Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Life of Brian

I have to admit to never having been a huge fan of East 17 in general, and of Brian Harvey in particular, but it's true to say that I've warmed to the man in recent years. Particularly since he gave up singing and started running himself over. But add to that his performance in 'House of Pies' on last year's 'I'm a Celebrity', and his girlfriend's complete lack of concern for him on 'The Farm', and I'm willing to admit I've become quite fond of the little gnome. So I was naturally excited to see last night's documentary 'Being Brian Harvey', screened as part of the BBC's 'ONE Life' series. The thought of 'being Brian Harvey' might be the kind of scenario more suited to scaring small children at Halloween, but with less than two weeks to go til Christmas, it certainly got me in the festive mood.

The programme began with Brian recovering in hospital from his near-fatal car crash, sustained earlier this year when he left his home in Walthamstow and promptly reversed over himself with his own car. Girlfriend Emma B (the B stands for breasts), who, upon hearing the tragic news of one of Brian's suicide attempts during her stint on reality shit-shovelling show 'The Farm', chose to stay where she was and battle it out with Keith Harris & Orville for the title of 'Top Farmer', was there keeping a vigil by Brian's bedside. So clearly her agent couldn't find her any work that day.

In a mood of sombre gravity, surgeon Martin Bircher showed us what he called the "oh shit x-ray" (it's a medical term), before announcing that Brian had sustained a crushed pelvis and severely damaged internal organs, and might even die. Yes, I know it's what millions have hoped for all these years, but this is no laughing matter - his vocal chords were completely undamaged.

Fortunately however, having undergone a bit of surgery and had half a Meccano set installed in his nether regions, Brian was allowed out of hospital under a blanket and headed to Emma B's "small basement flat in Hastings" for a bit of rest and recuperation. Once there, he was able to set the record straight about what really happened that dark night in June when he put the car in reverse and dived under the back wheels. Some have said it was suicide attempt, but Brian was adamant it was no more than a freak accident. Well, an accident involving a freak. As he said himself, "I'd eaten a load of jacket potatoes just before", he found himself "gagging" (so 'Stay Another Day' was probably on the car stereo), leading to the inevitable consquence of "I'm fucked". It couldn't be clearer.

Brian, however, wasn't a happy bunny. Having been declared bankrupt in 2001, he'd been eking out a living from celebrity TV appearances and guest spots at Butlins (which is no life for an animal), and was worried about where the next job might come from. Not that there was any need to be - in Brian's words, "I'm a realist. I say what I see", so he clearly has a future as a Catchphrase contestant.

As for his time in East 17, Brian spoke fondly of his experiences with the band, describing them as "four geezers from the east end of London, we smoke fags, we've all got birds and they're rough around the edges". Which is no way to talk about Emma B. Well ok, strictly speaking it is. But this is a woman who's apparently "put her modelling and TV career on hold to be there for him". Not much of a sacrifice, it's true, but we did see Brian calling plaintively from the bathroom for a towel, prompting Emma's immediate and caring response of "I'm downstairs".

Hang on... Downstairs in a basement flat??? Blimey, could those two sink any lower? It's like 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' in that place.

But anyhoo, when he's not talking about potatoes and picking at his scabs, Brian's watching TV and commenting that "Jerry Springer's gone downhill, hasn't he". The words pot, kettle and black spring to mind. Though in Brian's case of course, pot means something entirely different. He did give us his thoughts on his two previous suicide attempts however, saying "It weren't no cry for help. I meant it". A view which contrasted slightly with Emma B's opinion that "I don't think he wanted to die. It was a cry for help".

Of more concern however was the surgeon's warning that Brian's pelvic fracture may have left him permanently impotent. The thought of no little Brian Harveys wandering the earth in years to come was clearly a prospect to fill one with dread. Or joy, depending on your point of view. But as luck would have it, Brian was there to set our minds at rest by confirming that his penis "works like a dream". A wet dream for him. A nightmare for the rest of us.

So with Brian's erections fully discussed, it was on to the next stage of surgery. Dr Bircher was a little concerned because apparently people who break a pelvis can sometimes "go from being active, healthy, family people with a job" to being divorced, unemployed and on drugs. So in Brian's case there'll be no discernable change.

The operation, however, was a complete success, and Brian's recovery was going well. In the words of Emma B, "Now he can walk again, he's been talking about getting his career back on track". Damn that surgeon. But fortunately for music fans everywhere, Brian was finding it hard to leave the flat, meaning the chances of him making it to a recording studio were slim. And besides, he was worried about being mobbed by the fans. As he said himself, "I walk down the street and old ladies know who I am". Or possibly they just think you look like a mugger.

Ultimately though, it was hard going. Fobbed off by record companies, abandoned by Tony Mortimer, and estranged from his beloved Walthamstow, Brian Harvey felt like giving up. Step forward his manager, a man clearly being paid to be positive, who attempted to gee up the crestfallen Brian with this undeniable statement of fact: "You would be robbing the world of a great vocal if you never sang again".

Yes, but he'd also be making millions of people happy. It's a tough call.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Boldly Going Nowhere

Note: Most of this post was cobbled together in the early hours (ie. before 10am) of Thursday morning, on four hours sleep and three mugs of caffeine. Due to the pressures of daily life (ie. Christmas shopping) however, it was not finished until the following Monday morning, a good two days after the original programme had been heartlessly recorded over with Strictly Come Dancing by persons who shall remain nameless. So if this piece makes very little sense (ie. even less than usual), that's why. But if anyone would like to pay me good money to write this kind of thing on a professional basis, thus enabling me to sub-contract out my Christmas shopping to a family of Filipinos, and dedicate more time to the world of reality TV, then you can e-mail me here. Thanks.

One of my favourite television moments of 2003 was the episode of 'The Pilot Show' in which Channel 4 convinced a few desperate TV wannabes with learning difficulties that they'd passed the audition to go into space on a new reality show, and had no trouble persuading each of them to pose behind a cardboard cut-out of a rocket, and utter the immortal line "I'm going to the moon with Paul Ince and Stelios from EasyJet!". A believable proposition, clearly. Well, Endemol, the people behind both Big Brother and Noel Edmonds' TV comeback (I'm not sure which is the bigger crime), clearly saw the potential in that scenario, and have duly cranked it up to the nth degree in the fom of 'Space Cadets', possibly the first of a new breed of reality show - the reality hoax. It may not have Stelios from EasyJet, but it does have a load of people who share his love of self-publicity.

Back in June, Endemol advertised for people to take part in a new TV show, about which they would reveal only the vaguest details. Clearly only a fool would apply for a show they knew nothing about, which is handy as that's just what the producers were looking for. Judging by the audition tapes, the show attracted the usual mix of the stupid, the arrogant, the prejudiced, and the annoyingly camp, all of whom shared a desperate desire to be famous for doing nothing in particular. It's what scientists call the Jade Goody Syndrome.

The producers meanwhile, were busy turning a decommissioned military base in Suffolk into a mock-up of a Russian space training facility. A huge task, you might think, but speaking as someone who lives in the area, I'm no stranger to bottles of vodka and queueing for bread, so frankly if you want to recreate Russia, going for a field just outside Ipswich makes perfect sense.

Back at the auditions, the producers had enlisted the help of Professor Robert Edelmann to identify the most "highly suggestible" (ie. very, very gullible) applicants, which he did by means of a series of psychological tests. The first was the 'dot pattern test', in which the subject was asked to identify a face in colourful patterns of dots which actually contained no facial features whatsoever. Not that the wannabes let that put them off. The answers given ranged from "Boy George" to "the bottom half of a dolphin", and "an Italian priest with the Joker out of Batman's make-up on". Under normal circumstances of course, people such as these would immediately be referred for psychiatric care, but we're talking reality TV here, so instead of being locked up, it was on to the next round of auditions.

Having counted eyeballs in a jar, been strapped into sleeping bags, and then shut in a lift for twenty minutes (all everyday occurences in Suffolk), the remaining wannabes were asked to don blindfolds and dance around a room in silence, before being shipped off to an outward bounds course in Cumbria. Amongst them were three actors - Ranie, Steve and Charlie - charged with infiltrating the group like undercover moles on a secret mission, and helping to convince them that everything was above board.

And what actors they were. Charlie, whose cover story involved him being a poet, came up with this cast iron defence when challenged:

"I saw a pebble on the beach,
And it reminded me of you,
Or was it the dog behind,
Scratching its shit into the cold sand?"

Speaking as someone who once had a poem rejected by the Brighton Argus, I'd be quite proud of that.

Steve meanwhile was struggling with the physical aspects of the job, which involved abseiling, canoeing, and jumping off a bridge into a river. Like any half-decent thespian, he immediately threatened to call his agent, and complained he was sick, cold and underpaid, before asking for a Bafta, tossing his head about, and mincing off up a hill.

At the end of it all though, nine of the applicants were chosen, and together with the three actors, were taken off to Biggin Hill for a meeting with Johnny Vaughan, and a first opportunity to witness his (frankly startling) furry-hooded coat up close. Johnny informed the group that they would be flying into space (via Volgagrad), and with the annoying whoops of typical reality show contestants, they boarded the plane for Ipswich and began to discuss the business of pooing in zero gravity.

Of course, American billionaires have each paid about thirty million dollars for the privelege of going into space, so it seemed perfectly feasible to one and all that Channel 4 would be putting up the cash for a few members of the general public to do the same. After all, with the range of deeply irritating people involved, all Endemol need to do is let viewers vote on who should be shoved out of the airlock first, and they can make that hundred million back in a week.

Monday, December 05, 2005

C Thatch

Well, after two weeks of tummy ticks, snake-stroking and alfresco urination, lead vocalist of the world's newest celebrity supergroup, Carol Thatcher, was tonight crowned Queen of the Jungle and the winner of 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here' 2005. And frankly she deserved it. With fish eyes, witchetty grubs and a kangaroo's testicle, the only thing she hasn't eaten in the past fortnight is humble pie.

Admittedly I was firmly in the camp of little Jimmy Osmond, if only for his similarity to Ned Flanders, and shameless ownership of a bear called Hummy, but if Jimmy couldn't win, then rather C Thatch than a woman called Smurph or man with a smile too big for his mouth. Not that I didn't like Sid and Sheree, but the former only worked as David Dickinson's straight man (the words "I need to go up, Sid" will hereafter be held with great affection in my heart), and the latter's main appeal lay in her ability to embarrass her husband.

Still it's nice to know that Harry Kewell has stretch marks, horrible feet, a hairless body, peachy bum and no toenails, and that Sheree has never had a ball in her mouth. Well not since Friday when Bobby left.

Ultimately though, there was only one winner, and it had to be Thatch. The woman sucked on marsupials' privates, did a mean version of 'See you Later Alligator', and looked surprisingly good in a wetsuit. If only the same could be said of her mother.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


I do like a good docu-soap. I've never actually seen one, obviously, but I always live in hope, and while I'm waiting, there's always 'Big Red Bus', the latest offering from BBC1, which sounds like it should be on CBeebies, but probably isn't intellectually stimulating enough.

The show covers all aspects of bus-driving (including getting blown up - but that's not until next week), with tonight's edition focusing on the trials and tribulations of the trainee bus driver. Apparently "it's like the wild west on London's streets for trainee bus drivers", presumably because they're always being shot at by people in stupid hats, but with 8,000 buses, 22,000 drivers and 6 million passengers, the voice-over informed us that it can be "a bit of a hurly-burly whirligig that can leave you feeling a little double-deckered". Which is the point I'd have sacked the writer. Interestingly, one look at the closing credits told me that the writer, the narrator, and the executive producer were all one and the same man (Nick O'Dwyer - brains behind 'The Most Pampered Pets in Britain'). Which shows what happens when you try to save money.

Anyway, as if to illustrate the negative effects that a lifetime of bus-driving can have on the mental health of those involved, the programme introduced us to 65-year-old Dennis, who calls himself Wolf (possibly after one of the Gladiators), and spends his weekends in Dorking dressed as an Apache Indian. There's nothing Wolf likes better than strolling down the main street of Deadwood (such an appropriate name) and indulging in some below-par amateur dramatics with a couple of blokes from Surrey. I'm not entirely sure what relevance this had to the programme, but it did prove that you're never too old to black-up for a TV show. In the words of Dennis, "Being an indian is what I do". Although these days we call them Native Americans of course.

Leaving Wolf behind, the programme moved on to 37-year-old single mum Mya, who stated "I love driving anything that has an engine", which is why you can't get her off the lawnmower, and also why she's decided that public transport is the career for her. Unfortunately for Mya, she has a problem with what her instructor Mike calls "wandering". Which basically means swerving all over the road and hitting the kerb every five minutes. But hey, Mya is new to the job, which is why we were also introduced to Sebastien, another trainee, but one with over fifty hours of bus-driving under his belt. Which would be good, were it not for the fact that most trainees pass their test after only forty.

Sebastien, a 44-year-old father of one, and former self-employed plasterer, was clearly impatient to pass his bus-driving exam. Which is probably why he broke the speed limit at every available opportunity. He may need more training than most, but in the words of his instructor, "He's got a good attitude". Yes, he can't actually drive, but he's always quite cheerful.

Mya, meanwhile, was still all over the road, and in danger of mowing down everything in her path, but having been asked by Mike what she thought of her progress, she confidently replied "I think it's good", so Seb's not the only one with the good attitude. Mike, however, spoke for the six million bus passengers of London, by admitting to being "very concerned".

But hey, why faff about with training, when you could be taking your test. Sebastien, he of the fifty hours training, duly stepped forward for his big day, which began with a simple manoeuvre - reversing the bus between two cones. Sadly for Seb, he proptly crushed one of the cones under the back wheels, thereby failing the test before he'd left the depot. But on the bright side, at least he saved them some money on petrol. And in the comforting words of his instructor, "99% of the time you'll be going forward". Yeah, who cares about the 1% of the working week when you're busy reversing over pedestrians - most of the time you'll be fine.

Much like the lovely Mya, who was undergoing an assessment in the form of a mock driving test. She performed well. Which is to say she clipped a cyclist, veered onto the wrong side of the road, and drove through a red light, but believe me, for Mya that represented progress.

According to the programme, only 10% of those who apply to be trainee bus drivers are actually accepted onto the course. Which does make you wonder what the other 90% are like.