Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax (BBC4 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I can’t say that, up until recently, I’ve given much thought to Madame Tussaud. I knew she was a real person with obviously a savvy business brain in giving people what they wanted as she established a brand which has lasted for over 150 years. Her Baker Street attraction I associate with long queues of people waiting to get in, my only visit was when I was about 15 which I remember loving although I’ve never been back. What changed things for me was Edward Carey’s excellent 2018 novel about her which I finished a few weeks ago, “Little”, which has got me thinking about her quite a bit recently and so seeing this one hour BBC4 documentary on the schedules seemed a bit of good timing.

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Made by Nina Barbier and narrated by Ben Crystal this used a French cast and subtitles to dramatise important times in her long life. I’m not a huge fan of the dramatised documentary which was here interspersed by talking head experts such as author Kate Berridge, Professor Pamela Milburn from London University and Vanessa Toumlin from Sheffield. There was no involvement from Edward Carey which I was a little disappointed by.

This hour took as its basis Tussaud’s 1838 memoirs as dictated to her friend Francis Herve. In this account truth was twisted as a means of marketing her and her brand, an early and effective example of the “celebrity” biography where events are tweaked somewhat. Marie had altered her birthplace and background from a family of executioners probably because tradition dictated that she would only be able to marry the son of executioners. (Perhaps the most fascinating fact in the programme).
The novel “Little” makes much of her diminutive size, using it as her nickname and for the book’s title. This was not mentioned here.

The most important relationship in her life was the professional association between the young Marie Grosholtz and her mentor Philippe Curtius and it was explored here but  the family dynamics were different from the novel and the fascinating section of the young female waxworker joining the court of Versailles (where she slept in a cupboard) seems to have been total fabrication by Tussaud in her memoirs, but there were enough points of contact between Carey’s fiction, Tussaud’s reworking of her life story and what were the agreed events to make things intriguing.

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What should not be overlooked, and which comes largely after the events of the novel is the great business sense of a woman whose business model was unusually matriarchal, who knew how to use, manipulate and exploit publicity, who knew how important it was to both give people what they paid for and offer them a little bit more if they were prepared and able to pay more and who was able to so successfully and independently assimilate business strategies from other forms of entertainment. (Monsieur Tussaud himself had no significant role in the business, other than spend the proceeds, and was a fairly disastrous match who remained in France when his wife came over to Britain to make her fortune). Like many successful business ventures since she aimed to provide education and wholesome entertainment to those aspiring for improvement as well as recognising our more baser instincts (the “Chamber Of Horrors” set-up was a reason for the waxworks’ lasting success). All in all, Marie Tussaud was a woman who should be remembered for her extraordinary entrepreneurial talent perhaps more so than her abilities with wax.

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Tussauds, London

Truth be told, this drama documentary might have felt a little pedestrian in structure for the casual viewer but it was certainly informative and thought-provoking and because my interest had already been piqued by its subject I was involved throughout.

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Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax was first shown on BBC4 in February 2017 and has been transmitted a few times since then. I caught the showing at 8 pm on Saturday 27th July 2019 which means it is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

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63 Up (ITV 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Has it really been seven years?  Director Michael Apted’s social experiment trundled back onto our screens this week in what must surely be one of the last updates before the project is laid to rest.  In 1964 twenty-three year old Granada TV researcher Apted had the job of selecting children for a project which would over time look at how their beliefs and circumstances aged 7 would affect them over subsequent years.  I’m not sure many would have predicted that he would still be filming those children 55 years later.

63up2Michael Apted

Apted himself has since gone on to a glittering career in TV and film direction which has taken him to Hollywood and high profile movies such as “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the James Bond “The World Is Not Enough” and yet despite his impressive CV, the “Up” series is the one which keeps pulling him back, inevitably, as he has a virtual life-long association with the participants.

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Celebrating at 21

At the time it started it was a revolutionary idea to use TV in this way.  Nowadays we are well used to seeing ordinary lives depicted through a daily myriad of TV documentaries but this would have not been the case back in 1964 , the fly-on-the-wall documentary was non-existent and nobody would have had a clue what “scripted reality” would be all about (truth be told, I still don’t).  With the Aristotelian tenet “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” as its raison d’etre the first programme looked at children from a range of different backgrounds.  1964 was definitely a different place and Britain was a class-obsessed male-centric society.  This did affect the balance of some of the questions which would seem inappropriate today.  The trio of boys from a public school were encouraged to map out their future yet expectations were lowered for the three East End working-class girls and in subsequent catch-ups tended to focus on boys and finding a man to marry leading to the always sparky Jackie to snap at Alsted when aged 21 for gearing his questions to them at a lower level.  As much as the whole thing was an experiment in class differences the question remains did those who started off with the more advantaged backgrounds fare better?  The answer to that would seem to be financially and professionally yes but these individuals would be those we as viewers would be least likely to want to find out about.

63up3From 7 Up

I suppose I would have been with this series since 21 Up, although in the early days an update would be preceded by repeats of the earlier shows so I feel like I know 7 Up very well.  This would take far too long to do now although ITV did show an appetite-whetting talking heads hour “7 Up & Me” which I didn’t bother watching as we see enough of those shows (a mainstay of Channel 5)  where the “celebrities” featured talk about something they’ve just been shown ten minutes before as if they’d known about it all their lives.  I might be misjudging it but I didn’t want to risk it (and I knew it had Eammon Holmes in it!).

63up563 Up-pers Bruce, Sue and Tony with photos of their former selves!

I did watch all three episodes of 63 Up shown on consecutive nights.  Taking the group as a whole there’s not been as much change for them individually in the past seven years, they are more likely to be contemplating retirement, spending more time looking after grandchildren and have health issues (in farmer’s son turned physics professor Nick’s case very serious health issues).

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ITV could have done more to prepare us for the death of one of the participants Lynn “I want to work in Woolworths” who passed away suddenly at the age of 58.  The way in which this was handled made for effective television but built up the shock for those of us who feel like we’ve known these people for our whole lives.  One other participant, Suzy, has decided that 56 was as far down the line as she wanted to go and pulled out of the programme (as others have done along the way).  It was interesting to hear the 63 year olds talking about the emotional upheaval the show causes them every 7 years as the whole media spotlight and the need to reflect back on their pasts kicks in again, but many said how valuable to them the whole experience had been.

 

Tony  and Neil at 7

The highlights?  The long-lasting bond between children’s home pals Symon and Paul here shown in a Christmas holiday together with their wives in Paul’s long-time home Australia and the updates on the two characters we most remember; Neil, who went from a delightfully confident 7 year old to homelessness, mental health issues and a resurgence through politics and religion in what has traditionally become the most traumatic sequences in the updates (and proof that Aristotle wasn’t always right) and East-Ender Tony who the programme makers chose to lead 63 Up, who was incidentally always my Dad’s favourite and who would talk about him as if he was one of our family as Tony progressed from a mischievous 7 year old who wanted to be a jockey or a cab driver to becoming a trainee jockey and then cab driver.  I think the pull of the “Up” series is that it encourages us to take stock and look back on our lives, our pasts, presents and futures alongside the participants.  (I’ve actually been thinking about life beyond retirement this week which I don’t think I’ve ever done before!) and this is why it is such consistently fascinating and important television.
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63 Up was first shown on ITV on Tuesday 4th- Thursday 6th June inclusive at 9pm.  It is currently available on the ITV Hub catch-up services

Flat Pack Pop: Sweden’s Music Miracle (BBC4 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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This week I learnt a new expression – “Jante Law”. It is a Swedish term for something which is deep within their psyche and may be something of an eye-opener to us more selfish nations. Jante Law is the putting ahead of society before the individual, which means that any boasting of achievements or jealousy of those of others risk social disapprobation. This actually explained a lot to me about Sweden’s role in popular culture- why some members of Abba at the height of their fame became reclusive, and why some still are decades later, why even the choosing of a Eurovision entrant is done so widely and methodically (rather than our pick any three songs and get the public to vote on them approach) and with reference to this documentary why we know so little of the huge role that Sweden has played in popular music history over the last 30 years, with one producer and songwriter, Max Martin, now only behind Lennon and McCartney as the most successful songwriter of all time.

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Max Martin

The suitably reticent Mr Martin did not want to be interviewed for this, he wanted just his music to tell a story for him but presenter and music journalist James Ballardie found others prepared to do so to put together this story of a musical phenomenon in a fascinating one hour documentary. It is the story of how Sweden became the biggest exporter of pop music per capita of anywhere in the world.

The history does not begin with Martin but with another even more significant figure who was equally happy to be seen as just a backroom boy. This was Dag Volle, a club DJ from 1980’s Swedish clubland mecca “The Ritz” who began remixing US club hits to appeal more to Scandinavian tastes. Volle’s love for this type of music led to the name change of Denniz PoP, who after successful remixing of tracks by others sought to achieve the perfect pop record himself.

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Denniz PoP

We learnt how serendipity played its part when a tape sent to him by an aspiring Swedish foursome, along the lines of Abba, got stuck in his car cassette player blasting out the same song every time he used the car. This group was Ace Of Base and the track was reworked eventually to become “All That She Wants” – a global hit which topped the UK charts and got to number 2 Stateside. Just before that PoP’s name was established on European and worldwide charts through his work with a Nigerian dentist and wannabe rapper living in Sweden, Dr Alban and his “It’s My Life” track which topped charts all over Europe and got to number 2 in the UK in 1992.

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From then on things moved quickly. PoP developed a clear musical doctrine, opened Cheiron studios and enlisted a group of writers “moulded in his image” to produce the perfect pop sound. I’d found myself researching these just a couple of posts ago when I was reviewing Will Young’s debut as part of my Essential CD Collection and they were fresh in my mind when I watched this. If there was one special protégé that was Max Martin, lifted from heavy metal group “It’s Alive” whose love for more melodic sounds than he was making led to PoP seeing him as a kindred spirit.

We met other member of the team who also produced hits by the bucket-load for the company- Andres Carlsson, Stonebridge, Herbie Crichelow and jingle writer Jorgen Elofsson amongst them who shared how this magical formula worked. The fascinating thing was that the blueprint was always Abba, showing the integral part the foursome of a generation before played in all subsequent developments in Swedish pop. At the root of all of it (and also of Abba) was Swedish folk music which was simplistic and melodic.

Like Motown three decades before one of the main Cheiron principles was that it should sound good on the radio. “Production control” at the Detroit studio is now famous for its weekly meetings, tracks recorded by different artists and competitiveness between artists and producers to get their songs released but here it was taken to another level with sometimes up to a hundred versions of the same tracks flooding the Swedish clubs,  All this work was to hear what sounded good over the DJ decks and what would sound better on the radio or in an open-topped American car (rather than in a Swedish Volvo in the depths of winter). Recognising the US teen as the biggest purchaser of music PoP’s team looked to reflect American lives from a Swedish perspective. We learnt that this repackaging of ideas to produce a more effective version of the best of what is out there is also part of the Swedish make-up evident in companies such as Ikea and H&M.

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The inspiration behind all Swedish Pop

But behind this global success “Jante Law” forced these writers and producers to remain as far under the radar as they could (Ace Of Base enjoyed their global success and were vilified in the Swedish press) and then tragedy intervened with another great leveller – as cancer claimed Denniz PoP at the age of 35 in 1998.

By this time globally successful artists wanted in on the act. The Backstreet Boys, N-Sync, 5ive, Westlife and Britney Spears owed much of their success to these writers. Max Martin adopted the central role and the team went from funeral to working on Backstreet Boy’s multi-million selling “Millennium” album but the central force had gone.

Eventually, the writers moved away from the studio set-up and took what they had learnt from Denniz and notched up hits, continuing to this day for the biggest artists of the world including Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, One Direction, Madonna, in fact virtually every global pop superstar. Martin has set up MXM Studios in the US and has for the past eighteen years being working with many Swedish producers as part of his team, still observing Denniz Pop’s principles and developing them into their unique formula they term “Melodic Math”.

At the end of this excellent hour we saw Max Martin being awarded the Polar Music Prize from the Swedish King, still concerned about the ramifications of Jante Law. I found the whole thing fascinating, more for what it told us about Swedes than the music which was on generous display throughout. Managing to achieve this level of success in this media-hungry day and age without many people even being aware of their existence just really grabbed my attention and got me thinking.

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A Year To Fall In Love (Channel 4-2018)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With sport dominating the early summer TV schedules those of us who are looking for an alternative are being pushed towards the search for love.  Or that is what it feels like in my house where I’m still needing my nightly fix of Love Island and on Tuesday night Channel 4 unleashed “A Year To Fall In Love”.  This documentary show features the video diaries of 20 people over a year as they attempt to find “the one”.  This appealed because I thought it was going to be pacey – 20 people, one year all in the space of an hour.  I thought this might curb Channel 4’s love of the “recap” as there just wouldn’t be time.  In the TV schedules this programme did look like it was going to be a one-off rather than a series.  At the closing credits (when we’d seen less than 20 people) I discovered this was just a taster for the rest of the series which would be tucked away on the All-4 catch up service rather on Channel 4 itself.  Feeling just a little duped a visit to All-4 revealed 6 online episodes.  I’m not too sure why C4 would shunt this over onto the online platform, other than suggesting that it’s not the social-experiment-for-our-times I’d anticipated but something more along the lines of summer-time filler.

yeartofall2Freddy has a year to fall in love

The most fascinating aspects of this programme were the statistics. Nearly 40% of people now meet their partners online which has changed the whole rationale of the way in which people select and relate to a partner.  Online the choice can be overwhelming bringing the user into contact with people that they would never meet in their everyday social and professional life but this selection process does bring about anxiety, inability to make a decision and commit to it and a fear of being “ghosted”- a term I’d never heard before watching this.  The pitfalls of choosing online were clearly brought home in this.  The most important way to make an impression is therefore the profile photo.  Also, apparently the average relationship lasts for three months so for most it’s not too long before the whole process has to begin again.

yeartofall3Nick has a year to fall in love

On this first episode we met performance artist (?) Freddy who asked out a girl who had known as a friend for some time; husband-hunting Sophie who was on the look-out for a wealthy man who wears a big watch (?!); Nick who was struggling with the etiquette of online dating: Niki, who was keeping her girl/boy options open whose first weeks of recording her quest seemed to show progressively dodgy choices to the point where she was scared to answer her phone and Brighton resident Xander negotiating gay dating apps.  There were considerable ups and downs for all proving once again the road to love is far from smooth.

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Niki has a year to fall in love

However, the format of the programme was such that I found myself not too bothered as to whether their searches would be successful and whereas I might watch further episodes to find out more if it had a weekly time-spot on Channel 4 going onto All-4 for box-set viewing is probably something I will not bother with.  Most of us still have that mind-set that online viewing shows cannot be as good as main channel picks and because this means I am questioning C4’s commitment to this project maybe it’s not for me.  I’ll stick with “Love Island” (and I couldn’t imagine me writing that a couple of months ago!)

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The first episode of “A Year To Fall in Love” was shown at 10pm on Tuesday 19th June and is available like the rest of the series on All-4 catch-up/online service.

The Real Full Monty (ITV 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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It’s been 20 years since film-goers were captivated by a depiction of unemployed Sheffield steel workers who became a male strip troupe to the sounds of Hot Chocolate, Tom Jones and Donna Summer.  “The Full Monty” was a massive hit and even had Prince Charles alarmingly joining in on the action.  The film had much to say about men, about what unemployment does to a community, about thinking outside of the box, about friendship and featured a group of men discussing issues and coming to terms with things that Sheffield steel workers might find difficult.

The popularity of the film even had royals joining in (I’ve spared you the video of this!)

One of the things us men still feel difficult to talk about is prostate and testicular cancer.  This one-off documentary showed an attempt at linking a celebration of the film’s China anniversary with raising awareness.

Alexander Armstrong & Ashley Banjo

The man at the centre of this was “Pointless” host and possessor of a surprising yet profitable singing voice, Alexander Armstrong.  He enlisted the help of Dance legends Diversity’s inspiration Ashley Banjo to put together a routine for a group of male celebrities who were expected to eventually bare all in front of a packed crowd at the London Palladium.  Male celebrities willing to do this were a bit harder to find, 600 were apparently asked and of those who agreed some had been directly affected by prostate cancer themselves, Wayne Sleep, Dom Littlewood who had endured cancer diagnoses and Elliot Wright, brother of the more famous Essex boy Mark, whose father was about to undergo radiotherapy for the condition.  They were joined by a couple of ex-Strictly alumni, McFly’s Harry Judd and swimmer Mark Foster and also Stuart Wolfenden from “Emmerdale”.  A representative from the Afro-Caribbean community was welcomed in Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules, who also had dancing experience.  This was a particularly appropriate move as we found out in the programme that those from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds are disproportionately more likely to be affected by prostate cancer.  A visit to a garage mechanic who was working hard to promote awareness provided sobering moments.

From rehearsal to performance

ITV produced a good documentary here .  It certainly had the potential to be cheap and cheesy.  The process followed by Ashley Banjo to teach the dance would have been familiar to those of us who have watched his various Sky 1 series.  I always made a point of watching these because of the sheer passion for dance from the Diversity crew and how this infectiousness spread during the course of every episode towards group of often inactive workmates keen to astound loved ones with a professional standard street dance routine.  But here on ITV there were other issues to contend with, mainly getting naked in front of a packed London theatre.

The first unveiling down to underwear saw two surprising objectors (Sleep and Wolfenden) and added tension came along the way when Danny John-Jules had to pull out over work commitments and Ashley (whose body, let’s face it, is highly impressive) had to wrestle with his conscience to see if he could bring himself to bare all alongside the other celebrities.  Along the way there was a visit to Sheffield to see landmarks from the film and a trip to meet the stage cast of “Calendar Girls” who are also stripping off for our entertainment.  The message that ran through was that men should be checking for lumps and getting tested for the often symptomless early stages of prostate cancer.  To do this in what was actually a fairly family-friendly show in which there was a chance to see celebrities get naked (!) was really quite a canny idea.  Okay, so it was not especially original but it did have an original slant, it was well-paced over its 90 minute length and it was heart-warming.  Overall, it recalled audience responses of 20 years ago when we willed on those original Sheffield steel-workers in the movie.  I found myself doing the same for this equally unlikely group of strippers.

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I did feel, however, that at the end of the programme the ITV announcer could have been a bit more pro-active at pointing viewers in the right direction to get help rather than just talking about up and coming shows.

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The Real Full Monty was shown on Thursday 15th June at 8.30 pm on ITV.  It is currently available on ITV catch-up services.

More information on the issues raised by this programme can be found on:

Yourprivates.co.uk

Macmillan info on Prostate Cancer