Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Okay, girlfriend, let’s dish the Oscars. What the hell was Anne Hathaway thinking? More to the point, what the hell was she wearing? Valentino, as it happens, and he must have hated her in The Devil Wears Prada just as much as we did. What’s more (and I never thought I’d advocate surgery but there’s a first time for everything), Hathaway really is someone who should get her eyes done. There, I’ve said it.

Emily Blunt, on the other hand, looked sumptuous, her shiny blue gown only starting at all if the camera panned down far enough. But then she effortlessly stole all the scenes she shared with Mrs Shakespeare. Indeed, apart from Emily, the divine Miss M-for-Meryl and dear Stanley Tucci, the acting in the movie was vile: the men were particularly repellent. It’s a silly little movie but such fun. Much like the Oscars, really.

On the red carpet, the designer of the night was Vera Wang. Class, class, class. Rachel Weisz was stunning in a sculpted Wang creation that made her look like a proper, womanly star – Ava Gardner in her prime, perhaps. Jodie Foster too looked serious and effortlessly stylish in a simply cut Wang number of fugitive blue. In her Valentino gown, Kate Winslett “looks like a big mouldy tree trunk”, according to The Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley. Catty but not far wrong. It certainly did nothing for Winslett’s ample curves whereas Wang’s cuts elongated her clients.

Cate Blanchett’s Armani Prive sheath looked like some kind of armour but was becoming in a rather alarming way, topped off by a fierce bob. Then she talks and she’s soft and charming. But the gown I liked best was the one Celine Dion – of all people – wore for the red carpet (but not, sadly, for the number she performed during the show). I don’t know who designed it but it was a classic wrap-around piece in a muted shade, almost British racing green, with strategically placed and unfussy silver accessories and a gold bag. It made you really pay attention to her and I’ve certainly never done that before.

Many of the men – especially but not exclusively those under 50 – wore black ties but not proper bow ties. I’m sad that formal evening dress is dying out for men. No less than Alan Arkin was improperly dressed. If you wear a lounge tie, it makes your tuxedo look as if it might be a lounge suit. In his old-fashioned garb, John Travolta was probably the most elegant man there, even with unruly hair.

Before the show proper began, we swapped between the live coverage of the red carpet on the E! channel and the rival “exclusively on Sky One”. It soon became clear that Sky’s relay was far from live. Sky’s crew was set up right (or rather left) alongside E!’s yet Michael Sheen left his E! interview screen left and didn’t enter Sky screen right for fully twelve minutes. In between, he must have fallen into a time-warp. Later we saw Dame Helen Mirren doing her shtik with her union flag at the left edge of the E! frame but had to wait seven minutes for the Sky interview that concluded with that flag routine.

The coverage on both channels was pretty lamentable. Sky interjected witless “background” from supposed experts: “people like Helen Mirren, Kate Winslett and Dame Judi – Brits are just dominating the Best Actress category” [I’m sure Ms Streep would have something to say about that]; “in the Original Screenplay, we’ve got Patrick Morgan for The Queen” [that’ll be Peter Morgan, of course]. It’s “experts” like this that make you aware how out of fashion true expertise really is.

E! ran “viewer quotes” that were almost as witless and banal as the “expert” views. In every break on Sky, the L’Oreal ad with Penelope Cruz was run. Smart booking but I bet they wish they’d signed Dame Helen.

The interviewers on the ground were as awful as you’d expect. Sky’s Fearne Cotton kept telling the passing stars that it was her first Oscars, as if they gave a damn. But at least she had the wit to interview Wolfgang Puck, the official Oscars chef, in what was certainly the most entertaining encounter of the night. Spare Brits like James McAvoy and Sheen (whom Fearne Cotton called Martin) were very available for interview, almost pathetically so. The E! interviewer, Ryan Somebody, kept insisting that Sheen “looks just like Tony Blair to me”. “You see, Ryan’s got the good analysis” concluded his co-presenter from her roof-top platform and, of course, she meant it seriously. Now and again she was joined by a “fashion expert” (whose hair was a story in itself) armed with a “glamorstrator” with which he scribbled on freeze-frames of the gowns to no great purpose.

Back on the ground, Ryan was separated from the stars by a potted azalea. “I can barely make it over the bush” he cried, oblivious to the unfortunate term, as he craned to kiss Forest Whitaker’s wife. Later, he pumped an increasingly irritated Gael Garcia Bernal about Brad Pitt, evidently unaware that the two actors were filmed on different continents for the big ensemble piece Babel (which the Yanks refer to as Babble). You could hear Bernal thinking “he doesn’t have anything to ask me, does he”.

The emphasis on big box-office stars is maddening, of course. There were veteran actors present who didn’t have presentation duties and whom nobody interviewed: Jane Russell, Mickey Rooney. Either might be dead next year. Sky at least talked to the co-writer of Borat but we heard from no other writer or director. The first time all evening we got sight of Paul Greengrass was when the directing Oscar was about to be presented – not, as it turned out, to him.

During the ceremony, we saw plenty of Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, prominently seated and familiar to a huge proportion of the supposedly billion-strong audience. There were quite a few shots of the respective directors of Babel, Dreamgirls and Pan’s Labyrinth, the last of which richly deserved its three statuettes and was unlucky not to win for Best Foreign Language Film. But Stephen Frears, resplendent in white scarf and an aisle seat, was only seen at the edge of frame until Dame Helen’s inevitable win and the directing Oscar moment. Neither Peter Morgan nor the other British writing nominee, Patrick Marber, was shown at all, save in Errol Morris’s sprauncy pull-together of snatches of nominee comment that opened the show: that’s happily available to see again on the AMPAS website. (By the by, every event-broadcaster does pull-togethers these days but nobody ever does them as well as the Academy).

In the hall, we saw Jack Nicholson frequently, though he was a mere presenter. I dearly hope that his new Daddy Warbucks look is for a part and not the result of age and self-abuse. We saw too much of Will Smith, never in the running for Best Actor and laughing way too hard at his eight-year-old’s presenting moment. At least the cutting between cameras had been well rehearsed to go with the pretend spontaneity of Ellen DeGeneres’ hosting routines. But it was a great pity that it was thought necessary to show us the Sound FX Choir rather than the movie clips the singers were dubbing so cleverly.

The awards themselves held few surprises. Nobody in the world – not even Messrs Frears, Greengrass, Inarritu and Eastwood – could begrudge Marty his Academy Award. And nobody could think The Departed is among his best pictures. He wasn’t even nominated for Taxi Driver (John G Avildsen won for the absurd Rocky which also got Best Film), for New York, New York (Michael Cimino won for The Deer Hunter which was Best Film), for The King of Comedy (James L.Brooks won for Best Film, Terms of Endearment), for The Color of Money (Oliver Stone and his movie Platoon won) or for The Age of Innocence (Spielberg’s year, for Schindler’s List). And, of what are perhaps his greatest masterpieces, his direction of Raging Bull was beaten by Robert Redford for Ordinary People, and Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves was preferred over Goodfellas (that year he was first up against Stephen Frears, for The Grifters, which he co-produced).

Mention of Redford's soap opera brings to mind the wonderful Lillian Gish tottering on stage to announce the identity of the Best Film winner: "Ordinary Pic ..." she began, then corrected it to Ordinary People. She was right the first time and I'm quite sure she meant it.

Few expected Meryl Streep’s 14th nomination to bring her a third award but can you believe it is now 25 years since her last win? And what was that for, movies buffs? Out of Africa? Sophie’s Choice? Silkwood? The French Lieutenant’s Woman? A Cry in the Dark? These days she doesn’t get to make the kind of movies that carried her triumphantly through the 1980s.

There were no especially embarrassing acceptance speeches. Winners, notably behind-the-camera ones, still think they have to thank people but nobody’s list got really out of hand. Some of the presenters could do with a wind-up nudge from the band: Jerry Seinfeld was unfunny and way too long, as if auditioning to be presenter next year.

As for Ms DeGeneres, I thought she was fine but, like all the others who are not Billy Crystal, she made you crave really top class material. Stuff about Gilligan’s Island and her pretence of hoovering the auditorium carpet should have been excised at an early script session. I was sorry that she made nothing of being the first lesbian to host the Oscars (that sound you heard was Bob Hope turning in his grave). But at least Melissa Etheridge got to be the first woman at the Oscars to make reference to “my wife” – Tammy Lynn Michaels.

Oh, and it was Sophie’s Choice, by the way. Meryl’s last win. But you knew that.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


In my book Common Sense (freely downloadable from the link in the right margin), I proposed that impersonation, as practised by the likes of Rory Bremner, was “more a knack than a skill” and pretty low in the showbiz pecking order, at least historically. It emerged at the weekend that Bremner has driven the business of mimicking public figures even lower in the estimation of thoughtful people.

On the eve of the local elections last year, Bremner evidently telephoned 10 Downing Street and, posing as Gordon Brown, attempted to contact a number of Cabinet ministers. That a more secure method of making contact through the hub of government is not in place is pretty astonishing but there seems to have been no intention on the entertainer’s part to test the system. Bremner was merely interested in creating a stunt for his Channel 4 programme. He got through to Peter Hain but, when he unwittingly revealed his ignorance, Hain smelt a rat, “so I put the phone down” Bremner told The Sunday Times. It conjures the image of a little boy ringing a stranger’s doorbell and running away.

Later he raised Margaret Beckett, then Secretary of State for the Environment. They had an extended conversation, much of it about other members of the government, Mrs Beckett believing throughout that she was conversing with the Chancellor. Bremner recorded both the calls but, reports The Observer, “Channel Four decided not to screen [sic] them as part of the Bremner, Bird & Fortune show because of Ofcom regulations banning the use of deception unless it is in the public interest”. Having released the tapes to journalists, Bremner now intends to put the material on the net.

The Observer judges that “the spoof provides a fascinating glimpse into how senior figures really feel about each other”. I couldn’t disagree more. Politicians are ordinary mortals who can’t be expected to adore all their colleagues. What it shows is how truly debased our ‘infotainment’ media have become. What is the difference between a journalist tapping into the phone calls of members of the royal family – for which the hapless hack who did so is in jail as I write – and an impersonator’s irresponsible deception? Does Bremner think he has been in some way clever and daring?

The hoax is a weasel’s method of amusing himself and getting himself a name. I suppose if anyone ever decked that egregious little twerp Noel Edmonds when he revealed that some C-list person had been ‘had’ – “gotcha!” – the thus humiliated Edmonds would have used his power to keep the tape of the decking from the public’s eyes. But at least Edmonds’ ‘victims’ were mere showbiz types. To draw a government minister into unguarded talk is to open up many risks: compromising policy, imperiling the minister’s standing and perhaps career, even endangering security. Is Bremner a serious grown-up or just a child blowing raspberries?

I do not defend politicians; they can look after themselves. But Bremner’s self-promoting wheezes are at the expense of the credibility of the very political process. Mrs Beckett is a diligent and decent minister, justly angered by Bremner’s cowardly and spiteful trick. John Prescott, whose public image has taken a battering in recent years, could have emerged much more damaged from such an innocently conducted chat and, because the media types wouldn’t care about that, Bremner would doubtless have led him into much deeper water, had the opportunity presented itself.

Politicians – no different from you and me – need to be able to talk off the record with people whom they believe to be their friends and confidants. I’m sure Bremner would be damned sore if he found he had been conned and recorded when he thought he was talking unobserved to his scriptwriter, his accountant, his drug dealer or his clap clinic. To (as it were) hack into the political process is rather more serious than eavesdropping on someone’s personal affairs. I sincerely hope that Mrs Beckett will take legal advice on the matter. If Bremner cannot be prosecuted for his juvenile jape, the law needs to be changed so that crass tricks like his may not be pulled in future without such representatives of the ever more frivolous media suffering dire consequences.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


As with most technology, I came late to the downloading of music. Ever since VCRs were first on sale and I bought a Phillips instead of a VHS, I’ve been leery of investing in new technology until I’m sure that it’s a lasting development or that the invariable pairing of rivals has rationalized into one top dog (squarial, anyone?). A friend was inordinately proud of his quickly extensive collection of laser discs, then downcast when the system just as quickly became obsolete and he was left with a cache of stuff that no one wanted.

For years I resisted CDs, liking vinyl records much more as pure objects and figuring that the advantages of the CD – resistance to surface damage and wear, reduced demand for space – were outweighed by the down side – cover artwork compressed to a fraction of how it was designed to look, sleeve notes abandoned or rendered so tiny as to be illegible. I no longer remember what changed my mind: probably the record companies ceasing to issue albums I wanted on vinyl or cassette tapes.

I may never have got into downloads, had not a friend given me an iTunes token as a birthday present. To use the token, of course, I had to register with iTunes. I was never able to make the token work, however, and its value reverted to the giver who then spent it on himself, so it turned out to be a proverbial Indian gift.

My own computer is an iMac so there was never any compatibility issue with iTunes. But it took a while to get used to the style of the site. The trouble with iTunes, as with other download sites, is the lack of someone organizing the material who has the appropriate mind-set for the job. To get this right you need people who have anal qualities, the kind that fire librarians and researchers. You need people who are passionate about music and in a geeky, detail-loving way. You need gay people, for god’s sake.

There is no sense in the iTunes ‘store’ that anyone who programmes it has any feel for – or even knowledge of – the broad range of music. Irritatingly, all the individual tracks are referred to as ‘songs’, which tells you eloquently enough that their heads are in pop. They no doubt know what the current best sellers are. But their interaction with their customers is mechanistic rather than imaginative.

I log in and find a section entitled ‘Just for You’. This means me. It lists two albums by each of George Michael, Jamiroquai, Christina Aguilera, Madonna, Eurythmics and (yuk!) Sugababes. I have never downloaded any of these people – nor am ever likely to – but presumably much of it derives from my buying an Annie Lennox album. I have also downloaded albums of Vivian Blaine, CPE Bach, Scissor Sisters, Bernard Herrmann, Manhattan Transfer, Kaija Saariaho, Steely Dan, Lena Horne, Gustav Mahler, Bobby Darin and Blossom Dearie, among others. Does none of these compute?

It’s bizarre and alienating that a computer presumes to “recommend” music to me based on what it imagines my purchases indicate. How does my downloading Modern Times by Bob Dylan suggest that I’d want Elton John’s The Captain and the Kid? Is it just a generational connection? And why would my buying an album of opera arias sung by Cecilia Bartoli suggest that I might want Nikolai Lugansky playing Beethoven Piano Sonatas?

Among the preferences offered for listing in your own ‘library’ of downloads is the identity of the composer of each ‘song’. Not very taxing for the computer if the recording is of Haydn String Quartets. But I downloaded a double album of standards sung by the incomparable Lee Wiley and not one of the tracks is credited to a composer (though I can name pretty much all of them; the ones I can’t I want to know now and not to have to look them up in a reference book). Someone at iTunes just hasn’t put the hours in.

When I first investigated iTunes, I felt sure that I would never use it for classical music. To begin with, all the people in their lists of what is available are organized according to first names. This is an absurdity. Fine of course if you want to download Lulu or Mantovani. But tell me – quick, now – what is Rossini’s first name? And can you spell it? If you don’t know, you’ll find it damned hard to locate a recording of Il Turco in Italia to download.

On another site, eMusic, there’s a different problem when you want to search for a classical recording. Suppose you fancy something by Elgar. You put that name in the search engine and you get this list:

Edward Elgar
Elgar, Edward
Sir Edward Elgar
E Elgar
Elgar Howarth

Apart from the last-named (a different composer whose first name happens to be Elgar), all the others refer to the same old master but how are these cross-references differentiated? No doubt it’s to do with the formulation used on the cover of the CD or perhaps in the label’s catalogue. But the customer has no idea which particular recordings are going to be attached to which particular version of Elgar’s name. This is really no help. You can’t blame the poor, philistine computer which has no means of knowing that Elgar, Edward and Sir Edward Elgar are one and the same. But an intervening programmer who knew a modicum about music could sort this out pretty quickly. If you search for Bach in eMusic, you get 34 results, embracing twelve members of JS Bach’s family and a modern composer called Jan Bach. Good luck.

Then again, I wanted to see if eMusic had the recording of Glazunov’s 4th Symphony by the National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka. Of the various sub-divisions of the search engine, I chose Classical Album Title and typed in Glazunov Symphony no 4. The result of the search offered me 1,948 recordings beginning with Beethoven’s 1st and 5th Symphonies. What possible use is that?

I searched eMusic for an album of 14th century French ballades and other French songs by the group called Gothic Voices. It seemed sensible to choose the category Classical Performer and search therein for Gothic Voices. The ‘match’ I was offered was to “Various Artists” and when I clicked on that I was offered a list of 7,211 albums beginning with ‘This is Rock Anthems’. Only a computer could believe this is in any way helpful.

But is it cheaper to download music? Naxos are a famously cheap label, generally retailing in shops at £4.99 a disc. The entire Naxos back catalogue is available through eMusic and, for the deletions alone, that is great news. But is it good value? You can download 40 ‘songs’ per month for £8.99. I have a Naxos CD of John Cage’s Prepared Piano pieces that runs to 19 tracks. Two like that would use up all but two tracks of my entire month’s allowance and would cost me the same as the CDs in a shop but I wouldn’t get the booklet and recording details that come with the CD.

The Naxos collection on eMusic is highlighted in a section called, wearyingly, Naxos Nexus: “it’s a big catalog [sic] to plow [sic] through, so here are some great performance [sic] of the ‘classical canon’.” You soon twig that the writer of this illiterate tosh has never listened to any of these “great performance”. For instance, if you were looking to download a version of Mahler’s 1st Symphony, it certainly wouldn’t be Zdenek Kosler’s. Further on in the list is a mixed album of pieces by Janacek, Enescu and Dvorak credited to ‘Various Artists’. You click on ‘Short Description’, hoping to learn who the various artists might be, and there’s our old friend the list of thousands of albums beginning with ‘This Is Rock Anthems’. Do me a favour. What’s more, the Naxos list has not been updated in over a year.

To test out iTunes, I decided to see what it’s got of one of my favourite contemporary composers, Kagel. Nobody with the first name Mauricio is listed under either ‘Modern Composition’ or ‘avant-garde’, the two ‘subgenres’ (as iTunes are pleased to call them) of ‘classical music’ where you might expect to find him. So I put Kagel in search. This produced someone called Muricio Kagel under Artists. An album of his orchestral works (which I already have as a CD) listed the composer as Mauricio and the conductor – the same man, of course – as Muricio. Sloppy. There’s also a trombone album of modern pieces by various composers but you can’t download the Kagel alone, you have to buy the whole album.

On iTunes, you can buy by the album (each individually priced) or (with exceptions such as that above) by the track. On eMusic, you pay a flat rate per month that allows you to download a number of tracks. This needs careful planning to maximize your value. A big symphony – Bruckner, Mahler, Havergal Brian – is a good buy because the whole album may only be four hefty tracks. An opera may be a poor buy, using up all your allowance in one hit. I didn’t download the Gothic Voices album from eMusic because it comprises 18 tracks, some of them under three minutes long.

What are the advantages of downloading? A few minutes after seeing that an album is available, I can be playing it on my iMac. I can go straight to it on my screen and do other computing tasks while it plays. And I don’t have to shlep around a record store – not, in my view, anything of a chore.

But I can only play the download on my iMac, unless I burn it onto a blank CD or buy myself an iPod (not my style, I think). I don’t get the information that is standard on CDs, though some labels (Naxos, for instance) now expect you to go to a website for opera librettos and the words of long oratorios and song cycles and leave them off the CDs. If it’s from eMusic, I have to apply myself to get the album installed on my iTunes player, at least with the tracks in playing order, and play it all through in one sitting, otherwise the player divides it into separate ‘albums’. This can be tiresome.

Clearly a mixed blessing, then. Perhaps the definitive judgment is this: to download I only need to sit on my arse and get fatter. To buy CDs, I need to walk round shops. Well, I should get out more. I’ll stick to majoring in CDs.

And Rossini’s first name? It’s Gioachino. But you knew that.

Monday, February 12, 2007


On Friday’s Any Questions, the first question was: “Will you be buying any Bernard Matthews products this weekend?” My answer would be “no” but it would be “no” any weekend.

Even if we remove the unappetizing ingredient of Bernard Matthews from the question, I would not be buying turkey. It’s the fowl with the least going for it. Unless prepared by a cook of experience, skill and imagination, turkey is the driest, least flavoursome meat in the whole field of fowl or game. How it has become all but de rigueur for the Christmas table I do not understand. Our Christmas Day bird of choice is goose so, apart from the delicious flavour of the meat, we have a vast residue of fat for many kinds of kitchen purposes over several months thereafter. If the festive meal brings a big turnout of guests, then it’s rib of beef.

On those Christmas Days when we are guests elsewhere and turkey is unavoidable, I make up with Brussels sprouts which, according to the urban myth, everybody loathes but which I have adored since a much reminisced-upon occasion in my toddlerhood when I evidently polished off at least a dozen sprouts. Perhaps everyone else hates sprouts because they only ever eat them overcooked but all vegetables are spoiled by cooking until they are soggy.

The Bernard Matthews “product” would be no more acceptable if it were quail or lobster or truffles. Matthews’ turkeys spend a miserable existence crammed into maximum security blocks, fed on chemical slurry, standing (they have insufficient room to sit) in their own faeces and never seeing the light of day or even seeing their fellows in plain sight. After slaughtering, they are bulked up with water, preserved with chemical additives and rendered into various gimmicky presentational modes (e.g. “twizzlers”) wherein, their lack of flavour masked with monosodium glutamate, they are sold to shoppers who do not have the wit to tell their children that they will eat proper food whether they think they like it or not.

When Mr Matthews says his processed foods are “bootiful”, what he means is that he has made a great deal of booty from them. He has plundered the housewife’s purse and the househusband’s wallet on the pretext that his brutal methods have enhanced rather than destroyed any residual flavour in the poultry he processes. His is the type of processed food in this country, the adulterated, over-packaged offal that claims to take the “inconvenience” out of cooking. To maximize his profits, the miserable creatures that provide the modicum of flesh for his products pass abbreviated lives in factory conditions, conditions which we now know are no guarantee against avian flu. Hardly surprising, when the fowl have no chance to run free or flap their wings or build any kind of immunity against opportunist infection that would of course spread quickly through the insanitary conditions in which the birds exist.

Matthews has only made his pile because shoppers are so stupid. If we all gave up our addiction to cook-chill and other “convenience” food and instead bought proper organic foodstuffs and meat and eggs from free-range flocks, the birds themselves would be at far less risk of disease and so would the public.

Friday, February 09, 2007


When I began to collect postage stamps in the 1950s, there were rigorous rules about the kind of people who appeared on the nation’s envelopes. Since the Penny Black was first issued in 1840, only the reigning monarch was depicted on the stamps, the head and neck of Queen Victoria and Kings Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI, the head and shoulders of the present Queen, first in three-quarter face (all her predecessors had appeared as profiles, save for the younger George V), then from 1968 in profiled silhouette.

The first person seen on a stamp who was not head of state was George VI’s consort. The opening issue of his reign was a single brown stamp to mark the coronation; his wife unexpectedly took an equal share of the stamp. A couple of significant developments in stamp design had occurred in his father’s reign. In 1924 and 1925, successive pairs of issues marked the British Empire Exhibition of those years. These were the first of what came to be known as “commemoratives”, issued for a limited period and tied to a particular event, as opposed to the smaller stamps – always available and bearing only the monarch’s head with more or less decoration around it – that are known as “definitives”.

More commemoratives appeared in George VI’s time, including a set for the London Olympics of 1948 that, for the first time, included a non-royal figure. It was, however, a safely mythic one: “winged victory”. With Elizabeth II’s reign came more change. Figures began to be depicted that were not even mythic, though they were certainly emblematic: a postboy of 1660, stylized children representing Freedom from Hunger and generalized lifeboatmen.

Under the Postmaster-Generalship of the government minister then known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a major change took place. Apart from a great proliferation of commemoratives and the aforementioned redesign of the Queen’s head, Benn permitted the first identifiable commoner to be depicted on stamps when the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth was marked by five issues, the largest set to date. The following year, the death of Churchill was even more controversially made subject of a two-stamp issue.

Thereafter, the convention has been that commoners may be depicted on the postage stamps, provided that they are no longer alive. In fact, several living members of the public have appeared, through the increasing use of photography as well as graphic design, but those depictions have been anonymous and as emblematic as the stylized postboy and lifeboatmen of the ‘60s.

Then, rather by accident, a living commoner did creep onto a stamp. In June 1999, the Post Office was partway into a project to mark the millennium with a succession of monthly sets on general themes. That month featured entertainers and the 19p issue showed Freddie Mercury on stage. Mercury was dead by this time but the other members of Queen were and are alive and, in the photograph that provided the basis for the design, the group’s drummer is visible. Thus does Roger Taylor merit a footnote in philatelic history.

Four years later, the England rugby team won the World Cup in Australia and, in the December, the Post Office issued a miniature sheet of four stamps to honour this victory. Each of the four designs carefully avoided showing the face of any player, though I dare say aficionados of the sport knew from the back views and shirt numbers which players were in the photographs and which were not.

By October 2005, the rules had been relaxed. A similar miniature sheet was issued to hail the England cricket team winning the Ashes. This time, players were seen full on and perfectly recognizable on the stamps. In that case, I couldn’t see why there shouldn’t be a stamp to mark Harold Pinter winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. But no such issue materialized.

The recent issue of stamps, which apparently “commemorates the first meeting of the young Paul McCartney and John Lennon fifty years ago”, takes the breakdown of the rules considerably further. Apart from a miniature sheet featuring Beatles collectables, the individual stamps each feature a Beatles album cover and hence the surviving members of the group, Sir Paul and Ringo Starr, are immortalized in the post. It says something about the philistine nature of the age that the first extant people in the public eye to be honoured on stamps are all sportsmen and pop stars.

Existing old masters, photographs and other images have been so miniaturized before but this issue is also a first in another way: the first time marketing images have been depicted on stamps. The reason for it quickly became clear to me. When I went to buy my own copies, the main post office in Bath had sold out of the stamps. A diligent counter staffer managed to rustle up a couple of strays but otherwise, she reported, their whole quota had gone in the first two days. Of course, collectors of Beatles memorabilia – a huge and ravening horde – fell upon this issue. It’s inevitable that the Post Office will note this and look at other subjects that have a commercial potential outside the usual run of stamp issues.

On Tuesday, a new set will be issued to celebrate half a century of the television programme The Sky at Night. Sir Patrick Moore is conspicuous by his absence. Not even a monocle indicates any connection of the issue to earth or its doings. Though BBC and ITV anniversaries have – legitimately, I feel – been marked by stamp issues, it seems nakedly populist for the Post Office to make a single television programme the subject of a set. Whatever next? A set based on I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here? A miniature sheet commemorating the Beckhams’ move to Los Angeles?

By the by, I eventually did find the remaining Beatles stamps, so please do not send me any, however poignant my plight might seem.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


I deplored in my book Common Sense (see right sidebar for free download) the increasing tendency of BBC television news bulletins to be used to trail BBC programmes. You can bet that the near-fatal spill last summer by a reckless presenter of the car-lad show Top Gear would not have occupied such a succession of reports or such repetition of footage if the programme were made for ITV. At the weekend, the miraculously restored delinquent was to give his spin-by-spin account of the accident on the first edition of the new series (cue Radio Times cover) so, needless to say, “never before seen footage” was previewed repeatedly on BBC news bulletins.

At the same time, the whipped-up furore over Celebrity Big Brother was reaching its apparently unmissable climax. You sensed the reluctance with which BBC News knuckled down, embraced the agenda of the tabloids and reported the progress of this particular spectacle on a rival channel. The reluctance was carefully tempered with the emphasised subtext that Channel 4 had done itself no good by playing host to a meretricious abomination. Evidently someone called, I think, Jaded Ghastly, had been turfed out of the “house” for making remarks of a racist tone and, since then, has taken the well-travelled path to The Priory, a mansion wherein the staff rake in the lolly but otherwise walk around in white coats looking grave and studiously avoiding wealthy, untalented and thick-as-planks people who want to feel martyred.

By the by, isn’t it odd that two notions from Orwell’s 1984, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’, have been purloined by television production companies and had their meanings surgically removed in order to make a vacuous entertainment sound somehow weighty and significant? Perhaps television itself should check in to The Priory.

The news bandwagon has moved on to Birmingham, gathering equally empty-headed observations from passers-by about the “dramatic” police raids on supposed Muslim terrorists. Meanwhile the rent-a-prepared-to-do-anything-for-attention-crowd movement has moved to an even more ludicrous proposition, that people you can’t quite put a name to (obvious exception: Janet Screech-Talker) can learn to be nurses in the NHS. I so look forward to the first court case in which an insufficiently briefed “celebrity” is sued for infecting a patient with MRSA.

In The Guardian on Monday, that most authoritative of media commentators, Mark Lawson, was given a whole page upon which to ruminate on the climax of Big Brother. I only read the quote extracted and enlarged: “Viewers who wished to show themselves to be liberals had to switch over to watch Top Gear”. It’s quite surprising that Mr Lawson, given the authoritative nature of his commentary, has access to only two channels. But he lives in a world in which the only existence possible is watching television (though today, bemusingly, he writes about theatre, which I guess he must channel by osmosis). In our house, we watched neither Big Brother nor Top Gear. But that’s what you get with old-fashioned socialists.