Friday, 29 July 2011

Top 5 Harry Potter books

I realise I'm some 4 years behind everyone else but I've just finished the final instalment in the Harry Potter series. That's seven books. It got to be a bit of a struggle as the page count increased and my enthusiasm diminished but I was always going to get to the end eventually. Like I said seven books, two more than five. Well that right there is a gift horse that I'm not going to look in the mouth.

They've sold in huge quantities and turned J.K. Rowling into a very rich lady. It's been nigh on impossible to take a tube journey for the past 10 years without seeing someone reading one. They've been massively popular amongst children and adults. That level of success inevitably leads to some backlash. None of the series would be on a list of my favourite reads but they have been an enjoyable diversion and anything that encourages kids to read has to be a good thing.

1. Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban (1999) - Third book in the series and the one where it really took off for me. Now comfortable with the main characters we were introduced to Sirius & Lupin and the action really began to kick in.

2. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows (2007) - Took me a while to get round to this. I wanted to know what happened but couldn't quite muster the enthusiasm to read this over any of the other books in my reading pile. The hype surrounding the film finally kicked me into life, if only to avoid the spoilers, and I'm glad it did. A very satisfying conclusion that answered all our questions and avoided being too trite.

3. Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone (1997) - The first book was a joy. Short and easy to complete, introduced the characters, rules and themes and managed a neatly plotted challenge too.

4. Harry Potter & The Goblet Of Fire (2001) - A bit of a monster and the first story to enter darker territory. A sign that J.K. was getting caught up with the story and able to explore more mature themes as her core audience grew up.

5. Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix (2003) - A little overlong perhaps but it had a lighter touch than the books either side of it (Goblet of Fire & The Half-Blood Prince).


Friday, 22 July 2011

Guest Top 5 - Michael Haneke films by JamieR

I know Jamie in the first instance as a Fulham fan and former Northern correspondent for Craven Cottage Newsround. He has written some excellent reviews of Fulham away games, a challenging feat in recent years with our penchant for goaless draws. More recently he has started an excellent film blog called Shot Through a Window.

These days the only films I get to see at the cinema are cartoons, or in 3-D ... or both. Despite a passing effort to keep up to date by watching BBC's Film [Insert current year here], I hadn't heard of Michael Haneke. This top five has whetted my appetite for his films and I'm looking forward to searching them out. Over to Jamie.

Michael Haneke is my favourite director. His films might not be what most would think of as easy watches, with their bleak subject matter and frequent refusal to offer any answers. His concerns are usually largely the same: bourgeois neurosis, family dysfunction, (the failure of) multiculturalism, surveillance, alienation. But his films remain eminently satisfying and memorable experiences due to their patience and open nature, giving characters time to develop and the audience opportunity to react, and think. You’re often made uneasy by what you’re seeing, but you feel like you’re being treated like an intelligent adult – so you participate, and you enjoy. The list below will inevitably change – Haneke is soon to cast his beady eye on the subjects of ‘the internet’ and ‘the humiliation of ageing’ (woohoo!) – but, for the time being, here goes…

1. Hidden (2005)
This masterpiece in creeping tension and brilliant study of Western postcolonial guilt is not only my favourite film of Haneke’s but one of the outright best I have ever seen. A well-to-do Parisian couple start receiving strange videotapes of their own house on surveillance camera, with no idea who is sending them, or why. It has a wonderful opening that you could write a postmodern film-studies thesis on. And its one violent scene understands what ‘shock’ is in cinema more than a thousand Hollywood horror movies: context, genuine surprise, stillness… and silence. Outstanding.

2. The White Ribbon (2009)
A film which gives you the strange sensation being simultaneously disturbed by events onscreen whilst utterly comfortable in the hands of a master director, full of confidence and on top of his game. Beautifully filmed in crisp black-and-white, it’s an intriguing and mysterious tale of a provincial community in pre-WW2 Germany which deservedly won Haneke the Cannes Palme D’Or in 2010.

3. Code Unknown (2000)
This collage of intertwining stories contains, in my opinion, some of the greatest scenes ever committed to celluloid – and is only kept off my number one spot by the fact that it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole, its highlights marred by some less successful segments. But oh, the highlights: Julliete Binoche, playing a film actress à la Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, spreading her wings with some incredible ‘acting acting’; a virtuoso one-take sequence on a Paris street which opens the film; an excruciating encounter on the subway which is just so real. The century had turned, and Haneke had announced himself as a major filmmaker of his era.

4. The Piano Teacher (2001)
I guess this is what happens when Haneke does ‘love story’. An adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel about a pianist and her pupil, this is an unflinching portrait of perversion and self-destruction, featuring the performance of a lifetime by the wonderful Isabelle Huppert. It’s one of his most compassionate films along with his most accessible, given a linear narrative which does actually come to some kind of conclusion. So perhaps not a bad place for Haneke virgins to start.

5. Benny’s Video (1992)
A journey into the bleak abyss from earlier in Haneke’s career. All his later themes are present here but they’re unembellished by the style, assurance and slightly softer edges of his later work. It really is quite punishing viewing, even if you know it’s there for good reasons – like staring directly into the sunlight. Its pivotal scene (to which the title refers) is masterfully put together. We’re made to watch it twice.


Friday, 15 July 2011

Top 5 Progressive Rock Albums

The trouble with the really big topics is that I end up thinking about them too much. This top five has undergone at least four rewrites and I know if I leave it any longer it will change again.

I really began discovering music for myself in the early eighties, not a period when Progressive Rock was particularly well regarded. I suppose in many ways I was looking for anything that wasn't the floppy fringed, Smash Hit's style pop that dominated the charts. Overheard six form conversations and Kerrang magazine led me on a path to Heavy Metal and Prog.

I picked up a copy of Marillion's live mini-album Real to Reel from Boots early in 1984 and this somehow led me to reassess the copy of Genesis' Genesis album I'd picked up from my local library. By 1985 I was immersing myself in all forms of Prog, old and new. The mid-eighties had seen a revival of the genre. Marillion were the leading lights but I also discovered the joys of Pendragon, Pallas, Twelfth Night & I.Q. Regular gigs at the Marquee Club (initially in the famous Wardour Street location, before a move to the larger Charing Cross Road premises) helped me feel part of a scene. Albeit a scene woefully out of touch with current trends.

1. Genesis "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" (1975) - Peter Gabriel's last album with the band, The Lamb is a double concept L.P. that took me some time to unravel. Having developed a love of their self-titled 1983 album and learning that they were a big influence on Marillion I rapidly made up for lost time. Three of their earliest releases (Trespass, Nursery Cryme & Foxtrot) formed the template for many of the eighties Prog revivalists. Foxtrot in particular is a favourite of mine but I think the time I had to invest to "get" The Lamb has elevated it to the top of my list.

2. Marillion "Script For A Jester's Tear" (1983) - Marillion's debut album was amongst several I received from the now defunct Britannia Music Club. I bought everything on tape back then, switching to vinyl in late 85 and refusing to accept CDs as anything more than a passing fancy until the early 90s. The Script cassette came in a cream coloured box which, for some inexplicable reason, helped me love the album even more. Whilst Marillion's Tolkien influenced name and associated Jester imagery suggest typical Prog fare lyrically they were really tackling more dcontemporary subjects. He Knows You Know is about heroin abuse and Chelsea Monday about the suicide of a young girl pursuing dreams of fame and fortune. They were my favourite band for a very long time.

3. Jethro Tull "Aqualung" (1971) - I agonised a little over whether to include Tull. They have a much broader pallet than your average Prog band but Tull were at the forefront the late 60's progressive blues bands that spawned the genre. The title track kicks the album off with a Martin Barre riff that is up with Smoke On The Water for being most recognisable in rock. Light and shade is provided by a number of acoustically based songs before the coupe de grace which is provided by the flat out groove of Locomotive Breath.

4. Pink Floyd "Meddle" (1971) - I'm possibly being a little obtuse by not picking Dark Side of The Moon but I think this album, released a year earlier, has a more Proggy feel. I like a bit of contrast in my music and Meddle provides that in spades. Opening with the double tracked Bass riff of One Of These Days before changing tack to the gentle acoustic melody of A Pillow of Winds. Fearless is one of my favourite Floyd tracks and Echoes is a 23 minute Prog epic. To be honest if a Prog band doesn't have at least one song over 20 minutes in their repertoire they're not really trying.

5. I.Q. "Subterranea" (1997) - The early eighties neo-progressive "boom" consisted mainly of bands that sounded like early Genesis. I.Q. were no different and on first listen I dismissed them as too derivative. However, live shows played in the sort of venue Genesis had long forgotten and impromptu versions of popular adverts such as the Shake & Vac theme tune, won be over. Unlike many of their peers I.Q. stayed active and after reuniting with their original vocalist in 1993 released this double concept album in 1997 to prove that it is possible for a band to get better as it gets older.

I really did struggle to trim this down to five entries. Near misses came from Yes with 1971's "The Yes Album" and Caravan with the best of the Canterbury sound on "In The Land Of Grey and Pink" (also 1971).

ELP? Nope, they really were shit.


Friday, 8 July 2011

Guest Top 5 - Scary Things by dotmund

The Internet can be an amazing place. You can share ideas and have random discussions with people you have never met and probably never will. A bit like having a French pen pal but one who doesn't come to visit you for a week in the summer and make you do lots of things you don't want to do.

I digress. I got to know dotmund through Twitter. He is best known for his illustration work on the excellent Football website Two Hundred Percent and was the British Cartoonists’ Association Young Cartoonist of the Year in 2003. You can check out some of his other work here or read his blog here.

This is the first top five I have received that's in reverse order. It's made me wonder why I haven't always done it this way. The illustrations are all dotmund originals.


These things have blighted the world now for over 65 years. They've created new political realities, new philosophies and changed the way humans live more than any other of our many creations. But I would like to (perhaps controversially) argue that in this world of health and safety consciousness and its attendant litigiousness, nuclear weapons are something of an anachronism. Seriously, that shit's just not safe.


I've never flown in an aeroplane, but I have been on one. Growing up in Sussex, one of my school outings was to Gatwick Airport. For part of the fun-filled shindig, we all piled onto a plane and sat down, before they went through the standard safety announcement. This was all too much for 10-year old me, and I freaked out. Properly freaked out. They had to take me off the plane. Looking back, it's probably not my proudest moment or my bravest. But something, somewhere deep inside told me that I did not belong in an aeroplane.

One of my dearest, bestest friends could move to the USA in the near future, which obviously presents me with a problem. I have promised her, and more importantly myself, that I would not let my fear of aeroplanes stop me from visiting them in the States. And it won't. But there may need to be a certain amount of tethering, restraints and wooden spoon biting before I get there.


Loved ones, eh? You love them and then, you know, stuff. Actually, in my case I've been really very lucky, touch wood. So it's been up to my brain to concoct scenarios whereby friends and family drift away after realising that I am rubbish. I'm actually not rubbish, partly because I jump through all kinds of hoops to be as nice as I can to avoid the inevitable. Which is not inevitable, apart from in my brain. Which is stupid.

I'm pretty sure my ongoing stupidity is one of my most endearing qualities. But if any of my friends or family are reading this and disagree, I would like to say now that I'll change! I'm sorry! I love you.


Actually, it's not thunderstorms I'm scared of, that's something of a misnomer. I'm OK with thunder, which is just noise, and rain, which is just water. It's the violent discharge of huge amounts of electricity that makes me feel positively clenched. I live by the south coast, which is a place where weather tends to be a fairly transient affair, wind blowing it inland rather than having it sit on top of us. This is good news for me, as it means we get fewer big thunderstorms than other parts of the country. When we do have one, however, I hide in my room with the curtains drawn and the lights on, trying to pretend I'm so brave to have got past my fear of thunderstorms.


Oh hell no. No no no. I can't be doing with Joan Crawford. My fear of Joan was cemented by a 1964 American horror film called Stait-Jacket, in which Joan plays a woman who was institutionalised for murdering her husband with an axe and, upon her release, the killings start again! Joan Crawford playing a mentally imbalanced murderess lunatic. It's the stuff complete mental breakdowns are made of. If I ever want to just give up and be carted away to a mental hospital myself, I plan to watch Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. That should do it.


Friday, 1 July 2011

Guest Top 5 - Odd Celebrity Encounters by Mike Whalley

As I continue to fail to get on top of my own top fives (several in work but not complete) I'm thankful to have some excellent guest contributions to fall back on. In fact, if I'm honest, they're generally better than my efforts anyway. Mike Whalley is a freelance sports journalist, based in Manchester. He is well-known enough to have received anonymous hate mail from Sweden, but not well-known enough to have his own Wikipedia entry. I got to know Mike (virtually!) via his World of Sport blog and specifically his genius efforts to track exactly who was Last on Match of the Day. Fulham appeared quite regularly in these posts, confirming what every Fulham fan already knew, whilst also confirming that fans of Wigan Athletic, Bolton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City had a fair point too. Mike's recently called time on the blog to concentrate on other forms of writing but I was lucky enough to get him to write a quick top five before he goes "serious".

Seems like I say this for every Guest Top 5 but this one really is brilliant. Over to Mike ...

You remember Andy Crane? Children’s BBC? The broom cupboard? Edd the Duck? I once had him standing around 10 feet away from my desk presenting a local TV news bulletin while I was trying to get on with my work. Seemed an affable chap, but I’m not sure he knew what he was doing there either.

It happened when I worked as a staff journalist for the Manchester Evening News, and Crane was a presenter for Channel M, a TV station then owned by the same company. Every so often, Channel M would decide to give their nightly news programme a bustling World Of Sport-style atmosphere by hosting it from our office while we were approaching deadline. If Crane was Dickie Davies, the M.E.N. staff were the secretaries in the background. To be honest, the TV people got in the way, and I was happier when they weren’t about.

And yet, for all that, I wouldn’t even place being distracted by a former Children’s BBC presenter among my top five odd celebrity encounters.

1. Debbie Currie (2009). One lunchtime a couple of years ago, I was pottering around at home in south Manchester when the doorbell rang. I answered it to a jolly yet rather officious woman in her early 30s, with dark curly hair, who wanted to read my electricity meter. It was a rented flat, the meter was in the cellar and I didn’t have a key, so I gave her the landlord’s number, all the time thinking: 1) She seemed far more outgoing than any other electricity meter reader who had ever pitched up on the doorstep. 2) She seemed familiar.

Her name badge read: Debbie Currie. Didn’t ring a bell.

Around 30 seconds after she had gone, it hit me. A quick Google search revealed a long Daily Mail article about Edwina Currie’s daughter, the one-time TV agony aunt, journalist and Stringfellow’s receptionist turned single mum. The article mentioned she was living in Glossop, about 20 miles from me, and included the sentence: “Debbie works as a gas and electricity meter reader.”

2. Russ Abbot (1981). I once sang on stage with the bloke who recorded ‘Atmosphere’. No, not Ian Curtis. My memory is a bit vague on this one, but Abbot’s website states that he appeared in panto at Stockport’s Davenport Theatre (where my mum worked) in 1981, which would mean I was four years old. That sounds about right.

Anyway, all I recall is that there was a break in the show at some point, and there was a call for children in the audience to volunteer to go up on stage with Abbot. My friend Rebecca and I put ourselves forward, and we ended up as part of a line on stage singing with Abbot, who was dressed as Cooperman. Who, if you’re too young to remember, was a cross between Superman and Tommy Cooper. Abbot went on to become the king of Saturday night TV for a few years afterwards. I didn’t.

3. Sally Ann Matthews (1988). You can’t live in Manchester for very long without encountering past or present cast members of Coronation Street. Audrey Roberts was once behind me in the queue at Sainsbury’s on Quay Street, while I once walked past a decidedly under-the-weather Fred Elliott on Deansgate. My dad can do even better, having played in a charity rugby match against Ken Barlow.

But my first meeting with a Weatherfield resident came in an executive box at Boundary Park when I was 10. A family friend had managed to sneak me in there for an FA Cup tie between Oldham and Tottenham in January 1988. I’d already confused myself at half-time by taking a wrong turning on the way back from the toilets and ending up in the tunnel with the players as they were about to go out for the second half. The day got even weirder as a young ginger lass who looked suspiciously like the Street’s Jenny Bradley wandered into our box, sat down beside us and started cheering for Oldham.

Sally Ann Matthews was kind enough to sign my programme that day. Little did we know that, just over a year later, her TV dad would try to bump off Rita Fairclough.

4. Bob Greaves (1987). Largely unknown outside the North West, Greaves was a local TV legend, presenting Granada Reports for more than 30 years. When Greaves died in March, aged 76, just about all of the obituaries referred to the infamous early 80s clip – repeated ad nauseum on various Denis Norden-helmed out-take shows – in which he was, ahem, ‘felt up’ by an elephant during a live broadcast from Chester Zoo.

A few years later, Bob went back to Chester Zoo to film a follow-up feature with the same elephant. On the same day, I was there as part of a school trip. A few of us decided to approach Bob for an autograph. Terrified by the tide of schoolchildren heading towards him, he decided to make a hasty exit. He signed an autograph for a woman in front of us, then turned away from signing any more, saying: “Sorry. If I start now, I’ll never stop.”

5. Richard Wilson (2011). I’ve seen two plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester this year. On both occasions, Richard Wilson from One Foot In The Grave has been in the audience. And on both occasions, he’s walked within about three feet of me during the interval.

Now I can’t look at Wilson without recalling the Father Ted episode. You know, the one in which Ted sees him during a trip to the mainland and decides it will be a good idea to shout his catchphrase at him.

The first time, in January this year, I found it relatively easy to resist. But the second time, about a week ago, he was wearing a dark suit with white trainers. I really couldn’t believe someone would go to the theatre dressed like that. I turned to my companion for the evening. “I don’t,” I began. Depending on your sense of mischief, you may be glad or disappointed to know that I stopped myself just in time.