January 30, 2009

It was remiss of me not to note a particularly inspiring evening recently (15th January).

Fresh from Bob Warren’s funeral – with a crackling vintage recording of Tiptoe Through the Tulips, which was played at his commendation, still making me smile – I alighted alone at the Donmar Warehouse for an evening with T.S Eliot. Death and Eliot are comfortable companions.

I was there to hear a reading of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot’s poetry has been an enduring presence in my life since studying some of his key pieces at A-Level. Four Quartets are timeless, multi-layered masterpieces; lyrically mesmerising, endlessly challenging and, it has to be said, quite beautifully bewildering. Little Gidding is my favourite. A section of it is framed on my desk and a small pencil portrait of Eliot by Wyndham Lewis is white-tacked to the wall.

I have not been to a poetry recital this side of my functioning memory and I have never heard Four Quartets, so this was quite a treat. It was recited by Stephen Dillane as part of the Donmar’s Eliot festival. Where else could one find such a festival than at the courageous, broad thinking Donmar? I applaud Michael Grandage’s versatility and vision for the Donmar in general and in particular for this programme.

Dillane’s recital was skilled and accomplished. To recite all four parts of this lengthy and complex poem is nothing short of remarkable. He gave a beguiling performance, although I have to say it lacked something for me. It is hard to isolate exactly what that something was. He certainly brought the poem to life and it illuminated several parts to me, even though I have read it all many times. I guess one of the obstacles is that I have only ever heard Eliot’s recorded reading, or listened to my own internal voice. It is a bit like the experience of watching the film of a book that is special to you. It is impossible for the images to live up to your imagination. How on earth could Dillane reflect or replace the images from a hundred readings? Also, I attach more melancholy to the piece than his portrayal provided and I have always associated it with an older voice. He was quizzical and frivolous in places where I see nothing short of despair. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed his work and respect his achievement.

The evening was closed with a stunning performance of Beethoven’s opus 132 by a string quartet of the Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra. With fitting drama and atmosphere, they were lit by just a single bulb from an overhead light. I marvelled at the exuberance and obvious joy with which they played and I was especially taken by David Cohen’s performance on cello, not least by him performing in stockinged feet with his boots by the spike. Very cool.

So, a reading of Eliot’s finest work accompanied by a Beethoven piece to make your bones tingle. Probably one of the best ways to wind down after a funeral.

Only at the Donmar. Bravo.

Four Quartets, Donmar Warehouse

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January 23, 2009

For professional reasons, I have recently been plugging into the oeuvre of TV “investigative journalist” Jacques Peretti and I admit I am totally astonished at the projection his documentaries are afforded by Channel 4.

He seems a nice enough fellow and clearly sincere, but he is somewhat deluded by the seriousness and revelatory value of his “investigations”. At best, they are gossamer thin and reliant on twice-removed sources linked together by a droning monolgue of half-baked, pub-style pontification. Jacques reckons he is cerebrally unraveling his subjects. He is not. As Ally Ross, TV critic of The Sun, brilliantly put it a while back – “Jacques Peretti is the Zen Buddhist of stating the bleeding obvious”.

I had to chuckle last night when I saw Jacques and his hairy arms on yet another plane – LA, New York, Bahamas – to track down yet another nobody who sort of knew Dodi Fayed in a nightclub. His “sources” at best are washed up rent-a-quotes who might be worth chatting to if they popped into the Soho edit suite for ten minutes. But the Bahamas for two minutes of nonsense with Johnny Gold? (Actually, I just looked out the window and now realise – if you’ve got the budget and the suntan lotion, it makes total sense.)

The repetition of the stills photos (Diana on the Jonikal) and archive footage (Dodi getting into a Ford Estate, close up of the cameraman in the reflection of the car window) was nothing short of laughable. But it is Jacques’ Mogadon delivery that takes the forehead slapping biscuit. It is as if by talking ever-so-s-l-o-w-l-y with a dense voice will give veracity and weight to his balsa revelations. It d-o-e-s n-o-t, J-a-c-q-u-e-s.

The Artist dipped in for a few minutes and witnessed Jacques’ interview in the back of a limo with some nobody who vaguely knew Dodi for a bit. In one sweeping statement, based on nothing, Jacques said that Dodi got through a kilo of cocaine a week which “would take some doing”. Before walking straight back out, the Artist observed: “He could do with a kilo of coke to liven him up.”

There is a term in the newspaper business for what Jacques does: cuts jobs. Knit together old material, add archive photos to make it look fancy, bung it all under a new headline and hope no one notices. In an hour long TV doc, there is no hiding place and the holes are too glaring to miss. How can a cuts job be worth an hour on Channel 4? And on such well visited subjects as Dodi Fayed, Paul Burrell, Michael Barrymore? Every person Jacques “investigates” can be easily filed under another journalistic term for subjects no longer of interest: “Those we used to love.”

There’s a fun documentary skit to be done on Jacques. I can even visualise the opening wide shot following the great man going about his “investigative” duties in a cuttings library. A dull, slow voice over begins to tell the story:

“This is Jacques Peretti. Who is he? What drives him? Where did he come from? What issues does he have? etc etc…”

Cut to a row of people on a sofa snoring – ZZZzzzzzzzz.

Jacques Peretti, I Don’t Know What Happened, Channel 4

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May 28, 2008

And, so, to Fountain Studios in Wembley for a seat behind the judges at a live semi-final of Britain’s Got Talent. What an extraordinary experience.

I have dipped into the series since a night of undiluted hilarity at the auditions in Hackney, so the thought of some more live action was an easy lure.

A glass of pink champagne backstage got me in the mood for Simon, Piers and Amanda, and, boy, do you need some happy fuel to attend these shows; the crew get you clapping and on your feet constantly like demented performing seals to generate the feel-good vibe. It is an exhausting two hours which leaves you with raw hands and arthritic knees. But it is worth the effort.

Love it or hate it, BGT is one weird whirl of high purity entertainment – good and bad. It makes you cringe, laugh, cheer, boo and cry all in one fatal dose. You sink at the sight of some of the acts – the clueless Indian magician, that troop of a hundred hopeless dancers, the bin bashers, and Christine Hamilton going for it in the finale of You Raise Me Up. But then you are up-lifted by the endearing, untarnished talent of the chorister – you know, the boy with bad white heads. His Tears In Heaven made me water a bit.

You can’t help but get caught up in it all when you are there. When the agonising moment came for Cowell to cast the deciding vote between Flava and The Cheeky Monkeys, I found myself shouting out loud.

My head knew it should be Flava – the half-baked dance act with “street” kids who want to make something of themselves – but my heart wanted the two cute little blonde kids who, let’s be honest, are too bloody young to be appearing in an event of this scale. Their act makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. In fact, so uncomfortable, that I shouted out their name to help Cowell decide. I was so near to him that I seriously think my shout – and a few others – helped swing it. I was like a parent at a pantomime who had sunk one too many sweet sherries in the interval. Really, I should be ashamed of myself.

Britian’s Got Talent – Semi Finals Live

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February 06, 2008

It is not often that I wake up chuckling into the pillow through a throat made sore by a night of intense, stomach crunching laughter. It is also not often that I burn the toast because my mind is happily distracted by turning over the events of the previous evening. But, then, I had never been to see the auditions for ITV’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.

Last night, The Artist and I and a friend sat riveted and contorted through what was probably the funniest, most entertaining – and often excruciating – three hours I have had in, erm, a few decades. We ventured to the Hackney Empire under the invitation of Piers Morgan, an old friend who is now, bizzarely, a bona fide TV star on both sides of the Atlantic.

I must be one of the few people in the land not to have seen one minute of BGT. I was abroad throughout its UK arrival last summer, so I came to it cold last night. And what a delightful, emotionally oscillating shock.

Unfortunately, the poor acoustics meant we could hardly hear Morgan or Amanda Holden’s comments (maybe was a blessing), but Cowell was just a few feet away and he delivered some gems.

We sat through talking and counting (and crapping) parrots, hopeless magicians, tragic clowns (Cowell: “I am allergic to clowns”), overweight teenage Irish dancers in plastic tiaras and frizz wigs, and a fat mum in a vest dancing like Britney Spears who pitched for the sympathy vote with, “I’m doing this for my kids… one of them is disabled”.

Then there was the toe curling embarrassment of “Gunther the Geordie Porn Star” in leopard print briefs practising his pelvic action; Julie, a 41-year-old Southampton Council worker, singing Madonna’s Holiday in overly tight glittered Lycra (Cowell: “You’re like a drunk on a hen night”); and a Norwegian cleaner living in the UK “for time being” (he’s been he eight YEARS) who mimed the effects of being in a storm with a red umbrella.

There were very few genuine acts of talent on what proved to be one of the most fruitless auditions in six weeks of trawling the UK. And Hackney provided the most hostile and cynical of audiences seen by the BGT crew to date. Much has been made in the news recently of the dangers of walking Hackney’s streets at night. Well, I can assure you that its foul-mouthed youth are not to be recommended as companions in the theatre either.

A trainee lawyer dancing like Michael Jackson stole the show and easily made it through to the next round, but I won’t give away the comic brilliance of his act.

I chatted to Cowell and Morgan backstage afterwards. Both looked a touch exhausted and exasperated with the draining demands of the BGT auditions juggernaut. Cowell said that he was running out of things to say to these people, but I beg to differ. The line of the night was all his and it was this one which had me chuckling again in today’s reverie.

It came when a man of 84 called William humbly took to the stage to play Edelweiss on the harmonica. He quietly, but proudly, said he had been playing for 60 years. He then proceeded to silence the baying Empire mob with the dullest, most pedestrian performance in history. There was a very real stench of sympathy and awkwardness. 60 years, for that?

With profound and deadening understatement Cowell looked at him unsmilingly and said: “I think you could do with a little bit more practice.”


Britain’s Got Talent Auditions, Hackney Empire

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Daft really, to reach out like this, but I have just tuned into one of my favourite events on the sporting calendar – the Masters golf from Augusta – and I am irate enough to react with an angry blog. I had forgotten who is the host these days. Gary bloody Lineker.

Quite simply, he does NOT fit this event.

I felt it in my gut last year. I even reached for the blog back then. There has been much press about Midlands accents of late. Well, I for one don’t want one talking me through this golf tournament. Every time he says “Masstas” I want to club him. I can’t be alone.

Thankfully, I will be on holiday tomorrow and will miss the Masters this year. The only consolation is that I won’t have to watch Lineker at the helm.

Steve Rider get yer bouffant back ‘ere.

Gary Lineker, The Masstas, BBC1

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February 05, 2007

Louis Theroux has been away from TV for a while. I’ve not missed him. He kicked off his new series of BBC2 documentaries with a trip to Las Vegas last night and the publicity suckered me in. After a long break from TV, with the whole world and its nutcases at the mercy of his lens, he goes there. Genius producing. Can you imagine the planning meetings that went into that? Series Producer: “Hey, the Hilton are offering us a freebie to Vegas for a few on-screen plugs, let’s go, do the strip see some strippers.” Louis: “Errrm. Yeah. Well. Hmmm. Yeah.”

But, hey, no matter the jam-packed travel library in existence on Vegas – all made possible with contra-deal kick backs – it is so full of madness and characters that any hack with a camcorder and a decent eye for a story should come up with some entertaining footage and interviews. But not Louis. He couldn’t interview a Martian and get a story if one tugged on his baggy sweater.

For this show, Louis followed a few hapless gamblers and showed them to be hopeless losers. Gosh, sad gamblers found in Vegas, they lose money. I was staggered. Then Louis played the tables himself – twice. Original, imaginative. In terms of creativity, this show was tantamount to going on a junket to Vegas and staying at the airport to play the first 25 cent slot machine you see, then coming home.

If this loser of a show was the lead doc in the series, I doubt I will gamble any more time on Louis. He has no basic sense of how to ask questions or develop an interview with any depth. And once you are bored of his limp, whimpering delivery, and over-played laid back approach – if indeed you ever liked it – there is nowhere to go. I’ve always felt he was over-rated.

Louise Theroux in Las Vegas, BBC2

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February 14, 2007

I stand accused of wasting an hour and a half of my life last night watching BBC2’s The Verdict. I hang my head in shame and plead guilty and ask for countless other similar telly violations of my freedom to be taken into consideration. My sentence? To watch the remaining episodes of this absurdly enjoyable tripe.

I missed the opening up of this “case”, so I’m slightly off the pace, but that hasn’t hindered me from easing into the role of a hang ’em high judge and jury. In fact, I couldn’t give a bowl of salty porridge about the blokes in the dock, or the weepers in witess box. No, naturally, I’m judging all the celebrities. They’re all in the dock here, of course that’s what this is about – it’s a reality show with a stocking over its grubby little face as a disguise. And I know for certain they are all GUILTY.

Yep, guilty, I say. First up is chuffing Ingrid Tarrant. She is guilty of suddenly making me feel empathy with Chris for going AWOL in his marriage. Next is Jennifer Wotshername-like for giving further incontrovertible evidence – recently displayed by Danielle Windyarse-like from CBB – that the scouse accent is the most tikcth (sic: thick) sounding and irritating in Britain. Then there is the ex-soap Ginga, up on charges of continuing to impersonate a bad EastEnders character. Her claim that she is just a Patsy is inadmissable.

Then there’s the bloke from Blur – Alex James – who looks like he is a few glugs away from rehab’. (Apologies if he is actually in recovery). I interviewed Collymore and Archer last year, so I know their form. Therefore, I convict them both without a pause for breath. Well, let’s face it, Collymore is always upto no good and Archer is always guilty. Who have I missed? Oh, yes, Jacqueline Gold. She is so quiet I think she must have been winded by sitting on an oversize Rampant Rabbit. Then we have old rubber nose, bloaty-face Michael Portillo. He is guilty of making me think that he is actually half-sensible, such is the company he keeps. There are a few others who are simply guilty of table manners affray and for consuming stolen goods – champagne and lorry-loads of food – all proven to be owned by hard-up Licence Payers.

But the main culprit in The Verdict so far is Megaman – or MegaChippyMan. He is exercising his right to remain silent with a violent stare. He has brought a stack of pre-conceived ideas, personal issues and prejudices into the jury room and dat ain’t allowed, man. His main crime, however, is being caught in possession of an over-loaded, dangerous wardrobe, including diamonte studded CK sunglasses worn with no sense of embarrassment in a darkened dining room. He stands accused of using this wardrobe with malicious intent to pass off as a successful gangsta rapper.

Everyone in this show keeps saying – “You’ve got to go on the EVIDENCE”. Well, I’ve seen enough, yer Crusty Old Honour.

Take ’em all down.

The Verdict, BBC2

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And, so, to the art world and last night’s private view for Marcel Dzama’s new work at Timothy Taylor’s gallery in Mayfair. Waiters in black Zorro masks greeted me with a choice between a bottle of Peroni and a glass of chilled Petit Chablis. A brash, post-minimalist bar, but evocative and splendidly purist. It spoke to me. Still off the beer, I went for a splash of wine. Very nice, too, I thank you, Timothy, but I’ve got to say, it all went a bit downhill after that.

There’s clearly a buzz and dazzle around Dzama, what with his (group) shows at MoMA, but on the evidence of last night it is a wonder to me how this Canadian is generating such attention – and prices. Now, I’m all in favour and praise of people who express their creativity. Bravo to them. I can’t speak for Dzama’s previous work – which may well be amazing, visionary, cutting edge, it may even be good – but this show was thin, to say the least. Less than a Size 0. In fact, if you had phoned up ITV to vote for this exhibition, you would rightly claim you had been short-changed.

The work derives from a 30 minute film (art show screenings only, not yer local multiplex) Dzama made a while back called The Lotus Eaters. It includes images of characters, many in Zorro masks with black beaked noses, sitting on dead tree trunks. You know, I can barely recall a clear image this morning, such was the lasting resonance of his faces. They looked like the rejected off-cuts on a cartoonist’s studio floor.

Also on display were some furry costume heads from Dzama’s “film”. I have seen more dramatic and better constructed models made by 10 year olds with papier mache and ping-pong balls. But, here in Mayfair with beer and wine, these heads and pictures are art, and fairly expensive art at that. One gallery sales person, visibly twitching with glee, told me that most were already sold. The small, unappealing water colours were $10-15,000 a shot and one medium-size montage was $45,000. Average-to-low pricing in this genre and I would have got one or two for the hell of collecting, but I didn’t have any change on me.

The information sheet handed out last night explained Dzama’s talent and inspiration thus: “The long, dark, cold Winnipeg winters meant that Marcel spent a lot of time inside drawing a dystopian world inhabited by femmes fatale, bats, bears, cowboys and superheroes.” Hmm, I stayed in a lot drawing when it shanked down in Bromley when I was a kid. But when does childhood cartooning become art? When an art dealer tells his people, that’s when.

Now, I’ve been to countless private views in the past few years and I’ve done all the main London art shows, and, well, the whole shebang leaves me ever more puzzled. The big fairs seem to be little more than a free-drink fest, with hoards of liggers staggering around in a fug of cheap, New World chardonnay or shiraz looking with ever deteriorating eye-sight at works of questionable quality and depth, let alone basic intrigue or beauty. The contemporary art world is thriving like never before and is awash with money and product. Of course, it is not all bad, but why such continuing hype about so little?

Well, here’s a thing. I completed my first painting on canvas last weekend. It was an oddly rewarding experience, especially as it began with a definite twinge of panic and artist’s angst when I first stared at the blank canvas. I suddenly connected with all the grand Masters who had hunched over an easel before me. We were one.

But it’s not that hard, you know. A short while later I had produced a picture that is a compelling, poignant and painful depiction of personal suffering and 21st century alienation. Or, indeed, it could also be a quite colourful abstract miniature with a circle and some blocks.

I’m thinking of exhibiting my solitary picture here, then you can all decide. The price? Let’s leave that to the dealers…

Marcel Dzama: Le Review

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July 17, 2007

So, what’s a newly married man supposed to do when he gets his first night away from the new wife? Go on a heavy session with the lads and re-tread old haunts? It’s a bit soon for nostalgia for me, so last Friday I did what any self-respecting bloke without a functioning telly would do – I took a long slow walk to the Royal Albert Hall, via the Anglesea, for my first Prom.

I thought I would sample a last-minute “gallery” ticket for a fiver to listen to some quality classical music at feet tingling altitude amongst the “Prommers”. Puffing slightly, I finally arrived at the top deck of the RAH and knew immediately this is not the way I want to listen to Beethoven’s 9th, a much-loved personal favourite.

I’m all up for new experiences, me, but up there I found it infested with a hairy bunch of unkempt, bare-or-soily-sock-footed, picnic-munching,soap-swerving fuddy-duddies and trainee old-before-their-timers. It was like an airport lounge during the French air traffic controllers’ annual strike, with Prommers stretched out on chequered blankets guarding their six-inch sections of laced iron balustrade like sentries in Stalag 17. Elgar’s notes crawled up gasping from below to wrestle for ear-space with the crackle of crisp packets, the fingering of strawberries in creased plastic punnets, and embarrassed usherettes hissing at people to drink their chardonnay contraband outside. Tell me, what is the F-flat point of coming to a classical concert if all you want to do is stuff your big fat furry face? How will you ever know your arse from your oboe if you’ve got a gob full of Walkers?

I immediately regretted not buying a £35 best seat in romantic pursuit of a new experience, so I did the next best thing – I craned over a coleslaw and tomato salad box to scope the arena below for an empty seat. I spotted a cluster of six-or-so near the stage. Years of events experience has taught me that there is no such thing as a 100% sell out, even the First Night of the Proms. And, one tip, if you are ever going to jib in and risk the humiliation of being the only lemon left standing in a fully seated arena, you may as well shoot for the best of the best seats.

So, while the mob was getting stuck into dessert during the interval, I ghosted into the main auditorium and took up position in my new swivel velvet aisle seat in Row 7 – right next to the choir, behind the violins, beside the percussion man and the nervous fellow checking the position of a tiny triangle for the hundredth time. If I had been any nearer to the orchestra, I would have been taking precise instructions from the conductor. But the best thing of all, I was about 3,000ft below the fetid munchers.

And there I waited, indeed sweated, to see if anyone would claim this sensational seat. It was an anxious wait as late-comers piled in for the main event and the vacant cluster was reduced to just one single spare – mine. I have never been happier to hear the opening bars of the 9th. But, my oh my, was it worth the worry. What followed was one of my personal all-time great entertainment pieces, 70 minutes of unadulterated, goose-bumping joy. There are few things in life more inspiring and uplifting than seeing a full orchestra playing in unison.

I’ve “seen” the 9th a few times before and it always makes me cry. Not in a blubbing, hanky-soaked style, but in the simple welling up way. Such is the power of this piece live that my eyes had filled up again within a few minutes of this performance. And the aural power surge when the magnificent double choir – TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY EIGHT OF THEM! – stood up for the finale almost lifted me out of my free seat to join in. Even watching the high pressure moment when Triangle Man’s moment cometh was truly memorable. He successfully filled the Albert Hall with his little instrument and I saw the relief on his face from about four feet.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it. The piece is playing again during this Prom season. My advice: Go, see, hear it for yourself. Forget the gallery. Leave them to their dinner. Spend more, get a good last minute seat. It was the best thirty five quid I never spent.

The Proms – Beethoven’s 9th

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August 17, 2007

Wish me luck, I’m heading off on a Ryanair flight today. This is despite vowing two years ago, after a miserable journey from Pisa, never to travel with them again.

Back then, I said I would happily pay whatever extra it costs to avoid being buffeted along by the elbows and shoulders of sweating, wheezing fellow travellers, as we were herded to a shock yellow seat for the joy of flying to the appalling shrill of in-flight advertising over the Tannoy. What a way to treat your customers.

But what did it for me with Ryanair was the baggage weight charade at check-in at Pisa. My relatively minimal holiday baggage had beefed up a touch, thanks to a paltry, single case of fine Tuscan red I had sourced from a small vineyard outside Montepuliciano. To take it home, I would have to pay excess baggage which negated any previous saving. The Artist and I shuffled off and re-arranged the bags to sneakily spread the load into our hand luggage. It felt cheap and pathetic, yet while we did this, we watched several people check in without a hitch after us despite clearly having eaten their life’s quota of pizza and pasta while on holiday.

Tell me, where is the fairness in penalising passengers who might be, hmmm, on the slimmer side for carrying a few extra pounds in a bag, when Mr and Mrs Golightly are packing an added, say, ten stones between them around their midriffs and derrieres?

Well, I’m heading off on Ryanair for this weekend break because no other airline goes to this destination at anything near a reasonable rate. To avoid putting bags in the hold and to keep within the hand luggage weight, I have studied the baggage dimensions and restrictions on the Ryanair website like a swot in A-level week. God help me. Consequently, I am travelling lighter than ever in my life. Robair – no frills indeed.

Ryan Air

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September 04, 2007

Monday night veg-out saw me tuck into a double portion of gut-churning culinary TV turkey, ‘Nigella Express’ and ‘Hell’s Kitchen’.

I had just rustled up a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, then failed to answer the closing questions on University Challenge, when up popped Nigella. At times, I wonder what onyx stone I have been living under because the entire Nigella Goddess phenomena-thingy pretty much passed me by, but suddenly here she was, in super nauseating close up, super glammed-up, and oh-so-super, super-sized in her super home.

Really, this programme had me spluttering on my lentils from start to finish. It was an unexpected, unintentional comedy gem. I found myself waiting for Nigella to suddenly double up over her spare tyre with laughter as the camera pulled back to reveal Richard Curtis, script in hand, directing a Comic Relief special. It is beyond parody.

Nigella, oh-so-busy, oh-so-stressed, hopping into a black taxi to the Waitrose in Belgravia, then back in a taxi to her hellish Eton Square home, then cooking frantically in her Mayfair restaurant-spec kitchen for her family and chums. I’m sure the stress of the taxi trips resonated with all those who struggle on the bus to the local Lidl with ten quid to feed five.

But it was Nigella’s menu that had me tickling the belly lard with mirth. Pork chops fried in oil with a double cream mustard sauce and gnocchi, or deep fried calamari with garlic mayonnaise. The gut-busting coupe de grace was Nigella coming home to twinkling Christmas lights after a liver full of champers, to curl up in bed with a couple of stale croissants baked in cream and egg. And, then, she came back for more with EXTRA cream before settling down for a late night heart attack. Hilarious. Rename this show ‘Nigella’s Express Taxi Route To Becoming A Fat Knacker’.

Another fat knacker turned up in ITV’s Hell’s Kitchen – Mark Peter White from Leeds, aka Marco Pierre White. Marco kept going on about the fact that he hadn’t been in a kitchen for seven and a half years. By the size of him, he couldn’t have been far from one. If anything, he looks like he’s spent the best part of his resting years on a park bench, or in a box on the Embankment. Marco sounds addled and looks so poorly he can only be a packet of fags or a Nigella pudding away from a defibrillator.

I presume the intention behind such a “Legend” doing this crass – and, it has to be confessed, pathetically addictive show – is to re-heat the souffle of his former glory. Well, by the sight of this opener, it ain’t gonna rise an inch. Would your taste buds get wet at the thought of Marco sweating and wheezing over your grub, his infested hair swooshing around while he man-handles it all with his grubby savaloy fingers? (I never realised just how much grease-ball chefs handle the food until these shows. Urgh).

Oddly enough, Marco didn’t come across as the beast that everyone at ITV expects, indeed insists. If anything, he seemed nervous and genuinely encouraging and avuncular to his hapless “celebrities”, rather than truly nasty like Ramsay. Maybe this genuine nicer side of him will gradually come across more and save his bacon.

But there is only one way to beef up Hell’s Kitchen and make it a dish worth serving: bring in Nigella.

Note: Since writing this blog, it has been revealed that Nigella’s home shots are a big fat porky pie and actually filmed in a studio in South London.

Nigella’s Express, Channel 4 (aka Fat Knacker Night)

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A simple, quick tip on a fabulous restaurant I visited last Friday: Baltic. It’s been there for about six years and already has a huge following and great reviews, but has only just beeped onto my radar. Always up to speed, me. (Apparently, AA Gill slagged it originally, but has been seen back there many times).

The theme of the restaurant is Eastern European and has the most amazing, mouthwatering original menu. If I only I could remember the names of the dishes to make your mouth water. The trouble is, the tradition at Baltic is to serve a variety of head-banging home-made vodkas throughout your meal. Slam dunk those on top of some superb Meursault, Margaux and a Brunello to boot, then you know you will have to relive the experience just to anchor it properly in your memory.

That said, the Scottish Rock Oysters (er, is Scotland near the Baltic?) were silver slick, the Siberian dumplings with veal and pork were sweet and moreish and the bleeding lamb was so tender I started stamping the ground like thumper. For the life of me I cannot remember what I had for dessert. I blame the pre-pudding strawberry vodka.

B-Baltic is a b-brilliant, b-buzzing restaurant. Go there for a b-big b-blow out. It is so good it is almost memorable.

Note: I have just noticed that Baltic has made into the Evening Standard’s restaurant critic Fay Maschler’s top 25 London restaurants in today’s (3rd Oct) paper.

Baltic Restaurant, London SE1

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November 14, 2007

As I am sure you are beginning to make last minute arrangements for your winter or New Year holidays, can I just stop by with a couple of recommendations following a glorious trip earlier this year.

The Madikwe Lodge safari lodge in South Africa is sensational. Luxurious and beautiful private rooms are carved into the granite of the local rock formations, with heated floors and a private plunge pool. You even get a private outdoor bath and shower overlooking the bush. Well, totally private except for the elephants and lions looking on – in awe – as they drink at a nearby watering hole. The Madikwe staff are fantastic, as is the food. The game drives are terrific and we easily saw many multiples of four of the Big Five (the leopards eluded us) – thanks to our cheerful, eagle-eyed tracker Johannes. What a star – although one lion got a little too close and looked me square (meal?) in the eye. Most memorable sight, apart form the animals, has to be the Mars-red, iron rich earth. I even brought some home to create my own paint. (Exhibition to be announced soon).

Mauritius is only a four hour flight from Johannesburg and is an ideal place for a beach side crash out after an exhausting safari. I would strongly recommend the Hilton. I always expect the worst when I hear that name – an air-con, high rise, business hotel – but this one is part of the five star ‘Hilton Worldwide’ range. It is stunning and lacks the stuffiness of some of the other five star resorts. I finally cracked mono water skiing, thanks to Tom from the newly installed Mark Warner water sports centre, and I had the best acupressure massages in my life at the dedicated health spa.

Both these trips can be booked via the Virgin Holidays website or by calling: 0871 222 0307.

One last tip (plug): Virgin Upper Class to South Africa is superb. But make sure you give yourself a good two hours in the Clubhouse at Heathrow – just so you are, ahem, nicely relaxed for that strenuous flight.

Madike Hills Game Lodge, South Africa

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December 03, 2007

Many months ago I enjoyed a one night stay at Champneys Tring. If I was a politician, I guess I would have to make various declarations, or – more likely – not make any declarations, only to have The Guardian tell me later that the bill was settled by someone else.

Anyway, if you are thinking you are in need of a detox to prepare for all those Christmas parties, or indeed you are planning a New You for the New Year, then you could do worse than book a mini health farm break at one of the Champneys resorts. The facilities at the one in Tring are superb. A sumptuous spa, immaculate grounds, great massages and numerous other treatments, excellent food and the giant bed in a Premier room gave me the best sleep in months. It was wonderful to see Frank Bruno happily clocking up the miles on the treadmill in the gym, although it was something of a shock to have Cherie Blair plonk herself down near me in the chill out zone in her white toweling robe.

Champneys is on its game and I’m told that the company will soon launch a number of city “Day Spas” across the country.

There you go, just a tip to lift any winter health blues.

Champneys Tring

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December 21, 2006

Time for some serious product placement: Le Grand Hotel, Paris. Go and stay there. I spent a few nights with the Artist there recently and it was, well, magnifique. I needed to be there, as opposed to any other hotel, to do some top-up research for a book I am currently re-igniting. Certain key scenes happened there in 1914. Oh, the wilful intrigue of my vagueness.

Le Grand is a big hotel and part of the Intercontinental Hotels Group. It might not be everyone’s idea of a romantic Parisian bolthole. There are plenty of bijoux hotels in the 6th, but I always feel a bit uncomfortable in places of limited staffing – you know, when the same face pops up in different areas of the hotel, or the worn out Monsieur on the front desk knows too much about your movements. I need the freedom of anonymity you get in a big hotel to help me switch off.

If you are looking for immaculate, yet understated five star service that is devoid of stuffiness, then you will struggle to do better than Le Grand. The IHG group are currently on a mission to offer a more chilled out first class service across all their hotels. It works here already. The hotel, which is one of the oldest large hotels in Paris, had a major re-fit in 2002, so it is finely spruced throughout. Our room was luxurious and overlooked the Opera House. Recent modern additions to the hotel include a small, but perfectly adequate spa. Despite the lush re-furb, the cosmetic traditions of the hotel’s more famous older parts have been preserved. There’s the relaxing Winter Garden central atrium, the exquisite Cafe de la Paix with its ornate splendour (what a place for breakfast) and then there is the devine, gilt-mirrored oval ballroom called the Salon Opera. Take your girl for a private waltz here beneath the giant crystal chandelier. This is where Daniel Craig hosted the post-premiere party for James Bond’s Casino Royale in November, so if you’ve got two left feet she can at least close her eyes and think of him.

So, if you are considering a break in Paris, think of Le Grand. If not to stay, then maybe for a meal, or afteroon tea, or a flute of champagne. Or, indeed, a dance. Feel free to mention my name.

InterContinental Hotels – Le Grand, Paris

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November 12, 2006

Still socially gated, with the advanced stages of cabin fever taking grip, I decided to cheer myself up and get a count-my-blessings reality check by watching Channel 4’s The Somme. It was all the things you hoped for and dreaded. I’m not sure it actually taught me anything new. I’ve read a bit about WW1 over the years and dip into the war poets frequently. A few lines from them take you there with a jolt. This show was another one of those good reminders. It was moving, gruesome, at times heart-wrenching and, naturally, it made me feel lucky to be on a sofa with a slight ankle injury and an organic beer in my hand, not a rifle and trench foot with someone about to blow a whistle to signify my imminent execution.

The re-enactments were skilfully filmed and the detail of the research of the personal stories particularly, as well as the military overview itself, was admirable. Such was the detail that the programme – coming in at two hours, five minutes – seemed to last as long as the battle itself. At times, I thought I wasn’t going to make it to the end either.

A couple of observations: How can you spend all that time building up the stories of characters and then dismiss their ultimate destinies in a picture caption? Young “Cyril” was one of 27 out of 1,000 who survived in his attack zone and went on to become a “communist”. Blimey, that begged a few more pars. And Captain May asked a fellow soldier to look out for his beloved “wife and baby”. If we know that much detail, surely the researchers can tell us what happened to his good lady and child?

But the coup de grace whinge for me is this: as the credits rolled and the horrific collage swilled in my disturbed mind, the syrupy tones of the Channel 4 voice-over woman suddenly broke the dark spell. “We apologise for any bad language that featured in this programme.” WHAT! Give me fucking strength, you stupid twats. Whoever makes rules that state these pathetic apologies must be made at the end of documentaries of such power should be put up against a wall and shot.

The Somme – Channel 4

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November 07, 2006

Carina Round is from Wolverhampton and has been signed by Dave Stewart to his Interscope label. Unsurprisingly, I had never heard of her, but I’ll give a her a name-check here. You never know, it might help. Her debut album was due out in October, but has been delayed and will be out next year. She was doing a short, showcase gig at a club called Stereo, way out on West 29th Street and 10th Avenue. I’d never been that far west in the city before. I stood alongside a pop legend who I had interviewed earlier in the day – it pains me not to name drop – and about 50 others as she rattled through five numbers. I only mention this gig because I think she has something.

I am not moved to write a full review here, although I will say that she has a powerful voice and a definite stage charisma. She lead sings while playing electric guitar in a band. The style is on the rock side of pop. Plenty of noise, energy and passion. Raven-haired and in a 50’s black dress with an extravagant pink trim, Carina looks good and has an amusing knock-kneed dance style when she’s in the grip of a song. I’d probably put her down as a mix between Alanis Morissette and Bjork. A fairly potent blend. I liked her voice. It has power and versatliltiy and there’s a freshness there. I’ve dipped into the promo’ CD her “people” gave me since I’ve been back and there are some growers. There was too much noise at that mini gig to get too carried away, but I liked her. Certainly, the volume of her delivery made my swollen ankle tremble. It was like having very aggresssive ultra sound treatment.

I went on to two parties with Carina and her bass player, Smudger, after the gig. I know, such rock ‘n’ roll. In truth, the parties were average-to-shite, but Carina and I chatted like old mates. That’s showbiz for you. She’s a lively character and has a bucket load of attitude and, I think/hope, the talent to match. If nothing else, she can neck beer with the best of us. If she makes it, she’ll probably be hell for her PRs but good for the rest of us because she speaks her mind. Journos take note: even though I wasn’t working as such that night, I could tell that there is a story there in her background. You just know where there is good copy. So, if she gets a hit, at least the publicity shouldn’t be too much bother. Good luck to her.

Carina Round – Showcase Gig, NYC

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November 07, 2006

Thankfully, for this interview job (pop group Duran Duran), I was switched at the last minute from the Hell Inn in Harlem to the Grand Hyatt on Park Avenue at Grand Central. I think it was by way of an apology for the Jalfreizi Jet. Things didn’t start well.

I got out of my yellow cab, disorientated and feeling slightly sick after a brake, accelerate, honk horn, neck-jarring ride from JFK through the rush hour. The driver was straight from Central Casting’s “surly, grunting oaf” category. I sat there wondering if I had the bottle to commit the sin of sins in New York and not tip the taxi man [20% meant an extra $10. All non-recouperable]. It is easier to walk by a starving blind mother with her three maimed children on the pavement than get out of a cab without tipping, but I did indeed have the nerve and experienced what can only have been instant karma, Big Apple-style.

He dumped me about ten feet from the curb. A doorman arrived, one palm naturally wide open. I alighted, cases in hand, and stepped on an uneven tarmac patch by a manhole and immediately went over on my left ankle. I am not talking just a wobble and stagger. I mean, right over, ligament stretching over. Screeching agony over. “FUCK!” I shouted at the top of my voice, trying to maintain my balance. “FUCK!” “FUUUUUCK!” Pain ripped through me. I looked up and there were about 30 people standing on the side walk staring at me. Not one person offered to help or smiled in sympathy. Welcome. The doorman heard my accent and sensed there was no money in injured British people, so he ignored me, too.

The one upside to this injury: the agony instantly cured my toothache.

The Grand Hyatt. Not a bad hotel, in a business-travel sort of functional way. I think it has had a major refit in recent times and I’m told that Hyatts generally have upped their game. The lobby of this one is a hideous landfill of brown marble with an absurdly large water feature-cum-fountain dominating the entire atrium. The rooms are spacious and clean and the beds are vast kings with decent pillows and soft linen. The woman on the reservations desk had no idea I was now operating on one leg but, by fluke, she gave me a room for the disabled. The bathroom was a wet room, ie: no bath, just an open space beneath the shower. I was desperate for a long, soothing bath but I was in so much pain I could not face the hassle of moving. I learnt later that the tiler hadn’t bothered putting a gradient in the floor tiles because my shower flooded the bathroom. He probably got tipped well for the shoddy work though. I built a dam by rolling long white towels and immediately felt bad about the enviroment and all that extra detergent going into the oceans. It’s Room 2740 that is liable to flooding, if anyone is interested. I would hate for anyone to aquaplane out of the 27th floor in their wheelchair.

What more can I say about the Grand Hyatt: $299 per night plus taxes totalling $44.40 is pretty good value for central Manhatttan. Naturally, like all hotels, they totally fleece you for using the telephone, but the breakfasts are good [$32, plus tip – even though it is a self-service buffet. Explain that]. I could go on, but if I write any more, I’ll be looking for a little friendly bonus…

Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York

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November 07, 2006

Not a good start: my up-grade blag crashed and burned at the check in desk at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, so get yer hankies out for a tale of woe from Row 53. My blagging spiel is all adrift these days, so it was not much of a surprise. I have no one else to blame except me.

I’ve been pretty good at blagging up-grades over the years, but the gusto in my efforts has all but disappeared. Something in me has died. Before, it was a bit of fun, a challenge, and it was always worth smothering your pride for some embarrassing pleading because, when it works, there are few things sweeter than sinking into that big seat and sipping an instantly delivered glass of champagne when you know that the Unfortunates who are folding their legs in Economy are a good hour away from a cup of tap water in a foil sealed plastic cup. But these days, the whole process of asking to be up-graded is a bit too demeaning, pathetic even. My pride simply won’t be so easily swallowed. Why is this?

Let’s be honest here: I had really hoped by now that I’d be flying First Class, or at least Business, without breaking sweat. Even if I am not paying, then at least the people hiring me would reflect my worth by bumping me up front. This is not the case. So, when I begin my patter to the check in supervisor about my qualifications for a better seat, for free, I can’t help but feel a sense of failure. This is not a position of strength from which to blag and, hence, my argument withers easily. I now genuinely believe that people beyond a certain age should not go asking for up-grades. Just accept your financial short-comings and, thereby, your position in life and humbly take your uncomfortable place at the back. But please, at all times, do keep your pride and self-worth in the up-right position.

This is all rather deeply psychoanalytical, a bit deep. I’m still too new to blogging to know how far to go, so I will leave it at that and get on with the Air India review…

You know I said I had an open mind about Air India? Well, I lied. My mind was full of preconceptions and they were all proved to be correct. But, to be honest, it is too much of a wide open goal to slag off this airline. Yes, its aircraft have threadbare carpets – speckled with yesterday’s rice – torn and wonky seats and plastic trimmings that are jaundiced with age. Yes, the food is iffy and the cabin was whiffy. But you cannot hide the fact that for a last minute flight to New York, Air India offers good value. And, well, the Cobra beer was as cold as any beer I have been handed on any other airline, so that helped ease the pain and shame. It certainly soothed the tooth ache…

Air India

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