København, Danmark

The Marble Church

The Marble Church

Rosenborg Slot Gardens

Rosenborg Slot Gardens

View from the Rundetårn

View from the Rundetårn

The Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden

The Changing of the Guard, Amalienborg Palace

The Changing of the Guard, Amalienborg Palace

Monument at Christiansborg Palace

Monument at Christiansborg Palace

Public telephone box, city centre

Public telephone box, city centre

The Flag, Kronborg Castle

After a year-long hiatus I have found myself returning to the bare white page of a blank new post. My reason is Copenhagen. I visited in the Autumn; a truly brilliant birthday present I was surprised with only two weeks before I was due to fly out. The city itself is a collision of old and new, where 17th century landmarks jostle for competition next to modern bank buildings. The Copenhagen Opera House (in Danish, the Operaen) is the national opera house of Denmark and one of the most modern in the world, having been completed in October 2004 at a cost of over 500 million US dollars. The Church of St Petri, however, boasts a tower and central nave that date back to the 16th century and is considered to be the oldest preserved building in Copenhagen’s inner city. This architectural collision isn’t unusual – you only need to see a single aerial shot of London to show you that – but it is part of Copenhagen’s irresistible charm. There is a strong sense of history and tradition, not to mention national pride, but it exists harmoniously alongside a modern outlook and a pride in technological and industrial advancement. In my book, any city whose buses provide reliable, free wifi as standard is somewhere worth going. I know I’ll be making a return trip.

Needle in the Hay Stack

Just over seven months ago, on a drizzly summer day, I took this photo. The setting was Hay-on-Wye – a tiny town nestled between the foreboding valleys of the Powys-Herefordshire border; Welsh by a wisp with part of the town situated in England and the other in the land of St David. The Hay Festival of Literature and Arts has been an annual celebration of all aspects of creativity since 1998 and has remained a fixed point in the British calendar since then – being descended on by droves of authors, journalists, poets, lecturers, actors, musicians, artists, school children and tourists in Whitsun week.

Hay itself is a sleepy place, albeit one with a wonderfully sprawling collection of second-hand book shops. In fact, on entering Hay you are greeted with a sign beholding “Hay-on-Wye – Town of Books”! The very fact that such a town can survive and that this festival of the Arts continues to grow year on year, attracting some of the greatest authors, poets, comedians and thinkers of the 21st century is surely uplifting in our current climate of library closures and bookshop decline – a topic I mused on over a year ago in my post “The demise of the local bookshop”.

Ironically, my bemusement at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts being sponsored by The Telegraph (for some reason it tickled me at the time) morphed into excitement when I had the great pleasure of meeting Lisa Armstrong; Telegraph Fashion Editor, ex Times Fashion Editor and Vogue contributor. I had half an hour to kill between Michael Morpurgo’s glorious Annual Hay Library Lecture and David Bellos’ fascinating talk on language in translation, humorously entitled “Is that a fish in your ear?”, and having been alerted to the fact that Lisa had given her own talk earlier in the day I was off on a hunt to find her.

To put it into context, Lisa Armstrong’s Times Magazine columns accompanied my Saturday afternoon lunch for as long as I can remember; I’d even go as far as to say that she was one of the reasons I became so interested in fashion because of her ability to make it appear accessible to me, a thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old schoolgirl. I arrived, a little out of breath I might add, at The Telegraph tent only to spy her chatting with a festival-going couple. I hovered, debating whether to pluck up the courage to introduce myself. In short: I did. She was lovely, gave me advice about becoming a journalist and complemented me on my black felt hat. I was a very happy girl. What’s more, she very kindly agreed to have a photo with me and even snapped me for The Telegraph’s festival style blog!

Experiencing Hay was, without doubt, a true highlight of my year. Sitting in a huge tent, my pen poised above my favourite RSC notebook and surrounded by other fellow Morpurgo devotees I felt inexplicably at home. Even more so when Michael, as I like to think of him, boomed;“Cutting library funding is the stupidest thing this government has ever done”, amid cheers and applause from the delighted audience. A phrase which has stayed with me ever since the festival came from his lips too: “Reading is the oxygen of enlightenment”. A metaphor so strong and so true it doesn’t even feel like it should be granted metaphor status.

My favourite quote from the festival came courtesy of Twitter; “Only at Hay-on-Wye would a talk on fonts be so popular it has to move venues twice”. There is something so honest and uplifting about that sentence which embodies this festival in the accolades it deserves. I can’t wait to be returning this year. If you’ve never been – go. I dare you.

Hay 2

Hay 2

Hay 3

York

Type the phrase “best thing to come out of Yorkshire” into the Google search bar and press enter. In the space of 0.25 seconds, circa 24,000,000 results will be offered in return. York – it’s magnificent Minster included – is surely one of them, the city itself effervescing history from it’s cobbled streets. The brilliantly named “Shambles” street, which boasts overhanging buildings dating back to the 14th century was once known as was once known as “The Great Flesh Shambles”, probably from the Anglo-Saxon word “fleshammels” which literally means “shelves of flesh”, the word for the shelves that butchers used to display their meat. Absolutely fascinating.

A day trip to York is something I would recommend to anyone. The Minster is overwhelming both in terms of its size and ornate architecture. The Minster’s current project aims to restore the Great East Window which contains the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in Britain, and was designed by a ‘grand master’ of glass art, John Thornton. According to the Minster website; “started in 1405 and completed in 1408, the main part of the window depicts the Apocalypse, and is recognised around the world as being some of the finest medieval stained glass still in existence”.

York itself is a labyrinth of shopping streets where upmarket names such as Mulberry and Jo Malone rub shoulders with independent fashion boutiques. Retail appears to be thriving in the city – the weekday of October half-term on which I visited could have been the Saturday before Christmas such was the sheer volume of shoppers (and plummeting temperature). The city lends itself to some wonderful photographic opportunities and I feel that my first shot captures the essence of my fleeting visit. A crowd of tourists – many of them International – gathered in silence, listening to a local guide explain the history of such a striking building – a fine example of masonry and craftsmanship.

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We **** Need ** Education

Thousands of students marched to protest education cuts

10,000 students marched to protest against education cuts

Healthcare and education. 99% of people would agree that both are services of vital importance. As a nation, the NHS is one of our best assets and the very right of every single citizen of the United Kingdom to free medical treatment is one which many take for granted. Is that wrong? In a word, no. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services. It is perfectly possible to both expect the state to provide healthcare, whilst appreciating that we in this country are fortunate enough to live in a land where it is our right to have access to such services and that we are in the global minority with this.

Free education is a right too. Our right. The right of every person in this country. At least, for those between the ages of 4 and 18 it is. This week’s student protests in London dragged the ever-present issue of student fees back to the fore-front of the nation’s collective mind and highlighted the problems of graduate employment as well as the staggering financial implications which arise from university and higher education courses. I know someone who marched and I know how passionate they were, and still are, about the need to shine a light on the mess that is education finance in the UK. I saw them apply to uni, I saw the nerves the weekend before they left and I saw them return after their first term having the time of their life. But today I saw a photo of them marching over Westminster Bridge – student union banner in hand – and I was proud. It’s disappointing that the students campaigning this week are unlikely to still be students if and when any legislation is introduced to combat the dramatic rise in fees which was introduced in December 2010, but this in itself proves the commitment of many to a cause which effects everyone. Earlier this month, students from Oxford University, Oxford Brookes and other local schools and colleges protested against David Willetts, the Minister of State for Science and Education, giving a talk in St Peter’s College to the point where the proceedings inside were forced to be suspended as the chants from outside may it impossible to continue.

Pinning down exactly whose “fault” tuition fees as an entity are is difficult, predominantly because they have been introduced gradually. In 1960, fewer than 200,000 British students attended university. This figure had doubled by 1980 and risen to 650,000 by 1990. In 1997, New Labour decided that the state could no longer provide for the 1.15 million students studying beyond secondary educational level and so introduced an annual fee of £1000 for university courses. Fees were required to be paid upfront and maintenance grants were ousted. In 2003 this system was revised; £3000 per annum but with loans and some maintenance grants available specifically for students. Returning to the General Election of May 2010, it is clear that student fees wasn’t a campaign issue parties wanted to push; though when the NUS launched a campaign aiming to achieve the support of every MP by encouraging them to sign a pledge which read “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees”, many MPs (the majority, Lib Dems) jumped at the opportunity. Perhaps not so coincidentally, every Lib Dem MP who got elected in the election had signed this pledge.

As you and I both know, these promises, if not intentionally empty, were broken. Really quite dramatically and with new, extortionate fees. £9000 per year is the highest amount a university is allowed to charge and all but a very small number are doing just that. The upshot of this is that, for the average three-year-course student, around £35,000 worth of debt will be accumulated during their studies and £27,00 of that will be for their education. Depressingly, at the same time the UK has seen a 40% cut in the teaching budget which begs the question of where our fees are going if not to raising teaching standards? The line fed out by government that “increasing fees will cut the deficit” is a simplistic statement and one which doesn’t quite add up. It is costing the government more than ever to keep students at universities as the trebling of fees has had the knock on effect of causing student loans and their cost to soar. It is now crystal clear that the argument needs to be made that university education is just as important and integral a public service to and for this country that the National Health Service is. Preferably, sooner rather than later.

Why? Because we don’t need no education.

You can take the MP out of Westminster…But she’ll turn up in Oz

Nadine Dorries

From this…

The phrase “Ministerial Responsibility” is one I’ve heard banded about a fair few times this week and it’s not just because I’m an A-Level Politics student. Now I’m going to take a gamble and assume that most people reading this will think Nadine Dorries MP’s decision to abandon her Mid-Bedfordshire constituency in favour of three sweaty weeks in a jungle crawling with insects and, among other living things, press was a rashly taken one. But it was more than rash – and herein lies the problem; it was, quite frankly, a deluded act of utter madness.

For all Ms Dorries claims to be “connecting with the people”, “using the opportunity to raise issues on Abortion” or whatever her ridiculous excuses were, the simple fact remains that she has skipped her constituency, Westminster and her duties as both an MP and a Conservative Party Whip for her fifteen minutes of fame on the other side of the world – apparently without a care in the world for how she will be perceived once she returns to the shores of Blighty. I know I wouldn’t be particularly impressed if she was my MP; in fact I’d be livid.

In this single selfish act she has brought slurs upon MPs and the Conservative Party and angered a great many people. If there was a “Tory Rebel of the Year Award” it’d be hers hands down. Not so much of a compliment when calling your Party Leader (whom also happens to be your Prime Minister) a “Posh boy from Eton who doesn’t know the price of milk” and controversial views on Abortion are the way in which you went about securing said title. Even Louise Mensch, who caused her own mini media frenzy earlier this year on her decision to resign as Conservative MP for Corby following a decision to move her family to New York, spoke out against her former colleague’s actions, stating in her Guardian article “Nadine Dorries has demeaned the role of an MP”. For once, I agree with Mensch.

Nadine Dorries on I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!

…to this

Shaken Not Stirred

Whishaw and Craig as Q and 007

Skyfall

If there’s one brand, one film franchise, one name even, that sums up the very best of British creativity and industry (and which holds no relation to anyone of a royal title or an olympian) it is Bond. James Bond. Oh the images are filling my mind and I’m making no attempt to close the flood gates; martinis, Aston Martins, sophisticated black suits. Femme fatales, incredible dresses, guns, blood, Judi Dench, gadgets, the unmistakable theme tune. Fast cars, crazy billionaires, sharks and the hairiest escapes known to man.

It is perhaps serendipitous that I first began writing this post weeks (alright, two and a bit weeks) before the amusement of the Queen’s film cameo at the opening ceremony, where Bond deservedly made the entrance of the century to the roars of 80,000 people. Serendipitous as I had the unplanned pleasure of attending The Barbican’s current exhibition “Designing 007: 50 Years Of Bond Style”. It was, quite easily, the very best I have ever attended.

It was one of those afternoons that wasn’t mapped out and jam-packed with events; my family and I were to see the double bill of the plays “South Downs” and “The Browning Version” at the Harold Pinter Theatre and then take it from there. On exiting someone suggested a leisurely stroll from the West End, down Fleet Street and up to EC2 would offer the perfect opportunity to walk off the false sense of tiredness that descends in the heat of the theatre. It was clearly meant to be as my brother, utilising the wonderful invention that is the mobile phone, booked tickets enough for the four of us as we stood outside the stage door and no sooner had the crowds descended to queue for cabs than we were marching off into the distance.

Now, I am a Bond fan in the way that one whiff of a royal engagement gives way to a nation of crown lovers. I’m not a hardcore Bond brainbox but I’ve always enjoyed the slick Britishness (now I’m really not making sense) of the films and delight in the intricacies of the costume design in particular. Having not watched anything Bond related for a considerable amount of time therefore, the section of my brain reserved for the very best things in life was immediately saturated with the world of espionage the moment I stepped through the double doors into the first stage of the exhibition.

The Barbican had clearly made use of someone trained in the art of creating a practical, memorable and ultimately enjoyable memorabilia exhibit fit for public consumption. The level of detail exercised across the entire display was so scrupulous that upon exiting the final of the three stages of the spectacle (which was held across three floors of The Barbican requiring tickets to be retained and stamped on entry into each new level) I glanced down at my ticket only to smile at the numbers “007”; made up of the three consecutive stamps I had received.

My personal favourite of the outfits on show was Eva Green’s glorious evening dress, worn for her role as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. In contrast, I was appalled to discover that the ragged black dress donned by Olga Kurylenko as Bond’s accomplice Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace was in fact couture Prada and worth several thousands of pounds! On that note, was I the only one underwhelmed by Sévérine, Skyfall’s obligatory Bond girl? Without giving too much away, I like to think that her character was written without any real solidity to enforce the strong theme of the character relationship between Bond and M. Judi Dench triumphed, as did Ben Whishaw as Q who shall be returning to grace our screens in series 2 of The Hour TONIGHT on BBC2 at 9pm. I thoroughly recommend both The Hour (series 1 of which I wrote about here) and Skyfall – both are rich in glamour, espionage and good old-fashioned wit.

Ben Whishaw as Q

Q

Life in the Bubble – A Day in Oxford

Harry Potter, “dreaming spires” and rowing was all I had to go on if I was ever roped into a conversation about the city of Oxford before I had the opportunity of visiting it for myself last Autumn. Now a year on my thoughts about the University Town and its famous colleges are still swirling and my opinions not yet formed. It is common knowledge that visiting anywhere on a school trip is a wholly different experience to doing so, say, with family or friends and Oxford was no exception. It is a well-known fact that school-tourism usually involves a) a museum (it’s always a museum, sometimes you’re lucky enough to get a castle or an aquarium, but there’s always a museum) b) the buying of tacky souvenir key rings, and c) the obligatory scrum outside the sole sweet shop.

The glorious day began with a guided tour round Christ Church College, which is so perfectly modelled as the image of British student life given that the few on show were walking around wearing satchels and all eating organic fruit. It’s almost too ‘Oxford’ for Oxford. We were reliably informed by a third year that the statue stood on top of the fountain in the centre of the courtyard had been knocked over four times in the college’s history; and that three out of the four culprits were British Prime-Ministers. How very reassuring. The “no walking on the grass” rule seemed a little unnecessary and consequently resulted in an unnervingly deserted courtyard, though in some ways this added to the feeling of timelessness.

Much as I admired Christ Church’s grandeur, however, the next door college of Corpus Christi stole my affections (and no it wasn’t just because there was a croquet game going on when we arrived) due to its relaxed, almost sleepy atmosphere, and secluded gardens. Here it was difficult not to imagine a rather perfect, if clichéd, four years – sprawling on the grass with a classic penguin novel and a glass of lemonade as the morning sun glinted off the dewy grass and the thought of joining a crowd of spectators watching a boat race in the afternoon a pleasing, yet still somewhat distant, prospect.

It’s all very well about the attraction of the colleges, but what about the nitty gritty? The annual University Guide pull-outs found in most broadsheets can always be relied upon to voice allegations of elitism about and cast a sceptical and scathing eye over the two most prominent universities in Britain. The lack of straight out answers to such questions unfortunately adds even more to the overflowing plates of prospective applicants, who not only have to endure a gruelling application process including aptitude tests and interviews lasting several days but also have to consider the social implications of accepting such an offer if one were to be given. Surely such a decision should be made purely on the basis of the individual’s personal needs and specifications – course content, fees, location – instead of whether or not they will be deemed snobbish, elitist, or most fickle of all, superior?

Alas it seems that the stigma surrounding Oxbridge is set to continue, though that shouldn’t put off those who truly believe they would be happy being a part of such an institute. After all, there’s nothing arrogant about writing Oxon or Cantab after your name; indeed there should be a certain element of pride about having gained a degree from one of the world’s highest ranking universities. Seeing the University of Oxford, its colleges and libraries in all their glory, made it all seem real, and I can honestly say that even a day visit gave me a new perspective on Oxford. There is an awful lot to think about over the next year or so, although sometimes I think it’s fair to say that the cons of Oxbridge are elevated in the media so much more than those of other universities due to a constant struggle between those who support their traditional and unique style of education and those who think both universities an automatic destination for the supercilious upper classes, irrespective of whether or not they deserve to be there.

So I’m pleased to be able now to say, if ever conversing about Oxford, that it is home to several fantastic bookshops, a library where students are required to sign a form swearing “not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame” and the most bicycles I have ever seen.

The Rise and Rise of the Topshop Cult

Topshop Queues

As I sit here at my desk, drowning in the emotions of Kate Bush’s vocals I try not to think about the torrent of exams I have to face next week and beyond. I know that as long as I do my best then no one can ask for more. The post below was written as a practice essay for English Language, the stimulus being “don’t get me started on”. This style of writing is intended to provoke a reaction in the reader, be it positive or negative. I would rather receive heaps of criticism and know I’d struck a chord – albeit a rather out of tune one – than have my writing shrugged off as lacking in passion. In some ways this is the continuation of my first ever blog post, written two years ago, which discussed in somewhat less detail the many negative aspects of the Topshop experience. 

Topshop, like other popular retailers, can be easily defined by its clientele – those who shop there – and its target market – those the brand would applaud for stepping over their threshold. The Topshop Girls (or clones, depending on how strongly opposed to the chain you are) can often be seen congregating on patches of grass in the centre of University Campuses; blackberries clutched in one hand, ‘Topshop Make Up’ bags dangling from the crook of their other arm. Don’t think I’m getting on my high horse – I have a blackberry and it’s incredibly useful – but I don’t utilise it as a fashion accessory.

One of these individuals will have been entrusted with the act of selecting a suitably skimpy floral outfit which the remainder of the contingent will have been required to observe before clothing themselves in a variation of the same ensemble. In a nutshell, the more items purchased in a shop with a name beginning with the letter ‘T’ the better (just to clarify that’s Tiffany & Co, not Tesco – too easily confused, I know). It’s female peer pressure which channels itself into a bizarre spectacle of consenting uniformity; a sad but nevertheless honest reflection of some corners of today’s society.

The cunning sales technique employed in every Topshop from Oxford to its giant flagship store on Oxford Street has no doubt been the most profitable idea to emerge in the last twenty years (apart from Google and, erm, Apple but that’s by the by). Grown women morph into wild animals upon the arrival of a new collection and God forbid Kate Moss collaborates with Topshop again or she’ll have the blood of many a shopper on her hands; death-by-stampede. The alpha male of last season’s Limited Edition capsule wardrobe is indisputably squabbled over; the statement Christmas party dress which was probably held up on the pedestal of Topshop Boutique until it’s price was slashed.

Not even the instincts and rivalry displayed on the plains of the Serengeti could match the ferocious scenes of fracas on Boxing Day morning when the fashion food chain really comes into play… The top predator is the thirty-something marketing manager who replaced potentially child-shaped holes with clothes several years ago and who stops at nothing to gain internal workplace promotion – even if it means a four-figure yearly wardrobe. The primary consumer is the proactive student out looking for a bargain which she’s likely to achieve given that she is welcome to a ten percent discount when using her NUS card. She’ll know what she’s here for but will lack that scary, “in at the kill” attitude others possess.

The producer on the other hand is, very aptly, the expectant mother or mother with baby in tow. I would advocate the plastering of warning signs all over the entrance to the shop in a heartbeat, bearing the message “KEEP OUT unless you are willing to lose an eye for an eye(catching cardigan)”. To summarise: Topshop is unsafe unless you are a) trained in the art of combat, b) the owner of a pair of particularly pointy elbows or c) very, very determined to purchase something your were too much of a cheapskate to last month.

On a more serious note, I know that I am not alone in having been embarrassed by the sizing Topshop deploys. I see myself as a healthy teenager and, although I’m not a stick insect, large I most certainly am not! It therefore worries me that, being the size twelve or fourteen in Topshop that I am, there are girls out there shimmying into size sixes. We can joke about how they should be given the benefit of reduced prices considering how little fabric the garments they buy are created from, but I can see how little things like this could lead to allegations of encouraging eating disorders of anorexia – irrespective of whether or not the brand actually is.

I could have ended up a Topshop girl if it wasn’t for the guiding hands of several people who pulled me away from the bright lights of the Manchester Arndale and down the un-crowded streets of the Northern Quarter – the vintage Mecca of the North.  Whilst I acknowledge the act that we can all be permitted a couple of pieces in our wardrobes I feel very deeply that we are, as a nation, in acute danger of getting sucked into a vicious spin-cycle of lazy, over-priced and clique-induced fashion. I know that the day when I feel a thrill when handing over any amount of money in Topshop will signal that it’s high time the men in white coats come and drag me away. I’ll probably be wearing a slogan t shirt reading: “I left my soul at the sales desk”.

Do Magazines Maketh The Man?

The magazine section in my local Sainsbury’s can, I find, be a minefield (metaphorically of course – unless there’s a special “celebrity” wedding edition of Hello just out). I am perpetually baffled by the categorisation of magazines; always weighing up whether I’m simply over analysing the psychology behind the situation of the publications or whether there’s an underlying sexist issue to be found lurking near the kiosk counter. For once, I’m sure the latter has happened. It turns out that Sainsbury’s have dispelled the need for a specialist “technology and gaming” section, or words to that effect anyway, in favour of lumping premier film magazine Empire and other such volumes in with the likes of Nuts and FHM.

Apparently, the “Men’s Lifestyle” banner now covers a broader spectrum of journalistic works; that is to say, not just magazines featuring girls who are paid to be photographed practically naked and whose covers are shielded from the eyes of young children and anyone else who doesn’t want surgically enhanced human flesh forced upon their retinas. How very inclusive of them. NME and Empire were but two magazines which were unfortunate enough to suffer the humiliation of being classed as such.

Not only do I feel a deep-rooted sense of annoyance bordering on anger about this, but I felt rather uncomfortable at the time when I wanted to employ my periodic flick through Empire preferably in an environment which didn’t include titles which have to have their covers censored in the form of being covered up when on display in shops. Surely Empire, the world’s leading source of film coverage, isn’t classed as a male orientated publication? I have one friend in particular – my personal knowledge fountain of all things cinematic – who would be mortified if she received raised eyebrows or disparaging looks when indulging in movie reviews in our school library as she is apt to do (I’m ransacking the uni prospectus shelves by this point, but there you are).

Granted, magazines covering a broader spectrum of interests – such as Shortlist, sister publication to the also free Stylist – are visibly geared to a male audience, although this certainly doesn’t stop me devouring it. The fact that Stylist is its female counterpart, though the two overlap in many areas, means that everybody effectively has access to the same information. In the case of Empire, however, both men and women are interested in its content and this should be recognised by the purveyors of the publication; after all, it is in their interest to market items such as magazines to their advantage to sell as many as possible. Even from a purely monetary profit it is obviously more lucrative to ensure the reading public have the optimum access to magazines across every interest and genre.

Female orientated publications can also be described as guilty, with their plethora of fashion and beauty-saturated volumes. It could be argued, though, that this is allowable as these magazines feature almost exclusively women’s fashion and beauty and articles intended for a female audience. They could quite easily direct males with just as strong an interest in fashion to men’s magazines such as Esquire and GQ which feature a decent amount of it and male versions of Vogue, though we regrettably don’t have a British version (though that may say more about Britain than the fashion industry).

When we reach the rather murkier territories of entertainment and technology, the line is often a little blurry and can results in gender stereotyping. Nowhere is this more prevalent then on the shelves of any good newsagent. There’ll be women’s lifestyle and fashion all together, then the hobbies and interests and then the men’s lifestyle, technology and current affairs all shoved together. That’s another one; I always have to dive into a herd of men peering into gaming and computer pages to search out a copy of Total Politics which seems to be permanently hidden away from the masses, as if its content were some great secret of national importance. Indeed the politics of magazine selling strategy is certainly beyond me!

The Bard Lives On

Ben Crick as Romeo

Ben Crick as Romeo

Outside of the English department, professing my enjoyment of Shakespeare in school is hardly likely to gain me any smiles of agreement; in fact I’d be lucky to get a nod of acknowledgement. It is with this in mind that I rejoiced (or rather, breathed a deep sigh of relief) upon seeing British students like myself immersing themselves in the infinite capabilities of the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Shakespeare: Off By Heart – a talent competition with a difference – corresponds with the BBC’s current focus on all aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, rather sensationally titled Shakespeare Unlocked.

Whittled down from 2000 people aged between 13 and 15 throughout the nation, nine finalists were chosen to attend workshops at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon before appearing solo on stage and performing a well-versed soliloquy in front of several hundred people and three thespian judges. Jeremy Paxman hosted – an interesting choice as I can’t imagine anyone with the ability to unnerve young contestants any more than the man who berates swathes of intelligent under and post-graduates on University Challenge with put downs such as “No no no Corpus Christi you’re in the wrong century let alone decade” or similar such remarks. This choice was presumably intended to offer some gravitas to a relatively unadvertised BBC2 programme where the critics were three people you vaguely recognised from having seen on tv a few times.

As most people know, BBC2’s track record of, as Paxo put it, “X-Factor for intelligent people” programmes is pretty sparse and rightly so; we tend to leave that to BBC4. Due to this, the format of the show lacked any real sense of structure and although this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, their inexperience at behind the scenes, diary-like, “reality” tv footage showed, refreshing as it may have been. Clips of the patronisingly described “children” undergoing voice and acting coaching were dispersed between video of the actual performances and portraits of the 9 and their backgrounds. If I were to be critical I’d say that this didn’t help viewers to sustain a real sense of watching the action continuously in the theatre as the audience would have done, though on the whole this didn’t detract from the show’s overall message or impact.

There were some real characters among the chosen few and all showed a real enthusiasm for the literary gospel they were proclaiming the words of. My favourite, however, had to be Ben. Aged 15, he delivered the famous balcony scene monologue of Romeo and Juliet with suitable exaggeration and aplomb, despite the fact that he didn’t care much for the character of Romeo – deeming him naive to become besotted with Juliet so swiftly. He used his inner thoughts to his advantage by portraying Romeo almost comically and capturing the attention of the audience on all three sides. I was sorry that he didn’t make it through to the final three – each charged with the task of performing Hamlet’s daunting “To be, or not to be” speech – though from the wallpaper of his room being made up of rosettes from local drama festivals and as a member of the NYT (National Youth Theatre) I’m sure he’ll go far.

For anyone who missed it I offer you my sincere apologies as it is no longer on i-player (they definitely need to extend the one week limit to two at least), however I am able to point you in the direction of a couple of other reviews which will fill in the gaps for you and hopefully make you feel like you’ve watched it through alertly, twice. Here’s what The Telegraph,  The Times and Sunshine Tomorrow had to say. I’d be very interested to know your views if you did manage to catch it first time around and hopefully it will be repeated soon for those who didn’t.

Shakespeare and his plays may often seem another world away – and sometimes they are – but his comedies and tragedies speak reams about human nature and even today stand up against the most respected of writings as works that define literature. Last year, I studied Macbeth and loved every minute of it. It’s alternative title for the superstitious, The Scottish Play, doesn’t do it justice. The challenge of understanding what appears to be a different language altogether is directly proportional to the levels of satisfaction felt on revelling in the richness of the words once understood. If nothing else, it’s certainly the only incentive I’ve ever had to wield a carving knife around the kitchen, proclaiming wide-eyed and as if possessed “Is this a dagger I see before me?”