Benefit Busters: Beneficial for Channel 4

C4’s latest social documentary doesn’t sound like much fun. It has all the signs of an irritating fly-on-the-wall filler show: middle aged women complaining about things, vacant shots of urban skyscapes, an alliterative title. But no - Benefit Busters is surprisingly good television.

The program follows a group of jobseekers at “a private sector training business” (AKA hopeless recruitment firm) called A4e. The program is a black comedy in that it depicts sacked and smug lorry drivers in their forties building papier mache animals with sticky tape and loo rolls, Blue Peter style, as a “teamwork exercise” while others sit around giving emotionally drained accounts of their decade long search for menial employment.

Interviews are also conducted with A4e bosses and government officials, some offering insightful limbs to the show’s running debate over the UK’s unemployment crisis, while other allegedly important individuals offer bafflingly inarticulate, contradictory and shapeless arguments.

The series is gripping because not only is it well 'casted' and extremely well paced, with its clear character division of those who earn and those who don’t, but the show's makers evidently care a lot for their subject. Racist opinions emerge regularly from various jobseekers, but their politically incorrect and incoherent prejudice is documented in the most respectful manner, almost structuring some kind of audience empathy for their hatred of “them immigrants like”.

Mark Pilkington (pictured below) is a sincere and yet cynical ex-soldier who desperately wants to work in a factory. He is one of the program’s most interesting narratives, as he curbs his temper and genuinely strives to cooperate with A4e’s administrational complexities. His dream is to have a reason to get out of bed early in the morning, enjoy the companionship and banter of some work mates, and to be able to buy his girlfriend some hair dye and a chinese take-away.

Matthew Cracknell, who composed from scratch the music that accompanies the series, manipulates the jaunting genre of documentary soundtracks very skilfully too, capturing the ebullient and care-free attitudes of streetwise lifelong jobseekers while also heightening the lament of single-mother-sob-stories. Who knew a council estate in Hull could evoke such romantic melancholy?

Interesting, funny, informative and eye-opening. Well done C4. You’re certainly proving your worth as a PSB to this blog.

Review of C4's Benefit Busters, Jack of Hearts, Jack Cullen

Jack Whitehall: A Jack Of No Trades

The Jack Of Hearts really liked Jack Whitehall when he first cropped up on TV a year ago or so, and was an avid supporter of his increasingly ubiquitous face. This blog even overlooked the sudden and unnecessary acquisition of facial hair.

On Tonightly, last summer, Whitehall was a welcome addition. Quirky, cheeky, well-spoken and young… there was certainly room for him on television. But now, one huge PR campaign later, he’s acting like some god of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as if he’s a prestigious comedian. When actually, he's just a bit irritating and a bit crap.
His main problem is that he tries too hard, and this excruciating effort is all too visible to his audience. It's like watching your friend in a talent contest, wanting them to win, but you know in your heart that they're not quite good enough. I realise how Russell Brand really is an industry professional when I watch Whitehall shout a contrived and overly scripted joke about Kerry Katona's drugs problem with excess emphasis and a boring reliance on shoving ‘Fucking’ before each punch line to secure a cheap laugh. He talks far too quickly too, making himself come across as both nervous, self-aware of his inadequacy and most of all - partially inaudible.

I just watched a bit of his stand-up show on Comedy Ctrl +1 (some random Sky channel, like 127 or something) but his voice was so irritating, so incessant, and his mannerisms (bending down with a painstaking facial expression, like being fucked by Simon Cowell) were also unbearable.

Yes, he’s pretty. Yes, I’m willing to overlook the heavy pointers towards nepotism (I love Stella McCartney). But no, he’s just not funny. The future of comedy should be guys like Glenn Wool or Paul Foot or Steve Hughes. And if you like your jokes scripted and routine-like then Shappi Khorsandi or Simon Amstell are still much much better than Jack Whitehall.

Sorry Jack. You just need to remember your station, and rehearse a bit. You make a fine TV presenter. Not Alexa or Vernon, but satisfactory nevertheless. A stand-up comedian though? You're no funnier than most peoples friends. Your jokes don't so much illuminate topics as they do re-plough, and your stage presence is just a tad 5 minutes ago.

It pains me to put him down. I really do think Whitehall has potential. But his mass exposure has come too quickly and he’s just not ready to be on television. Even without the horrid beard, he's doesn't cut the mustard. At least he has youth on his side. Right?

Below: Jack on Tonightly. A welcome addition, before audiences had to watch him on everything that Channel 4 makes.

Sugababes Get Sexy: But Will They Get America?

Wow, Sugababes (no The) just can’t stay out of the charts for more than five minutes. Now I’m a big fan of the girls.. As you will discover by reading previous blog posts of mine, but the new single Get Sexy is a disappointment. For those who have yet to hear the ditty… It’s a self-conscious mash up of Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy and Fergie’s Boom Boom Pow. Sorry, not Fergie, I mean “Black Eyed Peas”.

I’m sure like In The Middle, and Push The Button, the new song will soon thread its way into everybody’s pop brain and we’ll all be utterly hooked. Get Sexy even contains a stolen one half of the Tainted Love ‘boop boop’ tubular noise, and what’s more - one line of the song shamelessly copies, or mirrors even, The Ting Ting’s tune Shut Up And Let Me Go. ..

Hey! Sugababes have always pinched pop morsels and added them to their own stuff, but there’s a bigger problem… the girls have stopped singing. Literally. Keisha talks her way through Get Sexy like she may as well be dishing out guidance from a Virgin broadband call centre desk.

It all makes sense though when we accept the sorry truth… Sugababes are trying to break America. All fans of the babes have been aware for sometime now of Keisha’s growing desire to be Rihanna. It started with the hairstyle plagiarism on the cover of Changes. Well now Keisha’s launched a linguistic leg of her 'Project Make Me American', and started using words like dime and phrases like ‘Where I are’.

The greatest tragedy of the song has to be Heidi’s absence though. No high scouse harmonies, no slow bit two-thirds of the way through where Heidi laments wistfully, no nothing. On most Sugababes tracks you can practically hear Heidi grinning. But Keisha’s clearly behind the driving wheel now, even more than ever, and she’s plunging the babes into dark and stark Flo Rida depths.

Keisha needs to realise that Flo Rida's biggest hit was ripped off a Pete Burns poptastic classic, and that Sugababes are better off radiating UK pop rays, instead of trying to emulate America's quite franly dire and stank pop music scene. Like, Heidi fucking Montag is a popstar over there!

I’m biting my nails with anticipation. Is the death of Sugababes round round the corner, or will they storm the US? Let’s hope they know the train’s destination.. Because their fans no longer do. If they do break America, and decided to tour... well that will be it, they'll be 50 by the time they're back.

Which reminds me, the girls are still in their twenties, they've had a greatest hits album, and two good albums since Overloaded, so they can afford to take a risk. Still, Get Sexy is definitely one to dance patiently to in a club, and not one to give iTunes 79p for.

On an irrelevant side note, I’d like to share with you that I’m using my Grandmother’s computer to write this article, and her dictionary thinks that ‘Sugababes’ should be ‘Seabees’ or ‘squabbles’. What larks.

The Kevin Bishop Show: Jack Of Hearts Review

Bishop himself has such an overwhelmingly self-satisfied expression, a face that when relaxed still bursts with pride, that it is hard for viewers to actually engage with the program, and are instead simply stunned into staring at his cocksure face in mild disgust.

Okay, so Kevin Bishop is a talented and versatile actor, but as for his self-titled sketch show… how unfunny can officially endorsed TV comedy get? Surely there has to be more talent out there than this? If only Catherine Tate could give up her dreams of being a serious actor and resurrect this now endangered genre!

The phrase “fast-paced” has been applied here by TV critics, not because the humour is quick-witted and buzzing, but because the producers clearly have such little faith in any of his material that they want to rush us through the succession of nauseating sketches as rapidly as possible.
Several of the skits occupy distinctly old sketch show territory, such as spoof perfume adverts and Cowell-esque panel show parodies, while one or two sketches (like the sex-mad detective who incorrectly channels the thoughts of a victim) are irritating to the point that they are unwatchable.

The whole show comes across like a prefects’ end of term revue, but only lacking in originality, lacking in cast and attempting to cater for a nation as opposed to a school year group.

Sketch comedy is clearly about good writing and sadly the Kevin Bishop show will fall shamefully into that pile of instantly forgettable and very average TV comedy, like Horne and Corden just months before it. One can imagine the faint pitiful smile on Jennifer Saunders’ face as she watches a show like the Kevin Bishop show and feels comforted by its reassurance that her legacy remains unchallenged. Actually, I sincerely doubt Saunders bothers to watch these counterfeit and amateurish telly offerings.

The success of Star Stories is evidently indebted to better writing, fantastic acting from supporting stars like Alex Lowe, and a relatively original approach – the celebrity telly biography parody.

The first series of The Kevin Bishop Show did contain a certain amount of refreshing humour, notably the Pete Burns spin-off show ideas, and the first batch of Nintendo Pii jokes. How he secured funding for a second series though is anybody’s guess.

People only watch the sad and sorry show reel of naff sketches because the program is wedged between Friday night’s Big Brother, and the live eviction, or in other words, the show is book-wedged between Davina gold.

As Catherine Tate’s nan would say… What a load of old shit. Let’s hope Channel 4 bosses attended the Edinburgh Fringe festival this year, and enrol some new groups like the Leeds Tealights. Max Dickins’ ability with words and Patrick Turpin’s acting make one realise how incredibly limited The Kevin Bishop Show actually is.


Above: Kevin Bishop as Gok Wan, a good impersonation, that simultaneously testifies how sketch shows are not just about confidence but are all about the writing.

Words: Jack Cullen

Gay MP Alan Duncan flaunts himself in Heydon Prowse's farcical "magazine" Don't Panic!

Well, we are panicking. I’ve never seen such a stuttering train wreck on Newsnight in my life!

Heydon Prowse would have been better off ignoring Kirsty Wark’s questions and just telling the audience the truth. He runs a small student media organisation that primarily revolves around freebie posters and club night flyers, he knows nothing about politics and accepted Alan Duncan (pictured above with his younger boyfriend) into his publication because he thought that digging up a Tory MP's garden and doing some crazy shit was crazy cool. The fact that Heydon Prowse referred to Rutland’s Tory MP as “a celebrity” explains quite neatly his warped perspective.

Why is Alan Duncan appearing in Don’t Panic anyway? Does he crave celebrity? Does he fancy a bit of an air-headed art house boy for himself, AKA the fash mag slags who run the flimsy publication? Or is he just 100% clueless? The last I heard of Alan being on television he was posing for a naked calendar in Rutland, wearing wellies with a Margaret Thatcher cut-out in front of his ageing crotch. ~Eugwh.

The whole story is utterly pointless, irrelevant and ludicrous.

Prowse probably appeared on Newsnight without any kind of payment, but purely for the publicity. It’s a farce that this sort of banal trash is even being discussed on national television. Hard times.

Wark referred to him as “Millionaire” Alan Duncan. He’d have to be a millionaire to be a gay conservative MP. Without all that cash he would feel the stark and suppresive attitude of the Conservative party towards gay people, or towards any embrace of diversity for that matter. Not that there aren't gay tories. They just seem to care about satisfying their own needs though, having lavish civil partnerships while other gays are still being clubbed on the head with crow bars in car parks at 3am.
Right. Time to calm down!

Ice Cream Through My Fingers: Yes Giantess Do UK tour

Passion Pit’s musical brother Yes Giantess will be back on British soil this September as part of the NME tour.

With their jock dress sense of ripped white tees and hot orange baseball caps, the sickly-synth baby-rock four-piece tour up Latitude festival in Suffolk last month. Front man Jan Resenfield yelled “We’re the cool kids in America because we listen to Kylie” before launching into a rather sketchy but nevertheless determined cover of In My Arms.

Their flagship single Tuff ’n Stuff did well as a result of finding its way onto the Sister Phunk compilation last May, alongside FrankMusik, Modernaire and yes, Passion Pit. And it’s an epic, if not schizophrenic, pop song. 50% a synth heavy vengeful baby-glam anthem with ‘told you so’ style vocals, and 50% a melancholic Barbie ballad that has crowds flicking their lighters. It’s so American, and at the same time, so not.

You Were Young is their second big song, an uplifting baby disco track like Anoraak but with a soft splash of Video Killed The Radio Star. Another Yes Giantess track worth listening to is Just Another Step, which almost enters Gloria Estefan territory while still managing to uphold their trademark twinkly electrorock roots.

The boy band made it big in Boston after working the dance scene and then playing big frat nights, performing to crowds of drunk, naked and very privileged American adolescents. So the NME tour will certainly be a new experience for Jan, Chase, Karl and Joey, as they play to the black-hooded cheap-sunglasses-strad grandkids of coal minors, with their own weather cycle of sweat showers and Lynx clouds. Let's hope Latitude didn't leave the boys thinking that all British festival goers are angelic blond-locked squash players with Cath Kidston wellies.

The band say their songs are about girls, but what they mean is American girls. The only British pop stars deluded enough to praise British girls are Beth Ditto, Cliff Richard and Mika.

First UK dates for Yes Giantess:

26 September – Oxford
27 September – Sheffield
28 September – Manchester

Jack of Hearts is brought to you by Jack Cullen

Tamagotchis Are Back!

Who needs kids? I don’t want anything now that doesn’t sing a gleeful monotone song when I clean its shit up.

We all remember the Tamagotchis summer of 1998. The cool kids rocked up at school that September with these brightly coloured plastic keyrings, not all that different from a BabyBel cheese, but only noisy, obnoxious and demanding… Suddenly the toy crazes of the minute, like Hot Wheels and Thunderball yo-yos, seemed terribly English and eccentric. Japan had hit the jackpot big time. Pogs seemed medieval in comparison. The country that invented Nintendo and Pokémon had managed to compress their talents into one tiny electronic device, or just vice even, that was addictive and succinct.

The press simultaneously splashed their front pages with news of how in-demand Tamagotchis were, and how many poor little children would be disappointed that Christmas when Santa couldn’t ship them over in time.

Then came bigger stories, high schools were banning Tamagotchis, the elderly were complaining that they destroyed attention spans, The Daily Mail apparently thought they were a Japanese war tactic – a widespread invasion of our educational system, a sinister way to fill British boys’ minds with domestic trivialities. Girls were encountering depression when their virtual pets died. It was practically a Tama-nami, Tama/11, Tamagate.

10 years later, the Tamagotchi palaver seems like a bad 1990s dream. But despite being a flash in the pan here, just water under Monet’s bridge, over in the Far East they never stopped. And now.. in 2009.. the latest model is Tama Fama V5, a Tamagotchi that allows you to have three pets at once, known as a Famalitchi.

As soon as I saw these in a French supermarket last month on my travels, I knew I just had to have one. Not only does it have the usual functions of feeding, snacking, sleeping, shitting and playing, there’s MORE. Brace yourselves for afternoon tea parties, volleyball, country walks and shoe shopping. This is serious.

I took mine to lunch with friends today and people asked if it was meant to be ironic, part of my selected 90s comeback. What shocked me was the personal revelation that it wasn’t. I’ve genuinely rediscovered my love for Bandai’s iconic toy, there’s not a hint of irony.

The graphics are shit, agreed. But there's a satisfaction in the balance between simplicity and elaboration of Tamagotchis. Also, they tell the time so you can leave your phone at home and just take your Tama Fama V5. Sure, you can't ring anybody, but who cares - you've got all the friends you need.

So. Let me know what you think. Cool? Sad? It’s certainly sexy. I took someone home from a party the other night who mockingly condemned my Tamagotchi, and then I woke up in the morning to find them playing with it. You see, secretly everyone wishes they had one.

My pets are currently in their adolescence. I’ve got a Watatchi, a Uhyotchi and a Love Zukintchi. You can have upto three at once now you see. Their personal possessions include a top hat, a hoodie, a souvenir of the Eiffel tower (you can take your pets on Tama holiday) and a beach ball.

Of course if you grow tired of nurturing, you can always become a sadist, let your pets go hungry, sit in their own shit and sport little Japanese frowns all day. Not me though, my pets are climbing the Tamagotchi genealogy chart, as fictitious, evil, joyous and ridiculous as any other social ladder.

Words: Jack Cullen

Who's Unafraid Of Patrick Wolf?

I was standing in the fifth row for Patrick’s performance at Latitude and he was utterly astonishing. First things first though, who designed his arresting black and white Union Jack unitard? I’m guessing Vivienne Westwood since Patrick is a mega fan, or Susie Lloyd – the “clothes gatherer” for Patrick’s album artwork on The Magic Position and The Bachelor. (Spelt Suzie Lloyd in the credits on the latter).

Everyone has written about Patrick Wolf. Whether he’s being arrested in San Francisco, or making young gay teens faint in Austria, the website is effectively an adolescent shrine to him.

Still, I love him too, and so wanted to mention him on Jack of Hearts.

For me the Union Jack outfit represents patriotism, but its lacklustre colours offer a metaphor for the difficult place that the UK is in right now. Hard times, shall we say. Patrick's new ice platinum hair signifies a step in confidence and stardom since his previous work. As for the fluctuation between stamping in power boots and then kicking off glossy high heels, this sartorial marriage surely matches his own personality contrast of the loud, percussive militant force versus the poetic and queer violinist. I wonder if he asked Tilda Swinton for some Narnia wardrobe tips when he recruited her to narrate on his upcoming record?

I wasn’t as impressed by "Rowdy Superstar" who Patrick brought onstage as a guest appearance. I wonder if their record label insisted on the manoeuvre to pump up Rowdy's press? (Shit, it's worked!) Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Rowdy Superstar is a great guy, but I seem to remember him just yelling ‘oi oi’ and his Blue Peter outfit falling off. Who would want to appear onstage alongside Patrick though? Shit, it’s compare-the-market-dot-com stage suicide. Also, having the word Superstar in your name is a formula for disaster, unless Andy Warhol gives you it, which I doubt he'll be doing from the grave.

Despite Patrick’s inane abilities with instruments and his staggering presentation, it is Patrick’s onstage personality that makes him a megastar for me. His voice is both tender and mocking, he is affectionate for his audience but at the same time questioning of them, his voice, when not singing, is even more beautiful, English and playfully authoritative.

Patrick Wolf is definitely going somewhere. It’s early days, and his video to Hard Times could have been bigger, but his future could be colossal. He has some of Madonna’s reinvention, David Bowie’s strength of voice, Grace Jones’ approach to fashion, and something more than any of these stars – a beautifully twisted and jewel-encrusted sexuality. Miranda Sawyer in The Observer compared him to the Count on Sesame Street, which is quite amusing, but I think he's more like the embodiment of Draco Malfoy's suppressed sexuality.

Talking of fictional identities... I love the photo inside The Bachelor where Patrick has long hair like Draco's father Lucien Malfoy, or Orlando Bloom's Legolas even. Wow, check me all full of camp comparisons and veneration. I guess it's just so refreshing to have a new star to be passionate about. Superstar even? Will ask Andy for permission via seance.