Archive for July, 2010

I know what you’re thinking

Posted on July 31st, 2010 in Blah | 2 Comments »

First of all, I want to introduce you to this blog, which admirably sums up in its every post, my feelings about language, grammar and pedantry – to whit, it take only a modest level of education to criticise other people for supposed infringements such as split infinitives, dangling participles or what have you, but none of this has anything to do with understanding how language works, which is a more complicated undertaking. If you prefer not to split infinitives, then that is primarily a reflection of your taste, and says little or nothing about how English grammar actually works or is used by its speakers.

So, while it may be entertaining to read (and certainly to write) about grammatical “pet peeves”, this caveat should be borne clearly in mind by writer and reader alike. X may very well drive you crazy, but if X is fairly common among native English speakers (from any country) then that says far more about you than it does about them or about X.

All that having been said, let’s start with a very common English stumbling block. For some reason, English speakers who have no problem at all selecting “I” or “me” when talking only about themselves reach for the wrong pronoun when talking in the plural. Should you care about getting this right (and, as mentioned, there’s no particular reason why you should) the rule is very easy to apply. We don’t even have to approach the baby slopes of grammar terminology. I can give you the rule without even talking about “subject” and “object” (which is the reason for the distinction).

Try these five sentences. Which is right?

  • Me and Jo are going swimming later, do you want to come?
  • It’s not your problem, just let Chris and I handle it.
  • Sam and I will go first, followed by you and then the rest.
  • We’ve talked about it and both me and Pat feel we should contribute.
  • Just give it to either me or Sandy on your way past.

Ready for the answer? Here it comes…

The third and fifth are correct. The others are all wrong. How do you know? Just remove the other person.

  • Me is going swimming later, do you want to come?
  • It’s not your problem, just let I handle it.
  • I will go first, followed by you and then the rest.
  • We’ve talked about it and me feels we should contribute.
  • Just give it to me on your way past.

So, the point is that anyone who cares can easily get this right if they want, but if you don’t care, then it should only affect that small percentage of people who both know and get cross about it. It makes me mildly annoyed when, in dramas, a character who would be quite likely to both know and care is given lines by a writer who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care and so gets it wrong, but I’ve learned to live with it.

What I find more interesting is some of the psychology which these facts about language and the presence of these rules brings along for the ride. Because people remember having had “me and X” corrected to “X and I”, the latter seems to have a more prestigious status in some people’s minds, so I suspect that some people who say “X and I” when “me and X” would have been correct are overcorrecting. They wanted to say “me and X”, they knew that sounded right, but they corrected it to “X and I” at the last minute. In some cases, the anxiety about whether to say “I” or “me” is so profound that people substitute “myself” instead, which is almost guaranteed to be wrong (once again, “wrong” in this one very narrow, prescriptive sense). For some people (especially in HR) this becomes a linguistic tic which can quickly become irritating. “Would you just sign the letter yourself, and then send it back to myself so that Jo and myself can review it and then myself will get back to yourself before yourself goes away on Thursday.” Please find the time to punch yourself in the face, while you’re at it, noticing as you do that because “punch yourself” is reflexive (the puncher is both subject and object, doer and done-to) that “yourself” is appropriate here. You may also use “myself” for emphasis as in “I can punch you in the face myself if you prefer,” but it is not a substitute for any and all personal pronouns.

I think there’s something else even deeper going on here. I think that a kind of neurotic politeness forces people away from both “I” and “me” pronouns; a need to avoid putting oneself in the line of fire, or the spotlight. “Myself” is somehow weaker than “me” and creates a barrier between my audience and the anxious core of my being. Here’s another example of a similar habit.

Here’s some English verb conjugating for you. English prefers to pile on extra words rather than fuck about with a lot of complicated verb endings to address things like case, tense, voice and so on, so these verb conjugations are pretty easy. Let’s take the verb “jump” and the present simple tense.

First person singular: I jump
First person plural: We jump
Second person singular or plural: You jump
Third person singular: He/she/it jumps
Third person plural: They jump

What’s missing from this list? English has an extra pronoun, sometimes omitted, and certainly with a rather archaic feel. Not “ye” or “thou”, both of which are certainly outside modern English. Not the American “y’all” which allows for a useful distinction between second person singular and second person plural, a distinction not found in standard English. No, it is the generic third person “one”, which today belongs primarily in the mouths of lazy comedians substituting it for any and all pronouns when impersonating members of the royal family. So what do we do, when we want to talk about “people in general” rather than any one person or group of people in particular? We co-opt the already over-stretched second person pronoun “you”.

And fair enough. “What should one do when one encounters another person with grammatical habits one takes a personal dislike to?” sounds unbearably pompous, stuffy and hifalutin. How much more relaxed, informal, natural and appropriate to use “you” instead. But what I’ve noticed is that the word “you” often gets substituted for “I” or “me” instead. Take film reviews as an example. Here’s a random example from the Total Film review of Inception.

At no point do you feel anything is here for effect, or that one constituent part doesn’t interact seamlessly with those around it.

Whose feelings are being described here? Not mine, I don’t know this reviewer, I’ve never met Neil Smith. He’s in fact describing his own response, but imagines that his opinions are generally shared or – more likely – is on some level anxious about owning this opinion, so the third person generic “you” is pressed into service. Here’s another example – sticking with “Inception”.

The denouement is a rather unsatisfying moment which leaves you wondering whether [POTENTIAL SPOILER REDACTED].

It might or might not leave me wondering. All we know for the moment is that it left you wondering, Jason Korsner. Other examples are easy to find. It’s particularly noticeable when the interviewee is trying to make an experience which very few people have sound relatable and universal. Here’s an interview with Sheryl Crow which I found from 1999.

You hear about male singers picking girls out of the audience and taking them backstage – but what would I do with a guy when I got him? I’ve got to get on the tour bus and drive all night. I think those days only really existed when you were flying around and you could stay and party until four in the morning and then get into your private jet and fly to the next place. God, if only it was that way now!

Oddly, Sheryl, I don’t share that experience.

Having noticed this, I found it hard to avoid. I’m now in the habit of mentally substituting “I” when I hear this awkward “you” and, yes, it does sound a little more direct, but it also sounds a bit more honest and revealing, which is usually the point of giving an interview or writing a review. I may have spoiled interviews and reviews for you forever, but I’m afraid from now on you’ll have to put up with it. And if you’re pissed off with myself, then that’s something you and me are just going to have to deal with. But you know what that’s like, right?

“The Comic Strip Presents…” episode guide, part one

Posted on July 19th, 2010 in Culture | 2 Comments »

The Comic Strip is the name given to one of the first “alternative” comedy clubs in the eighties, a group of actor-writer-comedians who emerged from that club, and the comedy films that they made first for Channel 4 and later for BBC2.

The Comic Strip presents is indelibly linked with Channel 4, despite their late defection to the BBC (and cinema movies). Firstly because BBC2 had The Young Ones with much of the same cast, and most famously because their first film “Five Go Mad In Dorset” was shown on Channel 4’s opening night. In fact, Comic Strip leading light Peter Richardson was initially in the frame to play Mike in The Young Ones, but legend has it, he called Paul Jackson a cunt and so was replaced.

The project was astonishingly ambitious. No format. No regular characters. A new, half-hour movie (later longer) each week, in a new genre, with a new cast (although there was a core group), most of whom also wrote, and some of whom directed, especially later on. What follows is an episode guide, in the Halliwell style, with cast lists, key credits, a brief synopsis and a critical appraisal. There is also some debate about what is and is not a Comic Strip film. A box set released a few years ago fails to be definitive, so I’ve aimed to be comprehensive.

Core performers were Peter Richardson, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Robbie Coltrane, Keith Allen and Daniel Peacock. Alexei Sayle initially refused to participate feeling that this would be disloyal to The Young Ones, but he has a cameo in the movie The Supergrass and appears fairly regularly from The Strike onwards. Behind the camera, Peter Richardson almost always writes with Pete Richens.

Wildly unpredictable, the best Comic Strip films are some of the best that British comedy has ever offered. The worst are ghastly, self-indulgent rubbish. This guide lovingly charts all of those (often sickeningly vertiginous) ups-and-downs.


Original title sequence with map and flashing “you are here” sign. Established TV comedy directors behind the camera. FGMID was the pilot and another five episodes were commissioned by Channel 4 when it was clear that The Young Ones was going to be a hit. Of these, one (“An Evening With Eddie Monsoon”) was pulled by Channel 4 and later resurfaced in the second series as “Eddie Monsoon – A Life”.

1.1 Five Go Mad in Dorset. 2 Nov 1982, C4 Tue 10.15pm (30 mins)
Written by Richardson and Richens. Directed by Bob Spiers.
Featuring Coltrane, Edmondson, French, Peacock, Richardson, Saunders
Plus: Ronald Allen, Nosher Powell, Ron Tarr
The famous five have a wizard time, getting foreigners, Jews and queers arrested, overhearing secret plans and consuming lashings of ginger beer.
The first and just possibly the best. The comic idea is instantly understandable, the performances are first rate, there’s just enough plot to sustain the length and the laughs keep coming. Edmondson’s feeble pleas for holiday without adventure magically combine pathos with absurdity and the punchline is superb.

1.2 War 3 Jan 1983, C4 Mon 9pm (30 mins)
Written by Richardson and Richens. Directed by Bob Spiers
Featuring Coltrane, Edmondson, French, Mayall, Peacock, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
In 1985, a young couple try to escape war-torn England.
Sporadically amusing piece which swaps narrative drive for a series of sketches, some great (the tunnel), some not so great (the Mexican cowboys). All the cast play multiple roles (except Peacock and French in the leads) and the rapid pace at least ensures that none of the sketches outstays its welcome. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense and exposes one of Richardson and Richens’ key flaw as writers: trusting that the absurdity (often obscurity) of the central idea will carry the story through. Here it does – just about.

1.3 The Beat Generation 17 Jan 1983, C4 Mon 9pm (30 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson & Pete Richens. Directed by Bob Spiers
Featuring Allen, Edmondson, French, Mayall, Peacock, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
In 1960s England, a young man desperate to impress allows – in fact encourages – a motley gang of poets and would-be anarchists to wreck his parents’ house in the name of “freedom”.
Very typical entry with excellent character sketches from all the regulars. Keeps the pace of “War” but by returning to the same characters instead of bouncing off to new ones, it creates a stronger illusion of coherence. The illusion is ultimately shattered, when it ends having found nowhere to go. Terrific sense of atmosphere and style, however, helped by impressive black and white photography and good use of music.

1.4 Bad News Tour 24 Jan 1983, C4 Mon 9pm (30 mins)
Written by Adrian Edmondson. Directed by Sandy Johnson
Featuring Edmondson, French, Mayall, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
A clueless fifth rate heavy metal band go on tour.
Hysterical entry, predating “Spinal Tap”, which sometimes breaks the reality for the sake of a good joke (Planer’s insistence on retakes) but when the jokes are this good, it barely matters.

1.5 Summer School 31 Jan 1983, C4 Mon 9pm (30 mins)
Written by Dawn French. Directed by Sandy Johnson
Featuring Coltrane, Edmondson, French, Mayall, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
Plus Lois Baxter, Gerard Ryder, Rupert Frazer, Martin Potter, Elaine Ashley
Summer school students learn to fend for themselves in a recreation of an iron age village.
First two thirds operate on a sit-com level, then it takes a more typical darker turn and the ending takes the typical subdued, unresolved route. It suffers from a dearth of good jokes (although Coltrane is good value, as ever) but does at least have the virtue of making sense all the way through.


2.1. Five Go Mad On Mescalin 2 Nov 1983, C4 Wed 10pm (40 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson & Pete Richens. Directed by Bob Spiers
Featuring Coltrane, Edmondson, French, Peacock, Richardson, Saunders
Plus Ronald Allen, Harry Towb, Kerry Shale
The Famous Five have further adventures.
Unsubtle retread of the seminal first film with many of the same jokes. The difference in approach is admirably summed up by the two titles. The first plays it straight, trusting the audience to appreciate the irony. The second makes a crassly obvious joke which we could have done without. Another niggle is the shift in characterisation between the two episodes (no more latent homosexuality from Edmondson, instead he’s seduced by a woman). There are, nonetheless, pleasures along the way, notably Kerry Shale’s turn as a revolting American brat.

2.2. Dirty Movie 7 Jan 1984, C4 Sat 10.25pm (40 mins)
Written by Adrian Edmondson & Rik Mayall. Directed by Sandy Johnson
Featuring Coltrane, Edmonson, French, Mayall, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
A cinema owner plots to watch a dirty movie in his own cinema, and must avoid the attentions of his wife, the postman, and a pair of inept policemen.
Prototypical “Bottom” adventures with some excellent slapstick, a typically libidinous Mayall and a real feeling for pace which other Comic Strip films sometimes lack. Edmondson’s first encounter with the man without the letterbox approaches Laurel and Hardy for agonisingly creeping chaos.

2.3. Susie 14 Jan 1984, C4 Sat 10.30pm (40 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson & Pete Richens. Directed by Bob Spiers
Featuring Coltrane, Edmondson, French, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
Plus: Alan Pellay
A lascivious schoolteacher screws her way through the Comic Strip men.
Rather dull entry which suffers from a need to give everyone a bit to do. The result is that I scarcely care who lives and who dies. It could be spoofing something, but I’ve no idea what.

2.4. Fistful Of Travellers Cheques 21 Jan 1984, C4 Sat 10.30pm (45 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens & Rik Mayall. Directed by Bob Spiers
Featuring Allen, Coltrane, Edmondson, French, Mayall, Peacock, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
Plus: Christopher Malcolm
A pair of British tourists with dreams of spaghetti westerns act out their fantasies while on holiday in Mexico.
A central joke that is both immediately grasped and which sustains, aided by great performances. Not only that, but the ending is fantastic!

2.5 Gino – Full Story And Pics 28 Jan 1984, C4 Sat 10.30pm (40 mins)
Written by Peter Richardson & Pete Richens. Directed by Bob Spiers
Featuring Allen, Coltrane, Edmondson, French, Mayall, Peacock, Richardson, Saunders
Plus: Arnold Brown, Alan Pellay.
A petty criminal on the run from the police finds that his flight, accompanied by a young typist, gets him deeper and deeper into trouble as he becomes a media cause celebre.
Thoroughly entertaining romp which neatly solves the problem of giving each of the resident cast a bit to do by having the two central characters encounter each in turn. Thoroughly entertaining and blessedly coherent.

2.6. Eddie Monsoon – A Life? 4 Feb 1984, C4 Sat 10.30pm (35 mins)
Written by Adrian Edmondson. Directed by Sandy Johnson
Featuring Edmondson, French, Richardson, Saunders
Plus: Tony Bilbow
Alcoholic, drug-addled TV presenter Monsoon stumbles through an interview with a TV reporter while in a rehab clinic which takes “kill or cure” painfully literally.
Salvaged from a group-written script proposed for Series One, this is another triumph, with some marvellous gags (French’s bone-snapping nurse) and (rather atypically!) a wonderful performance from Richardson as Monsoon’s agent in permanent denial.

2.7. Slags 11 Feb 1984, C4 Sat 10.35pm (40 mins)
Written by Jennifer Saunders. Directed by Sandy Johnson
Featuring Edmondson, French, Planer, Richardson, Saunders
Plus: Mark Arden, Lee Cornes, Steve Frost, Anthony Head, Emma Thompson
In a futuristic wasteland, gang leaders Passion and Little Sister, recently released from prison, try to reclaim their turf.
Boring, incomprehensible nonsense which I skipped over after the first five minutes. If I can bear it, I’ll watch it to the end and see if it gets any better.

Part two will follow shortly…

80 Years of Cinema

Posted on July 11th, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | 3 Comments »

Here follows a personal list of favourite, significant or just thoroughly entertaining movies, one for each year from 1930 to 2010. I reiterate, this is a personal list, so it is unashamedly Anglo-American for the most part, but I’ve also tried to keep an eye on cinema as a developing art form and include movies which cast longer shadows at the expense of quirkier choices whose appeal to me might be harder to fathom (for example, my absolute favourite movie of 1986 is Little Shop of Horrors but I couldn’t leave out Withnail & I). I’ve also tried to include as many different genres as I can – musicals, comedies, thrillers, police procedurals, westerns and space operas – you’ll find them all here. Finally, when faced with really tough choices, I’ve picked movies which are most typical of their era, which seemed appropriate under the one-film-per-year constraint.

Lists like these tend to generate outraged debate. Good! Let me know what gems I have omitted. If you can be bothered – compile your own list, and fill it full of Kurosawa, Bunel, Bergman, Truffaut and show me up of the Anglo-centric philistine I no doubt am.

1930 Feet First
1931 City Lights
1932 The Music Box
1933 Duck Soup
1934 It Happened One Night
1935 The 39 Steps
1936 The Great Zeigfeld
1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
1938 The Lady Vanishes
1939 The Wizard of Oz
1940 The Philadelphia Story
1941 Citizen Kane
1942 Road to Morocco
1943 Casablanca
1944 Double Indemnity
1945 Brief Encounter
1946 It’s a Wonderful Life
1947 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
1948 Rope
1949 The Third Man
1950 Sunset Boulevard
1951 The Lavender Hill Mob
1952 Singin’ In The Rain
1953 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
1954 On The Waterfront
1955 The Ladykillers
1956 Forbidden Planet
1957 12 Angry Men
1958 Vertigo
1959 Some Like it Hot
1960 Spartacus
1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s
1962 Dr No
1963 8½
1964 Carry on Cleo
1965 The Sound of Music
1966 The Fortune Cookie
1967 The Graduate
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey
1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
1970 MASH
1971 Dirty Harry
1972 The Godfather
1973 The Exorcist
1974 The Godfather Part II
1975 Jaws
1976 The Pink Panther Strikes Again
1977 Annie Hall
1978 Grease
1979 Alien
1980 The Blues Brothers
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
1983 Trading Places
1984 Gremlins
1985 Back to the Future
1986 Withnail and I
1987 The Untouchables
1988 Die Hard
1989 The Little Mermaid
1990 Goodfellas
1991 The Silence of the Lambs
1992 Unforgiven
1993 Jurassic Park
1994 Pulp Fiction
1995 Sense and Sensibility
1996 Shine
1997 LA Confidential
1998 Saving Private Ryan
1999 The Matrix
2000 Billy Elliot
2001 Amélie
2002 Chicago
2003 Finding Nemo
2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2005 The 40 Year Old Virgin
2006 Little Miss Sunshine
2007 Michael Clayton
2008 The Dark Knight
2009 The Hangover
2010 …. to early to say. I hear Inception is good…