Review – The Only Way is Downton, Trafalgar Studios 2, 10th February 2014

The Only Way is DowntonI first noticed this little show when I received my regular brochure from the Oxford Playhouse, where it was on for just one night in January, when we were already busy, but I thought it looked a hoot. Mrs Chrisparkle and I don’t watch much TV as we’re always at the theatre! But we make an exception for Downton Abbey, and spent one New Year’s Day watching the first series in its entirety, so hooked were we. We’ve never seen The Only Way is Essex though – credit us with some standards.

This is Luke Kempner’s one man show that was a huge success in Edinburgh last summer, an hour and three quarters of TV fantasy where our favourite posh nobs and scheming servants car-crash into the X-Factor and The Great British Bake Off, amongst other modern cultural highlights, and all without the aid of a tardis.

Luke KempnerThe story is straightforward. The Dowager Countess of Grantham shocks everyone by announcing her impending marriage to a younger man (presumably there were no older men alive) and the household has to prepare for the wedding. Trouble is, the Earl of Grantham has run out of money (again) so the whole cast has to find devious means of earning or winning some cash. That’s the framework that allows Mr Kempner to run riot with fantastic impersonations and a surreally silly plot.

Luke Kempner in actionI’ve no idea how many characters he voices during the course of this show – dozens and dozens – and he has a real knack for it. Particular favourites of ours were his “downstairs” females – Mrs Hughes, Mrs Patmore and especially Daisy, whose gentle lisp was absolutely uncanny. Mind you, he’s great with the upstairs ladies too, with a slightly unhinged Cora and a delightfully static Lady Mary. The Dowager Countess perhaps occasionally sounded more like the lovechild of Maggie Smith and Julian Clary (possibly one of life’s less likely outcomes). With the men, he excelled with the sneaky and snide Thomas Barrow, a splendidly jolly Earl of Grantham, and a quietly satanic Mr Bates. We don’t watch X-Factor or British Bake-Off (see paragraph 1, above) but I can recognise a good Dermot O’Leary when I hear one, and he got Mel and Sue’s soft and punchy voices down to a tee. I won’t tell you any of the other voices because that would give too much of the game away.

This is a show purely for fun; you’re not going to come away with a greater insight into the human condition and it’s not going to change your Weltanschau. But it will make you laugh a lot. If you like Downton, you’ll love this; we did. It’s on for another week at the Trafalgar Studios, and then continues to tour small venues up and down the country till May. And if you can’t wait to see the show and want to get a sneaky peek of Mr Kempner in action, just search for him on youtube where you will find some brilliantly funny videos!

Andrew Marr on the Media and the Monarchy, St Peter’s College, Oxford, 7th March 2012

St Peter's College OxfordOne day when there isn’t much happening, I’ll tell you about my time as a student. Inter alia, it involved (admittedly on different occasions)Princess Margaret, President Nixon, Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, and a promising young actor laddie known as little Hughie Grant. Maybe later.

St Peter's Freshmen 1978One of the perks of being an alumnus of somewhere rather prestigious, is that when you get invited back, it’s for rather entertaining events. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleased to go and see a talk by Andrew Marr on The Media and The Monarchy in the College Chapel yesterday.

Mark DamazerHe was introduced by the Master, Mark Damazer, who took over the post in 2010 and has been succesfully dynamic in turning around the fortunes and profile of the college. I met him last year; a very nice chap with slightly scary undertones of massive intellect.

Andrew MarrAndrew Marr has just completed extensive work in the company of the Royal Family for his recently broadcast television series about the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year; so he has had unrivalled opportunities to observe and assess their contribution to the country. His insights were indeed fascinating. He is very impressed with how hard the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh work – he said the rows of people simply waiting to shake hands could sometimes be extraordinarily long – and he emphasised how some of this work must surely be extremely boring, which is something I had never considered. He feels a number of Prince Philip’s alleged gaffes are simply “look at me!” moments to alleviate the dullness. He is also very impressed with Princess Anne’s wit and wisdom; he feels she is a sensible person who knows Where It’s At. In response to a question, he suggested that when Prince Charles is king he will find it very difficult – but will have no alternative – to keep his mouth shut when on official meetings with leaders of whom he disapproves. Being nice to the Chinese, whilst being a firm supporter of a free Tibet, was one example.

St Peter's College ChapelBut to go back to the beginning of his talk, Andrew Marr started with a snapshot of the year 1997. It was not only the year Princess Diana died, it was also the start of the Blair era. It struck me that to any first year students attending, 1997 must seem like the dark ages – or at least the stuff of childhood. Strange how I remember it so well. Back in 1997, Andy (as his friends call him) pointed out that the circulation of newspapers was massive and that today, by comparison, it has dropped by approximately 40%. Apparently only the Sun and the Mail have held their own; all other papers have plummeted. In those days he was the editor of The Independent. His observations about newspaper proprietors were very revealing; he said to own a newspaper you need a massive amount of money which you are basically prepared to lose. If you own a newspaper you do it for a different reason other than merely seeking profit. He asked one of the then owners of The Independent, Tony O’Reilly, why he did it – and he said it was because it was simply nice to be able to go through the door of 10 Downing Street and be accepted there.

St Peter's ChapelOne of Andrew Marr’s main concerns for the future of journalism is his belief that you have to have professional journalists, who are paid a good wage and who can guarantee a degree of assurance that research has properly taken place and the truth has been fairly arrived at. With the falling numbers of newspapers actually being sold, and some online news sources not reaching sufficient numbers of readers (the Times paywall is a considerable barrier, no surprise), how is the profession going to maintain itself?

SPC PlaqueMr Marr also talked about Leveson, and what he thinks its impact will be – which is actually that the current shame being felt by the newspaper world will probably be as low as it gets. He doesn’t think that Rupert Murdoch is the worst thing that’s ever happened to British newspapers; but he did have some revealing information about the recent launch of the Sun on Sunday. Mockups and pilot issues had been created, as the paper started to take shape, but the editors were far from convinced that the definitive format had been created. At a meeting one Sunday, Rupert Murdoch asked the team how the preparations were going. Good, they replied, we are getting there. Excellent, said RM, I want it launched next Sunday. Sharp intakes of breath all round. Erm, are you sure, they nervously proffered. Yes, next Sunday, have it done, was his reply. Given the short time they had to bring out the first edition, Andrew Marr thought it was a remarkably professional achievement.

Mr Marr’s talk was peppered with a number of humorous observations; here are two that I find most memorable. He obviously finished his degree the same year as me, as he said it was a time when there were simply no jobs around – 1981. Actually, the old joke was, “What do you say to an Arts Graduate with a job? I’ll have a Big Mac, please”. I think things may have come full circle. Anyway, I digress. Mr Marr was on his was to Edinburgh for an interview to work on The Scotsman newspaper. He got on the sleeper train at Kings Cross and, on entering the cubicle where he was to have bottom bunk for the night, was met by the top bunk occupant, a Scottish gentleman, brandishing 24 cans of super strength lager and three packets of cigarettes, who said something along the lines of “I hope you’re not a soft southern poof who won’t share a few bevies tonight”. By the time Mr Marr arrived in Edinburgh he was rancid with drink, choked with cigarettes and a blotchy mess. He knew he’d blown his chance of a decent job. However, on arrival at the Scotsman offices he was met by a newsroom full of similarly blotchy, drunken, smoky journos and he knew he had fallen on his feet.

John PrescottAnother nice tale was of his waiting inside a Brighton hotel during conference season, presumably ready to do some reporting, when along bustles John Prescott, a swarm of assistants behind him with folders, files and cases. On seeing Andrew Marr, Prescott firmly marches up to him, stabs him with his pointy finger and says “You bastard! You f***ing bastard! I’ll f***ing get you!” and then he marches off, leaving Mr Marr perplexed and wondering what on earth he’d done to deserve it. About a minute later Prescott returns and says “sorry mate, wrong person” and then walks off again.

All in all a very interesting and enjoyable talk and question and answer session, which was full of fascinating snippets of information and personal anecdotes. Thanks to St Peter’s for the invitation, and for continuing to share the college activities with the alumni.

Review – Strictly Come Dancing Live, NIA, Birmingham, 21st January 2012

Strictly Come Dancing LiveMrs C and I are huge Strictly fans so it was with great delight that we unexpectedly received two surprise tickets for last Saturday’s matinee at the NIA in Birmingham. As you would expect, the place was completely packed. What strikes you when you enter the auditorium are both the expectant buzz and the extraordinary stage. The band and judges are at one end of the arena, surrounded by an extravagant light wall, and the whole central area is devoted to dance floor. Two large video screens help you see in close detail what your eyes can’t focus on, as well as being used to give amusing backstage insights.

Kate ThorntonThe host is Kate Thornton, of whom I don’t know a lot, but she’s really good at the job, as well as looking thoroughly gorgeous. Friendly and reassuring when required, but also quick-witted at stabbing a telling remark or two along the way. Actually one thing I hadn’t expected was how generally funny the whole show is. Whether it’s Kate or the judges, the dancing or the backstage shots, there is a lot to laugh at in this show, much more so in fact than on the TV programme.

JudgesLen, Bruno and Craig are the three judges and each play up their own characters admirably throughout the entire show. Len continues to rewrite the language with his strange metaphors for enthusiasm; Bruno has his over-the-top reactions and his strange body language for enthusiasm, and Craig nicely wallows in his dour reflections that may or may not encompass enthusiasm. Both Bruno and Craig “lost it” at one stage and were helpless with laughter, which was an additional delight for the audience. Craig directs the show, and has included some judgely dancing in some of the big “entr’acte” numbers, some of which he couldn’t quite perform himself, which was a laugh.

Then of course there are the contestants and their professional partners. I was quite surprised how quiet the professionals were in the post-dance chats with Kate. Personally I get attached to the professionals just as much (if not more) than with the celebrities because you get to know them over the series, so I would have perhaps liked a little more chat from them. They do have to do a lot of dancing, mind.

The show starts with a big dance from the professionals alone and to be honest, I thought it was under-rehearsed as none of them seemed to finish together and on time. I was surprised at that. They were definitely better in their individual dances with their partners and in the subsequent group dances.

Harry JuddFrom the moment the couples are introduced there is absolutely no doubt who is going to win – Harry and Aliona. There’s something about Harry (I wonder what it might be that all those middle aged women see in him) that must appeal to about 98% of the audience, as far as the allocation of whooping and cheering is concerned. To support the underdog, I was determined not to vote for him, even if he was the best, as his victory was a forgone conclusion from the start.

Robbie and KatyaEach couple dances twice. First on was Robbie Savage, partnered with Katya Virshilas. What did you make of Robbie in the TV series? I thought he was surprisingly good. Well, in the middle of the live arena, he was surprisingly awful! Yes he sells himself really well, and it’s thoroughly entertaining, but actually his dance skills are Really Not There. Katya herself, whilst talking to Kate, said that Robbie basically wasn’t very good – Kate had to remind her they were meant to be on the same side.

Anita and RobinSecond were Anita Dobson and Robin Windsor. They did their Charleston, and highly enjoyable it was. I didn’t really feel that the crowd got behind them that much, probably still suffering palpitations after the sight of Robbie’s chest. The judges were pretty impressed though. Amongst the professional dancers, I do think that Robin Windsor stands out as a really strong performer.

Mark and NatalieThird was another chest opportunity, Mark Foster with Natalie Lowe. He’s the only celebrity in the show not to have been in the most recent series, and was clearly at a disadvantage, but he performed reasonably well. Natalie’s a terrific dancer, isn’t she. She even threw in a wardrobe malfunction in her second dance for good measure, so that we almost saw both their chests.

Nancy and ArtemNext was – I think – Nancy dell’Olio who is dancing here with Artem Chigvintsev. I know someone who has met Nancy dell’Olio, and he says she’s frankly bonkers. I saw no reason to doubt his word. Her performance is very funny – especially the second dance when she cheats and has both Artem and Robin to help her – but she rarely dances a step. I couldn’t tell how genuine or acted Artem’s rather sad and resigned look is when Nancy says they need to change the choreography – he just gently backs away into the darkness. Very funny stuff.

Jason and KristinaThen you have what you might call “The Big Three”. Jason Donovan with Kristina Rihanoff first; they did their Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” number and then their Argentine Tango. Jason made a slight boo-boo on the first dance, which I confess I didn’t notice, but did a sensational tango and so I decided I would vote for them.

Chelsee and PashaNext was Chelsee Healey with Pasha Kovalev, who must think he has fallen on his feet considering this was his first series. They danced just as well as they did on the TV and gave a terrific show. The judges were wowed.

But everything else was eclipsed by Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani. When you watched the last series at home, you might have felt that the popularity for Jason, Chelsee and Harry was more or less even-stevens, and that only a poor performance by one of them would have led to more votes for one of their opponents. Not a bit of it. If this audience is anything to go by, Harry must have received more votes than all the others put together. You could barely hear anything else in the arena above the cheers for him, and he and Aliona executed two perfect dances, getting a maximum 60 points from the judges. He is the only celebrity participant who really could be a professional dancer. If he wants to change his career away from drumming, I reckon every door is open.

AlionaThey whittled it down to a final two of Harry and Chelsee but the eventual winner was never in doubt. In a sense, the weakest part of the show is that the competition element seems a little unnecessary. The series has already taken place, and the winners and runners-up have been decided. If there had been more competitors from previous series, against whom you couldn’t so easily assess this series’ celebs (imagine if Zoe Ball and Mark Ramprakash had been part of the line-up, for example) the competition would have been more interesting. Nevertheless, it’s churlish to criticise it on those grounds. It’s a terrific lively show, colourful, spectacular, engaging and very funny too. I would certainly recommend it.

Rev, BBC2

RevJust a quick note to say how much I’m enjoying this new comedy programme Rev on BBC2 about the trials and tribulations of a young vicar with a measly congregation. I speak as someone who, in a different life, might well have gone down the vicar route. However, the appeal of working one day a week, living in a nice free house, and professionally being nice to people was offset by a spooky fear of the Communion service and the thought that deep down God probably doesn’t exist.

Tom HollanderSo it’s great to live the existence vicariously through Tom Hollander’s woebeset vicar, his splendidly deadpan wife played by Olivia Colman from Peepshow and the almost malevolent Archdeacon (Simon McBurney) who could be second cousin to Severus Snape. I love the way the Rev has to move from his natural caring basis to a position of being uncharitable in order to survive. His adherence to his principles in the face of (so far this series) self-seeking politicians and happy clappy worshippers (including the born-again virgin!) is heart warming and very very funny. My toes curl at the appropriate moments and I guffaw frequently during the half hour.

I think this one’s got legs.

Why I am leaving the Celebrity Big Brother House

Big Brother Camera Day Seven in the Celebrity Big Brother House and I’m that cheesed off with it that I’ve decided to stop watching.

To be fair, I think I’ve been a loyal Big Brother watcher for far too long now. I was really fascinated and excited by the original concept and those first few series had a definite punch to them. Do you remember when Craig cornered Nasty Nick for being a hypocrite and game-playing? The world watched with shock and awe. TV schedules were hijacked. It was riveting stuff.

Then they started doing the Celebrity versions. They were briefer series, pithier. Half a dozen celebs went into the house on a Saturday and they were all out again a week later. We saw Chris Eubank being as eccentric as we thought he might be; Anthea Turner teaching us how to change a duvet cover with one hand; Mark Owen coming back into the limelight; Les Dennis going through personal problems; Michael Barrymore trying to wheedle his way back into the public’s affections; Anne Diamond needing to lose weight; Jack Dee being Jack Dee.

I’m not naturally attracted to the Cult of Celebrity. But those people were interesting to observe. For one thing, I’d heard of them. For another thing, many of them were funny.

And so we come round to this series of Celebrity Big Brother. Stephanie Beacham, yes, is a celebrity, a well known actress with a touch of glamour, a persona that you think “how will she cope”, and the possibility of some amusing interchanges with house mates. Vinnie Jones – I have also heard of him. He was a footballer. He did a film. I don’t go to the cinema. I now realise he has made loads of them. He had his 45th birthday in the Big Brother House. I was delighted to realise that though I am older than him I look younger.

As for the others, I genuinely haven’t heard of them. Some of them simply seem to be there because they have slept with someone more famous than they are. Is this what today is called “Light Entertainment”? I suppose it could lead to a revealing game along the lines of Six Degrees of Bed Separation – how many interesting people they have slept with by association throughout the chain. Although how many of those are likely to be really interesting people?

And they don’t entertain. They sit around and fart. And laugh at it. To adapt an old saying, “if I’d wanted to be entertained by people laughing at farts, I could have stayed at home”. The challenges have been dull. There wasn’t even an eviction. Oh and there’s a Bible Basher. Really very very boring. Nah. I’ve had enough of this.

I haven’t watched Uncelebrity Big Brother for a couple of series now, and I’m pulling the plug on this one.

Davina Why does Davina seem to have a bad press by the way? I find loads of people online saying they don’t like her. She comes across to me as being a delightful person. She’s going to be about the only thing I’ll miss by not following the series. Maybe I’ll just switch on to watch her. No – I mustn’t.