Category Archives: Media

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I love America. No, that’s really not a day-late April Fool’s joke, for the doubting thomases amongst you. This summer will mark the 16th anniversary of me first coming to the States, and from that first trip to the present day, I’ve had an endless fascination with all things American. Marrying one of them may seem like an excessive demonstration of that; playing a part in creating a whole new one, even more so. But each to their own, huh?

However, there are two things that I fear I will never come to terms with – the obsession with college sports, and tabloid newspapers.

It’s fitting that I should mention the American obsession with college sports ahead of a weekend in which a crew from my old university will row four or so miles up a British river against a crew from another university 65 miles away, with millions of people watching on television. The irony is not lost on me, fear not. But the frenzy that accompanies March Madness (a basketball competition between various US universities, I believe) or the start of the college football season makes the Boat Race look like the non-event it almost certainly is.

Similarly, for a man who hails from a country boasting The Sun, The Mirror and the Daily Mail, some might say that it would be hard for a Brit to complain about the quality of the American tabloid. But I’ve been in The Sun’s newsroom, and for every “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”, there’s a hard-hitting news story that brings about true change. The same cannot be said about, say, the National Enquirer.

Anyway, every so often, these two worlds collide, as they did this week with this stunning frontpage headline from the New York Daily News.

Now, my journalist days are long behind me, but last time I looked, “New Local College Basketball Coach Has Hot Wife” is not listed in the ‘no brainer’ section of the Dummies Guide To Front Page News. Nor does it suggest that the “stunning starlet” ((c) New York Daily News) need to be still taking up valuable column inches three days later. I’ve heard of slow news days, but come on people…

By the way, the coach himself is set to earn $9 million over the course of his six month contract. For teaching college kids. I’m clearly in the wrong business. And Mary Ann Jarou knows a good thing when she sees it.

So THAT’S what you think about Britain?

Being British in America can sometimes be akin to life as a happy-go-lucky labradoodle – everybody thinks you’re very sweet, but they don’t really understand you, and they’re often shocked to find out that you really do exist.

The problem is that as soon as you tell someone that you’re British, people jump to certain assumptions. As far as some Americans are concerned, everybody has met the Queen, and quite possibly have had tea with her. I know I still miss my weekly cup of darjeeling and occasional chocolate hobnob with Her Majesty, as do most expats I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve also met Harry Potter, David Beckham, or that kid from the Twilight movies.

For clarity’s sake, fish and chips is not the only food we Brits eat, contrary to popular opinion. We also eat black pudding on Tuesdays, and tripe on the second Sunday of every month.

And yes, absolutely every single one of us is stark raving posh. Whether we’re from a dilapidated estate in Newcastle, or a country pile in the home counties, each and every one of us was born with a plum and/or silver spoon in our mouth, and is the heir to a fortune built off the exploitation of children in the (former) colonies. Quite.

Of course, my insistence that “we’re just like you, you know” generally falls on deaf ears. And mostly that’s probably down to language. A lot of that might be our own fault. After all, if – as I did this weekend – you use the phrase “I’ve been running around like a blue arsed fly,” you’ve got to expect that people are going to regard you as being a bit different.

That said, Americans (whether cosmopolitan New Yorkers or sheltered West Virginians) love to perpetuate a stereotype as much as the next man, and never more so than when it comes to the British.

Last week, Metro newspaper published an article entitled “Be prepared for a second Brit invasion” regarding a marketing accord between London and New York, to drive locals in each city to visit the other one. Helpfully, Metro offered five “terms to know” for anyone hoping to either go to London, or understand the hordes of Brits apparently about to descend on New York. For your delight and edification, I list them below:

1. “Footie: Means football, as in “I’m off to watch the footie.”
If you’re a football fan, you should know that the first rule of being a football fan is “never refer to it as footie”. It’s marginally more acceptable than soccer, but only in the way that maiming is more socially acceptable than murder.

2. “Bladdered: Means drunk. ‘I am so bladdered, I couldn’t gargle another pint.'”
Words fail me. I have never once in 35 years heard someone use the phrase “gargle a pint”. Even Dick van Dyke would have rejected it as too unbelievable. The irony, of course, is that most American beer tastes worse than mouthwash.

3. “Meat and two veg: Slang for male genitalia.”
Now, I’m no expert, but I struggle to be able to think of a situation in which an American in London (or a New Yorker talking to a Brit over here) is going to need this phrase. Anyone believing that “fancy a sample of my meat and two veg” is part of the essential lexicon of love, with the ability to win the heart of a passing Brit faster than any Shakespearean sonnet, should probably think again.

4. “Trainspotter: A dork. The kind of guy who keeps a log book of train schedules. The British love their trains.”
Show me someone who believes that the British love their trains, and I will show you someone who has not been to Britain. The sad thing being that American trains make their British equivalent look world-class.

5. “Brad Pitt: rhyming slang for defecation.”
Maybe I missed a meeting, but last time I looked, rhyming slang for ‘defecation’ was Eartha Kitt. That’s showbusiness for you. And there was me thinking that Brad Pitt was rhyming slang for “actor with marginally less talent than he thinks, with a penchant for screwing leading ladies’.

So, if this Metro piece is to be believed, Brits spend all their time drinking, shagging, shitting and watching football. Or trains. Thanks for the resounding vote of confidence in our collective personality, guys!

Still, at least we don’t believe that universal healthcare means an inevitable march towards Hitler death camps, eh?

I’d like to apologise unreservedly

It’s wryly amusing seeing that the Evening Standard has been forced to apologise to Prince Philip for wrongly claiming that he was fighting prostate cancer. Not because of the nature of the illness that the Queen’s husband absolutely and categorically does not have, but just because it’s rare to hear a story that’s not about Philip himself having to say sorry for something he’s said.

Let’s face it, Philip only ever opens his mouth to insert his foot in it. From asking a Scottish driving instructor how he managed to keep locals off the booze long enough to get them to pass their test, to asking a Cayman Islander whether they were all descended from pirates, Prince Philip is the king of the inappropriate comment. After all, who can forget his 1986 comment on a state trip to China, when he told a group of British students that “if you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty eyed.” Or congratulating a native from Papua New Guinea on managing to not get eaten?

He’s an embarrassment to his country. Fortunately his country is Greece, but the British are all guilty by association.

The terrible irony, of course, is that the American equivalent of Prince Philip is the president of the entire country. Given that George Bush is in Beijing at the moment for the opening of the 2008 Olympics, here’s hoping the American embassy has got its crisis management team on 24 hour standby.

How to get a red in advertising

There’s a health food store down at the end of the block from us, offering anything from frozen dinners to seaweed extract. To be honest, the ‘health food’ tag is a complete misnomer, given that the price of organic fruit and vegetables is enough to give anyone a cardiac arrest. Only Russian oil oligarchs are likely to walk out of there with any sense that they haven’t just been robbed blind.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for avoiding pesticides on my courgetteszucchini, but do I really need to seek out a sub-prime mortgage in an attempt to buy them? Given the relative strength of the pound, I could probably get a short city break in Amsterdam for the price of a Granny Smith or two.

Last week, The Special One called me as I made my way back to Brooklyn from the office, asking me to pick up a few tomatoes for a salsa she was making. A reluctance to deviate particularly far from my direct path home from the subway meant a trip to the health food store was the only option. And sure enough, when the woman at the counter weighed my chosen selection, I discovered I had to pay twenty five cents short of ten dollars for five medium sized tomatoes.

Biting my tongue to prevent an involuntary attack of Tourette’s Syndrome, I tromped home with my booty (for the avoidance of doubt, that’s a reference to the tomatoes, not my arseass). Once back in the apartment, I took the tomatoes from their plastic bag, and put them on the chopping board in order to cut them up.

And then I noticed it. A small black sticker on the outside of each of my tomatoes. Not your usual sticker giving the shop assistant the necessary code to type into the cash register, no sir. Sure, it had the code on it – 4664 actually, if you must know. But this was a fruit and veg sticker with a difference.

In this day and age, it would appear, nothing is sacred when it comes to advertising. At least, not if you work for Disney. Because there on the side of the tomato was a tiny oval advert for the DVD and Blu-Ray release of animated movie Ratatouille.

In America, billboards, TV commercials and print advertising are no longer enough in a bid to capture our dollars, it would appear. Now they’ve launched an all-out attack on our greengrocers too. I can just imagine the Pixar marketing meeting now:

“Right, how are we going to get people to buy this movie.”

“Well, I’ve had an idea. The film’s called Ratatouille, and one of the main ingredients of an actual ratatouille is a tomato. So why don’t we advertise on every tomato we can lay our hands on? It’s the ultimate call-to-action!”

“You’re a genius! Only over-priced organic ones though – this is a classy movie, after all.”

I thought I’d seen everything when it came to advertising, but clearly not. It’ll be potatoes shaped like Daniel Craig for the next Bond movie, I tell you.

Best snack (in a supporting role)

Shortly after my sister’s first trip to New York, I sent her a text message asking her what she thought of my (then) soon-to-be-adopted-city. Her response? “The sandwiches are huge”.

Maybe it’s not the first thing that they put in the guidebooks, but it’s fair to say that excess is a central part of life in New York and America. And never more so than when you go to the flicks cinema theatre theater.

Yesterday, The Special One and I joined the Gourmet Godmother to catch an afternoon showing of (the Best Picture Oscar winning) No Country For Old Men. Now, when you’re going with two women to see a film with (the Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning) Javier Bardem, it’s always best that you get snacks to take your mind off the dribbling that’s taking place in your immediate vicinity. The fact that he looked like a psychotic pageboy with serious anger management issues is apparently neither here nor there to the female population.

Aware of the scale of the problem, I made a beeline for the kioskconcession stand and opted for a large popcorn and a large Coca Cola. One mortgage later, and I was in possession of what appeared to be a industrial-sized keg of fizzy soft drink, and enough popcorn to cover all the small playgrounds of America in order to cushion accidental falls and wipe out knee grazes in an instant.

I swear that I ate popcorn near-constantly throughout the 122 minutes of the movie, and that by the end there was still more than three quarters of a bag left. This was despite being told by the employee who served me my food that I could return for a free refill of either popcorn or drink at any point. That’s like breaking the world record for most hot dogs eaten in a three-hour period, and being rewarded for your victory with double your own body weight in hot dogs.

As it was, I spent most of the evening going to a restaurant toiletbathroom attempting to rid my body of the entire lake of soft drink that I had inexplicably managed to consume. Given the number of visits that I made to the men’s room, I’d imagine that the vast majority of my fellow diners assumed I had a coke problem, rather than a problem with Coke™.

I’m only just coming down from the caffeine high now, more than twenty four hours later.

Incidentally, watching the Oscars this evening, The Special One asked if Marion Cotillard had won the Best Actress award for playing ‘Edith Pilaf’.

The movies and food can’t be separated in America, it would seem.

A small world

Waiting for The Special One in a bar on Friday night, I sat on a leather sofa reading the New York Times. Whatever people’s opinions of the NYT (and I meet a lot of people who don’t really like it), I kind of enjoy reading it. Don’t get me wrong I prefer The Guardian in the UK, but in the absence of a more progressive newspaper, the New York Times keeps me relatively interested.

USA Today aside, the Times is I guess the closest that the US has to a national newspaper. And as a result, you’d expect its coverage of world affairs to be thorough and comprehensive. But being honest, I think ‘Newsboard’ (the school newspaper that I helped to set up when I was about seven) had more in-depth coverage of foreign affairs.

In the ‘international’ section were 16 stories. Three of them concerned China, reflecting the concern of many Americans that China is going to become the big kid that bullies the USA in the schoolyard in a few more years. Six of the international stories mentioned the United States, as if nobody would be particularly interested in them unless the stories were linked to the US at some point.

Indeed three of the 16 foreign news stories mentioned the US in the headline. I know America’s a big place, but come on, surely there are other countries to write about??

I’m probably just bitter when it comes down to it. There was only article on the UK, and even that was written from Australia.

Where’s Sky Sports when you need it?

There’s something slightly strange about watching football on television in the United States. For a start, you have to tune into a station called the Fox Soccer Channel. I’ve no idea what this ‘soccer’ thing is, but if anybody has got any insight, do let me know. Nevertheless, if you’re separated from your beloved team by a matter of a few thousand miles, this is the place you have to turn.

I think it’s fair to say that the Fox Soccer Channel isn’t one of the most watched channels on American cable. On Time Warner Cable, it’s down at position 124. In other words, there are 123 channels considered more important than FSC – including the Speed Channel, which is currently showing a programme called ‘Unique Whips’. Mainstream stuff, I’m sure…

The relatively low viewership is particularly evident in the advertisingcommercials that appear around key games. Most of the adverts have been shot on a budget that wouldn’t even buy you a coffee in Starbucks, and I’ve seen better production values in kindergarten art classes. And that’s the good ones.

What’s most alarming though is the nature of the products being advertised. Tuning in yesterday to watch Manchester United’s second half demolition of Newcastle, it was like being forced to sit through the 3- 4am slot on one of QVC’s less successful competitors. Merely being marginally impressed by one of the products on offer would be enough for family members to have you committed. I daren’t even think about the consequences of actually making a purchase.

Among the items being sold were the Teeter Hang Up, a device that hangs you upside down by your ankles so that you’ve got gravity on your side when you’re doing your exercise. It looked ridiculous on the TV, but you’ve got to hand it to the website for their attempt to sell it:

“Used sensibly, inversion is extremely beneficial, and no more dangerous than many other popular and widely practiced fitness activities.”

No more dangerous than other widely practiced activities? Such as boxing blindfolded, presumably.

Also on offer was the Riddex digital pest repeller which apparently “eliminates rodents automatically”. Ignoring the sheer bravado of the product claim for a moment, I was particularly taken by the customer testimonial of one old lady (who was in no way an actress), who claimed:

“Riddex just makes me happy”

After all, who needs love or money when you’ve got a digital pest repeller?

My absolute favourite though was the Forearm Forklifts, a device to help you lift heavy furniture or equipment with the minimum of effort. I’d like to report that the Forearm Forklift is a small and highly mobile lifting device. It’s not. It’s a couple of plastic straps that you and a mate put on your arm to help lever your sofa into the air. They’re selling it for $20 if ever you’re seized by a desire to purchase something that cost 56 cents to manufacture.

Impressively, Fox Soccer Channel doesn’t interrupt the match to play commercials. Sadly that means that there’s no expert analysis at half time, just constant adverts for sleeping aids, home decorating aids and dodgy exercise devices. Clearly advertisers believe that the average football fan is a lazy couch potato whose general untidiness leads to armies of rats invading his (or her) messy pit.

It’s amazing how accurately consumers can be targeted these days, isn’t it?

Holding the baby

The Special One and I went to a movie premiere last night. Admittedly there was no Tom Cruise or Keira Knightley to wow the crowds, but then, this was no ordinary movie premiere.

“The Business Of Being Born” is billed by some as a “The Inconvenient Truth” of American childbirth, providing a faintly chilling insight into obstetrics in the United States. While 70% of births in Europe are attended by midwives, here it is less than 8%, with most mothers handled by surgeons in hospitals who’ve rarely – if ever – seen a live birth before they handle their first.

Essentially the filmmakers (Abby Epstein and former talkshow host Ricki Lake) are proponents of natural birth and homebirth, and if the sheer and unrestrained joy on the faces of the mothers moments after giving birth naturally in the movie is anything to go by, it’s difficult to argue against it. Certainly, given that The Special One gave birth to both The Eldest and The Youngest at home, you’re not going to find any argument here.

Compelling though the documentary was, it also reminded me of how the United States has more of an island mentality than anything that Britain could ever conjure up.

Dr Michael Odent is a French OB/GYN who features at length in the movie, talking movingly about the connection between mother and child, and the importance of the chemicals released during birth in establishing a mother’s love for her newly born. He speaks in English, and very good English at that. But he speaks, inevitably, with a clear French accent. Nothing though that couldn’t be understood by anybody who can a) speak English and b) hear.

But that didn’t stop the filmmakers from feeling the need to subtitle every single word he said.

Essentially if anybody ‘speaks a bit foreign’ in movies or TV in America, they stick a subtitle on it. French or Mexican, Taiwanese or German, it doesn’t matter whether they’re speaking English or their native language. Forget a need to cater for the ‘hard of hearing’, this is a palpable concern for the ‘hard of intelligence’.

I can only assume that there’s a feisty union who threaten to go out on strike unless filmmakers keep subtitling levels above a certain point. Before long they’ll be sticking subtitles on 24 whenever Chloe speaks. And it’s best not to think about what would have happened if they’d ever brought Auf Wiedersehn Pet over here.

Anyway, if you get the chance to see “The Business Of Being Born”, you honestly should go. Frightening and heartwarming in equal measures, it leaves you with real food for thought.

And I never once needed to put my iPod on and go to sleep as colleagues had suggested might be necessary.

PS When I told The Youngest that we had seen Ricki Lake the previous night, her response was “who’s he?” That’s showbiz!

Radio free state

I realised today one of the things that I miss most about not being in the UK (after family and friends of course). It’s not HP sauce as I can get that here, nor is it Waitrose or Waterstones. And while I miss holding the British papers in my hands, I can just about deal with my Guardian separation issues.

No, what I’m really having trouble with is not being able to listen to British radio. It’s odd not waking up listening to Today on Radio 4, or Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty one-upping each other on Five Live. I miss late night comedy session on BBC 7, or cooking a roast dinner with the soporific tones of Magic FM in the background. Hell, I even miss Alan Green’s Premiership football commentaries.

Of course, I hear you cry, I can listen to some of these stations on the internet, but there’s something odd about listening to programming that was intended for a wholly different time of the day. I mean, who wants to be listening to The World At One as they’re getting up, or the Greg James early breakfast show as they’re going to bed?

British radio is simply ahead of the game. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some cracking stations here (if you like classic rock, you’ve got to give the “progressive sound of WEHM” a try), but it’s only when you’re away from Britain that you realise how much you miss the BBC in particular. Maybe some people have a problem with “the unique way the BBC is funded”, but £135.50 a year seems a bargain right now if you ask me.

Anyway, I’m off to iTunes to download podcasts of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s respective radio shows. Maybe it’s not quite the same as listening to the programmes live and in the flesh, but at least it’ll bring a little bit of the UK to my subway journeys next week.