The Obscurer

Bad Impression

I will never forget the time I went to see Frank Sidebottom at Bradford University. He was to be supported by Phil Cornwell, known at the time for being the voice of Mick Jagger on Steve Wright’s terrible Radio 1 show. Anyway, after around half an hour or so waiting for the support act to bother to turn up, Frank obviously thought “bugger this”, and went on to do his act anyway, and very amusing he was too.

That would have been the end of it, a simple story of the support act not turning up; except halfway through Frank’s act, Cornwell (as he shall now be known) bundled himself onto the stage and proceeded to try to do his act, thinking I guess that Frank would vacate the stage. Frank, presumably under the correct impression that he was the headline act, declined to leave the stage, and carried on with his set. Cornwell was not put off however, and tried to carry on despite the booing that was beginning to emanate from the crowd. He then tried to interrupt Frank and acted as if he was part of a double act; if he was, then there was no doubt who was the straight man. The abuse from the audience grew in volume, and finally culminated in someone shouting “Hit him Frank” about 5 seconds before I was about to; the crowd then erupted in cheers. I think Cornwell finally got the message. We hear sometimes of speakers trying to incite crowds in acts of violence, but I suspect this was the first time it has happened the other way round, especially when the person being incited is wearing a papier mache head.

I mention this because it appears that Cornwell is still being gainfully employed, and at licence-fee payers expense no less, on the TV show “Dead Ringers”. Tragically, I was freezing my bollocks off on Monday watching a dire attempt at Premiership football, and as a result I missed the “Dead Ringers US Election Special” on BBC2. I believe this is the first of a new series, and so I will have to come up with a different excuse not to watch it next week. Perhaps I will just go back to the City of Manchester stadium; match or no match it would be preferable to watching “Dead Ringers”.

Now I know we are in deeply subjective territory when we walk about sense of humour, but for me the failure of “Dead Ringers” shows a problem with impressionist shows in general; “Bremner, Bird and Fortune” is similarly weak. The problem I think is that so much effort goes into getting the impressions right that often the jokes simply get forgotten; it often seems as if the writers think it is enough just to refer to something that has happened in the news to show that they are being topical. With that they think the job has been done.

What is more surprising is the acclaim both programmes receive; it is very rare you ever read a bad word about “Bremner…” Or “Dead Ringers”, and I just can’t fathom it. Perhaps it shows the lack of satirical programmes on the television; in the absence of good satire, bad satire will just have to do. Or maybe there is some conspiracy in favour of impressionists; “Stella Street”, another show “starring” Cornwell, also got rave reviews, despite the fact that not only were the jokes appalling, but so were the impressions themselves.

Alistair MacGowan’s “Big Impression” illustrates perfectly the problem with impression shows; it can be genuinely funny, such as in a sketch where Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are running a mobile cafe; it is directed in the Hitchcock style, complete with a Bernard Herrman-like score to emphasise the drama of running out of Kit Kats. But this is an example of where the comic scenario comes first. In contrast, when he does David Beckham or Sven Goran Erickson, the result is usually poor; he does it because he feels he has to do it, because they are people in the news, and then the joke has to follow on from that need to be topical, rather than coming from true inspiration.

Contrast this with Harry Hill, whose “TV Burp” has recently returned to ITV1, and is almost the only watchable programme on the channel (other than repeats of “Inspector Morse”). He may not be to everyone’s taste but at least for him the joke comes first. He does impressions, and they are generally terrible, but it doesn’t matter because the jokes are funny anyway.

I will continue to watch Harry Hill because he has me in stitches; “Bremner…” And “Dead Ringers” drive me up the wall, so I will leave them to the TV reviewers. Phil Cornwell at least is able to say that he makes me laugh; but only when I recall that day supporting Frank Sidebottom, 14 years or so ago.

And More

Chris Bertram, writing in “Crooked Timber” about the recent study published in The Lancet, which claims there have been nearly 100,000 additional deaths in Iraq as a result of the war, wonders if “there is some figure which, if verified, would lead the enthusiasts for this war to conclude that it was a mistake.” I suspect that there isn’t, and the reaction to the report shows why; any figure produced which casts a negative light on the invasion will simply not be believed by the supporters of the war.

Now I am not going to get into a lengthy debate about statistics; if I had a decent understanding of them then I would have a better job than I currently do. In any case, if you get hung up on any particular statistic, you are likely to come unstuck fairly soon when a conflicting statistic is produced, as almost inevitably it will. But I found some interesting reading in a number of reports critical of the study, in particular Fred Kaplan in Slate and Tim Worstall in Tech Central Station. If I have understood correctly, then one of the main concerns expressed is that the report suggests the number of deaths since the war lies between 8,000 and 194,000, and so may be well short of the headline figure of 100,000. Of course it may well also be much higher that 100,000, but those supporters of the war are unlikely to want to believe that figure, and understandably so. But what struck me was that if we take the lowest, most conservative figure of 8,000, that this is still 8,000 extra deaths compared with the number of dead in the equivalent period prior to the war, when Iraq was under the brutal and murderous dictatorship of Saddam’s regime. To put that in perspective, that is still more than the highest estimate for the number of deaths that occurred in Halabja in the terrible gas attack of 1988. It is still a considerable figure.
A number of reports, (see “Lenin’s Tomb” and Tim Lambert for examples) rebut these complaints of the study and in some quarters there has been a certain amount of rowing back. Tim Worstall has subsequently said that he “completely bollixed the statistical part of my argument”; however he still insists there is “something fishy” about the study. Natalie Solent is generous enough to include links to both Lambert’s article and Worstall’s apology, but still says it is her “gut feeling” that the Lancet study is wrong.

Well, in relation to gut feeling, none of us are experts on everything, and we often rely on our gut feelings to inform our opinions; I am no exception. I am certainly not qualified to say whether the Lancet is right or wrong, and scepticism towards any statistic is healthy I feel. But if the supporters of the war are unlikely to accept the figures in the Lancet, perhaps the study may achieve something, as is shown at the end of Kaplan’s article.

Here, in attacking the Lancet, he praises the work of Iraq Body Count, whose “count is triple fact-checked; their database is itemized and fastidiously sourced.” Their figure for deaths in Iraq is currently between 14,219 and 16,352. Perhaps the lasting result of the Lancet report is that more credibility will be given to the Iraq Body Count; after all, 14,219 additional deaths sound bad enough to me.

Briefly on the US election, and the electorate’s choice of the dunce over the dullard, I don’t think I can put it any better than in this post in “Shot By Both Sides”. As I’ve said before, the American public had an uneviable choice; I’m just glad it’s all over.