Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Gene Wilder

Excuse the inaccurate trousers and trainers, but given the comparison I'll make between Wilder's Wonka and a certain other character, then perhaps, some red converse trainers were rather appropriate....

R.I.P, Gene Wilder.

Blimey. Quite a thing, to think that he's gone.

Willy Wonka. Always the best.

The Johnny Depp film may have stuck slightly closer to the original book, but nothing compares to this wonderful man's interpretation.

I remember reading an article, several years ago, in an issue of Doctor Who Magazine, which described, in descending order, a dozen or so instances of actors in films or TV shows, who, while not *actually* playing the Doctor, might as well have been, for their interpretation of the given character. Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka topped that list.

Not only was it his wonderful eccentricity, unpredictability and general sense of other-wordly-ness, but his costume, with the bow tie and velvet jacket, is vaguely reminiscent of the Doctor of the time, Jon Pertwee, and his costume in general is very Doctor-ish. Plus, as the article pointed out, all that that scene in the tunnel needed, where he's reciting creepy rhymes, and lights are going off all over the place and with the tension and music building, is that familiar Doctor Who theme sting that came with the cliffhanger at the end of an episode.

I was lucky enough to be able to play a version of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka at an event in Newham earlier this year, supervising a game where visiting children would look for and find a Golden Ticket. As well as the odd look of wonder and amazement from some kids, I was approached for a few photos and selfies. Much like has often been said about the Doctor, it wasn't so much me they wanted a photo with or had such excitement for, but the affection they had for the *character*, which they would project onto me in portraying it.

It was an immense pleasure sort-of playing a part that really, I feel I could have made more effort to fill the shoes of. I hope that I get the opportunity to do so again at some point, so that I can put even more effort into channeling the indomitable Gene Wilder.

What a thrill.

Sad to see him pass, although he will always live on, for many of us, '...in a world of Pure Imagination...'

Friday, 20 May 2016

A response to Sadiq Khan's endorsement of Hillary Clinton:

I love Sadiq Khan. I've been immensely proud of the job he's done as my MP over the last 10 years and of the fact that he's been chosen by over a million Londoners to be the Mayor of London.

And if he wants to support Hillary Clinton, that's his business. But his explanation for why he supports Hillary over Bernie is disappointingly simplistic.

It is a fantastic thing that Greater London has elected its first ever Muslim Mayor, and I do think that it is a tremendous show of the kind of city we are that we had the confidence to do so, especially in the face of such a vile campaign. But Sadiq's religion wasn't an issue until the Tories made it an issue.

Every time I, or my parents, have voted for Sadiq, it hasn't been because he's a Muslim, it's been because of the job he's done as a constituency MP, and because of his politics. The fact that he happened to be of an ethnic minority and thus was a good symbol of the multicultural city that London, and in particular, Tooting, is, is just a bonus - not a reason to vote for him in and of itself. You won't catch me voting for Sajid Javid if the opportunity comes up, for example, because I don't share his politics - at all.
Yes, it does send a nice message if Hillary is elected as the first ever female President of the United States, and that would be inspiring. But I'm sure that felt inspiring for lots of little girls in 1979 with the election of a certain Margaret Thatcher...I suspect the reality of what Mrs Thatcher then did to their communities didn't make her such a great role model to them. See the point I was making about Javid?

Now look, obviously Hillary is to the left of Thatcher and Reagan, and she does have an impressive CV. I respect that. I respect also that in many ways she might have her heart in the right place, and if, as is still fairly likely, she clinches the Democratic nomination, she will have my full support to defeat Trump.
But Bernie WOULD be better. And I'm not just saying that because I agree more with his politics. Its because I've been spending a lot of time studying for myself how American politics has been going for the last year, and things aren't looking good for Hillary. Where once she was leading Trump in every national poll but simply smaller margins than Bernie, now she is in a statistical tie with him in every recent poll released. We're talking broad bases of support? Hillary has Democrats, BAME voters and the over 50s, but she doesn't have young voters (who make up nearly a third of the American electorate in total), white voters (who still make up a substantial amount of the American electorate) and political Independents - what we might call 'swing voters' over here - who vastly outnumber those who call themselves either Republicans or Democrats. 
Bernie, on the other hand, has much higher support among all of the demographics that Hillary fails in, is still largely liked by the Democrats who *aren't* voting for him in the primaries, and, by nature of being the Democratic nominee and being up against Trump, will very likely have the support of the demographics Hillary currently is more favourable among.

The most telling thing Sadiq says in this interview is “I don’t know enough about American politics, but from what I’ve read about the selection, my concern about any candidate where he or she wins their selection, the question is ‘can you then win the election?’

This isn't just an internal party election, Sadiq. In fact it's in the closed primaries, where *only* Democrats can vote, that Hillary's fared better while Bernie has fared worse. In the open primaries, however, where *anyone* can vote, Bernie has been winning by landslides.

Bernie is the only candidate left in the presidential reace with net positive approval ratings. Trump's are climbing, and Hillary's are falling.

Bernie is the only candidate left in the Democratic race that still maintains a consistent and large lead over Donald Trump.

And Bernie is much, much more progressive, and in line with Labour Party values, than Hillary is. It ought to be raising alarm bells that in Westminster, the chair of the Hillary Clinton fan club is a Conservative MP.

Although it appears to have happened on a much smaller scale in British politics than in Britain and America, something big has been happening in Western democracies. The old two-party systems have been falling apart at the seams. Labour's sister party in Greece, PASOK, was annihilated in the 2015 general election and comprehensively replaced with a new party, Syriza.
Similarly, PSOE, Labour's sister party in Spain, has had it's two party hegemony with the PP (Spain's Conservative Party) broken by the arrival of Ciudadanos, the Citizens Party, on the Right, and Podemos on the Left.

The Irish Labour Party has been utterly destroyed, with the worst result it had in its 100+ year history, at the recent election, after having gone into coalition with the right-wing governing party.

There is still a place for candidates of the old politics, but they have to come to terms with the fact that there is a really potent anti-establishment feeling that has reared its head in Western democracies, and increasingly, older left/right-wing or left/right-of-centre parties are being (excuse the pun) 'Trumped' by more polarised, radical alternatives.

The truth is, Sadiq, if you knew a bit more about American politics, you would know that, despite the various advantages the Democratic Party has provided her with, Hillary Clinton is the one whose appeal is too narrow in this election.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is the one with the 'Big Tent'.

Friday, 19 February 2016

R.I.P. Harper Lee - Author of 'To Kill A Mockingbird'

When I was 14 years old, we read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time. When we read it in class then, we didn't fully appreciate the book as a whole - only the final few chapters that covered the trial, and the result.

Then in Year 10, we read the book again, at GCSE level. And we gained a new understanding. That long first half of the book, which at one point we had considered dry, was in fact Atticus Finch preparing his children, Jem and Scout, for what was to come. For the inevitable result of the trial. Raising them to be mature enough to want to fight so hard for justice and yet be prepared for when it wasn't served.

I owe a lot of that understanding of the book to my English teacher, Miss Hildyard, but equally, what she instilled in us was a new, more well-rounded appreciation for this story, and for Harper Lee's writing. To this day, I don't think any of us that were studying it at the time don't still hold a similar affection for it.

My GCSE English Class
Sometimes, you can study a book for English Literature, and have lots of the enjoyment of it sucked out through the endless analysis.

Not To Kill A Mockingbird.

Harper Lee's first, and best-known, novel, remains to this day, one of the most fascinating and brilliant books I've read. In many ways, it is just the story of two children, and yet it also teaches, fundamentally, that we should always stand up for what is right.

There are so many brilliant quotes from it that I could name. Lee's evocative and language-rich spin on the well-known phrase "put yourself in their shoes" springs to mind.

But one that I think has had a big impact on me, and indeed my phliosophy, is this:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” - Atticus Finch.

That is something that I often think about. That just because the odds seem impossibly stacked against you, that is not a reason not to try to stand up for what's right. Atticus Finch may be a work of fiction, but that by no means makes him any the less of an inspiring figure. Someone who stood up for Tom Robinson when no-one else would. My friend John (dead-centre, arms folded, in the picture above) once referred to Atticus as his 'hero'.

Mockingbird was published in 1960. 3 years later was the march on Washington. Another 2 and the Voting Rights Act was passed into law, after decades of campaigning and struggle by countless civil rights activists.

Nelle Harper Lee lived a long, and really, a relatively private life. When asked, a few years ago, why she never wrote another book (Go Set A Watchman was an earlier draft of Mockingbird), she responded "I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again." That's quite something.

Though at 89, she is hardly as young as the many British stars who we've parted company with since the start of the year, it still feels sad to know that she is no longer with us.

R.I.P. Harper Lee.

And thank you - for standing up for what's right.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

"Lower Than Vermin"...?

If I wanted to privatise a much-loved public institution, knowing that doing so would be politically toxic, what would I do?
Well, demoralising and overworking the very people who work for that institution would be a good start.
Because then, if I did that, those people might be overworked. They might start underperforming. Lots of them might begin leaving the profession.
Public satisfaction with this public service would hit all time lows. "It's not what it used to be...", people would lament, sadly...as they endure pain and people die around them due to the service's inefficiency...
Then one day, I'd make an announcement. "This service has been a loved and treasured institution for many years. But it is clear that, however brilliant an idea, in these difficult times, and with record dissatisfaction despite our continued investment, that the service is simply not able to cope with the demands of the 21st Century."
"We have therefore taken the difficult decision to move to a private, insurance-based system. We believe this is the best way to ensure everyone receives the standard of service they deserve."
Of course, there may still be some outcry. "What if we can't afford insurance?", some may say. "Don't worry,", I'll reply. "The very poorest will have their insurance covered by benefits".
Most of the upper classes won't care. They've rarely used the service anyway. Many of them will in fact benefit from this initiative - they have shares in the insurance companies ready to provide the service.
The middle classes will lament the loss, but acknowledge the difficult times we're living in. It'll be difficult, but they can afford the insurance. And hey, if the poorest still have their benefits, they'll still get what they need, right?
But soon envy will start to set in. "Why should I have to work my arse off to get the money to pay insurance for me and my family, while that lot still get it for free?"
So the benefits are cut. No longer a provision, but a subsidy. "It's a question of fairness", I would say.
Soon people are starting to give up more and more to afford the insurance. Missing that holiday here, or if you're poorer, skipping that meal there.
Insurance costs start going up. Those who have been skipping meals, or putting off having to use the private service in an attempt to save money, end up needing it even more when they finally go. A few more people die, or end up in chronic pain, because they don't want to spend money on expensive insurance unnecessarily. A few people decide they don't need insurance anyway. They'll be fine - they're young, they're healthy, they keep fit..
Some charities are set up, but those working for them are volunteers, and not fully qualified. They can't meet the demand. They can't provide all that's needed.
And one day, if they've lived that long, grandparents will be telling their grandchildren: You know, when I was little, we got all this for free. It was considered a right..."
Oh look, Jeremy Hunt has just imposed that new contract on the junior doctors without negotiation. The aim is to create a truly 7-day NHS.
Ah, good old Mr Hunt. Isn't it great we've got a Health Secretary so committed to the NATIONAL Health Service...?

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Sir Terry Wogan...

Goodnight, Terry.

I'm afraid, while I could sympathise with and feel the collective sense of loss that people felt when it came to David Bowie and Alan Rickman, neither of them had an especially deep, personal connection to my own life. Although they were always sort of there, and I was aware of them, and enjoyed their music (in Bowie's case) or performances (with both of them), I didn't exactly grow up with them.

Sir Terry Wogan was different.

When I think of Terry Wogan, I'm back in my Mum and Dad's old kitchen at home. I'm ten years old, sat at the kitchen table, eating my cereal, in my Sellincourt Primary School uniform, getting ready for the day ahead. I'm listening to this gentle Irishman's voice. Warm, good-humoured, witty, helping us all  (all 8 million of his listeners) to wake up in the morning.

I'm hearing him read Janet and John, and while not really understanding why him, everyone else in the studio, and Mum and Dad, are laughing so much, being amused and bemused by their enjoyment and laughter.

I'm sat watching the Eurovision song contest as he gently pokes fun at all of the acts on show.

I'm watching him host the Children In Need telethon, having a laugh and a joke, struggling to cope with and understand some of the newer elements such as texting, tweeting, using Facebook, etc., but carrying on like a trooper.

I'm sitting at the computer, watching old clips of him hosting Children In Need in his heyday, or doing his chat show - his segments interviewing the stars of Doctor Who, past and present (as well as that one brilliant clip of him interviewing Baldrick while Blackadder supervises).

I don't think that it would be unfair to say that Terry Wogan was a bit past his prime by the end. While there was something so lovely about his commitment to Children In Need, which I think said a lot about him, in the last few years I could see him struggling a bit with the trials and tribulations of such live broadcasting, and I didn't consider it to be a great loss last year when he had to give it a miss on that occasion because of ill health (though naturally I didn't wish him to be in ill health). I remember thinking that, despite being a few years his junior, Terry seemed a fair bit more frail and less able to cope with presenting demands towards the end than his peer, Sir Bruce Forsyth, is currently.

But I, as I'm sure so many others will, will remember Sir Terry Wogan in his prime. Whenever they consider that to be, and in whatever medium. Blankety Blank, The Wogan talk show, Children In Need, Eurovision, Radio 2. Everyone has their own special little memories of Terry Wogan.

When I woke up this morning and saw people paying tributes to Wogan, I couldn't believe it. I was in shock. Terry Wogan, gone?

I remember distinctly listening to the last breakfast show link, as it went out. Of course, Wogan would go on to host a live show on Sunday mornings a few months later, but it was never quite as good, or had the same charm, of Wake Up To Wogan.

At the time, watching interviews with people as they heaped praise on Wogan as his time on the breakfast show was coming to an end, and listening to the final show, I got a sense of the enormous love and affection for this man, and I knew I was going to miss his morning show, but I couldn't fully grasp it all, even knowing that he'd been such a big figure in broadcasting for so many decades before. And I wasn't that worried, as I knew I'd still see him on Children In Need.
But now, looking back, thinking about him today, I get it.

When I sat and listened to this last breakfast show link again, I felt this great sense of nostalgia, and loss, knowing that Terry Wogan has passed away, and I burst into tears. I find if difficult to stop crying for very long even now. Every time I listen to the clip, I well up.
If you can bear to, I recommend you listen to this. Over half a decade later, it now feels like an even more fitting goodbye from the man himself, who we all felt we knew in some way, all considered like a friend, an uncle or Granddad, even if we'd never met him face-to-face.

The moment that really gets to me is when Terry says "you, my listener". Doesn't that just sum him up? This man had over 40 years of experience, he had an audience on Wake Up To Wogan of over 8 million people...and yet his last, parting remark, as hiis show always was, was not to address it as if he was talking to millions, not as if he was in front of some huge crowd...

But to one person. An intimate style of speaking just to one person - and yet, he spoke to everyone.

Farewell Terry. Goodnight, Mr Wogan.

“Hang on: there’s 60 million people in the country – what are the other 52 million listening to?” – Terry Wogan, on hearing his radio show audience had passed 8 million....

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Snoopy & Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

On the 9th January, 2016, 3 generations of Mendozas saw The Peanuts Movie - based on the popular comic strips and cartoons by Charles M Schulz.

Dad had always been a huge fan of Snoopy as a child, and this had carried through into adulthood. To this day, we still have the odd Snoopy visible around the house from his extensive collection, and there's at least a few at my paternal Granny's house, too.

Through Dad's love of Snoopy/Peanuts as a child, his parents ended up loving it, and through my awareness of this, I took an interest too. I remember we had a video copy of Snoopy, "Flash Beagle" that I watched a lot as a kid, and at my grandparents house we had a copy of the film "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown." I also watched many of the other films and Christmas Specials over the years, with either Granny and Grandpa or Dad.

When we first heard that Blue Sky Studios were making a feature-length film, we were apprehensive, to say the least. Would it do the original series/films justice? Or would they go too far in trying to modernise it for a Hollywood audience? It could very easily be another Magic Roundabout - which, while I enjoy immensely as a good film in its own right, Dad is right that CGI animated film didn't retain nearly the same level of charm as the original series.

And then, we saw this trailer:

Suddenly, we were at ease. The opening moments, using the 2001: Space Odyssey music, lead you down one line of thinking, especially as the earth morphs into Charlie Brown's CGI head, but then....

That moment where that music stops, Snoopy appears, and the original Peanuts music begins, all worries are dispelled. As Dad said, it was as if those producing the film were quietly saying to the fans, "Don't worry - this is safe in our hands." Even in what is just a 60-second teaser, you can feel the charm and sense of humour that was so present in the original cartoons. Even the style of 3D animation was great - you weren't being given a full 360-degree view of the environment and characters, so it still had a two-dimensional feel to it.

Nevertheless, the use of pop music in some subsequent trailers had made me, at least, a bit more nervous - love pop music though I do, mainstream sounding pop music was never a staple of the Peanuts cartoons and it wouldn't have been great if the film was just filled with an entirely pop-based soundtrack.

So, while quietly confident that I wouldn't be disappointed, I sat down in the cinema with Mum, Dad, my younger brother George, and younger sister Ruby, to see the film. After a few too many trailers, and an Ice Age short featuring 'Scrat' which, while enjoyable, made me feel the Ice Age shark had most certainly been jumped, the film began.

The film was absolutely beautifully done. A true labour of love.

The music, the mood, the sense of humour, all of it felt so faithful to the original cartoon. (Warning: some slight spoilers ahead in the rest of the paragraph): There was no massive, overarching one-off storyline that took the characters to a different place, no grand, Hollywood-style adventure, it felt very much like a compiled mini-series of stories that would be right at home in the original cartoons (albeit with an overrarching narrative running through). Even scenes of Snoopy flying his kennel like a proper plane, seen in the original series but could never have been achieved on the same scale in hand-drawn animation, felt totally faithful to the humour, heart and mood of the cartoons.

Without saying exactly why, I wept at the end. It was the one thing that I felt deviated ever so slightly from lots of the tropes of the old comics and books, but it did so with such class, feeling and narrative reasoning that it felt completely right and justified.

While I'm not sure it would have nearly the same resonance for those who didn't watch Snoopy cartoons or read the Peanuts strips as a child, I do think the film is good enough in its own right to enjoy as a family whether you're familiar with the characters or not.

But if you are, then Snoopy and Charlie Brown will feel extra special. In many ways, it feels like a love letter to the fans, and all those that used to watch it, with lovely easter eggs scattered throughout, lots of laughs, and a good story.

Especially if you have ever enjoyed watching or reading Snoopy/Charlie Brown/Peanuts, go and see this film.

I think I can say, with reasonable certainty - it doesn't disappoint ;)