Various pictures, interviews, and music from Platform Performance Festival 2014, compiled into an audio slideshow.
America’s most popular sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, has just been commissioned for a spectacular three more seasons. This will take the surprise success story to a ten season run, matching the longevity of hit series Friends.
The Big Bang is currently the highest-rated regular series on American television – and it’s certainly no mean feat to pull in an audience of around 18 million viewers per episode, even in a country the size of the US.
So, to celebrate the sitcom’s latest achievement, here are ten reasons (for ten seasons) why the show has become such a well-deserving popular hit, not just in America, but across the pond over here on E4 and Channel 4, too.
Everybody Loves Sheldon
Hyper-intelligent, infuriating, socially awkward and emotionally stunted, with the long limbs and controlled gait of a particularly pale “praying mantis,” (so says Penny), Sheldon Cooper is perhaps the unlikeliest comedy figure in history. Nevertheless, Jim Parsons’ exquisitely-crafted genius has, quite rightly, become synonymous with on-screen talent, as well as a goldmine for CBS ratings.
Beauty and the Geeks.
There’s no denying that the show’s first season started formulaically. Kaley Cuoco’s “hot girl next door” Penny moved in opposite socially-awkward scientists Sheldon and Leonard, and hilarity was meant to ensue. Which it did. For the most part.
But there was no getting away from the fact that the Big Bang started life as light entertainment, with science jokes crafted to a perfectly-timed formula. Its staying power has since followed because this formula is endlessly adaptable.
Now, within an apparently closed comedic set-up, each 22 minute episode not only entertains, but the stars of the series have become well-rounded friends, with a lexicon known to millions of people around the world.
Two (and a half) Women
For a long time Penny was the only recurring female character on the show, but with the introduction of the feisty, tiny and intelligent Bernadette, and the quirky but lovable Amy Farrah-Fowler, the contingent of strong, independent women has kept viewers coming back for more.
Far from being mere eye-candy, Penny has been drawn out as a kind, complex, flawed, and endlessly relatable character. Bernadette, on the other hand, is a tiny force to be reckoned with; cute as a button, and domineering without being unlikeable.
The final member of the trio, Amy, is her own mass of Sheldon-esque quirks, with an intelligence to rival her reluctant boyfriend’s, and a far greater capacity for warmth and human interaction. There are no Manic Pixie Dream Girls in this sitcom. All of them are their own person, and that is incredibly refreshing.
America’s (actually) Got Talent
As cliché as it may seem, The Big Bang actors have grown into an all-star cast over the years. Their chemistry is undeniable, and their ability to reel off pages and pages of dense, scientific text, and still have it be believable – and, more to the point, funny – is a talent in itself.
With this cast as an example, it’s difficult not to feel as though some of the stars of other American shows that air over in England, are simply being lazy by comparison. 90210, Revenge et al. I’m looking at you… Sorry.
The sheer volume of famous faces who have made cameo appearances on Big Bang is, frankly, staggering. Charlie Sheen, Katee Sackhoff, George Takei, Summer Glau, Bob Newhart, Leonard Nimoy, Stan Lee, Stephen Hawking, and Christine Baranski as Leonard’s mother, are just a few who have graced The Big Bang’s set in recent seasons.
Aside from the phenomenal number of celebrities who have guest starred on the show, there’s something eminently satisfying about watching Sheldon fall out with them. His (since reconciled) feud with Will Wheaton was a particular highlight, and who could forget the moment Stan Lee took out a restraining order against him?
It’s a source of real joy to watch the endearingly useless scientist alienate famous face after famous face, whilst simply not caring that he’s doing it. It’s safe to say that we could all use a bit of that mentality, sometimes!
Loud, demanding, embarrassing, and above all, disembodied, the voice of Howard’s mother is as unlikely a comedic point as Sheldon. But somehow, there’s something wonderfully funny about hearing a mother bellow “I can’t say no to my little tushy face!” up the stairs, while her mortified son lies next to his girlfriend, and wills the ground to swallow him whole.
A caricature she certainly is, but you can’t help but love her.
It started in season one. Penny moved in, and Leonard immediately began to pursue her. With the show now in its seventh season, you would think that the “will-they-won’t-they” dynamic would have been exhausted.
But there’s an element of the Ross-and-Rachel to this couple that keeps you hooked and rooting for them, despite so many false starts and cringe-worthy breakups. Like Friends, in amongst all of the laughter there’s a real emotional kick to their unlikely relationship, and you can’t help but get wrapped up in it.
(Filming at) the Eleventh Hour
Filmed in front of a live studio audience, The Big Bang Theory manages to use the best of both of the worlds of television and theatre. Jim Parsons, as an example, trained extensively in theatre before landing his break with CBS, and has openly admitted to ‘coming alive’ when the audience is led in to watch them film.
The slightly longer rehearsal process also means any jokes that don’t quite hit the mark can be rewritten and rehearsed. The show rarely falls flat later on, and instead maintains a theatrical sense of on-the-spot energy on-screen.
But finally, for me…
It’s All About Mayim Bialik
Her character, Amy Farrah-Fowler, is intelligent, opinionated, loving, lovable, and knows her own mind. To have a female character who doesn’t conform to the usual stereotypes of “feisty and beautiful,” or “deep thinking wallflower” in an American sitcom, and for her to be so well received because of it, is a huge step forward in comedy and drama.
And it isn’t just her character who’s accomplished. Mayim is a prolific actress, working mum, and cookbook author, who also happens to hold a Ph.D in Neuroscience from UCLA. That’s quite an achievement, to say the least.
Essentially, what The Big Bang Theory proves, is that clever can be funny, comedy can be intelligent, and stereotypes can be both celebrated and shattered without the show ever becoming preachy.
So, let’s raise a glass. Here’s to the next three, very well-deserved, seasons of clever American comedy.
Protests and Putin’s Presidency
On March 4 2012, Putin won the Russian presidential elections with a disputed 63.6% of the vote. Almost immediately after the campaign, a series of Anti-Putin protests took place, and the day before his inauguration 80 protestors were injured, and around 500 more arrested.
The most famous of these protests, of course, was staged in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, by the feminist punk rock protest group, Pussy Riot. Three members of the group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were subsequently arrested in March 2012.
The three women were denied bail and held in prison until their trial began in July of the same year. By August, all three had been convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, and sentenced to a further two years imprisonment.
Following an appeal in October, Yekaterina was freed on probation with a suspended sentence, but Nadezhda and Maria were sent to separate penal colonies. Conditions in Nadezhda’s institution were such that, on September 23, 2013, she began a hunger strike in protest over alleged human rights violations in the prison. But nothing was done by the Western leaders.
Finally, on December 23, 2013, after serving 21 months of their sentence, both women were released after an amnesty was approved. At around the same time, members of the imprisoned Arctic 30, who were arrested and held for two months in a prison in Murmansk after their Greenpeace ship was boarded by Russian special forces, were also freed.
As with Pussy Riot’s arrest, the plight of the Arctic 30 made headlines around the world, and their imprisonment was widely seen as a violation of human rights. Speaking in Sheffield earlier this year, Kieron Bryan, the UK journalist arrested as part of the protest, said of his experience:
“We were kept in our cells for 23 hours a day. There were rats everywhere, [and] I never saw any, but [people said] there were leeches as well.
“With Pussy Riot being released in the same week as us, I think [our release] probably had more to do with the Sochi Olympics [than international pressure].”
The Sochi Controversy
Leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, there was widespread unease over Russia’s human rights violations, and the introduction of Putin’s controversial federal law, which banned the publicising of LGBT rights and culture. Once again, Russia became the focus of international outrage and a series of high-profile calls to comply with the Olympic Charter, which decrees that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person, on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise, is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
Nevertheless, the Winter Games went ahead. A number of protests were held against Russia’s so-called “anti-gay policies”, and Barack Obama refused to attend the Olympics as a delegate, later confirming that “[America] wanted to make it very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in anything, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation”.
It is clear, though, that the powers-that-be in Russia care little for the concerns of those abroad. When attempting to record a new protest song in February 2014, members of Pussy Riot, including the recently released Nadezhda and Maria, were attacked with whips and tear gas by the Cossack militia. Reportedly, these men were acting as “informal police”, or “plainclothes security,” although on behalf of whom is unclear.
Russia and Crimea
Perhaps seeking to monopolise on the anti-Russian feeling around the world, protests in Ukraine began in November 2013. There, citizens campaigning for greater links with Europe clashed dramatically with the police, and ultimately succeeded in ousting corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych.
Amidst this small victory, though, Putin moved in. Perhaps fearing western expansionism and the West’s “encirclement” of Mother Russia, Russian troops descended on Ukraine. A referendum asking the people of Crimea to decide whether or not to secede to Russia was hastily organised, under the shadow of Russian forces massing on the borders of major Ukrainian cities.
Now, as of yesterday, the result of this referendum reportedly stands at a 95% “yes” vote to joining Crimea with Russia. Such a result, of course, severely lacks credibility.
A nearly unanimous political vote is, in the modern day, a chilling marker of authoritarian rule. And yet, leading up to this point, what has the West’s response been?
Since Pussy Riot’s arrest and the imprisonment of the Arctic 30, the only real response has been, embarrassingly, a series of strong “tutting” and disappointed head shaking, directed towards the supposed misdemeanours of Putin’s administration.
Now that the unrest in Ukraine has escalated so quickly, however, Cameron has stepped it up a notch. Sort of. An embarrassing Twitter “selfie” of the Prime Minister speaking to Putin on the phone, and telling him “in the strongest possible terms” to “deescalate” the situation in Ukraine, was roundly parodied by celebrities including Sir Patrick Stewart.
President Obama, similarly, has argued with Putin over the phone about the legality of the Crimea referendum, but little else has been forthcoming. A statement released by the White House yesterday, said:
“President Obama emphasised that the Crimean ‘referendum’ … would never be recognised by the United States and the international community.”
A sentiment that’s sure to have Putin quaking in his army boots.
The Next Step
Over the last two years Putin’s dictatorial tendencies have been fully exposed, with barely a whimper in response from the West. But now that the situation has been allowed to reach crisis point, it’s difficult to see a peaceful way forward.
This morning, after a meeting in Brussels, the EU and US imposed travel bans and asset freezes on a number of Russian and Ukrainian officials.
In a statement, the White House said:
“Today’s actions send a strong message to the Russian government that there are consequences for their actions”
But the Russian government, yet again, is paying little heed to the response from outside the country.
Although firmly on the sanctions list, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, made a mockery of the EU and US response on Twitter:
But perhaps this is simply too little to late. The West’s inability to try and understand the strategic importance of Crimea to Russia, as well as an inability to do little more than “tut” at repeated human rights violations by the Russian President in recent years, has led us to a crisis point.
To back down to Western pressure now would humiliate Putin within his own administration, and severely damage his position in government. No matter how many economic sanctions or barbed statements the West releases, it is safe to say the Russian president will not retreat from his current path.
Although an all-out conflict with Russia is, to say the least, extremely undesirable, there seems to be only one other alternative, and that is a form of appeasement.
If the West agrees not to draw Ukraine into NATO or the EU in the foreseeable future, in exchange for the Russian’s withdrawal from Crimea, then the situation may still be salvaged without another descent into Cold War territory.
It can only be hoped our leaders share this view.
Behind the Mask
The Crimean problem aside, Putin has repeatedly revealed himself to be an outdated, dangerous, and blinkered leader of one of the most powerful countries in the modern age. Conflict with Russia is certainly not desirable, and neither is the abandonment of the Russian people, whose rights have been steadily eroded since Putin’s latest presidency.
The sad truth is, that if the West had acted sooner in response to repeated crimes by the Russian government, then we may not have found ourselves in the situation we do today.
Perhaps there is a lesson there.
But if not, then the one comfort we can take from today’s events is this: Putin’s mask has been lifted. As a European leader his propaganda will not sustain him, nor continue to hide the restrictions of freedom he places on his own people. Putin has shown his hand, and now the West must answer.
“There’s no such thing as American English. There’s the English Language and there are mistakes.” So tweeted the spoof Twitter account of the Queen of England, leading to a very heated debate across the length and breadth of the world wide web.
British popular culture is strewn with quintessentially English references and an endearing ability to poke fun at itself – and other people. But when it comes down to it, the most truly British thing about the British, is our obsession with the English Language.
One language. Many variations.
Travel down South, and you’ll find accents and dialects ranging from Standard English and RP, to broad Cockney, West Country, and a plethora of other inflections. Move further up North, and you’ll pass through the Midlands, with bizarre phrases like ‘it’s a bit black over Bill’s mother’s’ – meaning it looks as though it might rain, believe it or not.
Travel even further North, and you’ll find words such as ‘bevvy’ in Liverpool – a shortened version of ‘beverage’ – and phrases like ‘ee, by gum’ in the Yorkshire regions, which can be roughly translated as ‘oh my God’ for most other English speakers.
Keep on going, and you’ll reach Northumberland, where just a few famous Geordie words include ‘clamming’ meaning ‘hungry’, ‘spelk’ meaning ‘splinter’, and ‘howay man!’ which essentially means ‘come on!’ as either a negative or positive.
In Scotland, ‘clorty’ means ‘filthy’ and a ‘tattyboggler’ is a ‘scarecrow’ to the rest of us. In Northern Ireland, to ‘have a craic’ is to have a good time, and as made famous by Alex Mills on The Apprentice, in Wales a ‘popty ping’ is a microwave. Who knew?
The English language is one of the most versatile in the world, but with a language that differs so drastically even within the same country, there are bound to be divisions. No matter who you ask, it seems as though everyone in Great Britain has an opinion on the correct use of English.
Is there a right answer?
Doctor Jane Hodson is an English Language lecturer at the University of Sheffield. She says we shouldn’t be surprised that the British are passionate about their language.
“We care about language because how we speak and write tells the world a lot about who we are and where we come from.
“People are now much more aware of differences in accent. It’s a fact of life and very hard to change.”
But, she says, our fixation on different accents isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It [only] becomes a problem when people pass judgement on other people based only on the way they speak, without reflecting on the fact that there’s nothing inherently better or worse about any given accent.”
Indeed, so obsessed are we with the quirks and inconsistencies of the English Language, that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has started releasing a “Word of the Year”. In 2013, that word was ‘selfie’.
True to form, the British public reacted passionately over the controversial choice, which summed up an entire year in the English speaking world with a word born from social media.
For better or worse though, says Jane, the British public will always talk about language, even if we won’t always agree on what’s best.
“I’m a linguist and linguists love new words. ‘Selfie’ is fun. It’s an old word doing something new, but it also taps into the idea that social media can be rather narcissistic. It’s a good choice [for 2013] by the OED, I think.”
Not everyone will agree, but if one thing’s for sure then a lot of us will argue about it – in our very wide-range of different words and accents. There will never be a right answer to which accent is “better”, because the simple truth is that “better”, in language terms, simply doesn’t exist.
But will the British ever stop arguing about which version of English is the best? Howay man! Somehow, I don’t think so.
Reporter and Editor: Aaron James
Camera person: Laura Elliott
For the fifth year in a row, actors, musicians, and artists at the University of Sheffield have been performing at Platform Festival over the weekend, to raise money for local charity Cavendish Cancer Care.
My role: Reporter, editor, presenter.
Star Rating: 3/5
In Colossus of New York, a father transplants his son’s brain into the body of a robot to save his life. In I, Robot, Will Smith learns to view the new range of robots as resolutely human entities. And perhaps most famously, in The Big Bang Theory, Raj develops an emotional attachment to Siri, the automated ‘helper voice’ on his iPhone. Hilarity ensues.
Human-robot relationships are not a new phenomenon in film, television or literature, but in Her, Director Spike Jonze takes the whole concept one step further, by creating cyber-intelligence on a truly epic scale.
The Wonderful Wi-Fi
In a future world not too dissimilar from our own, Joaquin Phoenix’s soon-to-be divorced protagonist Theodore Twombly, introduces us to a seething metropolis run almost entirely by social media, technology, and the internet.
Commuters rush to and fro with their noses buried in phones and tablets. Theodore himself is perpetually hooked up to his voice-automated phone system. And his career is similarly techno-driven, as he spends his days writing heartfelt e-letters on behalf of one lazy lover or family member to another.
So, when a new operating system (OS) catches his eye one morning, it’s only a matter of time before the hapless video-game addict stumbles home, and installs it on his shiny HD screen.
Enter Scarlet Johansson, as the sexiest Siri substitute you’ve ever heard emerge from a speaker. Or Samantha, as she calls herself, after scrolling through millions of baby name books in a fraction of a second, and picking out her favourite offering.
It’s inevitable, of course, that with a super-intelligent OS who happens to possess the voice of a supermodel, the beautifully-acted but infuriatingly spineless Theodore would embark upon the most cringeworthy love affair of the modern age – complete with phone-sex with a disembodied voice.
It might have been just me, but throughout all of her moaning, I couldn’t help but wonder just exactly which bit of her circuits was benefiting from Theodore’s stuttering whispers about nuzzling behind her ear. Surely, there’s only so much pleasure a computer without a body can get from a man’s somewhat lacklustre dirty talk?
Emotionally isolated. Emotionally isolating.
Unlikely physical responses aside, the best compliment I can give Her is that it certainly makes you think. About a lot of things, actually. Theodore’s world is not so far removed from the one we live in, and there are already instances of people using World of Warcraft and other similar programmes to start up relationships, and even to have virtual sex online.
Theodore’s biggest problem is that, following his break-up, he doesn’t socialise well. Aside from a thoroughly unsuccessful attempt to sleep with Olivia Wilde’s unhinged character on a blind date, his social interaction extends to the odd compliment at work, and an inability to put his arms around “friend” Amy Adams, after her character reveals her marriage is over as well.
In a situation when physically being in a room with other people seems to drive him to distraction, while an emotionally-intelligent computer system with the entire world’s knowledge at her fingertips declares undying love for him, Theodore’s unlikely relationship seems… Well. It seems understandable, to be perfectly honest. And that is a little worrying for any modern-day viewer to realise.
Even so, the climax of the film – without giving too much away – ends in heartbreak, and an ill-advised sexual folly with a “body substitute” that’s enough to make your skin crawl. Despite a near-flawless performance by Phoenix, though, I really didn’t care, and that is the problem with this film.
Theodore is an emotionally isolated character, and all-too relatable, but the overall impression throughout Her is that his emotional isolation leads only to an emotionally isolating viewing experience. It certainly didn’t make me recoil, and it definitely didn’t make me cry, which for a film that’s all about relationships in the modern age, isn’t exactly a plus point.
Perhaps, though, I’m being too unfair. Perhaps this lack of emotion on my part may even be the point that Jonze is making – to show us all just quite how detached from reality we’ve all become. If so, then this is a modern-day masterpiece. If not, then it falls short of all expectations, despite an incredible setting, premise, and cast. And that would be a crying shame.