“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).

In the I.T. world, the acronym “SSL” means “Secure Sockets Layer” which refers to a protocol that’s used to encrypt content between two endpoints (typically a web browser and a server).

Along comes Amazon Prime Video and this appears (along with many other warnings) relating to their superheroes-gone-bad series, The Boys (which is really rather good, though the critics aren’t as keen as regular folk):

As the Internet has progressed, we now tend to refer to SSL as TLS (“Transport Layer Security”). I reckon it’s only a matter of time before Amazon comes up with their own acronym to describe their content:

TLS – Tender Loving Sex

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).

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:

I had originally written and long and waffly review last week, but I felt it was too nitpicky, but more specifically, too waffly. So I thought I’d try giving it another go.

I’ll start off by saying that alongside Peter Harness’ and Toby Hayne’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Good Omens is one of the most faithful book adaptations I’ve ever come across.

It’s been some time since I last read the book, and indeed, I gave my only copy away a few months ago at Woking Railway Station so that others can enjoy the madcap antics of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley. But as the series progressed, it all came flooding back.

The Good Omens TV mini-series shares a number of people across different Neil and Terry projects. For starters, the director Douglas Mackinnon and executive producer Caroline Skinner have both worked with Neil Gaiman on Doctor Who. Not forgetting David Tennant, of course. Gavin Finney (director of photography) and Rod Brown (executive producer) have worked together across Terry’s previous television adaptations: Hogfather, The Colour of Magic and Going Postal.

Cast-wise, perhaps only a budget afforded by a joint production with BBC Studios could pay for the likes of an all-star cast including Frances McDormand, Nick Offerman, Jon Hamm, Michael McKean, Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Miranda Richardson, Brian Cox, David Morrissey, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Though given how well read Good Omens is with the cast, I’m sure they’d have given up a hefty chunk of their usual salary to appear in the show. Though given Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest man, planning on some major space initiatives, he could afford to pay everybody on this production handsomely – several times over.

But it is the cast which makes this show so much fun to watch. Clearly Michael Sheen and David Tennant are having so much fun playing Aziraphale and Crowley respectively. These two hereditary enemies form a close bond over the many centuries since humanity was kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and are very happy with the status quo of things in the world (occasionally getting involved to help things along a bit). So when the Apocalypse comes a-calling, they’ve got to do something about it. They are the ultimate odd couple.

During their adventures, we come across weird and wonderful characters such as Agnes Nutter, a witch, who has written the world’s only truly accurate book of prophecies, which is inherited by her ancestor Anathema Device who sets out to stop the antichrist. But it turns out everybody has misplaced him. He was supposed to be given to the American Ambassador, but it turns out that the antichrist was given to an ordinary couple who raised him lovingly in a small village near an American airbase. His name is Adam, and on his 10th birthday when he wishes for a dog of his own, hell sends him a hell hound. But as he doesn’t know he is the antichrist, he just wants a small puppy. And the hell hound must obey him. So we see this big, snarling, more-teeth-than-should-be-healthy-for-a-dog, suddenly transform into the world’s cutest puppy.

We meet Newton Pulsifer, a man who loves computers, but every time he goes near one, it breaks. He ends up working for Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, who is absolutely convinced witches still exist and is recruiting people for his army. And it doesn’t require the use of computers.

We also meet the four horsemen of the Apocalypse who have modernised somewhat and now ride motorcycles. Except Pestilence has now retired and has been replaced by Pollution.

All these characters weave in and out of each other in order to find the antichrist and put a stop to the Apocalypse. Aziraphale and Crowley both have to contend with their relevant superiors. There’s a lovely scene in which Hastor, one of the Dukes of Hell, literally gets caught up in a telephone answering machine and is only freed when a cold calling “we understand you have been involved in an accident” agent calls Crowley’s phone. I feel a lot of people will be satisfied how that one plays out.

It’s such a fun show that the 6 hours simply fly by. It does very much feel like a 6-hour film – especially as it’s shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio which is a much wider format than most TV shows (though an increasing number of TV shows are adopting that format – the most noticeable has been the excellent Fleabag).

I must admit I was moved to tears during the last episode. The last 30 minutes were mainly spent snot-filled sobbing. A vital part of good storytelling is making you care enough about the characters. And it wouldn’t be too long before it’s all over. But I was crying mainly because this felt like a very final, long goodbye to the wonderful Sir Terry Pratchett who couldn’t be around to see just how bloody good this all was.

The ending also caught me out. We end on the song, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, performed by Tori Amos, and that’s when the tears started flowing again.

But I can’t be too sad about the ending. Neil Gaiman has a deal with Amazon Studios for more things, and Narrativia, Terry Pratchett/Rhianna Pratchett/Rod Brown/Rob Wilkins production company, has a few projects up their sleeves too.

Good Omens comes highly recommended. Very, very funny, emotionally satisfying, and tremendous fun. TV shows rarely tick all the boxes, but this one absolutely does. I’d highly recommend the 4K version – which requires that you use Amazon Prime Video’s search function. Just do a search for “good omens” and you’ll find it in the search results. If you have a 4K TV, do yourself a favour and watch it in 4K.

(P.S. I would also highly recommend Dirk Magg’s audio adaptation of Good Omens too – available via Audible)