Sunday, December 18, 2005


The Programme With Everything To Hide

Last night saw the end of 'Space Cadets' on Channel 4. The ten-show, one-off special was, in my opinion, one of the better TV events this year. To create a hoax that elaborate demands so much attention to detail that it's impossible not to be impressed. Everything about the show was well chosen - they managed to get contestants both suggestible and funny, the pranks they played were much better than the chicken-suit rubbish that is to be found in 'Big Brother', and I think they made a good chice of host in Johnny Vaughan.

So, they found out that they hadn't been to space at all, and in fact hadn't left Britain, and they were understandably a bit miffed and humiliated. However, I have to take issue with this report, which claims:

"But one contestant, teaching assistant Keri Hasset from Birmingham, said she was "heartbroken" by the prank . . . "When I thought we were coming back to Earth I was planning my speech. I was going to say it had been my childhood dream. Now I'm a little bit heartbroken," she said."

This quote is lifted from the programme itself, not made afterwards, and so I can say comfortably that, given the good humour with which Ms Hasset took the prank, using the single word "heartbroken" gives a rather distorted image of how she took it. Presumably, the unnamed writer of the piece decided that "Victims fall foul of giant prank - take it quite well" wasn't an interesting enough story.

My personal hope is that the three contestants get a TV career out of it - that's what sets us apart in Britain, we love failures, and these people failed brilliantly. Plus, let's face it, they couldn't be any worse than BB winner Anthony hosting CD:UK earlier this year. I feel particularly bad for the contestant Paul French, who I've been calling 'Dumb Guy' all week. Can there be a more moronic-sounding accent than West Country? In the end, he was the first to really suspect what was happening, so he wasn't that dumb after all.

A little life breathed into the dying reality TV genre.


Fortunately, when 4 taketh away, they mostly giveth back too. The next quality programme they've produced is 'Demolition', a programme in which 'Grand Designs' presenter Kevin McCloud and Indy editor Janet Street-Porter travel round Britain's most horrific buildings, explaining what can be done about them.

'Demolition', sadly only a four-part series, is an excellent example of how television can be informative and provocative without being controversial for the sake of it. Basically, the idea underpinning the programme is the suggestion that Britain should have an 'X list' of buildings, the opposite of the English Heritage grading system. A building's place on this list would encourage its owners to demolish or rennovate it as soon as possible.

This is a brilliant idea. Bad architecture is one of my pet hates, and I can spend hours moaning about the buildings I most dislike. A real, workable and actually rather democratic plan to make our country a better place is surely something we can all approve of. You can vote either way at the microsite linked above, or better still you can sign the petition here. I urge all my British readers to do this - if enough people sign it, combined with the pressures of the TV series and the RIBA, there's a very real chance the government will adopt the idea. Do it!

In the meantime, let's have a look at some of the buildings named as the worst of the worst:

Greater London Council Overflow Building

To my mind this is the single most horrific. I don't live in London - I don't even like the place very much - but I can appreciate that central London is full of some very nice buildings. The renovated buildings of the South Bank. The Houses of Parliament. The London Eye. This ghastly lump is only a matter of yards away from those - you can see the Eye in that photo - and I'm not surprised people hate it with such a passion. It's determinedly unlovely, and now empty anyway.

The Scottish Parliament

This entry was rightly dismissed by the presenters, and it does reveal a potential problem with the list idea - sometimes the public are just wrong. Fortunately, the petition is worded in such a way that it's clear that there would have to be a consensus, not only amongst the public, but also amongst architectural experts, before a building could be demolished.

What I object to about the Scottish Parliament is the cost of the bloody thing, particularly since I don't see what I, as an Englishman, get out of it. However, the building itself is really rather beautiful.

Gateshead Multi-Storey Car Park

Most of the other buildings on the list merely look like parking ramps. This is one. A main part of the problem is that it is perched on an eminence, as if the town planners believed the car park should be the focal point of the town. One group hoping it doesn't meet the detonator are the 'Get Carter Appreciation Society', who don't want to lose the place because of the role played by the restaurant at the top during the film. So, should it stay or should it go now? Hideous eyesore or piece of cinematic history? I'm not sure.

Crown House, Kidderminster

This choice is a bit personal for me, because I used to work in an office just a couple of hundred yards away from it, and I can confirm that it really is a wreck of a building. It sits close to the town centre, completely blighting an otherwise perfectly average shopping district. It perfectly encapsulates one of the principle problems of construction with concrete - it just gets dirty. The building would be offensive enough without being filthy as well. I'd love to see this one go.

None of these shockers made it into the top three. However, rather than go on with those, I'd like to share my thoughts on two other buildings that weren't on the list.

NatWest Building, Birmingham City Centre

This was my vote for most hideous building. No picture can do justice to how loathsome it is in the flesh. One of the entries on the list was Greyfriars Bus Station in Northampton, the principle complaint about which was that it was the first building you see on entry to the town. Well, approach Birmingham from the south or west on the train, and this is one of the first you see. It looks like nothing so much as a gigantic, shit-stained kettle.

University Of Manchester Mathematics Tower

You're looking at a little piece of history here, for this building no longer exists. Demolition on it finished about a month ago. Much like the NatWest building, it was an over-tall edifice that had a bizarre shape and significant lack of geometry to it. However, despite these flaws, I actually didn't mind it so much - at least by the end of its life. It has to be said I harboured a different opinion a year ago. I carried expounding my theme a little later too. I stand by all of those comments, and I still particularly loathe the former UMIST building, but I did feel rather better disposed to the Maths Tower when I learned of its forthcoming demolition. Maybe we'll miss those horrors above when they're gone. Probably not, though.

Re: Gateshead Car Park. I would have thought that the Michael Caine film buffs wouldn't have much of an objection. I mean after all, surely they'd only have to blow the bloody doors off...

And re: Manchester buildings, I can't believe that you've not mentioned the hideous Manchester Met 'Toast Rack' on Old Hall Lane in Owens Park. It's truly the most awful building in Manchester, worse even than the Portland Tower or the not-really-that-bad Maths Building. And I had to look at it every day of my life in secondary school.
I live a stone's throw from that Tower in Colliers Wood, and until now I'd considered it a revolting eyesore. But, like you said, "sometimes the public are just wrong". I will test that theory tomorrow by throwing stones at it to see if anyone stops me.
It's funny, you live just a few yards from that building, and I ligve just a few yards from 'The Toastrack' Paul is talking about. Maybe it is a small world after all.

I still don't want to paint it though.
Gosh, you guys. I live like, only a few thousand miles from both. :)
Actually, we have plenty of wretched architecture in Detroit, but no one ever seems to have the money to tear them down.
We have a double-handful of abandoned sky-scrapers and other hulking masses of concrete. The train station is one of the most insane.

As for the reality show:What was this? They told these people they were going into space? How did they simulate the zero-gravity?!?
I live in the town next door to Bournemouth - and the Imax is pretty shit. It's main problem being not that it is ugly but that is supremely non-descript. It's a massive grey box that's been tossed down onto the seafront. It's more the wasted potential and complete lack of aesthetic principle that it embodies.

Working in a planning department I get to see quite a lot of ugly houses - but most of the don't get built. Be thankful to your town planners.
Detroit, eh? The motor city. If I ever decided to go to Ameria, that's where I'd go, mostly because I know someone there. That station may be in a bit of disrepair, but it's as nothing compared to Birmingham New Street. I was somewhat disheartened the last time I was in New Street upon spying a large group of rats running along the rails.

As for gravity, that was one of the best bits. The 'experts', who were mostly merely actors, told the contestants that the shuttle had been fitted with 'Artificial Gravity Generators.' None of them suspected a thing.
Artificial Gravity Generators?!?
Good lord, they must've had to confine themselves to accepting the mentally retarded as contestants.

Well, and now you know another person in the Detroit area. Its not so bad outside the city limits, and the interior has a certain penache for those who are attracted to blighted desolation. There is a nice cultural area where two universities and three or four good museums congregate. Otherwise....meh.
SafeT - I love blighted desolation. I couldn't tolerate south Manchester otherwise!
Matt - box it certainly is. It looks like it was designed on a machine-parts crate. I particularly love the fake waves on top though. They were an inspired touch.
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