How to listen to Elton John’s Greatest Hits, in ten easy steps

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1. You might want to start with Your Song, or you might not. Your Song is as much Elton John as he is pudding-basin haircuts and insane eyewear; it is the only Elton you learned to play and you sing it in your mother’s voice and Your Song is in your veins. If you do start here, it’s quite normal to slide nicely into Tiny Dancer, which you do not understand. You imagine Tinkerbell, which is an abomination.

2. What the Sam Hill is Honky Cat. Skip. You are ambivalent about Rocket Man, and this life is too short for ambivalence. Skip. Crocodile Rock sounds like it was made for a toddler’s dance party. You have often used it for this purpose. It’s not a casual listening song. Skip.

3. Ah, here we are at Daniel, which is where you start if you don’t fancy starting with Your Song. You sing ‘Daaaaaniel you’re a staaaaaar’ in a pleasant lilt. You imagine Seventies Elton, sky-rocketing to the top of the music business so quickly he’s burning, all glam and glitter and concealed gayness, thinking that catching a flight to Spain is exotic. I mean. The seventies, right?

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All birds were afraid in the seventies.

4. Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting gives you a headache. Skip. DO NOT EVER SKIP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, because you skipped it for years until you realised how brilliant it was, and you have made an oath never to make this mistake again. There’s a line about hunting a horny back toad. You do not really think Elton has ever hunted any kind of amphibian in his spare time, but you give him some dramatic licence.

5. Sometimes you bypass Candle in the Wind, because – sorry – you feel it has been forever candy-flossed by association with Princess Di. When you don’t skip it, imagine teenage Elton wanting to love Marilyn Monroe as a real person, and feel some feelings. Then shut those feelings down. Benny and the Jets is next. Repeat. BENNY AND THE JETS IS NEXT. You have a special dance for this one, and you don’t know whether the dance or the stuttering consonants or the mohair boots make it, but you are as cool as ICE when you sing this song.

6. You prefer the version of Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me with George Michael, as all right-thinking people do. Skip. Then keep on skipping till Someone Saved My Life Tonight. It’s a slow-burner, this one, and you start with low-key piano mime to the octave chords and end with air-drums, butterfly actions and anguished faces. This is living. Do not forget it.

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7. Island Girl is meh. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is peppy. You watched the video for Don’t Go Breaking My Heart once, and all you can remember is their frantic, peppy faces and so much brown flared trouser you could have used Elton’s leg as a sleeping bag. You think for a minute about using Elton’s leg as a sleeping bag, and then feel weird. Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word is only to be left on if you have ice cream to hand and the death of a pet to mourn. (EDIT: this was later cannibalised by Blue, I find. Of course it was.) 

8. This point exists only to remind you that we are still only six years after Your Song. SIX YEARS. Damn.

9. Disc Two is patchy. The eighties, a place of both shoulder pads and Thatcherism: highs and lows came with the territory. Stop quickly in countryville with Blue Eyes, then hop onto I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues. You are only allowed to sing this song if you do the line ‘rollllin’ like thunderrrr/ under the coooovers’ with special growly voice and slightly salacious face. One time you will catch a glimpse of this face in the mirror, and realise it’s the same face you use when presented with a really good, sharp cheese. The rest of the songs are optional till you get to Something About the Way You Look Tonight. In an ideal world this song would be played at your funeral, and all the mourners would cast themselves down and pound the flagstones in memory of your radiance. Then be served crackers and a good sharp cheese. You have left instructions to this effect.

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10.  The best is here, at the end, with the late songs. This is older Elton, weary Elton, ready-to-cut-the-crap-and-say-it-like-it-is Elton. Never forget that the video for I Want Love stars Robert Downey Jr before he was supernova-famous, lip syncing these poignant things all biceps and hollow cheeks, and it is hotter than the sun’s core. This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore is your favourite, and you love it for his exhaustion and his brutal honesty. You wish for nothing more in life than to sing the heck out of this song on a car journey and time it so the last notes play just as you pull in to your drive. Because this means you can ignore Song for Guy, all weird instrumentals and Elton creepily whispering ‘life’ over and over.

You find out it was written for a dead boy. Feel guilty. Skip.

Museums I have known and sprinted in, by Henry Jeffcoat

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I am a huge believer in kids and museums. Firstly, because I love museums, and if you can’t impose your likes and dislikes on your children while they’re too young to roll their eyes, well, when can you, eh? Secondly, because most of them are free, so I can buy us cake on the way out instead if we’ve got any spare change. And thirdly, because they’re only going to learn appropriate public behaviour if they get a chance to practice. I am as big a fan of soft play as the next rained-indoors mother, but let’s face it: all they learn there is survival of the fittest. It’s like a germy Lord of the Flies.

We do museums in London whenever we get chance – the ‘dinosaur you-seeum’ being our personal favourite, of course – but it’s not quite close enough to go often. But Reading has two jewels in its crown for pre-schoolers, and they’re only a short walk\drive away. The Museum of English Rural Life is a dream come true for transport-obsessed toddlers, and I’ve written about that one here. Today, we went to the other: Reading Museum, in the town hall, a gorgeous old redbrick building near the station.

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Every time we come here, I want to text everyone I know with children afterwards. It’s fantastic. The collection is quite small, and as random as anything: Reading historical artefacts on the ground floor, from the medieval abbey onwards; then a complete, full-sized replica of the Bayeux Tapestry on the first floor (more about this later); then art, stuffed animals and a Victorian schoolroom at the top. The best part, though, is the backpacks. Toddler-sized and colour-coded, you choose one you haven’t used before and take out the treasures inside one by one. Then there’s a question or quest attached to each item. Since Henry’s hobbies include backpack wearing and getting new toys, you can imagine how he feels about it.

Today we started with a brick, and found a wall of magnetic bricks to make patterns (like several redbrick buildings in Reading). We looked at tiny medieval people in glass cases, and listened to some plainsong from the monks.

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Then we had a toy horse – oh, the joy! – and looked over the BayFaux Tapestry to find horses in battle, and horses riding in boats. Can we just take a minute to talk about this? A determined Victorian embroiderer, Elizabeth Wardle, decided that Britain should have its own copy, and engaged her Leek Embroidery Society (yes!) to make an exact copy. It was completed by thirty-five women in just over a year, and they worked from Elizabeth’s memory and from colour photographs at the V&A. This is a brilliantly batty thing to do. Did you need any further proof that the Victorians were happily bonkers? It’s here.

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After that we had a squirrel to find in the stuffed animal room – which also comes with puzzles and colouring pencils – a set of jingle bells leading us to a thumb piano, and finally some binoculars to look at some art on high shelves.

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Henry was so engaged in finding things, rummaging in his bag for the next toy, and zipping up and down in the lift, that he didn’t have time to misbehave. Maybe excitement about Old Stuff will carry through into his adult life, and he’ll enjoy history as much as I do. Or maybe he won’t, and he’s just learning to look and ask questions and be excited about the world around him. I’ll take either option, to be honest, especially if it comes with a backpack.

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He always cries when we leave, and I think this is recommendation enough.

 

The secret to choosing the perfect holiday reading

Tomorrow I fly to the States for my little brother’s wedding. Leaving aside how weird it is that tiny sticky-handed brothers can grow up to become nice people and get married to other nice people anyway, like what business is it of theirs getting older, I have a fair few things to ponder over this morning. Not least: narrowing down the book pile that will go into my carry-on.

(No, I don’t have a Kindle. Yes, I can finally see the value in it and probably will succumb at some point, but today is not that day.)

I have a fail-safe rule when it comes to holiday books, and this applies even if you do have a schmancy e-reader and are wondering what to download. It goes:

something old

something new

something funny

something true

If you’re thinking that this holiday is the chance you’ll get to finally get through the Booker shortlist, I’m here to tell you that’s probably not going to happen. Holiday brain is real. By the time you’ve got over the dribbling relief of being away from your normal routine and in a pretty place by a pool, you can forget the Serious Novel.

Here’s my pile for the Arizona desert:

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old: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By ‘old’ I mean an old favourite – one you’ve read and reread till you can quote the opening sentence on the first dog-eared page.  Agatha is my go-to comfort read, as you probably know. And Then There Were None is so forties it hurts, and fiendishly, blood-curdlingly clever. I know exactly whodunnit and I still can’t leave it alone. 

new: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

By which I mean, again, new to you. There’s nothing like discovering something magnificent in a new place. The two become forever linked in your head, and thinking about one will remind you, beautifully, of the other. I am ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read Mansfield Park, and a seventeen-hour travelling day will probably leave me enough time to get stuck in. Besides, wouldn’t a dash of Regency manners be a perfect antidote to sitting in economy like a trussed-up chicken?

funny: Terry Pratchett’s Mort* 

You don’t want to be hammering through some literary theory when you hit turbulence or are waiting for your third delayed flight. You want something quick and hilarious. Terry Pratchett might not be your laugh-magnet of choice – choose whoever is –  but Mort is one of my oldest and most beloved of funny books.

*NOTE: ‘funny’ can here be replaced with ‘trashy’, and the effect is the same. If you go with ‘trashy’ I would recommend some good corset-and-codpiece historical fiction, or else a magazine, if you can find one that doesn’t make you want to stab your eyes out.

true:  Nine Stibbe’s Love Nina

I do like a bit of holiday non-fiction. This book has been the most joyous thing I’ve discovered this year – the journal of a resolutely unimpressed nanny in a houseful of literary celebrities and precocious children. I wanted to start it again the minute I finished, and this weekend I’ll finally have time. (Warning: bohemian households containing Alan Bennett swear a lot.)

Now all I have to do is work out what to do when it’s FORTY DEGREES CELCIUS AT FIVE PM. Apart from weep tears that immediately evaporate into steam. I’m excited! (I’ll also be away from here for the next week. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, lovers.)

Even the rain loves Hay Festival

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If you are looking for a tweed jacket or trilby hat, go to Hay Festival. It’s not that there are very many tweed-and-trilby shops, but almost everyone there is wearing them. So you’ll get lots of ideas, and can go home and make a Pinterest board.

There are other reasons to love Hay Festival than trilbies, and I’ve written about them in enthusiastic detail here and here. Short version: books and talks and old stuff. This didn’t feel like our year for Hay: we are on absolute spending lockdown till all our house-moving bills are paid, I was full – nose-drippingly, smoker’s-coughingly full – of cold, and as I’m away in the States next week we’ve already used up all our babysitting favours for a lifetime. Still. It’s a tradition, and we love it with a passion: when a Jeffcoat is tired of Hay, s/he is tired of life, etc. We already had tickets for Steven Fry and Tony Fadell. We went.

(On the subject of colds, may we all, as a human race, take an unbroken vow of silence about the fact that I looked up to find Teddy eating one of my nose-soaked tissues today. Eating. I am shuddering as I type. HE MUST NEVER KNOW (until he’s old enough to read this blog. In which case, sorry Teds; and heck yes to your immune system).)

In sad contrast to last year’s enamelled blue sky, a raincloud descended somewhere around Bristol and didn’t lift all day. So no sunning ourselves in the quad over newspapers this time. But that left plenty of time for wandering round the little stands, taking photos and breaking our sugar fast with a hot chocolate so sweet we were buzzing for hours afterwards. I also ate an almond croissant, filled with almond-flavoured custard, that was seriously as large as my face. I might as well stop eating now, because nothing will ever be as good again. We sat in the food court making little whimpering sounds of joy, opposite two Germans making serious work of a ploughman’s lunch. They sat down with plates of salad and chutney, and I thought ‘this lunch seems a little slight’, and then they took out an enormous venison Scotch egg from a paper bag. Our eyes met across the table, and I hope I managed to communicate my respect for you is as the vastness of the universe, good madams with a look. Because, a venison Scotch egg as big as an adult fist? That is the business.

We love Stephen Fry, although we did think that when you’re interviewing someone, they’re probably supposed to speak more than you. Tony Fadell invented the iPod, Stephen. Let him finish a sentence.

‘I had a question for him that was much better than any of those’, lamented Timothy, as we filed out at the end of the Q&A session. It was, too. Isn’t that always the way. Perhaps he can write a fan letter.

We didn’t have time to go into Hay itself this year, alas – though touring twenty book and antique shops with an empty purse would probably have been more painful than otherwise – but we got the Hay 2014 bag and utilised the photo booth, so left feeling like it was a job very well done. And our car reversed first time out of the soggy field we’d parked in.

Even a rained-out Hay day comes up trumps.

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The best game in the world: Friday night edition

What did you think was the nicest thing about being in your late twenties? I’ll tell you mine: no longer having to pretend that I liked being out late on a Friday night. I never enjoyed it, and felt like everyone else did, thus making me a loser all the way through high school and university.

Here is the Friday night of my dreams: I’ve finished work, have shut the door on two sleeping boys (I’m still ludicrously charmed by the fact that they sleep in the same room now), and have a well of quiet in which to drink this hot chocolate and make a start on a fat book. I have a blanket and a footstool. My socks are thicker than my feet. Tim is not here this evening, alas, so it’s not perfect. But everything else is pretty damn good.

If you’re reading this from under a blanket rather than while jumping in a dark, loud room, you may just be the sort of person who enjoys a stack of new books. Want to see? Here’s what I got from the library today, and why:

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First, The Search for Richard III: The King’s Grave. Last year I decided to try to broaden my historical fascinations beyond the Reformation, so reached all the way back to…the Plantagenets, one dynasty earlier. I know – at this rate, I’ll only just have reached the Stone Age by the time I’m in my fifties. I have a soft spot for poor, maligned Richard, mythical hunchback and all, so was delighted when it was announced he’d been uncovered in a car park last February. This book alternates the story of his life, by a historian, and the story of his discovery, by the woman who instigated the search. And I CANNOT WAIT.

Then hurrah, the fantasy section yielded Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch – another in the Peter Grant series that started with Rivers of London. I enjoyed the first one the most – where a down-to-earth London copper got himself accidentally inducted into the wizarding branch of the Metropolitan Police – but Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground were both excellent too. Aaronovitch writes about London so well that your bogies turn black when you read it.

Then Zadie Smith’s newest offering, NW. I so want to love Zadie Smith, but have given up on both her previous novels about halfway through. Her writing – vivid and bloody – hooks me in, and then the plot and/or prickly characters spit me back out. Third one’s the charm, right?

The last is actually mine, rather than the library’s – and I’m delighted about it: Life After Life just won the Costa prize, but I’ve also had several people recommend it to me. And I had a £10 gift voucher for Waterstones, so those seemed like two things just made to make me happy. I’m only 30 pages in, but it’s about a girl who gets the chance to be born over and over again to alter her destiny and that of the world at large. Och, I tell you what: it’s good. I’m reading it with my breath held.

Now Tim is home with the ingredients for Oreo milkshake, so Friday night just got catapulted into FABULOUS.

Here’s to staying in.

If I were Katniss Everdeen, my day would sound like this

This week I reread The Hunger Games trilogy. In two-and-a-half days. And here’s an interesting discovery: you can’t swallow fourteen hundred pages that fast without starting to feel like you’re the heroine in a book written by Suzanne Collins. Which makes you all present tense, short sentences, heavy on the drama, heavy on the eyebrows (my new fringe isn’t helping with this much. I find fringes terribly dramatic, somehow). Bless Ms Collins: she also ends every chapter with a cliffhanger in which at least one person, somewhere, is shouting ‘nooooooooooooo!’

Fourteen hundred pages. That’s a lot of cliffhangers.

My days are easily that dramatic, since you ask.

The

           Baby Games

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Chapter 1

It’s dark when I wake up. I glower across the room at the clock, as my fingers stretch automatically over the faded coverlet to replace Edward’s dummy. I can hear a rhythmic banging on the stairs.

Burglars, I think. They’ve come for us at last.

The door creaks open, creakily. I realise I am yawning, and bite my tongue. I must not show weakness, not here. There’s a figure in the doorway, and now I’m sure I know who it is.

‘Porridge time?’ it enquires, in a plaintive voice I know only too well.

It’s not burglars. It’s not even the postman.

It’s Henry.

Chapter 2

Panic. That’s what I feel as I hurtle down the stairs three at a time. Teds is wailing, and it’s a cry that means only one thing.

I enter the room and choke on the fog of nappy fumes that fills the air. I get down low on my hands and knees, searching for the source of the explosion. I know I’ll only get one chance to defuse it. Perhaps it’s already too late.

After what feels like a lifetime I find Teddy’s foot, and yank open his babygro with one hand. The smell is bad, but it in no way prepares me for what is waiting underneath. The stickily evil swamp. The orange and brown stains flooding up his back. Worst of all, the twitching that tells me another bomb is on its way.

I have just enough time to cover my face before the baby bowel explodes, and I am thrown backwards into the air.

Chapter 3

CRASHHH! I whip around, hands full of the sausages I’ve been skinning at the stove, to find Henry covered in broken remnants of Christmas ornament.

‘I smashed it’, he says, blue eyes bright underneath his mop of gold hair. He looks so like his father. I soften.

‘Let me sing you a song’, I say. I don’t sing very often, but it feels like the right moment. I begin, my voice low and persuasive.

Small potatoes, on the moon

Small potatoes, in the sea

Small potatoes, take a bath

Small potatoes, sing with me

Potatoes, oh, potatoes

Small potatoes

As I finish the song we sit still, tears of emotion making my throat ache. Then I realise that I can no longer hear the goats calling to each other outside the window. Guess it’s true, the goats really do fall silent when I sing.

Henry is silent too. Then he smiles, and smashes another Christmas ornament onto his own head.

Chapter 4

He’s here. Finally, he’s here. I run from the bathroom, where I’ve been foraging for old nappies, and cannon into him. Straight into the warmth of his arms. His face is amused as he looks down at me.

‘Why are you carrying a plastic Furby?’

I don’t want to tell him, but I have to. I avoid his eyes and mutter ‘it’s a Happy Meal toy. We went to McDonald’s today’.

Immediately his face darkens with sorrow, and I wish I hadn’t said anything. ‘Didn’t you get me a Festive Pie?’

I hang my head. ‘They’d run out’.

In the night, I dream of lost pies and skinned sausages. I wake up screaming, breathless with horror. He eases me back into sleep and as I float off into oblivion, I hear him say ‘there’ll be more pies tomorrow’.

And I know he’s telling me the truth.

The End

‘The Baby Games is awesome’ – Stephenie Meyer

‘A gripping dystopian thriller that had me hooked till the final pages’ – The New York Times

STAY TUNED FOR NEXT YEAR’S EXPLOSIVE SEQUEL: 

CATCHING GASTROENTERITIS.

What Love Actually says about you

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Last night I was snivelling over the end of Love Actually, because every Christmas season needs to involve snivelling over Love Actually, when Tim came in from work. He looked over my shoulder to see Colin Firth proposing to his Portuguese housekeeper in a crowded restaurant.

‘That’s my favourite storyline in this film’, he said.

I was surprised. I don’t know why. I suppose that I assume everyone’s favourite storyline involves Hugh Grant shaking his backside in 10 Downing Street. But, you know what, it is totally right that Tim goes for the Colin Firth. That strand is about a quiet, unassuming chap following his heart through a series of embarrassing encounters. It is low-key (at least until the big finish), but sweetly romantic. So it fits him.

Then suddenly, I had a GRAND THEORY. What if everyone’s favourite Love Actually storyline told you exactly what kind of person they were? And immediately I knew without a shadow of a doubt and with every fibre of my being that this theory was true, and would probably end up bringing about world peace, at least. Where do you fit in? Read on…

the Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon thread

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if the chirpy-Cockney-sparrer-meets-Prime-Minister thread is your favourite, you are probably so English they could cut you open and find bourbon biscuits. You like stammery, understated British humour, and cheer during the Harry Potter speech where he sticks it to the US President. You are a sucker for a mismatched love story with a happy ending. You would pay to watch Hugh Grant doing that bottom-shaking victory dance on a loop. You are astonished by how good Martine McCutcheon looks in red.

the Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln thread

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if the best-friend-loves-hopelessly-from-afar thread is your favourite, then picture postcard romance and grand gestures set your heart aflutter. You have paused, screen-capped and retweeted the scene where Andrew Lincoln holds up the placard saying ‘To me, you are perfect’. Its loveliness is such that you don’t even mind that a skateboard is better at delivering lines than Andrew Lincoln. You desperately want someone to arrange a secret orchestra to attend your wedding. In other news, you have genuine designs on Keira’s glorious pink London house.

the Colin Firth and Portuguese girl thread

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if the awkward-broken-hearted-writer-falls-for-awkward-Portuguese-girl thread is your favourite, you like to see the quiet guy getting the girl for a change. You are probably an understated sort of person yourself, so you understand the agonies that accompany social embarrassment, and never being able to communicate the right thing. You like the thought of looking for love in unexpected places. You think you could cut quite a dash in a roll-neck jumper, actually.

the Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson thread

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if the middle-aged-husband-tempted-away-from-middle-aged-wife thread is your favourite, you recognise that Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are the best things on any screen, and watching them together is worth getting your heart broken. You know that not all stories end happily. That Joni Mitchell song makes you cry. The moment where Emma Thompson hugs Hugh Grant makes you cry. Her speech about making a fool out of the life she leads makes you cry too. On reflection, you might be a sadist. But damn, you’d watch Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson selling vacuum bags, and call it a good afternoon.

the Liam Neeson and cute little boy thread

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if the bereaved-man-helps-stepson-find-love thread is your favourite, you might have a soft spot usually indulged by weeping at films where the dog dies at the end. You are eternally optimistic that grand tragedies can turn into happy endings, possibly involving Claudia Schiffer. You can’t refuse anything to a tiny moppet with big eyes. You have always, always wanted an airport declaration scene to happen to you. You find it slightly odd that Liam Neeson’s Irish accent sounds weird, especially since he’s IRISH.

the Laura Linney thread

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if the selfless-woman-sabotages-own-love-life-for-ill-brother thread is your favourite, you might have a keen sense of family ties. You are probably used to putting yourself aside for the responsibilities you owe to others. You love to watch a good awkward first date. You’ve been known to knock out a secret happy dance or two. That ring tone now makes you tear up a bit.

the Bill Nighy thread

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if the washed-up-bad-grandad-gets-number-one-hit thread is your favourite, you like an old person who isn’t afraid of an f-word. You like your comedy broad and a bit saucy. You don’t think you’ll ever unburn the image of a naked Bill Nighy from your retinas, but you still think he can do no wrong (he can’t. The end).

the Martin Freeman is naked thread

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if the naked-body-doubles thread is your favourite, you don’t blush easily (I do – Tim made me a version of the film without this thread in it. Shh, don’t tell Working Title).

the Kris Marshall and the American girls thread

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if the bumbling-fool-proves-irresistible-to-American-babes thread is your favourite, you might be an idiot. Or you might really like those BT ads. That’s all.

Remember kids, love actually IS all around. Now go and watch it again. 

What do you think? Did I get it right? Are we going to cure cancer with this thing, or what? 

UPDATED BECAUSE: I forgot to say – I’m an Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson person. Did you guess?