Top Gear, here I come..

(Top image: rehearsal for a stunt sequence from Kingsman: The Secret Service at Dunsfold Park – the sequel’s stunts were shot at Longcross instead!)

After an initial false start in getting tickets to Top Gear many, many months ago when the revamped series first started airing, I’ve finally secured a ticket to be in the audience for a studio recording of the current series later next month.  Who will the celebrity guest be?  Will the Stig spontaneously combust?  Who knows!?!

Time off work has been arranged.  I just need to get up to Dunsfold Park.  The irony of all this is that one ideally needs a car, and I don’t drive, thus I’ll be getting there and back in a taxi.

It’d be nice if they’d let me check in by the studio as I could say a quick hello to the neighbours, my former employers Memset Ltd.  But apparently I have to go across the other side of the estate to check in, then get a bus with fellow audience members to the studio, and vice versa when the filming stops.

The Shape of Water & Black Panther: Two films you don’t want to miss

Last weekend I went to the local Odeon – the one where I had a lot of fun collecting tickets from an online booking for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.


While I initially booked The Shape of Water without any difficulty, I decided, while I was having a coffee at Costa coffee at Guildford station, to book to see the much-hyped Black Panther afterwards.  I got my phone out and attempted to make the booking, except, well, I’ll let the screenshots speak for themselves:

Did they try hitting the server repeatedly with a mallet? Works for me!

So I tried again.  ALAS!

Given the misadventures of last time, I now have no idea whether (a) they’ve taken credit from the gift card and (b) whether I have a seat or not.

So I made my merry way across the road and across the river, muttering under my breath how much the quality assurance of modern technology drives me insane, and went up to the box office, which – being Saturday – was open.

I explained the situation to one of the box office folk who had a look at the booking and presumably having given my name was able to confirm the seat.  Only he had to handwrite it for me:

Proud owner of one of only a few handwritten cinema tickets..

Now, two things happened here.  The first was that the ticket I had ordered for The Shape of Water had a seat reservation.  What you see above is NOT the seat I had reserved.  Had I paid for the premium seating, I would have flipped my lid.  The seat I ended up with wasn’t brilliant, but perfectly adequate.

Cinema escapades aside for the moment, The Shape of Water by Guillermo Del Toro is everything that people say it is.  It’s a stunningly beautiful love story that just happens to feature what is presumably the Creature from The Black Lagoon.  Sally Hawkins as the mute Elisa is nothing short of extraordinary – conveying her emotions physically and communicating entirely in sign.  Doug Jones as the Creature is otherworldly, yet is still capable of great kindness and compassion to those who are not out to kill him.

(Be warned, cat fans, as there is one unsettling scene which is really a bit of a misunderstanding (though the poor cat which is at the receiving end of said misunderstanding would hardly say that was the case.))

The film is brutal, romantic, lovely and surreal across the 2 hours it plays for.  It’s an adult fairytale and Del Toro took risks making it (including turning down the sequel to Pacific Rim amongst other projects).  But it pays back in spades.  It is well deserving of the BAFTA awards it has picked up (Soundtrack, Production Design and Director), and well worthy of picking up even more at the forthcoming Oscars.

So, after a stonking good two hours of fishy romance, I pretty much went straight into Black Panther.  I took my seat and waited.


Odeon double booked the seat.  Whatever happened at the Box Office didn’t properly reserve the seat, and whatever happened with the web app also failed to reserve the seat.  So I went back to the Box Office and explained what happened.  Thankfully seating was still available, and decent seating at that, so it was all booked without any fuss and I was able to go back into the cinema to enjoy the film.

Black Panther, it must be said, is perhaps Marvel’s best ever effort at making a superhero movie.  Not only does it feature decent character building of the good guys, but gives the main villain a decent background from which you can actually understand where he’s coming from.

The story centres around the kingdom of Wakanda, a central African nation that is technically superior to any other on Earth thanks to a mineral called vibranium which fell to Earth from a meteorite millions of years ago.  It leads to the people of the region to embrace its properties, which, thanks to the enrichment of the soil due to the mineral, grows a particular plant which if imbibed, gives the person superhuman strength.  Thus Wakanda was born, and of the 5 tribes, 4 yielded to the Wakandans and were given protection and access to the vibranium, with the fifth deciding to go their own way and live up in the mountains alone.  The subsequent rulers of Wakanda have become the Black Panther – a protector and warrior.  However, Wakanda remains hidden from the rest of the world.  To us, Wakanda remains a poor country – though in all its history, refused any aid.  While Wakanda’s neighbours were colonised and taken as slaves, Wakanda did not intervene – they stayed hidden.

Fast forward to modern times, and events after Avengers: Age of Ultron.  King T’Chaka is dead, and his son, T’Challa is to become king of Wakanda.  Meanwhile, a South African arms dealer (played by Andy Serkis) has just stolen a weapon from the British Museum, unbeknownst that it is made from vibranium (and hence originates from Wakanda).  Along with the South African, an American (Michael B. Jordon) shows a keen interest in the weapon and its origins…

And so begins a well-paced movie that explores multiple themes.  One of which is belonging, and another being whether Wakanda should share its technology with the rest of the world.  The result of the secrecy is one of the reasons behind the American finding Wakanda and, well, it becomes a feud of epic proportions.

The film features a gadget sequence that would be Q to shame.  T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (played magnificently by Letitia Wright), would put Tony Stark to shame.  At point in the film when Martin Freeman’s CIA agent, Everett Ross, awakens in her laboratory, she greets him with, “Hello, coloniser”.  We can pretty much assume not many western white people have been this way..

The women of Black Panther are fierce as heck.  Special mention must be made of Okoye, played by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, who is the general of the Dora Milaje, the elite (female) bodyguards that protect the royal family.  She wields a very pointy and shiny spear which she uses to great effect.  No more so than the casino sequence in which hits, stabs and throws people about like rag dolls.

The entire film is absolutely wonderful.  The Afrofuturism is well done, and most importantly, believable.  I’m about to start reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, about a young Himba woman who is the first of her people to be accepted into a prestigious galactic university.  If Neil Gaiman loved it, I’m sure I will to.

But getting back to Black Panther – this is definitely the best Marvel film to date, and long may we see sequels.  We’ll be heading back to Wakanda for quite a spell in the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War, so it’ll be nice to see some familiar faces.

Long live King T’Challa!  Long live Wakanda!

I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble..

.. except there’s a decent amount of treble in Apple’s new HomePod “smart” speaker.  But that bass!

The press has certainly not been wrong in stating that this is perhaps the best quality of speaker of the current generation of “smart” speakers.  The bass and response of the sound emanating from this tiny, yet tubby speaker definitely has put my now redundant Alexa-enabled Echo Plus to shame.

The fibre mesh is lovely to touch, it’s almost difficult not to walk past and give it a bit of a stroke..

Set-up was extremely easy – just plug it into the mains and then hold your iPhone (it must be an iOS device – forget buying one of these if you’re not heavily tied into the Apple iOS ecosystem) near the speaker.  Set-up begins on your iPhone and ends when Siri fires up and prompts you to try her out.

The biggest weakness of this speaker aside from no physical inputs or outputs, plus no Bluetooth support?  Siri.  It has yet to get any of my requests of songs or playlists right (I’m an Apple Music subscriber – albeit using the 6 months free subscription with EE at the moment – I’ll have to start paying again in April) – but I can AirPlay stuff directly from the phone without any bother.

However, what Siri can do is interact with my Philips Hue lights far more quickly via Apple’s HomeKit than Amazon’s Alexa ever could.  I have been extremely impressed with HomeKit’s performance on iOS and Siri so far.  While HomeKit support is still fairly limited within the “smart” devices industry – for example, British Gas’ Hive could REALLY benefit from such support – it does mean that for many devices would have to be refreshed in order support a specific chipset that HomeKit requires.  So we may not see Hive support for quite some time.

If you’re curious to know what’s going on inside the HomePod, this iFixit teardown will show you that it’s next to impossible for the average consumer to fix.

It’s funny how the music industry has changed over the past few decades.  When I was a kid growing up in North East London, I was over the moon with the hand-me-down Amstrad tower system which compromised of a turntable, an FM/AM radio/tuner, dual deck tape deck (Amstrad was famous for this).  I didn’t even have a CD player for quite some time.

Now we tend to subscribe (monthly or annually) to music services rather than paying for individual tracks or albums, listen on mobile phones or computers, or stream music to speakers.  While many people who take music seriously will still have an amplifier with built-in equaliser (another thing that the HomePod does away with – it’ll automatically “equalise” the music for you), a great many people will still be using these smart speakers in place of a traditional hi-fi set-up.

I’ve been a big fan of Apple’s audio products over the years.  I started off with a 3rd generation click wheel iPod and have made my way up to the iPhone X.  I’ve also bought three types of Beats headphones – the Beats Solo 3 wireless, the Beats EP and the granddaddy of them all, the Beats Studio 3 wireless – and perhaps my favourite of all – the AirPods.  None of these is cheap, and none are the absolute best in class, but I’ve always found a use for them (the Studio 3 wireless is ideal when the neighbours are doing late evening DIY, the Solo 3 for general computing use, the AirPods for daily commuting, and the EP for anything else (I originally bought it in Edinburgh when the Solo 3 unit suffered a charging problem and I had to send it to Apple for repair).