“It was a shame how he carried on”

Ordinarily, Netflix requires that you remain indoors, slumped all over the couch and binge-watch all their TV shows and films which took forever and a day to make, only to be consumed in mere hours.

This Saturday (and Bank Holiday Monday), Netflix is making me (well, they’re not – but the tickets are free) take the train up to London’s South Bank to attend a limited exhibition of art, scenery and puppets from their forthcoming series: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

I’ve been a huge fan of Jim Henson since I can remember, and The Dark Crystal (along with Labyrinth) was a major departure from the craziness of The Muppets. Featuring state of the art puppetry for the time, The Dark Crystal featured absolutely no humans – only spectacularly crafted puppets. It was also dark in tone. I remember when the emperor Skeksis dies – not only did it feature a jump scare, but the crumbling away of his flesh terrified me as a kid. There was nothing quite like it. And although the film floundered at the box office originally, it’s become a cult favourite since its release on home platforms.

There was the talk of a sequel for many years, but nothing ever materialised in the form of a TV or film. Ultimately the sequel became a graphic novel. But the talk of producing something relating to The Dark Crystal carried on. And now we have a prequel which tells the story of the Gelfling uprising against the evil Skeksis in a mini-series which will be airing on Netflix on the 30th August.

So I had to jump at the chance at being able to see the artwork and puppets. On Bank Holiday Monday, Louise Gold, one of the original members of The Muppet Show, a talented puppeteer, actress and singer, will be giving a talk during the screening of the first episode of Age of Resistance.

I’ll be filing my report as soon as I can. Hoping to come away with plenty of photos (and possibly video).

First, it was Good Omens. Now it’s The Boys. Amazon Prime Video has been available on Apple TV devices for a while now. Not long, but long enough. I bought the 4K version of the Apple TV because I have a 4K TV.

I do have the Amazon Prime Video app on my LG 4K TV, but I don’t tend to use the built-in apps for the TV because the TV is getting old now and the app and WebOS updates are few and far between. An Apple TV device should continue to receive OS and app updates regularly for many years to come – and one only has to replace one component when Apple stops supporting that device, rather than having to replace an otherwise good working TV. This is why I despise the “smart” in Smart TV.

Amazon’s 21st century equivalent of adjusting a TV aerial

Amazon, like Netflix, has been commissioning original TV shows in UHD (4K). With Netflix and the right subscription, you’ll get the highest resolution out the box without any fuss. If it’s 4K, you’ll get 4K. If it’s HD only, you’ll get HD only. With Amazon, you’re relying on them to put the 4K version of the title on the home page. Except they rarely do. No, with Amazon, you have to dig deep to find the bugger and then add it to your wishlist so that you don’t lose it again.

I had tremendous difficulties playing Good Omens in 4K when it was first released. Error galore. And I had even more difficulty trying to find the link to get help with Amazon (though it turns out when you do find the help page, the contact us section is bottom left-hand side – it’s not as obvious as you think it is when you’re trying to look for it). We then spent about an hour going through a scripted support process before the case was escalated to Amazon Prime Video’s specialist support team.

The thing is, the LG TV could play the 4K version of Good Omens just fine. Yet the newer Apple TV running Amazon’ s own app couldn’t. Eventually, Amazon managed to fix it, but it left a bit of a bad taste.

And now we have a new Amazon series called The Boys. It’s a very good black comedy about a world where superheroes are vile and managed by a massive agency who look after their PR, which comes in handy whenever collateral damage from a superhero rescue comes into play. It’s an exceptional series, but again, I can’t play it in 4K on the Apple TV.

Here are things I’ve tried:

  • Signed out of Amazon, then signed back in again
  • Restarted the Apple TV
  • Signed out of Amazon, deleted the Amazon Prime Video app, restarted the Apple TV, downloaded the Amazon Prime Video app, and then signed in again
  • Sacrificed a small goat to the tech god, “Sodslaw”
  • Admired the extremely impressive Apple TV 4K screensavers when attempting to escalate the issue with Amazon

The reason I got angry about this in the first place was that the TV app on Apple TV made it clear it was a 4K show. But when you clicked on the link to open it, an error from Amazon’s Prime Video app popped up.

I tried to search for The Boys within the app. No joy. And I tried on the web site – again no joy – until today (one day after the release). I added it to the Watchlist so that I wouldn’t lose it again.

I’ve been in touch with Amazon, and I think they’re escalating this – but they also wanted me to restart my router. I said that I didn’t think that was going to be necessary, but they insisted. And that’s when I lost my temper and left the chat.

Some thoughts:

  • Apple and Amazon need to work more closely together
  • Amazon needs more developers onto the tvOS app
  • Amazon needs better QA testers for the tvOS app

If these so-called “cord-cutting” services are to succeed, they need to work flawlessly across the many platforms that they’re on. And support for these services needs to be beefed up. Streaming is only going to get more complex – especially if 8K is around the corner (my prediction: won’t see anything serious for the next 2-3 years and even then we’ll still be struggling with 4K like we are right now).

I’ve bought hook, line and sinker into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ever since Iron Man was first released back in 2008. And Disney has done exceedingly well with their $4 billion acquisition. Recent profits have suggested they’ve made over $18 billion over the past 11 years.

I’ve generally enjoyed all the films – and watched most of them at the cinema – but time and work usually gets in the way of getting the best cinema experience, so I’ve seen a few at home. I, unfortunately, missed out on Avengers: Endgame – the much-anticipated sequel to Avengers: Infinity Wars which I did see in the cinema. I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers like the plague, and Disney/Marvel has yet to re-release the film in UK cinemas before the UK digital home release on the 19th August (alleged date). It is, of course, available on US digital home release. Disney, an avid tax credits collector when filming in the UK, puts us Brits in second place as they usually do.

I was up in Edinburgh when Marvel was filming Avengers: Infinity Wars.

So it’s kind of made things like the SDCC (San Diego Comic-Con) announcements a massive no-no in terms of news. While I appreciate that distribution windows are set to maximise bums on seats and profits (see my interview with Jane Goldman about this), trying to avoid spoilers in a country with a different release schedule is a massive pain in the arse! Disney can and should do better.

But at least Marvel has released Captain Marvel which helps fill in a few gaps between Avengers: Infinity Wars and Avengers: Endgame. It also introduces us to a young Nick Fury who, up until the events in this film, had never encountered an extraterrestrial before.

Captain Marvel is a fun film – much in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy or even the recent Thor: Ragnarok. And you can’t be mad at a film in which does something very unusual with a lovable feline during the end battle. It’s also a sad film. Stan Lee passed away during editing, so Marvel’s usual opening logo features images of Stan during his regular cameos and some behind the scenes stuff before fading to black with the words centred in the middle of the screen:

THANK YOU STAN

Indeed, thank you, Stan. And thank you, Steve Ditko. And thank you Jack Kirby and all the others that worked with Stan to produce some of the finest characters and storylines in comics history. Without Stan Lee, we wouldn’t have these movies. And speaking more of Stan, he’s here in cameo form albeit during a period in which he was starting to become seriously unwell – sitting on a train and reading the script to Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (in which he has a small, but important role). It’s a lovely nod to both Stan – and indeed Kevin.

Brie Larson makes a marvellous Captain Marvel, and with a sequel announced (it’s been very difficult to ignore SDCC announcements), the universe is in good hands.

What I don’t understand is why so many people – mainly men – that were so bitter towards Captain Marvel (to the extent that Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator) had to step in and remove a substantial number of bitter reviews. I’m definitely seeing a trend in fandom where toxic elements are trying very hard to spoil things for all.

My former employers, MPC, have been busy with the photorealistic version of The Lion King for Disney. And, it seems, the film version of the popular musical, Cats.

I do think, however, that motion capture (or performance capture – whatever you like to call it) is perhaps not the way forward for the film version of Cats. We’ve ending up with some kind of weird cat/human hybrid. A werecat, as it were. A style significantly more unsettling than the original stage performance costumes. Sometimes it’s better to get the audience to rely on their imagination rather than spoon feed the buggers with CG monstrosities.

Now, movies made from stage musicals are a good thing. Going to the cinema is (usually) cheaper than a stage performance. It should get more eyes and ears on the show than you’d normally do in the West End or Broadway. But for me, there have been many stage to film versions which have entirely dismissed the intimacy of the stage and thrown the big book of epic at the film, only to have failed miserably. Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera was a massive disappointment as a film. But it is magnificent on stage.

Given the reactions to the trailer, it’s difficult to say how well the movie version of Cats will be received when it’s released.

The family cat, Lupin, for comparison. He can’t sing. He can’t dance. He doesn’t require a whole team of VFX artists or computers to bring him to life. But he can certainly eat. Lupin: The Movie. Not coming to cinemas near you. Not unless you tempt him with food.

Lupin disapproves of werecats.

Later this month, I’ll be attending a special book launch for the biography of Ronnie Le Drew, a professional puppeteer who has worked extensively in the TV, film and theatre industries.

For my whole life, I’ve always been interested in puppets and puppetry. I grew up with the likes of Zippy, Bungle, and George. Sooty, Sweep and Soo. Rod Hull and Emu. Basil Brush, Roland Rat, and many more besides. The Muppets were a big thing in our household too (if only I could find the photo of me and my cousins sitting around the TV watching The Muppet Show – it was the most 80’s photo you could ever imagine thanks to our tracksuits and furniture coverings).

When I was older, I wanted to work for the Jim Henson Creature Shop helping design and build the computer performance systems that powered some of their most advanced animatronic creations. I didn’t particularly want to be a puppeteer so much, though this photo suggests otherwise:

A Young Blofeld welcomes Mr. Bond whilst petting his vicious Emu
Signed DVD from Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, and also a damn good director)

The irony was that I’d end up working for a visual effects company that would replace traditional puppets with all-CG versions – this was the case for the film Ella Enchanted in which Heston the Snake was originally going to be a practical puppet, but was instead entirely CG (and voiced by Steve Coogan).

But nevertheless, I still love the art of puppetry and the people behind the performance. I’ve already had the great privilege to meet Louise Gold about 20 years ago, who was an active member of Jim Henson’s Muppet performers during the time The Muppet Show was being recorded in England. She’s an extraordinary all-around performer and was most recently seen in Fiddler on the Roof in the West End.

So it’ll be nice to meet Ronnie and fellow fans at the launch of his new book in a few weeks time. I already have a copy of the book in Kindle format, but I’m going to wait a bit before reading because a good book is like a good wine. Best enjoyed slowly.

Zippy and Me: My Life Inside Britain’s Most Infamous Puppet can be pre-ordered via Amazon.co.uk.

Meanwhile, Ronnie’s antics as Zippy can be found in this infamous not-for-public (whoops) video:

And there’s also this 23 minute documentary about Ronnie on his career: