Harlequin’s Kiss in Autumn – Part One

•16 November, 2017 • Leave a Comment

It’s been a busy month for Harlequin’s Kiss, and I’d like to let you in on what’s been going on behind the scenes.

Firstly, we were booked for a spot at the Gunmakers Arms. This venue is one that we hold quite dear to our hearts as the place where we played our first ever gig and the local to our studio – we hold most of our band meetings there. The brewery that took it over a couple of years ago have been positioning the venue as a cultural hub, and part of that has been weekend music. Their Sunday evening shows are usually for two, hour-long sets. Being a tad short on material for a two-hour show, we picked up a country singer-songwriter that we met at an open mic night to warm up the crowd for us. With posters produced and a buzz among the regulars for our return, it was looking set to be our biggest show of the year.

While this was in the pipeline, Nathan, our rhythm guitarist, signed us up to a national music competition called Soundwaves. The contact with the industry that the competition boasted looked good, as did the potential opportunity to play on the main stage at an O2 Academy venue. Nathan filled out the forms with a link to our music, and they wrote back to us to say that all we had to do next was send them a live video.

Back in November 2016, we headlined a show at the Roadhouse at the behest of a friend of Mike (our lead guitarist). The idea was that this friend would record the show from the mixing desk. We had even arranged to film the gig with the hope of putting the finished show on youtube. Our old rhythm guitarist, Matt, owned the main camera and we hadn’t got around to picking the video files up from him, but this seemed like an opportunity to get the project kick-started again.

Ed and I headed out to the Black Country to grab a copy of the files, and were almost at Matt’s home when we got the bad news. The version that he had worked on on his laptop hadn’t saved properly and he had scrubbed the camera’s SD card to make space. The only video we had for this gig was a shaky mobile phone shot of the latter half.

The audio for the show hadn’t been mixed and mastered. I had been supplied with raw versions of every mic feed, but I had to assemble and engineer the production myself. I made the decision to match the nature of the phone footage better by not making quite as polished a mix as I had first envisaged. I had done the bulk of the work but I still had to do a final mix and sync it with the video. It looked like things were going to work out okay – until I did something very silly.

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Patrick Troughton was the best ever Doctor Who

•6 November, 2017 • 1 Comment

Rassilon appears to have smiled favourably on me, the timing working out such that I get to post this the day after the anniversary of Troughton’s début in the role. This is the second part of an ongoing series.

Patrick Troughton was the last of the era of created Doctors. From the 1970s onwards, there was always the expectation that Doctor Who would be played by a charismatic actor playing themselves. Troughton had a brief to work to, yet still made the character his own.

Consider this: recasting a lead role usually means keeping the same character and hoping that the audience adjusts. It has been done in soaps so many times, and by the late eighties and early nineties, sitcom Bread was re-casting at a rate of almost a role per series. Even Joey wasn’t safe. The way Doctor Who dealt with recasting could have gone spectacularly wrong. The production team had considered using the interference of a godlike being in the previous series to recast a similar actor to William Hartnell, but finally opted to “renew” the character, replacing Hartnell with a younger actor. But rather than simply rewinding the Doctor’s age, the production team and creator Sydney Newman went for a new personality. Backlash could have killed the series stone dead. It took a character actor of Troughton’s talent to keep the interest in the series.

I bear no ill will to Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, but Ben and Polly were among the least interesting of the Doctor’s companions across the 50 year run. The show was going to live or die on Troughton’s performance at a time when a changing Doctor was a revolutionary concept. The whimsical “space hobo” that Newman envisaged was such a completely different concept to the cantankerous grandfather that had preceded him that it would take real likeability and a little bit of mystery to keep the audience engaged – Troughton was able to provide both.

Often a show is loved by the audience because the actors’ pleasure in making it somehow bleeds out of the TV set. This was true of Robin of Sherwood, and it was true in many eras of Doctor Who. Troughton found an on-screen chemistry with Frazer Hines (who played companion Jamie for most of Troughton’s run) that kept the show fun to watch even as the production team turned late sixties Doctor Who from a whimsical children’s show to a tween horror series. And somehow Troughton was able to evolve the title character with this drastic change of tone. Doctor Who became a darker figure, but still kept his disarming, lop-sided smile and his fantastical charm.

That Doctor Who survived through the late sixties, against a change of lead and a shift in tone, is testament to Troughton’s work as a character actor, developing Sydney Newman’s brief and evolving it into a hero that could stand against the horrors. Troughton’s Doctor would still stand up in any era of the subsequent show – a gentle contrast to the military hardware of the early seventies, through to a reassuring teacher to Bill Potts. The “Nobody in the universe” scene with Victoria from Tomb of the Cybermen would still stand up in an episode today.

Improvements

•30 October, 2017 • Leave a Comment

It’s distressing how little I get out of the house at the moment. When I started this blog, way back in 2004, I was never short of things to post. I mean, I could keep up a weekly political commentary, but this was always meant to be a “day in the life” kind of blog. The fact that I’m only really leaving the house to sign on the dole and play gigs isn’t allowing me to have much in the way of adventures – “no money” means I can’t get up to too much mischief after shows.

After a badly disrupted few years, I’m working at getting my life back on track. It’s not easy. As I mentioned previously, I’m not settled into my new home yet and I’m suffering from the most serious bout of insomnia I’ve had in 16 years of shitty sleep. At least the insomnia seems to be easing off a bit – I’m getting to sleep within two hours every other night and only waking up in the middle once on most nights. It’s still horrible, but it’s an improvement on sleeping for four hours every other night.

Obviously, this doesn’t leave me with a lot of energy to get things done during the day. I have a long list of things to do, and my usual paralysis over what to address first is kicking in as well. My days are far less productive than I’d like.

On the other hand, I think I’m starting to find myself again. Losing parts of what I considered to be “me” has come at an unfortunate stage of my life. Developmentally, you become a complete person at 25, apparently. But my A-level psychology teacher said that your personality isn’t set in stone until you’re 30. I worry that I can’t separate becoming mature from the psychological damage I’ve suffered over that intervening five years. Given that the damage is manifesting as mental blocks over certain things, I’m not certain what inhibitions I should be losing for my own good and which ones would constitute obnoxiously pretending I’m still in my early twenties if I lost them. Nevertheless, I’m finding time and enthusiasm for things that I had let fall by the wayside. The fact that I’m blogging regularly again after a hiatus of around a year (my summer political rants don’t count) is a symptom of that. I’m also managing to put some mundane things back in my life that I used to be able to peg my week to. Maybe a little bit of routine will kick-start me into some serious productivity.

Of course, now that winter is setting in, we’re on the long drag to the grand disruption that is Christmas. Necessary though it is, it’s hard to live in the “now” rather than think of myself as setting up the dominoes to fall in the new year. Keeping this blog going is a start, I suppose. I just hope I can find better things to write about.

Being Candid

•23 October, 2017 • 1 Comment

Sometimes it’s hard to be candid. A long time ago I was a lot more anonymous (damn social media!) and felt that I could spill a lot more personal detail about my life. Now I can be traced and, even if I did keep giving them pseudonyms, a lot of the other actors in my life can be traced.

In the light of recent events, and social media hashtags, you could be forgiven for thinking that I was about to begin some kind of confessional here. Frankly, I have both not a lot and too much to say about society and the way we interact, and my commentary on parliamentary politics dominates this blog enough without getting into social politics as well.

Really, the need not to be candid extends to other people’s privacy and also the public needs of the band. Much as I like to give a window behind the scenes on here, sometimes letting the public see that candidly doesn’t always fit well when you’re trying to give off a professional image. Not that anything bad has happened, mind you, just that when you’re trying to present a swan’s grace, it’s detrimental to always show how furiously you’re paddling underneath.

For that matter, blogging publicly can also be detrimental to a jobseeker. As I look for a day job to fund my projects, sometimes I worry that I shouldn’t talk to much about the slings and arrows of my constant battle with my mental health. Better that I pretend everything is fine and that I never make bad decisions and that I’m always firing on all cylinders.

But I’ve started now, so let’s be candid. I can’t sleep. For the last few months, I’ve been unable to sleep at all at night. Sometimes I’ve flaked out for a few hours mid morning only to be dragging myself through the afternoon and evening, staring at the ceiling at night rather than sleeping, and crashing for a few hours at the wrong time the next day. I’ve heard all the standard advice. To the point where I want to punch people for telling me the same endless stream of shit about sleep hygiene as if it’s a magic fucking cure. I know how fucking sleep hygiene works and it’s not doing a damn thing. I’ve tried taking it to extremes, and the result has been that I might sleep fitfully every other night, after taking anything from three to five hours to get under. I’ve not been at my best for a very long time.

I’ve tried herbal pills. My diet’s been better than it has been for years. I’m not going jogging for any fucker so don’t even dare to suggest it. Add to that a depressive listlessness and you can see why I’m barely managing to put one foot in front of the other with my day to day life.

The truly sad thing here, of course, is that I can still say I count as “functioning”.

The Crystal Maze

•16 October, 2017 • 2 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to give the new Crystal Maze a look. I’d avoided the celebrity specials because I despise them on principle, but I thought it was only fair to give the proper version an airing. I watched two episodes in a sitting, so that’s got to count in its favour. The format is exactly the same as the original series, for good or ill. I was hoping for a new zone, but I suppose for nostalgia purposes they wanted the show to be as close to the original as possible.

The big change is, of course, Richard Ayoade as the presenter. His style is less immersive, and he treats the whole thing as the TV game show it is rather than acting as if he’s a part of the Maze. Really, the appeal of Richard O’Brien was the fantasy of it all, so I’m not sure if Ayoade presenting it in this way is a cowardly decision – assuming that viewers will only watch this old format ironically. Still, I suppose I can rank Ayoade as my third favourite presenter…

I must admit, what I’d most like to talk about was the second episode I watched, which featured a team of “cosplayers”. (They were, ahem, a rather specialist kind of cosplayer, it has to be said, and their being shown “in character” on their introductory graphic let those of us who know of the subculture in on the joke…) Obviously, they were going to look a bit of a shit-show if they were shown a week after a team of martial arts instructors, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad. These guys are nerds! One of them designs puzzles for a living. And yet they only got 10 seconds in the Crystal Dome. If they hadn’t had lock-ins, it would still only have been 20. What I was expecting was The Big Bang Theory does The Crystal Maze, where they ace the other challenges in seconds flat, but were comically bad at the physical ones. I was half right.

Some of us nerds hate The Big Bang Theory for perpetuating negative stereotypes. I’ve got to say that, given the opportunity, we’re quite capable of doing it ourselves. They did have one guy on the team who could do physical games. The captain didn’t pick him the first two times. (Guess where the lock-ins happened…) Worse, the captain was a domineering control freak who distracted his team-mates by dictating from the outside, and didn’t listen to what they were saying while he was inside. Just to put the top hat on, for full Bing Bang effect, they constantly spoke in internet in-jokes (“Do the thing!” “I can’t number.”) that only American teenagers with no social skills actually say out loud in public. And for a team put together for an action game show, I was surprised that three out of five of them made my fat-bastard frame look svelte. But at least no-one said “lol”…

The Tory Conference

•9 October, 2017 • Leave a Comment

And now I return to politics, apparently. I suppose it was inevitable that the Conservative party conference would show quite what a mess they’re in. Theresa May getting a nasty cold and the letters of the mission statement falling off the wall behind her as she spoke look like an omen, frankly. But I want to analyse a bit deeper than random superstition.

In the months since the election, many seem to have lost sight of what actually happened as they go back to tribalist sniping. To recap: the Conservatives banged on about Brexit and the necessity of “strong and stable” leadership to take us through the negotiations. Labour, meanwhile, sensibly avoided the topic (that they’d been insipid about during the referendum period) and campaigned on an anti-austerity platform. Despite current constituency boundaries skewing the vote in Labour’s favour, Labour still came in with fewer seats than the Conservatives, but they’ve tried to spin it as a Labour victory anyway on the basis that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t have his arse completely handed to him. What the opinion polls were saying was that, although we as a nation are now sick of austerity, we still distrust Corbyn as a leader. A poll after the election suggested that this was because the public mood is centrist. So Labour, by vocally lurching to the left are doing themselves no favours. And May dragging the Tories to the right was already stuffing them before her piss-poor campaign. David Cameron might have walked a 2020 election, so long as the party displayed a little more social conscience.

Unfortunately, this leaves May caught between a rock and a hard place on multiple fronts. In the aftermath of the election, there are allegations that she lied to the Queen in promising DUP supply and confidence before she really had it when she asked to form a government. It came out just before the conference that Boris Johnson only refrained from making a direct challenge over the leadership because Cameron and George Osborne were backing Amber Rudd. And now Grant Shapps has gathered 30 out of the 48 signatures he’d need to force a leadership election. May should probably step down, but that would only cause further turmoil while we’re negotiating our exit from Europe. Furthermore, what the hell do you do with Johnson in her position? Johnson has made some serious diplomatic fuck-ups recently (who the hell recites Kipling on a diplomatic mission!?), but he always declares unswerving loyalty to the Prime Minister when he’s on the front bench. Would he continue to do so from the back benches? John Major is right to say that the party should sit down and back their leader, but only insofar as that’s the tactic to keep the Conservatives in power. In reality, May has not done enough to mitigate the party’s drastic failings on welfare reform, has not responded effectively to crises, and hasn’t slapped down an increasingly loose-cannon Foreign Secretary. This cannot continue for another three years.

William Hartnell was the best ever Doctor Who

•2 October, 2017 • 2 Comments

I’ll be doing posts like this monthly for a while. See here for the rationale.

This isn’t a tough argument to make, of course. William Hartnell was the first Doctor, but some would argue that that doesn’t make him necessarily the best. It’s natural for fans who have grown up with the series to gravitate towards their own first Doctor, “their Doctor”, as their favourite, but I believe Hartnell had something special that contributed heavily to a series originally commissioned for thirteen episodes becoming a part of the British consciousness for over fifty years.

Hartnell made his career playing “tough guy” roles, often hard-bitten military figures. Doctor Who was a different show for him, and a very different role. The dynamic of the characters was not the same as it is today. The focus, like any 1960s adventure series, was on a good-looking young man who could handle physical scenes. This was Ian Chesterton, a science teacher played by William Russell, who had previously been in Ivanhoe. Doctor Who was the title character because he was the central mystery of the show. He and his TARDIS were the means of getting the leads into trouble. Ian was the hero and the Doctor was an anti-hero, beginning almost as an antagonist.

It was Hartnell that made the character so compelling. The role needed the kind of bullish ability to stand his ground that Hartnell had cultivated in his previous roles, but the character’s likeability lay in the kindliness that Hartnell could switch to when dealing with his granddaughter, Susan. It was the fact that Hartnell could embody both of these qualities that allowed the series to develop into the formats that have kept it going for more than fifty years.

As the series evolved, the Doctor had changed from a devious old traveller who is most determined to get back to the TARDIS and away from danger, to a determined character who decides to stand against the Daleks following their invasion of Earth at the beginning of the second series. By the time Russell was replaced by Peter Purves (yes, that Peter Purves), the Doctor had already become a heroic lead, and this would have been unthinkable with an actor who had played the role in any different way. The grandfatherly manner had to contrast with the drill sergeant’s steel for the character as originally envisaged to become the moral centre of the show.

The first serial recognisable as modern Doctor Who is arguably 1966’s The War Machines. Other Doctors would seem out of place in some of Hartnell’s early adventures, but Hartnell is perfectly comfortable as the hero in the modern sci-fi adventure here. And his mannerisms as the Doctor still leap off the screen to this day. The way he grips his lapels and stares down his nose when challenged, the amused laugh after the villains leave the room, the switch from gentle teacher to wrathful god. If David Bradley can turn in Hartnell’s performance, I’ll be vindicated in saying that the First Doctor would still cut a powerful figure in modern Doctor Who.