Monday, December 19, 2011

Lording It Over The Landlord 12/18/11

Don’t rent from a private landlord; it was advice I wish I had heeded when, standing before a judge in a Los Angeles courtroom, I was suddenly The Plaintiff in a case I brought against my ex-landlord.

Never having been sued or sued anyone else, my experience of courtrooms in general was limited, and my experience of American courtrooms was limited to what I had learned from television – which, as it happened, turned out to be very far from the reality.

I am not someone who is easily scared by bullies, and compared to the Fleet Street editors I am used to, any landlord is always going to be mincemeat. But the court officials – blimey! They were a different kettle of fish altogether. When I forgot about a small can of hairspray in my handbag as it went through the X-Ray at the courtroom entrance, I thought I was going to be whisked off to Death Row quicker than you could say Judge Alex.

Why hadn’t I left it in my car? I was asked. I explained that I didn’t own a car – a crime in LA even more heinous than carrying an illegal can of hairspray.

When the official picked himself up off the floor, he softened towards me, asking about my accent. Clearly, he had consigned me to the dregs of LA wheel-less nobodies, assuming that anyone who couldn’t afford a car wasn’t going to be a huge risk in the acquisition of bomb-making supplies.

It had been a long journey to the courtroom – almost a year, to be precise. My landlord had returned a portion of my deposit when I left the apartment and retained a portion to cover some stains, which I acknowledged had been left on the carpet. After my paying $600, the stains had allegedly had not come out: the carpet company provided no evidence of this; the landlord provided no evidence of this; and, despite repeated requests over many months, no receipts were forthcoming for any replacement carpet.

Californian law is very clear on this, and to cut a very long story short, a landlord must provide evidence of work carried out. So, I sued.

To make a very boring story interesting, let’s call The Defendants The Addams Family. Morticia ran the company for Lurch, whose contribution to the whole tale is nothing more than a lurking, verbally threatening figure in the background. As Lurch owned the letting company, I had to sue him; I was also advised to sue Morticia, should Lurch prove elusive.

Serving the papers became a comedy in its own right and will provide plenty of material for my future projects. The Addams Family refused access to the sheriff and so, as the plaintiff is not allowed to serve papers, I called upon the services of my friend Howard, who was visiting LA.

Morticia, I knew, attended a yoga class close by and Howard and I went along in the hope of serving Morticia mid-position. Seventy-five sodding minutes we spent, twisting our heads left and right from Downward Facing Dog and whispering every time somebody vaguely resembling Morticia entered the room. The teacher came over to ask if we were new and that we should be careful not to over-exert ourselves – our dogs were obviously already way too over-active in the head department.

If I thought that employing a sheriff was something I would be unlikely ever to find in my life’s repertoire, employing a private detective was way beyond my wildest dreams; but it became clear that if I wanted to play The Addams Family at their own game, that is what I would have to do.

Private detectives aren’t that expensive and they get the job done incredibly efficiently. My own man, let’s call him Superspook, served Morticia with ease, making an appointment to see an apartment and serving her in the elevator. When she realised what was happening, she pretended to be someone else, but Superspook was having none of it.

The next job was to serve Lurch. Superspook suggested getting his mates together and going in as a SWAT team. Whooooah! I said. Lurch was an old guy who might collapse and die at the sight of a SWAT team at his door; then I’d be up on a manslaughter charge and . . . No, I really didn’t want the SWAT team.

Anyway, Lurch was subsequently served and Morticia represented him in court. After trying to intimidate me beforehand – “You’re inept”, “You know nothing about Californian law” etc. – we were finally before the judge.

I put everything I had learned from my favourite TV courtroom show, Judge Alex, into practice. Stick to the facts. Don't argue with the judge. Don't try to be a smart arse. Unluckily, my judge was nothing like the breathtakingly handsome and witty JA - or perhaps luckily, as I would probably have swooned before the words "This court is in session" were out of his mouth.

And guess what. My TV viewing paid off. The judge was incredulous that Morticia had retained monies and failed to provide any receipts. He concluded by saying that he thought we were both “very nice ladies” and “shouldn’t hate each other” (he was wrong on this - she isn't nice and I do hate her). He would take the case under advisement.

The letter arrived the next day: judgment for the plaintiff, and Lurch’s company was required to pay me back half of what they had kept, plus costs. For a supposedly inept person with no knowledge of Californian law, I was rather pleased with myself. I will also earn more money writing about it than The Addams Family could ever have made out of me.

So, what are the morals of this story?

Watch Judge Alex.

Take me on at your peril.

Because I won’t stop.

I’m like a dog with a bone.

And the only time you’ll ever find me Downward Facing is when I’m ripping you to shreds.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

So, Farewell, Then, Los Angeles 12/8/11

The smell of hops brings it all back. My childhood.

The excitement of coming to Cardiff with my parents, tempered by the dread of having to spend the day with my hand covering my nose: the sickly sweet smell from Brains brewery being the first sign that we had arrived in the big city from Newport, where we lived.

But I’ve still spent most of my adult life in the city in which I was born (albeit often living in other places at the same time); it has always been home to me and, I suspect, always will be.

Now, I’m back full time for real, and the smell of hops is still here, admittedly not as strong as it was to my young self but still a smell that resurrects the past with ease.

There is plenty that has not changed, and to walk through town is to remember so much and, for the most part, smile with the memories.

My first meal “out” as a child was at The Louis – still there - in St Mary Street. Its green awning with gold lettering (or have I imagined the gold?) is as glamorous as it ever was to me, and I can never walk past it without remembering my Big Day Out.

I had just been to David Morgan, where Mum bought us two coats and told me we had to hide them in the boot of the car so that she could break the news slowly to my dad. She can’t remember why she did that, as he was a placid man and certainly not someone who held the purse strings. She now wonders if she bought them on credit, of which he would have disapproved.

The coats were both cream: Mum’s had a fur (fake, of course) collar and mine was imitation lamb’s wool with brown buttons. It smothered me. It would have taken a week to shear me in order to get to my flesh, but I loved it and had never been so excited about anything as that first grown up coat.

It was rare for the whole family not to attend Mum’s shopping expeditions. Normally, she would park Dad, my brother Nigel and me by the Lancome counter in Howells and disappear for three hours, goodness knows where – other make-up counters, probably - but on this occasion it was just Mum and me. In The Louis, I had chicken chasseur and peas and thought I was the luckiest child in the world.

Howells I remember from my student years. I lasted two days working on the sweet counter, where a woman called Mrs Brown used to corner me between the truffles and the chocolate bars and admonish me for the smallest misdemeanour – breathing, topping the list.

It was the early days of credit cards and I used to dread people handing over their sliver of plastic and my having to negotiate this JCB of a machine, when all they were buying was 4oz of fudge. To escape the torture, I quietly told them to go to David Morgan, where they would find everything they wanted, sweeties included, for a darn sight cheaper. It was always the case, and I was sad to see the poor man’s Howells disappear in one of the many changes to the city.

The Philharmonic is still there, too. When I was a teenager living in Bridgend, I endured my first rugby international post-match drinking there and sampled rum for the first time. Lots of it. Rum that sprayed the fields travelling back to Bridgend, as I hung out of the train window, praying for death. I’ve never even been able to smell rum since without retching.

Wally’s delicatessen in Royal Arcade is now a much bigger and far more upmarket affair (so many lentils now. In my student days, I swear they sold nothing but red ones and white rice) and remains an institution. But the Chapter and Verse bookshop, where I bought the complete set of D.H. Lawrence letters, has gone, another victim of the Waterstone’s conglomerate.

Chapter Arts Centre is in the same place, but unrecognisable after its £3.8m makeover in 2006. It was converted from a school in 1971 and I used to watch Woody Allen films there on Friday nights. Afterwards, alone and depressed (my student days were not happy ones), I would ring the Samaritans from the pay phone on my way out. I never had enough money to get past “Hello”. One night, they didn’t even answer and I went round to their headquarters. They didn’t come to the door, either.

The Sherman, on the other side of town, is also still there. I was less suicidal at this venue but recall only that The Seven Swords of the Samurai seemed to be showing on a loop in the cinema – for four years.

So much has changed in the city. The plethora of cafes and restaurants lends a European air to the centre; the dominating feature is the Millennium Stadium, where once I stood queuing with my towel to get into the Empire Pool; Cardiff Bay is one of many jewels in the city’s crown and, on a hot day, a place buzzing with tourists and locals alike.

Change is good for us, and in Cardiff we are lucky in that the old continues to exist alongside the new – the indoor market, the Angel Hotel and, yes, The Louis. I wonder if the chicken chasseur is still on the menu. I might just pop in and find out.

People keep asking me if I am missing Los Angeles. To be honest, not a bit. I was there for nearly three years, enjoyed it, and had a wide variety of experiences. I even took an ex-landlady to court when she withheld a chunk of my deposit and provided no receipts to indicate on what it had been spent. I won my case and was especially proud, as she was a lawyer. I never got to hear the judge say “Judgment for the plaintiff”, but I can at least say that my horizons have been irrevocably broadened.

I made some good friends who I will miss and, come January, I will probably miss the sun. But as the rain beats down on my window as I write, and the wind howls, beating the trees to complete baldness as the last leaves of autumn fall, I still know that I have come home.

And it feels right.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Travelling Tadpole 11/9/11

So, it’s 7.39am and I’m wondering whether to have another dish of the spaghetti Bolognese I had just under 12 hours ago.

Normally, at this hour, I’m craving pizza – or, rather, I’ve eaten the pizza at 5am and am contemplating having a nap before going to the gym.

I don’t know what time it’s ok to have a glass of wine – 7.39am in LA is, after all, 11.39pm in the UK, which makes it reasonable if I’ve been having a long supper, UK time.

But if I wait until cocktail hour at 6pm in LA, that’s 10am in the UK, which makes it decidedly unacceptable.

When I fly LA to London on a flight that lands in the morning, is it frowned upon to have a champagne breakfast, even though it’s last orders time in LA?

When my afternoon tea of a scone and clotted cream is delivered flying into LA mid afternoon, is it any wonder I want to throw up when it’s only 7am in the UK?

Yes, the long haul flying is finally getting to me. I’ve managed it for three years and, when I first moved here and was staying put for up to three months at a time, it never bothered me.

But in recent months I’ve been returning to the UK every few weeks, and I really don’t know where I am waking up each day. Back in Europe, I have also been visiting Paris and Spain, and the first ten minutes of every morning after I’ve been travelling are now spent in a panic as I find myself in another strange bed, reaching out for a water glass that turns out to be a telephone, and something I realise only when it is halfway down my throat.

It could be worse, I suppose. At least I’m not reaching out to a man and trying to make telephone calls from his chest. Or his handset.

As I have said before, I never used to be much of a traveller, so it’s still all relatively new to me; hence the tiredness, I suspect.

The longest journeys I took when I was a child were to:-

(1) Rumney village to my Auntie Cynth’s for Sunday tea.

(2) Weston Super Mare.

(3) Belgium, where my parents were so appalled by the shabbiness of the room, they contemplated driving straight back to the ferry. It was only my tears at the thought of having my first trip abroad so cruelly halted that I believe stopped them.

And let’s not forget:-

(4) Pwllheli, when my mother insisted on stopping at every single gift shop between Bridgend and North Wales (I swear I had three birthdays in the time it took us to get there).

And:-

(5) Cornwall, where, for some reason, at the height of summer, my parents thought it much more exciting not to book any accommodation in advance. “NO VACANCIES” is a sign that brings me out in a sweat even to this day.

So, I’m not sure where my recent new-found love of travel has its origins; but I do know that, for the moment, I’ve had enough of it.

I loved returning to my house in Cardiff for my birthday, different trees shedding pellets of autumn on my driveway. One friend wanted to sweep the pieces of autumnal debris away; I insisted that they stay, loving the reminder of seasons after such a long spell in the monotonous, albeit mostly glorious sunshine of California.

My rhododendron bush was flowering in the back garden – five months early, a sign of the warm weather I have missed (when, bizarrely, California was enjoying a less warm spell).

I opened my sweater drawer and put on my red cashmere for the first time in three years.

My mum and her dog came to stay.

I saw so many friends, in London, Paris, Spain and Cardiff.

I went to the 21st and 18th birthdays of my friends’ children and loved talking with young people, embarking on their adult lives, so full of hope and promise.

I bought food in a market in Paris and remembered how great things could taste outside the blandness of California, where a tomato could be a pomegranate for all the difference in taste.

I woke to exquisite sunrises in Spain and felt thrilled once more to be so close to the variety of truly glorious European cities.

There is a wonderful Alice Munro (the Canadian genius – and it’s not often you hear those two words in the same sentence) who wrote a story about some children, trying to re-locate tadpoles from one part of a pond to another. They successfully managed it, only to return in the morning to find that all the creatures had returned to the place from whence they came.

I still love travelling and am fortunate to have seen so many great spectacles in so many different countries.

But sometimes tiredness alone makes you just want to be a tadpole again – and eat pizza at the time it was meant to be eaten.

Eight pm. In front of the telly. At home. In my sweater.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happy Birthday To Me 11/5/11

Today is my birthday.

I’ve had a lot of them, so I now know what to expect.

It’s very different from what I could expect over four decades ago. Then, my party guests would arrive not only with a present but a box of fire-works, which my father would set off in our garden after the sausage rolls and party games (which I had to, and did, win).

During the gunpowder part of the proceedings, I was the child hiding under the table in the dining room. I wanted everyone to go home so that I could play with my presents.

I also hated fire-works. I still do. When it’s the main noise that greets you on your first day in the world, it’s hardly surprising. I’ve never really understood the appeal of standing around in the cold, eyes streaming standing next to a roaring bonfire, watching a pretend man being roasted alive and having your ears invaded by loud bangs.

Decades on, the friends I once invited to parties usually cannot come to mine now because they are going to their own children’s bonfire events (and that’s what they are now: events. Unless you can reproduce The Towering Inferno on your lawn, it seems you are nothing these days). The most I can hope for is friends who are divorced and it is their year to do Christmas with their children, which frees them up for Bonfire Night. For ME. To every cloud and all that.

The last few years have been ruined by the All Blacks playing Wales in autumn internationals. Three years ago, I sat at a table I had booked for 20 in the Indo Cymru in Canton in Cardiff, with just five people: one was my mother, two my brother and his girlfriend, and another couple I suspect I might have hired off the street. I choked through tears on my Biriyani.

I remember my big birthdays very clearly. On my 18th, I had a hairdo that could have competed with the Taj Mahal as one of the world’s great free-standing structures. I had a turquoise top and trousers that has been in fashion at least five times since.

On my 21st, I was dressed in a long brown crimplene frock. My grandmother came for tea but I remember the day mostly for the hysteria in our house trying to keep Emma the menstruating poodle off the sofa and away from my grandmother’s nice suit.

I have had three birthdays that I recall as being the happiest days of my life. The first was my ninth and I had been given a gorgeous cream plastic tea-set decorated with brown flowers. As usual, I couldn’t wait for my friends to leave so that I could get it out of the box and play with it.

My 40th, in Soho House, the central London private members’ club, was extraordinary. Surrounded by colleagues and friends, I had never felt more loved. My brother had tracked down Ricky Valance, who sang the number one hit Tell Laura I Love Her. I was a big fan of his, not for that song, but Movin’ Away, which I used to sing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror in my youth. Ricky had recorded a message, which my brother played to the room; I also had a framed signed photo.

My mother also threw a family party for me near her home in Bristol and that, too, moved me to tears.

I wanted to celebrate the last day of my 40s with people I admired. I visited Simon Cowell in his smart London office and, in the evening, went to the theatre and shared a glass of champagne with Kenneth Branagh in his dressing room after the show.

I had three 50th birthdays: one, for close friends in the Bleeding Heart restaurant in London. Most people there had been at my 30th, too (apart from my therapist – if you haven’t had one by 50, you are so not of the NOW), and I felt blessed to have acquired – and kept – so many wonderful friends.

The second was at my Cardiff home, where I cooked for 70 and brought together many new friends with older ones who had known me since childhood.

The third was in Paris with friends I had made during my decade in France, and there were also new ones from the Paris/Welsh society. The last departing guest was lifted away, unconscious, by the pompiers, who were not happy, shouting that it was not their job to take away drunks of an evening. Ha! You want to be in Cardiff on a Friday night, I called back – or would have done, had my French been better and I did not harbour a fear of being beheaded.

I love birthdays. With each passing year, I am reminded that everything changes – and, yes, some things stay the same, and that is no bad thing, either. If I go tonight, I have still had a better life than most people in the world, let alone the country.

Age is not something that should frighten us, and the passing of days is not something we should mourn. Time is an ongoing period of learning: we have our successes and we have our failures. But we pass our wisdom – and our regrets – to others, who hopefully learn a little from both.

For me, it is the true meaning of everlasting life. Today, I celebrate it.

And, if you see me, you can celebrate it with me too.

Triples all round!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

La La Means I Love You - Sometimes 10/29/11

Travel while you’ve got your health.

It was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I have ever been given.

At the time, I was taking a cruise around the Mediterranean, writing a travel piece for the Daily Mail and enjoying the delights of Monaco, Malta, Sicily, Rome, Corfu – amongst others.

Don’t ask me in which order; Geography was never my strong point (in fact, a Geography lesson was one of just three times I was told off throughout my entire school career – for sneezing. Mrs Price went so ballistic, you’d think I’d pulled out a weapon and gunned down half the class. Teachers didn’t mess around in Bridgend).

I had flown just a handful of times on short trips during the preceding ten years; mostly, my travel was confined to the Eurostar, as I was renting an apartment in Paris, where I subsequently lived for six and a half years.

On the cruise, I met two very well-travelled American women from Washington, and it was Lisa, who has since become a close friend, who made the comment about appreciating travel while your body was still able to keep up with your mind’s intentions.

I was, of course, lucky to be travelling with Cunard, on a luxury liner where I ate the best food I have ever tasted – anywhere. The outstanding service in the Princess Grill (the higher end of the price range) put the normally poor service we receive on land in the UK, to shame.

Waking to sunrise in Monaco’s port moved me to tears (as did the prices, but that’s another story). So did the Sicilian coastline.

Rome was an enormous thrill (it was good to return, having visited only once previously for a rugby international, when I missed the entire city, returning to the UK and declaing that there was “nothing there”).

Malta was an unexpected pleasure.

And as for Corfu – I could have disembarked and spent the rest of my life there.

In the three years since the cruise, there has never been a month when I have not been flying off to another destination. I left Paris in 2008 and, for the past two and a half years, have been renting an apartment in Los Angeles.

I had always been someone who made sweeping generalisations about “all Americans” and wanted to dispel the prejudices that had been instilled through having been born and raised on our small island.

Having now travelled around the States and met a lot of Americans, I can confidently say that it is only “most” Americans who are uneducated, rude, uninteresting and uninterested, and hogs at a trough when it comes to bargain breakfasts in Las Vegas (actually, when it comes to that last one, I’m going to stick to the “all Americans” observation).

I have loved the energy in LA: the work ethic that permeates the whole city.

I enjoyed the craziness of Vegas (and saw Mayweather beat Mosley – live sweat, blood, and the thwack of leather on bare flesh: you can’t beat it), even though on my second visit I decided that even a second night was too much.

I burned off calories enjoying walking the hills of San Francisco (almost as much as I enjoyed the walk to the tarmac to leave the place).

A few months back, I was fortunate to be offered another cruise, this time on Crystal, around the Mexican Riviera – the R word being as far removed from its French counterpart as it is possible to be.

The poverty in Mexico broke my heart, but I like to think that I contributed to the local economy with my collection of hats, jewellery, bags and henna tattoos purchased on the beach.

How quickly “Look, piss off! I don’t want any of your tat!” turns into: “Where can I buy an extra couple of cases to take all this stuff home?”

Now, I am returning to Europe. I miss it. Despite my new-found love of travelling, the European in me misses home. Long haul travelling is also exhausting, and when I found myself returning from LA every three weeks on 12 hour flights, I thought that it was probably a sign that home was beckoning.

Last week, I was in six countries in as many days – New Zealand, the US, Wales, England, France and Spain.

My trip to Paris reminded me of the beauty of what I have always called my favourite city on Earth. London reminded me of the past I built up, both personally and professionally, over 28 years of living in the capital.

I am writing this from the apartment I bought in Puerto Banus, just outside Marbella, six years ago, looking out at 180 degree view of the Mediterranean in 27 degree sunshine – at the end of October, for heaven’s sake. On days like this, Spain reminds me that its south coast weather is as good as any I experienced in LA – and without the unhealthy smog.

Although my rugby World Cup trip to New Zealand instilled the country in my mind as a place to which I will never return unless under arrest, I am glad to have gone.

And finally, returning to Wales reminded me of the fact that no matter where you go in the world, your first love is for family and friends.

I have no doubt I will keep travelling – while I’ve got my health.

And there’s also one very important thing I’ve learned that would be the travel advice I would pass on to anyone, just as Lisa passed her wisdom on to me.

Not every holiday has to end with a lease.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Life, Death and a Bit on the Side

Check out my other blog: Life, Death and a Bit on the Side at http://jacistephen.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ashton vs Charlie: There's A New Trunk On The Block 9/20/11

Why would anyone subject themselves to a bunch of showbiz (mostly) B listers abusing them not only in front of a studio audience but viewers at home?

The “celebrity roast” is bear pit television in LA. A celebrity – invariably one who has a dubious moral record – sits in a chair, while the “roast master” introduces the other celebrities, who in turn get up to deliver a comic monologue denouncing the star’s shortcomings.

For the less practised, the struggle to read an autocue full of jokes that have been written for them is embarrassing to watch; other performers display genius both in terms of material and presentation.

Last night, Comedy Central aired the Charlie Sheen Roast, just an hour after Charlie’s replacement, Ashton Kutcher, made his debut on Two and a Half Men, from which Charlie was sacked.

Kutcher’s entrance was in wet clothes, from which he quickly excavated himself and bared all – alas, this was hidden from the viewers sitting at home, but we nevertheless learned in the storyline that he is allegedly hung like an elephant.

Or maybe that’s just his character.

Anyway, CBS will have been rubbing their own trunks with glee when the viewing figures came in – 28 million.

The roast made less easy viewing. The brilliant Seth MacFarlane was roast master and was a good sport about taking jokes against himself too, even though they were pretty lame ones referring to the possibility that he might be gay but unwilling to come out of the closet. Who cares.

Mike Tyson delivered his speech with enormous energy and charm and looked in danger of expiring with the hilarity of the whole night, especially jokes in relation to his facial tattoo. Jeffrey Ross was the fantastic old pro he always is, even though a little bizarrely dressed as Colonel Gadhafi, and William Shatner was the star we know him to be.

And then there were some other people of whom I had never heard – which seemed to be the case for Charlie and Seth, too.

There were some very funny jokes, with many references to Charlie’s drug and alcohol problems and his psychological meltdown that followed his sacking from TAAHM. This was as sad as it was amusing, with the star later admitting that he hadn’t realised how screwed up he was until that night.

His own speech was a polished masterpiece and also rather moving, in the obvious realisation that here is a man who has been through hell and come through. Probably.

What left a far less pleasant taste in the mouth were the references to the women Charlie has physically abused, and quite why people were able to laugh so loudly at the idea of bleeding women cowering in corners and having things violently thrown at them is beyond me.

The bigger mystery was why one of them – ex-wife Brooke Mueller – was sitting in the audience, laughing uproariously along with everyone else.

But then I remembered that I recently made a “joke” on Facebook about the UK show, Red or Black, when the first winner of £1million was revealed to have served time for beating up his ex-girlfriend. Would the show now be called Black or Blue, I questioned. Most people thought it hilarious, but there were a couple of voices of dissension.

Was my comment any less offensive than the ones I felt uncomfortable with last night?

I think there’s a difference. My comment was a linguistic joke making fun of the show’s title in the light of their having failed to do their research properly; the Sheen event seemed to carry the message that if you’re a big enough and rich enough celebrity, you can do what the hell you like, including beating up women, and everyone will love you even more for it.

I enjoy the roasts, although can’t for the life of me think why anyone would subject themselves to the experience. Maybe it’s a way of drawing a line under the past: a way of saying “That was then, this is now” – and moving on, having learned valuable lessons.

Sheen was brilliant in TAAHM and he will go on to do other great work; I also hope that he has beaten his demons and emerged a stronger and nicer person.

But Kutcher will do well as his replacement. You know that phrase people say when nobody’s talking about “the elephant in the room”?

With Kutcher’s naked debut, now they’re talking ONLY about the elephant in the room.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Branson: Best Dick In The World 9/3/11

Everyone recommended melatonin to conquer jet-lag.

Unfortunately, I was so jet-lagged, I told everyone I had taken methadone, which isn’t the same thing at all, and I then had to make a lot of frantic phone-calls to explain that I was not coming off heroin, nor, indeed, had ever been on it.

Anyway, back to the melatonin. I read up a bit about it and gleaned that the only negative was that it made you dream. As my dreams are very vivid anyway, especially in relation to a couple of people in LA (weapons of mass personal destruction feature strongly in those), I couldn’t see the harm, and so downed one before my long haul flight back to the UK.

It wasn’t good. I dreamed I had killed someone and was heading for Death Row quicker than you could say “Last meal curry and chips”.

I also dreamed that a policeman found a gun just as Prince Charles was about to do a walkabout, and threw the weapon into a bush shortly before HRH’s arrival. I wasn’t happy about this lapse in security but luckily woke up before taking the officer to task.

I was flying Air New Zealand but have decided to transfer my allegiance back to Virgin Atlantic; I just can’t take the stress of the ANZ points. With Virgin, you accumulate points and then use them for a guaranteed upgrade. On ANZ, with the “complimentary upgrade” you acquire with points, you often don’t know until the minute before boarding whether you have it or not.

It can be all the difference between sitting for ten hours next to that fat bloke with BO standing next to you in the queue or having your own pod and hibernating for the entire flight.

There’s also the Virgin lounge at Heathrow, which is like a holiday in itself, even though it’s not quite as good as it used to be. To avoid the possibility of the masseurs’ getting repetitive strain injury, they now pummel you with a wheat bag, which, quite frankly, is like being hit with a bag of Tesco shopping, although probably not as effective. The wine isn’t as good, either, although given that they change it often, that hardly matters.

On board, Virgin Business has a bar, which serves as a terrific networking venue; and the in-flight entertainment surpasses ANZ, whose content is not only much older, but comes to you via sets of headphones that enable you to hear everything that people in adjoining seats are listening to.

At least ANZ allows you to watch stuff until the last minute, though; the last hour of the Virgin flight is hell – the Branson clan advertising various charitable endeavours (I admire their altruism, but not when I’m knackered; please change it to the beginning of the flight), followed by the worst music ever composed, which is what you really don’t need after ten hours in the air.

Neither airline comes up to scratch on the food: a Virgin dining plate is so small, it could pass for an eye patch; and although ANZ boasts three great chefs, whose menus are fine, the food is ruined by being laden with way too much butter and so much salt you can’t help wondering if Lot’s wife has jumped into the pan along with the meat.

I was informed that salt is a good preservative, which I know of course; but when dehydration is one of the key discomforts about flying, surely the last thing you need is something that is going to exacerbate the problem.

So I remain very loyal to Mr Branson, who, all things considered, delivers the better product. He also has amazingly loyal and efficient staff, who respond to complaints and enquiries with efficiency and kindness. He also provides me with a credit card that enables me to acquire so many points, I am fast on the way to owning one of the aircraft.

I was really upset that his home burned down on Necker Island and wondered whether I could give him some points to help the rebuild, but figured I need them more than he does. In terms of flying, he pretty much gets it right, and ANZ’s new super dooper planes with white leather still don’t make up for the fact that the reception staff at the Star Alliance lounge used by ANZ at Heathrow are about as friendly as the Gestapo with a hangover.

They really need to learn from the ever fantastic Thierry at the ANZ lounge in LA. Great man, shame about the meagre offerings at the buffet, including a butternut squash soup that I mistook for the contents of the lavatory.

I still can’t quite believe that after ten years of refusing to fly anywhere, I am spending so much time in the air. It’s rather a good metaphor for where my life has been, but finally, this week, I finished my book – writing, not reading, that is. It’s been a long time in the making – over 20 years, to be precise, owing to the many incarnations it has endured along the way.

I didn’t feel any sense of achievement, which I suppose comes only if somebody agrees to publish the damned thing; but at least it’s done.

Maybe Mr Branson would like to buy it for people to read on his planes.

Trust me: it’s a lot better than the racket you’ll hear coming in to land.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Unreal Side of Reality TV 8/20/11

With the exception of everyone working in reality TV, most people in the industry will tell you that the genre is the death of serious drama, documentary, news, et al.

It makes stars of mediocrities, glamorises the inane and takes advantage of the stupid.

And why? Because it’s cheap.

The difficulty arises when you look at the reasons – or, rather, reason - behind the ongoing success of reality TV: it is, quite simply, hugely popular. Katie Price, Peter Andre, Kerry Katona and The Only Way is Essex crew in the UK; the Kardashians, Paris Hilton and all the Real Housewives Of . . . clans in the US – like them or loathe them; this is what audiences want to watch.

The reason why is a more difficult one to understand. Why would anyone want to watch Kerry Katona in yet another reality show? Has there ever been a woman who has achieved so little and yet made so much money from her mistakes? If she really is bi-polar, then it is serious medical help she needs, not more stints in the public eye, exposing her every word and action.

I feel the same about Katie Price. Never mind that her new love Leandro has a limited grasp of English; so does she.

In the States, I recently tried to go a day without hearing or seeing the surname Kardashian; it was impossible. It was like deciding to go to Iceland and vow not to see any snow. The family really is inescapable – in their own shows, on news items, showbiz reports, on the net. Ubiquitous doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I’ve been more of a fan of The Real Housewives of . . . series, but that’s because a group of women bitching amongst themselves always makes for good viewing (it’s as true when this happens in soap as in reality TV).

This week, however, the reality behind reality TV and, in particular, this series, came to the fore when the estranged husband of one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills committed suicide.
On Monday, Russell Armstrong, father to two sons by previous relationships and also five year old Kennedy with his BH wife Taylor, was found hanging in the friend’s house where he had been staying since separating from his wife. He had not left a note.

The papers have reported that in recent months he had claimed that The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills had destroyed his life: that any problems he and his wife had had were exacerbated by the public exposure.

It has since emerged that he was in debt, having struggled to keep up with the outward expressions of wealth demanded by the show, and that he allegedly physically and emotionally abused his wife.

A report also surfaced that he had sent an aggressive letter to Camille Grammer, another of the Housewives and ex of TV star Kelsey, after Taylor confided in her about her husband’s abuse. According to these reports, Taylor had to have reconstructive surgery when filming began, so badly beaten was her face.

It is also claimed that a book revealing Russell’s bisexual proclivities was about to be published.

Now it is claimed that Russell’s family are considering suing Bravo TV, which makes the programme, and especially if they show so much as a frame of Russell.

But is it fair to blame Bravo for his death?

Russell was an adult who, for all the pressure he might have come under from his wife to appear in the show, could, quite simply, have said No. Every reality show always throws up people who claim to have been “destroyed” by it afterwards, yet they always seem to be the people who have not made as much money as everyone else who has appeared.

The difficulty of appearing in front of any TV camera, whether it be on reality TV or in a proper job (yes, I am making a clear distinction), is that it changes you; it has to, in order for you to be able to do the job well. You are not in the pub, chatting with a few mates, with half a Stella spilling out of your mouth and down your front; you are inviting people into your world, for better or worse, and asking for their opinion on how you live your life.

And, to that end, you are always on show and trying to portray the person you want them to see, rather than who you actually are - yet it is that, ironically, that reveals the truth you are often trying to hide. That's because you have to be a bigger personality for the small camera and that means that every aspect of you, good and bad, is magnified tenfold.

I’ve been in front of the camera a lot of times. I was an extra in Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein and was demoted from grieving widow in warm church to starving, freezing peasant in courtyard, because I was considered too short to be a widow (“But short people can be widowed!” I complained, to no effect).

I filmed a series called So You Think You Want a Healthy Lifestyle? for Channel 4, when they left me with a camera to film myself, if and when I had something to say. They had to bring eight hours’ worth of extra tapes on day one, after I filled up the initial batch on the first night.

I appeared regularly on daytime TV for many years and had to be “on” as they say in theatrical terms all the time. For those presenters doing two hour stints of live TV every day, I have nothing but admiration. My own ten minute slots were stressful enough; performing for long periods really is like playing a part in a multi-faceted play in which you are never offstage. You cannot help but reveal aspects of your true and often not so pleasant self.

I could go on. The camera brings out your inner egotistical monster and, in the case of Russell, I suspect it released demons he was already, at best, trying to keep under control. But reality TV is not the perpetrator of the crime - only the key to setting free what is safer locked up.

With or without the show, Russell might still have taken his own life – many abusers do; it is the ultimate act of violence. It is desperately sad that he has left a grieving family, including three children.

But let’s not lay blame at the door of reality TV.

That’s too easy a copout for what was obviously a complex, tortured soul whose problems off camera always threatened to overwhelm him.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Collared By The White Collar Audience 7/7/11

Where have White Collar’s opening titles gone?

Where is the energetic music and cheeky grins of Neil and Peter?

I am in mourning.

White Collar (USA Network) is one of my favourite shows on television. The chemistry between Matt Bomer (ex-con Neil) and FBI agent Peter (Tim DeKay) makes them one of the best double acts in the history of crime drama. With the exception of some of the external shots (allegedly New York, but which High Definition turns into something resembling your old kitchen), it looks, sounds and feels fantastic.

But I am in mourning for the old titles.

What they did was set up the very spirit of the show and the relationship between, and characters of, Neil and Peter. The new music is dull and creates no sense of tension of the drama to come. The boxes featuring the characters are a throwback to Sixties titles but have been given a modern twist that is out of kilter with the almost quaint elements that follow. They don’t work because they convey a sense of disconnectedness between the various elements of the show.

If I had never seen White Collar, I would have no idea as to what I might be about to see and, in the time it took me to work it out, I would be reaching for the remote.

So many fans have complained about the new sequence that USA executives have decided to let viewers decide on whether the show should revert to the old sequence and music. Voting opens tomorrow afternoon (Friday 8th July); the choice will take effect in two weeks and continue all season.

It is a brilliant piece of marketing and one that would be inconceivable in the UK, where viewers’ opinions are less respected than they are here. I recall when Dallas replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie, such was the outcry against her successor, Donna Reed, that Ms Geddes was reinstated. Likewise, the outcry when the show killed off Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) and resurrected him as having been part of wife Pamela’s dream. Unfortunately, over on the sister show, Knot’s Landing, they continued to mourn him long after Pamela (Victoria Principal) had woken up.

I am very admiring of a network that listens to viewers who, are, essentially, paying the wages of everyone in the organisation. Executive producer Jeff Eastin is a keen Twitterer, and his updates about the show, its characters and plots, also help to engage the audience. If I have to record White Collar, I can’t go on Twitter until I have watched it, such is the enthusiasm of followers who cannot help but give away the plot.

I’m as involved as anyone in this latest off screen drama and will be casting my vote tomorrow – in favour of the old sequence, old music (versus new sequence, new music – you can’t mix and match). I’ll also be trying to catch another criminal on the White Collar website and drooling over the wonderful Mr DeKay and pretty Mr Bomer.

And here’s my prediction for the vote: overwhelmingly in favour of the old titles and music.

Watch this space.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fathers - at LIfe, Death and a Bit on the Side

Please continue to follow me on Life, Death and a Bit on the Side at http://jacistephen.blogspot.com

Friday, April 1, 2011

Grouponism: The 12 Step Cure 4/1/11

My name is Jaci and I am a Groupoholic.

And I didn’t even know I was an addict until I found myself waking up halfway through the night and going to my computer, for fear of having missed a bargain while I was sleeping.

Grouponism.

It started out like any other addiction. At first, a small pleasure, with me innocently signing up to what appeared to be a great bargain. A mere $35 for a $60 meal? What could go wrong? A $40 facial for $20? All the things I loved, suddenly at my fingertips, for considerably less money.

Then there were deals for things I didn’t even know I needed until Groupons came into my life. Boot camp! Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of it before! Six $80 sessions down to the bargain price of $25! I’ll take it!

More things followed. Rally driving. Golf. Rambling. Scuba diving. Infra-red sauna treatments. Microdermabrasion (whatever that was). Tattoos. If it was a bargain, I wanted it. And, down to three hours’ sleep a night and needing to grab the best Groupon deals before everyone else, I invariably got it.

Incredible. I was rich, and the more I spent, the richer I seemed to become.

I was living a double life and loving it.

I had easily been able to segregate my Groupon life from what I called my normal life. My own Grouponism was a guilty secret - I Grouponed alone, I hid my Grouponism from friends and family – but I carried on with my Groupon-free existence, never wishing to openly acknowledge what was happening in that dark place.

The hotels and bars I frequented were Groupon-free zones, where I laughed at people afflicted by Grouponism. How I sneered at their desperation and their sweaty little hands, frantically waving their pieces of paper proclaiming the deal, and making demands upon staff whose eyes you could see burning with Groupon hatred.

Now, it’s all gone horribly wrong; suddenly, Grouponites are everywhere.

In all my once Groupon-free zones, there are dozens of people, sheafs – reams - of paper scrabbling for air space, and customers demanding why they can’t use their Thursday Groupon on a Friday, and why the sliders have lamb rather than beef fillings, and why you can’t use the Groupon for a Martini instead of a glass of wine.

Having got the bargain, they have to find something wrong with it and are never happy. I also notice that Grouponites never tip. The deal spells it out: you have to tip the staff, as tips are not part of the Groupon; but the Grouponites are so intent on landing a bargain, they ignore the small print of the deal.

I now feel permanently incensed on the staff’s behalf – at least, once I pick myself up off the floor after being trampled on by a hoard of Grouponites. It’s heartbreaking. All my favourite places have been turned into scenes from the Alamo.

Suddenly, I don’t want to be associated with these people, but have I left it too late? Has my addiction already taken too strong a hold? I have begun to loathe the very sound of the word.

Groupon. The monster that is Groupon.

Is there a Dr Groupon in a dark office, wondering, like me, how his wonderful creation got so out of hand? How all of us, wanting a bargain and signing up for our discounts, have turned so resentful, owing to the fact that now, when we go to our favourite social destination, we have to hack down fellow Grouponites who stand in our way?

Having resolved to wean myself off, however, I discovered that there was no help available, no known cure: no counselling groups, no programmes, no newspaper articles revealing how we might dig ourselves out of this mire. And so I set about devising my own 12 Step Programme that I hope may be of use to those finding themselves in the grip of the same addiction and wishing to step off the Groupon ladder once and for all. So, WE:-

1. Admitted we were powerless over Groupons – that our lives without bargains had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power lesser than our consumerist selves could restore us to sanity – Debt.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Debt, as we understood It.
4. Made a searching and fearless financial inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to Debt, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our Groupon inclinations.
6. Were entirely ready to have Debt remove all these defects of consumerism from our weak and feeble characters.
7. Humbly asked Debt to remove the word Groupon from our computers and to block all invitations from future Groupons.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed in our fight to beat them to a bargain, and became willing to make amends by returning all gifts purchased by Groupons.
9. Made direct amends to such people, wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them even more than we already had, when we trampled them while rushing to the discounted Martini.
10. Continued to take personal inventory of our bank accounts and, when we noticed our savings mounting up, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with Debt, as we understood It, praying only for knowledge of Its will for us and the power to carry that out in getting our bank accounts back into the red.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other Grouponites, and to practise these principles in all of our financial affairs.

My book on the subject will soon be available on Amazon, by the way, price $29.99. $10 with a Groupon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Grief Encounter 3/30/11

Sometimes, you just have to accept that there are people whose sole purpose on Earth is to give other people grief.

Invariably bitter about the lot they have been dealt themselves, their strategy lies in the hope that in making others miserable, they will somehow feel better about themselves.

It never works, and they never learn that it never works; the poison just keeps eating away under the illusion of power.

I’ve had the misfortune to meet quite a few of these people in my time here; in fact, one of the reasons I have not been writing this blog regularly is that some of the individuals in question have made me physically ill. I have met many wonderful people in the two years I have been here, in particular those working in the film and TV industries, which were the reason I came in the first place; but this little pocket of nastiness has left a bad taste in the mouth.

With escalating blood pressure, for which it now seems I will have to go on medication, I went to a bookshop to see if there was anything that might help me deal with the problem in different ways.

There was the Bible of course – be good to them who hate you, love your enemy, turn the other cheek – but I wasn’t quite that far along the forgiveness route at that point.

Then, I happened upon a book titled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – and Most of it is Small Stuff. It explains how most things that keep us awake at night, worrying, don’t really matter, and offers some techniques to help you deal with the difficult people you encounter in life.

One idea is to think of the bad people in your life as babies, long before evil struck them down. So, that’s what I tried to do with my detractors. Bonnets, dummies, toys. I thought of them as young children, innocently playing in the park. I focused on the things beyond their control that turned them into the bullying adults they have become.

This technique was sort of working, until the baby images were quickly dispelled from my mind and replaced by something that made me see right to the heart of my enemies in an instant: the Addams Family.

Forget all those nice little babies; the Addams Family was much closer to the reality. A TV show that was a satirical inversion of the ideal American family, it featured an eccentric, wealthy clan, who delighted in the macabre and were unaware that other people found them bizarre or frightening.

In real life, I had found my own Morticia (well, more like Morticia’s less attractive elder sister - and without the charm): a woman with only occasional wit, and a deathly disposition.

I had also found my Lurch, another member of the group, a man of few words, but regular grunts, sighs, or simply gesticulations. I endured only tenuous connections with the extended posse, with whom Morticia was regularly falling out, although more than one of them sounded as if they could have been a spiritual, emotional and body double for the African Strangler, the Addams' family’s man-eating plant, Cleopatra.

The hypnotist Paul McKenna once tried to help me overcome my fear of clowns by transforming their faces in my head into something more pleasant. I managed to do the transformation work with my Morticia and Lurch, although when you consider that the Addams Family was the surrogate family I replaced them with in my head, it gives an indication of the hell they put me through.

It still astonishes me that you can be incredibly kind towards people, support them through their woes (in Morticia’s case, a lot), and then they treat you poorly, cruelly, unfairly, and often, where finances are concerned, dishonestly.

How do such people sleep at night?

Are they sick, disillusioned, or just plain stupid?

Or just not very nice people?

I come from a culture where I was brought up to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, unless proven otherwise, and I have a long record in being fair and kind, both professionally and personally.

But when I came to LA, people warned me not to be as trusting as I had always been, and it’s true that I have often been disappointed, when what appeared to be one thing on the surface turned out to be the opposite.

I suppose that’s just life: it’s a clich√©, but we really do live and learn. The weird thing is, that when I first met the Addams Family, all of my instincts said Run! I thought I should listen to my head rather than my heart, and it’s not the only time I got that wrong in LA.

City of Angels? There are quite a few here. But when you watch them fly too close to the sunny illusion, their wings, like those of Icarus, turn out to be a great deal less substantial.

So, having learned that, I’m trying not to sweat the small stuff and will be returning to writing on a more regular basis.

Some people, at the end of the day, are just liars, thieves and bastards. One day, they may wake up and realise that the rotten lot they have been handed in life is of their own making.

Yes, they were once all somebody’s baby.

It’s just bad luck that in my case, they happened to be Rosemary’s.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Naked Ambition And AADD 3/2/11

Which came first? The Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, or the desire to be a porn star?

It was the question I was left pondering the most, as I watched Sunday night’s Oscars in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

I did not know that my New Best Friend, to whom I had just been introduced, either had AADD, nor was into acting in porn films. She told me of the former herself and, when she left, another member of the group asked me if I was okay with her chosen career.

To be honest, I had no way of knowing if it was true, and nor did I care; she was fabulous company, and the great thing about someone with AADD, I discovered, is that it really takes the heat off your having to contribute too much to the conversation when you’re tired.

It was a relatively quiet Oscar week for me. On Friday night, I bumped into old friends at Soho House and also made some new ones. I stayed in on Saturday, in preparation for the big day, and had a drink in Beverly Hills’s Villa Blanca before moving onto the hotel.

Villa Blanca is owned by Ken and Lisa Vanderpump, the Brits who have become TV celebrities after their appearances in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Both Ken and Lisa (who handled herself with immense grace, dignity, wit and charm throughout the series) can regularly be seen in the rather exquisite white d√©cor of the restaurant, which is now packed. It was pretty full before, but now it’s a TV tourist hot-spot it’s seriously crammed all the time; at mid-day on Sunday, I managed to get the restaurant's only available seat - at the bar.

But back to the Polo Lounge. The main barman, Greg, was presiding over all with his characteristic friendliness, which is extended to everyone, locals or strangers. He has an uncanny knack of remembering an awful lot about his customers, irrespective of how long it has been since their last visit.

I first met him when I arrived for a holiday in LA in November 2008, shortly before moving here in April 2009 (I can still hardly believe I have been here nearly two years). His effusiveness and calm in a crisis (he managed the crowded bar single-handedly for several hours on Sunday) makes the place one of the most pleasurable social venues, especially for women on their own who don’t want to appear like hookers (not something that can be said for all the hotel bars).

The ceremony was showing on a single TV screen, but I still managed to miss most of it, owing to the noise from customers. Nobody, unsurprisingly, was going to shout “Shssssh!” when the shortlist for Sound Mixing was announced, but for the biggies (actor, actress, director and film), there was practically a riot if somebody breathed over the announcement.

There were cheers from a few Brits for Colin Firth, who won for his portrayal of the stammering George VI in The King’s Speech, and although I was not a huge fan of the film, I adore Colin. Not only is he a lovely man and a terrific actor, he got his shirt wet in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and livened up the review I wrote about it no end.

I wasn’t too bothered about missing any of the big parties when I saw who had attended them. Katie Price was reported as having been all over some Argentinian model at Elton John’s post-awards bash, and anywhere within a mile of that woman is still 1760 yards too close for me.

I almost ventured up to Chateau Marmont, where the Weinstein bash was taking place, but no sooner did the thought enter my head than I fell asleep with jet-lag in the Polo Lounge – not before I had given the porn star some tips, obviously.

So, awards season is at an end and we can get back to talking about what we were wittering about before it all began – Charlie Sheen’s apparent meltdown. It’s now the biggest real life soap opera in LA, out-eclipsing even The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills as THE show to watch.

Charlie also has a porn star as one of his entourage, albeit not the same one as I have. She’s in the papers as much as he is, not only kissing him but fawning over his twin boys, who yesterday were removed from the house.

Where must your career be if you see the ranting, bizarre behaviour of Charlie Sheen as a step up the ladder? You’d have to have a serious case of AADD first to think that, and then to follow through with it.

Which brings me back to my opening question: which comes first, the porn or the AADD?

Who knows. But where Charlie Sheen’s wallet is concerned, neither ever seems very far behind.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Anyone For Charlie Sheen's Tennis Balls? 2/5/11

The whole coke scene has never been something that has interested me, but if the papers are to be believed, LA is under a veritable storm of the stuff.

It’s been reported, for instance, that Charlie Sheen went on the three-day bender with five porn stars and was witnessed diving into a pile of coke the size of a tennis ball.

I’m a bit of an innocent in these matters, so is that a lot of coke or not very much? Does the tennis ball go in one nostril, or is it split between two (a sort of Deuce!)?

One report said that he took it in a pipe. Can you fit a tennis ball in a pipe?

If it’s consumed a few grains (is that what it’s called, or granules, like gravy?) at a time, wouldn’t he still be there, with a teaspoon?

And why has it made his teeth fall out? Maybe he’s chomping a bit too hard on the tennis balls.

Like I said. I’m an innocent in these things.

Now, to the five porn stars. Five! Isn’t that a bit greedy? And surely once you’ve seen/had one porn star, you’ve seen/had them all. One suggested that Charlie was on a suicide mission; well, if anything fatal had occurred and the woman then confessed to having thought that, yet did nothing to prevent it, I’d say that she was on a manslaughter mission – and one without much man’s laughter (geddit?), to boot.

The porn stars worry me even more than the tennis ball. Were they of the kind provided by the madam who now claims Charlie likes fetishism and spanking? How do those fetishes manifest themselves? Do the women Charlie allegedly hires take it in turns? There’s not that much to hang on to on a bloke, so let’s say that one gets the ears, one the mouth, one the bum, and one the penis, what does the fifth one do?

Maybe she’s the ball girl, running back and fore to the bathroom to get more tennis balls. Or maybe the fifth one gets to do nasal sex when there’s not a tennis ball blocking the airways of the only orifice not being taken up by the other four "stars".

As you can tell, I have given over much valuable thinking time to these matters, and as I am totally addicted to Two and a Half Men (although not in a tennis ball kind of way), I can’t reconcile the brilliance of Charlie Sheen as an actor with the mess that seems to be constantly paraded before us in the papers, even though his character bears more than a little similarity to his real life persona.

I actually feel very sorry for him. Yes, people choose to take drugs, drink, sleep around, and embark on all sorts of destructive behaviour; but the reasons why they do so are complex and vary hugely from individual to individual.

He has been criticised for choosing not to go into rehab, but be treated at home, and I say good on him. Rehab hasn’t worked for him; it doesn’t for many people – you only have to witness the number of celebrities being readmitted time after time to see that. It hasn’t worked for Sheen five times now.

If you crashed your car five times, wouldn’t you stop and think . . . Hmm, maybe this car thing’s not for me. Maybe I should take a bus.

Rehab is big here. Huge. Big subject, big business. It’s part of their tourist industry. On one Hollywood tour, the open-top bus stops outside Michael Jackson’s house and plays the 911 call that was made to the emergency services on the day it is claimed he either took or was administered a fatal overdose. Pretty horrific, by any standards, but even more so when there is a man facing trial for his alleged part in the star’s death.

There is a ghoulish sense of impending doom about Sheen, but to me, being looked after in his own home might do him a darn sight more good than being wheeled off to yet another 12 step programme that, in my experience, has worked for only a very small minority – and there is one argument that says that of the small percentage it works for, they would, by the law of averages with any illness, have recovered on their own.

That’s for other people to argue, and if something works for you when you’re rock bottom, then all well and good; but there is not one pill for every ailment, and if Sheen now wants to try something different, he deserves support, not more criticism for having chosen a different route. He is a huge talent and I wish him well in his recovery and hope finds peace.

The whole thing has certainly put me on my guard here. The next time somebody calls out “Anyone for tennis?” I’m going to think twice.

“New balls, please”? No, thanks.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Matter Of Degrees 1/11/11

This is a sentence I never thought I would write: I am freezing in LA.

Having spent two weeks completely buried under snow and, for the most part, unable to leave my house in the UK, I was looking forward to returning to blue skies and sunshine. But apart from three days, the first two weeks of the new year here have been grey, miserable, sometimes wet and, yes, cold.

I am spectacularly ill equipped for it, too. All my sweaters are in a drawer back home (well, six drawers, to be precise – I never risk anything in wet Wales), and as I can’t afford to stock up on any clothes here, I have to make do with layers of skimpy T-shirts and thin cotton cardigans if my nose is not to grow icicles.

Just as the UK is never prepared for snowfall, so LA is unable to cope with unpredictable cold. In bars and restaurants, they have the air con turned up to maximum heat to compensate for the dip in temperature, and then, just as everyone is practically down to their undies to cope with the heat, they turn it off, and you are once more shivering and have to start layering up again.

I spent two hours in Soho House last week, wrapping and unwrapping myself every five minutes like a one-woman, human version of Pass the Parcel. Down by the beach, the bar at the end of the pier is, ironically, freezing indoors, and absolutely scorching outside, with the overhead heaters on full.

My cheeks were so hot at the weekend, you could have taken a couple of slices off them and passed me off as tapas.

Brits are renowned for their willingness to talk about the weather at great length, irrespective of what the temperature is. It’s always too hot, too cold, too wet, too grey.

Forget the possibility of having to swear allegiance to the crown, if you want to come into Britain: what MPs really need to be discussing is people’s ability to merge according to their weather chatting skills.

I just never expected to meet the same enthusiasm in LA, but people here are just as bad. When I first arrived, in April 2009, it was always hot, but that didn’t stop the locals from commenting on the fact.

“Lovely day,” said every taxi driver, wherever I went. Yes, I know, I wanted to scream; it bloody well always is.

Now, though, with this smattering of cold, wet weather, and a not very good summer (incredibly, the UK was warmer), the citizens of Los Angeles talk about heat as if it is an alien, the like of which they may never see again in their lifetime.

Now, when I get into a cab when the sun is out, the drivers sigh, commenting “It’s a lovely day”, as they gaze longingly at the sky, knowing that something, someone up there, is going to steal that golden orb from right under their noses anytime soon.

I used to take the fine weather for granted here, but not anymore. Now, on the rare days when the sun is out and the skies pure blue, I walk down to the ocean to watch the sun going down over the Pacific.

It’s an exquisite sunset, but then sunsets always are – and they’re all different. The first time I came to LA over 20 years ago, it was the sunsets over the Pacific that struck me most clearly and that I remember even now.

Golden, to red, to orange, to yellow and, finally, to the fine sliver of intense white light that tells you it’s all over for another day.

It is nothing short of miraculous.

It’s that last line of light that always brings me to tears. Sunrise and sunset have been metaphors for so much in great art throughout the centuries, and it’s easy to see why. Light fades, light returns; people and experiences come and go; we lose, we gain; our hearts burst with light, they fade in the shadows.

There were shadows, again, in 2010. One friend committed suicide in January, another in December. Several friends were diagnosed with cancer. Family members fell sick. Across the world, tragedies continued to unfold, and still do.

In Britain, on Christmas Day, the body of 25 year-old landscape architect Joanne Yeates was found in Bristol; she had been strangled. This week, in Tucson, Arizona, six people died in a shooting, among them a nine year old girl. Elsewhere, people are starving, dying of thirst, hunger, Aids. Every day, everywhere, the sun goes down.

How do we cope? How does the human spirit sustain such losses, such tragedy, such hardship?

We are extraordinary creations, whose desire to survive, despite all odds against us, gives us strength. We sleep, in order to wake, and we still, incredibly, pull through suffering.

We are as miraculous as the sun and, like the sun, we know that, come the morning, and against all our expectations, we will rise again.

It's the cliche of dawn, but no less true, or incredible, for being so.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Mine's A Snowball 1/2/2011

The Elevator Pitch is one of the main things I learned from my mentor and friend, Blake Snyder, who taught me so much before he suddenly died in August 2009.

There are days when his death still stuns me, but there are as many days when I remember things he said and, at the end of another year, recall with pleasure the things I would not have done, the people I would never have met, had he not encouraged me to come here.

I might never have discovered The Elevator Pitch. Essentially, you have to imagine yourself between floors in an elevator and, in those few seconds, be able to “sell” your movie idea to the important person standing beside you who can make it.

I’m not often in elevators, and the luggage-loaded people in the Heathrow Express lift (I still can’t get used to calling it by its American name) never look in the mood to hear anything other than the ping that tells them they have arrived at their destination floor. It’s therefore hard for me to assess precisely how many seconds you actually have for an Elevator Pitch.

Are you allowed to press the emergency button to pitch a longer movie? If the elevator breaks down, can you justify pitching the sequel, too? It can become a complicated metaphor if you really put your mind to it.

But flying back to the UK for Christmas, I managed to put the EP theory into practice. Sitting in the Air New Zealand lounge, I bumped into Paul Abbott, the brilliant creator and writer of some of the UK’s greatest ever TV shows – State of Play, Clocking Off, Shameless (the US version launches on January 9th).

I know Paul through my work as a TV critic and also know him to be one of the few people in the industry who is hugely encouraging of new writers. So, after inviting him and his colleague to join my table that the lovely Thierry of Air New Zealand always reserves for me in the lounge, I set about pitching my idea. Well, several to be precise, but each of them wrapped up in EP speak, with title and logline, just as I had learned in Blake’s class and from his great screenwriting book, Save the Cat!

Paul responded instantly and very positively to my own personal favourite, perhaps forgetting that there were 11 hours airborne in which I could well be expected to expand upon the EP at great length, write most of it and even get to perform a couple of scenes before touchdown at Heathrow.

Had we been travelling Virgin, with the bar on board, I would doubtless have dragged him to it to do precisely that, so he had one thing on his side in that we were travelling ANZ.

He wasn’t getting away that easily, though, and I continued my EP over a drink at Heathrow and, I have to confess, in subsequent e-mails. It’s not the first time that Paul has been helpful and encouraging to me in relation to my writing, and his kindness and ability to see to the heart of the matter, not only in his own work, but others’, is truly inspiring.

It is also exceptional.

Writers in particular are rarely very encouraging to those they often perceive as their rivals, and, in these tough times, they are even less so. I was struck again, on returning to the UK, how the spirit of negativity increasingly pervades the TV and film industry and, while things are also tough in the US, how much more positive people generally are.

I know that I am living in the heart of the industry, but the constant talk of ideas, scripts and deals really does make you feel more upbeat about possibilities.

Yes, there is a lot of bullshit, as everyone says, but, as I have noted before: as bullshit goes, it’s the best in the world.

It’s bullshit that currently produces astonishingly good TV series. Desperate Housewives, Brothers and Sisters, White Collar, Psych, Life Unexpected, CSI, Law and Order – I really could go on and on. And although I’m less of a fan of the current batch of Hollywood movies, there is still enough variety to provide welcome escape from Britain’s obsession with Royals and toffs.

My experience back in the UK wasn’t helped this time with being snowed in for the entire two weeks I was back. I never even saw my car because it had turned into an igloo; any attempt to venture out meant risking life and limb. And then, just as the snow started to melt, freezing fog closed in, so then I couldn’t even see the igloo.

The only place not suffering from any kind of frost was the First Great Western train, which, between Cardiff and London on my way back to Heathrow, they miraculously had no ice at the buffet.

I have a suggestion: get the people who run our incompetent trains to tell everyone else how to get rid of ice when the rest of the country is ten degrees under.

I was too cold to make any snowmen, but made it to a neighbour’s house where I was offered a real Snowball (advocaat, soda, lemonade). I hadn’t had one for about 30 years and rather enjoyed it.

When I Googled it to check the ingredients, I also happened upon the term “snowballing”, which, I discovered, has nothing to do with Frosty and his eyes made out of coal, but someone taking a man’s semen into his or her mouth and passing it orally to the other – and a term not exclusive to the homosexual community anymore, according to Wikipedia.

I can’t wait to get into my next elevator to start pitching that one.

It’ll give a whole new meaning to White Christmas.