The first film I ever saw at the cinema was “For your eyes only”, in case you’ve never seen it, it’s a film where a ginger comedian / assassin looks for a giant calculator. Highlights include a talking parrot commanding a sexually aroused Margaret Thatcher to “give us a kiss” and in the pre-credit sequence our hero kills a disabled person by dropping him down an industrial chimney stack from a helicopter, the disabled man’s screams then morph into a sexy love song while Sheena Easton writhes out the credits.
I was 5 years old.
It is definitely one of my favourite films ever.
At the time I had never seen skiing before, let alone someone skiing down a luge run whilst fighting stuntmen. I had never seen mountain climbing before – a still exciting assault with Art Garfunkel? (see picture) on the mountaintop monastery St Cyril’s, or the old smugglers trick with cashew nuts or two unbelievably beautiful women throwing themselves at a middle aged pun merchant wearing a polo neck (actually one of them was just a sexually promiscuous child who Bond, quite sensibly, spurns and then offers to buy an ice cream). It was a crazy winter-olympics-mediterranean-diving-holiday adventure, a mishmash of what was hot at the time, culminating in Bond throwing the object he has spent the entire film chasing off a mountain. So all a bit pointless really. Luckily though they end on a high: a parrot talking dirty to Thatcher whilst Bond goes skinny dipping with a greek orphan.
You see, the thing about the Bond franchise is that Post-Connery it didn’t take itself seriously for a very long time; from “invisible cars” to Roger Moore’s karate, it coasted along with a knowing wink – Bond’s casual indifference to killing only palatable because they never suggested it was real. Let’s not forget, Lazenby aside, for all the exotic travelling there was rarely any emotional journey at all; the man who started the mission was the man who ended the mission.
But indifference isn’t cool anymore. Gone is the is the casual shruggery of by-gone heroes, the men with nothing to lose, nothing to be threatened with. Today’s audience need good old fashioned motivation. Peril isn’t really peril if there is no emotional investment in the character and in the action genre it’s vital, it’s the difference between Cobra and Rocky – the audience only feel the thrill of victory, they only cry, with one of those films.
Spectacle can no longer distract from dodgy plots and poor characterisation.
In short, these days it has to take itself seriously.
So what to say about SkyFall, the 23rd film in the mega-franchise, following 2008’s universally disappointing Quantum of Crapness?
Well, what a difference 4 years can make. Sam Mendes has delivered a film with that most elusive of qualities: balance. We have an original story, a character arc and some serious acting talent including Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Judi Dench’s M, who is given a more pivotal role than the usual “scowls and exposition”. There’s a genuinely creepy but ultimately well motivated Javier Bardem, the man with the golden mullet, playing unhinged cyber terrorist Silva and a new Q in Ben Whishaw, a move which at first suggests that MI6 are recruiting their quartermasters from One Direction or Skins but which we become quickly comfortable with. Most importantly though, we are given the man himself – Daniel Craig’s Bond. Gone is the glacial, invulnerable super-spy and in his place a conflicted, driven, human being: Does he walk away or does he stay and risk his life defending the woman who has no compunction about sending him to his death? And how much of his decision has to do with the loss of his own parents? Does M stand, in some way, for Mother?
Craig is good at unspoken dialogue, with no mention of what has gone before in the previous 2 films, his Bond wears regret, loss and sheer emotional mileage on his granite face, a far cry from Moore’s levitating eyebrows.
The requisite action sequences, from the candle lit ‘dragon’ casino to the stygian murk of the last act’s caledonian siege, are convincing, gorgeously shot and refreshingly diverse in palette; the gadgets almost non-existent and for all the usual outcry about product placement there is only one really obvious one that grates. The ending is surprisingly touching and closes the circle nicely.
With enough nods to the past to keep the die-hards happy and enough depth to ensure Bond’s future it is a well balanced entry in to the Bond canon – there is little doubt that James Bond will return.
For the uninitiated, the Singing Kettle is a singing group that performs musical theatre shows for children with a focus on traditional Scottish music. The Fancy Dress Party was my sons first concert and my first ‘children’s’ concert. The group was formed in the 70s and quite a few of the audience members were 30-somethings bringing their kids as an excuse to enjoy the nostalgia of the show.
The concert was all the more of an experience because it was in the Music Hall in Aberdeen. It’s a beautiful old concert hall and it was a pleasure to see the inside. The outside has distinguished granite columns (because in Aberdeen, what isn’t granite?), and the concert space has a beautifully painted ceiling and massive chandeliers.
The Music Hall was built in 1822 and was designed by architect Archibald Simpson, one of the main architects responsible for Aberdeen’s reputation as a city of granite. Originally built as a series of assembly rooms for the upper class people of both genders, the building was opened as a concert hall in 1859. Despite the grandeur of the building itself, the seating at the Fancy Dress Party consisted of metal folding chairs lined up on floor markers.
Today’s show was called the “Fancy Dress Party” and the audience was encouraged to wear fancy dress, and most of them (adults and children) did – there were cute pirates and princesses everywhere! I was not planning to dress my son in a costume, but I shoved his train engineer costume into my purse, so when all of the other kids were dressed up I looked like a brilliant mummy having thought of the costume ahead of time.
Before the show started, the staff threw giant balls into the crowd and the kids pushed them up to float through the air with their hands, which was a huge hit.
The stage decoration consisted of a giant box (big enough to hold a person) surrounded by cut out backdrops of giant articles of clothing including bow ties, a cowboy hat and a fez, as well as a clown face with a light-up nose and two white-gloved Mickey Mouse hands that could swish back and forth on mechanical arms. When the show started, the singers taught the audience a party song with actions that repeated throughout the show, as the stage fact lit up and the mechanical arms swished. My son loved it!
The premise of the show was that the Singing Kettle group and audience were having a fancy dress party and hoped that the Mad Hatter would attend. Throughout the show different guest characters would poke up out of the giant box in the middle of the stage and some would leave behind coloured kettles. When a kettle appeared, this rhyme was chanted: “Spout, handle, lid of metal, what’s inside the singing kettle?” and the kettle would open to reveal a clue about what song to sing next. I can’t tell you if the Mad Hatter appeared (no spoilers here) but I will say that the audience was not disappointed…
What distinguishes the Singing Kettle from other children’s performers is their cheek. The songs are sometimes politically incorrect and there are moments of very childish physical comedy in the stage show. The show is for children, so this makes sense. To me, they are easiest to compare to a sillier than usual combination of the Wiggles, Raffi and Fred Penner. The themes of their songs are sometimes naughty, for example the lyrics of “Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny”, but it’s all in good fun.
During the show there was an hilarious rendition of “Drunken Sailor” where they showed the sailor’s hair belly (a costume) and his anchor-tattooed nether regions. I’m not sure other children’s performers would be so daring…perhaps they would not even sing about how to sober up seamen. I think this is the best part about the Singing Kettle – the silly fun that is not tempered by pointless positive messages. That being said, there was a long skit about a gassy goose that I thought was only moderately funny and far too long.
During the show Bonzo the Dog made an appearance. I have to say that I am not a fan of Bonzo, but I was in the definite minority. Bonzo sang the male part in a spirited duet version of “Oh Soldier Won’t You Marry Me” where he dressed up in all of the clothing mentioned, including ladies knickers. Jock and Jeremy, the two chefs also made an appearance.
Overall I really enjoyed the performance and my son thought it was amazing but I think that many of the children in the audience were not old enough for a show that was 2 hours in length (including the intermission). Quite a few people in the seats around us left at the intermission because their kids where whiny, crying or sleeping, just from sheer exhaustion. The pre-show excitement high seemed to catch up with some of the younger kids about 45 minutes into the show.
It must be hard living up to a label like ‘the next big thing.’ There’s a weight of expectation engendered by the title that nothing can possibly live up to. In terms of popular music, so many next-big-things have fizzled out or else failed to ignite altogether that after a while you stop paying any attention.
Predictions of this kind are common, and made in the expectation of scoring ‘cool-points’ for being the first to make the correct call. But being tagged and branded in this way has its disadvantages.
I have a slightly scattergun approach to new music. I don’t go to a specific magazine or website; I don’t rely on a radio station. That’s too prescriptive and I never get to hear enough of the kind of music I like. Word of mouth, specifically through the internet, is the best source, and it’s easy, with the use of YouTube, Spotify and the like, to adopt a try-before-you-buy approach.
One artist about which you should believe the hype is Blackpool born singer-songwriter Karima Francis. Radio One DJ Edith Bowman named her one to watch in 2012 in an article in the Mirror, describing her as having ‘a voice that spits emotion.’ She also claimed her to be ‘something totally new,’ and that’s not strictly true. Labels of this kind have been applied to Karima before. In 2008, the Daily Mail called her ‘the next big thing,’ and the Guardian put her on their list of the best new acts in 2009. So why, in spite of this high praise, is her name not yet on the lips of every music lover in the UK?
Those kind of unhelpful labels often play no insignificant part in that, although Karima told The Camel’s Hump she doesn’t really feel the pressure. “I’m just excited to have the support of a label like Vertigo,” she said.
People are smart and discerning enough to make up their own minds what they do and don’t like. The music press do play an important part in informing and sharing opinion, but if informed by, say, the NME, that something is hot or upcoming, I automatically disregard it. That’s partially because I don’t trust many opinions other than my own, but mostly because I don’t like to be told what to think. The unfortunate down side of that stance is that sometimes something genuinely good passes right over your radar, and you don’t hear about it until it’s already gone beyond new and cool into the realms of the vulgar mainstream.
Her first album, The Author, was released on her old label, Kitchenware, in 2009, to mixed reviews, receiving almost universal praise for her vocal performance but with many critics citing some weaker songs as its main flaw. But one thing commonly agreed by critics is that where she makes the greatest impression is live.
My first experience of Karima as a performer was as support for King Charles (another artist bubbling under on many of those annoying ‘artist to watch’ lists,) where she not only blew my socks off, but blew them right out of the building, and all the way home to my wash basket. As insubstantial as she appears on stage – a nervy looking, dark-haired dandelion-like thing – she projects more passion and spirit with her performance than you could believe possible. “I feel alive when I’m on stage,” she says. “It’s the only place I want to be.”
Karima is still very young, and not yet fully grown into her talent. She needs the chance to flourish at her own pace. Her incredible ability and potential have been recognized by the industry people who make those kind of calls, but, in this time of transition for the music business, they’re too eager to drop something into the pool of artists then act surprised when it doesn’t make the expected splash. It’s abundantly clear to anyone who hears her just how good she could be, but these things take time and can’t be forced.
Her upcoming second album, The Remedy, is due for release early in 2012. Of it, she told us “this album is so much better than the first; more mature and more about the things that are going on in my life right now.” If that’s true, and her new label give her the support this kind of young talent needs, then 2012 really could be the year in which she becomes the musical prodigy she deserves to be.
It was bound to happen just days after I post my only review, in which I clearly state I don’t normally do reviews, that I get sent a number of CDs to pass my judgement upon. Although not a dedicated music site, many releases have landed on the desks of The Camel’s Hump*, and, for one reason or another, we feel inclined to write about them.
I never feel so inclined. Without wanting to discourage or dismiss the efforts of reviewers, to be frank I find them a little too easy. They’re a bit of an excuse to avoid actual writing and, when uninspired, they’re little more than filler material.
They can also become the causes of very ugly arguments. Someone, somewhere, will be offended by your opinions, even if you’ve been relatively nice, and take it upon themselves to dissent in the strongest terms. Reviews are potential cans of worms, and I prefer to steer well clear.
That said, the selection I’ve received have made my job easier. They’re neat little four or five track EPs, and neater still all pretty good.
You’d be forgiven for believing the four slabs of hairy, testosterone pumped man meat that grace the cover of Garçon were the members of Hello Bamboo. Their riffs are beefy enough and their sound sweats manly juices. As it happens, these prime examples of the male beast are their fathers, and families are clearly a subject of concern to the band. As are the subjects of life after death, David Gest and cheap clothing retailer Matalan, if this collection of recordings is anything to go by.
It seems the only way to legitimize more traditional heavy guitar music in the post-rock era is to play with a sense of irony. Although by no means a novelty act, they do not take themselves too seriously, which only adds to their charm. For example, on The Cycle of Domestic Abuse, probably the best track, they juxtapose dark imagery of an abusive patriarch (“Daddy, why did you fuck Mummy up?”) with a ridiculously over the top, old fashioned guitar solo, and make it work surprisingly well.
Calling your band Fighting and your first release Thriller II (presumably to be followed by Led Zeppelin IV-A) suggests its creators are either geniuses or idiots. Or both. Whilst not in itself punk in its stylings, it follows punk sensibilities – keep it fast and grimy and no one will notice or care if you’re rough around the edges. Their sound is reminiscent of the sadly defunct Test Icicles and the emerging Pulled Apart By Horses, but with less art college pretentiousness, and a distinctly northern no-nonsense edge.
The duo take turns on vocal duties, although I can discern little meaning from the indirect lyrics, except that on the opening, and best, track Keelie Needs Practice, someone called Keelie needs to practice. Their main raison d’etre appears to be the acquisition of girls, booze and their due amount of fun. Although let down by the song Guest Appearance Bruce Springsteen, they deserve respect too on the strength of this promising recording.
I can’t listen to these four tracks, probably the best selection from those on offer in this article, without thinking of Beck, which, for me, is a huge compliment. Although bearing little vocal similarity, the sound, achieved with a mixture of samples and live instruments, combined with the whole being a solo effort, is reminiscent of the artist, whom I consider one of the most inventive and distinctive recording artists of the past twenty years. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was also a pint or two of the Eels influence pumping through this CD’s veins.
A trawl though the bandcamp back catalogue of Stephen James Buckley reveals a series of short studies that sincerely chronicle a life by the instalment plan. Previously more of a troubadour, his heart worn on the strings of his acoustic guitar, this is an evolution in his sound – a maturing – although he still sings with emotion, irony and wit, such as on She Drove Me Like She Stole Me, one of the highlights here.
*Not physically, of course, as we are a loose collection of writers, with our respective desks scattered all over the world. Some of us don’t even have desks, just laps.
Now I don’t know if I’m ignoring the clique by including a foreword here, but I always think it’s nice when writers introduce what they’re about to say. Isn’t it nice? Isn’t it? Yeah. It is.
This week’s five tracks aren’t anything to rave on about in particular. There are some good tracks. Some. But 50% of the tracks I’m about to review are horse shit. Well, not horse shit. But they’re certainly close to being part of the dungheap. I’m not trying to be mean, I’m trying to be honest, and as an avid, avid fan of music I will stay true to my opinion. Thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope what is said doesn’t ruin any careers!
Deep breath before the plunge, here goes.
As soon as I heard this, the Mighty Boosh theme song began playing in my head. Think of the ‘crimping’ that they made famous, and then think of this song. They sound alike, yes? Yes. They do. Compare the two until you agree. I think this song is very much the sound The Ting Tings would make if their front person was of the male gender. Although this song lacks in melody and singing, it isn’t without a tune. Very toe tap inducing, I’d expect to hear this in a teen angst moment on UK Drama Skins.
I’m hearing violins. Violins? From the girl who’s meant to be the next Lady Gaga. First impressions are that it would fit in well at a funeral or some other sort of bereavement event. Obviously, the song is about death and being prepared to die, but perhaps you could play this at the burial of one’s pet? If you’ve ever heard Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power of Love, this will not sound unfamiliar. While the whispering is reminiscent of “I’ll protect you from the hooded claw” introduction from Frankie’s Christmas classic(?). The song is extremely pessimistic, just look at the title. I will not buy the album.
Obviously I’m far too young to have experienced the 80s, but this song reminds me of that era immensely. It’s the type of house beat that I’d expect to hear in a nightclub at the beginning of the rave scene in 1989. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this thumping from my local social club while they attempt to be gay-friendly. The introduction is very reminiscent of that famous beat Insomnia by Faithless. Repetitive, but not annoyingly so. Vocals wise, think Cee-Lo Green in his Gnarles Barkley era. I highly recommend this to anyone.
These Reigning Days – Changes
Surprisingly, I don’t have much to say about this one. Except that it’s very good, and I like it a lot. I extremely recommend buying this as soon as it released on whatever platform is popular in February. The song is a sort of love-triangle-come-bigamist-marriage between Coldplay, Bullet For My Valentine, Editors and Glasvegas. Though frowned upon in some societies, this marriage works extremely well, and I can’t get enough of it. It creates a relaxing atmosphere that is simultaneously very upbeat and catchy and damn I just can’t get enough. (Turns out I did have a lot to say).
Zenon – Love You Forever
I’m trying to listen properly and drown out the ringing sounds of Irish heartbreak pop, but all I can hear is Westlife. The singer’s voice doesn’t particularly suit the genre, the melodies are mismatched with the vocals and there is too much versatility concerning the verse and chorus. If this was placed in line with 1000 other love songs, it wouldn’t particularly stand out. Trying to be unique but failing. That’s not to say that he cannot sing well. Unoriginal but not unpleasant. Top marks for trying, though.
What exactly can you do with Zooey Deschanel? I know a number of indie boys and girls with crushes who’d have a few answers to that, but none worthy of printing. For those unfamiliar with her, she’s a 31-year old American actress, musician and model, famous for her geek-chic image and being described as ‘quirky.’ Her acting career so far has been underwhelming, having featured in a string of Rom-Coms that read like Jennifer Aniston’s cast-offs, punctuated with the occasional more interesting indie-movie. US channel Fox believes it has the answer to the question of what to do with her with its latest sitcom New Girl, the pilot of which premiered on Channel 4 in the UK this week.
Considering she has spent most of her career playing what is essentially herself – an offbeat, quirky, deadpan heartbreaker – its the perfect vehicle for her. Unfortunately, a whole series revolving around this adorable, attractive oddball, as an idea, has very short legs. Although only quickly sketched in, and immediately likeable, her character isn’t fleshy enough to carry the whole series. The wafer thin supporting characters – namely her room mates – give the impression that they’ve been selected, in the dark, from the stock cupboard of sitcom cliches: The Jock, The Sex-Pest and The Nice One with Ex-issues. They’re tossed the occasional funny line – like a keeper tossing a disregarded pet a morsel – but the humour is so underdeveloped and the characters so interchangeable any of them could have spoken any line. If you want my prediction, she helps them all respect women more, improves their lives, and, if you’re feeling sentimental, ends up involved with the nice one.
It’s little more than a vehicle for Zooey Deschanel to play the kind of role with which she has become synonymous, and to bring her to the mainstream audience which has so far been only vaguely aware of her. But, unless serious development occurs, I can’t see it having the longevity of the likes of Friends and Scrubs.
She is at risk, unless she chooses her next few projects with care, of becoming typecast – like Jennifer Aniston and a few others – for the rest of her career. She’s appeared in supporting roles in a few more, for her, unusual choices of film – The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Happening spring to mind – but essentially she always seems to end up as the same kind of unobtainable, slightly weird love interest, which reaches its pinnacle in the very enjoyable (500) Days of Summer. In the April 2011 issue of Lucky Magazine* she was quoted that she finds the label ‘quirky’ annoying, but if she is getting confused with the characters she consistently plays she should select her roles a little more carefully. I don’t know if it’s the roles she gets offered, or just the ones she chooses, but if she wants to shake off the tag she should accept more challenging parts.
Beyond the world of television and cinema, she has a low-key career as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in musical duo She & Him, with guitarist M. Ward. I’m confessedly a fan of all three of their albums, which sound like a playlist for an oldies station but with a modern, indie twist, and Deschanel is easy on the ear. In this endeavour, like her acting career so far, she hasn’t made great waves, but has instead gained an underground following.
It’s not a sustainable career plan, because her looks will fade and the quirky act will become annoying, so, unless she plans to step up to the serious acting plate soon, the New Girl will quickly become old.
*Disclaimer: I stumbled across the interview. I’d like to make clear I’m not a regular reader.
New Girl is on Channel 4 on Fri 6th January at 8.30pm
Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.’
‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,‘ said American physicist Richard Feynman in 1965. Mancunian TV-friendly, mop-haired, keyboard fingering, science teacher Professor Brian Cox tries to explain it anyway to an audience full of familiar entertainment faces, in a one-off BBC presentationA Night With The Stars from the lecture hall of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
Rather than the eponymous cat, the example object in the box is a rough diamond – a million pounds’ worth of uncut precious rock – or rather its tightly packed carbon atoms. Through this example, Professor Cox seeks to enlighten the assembled celebrities and viewers of the perplexing world of Quantum Mechanics. I can’t speak for the celebrities, but I came away feeling like I knew less than when I started watching.
You see, that’s the problem with quantum mechanics: It’s harder to wrap your head around than it would be to wrap an iron bar around a strand of hair. I’ve always found it intimidating, as it involves a degree of mathematics, lateral thinking and imagination in harmony that goes beyond my learning. Don’t mistake me; I’m no idiot – although after trying to crack quantum mechanics I have a hard time believing it – but the sciences were never my strong point, being of a more creative type. As an adult, I’ve tried to fill in the holes in my learning the best I can, and Professor Cox is an accessible enough presenter, but the subject is harder to approach than the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen on a dance floor surrounded by dozens of guys better looking and more charming than you.
I’ve read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking three times. I say that not as a boast, as the the second and third times were trying to get it to sink in. Biology and the science of evolution by natural selection fascinate me. Tell me a fact about dinosaurs and I’ll lap it up. But Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene still sits on my shelf mocking me, and even after this show quantum mechanics continues to elude me.
Basically, for those who are unfamiliar with the workings of quantum mechanics – which is most people – it describes the behaviour of the very, very small, and how it can be used to predict the behaviour of the very, very large – stars and other such stellar objects. It says that sub-atomic particles travel in waves; that everything is related to everything else; and that it acts completely counter-intuitively to anything prior science predicted. Einstein himself said of it: ‘Marvellous, what ideas the young people have these days. But I don’t believe a word of it.’
The annual Royal Institute Christmas lectures are a popular form of scientific entertainment, in a similar vein to A Night With The Stars. They’re intended for children and young people, although enjoyed by adults too. Thus far, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a lecture on quantum mechanics. I’m not sure that the subject can be boiled down to a degree where it is suitable for consumption by children. Or maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way and it’s complex enough for children to take in their stride. All I know is if you stop paying attention for a second it’s like you’ve turned two pages of a book over at once.
When I was a child, television’s go-to mad scientist was Johnny Ball, presenter of such programmes as Johnny Ball Reveals All. I’m not as familiar with current children’s television, but I’m guessing there’s no equivalent of this or How2, and that they are biased largely towards entertainment rather than education. If there were, perhaps I could build up to A Night With The Stars eventually, but for now I’m left still scratching my head.
The gig started off with the brilliant The Re-Entrants, two blokes and two ukuleles, covering the best pop and rock songs. What makes The Re-Entrants brilliant is that they recreate the songs they play note for note, every nuance, and every solo, perfectly played. They opened with Electric Light Orchestra’s classic hit “Mr Blue Sky”. People’s preconceptions about what could be done with the ukulele were blown out of the water, and The Re-Entrants continued this habit throughout, “Gold”, “Poker Face”, “Thriller” and for their encore blasted out AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” (or as it’s also known, the A666 to Bolton). Ian Emmerson had the crowd in hysterical laughter during their too short set with his dancing, jokes and general on stage presence.
If The Re-Entrants are the barmcake*, then The Lancashire Hotpots are the chips, gravy and ketchup in this chip barm gig.
Their introduction track, in the style of The Price Is Right, set the light hearted tone for the night. “Mek Us A Brew”, an ode to the humble cuppa char kicked off the proceedings, before bringing out songs like “Ebay ‘Eck” and “Chav”, the latter of which was one of the many songs which got the audience involved with dance moves and singing along.
Bernard (vocals/guitar) briefly disappeared off stage, and returned in his pirate garb for the ever popular “Cinema Smugglers” inciting the audience to yell “kyarrr” and to shiver his Pringles. Dickie (percussion/melodica/vocals) took over lead vocals for “Has Anybody Seen My Dongle?” a tongue in cheek nod to music hall entertainers such as George Formby, which was laden with innuendo.
Things slowed down for The Hotpot’s latest single “I’ll ‘Ave One Wi’ Yet”, a more traditional (for The Hotpots) about getting drunk with your friends down the local boozer. Before they broke into “Lancashire DJ” they have a quick costume change which brings about the best joke of the gig, and then end on the classic, “Chippy Tea”.
The crowd yells out for more, and The Hotpots are more than happy to oblige, and break out their quite sentimental “Carry You Home” which brought a touch of melancholy to the gig, before once again getting the audience to join in with “Shopmobility Scooter”. The Lancashire Hotpots finish their gig on “Bang Bang Thumpy Dance Music”, which is some of the classic dance tracks of my youth, but improved tenfold by being played by Lancashire’s finest comedy folk band.
Many drinks were had by the sizeable audience. It may have been freezing cold outside, but the ambiance was a warm and happy one. The Lancashire Hotpots brought joy to many in this bleak midwinter, and filled Preston with Christmas cheer.
*For anyone outside of Lancashire, a barmcake is also known as : a bap, a bread roll, a teacake, a stottie, a bread bun, a breadcake, or a cob… you’re not calling it the right thing though, it is a barmcake, and if you disagree, you’re wrong.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were only one typeface in the world? Designers would really have to think about the idea behind their designs instead of covering it up with fancy typefaces. One, universal typeface would really strip away all the flashy emptiness in design. And, of course, that one typeface would have to be Helvetica.”
The best is definitive by definition, but in some cases is an abstract concept. What is the best album ever recorded? You may have a favourite, or be able to compile a list of worthy candidates, but that list would be entirely subjective. What is the best food? It may be possible to conceive of some ideal consumable, perfectly nutritionally balanced yet satisfying every craving and taste bud, at the same time involving no environmental impact and minimal guilt. You might as well try eating Scotch Mist on toast.
But what is the best typeface, and why should you care? I would argue it is important that someone should care.
Just My Type by Simon Garfield makes the case for the latter question quite brilliantly, being a lengthy love letter to type – its form, its history and the culture that surrounds the little letters. BBC Radio 4 selected the book as their book of the week for the week beginning 5th December 2011, and serialised it in an abridged form read by Julian Rhind Tutt. The five programs only cover the first five chapters, and those are just a taster of a subject that has risen to a kind of geeky, obsessive cultural prominence.
I am a graphic designer by profession, and, due to my dogmatic adherence to the rules of type, I have been described by some as a ‘font Nazi.’* There is an unspoken etiquette regarding the use of typefaces. Comic Sans for example – a typeface that receives coverage in the very first episode of the Radio 4 series, which gives you an idea of how much these cartoon characters split opinion – would not be suitable for use on a funeral notice, or wedding invite. It is a jaunty font, that looks like it has been formed by a child with a felt pen. As this slideshow illustrates, out of context it looks vulgar and awkward. Although I shirk at the request to use it by a client, this most loathed of letter forms does have its place.
It comes down to appropriateness of use. Typefaces are more about right and wrong than good and bad, and all the grey areas in between. But, as Dutch artist Erik Kessels proposes in the above quote, if there were only one typeface – an idea, in itself, that I wouldn’t support – it would have to be the Swiss Helvetica.
I am more in favour of standardization rather than uniformity. We can understand the importance of standardizing something like time, as happened in 1840, so one o’clock in London is the same one o’clock in Newcastle or Manchester. But we wouldn’t go to the extent of making it also one o’clock in New York and Tokyo. Standardization benefits us in the case of expectancy: If we buy a Big Mac in a McDonald’s in Los Angeles, we know that, barring regional variations, it’ll be the same as Le Big Mac in Paris.
The great patriarch of sans serif type is unquestionably Akzidenz-Grotesk, and it is its descendants that dominate the practice of type standardisation. It began in the first half of the twentieth century on the transport networks, just as standard time did. The London Underground kicked proceedings off, with Johnston Sans adorning their signs from 1916. The names Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert may mean little to the average reader, but their typefaces Motorway and Transport are seen by millions of motorists and pedestrians every day in the UK. They are the typefaces of all UK road signs, specifically designed to be legible from distance with bold spacing, and have been adopted in Hong Kong, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Portugal and in the Middle East.
However, Helvetica’s use has now reached such a climax that it is impossible to avoid, unless you’ve lived in a cave for the past few decades. As Just My Type recounts – Episode 3 of the Radio series – New York resident Cyrus Highsmith tried to spend a day without Helvetica. It was harder than you would expect. He couldn’t eat anything that had Helvetica on its packaging, nor use transport that used it – which includes the city’s subway – but that didn’t matter anyway as he struggled to even spend money, as new US bank notes use it, as did his credit cards. Add to that list BMW, Jeep, Kawasaki, Microsoft, CNN, Panasonic, Motorola, Mitsubishi and NASA to name but a few which utilize it extensively, and you’ve got some idea how much its familiar characters inhabit our lives.
So, by extent of use, you could argue that Helvetica is the best typeface. But ultimately preferring Verdana or Univers is as much a choice as is liking certain food, music, cinema, literature or anything else about which it is possible to have an opinion. There are rules – some of them unspoken – but a flexible and practical designer knows that they are more guidelines.
*For clarity, there is a difference between the terms ‘type’ and ‘font’. A typeface is the name for the family group, such as Helvetica or Times New Roman. A font refers to a specific weight and point size of the typeface, for example 12 point Helvetica Black. The distinction comes from the time when the letters were cast in moulded lead alloys for printing. Each set of characters of one typeface grouped in the same weight and size was called a ‘font’. In the digital age, the boundaries are less rigid and even professionals often now use ‘font’ as the less specific term.
If I mention the name Dizzy, you’re likely to have one of two reactions. Some will be filled with a warm feeling of 1980’s nostalgia; of hours spent alone in your bedroom, playing with yourself. The rest will just shrug their shoulders in mystery. If I then mention to them that Dizzy was a brave young egg, who wore red boots and boxing gloves, the shrug turns to an expression of concern. If I go on to say he spends his time solving puzzles and rescuing members of his family, they start to wonder if it is time to call the men in white coats with nets.
Just to reassure, I am talking about a classic piece of retro gaming, from back in the day when Lara Croft was an A-cup and birds were merely disgruntled. Dizzy – The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure, along with its many sequels, was an adventure/puzzler game, released on various formats such as ZX Spectrums and Amstrad CPCs. If you’re not old enough to remember those consoles, imagine an era when games came on cassette tapes, and you played them with joysticks, usually with one big red button. It was a time when you would begin loading a game, then go for your tea, watch Thundercats, and, if you were lucky, by the time you got back the games might almost be ready to play.
It was a simpler time, and as a child I knew nothing of realistically rendered three-dimensional environments, surround-sound effects, cooperative online gameplay or immersing storylines. I was happy if a game would load best two times out of three.
But there’s no denying gaming has moved on. As computers advance in accordance with Moore’s Law, the gaming experience they are capable of providing moves far beyond the point those early gamers and programmers would have ever imagined possible within their lifetime. So why was I, and many others it seems, so excited by the news that Codemasters – Dizzy’s publishers – were releasing a glammed-up version of their classic game?
On Friday 9th December, Dizzy: Prince of the Yolkfolk – a reworking of the 6th title in the original series, from 1991 – was released for iPads, iPhone and Android devices, available from the Dizzy website.
Gone is the blocky white oval on a black background, Dizzy and his world are now rendered in full colour HD. The game is largely unaltered, except in cosmetic terms, and Codemasters selected this particular title to titivate as it received much praise for its gameplay upon its original release. But, most importantly, what made the original so appealing is still present. It is simple fun, without flash, explosions or fuss. The games, at the time, were challenging, although they seem far from taxing in retrospect. But this just means that smartphones are the perfect vehicle for them. They’re a lunch break or train journey’s play.
To some, Dizzy was a character bigger than any Italian plumber or blue spiked mammal you’d care to offer. This release, along with the other games Codemasters are reportedly interested in rereleasing, are a nostalgia trip for those familiar with them, and now have the chance to delight a whole new generation.