Sunday, December 31, 2023


I may be restating this for myself, but I use the phrase “dancing with the gatekeepers” because I dreamed that I recorded an album titled “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers”, singing “all they have are words” over and over again. My first article in 2016 defined “dancing with the gatekeepers” as “taking delight in the challenges life gives you, and having fun with those that think they have all the answers.”

I love that I wrote “have fun with”, rather than “make fun of”. Understanding Donald Trump’s assault on language, and on the general concept of “understanding”, in previous articles here was a more fun use of my time than simply insulting the man, despite having also called him “a man that makes gold look cheap, while looking and sounding like a drag queen version of his younger self”. All I have are words, and all he has are words, but Trump’s words are becoming more incendiary, and with his current run for President being described as an “openly authoritarian campaign”, those words can no longer be ignored, as much as I wish I could.

That has been the lesson of 2023 for me. I have ignored talking about anything remotely related to politics because it is not fun. Government infighting, culture wars, literal wars, ideological struggles, squabbles over the words used to identify ourselves, describing everything as “woke” – a word I haven’t discussed because it sounds more like a dog bark than a dog whistle, an easier word to throw than “political correctness” – and whether artificial intelligence could make everything meaningless anyway. Nothing works, nothing lasts, and nothing matters.

But all we have are words. That is the first lesson of 2024.

If words are incendiary, words can defuse them.

If words are cheap, then there’s enough to go around.

If words are meaningless, give them meaning, and avoid boiling the nature of meaning down to “because I said so”.

Ongoing wars, impending elections and competing agendas mean there is a lot at stake in 2024, and I can only be resilient amidst this precarity by remembering this world is also mine. If I ever record that album, I will sing “all they have are words” only then to say “all we have are words”. We are all in this together, so try to make fun with one another.

For me, the meaning of “dancing with the gatekeepers” remains the same – I think I just needed the reminder to have fun.

Sunday, December 24, 2023


We open on Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise asleep in bed like Laurel & Hardy as Father Christmas comes down the chimney with a sack to steal the silverware. After the opening titles feature Morecambe’s trademark slaps of Wise’s cheeks between appearances of the show’s guests, their personal popularity is measured in sizes of commemorative tankards. Later, they will appear as bell-ringing monks, using candlesticks to pull pints of beer, and as turkeys ready for the yuletide chop, before dancing with actress Glenda Jackson like they were Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers – the increasing size of Morecambe’s cane is done so deftly that the audience doesn’t notice the first time it’s done, but they do the others. They then spar with a very real-life authority, a conductor of a symphony orchestra who turns out to be as funny as they are.

I have always liked Morecambe & Wise – for my generation, they are the link between Laurel & Hardy and Reeves & Mortimer, all comedy double acts that were perfectly surreal, perfectly timed, and perfectly tuned. There is a line in the above episode, which was their Christmas special of 1971, where upon seeing the first tankard, Wise says “Great Scott”, to which Morecambe replies “He’s not in there is he? He’s everywhere else!” I don’t care that makes no sense, but the energy of the delivery made me laugh. 

I personally think this special may be the greatest hour of television ever made in the UK, but saying that is very subjective indeed, having also said it in May 2022. I used this Carlsbergian statement then to justify the extreme lengths made to save a 1968 episode of the show by using laser cutting and X-rays on a fused film reel. With the BBC run of “The Morecambe & Wise Show” from 1968 to 1977 being a milestone in both the comedy history of the UK, and of its cultural history, its Christmas specials often bringing literally half the population together, the effort to save one lost episode was rewarded.

With compilations of Morecambe & Wise sketches being prevalent on British television through the decades, along with memories of individual sketches, the power of the 1971 Christmas special lies in seeing how many of the duo’s classic sketches are from this one show, just as when you realise the episodes of “Fawlty Towers” about the fire alarm and the Germans are the same episode. This special has the “Grieg’s Piano Concerto by Grieg” with André Previn/Preview/Privet, Glenda Jackson's dance routine, and Shirley Bassey singing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” as her stuck shoe is replaced by a hobnail boot. The final sketch, Wise’s “play what I wrote” was “Robin Hood” featuring Francis Matthews, known to audiences as the radio voice of Paul Temple, and the TV voice of Captain Scarlet.

The 1971 Christmas special also saw the coalescing of the various changes made to “The Morecambe & Wise Show”. The first BBC series was much like the previous 1960s for ITV, staged sketches written by Sid Green & Dick Hills, with Ernie Wise very much the straight man to Eric Morecambe’s unpredictable and zany persona, successful in a few appearances in the United States on “The Ed Sullivan Show” but did not travel further. Eddie Braben was brought in by the BBC to write subsequent series, changing Wise’s persona to be a self-important writer and Morecambe’s close friend, as sketches and routines brought classical Hollywood spectacle and production values. Dance routines were choreographed by Ernest Maxin, producer of later episodes, and music was arranged for orchestra and conducted by Peter Knight, who later did the same for The Carpenters’ version of the song “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”.

“The Morecambe & Wise Show” would become the show to appear on if you were famous. BBC faces like Michael Parkinson, Frank Bough, Patrick Moore of “The Sky at Night” and newsreader Robert Dougall appear in the 1971 special were making other programmes elsewhere in BBC Television Centre, but Glenda Jackson’s appearance followed that of actors Peter Cushing and Edward Woodward. The 1973 Christmas special boasted Vanessa Redgrave and The New Seekers in the studio, and Yehudi Menuhin, Rudolf Nureyev and Laurence Olivier appearing in filmed insert jokes about why they couldn’t appear in person.

“The Morecambe & Wise Show” became the Rolls-Royce, or Lincoln Continental, of UK TV shows: parodies of “Opportunity Knocks” and “Mastermind” had their real hosts Hughie Green and Magnus Magnusson respectively appear, instead of Morecambe or Wise impersonating them, and their spin on routines from “South Pacific”, “Singin’ in the Rain” and other classical Hollywood musicals were eagerly awaited. 

But the epitome of these was Eddie Braben’s own favourite sketch from those he wrote for Eric & Ernie, from the 1971 Christmas special and featuring André Previn, then the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, being much more naturally funny than expected: “Thank you for that tremendous introduction, that doesn’t come out of my fee, doesn’t it?” Having been “tricked” into thinking he would conduct Yehudi Menuhin instead of Eric Morecambe, it shouldn’t have been surprising that an accomplished musician and conductor would have had good timing, saying “I’ll get my baton, it’s in Chicago” - Morecambe then seemingly breaks character, saying “Pow! He’s in. I like him.” With a full orchestra and Steinway piano, the piece reworks an earlier 1963 sketch with Previn taking the place of Ernie Wise as the exasperated conductor of a smaller band, Wise now acting as Morecambe’s support and mediator against a very real authority, making the grabbing of Previn’s lapels, and Morecambe’s line “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order, I’ll give you that”, followed by the slap on Previn’s cheek, all the funnier. Seeing Morecambe’s own applause at the end of the sketch, you can see he is genuinely happy that the sketch has gone so well.

I didn’t need an excuse to write about Morecambe & Wise, or one of their Christmas specials, but people will keep returning to it, or discovering it anew, so we will continue to talk about it.

Sunday, December 17, 2023


Cover of "The Art of Archer" book (2016)

September 2016 was the month my viewing habits changed: I bought a streaming device for my TV, and I began subscribing to Netflix. Initially an easier way to get YouTube onto a bigger screen, streaming made taking up Netflix inevitable, but for me, it was not for their own shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black”, or for their Blockbuster Video-replacing back catalogue of recent films - it was because it was the only place in the UK to see the animated comedy series “Archer”. With the show now ending on its American home of FXX on 17
th December 2023, a date also marking the thirty-fourth anniversary of “The Simpsons”, a show that will outlast us all, I have reason to reconsider continuing my Netflix subscription.

First appearing in 2009, “Archer” is a retro-styled secret agent adventure series crossed with workplace comedy. Sterling Archer, an agent whose intuition is enhanced by womanising and alcohol, is an agent at ISIS, an agency owned and run by his similarly hard-nosed mother Malory. The ensemble originally had rigidly defined roles: Lana Kane, the by-the-book lead agent; Ray Gillette, the gay bomb expert with a transplanted hand; Cyril Figgis, the downtrodden head of accounts; Cheryl (or is Carol this episode?) Tunt, the secretary too rich and neurotic for this reality; Pam Poovey, the boisterous head of HR; and Algernop Krieger, the skilled engineer who built his holographic girlfriend. All have become agents over the show’s fourteen seasons, embroiled in plots and heists that have stretched and fleshed out these characters across different realities and time periods, particularly during three seasons that took place while Sterling was in a coma. It may wear the skin of a James Bond film, but it has the heart of “The A-Team.” 

What attracted me to “Archer” is what animation has afforded it. The retro aesthetic deliberately fudges the time period in which it is set, living in the world of both Sean Connery’s Bond and “Get Smart”, while not being restrained by technology of the time – something exists to help get out of any scrape. That said, there is the satisfaction of recognising the Apple Lisa computers on ISIS agents’ desks, or their building’s establishing shot having a Renault 12 driving past. The humour is very quick and often about language: characters warning each other over “phrasing”, exclamations like “yup”, “boop” and “sploosh”, and even outright saying “I swear to God I had something for this”. But every viewer of “Archer” knows the phrase most often repeated: “You want ants? Because this is how you get ants.” For stories where is victory is often achieved just in time, the pacing and comedic timing of each twenty-minute episode could not be achieved in live-action.

I originally saw “Archer” on Channel 5 in the UK, or one of their extra channels, but after the first four seasons, the show became available on Netflix only, feeling like when “The X-Files” or “Friends” previously disappeared to satellite television about fifteen years earlier. This move to streaming also stopped UK DVDs of the show in their tracks – this is another case of me wanting a copy of a show that is uninhibited by digital rights management. Maintaining access to the show requires maintaining a subscription to a service I rarely watched for anything else. Can The Criterion Collection start releasing TV shows as well please?

Sunday, December 10, 2023


I spent quite a long time deciding whether to buy a Braun wall clock, and perhaps that was entirely appropriate. Despite its present focus on grooming and hair removal, the Braun brand is synonymous with the tactile, functional design aesthetic fostered under Dieter Rams, who joined the company in 1955 and was its head of design from 1961 until 1997. 

The iconic designs of Braun radios, clocks, hi-fi systems and cigarette lighters may initially feel like a technological equivalent of Ikea furniture – in the 1960s, Rams also designed the Vitsœ modular furniture and shelving system that remains on sale to this day – but they came at the point where these items ceased looking like furniture, becoming desirable entirely on their own merits. Braun has made its name in design as much as Philips in the Netherlands made theirs in innovation.

That is how I feel with my Braun BNC006MSF clock, an evolution of the ABW30 clock designed by Rams forty years earlier. Its face is clear and legible without being plain: the ring of numbers and markings is raising from the centre of the clock face, the resulting ridge being met by the hour hand while also casting a slight shadow to emphasise the different lengths and thicknesses of the hour and minute hands. With this model being radio-controlled, the addition of a two-digit digital display can show the date or act as a “second hand”, having previously decided that having the right time involves removing yourself from setting it []. I have essentially bought into a design classic, taking pride of place behind my television.

But as much as the “brAun” logo is displayed, itself a design dating back to 1935, the clock itself is built under licence by the Hong Kong-based clock manufacturers Zeon. Braun audio systems and speakers returned in 2019 via the British radio company Pure, while Braun food processors are from De’Longhi of Italy. Having been bought by the Gillette razor company in 1984, itself becoming a subsidiary of Procter & Gamble in 2005, Braun today makes only haircare products themselves, the rest of the company acting as an agent for its own intellectual property and design history. Ironically, the consumer arm of Philips is now in much the same position, and it is them I usually think of first if “hair removal” comes to mind.

Does any of this matter? Evidently not, as far as my clock is concerned. It is exactly what I wanted, it is officially a Braun clock, and is identifiably a Dieter Rams design. I may not be able to afford one of their original Atelier hi-fi systems, but if new systems from elsewhere have a similarly clean design, it is clear where they took their lead. 

Braun Atelier hi-fi system, from Braun product catalogue

Sunday, December 3, 2023


UKTV promotional image

“U” will be the name of a UK TV streaming platform from Summer 2024 replacing, well, UKTV Play. UKTV, owned by BBC Studios, runs channels whose own names were once thought bizarre, like Dave (predominantly comedy and factual shows), Yesterday (history), Alibi (detective dramas) and Eden (nature documentaries). 

But like their general entertainment channel “W”, formerly named “Watch”, the name “U” is about simplifying the name of the service while making it more distinctive. David Stevens, the Executive Strategy Director at Wolff Olins, the brand consultants that helped create the rebrand, said “the entertainment market is so awash with confusing and bizarrely named offers, so we wanted to strip back, reduce the noise and present this family of brands in a clear, crisp, singular way... We're excited about creating a bold brand that will stand out but won't get in the way.”

I can see what they are doing: ITV have done well by renaming their streaming service “ITVX” instead of “ITV+”, but it remains clear that, like the BBC iPlayer, it is an addition to their existing channels. Channel 4 renamed theirs to “Channel 4”, levelling it out, but UKTV are making it as clear as possible that “U” is the main service going forward: their regular, linear TV channels will be remade U&Dave, U&Yesterday and so on, even U&W. This is far away from the decision to name a channel “Dave” in 2007 because “everyone knows someone called Dave”, a frivolous brand decision in 2007, but more memorable than its previous name of UKTV G2. 

It will be months before I will see if this plan works, as renaming something as a single letter hasn’t worked well as of late. Twitter, renamed “X” in July 2023, is still referred to as “Twitter”, “X/Twitter” or “X, formerly Twitter”, mostly through convenience, but also because “X” is often also a mark of absence, or a placeholder until something better comes along – “X” has always been the name of these articles until I find a suitable title.

This thought also applies when single letters being used as codenames for people, a practice in British intelligence copied by the James Bond novels and films, collides with real-life uses of a letter as a person’s name to add distance to their previous identity: V, as the writer of “The Vagina Monologues” is known, is usually referred to in print as “V, formerly Eve Ensler”, just as everybody became used to saying “the artist formerly known as Prince”.

However, going back to more frivolous uses of one character, “3” was once the name of a British mobile phone company associating itself with the new 3G signal technology as it launched, but now lumbered with the association of old technology as these signals are faded back out.

The web address that UKTV may want to acquire for their rebrand is – formerly used by Ulster Television, known on screen as UTV, it currently redirects to parent company ITV’s website.