Tuesday 26 June 2012

GBR Occasional Mid-Week Show Review - Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast

The latest leg of my “must go and see more shows” resolution took me and a few friends back to the Leicester Square Theatre for the recording of Richard Herring’s latest podcast. And there was no way There was no way I wasn’t going to enjoy it.

What’s not to love? Richard Herring, Armando Iannucci and Graham Linehan all on stage having a bit of a chinwag, delivering anecdote after anecdote of their comedy careers. Sprinkle in the odd current affairs debate, an ongoing argument on who created Alan Partridge (it was definitely Herring), and a selection of their current favourite tweets, and you have yourself a hell of a Monday evening out.

It left me wondering a couple of things.

First was why Iannucci and Linehan don’t appear in front of camera more often. They’re both hilarious people, but we knew that already. I didn’t realise how well they delivered one liners though. I didn’t know of Armando Iannucci’s capacity for voices and characters (he does a mean impression of the capital letter “P”). I didn’t realise Linehan had quite a stage presence. I suspect the answer for why they don’t appear in front of camera more lies in necessity. Why would they need to put themselves out front, when they can happily spend their time coming up with hilarious stuff and getting paid for it without being recognised too often in McDonald’s?

The second thing I wondered was where Richard Herring’s strengths lie. This is a guy that has never found a medium he doesn’t love. Online or offline, he tries it all, and usually with inventive formats. Few amongst us would have thought a podcast of Richard Herring playing snooker against himself in his basement whilst simultaneously commentating on the game would work. But it does. Cos it’s Richard Herring, and he makes things funny. This was the first time I’d seen him take on the role of interviewer, and he did it pretty well. Kept the conversation going and varied it, brought out some great stories, even inserted his own one-liners without stealing the spotlight.

So why isn’t he more widely appreciated? Why doesn’t he appear with greater regularity in more mass media? I don’t know. I’m not sure he does either.

This was hilarious. And interesting.

Go listen to it now (along with Herring’s other podcasts in the series).

Sunday 24 June 2012

Planet Hulk - big green crusader

Planet Hulk by Greg Pak (Marvel Comics: 2008) The Incredible Hulk is banished from Earth and Time to go swimming in the deep end again. Give something else a try. Not entirely new if I’m honest. The whole GBR adventure has taken me here before. To graphic novel territory. The first time, it was in a sort of literary way. Then in a pseudo political way. Now into more classic territory. Doesn’t come much more classic than a bit of Hulk.

Unless you’ve kept up with Hulk’s story, you (like me) will probably not recognize a lot of Planet Hulk. Gone are the mindless rampages, the monosyllabic monster the good doctor tries to keep in check. Instead, we’re given a coherent superhero, nevertheless consigned to exile by his well meaning superhero buddies.
The set up gives Hulk a different kind of adventure. An epic which takes in new worlds and crusades. It’s a compelling context, a clever new stage on which to set Hulk loose. It allows the rise of new legends. It allows parody of some familiar human struggles. It allows a deeper, more thoughtful Hulk to emerge.
Don’t worry, the rage is still there. The “you won’t like me when I’m angry” is still there. But so is a softer side. A more contemplative side. One that can grasp the nature of a societal struggle; make an informed decision on which side to support and how to support it.
I found a lot of this entertainingly new. It was a brave turn by Marvel, and one that works. It revitalised Hulk for me. Made him more interesting. The newness of it, the imagination at work, helped this go by in a hurry. I had to consciously stop every now and then to actually look closer at the art, be careful not to let the half of the story the pictures told pass me by entirely in my hunger for the plot.
So yes, this engaged me and it entertained me. But it wasn’t without its eye rolling moments. There was a handful of twists too many. There was an implausible (and relatively pointless) guest appearance from Silver Surfer. There were elements of the story and of the character reactions that were crow barred in with no finesse. In fact, there was a general lack of subtlety to the entire thing.
Having written that, I’m immediately aware how stupid it is. Criticizing a Hulk graphic novel for its lack of subtlety? Dickhead. 

Got to get over myself. Got to look at this dispassionately. Got to ignore the fact it’s a book I’d never have picked up if it wasn’t for my GBR adventure and a strong recommendation from my brother. Did this entertain me? Did it leave me wanting to find out what happens next? Did it create characters that I liked and disliked in the way I was supposed to? Yes, yes, and yes.
But it’s a matter of degrees. They’re not yes/no questions. Yes, it entertained me, but only a little. Yes I want to know what happens next, but not enough to Amazon one-click the sequel. Yes I found the characters interesting, but also ridiculous in places, and none of them ever took on the shape of fully formed, complex personalities.
I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. I’m glad I tried it, and I’ll probably try another graphic novel at some stage. But I’m a long way from being a convert. This genre is still more likely to make up a small corner of my book shelves than overtake them completely.
I came. I tried. I mildly enjoyed.
Next week, an author I fear I could become as obsessed about as I am with Glen Duncan. Worrying times.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Scoop - Waugh-tastic

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall: 1938) An absurd comic novel in which an identity mix up sees country loving William Boot dispatched to the African country of Ishamlia to cover the impending civil war for the Daily Beast.

Evelyn Waugh has fast become one of my favourite writers. It’s a shame, because saying that makes me sound pompous. But I don’t care. He writes fun stuff, and I enjoy reading it. So there.

In Scoop, it feels he’s in full flow. He’s funny. Not just funny, it’s a particular brand of funny - witty, satirical, slapstick, a few different funny-genres in one. There’s definite Wodehousian echoes, but it tackles more than Wodehouse ever does. Waugh’s characters are less cartoonish, but equally fantastic.

I’m not putting Wodehouse down. I’m a massive Wodehouse fan too. He got the first 10GBR after all, an accolade I’m reliably informed greatly pleases the custodians of the Wodehouse estate (though they’d never admit it, so don’t bother asking them).

But Waugh does more than just thoroughly entertain. He creates these amazing characters, with endearing personal flaws and comic outlooks, and he bangs them up against each other in settings that help reveal some of the absurdities the real world.

The result isn’t just amusing. It’s heart-warming. It’s depressing. It’s worrying. It’s sad. Achieving that in the context of what is basically a comic novel is some trick. He packs so much between the lines that you need to take a breath after each page.

A Handful of Dust is perhaps the novel where he achieves all of this most perfectly, but Scoop comes a close second. He makes a serious point about the power of the press, and the influence it wielded over 1st and 3rd worlds alike. He explores the relative merits of city and country life - each are presented with huge flaws, but each are inhabited by characters so skilfully suited to them that you can’t help but hanker after both. He explores loneliness, manipulation, unrequited love, the trappings of power…the list goes on. It really does. I wrote a list, and it went on and on. Then I deleted it because I know how you hate lists. But trust me, the man explores so many themes so expertly that you carry on thinking about Scoop long after you’ve put it down (once you’ve finished laughing at it).

And all of this is, or course, achieved with Waugh’s unsurpassed feel for language. Phrases, sentences and paragraphs are constructed with such economy that it blows you away sometimes. If ever you want to read language that qualifies as beautiful, pick up Waugh.

I’m painting myself into a 10GBR shaped corner here, so let’s try paint out again.

A Handful of Dust deserved a 10GBR. It’s one of my favourite books ever, and I’ll go on recommending it to everyone I meet. Scoop has a lot of the same qualities. I loved the sets he built - The Daily Beast newspaper, the African country of Ishmalia, and the rural seat of the Boots. I love the characters that filled the stage and I love the story that engulfed it. But it falls short. It falls short because he did it before.

He did it in A Handful of Dust (which directly preceded Scoop). And he did it better there. He raised the bar, and couldn’t quite jump it a second time. Only just nicked it with a trailing toe-nail, but un-cleared nonetheless. It wasn’t quite as heartbreaking. Some of the elements were a bit too recycled. It fell short by about 1 GBR point.


Pretty darn fantastic. Might need to cut myself off Waugh for a month or two.

Next week, a third run at a graphic novel, this time one recommended by Brother-of-GBR.

Sunday 10 June 2012

The House of Silk - hammed up Holmes

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (Orion Books: 2011) A Conan Doyle Estate sanctioned Sherlock Holmes novel. Watson tells the tale of one of Holmes’ most shocking adventures, where he pursues the truth behind mysterious House of Silk. It’s a chase that takes him to the brink of the noose, and leads to some of the most distasteful secrets of the rich and powerful.
I’m not sure how I feel about all this. Taking huge literary characters and reviving them through modern authors. I can see the plus. Why say goodbye forever to James Bond, to Sherlock Holmes, to Miss Marple. Sure, they are the products of their creators, but once they’re gone, surely the characters can live on? Surely they’re bigger than one mind? In the right hands, with the right skill, surely they can outlive the writers that first brought them to life?
There’s the obvious minus too. These classics are just that – classics. Picking them up again and dusting them off with second hand talents, well, it runs the risk of damaging them, right? Of taking a little of the glow off and cheapening them.
I don’t know which side of the argument I fall on. I’m indecisive like that. But I love a bit of Sherlock Holmes. So I couldn’t resist having a shot at this book.
Horowitz is certainly qualified. He created Midsomer Murders. He’s done a bunch of other stuff too, but that’s enough for me. And this isn’t the first big character he’s picked up. He’s penned a few TV episodes of Poirot, taking a bit of modern artistic licence en route.
So this guy knows what he’s doing. And it shows. The tone of the book, and a heap of the basic ingredients, could easily have come from the pen of Conan Doyle. He inhabits Dr Watson almost perfectly, strikes the right sentiment in every situation. It’s a true recreation, with Watson’s actions and thoughts and feelings ringing true throughout. And it’s not just Watson; Holmes is Holmes too. Enigmatic. Deep of feeling. High of ego.
So what of the plot? Well, it’s dramatic. It twists and turns and takes in an array of settings. It has a few familiar ingredients – injustice, mysterious evil, red herrings, intriguing sub-plots. It’s all there. But for me, it never really clicked.
Which is an absolutely terrible criticism. One of those “can’t put my finger on it” criticisms. Not constructive. Suspiciously baseless. But true, nonetheless.
The plot was full of heart racing ultimatum. Tantalising hints towards Armageddon-proportion disaster. But it didn’t work as effectively as when Conan Doyle did it. It was almost too busy. It got old after a while. Tiring. I grew impatient with cliff hanger after cliff hanger, mystery after mystery. The more so as much of the mystery could be seen through. The broad brush strokes of the truth could be guessed.
Just felt like Horowitz was over-reaching. The story steered for anti-climax from page one.
And that is how this book steered into a predictable brick wall. Horowitz succeeded in recreating the Conan Doyle voice. He succeeded in bringing the characters back to life faithfully. But he failed in his plotting. It didn’t feel genuine. It felt cheaper.
It might be my fault. If I read the exact same book believing it to be written by Conan Doyle, maybe I’d be more charitable. I was aware that Howoritz’s name was on the spine, and so maybe I looked too closely, was too quick to judge turn of phrase as cliché and twist of plot as contrivance.
My fault or not, doesn’t change the fact that I got bored at times with this. Which is sad, because this is Holmes.
Might have to pick up an original soon to reconnect with the real Holmes.
Next week, a bit of Waugh. I know you love that guy as much as I do, so I’m sure you’re excited.

Sunday 3 June 2012

King Leopold's Ghost - history!!

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin: 1998) A history of King Leopold II of Belgium's reign in the Congo, and the individuals involved in bringing the truth of his rule to the world's attention.
Most history books tell you stuff you don’t know. Otherwise you really would get bored of them quick. But this, this told me about a major piece of the world story that I had no idea existed.

Sure, I knew about slavery. And I knew about the scramble for Africa, and knew that wasn’t a fun era for the locals. But this, this is something other.

This book isn’t just about the horrific cruelty of an imperialistic regime in a foreign land. It’s about a major worldwide movement against it. It’s about crusaders and explorers whose story exploded out of Africa and on to the world stage in an incredibly loud way. And then along came World War I, and it seems their voices got lost. Largely forgotten.

Maybe it has something to do with the shame of the imperialists, trying to forget a piece of history we’re not too proud of. Or maybe I was just off the day they taught this in school.

I had no idea, not an inkling, of the events in the Congo in the mid to late nineteenth century. I had no idea of the calculated barbarism of King Leopold II of Belgium. I had no idea of the regime he built in the Congo, of the smokescreens he threw up to mask its true nature, and the extraordinary lengths gone to by a few men and women to bring a spotlight to it. I had no idea of the international politics and public outrage that the episode threw up. I had no idea of how much the struggle was stamped into the public consciousness.

If I’m not being clear enough, in short, I was amazed.

The good history books, the really good ones, ordinarily get the cookie-cutter praise that they “read like a novel.” It’s important to take history and relate it in an entertaining way, with plot and drama and structure. Otherwise it won’t get read. And that’s exactly what’s done here.

Hochschild is helped by being given a great cast of characters, and a shocking narrative, but he stitches it together seamlessly. A little repetitive at times, and he dwells in one place for a few seconds too long here and there, but in all, it’s pretty neat and tidy.

It’s not dispassionate - he injects his own values and his own judgements at will. But they’re almost always correct. And they give the book an energy that it would be lacking otherwise.

It’s all left wonderfully open ended as well. It’s history, so there aren’t absolute winners and losers. There’s no neat resolution. Every character is flawed. Which means you put the book down at the end and you’re hungry for more. You want to discuss it and pick at it and understand it from other places.

This is good history. It’s essential history, really. It’s entertaining history. It enlightens. It twists your perspective and your gut and your soul as you read it.

I have to retrain myself here. I loved this. But the GBR scores are about whether I think you’ll love it too. Despite everything, this is still history. It’s slower than fiction. It’s more interrogative. It’s more detailed. And that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.


I clearly have no self control.

We seem to be on a good run GBR scores at the moment (9, then 8, then 7, then 8, now 9) Maybe I’m getting soft. Or maybe books are getting better.

Next week, a visit to Baker Street to see if they can keep up the pace.