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Crazy_Cat
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Member since: 19.09.2007

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    • More +
      26.10.2007 16:57
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      A wonderful story, beautifully told.

      Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy came third in the BBC’s ‘Big Read’ in 2003, behind ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but the unabridged audio adaptation of the trilogy certainly tops my ‘Big Listen’.

      I’ve been listening to audiobooks ever since I was a young child, when I suffered from insomnia and nothing but a good dose of Roald Dahl on tape could settle me. Although sleeping isn’t difficult for me these days (since going to university I’ve mastered the art of snoozing for twelve-hour stretches...funny that), I still have a great love of audiobooks, and ‘His Dark Materials’ is definitely my favourite. I’ve listened to the CDs several times, and with the impending December release of the first film adaptation from the trilogy (entitled ‘The Golden Compass’, which is the American title for the first book, ‘Northern Lights’), I thought now would be an appropriate time to share my opinion.

      The three books which comprise ‘His Dark Materials’ are ‘Northern Lights’, ‘The Subtle Knife’, and ‘The Amber Spyglass’, released in 1995, 1997, and 2000 respectively. At the centre of the story is Lyra, a twelve-year-old orphaned girl who has been raised at an Oxford college in a parallel universe, which is like, and yet unlike, our own. The world has many similarities to our Victorian age in terms of dress fashions and technology; however, in several ways it is far more advanced than our present-day universe. The most striking contrast to our own world is that in this universe every human has a ‘dæmon’, which is essentially a person’s soul in the representative form of an animal. Servants’ dæmons are generally dogs; a sailor might have a seagull; while a king’s dæmon may be a lion. Children’s dæmons have the ability to change form until they reach puberty, when the animal becomes fixed. As Lyra’s dæmon is still able to change shape, throughout the trilogy we are left to ponder what form it will eventually take.

      Lyra is visited at Oxford by her uncle, Lord Asriel, who is a powerful explorer and scientist. While hiding in a wardrobe, Lyra watches Asriel deliver a lecture on the existence of a parallel universe and a mysterious elementary particle called Dust, which is believed by the Church to be proof of original sin. Although fascinated by what she has learned, Lyra is happy running wild in Oxford until her best friend, Roger, is kidnapped by the ‘Gobblers’, a mysterious group with a hatred of Dust and a seemingly unnatural interest in children and their changeable dæmons. Lyra embarks on a quest to rescue her friend, to discover the truth about her supposedly deceased parents and, most importantly of all, to learn about Dust.

      Lyra’s mission is stalled by the appearance of the beautiful Mrs Coulter, whose seemingly kind and glamorous exterior is starkly contrasted by the behaviour of her cruel and sadistic golden monkey dæmon (the true personification of her soul). However, with her intelligence and uncanny ability to lie, Lyra escapes and journeys north, where she encounters armoured bears and witches.

      The next instalment in the trilogy, ‘The Subtle Knife’, introduces the second main hero of the story, a twelve-year-old boy from our own world, called Will Parry. Will is a murderer, albeit an accidental one, so his discovery of a secret window into a parallel universe provides the perfect hideaway. When his path crosses with Lyra’s, his own search for his lost father is quickly linked with Lyra’s quest to discover the meaning of Dust. Throughout the remainder of the trilogy, the adventures that the pair embarks upon make for exciting stories in their own right, but it is the underlying themes and symbolism of the books that caused a real stir among readers and critics.

      The concepts of Dust, quantum physics and parallel universes are presented in a way that is fresh, complicated and exciting, but not so technical that only a scientist could understand. The idea of a person’s soul being personified in their animal-shaped dæmon is also intriguing, as it invites the reader to consider what his or own dæmon might be. But for me, the most interesting theme, not to mention the boldest and most controversial, is Pullman’s attack against ‘the Authority’ and the presentation of the Church as a deceitful and controlling force with a grounding in lies and fear. While the trilogy has been condemned by many religious readers, I personally know several Christians who greatly enjoyed the books. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued that Pullman’s attack against the Church is focused on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself, and personally I agree. Heretical or not, the books have undeniably sparked a huge amount of criticism and debate, and this has probably only added to the number of people seeking ‘His Dark Materials’ out to read.

      Pullman’s writing is gripping and multi-layered. Packed with movement and intense descriptions, the writing is really able to conjure the image of a scene in the reader’s mind. It is also interesting that Pullman can convey very adult themes; sexual, religious, and scientific; through the eyes of two children. ‘His Dark Materials’ is often labelled as a trilogy aimed at children; however Pullman himself never intended for the books to be targeted that way, stating in many interviews that he sees the story as being open to all readers, regardless of age. While I was only ten years old when I first read ‘Northern Lights’ upon its release in 1995, I still love the trilogy twelve years later, and I know many older readers who also take great enjoyment from reading the books. Perhaps it is the wide-ranging accessibility of the trilogy that has made it so successful. Whatever the secret ingredient is, Pullman has created a masterpiece here, and I strongly recommend acquainting yourself with the story if you haven’t already.

      If you’ve read a book, it can be difficult to enjoy an audio version if it’s been abridged, as inevitably some of your favourite scenes will be removed. Thankfully, this adaptation is completely unabridged, including everything from the dedications to the lovely poetry excerpts that Pullman occasionally includes at the start of a chapter. Clocking in at an epic 35 hours across 29 CDs, you certainly get your money’s worth. Speaking of which, the recommended retail price for the audio set is £124.99, but both www.play.com and www.amazon.co.uk are currently selling it for £79.99, with free delivery. I happily paid the full price for my set, so I think this is an excellent deal.

      What is perhaps most enjoyable about the audio set is that it is beautifully narrated by the author himself. For those who have read the books, you may have struggled with the pronunciation of some of the exotic names, so it’s satisfying to be set straight by the man in the know. As a narrator, Pullman is terrific. In fact, he gives such a passionate and animated reading that I’m surprised he’s never been a professional actor. He has a very soft, gentle voice, but he’s able to sharpen his tone in an instant when necessary. Furthermore, as much of the books are set in Oxford, where Pullman studied in his youth and later went on to lecture at, the author’s accent is certainly fitting for the role of narrator.

      Pullman is joined by a dynamic cast, comprising over 40 separate voices. Joanna Wyatt, who provides the voice of Lyra, is outstanding. She captures the passion, wit, intelligence, and wildness of Lyra’s personality in a way that perfectly supports my vision of the character. I’ll be very interested to see if Dakota Blue Richards, who plays Lyra in the upcoming film adaptations, can impress me as much. Sean Barrett’s Lord Asriel is powerful and awe-inspiring, and totally different to the deep, rolling rumble that is the voice of armoured bear Iorek Byrnison (played by the same actor). Alison Dowling’s voice is suitably charming as Mrs Coulter, but with the underlying iciness required for the character. I imagine that finding the voice of twelve-year-old Will must have been difficult, as the casting team had to decide between a broken or non-broken voice. In the end they chose Stephen Webb, whose voice is broken but still has a youthful and innocent quality, which I feel works well.

      The cast provides a splendid mix of voices and, personally, I feel it really brings an audiobook up to another level if it is complete with a full vocal cast. Although I enjoy narrator-only adaptations, such as Stephen Fry’s readings of the ‘Harry Potter’ books, they don’t quite compare to the quality of an audiobook like this one.

      I know £79.99 may seem like a lot of money to spend on what are essentially just three books, but I can assure you it is worth every penny. Audiobooks are a fantastic way to experience a story, particularly if you find you often don’t have the time to read, and ‘His Dark Materials’ is the best audio adaptation I have ever come across. I must offer a word of warning, however: do not be tempted to buy the recent BBC radio dramatisation, as while it may be considerably cheaper, it is heavily abridged and not nearly as well performed. Instead, treat yourself to 35 hours of masterful story-telling that you’ll listen to time and time again.

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      • Reed / Employment Service / 61 Readings / 59 Ratings
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        17.10.2007 14:24
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        Good for employers. Jobseekers - keep on your guard!

        I have temped through Reed. I have found a permanent job through Reed. As an employer, I have hired a temp through Reed. I’ve even been a recruitment consultant myself for a short while (albeit while working for a competitor), so I reckon I could say a fair few things about Reed. And I’m going to.

        ~*~ Company Background ~*~

        Established in 1960, Reed is one of the UK’s largest employment agencies, specialising in both temporary and permanent recruitment across a number of disciplines, including accountancy, education, secretarial and IT. Reed has over 300 offices across the country, most of which are situated on busy high streets to lure in potential jobseekers. Reed offers recruitment services to companies of all sizes, from SMEs (small to medium enterprises) to large ‘blue chip’ organisations, and for those seeking work, the agency claims to offer everything from basic administrative roles to directorial positions.

        ~*~ How Recruitment Works ~*~

        I worked as a recruitment consultant for a little while, and quickly discovered it wasn’t the job for me. The hours are long, the pressure is high, and the rewards are rarely as good as promised. I have now written the time off as a wasted few months in terms of career progression, but on the plus-side I now have an excellent knowledge of how recruitment works, which gives me an advantage whenever I need to use an employment agency.

        So here’s my insider’s summary of the recruitment process:

        Recruitment consultants scour the internet and newspapers, ‘cold call’ companies, and pretty much do anything they can to find jobs that they can recruit for. Sometimes, if a consultant is lucky or has developed a good relationship with a client, details of a job will be emailed or called in. The consultant then searches the agency’s database for suitable ‘candidates’ (registered jobseekers who are usually pulled in by web advertising) and forms a shortlist to submit for interview. Often a candidate’s details will be submitted before the position has even been run him or her. The consultant then sells the candidates to the client, and pushes for as many interview slots as possible. If interviews go well, and the client offers the position to one of the consultant’s candidates, the agency will then charge a fee for its services. This is usually between 10% and 20% of the new employee’s annual salary (at Reed the standard charge is 15%).

        For temporary recruitment, the format is slightly different. If you temp through an agency, you are officially employed and paid by the agency. At Reed the temporary rates of pay are usually by the hour, and candidates are paid weekly (always one week in arrears). The agency will charge an hourly rate to its client, and then deduct your hourly payment from that amount, taking the remainder as commission. The client will not know how much the candidate is receiving. In most cases, consultants will tell candidates that the client ‘can pay this amount per hour and no more’ but this is generally not true. The agency will always have a certain amount of leeway in case a bolder candidate insists on more money. Alternatively, if the agency is cheeky enough to ask a candidate ‘what is the minimum hourly pay rate you would require to take this position?’ then you can guarantee that the candidate will receive exactly that amount, and the agency will simply take a higher commission. Consequently, candidates should always ask for more money than they expect, as in the majority of cases they will get it. When I first temped through Reed (long before I was a recruitment consultant and knew how the game was played) I stumbled across my supervisor’s statement from Reed and discovered that the company were paying £13 per hour for my services, while I received only £5.50 from Reed. Temps, you have been warned!

        ~*~ The Candidate Registration Process ~*~

        As a job-seeker wishing to employ Reed to find you a new position, the first thing you’ll have top do is register. There are two main ways in which you can do this. You can submit your details over the internet, or you can walk into your local branch, hand over your CV and ask to register in store. It doesn’t really matter which approach you take, because you’ll probably end up having to do both (i.e. if you register online, a Reed consultant will still want you to come in for official registration; and if you register in person initially, you’ll probably still be asked to fill in your information on the Reed website). I found this slightly irritating because it meant inputting all of my details twice, which was a waste of my precious job-hunting time.

        The website’s registration form is simple to use. The details you submit online will be used by Reed consultants to match your criteria to a job, but can also be accessed by external employers seeking new staff.

        To register online, select ‘Register Now’ from Reed’s homepage (www.reed.co.uk). From there you can set up an account, using your email address as your login name. Personal and confidential details, such as address, date of birth, and contact number, can then be added to your ‘Private’ profile, which is visible only to Reed consultants and yourself. Your ‘Talent’ profile is the area that is accessible to prospective employers as well. This is where all the important information goes, such as educational background, salary requirements, previous experience, and types of work sought. It is also recommended that you upload a copy of your CV for Reed consultants and other potential employers to view.

        Once your details are online, you may be contacted by Reed asking you to visit your local branch and register in person. You will be asked do bring in proofs of identification, and evidence of your right to work in the UK if required.

        Registering in person takes approximately one hour. You will firstly be required to complete a number of computerised assessments, which test areas such as your computer literacy and numerical skills. I found the tests to be fairly easy, although I was annoyed that I wasn’t provided with any real feedback, other than a meaningless percentage figure. I wasn’t given details of the questions I answered incorrectly, and consequently had no way of knowing which areas I needed to improve upon. A friend of mine did rather badly in her assessments (she is somewhat new to modern IT), but instead of being offered constructive advise on how she could enrol on a computer course, she was simply told that her salary expectations would need to be revised.

        I was also disappointed by the level of detail in which my Reed consultant interviewed me. When I was a recruitment consultant, I would spend at least an hour discussing the finer points of a candidate’s CV, so that I knew exactly what kind of job he or she was both looking for. My Reed consultant spent a mere ten minutes interviewing me, and most of the conversation focussed on ‘concrete’ details such as salary requirements and desired location. She didn’t seem very interested in what kind of company I liked to work for or what my key motives were, or what type of environment I wanted to work in. She also seemed very keen to squeeze as many ‘leads’ out of me, by asking what jobs other agencies had spoken to me about and where else I’d been offered interviews. As a former recruitment consultant, I knew all the tricks, and wasn’t giving away any of my cards.

        ~*~ Finding a Job ~*~

        With registration complete, I was sent on my way and promised a call within the next few days and, true to her word, my consultant called me later that very day to talk about a job. The role itself sounded a bit dull, but it was only a temporary position and the rate of pay was excellent, so I agreed to go along for an interview. I was dismayed to discover at the interview that the job was only part-time, and was therefore completely unsuitable for me. I felt that my time had been wasted and I was annoyed that Reed either hadn’t taken a thorough job specification and didn’t realise that the job was part-time or, worse still, had chosen to send me to an inappropriate interview so as to fill up one of their ‘slots’.

        In the end, Reed did manage to find me a suitable temp job for a few weeks, during which time they continued to search for a permanent position for me. While the level of contact was very good (my consultant usually rang me a few times a week), I was frustrated because the majority of jobs that were run past me were completely different to what I was looking for. Perhaps my consultant just wasn’t very good at ‘selling the dream’, but frequently I got the sense that she was just desperate for interview candidates so that she wouldn’t let down her clients. Reed seems to have a ‘bulk attack’ approach, whereby candidates are showered with information about countless jobs, many of which won’t be appropriate. Personally, I would have preferred to have been told only about the jobs that were relevant to me. It is quite difficult to properly consider a job specification when it is one of five you have been told about that day.

        Some credit is due to Reed, because they did find me my current permanent position. But how much of that was down to the skill of my consultant, or simply luck, I don’t know.

        ~*~ Using Reed as an Employer ~*~

        Employers wishing to recruit through Reed should contact a local branch, either by telephone or email (branch details can be found at www.reed.co.uk). You will be encouraged to provide a detailed job specification if the position is permanent, and the Reed consultant will attempt to secure your availability to interview. The number of interviews held is down to the employer, as are interview locations. If required, Reed can arrange interview locations for you, or even offer you the use of the Reed offices (if, for instance, you are hiring for a position that you don’t want fellow colleagues to be made aware of).

        If the position is temporary, Reed consultants will urge you to take a candidate without meeting them for interview, perhaps suggesting a trial day. If the position is short-term, this should be fine, but don’t be afraid to insist upon interviews if you feel it necessary. Furthermore, Reed will always try to squeeze as much money out of you as possible. Remember that the hourly rate being paid to the candidate will be a lot lower than the rate Reed is trying to charge you, so feel free to insist on a reduction.

        I have used Reed once as a ‘client’, when my boss recently asked me to arrange for an administrative temp to come in for a week. We weren’t fussed about meeting the candidate beforehand, so I asked to see a selection of CVs and chose from those. Of the four CVs that were sent across, I felt that any one of them would be sufficient, but I picked the candidate who lived more locally than the others, and who had slightly more experience. Reed wanted us to pay £14 per hour, but I managed to whittle it down to £11. The process was very simple, and it didn’t take up much of my time, which was my main priority. Furthermore, the temp did a very good job, so I promised I would ask Reed for her again if we ever needed an extra pair of hands.

        ~*~ Reed’s Online Job Search Facility ~*~

        As someone seeking a new job, one of the first things you will probably do is search the internet for jobs. Reed boasts that its online job search facility is the best and biggest in the UK (with 357,584 jobs online at the time of writing). However, over half of the jobs seem to be ‘pullers’, which are merely fake job adverts written by Reed consultants to attract new candidates. It is important that jobseekers bear this in mind when using Reed’s website, as it takes a cunning eye to separate the genuine jobs from the ‘dummies’(the clue is to look for lengthy job descriptions with specific details).

        The actual search facility is easy to use, and better than many others that I have tried. There are a number of criteria that can be included in a search, such as specific location (as opposed to many sites which only let you search by general area), salary range, job type, and keywords. However, unless you’re willing to trawl through hundreds of listings, you will have to be quite specific.

        ~*~ Conclusion ~*~

        As far as recruitment consultancies go, Reed is fairly ‘middle of the range’. I found the service was of a very high standard when I was the recruiter, but it was a bit slapdash when I was the jobseeker. I think it is a tendency of recruitment agencies to pander to their clients’ needs, and to pay less attention to the requirements of the jobseekers, and Reed is particularly guilty of this.

        Recruitment is a dirty game, and a lot of people get taken for a ride by agencies. Just take everything recruitment consultants tell you with a pinch of salt, and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself!

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        • More +
          09.10.2007 15:58
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          A versatile product that is great for varying your hair style.

          My hair has multiple personalities. Naturally it’s extremely curly, but with a little work and patience I can also wear it poker straight. Sometimes I opt for ‘beach babe’ waves, while on other occasions I’ll try a bouncy look with plenty of volume. Each of these styles take a certain amount of time and effort to pull off, but while I envy those lucky people who wake up in the morning with perfect tresses, I’m actually rather proud of the flexibility of my hair.

          Please don’t for a second assume that I have always been blessed with wonderful hair that can be shaped and styled into any design. Up until the age of fourteen, it was quite another story. My hair was so thick and bushy I couldn’t control it, and the only way it could be tamed was by forcing it back with a hideously unattractive Alice band (for those of you that don’t know, an Alice band is a thick, circular hair-band that was last popular in the Eighties, the year then being 1999). The Alice band caused my ears to stick out, and consequently I resembled Gary Lineker with a badly-controlled afro. As you can probably imagine, this didn’t exactly do wonders for my street credibility.

          And then, one day, a miracle occurred. My elder sister, a very style-conscious hairdresser who had been trying to relieve me of my precious Alice band for years, gave me bottle of Frizz-Ease Hair Serum by John Frieda. “We’re burning that hair band tonight,” she threatened.

          With little choice in the matter, I had a go at ‘revamping’ my image that very day. After washing my hair, I applied a small amount of serum to the palm of my hand and smoothed it through my wet hair, as instructed. I didn’t notice any immediate change, but once my sister had blow-dried my hair the result was outstanding: my hair was no longer bushy and wild, but sleek with gentle waves. A fair amount of credit was due to my sister for her skilled use of the blow-dryer, but undoubtedly the serum had played a key part as well.

          I didn’t burn my Alice band that night, but I certainly never wore it again. As time went on, and especially with the acquisition of my ceramic hair straighteners on my eighteenth birthday, I was able to vary my hair style in more ways than ever before. I’ve experimented with other products over the years, but I’ve never found a serum that suits my flexible needs as well as Frizz-Ease.

          How Does John Frieda Claim It Works?
          ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
          According to the John Frieda’s website and packaging, the serum aims to ‘transform and polish’ your hair. The formula is infused with silk proteins that deliver a layer of ‘crystal clear gloss for frizz free results’. It is ideal for many hair types: for curly hair it helps to separate and individually define the curls, while for straight hair it smoothes down frizz and keeps hair sleek and stream-lined. The result is ‘Polished, glossy and smooth hair’.

          How Do You Use It?
          ^^^^^^^^^^^^^
          After shampooing and conditioning hair as usual, apply the serum to the palm of your hand and smooth through soaking wet hair. The amount you should use depends on your hair length and thickness, but I find that for my thick, shoulder-length hair an amount the size of a ten pence piece is sufficient. Working the serum from head to tip is the easiest method, taking care to smooth less serum into the roots and more to the ends, to prevent your hair from appearing greasy. Without rinsing, you can then style your hair as usual.

          For straight hair, I blow-dry with a narrow-ended drier and a round brush, and then tidy up with ceramic straighteners. For curly hair, I tip my head upside down and ‘scrunch’ my hair into curls, before blow-drying with a diffuser (the conical spiky attachment that most people never use). Even if you have fairly straight hair, drying with a diffuser could still produce some decent waves, and thanks to the serum, they should stay in place all day. Perhaps the best results I’ve had from Frizz-Ease have been when I let my hair dry naturally, although unfortunately I rarely have the time to do so. On the occasional lazy Sunday when I have let my hair dry naturally, I found that it sprung into lovely, loosely-formed ringlets.

          A very small amount of Frizz-Ease can also be used on dried hair to tame particularly tough frizz, or to separate tangled curls. I often apply a pea-sized amount to hair in the mornings if I don’t want to wash my hair that day, and I fend it gives my hair a bit of extra shine and life.

          Is It Good Value For Money?
          ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
          At around £6 for a 50ml bottle, some would say ‘no’. However, many shops have special offers on John Frieda products (Boots’ online stone sell the 50ml bottle for £5.98 and nearly always has a ‘3 for the price of 2’ deal), so I tend to stock up in bulk when I find a good offer. Although it’s not as good value, you can buy a 25ml bottle for around £3.50, and most large chemists sell mini sachets for about £1.50 for you to try out.

          I find that a 50ml bottle lasts me only about four weeks, but I do have thick, fairly long hair and use it nearly every day. For me, £6 a month to not have to wear an Alice band is a good deal.

          Any Other Advantages?
          ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
          Because the bottle is small and light, it is easy to carry around in your handbag, which is great if you want to touch up your hair at any point throughout the day. I have a friend who recommends using a tiny amount of Frizz-Ease to shape her eyebrows, so if any reader has eyebrows as unmanageable as my hair, I’d be interested to hear if you think that works too!

          Is There A Downside?
          ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
          Apart from the price, I can think of only one other. The bottle has leaked into my handbag once or twice, coating my purse and make-up in serum. Technically this should be avoidable by turning the bottle’s nozzle so that it doesn’t release serum when you press on the pump, but I find this isn’t always reliable, as the nozzle can turn back to ‘on’ when loose in your handbag.

          Conclusion
          ^^^^^^^
          Frizz-Ease is a very flexible product so it is excellent if, like me, you like to vary your style. Although it is fairly expensive and the bottle is rather small, a little certainly goes a long way, and I personally think it is good value for money. Ladies, unless you have perfect hair that requires absolutely no effort to look stunning (in which case, you’re probably feeling rather smug after hearing my tale of Alice band-related woe), I would recommend giving Frizz-Ease Hair Serum a try.

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          • Teletext Holidays / Travel Agent / 72 Readings / 72 Ratings
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            02.10.2007 17:55
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            Better value for money than lastminute.com and other competitors.

            I recently graduated from university, have only just started my first full time job, and am trying to scrape together enough cash to put down a deposit on a flat. As you might imagine, I’m a little strapped for cash. I’ve had to give up a few luxuries: the expensive binge-drinking sessions I would indulge myself with as a student are gone, as has my habit of splurging on books, computer games and DVDs (to an extent). However, one thing I won’t give up is my love of leaving rainy England behind and jetting off on holiday, and thanks to Teletext Holidays, I haven’t had to.

            Teletext Holidays is an online travel comparison site that checks and vets all of its suppliers and, like lastminute.com, specialises in bargain late deals, with holiday prices sometimes falling as low as £50. As the name suggests, the site originally was a Teletext function, and although the website (www.teletextholidays.co.uk) is more comprehensive, you can still access many deals from your television (Teletext page 200).

            My last two trips abroad were both booked through Teletext Holidays, and were terrific bargains. The first was a girls’ holiday to Ibiza in the summer of 2006, which we managed to book for mere £99 per person. The deal included return flights with Iberia, and self-catered accommodation in 3* apartments within close vicinity to the beach and San Antonio town. For my second Teletext Holidays trip, my boyfriend and I visited Marsa Alam, on Egypt’s southern Red Sea coast. The holiday cost £220 each for return flights with Thompson and one week at a 3* all-inclusive beach resort.

            *Searching*

            Holidays are very easy to find thanks to the simple and user-friendly website. Five tabs line the top of the front page, direct you to either ‘Holidays’, ‘Flights’, ‘Hotels’, ‘UK’ or ‘Villas’. From there, you can enter your criteria based on factors such as destination, dates, number travelling, board type, rating/class, and so on. Flexible travellers can also provide details of how variable their dates can be, which is a nice touch for those trying to find the cheapest deal.

            Search results appear in blocks of 20, and can be arranged by price, departure date, or Teletext Holidays’ recommendation. The search listings briefly highlight the main features of the holidays, and selecting the ‘view details’ hyperlink provides more information. The details of the holiday are clearly displayed, and in most cases photographs of the resort are provided. A brief ‘blurb’ is also provided to describe the hotel facilities and local amenities in more detail, although the amount of information you are given varies between holidays. In some cases the hotel isn’t even allocated until arrival, but these do tend to be the cheaper deals.

            For popular destinations, you are also provided with a full destination guide, detailing the city or region’s key attractions. A current 5-day weather forecast is also given, which is great for whetting your appetite for a hot holiday.

            If you don’t have a destination in mind, Teletext Holidays’ search engine is very good for providing suggestions. Selecting ‘Bestsellers’ will give all the popular deals that have been tried and tested by countless others, while clicking ‘Inspire Me’ will find unusual destinations that you might not have considered. It is also possible to search for ‘Exotic Places’ or, if it’s a tan you’re after, ‘Guaranteed Sunshine’. Alternatively, the website’s front page advertises the cheapest late deals and current popular destinations.

            Generally the search facility is very good, but occasionally I found that advertised offers couldn’t be found by searching. There is also a slight delay before Teletext Holidays removes a deal from the website after it has been booked, which can lead to disappointment (as I once learned the hard way).

            *Holiday Types*

            The main holiday search facility will find the standard beach resort holidays, but the site also caters for those looking for something a bit different. The same searching principles apply here, but there are additional features to aid you with your search. Different holiday types can be accessed by selecting the relevant hyperlink (at the top of the page, just below the ‘Holidays’ tab). The options are ‘Ski’, ‘Worldwide’, ‘City Breaks’, ‘Special Interest’ and ‘Cruise’.

            Ski: There are a range of Skiing holidays available with destinations ranging from France to Canada, and video guides are available to ‘inspire’ you. While far less extensive than the general holiday search facility, there are still some good deals to be found. The cheapest I could find was for 7 nights in Soldeu, Andorra, at £185 per person, based on two sharing a 2* self-catered apartment, including flights (6 January 2008).

            Worldwide: If you have a slightly higher budget, there are some excellent long haul deals to be found. The website recommends their favourite honeymoon holidays, Eastern destinations, and last minute long haul offers, but I found that searching gave the best results. For only £304 per person I found an offer for 7 nights in the Dominican Republic, or 14 nights for an additional £90, including flights (10 October 2007), which certainly tempted me.

            City Breaks: Here you can search for shopping breaks, cultural cities, budget European destinations, or cities by the sea. There are some good bargains be found, with ‘Spanish cities from £50 per person’ being the cheapest deal offered. However, the link failed to work when I tried it, which was frustrating. My favourite break that I found was for 2 nights in Barcelona for £104, including flights (15 October 2007).

            Special Interest: There are a wide range of unusual holidays to choose from in this section, ranging from spa breaks and fishing trips to adventure and watersports holidays. This is a very informative part of the site that gives excellent tips and ideas for breaks away. However, you cannot book these types of holidays through the site and instead are directed to external sites.

            Cruise: I was shocked by how cheap some of the cruise offers are, until I spotted the words ‘flights not included’. There are 7-night cruises in the Caribbean available for little more than £100 per person, but you have to make your own way to and from the port. Of the deals that included transfer flights, I liked the deal for 7 nights in the Canaries aboard the Thomson Destiny, for £349 per person (5 October, 2007).

            *Booking*

            In most cases it is not possible to book online, and instead you must call the holiday provider directly. The phone number for you to call, and the reference you need to quote, are both clearly displayed. The booking process is simple and fairly quick, it is possible to pay over the phone by debit or credit card, and once the booking is complete, full details are emailed or posted to you.

            However, I must offer a few words of warning. At this stage, the holiday operator will add airport taxes and transfer fees to the holiday, which are not included in Teletext Holidays’ price. For both my holidays, this additional charge was approximately £30 to £40 per person. While I still believe that both my holidays were a bargain, it is easy to accept these last minute charges in the heat of the moment when booking, without considering whether you are still getting a good deal.

            *Conclusion*

            Teletext Holidays is an excellent site for those seeking a bargain or last minute holiday. In my experience, I’ve found that the deals are generally cheaper than those offered on lastminute.com, or on other bargain holiday websites. Just make sure you account for the additional charges before booking – it’s a pain, but in the majority of cases the holiday will still be a bargain.

            Until my student debts are cleared and I can afford to shop for my holiday in style, I’ll certainly continue to book my holidays with Teletext Holidays. And I strongly recommend that all you bargain hunters out there do the same.

            www.teletextholidays.co.uk

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              28.09.2007 17:38
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              Heavy on the special effects, light on the faithfulness to Tolkien.

              I felt very nervous when I went to see The Lord of the Rings at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

              Firstly, I’m probably the biggest fan of the books that I know. I re-read them once every year, and I even wrote my dissertation on Tolkien when I was at university (don’t judge me). On top of that, I absolutely love musicals, and have seen and performed in more than I can count. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to enjoy this.

              For those of you that aren’t quite as big Tolkien fanatics as myself, and are unfamiliar with the story, let me provide you with a much-simplified overview of the plot:

              The Lord of the Rings is essentially the tale of a hobbit (or halfling) of the Shire, called Frodo, who inherits a magical invisibility ring from his uncle Bilbo. The ring came to Bilbo on a previous adventure, in which he encountered a twisted, pitiful creature called Gollum, from whom Bilbo ‘won’ the ring. Many years later, Frodo learns that the ring was originally the property of the dark lord Sauron, and that is has the power to return Sauron to his former strength as an evil dictator. Under the guidance of the wizard Gandalf, Frodo embarks upon a quest to take the ring to the land of Morder, where he must cast the ring into the depths of the fiery Cracks of Doom and destroy the ring forever, thus defeating Sauron and preventing him from rising to power ever again. Frodo is assisted on his journey by three fellow hobbits called Sam, Merry and Pippin; Gandalf the wizard; the exiled king Aragorn; Legolas the elf; Gimli the dwarf; and Boromir, man of the south.

              That should be enough for you to go on. Now, back to that night at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where I was, as I say, very nervous.

              My first impression was definitely positive. A dozen hobbits danced upon the stage and frolicked in the aisles as I took to my seat, providing the audience with instant entertainment as we waited for the performance to start. The hobbits certainly looked the part, complete with hairy feet, rosy cheeks and curly wigs. The cropped, earthy-toned costumes were obviously greatly inspired by those in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and worked very well on stage. As the final audience members were seated, the music jumped into action and the hobbits began a delightfully choreographed dance, which I felt captured the care-free, party-loving attitude of Tolkien’s hobbits very well. I was left feeling highly relieved and eager for more.

              Unfortunately for me, that sense of relief was to be short-lived.

              The hobbits’ entrance provided a promising start, but what followed was far less pleasing. I could make my peace with the hobbits’ dubious country accents, but the characterisation of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin (the four principal hobbits) was a deal-breaker for me. Far from the heroic, multi-layered characters of the books, the on-stage hobbits were two-dimensional and showed very little character development throughout. Particularly disappointing was James Loye’s Frodo, who failed to demonstrate the steady decline of Frodo’s strength as the burden of the ring grew heavier. Peter Howe’s Sam was perhaps the only hobbit who showed character development, but his performance was often over-the-top. Far more farcical, however, was Owen Sharpe’s portrayal of Pippin. With his effeminate mannerisms and squeaky-pitched declarations of ‘ooh, I don’t like trees’, he was easily the most annoying and pantomime-ish of the hobbits. Richard Henders’ Merry was simply forgettable.

              Although the hobbits failed to impress, thankfully other parts succeeded in winning my approval. The undisputable star of the show was Michael Therriault for his emotionally complex and physically remarkable depiction of Gollum. Therriault won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for his portrayal of Gollum when the musical first ran in Toronto, Canada, and was subsequently shipped over by director Matthew Warchus to make his UK debut at Drury Lane. It is unsurprising that the casting team were apparently unable to find an actor who could match Therriault’s performance. His voice and movement were stylistically flawless, and his representation of Gollum’s schizophrenia (through song, nonetheless!) was mesmerising. It is also notable that his performance was very different to that of Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the Peter Jackson films. He truly made the part of Gollum his own, and was very deserving of the tumultuous applause he received.

              Laura Michelle Kelly provided another notably strong performance as the Elven lady, Galadriel. Kelly is a fairly big name in the West End, having starred in Mary Poppins and as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady. She has also recently finished filming Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd, in which she plays The Beggar Woman alongside Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. I thought Kelly was very well suited to the role of Galadriel, my only criticism being that her hand gestures were rather over-pronounced. It’s unlikely that this was Kelly’s fault. All of the elves seemed to use a bizarre sign-language to accompany their speech, which I imagine the director thought was graceful and Elvish. Frankly, I think it just looked silly. That aside, Kelly gave a great performance, and her main solo, ‘Lothlorien’, was probably the most epic and memorable song of the night.

              However, while Therriault and Kelly dazzled, other leads failed to shine. Jérôme Pradon lacked the stage presence required to play Aragorn, and was unconvincing as the wise ranger and powerful leader of men. Malcom Storry was satisfactory as Gandalf, but left me feeling somewhat under-whelmed. Legolas and Gimli were sadly reduced to background characters, and consequently much of the humour and emotion that is central to their relationship in the books was lost.

              Although my feelings towards the lead characters were hot and cold, I was thoroughly impressed by the chorus actors, who worked seamlessly as an ensemble with unwavering energy. The sharp choreography and awe-inspiring acrobatics, (not to mention their umpteen costume changes as they traversed the races of Middle-earth in super-quick time), were truly remarkable. As orcs they were genuinely scary, especially when they invaded the audience. Aisle seats in the stalls are not for the faint-hearted in this show.

              The design of the orcs’ costumes was spectacularly dark and grotesque, and like the orcs of Tolkien’s world, varied from orc to orc. Some had long dangling arms, while others had springs attached to their feet, allowing them to pounce and somersault across the stage. In fact, the costumes in the show were, on the whole, exceptionally good. The design for the creepy black riders was simple but very effective: a cloaked man on stilts held the body of the horse around him, controlling the head like a puppet. Stilts were also employed for the ents, who stood at lofty heights of ten to fifteen feet.

              Costume and set designer Rob Howell also deserves credit for the conception of the set design. The stage was an impressive tangle of tree branches, which spread out towards the audience and completely submerged the boxed seating areas. The staging was often mobile, with many layers rotating, rising and sinking as needed. This was very effective in conveying the characters’ long journeys across middle-Earth, as it provided a strong visual notion of movement and travel.

              Strong praise must also go to the pairing of Gregory Meeh (special effects designer) and Paul Kieve (illusions and magic effects) for the stunning visual effects. When Bilbo used the ring to disappear in the opening scene, he literally vanished before my eyes. I would guess that the trick was devised using a gauze curtain and some cleverly placed lighting, but it was impossible from the audience to see how the effect was executed. While it was these more subtle devices that impressed me, it was still hard not be in awe of the spectacularly designed Shelob. The giant spider was essentially a simple puppet, but the effect was enough to have plenty of audience members shrinking in their seats.

              Of course, a musical may have stunning costumes, staging and visual effects, but it is the music itself that is often central to a show’s success. I have seen many great shows with the most basic of visuals, but that are carried on the strength and endurance of the songs and those that deliver them. The Lord of the Rings is not one of those shows. I’m not saying that the music was bad, it simply wasn’t memorable. Although I was pleased to learn that much of the score was composed by a Finnish contemporary folk bank called Värttinä (one of Tolkien’s Elvish languages was based on the Finnish language, which Tolkien found to be beautiful with a fascinating grammatical structure), the result was still disappointing. While the Elvish music was certainly lovely to listen to, it was all a bit repetitive. The only striking song was Galadriel’s ‘Lothlorien’, but this was largely because Laura Michelle Kelly sang it so fantastically.

              Some of the hobbits’ songs were entertaining, and Frodo and Sam’s big duet was fairly enjoyable, but none of the songs were particularly rousing or catchy. In all, I’d say that the music was good for adding atmosphere, but there was nothing that made me really sit up and listen. You certainly won’t find yourself humming on your way home after seeing this show.

              In fact, if you’re a fan of the books, you’re more likely to leave the show grumbling about the butchery that Tolkien’s books have suffered. Obviously I appreciate that condensing three 500-page novels into a three-hour show will require a fair bit of trimming, especially if numerous songs need to be squeezed into the mix as well. But to ruthlessly cut out major places and characters from a story that has been voted the best-loved in Britain many times, seems a tad unwise.

              In terms of faithfulness to the book, the first act wasn’t too bad. Plenty had been cut, but the essentials were all there (with the main exception of Tom Bombadil’s chapters, but as he was axed in the film versions, I was hardly surprised to discover that he got the chop in the musical adaptation as well). However, when Act One ended with Gandalf’s climactic confrontation of the Balrog, I was somewhat concerned. After all, this is a scene that appears barely three-quarters of the way in to The Fellowship of the Ring. How would Matthew Warchus, the director, manage to squeeze the rest of the first book, and all of The Two Towers and The Return of the King into just two more (substantially shorter) acts?

              The answer is simple. He didn’t.

              A quick glance at my program’s cast list would have prepared me for the nasty shock that followed the interval. No Theoden. No Denethor. No Faramir. No Éomer. Even Éowyn, the only fully-formed female character in the books, fails to make an appearance. Éowyn’s defeat of the Witch-king of Angmar (the leader of Sauron’s black riders) is one of my favourite moments in the books, and I was sad to see such a powerful scene to go missing from the stage adaptation.

              The lands of Rohan and Minas Tirith were sadly cut completely and replaced by the generic ‘lands of men’. The characters of Theoden and Denethor were crudely combined to form the ‘steward of the lands of men’, who resembles Theoden in personality but, like Denethor, is a steward and Boromir’s father. He features briefly: Gandalf releases him from Saruman’s spell in about ten seconds, and the steward instantly jumps to his feet ready to aid the fellowship. The steward’s story is very anticlimactic when compared to the fates of Theoden and Denethor in the books, and I doubt members of the audience who hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings would even remember his presence in the show.

              Other characters were not cut out completely, but their scenes were heavily abbreviated. The ents feature for a few short minutes, and were positively ‘hasty’ when compared to their on-page counterparts, in a rushed scene that completely contradicted the notion that ents are slow and thoughtful: ‘We ents don’t say anything unless it’s worth taking a very long time to say it,’ Michael Hobbs’ Treebeard hurries.

              Even the presence of a Tolkien expert, Laurie Battle, as literary consultant to the creative team, couldn’t save the story. For me, and I’m sure many Tolkien fans will agree, the magic of The Lord of the Rings lies in the characters, story, and the detail of the world that Tolkien has created. Clever special effects and a budget of 25 million pounds might make a visually impressive show, but if the story and the songs are lacking, it will never be a true success. Perhaps another director could have done a better job, but I suspect The Lord of the Rings is a story that could never be adapted for the stage successfully.

              On a final note, I’d like to recall one of Gandalf’s last scenes, in which he informed the hobbits that he was ‘off to see Tom Bombadil’ (this is the first and last reference to the character, who features in the book of The Fellowship of the Ring and was somewhat controversially removed from the film adaptations). This was a throw-away and pointless line, which could only confuse those who hadn’t read the books, and irritate those who had. You could practically hear Matthew Warchus shouting from back-stage, ‘I’ve kept Tom Bombadil in – Ha! I’ve beaten Peter Jackson’.

              No you haven’t, Warchus. You really haven’t.





              The Lord of the Rings: The Musical is on stage at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which is close to Charing Cross tube and train stations.

              The official website for the musical is www.lotr.com or you can call 0870 890 6002 to book.

              Performance Times:

              Monday evenings at 7.00pm
              Tuesday to Saturday evenings at 7.30pm
              Saturday matinees at 2.00pm
              Thursday matinees at 2.00pm from 28 June
              Extra matinees on Monday 24 and Monday 31 December at 1.30pm
              No evening performance 24 December.
              No performances 25 December.

              Seat Prices:

              Stalls £60.00, £50.00
              Grand Circle £60.00
              Upper Circle £42.50, £35.00
              Balcony £27.50, £20.00, £15.00

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