The Gherkin Scale
Fair to middlin'
Has some good points
Oi! Wot you playin' at?
Don't be givin' me evils!
I'm waiting! My library holds
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Thursday, December 12, 2013
The first show was a three night event in 1976 held at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. John Cleese, who at the time was starring in the wildly popular Fawlty Towers TV series, was asked by the assistant director of Amnesty International for fundraising ideas. Cleese, who was already an Amnesty supporter, came up with the idea of asking some of his funny friends to participate in several nights of comedy to raise funds for the organization. Cleese was able to get nearly all of his Monty Python co-stars to agree to take part, in addition to other well-known comics such as Barry Humphries (yes, Dame Edna Everage was already an international mega-star by then!). Included in the first incarnation, titled "A Poke In The Eye (with a sharp stick)," were the infamous Monty Python "Dead Parrot" and "Lumberjack" sketches as well as some others that were new to me but still very funny (such as Cleese's disappointed Pope having a word with Michelangelo about his first version of "The Last Supper"). The second show was a one-off in 1977 which was more limited in scope due to the unavailability of quite a few of the performers from the first show. Still, it was enough of a success to carry on the tradition.
The first show to carry the name The Secret Policeman's Ball was held in 1979 and introduced a comedy newcomer by the name of Rowan Atkinson. This show also made music a bigger part of the production by including known musical guests (rather than the occasional songs performed by the comics in the earlier shows). Some of the musical talent included Sting, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Comedy still was the main focus of the show with performers including the Monty Python troupe, Billy Connolly, and Peter Cook (among others). This show was also the first time the marketing of the program expanded to record albums and TV programs.
The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, from 1981, tried to be a bit edgier, including a more brash type of comic in the form of Alexei Sayle. The four shows from 1981 were again wildly popular, even if John Cleese was exasperated at how long they ran over the allotted time! By 1987, the idea of a star-studded event to raise funds for charity had taken off and inspired the Live Aid events. Additionally, in 1981 Pete Townsend had performed an acoustic musical set that both set the standard for future musical performances on the show as well as inspiring other programs such as MTV's Unplugged series. At the same time, the success of all these charity events was starting to give the public "charity fatigue." It was therefore important to continue to attract new, fresh talent in order to ensure an audience. Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Lenny Henry, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry all participated in the shows in the late 1980s. John Cleese had distanced himself from the program, but was persuaded to come back to accept the "Silver Dick Award" from Fry & Laurie (the sketch is included in the book, and takes some rather personal jabs at Cleese).
By Amnesty's 40th anniversary in 2001, Eddie Izzard had taken over as the host and routines based on familiar characters were the highlight. To celebrate Amnesty's 50th anniversary, the Ball was held for the first time outside the UK at New York's Radio City Music Hall. It was funny to read that during the original show in 1976 the most appreciated comedy bits had been about "Proust, philosophy and iambic pentameter," while in 2012 the biggest laughs came from references to "reality TV, Twitter and texting." Hmm, not sure this is a positive development for our culture! Some of the names associated with the American version were Russell Brand, Seth Meyers, Sarah Silverman, Catherine Tate and Jon Stewart.
There's no doubt that the "Secret Policeman's Ball" shows have done a great deal to raise both funds and awareness for Amnesty International. Founded in 1960, at the time of the first show there were 3,000 AI members. Today, this number has expanded to over 3 million members. The important work of the organization in defending human rights and working to free the unjustly imprisoned has benefited greatly from its association with comedy. Even though the two ideas might seem to be somewhat at opposite ends of the spectrum (topic-wise) they have ended up being a very good fit. Over the years the performances have been turned into numerous film and album releases.
The book is filled with illustrations of posters from the various shows, as well as photos of the performers. Many of the skits are also included and make for fascinating and hilarious reading! A helpful index at the back will let the reader jump to the routines of his or her favorite performers. The ever-escalating cast of comedic and musical talent that the shows were able to attract speaks to the valuable work that Amnesty International did and continues to do. The pairing of noble work and irreverent comedy was a stroke of genius that continues to benefit us all!
Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Very Best of The Secret Policeman's Ball from Independent Publisher's Group in exchange for this review
Final Verdict for The Very Best of The Secret Policeman's Ball: Five Gherkins, for being a comprehensive and uproarious look at the evolution of a comedic institution
Monday, December 9, 2013
The 8 episodes that make up the latest series are a welcome return to all the quirky characters and beautiful settings that have made Doc Martin so popular. Episode One begins with a wedding -- Doc Martin and school headmistress Louisa are finally tying the knot. The whole town turns out for the festivities, and even surprise the happy couple with a honeymoon -- a night in a secluded cottage. They are dropped off at the location by jack-of-all-trades Bert Large, who forgets to give them their suitcases. When circumstances make them evacuate the cottage, the bridal couple is reduced to wandering the Cornish countryside in their wedding attire. And it's all downhill from there!
Episode Three begins with a strange man who washes up on the beach and claims not to know how he got there. It turns out he has an unnatural obsession with Martin's aunt Ruth, the psychiatrist. Ruth is keeping busy by being a frequent guest on the wildly popular Radio Portwenn show. Meanwhile, Al Large, tired of sharing a room with his father after his is rented out to tourists, moves in with Morwenna.
A locum pharmacist, Jennifer Cardew, shows up, and it turns out she has a past with Bert Large in Episode Four. We also meet a character with the timely disorder of hoarding. Unfortunately, his house shares a wall with Aunt Ruth's house, and problems arise.
In Episode Five, things are going just swimmingly between Bert and Jennifer the pharmacist when Mrs. Tishell, the regular pharmacist returns. She's been undergoing some psychiatric treatment after an unfortunate incident involving baby James. Luckily, her obsession with Doc Martin is being kept in check by her behavioral therapy, which consists of snapping a rubber band on her wrist whenever she has a negative thought (which is pretty much constantly). Joe Penhale, the town policeman, sets off on a nature survivalist course of his own devising, which doesn't quite go as planned.
When Doc Martin casually mentions to a hypochondriac that his cough might have something to do with being exposed to asbestos, the frightened villagers of Portwenn clamor for inspections in Episode Six. Mrs. Tishell is given the all-clear to work alone in the pharmacy, so Jennifer makes plans to leave for another temporary pharmacy job -- unless something happens to make her stay. Martin's mother shows up on his doorstep with a large suitcase and some disturbing news from Portugal.
In the final episode of the series, things are finally looking up for Al Large. He's had to move in with Joe the policeman, but he has a business proposal which seems to be promising. Romance is in the air for Bert and Jennifer, even if their celebrations cause problems for others. Martin and Louisa's relationship is tested in several ways.
As always, a visit to Portwenn is a welcome return to familiar characters that we've all grown to love. Doc Martin's blood phobia returns with a vengeance, causing him some trouble, but he's still able to quickly and accurately diagnose most medical conditions -- once his patients give him all the facts. Louisa is long-suffering, trying to get Martin to open up and be more connected to both her and the community, but he remains decidedly brusque and anti-social. When Martin's mother comes to visit, we get some insight into why his personality is so cold and disconnected from those around him.
I really enjoyed visiting with all the characters in the series -- both old and new. The scenery was lovely as always and the situations that arose were amusing and touching. There were plenty of "behind the scenes" extras as well, that covered everything from the characters to the setting to how to speak Cornish. I really enjoyed seeing Martin Clunes participate in the extra segments. It's really jarring to see him so engaged and animated when we've grown used to the surly and unpleasant Doc Martin! I'm anxiously awaiting Series 7, especially since this series ended on something of a cliffhanger.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of Doc Martin: Series 6 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review
Final Verdict for Doc Martin: Series 6: Five Gherkins, for being a welcome visit with some beloved old friends
Friday, December 6, 2013
So just what is innovation's dirty little secret? Well, it's not a spoiler to say that it's this: that most innovations fail. There are a number of reasons why most people don't know this, from failure not being newsworthy (unless it's on a spectacular scale) to the general optimism of human nature. The author uses personal examples gained in his experience as a pastor to show how to anticipate risks as changes are implemented. His principles are applicable in many different situations.
Many organizations are steeped in protecting their current day-to-day operations rather than attempting to plan or prepare for the future. In order not to miss any important opportunities, it's vital that the organization identify those people within it who are insightful, courageous and flexible. These are traits that are natural to the innovator. The author also suggests that the best way to implement innovations without risking too much is to have an exit strategy in place before beginning. This will allow the organization to plan for what to do if the change turns out not to be beneficial. The major way to ignite innovation is by making sure your organization has a clearly written mission statement (which differs from the overall vision of the group).
The section on how to Sabotage Innovation contains many useful examples of how the best ideas can quickly go wrong. The book sums up with how to leave your own legacy of innovation with your group. Some chapters have questions at the end to help reinforce the main points covered. Overall, I found the book to have good ideas, but the main idea of the book, that innovators are born and it's the organizational leader's job to find that person, to be a bit odd. He also talks about how "Mark Zuckerman" wouldn't be able to get a job at many companies that hire based on minimum qualifications. I think he must mean Mark Zuckerberg? Still, for leaders of large groups there are some sound ideas about how to plan for change and how to prepare for failure.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of Innovation's Dirty Little Secret as part of the BookSneeze program
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
The book opens with the discovery of the murder of vicar Sarah Hussain. Sarah and her 17 year old daughter Clarissa lived in the vicarage, but Sarah didn't have many close friends. Therefore, it's rather puzzling as to who could dislike her enough to want to strangle her. Detective Superintendent Mike Burden, formerly Wexford's subordinate, is now in charge of the case.
Since retiring, Wexford has spent a lot of time reading, and when we catch up to him in this book, he's still at it. He's in the middle of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," but it's not easy to read when you've got a chatty housekeeper, and the Wexfords certainly have that. Maxine Sams never stops talking while she works, and so Wexford tries to avoid her as much as possible. Still, her chattiness does occasionally come in handy, such as when she describes the scene when she found Rev. Hussain murdered. Maxine is most talkative about her own family, including her son Jason and his baby daughter Isabella.
Jason's landlord, Jeremy Legg, is a shiftless layabout who is always looking for ways to make a quick buck without actually having to do any work. He is separated from his former partner, with whom he rented a flat. He was able to find a new girlfriend and move in with her, so in the absence of his old girlfriend (who has moved abroad with her new partner), he is renting out his former residence to Jason and his family. Things are going well until the girlfriend announces she's coming home and plans to move back in to the flat. Jeremy panics, since the girlfriend doesn't know he's been renting the place out. Luckily, he's able to convince his new girlfriend to help him buy a new flat that he then convinces Jason to move into.
Wexford, somewhat at a loose end, is thrilled to be kept up-to-date on the murder investigation and to occasionally go out and question witnesses. Because of his many years of experience, he is able to put everyone at ease and most people have no hesitation in speaking to him. As in previous years, however, Mike Burden fixes on a suspect and refuses to consider any alternative explanations for the crime -- no matter how weak his evidence seems to be.
At the same time, Clarissa Hussain is nearing her 18th birthday, a milestone which her mother promised to celebrate by revealing to Clarissa who her father was. Sarah had been married, but her husband died several years before Clarissa was born. Sarah's one close friend reveals a possible explanation for Clarissa's conception, but Wexford isn't entirely convinced that is the whole story. Since a new vicar is going to take Sarah's job, Clarissa has to move out of the vicarage. Luckily, Wexford's prickly older daughter Sylvia has a spare room for rent. She soon wonders about this arrangement when her son Robin falls in love with Clarissa.
Will Wexford find out the truth about Clarissa's father? Will he be able to solve the murder? And are the two things related? Will the cleaner Maxine ever shut up so that Wexford can finish his book in peace? And will Burden ever take off his blinders and see that, yet once again, Wexford has solved the case? These questions are all answered by the end of the book.
I enjoyed visiting Wexford's world again, as always, but I did have some problems with this book. There were many, many occasions when there were inexplicably abrupt transitions. Wexford would be speaking with someone in person, and in the middle of a paragraph he would suddenly be at home or calling them on the phone at a later time. Also, the book seemed to end rather abruptly (even though most of the loose ends had been tied up by that time). I turned the page, expecting another chapter, but was surprised to find that was the end of the story. Still, I doubt we've seen the last of Chief Inspector Wexford (retired), and that's always a good thing in my book!
Final verdict for No Man's Nightengale: Three Gherkins, for being a welcome, if somewhat unsatisfying, visit with an old literary friend
Monday, November 25, 2013
Unfortunately, even though she is family, Fanny is never allowed to forget that she is the poor cousin. Lady Bertram and her husband live in a beautiful stately home with their four children and another aunt, the snooty (although she seems to be a poor relation living on charity, too) Aunt Norris. Fanny, played by Billie Piper, is treated as a servant, to be called upon to do everything from fetching and carrying to providing companionship for the aunts. During her time at Mansfield Park, Fanny has fallen in love with her cousin, Edmund. He is the second son of her relatives, and so decides to be a clergyman since he won't inherit the estate. The oldest son, Tom, who will inherit, is a dissolute fellow, given to drinking, carousing, and (horror of horrors) putting on plays. Fanny's life is going along on its fairly uncomplicated path until a scheming brother and sister pair arrive in the neighborhood.
Mary, naturally, wants to marry the older brother, Tom, so that she can become lady of the manor. What a pity that Tom has vacated the boring countryside for more lively surroundings. Sir Thomas, his father, has had to go to the West Indies for business, so the son has decided to make marry while he has a chance. There's nothing else for poor Mary to do but set her sights on the younger brother, Edmund. When she finds out he wants to be a clergyman, which is not only dull but also doesn't pay very well, she attempts to persuade him to adopt a more lucrative career. Henry, on the other hand, determines to woo the younger daughter, Julia, since oldest daughter Maria is engaged to the devoted, if somewhat simple, Mr. Rushworth. Maria, however, seems rather smitten with the new arrival.
In the midst of all this flirtation, Tom arrives back and announces that his family members should help him to put on a play. Everyone is given parts (some more reluctantly than others) and the rehearsals give the couples even more chances to flirt shamelessly. Unfortunately for the assembly, father Thomas returns, glowering, and puts an end to such frivolities as play-acting.
Once harsh reality sets in, life returns to normal and Maria marries her Mr. Rushworth. Deprived of his chance of a dalliance, Henry Crawford decides to set his sights on the often overlooked Fanny as someone he can manipulate into falling in love with him. At this opportune moment, Fanny's brother William returns from sea. His career in the navy has stalled. Luckily, Henry sees a chance to gain Fanny's gratitude. He is able to get his
Just then, Tom is brought back home in a terrible condition. His drinking and merrymaking have
caught up with him, and he's carried home to recuperate. Luckily, the doctor is on hand with plenty of leeches, so his health will be sure to improve with such state-of-the-art medical treatment. In the meantime, Mary Crawford, who had given up on boring old clergyman Edmund, reappears when she hears that older brother Tom might be on his deathbed. Not that she wishes him ill or anything, but if he's going to die anyway, she might as well be on hand to offer comfort and consolation to the new heir of Mansfield Park. Thankfully, by this time, Edmund has begun to catch on to her deceitful ways.
Poor Fanny is still hanging around the periphery of all this flirtation and plotting, so it remains to be seen whether or not Cousin Edmund will ever begin take notice of her as anything other than a piece of furniture in the living room. Then again, as this adaptation is based on a Jane Austen novel, I think we can be pretty sure that the virtuous maidens are rewarded with love in the end!
I was excited to see some familiar Eastenders faces in the cast, with Michelle Ryan (Zoey Slater) and Maggie O'Neill (Suzy Branning) making appearances.
Final verdict for Mansfield Park: Four Gherkins, for being a gorgeous adaptation of a lesser-known Austen novel
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
The novel is set in modern times, and features a young girl who's had a very difficult childhood. Samantha was in and out of foster homes as a child, and after a period of time on the streets as a runaway, she is taken in at Grace House, a home for abandoned children. Throughout her upbringing, she's always felt alone and rootless, so she's taken refuge in her favorite books -- especially those by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. She often uses the words of the characters in these books to avoid giving away too much of her self, and as a way of keeping people at a distance. She eventually graduates from college and moves out of Grace House to work in a corporate job, even though she was offered a scholarship to go to graduate school. Her inability to form personal bonds and her standoffish personality soon get her fired from her job, and she decides to move back to Grace House and look at the possibility of accepting the scholarship. She knows this is her last chance, because soon she will be too old to live at Grace House.
She finds that the scholarship is still available, but there are some strings attached. Rather than allowing her to study what she wants, she must study journalism. With no other options, she accepts. Also, she is required to write frequent letters detailing her progress in the program to her benefactor, known only as "Mr. Knightley." The letters to him form the vast majority of the book.
During her time back at Grace House, she tutors younger children and also begins running with Kyle, a troubled teenager whose upbringing mirrors her own. Even though her immediate problems are solved, Sam soon finds that her reluctance to open herself up to the world also shows in her journalism assignments. Her professor, Dr. Johnson, tries to encourage her, but at the same time lets her know that if she doesn't get away from impersonal, perfunctory writing, she will be kicked out of the program. In the meantime, she struggles with boyfriend issues, personal safety problems, and plenty of self doubt.
She eventually moves into an apartment and meets the author Alex Powell, a graduate of the same program she's attending. She's thrilled to be in the presence of such a famous and attractive author, but finds him a bit hard to read. They eventually become friends and bond over the friendship with a retired professor and his wife.
While I enjoyed most of the book, I did have problems with parts of it. How likely is it that someone is going to contact you with an offer of free tuition, a paid apartment, a new wardrobe, a computer for schoolwork, etc. and all they ask in return is the occasional letter? I'm sure we'd all love to have that happen to us! And isn't it odd that not only Sam, but most of the people she encounters, have memorized every English and French novel from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and can identify any quote from them instantly? Sam was also very prickly and unpleasant most of the time (not that she didn't have good reason), but no one ever seemed put out or angry with her unreasonable behavior.
I'm not (unlike everyone in this book) familiar enough with the various plots of Jane Austen's novels to know if this is a modern interpretation of one of the books. Other than the many quotes and references to characters that we are apparently supposed to know all about, there isn't much of Austen to be found here -- so don't be enticed by the title into thinking this is another Austen knock-off. The story is pretty bleak and definitely grittily modern.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of Dear Mr. Knightley in exchange for this review as part of the BookSneeze program
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Before there were fashionistas like Victoria Beckham,
there were the Eliott sisters, Beatrice and Evangeline. The two sisters in the delightful series The House of Eliott take their flair for design and style and turn it into a thriving fashion business. The DVD release of the complete collection includes all 34 episodes from the 3 seasons of the series which originally ran from 1991 to 1994. The series was created by the same team that brought us the classic series Upstairs, Downstairs, so you know you're in for some compelling story lines!
The series begins with the death of Bea and Evie's father in 1920. The unmarried sisters lived with their widowed father and don't have much connection to the outside world. Bea is 12 years older than 18-year-old Evie and, because their mother died when Evie was born, has served as something of a maternal figure for Evie. Their pompous and somewhat slimy cousin, Arthur, has been appointed executor of their father's will, as well as Evie's legal guardian until she comes of age. It falls to Arthur, who is a solicitor, to tell the girls that not only did their father not leave them anything in his will, but that there was really nothing to leave. He had even mortgaged the house, so that the girls were soon going to have no place to live. The sheltered sisters were hit hard with the reality: they had no money, no skills, and no home. Since this was soon after the end of World War I, they would also be competing with millions of other unemployed people for the few jobs that were available.
Luckily, Evie is friends with Penelope Maddox, who suggest that her brother Jack might need an assistant for his photography business. This turns out to be just the lifeline the sisters need. Not only does the no-nonsense and efficient Bea soon become indispensable to Jack, but the sisters move into a flat above his photography studio. Aunt Lydia, Arthur's socially conscious mother, recommends Evie for a position at Partini's dressmaking shop. Because the sisters had lived with little money from their father all their lives, they had been accustomed to making their own clothes. This fortuitous position is their entry into the world of fashion.
Soon the sisters move up to ever more prestigious fashion houses, while continuing to do designing and dress-making for private clients. When an employer becomes enraged at their creativity and flair for design (which makes his own creations pale in comparison) and fires them, the Eliott sisters decide to strike out on their own.
They encounter many financial difficulties along the way. Cousin Arthur, while not embezzling their money, does not inform them of everything they inherited from their father. He also doesn't tell them that their father had a long-term mistress and, allegedly, an illegitimate son. This son, Sebastian, eventually turns up expecting his share of the inheritance. All of this makes starting their own business a tricky proposition.
At the same time, the crusading figure of Penelope reappears, championing the rights of the poor and commenting loudly on the ridiculous ways of the rich, who waste extravagant amounts of money on clothes when that money could be put to better use for social causes. In addition, the sisters must contend with busy personal lives, employee difficulties, rival jealousies and professional set-backs.
Unfortunately, the series was abruptly cancelled by the BBC after series 3, so there is no big resolution to the series. Still, it's very enjoyable to follow the trials and tribulations of the Eliott sisters, two young women forced by circumstances to support themselves at a time when female businesswomen were a rarity.
Several familiar faces turn up, including a young Minnie Driver and Burt Kwouk (Cato from the Pink Panther films). Many fascinating extras make up the set, including a booklet containing an interview with the series co-creator Jean Marsh, who describes how the series was created. There are also very interesting production notes, including information about the filming -- which cost £6 million for the first season! I imagine the majority of that was spent on the lovely fashions that everyone (well, everyone but Penelope, who had more important things than fashion on her plate!) wore. There is also an interview, 10 years after the series ended, with a glamorous Louise Lombard, who played Evie.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of The House of Eliott: Complete Collection, from Acorn Media in exchange for this review
Final Verdict for The House of Eliott: Complete Collection: Four Gherkins, for being a gorgeous and entertaining look at the lives behind a fashionable brand
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