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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The one in which Garry Owen accidentally exposes the silliness inherent to being blindly pro-Welsh

Conversation heard on Radio Cymru this morning. Translated from Welsh.

DAFYDD DU: "Of course everyone knows that a Welsh Breakfast is the best kind of breakfast in the world."
GARRY OWEN: "What is a Welsh Breakfast?"
DAFYDD DU: "Uhm... well..."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

So best

When Jill Halfpenny came out in a skimpy Union Jack dress. That's when I realised that this was the best episode of "Strictly Come Dancing" I had ever seen. There have been shows that had more drama, more excitement, better dancing, and so on, but at the moment, looking back on the past four seasons of Strictly that I have watched, I cannot think of an episode that was better in an overall sense.

Some of it had to do with the show's travelling to Blackpool, I suppose. For those of you playing along at home, Blackpool is a town full of things you wouldn't want, all left to deteriorate no less than two decades in the cold and spitting rain. At some point in history, perhaps when U-boats made a channel crossing particularly dangerous, it was a major holiday destination for the British. For lack of any real investment in the town, Blackpool has held desperately to this image and still manages to draw a strange mix of of old people and classless binge drinkers to its rotten bespangled seafront.

But the British are nostalgics at heart. They don't like to change their long-held romantic visions of a place. So, despite the fact that there is not a single deep-pit mine in the whole of Wales, they still like to tell themselves that it is essentially a mining community. Despite the fact that the majority of people living in East London are of Asian or African descent, they still like to tell themselves that everyone there is like Peggy Mitchell. And despite considerable evidence to the contrary, they still like to tell themselves that Blackpool is in some way glamorous.

That said, however, undeniably the interior of the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, where this past Saturday's episode of Strictly was held, is glamorous. It was an amazing venue, making you pine for those happy, simple times that we like to tell ourselves existed in the past. And its glamour had an effect on the dancers, bringing out the best in them.

Well, most of them. Blackpool's very own Craig Kelly performed a cha cha cha that was so bad you could almost see the soul of his professional partner, Flavia, dying just a little. Our Craig's dancing made me think of this guy, which is endearing in some sort of way, I suppose, but still deserving of no more than the 18 points awarded by the judges. The only high point was that it seemed to genuinely upset Alesha and you kind of got the sense that if someone had pushed her just a little she might have gone all "urban" and slapped someone.

Ricky Groves and Erin - Salsa - 25
Pop quiz, kids: What's a guaranteed way to earn point from Chris the imaginary judge?
That's right, shout in your routine.
And for that reason alone Ricky and Erin deserved to stay in for another week. I fear, though, they may not survive beyond that. They are doing a Viennese waltz, which doesn't usually lend itself to shouty bits, thus putting Ricky at a serious disadvantage.

Phil Tufnell and Katya - Rumba - 28
I have never understood why the rumba is a part of the Strictly rota. Why not drop it for mambo or Lindy hop? A good 7/10 of the time, the rumba is a painful thing to watch. Considering that Phil and Katya seem to have a kind of father-daughter relationship, I was fretting all week. I was dreading sitting through 1:30 of full-on uncomfortable creepiness, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be not awful. It wasn't good and it wasn't sexy, but it was technically there and it didn't make me want to claw out my eyes. Phil did a good job of both performing the dance and somehow conveying to the audience: "Hey, nothing to see over here, just watch the pretty lady and all will be well."
My favourite part of their dance comes right at 1:02, when Phil flashes a very un-rumba-like shit-eating grin.

Laila Rouass and Anton - Paso doble - 30
This dance was undermarked. OK, fine, points were deducted for the illegal lift but even still a 30 is too low. Perhaps the judges are simply so baffled by Anton's still being in the competition that they don't know how to mark him. Whatever the case, Laila was robbed, yo. Every time we see a paso doble we are reminded again by the judges that the dance is supposed to be a reflection of a bullfighter and his cape. This was the first time I can remember seeing the dance in which that was so brilliantly clear. Watch the video from about 0:34 to 0:49 and the movements are straight mimic of bullfighting postures. It was brilliant.

Natalie Cassidy and Vincent - Quickstep - 31
From about 20 seconds into the dance one got the feeling that Natalie was simply holding on for dear life. I think it would have fit perfectly for her to have started screaming: "Heeeeeeeeeeeeelp!" while tearing around the dance floor (and it would have been shouting, which would have earned an automatic point from me).

Jade Johnson and Ian - Jive - 33
Oh, the Lioness has some legs on her, doesn't she? I could watch that all day. Every day. I want to be Jade Johnson's plaything. Sure, she'd break me; my gangly white-boy body simply could not sustain the demand. It would be like standing amidst a stampede of wildebeest. But I don't care. Let her destroy me. I would go happily to my end if it were to be amidst those legs. And with my last breath would come the words: "thank you."

Chris Hollins and Ola - Foxtrot - 34
I'll admit that wee Chris isn't my favourite. He's got that whole weird slave-dominatrix relationship with Ola that is more creepy than funny. But still, I couldn't help but cheer for him when he managed to pull off a properly good routine, thus earning a big kiss on the cheek from Ola right at the end. She was so genuinely pleased with him, and he so genuinely surprised at her response. I couldn't help but warm to him just a bit. I am sure, however, that next week he will return to completely weirding me out.

Ricky "Probably shagging Natalie" Whittle and Natalie - Tango - 35
Speaking of things that weird me out, the VT (ftypah: short video piece) that ran before Ricky and Natalie's dance was quite affectionate, wasn't it? I think our Ricky's done the classic thing of falling for the hot chick who tells him what to do. I guess I can see that. It's certainly happened to me. Although, in my case the girl wasn't teaching me how to dance, she was just telling me how to live my life and crushing all sense of self-respect.
Ricky made a mistake or two in this week's dance, which is mostly not worth mentioning but for the way he reacted to it. When he was standing in front of the judges he looked as if he had just spent 20 hours strapped to a chair being forced to watch episodes of "Hollyoaks" -- he was a man defeated. Therein lies the reason I think he'll come crashing down before the final. He's always been just a little too keen, without really enjoying it. Dude, you're on a TV show that puts Phil Tufnell in glittery open shirts. Stop taking it so seriously.

Ali Bastian and Brian - Viennese waltz - 40
Monkey Face and his girlfriend rocked the perfect score, bitches. I think it may have been a bit early in the series to be breaking out the 10s, but what do I know? Nonetheless, I'm predicting now that Ali will be in the final three. If Ladbrokes allows me to make bets online I might even put money on it.

A 40 was dealt out, Jill Halfpenny strut her stuff, Brucie sang (I've got to admit to being impressed by his ability to actually carry a tune at his age), and then Rod Stewart performed while his wife (2008 Strictly participant Penny Lancaster) danced. It was a pull-out-the-stops show. One wonders if Strictly has dealt all its cards too soon -- where do they go from here? There are still several weeks left in the show, what can they do? Bring back Zoe Lucker to perform a woman-on-woman rumba with Kristina Rihanoff while Muse plays alongside a 120-piece orchestra?

Santa, if you're reading, you now know what I want for Christmas.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday night in Fairwater

The early evening air is cold. Huge clouds of breath churn from my body as I run through the city's dirty western fringe. The cold is preserving my legs and I am moving faster than usual, half sprinting through the world of orange and black and swirling white light. Shadows stretch and turn and twist, the uneven pavement disappears into darkness and I am running on faith. My left foot finds only air, misjudging where the pavement should be, but momentum carries me forward. Faith in speed and strength.

Up ahead, fat man and a Staffordshire terrier, a metal barrier between them and the road, the pavement two feet wide. I refuse to slow. On my right shoulder I can feel a car coming, can feel its headlights, can feel its speed -- another Ford KA rushing to get home in time to watch "The Simpsons" or whatever the hell it is that people rush home for. I don't look. I can see the car in my mind. There is still space.

Where the barrier begins I fly into the road in full sprint. Fifty feet of metal fence to keep the man and his dog from stepping out into traffic. Fifty feet of metal fence to keep me from returning to safety. The strength of the car's headlights licks at my heels, starts to consume my legs.

This is where I'm best, I think. This is where I live. In these stupid decisions, in these times when I pick up speed to face challenges. "Headlong into adversity" -- that's what I wish they would say about me. Hornet's nest breaker. Wall kicker. Shit-storm creator. Bridge burner. Romantic and wild. Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs.

A oes heddwch? Nac oes, motherfucker. Nac oes.

My legs strain. In the thighs and calves, muscles pull and push and demand more energy; they claw strength from my gut, set my lungs on fire. Swirling shapes and sounds and colours and the white light growing brighter behind. There is no need to look. Just as I can see the car in my mind, I can hear the driver's thoughts, I can feel him refusing to take his foot off the accelerator.

"I won't speed up," he thinks. "But I won't slow down. He's the one darting out into the road. If he wants to take that risk, it is his to take, but I'm not slowing down. I'm not losing this battle of will."

The spring of the concrete, dust of exhaust swallowed, roar and whine and rattle of engines, legs powering, straining, burning, and ravenous to devour the space. Speed, strength. And in my mind I can feel the heat of the car's engine pushing, taunting, threatening.

Pop step jump back onto the pavement -- the car's engine throttles as if growling: "I could have, you know. I could have had you, easy." -- and into a pack of teenage boys all with their hoods up and jumping in excitement at the act. Laughter and sarcastic cheers as I weave through them: "Go on, runner-man!" "That's it, me ol' son!"

"W'hey!" I shout, fist raised in the air, and still sprinting. Past the car, now stopped in traffic. Turning left, away from the main road, uphill, slowing, laughing. This is where I'm best, I think.

But one day I will be too old and there won't be enough strength in my legs. What then?

Monday, November 9, 2009

9 November 1989

I remember the first time I ever went to the trouble to identify Germany on a map. I was in high school, in AP European History. I remember looking at it and thinking: "Wow, that's really close to England."

In the United States we tend to teach history in terms of good guys and bad guys. Generally, in situations where Americans or the Irish are not involved, England is good. Defeat of the Spanish armada? Good. Defeat of Napoleon? Good. The 1968 Eurovision contest in which Cliff Richard lost due to Francisco Franco's interference? Not so good.

And for some reason I had up to that point assumed that geography worked in a similar vein, that "good" places were sort of looped together. I mean, the United States is good, Canada's pretty good, and Mexico's alright as well. Even in Texas history I always felt that Mexico was not so much "bad" as "misguided but with tasty food." So it was a shock to see Germany so close to good ol' England.

I had assumed it would be over there in the bad part of the world, perhaps nestled in the bosom of the USSR. And yet, even before I knew where it was, and even longer before all the historical importance and connection made any sense, I knew that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a big deal.

Twenty years ago today I was 13 years old, lying on my bed in my little room in the basement of a four-bedroom suburban home in the middle of America, watching television. I had no idea of the world outside of America; I had no interest in it. But one of the few things I did know was that the Berlin Wall was not just bad, but evil. And now all these people were standing there, had been standing there for days, gathering and gathering.

I don't remember understanding why, or what was happening, just that it was big and that I was terrified. I kept thinking: "This whole thing is going to turn. The bad won't tolerate this. Someone somewhere is going to decide they've had enough and all these people are going to be cut to shreds in machine gun fire."

And then the crowd went at the wall with sledgehammers and saws and whatever they had. They started climbing on it and tearing it apart with their bare hands. I didn't fully understand the significance, didn't know the history or the ramifications, but I sat there with tears in my 13-year-old eyes because I knew that somehow the whole world had suddenly changed.

It had changed for the good.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A heinous dilemma

On Sunday I was on Radio Wales' current affairs programme "Something Else," which basically involved a group of people half-heartedly poring through the Sunday papers amid gulps of free BBC tea and then attempting to come up with things to say. To some extent it's the radio equivalent of being trapped in some dude's kitchen while he delivers an un-requested monologue on his political opinions. But it's different, you see, because there was tea involved. And Welsh cakes. And, apart from myself, everyone had British accents. It's a well-established fact that saying something with a British accent makes you sound more intelligent. That's why GW Bush used to have press conferences in which Tony Blair would simply repeat what Bushy had just said.

Anyway, even before setting foot in the BBC studios I had known that I wanted to talk about "Strictly Come Dancing." This was my chance, I thought. I was certain that a light-hearted Sunday afternoon current affairs programme would include some discussion of Strictly. How could it not? Especially considering that we were on the BBC. It's simple cross-promotion. I expected such conversation to be strongly encouraged if not required: "OK, remember that each of you must mention Strictly at least once, or else you'll be expected to pay for all that tea."

In digging through the papers I seized upon an interview with MC Harvey, the rapper no one has ever heard of who is slightly famous for being Alesha Dixon's ex-husband. Remember when Alesha was competing on Strictly and the reason the show meant so very much to her was because her life had otherwise gone into a tailspin after her husband cheated on her? Yeah, that guy. The adversity which Alesha overcame to win the hearts of a nation. The Sunday Mirror decided to scrape the bottom of the barrel and interview him about Alesha. The interview contained this brilliant quote, which I think pretty much encapsulates why their marriage was doomed from the start: "She's high maintenance -- you can't take her to Nando's."

But to my overwhelming dismay, the show's producer wasn't interested.

"We talked about 'Strictly' a few weeks ago," she said.

"Yeah, but you didn't talk about it with me!" I thought, but did not say.

Clearly Radio Wales (or Radio Cymru, I'm bilingual) need to have a programme solely dedicated to talking about Strictly. I realise that BBC 2 already has such a thing, and it's called "It Takes Two" but. again, they're not talking about it with me. On my programme we would talk about both Strictly and "It Takes Two"; that's how it would be different. And clearly such a thing is needed because things happen on "It Takes Two" that are just too awesome to just come and go in a tiny 30-minute window.

Case in point: Craig Revel Horwood's glittery poppy on Friday. How amazing was that, darling? Craig is my second-favourite gay man in the world, after John Barrowman.

Dude. Can you imagine a show that featured Craig Revel Horwood and John Barrowman as judges? I would go into some sort of gay-induced coma. I'd be so delighted with the thing that it would almost make up for the fact that the Cougar is gone; Zöe Lucker and James were the shock couple to get the boot from this week's show. Their samba scored a 32, placing them above five other couples. They should have been in the clear. Hell, that hip-grinding action she did should on its own have been enough to move her forward to next week. I echo what Bruno shouted: "Shake it in my face any time you want!" I could watch her do that all day. But, no. As happens every year at about this point in the series, the voting fucked things up and two legitimately good couples -- Zöe and James, and Ali and Brian -- got stuck in the dance off.
I had worried in previous posts that this sort of thing would be Jade and Ian's fate. And indeed, the only plus side to losing the Cougar is that I am no longer split in my affection toward the Lioness.
*Lurid offer to "console" Zöe in my bedroom goes here.*

Ricky Groves and Erin - Rumba - 24
That dance was about as sexy as a crisp. I've never seen myself attempting to be sexy when blindingly drunk, so I can't say for sure, but that's what this reminded me of. If I were absolutely elephants on Baltika and trying to put the moves on Erin Boag, this is probably what it would look like.

Craig "Goin' to Blackpool" Kelly and Flavia - Waltz - 24
I was distracted by Flavia's shawl, which she appears to have stolen from the wardrobe of Maria Portokalos. Equally distracting was hearing Elton John in 3/4 time, which made it sound quite a lot like classic country. There was a dance in here somewhere, as well, and our Craig managed to perform well enough that it isn't a howling disgrace that he's going to Blackpool. And that's lovely, he'll get to dance in his home town. Beyond that, though, I think it's time for our Craig to pack it in.

Chris Hollins and Ola - Cha cha cha - 29
I figured out this week what it is I dislike about Chris' dancing. It's that he looks like he's performing a workout routine rather than a dance. It reminds me of when I lived in San Diego and did Tae Bo in the living room each morning. And then there was that one time I was really into it and I kicked the futon really hard and couldn't walk properly for a fortnight. I am hoping that Chris leaves the show soon because he bores me when he dances and he annoys me when he speaks. I especially hate the strange slave-dominatrix relationship that he has with Ola, lowering himself when speaking to her and referring to her as "Mrs. Jordan." That's just creepy.

Phil Tufnell and Katya - Tango - 30
Someone I do like, however, is Tuffers. I find that I like him and Katya a little more each week. And what I like most about them is the sort of father-daughter dynamic they have. Generally on Strictly the couples, under the direction of the professional dancer, I'm sure, will seek to portray themselves as, you know, a couple. There is an attempt in the dances to have us see the two partners as romantically linked, or something to that effect. Sometimes that works, as with Jade and Ian or Zöe and James, and sometimes it fails miserably, as with Lynda Bellingham and Darren Bennett. But in the case of Tuffers and Katya, whether by design or default, they seem to dance like father and daughter, which really works with Phil and Katya's personalities. You get this sense that he's out there doing his best for his little girl, and sometimes in the way Katya looks at him you can almost picture her rolling her eyes and groaning like a teenager: "DaaaAAaaaad!" It's endearing.
So I didn't care that Tuffers was somewhat too into the music for his tango, bouncing his shoulders in time with the beat. The whole thing was lovely and sweet and wholesome. Which is probably not how a tango should be described, but there you are.
All that said, though... Oof, that Katya's got some legs on her, doesn't she? Those high kicks she does right at the start of the dance? Yes, please.

Natalie Cassidy and Vincent - Jive - 30
Another couple who I think have adapted well to the fact that they're not convincing as, you know, a couple, is Natalie and Vincent. And you have to give credit to Vincent because in previous years he's always created for himself the character of stylish lothario. But these days he has moved toward being reflective of Natalie's obsessive-fan-like enthusiasm for the show; I think he has changed his whole style to suit her dancing. With Flavia, his professional partner, he is incredibly quick and precise in his movements. But perhaps to cover for Natalie's lack of precision he is looser when dancing with her, less perfect. It works, I think, and shows Vincent as an evil genius. He knows Natalie is beloved by the British public so if he can ensure she doesn't look bad dancing next to him, he has a better chance of securing public vote, which, as Zöe and James can attest, is kind of important.
Natalie and Vincent danced to "Good Golly Miss Molly," made famous by Little Richard. On Friday's "It Takes Two" Len revealed that he is a life-long fan of Little Richard and told a story of buying the "Good Golly Miss Molly" record for his mother's birthday in 1958, knowing full well that she would hate it. That episode is available on iPlayer for those of us under Her Majesty's purview (and it might also be available in Ireland; I don't know), and is worth watching just for the bit featuring Len and Craig.

Laila Rouass and Anton - Viennese Waltz - 33
This dance was undermarked, I think, because the judges were too focused on complaining that Laila performs better in her Ballroom dances than in her Latin dances. Yeah, fine, fair criticism, but score the dance, not her overall performance. Bitches. Perhaps another reason it was scored low is that it was performed so well it looked like they weren't really doing anything: just sort of twirling and floating about perfectly, as if animatronic dolls. You forget that they are using their feet.

Ali Bastian and Brian - Paso Doble - 33
Oh, legs. I love those legs. I wish Ali were dancing with someone other than Monkey Face, because your man just creeps me out. I'll be looking at Ali, thinking something like: "Mmm, if I had her here I'd get a jar of Nutella, 20 feet of rope, 3 litres of baby oil, a volume of Anne Sexton poetry, 56 bakewell tarts, rubber gloves, and the fan belt from a '93 Volkswagen Jetta, and then she and I would..." But then I catch a glimpse of Monkey Face and it puts me off whatever fantasy was fomenting.

Jade Johnson and Ian - Foxtrot - 35
The fact that I do this somehow makes the whole Strictly obsession all the more disturbing, but I make little notes while watching the programme. I sit there in my armchair, beer to my right and notepad in my lap, jotting down whatever comes to my head. It's nothing too detailed, usually something along the lines of, "Bee Gees. Large female back-up singer has cowbell," but the fact that I do it is just wrong. It displays too much dedication. Nonetheless, if you were to look at my notes from last Saturday one phrase would stand out from several feet away. In enormous capital letters I wrote: "JADE AND IAN WERE GREAT!"
And they were. The Lioness is hitting her stride, and I absolutely love her. I worry the voting will let her down at some point, which would be heartbreaking because you get the feeling she's benefiting in an emotional, psychological sense from being on the programme. More so than the other participants. She's used to the ego-fuelled over-intense world of elite athletics, the kiss-hug glitter-camp world of celebrity dancing opens up new parts of her personality. It's good for our Jade. And good for me, too, because I get to see her flailing her legs about.

Ricky Whittle and Natalie - Quickstep - 39
I loved Craig Revel Horwood's response to this dance: "Pigeon-toed and bandy-legged. But that never stopped Brendan Cole from dancing, darling."
The audience's response, meanwhile, was a massive, wild roar of applause befitting the dance that would earn the highest score so far in the series. And despite my feeling that Ricky has got all the personality of a double-glazed window, I'll admit to clapping at the end of it.
All of which sets us up beautifully for the inevitable fall. I am convinced that some terrible misfortune will befall Ricky and he won't make the finals. Because that's the sort of thing that always happens on Strictly. That's why we watch.

Craig referred to this week's dance off as a "heinous dilemma", Alesha looked like she was near emotional breakdown, and Len called it "ludicrous." And I'm sure that somebody, somewhere in the control room was calling it "brilliant television." The crowd for this week's show was amazing in their enthusiasm and noise and rowdiness. Having the Bee Gees perform sky-rocketed the level of delightfully surreal (a) to unmatched levels. The show dance cha cha cha (which I'm guessing was choreographed by Aliona (b) and featured bits that would indicate she was a stripper at some point) was incredible, if not simply for the fact that it contained a wrestling spot (when Aliona hit Matthew with an incomplete hurricanrana). And the shock result was icing on the cake. It was, almost certainly, the best show so far of the year.

I found myself clapping along, cheering, and bouncing up and down in my chair as I watched. I literally jumped up and pumped my fists when Ricky and Natalie scored three 10s. It was a full-on vindication of why I am so stupid for the show.

I worry about myself.

I genuinely do. As the show was coming to an end, Zöe and James receiving the condolences of their fellow dancers and the band playing the archetypal Last Dance Of The Prom kind-of song they always perform at the end of the show, I felt an awful emotional comedown. I became immensely depressed because the show was over. What the hell?

"Fuck, I'm lame," I texted to a friend.

You will almost certainly have picked up that a large part of this whole Strictly obsession is displacement -- pushing out one set of thoughts (my life) and replacing them with others more cheerful (Jade Johnson in a high-cut skirt). But in those tiny flashes of sanity that I get every fortnight or so I fear I am too wrapped up in it. Already I find myself getting nervous over life after Strictly. A winner will be chosen by Christmas, and then what? I get legitimately upset thinking about life without Claudia and Bruce and Tess and Craig and Alesha and Len and Bruno and all that glitter and cleavage and flailing about. What will I do when it's gone? How will I cope? Please send help.

Although, don't send it just yet. Next week the show goes on the road to the mean streets of Blackpool, which is, previously unbeknownst to me, "the home of ballroom." According to Len, the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, where the show will be held, has seating for some 1,000 people. If that's true, Saturday's show will likely be loud and raucous. I can hardly wait.
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(a) My favourite commentary on that whole scene came from Times columnist Giles Smith who wrote: "We thought the high-tide mark for musical interlude-based weirdness had been reached earlier in the series, when Andy Williams turned up in tennis shoes and looking as though he had been specially re-created for the night in bonded polymers by Gerry Anderson. We thought again as Barry Gibb stood alongside his brother, Robin, and reached back down the years for the old, vibrato-strafed falsetto, sounding, in the process, like a crow being fed, feet-first, through a mangle."

(b) Yes, I am so sad that I have learned you can often guess a dance's choreographer based on certain key moves and where the choreographer usually places him- or herself in the line-up.