Well, what a month this has turned out to be, as the world lurches from dealing with a nasty microscopic invader to a much larger and more evil one. I’m not remotely qualified to talk about the catastrophe unfolding overseas, but my thoughts are with the Ukrainian people at this unimaginably horrific time, along with all those working to support and defend them, and all the journalists reporting from the area. A lot of courage is being shown out there against the onslaught, supported by unprecedented unity amongst countries around the world, all far greater than Russia had bargained on.
There are many ways to help the Ukrainians, including donations to appeals by the Disasters Emergency Committee, British Red Cross, UNHCR Refugee Agency & United Help Ukraine, along with children’s charities Save The Children, UNICEF & Voices Of Children, as some examples. But it’s also important to find ways to help yourself, your children and others, given that a lot of the news is very distressing. For example, there’s no shame in muting words on Twitter, unsubscribing from news feeds, and generally reducing how often you access the news on TV and online, as I’ve been trying to do. It doesn’t mean you don’t care, it just gives you control over how much you’re exposed to it, so it isn’t too distracting or overwhelming. It’s also great to see that the BBC are making use of shortwave radio and the dark web to make the news available to Ukrainian and Russian civilians who would otherwise be prevented from accessing it.
All of that has completely overshadowed everything else of course, in what was already a busy month for news, with the final Covid restrictions being lifted in England as we cautiously return to relative normality, the excellent gold medal won by Great Britain’s female curlers and the silver won by the men in the Winter Olympics (and good luck to our Winter Paralympians too!), plus the rough weather from Storm Eunice that caused myself and many others to get sucked into a live stream by Big Jet TV, of planes attempting to land at Heathrow, with Jerry Dyer‘s entertaining commentary. There’s certainly been a lot going on!
As for me, however, things have been pretty quiet this month, as expected. I haven’t been to any museums or theatres for a start, but I am getting back into all that stuff in March, where I’ve got quite a lot booked or planned. And I did still go out and about in February. In particular I was delighted to do my first bit of socialising this year, when I met up with a good friend for a meal in Pizza Express and a walk around Regent’s Park. And I’ve had some nice long walks in Central London, ticking several more streets off my map. You can see a few photos of things I saw on my Instagram & Facebook pages, including Westminster Cathedral, the Little Ben clock outside Victoria Station, and nearby sculptures called Lioness and Lesser Kudu & Essential Bonds.
Apart from that though, it’s mainly just a few TV shows and films that I have to mention in this month’s post and video. So this is going to be relatively short, but I hope you enjoy!
I don’t often watch programmes about real-life criminals and fraudsters, but I’ve got drawn into a few this month on Netflix that have all been disturbing yet fascinating, and all have audio description too.
Firstly I saw The Puppet Master: Hunting The Ultimate Conman, which not only sounded interesting and has been very popular, but on a personal level it also has audio description being delivered by my good friend Fern Lulham, in association with IDC. Fern is visually impaired herself, more severely so than me, and has extensive experience with public speaking, radio shows and podcasts, so this new venture into AD is a natural progression for her. And she does an excellent job here, it was wonderful to hear someone I know taking on an important role like this. She’s also described a film called Ailey recently, about renowned dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, though I haven’t seen that.
Anyway, The Puppet Master is a remarkably compelling and rather disturbing mini-series about Robert Hendy-Freegard, who went to extraordinary lengths over long periods of time to seduce, kidnap, imprison and manipulate his victims, even convincing people that he was an MI5 spy. He was able to take full control over every aspect of their lives, isolating them from their families and friends, and stealing all of their money, so they were entirely reliant on him and believed it was the right thing to be with him. And although he was eventually caught and ended up in prison, he was released over a technicality on appeal, and is still out there somewhere now with at least one of his victims, who has been so brainwashed into staying with him.
And these don’t seem to have been gullible targets either. They were everyday, intelligent people, and his psychological manipulation of them was very gradual and calculated, eating away at their uncertainties and suspicions bit by bit. So while sometimes they could have physically left him (but not always), mentally they were entirely trapped by him and fully believed everything about him. It would have been great if the series had explained that side of things in more detail really, as it’s fascinating how he managed to change people as thoroughly as he did, and would elicit even more sympathy for the victims. But we still get a fair sense of how he did it, and it’s incredible how far he pushed them. So it is well worth a watch, even if it makes you feel deeply uncomfortable that someone like that is out there.
After that I saw The Tinder Swindler, another new release that’s been making waves on social media recently. This is a 2-hour film about a convicted fraudster called Simon Leviev (born in Israel as Shimon Hayut), who seduced women in several countries through dating apps and extorted huge amounts of money from them. He pretended to be the son of a billionaire and appeared to live a lavish lifestyle, taking the women on private jets to fancy hotels and spoiling them. But in reality the money he was spending on each woman was being taken from the others he was also seeing. And he was getting that money by pretending that he and his team were being attacked and he needed help to get away from his enemies. So the women were taking out loans and credit cards, which he promised to pay back, but of course he never did.
Looking as an outsider it’s easy to question how the women could be blinded by love so much to fall for that, as all the ‘too good to be true’ signs were blatantly there. It’s very strange to be living a fancy lifestyle and then suddenly asking for thousands of dollars, and if he really were the son of billionaire Lev Avnerovich Leviev (which he isn’t), why couldn’t he get the money he needed from him? Indeed, if he has such a lavish existence, why does he even need to be on dating apps in the first place? The women were certainly taken in by his money as much as Simon as a person, at least to some extent.
But it is impossible to fully understand a situation you’ve never been in, and being deeply in love can severely impair one’s judgement. It’s also apparent from the film that Simon took his time to seduce and groom the women, treating them extremely well for to begin with and constantly sending them loving messages, and he wasn’t asking for money from the outset. And it is satisfying to see one of them getting a bit of revenge at the end, by selling several of his possessions, pocketing the money and getting him arrested. Unfortunately he hasn’t been convicted for all of his deceptions and was only imprisoned for a short period, and his victims are still paying off their debts today. So he’s still out there now, free to continue his activities. But at least he’s been made public in this way so he’s more easily recognised. It is amazing that there are people like that out there.
And then thirdly, as Netflix was naturally recommending other similar shows to me, I saw Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer. This is a 3-part series from 2019 about Luka Magnotta, a twisted and evil murderer who was hunted by a group of nerdy sleuths on the internet after he posted sickening videos of himself killing cats. The two main leaders of that group lead the story-telling in this documentary, describing the efforts they made to track Luka down, and how he was taunting them as he was relishing the attention. Yet their attempts to inform the authorities fell on deaf ears, until student Jun Lin was brutally murdered in a video that Luka also posted online, at which point the police did finally take notice, and we hear a lot about their investigations too. In the final episode there is an additional twist, suggesting that Luka was forced by someone else to commit his evil acts, but that isn’t all it seems either. So it’s very interesting, though it’s still completely unfathomable how a person could be so awful. But, unlike the villains in the other 2 documentaries above, at least he was convicted and is still in prison.
In the world of fictional crime, meanwhile, and also on Netflix, I enjoyed the series Clickbait this month. The story begins with the kidnapping of Nick Brewer, who is forced to appear in an online video holding up a sign saying that he abuses women, with the threat that he will be killed if it reaches 5 million views. But as his family and the police investigate why this has happened to someone they believe to be a perfectly nice guy, an increasingly complex web is unravelled. Each of the 8 episodes takes a close look at one person in particular as the trail of evidence is followed, and there are twists, revelations and cliffhangers throughout. Things are never quite as they seem at first. So I found it very interesting and engaging, it keeps you guessing right up to the finale.
The first film I saw this month was again on Netflix, and was 2021’s Don’t Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio & Jennifer Lawrence, among several other big names. It’s about a couple of astronomers who discover a huge comet heading straight for Earth, that will wipe out pretty much all life on the planet, but they can’t get the government, the media or the public to take it seriously. And even when they finally persuade the President and others to do something about it, the attempts to drive the comet off course are derailed by political and financial greed, while others continue to decry it as fake news. It’s only when the comet becomes visible in the sky to the public at large that the grim realisation hits, but by then it’s too late.
It’s a satirical film, but with a serious message underlying it, as it’s a deliberately accurate reflection of how the world is reacting to climate change, with many people still refusing to believe it’s a major issue despite all the evidence and warnings. As such, it’s had positive feedback from climate scientists, and it’s received nominations for this year’s Oscars, among other accolades.
And I found it reasonably entertaining. It’s not something I’d watch again necessarily, but it’s certainly worth a look. And it doesn’t end when you think it does – there are a couple of additional scenes during and after the credits that are worth sticking around for too.
Meanwhile, over on Amazon, I watched Source Code, a 2011 sci-fi action film. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as army captain Colter Stevens, who is repeatedly sent back into the 8-minute timespan before a train is blown up in a terrorist attack, in order to try and figure out who did it. And it’s a lot of fun. There are some good special effects and the technological concept behind it is nicely imagined, but ultimately the film is about Colter’s character, his increasingly desperate desire to try and change history and save everyone’s lives, and the revelations about why he’s involved in such a mission to begin with. There are also some nice twists along the way, right up to the end. So I enjoyed that.
And also on Amazon I watched See For Me, which was recommended by my friend Claire. It’s a thriller starring visually impaired actress Skyler Davenport as a blind former skier called Sophie who takes up a job of cat-sitting at a big, fancy house. But her life is put in danger when burglars arrive with the aim of breaking into the safe, and they discover that she’s in the building. Using a mobile app called See For Me, which connects blind people to sighted volunteers over video calls (like Be My Eyes in the real world), she is guided in her fight for survival by a gamer called Kelly (played by Jessica Parker Kennedy, who I’ve seen before as Nora West-Allen in The Flash).
And it’s pretty good, with lots of drama and tension. Sophie’s character is very stubborn at first, still struggling to deal with the impact of her disability, so she’s not very likeable to begin with. But as she has to take extreme measures to survive, she realises how important Kelly’s help is to her, and she can’t hide her fear. It’s a nice relationship that develops between the two of them. It’s fun to see a video call assistance app being used in this context as well.
The only gripe I have, rather ironically given the storyline, is that there’s no audio description on the UK release (yet it turns out there is on Amazon’s US site, strangely). I managed alright without it for most of the film, but there’s a lengthy sequence at the end that takes place in the dark, with only pulses of dim red light illuminating things to a very limited degree. So it’s very hard to make out what’s going on, more so than it’s already meant to be for a regular sighted viewer. That aside though, it is a good movie on the whole, and it’s great that there’s a blind actor in the lead role.
The only comedy-related news this month is that I’m being sent some replacement DVDs for the Morecambe & Wise At ITV box set that I bought last year. It transpires that the episodes of their Thames TV series on discs 9-14 have been accidentally deinterlaced, so the quality isn’t as good as it should be. We haven’t got around to watching those episodes yet anyway, so we haven’t looked to see if there’s an error – but given my lack of decent eyesight or technical knowledge, I might not have noticed a fault anyway.
So when I became aware of the reports about the error, I contacted Network, including a screenshot of my Amazon order as proof. And to their credit, they were quick to respond and perfectly happy to send out new discs, which I should receive soon. So if you bought the early editions of their Morecambe & Wise At ITV set, or the smaller collections of their Thames series & Christmas shows, I’d suggest contacting Network with proof of purchase about it.
Beyond that though, I’ve just been enjoying the same shows as always – The Last Leg, QI XL, Would I Lie To You? and 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown (including Sean Lock’s final appearance before his untimely death). And on the radio Mum and I are listening to the new series of Just A Minute as usual.
There’s nothing major to mention on the music front this month really, other than to quickly point out that:
- Madness have generously posted the entire audio of a concert from London’s O2 Arena on Saturday 18 December 2021 for free on their Youtube channel, which is fun to listen to.
- Andy & The Odd Socks, from the BBC children’s show Andy & The Band, have released a single called Planet Rock, from their recent episode of the same name, featuring Queen’s Brian May as the Godfather Of Rock. It’s a fun little episode with a good message for children, and the song’s pretty good too. You can listen to an interview with Brian on the Planet Rock radio station all about it.
And that’s it, I hope you found that interesting as always. Next month I’m going to be very busy, as I’ve booked to see a couple of theatre shows and a variety of museum visits. And some of that stuff is taking place away from London, as I’m taking my first little holiday in 2 years. Nowhere exotic, just a nice little break to get away for a week. So normal service is finally resuming, do stay tuned to hear about my adventures!