Tuesday, 22 May 2012

My Hero, Mr Benn

“As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared!” Maybe they shouldn’t, but those words still thrill, and not because I’m a bargain-bagging-shop-till-you-dropper, but a 100%, card-carrying fan of the 1970s kids TV show, Mr Benn. For the uninitiated, shame on you, Mr Benn is a be-suited gentleman, in a bowler hat, who frequents a particularly unusual costume shop. Every episode he tries on a different costume, before heading out of the mysterious door in the changing room that leads to adventure. Naturally, the nature of the costume dictates the style of adventure, he tends to bring home with him a souvenir from his travels, and somehow, the people in “Festive Road”, where Mr Benn lives, will in some way be reflecting elements of his adventure when he returns home.

As a child, these 13 wonderful episodes represented the essential tool-kit for the perfect life. It all starts with dressing up, everything should. Then Mr Benn embarks upon an adventure, of which he will inevitably become the hero, albeit with a refreshing, affable humility.

I remember my dressing-up-box, a big wicker basket with collected costumes and assorted props. I would assemble a suitable ensemble, then, like Mr Benn, step out into adventure. That my door-to-the-great-unknown would always lead to the same back garden in deepest Dorset mattered little. It was all about the imaginary leap I made with Mr Benn, and the resulting hours I would spend as the unassuming protagonist, vanquishing villains and righting wrongs. Reading the stories to my own kids now, or forcing them to sit through the rudimentary animation that was such a part of my childhood, takes me straight back to simpler times.

Though he travelled through time and space, Mr Benn was careful to only influence the lives he intersected in a positive way. The shopkeeper would often pop up, towards the end of the story, offering sage advice to our hero. The fact that Mr Benn never bought or even rented any of the costumes seemed not to rile the bespectacled retailer at all. It may be that he was independently wealthy, or that the shop was purely a pet project, funded by the proceeds of having invented a very rare type of  sandwich, it was not clear. But what was evident was the subtle manner in which good would triumph, without the need for American accents, or heavy-handed moralising, just a comforting predictability.

Although I’m probably old enough to know better, I still can’t resist Mr Benn, a quintessential English gentleman, with a bowler hat full of admirable attributes. Like all good things in life, it lasts about the same time as a cup of tea, and is just as warm and reassuring.    

Saturday, 5 May 2012

George Michael - Simply Not a Guilty Pleasure

Musical tastes are so eclectic. I am so blooming hi-tech that I listen to a music mix on a Memory stick in my car. Album after album. On random. The Black Keys - The Specials - George Michael - Divine Comedy - Led Zeppelin might play and goddammit they all have equal value to me. I don't listen to George because he's so bad he's good. I don't listen to him because I need my cheese quota for the week. I don't listen to him out of some strange sense of nostalgia for the 80's. I listen to him because he's blooming brilliant. And so should you.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Del Amitri

Now let’s get this straight. I love the songs of Del Amitri but I couldn’t tell you much about the band. I know that they hail from Scotland and that the lead singer is Justin Currie. They may have split up they may still be together, I don’t know and I don’t care. I couldn’t use them as my specialist subject on Mastermind, I will leave that to others. What I do know is that I love their songs.

Now I’ve had time to think about this. Other bands that I loved in my youth I tired of, Transvision Vamp is a good example, the lead singer Wendy James was deeply deeply hot and her bubblegum punk was catchy but grated after a couple of years. Del Amitri rose to prominence with their second album* “Waking Hours” which contained the monster hit “Nothing Ever Happens”.

Now like TV this spoke to teenage me. But whereas Wendy James excited with her threats that she would beat up another girl for me Del Amitri did something else, they introduced me to existential angst. This song celebrated the futility of existence, the dull repetition of life and as such was oddly joyous and new. I was studying TS Eliot at the time and made connections between poor old Prufrock measuring his days in coffee spoons and the needle returning to the start of the song in Currie’s classic.

Alfred Gough reads TS Eliot's "Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock".

They introduced me to songs of break-ups, unrequited love, men desperately clinging to fracturing relationships all shot through with a real sense of place, this is a grey world of rain, broken buildings, traffic jams and grotty nightclubs. The songs were compelling, evocative and most crucially; utterly cathartic.

This Side Of The Morning

Good break up songs cleanse the listener for a variety of different reasons. They provide a fantasy in which the worst can be played out…
“They say that it’s better to have loved than lost than never to have loved at all
But if you sit back and count the cost of all those losses there’s no profit at all.”
You're Gone – Waking Hours

You're Gone

They leave you feeling better that this has happened to Justin Currie, who like some Scottish Tragic hero goes through all of this shite so that you don’t have to. They make you appreciate what you have, or for a youngster make you aim for something better,  as these songs often go through the mistakes that lead to the break up.
But what makes me keep coming back to them? I tried to listen to a Transvision Vamp** album some time ago and couldn’t sit through it, I am not the person I once was. I do not have these concerns anymore, but I still like Del Amitri. Why?

Is it the music?

Is it the earnest and heartfelt writing?
"Like everyone else will do, I'm gonna lie to you / Tell you that life is cruel, but some day you're gonna wake up / With sleep instead of teardrops in your eyes" – what other band writes about grief in such a beautiful way?
So… Yes.

Is it the voice?

So. I am not ashamed.  Del Amitri are quite simply MY FAVOURITE BAND.

I have some other favourites but let's not muddy the waters with them yet...

*For those of you who thought this was their first album don’t get excited, their first “Del Amitri” is a band finding their feet and sound and is quite frankly unlistenable.

**Although I could listen to this all day.

Saturday, 14 April 2012


Welcome to this the first entry for “These are Not Guilty Pleasures”

When Dara O’Briain spoke about the concept of Guilty Pleasures in a recent show it got me thinking about all the things I like that are sneered at by others and conversely those things that others like that I sneer at.

Now this is not a forum for argument, so keep your sneering to yourself (this is mainly because the sneering is more common than celebration) – I openly sneer at Waterloo Road, Football, The X-Factor and its derivatives, whilst, at the same time try to protect such things as Del Amitri, Take That, Sugababes and M. Night Sylaman’s The Happening.

Now I will be writing and praising some of the above over the next few entries whilst inviting writers to praise those things that I or others may sneer at.

Remember we’re not judging you… this is a safe space to praise that which is lambasted and harrumphed. So if you have a book that others loathe but you love, a film, a band, a song , a food, anything then get writing. These are things that it may appear uncool to love, but it is time for that to change… or at least time to explain…