Archive for June, 2015

A gloriously bonkers invention

June 26, 2015

Say sayonara to boring old weather forecasts!  This latest Japanese invention recreates tomorrow’s weather in a box.  In your living room!  I especially like the caption at 1.37.

Apparently, the manufacture of this is due to be crowd-funded some time this year.  Check out the Tempescope website for more details, and hope that the final version can do snow.


The strangest optical illusion of all

June 25, 2015

This is called – with variations – the Motion After Effect.  The reason that it happens is a wonderfully complex interaction between your brain and your eyes.  It was first observed by Aristotle, but was not fully described until the 19th century, and not understood until the 20th.

Stare at the spinning spiral for about thirty seconds, and then look at something static, such as the back of your hand.  Go on, do it now!  It probably won’t work if you’re viewing this post on a phone: it’s better full-screen.

Freaky, eh?  I once saw a children’s entertainer rig up one on stage.  He got the kids to stare at the circle as it spun around, and then look at the nose of the kid siting next to them.  It brought the house down.  He told me he hated the trick, because it required no skill or presentation, but that every time he took it out of the act, he was asked by clients to put it back in.

I also observed the phenomenon myself after a long ride facing backwards in a flat-bed truck in Venezuela (though I daresay it works in other South American countries as well). After several hours of staring at the retreating road, we stopped beneath some cliffs and they appeared to be leaning in towards me.

Magic or maths?

June 25, 2015

This is an old puzzle re-done by a clever magician called Greg Rostami.  I have watched it three times now and I have NO IDEA how it works.  It’s not a trick (I don’t think) – that is, there’s nothing “secret” going on.  But it’s got me completely baffled.  (Best watched on full-screen).

How long to solve this puzzle?

June 23, 2015


What is the number in the space that the car is obscuring?

This was part of test at a Hong Kong elementary school.  The children were expected to solved it in 20 seconds.

It’s one of those puzzles that – apparently – children solve much quicker than adults.  Loads of smart-alecks on the web are boasting that they got it in under ten seconds.  It took me longer than that.  (But loads of my friends didn’t get it at all, heh he!)

The answer is in the post below.

Writing a comedy about comedy writing

June 10, 2015

episodesWriting comedy is hard.   I’ve tried it.  So to try to squeeze comedy out of the plight of writers writing a sitcom would seem to be a case of writerly navel-gazing at its worst.

Thank heavens, then, for Episodes (BBC-2) which, having reached its fourth series, seems finally to be getting the attention it deserves.  Annoyingly, like someone who claims to have seen The Beatles in The Cavern in 1962, I have been a fan of this show since the first episode.  Honestly.  But I’ve spent the last three years enthusing about it to blank faces.

The “sit” is this: Beverley and Sean (played by Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) are a married British couple whose gentle, thoughtful, witty Britcom has been bought by a Hollywood studio.  The studio then proceeds to rip it to shreds and remake it, replacing Richard Griffiths (he was in series 1) with Matt Le Blanc of Friends fame.

But that was series 1.  It has now matured into a comedy about the insincerity and venality of the TV business and has gone from being pretty funny to usually hilarious, never more so than in the scenes with Le Blanc who plays a priapic, amoral version of himself, frustrated at being in a show that’s much less successful than Friends.  He picked up a Golden Globe in 2012 for his performance.

It’s a weird US/UK hybrid.  It’s co-written by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik (Crane co-wrote Friends) and made by Hat Trick Productions of the UK.  It’s shot mainly in the UK (Camden in London apparently doubling for Las Vegas in one episode.  I know, I know…) but goes out first on Showtime in the US.

Anyway, it’s very funny and available on Netflix, and last night I properly LOL’d and was still chuckling as I got into bed at this scene.  Episodes Series 4, ep. 5 Matt,  so cash-strapped after being ripped off by his late accountant that he might have to consider selling his vineyard, accepts $500,000 to attend the birthday party of the world’s second-most-murderous dictator who is a huge fan of Friends.  Once there he bumps into an unlikely fellow guest…

(The answer to the above puzzle: turn it upside down!)

The Audience and its audience

June 5, 2015

My mind wanders easily in the theatre.  I think it’s the fakery of the whole thing, the spare sets, the imagined actors waiting n the wings, mouthing their lines, the sound of footsteps on wood when it’s supposed to be gravel… everything, really.  And then I start to drift off.  Mainly I’m wondering what I’ll say to Mrs W that expresses that I’m not loving this, but pretending that I like it enough so that I don’t ruin her evening in the hope that one day she’ll come to see a musical with me which, frankly, is the only sort of theatre I can stand – probably because you’re not usually expected to take it at all seriously.

a91752d9-pfaudience2015jp-02406-edit_05c08005c03f00001e(Theatre-going friends don’t invite me any more.  They have spent too many intervals sipping HOW MUCH!? gin and tonics and hearing me slag off the play that they were – up till then – quite enjoying.  I don’t blame them.  I’ve probably quite spoilt their night.)

So last night was just me and Mrs W at the Apollo Theatre to see Kristen Scott Thomas playing the Queen in The Audience by Peter Morgan.  You’ve probably heard about it: it’s the one about the Queen and her private meetings with her Prime Ministers

It started off promisingly enough.  The audience were tittering from the off.  Actually, that goes for most audiences so far as I can tell.  God, they’ll laugh at anything, specially if it’s Shakespeare.  Last night, John Major fumbled with his hankie momentarily and there were gales of hilarity.

Honestly, it wasn’t that funny.

But then I started to get irritated.  John Major would not and did not, I am absolutely certain, break down in tears in front of HM as he recalled his humble upbringing.  Winston Churchill would not and did not address her by her pet name, Lilibet.  Harold Wilson would not and did not adopt a cod-German accent and tease her about her family heritage.  What’s more, he’s depicted as an oafish, northern chancer, overwhelmed by the grandeur of his position.  He was an Oxford don, for God’s sake!  These are more like comedy sketches, never more so than when Margaret Thatcher appears, in hectoring caricature, rather than in character.  They should just hire Steve Nallon and be done with it.

But perhaps I’m missing the point.  Perhaps this is meant to be a comedy.  If so, it’s just not funny enough.

Thing is, once you start to notice things, it’s hard to stop.  Anachronisms?  Yup.  For example, it’s 1985 and Mrs Thatcher s heading to the palace.  The Sergeant-at-arms (or whoever it is) warns Her Majesty with the words, “I thought I’d give you a heads-up, ma’am.”  A ‘heads-up’?  In 1985?


L-R Sir Anthony Eden, Allan Cuthbertson as Col. Hall, David Robb as Dr Clarkson

The second half settles into a surer rhythm, but I was thrown off-track by the appearance of Sir Anthony Eden.  Who diid he remind me of?  I was convinced that the actor playing him was the same one who had played Colonel Hall in the Fawlty Towers episode ‘Gourmet Night’ (he of the tiny wife and the huge twitch), and then I realise that whoever did play Colonel Hall must be at least ninety by now, and that was me distracted for the rest of the play.

And then it came to me when I was in bed, and I woke up Mrs W to tell her, not the she expressed any gratitude.  It was the doctor from Downton Abbey.

Glad I cleared that up.

Magical and fabulous: There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake

June 1, 2015

God, I hate so-called “magic realism”.  In books, at any rate.  I don’t get along with Gabriel Garcia Marques, or Isabel Allende, or any of that lot.

(For some reason, I don’t mind it in films.  I’m thinking of The Green Mile, which I like a lot, but there are plenty of others.  I’m not sure why this is.) lies

So  a bit of the way into There Will Be Lies (And Then There Will Be The Truth) by Nick Lake, my heart sank a little when it became clear that a large part of the story would involve the protagonist, 17 year-old Shelby, and her relationship with a fantasy coyote creature who protects her, warns her and leads her into unimaginable danger. At this point I would normally have sighed and  picked up something else.

Trouble is, Nick Lake is my editor at HarperCollins and had the immense good sense and taste to get HarperCollins to buy my book Time Travelling With A Hamster (Spring 2016)  He’s read mine; I should at least read his. And it’s brilliant!  Phew. Shelby has grown up in Arizona, home-schooled by her uber-potective mum and, despite sounding like a typical, worldly American teenager, is woefully ill-prepared for the world.  After she is hit by a car and breaks her leg, she and her mum begin a road trip during which a shape-shifting Coyote turns up in the guise of the handsome Mark offering advice and warning Shelby that all is not as it seems in her life.  She will be lied to – but how and by whom?

There are some terrific twists in the plot, and Shelby’s voice is unique and utterly plausible.  It’s hard to believe that the book was written by a middle-aged Englishman and not a whip-smart US teen. The magic realism is perhaps better described as “fabulism” for it draws heavily on Native American myths which reminded me of the Australian Aboriginal timelessness they call “Dreamtime”, and it’s so deftly handled, and greeted with such scepticism by Shelby, that it slips down without any of the prickles of irritation that I normally experience with this form of story.

PS It has just occurred to me.  Is time travel “magic realism”?  I guess it is, in a way.  In which case I have just written a book in a genre I thought i hated.  Huh.