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Archive for the ‘Things That Make Me Happy’ Category

According to the internet, this week marked National Relaxation Day (Aug 15) and National Tell A Joke Day (Aug 16). The juxtaposition of these days is rather fitting since I find a laugh is what’s needed when I want to relax. Whether I’m immersed in the intensity of gritty British TV dramas or just trying to survive the pressure of being a library worker in the midst of solar eclipse glasses mania, in my experience making the conscious decision to laugh is always the right one. And my genre of choice in these situations is usually a comedy panel show.

This week I happened upon series four a show called Taskmaster so I thought it the perfect time to share my feelings about this entertaining and stress-busting program with you. Heaven knows we’ve all got anxieties now more than ever.

Greg Davies, extremely tall stand-up comedian and star of Man Down, Cuckoo and The Inbetweeners, performs the titular role of the Taskmaster. His purpose is to issue simple, if not a bit bizarre, tasks to five comedians who are asked to complete them in the most efficient and out-of-the-box manner possible. His assistant (and also creator of the show) Alex Horne umpires the challenges and plays the part of Davies’ willing minion for laughs. At the end of each task, Davies ranks the performances of the competitors according to his whims and his penchant for mockery and assigns points accordingly.

Joining Greg and Alex on the show this season were Outnumbered dad Hugh Dennis; former GBBO presenter Mel Giedroyc; Mighty Boosh troupester and new GBBO presenter Noel Fielding and two young comedians previously unknown to me Lolly Adefope and Joe Lycett.

What kind of assignments must the comedians complete? Well, each episode starts with the Prize Task, in which Davies sets a theme and each contestant donates a prize to offer up. The motifs have included most unusual autograph on the most unusual vegetable, the most surprising picture of themselves and in this clip their best membership/subscription. At the end of episode, all the prizes are awarded to the comedian who earned the most points in that week’s show.

Other nefarious tasks set over the course of the eight week run of Taskmaster involved:

Identifying the objects in a sleeping bag without taking the objects out of the bag.

Hugh Dennis sleeping bag

Hugh Dennis feeling up a sleeping bag

 

Destroy a cake. Most beautiful destruction wins.

Destroy cake

Mel Giedroyc decides how to best obliterate a cake

 

And my favorite task of the series – as a team, get a wheelie bin across an obstacle course, while one person is in the bin, the rest of team move the bin blindfolded, and everyone cannot speak English.

Wheelie bin race

Lolly Adefope, Noel Fielding and Joe Lycett prepare for the foreign language wheelie bin navigation task

At the end of the final episode, the comedians’ points are totaled and the one who has accumulated the most over the course of the series wins this:

Greg's head

Gold Noggin

Indeed I think it’s rather fortuitous that (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Mr. Fielding was the victor because no one else would want these spoils, right? Noel really had the right set of skills for this type of competition. With his keen sense of the surreal and an art school background, he had the proper mix of creativity and reckless abandon. He also ended up being more athletic than some might expect from a self-professed goth. Sometimes his devil may care attitude missed the mark as when he was disqualified for putting a wet suit atop his head instead of on his body during the small talk with Fred the Swede challenge, but overall his risks and unique perspective paid off. Perhaps Noel can use this big gold replica of Greg Davies’ head in one of his future art installations or stand-up routines. I’ve seen his live show so I know whereof I speak.

That being said (and those who know anything about me know I’m an avid Fielding fanatic), my favorite contestant had to be Mel Giedroyc. She was so genuine, enthusiastic and supportive during the course of the show that they compiled a montage of her all her authentic positiveness that is guaranteed to make you grin. Then in true Taskmaster style turned around and presented poor Mel with a super frustrating special task that involved hiding a gigantic beach ball from Alex in a wide-open football stadium. (Apparently her favorite swear word is bollocks.)

So if you find yourself in need of a tension-relieving chortle, may I suggest an episode or two of  Taskmaster?  In the US I found series four on Daily Motion. I apologize in advance for the all the repetitive advert breaks. In addition, series five is on its way to UK audiences very soon – September 13th to be exact.

All photo images are courtesy of Dave UKTV except the one of Greg’s head which was posted on Twitter by Alex Horne.

 

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Brenda Blethyn as Vera  image credit Acorn TV

Brenda Blethyn as Vera
image credit Acorn TV

Last week I was given the incredible opportunity to interview BAFTA and Golden Globe winning actress Brenda Blethyn. There was some back and forth with the publicity department at Acorn TV to set up the details and before I knew it, I found myself actually speaking on the phone with an actress I have watched on the big and small screens in films like Little Voice, Secrets & Lies, and Pride and Prejudice  and, of course, her current popular TV mystery series, Vera.

I can honestly say I haven’t been this excited about a phone call since I was a teenager and a boy I had a crush on called me out of the blue. I was smiling and laughing the whole time (Brenda has quite an infectious laugh, in case you didn’t know) and I packed as much as I could into the fifteen minutes granted to me.

Let me tell you, after five series this lady knows her character. She cited information from Vera’s backstory, knew her work and life philosophies by heart, and even talked at length about DCI Stanhope’s appearance and wardrobe choices. And despite that fact that some of these episodes were made well over four years ago, Brenda remembered a minute detail from a scene to illustrate the point she was making about Vera’s rapport with children.

But what impressed me most about Ms. Blethyn was her generous praise for colleagues with which she has worked. From her Vera cast and crew to directors and co-stars on various films we discussed, she had nothing but the warmest admiration for her fellow collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.

For example near the end of the interview I went a bit rogue and threw in another question when I was supposed to be bringing our session to a close. I left this out of the write up of my interview for WETA’s Telly Visions because it really was off the cuff and not related to Vera at all:

CC: What was it like to work with Nicolas Cage [who directed her in the film, Sonny], one word?

BB: Aw, it was great! What a lovely man, he was fantastic! He was so kind and generous. We all know he’s a terrific actor, but I liked working with him as a director too. Just gorgeous.

CC: Well, my son will be very happy to hear that.

BB: Oh really? Does he know Nic?

CC: No, he’s just a huge Nicolas Cage fan.

BB: Well, I loved working with him and he bought me a beautiful wristwatch when the job was over.

There you have it- the key to many a woman’s heart is a nice piece of jewelry and Brenda is no exception.

If you’d like to read my entire chat with Brenda Blethyn, click here.  If you’d like to check out Vera for yourself, you can find it on Acorn TV including new episodes each Monday in July. Some PBS channels are also airing series five this month so check your local listings.

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Peter Kay's Car Share image credit BBC and Goodnight Vienna Productions

Peter Kay’s Car Share
image credit BBC and Goodnight Vienna Productions

Car sharing (or carpooling as we’re more likely to say in the States) is not something with which I’ve had a great deal of experience. I’ve never lived or worked in an area where rush hour traffic is a real thing so the practice isn’t actively discussed or encouraged.

A few of my library coworkers live nearby and one day a week our schedules align so that we can ride together. If it works out that is, meaning none of us have committee meetings at other branches, doctor’s appointments after work or any other number of events that could prevent the carpool from being convenient. When it works, we have a lovely time chatting and it’s a nice change from my usual drive time companion, NPR. But no one’s saving a lot of money on gas (or if you prefer, petrol) nor are we impacting anyone’s carbon footprint in any discernible way.

However, if my commute included congestion charges or my workplace offered significant incentives for riding with colleagues, I would definitely want Peter Kay as my car share comrade.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Kay, he is a comedian, actor and writer from the Greater Manchester area. He’s famous for his phenomenally successful stand-up tours which feature spot on observational humor. He is also known for the TV sitcoms Phoenix Nights about a Northern working mans club and its spin-off of sorts, Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere. 

His newest triumph is Peter Kay’s Car Share and the concept is simplistically brilliant – a thirty minute sitcom wherein two people share the ride to work; roughly fifteen minutes there and fifteen minutes home again. Basically two people in a car listening to the radio and talking.

Peter plays John Redmond, a sensible assistant manager at a grocery store which has launched a car share scheme. His assigned partner is Kayleigh Kitson (Sian Gibson) a more free-spirited type who does the grocery’s in-store promotions (offering cheese samples, wearing fruit costumes around the store for jam week, etc.).

Granted, their inaugural trip is a rocky one…

 

Nevertheless, over the following weeks and months, John and Kayleigh fall into a comfortable friendship and perhaps a bit more.

SPOILER ALERT!!!! Alas at the end of series one,  it appears as though the pair’s joy riding must come to an end. Kaleigh can no longer afford her mortgage and has to move in with her sister who doesn’t live anywhere near John’s route to work.

So why do I want a chance to take a ride in the cute red Fiat? (Don’t tell anyone, but before I started checking a few details for this post, I really thought it was a Mini-Cooper!) Aside from the novelty of driving on the left side of the road obviously?

First of all, I want to experience the nostalgic brilliance that is Forever FM. Peter “commissioned the production of six breakfast and drive time shows with real presenters, items, news bulletins, weather and commercials.” You can even access the playlists from each episode here. And who doesn’t love a bit of a sing-a-long with the timeless hits, now and forever.

 

A desirable quality in a car share buddy is good listening skills. It’s rare to find someone willing to tolerate your interests, buck up your insecurities and remember what you’ve told them about your various family members. John does all three, in a low key sort of way of course.

 

And finally, considering my keen interest in British culture, slang and, well let’s just say, eccentricities, I can tell John/Peter is the perfect person to set me straight. Ever since I’ve been studying British telly, I’ve heard the term “dogging” but it was always mentioned as an innuendo. This clip doesn’t include the entire scene with everything spelled out (having sex outdoors with people watching) but from John’s reaction you can tell I’m not the only one who was confused about this activity.

So anyway, call me Peter Kay if you need a temporary replacement to fill Kayleigh’s passenger seat until such time as you can plot out a reason for her to return in series two. I’ll even sit in the backseat. Just don’t make me out to be smelly and rude like Reece Shearsmith’s fishmonger character. I realize carpooling with someone living in the American Midwest makes even less sense then driving to a neighboring town but I’d be willing to relocate for the experience alone.

 

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I’m not ashamed to say it. I turned the big 5-0 today. And since aging is an inevitable fact of life, I say you might as well embrace it. Otherwise you end up sitting in the dark, gently rocking back and forth and wondering where the good old days went.

Just to put this milestone in telly perspective, 50 years ago saw the the debut of Till Death Us Do Part, Jackanory and The Magic Roundabout.

The Magic Roundabout is as old as me.  image credit BBC

The Magic Roundabout is as old as me.
image credit BBC

 

British celebrities who will or have already joined me in the quinquagenarian club this year include James Nesbitt, Alan Cumming, Joely Richardson, Julia Ormond, Steve Coogan and Anna Chancellor.

And though the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Tom Jones all appeared at the top of the charts in 1965, Ken Dodd, a more than slightly odd-looking chap I’ve never heard of, had the #1 single in the UK that year.

 

When approaching such an emotionally charged age, I’ve decided the best way forward is to look for good role models. I’ve settled on a balanced mix, I think, the first being a no-nonsense career woman who faces each challenge head on.

Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lanchashire) of Happy Valley image credit BBC and Red Production Co

Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lanchashire) of Happy Valley
image credit BBC and Red Production Co

 

My second example of what 50 can be is the young-at-heart care home worker, Derek.

 

Yes, this year I resolve to be a  50 year old bad ass man-child. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

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Thanks for the laughs, Miranda image credit BBC

Thanks for the laughs, Miranda
image credit BBC

I just got done watching the final two episodes of Miranda on YouTube thanks to some account whose name I’ve forgotten and can’t look up again because the videos have already been taken down. Honestly I just found the second part this morning. The early bird gets to see the illegal upload and all that.

Anyhow as you may recall,  a little less than a year ago we left Miranda in a surprising quandary…

 

Then the news came out this past autumn that show creator Miranda Hart had decided to bring her sitcom to an end. A two part finale at Christmas time would tie up loose ends and give the cast and viewers a chance to say goodbye properly.

I had recently re-watched series three around this time and noticed that Miranda was starting to show some wear. Tilly with her ridiculous posh-speak was now virtually undecipherable which I realize was intentional, but annoying all the same.  I didn’t care for Miranda’s new boyfriend much. Understandably, this was never a realistic comedy, but the jokes were beginning to feel forced and some characters were quickly becoming embarrassing caricatures. Sadly I had to agree, albeit heavy-heartedly, that Miranda was right to call it a day.

Despite my slight qualms about the direction of the show, I was still looking forward to seeing what was on the horizon for our favorite joke shop owner. I won’t give too much away about the finales since I’m sure many of my American readers don’t have a VPN or weren’t fortunate enough to find the infinitesimal YouTube window. And I’m certainly not revealing who Miranda chose as a fiance. I will only say she finally ends up with a surname. Did you realize she never had one?

I will divulge that the specials featured mini-flashback montages of Mirandian antics from episodes past. Characters we hadn’t seen in a while, including Stevie’s gigantic coffee cup, made cameo appearances. There were Miranda’s ubiquitous looks to camera (but not too many). And of course there was a inspired MC Hammer song and dance number.

If I have one complaint it’s that Ms. Hart had too much going on. I’m sure it was no easy task to pack in all the references, catchphrases, notable gags and a storyline into two half hour segments.  While not the most tightly written of episodes, these final shows were quite obviously Miranda Hart’s love letter to her fans. It’s as if she wanted to call back to all the classic moments while simultaneously communicating a message very near and dear to her. Be yourself first, love yourself first, even if it means being on your own.

I’ll admit I shed a few tears at the end, both joyful and melancholy. Miranda isn’t groundbreaking telly perhaps but Ms. Hart was never going to leave her unique heroine and her loyal audience in the lurch and give us anything other than a happy ending.

The sad part is the void that Miranda will leave. Who will take up the torch for non-traditional beauties everywhere? Who will make us smile when we see ourselves in her awkward yet very real predicaments. (Yes, I too got called “sir” at a fast food drive-thru once and I’m not even particularly tall.)

 

 

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I know I’ve mentioned more than once my strange fascination with men in drag  I’m not referring to men who want to dress as women for their own personal reasons, the Jared Leto/Dallas Buyers Club kind of thing. I mean more power to them and all that, but that’s not amusing. I’m talking about men who are obviously men, dressing and behaving like women for comic effect.

In my opinion, Monty Python’s Flying Circus always did this shtick the best. I never fail to laugh at John Cleese wearing a wig and a dress while employing a high screechy voice. The Little Britain guys have their moments as well. But after finally watching all three series of the comedy/horror sketch show, The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002), I have come to the conclusion that the females of Royston Vasey surpass the Python ladies.

Reenie and Vinnie, charity shop workers who love carrier bags, won't work Thursdays and can't stand that Merrill image credit BBC

Reenie and Vinnie, charity shop workers who love carrier bags, won’t work Thursdays and can’t stand that Merrill
image credit BBC

 

I think this is because they actually develop many of these “women” bringing them back in multiple episodes and letting their stories evolve, often to ghastly ends.

For example, let’s begin with Tubbs Tattysyrup who is brilliantly played by Steve Pemberton. Tubbs and her husband Edward are shopkeepers on the outskirts of Royston Vasey.  Murderously xenophobic, the couple strenuously defend their bizarre way of life and the precious things of the shop. Tubbs is unquestionably loyal and obedient to her husband and for that reason has the mind of a slightly deranged child.

 

Pauline Campbell-Jones (also portrayed by Pemberton) is a restart officer for the local government employment services. Your very first impression might be that she is a compassionate public servant, but you will quickly learn that Pauline is in this job for the sense of superiority it affords her. She slags off her clients on a regular basis and if anyone challenges her, she strikes back quite ferociously.

Which is why Pauline is in the predicament of being out of a job and having to be a participant in the restart course she used to teach.

 

Reece Shearsmith plays Reverend Bernice Woodall, a bitter,chain smoking clergywoman with a ubiquitous smear of lipstick on her teeth. Her sermons tend to have a bit of a fire and brimstone feel about them as well.

We later learn the source of her acrimony and resentment has to do with a childhood trauma that has scarred her, but an even more sinister fate awaits the reverend at Christmas.

The tall and willowy Val Denton is portrayed by the equally lanky Mark Gatiss. Mrs. Denton genially but enthusiastically enforces her husband’s strict cleanliness rules. She gleefully recites the color code for household items and thinks nothing of her husband’s obsessive assumptions about self-pleasuring.

The family is oblivious to the degree of their freakishness until their nephew Ben arrives in Royston Vaysey for what’s meant to be an overnight stay. Apparently this is the first time their weird ways have been questioned.

 

Homely cleaning lady Iris Krell (Gatiss) is employed by Mrs. Judee Levinson (Shearsmith) a wealthy housewife who has a workaholic husband – or does she? Judee tries to feel good about her empty life by bragging to her working class cleaner about her lavish holidays and expensive clothes. Iris knows that she has a better home life than her employer and isn’t shy about sharing the spicy intimate details of her marriage.

 

A majority of the female population of Royston Vasey belongs to a mysterious sisterhood called Solutions.  Stella Hull  (Shearsmith) constantly rows with her husband Charlie and wants to stomp on his happiness by preventing him from pursuing his most recent passion, line dancing. Stella appeals to the group to help her find a “solution” to her problem.

 

If you’ve never visited the absurd village of Royston Vasey, you can pay a visit  through Hulu or Netflix. Watch with an open mind, get used to the humor and rhythms of this show and you will be richly rewarded with series three – the crowning glory of The League of Gentlemen.

If you are already familiar with this extraordinarily bizarre troupe of characters, please tell us about your favorites.  Bonus points to anyone who can tell me which character said this, ” SKEWED BEEF, HAVE ANY BODY GOT ANY BOKKLE AV ARAN DOOVE?”

 

 

 

 

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It is pure coincidence that while Easter approaches and the theaters are full of religious themed films from Noah to Heaven Is for Real to God’s Not Dead I have chosen to discuss a film about the debate that took place back in 1979 concerning whether or not Monty Python’s Life of Brian was a blasphemous movie that should be banned.

You know the one. Blessed are the cheesemakers, the crucifixion toe-tapper “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and a major case of messianic mistaken identity are prime examples of the things which angered religious leaders around the Christian world. The 2011 biopic Holy Flying Circus which, according to the BBC Press Office, is a “fantastical re-imagining of the controversy surrounding the release of Life Of Brian” tells this riveting story while taking you on a hilariously nostalgic journey back to the days when the Pythons ruled comedy.

What is true about this story is that upon the release of Life of Brian in America, theaters were picketed by religious figures of the Christian and Jewish faiths. In the UK, numerous local councils banned the film from being shown, some without having seen the movie themselves. They relied instead on the opinion of the evangelical group, Festival of Light (renamed the Popular Peoples’ Church of St. Sophia in the dramatization) who fueled the fear that Life of Brian would offend Christians in their constituencies.

The Pythons were then given the opportunity to appear on BBC talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning to debate the blasphemy charges waged against the film. John Cleese and Michael Palin represented the film makers while satirist and religious campaigner Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark represented the Christian Establishment. The actual discussion can be found on YouTube if you’re interested in comparing the real thing to the biopic.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool Monty Python fanatic, you’ve probably already watched Holy Flying Circus since it is not a new film; however, if you need some convincing , let me present you with some arguments for watching it.

 

1. Eerily accurate casting

Holy Flying Circus Cast  Image Credit Hillbilly Films

Holy Flying Circus Cast
Image Credit Hillbilly Films

 

The front row of this photo features from left to right Steve Punt as Eric Idle, Charles Edwards as Michael Palin, Darren Boyd as John Cleese and Rufus Jones as Terry Jones. The casting department did quite a good job of finding actors who resemble, sound like and mirror the facial expressions and mannerisms of their corresponding Python. In the back row we find Phil Nicol as Terry Gilliam and Tom Fisher as Graham Chapman. Not as spot-on in appearance but neither actor’s part was as significant as Palin or Cleese anyhow. To be fair, when it comes to Terry Gilliam,the only American expat member of the troupe, it’s got to be a tall order to find someone as unique looking who’s able to pull off that strange hybrid accent.

 

2. Further proof Michael Palin is the nicest man in Britain

A running joke through the whole movie, Palin is depicted by his colleagues as an exceedingly pleasant guy and, in a way, the conscience of the group. Maybe it’s all that travelling he’s done in recent years, but he does strike you as an intelligent, tolerant person who doesn’t belittle others for their differing opinions. Even when faced with a petitioner stubbornly trying to solicit his signature to ban Life of Brian from the theaters, Palin’s patience approaches saintly.

 

3. Inside look at Python dynamic

A few years back I read a rather long book called Michael Palin Diaries, 1969 – 1979: The Python Years. I learned that Michael Palin had a rather difficult time with his teeth and required a lot of dental work; that he nurtured a happy and ordinary family life despite the fame; and that relations between the he and the other Pythons were not always smooth sailing.

If you are already aware of the group dynamic you can see it mirrored in Holy Flying Circus. Chapman, Cleese and Idle met at Cambridge while Palin and Jones first became acquainted at Oxford. According to Palin’s diaries, they often broke off into these comfortable groupings to write sketches. However, it seemed Cleese wanted the chance to collaborate with Palin more often and may have resented Jones for being Michael’s closer friend. There’s a scene with a bit of this Jones/Cleese squabbling in HFC and if you saw the guys on Graham Norton last winter, Cleese still seems to have no patience for Terry Jones.

 

This scene is a good example of how working together for a decade can lead to a bit of brotherly ribbing.

 

4. Absurdly funny sketches thrown in

Just as you would expect in a Monty Python sketch, a dramatization of an event in their life wouldn’t be complete without some surreal sequences. And I’m not just talking about when the actor who plays Terry Jones dons a wig to transform into Michael Palin’s wife.

Correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t believe the Flying Circus series ever featured a puppeteering segment, Star Wars or otherwise, so we’re covering new ground here.

 

5. Stephen Fry plays God

I realize having this item on the list may qualify as a spoiler, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Pythons would  eschew this whole spoiler phenomenon as very silly indeed.  Stephen Fry is ideal for this character – he’s wise beyond our understanding and looks dashing in gleaming white robes. Besides knowing about Fry’s role doesn’t really take away the enjoyment of seeing a devout atheist take on the part of the Creator.

 

What I believe I liked best about this whole loony project is the opportunity to suspend belief for a while and imagine that all the Pythons are still with us, young and and in their prime. At this point in their careers, they were, in fact, trying to send a message and it wasn’t that God is not real or people of faith are laughable. Rather by employing satire, they were encouraging people to work out what they believe for themselves and not just accept what they’ve been fed by organized religious institutions.

As I’m sure I’ve convinced you to give Holy Flying Circus a try, I have to tell you that in the States finding this film wasn’t easy to do. It is currently streaming on Acorn TV so you can check out that service. Or if you’re a mega Monty P. fan, it’s available on Blu-Ray to purchase.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to re-watch Life of Brian. The Holy Grail has always been my favorite, but I’m open to some persuasion.

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