Miranda – Leeds Arena 22 March 2014

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I have to admit that it took a lot of nagging from Mrs B and OMB before I got into Miranda Hart’s eponymous TV series. For some reason they loved it and after endlessly watching and rewatching the three series on DVD when outvoted in the living room eventually I grudgingly gave into its rather old fashioned blend of silliness, catchphrases and slapstick. I suppose it was inevitable after Miranda used Mrs B’s “world’s worst joke”. Not because Mrs B sent it in or anything like that, just because they independently came up with it and so showed a certain alignment in their senses of humour. For what it is worth, the joke goes: Knock knock – Who’s there? – Doctor – Doctor Whoooooooo! Rubbish really, but it makes us giggle and in Mrs B’s defence she’s a Chartered Accountant rather than our leading prime-time TV comedienne.

Anyway, when I saw Miranda was taking her stand up show on tour it sounded like a good idea as a Christmas present and it provided a first chance for us to go to the brand new Leeds Arena. The Arena itself is pretty impressive, certainly a nicer place to go than my memory of going to gigs at Wembley Arena. The nature of such venues is that they encourage you to look at the screens more than at the performer directly, although we were sat close enough to be able to do both. Stewart Lee has satirised Arena gigs as paying a load of money to go and watch people off the telly on big tellies but while superficially right enough, it isn’t the damning critique it sounds – one could just as easily make the same point about going to watch football at modern grounds with screens showing replays of the action rather than just staying at home and putting on Sky Sports.

The show itself was OK. She started with a bit of audience participation to recreate the ambience of an upper-class party, which warmed the audience up. Although it was mocking posh people, it was doing so incredibly gently and almost apologetically. This is unsurprising considering that Miranda herself is about the poshest person most in the audience would be likely to come across. Class war isn’t going to go very far in a country where thousands can go to Leeds and laugh along to the idea that posh people, bless ’em are just adorably silly. Not that that is a bad thing.

Otherwise, the set was fairly unmemorable with lots of fart gags and catchphrases from her TV show. The one (probably) unscripted part was her attempting to matchmake audience members either side of the interval where she ended up with two men, one of whom had come with the mother of the other’s ex-partner. Curiously she seemed to be a bit thrown by the first saying he was gay (having asked for a single straight man) and the female audience member initially brought on stage to have a date with him saying that she was also “a little gay”. The segment seems from reviews to be in each show but using real audience members so it is hard to tell how scripted if at all it was. It was less glib than the rest so probably not scripted.

The best part came right at the end where filmed vignettes of the social awkwardnesses which had been the main subject matter of the show were played on the video screens. The stand out one of these was the office game of getting from one side of the room to the other without touching the floor, using desks as walkways, hitching a piggy back lift off a colleague, whizzing across on a spinning office chair and so on. These had the feel of the TV series and showed that the best of Miranda’s comedy is in the visual slapstick rather than words alone. This also, to me, highlighted that the charm of the TV series also came from the slick way it works as an ensemble piece. “Such fun” as a catchphrase works better when said by Patricia Hodge as Miranda’s embarrassing mum. Miranda galloping round an empty stage is a lot less amusing than her doing it alongside the “freakishly small” Sarah Hadland. A posh party is funnier if it has Sally Phillips doing star jumps while pouring custard down her knickers. Maybe watching someone off the telly on a big telly isn’t as good as just watching telly.

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The Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling

Like millions of others I ploughed through the Harry Potter books when they came out. Over the last couple of years I’ve been re-reading them more slowly with OMB (and I mean SLOOOOWLY – it took us the best part of six months to get through The Order of the Phoenix and I’m resisting OMB’s requests to move on to the next one until we’ve read some other books). At the first time of reading my general feeling was that the stories were fun, albeit basically a rehash of the genre of boarding school stories (Quidditch instead of hockey/lacrosse/football, Runes instead of Latin, and so on). On re-reading, they seem a lot more clunkily written than I remembered. Partly this is because they have clearly not been written to be read out – there are some very ungainly long sentences. Partly it is because of the rather limited range of vocabulary even for a children’s book – how many times each book does Harry respond “dully”? OK, that might be a reasonable reflection of how surly teenagers interact with the world, but it becomes a little dull reading the same adverb over and over! Most of all I think it is because I’d sort of missed how unlikeable Harry himself often is. Although that might be an unintended strength of the books in that it has made Snape less of a comedy semi-villain when you can see that he has ample reasons for disliking Harry both because of his father and because of what he is actually like. Anyway, none of this has stopped the books being immensely successful and popular, not least with OMB. But, as usual, I digress, this is after all meant to be about The Casual Vacancy.

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– OMB dressed up as Harry Potter for World Book Day (broomstick upside down to stop Fluffy trying to eat it, again)

The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling’s first novel for an adult readership (leaving aside her pseudonymous foray into crime fiction). I came to it with relatively low expectations, not only because the writing in the Harry Potter books has started to grate but also because of its subject matter. The main plot of the book centres on a Parish Council by-election occasioned by the sudden and early death of a councillor in a small rural town, Barry Fairbrother. Just as Rowling has managed to be irritating when talking about the Potter books (the unnecessary revelation that Dumbledore was gay, the recent public musing about whether Harry should have married Hermione) she has also been irritatingly outspoken politically. So, I had some sense of trepidation that the book could end up being a shrill polemic.

However, I was pleased to find that the book was both far better written and more sensitively nuanced than I was expecting. One of the good things about the Potter stories is the way in which the characters are drawn (even if “dully” at times!) and this comes through in the very large cast of The Casual Vacancy. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who had spent a long time immersed in the fictional lives of children, the teenage characters are particularly well portrayed. Stuart “Fats” Wall has been given a good mix of certainty and cynicism which point to how Harry could have been written and which ring true. Some of the other characters are grotesques, in particular, the obese, pompous and repugnant Howard Mollison and his smug son, but believable ones. And the portrayal of the Weedon family and their interactions with social services manages to avoid unnecessary mawkishness while bringing up an unexpected but believable childish sentimentality from the most debauched and debased. Those social services and other “do-gooders” are also drawn well, they aren’t described as heroes and saviours but also seen as having limited ability (and in some cases, desire) to do well by people and it is clearly recognised that the default position of the people they are meant to be helping is distrust and fear.

The plot of the book is as convoluted as you would expect (and rattles along), but the striking difference between it and the Potter books is that it is much more ambiguous about where it is going and what we should make of where it ends. It ends with disaster for several families and yet also optimism for some of them while giving a sense that nothing very much ultimately changed in the town. There is perhaps some parallel to the epilogue to the Harry Potter stories, but here, instead of deflating what came before (SPOILER – “what, Harry becomes a middle aged civil servant with a wife and kids, as do all his friends with whom he spent his teenage years fighting the most evil wizards ever?”) it shows how resilient and resistant the world can be to change even if change is really needed. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is left up to the reader to decide – as a reader you really want it to work out for some of the characters and for others to be roundly defeated, but you also know when things don’t turn out that way that if they had the book would have been unbelievable. It leaves you with the question of how might things be changed and the knowledge that that is a question with no easy answer.

Rosie’s Diner – Kirkstall

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One of the disappointments of the transition from being young to being middle aged and having a family is that you move from being able to try out all the latest bars and restaurants to spending large amounts of your leisure time at places like Cardigan Fields – a car park with a multiplex cinema, chain restaurants, bowling alley and leisure centre. And a night club you know you’re 20 years too old for. So when a new independent restaurant opens up in such a place it’s as exciting as a new bar on The Calls would once have seemed.

Rosie’s Diner has been trumpeted as about to open for months now and last week OMB and I managed to go there for a quick meal between his swimming lesson and Beavers as a change from McDonalds or Nandos. The concept is of an American diner, complete with chrome, neon, red vinyl booths and a yellow American school bus, burgers and shakes. OMB was also very keen on the idea of playing pool there after having got hooked on the game while on holiday. The omens weren’t good, however, after reading the rather damning review in the Yorkshire Evening Post. But, surely they’d have sorted out the teething problems highlighted in the review as a first priority after having clearly invested a lot in the new venture…

Well, things weren’t quite as bad as in the review. The food was pretty good and of a decent quality. Possibly too high quality as OMB would have preferred a more traditional and processed hot dog than the locally sourced sausage! The milkshakes were really good, interestingly coming in branded milkbottles.  Unfortunately, the service was still somewhat erratic with food taking a long time to arrive and it being unclear whether the order we made for dessert actually got to the kitchen. This was not due to a lack of staff as there were a lot on duty in a sparsely populated restaurant but more due, apparently, to some of them being a little away with the fairies. This meant that we didn’t have time to wait for dessert, which was a shame as the friends we were with said that they were good last time they came.

So, I’d give the place a guardedly positive review. We’ll be back but when we are in less of a hurry and so can be more relaxed about the time. OMB will get his game of pool and given how long it takes us to pot all the balls, it’ll be someone else complaining about delays!