The Beautiful Artwork of Koichi Murai

I am incredibly fortunate to be friends with Koichi Murai, a master of the art of Japanese Calligraphy and ink artwork.  He is a soft-spoken, humble young man with an immense talent and unique style.  He is living back in Japan after being in the UK for some time, and has been working tirelessly as a volunteer clearing up the most damaged parts of the country following the Tsunami/Earthquake.  As a master of calligraphy, he creates stunning ink on ricepaper works, using traditional techniques and tools.  He also uses these traditional crafts to create incredible works of art, many themed around Samurai and Bushido, but he can turn his hand to anything.

I wanted to introduce you to Koichi-san and some examples of his unique artwork and recommend him to you if you are looking for something personal and beautiful.  His artworks are bespoke and incredibly well priced, and make great gifts for yourself or some very lucky friends and family.

Here’s a gallery of some of his works, and if you’d like to learn more about getting one of these pics or something unique, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to put you in touch with him.  You can also join his facebook page by CLICKING HERE

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Lack-of Morality-Tale for our times

SCENE – Woman finds herself unemployed for no fault of her own and seeks help from the UK Job Centre to find work.  She enters the gloomy building at the appointed day and time and walks up to the Job Centre staff member

Woman:  Hello…erm…I’ve never been to a Job Centre before so I don’t really know what the procedure is.  Can you help me?

Staffer:  It’s up to you to learn how the system works.  We can’t offer any assistance.

Woman:  Oh.  Well, um, should I fill out a form, or wait in line, or do something with the computers?

Staffer:  Fill this in.

HANDS OVER A LARGE FORM

Woman:  OK, great, not a problem.  Then what do I do with it.

Staffer:  Everything is on the form.  I can’t help you. You can’t fill it in here.  You have to go home to do it.

Woman:  And then what?  Do I bring it back here?

Staffer:  Everything is on the form.

Woman:  Ah, right, I see…oh, it says to post it back, first class (at my expense I see) and wait for a new appointment.

Staffer:  Goodbye.

SEVERAL WEEKS LATER…THE SAME SCENE

Woman:  Hello again, I’m back for my appointment.  How are you today?

Staffer:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

Woman:  Right…erm…OK.  Well, I filled in the form and returned it and was told to come meet you today and you would tell me how to proceed with getting help to get a job.

Staffer:  Have you completed the form?

Woman:  Yes, I just told you that.  Didn’t you hear me?

Staffer:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

Woman:  Hmmm?!  Well, yes, I did and that is why I am here.  Look, to be honest, I am really rather embarrassed about losing my job, and I’ve never been unemployed before and I really want to get back in to work, any work will be fine, I just need your help to get going with it.  Well, I say I need your help, but I have already started applying for jobs myself, but according to your form these don’t count.  I have to come here, meet you every 2 weeks and be ‘helped’.  So, will you help me?  First of all I wondered if I could get any Job Seeker’s allowance, to help pay for all the applications and bus journeys and getting all the way here and back every fortnight?

Staffer: Let me look at your file…hang on…

SOUND OF TYPING ON COMPUTER

Woman:  Well?

Staffer:  We can’t help you.  You aren’t eligible for Job Seeker’s Allowance because you’ve been working.

Woman:  Well of course I’ve been working!  I’ve been working all my adult life!  I’ve paid my insurance and tax.  Doesn’t that entitle me to just a little bit of help?

Staffer:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

Woman: Argh!  Look, sorry, I know you are just doing your job, but surely there is something you can do to help?

Staffer: Fill in this form and bring it back in two weeks to be signed off.  If you don’t apply for at least 6 jobs every two weeks you won’t be entitled to Job Seeker’s Allowance.

Woman:  WHAT?!  But I’ve already given you evidence of over thirty jobs I’ve already applied for.  Don’t they count?

Staffer:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

Woman:  And what do you mean I won’t be entitled to Job Seeker’s Allowance?  You’ve already told me I’m not getting any?!

Staffer:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

Woman:  Aaarrghh!  Look…OK…right…I know it is just the system, not you.  So…I wanted to ask…I’ve been offered a job, a good job, but the employer needs me to have a certain qualification.  Now, I used to live abroad, in Europe, and while I was there I got the qualification, but it was obviously a European version.  Can you help me get it recognised in the UK so I can accept the job offer?

Staffer:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

Woman:  Oh for the love of Pete!  Well, if YOU and Job Centre can’t help, who can?

Staffer:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.  It is your responsibility to research and contact anyone who can help you get a job.  The Job Centre does not help you get a job.

Woman:  Right!  So!  IF I can find someone to help me, is there any funding available to pay for the cost?  Or…if I have to retake the qualification can you help me with the cost of the training?

Staffer: The Job Centre offers no financial help with training or gaining job skills.  Since you have been working recently this is your responsibility.  Please fill out this form and return in two weeks.

Woman:  Aaaaarrrgghhhh!!!  Right, that is it…I’m off and I’ll sort it out myself.  Thanks for nothing.  Do you know how much help you’ve been to me today?

Staffer:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

TWO WEEKS PASS.  THE WOMAN DISCOVERS SHE HAS TO RETAKE THE TRAINING AT HER OWN EXPENSE.  SHE BORROWS THE MONEY FROM FAMILY.  THE TRAINING IS DUE TO BE ON THE DAY SHE IS MEANT TO RETURN TO THE JOB CENTRE.  SHE CALLS TO REARRANGE HER APPOINTMENT.

Woman:  Hello?  I was wondering if I could rearrange my Job Centre appointment on Friday?  I have a training session that day.

Anonymous 1: Please wait while I pass you to someone who can help.

PAUSE

Anonymous 2:  Hello?

Woman: Hello?  I was wondering if I could rearrange my Job Centre appointment on Friday?  I have a training session that day.  Can you help?

Anonymous 2: Please wait while I pass you to someone who can help.

PAUSE

Anonymous 3:  Hello?

Woman: Hello?  I was wondering if I could rearrange my Job Centre appointment on Friday?  I have a training session that day.  Are YOU someone who can help me?

Anonymous 3: Please wait while I pass you to someone who can help.

PAUSE

Anonymous 3:  Hello? Job Centre appointments.

Woman: Hello?  At last!  I was wondering if I could rearrange my Job Centre appointment on Friday?  I have a training session that day.  Is that possible?

Anonymous 3:  Training, you say?  Well, in that case just don’t come on Friday and call us on Monday to re-apply.

Woman:  Re-apply?  For what?

Anonymous 3:  How many hours training are you taking?

Woman:  Well, it is three days, 9 to 5 each day, so that would be 24 hours in total.

Anonymous 3:  Is your training for more than 20 hours?

Woman:  I just told you, it will be approximately 24 hours over 3 days.  Didn’t you hear me?

Anonymous 3:  I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

Woman:  What does it matter.  Surely my taking training to gain a qulification which will help my job prospects is something you would approve of?  What does the number of hours matter?

Anonymous 3:  Since you are training for more than 20 hours, we have to sign you off. You are now in full-time education and no longer eligible for Job Seeker’s Allowance.

Woman:  WHAT?!  But I DON’T GET Job Seeker’s Allowance!  And it isn’t full time education.  I am not a student.  I am re-qualifying for a qualification I already have because you wouldn’t recognise the original qualification!  Aaarrgghh!

Anonymous 3:  Please call back on Monday and we will start the signing-on process once again.  I hope this has be of help to you in finding a new job.

Woman:  Who are you?!  What is going on?!  Why won’t you people help me?!  I just want to get a job and not be a burden on my family and the tax-payers.  I want to do my bit, and earn money!  Why won’t you people help me?!

Anonymous 3: I can’t offer you any response.  The Job Centre is unable to help you with this information.  Please look online or on our website for further assistance.

WOMAN SLAMS PHONE DOWN

N.B.  This is based on a very true, very real-life story which is on-going.  I have been disgusted with the Job Centre and the UK Government’s approach to honest, hard-working individuals who simply find themselves out of work and desperately seeking new employment.  There is NO HELP WHATSOEVER.  What there is, instead, is form-filling, pointless appointments and heap loads of guilt and embarrassment.  The system appears to be setup for the feckless and work-shy.  Those who work at the Job Centres, while grossly characterised within this short play, genuinely seem to either be unwilling to find ways to help, or genuinely unable to help because the system doesn’t allow help to be offered to those who most need it.  We want people back in work, and we want them to feel supported and encouraged.  Right now, from my recent experiences, I can say that none of this is happening.  Shame on the Job Centre and shame on the UK Government.  All your big plans for benefit reform are great for the papers, but come down to street level and start fixing the almighty cock-up that is the day-to-day system.  Stop making it impossible for those who want work to get help to find work.  Right now, all I can say to sum up the Job Centre experience is:  EPIC FAIL!

Floppy Gifts For Xmas

We at #TeamBahHumbug present our first salvo of the season, aimed squarely at #TeamChristmas…it’s “Floppy Gifts For Xmas”, the charity single I co-wrote back in the early 1990’s for radio station B97. Now listen and weep, mwah ha ha haaaa! (actually I’m quite proud of this and we made money for a great kids charity, so huzzah all round!)

Written by Paul Garner & Neil Gardner

Performed by Paul Garner, Neil Gardner, Neil Bentley, Tim Page, B97 Crew, Yamaha Crew

Recorded at The Bunkers, Bedford

Thanks to B97/Chiltern Radio & all who helped make it possible.

Sick And Tired Of It All (Mini-Blogging)

So, lots of things have been bugging me of late, but instead of writing full-blown blog entries for each one, I’ve decided to emulate Oh! My Goddess and create Mini-Blogs (like Mini Goddesses – sorry non-anime fans, but it makes sense to anime freaks!).  Short, sharp, sweet comments on those things that have irked me.  You may agree or disagree, comment or ignore some, all or none of them…but here they come:

PETROL PRICES

So, we are now at £1.16.9p per litre for unleaded petrol.  WHAT THE F**K IS GOING ON?!?!  Much like the energy companies who hike gas & electricity prices but rarely cut them back again, the petrol companies claim that the prices go up because of fluctuations in oil prices.  These prices are from approx. 6 months ago.  But hang on…oil prices have been consistently dropping for over 6 months now.  Put that to them and they claim it is the tax increases, the VAT, the fuel surcharge, etc…  Yeah, fine, I get that because bankers screwed up, and we all went on a massive spending spree for a decade, that we now need more tax to pay off the debts…BUT…the baseline cost for oil has DECREASED, so the per litre cost SHOULD ALSO DECREASE.  But does it?  NO!  I am resigned to spending £50 at Sainsbury just to get their poxy 5p per litre off voucher!  Listen up petrol firms….STOP PROFITEERING YOU AMORAL THIEVING SCUM!  We are almost at £1.20 per litre…a revolution will soon follow and personally, alongside MPs, BBC management and chuggers, I think the petrol bosses will be first against the wall!

BBC CUTS THE FRIDAY PLAY ON R4

So…after many years of budget cut after budget cut after spending freeze after cost squeeze after budget cut, Radio 4 now announce that they are ‘decommissioning’ the Friday Play slot.  WHAT THE F**K IS GOING ON?!?!  I realise people love to attack the BBC as being over-large, lacking in quality and spending too much on fripperies…but please, the FRIDAY PLAY?  This is a bastion of hard-edged, socially and culturally important drama.  These plays fit no-where else on the BBC radio networks.  To cut the entire slot because yet again the network is being told to cut budgets?  I am sorry but I pay my licence fee for the BBC to MAKE PROGRAMMES AND BROADCAST THEM!  The massive cost of the rebuilding of BBC Broadcasting House in London (£1.56bn!) has proven that the BBC has no idea what its purpose is.  It is NOT there to invest in buildings and rebuildings and rerebuildings…damn it, BBC BH had only just been rebuilt before they ripped it down and started again!  And it is running way over time and over budget, meaning yet more is being spent on rent at Bush House and other locations for those departments that were supposed to move in to the new BH!!  And then they waste another £5m or so commissioning artwork for the new space when they could have BORROWED art from other public institutions and become a gallery space.  That £5m could have paid for many many radio dramas and features.  The cancellation of the Friday play is CULTURAL VANDALISM by people who should be protecting the BBC’s role of INVESTING IN UK PRODUCERS, WRITERS and ACTORS.  I am sickened and disgusted by this move, and the constant budget cutting from programme making.  BBC News could easily save millions by streamlining its outside broadcasting and reporting processes.  BBC TV could save millions by holding a moratorium on dramas/series based on cops/doctors/murders for one month.  Millions more could be saved by cutting back on the spend on flashy but pointless opening credit sequences (e.g. the F1 opening – 30-60secs of meaningless faff…we know we are watching F1, and there is no competition for coverage so why the OTT animated flashy opening?!), etc…  Maybe it is time for some resignations at the BBC…possibly at Radio 4, but certainly at upper management level.  They are failing in their core purpose!

PARENTS DRIVING KIDS TO/FROM SCHOOL

Ok…just what is it about parents and their kids in cars going to and from school?!  I am not a parent, but even if I were, I WOULD NOT drive them to and from school.  A caveat – this is about people living in towns/villages/cities – I understand countryside life can require different means due to the lack of public transport or distances involved. I just had to break my rule of not being on the road at 3pm as I had to do some business across town.  Driving back through the 3pm school-run (3pm!  When did schools close so damn early?) I almost had 5 crashes because of moronic parents collecting their dear little tykes.  2 near-misses were outside a school where the idiotic parents couldn’t park or pull out properly, or using indicators, or being patient!  The other 3 were in traffic, at roundabouts and at a junction…all three involved parents not paying attention to the road, looking everywhere but where they are driving, and generally adopting the attitude that they are their darling mini-me’s were the most important and valuable people on the road.  Well…SOD YOU ALL!!  I am sick of it.  The roads are so much nicer at half-term and holidays…why…BECAUSE YOU C***S AREN’T ON THE ROAD!  If I were in charge for a day I would make it ILLEGAL for parents to drive kids to/from school within towns.  Let them walk, ride a bike or take the bus.  In return I would invest in decent school bus services and street patrols.  Enough is enough…your kids need the exercise, it is good for them to mix and mingle while walking or taking the bus, they learn good life skills, you get another hour a day away from them to be doing something more useful to society such as working or inventing or writing or, well, anything but adding yet more pollution and congestion to the world.

SINGLE LIFE

OK, so I am no longer single, but I was for more than 7 years, and as we head in to yet another farce of an election, WHY ARE SINGLE PEOPLE NOT BEING TARGETED?! According to the ONS there is approx 7 million single people (12% of the population!) but in every political speech, paper, debate and news item all we hear about are HARD WORKING FAMILIES, blah blah blah.  Child tax credits, marriage tax allowance, this tax break, that tax break…we want YOU to be married!  The world MUST BE MADE BETTER for married people and those with children!  Well…I agree, I think the world should be made better for everyone who puts in a day’s work and pays their way.  BUT why does no-one think about single people?  They have ONE INCOME, and yet are taxed more than any other group!  The ONLY tax break for singletons is the Council Tax Single Person Allowance…this gives you a 25% discount on your CTax.  Sounds good, eh?  But think about it…if you are in a couple, with two incomes, sharing all your costs, then each person is only paying 50% of the CTax.  Therefore, a single person is paying 75% where one half of a couple is paying just 50%…the singleton pays 50% more than one half of a couple!!!  And single working people use less local and national social resources, yet pay the same in tax.  No party or politician stands up during the recession and says WE MUST LOOK AFTER THE HARD WORKING SINGLE PERSON.  Why the f**k not?!  Single people pay more for holidays, more for travel and more for general services as they cannot apply for any of the FAMILY DISCOUNTS!  Well, I am sick and tired of it…come on you 7 million singletons, make your voices heard!  Either that or 3.5 million move in with the other 3.5 million and claim a few benefits!

ZYNGA

Oh Zynga, I love your games on Facebook, and I for one know that I don’t have to click on the adverts that fund the games…therefore I have no problem about your business model.  I thank you for the fun.  I disagree totally with the accusations that you produce parasitic-gaming, because I am intelligent enough NOT TO CLICK ON THE F*****G ADVERTS!  Jeez..all these morons harping on about Zynga and their ‘evil’ intentions, their ‘snooping’ practices, the ‘intrusive’ advertising which leads you astray…JUST DON’T CLICK ON THE DAMN ADVERTS YOU OUTRAGEOUSLY STUPID BASTARDS!  The games are free to use so Zynga has to make money from elsewhere…like facebook, they take the chance to target you via advertising…but they AREN’T FORCING YOU TO BUY ANYTHING.  If you click on an advert then it is your responsibility not Zynga’s. Please please please stop bitching about this…either play the games or don’t play the games…it is your choice! HOWEVER, I will take Zynga to task over one thing…why don’t you reply to the perfectly reasonable error complaints of you many millions of users?  We love Farmville and Cafeworld, but there are flaws and bugs, and we take the time to report them to you, and discuss them on the Zynga forums…BUT YOU NEVER REPLY!  This is dragging your name through the mud and is doing you no favours.  please just pay someone to be the official voice of your organisation on the boards.

SPECIAL DELIVERY

So…the website for the UK post office says its Special Delivery service stops at 5pm each evening…but the branches say it is 4pm, or 4.30pm or 5.30pm.  WHAT TIME IS IT?!?!  I rely on SD to get my audiobook masters to the BBC, but I can never tell what time the cutoff for pickup is!  So for safety I stick with 4pm, but it really can’t be that hard can it?  And if a branch has to have a time different to the website advertised time, PLEASE PUT UP A F*****G SIGN!

UPDATE – Oh, and Special Delivery is meant to GUARANTEE delivery next day…so why has my delivery that went out yesterday NOT arrived today?  Oh…I have to call you and ask?  Oh, it was delayed in transit and will be dleivered tomorrow? Oh, the business is shut tomorrow so it will be Monday? Oh, so you can’t call me and tell me these things and leave it for me to be told by the recipient that it hasn’t arrived? Oh, so the service you provide has failed EPICALLY and yet now my client won’t receive the parcel in time for their deadline?  Hmmmm…thanks a f*****g lot…FAIL!

I Wanna Be Xmas #1!

Me!

Me!

So, way back when, in the year 1995, I worked at a radio station called B97, which was a rebrand of its original name Chiltern Radio 96.9…this is in a town called Bedford in East Anglia in the UK.  The station had partnered with the local commercial TV network (Anglia!) to raise money and toys for the annual Anglia TV Kids Toy Appeal.  As well as promoting it on air, and running trails for it and encouraging the listeners to send in toys, the programme controller, Derek, decided it would be a fun idea for us to record and release our own Xmas single. So, being the only musician at the radio station, he came to me and asked me to write it, record it and sort the whole thing out.  To do this I had to include the breakfast show team (as it was to be ‘their’ Xmas song) and the whole station was to help promote it and sell it.

So what was I to do?  Yes I was a musician, a bad one!  I play bass guitar, but I am no Paul McCartney!  So I got in touch with an old chum from the radio station, Paul garner (now very well-known for his comedy writing for the likes of Ali G, Bo Selecta, etc…).  he was a much more accomplished musician, played guitar,piano, drums…he could even sing!  We spent a few evenings thrashing out the concept, and then arrived at the final song.

The old Chiltern Radio

The old Chiltern Radio

Meanwhile, the breakfast show team had done a deal with a local recording studio, The Bunkers, to allow us time and studio space to record and master the song.  So, over a couple of long evenings, Paul and I, and the Bunkers team, set about recording our silly, comedic Xmas single.  As a sound engineer I loved the sessions…not just getting to play my bass and sing, but to watch paul do his thing, and help out with all the technical stuff!  We decided we wanted a big chorus type affair for the, well, choruses, and for the big ending, so we arranged for all the radio station staff, friends and family plus some mad volunteers from Yamaha who were based up the road in Milton Keynes, to come down to the Bunkers one afternoon and sing a few lines like a bunch of nutters.  Anglia TV even filmed it and we got our ugly mugs on the telly that evening.

Finally the song was finished.  Colleagues at the radio station had done a deal with a local duplicating house to get the track manufactured, and all the WH Smith stores in the region agreed to sell it for us.  We debuted the single on the breakfast show with Neil & Tim, then set about promoting the heck out of it.

Did it sell?  Yes it did actually!  We made a decent amount of money from it, and I believe it charted somewhere in the high hundreds (terrible, really!).  It was a lot of fun to do, helped a great cause, and allows me to say that I have released an Xmas single in my life!!

And now I reckon it’s time for its revival.  Xmas 2009 is rushing towards us and I think we need a serious threat to the X-Factor dominance of the Xmas #1 spot.  So have a listen to our wonderful song, and let me know if you’d support us releasing it for Xmas.  Money would go to the Stroke Association if we were to do this.

So here it is…”Floppy Gifts For Christmas”…slightly crappy quality as I grabbed this version from a cassette copy – just clicky the PLAY button below…….

Written by Paul Garner & Neil Gardner

Performed by Paul Garner, Neil Gardner, Neil Bentley, Tim Page, B97 Crew, Yamaha Crew

Recorded at The Bunkers, Bedford

Thanks to B97/Chiltern Radio & all who helped make it possible.

Mmmmm, new look!

Yes, thanks to WordPress themes, the blog has a nice new look.  It’s a little thinner than before, and so should work better on netbooks and mobile phones.  I’ve gone through the posts are slimmed down the images a bit, so I hope they all work.

It’s now much easier to navigate the various themes, such as FICTS and POEMS, right from the top menu bar – woohoo!

So dive in, have a snoop around, leave feedback and share the news with friends and family – thank you and onwards to glory and ice-cream 🙂

Cussbert & Co!

Another new idea for a regular cartoon strip…this is the story of the quest by Cussbert & Co. for somewhere cool and interesting to hang out.  Cussbert & his troupemay look like cute cuddly multi-coloured fluff balls, but they’ve got a right potty mouth on them!  They’re looking for something cool…but not much makes them happy?!  Mildly not safe for work or for children (rude words used!).

Cussbert & Co. 001, (c) Neil Gardner, 2009

Cussbert & Co. 001, (c) Neil Gardner, 2009

Let the Force be with someone else!

Let me say, first off, I am a massive Star Wars fan.  I saw the movies as a kid, I have since seen them countless times at cinemas and IMAX screens, I have bought EVERY version released on VHS, laserdisc and DVD, I have the books, some of the toys and yes, I am building a LEGO Death Star…I love Star Wars!

BUT…I need to say this out loud, or else my head will explode…ENOUGH WITH THE FORCE ALREADY!

The SWU - its a BIG place (c) Lucasfilm

The SWU - it's a BIG place (c) Lucasfilm

There’s hype everywhere for the new Star Wars game, we’ve just had a full series of The Clone Wars CGI TV show, and yet more books are being released in the expanded universe.  What ties them all together?  JEDIs, the FORCE, LIGHTSABERS, LIGHT vs DARK …aaaaaarrrrrgggghhh!!! I can’t take it anymore.  The jedi/force stuff was just ONE strand of the original movies, which then almost eclipsed everything else in the new trilogy.  But Star Wars, and the Star Wars universe are much more about average people standing up and fighting for what they believe in.  No special magic powers, just hard work, dedication and, often enough, sacrifice. It seems Lucas & co want to remove the average citizen from the Star Wars universe and only tell silly stories about silly sorcerers.  Well, this isn’t a playground for the rapidly ageing Harry Potter fans, this is the Star Wars universe and it lives and breathes because of spaceships, droids, a massive plethora of species and a whole heap of average-being-bravery!

The Expanded Universe books, which I have loved, are seemingly the culprits behind this.  For a while they were fantastic, mixing a little Jedi trickery in with a massive dollop of high-tech interstellar warfare.  The X-Wing series of books, the original and second Thrawn series, the Bounty Hunter series, etc… Yes there were Jedi/Force specific tales, mostly about Luke and his struggle to teach, but these were always against a backdrop of real people leading real lives.  And then came the multi-book series which seem to pit the Force against everyone and everything…Jedi everywhere, in the past, present and future…what is the dark side, what is the light side?  This infected the games…OK, so we’ve always enjoyed playing as a Jedi, but now nearly every Star Wars game was about lightsabers and Jedi and the old ways, or the new ways, or some other ways we’d never heard of.  Unless you wanted to play RTS games, the Star Wars universe pretty much became a JEDI-only place.

The Clone Wars CGI TV Series (c) Lucasfilm

The Clone Wars CGI TV Series (c) Lucasfilm

And now, we have a new overly hyped game starring a proto-Vader and yet more Jedi/Sith nonsense.  We have more books charting the Legacy of the Force and the Old Republic Jedi/SIth wars, and we have more CGI TV shows focusing on the whiny, misbegotten and frankly annoying Jedi of the Clone Wars period…usefully for the writers, the battles are fought by disposable non-people Clones, so we don’t need to worry too much about plotting them and their lives!

The Force and the Jedi/Sith were an interesting sub-plot in the original movies…but it was the real people, the pilots and gunners and troopers (and Ewoks!) who did all the real fighting and dying.  To me the Jedi and their mind tricks are simply a Deus Ex Machina, a way for Lucas and the writers who followed, to get themselves out of trouble (or in to it!).

Please please please…can we have some more stories about Wedge and Lando and Han and Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron and…well..some real people using guns and droids and spaceships?  Karen Traviss has been the best at this in recent years alongside some interesting retro-fit stories by the likes of Timothy Zahn.  And can we have a few kick ass games like X-Wing and Battlefront, that allow us to play as something other than a JEDI, in a world that has NO Jedi or Force involvement at all?

X-Wings in flight (c) Lucasfilm

X-Wings in flight (c) Lucasfilm

The Jedi and the Force have their place in the Star Wars Universe, but for me, they’ve become too dominant, too far fetched (is that possible in a fictional scifi universe?) and far too self-important.  I have hopes that the new live action Starw Wars TV series will bring us back to the real people of the SWU…I know some people working on it and they seem to be going in the right direction.  But, no magic, no fantastical last minute powers, just hard graft, realistic scenarios and a depiction of a real interstellar war please.

I’m not calling for less Jedi/Force stories (although it would be nice)…just a bit of balance with the other ways of telling stories within the SWU.  Go back to telling a few tales from between the movies, from within the Remnant, and about the secondary characters.  Star Wars at its heart told the story of a droid (R2) who was at the centre of an epic tale, and who, through bravery and skill, helped save the universe.  I miss those stories…let the Jedi do the grandstanding, but I wanna hear about the other stuff that goes on.

I now fully expect to be lightsabered by angry fans…please remember, I am a Star Wars fan too…I just refuse to bow before the power of the Force…it’s become the Empire and we need a Rebellion to get our Star Wars Universe back!

It’s Coming…

Somthing new and rather groovy will be appearing every weekday here on the Blog for the next month.

“What is it, Neil?”

That would be telling.  But it isn’t far off…in fact the first will appear this very day…so come back soon 🙂

From Hamlet to Hugo Rune…and all points in-between – Why David Warner is a Legend!

270979000_7786a76717_o

The man, the legend

He’ll hate me for using the word, but actor David Warner is one of the true LEGENDS of the craft.  For the 60’s generation he was the ultimate Hamlet, for the 70’s generation he helped define cinema with Sam Peckinpah, for the 80’s generation he is indelibly Mr Sci-Fi/Fantasy, for the 90’s generation he is the stalwart of many a great movie, and now, in the 2000’s he has come full circle and is known once again for his stunning stage performances for the RSC…oh, and for being Hugo Rune, of course!

Today is David’s birthday, and while he enjoys the now legendary (oops!) low profile, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate him and his work, not just because I have the immense honour of calling him a close friend, but also as someone who grew up in the 80’s watching his movies, and as someone who, in my current job, has had the pleasure of directing him and working alongside him.

For many of a certain age David will forever be THE Hamlet of the 1960’s!  He appeared at the Royal Court in the early 60’s, and then joined the RSC in 1963 where he performed in The Tempest, Julius Caesar and as Henry in Henry VI parts I,II & III.  In 1965 he moved on to his biggest role, as Hamlet, which was staged in London and Stratford.

DavidWarnertron

Tron

Alongside his theatre work, David was working in film and TV.  He reprised his role as Henry in the BBC’s War of The Roses series.  He also starred in Tom Jones, and alongside Bob Dylan in The Madhouse on Castle Street.  At this time he started a collaboration with director Sam Peckinpah, starring in films such as The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Straw Dogs.

Of course, with a voice like David’s, and his imposing size, it wasn’t a big surprise that he was soon being cast in horror and fantasy films.  He appeared alongside Gregory Peck in The Omen, and cult classic Waxwork.

5522225_tml

Star Trek The Undiscovered Country

For many of my age and disposition (30 something scifi nut!) he is best loved for his roles in movies such as Time Bandits, Star Trek, Tron, Wing Commander (well, maybe not!), Scream 2, Time After Time, The Man With Two Brains, Nightwing, Necronomicon, even Titanic (did you know he has starred in 3 different Titanic movies…you can’t sink a great actor!), and many TV series appearances, including Star Trek, Babylon 5, MST3K, and many others.

And then there is the voice…and what a voice it is!  In recent years David has been an integral player in many successful TV animated shows, including Batman The Animated Series, Spiderman The Animated Series, Men In Black the Animated Series and the wonderful Freakazoid series.  And should you so wish, you can play ‘hunt David’s voice’ on many of the most successful computer games of the past decade!

A couple of years ago, David moved back to the UK from the States and took to the stage once again with the RSC, appearing in both London and Stratford.  For many actors, as well as the audiences, it was the magical return of a legend to the theatres he made his own in the 1960s.  It has been wonderful seeing him back up there.

n662663658_677056_5944

The Brightonomicon Crew in 2008

So that’s the brief potted history of the man.  But why am I writing about him?  Well, I was searching for someone to play the role of Hugo Rune, the larger than life guru’s guru star of several books by cult bestselling author Robert Rankin in an audio adaptation of The Brightonomicon I was writing and directing back in 2007.  The Xmas before I had been fortunate enough to direct David in a new reading of Oliver Twist for BBC Radio 2.  His voice and style fitted perfectly with Hugo, and so, with Robert’s enthusiastic blessing, I asked David if he would bring the Lad Himself to life?  We spent the next year having a thoroughly fantastic time recording the 13 half hour episode, alongside the likes of Andy Serkis, Martin Jarvis, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Degas, Sarah Douglas and a host of other well known sci-fi favourites.  David IS Hugo…well, in some ways.  Maybe it is fairer to say Hugo IS David!  The fit was perfect and everyone who has heard the series agrees that David brought Hugo off the page brilliantly.  Robert Rankin was especially thrilled!

n662663658_677038_3769

David with Sarah Douglas & Andy Serkis

In the time since making The Brightonomicon audio series, I have had the pleasure of building a friendship with David.  He is a warm and caring guy, with none of the airs & graces of some in the entertainment world.  He is charming and disarming, has a host of incredible stories to tell, and is always there to help with anything.  We are currently planning the sequel to The Brightonomicon, in which David will return as Hugo.  On top of that we have a wealth of other audio productions coming out before Xmas with David.  If you like THAT voice, you are going to love these productions…we are moving away from the obvious villains and scifi stuff and giving David some room to stretch those thesping skills of his!

David and me at the Brightonomicon launch in 2008

David and me at the Brightonomicon launch in 2008

In the meantime, may I ask you to join me in wishing him a very happy birthday.  He helped make my childhood movie experience so very rich, and continues to this day to entertain and thrill audiences across the world.  And he does it all with a smile and a cheeky smirk and a knowing nod.  A true gent, a real pro…and sorry David, but you are a legend!

An Inky Issue

Such Inky Goodness

Such Inky Goodness

So what is it with the packaging of printer ink cartridges?  I just bought a couple of replacement HP21 black ink carts, got them home, and then spent a good 5 minutes fighting the bastard things to get them open.  It is bad enough that HP wrap the buggers in several layers of cardboard, which have a tendency to catch that little flap of skin at the base of your thumbnail when you try to open them using the ‘easy-to-open’ serated endings…but then they, or the retail stores, encase the whole shebang in heavy duty plastic sheathing, a la Han in carbonite.  This isn’t mere shrink wrapping, it is full on plasticised WAR!

First off, there is no way in to this thing.  No easy-tear strip, no clever little widget stub things that interlock and keep the beast closed.  Nope.  This casing is heat-sealed all the way round, I presume using some super-secret military grade laser!  You can’t tear it.  You can’t break it.  You can barely dent it.  I am thinking that this is the same plastic that those toy babies that are the only survivors of plane crashes are made out of.  It is surely the stuff the future robot warriors that will annihilate us as a species will be made from (in a gratuitous act of genocidal irony!)

So, how to get to the lovely inky goodness within?

Kids, make sure you have a responsible adult to help you with this – although, thinking about it, it will probably be quicker with an irresponsible adult to help!  I tried the kitchen scissors, which weren’t up to the job.  I tried the kitchen carving knife, which worked but came dangerously close to cutting my hand off in the process!  Luckily, as a suicide-waiting-to-happen (or maybe just an audio editor), I have a stash of single edged razor blades.  And so, with trusty blade in hand, I eventually uncorked my fluffy gooey HP ink.

So what’s the deal with all this plastic wrapping?  As a fairly well educated man, I can guess that it serves as a deterant to the idle shoplifter.  By hiring the Ugnaughts of Cloud City to encase each and every HP ink cart in carbonite, the retailers think shoplifters will take one look and go, “I aint hiring no Galactic bounty hunter just to open that!” and give the idea of stealing some ink the bum’s rush.

BUT!  If I was a determined ink cart thief-type, surely I wouldn’t worry about the wrapping.  I’d gather my ill-gotten hoard, take it to some lock-up and make like Arthur Daley with the old razorblade or crate knife?

HOWEVER, I wonder if I am off the scent here a little.  Maybe it isn’t to do with theft, but something more worrying?  Maybe it is the ink inside.  Maybe it needs to be protected ffrom the evil air that surrounds us and fills our lungs and taunts our goldfish?  As we all know, HP ink is now the single most expensive commodity IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE!  That is why it is doled out in such minute portions, and why they charge so much for so little!  It is also THE MOST UNSTABLE ELEMENT IN EXISTENCE, as proven by the fact that, no matter how recently you bought it, and how little you’ve used to date, there is never enough left to print what you are trying to print.

Therefore, it is my belief that the impossible-to-open plastic wrapping, is in fact there to keep the ink trapped and away from the evil air, so that as consumers we take home our little cartridge of inky joy, and only once opened does the process of ink-evaporation begin…thereby helping HP to avoid lawsuits and dimensional destabilisation.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it…at least until a better one comes along 🙂

N.B. – Hello HP lawyers…this blog is SATIRE and IRONIC.  I don’t really think HP sells magic evaporating ink, or has a hidden agenda regarding it’s packaging.  So please don’t sue me.  This blog is meant as humour.  That being said, please feel free to make your outer packaging a little less impossible to get through, and maybe a little more environmentally friendly.  Oh, and if you could make the ink last longer than a a couple of dozen pages (that’s sarcasm!) it would be ace.  Thanks 🙂

Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea

This is Ponyo

This is Ponyo (c) Ghibli/Disney

I am a massive Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli fan.  Spirited Away is my all time favourite movie, closely followed by My Neighbour Totoro.  These films bring such joy, beauty and warmth to the world, and they are an art form that is perfectly Japanese, with no competition from the West to dilute their uniqueness.

So I have just seen the latest Ghibli movie titled “Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea” (aka “Gake no ue no Ponyo”)…it is a much simpler story than the recent spate of Ghibli films, and reminds me very much of the likes of ‘”Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Totoro” and “The Cat Returns”.  The animation hasn’t taken any massive leaps forward, it is almost as if it has gone backwards a little, seeming much more hand-drawn and ‘cute’ rather than the sweeping CGI of “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”.  But this is no bad thing, as the plot doesn’t require such Michael Bay moments, it is a far gentler, more spiritual film.  I have totally fallen in love with Ponyo, it is everything a Ghibli film should be – highly original, without competition, high adventure in a small setting, the world seen through the fascination of children, a message of friendship and companionship, and most of all, great characters in a beautiful setting.

Ponyo with her brothers & sisters

Ponyo with her brothers & sisters (c) Ghibli/Disney

The story follows a small strange looking aquatic creature (a mermaid) that lives with her father, an undersea spirit.  This creature decides it wants to see the world beyond its small home, and so steals away amongst some jellyfish.  However, the creature gets more than it bargained for as it is soon accidentally washed up upon the nearby shore and found by a small boy.  The boy saves the creature by putting it in a bucket of water, but then takes the creature to school with him.  The boy lives with his mother, in a house on the top of a marvelously steep hill overlooking a small port town.  He decides to call the creature Ponyo, and a friendship is soon formed.  However, her father is not happy with Ponyo’s disappearance and sends the waves crashing to shore to find and retrieve Ponyo.  But Ponyo doesn’t want to live with the spirit anymore, she wants to return to the shore and be with the little boy and his mother.  in escaping, Ponyo causes the spirit’s magical potions to mix and spill and these lead to the ocean growing ever larger.  Ponyo is also affected by the potions and gets the ability to turn herself into a little girl.  She quickly returns to shore to find the little boy.  But in the town all is panic as the oceans rise and rise, forcing people to flee.  Eventually there is nothing left but the ocean and the hill-top home of the little boy.  The boy’s mother heads out to try and rescue the townspeople and take them to safety, meanwhile the little boy and Ponyo remain in the house enjoying each other’s company.  But as time passes, the little boy gets worried about his mother, and with Ponyo’s help, and her magic, they head off into the ocean to find her.

Ponyo with the Spirit of the Sea

Ponyo with her father, Fujimoto (fantastic art by the talented nasou - click for link-through to nasou's site and work)

I won’t go any further as I don’t want to spoil the rest of the film.  Suffice to say their adventure is full of mystery and magic, which builds to a climatic ending of typical Ghibli proportions!

As yet, I’ve only seen the Japanese version with rather poorly written English subtitles.  If recent movies are anything to go by, the English cast and dub will be superbly chosen and no doubt extremely well acted.  I’m really pleased to see Ghibli and Miyazaki make this move to the earlier style of work, there is an innocence and wonder about Ponyo that started to go missing with the bigger CGI films like “Earthsea”.  I hope we get a few more like this over the coming years, mixed with some of the bigger-scope stories of course.

Ponyo as a little human girl

Ponyo as a little human girl (c) Ghibli/Disney

Hurrah for Ghibli, hurrah for Miyazaki and hurrah for Japanese animation.  “Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea” is a first rate piece of entertainment.  As soon as it comes out, make sure you catch it, you won’t be disappointed 🙂

Spending Time With The Doctor

Kate, Tom, me and Richard

Kate, Tom, me and Richard

Calling all Doctor Who fans…so, it’s not exactly hot off the presses news any more, but Tom Baker (the 4th Doctor) is back as our favourite Time Lord, in a new 5 CD audio drama being released by BBC Audiobooks between Sept and Dec 2009, called “Doctor Who – Hornet’s Nest”.  This is no mere audiobook, nor is it a traditional radio play…it’s a chimera, a beast of many parts…with narration, conversation, action scenes, dramatic vignettes, and of course, music and SFX…this is a whole new way of bringing the Doctor to life.

Tom does some 'acting'!

Tom does some 'acting'!

So why am I blogging about it?  Because I am not just a fan (Tom is very much MY Doctor, in the same way Roger Moore was MY James Bond – I’m a 70’s/80’s boy!), but I have been responsible for the recording of all the audio, and the editing together of the adventures.  Although (unusually for me nowadays) I am not the named producer/director (that is the gorgeous and uber-talented Kate Thomas), I am bringing my producer/director experience to the editing and mastering of the series, helping to mix the usual BBC audiobooks format with a more radio/audio play style.

Tom, me and Richard making faces...well, why not?

Tom, me and Richard making faces...well, why not?

Imagine my squeel of fanboy joy when I was asked to get involved in this project.  Months ago, when we first talked about it, the whole thing was super hush-hush and I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing.  But now, the news is out, the interviews are being done, the articles are being released, and the first CD is due out in shops in a month and a half!

Over the past 2 months we’ve spent around 10 days in a radio drama studio in Swiss Cottage, London, and a radio voice-over studio in Central London, recording Tom and the wonderful Richard Franklin (he was Captain Yates back in the day, alongside the Brigadier!), as well as the likes of Rula Lenska, Daniel Hill and Susan Jameson.

In the drama studio

In the drama studio

That first recording session, we all got a thrill down our spines as Tom launched in to the full-on Doctor lines, bringing the character back to life as though the last 25 years had never happened.  He was back!  Doctor Who sounded (and looked) like he should again.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked Peter’s Doctor, and Colin was OK, Sylvestor had the added bonus of Ace, Chris Ecclestone was a breath of freshness, and David, well, what can we say about the superb Mr Tennent?!  But for me, a wee young thing of a lad in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Doctor Who always wears a long scarf, eats jelly babies, is very tall, has piercing eyes and an ever-so sharp and slightly naughty wit…in short (or tall in this case!), Tom Baker!

It’s a been a real pleasure of a job recording and editing this series.  It’s also been, and continues to be, a lot of hard work, long hours and faffing around finding SFX and music and making things balance.  But a boyhood dream has come true…I’ve met Doctor Who, and it was MY Doctor Who, and I haven’t just met him, I’ve worked with him, produced and directed him, and helped create a whole new chapter in the Doctor Who chronicles.

The infamous jelly babies!

The infamous jelly babies!

Boy oh boy I am in geeky fanboy nerd heaven.  I really hope you enjoy the series when it is released.  As I understand it there should be ample opportunities to meet Tom and the cast and get the CDs signed…and you never know, you may just meet me there too!

Hope you like the pictures as well…come on, I HAD to get a few, didn’t I?!? 🙂

Bay Bashing

Michael Bay and Bumblebee

Michael Bay and Bumblebee

“Transformers – Revenge of The Fallen” is now released, and in its wake follows a torrent of hate for Michael Bay.  Bay Bashing is nothing new, it has been going on for a couple of decades now, and I am perplexed by it.

What motivates otherwise normal, polite, caring individuals to turn into to bigoted, hate-mongering morons?

Let’s put some things into perspective here…

  1. Michael Bay makes movies, he is not promising to cure cancer or feed the poor.
  2. His movies are ‘popcorn’, ‘event’, ‘blockbuster’ films, they are not meant to compete with Kaufman  in terms of consciousness-raising!
  3. His movies always make money for the studios, and entertain many millions, in cinemas and in homes across the world.  He isn’t using public money to make the films, so why the feelings of betrayal and outrage at what he makes and how much it costs?

I don’t love Bay’s movies, although I do enjoy them.  They are films that appeal to the geek in me, the little boy who played at being soldier, the anorak who enjoys great SFX work, the movie fan who appreciates big spectacle as much as big ideas.  If I don’t like one of his films, I don’t think the is the Anti-Christ made flesh, I don’t rail against him and curse his children for all eternity.  I just don’t buy the DVD when it comes out.  Bay is NOT responsible for you choosing to go see his movie.  He is NOT responsible for you buying a cinema ticket.  He is NOT responsible for your expectations.

Movies are sometimes art.  Movies are occassionally life-changing.  Movies can even alter perspectives and societal beliefs.  But the majority of movies are simple entertainment.  Produced by studios to make money. Written by writers to make money. Directed by the Bays of the world to make money.  If they happen to tell a great story, introduce new talent, challenge perceptions, raise a laugh, question the system, etc…well, they have done a good job.  But movies are NOT there to replace the deficiencies in your life.  Directors like Michael Bay are not there to plug the gaps you have in your day-to-day existence.  Stop expecting movies and directors and actors and writers to be all-knowing, perfect constructs, and stop placing your insecurities and needs on these people and things.

I didn’t enjoy “Watchmen”, but did I hurl abuse at Zak Snyder for it, no.  I actually thought the direction and craft of the movie were excellent.  I didn’t enjoy the story, and I didn’t see why it was considered to be such an important movie.  I felt it was 10 years too late, and everything it covered had been covered in many other films.  But then I also didn’t find the original comic book all that revolutionary…maybe that’s because I also read a lot of books, listen to a lot of radio, and the concepts and ‘reverse-nature’ of Watchmen had been done many times before in other mediums.  BUT, do I think Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons should be attacked for their comic book? No.

I appreciate all art and all entertainment, because as someone who also makes this stuff, I understand how much of the individual goes in to each and every second of the final product.  Michael Bay may not float your boat, he may not have done a good job in your opinion, his movies may drive you mad…but he and his teams put their heart and soul into those movies and while you have the right to express your considered opinion and critique the film, you do not have the right to attack the man personally – he hasn’t popped round your house and punched your kitten!

Bay Bashing has been with us for many years, and will no doubt continue for many more.  But please, aim your criticism at the product, not the person.

Imagine a world without Michael Bay movies…it would have 99% less cool explosions, OTT SFX, military hardware shots and popcorn-ness – how sad it would be 🙂

P.S.  I am sure Megan Fox is well aware of what she is doing in those provocative shots…she’s exploiting her looks as much as Bay is!

%d bloggers like this: