Daily Archives: 01/04/2015

“Travel Man” in Barcelona: Channel 4 Sacrifices a Great Idea on the Altar of Cheap Laughs

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Ayoade and his self-adoring comedy face


Barcelona
is a city I love and have visited frequently, my passion for the place surviving even my witnessing of a 4-0 massacre suffered by my beloved Leeds United. This explains the enthusiasm I felt for this Travel Man series opener – and also my deep sense of frustration and annoyance, having endured an hour of irritating ego-tripping and hopefully-funny silliness masquerading as an informative travel programme. Never have I started to watch a TV offering with a greater sense of anticipatory relish – only to end up feeling I’d have been better employed and more fulfilled eating a plateful of dried locusts.

The two presenters – Richard Ayoade and Kathy Burke – promised much initially, but fell woefully short of their supposed brief. This was, ostensibly, to sum up the attractions of a vibrant and wonderful city and maybe have a few laughs along the way. Ayoade, best-known (though not by me) as a presenter of a gadget show called The IT Crowd, was culprit in chief for what I count as this show’s failure. The premise in Travel Man is that “Richard hates travel and holidays – so what will he make of 48 hours away from home?” Sadly, all else was subordinate to this contrived central message, which Adoyade proceeded relentlessly to hammer home in the most unsubtle way imaginable. It was my first taste of his – for want of a better word – style; I shall not be putting myself out to repeat the experience.

From early in the piece, it was clear that Travel Man was to be the vehicle whereby Ayoade might reach a wider audience and give them the benefit of what he fondly imagines is his laconic and laid-back presentational personality. The dreaded “comedy voice” was a frequent intruder into his narrative; that annoying way of introducing ironic quotation marks by vocal inflection, so that the listener will (hopefully) be inescapably aware that here is a windswept and interesting cynic with an edgy and alternative view on pretty much everything he sees. Some people can carry this off and even make some decent entertainment out of it; Ayoade, on this depressing evidence, patently can’t.

In contrast to my zero prior knowledge of Ayoade, Kathy Burke is a performer I’ve always liked and rated – but here, she was drawn into a teeth-curling attempt to create an unlikely comic double-act. Everything of substance was sacrificed in the effort to get as much ironic comedy as possible – frankly, not a lot – out of this incongruous pairing. Whatever the lure of Barcelona’s many and varied points of interest, it all had to be about Richard Ayoade and his reactions to whatever he saw; a self-indulgent and subjective take on each too-hurried item with the twitchily uncomfortable Ms Burke doing her best to play up to her colleague’s self-adoration.

Thus, in the interests of establishing the desired laugh-a-minute feel to the thing, there was an awkward “Ooh, we have to share a hotel suite” moment with Ms Burke seeming to fear some unlikely molestation from her clearly aloof partner in crime; then there was some cringe-worthy banter at the Nou Camp football stadium, magnificent home of CF Barcelona – where Ayoade was at some pains to demonstrate his effete apathy towards the Beautiful Game – and next some frankly repulsive emetic slapstick in a restaurant, to the bemusement of the admirably patient, polite and professional staff. Burke is a highly capable performer, but she was rather dragged down to the level of her colleague, who was clearly preoccupied with projecting his individual personality over the whole undertaking.

So, instead of being treated to Barcelona’s panoply of vivid beauty and unique art, we got a series of laboriously ponderous set-ups culminating in yet another of Ayoade’s hopefully-cutting one-liners – drawled and mannered punchlines that invariably failed to be even a fraction as devastating as they were clearly intended to be. It was bitterly disappointing fare, and Burke did well to hide the embarrassment she must surely have felt. Perhaps she will reflect that, as an accomplished comedienne, she should not be wasting her time playing stooge to a partner who should have stayed at home surrounded by his gadgets – rather than stepping so far out of that comfort zone into the pitiless and unforgiving arena of comedy.

The victim in all of this squalid waste of time and opportunity – apart from the hapless viewer, sat seething with all hopes dashed – is of course the city of Barcelona itself. A feature-length programme could hardly do justice to its many attractions: the beauty and individuality of its Gaudi-dominated architecture; the culture that shines dazzlingly out of every sunlit surface; the cuisine, the sport, the history. It’s all there in one precious jewel of a city, just waiting to be described and marvelled over. But, disgracefully, we got none of that – in fact it is sadly fair to say that by far the most informative aspects of the whole production were the occasional graphics which flashed up, telling us the price of this or that and highlighting one or other sight worth seeing. Meanwhile, Ayoade and Burke were tenaciously flogging away at the dead horse of their joint comedic potential; it was grisly, unrewarding viewing.

What we did learn is that Richard Ayoade loves Richard Ayoade, and is keen to share that passion with a broader interest group than his usual audience of geeks – but that he is guilty of the cardinal sin of any wannabe comedian: that of forgetting to be funny. And we also learned that Kathy Burke, when handed lemons, will do her solid best to make lemonade, bless her. On this occasion, though, she should have thrown those lemons at her partner’s smug countenance – and hopped straight back on the train home. If she had – then maybe I and doubtless thousands of others might have been spared the empty disappointment felt after a production, that could have achieved so much, ended up delivering nothing but resentment. The knowledge that there went an hour of my life I’m never going to get back left me wondering what the effortlessly authoritative Michael Portillo might have done with such a nugget of a travel show idea. He could not, let’s face it, have been worse – and you just know that he’d have been far, far better – by an order of several hundred magnitudes.

This series will tragically continue with what we might dolefully expect to be a similar treatment of Istanbul, but it won’t have me for company. My advice is to stay at home instead of being tempted to go along for the ride and, with all due deference to Richard Ayoade’s forcefully-professed and overtly squeamish dislike of muddied oafs – see if there’s any football on.

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What Can We Do When “Just Ignore a Loudmouth” Is No Longer an Option? – by Rob Atkinson

Hopkins: all mouth and no brain

Hopkins: all mouth, dodgy eyebrows and no brain

This article first appeared in slightly different form, and under a slightly different title, in the Huffington Post on Tuesday 31 March 2015. 

As Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything is only too well aware, there are certain well-worn theories about the best approach when faced with persistently offensive loud-mouth types. “Just ignore them” is one – the idea being that, starved of the oxygen of attention, they will simply fade away, snuffed out as easily as a guttering flame. Anyone who blogs as much as I do about Leeds United knows to their cost that these motor-mouth types are out there, reading every word, waiting to pounce. Some are Leeds fans, some are not; some pretend to be, just for the sake of being a thorn in the poor, innocent blogger’s side – surely the lowest of the low. Fortunately for me, I can simply push the spam button and, lo – they are silenced, their time wasted. Lovely. But, in the wider world – what do you do about a pain, a nuisance: one that is just everywhere and simply won’t shut up??

Arguing with these serial jaw-wobblers is pointless – especially when they have already achieved a certain level of public notoriety. Given that platform, they become almost immune to the slings and arrows of the outraged unfortunates who lack such a public voice. From their artificially-elevated pedestal of popular infamy, they are able to speak without having to bother all that much about listening to another point of view. You do get pests on here, but it has lately been borne in upon me that the problem out there in the big bad world is much more acute than the mere pinpricks of irritation I sometimes feel as a Leeds United blogger.

I’m talking here about the type that has two ears and one mouth, but uses these vital organs in an inverse proportion – far preferring the sound of their own noise to anything anyone else might have to say. And, more specifically, I’m talking about the sharp (if not particularly acute) end of that group of people – the ones who feel free to express themselves in lavishly offensive terms, insulting anyone they feel like insulting with gay abandon. To refine it yet further, I’m talking about those who use terms that skirt dangerously close to and sometimes even cross that perimeter of the law that concerns itself with hate speech. And, ultimately, I’m talking about one person in particular who has used a public failure to gain her own industrial-strength virtual megaphone, the better to pollute the ether – and further sully the gutter-end of the press – with some of the rankest and most offensive views we have heard outside of the House of Commons. Yes, indeed. I am talking about Katie Hopkins.

So what can we do about Katie? Katie the failed “Apprentice”, Katie the Met Office drop-out, Katie the shameless ‘media-tart’ – loathe her or hate her, you cannot deny that she is an assiduous placer of irons in her own particular fire. The trouble with la Hopkins is that – having clung on to the coat-tails of “S’rAlan” long enough to make her distinctive mug instantly recognisable in public, but having jumped off the Lord Sugar rocket-ride just before she could be sacked – she is vested automatically with a fund of fame and the platform that unfortunately goes with it. For someone as frankly gobby as Katie, the opportunity was there, finally, to capitalise on that gobbiness – and boy, oh boy, has she ever capitalised.

That alone would of course be no great sin – there is even the possibility that there could be some ongoing entertainment value. But the trouble with Katie is that she’s simply not very good at expressing herself in a subtle way. Not for her the sly punches, craftily-aimed, slipping under some target’s guard and leaving them dazed, bewildered and out on their feet. Nope – Katie’s weapon of choice is the ten-pound metaphorical mallet, which she wields against one and all, indiscriminately and in broad daylight – concerned only with increasing the level of her public profile. Where a proper journalist or columnist might employ satire, use hyperbole, perhaps – or simply slide the literary knife between the victim’s ribs so subtly that hardly any warning pain results – Katie just gaily blunders in, swinging that bloody mallet. Then, with a grossly personal insult, a gratuitously discriminatory blast, a complete disregard for taste and tact – or just anything that will ensure that the name of Katie Hopkins gets right out there again, to her immense satisfaction and personal gain – she chalks up another little mark of shame and infamy.

The latest in an alarmingly long catalogue of her crassly ignorant comments is to point out that Justine Miliband is “the least popular of party wives” – then going on to observe that husband Ed, himself of Jewish extraction, might want to “stick her head in the oven and turn on the gas”. It’s not easy to do much, having just read that, other than gape and gesture feebly while you try to collect your scattered wits. You think – has she really just said that? It’s the kind of thing you have to read a third and maybe a fourth time, convinced you must somehow have misunderstood it. But no – it’s just as you see it. Astounding, repulsive. And it’s not as if it’s anything like her first offence. You see, Katie has serious form for this sort of thing.

The fact of the matter is that she’s now so ubiquitous – so simply all over the media and the internet like a cheap and nasty suit – that it’s virtually impossible to ignore Katie Hopkins. This means that the one big, traditional defence against the omnipresent, omnivocal, offensive bore is taken from us. You can’t just shut your eyes and your ears and hope she’ll go away. She’s not going anywhere, and the media – who know a good, profitable oddity when they see one – are content to shovel more ripe and rank Hopkins at us every day, like a frantic gardener determined to see some perverted variety of rose reach roof height and maximum visibility. And there’s no point entreating people to ignore her. Such pleas are heard, if at all, faintly at best; almost imperceptible against the white-noise “Wall of Sound” of the Hopkins rhetoric blitzkrieg.

So – she’s everywhere, she’s crassly offensive, she’s impossible to ignore and she sets the worst possible example to the credulous and easily-led rump of society most vulnerable to the worst excesses of the more lurid press and the dregs of Twitter. She also seems determined to show that she can say what she likes, to whom she likes, in whatever terms she likes – without any real fear of being brought to account. There have been murmurings of police investigation with a view to some sort of action or at least a warning – but again, these have been diffident cheeps of protest against her formidable output. The question still abides: how do you solve a problem like Katie?

The tone and content of her public pronouncements have long been sliding downhill like a greased pig, but in the eyes of many, she has finally gone a step too far and has crossed the last boundary of common decency – by suggesting that the Jewish son of refugees from the Holocaust might like to push his wife’s head into a gas oven. That out-offends Clarkson, it out-dumbs the dumbest Tory back-bencher – it’s the kind of unpleasantness that might even have a UKIP lady covering the ears of a “ting-tong” acquaintance, lest they be shocked at how certain British people comport themselves. Katie Hopkins may now be quite beyond the pale.

The thing is, there are laws in place to deal with this sort of thing. Free speech is always trotted out as an excuse, but that’s simply to misunderstand the law. Free speech comes to an end somewhere short of inciting hatred, insulting people with the horrors of the all too recent past and generally conducting yourself like a person who believes they are a law unto themselves. It has to do – or we are faced with anarchy. Katie Hopkins has surely gone too far; it is difficult to see, in the light of what she has said – both recently and going further back – how a responsible newspaper editor could possibly continue to employ her. The same might conceivably apply to the editor of The Sun. But it’s worse even than that; after all, what has been said cannot be unsaid and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition has now to live with whatever the gutter-minded might make of a jibe about gas ovens against the background of a family who once had to flee from just that fate. General Election campaigns are not clean fights; it’s to be hoped that no-one else sinks quite that low.

It’s time that Ms Hopkins got the old short, sharp, shock treatment. A salutary lesson to teach her that she cannot just say anything, to anyone – and get away with it. Arrest, charge and maybe some time contemplating her folly in a prison cell might just be the sort of thing to change the course she currently appears set upon. And that would be good for her, though she would doubtless disagree. And if it wasn’t, then really – so what? She can hardly be made worse; at present she’s a carbuncle on the backside of society – one ripe for popping. The rest of us deserve a break from her too-frequent pronouncements and her habit of going for the jugular in the crudest terms imaginable. We deserve a holiday from her constant, publicity-hungry attention-seeking, all over every medium, everywhere.

We all, finally, deserve an extended break from this rather vapid and stupid woman.