Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Frank Sidebottom R.I.P.

Chris Sievey was a unique comic genius who created one of the most memorable comedy characters of all time: Timperley's very own Frank Sidebottom, the musical genius with the papier mache head, and let's not forget his hand-puppet 'Little Frank' ....

I was very sad to hear that Chris died yesterday, aged 54, but he has left us with a lot of happy musical memories which always raise a smile.

His final public appearance, singing his very own World Cup song "Three Shirts On My Line":

There's lots more fabulous Frank clips on YouTube, so check them out.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Unfinished business.

Summer is here, even though today's weather has been non-stop torrential rain. Anyway it's June, and the World Cup is almost here! Which means that I'll be stuck in front of the telly for most of the time watching the footie. And when I'm not doing that, I'll be getting out and about and enjoying the so-called-summertime. Or listening to music, or catching up with some overdue reading. (And that's just in the leisure time - work is also going to be very busy!)

What is this all leading to, I hear you ask? Well I thought it would be as good a time as any to take a little break from posting on this blog and at Random Ramblings, probably for at least the next 4 weeks or so - although during that time I will post that long-overdue Eurovision review, and maybe some other vaguely urgent stuff, who knows?

Planet Salem will continue with tour updates and other news - you don't get rid of me that easily ;))

To all my readers and fellow blogging friends......have a great summer!

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: May 2010

Bit of a surprise that I actually managed to watch any TV last month, between blogging commitments, ropey health and the small matter of a holiday...anyway here goes.

I always enjoy music documentaries so have been watching "I’M IN A ROCK N’ROLL BAND" (BBC2, Saturdays). Narrated by the ever-wonderful Mark Radcliffe, it doesn’t particularly tell us anything we didn’t know already about being in a band, but it’s still been ok for Saturday night viewing. It’s the usual format of music clips and talking heads, but thankfully this time the Z-list comedians were kept to a minimum. I deliberately missed the final show, which was one of those "who's your favourite" poll-type things...zzz.

During the 1980s, my favourite band of all time (New Order) were renowned for never giving interviews: enigmatic but frustrating. Fast forward to 2010 and you can’t get away from them! Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Steven Morris have all turned up in the aforementioned BBC2 documentary, but that’s not all: Bernard recently made an appearance in "SONGBOOK" (Sky Arts). (Confession time here: I very rarely watch Sky Arts, but really should watch it more often). Anyway this was very interesting for fans of all of Bernard’s past musical adventures as he spoke about Joy Division, New Order and Electronic and played a few acoustic versions of old songs with a couple of bandmates from his new venture Bad Lieutenant. Good stuff.

Still enjoying "WALLANDER" (BBC4 Saturdays/Thursdays). I’ve reccorded the last few episodes and still working my way through the backlog. It took me a little while to get used to the programme without Stefan and Linda being there, but it’s still such a top quality show. The Swedish version is a million times better than its British remake: it doesn’t have to spend half the show focusing on angsty close-ups of its lead character. Whilst it’s still Wallander’s show, the other minor characters have an important part to play, although I’d like to see trainee cop Pontus getting some more screen time. For completely shallow reasons :)))

Recently BBC2 had a brief 80s season, which featured the always entertaining ‘Grumpy Old Men’ format tweaked into "THE GRUMPY GUIDE TO THE 80s" which again relied on the talking heads, aiming at very easy and obvious targets, but it was still quite funny.

The centrepiece of this BBC2 season was a new drama "WORRIED ABOUT THE BOY", screened on 16.05.10, and focusing on the early life of Boy George, before he was famous, intercut with scenes from when it all went wrong. This should have been a two or three part series, as it ended just at the point when "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" became their first hit single. The guy in the lead role was very good indeed, and the soundtrack was a total belter. How many years since you’ve heard Soft Cell’s "Memorabilia"??

The "GLEE" (E4, Mondays) juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down, and what was once an inventive and original format is now beginning to become rather predictable, and I’m still tired of all those songs going into the chart every week (even if they’re in the lower reaches of the chart). Sue Sylvester is one of the greatest TV characters of recent times though - bitter and bitchy and fabulous! The show wouldn’t be half as good without her in it. And that's how Laura sees it.

The old saying goes that youth is wasted on the young, but in the case of "JUNIOR APPRENTICE" (BBC1, Wednesdays) it would appear that this particular bunch of young people have skipped youth completely and gone right into the adult world of dog-eat-dog entrepreneurs. Regardless of the contestants’ ages it still remains one of the best TV formats and, IMHO, has never gone stale. Of course we can’t call him ‘Siralan’ anymore as he is now Lord Sugar!!! It finishes this week, I'm not bothered who wins, just as long as it's not hyper-confident Zoe ...and as for 17 year old Tim Ankers (insert Harry Hill sideways-glance here) no-one should have that much facial hair at that age.

TV continues to offer variations on the hugely successful "Come Dine With Me" format. We like "THREE IN A BED" (Channel 4, Wednesdays) which despite the title isn't that kind of programme, but sees three B&B owners host each other and each guest is then asked to pay for what they think their stay was worth. It’s quite fresh and we can see it running for a while, although you can bet that the personalities of the hoteliers will get more extreme and contrasting as time goes on. Hope we get another series.

Couple of films now: We spent a lot of time screaming at a new(ish) horror film on Sky Movies: "DRAG ME TO HELL". The only problem was that we were screaming with laughter. Plot:young woman working in a bank refuses further financial assistance to an old gypsy woman who puts a curse on her, blah blah blah. It was ok though, as modern horror films go, but none of these modern efforts seem to have the tension that a truly great horror film needs.

I was quite disappointed with "THE BOAT THAT ROCKED" (Sky Movies). I’ve always had a great interest in the pirate stations of the 1960s, so I looked forward to seeing this film which focused on "Radio Rock", a fictional station clearly based on Radio Caroline/Radio London. Although its attention to detail had been well thought out, the main problem was that for a film billed as a comedy, it wasn’t actually that funny and would have been better as a straightforward drama. At times it also relied a little too much on smut to get laughs, which is never a good thing. Good soundtrack though, that was the best thing about this film.

Decided to watch "LAKEVIEW TERRACE" (Sky Movies) as its plot reminded me just a little of "Unlawful Entry", one of our favourite films of recent years. Samuel L Jackson was great as the racist cop who went to all lengths to make life very difficult for the young mixed-race couple who moved in next door. It maybe got a little silly towards the end (as most modern films seem to be) but it’s one of the best films I’ve seen recently.

It didn’t get too many good reviews but we also enjoyed "RIGHTEOUS KILL" (Sky Movies) which paired two of our all-time favourite actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the leading roles. They may be old now but they can still act most of their modern counterparts off the screen. A serial killer film with a plot twist at the end. Dark but good film.

Here's one of the reasons I put on so much weight in Bratislava...

Yes, it's that Slovakian gastronomic treat bryndza halusky.....

The Bratislava Diaries: Day 5 - Friday 21st May 2010

And so to the last full day in the "Brat" as we like to call it....

It's like Groundhog Day as we started the day in the Park Inn's very nice Il Gusto restaurant, having buffet breakfast and staring out at the clouds and light rain.

I'd really recommend the Park Inn (above) for a stay in Bratislava, it's a reasonably priced hotel in a city full of rather expensive hotels - well situated, overlooking the Danube and just minutes from the old town.

Anyway the clouds began to disappear and it began to warm up during our relaxing stroll up and around the other end of the Old Town. Lunch in yet another basement cellar restaurant, and then we headed back to the hotel early to drop off our purchases before heading out again to explore Bratislava Castle.

Faithful travelling companion bought a bottle of Kofola, which is Slovakia's answer to Coca-Cola or Pepsi. With some trepidation I had a sip, although let's just say that it's an acquired taste and I didn't invest in my own bottle :)

Bratislava really came alive today when the sun came out - the once-empty pavement cafes filled up with locals and tourists. And the weather stayed warm for the rest of the day.

You'll know already that Bratislava Castle sits up on a hill, which means climbing.....climbing.....climbing....just what someone like me with my dodgy knees and bad back needs, yet I managed it ok. It must be that Slovak air. Then climbed up various sets of stairs (I counted approximately 200 stairs) and each level brought a better view than the last. (The above picture is mid-level) The Slovak Food Festival was on today in the castle grounds. We don't go up to the very top level of the castle though - that's enough stairs for now! After taking in all the fabulous views, we headed back down, checking out the city wall behind the cathedral, and walked down to the main square to resolve some unfinished business.

Having missed out on the Austrian coffee house experience, Bratislava provided a very acceptable substitute: Kaffee Mayer. A little piece of Austria in the centre of Bratislava. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

After coffee and some final souvenir shopping (a fabulous necklace and two bracelets for 7 euros - bargain!) we headed back to get ready for our last night out...another night, another basement restaurant, another big portion and another 3lbs gained ha ha!!

For an established stag-weekend destination I feared the worst about Bratislava on a Friday night. But we needn't have worried. Everyone's out at the bars having fun and drinking copious amounts of beer (quelle surprise..!) but there are no signs of any trouble. Needless to say that after the bar-hopping and beer-sampling we were both a bit merry ourselves - and stayed out till 2am!! A very enjoyable night, to end a very enjoyable holiday.

We went home on Saturday, by which time the heatwave was in full swing. But it didn't matter. For Bratislava is a lovely city in all weathers, and I'd really recommend it as an interesting and affordable short-break destination.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Bratislava Diaries: Day 4 - Thursday 20th May 2010

In the words of Sahara Hotnights....."heeeeeey, I need a visit to Vienna!"

If you're in Bratislava you can't resist the opportunity to visit the neighbouring capital city just over an hour away. They call Bratislava and Vienna the "twin cities" so it's appropriate that we travelled there on the Twin City Liner - a smooth and speedy hydrofoil which zips up the Danube. Yes it's a bit expensive but it's worth doing.

The first thing that struck us about Vienna was its size. Unlike its small, cosy Slovakian counterpart, Vienna is a more traditional, big, capital city and impossible to negotiate on foot in the five and a half hours we have there. After hunting high and low for a lunch venue which would provide us both with a schnitzel (pork for him, chicken for me), we eventually found somewhere. Vienna seems to offer less options for almost-vegetarians-who-eat-chicken like myself, although maybe if you dig deeper....

Vienna is visually striking and filled with stately grandeur everywhere you look. We took the one-hour Vienna Sightseeing bus tour which left from the opera house and took us round all the major sights.

Here are some pictures from our trip. Warning: may contain chicken schnitzel.

After the small-town atmosphere of Bratislava, I was a bit overwhelmed by the Austrian capital. There were lots of tourists, mixed in with the locals, and it was very busy. My dream of a traditional Viennese coffee-and-cake experience didn't materialise either, due to the coffee houses either being full, or prohibitively unaffordable - one charged 20 euros for a coffee and cake. So we had to settle for an outdoor cappuccino, even though the weather was probably a bit on the cold side. But Cinderella, you shall go to the ball, and you'll get your coffee and cake.....tune in for Day 5 and you'll see what I mean :)))

In our last hour I warmed a bit more to the city, even if I didn't form that immediate bond with it in the way that I had done with Bratislava. Nevertheless I'd like to return some time in the future for a longer stay.

Back to more familiar territory, and another evening meant another meal in another basement cellar restaurant - Bratislava is full of them! This time it was traditional Slovak cuisine (yep - bryndza halusky again - I must post a photo of it on here) accompanied by a nice bottle of Slovak red wine.

As it had been a long day we became party-poopers again and had an early night. We'll make up for it tomorrow!!

The Bratislava Diaries: Day 3 - Wednesday 19th May 2010

Some business to see to first: we headed off to book tickets for a couple of trips on the Danube: this afternoon's trip to Devin Castle, and tomorrow's outing on the Twin City Liner to Vienna. The sun briefly shone before the more familiar clouds descended later this morning. But Bratislava is beautiful in all weathers, and one of its best-known buildings is St Martin's Cathedral, pictured above. This morning we retraced our steps through the old town, bought some souvenirs, and I spotted possibly one of the most gorgeous men I have ever seen - think a 10 times more gorgeous version of Bret from Flight of the Conchords :))) anyway our thoughts soon turned to lunch which involved a variation on bryndza halusky, only with fried onions rather than bacon.

It wasn't long before we were heading off up the Danube to Devin Castle, one of the most significant buildings in Slovak history, dating back to the 8th century. Its position on the Slovak-Austrian border gave it strategic historical significance, and in more recent times the confluence of the Danube and the Moravia rivers formed the Iron Curtain.

After we walked off our lunch on a very high climb, we arrived at the castle ruins in what felt like a Force 10 gale. It may have been freezing cold, but I was so overwhelmed by the surroundings that frostite didn't matter so much :)) The castle overlooks some very picturesque views of the Slovakian and Austrian countryside....

...and here's a part of Devin Castle.
Eventually we had to leave and make our way back down to the bottom of the hill. As we are both fascinated by recent history, we vistied this monument which commemorated all those who had been shot and killed when attempting to cross the river to Austria during the years of Communist rule. (The one thing which has surprised me during our Bratislava trip is that there is very little commemoration or acknowledgement of that era, unlike in Prague or Riga which both have museums dedicated to the subject).
It's a pleasant trip back down the (not blue) Danube back to Bratislava. There's not really much scenery along the way, apart from various little fishing huts. But then you approach the city and you get this view of Bratislava Castle.

Tonight we had dinner at an Argentinian restaurant. Bratislava has such a cosmopolitan choice of eateries. And afterwards we end up at a bar which is full of students and sells bargain-priced beer, and we feel very old!! We have an early night, as there's the small matter of a day trip to another country tomorrow.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The end of an era :(((

My favourite radio show is coming to an end tomorrow night and I'm feeling very sad :(

It's the final "Sounds of Europe" on the University of Surrey's GU2 Radio (www.gu2.co.uk) which will be broadcast as usual between 9.00 - 11.00 pm British time. (If you can't catch it then, there is always the 'Listen Back' feature on the station's website). I've really enjoyed the show over the last couple of years as it's the only programme on any British radio station which plays a great variety of wonderful European music for all tastes.

The show is ending because Keira and Rachel - my two best blogging pals and the dynamic duo responsible for this weekly treat - are leaving their student days behind them, so it will be very emotional for everyone tomorrow night.....

Don't forget to tune in - and girls, good luck with the show!!!

The Bratislava Diaries: Day 2, Tuesday 18th May 2010

Quickly discovered that our hotel room telly (nice flat screen by the way!) has got MTV Germany, so that's the viewing sorted for the rest of the week. First of many screenings of Lena Meyer-Landrut's "Satellite", which would eventually become our holiday anthem, and that was even before a certain song contest of course!

After breakfast we walk down the riverside. Let's get one thing straight: despite what that Strauss bloke says, the Danube is not blue. It's more greeny-brown.

There are a lot of river cruise boats moored at the riverside, and just like the Rhine, the Danube is very much a working river with container boats going up and down all day, along with the boat trips and the hydrofoil to Vienna.

One thing I really love about European cities is squares. Big squares, little squares, I love them all. Bratislava has two, although one of them is actually more of a street than a square: and at the far end there is the Slovak National Theatre, which is such an architectural gem that it stopped me in my tracks. Although they should have ditched that poster at the front which totally spoiled the look. (No offence to Canada)

We continued exploring, stopping off for lunch in the old town at the Presburg restaurant for our first Slovak speciality - the legendary bryndza halusky - potato dumplings smeared in sheep's cheese and topped with bacon. Which is extremely filling and Accompanied, not for the first time, by a beer. Like its neighbouring Czech capital Prague, Bratislava is beer-central. I'm not a beer drinker, but when in Rome (OK, Bratislava then!) it has to be done. I liked this restaurant, because they were playing Slovak music (which I know nothing about) in the background - unlike everywhere else, which has the usual diet of Black Eyed Peas, Taio Cruz and Lady GaGa....

After lunch we go in search of shopping, and find what feels like the world's biggest Tesco, which is so big it's actually its own shopping mall called My Bratislava. Can 'My Rubbishy Small Town' please have one of these???

The main square (pictured below) is called Hlavne Namestie, and like the rest of the city it's small but perfectly formed, and has a number of souvenir stalls which I returned to later in the week to buy some lovely jewellery. We stopped off at 4.00 for coffee at Cafe Grande (the yellow building in the middle of the picture). Throughout the afternoon there was intermittent rain, but not as heavy as last night's downpour.

Although there may not be an obvious 'attraction' in Bratislava, it's the little things which made it special. Like this for example, which shows off the fun side of the city. It's a man peeking out of a manhole, which appears on a lot of the city's souvenirs and it's photographed by everyone who visits Bratislava. It may not be such a welcoming sight if you're staggering along the street late at night after a few beers - watch your step - oooooh! Whoops = too late :D

Being the capital of Slovakia, there are lots of embassies scattered across this compact little city and I had a lot of fun pointing them out. The Austrian embassy was ripe for a photo opportunity, as this was also the place where the 6 year old Mozart played a gig back in the day.

Dinner at the Hacienda Mexicana restaurant (guess what kind of cuisine....). A brief word about the Slovak obsession with food-weights: every menu has the weight of the portion, but even the smallest portion is still too big and difficult to finish! Why are the Slovakian people so slim if they eat all those big dinners?

I did mention that Bratislava was a beautiful city: well it's not just the buildings I'm talking about. For they have a population which is very easy on the eye. Beautiful guys, beautiful girls. Faithful travelling companion even mentioned that his favourite eye-candy city, Riga, is being given a serious run for its money. As far as the male population goes, the one thing I've already noticed is that they have incredibly beautiful dark eyes, and are incredibly attractive even if not always obviously 'good-looking'.

After dinner, we went in search of, well, beer. For research purposes you understand....!

The Bratislava Diaries: Day 1: Monday 17th May 2010

Or, the holiday that almost wasn't.

The ash cloud which had drifted all over European airspace following the Icelandic volcanic eruption a few weeks ago, causing thousands of flights to be cancelled, made its return to British airspace on the Saturday before our holiday. By Sunday, almost all British airports were closed, and many remained closed on Monday morning....
I woke on Monday with trepidation and feeling a mixture of angry and downhearted, getting ready and making final preparations with a 'going through the motions' feeling. As we began the first part of our journey (by train) we still didn't know if the holiday would be on or not.

Happily, the good news came at 1.00 pm - the airport was open, and our holiday was on - although we couldn't relax until the flight was airborne!

Surprisingly, the weather at home prior to our departure was beginning to resemble 'summer'...the same couldn't be said on our arrival at Bratislava Airport, where torrential rain was battering down and the temperature was much cooler. Already cursing myself for not packing warm enough clothes, although my trusty outdoor jacket was in the suitcase - I learned my lesson from Dusseldorf last spring, where heavy rain and a light jacket weren't a good combination :(

Even with the rain falling, the magic had begun. On our way into Bratislava we crossed the Danube, over the New Bridge (Novy Most) which is a very distinctive structure topped by the 'UFO' restaurant, and were immediately faced with the breathtaking view of a beautifully lit Bratislava Castle to the left, and the old town to the right.

After checking in at our very centrally located hotel, we headed out in search of dinner, although it was getting late. We headed over to the Old Town, which like everywhere else in the world on a wet Monday night, was pretty deserted. Or to be specific, pretty and deserted. For it became apparent very very quickly that Bratislava is a very beautiful place, even on a wet, empty Monday night. And if you don't believe me.....