…and you don’t even know it!

jamie

I’d tell you to rush straight to Sheffield to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the new musical playing at the Crucible, but it closes tonight. Oops. I saw it last week, but I’ve been busy. Deal with it.

Anyway, it’s not as if you won’t get another chance, although nothing seems to be set in stone yet. It’s (deservedly) had very strong reviews, the final few performances apparently sold out, it has a wonderful score, and it’s going to have a life beyond this first production… not least because a good half-a-dozen songs in the (terrific) score are so maddeningly, infuriatingly catchy that they’ll be rattling around your head for days after you see the show, even if you don’t shell out for the concept album on sale in the lobby (and on iTunes).

Based very loosely on a BBC Three documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, on one level this is simply another show about a kid who wants to succeed in showbusiness – but specifically, in this instance, to be a drag queen. What makes the show so refreshing, apart from Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae‘s wonderful score, is that it offers a thoroughly joyous, celebratory take on its subject. At the start of the show, Jamie is out and proud, with a supportive mother and a network of friends. It’s probably fair to suggest that Tom MacRae’s tight, funny book at least somewhat glosses over the difficulties Jamie has to overcome in order to a) take his first tentative steps towards becoming a professional drag performer and b) attend his school prom in a prom dress rather than a dinner jacket, but to go too deeply into the ripples around Jamie’s rejection by his homophobic father would have resulted in a very different kind of show, and perhaps, right now, celebrating tolerance and diversity is a more interesting dramatic choice than emphasising difference and rejection.

Aside from his walking cliché of an absentee father, actually, the biggest difficulty Jamie has to overcome, at least in the second act, is that he’s a little too consumed by his own (undeniable) fabulousness. The show’s dramatic meat has less to do with Jamie’s absentee father or his clashes with the school bully; instead, it’s about how Jamie learns to negotiate the space between a combative drag-queen persona and his desire to cross-dress as himself. It’s no kind of spoiler at all to reveal that Jamie does, at the end of the show, arrive at the school prom wearing a dress – but the scene is beautifully, delicately written, and surprisingly touching.

And in the title role, John McCrea is, well, absolutely fabulous. This is a genuine star turn, and it deserves to be seen by a (much) larger audience. He captures Jamie’s curious combination of strength and naiveté perfectly, he has a terrific pop tenor singing voice and great comic timing, and he can rock a pair of heels as well as anyone. As Jamie’s mother Margaret, Josie Walker brings down the house with a ballad called ‘He’s My Boy’, a song which is orders of magnitude more interesting than you’d guess from the wince-inducingly trite title, and Mina Anwar is brassily hilarious as Margaret’s best friend. The actors playing Jamie’s classmates are all fine, with Lucie Shorthouse a particular standout as Jamie’s friend Pritti; ‘It Means Beautiful’, a song in which Pritti draws a parallel between Jamie’s questions about his identity and her own choice to wear a hijab, is arguably the most interesting thing in the score, and Ms .Shorthouse’s performance of it is truly lovely.

There’s slick direction, too, from Jonathan Butterell, who keeps the action moving swiftly around Anna Fleischle’s grey-walls-and-school-desks set. If this is, in the end, a show that delights rather than surprises, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and while MacRae’s book may sometimes lack a little depth, he and Sells have given the show a superb set of songs. The opening number, ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, is a real earworm, and so is the title song; it’s rare, these days, to come out of the theatre humming the tunes unless you already knew them going in, but you will here. If you didn’t get a chance to see the show, the concept album – mostly performed by Sells, with guest performances from McCrea and Walker (and, um, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Betty Boo) is worth seeking out. Despite a scattering of good reviews in the national press, shows like this can easily slip under the radar, and Sells and MacRae’s score is simply too good to be produced once and then disappear.

The Casual Vacancy

How do you take a long, bleak, depressing novel whose single sympathetic character dies within the first five pages, and turn it into a compelling TV series?

It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? Given the book’s sales – nowhere near Harry Potter numbers, but it was still a huge bestseller – there was no doubt that J.K. Rowling’s sprawling, angry debut “adult” novel The Casual Vacancy would be adapted for television or film – but given the novel’s relentless bleakness, that wasn’t necessarily an enticing prospect: Rowling’s fictional village of Pagford is populated by a monstrously unappealing cast of characters, and during the course of the novel’s 500-odd pages most of them behave very badly indeed. Parts of the novel are extraordinarily vivid – a passage in which an unhappy teenage girl repeatedly cuts herself is genuinely upsetting, all the more so because Rowling renders the character’s fractured emotional state with unusual clarity – and the novel’s ending verges on nihilistic. Even the novel’s comedy – and there is a surprising amount of it – is of the pitch-black variety; anyone expecting the nostalgic charm of the early Potter novels would have been sorely disappointed – and indeed, it was greeted with dismay by a number of reviewers. It’s a decisive break from Rowling’s earlier work, and in some ways a very brave move. She obviously wasn’t in any danger of being left destitute by the commercial failure of a new book, but she did risk alienating some of her readers: as state-of-the-nation novels go, this one is unusually brutal, and Rowling clearly does not much admire what she sees in this country on either the right or the left.

Given all of that, it’s more than a little surprising that BBC One’s television adaptation of the novel has turned out to be such a complete triumph (albeit one that lost a couple of million viewers between the first and final instalments, which was probably inevitable given the nature of the material). Not coincidentally, the screenwriter, Sarah Phelps, has played fast and loose with the novel’s plot, streamlining it into three tautly-written hour-long episodes which capture the essence of Rowling’s (intermittently brilliant) novel but do not necessarily strictly adhere to it. There are some major omissions (that cutting scene is gone, and the character involved initially appears to be reduced to a sullen background presence – although five minutes from the end of the final episode, she is given the most significant line in the whole three-part series, in terms of encapsulating what the story is about), and the ending is different than in the novel, offering a possibility of redemption for at least one or two characters. Throughout, more or less every important plot event covered by the TV adaptation is in some way different from the way it is depicted in the novel. It’s not a slavishly faithful reproduction of the source material at all, and – surprisingly – it’s all the better for it.

In place of the novel’s brooding, darkly sardonic social analysis, what Phelps gives us is a tight, laser-sharp comedy of bad manners in which the pretensions and failings of the various protagonists are quietly but ruthlessly dissected, usually within seconds of the character appearing on screen for the first time. Her screenplay moves very quickly – even in this streamlined adaptation, there’s a lot of plot to pack into three hours, and a lot of characters to cover – but it’s written with remarkable economy, and every single detail counts. It’s still bleak, and it still goes to some extremely dark places, particularly in the final episode, but the novel’s nearly unrelenting procession of human misery would have made turgid viewing on TV. Instead, what Phelps – and the director, Johnny Campbell – have made is a show that looks, on the surface, like a typically glossy, shallow Sunday night TV drama, but which has real bite underneath.

And the performances are tremendous. As Krystal Weedon, the at-risk teenage daughter of a drug addict whose collision with the cosily middle-class inhabitants of the village where she lives provides the motor for much of the plot, Abigail Lawrie is a real discovery. The whole cast obviously relish the snap and crackle of Phelps’s nastily funny dialogue; they’re playing awful, awful people, but the whole thing is carried off with a commendable lightness of touch. You don’t really sympathise with anyone – apart from Krystal and possibly Samantha Mollison, the unhappy daughter-in-law of Howard, the monstrous deli-owner and leader of the Parish Council – but it doesn’t matter; the sheer (and recognisable) nastiness of these characters, here, is partly what makes them so entertaining, and the fiction Phelps (via Rowling) draws here is only a couple of degrees meaner than real life. If you’ve ever sat through any kind of committee meeting, the kind of closed-minded pettiness that drives The Casual Vacancy’s plot will not be entirely unfamiliar to you. We’ve all met self-important social-climbing windbags like Howard Mollison; here, refreshingly, Michael Gambon plays him without any kind of twinkle, offering a portrayal that verges on grotesque, although he stops short of making Howard into a boo-hiss pantomime villain. As star turns go, this one is bracingly obnoxious – which in this case is a compliment.

The cherry on the cake is the brilliantly vicious double-act between Keeley Hawes as the aforementioned Samantha Mollison and Julia McKenzie as Shirley Mollison, the monster-in-law from hell. Hawes, whose television work I have not always enjoyed in the past, is in top form, playing Samantha as a tightly-wound woman who survives her family’s bullying by deploying the only weapons available to her: cheap wine, deadpan sarcasm, and her tits. McKenzie’s lyrically toxic busybody of an interfering mother-in-law, opposite her, is simultaneously hilariously funny and chillingly unpleasant (“You aren’t a victim, dear,” she simpers to Samantha at one point in the final episode, “you’re a failure.”). Their final scene is one of the moments that, in contrast to Rowling’s ending in the novel, suggest the possibility of reconciliation and redemption; it’s beautifully written, and Hawes and McKenzie play it superbly well.

None of this, though, adds up to a series that’s exactly likeable – or at least, it’s the polar opposite of the kind of warmly reassuring television drama you’d usually expect to find in the 9pm Sunday slot on BBC1. I loved it, and I’ll be buying the DVD when it comes out (and probably watching it again before then, I haven’t deleted it from the DVR), but it lost a huge chunk of viewers between the first and the final episodes; reading the reviews, too, not everybody is a fan of all of the changes Phelps makes to Rowling’s plot, particularly when it comes to the TV series’s somewhat less brutal ending. It’s anyone’s guess how it will go over when HBO show it in April; it looks, on the surface, like the kind of cosy, comfortable English drama series that plays very profitably to a US audience, and I’m not sure how viewers expecting a modern-day Downton Abbey or a Nice Family Drama will take to a series in which there’s repeated drug use, a certain amount of squalor (and not “designer poverty” either – the production makes no attempt to romanticise the horrible conditions in which the Weedons live), and a fair sprinkling of salty language and behaviour, including a library scene that should make every librarian who sees it refuse to touch a book ever again unless they’re wearing rubber gloves. It’s not simply that the series spits at the complacent small-C conservative middle-classes, although it does – the new ending, indeed, explicitly makes the point that well-meaning do-gooders can inadvertently cause a great deal of harm. It’s that it spits at everyone, perhaps even more than the novel, in which there was more space for Rowling to show us each character’s good traits as well as the bad ones.

And if nothing else, the TV adaptation seems to have really upset the Daily Mail’s appalling Jan Moir. That, in itself, is an achievement worth celebrating.

…and brought a lotta schlock home

Ibuprofen? Check.

Barf bag? Check.

Crackers? Check.

Everybody ready? OK, we’ll begin. It’s time, once again, for the year’s biggest onslaught of televisual cheese. There will be sequins, there will be glitter, there will very possibly be blood, some of which may be mine because before this is over my eyes and ears will very likely start bleeding. Yes, it’s Eurovision night. Whoopee.

A disclaimer before we begin: I am not witnessing this live, because I don’t drink – since I can’t use alcohol to dull the pain, I lack the testicular fortitude to put myself through this without the ability to resort to the fast-forward button if necessary. And I got new glasses last week, and the new ones don’t have the anti-glare coating (most of the time, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference for me, and it starts to rub off if you have the habit of absent-mindedly cleaning your glasses on your T-shirt), so I reserve the right to hide behind a cushion if things get really dicey. The secret to surviving a Eurovision telecast, remember, is to prepare in advance for every eventuality. Including, possibly, your own death in a tragic and horrible sequin/wind machine accident.

Anyway. So. Last year’s winner, if you’re lucky enough to remember, was the fabulous Loreen. No, not Soreen, Loreen. I remember her name, but not her face or her song, which at Eurovision is par for the course for acts that don’t dress like Rosa Klebb after a glitter explosion. Loreen is Swedish, so this year le concours Eurovision is coming to us from beautiful sunny Malmö, capital of Scania and home of the Twisting Torso. That’s a tall building, not a corpse in a Henning Mankell novel, Ystad is 35 miles away.

Our host – in the UK, at least – is Graham Norton. Again. We open with a montage starring a caterpillar, which appears to be touring Europe by boat, train and moped. I think it’s supposed to be cute. It’s not. And of course the caterpillar is now turning into a butterfly in front of the Oresund bridge. A Swedish footballer welcomes us to Malmo (I found the right accent once, I’m not going to do it again) from the side of the Twisting Torso, and now a big choir starts off the proceedings by singing something tuneless. The music is by Benny Andersson, the lyrics are by Bjorn Ulvaeus, and one of the ladies in the choir has a very large gap in her teeth.

Ooh. Now people carrying the flags of all nations are entering via a catwalk over the audience. One young woman seems to be wearing a swan and pink hotpants. These are either the contestants, or a glimpse of Vivienne Westwood’s Primark collection.

Yes, Mr. Andersson, we know you know what a pedal point is. The choir are singing something about a legacy in song. It is, shall we say, statistically unlikely that any of this evening’s victims contestants will end up leaving us a musical legacy that in any way approaches that of Mr. Andersson and Mr. Ulvaeus, but hope springs eternal. That’s why we’re all watching.

Synchronised flag-waving. It’s like ‘One Day More’, without the knowledge that nearly everyone on stage will be dead by the end of the second half.

Here’s our Swedish hostess. And a lot of animated butterflies. She’s wearing what looks like a fuschia replica of the Shard. Her name is Petra Mede, and I’m not going to attempt a pronunciation. She’s talking about Bjorn and Benny, and three lines in she’s winkingly referred to ‘Dancing Queens’. Abba were sadly unavailable, so we have to make do with bb. Agnetha and Anni-Frid seem to have elected to stay home. Probably wise.

Ah, I see. The base of her pyramid dress is wide because it has to hide the tug-o’-war team pulling ropes to keep her smile in place.

Lines do not open until all acts have performed. Seems sensible, but this is only the second time they’ve done this.

May the best song win, Petra says. It usually doesn’t, but what the hell.

Aaaand we’re off. Song #1. Amandine Bourgeois, representing France with the charmingly-titled ‘L’enfer et Moi’ – ‘Hell and Me’. We’ve just seen a montage of Amandine shopping and having her hair done. Hell, presumably, is what happens next. She’s wearing a leather feather duster that’s cut well above her knees, and she seems to want to be a cross between Amy Winehouse and Courtney Love. Team France have possibly put more effort into artfully smudging her eyeshadow than crafting her song’s melody. It’s not bad, and for Eurovision it’s refreshingly rough around the edges, and… oh. Now she’s screaming. Possibly she’s already seen this.

Song #2. The next performance contains flashing images and strobe effects, says the caption on the screen. Don’t they all. Lithuania, Andrius Pojavis, ‘Something’. His favourite part of his body, according to Mr. Norton, is his arms. He wrote the song himself. It’s a sort of u2/early-era The Killers mashup. He’s terribly sincere – white T-shirt, black leather jacket, zombie poses, closes his eyes a lot – but not terribly charismatic. Again, not bad, but pleasantly inoffensive and not really memorable for either the right reasons or the wrong ones. This isn’t what we’re here for.

Now the butterfly is taking us to Moldova, represented in the montage by horses, dancing, and flying lanterns. Song #3, ‘O Mie’ by Aliona Moon. Piano intro, musclebound dancers dressed in white, she seems to be standing behind her dress rather than wearing it, and Emeli Sandé wants her hair back. It’s all Very Meaningful. She’s got a nice voice, and it seems to be about to get very overwrought. Her skirt, strangely, is glowing red as if lit from within, and lightning is being projected across it. And she’s getting taller. Ooh. A lift. And flames projected onto her skirt as the music approaches – please, God – a climax. She ends the song four feet taller than when she began it. At least she didn’t sing ‘Defying Gravity’.

Finland. Song #4, ‘Marry Me’, Krista Siegfrids. I’d rather not, Krista. Thanks anyway. Ah, she’s the lady who was wearing the swan with the pink hotpants in the opening procession. Her backing singers are wearing red frilly rubber aprons, and she’s being carried around by three Inigo Montoya wannabes in Batman masks. The song is generic Eurodisco, and not even good generic Eurodisco. Nicely trashy choreography, but this won’t win. Oh – now she’s got a wedding veil, and a lot of fireworks are going off. That’s what I love about Eurovision. The subtlety. She ends by snogging one of her backing singers.

Song #5. Spain. Y viva Espana. She’s got a Polaroid camera. Who still has one of those? ‘Contigo Hasta El Final’, by ESDM.  Not BSDM, ESDM. Don’t get your hopes up. It starts with a Spanish bagpipe. It’s folksy, the singer is wearing what looks like a courgette flower with gold shoulder trim, and they’re using the wind machine. The guitarist in the brown suit with the shaggy hipster hair has to be on drugs. You possibly would be too, if you’d rehearsed this a few times. Particularly since staying on – or, really, anywhere near – the note is not one of her better skills.

They travelled to Malmo by boat, apparently, and it took a week. How lovely they made it in time so we could all see this.

Belgium. Song #6, ‘Love Kills’ by Roberto Bellarosa. He’s only 18, apparently. Bless. He’s in a dinner jacket and no tie, standing in front of what looks like a selection of IKEA floor lamps, and I think he’s singing in English but I can’t quite tell.  Now the lamps have flown out, and the choreography begins. Oh, bloody hell. Dire sub-Michael Bolton ballad, and the dancers seem to be doing some bizarre cross between a Robert Palmer video and the Funky Chicken. Love kills over and over, apparently. If I don’t fast-forward this, they’re in danger of taking me down with them, and there’s a whole shitload of songs still to go. Moving swiftly on…

…to Estonia. Song #7, ‘Et Uus Saaks Alguse’, by Birgit. Hi, Birgit. A restrained, sweetly sad piano ballad, judging by the first verse. Oh – no, the drums and guitars have kicked in. It’s a 70s MOR knockoff, and I can’t take any more.

Song #8, Belarus,  ‘Solayoh’, by Alyona Lanskaya. The pre-song film montage featured carrot juice and monkeys. This has to be a step up from the last one. Alyona emerges from a six-foot glitterball, her dancers are wearing… well, something white that words can’t really describe, except you can see their bare chests most of the time. The song is a full-on onslaught of Eastern Europe disco WTF, and they seem to have borrowed a bouzouki from Greece. Jets of flame shoot up from the front of the stage, presumably to burn away the shattered remnants of everybody’s dignity. Including mine, for watching. This is pure Eurovision.

Song #9. Malta. He’s a doctor, apparently, and in the pre-song montage we see him walking down a corridor with a stethoscope around his neck. His name is Gianluca, and his song is called ‘Tomorrow’. Hopefully, it’s not that ‘Tomorrow’. He doesn’t appear to be a 10-year-old-girl with red curly hair, but you can never quite tell where the costuming with these things is going to go. We’re back on the folksy side of things again. He’s grinning a bit too much – seemingly with his very prominent eyebrows as well as his mouth – and it would be more charming if he grinned a bit less. Fast-forward time.

Next, Russia. No grandmas this year. Song #10, Dina Garipova, ‘What If’. I think we’re heading into Céline territory here – possibly not a bad tactical move, since Céline, once upon a time, actually won this thing. The song is adult-oriented pop sludge with uplifting/inspirational lyrics, there are four very cleanly-scrubbed backing singers behind her, there’s a melodramatic middle eight, and she’s selling it with absolute conviction. She’s also – and you have to have watched a few of these things to know how unusual this is – hitting all the notes dead-on, even the big ones. Not bad.

Germany. We are again warned about strobe effects, which is redundant at Eurovision. Song #11, ‘Glorious’, by Cascada. It’s an odd cross between full-on Eurodisco and full-on power-ballad, and the strobe effects are more interesting than the song. This is many things, but Glorious is not among them. You can barely hear her singing over the programmed synths. From what I can hear, this is not a problem. From Germany, this is a disappointingly by-the-numbers entry. Better luck next time, Deutschland, this won’t win.

Song #12, Armenia, ‘Lonely Planet’ by Dorians. Generic stadium rock, and yes, they’re using the wind machine. The keyboard player looks a bit like John Goodman. The guitarists are scowling. The song is Not Very Good. Still, the singer has a good, raucous rock voice, and they’re certainly giving it their all. Oh, look – those jets of flame again, accompanying the obligatory post-bridge key change. I have no idea what they’re singing about.

Well, at least that was mercifully short. Back to Petra, who’s still wearing the Pink Shard. She’s got better English than a lot of British presenters. Break for a short “comedy” film featuring Linda Woodruff, a Janet Street-Porter soundalike played disturbingly convincingly by a Swedish actress called Sarah Dawn Finer. She’s better than her script. Long, laboured joke about Abba being the Swedish Royal Family. Oh dear.

And we’re off again, this time to the Netherlands, who haven’t even been in the grand final for a while (no, I did not watch the heats myself – what do you think I am, a masochist?). Song #13, ‘Birds’, by Anouk. We are warned that if you don’t like Lana Del Rey, you’ll loathe Anouk. Noted. I like the idea of Lana Del Rey better than I like Lana Del Rey… and better than I like this. Minor-key music-to-slit-your-wrists-by in 3/4 time, delivered with what’s supposed to be a knowingly gloomy smile. I lasted almost two minutes, I hope you appreciate it.

Song #14. Romania. Again with the strobelights warning. Mr. Norton tells us it’s going to be special. I have a cushion ready. ‘It’s My Life’ by Cezar. Black sequinned Wicked Witch coatdress, overwrought music, dancers writhing under red satin, a falsetto chorus drawn from the very lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno, and the dancers seem to be wearing only flesh-coloured loincloths. This is, indeed, special, and it’s getting more and more special by the second. Cezar looks like a male Dynasty-era Joan Collins who has prepared for an audition for a vampire movie by modelling his vocal stylings on a drunk Kiri Te Kanawa and his facial expressions on a bilious attack. ‘Special’ doesn’t begin to cover it.

And it’s us. Song #15, the UK, Bonnie Tyler. Love Bonnie Tyler. Love, love, LOVE Bonnie Tyler. She is fabulous, and ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ is a genuine pop classic. This song – ‘Believe In Me’ – unfortunately is not. She’s as charismatic a performer as we’ve seen so far, she’s selling the song with everything she’s got, but the song is sludge and she won’t win. Shame, because she’s obviously having a good time, and if anyone deserves another moment in the spotlight, she does.

Home entry. Song #16, Sweden, ‘You’ by Robin Stjernberg. He’s sort of Gary Barlow-ish, until it gets unhinged. OTT chorus, five dancers on a red flying saucer doing choreography that seems to be the result of a collaboration between Twyla Tharp and the Muppet Swedish Chef, and a barrage of fireworks as we enter the final chorus. If you were trying to stage an aneurysm, this is possibly what it would look like.

Hungary. Song #17. ‘Kedvesem’, apparently in the Zoohacker Remix, like that means anything to any of us viewers at home, performed by ByeAlex, and yes, that is supposed to be all one word. He looks strangely like French Nouvelle Star (= American Idol) winner Christophe Willem, his song is slightly folksy hipster-ish pop, and it’s refreshingly low-key and rather charming. He’s toast.

Song #18. Denmark. The favourite to win, apparently. ‘Only Teardrops’ by Emmelie de Forest. She’s very pretty, it’s a perfectly attractive Europop song with a slightly military drumbeat underneath and a penny whistle solo in the intro. Pleasant, cute, but not terribly memorable. She can sing, though, and she’s having a lovely time singing her lovely song, which is nice. Huge cheer at the end, but I’m not sure what for, although it’s got a catchy chorus.

Iceland. Song #19. Montage film includes, yes, lots of snow and ice, and heavy sweaters. ‘Eg a Lif’, by Eythor Ingi. Sung in Icelandic. His look is lounge-singer-goes-RAWK, the song is a dull, rather old-fashioned pop-rock ballad that’s positioned somewhere between Abba and Meatloaf, and he’s got a terrific voice. It’s not unpleasant, but it isn’t going to win.

Azerbaijan. Song #20. ‘Hold Me’, by Farid Mammadov. Oh dear God, this has STAGING. He’s grinning like an evil doctor on an American daytime soap, perched on top of a six-foot perspex box that has a dancer in it mirroring his moves – yes, upside down. For the second verse, Farid jumps off the top of the box and they do an old-fashioned side-by-side mirror act. Then a woman enters in a red dress whose train probably stretches the entire length of Azerbaijan, and the perspex box fills with petals, and everyone grimaces meaningfully until it ends, two choruses later. The song is the sort of overwrought rock ballad people slow-dance to in every disco in every Mediterranean resort, which means it won’t make your ears bleed and you won’t remember a note of it two minutes after it ends. This could do well, although the staging is possibly too batshit insane for it to win.

And now, Greece. Song #21, ‘Alcohol Is Free’, Koza Nosta featuring Agathon Iakovidis. Greece, clearly, didn’t even try this year, and have just kidnapped a cheesy folk band from a backstreet bar in Piraeus, then force-fed them amphetamines to make them play at double speed. I lasted a little over a minute.

Ukraine. Song #22, ‘Gravity’, sung by Zlata Ognevich. She enters carried by a man who is apparently 7’8″ tall, and proceeds to sing a song that starts as a drippy ballad, and turns into a full-on festival of WTF – thumping beat, showy high notes, but it just sort of meanders in search of a point. Still, she’s gorgeous, and she’s got a hell of a voice. It’s wasted on this, though.

Song #23. Italy. ‘L’Essenziale’, Marco Mengioni. He’s probably very nice, the lapels on his suit are very shiny, his song is really boring, and he just stands there. This could really use some half-naked dancers and projected lightning forks. Or a pulse, even, because I’m not sure Mr. Mengioni’s got one. Has the doctor from Malta left the building already? Please, someone check. I’m not sure everyone is going to make it to the end of this song alive.

Another warning about strobe effects and flashing lights. If there weren’t strobe effects and flashing lights, we’d want a refund. Song #24, Norway, ‘I Feed You My Love’, sung by Margaret Berger. It’s a battle sequence from Star Wars with a techno beat underneath, coyly sung by Hayden Panetierre’s twin sister, who is wearing a dress so tight that it had to be put on in hospital under a general anaesthetic. She really goes for it, but it’s not quite demented enough to be a Eurovision classic, and it’s probably too bombastic to win.

Nearly the end of the songs now. Song #25, Georgia, ‘Waterfall’, by Nodi Tatishvili and Sophie Gelovani, whose song is a huge power-ballad duet about how their LUUUUURVE is LIIIKE a WATERFALL. There are fireworks, there’s dry ice, the wind machine is going full blast, and every time they hit a big-ass high note they look like they need to poo.

Ireland. Last song, #26. Not Jedward this time, but there will be flashing lights and strobe effects. Ryan Dolan, ‘Only Love Survives’. Camp Celtic drummers who’ve been sprayed with cooking oil, a big anthemic chorus, strained high notes – this is a slab of toxic Eurodisco that’s sung, apparently, by a computer-generated Danny Zuko wannabe. It’s awful – less awful than Jedward, obviously, but possibly awful enough to do well.

And that’s all the acts. I’ll spare you the pre-voting recap because I’m fast-forwarding past it myself, obviously – I mean, really, if I couldn’t even make it through some of those songs once, I’m not going to stick around for the recap.

Petra’s back to announce the interval act – last year’s winner, Loreen, singing a medley of her biggest hit and wearing a black-and-white feathered thingy on her shoulders that could potentially poke out the eyes of several of her dancers if they get too close. ‘We Got The Power’, she’s singing. She looks quite angry. Possibly she didn’t choose that outfit, or possibly she’s just pissed off because she knows that if she moved a little to her left, the wiring in her shoulder-feather-thingy would pick up a much better TV show from Denmark.

Ooh. There are acrobats on wires, and the music just got worse. She’s taken off the feathers now, and replaced them with a black-and-white copy of Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The stage lifts her back into the air, the end of the coat stays on the ground, she finishes the song 15 feet above the audience to a wall of cheers. Not a tough crowd, this.

Another recap. Fast-forward time.

Petra has now changed into the colours of the Swedish flag, and before we start in on the points we’ve got film of Bonnie Tyler’s lovely week in Sweden. What this mostly reinforces is that yes, she’s great,  but why couldn’t we find her a better song?

Interval act #2 – Petra, leading us in a song-and-dance celebration of Swedish kitsch, complete with dancers toting elk antlers, nods to the Muppet Chef, ‘The Seventh Seal’, vikings, IKEA,  and ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, and thirty seconds of choreography about recycling. It’s even got a chorus-line of high-kicking footballers and a woman writhing in a martini glass full of milk.  It’s utterly cheesy, and possibly more completely fabulous than nearly anything else we’ve seen this evening.  And Petra, amazingly, knows how to sock a big production number across the footlights.

Voting now. I’ll be skipping a lot of this, because who cares? Oh, wait. No, we’ve got Sarah Dawn Finer as herself, giving us her self-consciously arty cover of ‘The Winner Takes It All’. Ms. Finer clearly does not feel compelled to stay too close to the song’s actual melody. No wonder Agnetha stayed home.

So, yes, the voting. This hasn’t been a banner year – even the camp kitschfests were fairly subdued, there was nothing as demented as last year’s Russian Grandmas, and we can all predict which countries will vote along which nationalistic lines well in advance. And getting through this part of the broadcast takes about forty minutes, and I can’t be arsed. We all just want to know who won, and who got nul points. Denmark have an early lead, Estonia are bottom, Bonnie Tyler is also near the bottom of the board.

Now Ireland are bottom, nobody has nul points – shame – and we’re still languishing in the bottom half of the bottom half of the board.

…and with four countries still to vote, Denmark have won. We are still in the lower half of the board, so the battle now is a race for the bottom. Rather like the whole competition, if you’re cynical. And who isn’t when they’re watching this?

Oh. That catwalk over the audience is supposed to represent the Oresund Bridge.

Ireland’s bottom. Surprising, even given the blatantly nationalistic voting – he was far from the worst. So next year we’ll be in Denmark, and now we get another blast of Emmelie de Forest, with an extra glittergasm on the last chorus.

Overall: B-, apart from the Swedish Smorgasbord number, which was a knockout. Let’s hope Denmark can bring back the kitsch next year.

This year’s winner:

Isles of…

It’s here. The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. I’ll say upfront that I’m more than a little cynical about the games, and particularly about the relentless, neverending marketing of, well, seemingly everything to do with the games.

The team putting together this spectacle, though – headed by Danny Boyle – is intriguing, and it’s the biggest show this country will stage this year. So… liveblog, slightly edited, first, then commentary afterwards.

9.01pm  Opening credits – oh Gawd – start with a parody of EastEnders, mixed with Lloyd Webber’s Paganini variations and a snatch of Muse.

9.03pm Bradley Wiggins can cycle really fast for a long time, but can he ring a bell? Oh, yes he can. Good.

9.04pm Three minutes in, and we’ve got a choir of children singing already. Solo treble singing ‘Jerusalem’. He’s very good. Choirs of children from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – they’re ordinary kids, not choral scholars, and they’re excellent. Rural scenes – grass, fields, farmers, peasants, geese. This might be who we were, but it mostly isn’t who we are today.

9.05pm – Is that Kenneth Branagh in a top hat? And look, there are some less famous actors dressed as poor people. And the choir is back to singing ‘Jerusalem’.

9.06pm – Yes, that’s Kenneth Branagh, and my God, he can mug to the cameras. There’s none of that in ‘Wallander’. Thank God. Apparently he’s playing Brunel; he’s delivering a speech from ‘The Tempest’, and clearly having the time of his life. Good job there’s a lot of scenery, because he’s leaving bite-marks in most of it.

Since this is directed by Danny Boyle, of course, the first thing I want to know is when someone is going to dive head-first into a toilet?

(Our national dignity already did that several days ago, so no, you’ll have to bet on something else.)

9.08pm – Oh, goody. Now we get a tableau vivant depicting the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent decline of rural Britain. No room in these three hours to go back through more than 250 years of our history, then.  Evelyn Glennie hammering the percussion dressed as a peasant, actors dressed as more peasants walking over turf… it’s huge. Drummers in the aisles, rising mill  chimneys… it’s undeniably impressive. And loud. Mill chimneys rising out of the ground; I’m from the middle of the area where the Industrial Revolution began, and it’s a part of our history that we don’t often show to the rest of the world. For better or worse, what happened here then changed the world, and it’s far more important, in terms of the makeup of our contemporary society, than the bucolic rural scenes we saw at the beginning.

9.13pm – As set-changes go, this one is pretty good. This section, apparently, is called ‘Pandemonium’. Here come the suffragettes. Goodness, we’re moving through history quickly here, aren’t we? The music is loopy, bombastic electro-dreck. Interesting, though, that what we’re seeing is mostly presented from the point of view of workers, with the industrialists/capitalists sidelined in a little group, apart from the main action.

9.14pm – There must be something wrong with my TV set. I can’t see any corporate logos.

9.15pm – Poppies. We’ve reached 1914.

9.16pm – Awww, cute. The Industrialists are pretending to be cho0-choo trains.

9.17pm – it’s the cover of ‘Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’! So two-thirds of the Twentieth Century can be summed up by a war memorial, industrial machinery, and the Beatles.  There’s a parade of (actual) war veterans walking through the middle of this, and it is, yes, entirely appropriate to put them centre stage. It’s a quick skip through history, from which the aristocracy and the Royal Family, so far, are conspicuously absent.

9.19pm – The grass that covered the – pitch? stage? – at the beginning is mostly gone, replaced by what looks like an iron foundry. This, actually, is interesting – a billion people around the world are watching this, and this is not the image of ourselves that we usually sell abroad.

9.21pm – The factory chimneys are sinking into the ground now, because the Tories killed our industrial base in the early 1980s.

9.22pm – and the massive iron foundry has brought forth the Olympic Rings, forged from the blood of peasant workers and Kenneth Branagh’s sweat. Or something. I think this is supposed to be moving as well as breathtakingly spectacular.

9.23pm – Film – ‘Happy and Glorious’ – about the Royal Family’s arrival at the ceremony. Couldn’t they have found something – anything – other than ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ to play behind the video sequence inside Buckingham Palace?

9.24pm – Yes. the Queen did just address Daniel Craig as Mr. Bond. She’s doing quite a nice job of not giggling at the absolute ridiculousness of it all.

9.25pm – Awww. Corgis.

9.26pm – Oh, bloody hell. The statue of Churchill just waved at HMQ’s copter (well, she’s not in it herself, obviously, it’s her body double and Daniel Craig).

9.28pm – the James Bond Theme. Heralding the Queen’s entrance into the Royal Box. Of course. NOT via parachute, that was a stunt double. And she’s introduced in French first. Like everything else.

9.30pm The Union Flag, brought in by servicemen and women. Flag raising accompanied by a performance of ‘God Save The Queen’ by a choir of deaf and hearing children. And they’re genuinely lovely, and it’s wonderful that they were given such a prominent moment in the ceremony. They get two verses of it as well. They could have gone for the usual suspects – a cathedral choir, trained choristers – and they didn’t, and the show is all the better for it.

9.33pm – ‘Second to the Right and Straight On Till Morning’. Mike Oldfield and a bunch of NHS staff, plus patients and staff from Great Ormond Street hospital. The title – the directions to Neverland that Peter Pan gave Wendy. I can think of plenty of worse things for us to celebrate here than literature for children. We’ve produced a lot of it, and a lot of it is justly celebrated throughout the world.

9.35pm – I’m a little less sure about a big dance number celebrating both kids’ literature and the NHS. The two themes don’t quite hang together. It’s very nicely staged, though. And I’m not sure whether spelling out GOSH in lights – Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital – will make sense to the rest of the world.

9.38pm – J.K. Rowling reading from Peter Pan. This is genuinely moving. If anyone shows that dreams can come true, she does.

9.39pm – Bad dreams, and things that go bump in the night, rendered via dance and puppets, with actors playing Voldemort and the Child Snatcher from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. The flying work is terrific; this sequence is surprisingly dark, particularly given the number of kids involved.

9.40pm – and here’s a team of Mary Poppinses (what is the plural of Poppins?), chasing the bad dreams away… which unfortunately leads Mr. Oldfield to begin playing his terminally twee version of ‘In Dulci Jubilo’.

9.44pm – And the children are all safely tucked up in bed. So that’s that. It’s great that we’ve just spent nearly 15 minutes of this paying tribute to the NHS. It would be even greater if our current government wasn’t so hell-bent on dismantling it piece by piece.

9.46pm – ‘Chariots of Fire’, conducted by Simon Rattle, with Mr. Bean on synth.

9.47pm – two minutes of Mr. Bean is about as much as I can stand, and the parody of the beach scene from ‘Chariots of Fire’ is not particularly funny.

9.51pm. Gosh, a red New Mini. Which is manufactured by that well-known British company, BMW. I wonder what’s going to happen next?

Oh. A flashback to the most infamous moment of Michael Fish’s career. The 1987 hurricane that he didn’t forecast. Oops.

9.52pm. British pop music, in the form of OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’. No lyrics. Then a verse of ‘Food Glorious Food’. And was that a brief clip of ‘The Cosby Show’?

9.54pm – we’re celebrating four decades of pop music, apparently. And we’re celebrating it with black-lighting and dayglo tights and leg-warmers.

9.56pm – musical segue from ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ to ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Ouch.

9.57pm – Glam rock. Spandex jumpsuits. It’s like the finale of ‘Mamma Mia’, only bigger and with less of a sense of restraint and decorum. It’s wildly silly, but also infectiously fun, and a good deal more tongue-in-cheek than these things often are.

9.58pm – Better musical segue: Bowie to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. There are dancers playing air guitar in the aisles.

9.59pm – Punk Rock is apparently being represented this evening by a gaggle of dancing leather-clad radishes.

10.00pm – New Order. ‘Blue Monday’. Then Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. This is the quick-fire 80s musical nightmare. Musical chronology is off – the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ was two years before Frankie’s ‘Relax’.

10.02pm – the dancing radishes are now pogoing on spring-loaded stilts. There, that’s not a sentence you expect to write every day, is it?

10.03pm – a clip of ‘Trainspotting’, followed by everyone singing  ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, followed by Huge Grunt saying ‘I love you to a walking hatstand Andie McDowell in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Whatever this means, it’s something to do with drugs.

10.05pm – quick flip from hip-hop to Bollywood and back. Gosh, we’re multicultural, aren’t we? Then the obligatory Amy Winehouse clip. No, it’ s not ‘Back to Black’. Then Muse’s awful ‘Uprising’, entertainingly being used as part of the soundtrack of the biggest corporate shindig this country has ever thrown.

10.07pm – and the commentators remind us that the soundtrack will be available to download from tomorrow. Good. We’d gone almost an hour without anyone trying to sell us anything, I was beginning to get worried.

10.09pm – footage of the torch relay. Lots of footage of the torch relay. Because obviously none of us have been watching the news at all at any time in the last seven weeks. I suppose they need the film clips to cover a set change in the stadium.

10.11pm – You know what’s great about this? (Oh, wait, as I typed that there was a brief clip of Camoron. Oh well). It’s about our diversity, and our urban culture. That is to say, it’s about who we really are, and not about the mythical version of this country that we usually wheel out when we try to market ourselves abroad. It’s also a singularly un-Tory vision of Britain (to the point where I suspect that some of the bigger lighting effects might be powered by the spontaneous self-immolation of Daily Mail readers). It’s easy to be cynical about what is essentially a spectacle designed to market us to the rest of the world, but a lot of what I’m seeing is genuinely surprising, and refreshingly unlike the stereotyped version of Great! Britain! that we package to tourists.

10.15pm – memorial section, which apparently means dancers in black leotards writhing to what sounds like an Enya cover of ‘Abide with Me’. Only it’s not Enya, it’s Emeli Sandé.

10.18pm. Still not convinced by the musical arrangement, but her voice is gorgeous, and this is absolutely stunning to watch. It’s even better when the backing track cuts out and she sings the last verse acapella. And I’m impressed by what this is not leaving out – this choreography is about 7/7, and it’s absolutely right that the show is acknowledging that part of our recent history.

10.20pm – and now we’re into the entrance parade of athletes of all nations. This’ll take a while.

10.22pm – Greek kid with a collection bowl. Ouch.

10.23pm – need the loo. Back in a moment.

(Move on, there’s nothing to see here.)

10.26pm – I’m back. That’s better.

10.28pm – the part of me that occasionally had to walk in processionals in church services when I was in choirs as a child/teenager/undergraduate slightly frowns on the sight of athletes filming the audience in the stadium on their smartphones/cameras as they parade in. But this is the biggest thing they’ve ever done, probably, and why the hell not? I’d want footage of it, if it was me.

10.30pm – nice matching cream suits for the Belarus team.

10.34pm – 14 minutes in to the parade, and we’re still only on Brazil. I needn’t have rushed to finish loading the dishwasher before this started.

10.38pm. The Canadian team all appear to have been shopping at Roots.

10.39pm – ooh, ‘West End Girls’. Accompanying the entrance of the teams from Chad, Chile and China.

10.44pm – Did Costa Rica recycle Belarus’s outfits?

10.46pm – the Czech team have chosen to accessorise their very smart blazers with incredibly camp shiny blue wellies and umbrellas, because it always rains here. Ha. I’m actually smiling.

10.50pm – just a reminder: the people who created this spectacle BEGAN THEIR CAREERS IN SUBSIDISED THEATRE. I know I’m shouting. Arts funding is important, and you only develop the kind of imagination you need to do this sort of thing well by learning the ropes away from the commercial arena.

10.52pm – Finland, Finland, Finland… the country where I quite want to be… pony-trekking or camping… or just watching TV… sorry, spaced out there for a moment.

10.54pm – So glad we have Aidan Burley MP’s twitter feed to lend comedy to the proceedings. What. A. Maroon:

10.55pm – Germany: campest outfits so far. Team Germany looked like a gaggle of off-duty dancers from a road production of ‘Footloose’.

11.01pm – the Queen looks like she wants a cup of tea. Can’t say I blame her.

11.05pm – Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Usain Bolt! Finally.

11.10pm – those drummers must be getting very tired.

11.13pm – Team GB won’t be up for another 45 minutes or so, apparently.

11.17pm – couldn’t Team Montenegro iron their jackets?

11.20pm – Bloody hell. It’s like the voting in Eurovision, only longer. And without the actual voting.

11.27pm – ELO in the background, irritating commentary in the foreground. The BBC’s presenters seem to feel they should deliver a constant voice-over discussion of the procession. They shouldn’t, less would be more.

11.31pm – on the one hand, the sheer number of countries involved is fascinating, and this is probably the only opportunity to show the global reach of the games. On the other hand… a parade this long is not great television, particularly coming after the first hour and a quarter of the show.

11.40pm – those poor sods from countries beginning with ‘A’. They’ve been standing now for an hour and twenty minutes, and there’s a good half-hour to go.

11.45pm – Bonsior, Tunisie!

11.47pm – quick, just time to get a drink before Team GB comes in.

11.48pm – Team USA. They, of course, have had their jackets pressed for the occasion.

11.50pm – Placing Team GB under ‘U’ in the alphabetical procession of nations obviously just a dastardly plot to get us all to watch the whole sodding show.

11.51pm – “Let’s hear it for the drummers, they’ve been at it now for hours.”

11.53pm – Oh. We’re not under ‘U’. Presumably, as host nation, we’re last.

11.55pm – Team GB. White tracksuits with gold lamé armpits. Seven billion bits of biodegradable confetti, representing everybody on the planet. It’s numbingly kitsch, absolutely staggering, and oddly moving, all at the same time.

11.56pm – Dear BBC, please stop showing us David Cameron. You get enough opportunities to do that on the News.

11.59pm – Team GB look very, very happy indeed. That’s because they got there via the Olympic VIP lanes rather than the Central Line.

12.01am – and we move from the procession to the Arctic Monkeys, and fireworks – none of which, unfortunately, are loud enough to drown out their lead singer.

12.03am – someone on Twitter just pointed out that most of the teams looked like airline cabin crew in their uniforms. Yes.

12.04am – Oh my. Cyclists with glow-in-the-dark wings.

12.06am – they were doves. Obviously. Because doves are noted for their love of cycling. It’s… odd, but also oddly lovely. One of them flies over the middle of the stadium, looking strangely like ET on his way to Phone Home.

12.07am – enter Seb Coe. In glasses. Enunciating carefully. Unfortunately he has the charisma of a bowl of Shreddies.

12.11am – Ooh. Platitudes. A bland speech, boringly delivered. Sorry, Seb. You worked very hard to make this happen, but public speaking is not your greatest strength.

12.16am – Speech #2 from Jacques Rogge. Not as good as Coe’s, and in French as well as English. It’s getting late.

12.17am – the Queen looks very, very tired. Not surprising.

12.19am – Doreen Lawrence is the first of the flag-carriers. Brilliant, and having her, of all the people who could have been chosen, lead the entrance of the flag is incredibly moving – cynical as I am about all of this, I have a lump in my throat. She’s a remarkably brave, dignified lady, and she’s absolutely the sort of person who should represent us to the world.

12.20am – and Muhammad Ali, battling Parkinson’s Disease and accompanied by a carer. Powerful.

12.23am – Lord, they’re raising this flag slowly.

12.24am – Becks. Speedboat. Canal. Meeting the final torch-carrier: Steve Redgrave. And quite right too. If anyone deserves to do this, he does.

12.27am – the oaths. These people look very nervous as they read. Huge audience watching all over the world. That can’t be easy.

12.28am – and, yes, the Olympic Torch is introduced in French.

12.30am – no, even better: Steve Redgrave is not the final torch-carrier. He’s handing the torch off to seven young athletes from this year’s team. Quite right, too.

12.33am – OK, yes, this is magnificent. There’s been a lot of insanity surrounding the run-up to this moment, but I doubt anybody has ever staged this part of the proceedings better than this. It’s a dazzling spectacle, and it has real emotional weight. And the flame in the stadium – lit by multiple young athletes, rather than one VIP –  is extraordinarily lovely.

12.37am – and that’s quite a fireworks display.

12.40am – Paul McCartney. Lip-synching, badly. For the first verse of ‘Hey Jude’, his mouth movements and the vocal track are a good four bars apart.

12.43am – at least the crowd are singing live. Unlike Sir Paul.

12.45am – na na hey Jude. Milking it a bit. Particularly since he’s mostly not singing. When so much of what has gone before has been so striking, this is a let-down. It’s a very, very bad performance.

12.47am – aaaand that’s all, folks.  Show’s over.

So… I was expecting a full-evening version of a Debbie Allen Dance Number from the Oscars. This was better than that, often much better, and some of it was genuinely remarkable and surprisingly moving. The stage-management was faultless, the lighting design was superb, and above all else it’s very clear that Danny Boyle and his team have thought long and hard about precisely how they want to present contemporary Britain to the rest of the world. This was mostly not the tourist-board, chocolate-box image of Brand Britain that we peddle abroad. This was very British (and not just English, either), to the point that some of the nuances probably aren’t going to travel abroad terribly well. It very deliberately presented nearly everything from the point of view of everyday people, and it put forward the best version of what we are: a hard-working, secular, multicultural society with a rich history and a vibrant cultural heritage. Of course there was a certain amount of schlock – that’s inevitable – but this was, overall, a far more thoughtful presentation than I think anyone was expecting, and while it was sombre when it needed to be, it was carried off with a genuine sense of fun.

It’s also, of course, important to note that – a few name actors and significant figures aside – the cast was almost entirely made up of volunteers. The performances – apart from Mr. McCartney – were faultless, and the message throughout was very clear: this is for everybody (a slogan that, at one point, was actually spelled out in lights in the stands). My cynical side notes that this of-the-people-for-the-people approach stands in stark contrast to a sporting event whose financing and marketing appears to have been designed mostly to benefit multinational corporations rather than the ordinary inhabitants of the very depressed area of east London where it’s being staged, and the presence in the stadium of Bahrain’s Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Alyev leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth, but it’s still very heartening to see that the directors make a very deliberate choice to place volunteer performers and people who have made a significant contribution to society front and centre, rather than a parade of celebs, politicians and pop stars.

So no, not perfect – but striking, surreal, often gripping, occasionally very moving, and far, far better than we had any right to expect (for one thing, Wenlock and Mandeville, thank God, were nowhere to be seen). I’m surprised and genuinely impressed. This wasn’t simply a by-the-numbers retreat of a series of tired patriotic tropes. It at least attempted to show who we are and where we come from. I expected to giggle, and I mostly didn’t, and some of it was genuinely extremely powerful. By the end, my cynicism had mostly dissolved – at least, in relation to the opening ceremony. This was remarkable television. For once, we really did present our best face to the rest of the world – and it wasn’t quite the face I was expecting to see.

Civilisation

The price of bread has shot up recently. Have you heard? It’s all the fault of the Jews.

You just did a double-take, didn’t you? So did I. That was the thrust of a conversation I overheard a couple of days ago. The conversation was not taking place at, say, a rally in Nuremberg in 1936. The two participants were a married couple in a Co-op supermarket in suburban Greater Manchester, and they were not whispering. In the interest of accuracy – and only in the interest of accuracy, since it demonstrates how absolutely repellent and stupid these people must be – the gentleman’s exact choice of phrase was “fucking Jews”. In public, loudly, in a busy supermarket on a Sunday afternoon, within earshot of, well, anybody else who was shopping there, which included a number of families with children.

In the same week, we’ve seen a surprisingly minor furore erupt in the press about the Unholy Trinity – Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – and their witless, racist evaluation of a  Mexican sports car.  The BBC’s apology managed to be both grudging and startlingly insincere, citing a long-standing British tradition of humour based on national stereotyping – because, really, what could be funnier, edgier or more worth defending than three white, overpaid, conservative motoring journalists poking fun at people with a different skin colour who are poorer than they are? Only comedian Steve Coogan, writing in the Observer, has, as of this writing, responded to the incident with the venom it deserves, pointing out at some length and in some detail precisely why the moronic racial stereotypes paraded onscreen by Clarkson, May and Hammond are not remotely funny.

Coogan’s piece is startling in the way it thoroughly, systematically demolishes the three presenters – he doesn’t just cut them off at the knees by pointing out the absolute childish vacuousness of passing off offensive racial stereotypes as ironic humour on an internationally-syndicated television programme, he kicks them when they’re down by pointing out how much the onscreen dynamic between them resembles two wimps (May and Hammond) hiding behind a school bully (Clarkson). It’s a devastating hatchet job, but it misses a trick: Top Gear is shown on the BBC, and is therefore funded by the licence fee.

Yes, that’s right. We’re paying for these idiots and their crass, schoolboy attempts at “humour”, to the tune of £145.50 per household per year.

The thing is, the racist comments on Top Gear and the racist comments in the supermarket are twin symptoms of a common disease. Casual racism, in this country, is widespread, fed by hysterical headlines about immigration, Muslims, asylum seekers and all the rest of it in the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and the like (sorry, I won’t link to them – I’m not wearing latex gloves and I don’t have a paper bag handy). It’s sobering to note that during our last general election, when Gordon Brown referred, in private but with a lapel microphone still live, to a woman he’d met on the campaign trail who had confronted him with a borderline-racist question about Eastern European migrants as “bigoted”, our national media – more or less all of it, including the broadsheets – crucified him and deified her, despite the fact that, given her line of questioning, “bigoted” was a fairly accurate description.  It was also sobering, during the last general election campaign, to note the absolute reluctance of any politician from any party to get up and say, unequivocally, that immigrants who are here legally, work hard and pay their taxes – in other words, the vast majority of them – make a positive contribution to our nation and our society, which of course sends an absolutely poisonous message to immigrants who are here legally, work hard, pay their taxes and all the rest of it. Immigration has become a toxic subject – all the more so, unfortunately, when the immigrants under discussion have any skin colour that’s further up the colour chart than light pink. And that’s without getting into things like BNP campaign leaflets, which are offensive on a level that actually makes me feel physically ill. During the recent by-election campaign here, one dropped through my letterbox bearing the charming headline ‘YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE NOT HALAL MEAT’. These people got something over 2,000 votes.

And, of course, when this stuff is splashed all over the front pages of “newspapers” like the Mail and the Express, which enjoy very wide circulation (largely because they pander shamelessly to the most bigoted fears and prejudices of their base demographic), when our politicians routinely characterise immigrants (and by ‘immigrants’ they mostly seem to mean people with darker skin than theirs) as scroungers, and when racial stereotypes are apparently considered fair game as a source of humour by the presenters of one of our more popular television programmes, it’s not at all surprising when you hear someone spout the sort of foul, offensive racist crap I heard at the supermarket on Sunday, and do so quite matter-of-factly and in a public place. I’m not saying, of course, that Top Gear caused the moron I met in the supermarket to spout racist bullshit in public – actually, thinking about it, ‘moron’ is too kind, he had the sort of intellect that makes an amoeba look like Stephen Hawking – but the casual acceptance, espousal and even endorsement of racist attitudes as a source of headlines (the gutter press) or humour (Top Gear) at least gives the impression that it’s somehow once again acceptable to say outrageously racist things in public. And, certainly, in this part of the country, in a town in which seething tensions between different ethnic groups lie very, very close to the surface, you don’t have to look very far to find the kind of attitude I encountered on Sunday. The letters page in the local newspaper is usually a good place to start.

Well, sorry, we’re all to blame. One of our national characteristics, true, is that we are, as a group, somewhat reticent. We’re often reluctant to stick our heads above the parapet – with good reason, since confronting the kind of brain-dead thug who would seriously attribute the rise in the cost of a loaf of sliced wholemeal to any specific ethnic or religious group is likely to result in, at the very least, a stream of obscenities and insults – so we say nothing, ignore it, and hope it goes away. It isn’t going to go away because by saying nothing, by not standing up and saying loudly and clearly that such attitudes are vile, hateful, offensive and thoroughly unacceptable, we’re effectively giving permission for public hate speech.

I told the oaf in the Co-op to shut up. I’m apparently a fucking cunt who’s going to get his fucking head kicked in. The Co-op staff, of course, just stood there and gawped, as did my fellow citizens, most of whom had looked shocked and appalled as they heard this semi-evolved chimpanzee spout the kind of putrid filth that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Third Reich campaign meeting. I suppose this ape could have hit me, although from his point of view, in a busy supermarket where there were both witnesses and security cameras, that could have ended up being some kind of own goal – and in any case, he probably didn’t have quite enough coordination to breathe and scratch himself at the same time, so the likelihood of his a) finding his fist and b) getting it to connect at any kind of velocity with any part of my person was probably relatively remote. Nevertheless, I imagine it might have been more prudent to keep myself to myself. I heard one person – shamefully, a member of the supermarket’s staff – say loudly that I was making too much of a fuss.

Sorry, no. The profoundly sad thing about what happened when I went shopping on Sunday is precisely that versions of that experience, in today’s Britain, are not at all unusual. They’re not at all unusual because most of the time we don’t make enough of a fuss. We’re de-evolving rapidly into something quite unpleasant – a society in which casual racism is not shocking, common courtesy no longer exists, and the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ have apparently replaced the comma and the semi-colon. Those of us, myself included, who stand on the sidelines tut-tutting at the offensive behaviour we see in the streets every day are complicit, because we allow it to happen. Unless we learn to stand up and say no, we are effectively giving permission, but by standing up and saying no, we put ourselves in the firing-line.

That’s not a world I want to accept. It’s 2011. We’re supposed to be civilised. We’re supposed to be better than this. We pretend that we’re better than this.

We aren’t.