28 September 2006

Prognosis - John Hutton


Hutt Off.

Prognosis - Alan Milburn

Alan Milburn whacked about the fringe this year talking a lot about the need to redistribute power (good point) and the need to privatise a lot of the public sector to do it (wrong approach, mate.)

The Labour Party Conference is not a very good platform for backbenchers who want to make a push for the leadership as they don't have the set piece speech opportunities that the Cabinet ministers do (the Tory idea last year, where the leader resigned before the conference and there was a special session for the contenders to make their pitch, worked a lot better.) I think Milburn blew his gig when he made a pig's ear of the election campaign 18 months ago and no matter how many manic fringe speeches he makes, he's not going to get into any kind of position to make a bid now. I haven't worried much about what I would do if Milburn gets to Number 10 because frankly I am more likely to win the Lottery (and I don't even buy a ticket.)

Prognosis - Dr John Reid

There aren't many events that would suddenly cause me to think very seriously about voting Conservative to save the country, but a John Reid premiership is one of them. (A Peter Mandelson premiership would be another, but I'm ruling that out as a possibility unless we suddenly find out there is going to be a United States of Europe and the elections are in 2008 or something).

Wasn't it so much better when John Reid was just Tony Blair's attack dog? Now the dog has learnt to talk and think on its own, and its main policy prescriptions and basic shtick are an exaggerated version of 1995 - vintage Michael Howard, with a touch of Enoch Powell thrown in. Unfortunately, his profile has been wildly boosted by the chaos he has inherited in the Home Office, and he hasn't been in the job long enough for the public to see through him yet.

Give this dog a bone and keep him chewing on it, preferably in a padded cell, for at least 12 months. I'm with Roy Hattersley (see about halfway down in the article) although I would like to remind him that unlicensed gun ownership is banned...

Prognosis - Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown will still be pissed off about Cherie's little outburst during his speech (assuming it really did happen - if not, he'll just be pissed off about the media) but for the party faithful (and the handful of folks actually watching the daytime TV coverage) he probably got the speech right in terms of content. The delivery was flat as a pancake, though, and there is a risk that head-to-head comparisons with the Blair and Clinton speeches have done him no favours with the general public.

I think people who say that Gordon Brown will never make it to Number 10 as he lacks the necessary 'star quality' are barking up the wrong tree. It's not at all necessary to be a brilliant media performer to be politically successful - look at George W Bush, or John Howard in Australia, for instance. My worry for Brown is more that he is just far too close to what New Labour has done so far to present himself as a new broom, or a breath of fresh air, if he takes over the leadership.

Certainly the current opinion poll evidence seems to show that Brown would not improve Labour's electability if he were to take over tomorrow, and he might even reduce it. This was not the case back in 2003, when there were rumblings that Brown was going to muster some kind of putsch for the leadership... but people seem much more inclined to lump Gordon in the same bracket as Tony now - perhaps because everything Brown has said for the last 3 years has been standard issue Blairite New Labour. The old days of the barnstorming press-all-the-right-buttons Gordon Brown conference speech - "we're best when we're Labour", etc (from 2003? Check here to find out) are over. He plays it much safer now, going for the wider audience - but there doesn't seem to be as much heart in it.

Brown is still the front runner for the leadership by a long way... but a scenario where the doubts about how well he would actually do in the hot seat grow over the next six months or so, to an extent where a Cabinet challenger could steal it in the leadership vote, is possible, although still an outside shot. The next three posts will dissect three of the other contenders in various degrees of detail - leaving just one serious challenger, whom I will probably have to gather my thoughts on over the weekend... at least it gives you guys time to read all this nonsense.

Post-LPC leadership prognosis - Tony Blair

How long can Tony Blair carry on as Labour leader?

Barring the long-shot possibility of a National Government with the Tories, it will probably be late Spring or summer '07. The May local election and Scottish election results will be a king-size disaster, whoever is leader, and it would actually be quite a good strategy to let Blair take the flak and then give up a day or a week afterwards. The only problem is that this isn't the kind of way he'll want it to end after 10 years, and so he may be tempted to hang on a bit longer to put some space between him and those May election results. So maybe July? I think the Gordon Brown camp would be quite pissed off about this as the leadership election would not be over and done until September, which is really close to the 2007 conference.

So maybe TB will go before May... but this means that Gordon Brown (or whoever) walks into electoral disaster in the first few weeks of his premiership (normally I'd say "his/her" but there don't seem to be any realistic female contenders at this stage). A compromise position would be for Blair to resign in March or April, get the leadership process in motion, and then blame the bad election results on the party being (temporarily) leaderless. Actually a useful cop-out, and perhaps a likely scenario... except that Blair may like the idea of celebrating "10 years at Number 10" and may hang on for sheer vanity value.

Blair's conference speech was certainly well received (although I had some issues with the content, as always) and may have given him a little more breathing space. But surely it's unlikely that he's going to be able to make a positive difference in Israel/Palestine in the next 9 months if he hasn't done in the last 9 years. And he is only a bit part player anyway... if George Bush really had been serious about "the Roadmap", if anyone in his administration knew what the goddamn
Roadmap was, then maybe a separate Palestinian state would be well on the way. As it is, the US Government has certain other foreign policy engagements on its mind right now, and the mid-term elections will probably accentuate that, particularly if the Democrats manage to capture the House and/or Senate.

On balance I think Blair will go in May 2007, with the new leader in place by the end of July.

Rounding off a disorientating week in Manchester

This will be (almost) the last post on the Labour Party Conference, which I have to say I was only really a half-hearted participant in. But I will be trying to tie up - or at least temporarily safety-pin - a lot of loose ends, so bear with me, as this post may be longer than usual...

I think above all it is the long and strange hours of activity at Conference which makes it so tiring and rather disorientating for someone like me - a commuter who quite likes the structure of regular 9.30 to 6 office days supplemented by reading on the train journey to and from London. All the interesting action at LPC takes place at fringes, receptions or informal drinking sessions which are at lunchtimes or in the evenings, from about 5.30 pm until last person standing in the hotel bar keels over and is used as a guinea pig for the next morning's breakfast buffet. I was too weedy to stay up into the night this year (or maybe I'm just coming down with a mystery illness) - and with the fringes it is always hard to choose as the best ones are invariably in the same time slot and thus if you go to one meeting you worry about missing the 6 or 7 other good meetings that are going on. Particularly if you go to an Electoral Commission fringe where the bill promises Armando Ianucci, Jon Snow and Alan Johnson and none of the bastards turn up!

There are sometimes breakfast events as well but they are rarely any good as many of the key players are bombed out of their skull from the night before and thus fail to show up, or contribute nothing of significance. The "real" conference hours, from about 9.30 to 1 and 2 to 5, are mind-numbingly boring, aside from a few set-piece speeches which are pored over by the media (including blogs like this) for the faintest hint of what is going on, in much the same way that the old Party Congress speeches used to be analysed in the Soviet Union.

Parallels with the USSR have been in my head a lot during conference; the Britannia Hotel had a very Eastern Bloc feel about it, with its fallen-on-hard times opulence and creepy long corridors - something like The League of Gentlemen meets The Shining. I will post a couple of pictures when I get them off my phone. Overhearing political discussions between the Benns Hilary and Tony in the restaurant at breakfast was also very surreal. The selection of free tat that you can grab from the exhibition stands outside the entrance to the conference hall was redolent of what central planners might produce left to their own devices: NASUWT yo-yos, pens of every shape, ink colour and usability, a lot of lollies, Crossrail bottle-openers in the shape of hard hats, Cancer Research post-it notes and at least five alternative neckbands for your Conference ID cards, mostly from trade unions, so that delegates didn't have to go round advertising Sky News all week. I liked the GMB "AA is sacking disabled workers" campaign one best.

To press a point, the whole leadership contest feels a bit like the succession battles in the Politburo that produced Gorbachev during the 1980s. Tony Blair is hardly Brezhnev or Andropov or the other guy who had to wait for his pacemaker to recharge when he was halfway through his inaugural speech, but it feels like he's been with us for pretty much as long, and the public probably feels equally removed from the Labour party's internal dealings as the Soviet citizens did back then. Not that I am recommending that the Labour leadership be submitted to a popular referendum, but hey, kids - if you want to have a say, just join up now! (I don't know if you have to have been a Labour Party member for a certain number of months/years to get a vote on the leadership, but if the party has any sense they would have such a rule. Otherwise a bunch of 'ringers' could join up, vote for any old duffer (Alan Milburn)? and then leave again...)

I'm going to stop this post here and then assess each of the challengers for the Labour leadership in individual posts to make it easier to read and to give myself a break. L8ers.

27 September 2006

Billy C. - the composite showman

I watched Bill Clinton's speech on a screen in the conference centre. He spoke about as slowly as Gordon Brown did two days ago, but the effect - even over TV - was completely different. There is a strange mesmeric quality about hearing the man, which I can't quite get to the bottom of. Even when he's being completely vacuous, it's like he's saying the most important thing you are gonna hear all month. Tony Blair has this effect on some people but not me. I just think, as a speaker, Bill Clinton is one of the most skilful I've ever heard.

Some of the speech was interesting, some was platitudinous, but that was the idea. Get your best man on deck to establish the feelgood factor... I think a lot of the Labour Party feel some warmth towards Clinton anyway. His policy achivements in office are extremely minimal - probably less than Jimmy Carter, even. But he wasn't George Bush (Jnr) or Ronald Reagan, and in US politics, that means quite a lot. Also he was the prisoner of a hostile Congress for 6 years. His welfare reform policies were awful in the main, if you ask me (a more detailed post on that some other time) but at least he had at least half a clue on climate change.

At the moment I've very little idea of which contender might emerge for the Democrats in 2008, and that will probably be a big feature of giroscope in 2007 (assuming we last that long...) But if he/she could combine the slickness of the Clinton operation with some decent policy ideas then America might just manage to escape from the political kamikaze dive it's been in (with brief sunny interludes) since 1968. Gonna be a tough one, though.

26 September 2006

In amongst all this politics, time for a beer

As a respite from all these lame speeches, I must let you know (and Barney would have liked to have let you know if he'd been able to make it up here) that there is an excellent pub within a very short walk of the G-Mex centre. It's called the Peveril of the Peak and it's on Great Bridgewater Street, just a little south of G-Mex and the Bridgewater Hall. Go west on Portland Street and then just keep going past the McDonalds instead of turning right towards the G-Mex.

It's one of those really cool northern pubs with lots of little separate rooms in it, all with slightly different decor. I had a pint of a beer called Copper Dragon in there and it really was something quite special. And a damn sight better beer (and cheaper) than the bar in the Britannia Hotel... or many of the other hotel bars nearby, I'm sure. Great to see good quality real ale in a city centre - London, by comparison, is a joke. Apart from the Jerusalem Tavern in Farringdon, when was the last time anybody had a really good pint of beer in central London?

Blair - bad, but I've seen worse

Now I said I wasn't actually going to watch Tony Blair's speech this year but I had nothing better to do so I caved in anyway.

It was a competent enough effort, I suppose... and he did mention Dennis Skinner for the second speech in a row. But I have no time for the 'my Tony Blair right or wrong' brigade, the kind of people who would sit there and listen to the most unbelievable right-wing bollocks and then just clap anyway. There was a lot of total nonsense in this speech: ID cards, a completely bonkers analysis of the Iraq invasion's contribution to the "war on terror", criticism of David Cameron for a (very sensible) scepticism about the current US adminstration, the standard garbled technospeak about the "Google generation" and how it's important to be able to order online books 24/7, and a rather childish dig at the Liberal Democrats - so much for "serious politics". He did throw some extra things into the mix - an acknowledgement of the Labour Party's role in getting him to where he is now, for instance - but he remains an intensely arrogant and insufferable proposition.

Admittedly I am not the most unbiased assessor of a Tony Blair speech - and the initial response on BBC2, even from the most un-Blairite Roy Hattersley, has been very positive. I will say that Blair's delivery was a lot better than Brown's - Tony didn't come across like he had been loaded up on downers before taking the podium.

But I do feel a strange elation at this point - to quote Chris Morris's 2001 Brasseye special, I have a feeling rather like the exhausted calm at the end of an hour's forced vomiting. Because this is the last year (barring the possibility of a 1931-style National Government, where Blair jumps ship to the Tories) that I will have to listen to this awful man talking his business, and the Labour party can now move forward - to what, remains to be seen, but there will at least be a change of some kind. It should have happened in 2003 if not before, but it is happening in 2007 for sure, and, as I'm sure Tony would say himself, thank God for that.

Cherie Blair - a return to straight-talking politics?

7.30 on a very grey Manchester morning - the classic North-west sky colour, any time of year. The hotel room window is thin and ill-fitting, hence I am typing this with an earful of the lorries and buses in the big traffic queue.

On this Conference Tuesday the BBC breakfast news is desperately trying to focus on what Tony Blair will say in his speech - but the newspapers are mostly leading on the story that Cherie Blair said "it's a lie" when listening to Brown talking about how well he and Blair got on.

This is a very hard story to verify as only one person, Bloomberg producer Carolin Lotter, claims to have heard Cherie saying "it's a lie". The initial story from Bloomberg was that Cherie had walked out of the conference hall during the speech. This has since been revised (perhaps due to conflicting eyewitness reports?) but Bloomberg have not retracted the "lie" quote.

Clearly it would be very easy for a reporter simply to make a story like this up and the evidence for Cherie's outburst is about as thin as it comes. Having said that, the story completely upstaged Gordon's performance, which as I said in my previous post, was not that memorable in the first place. And I think we do owe either Cherie Blair or Carolin Lotter a debt of gratitude for puncturing Gordon Brown (and Tony Blair's) attempt to airbrush the history of their relationship. Everyone who has been even vaguely involved with the Number 10 or 11 operations knows that Brown and Blair hate each other's guts and have done probably since about 1998 and certainly since the attempt to elbow Brown off the organisation of the election campaign in 2005 and replace him with Alan Milburn, honorary president of "Amoebas For Blair". That failed when it became painfully obvious that Milburn was not up to running a kebab outlet, and Brown had to be parachuted back in to save the campaign. Which he did, just about. But nobody believed the party political broadcast where Tony buys Gordon an icecream (or was it the other way round?) and no-one believes this eyewash about them having made up now either. So Cherie - or Bloomberg's Cherie avatar - deserves some credit for saying what everyone was thinking anyway.

25 September 2006

Gordon - Not quite what was required?

Pleased to announce that giroscope is able to post from Manchester thanks to the pot luck of being in one of the rooms in the Britannia Hotel where the wi-fi actually works. Some friends and colleagues have not been so lucky, and the corridors are full of people walking around with laptops trying to find the 'hot spot'. It's just another dab of surrealism on top of what is a very strange hotel, and I will have more to say on that later on when things calm down a little...

...but Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour Conference seems a more immediate and pressing topic to report back to you on. I didn't make it into the conference floor as I only had a balcony pass and I couldn't be bothered with the huge queue to get into the secure zone anyway. So I watched Brown on a (rather fuzzy) TV in a nearby venue. My reaction (shared by many, though not all, of the other people I know who watched it) was that GB said a lot of the right things but not necessarily in the right way. It was solid and uninspiring stuff, which will surprise anyone who has seen Gordon's previous speeches to the conference, which have contained a good measure of fiery plays to the rank and file. But such grandstanding was notable by its absence today.

What probably happened was that Gordon was worried about being seen as too "core" Labour in his appeal, and was trying to reach out, but in doing so, forgot about what's made him such an effective Labour performer in the first place. Certainly the conference floor's reaction was polite but unspectacular, in much the same way as what happened to David Davis at the Tory conference last year. Now I don't believe that Brown is in the kind of state that the Davis campaign got itself into in Blackpool last year - he is starting from a much, much stronger position within the party and still has to be the favourite. Nonetheless, any potential challenger to Gordon will have felt their unplayed hand strengthened by today's underwhelming display.

We are in a strange state of phoney war in the Labour Party at the moment and will probably remain so for several months; but if a strong alternative candidate to Brown does emerge when (or before) Blair steps down, things could get extremely interesting. For reasons that deserve to be a separate post, I believe that if such a challenger emerges, he will be called not John Reid, and certainly not Alan Milburn, but Alan Johnson; but Johnno is most unlikely to show his hand this week. His planning will be going on behind the scenes, and all Johnno has to do is deny that it's going on whilst leaving his options open come next spring. A good conference speech by Johnson on Wednesday would help but is by no means essential; this leadership election remains, probably until April '07 at least, Brown's to lose. And the consensus around the conference seems to be that he made a poor fist of it today.

23 September 2006

Seth goes to the Labour Party Conference... and the worst hotel ever?

Hi folks,

Saturday morning and I'm just packing my bags for Manchester and the Britannia Hotel. For a balanced set of reviews of this behomoth, look at TripAdvisor. Looks like an absolute piece of crap, with staff like badly programmed AI units. I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

Looking back over my Hunter S Thompson back catalogue, I'm wondering how it'll stack up against the Sheraton-Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee where Thompson stayed during the 1972 Presidential Campaign (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Chapter 'April'). I quote:

Eight months in the Sheraton-Schroeder is like three months in the Cook County jail. The place is run by old Germans.... they are doing everything possible to make sure that nobody unfortunate to be trapped here this week will ever forget the experience. The room radiators are uncontrollable, the tubs won't drain, the elevators go haywire every night, the phones ring for no reason at all hours of the night, the coffee shop is almost never open, and about 3 days before the election the bar ran out of beer... Dick Tuck, the legendary Kennedy advance man now working for McGovern, has stayed here several times in the past and calls it 'the worst hotel in the world'.

I think 4 nights in the Britannia will test that appellation to its limits... apparently there is wireless broadband in the hotel (which sounds almost unbelievable given the lack of investment in basic items like sheets, furniture and cleaning staff) and I have cadged a laptop somehow, so should be able to broadcast from within this monstrosity. It'll give me something to do whilst trying watching mock-Stalinist show-piece speeches from Labour ministers through a field of snow on an aerial-less TV. Still, it is Manchester, so there are several CAMRA pubs within walking distance of the hotel, and the curry mile... so I should survive. L8ers!

22 September 2006

Mobilising the Christianzzzz....

Hal Berstram chews up and spits out another working week with a visit to a promising new blogspot...

I like the feature on the blogger homepage where you are shown a list 'blogs of note' in the bottom right-hand frame. The nice thing about this is that the list will be totally different each time even if you only wait a couple of seconds before reloading the page, as there are so many blogs (and so many postings to blogs) going on.

Just for fun (and because it's Friday evening) I clicked on Ethics and Morals for America's Future and found a classic:

"US Christianity is in decline. It has been a major source of the ethics that made the country great. What can and should be done to ensure America's continuing greatness?"

Er... bomb the hell out of as many people in the Middle East as possible? Sorry, cheap shot (well, expensive shot if you're a US taxpayer.)

The guy makes 12 propositions, of which number 10 is certainly right (fundamentalism is not the answer), with at least 2 typos in his first post.

He then says:

"I am not particularly interested in receiving comments (below) criticizing these propositions. If you have significant disagreement with them, please just don't bother to comment."
Which may explain why later on he finds himself saying:

"With no comments after 36 hits on this blog, I will initiate response to the issues I have raised."

I didn't find the rest of the discussion interesting enough to comment on although I will continue to monitor the site for developments.

His list of recently read books is quite interesting, though, including Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel and Collapse and the recent Richard Layard book on happiness. But sadly nothing by Richard Dawkins...

21 September 2006

Extra Extras

Barney bites back:

episode 2 tonight and I liked this one better than last week. David Bowie was pretty good but Sean Williamson (Barry from Eastenders) is the star of the show. The guy is, quite simply, a comedy genius. I think the 2nd series should progress to the point where Sean comes up with his own sitcom - which is an offbeat, trendy hit - whilst Andy Millman disappears into obscurity. Sean then stars in and writes the 3rd series. As my wife's friend's dad said once when watching Star Trek, "it could 'appen."

Forgot to say last week, but if you only have half an hour to spare on Thursday nights, That Mitchell and Webb Look is actually better than Extras - it's a goddamn classic!

20 September 2006

A late view on the Pope and Islam

from Hal Berstram in his new role as 'religious presence':

Been thinking about this one for a few days before writing anything too hasty. Was the Pope deliberately attacking Islam in the speech he made on "Faith, Reason and the University" in Germany last week?

If he was, it seems a rather roundabout way of going about it. Quoting from a 14th Century Byzantine emperor's perception of Islam is not the most direct way of saying that Islam is a violent religion, if that's what he meant to say. It may have been that he thought this was a reasonably safe way of getting his point across, but the reaction to the speech shows that he would have been very wrong in that assumption.

I think it's more likely that the Pope was trying to make a genuine point that violence has no place in religion, but chose to illustrate that point with an example that singled out Islam, whereas in fact there are plenty of violent episodes in the history of the Catholic Church that could have been picked out. A case of the pot calling the kettle black, methinks...

Mobilising the Christian $

Bought The Guardian today as I like the 'in praise of...' section at the end of the leader column and found a significant new development in religious marketing at the bottom of the front page. Apparently Rupert Murdoch's Fox Movie Studio are starting a new division, FoxFaith, to make up to a dozen Christian movies per year for cinema release, primarily to the US market. The full story is here.

Best quote of the day from one Laura Neutzling, vice-president of marketing for Fox's distributors:

"There hasn't been a great one-stop place for Christians to buy great family films that they can trust won't be offensive."
Perish the thought that Christians in the US might be offended by something they watch; Jerry Springer - the Opera is probably now controversial enough to be avoided, but according to those fine people at the Childcare Action Project, Mr & Mrs Smith (to take a random example) is very dangerous. Personally, I find The X Factor an offensive piece of TV. Mugging morons gurning at Sharon Osborne and Simon Cowell hoping for a big break... ugggg. I would have complained to ITV but (a) I don't want to hurt the feelings of people who sincerely love this televisual masterpiece, (b) I'm too lazy to complain (you get that way when you travel on one railways), (c) at least it doesn't have Noel Edmonds or Jim Davidson in it.

Anyway, this discussion of offensiveness and the religious sensibility is leading us to a specific story which has been very hot news over the last 7 days or so and I will hand over to Hal Berstram to talk about it in the next post, as he's very bored with just sport to deal with - there's not much footy in midweek and he doesn't understand other sports apart from rugby, which I'm reliably informed by the guy who does BHaPPY is "a piece of shite." So needless to say, we will be featuring a good share of it when the Six Nations kicks off in the new year...

Willie Nelson - 73 and SHROOM!!

Combing the Evening Standard, Barney found the following (now faithfully reproduced by the BBC:

"Musician Willie Nelson has been charged with drug possession after marijuana and magic mushrooms were allegedly found by police on his tour bus...
Police allegedly seized one-and-a-half pounds (0.7kg) of marijuana and two-tenths of a pound (91 grams) of psychedelic mushrooms."

I have to say that is good going... still on the 'shrooms at 73 years of age. A lot of the kids you see in the chart nowadays look good for a binge drink at Yates's Wine Lodge and a couple of lines of whitey but that's about it. There is something a bit more classy, a bit more Led Zeppelin III, about the mushroom nexus. I must pick up a bit more Nelson back catalogue... Johnny Cash I know inside out but Willie is still largely a mystery to me. Any of you cats out there dig the Nelson?

Charitable search engine

Got sent an email from someone at work today about Oblatoo, a "charitable search engine". Very simple idea - the site has a list of charities who get 1p every time you make a search. The search results are "powered by Google" so the site must just pass through your search input to Google and then feed it back through the Oblatoo site.

Very interesting (and commendable) idea but there is at least one obvious issue. Isn't it vulnerable to automated search scams? In the terms and conditions page, the site owners say they will monitor usage and pull the plug on any obviously automated behaviour. But what if someone set up a "bot", using some clever programming, that was automated but looked manual? Searching at random intervals, from a list of clearly delineated topics with the odd "funny" thrown in - shouldn't be too difficult (I could probably rig up something to do that in Perl, for example, and I'm not even a good programmer). If there ends up being a lot of this going on then advertisers (who are presumably funding this? Someone must be) are going to throw in the towel.

Anyway, I'll start using it and see what happens...

14 September 2006

Extras 2nd series - 1st reaction

TV criticism courtesy of Barney:

The second series of "Extras" started tonight on BBC2 and I was slightly disappointed, although partly this is due to a very specific (and idiosyncratic) hope I had for the show which wasn't quite fulfilled.

This is going to sound totally ridiculous, but when watching the final episode of the previous series last year I got very excited about Andy (the Ricky Gervais character)'s idea for a sitcom set in an office featuring a northern boss called Ray whose catchphrase is, "You 'avin a laff?" Mainly because this Ray guy struck me as potentially being a very amusing parody of an extremely annoying manager where I work... and I was hoping that if the catchphrase made it out into wider currency as a result of a successful portrayal (by Gervais himself) during the second series, then it would be possible gradually to undermine this guy - let's call him Dave - by pointing out to as many people as possible the resemblance between Ray, from Extras, and Dave, from the real office. Within a few months, Dave would have lost it completely, and the office environment would have taken a turn for the better...

But sadly, the 'real-life' version of Ray doesn't measure up to what I had in my head. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have created a sitcom-within-a-sitcom (When the Whistle Blows) that makes your average 70s ITV comedy look like Fawlty Towers. It's simply too bad to be believable. The Ray character is unusable for workplace satire because he's unusable for anything; in the same way that there has never been a successful comedy skit on Midge Ure (to pick a fairly random example from the 80s), because he's just too shit to bother with. And the final 5 minutes of Extras, which showed the audience recording of When the Whistle Blows, were excruciating.

That's not to say that there weren't funny moments. Most of them (and how unlikely is this?) were from Keith Chegwin (playing a cross between himself and Nick Griffin from the BNP, as far as I could make out) and Sean Williamson (aka Barry from Eastenders) who was brilliant in the last series and was still brilliant here. Orlando Bloom's turn as a narcissist who hates Johnny Depp was quite good but lacked the bizarre personality twists that made the best cameos of the last series - Ross Kemp and Patrick Stewart, for instance - watchable; it was just a bit too obvious.

Anyway, it was good, but not great. And I'm sure once they can get past the problem of basing a comedy around a sitcom pilot that is meant to be disastrously unfunny, it'll be great again. Meanwhile, I'll have to find another way to take 'Dave' down a peg.

Small beer but at least it tastes good

Not another beer festival review but this time an interesting story on BBC News Online - the UK Govt has withheld a £50m donation to the World Bank because it doesn't like the strings the Bank attaches to aid it gives to developing countries (forcing them to liberalise markets, privatise basic services, etc.)

£50m is not going to derail the neo-liberal economic imperialist project which people like Joe Stiglitz have correctly identified the World Bank as indulging in, but it is at least a step in the right direction from a Government that often does just the opposite in its capitulation to corporate power (PFI, Health Service privatisation by stealth, etc. etc.) Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, is, IMHO, one of only two genuinely decent people in the Cabinet (the other one being Alan Johnson, of whom more v soon.)

10 September 2006

U's win 2 on the trot! Head-eating on the sports desk...

Hal Berstram crawls up to the computer...

Hey geeks, two weeks ago I was thinking that Colchester United would be able to become the first team to go through a 46-game League season without winning a match. But now they have won two in a row... how? First 4-3 at home to Derby and now 2-1 at Burnley.

In truth, even though they lost the first four in this, the highest division they have ever played in, it was never as bad as it looked. Every time they only lost by one goal. I'm sure there are some hammerings to come over the next few months but most of the fan base would be extremely happy even with a 4th from bottom placing come next May.

And the real amusement is that Phil "not as famous as Michael and probably never will be" Parkinson, the manager who did the near-impossible and got the U's up to Division Two last season, promptly did a runner to the much more credible Hull City, who are still on for that 46-game no-win record, with precisely one point from 6 matches! Sometimes, in Star Trek and in lower league football, there is justice...

07 September 2006

Suddenly everybody starts believing Tony Blair!

...when he says he'll be out of here in a year.

I really will believe it when I see it... a repeat of Ramsay MacDonald's 1931 National Government, with maybe David Cameron as Home Secretary and George Osborne at #11, strikes me as a distinct possibility. Blair has pulled surprises out of the bag before and he's a clever operator, so don't count him out until the Fender Stratocaster has been towed away... and ever then, watch yourself.

Greetings from the Chappel

Barney Ruddle reports from the 20th Chappel Beer Festival:

I've been to Chappel 6 times and it keeps getting better... every single time...

I think the Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild (6% ABV, which is pretty unusual for a mild) was about the best pint I had, but as there were about 300 different beers on offer at any one time, and I could only manage 6 halves all night, I'm not really a representative sample. No complete duffers, anyway.

The festival is on until Saturday 9th September so it's well worth getting down there if you like real beer and you can be bothered to get the connection from Marks Tey given the recent problems with "one" railway (of which Seth will undoutedly say more in a future post)

Some other good fests coming up in the East Anglian environ: Norwich, Ipswich etc. CAMRA website has full details.