Rik Mayall 1958 – 2014

Rik Mayall

Rik Mayall – comedy icon

I’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing this past month but I hope you’ll forgive me for having one more look back into the past following the sudden death of one of my comedy heroes, Rik Mayall.

My journey into Rik’s massive comedy canon was a bit roundabout, as I believe my first experiences of him were in Blackadder as the luxuriously-quiffed Lord Flashheart. Here was a guy so good at the knowing wink to camera, you could almost feel his eyelashes tickling your nose, and it wasn’t long before I was tracking down episodes of The Young Ones to see more of his genius.

It was probably with Bottom though that I gained my true Mayall obsession. He and Adrian Edmondson were at their comedic zenith, knocking each other around with cricket bats and frying pans, but it was the instinctively brilliant writing that meant the slapstick wasn’t the be all and end all of the show. Richie and Eddie were two utterly disgusting lunatics but you couldn’t help have some weird sympathy for their quest for girls and filthy lucre.

The show proved successful enough to warrant a stage show, and I was fortunate enough to attend a couple of them at Bristol Hippodrome where it appeared that the pair were having as much fun as the audience. Often corpsing, or just degenerating into a comedic war of kitchen utensils for minutes on end, the pair brought frippery, filthiness and, most importantly, fun to hundreds of people every night.

In recent years, Rik may have been a bit quieter but still starred in Man Down, cropped up in Jonathan Creek and went back to his roots in new episodes of The Comic Strip Presents… constantly proving that there was still life in the old dog.

So, why is Rik’s comedy so important to us? Quite simply, it’s an escape into the ridiculous, something which is ever more important in an increasingly serious society. We’ve just lost a comedy genius and the world once again becomes a slightly less fun place to be.

Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse – 2.8 Hours Later Style

When I think about the zombie apocalypse, I don’t tend to think of it as starting in Manchester and involving more orienteering than the average cub camp. But when the opportunity arose to play kiss chase with the undead on a dark Thursday night, I jumped at the chance.

Let me rewind a little. A while ago, some of us at work were discussing horror films, tv shows, and video games, as per usual, when the subject of survival tactics in the event of a zombie holocaust arose. After discussing how to defend deserted castles and the best way to make supplies last, we stumbled upon a company running something called 2.8 Hours Later. Being big fans of the namesake films, we explored it a bit more.

It turned out that it was in fact a city-wide zombie chase game, the objective being very simple, get from checkpoint to checkpoint without succumbing to the ‘infection’. The game takes place on specific dates in selected cities around the country and begins in a secret location. From there you are given co-ordinates, and using a map you move from one place to the next chatting to the odd survivor and obtaining important information along the way.

As part of a colleague’s 21 years of service at our company, we bought him four tickets to the Manchester one and left it up to him who to invite, knowing that we could snaffle some more tickets if he had a few interested parties.

As they day of the event drew near, we started to research what we could expect. We didn’t want spoilers as such, just a bit of a head’s up as to what may occur and how the whole thing worked. We saw videos on YouTube of zombie hen parties, car park horror and mad sprints to the safety of the finish line. All of which seemed pretty ruddy TERRIFYING.

On the day itself, it’s fair to say that a fair few nerves were jangling. We prepped by buying torches, expecting a few pitch black haunted house style moments. Other than that we didn’t really have much else other than ourselves to rely on when we hit the first location in a slightly less than salubrious locale in darkest Ancoats. After a briefing and a bit of a queue, the four of us were released along with our two additional team mates with the simple job of heading left and then right, and it wasn’t long before we encountered a lady in a dressing gown, out in the street.

Not too uncommon a sight in the area, we soon realised she was actually our first zombie apocalypse survivor. She told us that she was looking for her paramedic husband and gave us the co-ordinates of where she heard there may be more survivors. Following the road around, we had our first undead episode. Feeling cocky, and seeing the slow pace of the zombie in question, we decided to sprint nearby rather than taking a wider berth. It wasn’t until halfway down the street that we realised there were three and that their taste for human flesh gave them a decent lick of pace.

Arriving at the next location, we waited outside a small housing showroom. One slight problem with the game appeared to be that the sheer amount of players meant there was some bunching at key locations, but it did thin out later on. After a bit of a queue our group was let in by the salesman. As the situation turned nasty, we were ordered out directly past two zombies, our legs a blur as we pegged it clear.

Heading towards town we entered a church. The vicar was sat near the altar, deep in prayer. Knowing we needed information, we accepted her offer of helping to pray for the missing, only for her to lash at the nearest of a group as it became apparent she was chained up and infected.

Next up, we encountered an office block and were let in and told to follow a stairwell up. After a fair few flights, we emerged onto an empty, but brightly lit office space…with a zombie in the middle. Needless to say we wasted little time in hurtling to the door, and up another flight, only to encounter another member of the undead. Another quick trot and we came to the office boss who gave us further co-ordinates.

As we headed towards central Manchester it started to dawn on us how odd it probably seemed to the Thursday drinkers and shoppers that loads of luminous-arm banded people were navigating around the city. But it wasn’t until we got to the main shopping stretch, Market Street that things got even stranger. Realising we had to get from one end to the other, we soon noted that to do so, we’d have to run through a group of three or four zombies.

As they shuffled around they appeared harmless enough, so I chose a pretty direct route, only to find that they were quick. Very quick. I didn’t look back as I was very much in flight mode, but by all accounts they were on my shoulder for much of the dash. We lost a team member in this section, discovering she’d been tagged as she ran through. The tagging took the form of the zombie touching you, which meant you had to stop and be marked by said zombie, and at the end of the game, everyone was scanned for signs of having been caught.

At the bottom of Market Street we encountered the paramedic we had seen in the picture earlier. After telling him we’d seen his wife previously, he gave us a map reference for St Anne’s square, another prime, busy, city centre location. The task here was to help a diabetic lady by getting her some of her sweets from outside a shop on nearby King Street. This truly was a challenge considering the road was relatively narrow, and filled with shoppers. Oh and three prime zombies.

This was our first real attempt at tactics as we tried a few times to draw them from the bag and allow another runner to go for the target. After a few attempts we succeeded and headed back to receive our reward.

Our next location was outside Urbis, where a scientist was claiming to have found a way to tame the zombies. She encouraged us to get closer and even pet them, before once again, the inevitable happened and they ran directly for us. Another brilliantly jumpy moment, which we laughed about as we went on our way. We eventually got to a skate park where a woman was asking for help for her prostrate boyfriend. Not trusting the situation this time we were quick to get our next location and prepare to dash, as sure enough he rose to his feet and chased us out.

Approaching two and a half hours in, we presumed the end was near, and encountered the safety of a pub housing a single lady. Once again though, all was not as it seemed, and in a brilliant nod to Shaun of the Dead, the opening bars of Don’t Stop Me Now struck up on the jukebox and a zombie appeared behind her. Not hanging around we, legged it once more and onto our final location.

We encountered a square, on the other side of which was the solace of the survivor camp. Unfortunately, the narrower of the two routes through had two female zombies lurking, whilst the other was a wider path but had two male zombies present with a couple more tucked around the corner for good measure. After a few test attempts, we all ended up choosing different tactics. I preferred to try the wider route and it was here that I was finally infected, on the home stretch.

We got to the end, pretty exhausted but exhilarated with the reward being a zombie disco full of survivors alongside the infected players who had been made-up to look like the undead.

A few members of the general public along the way did ask what we were doing and we were happy to give out free promotion for something which can only be called a very different way to spend an evening out and about.

Yes it was just a game and we weren’t going to get chomped for real, but I fully admit that I took it all pretty seriously and even succumbed to a few zombie movie cliches in my attempts to survive. Overall, the night turned out to be a brilliant, exhilarating, energetic event that any genre fan should have a go on. Be prepared to run, be prepared to be scared. But most of all, be prepared to be entertained by a great one of a kind night out.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show, Live! @ Manchester Opera House – 3rd July 2012

In the days before the Internet, when men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri, libraries were the one place for all manner of audio and visual delights. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio show cassettes were always a regularly borrowed item for my household, alongside the accompanying books, whilst our scratchy recording of the 1980s TV show still exists somewhere on a dusty old VHS tape. It was certainly a story that received repeat listening, reading and viewing over long summer holidays, and so it was nearly 30 years later that I finally ventured out to go back to where it all began with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To  The Galaxy Radio Show, Live!

The script is unquestionably one of the finest pieces of comedic science fiction writing that the world has ever witnessed, drawing fans from all walks of life through its playful use of language and brilliantly British take on space and time travel after the seriousness of Star Trek. When the Hitchhiker’s story was further fleshed out in Adams’ series of novels, the whole fictional universe became even more fascinating, no doubt leading to the success of the BBC TV show, and eventually the big budget movie version in 2005.

But this night is about going back to the beginning and seeing once again the cast and crew who helped to create the phenomenon in the first place. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show: Live! features many of the surviving performers from that first radio show, pulled together by Adams’ long-time wingman Dirk Maggs. The production itself covers off much of the first book in its first act, whilst flitting amongst some of the more stand-out scenes from the rest of the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy in its second, with audience participation, songs, and audio and visual effects throughout.

Kicking off with a dressing gown-clad Simon Jones, the unmistakeable voice of Arthur Dent instantly brings a smile to the faces of the entire audience, and even though Geoff McGivern (Ford Prefect) isn’t as visually recognisable, the two entertainingly bounce off each other just as they did all those years ago. Appearances from Mark Wing-Davey as the grinning, double-headed, kilt-wearing Zaphod Beeblebrox and Susan Sheridan as Trillian show chemistry that hasn’t diminished over the past 30 years, and Toby Longworth is a brilliantly bumbling Slartibartfast.

Band leader and composing legend Philip Pope steps in throughout to play various additional characters, just as Maggs takes breaks from his drumkit to perform as a Foley artist in true radio show style. It’s great to see such an old skill hold its own alongside newer technology and the two combine for a show-stealing full-size Marvin the paranoid android puppet, voiced once more by a sadly absent Stephen Moore. There’s even a surprise cameo from Johnny Vegas as the main course at Milliways, which seems fitting in more ways than one.

As for the titular Guide itself, throughout the tour, a series of guest artists are taking up the mantle of Peter Jones who died over 12 years ago, and tonight’s voice of the book is, in many ways, a stroke of genius. Jon Culshaw produces a spookily spot-on impression of Jones, but now and again he does tend to lapse into his Tom Baker shtick which feels a little forced and disrupts the show’s flow. The audience generally seem to appreciate the tangent, as they do his Sir Patrick Moore voice, but I couldn’t help but think the show could have done without the distraction, and it seemed the band thought the same as they had to reset to the start of the piece they were playing each time Culshaw broke away from the script.

Despite this, Culshaw copes brilliantly with the elaborate language and throughout the show you can tell what fun the entire cast, both old and new are having. Despite a few slips of the tongue, the performance is a brilliantly staged, energetic one, and truly brings to life Adams’ eye for the ridiculous. Maybe the show would have benefited a little from more retro Book visuals on the screen, akin to the brilliant animations of the TV show, but this a minor quibble with a superbly entertaining show.

When the performance draws to a close, you can’t help but wonder just what other delights Douglas Adams could have provided us with if he hadn’t passed away at such a young age, but the show isn’t just a nostalgia trip, it’s a celebration of Adams’ timeless writing, and it is fitting that at the show’s close, the legendary author gets as much applause as the cast do.

3D – The New Betamax?

If you’ve read more than one or two posts on this blog, you’ll be aware that I’m rather partial to a bit of technology and a nice new shiny gadget. Whether it’s the latest videogaming platform or a new electronic abacus, I like to keep abreast of what’s going on and I hate to miss out. This week though, I’ve found myself taking a bit of a step back to think about what exactly is the ‘next big thing’ in a world of ever expanding technological boundaries.

Having seen two 3D films in two days (Green Lantern and Transformers: Dark of the Moon), and with the imminent release of the world’s first 3D mobile, the LG Optimus 3D I’m really starting to wonder if this is one technology too far. Yes, the world in which we live is not as flat as the screens we are constantly watching and in movies, the 3D effect can sometimes add an extra layer of immersion, but 3D has already proven to have its drawbacks.

1) You end up looking like a bit of an idiot. Yes, that’s right, apart from the Nintendo 3DS and the aforementioned new LG handset, 3D is generally viewed using a pair of 3D specs, the likes of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in late 80s Star Trek. Sitting in your living room wearing these is always going to make you feel a little silly, especially when you forget to take them off to answer the door to the Avon lady.

2) Autostereoscopic 3D (the 3DS etc) has to be viewed from a very specific direction to actually work, and has been reported to cause a few headaches after prolonged exposure. I’m not one to support a scaremongering ‘technology’s bad’ story such as this usually, but surely this one can’t be good for our kids.

3) The 3D effect of movies, sports and TV is largely pointless. Having watched football in 3D, the general result was a headache, albeit with a few good camera shots of the crowd which added real depth. But who watches football to look at the crowd? Similarly, whenever a film tries to put extra effort into very obviously ‘directed for 3D’ scenes, the result often feels forced. The Final Destination, I’m looking at you.

4) It’s pricey. Not only do additional pairs of 3D glasses for home use cost in the region of £100, buying films in 3D and the TVs and Blu-ray players to view them on can soon put a major dent in the bank balance of us normal folk.

3D televisions will obviously come down in price and be more affordable to the average family in the next couple of years, and the PS3 offers a cut-price 3D media player, but is 3D the game-changer that people are predicting or could it go the way of Betmax and HD-DVD before it? It’s gotten to a stage now where roughly 60% of new film releases are also watchable in 3D, however appetite of the cinema-going public isn’t necessarily matching this growth, with box office takings for the 3D version of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film accounting for only 38% of its total revenue in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, our viewing pleasure can be improved and HD was a revelation. The difference to anyone with even half decent eyesight was staggering, but 3D promises things will jump out at you to add even more to your optical experience and it isn’t always the case.

The clue to the success or failure of 3D could lie in its origins. Let’s not forget this is far from new technology, and indeed the first 3D film process was patented in the late 1890s. A 3D image of Queen Victoria was even on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851. So why haven’t things moved on that much in over 150 years?

One of the reasons could be the perception of 3D being a gimmick. I loved seeing comics and photos in red/green anaglyph 3D in the 80s but it didn’t mean I wanted to watch all of Jaws 3D bathed in a mysterious multicoloured glow. Similarly, I haven’t bought a 3D TV due to not wanting to give my cat something else to chew on.

The crux of the matter is this; 3D is only possible by in some way making our viewing less comfortable. Watching TV or a film is, and should always be effortless. You sit there passively watching a screen and things happen in front of you. Having to charge up your special specs beforehand just adds a level of complexity, and I’d argue it’s one that we don’t necessarily need. Here’s to the wireless.

Virgin Media mess – Very Impressive Package? Not right now it isn’t.

Well, a fun start to the weekend, being confronted with a £300 online bill by Virgin Media is always a wake up call. Let me explain…

A couple of months back, I needed to transfer the name on my Virgin Media account and the Direct Debit details, nothing else. I’ve always been pretty happy with the VIP package that I have, including 20MB broadband with no limits, V+ with Sky Sports and Sky Movies and ESPN (and previously Setanta), an extra digibox, plus the landline phone. The V+ service by itself is far better than Sky + and generally, the Virgin customer services and service availability have always been pretty agreeable.

So where did it all go wrong? Well, when phoning to transfer name and DD details, I was told they would need to post a pack out for me to complete, they couldn’t do it over the phone. Fair enough I thought, signatures would be needed, so it seemed fair.

When the pack arrived it mentioned that there was a £20 service charge for the transfer. Now, I’m not tight, but £20 to change two things? Hmmm, could that be because if you don’t pay by DD you get charged £5 a month to pay over the phone or online, so they need to recoup the money somehow?

Anyway, I completed all the relevant forms and sent them off. Pretty quickly, I received back a letter saying thanks, received, everything sorted, but also mentioned that on the day that the transfer actually went through, there may be a short cut out of my services. I phoned Virgin Media to check what this meant exactly and they said it wouldn’t be noticeable.

So, I came home from work one day, tried watching a recording on the V+ box, only to find a message saying I wasn’t subscribed to V+. Why should any of this have changed?!?!? I phoned again, went through the usual drill of pulling out the V+ card, re-inserting, etc etc, eventually it was sorted. I then got onto my laptop to find no broadband. Okay, so I didn’t need to call again but I did have to re-install my broadband service.

I then thought it was all sorted. My first bill came in and was slightly higher than normal, but mainly because it is billed in advance so I expected it. The payment was due out by DD last week, according to Virgin Media “on or after” a particular date. I checked my bank account a few times but it hadn’t appeared which I thought was odd but presumed it was just more of the “after” than the “on.”

Then yesterday, I received another email saying my new bill was ready, and that I owed over £300!!!

When I checked my online bill I had been charged a £10 late payment fee, £5 per month non-DD charge plus none of my VIP package discounts had been applied.

I phoned again and, to give them credit, I was connected straight away. I explained that the supposedly simple transfer for which I had paid £20, obviously hadn’t worked. The guy apologised but basically said he couldn’t do anything as I was late in my payment. After arguing the toss, he advised me to speak to customer care and threaten to leave – he said he shouldn’t really tell me to do this but there was no option. Does this mean that frontline Virgin Media advisers are often put into this position by processing issues beyond their control?

Anyway, he put me through to Jim in the Sheffield office who looked at the account, admitted straight away that it was a mess and asked if he could phone me back in three minutes.

He did just that and advised that no Direct Debit was set up, none of my VIP discounts had been applied and so he re-worked it all to reduce the cost considerably.

Upon asking if the transfer fee had also been refunded, he said it wasn’t possible, until I pressed harder and eventually got it taken off. How could they even think about charging for a mess of a service?!?!?

I have now paid half of what was outstanding and will pay the other half later this week. Only once the balance is zero can they set up the DD ready for January’s bill.

Total mess, and I expect this happens more times than they would care to admit to. Luckily I class myself as suitably tech savvy that I would notice all these errors, but how many people would not and so Virgin Media could get away with all of this.

I think that Virgin Media are really dropping the ball. Their service, generally is superior to Sky’s and their UK advisers have always been helpful and efficient. I don’t hold it personally against these frontline guys but surely Virgin need to look at serious issues in their processing if they are ever to consider themselves a real challenge to Sky’s dominance?

Great British Icons – Part One

Following the death a couple of days ago of the great Keith Floyd, I began to realise that we no longer mourn the passing of icons, we mourn the death of institutions. Of legends. Of eccentrics. Of the heart and soul of Britain.

Floyd was an utterly maniacal genius. He was years ahead of his time. From his humble beginnings in Somerset and Bristol, he got one of his first gigs peeling potatoes – his first “cooking” job. But he showed drive and determination to get to where he wanted to be – in front of the camera.

But why does he still get vilified even after his death? Because today’s politically correct society cannot see past the alcohol. And the smoking. And the swearing. And the womanizing. And the flippant attitude to money.

Yes, he was obnoxious, but that’s because he knew how to push people’s buttons. Yes he was offensive, but that was what his appeal was all about. No-one else could set up a field kitchen in an Italian square, despite local protestations and then proceed to rustle up an amazing risotto, even complaining along the way that the locals were making too much noise. Even when local Asian fishermen tried to charge him for cooking on a local quay he carried on regardless with his trademark bottle of wine to hand, barking orders at his cameraman who was probably fearing for his safety. Why did Floyd act like this? Because he could. Empirical attitude or not, he honestly just wanted to do the best that he could with the gifts that were given to him. He was the first of the TV chefs. And possibly still the best.

Sadly, more and more of these great British icons are disappearing from this Earth and in their place is a vacuum of personality and entertainment. Gone are the risk takers. The eccentrics. The old soaks. Why? Who knows. Even when celebrities do self destruct these days, they do it with so little charm that it becomes unsurprising, almost as if it is all an act, just to get the publicity. Look at Kerry Katona’s This Morning slurring. Jack Tweed’s (alleged) rape. Peter Andre and Jordan’s oh so public marriage and inevitable split. These are not world-weary travellers. These are not experienced hell-raisers. These are kids who got a lucky break and threw it back in the face of those who gave it to them.

It makes me sound and indeed feel old, but I can’t help but think back to a sadly bygone age. To those who gave so much to the world but who sadly get so little recognition for the great things they truly achieved.

The Magic of the FA Cup

So, after national cliche weekend, 16 clubs remain in the FA Cup. But how many people are sick of hearing about the supposed “magic” of “the world’s greatest club competition?” We had Les and Lee on Match of the Day banging on about “minnows” “major cup shocks” – the works. But what really happened?

Both the Beeb and Sky cocked it all up. Yes, for all their focus on the minnows of Havant & Waterlooville vs. “The Most Successful Club in England, Ever(TM)” Liverpool which matches did they pick to show live? The all Prem borefests of Man Utd v Tottenham and  Wigan v Chelsea plus perennial underachievers Middlesbrough v the mighty Stags of Mansfield. Oh and the balloon-pitched Sheff Utd v Man City match was over on Sky.

So come on telly companies, admit that you don’t give two hoots about showing a real “magical” cup match and that you would rather go for the predictable cash-ins. Hypocrites!

South Park Misery

Today’s misery – Kenny from South Park.

 

Not the orange-parka’d little chap himself but the morons who seem to be dressing up as him in some bizarre duffel-related tribute.

 

I know it is cold and you might want to wrap up warm but that doesn’t mean you need to wrap up your entire face. You now have the peripheral vision of a blinkered nag and are zig zagging in front of me like an idiot.

 

If only some of them would meet a similar end as young Kenneth.