Thursday, April 01, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Greatest Ever April Fool's Joke

On this day in 1957 the BBC's prestigious and respected current affairs programme Panorama decided to risk a measure of its journalistic prestige and respect in the name of that most favoured of British pastimes - namely, taking the piss...

Probably the greatest April Fools' Day joke in the history of media - itself the brainchild of BBC camera operator Charles de Jaeger - the report on that year's bumper crop of spaghetti narrated by Richard Dimbleby was watched by as many as 8 million, and seems to have fooled quite a fair number of them. Of course, it helps that spaghetti was then an exotic food in the UK, most frequently found in tins.

Some of the accompanying footage was shot at a factory in London, some in nearby St. Albans, and the rest at a hotel in the Swiss resort town of Castiglione.
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Remembering... Eleanor of Aquitaine

Once upon a time, when women were considered empty vessels, little better than furnishings designed for recreation, procreation, and doing all those little things men normally can't be bothered to do (like picking up around the castle) more than a few of them bucked the trend; they were learned, powerful, and far more politically capable than their male counterparts specifically because they had to navigate a seemingly endless shoal of misogyny in order to demonstrate their abilities without being accused of witchcraft or worse - being un-feminine.

PhotobucketEleanor of Aquitaine was one such woman. As one of the richest heiresses in the High Middle Ages, she brought to the throne of France (through her marriage to Louis VII) the duchies of Aquitaine, Gascony, and Poitou. Together they attended the Second Crusade, and while in Jerusalem Eleanor witnessed the coronation of her uncle Raymond of Antioch as King; the affection demonstrated between uncle and niece was very nearly the scandal of the age, and probably would have been if there'd been any media in those days aside from the occasional scribbling monk or wandering minstrel.

As Eleanor's French marriage had produced only two daughters, though (and much resultant animosity between husband and wife because of it) it was reluctantly annulled by Pope Eugenius III - since girls then didn't count as people; of course, no one then knew (or would have believed anyway) that it's the father who determines the sex of the babies, not the mother. Eleanor should have been the one to divorce Louis, and not the other way round; nevertheless, however it was done she was glad to be rid of him - it seems his piety got on her nerves in a big way.

She then turned around and married Louis' rival, Henry II, King of England, and proceeded to give him five sons and three daughters (in addition to holdings amounting to one-third of southern France). Louis was now boxed in by forces loyal to England, which was led by a man with access to intimate details of his life and character - a situation that must have rankled him almost as much as the procession of sons she then bore him.

Two of these sons eventually became kings - Richard I (even then better known as Richard the Lionhearted) and John (called 'Lackland', a snivelling weasel best remembered as the villain in the legends of Robin Hood); still, Eleanor's life in England was no less chaotic, coming as it did in tumultuous times. The murder of Thomas Becket by her husband's orders, bad as it was, couldn't have hurt Eleanor as deeply as her husband's open philandering with Rosamund Clifford; it was one thing for a King to have a mistress, but it was quite another to parade her around in the Queen's place, boasting about it. Coming as she did from the court of Aquitaine - the birthplace of courtly love - the coarse manners of her second husband must have seemed no improvement over the pusillanimity of her first.

Eleanor died, on this day in 1204, at the astonishing age of about 82 - having been been held in captivity by her second husband for 16 years of it. She was buried at Fontevraud Abbey - where, in the last years of her life, she'd taken the veil - next to the husband who'd imprisoned her and her favourite son, Richard, who'd released her. All that remains, though, is the tomb - her bones were scattered along with all of the other royal remains in France, during the French Revolution. One of the most widely traveled women of her age, she had seen and done more than many of her male 'betters' but alas, she left no memoirs; what a book that would have been!

Thanks to James Goldman, whose play The Lion in Winter has twice been adapted for film, Eleanor of Aquitaine has been played by Katharine Hepburn (who won her fourth Academy Award for the portrayal) and Glenn Close (who won a Golden Globe for her portrayal in a television miniseries). She's also been played by Rosemary Harris and Stockard Channing on stage. Eleanor is a character in William Shakespeare's play King John, and is somewhat erroneously depicted in Jean Anouilh's play Becket, from whence a film was made. She's also appeared as a character in numerous novels and both histories and herstories.

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"Tammy" by Debbie Reynolds

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans' song Tammy is given the star treatment here by no less of a star than Debbie Reynolds, who sang it in 1957's Tammy and the Bachelor. So effective was Reynolds' rendition that the sweet if slight ditty was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category. The song's success, however, was not limited to awards season; it hit #1 on just about every chart for which it was eligible, and remained Reynold's signature tune for many years.

Also featured in this clip is the esteemed actress Mildred Natwick as Aunt Renie...

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Happy Birthday Debbie Reynolds

There are few people I love more than those great ladies of Hollywood past; one such lady, Debbie Reynolds, is still very much singing and dancing and making us laugh in the present - well into the amazing sixth decade of her career. It is the sincere hope of the Pop Culture Institute that she will continue to do so for many years into the future as well...

PhotobucketOriginally from Texas, the Reynolds clan moved to Southern California when little Mary Frances was just seven; fresh out of the Girl Scouts the sixteen year old student at Burbank High School won a beauty contest which can be said to have launched her career since, because of it, she was also awarded a contract with Warner Brothers.

The newly re-christened Debbie's first big movie role, though, came in an MGM picture - Singin' in the Rain, which is the closest to perfect a movie musical ever got. By then, of course, she was already as established a hit-maker as Francesco Nitto, having taken Aba Daba Honeymoon all the way to #3.

Of course, there's more to a show business career than singing and dancing and making people laugh; where Reynolds' celebrity mettle was really tested was in the scandal department. Once married to singer Eddie Fisher - who famously left her for Elizabeth Taylor in 1955 - the petite blonde who was then America's Sweetheart clearly emerged from that one the winner in the public's eyes. Of course, it's the children who suffer in divorce, and this case was no different; both Carrie Fisher and her brother Todd were left more or less fatherless, but worst of all Carrie became a writer, which is surely the worst possible fate to ever befall anyone.

Alas, the wandering eye of Eddie Fisher was the least of Reynolds' problems; the lack of financial acumen displayed by her second husband Harry Karl left her in dire straits following their 1973 divorce, which necessitated a career in the cabarets of Las Vegas. There she not only displayed the traits for which she was by then rightly famous but also demonstrated a flair for mimicry, including (if show business lore is correct - and why wouldn't it be) a dead-on impersonation of her one-time media rival, Elizabeth Taylor.

After a botched attempt at starring in her own show, The Debbie Reynolds Show - which NBC pulled from the air in 1970 after Reynolds objected to its being sponsored by a tobacco company - she managed a fair number of appearances on other shows, including a memorable turn in a two-part episode of The Golden Girls, and a recurring role on Will & Grace as the diva-esque mother of Grace Adler, which was surely a stretch for her to play*.

*Seeing as she had no real-life experience as the mother of a bundle of neuroses with a penchant for becoming romantically entangled with gay dudes... Much.
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Pop History Moment: Charles Dickens Published "Hard Times"

On this day in 1854 Charles Dickens sought to give his weekly newspaper Household Words a boost in circulation by serializing his tenth novel Hard Times within its pages; in the weeks that followed readership more than doubled, and by the time the serialization had run its course on August 12th the author had another fat* hit on his hands, despite the fact that it's the most incongruous of all his works...

PhotobucketIn part a specific critique of utilitarianism** (rather than a general criticism of socioeconomic conditions), Hard Times eschews the London setting of all his other works in favour of the fictional Coketown - which was based, in part, on such northern mill towns as Preston. It also, interestingly, was not illustrated - although the illustration, shown at right (of the novel's protagonist Mr. Gradgrind, apprehending his children Louisa and Tom from the circus) was made by Harry French to accompany the serialization in Household Words.

Wildly popular with the reading public at the time, Hard Times has been receiving mixed reviews with critics ever since it first appeared; John Ruskin loved it, while Thomas Macaulay branded it 'sullen socialism', and George Bernard Shaw seemed to want it both ways by declaring it a 'passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world'***. Dickens, of course, valued people over profits, and for this reason in general - as much as for his experimental zeal in this work specifically - Hard Times remains a stalwart of the stacks at the Pop Culture Institute.

*110,000 words, in fact!
**A typically harsh political ideology for the times, which was as antithetical to Dickens' nature as neoconservatism is to my own.
***Shaw's criticism, true to type, was eminently fair; he felt Dickens failed to grasp the reality of trade unionism in that era, inventing a typically middle-class bogeyman in the character of union leader Slackbridge which Shaw felt was inaccurate. That unions could be as heartless and rapacious and even corporate as those they were intended to rein in, however, wouldn't have occurred to Shaw.
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"The Bottle" by Gil Scott-Heron

Birthday wishes go out today to Gil Scott-Heron, the musical visionary who is credited as one of the fathers of spoken word poetry as well as a gifted musician in the jazz and soul idioms...

Best known for such deservedly incendiary works as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Whitey on the Moon (both taken from his 1970 debut album Small Talk at 125th & Lenox) The Bottle originally appeared on Scott-Heron's third album, Winter in America, from 1974. A trenchant commentary on alcohol abuse, The Bottle has been something of an underground hit ever since its release, although it did reach the #15 spot on the R& B Chart in America; its also been sampled by such diverse hip hop artists as De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers.
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Gratuitous Brunette: Rachel Maddow


Not having access to MSNBC - since I, of all people, don't have cable television - I have come to rely upon sources like YouTube and Facebook for my occasional fixes of those powerful antidotes to the right-wing blowhards of cable media, namely Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow...

Olbermann, of course, has been fighting the good fight for some time now, doing more to disperse bilious gas (as emitted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly) than Febreze; Maddow is something of a Jane-come-lately to the profession of battling the dragons of the fascist press, being a protegee of Olbermann's. Recently she's taken to scrapping with Scott Brown, the pretty boy/empty suit elected to replace Massachusetts' long-time senator Ted Kennedy, who died in August 2009.

Born on this day in 1973*, Maddow was the first openly gay American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship; in addition to her TV gig, The Rachel Maddow Show, she also hosts a radio show, creatively entitled The Rachel Maddow Show, which is broadcast on Air America Radio.

*She's half-Newfie on her mothers' side, dontcha know?!
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POPnews (UK) - April 1st

[The BBC's long-running current affairs programme Panorama risked its considerable credibility to take the piss out of a whole nation on this day in 1957 with an elaborate April Fools' Day prank; as narrated by Richard Dimbleby, 8 million British viewers were treated to images of a bumper crop of spaghetti, owing (it was said) to an unseasonably warm winter and the eradication of the spaghetti weevil. Oh... My sides... Ow...]

1293 - Following the death of John Peckham his successor Robert Winchelsey left England for Italy, where he would eventually be consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury at Aquila by Pope Celestine V in September 1294.

1854 - Charles Dickens began serializing his novel Hard Times in his magazine Household Words; the final installment was published on August 12th.

1873 - En route from Liverpool to New York City during her 19th voyage, the steamer SS Atlantic of the White Star Line sank after striking an underwater rock called Marr's Head 50 metres from Meagher's Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing 547.

1918 - The Royal Air Force was created by merging the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service.

1946 - Uniting the Malay States and the Straits Settlements - but excluding Singapore - the Malayan Union was formed as a successor to British Malaya to unify the Malay Peninsula under a single government so as to simplify administration; the first governor was Sir Edward Gent and the capital was located at Kuala Lumpur.

1957 - A prank broadcast by the BBC had many Britons convinced that, among other things, spaghetti grew on trees in Switzerland.

1969 - The first Harrier jets entered service with the RAF.

1976 - The Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effect was first reported on the BBC by astronomer Patrick Moore.

1990 - 1,000 prisoners at HM Prison Manchester, better known as Strangeways, rioted to protest overcrowding; actually a series of riots, the violence began in the prison chapel, spread to the roof, and eventually lasted 25 days, making it the longest prison riot in British history. During the hostilities one prisoner was killed and 47 others as well as 147 prison officers were injured.

2000 - The Enigma Machine was stolen from Bletchley Park; it was returned, anonymously, to BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman the following October with some of its crucial parts missing and a note demanding random. Antiques dealer Dennis Yates was later arrested, charged, and imprisoned for his part in the theft.

2006 - The Serious Organised Crime Agency, dubbed the 'British FBI', was created.

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"Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye

In previous years this video has been unavailable to me, and so I've had to make do with various live performances to commemorate this, the anniversary of Marvin Gaye's murder; today though - no fooling! - I found the actual video to his final hit, 1982's Sexual Healing, which had been intended as his comeback. The video itself was filmed at Casino-Kursaal in Ostend.

Gaye's death, at the hands of his father, shocked the entertainment industry; even more shocking were revelations which surfaced later, namely that the younger Gaye had been suicidal in the days and weeks leading up to his unfortunate death on this day in 1984 - the day before his 45th birthday - and that the murder weapon had actually been a gift from son to father.
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POPnews - April 1st

[Today - as millions of machines built under the malign influence of Bill Gates ruin millions of perfectly good days - we the righteous celebrate the technical savvy and creative genius of Woz and the Dear Leader, whose machines are simply better. Sure, there are fewer of them, but that's because the vast majority of people are drama queens, who seem to enjoy spending a portion of every day trying (and ultimately failing) to get their ugly terminals and crappy software to function properly. 'To each his own' we say, as we snicker behind our hands, gloating...]

1340 - Niels Ebbesen killed Gerhard III of Holstein in his bedroom, ending an interregnum in Denmark which had begun in 1332.

1572 - During the Eighty Years' War, the Watergeuzen captured Brielle from Spain, gaining the first foothold on land for what would eventually become the Dutch Republic.

1789 - In New York City, the US House of Representatives attained its first quorum and elected Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania as its first House Speaker.

1857 - Herman Melville published The Confidence-Man, which would be his last novel-length work of fiction.

1891 - The Wrigley Company was founded in Chicago.

1924 - Adolf Hitler was sentenced to five years in jail for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch; he served just nine months, during which time he wrote Mein Kampf.

1939 - Francisco Franco declared an end to the Spanish Civil War after the last Republican forces surrendered.

1946 - A 7.8 magnitude earthquake off the Aleutian Islands created a tsunami that struck Hawai'i near Hilo, killing 159 there and six in Alaska and causing $26 million in damages including the destruction of the Scotch Cap Lighthouse on Unimak Island.

1948 - Faroe Islands received their autonomy from Denmark.

1949 - The Irish Free State became the Republic of Ireland.

1967 - The United States Department of Transportation began operations.

1970 - President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act into law, requiring the Surgeon General's warnings on tobacco products and banning cigarette advertisements on television and radio in the United States to begin on the first day of 1971.

1973 - Project Tiger - oddly enough, a tiger conservation project - was launched in India's Corbett National Park.

1976 - Apple Computer was founded by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne.

1979 - The Shah of Iran was deposed and the Islamic Republic was declared.

1996 - Nova Scotia's Halifax Regional Municipality was created.

1999 - The Canadian territory of Nunavut was created.

2001 - The Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage.

2004 - Google introduced its Gmail product to the public; the launch was met with scepticism on account of the date.
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