Robert Hampton

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July 2012

1st July 2012

A Pointless Excursion

BBC Television CentreI’ve always liked game shows on TV. My obsession during my childhood led to my founding a short-lived Catchphrase fan web site (don’t ask) and the construction of an elaborate computer program, on my old Acorn A3010, to recreate the mise en scène of Family Fortunes, much to the chagrin of my relatives who had to endure a game at Christmas and other family occasions.

My favourite new show is Pointless, an amiable trivia-fest which fills the afternoon tea-time slot BBC1. I’m usually at the gym when it is on, watching the action play out without sound and with subtitles, and I’ve become quite hooked.

Therefore, when I noticed that tickets were available for the latest run of recordings, I jumped at the chance to apply.

View from the train windowThere were two motivations: since Pointless is regularly pre-empted by sport at the moment, it would no doubt aid my withdrawal symptoms. Secondly, and most importantly, it would be a chance to see inside the iconic BBC Television Centre before it is closed and sold off.

Of course, any experience is best shared, and I was fortunate my semi-regular intrepid band of friends with me: Scott and his partner Dave travelled down with me to London, where we would meet our mutual friend Ian.

On Thursday morning, we arrived at Lime Street and boarded a Virgin Pendolino, which got us to London with its usual speed, despite encountering a horrifying storm while passing through the Midlands.

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7th July 2012

Festival of Fun

Festival GardensThe 1980s were not particularly rosy years for Liverpool. Commerce and industry were fleeing the city, Toxteth was set on fire, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood was banned by the BBC.

Against this backdrop of despair came the International Garden Festival in 1984. It was one of many initiatives by Michael Heseltine’s task force to regenerate Liverpool after the 1981 riots. The Festival covered a vast area of south Liverpool which had previously been home to various industries, but by then had become little more than a wasteland. The decaying docks, oil jetties and rubbish tips were swept away in favour of ornamental gardens (including the showpiece Japanese Garden), an extensive miniature railway, outdoor theatres, and the Festival Hall, a wonder of aluminium and polycarbonate sheeting.

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16th July 2012

Bright spark
Posted by at 11.06pm | Trains | No responses

A rather gruesome Cameron-Clegg press conference framed the announcement that a vast swathe of railway schemes are to go ahead between now and 2019.

The options outlined by the Department for Transport are “illustrative” – in other words, they’re more of a shopping list than actual finalised plans, but still they’re quite extensive.

Electrification is the big news: there are now plans to electrify the Midland Main Line and the main line to Swansea, as well as commuter lines around Cardiff. The Northern Hub scheme will go ahead with big capacity improvements around Manchester, with knock-on benefits for Liverpool, Leeds and the smaller towns in-between.

Locally, there is a welcome boost for the Transpennine Express service from Liverpool, which could be doubled in frequency and operated with electric trains, running to Newcastle rather than Scarborough as they do now. Liverpool could also get a direct link to Buxton and an improved service to Sheffield as part of the Northern Hub scheme. Generally, there will be more trains running in and out of Lime Street, which will be welcomed by commuters currently shoehorned into overcrowded Pacers.

You would think I would be happy about all this investment. I am, but I worry about where the money is coming from. These schemes will cost over £9 billion, and the promised efficiency savings at the railway (which, so far, seem to amount to London Midland closing a load of ticket offices and not much else) are being very slow in coming.

This means that the passenger will be paying, through increased fares. We already have at least two years of ticket price rises of inflation+3% coming up, at a time when many people already consider train fares to be uncomfortably expensive.

Unless you’re well-organised and plan your journey sufficiently far ahead to get an Advance ticket (or opt for the slower London Midland service), it now costs nearly 80 quid return to go from Liverpool to London. That’s the off-peak fare. If you need to travel during “peak” times (which now, thanks to Virgin tightening the restrictions, means any train arriving at Euston before 11.30am!) you could end up paying £277 – a fare already out of reach of many people.

The proposals outlined today could be a big step towards a better railway network. It would be a shame if those benefits were to be only available to the well-off.

18th July 2012

What’s the Score? Who Cares?

Helen Lewis has an interesting blog at the New Statesman, complaining about the apparent requirement to conclude reviews of computer games with a score out of 10.

It’s frustrating to see a nuanced review of a book, film etc., which ends with a clunky “3 stars – give it a go”. Giving something a “score” implies that the quality of a film, game or other piece of art is something that can be tested objectively – that the review is an unquestionable fact rather than one person’s opinion. We use the same system for reviews that I had for spelling tests at primary school.

The star rating “system” for films also annoys me. TV listings magazines are the worst for this, as their reviews usually come complete with a patronising “explanation” of what the ratings mean – does anyone really need telling that * means “don’t bother” while ***** is “unmissable”?

A star rating may tell you whether a film is “good” or not, but it gives you no information of any use when deciding which film to see. Roger Ebert gave 4 out of 4 stars to both Brokeback Mountain and Toy Story, but I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people out there who would enjoy one but not the other.

Percentage ratings are even worse. I’m reminded of a game called Mayhem in Monsterland on the C64. It was released in 1993, right at the end of the machine’s commercial life, when most games publishers had already abandoned it and Commodore itself teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. It was an amazing last hurrah for the platform though, pushing the venerable 8-bit machine graphically in ways previously considered impossible.

Why do I mention this here? Because Commodore Format magazine, in their wisdom gave it 100%. Now, considering that CF had been running a “diary of a game” about Mayhem for many months beforehand, this score may not have been entirely impartial.

But think about what that 100% implies – was the reviewer suggesting that no game can ever be better than it? That every C64 gamer (even those who preferred RPGs or sports simulators) would enjoy the game? It’s an absolutely meaningless number.

Read the reviews by all means, but if there’s a score, ignore it – it’s not useful.

19th July 2012

Doom and Gloom
Posted by at 10.40pm | In the News | No responses

The weather recently has been… odd, hasn’t it? Rain during the British summer isn’t unusual, but all the time? Everywhere? With virtually no let up for months on end? Causing floods nationwide? That’s a bit odd.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, much of America has been sweltering in a heatwave, which has killed dozens and caused wildfires and severe droughts.

All this points to something being not quite right with our planet’s climate. To my mother’s eternal disappointment, I am not a scientist, but it seems to me that pumping billions of tons of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is probably not a good idea, and it seems to be having a detrimental effect. Unless you’re the Bishop of Carlisle, in which case the floods are God’s punishment for “immorality”.

Coincidentally I stumbled across this article on the Rolling Stone web site, which interested and terrified me in equal measure: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. To summarise that article: the powers-that-be need to take drastic action now.

But on the other hand, the Daily Mail says that our gas bills will be more expensive if we take steps to be more green! We can’t have that, so let’s carry on as we are. There’s nothing to worry about, especially not gas bills – because soon all our gas appliances will be underwater.

25th July 2012

In Thy Image
Posted by at 10.53pm | Politics | No responses

During my lunch break I usually leave my office and go for a stroll through Liverpool’s throbbing retail heart. Over the past year or so, my sojourns have been disturbed increasingly frequently by small groups of religious campaigners who set up camp at various points in town.

Aided by some A5 flyers, a microphone and a battery-powered amplifier, they deliver their familiar spiel: they have found eternal salvation, hear the Good News, accept Jesus into your heart, for Judgement Day is coming soon and the sinners will be cast into Hell for all eternity.

Occasionally I see firebrand left-wing student types hurling a few choice insults their way, but for the most part the shoppers ignore them and hurry into Primark (now with extended Sunday opening hours).

Me, I just chuckle quietly to myself and carry on, because I think that the only thing the preachers are achieving is damaging the image of Christianity.

I know there are plenty of Christians out there who adopt a less judgmental approach and follow the whole “forgiveness and love” doctrine that’s in the Bible. However, in the UK only 15% of the population go to church regularly. For the other 85%, the angry old man yelling at passers-by could be their only exposure to Christianity.

The moderate Christians should take back the debate. If the “fire and brimstone” Christians are allowed to dominate, the Church is doomed.

(I’m an atheist, so I’m not that bothered. Just thought I’d put it out there)

27th July 2012

Going for Gold
Posted by at 6.34pm | In the News | No responses

Tonight is the culmination of seven years of work, which began on 6th July 2005 when London was announced as winning bidder for the 2012 Olympics.

Since then, there has been a regular moans and complaints from the media and the public about the preparations:-

  • The distribution of tickets, hampered by technical problems and with millions of people missing out in the ballot (I tried so hard to get tickets, and failed).
  • The special treatment of sponsors (including such lovely companies as Dow Chemical), with draconian penalties for anyone “unofficial” who tries to make even the slightest bit of capital from the games.
  • The security clampdown, with London turned into a virtual fortress for the duration of the games, until it was undermined by the G4S fiasco, as a private company fails to deliver on its promises, generating embarrassing headlines around the world.

Given all the above, it’s hardly surprising that there have been so many grumbles about the Games. Embarrassing stumbles like the Korean “wrong flag” incident only serve to deepen the jitters.

And yet… as the Opening Ceremony approaches and the BBC’s best and brightest presenters scurry around the Olympic Park, I feel my cynicism draining away, to be replaced by a cautious optimism and – dare I say it? – excitement.

There were scoffs when the organisers announced the “green and pleasant land” theme of the opening cermoney. Now, people who attended the rehearsal event are tweeting excitedly about something that is “splendidly British and magnificently bonkers”. I cannot wait to see what Danny Boyle has cooked up.

Hopefully, over the next two weeks, the concerns and sceptism will prove to be unfounded, and we can enjoy a great sporting spectacle. Big names are lining up to compete: Chris Hoy, Tom Daley, Victoria Pendleton, Andy Murray, Rebecca Adlington. Joining them are hundreds more Team GB athletes who may not be so anonymous after this fortnight has passed.

As Jonathan Freedland points out, in an excellent piece in today’s Guardian, this event is Britain’s chance to define its position on the world stage for the 21st century.

Also, the video of Jeremy Hunt’s bell breaking is really, really funny to watch.

29th July 2012

Playing Games
Posted by at 11.33pm | In the News | 1 response

On Friday I said I couldn’t wait to see what Danny Boyle had come up with. Turned out I did have to wait, as I went out on Friday night to my cousin’s engagement party (congrats Alan and Lisa)!

Fortunately, we have the technology, and tonight I was able to cue up my Freeview+ box to enjoy the Opening Ceremony – all four hours of it.

I’m late to the party, so I will spare you all a detailed analysis – suffice to say it lived up to the Isle of Wonder title. In stark contrast to the dreary Jubilee celebrations a couple of months ago, this was a celebration of the real Britain that the rest of us actually live in – modern, diverse, Britain, with all its flaws and beauty. It’s no surprise that the Daily Mail hated it.

That’s not to say it was tradition-free: Morris Dancers, Jerusalem and members of the armed forces (actually involved with the show, not just filling in for G4S staff). But we also got references to EastEnders and Trainspotting, plus a brief glimpse of the Brookside lesbian kiss (bet that went down well in Saudi Arabia). A potted history of pop Music, from the Beatles to Dizzee Rascal via Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Then, to top it all off: an unashamed celebration of the National Health Service which David Cameron had to sit through.

The Queen “jumping out” of a helicopter with James Bond was a highlight. It seemed to be an attempt to show the Monarch as a individual with a sense of humour and it worked – a shame, then, that she spent the rest of the ceremony looking so bored. The camera cut to her as the Team GB athletes walked in – she was looking away and picking her fingernails!

The absolute best moment, however, had to be the appearance of Tim Berners-Lee. As he waved awkwardly at the crowd, I wondered how many people in the stadium actually appreciated the contribution he has made – not only did he invent the World Wide Web, but he gave it away for free to everyone to use and enjoy as they saw fit.

For overseas viewers, used to the plastic pomp and pageantry that we usually project at national events, it must have been slightly bewildering. For me, it worked. I have never been overly patriotic, mainly because a lot of aspects of British life (hereditary privilege, football, reality TV) annoy me. But Mr Bean? Shami Chakrabarti? A multiracial choir from East London singing the national anthem? Yeah, I can go along with that.

Praise is rightly being heaped on the show’s director, Danny Boyle, but let’s not forget who has the writing credit: a Scouser, Frank Cotrell Boyce. He has written a first-hand account of his experience putting the show together.

Boyce deserves special praise for this: The Dangerous Conversation, a letter which he sent to various parties regarding Dow Chemical’s involvement in the Games.

There’s still lots to be cynical about with these Games (the empty seats, the heavy-handed policing, the fact that the men’s beach volleyball players are wearing vests), but the Opening Ceremony has gone some way to compensate for that for me.

30th July 2012

Countdown to Pride: Queertet
Posted by at 6.58pm | Stage | No responses

Tucked away on the second floor of an anonymous building, located down a little side street off Liverpool’s dock road, behind a McDonald’s drive-through and amidst abandoned industrial units, is The Lantern Theatre.

Tonight was my first time there, to see Queertet, a set of four short plays, each with a gay theme. The show is one of several events being staged as part of the Pride Fringe.

The Lantern is an intimate venue – a little too intimate, perhaps, as we were packed in like sardines and despite the best efforts of an oscillating fan, it got very warm in there. I was seated just a few feet away from the stage, but at times I struggled to see what was going on as the seating isn’t tiered.

The posters mentioned that the plays would be introduced by two people from Channel 4’s My Transsexual Summer, but they weren’t there, for reasons which were not explained.

The plays then. Linda & Sue was a story of two women in love, until jealousy rears its ugly head. Half a Bottle Gone follows the events of one night where three friends enjoy a little bit too much wine, which results in some uncomfortable secrets being revealed. Sweats was set in a sauna, with a fun duologue between two regular patrons, who spend the entire play wearing towels (and sometimes no towel – and there’s me without my opera glasses).

The first three plays were excellent, but the finale was a tour de force – Madam Reprobate, an amazing about a university student brings his posh boyfriend to his council estate home to meet his very working-class mother. An amazing sitcom script peppered with filthy one-liners, brought to life by sparkling performance from the three actors, who managed immaculate comic timing despite the music bleeding through from the cabaret bar downstairs. It brought the house down.

Queertet was only on for two nights, last Friday and Saturday, but it was a great deal of fun, and I’d definitely come back to see the next show Grin Productions produce. And it cost just £8 for a ticket. Bargain!