8 Out of 10 Cats

June 29, 2006

Lately, I’ve been reading a few books by Danny Wallace.  His oeuvre consists mostly of what his ex-girlfriend calls “stupid boy-projects”: things like starting his own “cult” of 1,000 do-gooders, and spending several months indiscriminately saying “yes” to anything and everything asked of him.

It got me to thinking about things I’d like to accomplish while I’m here.  Having lunch with a famous architect or film composer would be high on the list.  Being a guest on a TV chat show would be another.  Well, I haven’t made it on TV as a chat show guest yet, but I have made it as an audience member.  And, on one of my favorite shows.

Today I attended a taping of the show 8 Out of 10 Cats.  It’s a simple idea for a show, but oddly hard to describe.  Basically, it’s a mock-game show (like Whose Line Is It Anyway? where Drew Carey (in the US version) was fond of saying, “Welcome to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”).  Considering Whose Line originated in the UK as well, I’d say the British are fond of “game shows” where the points don’t matter.

8 Out of 10 Cats is a show about opinion polls and surveys.  A regular panel of comedians (pictured above) and celebrity guests makes jokes about “the top five talking points of the week” and fill-in-the-blank questions like “40% of British men say they wish they had more _____.”  In some ways, it reminds me a little of the old Match Game, and I’m sure if Charles Nelson Reilly were British, he’d be on this show (along with Phyllis Diller and Charo, who regrettably are also not British).

If you’ve never attended a TV taping, you’re not missing much.  Back in Los Angeles, I attended two, for the shows Anything But Love and Sibs.  I actually met TV tycoon James L. Brooks at the latter taping, but I didn’t realize it was him until a few days later.  TV tapings are notoriously slow.  It can take hours to record a 30-minute sitcom.  People flub lines, the sets and costumes have to be changed, the lighting and sound have to be adjusted.  And, the gaffers’ union has to have their coffee break.

8 Out of 10 Cats was simple by comparison.  One set, no costumes, probably only a handful of gaffers.  Nevertheless, it still took nearly three hours to shoot the 30-minute show.  Since it’s all improvised, only about one joke/comment in five makes it into the final episode.  There were a lot of pithy comments that fell flat and didn’t get a laugh.  There were personal anecdotes that went on way too long, and lots of tangents that had nothing to do with the show’s main topics.

I’d like to tell you who the d-list British celebrities were for my taping, but to be honest, I don’t remember.  There was a fat guy with glasses who was pretty funny, and older feminist author [Germaine Greer] who had some wild stories about being on Celebrity Big Brother in Australia and trying to call “999” (the British version of “911”) while being strangled by an obsessed stalker (not that there’s any other kind).  There was also a sexy brunette woman who unintentionally outed someone during the taping (which was naturally cut from the show).  I’d like to tell you who it was that she outed, but since I don’t even remember who she was… well, I really wish I was better with names.

More info: 8 Out of 10 Cats


Reading

June 24, 2006

This weekend, Derek and I took a trip to Reading, which is about 40 minutes west of London by train.  Like Manchester, it’s an old town that’s gotten a major facelift recently in it’s retail core.  Unlike Manchester, Reading is much more of a town than a city, so the “retail core” mostly consists of a large mall called The Oracle.

I have to say, its one of the nicer malls I’ve been to in England.  Particularly appealing is an adjoining outdoor restaurant and entertainment complex which straddles a nearby river.  If you squint, it almost feels like Downtown Disney or the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.  Plus, right in the center, is a beautiful circular glass building that juts over part of the river and houses the second Chili’s I’ve found over here.  (I have no idea why I’ve become so obsessed with this restaurant.)

Further along the river, we came to some nice modern apartments which were about half the price of our current place in London.  For that type of savings, who knows, maybe we’ll end up moving here.  Also along the river was a sort of neighborhood carnival with food and live music, and booths for local charities and activity clubs. 

Making a loop back to the town center, we crossed through an attractive park with rolling grassy hills, a large gazebo/bandstand and a gigantic thirty-foot tall bronze statue of a lion.  The lion is a war memorial to the Reading casualties of the Boer War, who (according to this website) have the dubious distinction of being in the third most-massacred regiment in British history.  I really don’t want you to think I’m dishonoring the dead here, but the lion is so over-sized for the park it’s in, it looked to me like it had been intended for the decor of the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas, and got shipped here by mistake.

More info: Reading


Sky Digital

June 23, 2006

This may come as a shock to my American readers, but most of Britain is not “cable-ready”.  That’s a phrase most Americans haven’t had to deal with since the 1970s.  In America, the home cable TV connection is almost a constitutional right.  But in London, where the brick buildings are older than older than America itself, miles of coax snaking through the walls is an impossibility.  As a result, everyone here has satellite instead.  And, when it comes to satellite, there’s only one game in town: Sky.

Derek and I have it, mainly because he wants to watch TV from Germany and France.  That will come as a shock to the Brits, who generally only get Sky in order to have 105 channels of football.  In fact, getting it set up without the Sports Package can be difficult.  “There must be a mistake; it looks like they forgot the Sports Package when they set up your account.”  No, we opted for the Culture Package.  Yep, we’re that gay.

More info: Sky Digital


Dragons’ Den

June 20, 2006

Dragons’ Den is more or less a combination of The Apprentice and American Idol.  Optimistic inventors and budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of five multi-millionaires (the “dragons” of the title), hoping to get them to invest.  More often than not, the ideas are laughable, and the millionaires delight in tearing them apart with the kind of devilish glee usually reserved for Simon Cowell.

The show’s setting is… well, it looks to me like something out of the final scene of Flashdance.  It’s a long, empty, brick-walled room with wood floors and large windows, and five suited “judges” sitting at one end, looking imperious.  All it’s missing is some Irene Cara music and Jennifer Beals in legwarmers.

But, instead of “What a Feeling!”, it’s more like “What were they thinking?” as a parade of wannabe “businessmen” peddle wares that even Ron Popeil would probably turn down.  For most of them, you only get to see highlights of the pitch sessions, and that’s a shame because the worse the idea, the more entertaining the dragons’ reactions…  “I think that is the single worst idea I’ve ever seen for a business in my life.”  “You haven’t got a plan, you haven’t got a product, and you haven’t got a distributor, so I’m out.”  “I’m just wondering where you thought the profit for this business would come from, because I’m not seeing it.”

Even better are the reactions from the entrepreneurs, which range from red-faced guilty admissions that they hadn’t really given things like “profit” much thought yet, all the way to red-faced defensive rage and name calling.

Rarest of all is the moment where someone actually gets one of the dragons to invest.  You’d think that sitting there all day, fondling their personal stacks of cash (see photo above), they’d want to share the wealth a bit.  But even the “good” ideas aren’t good enough for them…  “I think you have a winning product there, and I’m prepared to give you $100,000, but instead of 12% of the company, I’d like 47%.  How does that sound?”  Not surprisingly, it usually sounds like crap to the budding inventors.  To me, it just sounds like a way for the dragons to say “no” without having to say “no” all the time.

So much for “trickle-down“.

More info: Dragons’ Den


Chicago

June 17, 2006

Most of us are familiar with the film version of Kander and Ebb‘s wonderful stage musical Chicago.  It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002, and rightly so.  The film was bright, edgy, perfectly cast and brilliantly photographed.  As with Baz Luhrmann‘s breakthrough version of Moulin Rouge! a year earlier, Chicago demonstrated how a film musical, free of the practical limitations of stage productions, could turn some rather mundane source material into something visually spectacular.

It’s not always easy to do.  Robert Wise struck gold twice in the 60s with the film adaptations of West Side Story in 1961 and The Sound of Music in 1965.  Both films took home the Best Picture Oscar (as well as two Oscars for Wise as director).  His secret?  Take the camera outdoors as every possible opportunity, and remain as faithful as possible to the original story.  It’s too bad Richard Attenborough didn’t take that advice when he directed the disastrous film version of A Chorus Line in 1985.  The script was hacked to pieces, and the blank stage set felt dismal and claustrophobic.

I’ve seen A Chorus Line on stage (in Seattle), and it was remarkably better than the film.  Of course, that’s not too surprising, since the film version was only slightly less fun that filling out your tax return.  Now, I have the chance to see Chicago live on stage, and the verdict?  Sucky.  Mind you, it would’ve been sucky even without the memory of the spectacular film.  That just made it doubly sucky.

Maybe I waited too long.  Chicago had been playing at the Adelphi Theatre for eight years (a record-setting run), and it had just moved to the smaller Cambridge Theatre (recently vacated by Dancing in the Streets).  With the move came a change in cast, and a scaled-down set.  The result: suckiness on all fronts.

Let’s start with Bonnie Langfordin the lead role.  According to various web sources, she’s in her 40s, but on stage she looks closer to 70.  I’m aware that the play has always been cast with older actresses than the film.  The film is about the young ingenue, waiting to have her first big break, while the play is about an older woman a little delusional about getting her first big break.  That’s fine.  But, watching Langford (who looks and sounds like the love-child of Shari Lewis and Katherine Helmond) show off her “sexy” geriatric-looking legs.  Well, that’s not delusional.  That’s just creepy.

The fact that the rest of the cast runs through their dancing motions with all the enthusiasm of a check-out girl at Wal Mart, well, that doesn’t help.  But, the real nail in the coffin for this show is the set… There isn’t one.  It’s just the band on stage.  That’s it.  And, while that may be fine for a review show like Dancing in the Streets or Sinatra, it’s unforgivable for a musical play.  Call me old-fashioned.  I like sets.  And, unless I’m going to watch a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, I expect to see a set.  And, when there isn’t one, I know I’ve been cheated.

The only bright spot for me was Darius Danesh as Billy Flynn.  Darius was “discovered” on Pop Idol, the British version of American Idol.  He has a cartoony, deep, booming voice, somewhat like John Raitt.  Unlike the rest of the principal cast, he’s not in urgent need of a hip replacement, and he can actually hold his notes. (Darius makes you realize how much Richard Gere was not a natural singer in the film.)  But wait, what’s this I read?  Darius is leaving in July, and is being replaced by Luca Barbareschi.  Who?  Well, his bio on the Chicago website lists him as a student of Lee Strasburg and Stella Adler, an award-winning producer/writer/director, and a recipient of the “Silver Medal for Culture” from no less than the president of Italy.  Funny, nowhere in this resume is there any mention of his (surely Stanislavskian) work in the gory horror flick Cannibal Holocaust.  Can’t imagine how they forgot to mention that one.

More info: Chicago


Sinatra at the London Palladium

June 10, 2006

If you’ve been reading these reviews on a regular basis, you might realize that this is the third musical I’ve seen in two months that includes the song “Luck Be a Lady”.  Am I obsessed with this Sinatra standard, or maybe just with the man himself?

Truth be told, I love Sinatra (though not as much as I love Bobby Darin or Tony Bennett).  He was, after all, the Chairman of the Board.  And, for his fans (who, judging by the audience, are all frighteningly older than I) the show Sinatra at the London Palladium doesn’t disappoint.  Well, except for the fact that you temporarily forget that Frank Sinatra is actually dead.  That crushing realization is a bit of a disappointment.  But otherwise, it’s a great show.

Sinatra(the show) is a spectacular technological feat.  I’d have to say it’s probably the second-most technologically splashy show I’ve ever seen (the first being Celine Dion’s A New Dayin Las Vegas).  What do you get for the price of a ticket?  Well, you get lots of video.  But, far from being a high-tech slide-show, it uses every audio-visual trick in the book to make you forget you’re watching a screen image and get you thinking that you’re looking at the man himself.

It never quite succeeds in resurrecting the body of Sinatra on stage.  (I don’t think I’d want to see that anyway.)  And, the producers were smart enough to avoid any hint of Sinatra “impersonation” by a member of the cast.  What you get are digitally scrubbed-up high-def images of the man, singing in sync with a live, on-stage orchestra, flanked by rows of fresh-faced limber dancers.

It’s actually a bit off-putting at first.  How exactly do you dance around a moving video screen and not look, well, a little goofy?  Luckily, the show hits it’s stride early on, with the dancers taking a break so Frank, in his own words, can tell us his life story.  This is important because it gives the songs a layer of personal meaning that’s lacking when we hear them on the radio or listen to a CD.  The producers also got the approval of the Sinatra family, and with it, access to hours of never-before-seen film footage.  It’s really pretty amazing to watch.

By the time the cast all line up along the edge of the stage for a slam-bang rendition of “That’s Life”, you’re hooked.  (I think the producers wisely realized this was the emotional highlight of the show, and included a reprise as the production’s closing number.)  Cheesy? Yes.  Fun?  You bet!

Overall, it has the feel of the most expensive awards-show production number you’ve ever seen.  (Supposedly costing over £5 million.)  In fact, you get so worked up by it that you almost start expecting Frank to come out at the end, shake hands with everyone in the cast, bask in the glow of a way-too-long standing ovation, and thank everyone “for this wonderful honor”.  When he doesn’t (because, you suddenly remember, he’s been dead for 8 years) you feel a) a little cheated and b) a little elated because you’ve realised you’ve gotten the next best thing.  It is an amazing legacy.

This is also a show tailor-made for a big Las Vegas showroom.  If this production doesn’t find a semi-permanent home there, I’ll be amazed.  (Unless, of course, arcane US copyright laws come into play.)

More info: Sinatra at the London Palladium