Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Binge watching, what's been good lately on BBC, Netflix etc

You don't need another article by someone from my generation (X, Y, etc) to observe with bewilderment at how media consumption is changing. But I do think we are in something of a golden age of television.

How you consume though is everything. I really enjoy the binge watching of a series and it has totally altered the way our attention spans pivot around a programme. Being married to a teacher not all of these have been shared experiences, one of us doesn't have the time, one of us travels on trains a lot. But the ones I enjoyed the most, we enjoyed together.

Here's what I've been watching over the last year since what I thought were the peak telly highs of Stranger Things and Narcos.

The Fall (BBC) - We gave up on this creepy, rapey, sexist crap. Should never have been broadcast. Outrageous. 1/10.

The OA (Netflix) - I didn't really get into this. The twists and turns seemed like strange leaps into the unknown and in the end I skipped a few to find out what was going on. 4/10.

Homeland (C4). I thought Homeland had run out of steam around series three, but this last series probably cemented its place as a decent but run-of-the-mill spy thriller. The Trump election probably ruined the narrative about America's new place in the world and the characters rather fizzled out. 5/10.

Cleverman (BBC) - An Australian thriller, set in a dystopian racist future with the emergence of a secret race of "hairy people" or "subhumans" in a corporatist police state. Sometimes I wish they'd just get on with it, not quite enough going on, and I'm struggling to see the shifting motives of two of the lead characters. 6/10.
  
Taboo (BBC) - Tom Hardy's grunt fest was a real mixed bag. In parts brilliant. In others just a load of incomprehensible mystical tosh, which I admit is a harsh verdict given how forgiving I've been of Twin Peaks. By the end it had all the elements and you could truly smell the filth of London's dirty streets and rivers. 6/10.

Twin Peaks - The Return (NowTV). Strangely, I don't think I could handle binge watching Twin Peaks. It would be too much to handle. It started off with so many disparate strands and red herrings thrown to the winds that it seemed aimless and directionless. Just as I was losing patience with it came the outrageous 8th episode (Got a light?). It was off the scale Lynch weirdness, creepy, dark, ugly and needlessly violent. Unforgettable television that had as many theories as it probably had viewers. Since then it has started to draw the fragments together, from the first half and from the first series 25 years ago and from the film Fire Walk With Me. It is a masterpiece, for all it's flaws. Whatever happens now will be unable to be repeated by anyone. What Lynch has done is to graft onto an old project something that feels like a lifetime of work and creativity, sometimes with the sense that a director is indulging his fans and his  own imagination. 7/10 (points deducted for needless indulgence).

Ozark (Netflix) - billed as an heir to Breaking Bad this was always on a hiding to nothing. But I liked it and was gripped by the end. Sympathetic characters were in short supply, but the stars of the show weren't the entitled money laundering Chicago family, trying to make a mark in the sticks, but the roughnecks of the Missouri Ozarks, especially the dysfunctional Langmore clan, exemplified by an outstanding performance by Julia Garner as Ruth. But for me the real show stealer was Peter Mullan as Jacob Snell. 7/10.

Top of the Lake, season 1 (BBC) - I came across Top of the Lake series one quite late. It was glorious to watch, unnerving and full of suspense with a series of jaw dropping scenes starring Elisabeth Moss, again. And Peter Mullan again, this time with his Scots accent intact. 8/10.

Top of the Lake, season 2 (BBC) - I was pleased that season two was made available all at once on the BBC iPlayer. It was hard going at times. Though I have a soft spot for pretty much anything Australian (of which more later) the grimy side of Sydney was too much at times. It wasn't until the third episode that a male character emerged with any redeeming features whatsoever. But it was a brave and ambitious series marked out with some complex character twists. 7/10.

The Code (BBC) - We watched two series of this pacy and high octane Australian thriller, pretty much one after the other. Taught and anxious due to stand-out performance of Ashley Zukerman as Jesse, a high functioning autistic lead character. I loved how it spanned different parts of Australian life, the outback as well as the stiff political class of Canberra. 8/10.

Hinterland (S4C) - We were properly gripped by Hinterland, picking up on where I left off from the first series which I reviewed here. I adored the sparse and oppressive central character in the show, the one consistent and dominant element that loomed not just in each episode, but every scene. That is the landscape of Ceredigion, and collectively the people of west Wales. I was disappointed that Sian and Lloyd weren't bigger parts, but the priority had to be flushing out the frankly ludicrous presence of the most useless copper on television, the brooding Prosser. We liked it so much we went to Aberystwyth for the day. 8/10.

The Handmaids Tale (C4). I thought this was a masterful piece of filmmaking. Atmospheric, uncomfortable and terrifying. As part of an Elisabeth Moss binge it was right up there. But. There was a but coming. The experience of watching it every Sunday night, with adverts, was hard going. I'm delighted there's a next series, but I'm going to dash off the lot in a weekend. 5/10 for the experience, 8/10 for the actual programme.

Broadchurch (ITV) - we were dubious about how ITV could keep the momentum going with Broadchurch. More red herrings than a trawler could catch off the Dorset coast, the third series was my favourite of the lot. So many issues got resolved, so many didn't. I can't think of a better cast female detective than Olivia Coleman as DI Miller. 8/10

The Missing (BBC) - we found this second series a really tough watch, and frustrating for the jumpy timelines, but it was mesmerising and truly worthy of a week off between episodes. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were outstanding as the parents of a missing daughter, while Tcheky Karyo as Julien Baptiste brilliantly portrayed the detective who takes an obsession to a new level. The producers are constantly in the driving seat with what they choose to reveal, prompting a whole industry of speculation. 8/10.

Line of Duty (BBC) - for tension, twists, manipulation and sheer brass balls I watched most of Line of Duty stood up. This was the BBC at its best and at most preposterous. The clues were littered all the way back through the previous series, and sometimes it stretched credibility with the deep and frankly inexplicable dark criminal conspiracy looming over everything. 9/10.

But the winner is...

Broken (BBC) -  as Catholics you sort of heave a sigh of predictable acceptance when a TV series focuses on a priest. It's usually only a matter of time before he gets outed as a kiddie fiddler. Dark as this series was though Sean Bean not only delivered a performance you could believe in, but depicted a priest that truly fulfils Pope Francis' call to them to get out and smell of the sheep. Tough storylines, full of despair, frustration and tension, but in doing so Jimmy McGovern also wrote a troubled love letter to the church. Full of contradictions, but full of the graces. 9/10.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Tony Mowbray is the problem

That was awful. Pitiful, weak, shambolic, amateur and downright dishonest. Losing anytime is disappointing, losing at home is always particularly hard to take. But surrendering in our first home game of the season to newly promoted Doncaster really hurt.

I blame Tony Mowbray all the way. Sure, some players had individual off-days (Williams, Graham, Ward, Bennett) but he picked the team. He drilled the formation, he will have read the scouting reports on Doncaster Rovers and stuck Danny Graham up front on his own to hide in the shadows of two taller centre halves. Unbelievably, inexplicably, he sent them out in the second half to do the same again.

So if Tony Mowbray's the problem, what's the solution? For now, more Tony Mowbray.

Friday, August 11, 2017

I love the Inn at Whitewell

I love the Inn at Whitewell.

I've only been twice, but I have an irrational and emotional connection to it, possibly to everything it represents.

Growing up in Lancaster the Trough of Bowland was so close, but yet so far. Signs to places like Oakenclough, Calder Vale, Chipping and Clitheroe pointed to destinations we never quite reached. The hills and vales seemed like a nether region, somewhere that an Ordnance Survey map offered mystery, but an ancient map in an antiquarian bookstore would probably denote them as "there be dragons". We had our own names for our favourite beauty spots for picnics and paddling - the pipe place, the pools, the rocky place. Far from ice cream vans and penny arcades they contain firm memories of enduring innocence and, I've grown to appreciate, wise parents.

JRR Tolkein visualised Middle Earth when he was embedded at Stonyhurst College, a few miles away. As you peel away from Whalley with your Sat Nav charting a course ahead, along no obvious highway, defying logical directions to anywhere in particular, you can see why. It is glorious countryside, rolling and surprising.

Yesterday was a magical, glorious, emotional day. The wedding of our very special niece Danielle to Carl Holden, such a smashing lad. These days layer on the pleasurable experiences that cement a reputation. Stood on the terrace with braziers burning brightly and warmly added to the sense of comfort and hospitality. And I'm a sucker for a shop stocked full of cookbooks and expensive cashmere socks.

The Inn also kicked off the TV series The Trip, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon open their food travels of the North. The surprises on seeing that for the first time back in 2010 are all happy ones, a real delight, heightened possibly by Coogan's chicken choice pretty much matching what we had as our wedding banquet yesterday. I scanned the menu while we were there; local, seasonal and utterly tantalising. On the way there we passed by the Three Fishes at Mitton, the first of Nigel Haworth's monuments to Northern food where we have enjoyed many a splendid lunch.

I got hopelessly lost on the way home, in the dead of night. It didn't put me off, quite the opposite. I liked that it requires extraordinary effort to discover, but also to escape. I love that no-one stumbles on it by chance, that you have to go there with purpose and prior knowledge.

And that photo above of my beautiful wife Rachel in the private dining room will be one to treasure forever.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Clash of the abominable owners - Rovers at the Ricoh

Two clubs with abominable owners met last night at the Ricoh Arena. My team the Blackburn Indian Chicken and Pharma Conglomerate visiting the Japanese Photocopier Bowl, the temporary home of of the Coventry Hedge Funders in the Confected Energy Brand Trophy. That Blackburn won the actual cup tie 3-1 doesn't settle the argument of who have the worst owners (not that they were there, either). You can take a look at many others here to decide that for yourself.

It is an appalling situation that Coventry find themselves in. Kicking off the season in League Two (fourth division) is no place for a club of this size in a city like Coventry. Reading back through the coverage of their shabby period in charge provokes real anger. SISU thought they could turn around a distressed situation to their advantage, wreaking havoc on the fortunes of the club, the city and the asset they thought they'd enhance. Instead they've made it worse, arguably by applying their own ruthless business logic to a sport that defies it.

In one of our Discuss Manchester debates a few years ago my pal Graeme Hawley (currently on the silver screen as Morrissey's teacher in England is Mine) made the powerful and emotional case for fans everywhere. An unregulated wild west has enabled football to become the plaything of oligarchs and asset strippers. A club is no longer a focal point in a community that exists for the common good.

On looking out across this large bowl of a stadium last night my first sad thought was how sparse and eerie it was. How a few thousand people peppered around it accentuated the demise of what it ought to be. I texted Graeme to say I thought it felt like a music venue, an arena with a pitch in the middle, compounded possibly by a very good choice of music. The effect of that size and scale, that emptiness, has proved suffocating to teams, he said.

On my groundhopping journey, of which this season will be a very busy one, this is another new ground chalked off. I make it the 149th ground I've watched football on, I'm still on 82 out of the Punk 92 as I'd seen Coventry City at Highfield Road twice before, but it is my 71st of the current 92 as I lost Hartlepool United and Leyton Orient last season, the latter another club with bad owners.

I was pleased that we won, especially after the disappointment of Southend, but never have I felt as sad at a football ground for the fate of the fans following the other team.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Southend away - back to reality

It always takes me a while to absorb the pattern of a game of football, to work out a formation and a game plan and to see who's on top and what's going on. Yesterday at Southend, after 20 minutes or so I thought to myself we're the better team here, our players are clearly a notch above and I like what I see. Of the new faces Peter Whittingham has a forward gear and an instinct to go forward in a way that Jason Lowe never did, and I like the look of Richie Smallwood. Bradley Dack never got in the game until too late.

So what went wrong? I had my say on TalkSport2 half an hour after the game as we rattled through the Essex countryside. I said there seemed to be too much of what we had last season. Reliance on our best player to pull some magic out of the hat, a defence that crumbled under pressure and failed to do the basics, and a forward that for all his undoubted poaching ability doesn't score enough goals.

There's something else though. Ever since we lost Mark Hughes as manager each of our teams has lacked steel. They've been a soft touch and been unable to impose their style of play and physical presence on a game. We just seem to adapt to the game plan of the opposition. When it counted we were bullied by Southend yesterday. Anton Ferdinand might as well have got a new pocket sewn into his shorts for Danny Graham to slip into for the second half. I don't honestly think Southend were better players, neither did they "want it more" but the last 15 minutes Rovers were totally unable to create momentum to get an equaliser. The introduction of Harry Chapman descended into farce when he fell over his own feet right in front of us. Despite that, I believe Sheffield United fans who tell me we've got a good one there.

There were loads of us in the sold out away end yesterday, an impressive turnout from a loyal support. It added to the occasion and the home fans relished beating the team everyone is going to want to beat. But as we discussed on the way home yesterday, we're going to have some more tough days like that. We should win this league. We can win this league, but it's going to be a lot harder than a lot of fans, and maybe some players, realise.

First Generation: The campaign to transform lives



There's a really fabulous programme underway at work to support students to come to university. Across Greater Manchester there are bright kids at schools and colleges who are thinking that further education isn't for them. They don't have the peer groups, the siblings or the parents who can relate their experiences. What I like about First Generation is that provides a level of pastoral support as well as a financial package. Have a look at the video and see if you can contribute to this really good cause.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

David Goodhart's Road to Somewhere and our journey to Oldham

Author David Goodhart has contributed something substantial to the understanding of our confused new times. The backdraft from the EU referendum last year has been a constant debate conducted alongside an exposed fault line in society between two tribes of people. On one hand are the "Anywheres"; highly educated, mobile, not as rooted, international in outlook, well-travelled and comfortable with globalisation and immigration, and usually found in big cities, and they make up about 20 per cent of the population. On the other hand are the "Somewheres"; rooted in their decaying places, often feeling left behind, threatened by immigration and globalisation, and more likely to hold socially conservative attitudes.

Though it's a useful distinction and powerfully argued, Goodhart's compelling book The Road to Somewhere draws on these influences from a social and cultural perspective, rather than a political dichotomy between left and right. So far, so good.

If anything the 2017 General Election told us even less about the distinction than we could have reasonably expected in Brexit stricken Britain. As Goodhart said himself in the Catholic Herald last week: "the task of politics now is to create new settlement between Anywheres and Somewheres which gives more space to Somewhere principles without hurting too many Anywheres. Theresa May produced an innovative programme that tried to do just that... but her own performance let her down."

At an event at Oldham College last month we wrestled with these and many other issues, with David present and ready to lead the discussion. There's a good account of that discussion, here, from the Oldham Chronicle.

I have a few issues with his central thesis. The first is personal, the second is the political expression of this dichotomy, the third is in his attempt to hang heavy charges on the university sector.

So, firstly, I don't fully buy that the Anywhere identity applies to anything like the numbers he suggests. Even as someone who moved from a Lancaster home to a Russell Group university, passed through London and Australia, settling 60 miles from where I was born, I was the offspring of itinerant post-war parents. But I hesitate to even begin to apply my own anecdotal experience into this sphere, because I think it's where Goodhart's arguments are at their weakest.

The University of Manchester has a corporate social responsibility programme that encourages staff and alumni to become school governors. Large international businesses in Greater Manchester mandate their senior staff to volunteer in their communities. Undoubtedly professional careers give people the options to advance in other places, but it's too convenient to assume the ties that bind them to a place are inevitably weak. In discussing this with my colleague who appeared on the panel with David, a French academic who is raising a family in Stockport, I tend towards less of Somewhere v Anywhere, but to consider the possibilities of a "Somewhere Else". Communities of people, brought together by where they live, shaping places into a diverse and different character by the contribution of changing groups of people and families.

As he closed the event in Oldham David Goodhart tossed in an anecdote that graduates of Russell Group universities have no close friends who aren't also graduates of similar institutions. It cuts to the heart of where these people go and where they end up? Parts of big cities, presumably. It's not my responsibility to disprove that, but Goodhart's to justify, but I suspect it's nonsense. I suspect too that there are more than a few anecdotes in search of suitable evidence, which is partly why I've indulged my own story too.

Second, there's the politics. There are large parts of the country where people feel that the system doesn't work for them. And when things don't work, you cast around for the causes, for who it does seem to work for. On page 225 he lists initiatives and government actions that were Anywhere priorities: Scottish devolution, the fox hunting ban, immigration, the Iraq war, EU expansion to allow Bulgarians and Romanians into the country in large numbers, £9,000 tuition fees, the Human Rights Act.

I read through that list with some sympathy. But it spoke to me of something far more fundamental to the British political psyche than Somewhere and Anywhere, but "don't take the piss", something I first heard articulated by a guy called Jonathan Simons at a Tory conference fringe last year. That to me comes closer to synthesizing the anger we feel all around us.  And there are a variety of political responses that coalesce around a number of no-go zones of moral relativism; all attempts to manage sensibly public spending is "austerity" and the automatic response to an act of Islamist terrorism is to say it isn't Islamic and to say otherwise is playing to the racist right. To me, that's where we've got stuck. There are tribes of people who think the other side isn't just wrong, but "extreme", "alien" and "dangerous". No-one is talking to one another. Everyone is shouting. The left behind feel ever more helpless.

Thirdly, he has it in for the university sector. In fact, not only is this the sector where I work, my job is to do all the things he suggests we don't do and that are the cause of many social ills. He identifies a “university or bust” mentality; “Today’s university option is sucking in more young people than is economically or socially desirable” (p230); "Modern universities have expanded far beyond any useful purpose”; and (p165) that it would be preferable to recreate elite vocational colleges with strong local connections.

Some of the charges I simply don't recognise within the sector. A big drive to create more apprenticeships, more generous support for technical training, better links within and between northern cities and more patriotic procurement are all pretty much mainstream ideas today in Whitehall, not least at the top of the agenda for the Metro Mayors.

I don't accept the binary distinction between what is offered in universities and what is more practical and rooted, or that the shift from polytechnic to university was a mistake. I accept a massive underfunded skills shortage, but the fingers are all pointing to the wrong place. I don't see the evidence that what is achieved at a modern university is to the detriment of technical pathways. Or that we don’t offer them. At Manchester Metropolitan, where I work, we take most of our students from the North of England, 40% from Greater Manchester. Many are what we call 'first generation' students.  The percentage of pupils coming from the 20% lowest participation neighbourhoods has increased from 14.5% in 2011/12 to 16.6% in 2015/16. Universities provide high quality, cost-effective routes to advanced technical skills. Degrees should not be placed in opposition to technical education.

We currently recruit a third of all degree entrants from BTEC and other vocational backgrounds and are one of the leading universities in the development and delivery of Degree Apprenticeships with employers, a good example of a pathway that is both ‘technical’ and ‘academic’.

I'm going to leave it there. It's starting to sound like I've got a bee in bonnet about what is in fact a very helpful and fascinating contribution to our understanding of some big trends in our society. It's certainly going to have some influence on society, politics and education for sometime. Though I don't think it's as effective a summary of our psyche as "Don't Take the Piss".

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mobike - play nicely please, or is it all over already?

These sharing Mobikes are great. The first day I took them it was ideal - it was sunny, I was bouncing between work and the Digital Summit at the Museum of Science and Industry and it all felt very modern and exciting. And it worked. I felt really proud that our city had taken 1000 of them and they were popular.

I last took one last Friday to go and meet my mate Steve Connor for a vegan lunch, which passes all Catholic tests too. But it was after four attempts. And in all seriousness I haven't seen a single one this week. Have they dispersed? Or are there more broken than they're letting on? Rightly, the MEN are asking this week if this spate of vandalism means we're just not ready for them.

Cycling advocate Helen Pidd in the Guardian was an early fan, but is wondering whether the vandals stealing the handles have potentially wrecked it for everyone and whether this is another example of crappy self-entitled sod-you attitude: "I do not want to live in a country where you can be caned for graffiti, but I would like to live in a city where people know how to share. The man who wanted to have his own personal Mobike displayed an all-too common sense of entitlement. There is always someone who refuses to put headphones on or take their feet off the seat, who won’t shut up during the gig and can’t be bothered finding a bin."

So, come on Manchester, play nicely. This could be great.