A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 2

To start the second part of my nostalgic trip back to the 80s I would like to look at what we have seen so far: Science Fiction, in the form of Battlestar Galactica, in which friendship in the face of overwhelming odds will see you to success; Action, in the form of The A-Team, in which camaraderie in the face of corrupt, oppressive government will see you to success; Action/Science Fiction, in the form of Knight Rider, in which a refusal to use guns and a certain purity of heart (as well as a technologically advanced Pontiac) will see you to success; Action/Comedy, in the form of The Dukes of Hazzard, in which a strong family unit in the face of corrupt, if inept, law and government will see you to success.

I’m seeing a pattern develop…

So, moving on from these well-known shows, I thought I’d throw in a couple of lesser known ones that I have fond (if vague) memories of. I’ll kick off with Manimal and Automan. These were both very short-lived, with Manimal managing just eight episodes and Automan racking up twelve. Manimal starred Simon MacCorkindale as Dr Jonathan Chase, a rich traveller with the ‘mystical’ (i.e. unexplained) ability to turn into any animal. He used this remarkable talent to (yep, you’ve guessed it) fight crime! He would assist his friend, Detective Brooke MacKenzie, in solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice by turning into a hawk. Or a panther. Mainly those two. Honestly, it’s almost as if they blew their budget for transformation sequences pretty early on, and besides, they only had access to a hawk and a panther for much of the filming anyway. This was pretty much what had happened. Chase would sometimes turn into another animal in each episode, but they wouldn’t show it happening. Stan Winston (of Terminator, Predator and Aliens fame) created the transformation effects, but, if we’re being totally honest, it isn’t his best work. Not even close.

Stan was kind of phoning it in at this stage

Automan was perhaps even worse. Starring Desi Arnaz Jr (son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) as Walter Nebicher, crappy cop but computer programmer extraordinaire, who creates an Artificial Intelligence programme capable of generating a solid, real-world body (played by Chuck Wagner, best known in Britain as ‘Who?’). Together, Walter and Automan would drive around the city in a computer generated Lamborghini Countach which could somehow make 90 degree turns (probably with the magic of computering), and solve crimes. One could be forgiven for suggesting that the show’s creators were trying to jump on the Tron bandwagon, because they totally were, even to the extent of hiring senior crew from the film. Visually, there were obvious similarities (although the movie used expensive hand painted animation for their suit effects, while the television series used reflective tape and spotlights), and thematically Automan was essentially an inversion of the Tron concept.

"Dude. This is a really crappy show."
"I know, man. I know."

On the slighty less shitty side, we have vehicles other than cars to entertain us. Firstly, a motorcycle. Street Hawk was another short-lived series starring Rex Smith as the unlikely sounding Jesse Mach, injured cop and dirt-bike rider, who is selected for a Secret Government Project (TM) involving a prototype motorbike. He becomes The Street Hawk, vigilante crime-fighter. Yeah, it’s basically Knight Rider with a much smaller budget and only two wheels. The bike had a ‘hyperthrust’ mode, which supposedly propelled it at speeds of three hundred miles per hour, but it was mainly used for jumping traffic at junctions. There was little in the way of uniqueness about the show, following as it did the same formula as the far more successful and iconic Knight Rider, and it folded after thirteen episodes. It wasn’t a bad show, as these things are measured. It was just eclipsed by a bigger budget and better concept.

In 1983 a movie starring Roy Scheider was released, called Blue Thunder. It featured a high-tech stealth and combat helicopter (called Blue Thunder) being tested by a Viet Nam veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over the streets of LA. Yeah, good call. This film inspired a short-lived television series following pretty much the same format. James Farentino took over the Roy Scheider role, and was supported by Dana Carvey (better known as Garth from Wayne’s World) and Bubba Smith (better known as Hightower from the Police Academy movies). The helicopter itself was a modified Aérospatiale Gazelle, with a front end so ugly only its mother (or possibly a very drunk Apache Longbow) could love it. Although it had the moderate success of the movie to build on, it too only lasted for a disappointing eleven episodes. Why was that? Well, compare this:

To this:

That’s right: Airwolf. Airwolf thrashed Blue Thunder in the ratings war, and it’s not too hard to see why. Firstly, the helicopter itself looked so much more high-tech. Secondly, the actors were much better (insomuch as Ernest Borgnine and Jan-Michael Vincent can be considered ‘better actors’ than anyone). And thirdly, character names. Blue Thunder‘s hero revelled in the name Frank Chaney, while Airwolf blasted that into obscurity with the fabulous Stringfellow Hawke. Yeah, that’s right. Stringfellow Hawke: any name that conjured up a bird of prey and a lapdancing club couldn’t have been more masculine unless his middle names were Chuck and Norris.

The plot was slightly more complex than that of Blue Thunder, in that Stringfellow Hawke used to be a test pilot for the FIRM, a division of the CIA. His collection of artwork is stolen by the FIRM and he is tasked with retrieving the stolen helicopter from its inventor, Dr Moffet, and returning it to Archangel, Director of the FIRM. Except, rather predictably, Hawke doesn’t return it. He stashes it in the desert to use as leverage against Archangel for the return of his brother, who is missing in action. Archangel offers him protection from the other interested parties in government if Hawke agrees to fly covert missions for him. Cue much flying around the desert blowing shit up.

Series one was a serious examination of Cold War politics, with the FIRM (dressed in white) sending Hawke to deal with threats to the US Government, while always looking for an opportunity to reclaim Airwolf from him. But the studio decided that it was too dark, and from the second series toned it down into another action-adventure show, Knight Rider with rotor blades, with the FIRM and Hawke acting as partners in a crime-fighting organisation. This took something away from the show, removing the antagonism between Hawke and the ‘good guys’, and lowered the show to more standard fare. It struggled on for two more seasons with the original cast, and one season with an entirely new cast (and recycled shots of the helicopter flying), before finally being cancelled.

Flight is one of the themes of the next show on the list, albeit clumsily done. This Stephen J Cannell produced show starred William Katt as Ralph Hinkley (or Hanley), a high school teacher who is given a suit by alien beings which grants him superheroic abilities. The Greatest American Hero was a primarily a comedy show, centered around the premise that Ralph didn’t know how to use the suit properly (he lost the instruction manual) and had to learn its abilities by trial and error. Much hilarity ensued.

Would you really want to be rescued by this guy?

The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons, making it one of the more successful shows on this list, but there were differences in opinion between Cannell and the series executives about the direction that the show would take. Cannell envisioned it as a way to explore realistic, normal, everyday problems, but the executives wanted a more mainstream, simplistic hero show. The executives won, for the most part, although Cannell did score a few points along the way. It remained an interesting show to watch, and it was genuinely funny in places, but it was always struggling to be better than it was allowed to be and eventually failed as a result.

Our final show has already been referenced, and since we started with a science-fiction show we might as well end on one. At the end of the 70s, Star Wars was busy shattering records and rewriting the sci-fi bible, so the studios cast around for a way to cash in. We have already seen how Battlestar Galactica was sued by 20th Century Fox, but despite this Universal Studios released a feature based on one of their old properties, one that had been knocking around in various forms since the 1920s. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was well-received, which prompted a TV series that survived for two seasons. It centred around an astronaut, Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers, who was piloting a space shuttle that suffered a malfunction, freezing Rogers for over five centuries. He was rescued by the inhabitants of New Chicago and joined the Earth Defense.

Could this be much more of a Star Wars rip-off?
Or more obviously 80s?

Buck, played by Gil Gerard, was a truly heroic character. He was both a lover and a fighter, sweeping a succession of ladies off of their silver shoes while being chased by the beautiful but evil Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). His close companion was the beautiful Wilma Deering, a Colonel in the Earth Defense played by Erin Gray. Just in case you don’t know, she looked like this:

Any excuse...

Although sometimes she looked more like this:

Ok, I'll stop now...

Anyway, Buck and Wilma spent much of their time defending Earth from invasion, while trying to get Buck to fit in to 25th century society. They were helped in this by Twiki, the child-sized robot, and Dr Theopolis, the hyper-intelligent Speak & Spell. Buck Rogers… was highly camp space-opera. There was no depth, no social commentary, just space ships, spandex and robots. It was cheesy and fun, although the second season attempted a more serious tone, largely as a result of Gerard himself pressuring the producers. The character of Hawk, a member of a bird based alien race, was introduced, allowing the programme makers to explore religious and mythological themes, as well as ecological and racist themes and ideas on evolution. Unfortunately, the show stalled due to falling ratings and was cancelled after the second series.

So what have we learnt on our trawl through the American imports? Hopefully, we can see a formula developing. We know that a hero, or heroes, are often, in some way, rebellious or anti-authoritarian. This sits well with the American image, or at least with the image that Americans like to believe in. They are the rebellious country, after all, born from colonial oppression and the subsequent revolution. The A-Team were wrongly accused and imprisoned. Stringfellow Hawke was blackmailed into working for ‘The Man’. Michael Knight was fighting crime under a false identity. Starbuck and Apollo broke the rules to get the job done. The Duke Boys were petty criminals fighting government corruption. Even Buck Rogers was fighting royalist oppressors.

Next, we can assume that Americans like their heroes male. None of these shows have female leads, and none of the female stars are particularly strong. Except this one:

What?

Sorry.

Anyway, most of these shows were decidedly masculine, not only in casting but in attitude as well. On the set of The A-Team, George Peppard famously told supporting actress Marla Heasley (who played reporter Tawnia Baker on the show), “we don’t want you on the show…for some reason they think they need a girl”. This sentiment was echoed much later by Dirk Benedict, who called it “a guys show” and “the last truly masculine show”. This underlying sexism ran through most of the 80s shows, certainly the American ones that were shown on British TV. I suspect our homegrown shows were no better, although I do recall a lot of Miss Marple being watched in our house.

Did this affect us growing up? I believe it did. So many studies have shown what a profound influence television can have on a young mind that it seems impossible that it didn’t have an effect. But what? How were we changed by what we watched? Well, I suspect that our view of heroic activity was certainly influenced. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what I think of when the words ‘action hero’ are mentioned, and it isn’t Mark Wahlberg. Am I sexist? No, I don’t think so, not in the way most people think of as being sexist, although I do subscribe to a reasonably old-fashioned ideal of manhood, whereby you hold doors open for women, let them go first, give up your seat on a bus or train and so on. These actions are sometimes considered sexist, which I think is a little harsh. After all, I also hold doors open for men.

Well, the point is that these shows are bound to have coloured our views of heroism. A real hero (a real man, if you like) is a bit of a rebel. He doesn’t bow down to ‘The Man’, doesn’t give in to the oppressor. He will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and will risk his life for a righteous cause, all while wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans (or possibly spandex or suede). Moustaches are heroic, goatees are evil. Any group will consist of people who are experts in their particular field, and whose skills compliment each other perfectly.

And if there is a woman in the group, she’ll probably look like this:

Last one, I promise

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Looking on the Bright Side…

Yesterday I wrote an article in which I discussed a couple of things that piss me off. I realised that i had rather ‘gone off on one’ so called it a day after only talking about three things. Believe me, I could still be writing that list. I’ll probably go back to it at some point and add more bits and pieces, but today i thought I’d try and balance the scales a little by writing about things that make me happy.

As you’d expect from a depressive, this isn’t going to be as long a list. In fact, I suspect it will be much, much harder to write, but hopefully some of the things that give me pleasure will bring a smile to your faces as well. So let’s start with a picture:

Seth Casteel's awesome underwater dog photography

I challenge anyone with a soul to look into that dog’s eyes and not feel just a little happier. You can see lots more of Seth Casteel’s amazing photography at www.littlefriendsphoto.com. Seriously, if you’re down, go and have a look. You will be smiling by the end of it. Dogs in general make me happy anyway, especially when they are displaying that special joy of just being alive. A dog running about, or playing with a ball, actually lifts my cynical, calloused soul into something approaching happiness. I freely admit to being a totally soppy bastard when it comes to dogs, although bigger dogs are much nicer than little rat-type things in my opinion.

Next on the list are lizards. I know, lizards aren’t necessarily what you’d call cute, but they are kind of cool. Take a look at what I mean:

"I'm watching you."

It is difficult not to anthropomorphise animals at the best of times, but a photo like this makes it next to impossible. That lizard is clearly smiling! Why is he happy? What does he know? And why does it make me smile when I see it? I’m a rational man in his mid-thirties, there is no way I should be swayed by an image like this, but if this was an advert I’d definitely be buying that product. Silly, isn’t it? Whenever I go into a pet shop (which is more often than you’d think, considering that I don’t have any pets) I always make a bee-line for the lizards. I have been considering buying one for a long time, but my fiancée really isn’t keen! So it remains an unfulfilled dream.

Next up, reading. Well, obviously. I love getting lost in a good story. It doesn’t even have to be that well written, just a good story is enough to keep me happy. Currently at the top of my list are The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, the Sandman graphic novels by Neil Gaiman (as well as American Gods, Anansi Boys and Neverwhere by the same author), the Space Captain Smith series by Toby Frost (and if ubermunchkin is reading this, I want them back, damn you! ;)), the Dexter novels by Jeff Lindsay and others too numerous to mention. I tend to have several books on the go at any one time and chew through them at a slightly annoying rate. It costs a fortune…

Ok, moving on, I also get happiness from intelligent comedy. My all-time favourite television programme is the BBCs QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. If you haven’t seen the show, check it out on youtube. It’s brilliant. The concept is that of a quiz show, except that the questions are insanely difficult, because they generally appear to be things that everyone knows. However, the show hinges on the fact that what everyone knows is usually wrong.

QI host Stephen Fry with regular panellist Alan Davies

Points are awarded for correct answers (obviously) but more often for just being interesting or funny, and obvious answers are penalised. That’s the theory anyway. In reality, the scoring system is so arcane and (possibly) random, not even the guests understand how they achieved the scores that they did. It is fairly common for every panellist to end the show with a negative score, and not unheard of for an episode to be won by the audience! The other thing about QI is that it turns you into the most annoying pedant in the world. You become the sort of person who points out that people used to believe that Saturn’s rings were formed from Jesus’ foreskin, or Henry VIII technically only had two wives (or possibly three. Maybe four. But definitely not six), or that the sun has already set when the bottom of it touches the horizon (because of the light-bending properties of the atmosphere). I can watch it over and over again, and frequently do.

Because I enjoy science-fiction, the idea of concept vehicles fascinate me. It is slightly depressing that none of these incredible machines ever make it into production, but it is fun to look through a bunch of photos of them. Here are a couple for your delectation:

A Moto-Guzzi concept bike

A Cadillac concept car

I like cars and bikes. Not in a ‘This model produces nearly 500bhp per tonne and a top speed of blah blah blah’, but more in a ‘Wow, that looks really cool’ kind of a way. Yep, I really am that shallow! I watch Top Gear mainly for the outrageous challenges and Clarkson’s latest bout of racist/sexist/anythingelseist logorrhea, but I do like admiring the shape of the vehicles on display. I just couldn’t care less about lap times and so on.

Finally, the thing that gives me most happiness is simply this: Friends and family. A little cheesy, perhaps, but true. I, like most people, enjoy spending time with people that I respect. I don’t have to agree with them all the time, in fact friendly arguments can be hugely entertaining (one argument concerning the veracity of claims that Deckard from Blade Runner is a replicant [SPOILER: HE IS!] has been running for a good fifteen years). Just taking time to chat and relax with friends is a source of proper joy.

Most of all, though, my fiancée makes me happy. She is loving and caring (probably far more so than I deserve!), with all the common sense and forward planning that I lack. She is gorgeous and I love her very much. She makes me happy and I want to make her happy in return.

So on that rather soppy note, I’ll finish up with a question: What makes you happy?

Unleash the Rage…

I woke up this morning with the intention of writing about things that make me happy. Then I walked down the High Street and came into contact with people. All feelings of goodwill promptly vanished and were replaced with a boiling pit of violent fury, lightly flavoured with a sprinkling of deep contempt for all humanity. This changed my plans somewhat.

Therefore, I am writing a short list of some of the things that really piss me off.

Rage Cause #1: Ignorance

Ignorance is probably my most common trigger for anger. I mean ignorance in the truest sense of the word, before people get their knickers in a twist. Ignorance does not necessarily imply a lack of intelligence, although that may be a part of it. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge or information, but shares a root with ‘ignore’. This suggests that the ignorant person refuses to ‘see’ information when it is presented to them.

For example, fundamentalist religions are often ignorant, in that they refuse to accept the theories and facts put forward by the scientific community. They may refuse to even enter the debate on subjects such as evolution (beyond denying it). This isn’t a(nother) rant about religion though, so I’ll skip over this example…

This refusal to engage in discussion, which is a clear message that they assume that the other person has nothing important to say, is hugely insulting, especially coming from someone who would probably have difficulties dressing themselves in the morning. Despite the fact that I know their opinions don’t matter (if they aren’t willing to engage, who cares, right?), it still really, REALLY gets on my nerves when people simply don’t listen to explanations. Bastards.

Ignorance is also responsible for the behaviour of people in the street. When walking on a crowded pavement, the sensible person is generally aware of the people around them, avoiding collisions by making constant corrections to direction and speed. If they need to cross the flow of people, they will judge their crossing so as to inconvenience the least number of fellow pedestrians, and should they need to stop they will do so at a point that does not cause an obstruction.

A statistically significant proportion of people are arseholes. Fact.

Unfortunately, crowded pavements often seem to be made up of less-than-sensible people. These ignorant morons walk in a completely straight line, either unaware of the other people trying to use the pavement, or uncaring that their progress along the pavement is causing massive problems to the people that get shoved aside or have to contort themselves to avoid such a fate. These people lurch out of shops directly into the stream of traffic, causing multiple person pile-ups, or stop dead in the middle of the pavement to have a conversation with a friend, becoming a clot in the blood flow of society.

This attitude extends to the road as well, where the ignoramus in question is suddenly in control of two tonnes of speeding metal. I humbly suggest that this is not a good thing. The sense of pure arrogance that these people barge through life with gives them an inflated sense of confidence, which in turn leads to them choosing to ignore basic rules, such as ‘Give Way’ signs, or rights of way. Unfortunately, when these people cause accidents, it is often other people that get injured or killed.

As a teacher, the subject of ignorance comes up a lot. ‘Why do we need to read a book? Why can’t we just watch the film?’ is something that is often asked in the classroom. A fair question? Well, no. A book is far more than a written version of a film. For a start, it invariably covers a lot more ground than a film, including examining the internal thought processes of the characters. Secondly, watching a film is a passive experience; you are watching someone else’s interpretation of events, characters and locations, rather than exercising your brain in coming up with them yourself. Thirdly, reading is a learning process. The more we read, the wider our vocabulary grows, the more our grammar improves, the greater our store of knowledge. All of human emotion and experience exists within the written world, and we would be fools to allow that to die out.

And speaking of teachers…

Rage Cause #2: Michael Gove

Michael Gove MP, Tory Secretary of State for Education. This will be a difficult section for me to write, because every time I even think the name ‘Michael Gove’ I have to go and lie down until the urge to kill passes.

Michael Gove, MP: Ventriloquist's Dummy of the Damned

Gove is a former journalist who is now in charge of the education of the next generation. This would be funny if it weren’t so scary. Gove has never been a teacher, never had to deal with the immense workload that teachers face, and yet he is dictating how they should do their jobs. He has moved the goalposts several times in the last few years, most notably in regards to the OFSTED inspections that all schools must endure.

To be clear, I am not saying that schools shouldn’t be inspected – obviously there needs to be accountability in education – but the removal of any kind of acknowledgement of the socio-economic background of the students is a ridiculous decision for a start. In areas of lower social class and lower incomes, education is often not valued at home, so the students see very little worth in education. This has a majorly depressive effect on results, one that is very difficult for teachers to counter. Parents have far more influence over children than teachers do (which is exactly how it should be), and this influence often extends to a lack of importance placed on education. But, under Gove’s plans, this is not accepted, so children growing up in affluent areas of the Home Counties are treated identically to children growing up in economically depressed, inner-city sink estates. This is an obvious idiocy, or should be to anyone with half a brain. Of course, all students should be treated equally in theory, but in practise this doesn’t work. A student brought up in a home which is stable and supportive, where they are encouraged and interacted with, where their academic achievements are praised, will naturally do better in school than a student who is raised in a home where they are not valued, where their education is an excuse to get them out of the way for the day, where their primary care-giver is having to work all hours just to keep a roof over their head. I am not being judgemental, merely pointing out that this is the reality for many children in Britain today. The General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers said that it was important to “accept that the job of teaching is made more difficult depending on the home circumstances of pupils. No increased amount of haranguing of teachers or head teachers will alter this fact”.

The reality of teaching for far too many.

The previous OFSTED grades were simple: Unsatisfactory (for schools that were not meeting the appropriate standards), Satisfactory (for those schools that were), Good (for those schools that exceeded the standards) and Outstanding (for those schools that far exceeded the standards). However, Michael Gove, in his infinite wisdom and supported by Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of OFSTED, has decided to change the English language to suit his political needs. Satisfactory is no longer Satisfactory, apparently. Satisfactory is now Requires Improvement. Satisfactory means ‘not trying hard enough’, ‘coasting’, basically ‘unsatisfactory’. If a school gets a Satisfactory grade they will be revisited within eighteen months and will be expected to have shown some improvement in that time. They will be inspected again within a further eighteen months and, if no improvement is shown, will be placed in Special Measures.

This whole procedure seems designed to add to the stress of teaching. Currently teachers get 10% of their teaching timetable for PPA (Planning, Preparation and Assessment); in other words, 10% of their teaching day is for the planning of all lessons and the marking of all work. Obviously, this is ridiculous. Most schools have around a 6 hour teaching day (although that varies from school to school – let’s go with the averages). This means 30 hours of lessons per week, of which around 27 hours will be classroom time, leaving 3 hours a week for PPA. It can take up to an hour (easily) to plan a lesson and prepare resources to the standard expected by OFSTED (and thus many members of senior leadership). That means it can take 27 hours a week just to plan. Marking takes even longer, with a class set of books needing an investment of 2 to 3 hours a week. An average teacher might have seven or eight class sets to teach, requiring a further 14 to 24 hours a week. That means a teacher can realistically be expected to work up to seventy-eight hours a week, not including break/lunch duties, meetings, assemblies, form tutor duties, detention duties, parents evenings and so on. Yes, teachers do get longer holidays than most other workers, but many of those holidays are spent feverishly trying to catch up on the things that get left behind during term-time, like having time to spend with loved ones and rebuilding the relationships that are crumbling because you are constantly stressed out about the amount of work you need to do.

So when Michael Gove says that ‘Unsatisfactory’ teachers will be forced to leave the profession, one is filled with a sense of awe for his reasoning skills. Because clearly sacking loads of teachers makes far more sense than, for example, TRAINING AND SUPPORTING them, so that they can become BETTER TEACHERS. Because that’s just silly.

Rage Cause #3: Intolerance

I appreciate that I may be on slightly thin ice with this one, as I am basically writing an article about what I am intolerant of, but I’ll try and justify it as best as I can while retaining a modicum of credibility.I don’t mean intolerances like lactose intolerance, obviously. The intolerance I mean is the type that is simply pointless. Call it intolerance, call it prejudice, call it whatever you like, it’s the dislike/distrust of a group of people over something that is usually meaningless: race, sexuality, social class, gender and so on. Quite often, the target of the intolerance has no control (race, gender, arguably sexuality) and so the intolerance is doubly stupid. The intolerance is usually based on a stereotype, most of which are just wrong: Women belong in the kitchen, gays are immoral etc.

What a massive KKKunt

Racial intolerance is a typical example. Why? What is the point? I live in Britain, which is, genetically speaking, pretty much a mongrel race. We are not a ‘pure’ example of anything. White Britons can trace their blood back to the Celts, Normans, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Norsemen, Romans, and any race that had influenced any of them, like the Persians, Greeks, Egyptians. Our language developed from Germanic roots, with healthy influences from the Romance languages, specifically French (our Arch-Enemies – worse even than the Germans!) Britain has traditionally maintained an open-borders policy, welcoming all races, creeds and colours into our country. I’m not suggesting that there has never been racial tension before this generation, but recently I have been dumbfounded by the idiocy of it all. A common argument you will hear is the ‘Britain is full’, and even fairly well-educated people have put this view forward. Well, that’s quite easy to counter. Look at this:

UK Population Density map

The red areas on the map show where lots of people live, the green areas show where virtually no people live. See? Plenty of space left. We don’t need to operate a ‘one out, one in’ system of immigration just yet. Besides, a lot of people coming to this country come here to work, thus stimulating the economy and paying taxes. This is a good thing. And yes, some of them are committing benefit fraud, just like lots of British people are. Mind you, I have been on the dole myself, and I lean towards the opinion that if they manage to actually get any money out of the government, they fucking deserve it! They obviously worked bloody hard for it!

I have, in the past, been referred to as a misogynist. This is not true. I hold no particular loathing for women. I am a misanthropist: I am an equal opportunities hater. Gender politics is a tricky field to skip through, as some angry feminists will assume the worst no matter what you say, and some misogynists will ascribe views to me that I do not hold. I am all in favour of equality and I support the move towards equal gender representation wholeheartedly. However, some radical, extremist feminists do not seem to want equality. It’s an oft-repeated argument, but worth mentioning in this context. It would appear that some of these radical extremists want to invert the gender relationship that has existed for centuries, rather than settle for equality. They are out for revenge for their sisters, women who struggled against male oppression and often died for their beliefs. I am not, in any way, belittling what women have gone through, but many of the inequalities are now gone, and the majority of men alive today were not involved in it, and many are like me, in that they support equality. So don’t tar all men with the same 17th century brush.

On the flipside to that there are the men who truly believe that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, that women don’t have the same rights as men, that they should stay at home, pleasuring their men and popping out babies. Obviously, these people are wrong too. There is a move on the internet at the moment whereby a certain type of deeply insecure male will make constant mention of kitchens, sandwiches and ‘bitches’, and while some of the comments are clearly made as a joke (and often quite funny ones), there are many that are just a thin veneer over hatred and the suggestion of violence. These ‘men’ need to get their heads on straight. All they are doing is reinforcing the stereotype of oppressive and violent masculinity, which has no place in the 21st century.

And somehow that makes them more interesting...

And speaking of something that has no place in the 21st century, I’m back on one of my favourite soapboxes: Homophobia! Seriously, if you are offended by two men kissing, or two women making out, DON’T WATCH! Simple. Just because gay marriage is legal, doesn’t mean you have to have one. It’s legal to have a cock ring too, but that doesn’t mean you have to rush out and stick a 1lb lump of steel through the old chap. It’s all about choice. The arguments against homosexuality are always idiotic. ‘It’s unnatural!’ So are clothes, living in houses and driving cars. ‘It’s immoral’ So is preaching hate, but that hasn’t stopped you. ‘It’s against God’s law’ So are tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), shrimp and crabs (Leviticus 11:10), the handicapped (Leviticus 21:16-23) and shaving (Leviticus 19:27). I like Leviticus. It’s pretty much where the whole ‘God Hates Fags’ idea comes from, so it’s always worth having a few other verses handy for throwing back at homophobic religious nutters.

OK. I think that’s probably enough ranting for now.

What makes you angry? Let me know in the comments below.

An Entirely Arbitrary Top Ten Movies

This is my list of the top ten movies that I think are excellent at this moment in time. I fully expect you to disagree with my list, to hurl abuse at me for not including x,y or z. Good. This is in no way going to represent the movies that I think are the best ever. I may not even give satisfactory reasons for my choices. I am going entirely on instinct and allowing that to guide me. I’ll probably look at this list tomorrow and ask myself what I was drinking.

That is the beauty of movies. One day, a film will be everything you need to see, to hear, to experience. The next day it might seem to be a total piece of crap. Ever seen a film in the cinema and thought it was great, then got it on DVD and realised that it was actually a bag of arse? I certainly have.

So, in no particular order, let’s get started.

Number 1: Fight Club dir. David Fincher (1999)

What can be said about this gem? The Chuck Palahniuk novel was masterfully adapted into this violent, funny and intelligent actioner, with star turns from Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter (among others). Its simplifying of male relationships and masculine aggression is satisfying without dumbing down, and the ‘twist’ (such as it is) is handled well. The film explores consumer culture without being preachy, using the source material excellently. It is dark and stylish, cool without trying too hard, touching without being saccharine.

If you haven’t seen this film, where have you been for the last thirteen years? If you doubt Brad Pitt’s acting ability, you need to see this film. If you’ve ever shopped at IKEA, you need to watch this film. If you’ve ever wanted to destroy something beautiful…well, you get the picture.

Number 2: High Fidelity dir. Stephen Frears (2000)

A lesser known John Cusack vehicle, with supporting roles and cameos from Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Iben Hjejle, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Lisa Bonet, Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert and Bruce Springsteen. Quite a cast, I’m sure you’ll agree, and they are all excellent choices for the roles they have been given. The movie is adapted from a novel by Brit author Nick Hornby, and the story is transplanted from London to Chicago, but the director and cast handle it really well. The novel focuses on the whirlwind of emotions stirred up when Rob (John Cusack) is dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). This prompts a bout of navel-gazing and soul-searching as Rob seeks out his Top Five, All Time, Most Memorable Break-Ups in order to discover why he keeps getting dumped.

Most of the story revolves around Rob’s record store and his love (or obsession) with pop music. Everything is described in terms of the emotions in music; the soundtrack supports this with tunes from Dylan, Elton John, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Al Green and a marvellous version of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On performed by Jack Black.

If you like music and feel that it has had a profound effect on you, or if you’ve ever been dumped, or in love, watch this film. It’s one of the few films that actually brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

Number 3: The Shawshank Redemption dir. Frank Darabont (1994)

So the third film in my list is another adaptation, this time from Stephen King. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank, where he suffers the usual prison unpleasantness, but he befriends the prison ‘fixer’, Red Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Dufresne uses his skills in accountancy to get on the good side of the guards, led by the sadistic Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), and eventually helps Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) to embezzle funds from an inmate labour scheme.

Despite everything that happens to Dufresne, he never gives up hope, and that is the message of this movie: they cannot take your hope if you don’t let them. The Shawshank Redemption is a beautifully uplifting movie, helped by remarkable performances, stunning direction and excellently crafted story. The film is narrated by Freeman, with his instantly recognisable inflections, and spans several decades, showing the institutionalisation of the characters as they spend the best years of their lives behind the walls of Shawshank.

This is a wonderful film and deserves a place in every film fan’s collection.

Number 4: Raiders of the Lost Ark dir. Stephen Spielberg (1981)

I was born in 1975, so I was probably 8 years old when I saw this film. I challenge any 8 year-old boy to watch Indiana Jones buckle his swash across the Egyptian landscape without immediately wanting a brown leather jacket, dusty fedora and bullwhip. Jones (Harrison Ford in one of his finest roles) is the ultimate action hero: he is as flawed as he is brilliant.

The plot is a glorious blend of pulp action, Nazi bad guys, biblical occultism and rocky romance. It even has a monkey. What more could you ask for? The cat-and-mouse game of chase with the Nazi antagonists is genuinely fun, high praise indeed. Klaus Kinski famously turned down the part of Major Toht, calling the script “moronically shitty”, but the $384 million box office would suggest that the audiences disagreed.

Raiders… is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but wears its enthusiasm proudly on its sleeve. It is a true romp, with actors that really seem to be enjoying themselves. The villains are stereotypical; sneering, perverse Nazi torturers, brilliant and amoral French archeologists. The heroes are equally stereotypical; Jones switches between bookish nerd and stubbly action man with aplomb.

As a film, it is simple and wonderful. I could watch this every day for the rest of my life and I probably would never get bored. It deserves a place in every film fan’s DVD collection and is the only film on this list that I will allow no disagreement. If you don’t like Raiders… you don’t like films. Simple.

Number 5: Blade Runner dir. Ridley Scott (1982)

The first science fiction film on the list and the second Harrison Ford vehicle, Blade Runner tells the story of Rick Deckard, hired to chase down and ‘retire’ four androids (known as replicants) who have returned to Earth to try to extend their short lives. The film has had several incarnations, culminating in the Final Cut in 2007. This version was the only one that Ridley Scott had full creative control over, removing the noir style voice-over, altering the unicorn dream and many other little tweaks.

Personally, I quite liked the voice-over, despite the fact that it was mainly used to highlight the important plot points for the hard of thinking. I felt that it gave the film an old-school noir feeling, reminiscent of the detective films of the 40s.

The changes made to the film go some way towards answering the question of Deckard’s existence: Is he a replicant himself? Scott has made his opinion clear, but ultimately it is down to the individual viewer to decide on their own.

The film is based, albeit loosely, on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but is far more coherent. Dick was a renowned drug user and his novels often reflect that aspect of his life, questioning ideas of humanity, paranoia, authority and so on. The film entertains some of these notions, but does so in a far more controlled way, showing Deckard as a man haunted by his own life, emotionally involved in the fate of those he is tasked with ‘retiring’.

The most outstanding feature of the film is the look of it. From the smoky, dimly lit interiors to the stark silhouettes of the cityscape, the film looks futuristic, even thirty years after its release. The lack of CGI lends a gritty realism to the world, making it far more believable than modern attempts at the genre.

Overall, Blade Runner is a wonderful film, fantastically acted, brilliantly scripted, beautifully shot.

Number 6: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope dir. George Lucas (1977)

Originally released as plain old Star Wars, this is the one that started it all. Spawning two sequels, three prequels, two spin-off movies, Tv series, video games a-plenty and more merchandise than it is possible to recount, Star Wars genuinely changed the world of film forever. The cast were mostly unknowns, with the exceptions of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and the story fantastic. Harrison Ford again features, this time as the smuggler Han Solo, with Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. The film also features arguably the most iconic movie villain ever, in the six-foot six form of Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and Emperor Palpatine’s right hand man.

I will accept that A New Hope is not the best of the films, but it is the one that came first, and it introduced me to an astounding universe of adventure, laser swords, bizarre creatures, beautiful princesses, charming rogues, spaceships, other worlds, epic battles and robots. I will never forget the way I felt as I watched the film for the first time, aged four. It began a lifelong love affair with science fiction (and was ultimately responsible for my feelings of betrayal when Phantom Menace was released), and will always hold a special place in my heart. It is by far the most innocent of the six movies, and although the storylines are not completely worked out (Luke kissing his sister ‘for luck’ is possibly one of the more creepy moments when viewed in retrospect) it is still a wonderful experience to watch.

Number 7: The Big Lebowski dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (1998)

The Big Lebowski stars Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, AKA The Dude, LA’s finest stoner and bowler. The plot centres around a case of mistaken identity and kidnapping, as Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the wife of disabled millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddlestone), disappears. Dumb hijinks ensue, but really the plot of the film is not important, despite the many twists and turns that the Coens shoehorn into the two-hour runtime. The real joy of this movie is the way in which the Dude drifts from one disaster to the next, ably assisted by his best friends, the Viet Nam veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and the put-upon Donny (Steve Buscemi).

The dialogue and character portrayals are excellent, with some scene stealing turns from Lebowski’s aide Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) and the Stranger (Sam Elliott), and really the dialogue is the main reason to watch the film. Bridges and Co. really create the sense of reality despite the bizarre situations, and it is hard to watch without laughing out loud as long as you don’t get caught up trying to follow the plot. It is a film in which very little of importance happens, much like the Dude’s life, which centres around bowling, driving around and the occasional acid flashback. Walter’s ‘Nam inspired rants and inability to accept defeat are endearing rather than annoying, and Donny, despite rarely being noticed by the other characters, is genuinely sympathetic.

I have perhaps been a little harsh on the plot. It isn’t that the plot isn’t important, more that it is merely a vehicle for moving the main characters around and allowing them space to indulge in conversation. This is a truly character driven movie and would be just as enjoyable if the main characters weren’t seeking compensation for the Dude’s soiled rug, or chasing the missing $1 million around LA. One of the Coen brothers best films.

Number 8: Watchmen dir. Zack Snyder (2009)

I know that this is going to annoy fanboys across the internet, but I don’t care. I liked this movie. I am also a huge fan of the graphic novel, and I was really quite worried when I heard that it was being adapted for the big screen, especially when I heard it was being directed by Zack ‘300‘ Snyder. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is different to the graphic novel; of course it is. Alan Moore’s comic is unfilmable. The version that finally made it to the cinemas is a good attempt, and works very well as a stand-alone story.

The plot follows the investigation into the murder of retired hero, The Comedian (played with eerie menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The investigation is led by sociopathic vigilante, Rorschach (a wonderfully unhinged Jackie Earle Haley), complete with voice-over extracts of his stream-of-consciousness journal.

The action is heavily stylised, as one would expect, which fits the tone of the film well, and the lighting, set design and soundtrack all add up to a stunning spectacle. The denouement is well handled, with genuine pathos, unusual for a superhero film. There are some drawbacks, of course, but these are minor compared to the positives. Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) looks far too much like a caricature, rather than the actual ex-president, and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) spends a disturbing amount of time being all blue and naked, but other than that the whole film is a satisfying watch and a very good example of the superhero genre.

Number 9: X-Men dir. Bryan Singer (2000)

The one that arguably started the craze for comic book adaptions, X-Men stars Hugh Jackman as fanboy favourite Wolverine, as he is inducted into Charles Xavier’s team of superheroes, the X-Men. The humans are discovering that mutants walk among them, capable of incredible feats, and they are rightly scared. Xavier believes that humans and mutant can live together in harmony, but his old friend Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen) is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and he knows what the dark side of human nature can lead to. Therefore, the film has three distinct groups, none of whom are typical bad guys. The humans are largely unrepresented in the film, except by the bigoted Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), who changes his tune of hate and begs forgiveness from equally bigoted Storm (Halle Berry).

The story is solid, supported by talented actors and assured special effects. The influence on the genre is unarguable too, with this film spawning two sequels, one prequel and a spin-off (so-far), as well as triggering a surge in comic book movies, from Iron Man, Spider Man, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, John Constantine, Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim and on and on and on. This popularity shows little sign of slowing down, with big budget movies for The Avengers, Spider Man, Judge Dredd, Batman and Superman all due for release in the next few years. Good news for geeks!

Number 10: The Usual Suspects dir. Bryan Singer (1995)

So, for the last film on my list, I have gone for another Bryan Singer helmed project. The Usual Suspects is a cleverly constructed whodunnit, told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) to Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) in the office of Sgt Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya) of the NYPD. Kint was arrested after a boat was destroyed in San Pedro but has FBI protection. Kujan is desperate to get to the truth as he is obsessed with finding and arresting Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).

The film is genuinely incredible, with strong performances from the ensemble cast, and an engrossing, well told story. The shadowy antagonist is alluded to throughout, and served as one of the advertising tricks for the film: ‘Who is Keyser Soze?’ – a question I won’t answer here, on the off-chance that you have not seen it!

The Usual Suspects was not a huge commercial success on its release, but its relatively low budget of $6 million did mean that it began to make its money back reasonably quickly. Since then it has gone on to become a massive cult success and gained a strong mainstream following as well.

This film demands a second viewing, if only to see all the clues that you missed first time round, and the denouement of this film is second to none.

Right, that’s this list of random films completed, and I’m already thinking of films I should have included. So here is a quick list of the top ten films that didn’t make it:

1) Casablanca

2) It’s a Wonderful Life

3) Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

4) Clerks

5) Mad Max

6) Reservoir Dogs

7) The Dark Knight

8) Ocean’s Eleven

9) Unforgiven

10) Akira