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Television  «
Sleepless in Fulham: Rambling and gambling by David Young
Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Strengths and weaknesses.
Topic: Television

I saw an hour or so of "The Apprentice" on YouTube this week. Until then I can honestly say I'd never felt the slightest curiosity about it, even though the show is very popular with some of my friends. That all changed when I read about a scandal in the press concerning one of the recent candidates on the show and realised that I knew his parents. His name is Michael Sophocles. I won't go into detail about the 'scandal', as having seen his antics on the show, I think it's perhaps the least embarrassing thing about him. It's bad enough that he claimed to be a 'good jewish boy', only to reveal that he no idea what 'kosher' was. It got worse when his aggressive celebration over some minor triumph drew a look of total horror from Alan Sugar's sidekick. To cap it off, he turned into Ricky Gervais when he decided to dance in front of the cameras.

Watching the few clips I found online, I was reminded of what I hate about the job-hunting process in this country. It's the interview process. It's not that I hate interviews personally. I'm actually rather good at them. It's just that I do not think that they are an adequate way of filling vacancies. I've never grasped why so few employers bother to devise a test of the skills required in the job and measure candidates' scores. I got the last formal job I did (night-shift editing) by doing a test that required me to proof-read some documents and précis some long articles. The 'interview' for the job was just a drink in the pub afterwards. It was my score on the test that mattered.

The show does test candidates' abilities across a range of skills. That should be enough. But instead there is also a 'made for TV' bit where he grills people in a group about how they did. Almost invariably they bitch about their colleagues and exaggerate how well they did. Few realise how bad they come across when doing this. Does any of this change Sugar's mind? Well frankly if it does, he's a fool.

Is he all that good a businessman anyway? I don't associate Amstrad with high quality. It's nowhere in the same class as other consumer electronics companies. Its e-mailer device was a joke. As this article points out, Sugar's wealth is mostly .... wait for it ... in property. 

Like most British people whose wealth has increased in the last couple of decades, it's the inflation of asset prices that's propelled him. It's a running joke between myself and 'the Beirut Correspondent' that he would go on Sugar's show and do nothing, before telling Alan Sugar 'I'm doing what you do. I filled in a mortgage application this morning to buy some properties and I'm going to hope they rise in value'.

Reflecting on the show this week, I've come to the realisation that Britain's corporate management is not a source of strength, but a weakness. It's the political stability that this country offers that's held us up so long. All manner of wealthy and successful people have come here because of it. Add to that our relatively flexible labour market and low taxes, and that's it.

Watching "The Apprentice" this week has only confirmed my worst fears about the quality of management in this country. Second rate people hire other second rate people. They get on well in interviews. It's no coincidence that our two greatest comic creations, David Brent and Basil Fawlty, are incompetent bosses. We laugh because it's true.

_ DY at 5:40 PM BST
Updated: Wednesday, 4 June 2008 5:48 PM BST
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Tuesday, 7 August 2007
Not ready for prime time.
Topic: Television

Pete Birks often comments on the poor standard of financial news coverage on British television and radio. I've noticed it too. I've been meaning to tape some of the stuff I see on News 24 and copy it down just to show how bad it is. I had in mind to go on to compare it unfavourably with US business news coverage, where more people own equities and there is a higher level of investment knowledge. I think the British public deserve better.

But are we ready for this? 

I can't see it going down too well on BBC Breakfast Time somehow. For the record I've no idea what this guy is talking about, but I think he wants US interest rates cut.

_ DY at 4:27 PM BST
Updated: Tuesday, 7 August 2007 4:38 PM BST
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Friday, 4 May 2007
Trick or treat?
Topic: Television

Sorry for the infrequent posting lately. I made a decision a few months ago to 'spring clean' my life and eliminate a few things that were annoying me. I stopped playing online poker in January and stopped looking at the Gutshot and Hendon Mob discussion forums in February. Stepped up the physical exercise, lost a lot of weight and started playing much longer hours in live action. I've been a lot happier and more successful, but the blog has suffered a bit as a result.

Derren Brown has a series on Friday nights called Trick or Treat. I didn't see the first one, but I've seen the poker one with Neil Channing, Jeff Duvall, Paul Parker, Nik Persaud and Tony Holden. And I saw another one with a 'trick' involving a dummy. While watching the latter on video this morning, I realised that his 'trick or treat' cards are exactly the same. Turn 'trick' upside down and it shows 'treat' (and vice versa). It means that the 'random choice' made by the applicant is non-existent. Brown makes the choice after the card is selected by choosing whether to turn it over horizontically or vertically. Quite funny once you realise it.

It's things like that which make you wonder though whether Brown does what he claims he does - psychological tricks - or whether it's just standard magic dressed up for a post Paul Daniels era audience. There tends to be only enough room on TV for one famous magician at any time and to break through you need a gimmic ... rude (Daniels), comatose (Blaine) or mind-controller (Brown).

Whatever the case, his show's worth seeing. In one of his shows, he did a trick involving paying for something using blank bits of paper instead of money. The trick worked by having a conversation whilst handing over the 'cash' in which he used the words 'it's fine, take it'. Viewers actually saw the trick fail in one of the three instances shown. It was interesting that this was when he approached a vendor whose English wasn't fluent. For me this supports the idea that what he did there was actually genuine.

I've spoken to all bar one of the professional players selected for the poker show and they all felt that there was something fishy about it.

Channel 4, tonight 10pm

_ DY at 2:23 PM BST
Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007 2:24 PM BST
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Friday, 23 March 2007
Heil Sheard
Topic: Television

A few months ago Pete Birks mentioned on his site that the US actor Richard Belzer had played the same character on six different TV shows. Can that be topped for typecasting? Perhaps so. Check out Britain's own Michael Sheard: 

and try and count the number of times he played Adolf Hitler. I counted five. But if you chuck in Himmler (three times) 'Goering's Double' (on Allo' Allo') and various Kamp Kommendants, U-boat captains, Oberstleutnants and other assorted WW2 Germans, I reckon you can safely say he was even more typecast than Belzer. He was even a German in Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

But he's better known to most of you as Mr Bronson on Grange Hill!

Thursday, 18 January 2007
Jade Goody / Colin and Justin
Topic: Television

I said recently 'I wish all these reality shows and elimination contests would go away. I can't believe that people aren't already sick of them.' They won't go away soon, but I'm hoping that the bust-up on Big Brother could mean that I will soon no longer have to see any more of Jade Goody. I'm sick and tired of seeing her face on magazine covers every time I pay for something at the supermarket. Please, please, let this be the end of her so-called career.

Until now she's served a useful role in informing the educated public of just how ignorant many people are in this country. Jade can't plead poverty. She's been rich for several years. She could have used her money to educate herself and become a more rounded individual. She doesn't do this, because she doesn't care. She has no way of understanding someone like Shilpa Shetty, but also has no understanding of her own country's culture either. To do so would require her to make an effort to think about someone other than herself. Jade is a product of a leisure society, where only short-term gratification matters.

Separately, I'm recommending that you all watch tonight's 'Colin and Justin on the Estate', Channel 5 at 8pm. I don't watch property renovation programmes as a rule and generally hold them in the same contempt as 'reality TV', but last week I caught this while staying at my sister's house and was quickly grabbed by the theme. I've no interest in shows about how someone with a budget of £250,000 is going to buy a place in the South of France and spend another £20,000 turning in into their own palace. I don't care. But this show is something different altogether.

Instead of decorating the homes of the rich, Colin and Justin have taken on the task of improving the quality of life on an estate in Glasgow. Perhaps I'm taken by this because I was born there. I won't pretend I was raised in the Gorbals, but I do recall seeing the less pleasant estates as a child because my mother was a GP and did house calls to the homebound sick. People in the south-east of England today can't imagine what it was like in some of those places in the 70s. You would see houses that had been sheared in half mid way through demolition, sometimes with furniture left in. It looked like a doll's house opened up. The word "bleak" hardly begins to apply.

What makes Colin and Justin's task hard isn't just that the Arden Estate is so desolate, nor that they have very little money to improve it with. The real problem is that there is a reason why the place is so wrecked. In last week's episode it didn't look as though they were going to tackle it, but in the final minutes we saw highlights of the next week's show (tonight's) where at last they tackle the 'elephant in the room' that nobody was talking about before - that it's the young kids on the estate who are destoying it. We saw C&J confronting the young vandals and even giving them a taste of their own medicine by vandalising their property in return. I can't wait to see how it pans out. At last a 'property porn' show is tackling a social issue. I hope they make the most of it.

Monday, 8 January 2007
Come friendly bombs ...
Topic: Television

Recently Peter Birks mentioned a game called 'humiliation' on his blog. The idea is that a group of people tell each other what films they haven't seen. You get a point for every person who's seen a film that you haven't. So if you've never seen 'The Godfather' or 'The Great Escape' you should score well. I wouldn't do well at the game, as I've seen most of the classics. I might pick up some points for not having seen 'The Lion King' or 'Shrek', but that's about it.

I might do better if there were a television version. I'm proud to say that last year I didn't watch a full minute of 'The X Factor', 'Strictly Come Dancing' or 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here'. The latter did interest me as a betting medium a few years ago, but I can't be bothered to put the hours in any more. I wish all these reality shows and elimination contests would go away. I can't believe that people aren't already sick of them. I did watch the new intake of so-called celebrities into the Big Brother household last week, but that was by chance. Having caught it while scanning the channels, I stayed on to see whether there were any figures I would find interesting from the world of politics or current affairs. I was stunned when they got George Galloway last year and part of me hoped that Tony Benn might have walked down the red carpet this year, but it was not to be. The selection they've got this time is dismal in the extreme. The subsequent arrival of Jade Goody suggests that the format has been stretched to the absolute limit. Thank heavens for ABC1. I don't think I could have survived last year without regular viewings of 'Scrubs' and 'Less than Perfect'. I seen most of them now but I would still rather watch an episode I've seen before than any of the current 'reality' shows.

The emptiness of so much contemporary TV does bring me down. I don't mind it being explicit or suggestive. I'm not Mary Whitehouse. It's the 'look at me' narcissism of people who do absolutely nothing and haven't a thought in their head that bothers me. I often used to wonder what some of Britain's religious minority communities thought of the culture of the majority population when they see Big Brother contestants, most of whom are barely even cretins, unable to hold conversations about anything other than themselves. I got the chance to find out last year while talking to some young veiled and headscarved muslim women I met at the university where I'm taking night classes (a subject for another time). Contrary to what you might think, they were very articulate. They clearly found being muslim very exciting and so I tried to see things from their point of view and asked a leading question:

'I guess then when you look at things like Big Brother, you must think that western society is pretty empty'.

I've never seen someone nod so hard. So with that in mind, what would they make of this programme description? It's something I copied down from the info page on Freeview:

 'The Ashlee Simpson Show'

Jessica Simpson's younger sister Ashlee sets out to become a pop star. Ashlee's friends surprise her with a cake on her 20th birthday. She also decides on a haircut.

Betjeman's take on Slough springs to mind. I don't want you to think that these ladies support violence. They don't. But others from religious backgrounds do and it's not always foreign policy that motivates them. The human soul does from time to time feel the need for something to inspire it. The emptiness of much of modern culture instead leaves a void for extremists to fill.

_ DY at 1:04 AM GMT
Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007 1:11 AM GMT
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Sunday, 22 October 2006
Birks was wrong shocker!
Topic: Television

SPOILER WARNING. If you've taped last night's Prime Suspect and haven't yet watched it, stop reading now.

I was delighted to see Peter Birks proved wrong last night. Not because I've got some desire to see him look bad, but because if he'd been right about what he wrote earlier this week then it would have meant that he'd spoiled the second half of Prime Suspect for me. Essentially Peter stated that if you're watching a whodunnit mystery and one actor is more famous than the others, then it's him. That didn't bode well for Prime Suspect, as one of the suspects was played by a famous actor, while the others were total unknowns. Mercifully the producers managed to avoid that trap and my two hours weren't totally wasted.

Friday, 28 July 2006
Night time quiz shows.
Topic: Television

I'm astonished that I haven't seen much media comment on the new breed of night-time call-in quiz shows on TV, which offer substantial prizes in return for charging callers premium rates. Today I watched one for a few minutes in which viewers were presented with this:

"Fourteen plus six times three minus two"

along with the instruction 'Add all the numbers'.

I only watched because the presenter said that he would reveal the correct answer at 1am if nobody got it. And indeed nobody did. When he then ripped open the envelope it said 4642.

Do you of you who have jobs and office air-conditioning have the time or energy to work out how on earth this figure is derived? When I was at school I was taught the acronym 'Bodmas' - standing for 'brackets, of, division, multiplication, addition and subtraction' as being the correct way of calculating numerical expressions. But that doesn't exactly help here.

Meanwhile, does anyone know why these shows have only appeared in the last year? Has there been a change in the law or was it always legal but nobody thought of it until now? I'm all for gambling liberalisation. But it should always come with transparency. There is nothing transparent about the way that these shows are done. For a start we don't know how the right answers are derived and we don't even know that any winners aren't people connected to the companies producing the shows.

Wednesday, 7 June 2006
Last night's TV - Britain's biggest spenders.
Topic: Television
Did anyone else catch last night's ITV show 'Britain's Biggest Spenders'? It's not the sort of thing I normally watch. For a start, I hardly ever watch ITV. But having chanced upon it, I was glued to the set. Rarely have I seen anything so cringe-making.

The show revolved around four 'big spenders', three female, one male. The man was had some sort of background in fitness and now speculates in property. Of the women, one had married rich (and divorced), one was a music publisher and one was a lap-dancer living far beyond her means and #80,000 in debt.

If you wanted an exercise in demonstrating the utter vacuity of the lifestyles of the rich (and wannabe rich) in Britain today, this show was hard to beat. The only likable person was the music publisher, who had led an interesting life and worked for her money. She also attends charity auctions and buys things at them. I had no problem with her.

But the others? Yuk!

The rich divorcee was pleasant enough, but seemed to think she was still 20 years old, despite being in her 40s. She spends money on pampering herself in salons, clothes, boats, parties and second/third homes. Everything was about show rather than substance. I actually felt sad for her that she had no interests to invest in.

The lap-dancer was an average looking 31-year old, who was tragically under the impression that she was amazingly attractive. She drives around in a flash car, licence plate S4UCY (or something similar). She gets a 'buzz' out of shopping online and we were shown a scene of her greeting the delivery man one day and getting hyper unwrapping the junk she had bought. As soon as she'd opened everything, the high was gone and she was back to feeling flat again. Hitherto unable to admit to her parents that she was mired in debt, she decided that it was time to confont her mother about it. Obviously the way to do this was by flying herself and her mother to New York and breaking the bad news at the end of a shopping holiday.

The programme made clear that she had gone broke before when she was young. It was obvious that she was planning to declare bankruptcy again. She expressed a tiny amount of remorse for it, but not much. She was only concerned about what her parents would think of her. The fact that she was about to stiff the banks for a second time and that behaviour like hers makes it harder for sensible people to get cheap credit hadn't occurred to her.

But for sheer incredulity, nothing beat the man. For a start, he just looked bizarre. His skin was a permatan orange. His face was swollen and he looked ridiculous with his overdeveloped muscles in the tight suits that he wore. Things didn't get better when he opened his mouth. Despite supposedly having everything that he wanted, he was tragically insecure. At every opportunity he had to show off - showing us the growth hormones he injects every day that he thinks will make him life to 130, the botox injections he takes three times a year to avoid wrinkles, explaining that he only wears underwear two or three times before throwing them away because he wants to feel fresh. Most oddly was his determination to show that he was a 'player', despite it not always being clear what it meant in the context in which he used it.

Not content with buying a big house in southern Spain, he had to get 'No.1' ingraved in marble on the floor in the hall. He bought a village in Bulgaria and planned to rename it after himself. He seemed completely unaware that this might be considered an insult to the poor people who have to live in his town.

All of this makes me uneasy. I'm an odd mixture in some ways, fiercely capitalistic, but not especially materialistic. I recently looked at some pictures of me taken in 1991 and realised that I still wear some of the clothes I had then! I believe strongly in the virtues of private wealth creation and fully accept the inequalities they produce. But I'm often baffled by what people chose to spend their wealth on. None of the people we saw seemed to have any interest in using their wealth to expand their knowledge and understanding of the world. None seemed interested in anything other than what others thought of them. For me, money is desirable because it buys you time and space. You don't have to work at something you don't enjoy. You can live somewhere that's convenient to you.

To spend your whole life trying to get others' attention seems as much of a dreary grind as anything I did when I worked.

Friday, 12 May 2006
Some thoughts on Television
Topic: Television
Utility is non-linear.

'Deal or No Deal' has been a surprise hit. It's such a remarkably simple idea that it's a surprise it hadn't been done before. I've watched bits of it and to be fair, although I know it's drivel, it has held my attention for 15 minutes or so, which isn't bad.

As a gambler, what interests me is how people decide whether to deal or not. Most people are very risk-averse from what I've seen. For instance in the repeat I just saw today, a woman faced five boxes with a combined total worth of #61k. So her 'equity' was just under #12k. She took a deal at #6,125.

Should she be criticised for this? I think many people would take a deal that was below their equity. In fact, I reckon that the show should be retitled to refect that. I propose 'Utility is non-linear'. Catchy isn't it?

It's obviously the case that your happiness would increase more if your net worth rose from nothing to #1m than if it rose from #1m to #2m. But where do we draw the line? What would influence us? I think that the presence of a live audience makes people take poor deals. I think some people are afraid of looking stupid and walking away with 10p after being offered #6k.

"If it's 9.30, then that's not the disease".

I'm a big fan of the medical drama House on Channel Five, Thursday nights. Hugh Laurie is brilliant as the misanthropic doctor - a truly inspired piece of casting. Having made his living playing stupid English men, who would have thought of having him as an intelligent American? Not me, that's for sure.

But much as a I love the show, it has a big flaw that is common to other "detective" stories. You know that the solution will only be discovered three minutes before the end of the show. So when it looks like the patient is only suffering from a simple lung infection and a course of antibiotics will do the trick, you can be absolutely sure he'll convulse on the floor with a bleeding foot fifteen seconds later.

I first noticed this problem when I used to watch WWF wrestling years ago when Dominic shared the flat with me. We could tell that the main event wasn't over by looking at the clock. So the fact that The Undertaker was pinning Val Venus to the canvas at 11.51pm meant absolutely nothing. There was at least 6 minutes left to go. I found there was more suspense when we taped the show and watched it the next day. I'm not sure how that works for House, Morse, Prime Suspect etc. Probably best to watch a tape of it and cover up all the clocks in the room.

Team Poker

I was idly scanning the channels a couple of nights ago when I suddenly realised that I was watching John Kabbaj's wife playing poker. It was part of some dire 'team' poker show. It was such crap that I'm not going to bother looking up its name. Apart from the obvious fact that poker is not a team event, I hated it anyway. In the Russia vs Ireland heat that I was watching, they had given the Russians red shirts to wear ... with the Hammer and Sickle embossed over the chest!

The Soviet Union was disbanded in 1991. Has nobody told Sky this? I felt genuinely embarrassed for the Russians. Some of them may have lost family members to the salt mines of Siberia or the famines of the early 20th century. Will they give the Germans swastikas to wear?

_ DY at 7:31 PM BST
Updated: Friday, 12 May 2006 7:35 PM BST
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Monday, 20 March 2006
Does TV have all the best writers?
Topic: Television
I wasted two hours of my life last night watching the third movie in the 'Matrix' trilogy. Don't ask me what it was about. I've really no idea, as it was so boring my mind wandered throughout most of the action. I thought the first of the series was excellent, as it had some novel ideas. It's a shame they didn't end it there.

So many film makers seem to think that special effects can make up for a lack of ideas. They can't. I've been lent some great lower budget films by my flatmate recently and found them far more satisfying. Do see 'Max' (John Cusack and Noah Taylor), 'Nine Queens' (Argentinian) and 'Bullet Boy' (low budget British film, set in Hackney). You won't be in a rush back to the cinema again. When you don't have the budget for special effects, you're forced to think of interesting plots.

All the best writing seems to be in television now. Last year I went to Blockbusters and my local lending library several times and found myself ignoring most of the films there. Instead I rented Series 1-5 of the 'West Wing', 'The Jewel in the Crown' and Season 1 of '24'. I've also enjoyed 'House', 'CSI' and 'Desperate Housewives' on TV. Unlike today's movies they aren't aimed at teenagers or naive social activists.

When looking at a list of the films nominated for the Oscars this year, I realised that I had only seen one of them: the Wallace and Gromit film! I'm mildly interested in seeing 'Capote', as Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent in almost everything he does. But I've little or no desire to see the issue films of George Clooney, as I don't want to be subjected to their biased point of view. On the subject of which, full marks to my sister for walking out of 'The Constant Gardnener' due to its anti-corporate bias. I've never walked out of a film before the end, but have great respect for those who do.

_ DY at 4:49 PM GMT
Updated: Monday, 20 March 2006 4:51 PM GMT
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Wednesday, 23 November 2005
Broken news, Property Ladder and Dispatches.
Topic: Television
Caught a new show on Monday night called 'Broken News'. I highly recommend it. It consists of a series of spoof news programmes and the effect is to create the feeling that you're surfing through all the rolling news channels on digital television. It was utterly hilarious throughout. I hope that it stays this good.

I also watched Property Ladder. The show itself is made quite well, but I despise the very concept of a 'property ladder': the idea that everyone can get rich by developing properties. Perhaps that's because I missed out on the great boom from the mid 90s to a few years ago. Am I the only person who watches the show hoping to see people go broke? The plethora of property development programmes on the box at the moment screams at me as a classic sign of a peak, rather like the moment when the elevator boy is giving you stock market tips. Many of the people on the show go over budget and still make money because they have blundered into a rising market. This can't go on, surely?

Indeed, has it already stopped? I recently went to a charity dinner and was seated next to a letting agent. She told me that she was having to turn away many people who'd bought and tidied up something to let and were desperate for her to find a tenant to cover the outlay. When she confronted them with the harsh reality that the market wouldn't bear the sort of rents they expected, some would stamp their feet, scream and even cry. She blamed programmes like Property Ladder for creating unrealistic expectations.

Lastly I watched Peter Oborne's Dispatches documentary from Iraq. I will address this in a separate piece later this week. My inital feeling was that it lacked perspective.

Sunday, 16 January 2005
Reasons to love the internet, continued.
Topic: Television
In my latest piece for Gutshot I mentioned the Six Million Dollar Man, which for the benefit of any reader under 30, was an action hero TV adventure series in the mid-seventies. If you were a child, as I was, it was pure delight.

I always had a faint recollection from that time that at one point the hero met someone called 'The Seven Million Dollar Man' in one episode. But as he was never mentioned again, I began to wonder whether I had imagined the whole thing. I've just looked for it on Google and found that lo and behold, there was such a character who appeared in one episode only. Years of self-doubt have just been erased. Oh joy!

Separately, sorry for the long break. I was planning to research the history of Indonesia but the topic bores me now. I will return to it if I can summon the energy.

_ DY at 1:18 PM GMT
Updated: Tuesday, 18 January 2005 8:31 PM GMT
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Wednesday, 24 November 2004
The Sex Inspectors.
Topic: Television
I took a break from online poker last night to watch a little television and caught a new ground-breaking show from Channel 4 called 'The Sex Inspectors'. It was certainly something novel. I don't think television has ever been quite so intrusive in the private lives of members of the public and something about it fascinated me. In yesterday's episode, a young woman in a long-term relationship revealed that she'd never achieved orgasm through penetrative sex. Prior to appearing in the show, she had misled her partner for 18 months before telling him the truth and was now vexed by her continued inability to climax.

In order to assist her, the programme makers installed television cameras in the house. Two 'Sex experts', one male and one female (the ubiquitous Tracey Cox) then watched them having sex. Viewers were able to see some of this footage too, with little left to the imagination. After viewing it, Cox was full of advice for both of them, telling the male half of the partnership that his foreplay technique was impaired by his 'big rough hands'. To remedy this, she took him to Body Shop to buy some oil to make his hands smoother and whilst there demonstrated the appropriate level of touch with which to caress his partner. The female half was given suggestions in how to get used to having her man in the room when she masturbated.

Did I mention that something fascinated me about this? Oh yes I did. Well it's this: although the show was no doubt highly educational and informative, I couldn't help being distracted by the fact that viewers were shown the couple closing the curtains of their house before they went to bed. It reminded me of the question that Alan Abraham has often asked me at the poker table: 'Why did Kamikaze pilots wear crash helmets?'

_ DY at 2:51 AM GMT
Updated: Thursday, 25 November 2004 12:04 AM GMT
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