Robert Hampton

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March 2014

2nd March 2014

Everyman for himself
Posted by at 6.40pm | Liverpool, Stage | No responses

Everyman Theatre

It’s been approximately five thousand years since the curtain came down (see what I did there?) on the old Everyman Theatre. The venue – which helped launch the careers of Peter Postlethwaite, Julie Walters, Matthew Kelly and Jonathan Pryce, to name but a few – closed in July 2011 for an extensive redevelopment.

Two and a half years later, and the old building has been razed to the ground and replaced by a new structure. What would it be like inside?

Well, they had an open day today to mark the official reopening. I went along with my friend Scott to check it out, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s a triumph.

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3rd March 2014

Together We Are Made
Posted by at 1.01pm | Trains | 1 response

Two Together PhotocardAmidst all the opprobrium that gets hurled at Britain’s railway network, there is one truth that is universally acknowledged: the cost of travel for groups of people often compares unfavourably with the car.

The problem is one of efficiency: a car costs more or less the same to run whether there is one person or five inside it (unless one of your passengers is really fat). On the other hand, the train companies (and bus companies, and any public transport really) expect everyone other than infants to hold a ticket for travel. When travelling on undiscounted tickets, a journey can become prohibitively expensive, even for two people.

Recognising this, in recent years the TOCs have introduced a bewildering amount of special offers for small groups. Depending on your destination, you can choose from Merseyrail’s Family Day Ticket, Virgin Group-e, Northern Duo, GroupSave, and probably a whole load more that I’ve missed.

The only truly national discount offering for this market, until now, was the Family & Friends Railcard, which has existed in one form or another since BR days. £30 will get you a card entitling the holder to 1/3 off adult fares, and 60% off child fares, for a whole year. It’s nowhere near as generous as it was under British Rail’s benevolent nationalised monopoly, when kids got a £2 flat fare, but there are still some amazing savings to be had. One example: an Off Peak Return from Liverpool to London is £79.70 for one adult, but with the railcard, two adults and two children can make the same journey for a total of £135.50 – less than the price of two full adult tickets.

Of course, you have to take a least one child with you, and that causes obvious inconvenience. Usually the little brats are not content to just hang around at the station while you go off to the pub or whatever, and you have to drag them round with you. Then they’ll want to stop at McDonalds for a Happy Meal, and then later get an ice cream which will probably drip all over your expensive shoes. Bah.

Luckily, there is now another option for those without a convenient child to hand: the Two Together Railcard (insert small fanfare here) which launched today. For just £30, two named people can get 1/3 off their train fares for leisure travel – effectively, two tickets for 132% of the cost of one ticket. Using the Liverpool-London example again, the Off Peak Return ticket for two people would cost just £105.20 – saving £54.20.

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5th March 2014

Tragic number
Posted by at 8.08pm | Television | 1 response

Bad news for the BBC:

The closure of BBC3 is to be proposed by the BBC director general, the Guardian understands, bringing the curtain down on the youth-oriented TV channel after 11 years.

The report goes on to say that the channel’s content will move online. It’s not clear how this will save any significant amount of money, as someone still has to pay to make the programmes – unless (as I suspect) that the programme-making budget is going to disappear too.

I’ve followed the channel’s fortunes since the days when it was still BBC Choice. It’s been an easy target for the Daily Mail, rent-a-quote MPs and the seemingly never-ending queue of BBC stars who turn around and slag off the corporation as soon as it fails to commission their new sitcom. “I don’t watch it, why should I pay for it?” is the depressing mantra.

Critics can point to programmes like Snog, Marry, Avoid and F*** Off, I’m Fat, and it’s fair to say the channel has provided Harry Hill with a lot of material for TV Burp over the years. But there’s also been genuinely interesting stuff like Our War and Junior Doctors, as well as drama series such as Being Human and comedy shows like Little Britain (which was genuinely funny in its first series). Also, the channel picked up Family Guy – which had failed on Sky One, Channel 4 and BBC2 – and made it into a hit.

I don’t watch much BBC Three (probably because I’m ageing out of its target market) but I think it needs to exist. The channel has been a great proving ground for new comedy and drama, launching a great many careers over the past decade. Will the BBC’s other channels be able to carry out that function in the future? Radio 4 tries, but is always hamstrung by its resolutely middle-class audience. Is iPlayer a good enough place to test new performers and writers?

BBC Three reaches a big audience of people in their teens and twenties, and its not clear how that crowd will be served from now on. Is the BBC really going to abandon that market to Channel 4 and Sky? Those people are tomorrow’s licence fee payers!

Finally, and most importantly – where will the Eurovision semis be shown?

11th March 2014

As The Crow Flies
Posted by at 11.01pm | In the News | No responses

Shocking news today – the leader of the RMT Union, Bob Crow, has died. He was only 52.

Crow was a popular hate figure for commuters, the right-wing press and politicians. In disputes on the London Underground, he locked horns with both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Arguably, he ran rings around both of them.

Unions are the big bogeymen for the right, what with their insistence on fair pay and conditions for workers and demands for basic human rights. Without their influence, we’d still be sending kids up chimneys. We need more union influence in everyday life, not less – especially now, as the Tories systematically strip away employment rights under the guise of “getting rid of red tape”.

I remember reading a blog comments thread discussing an impending Tube strike. One indignant commenter complained that Underground staff were far better paid than him, and if he didn’t turn up for work he’d get sacked, and it wasn’t fair. The response came from a member of railway staff: maybe if you had a union, you would have better conditions of employment.

It’s been a while since a rail strike inconvenienced me, so maybe I’m being more charitable than some other people would be, but I think, ultimately, Bob Crow was right on most issues. As we saw in the recent Underground ticket office dispute, Crow was never afraid to stand up and fight for what he believed in – a safe railway, run by staff who are treated well. Whoever succeeds him has some big shoes to fill.

12th March 2014


Today the tech world is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the world wide webnot to be confused with the Internet itself, which came into existence much earlier.

Even more pedantically, today actually marks the anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s original proposal for the web in March 1989. It wasn’t until Christmas 1990 that the first working web browser, imaginatively titled WorldWideWeb, became available, and the first web sites began to appear.

For its first few years, the web was mainly a curiosity used by students and scientists at various academic institutions. Then, around 1994, the original Netscape Navigator browser was released, and web usage began to grow significantly.

I remember the first day I got online – 30th August 1997 (sorry to say, the date sticks in the memory because Princess Diana was killed the very next day). I eagerly tore open the package containing ArgoNet‘s Voyager Internet Suite, listened as the US Robotics modem made various screeching noises, and gazed in wonder at the text and images that were very sloooowly downloaded. Grey backgrounds. So many grey backgrounds! Still, to a 14-year-old who still considered Bamboozle on ITV Teletext the height of sophistication, it was amazing.

Then my mum picked up the phone downstairs and the connection dropped.

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20th March 2014

Phelps, I need somebody
Posted by at 8.14pm | Gay, In the News | No responses

Anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps dies.

He was, of course, best known for picketing funerals of soldiers killed in action, with his trademark “GOD HATES FAGS” placard. His staunch belief was that any tragedy befalling America, such as 9/11, was “punishment” from on high for America’s tolerance of gay people.

The offence he caused was sufficient for some states to actually introduce laws to keep him and his followers away from funerals, and in 2009 he was banned from the UK. He paid personal costs, too – he was estranged from his son, Nathan, for many years.

Ultimately, most Americans, even those holding anti-gay views themselves, found his actions distasteful. I’m sure many people, who might have been sitting on the fence about the whole gay thing, were actually pushed into the pro-gay camp, simply to avoid being associated with his ideas in any way.

The temptation to gloat about his death must be huge for many people – there is, predictably, already a group on Facebook calling for people to picket his funeral. However, I’m finding hard to muster up much hate. I simply feel a mixture of sadness and pity at this man who wasted his life on such an obsession.

23rd March 2014

Fully Booked
Posted by at 7.28pm | Books | No responses

One sad aspect of marketing to kids these days is the increasingly strict gender-segregation. In the minds of marketers, boys get to play with trains and guns and pretend to be astronauts; girls get cooking and princesses and pink (oh, so much pink). Of course, a lot of kids will naturally gravitate to those things anyway, but if a boy wants to play with dolls or a girl wants to break out the Lego, there shouldn’t be any artificial obstacles stopping them.

It’s not just toys that are affected. Books are increasingly being marketed specifically at girls or boys. If you think this isn’t a serious problem, check out the Amazon listing for The Boys’ Book: How to be the Best at Everything:-

Find out how to slam dunk a basketball, how to build a basic raft, how to write in secret code, how to find water in the desert, how to do an Ollie on your skateboard, how to work out which way is north without a compass, how to fly a helicopter, how to win at conkers, how to tie essential knots, how to take a penalty kick and how to build a campfire.

Now, here’s the listing for the equivalent The Girls’ Book:-

Girls can find out: How to keep a secret diary; how to make the ultimate playlist; how to encrypt your text messages; how to customize your mobile phone; how to customize your clothes; how to set up your own web page; how to do the perfect manicure; how to make a friendship bracelet; how to write a best-selling novel and much more!

Not only is this patronising to all sexes, it’s a major problem when society as a whole is trying to eliminate glass ceilings for women. Some decidedly mixed signals are being given out to kids. Therefore, it’s good to see the Independent on Sunday report on a new campaign, Let Books Be Books, which is seeking to end this sort of nonsense.

As IoS literary editor Katy Guest points out, splitting children’s books strictly along gender lines is not even good publishing:

Just like other successful children’s books, The Hunger Games was not aimed at girls or boys; like JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Robert Muchamore and others, Collins just wrote great stories, and readers bought them in their millions. Now, Dahl’s Matilda is published with a pink cover, and I have heard one bookseller report seeing a mother snatching a copy from her small son’s hands saying “That’s for girls” as she replaced it on the shelf.

I think I read Matilda cover-to-cover about ten times when I was a kid. It’s a story about a child who is misunderstood and unappreciated by the adults around her; a fairly universal theme. Are people really dismissing it out of hand for 50% of the child population just because the main character is a girl?

28th March 2014

Let the train take away the strain
Posted by at 11.35pm | Out and About, Trains | 4 responses

Robert and EurostarWhen I first announced to people that I was going to Amsterdam by train, I described it as “the hard way”.

Don’t get me wrong – the possibility of a train journey spanning four countries and two time zones filled me with gleeful anticipation – but I was expecting a certain amount of tribulation and, yes, faff. For you see, while Britain’s railway network is comforting and familiar to me, Europe’s was, by and large, an unknown quantity to me. Years of experience has allowed me to navigate Britain’s privatised railway with ease, but on the continent there is a whole new maze of terminology to get to grips with: there’s Thalys and TGV and ICE, all with slightly differing rules and regulations. It’s all a bit complicated, even with experts like The Man In Seat 61 on hand to offer advice.

I like the idea of international travel by train – there’s no need to decant liquids into a tiny plastic bag, no seat belts to fasten, and you can keep your phone turned on. Until this week, however, my exposure to European railways has been limited to a few trips on Berlin’s S-Bahn network. Determined to change that, I started cooking up plans last year to make some international rail journeys, and quickly zeroed in on Amsterdam as a destination. My original plan involved taking a ride on the DutchFlyer rail and sail service. However, a glance at Eurostar’s web site revealed that tickets from London to Amsterdam were available on selected trains for just £49.50 one-way. This was only a few pounds more expensive than the DutchFlyer fare, and offered a much faster journey.

So, at just after 8am on Tuesday morning, I was at London St Pancras station, ready to catch the Eurostar to Brussels. As I emerged into the bustling terminus, I felt a tinge of anxiety. As usual, my mind was calculating everything that could go wrong – a fire in the Channel Tunnel, some errant weather, a wildcat French strike.

I was thrilled, therefore, to have the company of Ian Jones, who joined me last year on my thrilling Caledonian Sleeper adventure. On that trip, Ian spent a total of five days with me, which is more than most people can tolerate. It was nice to have someone to share the experience, and if the worst happened, I’d have to someone to talk to while we waited for rescue.

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30th March 2014

A Frank Discussion
Posted by at 10.16pm | Out and About | No responses

Anne Frank HouseOne of the first places that Ian and I visited in Amsterdam was the Anne Frank House.

Thanks to her diary, Anne Frank has become one of the most well-known of the millions of people murdered by the Nazis. Her family fled from Frankfurt to Amsterdam in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution, only to find themselves trapped when Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940. In July 1942, as the German occupiers began rounding up Dutch Jews to send to their deaths, Anne’s father Otto decided to take matters into his own hands. He organised a hiding space in the warehouse of his business. In this “Secret Annexe” – a series of small rooms accessible through stairs hidden behind a bookcase – the family lived for over two years. Eight people holed up in a tiny space, unable to go outside or even open the curtains, and remaining completely quiet during the day in case the employees in the warehouse below heard them.

The plan ultimately failed; the Frank family was betrayed by person or persons unknown, and they were arrested in August 1944. Soon after, they were sent to concentration camps. Of the eight house residents, only Otto Frank survived.

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