Hunt for the Wilderpeople Review

Using my Laughs, tears, cheese and cheers rating system, here is my spoiler-free review for the excellent ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, with links below if you want to find out more (I strongly recommend you do…)

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Laughs: 4/5 

The only reason I haven’t given this film the top rating for laughs is that it pitches itself skilfully in the balance between out right farce and delightful buddy/chase movie. The laughs are where they are meant to be, and never done better than at the heart of the film with the interactions between the two main characters (underplayed brilliantly by Sam Neil and Julian Dennison). The central relationship is so good in fact, that even cameos from the likes of comedy stalwarts like Rhys Derby come second, as fun as they are.

Tears: 2/5

This film could have easily tipped over the edge into a total blub fest, but is always there with well timed light relief (look out for Taika Waititi’s cameo as a fumbling vicar) or section break to move you on and keep the journey going. A low score is reflective of what I think is evidently an intentional shunning of emotional hijacking by the makers.

Cheese: -1

Sometimes the villains can border on being a little bit pantomime, which just goes to show how delicately yet bravely each aspect of this film was pushed for maximum effect, so the odd transgression is forgivable, but does happen.

Cheers: 4/5

This is where the film hits home – you are invested in the characters so early on thanks to a great script, pacing and performances that you are taking every step with them, and feel every blade of grass along the way…

Bonus Cat: Majestical! +2

New Zealand’s amazing countryside is once again proven to be the ultimate back drop to movies of all shapes and sizes.

Total: 11

(Check the Leader Board to see how it compares…)

Summary

Quite simply a great cast telling a great story that thrive under the skillful direction of the excellent Taika Waititi (who is fast becoming one of my favourite directors thanks to this and What We Do In The Shadows), and the wonderful New Zealand back-drop and sensibility that continues to develop as a major force in modern movies.

Links:

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunt_for_the_Wilderpeople

IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4698684/

Agree / Disagree with my assessment? Leave a comment to let me know or submit your own scores for this or any other film listed in the leader board below to be aggregated into the upcoming ‘readers choice’ table on the main rating page…

Explore The Beatles – My pick of lesser known album tracks.

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If you didn’t catch Part 1 of this blog (https://garryabbott.com/2014/05/13/access-the-beatles-part-1/) – here is part two of my attempt to share some of the lesser known album tracks by The Beatles that I think will enrich and enhance people’s appreciation for what they did for western music.

My full introduction can be found on part 1 – but just to reiterate a little: for those of you who have a good understanding of the Beatles catalogue, this blog may not be so revelatory, but hey, if you think these songs are cool already, then here’s a good excuse to revisit them!

For those of you (I guess quite a lot) who are aware of The Beatles number one records and most popular tunes, I think you may find that some of these songs will surprise you.

When I listen to these songs, I hear modern music. I hear the inspirations and experimentations that have shaped generations of artists. I hope you will too.

Note – I’m working chronologically following on from the last blog, hence numbers start at ‘6’.

 

6. I’m A Loser (Beatles for Sale – 1964)

I think this is the only song from ‘Beatles for Sale’ I’m going to include here. The album is great, and every song hints at the flexing of musical muscles they were building up at the time, but as a stand-out example, ‘I’m a Loser’ demonstrates the self-awareness that Lennon would go on to use (exploit?) to give his song’s meaning.

Meaning is sadly lost from a lot of modern popular music. The Beatles in part started this with a lot of songs that centred around pretty two dimensional love scenarios (She loves you, I want to hold your hand, from me to you etc…). The difference however, is that they were aware of this, and wanted to find better ways to express themselves. In this song, Lennon turns the lens on himself. It stills centre’s around a pretty banal situation (unrequited love), but shifting the focus and giving us hints of the ‘man behind the mask’ begins to introduce a depth of meaning (“although I laugh and I act like a clown, under this mask I am wearing a frown”).

Musically the song is, once again, nicely juxtaposed with the theme of the lyrics. There is obvious Bob Dylan influence here, and I fancy you can even hear Lennon trying his best to sound like him (especially in the harmonica section!). Using influences and making them your own is a huge part of a healthy creative process, as evidenced here.

 

7. I’ve Just Seen a Face (Help! 1965)

This is the only song I will offer from ‘Help!’ – mainly because the film and the album combined make many of them already so well known (Ticket to Ride, Hide Your Love Away, Help, Another Girl…)

‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ is another foray into folk/country music, keeping us in theme with the last. It’s more jaunty, goes at a great pace, and goes to show that when they wanted to, The Beatles could do this style just as well as any band who were dedicated to the genre. This is another aspect that I think marked them out – they could cross genre’s with ease, almost like they were playing with them for fun. That shows understanding and talent, but more importantly, leads to catchy little numbers like this one!

Musically, I can imagine this song done as a slow ballad, a mid-tempo rock song, or even a fast thrash punk song! I reckon that’s a good clue to knowing when the foundations of your compositions are solid: when you can ‘hear it’ in different modes. Also – check out the introduction!

 

8. Think For Yourself (Rubber Soul, 1965)

George Harrison’s ‘Think For Yourself’ is a song of firsts. It was his fist none love song, and also the first song to feature a fuzz bass (possibly ever, but don’t quote me on that).

Here we see George Harrison start to look inwards and outwards, urging his listeners to make their own mind’s up about the lies and promises of the world, a theme that I guess took him on his spiritual journey and the study of Eastern thinking and spirituality.

The vocals are gorgeous. I can’t find a video of the harmonies isolated (though I’m sure that exists somewhere) – but just listen to the precise yet hauntingly slurring slide down the harmonic range accompanying each second line (also check out ‘If I needed someone’ on the same album for another example of this). It conveys a message, and it sounds cool. What’s not to like?

 

9. In My Life (Rubber Soul, 1965)

Okay, so many people may already know this song, but it’s worth putting it here even if it only reaches one person who hasn’t.

I haven’t much to say about Lennon’s melancholic masterpiece that can’t be understood just by listening to it. It’s the kind of song that brings tears to your eyes if you’ve ever lost anything that was dear to you. Lennon had his fair share of that, and even though this could be construed as a love song, I think it is primarily a lament for anything lost.

The use of the harpsichord for the solo is inspired, and shows a generosity by The Beatles in orchestration and allowing George Martin (the producer) to contribute. Without this, they couldn’t have developed like they did as their compositions transcended the need for strict format guitar solos and arrangements.

 

10. She Said She Said (Revolver, 1966)

As someone who grew up in the nineties and had my modern musical faith restored with the indie/Britpop resurgence that took us into the 21st Century, it is songs like ‘She Said She Said’ by the Beatles that made me wonder why it took so long to come back around. They had done it already. It was like everybody had forgotten and thought they were doing it for the first time. There is a line between rock, rock and roll, pop, and what we might recognise as ‘indie’ music today. The Beatles walked across all of them.

Musically – I think Ringo silence’s his critics in this song. As a former skiffle drummer, you can hear him ride the toms off the snare after nearly every phrase in a fusion of old and new that brings the song together. Interestingly, this is the only song not to feature McCartney: Harrison is playing bass! (I never knew that – the wonders of Wikipedia eh?)

 

Thanks for dropping by. More to follow at a date yet unspecified! Next week I am on holiday, so probably no blog – see you again soon!

Owl Stretching Time – Pythons and Culture.

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Although I didn’t make the pilgrimage to the O2 arena to watch Monty Python bow out on stage, I was very happy to realise on Sunday that the very last show was being broadcast live on television. Despite the beeped out profanities (thanks to the broadcast going out pre-watershed), it meant that I, and presumably millions of others, got to watch the end of an era.

As far as ‘era’s’ go, it could be argued that it ended some time ago. I remember watching the 30th anniversary evening on BBC2 in 1999. As I recall it was an evening of Python episodes, interviews and documentaries. When the night finished the continuity man announced over the BBC2 logo – “That was the end of Monty Python”, a sentiment the pythons had previously made clear, having contributed only a few snippets of new footage and interviews, and I think, still not really seeing eye to eye on many ideas. (For what felt like many years, Eric Idle seemed to have banished himself to America, only ever appearing in video link ups. I always just guessed it was a tax thing).

This time, however, it felt like a much more fitting way to close the curtain on what has been for them, and us, a cultural phenomenon. It was obvious that they had chosen to come together mutually rather than just responding to expectations because of some arbitrary anniversary. It felt like watching five talented men, happy and thankful for the chance to choose the manner of their own exit, doing it in style.

I don’t really want to review the show in detail here. I think Martin Freeman put it well when in a ‘VIP lounge’ pre-show interview he said that no matter what he thought of the performance, they’ve already done it, they’ve already earned our applause and gratitude. As it happens, I think they more than earned it again with a funny, naughty and well produced finale.

Instead I want to talk more about some other sentiments that were raised by another celebrity fan in the backstage build-up: Harry Shearer, of ‘Spinal Tap’ and ‘Mr Burns from the Simpsons’ fame. He said that although the Pythons didn’t influence his kind of comedy, what they did do was show people that a group of creative people could maintain control over their own output. There is no doubt from the first moment of Python on TV when Graham Chapman says ‘Good Evening’ before sitting on a stool to the sound of a squeal, and then we cut to a drawing of a pig being crossed off a blackboard, that the BBC had taken a risk (see video below). Even more so when you listen to the stilted, baffled titters of the studio audience who don’t quite know what to make of it. Given that it took some time for Python to grow in popularity, it would have been so easy for some number obsessed executive to have deprived the world of their legacy. It hardly bears thinking about.

Of course there would have been some element of creative control over it, but the point, I think, is that they were allowed to experiment and take risks within wide boundaries, even if they were very silly risks. Without risks, culture stagnates. I imagine this is similar to when Paul McCartney was allowed to do a totally acoustic ballad in the form of ‘Yesterday’, a decision that many other producers and managers would have dismissed in favour of ‘more of the same’. Which takes me nicely onto my next point…

Harry Shearer also said that for these reasons, the Pythons and The Beatles are synonymous in his mind. Both groups inspiring his generation and beyond to stick to and stand up for their own creative vision. I agree with this entirely. For someone born in 1981 I was strangely raised on a cultural diet of The Beatles and Monty Python. This came mostly from my older brother. Quite how he discovered it all I don’t really know, as our parents lived outside of the UK for much of the ‘golden age’ of comedy and music. Either way, they were staples in my life, despite having been born not long before these cultural icons had all but disbanded, or been shot. But even from an early age, it was the sheer creativity of both these outfits that interested me. It was the reach of their influence in so many things that followed in our culture that made me excited.

As we get older and discover the world around us, finding out about the architects of our world is (or should be) a profound experience. Comedians and musicians may not have put the bricks and mortar around us, or paved the streets, but they certainly set the tone. Artists of all kind are the interior decorators of the life we are born into. They add to the ‘point’ of it all. Even if you argue that they are only a small part, they are an important and entertaining aspect that we would all miss if it wasn’t there. Unless that is, you want to live in silent, grey boxes, doing nothing ever but working, eating and procreating, never once telling or hearing a story, making something up, whistling a tune, drawing or enjoying a picture, or laughing… ever again.

There are many ways to make an impact on this world, and so many who try end up adding to the problems or creating new ones because their motives are ill founded. Artists give – even if they are sometimes rewarded for it – they create output to (generally) make the world a more enjoyable place and provoke original thought. It is this sentiment and motive embodied in exemplary examples  such as the Pythons and The Beatles that I wanted to try and get at with this blog, and in my little way to say thank you, and goodbye.

 

Pen Sieve. A very short story.

As I have a busy week, I’ve dusted down a short story I wrote last year which didn’t make it into my collection, but I think is still a nice little read. The themes of unseen controlling factors are present, just on a much lesser scale! You’ll see what I mean. I hope you enjoy this early, unedited draft of a little idea. Thank you.

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Pen Sieve. 

Once there was a cleaner who worked in a big office.

Every night after all the office workers had gone home for the day, she would wipe off all the dead skin and debris that covered each desk in a thin film, vacuum the crumbs and morsels from the recently devoured meals that clung to the dull grey carpets, mop the scuffs from the tile corridors, and wipe the finger-prints from the metal door handles until they shined once more. On one day of the week, depending on her mood, but usually once a week, she would also steal a pen, and always from the same desk.

She didn’t know who the desk belonged to, at least not in real life. She knew his name because it was printed onto a flimsy piece of white printer paper and tacked to his monitor. His name was Julian Beswick, but she didn’t know him.

She rotated the specific day so it would be less obvious. Not because she was scared of being found out, but so Julian Beswick could never be sure if it was he who was losing his pens. She had figured, quite rightly, that if she were to steal the pen the same evening every week that somewhere in the back of his mind, overtime, he may start to notice the pattern and so become more vigilant. It was more fun for her to change the days. Sometimes she would steal the pen on a Friday night so that it would be gone the following Monday, and then not steal one again until the Thursday after next. In this way he could go almost a whole two weeks without having his pen stolen. And then, just as he was starting to doubt any suspicions that might be forming in his mind, his pen would be gone again, but so close to the weekend that the matter would pass into triviality.

For this was a trivial matter. The pens were not expensive. She never stole a pen that looked like it had been supplied from outside of the office. On occasion she would find, resting on the function keys of his keyboard as always, some kind of metal cased or rubber gripped oddity that had obviously been procured or borrowed. These she would leave alone until inevitably they would be replaced by a bog standard issue biro. Then she would steal it.

The thing is she had noticed how often Julian Beswick’s pens changed, that’s why she had chosen his desk to start stealing them from. One day there would be a brand new smooth biro with the satisfying black line running through it from one end to the other, the next day there would be a near dead sorry looking excuse of a pen covered with tiny puck marks from human incisors. He obviously lost them, took them home, lent them out or whatever, and then had to scrabble around for another the next day. Sometimes she would find the pen he had lost of his own accord underneath his keyboard or below his desk. On those days she would replace the new pen on the keyboard with the one she had found, carefully ensuring that they were positioned exactly the same, and then steal the new one.

She imagined Julian Beswick each morning flinging his jacket over his chair, switching on his computer and setting to work for an hour or two before the moment came. The moment when he would need to take a message from a phone call, or was off to a meeting, or had a flash of inspiration and needed to jot it down, or if he just fancied scribbling pointlessly on a post-it note. She imagined him reaching for the groove above the function keys on his keyboard, not even looking as he did so, and then fingering the plastic for a second or two before looking down to the sight of no pen. Naturally he would furrow his brow, look around, behind, underneath the keyboard, maybe even underneath the desk, and then straighten up while pulling his lips together in a moment of slight confusion.

He might even say to one of his colleagues ‘Have you got my pen?’ to which they would probably reply ‘No’ (or if she was lucky, also look around, behind and underneath their own keyboard, maybe even underneath the desk).

On the days when she replaced his pen with another, she imagined him happily gathering it up in his fingers, flicking off the lid (and at this point perhaps even starting to remember that the last pen he used didn’t have a lid) and mid-scribble catching a glance of it in his peripheral vision and thinking to himself, ‘I’m sure that’s not the pen I had yesterday’ before continuing on anyway, as he always must do.

In this way the cleaner was linked to Julian Beswick in more subtle ways then he could ever imagine. They have both worked in the same office block for twenty years.

The End

Access The Beatles. Part 1.

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Something I haven’t talked about much on here is my love of the Beatles. I am a big Beatles fan. It’s not something I externalise much: I don’t buy Beatles duvet’s or plaster my walls with pictures, but I do, and have always, loved their music. They are a big influence on me.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is point out a few tracks that aren’t so well known by none-Beatles fans. Obviously their catalogue is HUGE, but many people (I suspect) are more aware of the major singles and songs that have been covered and popularised by other bands (especially following the ‘1’ album that captured the imagination of a whole new generation some years ago featuring all the re-mastered number 1 singles).

So today’s post is going to be a few links to Youtube videos of less well know songs, and why I like them. If people like this post I will do another. I’m not particularly ranking these in any order of preference  – just picking some out that I think will surprise and delight newbie and die hard Beatles fans alike. (something for everybody, see?)

Let’s get started then with the first five (I’ll do more if you like it!). I’m working chronologically due to me referring back to album lists! By the way, unless stated otherwise, presume Lennon/McCartney for writing credits.

 

1. Ask Me Why (Please Please Me) 1963

First up, I’m only picking one from the debut album ‘Please Please Me’ – mainly because only half of the album was written by The Beatles, and most of the others are so well known now it would defeat the point of this post!

WHY GARRY, WHY?!

Because it demonstrates (even this early on) the Beatles use of close harmony, and deviation from standard Rock ‘n’ Roll, which leads to the kind of progressive song writing that I will be featuring!

 

2. It Won’t Be Long (With The Beatles) 1963

Next up, the opening track of ‘With The Beatles’ (second album), and definitely not the only one from this Album to feature here!

BUT MY GOD GARRY, WHY?!

The opening! The call and response of the chorus vocals which belts straight in, bouncing across the stereo, and then smoothing out into story-verses (all underpinned by the simple yet distinctive descending guitar riff at each section break).

 

3. Don’t Bother Me (Harrison) (With The Beatles) 1963

From the same album, George Harrison’s first writing credit.

EXPLAIN! I DEMAND YOU EXPLAIN!

Well, George Harrison must have had a hell of a time getting heard in these early days (even in later years this same problem led to him temporarily leaving the band). But this early outing is  a belter, and much opposed to the mop-top ‘whoooo!’ image of the time. It is gritty and angry, almost uncomfortably so, and this is expertly reflected in the arrangement and performance. Don’t you think?

 

4. Any Time At All (A Hard Day’s Night) 1964

Okay, things get a bit confusing with Album release if you’re trying to follow them through Wikipedia – so I’m sticking with UK releases, making this album #3 (feel free to correct me).

SO WHADDA YOU GO PICKED THIS ONE FOR EH?

A bit like ‘It Won’t Be Long’ – this just kicks straight in with a hook that drags you (or me, or all of us) into the song without a second to realise it. Just imagine this really heavy. There is still a skiffle/folk feel to the interlinking verses, but they just serve to lull you into the screaming chorus (and a brilliantly composed solo, hinting at the clever instrumentation that would come to define later studio work).

 

5.And I Love Her (A Hard Day’s Night) 1964

The next one from A Hard Day’s Night.

EXPLAIN YOURSELF YOUNG MAN!

Well, McCartney is getting into his stride writing the kind of songs here that seem to squeeze you like an emotional sponge. All the while he is singing, “I know this love of mine, will never die, and I love her” – the music is saying something else, something along the lines of “this love thing makes me want to despair for my very existence in anguished contradiction”. Which is brilliant. And then there is the arpeggio classical guitar backing and solo from Harrison, and yet another brilliant run down defining section changes. It’s a sad beauty.

 

Conclusion:

I could do this all day – but the blog would be very long, and I already write blogs that are too long which don’t involve 15 minutes or so of music! I’m sure plenty of people will be familiar with these songs, but still, some won’t, and it’s nice to give the less well-known tracks an airing, even if it is on my modest little blog.

If people like this, I shall do more, five at a time, over the coming weeks. Let me know by liking, commenting or just reading the page! (which, if you’re at this point, you already have done, so well done and thank you!)

 

About me:

I am a writer and musician from Staffordshire UK, currently touting my first published eBook ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ which can be found in these places. Please have a little look!

http://www.amazon.com/The-Dimension-Scales-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B00JW1KMUG

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dimension-Scales-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B00JW1KMUG

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/dimension-scales-other-stories/id862470105?mt=11

… and KOBO, NOOK and Barnes & Noble too! (just search for the title!).

Review: ‘Glasshouse’ A forum theatre play by Kate Tempest – performed by Cardboard Citizens.

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I came up to Manchester last night to watch ‘Glasshouse’: a play by Kate Tempest, performed by ‘Cardboard Citizens’ theatre company at the Z-arts centre in Hulme. In the blurb the play was described as ‘forum theatre’, which roughly means that after the performance the audience are invited to discuss the character’s choices in the narrative and then improvise alternative versions of key scenes.

My main reason for coming to see this play was because of the author. I recently watched Kate Tempest live performing her epic poem ‘Brand New Ancients’ along to music, and I was blown away. So, having the chance to see one of her plays was enough for me to get over the ‘interactive audience’ element which I admit, I was slightly dreading. I also wanted to experience a modern play. I’ve been to the theatre lots, but not to watch anything contemporary and it’s an area I’m interested in learning more about as a writer and as a cultural consumer. I also wanted to challenge my preconceived notions of modern ‘workshop’ theatre being cringe-worthy and overacted: a notion that has probably been sown via the League of Gentlemen’s ‘Legs Akimbo’ acting troupe sketches.

Thankfully, the actors were good – very good in fact. The play itself dealt with a chain of events in the lives of the three protagonists: a young woman, her mother, and her mother’s partner. I don’t want to discuss the plot here because you should go and see it, but broadly it was about a suburban family in crisis, under pressure from the world, themselves and each other, the choices they make and the consequences of their actions. It was gritty in that it dealt with verbal and physical domestic abuse, substance abuse, homelessness, helplessness, sexuality and inner city depravation. That may sound extremely miserable, but it was also funny and warm in places, mostly thanks to the characters being so well-drawn and Tempest’s effortless and accurate blending of comedy and tragedy.

We were treated to several key scenes from the chain of events, each retold and elaborated on by the main characters in turn. This meant we saw a few of the central scenes three times, each subtlety different as the narrator character represented events from their point of view. This meant that we zipped around in time, and as the characters got their turn, gaps were filled in that contextualised and added to the previous renditions. The scenes and scenery changed rapidly, with excellent use of the minimal sliding-board set, props and costumes, pushed and pulled into place by the performers as they moved through the story, adding to the sandbox-like approach to interactive theatre, keeping the transitions as kinetic and dynamic as the performance itself.

Each character introduced and intersected their version of events in soliloquy to the audience, bouncing along in Tempest’s inimitable style with elements of rhyme and prose touching at the edges and making a whole that is greater. When it was over, we were left digesting three versions of events, three outlooks and representations  – let alone our own. I liked it. It was good. Go see it.

And then, after the main performance and a short break, there was the forum theatre element. Before this the director had already started to ask us questions, to gauge opinion and such like, but that was only as a show of hands, a mumble of agreement, a few nodding heads or an occasional comment – now we were being asked to actually come on stage and improvise. This was different.

Luckily for me, the audience mostly consisted of two other theatre groups, so I was content and undisturbed in my silent observation of their valiant efforts. As we re-watched key scenes from a democratically voted-for character (the daughter), anyone could shout ‘stop!’ and replace the actor in the scene. The other actors would then respond in character to the volunteer’s efforts – allowing us to see what could have, might have, maybe should have been. It was extremely interesting to watch and I can only applaud those that gave it a go. Of course it had its awkward moments, and also some extremely funny ones. But on the whole it worked as a social experiment more so than an exploration of drama. The central message was that we can make different choices to change our lives, that our reactions are not always a good reflection of ourselves and have real consequences. Many of the contributors approached the scenes by being open, honest, compassionate and respectful to the other characters, and then abandoning the conflict as soon as possible (often by just walking off set when they had said their piece). This is why I say it wasn’t an experiment in drama (well-meaning resolutions don’t make for great plays) and more like group therapy – in a good way.

It made a lot more sense when the director told us that they normally perform in prisons and hostels, where I guess many people are living through the consequences of their actions and/or the circumstances they find themselves in. But for a generally neutral audience member like myself, it was still a fascinating concept none the less.

All in all, I enjoyed it. My faith in modern theatre now has a foundation to be built upon where before I only had assumptions, and my admiration for Kate Tempest’s work has been further bolstered. In short, I have been entertained, challenged and inspired – and there’s not enough of that around at present, so it was a welcome experience. I would recommend it.

It’s on tonight again if you are in the area, and I’ve included any links I can find below for you to seek it out in other locations.

www.z-arts.org/glasshouse

http://www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk/

http://katetempest.co.uk/

Newsjack Series Ten Critique with BONUS JOKES!

By Garry Abbott

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As you may or may not know, the topical ‘sketchbook’ comedy series ‘Newsjack’ has just finished its tenth series on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

The show has an ‘open-door’ policy for writers, allowing anyone to submit sketches and jokes each week to be considered for the script. Over the last three series I’ve had credits in 9 episodes (two in series 8, five in series 9 (including a sketch) and two in series 10). I would say I’ve been lucky to get these credits, but that’s not entirely true – I’ve also been really disciplined.

Each week I prepare the maximum number of sketches and jokes they allow you to submit. I spend all week keeping an eye on the news, making notes if I spot something with potential. I then spend a whole day getting my sketches together and the best part of another day writing one-liners. Basically for six weeks I lose my Sundays and a good part of Monday to topical writing!

The format of the show changed a bit this year. I was invited down to Comedy House in London to attend a briefing where we were introduced to the new format by the new producers. I got to meet a bunch of other writers. The BBC provided beer. We all went to the pub afterwards. It was good.

The new format was challenging. Less submissions allowed, a strict format for one-liner jokes, and a new ‘feel’ to the show. A lot of these changes were centred around the new host, stand-up comedian Romesh Ranganathan, who now opens the show with his own routine before the rest of the cast join him to start performing the submitted material.

There was some unease at these changes, hence the writers briefing I think. It felt initially like we were losing nearly ten minutes of potential joke placement to Romesh’s monologue, and that the prescribed one-liner formats were stifling (previously you could just submit as many jokes as you could fit on a page, in whatever style/approach you felt like – now you are allowed three jokes in each of three categories – ‘coming up’, ‘breaking news’ and ‘listings’). However, things change and people must adapt – and I got the feeling that most writers (like myself) just knuckled down to the new show and vowed to see what happens.

So what did happen?

To start with the positives; I liked Romesh’s opening monologues. It feels fine to me that a show that is designed to bring people up through the ranks should do the same for the cast and crew as it does for the writers. I’ve already heard Romesh appearing since on the ‘News Quiz’ (Radio 4) and hopefully thanks to Newsjack we will hear/see more of him in the future. The change-up to one liners worked quite well – breaking up sketch features and keeping the show interlaced with snappy jokes between longer sketches. As per usual, the rest of the cast did a sterling job with most of the sketches, especially Lewis Macleod and Morgana Robinson (who joined the cast this year, a steal for the producers I reckon). And most of all, it did what it set out to do: showcasing material by none-commissioned writers from across the country who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity.

I think there is a general reluctance amongst the writers to say anything negative about the show in the fear that they may never get a broadcast credit again! However, what sketch show have you ever heard which doesn’t have its ups and downs? The famous hits and misses? And naturally, there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me. I think most of them generally stemmed from a bit of an identity crisis throughout the series. I registered a shift away from satire towards goofy-entertainment style stories – but then I think it went back towards satire again towards the end. This is understandable when the new producers had a vision for the show and were willing to test things out to see what does and doesn’t work. This may have led to come sketch/joke choices for the purpose of fitting the new vision, rather than being the best of the bunch. But under such pressure to collate, choose, redraft, rehearse, perform, record and edit the show each week, I think we can forgive the odd groaner or sketch that didn’t land quite so well. Also, Romesh isn’t a character actor, so we only had one male voice that could do diverse characters (in the form of the vocally-talented Lewis Macleod), so some sketch options felt thin, and there was a lot of one-to-one interview style sketches in order to give Romesh a role to play (as himself). These often worked quite well, but I think another male character actor would of helped a lot here to broaden the options.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the old format was also not perfect, because topical sketch shows often aren’t (even the ‘Now Show’ has it’s off-moments). So all in all, I think it hit the brief, raised more smiles than not, and explored some new territory at the same time – all good work for when they start planning series eleven (I hope).

Anyway, I’ll leave you now with a few of my jokes that did and didn’t make it into this series (I haven’t included the sketches here, I will put them up another time). Well done to all those who got stuff on, and all those who didn’t but stuck at it anyway.

 

Series Ten Hits:

BREAKING NEWS:

“Michael Jackson to release a new album in May, proving it really doesn’t matter if you’re black or white… or dead.”

LISTINGS:

“Later tonight, The Archers, at whatever time you’re not expecting it and can’t get to the radio to switch it off in time.”

 

A selection of my series ten rejects:

BREAKING NEWS:

“World plans to celebrate a hundred years since the first World War by starting a new one.”

“Studies have found that obese children may be slower thinkers because they take more time to answer questions in class. That’s a bit unfair if you ask me, it’s hard to talk with a mouth full of Mars bars.”

“Misunderstood threat from Obama laughed off by Russians who say their asses are already frozen.”

“MP John Mann warns Labour not to be ‘too clever’ if they want to win the next election – ‘not a problem’ says Ed Miliband as he cleans his ears out with his tooth brush.”

 

COMING UP:

“As the row over the upcoming budget escalates, we’ll be investigating if George Osborne has got Balls on the ropes, or if he just keeps them in his pants like everyone else.”

“Following the announcement that 100 year olds in the UK have increased by 73%, we’ll be investigating how they got so big”

“Grant Shapps will be trying to explain why he doesn’t think it was racist to refer to the UK as Bingo Bingo land.”

“Plain packaging on cigarettes: we’ll be investigating if it would be a more effective deterrent to only package cigarettes in actual planes.”

 

TV/RADIO LISTINGS:

“New to ITV! Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen goes head to head with Kelly Hoppen to try and redesign a town house in only twenty minutes! That’s: Game of Throes, coming soon.”

“This Friday on ITV2 – ‘Birds of a Fuhrer’: Long suffering Eva is in for a big surprise when her new husband tells her what he’s got lined up for their honeymoon.”

“Radio 4 has assembled the coalition cabinet to ask what songs they would play if they were ship-wrecked: in ‘Desert Island Dicks’ – tonight at nine.”

“Can you guess the celebrity just by taking a look around a triple heart bypass? Find out tonight in ‘Through the Keyhole Surgery’ on ITV2!”

“Join Jeremy Clarkson and friends as they score some high quality drugs from a bloke round the back of a pub, in Top Gear, tonight at nine.”

Yeah, it’s my end of year thing for 2013 OK?

I know, I know – ‘end of year review’ e-mails, blogs and updates can get a little tiresome. But why? Maybe it’s because they intuitively conjure up lots of words that have the word ‘self’ as a prefix – congratulatory, obsessed, centred. It’s a curious thing that we shy away from sharing our own successes and challenges – maybe it’s cultural – but for whatever reason, I’m not going to let it stop me, this having been a landmark year for me personally and professionally. So you have been warned, this is an end-of-year review and will as a result be tediously reflective and upbeat. So there.

Obviously, it isn’t actually the end of the year yet, but very nearly, and near enough for me to want to clear the decks and not have to worry about doing blogs and such like over the next couple of weeks. So, unless I am struck by an uncontrollable wave of inspiration, I will make this the last blog of 2013, and try to have a ‘holiday’ until the new year.

A new start, long awaited.

In February this year I ended a decade of working in the wrong job. I say ‘the wrong job’ because it was, for me, the wrong job. I worked in a bank (formally a building society) as a ‘thingy’. A ‘thingy’, is a technical term for someone who isn’t able to answer the question “what do you actually do?” with any degree of clarity or precision. It’s not particularly good for your soul that situation, and the world is full of ‘thingies’. I was a kind-of technical specialist, I was a kind-of legal (compliance) specialist, I was a kind-of trainer, a kind-of auditor, a kind-of quality controller, a kind-of project worker, a kind-of data-entry clerk. One day I could be in meetings, discussing requirements for a multi-million pound computer system, all the while thinking “I’m not getting paid enough for this” and the next I could be endlessly tapping numbers into a spreadsheet, thinking “I’m getting paid too much for this”. There were many things I wasn’t quite, and many more things I’m quite sure I shouldn’t have been, but still it took ten years to break away thanks in no small part to the rut/routine that a (fairly) decent wage and a none taxing job can collude to create when you are busy figuring out who you are and what you want to be.

So that was the end of that. I left by my own accord, having hung on for a few years with the possibility of redundancy that never materialised, and unable to ‘get on’ with our new pay-masters: The Co-op, and their shambolic management (an assessment that I feel very much vindicated for, given the events of this year).

When I left, I had a few things lined up, which really helped me to get straight on with my new life as a self-employed writer & musician (you see – that’s much easier to define, isn’t it?) I had been running my creative activities alongside my old job for several years anyway, but I always suspected that I would need to let go of the comfort (and boredom) of the office job if I were to really ever fully embrace my aspirations. So far, I have found that to be true, and long may it continue.

 

Unearthed

The first ‘big’ job, which lasted throughout the year (at intervals), was the ‘Unearthed’ project. This was being drafted in as a supporting artist to help develop and produce community engagement with a new memorial sculpture in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent (specifically in the town of Hanley – if you are confused by that, it’s because we have this whole weird, six towns into one thing going on over here – look it up). As part of this project I got to do several awesome things. I got to write, narrate and score an animation that was then shown at several public locations and continues to be available as an online resource. I got to write my first choral piece (set to the words of my own poem) that was then rehearsed and performed by students of a local sixth form college at a memorial ceremony with city dignitaries in attendance. And I got to work with the real words of the people we engaged with the project to produce an oral sound-piece, used to accompany an original composition and dance routine at the unveiling ceremony of the sculpture. This project took me to places I hadn’t expected, connection with history and communities though art, a sense of integrity and responsibility with story-telling and representation of real world events that I had never considered or encountered before. It was a great experience and I can’t thank Nicola Winstanley and Sarah Nadin enough for involving me in their excellent project – I am a ‘Dashyline’ fan! (Visit the project website, here: http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk/)

The Audio Mill

There was also a continuation (and I fancy a building momentum) of my composition and production work alongside my good friend and collaborator Kieran Williams as part of ‘The Audio Mill’.  This year we have produced several pieces for fashion houses River Island and Mr Porter for use in their viral campaigns. From a professional development point of view, working to brief to compose and produce original music in a variety of styles really helps you to hone your technical and creative abilities. So far (as I know) they have been very happy with all the work we’ve completed for them, and the videos our music accompanies are popular and well received. Obviously, the world of fashion houses feels miles away from me in my small office in Longton, laying down rhythms, bass lines, guitar licks and melodies, but thanks to Kieran’s ever fruitful move to London, the chance to showcase our abilities to a larger audience through an established outlet, is a welcome one, and I look forward to more work like this in the new year. Examples here: http://www.theaudiomill.co.uk/

Newsjack

My first BBC broadcast credits happened this year, in the form of several one-liner jokes and a sketch used as part of Radio 4 Extra’s topical comedy show ‘Newsjack’. There have been two series this year, the first airing while I still worked at the bank. However, I managed to get two one-liners into the first series anyway, and given the extra time and emphasis of self-employment, was able to up that score to 5 one liners and a sketch in the latest series! This is very satisfying work when it happens and takes time and practice to get right – the business of joking seems to be a serious one. This is an aspect of my work that I want to take forwards into 2014 one way or the other. I will, of course, continue to submit to Newsjack when it comes back, but one eye must be kept on ‘where next?’ – building on the successes and reaching for more regular and guaranteed work. I’d be happy if I could find a way to get some one-liners onto other radio 4 programmes (shows like the ‘Now show’ and ‘News quiz’ often have writers that have started through ‘Newsjack’ – it’s just finding the link in or being a persistent bugger I suppose). I have also tickled some light interest with a sit-com script this year – falling short of the mark but getting good feedback and encouragement from an industry insider. If the right idea comes along, I will be writing and pitching new series next year, as well as looking to contribute to more programmes. Watch this space. (well not this space, this space won’t tell you anything new – I’ll be more specific about what space to watch when we come to it).

 

Poetry

Poetry is something I do rarely, and am quite self-conscious about, but that might change following the publication of one of my (very few) poems written this year in a collection. The poem ‘I’m alright Jack’ was chosen out of 600 odd entries to form part of a collection of 50 poems by the publisher mardibooks called ‘The Dance is New’. It is a genuinely good collection, and naturally, I would urge you all to buy a million copies each from here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dance-New-Michelle-Calvert-ebook/dp/B00FL887N8 (I promise you I am one of the authors! For reasons of Amazon weirdness, my name is not listed at the top of the page, but I am linked at the bottom – I am in there basically).

                This is another area I intend to return to and perhaps ‘force’ a little more poetry out and onto the world (that’s not a bad thing – so much writing takes effort to get down on the page, just waiting for inspiration is not at all conducive to career development).

The Dimension Scales

Did I mention that I gone written a book? No? Well I have. It has been in development all year (and most of last year), a collection of short stories that will be released in 2014. This has been my favourite part of this year’s work. I finished my creative writing studies a few years ago, and this feels like the first piece of work that really puts all my learning together into one collection. I’m sure you’ve heard me go on about this before, and as of yet, there is nothing new to show you, but soon, very soon. I’m hoping that I will learn a lot of lessons from the release of this collection next year, and that a new work will be hot on its heels when I’ve had chance to digest the experience.

Education

I was thrilled and a little shocked to have achieved a distinction in two Open University modules this year: Philosophy and Arts History. Both form part of a BA degree I am working towards. Currently I am studying the last two modules (a higher level philosophy course and social science), and these will complete in 2014, at which point, I will get my degree. I started this education journey with nothing but the desire to learn more about creative writing (the first two modules that I completed three years ago now) – and was overcome by the education bug. I have since chosen subjects that I hope have informed me and my work in a positive way. History, social science and mostly, philosophy, are all helping me to get a deeper understanding of the world and myself. I would recommend to anyone who feels they might have ‘missed out’ somewhat during teenage years to revisit education if they can, or have the inclination. Learning is fun when you’ve chosen to do it and the subjects interest you. I don’t know if I will continue after the degree (I might leave it a year before deciding whether to do a Masters), but I hope to take the subjects I’ve chosen forwards into my work and life at every opportunity. They are already paying dividends.

Gravity Dave

My band ‘Gravity Dave’ have had a solid year as we’ve welcomed a new drummer to our number, written some great tunes, and gigged fairly regularly throughout the year. We have basically written and rehearsed/performed an album’s worth of material this year, and I think 2014 is the year to take this to the next step with quality recordings and more and more gigs. The main thing is that we all still find it really fun, creative and rewarding, so we’re not going to stop, and the music’s gonna keep flowing. I need a band, it is part of who I am and what I do, and I feel privileged to be part of this one with such great musicians. We’ve had a bit of a lull just in the last month or two due to problems with rehearsal space and health, but we will be back next year, and I promise, it will be bigger than ever. www.facebook.com/gravitydave

 

Anything else?

Well, this blog for one thing. When I started this, I didn’t know quite what it was meant to be, and I still don’t. All I know is that I enjoy it, and so do other people it seems. It’s quite a mixed bag as I’m sure you can tell. But it feels very important to me to keep on at it. It’s a bit like a digital sketch pad, a place to vent and experiment, reflect and celebrate. I hope those of you who follow this blog are generally entertained by it, at least enough to keep coming back. I have had some brilliant feedback from people directly, and I want to thank everyone who comes here and reads this. It’s kind of spooky that more people read this than I am aware of (according to the stats), but anonymity is the readers prerogative, and I appreciate your time spent reading my words greatly.

Another unexpected but fun development has been the rise of ‘ADMIN CAT!’ – a silly cartoon I produce to keep myself and some passing social network types entertained for a few seconds each week. This has potentially led onto some exciting developments for 2014…

 

And a happy new year!

I’m sure that as soon as I’ve finished writing this I will remember a whole bunch of other things. I have supported some great people and endeavours this year in a number of other ways not listed here. I occasionally still ‘do the spreadsheet thing’ for small businesses, and special mention has to go here to Misco Chocolates (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk) who are a constant inspiration to me in their attitude to life and work, both as business people and friends (as are all my friends, I must say).

You may notice a lack here of any personal details about the rest of my life! That is for two reasons: this blog isn’t really about that, and it hasn’t changed much (in a good way!). I live happily with my partner and my cats, and I love them all very much (even when they do bring in dead mice – the cats that is, not my partner).

So, all that is left is to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year! Please feel free to drop links to your end of year reviews or any  other work into the comment boxes – it is the least I can do to read yours if you have stuck with this! I do write really long blogs, but I don’t care, this isn’t Twitter. Thanks, as always, for reading. Here is a picture of me in a hat as a Christmas treat:

Image

Garry Abbott.

Mosaic.

Today my band ‘Gravity Dave’ have made available an early mix of one of our original songs, ‘Mosaic’.

Now, I can sit here and tell you why you should listen to it, that it ‘rocks’ and suchlike (it does), but that’s not really what I’ve got this blog for.

So instead, I’m going to use this particular chunk of cyber space to look at the lyrics, do a bit of a self-critique and explanation of the process by which I get lyrics together. Of course this changes from song to song, but some elements remain constant throughout the process.

This may seem a little self-indulgent, but we all listen to and absorb song lyrics every day without giving them too much thought (unless they are particularly strong or controversial) and I would wager that a whole host of music lovers wouldn’t give much heed to poetry while still being able to recite the words to hundreds of their favourite songs. So today is an exploration of the lyric. And to top it all, you can listen to the song afterwards, if you like.

Ever remember school assemblies where the teacher would take the Lord’s Prayer line by line, examining the nuance and meaning of each word? Well, we did, every term. It was interesting (the first time around) and stopped it being a drone of syllables we all strung together in a lazy drawl every morning. Whatever your beliefs, whatever text you are studying are hearing, conscious awareness of the moment, the content and the context is much better than an apathetic wave of indistinct noises passing through you, passing by you.

Funnily enough, that scene, sitting cross-legged in a cold school hall, listening and learning, putting your hand up to be spoken to, taking it all in, forms the basis of ‘Mosaic’, as you can see in the first verse:

Dusty floors, cross legged and cold. Rusted doors, criss-cross windows. You clap and fall down.

                The ‘criss-cross’ windows are those safety glass door windows you get in public places, schools, hospitals and such like, where within the glass pane there is a black metal grid. Clapping and falling down, well, as I remember, there used to be several games like that.

Raise your hand, and comply. Understand, we’re all trying to not let you down my friends.

                Here we start to get the theme of the piece. This song started as an idea about conformity, the lack of critical thinking, the architects of our personalities from cradle to grave, concentrating on the most malleable time of our lives, school. In this case, primary school. Now I’m not saying I had a bad time at primary school, I didn’t, but I want to contrast the very ‘English’ Methodist school upbringing I had against the anxiety I often feel now, the world being as it is. It may have been okay for me, but education was very rigid, very set-in-its-ways, very, well English, I’ll say again.

On a technical note, when you hear the song, you’ll hear that the word ‘trying’ both forms the end of the line and the start of the next, split in half by the syllable’s. I like doing this, it’s fun.

So that’s the first verse. I’ve built on the theme I have in mind with the imagery of my school days. Onto the chorus.

We’d never say it but you are Mosaic, please stand far way and you’ll get the full picture.

                Now we get the first mention of the title, Mosaic. If memory serves me well, this was a natural progression from the preceding ‘we’d never say it’. It’s cool when you can get one word to rhyme with two or more others. Of course ‘say-it’ and ‘Mosaic’ are not true rhymes, rhyming as they do on the vowel sounds of the ‘a’ and ‘i’, but  it’s not tenuous and passes by the ear well I think.

Once I found the word ‘Mosaic’ (a great word, don’t you think?), the rest of the chorus can start to be constructed around it. Obviously, standing away to get the full picture is a feature of mosaic’s – close up they are just a senseless amalgam of shapes and colours.

We’d never risk it a broken statistic, we’ll stick to the past and the pain and the scripture.

You may have noticed that the voice changes in this section too. I’m now speaking as ‘the man’, as it were (such a hippy). This is not to blame anyone specifically, but our education system was provided to us at the whim and prudence of the wealthy and utilitarian. Although there are some great people doing great things to recognise and nurture individuality and critical reasoning, it is hardly the main aim of the system. No, let’s face it, the main aim of the system is to compartmentalise us into an economic unit and classification to enable statistics to be drawn and activities planned on a global scale. That’s just the truth of it, not even hidden. Now more than ever our kids are being ear-marked for their future demographic from the moment they walk into school. That’s why ‘we’d never say’ that you are a complex picture of many aspects, and not ‘risk’ producing a broken statistic (one that breaks out of the prescribed parameters), and we will stick to traditional teaching. The use of the word scripture here is just to reflect the lack of choice we had in our spiritual/religious teachings at school (or exploration of the alternatives). The ‘pain’ is a lyrical liberty, but can mean the net-effect of all these considerations.

We’re trying to reach you, to reach you, to reach you… etc..

This is the hook line of the chorus that I ‘ramp up’ from a chant to a high-scream! It is a mantra of education I think, I hear it a lot in interviews with various ministers. Simultaneously trying to ‘reach’ through and connect with the individual while trying to fit them into a starched curriculum. Onto verse two.

                Afternoon’s, bruised knees and fights, silver spoons, stay out of sight from playground kings.

Break-time! Everyone loved break-time right? Unless you were being bullied or what-not, and then it was shit. I went through patches of this. It’s not nice. When I moved to Stoke with my family aged 9, my accent was different. I was sometimes accused of being ‘posh’, which was funny seeing as I had moved further South from Scarborough, my parents were originally from Middleborough and Essex and from a ‘proper’ working class background. But kids are kids. This is just a hark back to the ‘rule of the playground’ where the kids who liked to taunt and bully roamed free, and the rest of us just tried to get on with it. Thankfully, the vast majority of us.

Broken bones, shattered by words, sticks & stones, don’t even hurt, don’t even sting, here comes the break…

Having said all that about ‘kids will be kids’, I’m sure some of you experienced the old ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ line when trying to tell an adult about some nasty piece of work giving you a hard time? I always thought it was a cop-out, I think I still do. Words are one of, if not the, most powerful weapon in our arsenal. They may not have the immediacy of weapons, but without them, there would be no weapons. I can hardly see us grunting our way to the discovery of combustion and ballistics. Language, words, as has been well described before by much greater minds than mine, just chip, chip away, constantly being  rearranged, altered, strung together and stored. Surges of meaning and revelation build over centuries, generations, and sometimes can spark in a moment and change everything. If you think that words can’t hurt, you are not giving them the reverence and respect they deserve. As for the ending line, that’s a little joke, it is both the ‘break’ of bones, and literally signalling the ‘break’ before the chorus.

Which brings us back to the chorus that in true rock/pop style, is a repeat of the first without deviation. This leads nicely into a musical outro that strips back the themes from the song and then builds them back up again into a climactic progression, underpinned by our drummers excellent tribal tom-tom backing.

Well, I enjoyed delving into that. Of course, when I wrote these words, I didn’t sit here and think of all this for each line. Generally, I start with either the theme or an interesting combination of words and then build it up from a mixture of ad-libbing at practice and good old graft with the pen and paper. My words are almost always led by rhyme, set within a context. That’s the challenge. Trying to find a word that fits without distorting the theme. On other occasions the song may be totally led by the sound of the words, purely for aural-aesthetic purposes. This leads to lyrics akin to Lennon’s ‘I am the Walrus’ and ‘Come together’. They are celebrations of words, loosely held together, but more for their own sake. I like this but you can’t do it all the time, not if you want to convey any coherent association of ideas at least occasionally in your art-form. It would be like only ever writing stream-of-conscious monologues forever, which although fun, lack poignancy and depth.

If you read this and enjoyed it, please, please take a listen to the track which all being well, should be posted below here. I am lucky to have such a talented group of guys working on these songs to set my words to. Musically I love this piece but am only responsible for the melody, my guitar parts and maybe the chords of the chorus… (can’t remember right now!) I could write a whole other blog on the musical construct of this song, but maybe I’ll save that for another piece, another time. Also, if you like it, give us a ‘like’ on Facebook (linked below) & reverbnation, there are plenty more songs coming and we gig regularly. Thank you.

Listen here:

http://www.reverbnation.com/gravitydave/song/18135122-mosaic-studio-demo

Like us here:

www.facebook.com/gravitydave

The Napoli.

Continuing the theme a little from last week’s blog about Leek (see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/totally-leek/), today I am going to try my hand at restaurant critique, having finally visited Leek’s new pizzeria/bar, The Napoli (http://www.thenapoli.co.uk/)

As usual when I stray into a new area, I have to point out that I am not a food/restaurant critic, however, I do have a mouth, tongue and digestive system, and eyes and a brain, so I think I meet a good deal of the qualifications one actually needs to talk about such things, though I may be lacking a little in arrogance. In all honesty, I am a ‘food fan’ (who isn’t?), I enjoy food from all corners of the world, I like to try new things, I love the experience of new tastes and appetising presentation, and I like to cook a bit too. So I suppose I do have a little foodie inside me, I mean, I do watch Masterchef, so I must be almost as qualified as Greg Wallace.

I’ve known about the impending arrival of this new eatery for some time. As I’ve walked by on my way from/to various engagements in Leek I’ve peeked through the glass fronted old registry-office on the high-street, wondering what would be installed next (it had a brief stint as a local co-operative during 2012). As I saw various grey igloo looking elements being installed, and the familiar framework of a bar start to take shape, I was more than happy when I heard it was going to be an Italian with “one of them Pizza oven things” as the centre-piece and unique feature.

After patiently waiting for The Napoli to open, and then for some reason taking three weeks to find a suitable excuse to get up there for a meal, I can finally now report back  on my findings. I’m going to take this one step at a time, just like I did last night as I walked over with my family party of 6 to our 8pm booking.

As you enter, there are a few things that immediately draw your eye. Firstly, the huge pizza oven in the back-centre of the room. The chef’s around it are building and firing pizza’s for the already busy service underway, which at 8pm on a Wednesday night, shows great promise. Next my eyes float over the tops of heads to the large bookcase at the far end, stretching from window to partition, stacked with what looks like an interesting array of literary fun. I imagine that for a more casual day-time visit, this feature must make a relaxed lunch or coffee more engaging for those of us who like to read, but aside from that, it makes a great rustic feature as a backdrop. So from the bookcase the eyes pans left to right, back across the oven, to the bar and seating area by the street-side window. A few hand-pumps and stacked bottles hint at the promise of interesting beer, and the cosy corner looks inviting.

We get sat down pretty quickly, greeted politely and already expected. We are sat by the window, half of the party looking out, the other half looking back, with the pizza oven in their sight. It took me a while to realise why the eyes of those opposite me where slightly glazed and to the right of my eye-line: They were watching the fire, like men around a barbecue, fascinated by its dancing flames and glowing coals. This soon passed however as we settled down and our drinks orders were taken and menu’s delivered.

The menu’s were two sides of A4, nicely presented but more importantly, simple and not convoluted. We’ve all seen enough episodes of Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares to know that less is more, and it makes me more confident as a punter. So there is a choice of four pizza’s, about half a dozen main meals that are not pasta based, and about a half dozen that are pasta based. Nice, easy. There are also a selection of starters and side’s, so if you really wanted, you could construct a whole meal in the traditional Italian fashion of anti-pasta, meat course, salad course, pasta etc… but they options also allow for the more British, starter/main/dessert order of things. Also, nestled between the bookcases, a specials board offers a few tantalising additions that already have us talking.

“What’s Puttanesca?” we ask each other, on the off chance that one of my family members may have a secret and extensive knowledge of traditional Italian dishes.

After a quick word with ‘Mr Google’, we find the literal meaning is “Whore-style spaghetti”, hmmm, spaghetti whore. I’m sure this is lost in translation somewhat, and the important thing we find is that it is a salty, spicy pasta, usually made with olives and/or anchovies and chilli. The combination of which wins over my step-Dad.

Also on the specials board, ‘Tagliatelle Carbonara’. I discovered the joy of Carbonara not long ago when I finally bought myself a pasta maker in a frenzy of post-Masterchef kitchen ambition and managed somehow to make the most beautiful Carbonara with home-made Tagliatelle and had one of those “where have you been all my life?” moments. It seemed my brother shared the enthusiasm for this dish, so two more orders were in the bag.

Thankfully my partner went for the fungi-pizza option, so I knew I would be getting to try that out myself (not that I eat food from my partner’s plate or anything… (I do)). There was also a mushroom tart and ravioli ordered, and that was our main’s sorted.

For starter’s the cold-meat platter was popular, served with an olive oil-balsamic dip and fresh bread side. Two of us (including me) went for the chilli and garlic bruschetta, which had just the right heat of spice and crunchy fried texture. A garlic bread on a wonderfully thin base and a nice little portion of sautéed potatoes (with I guess rosemary/garlic) finished off the starter’s. From all accounts, all starters were well received and quickly demolished.

Not long after starters where cleared away, a good length of time to enjoy the after-glow of the first morsels and whet the appetite for the follow up, out came the mains. The Puttanesca kept my step Dad enthralled for every mouthful, which is a wonder for a man who favours curry above all else. The olive and spice must have done it for him. Mine and my Brother’s Carbonara was made with fantastic pasta, broad, thick and perfectly cooked. It’s hard to tell with dishes like this because they vary so much from region to region, country to country, as they travel and get adapted in cultures, but this was not a ‘runny’ Carbonara. The cream and egg had just about cooked around the pasta, making it more of a textured affair. Whether this is more traditional or a mistake I don’t know or care, because it tasted amazing.

I leapt in to rescue my girlfriend who was struggling to finish the plate sized, thin crispy pizza. The slices I had were amazing. I love pizza like that, thin base that both cracks upon biting and has a little give in the dough, a fresh tomato sauce, naturally sweet and soaked ever so gently into the base, and mozzarella and mushrooms to top the whole thing of, but not layered on in sickly slabs ‘USA’ style, just nicely balanced and each a feature in itself. Yes, next time I go, as lovely as the pasta was, I’m having one of them to myself, oh yes.

From what I was told, the ravioli and tart were also equally wonderful. So, after we finished our well-portioned mains (no belly-busting here, good balanced, taste-packed continental portions), we turned to the dessert menu.

Now, I knew about the dessert menu in advance, seeing as three quarters of it is provided by my good friends at ‘Miscos chocolates’ (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk) whom I have rather a lot to do with, being as they are wonderful people who also just happen to make the tastiest luxury Belgian chocolates you will ever eat. Especially for the Napoli they have devised three desserts. First we have the ‘chocolate cake to end them all’… this really is a treat. A flour free, almost soufflé like chocolate cake that will turn cake-haters around and send cake-lovers to some near-transcendental state of being. It truly is a great bit of sticky, moist, deep chocolaty slice of heaven, and along with a bit of soft ice-cream, it is the perfect end.

But that’s not it! You also have the choice of two ganache-filled chocolate cups, served with a liquor of your choice. My brother and his girlfriend went for this option, and they marvelled as much at the sight of them as they did the taste. And finally, from the Misco options, Panna cotta, with a choice of a raspberry coulee or honey, Tuaca and Hazelnut topping. Now I tried these in the development stages, and I went from Panna cotta ignorance, to Panna cotta bliss. They are smooth, sweet and refreshing on the palette after all the other wonderful flavours of the evening. Again, all the deserts were balanced, neat portions, as they should be. I should mention there was also a range of ice-creams available.

So, after the desserts were thoroughly obliterated (not a crumb or fleck left on any plate I could see), we finished our drinks (some nice trad ale’s available, though the name of the brewery escapes me at the moment), our bill was sorted and we meandered off and away through Leek to finish off the night in the Roebuck for yet more nice trad ales, which I can say with certainty came from the brilliant Titanic brewery.

All in all, it was a great night, with great food, a great atmosphere and timely service. There may be a few little things that as the business matures will tighten up a little here and there (could do with a beer menu, maybe some complimentary olives and bread when you first arrive), but for a pretty busy service I think they did really well for a young business in its first month and I would highly recommend it to anyone. I’m going again, next week, this time with my former work colleagues, and this time, I’m having a pizza, all to myself.