Once you create a social media account, you’re on your own…

I can fully understand Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s rationale behind issuing its members with a social media rulebook to help them mind their Ps and Qs.

The powers-that-be want to ensure that the authority’s good name isn’t besmirched by some clever dick with a lap top.

The only mystery is why it took the council’s internet police so long to issue a rule book.

Any politician (or journalist, for that matter) brave enough to use social media learns pretty sharpish that it’s a double-edged sword.

Twitter, Facebook and the like can be wonderful tools for promoting whatever you want to promote.

Of course, the problem arises when not everyone likes your agenda.

You see, we’re not all Stephen Fry. There’s a good reason why a national treasure like the man who gave us Blackadder’s Melchett, among other unforgettable characters, has the best part of five million followers on Twitter.

A comedy genius, Fry oozes wit and wisdom in equal measure and the 147 character limit for Tweets seems perfect for him.

That’s why I don’t mind occasionally reading about the minutiae of his life or his streams of consciousness – especially as, like me, he’s a cricket-lover.

Unfortunately, most mortals simply aren’t as engaging and, crucially, cannot draw upon the huge reservoir of goodwill and respect that Stephen Fry enjoys.

This is why many people get sucked into unseemly and unedifying slanging matches which everyone (well, anyone who follows them or is their ‘friend’) can see.

An ill-advised post, written in the heat of the moment, can have catastrophic consequences for a person’s life, career or popularity.

It may take less then a minute to vent your spleen on such very public forums but, once you have, there’s a chance the world and his dog will have seen your missive and drawn instant conclusions about your worth as a human being.

If the pen is mightier than the sword then I would suggest the keyboard is infinitely more powerful than both.

The harsh reality is that some people simply shouldn’t be allowed access to a toaster – let alone the internet.

These are the kind of people who could start an argument in an empty room.

They are simply not good with, well… words – their common sense deficiency and GCSE grade G in English regularly exposed in the cold expanse of cyberspace.

Worse still are those who actually revel in being provocative and argumentative or making every other word an expletive – believing themselves to be somehow edgy and cool.

These keyboard warriors are legends in their own computer rooms and are to be avoided, blocked and ostracised because, as I’ve learned from bitter experience, there’s simply no point debating with an idiot.

Which brings me neatly on to the use of social media by politicians.

I should say first that I’m all for anything which helps MPs and councillors better engage with an electorate which is, generally speaking, apathetic about politics – particularly at a local level.

Social media gives councillors a measure of freedom and a voice beyond the confines of the council chamber or their own party.

While I understand the local authority’s desire to police the use of the likes of Facebook and Twitter by councillors, I think some of the advice reads rather like excerpts from a rule book for stating the bleedin’ obvious.

The city council’s words of wisdom include: “Treat others with respect; avoid personal attacks and disrespectful, rude or offensive comments; do not publish anything that might be considered sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic or anti-faith.”

To me, the very fact that PR officers feel the need to remind elected members to be respectful to other people seems absurd.

Other guidance such as telling councillors to avoid discussing ‘controversial topics’ such as politics or religion is patently nonsense.

After all, what’s the point of members having a social media profile if they’re banned from talking about politics?

Ultimately, the internet is a vast, ever-changing and unpredictable environment into which politicians – and everyone else for that matter – venture at their own risk.

Irrespective of what advice is issued, once someone creates an account they’re on their own.

At some point someone viewing their profile will undoubtedly take exception to something they’ve written.

When this happens, as it inevitably will, the trick is not to be intimidated or cowed and to remember that, whoever you are arguing with, is not a Bond villain.

More likely, it’s a bloke sitting in his box room, wearing slippers and supping a mug of Ovaltine as he sets the world to rights.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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The sorry state of the UK’s dumbed-down TV is forcing me to watch period drama

That’s it then. There’s nothing for it. I guess I’m going to have to watch Downton Abbey.

Having set my stall out long ago against costume romps, the latest viewing figures for British TV are so depressing that they leave me with no choice but to cave in.

How did it come to this? Well, the sad truth is that ITV’s flagship period drama – the most successful since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited – is actually the only proper programme in the top 10 most-watched shows of 2011.

According to figures just released by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb), reality TV and ‘talent’ shows account for six of the top 10 slots.

The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent each grab two places while Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity (Get Me Out Of Here) also chart.

Now, as a staunch supporter of our very own Stoke’s Top Talent, I’ve got nothing against variety competitions. If they do what they say on the tin, that is.

But the X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent aren’t anything of the sort.

They are, first and foremost, entertainment programmes and anyone who doesn’t understand that simple conceit is being emotionally mugged.

Let’s face it: If they were genuine talent competitions then the likes of Jedward and Wagner would never have got anywhere near a television camera.

They were put through to the finals in order that we would all sit around asking each other why they had made it to the finals.

As one of the few people in the UK not under the spell of PJ and Duncan – sorry, I mean Ant and Dec – I have to say I’m A Celebrity (Get Me Out Of Here) also leaves me cold.

Morecambe and Wise they are not and if I want to watch people eating a kangaroo’s testicles I can observe the queue for pies at any League Two stadium that Port Vale visit.

As for Strictly (I’m told you’re supposed to shorten the title) I have no real objection other than the fact that it seems a tad self-indulgent of the BBC to throw its own presenters into the mix with the so-called celebrities.

For example, no sooner had Alex Jones finished fawning over the latest guest on the unfathomably random One Show than she was all sequins and cleavage doing a rumba.

When you take out the boring annual Coronation Street set-piece and the yearly Eastenders misery-fest that leaves only Downton and the Royal Wedding – which topped the chart with an average of 13.59 million viewers but doesn’t really count as it’s a one-off event.

I’m afraid to say that, had it not been for William and Kate’s nuptials, Simon Cowell’s empire would have reigned supreme once again.

What a depressing thought.

Granted, I’m not your archetypal television watcher: If a programme doesn’t contain space ships, the supernatural, an archaeological dig, cricket, Port Vale or Bon Jovi then it’s unlikely to be on my radar.

However, once in a while a fine piece of drama or a brilliant new comedy will grab my attention.

For example, programmes such as the excellent Band Of Brothers or current hit shows such as Boardwalk Empire or Game Of Thrones made the cut.

Of course, the aforementioned sweeping epics were made by U.S. network HBO because neither the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 nor Channel 5 have the resource or the gumption to pull off anything so cinematic.

The truth is I haven’t watched terrestrial telly for a long time and so I have to ask: Did IQs drop sharply while I was away?

Along with the shows I dismissed earlier there is even more vacuous tripe to avoid like Big Brother, Geordie Shore and The Only Way Is Essex.

I’ve clearly turned prematurely into a curmudgeonly old git because it seems to me that warm and engaging family programmes (Auf Wiedersehen Pet/The Darling Buds Of May) and non-offensive and clever comedies (Only Fools and Horses/Blackadder) are now considered too bland.

Meanwhile brainless is the new mainstream as we continue to worship at the cult of celebrity.

We’ve got more channels to choose from than we’ve ever had yet the only time the nation properly comes together is to watch warbling non-entities or Z-list celebrities wretching over a plate of cockroaches.

It’s so bad I’m almost looking forward to the Olympics. Yes, OK, and Downton Abbey.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Remember me? Pudgy lad with the bowl-head hair…

Cast your mind back to 1983. The comedy genius of Blackadder has just been unleashed on the nation.

The novelty of people asking Bob Holness for a P on the gameshow Blockbusters hasn’t yet worn off.

As we munch on our toast, we’ve gone from having no telly in the morning to being able to choose between BBC’s Breakfast Time and ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

Either way, chunky sweaters are in.

Yours truly, however, has more important things on his mind.

I’m part of the guinea pig year – the first group of students to attend high school at the age of 11 rather than 12 in order that we can eventually take the new GCSE exams which are to be introduced in 1987.

Gone are the O-levels and CSEs in favour of a new system which uses coursework as well as one-off exams to assess a pupil’s academic ability.

Holden Lane High School is one of the biggest schools in the Potteries and boasts five, brand new mobile classrooms to cope with the additional influx of children.
One of them is to become my home for five years.

I’m a nervous, overweight lad from Sneyd Green for whom the first few months at Holden Lane High would be a real trial for all sorts of reasons.

There’s none of this school-run nonsense. We all walk to school and I even go home at lunchtime to play Dungeons & Dragons with my mate Glyn.

To be honest, I’d have ridden there and back on my metallic blue Raleigh Grifter if I didn’t have to go down and back up Abbotts Drive – the Potteries equivalent of Kilimanjaro.

Make no bones about it, high school in the Eighties was a totally different beast to modern-day state secondary education.

Most of our classrooms still had blackboards rather than those new-fangled whiteboards.

The library was just that – a place filled with books – and there were no such things as learning resource centres boasting smart screens and laptops.

In fact, computer studies was a brand new GCSE with the emphasis very much on dull-as-dishwater programming. Frankly, we’d have learned more playing PacMan.

The school’s pride and joy was actually its ‘language lab’ – rows of sets of headphones with microphones which allowed us to listen to French and German and attempt to speak a little without our mates taking the mickey.

In the classrooms we sat at decades-old old wooden desks, complete with redundant inkwells and etched with graffiti which carried the names of naughty pupils who were long gone.

Discipline was strict. We all stood up when teachers entered the room and didn’t sit down again until we were told too.

We walked on the left in corridors and woe-betide anyone who didn’t.

They risked an ear-bashing from ‘Doc’ Whieldon or detention/lines from history supremo Geoff Ball.

My form tutor Mr Jones still dished out the cane for bad behaviour – or smacked pupils’ hands with ‘Edge-On the Chinese ruler’.

There was no internet to distract us, no social networking and no mobile phones to be confiscated. Break times consisted of the lads playing football on the Tarmac and the girls standing around discussing Pods shoes, Duran Duran’s latest single and Michael J. Fox.

Whereas previously it hadn’t mattered what you wore at school, suddenly my generation became brand aware.

Suddenly it mattered that you had Nike Air Trainers, that your bag was by Head or Adidas, and that your jacket wasn’t from Vale market.

Yours truly scraped into the top class at Christmas thanks to the re-assessment of all new arrivals to make sure they had been put in the right boxes.

Rubbish at sport, nowt to look at and of average ability academically, my school days could have been grim.

But they were made bearable by Richard Murphy and Rob Freemen – two lads who became mates for life – and the fact that I developed a massive crush on a girl who sat at the back of our class.

I eventually became a prefect (or defect as most people called them) which was both a blessing and a curse.

It meant you got to spend some lunchtimes and breaktimes staffing various doors and ensuring pupils weren’t running riot.

This enabled me to let my mates into places where they shouldn’t have been but I missed out on a lot of footie.

Given that I was a hopeless asthmatic maybe that was no bad thing.

Looking back, I think I actually enjoyed school far more than I ought to have done.

I came to love some subjects – English and history in particular – and admire the teachers who inspired me through them.

Indeed, school couldn’t have been that bad because I helped to organise a couple of reunions for my lot a few years ago which I enjoyed enormously.

Half a lifetime had actually elapsed before I visited Holden Lane High again and, in truth, much of it was how I remembered it.

Gone were those mobile classrooms and the corridors I had traversed so many times seemed a lot smaller.

But the main part of the school was exactly the same as it had been when I left back in 1988.

Somewhere in there the ghost of a pudgy lad with bowl-head hair and a love of writing is still trying desperately to fit in.

And the memory of it makes me smile.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Chip butties, late nights and a few timeless classics

Back in the days before the internet and mobile telephones made the world a much smaller place, the telly was king.
And before the advent of satellite TV a handful of stations dictated what was beamed into our living rooms.
In ratings terms, the 1980s represented the golden era of the small screen in the UK – with shows grabbing mind-boggling viewing figures which today’s TV executives can only dream of.
Take, for example, the infamous snarling Dirty Den divorces Angie in Eastenders on Christmas Day, 1986, which was watched by an estimated 30.1 million people (if you include the repeat showing).
The following year it was Corrie which held us captivated – with 26.6 million viewers switching on to see Hilda Ogden say farewell to The Street on December 25.
I’m not saying TV shows were better during the Eighties because they certainly didn’t have the budgets of many modern-day productions.
But back then, because of the simple lack of choice, most of us watched the same ‘events’ at the same time.
Then we went to school, work or the pub and talked about them with people who had shared the moment.
In truth I was never much of a soap watcher. I had a brief flirtation with Jane from Neighbours during my school days – simply because of the novelty factor of it being an Aussie show which the rest of my class were watching.
The daddy of all soaps, for me, was actually Dallas which I’m delighted to say returns to our screens next year.
The antics of the oil-rich Ewing clan made for mighty fine viewing in the early Eighties – with scheming, larger-than-life characters contrasting sharply with the majesty of the specially-constructed Southfork ranch.
In November 1980 more than 21 million of us discovered who had shot JR (not Hartley) but I suspect Channel 5 would be deliriously happy if a quarter of that number tune in to next year’s reboot. Of course, if it’s rubbish they can always pretend Pam has had another bad dream.
Because I was a lad growing up in the 1980s a couple of other American shows were firm favourites of mine.
Despite it’s frankly ludicrous plot, hammy acting and the fact that 12,000 rounds were dispensed from a Kalashnikov in each episode but no-one ever got hurt – the A-Team was essential viewing in our house on a Saturday night.
I just pity the fool who felt it necessary to trample all over my generation’s cherished memories with last year’s woeful movie.
Another U.S. must-see of mine featured David Hasslehoff and his talking black car KITT fighting for truth, justice and the American perm. To be honest, I grew to prefer Airwolf – sort of like Knight Rider but with a helicopter and a better theme tune – but I have to doff the cap to ‘The Hoff’ for starting the ball rolling.
All of my other favourite TV shows from the decade of decadence were British-made affairs and I won’t have a word said against any of them.
The first was a show whose premise was the unlikely pairing of an elegant English detective and a tough New York cop – both working for an elite unit of the Metropolitan Police.
It may not have been as hard-hitting as other cop shows but Dempsey and Makepeace had a cool bloke and a gorgeous leading lady.
OK. I’ll admit to answering the phone with the word ‘Yo’ for a while in homage to Michael Brandon’s Dempsey but, in truth, I watched it for the love of Makepeace – AKA Glynis Barber – a woman for whom I’d still happily take a bullet.
I’m claiming another crime-fighting show for the Eighties – although it began in the late Seventies.
The Professionals, which centred around a far tougher double-act in Bodie and Doyle (the excellent Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw before he became a luvvie), focused on a fictional counter-bad guys unit.
I well remember my delight on Christmas Day morning in 1982 when my younger brother Matt and I opened up our toy Professionals Crimebuster Kits – complete with all-important CI5 I.D. cards, guns, watches, fingerprint kit and a working black and white camera. Best present ever, that.
The next show reminds me of creeping back downstairs after Matt had fallen asleep on Friday nights in 1983/84 to eat chip butties and watch one of the best British comedy dramas ever made.
As the son of a joiner, Auf Wiedersehen Pet featured working class heroes to whom I could certainly relate and, for a couple of years, this show was the highlight of my week.
In terms of comedy, I enjoyed the anarchic nature of The Young Ones immensely but, in truth, it was the gentle humour of cockney wide-boys the Trotters which made me laugh out loud.
Only Fools And Horses is one of the few shows which genuinely deserves the label ‘a timeless classic’.
It is little wonder we consider David Jason a national treasure.
Last but by no means least on my list of favourite 80s shows is another comedy which managed to fuse history and razor wit together to create one of the most quotable sitcoms of all time.
Rowan Atkinson’s sneering, morally-ambivalent Blackadder is a work of genius which I can watch over and over again.
Indeed, part of the fun is pre-empting the laugh lines and still finding them hysterically funny.
I sometimes wonder what Edmund would have to say about the television comedy on offer these days.
Not much, I suspect. Other than to blame Baldrick and punch him in the face.