Stock Aitken Waterman: Legends of Pop – Channel 5


Back in the day, it was considered a bit uncool to like Stock Aitken Waterman songs; but everyone did anyway.   How could you not?   They were just so catchy!   The trio are probably most associated with their big hits of the late ’80s and early ’90s, working with either unknowns, like Rick Astley and Sonia, or soap actors looking to break into the music business, like Kylie and Jason.   But they worked with some big name established acts too, people like Bananarama and Donna Summer, who went to them because they admired their success.

This first episode focused on their early years, how they got together and some of their early singles.   It went into quite a lot of technical detail, which was something different, but it was largely an exercise in ’80s music nostalgia.  And, hey, I’m always up for a bit of that!  Loving this, thank you Channel 5!


Neighbours: All the Pop Hits and More – Channel 5


   Following the sad demise of Neighbours, although it was brilliant to see Scott, Charlene, Mike and Jane reunited in the final episode, Channel 5 treated us to a nostalgia fest of songs by Kylie, Jason, Stefan Dennis and Craig McLachlan.   OK, it featured Natalie Imbruglia and Delta Goodrem too; and their music, although not Holly Valance’s which also belonged to that era, is probably better than the early stuff; but I’d left school and university by the time they came along, and I seemed to have lost my soundtrack by then.  Those halycon late ’80s and early ’90s days of I Should Be So Lucky et al take me back to schooldays, schoolfriends, school buses, schooldays crushes, Smash Hits and Just Seventeen; and this programme will have taken a lot of other people back to that time in their lives too.

Popular culture was a unifying factor for us.  There were certain songs, groups, films, books and TV programmes, and obviously football matches and other sporting events, which nearly everyone, regardless of which social group they were in, could discuss. Cool kids and quiet kids alike, girls and  boys alike.  Neighbours was a big part of that, and so was the music that its alumni produced.

I used to buy a lot of compilation albums – some on tape, some on CDs once we’d acquired a CD player – in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and they inevitably included songs by Kylie and Jason, and even the could-be-worse song by Stefan Dennis and the seriously-dire song by Craig McLachlan.  And they’re all associated with particular memories.  Mona is the school bus, I Should Be So Lucky is an art lesson spent discussing how we’d seen “Charlene” on Top of the Pops and The Roxy, Hand On Your Heart is someone from the year above blasting out that week’s top 10 on the school lawn (the teachers let it go as it was their final day before leaving for pre-GCSE study leave), Sealed With A Kiss and Never Too Late are both associated with tennis … I could go on and on.   Ah, and Especially For You … how wonderful was that?

It was actually very uncool to admit to liking Stock Aitken Waterman music, especially once the Madchester scene got going.   But we all loved it really.  The songs were so catchy.    I can still remember particular people trying to sing them at school and on the bus, but I won’t mention names!   And who would have thought that Kylie, or Charlene as we still called her when I Should Be So Lucky first came out, would go on to have number one hits in five different decades?  Amazing.

Yes, it was a great exercise in nostalgia … and it’s sad to think that Neighbours, such a big part of the zeitgeist of my formative years, is no more.  Thanks for the memories, guys!   We’ll never forget you.  Altogether now … “that’s when good Neighbours become good friends”.

Deep in Vogue – BBC 3


Having enjoyed both series of Pose – I started watching it mainly for the ’80s music, but got really into it! – I was very interested to hear about the vogue ballroom scene in Manchester and Liverpool.  I could have done with more about the history and culture and less about the actual choreography, but, OK, that’s just a personal thing.  The main message coming from it was that this is something which has given a lot of confidence to people who, whether because of their ethnicity, their sexuality, their sexual identity or even their gender (society doesn’t do a very good job of giving women confidence) have felt marginalised and unsure of themselves.  It’s wonderful when anything can do that – and it’s very sad that, because of the current situation, a lot of people are cut off from dancing, singing, sports, religious services, playing cards, or whatever else it is that does that for them.  But this was a lovely, positive, hour’s watching.  Anyone feel like writing a Pose-type series set in North West England 🙂 ?

One of the people interviewed made a very good point about how it’s often minority groups who take the lead when it comes to music or other creative forms.  That’s certainly true, and it’s a point I’ve heard made in other programmes.  At the same time, there was also a lot of talk about inclusivity.  There’s been some criticism of Madonna, as a white, straight woman, for getting into voguing, but everyone interviewed on this programme said that it’s for everyone who wants to be involved, and I thought that was great.  There are obviously issues if something gets over-commercialised and taken away from its roots, but that wasn’t what was happening here.  It was about people expressing themselves in a way that works for them, and about a voguing community that provides friendship and emotional support and a safe place for people.

It was interesting to hear that the voguing style in Manchester and Liverpool is noticeably different from that in London.  In the ’80s – my music collection has never got out of the ’80s! – there was a lot of regional variation in music, and it sometimes seems that everything’s got a bit samey and globalised, in the same way that High Streets and a lot of other things have.  So I was really pleased to hear that different parts of the country are doing their own thing where voguing’s concerned.  We don’t all need to be the same!

And, on that same theme, some points were made about voguing helping people to get away from the pressure to conform to stereotypes – one man was talking about people being refused entry to gay clubs for not “looking” gay.  This is something that’s been in the news lately, with Priti Patel talking about the racism she’s faced because she doesn’t conform to the stereotype of what a British Asian woman should be like, and a lot of assumptions are made about what people should think or wear or look like because of their ethnicity or religion or sexuality or anything else.  Everyone is an individual and everyone should feel free to express themselves in their own way, and that was a lot of what this programme was saying.  As I said, a really nice programme.  Anyone feel like writing a Pose-type series set in North West England 🙂 ?




Captain Tom’s War – ITV, and VE Day: the People’s Celebration – BBC 1


Two excellent programmes, both shown on the 75th anniversary of VE Day.  The Burma campaign during the Second World War, involving a vast number of men from Britain, India, East Africa and West Africa, has always been strangely overlooked; and I understand that that’s why Captain Tom Moore, who’s become a national hero thanks to his fundraising efforts during the current crisis, agreed to make this programme with ITV.  It was a fascinating account of riding motorbikes though the jungle, coping with monsoons, snakes and gigantic spiders, dealing with malaria and dengue fever, and the fear of ending up in one of the notorious POW camps.  We were also shown footage of Vera Lynn’s visit there, and told what it meant to the troops to see a pretty girl, hear her lovely voice, and know that they hadn’t been forgotten.

Over on the BBC, the VE Day celebration programme nearly had me in tears several times, as we were treated to socially distanced music from the grounds of Buckingham Palace and from an empty Royal Albert Hall, and saw veterans receive video calls from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and a number of celebrities.   I think that my three favourite video calls were those with a man who’d just turned 100, and was linked up by video to his relatives in Australia, a couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary, and a lady finally being presented (from a distance!) with her wartime medal, with Scottish pipers playing in the background.

This wasn’t how we’d expected the 75th anniversary of VE Day to be, but well done to both ITV and the BBC for helping to make this a special evening – culminating in the address by the Queen.  Nice to see William and Kate involved, and Charles and Camilla earlier in the day.  The Royal Family are doing a sterling job during this crisis, insofar as they can.  And, whilst I’ve got mixed views on some of the media reaction to the coronavirus situation, all aspects of the media did a superb job as far as “VE Day 75” was concerned.  Well, apart from the Guardian, which doesn’t think that the defeat of the Nazism should be commemorated or that those who fought for freedom should be honoured, but that sort of attitude is best ignored.  Well done to both ITV and the BBC, and also to Sky News for their excellent coverage throughout the day.

Going back to the programme about Captain Tom Moore, it really was fascinating.  It’s strange that the Burma campaign’s so overlooked, especially given the involvement of Lord Mountbatten, and also Orde Wingate, who’s quite well-known in his own way, and Viscount Slim.  But it is.  We heard how the young Tom Moore from Keighley, aged only 20, played a vital part due to his pre-war position as an engineering apprentice, in Burma and later back in Britain.

At a time when few people could drive, he was heavily involved in training his comrades, both British and Indian, to drive tanks.  Motorbikes were crucial too … you don’t particularly associate motorbikes with the Second World War (I do wish people would use the proper expression, rather than “World War II !), but they were used for delivering dispatches, and, and I never knew this, were vital in combat because the Japanese tended to mount attacks at night, when tanks couldn’t be used because of visibility issues.  The Fourteenth Army had to park their tanks about seven miles from the front, and send everyone in by bike!

And the conditions.  Talk about “It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum”.  The heat, and the humidity, and the long monsoon season.  Trekking across the jungle.  Poisonous snakes and spiders. All the time, the fear of being taken prisoner, and being sent to one of those horrific POW camps.  Captain Tom contracted dengue fever, and, at one point, up to 12,500 men per day were having to be taken out of the actual combat force due to malaria.  In 1943, 120 men were falling sick, many not to recover, per every one battle casualty.  You associate those sorts of figures with far earlier wars.  I honestly never realised just how bad it was.  We just hear so little about the Burma campaign.

I’m so pleased that the wonderful Captain Tom agreed to take part in this programme, and hope that it might raise the profile of the campaign, for the sake of all those brave men who fought in those terrible conditions.  It was wonderful to see him, and to see the veterans involved in the BBC programme too.  There should have been parades and other events all over this country and in so many other countries across the world, to honour them and mark the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism.  It wasn’t to be, but many of us marked it in our own ways, and watching these two programmes was a big part of that.





The Pet Shop Boys concert to which I was due to go at the end of May’s just been postponed … and I keep thinking that I must play some of their music anyway, because Left To My Own Devices, Being Boring, Suburbia, Always On My Mind, It’s Alright and, perhaps most of all, Se A Vida E all fit the present situation pretty well.  It’ll be interesting to see (or indeed hear) the songs that come out of this sad, strange time, because there’ll be some.  Going back to my era, there are plenty of songs which relate to particular times and events: Wind of Change is the one which immediately springs to mind, and Right Here, Right Now and Read My Lips are another two.  Then there are all the “Madchester” songs, which belong to a “scene”, and maybe wouldn’t have worked so well as stand-alones .  But good songs have universal appeal, and work at any time … but would they work so well if sung by someone different, and out of their original context?

Well, according to this film, yes, they would.  A struggling aspiring musician (Tamwar from EastEnders) is involved in an accident during a global blackout.  When he comes round, he’s the only person who remembers The Beatles: they’ve been wiped from history.  So he becomes an international megastar by singing all their songs, and claiming that he composed them.  If the music-stealing storyline sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Nicholas Lyndhurst’s character in Goodnight Sweetheart.  There’s also a romance with Lily James.  And quite a few shots of Liverpool.  And celebs playing themselves, which is a bit weird.

Given how many young actors fade into obscurity after leaving soap operas, all credit to Himesh Patel for playing the lead role, Jack, in this, especially as he does the singing, guitar-playing and piano-playing himself, but it’s not a particularly great film.  However, it’s quite good fun, and anything involving Beatles songs is always worth watching.  And, at the end, Himesh Patel/Tamwar/Jack says “Isn’t normal wonderful?” and sings “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, life goes on”.  Yes.  That.

Ed Sheeran has quite a big role in it, as himself, and James Corden also plays himself.  Cheryl was in Four Kids and It.  Is this a thing now?  Are celebs also going to start turning up in soap opera and TV drama series … when they can eventually start filming again?  It’s a bit strange.  Meanwhile, Lily James doesn’t want to live a celeb lifestyle, and has started going out with someone else.  Then Sarah Lancashire and a bloke doing a bad Russian accent turn up at a press conference, waving a plastic yellow submarine, tell our man Jack that they remember The Beatles too, and give him John Lennon’s address.

So he goes to see John Lennon … played by Robert Carlyle.  I’m not sure that a parallel universe in which someone who was murdered nearly four decades ago is alive and well is particularly tasteful, and Robert Carlyle could have at least tried to do a Scouse accent, but never mind.  He persuades Jack  to give up the music thing, release all the songs for free, abandon the life of stardom he’s living in Los Angeles, go back home to Lowestoft, and live happily ever after with Lily James.  So Jack ‘fesses up in front of a packed Wembley crowd, marries Ellie (Lily), and they have two kids and live happily ever after.  Sorted.

The idea that no-one else knows where the songs have come from and that someone claims them as their own isn’t original, but it is quite funny, and the main parts are all acted well.  The romance between the person who’s become a star and the boy/girl back in their home town who doesn’t want to lead the celeb life isn’t original either, but it’s rather sweet.  But the fact that The Beatles had been wiped out of history didn’t seem to have had any effect other than that no-one knew their songs, which is rather insulting to probably the most influential band of all time.

And would their songs have worked so well if sung by someone else, at a different time in history?  I feel as if I should say no, but look at all the cover versions that have worked well for different generations.  A great song’s a great song.   Jack didn’t sing the more bonkers/trippy songs, admittedly – they probably wouldn’t have worked!

Anyway, as I said, this isn’t a particularly great film, but it’s watchable.  And it might all seem like A Hard Day’s Night at the moment, but We Can Work It Out, With A Little Help From Our Friends.  We need to Come Together (but no close than six feet) and Help!, send All Our Loving to the people we can’t be with and trust that, at some point, it’ll be Here Comes The Sun and we can Get Back! to being Day Tripper(s), driving along Long and Winding Road(s) and buying Ticket(s) to Ride … and having our families and friends beside us Here, There and Everywhere.  Yes, I do know that that was completely naff, but it kept me amused for a few minutes.  If you’ve read this, thank you, and stay safe x.


Kinky Boots


This was excellent – what a wonderful pick-me-up on a very wet and windy day. I’ve always liked Cyndi Lauper’s music (don’t you just *love* the Girls Just Want To Have Fun video?), and this addressed some important issues in a fun and upbeat way rather than a preachy way. It’s partly based on a true story, as well. Let’s have drag queens wearing kinky boots saving family-owned factories in proud provincial towns, and modelling the boots on the catwalks of Milan in Cool Britannia dresses, and let’s have everyone learning to accept everyone else for who they are. Up the provinces, up the factories, up everyone learning to accept themselves and to accept everyone else, down with pretentiousness, and up with music and dancing!

Thanks to the legendary Foo Foo Lammar, I and most other kids in ’80s Manchester grew up thinking that drag queens were some of the coolest people on the planet. When Foo Foo died, the city mourned and Sir Alex Ferguson gave the eulogy at the funeral. But Simon/Lola in this story has struggled to find acceptance, especially from his own dad, and the storyline is partly about that. It’s also partly about Charlie, the factory’s owner, being torn between the place he’s grown up in and the people he’s grown up with, and the new life that his snotty girlfriend wants him to make in a “marketing” job in That London. And it’s partly about the devastating effects of the decline of traditional industries on their home towns.  These are very serious subjects – and the way in which Kinky Boots works is to address them in a fun and upbeat way, not a preachy and lecturing way, and not a sneery and mocking way.  It’s serious stuff, but it’s entertainment.  And it is *superb* entertainment.

Northampton makes shoes. OK, I think we’ve all had to accept that the days of towns and cities being dominated by, and leading the way in, their traditional industries are over, but that history is still a huge part of who we are. We still talk about “taking coals to Newcastle”, things being “all ship-shape and Bristol fashion”, and driving through “the Potteries”. Not to mention “Manchester goods” 😊 . Football teams still have nicknames like “the Blades”, “the Hatters”, and, in the case of Northampton Town, “the Cobblers”. Deindustrialisation has hit the North, the Midlands and other parts of the country very hard. It’s the same in other countries: the term “the Rust Belt” is used to describe parts of the US. How wonderful to see a musical/film tackling this very important subject.

Charlie’s family have been making shoes for generations, and his dad expects him to take over the factory in due course. However, Charlie’s girlfriend Nicola persuades him to move to London. Bright lights, big city, a job in the service sector rather than the manufacturing sector … and a flat the size of a shoebox. But then Charlie’s dad dies suddenly, and Charlie inherits the factory. It’s overstocked, it’s lost its main customer, no new orders are coming in, and his instinct is to close it down. Nicola wants him to sell the building to be converted into “apartments” for the well-to-do. But that’s going to mean that all the staff, most of whom he’s known all his life, will be thrown out of work, and there are precious few other jobs around. One of them, Lauren, who’s got a bit of a crush on him, points out that those factories which have survived have found new markets – hiking boots, or sandals. They need to find something new as well.

Then enter Lola, a drag queen who’s having problems finding feminine boots with heels strong enough to take a well-built man’s weight without breaking. Eureka! Unlike Charlie, Lola loves shoes and is keen to design them. I’ve never quite got why some people are so obsessed with shoes, TBH.  As long as mine are comfortable and not too expensive, I’m sorted, but I do get that shoes are a really big deal to other people!

The women at the factory think Lola’s great. Some of the men, especially one Don, aren’t so sure. And Lola herself, despite seeming to be so confident, clearly isn’t.  One day, she arrives at the factory in a man’s business suit, no wig, no make-up, and says that this is who she was in another life – Simon from Clacton. We learn that, whilst Charlie’s dad wanted him to take over the shoe factory, Simon’s dad wanted him to be an Alpha Male, including being a professionally-trained boxer.

Charlie is desperate to put on a good show at a forthcoming footwear exhibition in Milan. Initially, everyone’s keen – but, as time goes on, Charlie and Lola clash, Charlie and the staff clash, Don and Lola clash, and everything goes wrong. The exhibition looks set to be a disaster, but, thanks to everyone eventually accepting everyone else, it’s all all right on the night – Lola’s troupe of dance queens show off the kinky boots in a Geri Halliwell-esque Union Flag dress, a Beefeater outfit, an English cricket whites outfit, etc. Everything is Cool Britannia, the factory is saved, Lola performs her drag act at the nursing home where her father’s now living, Charlie breaks up with snotty Nicola and gets together with Lauren, and there’s a rousing finale.

OK, it’s a bit cheesy, and, whilst the music’s lively, it’s not particularly memorable … but it’s so positive, and it really cheered up a horrible day when Storm Ciara was battering us and I got wet and windblown just walking from the tram station to the cinema!  Very highly recommended.

Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey – BBC 4


I was expecting this to be just a bit of festive fun, but it was actually surprisingly moving. Lucy Worsley really can do moving, when she’s not dressing up and being irritating. We love to sing. Even when you’re me, and you were told to mouth the words at the school Christmas concert because your voice was so bad that you were putting the other girls off. We feel a need to sing together, whether we’re cheering our team on at football matches or singing Don’t Look Back In Anger when we’re trying to come to terms with a devastating terrorist attack.

Christmas carols go back to the days of wassailing, long before the winter festivities were taken over by the Church. The Puritans wanted rid of them, and any religious-themed music not actually using words from the Bible was frowned on for decades after that, well into the mid-18th century. But people wanted to sing, and, as Lucy said, carols were “the people’s music” – and the religious authorities had to give in. During the famous Christmas truce of 1914, carols were sung, and “Just for a little while, they brought comfort and comradeship, and a little bit of peace”. I think we could all do with some of that. Let the midwinter festivities, regardless of whatever form of religion, if any, they’re associated with for you, be about coming together. Singing’s a really good way of doing that. Even when you’re me, and you were banned from singing out loud during the school concert!

The programme started off with wassailing, and a reminder that midwinter celebrations go back long before they became associated with the Nativity story. We then got some Tudor jollification, complete with a picture of a Tudor Father Christmas. I’ve always rather fancied the Tudor court idea of stuffing yourself for twelve days, but I’m fat enough already – not that that seemed to bother Henry VIII, in his later years. Then the Reformation, and the infamous Commonwealth period – which I prefer to call the Interregnum, but no-one else seems to use that term these days! – when the Puritans were calling the shots and, as we all know, a lot of the Christmas traditions were banned. Out went any form of singing in church other than psalms set to melodies.  Even long after that, the Church of England wasn’t keen on carols –  and the Methodists deserve a big festive gold star for promoting them.  Eventually, the Established Church gave in – the first non-Biblical one it OKd being Hark the Herald Angels sing.

It was quite hard to get it all to fit in with the history of carols, because we don’t actually know how or where most of them came from, and that’s complicated by the fact that, in most cases, the words and the music originated separately! And we honestly don’t know if there are hidden meanings behind, say, The Twelve Days of Christmas. But we did hear quite a bit about the history of some individual carols. Is O Come All Ye Faithful actually a Jacobite song, referring to Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than having anything to do with Christmas? Yes, probably! How far does In The Bleak Midwinter reflect Christina Rosetti’s struggles with mental and physical health problems? I didn’t know that O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by an American minister who’d gone on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to get away from the Civil War – why did I not know that?!

And, whilst the story of the Silent Night music and the flooded church organ is well-known, something that’s never really mentioned is the fact that the actual words date from slightly earlier, 1816, the year after the end of the Napoleonic Wars which brought such upheaval to the Salzburg area, passed around like a parcel from ruler to ruler. It was the first year of “heavenly peace” for a long time. And that’s the carol most closely associated with the Christmas truce of 1914. Lucy seemed quite emotional whilst she was talking about it. I really hadn’t expected this programme to be quite so moving. It was lovely.

This isn’t a carol (nor was it in the programme, but I’m sticking it in anyway) but it is a Christmas song – Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas, sung by the late, great, Freddie Mercury.

Oh my love
We live in troubled days
Oh my friend
We have the strangest ways
All my friends
On this one day of days
Thank God it’s Christmas
Yes it’s Christmas
Thank God it’s Christmas

Could we have some peace and goodwill to all men (and women), please?  Some tidings of comfort and joy?  And some heavenly peace?   Waes Hael (good health)!!   Well done, Lucy.  I really enjoyed this.

Last Christmas


I’ve still got my vinyl copy of Last Christmas, after 35 years.  No idea whether it still works or not – but one of the all-time classic Christmas songs, and the late, great, George Michael, deserve so much more than this rather disappointing film.  The lead character needed a good slap, there’d been a ridiculously careless error over the dates of the Yugoslav Wars, and there weren’t even that many Wham! songs in it.  And why are these things always set in London?!  There were moments of promise, mostly involving minor characters, but none of them were fulfilled.  It was watchable, but certainly not memorable.

The main character, Kate (Katarina) was just irritating.  She was sofa surfing in London, but it was entirely her own fault that she kept being asked to leave: she showed no respect for her friends’ homes, and kept wrecking their treasured possessions and inviting strange blokes back without asking if it was OK.  And whingeing about being “homeless” when her old room at her parents’ home was ready and waiting for her. Not to mention rushing out of work – a Christmas shop, where she dressed up as an elf all day –  without locking up, as a result of which there was a break-in and the place got trashed.  She didn’t even apologise to her boss.  People’s lives do get in a mess sometimes, but you need to be able to sympathise with the person, and instead I just wanted to slap her!

And, as I said, why are these things always set in London?  And why do they always involve with people with posh Home Counties accents?  I was just waiting for Hugh Grant to turn up like he usually does!   Although, in this case, the main character with the posh Home Counties accent was supposed to have been a child refugee from “former Yugoslavia”.

At the start of the film, we got a picture of children’s choir in an Orthodox church in “Yugoslavia” in 1999.  Well, OK, technically the name “Serbia and Montenegro” wasn’t adopted until 2003.  But we were then told that the irritating Kate and her family had moved to London from “former Yugoslavia” because of “the wars”.  For a kick off, no-one says “former Yugoslavia” any more.  Everyone says Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, etc.  And whereabouts were they from, and which of the wars had they fled from?  The mum mentioned Croatia, but the war in Croatia was long over by 1995.  And it was definitely a Serbian-looking church.  OK, they could have been Croatian Serbs from Krajina, but why would they have been fleeing in 1999?!  There was fighting in Kosovo in 1999, but most of the people who left were Kosovo Albanians, who do not have Slavic names, speak a Slavic language, or, as a general rule, attend Orthodox churches or any other churches.  It just all gave the impression that the scriptwriters didn’t know what they were talking about.

Presumably Emma Thompson, she who flew from California to London on a carbon-emitting plane just to protest about climate change, was trying to show how right on/woke she was by having a main character who was a refugee, but the fact that no-one could even be bothered to check the dates was really rather insulting to the many people who suffered so terribly as a result of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the wars that followed.  Not impressed.  /rant

We learnt that Kate had had a heart transplant, and that that was supposedly why she was so flaky and irresponsible, but she was so annoying that I was hard to sympathise – although it was easier to sympathise with her worried mum, whose phone calls kept being ignored.   In fact, several of the minor characters were far more appealing than Kate (which wasn’t hard), but sadly we didn’t get to see much of them.  The mum, who’d been traumatised by her experiences in the wars – although that would have worked better if a) they’d actually bothered to check the dates of the wars and b) Emma Thompson hadn’t played her like a stereotype in a ’70s sitcom.  The dad, who’d been a lawyer in “former Yugoslavia” but hadn’t been able to retrain and was working as a taxi driver.  The sister, who’d felt pressurised into becoming a lawyer to live her dad’s dream for him, and hadn’t told her parents that her “flatmate” was actually her girlfriend.  All the people at the homeless centre where she ended up volunteering – what were their stories?  Kate’s boss, played by Michelle Yeoh, who seemed to have had umpteen different jobs and was obsessed with Christmas – what was her story?

And Tom, the really nice, if totally uncharismatic, guy – why do really nice guys in films always chase after horrible partners?!  – who was a volunteer at a homeless centre, and managed to show Kate the error of her ways … before a sad twist in the tale.  She ended up organising a fundraising concert and apologising to all the people she’d upset.  It was all pretty cheesy, but that’s fine in a Christmas rom-com as long as the film’s OK and the characters are nice.  This, unfortunately, was all a bit of a let-down.  And I was expecting it to be full of Wham! songs, but in fact there were only a few.  It didn’t even include Careless Whisper!

It wasn’t a bad idea, I suppose.  Nasty character is redeemed in time for Christmas – very Charles Dickens.  But Scrooge isn’t the hero, and Kate was supposed to be the heroine.  Getting the dates of the wars wrong was appalling, and it was all just a bit silly.   Last Christmas, one of the greatest Christmas songs ever, deserved better!


I Carried a Watermelon: Dirty Dancing and Me by Katy Brand


Don’t change yourself: change the world.  Compare the character of Baby in Dirty Dancing with the character of Sandy in Grease.  Sandy changes everything about herself to be what Danny wants and the rest of the cool kids expect.  Baby, without being either super-cool or super-glamorous, always remains true to herself, whatever the cost, and the film gets a happy ending thanks to her personality and her principles.  You can get quite profound over romantic musicals, and that’s what Katy Brand does here. A lot of what she says is fascinating.  Unfortunately, some of the other things she says are intensely irritating.  I’d love to go on a Dirty Dancing-themed weekend, at the place where the film was made, as she describes in one of the chapters in the book.  But I don’t think I’d want to go there with her.

I’ve never actually said “I carried a watermelon” in any context other than that of Dirty Dancing.  I do, however, say, or at least think, “I’m scared of everything” and “I’m balancing on shit” pretty frequently, and am usually to be found in the corner.  I have even said “I don’t just got to do anything,” to rude people at work … although I wish I hadn’t, because Lisa’s grammar is appalling!  And I know all the words to all the songs.  I first saw this wonderful film with my then best friend, when we were in the third year of secondary school, and we were both already obsessed with Patrick Swayze because of North and South.  I’ve seen it dozens of times since then, and I hope to see it many times more.

I love everything about this film. I love Johnny, obviously.  And, whilst I’m way too much of a wimp ever to have contemplated going into anything like the Peace Corps, I love Baby too.  And there’s the music, there’s the romance, there’s the whole coming of age storyline, there’s the fact that the main character is a girl – bearing in mind that this was made in the days of Top Gun, Back To The Future, Lethal Weapon etc – and, yes, there’s the social message.   It’s one of my all-time favourites.  So, what has Katy Brand got to say about it?

Well, a lot of it is about the social messages.  Think about the botched backstreet abortion – a storyline which, in Ronald Reagan’s socially conservative America, meant that some of the sponsors pulled out.  And the entertainments staff, who are living hand to mouth and can be fired, by jumped up little brats like the awful Neil, on the basis of a false allegation made by a “bungalow bunny”.  Penny and Lisa both being taken in by smooth-talking Robbie – there’s a warning to all young girls, and indeed young lads.  The end of an era, as well – the sense that the days of the Catskill Mountains holiday camps are numbered … and let’s not forget the historical social importance of those camps, set up back in the “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish” days when most of the people who went there would have been refused accommodation at many resorts elsewhere in New York state. And, most of all, Baby putting herself on the line to save Penny and get justice for Johnny.  Dirty Dancing makes you think, in a way that other iconic films of the ’80s, however great they are in their own way, just don’t.

This all sounds terribly serious, doesn’t it 🙂 ?   The book’s not all serious at all.  It mentions the theme weekend I referred to earlier.  I had no idea that you could actually go to the place where the film was made.  Wow!  I’ve been to all sorts of places associated with favourite books, films and TV programmes, and I love the fact that other people do this too. She also goes on about how she taped the film off the TV and then watched it so many times the tape broke, drove her sister and best friend mad with her obsession with it all, and wanted to go to dance classes because she thought they’d be like the ones in the film. These bits are great. And she also mentions Dirty Dancing on-line fandoms.  I love on-line fandoms.  I love the fact that I can have deep and meaningful discussions with hundreds of people about fictional characters, and that we all think this is a totally normal thing to do.  It’s so cool.  It’s so uncool!!

However, some of it is serious.  Katy Brand does, to be fair, stress that it would be inappropriate to make out that the film’s some sort of political statement.  It’s essentially a romantic coming-of-age musical.  She does suggest that Eleanor Bergstein, the film’s writer and co-producer is now trying to make out that it actually was primarily about making political points.  I don’t know whether or not that’s true, but, if so, then, with all due respect to Eleanor Bergstein, maybe she’s taking it all a bit too seriously.

Baby does take herself very seriously at the start of the film, but that’s part of it.  She’s 17.  She’s idealistic.  She plans to take “economics of under-developed countries” as her minor subject.  But she’s led a very sheltered life and has very little experience of the world.  She doesn’t get that none of the other entertainment staff can fill in for Penny, because they’re all too busy working.  She tells Penny that she envies her, when Penny’s just told her that she’s had to support herself since she was 16.  It’s a pretty silly thing to say.  But that’s the point.  She’s about to learn an awful lot in a very short space of time.

However, and this is a point I’d never really thought of before, she’s actually pretty mature.  And the whole film’s pretty mature.  No-one’s looking for a fairytale.   When Johnny leaves, Baby doesn’t burst into tears and beg him to take her with him.  It ends with “I’ve had the time of my life”.  Not with a wedding.  Maybe Baby and Johnny do live happily ever after, but, as Katy Brand says, it’s more likely that they drift apart once she’s at university and he’s on his next job, but that, as they both move on, they both continue to think that “I’ll never be sorry”.  That’s different.  Most romantic films aren’t like that.

She’s also super-confident. She isn’t cool.  She’s not unattractive, but she certainly isn’t a raving beauty.  Unlike Lisa, she isn’t even all that bothered about her appearance.  And she goes after Johnny.She goes to Johnny’s cabin. This isn’t an older man seducing a 17-year-old girl: if anything, it’s the other way round. Hands up, the first time I saw the film I wasn’t that keen. It took me a couple of viewings! That was partly because I’d got it firmly fixed in my head that Patrick Swayze lived in South Carolina in the 1850s, so I couldn’t quite handle the idea of him being in New York state in the 1960s, but it was also because I couldn’t get my head round the fact that Baby actually was that confident. It was something I just couldn’t relate to. Katy Brand says it makes her a role model. I suppose it does. And then we get Lisa offering to do her hair, but then saying that she’s pretty in her own way. That is great. Katy Brand really picks up on that. Everyone is attractive in their own way. Hooray! Heroine whose attraction is her personality, not her looks, anyway. Hooray!

Lisa is great there. She and Baby clearly aren’t that close, but, when push comes to shove, when everything’s going wrong for Baby, her sister is there to support her. And, when Baby finds out what Robbie’s really like, she’s desperate to save Lisa from him. And there’s also female solidarity between Baby and Penny, after the initial “Go back to your playpen,” scene. When Penny’s scared about the abortion, Baby comforts her. She’s completely out of her own comfort zone, but she’s there for Penny.

In fact, everyone’s there for Penny, apart from Robbie. Abortion is not the political issue in the UK (except perhaps in Northern Ireland) that it is in the US, but it’s still an issue. And this is set in the 1960s. Eleanor Bergstein was really saying something with this storyline. Not even Dr Houseman criticises Penny: he only criticises Johnny who (he thinks) was the one who got her into trouble, and the “butcher” who botched the abortion. And there’s quite a telling scene in which Penny says to Baby that she only slept with Robbie because she thought he loved her and “it was something special”. I hadn’t realised that sponsors actually pulled out because of the abortion storyline. Eleanor Bergstein was very brave with it.

So, there’s a lot to think about here. I’m not going to write it all out, but obviously we’ve got the huge moment in which Baby tells everyone that Johnny couldn’t have stolen anything because he was with her all night. We’ve got the showdown between her and her dad, when she says that she’s sorry she let him down but that he let her down too. We’ve got his eventual acceptance of what’s happened. We’ve got the unmasking of the Schumachers as the thieves and Robbie as the one who got Penny in trouble.

And, as Katy Brand says, wouldn’t you love to know more about the minor characters? What exactly goes on in the Pressmans’ marriage? And why on earth doesn’t Marge Houseman ask why Baby needs to borrow $250, in an all-inclusive resort miles from any shops, or where Jake has been with his medical bag in the middle of the night? Does it honestly not occur to her that something very untoward is going on?

So there’s a lot in this book which makes for very interesting reading.  But there were other bits which marred it for me.  I don’t know Katy Brand, and I don’t even know much about her, so I can’t really comment on what she’s like.  But there are a lot of people around these days who are full of some kind of sense of middle-class guilt, or uncoolness, or something, and deal with it by abusing upper-class people (usually in contexts which aren’t even relevant) and sneering at other middle-class people. They also, although to be fair this doesn’t actually happen in this book, usually sneer at working-class people and say that they’re stupid, know nothing about politics and shouldn’t be entitled to an opinion. So they actually snipe about everyone. And Katy Brand does come across, in this book, as being one of those people.

It must be very wearying to go around sniping about everyone. Isn’t that the complete opposite of what Dirty Dancing‘s about? It’s telling us that you can love anyone, and be friends with everyone. Not that you should make sarcastic remarks about people in a theatre queue having bought their sandwiches from Waitrose. Who even worries about where people in a theatre queue have bought their sandwiches from, anyway? Who even notices?!

And, in the middle of the book, she starts slagging off the Bullingdon Club. What on earth has the Bullingdon Club got to do with Dirty Dancing? Are there a load of Old Etonians staying at Kellerman’s? Are we to assume that Robbie and Neil are members of some sort of American equivalent of the Bullingdon Club?  No. Of course not. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with it. So why bring it up? I just do not get these people at all.  What do they think they’re proving by having a go at everyone?  Especially when it’s not even relevant?

I get the impression, though, that Katy Brand would have preferred it if Robbie and Neil had been members of the Bullingdon Club. She keeps going on about “class war”. She’s clearly desperate to make out that the film’s all about a clash between the most privileged and the least privileged. And it isn’t. Robbie may be at Yale Medical School, but he still has to spend his holidays working as a waiter. We’re told that it’s the Houseman family’s first proper holiday for six years. Max Kellerman reminisces about his family’s struggles during the Depression, when they had nothing. And about when his Bubba and Zaida (that’s Bobbie and Zaidie to people who pronounce Yiddish the Northern English way, BTW!) ran the place.

I’ve never been to the Catskills. However, last month, I stayed at Lake Placid, in the nearby Adirondacks. There’s an interesting story there, about Melvil Dewey, the man who invented the Dewey Decimal System. He ran a hotel in Lake Placid. No Jews. No blacks. No-one else he considered socially undesirable. He was forced to resign as New York State Librarian as a result – which is pretty impressive, considering that this was in 1905. But the exclusion policy stayed. That would probably have been in Max’s grandparents’ time.

OK, I wouldn’t expect Katy Brand to know that. She’s not a historian. And, to be fair, she does acknowledge that the Housemans, the Kellermans and the Goulds are actually not from a Bullingdon Club type background. But she’s determined to push forward her class war theory, and she ties herself in knots over it. She quotes another author’s claims that Robbie’s trying to “out-WASP the WASPs”. What, because he’s a git and he treats Penny and Johnny like dirt? Gits come from all sorts of different backgrounds, love. It’s nothing to do with what colour you are, what religion you are, or what socio-economic class you belong to. Get over it.

She also claims that she’d seen the film about a hundred times before she realised that the Housemans were Jewish. I find that quite hard to believe, but then she also claims that, the first time she saw the film, she didn’t know what “knocked up” meant, and thought Penny was ill rather than pregnant. That seems rather odd, for a 12-year-old, but I do actually believe that, so maybe I should believe her about the Housemans as well. But then she goes on and on about “affluential Jewish families” and she quotes the out-WASPing commenty author as also saying how hypocritical it is for self-made Jews to look down on anyone else.

Why is she quoting someone else?  We’re not talking about the causes of the Civil War: we’re talking about a romantic musical film.  It’s a bit … strange.  And what is going on here anyway?  What is she getting at?  In the current political climate, it made me feel quite uncomfortable that someone should have written this. It actually had me wondering what Jeremy Corbyn makes of Dirty Dancing, a thought which I am trying very hard to banish. To be fair, I don’t think for a minute that she has a problem with the fact that the Kellermans and the Housemans, and probably the Goulds too, are self-made Jewish families.  I think it’s more that she can’t cope with the fact that they’re not part of some sort of privileged, country club, social elite, because that scuppers her class war theory.  Yes, I know I’m overthinking this, but I’m not the one who’s judging people on their socio-economic status and religion whilst criticising them for doing the same!

Then, after all this class war stuff and “affluential Jewish families” stuff, she jumps back to the fun stuff, and this was where the weekend at the place where the film was made came in.  I’d love to go there.  I’d love to go over every teensy little bit of the film with other people who’ve also seen it a million times.  I’d genuinely like to have serious discussions about the social message of the films: I accept that some people say that we should just enjoy books and films and not analyse them, but I love to analyse them, and I love to discuss them.  But maybe not with Katy Brand.  Which is a shame, because there was so much in this book that I loved reading and so much that I could relate to.  But there were some bits I just wasn’t comfortable with at all.  But, hey, that’s life.  You can’t be everything to everyone.  Just, like Baby, be true to yourself!


On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan musical) – Palace Theatre, Manchester


This was wonderful.  It was mostly music from 1988 to 1991, which is just my era, so it was a brilliant nostalgia-fest!  But it was more than that.  It was the story of two immigrants who overcame adversity to live the American Dream.  It was their love story.  It was the story of how a  courageous woman fought back from terrible injuries.  It was full of emotion, like a 1980s musical, but also full of dance and colour, like a 1950s musical.  And how come I can remember all the words to all those songs from thirty years ago, yet I can never remember where I put my keys five minutes ago?!

Gloria Estefan (and the Miami Sound Machine – she didn’t use her name alone until 1989) didn’t become popular in the UK until 1988, when I was thirteen.  We’d just got our first CD player.  Cutting edge technology!   But we were taping music off the radio as well.  I quite liked the upbeat songs, like 1-2-3, Get On Your Feet, Oye Me Canto and Rhythm’s Gonna Get You, but, being hopeless at dancing, not to mention going through an extremely soppy phase starting in mid-1989, I preferred the ballads.  They were all in there!   Can’t Stay Away From You, Don’t Wanna Lose You Now, Cuts Both Ways, Anything For You, Here We Are …  and I still know all the words to them all.  And there was quite a bit of her earlier music too.  All those Cuban rhythms and dancing, all those colourful clothes!

It finished with Coming Out Of The Dark, her comeback song.  That didn’t do very well here.  I don’t know why not.  We were all so upset about the accident, which happened in March 1990.  She’d had one hit after the other, and she was so popular.  Such a lovely person.  I remember reading an interview with her, in Smash Hits or Just Seventeen or something like that, and thinking how terribly romantic it was that she’d married her first boyfriend.  It was such a positive time, as well.  That brief interlude.  The Berlin Wall was down, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, everything seemed possible.  It only lasted until the summer, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, but that short period was a really special time.  I’ve got completely off the point now, haven’t I?  She had to learn to walk again.  The musical showed some of what she went through, the rehab, how difficult it was.  To come back from that, to get back to performing at the highest level … incredible.

To get back to 1988, Gloria was in her thirties, with an eight-year-old son.  She and the band had had success in the US earlier, but only a few years earlier.  The likes of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and Kylie Minogue were having hits in their teens, and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were only in their mid-twenties.  Madonna was about the same age as Gloria, but she’d already been around for years.  The Miami Sound Machine (to add to the confusion, originally it was the band’s name alone, without the then Gloria Fajardo’s!) had released its first album in 1977.  So what on earth took so long?

Well, OK, sometimes it does take a while.  But what this musical showed was the specific issues faced by a Cuban-American group, performing Cuban-influenced music, trying to break into the English language mainstream market.  It wasn’t that the English-speaking public didn’t like their music.  It was that producers wouldn’t take a chance on it.  They’d been touring Latin America, but producers in the US were urging them to stick to the Latin market, and not even to sing in English.  I don’t know how accurate the musical was, but the way it showed it was that they were handing out copies of their singles in the street, offering to perform at clubs for free, and even playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Partly a marketing thing, but partly also general prejudice.  There were some fairly hard-hitting scenes with Emilio Estefan saying “This is what an American looks like” and talking about how, in his early days in Miami, he’d been faced with signs on apartments saying “No pets, no Cubans”.  It’s not an uncommon story.  “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish.”  No-one bleating about “wokeness”, or claiming that singing Cuban-influenced music in English was “cultural appropriation” or saying that someone should lose their job because of a comment they made twenty years ago.  Just someone talking about the difficulties which they personally had had to overcome.  And being proud to be an American, a Cuban-American.

And the musical showed how they went from being faced with signs like those to playing in Washington DC, with the Stars and Stripes as the backdrop to Gloria’s performance, to meeting President George Bush at the White House.  It was so positive.  People don’t talk much about “the American Dream” any more.  Is that due to modern negativity, or is just seen as an old-fashioned term?  Anyway.  They made it!  And how ironic it was that it was whilst returning from the White House that their bus was involved in that horrific accident.

I was going to say “two Latinos” or “two Hispanic people”, but I think that that’d perhaps mask the fact that the Cuban-American experience has been very different from, say, the Mexican-American experience or the Puerto Rican American experience.  It happens here too: the term “British Asian” perhaps masks the fact that the British Indian experience has been very different from the British Pakistani experience and British Bangladeshi experience.

Emilio Estefan left Cuba with his dad, initially for Madrid and then for Miami, as a teenager in 1967.  His mum remained behind to care for her elderly parents, and they were separated for four years.  Gloria’s family, the Fajardos left Cuba, where her dad had been a soldier with close ties to the Batistas, in 1959, when Gloria was only two.

Gloria’s mum had been a singer in Cuba, and had an offer from Hollywood but was stopped from going by her father.  The musical showed how she initially wasn’t happy about Gloria going into the music business, and being on tour when she had a young child, and how they became estranged for a time.  She’d later got a PhD in education, but, because the Cuban authorities destroyed all her certificates, she had to retrain from scratch when she got to Miami – where she was the family breadwinner, because Gloria’s dad became severely disabled.

It wasn’t mentioned in the musical, but he took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was captured by his own cousin and imprisoned.  He was eventually released, but then served in Vietnam.  The musical showed him in Vietnam, but, presumably to avoid controversy, didn’t spell out the fact that his medical condition was probably caused by Agent Orange poisoning.  Gloria cared for her father and her younger sister, aided by her beloved maternal grandma whilst her mum was retraining and then working, but still got a university degree.

Gloria Fajardo and Emilio Estefan – they had it tough, they struggled to get their music into the mainstream market, and then, at the peak of Gloria’s success, she suffered that horrific accident.  And they overcame it all.  What an inspirational story.  This is a wonderful nostalgia fest for those of us whose music collections have never really got past 1988 to 1991, but it’s so much more than that.  Great story.  Great music. Very, very impressed.