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601. British Comedy: The Day Today (Part 1)

Let’s investigate a brilliant British comedy TV show and use it to learn English. The Day Today was originally broadcast on the BBC in the mid-90s and is now considered a groundbreaking parody of news programmes and launched the careers of various comedians, including Steve Coogan.

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Introduction Transcript, Notes & Videos

Hello folks, this episode is called British Comedy: The Day Today and in this one we’ll be looking at another classic bit of British TV Comedy.

First I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the show and then we’ll listen to some clips and I’ll explain the language for you.

This time, it’s The Day Today which was originally broadcast on TV in the 1990s, 1994 to be exact – yes, that’s probably before some of you were even born. But we don’t care about whether this is old or brand new, it doesn’t matter. I think good comedy always stands the test of time, and The Day Today is no exception. It’s still relevant and funny now just like it was before. And in any case, I think it’s part of the fabric of British culture now, just like many other classic bits of British TV comedy that we all grew up watching on TV.

What kind of programme is it?

It’s a surreal parody of news and current affairs TV programmes. It’s a comedy version of the news.

Imagine the news, like the BBC 10 o’clock news, but with everything turned up to 11, everything exaggerated. It’s more dramatic, more pompous, more self-important and much more ridiculous than the real news.

But The Day Today isn’t just an impressions show of people copying news readers, it had this amazing surreal twist to it, which made it so much more subversive.

The show made fun specifically of the self-important nature of TV news and used surrealism and absurdity under the guise of a news broadcast.

The news always presents itself as being very important, very serious, very heavy, completely trustworthy, stern, authoritarian even. These days TV news has softened a bit, but not much. It still has this air of superiority, which I suppose is a necessary part of attempting to convey information in a factual, serious and balanced way. But TV news language – both oral and visual has become a cliché (had become a cliché back in the 90s) which makes it very ripe for making parody comedy.

An example of real TV news headlines

Here’s an example of the opening of the BBC 9 o’clock news, which was and still is the flagship news programme for the BBC.

Listen out for the serious tone of the newsreader Michael Beurk, the important and significant sounding music and also Michael Beurk’s slightly old school pronunciation in places. All of these things went into The Day Today. (News begins at 00:50)

The difference between the Day Today and other shows which have parodied the news was the surrealism. Basically this meant taking a silly story and dealing with it in the most serious way possible, but there was more to it than that. The phrases used, the images created and the slight sense of twisted insanity create this version of the news that’s part Monty Python, part Peter Cook and part some kind of high tech dystopian vision of the future.

This is absolutely a show that inspired Charlie Brooker to do work like Black Mirror. In fact, the creator of Black Mirror worked with Chris Morris – the main guy behind The Day Today. So, for me, they come from the same creative community. Clever, satirical, twisted, dark and very funny comedy writing in the UK.

The Day Today was broadcast at 9pm on BBC2 – the same time as the national news on BBC1. Apparently some people mistakenly watched The Day Today, thinking it was the real news, and believed the stories.

The parody of news tropes was spot on. It looked, sounded and smelt like news. The opening titles of the show captured that sense of drama, pomposity and urgency that you get from news programmes. The set looked just right. The different characters were weird and bizarre but perfectly captured the sorts of journalists or presenters that you could find on TV.

Alan Partridge made his first TV appearance on this show as the sports reporter with a chip on his shoulder who was always getting things wrong.

The language is a big part of it. The news readers speak in this kind of news dialect, with a certain kind of intonation, complex sentences that go on too long and mixed metaphors, as we will hear.

Who wrote it and all that stuff?

Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_Today

Excellent performances by the cast, all of whom have gone on to do other great things.

Chris Morris is a talent that people often forget about, but he was fearless, original, very clever, quite ruthless and a bit sick – the perfect recipe for great British comedy. He went on to do another show called Brass Eye, which was similar to The Day Today but more extreme and controversial (and is a potential other episode for LEP), then various weird comedy projects like BlueJam, an ambient mix album with subliminal sketch comedy going on at the same time. Then he became a film director and did the film Four Lions which is about inept terrorists planning an attack in London. The film won various awards, as did The Day Today.

Armando Iannucci went on to make The Thick of It and In The Loop – political satires about life on Whitehall, and then Veep which is the American equivalent following the vice president. He also directed Death of Stalin and has been involved in writing for Alan Partridge and other big projects.

Other notable cast members are Steve Coogan of course who went on to become successful as Alan Partridge but has also starred in a few Hollywood movies and things.

All the other comedians on the show went on to do more great work.
Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, Patrick Marber, David Schneider.

Other writers on the show were Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews who went on to create Father Ted and later The IT Crowd and Black Books (just Graham Linehan).

LET’S LISTEN TO SOME CLIPS AND USE THEM TO LEARN ENGLISH

Alright, enough already. Let’s listen to some clips which you can find on YouTube, and which I have posted on the page for this episode, with time codes to help you find the clips.

There are only 6 episodes of The Day Today but they’re pretty packed with classic stuff.

I’ve been through all 6 episodes and picked out some of my favourite moments to share with you.

The plan is to play them, then break them down sentence by sentence to make sure you understand them 100% and hopefully, get the jokes, although this show doesn’t really use jokes per se, but in any case the aim is to help you understand and appreciate the humour and learn plenty of English in the process.

All the episodes are on YouTube so you could check them all out later if you like, or buy the excellent DVD box set from the BBC, which I own and recommend to you. It’s only £5 on Amazon. Other bookshops are available.

www.amazon.co.uk/Day-Today-Complete-BBC-Disc/dp/B000171RU4/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=the+day+today&qid=1560774228&s=gateway&sr=8-1

I have played some clips of this show before, and explained them for language. You might remember Alan Partridge’s World Cup Countdown or his Sports Roundup, there was Peter O’Hanrahahanrahan interviewing the minister for ships, and I think also we had the interview with the woman raising money by selling jam.

Anyway, let’s get into it.

First I want to play you the opening titles of an episode, just for the music really, because it sets the tone. There are a few ridiculous headlines too.

CLIP 1: THE DAY TODAY – OPENING TITLES

  • What are the three stories exactly?
  • Luke describes the opening titles

Those headlines again

Remember the way grammar changes in headlines.

FIST HEADED MAN DESTROYS CHURCH
Presumably a man with a fist for a head has destroyed a church. You can imagine him headbutting the walls or something. Don’t think about it too much, it’s supposed to be funny to hear such ridiculous things spoken in that voice using that register.

CAR DRIVES PAST WINDOW IN TOWN
The most boring story. A car drove past a window in a town. It’s accompanied by a video of a car driving past a building.

LEICESTER MAN WINS RIGHT TO EAT SISTER
Presumably a man from Leicester has taken court action to allow him to eat his sister. You could imagine this was a real story if he wanted to ‘wed’ his sister, or cousin, especially if he’s from Leicester, but this is to ‘eat’ his sister.

“Those are the headlines, now fact me till I fart.”

CLIP 2: WAR

Australia and Hong Kong have signed a treaty to create an amazing free trade agreement which will be very beneficial for both places and marks a new beginning of peace and cooperation between them.

Chris Morris interviews the British Minister with special responsibility for the commonwealth (this is the days when HK was still a British dependent territory) and the Australian Foreign Secretary – both men who are responsible for the deal.

The interview seems to start as a celebration of the new deal, but the newsreader Chris Morris manages to manipulate the two of them into a diplomatic fight which ends in a declaration of war.

This is a great sketch. The newsreader causes a war in order to be able to cover it in dramatic fashion on his news show. For me it’s about how the media can sometimes drive the agenda through their reporting. The BBC isn’t officially biased. In fact I think most journalists have an honest intention to report on what’s happening, but they’re always going to impose some of their world view on the way they explain stories. But also you get the sense sometimes that some TV producers and presenters are a bit seduced by their own power and end up pushing things in a certain direction under the guise of critical thinking.

Also, perhaps news programmes thrive on creating drama and reporting on a war is somehow the dream of many broadcast journalists, or at least seems like that because war correspondents have this air of action and adventure which borders on being romantic, and the efficient and lively way that broadcasters deal with stories of war makes it seem like they’re enjoying it somehow. There’s precise technical information, reporters in the middle of the action and loads of dramatic music, graphics and images.

Let’s listen to this sketch, which is about 4mins long.

Over to you

Here are some things to listen out for

  • How Chris Morris stokes up tensions and pushes the two diplomats towards war
  • Chris Morris’s confrontational interview style, typical of BBC presenters like Jeremy Paxman, notorious for bullying politicians on TV
  • The mixed metaphors and clichés like, “The stretched twig of peace is at melting point” and
  • “People here are literally bursting with war.”
  • The glee with which Chris says “YES, IT’S WAR!”
  • The OTT way that the show snaps into action once war has been declared, like they were ready and prepared for this, and as journalists this is what they live for
  • The name of the Day Today smart bomb (which I think is an actual bomb fired by The Day
  • Today, with a camera on it, so they can report from the middle of the fight. The news station have launched their own bombs in this war)
  • The clunky way the show goes to the weather, after all that war

I will be going through all of this again after we’ve heard it and I will break it down to the bare bones and will explain language and all that

CLIP 3: Peter O’hanrahahanrahan – Ich Nichten Lichten (Episode 2)

Ministers in Europe have been involved in difficult discussions about quota rates for trade with the US. I expect they’ve been debating what the rates should be, with some ministers disagreeing about the final decision.

Economics correspondent Peter O’Hanrahahanrahan is in Brussels because he says he’s spoken to the German minister and knows how he feels about the decision.

Peter O Hanrahahanrahan’s name is a joke on a real correspondent called Brian Hanrahan (an irish name I think) who actually used to call our house sometimes to speak to my dad (who used to be a BBC news man). Michael Beurk also came round sometimes. He was one of the presenters of the 9 o’clock news who is parodied by Chris Morris on The Day Today. In fact, I feel like I grew up in a news household because my dad often reviewed videos of presenters, we always watched the news, there were BBC pens and mugs all around the house and we sometimes met BBC TV presenters and news readers. I never met Alan Partridge though.

Peter O’Hanrahahanrahan is incompetent, stupid and also petulant (disobeys orders and lies, childishly). It turns out that Peter hasn’t spoken to the German minister and just stayed in his hotel room the whole time. He’s making up the information and can’t even speak German.

Listen out for

  • The way Chris Morris is sceptical about what Peter is saying, and starts to question his story subtly, before full-on bullying him and telling him off like a naughty schoolboy
  • Peter’s pathetic attempt to speak German, clearly pretending that he knows the language and actually spoke to the German minister, when he doesn’t and didn’t
  • How Peter finally admits that he doesn’t actually know what happened and didn’t speak to the minister at all, like a teenager admitting that he’s lying

Peter O Hanrahahanrahan – Ich nichten lichten (starts at 19m40sec)

CLIP 4: SOME KIND OF DRUBBING INCIDENT  (Episode 3

In this one we start with a sports report from Alan Partridge but it gets interrupted with the news that The Queen and the Prime Minister have had a fight. We then follow the story and learn that during their weekly meeting, the PM (John Major) punched The Queen. This sounds shocking of course, especially now that The Queen is elderly, but that’s not the point.

Instead the show is mocking the way the news would deal with a constitutional crisis, springing into action in order to cover the crisis in full detail. It’s also just ridiculous to imagine The Queen having a brawl with anyone.

Listen out for

  • The report from Jennifer Gumpets in front of Buckingham Palace. This report is so realistic.
  • There isn’t much comedy in it beyond the bizarreness of the story. It’s just a perfect little parody of a report from a correspondent.
  • “And as a result of that broadcast the crisis has deepened dramatically” The news actually makes the situation worse by broadcasting footage of the fight, and then starts reporting on that too.
  • Spartacus Mills (history expert) – “Can you sum it up in a word? No. A sound?” What sound does Spartacus use to sum up the situation?
  • The special broadcast which was pre-recorded and designed to be played at times of crisis. It’s basically a way to say “This is Britain, and everything is all right. It’s ok. It’s fine.” and it’s filled with proud patriotic sentiments. The irony is that this kind of thing is either a) needed now in order to make British people feel that everything’s fine or b) the sort of thing used by the Leave campaign to convince people to vote Brexit.
  • What’s the solution to the crisis which has been agreed by both sides?

Clips start at 5:38 & 19:40/21:10

The PM was seen to leave hurriedly after half and hour

The Currency Kidney

549. British Comedy: Alan Partridge (Part 2)

Building on the previous episode, this time we’re looking at how Alan Partridge interacts with people in his every day life and how this results in some classic moments of British TV comedy. All the material is explained with plenty of vocabulary to learn.

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Transcript, Notes & Videos

His chat show series ended in disaster when he accidentally shot a man to death during an interview.

3. Alan interviews Tony Hayers (Knowing Me, Knowing Yule – the Christmas special 1995)

There was a Christmas special of Knowing Me Knowing You, which was made as part of a contractual obligation in his BBC deal.

He featured Tony Hayers on the chat show. He was the chief commissioning editor of the BBC – the man who decides which programmes are on the telly. Inviting him is a terrible decision because Alan is hoping to get a 2nd series of his chat show from Hayers, but Hayers hasn’t made his decision yet and is probably not going to give it to him anyway because Alan’s TV show was a disaster.

Alan interviews Tony and it is very awkward. Alan is mainly concerned about whether he has got a second series of his chat show. He is assuming that he has got it – because of his inflated sense of self-worth, which might be him subconsciously compensating for some deep issues he has. Alan is incredibly unaware of himself, which is somehow a social crime in the UK. I think we’re very self-aware.

The interview comes off the rails as Alan gets caught up in attempting to work out if he’s going to get a second series of the chat show.

What to look out for:

  • The awkwardness of Alan having his boss on his chat show
  • How Tony talks about having to cut jobs at the BBC
  • How Alan’s metaphor about Tony “ringing the changes” doesn’t work
  • How Alan keeps pressing for confirmation of a second series
  • How he assumes he has one although it’s obvious to us that he hasn’t
  • How Alan ultimately ruins it for himself
  • How he attempts to appear politically correct but he’s very awkward about certain issues

Later, Alan sort of has a breakdown live on air and ends up punching his boss in the face accidentally, with a turkey stuck on his hand.

I’m Alan Partridge

A year or two later a new series about Partridge arrived. It was called “I’m Alan Partridge”.

For me, this is when Alan really became a brilliant character. In I’m Alan Partridge we follow Alan in his normal life.

Previously we saw his awkward encounters with guests and a lot of very cringe-worthy moments. It worked as a parody and satire of television chat shows and the general clichés of broadcasting.

Now we see Alan in his everyday life and he has similarly awkward encounters. We see behind the curtain. Alan struggles to be normal. He’s always in “TV chat” mode, and it’s awful. He has no social skills, even though he thinks he’s a great conversationalist. He tries to be charming and normal, it all goes wrong, but he doesn’t realise it. He’s completely unaware of himself. In fact, his life is nosediving. It’s all falling apart around him, but he blindly assumes that he’s destined to be a prime time BBC1 TV presenter.

This is really hard to explain. We just have to hear it and find out.

Alan’s career is on the rocks. He’s now hosting a show on local radio – in Norwich. It’s the pre-breakfast show – a very obscure slot, something like 4:30-6:30AM, local radio. He’s drifted into obscurity. Also, his personal life is in disarray. His wife has left him for her fitness instructor. We gradually learn more and more about this and essentially it’s largely his fault because he’s Alan Partridge!

He’s petty, domineering, arrogant, unromantic, selfish, careless, career oriented. Why is this character so fascinating for the viewer? I’m not sure.

Now he’s living in a travel tavern – a kind of roadside motel, but he’s convinced that things will get better because he’s certain that the BBC will give him a second series of his chat show. He’s even about to buy a 5 bedroom house. He’s utterly deluded about himself. It’s sad. There’s darkness lurking just under the surface. In fact, Alan later does have a nervous breakdown and ends up bingeing on Toblerone chocolate bars and driving to Dundee in Scotland in bare feet (with no shoes on) but that’s later on.

I’m Alan Partridge – Series 1 Episode 1 1997

4. Alan meets Michael the Geordie and talks about his accent
Michael works as a caretaker at the travel tavern. He’s from Newcastle and he used to be in the army.

Alan strikes up a sort of friendship with him, but at first Michael is hard to understand because of his accent.

What to look out for:

  • The way the girl Sophie on reception is subtly insulting Alan while remaining professional
  • Alan’s prejudice against people from the north
  • How Alan is fascinated by Michael’s horrible experiences in the army

5. Alan’s pretend meeting with Tony Hayers

Alan’s Personal Assistant, Lynn helps Alan prepare for his meeting with Tony Hayers. Alan grossly overestimates his chances of a second series, and even the pretend meeting goes wrong, with Alan demanding to have a second series from Lynn, and putting Lynn down at the same time. This is how Alan imagines his negotiating style to be, and even in his fantasised versions, he fails.

What to watch out for:

  • How Alan imagines his meeting with Tony Hayers will go, including the locker room banter he expects to have with Tony about smoking cuban cigars
  • How even the fantasy goes completely wrong

I’m Alan Partridge Series 1 Episode 1 09:25

6. Alan’s real meeting with Tony Hayers
Alan is meeting Tony Hayers at the BBC and expects to be told he’s getting a 2nd series. We all suspect that he won’t get it, even though he’s certain he will and has just bought a 5 bedroom house.

Alan is clearly out of his depth in this BBC restaurant where everyone is an executive in a suit.

Alan attempts to appear sophisticated but gets everything wrong.
It becomes clear that Alan doesn’t have a second series and he loses it.
He then attempts to pitch a number of other shows he has in mind, but they’re all terrible.
You see something kind of click and he ends up punching Tony Hayers with a piece of cheese.

“Smell my cheese you mother!”

What to watch out for

  • How Alan attempts to appear classy with talk of wine and other things, and how he reveals that he has no class
    Alan’s ridiculous ideas for TV shows, very similar to stupid TV shows that exist in the real world

I’m Alan Partridge Series 1 Episode 1 16:36

7. Alan and Lynn in the car

“That was a negative and right now I need two positives.”

“Come on I’ll drop you at a cab rank.”

Alan fantasises about calling Chris Rea, the pop star who lives in the area. In his imagined conversation he invites Chris to a barbecue but the invitation ends in an argument. Again, even his imaginary exchanges go all wrong.

What to watch out for:

  • How Alan somehow imagines his life like a hollywood thriller (that was a negative…)
  • The imagined conversation with Chris Rea that goes wrong
  • “Come on, I’ll drop you at a cab rank”

I’m Alan Partridge Series 1 Episode 1 25:00

Thanks for listening!

Alan Partridge TV shows are available on iTunes and other platforms. Also, check out the Alan Partridge audiobooks on Audible.

There should be a part 3 coming soon. Tell me what you think in the comment section!

507. Learning English with UK Comedy TV Shows

Recommendations and descriptions of British comedy TV shows with some comments about how to use comedy TV shows to learn English. Transcript available below.

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Transcript (95% complete)

Hello, etc! (some rambling here at the beginning!)

British TV Comedy

I often get requests from listeners asking me to recommend some good British TV comedy shows. So, that’s what you’re going to get in this episode – comments about using comedy TV to improve your English and then some recommendations of TV shows that you can watch.

I love comedy and I think we have a lot of great comedy in the UK.

The USA is also known for its comedy of course, and I’m sure almost all of you are aware of American shows like Friends, The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and so on.

But Britain also has a long tradition of comedy shows on TV – sitcoms, sketch shows and character-based comedy dramas. There are so many TV comedies from the UK and many of them are truly loved by the British public. Comedy is one of the things about the UK that I am most proud of.

It’s not just Mr Bean, by the way.

British and American comedy shows are different, in the same ways that British and American culture is different. Generally speaking, I find American shows to be slightly more positive in tone, the characters slightly more attractive and successful – and perhaps because of the commercial nature of a lot of American TV channels their comedy can be a bit more conventional and safe. I mean, I get the feeling that the producers of the shows are very conscious that they have to make their advertisers happy and as a result the shows end up having to appeal to a broader audience and this means that the shows are slightly less risky, slightly less edgy and slightly less weird than British comedy shows.

British comedy can be complicated for non-Brits to get and it can be an acquired taste. People sometimes say “British humour” or “British comedy” as a synonym of “weird, dark, surreal, complex, cerebral” and sometimes “unfunny”. I would agree with most of that, except the “unfunny” part of course. I am very glad that British comedy shows are a bit darker, weirder, more surreal, more complex (sometimes) and dare I say it – more intelligent.

Let’s not get snobbish here… British people have a tendency to become a bit snobbish when talking about American things, and that’s not very attractive. Ultimately, it’s a matter of context, taste and point of view and I really don’t want to get into the British comedy vs American comedy debate here.

My main point is: American TV comedy is generally more well-known than British TV comedy – and so my job here is to bring to your attention some of the really great programmes that have been made in the UK so you can enjoy them like I do and use them to learn English.

I think if you’re into British things and that includes our humour and our outlook on life in general, I think I might be able to introduce you to some programmes that you will really enjoy and that will be great content for you to consume as learners of British English.

I grew up watching British comedy on TV. For a while it was the highlight of my week. I used to plan my entire life around the comedy shows that were on TV in the evenings. That was my life. Playing football and watching comedy on TV.

Using TV Comedy in Class

I have always been really keen to introduce my students to British comedy and time and time again I have chosen to play clips of shows or whole episodes of shows in my classes.

This is actually a less effective and worthwhile than you might expect, unless as a teacher you do certain things.

The less successful thing to do is to just play an episode of a show without any preparation. E.g. “OK, it’s Friday afternoon, let’s watch a DVD. Turn out the lights, get comfortable, here we go.”

Expectation = we will laugh, everyone will enjoy it and learning English will be fun and relaxing on a Friday afternoon.

Reality = you don’t understand it, you don’t laugh, don’t have fun and just come away thinking British comedy is “weird and unfunny”.

This is because understanding and enjoying comedy is one of the more difficult things to do in another language. There are so many things that go into your enjoyment of a bit of TV comedy. Linguistically – you need to understand every detail and understand it fast. Often, jokes are very subtle and understated – especially if it is a good comedy. I think good comedies are often quite clever and not totally obvious. Some really great comedy is very obvious of course – like Charlie Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy – physical humour, or the humour of slapstick. But I really love comedy which is quite subtle, and I think a lot of British shows rely on this sort of thing. So, your English has to be really sharp to pick up on the particular use of language, or the way things are suggested rather than obviously stated. Also, you need to understand the cultural context too – like the fact that some British comedy shows present characters and situations that are familiar to most Brits, but which people who aren’t familiar with the culture wouldn’t really understand.

So, if your English isn’t quite sharp enough and you’re not familiar with the cultural context, a comedy show might appear to be unfunny and just weird.

So as a teacher I actually find it to be very hard work to use comedy TV shows in class successfully. It often takes a lot of pre-teaching of vocabulary, lots of preparation in terms of getting the students to discuss and consider the ideas, characters or situations in the show, and the chance to see scenes several times, perhaps with a script to help. In the end, the laughter might get lost, and unless the students are particularly motivated by the idea of enjoying a comedy TV show, it might just be a better idea to do something more conventional and learner-oriented in a classroom.

I have to admit that I’ve had some very frustrating experiences in class, when I’ve presented something to a group of students – perhaps an episode of a TV programme that I really love, and it hasn’t gone down very well. I just end up feeling a bit hurt. Imagine sharing something you really love with a group of people, and to have them just look at you blankly, or yawn, or say “it’s not funny” or “I am boring”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some classes that adored the comedy I’ve shown them and asked for more, but not always.

Of course it’s all a question of taste and perhaps my expectations are the problem. I expect/hope that every single person in the class will get it. In reality, only some will get it. Perhaps it’s hard to enjoy it in a classroom context and really these things take time.

You need to watch again and again, to get to know the characters and so on. It takes time to really get into a show, to find it funny and to develop a love for it. Repeated viewings and a love for a show are great conditions for learning English from it. Also, I get downhearted when just one person isn’t into it. I might not notice the students who loved it just because Juan Pedro seemed bored.

So, perhaps the classroom isn’t the best environment for using TV comedy, but I am still convinced that there is a lot of value in using comedy shows to learn English.

My students who tell me they watch TV shows in English are always the better learners in class

One thing I do know for sure – the best learners of English in my experience are the types of people who take the time to get into TV shows and who don’t expect simple laughs at the start. Often the outstanding learners of English I’ve met are the ones who’ve told me that they’ve watched entire seasons of Black Books, or that they really loved watching Red Dwarf or The Mighty Boosh. It does happen sometimes.

Here are some facts: All the learners of English who have told me that they regularly watched a British comedy TV show have been good learners of English – communicative, good vocabulary, better understanding and pronunciation than their classmates and showing good potential for making progress through their English course, and I’ve never met a terrible learner who told me they watched comedy shows in English.

The ones who tell me they watch comedy shows in English are always the better students. Is there a connection? There must be something. Maybe the ones who enjoy watching comedy in English are the ones who are just more motivated, less willing to give up, more curious. THese are probably the successful traits – motivation, curiosity, patience, a desire to discover the deeper meaning beyond just learning the language as quickly as possible. If you have those traits I’m sure you’re more likely to be a better learner of English and you’re probably more likely to enjoy watching comedy programmes in English.

So I do encourage you to try and get into British comedy, even if it’s tricky at the start. Also, realise that there might be more to British comedy than meets the eye. It’s not like a lot of American comedy shows which are a bit superficial, to be honest – I mean, there’s never a lot of tragedy, pain, or harsh reality in those shows. Friends, for example – it’s all too colourful. The characters don’t seem to ever really suffer. Their lives are amazing. Where is the existential suffering? Their apartment is too nice. Their lives are too rich. They’re ultimately too happy and successful. I find that harder to relate to and therefore harder to get into. I need more depth than that. I don’t just want my comedy to be escapism. I want it to allow me to explore more complicated feelings and ideas. Comedy can be challenging, complex and fascinating.

Again, I should point out that it’s not a simple case of – American comedy = superficial, British comedy = deep. There are plenty of deep, dark and complex American shows. The Simpsons, for example – at it’s best it’s extremely nuanced and reflects such a multifaceted view of life, including not just Homer falling over, but the highs and lows, pain and joy of family life in all its richness, even if the characters are all presented in bright yellow colours.

What I want to do in this episode is sell the idea of using comedy for learning English, manage your expectations about British comedy in order to help you learn from it more effectively, and also recommend some shows.

I think from the outset this might be an impossible mission – to explain British comedy to an international audience of learners of English, and then have them actually go and watch it and also enjoy it as much as me – this may be an impossible mission, but I feel compelled to do it, and really – it’s up to you to make the mission a success isn’t it? There’s only so much I can do. The rest is your responsibility.

One advantage that we have is that you, my audience, aren’t just ordinary learners of English because I suppose you are already into British things, you probably like comedy and you must have a sense of humour if you either a) enjoy this podcast or b) have listened to it for a long time (this is a no ‘no sense of humour’ zone as far as I’m concerned) So I’m assuming that you’re already curious about British comedy, or you already appreciate it, or you are keen to get some recommendations from me about shows that I like.

I have one recommendation for you to consider…

Do not consume British comedy as comedy. Do not think of it as comedy.

This is reverse psychology, but it might just work.

Don’t think of it as comedy – because if you sit down to it expecting to laugh all the time, you might just be disappointed. Instead, think of these shows as tragedy, or a study in character.

By removing the emphasis on comedy, you should be able to focus instead on simply understanding the motivations of the characters, the situations they find themselves in and how this is all expressed by the things they say and the ways they interact. If you understand all these things, you might find it funnier or more moving as a result.

Think of them as pathos. (Pathos is like comedy, but instead of creating laughter, it creates sadness or a feeling of sympathy)

Think of each show as a study of some individuals and their lives filled with quiet desperation, or hope, or frustration, or ambition, or failure or contradiction.

Think of each show as a personality study or a soap opera.

But don’t think of it as a comedy.

This doesn’t mean that you should expect these shows to be rubbish and boring.

No, on the contrary – the shows are not rubbish, they’re often very good and really carefully created, even if they are filmed in TV studios with some cheap special effects or bland-looking lighting or set design and possibly with actors that don’t look like glamorous movie stars.

You might not get all the bright colours, white teeth and good hair that you might see in an American show.

But you will see really interesting people, very witty bits of dialogue, unexpected moments, awkward social situations with hilarious consequences. Some really complex and satisfying characters, and some genuinely classic moments of British TV culture, which have captured our imaginations and entered the popular consciousness.

But don’t consume these shows as comedy, but rather as drama.

Understanding British Comedy TV

Often in British TV shows the comedy comes from the frustration, the embarrassment, the flaws and the failures or the fears of the characters, or the ways that the characters argue and the funny moments of friction between them.

British TV comedy characters are like characters in Shakespearean tragedies. I know that sounds like I’m over egging the pudding a bit, but really I do believe that. The best TV comedy characters have fatal flaws. They have specific problems in their personalities that send them on a narrative arc which aims at success but usually ends in tragedy. Just like in a good Shakespeare play.

I’ll go into more detail in a moment.

But now, here are some specific tips for …

How to use shows to improve your English

  • Watch with and without subtitles
  • Use a notepad to make a note of what the characters are saying – especially when you notice specific phrases or other features of language.
  • If there are bits that make you laugh, note them down! Note down the phrasing, the intonation, the specific words, reactions and the lines that lead up to the funny moment. If it made you laugh it obviously meant something to you, so you’ll probably remember it better.
  • Repeat the funny lines to yourself a few times and try to copy the timing and emphasis.
  • Be aware of where the characters come from and how they speak with an accent.
  • Turn the spoken word into the written word and then back to the spoken word again.
  • Record yourself saying some bits.
  • Go the extra mile.
  • Maintain your curiosity. Give the shows a chance. It might take a while before you really get it and start finding it funny. But hang in there, it will come. Don’t expect too much, even though I’m telling you that these shows are wonderful. But trust me when I say that they are good.
  • When you find a show that you just like, watch it again and again! You can learn more from watching one show you like lots of times than from watching lots of shows you don’t like a lot.
  • Consider recording the audio from shows and listening to them without the visuals. It’s not a crazy thing to do. I did it at university with 2 episodes of I’m Alan Partidge. They used to entertain me so much that I recorded the audio onto my walkman and listened to them when I was on the bus. I learned a lot of the lines and I still really appreciate those episodes today.
  • Or if you have space on your phone, download the shows and watch when you’re on the bus or whatever – but obviously be careful of the NSFW content.
  • Read about the shows online. Often there are summaries of each episode on Wikipedia or on IMDB. Use those websites to find discussions of the episodes too, and also lists of quotes from the episodes.

Here are some specific shows that I can recommend.

Themes in UK TV Comedy

Almost all of these shows feature these themes:

  • The character is stuck in a situation in his/her life.
  • But the characters dream big – they have high hopes and big ambitions – they think they are better than the situation they’re in.
  • In every episode they try to achieve something, attempting to rise above their every day life.
  • But frustrating events work against them and they stay stuck in the same situation.
  • They’re thwarted by the situation around them but the biggest cause of their failure is themselves. Perhaps the character’s ambition, lack of self awareness or the fact that the character thinks they are better than their situation – these things cause the character to fail.
  • The main problem – the character doesn’t accept his/her situation and is not self aware and therefore always ends up frustrated, despite trying to achieve something bigger.

So, what about this list of shows?

I’ll explain the basic synopsis of the show and will also try to tell you what kind of English you might hear in the show as well as any other details I think you should know.

I’m not sure how you are going to actually find or get hold of these shows. I know some of you out there in internetland have access to anything through torrenting sites and stuff, or on those websites where shows are uploaded for streaming.

I recommend that you find the shows online, get them on DVD or however you normally watch programmes.

You also might think to yourselves, “Do I have to watch any of these shows…? Is this compulsory homework?” Well, no of course you can do whatever you want and if you’d rather just not bother, like I’m sure a great many of you will do, then go ahead. Carry on living your lives exactly like before, listen to the podcast on your way to work or whatever and that’s fine. But I know that quite a lot of you are interested in finding some British TV shows to watch – so here’s a list of personal recommendations from me to you.

These are all shows I have watched and enjoyed. In no particular order.

By the way, all of these could and should be individual episodes of the podcast in their own right, in which we listen to some clips and all that stuff, and I might do that in the future.

Some British TV Comedy Show Recommendations (in no particular order)

The Office

Reality-style sitcom (or “mockumentary”) Early 2000s.

Basic description?

This is a tragedy set in an office. It’s also a romance, of sorts.

There are two types of character – the ones who are trapped in hell and the ones who don’t realise that they’re trapped in hell. The hell in this case is an office in Slough. Perhaps hell within hell, because it’s bad enough being in Slough but working in an office in Slough is even worse.

Type of English

It’s very “realistic” – it’s a fly on the wall drama. The camera men are trying not to be intrusive. It’s like we’re just observing life in this office. As a result it’s not always clear what’s being said. Characters might mumble sometimes, and their sentences aren’t always complete – it’s the style, but this is good because this is how people actually speak. The laughs are not signalled, and there’s no laughter track. It might look like just a depressing office and this is the point.

That’s what this is about. Remember – tragedy! Most of the characters are from the south and don’t have really strong accents except a couple of them who have accents from the South West (Gareth for example).

I’m Alan Partridge

Mid 1990s – now

A man who thinks he is an A-grade broadcaster is actually a D-grade broadcaster – but it’s so much more than that. It started as a parody of the way TV broadcasters speak, but it’s become a parody of a certain type of middle aged British Man – the kind of man who reads the Daily Express and votes for Brexit.

I need to do a whole episode about this. You need to understand that Alan is someone who speaks like a local radio presenter in ordinary life and it shows how alienated he is from normal people. He talks to the public on the radio, but in real life he’s hopeless, but he doesn’t realise. His accent is a bit like a parody of a sports reporter or a radio presenter. This is a complex character and he doesn’t realise how ridiculous he is. We’re laughing at him, not with him.

Father Ted

Actually Irish not British.

Sitcom – 1990s

The pathos: a man who is stuck in the priesthood with a drunkard and an idiot on an island off Ireland and he dreams of having a more glamourous life.

It’s not a British show, it’s Irish. The accents are from the Republic of Ireland.

Blackadder

Historical sitcom or satire – 1980s – 1990s

Edmund is essentially a modern-minded man stuck in the idiocy of British history.

This features some of the UK’s most favourite actors and comedians including Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Usually the English you’ll hear is quite old-fashioned. You’ll hear parodies of old English styles, and plenty of sarcasm. Although the style is old fashioned (it’s set in the Tudor period, Regency period or WW1 period) the characters should speak clearly and in RP.

Don’t watch series 1 of Blackadder! Avoid series 1. Only series 2-4 are good.

Bottom

Sitcom – 1990s

Two complete cretins live a miserable unemployed existence in Hammersmith – it’s basically Samuel Beckett.

They speak with a bit of RP and a bit of London. Often the characters adopt high-class English in contrast to the low-class situation they live in.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Sketch show from the 1960s and 1970s.

A group of highly educated Oxbridge graduates make fun of absolutely everything, including history, comedy clichés and existence itself.

George Harrison once said that when The Beatles split up at the end of the sixties that The Beatles spirit passed into Monty Python. There’s something in that, because the pythons had something special about them. Not every sketch is great, but a lot of them are brilliant. It’s probably best to just watch the films – Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Spaced

Sitcom – Late 1990s early 2000s.

Two twenty-somethings who live in a fantasy world of their own creation struggle to exist in the real world – everything they do becomes a scene from a famous film.

The Day Today

News parody and satire. Mid 1990s.

The news is pompous and self-important to the point of being surreal.

Brass Eye

The same concept as The Day Today but a lot more controversial.

Only Fools and Horses

Sitcom – 1980s – 1990s.

Two orphaned brothers from a working class background just try to make ends meet. One of them ends up becoming middle class when he falls in love with a middle-class girl, but he’s working class at heart.


Shows I talk about in the Bonus Audio – in the LEP App.

Black Books

Sitcom – Late 1990s – early 2000s.

Bernard works in a bookshop selling books to the public. He loves books but the problem is he hates people. He also loves wine and smoking. It’s a bit like Withnail &I.

Absolutely Fabulous

Sitcom – 1990s.

Two posh middle aged women who work (in the vaguest possible sense) in the fashion industry in London try to live like they are still teenagers in swinging London in the late 1960s.

The Thick of It

Political satire and sitcom – Late 2000s.

Politics is a dog-eat-dog world in which serving the public is the lowest priority.

Yes Minister

Political satire and sitcom – 1970s – 1980s.

Politics is a dog-eat-dog world in which serving the public is the lowest priority – but with less swearing and more charming old fashioned upper-class sophistication.

Dad’s Army

Sitcom – 1960s – 1970s

Britain’s last line of defence against the Nazis is a group of incompetent old grandads.

Red Dwarf

Sci-Fi Sitcom – 1990s.

The last human being alive is stuck on a spaceship with a hologram of the person he hates the most, a senile super-computer, a robot butler and a man who evolved from cats – full of sarcasm, put downs and cheap science fiction special effects.

Gavin & Stacey

Sitcom – Late 2000s

A genuinely sweet and heartwarming comedy about two people from two different British communities (Essex in England and Barry Island in South Wales) who fall in love with each other.

Outnumbered

Sitcom – late 2000s – now.

Two exhausted parents attempt to bring up 3 children, and lose the battle.


Other shows (I didn’t get time to mention them at all)

One Foot in the Grave

Sitcom – 1990s.

A man in his 70s just wants to enjoy his retirement but he is constantly frustrated but life’s little irritations.

Little Britain

Sketch show – 2000s.

A sketch show in which a range of eccentric and grotesque British characters talk in catchphrases.

The Fast Show

Sketch show – 1990s.

The same as Little Britain, but with a bit more pathos. This came before Little Britain.

Extras

Sitcom/drama – 2000s.

A man struggles to become famous as an actor and writer, and then when he does become famous he realises how empty it is – all the celebrities he meets are total weirdos – and they are played by themselves.

The Royle Family

Sitcom/drama – 1990s/2000s.

A northern working class family live their lives sitting in front of the TV. The twist is – we are watching them from the TV’s point of view.

The Trip

Drama? 2010s – now.

Two middle aged men go on a road trip and bicker with each other, while competing to see who can do the best impressions of famous actors – we also realise that their lives are a struggle between ambition, the emptiness, self-fulfilment and a life in show business. Stars award-winning comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and directed by filmmaker Michael Winterbottom.

All these shows sound like dramas or tragedies, but they are really funny and charming and I recommend you check them out!

The League of Gentlemen

Sketch show – 1990s – 2000s.

The Mighty Boosh

Surreal sitcom – Late 2000s.

They’re both losers in their own way and they live in a dream world of their own creation – and that dream world is populated by all kinds of wonderful, colourful characters, music, and magic, but it’s all about this funny relationship between two mis-matched friends.

This show is bonkers but really sweet at the same time. The two main characters speak in modern London accents. Vince has an estuary English accent – sort of like cockney – typical London accent. Howard is similar but probably closer to RP.

Peep Show

Sitcom – 2000s.

A terribly dark tragedy about the struggle of two cynical guys in their 30s attempting to live in modern London. The horror comes from the fact that we can hear their thoughts and see the world from their point of view, and they’re awful people.

They’re both quite well-spoken, particularly David Mitchell’s character who is very uncool and his slightly posh RP is evidence of that.

Fawlty Towers

Sitcom – 1970s.

An utterly fed up man is stuck in the wrong job – welcoming people into his hotel on ‘the English rivera’.

The IT Crowd

Limmy’s Show

The Inbetweeners

Keeping Up Appearances

One Foot in the Grave

Porridge

The Young Ones

Steptoe & Son

Allo Allo

Panel Shows

Have I Got News for You?

Mock The Week

Never Mind The Buzzcocks

8 out of 10 Cats

QI

Would I Lie to You?

And plenty plenty more!

If you like a British comedy TV show and I didn’t mention it. Add it in the comment section. :)

432. British TV: Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (Part 1) [Video]

Talking about restaurant culture in the UK, an introduction to one of the UK’s most famous chefs and a chance to learn some authentic English from a popular British TV show featuring Gordon Ramsay. Video available. Includes swearing.

Audio


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Introduction Transcript

Hello, and welcome back to this podcast for learners of English. Here is a new episode for you to listen to and indeed watch, because I’m videoing this one. You’ll be able to find the video on the page for this episode on my website, or by visiting the YouTube channel for Luke’s English Podcast.

A lot of what I am saying here – particularly in this introduction is written on the page for this episode. So you can read it with me, or check it for certain words you hear me using. The best way to get access to these pages is to subscribe to the mailing list.

In the last episode of this podcast you heard me talking to Amber about restaurants and hotels and some crazy TripAdvisor reviews.

At one point in the episode we talked briefly about Gordon Ramsay – one of the UK’s most famous chefs, and his TV show “Kitchen Nightmares” which was a really popular show in the UK a few years ago, and I thought it could be interesting to do a whole episode about that.

So in this one I’m going to talk a little bit about Gordon Ramsay and then we’re going to listen to some YouTube clips from one of his TV shows and I will help you understand all the language that you’ll hear. No doubt there will be some new vocabulary in the process – probably on the subject of food, cooking, restaurants and kitchens but lots of other natural language that just comes up, including plenty of swearing, because Gordon Ramsay is known for his frequent use of swear words.

Yes, there will be quite a lot of swearing in this episode, and you know my position on this. I’m choosing to show you the language as it is really used and that includes the rude words, but don’t be tempted to start throwing swear words into your everyday English. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that swear words are a short cut to sounding exactly like a native speaker. Often it just gives people a bad impression of you. We’ll go into it more later, because there are quite a lot of unwritten social rules around swearing that you need to be aware of – the main one being, that with swearing it is much much easier to sound rude and inappropriate than it is to sound cool. Think of swearing as a motorbike – you might think it’s cool but unless you really know what you’re doing you’re likely to seriously injure yourself. Similarly, swearing can be cool when it’s done in movies or even by someone like Gordon Ramsay, but if you try and do it in your normal life there’s a good chance you’ll just offend people.

So anyway, we’ll listen to some of the English in these YouTube clips and analyse the things they’re saying so that in the end you can understand it all just like I do, which should help you learn some real English in the process. You’ll also learn a thing or two about restaurant culture in the UK and about Gordon Ramsay who is one of the most well-known people in Britain.

Who is Gordon Ramsay and what’s the TV show?

Gordon James Ramsay, is a British celebrity chef, restaurateur, and television personality.

*Difference between a chef and a cook? Basically, a chef is someone who’s had professional training – at least a culinary degree, but a cook is just someone who cooks food. Both might work in a kitchen, but mainly being a chef is about having the status of culinary qualifications and experience.

Ramsay is one of the most famous chefs in the UK and probably in the world too. He has a reputation for being an excellent restaurateur and chef, and also for his extremely strict and direct style. He’s often very rude, saying exactly what he thinks about the people he’s working with in the strongest most colourful language. Imagine an army captain shouting at a platoon of soldiers during military training, but with really good food.

Ramsay was born in Scotland, but he grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is in fact not far from where I grew up in England). So, he is Scottish but doesn’t speak with a Scottish accent.
Ramsay now has restaurants all over the place – in London, in Paris and in New York. During his career he has trained at the highest level with French chefs in the UK and in Paris. He specialises in Italian, French and British recipes, and his cooking is known for being simple, unpretentious, high quality and delicious.

His restaurants have been awarded 16 Michelin stars in total. The term “Michelin Star” is a hallmark of fine dining quality. Michelin stars are very difficult to win and restaurants around the world proudly promote their Michelin Star status if they have one. His signature restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, London, has held 3 Michelin stars since 2001, which is a mark of extremely high quality in restaurant dining.

As well as being a top chef, Ramsay is also a TV presenter. He first appeared on TV in the UK in the late 1990s, and by 2004 Ramsay had become one of the best known celebrity chefs in British popular culture, and, along with other chefs like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Delia Smith, he has influenced viewers to become more culinarily adventurous.

As a reality TV personality, Ramsay is known for his fiery temper, strict demeanour, and use of expletives. He often makes blunt and controversial comments, including insults and wisecracks about contestants and their cooking abilities.

Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares used to be on British TV a few years ago – probably around 10-15 years ago now. These days you can find most of the episodes on YouTube.

Local restaurants vs manufacturing companies and processed food

Ramsay is actually very passionate about local restaurants in the UK.

In the UK our eating out culture is vibrant and successful but it is being undermined by a number of factors. One is the industrialisation of food culture. THis means that big businesses are involved in preparing food at an industrial level and then selling it to restaurants as part of a large corporate chain.

These chains might be restaurants which are all owned by one company, or food manufacturers who dominate the wholesale market, driving down their prices and pushing out competition such as local producers who sell fresh products.

In these industrial food manufacturing companies, the food is prepared in high quantities and then sold off to other companies and restaurants as part of a corporate supply chain for food.

There’s a big infrastructure for food purchasing in the UK which is dominated by these big food manufacturers. As a result, many smaller restaurants are forced to buy industrialised and mass-produced food because it is cheaper and more convenient than fresh food which you can buy direct from farms or markets.

If you were a struggling restaurant owner in a town in the UK, what would you do? Buy your food fresh from a local producer and then make sure you sell it in a short-term period, or buy similar products from a mass producer but at a lower price, and it’s food which you can store for longer because it has been processed to stay fresh.

In the end, people choose to eat at home, especially during an economic crisis.

So, economic factors are having a negative effect on the restaurant culture in the UK to an extent. Family owned restaurants should be where you get proper traditional and delicious local food, but these restaurants are being squeezed economically and forced to go along with the industrialised food manufacturing process.

Also, there are many chain restaurants which you find on high streets in the UK. These are not locally run, but are owned by big companies who have a single business model which they apply to all their restaurants. The fact that these places are part of a big corporate chain means that they can drive down their prices, making it very hard for local restaurants to be competitive. As a result, these smaller places suffer, struggle and often close down.

Gordon Ramsay believes that these local restaurants are the backbone of our restaurant culture in the UK, and he strongly believes that they need to be supported so they can compete with the corporate chains, and given training so they can serve the best food possible. Essentially that’s the concept behind Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, but also it’s just entertaining watching him shouting at incompetent chefs. You sort of let him get away with the way he bullies people because you believe that really he’s just trying to help them to learn the discipline you need to run a really good restaurant.

But he does seem really passionate about proper restaurant culture in the UK and I like that about him. Even though he’s making this reality show and he’s making money from doing it, I think he really does care about improving restaurant culture in the UK.

On the other hand, he is very good at TV. He knows how to make entertaining TV, and he’s got a good formula for it. Basically, this means that he takes the harsh discipline and the no-nonsense brutally honest approach that he applies to his kitchen management, and uses it when giving feedback to the restaurants which he visits.

Let’s listen to a few scenes and I’m going to make sure you understand everything that’s going on and everything that’s being said.

Let’s learn English with Gordon Ramsay

The TV Show

Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares used to be on UK TV about 10-15 years ago.
The format is this – Gordon Ramsay visits a failing restaurant somewhere in the UK. So, restaurants that are failing – e.g. losing money, getting terrible reviews etc. He goes into the restaurant and spends a week there, observing the way the owners run the kitchen, how the business works and what’s going on at all levels. Usually he starts by sitting down to eat the chef’s speciality dish, and it’s nearly always disgusting, and Ramsay comments on how it tastes, how it looks, and also the decor of the restaurant and the service from the staff.

Then Ramsay gives his feedback to the owner and the chef, and it’s always a massive reality check, and it usually involves very strong words and lots of swearing. This is what happens when a top-level chef enters the world of a crappy low-level restaurant.

Then over the course of the week, Gordon helps the managers turn the restaurant around. It’s almost always a huge challenge and often the most difficult part is dealing with the psychological aspects – the stubborn chefs, the relationship issues in the kitchen, the fact that these people have personal issues which are causing the business to go horribly wrong.

It is car-crash TV. We see arguments, meltdowns, unhappy customers and so on.
In almost every episode Gordon seems to go hopping mad as he can’t believe the incompetence or shockingly low standards of service shown by the people in the restaurant. He then tries to help them change everything and turn the business around. It all makes really great telly.

And by the end of the episode, with Gordon’s help they have usually turned the restaurant into a successful business again.

There’s a UK version and a US version.

If you search for Kitchen Nightmares on YouTube you will probably find the US version first, but I think the UK version is better!

But really, it is better because the US version is horrible. It’s full of really fast editing and there’s loads of music which is added in order to tell you how you should be feeling about what’s happening. It’s distracting and patronising.

Example of the US version (just listen to all the distracting sound effects and music)

The UK version just has some rock music in the background at the start, but then during the show it’s more simple and you can just focus on what’s happening without constant sweeping sounds and tense music.

Let’s listen to some scenes from one of the episodes.

These scenes actually come from an episode called “Gordon Ramsay’s Great British Nightmares” which was shown on TV between series 5 and 6 of Kitchen Nightmares. It’s basically the same as any other episode of the series.

Gordon Ramsay’s Great British Nightmare – Dovecote Bistro

Summary
Gordon goes to visit a restaurant in Devon called Dovecote Bistro, which is run by a guy called Mick.
Mick is a former truck driver and burger van operator who has opened this bistro with his wife and adopted daughter, Michelle. Ramsay is firstly appalled by the psychedelic wallpaper decorating the restaurant, and then his attention turns to the food and the way it is cooked. While Ramsay is impressed with the simple menu, he is furious to find that Mick has very little cooking ability, using orange squash to make a sauce and using vacuum-sealed pre-cooked lamb shanks in a microwave bag. Not only does he show little responsibility in the kitchen, he is also secretive with his spending and is hugely in debt. Mick is adamant that the problems in the kitchen are not his fault, and his stubbornness causes a rift with his wife and daughter. Ramsay solves the crisis by taking the business matters out of Mick’s hands and kicks him out of the kitchen. His daughter, Michelle, is placed in charge of the kitchen despite having no cooking experience. She rises to the challenge, and while Mick is not convinced over replacing his microwave food, the reopening is a success.
Months later, Ramsay returns to find that the restaurant is making profit. He sent Michelle for further culinary training, and she impresses Ramsay with freshly cooked food.
The restaurant was renamed Martins’ Bistro during production.

Video 1 – Flourescent duck cooked in orange squash

Vocabulary

Let’s see what this ex-trucker can do
Lamb shanks
Fuck me! (surprise / shock)
Your blouse matches the wallpaper
I feel like I’m tripping out!
I’ve never touched the stuff but I feel like I just swallowed an E.
The hideous wallpaper
On paper it looks delicious
Orange squash
A spoonful of gravy
Fuck me do I need sunglasses!
That’s worse than fucking Benylin
They’re actually vacuum packed
They can last for about a year
They’re bought in, they’re vacuum packed
They’ve got a shelf life of about a year
Well, fuck me!
That might be the worst food I’ve ever come across
He might be beyond my help
It doesn’t need refrigerating
How in the fuck could you charge 11 pounds for that?
E numbers, like Tartrazine
Do you feel like having a shit?
Thank fuck I didn’t eat it.
I’m surprised you haven’t killed off half the population of Okehampton

End of part 1 – part 2 available very soon!

397. An 80-Minute Ramble

Talking spontaneously about gloves, mittens, OO7, Bob Dylan, an LEP app, The Walking Dead, Oasis, Black Mirror, The Crown, a bit of politics and some 10-year cave-aged cheddar cheese.

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TV shows mentioned in this episode

Black Mirror

The Crown

Supersonic (the Oasis movie)


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240. Politicians Avoiding Questions

In this episode we’re going to look at the way politicians deal with tough and challenging questions from TV and radio interviewers. We’ll listen to some examples of politicians avoiding questions in interviews and examine some of the ways they get themselves out of tight situations while also promoting their ideas. [Download]

Small Donate ButtonI’m not sure what you think about politics. I don’t talk about it a lot on Luke’s English Podcast. I did an episode a couple of years ago called “82. Votings, Elections, Government“, in which I talk about the political system, and various vocabulary related to politics, voting and elections. Now, a lot of people find politics to be quite boring, and I used to think that too, but more and more (perhaps because I’m growing up finally!) I think that politics is fascinating and really important. I’m particularly keen on watching debates between politicians, and watching the way in which politicians cleverly deal with challenging questions in interviews. It’s fascinating to watch them very skilfully squirm their way out of tight situations, or use all manner of linguistic and rhetorical skills to persuade people live on TV.

British journalists tend to interview politicians in an aggressive manner. Politicians are getting very good at avoiding questions. And this is what I’m particularly interested in studying in this episode of the podcast. How do politicians avoid questions? Let’s have a listen, and find out.

Here’s a clip from the satirical comedy show “The Day Today”. This programme makes fun of the news. It takes the mickey out of the way that news readers speak, and their interview style. In this clip we hear an interview with a politician who is facing allegations of ministerial misconduct – he’s being accused of lying in front of the House of Commons about a deal. The interviewer is not aggressive or challenging enough, and in the end he lets the politician get away with lying to the house. He’s too nice! Then the newsreader in the studio takes over and has a go at the interviewer for not asking challenging or tough questions. I think it’s really funny. Let’s have a listen and then consider the ways that politicians deal with tough interviews in TV.

That’s just a comedy clip, but in terms of real situations, here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Here the interviewer wants the politician to admit that he was wrong about the Euro. Clearly the politician doesn’t want to admit he was wrong, and so he pushes another line: The UK at the moment is not willing to be part of the Euro. Listen to the way the interviewer asks about his mistake over the Euro, how the politician attempts to avoid the question, and how the interviewer has to quite aggressively force him to deal with the Euro problem.

The politician: The energy secretary Chris Hune (in government)
The issue: He said that the Euro was going to be a big success and that the UK is missing out.
The politician doesn’t want to admit that he’s wrong, and instead wants to push the idea that the UK is not willing to be part of the Euro at the moment.

Some ways that politicians avoid questions
They have a pre-planned message, or line, which they have prepared carefully before going into the interview. Often this is in the form of soundbites – snappy, quotable phrases which can be used in newspapers.
Their aim is to present this line, despite the questions they will be asked.
As long as they are talking on the same topic, and they look presentable, reasonable and professional, we just don’t notice that they are not responding to the question.
Social conventions of politeness and communication make it hard for the interviewer to break this down. If the politician doesn’t really answer the question, it’s hard for the interviewer to a) identify that it has happened, b) respond to it quickly, c) find the right questions that will force the politician to really answer the question.

Smooth interviews break down when an interviewer is tough, aggressive and skeptical. The interviewer has to take an aggressive line in order to fight against the slick tactics of the politician. It’s very hard for these interviewers because they have to go against instinctive social conventions in order to break the politician’s spell. If the interviewer is too aggressive or emotional, the interviewee wins because he comes out of it better – he looks like a calm reasonable person, and the interviewer looks like a mad man. If the interviewer is not precise enough in his questions, the interviewee wins again, because the interviewer does too much talking, while the politician sits there in innocent silence.

The best politicians manage to make it very hard for the interviewer to put them on the spot. They use techniques to distract the conversation away from the tough questions, they don’t get emotional, they manage to come across as reasonable, modest, ordinary people. Likeability is vital to a politician’s career nowadays. We tend to vote for people who we like, rather than thinking purely of their policy, which is a terrible symptom of our image driven culture. So, clever politicians are able to construct a likeable image – as family oriented, hard-working, sympathetic, strong or humorous. That likeablilty acts as a kind of defence mechanism or even a distraction, so that viewers on TV let them avoid questions and so on. Research has shown (and I refer to a Harvard Business Paper called Conversational Blindness: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way Authors: Todd Rogers and Michael I. Norton Publisher: Harvard Business School, Working Paper No. 09-048 Date Published:  October 2008) that we just don’t notice that a politician has avoided a question when the answer is related to the question asked and is given with confidence and conviction. So, it goes like this:
The interviewer asks a question.
The politician responds with an answer that relates to the topic of the question, but doesn’t really answer the question specifically.
We don’t notice that the question is being avoided, because the answer is on-topic.
Politicians also use the phrase “Let’s be clear…” as a way to redirect their answer towards their point, while making it look like they are clarifying and directly answering the question. “Let’s be clear…” + their point.

This all breaks down, when tough interviewers manage to put politicians on the spot. Perhaps they take them by surprise, perhaps they are willing to come across as crazy by repeating the question over and over, or perhaps they manage to keep the courage of their convictions in order to verbally spar with these master debaters. So, when interviewers bring their A game, it can be pretty fascinating to watch a politician have a really hard time. It’s like car crash TV. It’s also pretty bizarre. These kinds of conversations rarely happen in normal situations. People talking over each other without stopping. People answering direct questions with completely unrelated answers. It’s weird.

Let’s listen to some examples!

“Did you threaten to overrule him?” Paxman vs Michael Howard
The accusation: Paxman questioned Howard relentlessly about a meeting he had had with prisons chief Derek Lewis about the possible dismissal of the head of Parkhurst Prison.

Chloe Smith on Newsnight (total disaster for Chloe Smith)

Excerpt from The Thick of It. “Answer the question you fat fuck!”

Why do interviewers in the UK have such a direct style? Because we believe they should be accountable for everything they do. We don’t have much deference for people in positions of power (and The Queen is not a person in a position of power actually! If she did exercise genuine power over us, we wouldn’t have the same level of respect for her I can assure you) and this style is a way to prevent politicians avoiding the question. If you’re too soft on people (and it’s not just politicians – it’s also heads of corporations or anyone with some duty to the public) then they will just use the interview for their own purposes. Also, I think audiences in the UK (and I’m sure it’s the same in many other places) believe that these people should be given a tough time, especially the ones who are not serving us well, or who are privileged in some way.

If an interviewer is too soft on a politician, we feel that they’ll just get away with murder.

Sometimes it seems to me that interviewers have got into the habit of being tough in interviews, and sometimes they do it when it’s not appropriate or necessary.

The Day Today – Jam Festival

This is funny on two levels: On one hand, it parodies the aggressive style of BBC journalists (especially Paxman). It’s also poking fun at people who do charity work just so they can make themselves look good.

PoliticiansPIC
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