Archive for the ‘Lessons’ Category

As you probably know the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio are officially underway. My family watched the opening ceremonies Friday night and I have to say I found the event a let down compared to the 2012 London spectacle. I mean Gisele Buchchen strutting across the stadium for what seemed like an eternity…or Her Majesty and James Bond parachuting into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium. It’s like they say, the Brits do pomp and pageantry extremely well.

A performer playing the role of Britain's Queen Elizabeth parachutes from a helicopter during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium July 27, 2012. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (BRITAIN - Tags: OLYMPICS SPORT)

image credit REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch


After all the samba dancing and selfie-sticks, the athletes are presumably back to focusing on their respective competitions. Years of training will come down to seconds in the pool or on the track; the scrutiny of judges regarding mechanics and style; or on which team has the better day on the court or pitch.

It occurs to me that, as in most things in life, British comedy offers important lessons that can apply to many aspects of human endeavor. Vital truths lie beyond the laughs and these can benefit anyone striving to excel in sport.

For example, A Bit of Fry and Laurie demonstrate how important it is to start your training with an experienced and reputable coach.


One of the major roadblocks to athletic excellence is fear as Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) so adeptly illustrates.


The late, great Victoria Wood (it still hurts my heart to say that) bears witness to the absolute necessity for an athlete to have a dedicated and reliable support system.


In this sketch Big Train‘s Simon Pegg and Kevin Eldon showcase how working tirelessly to get the little things right can pay big dividends in the end.


And finally, don’t despair if your athletic passion isn’t even on the list of sports recognized by the IOC yet. The cast of Not the Nine O’ Clock News encourages you to always keep in fighting form in anticipation of the day when you get to the opportunity to achieve your Olympic dream.


Best of luck (and laughter) to all the athletes competing in Rio!



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"The Library" is a planet sized book repository. Or is it? image credit BBC

“The Library” is a planet sized book repository. Or is it?
image credit BBC


As you probably already know, I work in a public library. I’ve talked about British related programs I’ve organized like the Time Lord Trivia Tournament, our British Car Day and, of course, the monthly gatherings of my support group for expats and lovers of British culture, Anglophiles United.

But when most people think of libraries, these fun, out-of-the-box activities are not what come to mind. They think of implacable librarians, drab in appearance and stern in attitude; scholarly and musty volumes, as dry in content as their fragile pages; and a vault-like atmosphere that is quiet as a tomb.

What follows are some British telly clips about libraries. I really had an enjoyable time searching for them. Some support the stereotypes above and others paint a more modern or friendly picture of libraries today.


Psychoville – Jeremy Goode (obsessive guardian of library material)


Later in this story, Jeremy actually shows up at the woman’s house hoping to recover her delinquent book. Real library staffers don’t actually fixate on things like this. People lose stuff all the time. We do send them to collections though if they misplace too many of the precious things of library and neglect to pay up of their own accord.


Mr. Bean – clumsy patron


Where I work, we don’t have such ancient and rare tomes and no gloves are required to touch anything on our shelves. That being said, we do unfortunately get items back in our book drop in less than pristine condition: food and beverage splatters, crayon scribbles, pages torn out and, yes, even sand under the plastic dust jacket of the book of the latest copy of ‘Girl on the Train’ or ‘Game of Thrones’.


Derek (and Kevin) – patrons with specific interests and tastes


We do get individuals like Derek who want to take out the same book over and over again. They are usually children, but Derek has a child-like quality about him. On the other end of the spectrum, we get blokes like Kevin in as well, but they are more likely to be using our computers to find  “adult images” than magazines.


The Old Guys – A mature, attractive librarian


We’re not all middle aged ladies in cardigans with glasses hanging on a chain around our necks.  In fact, harmless flirting has been known to happen across the circulation and reference desks. I work with women (and men) of various ages, fashion sense and style and temperaments. Some are enthusiastic and energetic while others are more reserved and timid. And believe it or not, there are some quite confident and ambitious librarians as well, rather like Barbara (Cherie Lunghi) the new librarian in the clip above.


Doc Martin – play group


Libraries don’t have to be deadly silent places, particularly in the children’s areas of the building. Young patrons are encouraged to sing, move and create. My library has a wide range of kids’ programming including infants and toddlers’ lap sit story times. You typically see mums with their little ones at events like this, but kudos to Dr. Ellingham for even showing up at a baby sing-a-long/play group.


Individual libraries, even within the same general area, can have very different amenities, rules and staffers. But universally, they are places for people who love books, stories, and learning. Besides being a full-time telly watcher, there’s no other job I’d rather have.

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Valco butchers Andy and Kieran are meat professionals image credit Roughcut TV

Valco butchers Andy and Kieran are meat professionals
image credit Roughcut TV


No, I’m not referring to the infamous meat scandal of 2013 which, in case you’re not aware, had something to do with a different variety of mammal flesh being found in British grocery stores’ frozen beef burgers and prepared meals.


Rather, the mystery meat to which I’m referring is mince. It may seem a trivial thing to focus on, but in the course of watching British telly recently I encountered the term several times.  Are they talking about the stuff they put in the pies at Christmas time, I wondered? That’s not even got actual meat in it anymore as far as I know. From the examples I saw, whatever mince may be it’s obviously an important ingredient used to impress people.

On the new ’70’s era sitcom The Kennedys, for example, mother Brenda (Katherine Parkinson) wants to put on the first ever dinner party in their housing estate. She charges her husband Tony (Dan Skinner) with preparing a dish called lasagna that she has a found a recipe for in a magazine. She tells him it calls for pasta (not in a tin) and, you guessed it,  “Mince. You know mince. You know it.” No, Brenda, sorry I don’t!

Dinner party guests look on at the exotic lasagna with mince image credit BBC

Dinner party guests look on at the exotic lasagna with mince
image credit BBC


The second time I came across mince was in an episode of Man Down. Daniel (Greg Davies) is trying to win back his girlfriend Naomi (Deirdre Mullins) and this is his plan which requires the assistance of his friends Brian (Mike Woniak) and Jo (Roisin Conaty). “You follow me to Nobby’s tomorrow, we drop the car off, we go back into town, I pick up some meat, you drive me back to Nobby’s, I drive my car back home, I cook us a meal, I put on some soft music, Naomi comes round, she likes the mince, next thing she knows, she’s married to me.”

Want to know how it all turned out? Sorry for the poor quality video…


Where I’m from we call this hamburger, ground beef (or pork or whatever). It’s a versatile source of protein to be sure.  Mince, however, sounds more delicate and I have to wonder if many of the fast food chains that have flourished here would have done so well if they were making their famous burgers from something called mince.


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Reece Shearshmith as DJ Mike King image credit BBC

 DJ Mike King
image credit BBC

Some years ago when I watched the amazing League of Gentlemen for the first time, there was a minor recurring character on the show called Mike King who happened to be a hospital DJ. We see him playing song dedications for patients such as ‘Bye Bye, Baby’ for a teenage girl having a termination and blackmailing a staff doctor to get him to attach an arm on his limb-challenged friend. If you know anything about LOG and their imaginary and darkly absurd world of Royston Vasey, you might have thought as I did – a DJ in a hospital is just something they made up.

I forgot all about it until recently when I started watching the geriatric Scottish sitcom, Still Game. One episode in particular from series four called ‘Wireless‘ was all about the main characters, Jack (Ford Kiernan) and Victor (Greg Hemphill),  filling in as hospital DJs so their mate Tam could take a holiday.

Still Game's Jack and Victor fill in as hospital DJs  image credit BBC Scotland

image credit BBC Scotland


Seeing this led me to believe that radio stations in UK hospitals might be an actual thing so I decided to investigate a bit further. First I found Ivan Brackenbury, aka comedian and radio personality Tom Binns. Though Ivan is a  comic character created by Binns, the clip does a good job explaining the purpose of these primarily volunteer hospital staff.


I also learned that Karl Pilkington, Philip Glenister and several members of the Kaiser Chiefs got their start in entertainment through hospital radio stations. Even fictional broadcaster Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) admits to having done a three year stint as a hospital radio disc jockey…


My most surprising find was that in 1994 there was an entire TV drama set around a hospital radio station in a Scottish psychiatric hospital. Takin’ Over the Asylum starred Ken Stott as Eddie, the new DJ at St. Jude’s long- deserted radio station, and a very young David Tennant as a bi-polar patient named Campbell who helps Eddie out on air.


I can see how an internal radio station could help build a sense of community on the wards and cheer or comfort patients and their families. If anyone is aware of an American hospital that does this, I’d be interested to know. Otherwise I’ll add this to my list of surprising and delightful things that the British do differently to us.

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Trollied with Miriam Margoyles image credit Sky 1

Trollied with Miriam Margoyles as a checkout operator
image credit Sky 1

I realize I haven’t talked about things I’ve learned about the UK by watching British TV much lately which, of course, was the whole premise of this blog in the first place. Considering I’ve been doing this for over five years now, it’s inevitable that I would encounter fewer new lessons. Nevertheless I’ve resolved to pay more attention so that I may share these small yet interesting tidbits with you. Because it’s the little things that make up a culture, after all.

This time around I wanted to shine a light on grocery store cashiers. In the US, cashiers stand at their registers while in the UK checkout girls (or guys?) sit at their tills.


British customers empty out their trolleys and gather up their shopping after the lot has been has scanned.  In the US, it’s far more likely the cashier (or a teenage employee hired specifically to put your purchases in bags) will take care of this part of the transaction. They may even load up your cart for you.


In both countries however, you’re bound to encounter an employee who is new to the job and/or not quite up to speed.


I should mention the Aldi caveat. In my American grocery experience, this is the only store I’ve visited where the cashiers sit and the customers pack up their own shopping. Bear in mind Aldi’s is a German company so it makes sense they would emulate the European model.

Why do we Americans force our cashiers to stand for hours on end when they can do their job sitting just as well? I have several theories –

Perhaps it’s our Puritan work ethic.

We recognize swollen feet and aching knees as a sign of a job well done. (As a sufferer of lower back pain, I applaud the more humane treatment of checkout staff by UK grocery retailers.)

If you’re standing, the customer will get the impression they are receiving superior customer service.

Grocery employees in the UK are better unionized.

I really don’t know, but I’m interested in your take, be you British, American or other.

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When I was in London as a student in the mid-80’s I didn’t read newspapers much. I would sometimes pop into the newsagents near my university for some chocolate and a International Herald Tribune. I’m not sure why; I think another American student in my hostel recommended it as a good way to catch up on events at home.  It doesn’t really matter since the IHT like so many other papers was bought out is now published as the International New York Times.

I also bought one copy of the tabloid, The Sun – mainly because I wanted physical proof that British papers actually had topless women in them. The edition I bought featured Samantha Fox as the Page Three girl, if memory serves. Also they seemed fond of using the term “shock horror” with abandon.

*If I understand correctly, the practice of publishing topless photos in The Sun has pretty much been halted since earlier this year.

Now if I’d read the serious British broadsheets of the time I’m sure I would have discovered that The Guardian or The Independent (once it came along in 1986) had few nice things to say about Maggie Thatcher while The Times or Daily Telegraph might have be singing her praises. Please see the graphic below for the spectrum of political and social leanings among UK newspapers.

Orientation of UK Newspapers image credit The Atlantic

Orientation of UK Newspapers
image credit The Atlantic


Graphs are all well and good, but as you know, I prefer my British culture lessons in telly form. There have been more times than I can count when I’ve picked up on a passing comment about which newspaper a character reads. It serves as a subtle, yet very distinct, clue about that person’s political stance, education or even sophistication.

For example, here’s a rather succinct run down from Yes Prime Minister identifying each paper’s target readership.


And it’s not just a matter of political affiliation. Comedian Russell Howard has a humorous method for differentiating the unique journalistic styles of print media outlets in Great Britain today.


Finally here’s a song about The Daily Mail, the preferred news source of  Last Tango in Halifax’s Celia Dawson-Buttershaw …seeing as she’s so broad-minded and all.


These days my newspaper consumption is relegated almost exclusively to on-line versions. And even though I mostly read entertainment-related pieces (reviews and the like) you can often sense how conservative or liberal the paper is by it’s reaction to socially significant issues presented in a drama or comedy.

For news and general tone, I’d probably identify myself as a Guardian reader so I suppose that says something about me. I’m just not exactly sure what that message is. Feel free to tell me or share your print news source of choice in the comments.

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I’ve never been much of a joiner, truth be told. I didn’t pledge a sorority in college, nor did I join a Women’s Circle at church or a service organization like the Rotary Club. I got wrangled into a local mother’s group only because the mom of one of my daughter’s very best friends invited me and I couldn’t think of an excuse not to. And I was the vice-president of the PTA for one year when my kids were in elementary school – I was there all the time so I figured why not dive into the deep end. Alas my political aspirations were non-existent so I didn’t return for a second term.

Recently I found a WWII-era drama series called Home Fires that made me start to wonder if I would ever consider joining one of the most enduring and established women’s clubs in the UK. In it we become acquainted with the residents of a rural Cheshire village, and in particular, the members of its Women’s Institute group. The chapter is threatened with closure by its own president due to the impending war. Nonetheless, another faction of determined ladies within the group keep the chapter going through a coup of sorts in order to provide vital services and leadership to the village.

The Great Paxford WI Chapter big wigs  image credit ITV Studios

The Great Paxford WI Chapter big wigs
image credit ITV Studios


For those who think they aren’t familiar with the WI, if you’ve seen the 2003 film Calendar Girls, you have been exposed. You know, that movie where Helen Mirren and her middle-aged friends got their kit off in order to raise money to buy a memorial gift for a local hospital.


Awkward posing among and around baked goods, flower arrangements and cider presses aside, what you may not remember is the way the ladies ridiculed and disagreed with the dated and less than enlightening way their chapter’s leader was running things. In fact, Mirren and company had to plead their case to the national congress of the WI when their president Marie  (Geraldine James) initially refused to sanction their slightly titillating calendar.

Another source of cultural context for me regarding the Women’s Institute was a series called Jam and Jerusalem. Note that the series title was changed to the name of the village, Clatterford, for its US DVD release. I can only think that distributors figured since Americans aren’t familiar with the WI they wouldn’t understand the J&J reference and assume it was some sort of religious cooking program? I’ll touch on the sources of the alliterative title shortly.

Although the show’s creators, Jennifer Saunders and Abigail Wilson, called their organization the Women’s Guild, it was obviously a thinly veiled alias for the WI. This series depicted a newly widowed Sal Vine (Sue Johnston) forced into retirement by her own son and looking for something to fill her days. Self-proclaimed Guild chairwoman Eileen Pike (Maggie Steed) pounces on the opportunity to recruit Sal as a new member. So along with her best friend Tippi (Pauline McLynn), Sal  agrees to give it a go, but with no serious intentions of sticking with it because, in her view, the club is for lonely old ladies or women of leisure.

The ladies of Clatterford participate in a wide variety of activities; from cake baking and flower arranging to net ball tournaments , rambling  and charity fashion shows. Always under the watchful eye and rigorous planning of Eileen, no doubt.


So that was my impression. The WI was a social club for wealthy country ladies with time on their hands. Its main goal was the preservation of homemaking and hostessing skills. Like a roomful of Martha Stewarts, but with less superior attitudes.

However after watching Home Fires, I learned a bit more about the origins and on-going purpose of the WI. According to their own website, “The Women’s Institute Movement in Britain started in 1915. During the First World War it was formed to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation. Once the war was over the newly formed WIs began to concentrate on planning programmes of activities to suit their members. This new organisation attracted members from the Lady of the Manor, to her housemaid and cook; from the local shop keeper to the wife of the farm labourer: working together in the WI helped to break down the social barriers between countrywomen who had rarely met in the past.”

Sure there were still tensions and even rivalries among certain members with leadership aspirations, but during WWII, the Women’s Institute was committed to the Home Front effort. Among their many undertakings, members sheltered evacuees, wrote to “friendless” soldiers and, probably their most remembered accomplishment, preserved over 5000 tons of fruit into jam to boost the domestic food supply.

The Women’s Institute is currently celebrating its centenary year. Members recently held their annual meeting at the Royal Albert Hall where the traditional hymn “Jerusalem” was sung.  Adopted by many during the women’s suffrage movement, members of the WI felt the song was in accordance with their goals for women as well.

Apparently the Queen doesn’t sing in public or perhaps she forgot the words.

So the question is, would I join the WI if I had the opportunity? I’m not that into crafts or cooking. I might get annoyed with political in-fighting and I’d definitely roll my eyes at strict adherence to meeting rules and procedures. However, if you could guarantee me a diverse and supportive group of friends like this, I’d be more than happy to sign up.

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