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R.I.P. Television Centre

Danny Baker summed it up beautifully. He said that the palace of Westminster would make a great hotel, but they’re not going to convert it into one, are they? So why are they turning Television Centre into a hotel?

Danny’s right. BBC Television Centre is as much a part of the fabric of Britain as Yorkshire pudding and fish and chips, and I believe that future generations of BBC Executives will bitterly regret disposing of the building, just as they now regret wiping all those classic programmes in the 1970′s in order to generate a little more shelf space in the Spur.

I’ll let you into a little secret. I was there when the Great Tape Wiping Disaster took place. In fact, I couldn’t have been any closer to it. As a staff VT librarian at TVC from 1976 to 1978 I more than likely personally deleted hundreds of irreplaceable episodes of Dr Who, Dixon of Dock Green and Grandstand. But, like the defendants at Nuremburg, I swear I was just following orders.

One of my VT library collegues, however, took the law into his own hands and chose not to follow those orders. Captain Video (as he likes to be known) saved many pop classics by choosing to ignore orders from the Top of the Pops office to erase priceless material. Instead, he “wiped” the programmes on the paperwork only, and returned the actual tapes to the shelves with secret new tape numbers that only he knew.

Years later, Captain Video helped the BBC to rebuild this “lost” collection, and as a result became one of the most celebrated music archivists of his time. He still works in television now. He has his own video post production company.

Sadly, there is no modern day equivalent of Captain Video to save Television Centre. The vandals from Salford have already begun the destruction and it cannot be stopped.

I worked at Television Centre many, many times. First in that infamous tape library, then in later years as a staff promotions director, a digital producer on the comedy web site, and finally as a visiting web producer for Endemol. In the mid nineties I was even seen in vision as an occasional contributor to daytime children’s BBC. So I’ve seen that damned building from every angle, in every weather. There are few corners of TVC that I haven’t skulked in. Few tables I haven’t sat at in the bar on the fourth floor.

I’ve stood in a lift with Morecambe & Wise. I’ve paid for my food in the canteen standing next to Roy Wood in full Wizzard make-up. I’ve wandered pissed around the Blue Peter Garden. I was actually in the studio when Emu attacked Michael Parkinson. So I feel I have just a little piece of ownership of that building.

I, like so many others, have sensed the ghosts of showbiz greats in the endless, circular corridors. I’ve also felt the deep, festering frustration that can only come from working for the BBC. I both love and hate the corporation, and I both love and hate Television Centre, but there’s one thing I do know: It should never be turned into a fucking hotel.

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The Museum of Sex

Sowerby & Luff write…

The Museum of Sex opened in New York in 2002 and, despite its provocative title, claims to offer a studied, historical look at the history of sex in our culture. We put fresh batteries into Roland and took him along, so we could make audio notes as we went.

Sex and the Moving Image seemed to be the main exhibit. It claimed to trace the way sex and sexual imagery have impacted film, television and advertising through the ages. In reality, it was a big dark room filled with TV screens showing hard core pornography. There’s nothing quite like watching Paris Hilton performing felatio, while surrounded by elderly Japanese tourists eating sandwiches.

It’s funny how people are prepared to watch or listen to sexual content, as long as it’s not actually wrapped up as porn. Our podcast has always been labelled “Explicit” on iTunes, and tens of thousands of respectable people, who would never dream of going into a shop and buying porn, download it every week and listen to us swearing like a couple of troopers and talking about everything from nipple clamps to anal sex. But because we’re packaged as comedy, it doesn’t really count as filth. Talking dirty is ideal content for an iPod. After all, no-one else knows what you’re listening to.

We moved onwards into the sex museum’s Geography of the Erotic Imagination exhibition, featuring pony play, furries, peeing and sploshing – a truly eye-opening tour of various sexual fantasies from around the world.
“Would you like to dress up like a pony for me?” I asked Georgina.
“Nay,” she said.
“How about a furry? I could get one of those Bugs Bunny suits for you.”
“If you’re so keen, you dress as a rabbit,” she said.

“Sploshing” is shorthand for various wet and messy fetishes whereby participants become aroused when substances are deliberately and generously applied to their naked skin. “Messy” substances can include whipped cream, mud, shaving foam, custard, pudding, chocolate sauce, or simply “gunge”. Tiswas has a lot to answer for.

This area also included the activity of directing high pressure water jets at the genitalia.
“We could try that,” I suggested.
“I suppose it would save you having to bathe,” said Georgina.
“Perhaps we could call the New York Fire Department to give us a hand,” I said.

The erotic roadmap continued on the next floor with odours, textures, and sensations. We were invited to feel a piece of latex, followed by a piece of rubber, and then had an opportunity to touch the breasts and nether regions of a very expensive, life-sized sex doll.
“Oh, for heavens sake, Brian, leave it alone,” said Georgina. “You’ve been there for twenty minutes!”

Macrophilia was next – a bizarre exhibit which went to great lengths to tell the story of a man whose fantasy was to be captured and forced into sex by a giant, 50 foot tall women. There were numerous images of a tiny little man being crushed underfoot by a huge female, and I couldn’t help wondering how he could ever satisfy her, in that his entire body was barely the size of her vagina.
Georgina’s favourite exhibit was the sex machines. Huge, industrial-sized devices, run by electric motors, designed for mechanical pleasure.
“Do you think it’s one of those that’s been waking us up every morning?” asked Georgina.

Feeders and Gainers was the last thing we looked at in the museum, a section dedicated to people who deliberately fatten up their partners, before having sex with them. Georgina stood looking at this exhibit for a very long time.
“Lets go eat,” I said.

Moments later, we found ourselves in a pizza restaurant in the Flatiron District. Pizza is a very different animal in New York City. They seem to be prepared to put anything on top of one. Georgina stared at a spectacular, two foot diameter thin crust in the window that appeared to have on it every kind of meat known to modern man.
This was a pizza with beef, fish, pepperoni, ham, pork, seafood, sausage, bacon, hot dogs, lamb chops and what looked like an entire portion of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“We’ll have that one,” said Georgina.
An hour later we were still trying to get through the second slice, and when we asked for the rest to be put in a box to take it away, we found that the whole thing was too heavy to carry out of the restaurant.

We headed back to Brooklyn. That afternoon, still musing about the tiny man and the 50 foot woman, I fell into a deep sleep, and dreamt that Georgina had clawed her way to the top of the Empire State Building, and spent the entire day swatting aircraft with a giant slice of pizza.

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Balalaika Russian Theme Bar, Hong Kong

Sowerby & Luff write…

After walking around Hong Kong all day, “Beer o’clock” was a welcome arrival. We sought out a hostelry in which to spend Happy Hour and in D’Aguilar Street in SoHo, we stumbled upon the perfect place.

Balalaika is a Russian theme bar, complete with a huge bust of Lenin in the doorway, and lots of retro Soviet propaganda posters all over the wall. The centrepiece of the bar is a minus 20ºC Siberian Vodka Room, for which they supply you with a huge warm fur coat.
“You want to drink a vodka at minus 20ºC?” asked Georgina.
“That’s cold,” I said.
“That’s the idea,” she said.
“Can’t we just have a nice cool beer out here?” I suggested.
“When in Rome…” said Georgina.
“But we’re in Hong Kong,” I said. “And this is a Russian bar!”
“Oh, you’re such a wimp!” snapped Georgina, and she threw on one of the fur coats and strode into the freezer room. Never one to be outdone, I grabbed another fur coat and followed her.
“Bugger me, it’s cold in here,” Georgina said.
“Told you.” I shivered.
“Let’s just chuck down a couple of vodkas and go!”

Shaking like a jellyfish, my ears bleeding from the cold, I shuffled over to the small serving hatch, where a frost-covered glass panel slid to one side.
“Two v-v-odkas p-p-p-please” I said.
“What flavour you want?” said the barman.
“What f-f-f-flavour d-d-do you want?” I asked Georgina, who was shivering so much her face was becoming a blur.
“I d-d-d-on’t c-c-c-care!” she said. “Just get the f-f-f-f-frigging drinks!”
I turned back to the serving hatch. The barman had slammed the glass shutter closed while I was talking to Georgina. It slid open again with a clunk.
“What f-f-flavours d-d-do you h-h-have?” I shivered.
“We have more than sixty flavours of vodka” he said. “You want me to read you the list?”
“No t-t-thank you,” I said.
“Apricot vodka very nice,” he said.
“Two apricot v-v-vodkas, p-p-p-please” I said. And then I discovered that my hand was too frozen to get it into my pocket and take out my wallet. The barman had clearly seen this phenomenon before.
“Pay outside,” he said.
He placed two apricot vodka shots in the serving hatch, and as soon as I’d picked them up he slammed the shutter closed, sprinkling ice particles onto the floor. With trembling hands, we said “Nastrovia!” and chucked our vodkas back in one.

Georgina was now turning blue. “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” she said.
“Very warm in Freezer Room today,” said the barman as I paid for the drinks outside. “Only minus 14ºC.”

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Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – New York

Sowerby & Luff write…

We couldn’t go to New York without seeing some live comedy and as much as we enjoy watching stand-up, we wanted to see a gig that was similar to our own show in London Sketch Club. So, we jumped on the L train from Brooklyn and headed towards Chelsea on the West Side.

The buskers on the New York subway are so good that people don’t hurry past them like they do in London, they actually stop to listen to them. Then they stand and applaud afterwards. You see entire horn sections, string sections and the occasional drum kit. You see PA systems, microphone stands, and mixing desks. If someone asks you how to get to Carnegie Hall, tell them not to bother. Just go down the New York Subway.

We’d heard good things about a sketch show and character comedy night in Chelsea, so we showed up at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre at West 26th Street, and booked to see the 7 o’clock show Shameless, which featured a female character comedian called Eliza Skinner. We caught up with Eliza at the bar afterwards, and she described it as “a show about people you don’t like, but have to love.”

Eliza puts raw, repellent desperation front and centre, both in her scriptwriting and in her performance – wrenching humour from awkward circumstances, and cringe-inducing comments. We asked her if it was more difficult to break through with a character show, as opposed to a stand-up act, and she told us that there are now more and more clubs in New York which cater for that style of comedy.

The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, apart from being a name which is almost impossible to remember, presents four or five shows a night, with a different audience coming in for each show. You can buy a ticket for the whole evening, or you can just pay around $10 to see one of the shows. There’s nothing like that on the London comedy circuit, but it’s how venues operate at the Edinburgh Festival, so it was something Georgina and I were very familiar with. The UCB runs like the Edinburgh Fringe all year round, seven nights a week, and that’s something we found really exciting.

We interviewed Eliza for our podcast, then we went back into the theatre to watch the second gig of the night – a one-man show featuring an LA comedy actor called Will Franken. This lanky, long-haired comedian’s genius resides in his excellent sense of the absurd, and a total disdain for any kind of political correctness. Will is devastating as he skewers liberals and bigoted right wing fanatics in equal measure. He plays activists, Christians and homophobes, and often walks a precarious tightrope between good and bad taste.

Will finished his show with a scene about a terrorist with a bomb, who inadvertently finds himself on a plane that is going to crash anyway, due to engine problems. It was a very strange experience, sitting not four miles from Ground Zero, and watching a sketch about a terrorist on a plane with an audience of New Yorkers.
“He’s performed that sketch many times in Los Angeles,” one of the audience said to us afterwards. “But I think he may need to tone it down a little for New York.”
We loved Will’s show, and he has since become a regular contributor to our podcast.

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Ringwood Hall Hotel – Review

Built by George Hodgkinson Barrow in the early nineteenth century, and set in 30 acres of well manicured lawns and hedges, Ringwood Hall Hotel is a Georgian grade 2 listed Manor House close to the market town of Chesterfield. Funded no doubt from the considerable profits of the famous Staveley iron and coal works, it must have once been a very atmospheric and beautiful stately home. Unfortunately this beauty has now been replaced by cold, corporate functionality, and the hall has become little more than a factory for grinding out thousands of identical budget wedding receptions.

The bedrooms are large, well equipped and comfortable, and my room had a TV screen the size of a tennis court. As soon as you step outside your room, however, the public areas are less than welcoming and they will soon send you scurrying back to the comfort of your room. Once surrounded by beautiful sprawling countryside, the hotel is now hemmed in by uninteresting streets lined with bland sixties housing. So if you fancy a nice country stroll before dinner, there’s really nowhere to go.

In order to expose original architectural features the designers have decided to leave some areas of the residents’ restaurant undecorated – exposing unsightly brick walls and unrendered door arches. This may be an excellent idea on paper, but in the execution makes the whole restaurant area feel unfinished and unfriendly – as if the builders are still waiting for some plaster to arrive. I had a peek at this room during my initial inspection and as a result decided to eat in my room. My dinner was, however, very good indeed. Crab fish cakes served with creamy Tartare sauce and the most delicious chunky chips – all served on a trendy rectangular wooden platter.

I decided to have breakfast in the unfinished restaurant, which was, to my horror, laid out in the style of a hot buffet. I have never really understood this style of service. At least eight waitresses stood motionless around the edge of the room and calmly watched while a restaurant full of paying guests dashed breathlessly back and forth – pouring themselves coffee, serving themselves with eggs and bacon and waiting for their toast to pop out of the toaster. I’m genuinely surprised we weren’t asked to wash up our own plates.

George Hodgkinson Barrow would turn in his grave. This is not service. Is it too much to ask that my own hot breakfast be cooked for me by a chef and served right away? Many much larger (and less expensive) hotels seem to manage this without difficulty, so I don’t understand why it’s not possible at Ringwood Hall and thousands of corner-cutting hotels like them.