Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

There wasn’t too much riding on this one. Just deliver on the promise of two fantastically received films before it, overcome the bumpiest gestation of a Star Wars film since Solo, and perform its self-imposed task of wrapping up a nine-film saga over 42 years in the making, with the lowest-maintenance fanbase in the world, while tastefully navigating the untimely death of a key cast member three years before. No pressure. So, how did The Rise of Skywalker do?

Unlike the last two films, this felt to me a qualified success. At times, I was on a par with Richard E Grant, but this was in spite of a few niggles. So let’s delve into those first instead of the waxing lyrical about what a miracle it is that a film this extravagant, beautiful, exciting and funny even gets made.

My main bugbear is there from the start: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). We knew from the trailer he’d be here. What I wasn’t expecting was the film would need him to be there right from the start. There’s no big reveal, unless we count the trailer itself, and that was only for our benefit.

Viewing the films chronologically, this man had been thought killed decades ago (a significant, symbolic death that brought about the redemption of Darth Vader, now slightly cheapened). The most powerful villain in the whole saga, back from the dead, but there’s no moment of horrified realisation for any of the characters (who will, at least, have heard the terrifying legends). The story needs him straight away, so we have to take it as read in the opening crawl that he’s back. What should be a huge shift for everyone in the film happens before it’s started, and it takes a while for us to get over this wrong-footing, in spite of the film’s best efforts to bring us aboard with confidence.

The Emperor is essentially here to fulfil the role of Snoke, who was himself fulfilling the role of the Emperor in the last two films before the exciting twist of his death in The Last Jedi. Presumably this was deemed a mis-step and a big villain to unite our antagonists was desired after all. Since Snoke only ever felt like the Emperor Mark II, maybe it made sense to replace him with Mark I. Except with the impact of his first appearance and his death in the Return of the Jedi now diminished, the Emperor Mark I now has about as much standing as if he were Mark II anyway. It feels one-note, which is not to diminish McDiarmid, who’s deliciously evil as ever, but where do you go from Return of the Jedi?

You go to Return of the Jedi again, it turns out, with the Emperor largely showing us his trick again. Forcing Rey (Daisy Ridley) to watch her friends struggle in battle is a direct lift, with even the motive the same, and no extra splash of colour from Sith mythology or even more Star Wars genealogy can quite shake that feeling.

Which brings me to my other issue: the reveal of Rey as Palpatine’s granddaughter. Quite apart from how it’s handled (compare the high-stakes, personal face-off of ‘I am your father’ to Rey learning her origins from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who also happens to know; do we really feel this?), or the other, fussier questions this throws up (when did the Emperor have children? Does George Lucas now have to add a young Jodie Comer into the background of The Empire Strikes Back somewhere? Wait, how did the Emperor survive again?), it just feels like a climb-down. The twist gives Rey a more personal stake in the endless family dramas of this franchise, but when it reneges on The Last Jedi’s bold reveal that Rey’s parents were ‘no one’, in a film that championed the importance of ordinary people standing up, not just the space aristocracy, is it really worth it?

Where The Last Jedi made such brave choices, from killing the trilogy’s main villain a film early to making Rey’s parents no one of significance, The Rise of Skywalker backpedals to more comfortable places. It’s a fantastic, entertaining family adventure. But it feels very ‘safe’. The Force Awakens gave us a healthy dose of nostalgia with new, exciting elements thrown in. The Last Jedi started to question simple reverence of the past, and set us up for a showdown between Ren wanting to tear down all from before and Rey keeping a small flame of the past alive. The Rise of Skywalker…. well, given the history of this franchise, it’s not surprising nostalgia wins out. But in the end, we never even have the conversation.

So it is that we’re treated (and it is a treat) to an X-Wing rising triumphant from the water (same music as the corresponding moment in Empire), a trip to the remains of the Death Star (no, the second one), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, for a few whole minutes!) the twin suns of Tatooine (a beautiful final shot), and much, much more. Where The Last Jedi is sceptical of nostalgia, The Rise of Skywalker embraces it. And, as you’ll see, it won me over. But we never have that new, more interesting confrontation that we could have had. We end up back in The Force Awakens territory. And I love The Force Awakens. But we’ve been there before.

(While we’re on the subject of backtracking from The Last Jedi, Kelly Marie Tran as Rose is side-lined throughout in a way that feels apologetic. Maybe Tran herself was happy to have a smaller role if it meant less abuse from ‘fans’, but I hope this wasn’t simply the filmmakers giving in to bullies. Never mind it robbing the vast majority who liked the last film of a satisfying conclusion to that character’s storyline; the message it sends is just plain wrong.)

We’re out of the dark, murky woods of my criticisms. Here’s a GIF to celebrate.

Where there’s little divergence from the previous films is, surprisingly, Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) role. Her absence is handled as well as it can be, and I can’t help but feel the way her story ends isn’t so different from what was planned from the very beginning. It seemed inevitable that Leia would set her son on the path to redemption, even if it’s done in slightly fewer beats than it might have been. But done it is, and Han’s (Harrison Ford) surprise reappearance cements it. The fatal father-son stand-off from The Force Awakens is re-staged and corrected, on the wreckage of the Death Star, from which Starkiller Base, the site of their last confrontation, was perverted (the past is embraced fully and wrongs are righted).

Another piece of continuity from the last two instalments in this trilogy: we have here yet another candidate for the funniest Star Wars film. Diminutive droid technician Babu Frik (voiced by Shirley Henderson) gradually generated hysterics in the audience when I went to see it, during an otherwise poignant scene of C-3PO’s (Anthony Daniels) memory wipe. Each re-appearance got its own cheer.

The relationships between all our leads sparkle and it makes for some great comic moments. My personal favourite was General Hux’s (Domhnall Gleeson) confession to Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac): ‘I’m the spy.’ ‘WHAT?!’ It’s a broad laugh that punctures all the grandeur you trick yourself into expecting after a childhood spent buying into the mythology of it all, even though fun is what the Star Wars films were always really about. (Incidentally, how fantastic to see Hux blasted down a corridor with the contempt he deserves. A boy playing at soldiers for the whole trilogy, finally overshadowed by a proper henchman in Richard E Grant, who I only wish we could have had in these for longer; he’s magnificent.)

And one more piece of continuity, not just from The Last Jedi but also successfully harking back to the first ever Star Wars, and to every classic film where the cavalry suddenly arrives. That wonderful moment, perhaps my favourite in the whole film, in the climactic battle when all hope seems lost, and Poe realises their calls for help have been answered after all. Lando comes in on the radio, Poe flies out and sees the sky teeming with spaceships of every shape and size, come to their rescue. What a shot. And an amazing counterpoint to the silhouetted fleet of Star Destroyers from earlier (JJ Abrams knows what to do with that shape).

Crucially, it’s the fruition of all the hope that was talked of in the last film, the hope that ordinary people would stand and fight for each other. As a First Order solider says, mystified, ‘They’re just… people.’ Star Wars has often struggled to hammer home the scale of the terrors it shows us in terms of just how many ordinary lives are touched by them. In The Force Awakens, we see a brief shot on the ground of a world of the Republic as it’s swept away. The Last Jedi went further, showing children inspired by stories of the struggle, even though they might feel removed from it. And here, no more Rebel Alliances and Resistances. Here, the Galaxy makes its voice heard, and it’s a cohesive, inspiring, glorious ending.

A fitting finale, then. And although my earlier niggles were still there in my brain when I left the cinema, so too was the rush of having been swept up in a fantastic adventure. Which, in the end, is all I really turned up for in the first place. The Rise of Skywalker may be seen as the weakest of these three Star Wars sequels, but in such a strong trilogy, there’s little shame in that.


Hopes, Dreams or Goldfish

Two weeks ago today, passengers on the West Coast main line bid a fond farewell to Virgin Trains. Who can we travel with now if we want to enjoy perpetual adverts across the train, from posters on the train, notices on our seats, even announcements after the travel information? Probably even over the Wi-Fi if it worked.

Worst of all, the robotic toilets on the new Avanti services no longer speak to us as if they think they’re friends with us. Personally, I can now only go to the toilet if I’ve been made to feel by a machine like there’s somebody else in the room, saying the same joke that wasn’t funny the first time over and over and over again.

I feel bereft, not least because Virgin never had time to employ any of the toilet dialogue I recorded and sent in to help them add more colour to proceedings.

  • ‘Hello. It’s me. The toilet! And what do you have for me today? My goodness. Yes, very impressive. Now, come on. Time for you to give your gift. I’ll open wide… Ohhh, yes. Yes, delicious, delicious! Yum, yum, yum, yes please! More! More, please, more, more, more! More! Oh… Is that all? Oh, well, that was wonderful. Now, put your hands in the sink. I’ve got some little treats for you too…’
  • ‘Help me. Help me, please. You don’t understand, They trapped me in here. I’m not really a toilet. My name’s Colin. I owed money to Richard Branson, and his men, they, they came round, and put me in this, this thing, I- Oh, God, I miss my family. W- What are you doing? Please, what are you doing?! Please, God, no! No! Oh God-!’ [Speech becomes muffled and inaudible, cries continue]
  • The following short suggestions would come after a minute or two of silence with no previous announcement having been heard:
    • ‘What the hell are you doing?!’
    • ‘That’s lovely, and have you got your railcard too?’
    • ‘Toilet door unlocked… Toilet door opening… Ha ha ha. Just joking. You can sit back down. That’s better… Toilet door opening.’

So far, Avanti have not replied to my emails, but I’ve high hopes for at least some of the above being adopted in 2020.


Bad Eating Habits of Mine, Years 2 – 7

Christmas is traditionally a period for looking back and unhealthy eating. There seems no better time to recall various unwholesome, even criminal, methods of eating I devised as a child, and some remarkable dishes I created along the way. I apologise in advance.


  • Sunday Special K: every Sunday morning, I would dowse my favourite childhood cereal (perhaps I’ve always been middle-aged) in milk, but refuse to finish it until coming home from church. Special K is best enjoyed, it turns out, as soggy mulch, the milk having gained the flavour of the cereal – like it does with Coco Pops, but with a much headier, richer mix of grains. Mm, grains.

 Biscuit dissection methods

  • Kit Kats: break into two individual fingers; break each individual finger into thirds; handle each sixth one at a time, leaving the middle segments till last; whittle away the lower chocolate edge of each piece using lower front teeth; lick the chocolate away from the wafer stacks, first at the sides, then the bottom and the top (this will take some time); use tongue and teeth to break individual wafers away; after enjoying a wafer, lick away the sugary binding from beneath; within weeks, the whole Kit Kat will be gone.
  • Jaffa Cakes; not “full moon; half-moon; total eclipse” (an abominable way of eating Jaffa Cakes and teaching astronomy, as discussed here). Instead, nibble the edges away all round the circle, making sure to leave the centre intact; use tongue to peel chocolate surface away, then separate orange blob from sponge base; lick base of the orange centre clean of sponge remnants; eat the sponge; savour the delicious orange blob.


  • Spaghetti or rice: I did bad things with ketchup. Worst of all was my insistence on having a plate of plain spaghetti or rice for tea (Bolognese or chilli spoiled the pure texture), which I would then submerge in Heinz ketchup (far more than in the photo below), mixing thoroughly before eating. Looking back, I feel mystified social services never got involved.
  • Ketchup sandwiches: first tried these when we ran out of turkey/ham slices one weekend – normally I’d have these with ketchup as an addition, but it turned out the ketchup was actually the main flavour I was after all along.

 Other sandwiches

  • BLT: had my first one of these in Year 5 and became hooked (also my first encounter with mayonnaise). One day I found we didn’t have any bacon or tomato in the fridge, so I made a sandwich with just lettuce and mayonnaise. I decided that would do, and the habit of eating them, lasted for several weeks in Year 6.
  • ChuckleVision: an episode showed one brother eating a corn flake sandwich, which I tried to replicate, having not got that it was a joke. (It didn’t work.) The episode also showed the other brother trying to eat a whole apple in a sandwich. I realised this was a joke, but nonetheless tried a sandwich filled with sliced apple. Worse than the corn flakes. (Incidentally, as well as refusing to eat sandwich crusts, I would also refuse to eat apple skin for many years, picking pieces of skin out of my mouth and putting them back in my lunchbox; I compensate in adulthood by eating the skin and the core).
  • Rich tea sandwiches: a return to biscuits, but I’ve categorised it here so it can serve as a grand finale, because it is the worst thing I have ever done. Enthused by custard creams and bourbons, I tried to create a rich tea equivalent when I was 10 or 11 years old. Chewing up a rich tea thoroughly, I would then spew this out onto a fresh rich tea, then put another rich tea firmly on top. The pressure pushed the rich tea-saliva fondant to the very edge, and I then ate the finished biscuit. Recounting this over the last few years has genuinely lost me two friends, and I agree with them.

Please once again accept my deepest apologies.


“Ask Gordon”

As has become traditional in every general election campaign this decade, Conservatives have sought to blame many issues on the last Labour government, and on Gordon Brown in particular. Critics have argued this is increasingly laughable as we approach ten years since Brown left office, but in fact the fault lies with him for a number of problems we still face as a country today:

  • The global financial crash. To this day, people argue the crash was caused by Labour over-spending in government. While this isn’t strictly true, matters weren’t helped by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s light-touch approach to the City, and they certainly weren’t helped by Brown gleefully selling sub-prime mortgages to property buyers across the United States for a joke while serving as Chancellor.
  • Decreasing police numbers and increasing terror attacks and violent crime. Many claim Conservatives have been cutting police numbers themselves, but the vast majority of the 21,000 who have left the force since 2010 did so of their own volition, after Brown started prank calling individual stations across the country, demoralising the officers on the other end by saying, ‘You’re an idiot,’ and hanging up. Similarly, he has been calling a number of terror suspects throughout the UK, Islamist and white supremacist alike, saying, ‘[The West]/[The Qur’an] said you’re an idiot,’ and hanging up. Not to mention his newfound hobby of walking the streets of London and handing out knives to teenagers.
  • Doctor Who going off a bit in 2011. With nothing to do, Brown started creeping into former showrunner Steven Moffat’s house and distracting him when he was trying to write. Moffat scrambled desperately to complete a coherent Series 6 in spite of this new strain on his time, but in the end it was too much. Instead we got a frenetic and self-referential roller-coaster of style over substance, with a number of important emotional beats skipped over throughout, and far too many glib wisecracks to keep us invested in our main characters as real people. Speaking to the press at the time, Moffat maintained, ‘You don’t understand! Gordon Brown kept climbing on my ceiling and dropping lamps on my head!’ but these remarks were uniformly disbelieved and never printed.
  • The contestants allowed on Strictly each year despite having professional training in dance already. Brown travels by night to BBC Broadcasting House once a year, paying for the chance to intervene in the line-up producers hope to book. He routinely inserts artists and entertainers with at least some dance training at the expense of less talented dancers, making for more impressive but less funny television. Dancers he rejected include: Anthony Daniels in character as C-3PO, the remains of Dolly the Sheep, and Gillian Duffy (‘Is that a fucking joke?’ bellowed Brown).
  • Drops in educational standards over the last nine years. Not due to underinvestment in schools, but to Brown’s failure to cross his Ts in his letter to the mother of a dead serviceman. ‘If the UK Prime Minister of 2007-2010 doesn’t pay attention to spelling,’ many children born even since Brown left office ask, ‘why should we?’
  • The Olympic Opening Ceremony. This actually went very well, but Brown had left office by then, hadn’t he?
  • The Olympic Closing Ceremony. BROOOOOOOWN!
  • Brexit. Not just his fault for losing in 2010 and enabling this unholy mess in the first place. If Brown hadn’t stopped Tony Blair switching Britain to the Euro, we would have become fully integrated by now and lost a distinct national identity that needed freeing from the European project. If it weren’t for Brown, cars would now drive on the right, English would have been replaced by a weird hybrid of French and German, and the Royals would all have been guillotined (with the exception of Prince Andrew, who would have been retained as a global envoy for his links to the business leaders, pizza chains and wealthy paedophiles the Western economy has been dependent on for the last 70 years).



The Demon Headmaster

With a new CBBC series continuing to introduce a whole new generation to Britain’s greatest authoritarian creep (he trumps Jacob Rees-Mogg by having the decency to be fictional), now feels as good a time as any to look back over one of its greatest ever programmes, The Demon Headmaster, series by series. Don’t look into his eyes…

Series 1 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster and The Prime Minister’s Brain)

The original, but not for me. Coming to the show late, I watched the first series as a repeat. Maybe this is why I think of it now (at least the first half) as the weakest story. The Demon Headmaster’s schemes grow more extravagant as time goes on, and his day job comes across in retrospect as rather small fry. Behold this sinister man, using his hypnotic powers to… teach children about the Solar System. When he tries to hypnotise the nation through a garish, gungy game show, the main threat seems to be that the country will wake up knowing more about ants.

The second three episodes give us our first steps into full-on supervillain territory, with the Headmaster brainwashing children to help him get access to 10 Downing Street and hypnotise the PM. Worries about new technology start to appear when children are subliminally influenced by cool new computer game Octopus Dare, leading to a battle with robots and a supercomputer that fills an entire tower block. By the end of this repeated series one, The Demon Headmaster had become the show I recognised from the first series I had watched…

Series 2 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again)

My original. The scariest series and the best. It’s an episode longer than the others as well – more chance for slow, creeping fear to build.

We know Dinah and the SPLAT crew now, and they’re a happily functioning unit after some angst early in series one (Lloyd and Harvey take time to accept their adopted sister). But now, creepy former prefect Rose from series one gets stuck into the group and turns them against one another again. It’s agony for us watching, and I catch myself shouting, ‘She’s clearly manipulating you, you idiots! My God, you’re as gullible as every adult character who appears the entire run of this programme!’ every time I come back to it. Simon’s relationship with his distant father is bleak too, with things tense between them even before his dad is hypnotised – and it’s never resolved. Things are taking a darker turn across the board.

After dipping his toe in the water in The Prime Minister’s Brain, the Headmaster’s a full-blown evil genius now, successfully hypnotising parents as well as children, and using his fancy new biogenetic research centre to interfere with evolution itself, playing with life and death as he pleases (appropriate with Lloyd spending most of the series in a coma, perhaps the easiest acting job in the history of CBBC).

That leads us onto the further edge series two has: monsters! Not just the giant creeper, silently inching its way towards you, or the Headmaster’s Dinah-lizard hybrid Eve, but the giant wasp that nearly kills Lloyd. I’m scared of normal-sized wasps, and I now realise all these years later that this is why. It’s wisely barely shown, and the endless distant buzzing combines with Richard Hartley’s radiophonic score and the atmosphere of night shoots and tunnel scenes to make some of the most terrifying kids’ TV ever. The darkest series, literally and figuratively – the impression it leaves doesn’t go away.

Series 3 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Takes Over)

Oh joy of joys, a children’s programme that comes back with everyone’s voice suddenly broken! This is the one I recorded on my own VHS (my brother recorded series two, and to watch it was a rare privilege). Because of that, this was my favourite for a long time. Looking back, it’s a beautiful late-nineties curio, all artificial intelligence and the world wide web, with our heroes saving the day from a cyber café. Chat rooms and cool new webspeak, crystallised on screen for us to gawp at in delight. They should have called this one The Demon Headmaster Gets Dial-Up.

In some ways, it’s a step back from the last series. We’ve seen adults hypnotised before, along with a distant father-son relationship. The Headmaster isn’t really the Headmaster either, but a clone of the original trying to piece together who he used to be – Terrence Hardiman is menacing as ever, but I remember my instinctive confusion at the time: is this one the real deal?

He’s boosted, on the other hand, by a new villain in hologrammatic artificial intelligence system Hyperbrain (an eerie, otherworldly performance by Alphonsia Emmanuel, realised with visuals that blew my 7 year-old mind). Amoral rather than immoral, which makes her even more frightening, and a perfect foil for the Headmaster. Like The Prime Minister’s Brain, the scariest element here comes from paranoia about technology, when Hyperbrain drains adults’ minds and leaves them zombified, white contact lenses and all – still nasty and compelling 21 years later. Even if her getting beaten by the internet being full of nonsense does tax the mind now.

Series 4 (adapted from Total Control)

And what of the new series? It’s a worthy sequel, upping the suburban paranoia, adding a more overt political message and building on how the old series handled the psychological impact of hypnotism. Now it’s a truly frightening experience, and we feel the characters fear as they have momentary flashbacks to when they were more themselves. Nods to the past are perfectly judged too, and the first three series are honoured even as the concepts are updated. So far, I’m loving every minute of it. The parents are all still idiots though.

The new series of The Demon Headmaster is available to watch on BBC iPlayer here.


The Gunked and the Dunked

When people ask me if I had any TV shows I watched in my childhood other than Doctor Who, I can actually list a great deal once I’ve stopped spitting in their face and shouting, ‘Obviously!’

I can mention Coronation Street, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (‘Don’t reach for the cocking cheque, you moron! He’s obviously gonna say, “But we don’t wanna give you that!” for cock’s sake!’, my mother was known to shout, years before the show even began), Robot Wars, Jonathan Creek, Father Ted, Black Books (wet myself laughing during the first episode, if memory serves). If we look at children’s programmes specifically, I could also list Blue Peter, ChuckleVision, The Demon Headmaster, Aquila, Pig Heart Boy, Home Farm Twins, The Ghost Hunter, Bodger and Badger, G-Force, Mr Wymi.

Not all of those CBBC programmes are so well-remembered now, but another that is which I loved dearly was Get Your Own Back. Why didn’t I go to see the live version a few years ago? Almost as big a regret as never going on a tour of Television Centre before it was hollowed out and ruined.

There was little on telly that felt more exciting to me, especially in its 1996-and-beyond incarnation. The colours, the noise, the obstacle courses, the gunge. It was the anarchy that anyone with taste loves regardless of age, but which TV aimed at adults has yet to capture.

Kids gunging their parents was one thing, but one of my most vivid TV memories is the first time I watched the last in the series of that year (my diligent research has not yet revealed wether this was a Christmas special). I still remember my amazement when a girl who had brought her father (?) on said to Dave Benson Phillips, ‘I don’t wanna gunge him… I wanna gunge you!’ The tables had turned. The only bigger shock I ever got from CBBC was when Grange Hill very bloodily killed a girl off, and this put significantly less of a damper on my day.

I decided unusual gungees must have become a tradition of series finales when I caught the end of another episode (I have decided this was broadcast in 1998) and saw Mr Blobby being lowered into the pool of gunk, in a bid to finally kill the monster. His distorted screams combined with the kaleidoscopic visuals of the studio to create an experience more unsettling than any nightmare. I understand they buried the still-twitching body below TV Centre that night, and his malign spirit has been used to explain why so many things have gone wrong for the BBC since (often being blamed ahead of examples of clear wrong-doing).

Unfortunately, because I drifted away from the show (perhaps I believed it would never again top ‘I wanna gunge you!’), I didn’t see any of the other celebrity Gunk Dunks that must have happened each year, and until today had no idea which surprise victims were eventually gunged. The truth of the years I didn’t see has astounded me, and it seems I missed some astonishing TV moments, all sadly absent from YouTube and therefore impossible for you to fact-check. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

  • 1997: The Spice Girls. At the height of their power, it was decreed these, let’s call them what they were, modern-day Suffragettes, needed taking down a peg or two. Exposed in their true form as one five-headed and twenty-limbed entity, they were hurled screaming into the slimy abyss and immediately lost all credibility. Sure enough, their movie at the end of 1997 turned out to be quite bad, and Geri split painfully away from the main body the following year.
  • 1999: Jar-Jar Binks. One of the most expensive episodes of British children’s TV ever made, as the flailing CGI buffoon slapstuck his last. In a palaver beyond the BBC’s control, the episode’s child audience was driven out of the studio by hordes of fully-grown, uncharismatic men, who whined their approval at the defeat of the creature they claimed had destroyed their childhoods, although in retrospect it would have been more accurate to say he had proved a minor irritant in their misspent adulthoods.
  • 2000: Chris Tarrant. Gunged for ITV’s crime of scheduling the first win of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire against the last ever One Foot in the Grave. ‘We do wanna give you that!’ bellowed the crowd. My mother squealed with delight.
  • 2001: Effigy of Osama Bin Laden. A jubilant autumn special that tapped into the same spirit that had made that year’s bonfire night such a success. Now recognised as having played its own small part in the slow cultural radicalisation that has turned so many of today’s eligible voters into white supremacists. Repeated in late 2011 on BBC4.
  • 2002: Gareth Gates. A Pop Idol special in which Will Young once again triumphed over the humiliated Gates boy. As in 2000, big ITV names were chosen for the dunking as part of an ongoing campaign of revenge for the Millionaire/One Foot
  • 2003: Richard Hillman. Appearing in character as the Coronation Street serial killer, actor Brian Capron was a surprisingly good sport in this edition which foreshadowed his looming drowning on the soap. The BBC viewed this subtle spoiler as the final act of revenge on ITV, and now opted for new targets.
  • 2004: Tony Blair. ‘We got him, everyone,’ said a sombre Benson Phillips to the camera in the last ever episode. ‘We got him.’ Still cited by Blair’s critics as more effective retribution than the Chilcot Report 12 years later. Seen by many as a counterpoint to the 2001 special, and attracted the same questions from commentators and BBC management as to whether this was the most appropriate way to address the issues at hand.


Team-Building Exercises

A close-knit team makes for a happy team. At my current job, though people come and go like in any workplace, we have a shared spirit, maintained in part by the questions and thought experiments we pose for one another as new team members arrive. A small selection can be read below, and I recommend using them at your job too.

If you could only eat one texture for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Just as Willy Wonka’s Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum offers you any delicious flavour in one texture, you too must choose one texture to enjoy all your favourite tastes in from now on. Many find the answer by deciding what their favourite texture is, but for my money it’s better to find a balance between which texture is your favourite and which strikes you as the most versatile. I can’t imagine enjoying chocolate with the texture of pasta, for example. Personally, I’d go for a moist, dense sponge. Good for sweet and savoury alike. (One person said nothing more specific than ‘soft’ and was immediately sacked.)

What’s your favourite Disney death?
Sets a cat or two among the pigeons when you ask this one. People feel as if Disney and death don’t go together, yet there are so many to choose from. You can answer this by deciding either your favourite to watch, or which you’d be most at ease experiencing, which does affect pretty much everyone’s conclusion. Bambi’s mum, for instance, goes quickly. But does it make you laugh as much as Mufasa? (Saying that also sets a cat or two among the pigeons.)

What’s the thickest drink you’ve ever had?
This one arose recently from a surprisingly viscous mug of Options. Most people struggle to remember what specific drink was the thickest, but looking over childhood memories of (generally) milkshakes tends to put anyone in a good mood and ensure a happy group discussion. Personally, I know full well the thickest drink I ever had. On my first day in my current job, I purchased a smoothie from the canteen that I ultimately had to finish with a spoon. Second place goes to the mug of Options mentioned above. So thick! N.B. Soup only counts if you drank it from a mug or pint glass.

What’s your favourite murder weapon in Cluedo?
Everyone can bond over their memories of board games, and, for certain generations, their CD-Rom versions too. My memories of each throw up different answers to this question: I was always keen on the dagger when playing my grandparents’ vintage Cluedo set, which contained a gorgeous selection of die-cast implements (aside from the limp and unimpressive piece of string that represented the rope). On the other hand, the animations of each suggestion you put forward on the computer game, showing the potential murder from the victim’s POV, made me prefer the revolver. Whenever you suggested Professor Plum shot the victim, the animation showed him firing by accident – imagine his confused, embarrassed face being the last thing you saw. Magnificent.

How many possible solutions are there in Cluedo?
More a maths and memory test. Simply multiply the number of suspects by the number of weapons, then multiply that by the number of rooms (the main stumbling blocks are misremembering the number of rooms as eight, not nine, and forgetting the spanner). Works well as part of a broader team quiz, but also serves as an excellent mental challenge to separate the wheat from the chaff at interview stage.


Toys, Toys, Toys!

We all have our favourite toys and games that we played with as children – or at the very least watched the adverts for over and over again on TV. Below is a small selection I always wanted but unfortunately never owned (perhaps, looking back, for the better).

  • Baby Uh-Oh! (RRP £39.99) – A follow-up to Mamosa Toys’ highly successful Baby Wee Wee. Building on Baby Wee Wee’s urination, intended to teach children some of the grim realities of raising a child, Baby Uh-Oh! was designed to develop a vivid rash, high temperature and shallow breathing. The only way to cure Baby Uh-Oh!’s mystery illness was to treat her with the full combination of Baby Uh-Oh! Intensive Care Unit accessories (RRP £10.99-£69.99).
  • Cluedo Extreme (RRP £19.99) – A deluxe edition of the popular deductive board game. Players, in addition to working out killer, weapon and location, had to correctly ascribe motive. Since no biographies were provided of any characters, the game has reportedly never been won in the 22 years since its limited release, so the senseless killing of Dr Black remains senseless.
  • Play-Don’t Factory packs (£9.99 each) – To show the importance of health and safety, Play-Doh released a number of pre-made putty shapes, dyed and moulded to resemble body parts. Feeding these into a regular Play-Doh Factory, children saw ‘human’ fingers, ears and eyes blossom into a myriad of colours and textures as they passed through the machinery. So appetising were the colours that industrial accidents sky-rocketed once a certain generation reached working age.
  • Ka-blamo! (RRP £39.99; increased every year with inflation) – An inventive cross between Monopoly and Buckaroo, in which players have to stack a series of wooden blocks representing sub-prime mortgages onto a model of the global economy, until eventually a spring mechanism destroys the entire structure. Whoever lays the final piece gains all the others upon eruption, while the remaining players are plunged into poverty and manipulated by super-rich racists for years to come.
  • Dinner Time (RRP £29.99) – Released by Hasbro for six months in 2003 was this food-based variant of Operation. Using a diagram of a sleeping chicken hanging upside down, the players have to give rather than avoid an electric shock, but must do so in the perfect place to ensure a humane death and enable a guilt-free dinner. Otherwise a signal is beamed to the Food Standards Agency, who immediately send staff to confiscate the game and necessitate buying a new board.
  • Jailbirds (RRP £9.99 per bird; playset £24.99) – A series of miniature robotic birds in a variety of multi-coloured stripy prison uniforms. The idea was to collect the whole lot, which was near-impossible without first buying the Bird Jail playset for them to escape from. Otherwise they would break out of their owner’s house instead, leaving them with an incomplete collection. Many such Jailbirds are still spotted wandering the streets today, desolate and at a loss as to what to do with their freedom. Members of the public are advised to take them home to escape again, giving the poor creatures some fleeting sense of purpose once more.


Jaffa Catastrophe

A certain generation will recall vividly the TV commercial for McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes (deliciously soft-centred) in circulation for several years around the turn of the century. Sources indicate it started in 1999, which would make sense, riding the coattails of that year’s solar eclipse which took place on my eighth birthday. It is perhaps due to this personal connection that I feel so strongly about discussing the moon accurately, and why I therefore consider the advert to be one of the great TV travesties of modern times (even worse than Without Prejudice), and one of the central reasons I didn’t grow to love Jaffa Cakes until I was 15.

Most infuriating is that it all starts off so well. A teacher, who I had no doubt at this stage was doing her absolute best, greets her class and uses a Jaffa Cake to symbolise a full moon. But of course. How inspired to use everyday treats to teach us about the movements of our world and its satellite. It needn’t stop there. We could drop bourbons to demonstrate gravity, use Kit-Kats to illustrate the geological make-up of the Earth, maybe even use a cup of tea for dunking as a springboard onto the heat-death of the universe. The sky’s the limit. If anything, at this stage, it’s the children I resent for failing to show due enthusiasm towards the celestial bodies.

Then, everything changes. The teacher takes a bite into the Jaffa Cake, creating, if we’re charitable, a waning crescent moon (it is too big for that, but the shape of the regular human bite creates a crescent, and so a crescent of some form it must be). Every time I watch this moment, it’s like the whole of reality slows down. Malicious glee in her eyes, the teacher looks from her crescent to her class and spews out, ‘Half moon’.

Shock. Dismay. How could she do this? To her class. To me. To all of us at home. To spread ignorance through the country in this way was, to my mind, unforgivable, and immediately my faith in her teaching abilities was shattered. This was a person, I now realised, who should never have been left alone with children. To this day, I find myself asking of the creators of the advert, would it honestly have looked that unappetising for her to have slowly nibbled her way directly halfway across the cake in a roughly straight line, to create an actual half moon?

Yet the worst was still to come. As if to misrepresent the cycle so badly wasn’t enough, the teacher then switches astronomical phenomenon altogether, and yet acts as if she has done nothing of the sort, as she pops the whole cake into her mouth, creating a new moon.

And what does she say? Well, you already know. So eager are her lies to escape her treacherous mouth, the words don’t even wait for the cake to get out of their way before they form and escape into the open air.

‘Repeat after me, class,’ she could have said, ‘A solar eclipse is an event entirely separate to the lunar cycle.’ But no, she did not. In 1999, of all years. The only thing totally eclipsed in that advert, reader, was the truth.

‘Good! Now, let’s do it one more time!’ No thanks, teacher. And I hope you’re placed in special measures.

I didn’t eat Jaffa Cakes when that advert was circulating, and I didn’t eat them for years afterwards. This, admittedly, may have been more to do with a Year 5 Food & Textiles lesson in which we spent an hour sampling different budget brands of Jaffa Cake to compare texture and lack of flavour. By end of it I was as pale as the lifeless sponge of the Tesco Economy pack. Absolutely nauseating, and to this day I still don’t understand what the point of the lesson was.

Eventually, in 2007, I found out that Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist of Radiohead, liked Jaffa Cakes (and Meddle by Pink Floyd, which I also tried hard to get into). My girlfriend at the time bought me a selection of mini-Jaffa Cakes to try. The stars had aligned, and I ate all 36 in one night as I watched the 1979 Doctor Who story City of Death for the first time. Suddenly, I got what all the fuss was about (for Jaffa Cakes and City of Death, which really is one of the all-time greats). I don’t remember much else of that evening, other than it was Monday 21st May, the day before my friend Connor’s sixteenth birthday (and I was marking the occasion in style).

This led to an addiction which culminated on my own sixteenth birthday a few months later, when various friends and family, having become aware, treated me accumulatively to 84 individual Jaffa Cakes and two Jaffa Cake-inspired homemade birthday cakes. They didn’t last long. I think back to this period as one of the most blissful of my life. I truly loved Jaffa Cakes now. And only eight years after I was supposed to.

My only regret is it could have happened so much sooner. I feel sorry for my younger self to have been deprived of them by my own bloody-mindedness at the advert (and the aforementioned Food & Textiles incident which was definitely more at fault; most of them really were horrible, and the Tesco ones didn’t even have any orange filling in, they were just bad sponge with bad chocolate on, and again, what was the lesson for?!).

If only Little Me had become addicted to Jaffa Cakes then, he might have become alarmingly overweight because of it. Instead he became alarmingly overweight because of various other foods and low self-esteem. The Jaffa Cakes would have to wait, thanks to two teachers, one fictional, one real, each in their own way abusing a delicious snack to teach lessons that, in either case, could surely never have been part of the national curriculum.


Peter Fleming on Ghosts

Hi everybody. This week, Peter Fleming has written for us about his experiences with ghosts and the unexplained to mark Halloween. Read if you dare.


Ha ha! Only pulling your legs, my friends! It’s me! Peter!

Viewers of Sprites of the Forest (1970) or The Stone Boy (1967) will be familiar with the fact that I enjoy a good ghost story, but what they may not realise is the number of encounters I have had before and since those programmes with ghostly presences in my own life.

I can recall vividly the terror I felt at my first ‘ghost’, an evil spectre which towered at the top of the stairs of the children’s home where I lived, its hideous, unearthly call echoing down the hallway. Turned out to be the shadow of one of the matrons, who enjoyed improvising on her slide-whistle on the landing long into the night to amuse herself, but the unparalleled fright that gripped me then still grips me today. (This is also why I’ve never been able to watch an episode of Clangers without screaming.)

Catharsis was the watchword when I used this memory to inspire The Ghost at No. 24 (1969), and we enlisted the help of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create the sound of the Spectral Child, along with a Theremin player who charged so much money that in the end we couldn’t afford to record any pictures. And with the dialogue so sparse the whole thing made absolutely no sense. Had to put it out as a Radiophonic Workshop LP in the end. Not what I’d hoped for, although I did get paid as a session musician for bumping into Delia Derbyshire’s green lampshade in the middle of a take.

More successful was 1972’s Creak!, which I believe remains the only television programme ever to have successfully captured a real ghost on camera! The infamous shot occurred in episode 3, during a sequence filmed at the Stargroves estate (thanks once again to Mick Jagger for being so generous with the use of his house!). The camera followed our main actor round a corner, and there, down the corridor, was the figure of a man. Haggard and gaunt, he looked right down the lens, gasped, turned and ran away. Never seen such a frightening face in all my life.

These days, people there at the time try to rationalise it. ‘There’s no reason to believe it was a ghost, Peter – it might have been Keith Richards or someone,’ they’d say, or, ‘No, Peter, really, it looks exactly like Keith Richards,’ or, ‘Sorry I messed up that shot, Mr Fleming. Let me make it up to you with this signed copy of our new record, Exile on Main St,’ but with the episode missing from the BBC archive, I suppose we’ll never know for sure!

That’s not for want of trying, mind you. Left no stone unturned with my search for copies of that one, the memory really disturbed me. Searched all over the place for a film recording, or even paperwork in TV Centre. No luck there, of course; all the paperwork in TV Centre has been knocked down for flats (such was the scale of BBC bureaucracy that that did create a surprisingly large amount of space). Tried the BBC’s archive facility in Perivale too, but all I managed to do there was start a small fire and burn several newly returned episodes of Doctor Who. Luckily no announcement had been made, so fans didn’t have to face the disappointment of not being able to enjoy Patrick Troughton’s first appearance after all!

Yes, there’s sadly little chance I’ll ever find real confirmation of that little encounter with the beyond. But I still find myself making similar contact with other realms even today. Only a few months ago, I found myself the custodian of an old mask, haunted by none other than Geoffrey, Zippy and George from Rainbow! It came into my possession after an unfortunate incident at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, in which I mistook the mask for a prop from Mr Hildebrand’s Many Faces (1973). As a result, I was mistaken for stealing something that wasn’t mine, which it turned out I was, but I didn’t realise that until it was too late.

Fortunately, the culture sector in this country is so badly underfunded, the only security guard there was older than me and had to stop to catch his breath and call an ambulance mere seconds into our chase! Consequently, I finally have company on my raft after years of travelling alone. Trouble is they’ve all grown rather tiresome the last few weeks, always bickering over whose spirit is taking up the most room in one cheek or another, and they always patch things up by singing the theme from Rainbow together over and over again. I wouldn’t mind, but Zippy’s always about a semitone out from the other two, makes it nigh on impossible to sleep at night.

As you can see, my friends, the possibility that we might be contacted from realms outside our own cosy little world is always there. But I ask that you think on the account of my current situation and ask yourself: mightn’t it be better to leave well alone?

Best wishes,