Saturday, November 21, 2015

A cowboy entertains in the Wairarapa

I first came across the name John Egenes in 2013, when I reviewed New Zealand country singer-songwriter Donna Deans’ superb album Tyre Tracks and Broken Hearts. While it was indubitably Deans’ album, Egenes’ fingerprints were all over it too. He not only produced it but wrote one of the songs, played several backing instruments (acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, dobro and mandolin) and sang harmony vocals. It turned out that Egenes, who hails from Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a former session musician who now works as a lecturer in contemporary music at the University of Otago.
And there’s a lot more to him than that. Performing last night at the Wairarapa home of Simon Burt and Pip Steele, Egenes revealed a genuine cowboy pedigree. In a former life he worked as a horse trainer and, as a young man, rode a quarter-horse coast-to-coast from California to Virginia. He attends cowboy gatherings in places like Montana (we’re talking real cowboys here, not the kind who are all hat and no horse), has friends on the rodeo circuit and recites cowboy poems. He’s also well-connected in country music circles, casually dropping illustrious names such as Townes van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. Oh, and he’s a skilled leather worker who makes saddles and carved the beautiful leather cover wrapped around one of the two acoustic guitars he played at last night’s house concert.

Egenes (it’s a Norwegian name, pronounced, as closely as I can approximate it, as eggerness) mostly sings his own songs, accompanying himself with a deft, fluid guitar style that melds traditional Merle Travis-style country picking with a Delta-ish bluesy vibe. They’re charming, laconic, often whimsical songs – many of them ostensibly about cowboys and horses, but with a bit of philosophical depth and sometimes a satirical bite as well. He covers other people’s songs too. His set last night included a laid-back, almost Calypso-ish reworking of the rock and roll standard Sea Cruise – Frankie Ford would hardly have recognised it – and a mellow rendering of the lovely Prairie Lullaby, a song originally popularised in 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers. And while Egenes left his mandolin and pedal steel guitar in Dunedin, he demonstrated the breadth of his skills by playing banjo on several songs; not in a flashy way but in the plain, affecting style that might once have been heard on warm evenings on an Arkansas cotton-picker’s front porch.
This was the last of this year’s series of house concerts hosted by Simon and Pip. They’ve now been going for five years (I wrote about the first one here) and have established a loyal following. Simon has a knack for finding little-known acts worthy of wider exposure, and Egenes (who has recorded several CDs) is no exception.

Friday, November 20, 2015

We don't know how lucky we are

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 18.)
I spent much of the weekend mowing lawns and raking up leaves and other garden debris that had accumulated while my wife and I were on holiday in the United States. The only thing disturbing the peace – that is, once I’d turned the mower off – was the barking of a neighbour’s dog.
Meanwhile, a world away, the residents of Paris were locked indoors, reluctant to venture outside for fear of another terrorist attack. There could hardly have been a more striking reminder of how blessed we are, living in this remote and serene corner of the globe.

We can only hope that people who migrate to New Zealand value and respect the fact that ours is a liberal, humane, inclusive and relatively safe society, and that they commit themselves to helping keep it that way. After all, it’s presumably a key reason why they come here.
Not that we can afford to be smug. We are part of a connected, global society and it’s impossible not to share the anguish and anxiety that the people of France are going through right now. Neither can we disconnect ourselves from international efforts to confront and conquer the menace that is Islamist terrorism.

The Islamic State is a uniquely challenging adversary, especially given that its followers appear to have no fear of death – in fact, embrace the prospect of martyrdom. But the fight against them is our fight too.
The Islamist assault on liberal democratic values – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, women’s equality, the rights of minorities generally – is a threat to us all. We can’t pretend it’s not our concern simply because it hasn’t (yet) directly affected us.

Recent events have sharpened my awareness of other things besides our comfortable isolation in the southwest Pacific. Four weeks in the US reminded me once again how insignificant we are in world affairs.
I heard New Zealand mentioned once in the news media. That was when I was listening to National Public Radio late at night and heard a BBC news bulletin that referred briefly to the pending Rugby World Cup final between the All Blacks and Australia.

Small reminders of home intruded on us in unexpected, random ways. In Boston’s North Side, my wife spied a delivery man wheeling a trolley laden with Yealands Estate wine from Marlborough.
In the same city, I heard Weather With You by Crowded House being played as the background to a radio weather forecast. And twice in public places we heard Lorde’s hit song Royals – once in a Subway outlet in the small town of Tejon, in California’s Central Valley, and again in the same state when we were eating halibut and chips on the deck of a seaside cafĂ© at Morro Bay (a charming spot, by the way).

People have asked me whether the RWC got any coverage in the US media. Fat chance. Rugby may be the fastest-growing sport in America (albeit off a very low base), but the media were interested only in American football, basketball and baseball.
Even universal sports such as golf and tennis rated barely a mention amid the swathes of coverage devoted to domestic sport, including college (i.e. university) football, which has a huge following. In most of the bars we drank in, massive TV screens were permanently tuned to sports channels showing the three popular codes.

(I love American bars all the same. I like the way people sit at the bar and strike up conversations with their neighbours. And American beer is superb. Thanks to the craft beer revolution, the days when the only options were ghastly mass-produced beers such as Miller and Budweiser – the beers they serve in Hell – are now but a grim memory.)
Americans are equally parochial when it comes to general news. Only the most sensational international events, such as the explosion that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, elbowed their way into news bulletins. Mostly it was wall-to-wall coverage of the race for the presidency, with endless commentary and analysis of the main contenders.

I was reminded of a comment I heard years ago from a New Zealand educationist who had lived for several years in the US. Many Americans had no interest in the outside world, he said, because America was their world. 
This view is supported by passport statistics. As recently as 1989, only 3 per cent of Americans held passports, although the number has increased greatly over the past 20 years (it’s now closer to 40 per cent, compared to roughly 75 per cent for New Zealanders).

New Zealanders are certainly far more aware than Americans of the outside world. We have to be, because we’re at its mercy in a way bigger, more powerful countries are not.
Our isolation makes us compulsive travellers, hungry for experience of other places. Yet our concerns are often just as parochial as those of the Americans.

After four weeks away, my wife and I returned to a country that was still agonising over the same issue that dominated political debate when we left: the incarceration of people who are technically New Zealand citizens (although they regard themselves as Australians, in many cases having been brought up there) in what Peter Dunne rightly labelled concentration camps.
Australia’s treatment of New Zealand detainees is a disgrace, to be sure, and provides further proof that the supposed Anzac bond is a fallacy. It also demonstrates that by comparison with ours, Australia's penal and judicial processes are harsh and vindictive. They learned well from their former colonial masters.

But to put things in perspective, on a scale of one to 10 Australia's treatment of detainees is a two, or at most a three, compared with what the French were subjected to last weekend.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Questions that demand answers

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 13.)
Urgent questions for our times – the latest in an occasional series:
■ So why do bureaucrats and academics now begin every statement with the word “so”?

■ Four and a half million New Zealanders, four and a half million opinions on the flag?
■ Is it true Wellingtonians are prone to panic attacks if there are no cafes within sight?

■ Why do highly paid government department CEOs (Ray Smith of Corrections, for instance) refuse to be interviewed on current affairs programmes? Shouldn’t it be written into their job description?
■ How hard would it be to pass a law requiring soft drink manufacturers to place a simple symbol on cans and bottles showing how many teaspoonfuls of sugar they contain?

■ Police keep urging us to “drive to the conditions”. So where are they?
■ According to the “One News Now” promotional campaign, we need our news instantaneously. But which is more important – immediacy, or accuracy and depth?

■ Why are there so few women surgeons?
■ Could the answer to the previous question have anything to do with the attitudes of some male surgeons?

Go Set a Watchman – a contender for the 10 worst book titles of all time?
■ Why do smoke alarm batteries wait until the early hours of the morning before announcing that they’re running low?

■ Had enough of the haka?
■ Remember the days when it was touch and go whether your car (usually British) would start in the morning?

■ Are “devices” taking over your life?
■ Why do sports reporters refer to someone winning a “famous” victory only moments after it happened? Doesn’t it take time for something to become famous?

■ Fed up with pointless stickers plastered on every piece of fruit you buy?
■ Why are there so few women chess players?

■ Time to ease off on that hackneyed phrase “the perfect storm”?
■ State houses haven’t changed. The weather hasn’t changed. So how is it that people who live in state houses are suddenly getting sick, supposedly because of mould?

■ Saint Dave Dobbyn?
■ Shouldn’t someone point out to Winston Peters that addressing opponents in parliament as “Sunshine” – presumably channelling Jack Regan of The Sweeney – is just a bit 1970s?

■ Given up trying to keep pace with technology?
■ Solid Energy goes belly-up, at enormous cost in money and lost jobs, and the men who presided over its collapse walk away unscathed – something wrong here?

■ Why are there so few women orchestra conductors?
■ When did photographs become “images”?

■ Big men endlessly lumbering back and forth from one end of a court to another – is there any sport less interesting than basketball?
■ Are there any sociologists who aren’t Marxist?

■ Isn’t it time we dispensed with the tired (and just plain wrong) cliche that it’s every New Zealand boy’s dream to become an All Black?
■ Why do radio and TV interviewers insist on straight “yes” or “no” answers when there may be none?

■ When did we start calling lessons “learnings”?
■ Do people with British accents not see the irony in phoning talkback shows to complain about the number of immigrants?

■ Saint Don McGlashan?
■ Graham Capill, Brian Tamaki, Colin Craig – is there some immutable law that says leaders of socially conservative political parties and pressure groups have to be a bit creepy?

■ That term "social media" – shouldn’t it really be anti-social media?
■ What did New Zealand do to deserve Phil Rudd?

■ When did we start being bored “of” things, rather than with them?
■ Do we make far too much fuss of our poets? I mean, how many people actually read them?

■ Where is this place called New Zelland that John Key keeps talking about?
■ Why do so many left-wing crusaders – Jane Kelsey, John Minto, Professor Doug Sellman – have a desperate, haunted look? Is it because they carry the terrible burden of having to save the world from itself?

■ Is Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy a bit thick, or is that just the impression he gives?
■ Saint Nigel Latta?

■ What does it mean, exactly, when newsreaders say a journalist is “across” the story?
■ In American movies about men suffering a mid-life crisis, why does the main character always drive a Volvo?

■ Why does ACT MP David Seymour keep wearing his little brother’s suits?
■ How do you feel about being described not as a reader, viewer or listener, but as a “consumer of content”?

■ Exactly when did we start pronouncing route to rhyme with out?
■ Would you want Julian Assange as a house guest?

■ Whittaker’s Chocolate has nearly half a million Facebook followers. Why?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The enigma that is American politics

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 4.)
As you read this, I’m in the United States. It’s a country I’ve visited several times, but it remains an enigma to me.
The people I meet here are friendly, courteous and helpful. I see no trace of the crazy America that we read about in the headlines: the mass shootings, the religious fundamentalism, the overheated patriotism, the rabid political views, the nasty outbursts of apparently racist police violence. I find it hard to reconcile these with the Americans I encounter.

It’s a country of extremes, which is probably inevitable given its turbulent history, diverse populace and tradition of rambunctious individualism. But in between those extremes, there’s a vast mass of ordinary people just trying to get on with their lives – people whose values are not so different from our own.
There’s another striking aspect of the American enigma that’s very much on display right now: its politicians.

This is a dynamic country full of clever, energetic, creative people. Even people who profess to despise America devour its culture.
We read American books, listen to American music, watch American films and television, wear American-inspired clothes, are kept alive by American drugs and rely on American technology. There’s hardly a place on earth that isn’t influenced in some way by America.

So, given the incredibly rich human resources with which it’s blessed, how is it that we see such a dispiriting line-up of candidates for the presidency?
Surely in a nation of 320 million people – the country that accomplished the most audacious feat in history by putting man on the moon – it must be possible to find more inspiring candidates than those whom American voters are currently considering for elevation to the most powerful political office on earth?

The highest-profile Republican contender is a braying braggart with a frighteningly simplistic, one-dimensional world view. If we thought George W Bush was a monstrous practical joke, a President Donald Trump would be an even more tragic mistake.
His pitch for the support of American voters seems to depend on two things. One is his sneering criticism of the other Republican contenders; the other is his reputation as a man untouched by political correctness. In the absence of any coherent policy or vision, these are not convincing credentials for the White House.

What of the leading Democratic contender, then?
Hillary Clinton is the polar opposite of Trump, and not just in ideological terms. While he plays up his status as a maverick, untainted by connections with the Washington establishment, Clinton is the consummate political insider.

She’s capable, intelligent and a seasoned schmoozer. She has a track record as Secretary of State and happens to be one half of the world’s most famous power couple.
Her performance in TV debates, and under the blow torch during a gruelling 11-hour congressional hearing into American deaths in a terrorist attack for which her Republican rivals held her responsible (rather unreasonably, it seems to me), has been polished and assured. She gives the impression she would make a tougher and more decisive president than Barack Obama.

But she has a few skeletons rattling around in her closet and opinion polls suggest many Americans don’t trust her. Besides, the Clintons, like the Bushes, have had their time in the White House. 
Trump and Clinton aside, there’s a supporting cast of lesser presidential hopefuls, consisting of the usual ragtag collection of egotists, misfits, no-hopers and fumblers – proof that ambition and overweening self-confidence can take you a long way in American politics even when there’s a gaping ability deficit.

American TV satirists are never short of material, least of all at election time. Some contenders for the White House seem unprepared for questions on even the most basic policy issues.
You could call this the Sarah Palin Effect. The Republican nominee for vice-president in the 2008 election had never travelled outside America until 2007 and, when questioned, couldn’t name a single newspaper or magazine that she regularly read. This presumably inspired her fellow Americans with the realisation that anyone could run for high office.

It wasn’t always like this. American politics once resounded with soaring, visionary rhetoric.
Consider the speeches of John F Kennedy, bits of which are still routinely quoted more than 50 years after he died. Kennedy may have been a shameless libertine – a man whose alley-cat personal morality was sharply at odds with his virtuous public image – but he knew how to inspire his fellow Americans with words that created a sense of hope and opportunity.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the greatest US president of the 20th century, had a similar gift. His “fireside chats”, broadcast over the radio, reached into millions of homes and helped carry America through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Like Kennedy, Roosevelt never talked down to his audience. He spoke eloquently, even loftily, confident that his audience would get his message – and they did.

Somewhere along the line, America has mislaid this element of its political culture. I was reminded of this watching a recent documentary film called The Best of Enemies, which recalled a famous series of cerebral 1968 television debates between the American intellectuals Gore Vidal, on the left, and William F Buckley Jr on the right.
Both the protagonists struck me as thoroughly obnoxious, but the debates, broadcast to coincide with the Democratic and Republican national conventions, fizzed and sparked with vicious but sophisticated humour.

Broadcast in prime time on the ABC network during the presidential primaries, the debates were a surprise ratings hit. It would never happen today – a risk-averse media would dismiss the concept as too highbrow. And even more sadly, the same is true in New Zealand.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Following in the footsteps of Walsh, Skinner and Knox

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 30.)

By now Richard Wagstaff should be settling into his new job as president of the Council of Trade Unions.

He’ll be very conscious of the legacy he’s inherited. His predecessors include Fintan Patrick Walsh, Sir Tom Skinner, Jim Knox and Ken Douglas.

Walsh was the closest New Zealand has come to an American-style labour boss, feared and hated in equal measure.

Skinner was a moderate and a shrewd pragmatist, regarded with suspicion by some of his union brethren for doing deals with National cabinet ministers late at night over a bottle of Scotch.

Knox was a gruff but likeable old-style blue-collar battler, a veteran of the 1951 waterfront confrontation who took over what was then the Federation of Labour at a turbulent time when the ground was rapidly shifting under his feet – sometimes too rapidly for him to keep up.

Douglas, who remains active in public life as a Porirua city councillor, was an avowed Marxist who had the misfortune to preside over a movement that was fracturing under the strain of change, and who was accused – unfairly, I believe – of selling out in his efforts to hold things together.

Each was a household name in his day, and a power in the land. Wagstaff is neither, and has little chance of becoming one unless things change radically.

He takes over the leadership of a union movement greatly weakened by economic upheaval and labour law reform, but in many ways also greatly improved.

In the days of compulsory union membership, which ended under Jim Bolger’s National government in 1991, New Zealand was one of the most highly unionised economies in the world.

But while the law guaranteed massive membership, it meant that unions were under no pressure to prove their worth. The result was a plethora of small, weak unions with lazy officials who collected members’ fees but didn’t do much else.

Paradoxical though it may seem, compulsory unionism wasn’t viewed favourably by hard-core, militant unions such as the seamen’s, freezing workers’ and watersiders’ unions. They saw the movement as being weakened by all those thousands of shop and office workers with no commitment to working-class solidarity and no interest in fighting the class war.

It’s a very different picture now. Unions represent only about 17 per cent of the labour force, but give the impression of being far more responsive to their members’ needs. They have to be, or they won’t survive.

The odd little craft unions that once occupied every dusty nook and cranny of the Wellington Trades Hall vanished long ago as industries were restructured – or in some cases wiped out – and unions merged.

Simultaneously, union power has shifted from traditional blue-collar industries to the white-collar sector. Deregulation, economic reform and technological upheaval have destroyed the power bases of once-formidable unions in industries such as freezing works and car assembly plants.

These days it’s public sector unions such as the teachers’ and nurses’ organisations, mostly dominated by women, that have the big numbers. It’s enough to make grizzled old wharfies and boilermakers weep.

One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the need for well-organised, effective unions. If anything, they have become more important since the reforms of the 90s tilted the industrial balance of power back in favour of employers.

Workers can’t rely on the state to protect their interests. That was demonstrated at Pike River and in the forestry industry, where the CTU successfully prosecuted employers over workplace deaths after Workplace New Zealand declined to take action. Taking bad employers to court isn’t high on the government’s priority list. 

Zero-hours contracts are another example of vulnerable workers needing someone to stand up for them.

The big problem for the unions is that people have long memories. Many of us vividly remember the 1970s and early 80s, when the economy was constantly sabotaged by bloody-minded industrial disruption.
That ensured there was precious little public sympathy for the unions when National stripped them of their power.

But back to Wagstaff. He seems personable, approachable and articulate, like his immediate predecessors Helen Kelly and Ross Wilson.

That’s a good start. The union leaders of earlier generations were often furtive and hostile toward the media, whom they regarded as the tools of the ruling class.

It’s different now. Public relations is an essential part of the tool kit of the modern trade unionist as the movement struggles to win back public respect.

It’s a work in progress, as they say.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Surprising as it may seem, I don't approve of Hager's rights being violated either

I’ve been out of the country for the past three weeks so have only just learned, via political scientist Bryce Edwards’ online political roundup, of the furore surrounding Westpac’s release to the police, without a court order, of private information relating to Nicky Hager.

Edwards details the angry reaction, from both left and right, to the bank’s compliance with the police request, which was reported by the New Zealand Herald.

From what I’ve read, that outrage is entirely justified. The episode confirms that Hager has been justified in sounding the alarm about surveillance and invasion of privacy. We are altogether too apathetic in assuming that agencies such as the police and the GCSB - not to mention corporates such as Westpac - will protect our rights and interests as citizens.

But having trawled through media comment on the issue, Edwards goes on to make a peculiar statement. He seems to suggest that because I wrote a column back in July arguing that Hager is not a journalist in the commonly understood definition of the word, I might not share the media concern about the apparent overriding of his right to privacy by the police and Westpac.

Not so. It’s one thing to dispute Hager’s claim to be a journalist; quite another to approve of the police delving into his private affairs without first having to satisfy a court that it’s justified.  In fact I see no connection. Objecting to the way Hager's rights have been violated has nothing to do with whether he’s a journalist. The police action, and Westpac’s apparent complicity, would be just as obnoxious if he were a gravedigger or hairdresser.

As Edwards acknowledges, I said in my July column that Hager does some important work. I wrote that he could teach journalists a few things about uncovering information that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden. I also said his books made an important contribution to informed debate on issues such as state surveillance and honesty in government.

I stand by all that. My concerns about Hager are essentially twofold: first, that he uses the label “journalist”, with all its connotations of even-handedness and impartiality, to disguise his true purpose, which is that of an ideological crusader; and second, that the publication of his Dirty Politics book was carefully timed to coincide with a general election, in the clear hope that it would cause maximum political damage. But neither of those concerns could be construed as endorsement of any disregard for his rights or violation of his privacy.

I do, however, share Cameron Slater’s view that the reaction to the latest disclosures exposes a gaping double standard. Where was the media outrage when Slater’s email account was hacked?

There’s a difference, of course, in that this time it’s an agency of the state that’s digging into someone’s personal affairs. That’s infinitely more alarming than the actions of a rogue private hacker. But Slater is right to point out that the hacker, Rawshark, largely escaped media condemnation - as did Hager, who used the information Rawshark obtained.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The dubbed laughter says it all

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 21.)

I found myself watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory the other night. It was the first time I’d seen it in years.

I enjoyed this show when it was fresh, innovative and smart. It was a clever but gentle spoof of nerd culture (or should that be geek culture? I’ve never been entirely sure of the difference).

The characters were appealingly quirky, the personal dynamics between them were rich with comedic possibilities and the dialogue was rapier-sharp.

But that was seven or eight years ago. Now the show is tired and predictable, and the dubbed laughter seems to have to grown steadily louder and more intrusive as if to compensate for the laboured script and lack of humour.

Wikipedia says The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, but I don’t believe it. The laugh track not only sounds dubbed, but crudely dubbed at that.

The four central characters were once believable as academically brilliant but socially dysfunctional bachelors with neurotic family backgrounds. Now they’re in their 40s and it stretches credulity that Leonard and Sheldon are still flatting together and obsessing over childish science-fiction and fantasy movies and TV programmes.

I watched for only 10 minutes or so, which was long enough to confirm that The Big Bang Theory in 2015 is running on empty.

This is an all-too familiar trajectory with American TV comedies. They start out witty and exhilarating and deservedly attract a big audience. But the viewers don’t seem to notice when the show ceases to be witty and exhilarating, so the host network keeps it going – and going, and going. Eventually it becomes a sad parody of itself.

This doesn’t always happen, mind you. The Simpsons, which made its debut in 1989, has lasted better than most and still displays occasional traces of the wickedly subversive humour that made it such a ground-breaker. It has become the longest-running prime-time show in American television history.

But we’ve seen the pattern with other programmes. M*A*S*H, Happy Days and Cheers all kept wheezing on long after their glory years were behind them.

You learn to recognise the warning signs when a show starts to lose momentum. Big-name guest stars begin turning up. There are flashbacks to previous episodes and excursions out of the studio to exotic locations for visual interest – anything to keep the viewers interested once the scriptwriters start running out of ideas.  

In the recent Big Bang Theory episode that I watched, the four characters were on a road trip to Mexico. Par for the course.

I also note from Wikipedia that the frequency of cameo appearances by guest stars, from physicist Stephen Hawking to astronaut Buzz Aldrin, seems to have increased as the show has aged. Even The Simpsons has frequently resorted to celebrity guests.

Another warning sign is that shows eventually lose their sharp edge and lapse into sentimental schlock. This was tragically true of M*A*S*H, which in its heyday broke barriers with its mordant satirical dialogue.

In the case of Happy Days, the desperate quest for novel story lines led to the coining of a phrase – “jumping the shark” – that captures the moment when a programme loses whatever credibility it might still have enjoyed.    

It happened in the premiere of the show’s fifth series, in which the character Fonzie jumped over a shark on water skis. Significantly, that episode contained another telltale sign of a programme in decline: the characters were on a trip to Los Angeles, far from the usual setting of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

To be fair, Happy Days continued for another six seasons. But “jumping the shark” entered the language as a metaphor for any gimmick that stretches credibility to breaking point.

The Americans could learn something from the British here: quit while you’re ahead. Or to use another old showbiz clichĂ©, keep ’em wanting more.

Fawlty Towers, a series so popular that snatches of dialogue (“Don’t mention the war”) have entered popular usage, ran for only 12 episodes – just two series of six programmes.

The scriptwriters, John Cleese and his then wife (and co-star) Connie Booth, resisted pressure to extend the show to a third series. They realised there was a point at which the idea would wear thin.

As a result, viewers never got a chance to grow tired of the programme. Quite the opposite: people are still enjoying it 40 years later.

The producers of The Office followed the example of Fawlty Towers by making only two six-episode series. Both shows now enjoy a status similar to that of a rare vintage wine.

What’s mystifying is why people keep watching American shows long after they have lost their spark.

I can only speculate that there’s a segment of the population that’s comfortable with whatever’s familiar and predictable, and that can’t be bothered making the effort to get their heads around something new and challenging. They’re probably the same people who enjoy eating at McDonald’s because they always know exactly what they’re going to be served.