Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: June 2016

I hadn't planned to do a TV review this month but here's a quick round-up of what I've been watching (apart from football of course!) Between Euro 2016 and the imminent Tour de France, there's been an underlying French theme this summer. So I'm kicking off my summer telly round-up with something Gallic, accessible and fun.  "LA FAMILLE BELIER" was one of France's most popular movies of recent years, and it made a major star out of its young female lead Louane Emera.  So when I found out it was on Amazon Prime then I just had to check it out.

It's heartwarming, feelgood and funny, and it was just perfect Sunday afternoon viewing.  Louane plays Paula, the hearing daughter of deaf parents, who discovers that she had a great singing voice. There are also some side plots of a political campaign, but the main plot revolved around Paula's dilemma about whether or not she should leave her family behind to study at a music school in Paris. Louane is a natural in this role and is a genuine star.

If you've ever watched American films or TV shows you'll be familiar with the fraternities and sororities which exist in universities.  But just what goes on in a fraternity? "FRAT BOYS: INSIDE AMERICA'S FRATERNITIES" (BBC2) revealed just what you have to do to get into "the brotherhood" - the vicious rituals ('hazing') endured by the 'pledges' have resulted in a number of deaths or serious injuries.  And then there is the brothers' perceived right to commit sexual violence against female students.  One of the most disturbing aspects of this is the universities' reluctance to take action, preferring to sweep it all under the carpet, with the fear of losing funding, much of which comes from ex-fraternity members.

I can't understand why anyone would want to be part of "Greek life" in a fraterity or sorority, but it's a fast-track to America's high society and the top jobs, just like the UK public school system.  Judging by this excellent documentary, there are certainly parallels between fraternity behaviour and the brothers' future within America's elite, where it's all about the survival of the fittest, the rejection of the weak, and having the right to do whatever you like - and to hell with the consequences.

Incredibly, "THE HOTEL INSPECTOR" (Channel 5) has now been running for 11 years and is on its 12th series.  By now, it offers nothing new, but you get the feeling it could go on for ever.  As long as there are bad hotels, there's scope for troubleshooter Alex Polizzi to walk in with her suggestions to put things right.  I still enjoy watching this though - I like programmes about hotels and usually play along with this, picking out the bad decor and working out what could be improved.

I watched "OSCAR PISTORIUS: THE INTERVIEW" (ITV) out of uncomfortable curiosity. Pistorius was once a hero to many - myself included - until he brutally murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013 and has continued to this day to deny that he deliberately killed her.  It was impossible not to cringe when Pistorius burst into tears at various points, sought redemption and when he spoke about 'what Reeva would have wanted', well that was just sickening. Understandably, the Steenkamp family did not wish to take part in this programme.  I can't really understand why Mark Williams-Thomas did this interview.  If it was to make us feel sorry for Pistorius, then it didn't work.  60 minutes of lies and crocodile tears.

Now it's time to polish up the rose-tinted glasses for a bit of nostalgia.  Can it really be 20 years since the European Football Championships took place in England?  "EURO 96: THE SUMMER FOOTBALL CAME HOME" (ITV4) focused on England's efforts to win the tournament, only to lose to Germany on penalties in the semi-final.  Not only did Germany win the tournament, but they then adopted the "Three Lions" song!

(On a side note, two years later, mum and I were on holiday in Blackpool during the 1998 World Cup and were residing in a hotel right next to a pub which blasted out "Three Lions" day and night all through the holiday, Guantanamo Bay musical torture-style!  As a result, we couldn't listen to that song for a number of years afterwards.  Which reminds me, I must do a post some time about football songs.)

So here we are at the end of June, and there are still some outstanding posts to be published, including my Eurovision reviews, the end of my Madrid holiday posts, and some thoughts on our trip to Wales.  I promise that these will definitely be posted in the coming weeks....!

A special message....

...Rachel, if you're reading this, please get in touch - I notice you're no longer on Twitter and just need to know that you are ok :)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Forgotten 80s: an unforgettable radio show

Back in the early years of this blog I used to feature some obscure old songs on my late-night Saturday feature. Retro Saturday.  Many of these songs were from the 1980s, a decade which was actually pretty crap if you actually lived through it (from personal experience anyway!) but you have to acknowledge that there was much, much more to that decade than the usual overplayed hits.  

So if you're into the lesser-known hits of the 80s, then how much would you love a radio show which focused on the forgotten hits of that decade rather than the usual same-old 10 to 15 songs which always crop up as 80s oldies?  I think you would really love it....

"FORGOTTEN 80s" is broadcast every Sunday night from 7.00-9.00 pm on Absolute Radio 80s in the UK.  This particular radio show has just celebrated its 3rd anniversary, but I only discovered it a few months ago and since that time it has become my favourite radio show and essential listening on a Sunday night.  It's presented by Matthew Rudd, who is a refreshingly knowledgeable and enthusiastic radio presenter in an age of personality-free radio-bots who only exist to play the next Ed Sheeran/Adele/Jess Glynne/Justin Bieber song on the radio playlist.  You will probably get the best experience out of the show if you were actually around in the 80s and remember the songs first time round - sparking that crucial recognition-factor - but even if you don't remember that decade it's worth tuning in to check out the diversity of 80s music which doesn't otherwise get an airing.

I discovered the show by accident earlier this year as I noticed it trending on Twitter one Sunday night.  So what was this #forgotten80s? I decided to check it out and was immediately hooked. Matthew is a brilliant host who has such enthusiasm and genuine knowledge of the decade, and the stories behind the songs.  The criteria for the show is forgotten Top 40 hits, but a particular highlight of the show is a section called "Didn't We Almost Have It All" (#DWAHIA) where the listeners are invited to submit suggestions for two songs from 80s charts from different years, where the songs missed out on that week's particular top 40.

If you've only discovered the show, check out the blog at with full playlists from previous shows; and if you want to listen to the full shows ad-free then check out the Absolute 80s Mixcloud page at and search for the Forgotten 80s shows.  I guarantee that you will not be disappointed :))

Allsång 2016: the stage is....

...Orup's! Yes, one of my all-time favourite Swedish artists has been selected for the "Allsångsscenen är din" show on 19.07.2016.

This will be the 5th year that there will be an hour-long concert following the end of that week's "Allsång på Skansen" show in Stockholm, and it will be broadcast on SVT as usual. Orup follows in the footsteps of Tomas Ledin, Håkan Hellström, Laleh and Alcazar who have all featured on the show in recent years, and who have presented very memorable shows.

Orup has had a lot of success with his stage show "Viva La Pop" which he presented in Stockholm and Gothenburg over the past year so we can expect all the hits and more from a career spanning almost 30 years. As usual with this type of show, expect some special guest artists. (Can we have a GES reunion? Or at least Lena PH?)

We are just over 2 weeks away from the beginning of Allsång season 2016, which will be presented this year by Sanna Nielsen.  (OK so does this meant that faithful travelling companion will finally be interested in watching Allsång with me then??  #shallowalert) No news on this year's guest list but I'll be watching the Swedish tabloids over the next week or so as I guess this information is imminent.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Madrid Diaries: Day 3 - Thursday 28th April 2016

A couple of scheduled activities today.  We technically only have three full days on this holiday so it's important that we pack as much in as we can, whilst ensuring that we also don't exhaust ourselves pounding the streets of the Spanish capital. But first, breakfast.

We're back in that nice little cafe where we had breakfast yesterday.  Today it's time for a toasted croissant.  Which is a wonderful thing indeed.

It's not long until we're back on the Plaza Mayor again.  There's been a little bit of rain today to go with the cooler-than-expected temperatures.  But the weather's been perfect for walking and exploring and I'd rather have temperatures in the mid-to-high teens for a spring city break anyway.

Inevitably we're back on the Plaza Mayor checking out a few more shops and restaurants.  One of these sells nothing but hats.  So here is my little tribute to this year's San Marino Eurovision representative, the one and only Serhat!

We have a (surprisingly affordable) lunch on the Plaza Mayor - where a number of restaurants tout for business.  And then on to our first big activity of the day.

Like every other big city on the continent, a sightseeing bus tour is a good way to get around and spot the city's main landmarks if your time is limited.  The Madrid City Tour buses ( operate two routes covering 'historical' and 'modern' Madrid.  Both routes are easily do-able on the same day, consecutively from Sol.  Some parts of the tours cover the same area, but then head out in different directions.

The tour passes city hall (below) which proudly displays a 'refugees welcome' banner....

...the impressive architectural columns of the national library...

..the Art Deco style of the Gran Via...

I can't remember the name of this building - it's either a church or a museum - but I liked it.

And when you've had your fill of art, culture and beautiful buildings, nothing will gladden your heart more than a cow dressed as a matador outside one of the city's many flashy hotels!

We covered both of the bus routes this afternoon, and as I said earlier it's a very good way to cover a wide area of the city within a limited time.

But there was one other activity on our agenda and it turned out to be the absolute highlight of our holiday: a visit to a flamenco tablao.  Now we'd previously been to flamenco shows in Barcelona, and seen a very watered-down tourist version in Puerto Pollensa, but during our research we discovered that Madrid boasts some of the best and most authentic flamenco venues in Spain.  After reading many reviews we chose Casa Patas for our flamenco show and pre-booked tickets in advance.  It's a small, intimate venue but we got very lucky indeed, being seated three rows from the front rather than the usual seats at the 'bar'/back of the venue in the past (hello Moulin Rouge and Lido!)

Unfortunately I don't have any photos thanks to respecting the venue's no-photos rule, but there are lots of photos over at Google Images and Trip Advisor which will give you an idea of how it looks. Like many of this type of venue, Casa Patas offers both show-only and dinner & show options. However, there are many restaurants in the surrounding area and we ended up having a tasty and reasonably-priced Indian meal, just a few minutes' walk from the venue.

The show starts at 10.30pm and runs until midnight.  And from beginning to end, it's an enthralling, intense and compelling experience.  The talented musicians on stage accompany the three featured dancers, all of whom display a stunning level of fancy footwork and authentic intensity.  (Oh, and shallow alert! - the male ponytail-haired dancer is absolutely gorgeous.  I wish I'd taken a note of his name :))

Whilst attracting the tourists in their droves, Casa Patas presents the highest possible standard of the art of flamenco and is an absolute must-see if you are visiting Madrid.

In the next instalment: our last full day in Madrid :(

The Madrid Diaries: Day 2 - Wednesday 27th April 2016

Going "room only" on holiday has its advantages as you're not tied down to specific breakfast times, and if you find a local cafe/restaurant nearby selling reasonably-priced breakfasts then you've cracked it.  Time to discover churros then....

Churros are a local treat: it's hard to describe them, suffice to say think a piped-version of doughnuts without all the extra sugar dusting.  They make a fine breakfast, although apparently improved immensely by chocolate to dip them into!  Although prepare for sacrilege: I don't really think I'd fancy that.  I'm more savoury than sweet :)

After breakfast it's time to see the Plaza Mayor, the city's main square, in all its daytime glory.

Our first full day in the city centre meant a) further exploration and b) going in search of a record shop!

Puerta del Sol is a busy, manic square and transport hub in the middle of the city.  Our favourite holiday tradition, the French electronics giant FNAC, has a store north of Puerta del Sol, just next to that Spanish all-conquering department store El Corte Ingles.   Just like their French counterparts it's refreshing to actually find somewhere on the continent where you can still buy CDs and DVDs in these days of streaming and on-demand viewing.  This time round I purchased some live concert DVDs, the most recent ones by Alejandro Sanz, Pablo Alboran and David Bisbal.  Which inevitably will be reviewed on here at some point, hopefully before 2016 turns into 2017 :))

Anyway, my knowledge of Spanish music isn't really what it should be.  There is one familiar face on the CD racks however: the new CD by Spain's ESC representative Barei, which is all in the English language.  Which, to this native-language purist, just won't do, so I have to "say nay"!

We move on to lunch at an Italian restaurant.  Delicious stuffed mushrooms followed by delicious pizza time!!  OK so it's not Spanish, but the time and the place was just right.

We do some further exploring in the area around the Gran Via and then make our way up to the Plaza de España.  At the top of the square is this big building which reminds me either of a) Stalinist architecture, or b) a 'landscape' rather than 'portrait' version of the Empire State Building.  It actually belongs to the Franco era, and the name of the building is the Edificio España.  And I had to lean back to take this photo, to get it all in shot!

Also on the Plaza de España there are a few market stalls and a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which faithful travelling companion was very excited about.

After hanging around the square for a while, we were on our travels again in search of the Royal Palace.  Now we're not really into checking out palaces on holiday but this one is in the heart of the city, just a few minutes' walk from Calle Mayor and the Old Town, and it also has a lovely garden called the Jardines de Sabatini.


Time is getting on though, and we need to get back to the hotel to get ready for another night out. Which will inevitably involve tapas...

After dinner, it was time for a stroll and we end up at a very unusual bar, the Cerveceria La Mayor, which stocks an endless amount of beers - they're even on the ceiling!  This bar feels like it belongs more in Brussels than Madrid.  Faithful travelling companion agrees and gets into the spirit by ordering a Kwak.

I forgot to mention earlier that a big event's been taking place in Madrid tonight: the Champions League semi-final between Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.  Plaza Mayor was taken over by a crowd of rowdy but unthreatening Bayern fans, whilst we've seen a few German fans since we arrived.  When we entered the bar, the match had just finished, and some fans arrived in the bar a little while later.

It has been a long day though, so we didn't stay out too late.  Neither did many other people by the looks of it: by the time we get back to the old town, there's hardly a bar or restaurant still open. And it's not even midnight!  Madrid is definitely not living up to its all-night-party-city billing :)

Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Madrid Diaries: Day 1 - Tuesday 26th April 2016

Since our very successful summer holiday in Majorca last September, our thoughts quickly turned to another Spanish adventure.  Madrid has been on the cards for quite a few years now, but for one reason or another, it just didn't materialise until 2016.

We're usually hanging out on the continent for our spring break at some point in May - whilst carefully avoiding ESC finals week on my account - but 2016 was different.  Due to the capital city's inland location, we thought the temperatures might be a bit higher so we decided to bring our spring holiday forward a couple of weeks.

So we were Madrid-bound in the last week of April, and by the time we touched down at the massive Madrid Airport, the temperature was warm and sunny.  Very different from what it was at home - let's just call it a very long winter!  And having pre-booked transfers always makes you feel like a celebrity as you emerge from baggage reclaim to find a taxi driver holding up a card with your name on it!  That's one of the best things about the internet - the opportunity to book your own DIY city breaks without the need for those travel agents and their patronising ways (!)

Following a reasonably scenic journey into the city, it quickly became clear that like many of my other much-loved European cities, Madrid loves the great outdoors.  It was reassuring to see many of the city's inhabitants sitting outdoors at pavement cafes.  This might not seem much to some but it's a very distinctive aspect of foreign travel for us, especially when you come from a country where summer is very short - measure it in days rather than weeks!

We were based in the old town, just south of the massive Plaza Mayor, the city's main square. I would definitely recommend this area as a base for exploring the city centre on foot; and of course there are many, many restaurant options around.  My pre-holiday worries and misconceptions about the city - many of which related to the availability of mainly-vegetarian food in a city famed for all things pork and seafoody - were quickly laid to rest.  And it wasn't long before we found tapas - including some delicious queso manchego...

Faithful travelling companion, meanwhile, headed straight for the calamares!

After these and some other tapas for dinner, we did some exploring around Plaza Mayor and the surrounding back streets, before ending our evening at the Mercado de San Miguel, just off Plaza Mayor, at the top of the old town.  This is, on the surface, a food market but it's so much more than that.  For it is also a top spot for socialising of an evening in Madrid so it would be very rude not to sample the beer and sangria on offer from the numerous food stalls.  They're also teasing us with a Madrid speciality - churros.  We didn't try them on our first night but rectified this on day 2!

Before coming on holiday to Madrid we had this notion that it was an all-night party city, where "closing time" was an unusual concept.  The reality was very different however, on a Tuesday night in April.  Closing time did exist, even in the Mercado de San Miguel, so just after midnight we were heading back to our hotel, but with no complaints from us - it had been a long day, and we needed a good night's sleep to conserve our energies for our first full day in the Spanish capital tomorrow.