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Christmas

Happy New Year – my top ten festive moans…..

It’s 2013 and welcome to my Christmas and New Year top ten pet hates about the festive and holiday season.

Everyone has to have a rant now and then –  me more than most. So this week it’s the things which irritate me about Christmas and the New Year. Do let me know if you agree or, even better, what your additional gripes might be….

1. Reduced rubbish collection – the one time of the year when you are bound to collect more rubbish is Christmas, especially when you have children. So why are collections reduced or erratic at this time? I don’t buy the argument that people have time off – I’ve often worked over Christmas and New Year, and the only time I ever got paid extra money was for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day – and I wouldn’t expect a collection on any of those days. Recycling in Swindon is great – but not great when the bins aren’t collected. So I predict that for the next few weeks, the local authority will see an increase in its general waste and landfill costs because of the distruption over this period.

The tree must come down, along with all of the decorations….

2. Too many repeats on television – I love television, I work on television programmes and I know when goes into making programming. But is it just me or was the majority of programming over the Christmas period repeats? While some are accepted eg. The Christmas Carol, Mary Poppins – I felt there was little to look forward to in terms of new material. Also programmes were repeated loads of times. It’s the one time to draw people in but there were few highlights. Maybe, Miranda,  Downton Abbey special (which was horribly predictable) and the soaps (none of which I watch). Africa was one highlight too. The rest was pretty dull.

3. Turkey – I don’t mind a small turkey on Christmas Day but however hard I try I always end up with far more than needed. It’s the one time of the year when I try to buy an organic bird. I ordered one (I won’t say from where as that wouldn’t be fair) and asked for the smallest. I saw the tick on the list for a 4kg turkey – or around that weight. When it came it was more than 5.5kg – when I queried it I was told that they didn’t have many smaller ones so were having to move them around – without actually informing the customer. I was given no warning and it cost me almost £20 more than I was expecting to pay.  I did comment that if I’d budgeted for the amount originally quoted and hadn’t been able to pay that extra money – what would they have done then? Next year, if we go for turkey again, I’ll buy frozen.

4. Crackers – why are crackers so c**p these days? One of the joys of crackers is the bang when they go off, so many now don’t bang at all – and their contents are awful. And there’s not much choice around. It’s either totally rubbish or slightly better contents for twice the price. Why bother?

5. Round-robin letters in Christmas cards – I didn’t have any of these this year but I usually get a couple each year. It’s like a newsletter to a friend about your family’s achievements. I can’t put my finger on why this irritates me, it may not be logical, because I get them all the time in my business life and I don’t mind. Maybe it’s because it takes the personality out of a Christmas card. If you want to tell me something, just write a couple of lines. It makes all the difference.

6. The length of school holidays – as a working parent, this is something which bugs me often. Many people went back to work on Jan 2 including me  – but children don’t go back to school until Jan 7 or 8. Why? Believe me, most children want to go back to school earlier, they get bored at home, no matter what they’ve got to entertain them and they miss their friends. When you are self-employed, or in certain professions, it’s difficult to take yet more days off so inevitably child care is needed. Which means an expensive time of year becomes even more expensive.

7. Awful present dilemma – what to do with those presents you dislike but, as they’ve come from someone reasonably close, you have to keep at least for a while. We have had several of these within our household this year – can’t give too much detail. Some we’ve changed for other things, some we’ve put up with, some have gone immediately to charity and some we’ve put into the ‘spare present drawer’ for those times when you’ve forgotten someone’s birthday. But for the latter just be careful you don’t give them back to the same person. I’ve burned my fingers with this more than once.

8. What to do with Christmas cards? – we’ve got loads of this year, it comes with having three children at home. I usually recycle but as our bins are overflowing through non-collection and we don’t have cardboard recycling nearby – I guess they’ll live with us longer than usual. And for those of you who want to suggest that I make my own cards next year – it’ s not my thing but you can have then if you want them.

9. The way prices rise the minute the new year comes in – it’s “Happy New Year and here’s what it will cost you” . On New Year’s Day it’s rail fares, the Second Severn Crossing toll – it’s as if certain companies can’t wait to announce that you will be paying more money. This is on top of the fact that many families will face the inevitable credit card bill, rising energy prices as announced by my provider (I’ve now switched) and some of us are losing our child benefit this month. So in January 2013, I am considerably less well off than January 2012. Thanks a lot.

10. Taking down the decorations and the tree – has to be done of course and it’s not really a rant, just an observation. It’s a joy to put them up and a chore to take them down. And where to put all of those new baubles that you sneakily popped on the overloaded tree and that you are now going to have to own up to….and for me this year, an extra sadness. When we put up our tree in early December we took loads of photographs of our lovely cat Chloe covered in tinsel. Sadly a week later, she died following a seizure. And now I have to take them down and look at that tinsel and….well, you get the picture….

Our family cat Chloe who was part of my life for 16 years….

Review of two films in UK cinemas now – what do you think?

I love the cinema – really, really love it. But I don’t always get time to see all the films I’d like so recently I had a cinema day – yes I went twice in a day. It’s a quite surreal thing to do, especially at this time of year. It can feel like you’ve had a day in darkness….with the added benefit of popcorn!

The first film was Twilight – Breaking Dawn Part Two. This was a necessity as I’d read the books, watched all the other films (more than once) and had two daughters nagging endlessly.  I have to say on a scale of one to ten – I’d give it a seven. Plus points were that it rounded off the saga really well, in many ways better than the books where everything seems to end so weakly. Also Bella actually took on a bit of colour and energy – as there were many times in the previous films when I wanted to almost punch her for being so insipid. And of course there was plenty of Edward and Jacob, which always helps. Though frankly Carlo and Jaspar weren’t too shabby either, though almost inconsequential.  I was mulling over my favourite character in all the films and decided that Alice probably came out near the top.

After lunch it was Skyfall. Friends had raved about the film to me so I was really, really excited to see it. There was much talk of a big secret. Also it included Daniel Craig and Dame Judi Dench, so who couldn’t be bowled over by them? But I’m afraid this film didn’t match my expectations. It just didn’t have the action sequences that I have come to expect from recent Bond films. and it seemed to have a bit of a copycat theme – I got a strong feel of the Bourne series here, but just not handled as well. Like the recent follow-up of the Bourne trilogy – tried hard but just lacked that raw drama.

The storyline was reasonable, bit too personal for me, and it featured Scotland which helped. But overall I felt a bit let down. So much emphasis on everyone being too old – and a baddie who was personal but less ‘big picture’ and having a very, bad hair day.

Overall a film which lacked the creativity factor of other films, Casino Royale was much, much better in my view. I probably will buy the DVD just to see if I’ve been a bit too harsh but both me and my better half felt the same. Seven out of ten is a generous score I think.

But I’ve still got the film of the year to go – The Hobbit. One of my favourite childhood books, alongside Lord of the Rings. I’m expecting a nine or ten to take me into Christmas and to prepare me for the annual local pantomime. We’ll see…….

Cheetah sitting on anthill in Mara Kenya

Waiting for the next big film to come out – The Hobbit…

 

Review my review of Swindon’s pantomime Cinderella with Keith Chegwin.

Each year in Swindon we go to the pantomime as a family – often on Christmas Eve – and it’s become part of our Christmas experience.

This year it was Cinderella with Keith Chegwin as Buttons. It was extra special for me as I’d had the privilege of interviewing Keith months before for Wiltshire Life magazine and found out more about him than I’d known previously. He’s an astute businessman, family man, entertainer, presenter – a man of many facets.

For people of a certain age Keith means Swap Shop as Noel Edmunds‘ sidekick, an associate of Mr Blobby and other childish fads for today’s grown-up children. But, of course, he’s much more than that. He’s a committed musician with his own studio, who often works under a pseudonym.

Great entertainment to invoke the Christmas spirit.....

I think my favourite comment from him was that pantomime is not hard work and when he hears actors’ complaints about it, he reminds them that others work much harder for far less money. Keith has a perspective of life that’s real, he appreciates good fortune and understands that many don’t have it – at least not in terms of money.

So I came to the pantomime, excited to see it. And it was very, very entertaining. My measure for this is to look at my four-year-old and my ten-year-old to see how much they are joining in. They were mesmerised, shouting, waving those light stick thingies, and jumping up and down when required. When the Fairy Godmother (played by Alex Young) wanted us to do something rather too complex every time she came on stage, only a few got it every time and my daughter was one!

Buttons (Keith Chegwin of course) talked to the children all of the time and they loved him. Parents were peripheral (though he did tell me my pathetic attempt at a star jump was well, pathetic) and the little people lapped it up. I did feel a bit sorry for him, as he’d clearly lost his voice and was struggling to sing. But this is pantomime,  where much can be forgiven. And he kept up a patter of jokes (much like he does on Twitter) so there was a stream of laughter all of the time.

The singing all round was exceptionally good this year – there was no sense of people who couldn’t deliver. Especially Cinderella and Prince Charming – played by Sasi Strallen & Adam King. Perhaps the slightly weaker singer was Jenny-Ann Topham who played the Wicked Step-mother but her acting more than made up for that. She was a fantastic baddie.

For me, the stars of the show were the Ugly Sisters Wendy & Gail – played wonderfully by David Ashley & Neal Wright. One about seven feet tall, one much, much smaller but both big in personality. When they first came on stage, for us adults, they commanded the audience, you just knew that every time they appeared it was going to be a scream. They were fantastic, funny and saucy – all that’s required of the pantomime dame. And their audience victim? The man they pick on throughout the show? My lovely husband Steve – who apparently was off to Old Town for a night out with them! He’d go too, if they were paying!…..

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda or M&S? Which one gets your vote at Christmas?

The fridge is full for Christmas - at last

Today we did a mega-shopping day visiting four supermarkets in a single day to get all the things on my ridiculous Christmas shopping list.

I think that puts me in a good position to assess the supermarkets’ readiness for December 23 – probably the busiest shopping day of the year – in Swindon at least.

First stop, by 9.30am was a town centre Marks & Spencer. Already very, very busy and (is it me?) full of people who think it’s okay to push you out of the way, tut in your ear and be generally grumpy. Nevertheless, the choice was reasonable, there was plenty of stock and we were able to buy the basketful of items we like the M&S way (pudding type things mainly, plus their version of Walnut Whips!).

Then on to Tesco – probably  my most hated supermarket in Swindon – as it seems to attract the most aggressive, anti-social shopper on earth. We just wanted a single item here – a prawn cocktail pot with a chilli flavour that they did about three years ago and which we have searched for ever since with no luck. Still, they did have a toilet so that made up for a lot! But no prawn cocktail, so a quick exit was in order.

Third Sainsbury’s – the venue for the main shop as we’d saved more than £100 in vouchers for the Christmas shop. However, I’ll think twice next year. We arrived here at about 11am, maybe a bit earlier, and the shelves were so empty it was almost unbelievable. I had the last few loose parsnips and carrots. We had to divide our efforts in the fruit & veg sections or we wouldn’t have been able to purchase anything. There were no sprouts (apart from those on a big stalk), no loose red onions, no Maris Pipers (my favourite for roasters). It was staggeringly busy with people in trolley jams all around but I couldn’t work out if it was phenomenal sales or really, really poor planning on the shop’s part. Around every corner as well as a zillion trolley-pushers, there were at least two large carts with frantic staff trying to fill up shelves.  I couldn’t get any dips like potato salad, humus or Waldorf salad – the kind of stuff I love on Boxing Day. And the only fresh herbs available were parsley, probably the only one I didn’t want!

Hence a quick trip to Asda – where there was so much food it was spilling out of the front door. No worries about sprouts here. In fact, I’d be worried about what’s going to be left as it was 5.30pm when we got there and there was stacks and stacks of food. I also picked up my herbs and nutmeg and was able to tick off the final things on my daft list.

I do now feel like I can relax – the food is in, the turkey is fresh and free range (ought to be gold-plated for what it cost) and the gammon looks like it could feed an army – but four kids should make light work of it!

Tomorrow it’s a pantomime of another kind – shorter, more entertaining and a lot cheaper – bring it on Keith Chegwin!

 

Could you be a stand-up comedian? Are you the next Billy Connelly?

Christmas is a really good time to review television programmes for a blogger like me as part of my celebrations involves seeking out interesting and offbeat programmes.

Last night I watched Imagine…the Art of Stand-Up (Part One) and I really enjoyed it. It was a montage of thoughts and feelings about what makes good stand-up involving a range of comedians. I even clicked the red button and watched more. It was one of those programmes that you didn’t want to end – and I’m so glad I’ll get to see the rest this evening.

I’m not always a fan of this series as sometimes it’s really self-indulgent and catering for those who immerse themselves daily in art and is not aimed at ordinary mortals. This programme was an exception as it embraced some great stand-up comedians alongside those who are at the dawn of their careers. I’m thinking particularly of  Billy Connelly, Frank Skinner, Jack Dee or Omid Djalili – all comedians I’d pay good money to see live.

It also involved comedians who just aren’t my cup of tea like Jim Davidson – who I have seen live and, for me, is very dated. There was also some younger, newer talent including Simon Amstell, who frankly, would drive me crazy within about ten seconds, as he came across as so intense and introverted. For goodness sake, lighten up Sir!

This morning I’ve read a review in a daily newspaper which said the programme was frustrating, that it tried to cover too much and the suggestion is that it failed to do so. Reviewer, you’ve missed the point and have been led into a long, and boring, justification of your views.

This was not a programme designed to give all of the answers in a structured analytical exercise – it’s an interesting flavour of what comedians think of their art. How it makes them feel when on stage, what they think of hecklers, how their own lives and observations feed into their performances etc etc. For me, that’s enough. I find people interesting and I don’t always need to have a finite beginning, middle and end. So to this particular reviewer (she knows who she is) ‘baa humbug!’

There were also some other elements which, as a programme-maker, I loved. Although I’ve never produced a programme with this kind of budget, it’s not rocket science, you can easily see how it was shot and enjoy the dynamic of that process.

For example, there were many shots showing the cameras and the set-up of interviews, sprinkled with random shots of the interviewer, Alan Yentob prior to interview, Alan Yentob attending a couple of events (and a few necessary cutaways during the interviews). I love that style of involving a presenter, where they play a more subliminal but important role. No need for endless pieces-to-camera or voice over. I also loved the simple way that different subjects were introduced with a few simple words at the bottom right of screen. This suggests to me that there was no rigid structure to the interviews, that they flowed and ebbed quite naturally (even though I know that the BBC style is often very structured).

The locations were also interesting to me. A lot of the interviews were done, I think, in the same location as much of the film The King’s Speech was shot, especially with the less well known comedians. I surmise, though clearly I don’t know, that the most famous comedians were visited personally by the crew (wherever they live) and the less well known were asked to attend a shoot at a single location. That way the budget was carefully used to include the best stand-up comedians and those seen as rising stars. But there was also an element of young comedians ‘trying out’ new material – which I found really interesting. Simon Amstell testing his new material on a small audience, writing notes, ticking off lines that worked and did not. He may not be the kind of comedian I like yet – but I admire his tenacity and his commitment to his art.

Could you do stand-up comedy! I know I wouldn't have the bottle.....

Needless to say I’m looking forward to the second instalment tonight on BBC2 – somehow I was not expecting Imagine to be near the top of my Christmas tv list this year…..

Are we less festive this Christmas? What do you think?

This week, I’ve really cracked on with the Christmas shopping – but I have noticed a real difference with the atmosphere around shopping this year. Or is it my imagination?

As usual I’ve bought loads online – but have also had my credit card fleeced of £1,000 over the weekend which shows me that thieves are about. It’s the second time this year I’ve been caught out as it appears some Christmas presents have been stolen from us too. A gang has been operating outside a large toy store in the town and grabbing bags the moment your back is turned. I think we’ve become victims this year, though we still have to visit the toy store to ensure that we weren’t stupid enough to leave items there.

So for me, this already feels like a Christmas where there is a greater possibility of petty crime. I suppose it’s inevitable with the economy under such pressure, people losing their jobs and everyone feeling the pinch.

Out shopping today, there’s a quietness around, less hustle and bustle, less excitement even where there are many, many bargains to be had. There’s a quietness about Swindon that surprises me and I’ve lived and worked in the town for 20 years.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be far fewer Christmas lights up on people’s homes this time around. From my own street to across the whole town. Is it because of high energy prices I wonder? People feel less ready to spend the money. Or has it been a slow build-up over the last couple of years that I’m just beginning to notice?

Lights indoors but what's happened to the outdoor decorations?

Inside our home we’ve got the lights and the tree and it’s all very pretty but outside it’s not as festive. I thought it was just me until a friend said the same on Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and throw myself into it regardless of how much money I have or have not got as it’s about family, meeting up and having fun together. But I’d be really interested to see if you agree – is there less shopping, and less lighting where you live?

Christmas cookbooks – a big turkey?

Christmas is fast approaching and the cookbook industry is selling hard. The season is used as a marketing tool to sell the perfect lifestyle and provide a guide to the perfect day. What is bothering me is the profusion of Christmas cookbooks. There’s one by Nigella, Delia (of course), Gordon, Jamie, The Hairy Bikers, and the WI, just to name a few.

Since when has Christmas become a foodie event where we are sold the idea that we have to deliver the perfect meal day after day during the festive season?

I understand the need to plan and want to provide a decent, tasty meal. We usually end up with eight to ten people at my house all expecting meals for three to four days. That amount of food supply doesn’t appear out of nowhere. However, I refuse to play the game where as well as hosting Christmas, I’m expected to produce restaurant standard food at each meal.

It’s the family coming for stay – not a Michelin judge!

I like food from different countries and am more than happy to indulge in a little cake baking. To cook like this using different techniques and ingredients I would need a cookbook. But the Christmas cookbooks are selling an image, a need to create something out of the ordinary, because most of the recipes give or take a few twists would feature in a classic British cookbook.

Somebody is obviously buying these books else new ones would not be released each year but I wonder how many people actually use them. Magazines frequently give away potted recipe guides for Christmas EveBoxing Day. I know because I’ve read them. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked anything from them though apart from one year when I felt I really had to try to find something to make sprouts taste a little more pleasant. Other than that, and varying the choice of roast occasionally, I think most of the country cooks the same meal, and there are only so many ways of doing that.

Is it just a British obsession?

Maybe people in countries all around the world are busy pouring through recipes planning their ideal Christmas menu.  If you find them really useful, let me know. If not, and you’ve succumbed to the hype in previous years, there’s always the charity shop.

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