Smith and Jones

Well, the third year of the new Doctor von Wer began last night, and I think we're all starting to notice the signs that the BBC is gearing up for thirteen more episodes. There's the broad stuff, like the Radio Times cover, or the astonishing fact that, on Saturday morning, the new series of Doctor Who was the lead story on BBC News 24 - Auntie having apparently decided that the looming threat of war with Iran is less of a concern than the invasion of the moon by alien rhinoceri.

Doctor Who Magazine has its own little rituals, too. Every year seems to bring a message from Russell T Davies asking us not to apply any critical standards to the show - just sit back with your jaw hanging open and blindly love everything, you guys, it's so much easier than thinking about whether something works or not - and a preview which invariably notes that the first episode of the new series could be categorized as "zany", "fast-paced", "a romp", "never pausing for breath" and so on, so forth.

These are both annoying, so it's a happy duty to report that this year they're both utterly unnecessary. You don't have to be in an uncritical frame of mind to enjoy 'Smith and Jones' - frankly, I was so far from an uncritical frame of mind that I was more or less adopting the crash position, yet I really, genuinely enjoyed it. Secondly, 'Smith and Jones' was not a breathless, fast-paced romp. It was gentle, sweet-hearted, contemplative and slightly melancholy, yet it still left me with a big grin on my face. If it was a song, it would be 'The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)' by Simon and Garfunkel.

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The Brit Pack

A while back, londonkds published a series of top-five and top-ten lists, and invited people reading his LJ to post "Ten" or "Five" depending on how long the lists they wanted to make were. I opted for "five", and he gave me "Name the five best British film directors currently working today". A good question!

For the sake of whittling it down, I decided to impose a few more rules. Only British directors who actually do most of their work in Britain would be considered, excluding people like Christopher Nolan, Ridley and Tony Scott, Paul Greengrass and Anthony Minghella who work primarily in the Hollywood system. Arguably unfair, but those the brokes. Then I decided to take a severe view of the concept of "working" - Alex Cox and Ken Russell are as good as anyone out there when they're at their peak, but they seem to gain most of their income through journalism these days. (Bruce Robinson isn't here either, though there is tantalising word of an imminent comeback) And finally I excluded Michael Winterbottom, just for this.

This, then, is the result.

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You may post your "Five" or "Ten" in the comments, if you wish.

Oscar Predictions 2007

A bit last-minute, I know, but I'm back from my grandparents' at last, and I feel lucky to have got here even at this late hour.

I've just listened to - I think it's Peter Bradshaw, they're not saying - the film critic on Clive Anderson's Radio 2 show reviewing the new cinema and DVD releases, and I've found myself staring in utter bemusement at the radio quite a few times, as if challenging it to make more sense. Apparently The Prestige, which I recall receiving a fairly muted press reaction, actually received a groundswell of praise, while Volver and Red Road - surely the most slavishly, droolingly, uncritically praised movies among the critical fraternity this year - have had a "backlash" which they must be defended from. Have they really? I seem to remember both of those films ending up on most critics' best-of lists, but then, maybe it just seemed like that because I didn't like them, in the same way that Bradshaw's googly-eyed admiration for them makes him ultra-sensitive to any mild slight they may have received.

What I'm trying to say here is that it's not easy to work out what other people are enjoying; the relative levels of praise are hopelessly coloured by your own personal views on what's underrated and what's overrated. (The Oscars: as ever, a contrarian's dream) That said, the Academy have not overdosed on perversity this year. It's true that some early frontrunners (most obviously Flags of Our Fathers, though even that makes its presence felt through its companion fil Letters From Iwo Jima) are nowhere to be seen on this year's ballot, but compared with what it could have been, this is a very timid set of nominations.

Cast your mind back to November in the USA, and countless Oscar hopefuls were receiving a massed chorus of "Hmm, yeah, it's alright, I suppose" - a fate meted out to Babel, The History Boys, Bobby, The Good Shepherd and all the other films which got fairly good reviews, but hardly the unqualified raves needed to propel them to the Kodak Theater. Then there were those films for whom a lukewarm reaction seemed like the stuff of dreams - few one-time Oscar frontrunners can lay claim to an unambiguous kicking, but this year Fur, Running With Scissors, The Good German and All The King's Men can lay claim to be among the worst-reviewed dramatic features of the year.

Faced with this, the Academy could have turned over a new leaf; shitcan the carefully-engineered Important Cinema and go for the films which, despite their genre roots were embraced by almost every critic this year; Borat, say, or Children of Men, or even Casino Royale. As it happened, they didn't. Babel was brought out of cold storage to fill up most of the categories and the three above-mentioned films - all of which have positive ratings of ninety per cent or over on the Rotten Tomatoes website - were snubbed with minor awards, if any.

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An Odyssey Through Contrarianism In Society

I'm an enthusiastic reader of Jim Emerson's blog Scanners -- other British readers of this LJ might not be so familiar with it. Emerson is the editor-in-chief of, the official web presence of the first film critic ever to receive a Pulitzer Prize. One recurring topic on Scanners is flawed film criticism, arising from a misperception of what film critics are and what film criticism should do.

A while back, Jim posted a series of entries about "Contrarianism". Contrarianism is Jim Emerson's word for criticism which prides itself excessively on going against the grain of popular opinion. (He's shamelessly trying to get this phrase into common usage, but I forgive him) Even if you don't know the phrase, you've almost certainly read some Contrarian criticism; these are the articles that usually start with "Forget what the snooty, out-of-touch critical elite have told you -- The Departed/Borat/Pan's Labyrinth/Little Man is not a masterpiece..." and ends with something like "Sure, Martin Scorsese/Michael Haneke/Liv Ullman/Uwe Boll is a good film-maker for ivory-tower intellectuals, but when you're on your way to the cinema with a bag of popcorn, a nice cold beer and Insert Proletariat Accoutrement Here, take my advice and give 'em a miss!"

The great irony of Contrarianism is that, in opposing the supposedly dictatorial tone of critics whose main motivation is an appreciation for art and imagination, Contrarian criticism often ends up being far preachier, with much more of an unpleasant I-know-what's-good-for-you tone, than the criticism it's reacting against. In this, I suppose, the grand master is Shawn Edwards, the Kansas-based film critic whose annual end-of-year best-of lists are usually completely identical to the Oscars he derides so much, only he gives his movies popcorn bags instead of stars for their ratings, so you can tell he's a man of the people. Jim Emerson's preferred example of Contrarianism Gone Mad is Armond White, who doesn't rate quite as highly as Edwards on the Uriah Heep faux-humilitymeter, but whose review of Borat in particular drips with culture-war stereotypes of elitist America-hating liberals who club together to recommend movies that support their own agenda. The irony being, of course, that if there was some kind of shadowy cabal of prominent American critics, the well-known, widely-published veteran White would be a prime candidate for membership.

Invoking Edwards and White on one side of the debate and Emerson and Ebert on the other might give the impression that Contrarianism is an American critical disease, and perhaps it's true that not even the most politically-motivated British critic (Christopher Tookey) could write an article like White's Borat review, in which one low-budget studio comedy is held responsible for every perceived social problem in the country today. When Jim suggested a Contrarian Blog-a-Thon for this weekend, a lot of people posted reviews of classics and movie greats they felt were underrated - and a lot of people posted reviews of critical pariahs and movie lepers they felt were underrated. (You can get a good look at what others have written on the subject here)

I could have followed that path - there are plenty of films released this year alone that I felt were given too easy a ride (Red Road, I'm looking at you) and plenty that got an undeserved kicking (Tideland, what did you do to upset people?). But there was something else, something about the whole idea of Contrarianism, that I found troublesome. Despite feeling sure I'd seen examples of Contrarianism in the British press before, I was having trouble thinking of something I could write about it -- until two articles in the Guardian cast a new light on the matter.

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Nick Cohen: Memo To Turner

An essay written on Thursday February 1st. Posted here as preparation for my main essay of the day.

Disclaimer: I have not read Nick Cohen's new book, nor even skimmed through it in a shop, as my local Waterstones does not seem to be carrying it yet. I'm basing this commentary on interviews I've read with him, reviews I've read of his book, and his previous book Pretty Straight Guys.

I think that Nick Cohen has two major motivations at the moment, and one of them is to be the new George Orwell. That's a good goal to have; I suspect every English-language political commentator probably harbours a similar ambition. Orwell is, of course, the obvious reference point whenever a left-wing writer goes public with grievances against his own 'side', and Cohen is certainly following that career path. Fair enough; as anyone who's read my comments about the Guardian will know, there's an awful lot of drivel being talked on the left, and it's up to us to dispose of it hygienically before it becomes an active embarrassment. My problem with Cohen is that his criticisms don't seem to come from identifying genuine problems with the modern left. They seem to come from him viewing every other political affiliation and historic situation through ridiculously rose-tinted glasses.

Cohen's superhero-style origin story was laid out in the final chapter of Pretty Straight Guys; after spending the majority of the book's length excoriating Blair and his party for lying through their teeth, he also criticises the people who marched against the Iraq War, saying that they seemed prepared to let one of the Middle East's worst dictators off the hook, and that they were marching alongside unrepentant Communists and apologists for human rights violators. In his new book, Cohen expands this into a general thesis about "the death of the left", arguing that modern leftists are predisposed to favour dictatorships and have betrayed the principles their grandparents had.

There's one problem with Cohen's critique of the modern left -- I don't think it's specifically modern, and I don't think it's specifically leftist. If you look on the front cover of this week's [er, now a few weeks back] edition of the popular right-wing weekly The Spectator, you will find an enticing trail for an article by Taki on "My Favourite Dictators". Last month, too, we all had to suffer Margaret Thatcher's rheumy-eyed eulogies for Augusto Pinochet, and you don't have to cast your mind too far back to remember Ronald Reagan and his cabinet offering financial and military support for any dubious regime they could find in Latin America. For Blair's part, he's certainly guilty of ignoring the human rights abuses in nations such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for fear of offending governments who were friendly to the War on Terror.

Perhaps Cohen's standpoint on this would be that he criticises the left because he expects a higher standard of behaviour from them -- in short, he only criticises because he cares. I'm not sure I could claim to "care" about Nick Cohen, possibly because the choice of wording is a bit creepy. But I think he's a good writer, and he can do better than this.

Besides, that still doesn't explain his apparent belief that apologists for dictators historically have not existed on the left, and especially his holding up of the 1930s and 40s as the Golden Age. What does he think writers like Orwell or Arthur Koestler were protesting about? Moderate leftists fought alongside unapologetic Communists in the Spanish Civil War, too, but Cohen seems less troubled by this than he does by crowds of ordinary people unforgivably failing to do a full background check on people who they'd just met that afternoon.

At this point, I'm worried that I'm starting to sound a bit like an apologist for dictators myself. I did actually take part in a protest march during the run-up to the Iraq war, but my motivations -- shockingly! -- did not include a deep-seated love for Saddam Hussein and a nostalgic longing for the Stasi. I thought we were being led into a war based on faulty evidence by leaders who were incompetent, at a time when our real enemy -- al-Qaeda -- was still out there. I don't think that's a difficult line of reasoning to understand, and I don't see why it needs 'simplifying' into "J00 LUFF THE SADAMMS!!!!1!!!the numeral one".

This is unpleasant, offensive drivel, and it falls to John Harris (these days, a better political critic than a musical one) to point out what it is - namely, a straw-man, an inaccurate and unfounded characterisation of your enemy as such a monster that the terms of the argument cannot fail to run in your favour. I know Nick Cohen enjoys punching old ladies and torturing kittens, to say nothing about his seventy-eight separate convictions for sheep-worrying, but I expect a full-length book to contain a better standard of debate than the average junior school debating team.

But this, I think, feeds into Cohen's other motivation. Like a lot of British political writers, I suspect he's been looking with green eyes at America, where writers who would be marginal figures in this country can command massive advances and sales figures. It's impossible to imagine, say, Simon Heffer having the same public profile as Rush Limbaugh, or Johann Hari boasting the cultural recognition factor of Michael Moore. Whether we'd want them to is another issue, but it remains the case that a lot of political writing in this country at the moment has an unmistakable American influence, the result of our writers trying to co-opt the magical formulae for success. I remember with great amusement Iain Duncan-Smith's attempt to rebrand himself as a political journalist, which kicked off
with an article in the theguardian asking why Hollywood has such a left-wing bias. A subject of no relevance or interest to a British audience, frankly, and one which made it embarrassingly obvious who he'd been cribbing from.

Cohen's writing betrays a bit of that influence too. I find it hard to believe that, given the examples of support for dictatorships I've cited earlier on in this article, it was the anti-war protests that really pissed him off. If the people who went on those marches were actually doing it out of loyalty to Saddam Hussein, they chose a staggeringly oblique way of demonstrating it -- more oblique, certainly, than Taki or Thatcher or George Galloway, who, being as he is still alive and on the left, is the only genuine apologist for dictators who makes it into the field of Cohen's tunnel vision. Prodding the British audience out of political apathy is a laudable goal, but I find it hard to believe that this American-style debating method of "You're a traitor to your country!" "No, you're a traitor to your country!" is going to do the trick, especially since most Americans I talk to are heartily sick of it anyway.

I'm not a fan of dogmatically following one political party or philosophy, but you can stand against the people you usually agree on without making a nonsense of your core beliefs. The last chapter of Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World criticises the anti-war movement, but in a way that's internally consistent with both the rest of the book and Wheen's own ideology. At the end of Pretty Straight Guys, I felt frustrated that, having railed so righteously against New Labour's habit of lying, Cohen took a starry-eyed ends-justify-the-means stance on their biggest and most destructive lie -- that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda and was an immediate threat to our nation. Besides, if Cohen is so wound up about people defending dictators, he could always join Amnesty International, or an equivalent right-wing group.

Oh, wait. There isn't one.

A Fare-Thee-Well

I'm going to be at my grandparents' for the next week. I know they've got a computer, but I don't know what their internet connection is like, or whether you can stay on it for any length of time. This will, of course, have an impact on the amount of time I can spend on LJs, blogs or forums - though I've been slacking with my responsibilities as a poster on several of these, particularly, which I haven't been on for over a month now. Profuse apologies to everyone there.

The reason for this leave is that we've been getting some unusually high electricity bills recently, which have turned out to be the fault of shoddy wiring in our extension. According to the people who came out to inspect it, we've been lucky not to have our house burned down. So the whole thing is having to be stripped and rewired, and whereas it would be possible for me to stay at home during this, I reckon I could just about survive without all the drilling and stuff.

Before I go, here's a grab-bag of things that have been going around my head of late.

I'm getting a bit annoyed by the way that Ashley Jensen's only role in the last few episodes of Ugly Betty is to come on and make a sledgehammer-subtle point about the unfairness of female body images in the media, a point which I suspect most viewers of the series will already be familiar. But I do like the fact that Betty will never - according to the producers - have a makeover to make her look more 'acceptable', underlining the fact that the problem isn't with her, it's with the people who object to her.

I do find the 'makeover' genre in chick-lit and young adult fiction a bit Stepford Wifey. In Kaavya Viswanathan's novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, there are several passages that reach an almost Talented Mr Ripley level of aspirational creepiness:

Every inch of me had been cut, filed, steamed, exfoliated, polished, painted, or moisturized. I didn’t look a thing like Opal Mehta. Opal Mehta didn’t own five pairs of shoes so expensive they could have been traded in for a small sailboat. She didn’t wear makeup or Manolo Blahniks or Chanel sunglasses or Habitual jeans or La Perla bras. She never owned enough cashmere to make her concerned for the future of the Kazakhstani mountain goat population. I was turning into someone else.

This is meant to be a good thing. The controversy over Opal Mehta stemmed from it being plagarized from several other chick-lit novels, one of which was Meg Cabot's popular children's novel The Princess Diaries. Here's the equivalent passage from a novel which is meant to "set a good example" for young girls:

There isn’t a single inch of me that hasn’t been pinched, cut, filed, painted, sloughed, blown dry, or moisturized. [...] Because I don’t look a thing like Mia Thermopolis. Mia Thermopolis never had fingernails. Mia Thermopolis never had blond highlights. Mia Thermopolis never wore makeup or Gucci shoes or Chanel skirts or Christian Dior bras, which by the way don’t even come in 32A, which is my size. I don’t even know who I am anymore. It certainly isn't Mia Thermopolis. She’s turning me into someone else.

Surely I can't be alone in finding this absolutely fucking skin-crawlingly creepy?

Oh, and speaking of creepy, you all must see Notes on a Scandal. It's what happens when a bunch of very talented people get together and decide to make a pulpy thriller - Philip Glass's absurdly melodramatic music, which goes into overdrive when showing apparently mundane activities like someone knocking on a door, underlines that. Which isn't to say that it's a parody, or a so-bad-it's-good film. It's a very conscious and deliberate melodrama, the fruitiest and nastiest one I've seen in years.

Oh, and there's this one scene where Cate Blanchett appears to be wiping jizz off her shirt. I can't be alone in finding this hard to forget...

Channel Four this week provided more evidence that the dramatized reconstruction is killing modern TV documentaries with Inside Waco, a documentary that gave only the briefest of discussion to massively controversial issues like who shot first, or who started the fire, but which did spend a good thirty seconds at least on a ridiculous shot of David Koresh striding down a burning corridor, indifferent to the falling fiery masonry all around him, in shadow barring the fire reflected in his glasses. Gee, do you suppose he was a bad man?

I'm depressed by the contention that the Kaiser Chiefs represent some sort of intelligent, arch alternative to mainstream rock and roll. Yesterday their lead singer Thingy Thingummy was on Stuart Maconie's Radio 2 show talking about his favourite film - Scrooged - and how he hated it when people were asked this question and they cited a really obscure, arty film, as they were clearly only doing it to look clever. Well, yes. Or they could genuinely like these films?

In the 1960s the Rolling Stones were presented as an unpretentious, tough, street-level alternative to the Beatles, yet they still referenced Mikhail Bulgakov in their songs and collaborated with Jean-Luc Godard on a film. Can you imagine anything like that happening today? Can you ever imagine the Arctic Monkeys or Babyshambles writing songs about Umberto Eco and collaborating with Apichatpong Weerasethakul? I sure as hell can't.

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Aaaaand... that's about it. For those who were wondering, the answers to the Burkha Quiz were as follows: 1. Jarvis Cocker (guessed by Hester), 2. Russell T Davies (guessed by no-one), 3. Leela from Futurama (guessed by everyone), 4. Daniel Craig (guessed by Giles), 5. Tilda Swinton (not, as Giles suggested, David Icke, nor, as Hester suggested "some kind of rodent-dog") and 6. Tim (guessed by Giles, Hester and Mark). The quiz was not, as Ashley suggested, inspired by a similar feature in the Daily Star; I was unaware that they'd done that, but to stop this happening again I have took the precaution of bombing their offices.

And that's it. See you all later!

EDIT: Looking at friends' LJs, I've noticed I'm not on oycaramba's flist any more, and as such can't see most of his posts. Any reason?

She's In Fashion

Salma Hayek, when opening the envelopes containing this year’s Oscar nominations (about which more anon) was heard to remark “There’s so many Mexicans!” with a little squeal of delight. She’s just one person who’s noticed a rise in creativity south of the border; the best film of 2006 and the best TV series both have roots in Mexico.

Of Alfonso Cuarón’s superb dystopian sci-fi/satire on immigration laws Children of Men, nothing needs to be recorded other than its exceptionality; one day, its absence from most major categories at the Academy Awards will be used as justification for a mass cull of Academy voters. On TV, the year’s American highlight has just arrived in the UK; it’s Ugly Betty.

Despite being based on a Colombian serial, Ugly Betty has a strong Mexican connection; it is produced by Hayek’s Ventarosa company, and each episode features a spoof Mexican soap opera called Vidas de Fuego. The Vidas de Fuego material is filmed in Mexico, and features cameos for those in the know from a variety of Mexican telenovela stars. Some explanation will be required for British readers; telenovelas are dramas (often melodramas) that are produced like soap operas but have the advantage of a predetermined beginning, middle and end – a bit like what the BBC tried to do with Bleak House, though even that series couldn’t match the popularity of the telenovelas in Latin American countries. The popular appetite for them is reminiscent of the heyday of The Morecambe & Wise Show in the UK, and they have serious export value; if you want to know how many countries watch them, think of every single country in the world bar Britain, and you’re pretty much there.

Resistance, frankly, is futile. Ugly Betty’s UK debut on Channel 4 brought in a strong 4.5 million viewers; it sits alongside Dispatches and The IT Crowd as one of the few reasons not to call in air strikes on that station. Because all this would be futile if it wasn’t for the fact that Ugly Betty is very, very, very good indeed.

In one way, it would be a mistake to praise Ugly Betty too much; it isn’t The World At War, it’s just a well-done comedy drama for Friday nights. It’s just that it’s done so damn well that it shows every other show working in the same area as being flat and lifeless. It does, at times, resemble Sex and the City and Will & Grace, but it lacks those certain elements that make you want to thump everyone involved with those programmes. And when compared with a big British drama production, it becomes horribly apparent what we’re doing wrong.

The storytelling in Ugly Betty is a miracle of clarity. Whereas the show seems to be a simple modern-day retelling of the ugly duckling myth, there’s an array of styles and storylines in it that would be bewildering if they weren’t handled with such confidence. Each of the three episodes broadcast in the UK has included elements of farce, camp comedy, social realism, conspiracy thriller, gothic horror, romance and parody, somehow coexisting without diminishing each other. As well as this, the viewer is expected to remember the various fake television programmes that the characters watch (and are sometimes conduits for exposition), and tiny little grace notes like Betty’s father Ignacio’s continued trouble with his HMO add to the sense of a fully-imagined world, one that’s sometimes the same as ours, but is sometimes deeply surreal.

Compare this to a current British drama like Five Days or The Ruby in the Smoke, where characters are introduced doing and saying nothing even remotely memorable. By the time the plots in these series kick in, you’ve already forgotten who everyone is, and frankly you don’t care. There’s never so much as a second of Ugly Betty where something unmemorable is happening. It doesn’t all work – the second episode saw the murder-conspiracy plot featured a little too heavily, overshadowing the other elements of the plot with its darkness, and I am on the fence about Wilhemina’s camp assistant Marc St. James – but there’s enough in each episode to compensate for the odd misfire.

The show is more than just a quick, imaginative entertainment for two reasons. The first is America Ferrera, a fantastically talented actress whose breakthrough came in the indie picture Real Women Have Curves. I’d sort of resigned myself to not seeing her again; partly because movies and shows aimed at a Latino audience don’t generally travel across the Atlantic, and partly because there just aren’t many roles out there for slightly chubby Honduran actresses. (Shame on self-described “feminist” director Catherine Hardwicke, incidentally, for giving her such a piffling little role in her boring skater drama Lords of Dogtown)

Betty Suarez, thankfully, is the role of a lifetime. She is naïve but by no means stupid, meek but not spineless (the moment in the third episode where she threatened to cold-clock Marc was a keeper, and believable in character terms too). Her awkward laugh and instinctive, defensive burying of her head in her shoulders is a wonderful observation; it makes you realise how many girls like this you know, and how infrequently you see them on television.

That last paragraph hints at the other reason why this show works. In a time when it seems to have been universally agreed at a meeting of Cunts and Dickheads of the World that television should go out of its way to bully and humiliate the lower orders, Ugly Betty is a genuinely warm-hearted show. It’s hard to parody the fashion industry, since most of its products already look like some sort of self-hating auto-parody, and Ugly Betty wisely stays away from too many jokes about aestheticising other people’s misery. But, in its juxtaposition of the indecently wealthy Meade family of media barons with the Suarez family’s stressed-out breadline existence, it subtly makes a connection between the standard ‘bitchiness’ and ‘extravagance’ we’re led to expect from the fashion industry and real, not-fun kinds of cruelty such as class prejudice and racism. Likewise, the attitude shown towards Betty by her fellow employees (with the exception of Ashley Jensen – acquitting herself surprisingly well now she’s playing a character, rather than a series of ill-defined plot points for Ricky Gervais) is a upsettingly convincing portrayal of workplace bullying.

It makes you want Betty to win (if America’s performance hasn’t done that already) and it makes you not mind that it seems to be a part of the show’s formula that Betty always gets proven right. You may dismiss Ugly Betty as a load of vacuous girly tosh, but it’s tosh done well. It’s certainly not half-arsed, and to my eyes it makes everything else on television seem half-baked and sloppy.