Category Archives: Television

Sodden clumps of Mayfair on a radiator

sex-boxWoody Allen once said: “Love is the answer, but while you are waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions.” And thanks to Channel 4’s Sex Box, which starts tonight, three couples now have a forum for discussing those questions. All they’re required to do is have sex inside a futuristic portakabin in the middle of a television studio, before emerging, breathless, ruddy-faced and slightly unkempt, to have a cosy post-coital chat with Mariella Frostrup and a panel of ‘sexperts’. Bingo!

The show is part of Channel 4’s ‘Campaign for Real Sex’, a season of programmes “which aim to reclaim sex from porn”. And what better way to reclaim sex than by placing it inside an opaque, sound-proofed cube. “It’s quite a chaste programme,” said Channel 4’s head of factual programming, Ralph Lee, “— there’s no sex in it.”

True, there’s no sex. But I read somewhere that there is a handy colour scheme so that we can all follow what’s going on at home. Apparently the box glows red for coitus; yellow to indicate intermittent foreplay and a chat about whether the tiles in the bathroom need re-grouting; purple for when the mood evaporates and the couple decide to eat Hobnobs and watch Countryfile instead; and blue to alert the crew to unexpected flaccidity.

Typically appalled by the show’s premise, the Mail Online reported that Channel 4 is cynically trying to boost ratings after it was outperformed by Channel 5 for the first time in its history in July. Whether or not that’s true, I’m sort of glad that Channel 4 got in with this idea first.

After all, Richard Desmond’s cut-price Channel 5 version would probably be called something like Fuck Truck. Presented by John McCririck, wearing nothing but oversized underpants and a deerstalker, amorous couples would be expected to have orgiastic sex in a perspex trailer on the back of an eighteen wheeler. McCririck would then walk among the writhing bodies singing Bloodhound Gang’s The Bad Touch into a loud hailer, as the truck winds its way through Leeds city centre.

Alternatively, Desmond could always develop a programme called Snuff Box, a one-hour programme in which oversexed, banter-loving ‘lads’ are lured into a shipping container by a pneumatic blonde, before taking a bullet to the back of the head. I think I’d watch that.

Anyway, Sex Box and the ‘Campaign for Real Sex’ seem to be a product of Channel 4’s eagerness “to talk about sex – real sex – the kind that is actually going on in Britain’s bedrooms”. That’s fine, but aren’t we always talking about sex these days? A better idea for a show would’ve been Sex Library, where anyone who tries to strike up a conversation about sex gets shushed by a stern-faced, conservatively dressed librarian, with half moon spectacles sitting on the end of her beaky nose. Isn’t sex boring now?

And what is ‘real sex’ anyway? With absolutely no apologies for the sweeping generalisation I’m about to make, I imagine ‘real sex’ for men in their late teens and twenties involves clumsily trying to mount someone in a piss-sodden nightclub toilet, while a stumbling, incoherent friend helpfully vomits eight hours of two-for-one shots into the crotch of their ankle-high underwear.

I’m also not entirely sure how Sex Box can liberate us from pornography?

My first experience of porn was in 1989, when I discovered a bin bag full of pornographic magazines in a park behind the newsagents where I worked. I remember turning my bike on its handlebars, as though innocently fixing a puncture, just to give myself enough time to paw at the bag until some of the glossy magazines slipped out and flipped tantalisingly open. I ended up flicking through a ridiculous photoset featuring two naked women cowering beneath a mulleted Dracula – a set of plastic fangs sitting awkwardly in his mouth, with his cape thrown open to reveal a phallus of truly ridiculous proportions.

I only managed to look for a few seconds, though. The sound of Bram Stoker turning in his grave suddenly spooked me (or it might have been a cat darting through the bushes behind me) so I decided to hide the bag in some undergrowth and return to collect my filthy treasure after dark.

The bin bag was gone by the time I returned to fix another fake puncture on my bike, but that was the beauty of porn in the old days – it was a challenge to find! (And in terms of the sodden clumps of Mayfair I once found and tried to dry out on a radiator, difficult to read.) Furthermore, buying just one pornographic magazine over the counter at a newsagents was often prohibitively expensive, especially once I’d hidden it beneath four packs of Chewits, a copy of The People’s Friend and a foam ball and tennis racket set. The young people of today wouldn’t have an addiction to porn if they had to acquire it under those kinds of conditions.

Actually, thinking about it, maybe Sex Box can rid the world of pornography. If this box thing catches on, we might soon be living in a world where all the filthiest, x-rated bits from porn films take place inside opaque, sound-proofed boxes, leaving us to actually enjoy the dialogue and plot in films such as Moulin Splooge and The Italian Handjob. Furthermore, trying to view pornographic images online would eventually be no more exciting than surfing the IKEA website for a self-assembly wardrobe. If pornography was made that dull, I’m fairly certain that people would lose interest.

We can but hope.

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The one where I can’t think of a title for this rant about television

Anderson shelterAs a 10-year-old child, the most exciting thing to happen to me was my parents buying a house with an Anderson shelter in the back garden. Our very own corrugated iron holiday home, and the perfect subterranean getaway should hordes of irradiated cannibals overrun the obliterated, smoldering remains of our cities during the nuclear winter that was almost certainly on the horizon.

Unfortunately the shelter was out of commission when we moved in in 1985 because it had been infilled with pieces of wood and debris by the previous owners. And even after I’d spent many long, hot summer days excavating the interior, it was only ever really deep enough to offer me light protection from a loosely secured Catherine wheel or larger than average bee. Still, it was better than nothing.

It was my sneaky (and ill-advised) late-night viewing of Threads a year earlier that had turned me into a budding survivalist loon. I wanted to survive the impending nuclear conflagration. I was too young to die. Also, I really wanted to see Rocky IV.

However, 27 years on, as the world prepared for the Mayan apocalypse on December 21st, I remained surprisingly calm. It probably helped that I didn’t actually believe that the world would end on that particular day. But the truth is: I was sort of ready to embrace the end if it did come.

I once had a friend who said that if the three-minute warning ever sounded, he’d simply climb up onto his roof and light a cigarette. After all, surviving the apocalypse in an overcrowded bunker environment would be a truly miserable experience.  You’d probably spend the first few weeks repeatedly contracting norovirus, feverishly shitting your way through valuable rations and deliriously sprinkling lime powder into a dry toilet like a Masterchef contestant dusting a chocolatey dessert.

But as prepared as I was for the unlikely end of the world, I knew in my heart that there was something far more terrible in store for humanity – a cultural apocalypse. Instead of a nuclear warhead or ‘extinction level’ asteroid snuffing us out in a billion degrees of vaporising heat, our demise is going to be slow and excruciating. We’re going to have the life sucked out of us by television until we’re dumbed down to the point where our brains are only marginally bigger than a hamster’s heart. On the upside we’ll eventually be so stupid that no one will be able to operate the array of computer consoles in missile silos and military command centres across the world, making it impossible to destroy ourselves. But on the downside…fuck me, what are we watching?

fake-reaction-itv2Aside from the televisual atrocity that was Channel 4’s Kookyville (which we can only hope died a hideous death at the pilot stage), ITV2 recently launched a panel show called Fake Reaction in which celebrities try to maintain a poker face and earn points for their team while secretly enduring a variety of challenges. For instance, in the opening episode we got to see Joe Swash eat a samosa made of cat food, which made him retch like a man trying to swallow a knitted a scarf. And if you’ve ever scrolled through your television’s EPG and decried that there simply aren’t enough programmes featuring Fazer from N-Dubz staring at a Scotsman’s bare balls – it had that too. And yet, in spite of all that, the programme’s nadir was probably the moment when the studio audience appeared to applaud TOWIE’s Gemma Collins for not knowing what a mammal is. “A woolly mammal? Like in Ice Age?” she said, which led to further excitable mooing from those present at the dumbest start to a New Year in living memory.

Saturday night’s prime-time television bilge came in the form of Splash!, ITV1’s onomatopoeic offering to the Olympic legacy gods. If you missed it, just imagine what the BBC’s Olympic diving coverage would have looked like if Clare Balding had been replaced with Vernon Kay, the Aquatics Centre had the ambience of a Yates’s Wine Lodge, and every competitor had to make their way to the diving board to the sound of a Rihanna track pounding through their skulls. Then picture yourself weeping inconsolably.

tom-daley-splashI mention this programme because of the involvement of bronze medal Olympian Tom Daley. You see, the cultural apocalypse isn’t just about dumbing down, it’s also about television and the media devaluing our Olympic heroes so that we no longer have anything to believe in and aspire to. Seeing Tom Daley featuring prominently in Splash! generated the same feelings of disappointment that a child must feel when an overweight forty-something man dresses up in an ill-fitting Spider Man costume for a children’s party, before slipping on some jelly and exposing his cavernous bum crack to a roomful of tearful faces. Their superhero is forever tainted by that one memory. He’s not a hero after all, he’s just a man.

Not too long after the Olympics, there were apparently frantic efforts by producers on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! to sign up an Olympian or two for the forthcoming series of the show. Because let’s face it, Team GB’s colossal athletic achievements at London 2012 couldn’t possibly mean anything to us as a nation unless we could later watch an Olympian gnawing through the tough rim of a kangaroo’s anus in a head-to-head Bushtucker Trial against some beefy, orange twat from Geordie Shore. Fortunately, the series went ahead without any Olympians degrading themselves on national television. (Speaking of which, with a heavy heart, I forgot to mention that Olympic gold medal-winning long jumper Greg Rutherford will be appearing in episode two of the aforementioned Fake Reaction.)

The 2013 cultural apocalypse has also seen the return of Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 5, with this year’s big draw being the involvement of The Hills’ Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag (or “Speidi” for those “funts” who are now too far gone to summon the energy required to verbalise two separate names). I won’t be watching, obviously. I could spend an hour staring at a kettle and come away from the viewing experience feeling equally as fulfilled. But enough people will watch and discuss CBB to create the illusion that it actually means something.

kardashian-idiot-glassesThis year, we will also have to endure near constant media coverage of Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy. And as no woman has ever given birth before, every agonising second will be incorporated into the multiple reality series that document the minutiae of her family’s cursed existence. Behind her saucer-sized sunglasses there’s probably just a looped cartoon of two anthropomorphic handbags on a seesaw. Convincing the world to watch even one of her long-since elapsed 15 minutes of fame was an impressive trick, but I pray it all ends soon.

Anyway, the conclusion to this exhausting rant is unsurprising and glaringly obvious: television is awful and our lives are filled with meaningless bullshit. Welcome to the cultural apocalypse, enjoy your slow death – or “sleath” if that makes things easier for you.

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Kookyville: the day television died

There’s a wonderful film called Wings of Fame in which famous dead people are depicted as guests at a grand old hotel. The more enduring a person’s fame on earth, the bigger and more luxurious their room. While those with dwindling fame, perhaps fading in the memory and no longer considered relevant, are constantly downgraded to smaller, pokier rooms until only the “mists of oblivion” await. “More of us are afraid of oblivion than of death,” explains one resident.

When I think about that beautiful hotel, filled with the likes of Einstein and Hemingway, and even Baader-Meinhof terrorists, still caught up in the romanticism of violent revolution, the mental image is gatecrashed by a group of Z-List ‘scripted reality’ idiots charging through the marble-floored lobby, dragging leopard print luggage behind them.

To some extent, the fantasy is a comforting one: they’re all dead. Furthermore, they would probably make a beeline for ‘oblivion’, keen to be seen at what they assume is the afterlife’s premier club night. On the downside, however, the commotion in the lobby has left Marilyn Monroe’s William Travilla dress with an unsightly orange smear of fake tan. I fucking hate these people. The TOWIE people, that is. (The living and the imaginary dead ones.)

Unfortunately, the TOWIE phenomenon appears to have been the inspiration for possibly the most appalling, detestable piece of television I have ever seen: Channel 4’s Kookyville – “a comedy sketch show with a difference”. The most obvious difference being the complete absence of any comedy.

Scheduled straight after Peep Show (following a triumphant return for its eighth series), Kookyville felt like something of an ambush. Where did it come from? Why did it happen? Who made it possible? I had so many questions.

Before the programme began, we were reminded that Fosters sponsors original comedy on 4. Kookyville then opened with a Little Britain-style title sequence, before introducing the David Brent character, the Catherine Tate ‘Nan’ character and the Del Boy and Rodney characters (which also had a vague whiff of Smith and Jones in their ‘head-to-head’ sketches), which was all catastrophically packaged in a TOWIE scripted reality format.

The ‘sketches’ themselves (featuring people who “are not actors or comedians, and there’s no script. They’re just real funny people”) were just a series of inane and very obviously scripted conversations, which makes the dialogue in TOWIE sound like it’s penned by Aaron Sorkin.

So what were the highlights of Kookyville? Well, there weren’t any. But here are some of the most inexcusably awful and offensive bits:

Remember the Catherine Tate ‘Nan’ character I mentioned? Well, the real life version they’ve found – for the purposes of making Kookyville just that little bit more unwatchable – is a woman called Ronnie.

In her first ‘sketch’, Ronnie is sat on a bench chatting to her German friend. “You taught me everything I know. All the good English,” says her mild-mannered companion. “Yeah! Fuck, cunt, wanker and bastard,” replies Ronnie, as she delivers the achingly predictable punchline from the depths of her tar-ravaged lungs.

Ronnie also pops up in the second part of the programme. There’s this brilliant bit, yeah, where she’s driving along a pavement in a motorised cart, then she suddenly stops and aggressively tells an imaginary person off-camera to fuck off. But that’s just a bit of filler! That’s not even the main joke! The main Ronnie ‘sketch’ in the second part of the programme sees her visiting a Chinese restaurant with her two twentysomething grandchildren. She then embarks on a gut-wrenchingly descriptive tale about how some prawn balls once gave her the shits.

Just think about all the great comedy that Channel 4 has commissioned and broadcast over the years. No, go on, just think about that for a few minutes to ensure that that last paragraph is purged from your mind forever.

Other delights from Kookyville included a mother and daughter (Annierose and Suzanne) spotting a dwarf walk into the salad bar where they’re having lunch (presumably after the director had yelled “OK, Dwarf enter stage right!”), which subsequently prompts a conversation about how Annierose “would quite like a dwarf” because they could provide “all the best qualities of a baby, but he could go to the toilet himself.” Between that and the chucklesome story two hoteliers tell about a guest with Thalidomide short arms falling out of a window (complete with unnecessary munchkin-style voice impersonation), it’s difficult to know which sketch the Official Broadcaster of the London 2012 Paralympic Games wanted me to find most funny.

We also had two call-centre girls called Babs and Cabs (who were later joined by their “bezzie bizzle Shabs”) who’d taken the day off work to visit a farm. The unlikely location of their excursion subsequently led to weighty debates about whether animals eat meat, given that they are meat, and also saw them constantly pronounce “ewe” as “ewie”. Yet again, television presents gross stupidity as entertainment and something to celebrate rather than despise.

Kookyville also introduced us to Afsad, an Asian David Brent figure presiding over a car sales “dynasty”. His shtick seemed to involve introducing his employees to camera and then either insulting them or embarrassing them. “This is a guy who’s had cameras up his ass!” Asfad excitedly announces at one point. The employee then laughs politely, before confirming that he’d once had an exploratory procedure to determine whether or not he had Crohn’s disease. Honestly, the giggles!

But what will next week hold? Maybe Babs, Cabs and Shabs could take another day off work and visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. And maybe Ronnie could go for an Indian meal and explain to the waiter, in excruciating detail, about the time a prawn bhuna once made her vomit over a child.

Or maybe it could all just stop. But having said that, the ‘comedy’ never really started.

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Royal white noise

How long has the Diamond Jubilee been going on for now? Two weeks? Two years? Anybody? How long have we been in Afghanistan? Had the Jubilee coverage already started before we invaded? Was there even a time when it wasn’t going on? I honestly can’t remember. I feel like I’m emerging from a claustrophobic pod, bleary-eyed and disorientated, after being sensorily deprived and relentlessly bombarded with nothing but Royal white noise.

Not being a Royalist, I’ve barely watched any TV over the past few days (except for The Terminator which, I’m pleased to say, hadn’t been re-versioned with digitally inserted Union Flag bunting, or a scene in which Schwarzenegger’s ruthless cyborg enjoys a Pimm’s with Sarah Connor as they watch the Jubilee Thames pageant together). Still, I definitely feel like I’ve seen and heard enough about the festivities – even accidentally.

For me, the highlight of the weekend’s coverage was a live local news report coming from a damp street party in the Midlands, which concluded with the reporter instructing some children – cowering beneath a sodden gazebo – to cheer for the camera. They mustered a half-hearted “hooray!” (bless their Dunkirk spirit!) before one of the girls broke off into a wide-mouthed yawn, which brilliantly conveyed the aching tedium of it all.

My wife sternly told me on Sunday afternoon that she wouldn’t think kindly of me if I revelled in the fact that street parties up and down the country had been torrentially rained off, and I can honestly say that I haven’t revelled one bit. It’s perhaps not my cup of homemade Jubilee punch, but I genuinely felt sorry for everyone having to squeeze into local community centres to escape the deluge. It meant that footage of celebrations up and down the country looked more like the Louisiana Superdome post-Hurricane Katrina rather than the spirited community get-togethers they were meant to be, which was actually rather sad after all the planning that must have gone into such events at local level. There you are, see, I’m not a monster!

But having said all this, can the coverage stop now? It’s all just a bit, well, too fucking much.

Unsurprisingly, the Mail Online has led the way with typically gut-wrenching, sycophantic coverage. In fact, with celebrations gradually drawing to a close, the main headline on the newspaper’s website was re-written three times over a few short hours this afternoon – just to make absolutely sure that it was fawning enough to secure Paul Dacre a knighthood.

Tens of thousands descend on Buckingham Palace at climax of Diamond Jubilee,” said the Mail Online’s original headline. That was then tweaked to read “tens of thousands of cheering subjects,” before they finally settled on the more understated “One and half MILLION adoring subjects descend on London at climax of four-day Jubilee“. Yeah, that should do it.

The Mail Online has also dedicated as many column inches to lambasting the BBC’s coverage of the Diamond Jubilee than it has to the pomp and ceremony of the Jubilee itself – and from which they appear to have derived just as much pleasure.

  • “Appalling! BBC cut to Dick and Dom playing ‘Bogies’ as Tower Bridge rises in salute to the Queen.”
  • “Bizarre! BBC cuts away from river pageant and shows a repeat of Keeping up Appearances in A SNUB TO THE QUEEN!”
  • “Matt Baker gets Queen’s name wrong! Calls her HRH Ian.”

Admittedly, it is difficult to defend some of the BBC’s Jubilee coverage. We had the Thames river pageant on in the background for an hour or two on Sunday (in case Jubilee Police ‘snatch squads’ were monitoring people’s television signals) and I remember looking up at one point to see a bearded man in a plaid skirt knighting Tess Daly with an oversized sword. Obviously, that could/should have been so much bloodier, but it hardly screamed ‘quality coverage’.

And of course, the minute you drop Fearne Cotton into any major broadcast the tone plummets to the level of a zany charity telethon. Place her at the future state funeral of the Queen, and rather than seeing Her Majesty lying in state I’d fully expect to see her slumped in a bath of beans, with Pudsey pissing around in the background and Fearne shouting “wicked!” at shuffling lines of tearful mourners.

However, it riles me that the Mail Online should be the one to bemoan the BBC’s coverage, which it said “smacks of yet another desperate attempt [by the corporation] to appeal to its precious youth audience”. Especially when every Royal article that has appeared on the Mail’s website over the past few days has been accompanied in the right-hand sidebar by umpteen pointless articles about the TOWIE cast holidaying in “Marbs”, and the usual ten-a-penny articles about Kim Kardashian (the most recent being a fascinating article about Kim “challenging her spaghetti string bikini not to ping off as she squeezes her infamous curves into a two-piece”).

The Mail Online became the world’s biggest newspaper website (well ahead of the BBC News website, it was keen to stress) by running trashy, bullshit ‘celebrity’ stories that appeal first and foremost to a youth audience, and which encourages them to click through the site – so they’re knowingly chasing a similar crowd. Still, they managed to sound suitably arrogant and superior in their condemnation of the Beeb.

Furthermore, I object to the Mail’s supposed ownership of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Admittedly, the point of the whole shindig was to doff our caps in the direction of Westminster and applaud 60 years of the Queen waving and turning up for stuff. But it’s surely not beyond the realms of taste and decency for people to expand on what the occasion personally means to them.

Apparently not.

“We saw Clare Balding aboard the magnificent rowing barge Gloriana shouting that the event was all about ‘empowerment’ and ‘diversity’. Er, no it wasn’t, it was about the Queen,” scoffed the Mail’s Bel Mooney. Yeah, fuck diversity! This is about one woman, and nothing else.

Similarly, following his speech at today’s St Paul’s service, the Mail Online spoke scathingly about the Archbishop of Canterbury, who they accused of hijacking “a celebration of the Monarch’s 60 years on the throne and head of the Church of England” in order to spout his “liberal views” about the financial greed in the City and various environmental concerns. Pipe down, preacher man! How dare you express thoughts about the true state of our nation, which our glorious Queen reigns over! Why couldn’t you just have thrown down a few vol-au-vents, waved a flag and fucked off? You’re ruining the party!

Anyway, it’s nearly over now. Mercifully, while I’ve been writing this, I’ve missed Rolf Harris Paints the Diamond Jubilee, which just leaves us with a weekend highlights package before normal service can resume.

As the Jubilee wind downs, the Mail Online proudly announced that this was “the weekend we remembered who we were”. Even though I genuinely hope that everyone who wanted to celebrate has had a good time, I just hope we can all forget just as quickly. I’d hate for this gushing celebration to be terminal.

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Good evening, this is the news. Depressing, innit?

I know the news has never been a source of mirth, but it seems to be unrelentingly depressing on just about every level at the moment. It’s almost impossible to watch the nightly news without envisioning a near future in which we barter for goods and services around a camp fire, over which the slowly rotating body of an expired neighbour sizzles and crackles, breaking the silence of the oppressive darkness surrounding our makeshift encampments.

These dark imaginings are only superseded by harrowing images of the latest Syrian massacre – darker than anyone’s imagination could ever muster – with wailing mothers and distraught fathers in bloodstained clothes, clawing at the camera to direct the world’s gaze down to their tiny, lifeless bundles wrapped up on a hospital floor. The news only ever leaves you with one question: ‘why?’.

On the other end of the news scale (but upsetting nonetheless) was the recent story about two giraffes dying from stress at a Polish zoo after vandals broke in and threw benches and bins into animal runs. Yet again, we can only ask: ‘why?’.

I long to hear a story about hooligans breaking into a zoo only for staff to later find their trampled and mauled bodies in a twitching heap, perhaps with vultures picking over their steaming entrails and chimpanzees playing catch with a severed, baseball-capped head. But the universe isn’t that kind. Good news is in short supply.

Other grim news stories of late sound like they’ve made it to air via Channel Five’s documentaries department. Only this week, there was the disturbing news that a naked man was shot dead by Miami police after devouring roughly 80% of another naked man’s face (Channel 5, 8pm, ‘Zombie cannibal attack!’). The unfortunate victim was a homeless man called Ronald Poppo and his violent attacker was Rudy Eugene, who was apparently high on ‘bath salts’ – a mixture of chemicals sold as a synthetic alternative to LSD, PCP, cocaine, and methamphetamine, which can be snorted, smoked, or injected and can drive users into a state similar to ‘cocaine psychosis’ – (Channel 4, 9pm, ‘Bath Salt Psychosis: Jimmy’s Homemade High’).

[I genuinely thought that regular aromatherapy bath salts had been the cause of this unspeakably violent act, which had the potential to transform Boots’ ‘Here come the girls’ campaign into a terrifying, but wonderfully naked, zombie apocalypse. But on reflection, perhaps not.]

This story was disturbing in the extreme, but one that online news outlets simply couldn’t get enough of. Typically the Mail Online went to town on it, running multiple screen-grabbed images from video of the aftermath of the attack. They even ran two heavily censored, pixelated photos of Poppo’s bloodied face, so it felt more like you were looming over a slain demon on the SNES version of Doom instead of staring at something gorily real. “Only Mr Poppo’s goatee remains,” the Mail morbidly noted under the photo (which I guess makes a refreshing change from their usual caption style: “What was he thinking? Ronald Poppo’s goatee looks unkempt and matted as he attempts to carry off the mauled and featureless homeless look.”).

But if the multiple screen-grabs and graphic description of the attack wasn’t enough, you could also scroll down to the bottom of the Mail’s article and watch a two and a half minute video featuring an aerial shot of Eugene’s and Poppo’s lifeless legs jutting out from beneath a Miami flyover. (Well, you could do after you’d sat through a 30 second advert for Windows 7. Morbid voyeurism is all about patience.)

Typically, Rudy Eugene’s attack on Ronald Poppo brought other dark news stories to the fore – each more disturbing and depressing than the last. We’ve had the Swedish professor who cut off and ate his wife’s lips after suspecting her of having an affair; the 21-year-old student from Maryland, U.S., who murdered his room-mate and then ate his brain and heart; the homeless woman who snatched a baby from a pram and tried to break off its arm to eat it. And to top everything off, there’s Luka Magnotta’s murder of Lin Jun; a sickening crime that’s as disturbing as people’s appetite for watching video of the murderous act online.

It’s the level of detail that accompanies news stories these days that sometimes makes it feel like depressing news pervades our lives. News still had the power to shock and disturb before the advent of the Internet, but we didn’t have the capacity to absorb those stories on so many levels. Today, we consume news through print, TV, dedicated news websites and social media, watch accompanying videos on YouTube, then free-fall down Google’s rabbit hole in a hopeless effort to quell our appetite for more and more information.

Years ago, the news also used to be largely confined to newspapers and around four daily news bulletins on TV (save for the heart-skipping occasions when ‘Breaking News’ used to flash up on screen in the middle of Bullseye, when that term used to actually mean something), but now the news is everywhere – and constant – with rolling news stations providing us with forensic, though often completely unnecessary, analyses of absolutely everything.

In an effort to break up the constant stream of bad news, celebrity stories – in all their aspirational glory – are hurled at us relentlessly, like the aforementioned chimps flinging generous handfuls of shit at a Perspex window. And like visitors at the monkey enclosure, we watch with fascination and react with uncontrolled glee whenever a fruit-filled turd thuds against the window before our eyes. So we hold our faces closer to the windowed divide to encourage more of the same.

But celebrity news is so achingly vacuous that it regularly leaves me feeling just as bereft and bewildered as if I’d just watched a harrowing ‘real’ news story. I’m always left with exactly the same question: ‘why?’.

Kerry Katona furniture shopping at IKEAis that newsworthy? Kim Kardashian taking her own pillow onto a flightwhat a fucking scoop! Endless coverage of the cast of TOWIE sunbathing in Marbella – that will only truly be considered news if a vast meteor obliterates southern Spain during their stay (and so far, that’s only happened in my imagination). Imogen Thomas visiting a skate park in the middle of the day, wearing Daisy Dukes and a bikini – and wouldn’t you just know it, it’s the exact same park in which paparazzi are lurking with their telephoto lenses and pitiful erections – WHY?!

There’s nothing remotely interesting about celebrity news. It may pretend to offer us respite from the daily news grind, but it’s every bit as bleak. It’s just a shower of [cosmetically enhanced] tits performing mundane tasks. Isn’t there anything to lift the gloom? Something good we can turn to? Something uplifting?

The only thing that’s made me cry for the right reasons lately was a hilarious photo of Graham Linehan on the toilet. I’m thinking of saving it to my iPhone, to look at whenever I need a welcome distraction from unending bad news and bland celebrity mind-dribble. I suggest you do the same. And with that, I shall wrap up this most miserable of blog posts.

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Banning Nintendogs

When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was first released a few years back, I played it relentlessly for an entire weekend. After 48 solid hours, I was a little bit twitchy. In fact, when I finally managed to wrench myself from the me-shaped depression in the sofa to venture out into the real world, I found that my eyes were constantly darting towards all the high positions around me. The reason? I was checking for snipers.

Thankfully my local Tesco is light on snipers, and I was more likely to run into the path of a mobility scooter than an armoured vehicle packed with dead-eyed enemy combatants. But still, I skittered across the open space of the car park as if my life depended on it.

I later encountered a group of burly Russian men at the self-service tills who were scanning a random selection of items from their basket, which included 24 cans of premium strength lager, a bratwurst and Finding Nemo on DVD. Given that I’d spent so many hours in virtual combat against Russian Spetsnaz forces, it’s perhaps surprising that I didn’t suddenly snap and beat them all to death with their truncheon-like sausage, or attempt to waterboard them with the Munch Bunch yoghurt they were incongruously adding to their shopping bags.

But then again, it’s not really surprising at all. My brain was certainly tired after spending hour upon hour tearing around the war-torn virtual environments of Modern Warfare 2, but the experience hadn’t turned me into a violent killer. I could still separate the virtual from the real, right from wrong. My checking for snipers was more habit than a genuine belief that I was still inside the game and about to be ambushed. If anything, my lengthy gaming session had left me with nothing more than a heightened sense of awareness (and a t-shirt spattered with chicken Super Noodles).

The seemingly annual debate over whether violent computer games fuel aggressive behaviour twitched back into life last week. On Tuesday, 15-year-old Daniel Bartlam was jailed for a minimum of 16 years for murdering his mother with a claw hammer, before setting her on fire. And on Wednesday, a motion at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) annual conference called on ministers to introduce “stringent legislation” to counter the “negative effects some computer games are having on the very young”.

It’s been widely reported that Daniel Bartlam’s sickening crime was inspired by his “favourite” soap opera plot, which saw Coronation Street character John Stape bludgeon Charlotte Hoyle to death with a hammer before leaving her body in the wreckage of a tram crash in order to cover up his crime. The police said that Bartlam saw himself as “a murderous soap character” and they apparently discovered a montage of violent clips from a number of other soaps, including Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. He’d even written his own violent soap opera plot a few days earlier on his computer (a wonderfully cryptic tale about a character called ‘Daniel’ who murders his mother with a hammer and then sets fire to the family home).

Yet in spite of these details – and with several newspapers referring to Bartlam as the “Corrie copycat killer” – many reports were still keen to highlight the disturbing influence of violent video games. “Children as young as four are becoming addicted to the kind of violent computer games from which twisted teenage murderer Daniel Bartlam got his kicks,” warned an article in the Mirror (which you could only start reading once you’d scrolled past Bartlam’s police mug shot, with his doe-eyes, teenage cherry lips and expressionless face).

Of course! Video games are the problem here! They’re much worse than the early evening kill-fests that soap operas have become in the relentless pursuit of ratings – and much easier to create a moral panic about!

There’s a distinct lack of good news stories about video games. It’s always “violence” this and “aggression” that, and media-led calls for bans, boycotts and blame. If David Berkowitz had gone on his brutal killing spree today, blaming his murderous actions on his neighbour’s demonically possessed dog, Harvey, the press and mainstream media would probably call for a ban on the sale of Nintendogs.

But violence in soap operas, well, that’s just entertainment! Some might even call it healthy population control. Let’s face it, without the staggering amount of deaths from blunt force trauma ‘soap land’ would be hopelessly overpopulated. Characters have been dispatched with hammers, spades, crow bars, monkey wrenches, irons, doorstops, statuettes, ashtrays and picture frames (although there will always be a place in viewers’ hearts for good old-fashioned stabbings, shootings, beatings and maybe the odd hit-and-run). Not to mention the more creative attempted murders, like, say, burying your cheating husband alive or gassing your entire family.

If Eastenders’ Ethel Skinner was still alive today, doddering around Albert Square with her little Willy, it would only be a matter of time before she popped up in the Christmas Day episode to hurl a beaker of acid into the ruddy faces of some Walford carol singers. The scene would probably go on to win a British Soap Award for ‘Best Depiction of Random Violence Leading to the Horrific Disfigurement of Innocent Extras’.

During the trial of Daniel Bartlam, prosecutor Sean Smith said: “The boundaries between real life and fiction became very, very tragically blurred.” Not the boundaries between the virtual and the real, but the boundaries between real life and fiction. That distinction obviously doesn’t make Bartlam’s crime of parricide any less shocking and reprehensible, but it does make me wonder why the influence of video games has been a prominent talking point in some of the reporting on the case.

In a speech to the aforementioned Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference last week about the influence of video games, Alison Sherratt, a teacher at Riddlesden St Mary’s Church of England primary school in Keighley, West Yorkshire, said: “We all expect to see rough and tumble, but I have seen little ones acting out quite graphic scenes in the playground and there is a lot more hitting, hurting and thumping in the classroom for no particular reason.”

I grew up in a time before video games invented violence, but I still remember kids hitting, hurting and thumping each other for seemingly no reason. And as for the “graphic scenes” that kids are supposedly acting out in the playground – is that really all down to video games? When children pretend to “throw themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion” and act out blood “spurting from their bodies”, how do teachers know they’re acting out scenes from a violent video game and not the denouement of the latest ill-fated Eastenders, Emmerdale or Coronation Street love triangle?

Alison Sherratt also said: “Obesity, social exclusion, loneliness, physical fitness, sedentary solitary lives – these are all descriptions of children who are already hooked to games.” I certainly don’t doubt that these can all be by-products of a life spent slouched in front of the TV pressing shapes on a joypad repeatedly, but video games are designed to entertain – they’re not designed to provide parental nurturing and support.

Captain John ‘Soap’ MacTavish isn’t going to pause midway through an intense firefight in Modern Warfare to remind children to go and eat a healthy, balanced meal, or to go outside and get some exercise, or remind them of the importance of maintaining real-world relationships with friends and family. That is, and always will be, the parents’ responsibility. (‘Soap’ MacTavish is only ever going to tell a child to “stay frosty”.) If parents allow their children to have a games console in the bedroom and buy them violent, age-restricted video games for Christmas and birthdays, they can’t then complain that said video games are a dark and corrupting influence.

Still, I can’t talk. I think there are snipers watching me.

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Apropos of nothing

It’s official: thanks to television, the word “reality” has now lost all meaning. The evidence is all around us. For instance, Gavin Henson was recently described as a “rugby player-turned reality star”, which was a reference to his role in Five’s “romantic reality series” The Bachelor.

If you conveniently missed the series a few months ago, the basic premise was this: Gavin Henson is a successful and dashingly handsome man (if a perma-tanned version of Guy Smiley from Sesame Street gives you the horn) but there’s something missing from his life – the love of a good woman. Thankfully Channel Five rushed to his aid, turned his light-sensitive eyes away from the abyss he was staring into, packed him off to a swanky villa on the Côte d’Azur and delivered 25 single women to his doorstep, who proceeded to battle (not in the conventional sense, unfortunately) for his affections.

I think we can all relate to that dating set-up, can’t we?

“I’ve got to leave my ego at the door and wear my heart on my sleeve,” said a contemplative Gavin in the opening episode. Although, coming from a man who’d turn up for work at an undertakers with his shirt off, I doubt he’s got even a metaphorical sleeve on which to pin his heart. But in Channel 5’s version of ‘reality’ it didn’t really matter where he pinned it. He could’ve dangled it from one of his rock hard nipples, like a bloody Christmas bauble, and I doubt any of the women would have cared. They seemed to be unquenchably hot for him regardless.

The Bachelor actually reminded me of a fantasy I used to have when I was about 14, whereby if I passed an attractive woman on the street I could simply touch her on the shoulder and she would immediately make her way to a waiting coach (filled with numerous other women I’d acquired throughout the day). The destination of the coach would be some kind of palace, and all the women who ended up there would have sex with me whenever I asked.

Two things now strike me about this: (1) Even in my wildest sexual fantasies I was only prepared to lay on budget coach travel, and (2) herding women onto a coach and transporting them to a palatial compound for sex is how I imagine ruthless despots and sex traffickers meet women.

Anyway, I digress. The fact is: reality television isn’t real. It doesn’t even have a vague whiff of reality about it, so why are so many shows branded with the ‘reality’ tag?

Kerry Katona once starred in an ITV ‘reality’ series called My Fair Kerry, which was described at the time as a “Faking It style programme in which she goes to Vienna and tries to pass herself off as a member of the English aristocracy”. Unless Iceland was training her to become some kind of undercover operative who could infiltrate ambassadorial functions, with the aim of replacing Ferrero Rocher pyramids with platters of partially defrosted prawn rings, the ‘reality’ aspect of the series was a complete mystery.

If you want cold, hard reality, here’s a glimpse into my world…

I once blocked my toilet with a Glade Touch ‘n Fresh dispenser and had to poke around the U-bend with a straightened coat hanger to try and dislodge it, like an enthusiastic punter playing a dirty fairground game. Then, after mistakenly believing that I’d cleared the blockage, I decided – unwisely, as it turned out – to do a much-needed poo. Initial relief was then swiftly followed by a panicked call to Dyno-Rod and the immediate activation of ‘Operation Dustpan’ to remove the offending log from the swollen waters of my toilet before the plumber arrived.

“Just imagine you’re panning for gold,” my brain kindly suggested, in an effort to transpose the grim reality with a hastily cobbled together fantasy. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the effort my brain was making, but unless I imagined myself as a prospector who only ever turned up giant lumps of shit instead of gold it was incredibly difficult to get into character. Thankfully, however, I eventually managed to resolve the unpleasant situation to everyone’s satisfaction (perhaps with the exception of my local binmen).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this particular situation would make for a ratings-winner of a reality television series (although, ITV2 may now get in touch with some suggestions as to how I might tweak the format) but at least it was a real situation. And if there genuinely was a reality TV choice between watching Kerry Katona being filmed in a variety of banal situations, or watching someone scooping turds out of a toilet basin, I know exactly which one I’d series-link on Sky Plus.

Unfortunately, ‘structured/scripted/semi-reality’ TV is now all the rage, with shows such as The Only Way Is Essex and Made In Chelsea inflicting a host of vacuous idiots on the world, who’ve swiftly been elevated to the status of minor deities by the readers of Heat, Reveal, Now and Tedious Cockends Weekly magazines. And all those vacuous idiots had to do was allow their ‘real’ lives to be filmed. Well, the filming usually takes place after the production team has decided on the locations for each scene, and after a ‘story producer’ has informed the various cast members of the conversations they should engage in – but after all that’s over with, it’s about 80% real (according to TOWIE cast member Mario Falcone).

Only a few months ago, however, it was reported that Jack Tweed was rumoured to be set for a role in The Only Way Is Essex, but the show’s producers apparently vetoed the idea because they considered him “too famous“. I think that’s all the proof we need that TOWIE is about as far from reality as it’s possible to be.

Desperate Scousewives is the latest “reality drama” to hit our screens, which will follow “the next generation of Liverpudlians…real guys and girls determined to make a name for themselves, work hard and achieve a dream no matter how big or small”.

Thankfully, I left the country shortly before this series began so I haven’t had a chance to watch these “real guys and girls” in action. However, I did manage to have a quick look at some of the cast members on the show’s official website. Basically, if you can imagine what a Westworld-style amusement park might look like if it was created by Nuts magazine, you can probably visualise the female cast without having to watch the show at all. In fact, their perky, enhanced breasts look like they could swing open on hinges, revealing a nest of wires and circuitry (or perhaps a simple storage compartment for false nails and make-up). You might even be able to pop some bread into their vaginas and have perfect toast in just under a minute. They’re certainly impressive multi-purpose androids. So lifelike. But not real. Is reality really so fake?

The sad reality of Desperate Scousewives is that the show’s producers could have scoured Liverpool’s diverse population of over 445,200 people for an interesting cast of real people, but instead they lazily opted to feature yet more fodder for the celebrity magazine circuit, playing opposite male counterparts who look like they’ve fallen out of the Grattan catalogue. The result is a glossy televisual construct of meaningless bullshit. It’s entertainment for some, but it’s not real.

So can we kill off reality TV? Or at least eradicate any mention of the word ‘reality’ from any series based on a faintly preposterous premise. And can we all please avoid uttering the word when referring to the artificial worlds of Essex, Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool. Oh, and I’d also like to propose that we phase out the term ‘reality star’. Because let’s face it, if these idiots are the leading lights of our reality – where the fuck does that leave us?

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