Saturday, October 31, 2015

Trick or treat - this could be the weekend I apologise to my F5 key

Halloween is, historically, a frightening festival at Chelsea. In seasons past, it has heralded a dark few weeks of indifferent performances up to and over Christmas, with managers sacked in the process, to be replaced by Guus Hiddink or somesuch saviour, parachuted in to spare blushes come May.

It's a tradition that actually pre-dates Roman Abramovich, his fortunes and his itchy trigger finger, but has been accentuated by the oligarch's propensity to dispense with coaches at the slightest possibility of non-qualification for the following season's Champions League, the competition that bewitched him to begin with.

The Russian's truculence, however, was supposed to have been removed when José Mourinho returned to the club two summers ago. The Special One had become "the happy one", and having pursued Pep Guardiola like a teenager pining for the girl of his dreams, Abramovich appeared to accept serendipity and the fact that Mourinho was the only man who could deliver results and satisfy the fans. Mourinho, by reverse, appeared to accept that Chelsea was his destiny.

So, for the last two seasons, the Halloween tradition was avoided, but this season, however, it began a long time before this weekend. Some suggest it was August 8, when Mourinho blew a fuse that shouldn't have been exhausted on the opening day of the Premier League season, and publicly humiliated Dr. Eva Carneiro for doing her job.

But if you really want to get to the heart of the problem, go back further, to July 23, when Chelsea, on their traditional pre-season tour in the US, were beaten 4-2 by a New York Red Bulls team largely composed of junior players. Chelsea, by contrast, fielded, over the course of 90 minutes a team that included Courtois, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Mikel, Oscar, Remy, Azpilicueta, Ramires, Matic, Hazard and Costa.

Even allowing for the fact that no-one really cares about these pre-season friendlies, it apparently left Mourinho simmering, frustration that would manifest itself sporadically over the subsequent weeks. The Portuguese would talk elliptically about tiredness and that this term's pre-season not being as well prepared for as last term's. He was already releasing a thin vapour of obfuscation about why his team, who became Champions in May, were looking somewhat less so in August.

(C) Simon Poulter 2015
Twelve weeks later and Chelsea are 15th in the league, have lost five times, drawn twice and won three. They've been dumped out of the League Cup, a title they were defending, and Mourinho has been fined £50,000 and given a suspended stadium ban for one disciplinary offence, and faces worse for allegedly telling referee John Moss: "Wenger was right. You are fucking soft" last weekend at West Ham.

On top of that, Eva Carneiro has apparently served papers on Chelsea for constructive dismissal, a matter which, if it goes to court, will drag Mourinho through an incident that could have been resolved instantly with an apology. And, who knows, a popular figure at the club could have continued with her job, potentially sparing the team of the original incident's clear role in its destabilisation over the last three months.

Even if you compare Chelsea's season so far with that of Manchester United under David Moyes, it gets worse with every turn. Weekend after weekend, I've been heard to trot out the "just when you think it can't get any worse, it does" line.

Crap has been followed by more crap. Mourinho has cranked his belligerence back up to 2007 levels. Negativity seems to have surrounded the Chelsea manager like the permanent cloud of dirt surrounding Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown cartoons.

And it gets even more worse. This lunchtime, Chelsea host Liverpool, an equally beleaguered team  but one bathing in the glow of a new, media-friendly, impeccably-dentured manager in Jürgen Klopp.

When the fixtures are published in June, the appearance of Chelsea-Liverpool is always one to excite me, and has been since my childhood, when Liverpool were the defacto force to be reckoned with in European football. Apart from anything else, it is the perfect football confrontation - the quintessential Subbuteo fixture of the team in blue versus the team in red. Over the years it has taken on greater weight, spiced up further by the same teams seemingly inevitably matched in the Champions League, with rivalries and conspiracy claims between Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, and that calamitous slip by Steven Gerrard, just when it looked like Liverpool could even win something. I'll admit, all of this has, in the past, added to the appeal of a Chelsea-Liverpool game.

So, after the last decade of Chelsea's ascendancy, with the club supplanting Liverpool in many ways, it's an uncomfortable feeling this morning, knowing that Chelsea appear to be so spent and dysfunctional. True, there were moments of encouragement in last Saturday's defeat at West Ham, and again during the cup tie with Stoke on Tuesday, but - sorry to say - I'm lacking any hope that Mourinho will have been able to build on that in training before today.

Chelsea are lacking in too many places. Take Eden Hazard: his player of the year-winning confidence appeared to go missing when he muffed a scoring opportunity at Wembley in the Community Shield, confronted by former teammate Petr Čech for the first time. And, then, against Stoke on Tuesday and that ultimate, tie-losing penalty kick. Hazard had the look of a man trapped in a glass box.

Commentators and Mourinho himself have talked about being careful what you wish for. After Tim Sherwood was fired, Mourinho was automatically installed as the next Premier League manager likely to get sacked. The press has written of little else in the last two weeks. The hashtag #mourinhoout has even appeared on Twitter, a development as unprecedented as America turning on Jennifer Aniston as its national sweetheart.

But now, two hours before kick off, I can't help feeling that Mourinho, his psychology and the team's mindset, have been on a path of self-fulfilling prophecy. Only a spectacular, compelling, telephone number-scoreline of victory over Liverpool today can save Mourinho's job.

There, I said it, and I'm not happy to have done so. Few have defended Mourinho and Chelsea's tactics under him more than me. I've gladly accepted the 'win ugly' philosophy as I have revelled in the success it has delivered. I've argued with online trolls over their insistence that Mourinho's Chelsea has devalued football (a nonsense concept, given that it takes two committed teams to play a game of football). But.

Over the last three months I've tried to fathom why Chelsea have played so badly. I've tried to understand why the players have been so lethargic, uncoordinated in places, ineffective in others. Has it been physical or tactical? In the end, I've concluded that it can't be either. You can't go from rampant champions in May to knackered has-beens in August and beyond. Not in a club with state-of-the art, multi-million pound training and medical facilities, and a squad so huge that it can afford to loan out 36 players.

No, the only explanation is psychological. The malaise at Chelsea this season has been a mental one. That dust cloud of negativity that has followed Mourinho around since July 23 has tainted the club. And I really can't see what an improvement in performance, starting today, can do to Hoover it away.

And, so, I must apologies to the F5 function key on my computer keyboard. Because I can't help feeling that after this afternoon, and for the next 48 hours or so, it is going to get the hammering of a lifetime as I refresh my Twitter feed, the BBC Sport website, and any other online resource that is likely to deliver the increasingly inevitable headline: "CHELSEA SACK MOURINHO".

Because, surely, it is coming.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

SPECTRE - the Bond between us

Unless you are also champing at the bit for Star Wars: The Force Gets Out Of Bed, or whatever it it is called, the waiting is almost over for us mere mortals, anxiously pacing in our otherwise colourless lives, for SPECTRE.

In fact there are some of us who've been bereft of sleep, proper nutrition and fingernails since the 24th ‘official’ James Bond film was announced on December 4 last year, promising the return of Daniel Craig for his fourth outing as 007 and the second in the series to be directed by Sam Mendes, following the magnificence of Skyfall.

Expectation, of course, is one thing, and reality is something else, but from tomorrow, cinemagoers in the UK and Ireland will be the first to actually hand over coin to see if one of the most anticipated films ever made delivers on its promise.

Yes, that sounds like hyperbole, but considering how Craig has rebooted the Bond canon, and considering how, during last year's Sony e-mail hack, the rogues responsible allegedly revealed studio missives suggesting the SPECTRE script was, at the time, sub-par, the last 10 months of drip-feed publicity have built such presumption that the film really cannot afford to come up short.

Throughout its 52-year history, the Bond franchise has been honed into easily the slickest film-making (and money-making) operation in cinema. The Star Wars mini-industry may have set the bar in terms of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, cereal packet tie-ins, video games and toys (at one point there were more Star Wars things on the market than American citizens), but even that universe can't hold a candle to the 007 empire.

Indeed, creating a Bond film is as slick an operation as Bond himself: the production cycle begins, publicly, with a perfectly executed press conference, roughly a year before opening night, introducing cast and crew, followed by a well-drilled filming schedule and a steady drip-feed via social media of trailers, clips and production images from exotic locations to ensure appetites are whetted in the 12-month run-up to release. And then, just before release, VERY carefully controlled access is provided to the critics...with a licence to kill if they give any plot details away.

And so, last week, the first SPECTRE reviews appeared, somewhat scant on real detail, of course, and mainly abundant of praise. "Bond is back – and at his best,” wrote The Sun’s critic, while Robbie Collin in the Telegraph praised “the grand old Fleming style” of SPECTRE’s darkness, a feature of all of the Bonds since Daniel Craig took on the role.

There were a few bum notes, however, though one suspects that those may have been from critics exercising their right to curmudgeon. One theme in particular - which does nod back to the supposed Sony e-mails - are observations of plot weaknesses. Others have picked up on brief and tokenistic screen time for Monica Bellucci, the 51-year-old 'Bond lady', whose casting was regarded as a step forward for acting diversity in a Bond film.

All these points may be fair and true, but let's be honest, is there really any point getting into the politics of Bond? That, I know, might sound casually dismissive of all the 'isms' Bond can be accused of, but for more than half a century Bond has existed in his own place in cinema, and done pretty well as a result without causing any real offence, unless you are of such political sensitivity that you shouldn't be bothering watching a Bond film to begin with.

Bond under Craig, and especially under Mendes' direction in Skyfall, has shown a greater degree of emotional depth than many of the white tuxedo's previous occupants. Sean Connery's bikini bottom-slapping, Roger Moore's ageing playboy, Timothy Dalton's intensity and Pierce Brosnan's continuance of his Remington Steele persona, all had their flaws - as well as their strengths, especially in comparison to the Bond of Ian Fleming's novels.

Oddly, the Bond who nailed it closest may have been George Lazenby, the Australian model who lasted for one film - On Her Majesty's Secret Service, one of the most underrated of all the films. In not being a natural actor, he ironically projected distance and hesitance. And yet that film could be pulled apart for all manner of reasons.

Skyfall, however, set the Bond bar higher than it had ever been before, which inevitably makes for comments such as those of Stephen Dalton in The Hollywood Reporter, who felt that SPECTRE feels "like a lesser film than Skyfall, falling back on cliché and convention" with a great first act "full of dark portent and bravura film-making flourishes" but a disappointing final hour "with too many off-the-peg plot twists and too many characters conforming to type".

Guy Lodge in Variety noted that SPECTRE delivers the globetrotting Bond of yore, a tradition that acted as a window on the world for those of us who'd never seen beyond the garden gate, but that the film lacks "the unexpected emotional urgency of Skyfall, as the film sustains its predecessor’s nostalgia kick with a less sentimental bent."

Whatever holes the critics have or haven't picked in SPECTRE - and don't forget that the majority of reviews have been nothing but praiseworthy - there won't be a single person who says they won't go to see it as a result.

A Bond film is a calling. It's tradition. If one is on television, you watch it, you embrace it, you absorb it, you love it. The arrival of a Bond film at the cinema has been one of those 'events' that film marketing people froth about. Only in the case of a Bond film, has such hype been truly warranted. Even if the whole thing sucks, it's still a Bond film, you've still experienced 'marquee cinema'.

Which is why SPECTRE has so much going for it: in Mendes, you have a film maker with a strong theatrical tradition who delivered spectacularly with Skyfall, and there's little reason for you to expect any less with its follow-up. We know he won't do a third, which would enticingly open the door to a director of similar vision and intellect, Christopher Nolan.

Plot and all that notwithstanding, SPECTRE's casting provides another strong draw. Ralph Fiennes may not have the sardonic parentalism of either Bernard Lee's M or Judi Dench's, but he will inject something comparable to the political elite now running Whitehall for real. In Naomie Harris, we had an utterly refreshing Moneypenny in the last film, eschewing most of the simpering innuendo of her predecessors; and Ben Whishaw's Q was an ingenious act of casting, resetting the character as 21st century nerd - which is what spying needs these days - and comprehensively escaping the ageing eccentricity of Desmond Llewellyn and latterly John Cleese. And, given SPECTRE's cyberterrorism theme, prescient character development too.

But for me the real prospect for SPECTRE is the principal villain, Franz Oberhauser (or is he Blofeld...?) played by Christoph Waltz. Even if Waltz simply rehashes the wickedly camp menace of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, it would be no bad thing, and we would still get a cast-iron baddie that I expect will match the very best of Bond's antagonists passim. Throw in Andrew Scott - Sherlock's truly terrifying Moriarty opposite the Cumberbatch on TV - and you have a mouthwatering prospect for villainy.

So what, then, about Bond himself, Daniel Craig? Recent jokes from the actor himself about slashing his wrists rather than play 007 again will have no doubt negatively influenced some of the critics at last week's SPECTRE press screenings, with one or two reviews suggesting that he is starting to look bored in the role.

Frankly, I doubt that will really be the case. Apart from him being contracted to do one more film, this is just journalistic licence.

Craig has been a revelation as Bond. And, if the debate as to who his eventual replacement will be does throw up more hoo-ha about a black Bond (why not Idris Elba?) or anyone or anything else for that matter, the rigidity of convention about Bond being tall and dark haired has been irreparably broken.

When he was announced as the sixth 'official' Bond for Casino Royale, there was plenty of wheezing within the Bonderati. Could a blond, blue-eyed, average height Liverpudlian carry off a screen character defined by a six-foot-two Scottish body builder in 1962? Could he portray the menace Fleming envisaged? Could he get away with being "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur", as Judy Dench's M branded him? And could he also handle the wink-wink humour Connery managed despite his Scottish dryness, which Moore overdid and which Brosnan had forced upon him?

The answer to all that was a resounding 'yes', to the extent that he is regularly beaten only by Connery in 'Who-is-the-best-Bond?' rankings. In SPECTRE, Craig continues to prove those early doubters wrong. "I hope he carries on," wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian this week in his review of SPECTRE. "He is one of the best Bonds and an equal to Connery. That great big handsome-Shrek face with its sweetly bat ears has grown into the role."

There's probably no such thing as a perfect film, though plenty will have come close - Cinema Paradiso, The Godfather, Laurence Of Arabia, Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now just a few that come to mind. All Bond films have their strengths and their failings, but that's not why we - and I mean all of you - will be queuing to get in to see SPECTRE. Bond films are of such high production values that even when they are bad - and we look to certain entries in the Moore and Brosnan eras for those - they are good. Because, twenty, thirty, forty even fifty years down the line, we will all still be watching them on TV on a bank holiday afternoon. And some of us may even remember going to see them 'for real' at the cinema.

For me, for SPECTRE, I can't wait.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Walking on sunshine: Squeeze - Cradle To The Grave

One of the solid gold joys of my recent sojourn to the Med was the opportunity to devour the first two volumes of the riotously funny memoir by Danny Baker, whose abridged newspaper handle usually goes something like "DJ and TFI Friday writer", occasionally a reference to late night kebabs, Chris Evans and Gazza, or at their laziest, "that bloke off the DAZ ads" (though why never the tremendous mid-morning jewel that was Win, Lose Or Draw, I have no idea).

Baker is one of Britain's finest masters of the radio medium. His Saturday morning show on the BBC's 5Live is required listening, both for Baker's own non-stop banter, as well as the range of anecdote he elicits from Joe Public on topics as varied as "Don't Talk To Me About Combs!" and "Glove Compartment Archeology".

Baker is - if I may say so myself, and attempt to bask in a tiny bit of reflected glory - a kindred spirit. We share a love of Steely Dan, prog rock and football, and we both got a rung on the journalism ladder through the NME, though he went on to interview Michael Jackson, while I escalated the dizzy heights of reviewing Phil Collins and Sade concerts, though to this day I maintain that you've got to start somewhere, and at 16 years of age, that was plenty.

Going To Sea In A Sieve, the first installment of Baker's autobiography, charts the period from childhood to his arrival on national television, richly describing life in the bosom of his working class Bermondsey family and the rollicking wit and wisdom of his dad, Fred 'Spud' Baker (and the Only Fools And Horses-like greyness of the perks of being a dock union convener). And, through Deptford schooldays and his first job at the age of 15 in a fashionable West End record shop (encountering the likes of Marc Bolan, Elton John and members of Queen), Baker regails in his fortunes as punk fanzine scribe and his emergence at the NME, in the shadows of legends like Nick Kent, Charles Shaar-Murray, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill.

Both Going To Sea In A Sieve and the equally hilarious follow-up, Going Off Alarming - which follows Baker through his television and soap-ad fame in the 80s and 90s - are warm and unapolagetically devoid of anything approaching the reality of an upbringing in one of London's less salubrious areas. Baker deliberately eschews the celebrity confessional, defying the convention of autobiographies exposing the grim episodes of youth. He had a ball, and it comes across as such. As he frequently says, without resorting to English modesty, he was a popular kid who became the life and soul. Even his 2010 announcement of throat cancer was delivered with whimsical good humour.

Father and son: Kay and Baker

I mention all this because whimsical good humour is the stock in trade of Cradle To Grave, the BBC TV adaptation of Going To Sea In A Sieve, with Peter Kay cast as Pa Baker, and which provided the inspiration for Cradle To The Grave, the first album of new songs from Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford in 17 years.

Picture: Rob O'Connor
Coming from Greenwich, a few railway sidings away from the Deptford council estate Baker grew up in, the pair share a similar outlook on 1970s south-east London (Difford and Baker both attended West Greenwich Secondary Boys School).

In Going To Sea In A Sieve Tilbrook saw the prospect of new music celebrating this shared heritage and, having known Baker since his days on the Sniffin' Glue fanzine (which shared an office with Squeeze's first record label, Deptford Fun City), offered to provide the music for the series, which was duly accepted.

"I read Danny’s book [Going To Sea In A Sieve ] four years ago," Tilbrook told Uncut magazine, "and thought for the first time that this might be a project Chris and I could work on." That, in itself, is quite an important statement. Tilbrook and Difford's relationship underwent considerable strain during a 'lost period' when personal problems - including substance addiction - came between them.

"We’ve grown up a lot in the last few years, musically," Difford says of their reformation of Squeeze in 2007. "We still love and own our past, but as musicians we needed to grow," resulting in the new material of Cradle To The Grave.

I doubt Tilbrook and Difford would warm to such a description as "national treasures": but given their place in the post-punk New Wave, and a catalogue of utter gems like Take Me I’m Yours, Pulling Mussels (From the Shell), Labelled With Love, the quintessential student singalong Cool For Cats, and Tempted, featuring the vocals of Britain's greatest white soul singer, Paul Carrack, Cradle To The Grave is, in the words of Tilbrook himself, "the most cohesive Squeeze record we’ve made".

It is, certainly, one of the most effortlessly enjoyable records I have listened to this year, a comforting, autumnal blanket combining Difford's lyrical wit and Tilbrook's classic English pop melodicism - not to mention their familiar octave-separated vocal harmonies - with a magpie's pilfering of different styles from here and from there.

Picture: Rob O'Connor

Sunny's Eleanor Rigby string intro touches on the first flushes of teenage lust and emergence into young adulthood, with its swirling synths recreating the hormonal maelstrom of adolescence, while Happy Days is a country-twinged Down To Margate celebration of a lads holiday (before the notion became stained by the vomit of Shagaluf disgrace) out of London and down to the English south coast, a gospel choir chorus adding to the rays of sunshine that burst forth.

Though the album wasn't written as the TV show's defacto soundtrack, its compositions complement the narrative with perfection: Top Of The Form clearly gets into the Baker school years, setting the scene of confrontation with a High Noon twang, while Nirvana's light nostalgia and hint of social commentary blends with the knowing irony of the song's sunny cod disco and its examination of Empty Nest Syndrome ("He quibbled with ambition, she fell into a rut").

The 'standard' version of Cradle To The Grave ends with Snap, Crackle And Pop, an unfailingly uplifting burst of energy that declares "God-willing I'm going to love this day!", emulating the relentless positivity of Baker's memoir, not to mention Baker himself.

But stick with the 'deluxe' edition: on four additional tracks, Squeeze open up with a rootsish, Wilco-esque country edge. The Nashville-noir Hangin 'Round, sung by Difford, a lively cover of the 1968 Jeannie C. Riley hit Harper Valley PTA, the delightfully woozy pysch-country vibe of Strange Effect, and the throwabout defiance of modernity that it is I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.

Perhaps because Cool For Cats, with its pop culture references, was seen as a bit of a novelty, or because Up The Junction was dismissed for its "Smash Hits soap opera" social commentary, Squeeze have never been given a fair crack of the whip. New Wave contemporaries, like Elvis Costello, Paul Weller and Ian Dury were lauded for their eclectism and their cool. But, along with another contemporary, XTC, Squeeze have contributed more to the roots and soul of Britpop than they get credit for.

Listen back to early Squeeze and then listen to Parklife, Different Class or I Should Coco, or more recently anything by Kaiser Chiefs. Difford and Tilbrook will be in there. Theirs is a songwriting enriched by their environment and its life.

There was something decidedly serendipitous about, first Danny Baker writing his memoirs (a third intalment will be out next year), and then Difford and Tilbrook deciding to get the Squeeze mojo going again. Because, forged in the chip shops and railway arches of London SE16, Cradle To The Grave marks a welcome return to one of Britain's finest groups, inspired by one of Britain's finest broadcasters. It's a pleasure to have you back chaps.