Forgotten TV: Saxondale

Originally published on Planet Slop

As Steve Coogan returns to our screens as the insufferable Alan Partridge, Alan Parry looks back fondly at one of his less remembered characters, Tommy Saxondale. 

Steve Coogan is returning to the BBC this month in a brand-new, highly-anticipated Alan Partridge series, and we are more than excited by the news. However, we wanted to have a closer look at another of his projects.

Coogan, of course, has portrayed a whole host of other personas in his time, each of which is brilliantly funny in its own right. But, owing to the success of Partridge and the subsequent demand for more of the same, some of his other work has passed under the radar. One example, which I’m going to take as my focus here, is Saxondale.

Penned by Coogan and sometime collaborator Neil Maclennan, this was a sitcom centred around ex-roadie Tommy Saxondale, who struggles with both an anger management problem, and leaving his previous adrenaline-fuelled, rebellious lifestyle behind. For many years people have spoken about the decline of rock music, and Coogan encapsulates the much-maligned, die-hard dinosaurs of rock with a startling accuracy here. Struggling with no longer being cool or relevant, its no wonder that Tommy has such pent-up aggression, which is most apparent in his officious attitude towards pest control.

But, just because we all know an outmoded rocker or two, does not mean that Tommy is merely a one-dimensional caricature. Simply put, he’s not. While this aspect of his personality is front and centre, there is more going on. For example, Tommy shows off his nurturing skills when he takes a young assistant under his wing, offering him both work and board.

The assistant, Raymond is portrayed by Rasmus Hardiker (Lead Balloon), and he’s offered Tommy’s own brand of life-guidance. This unlikely, quasi-father figure and his counterpoised girlfriend Magz, played by the brilliant Ruth Jones (Gavin and Stacey, A Child’s Christmases in Wales) help the youngster find his feet. And in turn he shows Tommy that there is a way to find genuine pleasure in more low-octane pursuits.

We know that Tommy has been hurt by an unpleasant divorce, and he is obviously unsure of how to process his emotions, so together Raymond and Magz offer him a tenderness which he has clearly been lacking. In this sense it’s a love story, although, it can get a bit kinky at times.

Coogan’s character is a free thinker, and regularly says what’s on his mind, even if it’s not the best time to do so. In this way, the writing team are seemingly holding up a mirror to the wider world. They appear to be saying that strongly held beliefs should be given thorough consideration before being aired publicly, otherwise you can make a right tit of yourself. And perhaps Tommy’s relationship with Morwenna Banks’ Vicky, serves only to prove how difficult it is to get on in life if you are constantly prickly. It maybe that I’m getting a little deep here, because for all this conjecture, the laughs come thick and fast, and they’re not particularly sophisticated.

In conclusion, because they are each portrayed by Coogan, its extremely difficult to separate this from Alan Partridge. But is it fair to judge his other personas against his magnum opus? Probably not. Partridge will be remembered alongside David Brent, Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew, Hyacinth Bucket and Captain Mainwaring, as an absolute classic British sitcom character.

But, Saxondale is certainly deserving of attention in its own right. One should remember that at that time the BBC and others were putting out some real tripe, and the resonance of The Office hadn’t truly hit home. It’s not an exercise in subtle humour per se. And nor is it in-your-face in the way that The Thick of It is.

But, is it worth revisiting? Definitely! And my reasons are pretty simple, its well-balanced, and hasn’t aged prematurely. Further, it has a superb cast. But, more than anything, the sort of ill-tempered fossil that Tommy represents, is plenty deserving of the burlesque to which he is treated.

Bowie, Zappa, Adele & The Purpose Of Contemporary Music

Originally posted on Planet Slop

With Glastonbury reactions highlighting the debate over elite and popular art, Alan Parry ponders the purpose of contemporary pop music.

There is an age old debate which rages over elite and popular art.

If we look back through history, its apparent that much of what is deemed ‘high’ or ‘elite’ has been presided over by a very small minority who believe that they better understand, and/or appreciate art than the grubby masses.

But why do they get to tell us what we should or should not like?

At the outset of the twentieth-century, it was common to hold the position that this small number of academics ought to reserve the right to declare what is good and what is inferior, a point promoted by F.R. Leavis when he wrote in 1930 that ‘Upon them depends the implicit standards that order the finer living of an age’. This is a position which came under great scrutiny as the 20th century advanced.

Throughout the 60s, this position was challenged by both younger, cultural critics and creative artists who had their fingers firmly on the pulse. We saw a great deal of experimentation with popular forms, think about the legacy left behind by Jackson Pollock; think about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968); think about Doctor Who; think about Frank Zappa and The Beatles and the birth of the concept album. It was a matter of out with the old and in with the new. Creative artists everywhere were looking to push boundaries and challenge the establishment.

Nonetheless, there is still some worth in attempting to define an art and literature, and musical canon. However, after this momentous shift in what was deemed valuable, it’s difficult to stomach some of what is on offer to us today.

How can we be expected to listen to, watch, admire that which is on offer as we live in a world filled with social, political, economical and religious injustice? I mean, have you seen the news? There was a time when an artist could respond to the world around them, they could hold up a mirror and show their audience their own failings. There was a time when this was what popular music, literature, film and art was about. There was a time, before I was born I might add, but not all that long ago, when the very best art instructed us and gave us agency to change the contingent world in which we live.

So, what the fuck happened? When did Adele start to speak for me? When did everything become so safe? So beige? Have we relinquished control? I am a father of three young children, one of whom plays guitar, (and quite well too), but why is he sat in his bedroom teaching himself to play Galway Girl?

There is a debate about the purpose of art, in all its forms. Should it be instrumental, didactic or merely, to coin a phrase ‘art for art’s sake’? The answer to this is multifarious. Indeed, it is far too great to explore every possibility here. But what I will say is that art should in the very least make us feel. The risk of opening up what is deemed elite up to more popular forms and genres was, in part due to the fact that the great and the good would be diluted. There would be less quality music and film out there for us, which is why I contend that it remains important to sift carefully.

I mention my children because I am particularly interested in how I can use contemporary art and the canon to shape their moral compass. I believe that music can be feel good, that there is room for that. However, what is more important to me is that I and my children, and anybody else that I can have influence over will go in search of something which challenges their beliefs, which challenges authority, which will transcend time and tastes.

I can recall getting in my old man’s gold Ford Princess and listening on cassette to Zappa‘s Sheik Yerbouti, to Dylan‘s Desire and to The Best Punk Album in the World… Ever. More than introducing me to some great music that continues to sound fresh and exciting now, he was introducing me to music which was fighting against the status quo. I see it as my duty now to do something similar for my children and anybody who cares to read this, to urge you to look a little deeper, to look for meaning and true fulfilment from your music, art and literature. It is possible to do this without disregarding the music which makes you dance, but the discovery of that which will make you think and act differently has, in my opinion, to hold more value.

However, it is also possible to go too far the other way, and you don’t have to look too far to find people making an utter fool of themselves. It is possible to be too choosy, to morph into a snob. And all the while I urge you to seek out music, art and literature which makes you think, I urge you to be careful you don’t fall into this trap.

I once had a friend who refused listen to female vocalists, he was turning his back on Aretha Franklin, The Ronettes, Janis Joplin and Carole King among others, based purely on this ridiculous gender bias. I have read others complain about the simplistic form that pop music is supposed to have, its utter bollocks. I am wary of repeating myself at this point, but it is ridiculous to look down on people and their taste, art is personal, but I honestly believe that it has a resonance beyond, ‘That’s nice’ or ‘This is catchy’.

I’m going to end by quoting David Bowie, who once said of work, but this rings true of in the search for artistic gratification too, ‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting‘.