. It is difficult to find evidence of any terrorist activity to which they can directly be linked, and I have struggled to find any mention of this in the news reports that have been written about the issue today.

Their views are admittedly extreme, but within in a political and social sphere, and crucially, to westernised ears. Their protest planned for the Wootton Bassett march for example, was based on emphasising that there were casualties on both sides in a military conflict, and whilst the argument could have been made in a more tasteful and constructive manner, it remains a valid point.

The real issue to examine here, is that the current government has treated similar extremist organisations with little apparent equality. They have not taken action against other groups that could easily be categorised along similar lines, such as the British National Party and the English Defence League, quite possibly because they know that tackling such groups head on would be more politically dangerous, especially in an election year.

It is also worth noting that the public have been whipped up into somewhat of an outrage regarding the Wootton Bassett march plans, in part lead by The Sun newspaper's morale crusade, and a politically cynical observer might suggest that clamping down hard on the group causing the upset was not ever going to be harmful to poll ratings.

Monday, 11 January 2010

A night of great drama

Two fascinating sports games were played out across the globe last night, with two extraordinary comebacks to boot.

In Angola, the African Cup of Nations finally got underway on the pitch, after the tragic events of last week have dominated the news headlines off it.

In the opening game, hosts Angola played Mali, and proceeded to take an emphatic lead, with a brace of goals from Flavio, before two penalties had given Angola a 4-0 scoreline in their favour and had apparently decided the result.

Whilst Barcelona's Seydou Keita pulled a goal back for Mali with just 11 minutes left, and Frédéric Kanouté added a second with a header in the 88th minute, it all appeared to be too little, too late.

Amazingly however, Keita expertly slid in his second to make it 4-3, and with just 16 seconds left on the clock in injury time, Mustapha Yatabare was on hand to turn in a rebound from a save, and complete one of the most unlikely comebacks seen in a football game.

Mustapha Yatabare equalises in stoppage time

Meanwhile, across the globe in the outskirts of Phoenix in Arizona, the host Cardinals dramatically rescued a Wild Card round playoff victory following an inspired comeback by the Green Bay Packers in an epic struggle.

The game, which comfortably lasted three and a half hours, played out like the best action thriller one could imagine, with drama, intrigue, heroes and villains, controversy and the most dramatic of endings.

The Cardinals had rolled out to a sizeable lead, but slowly and surely the Packers had clawed their way back into the contest, helped by inspired plays such as this Greg Jennings catch.

But with both coaches trying occasionally radical tactics to retain the ball, the game began to play out in basketball fashion, if you had the ball, you simply had to score before conceding possession. Thus the score rose as touchdown was met with touchdown.

The blows continued to be traded, the Cardinals took the lead, only for the Packers to restore parity. Defensive ability was nowhere to be seen, and the game was all the better for it.

It appeared, however, to be coming to a slightly anti-climactic ending, when a relatively easy field goal attempt by Neil Rackers looked set to send the Cardinals through with just 14 seconds to go.

Rackers attempts to win the game.

The miss was dramatic, but ensured that the game would go to overtime, as such a thrilling match-up deserved to.

So when the Packers won the coin toss in overtime, it looked as if they had the green light to drive and score the winning touchdown to seal an utterly improbably come-from-behind win. Instead, this happened:

It was a breathtaking spectacle, a marathon of emotions and draining physical plays, but it left you adrenalised just having witnessed it.

Two classic examples in one breathless evening of sport's ability to mesmerise.

Monday, 4 January 2010

'We can't go on like this'

The new Tory campaign poster manages to achieve the impressive double of featuring what looks from certain angles like a half-melted attempt at moulding a wax statue of Jeff from Peep Show, alongside one of the most depressing election slogans of recent memory.

As the Newsnight political panel correctly pointed out, 'We can't go on like this' is hardly the bright optimistic approach that 'Things can only get better' and 'Britain deserves better' at least attempted to inspire. Instead we are left with the plea of someone who sounds as if they are in the dying throes of a failing marriage.

The fact that the poster conveys the message so confidently as if the public are all in a desperate state of near-suicidal thought ends up missing its primary purpose of tapping into the feelings of the electorate.

Still, Cameron's choice of pursuing 'We need change' is, as we know, the fail safe political approach to an election. Everyone wants at least some degree of change all the time, as sadly very few people's lives are perfect.

Cunningly, this 'change' can remain unspecific in policy and direction, as the party can then leave it loosely in the mind of the voters come election day, hoping that they'll turn up to the polls after a miserable day in a job they hate, recall the slogan, and place a cross in the appropriate box.

On a more serious note, the general election of 2010 looks to be an exciting prospect, with there being every chance that we may have a hung parliament come May. Whilst this would certainly slow the progress of any 'change', it could possibly lead to a more focused and considered political arena for thorough debate, where issues would have to be thrashed out on an individual level, rather than relying on the comfortable tide of party politics.