A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
Recently I embarked on a 1,200 mile road trip of the States from D.C. to Memphis in a Mustang convertible, since I’m a massive stereotype. Instead of writing a trite travel blog, here’s just a few of my more general observations of the US while I busying Keruoacing.
Anyway, aware a lot of that might have come across quite negative, which I never meant for it to be. America remains to me an incredible place, but having been seeped in American culture here in Britain its charms are more well known. The people are a delight, the scenery is spectacular and there are so many “only in America” experiences I’m thrilled to have had. I saw the Wright Brothers’ original plane. I drove through a cloud. I honky tonked all over Broadway. I’ve been in the home of The King. And I also ate a grilled spaghetti bolognese sandwich. Only in America.
I haven’t come across nearly as many novels set in Glasgow as I would like, certainly not enough without gangsters, so when I found Alan Spence’s collection of short stories Its Colours They Are Fine I marched straight to the till along with the other in the buy one get one free offer. I’m not sure if this or the other book was the free one, but if it was this it’s probably the best free thing I’ve ever got.
It was so immediately recognisable to me, the stories not just set in Glasgow, but Govan from where half my family hails. Admittedly it wasn’t my Glasgow, being published in 1977, but the one told to me in so many fond memories from my father and grandfather. Yet though the city has undergone a huge transformation in the last forty years, the people and the humour that makes them so iconically Glaswegian hasn’t dated at all.
(The one thing that has markedly changed is sectarianism. Though newspaper headlines may proclaim otherwise, it is significantly better today and I was astonished how prevalent it was back then. Spence doesn’t defend it or use it to condemn his characters, he merely portrays it as I assume it was at the time.)
The stories he chooses to tell are restricted to those of tiny moments, like an elderly woman trapped in her flat with a broken lift, a boy and his mother putting up Christmas decorations, or of low-key yet deeply personal occasions, like a wedding or Hogmanay. Through the choice of those stories and how the characters think you know them instantly and will have someone in your own life to picture as you read. They aren’t complicated characters, most primarily concerned with getting by (or how Rangers are performing), but within the space of a few pages they are brought to life, letting you share their hopes and fears.
They are all working class, but unlike much other media which chooses to fetishise poverty and the hardness of being working class, the characters in Its Colours are joyful and mostly optimistic, savouring the goodness in their lives and in their relationships with those around them. Yes, there is also violence and sadness, but they don’t choose to wallow, their outlook always for the positives and for that you connect with them all the more.
Spence’s ear for dialogue is incredible, and somehow manages to capture the Glaswegian tongue on the page with all its impenetrable charm and warmth. It may take a while to read, being so unused to seeing the dialect on the page, but once you do it is almost verbatim the conversations you hear around the city. This sits alongside his beautiful prose that manages to say so much with so little. Small turns of phrase so familiar that a few words are enough to place you in the world of the character and their surrounds.
As an aside to contrast this, I was recently published in a short story and poetry anthology (cheeky plug) and it was jarring how many modern writers were using slang and swearing in their descriptions and scene settings. To me this made the narration much harsher, and meant the characters themselves lost some of their idiosyncrasy since their speech didn’t stand out amongst the rest of the text.
There are fourteen stories set across three parts. They are largely independent, only a few characters crossing over in early stories, but they are grouped around in turn childhood, adulthood and a more autobiographical final part. This does create a thematic grouping, progressing from children playing on the street and making mischief to unemployed men signing on, the innocence of youth long vanished. The final three shorts are less narrative focussed on more stream of conscious musings from Spence and are the first to leave Glasgow, as the option of escape and new opportunities arrive.
Spence, also famous for poetry and plays (indeed he’s had two spells as the Scottish Makar) has long moved on from Glasgow, through places like London and New York, and now runs the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Edinburgh, associated with meditation and the eastern culture he took such an interest in for much of his life (he also has a book Glasgow Zen, a collection of haikus in his native Glaswegian). But there will always be this image of Glasgow, captured in 14 short stories, that paints my city in its finest colours.
What a weekend April 27th/28th 2019 was for pop culture, with spoiled audiences treated to perhaps the biggest moment in not one, but two of the biggest franchises ever. First came Avengers Endgame, the twenty-second movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the culmination of the now-named Infinity Saga. Barely was there a chance to pick jaws off the floor before they were plummeting back down again with the biggest battle ever committed to film, The Battle for Winterfell in Game of Thrones.
Both came from niche beginnings, one from comic books and the other from fantasy novels and I doubt any 90s high school movie bully would have foreseen how they’ve stormed the mainstream by raking in viewers and more cash than the Lannisters could dream of while setting records that look almost as unbreakable as Cap’s shield. So after twenty-one films and 45 hours and sixty-nine episodes and 42 hours in building to their respective climaxes, how did they deliver? (Yes I know Game of Thrones still has three episodes to go.)
Contains spoilers for the entire MCU and Game of Thrones up to Season 8 Episode 3.
Avengers Endgame made $1.2 billion in its opening weekend. $1.2 billion. That's almost double the record set by its predecessor Avengers Infinity War a year earlier, and enough to already make it the 17th biggest movie of all time, in one weekend.
Everything Marvel Studios have achieved to this point is extraordinary. Twenty-two interconnected movies building towards one goal, while establishing B and increasingly C tier characters as the biggest heroes in the world is remarkable, that the films are generally getting better and better is unbelievable.
Endgame itself took some interesting, and for my money, smart steps. For a start it didn’t undo what had come before, so that our heroes’ failure in Infinity War will continue to have repercussions in the MCU going forward, and that the impact still has narrative weight. Its three acts were all very distinct, the first an intriguing look at grief and how the world is trying to move on from half of all living things vanishing (including a throwaway line of how there is less pollution in the world even opens up the possibility that perhaps Thanos had a point), then a second act of heisty jaunts through the MCU’s hard earned mythology thanks to time travel to pull the infinity stones together, culminating in an epic battle with 30 named heroes banding to save the universe.
Perhaps astonishingly this movie, despite having to serve as the climax of everything that came before, is actually able to stand on its own two feet. Really it is only a direct sequel to Infinity War, but its premise - ‘bad thing happened, let’s fix it’ - is still accessible, and its structure is clear enough that you can get the jist of it. How do I know? Because I saw it with a friend who, apart from a 14 minute YouTube primer, had seen none of the Marvel movies, and he still loved it.
Do I recommend doing this? Of course not! Part of the joy of the MCU is the connective tissue between them, characters you know and like from one series appearing in another and payoffs that come sometimes years in the making. If they’re the only ones who do it (well, do it well) then make the most of what makes them so unique.
While you can conceivably watch the movie with no prior knowledge, one of the joys came from revisiting the old set pieces from through the MCU’s history, from the highlight of the Battle of New York in the first Avengers to the lowlight of Thor The Dark World. It didn’t feel like retreading old ground however, as the action was moved to the fringes of those events, adding new spins, such as the sorcerers defending New York before Dr Strange and how Asgardians can’t tell the difference between racoons and rabbits. Plus the reveal of how the Guardians of the Galaxy opening (an all time highlight) looked without the soundtrack was one of the best jokes of the already pretty funny film.
Some are also great for building character. Tony Stark gets to have the open, honest conversation with his father he never got in life. The heart of the MCU is its characters, and the job they have done in building them not through regular TV appearances like on Game of Thrones is fantastic. For example Hawkeye, who often gets a bad rap, has only appeared as a B tier character in four movies (cameo excluded), last seen three years ago, yet he is fully developed, his deep, layered relationship with Black Widow one of the linchpins of the series. Black Widow, often overlooked, carries much of the emotional weight early in the movie, and her death is both a great action sequence while providing gravitas that helps ground what is objectively a very silly film.
Obviously not every character was going to get a significant time to shine (though most got a moment in the final fight), so the core cast is largely the original Avengers line up, who we have known the longest. This put me off the end of Infinity War a bit, since the supposedly arbitrary 50/50 split seemed to be mostly driven by the length of its stars contracts, but it meant in this final movie we were able to spend time with characters we probably won’t see much of going forward, and the resolution of Endgame meant it wasn’t as cynical as swapping the old guard with the new.
The whole saga finishes, fittingly, with the character who started it, Iron Man aka Tony Stark, giving his life to save the universe. In many ways Tony has been the heart of the MCU, moving from hedonistic weapons dealer, to paranoid self appointed protector, to semi retired family man. The addition of his daughter was an excellent wrinkle to the plot, giving him genuine hesitation to trying to undo past events and ultimately made his sacrifice even more poignant.
Captain America too, written off by so many as dead in the year since Infinity War, got a wholly unexpected, but perfect ending. Using timey wimey machinations, essential to the plot but not so important as to lose sleep over, Cap finally gets the life and the dance he missed out on with the end of The First Avenger, all the way back in 2011. Now the mantel, and indeed the whole Marvel roster, has been passed on to the next generation, but fortunately we got to enjoy some resolution to all our investments before the MCU has to start reinventing itself with Phase 4.
What is much closer to a total resolution though is Game of Thrones. Both are centred round a huge and strong cast of characters with a pedigree of great action, but with the nature of the show’s more serious tone - forgetting the dragons and ice zombies - I was expecting a much different kind of fulfilment. It still has three weeks to run, but its biggest episode and what surprisingly turned out to be the culmination of 8 years worth of foreshadowing and place setting happened this week instead in The Long Night.
17.8 million people watched both live on HBO and across it’s streaming apps, a new record beating the season premiere by 0.4 million, and generated 7.8 million tweets, the biggest ever for a scripted show. The figure for those who watched in the UK hasn’t been announced yet, both for its Monday 9pm slot, Monday 2am slot, or those like me who got up slightly early before work to watch the 2am recording.
The opening was fantastic, setting a mood of tension and dread. This episode is at points a straight up horror, and along with Hardhome is probably one of the best zombie dramas ever in making the undead terrifying. The Dothraki charge into the unseen enemy, only for their flaming swords to be snuffed out, leaving blackness and the grim realisation of the seemingly insurmountable odds the living face (even if many had issues with the general darkness overall).
It then rips into full on action, with the hordes of the undead piling into and on top of the defenders of Winterfell. It famously took 55 consecutive night shoots to film this battle, and credit to everyone involved as technically it is spectacular. The action is frenetic and unrelenting, and though it mostly chooses to stay close to individual combatants, it’s a scale never before seen on TV.
Most of the best moments though were away from the onslaught. The scene of Arya in the library is outstanding, as even this seasoned killer frightenedly tries to stealth her way past wandering wights, and in the silence broken only by her own breathing you are right there with her. The other (for me anyway) was the dragon fight in the sky, which was brutal as they ripped each other apart, followed by Jon’s confrontation with the Night King, where he fails to reach him and appears as the point in which all is lost. And of course, in the moment, when Arya surprises and kills the Night King and his entire army (in an old move, dated even when it appeared in the first Avengers) was totally shocking, and left us in a whirlwind of emotion and confusion.
That said, a criticism launched at Game of Thrones is it is no longer the show it was when it started (which oddly started when it outpaced the source novels…) and this battle reinforced that. It has been so long since we got a gut punching death like the Red Wedding or Oberyn Martell’s skull getting squished like Play doh that gave the show its famous reputation as the one where anyone could die. In this battle, hyped as the biggest ever, we got only six named deaths; four as the natural culmination of their character arcs, one inconsequential in the grand sceheme and one as well wearing a t-shirt reading, “I am fodder.”
Besides the shock of Arya killing the Night King, probably the biggest surprise was how few there were. Brienne was overwhelmed at least three times, Tormund had a wonderful scene he could have bowed out with last week, Pod and Gendry seemed to do the sum total of sweet FA and how Grey Worm didn’t die must go down as one of the show’s biggest mysteries. Even one of the favourite memes leading up to the battle, that the crypts full of dead people was a bad place to be against someone who can raise the dead, turned out to be underwhelming. There’s a wonderful character moment between Sansa and Tyrion, then they draw some knives (a suicide pact you think??) before they go and hide with the other named characters. They aren’t even attacked.
This isn’t just me baying for blood (not just), but it totally lessened the threat they had built towards and felt very anti-climatic. It’s all good and well killing scores of nameless extras, but an audience won’t invest or feel the stakes if no one they care about is in ‘real’ danger, and with keeping so many characters on the board it feels as if the showrunners were more interested in the episodes to come. Even the trailer for next week carries an “Well that’s that done,” vibe, making the White Walkers, who had been positioned as the show’s ultimate challenge from the very first scene, end up as an easily dispatched distraction.
Yes it's true Marvel killed off fewer of its heroes, and none in the final battle, Tony aside, but that's consistent with the tone and style of the MCU, with many characters having ‘died’ only to return quite alive, all the way back to Loki at the end of Thor. Game of Thrones feels like it is betraying itself. Valar morghulis? It appears not if you're a fan favourite or important to the plot.
One thing that could be interesting about dispensing with the Night King so early is the show's focus will be back on its human evil incarnate, Cersei. Game of Thrones was always at its strongest when character interplay and political intrigue took the forefront, but how can we reinvest ourselves in who sits on a spiky chair now they've beaten literal death?
Fans shouldn’t always be given a satisfying ending. A complaint of Breaking Bad’s finale was that it gave audiences everything they wanted, closure, comeuppance, the works. While great to watch at the time it hasn’t sunk into the public conscious in the way The Soprano’s did, people so dismayed they thought their TV had broken (I still remember my dad screaming) yet is considered one of the best finales ever. But it never got rid of its biggest enemy three episodes before the end.
Avengers probably sits in the middle. Of course they were always going to defeat Thanos and bring the 50% that had been dusted back, but it came at a cost that made it feel earned, and in a way that still provided twists both sad and satisfying. Game of Thrones (and yes, there are three episodes to go so there will be more twists) has arguably become so eager to surprise that it now threatens to undermine it all. You can still end up at the point the audience expects and be satisfying, it all comes in how you get there. I have everything crossed that they’ll still be able to stick the landing.
Last month one of Scotland’s biggest exports of recent years, Still Game, aired its final episode. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call it a cultural phenomenon, you’d be hard pressed to find a Scot who doesn’t know Jack, Victor and the gang, and it was a smart move broadcasting it on the new BBC Scotland channel, with the show giving the nascent channel its biggest ratings by far.
However, anecdotally, that may have been aided by the fact that this was the last season. Most of the people I speak to now only watch out of loyalty, with many (myself included) of the opinion the show should not have been revived in 2016. Of course after the box office takings of the stage show at the Hydro it was always going to be attractive bringing back the most successful Scottish comedy of its generation, but unfortunately it never hit the heights of its original six season run.
All your favourites are back and just as you remember them, except as the actors joke needing slightly less makeup. The vast majority after nine seasons are well formed, rounded characters, Isa particularly is an absolutely spot on observation of older, gossipy women - she is basically my gran. But with that they increasingly seemed to lean too much into the characterisations. Jokes often revolved around characters’ one or two main traits (e.g. Tam is tight), and more so towards the end, conflict and therefore drama and therefore laughs were sacrificed in place of characters being nice and decent to each other, almost screaming at us that they were all loveable, if a bit cantankerous.
It is the problem with Scottish comedy, because it is so quick witted and spontaneous it’s hard to capture on film without feeling stilted. This isn’t helped when the Glaswegian way of speaking is so fast as to be almost impenetrable to those not familiar, which limits its market, but when slowed down can easily come across as fake. A way to overcome this is to use one of the Glaswegian sense of humour’s greatest strengths, its storytelling. A well plotted premise, and setup, filled with charm and truth will always land a greater laugh, when just giving someone a sweary insult won’t cut it.
That was one of the problems I had with the later seasons, its setups could sometimes feel contrived without payoff or consequence. There was an episode last season when Isa gets in a fight with a woman who doesn’t want her looking at a cake, which results in the cake’s destruction. Instead of being angry or even having a reason to not want Isa seeing the cake, the woman shrugs it off as she has another. In a two episode arc this season, a character fakes their death in one of the more bizarre premises, with them leading everyone on a mystery in the second episode, just for everything to return to normal after. Why then did they even need to disappear if it made no difference, other than to draw out a plot?
I’m usually skeptical when a show returns, very much of the thinking that it’s hard to recapture what made a show great, which is often a result of its place and time. And indeed with its audience now all a decade older, of course tastes and circumstances will have changed. However one of my mates, who is a teacher, tells me that kids in his school run around howling like the ‘Lone Wolf’ character who keeps robbing Navid’s, hated by my generation but clearly idolised by the young ones (that was painful to write).
This raises the idea that maybe we weren’t the target target audience any more. This would make sense, given that the original run of Still Game - and Chewin the Fat before it - was landmark TV when I was in school, edgy without being hardcore (“They said shite!”) and birthing so many childhood trends (“Good guy, wank.” - “Oooooh! Fancy!” - “Milk, lemonade, chocolate!”). Perhaps they were still aiming for the school age demographic, of which we were no longer in? Though the show's characters hadn't gotten older, we had.
Still Game is finished, again, and I’m glad for it. It was an icon for me and most my age growing up and these new seasons, though not enhancing the memories, certainly didn’t hurt them, and had the added bonus of introducing the show to a whole new generation, and indeed the rest of the UK and has now even made its way to Netflix. But it’s time for someone else to take over the reigns as Scotland’s biggest comedy. I hear Scot Squad is quite good.
I’m lucky enough to be the runner on Scotland’s most watched current affairs show, Scotland Tonight. For six years, once a week, I’ve been front row as the country has developed and debated the issues of the day. For much of this time it has by the numbers, Person A thinks this, what do you think Person B?, but over the last few months it has been blockbuster.
With the epic omnishambles of Brexit entering yet another ‘crunch week’ in parliament, if you can get over the incandescent fury, abject dismay and the most public existential crisis in history, politics has never been more exciting. Where else can you get Game of Thrones levels of shithousery while still making Selina Meyer look Churchillian in her leadership? I imagine it’s the same thrill of watching The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, seeing just how big a mess these self important narcissists can make, but in this case the stakes actually matter.
Whenever people come to visit STV they are always thrilled to check out the studio and watch a live broadcast go out from the gallery. I joke that I hope they get a disaster, because when everything is running smoothly a gallery is a surprisingly quiet place to be. Everyone is so good at their job it takes something unexpected to throw some drama into the mix, which is when you get the bustling production always seen in film and TV (admittedly this is much more common with the evening news, where stories and running orders can change throughout the show until the credits finally roll).
Since Scotland Tonight airs at 22:30, many of the discussions are either pre-recorded or studio based. This gives the production team huge control over all the broadcast elements and minimises risks such as location difficulties and available guests. News rarely breaks that late and the purpose of the show is much more analysis and opinion than reciting facts. The only real exception I can think is when Nelson Mandela died, which resulted in the whole show being refocused and the poor pre-arranged guests having to talk about a subject they had no particular insight on.
But with Brexit news breaks at light speed and parliamentary votes often do drag into the night. Many’s the time now I arrive at 21:00 and the producers are gathered round a screen waiting for a vote result that will determine the narrative of the show they will be broadcasting in around an hour’s time. Indeed on Monday MPs didn’t even begin to vote until 22:00, half an hour before TX. As much contingency was done ahead of time as possible, packages edited with a gap to include the result, multiple opening titles were recorded depending on the outcome and an entire section was ready to be dropped if the Westminster correspondent was able to secure MPs as they left the House of Commons.
There’s no denying this immediacy makes for a much more vibrant show, particularly as you watch in real time political experts working through their bafflement as yet another twist unfolds in a plot now as bendy as an unregulated banana. I used to describe election/referendum nights as season finales, the moment all the previous months and years of political posturing and plotting had been building towards. Being seated on the autocue next to the producer as tips and predictions from polling stations around the country flood in, hearing the news before it is actually news is a unique and privileged place to be, working through the night only adding to the sense of occasion. Now, to use the Game of Thrones analogy again, it’s like the final season where each episode is feature lengthed, brimming with backstabbings, intrigue up to the eyeballs, heroes and villains and a neverending heap of humiliation for Theresa May.
If you have the energy it is worth keeping up with this 5 star tragicomedy on Twitter and the 24 hour news channels for the votes, not only because it is really important, but also it can be really invigorating. This is the most important time for the country in a generation, and it has coincided with the most ineffectual government and opposition, arguably ever. Audiences, however, are not sharing my enthusiasm. The first meaningful vote on Theresa May’s deal brought remarkably high audiences, however they have tapered off since, with people just pissed off and wanting it over with.
I’m not much into politics, but I am into good stories and this is one historians will be needing a tooth comb and pair of tweezers to unravel for centuries to come. How it ends is as clear today as it was three years ago, and this is only the beginning. I and most of the country will be relieved when it’s over, but wow is it one hell of a ride. It would be worth of a BAFTA, if only it weren’t so serious.
Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers is a thoroughly modern book, and one that is only made better by the charlie-foxtrot that is the current state of our political landscape. Brexit has happened, Twitterstorms define the cultural landscape and in the background an outwardly benevolent corporation with ulterior motives harvests data on everyone. Were this written ten years ago, many of the events in the book would’ve been considered too ridiculous, though now they feel they could have come from BBC News.
All these hot button issues are distilled into the hotbed that is the town of Edmundsbury. An old housing estate is earmarked for demolition to be replaced by luxury apartments, and only a few holdouts remain. This gives thinkers and influencers an opportunity to grandstand while advancing their own personal agendas, from this world’s stand in Farage, Hugh Bennington, to the morally flexible opinionist Robert Townsend, to the far right hate group England Always.
There are five POV characters from across the ideological spectrum, who start intersecting and affecting each other as the story continues. Byers finds a way inside the head of each of them, understanding their goals and insecurities, making you feel a degree of empathy for even the more despicable characters. Some are more fleshed out, depending on their importance to the narrative, but even the least developed stock, old racist character Darkin gets small moments of vulnerability. He is powerless, used by all the other parties and lives in fear of enemies, both of his own imagination and the corporation looking to evict him.
The greatest character arc probably belongs to the columnist Robert, even if his girlfriend, Jess, is nominally the main character. An interesting focus of the book was the prominence given to opinion pieces and bloggers, even if they are treated as pompously self important, posting into an echo chamber (ironically the only one reaching the wider public is the one with a column in a print newspaper). Robert starts as a mostly limp liberal, but over the course forgoes his morals one by one in the search of more clicks, his descent arguably swift, but each seemly wrong decision given plausible rationale.
His main antagonist is a woman who comments mean things on his posts, and who turns out to be none other than his girlfriend, Jess. A twist in the tale is that the main internet troll in the book is a woman, created as a response to horrific online abuse she received before the story begins, online misogyny and racism another element of Perfidious Albion’s modern narrative. The way Byers reconciles this left of field turn and the reasoning behind why she does it is fascinating, fleshing out a fully 3D character, even if the relationship itself never seems to click. The cover art is a modern Tower of Babel, with the characters’ inability to relate to each other, often resorting to online personaes resonating throughout.
The only black character, Trina, works for the corporation behind the luxury development and inhabits a world of corporate productivity and vacuous self motivating seminars ramped up to 12, but the standout storyline is the pairing of the dinosaur Hugh Bennington with one of these productivity gurus, Teddy, in the bemusing world of politics. They are the perfect double act and foil for each other, and would easily feel at home in The Thick of It or Veep, with razor cutdowns and joyful dialogue. When Teddy is introduced calling, “Hugotron. The Hugh-ster. How goes it?” I immediately knew his character.
That’s how Perfidious Albion excels, it is stop for a few moments to breathe funny. From fantastical throwaway lines, “You’re literally too sweaty to be satisfactorily restrained,” to real world observations about how modern life has perverted common sense, “Teddy didn’t look at the ambulance but instead checked his tablet for news of it. - ‘I’m not seeing anything that would suggest an ambulance.’ - ‘I’m literally looking at the ambulance, Teddy.’”
Perhaps my main criticism of the book are its last couple of chapters. It drops the humorous tone in favour of an exposition heavy dialogue in the style of the villain vainly explaining their master plan. It didn’t help this was in the storyline I personally had connected with least - the reveal that the company is collecting immoral amounts of data not exactly a shocking revelation nowadays - and its purpose seemed more to set up a sequel, which left this story as a whole feeling a little incomplete.
This aside you’ll be entertained throughout with this delight of a book, making you laugh and think about some of the most important issue we face in the 20-teens. The sad thing is that while it’s such an excellent satire, the fact it is so spot on makes you despair even more.
Last night was the Super Bowl, aka advertising’s second Christmas! While I understand the game itself was more disappointing than the one that pretty much killed my burgeoning interest in the sport, the adverts were… also pretty disappointing. There were no headline snatching stunts, like Skittles making an ad for only one person or game changers like Tide invading every other ad in a way you now can't unsee.
Being in the UK and foregoing the snack stadiums and Monday off work this year, I’m catching these ads from the internet, so some may not be as they appeared during the game. It strangely does (or did) dilute the experience, not joining in consumerism’s self propagated fever dream and missing adverts for products we can’t buy here. We have to make do with Sky or the BBC. Where during timeouts they *shudder* analyse the game.
Pepsi - Is Pepsi Okay?
I’ve always imagined this as advertising’s greatest challenge, its Everest, its impossible dream - getting people to order ‘cola’ instead of ‘coke.’ This is a situation probably everyone in the Western world has encountered and Pepsi, using the opportunity of exclusive Super Bowl partnership to take it to Coke in their own Atlanta backyard, decided to address it. The execution is a little awkward, not sure why Steve Carell is the spokesman (though better than other recent Pepsi celeb partnerships), but the bravery of tackling this proposition head on really stood out for me. Also Pepsi is always better than Coke.
Michelob Ultra - The Pure Experience
I’m a sucker for good sound design, and this entry from Michelob Ultra does that and then some. From a surreal, idyllic location to thirst inducing close ups this slow, measured ad takes its time, but with that confidence it lands all the harder. The relatively rare but always impactful use of effective surround sound draws you in more than most, since sometimes to get spotted amongst the blaring noise you need to be silent. This one had the rare result whereas if I ever see Michelob Ultra (only recently launched in the UK), I’ll definitely be trying a pint.
Pringles - Sad Device
Gets loads of product in, a message about its benefits then into one of the best gags of the night. Job done. An advantage of this as well is to make the most of the stacking flavours, you’d need to buy multiple tubes of Pringles, so works really hard for the client. The joke works on a very existential level, does your voice control assistant feel anguish or torment, being unable to experience the world it knows so much about, cursed to only watch as its ungrateful masters indulge? Who cares? The perfectly pitched dismissal and spot on choice of music ties it together deliciously.
Devour - Food Porn
Who would’ve thought there were so many parallels to be drawn between pornography and frozen ready meals? A hilarious spot that gets so many miles out of both sight and entendre gags. The tone is perfect, treated seriously like a real addiction ad, and it’s not hard to imagine there would be some crossover between those with the parodied addiction and the target market. This is the uncensored 60” version, but the 30” that played during the game works too, where the more explicit references were cut, leaving it to the viewer's imagination. The discarded napkins in place of tissues definitely belong post-watershed.
Audi - Cashew
Easily the best rug pull of the year, what starts as a stylised, emotional story of a man connecting with his long lost grandfather is in fact just teeing you up for a sucker punch of a gag. The stark contrast between the angelic crescendo and the washed out office brilliantly enhances the joke. The man was about to die, and he was going to heaven in an Audi. It got me and it got me good. The fact he looks gutted to still be alive is a lovely touch. The messaging about going electric doesn’t really tie in, but the halo effect will help with that, since you were probably too busy enjoying Spirit in the Sky.
*Spoilers for Bandersnatch.
When starting up Netflix’s latest flavour of the moment, Bandersnatch, and its cutting edge twist of you, the viewer, choosing your own adventure (or “branching narratives” as the Choose Your Own Adventure publisher’s lawyers prefer) my first impression was, “So it’s a live action video game?” I expected a serviceable story secondary to its technical gimmick. However as to be expected from Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team, what they have done is much smarter.
Black Mirror has an excellent level of quality control, there being no out and out bad episode in its four seasons plus specials, and has become famous for its examination of the relationship between humans and technology. Here the relationship is even more intimate since it is literally you, personally, interacting with the story.
And boy did Bandersnatch make me think myself a fool for preemptively dismissing the story, for it’s not secondary to the technical gimmick, it is intrinsically entwined with it. In video games and the Choose Your Own Adventure books, you inhabit the character, making decisions good or bad, and dealing with the consequences. In Bandersnatch, you ARE a character. The protagonist, Stefan, is aware of his lack of agency, being forced to enact your whims to the extent where he will challenge you to reveal yourself. You are then able to introduce yourself to him as Netflix which I laughed so hard at I nearly missed the next choice.
The results of the multiple choices are also woven into the narrative, and failure is encouraged, indeed sometimes necessary, as what you learn in one branch helps you progress in other branches. When you do fail it takes you back to where you should make a different choice, but the characters carry at least some knowledge of the previous storyline. This leads one character, admittedly tripping on acid, to jump off a balcony in the expectation of respawning. They are then absent from future storylines.
However with all these competing strands it does get a bit muddled in parts. The premise is of Stefan, a computer programmer, going mad as he codes a new choose your own adventure game, so this confusion is a plus, at least on your first watch/playthrough. It becomes much more of a grind if you want to unlock all the endings, since introducing yourself as Netflix is much less amusing the fifth time than it is the first.
One of the benefits of it being a standalone, two hour story is that the endings can be vastly disparate, unlike some video games which have to reign back in sometimes dozens of choices to the storyteller’s predetermined endgame. The conclusions range from ‘he went back and died as a child’ to ‘it was all a drama on a film set,’ however such thematically different outcomes make you less sure what to think of the common beginning they shared. Does he as a deluded actor exist in a universe with time travel, or was the point of it all just to be cool?
It’s all very clever, and that may be a drawback of using the viewer as a separate entity, you never fully connect with the characters. They’re more like toys in a sandbox you can mess around with, and unlike video games there’s nothing beyond binary choices or internet mined easter eggs to keep you coming back. It loses one of the most important parts of choice - consequence.
Gamers certainly know all about consequences, as it is our own actions that lead to success or another broken controller. One game that did branching narratives very successfully recently was Until Dawn from Supermassive Games. The characters were actually live acted and then animated into the game world, including photorealistic Rami Malek and Peter Stormare. It had a schlocky horror premise, a group of unrealistically sexy teens go to a remote cabin and bad things happen. While you never connected with these murder-fodder either, it had gameplay between the choices and some of the branching narratives even depended on how you performed in these action sections. As well as drama, it also gave you the challenge of keeping these eight sexy teens alive until the end - or killing them, whatever floats your boat.
On the other end of the spectrum, where gameplay mostly existed to ferry you from choice to choice are the games from interactive narrative gurus Telltale Games. Playing characters as diverse as a fairytale town sheriff, a queen’s handmaiden and Batman you were placed in their shoes and had to carry conversations and make often hard decisions. The signature “So and so will remember that,” that appeared on screen after sometimes seemingly innocuous conversation choices was a common cause of anxiety.
The one that connected most with players and left many a blubbering mess was Season One of The Walking Dead. In it you play Lee, an escaped convict who develops a bond with an orphaned girl, Clementine, in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. It worked because you didn’t feel as though Lee had to keep Clementine safe, YOU had to keep Clementine safe. The dialogue, character beats and the frequently traumatising decisions you made and then had to respond to made you connect with these characters in a way very few games do, and mostly through simple multiple choice dialogue options. The ending is still one of the all time gaming tearjerkers. - Ironically as Bandersnatch is touted as new and innovative, Telltale went bust last year, in part due to audience fatigue with the genre (as well as being an apparently terrible place to work).
Of course none of these multiple choice flowcharts are truly a choose your own adventure, in the way only the likes of D&D can be. They’re more a choose which path from the writers you want to explore, but that little bit extra interaction, used right, can make a difference. Bandersnatch was a fun experiment, and its approach was spot on. Had it been just another basic story it surely would’ve made no impact, but since it subverted the genre in a new way I’m recommending it to my other skeptical gaming friends. Brooker, himself an ex-games reviewer, has said it was originally going to have a puzzle at the core, which I think it may need if there was ever to be another. I appreciate trying to bridge the gap between film and video games, but I wonder how far they can really go before you’re just as well playing a video game.
Ever since we packed up our pumpkins at the end of October we’ve been subject to the annual bombardment of capitalism on crack that is Christmas advertising. There’s been unfortunate rip offs - Sainsbury’s must have on set watching the John Lewis Bohemian Rhapsody ad in September thinking, “F***.” - banned social good ads - Iceland if you’re really against palm oil don’t just remove it from your own products, refuse to sell it outright, take a proper stand - and sequels we never asked for.
So here’s my top five Christmas ads this year. I think it’s been fair to say it hasn’t been a classic, with a much lower hit rate of standouts from the class of 2018. Perhaps this is no bad thing, as when each iteration tries to be bigger, better and more emotion assaulting there comes a point where it has to peak before it either goes in another direction or the cycle starts again. Just look at John Lewis.
John Lewis - Elton John
Actually let’s look at John Lewis, which after several years of diminishing returns of animated critters has changed track and gone big, celeb endorsement. I appreciated the grander scale, covering decades and globe trotting tours, taking you on a journey through a flamboyant life. The filmmaking craft is phenomenal from the editing to the set dressing to the costumes. It does a much better job of showing how gifts can be life changing, over the likes of Very for instance, in that this was a real story. It’s the first in a good few years that has left me feeling how they want me to feel.
Waitrose - Too Good to Wait
Waitrose, a John Lewis partner, had the inspired idea to ride John Lewis’s coat tails by making their ad about a family watching the John Lewis ad. So meta. It works because it’s treated with such little reverence, with good performances and a strong tagline that ties it all up, which I’m sure many who don’t see the hype about these showcase ads will sympathise with. This was just one in a series of people rushing through things to get to the food (the school choir one is also excellent) but for convention breaking balls it has to be this one.
Twitter - John Lewis
Another John Lewis related ad that using the cultural behemoth as a kick off for subversion. Every year you hear about that poor guy in America getting inundated with wrongly directed tweets since he is the owner of the handle @johnlewis. Twitter, brilliantly, decided to take this and make him the star of their ad. The tone is perfect, from John mundanely replying to stock enquiries to the reveal that the indie guitar cover being sung live building a delightfully surreal experience. Which, for this guy, every year must be.
Pedigree - Season of Good Dog
A surprise from a brand not usually big on Christmas ads, with a lovely holiday message not about Christmas, but about Good Dog, which took me far too long to realise is what the star dog thinks its name is. The attention to detail is fantastic, great writing making you believe this is from the dog’s perspective (“W-A-L-K went a different way”), coupled with dog themed carols, a Big Lebowski-esque dream sequence and subtle inclusion of Pedigree (“I couldn’t eat, but I did.”) and I look forward to see what they come back with next year.
Currys PC World - Magic of Christmas Upgraded
This was a struggle finding a standout fifth, but I think for me it’s the one that launched this year’s Christmas rush, Currys PC World just for the fun inclusion of their products in a Dickensian world. The production values are great, filling a whole techno Victorian street, complete with drones and many of the gags land better than in other ads, the horse and carriage with the banging sound system made me laugh out loud. Not close to the Jeff Goldblum series of 2015 (three years ago!!) which goes to prove every ad should feature Jeff Goldblum.
They Shall Not Grow Old, the new First World War film from Peter Jackson is gaining, quite rightly, a lot of plaudits for how it has colourised original WWI video footage in a much more successful way than anyone has before. It may be a gimmick, but it is successful at breathing fresh life into another documentary about the Great War, now 100 years removed. There’s an argument it’s in danger of being forgotten and as much as purists dislike it, this will engage a younger audience in a way grainy, jarring black and white video never will.
However as impressive as the colourisation is, what stood out most for me was how it sounds. Sound is an often overlooked part of film, but it is every bit as important as how it looks, and in some cases arguably more important - a good film can look bad, but a good film can’t sound bad.
There is no narrator as what Jackson has done is string audio recordings from dozens of different Tommies into one coherent ninety minute monologue. It flows so well it’s astonishing they managed to find such a dearth of soundbites. Some of the things they say are shocking and surprising, from one man at the start saying the war was the best time of his life, to another describing euthanizing a mortally injured comrade during a charge. The majority of the interviews were recorded in the sixties, so they are not old, frail men recounting these events, but those you meet every day, like your dad or work colleagues. Just ordinary men talking about the most extraordinary of events.
Another element they added which was not much promoted is the use of foley and ADR. Using the now restored footage they synced sound such as horses and rain to more immerse you in the experience. They even hired lip readers so that when someone on screen says something, issuing orders, a prayer or even throwaway banter you hear what those words are. They even went to the effort of finding out what regiment was in the footage and then casting an actor with that accent to make it as authentic as possible. It doesn’t work every time, obviously changing from the source frame rate of the old hand cranked cameras - anywhere between 10 to 18 fps - to 24 fps is going to create some ghosting, but it’s that care and attention to every little detail that helps bring the film to life.
Other little details you pick up on about the wartime experience and the period are those that would rarely be important enough to include in a history book, such as how soldiers went to the bathroom, that Fray Bentos was still around even back then and yes pretty much all of their teeth were awful. It comes as close as a film probably can to giving you an idea of what day to day life was like in the trenches, mostly characterised as a group of blokes finding ways to entertain themselves through the tedium. And you do see they are guys just like us, when they see the camera most of them shout “Hi mum!” and there’s a great shot of one soldier bumping another on the head with a stick in that annoying way we all have one friend who does so (I am that friend).
As Jackson himself has said one of the main learnings you take away from They Shall Not Grow Old is a different way of looking at the men and boys who fought in the First World War. They didn’t see themselves as victims as they are often romanticised to be, but as soldiers going off to do a job that had to be done. Of course these are only the recollections of the ones who came back, but through their testimony and the remarkable upgrading and colourising of footage and images that once appeared ancient and foreign, a curiosity in a museum or textbook, you see them in a way you never have before.