Where You Can Stuff Your Pandas

There are plenty of new shows on BBC’s pre-school channel Cbeebies that are worthy of praise. Show Me Show Me for example is clearly designed by people who love to entertain children and it’s no wonder our three little ones love it. Mr Bloom’s Nursery is another recent arrival that seeks to entertain, with only gentle nudges of education. The children learn, but without being talked down to.

However the channel features some really poor shows that lay on the education – preaching even – so thick there seems no room to actually entertain the audience. Chief among these is Same Smile – a box ticking programme of such banality and evangelical self importance that it’s bound to get some producer fast-tracked for greatness at the Beeb.

Same Smile aims to teach children that although we are all different we all have the same smile. You know, racially harmony, cultural diversity and all that. Except unless you bring your kids up in a KKK household they’ll have realised this already. You don’t have to tell a four year old that people are different, that some families go to different kinds of church/temples, or that people live in different houses.

But Same Smile and its three shitty little pandas are used every episode to teach kids the absolute bleeding obvious. The format is simple, the annoying smug presenter visits a school and patronises the children for a while. Then three children are chosen to take a panda each and show them their home, culture, crack den – whatever. And supposedly by doing this we all learn to sing in perfect harmony or something.

It’s a load of old festering bollocks is what it is.

This programme is so dull and worthy with no attempt to either (a) entertain, or (b) talk to children as if they have a brain – that our children tend to wander off not long after the show starts. Someone has clearly decided that preaching some obvious (to almost all young children I expect) lesson about being different is vastly more important than keeping them entertained. Maybe it ticks a box on a quota somewhere at Broadcasting House that means the corporation doesn’t have to clutter up BBC1 with intelligent programming, instead offloading it on small children.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not remotely against our children learning good lessons about life, other cultures etc. But really, Same Smile is so worthy it would even make Bono vomit (as long as he wasn’t too busy avoiding paying his taxes). In contrast there’s a show on CBeebies called Something Special,. Primarily aimed at children with physical and mental disabilities it sees talented and genuinely caring presenter Justin Fletcher entertain children with the help of his clown-like alter-ego Mr Tumble. Our children love the show and anecdotal evidence suggests that it is hugely popular with many families.

But is Something Special preachy? Not for one second. Mr Tumble entertains the children whether they have special needs or not. There’s probably a much more subtle yet easily absorbed message here about the universality of childhood joy and laughter whatever your situation. It’s light years ahead of Same Smile.

Unfortunately Something Special is in a minority, with preachy none-entertaining programme gaining traction on Cbeebies. Mighty Mites encourages children to play, as thought they don’t seem capable of working out how to do that already. To make matters worse it’s presented by Sarah Jane Honeywell channeling the voice Satan would use if he was a doctor’s receptionist with a helium addiction.

Then there’s The Green Balloon Club – the religious wing of the Animal Liberation Front. This turd of a programme is a cross between Why Don’t You (in that it’s poorly presented by amateurish kids with regulation regional accents), The Really Wild Show (no bad thing) and the sort of Sunday morning religious kids shows broadcast in the 1980s. Seriously, the songs and monologues about nature and animals in this show come across as hymns and sermons more than anything else I’ve seen in children’s’ programming. It really is nauseating stuff. On the bright side they got rid of the grinning Pink Windmill squatting drama school eldest presenter after the first series, so it’s only now as annoying as chopping off both of your legs with an axe, rather than all your limbs. Bill Oddie can often be seen slumming it on this show, looking like any minute he might kill himself using the annoying green puppet called Jelly.

Look, I do want my children to use their TV time to learn something. That’s why they watch CBeebies rather than some channel full of Ben10 and other ADHD crap designed for low aspiration families. But I’d like them to be entertained too, in fact I’d like them to entertained and educated in that order. Programming that treats them like idiots and patronises them holds no interest and they won’t watch it. Cbeebies needs to take the lesson of Something Special onboard to see how entertaining children is the best way of educating them. And if they’ve any sense they’ll get Nurse Gladys Emmanuel out of retirement for a new series of Come Outside.

But please, ditch the shitty little Pandas, their preachy pimp and the awful Green Balloon Club.

Videogames Are Rubbish & It’s Your Fault

Today marks the start of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo – otherwise known as E3. This massive trade show in California sees the big platform holders and publishers announce new wares to get the industry, retailers and gamers excited. I’ve attended the expo in Los Angeles, played the games, asked the usual questions, been given the same bullshit PR-okayed answers, drank the free drinks and flew home again. And you know what? The whole thing was a complete waste of time.

Attending the expo is pointless for anyone who thinks they are a videogames journalist. There are no stories there, no scoops. There’s nothing you will read over the next few days that is anything other than carefully managed output from the PR department of major electronics and software companies. For the fanboys there will be some excitement, yes for those who somehow pin their self worth on a major corporation, but when all is said and done E3 is just glorified multimedia press release.

Many of you will watch the live feeds, read the achingly pointless and self-important liveblogging streams and devour every movie and screenshot being shat out of the giant glass anus that is the LA Convention Centre. But you are wasting your time. There’s not actually going to be anything really exciting announced. Every publisher will be showing off more third/first person shooters that either rip-off Modern Warfare or Gears of War. Most of the stuff on display at E3 will be based on the Unreal Engine, the bland face of modern gaming. You’ve seen one Unreal-based shooter you really have seen them all.

And what of the platform holders? Oh you are excited about Nintendo are you? Here’s how it’s going to go. Nintendo will open the show to much excitement, you may even let out a little bit of wee when Miyamoto-san takes the stage to pretend to be Link or something. The company will announce some new gimmick-based console that you’ll get ridiculously excited about. In a year it will be collecting dust under your sofa next to all the crappy cynical cash-in shite that Ubisoft flooded the format with. And you’ll be back to playing Modern Warfare 5 on you sixth replacement Xbox.

The games industry will announce so much junk this week and it’s all your fault. It’s your fault that even the very best and most ambitious games have you wandering around waiting for your pad to vibrate so you don’t have to use your eyes, ears or God forbid your brain. How sophisticated? Lab rats get to play more complex forms of entertainment. But you folks buy this crap. You didn’t buy the complex games, the ones that require thought and intelligence, the games that came complete with a lovingly produced manual for you to enjoy. No you wanted the same old crap every time, a first level – some £5 of your money – that teaches you how to walk, how to crawl under a pipe, how to leap over a barrier and a quick test of whether you know which direction up is.

One of the saddest experiences I’ve had this year was completing Portal 2. Sad because it was an amazing beautiful experience that got everything right and was now over. But sadder that it felt like a small oasis in an enormous dry dead desert. Some have held up Portal 2 as the sign of how far games have come, how artistic they can be, how the industry holds up against other forms of mass entertainment. But I think those things are only true for Portal 2. The game is more of an example of a very rare jewel. It shows all the rubbish peddled to us by publishers and platform holders for what it is. And today we’ll be sold tons more of it.

For the first time in years I won’t be watching.

Day of the Fondleslab

A few weeks ago my laptop died. The internal fan over the GPU stopped working and within short order the graphics card melted. The first I knew of this was when the screen corrupted. I’ve seen this kind of mess before and knew it meant the death of the computer. And since then I’ve been without a computer much of the time. Yes I do have a rather nice desktop machine but using it means being away from my family. Of an evening I may want to do some work but still spend time with wifey in front of the telly. Much as I love my Android powered smartphone writing and posting website content with it is not easy.

I do have a Netbook I bought several years ago. But it’s really underpowered and the screen is very poor – making for lots of headaches due to my eyesight problems. So what to do? Of course the most obvious thing is a new laptop. However I spend a lot of time using my phone for Twitter, Facebook and the web and so began to consider the idea of a tablet.

Great, get an iPad Harry, I hear you say. I say, no. While Apple’s tablet is brilliant for music production – something that made it really appeal to me – it’s pretty useless as a computer replacement. It’s a big glass vanity object for hipsters and posers. Getting anything actually done with the things is a pain, especially as Apple locks you down in terms of your ability to use it as a grown up – moving and uploading files. Can you copy over your files from your DSLR and back them up to a portable hard drive or USB stick with an iPad? No you can’t. Though the worst thing about the – actually rather impressive iPad – isn’t the hardware, it’s the reliance on the worst piece of software ever created – iTunes (may it rot in hell forever).

Then I realised that wanting a tablet was perhaps more of a tech lust thing than wanting something useful. Could I really get any work done on one, especially typing something the length of this blog post using an on-screen keyboard? The answer it seemed to be a resounding no. And then I saw this:

This is the Asus Eee Pad Transformer. It is a 10.1 inch tablet running on the Android Honeycomb operating system. It has 16GB of onboard memory (though is also available with 32GB) and a MicroSD card slot and can be bought on its own or with a keyboard dock. So while you can use the tablet in the usual way it’s also possible to easily make use of a keyboard. What’s more the keyboard dock has the same kind of battery in it as the tablet, meaning that you can double the battery life by docking. While docked the keyboard actually charges the tablet meaning you can then undock again and put the keyboard down to recharge. What kind of battery life do you get out of your laptop? The Transformer will do 18 hours, for real.

When docked a cursor appears on the screen and can be controlled via the touchpad on the keyboard dock. Or you can plug in a USB mouse, And all the time the ten-point multitouch screen continues to work as normal.

The keyboard itself is no gimmick, it’s very usable indeed, the typing experience is vastly superio to my old Acer netbook. The keyboard dock also features an SD card, two USB ports and a mini-HDMI out. Thanks to the way Android treats you like a grownup (unlike Apple’s IOS) it’s possible to connect all manner of devices to these USB ports. So you can download music from Amazon MP3 and pass it over to your MP3 player, or you can plug in your camera and back up the images onto the onboard memory, SD card, USB stick, MicroSD or USB hard drive. What a great companion for a travelling photographer.

But the real test is can it be used by an online journalist, someone who not only needs to write lots of copy, but someone who needs to edit and upload images. Well yes it can. I’ve just created this blog post using a Transformer, something of a proof to myself it’s possible. And you know what, it was no more hassle – as in none – than using a regular Windows or Linux laptop. I even edited and resized the images you see in this article and uploaded them to the server. I was a complete breeze.

But in a moment once I’ve posted this I can disconnect the keyboard, turn the pad to portrait and read the Guardian in full paper version via the Press Reader app, while listening to some downloaded music. Or can enjoy YouTube in glorious HD. Then I may enjoy a graphically impressive Tegra powered game that makes use of the motion sensor. This is a very versatile piece of kit.

I may have scoffed in the past, but the day of the tablet is here. But not thanks to Apple – it’s the devices that are taking the concept and running with it that are the real revolution in this format. And the Eee Pad Transformer is really ahead of the game despite being less expensive than many of its rivals. It’s no wonder then that this weekend you’ll struggle to find a Transformer pad/dock bundle anywhere. It’s out of stock everywhere it seems, even at Amazon.co.uk, this really is the age of the fondleslab.

Trouble in Greendale

For many years now Royal Mail Postman Pat Clifton was the man you could always rely on in Greendale. He was the glue that held the community together, the face of officialdom that could be relied on to being the post whatever the weather. Not only did he bring the mail he was often there to save the day in many a community crisis.

But watch Pat at work today and something has gone terribly wrong. Rather than being the glue that holds the Greendale community together he seems to be the cause of most of the local problems. If you’ve a special event and need a package for it delivered on time, these times you can guarantee there will be some dreadful and potentially dangerous cock-up.

For example tasked with delivering a telescope to a child Pat failed to get the package there during daylight hours, and instead dangerously drove offroad on his motorcycle trying to follow a Satnav he was incapable of operating. While one may commend his dedication, having to make up for daytime slacking by tear-arsing around the countryside in the dark on a powerful motorbike – when he knows children are in the area – is foolhardy at best, criminally negligent if we’re really honest.

Yet day after day this is how Pat is operating. He’s a loose cannon. He’s losing it. Nearly every episode of the documentary that follows his career we see him make some blindingly stupid error that leads to a package arriving very late, or not at all, in some cases the complete wrong item is delivered to a customer. Such is the community spirit of Greendale that in these cases the community pretends that “all’s well that ends well” and the solution was better than the original idea. It’s lovely the people feel so protective of Pat, but how long can this continue, how long can they cover his incompetence? With the movement of new people into he area who won’t know Pat, sooner or later some towny is going to dob poor Pat in. Perhaps it would be best for Pat if they did. Sooner or later Pat’s increasingly erratic behaviour and poor standard of work is going to get someone killed, especially as the Special Delivery Service allows Pat to fly the company’s helicopter.

How have matters got this far? What on earth is going on in Pat’s like to turn such a workaholic icon into the local baffoon?

We only have to look at the changes in Pat’s life for clues to why he’s not the man he once was. I think we can begin to trace the beginning of the troubles back to 2000 when Pat Clifton was sacked by the Royal Mail because he no longer “fitted its corporate image”. And one can understand that, having a spokesman that was cheery, arrived before lunchtime and didn’t steal your DVDs from Amazon really didn’t fit the Royal Mail as it is today.

His sacking and the privatisation of the postal service in the sleepy Cumbrian village of Greendale must have come as a shock to Postman Pat. He spent years as the friendly, cheerful – and most importantly competent – face of the Royal Mail. Greendale – a place where you could guarantee your parcel would get there safely, without what Royal Mail calls “insurance” – that little protection racket they run where they charge you extra for the postman not to steal your stuff.

And so Pat began work for the local Special Delivery Service, a very modern and different organisation to that which he was used to. No longer was it a case of popping down to Mrs Goggins’ post office in Greendale for his sack, and tootling around the village in his van delivering a few letters. Now Pat has to serve a large area on the Cumbria/Yorkshire border – covering Greendale, Ingledale, Pencaster and Garner Bridge. This is a massive area that stretches to the East Coast at Pencaster, and managing deliveries as the senior operative for SDS is perhaps too ambitious for a simple former-postman.

From the modern sorting office in Pencaster Pat is expected to deliver across the whole region making use of technology and unfamiliar vehicles such as motorcycles and helicopters. No doubt the complexity of such a role – especially as he’s called on as the company’s trouble shooter by manager Ben Taylor – is an increasing source of stress in Pat’s life. The truth is that poor Pat Clifton just can’t hack it.

And that’s not the only pressure in Pat’s life. He’s now married to former Post Office worker Sara Clifton. Sara works as a “waitress” in a “late night club” and I think we can all guess what that means. Poor Pat, the strain of such a relationship can’t be easy on top of all the other pressures he is under including raising his wayward son Julian. Young tearaway Julian seems intent intent on either always getting into danger or sabotaging Pat’s delivery runs in some way. One wonders why he hates his father so much.

You add all these pressures together and it’s no wonder that Pat is failing to do his job in a competent manner. Pat must realise things aren’t going well and tends to seek the help of his best friend – local garage owner and “inventor” – Ted Glen. But Glen is hardly the man to turn to either – his slurred speech suggests he’s a man who enjoys a few cold beverages after breakfast. That’s his own demon to deal with, but his garage tends to be Pat’s first port of call on each delivery run.

The result is that we’re left with a out of his depth, cuckolded, incompetent drunk running the major postal distribution in a large area of northern England. Poor Pat, once the hero of Greendale, now likely to end up on the news for crashing a helicopter into a group of schoolchildren.

Within Temptation – The Unforgiving Review

What do you do if you’re a successful female-fronted rock band with a few MTV hits on your hands? You’ve just played your most famous concert ever – the triumphant Black Symphony with the The Metropole Orchestra – and you’re at the top of your game. What next? For most bands it would be a complete commercial crossover. Ditch most of the guitars, get yourself a flash Hollywood producer and make your next record sound like Beyonce.

What vocalist Sharon den Adel and guitarist Robert Westerholt did was went away and had lots of babies. Three years later they and their bandmates have returned with an album that’s part what you expected but also chock full of the unexpected. This certainly isn’t “Within Temptation Goes Pop” – not even close – it’s an astonishing canny release for a band that had reached its peak and has set course for an entirely new destination. Right that’s Symphonic Metal sewn up, they seem to have said, lets go create an eighties metal masterpiece.

One thing you wouldn’t expect Within Temptation to return with is a concept album based on a horror/fantasy comic book (by writer Steven O’Connell and artist Romano Molenaar). That’s old school, that’s old fashioned metal – that’s brilliant. Before you’ve heard a note you already know that this is one band that is not going to give up its rocking core for MTV. And the resultant album – although there’s plenty of pop on offer – isn’t the pop you might expect.

By the time Within Temptation released The Heart of Everything it was top of the heap of European symphonic metal bands. Soprano Sharon den Adel operatic vocals fitted with Robert Westerholt’s pomp rock – a balance few bands have achieved. And yes while sometimes the band skirted close to sounding like Lloyd-Webber trash, most of the time Within Temptation was leading the genre on not following someone else’s template.

The Heart of Everything saw a more commercial sound emerging – Sharon singing with her rock voice rather than the soprano – and songs with more MTV-friendly hooks. The symphonic metal roots were still there – but we heading more for mainstream rock and good though Within Temptation is – there are better straight rock bands around. Then came the gig with the The Metropole Orchestra – the turning point for the band’s sound.

Now three years later Within Temptation has returned with the very same orchestra to weave a modern spell that joyously wears its influences up front – 1980s pop, rock and metal. Yes The Unforgiving may have a commercial sound – but it’s a commercial sound from over 20 years ago.

The other surprise is the pace of the album. Sharon always did like her slow ballads and for me they were the band’s weakest songs. The Unforgiving is a very uptempo album, blisteringly fast at times such as my album highlight In the Middle of the Night. There’s only one real ballad – Fire And Ice – and even that picks up the power and the tempo later on. And that song is sandwiched between to massive slabs of symphonic rock – the radio airplay hit Faster (which is a ripoff of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game – but played faster – geddit?), and Iron. The latter sounding a surprisingly like mid eighties Iron Maiden, perhaps the reason for the title.

You could argue this is Within Temptation’s most pop album, certainly in production terms and the subtle use of orchestral strings that’s correct. But the funny thing is The Unforgiving is also the band’s most metal record. There are some huge chunky metal riffs on show and this is the first WT record where I’ve really noticed memorable guitar solos. The Unforgiving does something rather clever – it sneaks under the radar thanks to some poppy moments – most obviously the disco-tempo Sinead – and then delivers a stealth payload of chuffing great Iommi/Hetfield riffs.

In the Middle of the Night, Iron, Lost, Murder and A Demon’s Fate all rock hard, with the album seemingly getting heavier as it progresses. It’s a great trick. You can imagine Lady Gaga fans digging the first few tracks and by the end of the album ordering the new Amon Amarth record from Amazon.

While Black Symphony saw Within Temptation bury their band sound under the weight of the orchestra. What shines through on The Unforgiving is the musicianship and power of the group itself. The guitars are crunchy and loud, the rhythm section pounding and brutal and its only when these foundations have been laid strongly in the track that the more symphonic elements are allowed to play long. The band’s best asset – Sharon’s voice – is up front and has never sounded better, left to stand on its own merits rather than the overuse of effects we heard in The Heart of Everything.

The Unforgiving is a great rock record and perhaps the best fusion of the symphonic and metal that any group has managed so far. As a rock fan whose first journey into the dark side of the pentatonic was Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son this seems the perfect commercial metal release. The Unforgiving is a beautiful, fast, powerful, rocking slab of guitar-driven pomposity and a strong contender for the best rock album of 2011 already. Nightwish, your move.