Thursday, 24 February 2011

A slightly sadder, slightly better place

Last post I told you how very deeply unhappy I was at the new offerings even from my beloved BBC. A few days on and some cleansing of the palette with a few old Doctor Whos and the World seems a better, albeit sadder place. A long time ago when I was a boy, I first watched Doctor Who on one of those stations that play entire stories in one go. What a brilliant way to find out about this treasure trove of brilliant stories, so so  monsters, sexy companions and stonking great secondary characters. My favourite such character aside from the appropriately loud and overacting Brian Blessed, was The Brigadier. I first met him when in "Robot", the freshly regenerated Doctor is aided by the best army that never existed....U.N.I.T. commanded by the terribly British, always loyal and best mate you could ever have, Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stewart. Eary on the morning of the 23rd of February, the actor who played the role over 170 times, died at his home in London. Nicholas Courtney crafted a character that has become every Who fan's favourite character bar none, unless of course they haven't watched the original run so cruelly interrupted in 1989. The Brigadier was a combination great big teddybear and father figure to every Doctor, companion and as I have found out from so many posts in Galli Base,  fandom. Nick Courtney never shrank away from the role or pretended it hadn't happened like some actors might have. Countless stories I've read where he joined people at their table during conventions and never tired of telling Doctor Who anecdotes to anybody he thought wanted to hear about it. You'd have to ask somebody else where Nicholas Courtney left off and the Brigadier started, but I suspect there are huge doses of Courtney in The Brigadier and that is why we love him so. He leaves a huge hole in the heart of every Doctor Who fan, and those of us who never met him in person are sadder still. We will always have the show, the tapes and the stories to keep us going, but he will be missed immensely by fans who have had to see yet another great contributor to the Who legend pass on. Rest in peace Brigadier, your job here is done. I strongly recommend you read Tom Baker's farewell too.

Not satisfied with taking away a great actor from amongst us, life further distracted us with the slow and bloody dissolve of Libya. I know I promised I wouldn't get hooked on this too, but what with my father having been to Tobruk and El Alamein with Monty, it was something we were going to have a hard time ignoring.  The stories of bravery and battle against insurmountable odds and the cost in lives so far means this revolution must succeed, as the price of failure is not something we would want to even consider. I've resorted to working around Libya coverage and the Cricket World Cup. Sadly missed the hugely impressive show by Pakistan today, but highlights show they are a team to watch. One hopes England don't take any more sides for granted, it could get almost as embarrassing as Australia's poor performance against Zimbabwe. I hear you asking what this has anything to do with the new programmes on BBC this week? Well nothing except that in between the news and the cricket, I had the good fortune to listen to the Cultdown collective podcast live from Gallicon 2011. Apart from loads of excellent reports about panels and goings on in the lobby and the amazing Tiki Dalek, our hosts informed us at the end, that a new costume drama would be starting Sunday night.

South Riding, a BBC drama in three parts, tells the story of rural Yorkshire in the deep dark days of the depression in the 1930's, as opposed to the one going on right now. Because they only have three hours to tell the whole story there's a whole lot action going on. The Lord's granddaughter and her da who's at least as messed up as her mam, the head mistress who is alone and hates all representations of the tory warmongers but is actually pinning for her husband who's life was wasted in the trenches of WW1. Then there's the town council composed of visionaries, a randy old preacher and the developer with a heart of gold. Can Sarah Burton clean up the school, can the walking basket case Midge Carne rise above the unwanted insanity from her genetics, will Lydia Holly climb her way out "the shacks"  to become the next great poet of the working classes? Never having read the novel I haven't a clue, but I can tell you this, I'm hooked. Part gothic novel part reformist propaganda serial, South Riding puts a human face on the unjust and unequal life of ordinary folk just prior to the end of the depression. With just enough drama, blackmail and social injustice to keep your inner historian and your dramatic serial craving in check. As in a previous review, yet again I choose to praise a young actress who is asked to play the deranged and deeply disturbed Midge, Katherine McGolpin manages to play a convincing disturbed girl where she could have overplayed it and been an overly dramatic Shakespearean caricature. While the Midge character is not the centre of the story, she is sufficiently interesting to compete with the far more normal Lydia whose only real ambition is to get out of the grinding poverty her family lives in. If any one group of people seems to be invisible, it's the farmer's daughters who compose most of the student population despite being the mainstream, they are played more as window dressing, albeit really good window dressing. Not complaining by any stretch of the imagination, Kiplington High is the driving force for the whole narrative and ties the various people in it up in the ultimate fate of the school and the community and needs to stand out as more than bricks and mortar. If that means making light of the student body, so be it.

Besides I can't blame the writer Andrew Davies for being so torn when he had to choose which parts of the story to highlight. Between the all star cast of character actors and actresses and the established names like Peter Firth, Penelope Wilton and John Henshaw, it's little wonder the classroom full of girls was treated as more of an amorphous blob than a cast with potential. If the next two instalments are as action packed and move along as quickly without loosing too much of the sense of the story, South Riding will be a joy to watch and surely far less empty and confusing than ITV's Wethuring Heights was. If you're looking for fun costume drama with lots of ooohs and ahhs, South Riding is what you need to fill the void left over after Lark Rise to Candlford  ended it's run after four series. My only question to BBC drama is, why only three eps?

Raymond Blanc returned on Monday night for a second series of his "Kitchen secrets". In a half hour of what could only be defined as cookery crack cocaine, Chef Blanc shows us 3 minutes moules marinières to die for. The rest of the shellfish dishes are all as intoxicating, and if you have basic cooking skills, not anywhere near as daunting as you would think. Unlike a certain cookery programme that started last week, inspired by Raymond Blanc, I am checking the state of the treasury and planning a seafood extravaganza for as soon as I can clear an evening for the time it'll take to eat and wallow in this delectable bounty of the sea. Kitchen secrets series two is a gift in 8 parts, the next one being Cakes and Pastries. Take the time to record these master classes in fine cooking so you too can impress. You may not dress a plate like a Michelin chef, but if you follow the instructions, there is no reason you can't be eating like one.

On the subject of "that other cookery show", Master Chef plebs version , ran episode three in which we were told "Today's culling is going to be ferocious!". And Greg Wallace was right, what he didn't reckon on was the culling was in his stomach should he eat all that was on offer. We had raw spuds, cling film in poached egg, flat Yorkshire pudding and seriously underdone fish.  Vegetarian Jackie impressed me with her Thai dish that included shrimps, I certainly hope she continues like this if she hopes to win Masterchef. The new kitchen stadium wasn't at all as bad as I thought it would be and the notion of frying up an omelette was quickly dismissed. John, Gregg, have you been reading my notes???? Yes the secret ingredient was in fact egg, but they had to use the egg in innovative and original ways. In other words.... cook normally.  You had the usual pastas, batters and mayo as well as a lovely pudding of custard and meringue made from egg whites and egg yolks. Clearly not the dumbed down US version some of us had feared. And yet it wasn't entirely removed from the x factor histrionics. We found out one contestant wanted to do this for her father by cooking his favourite....roast beef. One hopes it wasn't the roast beef that killed him or else John and Gregg are in deep trouble. (Search for my standard apology if you think I have just been insensitive and cruel).

WI snoot Amy Willcock
The normal standards of Masterchef seem to have survived, They selected 5 hopefuls to cook Sunday dinner roast and judged them with the help of WI snoot Amy Willcock. At least we know the indigestion and poisonings will have been limited to the first three eps.  However it must be noted that WI Amy displayed a more than slightly condescending tone when cute young oriental cook Elizabeth subbed out spuds for taro. Amy came as close to being apoplectic with discomfort as I'd ever seen her and in the process caused me to question her integrity and palette. Apart from that, the tears and the emotion over some pretty basic cooking was sometimes so overwrought you had no choice but to laugh. How some of the school boy errors could be blamed on nerves is beyond me, but if I must get my jollies from dropped pans and unfortunate combinations of bland food, why not have fun with it. It's not like I'm going to learn anything from THIS lot. The final 12 seem on the surface to have at least some cooking instincts that should produce a few laughs and won't kill our hosts. I do however have one complaint, the promised culling did not include Daleks, guillotines or firing squads, nor was there any attempt to get at least three of them to promise they would never ever again cook. So it's not Raymond Blanc, but it's not as bad I thought it would be. Tomorrow the 12 cook for ALL the Masterchef winners ever. Here's hoping the guests won't regret coming out to eat.

And on that bombshell I leave you to your cricket and Nicholas Courtney memorial reading.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

What's that smell coming off my telly. Outcasts, Secret Diaries & Master Chef

Sometimes you just wish you didn't bother. This week was one of those times. After at least a fortnight, that's two weeks for those of you in the colonies, I was finally cured of  Egyptitis. However chuffed to bits I am for the people of Egypt and Tunisia and feel deeply the pain of the others still protesting, my reality came calling when I realized I had missed the well flogged and highly anticipated Outcasts on the BBC, Secret Diary of a Call girl on ITV with wor Billie Piper and Masterchef was finally returning with more foodie heaven. What a brilliant way to get back from all that life affirming people's revolution and watershed moments in your life stuff. So there I was all set with my chocies and cookies and big bowl of other assorted edibles to keep my hands busy.   

At first we eased our way into the iPlayer treasure trove of wonderfulness with a little nature programming. BBC's Natural World which  as best as I can figure, is designed to make you cry as early as possible before they tell you the dread situation the ( monkeys, tigers, Iraqi marshes etc...) are in, could be reversible if only we as a civilizations aren't complete gormless twats or greedy self indulgent yuppies. All that's missing is the web site where you can donate cash or volunteer help.   A tiger called broken tail, started the gut wrenching journey with the story of a dead tiger who's demise is expected to lead to more sanctuaries and the linking of said sanctuaries to the famous tiger highway. We then moved on to The chimps of the lost gorge, in which we find out that chimps are increasingly cut off from other chimps what with the shrinking jungles of Uganda, rounding the evening off the true story of Elsa the Lioness and the Miracle of the Iraqi marshes which were less tear inducing. Good thing too, as the tissue box was by now empty. These films are beautiful hour long compendia of misery and doom highlighting the knife's edge on which most of the "canary in a coal mine" animals and habitats are existing on. There are only so many tears one can cry and for my wife's sake if not my own, we switched to something more cheerful like budget cuts in review.

Now just because we watched the news channel near obsessively for what seemed like a month but was in fact 18 days,... that IS a long time isn't' it?  Does not mean we stopped watching the must see programmes like Top Gear, Qi XL and the one awards show where sweaty young boys and tone deaf 12 year old girls are not responsible for guiding billions of pounds in advertising and production money into cultural content. I'm talking of course about the film Baftas, having passed on the Brits as they haven't been relevant to me since the last year Bjork was given an award as incentive to show up and be weird for a few minutes.  Having James Corden present and Justin Bieber win best new comer, so I'm told, is enough to prove there is no intelligent life left in popular music. The Film Baftas were an oasis of  sanity and culture that helped me set my check list of films I hadn't yet seen, but must try to make time for.  What a novel idea, letting the industry types vote for what they consider the best of their craft. As for Top Gear, you can always play gaffe of the week, but sadly I'm immune to the sensitivity required to be a charter member of the Ofcom complaint writers guild. See I was born in an age when people still had a sense of humour,which of course is not to say I didn't enjoy the pin pushing done by presenters and guests alike in the last two weeks. These tempests in the tea pot aside, Top Gear is still as funny and as informative as it ever was. The fact that you cannot buy three identical classic cars ( that's auto mobiles not penises for all you Albanians) convertible BMW 325s to be precise, was a revelations. The sort of things people will do to and in a car over the years is to say the least, eye opening if not inducing hazmat suit wearing.  I sincerely hope the humour free stick in the muds who seem to take special joy in finding fault with Clarkson and co give it a rest. We can't all be so relentlessly dreary like they are. If we were, Cromwell might still be in power instead of being lumped in with other visionaries like Hitler and the Spanish Inquisition.

It's at this point I though maybe I should get around to watching all that quality I had missed in the last two or three weeks. Up first was the long awaited Outcasts. Word of advice, never get so pre sold on a programme that you'll be disappointed if they don't have fireworks shooting out their arses. Maybe if I had not been so starved of decent adult science fiction, I might have appreciated the more subtle characterisations of Outcasts, but as it is, I was too distracted by the one dimensional loonies and psycho killers who are dropped into the more delicate narrative like anvils onto a soufflé. First sledge hammer was the highly unhinged and unsympathetic Mitchell who decided not to murder all the ACs. Was it absolutely necessary to make a potentially interesting character who could challenge President Tate, into a barking mad killer who lives in place with a population of one? Having got rid of the only natural opponent to the established leader of New Australia, the writers introduce the vacant eyed even more stark raving mad Julius Berger. Besides casting an actor who's such a "Hitler's wet dream" as a Jew,  the forced nature of his rise in prominence and the fake religion he espouses is both unsettling and regrettable to me. His so called faith is forced and reminiscent of the sort of cult worship you only see in the truly lost, yet it is portrayed as mainstream. Berger is made to evolve far too quickly and his inclusion in the colony's power structure is so unrealistic that you feel like the production team added Berger in the last minute and had to alter entire sections of story to make him fit in. The other thing that truly and deeply annoys and bores me to tears about Outcasts is for the zillionth time we destroy the Earth in a Nuclear and ecological disaster. Maybe it's the fact that I'm just off a month of watching all of North Africa rise as one to dump it's dictators and tell the West to stop treating them like some kind of dispensable pawns who would otherwise impact on the greater self interest of the industrialists bankers and other greedy bastards that have led us to the brink of disaster in the name of profit and ideology, but I'm frankly tired of the End of the World is nigh stuff. How many more times must we use the same tired old premise of eradicating life on Earth to make so called adult science fiction. This was old hat when Space 1999, a far superior programme in my opinion, hit the airwaves in 1975. I fondly recall the lovely shape shifter Maya who gave a young man in the 70's some hope that not all aliens were ugly or evil. Several recent attempts in America and the UK have tread on this well beaten path with about as much success as Peter Andre at a Lesbian convention, and yet they persist in trying this route. At least when the Daleks took over the Earth you had the compelling and truly scary picture of Nazi Germany loosely disguised as emotion free killer pepper pots. In Outcasts, the people are boring, the town looks like Gazza city but without the spark of life even an under pressure population has. And precisely how will they maintain a series let alone a few if no new people will ever again show up?  To quote a mate, "Oh here come some more people we didn't tell you about last week". Even the ACs (clones) are a bit hard to swallow. We're led to believe they were exiled in the barren tech free hinterland for the last 5 years or more. So how is that Ruddy has such well groomed hair and perfectly maintained 5 o'clock shadow? It would be easy to buy into if I was told they were slightly less shambling zombies who don't age or rot, but they are humans of some kind. Even Ruddy's jeans are in better nick than mine after one year of wearing, clearly he's shopping at Harrod's or Maison Zombie by Gucci. So other than the sudden and unexplained re emergence of Earth, the sudden unexplained appearance of total strangers like on old Battlestar Galactica, sexy shape shifters (Space 1999) or actual indigenous inhabitants who have been on Carpathia for millennia, there is no way you can sustain this longer than a single series.

And if all that wasn't enough , the stories are a bit contrived. In the first ep it's painfully obvious from the first time that the arrivals will only land on Carpathian if they enjoy being plunging fireballs travelling at a few hundred miles an hour. At least the whale in Hitch Hikers Galaxy was funny.  You never once were given the sense that they might after all, make it. So why bother at all? In the last one I watched, Lilly the daughter of the security chief acts up in a way so petty and unreal that you wonder if the writers are themselves barely out of puberty. Surely there are more ways to annoy your mother than steal state secrets and give them to the only media outlet in the place. The DJ/drug dealer loosely based I guess on the radio man in Northern Exposure and Shane MacGowan if he'd still had his teeth and wasn't ugly, is hard to read and hard to care for. On the one hand he treats The Sex Pistols albums like the royal jewels  then in a scene of self pity breaks a record, then is made to cooperate when one of the ultra precious records is threatened with destruction.The other massive inconsistency is that somehow they have after 10 years on Carpathia managed not to adopt a single old fashioned way of doing things like in other subsistence communities. Not a candle or windmill to be seen, every home is so well equipped, you'd think you were in a modern suburb in Tokyo or Berlin. Everybody has the internet and perfect clear telly. Even at the main buildings, the lekky never once flickers or wavers like in real places just hanging on by their fingernails. It's not all bad news. If you like to watch in fits and starts, you'll like the Cass ( Satan in Ashes to Ashes) and Fleur (somebody must be Harry Potter fan) characters. These two  are really interesting and the only reason I bothered sticking with the show at all. I cannot find words that show the depth of disappointment I feel after having looked forward to this rubbish for so long. A brilliant, expensive cast is wasted on this badly written premise that seems to have been surgically altered by committee long before the filming started. Perhaps science fiction in the UK is doomed to be nothing more than a string of sitcoms in space and Doctor Who spin-offs.

Oh well, maybe Secret Diary of a Call Girl will satisfy my desire for semi entertaining telly, even if it is on ITV.  Here it comes.... credits rolling....... Shit, feck, damn.... Belle is going to run the agency for Stephanie, her ex madam is in jail and her ex madam's daughter Polly who knows not a thing  of her mother's business is stopping at Belle's for a while. Much hilarity ensues.  What for every series till now was a string of semi comic semi serious moments connected with our Billie taking her kit off for some soft core sex, has become a mixed up mess sitcom blended with looming tragedy from the clearly unhinged detective who is now stalking Belle. We're now so busy worrying about the psycho killer ( where have I seen this before?) that we don't have time to really see her and Ben work out if she'll stop being on the game and become a regular ubber wealthy Londoner or continue selling herself in private, as opposed to say becoming a trashy Katie Price whore with no decency or decorum. I'm sure Belle is shaved down there too but she won't talk about it with her children in the audience, But I digress...   We were promised "funnier" sex and a decent wrap up of the Belle story, but I never expected it to turn into Luther with the occasional stand in baps. It's bad when you take Billie Piper naked, sexy clothes, thrown in some great locations and the occasional bit of humour and still you find yourself wondering just how quickly the show will come to an end. The young actress playing the innocent daughter of the locked up Madam, is sexy, dresses sexy and  is clearly ready for some interesting stories involving actual men, but so far nothing. She's just eye candy that walks through scenes doing nothing to move the story along. Are you being served was more titillating in it's time and still managed to hold together as a programme at it's height. Clearly this last series of Diary is one series too far. ITV was hoping for one last kick at the can of the cash cow that is Billie Piper, but sadly it just doesn't work. The sex for a start is  contrived, I've seen better porn when the pizza man arrives or the secretary suddenly feels the need to work semi naked at her desk. As for the alleged comic interference of the various working girls, including the very S&M oriental woman, it's poorly placed and more often than not, formulaic. The Ben- Belle - Poppy (Lily James) triangle is left to lay there on the floor being trampled on by all the trollops, the bent psychotic DCI (Paul Nichols) and frankly pointless filler moments that serve only to pad out the already all too brief 22 minutes of actual programme. If Polly is supposed to be 14 or 15, I'm a Sunderland supporter. Much as I am pleased for the actress playing her, she's far too old and too sexy to be an innocent young thing that Ben can ignore. Sargent Psycho is so completely out of place that he jumps right past occasional danger to Hitchcock bad guy that is never comfortable in an alleged comedy.  Sex on British television has moved on past the 70's Oh Matron! Profumo style of teasing and the more casual full on short of penetration scenes, seen on other programmes, do sex far better than Secret Diary is doing in this last series. They should have gone for the real thing or stayed at the line they established last series. I'd like to say I'm going to watch the rest, but honestly it's not worth the time. Life is short and if you feel you need to fill it with this kind of televised mess over say going for a walk or reading a book or even oooo having sex with a real live lady, you are indeed a sad and lonely person. If however you are 14 and looking for cheap thrills, I recommend you look in your father's  hard drive under tax files 2002, the equally dull WIP15a33 or perhaps your older brother's smart phone for his ex girlfriend naked, much better pickings there.

Still no happiness in goggle box land, there's always Master Chef! Thousands of people have auditioned to be on MC and we'll be be bringing that down to the 20 we need for the series starting tonight. Oh Dear.... Then a stream of vaguely interesting "regular" folk and their families in the studio, are made to watch each other cook for 45 minutes until they meet John Torode and Gregg Wallace in the judges room. At least we're spared the full details of every auditionee's cooking, but still we get the full spectacle of nans, mams and bairns banging on about how it would mean the world if "insert name of desperate hapless amateur" got an apron. The then less than appetizing array of dishes served up for Jaunty Roads and Pudding boy to struggle with seems to go on for ever, punctuated by the occasional manufactured conflict over a perfectly fine plate of food. They then look for "interesting" see loonies and nutters, to included to round out things, meaning that the more traditional cooks who aren't 100%, get dropped and the experimental ones are passed through. The vegan woman who makes faces will be fun when she has to cook something that doesn't have roots attached to it. Having seen this stage of the American Master Chef last year, I can honestly say that as uninspiring as the food was at times, even the cat sick de-constructed trifle was still better than the endless mac and cheeses, mock Mexican , appalling deep fried southern food and not bouillabaisse on offer in the US version. What the UK version only hinted at but was in full flower in the US one, was the begging, crying, jumping and posturing we were spared. And yet it was still too much. We could have had more cooking and less maudlin reaction shots more at home on X factor than Master Chef. If I am to even choose one of these people to cheer for, I am hard pressed to find more than two who seem anywhere close to being good enough for Master Chef.  Just when did cooking become the new way out of the ghetto? Aside from a few laughs I had the expense of some truly awful cooks, I can't say this was the Master Chef I was expecting. I wanted skill on display, I wanted invention tests that took the cook out of his or her comfort zone from the start, I wanted some exceptional candidates. Instead we got 25 year mum from Reading who cries, Gastro pub Pete who serves raw fish, Scary Cockney James, who was on the verge of talking about a "field of ponies" and selling himself that much, Miss Swansea Alice, Nutter Mark with his tofu fish and chips and some guy named Dan who may be the only one who knows how to cook. The number of recipes nicked from celeb chef cookbooks and last years Master Chef Pro was awe inspiring. One of the plates looked like it had been copied badly hundreds of times since they saw it first last year ( boules de Berlin in case you were wondering).

Next week we get the competition well and truly under way when the 20 persons they mostly scraped off the back of a spatula, enter the big kitchen stadium. What are they going to do, hide a sniper in the rafter or maybe operate trap doors whenever some chef wanabe nicks yet another recipe from Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay? Oh look she's wrapping everything in bacon!  Shoot her quick before it catches on. There's another doing bloody fish and chips AGAIN!!! Oh No Chirizo sausage, cos there is no other kind,  BANG.  Gregg I don't do puddings  ZZZAPPPPPP. Burned to a crisp meat.... EXTERMINATE!!! I'll be doing a new twist on roast beef and butter chicken....Death's too good for them! Even the level of skill on display in Celebrity Master Chef with Dick Strawbridge and horrid Tory hostess was better than this lot. I've set my expectations to yeah sure for next week, but will not be surprised if the level of quality just doesn't get any tougher than this. Gregg and John will be hard pressed to find a top 5 anywhere near good enough keep us interested well into the finals. The new format has sacrificed all the elements that kept us foodies glued to our screens from the first candidate to the last plate of food. It may have worked in Australia and the American version was geared at the great unwashed who as always, wanted to see equal doses of pathos and the great culinary traditions (such as they are) of the deep South yet again prevail over anything that passes for food in New York. The new series of the revamped Master Chef UK is off to a bad start and looks to be on a collision course with foodies who will vote with their off switches just like when we stopped watching the fatally flawed The Restaurant. If it doesn't get better fast, I will be finding even more time to watch something else on BBC4 or maybe from my vast collection of unwatched recordings for "when I have time". Master Chef was the last refuge where the skilled went to become more skilled and provide viewers with enough thrills and information to insure their own food rose a notch or two. This new version owes more to Ready Steady Twat than it does Master Chef. I just hope Gregg and John are getting hazard pay for the food they are about to eat, I like them and want them to be around for the next proper Master Chef, you know the one after this mess.

To paraphrase Prince Charles, "The things I do for my readers". I don't want you, dear reader leaving this space totally down hearted, I can continue to recommend The Danish crime thriller The Killing on BBC4 and for the more historically minded, C4's Rome wasn't built in a day. In this fly on the wall documentary we follow a group of builders who use traditional Roman methods and materials to build a Roman villa for English Heritage. Much more interesting than you'd think and the final result is something you'll want to get in your car and visit.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The genie is out of the bottle: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran & Israel.

Having been forced to watch from afar in the relative safety of my home, I saw from 1980 the birth of Solidarity in Poland, the imposition of martial law and the advent of Peristroika from Moscow as of 1985, through to the semi free and fair Polish elections in June 1989 that led to the round table talks and the first non communist government in September 1989. And before you go reaching for Google, The Berlin Wall fell on the 9th of November, well after the rest of Central and Eastern Europe shook off the dictatorships. So please in future years when the historian's tomes on the new North African era have got dusty and we revert to trite throw away clichés, please remember that in Europe, Poland came first and in North Africa and the Arab world, Tunisia came first, possibly even the green revolution protesters of Iran in 2009.

I of course bring up Poland, because the similarities to Egypt at the minute are similar and not by coincidence. In both cases the authorities in place have been there for about the same time, apx 40 years and in Egypt, 50 years. During that time an increasingly well educated and young citizenry saw it's hopes and dreams crushed and dampened to a point of nearly giving up. But being stubborn and determined, given the chance to push back, they did.  In Poland they even prevailed after 9 long years of struggle. But the problem with declaring symbolic victory is that you choose an iconic moment and it becomes tradition while the reality is that the old regime is not entirely swept away. In fact that would have been a bad thing, stability is the sort of thing that saves the furniture. The lessons Egypt and other such countries, post revolution, need to take from Poland are many and important. Not least of which is the lesson that it takes time to build a new politi in a population that hasn't had a history of real democratic parties since September 1st 1939. In the case of Egypt it can be argued that party politics is even more alien to the culture than it was in 1990's Central and Eastern Europe. It's one thing to want to "Throw the bums out", but when the dust settles, you have an entire population that hasnt experienced real political debate of the boring day to day nature we have come to take for granted in the west. Once the novelty of voting for the party of revolution wears off, the reality of running a country has to be accepted and the possibility that even the most popular party won't always get it right. Solidarity splintered into at least 10 separate ideological and regional interest parties. What emerged was the normal spectrum of left to right with a sprinkle of religion and commercial interests. The reason Poles today accept and albeit grudgingly praise the current set up , is that it does produce the reflective compact that was struck in the early 90's Poland  mixture of urban, agricultural, intellectual and industrial civil society that emerged.

Tunisians and Egyptians will have to take the time to find out just exactly what it is they stand for and what they are prepared to accept in their politicians ideologically and practically. The one real asset in the North of Africa today  is the high proportion of young well educated future workers and middle class citizens they are ready to become. Their hopes and aspirations haven't been stomped into the earth like those of their parents and grand parents. They are in a position to establish new parameters based loosely on what they see and have experienced in their closest neighbours in Europe. Beyond that, I cannot tell you what the future shape of the North African Arab states will be, but I can tell you it will be as secular as Ireland or Italy in 2000 and sometimes as radically anti G-d as France or Britain seems to have become today. It would be fool hardy to expect perfect parties and perfect government from any elections that take place in September 2011. It will be years before the new republics emerge as stable recognizable systems.  Poland took a decade to come to a point where you cannot tell the difference from them and say the German Reichstag. As History started moving again in Europe in 1989, so it will in North Africa. But like anything frozen in the ice of dictatorship and regional interests for over 50 years, it will not happen overnight.

The next problem, if you choose to see it that way, is the fact that the government apparatus that collects the rubbish, sets curricula in schools, funds museums & culture and also regulates the economy , is used to a certain way of doing things. It's been doing  it for 50 years after all. To be clear, sometimes the old ways aren't all bad ways and some others just need a tweak. These bureaucrats will be there till they are replaced in the fullness of time by a new generations of equally convinced technocrats educated in the current methods en vogue in the capitals of Europe and the region. The Army, especially one as big as the conscript Egyptian army will eventually develop an officer corps  that will not interfere in the nation's affairs, but this too will take time. Because however,  the army will now be cut off from the old boys club that has till now run the country, it will have no choice but to reform.Where immediate steps need to be taken is perhaps a wholesale replacement of the police by serving Army personnel who are less inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.

The all powerful elites in the country will also retain a lot of influence before they are well and truly flushed. In Poland in the 10 years since the peaceful fall of the Communist government, the number of old technocrats who have become industrialists and businessmen on the back of the soft landing given them in the early years, remains high. Former state enterprises have continued in many cases to stay in the hands of the same sterile old minds who over the years moved from  an imperative to keep people working despite non existent markets for the goods,  to  making as much money as possible with as few workers as possible. It took several years for the Central and Eastern European governments to get out from under the IMF monetarist orthodoxy and regulate in a more normal way these situations. In the new North Africa, there will surely be a similar readjustment in the economy that will take many years and will not go anywhere near as smoothly as anybody with a magic wand called democracy would like it to go.  It will however be easier if you have a stable hand on the reform process. Iran showed how you don't change a country, Russia trusted it's citizens and politicians who had no choice but to come from the old system to make it a better place. 10 years on it's not perfect, but still better than it was or would have been if they had just changed the system 100% in the space of a week.

Freedom of the press and culture will also undergo a strange and sometimes clunky process. At some point, even quickly, the press and the news will readjust, it will do things it hasn't done in the lifetimes of most people in North Africa, it will tell the truth. There will however remain the question of how much liberalisation will be tolerated by the population in various parts of the country. You cannot expect the same open society in Egypt as say in France or Holland or even Lebanon or Turkey. These limits and value judgements will ultimately be done by the people. A word of warning to the old theocratic and moralistic leaders inside and out of the dictatorships, the power you had before will be limited entirely by the willingness of the population to accept what you say as the absolute unchallengeable truth. In a multi party, socially diverse culture, the power of one set of value givers and enforcers will be tempered by the right of people to NOT have to share the same opinion on everything, just as that right will be tempered by the responsibility of the citizen to not trample on the next person's set of rights. For example, some might say that certain Irish twins of recent fame should have been locked up for bad taste, but they have the right in a free society to be complete divs. They aren't actually harming us are they? We can as active citizens, use the levers of commercial power and our voices in regulatory bodies to limit these sorts of things. We can only do this because we trust our leaders and regulators to a great extent to get it right, to understand the difference between what's good for us and what's just imposing one set of standards and values on the rest of the country. Over time, democracy will pollute the telly of Egypt with the same brain dead content some on ITV2 seem to like, but because of democracy, you'll also get the truth of what happened, you'll get protest in the form of drama and satire and you'll get thought provoking programmes that engage the population in the process of reform,  sometimes even against the  wishes and desires of some who prefer you weren't asked. For example, you can no more force an omnivore to stop eating meat than that omnivore can force meat into a vegan. It's free will , tolerance and compromise. The moment you believe you have a monopoly on the truth, you become part of the problem and should you have the power, no better than the dictators. Most recently a vegan football club owner banned meat in his club's park. His right to do so I suppose, but highly insulting and presumptuous to assume he can force his individual beliefs on his staff, the players and the entire season ticket holding supporter base.  Besides probably breaking several commercial laws and agreements designed to keep all of us from coming to blows, he has taken on the mantle of preacher with a bit of power... never a good thing. In a free press and free culture this will be discussed and the pressures of real debate and the weight of law will resolve this, precisely because we accept the rules of the society we live in. 

Protests and strikes are here to stay people, it's a curse and a gift. I love how even the most timid of Egyptians on the news, are protesting bad housing, the cost of petrol and low pay.  It's their right so long as they do it peacefully. Authorities need to respond not by arresting these people, but sorting out their legitimate demands and reasonable concessions requested, if the authorities expect people to go home. Once let out of the bottle, the genie of dissent in a reasonable society must be tolerated if free speech is to flourish and keep the lines of communication open between the governed and  those who govern them.  Mob rule, which of course is the extreme end of protest, is what happens when you deny the vast majority the possibility to make their concerns and wishes heard and acted upon. Peaceful articulate and sometimes loud protest and strikes are a natural vent for the frustrations that will regularly come to a boil, to close dissent down too much is asking for trouble.

The ability of the big powers to dictate to other nations what is good for the big powers has by and large ceased to be relevant in the new democratic Europe. Many of the agendas finding voice in New Europe are now derived from the environmental movement, trade unions and  local economic imperatives. Clearly the effect of 10 years of pan continental stability is a model North Africa and the Middle East can look forward to as well. Suddenly powers like Israel and Iran won't be able to hide behind ideoligical or regional interests real or imagined to protect their particular and peculiar versions of the Garden of Eden . In Iran  protesters demand the democracy won in Tunisia and Egypt, that was denied them under the Shah as well as the Ayatollahs and are accused of being spies and trouble makers in the pay of the Americans.  When Iran is the last theocracy standing,  they won't be able to sing that song any more. Israel on the other hand has a fluctuating voter turn out that has plumbed as low as 42% and as high as 63.2% in the past few years. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the pure rep by pop system that produces ever more conservative and radical governments that reflect the vast majority of Israelis ( Jewish, Muslim and Christian) about as well as having the KKK the Nazis and the ultra orthodox religious establishment set government policy. Is it really ok to stall while entire neighbourhoods of Palestinians are cleared for radical Jewish settlers? Actual Israeli born Jews living in Tel Aviv and Jaffa have become irrelevant in the process and see the wishes of the radical immigrants from outside (mostly the USA and Canada)  as well as US self interest reflected in the domestic policy of the nation. Powerless to act, the apx 70% of native Jews who are agnostic, going to Shule three times a year, or are only culturally Jewish, stay at home or more and more emigrate to Europe where the old powers are wanting their Jews back. As the rest of the region opens up and democratises, the increasingly sterile and cut off regimes, including Israel, Syria and Iran will find themselves having to give in or face the kind of bloodshed they are trying so hard to avoid. When you strip away the bogey men of  Hamas or the CIA or the g-dless west, you are left with people like you and me who only want to get on with their lives and get back to the sort of world where we used to just argue over the price of olive oil and who invented Humus. As and when the only real difference between  Europe and North Africa and the Mid East are the holydays and the bank holidays, then the radicals blowing themselves up for Islam, killing school girls for G-d and the nutcase Jewish settlers shouting shite about how it G-d's gift to them and they mean to take it any way they can no matter what, will be made to look like the ignorant unrepresentative dangerous subsection of humanity they are.

You might task me if it's better to have a Bathist regime that sends people to school regardless of sex and treats people appallingly based on ethnicity and disagreement, over a religious state that keeps people ignorant and poor, and I would say yes, as long as it's eventually swept aside. At least the secular state produces an educated middle class that is ready to take up the modern pressures of the world and still retain the reasonable peaceful message of Islam, should one choose to practice. Given the chance, the people of the region will find a happy medium where the extremists of any side will find little apatite for their message.  With a great deal of patience and encouragement the situation will come to pass that even the hold over resentment and mistrust towards authority and the outside press will evaporate like the old regimes that created them in the first place.  As the closest neighbour and biggest trading partner to the region of North Africa and the Middle East, Europe must help when asked, prod as gently as possible when it can and be patient. Not only is the prospect of avoiding the big war in the Middle East as real now as the eradication of the multiple regional tensions that used to send Europe into war on a regular basis, the creation of a single region of equally concerned governments willing to act in the name of environmental issues that are bigger than any ideology or religion is a very real probability. When you create a place where the people feel they are part of the process you can actually get things done.

I cannot predict which leader and which systems will fall next, but we have to trust these people to do it themselves, just like Central and Eastern Europe did starting in 1980, it will take time but the result will be a better place. It may not look like our personal vision of perfection, but it'll be close enough to make it work.