World War III: Inside the War Room

February 4, 2016 by  
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World War III 1

With the Russia and Ukraine dilemma still fresh in public memory, this one off documentary brings a not so far-fetched idea back to life.

World War III: Inside the War Room sees ex-military and diplomatic leaders debate crisis situations when Russia threatens Estonia and Latvia. So far, so familiar. The fact that a quarter of Latvian’s population is Russian and a glance at the world map draws more similarities. The difference is that Latvia and Estonia, unlike Ukraine, are members of NATO.

In a darkened room these men and women debate, dissect and vote on scenarios designed to reflect the lead up to war. Videos with actors intersperse these discussions, reflective of the Ukraine footage we saw in the news.

Tough questions arose. Some historical, does the UK need America’s military support to be a credible deterrent? Or could we use a UN task force combined with the Latvian army to do the same thing? Others seemed more humanitarian and emotive, what happens if there is a hostage situation involving some of “our boys?”  Some questions required more of a cultural understanding of the other side, such as how to offer them a way to back down without humiliation? How do you uphold the values for NATO? Is the threat of retaliation the best deterrent?

Initially it was a slow start but tensions soon emerged within the room increasing the pace. A lot was covered in the 60 minutes. Baroness Faulkner, the Lib Dem speaker, vehemently against military action, urged the team to be more sensitive to Putin’s sensitivities. General Sir Richard Shirreff, the ex-military commander, appeared in direct contrast calling for “unconditional surrender” and the waving of the “white flag” by Russia. The conflict made for good TV.

I enjoyed this show, but the talk about nuclear weapons made me query how realistic this scenario really was. Would everyone jump to using nuclear so quickly? It felt a bit like adults playing a big game. Perhaps it is a game, on the grandest scale. One side must strategise and out manoeuvre the other. I hope we never have to find out.

QI: Series M, Episode 13 – Monster Mash

January 31, 2016 by  
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Infuriatingly this is another of those weeks in which BBC Two is not showing the extended edition of QI the same week as when the standard episode goes out. I fail to understand why, and fail to understand it more as to why they are instead showing not something that is new, but a repeat of The Real Marigold Hotel, which you can just watch on the iPlayer as it went out on Tuesday.

Anyway, onto QI itself, this week Sara Pascoe, Josh Widdicombe and Phill Jupitus joined Stephen and Alan dealing with all kinds or monstrous things, as well as other M-related creatures. This time we learnt about the national symbol of Singapore, the viciousness of the star-nosed mole’s skull, the reason why great white sharks bite humans, and the biggest face in the USA.

Although we have so far only seen 30 minutes rather than 45, there were still some things to entertain us and delight us. For example there was Josh talking about the legend of the “Hairy Hands of Dartmoor” which supposedly drive cars off the road, and the wonders of modern 3D printing being used to produce a replica of a Fiji mermaid, a creature made in the 19th made out of half a fish and household odds and ends.

From what I have seen so far, this has been a good episode on its own. Here’s hoping that the extended episode is even better. We already know a bit about it, as the preview clip below shows.

QI is on at 22.00 on Friday night’s on BBC Two.

Reviews: Music Moguls; Brian Pern: 45 Years of Prog and Roll

January 29, 2016 by  
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(Contains strong language)

With the recent passing of so many stars from the world of rock n roll, including Glen Frey, Lemmy and of course Mr Bowie (to name only a few), it is apt that the BBC has just finished broadcasting 2 series taking a look behind the curtain of the world of music and the music business.

The first, Music Moguls, is a reveal of the those mysterious jobs associated with rock and pop acts, the manager, the producer and PR, which many of us know very little about. Each episode is presented by a major name from each career path, Simon Napier Bell (Manager), Nile Rodgers (Producer) and Alan Edwards (PR).

Learning how these cats operate and how the roles have evolved from the 60’s (which is apparently when music was invented) to the present day is fascinating. The way ,anagers emerged from being little more than thugs and gangsters, to being slick businessmen but still negotiating like heavyweights, the delicate artistry of the producer and machiavellian craftiness of the PR agent, can only intrigue and illuminate any music fan.

Each presenter brings his own insights and connections to each show, and as they are top notch players, the musical acts interviewed are too The Osbournes, Pet-Shop Boys, Mark Ronson), giving the Music Moguls a lustre other documentaries do not have. All in all a fine series with each part hitting the mark, though the best is Nile Rodgers take on the producer; Rodgers is such an influential name and has produced so many top acts (Bowie, Madonna, Pharell) that his observations really sparkle and delight the viewer. It’s also amusing that after working with so many of the world’s elite pop acts that his favourite are Duran Duran.


A lighter look at the industry is Brian Pern: 45 Years of Prog and Roll. The third series of Fast Show alumni, Rhys Thomas and Simon Day’s, fly on the wall comedy about that stalwart of British cultural life, the ageing rocker.

This particular triptych focuses on Pern’s (Day) 45 year anniversary as a musician but really it just continues where the last 2 series left off, Thomas as the brazenly manipulative doc’ maker following the childlike but self-centred rock star as he meanders through his life and career, making bad decision after bad decision.

Brian Pern is a member of that species of comedies, where much like Steve Coogan’s Saxondale, there is not much laughter at the characters japes and misadventures, there is however a shit tonne of smiling. It’s nice, easy to watch and well made, but not brilliant.

The best moments come from the supporting cast, particularly Lucy Montgomery as Pern’s eccentric South American girlfriend, Pepita. The absolute stand out is Michael Kitchen who bristles with boredom as the Prog stars long-time manager, John Farrow and is a genuinely brilliant comic creation.

Indeed, I think if you took Kitchen away from the show, it would fall very, very flat, which is really the fault of the scripts. They plod along nicely but a lot of it seems like filler between gags on a sketch show and much of the comedy comes from the star qualities of its guest appearances (big shout out to Peter motherfucking Bowles!) and the choices they make more than the actual comic writing.

Rhys Thomas, who wrote and directed the series has been in the comedy game for 20 years now, and is in the unique position of being part of The Fast Show gang while also being a relatively young writer with much time to develop. The fact that he is survived for so long in the cut throat world of comedy, demonstrates to this reviewer that he probably will and I expect him to be around for a very long time, like some sort of Barry Cryer 2.0, a remnant of the good old days, who comes to prominence once his more talented peers have passed away. Sorry Rhys, that’s harsh.

QI: Series M, Episode 12 – Medieval and Macabre

January 24, 2016 by  
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This week’s episode examined the more gruesome side of live.

Joining Stephen and Alan this week were Matt Lucas, David Mitchell, and French-Australian TV presenter Julia Zemiro (who previously appeared on QI twice in Series J), were answering questions covering the middle ages and more macabre subjects. Topics under discussion included how airline staff deal with dead bodies, the original iron maiden, the mummy that needed to have its feet sawn off to fit into its sarcophagus, and what Pavlov did not do to his dogs.

Overall the episode was alright. It was not the greatest, but there was the odd moment in it that made it worth watching, such as Alan tricking Stephen into thinking that the Duchess of Cambridge was born in a pre-fab, or Stephen displaying his typical style of ignorance when he revealed that he did not know what a Mini Milk was.

David Mitchell was always going to impress in an episode about medieval times due to his passion for history, while Matt Lucas was the funniest guest partly due to him continuously annoying Stephen in little ways. Julia Zemiro tended not offer much in this episode sadly, or at least that is how it felt in this edit.

This episode therefore feels like a bit of a mixed bag.

The Story of China

January 21, 2016 by  
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The Story of China

Ahh Michael Wood, a creator of calm, informative television and a fine exponent of Reithian values. Whether presenting a historical series about Alexander the Great or a documentary on Hitler’s search for the Holy Grail, he is a knowledgeable and engaging presenter, who guides his audience through his films with the inoffensive, confident charm of a Gentleman Gerbil leading his mother across a zebra crossing.

In his latest series, The Story of China, Mr Wood takes us on another epic journey through one of the world’s most interesting and indeed oldest cultures. And with an economy that promises (or threatens, depending on your world view) to soon take over the States as the planet’s dominant force, it is high time we had an intelligent peak into what makes this nation tick.

The first episode of this six parter takes us back 4000 years to the very birth of China, to a land divided amongst feuding Warlords and Kings before finally being united (sort of) under the mythical first dynasty of the Xia.

We learn how archaeologists discovered evidence of Xia’s actual existence and how they form a link to the first historically documented dynasty the Shang and then onto the Zhou and why this matters in light of what is known as ‘The Mandate of Heaven’.

Whether or not this evidence is real, matters little to you or me but to the people of China it is a matter of extreme significance. Following the liberalisation of the State and the new love affair with western culture, the last few years have been ones of huge change and excitement but this can sometimes be overwhelming to a society that is traditionally insular. So along with the attempts to modernise and welcome the outside world, there has also been an upsurge in how things were done in the past and the teachings of Confucius and any traceable link back to these so called-simpler times, acts as a salve to the relentless march forward into capitalism.

The subtext being that whether these discoveries prove to be true or not, the Government (a one party state, you must remember), will endorse them in order to keep a population of nearly 1.5 billion people, who after years of censorship are now being exposed to the knowledge of the internet; and thanks to the power of Virtual Private Networks there is nothing the Great Firewall can do about it. So inculcating a spirit of respect for your elders and the State is imperative to avoid the tinder box igniting.

It is going to be interesting to see how The Story of China will develop, Wood has been given some great access from the Chinese, who will have exerted some measure of control in exchange, but will he produce a complete party friendly hagiography or will he be able to slip in some subversive truths here and there? His closing line hints that maybe he will.

The Story of China airs at 21.00 on Wednesday nights on BBC Two.

The Town That Took on the Taxman

January 20, 2016 by  
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The Town That Took on the Taxman 1

How can this not be an appealing title for a show? Maybe not so much pre 2008 but in the eight years that have passed since the global depression, anyone with a social conscience or even a slight concern over current affairs has an interest in the relationship between HRMC and Big Business.

We know that companies like Google, Starbucks and Amazon pay merely nominal levels of tax (or in the case of Café Nero, nothing at all)  and how the vast sums of revenue not collected could pay off Britain’s deficit in one huge brown paper bag stuffed with lovely, lovely cash.

The majority of the general public hear terms like ‘loop hole’, ‘tax break’ and ‘scheme’ with only a vague understanding of what they mean, but economics is a tricky subject based on theory, opinion and guess work more than cold hard facts. This makes it very hard for the uninitiated to understand the esoteric maneuverers of international tax law.

The Town That Took on the Taxman, seeks to explain these arcane practices, but like a cross between The Money Programme and a Jamie Oliver style food campaign show, it also seeks to expose the legislation that allows a company like Google to pay less corporation tax in the UK than a your local independent coffee shop (if you are lucky enough to have such a thing).

Descending on the small town of Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons, where Boots is the “only chain in the village”, Heydon Prowse (The Revolution Will Be Televised) teams up with a group of local business men and women to not only learn how the big boys do it but to also encourage them to set up their own off-shore company to reduce their tax to more multinational level of taxation.

Vexed morally and financially, the group travel the globe educating themselves with the special magic of the tax lawyer before setting up their own fully legal tax dodge.  The implication being that if they can, then really anyone can, thus forcing the Government to address the lack of parity between big and small business.

It is a simple show, formulaic in structure but striking in content, especially when we meet the (very charming) specialists and experts who advise the likes of Amazon on how not to contribute their fair share. The Crickhowell locals are all interesting and strong characters and even though the producers deemed fit to manufacture some tension between them, they give up this tired trope pretty quickly as they realise they have proper show on their hands and re focus on the amiable Mr Prowse as he guides the group in their endeavour.

I would love to see this show make an impact on our society and it really should, but the British Public can’t let go of being subjects and really embrace being citizens, so I fear we will continue to be patronised by our betters and the con of the ‘trickle-down’ effect.

QI: Series M, Episode 11 – Menagerie

January 17, 2016 by  
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Many episodes of QI cover the same themes that occur in every series. There will always be an episode concerning geography, one concerning history, and a few that have no central theme at all. This week it was the episode devoted to animals.

Joining Stephen Fry and Alan Davies this time were Bill Bailey, Sue Perkins and Romesh Ranganathan. On this week’s episode they talked about selfies taken by monkeys, why humans have nearly twice the average number of legs as most animals, how tigers are being used to reintroduce a type of deer into China, the world’s deadliest moustaches, and the extraordinary migration of the North American blue grouse – all 300 yards of it.

As with last week, we see the benefits of the longer XL version of the show over the normal edition, as in the 30-minute long episode it seemed that Ranganathan was rather quiet, but in the extended episode he really shines, mainly talking about his time before he took to comedy when he was a maths teacher, complete with stories about parents giving him permission to hurt their children. Bailey however was the best panellist in terms of knowledge, as it is well known that he has a great love of animals.

The one thing about this episode that really sticks out however, is there was a fair amount of stuff that was rather disgusting. The first question talked about how a male moose attracts a female by rubbing its legs with urine-soaked mud, while in the General Ignorance round they showed a picture of someone having a nematode worm removed from their eye, worms that can be up to 7cm long.

A therefore diverse episode of QI this week, in terms of the panel and the topics on discussion.

QI is on every Friday at 22.00 on BBC Two.

QI: Series M, Episode 10 – Making a Meal of It

January 10, 2016 by  
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This week’s episode of QI, focusing on food, makes for some surprising and interesting viewing. Some panellists I wasn’t expecting much form managed to do well.

The guests this week were Cariad Lloyd, Phill Jupitus, and Dermot O’Leary, who talked about the world’s first feast, the most expensive piece of meat, the creature that likes to eat Big Cock shrimp paste, a creature that has 29 nipples, and the dangers of slicing off your own buttocks. We also got to see Stephen Fry performing another magic trick, this time using milk.

The panellist that most surprised me was O’Leary. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from him, and watching the standard edition of the show it looked like that was the case, but when watching the XL edition you see that he has a lot of knowledge. One of the best moments was him talking about the International Space Station, interviewing astronauts and talking about the somewhat sexist problems with the construction of the ISS.

However, it has to be said that this week probably the funniest panellist was Alan Davies. Alan often gets overlooked by everyone else but this week he really stood out, whether it was talking about his father being attacked by an adder on a golf course, his annoyance at his microwave, or the joy of seeing a joey jumping headfirst into his mother’s pouch.

Be warned however, don’t watch this episode or the below clip if, like Cariad Lloyd, you are arachnophobic.

QI is on Friday nights at 22.00 on BBC Two.

QI: Series M, Episode 9 – Messing with your Mind

January 3, 2016 by  
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The latest edition of QI is personal favourite, as I happened to be at this recording personally: a miracle given the gigantic demand for tickets this show has. The last time I managed to QI tickets was back in Series F.

This week’s episode covered the mind, and featured Sarah Millican, Josh Widdicombe and making his debut Irish stand-up Tommy Tiernan as the guests. Among the issues up for discussion between themselves, Stephen, and Alan, included the idea that love at first sight is something of a myth, why making something rhyme makes it more believable, how to pass an exam consisting of just “True or False” questions, and why you should never provide a supercomputer definitions from Urban Dictionary.

Tommy was the stand-out guest of the three, providing some memorable moments such as the difference between fact and truth, as demonstrated by the time he clearly remembers of his father dangling him off the side of a boat, or when he tried to spend one summer teaching a cat to play snap. Stephen meanwhile displayed a series of magic tricks using various machines to print banknotes, while we audience members had to undergo (and humiliate ourselves) during a memory test.

Speaking of memory tests, it was good to watch the show again because there was quite a bit that I could not remember from the original recording which was over six months ago. The main bit I remembered was “The Rhyme as Reason Effect”, which is where you are more likely to believe a statement if it rhymes (e.g. “no pain, no gain”). Reliving the experience helps to cement the information that was expressed.

QI is on BBC Two at 22.00 on Friday nights.

Preview: Harry Hill in Professor Branestawm Returns

December 24, 2015 by  
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Professor Branestawm 1

After last year’s well-received one-off, Harry Hill returns this Christmas Eve for another outing as eccentric inventor Professor Branestawm. This time round, there’s a rival on the scene, in the form of Steve Pemberton’s villainous Professor Algebrain, and Branestawm must defeat him in an inventing competition to win a cash prize and settle his spiralling debts.

It is fair to say that this will be a pretty Marmite affair, dependent very much on whether you find Hill’s brand of inoffensive, zany, slapstick-silliness funny, or a total turn-off. I’ve long been a fan, and so was pleasantly surprised, watching it on iPlayer on about the sixth of January last year – more out of a sense of loyalty than anything else –to find it actually very funny.

Even if you are a Harry Hill fan, there’s still a veritable roll-call of overexposed stars of BBC light-entertainment – David Mitchell, Simon Day, Bob Mortimer, Vicki Pepperdine, Charlie Higson, to name a few, so you might be forgiven if, with Doctor Who, Strictly, Sherlock, QI, Call The Midwife et al looming on the horizon, you decide to forego yet another hour of safe BBC Christmas cosiness.

Still, it’s worth a watch, with more bonkers inventions, wacky characters and charmingly low-budget effects – a scene where the Professor’s myriad unpaid bills all come to life is wonderfully cheap and naff looking.

Madeline Holliday is back as the Prof’s gifted young sidekick, and handles her role with assurance, as she battles to try and get Branestawm to remember that she exists.

Ultimately, you know what you’re getting with this sort of thing, so tune in at your discretion. If for some reason you’re unsure, try the following joke for size:

Professor, we’ve really got to knock the judges’ socks off!’

‘Aha, then I’ve just the thing! What do you think?’

 ‘What is it?’

‘It’s a machine for knocking people’s socks off!’

Cue said machine promptly punching the Professor in the face, knocking him to the floor and causing his socks to fly off. If you find such wilfully silly humour amusing, chances are you’ll enjoy Professor Branestawm Returns. If not, well then you’re in luck. They’re showing Scrooge on Channel Five…

Harry Hill in Professor Branestawm Returns airs at 17.20 on Christmas Eve.

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