Thursday 22 May 2014

Top Ten British Sitcoms

Having posted my favourite American sitcoms, I think it is only fair to list my favourite comedies from my own wonderful country. As I suggested in my last post, I prefer British comedy, maybe because the humour is much closer to home.

So without further waffling, let’s dive straight in. I apologise for any obvious omissions (Only Fools and Horses almost made it – but not quite).

10. Black Books

I am going to start with an odd little comedy show that ran for three seasons on Channel 4 featuring three very bizarre characters. Bernard Black, played by Dylan Moran is the owner of Black Books, a small bookshop, and doesn’t like customers, often being rude to them, and possessing a negative outlook on life while quaffing red wine. His oldest friend is Fran, played by Tamsin Grieg who herself is a bit weird and spends most of her time trying to get Bernard to behave in an acceptable manner. Finally, Manny is Bernard’s assistant, played by Bill Bailey and tries to make Black Books something more than it is while being treated with utter contempt by Bernard, who begrudgingly accepts that Manny is good for the shop. The show is slightly eccentric but very funny and all characters are superbly portrayed.

9. Drop the Dead Donkey

Drop the Dead Donkey was a very clever comedy show set in a newsroom, and recorded just a day or two before transmission so that the writers could include the latest news items in the show. It was full of hilarious but flawed characters each of whom had their own problems that usually spilled out into the show. The newsroom was run by a man called Gus Hedges who’s every utterance were complete phrases of business bullshit.

8. The IT Crowd

The IT Crowd is a personal comedy for me because, as you may know, dear reader, I work in IT myself. The show centres around Moss and Roy, who are two geeks working in the IT support department of a big company, and their boss Jen. The IT department is forgotten in the bowels of the multi-storey building they work in and all the guys seem to do is answer the phone and say “have you tried switching it off and back on again?” (a trade secret if you are supporting a system).

And although I am a geek myself, I am nothing like Roy and Moss.

“I have come here to kick ass and drink milk … and I’ve finished my milk!”

7. The Office

I remember watching The Office for the first time, thinking it was a real documentary – that is until I started laughing out loud. What I like most about the series is that I know a real life David Brent, a man who thinks that he is a frustrated entertainer who everybody loves, but is really a bloody idiot. The show was so successful that the format was sold to many countries, each of which put their own spin on the show (in fact the American version is also very funny and features in my top ten US sitcoms).

6. Father Ted

I’m cheating a little here because strictly speaking, Father Ted is from Ireland. Nevertheless, I will cheat anyway as I think it is hilarious. Father Ted Crilly is the parish priest of a remote Irish enclave called Craggy Island and lives with two other priests, Father Dougal who is like a stupid child, Father Jack, a cantankerous old drunkard who is totally repulsive and politically incorrect, and their housekeeper Mrs Doyle. I was brought up a Catholic myself and I would have loved it if the priests who took Mass were even remotely like the priests portrayed in the series; I might even have stayed being a practicing Catholic.

5. One Foot In The Grave

Victor Meldrew has become a fictional national treasure, with his grumpy outlook on life and his cries of “I don’t believe it!” when confronted by the absurdity of life. It’s amazing that the lives of a normal elderly couple living in a typically English suburb can suffer so much pain and bad luck but the Meldrews, particularly Victor, have to endure so much. Of course, if you have seen the show, you will know that Victor Meldrew brings most of the misfortune on himself. Mrs PM (and others) have remarked that I am slowly turning into Victor Meldrew – I bloody well hope not!

4. The Young Ones

In 1981, I was in the right place at the right time to fully appreciate The Young Ones. It is the story of four totally obnoxious students sharing a house: Rick, the obnoxious sociology student; Vyvyan, the mentally unstable and extremely violent medical student; Neil the nature loving hippy; Mike who thought he was the coolest man on the planet.

The show was full of mayhem and I know it didn’t appeal to adults at the time; it was puerile disgusting, violent and extremely silly – but hilarious. You had to be there – and I was!

3. Red Dwarf

If I were the last human being alive, I would like to think that I would share some of Dave Lister’s traits. I also live with three cats and the thought of a humanoid evolved from my hellcat would be a nightmare. I also know at least one person as obnoxious and generally unlikeable as Arnold Rimmer. Oh – and I want Kryten to live in my house and wash, and clean for me.

You may wonder what I am going on about. If you don’t then you will have never watched Red Dwarf and you will not understand the phrase “Better Dead Than Smeg”.

I actually saw Craig Charles(Dave Lister) in Manchester airport. At the time he was starring in the soap opera, Coronation Street, playing a character called Lloyd. A female friend said (rather loudly and in full earshot of Craig) “It’s Lloyd from Corrie!”. “No it’s not, “ I exclaimed. “It’s “Dave Lister!”

We then proceeded to argue about Red Dwarf vs Coronation Street.

I looked across and saw him shrug his shoulders and shake his head with an embarrassed wry smile.

If you are reading, Craig, I do apologise.

2. Fawlty Towers

There have been fewer more insufferable and rude characters than Basil Fawlty, the owner and manager of Fawlty Towers, a hotel situated in Torquay on the south coast of England. Most people expect to be treated with respect in hotels, but Fawlty seems to allow his own judgement of people determine how he treats them. If he doesn’t like you then you are in trouble. Aided by his domineering wife, a waitress who should have left years ago and a Spanish waiter who struggles to speak English, chaos always ensues.

Thankfully I have never stayed in a hotel like it – thank goodness.

1. Blackadder

Edmund Blackadder started out in the Dark Ages, as a weasel, a sycophantic loser with no brains and a purely detestable prince of the realm. His servant Baldrick was the brains of the operation, always with a cunning plan to rescue his hapless master. By the fourth series, set in World War 1, Blackadder was no longer a prince but had evolved into a devious and unpleasant character whose only thoughts were about himself. Baldrick had devolved into a repulsive little idiot.

While series one was a little hit and miss, the remaining three series, and the two specials, were and are comedy masterpieces. I remember showing an episode of Blackadder II to two American women – and they just didn’t get it (or even understand it), which is a real shame. However, it does highlight my initial point about loving comedy that is closer to home. US comedy is good – but not as good as British comedy.


And finally…

Over to you, dear reader.

Have you seen any of the sitcoms above?

Do you agree with me?

If not, what are your favourite British sitcoms?

Saturday 17 May 2014

Mr Sleepy Head

I have just returned from a trip to Oman and am desperately trying to adjust my body clock to match UK time. Even though there is only three hours difference between Muscat and my sleep has been curtailed by being jammed up in economy class like a battery hen on a flight that left Abu Dhabi at 2:30 and flew overnight.

I hardly got a wink of sleep, either smashing my legs on the seat in front or being pushed by somnambulists, walking down the aisle in a trance on their way to the toilet having quaffed too much liquid in the airport.

I arrived at home at 8:30 in the morning and went straight to bed. And today, a day later, I am shattered and don’t know when to sleep.

There are people I work with who follow the mantra of Mr Motivator, whose drive and desire to work at 200% mean that, in their opinion, there aren’t enough hours in a day. Such people think that I should have gone into work on Friday – for at least half a day, “because there is so much to do and the work won’t complete itself”.

I wasn’t asked directly – probably because the people concerned know that my response would have rhymed with “duck trough”.

I have many reasons to dislike (and for some people actually detest) those who follow the work ethics of Mr Motivator but lack of sleep and tiredness are major ones.

When I travel to a place like China, a journey that can last over 18 hours, I am expected to work as soon as I possibly can after I arrive. The first day of work is usually totally non-productive because of jet lag.

How people expect you to work, when the time difference is eight hours and you have travelled for almost an entire day on at least one long haul flight on an aircraft where sleep is utterly impossible, is totally beyond my comprehension.

Yet it happens.

And that is just the travelling aspect. I have heard Mr Motivator say absurd things like:

“Don’t believe people who say that you need a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night are just lazy. You can get by on four hours. Margaret Thatcher did – and so do I!”

Everybody needs a different amount of sleep. Not everyone is like Mr Motivator. I would go further and say that while Mr Motivator thinks he can get away with only five hours sleep, the reality is that he can’t. You will see him sitting there yawning occasionally and totally fuelled by caffeine to get him through the day.

I’ve done some research on this and I hope that Mr Motivator is reading because people really do need sleep. Here are ten effects of lack of sleep:

(1) Tiredness causes accidents. If you live miles away from work and have to drive on a motorway after only a couple of hours’ sleep, the chances of having an accident because of drowsiness and slow reaction times is vastly increased.

(2) You are more stupid. Lack of sleep impairs concentration and alertness and slows down your capacity to think clearly. In a job like mine, where I need to use my brain to solve problems, I need a full night’s sleep to make my mind sharp for the challenges of the day. This may explain some of Margaret Thatcher’s ridiculous policy decisions.

(3) You look older. Sleep deprivation can have a detrimental effect on your skin, as well as those bags under your puffy eyes, making you look as if you have aged a number of years.  The term “beauty sleep” was not coined as a joke. And it is quite clear that I need a lot of beauty sleep.

(4) Increased health problems. Being a hypochondriac, I wish I hadn’t discovered this. Lack of sleep can increase your chances of suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes and diabetes.

(5) Lower sex drive. Apparently age has an effect on your sex drive so if you are also not getting enough sleep then your libido will suffer. I can’t make myself younger (God knows I’ve tried) so I think I need more sleep.

(6) Depression. Depression is bad enough but if you can’t or won’t sleep because you are depressed, the  condition can be aggravated.

(7) Forgetfulness. As I grow older my memory is fading slowly but if you do not sleep enough, your already addled brain struggles even more to locate nuggets of information locked in your mind in little boxes labelled “Do not forget this”.

(8) You get fatter. Latest research suggests that lack of sleep can increase your appetite, causing you to eat more and therefore put on weight.

(9) Impaired judgement. Your brain suffers quite a lot because of sleep deprivation but as well as the effects mentioned above, your ability to assess situations correctly is also impaired.

(10) Increased risk of death. Possibly the scariest effect is that lack of sleep can increase the risk of fatal health issues.

If you are reading this, Mr Motivator, and think that I should spend more of my time working and not sleeping then you can think again. You may feel like you can survive on five or six hours’ sleep but I can’t. I need at least seven hours and I will continue to do that.

I am pretty sure that any readers who regularly wake up naturally after a full night of sleep will agree with me that there is no better feeling. You are refreshed, your brain is alert and you do not need a bulletproof caffeine injection to stimulate your groggy brain into action.

There may not be enough hours is a day for you Mr Motivator, but that is your problem and not mine.

I will not lose any sleep over your ill-judged advice, particularly if I have just suffered the ignominy of trying to sleep on a crammed aircraft next to a snoring bloater who is so fat that every time he moves, the entire aircraft shifts to the right, causing my knees to smash into the seat once more.

You should not have to adapt to a lifestyle created by Mr Motivator, dear reader; tell him to bugger off and get your eight hours of sleep.

You will feel healthier than he does.

I feel like starting a campaign.

Who’s with me?

Sunday 4 May 2014

Top Ten U.S. Sitcoms

I’m a great fan of British comedy and I regard out sitcoms as the funniest in the world, which is hardly surprising considering I am British myself and relate to the humour.

Comedies from across the pond don’t always strike a chord with me and while I generally find them amusing, they tend to lack the cutting edge that I find in British sitcoms.

Nevertheless, I have enjoyed many bright and hilarious sitcoms that have found their way from America onto my tellybox and it is those programmes that I would like to focus on in this post.

I present to you, dear reader, my top ten US sitcoms, programmes that I have genuinely enjoyed and found myself howling with laughter at.

Note – I am not including cartoons like The Simpsons and South Park (which I really enjoy). For this I will concentrate on live action shows. So without further ado, here is my list:

10. Friends

Friends was extremely popular in the UK and Mrs PM loved it – as did both of my kids. I caught the odd episode but never really got it – until I saw an absolutely hilarious episode featuring Ross and spray tan:

And then I watched it again and became hooked. Sadly, that was late in the series so I found myself watching old reruns. To be honest, I was not too keen on the “will they/won’t they” relationship with Ross and Rachel but the other character relationships were good enough to keep me entertained – particularly Joey, my favourite character in the show.

9. Taxi

When I was a kid, I caught an episode of Taxi with the character Latka Gravas, played brilliantly by the enigmatic Andy Kaufman.  Here he is offering his philosophy on happiness:

Most of the actors have gone on the achieve great things: Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in particular, but I am fascinated with Andy Kaufman. If you ever get a chance to see the movie about Kaufman's life, called Man on the Moon and starring Jim Carrey as Kaufman, then please do. I recommend it.

Being from the UK, I only knew Andy Kaufman as Latka Gravas and when I saw the movie, I was astounded to see the mystery surrounding him, something we never knew. To me he was and always will be Latka – my favourite character in the show – but there was so much more.

8. Soap

Soap was another sitcom from the 1970’s that took the piss out of soap operas, with over the top characters and absurd plots. I loved it. Basically it was the story of two sisters and their families but it was much more than that – it was totally ridiculous – and that’s what made it brilliant:

My favourite characters were Burt Campbell (shown in the clip) and Benson the butler with his cutting wit.

7. Police Squad!

Police Squad! was silly – totally silly, silly enough to be as absolutely hilarious. Leslie Nielsen was a comic genius and how he managed to keep a straight face while filming the show and the three movies that were spawned from it, I will never know. I don’t think there has been a sitcom like it in America (correct me if I’m wrong) and there probably won’t be again.

Here is a typically silly scene:

6. Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Continuing on the cop show theme, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a brand new series set in New York and features some of the best characters I’ve seen in a comedy show. Particularly surprising is Andre Braugher, who plays Captain Holt. I’ve only previously seen him in serious movies or mini-series and he has adapted to comedy extremely well. Also worth a mention are Andy Samberg as the childish Detective Peralta and Stephanie Beatriz as the sexy but scary Detective Diaz. It is one of my favourite comedy shows on television on either side of the pond at the moment.

5. Sledge Hammer

And yet more cop humour, Sledge Hammer was a parody of the Dirty Harry movies in the 1980’s. Sledge Hammer is a crazy cop of the same ilk as Clint Eastwood’s famous creation except he loves violence, big guns and even talks to his own gun. He has an extremely loud Captain, called Captain Trunk who spends the entire episode screaming “HAAMMMMEERRRRRR!!!”. Sledge Hammer was brilliantly portrayed by David Rasche and his catch phrase is fantastic: “Trust me! I know what I’m doing.” – except he doesn't really know at all:

4. The Office (US)

The Office in the UK was absolutely hilarious, and when it was announced that a US version of the show would be produced, I thought that America would just not get it, therefore the show would be completely different and nowhere near as funny. But I was wrong. The American version, while not quite as good as the original, has sailed off in a different direction and proved to be a very funny show in its own right. I don’t think Michael Scott is as amusing and cringeworthy as David Brent but the character of Dwight Schrute more than makes up for that:

3. Frasier

The first time I saw Frasier was on a long haul flight from Hong Kong to London and my guffawing made me look like a complete fool to the other passengers. Frasier Crane, and his brother Niles, are both such pompous arses that you can’t help but chuckle when they are brought down to earth – like in this scene:

Also, the character of Daphne has helped put Manchester on the map for Americans (even though her accent is nothing like Mancunian). Still, every little helps and I’m sure most Mancunians mind – even plastic ones like me.

2. Married With Children

Al Bundy was my hero and I had a crush on his daughter Kelly. What I liked about this series was that the family all lived together and tolerated each other even though they all appeared to hate each other. In fact all of the characters spent every episode hurling insults and belittling each other – and that was so different from almost all other US sitcoms I have seen. And of course, it was hilarious.

1. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Al Bundy was my hero, but Larry David, the evil Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm is most definitely my hero. When most of us bite our tongues to stop ourselves from saying something or doing something that might upset other people, Larry David has no qualms about bounding over the line of bad taste without a care in the world for the consequences of his actions. And along the way he meets other celebrities who are equally willing to portray alternative versions of themselves for our amusement. It is the funniest show to come out of the US. Even Mrs PM has grown to like it; at first she said “It just isn’t funny” but now she laughs as much if not more than me when we see an episode. It is clever, totally and utterly politically incorrect and takes no prisoners – and that includes the rather colourful language and adult themes that accompany it. Here are some examples – but be warned, they contain language that may offend.

And finally…

Over to you, dear reader.

Have you seen any of the sitcoms above?

Do you agree with me?

If not, what are your favourite US sitcoms?

Thursday 1 May 2014

Staring at a Blank Page

There is nothing more frustrating than sitting at my desk staring at a blank screen like a brainless idiot.

When I suffer from this affliction, my brain has somehow switched off and no amount of coaxing can kick-start my thinking engine.

Writers and bloggers will of course recognise this condition as writer’s block, something I have suffered from in the past, yet there are other forms that affect people other than those who are trying to put pen to paper and create something from their imagination.

For example, I have found myself sitting at my desk at work, trying to figure out the best and most efficient way to create a bit of software to solve a particular problem, yet my brain refuses to cooperate. It’s almost as if my brain has been replaced by a lump of jelly.

And the harder I try to think, the worse it gets.

It’s like trying to catch formula one car while riding a bike.

I have read in the past that the pinnacle of creativity is achieved first thing in the morning, soon after waking up, and as the day goes on, your creativity diminishes in favour of more analytical tasks.

And I have used this to my advantage at work.

It didn’t take long for me to work out that if I looked at solving a problem with some clever software, it was always more of a struggle as the day wore on.  I would stare at my computer screen at five o’clock and think “How on earth am I going to solve this?”. When confronted with such a feeling so late, the best thing to do is simply to give up and go home.

The phrase “sleep on it” leaps to mind and in my case this works because, first thing in the morning, the problem that was bamboozling me the previous evening is suddenly incredibly easy to cure.

“Now why didn’t I spot that last night?” I exclaim – every single time.

I recently read that there are other aids to creativity. One in particular seems very appealing.

Basically, if you are struggling to be creative, all you need to do is get up and go for a walk.

I discovered this is a bizarre fashion. I am currently trying to teach myself Spanish and occasionally challenge myself by attempting to read BBC Mundo, the Spanish version of the BBC web site. My Spanish is nowhere near good enough to translate the articles thoroughly but I do get the gist of quite a few, mainly because the articles are about newsworthy items and a little knowledge of what is going on in the world helps.

I found an article titled “Caminar aumenta nuestra creatividad” or “Walking increases our creativity”.

As I struggled with the translation, I found myself fascinated with the concepts as the vague English formed in my head.

The article describes a study which confirms that exercise boosts your creative mind. This is great news for me because I try to go for a walk every day of the week. At work, every lunchtime, I leave the confines of the office and embark upon a brisk walk around the block, a distance of just under two miles. At the weekend, Mrs PM and I try to go for a walk too; we have a regular three mile walk around Fletcher Moss along the river Mersey in Didsbury, but sometimes drive out to the local countryside and embark upon a bigger walk up to say six miles. Moreover, when we go away for the weekend or on holiday, we enjoy a leisurely stroll around the place to take in the sights. Last year, in Hong Kong, I worked out that we walked for ten miles around the city, just visiting old haunts. In Oxford, earlier this year, we walked eight miles in a day just exploring the city centre.

How do I know this? I have a pedometer; it was a surprise Christmas present a year or two ago and it is surprisingly accurate.

Anyway, back to the point; my brisk two mile walk at lunchtime every day aids my creativity. For an hour or so when I get back to work, I am refreshed and able to look at tricky issues with the same sharpness as I have in the morning.

Just walking around the area surrounding the office, with music in my ears to accompany my pace, my mind starts to wander into creative realms.

I know it works because today’s creative thought was all about how walking can help combat writer’s block. When I returned to the office, I opened my trusty little notebook and wrote it down.

And here I am writing the post (although it is now ten o’clock at night – a time when theoretically I should be winding down for sleep).

Next time I get a touch of writer’s block I will go for a walk and see what happens.

So what about you, dear reader? 

Do you have any tips to boost creativity and help combat writer’s block or jelly brain syndrome?

I’m very interested because I am looking for alternatives (as walking is not always an option sadly).