Monthly Archives: April 2021

The Queen and I

Greenbelt, August 2019. We are at the close: a raucous singalong under the canopy, led by the house band. Sensing what is coming, I lead the family quietly away before the last encore. But it’s too late: they are finishing with ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, the song my mother requested at her funeral, which was four days ago. My children burst into tears. And supporting relatives come and put their arms aroud us, and we are united in grief.

I can still recall the minister some days before, saying “You may find it’ll take a while to be able to listen to the song again”. He was basically right, although I found the sadness had lessened by the time it turned up in Sonic The Hedgehog the following February. Eventually you learn to live with things. Besides, it’s a fitting way to remember her: my mother was judgemental as heck in November 1991, telling us how much that man had wasted his life, but she still listened to the music. We both did.

I’ve loved Queen for years, although it was a bumpy start. My aunt and godmother, looking for inspiration for Christmas gifts, was advised to buy me some Queen albums on cassette: she plumped for Queen II, which years later remains a personal favourite, and Hot Space, which…well, doesn’t. It doesn’t help that when you’re young you tend to miscategorise music tremendously; I would say, when asked, that I enjoyed “Heavy metal, like Queen”. Years later I discovered Slayer, and the penny dropped.

Hot Space is a big hot sparse mess of an album and we won’t dwell on it, but Queen II is its polar opposite: an over-indulgent, over-produced slab of absolutely brilliant fantasy rock. How can you fail to love a record that features a song called ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’, references Poe, and then leads out with ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’? And that’s before we get to all the powerhouse riffs and Beach Boys nods in ‘Father To Son’, which is possibly my favourite Queen track of the early 70s. Sure as heck beats anything from The Game.

Years later I heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the first time; it grew on me and now I rather enjoy it, although it’s overplayed and over-referenced and singalongs are a nightmare because people always, ALWAYS add that extra “No!” before the second “We will not let you go”, which is fine unless you’re trying to play the damned thing at a party. I use the word ‘play’ with a certain looseness; mostly I just bash out the chords and then let the drunken guests take over for the changes my untrained fingers have never quite been able to handle, although I daresay they could if I practiced hard enough. There was one particular evening, in the student bar at Devonshire Hall, Leeds, in September 1996 that is forever etched on my brain. They kept bringing me drinks and I kept bringing them songs; we jammed to ‘Three Lions’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and I was, for the only time that year, the most popular person in the room. That was a good night.

Then you get round to buying all the albums on CD and introducing them to your children (‘Good Company’ is a particular favourite), and before you know it it’s 2019 and they’ve done a biopic which gets, at least, the music right, provided you can live with the anachronisms about when things were written. I watched ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in a village hall with the two eldest; most of the film was spent tutting at things that didn’t happen and looking at cats, but at least it looks pretty, and I watched the final blistering twenty minutes with a big grin on my face, which I suppose is the point. Still, it’s hard not to be a little annoyed at some of the dramatic license – from the silly (Freddie accidentally inventing his portable microphone stand during their first ever gig) to the eyebrow-raising (basically everything from Hot Space to Berlin).

And can we please, for the love of sanity, have a music film other than Almost Famous that doesn’t depict all journalists as callous bastards? Some of us work very hard for what little coffers they pay and it’s debasing to see us reduced to a blank-faced stereotype at a press conference. I wouldn’t mind, but Bohemian Rhapsody is largely presented as fact, or at least the version of fact that the surviving members of the band wanted to tell; it’s clumsy and formulaic next to Rocket Man, which sets up an unreliable narrator in its first five minutes and then allows you to fill in the gaps yourselves. It is truth disguised as fiction, whereas Rhapsody is the complete opposite. Still, Gwilym Lee’s quite good.

Anyway. Here we are, and I’m doing my lyric-to-screenshot thing. It was tricky, because it isn’t: Queen often delved into the realms of sci-fi and fantasy (they have two movie soundtracks to their name) and it’s comparatively simple to find obvious lyrics. I have deliberately tried to plump for the obscure: there is nothing from ‘Princes of the Universe’ or the like, because it isn’t funny. Hopefully these are.

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Philip

We were in the car. I was gearing up for the triumphant final chorus of ‘Baker Street’ – you know, that incredible moment when you’re expecting the sax again and instead you get Hugh Burns’ guitar solo – when the radio went dead. This isn’t entirely out of character for Jack FM, who, while generally pretty reliable given their dependence on pre-recorded announcements and a queue of MP3s, are not averse to the odd bit of dead air. I tutted in annoyance, and carried on up the A34.

A minute or two later the tuner kicked into life again, only instead of bombastic voices spouting innuendo and bad puns it was two people having an actual conversation, something that simply doesn’t happen once the breakfast show’s finished. I caught the words ‘world tour’ and turned to Daniel. “Google Prince Philip,” I said.

He did, and then announced “Ah. Yes, he’s died.”

No more Gerry Rafferty, then. Instead we got all the stuff the BBC have kept stored on that petabyte hard drive for Operation Forth Bridge (presumably so named because it never seems to bloody end). We had the tributes, the historical documentaries, the archive footage, an entire afternoon’s worth of half-mast flags billowing in the breezes of early spring, and of course that inevitable bit when every single political commentator and writer and religious figure they could get without breaking Covid regulations crawls out of the woodwork to have a chat, saying almost precisely the same thing that the last person did. Meanwhile the only network channel broadcasting anything else is CBeebies, and even then people were complaining, either because a ‘BREAKING NEWS’ banner took up the bottom third of the screen or because Mister Tumble wasn’t wearing black.

“Yes, I know you don’t like the colour. But the BBC are putting their foot down, and it’s just for a couple of weeks.”

I know the Facebook groups well enough to leave the subject of Prince Philip well alone, particularly since the Harry and Meghan interview that seems to have damaged Anglo-American relations to an extent not seen since the Boston Tea Party. I don’t know, I assume it’s because Meghan’s one of theirs, and therefore any hostility she encountered within the Royal Family must have been racism or xenophobia or a little bit of each. It’s not at all possible that she didn’t get on with people simply because no one really gets on with their in-laws. Depending on what you read, Meghan Markle is either a strong, independent and blameless woman who’s become a victim of racist bullying, despised by the establishment because she didn’t fit the mould, or an opportunistic prima donna who was awful to the palace staff, contemptuous of Kate Middleton and whose modus operandi was to drive a wedge between Harry and his brother.The fact that the most likely reality is an awkward combination of both does not seem to have occurred to anyone, at least anyone who reads the papers, but I suppose the world is so much easier when we can view it in black and white.

Anyway. I watched one thread crumble into a horrendous argument between people who thought Prince Philip was a national treasure and people who thought he was a bigoted racist, and found myself wondering whether it was in fact possible to be both, and whether people’s faults do not eradicate their humanity; nor should their good qualities prevent us from addressing their flaws. No one is either fully good or fully evil, and Doctor Who fans should know this as well as anyone; still, it’s quite an eye-opener when social media reduces any sort of sensible conversation to an us-and-them slanging match where you’re either on one side or on the other, and as awkward as they are to read and moderate they do serve as a timely reminder that most people in the fandom aren’t nearly as enlightened as they’d like to think they are. It only takes the death of a contentious figure to bring out the ugliness in people, and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that while it’s not always possible to be kind, it is comparatively easy to at least be silent.

Anyway. There we were, mid-Saturday, wandering around Legoland (which we booked long before the prince shuffled off his mortal coil), me having completely ignored my own lesson about kindness when I was shouting at the kids to get ready at eight o’clock that morning, because “every minute we waste here is ten minutes in traffic”. I needn’t have bothered. For all my fears about gridlock and hordes of crowds lining streets they’d been instructed to avoid, the streets of Windsor were all but deserted, and it seems that for once people actually listened. Well, most of them.

“Oh,” I said, scanning the news. “There’s a topless woman been arrested outside Windsor Castle.”

Emily snorted. “Is it Barbara?”

“Too soon…”

They stuck the Legoland flags at half mast and apparently things went off without a hitch. I didn’t watch it. I didn’t even read about it. I don’t want to hear from body language experts and lip readers and disgraced butlers. Families get the right to grieve in private, even the ones we pay for. My father tells me they dropped the coffin into the floor so it could be taken down to the vault, which gave me the idea of being cremated at Blackpool Ballroom so that they could lower my coffin into the floor with the organist.

“At least you watched it,” I said. “Mum would have been pleased you watched it. You were never one for the pageantry.”

“Ah,” he said. “But no one does pageantry like the British.”

Which is probably true.

“You’re supposed to be holding a minute’s silence, not a minute Silence.”

Anyway. What do I do at times like this? I head over to Fireworks and do a bit of image manipulation. And for this I have ransacked – I admit with a certain amount of shame – the glossy photo special in the Daily Mail. Only now Prince Philip’s all over Doctor Who instead. Which is probably OK; I mean the Queen’s a fan.

I declare this thing open, whatever it is.

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Have I Got Whos For You (edition speciale)

Everybody enjoy the Bank Holiday weekend, then? Sally Sparrow did.


Before we go any further, I am saving the Prince Philip stuff. It’s coming later. In the meantime you will have to put up with pop culture instead, because I’ve gone through what I’ve collected for this morning and that seems to the be the common thread.

We start with Line of Duty – a show I have never watched, never intend to watch and hold absolutely no interest in, but even if you don’t tune in it’s hard to escape the buzz on social media. This last episode seems to have been all about killing off major characters and dropping in monumental cliffhangers about the identity of chief (heretofore unseen) villains, and how they might be related to people we know. I think. I mean I’ve not actually watched the damned thing. All I do know is that Ted Hastings has been trending for the last week, and it’s going to go through the roof if they actually kill him off.


Talking of Doctor Who (because that’s mostly how we roll) there’s a rumbling of intrigue from the fandom as they unveil the new trailer for The Suicide Squad, the upcoming sequel to 2016’s imaginatively titled Suicide Squad. I am trying to work out the logic behind this – it sounds a bit like releasing Empire Strikes Back under the name The Star Wars, as if dropping in a definite article is enough of a distinction. I mean aren’t people going to get confused? I know I already am, and I understand grammar.

Fun trivia: I once spent half an hour at a housewarming party listening to an argument between two roleplaying geeks who couldn’t agree on whether the first Star Wars film is called Star Wars or A New Hope. It was tremendously enjoyable to watch, although I still can’t remember how, or even if they resolved it. At least they weren’t arguing about Star Trek Into Darkness. We’d still be in that lounge.

Anyway, there’s been a fair amount of talk about Capaldi’s hair, or lack thereof, and it does seem that the Twelfth Doctor is imitating his style.

He looks like he’s got half a dozen screwdrivers embedded in his skull, which presumably happened after a particularly ferocious argument with River. Or maybe it’s a fetish thing. You pick. And with speed, please, because I’m now actually thinking about this instead of merely writing it down. Oh god.

Anyway. Speaking of Star Wars, the casting for the Obi Wan Kenobi spin-off looks absolute shit.

(I’d love to say I had a few people who thought this was real, but the sad truth is that they didn’t get it. I guess my sense of humour is just a little too vague sometimes.)

Easter interlude!

You won’t have failed to notice, if you were following international news a while back, that a boat got stuck in the Suez Canal, presumably as a result of a bet as to whether its helmsman could manage a three point turn. It was there for weeks as the authorities tried everything to loosen it, including rubbing a bit of WD-40 on the hull, but without success, as the world and its neighbours all came along to have a look.

“For the sixteenth time, we’re not blowing it up.”

More movie news, and the revelation that a familiar face is to reappear in the upcoming, much anticipated Ghostbusters: Afterlife has prompted Doctor Who fans to scour through old episodes to find out what he’s been doing all these years. And lo and behold.

Anyway. For me, after weeks of kicking around, this is ending on something of a brighter note – because lockdown is more or less done with, kind of. We still can’t stay anywhere, and when we visited Chessington yesterday the Gruffalo ride wasn’t open, but I may actually be able to go back to work soon – and at least I can go out on a Friday and visit somewhere that isn’t B&M. Along with, you know, just about everyone else in the country.

“Listen, I’d love to stay and chat, but Primark’s about to open.”

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The Smallerpictures Video Dump (2020-2021)

My YouTube channel quietly turned ten years old in January this year. I’d completely forgotten until I noticed the date. It all started because of a TV show that Emily and I had watched one evening, and which we decided to make a little less scary by adding Michael Crawford to the mix. So when John Hurt is bothered by rattling doors, self-moving furniture and things that generally go bump in the night, it’s because he’s got Frank Spencer standing outside in the corridor. If you’d really like to know more, you’re welcome to watch the video that started everything off, although personally I’d prefer it if you went straight to its remastered equivalent, which is considerably slicker on the editing front.

Anyway: I’m still producing video content, although I’ve slackened off a little of late to get this novel finished. But every so often an idea comes up, and every so often I’ll be sat at the keyboard, frantically moving frames, replacing dialogue and saving the thing every ten seconds in case my software crashes (which happens a lot, alas). And there’s still a channel and while it’s never going to reach Mr Beast’s level of popularity, I remain quite proud of the body of work I’ve accumulated over the last decade. Here’s some of the stuff I was working on last year.

1. What Did The Doctor See Outside The TARDIS? (August 2020)

When we look back at how we handled Covid, and the people who got us through it, then Pip Madeley is likely to be featured in the list of heroes. Pip is great – amusing, naturally talented and one of those fans who just gets it, realising that the best way to enjoy Doctor Who is to actually enjoy it, preferably without taking either the show or yourself too seriously. And it was with this attitude in mind, presumably, that he came up with an ongoing series that entertained us all during those first few months: namely ‘What are the Movellans watching whilst in lockdown‘?

There were tons of them. Stuck on that spaceship the Movellans have been watching Eastenders, old commercials (many of which starred Who alumni) and even the train wreck that was the 50th anniversary afterparty, specifically when Jo Wiley tried to talk to One Direction over a satellite link. There were things on there we’d never seen before, and a bunch of stuff we’d not seen in years, rendered all the more ridiculous when mixed with gaping stares and stunned silence. Pip followed it up with a series set in the Big Finish car park.

Anyway. Fast forward (or rewind; time is relative) back to August last year and a limited edition series that I launched over ten days, which saw Peter Capaldi reacting to a bunch of different things when he was looking for Gallifrey at the end of ‘Death In Heaven’. They were easy to do, once I had the template, and quite a lot of fun into the bargain; the toughest part was working out the optimal order in which to sequence them. The one I’ve embedded below basically sets the pattern, but if you really wanted to you could watch the whole thing on YouTube – that said I particularly recommend day four, day eight and, if you watch nothing else, day ten

2. The Lodger: Alternate Ending (October 2020)

Question. Can you take the scene where they’re running out of the flat-that’s-really-a-spaceship during the closing scenes of ‘The Lodger’ and splice it together with the bathtub descent in Paddington? Answer: no, you can’t. Not really. Not without looping the audio, which makes for a rather sloppy edit. But it had been ages since I’d done a video so it was the best I could manage at the time. In any event it gave a few people a few laughs, and that’s really only the ever reason why I do this.

3. The Handforth Parish Council Does Doctor Who (February 2021)

Well, this one exploded a bit.

My father worked as a clerk for a local council for some years, and he can testify as to the fact that what happened in Handforth – whilst going inexplicably viral early this year – is actually fairly typical for the sorts of things that go on at Parish Council gatherings, whether they’re happening in the flesh or online. There’s a kind of neutering effect to it. “It’s local politics, James,” he explained, “and many of the people who are involved wanted to be high-level politicans, but couldn’t, because other things got in the way, and so they have to test out all their high-scale dramas in small-scale meetings”.

It’s my view that no one comes out of the Handforth debacle smelling of roses – Jackie Weaver has been hailed the hero of the hour, and did the only thing she could under the circumstances, but the expelled councillor may nonetheless have been right to raise the objections that he did. Nonetheless the whole thing is wonderful to watch, whether it’s the misplaced order about standing orders (the remark on Jackie Weaver’s lack of authority has become the chief soundbite to be memed, but “READ THEM AND UNDERSTAND THEM!” has run a close second), the woman who forgets to mute herself while she answers the phone, or the whole disjointed pausing and talking over each other which is a staple part of every unedited Zoom call, but which in this case lent the whole sorry saga an extra layer of awkwardness.

This wasn’t the first Doctor Who video on the subject – nor was it necessarily the best – but I do think it more or less works. And while I’m not attributing its surge in popularity (at least by the standards of my usual hit count) as anything other than a general public fascination in all things Handforth, it was nice to get a hit count that made it out of double figures. If nothing else it’s an improvement on the original scene, which was dull as ditchwater. Plus Jackie Weaver gets to be a Dalek. What’s not to like about that?

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