My Cultural Highlights of 2014

My Cultural Highlights of 2014

I do this every year about this time… a few of the things I’ve loved and been inspired by in 2014.

Television.

The first half of the final season of Mad Men was back up there in terms of surprises and strength of story/character. But the best thing I saw on television this year (and possibly ever) was a real surprise.

I’ve always enjoyed Homeland but it went a bit crazy in Series Two and Series Three as it contrived to keep Brody in the story long after his story was done. Without him, Series Four was able to do what Homeland’s always had the capacity to do, but did it even better than I’d hoped for. There’s always been those moments in Homeland that just hit you, where the unexpected happens and shocks you. There’s also that wonderful thing that often happens about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the Series when you suddenly realise what’s been happening all along, and how it was all planned.

Series Four had both of those and more. I had serious problems getting to sleep after it frequently, and it wasn’t just because I was shocked, but because I was so engaged with it. That’s powerful TV.

I did enjoy some comedy this year too, and despite my fondness for the one-liners that populate Lee Mack’s Not Going Out, this latest series was surprisingly moving, and definitely back to form. Hugh Dennis provided a foil for Lee that he has missed since Tim Vine left the show. I hope Lee Mack get’s another show.

Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education was also very funny. Not because of anything to do with teaching or schools, because it bears no resemblance to reality in those areas. Just because it was very funny.

However, in comedy terms, 2014 was really about a very sad but understandable goodbye to the family of Outnumbered. One of the most naturally funny shows ever and also the best chorincler of family life. I’ll miss them.

Books.

A rich year for me in reading, although several of the books that came out this year I’ve still yet to read. But I managed to read 31 books this year, in a year in which one of them was The Luminaries (which I enjoyed very much, if not loved). My standout favourite was Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. The sort of book I got very excited about when I first heard of it, just because he’s one of my favourites, but was not at all disappointed by. A stunning imagination, but such a good creator of real characters and natural dialogue. Despite spanning such a long period of time, with each part telling a slightly different story, each part was highly engaging and some of them would be in themselves among the best books written this year, were they standalone stories. This particular skill of David Mitchell’s was also realised in Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (about which more later) as he also provided the dialogue for one of the key scenes between father and son.

I also read all three of Joshua Ferris’s novels this year. The Unnamed and And then we Came to the End were completely different from each other and both brilliant. Filled me with so much hope and excitement at a new novel, and I was bitterly disappointed with his latest To Rise again at a Decent Hour. Very hard to get on with and missing all the traits of those first two that were so good.

Nevertheless, there remains for me to look forward to in 2015 Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens among others.

New Music

New Faith No More. Very exciting for me. And typically Faith No More that they release their first song in 20-odd years, it’s brilliant and catchy and yet not socially acceptable to sing out loud because of it’s title (at least not in my family). But a new album next year is a much looked forward to treat. I’m also very excited about the new Tears for Fears album – as one of my favourite bands.

But this year was mostly about jazz for me. And in terms of albums I loved Brice Winston’s Child’s Play. David Virelles and Marcus Gilmore have the making of greats and I even really like Mike Moreno’s playing on this – despite not being a fan of jazz guitar.

I also loved Opus 5’s new album Progression. That’s another great band. Closer to home great albums from Tommy Andrews (The Crux) and an astonishingly assured and beautiful debut album from Singer/Violinist/Piano Player Alice Zawadski (China Lane).

These albums are all highly recommended.

And I should mention George Michael’s Symphonica. Most of the arrangements are very like they are on the original album. But the shape of the band dictates that the setlist is largely my favourite style of George Michael music… and these are very good songs. Hearing Praying for Time and Cowboys and Angels from Listen without Prejudice is one thing, but there’s also his rather wonderful arrangement of Let Her Down Easy by Terence Trent D’Arbay (that’s not on any album), and his Brother, Can You Spare a Dime gets me up and singing.

Gigs

I went to lots of gigs this year, and the quality quotient was very high. Two absolute highlights loom large above the others though…

The St Petersburg Philharmonic playing Shostakovich’s 10th at the Royal Festival Hall was a career highlight. Nobody plays Shostakovich like they do and there no-one writes a symphony like Shostakovich. So much to love and so much inspiration. The same could be said of..

Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn tour, and will be. £150 per ticket, but genuinely worth every penny, in terms of what I got out of that concert. I loved every note of it. Amazing band, great setlist – amazing to hear A Sky of Honey performed in it’s entirety and amazing theatre. More elaborate theatre than one is ever likely to see and with a better score too, performed live by Kate herself. By her current standards she’ll be 80 when she next plays a concert… and that’s at the expense of a new album. Hopefully both will be seen again before then.

Film

12 Years a Slave, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lego Movie all good films from the early part of the year. More recently I enjoyed Interstellar – which was let down by its numerous plotholes and extreme overlength, but I guess that makes it a Kubrickian film (fatally flawed but with moments of sheer spectacle and joy and left me thinking about it). I preferred the Russian film Leviathan, which wasn’t flawed at all (just perhaps lacking the spectacle, although not lacking in any human drama and with a good deal more humour)… however, I think if I had to pick a favourite, it would be Paddington. Brilliantly conceived, designed, acted, shot and edited. Manages to be faithful to the London of the 1950s original and yet also contemporary. But heart-warming in a very genuine way, not smug and entertaining.

Personal Highlights

There’s so much inspiration in all that, so perhaps it’s fitting that 2015 is shaping up to be a pretty big year for me too. My own personal highlights are tied equally… a great family summer holiday in Sweden and Denmark that I’ll remember forever, even though I’ll be returning as soon as I can… and having one of my personal heroes Robert Wyatt come out of retirement to record a vocal for one of my songs. The resulting song is beautiful, and will be on an album to come out in the spring. His won’t be the only big name on it, but it will be the meeting that I have most cherished this year. A legend, and a lovely bloke.

So, my year of Robert and Kate and David Mitchell. That probably sums up 2014. Roll on next year.

10 Reasons why I love ‘The Living Daylights’

1)    John Barry’s score.  4 great themes, 1 great theme song and the last time ever we heard his trademark horn writing underscored by some beautiful orchestration.

2)    Timothy Dalton.  Not as tough and mean as he was to become as Bond, but still serious.  And along with Daniel Craig, probably the best actor to play Bond.

3)    The last Cold War Bond film.  By 1989 (the subsequent Bond film) the Berlin Wall had fallen and Perestroika was coming in.  But Bond was built for the Cold War.

4)    The Cello Ski Chase.

5)    That moment at the fairground in Vienna where Bond wins a prize for Kara by shooting three shots in a row.  Poor unsuspecting stall-holder.

6)    The first use of an Aston Martin since 1969.  Its a beautiful one too, understated compared to the slightly ‘bling’-y models of today.

7)    Aghanistan.  The Mujaheddin were exotic, the Russians the enemy.  How much has changed in 25 years.  But those scenes in Art Malik’s mountain home are truly beautiful and exotic.

8)    The final setpiece on the Hercules.  One of my favourite setpieces ever in any action film.  So good that Lee Tamahori ripped most of it off again for Die Another Day.  Genuinely edge of seat stuff.

9)    A-Ha’s theme song.  John Barry described the process of writing it as being like ‘playing ping-pong with three balls’.  But I love this tune.  It’s Bondian, but also a great tune (more than I could say for… )

10) “It’s all so boring here Margot, there’s nothing but Playboys and Tennis Pros.  If only I could find a real man.”

“I need to use your phone… she’ll call you back. Exercise control, 007.  I report in an hour.”

“Won’t you join me?”

“Better make that 2 hours.”

 

 

So they say that invariably the first Bond actor you saw is your favourite. I don’t know to what extent this is true.  I’m sure that if I had been around in the 60s and saw Sean Connery as James Bond in Doctor No or From Russia with Love, then that probably would have been the case for me (I saw Doctor No a couple of years ago at the BFI Gala screening and its easy to imagine how exciting and seductive that film must have been, in the early 60s).  I struggle to see how anyone, on seeing Bond for the first time in the mid to late 70s could have thought Roger Moore the most exciting, definitive Bond.

 

My first James Bond experience was Roger Moore.  It was 1985, I was 10.  My sister must have been at a friend’s on a Saturday night.  My parents decided to take me to the cinema to see the latest Bond film.  I knew nothing about Bond at all.  Before we went out, we were watching an exciting new show on television.  An action-man type called MacGyver was behind enemy lines, trying to escape, without using any guns (it was the first episode of that too).  I asked my parents what Bond would be like.  ‘A bit like this’, I remember them replying.

 

It was A View to a Kill.  I loved it.  Far more exciting than MacGyver.  This chap went to much more exciting places, had much bigger adventures, was far more attractive to women.  It inspired me enough to read a few James Bond novels (starting with Thunderball), watch a few TV specials.. get myself a bit more ready for the next one (because apparently the Bond fan got one new film every two years).. when it arrived, I was 12, a confirmed Bond fanatic, and about to watch my first Bond film as a fan.

 

So maybe that’s what they mean, when they say the first actor you saw is your favourite – actually, the first you see as a Bond fan.  Because my favourite is Timothy Dalton.  And it has been ever since I saw The Living Daylights early in 1988.  That was the film that made me buy every Bond-related book I saw (many of which I read out to my family until they were sick of it), the film that set me on my path of collecting, watching and reading every film, novel (even the Raymond Benson ones.  Thankfully there’re no more of them).  Dalton was the closest to Fleming’s Bond.  He wasn’t particularly suave, but had that animal magnetism and a physicality.  You’d be frightened if you bumped into him in a dark alley late at night.

 

I then had the joy of watching Licence to Kill, which I loved, and the desolation of waiting 6 whole long years, seeing Timothy Dalton playing Rhett Butler instead of James Bond, and then hearing he would do so no more.  I sat through the Brosnan years, always hoping the films would get better.. return to the Dalton-era realism.. it never quite did.  There were good bits, even in Die Another Day, but it wasn’t until Casino Royale a whole 16 years after Licence to Kill that I saw what I’d been craving all those years.  And Daniel Craig is great – possibly up there with Dalton for me.  I certainly think Casino Royale is a much better film, but I would have loved to seen Dalton in 5 films like that.  I guess the 90s just wasn’t ready for Tim Dalton as James Bond.