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image credit Daniel Lynch

image credit Daniel Lynch

Last year I did a series of posts concerning what I’ve learned about British Christmas traditions from watching telly and movies. It was fun to put together and some of you seemed to enjoy it so I thought I’d tackle Halloween this time around. But what makes the British celebration of Halloween different from the American version?

Let’s begin with that old autumnal standby – bobbing for apples (or as I’ve read it’s called in the North, apple ducking).

While not a foreign concept in the US,  it’s been a very long time since I attended an event that included this activity. Once a wholesome, childhood party game, the preoccupation many parents have with germs (real and imagined) have curtailed this particular sort of entertainment, I assume. In the UK, however, it seems trying to snag an apple floating in a tub of water has been transformed into a more adult game and possibly even the newest extreme sport.

 

And in the strange world of Gary:Tank Commander at least, the apple “dooking” contest is the highlight of the 104th Royal Tank Regiment’s Halloween party. There’s a coveted trophy and bragging rights to be won for the side who can retrieve the most apples. The teams even have apple-themed names such as “Gordon’s Delicious”, “Ray Burns’ Braeburns” and “Gary Smiths”.

 

To avoid confusion, the demonic little girls have nothing to do with the dooking portion of the episode. They’re just there to freak us out.

Regardless of what you call this game in your part of the world or even what type of apple you think is optimal for ducking (it’s Gala according to the Telegraph), it’s a nostalgic Halloween tradition we share on both sides of the pond. Fond or traumatic memories about your experiences with water logged fruit are appreciated.

Next time…Trick or Treat.

Nicknames are universal as a way of indicating affection or familiarity. These substitute names can be inspired by personality traits or physical characteristics. They can stem from a particular incident or quirk; in these cases, it’s more likely a form of ridicule rather than endearment. Nicknames can even arise from an inability to pronounce a name. For example, I have an aunt whose younger brother couldn’t say the word “sister” properly. He called her Seto instead and the new moniker stuck. Children and adults alike call her this despite the fact her given name is Glenda.

The most common sort of nickname is an abbreviation or modification of the original name – Jeffrey becomes Jeff, Daniel to Dan, James turns to the diminutive Jimmy. I named my daughter Margaret with the express intention of calling her Maggie instead. We just figured everyone would assume her given name was Margaret and made it official to save her the aggravation.

So I will grant you that if given names are personal and unique, nicknames can be even more so. This is what brings me to the point of this post. What’s the significance of the British tendency to add “zza” to shortened versions of people’s names? Does it work with every name or only certain letter combinations?  And should Piers Morgan actually be called Pizza Morgan instead?

Allow me demonstrate with a few notable examples within the UK entertainment world:

Jeremy Clarkson is Jezza

J. Clarkson  image credit BBC

image credit BBC

Cheryl Cole becomes Chezza

C. Cole  image credit Gary Moyes

image credit Gary Moyes

Laurence Fox transforms into Lozza

image credit Granada Television

image credit Granada Television

Paul Gascoigne, more famously known as Gazza

image credit ITV

image credit ITV

As I understand it, these nicknames are often employed in the tabloid press; however, I’ve seen characters in movies and on TV that demonstrate this use of “loose ties to a person’s name with an attached suffix.” One example that comes to mind is WPC Sharon Granger from Ashes to Ashes.

Sharon, affectionately referred to as Shaz or Shazza

image credit Kudos Television and BBC

Montserrat Lombard as Sharon Granger image credit Kudos Television and BBC

My question to those of you in the know is, where did this come from? Is it a trend or has “zza” always been a nickname suffix? Is it reserved for people who are often a bit full of themselves? And more importantly, if I came to England and made some good friends, would they insist on calling me Cazza?

TeaWe all know tea is the non-alcoholic beverage of choice of the British people. In the Wikipedia entry for Tea in the United Kingdom, they address the common held misconception that “much of the time in the United Kingdom, tea drinking is not the delicate, refined cultural expression that some might imagine: a cup (or commonly a mug) of tea is something drunk often.” So for those who think tea is only presented on a silver tray and served in flowery porcelain china like Downton Abbey, think again. Tea is the great British equalizer and national addiction.

My own relationship with tea is slightly complicated. When I was growing up, I associated hot tea with illness. If my sister or I got a stomach bug, my mom would make us sweet hot tea and toast. Actually, we were more of an iced tea family.  I know, it’s a travesty what Americans do to the revered leaf, but I still maintain iced tea a tasty and refreshing drink to be enjoyed especially with lunch or dinner. In my routine, coffee is a must for breakfast and hot tea is reserved for chilly evenings or when I have a cold or upset tummy.

On telly, tea paraphernalia is almost certainly the most common prop and, as my son asserts, provides situations wherein exposition can be presented to the audience. Maybe so, but why tea rather than fizzy drinks, water or milk for example?  I started to ponder about the actual frequency at which tea is consumed in the UK and, more importantly, in what circumstances. Therefore, I set a task for myself to watch a varied sampling of British TV in order to glean tea data from them. I’m practically a sociologist really…

Before I discuss my observations, one interesting non-finding was that sketch comedy shows are virtually tea-free zones. I watched one episode of Smack the Pony and one of Man Stroke Woman and while I saw plenty of beer, I didn’t detect a single mug of the other kind of brew. Are we to extrapolate from this that tea just isn’t funny? Or perhaps tea preparation is too time consuming for a sixty second sketch? Please feel free to comment on my hypotheses about the laugh potential of tea at the end of the post.

Now on to the meat of my deductions (This is an attempt at being clever but only if you are aware that some working class folks, at least at one time, referred to their evening meal as a meat tea). There appear to be a range of reasons why the British drink tea aside from hydration or something with which to wash down a dry digestive biscuit.

Tea drinking can be a part of your daily routine. The first show I watched was an episode of the sitcom Roger and Val Have Just Got In starring Alfred Molina and Dawn French as a rather quirky middle-aged married couple whom we follow around for their first half hour upon returning home. The pair are usually coming in from work, and as they prepare to settle in for the evening, Roger puts the kettle on. The making and consuming of the warm milky beverage is a component of every episode I’ve seen and is obviously part of a winding down ritual for this couple who are most definitely creatures of habit.

Roger and Val relaxing with their after work cuppa image credit BBC

Roger and Val relaxing with their after work cuppa
image credit BBC

 

The offer of a cup of tea is also a sign of hospitality or caring for someone. When a visitor crosses the threshold of a British person’s domicile, the kettle is immediately put on to boil, a common courtesy that everyone recognizes.

If you are a good spouse or parent as the Starlings patriarch Terry seems to be,  you bring a lovingly prepared brew to your wife or children before they rise in the morning. Notice the shiny electric kettle always at the ready in the background.

Starlings

New grandparents Jan and Terry Starling taking a tea break image credit Baby Cow Productions

 

Now let’s say your spouse has been found dead under suspicious circumstances. When bad news has to be broken, there’s often a police officer on hand to make you a comforting hot beverage in your own home.  When you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room while your parent is undergoing a long and risky brain surgery procedure, a cup of lovely steaming tea is likely to be your only companion as you wait with your stomach in knots for news from the operating theatre.

As you may have guessed, I found police and medical dramas to be the environments were the tea flowed most generously per capita. Aside from the fact that the cup gives you something to do with your hands, a soothing mug of PG Tips (or your own favorite brand) provides a comforting, albeit wet, hug to those in stressful situations. I watched an episode of Monroe for the hospital setting and Blue Murder to represent the crime drama genre. Mugs and paper carryout cups were pervasive in most scenes and though I’m sure there was a latte or two thrown in to keep hard-working doctors and coppers alert, most cups had tea bag tags dangling from their rims.

Monroe dashing off to work with traditional tea and toast breakfast image credit ITV

Monroe dashing off to work with traditional tea and toast breakfast
image credit ITV

 

Speaking of hard work, you might also find yourself gasping for a cup of tea after performing a particularly strenuous murder.

 

I must then conclude that, for the British, tea is more than a drink. It is a conduit to personal contact and the cure for all that ails you. It’s an awful lot of pressure to put on such a small leaf, I know but tea has gained and retained its formidable reputation over many years. In fact, there’s a song that sums up pretty much everything I have just spent so much time putting into words. Perhaps you too know The Tea Song?

 

This post has been in the back of mind for literally years, ever since I found out there was a sequel to my favorite British TV series of all time, Life on Mars. For those who haven’t seen LOM, first of all, shame on you. Here’s the premise in a nutshell.

 

What held up the writing was that I couldn’t find a way to watch Ashes to Ashes for the longest time. It wasn’t available on Region 1 DVD as Life on Mars was and no one had put it on YouTube. Those facts alone made me suspect that Ashes to Ashes wasn’t nearly as good as LOM. However, my on-line friends kept telling me that to completely understand Life On Mars and what happened to Sam Tyler you had to watch Ashes to Ashes where all would finally be revealed.

And then early this year, Hulu Plus added Ashes to Ashes to its growing stable of British programming. I deliberated for quite some time before I decided to shell out the $8 a month. Time got away from me for a bit but I finally freed up my schedule and delved into two dozen one hour episodes, the same amount of time necessary for the earth to rotate on its own axis. It may not sound daunting, but despite what I lead you all to believe, I do have a life outside of watching telly and it took a good few months to get through it all.

But once I got a few episodes under my belt, I became well invested in the story of the critically wounded police officer Alex Drake and her attempts to get back to her daughter Molly.

 

After watching Ashes to Ashes, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Once Alex got over her “you’re all imaginary constructs” phase, I really liked her character. I appreciated the significant development of LOM supporting characters Ray Carling and Chris Skelton. And if I’m not mistaken Gene Hunt was noticeably kinder and gentler, perhaps due to having and attractive female DI by his side.

Nonetheless, this post is about who did it best so in determining which series is superior, I thought it might be interesting to devise some head to head match-ups of varying elements of each show and see how they fare. It’s the best way I could think of to evaluate the merits of each in as objective a manner as possible.

 

Hallucinatory characters who show up to scare the bejesus out of us

Ashes to Ashes creepy Bowie clown image credit Kudos Film and Television

Ashes to Ashes’ creepy Bowie clown
image credit Kudos Film and Television

 

Life on Mars' creepy test card girl image credit Kudos Film and Television

Life on Mars’ creepy test card girl
image credit Kudos Film and Television

 

I think we can agree that clowns are universally considered frightening and the object of many a childhood nightmare. One of the most disturbing dreams I can recall in my whole life  involved clowns. Ashes to Ashes‘ Pierrot-style clown doesn’t fit the traditional stereotype as a fool, but instead a rather menacing character who at one point actually chases Alex Drake through the London streets.

Upon initial observation the test card girl, on the other hand, is just a lass with an ominous-looking clown doll. But we all know kids can be creepy as well; that’s why they cast so many in horror movies after all. There she’ll be, playing naughts and crosses on the TV screen with her companion when the broadcast day is done. (Yes, youngsters! There was a time when there was nothing shown on television in the middle of the night.) Then all of sudden she’s standing over a sleeping Sam Tyler saying something spooky.

The test card girl made appearances in both series of Life on Mars notably showing up at the end of the finale as well. The Ashes to Ashes clown faded out after the first series leaving Alex to be haunted by other less obvious but more nefarious demons. It’s a close call but I reckon the peculiar girl with the frightening rag doll wins this one.

 

David Bowie Song 

 Both series are named after David Bowie songs so this match-up is merely a matter of personal preference. Which do you like better, Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes?

 

 

My vote goes to Life on Mars since I’ve always liked the tune even before I saw the show. It’s also used to very good effect it in the climax of the last episode of the series.

 

Cortina vs Quattro

The guv in both series is DCI Gene Hunt and the possession he treasures more than anything else in the world is his car. In Life on Mars, Hunt speeds through the streets of 1970’s Manchester in his mint condition Ford Cortina.

 

In the 80’s, Gene has moved on to an Audi Quattro and seems even more enamored of this motor. So much so that the car becomes part of his vocabulary. Hunt is often heard to say “Fire up the Quattro!” and has even been known to use the make of his car as a verb.

 

On this one, I’m going to come down on the side of Ashes to Ashes. The Quattro is a character in and of itself and serves its master well. Besides I prefer the red of the Audi to the orangy-gold of the Cortina.

 

The Railway Arms vs Luigi’s

 After a hard day nicking villains, coppers need a place to unwind. For the  Life on Mars officers that place is the Railway Arms, a traditional pub for hardworking men. The barman at this establishment is Nelson, a native of Manchester, who puts on a Jamaican accent for the pleasure of his patrons. Nelson is something of a guide to Sam Tyler giving him advice that can apply to his 1970’s life as well of his struggle to get back to is own time.

Nelson and Sam at the Railway Arms image credit Kudos Film and Television

Nelson and Sam at the Railway Arms
image credit Kudos Film and Television

 

The Ashes to Ashes ‘ CID meet at Luigi’s, an Italian bar and restaurant across the street from the station. They maintain a substantial tab and wake Luigi up at all hours to serve them as if his place is their own private watering hole. Luigi has a soft spot for Alex and has been known to play matchmaker between her and Gene by placing the couple in the dark and romantic corners of his restaurant. He isn’t mystical like Nelson, but he’s a good friend to his local coppers.

Proprietor Luigi caters to the Gene Hunt's squad image credit Kudos Film and Television

Proprietor Luigi caters to the Gene Hunt’s squad
image credit Kudos Film and Television

 

I’m actually going to go with Luigi’s on this one for two reasons. Number one – Luigi’s does proper food not just crisps. Number two – he has an awesomely tacky mural covering one wall, an array of mediocre portraits of famous Italians from John Travolta and Frank Sinatra to Al Pacino and Sofia Loren.

And now for the tie breaker…

 Bromance or Romance?

DCI Hunt has very complicated relationships with his DIs on both series. Sam Tyler is smart, professional modern police officer plopped down in early 70’s Sweeny-land. Gene is accustomed to being the king of his castle and doesn’t care for Tyler’s newfangled methods or politically correct attitudes. Understandably there’s a bit of a clash when these two lawmen meet.

Alex Drake is in a similar situation but she has the advantage of knowing about the Sam Tyler case and so doesn’t spend so much of her energy in a total state of bewilderment. She too has frequent squabbles and run-ins with her superior officer; however, their encounters are quite often exacerbated by sexual tension. It doesn’t help that the women’s movement is almost thirty years behind what she’s accustomed to. Just look at what she has to wear!

 

 

When it comes down to it, I have to choose the bromance of Sam and Gene.  I found the Hunt and Tyler interactions more entertaining and, to be quite honest, the will they/won’t dichotomy between Hunt and Drake has been played out a thousand times before. I believe Gene taught Sam how to really live which is ironic (but I’ll stop there to avoid spoiling the ending for those who haven’t seen it yet). And Sam taught Gene how to be a better officer and a better man which, after what you learn in Ashes, really starts to make sense.

So there you have it. In my opinion, Life on Mars is the better show. That being said, I found Ashes to Ashes to be well worth watching and would recommend it highly, especially as a companion to its predecessor. Now it’s your turn to tell me what you think and possibly to inform me that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’d love to have a chat about both series so please comment at will.

If you’ve not seen either show, both are available on Hulu Plus or Netflix DVD. I guarantee you’ll love them too.

Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor  image credit BBC America

Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor
image credit BBC America

Peter Capaldi’s debut as the 12th Doctor is less than 24 hours away and I know there are still a few of you out there who are concerned about how a more mature actor will make the role his own. I have no advance knowledge of series 8 of course, but I’m here to say our beloved Time Lord is in good hands.

It has been highly publicized that Peter is a life-long Doctor Who fan so it’s reasonable to assume that this character is obviously very important to him. Capaldi comes to the Doctor Who franchise as an acclaimed actor and director of an Oscar-winning short film.

And while we’ve all probably heard about how Capaldi was cast as a W.H.O. doctor in the Brad Pitt zombie flick, World War Z,  you may not realize how often our newest Time Lord has played a doctor of one kind or another in the past.

For example, he played a medical doctor (albeit a quite unhinged one) in the dramedy Fortysomething. Dr. Ronnie Pilfrey was concerned with the business side of medicine and had something of an obsession with his colleague’s wife, but you’ve got to admire his energy and willingness to commit no matter how ridiculous the premise. Surely these are qualities required of  the newest Doctor.

Most of you are probably well acquainted with Malcolm Tucker, the spin doctor extraordinaire from the political satire series The Thick of It. Malcolm is an artist with words and though they are often quite naughty ones, his verbal dexterity is a skill that transfers well to being a time and space traveler. You never know when you might need to talk yourself out of a jam.

On the other hand, Dr. Pete from the mini-series The Field of Blood is an alcoholic old hack with the soul of a poet. I’m not certain how soulful this Doctor’s meant to be but he usually has a sensitive side for those who are oppressed or abandoned.

*Additionally after watching The Field of Blood in its entirety, I learned that Dr. Pete is so called because he has a doctorate in divinity. Spirituality and the Doctor? The dozen or so hits on the internet that discuss the theology of Doctor Who would indicate there’s at least a passing connection.

Last but not least Capaldi played the Therapist in Big Fat Gypsy Gangster. That skill set should come in handy when confronting angry aliens with Oedipal issues.

Peter also played a psychiatrist in Getting On but he was more an object of desire for Dr. Pippa Moore than a healing character. On second thought, female adoration is something the Doctor has had dealings with on more than one occasion.

So fear not my Whovian friends, all will be well. We have a professional Doctor stepping up to the plate this evening… or at least he’s played one on TV.

If you are a fan of the sci-fi/police drama series Life on Mars, you are no doubt familiar with this wonderfully funny and nostalgic scene which parodies the 1966 stop motion animation children’s show, Camberwick Green.

 

 

Here’s the real thing…

 

The creators of Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes must have a soft spot for classic British children’s programs because just the other night when I was watching the latter on Hulu I saw DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) reading a storybook about his DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes).

Ashes to Ashes' Gene Hunt reenacting Jackanory  image credit Kudos Television

Ashes to Ashes’ Gene Hunt reenacting Jackanory
image credit Kudos Television

 

Jackanory, a BBC children’s series from the mid-sixties, was intended to foster an interest in reading and may have been the inspiration for America’s own Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton.

While I had never heard of either of the shows referenced above until they were introduced in bizarre dream state scenarios,some British children’s telly has made its way to American shores and into my consciousness.

Public television stations used to broadcast the Thomas the Tank Engine stories which were full of English charm, especially when narrated by the legendary Ringo Starr. For some reason though they changed the name of the show to Shining Time Station.

 

I didn’t even mind The Teletubbies too much aside from their insistence to re-watch video clips on one another’s tummies “again, again”! Preschoolers love it; frazzled moms, not so much.  My daughter even owned a Tinky Winky doll – or whatever the purple one was called.

 

You can’t watch much British TV without hearing references to Blue Peter, The Wombles or The Magic Roundabout yet I still feel woefully inadequate in this area. When my kids were growing up our television was monopolized by PBS children’s programs, the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Believe me, by the time they outgrew Barney the Dinosaur and SpongeBob SquarePants and my British telly obsession was in full swing, the last thing I wanted to watch was television made for kids whether it was from the UK or not.

Although I don’t think I’d have any problems getting through all five series of the hilarious, yet educational, Horrible Histories.

 

So the favor I ask of you my dear readers is to help me fill in my very spotty knowledge of children’s programming in in the UK. Old or new, cartoons or live action, educational or just plain silly, which shows should I be aware of in order to retain my telly addict status? Please share your favorites in the comment section below. YouTube clip examples are most welcome.  Thank you in advance for furthering my education in the history of the British small screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As some of you might be aware, besides this disorganized, weird and wonderful blog I’ve created for my own pleasure, I also contribute to PBS affiliate WETA’s British TV and culture blog, Telly Visions.  There I mostly write reviews, recaps and miscellaneous articles of British entertainment interest.

My most recent post was a review of the film Cuban Fury which was released on DVD in the US earlier this week.

Cuban Fury Poster  image credit Studio Canal

Cuban Fury Poster
image credit Studio Canal

 

If you’d like to see what I had to say about this British salsa comedy or just want find out what I get up to over at Telly Visions, please click on the link directly below.  If nothing else, there’s a hilarious car park dance-off scene to look forward to.

Five Reasons You Should See ‘Cuban Fury’ | Telly Visions.

 

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who read, vote and comment on my posts. Your participation encourages me to keep doing what I love to do.

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