Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Review: The Nutcracker at The O2

Picture: Nigel Norrington
December has been a month of variety at The O2. Megastar Rihanna entertained thousands earlier this month, but the venue is currently playing host to a rather quieter show - and one that involves its stars wearing a lot more clothing.

Following the success earlier this year of The Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, The O2 is having a second go at ballet by hosting the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.

Telling the story of Clara, who dreams a Nutcracker doll she has been given is brought to life, the ballet is full of gorgeous dance sequences, stunning costumes and scenery, and the magic that makes many a little girl want to be a ballerina.

Seeing a ballet in an arena is, I imagine, very different to seeing it in a smaller theatre, but having never seen a ballet before it's all a new experience. What strikes me first is the diverse crowd, from older couples to ballet aficionados to cute little girls dressed in their pink tutus.

The large venue barely distracts from what is happening on stage. The sound of the fantastic orchestra carries throughout the arena, and despite the crowd of people surrounding me I feel like I'm the only one in the room, caught up in the world of Clara, the Nutcracker doll, the King of the rats, the magician Drosselmeyer and a host of dancers.

The set changes are brilliant, as the scene goes from Clara's living room to a battleground where the rats fight the toy soldiers. It all seems so smoothly and easily done, you can forget there's probably a dozen people backstage and months of work that have gone into it all. The highlight of act one is the closing sequence, after the Nutcracker has come back to life as the handsome Prince and leads Clara into the land of snow. With snow falling from the rafters the scene is set perfectly for a magical second act.

When the ballet reopens Clara, and the audience, are transported to a fantastic world conjured up by Drosselmeyer, who shows off dancers from different lands before turning Clara into the Sugar Plum Fairy. Barely has one round of applause finished before another starts, letting the dancers know their (jawdropping) talents are appreciated. When Clara wakes up by the fire, her dream ended, it's hard not to let out a sigh of disappointment that it's all over.

Although this is a brilliant production, it does have one major flaw - the depth of the stage. With The O2 arena being such a large venue, it comes with a huge stage, the front quarter of which is ignored for 98 per cent of the production. The vast amount of space between the dancers and the orchestra distracts me, and I spend a lot of time wishing the action would move to the front. The Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker played to audiences in its home city before coming to The O2, and perhaps the stage there was not so deep. Here, I didn't see the point in having such a large space if it wasn't going to be used used properly. The wasted depth at the front also meant that I was forced to watch some of the action at the back of the stage on the large video screen, which I would have preferred not to do.

Despite its flaws overall this was a great introduction to ballet, and it made me want to see more productions, albeit next time in a more intimate venue.

The Nutcracker is at The O2 until December 30. For more information and to buy tickets click here.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Baking with Sarah(!): Chocolate biscuits, fudge and cupcakes

Yes, I know not all the things I've spent today making are baked, but just go with the title. Here are the recipes I used.

This is, hands down, the easiest sweet dish I've ever made (excluding scooping ice cream out of a tub etc).
1. Put 400g of chocolate (milk or dark) in a non-stick pan with a 397g of condensed milk (a normal sized can) and 25g of butter. Melt over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is completely smooth. 
2. Sift in 100g of icing sugar. My tip is to sift a little of the icing sugar at a time, then mix, then sift some more, then mix etc. 
3. Once the mixture is completely smooth again pour out into a tin (I found something that was about an inch thick) lined with greaseproof paper, leave to cool then stick in the fridge for an hour or so. Once it's set you can chop it up and tuck in. 

Mini cupcakes
1. Cream 100g of butter with 100g of sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. 
2. Mix in two eggs, one at a time, making sure the first egg is completely incorporated before you add the next. 
3. Sift in 100g of flour and fold. Make sure to fold, not mix, as this will keep the mixture light. It may look like the flour won't mix if you fold, but it will, don't worry. 
4. Separate mixture into cupcake cases. This recipe makes 12 regular sized cupcakes, but I used tiny cupcake cases around the width of a 50p piece, and made around 30 cupcakes.
5. Bake at 190C for 10 minutes (mini cupcakes) or 15 minutes (larger). Check they're cooked by putting a toothpick in, if it comes out clean you're fine, otherwise give it a few more minutes. 

Chocolate biscuits
1. Put 100g butter, 175g soft brown sugar and 75g golden syrup in a non-stick pan and heat, stirring gently, until all the sugar is completely dissolved. 
2. Take off the heat and mix in 1tsp of bicarbonate of soda. 
3. In a separate bowl mix 350g of plain flour and 2tbsp of cocoa powder. Put half this mix in the sugar mixture, along with one lightly beaten egg, and stir in. Then add the rest of the flour and stir until a soft dough is made. Spread onto a foil-lined baking sheet and put in the fridge for a few hours, until it's firm. 
4. Roll out the dough (you may have to split it up) until it's 4-5mm thick, then use a cookie cutter (whatever shape you want) to cut the dough. 
5. Place on a baking sheet and cook at 190C for around 10 minutes if you want crunchy biscuits, and maybe 8-9minutes if you want them slightly softer. 
6. Cool and eat.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Your guide to the best of this year's Christmas television

The festive television schedules are full of repeats, Christmas specials, soaps and films that are seen year in, year out. But in amongst all the stuff you could quote in your sleep are some real gems. To save you from missing anything, and searching fruitlessly through the listings - here's a guide to the televisual highlights between Christmas and the new year. All you have to do decide is what to watch. 

Doctor Who 
Christmas Day wouldn't be Christmas Day without an adventure with the Doctor. This episode - The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe - is set in England in the 1940s, where the Doctor links up with a recently widowed woman and her two young children as they are evacuated to Dorset. The Arwell family soon find themselves transported to a Narnia-like snowy land through a big blue parcel. Only the foe they're battling is much more scary than the White Witch...
BBC One, Christmas Day, 7pm 

Downton Abbey 
For fans of period drama Downtown Abbey is back for a two-hour Christmas special. It's 1919 and Lord Grantham is hosting a lavish party. Despite appearances, all is not likely to go smoothly and there's plenty of tension, what with Bates's arrest for the murder of his wife, Mary's rocky relationship with Sir Richard Carlisle and a new suitor with a past for Rosamund.
ITV1, Christmas Day, 9pm

Absolutely Fabulous 
Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley return for two episodes (the first on Christmas Day) as Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone. All the original cast are back for the return of Ab Fab, and it's sure to be exactly the latter.
BBC One, Christmas Day, 10pm

The Borrowers 
I have fond memories of an adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers from the early 1990s, starring Ian Holm (who went on to play another very famous small person). I loved the idea that there were tiny people living under the floorboards, making their furniture and other items from everyday human belongings. No matter how hard I tried, I could never create anything as brilliant out of old toilet rolls, matchboxes and bits of string as the Borrowers did. Starring Stephen Fry, Victoria Wood, Christopher Ecclestone and the fabulous Robert Sheehan as Spiller, this adaptation has the feel and magic of the one I watched as a child.
BBC One, Boxing Day, 7.30pm 

The Royal Bodyguard
Sir David Jason heads back to the BBC in a new comedy role as Captain Guy Hubble, an ex-guardsman who is head of security at Buckingham Palace. After saving the Queen's life in an act of bravery he is appointed as Royal Bodyguard. Hilarious escapades follow.
BBC One, starts Boxing Day, 9.30pm 

Great Expectations 
Granted, it's not the first story that springs to mind when you think about Charles Dickens and Christmas, but Great Expectations is one of those great winter tales, something you can curl up with on the sofa when it's cold outside. For those who don't want to work their way through the novel, this new adaptation has a stellar cast, which includes Ray Winstone, Gillian Anderson and David Suchet, and is suitably haunting.
BBC One, December 27, 28 and 29 at 9pm 

Fast Freddie, the Widow and Me
A proper cheesy Christmas story starring Laurence Fox as a wealthy narrow-minded luxury-car dealer who has to spend the run-up to Christmas helping troubled young adults after being found guilty of drink-driving. He meets recently widowed Laura, and 18-year-old Freddie, who has only months to live. Even though you'll see what's coming miles off, you should keep the tissues handy.
ITV1, December 27, 9pm

Sherlock Holmes
Forget Robert Downey Jr, Benedict Cumberbatch is back as the detective in the first of three episodes. Sherlock and John Watson (Martin Freeman) face a secret conspiracy involving the British government in A Scandal in Belgravia. And THE woman in Sherlock's life is introduced, the ruthless and brilliant Irene Adler.
BBC One, New Year's Day, time TBC

The best of the rest

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff
Featuring an impressive cast including Robert Webb, Katherine Parkinson, Stephen Fry and David Mitchell, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff is a great spoof, sure to entertain those who love period dramas, and those who loathe them.
BBC Two, starts December 19, 8.30pm

Michael McIntyre's Christmas Comedy Roadshow
The comedian is joined is joined by a host of famous, funny friends to help you end Christmas Day with a laugh, no matter what dramas have taken place during the day.
BBC One, Christmas Day, 10.30pm

Strictly Come Dancing 
Five celebrities and their professional partners battle it out to be crowned champion.
BBC One, Christmas Day, 8pm 

Christmas Day films
Kung Fu Panda, BBC One, 12.35pm
Monsters vs Aliens, BBC One, 3.10pm
Ratatouille, BBC One, 4.50pm
Aladdin, ITV1, 1.15pm
Happy Feet, ITV1, 3.10pm
Big, Channel 4, 5.20pm
Ice Age 3, Channel 4, 7.15pm

Why the Military Wives Choir deserve to be Christmas Number One

So, you might have heard a song called Cannonball, a cover of Damian Rice's song by Little Mix, the winners of this year's X Factor.

In any other year, it might automatically get to number one. After all, winning the X Factor almost entitles you to having a number one single. 

Almost, because this year there's a viable alternative to the X Factor - the Military Wives Choir.

If you listen to Radio 2 in the mornings you can't have missed the fact that Chris Evans is pushing for this song to get to number one, and I can't help but be behind him.

Working with the very talented Gareth Malone, the choir put together the gorgeous Wherever You Are, a song full of some of the most important emotions we as humans can feel - love, fear, longing.

Three bars of Wherever You Are contain more feeling than three minutes of any song by any X Factor winner ever (however talented they are).

I've met and spent time with many servicemen through the course of my work, and I've met their friends and family who are left behind each time they're sent overseas. They are the bravest people I have ever encountered, regardless of whether their battlefield is a forward operating base or an empty house.

The hardest stories I've ever worked on are tributes to soldiers who have died in the line of duty. There is one in particular I will always remember, a bomb disposal expert, who died doing what he loved and wanted to do - protecting others. Every time I spoke to his family, all they felt was love and pride for him, and their strength at losing him in such difficult circumstances left me speechless.

Whatever you think of the current conflicts Britain is involved in, whatever your stance on war in general, the women who make up the Military Wives Choir face the very real possibility that their partners may get injured, or worse, while just doing their jobs. Usually, the families of servicemen away in conflict areas can do nothing but wait and hope and pray. 

But the Military Wives Choir is a group of women who decided to show the world just how it feels to wait and hope and pray, and in doing so are doing more than those three things. Wherever You Are is not just a song, it's a tribute, and one whose sales are going to raise money for some great charities which help servicemen and their families.

The women in this choir have produced something amazing in difficult circumstances. The hard work is being done by them and their partners - all the public has to do it is buy the track, and help get the song that really means something to number one on Christmas Day.

*Wherever You Are is released tomorrow.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Glee: Extraodinary Merry Christmas recap/review

So, this episode of Glee was weird, wasn't it?

And by weird I mean, not that great. I'm no grinch, but to me nearly everything about this episode was contrived (more than a television programme usually is). 

I found it preachy, and it seemed more like a placeholder than an actual part of this series. Nothing happened, no stories were moved forward, it was just an indulgent episode that gave the cast the chance to sing lots of Christmas songs and talk about the true meaning of Christmas.

That's what this episode was all about - the fact that Christmas should be about love and kindness and family and friends over presents. You couldn't go 20 seconds without banging your head against the fact that Glee was trying to teach us about how we should all stop being so commercial. I find that a bit rich, considering Glee once released an album containing just a handful of songs (the Madonna ones) to make as much cash as possible. 

I don't watch Glee so I can be preached at, and I consider myself intelligent enough to not have to be smacked round the head to understand what Christmas is all about, and I don't even celebrate it.

Two other people who don't celebrate it are Rachel and Puck, who completely forgot this episode that they are in fact Jewish. I don't even know what to say about this.

Another thing I found weird was the television programme within the television programme. It wasn't the device itself that was strange, just the creepy 1950s style holiday special. Did television really used to be like that? The thought is quite disturbing.

It was, however, quite funny. I liked Kurt and Blaine's description of what they were to each other (best friends and holiday roommates), and the cutesy, slightly risque jokes and the cheesy delivery of lines really did make me chuckle. This sequence was the best part of the episode, even though I found it weird. I may have mentioned that already.

While most of the glee club represented the commercial side of Christmas, Sam and (of all people) Sue were busy representing what Christmas should truly be about. And in case you didn't hear them telling other characters (and by extension the viewers) multiple times, there was a lovely extended scene in a soup kitchen, with lots of homeless looking people and cute kids, just to make sure you really understood.

And of course, what would an episode about the true meaning of Christmas be without everyone coming to their senses and singing a song to make up for their earlier selfishness? That song was Do They Know It's Christmas? I didn't really like it, because it's a song with a lot of history behind it, and one that really needs the context of its time to be understood properly. Like when I heard it on the album, I felt the cast didn't really feel the song, and it felt, as I said at the beginning of this review, contrived.

So, to sum up, in case you didn't realise - and for that to have happened you'd have had to watch the episode with your closed and on mute - Christmas is about love, and happiness, and giving. GOT THAT?

So, that's what you missed on Glee. Nothing.

The music:
Lots and lots of Christmas songs, plus My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music.

I loved River, even though it's a bit depressing. It's a great song though. Rory doing Blue Christmas was also depressing but it was sweet too. 

Extraodinary Merry Christmas is no less annoying when you watch Blaine and Rachel act it out than when you hear it on the album. Also, extraordinary doesn't have that many syllables, otherwise you might as well separate it into two words and say you're having an extra ordinary Christmas.

Christmas Wrapping and Santa Claus is Coming to Town didn't have a point, but then, neither did the Christmas special. 

What Glee did well this week:
I'm loathe to put anything here, since I was overwhelmed by the message of the episode. But probably the show within a show, and particularly Let It Snow, which was cute. Also, even though he was only in it for a few seconds, Chewbacca rocked too.

One thing that wasn't so great wasn't actually in the episode, and that was a problem. There's been a still floating around of Blaine giving Kurt a little box as a Christmas present, and that scene was cut. Guess we'll have to wait for the DVD extras. 

Next week:
There's no Glee. We'll have to wait until January, when Sam joins the synchronised swimming team, Finn considers joining the army, and Mr Schue wants to join in holy matrimony with Miss Pillsbury. Plus, there's a Grease routine.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Review: Peter Pan at The Central Theatre - starring Vanilla Ice

Ice, Ice, Baby.

Yes, I am referring to Vanilla Ice's hit song. Because this year, the rapper is starring in pantomime at The Central Theatre in Chatham, playing Captain Hook in a production of Peter Pan.

And, of course, he gets to perform Ice, Ice, Baby

Fortunately, the eager audience doesn't have to wait until the very end, although you do have to suffer through an act and a half of hints before finally getting to see Vanilla perform every word of the song.

Unfortunately, it's probably the best bit of the production.

Sure, there's plenty of Vanilla on stage, and it's clear The Central Theatre is getting its money's worth out of him, as there are some pointless and overly long scenes featuring the rapper. It might have been better to have him on stage less, but performing Ice, Ice, Baby a second time, instead of just giving the audience what they wanted once.

The classic story of Peter Pan is brought to life in adequate fashion, complete with flying and a revolving set with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys' hideout on one side and Hook's ship on the other. However, the magic is lost with the sight of the ropes attached to Peter Pan's back, and the sight of the stagehands pushing the set round every time the scene changes.

The show is full of musical numbers, ranging from Queen (a lot of Queen), to Nirvana (as my friend said: "Kurt Cobain would be turning in his grave") to Lady Gaga. Again, they're done adequately, but it's nothing special. The only thing which peps the musical numbers up are the addition of some jugglers, who at one point just juggle balls, and at another use lit torches (leaving the theatre filled with the smell of petrol).

The youngsters watching the pantomime clearly enjoyed themselves, getting involved in shouting out the catchphrase (Smee: Hello! Audience: Is that you? Smee: No, it's me), booing Hook and clapping and shouting they believed in fairies.

For me though, Peter Pan has lost its allure, at least with this production. Wendy never got beyond her role as a "mother" to the Lost Boys, and the Native American Indians embodied every cliche in the book. As a result I found myself constantly looking below the surface of the play, finding a dated story full of unappetising steroetypes.

Peter Pan is put on by Evolution Productions, which has been doing The Central Theatre's pantos for a while now. The children in the audience clearly loved the show, but Evolution has definitely done better in the past (last year's production of Jack and the Beanstalk was ten times better).

Go if you've young children, go if you're a huge Vanilla Ice fan, but don't go expecting to see the magic of panto brought alive.

Peter Pan is on until December 31. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Glee: Hold on to Sixteen recap/review

Hold on to Sixteen is another solid episode from Glee (one of the best of the season, and, dare I say it, among the best ever), and I'm almost ready to start believing that the show will consistently get back to its season one glory. Am I cursing it by saying that?

Anyway, this episode featured the return of Sam Evans, who came back because apparently the glee club needed some "star" power, and according to Finn Hudson Sam is that star power. Now, I'm extremely happy to see Sam back, but I don't exactly remember him being the star performer when he was in the club the first time round. Sure, he was lovely, and a good performer, but a star? It was but a slight blip in this episode so I won't dwell too much.

Sam, who's been working as a stripper (hehe), was the catalyst for a couple of stories and brought a little oomph to the glee club, mainly in the form of hip thrusting, which was preceeded by a really bad yet amusing country song called Red Solo Cup, about those disposable red plastic cups people use at parties in America (if television programmes are anything to go by). Kurt summed the song up perfectly, when he mouthed the following words to Blaine as he started bopping along: "What is wrong with you?" Still, it was all pretty funny.

The return of Sam saw the return of the Mercedes/Sam relationship. I say return, but we never actually saw much of it in the first place. They finished season two as a couple, but we only ever saw them sneakily hold hands once in a coffee shop. And then season three started and they were no more, and Mercedes was dating someone else. But now that Sam's back, we're seeing the sizzling chemistry between him and Mercedes. The reluctant smile Sam teases out of Mercedes as she walks away, Sam telling her he'll fight for her, and Mercedes laughing in the crowd as he thrusts on stage were all cute touches. I really hope this storyline develops properly.

Sam's return also led to the resolution of the Quinn/baby/Puck/Shelby storyline, finally. He told Quinn she had rich, white girl problems and imparted some wisdom about holding on to your teen years from a John Mellencamp song. Voila! Quinn came to her sense, realising she needs to hold on to her youth by growing up, taking responsibility and doing the right thing. It was a little quick, but I've hated this whole storyline (including, and especially, the Puck/Shelby romance stuff), so I'm happy to see it come to a swift end.

Sam was also the catalyst for a conclusion to the 'Finn seems to hate Blaine' storyline. It started with Blaine and Sam having a showdown that almost ended in a fight. This was followed by a scene where we saw Blaine boxing while he told Finn he'd started the Dalton version of fight club, which he obviously couldn't talk about (great line), all while punching the heck out of a bag in a very manly, sweaty way. All season Finn has been dismissing Blaine, and finally Blaine snapped and wanted to know why. Of course, it was simple, Finn was just jealous of Blaine's talent. This was a great little scene from Glee, mainly because the show is usually so bad at continuity. However, the Blaine/Finn situation has been subtly building over a series of episodes, and has now come to a well-rounded conclusion. The pair seem to be best buds now, leading to them working together on some great numbers for sectionals (more on that later).

Blaine had a lot to do this episode, as he was also central to a scene where Kurt showed his tough side (he doesn't need boxing gloves). It was the return of Sebastian, who's still determined to get into Blaine's pants, that set Kurt off. This scene rocked because we got to see Kurt's claws come out - and what claws they are. Any sane person would back away from Kurt's glares and insults, but Sebastian just hit back with quips of his own. I want to see more of these two snarking at each other, and judging by the fact that Kurt noticed when Sebastian turned up later to shoot sultry looks at Blaine while he performed at sectionals, my wish may come true.

One bad thing about this episode was that it saw the demise of the Troubletones. The group was truly excellent, as was the mash-up of I Will Survive and Survivor the girls performed during sectionals. Sure, it's good to see everyone back in New Directions, but I will miss the general coolness that was the Troubletones.

New Directions pulled it out of the bag for regionals, with three great songs all originally done by members of the Jackson family. ABC rocked because it gave people the chance to sing who usually don't get to - Tina, Mike and Kurt to name a few. It's the group numbers that have generally been the best in Glee over the seasons, and this was no exception. And Man in the Mirror was showed us the boys can really carry a number that doesn't have a rock vibe.

But it was Control that was the best. I didn't know I needed this in my life before I heard it, but it was sexy, sultry, powerful and just amazing. Dianna Agron rocked Quinn's spoken parts, while Darren Criss as Blaine and Kevin McHale as Artie sang the heck out of the tune. Of course, it was Quinn and Blaine who really felt this song though - as said earlier Quinn learned she needed to take control of her own life, while Blaine learned that sometimes control is about working with other people and compromising. 

Sectionals also saw a resolution to Mike Chang's storyline with his disapproving father, who came to realise his son is truly a talented performer, and should follow his own dreams instead of his dad's. 

There was a lot of concluding going on this episode, and it ended with everyone happy and back together. Still, with the rest of the season holding competitions for regionals and (one hopes) nationals, plus the decision letters from various universities and the inevitable goodbyes to the older glee club members, it's bound not to stay peaceful for long. 

The music:
A solid musical effort this week, with the amusing Red Solo Cup, the great mash up of I Will Survive and Survivor and a fantastic trio of Jackson tunes from New Directions.

To top it all off was a rendition of We Are Young, which brought all of New Directions - original members plus new additions - together. It was Glee at its best, a song where everyone sings and gets to chill out together, plus it had some great staging with the New Directions all posing fabulously on stage at the beginning. 

What Glee did well this week:
Pretty much everything. I have few complaints. I would, in particular, like to highlight Kurt's fabulous outfit at the end (were those shorts leather?). Also worth a mention of the facial expressions from Rory. I've said this previously, and I'll say it again, I'd like to see a programme which just features Rory reacting to stuff. 

Next week:
It's Christmas and there's some retro stuff going on, lots of tinsel, and Sue dubbing Blaine a "young Burt Reynolds". Deck the halls baby, deck the halls.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Review: Glee: The Music - The Christmas Album Volume 2

Christmas is about many different things to many different people, but one of the things everyone should feel at some point over the festive period is joy. The Christmas period should be full of fun, happiness, warm hugs, twinkling eyes and the comfort of family and friends around you. And a good Christmas tune should conjure up all those feelings and images.

It's a pity then that Glee: The Music - The Christmas Album Volume 2 is more like a piece of dry turkey and a squashed mince pie than it is eggnog and golden roast potatoes.

Out of 12 tracks, there is clearly one stand out - Darren Criss and Chris Colfer's duet on Let It Snow. The pair sang the best song during last year's Glee Christmas episode - Baby, It's Cold Outside. That was flirty and fun, and Let It Snow has the same vibe. It's got great rhythm, the pair's voices sound wonderful together and it's a smile-along, singalong tune.

Compared to Let It Snow, the rest of the album is at best slightly above average, and at worst mechanical.

It's the ballads that tend to work better than the upbeat tunes. Lea Michele's rendition of Joni Mitchell's gorgeous River and Kevin McHale's version of Little Drummer Boy (one of my favourite festive numbers) are pretty good after a couple of listens, as is Damian McGinty's take on the sad Blue Christmas.

The rest, though? Well, they wouldn't be on any compilation of Christmas songs I would put together, unless the aim was to bore people.

While Amber Riley has an amazing voice, her version of All I Want for Christmas is You is all about hitting the perfect notes without feeling any of the song. While Naya Rivera's version of Santa Baby is fun, it's a little predictable, and Heather Morris doing Christmas Wrapping gives you the feeling she's just going through the motions.

There are some original compositions on the album as well, which filled me with dread before I even heard them. Glee has tried original numbers before (the most famous and successful being Loser Like Me) but they've never been as brilliant as the covers they've done.

Christmas Eve With You, an original song with Matthew Morrison and Jayma Mays on vocals, is sleep inducing. The other original, Extraordinary Merry Christmas sung by Criss and Michele, features every Christmas cliche you can think of in its lyrics and is annoyingly catchy, emphasis on the annoying part.

Strangely, the album chooses to feature Lindsey Pearce and Alex Newell, runners-up on The Glee Project, and Samuel Larsen, who won the show with Damian McGinty. It's strange because it's an odd time to bring in new vocals (although Pearce has sung on the show once, the others have not yet done so) - Christmas is a time for indulging in the familiar and comforting. Pearce and Newell sing a decent version of Do You Hear What I Hear, while Larsen joins Cory Monteith and Mark Salling on a rocky version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It would be innovative, if only every other song involving a group of the Glee guys wasn't a rocky version of whatever they've chosen.

Strangest of all, in my opinion, is the decision to cover Do They Know It's Christmas, originally released by Band Aid. It's a song with a powerful history, and a song which showed the power of music to help, which is something Glee is all about, seeing as many of the characters find refuge in music. However, covering Do They Know It's Christmas on an album for a television show demeans the history of the song a little bit, especially considering this version is missing the anger, frustration and determination that the vocalists on the original conveyed.

Glee's second attempt at a Christmas album is okay, but okay isn't what you want for Christmas. You want dancing around the room, avoiding/lingering under* the mistletoe, and smiles on everyone's faces. My advice - download Let It Snow (plus Blue Christmas, Little Drummer Boy and River if you want some ballads), and use them among the festive tunes of your choice on your own Christmas compilation.

*delete as appropriate

Monday, 5 December 2011

Review: Glee: The Music - Volume 7

The best Glee numbers, generally speaking and in my opinion, are the big productions, whether they're solos, duets or group numbers.

And it's the season's best production so far, the mash-up of Adele's Rumour Has It/Someone Like You, that is the standout on Glee: The Music - Volume 7, the album of songs from the first half of the programme's third series. Packed full of drama, sadness, anger and more, it's even better in its full version than it was in the shorter cut used on the programme, with Amber Riley and Naya Rivera's talents shown off fully. These two singers blend brilliantly together, yet you can always tell their voices apart as they soar over and around each other.

Unfortunately, while the best song is on the album, many of the other brilliant numbers from the third season are missing. Among them are I'm the Greatest Star, Something's Coming, Spotlight and America (plus all the numbers from West Side Story apart from Tonight), to name but a few. It's no coincidence these are all songs originally from musicals - Glee, as close to a modern musical as we'll get on television, is really, really good at numbers from musicals. Why none of these songs, plus things like the mash-up of Anything Goes/Anything You Can Do, are not on this album puzzles me. Perhaps (and this is wishful thinking) all those songs will be released as part of a special Glee musicals album.

I'd also have liked to have seen Candyman, Perfect and Jolene included, and Damian McGinty's version of Take Care of Yourself would have been a great addition.

So if most of the best stuff is missing, what has been included? Unfortunately, some of the worst. The producers have chosen to include Heather Morris's version of Beyonce's Run the World (Girls) and Matthew Morrison's cover of Coldplay's Fix You. Even worse, these two songs are next to each other on the album. There's close to four minutes of Run the World, which was fun in its shorter version when you've also got the visuals of the scene to distract you, but is just interminable and all over the place in its full album version (no fault of Morris's, it's just a bad song). We're then treated to almost five minutes of Fix You, a depressing song that seems to go on forever. Morrison's voice sounds weak on this number, and by the end of both tracks I'm gritting my teeth and resisting the urge to just press the skip button.

Thankfully, it does get better, with some of the fun stuff from this series so far included. The group's version of You Can't Stop the Beat (a great number from a musical), Darren Criss's renditions of Katy Perry's Last Friday Night and Tom Jones's It's Not Unusual, and the Warblers' version of Uptown Girl, which brings a smile to my face every time I hear it, are all on here. The pace slows down with Tonight, the only song from West Side Story, the musical that was the focus of a large part of the first half of the third season, on this album. If it couldn't be America, at least it was Tonight, which is sung beautifully by Darren Criss and Lea Michele.

A complete contrast to Tonight is the next number, Hot for Teacher, sung by Mark Salling. It's a fun song, but definitely better to watch than just to listen to, especially with all the spoken parts. It works better when you can see Salling rocking out with his guitar, backed up by the crazy dance moves of Criss and Harry Shum Jr.

Broadway legend Idina Menzel gets to show off her vocal stylings on Somewhere, alongside Lea Michele, but she's better on Constant Craving, with Rivera and Chris Colfer (who should definitely feature on this album more). Constant Craving, originally by k.d.lang, is my favourite ballad on this album, although some may argue for the stripped down version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, with Cory Monteith on lead vocals. It may not have seemed an appropriate song for an episode about a girl struggling with coming out to the world at large, but slowed down the focus is on the lyrics, which are as much about longing and acceptance as they are about girls wanting to have fun.

The album ends strongly, with covers of three songs originally by various members of the Jackson family - ABC by The Jackson Five, Janet Jackson's Control, and Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror. Partly, that's because these are just great songs. ABC is great because it showcases what's best about Glee - the group numbers where lots of people get the chance to show off their vocals (although this number is missing Lea Michele's vocals, it's nice to hear people like Jenna Ushkowitz). Control features the vocals of Criss, Kevin McHale and Dianna Agron. It's good to hear the latter two, as they've barely had a chance to sing this series so far. And Man in the Mirror showcases the vocal stylings of the club's male singers, without resorting to the rock songs they so often get lumped with when they sing in a group.

This isn't the best compilation of songs from Glee. It's missing coherency. If we go all the way back to the first album of songs, we can see that had a mission: to show off the best songs from Glee, and to convey the fun, the camaraderie and the vocal talents of the cast and characters. 

By contrast Volume 7 is a bit of a mish mash, perhaps because this season there haven't been many songs featuring the whole cast. That aside, if the album had included all the best songs from the series so far, it would have been a hit. As it is, despite the inclusion of strong numbers including the season's best song, it's something even the most hardcore Glee fans will struggle to love in its entirety. Instead, there'll be a lot of reaching for the skip button. Or a lot of ground down teeth.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Preview: The Graham Norton Show

Picture: John Phillips/PA Wire

When you've got the Sexiest Man Alive on your sofa, you might expect everyone, and everything, else to fade into the background.

Okay, so Bradley Cooper (recently named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive) wasn't on my sofa (I wish), but he is on the settee tonight on the latest episode of The Graham Norton Show. 

Despite his gorgeousness (and trust me, just as good looking, if not better, in the flesh), the other guests on tonight's show manage to get their fare share of attention.

Picture: John Phillips/PA Wire 
The statuesque Jessica Biel holds her own against comedians James Corden and Sarah Millican, sharing funny stories about dieting for film role. Talking about a time she cracked, she says: “One cheat day I went to Dunkin Donuts and ordered 24 doughnuts and went to a pizza joint and ordered two giant pizzas and I sat in the car and I put as much bread and dough into my mouth as I could possibly manage. It was the best moment.” 

If only we could all look like her after binging on pizza and doughnuts (I'd hate her if she wasn't so lovely as well as being beautiful).

Comedian Millican, who causes the audience to burst into stomach-aching laughter every time she tells a story, banters with Biel over dieting, asking her: “Have you ever eaten a croissant out of a bin? If we are going to talk about binging I should step forward. It was my bin and it was my croissant but I told my friend and she said, ‘oh, you’re posh now’ because it was a croissant!"

Millican is touring the country on her Thoroughly Modern Millican tour, and reveals why  Chatterbox may not have been such a good name for her DVD (it has to do with a film of the same name about something talking which shouldn't be talking).

Corden, who has just released his first book May I Have Your Attention Please?, makes no secret of his crush on Biel - but reveals he has a bigger crush on David Beckham, and that the two of them are having a bromance.

He says: “If you ever meet him you don’t know whether to shake his hand or lick his face. He is so nice.

“Yes, occasionally we will send a text to each other and things like that. But he started it and the first time he sent a text I had to call all my friends to tell them before replying. My girlfriend says she always knows when I am texting David because I look really happy, which is really tragic!” 

Picture: John Phillips/PA Wire
Momentarily eclipsing Corden's crush on Beckham this week is his crush on Cooper, who is unsurprisingly humble (if you've ever seen him interviewed before you'll know he's pretty self-deprecating) about his accolade as the Sexiest Man Alive. He says:  “I’m at an age where I don’t care about things like that anymore. I actually thought it was a joke when I heard. It’s annoying because I started to think about how not sexy I am. The other day I opened a door and thought, ‘I can do that a lot sexier.” 

I think the women in the audience would disagree that he could be sexier, and if he could, there might be mass fainting every time he opens a door.

The actor is promoting the release of Hangover 2 on DVD, and speaks about his hopes for a third film in the series. He says: “I personally want to do it and I hope we are starting shooting in September. The third one would have a different structure to the first two and will be set in Los Angeles.”

Music on the show is from Lenny Kravitz, who perfoms Black and White America, and then chats to Norton. He may not have been named the Sexiest Man Alive, but he reveals he has been given one of the highest honours the French government can give.

The Graham Norton Show is on BBC One tonight at 10.35pm.


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