Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Llandudno Diaries - Day 1: Monday 20th June 2016

Over our many years together, travelling all over Europe (and beyond) on holiday, we have been to many places but we have never been to Wales. But it has been on the cards for a while - it just wasn't the right place or the right time.  Until June 2016. 

Due to Llandudno's geographical position in North Wales, you have to change main line trains at Warrington Bank Quay and then transfer onto the Arriva train which takes you onwards through Cheshire and the North Wales coast, through well-known resort towns such as Rhyl, Prestatyn and Colwyn Bay before finally reaching our destination...

Llandudno station is just a few minutes' walk from the promenade, which oozes class.  It's a Victorian resort and all those seafront buildings have been beautifully preserved.  It's a very unusual seaside promenade as you won't find chip shops or souvenir shops, it's solely lined with hotels and guest houses.  

Our home for the next few days is one of those guest houses, with a fabulous sea view.  To the left, the Great Orme, and the Little Orme is to the right of the promenade.  The Great Orme was to play a significant part in this holiday,... but more of that in later posts.

After arriving, checking in and unpacking, we head out to explore the town.  Our first impressions of Llandudno are that it's a lovely little town which is very clean and well looked after.  It also has a surprisingly good selection of shops, and a couple of retail parks. but I'm no longer the shopaholic I once was, so I wasn't really here to shop.  Nevertheless I did pick up a few souvenirs along the way.  

There's also a good choice of restaurants which I researched on Trip Advisor beforehand,  Tonight we have dinner at a restaurant which clearly models itself on Frankie and Benny's, and serves some seriously huge portions like my massive pizza (above) - no, before you ask, I couldn't finish it!

After dinner, there's something on our to-do list.  Euro 2016 is on at the moment and we're lucky enough to be here when the group stages are taking place.  Tonight Wales are playing Russia and the match is being screened in Wetherspoons pub The Palladium (pictured above).  Over recent years we've become used to banks and churches being turned into pubs.  This pub previously was a theatre and a cinema, so it's a bit more interesting than the usual purpose-built pub.  There's also a great atmosphere as it's packed with Welsh fans - of course Wales beat Russia so there's some celebrating going on!  

The party doesn't go on all night though.  We head for another very quiet bar.  It becomes apparent very quickly that Llandudno is not party central, but we're not bothered about that.  We didn't come here to party - it's a more low-key break than usual.  So the town and seafront are deserted long before closing time, and another thing we noticed tonight was that quite a lot of the restaurants are closed on Mondays.  

In the next instalment....exploring Llandudno, and our first encounter with the Great Orme. 

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: July 2016

I find it frustrating when really interesting documentaries are shunted into a late-night slot in favour of dull dramas or reality shows.  If you missed "JUST CALL ME MARTINA" (BBC1) you missed a warm and engaging profile of the legendary record-breaking tennis star who grew up in Czechoslovakia and made her home in the USA after defecting there.  Martina became a non-person in her home country but these days she has joint US and Czech Republic citizenship and returns regularly to visit the area where she grew up.  Despite political hard times, Martina still reflected on her upbringing with positivity: "I was never hungry, I was never cold" she said, with a smile.

This documentary began with Martina marrying her partner Julia in New York. Martina found her identity as a gay woman in a time when such things were swept firmly under the carpet; since that time she has become an activist for gay rights and many other causes.  This documentary revealed her warm sense of humour and likeable personality.  Martina's achievements in tennis made her one of the greatest female athletes of her generation.

"EAT WELL FOR LESS" (BBC1) is back, and it hasn't changed.  It's an insult to viewers who struggle to put food on the table, watching comfortably well-off home-owning families being asked to chop their own veg and grate their own cheese - aww, shame - to save money.  And it's all overseen by the eternally irritating Gregg Wallace.  The message of the show remains that you don't have to buy big brands to eat well - it's just a very patronising hour to endure before you get the message.

Just a few weeks after Carla Connor departed the cobbles, "CORONATION STREET" (ITV) said goodbye to Kylie Platt, fatally stabbed by one of Callum's old mates.  Unfortunately ITV scored an own goal when they gave away their own spoiler.  I'm really sad to see Paula Lane leave the show as she made Kylie one of the show's best characters, turning her from an initially unlikeable chav into a multi-layered character, unlike many of the show's one-dimensional characters who take up far too much screen time on the show.

There are big changes happening in Corrie world.  A new producer, Kate Oates, has taken over from Stuart Blackburn.  She's promising more big storylines and interestingly, more character interaction. The show is also going up to 6 episodes a week from 2017.  Too much of a good thing?  I remember when it was only on twice per week.  Changed days.

Not sure what the point of "LOUIE SPENCE: TAXI DRIVER" (Sky One) was, apart from giving him a week's trial as a taxi driver and some much-needed screen time, but Michael Buerk's narration was priceless.  Michael of course narrated My favourite moment was when the wrestling boss "was having second thoughts about Louie entering his ring".  You can't beat a bit of innuendo.  And let's face it, we certainly need a few laughs after some very dark months in this country and the world.

The path of true love never runs smooth though, as they say, and when a marriage or long-term relationship breaks down there can be some issues which both parties just can't resolve.  Bring in the mediation service.  Fly-on-the-wall documentary "MR V MRS: CALL THE MEDIATOR" (BBC2) was uncomfortable viewing at times, watching separated couples discussing their troubles on camera.  There was something about it all which left a bit of a bad taste.  And I certainly don't envy the mediators their jobs, trying to resolve the often un-resolvable.

When it comes to 1960s retrospectives, 1967 gets all the glory: but over the past couple of weeks, some TV shows have focused on the year before that.  Apart from being the 50th anniversary of a certain team winning a certain football tournament, 1966 was profiled in "ARENA - 1966: 50 YEARS AGO TODAY" (BBC4).  I always enjoy this retrospective type of show but the same things keep cropping up time after time.  This documentary for me was refreshing as it provided a genuinely interesting insight into a year which I didn't really know much about beforehand.

Another 50th anniversary was celebrated in "CLASSIC ALBUMS" (BBC4): it's been 50 years since the Beach Boys' legendary "Pet Sounds" album was released.  This was a great documentary going behind the scenes of the album's recording and the band's evolution from making lightweight pop songs about surfing, to ambitious, layered productions with honest, mature lyrics.  "Pet Sounds" remains one of the most important and critically acclaimed albums in the history of pop music.

BBC4 does these music documentaries so well.  This month we were also treated to another episode in the occasional series "THE PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF POP".  This time it was Danny Baker's turn to look back at the period between 1966 and 1976, a landmark period for music.  Baker mixed his own reminiscences with those of the fans who bought the records and went to the concerts.  More please!

Documentary event of the month though?  "ONE NIGHT IN 2012" (BBC1) rewound to exactly 4 years ago, with the story of that fantastic opening ceremony imagined and directed by Danny Boyle. I remember that I wasn't really looking forward to the London Olympics 4 years ago, but then that opening ceremony happened, and the feelgood factor lasted all the way throughout the event.  4 years on, the Rio Olympics are due to start at the end of this week, and yet again I'm not really looking forward to it, what with the terror threat, the Zika virus and the Russian doping scandal.  But given the world's current state of gloom, we need something to cheer us up.  Over to you, Rio!

From the sublime to the ridiculous: just when you thought TV had plumbed all possible depths, along came "ALAN CARR'S GREASE NIGHT" (Channel 4).  The 'chatty man' and his co-host Katherine Ryan promised an "entertainment extravaganza" set in a 1950s prom.  What we got instead was one of the most critically slaughtered TV shows I can remember in a long time.  Now I'm usually quite a tolerant person but I switched off after 30 minutes.  29 minutes too late.  Why Didi "Frenchy" Conn agreed to be part of this is beyond my understanding.  Less greased lightning, more car crash.
Hopelessly devoted? Nah, just hopeless.  There was a good programme waiting to be made about "Grease", one of the best films ever made, but this wasn't it.

Square-Eyed is going to take a little summer break and will be back in September.  In the meantime, EuropeCrazy HQ is undergoing a digital transformation as I am switching TV, phone and broadband providers in a couple of weeks.  Hopefully everything will go well and I will soon benefit from a super fast fibre broadband connection, which will enable me to watch more on-demand TV over the internet rather than building up a huge backlog of recordings.  Who knows - maybe some day I'll even get Netflix :) but that's a long way away.  So many recordings and DVDs to be watched.....

Summer Rewind 2016: The Euros - tournament of fairytales

Three weeks ago, the Euro 2016 football tournament ended with some very surprising champions - Portugal. We certainly didn't see that one coming - in my own view there have been many better Portugal national teams than this one.  But congratulations to Portugal anyway - and its yet another example of this particular tournament producing a fairytale ending.  

Every match was televised live either on BBC or ITV and you couldn't move for coverage of this year's event which was expanded to 24 teams for the first time.  it's hard to imagine a time when it was all very different.  Time for some reminiscing.....

Once upon a time, the Euros - or the European Football Championships as they were known back then - didn't always have the high profile which they have now.  The first one I really remember watching was in 1980.  It's hard to believe it now, but in those days, many people didn't own televisions but rented them from a  store like Radio Rentals or D.E.R.  When our rented colour TV broke down in the summer of 1980, we were supplied with a replacement TV with a much larger screen, which I remember watching (very limited) highlights of the tournament on.  Back in those days, you didn't seem to get live coverage of matches (apart from semi-finals/final) unless any of the home nations were playing.  

I don't really remember much about Euro 1984: TV coverage in the UK was virtually non-existent with no home nations present.  I do have very vivid memories of watching the final though.  Mum and I were on holiday at my aunt and uncle's home in Dumfries that week, and we watched the final on TV in one of the pubs in the town.  It was a very memorable match won of course by the great French team.

Things were starting to change by the time of Euro 1988.  There was more TV interest thanks to the presence of England and the Republic of Ireland.  1988 was a summer I will always fondly remember for various reasons: I had a very enjoyable summer job during that long hot summer, and the Netherlands were on fire in that tournament.  That goal in the final by Marco van Basten remains one of the greatest goals ever scored in world football. 

Euro 1992, held in Sweden, was a very unusual experience for us in Scotland as our national team qualified for the first time.  Which was a great achievement as with so few teams, it was always a lot tougher to qualify for. But it was the same old story as we never progressed beyond the group stage. (Neither did England).  Scotland never qualified for another European Championship.  Maybe some day, we live in hope.  

But what about the fairytale?  Well, that appropriately belonged to the land of Hans Christian Andersen.  Denmark had been invited to compete at extremely short notice in place of what was then Yugoslavia, who had been expelled from the tournament due to the civil wars which were raging there.  The 'Danish Dynamite' team had impressed in the 1986 World Cup but never even qualified for Italia 90, so expectations were not so high.  But during Euro 1992, they beat France, then the Netherlands, and then went on to win the whole thing by beating none other than world champions Germany in the final.  

4 years on, to Euro 1996, the famous "football's coming home" tournament held in England. Expanded to 16 teams, there was a lot more TV coverage than previously.  Scotland and England were drawn in the same group. You can guess the rest....anyway we had the emergence of a great Portuguese team, and a very strong team from the Czech Republic.  The Czechs came very close to their own fairytale result, but lost to Germany in the final.  Germany had ended England's dream in the semi-final.  Which of course went to penalties.  Remember that famous comment by Gary Lineker: "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win". 

Strangely enough I can't remember much about Euro 2000 which was the first jointly-staged tournament, taking place in both the Netherlands and Belgium - apart from Italy sinking into their old defensive ways, and then current world champions France beating the Italians in the final.  Looking at the tournament stats there were a lot of goals and high-scoring matches, which is always a good thing.  

Euro 2004 rolled round and it was once again time for the fairytale ending.  Greece - a country which hardly ever qualified for the Euros or the World Cup - beat hosts Portugal in the opening match and then beat holders France and then the Czech Republic on the way to the final.  The last match of the tournament was a rematch of the first: Portugal v Greece.  And yet again, Greece beat Portugal, this time to win the trophy.  Portugal had beaten England, on what else but a penalty shootout, on their way to the final.  I found Greece to be a rather dull team if I remember, but it was still a great achievement for them to win and have their moment of glory.  2004 was a big year for Greece, as Athens also staged the Olympics.  Little did we know that just a few years later, everything in that country was about to come crashing down, thanks to the debt crisis.  

Euro 2008 was another shared effort between Austria and Switzerland.  None of the UK's home nations even qualified.  I was particularly impressed with Turkey's spirited never-say-die performances during that tournament and they made it all the way to the semi finals before being beaten by Germany who lost to Spain in the final.  I was happy to see Spain win with their exciting attacking football, although was disappointed that the exciting high-scoring Dutch team never progressed beyond the quarter-finals. Spain were at their height and would follow this up with a World Cup win 2 years later.

Euro 2012 was staged in Poland and Ukraine and there was a lot of controversy prior to that tournament due to a controversial Panorama documentary about racism and hooliganism at football matches within both countries, and also some concern about whether the countries were ready to host. The tournament went ahead without much controversy.  England went out on penalties in the quarter-finals (to Italy, not Germany this time) and Spain continued their dominance of the world's major football tournaments. They were so strong in all areas of their team and had an effortless win against Italy 4-0 in the final. It certainly wasn't a tournament for the underdogs.  

So finally to Euro 2016.  Expanded to 24 teams, with blanket TV coverage, it managed to deliver some surprises and some noteworthy stories.  

For example, there was a very interesting fixture on the first weekend.  Albania v Switzerland may not have made the headlines but I was particularly fascinated by the story of the two Xhaka brothers playing on opposite national teams, whilst a large chunk of the Swiss national team was made up of players of Albania/Kosovo origin.  The camaraderie in the tunnel before the match was very surreal, wasn't it!  Switzerland was the strongest side on the day.  

The early stages of the tournament was marked by incidents of hooliganism in Marseille involving the fans of the England and Russian national teams.  (One of my work colleagues was due to visit Marseille on holiday during that time but all trains into the city were diverted due to the hooligan incidents so he and his friends had to make alternative plans!)

I was also on holiday with faithful travelling companion during Euro 2016.  And it couldn't have been a better time to be in Wales.  Just like the Scotland national team, Wales have spent one major tournament after another on the sidelines, so it was great to see them finally make it to the Euros. And unlike Scotland, who had to watch the Euros from the sidelines for the 24th year in a row. Wales arrived at this tournament with little expectation - and in that great tradition of the Euros, they went on to provide the fairytale element along with another debutant nation: Iceland.

Two draws and a win had taken the Icelandic team out of the group stage to the round of 16, where they would meet England.  The English media commentators were very quick to fast-forward to the next round, thinking that beating Iceland would just be a formality before England would meet France.  But they hadn't reckoned on the fighting spirit of the Icelandic team.  And they had the mythical "HU!" chant, which captured everyone's imagination.  Yet again the fairytale aspect of the Euros came to the fore.  Iceland eliminated England and made it to the quarter-finals, but were eventually overwhelmed by a strong performance by the French team.

Wales, meanwhile, went on to face Belgium in the quarter-finals.  A prior social engagement meant that we weren't able to catch the game live, but caught this incredible result on delayed transmission. And what an incredible, heroic result it was for the Welsh team.  This really was the stuff of fairytales - a 3-1 win against a team of talented, highly-paid superstars from Belgium.  Yet what impressed me about Wales, throughout this tournament, was their humility and genuine enjoyment at being there. Despite having a Real Madrid player in the line-up (Gareth Bale), the team had no airs and graces and brought a refreshing attitude to Euro 2016.

Having defeated Belgium in heroic style, they faced Portugal in the semi-final.  As I said in my introduction, there have been many better Portuguese national teams who have competed in the Euros and the World Cup, but who have been very unlucky in the past.  Up to and including the semi-final, Portugal could best be described as a one-man team: the uber-arrogant Cristiano Ronaldo and his merry men.  Ronaldo has been known to spit his dummy out of the pram from time to time, but his comments after Portugal's group game against Iceland were unpleasant and unprofessional.  

Considering they boast one of the world's best-known strikers, Portugal had make it this far with very few goals and playing very dull football in comparison with their predecessors of the Figo era.  Sadly for Wales though, they couldn't repeat their performance from the quarter-final, and they absolutely missed Aaron Ramsey.  But Wales (pictured above) said "Diolch" (thank you) to the fans and went home with their heads held high.  They were welcomed in Cardiff with an open-top bus parade and a party in the local stadium.  Wales may not have won Euro 2016, but they were winners.

In the final, much was expected from the host nation after their 2-0 victory over Germany in the other semi-final.  It was almost a foregone conclusion, and when an injured Ronaldo exited at an early stage in the final, it looked like France's name was on the trophy.  Like many other finals, it was a bit of a damp squib.  0-0 after 90 minutes, the ball never found the net until extra time.  The goal came from Portugal, not France.  Portugal had written their chapter in the Euros fairytale.

Ronaldo made sure that he would play a very significant part in the final stages of the match, yelling his team-mates on to victory, playing the part of the national team manager.  I wouldn't be too surprised if we were looking at the future manager of the national team, of course it could be argued that he's doing that already!

It won't be long until qualification starts for the next big international tournament: World Cup 2018.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

The Madrid Diaries: Day 4 - Friday 29th April 2016

Our last full day in the city before we return home, and we're slowing the pace down again to explore some other areas of the city centre.

The road up to Plaza Mayor is packed with restaurants, but every day we've noticed that one particular restaurant gets a lot of attention, with what seems like every walking tour stopping off there. But I managed to get a rare photo of it without all those tour parties hanging around.

So what's so special about Sobrino de Botin (pictured above)?  Well, it's only the world's oldest restaurant and has been in operation since 1725.

On our way into the city centre we stop off at the Mercado de San Miguel.  *Gratuitous food and cakes photography klaxon!*

 Above: some tapas.

 Above: cake, anyone?

 Above: Meringues. Much to my regret, I didn't have one :( 

Above: disappointing news as Laura learns she can't have all of those crisps for 2 €.

After hanging out in the Mercado for a while, we then head back to the Plaza Mayor.  I would imagine that these flamenco costumes would probably cost an arm and a leg, so I went for the more affordable option elsewhere; a red and black flamenco-style cooking apron.  Maybe it will inspire me to dance flamenco whilst rustling up some of my signature dishes, ha ha.  

 Above: a little lunchtime tapa. Accompanied by a sangria!

After lunch at one of the restaurants on the Plaza, we return to Puerta del Sol, the city's buzzing main square and transport hub.

I was quite fascinated by this statue of a bear eating fruits from a tree...

 ...and couldn't resist taking a photo of the fans on sale at this shop on the square.

10 streets lead off the Puerta del Sol. We followed one of them and ended up on ...

...which is a pedestrianised shopping area with all the well-known Spanish and international stores.  
After a little climb up a side street we eventually find ourselves back at Calle Mayor and Plaza Mayor. Unfortunately we are going home tomorrow so have to get back to our hotel to do some packing as we have an early rise to head to the airport.  

But there is one last night out before we go, and yet another restaurant on Calle Cava de San Miguel for our evening meal.  There are so many restaurants to choose from on this street which runs from Calle del Segovia to Calle Mayor.  

Just to mention that chicken isn't really a big thing here on menus, but we managed to locate it - not just in an Indian restaurant last night, but also in our restaurant tonight. Oh, and chips...:)

But we can't leave Madrid without a final visit to the Mercado de San Miguel, which on a Friday night is as buzzing as you'd expect - but also very civilised.  You couldn't really imagine the socialising-in-a-food-market thing working over here, but it's these little continental contrasts which I love about holidaying in Europe.

So, would we recommend Madrid for a city break?  Most definitely.  I'd recommend that you stay in or around the old town, in the vicinity of the Plaza Mayor to get the best out of a surprisingly walkable city centre. Fans of tapas will be well catered for, and even almost-vegetarians like myself won't struggle too much to find something on a menu.  This was something which worried me before the holiday, pushing up my anxiety levels, but I needn't have worried.  Lots of food - and some seriously big portions too! I was also worried about personal safety, but on our experience Madrid felt a much safer destination than, say, Barcelona.  Indeed, we came to the conclusion that we might even love Madrid more than Barcelona.

There are enough interesting experiences to keep you happy on a short break to Madrid, whether you want to explore world-renowned museums and culture, or just soak up the atmosphere of this buzzing European capital.  We had a lovely time in Madrid.  So if you ever get get the opportunity to go to Madrid...then take it!

Adventures in TV: The National Lottery Who Dares Wins


A few weeks ago, faithful travelling companion and I went along to the BBC Scotland studios in Glasgow to watch a recording of an episode of my other favourite TV show (which isn't The Chase) - The National Lottery Who Dares Wins.  I've been a fan of the show for a few years and have blogged and tweeted about it during that time.  If you are not familiar with the show - faithful travelling companion had never seen it either - then I'll just give you a brief description.  Two people who have never met each other are brought together to compete as a team against the reigning champions (who also initially met as strangers).  The teams are then given a topic and asked how many they can name on a list, e.g. artists with no.1 albums, FA cup winners,, films by a particular director, you get the idea.  The couples then say how many they can name and the couple with the highest number will be challenged to name them.

The winners of the best of 3 rounds become the champions and go on to compete for potentially large sums of money up to £50,000.  And as long as the couples are champions they will continue to compete and potentially win more money.  On the down side, this can mean that successful teams can be reigning champions across a whole series - who can forget the notorious Chrissy and Joe for example?

It's a very simple format, but a successful one.  The show has run since 2007 and I believe that this will be the 9th series.  A couple of years ago, I noticed that episodes were being recorded but due to other commitments I was unable to go along at that time to watch the recording. Therefore when the opportunity presented itself again, I made sure not to miss out this time.

Many networked TV quiz shows are recorded at BBC Scotland's studios (pictured below), including National Lottery 5 Star Family Reunion, In It to Win It and Eggheads.  The studios are located on the banks of the River Clyde, just along from the STV studios, and just across the river from the three big concert venues, the SECC, Armadillo and Hydro.  I took this photo of the BBC studios from the Bell's Bridge.

If you ever attend the recording of a TV show, you need to be very patient indeed.  For there is a lot of waiting.  As three shows were being recorded that day, the recording of the first show over-ran which impacted on our afternoon recording, and delayed the start by 45 minutes.

We were all eventually guided into the studio.  The stage is actually smaller than it looks on TV but there are tons of lighting rigs etc hanging from the ceiling.  As photography was strictly forbidden, I found this photo on Google to give you an idea of what the stage set looks like.

The warm-up man was none other than Des Clarke (pictured above) who is a very familiar name up here thanks to his TV appearances, Daily Record column and he also co-presents the Capital Scotland breakfast show.  It didn't take him long to get the audience laughing.  He is a very funny stand-up comedian with a good line in Glaswegian humour.  We were also briefed what would happen in the recording of the show - when to clap, when to cheer and when to keep quiet!

Presenter Nick Knowles (pictured above) finally took to the stage and was a sharp-dressed man as always, in his dark tartan suit.  After recording some show trailers it was finally time to record the show.  The competing couples took their seats within the 'Pods' (areas with round windows) and the quiz began.

TV shows may look slick and smooth, but there was a lot of stopping and starting with everything from rearranging the set to reapplying make-up.  It must be quite frustrating for a presenter if the they are being asked to re-record links - but Nick remained a very professional and unflappable host.  Nick isn't prone to Bradley Walsh-style giggling fits and "Who Dares Wins" is a lot more 'serious' than "The Chase" but it is still a very good quiz show.  I would imagine it would probably take hours to record "The Chase" with all those unintentionally funny moments!

Des Clarke made a few appearances to keep us entertained during recording breaks. He and Nick also had a good rapport going. And we also got to see another side of Nick as he introduced his lovely little boy Eddie during a couple of the recording breaks. Needless to say he stole the show.

I won't go into detail about how the actual show went - that's top secret!  What I will say is that TV editing makes it look as if contestants come up with answers quickly, but it's not always as easy as it looks.

For a show which lasts approximately 50 minutes, the recording took a total of 2½ hours from beginning to end.  Recording a TV show is a long drawn-out process, even longer than I imagined - but this gave us a fascinating glimpse into the workings of television.  We just wondered, how many people standing around holding clipboards does it take to change a lightbulb?  (Only joking - I'm sure they all have a very important job to do...!)

Allsång på Skansen 2016: Week 1, Tuesday 28th June 2016

It's not summer without it - and even if the rain was hammering off the windows as I sat and watched the show in my living room yesterday, Allsång på Skansen always brings a taste of the Swedish summer for all of us who live outside Sweden.

Broadcast by SVT since 1979, the show has had six presenters in that time - including four different presenters in the last 6 years.  After Anders Lundin departed the show in 2010, Måns Zelmerlöw hosted for three years followed by a two-year stint for Petra Marklund (pictured above).  I felt that Petra was unfairly criticised during her presentation run in 2014 and 2015, as she tried to take the show in a new direction, however in hindsight I now feel that she may not have been the right 'fit' for the show.  I say this because as the years go on, Allsång increasingly appears a remnant of a past which no longer exists, so there is a need for a more 'traditional' presenter who will build a bridge between the folk-song singalongs, appearances by Swedish music royalty and up-and-coming pop acts.

On the final show of the 2015 series, Petra announced live on TV that she was quitting as presenter. The rumours began immediately regarding her replacement and SVT moved very quickly to sign up Sanna Nielsen, who had been a revelation as Melodifestivalen 2015 presenter. I was never really a Sanna fan up until that time - I always thought she was a bit of an 'ice queen' but the ice melted during that Melfest run and I realised that I was very wrong.  Sanna (pictured below) is actually a likeable presenter and her smile lights up the room - or in this instance, the Solliden stage.

On the evidence of the first week of 2016 season, they've made the right choice.  Sanna is likely to appeal to the 'traditionalists' whilst she's still young enough to appeal to the younger viewers.  Oh, and she can sing a bit as well.....which helps when you're presenting Allsang, doesn't it :)  There's also a new opening title sequence which is more "folky" than Måns and Petra's opening title sequences. Certainly a nod to the traditionalists there.  Thankfully they have ditched the cringeworthy artists' introduction song which was introduced during Petra's time on the show.

The first show of this year's series played it pretty safe.  There was the mix of the old (Benny Anderssons Orkester (featuring Tommy Körberg and Helen Sjöholm), and Kalle Moraeus, along with the new - Miriam Bryant (pictured above), one of Sweden's hottest/coolest pop stars, and major breakout star of last year's Så Mycket Bättre.

Like all the other Swedish summer music shows - Lotta på Liseberg and Sommarkrysset - Allsång relies on the current year's Melodifestivalen contestants to boost the guest list.  The first show gave us this year's Melfest winner, Frans (pictured above with Sanna) rewound to 10 years ago with a rendition of the song which first made him famous at just 7 years old: his tribute song to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, "Who's Da Man".  All together now, "Ingen kickar fotboll som han...."

It was a strong and solid start for the show.  I'm looking forward to this Tuesday's show where Oscar Zia and one of this blog's long-time favourites Daniel Adams-Ray will be among the guests.

(All pictures above courtesy of SVT)

Drowning in the stream: some thoughts on music formats past and present

"One Dance" by Drake has been top of the UK singles chart for 12 weeks now.  The song is only 3 weeks away from equalling Wet Wet Wet's chart-topping run and 4 weeks away from equalling Bryan Adams' stay at the top. It's the longest-running UK chart-topper since 1994.

If a song stayed at the top of our singles chart for that length of time, it was once a great achievement - even if you never wanted to hear those songs again. But they were at the top of the chart for a reason; they had sold the most copies of a single within that particular week to stay there.  Love it or hate it, the Top 40 used to be a fair reflection of the kind of music which was commercially popular in that week, month, year, decade - even if many of us were listening to completely different music which rarely got radio play - and the official UK singles chart was purely based on sales alone, rather than, say, airplay.  In 2005, download sales were included in the UK top 40 for the first time.  I remember being quite excited about that, purely for the reason that it might broaden the scope of the chart.  With very few exceptions - either new album fan-power or posthumous sales for an artist who has passed away - it didn't change the chart all that much.

Two years ago, it was announced that streaming plays would also count for chart positions.  In my view, this was a bad move.  So what if a certain song has so-many-million plays through streaming? That doesn't mean that it should top a singles chart, competing with other songs which have been purchased, rather than listened to for free.  By all means, have a separate streaming chart if you must, but don't include this along with sales in the UK Top 40.  Or just have a streaming chart and forget the sales.  And don't count the record-breaking chart-toppers in with other songs which made it there on different merits.  Streaming only represents a certain demographic of people. So why should their tastes be acknowledged in a chart, when the rest of us who consume music in a different way are ignored?

The other negative change which has occurred is that the singles chart is more stagnant than ever. The same songs now hang around the top 20 for weeks on end, without much variation.  New entries are a rarity and it's a massive change from the days when we had a different song going straight in at no.1 every week.  That wasn't healthy either, but at least it brought some variety.

Radio is equally to blame for the stagnation.  I went back to look at the first chart of 2016 and found that many of the songs from that chart are still figuring prominently on the daily playlist of Heart, the radio station which we listen to at work.  They will take so long to put a song on their playlist and when they do, it will then be played for a further 6 months at least.  It's a symptom of the risk-averse times we live in - mainstream radio stations are not willing to change their playlists, try something new or indeed be more adventurous in their choice of "oldies".

Perhaps that's one reason for the success of shows playing old hits which never get any airtime - like Absolute Radio 80s "Forgotten 80s" which I previously wrote about on this blog.  The show has a large and loyal audience and trends every Sunday evening on Twitter.  Another show worth listening to is BBC Radio Manchester's "Nothing But The 90s", presented by Stephanie Hirst from 10.00 pm until midnight every Saturday night.  This show provides a broad and diverse selection of music from that most underrated decade, and is available on demand on BBC iPlayer at

The UK top 40 singles chart has never been more narrow-minded and less representative of this country's musical tastes.  I have never felt more disenfranchised from what is "popular".   Which brings me back to "One Dance".  Despite its lengthy stay at the top of the chart, I have never heard this song - until today, purely for the purposes of researching this post.  My conclusion:
Why is that song even in the chart, never mind no.1, never mind 12 weeks at no.1?

It's mediocre at best.  But then again, I'm old in music-fan terms, and this kind of music doesn't mean anything to me at all.  On the other hand, I'm glad to be the age that I am, glad to have absorbed decades of good (and bad) music and lived through times when music meant something, rather than the throwaway medium of streaming.

Streaming, for me, is the worst possible development for music, as it would indicate that music is no longer of any importance to the streaming generation; they don't take any ownership of the music, it's a temporary fad, it's just passing through, and you can't listen to it any time - what if there's no internet connection for example?  With streaming, music is no longer yours to keep.  A large music collection holds a lifetime of memories.  You won't get that with streaming.

I have tried streaming music at home, but only on a very rare basis and that was only because I wanted to check out a specific Spotify playlist.  It's bad for the development of artists if no-one is buying their music, and they are only receiving a pittance from streaming services.  And who really wants to listen to music on a phone, or a little tinny speaker?  (Cue the market for quality Bluetooth speakers!).

(Incidentally, my negative view of streaming does not extend to films and TV: internet connection permitting, on-demand viewing is a good alternative to watching live or recorded programmes.  And no doubt I will eventually end up subscribing to the all-conquering binge-watching monster that is Netflix.  But films and TV are different from music and perhaps streaming is a better fit for the visual media.)

I just wonder which music format will come next?  So many have come and gone, which got me reminiscing....

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin.

Once upon a time, people used to buy music!  And that music came in a physical form - a single was a 7" vinyl disc and an album was a 12" vinyl disc which you played on a record player.  We had one which was similar to this:

And then the technology moved on and you could play your music on a "hi-fi", a tower system which included a turntable, a radio tuner and that other piece of technology, the cassette player.

When the Walkman became popular in the 80s, vinyl was still my music format of choice.  But cassettes made music mobile, this format became increasingly popular.  Although many people of my age will probably look back fondly at taping their favourite songs off the radio, on to blank cassettes like the one pictured above.  My own home-taping adventures often focused on music which you couldn't get anywhere else, such as Radio 1 sessions from the John Peel/Richard Skinner/David 'Kid' Jensen shows, or live concerts broadcast on the radio.  Remember "home taping is killing music?" Well, it didn't.  If anything, it worked the opposite way - I would discover new artists through taping radio sessions and would then go out and buy their records.  So it didn't kill music at all.

Suddenly we were hearing about this new invention - the indestructible "compact disc".  (it wasn't so indestructible - if you've ever heard a stuck CD, that's very painful to listen to!) You no longer had to lift the stylus on the record player to change tracks - you didn't even need a stylus.  You just had to press a button.  It took a long time for me to embrace the CD revolution as a) I couldn't afford it, and b) I was determined to stick with my vinyl and cassettes.  But the technology was foisted on us and forced our hands.  Vinyl records rapidly disappeared from the record shop shelves, replaced by those little square jewel cases containing CDs.  I finally gave in and bought a hi-fi with a CD player in 1994 and began building what would become a very large CD collection.  Cassettes stuck around, but remained a problematic format.  I lost count of the number of tapes which got stuck in the machine and had to be retrieved, cut open and spliced together again with sellotape.  Eventually the cassettes disappeared from the shelves.  A few years down the line, I began digitising my cassettes and that job is still not finished!

The 21st century brought yet another revolutionary technology - digital music.  Apple were the first to corner the market with the launch of the iPod (iPod Classic pictured above) to play your digital music on.

Digital music has a lot to recommend it.  It was space-saving - all your music could be saved on an external hard drive rather than in numerous boxes and cabinets.  If you are lucky enough to own an iPod Classic, you can carry around your whole music collection with you.  You could buy songs immediately rather than wait a long time for them to be released.

I embraced digital music and remain loyal to my iPod classic, which was sadly discontinued by Apple 2 years ago.  But I also like to listen to CDs on my sound system, and for the last few years 'digital' and 'physical' music have happily resided side by side in my home.

But the popularity of MP3s had a negative effect on record shops.  Chains like Our Price, the Virgin Megastore and our particular favourite Music Zone all closed down.  HMV have had their problems but are hanging in there and they also own Fopp which is still around.

Many small independent stores do exist, and have reinvented themselves with the resurgence of vinyl albums, which are also creeping back on to the shelves of HMV and Fopp.  Yes, in this time of streaming, people are buying vinyl albums again.  A couple of months ago I was in Fopp and noticed some of my vinyl albums which I bought first time round in the 1980s. Interestingly the biggest sales are within the 25-34 year old age bracket - not so many of us 45-54s but I guess that's because we've been there, done that and already have a big vinyl collection!

I'm curious if the market will respond to this and if it will mean the return of the "hi-fi" with the turntable.  In the meantime, retro-style turntables are making an appearance.  I spotted one of these in Tesco yesterday and it brought some early 70s memories flooding back.

So I've come to the end of my little trip down memory lane.  Who knows what's coming next? Maybe time to dust off the cassette player...?