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JAMES BOND and ME.

23 Feb

Last week I went on a journey into my teenage past. I watched the fourth Sean Connery/James Bond film: “You Only Live twice” on TV, made in 1967. I enjoyed the time travel immensely. It was a huge blast of sixties nostalgia. Yes, it was terribly dated, but that’s why I liked it so much. It was a product of its time and for me it summed up much that was exciting about that decade. This is especially so when I recall my first reaction to the early Bond films and subsequently to Ian Fleming’s spy novels that they were based on. They made a massive impact on the adolescent me.
The first 2 Bond films I saw were “Dr No” and “Goldfinger”, on a double bill at my local Odeon cinema. I was 15 at the time. Up to that point James Bond 007 and Ian Fleming had failed to make any significant impact upon me. I only went to the cinema that night to be with my mates. I was still largely an innocent, naïve child, living a quiet, sheltered life in a provincial town. Up to that point the highlight of my family’s life had been the weekly visit to the Methodist Sunday School and evening service at the chapel. But now, as my adolescent hormones started to kick in, I felt hungry for something different. Already, listening to pop music and watching football had caused more than a few ripples on the surface of my safe but mundane existence. Now, in one electrifying evening at the “flics” I was blasted into an adult world of: danger, suspense, thrills and spills, modern technology, politics, crime, foreign travel, exotic locations, glamour, girls and sex.( well strong hints of it anyway.) That’s no mean achievement for just 3 hours entertainment! My imagination was fired and suddenly life seemed to be full of enthralling possibilities.( even though many of them were to remain mere fantasies and I eventually became a teacher, not a spy.)) Life was no longer the boring, insular existence that I had thought it to be. The Bond films and novels were classic pieces of escapism and they exploded into my life at exactly the right moment — when I was just starting to feel trapped and in a rut. OK — one can criticise them now for their: casual violence, crude sexism and racial stereotyping, but, to the 15 year old version of me, never having had a girlfriend, never having travelled abroad, never having taken a risk or made any forays into the unknown, they represented tremendous EXCITEMENT.
So I went to see all the Bond films of the 60’s ( up to “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971) and devoured all the novels and short stories, published by Pan in their cheap paperback form from the local market. They immersed me in an intriguing alternative world, almost a parallel universe compared to my everyday existence. Of course the violence and sex fascinated me, even though Fleming and the film’s producers were masters of the dot, dot, dot. Today, it all seems tame compared to what can be witnessed in many films or books. The violence, including killing, is sanitised, with little blood or drawn out suffering. “Sex” consists mainly of a bit of kissing but the context leaves plenty of opportunity for the imagination to take off. Tame it may seem, but at the time it opened my eyes to a world previously unseen and largely unimagined. On top of this agent 007 also introduced me to: espionage, international relations, the “Cold War”, the “Space Race”, modern technology, gambling, card games, fast cars, smoking ( though I never indulged), drinking and foreign cultures. Fleming’s books were not flat- out action thrillers, consisting mostly of car chases, fights, murders and explosions, like many of the more recent Bond films. Instead they often took their time to describe a sophisticated meal, an exotic cocktail or a complicated card game. They were also set in colourful locations, far away from the grey, damp cold of the austerity Britain of the 1950’s, the era when the first ones were written. Fleming wrote “Casino Royale” in 1952 when rationing in Britain was still a grim, post-war reality and “make do and mend” was still the motto of many. However he set it mainly on the French Riviera and wrote it in his tropical Jamaican retreat: “Goldeneye.” So from the start James Bond represented exoticism and escapism. Later books were to take his readers on armchair excursions to: Turkey and the Balkans ( “From Russia With Love”), Switzerland and the United States (“Goldfinger”), Haiti ( “Live and Let Die”), and Japan ( “You Only Live Twice”), to name but a few. In the film of “You Only Live Twice”, the one I recently viewed again, we see traditional Japanese costumes, ritualistic tea drinking, oriental massage, martial arts demonstrations and a prolonged village wedding ceremony. It’s not all frantic action. In “Live and let Die”, Fleming provides a long discussion about voodoo. It’s not all: crash, bang, wallop or wham, bam, thank-you maam! So, for me at 15, 16 17 and 18, James Bond was an educational, mind-opening experience as well as an adrenaline- filled adventure. Unfortunately in the books and the early films we get a strong whiff of the author’s rather unpleasant chauvinism towards other races as well as towards women. There are also homophobic passages which are unacceptable to the modern reader but which belonged to their time as homosexuality was still a crime in Britain up to 1967. Good or bad though, acceptable or unacceptable, all these Bond novel themes opened up important issues for me and provided valuable food for thought whether I agreed with Fleming/Bond or not. They instigated many a debate in my mind. For my adolescent self they were a godsend, providing hours of educational diversion as well as pure escapism.
As I saw the early films before I dipped into the books, James Bond has always meant Sean Connery for me.( I don’t count the comic film version of “Casino Royale” played by David Nivien.) As I read the novels, Connery provided the picture in my mind whenever “Bond” was mentioned. He seemed a perfect fit — strong, tall, muscular but also graceful and charming. People commented on his easy, laconic manner, sense of humour and supple movement. I believe my female friends when they tell me that the 1960’s Connery oozed sexual charisma. Despite his rough working class upbringing in Scotland he also skilfully portrayed the sophistication and upper class snobbery of Fleming’s character.( based partly upon Fleming himself.) Apparently, Ian Fleming did not immediately approve of the choice of Connery, as he didn’t match the character imagined in his head. However he was quickly converted and in a later book, ” On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, he even wrote a potted Scottish/ Swiss biography that approximately matched Connery’s own. Fleming admitted that he had Sean Connery in his mind when he wrote his later Bond stories. He even made Bond slightly less cold and cruel in response to Connery’s injection of warmth and humour into the character in those early films. Thus the film company had a big problem when Connery tired of the role even though it had given him tremendous fame and success. After “Dr No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger and “Thunderball”, Connery had to be persuaded to reprise the role in “You Only Live Twice” in 1967. He had ambition to be a more serious actor and did not want to end up being type-cast. However the experiment with George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was a disappointment for many because of his lack of any acting ability and the wooden deliverance of his lines. Lazenby’s only previous claim to fame was being a model and appearing as the “Big Fry man” in the TV chocolate adverts. This was hardly much of a recommendation. It was hoped that his looks and muscularity would carry the day, but they didn’t! Lazenby also didn’t get on with Terence Hunt, the director and announced he would step down from the role even before the film was released. To me, it was a good adventure film which suffered because of the disappearance of Connery. This was not poor Lazenby’s fault. He might have even grown into the role if he had stuck around a bit longer. But he didn’t. So it was that Connery was persuaded to return to do “Diamonds are Forever” in 1971. To most of us Bond fans it was as if the real James Bond had returned to vanquish the imposter. Then however, Connery really did relinquish the role apart from an “unofficial”. off-franchise return in the early 1980’s in the non- Fleming story ” Never Say Never Again”. He probably needed the cash boost and the title is obviously a joke based on his broken resolution. By then however, Roger Moore was well established in the official role and to many younger people he was the “real” James Bond.
I have never accepted Roger Moore as James Bond, even though he was considered for the film role before Sean Connery. At the time Moore was too busy with his TV adventurer role “The Saint”. He didn’t land the part until 10 years later. I refused to go and see his Bond films but have watched bits of them on TV in the subsequent years. I find it difficult to take him seriously as an actor. He is very wooden and unconvincing. He copied Connery’s sense of humour in the role but played it as if the whole story was a joke rather than a serious thriller lightened by occasional humour. Anyway, by the 70’s when Moore took over the role, I was no longer a teenage fantasist. I was now married, in a full time job and from 1973, a father. You could say I had grown up and grown out of James Bond.
The whole James Bond thing has now become a money-spinning franchise. Ian Fleming died in 1964 but his most famous creation lived on, creating a life of its own. The main motivation for all this seems to be to make money. I believe it the second most lucrative film franchise of all time ( after Harry Potter.) The Fleming family and estate have commissioned several different authors to write subsequent Bond books and keep the money flowing in. Similarly the film producers didn’t stop once they had run out of original Fleming stories. They commissioned new script writers and kept raking in the profits. This lucrative franchise is still running of course and there seems no end to it. There have now been 25 different Bond films involving 7 actors in the lead role. Bond’s controller at MI6, “M”, has now changed from a man ( Bernard Lee) to a woman ( Judy Dench). That wouldn’t have happened in the sexist, pre-feminist 50’s and 60’s. I have found reasons to dislike and reject most of the “imposter” Bonds. Roger Moore- too wooden; Timothy Dalton — too short; Daniel Craig — also too short, too fair and with more than a hint of cauliflower ears! David Niven, back in the 50’s was too old and too jokey. I quite liked the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan . I went to his Bond movies in the 90’s when I was taking my own teenage son on cinema trips. Brosnan certainly looked the part and was a decent actor. However, I have largely remained a Sean Connery purist and have little or no interest in stories not written by Ian Fleming. James Bond is not like silly Dr Who. He cannot magically reincarnate himself just to suit the needs of the TV or film company. For me, James Bond belongs to the 1950’s and 60’s, the era in which he was created and in which his original stories are set. I feel it has been a mistake to have turned him into a Peter Pan like time- traveller, totally cut off from his roots. ( Except that the people who have done this are a lot richer than I ever will be.)
I feel it’s just plain greedy and silly to just keep continuing with a franchise which artistically, culturally and historically, has far out-lived its sell-by date. The current films have been reduced to formulaic action movies. What were once fresh ideas ( technological gadgetry, exotic locations, dramatic combat, glamorous seduction) are now so routine as to be stale clichés.
I suppose the biggest reason why I have been turned off the post- Connery Bond films is that I am not a hormone-charged, impressionable adolescent anymore. Sadly I have grown up and it takes a lot more than car-chases, spectacular explosions and glamorous women to get me interested in a film nowadays. I now expect a good, deep, interesting plot, authentic dialogue, realistic locations and skilled acting to draw me into a film. James Bond doesn’t do it for me anymore. But I do admit to more than a frisson of excitement when a be-suited 007 suddenly swung round, raised his Walther PPK and fired a single shot out of my TV, the screen quickly filling up with blood. Then came the deep bass guitar strings and strident, screaming brass of John Barry’s theme tune, followed by the dulcet tones of Nancy Sinatra singing : “You only live twice, or so it seems, one life for yourself and one for your dreams.” Suddenly I was back in the 60’s, where James Bond belongs. For 90 minutes it was great to be a teenager again!

WHY IS MURDER SUCH FUN?

25 Sep

Next year, 2014, we will be commemorating the centenary of the First World War. Most commentators agree that it was a terrible waste of millions of lives on both sides of the conflict. It was war on an unprecedented industrial scale. Some claim, with justification that the mass slaughter and destruction that ensued was nothing less than a catastrophe.
One would think that after such a horrific event, lessons would have been learnt and the powers that be would have made sure that it was never repeated. After all, wasn’t this supposed to be “the war to end all wars”? Yet the League of Nations failed in it’s efforts to replace fighting with talking, and just 20 years after the treaty that ended the First World War, the Second World War broke out. It was really the First World War, part 2, as the losers of the first conflict sought to get their own back on the winners and alleviate their grievances. If it had been on the big screen ( as it was many times, later), World War 2 would have had all the ingredients of a classic revenge movie. So, another nightmare ensued with millions more lives wasted in the new slaughter and all that capped by the horrors of the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Concentration camps.
Surely this double dose of death and suffering would have put the human race off war for ever? Unfortunately, surprisingly and shockingly, the wars have kept coming. The United Nations has proved just as weak and ineffective as its predecessor the League in preventing conflict and preserving peace. What is wrong with people? Why is brutality and murder still seen as the main “solution” to our problems and disputes, rather than negotiation and arbitration? I hate to suggest this, but could it be that instead of abhorring and denouncing violence, many of us are actually fascinated, or even mesmerised by it?
Even a casual look at our entertainment industry reveals that much of it is steeped in violence. I don’t play video games but cannot help noticing that many of them involve simulated killing. This industry generated sales of £42billion in 2012, and many of its games are based on violent scenarios where one is: at war, committing a crime or hunting down criminals. New releases of such games often attract massive, midnight queues. “Grand Theft Auto V” for instance, sold £500 million worth of copies in one day, vindicating one reviewers confident prediction that ” this game will sell by the blood-filled bucket load.” I don’t know about you, but I find this very depressing. The player, poising as a ruthless criminal, has to execute up to 6 large, armed heists employing: “melee attacks” ( whatever they are), firearms, weapons and explosives to fight enemies. The names of other popular games — “Call of Duty”, “Killzone” and “Battlefield” — reveal their violent and warlike content. Not much recollection of the tragedy of war here. I wonder if any of the players pause, in the midst of their simulated killing spree, to reflect on the mass slaughter and suffering of the two World Wars or their successors in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Congo and the rest?
The American Psychological Association has concluded that violent video games are significantly associated with “increased aggressive behaviour and thoughts.” Critics claim that they desensitise players to violence, reward players for simulating violence and teach children that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. They seem to have a very strong case. Those who defend the games say they are an important safety valve for natural aggression. However, even this argument seems to admit that violence is an inherent part of human nature and the debate is about how we deal with it.
The video games industry boasts that it is eclipsing the cinema in terms of revenue and participation figures. Cinema in turn seems to be aping the violent nature of its rival. Increasingly we are presented with so-called “Blockbusters.” Plot, proper characterisation, meaningful dialogue and good acting are sacrificed to make way for: fights, battles, murders, car chases and explosions on an increasingly epic scale. Steven Spielberg has recently complained that subtlety and sophistication in film making is giving way to spectacle and action as Hollywood courts the popularity of video games. Modern film makers often present violence as an acceptable and “normal” form of entertainment. The James Bond franchise ( now little to do with Ian Fleming), is a prime example of this trend. I remember one reviewer commenting with apparent approval, that in “Casino Royale”, a film praised for its more gritty realism, Bond ( Daniel Craig) has to change his white tuxedo after the killing spree of the opening scene, because it is drenched in blood. I am repelled by such films especially as they are presented as light, “escapist” entertainment. I don’t mind violence when it is presented in a proper context and in a film trying to get across a serious message such as “Schindler’s List”. However as far as the Bond Films, the “Die-hard” films, the Jack Reacher films and the rest, I am in the minority by a long way, judging by their takings at the box office.
One notable director, famous for his use of violence as entertainment is Quenton Tarantino. His last film ” Django Unchained”, highly praised as presenting a new angle on the subject of slavery in America, is largely about a black, bounty hunter murdering one person after another in graphic detail on the big screen. One reviewer noted that whenever Django had a problem, he solved it by killing someone. What type of message does that give out to impressionable young people? This film was watched and enjoyed by millions and was actually nominated for an Oscar. It seems that acts of violence, so terrible when they occur in real life, are accepted on screen as an entertaining diversion.
I went to see a Tarantino film once. In the 1990’s his “Reservoir Dogs” was regarded as a cult movie, constantly brought back to my local arts cinema in Newcastle by popular request, and playing to packed houses. It’s about an armed bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. I got carried away by all the hype and went along to find out what all the fuss was about. After about half an hour I started to experience an increasingly loud buzzing sound in my ears. I had a dry feeling in the back of my throat and then began to feel nauseous. I could then hear my heart thudding loudly. This was my body’s reaction to the sickening scene of drawn-out sadism that was happening in front of me. Nobody else seemed to be affected — they all carried on eating their crisps or passing around the sweet packets, while at the same time being glued to the screen. I had already endured a robber half bleeding to death but now I was witnessing a tense and nasty torture scene. A policeman had been captured and tied up in a chair. He was now being threatened and taunted by a psychopath wielding a long cut-throat razor, who was apparently preparing to slice off his ear. I never found out what happened, because, unable to stand it any longer, I walked out. I’d decided that such bloodthirsty sadism was not my idea of a Saturday night’s entertainment. However, the rest of the audience remained engrossed and I later got into trouble with my girlfriend for spoiling her evening!
I remember the uproar caused by the shockingly violent climax of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” in the late 1960’s. The protagonists are strafed with a prolonged burst of machine gun fire. We see bullets ripping into their flesh in horrific slow motion and their bodies contorting into grotesque shapes. Many people walked out, some were sick and many others protested or boycotted it. I watched what was actually a very good film in my opinion, and survived the ending even though it was pretty shocking. Other films of the late 60’s and early 70’s such as “The Wild Bunch”, “Straw Dogs” and “Soldier Blue” all courted controversy because of their scenes of extreme violence. They were generally seen by film critics though, as signs of a welcome relaxation of censorship. This time the reviews were enough to warn me off. It was not my idea of enjoyment. Another famously violent film of that era was Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. It was actually withdrawn from public release by the director himself because of all the controversy. I watched it at the time and stuck it out as I knew it had a serious message to transmit. However, I recall being disturbed by the scene of a violent gang of youths stylistically beating up an old couple in their own home to the music of Beethovan. I also remember a tramp being savagely beaten. I don’t think the more sensitive, older version of myself would enjoy watching such scenes today.
Well, over 50 years has passed since those controversies, and graphic horror and violence on the big screen is now commonplace. It’s almost regarded as “normal”. Audiences don’t walk out. Nobody is sick in the aisle. Violence has now become a staple of mainstream, cinematic entertainment. Describing what he considered to be a funny scene in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” ( Jewish hit men hunting down and killing Nazis), a friend of mine concluded with the phrase:” and then the usual mayhem broke out.” What he meant was a horrifying scene ensued, in which we see people being maimed and murdered. He was so casual about this that I realised that violence is not only accepted but expected these days. Audiences feel short-changed if it doesn’t occur. They should have been pleased with this one as I believe Tarantino appeared in it himself — as a scalped Nazi!
I am not trying to claim that violence on film or in a video game necessarily leads to violent behaviour in real life, although I believe there is a distinct possibility of such a cross-over. All I’m trying to highlight is the massive irony: that society condemns loss of life in wars, terrorist attacks or mass shootings by “lone gunmen”, yet, simultaneously laps- up similar scenes of carnage and brutality as a form of light relief.
In literature and television we get more, much more of the same. The British public seem to have an insatiable desire for murder mysteries both on the page and on the screen. Crime novels, often including gruesome murders, make up a huge and extremely popular genre of literature. Every bookshop has a large dedicated section to it. Writers of murder mysteries such as: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, P D James, Ruth Rendall, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin and many others, entertain their readers with their idiosyncratic detectives, convoluted plots, lists of colourful suspects, red herrings and puzzling clues. They vary enormously but the one sure thing in all of these novels is that there will be a murder ( or murders) in their early chapters. Imagine how disappointed their fans would be if no character was killed! The message here is that murders are fun, providing a rich source of pleasure and distraction.
TV programmes, such as “Murder She Wrote” and “Midsomer Murders” have capitalised on the popularity of these whodunnits and reproduced them on screen. I have watched some myself such as Peter Falk’s shambling detective “Columbo” and the Danish crime thriller “The Killing”. I’m not trying to claim the moral high ground here. I often get sucked in. But I’m unable to stomach one after the other. There is even a best-selling board game “Cluedo” ( which I have played many times), which is structured around an Agatha Christie-style country house murder. I wonder how many children playing “Cluedo” actually imagine crushing Miss Scarlett’s skull with the lead piping or stabbing Colonel Mustard in the back? It’s all good “fun” but it’s underpinned by the premise of violence.
I’ve lost count of the number of murder mysteries that have appeared on the British TV screens just this year. Some such as “New Tricks” ( currently BBC 1’s most popular programme), are fairly superficial with the actual violence sanitised or edited out. Others make a point of revelling in the horror, the terror and the shocking details of the murder. In recent months, audiences have been treated to: a serial killer in Northern Ireland sadistically taunting his victims as well as the police ( “The Fall”), an investigation into a dead, desiccated woman who had been left mouldering in an attic for 2 years ( “What Remains”), a man stabbed to death in a dark alley outside a Newcastle night club ( “Vera”), another deranged serial killer terrorising a seaside town ( “Whitecliffe”), a town torn apart by the murder of a teenager ( “Broadchurch”) and so on and so forth. The list is endless. There is even a dedicated TV channel to murder mysteries — “Alibi.” It presents around 19 murders a day, 7 days a week. Where has this voracious appetite for death come from? I have no answer, except to say that human beings are clearly a very violent species, much as they pretend not to be. History shows this very clearly.
Our past is dominated by wars, executions, murders and torture. You don’t need me to list them all. Just recently we have all been rightly appalled by : The Boston Marathon Bombing, the American School shootings and the Kenyan shopping- mall massacre. Yet similar violence is endemic in mainstream entertainment. This entertainment factor is not a new phenomenon. Until about 1870, crowds gathered on London’s Tyburn Hill to watch and revel in public executions. It was possibly when state killings stopped taking place in public, that lurid crime stories in pamphlets and novels began to become very popular. People didn’t want to be denied their regular dose of blood and death. In an earlier age King Charles I was beheaded before a vast crowd in front of Whitehall Palace. ( in January, 1649.) As the gory, severed head of the former king was held up, many surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs in royal blood in order to have a souvenir.
Yes, history saturated in blood but so, sadly is our world of entertainment. Watching the occasional good quality crime drama is fine of course, but I think this constant, relentless obsession with violence and death is pretty disturbing. I certainly don’t regard it as normal. Why do so many people regard murder as fun?

What’s Wrong With Thinking?

14 Oct

Everyone has his or her own opinion about what constitutes “rubbish.” This especially applies to an opinionated person like yours truly. Why do you think I write a blog? We can all more or less agree what to throw in the waste-bin, but viewpoints wildly differ about what is good, bad or indifferent in the world of culture, be it music, literature, drama, art or whatever. One man’s “load of rubbish” is another man’s masterpeice. The Tate Modern’s famous “pile of bricks” or Tracy Emin’s unmade bed with condoms, spring to mind. Yes, it’s simply a matter of personal taste. I love the Impressionists, the Expressionists and the Secessionists — in fact anything ending in “ist” seems to do the trick for me. Just joking of course. I also like the Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt.

  When an aquaintance at a party described her experience at a Take That concert as “awesome”, I was convinced that she was  about to say “awful”, which is my opinion of that pathetic, middle-aged, “boy” band. I would reserve the over-used term “awesome” for a 3 hour gig by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band or an evening with the exquisite Mary Chapin Carpenter or any concert by David Byrne, with or without his Talking Heads. We both produced, faint embarrassed smiles to cover the obvious gulf between our musical tastes. It’s just part of being human. We all make our differing choices and clashes of opinions abound. It’s healthy. For instance, phenomenal sales would indicate that E L James’s ” Fifty Shades of Grey” is a great novel, but for many others, including myself, it might as well be called ” Fifty Shades of Cr-p.” What’s wrong with reading something by: David Mitchell, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler or any number of subtle, intelligent modern novelists? Come to think of it why aren’t Tolstoy or Dickens near the top of the best-seller lists?

  I’m actually pleased that I am judgemental to a certain extent because it means that I am actively employing my brain to form a reasoned judgement about something, rather than just following the tide of hype. I’m proud to be a human-being and not a sheep. In the same vein, I’m not getting excited about J K Rowling’s first “adult” novel. That description gives the game away that her much vaunted Harry Potter series was really just for impressionable kids. I found them : obvious, formulaic, derivative, gimmicky and thus boring. I had to read one in order to “teach” it to my English set. They got bored too, maybe sensing my lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t waste my time with the rest or with the equally gimmick-ridden films with their heavy reliance on special effects to cover up the banality of the plot. Maybe J K’s new work could be re-named ” The Emperor’s New Clothes” as, in my opinion, that would neatly sum up her literary career so far.

  So we all have our opinions about what is good and what is rubbish unless one is merely wanting to go with the crowd and always agree with the majority. However, what really intrigues me is that, particularly in the world of television, increasing numbers of people seem to be deliberately choosing to indulge in “rubbish.” Is this part of the oft quoted “dumbing down” of our society, especially in the world of entertainment?

  One of my Facebook “friends”, a well-respected ex-colleague, actually announced this preference for rubbish on her status update. She wrote — “Well that’s the walk over, now time to watch some rubbish on daytime TV” ( or words to that effect.) When I naively asked her why she deliberately chose to watch rubbish, her reply was brilliantly succinct:- ” Switch brain off!” Is this a different approach to entertainment  ie– allowing it to turn you OFF rather than turn you ON?

  I consider myself entertained if my brain is stimulated and engaged. I like to be presented with something that is: clever, interesting, funny, ironic, thought-provoking, surprising, even challenging. I love nothing better than when someone or something plants a new idea into my mind, something that increases my understanding and appreciation of life and of the world I live in. That’s what entertains and satisfies me — the opportunity to switch my brain on and develop it in some way. If, on the other hand, I was presented with something that was : obvious, trivial, cliched, pedestrian , stilted or unoriginal, then I would feel that my time was being wasted and/or my intelligence insulted! That’s why, for instance, I shall be reading my book tonight instead of watching the contrived, safe and predictable shenanigans at “Downton Abbey” on ITV. My wife Chris ackowledged in series 2 that Downton was mostly rubbish. Some of the plot developments were farcical apparently. Yet she and millions of others are now glued to the screen for series 3. It is one of the most popular dramas on current TV despite being regularly derided by the critics. The Guardian man compared it with Classic FM, probably meaning entertainment that is provided in easily digestible chunks and not presenting much of an intellectual challenge. My daughter Catherine commented that it is a great programme for multi- tasking to. In other words, you don’t have to concentrate very hard to follow it and understand the characters. It seems to be a dramatic equivalent of easy-listening, MOR music. It fills in the background and helps one to relax. The comparison with Classic FM is appropriate as this very popular radio station  just plays digestible extracts from the most popular classical pieces, much easier to cope with than listening to all 4 movements of a symphony or concentrating throughout a whole opera. This in turn may help to explain the decline of the album in favour of the random i-pod shuffle. Could it be that many people are now just not willing to concentrate for very long anymore and are not particularly keen at working their brains? Being an ex school teacher this trend is obviously anathema to me. Watching cardboard-cutout characters( eg The stiff upper lipped, deferential butler, the fiesty Dowager or the headstrung young Lady) and following predictable plotlines is not my notion of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. My idea of a good gripping drama is the Danish thriller ” The Killing ” or the brilliant American series “The Wire”, both of which presented in-depth, multi-dimensional pictures of the societies they were set and lots of food for thought. Now that’s entertainment!

  Perhaps the main attraction of “mediocre” programmes is that they do NOT provide any intellectual challenge, allowing one’s over-active brain to take a break. One can view them with one’s brain largely disengaged. In fact, the very act of watching may well help push the switch into the off position. A younger- generation relative recently announced that she needed to watch some rubbish as she wished to relax before returning to work the next morning. I have also known people who have watched endless repeats of “Come Dine With Me” or “Location, Location” in order to switch off or zone-out. Maybe Reality TV, Daytime TV or  trashy “page-turning” novels ( sometimes known as beach or airport reads), serve the same broad function of alchohol. They help to obliterate the tedium of everyday existance. They also provide a temporary escape from the stresses and pressures of modern life. Post war Hollywood musicals and rom-coms served much the same function in 1940’s and 50’s cinemas, except that Doris Day or Katherine Hepburn had just a touch more class than Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell. ( in my opinion.)

  I know it’s very important to relax or chill, as they say. I usually do so by listening to some soothing music, going for a stroll or having a nap. I have also always wanted to try out meditation or have more than the occasional massage. A relaxed meal with family and/or friends is also very calming. But when it comes to literature, art, TV, film etc , I like to be be stimulated. Just as I avoid junk food I also avoid junk entertainment. I could never deliberately watch ” rubbish” in order to switch my mental faculties off. That would go against the grain. I spent my entire  career encouraging young people to actively exercise their brains! So, for much of my spare time, I prefer to be challenged and stimulated. As another friend commented: ” What’s wrong with thinking?” In my view, life is far too short to consciously waste it on self-acknowledged garbage. But then again — it’s all a matter of opinion!