Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Don't Put Me In The Shoe!

1988: Just after I finished my GCSE exams, I noticed an intriguing entry in the TV Times, on Thursday night after the 10 o'clock news. It was for a late 1970s Australian soap opera set in a women's prison (the Wentworth Detention Centre) called Prisoner Cell Block H, and I watched it, not expecting it to be very good. In some ways it wasn't - the acting was often camply melodramatic, the sets looked like sets and the storylines sometimes dragged and sometimes didn't make much sense with characters appearing to be written out for no reason. But it was riveting stuff all the same. In the first episode, a pretty young woman checks into the prison, accused of trying to kill the baby she has been employed to care for by burying it alive. She claims she's innocent, and sure enough we find out that she's telling the truth and the baby's still in danger from its insane mother, but the other prisoners don't believe her and the episode ends with the top dog of the prison, Bea Smith, burning the girl's hands in the steam press. During my student years, the soap was often pre-empted for sporting events (boo!), and when I moved across country to go to university I missed 2 years of it, as different regions were all showing it on different schedules. I remember during my first week at university, feeling disoriented and lonely, turning on the tv on Sunday night to see the welcoming faces of Bea, Lizzie, Doreen, Meg, Erica et al. And things didn't seem so bad. When Sheila Florence who played old lag Lizzie Birdsworth, died, my friends and I lit a little candle for her. I even started watching the series all over again on DVD a few years ago and kept a blog about it, although I have been remiss in keeping it up to date.

So it was with some interest that I realised that the show has been recently rebooted - and is now on Channel 5 - simply called Wentworth, it takes the same characters as before, but places them in the here and now. It's more of a retelling - or rather, a badly remembered retelling - as the storylines of characters deviate from the original. The actresses have a lot to live up to, and perhaps because it is filmed like a professionally done drama, it doesn't have the bumbling DIY feel of "Pris" as we called it. And in any case, I'm already hooked on another women's prison drama, Orange is the New Black. Orange follows middle-class New Yorker, Piper who goes to prison for trafficking drug money ten years previously when she had a drug-dealing girlfriend and a very different life. It is through Piper's eyes that we encounter the prison and its inmates, and each episode gives the backstory of a different character through a series of flashbacks which document some of the events that led to that prisoner being locked up. Even characters who are extremely unsympathetic are gradually fleshed out and shown to have a complex side - these are not women who have chosen a life of crime (as is the case for the reprehensible characters of Grand Theft Auto) but have often been forced into it via circumstance. Every character is believable and the acting, even from the minor characters, is compelling, particularly considering how young and relatively experienced some of the women playing these roles are.

My fella has an instinctual hatred for the drug-dealing girlfriend (who - spoiler alert - of course, happens to be in the same prison), calling her a "traitor" - which is the worst thing you can be in his eyes. But he also disapproves of those tv property buying shows like "A Place in the Sun: Home and Abroad" which follow people who are thinking about leaving the UK to start a new life. (He calls that show "Traitors".)

Although the cast of Orange are mostly not well known, it is fun to see Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway) playing the prison top dog - a Russian chef with mad red hair (called Red) and a cold temper. Episode 2, which shows some of Red's backstory - is called "Tit punch", and has to be seen to be believed (episode 3 is called Lesbian Request Denied).

One of my favourite characters is Suzanne (aka Crazy Eyes). Here's why.

Even ol' Crazy eventually gets a sympathetic write-up after she is initially painted as mad and sexually predatory. And there is a heart-rending scene where she asks Piper, "Why do they call me crazy eyes?"

As the inheritor of Prisoner Cell Block H, I'd say Orange is the New Black wins the prize.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Magic Box

If there was one thing I could tell me 21 year old self, it's eat as much as you like now and savour every piece of chocolate because even your metabolism will slow down by the time you're 40. And if I was allowed two things, it would be - don't throw away so much stuff because you'll just miss it eventually and spend ages on ebay buying it all back again.
I think it started with a Mr Man Annual that I had as a child. You get older, move out, and all your childish books somehow vanish. But I saw this particular Annual in a junk shop in Bristol, years later. And opening it up fired off all these dormant synapases, each page full of memories, suddenly hurtling back through time to 1982. I didn't buy it, because, well, it felt a bit silly. But I immediately regretted it, and when I saw the same annual a few years later on a market stall, I stopped in my tracks and bought it. It's now on my book shelf, along with the Fighting Fantasy books that I used to have as a child, and an enormous book from the 1940s called A Day in Fairyland which I used to look at when I visited my grandmother which cost £80. It's not just books. Up until the age of about 16, we only had a handful of records in our home, and I must have listened to each one hundreds of times. I threw away all my LPs about 10 years ago when CDS and then MP3s started changing the way that I listened to music. But I've since regretted getting rid of so many of them, and have hunted most of them down - the Disney Album that was advertised constantly in the run up to Christmas 1977, the Readers Digest Sensational 70s Boxed Set (10 fabulous discs, one for each year), Ed Stewart's fairytales - with a classical music soundtrack that made me fall in love with Swan Lake years and the Hall of the Goblin King before I knew what they were, and even a really corny Western Film Music album.

The magical Reader's Digest Sensational 70s Boxed Set was what set off my love of retro, way back in 1989 when my friend Kathryn discovered that magic box in her older sister's cupboard. We were both hideously uncool and "swotty" although I don't think anyone at our school realised the intellectual disdain we held them all in. Like many social outcasts we rejected a lot of the stuff we were supposed to like, and inside fell back into the past - reclaiming a garish decade that nobody thought much of. I think we started off by making fun of The Carpenters and all the disco but after a few plays, we had fallen in love. We held a bizarre 1970s party for our bemused friends, which culminated in us walking around Peterlee town centre dressed in 1970s get-up, very late one Friday night, posing for photos next to supermarket trolleys and hoping a drunk would see us and think they had somehow gone back in time.

Kathryn loved The Mission and U2 and Bon Jovi and used to make compilation tapes out of Radio 1's Chart Show on Sunday night, followed up by the more exotic fare that Annie Nightingale offered just afterwards. But she's maintained her soft spot for the 70s, and last night presided over a 1970s quiz, made up of 20 intros from the Sensational 70s boxed set. I'm afraid my memory, like my metabolism, isn't what it used to be - and I couldn't recall about 7 of the songs. MY strategy was to put "Dire Straits" for every question I didn't know, although my fella pointed out that they were more of an 80s group, so that didn't help. Towards the end, in desperation I simply wrote "I have the Alzheimer's Gene", and "see above" for questions 16 and 17, hoping that Kathryn's husband, who was going to be marking my answers, would take pity on me. Unfortunately I came last, even mis-spelling Bacarra. I think I'll be needing to spend more time with the Magic Box so I don't disgrace myself next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

All my Niggaz

Yesterday saw the release of Grand Theft Auto 5 - the much anticipated and several-times postponed ultra-violent computer game where you take the role of three criminals (and a dog) in a huge perfectly rendered rendition of Los Angeles. The previous game, set in New York, took up quite a lot of my life a few years ago, and I didn't even finish it. I was in two minds about whether to buy GTA5 as apart from having three characters and a different city, it looked like more of the same - driving around and shooting people or wandering aimlessly through a beautiful city, where the sense of awe at the gigantic game-space always gives way to a horrible sense of loneliness (I am wandering alone and have no-one to talk to) and futility (I'm wasting time playing a game and not even playing it with any sense of purpose).

But my biggest problem about GTA is the unrelenting, Tarantino-like violence, which characterises about 90% of computer games these days. It's not that I expect it will turn players into violent nutters (you could equally argue it's providing a safe outlet for nutters), but I don't want to play that role. Even in a "sophisticated" way. I'm not interested in the little character nuances and dilemmas faced by people who have chosen violent crime as a way of life. I find them boring and it's why I could never get into the Sopranos.

But I got swept along with the glowing reviews last week, so last night went to buy a copy. A news article noted that someone had been stabbed on the way home from buying the game. For the first time ever, there was a queue in my local Game (all of us buying the same thing). As I entered the shop and asked the assistant at the door whether there were any copies left, a posh man in a suit barged in and said "Can I just interrupt you, are there any copies of Grand Theft Auto 5 available?" Because I'm a bit slow socially sometimes I just let him take over, but my fella has a maternal DNA strand from the "battle-axe" tribe and is made of much more assertive stuff than me, so he let the guy have a few snappy comments (which had no effect). For a second or two, I wished I was a character in Grand Theft Auto, equipped with one of the more exotic weapons in the game's endless arsenal.

I got the game home and played it for most of last night. It feels like all the other games in the series, although with slightly better graphics. "Can you turn the dialogue off?" my fella asked after one of the characters called another a "homo". After a couple of hours, I worked out some of the dialogue rules of GTA5: If a black character is speaking or being spoken to, the word nigga must be used (preferably twice in the same sentence). Every time someone speaks, the f word must be used. Every time someone speaks, there must be reference to private parts or a sexual act involving private parts. All women are bitches or hos. Claiming that someone is homosexual is still a valid way of insulting men. And everyone must always sound ironic and world-weary.

I'm not sure if I'm supposed to find the language funny or realistic not. It's so over the top that it becomes a parody of itself. And GTA prides itself on being very postmodern and clever. So characters are critical of capitalism: "just a legal way of screwing people over" and the tv shows you can watch in the game show programs like "Republican Space Rangers: Intergalactic war on terror" which features one of the homophobic troopers having gay fantasies. The radio stations make digs at censorship and the way that sites like Facebook invade privacy. But at the same time, there are no playable female characters. And ultimately to get on you have to kill people.

There's so much talent in Grand Theft Auto. It might be the best computer game ever made. It's clever and funny and beautiful. But at its core - it's rotten.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The last of summer

Getting from JFK airport to Manhattan is like trying to swim upstream against a river made of treacle. In theory it should only take about 15 minutes. But due to the amount of traffic, random lane and bridge closures, accidents etc. it's best to plan for an hour and a half. Even in Manhattan, traffic jams can spring up out of nowhere and on more than one occasion I've just gotten out of a cab with my suitcases and walked the last few blocks. Roads and pavements are not in the best state, making the British pothole winter of 2011 seem like a fuss over nothing. In Manhattan, actual sinkholes appear in roads, threatening to suck innocent pedestrians and cars into a dark hell below. One such hole appeared in the middle of the road by our apartment in Greenwich village on Tuesday, ironically, after the road had been closed off altogether on Monday. Car-drivers didn't notice it and there were horrible crunching sounds as they tried to drive over it. On Wednesday a cone had been placed inside it and by Thursday workmen were back to resolve the problem. But they mustn't have done a very good job because by Friday it was back again.

It's the first time I've been to New York in the summer in years - I've normally gone in winter, having convinced myself that August would be unbearable. It was hot but not too bad, and much preferable to January. The preference for little dogs as pets in Greenwich Village and lack of places to let them go to the toilet means that some of the sidewalks smell strongly of dog wee in summer though. If there is one thing that New York excels at, it is cinema. There is nowhere like it in the world for quantity and quality. The Film Forum were having a season of fantasy/horror/sci-fi so we spent far too long watching double bills of Alien/Aliens, Joan Crawford/Bette Davis and Harryhausen adventure. The only downside was sitting through the adverts each time - we must have seen this advert 10 times.

Bardot's voice always sounds off-key to me, and something must have been wrong with the sound quality of the print of the advert because people were wincing in pain all the way through. Audience members in America are oddly interactive - befitting the extroverted nature of the culture (an American person is like an equivalent British person after a large gin). They applaud a lot - and sometimes at weird non sequiter bits. They also talk to strangers who are sitting near them - and we saw one such exchange between two lone film-goers quickly descend into hostility over some trivia-based disagreement that only true nerds can care about. The best example of audience participation was during a screening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls at the Anthology Film Archives. The audience was 90% gay male (a lone woman hurriedly left about the first 10 minutes), the film started late and the reel broke twice, plunging the theatre room into darkness. But nobody seemed to mind too much, and there was a lot of hand waving and camp chair-dancing during the musical numbers. Some devoted fans on the front row also shrieked out some of the silliest lines.

Other highlights of the trip: eating at an Ethipoian restaurant, walking the entirety of the high-line (the raised rail-track that's been converted into a garden walk over Manhatthan), meeting my friend Mark and hearing about his house-share in Fire Island (complete with fights over space in the fridge for needles) and playing the piano every day at the Greenwich House Music School, which was a couple of doors from where we were staying. Now back in the UK, I've put the heating on, and a jersey. Summer definitely seems over.