Attenborough shows The Hunt is on in BBC1’s newest nature programme

The Hunt, BBC Natural History Unit’s latest animal extravaganza began on BBC1 Sunday night.

Like the wildlife he discusses, David Attenborough proves again he is master of his own skill – narration, building tension as carefully and cleverly as his subjects stalk prey. Despite yourself you discover you are soon rooting for the leopard and feel her frustration as an impala hunt ends in failure.

leopard_stalking

Image courtesy: flickr.com via Creative Commons

From larger mainland African predators to the island wildlife haven of Madagascar, focus shifts swiftly to chameleons as easily as these tiny reptiles’ eyes move in different directions but becomes no less absorbing. Attenborough is equally sympathetic to predator as he is to prey explaining the enormous odds they must overcome simply to sustain themselves and their young with food.

As wonderful as Attenborough is however, it’s the wildlife that are the real celebrities and so the skills of countless professionals behind the scenes who spend many months working to bring these stunning struggles into our front rooms. From a small spider in Madagascar spinning silk stronger than steel into a two-metre web, to a cheetah on the African plains: it all makes for riveting television.

Anyone who doubts the BBC’s relevance and importance as a public service terrestrial broadcaster in today’s turbulent digital landscape needs only watch this to be convinced otherwise. This is what the Corporation was designed to do and does better than its rivals.

Engaging, informative, entertaining, with unrivalled production values, it settles the license fee argument firmly in the BBC’s favour.

Kids’ online safety – cracking the code

Photo courtesy Creative Commons

Photo courtesy Creative Commons

How to protect kids online? The Government is clueless!

The Department for Education plans to launch an online guide for parents and teachers, helping them decipher acronyms and other codes children use on social media.

The ParentInfo website is essentially a text-speak dictionary parents can access to decipher what kids are really saying online to protect them from pornography, paedophilia and “sexting”.  Abbreviations include: GNOC (get naked on camera); LMIRL (let’s meet in real life); DOC (drug of choice) plus warnings like PAW (parents are watching) and P999 (parent alert).

A marvellous idea in theory but I immediately recalled my own childhood that, despite being entirely Internet free nonetheless contained large amounts of pornography, albeit mostly in magazines, but also several videos. Some of this was largely purloined, interestingly, from a few of my parents’ more bohemian friends.

My friends and I also ran rings around adults in other ways with our own slang and teen-speak. Kids, as they say, will be kids.

I am not at all advocating giving children complete free-reign or access to pornography – boundaries must be set. I also agree parents and teachers need assistance. Technological developments now move so fast many must be left almost clueless. Once parents crack one code children, however, will almost certainly create another equally baffling. Again: kids will be kids.

Unless we therefore devote a branch of MI5 to this dilemma I fail to see how it can possibly succeed.

Another service ParentInfo offers is advice for parents on engaging with their children about the Internet and how to use it safely. Surely this is common sense and should now be as much a part of good parenting as explaining where babies come from.

I therefore fail to see the point of this whole endeavour.

Far more useful would be following the example of Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens, who recently featured in Channel 4’s fascinating documentary Sex in Class, predictably slammed by the right-wing media.

Trialled in one school, Ms Liekens offered a ground-breaking approach to how teenagers should be taught about sex. Sex Education became as important to the curriculum as Maths or English.

Homework was even set. Girls were encouraged to explore their own bodies with a mirror. After voting on which photograph of vaginas in different states of hairlessness they preferred, boys were given a taste of their preference for the hairless and asked to shave their own pubic hair. Taught in co-educational classes, with an exam at the end, among other benefits the difference in girls’ assertiveness once the course was completed regarding what was acceptable behaviour from boys was inspiring.

If the Government put as much time and money into this worthy and tested scheme as it did another quick-fix solution designed to generate headlines, they might finally start helping the children they claim to want to protect.

Orson’s Shadow: Southwark Playhouse

The Orson’s Shadow programme Introduction by playwright Austin Pendleton explains little is known about his play’s true story.

This is the potentially fascinating meeting between two titans of stage and screen, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, to discuss Welles directing Olivier in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at London’s Royal Court.

Set during a tremendously turbulent time in Olivier’s personal life and, with Vivien Leigh and Joan Playwright central characters it should be theatrical heaven. Unfortunately it isn’t, at least not in Southwark Playhouse’s production. I doubt this play would work anywhere.

John Hodgkinson physically fits Welles but there any resemblance ends. Although assistant Sean (Ciaran O’Brien) was far better, well-played and amusingly gormless, this is taken too far under Alice Hamilton’s clumsy direction.

The dialogue’s filled with obscure film references, which from most of the audiences’ reaction, or lack of any, miss their mark. Jokes about Welles’ weight were more obvious but equally unfunny. Theatrical superstition equates Macbeth with bad-luck so perhaps this play shouldn’t mention it so early on.

After a half-hour, I was still unsure where this was going. Welles wallows in self-pity taking fading fame out on poor Sean, by now a one-joke wonder.

The scene with Olivier was better; Adrian Lukas captures his clipped consonants. Louise Ford gives a strong performance as Plowright and it was interesting to see their relationship before they marry but by their reactions the audience were still confused. One potentially poignant scene discussing Olivier’s son is squandered as an excuse for another unfunny attempt to amuse.

The action finally begins when Edward Bennet as arch critic Kenneth Tynan arrives. Both Olivier and Welles share grudges against him, albeit for separate slights. This also causes a further rift in Joan and Larry’s complicated relationship.

Any progress though is destroyed with the entrance of Gina Bellman’s appalling Vivien Leigh whose attempt at ice-cool glamour is at best a little girl playing dress-up. At her most paranoid and coping with the horrors of Leigh’s manic-depression the scene between Olivier and Leigh should bring brilliance but lacked any of the vulnerability required by Bellman. Confused, convoluted, much of the blame rests with the awkward direction, though awful lighting and milking every joke for all it’s worth doesn’t help.

The second act’s tighter but Hodgkinson’s accent, which was barely mid-Atlantic has been completely lost at sea.

When the long-awaited confrontation between Welles and Olivier finally comes everyone’s too confused and/or bored to care. Like poor put-upon Sean by now the audience has endured plenty of punishment. Although we’ll probably never know, would Olivier really put up with the abuse he gets from Welles? The scene between the two goes on forever.

More Marilyn Monroe than Vivien Leigh, Bellman steals every starlet stereotype imaginable: big dark glasses, full-length fur, stilettos – you could forgive the two-dimensional costume if her acting wasn’t so one-dimensional. The scene between her and Welles is embarrassing.

An interesting story, this could have been brilliant but sadly like the play it purports to portray, too many obstacles stop it ever coming together. The principal’s are caricatures and too much detail’s forced in.

The sub-plot about Tynan’s health, although a big part of the critic’s own story adds little to the play and seems tacked on. Yes the breath is probably an actor’s most important instrument but I doubt many in the audience care. I certainly didn’t.

Welles bellows: “We need to reach a decision about who’s directing it, that’s the problem!” I know how he feels.

Death of A Salesman: Noel Coward Theatre

Sam Marks, Harriet Walter, Antony Sher and Alex Hassell (Image: Creative Commons)

Sam Marks, Harriet Walter, Antony Sher and Alex Hassell (Image: Creative Commons)

Even before Antony Sher first shuffles onstage as Willy Loman Brooklyn never looked bleaker. The fatigue found throughout Miller’s melancholy masterpiece seems to spill off the stage in Gregory Doran’s brilliant production for the RSC.

Sher is superb as Loman. Trapped like a hamster on the wheel of a life which, although he may hate, he’s also hooked. He hopes for another hit of the adrenaline it once offered – a junkie whose fix no longer works.

Returning home from another unsuccessful sales trip to Linda, his ever-patient wife, (played perfectly by Harriet Walter), he wants to immediately escape again. Although, as she accurately observes, Willy’s mind is indeed “overactive”, it’s also worn out.

Demanding she open something in the tiny kitchen, she explains the windows are open.

“Bricks and windows. Windows and Bricks,” is Willy’s reply. Summing up his state of mind, it should be his motto, helped enormously by designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ cleverly cramped set, complemented by Tim Mitchell’s evocative lighting.

The world has changed and Willy’s a relic clinging to the familiar, but Biff his eldest son is a disappointment. His hope of leaving a Loman legacy, Biff (Alec Hassell, the all-American athlete) refuses to play the part his father’s cast him in.

Youngest son Happy also lacks purpose: “I don’t know what the hell I’m working for.” Sam Marks captures Hap’s easy charm who, despite grabbing girl after girl, is lonely. Biff isn’t interested in money but, like his father, that’s Hap’s only measure of success – that and women. Even casual conquests lose their thrill though, now an easy way to compensate for his business inferiority.

Willy switches between past and present like others change radio stations. This makes processing the present even harder, reminding him of unfulfilled promises.

In one flashback, warned by Biff’s neighbour and classmate Bernard, a nerdy Brodie Ross, about Biff’s lack of exam preparation, Willy laughs it off announcing to both his boys: “Be liked and you will never want.”

To him, being liked is everything so, seeking an answer for his current state, Willy is drawn increasingly to Biff’s high-school glory-days.

Neighbour Charley’s (Joshua Richards) gruff realism is unfathomable to Willy. His dead brother Ben (Guy Paul) drifts on and offstage like smoke and Willy begs him to stay, seeking his big brother’s approval as reassurance.

Where Willy is obsessed with other’s opinions, Biff couldn’t care less: “I hate this city,” he screams at Linda.

One thing Willy is incapable of is listening. To him image is everything. The flat, falling to pieces around him, is analogous for his state of mind and current situation.

Charley, despite his frivolity understands the need to concentrate on what’s possible.

When the brother’s business plan fails following Biff’s rejection, he and Hap wake from the dream their father ‘s trapped them both in for 15 years.

Only Willy refuses to, until the past pushes into the present. Forced to face his greatest failure the play is brought to its heart-breaking climax.

Capital car chargers

One of Source London's new EV charging points (Photo: Rob Whitson)

One of Source London’s new EV charging point (Photo: Rob Whitson)

London’s electrical vehicle charging point upgrade is long overdue

Despite a Zone 1 address I still, understandably, object to the sound of workers cutting concrete on the street outside, especially when trying to work myself, but not today.

Impatiently leaving my desk to discover what’s causing the nerve shredding noise nearby, any anger soon subsided: paving stones were being cut for a new electric vehicle (EV) charging point.

One of many now being installed across Southwark and Sutton, it replaces an existing point that, like many across the capital, was often out-of-order and so stood unused across both boroughs.

In September 2014 BluepointLondon Ltd. became operator of Source London, the company responsible for management and maintenance of the city’s EV charging point network. Southwark and Sutton are the first boroughs benefiting from a long-overdue, citywide upgrade, when Transport for London then agreed a new deal due to the network’s previously poor record.

BluepointLondon this week signed identical agreements with other London Boroughs: Kensington and Chelsea, Hackney and Greenwich, making them directly responsible for a quarter of all London’s charging points. More seem certain to follow.

Living centrally and not a driver, I never understood why I haven’t seen more motorists capitalising on the benefits of EV ownership. In addition to low fuel costs, vehicle tax and congestion charge exemptions, EVs are now cheaper with more models than ever available. It was only researching this article I discovered the staggering statistics to explain the poor take-up.

Apparently, one of the main reasons London and British drivers do not buy an EV when choosing a new car is: charging point unavailability. There are now a mere 1,400 charging points across all of London and of these, around a third aren’t working.

On most journeys, existing EV owners are usually forced to fall back on fossil fuel their cars carry for the same reason. So not wanting to buy an EV becomes more understandable.

As more cars are built with EV capability despite this, due to EU environmental legislation, Source plans to increase the number of charging points fourfold to 6,000.

Existing points, like the one outside my window, are being replaced with a more advanced and, supposedly, reliable version. Connected centrally via computer, any future faults will automatically be reported and a 24-hour team ensuring these are quickly resolved.

This all reaffirms BluePointLondon’s goal: “encouraging EV uptake by improving and expanding London’s charging point infrastructure. ”

Of course, only time will tell.

Games people play

Stephen Mangan in Rules for Living (Photo: Creative Commons)

Stephen Mangan in Rules for Living (Photo: Creative Commons)

Onstage at The National, breaking life’s rules has never been so entertaining

The Rules For Living in Sam Holcroft’s eponymous new play are literal, in director Marianne Elliott’s superb in-the-round production for The National.

Scoreboards reveal each principal character’s name soon after he or she enters, assigning various rules for which they receive points whenever these are completed. Extremely funny to watch, these thinly mask the many insecurities each suffer, that can’t help but appear during what deteriorates into the ultimate dysfunctional family reunion.

Two brothers have returned to the family home for Christmas with their respective partners.

Mild-mannered lawyer Matthew, marvellously underplayed by Miles Jupp, is first to arrive.

Maggie Service plays Matthew’s girlfriend Carrie, an archetypal actress and his polar opposite. Determined to be centre of attention the minute she enters, Service is hysterical in every sense.

Soon joined by Matthew’s sister-in-law Sheena, a measured, controlled Claudie Blakely, who, we already heard, Carrie possibly offended off-stage with one of her numerous unfunny inappropriate jokes.

Sheena is soon shown as an advocate for every alternative health-trend imagined, especially when it comes to daughter Emma, recuperating upstairs from some unnamed ailment.

Her husband, Matthew’s brother Adam, arrives from his mission for cranberry sauce. Adam, an ebullient but sarcastic Stephen Mangan is also a lawyer but contrasts completely with his quieter brother.

Skeletons in the very large family closet earlier hinted at, slowly begin emerging as each character is introduced and the various rules revealed.

The unceremonious announcement of Matthew’s recent promotion, by the ever-tactless Carrie, signals sibling rivalry to surface.

Sheena explains her and Adam’s, still unseen daughter Daisy is undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy and these “rules for living” help her overcome insecurities, undoubtedly caused mainly by her parents.

Adam and Matthew’s mother Edith, the domineering demanding Deborah Findlay, finally enters, seeking the perfect Christmas for their hospitalised Father.

The family get-together turns military operation and existing tensions increase even further. It’s quickly clear where most of the brothers’ problems originate but any dissent is soon silenced with: “Darling, it’s Christmas,” Edith’s answer to everything.

It’s revealed both boys entered law to please their parents with quiet Matthew, surprisingly, once training as an actor and Adam hoping for fame as a professional cricketer.

John Rogan is father Francis, a retired judge, who, we’ve learnt, is nicknamed: “The General”. A womanising family tyrant, he finally arrives from hospital as Act One ends, a shadow of his former self.

The “Christmas from Hell” theme continues after interval with the scoreboard rules for each character becoming increasingly complicated and funny. More skeletons tumble out and relationships start to crumble.

Between: teetotal hypochondriac Sheena, drinking her weight in wine: Edith’s obsessive cleaning and self-medicating; Carrie’s appalling and literal stand-up comedy; Matthew’s over-eating and lying, and Stephen’s self-pity and sarcasm, The Priory wouldn’t know where to start.

Without revealing too much the climax comes over Christmas lunch as any remaining veneer of family decorum evaporates. Young Daisy Waterstone as sick daughter Emma, finally arrives from bed to reveal mentally she’s the most mature member of the lot.

High Society: The Old Vic

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Some complain theatre, especially musical theatre, should not be performed in the round as it spoils the spectacle and so the show. These naysayers should see The Old Vic’s High Society.

Actors appear to blend with ushers, mingling with an unaware audience arriving to cross a stage, empty except for a piano, to take their seats. No lights lower when internationally renowned jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe (or is he Joey Powell?) seats himself, asking the audience for requests.

This could fail spectacularly, instead Powell’s/Stilgoe’s musical dexterity has everyone singing along to Night and Day. He and the cast segue seamlessly into Maria Friedman’s tightly directed show as houselights dim.

The chorus is superb: girls glide, boys bop and in a heartbeat we’re transported to Fifties East Coast America. The intimate production means actors are so close you can smell their cologne and perfume; the show’s slick set changes seamless.

Although you know Dexter (the brilliant Rupert Young) is trouble the minute you see him you forgive his foibles. True, it’s clearly corny but it’s completely captivating. Familiar songs feel fresh and fantastic – you can’t help singing along silently.

This is a musical about deception but the biggest con is on the audience who sit enraptured as both cast and crew charm with their creativity. Staging is sublime – it really is amazing the amount achieved in so small a space. A swimming pool appears on stage courtesy of Peter Mumford’s imaginative lighting.

Kate Fleetwood transfigures the audience, taking them thrillingly through Tracey Lord’s transformation from spoiled society snob to lovely lady.

Barbara Flynn’s performance as Mother Lord is pure Debbie Reynolds with Jeff Sprawle’s surprisingly spry Uncle Willy a wonderful comic foil.

George is played to perma-tanned perfection by Richard Grieve. His smarmy demeanour means you route for love-rival Dexter soon after George first enters.

Hailing from the wrong part of town, reporters Mike (Jamie Parker) and Liz (Annabel Scholey) are all brassy business, in their quest for a tabloid scoop.

Anyone who’s ever been in love and believes in second chances will fall head over heels for this, the perfect curtain call for Kevin Spacey’s stellar run as The Old Vic’s Artistic Director. A magnum of champagne should be raised in his honour.