Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hard Sun - Damp squib - BBC Drama in a bit of a mess

By far the best output from BBC Drama at the moment are the trailers. I was completely lured in by the promise of a pre-apocalyptic crime thriller, Hard Sun, but it has been possibly the worst drama series I've seen on the BBC for years, even worse than the remake of Survivors and right down there with last year's execrable Undercover. Badly acted, preposterously scripted, overly lingering on London landmarks and needlessly violent. In fact needless sums it all up rather well. It's Spooks meets Line of Duty with none of the cleverness of either.

Similarly McMafia looked immense in the trailer, it was even quite promising throughout the first two episodes, but has sadly descended into something of a predictable rhythm as we hit the half way mark. The best things about it are its internationalism - the Russian actors, no expense spared on the global locations and the source material of Misha Glenny's factual analysis of globalised crime. The weaknesses are what they do with it all when they've got there. Comparisons have been made with last year's sizzling Le Carre adaptation The Night Manager which kept the tension high throughout with a clarity of motive and that raw sensation of lust and attraction. When you find yourself wondering which is the most dynamic female British character - choosing the compliance manager in a hedge fund, and not the ethical fund manager girlfriend - you know there's a problem somewhere.

Other TV critics have pointed out the grand scale of these projects, and the projection of international place, is both a burden and an asset (Private Eye's excellent TV Eye, notably). I find myself worrying now that Sky Atlantic's forthcoming Britannia, starring David Morrissey, will be an attempt at replicating Taboo, but in Roman Britain. Drama by numbers, it seems that if  something works once, then the formula gets used to death, to the point where the one thing that has always made BBC Drama good is no longer present; originality and the capacity to surprise.

Friday, January 05, 2018

On the Brink - Simon Hughes' North West football journey reviewed

Over the course of the last five turbulent football seasons it's been at times a humbling and humiliating experience as a Blackburn Rovers supporter. True, in any sporting situation there are always winners and losers, that fortunes of clubs ebb and flow.  But for some fans the pain and disappointment is made worse by their clubs falling into the hands of criminals and greedy charlatans.

I like to think I've always been able to spare a thought for the plight of other fans and how the distribution of money is a huge missed opportunity to create something amazing and of a real common good. In the 1980s I was active in the Football Supporter's Association which was moderately successful in giving fans a voice they didn't have back then.

Simon Hughes takes us on a journey around the North West from Carlisle to Manchester and many points in between. He speaks to owners, players, managers, of clubs from the heights of the Premier League to little Droylsden and Barrow and including insights into real grass roots football (which isn't the same as the Academy system, contrary to what Sir Trevor Brooking thinks). I really appreciated the richness of each and every story, wincing at times at what people put themselves through. But I was also slightly jealous that in my own time as a business journalist, covering this exact same patch, I didn't use my access and contacts to do something similar; but grateful nevertheless that Simon has used his position at the Independent to do this.

On balance I'm pleased that the most head-spinning, disgraceful act of larceny in recent North West football history isn't included. I refer of course to the plundering of Blackburn Rovers by Jerome Anderson and Kentaro and the "ownership" of the Venky's. I say I'm pleased because it made me realise there is more to my love of football than the pre-occupations of my own team in the third division. Yes, I have every right to feel hurt and wounded, but so too do supporters of pretty much every club featured in this book. It also raises some fundamental questions of society and how we raise children to play the game. The chapter on Fletcher Moss Juniors in Manchester is particularly poignant.

I genuinely worry too about how one-eyed so much coverage of football has become. I don't have the time or the inclination to pore over the details of the opposition like I used to, I enjoy listening to Jim Bentley and John Coleman on BBC Radio Lancashire Sport, but I only really get emotionally triggered by the interview with the Rovers boss.

It can be an uncomfortable read at times, but it's ultimately optimistic, because it captures a passion so well and I'd heartily recommend this work of real dedication.

Available from DeCoubertin Books.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Kieran Quinn RIP

Kieran, centre, supporting Jonathan Reynolds MP, 2017
To a backdrop of Christmas chatter, thanks and chamber music I shook the hand and squeezed the shoulder of Kieran Quinn last week. He has been a valued colleague for the last two years on the New Charter Group board. We arranged to do something in the new year and wished one another a Merry Christmas.

The next day a group of close friends and colleagues from our neck of the woods met for a Christmas drink and we talked politics, as we tend to, and for no apparent reason than I said how much I'd enjoyed seeing him the evening before, we reflected on what a force Kieran has been in Greater Manchester and Tameside.

News of his heart attack days later shook everyone who knew him, and we hoped and prayed for the best news. Cruelly, it wasn't to be and he passed away on Christmas Day night, surrounded by his family.

The tributes have been fulsome and warm, quite rightly. The Kieran I knew was both of those things, always inclusive and often funny in fairly intensive and high powered discussions; but also consistently displaying an impressive understanding of detail and strategic vision. The first thing that struck me about him when he came to speak to the Labour Group at Stockport Council was his ambition: ambitious for the people of Greater Manchester and encouraging of his colleagues for the challenges ahead. He was also one of the signatories to the Greater Manchester devolution agreement, a historical act of courage and foresight.

I can't do justice to his impact on Tameside and to the people, that's for others who knew him much better. I can bear witness to his imprint on the strategy of New Charter, which is immeasurable and total. New Charter is so much more than a social landlord, providing services that hold the community together. We constantly look for new ways to do this, to work hard for the people who live in our homes against a backdrop of cutbacks, punitive measures and a hostile attitude to the housing sector from government. But what I learnt from our chats after meetings and from the intelligent contributions he made to our discussions, is that there is always a way to do the right thing. That's the Kieran Quinn I knew.

I had the privilege of serving on a board with one of the greats of Greater Manchester public life. I can only imagine what his family and friends are going through, but I hope they take comfort from the tributes that have been paid to him. The words I keep hearing that ring true are that he was a great friend, a devoted husband and father, and that he worked tirelessly for others. Kieran, we will miss you, but will always strive to do as you did. So here’s a resolution for the new year or any year, always strive, that is, to find a way. God bless you, Kieran Quinn, leader, servant of the people, father, husband, may you rest in peace.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Northampton away - a load of cobblers

Our tour of middle England hit location fourteen today. Northampton Town's Sixfields stadium is a dreary unfinished Lego identikit stadium on a remote industrial estate on the edge of town.

A shiny new train station for the commuters to Milton Keynes and London, and a new university building were the high spots in a town centre that felt quite Northern for its faded high street and the legacy traces of its shoe manufacturing industry that remain dotted about.

There seemed to be more people heading for the rugby match against Exeter down the road than to see the local football team, which confirmed why a fast growing town of 212,000 doesn't have a football club playing at a higher level.

As for the match, a below par performance from an under strength Rovers saw a rare draw (only the third on the road). It proved how much the classy Charlie Mulgrew is worth to the overall character of the team that Rovers never hit top note until the last ten minutes. He'd pulled out just before kick off and although his replacement Elliot Ward did OK, the assurance a player of Mulgrew's class brings was lacking. Bradley Dack’s goal was real quality but for Craig Conway to miss an open goal AND Marcus Antonsson a penalty just smacked of a lack of professionalism on the day. But hey, we're now unbeaten in 12 and at least the 4000 home fans went home ecstatic from their cup final, especially the Northampton Raider we encountered on the way back to the station who literally said to me, "you want some? I'll give it to you".

It marks another new ground chalked off. I make it the 153rd ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 82 out of the Punk 92, and it's my 75th of the current 92 grounds.


Friday, December 22, 2017

End of year telly round up - Peaky blinding, Walking Dead dying

I did a seasonal round up of the year's telly in August. I can't honestly say there's been anything new that's blown me away since then. Loved the new Stranger Things, loved the second series of the A Word.

I was slow to get going with Peaky Blinders, but this series has been explosively brilliant. Helen McCrory as Polly is the best character in any period drama I can recall. With a strong supporting cast on top form Tom Hardy and Aidan Gillen really rose to the challenge of something so atmospheric.  The scenes with both took the whole thing to a new level.

The biggest disappointment on the whole of telly was the continual slow death of The Walking Dead. I lied, I said I wasn't going to watch season 8. But I did, and at the half way mark, I have to say that I am at least relieved it hasn't got worse. Well, to be fair, season 7 was dreadful and this first half has tried to pick up the pace. But really? Nothing has happened. Nothing has actually changed since Glenn and Abraham were killed at the end of start of season 7. Negan is still alive, in power and to be fair to him, he's not the one randomly butchering people.

When I said enough is enough in April, I asked a few questions, none of which have been adequately answered, but they're the constants that try my patience and they all came round again.

1 - Where did Gregory go? Just vanished from the fight, is still a weasel, why's he still around?
2 - How did the Alexandrians not get butchered when they turned on the Saviours? Same with the Hilltop crew with Maggie, especially when evil Simon ambused the convoy on the road.
3 - Dwight, friend or foe? - still not clear.
4 - Are all three armies the worst shots ever? Was someone firing blanks? Who died?
5 - Why on earth do the garbage pail kids speak so weirdly, who are they, where are they from? Why are they so woefully underwritten?
6 - And what next for that Tiger? Well, at least we know the CGI budget was exhausted for that one.

You can add the whole unresolved, woefully untold Oceanside plot to the mix and you're still left with a mess. The comics, as I've said before, are so much better. For the second half this series has one last chance. It's one of those weeks when I'm very grateful to be British.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Eyes On The City | London & Darwen



I like this short film extolling the bonds between football, fashion and identity. Gary Aspden and his pals sit just down from us in the Riverside stand and I'm always impressed by how well turned out they are.

I interviewed Gary for Northern Monkeys in recognition of his contribution to the evolution of northern working class fashion through his work with Adidas and Size.

I've had a couple of glorious CP Company pieces over the years - a blue duffle coat and a white needle chord shirt - which I got from Shop 70 in London's Lamb Conduit Street in the early 90s. Even now I'm very attached to a very resilient black military style shirt I picked up a few years ago, a pic of it is here.

Friday, December 15, 2017

My mate #25 Michael Merrick

I was delighted to hear my mate Michael Merrick on Radio 4's Four Thought recently. It was in so many ways so typical of him. Searingly honest, humbly self-examining and so very modest for what it left out.

So, I thought I'd add him to the "my mate" series on this blog, where I randomly shuffle my address book and talk about my friends, how we met and what I like about them.

Michael tells the story on the programme of how he graduated and thought of himself as above his family, and then how that has spoken to him about the idea of social mobility. It's always slightly incongruous to listen to a friend talk about the previous version of themselves. Especially as the Michael I know would never do that, he has such genuine love and admiration for the treasures of family and community. Rightly, the piece has been praised for the honesty and depth of thought that has gone into his own journey and how he reflects on social mobility and how kids leave their homes to 'better themselves'.

Michael and I met on Twitter. We had a shared interest in Catholic education, Catholic social teaching, Labour and Lancaster. I'd been impressed by his work for Philip Blond on his inspiring and ambitious book Red Tory. When we eventually met in real life, I'm pleased to say our friendship took on an upward tick. Though it was politics and faith that brought us together, there's so much more about this amazing man that I have grown to admire.

His advice to me as I stepped into politics was exemplary. Starting with why? But linking it to our duty and our salvation. He pulled off a remarkable conference in Manchester that drew together a wide range of voices and thinkers for a tradition he and I wanted to co-create - to place community, work and family into the political value system. We've both since moved away from Labour, and share similar frustrations that Maurice Glasman's Blue Labour seems to be going nowhere. We voted on different sides in the EU referendum and probably disagree on a few other things too. But my admiration for his solid insolence and defiance will never waver.

But what I was driving towards is how much Michael left out in this most recent exercise in soul searching. In his generous sharing of his life journey he didn't mention that he had been a professional footballer with Norwich City, nor that he has been a philosophy teacher in a High School, but is now part of a leadership team as deputy head in a Catholic community primary school.  That school has this week just received a "good" rating by OFSTED for the first time since 2001. I don't know the other people involved, I'm sure they have all played their part. But what I do know from the man I've seen; the clever, gentle, inspiring man, is that he has been involved in something very special. If I was a parent in Carlisle, I'd be fighting to get my children educated by him.

In the midst of this tribute I've also not touched on Michael's family. He has a lot of children and is a devoted husband. Or his humour, or his quest for truth...

Life takes you in different directions from time to time. I'm just very proud this week to doff my cap and say my prayers of thanks that I can count Michael Merrick a friend.