Posted by: Richard Frost | 20 Apr 2020

Steve Coogan comedy gig review

Original publication date: November 2008
Outlet: Hive Magazine

As any stand-up will tell you, there’s nothing quite like testing material in front of a live audience. Delivering the same punchlines night after night can sharpen up even the flabbiest act faster than a million practice sessions at home. But that leaves one major problem. Those early performances run the risk of being, to quote Steve Coogan’s creation Paul Calf, “a bag of shite”.

Just such a problem has plagued the Middleton comedian’s new tour, Steve Coogan is Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters. At the opening night in Stoke, The Telegraph lambasted a “mediocre shambles”. In Derby, audience members watched incredulously as he blatantly read jokes off cue cards. And in Liverpool, there were heckles and a mass walkout at the interval. So would there be another car crash of comedy at Manchester Apollo?

Thankfully, no.

After 20-something dodgy or downright disastrous performances, Coogan has finally pulled a decent show out of the fire. Steve Coogan is Alan Partridge… is a success – though by no means a triumph. Well, it’d have to be something pretty damn special to make you forget about the £35+ ticket prices.

Poster from the 2008 tour Steve Coogan is Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters

Act I
The first act features Pauline Calf, Saxondale, Paul Calf and Duncan Thickett. In all honesty, this is fairly average, with a few cracking lines and a nagging feeling that none of these characters were all that good in the first place.

Value for money?
A generous person might pay £10.

Act II
The second act is where we get what we came for – Alan Partridge. Radio Norwich’s finest was always going to be the highlight of the show, and Coogan duly pulls out all the stops. Resisting the temptation to recycle old lines (“Wings – the band the Beatles could have been” and so on), Coogan imagines a whole new future for his star creation. Partridge is now a life coach using his extensive knowledge of bouncing back to help no-hopers like Ross Kemp and Gok Wan. It works a treat, giving Coogan the chance to exhibit his full range of catastrophic interviewing, tone-deaf singing and moronic presenting.

Value for money?
The performance is too short (show me one person here who’d rather watch Duncan Thickett than Alan), but still worth £20 to a hardcore Partridge fan. Me, in other words.

For the encore, Coogan pokes fun at his tarnished public image, following a string of salacious tabloid scandals. Cue the Mary Poppins-esque song and dance number, Everyone’s a Bit of a C*nt Sometimes. It’s immaculately choreographed and enables Coogan to finish on a high.

Value for money?
Worth another £5.

Now audience members at his early shows (ie the first 20) might argue Coogan was “a bit of a c*nt” taking £35 for an act that was clearly half-finished. After all, has he never heard of warm-up shows? But at least he’s learnt his lines for Manchester, which bodes well for the rest of the tour.

Value for money?
If you’re a diehard Partridge fan who knows his Blue Nun from his Lexi, you’re probably willing to pay through the nose to see him live. In that case, £35 is just about worth it. But if you don’t think Partridge is the greatest comic creation since Blackadder, steer clear.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 19 Apr 2020

The Ting Tings gig review

Salford Online - your local community websiteOriginal publication date: October 2008
Outlet: Salford Online
Photography: © Richard Frost

The Ting Tings Hit The Homeland

So much has happened to The Ting Tings in the last 12 months, you could be forgiven for thinking their local roots are just a distant memory.

Following a UK #1 single, a UK #1 debut album and a critically acclaimed Glastonbury set, the indie-pop duo have become the toast of the British music industry. Hard to believe then that the band only formed in 2006, setting local tongues wagging with some incendiary performances at Islington Mill.

But fast-forward to October 2008 and it’s a relief to find the north-west is still close to their hearts during the second of two sold-out gigs at Manchester Academy.

Any lingering doubts are silenced halfway through ‘Shut Up And Let Me Go’ when the music cuts out and drummer Jules De Martino demands: “What city we in?” When the fans shout back again and again, he replies: “The greatest city for music. And the best crowd we’ve had on tour without a doubt.”

It’s a rare moment in the spotlight for De Martino though, as locally born singer Katie White takes centre stage for most of the night. There can be no question that The Ting Tings’ frontwoman is an icon in the making. Rarely if ever have so many teenage girls descended on Manchester Academy for a gig, and White’s note-perfect performance is rapturously received.

Katie White of The Ting Tings onstage at Manchester Academy on 3 October 2008

If there is a criticism tonight, it’s undoubtedly the shortness of the set. With only ten songs in their back catalogue, lasting a mere 38 minutes on CD, this was always likely to be the case.

Still, an hour with The Ting Tings isn’t enough, and the crowd is left pining for slightly more playfulness and adventure from two songwriters celebrated for their daring mix of indie, dance and pop. Where are the specially written guitar riffs? The multi-layered drum beats? The self-indulgent solos?

Ultimately, perhaps all that is missing is some new material. And bearing in mind the meteoric rise of the last 12 months, it’s surely just a matter of time before the Salfordians return with enough songs to appease even the most ardent fans.

We Walk
Great DJ
Fruit Machine
Keep Your Head
Traffic Light
Be The One
We Started Nothing
Shut Up And Let Me Go

Impacilla Carpisung
That’s Not My Name

Posted by: Richard Frost | 18 Apr 2020

Politics feature: Venezuela under Chavez

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: May 2007
Outlet: In The News
Photography taken: November 2016 (© Richard Frost)

A challenge to the west

Venezuela has once again unveiled a policy that divides opinion across the Americas. Richard Frost analyses the latest flashpoint and reviews the main areas of conflict to date.

It’s just been announced that Venezuela is withdrawing its membership of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The first institution hands out financial aid to developing economies, while the second monitors global exchange rates.

However, both are based in Washington DC, and critics claim they’ve long been dominated by the US for political ends. More specifically, opponents argue that the US effectively uses them to bully developing nations into submission, ensuring the institutions do not offer economic assistance unless recipients agree to reform along free-market principles. As such, Chavez’s symbolic decision sends out a powerful message to the rest of Latin America that it might actually be possible to break free of US influence once and for all.

Caracas is an outspoken opponent of the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which Chavez argues provides an unfair trading advantage to the US. As an alternative, the president has proposed a rival multilateral trading arrangement, in which Latin American countries seek to support one another’s growth. For instance, Venezuela’s oil is currently being sold at preferential rates to Cuba in return for professional expertise, while Argentina and Bolivia have received huge injections of cash in recent years.

Hugo Chavez is Cuba's best friend, says this wall mural in Havana

Hugo Chavez mural in Havana

Venezuela has even brought its controversial trading practices to North America. In late 2005, as oil prices spiralled out of control, Chavez announced that Venezuela would offer cut-price oil to disadvantaged residents living in the US. The policy was universally seen as a political insult aimed squarely at the Bush administration.

Upon gaining re-election last year, Chavez sparked alarm among many western commentators by immediately declaring Venezuela would accelerate its conversion into a “democratic socialist” country. One particularly controversial aspect of this has been the nationalisation of private oil projects in the Orinoco Belt, and an attempt to repeat the trick with telecommunications infrastructure. Capitalist investors in the region are understandably none too impressed.

Meanwhile, the transformation has affected social policy as well. Since being installed as president in 1997, Chavez has instigated a series of so-called “missions” designed to alleviate poverty – from a drive to boost enrolment figures in primary schools to a comprehensive overhaul of the healthcare system.

The future?
Venezuela’s vast oil wealth and its policy of encouraging neighbours to shun the west mean it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. For the US, the full extent to which relations have soured was rammed home recently when, speaking after being re-elected for a third term, Chavez took the opportunity to launch a stinging personal attack on president George Bush, branding him “the devil” and “Mr Danger”.

So what can be done? Back in 2002, several media reports alleged that the US secretly supported a failed military coup against Chavez. However, times have changed. Venezuela is now one of the world’s most high-profile political players as a result of soaring oil prices, and can count on international support from Russia, China, Cuba, Bolivia, Iran and others. What’s more, Chavez received a massive two-thirds of the vote when Venezuela went to the polls last December.

With such overwhelming support, the west must surely now acknowledge that the new “democratic socialist” Venezuela is here to stay.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 17 Apr 2020

History feature: Cuba under Castro

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: May 2007
Outlet: In The News
Photos taken: November 2016 (© Richard Frost)

Castro’s communist state prepares for change

Cuban president Fidel Castro’s recent no-show at the International Workers’ Day festivities, one of the highlights of the socialist calendar, has again sparked furious debate about the island’s future. Precious little has been seen of the larger-than-life figurehead since July 2006, when he temporarily ceded power to brother Raul Castro for “several weeks” after undergoing surgery for intestinal bleeding.

Richard Frost reviews the colourful presidency of Castro and the history of antagonism between the US and the west’s first communist state.

National Capital Building, aka El Capitolio, in Havana

El Capitolio in Havana

Castro’s rise to power
Castro took control of the island at the end of the ’50s following a lengthy militia campaign. After being released from prison for his role in a 1953 rebel attack, Castro promptly formed a new band of insurgents in Mexico – including the likes of Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and his brother Raul – and returned to the Caribbean island in 1956 to fight the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Batista’s cruel repression fuelled Cuban resentment, gradually swelling the ranks of Castro’s rebels, and a steady stream of victories throughout 1958 prompted Batista to flee to Portugal on 1 January 1959, leaving the path clear for Castro to take over.

Fidel Castro, leader of Los Bardudos, at a Cuban liberation rally in 1959

Painting of a Cuban liberation rally in 1959

A thorn in the side
Despite supporting Castro by imposing a Cuban arms embargo in 1958, the US soon grew to distrust its neighbour. A wide-ranging set of political reforms implemented by the new government included the nationalisation of Cuban assets, meaning the US lost millions of dollars’ worth of investments almost overnight. The ejection of US-based Mafiosi and the violent suppression of political dissenters further soured relationships, while an aid agreement struck in 1960 between the Soviet Union and Cuba terrified the US as the Cold War loomed large.

El Malecon in Havana leading up to Hotel Nacional de Cuba

El Malecon and Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana

The Bay of Pigs Invasion
Responding to the perceived threat, the CIA began secretly training up Cuban exiles in Florida to help them overthrow Castro. However, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion was a disaster – US president John F Kennedy denied the exiles aerial support in a bid to appear impartial, and Cuba quickly repelled the attack. This prompted the US to adopt a more covert method of regime change. In 1999, the then head of the Cuban secret services estimated there had been 638 plots to assassinate Castro down the years, with the CIA believed to have tried explosives-laden conch shells, poisoned diving suits and even exploding cigars.

Che Guevara Mausoleum complex in the Cuban city of Santa Clara

Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara

The Cuban Missile Crisis
The neighbourly dispute between Cuba and the US assumed global significance at the height of the Cold War in 1962. Soviet leaders, keen to gain a strategic foothold on their rival’s doorstep, struck a deal with Castro to install nuclear weapons on the island. The resulting Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

The crisis started when the Soviets launched a convoy of ships across the Atlantic to deliver nuclear missiles to Cuba. However, the US learnt of the plans and immediately surrounded Castro’s island, threatening to destroy any ship found running the blockade. As the convoy neared, both superpowers prepared their respective nuclear arsenals for launch. However, a war was narrowly averted when the Soviet ships belatedly withdrew, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Map of Soviet military units in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

Map of Soviet units during the Cuban Missile Crisis

An enigma
Modern-day Cuba is a puzzle. On the one hand, the island has a legendary healthcare system and an education-for-all programme that is almost as famous. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled to Florida and beyond following Castro’s crackdowns against free speech, freedom of association and anything “contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism”.

Last year, as Castro handed over the reins to his brother, US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice called upon the Cuban population to rise up in support of creating a full and open democracy. The methods may have changed somewhat, but almost half a century later, it appears the US is still preoccupied with its diminutive communist neighbour.

Typical street scene in the picturesque Cuban town of Trinidad

Trinidad in central Cuba

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: May 2007
Outlet: In The News

In a nutshell…
Sassy acid take on electronica.

What’s it all about?
It’s fair to say that dance music has had a rocky few years. Remember the heady days of the 1990s when Primal Scream, Massive Attack and The Prodigy brought some hard-edged rock festival credibility to the genre? It all seems so very long ago.

High time, in fact, that dance began rebuilding itself from the bottom up. Right on cue, a host of background production teams from Justice to Pendulum are gradually taking centre stage. And at the vanguard of them all is Simian Mobile Disco who have finally jumped into the limelight with their debut LP.

Attack Decay Sustain Release is unashamedly a dance album. But it’s a dance album that deliberately turns its back on production sheen in favour of jaw-rattling beats. Once the hips are swinging, Simian Mobile Disco’s ten-track musical salvo sets to work on the ears with the sort of acid grooves and epic breakdowns that have been gathering dust in a cupboard since 1992.

Who’s it by
Simian Mobile Disco have had an eclectic route to the top by anybody’s standards. The story of electro fans James Ford and Jas Shaw starts with an indie band called Simian, which successfully crossed indie melodies with dance sensibilities. Although LP We Are Your Friends became a cult indie sensation, they were consistently overlooked by the mainstream. Eventually, the DJ duo began to focus more and more energy on their true passion – dance.

As word began to spread, the pair decided it was time to abandon Simian and turn to dance production full-time. It proved a wise career move – Simian Mobile Disco rapidly made their name as the dream ticket for indie bands seeking a dance makeover.

Finally, the pair decided it was time to escape the dingy production booth by unleashing their long-awaited debut LP. Attack Decay Sustain Release was born.

Cover of 2007 Simian Mobile Disco LP Attack Decay Sustain Release

As an example…
“If I had the money to go to a record store, I would…Go to that record store, steal some records, man. I’m telling you I’m broke, I’m telling you I’m broke, but I’m surviving, and I can cope. Yeah I’m a hustler baby, that’s what my daddy’s made me” – Hustler

Likelihood of a trip to the Grammys
It’s a sure-fire bet that anybody who’s anybody in the dance fraternity will jump on this album. Clubbers, DJs and critics will all find something to love, but the Grammys may prove a step too far. Mind you, if they keep on producing killer albums for the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Klaxons, they might scoop a few Grammys by association.

What the others say
“If you were one of those people complaining they couldn’t hear the ‘rave’ in new rave, Attack Decay Sustain Release should make you very happy” –

“The new tracks seem either rushed or cobbled together, Frankenstein monster-style” – Slant Magazine

So is it any good?
Attack Decay Sustain Release is the best name imaginable for this album. You see, it’s not so much a title as a mission statement.

Each track takes no prisoners, kicking off with an all-out attack on the listener, as crunching beats remorselessly assault the senses. Song after song grabs hold of your eardrum and mercilessly pounds away until decay sets in. As your nerves gradually recover, Simian Mobile Disco effortlessly sweep you back off the floor again with a nagging hook that grows and sustains, sustains and grows. Suddenly, the beat is back alongside such outrageously old-skool acid riffs that release is the only option. Go with it, break out a grin and just let your body move!

Ok, so some critics might argue there’s nothing astonishingly new here. Isn’t this just a rehash of the oldest dance formula in existence? Well yes, yes it is. But it hasn’t been rehashed with this much style and verve since Mylo. So crank up the volume, ignore the naysayers and brace yourselves for Attack Decay Sustain Release.


Posted by: Richard Frost | 15 Apr 2020

From Baghdad, With Love by Jay Kopelman book review

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: April 2007
Outlet: In The News

In a nutshell…
One Marine and his dog.

What’s it all about?
A former US Marine reveals the blood, sweat and tears reality of trying to make a difference in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Sadly, however, in this real-life true story he decides to look beyond the all-too-obvious humanitarian crisis and focus instead on a “mangy, flea-ridden puppy”.

Essentially a 200-page Sunday supplement feature, the tale revolves around this stray Iraqi puppy, stumbled on by chance and adopted on the spot by the Marines. It then recounts the soldiers’ attempts to evacuate this beloved pooch to the US in a calculated attempt to make middle-aged American housewives from Kansas to Colorado go “awwwwww” in unison.

Who’s it by?
Unsurprisingly, From Baghdad, With Love is Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman’s first book, what with being rather busy fighting toe-to-toe with Iraqi insurgents and all. He was drafted into Iraq in September 2004.

However, the book bears all the hallmarks of being totally ghost-written by co-writer Melinda Roth. A journalist by day, it’s impossible not to detect her pawprints all over the sections cataloguing Iraqi casualties, military misinformation and condemnation of the war effort. At least Ms Roth has pedigree – she previously wrote The Man Who Talks to Dogs.

As an example…
“Once the weather turns colder, he comes inside at night. That’s when he starts bugging me, hanging around looking wide-eyed and cute, all paws and snuffles and innocence. In reality, when he isn’t asleep, he’s anything but innocent.”

From Baghdad, With Love by Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman with Melinda Roth

Likelihood of becoming a Hollywood blockbuster
If, heaven forbid, this dirge ever makes it to the supermarket shelves, don’t bother looking for it in the non-fiction aisle. This book is so sickly sweet, it’ll nestle comfortably between syrup and clotted cream. Such soppy sentimentalism, in fact, that surely even Disney would baulk at showing it on the silver screen.

What the others say
“One of a handful of heart-warming tales to emerge from the war in Iraq” – USA Today

“This touching, often hair-raising story of how a scrappy little puppy captured the heart of a tough-minded Marine will move you to tears” – Zooba

So is it any good?
Any writer who exhaustively dissects a needle in a haystack risks missing out on the bigger picture. Now, readers might be entitled to expect that a former Marine, lifting the lid on his time in Iraq, would have something interesting to say. And very occasionally, Kopelman does.

However, then he remembers he’s writing a soppy piece of fluff for dog-lovers everywhere and reverts to his default stance – puppy-eyed doting. It’s a classic case of not being able to see the wood for all the trees.

Add to this the fact the book is woefully padded out, with blow-by-blow accounts of every dog charity email not fooling anyone. And for £12.99, it goes without saying you could buy half a dozen Sunday supplements of infinitely better quality – with enough left over to gorge on syrup to your heart’s content.

A missed opportunity to show what life’s really like in Iraq, From Baghdad, With Love is most definitely barking up the wrong tree.


Posted by: Richard Frost | 14 Apr 2020

English National Badminton Championships interviews

Original publication date: March 2007
Outlet: Badminton England

Interviews with players and personalities during the English National Badminton Championships 2007 at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester.

Gail Emms

Gail Emms, Olympic silver medallist, in conversation with sports journalist Richard FrostRichard Frost interviews Olympic silver medallist Gail Emms [after Emms & Robertson beat Ellis & Agathangelou 21-19, 21-16 in 22 minutes]

Are you happy with the result?
Yes, it’s fine. We’ve just come up from Milton Keynes. When you’ve had a two- to three-hour drive, it can be hard as everybody’s expecting great things, but we’re just happy to get through. I’m absolutely knackered!

Are you glad to be back in Manchester?
Definitely, I love being back here! It’s a shame we only get to come to Manchester once a year. I’ve got a couple of friends in the city, so it’s nice to meet up with them.

What do you like to do in the city?
I love the shopping in Manchester. Obviously, it’s nice being at Sportcity, but it’s very self-contained and there’s not really much to do. So it’s great to shop in Selfridges and Harvey Nicks – though I didn’t buy anything this time around.

Are you expecting the same nationals final this year?
Yeah, I’m definitely expecting the same final against Anthony [Clark] and Donna [Kellogg]. It’ll also be the same final as in the world championships. Having the same final in the nationals as in the world championships will be great for English badminton. And I’m also expecting to face Jo [Nicholas] and Natalie [Munt] in the women’s doubles [alongside Kellogg].

How are you coping with all the attention here?
The attention’s exhausting but it’s OK because everyone’s nice, and it’s quite sweet when all the kids are chasing after you. The only thing is, if one finds out that it’s you, then they all come after you! But it’s only a problem if you make it a problem.

Panuga Riou

Panuga Riou on court at the English National Badminton Championships in ManchesterRichard Frost talks to 14-year-old Panuga Riou on her nationals debut [after losing to Westley 21-12, 21-15 in 27 minutes in the quarter-finals]

Are you pleased with how the tournament went?
I’m very pleased to have got so far. I knew if I played OK, I could get to the quarter-finals, so I think that I’ve done well.

Have you ever been to Manchester before?
No, this is my first time – Manchester’s a nice place. I had a quick tour of the sights last night, but ended up getting lost for a while because it’s so big!

Would you say there’s a lot of competition in the junior badminton ranks at the moment?
There are a few more good players in my year and the year above, so I’m surprised there aren’t more people of my age here.

And do you have a message for any budding young badminton players out there?
If you dream it, then you can do it!

Chris Hunt

Veteran badminton player and coach Chris Hunt at the National Cycling Centre in ManchesterRichard Frost talks to 38-year-old Chris Hunt, the oldest player at the tournament [after Hunt & Archer beat Penn & Taylor 21-18, 21-15]

So Chris, are you happy with your performance?
Well, put it this way, at least I didn’t need my zimmerframe out there today!

Are you aware that you’re officially the oldest player competing this year?
No, I didn’t realise that. I guess it’s something to be proud of. But it’s never a good sign when neither you or your team-mate can get to the drop shots. We both just tend to look at each other and shrug our shoulders.

What was your preparation like for the tournament?
Well, I only had three weeks’ practice for the championships, and nothing at all before that. I dislocated my shoulder a few years ago and I’m more involved in the coaching side than anything now. I’m actually coaching one of the other players here.

What are your thoughts about Dean George and Chris Tonks, your opponents in the next round?
Well, all I know is that they’re both young players, so it should be a good test for us. Mind you, everybody seems young to me. If you’re under 37, you’re young in my book.

Cheryl Goodwin

Stockport-based sports physiotherapist Cheryl GoodwinRichard Frost talks to physiotherapist Cheryl Goodwin

How have you found the tournament so far?
It’s been relatively quiet with injuries so far, to be honest. A few players have come to me to get strappings on their legs, and a few more for shin-splints, but to be honest it might be more psychological support than anything.

How does the physio department work at the nationals?
There’s two of us working during the weekend. I’m employed by Manchester City Council and I look after all the players who need physio work, whatever their status. Then there’s a second physio who just looks after the players on the elite setup, although we sometimes overlap if it gets very busy and the other physio needs some help.

What do you do away from the championships?
I work in a private practice based in Stockport, which specialises in sports injuries. But to be honest, I don’t really play badminton myself. I prefer squash and running – I’ll be doing the Great Manchester Run later this year, which should be fun.

Charity Barnes

Charity Barnes at the 2007 English National Badminton ChampionshipsRichard Frost interviews Charity Barnes [after beating Johnson 18-21, 21-13, 24-22 in 46 minutes]

How did you find it out on the court?
It was very hot. I didn’t play well in the first game at all, though the second went much better. I was 10-4 up, but then the stoppage came because sunlight was reflecting off the upper windows, and the judge decided it was reflecting in Elena’s eyes. I was a bit worried at that point because it was going so well and I’ve never had a stoppage like that before. But in the end, I won the second at a canter, so I don’t think it affected me much. Maybe it affected her more.

Do you enjoy the closer games more?
No, I don’t really like tense games at all, and nor does my mum, though thankfully she’s not here today.

Are you balancing the demands of badminton, university and a part-time job OK?
I’m finding it really difficult to balance everything at the moment. I’m in my final year of uni [at Hertfordshire University] and I do a part-time job as well. So I’m only managing to do an hour a week of training, which is pretty rubbish. But I finish uni in the summer and then it all depends on money whether I take up badminton full-time or not. I’ll probably try part-time at first and see how it goes.

How did you find your new women’s doubles partner? [Helen Davies, after Caroline Smith dropped out at the last minute]
From the junior circuit. I’ve known her for a few years, but we’ve never played doubles together before. I’m a singles player, but I figured what’s the point in playing maybe two matches when I could play doubles as well? Davies was stuck in traffic for a while earlier today, but she’s here now. The only thing is, she’s forgotten her kit, so she’s going to buy some clothes from the shops around the arena, which should be interesting. I don’t think we’ll last very long!

Posted by: Richard Frost | 13 Apr 2020

Doris Lessing: The Cleft book review

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: January 2007
Outlet: In The News

In a nutshell…
The timeless battle of the sexes in a handy handheld hardback.

What’s it all about?
Somewhere deep in the mists of time there lived a utopian society. The Clefts. The Clefts are an exclusively female race and so their lives are blissfully free of love, sex and arguments over whether they just flirted with the barman. Through some shady process, the moon helps these women conceive and give birth, rendering men both redundant and utterly beyond the realms of imagination.

One day, however, a Monster is born. These Monsters are actually the beginnings of the male race and our narrator, a Roman historian, takes it upon himself to document the fledgling origins of his own forefathers. But it’s not easy being a Monster, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can doubtless attest. In fact, these males face a desperate fight for survival against the uncomprehending and fearful Clefts.

After much amateurish torturing and feeding to the eagles, the Monsters break free to set up their own civilisation. As the centuries pass, the males establish an uneasy truce with the females, but it’s high on conflict and low on understanding about the practical benefits of flirting with the barman.

Who’s it by?
Doris Lessing is indisputably one of the giants of the literary world. So much so, in fact, that she’s effectively graduated to the title of legend in her own lifetime.

Her massive corpus of writing stretches from opera, through poetry and short stories, to the novels for which she is rightly famed. Among her most celebrated works of fiction are The Golden Notebook, Memoirs of a Survivor and The Good Terrorist.

As an example…
“Without males, or Monsters, no need ever to think that they were Clefts; without the opposite, no need to claim what they were. When the first baby Monster was born, Male and Female was born too, because before that they were simply, the people.”

Canadian author Margaret Atwood's 2005 novel The Cleft

Likelihood of becoming a Hollywood blockbuster
Some books are ripe for the Hollywood treatment, others are destined to gobble up awards and appear as literary set-texts for years to come. This is definitely one of the latter. A measured study of gender incompatibilities – featuring eye-watering scenes of genital mutilation and murderous gang rape – it’s unlikely that you’ll see Ben Stiller optioning The Cleft anytime soon.

What the others say…
“She’s up there in the pantheon with Balzac and George Eliot. We’re lucky she’s still writing” – Lisa Appignanesi, The Independent

“Doris Lessing has changed the way we think about the world” – Blake Morrison

So is it any good?
I must admit to approaching The Cleft with a fair degree of trepidation. The concept of woman thriving in a shiny happy world before man showed up in all his ugliness did not, it is fair to say, fill me with anticipation. It sounds more like a Germaine Greer flight of fancy circa 1970 than the building blocks of an entertaining novel.

And, true to form, there are more dated gender stereotypes in here than a 1920’s edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. The Clefts are homely, sociable, peaceful, overprotective and squeamish, with an innate desire to sweep up household debris. The Monsters, meanwhile, are adventurous, combative, dominated by their Squirts (yes, that’s the word she actually uses!) and would rather play lame stone-skipping competitions than engage in deep and meaningful relationship talks.

So far, so 1970.

Yet despite the clichés, this novel still wins you over. The fact that the tale is told through the eyes of a sexist Roman senator is a clever conceit, enabling Lessing to document differences between the sexes, without endorsing the narrator’s suggestion that every woman has the blueprint for a household broom etched into their DNA.

Ultimately, a novel lives or dies by its ability to incite debate. The origin of the male race is a rich vein of inspiration, and Lessing uses it magnificently to wheel out gender stereotype after gender stereotype. It’s an irresistible formula, constantly demanding that you think for yourself and either accept or reject the time-honoured clichés.

You may be outraged, then, but it’ll sure get you thinking…


Posted by: Richard Frost | 12 Apr 2020

Markus Zusak: The Book Thief book review

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: November 2006
Outlet: In The News

In a nutshell…
Poetic insight into fascist Germany.

What’s it all about?
The book thief is the alter-ego of a nine-year-old girl called Liesel, whose life history is narrated by none other than the Grim Reaper himself. Now Liesel has both the misfortune to be growing up in Nazi Germany and the good fortune to be sheltered from it by a vehemently anti-fascist family, the Hubermanns.

Much of the novel revolves around Liesel’s surprisingly normal childhood, in which Nazi book burnings, Hitler Youth and the persecution of the Jews are merely a backdrop to the main events in her life, such as stealing books and forbidden apples.

However, all this changes when her father’s long-forgotten wartime promise comes to fruition and a desperate Jew lands in their basement. Unwittingly, Liesel finds herself thrust into the front line against the all-too-real hatred of the Nazi state.

Who’s it by?
This is the first novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak. Previously famed as a writer of children’s books such as I am the Messenger, Zusak successfully crosses into the mainstream without abandoning his roots.

Indeed, these roots are exactly what sets his writing apart. Whether describing “the red sky still showering its beautiful ash” after an air raid, or the “dying eyes and scuffling feet” of a Jewish death march, Zusak picks apart the underlying simplicity of Nazism with a childlike eye.

The Book Thief, an award-winning novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak

As an example…
“Soon there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing.”

Likelihood of becoming a Hollywood blockbuster
A dead cert. With film rights already snapped up by 20th Century Fox, the Book Thief has at least five characters your average Oscar-sniffing Hollywood A-lister would sell a kidney for.

What the others say
“Poised to become a classic” (USA Today)

“It’s possible to be overwhelmed and impressed by such moments in Mr Zusak’s novel. It’s also possible to wish there were more of them” (The New York Times)

So is it any good?
Clocking in at a hefty 584 pages, there’s sadly no getting away from the fact that The Book Thief takes up a few more trees than is strictly necessary. And it’s true that, no matter how beautifully written, too much weighting is given to the minutiae of everyday wartime life, such as scrumping said Granny Smiths. But those who stick around will be treated to an array of genius-tinged moments.

And there can be no doubt that Zusak soars highest when confronting the BIG issues. Exploring how Max Vandenburg, the stowaway Jew, is racked with guilt at bringing fear to the Hubermanns. Or how he fantasises about boxing the Fuhrer. Or how one honest man can choose to be complicit with fascism while another cannot.

If you persevere, then, you’ll find moments aplenty in which Zusak elegantly tackles the human fallout from the fascist century. Just as long as you overlook those bloody apples.


Posted by: Richard Frost | 11 Apr 2020

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny film review

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: December 2006
Outlet: In The News

In a nutshell…
A spoof rockumentary about the self-professed greatest band in the world.

What’s it all about?
Good question. Allegedly, it’s a film about the rise of the rock band Tenacious D to world domination (their words, not mine). However, anyone familiar with either the music of ‘the D’ or the film exploits of hyperactive funny-man Jack Black won’t be surprised to find that all is not as it seems.

So, we start with Black’s misery as he grows up in Kickapoo, Missouri (he actually grew up in California). Then he embarks on a rock pilgrimage to Hollywoods across the US to find future bandmate Kyle Gass (he didn’t). But they now need a band name so put their heads together (or, more precisely, backsides), and realise that their birthmarks spell the name Tenacious D (they don’t).

And finally, they hit upon the idea that the only way they can write a killer song is to steal a supernatural guitar pick fashioned from the tooth of Satan himself (and if you’re still unsure about the film’s truthfulness at this point, I suggest you seek help…).

Who’s in it?
Tenacious D are a real-life spoof rock band, powered by the considerable comic talents of Black and Gass. The latter tends to play minor loafer parts on the big screen, suffering as he does from baldness and an unfeasibly large beer gut. The former, meanwhile, is the more photogenic of the pair, and has successfully pulled off leading roles in The School of Rock, King Kong and new romantic comedy The Holiday.

Honourable mention must also go to a string of top-notch celebrity guest appearances. Meatloaf plays a tyrannical father who doesn’t understand the rock, Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio is one poster boy who does, Ben Stiller hams it up as a hairy muso with a devilish secret, and former Nirvana sticksman Dave Grohl makes for a rip-roaring Beelzebub.

As an example…
Black (spreading out an array of magazines fronted by rock legends): “What makes them so good? What do they have that we don’t?”

Gass: “Well, they all have the same guitar pick…”

Promotional poster for the movie Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

Likelihood of a trip to the Oscars
Not great, unless the judges harbour an unlikely soft spot for puerile jokes. But ever since Ben Hur trounced Some Like it Hot with 11 Academy Awards in 1960, it seems light-hearted musical comedies haven’t sat well with the men that count.

Having said that, the original motion picture soundtrack is a thing of genius (it’s currently on sale as the band’s second album) and should indisputably be nominated. Humour permitting…

What the others say…
“Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny is shambolic nonsense and dumber than a bag of snakes, but it is funny and the songs rock” (pixelsurgeon)

“There’s enough anguished gurning here to fill a yearly subscription to Kerrang” (BBC)

So is it any good?
The film is a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. Is it funny? Yes. Is it consistently funny? No. Is it as funny as the band’s first LP? Nowhere near.

And maybe that’s one of the film’s main problems. You see, Tenacious D’s eponymous debut album has already done all the ‘greatest band in the world’ jokes. And generally it’s done them a whole lot better. In fact, many of the same ideas are rehashed on screen – “cock push-ups”, Satan appearing unexpectedly, a love of oversized bongs, etc.

Another negative is that the film moves pretty sluggishly in the first half. Bearing in mind the finale sees ‘the D’ swap guitar licks with Satan himself, it’s clear that their passion is for outrageous flamboyance. So why spend the first half of the movie in Gass’ drab apartment?

All the best moments are the daft sketches where Tenacious D’s imagination explodes. The hatred of rock being preached by Meatloaf, the surreal magic mushroom sequence with added sasquatches, and the satanic history of the guitar pick are just three of the highlights. And unsurprisingly, the musical score will have you in stitches.

In patches then, this film is hilarious…but only in patches.


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