Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Wearing my poppy with pride

Today is Remembrance Day in the UK. In the USA it is called Veterans Day or Armistice Day. It is a state holiday and so my kids are off school, though my employer (Duke) has classes as normal.

As I pointed out in a post here a couple of years ago (No Poppies in America on Remembrance Day), people here don't wear poppies on 11 November, or the week leading up to it, as they do in England. I really miss it, and so the Resident Alien Blog is wearing its poppy with pride to honour those who have fallen in the wars.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

"Knickers in a twist"

It's funny to see a British slang expression making its way into American discourse. In a review of Dawkins's Greatest Show on Earth, Nicholas Wade writes:

There is one point on which I believe Dawkins gets tripped up by his zeal. To refute the creationists, who like to dismiss evolution as “just a theory,” he keeps insisting that evolution is an undeniable fact. A moment’s reflection reveals the problem: We don’t speak of Darwin’s fact of evolution. So is evolution a fact or a theory? On this question Dawkins, to use an English expression, gets his knickers in a twist.
Wade's review has generated a huge number of responses, one of them from Duke professor Alex Rosenberg, which enjoyably plays with the "knickers in a twist" expression:
Since Nicholas Wade, in his review of “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution,” by Richard Dawkins (Oct. 11), has accorded to us philosophers of science the role of arbiters in deciding on the “cognitive structure of science,” let me suggest that it’s Wade who has gotten his knickers in a twist and not Richard Dawkins.

Evolution is a fact, natural selection is a process and Darwin’s theory is that the fact is explained by the process. The facts of evolution are as evident as any facts about the past can be . . .

. . . . Wade writes: “Creationists insist evolution is only a theory, Dawkins that it’s only a fact. Neither claim is correct.” Like too many journalists lately, even in The New York Times, Wade seems to think that the appearance of balance requires that he condemn with fine impartiality creationists and Dawkins. The twists into which Wade has to contort his review in order to do this will make for needless knicker-untwisting.
I smiled to see the very American English "gotten" next to "his knickers in a twist", and I quite like it. The last line, on the other hand, tries to play with the image a little and it comes out a little strangely, at least to these British ears. The expression "getting your knickers in a twist" means something like overreacting to something relatively minor, "getting in a tizz" about something. The actual "twisting" itself is not material, as it were.

A little googling shows that there is a comparable expression over here in the US, "get your panties in a knot". It's not something I have heard, though, and it sounds like an attempt to carry the expression over, "panties" being AmE for BrE "pants" or, as here, "knickers". "Panties in a knot" is clearly not as memorable as "knickers in a twist".

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Childhood Memories of a British Doctor Who fan

I was asked to give a short talk at our Doctor Who Raleigh meet-up group's Annual Banquet tonight and I thought I would share it here too. The topic I chose was my memories of growing up with Doctor Who as a child in England, something that will be a little foreign to most of the audience who have had their first experiences of Doctor Who here in the US.

To speak about being a "fan" of the programme as a child is not quite right because as far as I remember everyone watched Doctor Who. Well, everyone in my world at least -- my brother and my sister, my cousins, my friends, all the kids at school. And everyone except my mate Martin Staley's brother whose parents would not let him watch it because he had had a nightmare about the daleks. (What a punishment to be banned from watching Doctor Who! My parents were never so cruel). When we were younger, we played Doctor Who in the playground. When we were older, we chatted about it on the Monday morning as soon as we were back at school. It was the TV highlight of the week, and the cliffhanger ending made you ache for the next week's episode.

Some people get annoyed if you talk about classic Doctor Who as a children's programme. Not me. As a child, it was our programme. We knew that it was for us. That's why it was in TV Action (later TV Comic). It's why there was always a Doctor Who Annual. It's why it was always on Blue Peter. It's why it was on straight after Basil Brush.

Now we all laugh at the special effects and the wobbly sets but it is a fallacy to think that no one noticed them back then. We knew that there were crummy special effects, but we thought that it was because it was a kids' programmme. Adult programmes, like the ones my parents watched -- Columbo, The New Avengers -- were generally on ITV and they clearly had far better production values. I thought that Doctor Who had slightly rubbishy production values because it was for kids, and the BBC were not going to blow all their limited budget on us. It was the best that there was for kids (though The Tomorrow People on ITV would have come a close second for me) but I don't think I ever thought it was a programme that adults watched.

My first memories of Doctor Who are from around four years old. Jon Pertwee was the doctor and he will always be "my doctor". He took over in 1970 and my earliest memories of Doctor Who, perhaps a year or two after that, are of him in the role. Doctor Who had been in colour since 1970, since Pertwee replaced Troughton. I became aware, as time went on, that colour had not always been around. You might notice that right at the end of the credits in all these episodes is the proud declaration "BBC COLOUR". This was a big deal back then, a really big deal. My dad loved his television and he was one of the first people in the area to get a colour televisioin, and he was proud of it. When my sister was born in June 1969, my older brother and I were taken to a neighbour's house to be looked after while my mother was in hospital. I was two. It is family legend that I sat down and pointed at the television and said to my brother Jonathan, "Black one, Jo-than, black one!", clearly appalled that they had not got a nice new colour TV like we had.

I think I thought that the whole world was in black and white before I was born. I remember asking my parents "When did everything become colour?" "Oh, very recently," they said. "Just after you were born." Gosh, I was lucky to be able to see colours everywhere when people used to see only black and white.

I was born in 1967, and apparently the "Macra Terror" was the Doctor Who that was on at that point, a Patrick Troughton (second doctor) adventure, all four episodes of which are now lost. But I never knew the second doctor. I can vaguely remember watching "The Three Doctors", the tenth anniversary adventure, in 1973, and being fascinated by it, but it served to confirm my opinion that Pertwee, the third doctor, was indeed the best. There was something calmly authoritative, kind but paternal, gentle but strong, that I found hugely appealing about Jon Pertwee's portrayal. I loved the earth-bound adventures, Jo Grant, Bessie, the Brigadier.

It was around this time that my father took me to Longleat House, near Frome in Somerset. He used to go down there from time to time because of a Lewis Carroll exhibition. But there was a huge bonus for children who were visiting -- Longleat House was the home of the Doctor Who Exhibition. Visiting it was a real thrill. You entered the exhibition by means of a TARDIS that looked like it just happened to be sitting in the back courtyard of the stately home. You opened the doors, and there was the console room, exactly as it should look, and with tons of buttons to press. I had always wanted to press those buttons in the TARDIS console room; I think the thing I most liked about Star Trek was all the buttons for pressing on the bridge and imagining what fun it must be to be Captain Kirk and have buttons in the arms of your chair! Being in that console room made such a marked impression on me that I can't remember anything else about the exhibition at all, although a close friend of mine, some years later, built a Dalek and took it there to display.

The difficulty about growing up with a show that you love is that eventually adolescence arrives. Unluckily for me, that phase of life happened at about the time that the programme dipped in quality, at least as far as I was concerned. I had already got tired with K9, I felt that Tom Baker had stayed in the role for too long, and it was hard to come to terms with Tristan from All Creatures Great and Small becoming the Doctor. I remained loyal, but now I was the only one in the family watching it, and it had moved away from its proper home, Saturday nights, to Mondays and Tuesdays, which felt to me like an admission of the declinein quality. I will admit that Sarah Sutton's Nyssa did just keep the adolescent's interest there, but it was not long before I'd be off to university, Colin Baker would become the doctor and, as far as I was concerned, it was like late Laurel and Hardy, only a shadow of its former self.

There were still flashes of restored enthusiasm, but they were few and far between. I quite liked Sylvester McCoy's seventh doctor in the late eighties, "Remembrance of the Daleks" was the first story to make any memorable impact on me for a while, and I was a little sad when the guillotine fell. But I was only a little sad. By the time it came back, for that one glorious evening in May 1996, I was a dad, and I was ready for Doctor Who again. I'm still fond of that Doctor Who movie and think that Paul McGann could have been a great doctor.

Perhaps its renewed failure was for the best, though, because the return in 2005 was triumphant. Now I was father of two, and the kids, then seven and ten, loved the new series straight away. Christopher Ecclestone was their doctor just as Jon Pertwee had been mine. The same year we moved to America, and after wondering how on earth I'd manage without the cricket and Radio 4, I began to worry about how we would cope without Who. I did not need to worry, of course, and enjoying Doctor Who in America provides a link with home, a way of remembering my roots and celebrating what's great about being British.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

New (shorter) Prisoner trailer

Apart from the grandiose sounding American voiceover, it's pretty good, and includes the great Rover shot:

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Prisoner: 9 minute remake trailer just out

Comic-Con is underway at the moment in San Diego and for those, like me, eager for news of The Prisoner remake, the good news is that it is now coming thick and fast. Apparently a new nine-minute trailer premiered at Comic-Con yesterday and happily, it's already available on the AMC Prisoner Blog:

First impressions: this looks fantastic. It combines a new look and a new feel with elements of the original series -- The Village, surveillance, paranoia, mind-tricks, Number Six vs. Number Two, escape attempts, perpetual summer, taxi-rides, the local shop, a very large map and . . . . Rover! In fact there is a hilarious moment in the discussion at Comic-Con, also available on the AMC Prisoner blog, when (AMC Vice President of Production) Vlad Wolynetz explains how he made the suggestion, at a production meeting on Rover, that they could perhaps dare to use a big white ball.

A couple of other quick comments. It is clear now that one of the major departures from The Prisoner (original) is that Number Six (now just "Six") is an American from New York, and that New York replaces London. I think that that is fine in a remake, and to be expected given the casting. It looks like AMC are really pushing for an international release. They speak about a "world premiere" in November so it looks like it should be on AMC in the States and ITV in the UK at the same sort of time. A mixture of British and American casting takes us back to the hey-day of programmes like The Persuaders.

One other earlier comment I had made (The Village in the Prisoner remake) also seems to be confirmed, that the look of the new village evokes The Truman Show as much as it does The Prisoner. This is one of those odd and enjoyable intertextual things given that The Truman Show was clearly influenced by The Prisoner original.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Village in the Prisoner remake

I had not noticed until reading a post on SFX that the trailer for the new Prisoner features a brief image of The Village. It occurs about four seconds in and I have done a screen shot (above). I earlier speculated about Swapokmund vs. Portmeirion and it seems likely that the success of the remake will depend largely on how good the new Village looks. From this, and from other pictures of Swapokmund, it reminds me more of the Truman Show's Seaside location in Florida than Portmeirion. Perhaps that will work well in the new version; I am looking forward to finding out. Incidentally, that SFX post also makes the excellent point that the trailer looks a bit underwhelming to those who have recently seen the Doctor Who Easter special "Planet of the Dead", which also has a double decker bus and a desert. But this trailer was clearly made for American TV, and only naughty people here in the US have seen "Planet of the Dead". Perhaps ITV will be well advised to construct a slightly different promo for use in the UK.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Prisoner: first trailer for the new version

A short (fifteen second) trailer has been released for the new version of The Prisoner, which is to premiere later this year. The trailer appears on AMC's website, and it appeared before that on American television on Sunday. The voice on the trailer is American, so it looks like the remake will be on in America, at least, in November. It will be interesting to see if ITV in the UK gets it at the same time.

The Prisoner Promo

I particularly like Ian McKellen saying "Be Seeing You" in a menacing way at the end -- very promising.

(HT: Den of Geek, The Unmutual, AMC Prisoner site).

Friday, 29 May 2009

Doctor Who back in America -- at last

News broke last night, in Variety (reported by Radio Free Scaro) that the five Doctor Who specials are finally scheduled to air in America, and that they will premiere on BBC America. There had been some frustration among American Doctor Who fans about the wait for these new episodes, the first of which, "The Next Doctor", aired in the UK on Christmas day and the second of which, "Planet of the Dead" aired on the day before Easter. My friend Chip, of the Two Minute Timelord podcast, has been vocal in his criticism of the failure of the US TV companies to pick up (the first two of) these five specials in a timely fashion, not least because it effectively encourages the fans to access them "by other means". He first commented in Planet of the Delayed and then guested on the Whocast 118 in the first of two programmes they devoted to gathering the assembled hordes of Doctor Who podcasts to get their impressions on the lack of Who in America, continuing with Whocast 119.

I share the frustration of other Doctor Who fans in America.  The technology is available to broadcast things in close proximity in different regions, and this is now the norm with films, which often premiere on the same day in the US and the UK.  One of the difficulties, I think, with the scheduling and marketing of Doctor Who in America is that the habits and traditions of American TV viewing are quite different from those of British TV viewing. In the UK, there is an old tradition, which people like me grew up with, of Saturday night family viewing, when everyone gathers around the telly.  My Saturday evening as a child began with Basil Brush, went on with Doctor Who and continued with The Generation Game and The Two Ronnies.  Saturday night was the big night for TV and everyone I knew was watching.  I don't know that there has ever been a tradition like this in the US, though it may just be that I am ignorant.  One of the great things about new Who is that it recaptured the Saturday night family-viewing slot, with anything between 6 and 10 million viewers, but there is no equivalent family viewing Saturday night slot in the US, and the US cable companies have struggled to know quite where to schedule it.  Sci-Fi channel, who have been the first to air each of the recent series, from 2005 to the present, settled on the Friday night geek slot, about 8pm, just before Battlestar Galactica.  But this already nudges Doctor Who towards a particular niche audience, people like me, 30-40 something family types who might be in on a Friday night, and it does not target Doctor Who's natural family audience.

There is a related problem when it comes to what they call event TV.  The biggest TV audiences in the US now gather for Superbowl Sunday.  In contrast to the UK, the major holidays do not provide opportunities for major new TV drama.  Whereas in the UK, Christmas Day TV is some of the best TV of the year, in America there is little new programming and only repeats and films.  This explains, in part, the problem that Who has found in getting its five "specials" scheduled.  There is no special TV Christmas tradition into which a Doctor Who Christmas special like "The Next Doctor" could be slotted.  Still more so with Easter.  "Planet of the Dead", the second of the specials, got an excellent audience in the UK on the Saturday before Easter, but this kind of scheduling would make no sense in the US where there is no similar tradition of Easter TV.

From my limited experience of American TV in the four years we have lived here, it seems that a lot is invested in gaining momentum.  A series is given a particular, regular slot and there are tons of episodes (21 to 24)  stretched across the key season time of September to April.  It is difficult enough to strecth a Doctor Who series of 13 or 14 episodes into this schedule, but still worse to fit in five "specials" separated by months.  

What I think is happening, however, is a steady, slight reawakening of interest in Who in America.  SciFi were getting a million or so viewers for the new episodes in series 4, and the series has then popped up on BBC America, and then PBS channels.  If the rumours of an American film ever come to anything, I supsect that there is an audience out there who could be interested -- many remember the PBS showings of the classic series  in the 1970s and 1980s, and several of the SciFi fans are already enjoying the new series.  

There is just one thing I really want to beg from BBC America as they premiere the new specials.  Please don't cut them!  Last year, Voyage of the Damned, the 2007 Christmas special, was massacred on its BBC America outing, with more than 20 minutes cut, including the Murray Gold song, "Stowaway".   SciFi were often the  same -- material trimmed here and there in order to squeeze it into an American TV hour.  I think viewers won't mind to have scheduling outside of the hour in order that they can see the whole episode.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Hitler's opinion on the new Star Trek film

I enjoyed this Youtube clip (courtesy of an anonymous commenter on The Busybody):

(Alternative rant here). I am pleased to find myself on the other side to Hitler. I have seen the film twice so far and loved it and even phoned in to the CIA Podcast for the first time to enthuse about it a couple of weeks ago (ep. 98). The film reminds me of the way that new Doctor Who manages to reboot the franchise while at the same time embracing and celebrating the past. Now our kids like Star Trek and Doctor Who, and we can enjoy them with them. Happy day! (Getting their interest in classic Trek and classic Who is not quite so easy, however).

The subtitled Hitler rant above is a good effort but it is not quite as good as the piece on the finale of Torchwood Series 2, which I blogged last year. Here is that piece again, now relocated. Warning: strong language and Torchwood spoilers:

Watch Torchwood Series 2 Finale Upsets Even Hitler in Entertainment  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

My favourite screensaver ever -- BBC 1980s Clock

I have been getting a ridiculous amount of pleasure out if this simple screensaver on the BBC Ashes to Ashes website.  It is a working BBC1 clock of the kind you would see between programmes back in the early 1980s.  In other words, it is a nice piece of nostalgia for those of us who were in our teens back then.  There is something about being a British expat that makes it all the more enjoyable, with distance as well as time separating us from Auntie.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Trucks and Lorries

In three years of reading the excellent Separated by a Common Language, I have never been able to fault it for the accuracy of its discussions of British English (BrE) vs. American English (AmE), speaking as someone who straddles both of those worlds.  Once again, Lynne is spot on in her discussion today of the issue of Trucks and Lorries.  There is one slight complication not mentioned by Lynne, though, which is that the word "truck" and "lorry" are interchangeable in BrE, perhaps because of creeping Americanization.  This is no recent thing.  One of the most famous Not the Nine O'Clock News sketches was all about "trucking", though the choice of word was no doubt influenced not so much by the fact that there is no verb "to lorry" as by the fact that "trucking" rhymes with something you could not say on the BBC in 1980, even after nine o'clock:

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


While listening to Simon Mayo the other day, there was a nice moment when he became a bit concerned that the person who had called in was going to be rude about the bankers. The person on the phone says, "No, I'll just call them a 'wunch'." Mayo did not know what he meant and cautiously asked him to repeat it. "Wunch," the caller replied. "A wunch of bankers". A google search confirms that the word has been around for a while, and even finds its way into the Urban Dictionary.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Why not open up the iPlayer for International Users on Red Nose Day?

Tomorrow, Friday March 13, is Red Nose Day in the UK. Here's a thought. For British expats, the inaccessibility of the BBC TV iPlayer is something of a bĂȘte noire (I have talked about it here), so much so that many have found what are known as "other means" of accessing it. The BBC could use this occasion to earn a little extra money for Comic Relief. And so, why not, just for tomorrow, relax the restrictions on internationals accessing the iPlayer? The BBC could use it as a chance to find out what the demand would be like while at the same time benefiting charity. It could be a first step towards the kind of subscription-based service for the iPlayer for internationals.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Favourite Abba Song

A couple of weeks ago, Scot McKnight was asking for our favourite song by Johnny Cash. Now he is asking for our favourite Abba song. Scot's is Dancing Queen, and he embeds a nice Youtube of Abba miming it in Australia in 1976. I think this is obviously the correct answer. I am not going to try to be cute and disagree. It's not just Abba's best song; it is one of the best pop songs of all time. Full stop. My favourite moment in the recent Mamma Mia film (my comments) was the blink-and-you-will-miss-it cameo from Benny during Dancing Queen.

Nevertheless, as an Abba obsessive, I am not one to let an opportunity like this pass by without a bit of extra comment. So here goes. If Dancing Queen has a serious rival, it is Take a Chance on Me. This is another perfect pop song, this time enhanced by a perfect video. By this stage in their careers (early 1978), their videos were not simply a matter of miming on stage with microphones, and this video is one of the great pop videos, so good that it feels almost indistinguishable from the record. When you hear the song, you think of the video. It does not feel like an afterthought. Cheery, quirky, feel good, funny; it is a bad mood buster:

If you had asked me back in my fanboy days, though, I would have given a different answer. In fact, I did give a different answer when interviewed about Abba on BBC Radio Derby as a teenager. "The Winner Takes it All" is the true Abba fan's answer to the question. Those who claim that it marks the real maturing of Abba from happy pop combo to performers of intense, emotional pop are not familiar with earlier material like "Knowing Me Knowing You", but it is clearly one of Agnetha's best vocal performances. After the unbelievably dire Meryl Streep rendition in Mamma Mia, it's necessary to remind ourselves how great the original was.

If I were to compile a top ten, I'd want to throw in other classics like "Fernando", "Name of the Game" and "Gimme Gimme Gimme" but also a very much underrated entry, Abba's last but one single, released in 1982, "The Day before You Came":

It gives you an idea of how great they would have continued to be if the public had not fallen out of love with them.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

The Return of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue

Since the death of Humphrey Lyttleton in April last year, there has been a major question mark over the future of the greatest comedy radio series of all time, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. I was delighted to hear today, on the new Radio 4 Blog (itself a welcome addition to the blogosphere), that the series is to return in spite of the sad death of Humph. The rotating presenters will be for the first three recordings Stephen Fry, Rob Brydon and Jack Dee, all ideal choices. Humph will be missed but I can't wait for the new series.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Free Cleaning for the American flag

Unless you have spent some time living in America, you might be surprised by the esteem many Americans feel for their flag. Down our way, many houses have the stars and stripes mounted on a flagpole from the front of their house. Schools have it at their entrance. I had not thought about it before, but these flags always look sparkling clean, and this is why. I was picking up some dry cleaning today and while I was waiting, I read a bold notice pledging as part of the cleaner's pride in their service that they always clean the American flag for free.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Favourite Jonny Cash Song

Over on the Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight asks "What is your favorite song by Johnny Cash?" He goes for "Jackson". My choice might seem a little eccentric, but it is his cover version of the Hank William's classic "I Saw the Light":

This comes from the 1974 episode of Columbo starring Johnny Cash as Tommy Brown (season 3, episode 7, "Swan Song"). I watched this episode when the BBC we re-showing the entirety of Columbo in he late 1980s and it made a massive impression on me, introducing me to Johnny Cash for the first time and developing my love for the Columbo TV series.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009)

I was sorry to hear today of the death of Patrick McGoohan. I have followed his career with interest ever since first catching The Prisoner in its 1984 re-run on Channel 4. As children, and for some years afterwards, we used to holiday in Portmeirion where The Prisoner was filmed back in 1966. On several occasions, my brother and I attended the Six of One conventions there. The Prisoner, starring McGoohan, sometimes written and directed by him too, is without question one of the greatest TV series of all time. To an extent its cult success has obscured the McGoohan's many other roles. I used to sneak off to my college room in the mid-80s to catch Channel 4's re-runs of Danger Man, the spy drama that made McGoohan famous in the 1960s, in the role of John Drake. I remember with fondness his several appearances in one of my other favourite TV series of all time, Columbo, most recently in one of the final episodes to have aired, Ashes to Ashes (1998), featuring his daughter Catherine, and which McGoohan directed.

There are already several detailed and interesting obituaries, including The Times, The Guardian (with more in their TV Blog) and The Telegraph. Portmeirion itself mourns his death and the fansites have their tributes, Six of One (with a recent photograph given to the society by the family), which includes a lengthy obituary (PDF) penned by Roger Langley, McGoohan's biographer. See also The Unmutual, which is gathering tributes, and a delightful series of reflections that parallel my memories on Stuff on TV by Cameron McEwan.

Update (22.40): Although he wouldn't remember us, we met Mitch (then Mitchell) Benn at his first and subsequent two or three Prisoner conventions in Portmeirion. We were quiet, passive participants; Mitchell and the "Liverpool group" were brash, loud, ultimately very funny participants. I remember the Liverpool group's parody of "The Two Ronnies" sketch in which Ronnie Barker's speciality is answering the next question. One of the answers in this quiz was "Mitchell bloody-know-it-all Benn" to paroxysms of laughter, and a withering look at the audience from Benn that made you think, "This bloke is pretty funny". Well, I mention these reflections from over twenty years ago because the comedian Mitch Benn looks back on those days of his "hardcore nerdment" on his blog:

So reading of Ol' Paddy McGoo's passing hits home, 'cos it kind of feels like a big chunk of my adolescence has gone with him.


Thursday, 8 January 2009

Doctor Who vs. Star Trek

Fantastic Star Trek and Doctor Who mashup video from

(HT: Planet Gallifrey)