Friday, 22 May 2015


Seebüll, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
Why does Denmark have such a small number of actors? Is it because the majority of Danish people think it's more important to do "real" jobs like dentistry and teaching and farming? Or are casting agents just really lazy?

So here is a new period drama about the Schleswig Holstein wars in the 19th century, but it's full of the cast of Borgen. (And at least two of them were also in The Killing.) Søren needs clematis for a leg wound. Kasper explains his bad haircut in season three. Birgitte is performing Lady Macbeth. Torben isn't in the first episode, or at least not in the bits I stayed awake for, but he is in the trailers.

So yeah, I kind of ended up skim-watching it on iPlayer while falling asleep. The whole thing didn't really engage me, sorry to say. I nearly turned off at the jar of sperm. Maybe enough people weren't being murdered on screen to justify its Saturday night BBC4 slot. (Though plenty were being slaughtered off it. Kasper claims he's killed 120.) Maybe there weren't enough newscasters or spin doctors. Maybe I am too much of a modern day history student, like the ones showed rolling their eyes in front of a windmill before going off to smoke a spliff.

But I do have a soft spot for the whole Schleswig Holstein-Southern Jutland area, having spent a couple of extended summer holidays there as a teenager. While there I heard lots of stories of the Germans' invasion of Denmark during the Second World War, so theoretically it should be interesting to learn about a time when Schleswig Holstein was Danish. But this apparently isn't how I want to do it.

The Danes' strained relationship with their neighbours was still in evidence 25 years ago, even if by then the only German invaders were driving Trabis over from the East in a bid to find a cheap holiday. The Danes did like running over the German border to buy cheap booze, although subsequent changes in EU Duty Free regulations may have curbed this since. But the older folk had sad recollections of the Second World War, and German concrete bunkers were still all over their islands and coastline, half-buried by the dunes and only then (in the early 1990s) being opened to the public for the first time.

The Danish flag flies proudly in everyone's back garden in South Jutland, a flag which is believed by the school master in 1864 to have fallen directly from God, as turned on its side it displays an image of the crucifix.

South Jutland is a landscape reclaimed from the sea. There are marshes and thatched red brick cottages.

The sand dunes are dotted with summerhouses, rosehips and buzzing horse flies.

Church steeples and wind turbines are the only height visible for miles across the level fields and mudflats.

The wide open beaches are covered in kite flyers in summer and gigantic jellyfish in autumn. They go on for miles.***

There may be no mountains but there are big skies, and it is peaceful and truly beautiful. The memories of my time there are complex - different relationship, different part of my life entirely, good things, bad things. I don't think it would ever be possible to go back there. Maybe this is why I couldn't get into 1864. Or maybe it is in fact just a disappointingly turgid, over-sexed period drama.

***Just watch out for the cars allowed to drive on to the sand. Oh, and the nudist section. Which ain't so pretty.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Child Friendly Holiday Review: "The Boat"

It's that oft asked question in travel journalism: which do you prefer, to travel or arrive? For me, undoubtedly the latter. The travel is just one big necessary hassle at the end of which I heave a sigh of relief. It is the part of the holiday I prefer to forget. But for our daughter, the distinction is a little blurrier. Or at least it is if The Boat is involved. The Boat, for our girl, is the highlight of a holiday, and cannot be bettered.

"The Boat" is not the dodgy nightclub with a revolving dance floor that used to be moored under the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle, by the way. Nor is it a Caribbean cruiseliner, or a pedalo on a pond in the park. It is the P&O ferry that travels each night between Hull and Europoort in Rotterdam. It is undeniably brilliant, and the easiest way to get abroad with a child I have thus far experienced. In a (possibly worrying) lack of security checks, you drive up to the barrier, show your passport and ticket, get handed a boarding card and cabin key, drive up a steep ramp onto the ship, parallel park into an awkward gap on the deck (just our ruddy luck to be placed in the queue for that spot), take the lift up to your cabin, and from then on out PARTY.

Party when you have a four-year-old means spending hours sitting next to the small soft play area nursing a Starbucks while twenty hugely overexcited children run amok around you, the bossiest and most annoying of which is your daughter.

Party when you have a child of school age means that the kids clubs should be running (as it is school holidays) or a trip to the cinema if they are not. Spongebob, Cinderella and Shaun The Sheep were all available on our most recent crossing.

Party when you are a grown-up involves drinking at piano bars and cheesy cabaret shows. Whoo-hoo! But be warned, you may be breathalysed early the next morning as you drive off the boat, and the blood alcohol limit is lower in Holland than it is in the UK. So leave plenty of time to sleep your boozing off, should you have the opportunity to booze.

No danger of booze for us. But this year on our return leg, instead of taking a cheapskate picnic on board, we splashed out on the all-you-can-eat buffet, which at £18.50 a head doesn't work out too extortionate if you take a sort of "pound spent per pound of food consumed" ratio into consideration. There are soups, salads, curries, traditional roast dinners, sides, cheese, puddings, ice cream, fruit juices and teas and coffees all included in the price. Prosecco is extra. Suffice to say, we will be doing that again.

Always a risk to eat a massive meal before a potentially rough crossing, so it's just as well we spent most of the journey lying down. You can get on board the ship about three hours before sailing at 20:00, which gives you plenty of time to eat and play before you hit the open sea. We go to bed early to give our daughter enough sleep and to stop other children being hassled to the point of mutiny by her control freakery in the soft play.

We on the other hand don't get enough sleep. Our daughter insists on leaving the light on all night in the cabin, which is like a mild form of torture. This before the constant drone of the engines and the groaning lurch of your bunk from side to side. But it's still better than spending hours queuing for X-ray machines in airports with a moaning toddler, or driving for hours across the country with a bored and fractious child in the back of the car.

Because we were heading to a campsite near Leiden, for us a holiday in Holland means an hour's driving from York to Hull, a night of lying down, then another hour's driving at the other end, and we end up at our destination. Two hours total in a car, but we are abroad. Pretty magical.

Atop the Pride of Hull on the River Humber.

Walter White may have been on board

Luxury dining in a Force 7 gale

You will find that Europoort at Rotterdam isn't very scenic

Friday, 15 May 2015

Rory Bremner's Election Broadcast

Rory Bremner seems to have been away from television a long time. His regular series, Bremner, Bird and Fortune vanished without explanation from Channel 4 a while back. I am not sure how popular it was - I always enjoyed it, and even went to see it be filmed once, donkeys years ago now. But I know that when I was working as a subtitler on Channel 4's television programmes, the show was generally disliked by my colleagues. This meant I found myself working on it quite often, with everyone else avoiding it. We only ever managed to subtitle the repeat, as the first broadcast was edited too late for us to work on. Otherwise it would have had to be subtitled live, which wouldn't have worked. It was probably a slightly disappointing watch for hard-of-hearing or deaf viewers anyway - all a subtitler could do was write the name of who Rory was doing an impression of at the start of each line, which used up valuable word space and which hardly conveyed his talent for mimicry. But his impersonations do rely on facial tics and body language alongside the verbal mannerisms, so there may still have been something to be gained even without the audio. The John Bird and John Fortune segments were always my favourites anyway, and not reliant on impressions. Just the stunning mockery of government, civil service or big business tomfoolery in the glorious guise of George Parr.

Alas, John Fortune is no longer with us, but it was nice to see John Bird still included in this post-election analysis programme. The show, now on BBC2, had a very similar format to Bremner, Bird And Fortune - stand-up sections in front of an audience interspersed with pre-recorded video footage. But there was an interlude for a performance by another impressionist, which presumably lightened the load of the last-minute rewrites after the unexpected election result. In my view this didn't really add anything as - putting it mildly - he lacked Bremner's subtlety and we had already seen enough (better) impersonations of Cameron and Miliband. It was interesting that Bremner's format hadn't moved on at all from what must have at some point been rejected by Channel 4. But I am not sure how much he could have changed - or how much I would have wanted him to change.

There were Bremner's usual scary, thought-provoking statistics that newscasters hadn't mentioned and which require greater publicity. That more words went into plans to save polar bears in the Tory manifesto than into detailing their proposed brutal welfare cuts. That Cameron won his Tory majority with the same percentage of votes as Labour lost with in 1979. And that UKIP and the Greens only got two seats between them with a share of the vote that was only 10% less than the Tories. Whilst I am mightily relieved at the low number of seats won by UKIP, there is no denying that we have an archaic and biased electoral system that isn't working and isn't reflecting the views of all the British people. We did have a referendum about changing things at the start of the last Parliament, but the question was worded in such a way as to almost guarantee keeping the status quo. And it wasn't even offering proportional representation anyway, which is what the Lib Dems have always wanted. All eight of them that are left.

But it was very hard to laugh at Rory Bremner this week because the election result has left me utterly dejected, if not seriously slash-my-wrists level depressed. None of the polls warned us that a Tory majority was possible. I fully expected another coalition, as did probably everybody. We were in Holland when the result was declared, and I instantly wanted to claim Dutch political asylum on the grounds that my country had plainly gone mad. Who on earth votes for the Conservatives? Who on earth thinks that any of the cuts of the previous Parliament have been beneficial to anybody? Who on earth believes the Tory lies that the budget deficit was because of Labour overspending and not from pumping money into ailing banks which had so mismanaged their lending that they were now in danger of making us lose all our money? Gordon Brown saved, not destroyed, the day. Meanwhile the bankers have got off scotfree and we, the middle and low-income general public reliant on local authority services and free education and health care are being punished for their incompetence. And who on earth sees UKIP as an alternative - a bunch of racist, ignorant scumbags that other parties want to pander to? We have to stay in Europe. Otherwise in five years' time, after Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, we will end up living in an isolated England run by 1% of our landed gentry in an old public schoolboys' club and feudal society straight out of the 18th century. I fear the other 99% of us will be beggars on the streets. With my daughter about to start school and my health on the wane (being 42 hasn't been kind to me) I fear for our education and NHS services more than ever. The welfare state could be coming to an end. And it seems that many of the voters of Britain are too stupid to see this or too selfish to care.

On a positive note, there are some good things to share about the election to those of a left-wing view. We did come home, and thankfully our postal votes contributed to York Central returning a Labour MP and our local ward a Labour, a Green and a fantastic independent councillor who has done so many wonderful things for our neighbourhood in the past few years. One of my friends and one of my cousins are serving as Labour councillors elsewhere. And the biggest news for our family is that my aunt has just been selected to be Leader of Leeds City Council. The first female leader of a city council ever, and one of the biggest in the country at that. I can't imagine a tougher time for her to be doing the job, but I wish her all the very best, and send my heartiest congratulations. But while the Labour and Lib Dems focus all their energies on choosing (hopefully electable) new leaders, the Conservatives are going to busy literally taking away our human rights, and the majority of what is left of our public services. And we can't stop them. Or can we?