Saturday, February 20, 2010

Exercise and British Old-Time Radio

As someone who spends a lot of time sitting in front of a computer (I work from home, and most of my volunteer and other activities involve computer work), I've been very conscious recently that I'm not getting enough exercise. I recalled Stephen Fry on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross (and elsewhere) talking about how he'd lost a lot of weight and become fitter by walking. Being someone who easily got bored by exercise, he had discovered that he could cover long distances without realizing it, simply by listening to audiobooks on his MP3 player while walking. This appealed to me, so I decided to do a similar thing. I would start walking in the vicinity of my daughter's school before picking her up, listening to my MP3 player on the way.

Being a cheapskate, I thought I would try to find some free audiobooks online. After asking around on Twitter and my Facebook page, someone suggested trying The Internet Archive. This site is a vast repository of texts, audio and video in the public domain, all free to download. I discovered a lot of audiobooks, but what caught my attention was that there were also many old-time radio shows. I downloaded some and I have been listening to them on my (mostly) daily walks.

Being a good son, I usually talk to my parents on the telephone every Sunday. During a recent call, I mentioned to my Father that I had been listening to these old-time radio shows. He started talking about some of the radio shows he remembered from his youth. On a whim, while we were talking, I did a search in The Internet Archive, and found a collection of episodes of radio shows from the 1940s. These were all shows that he had loved.

ITMA, one of the most popular of these shows, starred comedian Tommy Handley. ITMA was an acronym coined by the newspapers when reporting about Hitler's activities, and stood for "It's That Man Again." Other shows in this collection included Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, Merry-Go-Round, The Will Hay Programme, Life With The Lyons, (which featured American couple Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels and their children), and Band Waggon, the first regular comedy series on British radio. There's an amazing array of famous comedians and actors who appeared in these shows; Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Kenneth Horne, Hattie Jacques, Jon Pertwee and Charlie Chester, to name a few.

Of course, there are many "in-jokes" and references to long-forgotten events that go over one's head. But a lot of this stuff is still really funny. Not only is it a great way to pass the time while exercising, but I shall also be making a CD compilation of these as a gift to bring back some memories for my Father.

I thoroughly recommend spending some time exploring The Internet Archive to rediscover an old favorite, or to find a new one! Let me know what you find, or share some memories by making a comment.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Behind You! - A Guest Post by Becky Gudgin

During our recent trip to England, we went to a theatre in Wales to see a Pantomime, that most British of theatrical events. I was going to write about it here, but then I was struck by the thought that it might be even better to get a genuine American's interpretation of the spectacle. Now, where can I get one of those? Oh, that's right, I'm married to a genuine American!


I’ve been asked to explain British pantomime. I am not British. My husband is. But we both recently went to our first panto, Sleeping Beauty, in Swansea, Wales.

A British panto is the retelling of a classic fairytale in musical form. The lead players are usually well-known actors from TV, stage, etc. Some of the lesser characters are brought in or well known local actors. The ensemble consists of kids and adults who are local actors/theatre students. Audience participation, in the form of "boo", "yay", "awwww", etc., is encouraged. There is often a good and/or bad fairy, a simpleminded comedian who interacts with the kids in the audience and a "dame"- a guy dressed in bad drag. There is a lot of innuendo meant to go over the heads of the kids and entertain the adults, much of which comes from the dame. There are local jokes and references to the main actors' best-known roles.

This play had Sleeping Beauty, her father the King, the Prince, Silly Billy (the simpleminded comedian), a dame (Nurse Nelly), a good fairy (yay!) and fairy “Bodybag” (boo!!!). The Prince and Sleeping Beauty played the story straightforwardly. Everyone else went back and forth between moving the story along and just goofing around - improvising and entertaining the audience while the set was being changed, etc. The first act was fairly close to the plot of the fairytale. It began with Sleeping Beauty being born and the fairies lining up to give her gifts. Bodybag was not invited and thus cursed the baby to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before her eighteenth birthday. It ended with Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger on a spinning wheel despite the best efforts of the Prince and the King.

At some point the audience was thrown sweets (candy) and squirted with water guns. (My daughter was sorely disappointed not to get wet.) Nurse Nelly meanwhile, picked out some hapless guy from the audience and flirted with him shamelessly from the stage for the whole show. A somewhat traditional scene had Billy and Nurse Nelly baking. They were making "toad in the hole" - a British dish with sausages hidden in a kind of bready batter. Aside from the sausage innuendos, there was flour flying in Billy's face and smoke from the oven that prompted the audience to obligingly shout "Look behind you!"

The second act was a departure from the fairytale. Of course the good fairy had changed the curse from death to a sleep of 100 years. How was the Prince going to live 100 years to awaken her? She sent him flying thru time! The flying scene was fantastic with wonderful special effects. I leaned over to my daughter and said "[The Prince] is flying". She condescendingly whispered back to me that he was just on strings.

When the Prince landed, he went to Sleeping Beauty and awakened her. But Bodybag was not done. I am afraid to tell you what happened next! Being a huge fan of the actor who played the Prince, I was prepared to storm the stage but I held myself back. The bad fairy tried to steal the Prince! She hypnotized him and tried to get him to marry her! (Boo!!! Hiss!!!!) Sleeping Beauty showed up just in time and he was saved by the power of love. (Awwwww!!!!) Then Bodybag turned into DRAGON Bodybag and tried to stop them. The swashbuckling hero fought the dragon and eventually killed it. The closing scene with plenty of singing and dancing was Sleeping Beauty’s eighteenth birthday party combined with her wedding.


Space didn't allow Becky to include all the Pantomime traditions we were treated to. Wikipedia has an excellent description of Pantomime, and how it works, if you want to find out more. And of course, we welcome your comments and questions.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fourteen Days in May - A Guest Post by Traci Jones

For those who are not aware, Britain abolished the death-penalty for murder in 1969 (The last person to be put to death, by hanging, in the UK was in 1964). Forty years later, a poll commissioned by a UK TV company revealed that 70% of those polled were in favor of the return of capital punishment to the UK. I am opposed to the death-penalty, as is Traci Jones, an English expat living in Colorado, whom I befriended following comments she made to this blog. I invited her to write a guest post here:


Fourteen Days In May. A title I came across while watching TV when I was just 16 years old. Twenty three years on, those four words can still transport me to a horrifying realization - the first awakening to the reality of capital punishment.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? The death penalty is where we as human beings “punish” other human beings for the most atrocious crimes. It goes on all around the world and yet is so easy to ignore. After all, it’s not our world, it’ll never happen to us.

I’m sure it wasn’t even on my radar until that fateful evening in 1987 when I watched the TV cameras enter into this unknown world. They followed a man on Death Row in the US who was nearing his execution date. It was that last two weeks of his life. I can’t even recall all the details but the man who was representing him, and literally fighting for his life, I’ll always remember. He was an English guy, softly spoken, and full of such integrity and determination to do what was right for this man. His name was
Clive Stafford Smith.

The man he represented, Edward Earl Johnson
, was also quietly spoken, intelligent with a shy smile and a calmness that made even his guards uneasy. As the story unfolded and the cameras followed him as he took his last meal, made his last request, joined his amazingly loving, supportive family for the last time (they sang ‘Always’ to him just as he left - what else could they do?), finally Clive and the cameras had to say goodbye. It seemed so unreal that this man, who knew exactly what was about to happen, had so much dignity. And it absolutely tore me apart that humans could do this to another human … and there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

I was not politically motivated at that time, I was just moved to the core by my human response. Since then, I have come to realize the facts about the death penalty. I always come back to the question, “How does this fit into our humanity, how does it make us better people and a better world?”. And statistics show us that the death penalty is no deterrent for the people that commit these crimes (let alone the question of their mental health, and should we be treating mentally-ill people in this way).


After he had been put to death,
Clive Stafford Smith announced to the press that evidence had come forward that conclusively proved that Edward Earl Johnson was innocent and had been framed. He could not have been responsible for the crime for which he was killed by the state.


Clive Stafford Smith now works as the legal director of Reprieve
, a British charity that is opposed to the death penalty.

You can see Fourteen Days in May for yourself at - to watch the whole thing, you have to download their video player (free). Traci and I welcome your comments.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Couch Potatoes: England 2010 Part 3

As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, we had a lot of snow during our recent trip to England. This was not a bad thing; we really needed a break, and these trips often result in us tearing around the country. We spent most of this visit simply relaxing with my family, watching TV and listening to music.

I generally try to keep up with the British music scene, but I'd really let things slip in recent years. Fortunately, my brother had brought a lot of recent music with him, and so I was able to catch up. A few years ago, I "discovered" Goldfrapp, a synth duo led by Alison Goldfrapp, who wear their influences (Glam Rock, 80s synthpop) on their sleeves, but La Roux, another suitably retro synthpop duo, were new to me. Anyone into early Vince Clarke should give them a listen. I'd heard a bit of Lily Allen, but really hadn't taken the time to listen to her clever lyrics. Another thing I appreciate about her two albums is how she embraces different music genres. Be warned, though; Lily, is a bit of a potty-mouth! I first heard Paloma Faith, a quirky chanteuse, on Jools Holland's New Year's Eve show, Hootenanny. Also on that show I heard Florence and the Machine. Singer Florence Welch didn't impress me much, live, but I did enjoy her album, Lungs. Although he's not a British Act, I did miss bluesman Seasick Steve on Hootenanny. He attained worldwide fame after being on the show a few years ago, and has appeared several times since. Fortunately, my Father had recorded some of his other TV appearances for me. I was also thrilled to hear about the imminent release of the movie biopic of Ian Dury, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, after seeing starring actor Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings movies) being interviewed on TV.

Among the TV shows I watched was the second part of the Doctor Who special, The End of Time, a wonderful farewell, both to star David Tennant and writer/producer Russell T. Davies and an introduction to new star Matt Smith. After avoiding Big Brother for years, we got hooked on the final series, Celebrity Big Brother, and had to follow news about the show when we returned to the US (Cage-fighter Alex Reid, boyfriend of model/reality TV star Katie Price beat Dane Bowers, ex-boyfriend of Price!). A big fan of cooking shows, I discovered the delights of The Hairy Bikers, who motorcycle and cook around Britain. Their most recent series, Mums Know Best, feature the bikers visiting Mothers around the country, persuading them to share their favorite family recipes. Their homemade fish and chips recipe had me salivating! One thing I really miss about British TV is the wide range of great shows about wildlife, both native and around the world. Some of these make it to the US, but not nearly enough. Fortunately, my family is a big fan of these shows, so I got to see lots of them, including a Christmas special produced by Springwatch. I also enjoyed Wild at Heart, starring Hayley Mills, about a British Vet starting a game park in South Africa. Unfortunately, an American version of this show was canceled in 2008, due to poor ratings.

Do you have a favorite recent UK music act or TV show? Have I missed a gem or two? Please do share in a comment!