Wednesday, 31 December 2008

In The Year 2008 (Exordium and Terminus)

Tricky cove- Johnny 2008.

Big achievements obviously, I wrote a book for one, which I've had some nice feedback on*, I won two commissions for Radio 4, met loads of fabulous people (characters, heroes, new friends and old), and I had a few lovely breaks away, but there have also been real negatives too.

Working on the book I ended up doing no exercise for about two thirds of the year, eating badly, sleeping too little and getting to be the fattest, sweatiest, wheeziest blob I've ever been in my whole fat, sweaty, wheezy career. Straight after that came the shock of Ken Campbell's death which I really wasn't ready for at all and which has rather coloured the rest of my year, and compounded my usual winter blues.
Comedy seems to have stalled a bit for me this year, sadly it seems BBC Radio 7 have no interest in a No Tomatoes series 2 at the mo (though there was lovely feedback on the messageboards, management didn't appear keen to return our calls, which even the most ardent suitor eventually takes as a hint of some kind), so it's drama and documentary for a bit I fear, though I do have an idea for a sitcom I want to try and work up in early 2009.

So, onwards and upwards. Jollity, exercise, productivity and money await in the future somewhere between here and the final entropic collapse of all we pin meaning on into lukewarm Universal blah.
This message may or may not have been influenced by the cheery outlook of Charlie Brooker and my rediscovery of the 1989 Swans album The Drowning World.

*If by some accident you've not yet bought the book there's an opportunity to win copies coming up in early January 2009 at the very lovely Off The Telly "blog".

Happy New Year, chums. Sunshine's on the way.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Hey there, authenticity fans!

"There's a blaze of light in every word;
It doesn't matter which you heard,
The holy, or the broken Hallelujah!"

Leonard Cohen gets the last word in first on covers in the original version of 'Hallelujah' on Various Positions, you know, the version from before John Cale's cover for the tribute albumI'm Your Fan album reconstructed the song using alternative rejected verses (some of which Cohen sang live) into what has become the now definitive version (like Hendrix's rejigging of ’All Along the Watchtower').
Cale's take on the song is the original version of it as it's currently known, right down to the singing 'you' instead of 'yah' (thus mucking up the rhymes) and the lyric tweaks that Buckley mimics.

I'm glad you like the Buckley version, but for me there are two guys in the queue due praise ahead of Buckley if you're coming on all purist and criticising later covers.

Let the kids have their charts- another cover won't break this song. If a Jewish Buddhist can write a hymn that Christians, Agnostics and Atheists all think is theirs, it's a song with a bit of strength in it.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Can we imagine the sort of people that might live on a star like this? Let us go very close. Let us look and listen very carefully and perhaps...

I was a little disappointed a few weeks back when the Independent newspaper decided to turn a quote from Anne Wood in The Rise and Rise of the Independents into a item in its media gossip column, trying to make some of her comments about the way Michael Grade has historically dealt with children's TV into something which I felt belittled her grievance at the confused priorities of a market-driven yet nominally public service broadcasters. The item didn't take her or her argument seriously, concocting a frothy jokey piece based on a clash of personalities rather than ideologies- silly story teller versus pragmatic business man. As it happens Wood is a very pragmatic and successful business operator herself, you have to be to survive and thrive in the kids' TV environment we have now.

Parliament will be discussing children's TV again shortly, I fully expect to see that painted in some quarters as a heated debate on whether the right honourable member opposite remembers the names of all the Animal Kwackers, or that one with the ghost who... etc.

Well let's personalise this one as well. There's a reason why we should be taking the future of Children's television seriously, and that was illustrated by the fact that Oliver Postgate is being mourned today by people from at the very least their twenties to their fifties who know him only through his TV creations. His shows helped create the world views of a good two generations.
That's important stuff, and if, as at present, survival in the kid's TV world relies on producing programmes at a loss hoping that a profit might be turned on associated merchandise and global sales I fear the programmes that we see in future will suffer, and there's a danger that the imaginary worlds that are created for our children, and which help shape them, will be cheapened and commercialised by the process.

Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's Smallfilms was a cottage industry, with the personalities of its founders writ large in all it did. In those days merchandising meant books, annuals and comic strips (written and illustrated by Postgate and Firmin themselves). If you wanted a Clanger doll you knitted your own. Those days are long gone.
The series Clangers and Bagpuss are merchandised now as they never were in the years they were first screened and are now part of the brand management company Coolabi PLC's catalogue of properties. They are making money like never before, the sad truth is that the characters and stories they featured would certainly not have developed as they did if we'd had the children's TV market of today 50 years ago.

In short, if in future the sector can only support the heavily market researched, big money backed shows with a battery of associated merchandising that can be bought cheap, the individual creativity of people like Postgate and Firmin will be squeezed out and have its rough edges knocked off. To give another example- Wallace and Gromit (currently fronting the Christmas Radio Times) were not created by a committee second guessing what might prove most acceptable to the biggest worldwide audience but by one man (a Postgate and Firmin fan too, I should add) making a student film.

Postgate and Firmin offered surprise and delight, quirky tales from a favourite pair of quirky uncles, part of a diverse rage of voices that Children's TV supported then. Would you rather your child was read bedtime stories by real people or a committee? Committees produce some very good things, obviously, but I'd like to see them invent a Soup Dragon.

The Animal Kwackers were Bongo, Rory, Boots and Twang, I think the one with the ghost was either Come Back, Lucy or Nobody's House, you've not really given me enough to go on.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Coming to You Live

About 50 years ago, William 'Ted' Kotcheff, one of the Canadians who shook up UK TV was directing a TV drama. He was one of quite a few Canadian TV guys who came to the UK in the 1950s to teach us how to make exciting telly with adverts in. Because none of us had seen Canadian telly at the time, this was pre-videotape (invented by Ampex in 1957 and coming to the UK in 1959), a fair few of them were able to come over and do this, convincing our industry bigwigs that Canadian telly must be a good model for our ITV, if only because it was in English, it wasn't American and you had to imagine the rest.

On November 30th 1958 (not the 28th as many sources have it) Ted Kotcheff was directing a live Armchair Theatre for ABC from an old cinema in Didsbury in Manchester which they'd turned into a studio. It was a play called Underground about World War III breaking out- Nuclear attack on London, survivors down in the Underground tunnels, all that, and because it was live, the actors would be nipping off behind the scenery whenever they went off to cover themselves in masonry dust and so on.
The now notable actors Peter Bowles, and Warren Mitchell were both in the play, along with a guy called Gareth Jones, a young plump Welsh actor. Gareth explains he's feeling a bit dicky as he's applying the powder between sequences, and then, in front of everyone, as he returns to the action Gareth collapses and dies mid-performance.

Luckily there's an ad break coming up, the remaining scene is muddled through (thankfully it appears it's one low on lines from Gareth) and during the commercials Kotcheff and his assistants, Verity Lambert and James Gatward gather the actors 'round. They tell them Gareth has just fainted and break up his character's plot functions between the rest of the cast. They ask them to busk it and tell the camera men to shoot the play like a football match- just follow the action. The rest of the play is staggered through as a semi-improvised piece, at the end of which Kotcheff announces Jones' death to the cast.

Now in the theatre an actor dies, and generally they take it as a sign you can end the show,
So why did Kotcheff carry on? Some reckon he did it just to show he could, in a piece of adrenaline aided bravado. Some have whimsically suggested he found himself possessed by a desire to take poor Gareth Jones' disappearing life as he slumped to the ground and pickle it in radio waves, beam an impression of his essence out through the Winter Hill transmitter across the stars, and into eternity, though primarily to homes in the North Wales, Greater Manchester and Merseyside area, and somehow keep him alive.

It was this kind of woolly techno-spiritualist thinking about electronically recording a dying man that partially informed my poor joke radio show the other day. The other part of it was inspired by a story told by someone from the British Sound Archive a few years back. They're 'phoned up at work by someone asking if they have any recordings of death rattles. They go to the database and say 'Yes, we've two, one 2 minutes 12 seconds and another 3 minutes and 8.' 'I've got those already,' says the caller in disgust. I've been wondering about what kind of guy a death rattle collector might be ever since.

I have a suspicion, looking at related TV disasters of the time, that Kotcheff actually kept going for rather more prosaic economic and practical reasons. He was told to. Armchair Theatre was a big audience puller and there was a lot of revenue to be gained in its ad breaks, if you stop a show like that halfway through, that audience goes and you lose the money.

I suspect there was nothing in the can on hand to fill the play's remaining time that wouldn't have disgruntled viewers more than a rather improvised finale to the drama they were already watching so that's what they got. This was ITV four years in and they needed the money badly, much like now.

There's a great example around the same period which I've alluded to here before where ITV finishes its presentation of Hamlet before the play ends. They need to get in the commercials before the end of the hour to make them peak time ads and get the top rate for them, so they fade to black in the middle of a speech and pop on a Kia-ora advert. This is Peter Brook's famous production with Paul Scofield, prestigious stuff, ruined, half the required corpses still standing. Legend is Lew Grade the ATV mogul is watching at home and he's furious. He phones up presentation and demands “What the hell happened? What happened?” and the guy on duty replies “Oh, they all died in the end, sir.”

Ted Kotcheff now produces the TV series Law and Order in the US, his most famous credits are probably First Blood the initial Rambo film and Weekend at Bernie's a film in which people try to pass a dead man off as still alive which you can't help imagining might have been informed by that night 50 years ago when Kotcheff did it for real.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

“I'm writing to complain about both this blasphemous programme and the ghastly provincial voiced clown it foist upon us...”

For 4 weeks in March and April 1973 what appears to have been a quite astonishing radio comedy was aired (on Radio 3 of all places) which I've only recently learned about (initially from a letter of complaint in The Listener).

The series- 'Topping Wheeze' seems to have been based around a remarkably dark concept. As far as I can glean, it deals with a murderous comedian Maxwell Armley (played by Jake Thackray!) who having once accidentally laughed a man to death and being touched by the beatific sight of the corpse's smile, for some reason embarks on a killing spree determined to capture the sound of people's souls being released in their dying last gasps on tape. Don't ask me why, it seems to be a sort of macabre audio play on Powell's 'Peeping Tom'.

The accessible documentation surviving in the BBC Written Archive at Caversham (it looks possible there's more that's as yet deemed unreleasable) suggests that he eventually plans and stages a live wireless sketch show full of tightly timed catchphrases and reincorporated gags building in crescendo to a finale with an unbearable(!) 8 jokes a minute which causes mass asphyxiation amongst its studio audience, and presumably listeners at home (it's unclear). However angry listener correspondence in the same programme folder claiming the show defames Tommy Handley and offensively parodies Roman Catholic doctrine suggests the series may have strayed somewhat from this initial outline.
Unsurprisingly, no tapes survive, unless you know better...

Anyhow from contemporary listings we can also glean this-
The show aired at around 9.15pm (though Radio 3 timings are notoriously prone to slippage) on the 24th March to 14 April 1973 also featured Ron Pember and Margaret Westbury and was written by Bob and Barbara Boulton and produced by Paul Bradley (not the one who later went on to play Nigel in EastEnders).

The Radio Times plot precises also give us the following tiny hints.
Part 1- Corpsing. Maxwell Armley is an unhappy comedian, weary of life until he accidentally hits on the perfect joke.
Part 2- Die Laughing. Max hits trouble in a northern Working Man's Club when the rattle-gag fails.
Part 3- Killing Joke. The great broadcast begins to take shape, but Maxwell faces danger in the shape of a investigating policeman with no apparent sense of humour.
Part 4- Reincorporation.
A last gasp return for the departed leaves Maxwell questioning his calling. Is surviving on tape the key?

Anyone remember this one at all? I think there might be an interesting article for comedy archivists in it. I reckon if we manage to piece enough facts and obscure details together this previously unheard of piece might well be reappraised as a lost classic.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Breaking Radio Silence

It's been a tricky couple of weeks in Lake Wobegon.

I did my Ken thing, which went okay, I wasn't script solid enough to fly solo, so the book floated around in my hand, leading to both a couple of fluffed bits and a couple of nice bits that surprised me. People were nice, appreciative, kind and asked interesting questions but almost as soon as it was over I began to feel rather snotted up, and, after a horrible delayed journey back from Liverpool Lime Street getting home in the early hours, the next couple of days were devoted to achey, man-fluey, feeling out of it introspection.
Since then, with my mind already on the fragility of existence, there seems to have been quite a run of people at death's door, suffering grim degenerative conditions and dying unexpectedly all around us. The end of last week was particularly bad for this.

In cheerier news, my book is definitely out and as I write is topping the TV History and Criticism section- though given the volatility of that sales chart I suspect you only need to sell about two copies a week to do that. By now I imagine an out of print Most Haunted tie-in book WHICH SHOULD NOT BE IN THAT CATEGORY will have pipped it again by virtue of someone getting a second hand copy for a Derek Acorah signing session somewhere.

Actually a book about Telly Cars is beating it now. It'll be Jordan's third volume of autobiography next.

In not very exciting to anyone much but I know my readership news BBC Radio 7 (as it now is) is playing Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange's Dreams and Peter Howell's Inferno Revisited as part of a Radiophonic Workshop tribute on December the 20th. This should excite half of you because they're interesting pieces of radio work, half of you because Howell first uses that running music from The Five Doctors in his piece (and I think recycles a couple of Meglos stings) and a third of you for both reasons*.

There's lots of sound and fury and a brilliant bit of silence in Howell's play.

*I assume a readership of 6 obviously.

A better post will follow next week.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The storm clouds gather...

I'm finding reasons not to write the next bit of my play at the moment, just scribbling ideas, making notes, mulling things over, reading other people's stuff, caffeinating myself, knowing there's the dam burst coming soon. It looks a lot like doing nothing from the outside, which it sort of is- but it's more not doing the wrong something. Well, not yet, anyway.

This week's news- book apparently at printers, doing tax return, having a nice hot bath, working out what to do with green tomatoes without falling into cliche, looking at the last six beautiful apples left on the tree, all too high to reach without hilarious risk-taking (maybe later), I also have a documentary idea through stage 1 of the latest Radio 4 offers round, which is both neat and interesting considering I deliberately didn't submit it. Guess I must have been not doing the wrong something there, too.

It's the calm before the storm I tell you.

Crack of thunder... frenzied typing commences. It was a dark and stormy etc.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Sound and Vision

Here's what's on the back cover of my book (cheapo Optical Character Recognition software willing):


British TV beyond the broadcasters

Independent television production has been one of the great British business successes of recent years

The Rise and Rise of the Independents reveals the forces behind its growth through the stories of the people who pioneered it and those who profited from it. This once very precarious occupation became an international success far surpassing anything the British Film Industry - despite its billions of pounds in grants, subsidies and tax breaks - has achieved in recent years.

From the US communist-backed adventures of the 1950s Robin Hood to Robin Hood's 21st Century adventures filmed in former communist Hungary, it's a business story with surprising twists and tums.

It's a story of left wing idealists and free market economists, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, union leaders and union busters, and a shift in power from the broadcasters
to the producers, but above all, of programme makers making their art their own business.

From light entertainment to documentaries, drama to youth programmes, game shows to Reality TV, The Rise and Rise of the Independents tells the story of the people and their programmes, and the luck, judgement, lobbying and legislation that made UK TV what it is today.

Featuring interviews with many of the pioneers of this new TV age - including Sophie Balhetchet Peler Bazalgette, Peter Bennett~Jones, Jane Featherstone, Nick Fraser, Tony Garnett, James Gatward, Colin Gilbert, David Graham, Paul Jackson, Jane Lighting, Allan McKeown, Steve Morrison, Jimmy Mulville, Charlie Parsons, Terence Ryan, Nicola Shindler, Paul Smifh, David Swift, Patrick Uden, Beryl Vertue and Anne Wood, The Rise and Rise of the Independents explores how the industry got where it is today and where its leading lights see it heading next."

It's about 320 pages and 150,000 words (excluding footnotes) and also has a jolly nice cover:

If you're interested you should be able to get it either direct from the publisher, or from all the other usual sources (ISBN 13-978-0-9554943-2-1,
price seems to be widely variable as is the way these days).

Dear Diary

I thought I ought to essay a brief entry here after a lengthy radio silence of Third Programme proportions.

In that time I wrote a couple of drafts of 'blog entries that may well still appear here in time (the typed up versons went astray, I'll have to return to scribbled train journey jottings if I'm going to revive them), went up to Liverpool to plot a bit of a series of Ken Campbell events as part of the Biennial. It's been lovely meeting others touched by the man in different ways and glimpsing some of the different facets he presented us and that we drew from him. A remarkable figure, who I wish I'd managed to turn more of my friends onto (I think a couple were unlucky to see some of his lesser performances, as it happens). I think the fact the Facebook page "Ken Campbell Changed My Life" has over 300 members now says something.
Anyhow, more on that in November. Suffice to say I'll be giving a talk which will be somewhere between a lecture and a performance, precisely where depending on the audience. I've written a 4,000 word draft which I'm fairly happy with, good jokes, all true facts, and I hope a decent tribute.

I've also pitched another documentary and two series ideas at Radio 4, hopefully at least one of which will happen, and started properly thinking about my Afternoon Play. There are vague promises of ridiculously starry casting for this, though that'll be dependent ultimately on me writing something good enough and of course artist availability, so it could easily end up featuring The Speaking Clock and Timmy Mallett (not denigrating either artist). It's for airing next July I think, recording currently planned for mid-June, so it'll be much later before there's a lot more to say.

Closer to home I've also started operating a 'one in, two out' policy for books. I've too many books in the house that I'm never going to read again, and there's a few long-term unread ones that I reckon will stay that way so it's time to shed some baggage.
Today an old Arthur C Clarke book with a truly shocking back blurb joined the charity box- "Here are glimpses of the worlds of the future, of a decade, a century, even a millenia from now..." Two mistakes in just one word, what we'd put up with from publishers in 1983.

Talking of back blurbs, we've finalised the one for my book, and having jumped through the various editorial and legal hoops it's finally headed to the publishers. I'll give that a post of its own shortly.

All this and fun with the juicer, varnishing furniture, harvesting apples and tomatoes and, since we started getting a veg box, learning what celeriac is for. It's all gripping stuff, isn't it?

Oh and congrats on the new job if you still pop by here, Malevich! Just read about that today, sounds excellent to me.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

This is not a full stop. This is a hyphen coming straight at you.

Hello. While I was away where the internet don't shine and incoming calls are hard to pick up I lost another hero. This time though, I was lucky enough to have known him too.
I probably first became aware of Ken Campbell in the early 1980s, a shadowy figure who it progressively turned out was woven into the story of so much I loved- theatre, Liverpool, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, conspiracy theories, urban legends, Doctor Who, the KLF, esoteric physics, ridiculous hoaxes and general mucking about... wait a minute or delve a foot or two deeper into anything that caught your eye and there would be Ken, staring back. Geoffrey Perkins, as you may know, once had to impersonate Ken in order to get a radio performance out of Ken that came over Kennish. That's a good Ken story, as typical is his response when I asked if it was true 'Yeah. Probably.'

I first saw him perfom on stage at the Library Theatre in Manchester in the early 1990s in one of the most thrilling pieces of theatre I've ever seen- Pigspurt or Six Pigs From Happiness, a virtuoso one man show, that went from Bad Manners to Ken Dodd via Philip K Dick and pulled out of me more species of laughter than anything I'd ever seen before, my snigger, my bellow, my guffaw and probaby a few more besides, and managed to provide food for thought as well. I left him a note among his stage paraphenalia after I saw his follow up show Jamais Vu, in which I suggested a few extra links to his Cathars and Cathode Ray Tube conspiracy, and he 'phoned me up for a chat. For a few years after that, London became a place I mainly went to do things that would allow me to pop in on Ken afterwards. Calls to and from Ken were great sources of fun and wonder, and I hugely enjoyed discovering bits and pieces for Ken on Elizabethan clowns and Egyptian pygmies, tracking down old telly of his, or doing drawings for him and discovering his new obsessions. Ken calls were commissions, calls to misadventure.

Ken also supplied me with several more highlights of my theatre going life in that time, an amazing performance of his show Mystery Bruises at Manchester's Royal Exchange, a beautiful intimate version of his History of Comedy Part 1 – Ventriloquism in the Crucible, Sheffield which towered above the same show at the National where I felt it was slightly lost and a bespoke version of Theatre Stories he presented at a cyber-cafe for my stag do, which will be a long treasured memory.

I saw less of him over the last few years particularly after he moved out to Essex, but I was very pleased to catch up him last December at a great gig at the British Library, and was very touched that he spotted me in the audience and asked me not to rush off at the end. We had a lovely chat, promised to keep in touch, and he introduced me to one of the chaps there as his 'friend, Ian' which was something I felt very privileged to be. I don't remember now when he first called me that rather than a 'fan' it may well have been backstage at some theatre to help justify and dignify my presence there to some stage door border guard, but the title remains a badge of honour.

He was a warm, funny, mischievous, exciting, intelligent and challenging human being, I utterly adored him, and now he's gone.

The thing is though, remembering Ken now, for all the tears I've shed for what won't happen next (how dare the world have shunted him off before the big CERN gnothing gnowing gnockabout next week?), is basically a joyous thing, because pretty much all my memories of him are of laughter, wonder and at times utterly transcendent hysteria and I can find nothing there to be sad about whatsoever. He was a force of nature, and I'm not actually convinced being dead will curtail his activities so much as redirect the way Kenness is expressed in the world. His example and influence have enabled me to do a lot over these last few years that I would never have done without him, and I've decided the best way to honour him in the years to come is remain open for incoming calls and be ready to receive my next commission.
Don't rest, Ken- it isn't you.

Friday, 29 August 2008

So farewell then, Mike Flex

Very sorry to hear about the death of Geoffrey Perkins today. Another hero of mine from the world of comedy, Hitch-Hikers', Mornington Crescent, Radio Active... how could I not love him? And that was just the start of his career. Just this morning his index entry was one of the last tasks on my book, one of the references was to Jimmy Mulville talking about what a nice man he was.
I met him maybe three or four times very briefly when he was BBC Head of Comedy and I was an archive searching underling, our longest exhange was about the sheer bulk of stuff I was taking back up North after a summer at the BBC. He seemed as nice as everyone said.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Intro and the Outro

I'm finally beginning to end one project- excitingly, it ended up 50 per cent longer than I'd initially planned, less excitingly, it took 50 per cent longer to complete. The blurb behind the link is now somewhat out of date, the book is going to be much more house bricky, now. I'm pretty pleased with it. It's been a labour of love and a lot of hard labour.
I think we're looking at a November launch, more as I know it. I just have to ask the fast moving world of the media to stop moving for a couple of months now, please.
There are still eyes to be crossed and teas to be dotted through the days, but the slow business of stopping is in hand, and I'm starting on some other things, for the first time in ages.

It looks like the contract's about to come through for my Afternoon Play but I'm probably not going to write in earnest on it until I've met up with the producer in a couple of weeks, I've also got a couple of sitcom ideas I'd like to play with- one is a fairly well worked out radio proposal, another is a slightly less focused TV one, an idea for a book I've been wanting to whip into shape for a bit, and I suspect documentary research will start up soon.

Starting is much fun than ending- bit more daunting, more chance to go horribly wrong, but all that potential, and you know starting things is so much quicker. Let's see how it all gets on.

In radio rerun news the Radio Times is now billing No Tomatoes as 'Language based comedy', which given it's on the radio is probably for the best. This is a marked improvement on the previous billing of 'Experimental comedy' which I can't help feeling has an unspoken suggestion of failure about it.

You can hear the language and share in the experiment

in the UK, or here in the rest of the world.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008


am 3
amazed 19
at 5
by 15
done 25
harder 10
hello 1
I 2
I'm 18
indexing 4
is 9
it 8
might 13
moment 7
reading 22
still 21
than 11
the 6, 16
think 14
this 23
way 17
well 24
you 12, 26
you're 20

Monday, 11 August 2008

More crowd-pleasing German Expressionism


You look at two thirds of this film, and you're looking at an episode of Taggart or Prime Suspect, perhaps Cracker. A serial killer is on the loose in the city, the people are terrified, the press are doing rather nicely out of it - printing mail from the killer and flooding the streets with extra editions, the police are clueless and their bosses are leaning on them to get a result. We follow their investigation and the killer in a race against time. All so-so sofa fare, so far.
Except, this is a 1931 German film not a 1990s ITV police procedural, one of the earliest talkies and, in the hands of Fritz Lang, a bit of a wonder.
If you've seen Metropolis at any of its various lengths or speeds, even with the addition of Pat Benatar and colouring in, you can't help being attuned to Lang's vision of the city and of class. The towering tenement at the film's opening has no elevator and a water pump in the square below, making you wonder if it has running water either, and you can't help being reminded that that really is how our cities' poor once lived. This is also a city in which industry has died, the derelict state of the warehouse of the film's climax is pointedly highlighted, the beggars are unionised, organised crime has more resources than the police, and yet the bank is protected by an elaborate security system which can draw the police in minutes, even at the height of a city wide murder hunt.
The use of sound is really impressive, pretty much every successful film audio technique is here from the off, intercutting dialogue, incongruous juxtapositions of image and sound, the whistled tune that tells us the killer is around before we see him, all great stuff, even if now a couple of the deliberately mute sequences now seem oddly lacking.
Peter Lorre is of course excellent, resembling some strange Orson Welles, Tony Hancock, Pete Doherty combo, all big eyes, round face and full lips, like a world weary baby with a penchant for long coats and hats, he doesn't seem to do much at first, but there's a powerful cumulative effect to this performance.
Cinematically, the whole thing feels very contemporary, bar a couple of frankly silly low angle shots, and the screen ratio is also jolly exciting for the likes of me, still chanting 4:3 good, 16:9 bad, it's almost completely square. I never got bored and looked at the black bits at the screen edges once.
Perhaps the one big weakness in the film naturalistically is that the people's court that appears towards the end feels rather out of place after a couple of superb demonstrations of the nature of mob justice, early on. Given what we know of human nature and what we see in the film, particularly when a fare dodge nearly gets lynched when Chinese whispers identify him as the murderer on the loose, it seems unlikely the killer would have lived for more than minutes after his discovery. This isn't a naturalistic film though, and its right the film's underpinning ideas get this slightly unrealistic outing, even if now seems a touch 'on the nose'.
Incidentally, for a late expressionist, early film noir (take your pick) movie about the hunt for a child killer, this is surprisingly funny, which no one's ever suggested to me, before. A lot of the scenes with the criminal underworld are quite broadly comic, including a quite lengthy sequence in which the police raid an illegal nightclub.
The heavy shadow of the Nazis hangs over the film of course, this is Weimar Germany in collapse on screen, which perhaps makes me more uncomfortable with the suggestion that a city's crooks and pan handlers might be all part of a secret and structured order- it's a little too close to the lies that allow whole classes of people to be demonised, declared subhuman, and eliminated, but that's also part of what makes the film live. There's a queasy lack of moral high ground, anywhere, and the final shot warns us that none of our cures for our social ills and illnesses are better than their prevention.
You should see this, the emotional tone is surprisingly broad and there's genuine suspense too, in which your sympathies shift in sometimes unexpected directions. If for nothing else, you need to see it for an utterly superb shot of a man smoking a cigar in a pipe. Recommended.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Old jokes

If you read this I expect I've probably already let you know that No Tomatoes is being rerun at the mo, but you never know...

You can catch it via the iPlayer these days at
if you're interested.

It now comes with a free picture of a cute dog, which I like to think is progress.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Buy A New Subwoofer

It must be true... probably.

"Bill Mitchell: The Man Who Wrestled Pumas – Radio 4

Bill Mitchell, voice-over artist, owned the booming baritone who told us Carlsberg was “probably” the best lager in the world, and that Denim was “for men who didn’t have to try too hard”. This sharply-angled documentary explores a bygone age in the creative industries embedded in bravado and macho insecurity – a world created by men for men."

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Just me, then?

Halliwell and Orton as depicted in the film Prick Up Your Ears.

Ernie and Bert, yesterday.

Are they, perhaps, related?

Friday, 18 July 2008

Answers to last March's cryptic quiz...

Ian was listening to the build up tapes for Delia Derbyshire's Blue Veils and Golden Sands.

Ian was listening to the build up tapes for Delia Derbyshire's Blue Veils and Golden Sands.

Amazing stuff.

The winner receives a limited edition Golden Hare by Lindt and Kit Williams.

Honestly people, the clues were all there.

There's finally been a press release about this great, great collection.

Eddie Mair gets giddy on the PM blog
The Telegraph uses the word 'posterity'.
The Times muses on 'irrevocable decay' and calls Delia a 'hopeless alcoholic'.

That probably tells you something.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

More Radio 4

It's getting silly now.
Positive noises about my second Radio 4 documentary pitch, which hasn't been picked up due to a shortage of slots suggesting the commissioner really liked it and that it may be picked up either 'out of round' or in the next wave of commissioning. Listen to me with all my jargon.

Obviously, we've heard similar before when BBC7 asked us to pitch No Tomatoes 2, pleaded lack of slots, asked us to resubmit next time and by then had gone off it, but this sounds a good grain more hopeful.

I bet it's because I've turned 40. I am become Radio 4, the Maintainer of Worlds.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Stuff about writing

Very sad to learn last night that Paul Makin, the writer of the incredible sitcom Nightingales died last week. Paul wrote a lot for Alomo and I was gushing in my praise of him to Allan McKeown just a few months ago while researching my telly book. Get hold of the series if you're a fan of cerebral comedy that's funny peculiar as well as ha ha.
It stars David Threlfall, Robin Lindsay and James Ellis, TV royalty all, and was produced by Esta Charkham who I found utterly charming and very smart at my first and only paid SF convention visit (I've sneaked in the bar of a couple since) Fan Aid North. It's got Brendan from Moreton Harwood in it too.

In further it must be the time of year Radio 4 depresses half the sociopathic and virtually autistic middle-aged men in Britain news, I've heard back about my Afternoon Play.
They've bought it!

Like you should buy Nightingales.

Friday, 11 July 2008


How are your memories of 1979? If you're old enough to have any I'd suggest- wonky. They're over-detailed in some areas, vague and hazy in others. Without a briefing from an assistant director and a quick look at the clip you're due to recall on the monitor you may struggle.

My memories of 1979, aren't so much about the rise of Thatcher or the specific crapness of being 10 to 11, which is what I was mainly being that year, so much as how brilliant Doctor Who was, which of course with the exception of the 'one brief shining moment'* of City of Death it really wasn't that year.
The other important thing you simply *must* remember from 1979 is the sheer magisterial genius of Amii Stewart's cover of 'Knock on Wood', particularly in conjunction with that video (or promo film as they called them then, even when, like this one, they were soooo totally video), with the fractal howlround cloak and head-dress. It is spectacular. Go to YouTube now, leave a data trail that the Man will use to get at you, go now, do it! I'm ever so grateful to the assistant director for reminding me of it and playing that clip just now.

Oddly, in my messy memories of Doctor Who back then it was a serious drama in which all the science made sense.

Do you see where we're going now, children? I found the conclusion of Doctor Who over the last three weeks to be probably the most satisfying of the recent run.
Now, I know this is heresy, I know the job of a fan is to hate more deeply and more perversely than any untrained casual viewer ever could... and yet, and yet- I really liked it.
I cheered, I laughed, I was moved. Now, I agree the big old planet moving, multiverse mushing plot didn't really hold together too well, but oh, the human stories, the little touches, for some people these things (along with peculiarly lumpen speeches about well-prepared meals) are what Doctor Who is all about. It may have been over-detailed in some areas, vague and hazy in others but it was memorable for me and for all the right reasons... I think.
You see, I reckon we've had Doctor Who with worse science and plotting than this many times, but we've rarely had a series that has touched our little bubbling lumps of heart before.

Hang onto the feeling, it was good, really- it'll never be quite your ideal series I know, because it never was quite that show, really- you're a fan, you've spent decades misremembering it, but hey grab the good and enjoy it now, unbelievably it was the most popular chunk of Who since that shining moment in 1979 when ITV was just light classical music.

I don't mind if you don't like it obviously, with luck you'll have a chance to reappraise it radically in 19 years time, just don't be cross that I did.

Meanwhile, in 1979 nostalgia news, Radio 4 have commissioned my documentary about Bill Mitchell- the gravelly voice over man of choice of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
I'm delighted, I like to have at least one job of work to stick on the CV a year.
I'd quite like to call it The Man Who Wrestled Pumas... Probably, I doubt we will though. Touch wood, eh? Tukka ta tukka ta tukka ta tukka- better knock knock knock on wood... (repeat 'til "earworm'ed)

Radio 4 is now officially allowed to the 1970s now, you know? They're doing plays about punk now everyone involved is elderly and jaundiced like proper Radio 4 folk. There's probably an utterly ghastly ITV1 studio sitcom in doing something about old punks actually, it'd probably have to pilot on Radio 2 first, mind.

*Camelot, as nearly quoted by Doctor 10nent last week.

** Obviously, in retrospect, I should have had the foresight to name this posting after Nostalgia by the Buzzcocks, that would have been loads better. Everything's better in retrospect- even foresight.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Dull Thoughts from a Fan

One of my legion, well phalanxes, well tiny little patrols of legionaries like in Asterix, of readers has just commented on my recent lack of posting here. This is because I don't have a humorous cat, and am currently mainly concentrating on writing stuff about big media corporations it is quite important to do adequately, so I can get both paid and not sued.

However, there is time now as I sit on a railway platform (well a bench thereon) to prattle about Doctor Who which is my inner comedy feline. Yes, it's partway through review of the year time again.

Partners in Crime
I seriously adored, apart from a sequence with the Doctor trying to counter the baddies' plan by messing about with their computer, his sonic screwdriver and two beacon devices. This sequence lost me because the desire to fudge through the technological bit as quickly as possible meant while the stakes were clear the actual logic of what was going on was just one magic wand stroke too many for me, your mileage may vary. This was compounded by an annoying Hitchcock zoom in the same scene, which we get again in The Unicorn and the Wasp. I think it's a device that's become a little cheapened by repetition in adverts and sitcoms etc., and is so anti-naturalistic that I think it should really be saved for really earth shattering moments of revelation. It is of course best employed by Scorsese very very slowly in that diner scene in Goodfellas.

Fires of Pompeii was good too but marred by the fact that I found myself preferring the audio story Fires of Vulcan with Bonnie Langford and Sylvester McCoy and no monsters, which looks frankly absurd written down but is true all the same. I also wish it hadn't had the line about the people of Pompeii turning to stone too early. Seems a shame that Doctor Who Confidential now has to be the source of more accurate factual info about what happened to the Pompeiians rather than the parent show, and I couldn't help feeling there was something poor taste about populating this genuine disaster with alien fire beasties, this is almost certainly just me. Nice twist that to save the world, you kill the city though.

Planet of the Ood
, I enjoyed a lot, apart from the singing, which I wish had been, if not more alien at least less Western. Poor old Ood with their wireless broadband networked brains, lucky they'd evolved somewhere without natural predators, really.

The Sontaran Stratagem/The Burning Sky were largely inoffensive, except for the frankly rubbish use of last minute noble self sacrifice sequence 71a, which actually worked better with Pex in a fumbled long shot on tuppence happenny twenty years ago (then, it was merely ghastly), and the implausible hundred mile an hour winds of flame, which sadly resulted in no incinerated birds (good job the bees had already vanished eh, kids?). Didn't hate it and liked Christopher Ryan a lot, but a bit so what? All just a bit predictable and probably only really enjoyable for me while Donna wanders about the Sontaran ship (well maybe until she hides in the convenient alcove, why do alien ship designers insist on including these?).

The Unicorn and the Wasp, was enjoyable enough while not really emotionally involving, as in Christie you never quite believed any of the characters were real people whose passing you should mourn, but I did like the nesting flashbacks (how I wish they'd been old optical film ripples rather than video though) and the handling of the Colonel's big reveal moment. The big mystery unanswered of course is why Christie appears to have vanished in the Summer in Doctor Who land (answer- so we can have tea on the lawn and wasps).

The Doctor's Daughter
, strikes me as a basically sound script, apart from one slightly overwrought speech, in which the Doctor blatantly lies about whether he'd use weapons or not, which is let down by editorial decisions- I think the planet's situation can only begin to make sense on screen if the guns used are seen to either vapourise or turn bodies to dust or skeletons, and we see explicitly the replicator turning people out at different ages.
Real shame, missed opportunity, and a real letdown to find we're not getting an actual proper daughter either. Liked the Martha and the bubble dialogue sequences a lot though, even if I'm puzzled at how easily a water breathing fish man drowns.

Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead
are a pair of interesting and ambitious episodes, but with possibly one plot strand too many and which are slightly undermined by the solution to much of the mystery being a bit too obviously seeded in episode one, even more so than in The Empty Child. The slightly lame bit where the unstoppable baddies are talked down, is a bit of a swizz too and it doesn't help that the Doctor spends a bit too much time being thicker than the viewers either, but there's a lot here to make one very excited about the show's future. Loved Donna's dream life, particularly the jump cut and the self aware fake kids, and liked Miss Evangelista's death a great deal as well, even if was just a tad too long drawn out for me to accept the crew saw this as a normal part of life in their time.

Midnight, was very enjoyable too, and it was great to have both a proper RTD story again, and a no monsters episode at last. I really hope this rule can be further loosened in years to come, they are the biggest limitation on the show's format at present.
Obviously, the whole thing makes no real sense other than mythically, and the self sacrifice resolution is as annoying as ever, but it's so nicely done and well acted, and technically the sound work is brilliant. I once had to synch up two actors speaking at once at hideous length, and it's damn hard work (particularly because half the time they weren't in proper synch, were misreading the lines, skipping bits, or pronouncing them differently, but that's another story. Unsurprisingly it was hard for people to tell how long I'd laboured to get anything approaching the desired effect!)
I think if it had been me writing this, I might have attempted to resolve the climax with a 'phone call from Donna- the outer world breaking in with something that couldn't be repeated and controlled, and maybe even climax with Sky forced to lip synch along to 'Do It Again' forever. However, if it was me it would all have been even more rubbish than that getting there, so be thankful.

So, this year so far I think only once truly short of competent, when The Doctor's Daughter is undermined by its presentation, some genuinely spooky, funny, exciting, and moving bits, but not, Partners in Crime excepted, getting me up and cheering yet. So not as good as the best of last year's yet (the Cornell Moffat three in a row) or as unsatisfactory as its worst (hello 42).

If only there was to be some kind of epic, bombastic finale, with lots of crying, and fan pleasing nonsense and general public pleasing bonkersness to give the season a final dramatic push.
I'm so pleased we all know so little about what's to come. I might be exploding with excitement if there were lots of intriguing rumours flying around and press releases talking about Davros etc.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Humph and George

I’ve been lucky enough in my medium-sized life to see two surprisingly long-lived Jazz men perform, Humphrey Lyttelton and George Melly.
Humph was presenting I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and building his increasing frailty and stumbling delivery into the act just as another of my radio comedy heroes Peter Jones had in his latter years on Just A Minute.
Harry Hill sang ‘The Ugly Duckling’ to the tune of ‘I Can’t Live if Living is Without You’ that night. It was one of the happiest of my life.
Nice one, Humph.

Melly, I adored too, particularly for the delicious omnisexual geriatric flirtation he and Maggi Hambling used to indulge in on a fairly snobby Channel 4 quiz show on the arts. Only a pair of surrealists with a shared passion for Max Wall and less genuine sexual attraction than Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis could have produced such screen magic.
When I saw Melly live he was incoherent, slurring, incompetent, but then the band started and he sang- note, pause, word perfect, sublime.

He told one great joke about getting old that night, if rather badly.
Now he was getting on he found he was having to come down to the loo more often in the night, sometimes several times, and thus, in one such middle of the night trip, had been delighted to discover his wife had set up a system in the downstairs toilet whereby the light came on as soon as he opened the door.
‘Excellent,’ he thought, and was rather happily relieving himself until his wife came up behind him and said ‘George, did you know you’re pissing in the fridge?’

I think Humph would have liked that one,

Monday, 21 April 2008

One down, three in contention, with one left to go

Well No Tomatoes seems to have fallen at the 'presumably, just not liked enough by the commissioner' hurdle, now, so that looks fairly categorically that.

Maybe, one day it'll come back. Yes. One day. Probably not. Until then just go forward making vague promises only ever followed up on in unpopular tie-in novels and prove to me a paraphrase is as close to a correct line reading as will makes no mends by the end of an episode, when you can't go back and re-edit of course, yes, yes, my boy. Hmm?

Meanwhile, my hurdle clipping play has reached the final Radio 4 commissioning barrier, unexpectedly accompanied by two documentary ideas I threw in a bit back to a colleague pitching for freelance factual work.
One of them is about an actor with a very particular talent and another is about a piece of slightly scatological 17th century literature. The usual stuff, you know.

Now read on. From here on in, it's either getting paid or not getting paid.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

4, 5 & 6

Such is the state of Wednesday evening telly that the best that was on offer for the likes of me yesterday was probably Five employing Paul McGann (and his curiously placed vocal stresses that make it sound like he's constantly being surprised or losing his short term memory) to talk about The Real Indiana Jones.
The amazing revelation here was there wasn't one, he's pretend. However this populist hook did give Five the opportunity to talk about Nazis, Cathars and the Grail which are all core Five documentary topics, and show a surprisingly stirring trailer for the new film, featuring an old man doing amazing feats, right at the end. Job done.

I do find McGann's voice-over delivery oddly hypnotic, because idiosyncratic as it is (like Australian Questioning Intonation breaking out at random all over the place) it does sometimes make you imagine he's genuinely intrigued and marvelling about the subject he's talking about, rather than making you wonder when exactly he first saw the script.
Sometimes the line readings on science documentaries do rather give away that he doesn't know what the script is about and is just clinging to a word in the sentence he can emphasise to give coherence, but this is understandable; he's an actor not an astrophysicist, damn it! It does, however, mean script writers really should be careful with their use of 'actually's and 'in fact's because they'll tend to be heavily overlayed with wonder to the detriment of the sense of surrounding sentences.
Anyway, what a guy, what a voice.

Given that was my analogue terrestrial highlight (though I watched it digitally obviously- I wouldn't want to miss the edges of the film clips) I went looking for a bit of entertainment on Freeview too, which led me to The Prisoner.

Now, I like The Prisoner a lot, it's gripping, intriguing, only occasionally dreadfully silly, looks gorgeous and has a really riveting lead- MacGoohan's intensity just demands attention, but I last saw it properly when the VHS releases came out at the back end of the 1980s on the Channel 5 label (not to be confused with Five which used to be a different Channel 5, keep up).
The only episode I've seen with any regularity since has been a mp2 copy of a Beta SP copy of a low band u-matic copy of a rather grubby ITC library sales print of the first episode 'Arrival'.
So imagine my amazement at how colourful the newly mastered film print ITV4 was showing was. It was a riot of colour, hammy stage fights, reused footage and music cues and more exciting clashes of 1960s Edwardian revivalist and Modernist stylings than you're ever likely to meet outside Brighton Beach on a Bank Holiday Monday.

Just one thing though, given I'd only ever seen the series before on VHS, a multi-generation copy of a poor film print and snowy Channel 4 re-runs (we always had quite a soft fizzy looking Channel 4 signal in the 80s, so much so I thought this was part of its remit to challenge viewers), I'd never really noticed Number 6 wore a dark navy jersey under his black blazer.
Now I knew he did from photos in magazines about TV shows with spandex and spaceships in them, but the full horror had never quite hit me. It doesn't go! It looks horrid, and it never used to.
In poor light I've been known to accidentally put on dark navy and black myself, but Number 6's dimensionally transcendent house is so well lit I can't believe he'd make this kind of error. Certainly not every week. Not when he's so cool.

My suspicion is that the creators of The Prisoner didn't really want the jarring contrast we can now see between navy and black to be so obvious. I suspect they were after a broadly black upper body, and used the dark navy to subtly stop McGoohan's torso becoming an undifferentiated block of black, knowing full well that our telly screens would never reveal the actual difference in colour. Whoops, they do now.

Black and Navy? Brr. No wonder he wanted to escape, they might as well have put him in double denim.
Be seeing you? Not in that you won't.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Ignorance is Strength

Even in the rarefied climes I inhabit, halfway up Rather Liking British Television Mountain, there are still noises that waft to me from the valley below now and again that tend to annoy me.

Quality American Television
This one’s one of the biggies. At some point it was decided in TV criticism circles that Quality Television is a phenomenon that was created at some point in the 80s and 90s when HBO started making dramas outside the US network system that were glossily produced, cinematic in scope and intelligently written. This gets my goat because this is then alleged to have influenced things in UK TV that happened before it- a move from studio to OB and often filmed production, changes in cutting style etc.
Not only does this rewrite history, it also overplays the influence of US TV on the UK, and assumes an automatic superiority of film over TV. '16:9 ratio good, 4:3 bad.' It is forgotten that UK TV once had a form of its own between theatre and radio- intimate and character driven (which suited the domestic setting in which it was consumed just fine). More like film is not necessarily better, and an obsession with filmic concerns leads to a devaluing of what TV did when it simply wasn’t film and simply couldn’t be either.

It’s Just Television
I’m sure you’ve heard people dismiss the output which comes into almost every home in the country and fills our evenings with news, sport, comedy, drama, discussion and music in this way. Sadly, I’ve even heard people who work in television say the same. It’s just television.
That’s right, damn a work by the means of its delivery. The rather sniffy attitude is that none of the background to our lives is worthy of consideration. The worry is, is that when TV is made and consumed with that outlook, no attempt to challenge or be challenged is made, and of course, all that old stuff, some of which isn’t even in colour, or speedily edited and doesn’t even fill the whole of your modern set properly is somehow inferior, because it isn’t quick and easy enough anymore.
It’s just old books. It’s just some old drawings. That isn’t an attitude you normally get.
One of the reasons I think TV suffered until lately in critical analysis is that TV studies arose as a subset of film studies, at a point when film studies was rather wedded to the idea of film as an auteur’s medium in which the director was (rather like the creator of those old books and drawings) a single artist using a tool to create art, which as a bonus critics could also use as a kind of parlour game to explore his or her (but usually his) drives, obsessions and interests.
TV on the other hand was production line stuff, which had insufficient thought and time involved to allow the director this role, particularly as his (not hers often) role in the creative process tended to be much more limited than a cinema director’s. The TV director was a mere hired hand.
Thankfully, as film studies has grown up, going through its rather solipsistic stroppy teen era in which it assumed everything you looked at was merely a series of ambiguous symbols you could use to analyse the way you yourself looked at the world, the idea that film is a collaborative medium in which different authors worked either together or against each other (and even writers were in someway involved) has slowly become more prominent. This has given TV a chance to be taken, sort of, seriously at last, but the damage will be slow to undo. We have a whole generation of arts graduates running the country who have been conditioned to be as snotty about the medium and its history as the general public and jaded industry professionals.

It’s not a patch on the (insert other medium) version
I suspect this is the reason the BBC’s DVD release of the 1954 version of Nineteen Eighty-Four continues to be blocked by the Orwell estate. The estate doesn’t respect the television medium, and so judge the TV show against the novel and find it wanting.
Firstly, the play (remember when it was TV plays not films?) explicitly imposes a then topical post-nuclear framework on the future it depicts which is ambiguous at best in the book, in which the alleged nuclear war is referred to in a piece of faked anti-state propaganda, that most readers (and all film versions) tend to skim through.
I can’t help imagining that the keepers of the Orwell flame sat around expectantly on initial transmission and immediately despaired at the opening narration, seeming to turn the serious art of Orwell into nothing but cheap science fiction (see the previous Clarke post for more about this), possibly even mumbling “Dear Lord, it's a travesty, I'm surprised it even did the title in words rather than in numbers!” to themselves.
Closeness to the text, would seem to be a serious consideration (because we know ‘books- good, adaptations of books to work in other terms- double-plus ungood’).
This appears to be why the 1956 cinema version of Nineteen Eighty-Four has also been suppressed by the estate. It takes serious liberties with the book, and you can’t have liberties being taken with Big Brother, can you? The estate had similar concerns with the ending of the Halas and Batchelor Animal Farm apparently, which tried to make a satisfying cinematic climax out of that undeniably superb prose ending, which really just wouldn’t have translated so well into pictures.
Secondly, the drama is undeniably creaky in parts if you go in expecting your TV drama to be like a trip to the pictures, and what seems to have particularly caused problems for any release over the years is that there is a very close adaptation of the book available in colour, a film too. This was for years the preferred version- it’s even got John Hurt and Richard Burton in it, who are proper actors.
There’s now reportedly another film version on the way to become the definitive adaptation, and it seems a DVD of some such scratchy old telly version coming out any time near that would confuse, and perhaps weaken, the Nineteen Eighty-Four brand.

Of course we, we band of brothers, we happy few, obsessed with telly, probably mainly as a result of the cheap fantasy and vaudeville turns it brought into our parlours when we were too young to know any better, know the BBC’s 1984 to be important.

Questions in the House, comments from the Palace, sleepy rats covered in cocoa, live presentations and the fact we only have take two, wind up gramophones, the lost paperweight, Peter Cushing being undervalued as a telly actor before he was undervalued as a film one, Donald Pleasence (also in the suppressed film version, fact fans), Nigel Kneale, Rudolf Cartier, Wilfrid flipping Brambell... it’s all here!

This is a cultural document, a work of art in a lost form, and almost entirely composed of a whole string of our favourite anecdotes. We could Christopher Frayling our way through this whole piece like it was a culturally important Italian made Western or something (I love him by the way, he’s top) if necessary.

British telly matters, Orwell estate! It’s part of our history, don't try to rewrite it, it isn’t all your tacky rubbish for the proles like Big Brother and Room 101 you know. Oh hang on…

Mind, Diamond Dogs is probably better Bowie for your non-collaboration so thanks for that, I guess.

This entry is to be passed to the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, for revision.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

How Annoying

Last night, while my PC was switched off, someone sent at least a hundred emails from fake users using my home page's domain name. Tsk.
It seems none of these emails were to real people I actually I know, my address book hasn't been got at as far as I can tell, it's just part of one of my addresses has been pilfered, for some drive-by indiscriminate leafleting.

The fake users of my domain that were generated were fairly obviously made up, thankfully- eg. "Slasher"- like that's a real name (if that is your real name don't contact me, trace your parents) so, hopefully, any real people the messages might reach will realise this stuff was just 'bot-generated junk, but it's still a lot of noise thrown into the system to try and catch that one unwary customer somewhere for whatever they're trying to sell using emails from faked addresses.
It's the equivalent of fishing with dynamite in a lake that's already been somewhat over fished with explosives (and its main consequence seems to have been a lot of "come on, this is obvious spam" auto response messages and big wodge of "undeliverables", because it seems the addressees are largely made up randomly too, finding their way to me this morning).
Tiresome, and just the kind of thing that puts you off swimming.

Unfortunately, because an address at the recently hot-wired and twocked domain name is what I use for contacts from Blogger, it may be I fail to spot any feedback here for a bit. Bear with me. Unless your name is Slasher, I'm almost certainly not replying to you.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Oh my God, it's full of stars...

In obituary-land of late I have found my friends divided between those who mourned the passing of Anthony Minghella and those who marked the passing of Arthur C Clarke, and similarly between those who marked the loss of Paul Scofield and those who mourned for Brian “Mr Foggy Barraclough” Wilde.

It’s the high art, low art thing, of course, and the tidying of lives into boxes posthumously.
I’ve heard little mention of Minghella script editing Grange Hill (vital popular drama for twenty years of children- low art), or of Paul Scofield’s appearance in a presentation of highlights from Hamlet rudely cut short by a Kia-ora advert (for ATV therefore low art, even with Peter Brook on board), or Wilde’s appearances in Elizabeth R or Play for Today (not massively popular comedy series and therefore high art).

Furthermore, I’ve just heard a BBC World Service arts show say there was another loss to the world of film (after discussing Minghella), Arthur C Clarke, though he worked in quite another genre, science fiction, and got annoyed.

Let’s get this straight- Arthur C Clarke may have co-written a famous movie, but he was not from the world of film because of that, and Anthony Minghella wrote fantasy, just like Clarke- The Storyteller and The Greek Myths and Truly, Madly, Deeply are in the same genre as Clarke*.

Now high art chaps may well want to say “No, no, they’re using metaphor, they’re not actually fantasy, they’re using fantastic trappings to explore reality.”
Newsflash- this is not unknown in the world of fantasy fiction- those Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and George Orwell pieces aren’t proper literature using the tropes of fantasy, they are it.
Similarly, Clarke was not attempting to predict the future in his books with dates in the title but explore ideas, and his butting up of the transcendent and spiritual with the world of rivets and physics is at the heart of some of his most memorable work.
Everyone who’s ever read The Nine Billion Names of God knows it’s a fable, an exploration of where we put faith and science, and, as I’ve read Simon Guerrier discuss recently, an attractively open ended fable that tells us a great deal about us as readers.

If I may posit a Fourth Clarke’s Law posthumously: “Any sufficiently advanced science fiction is indistinguishable from literature and any sufficiently advanced popular culture is indistinguishable from art”.
Get over it, ghetto-makers. Porridge is as good as King Lear, don't make me choose.

The idea for this post was given to me by an enigmatic piece of pure geometry sitting incongruously on a stone age plain, or possibly by observing the geometry in nature and trying to make sense of it.

*Mind, they were telly really, weren’t they? Not legit cinema films.
Oh and if you don't think science fiction and fantasy are the same thing you've forgotten Clarke's Third Law and need to ask yourself how come they're always tucked away together in the same corner of 'proper' bookshops.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Citiest People

I have of late found myself fairly often in and around London's Soho, popularly considered to be a regular den of both regular and irregular iniquity and independent television production companies, though as any fule (and Mr Sherlock Holmes) kno the countryside beats the town for iniquity every time.

To be honest, I think Covent Garden is actually seedier than Soho. There's a street there in which I recently saw not only a quite sizable whirl of what looked very much like fresh human excrement perched on a convenient knee-high pipe jutting from a wall but a whole shop devoted to nothing but Tintin (I think it's called Bloom Street, they've probably got rid of the pooh by now, but I bet the shop's still there), however, I digress.

When I'm around Soho I often shop on that nearby street of dreams, Tottenham Court Road. At one end you can fetishise books, at the other, electronics goods. In the middle you can feel good about yourself by not going to Burger King or We Will Rock You and wonder where exactly you're supposed to admire the monumental bulk of Centre Point from, exactly.
Yesterday, I was down the electronics end, just beyond the bit where you might turn left to discover the British Film Institute or a gaggle of middle-aged Doctor Who fans loitering around (and on occasion both).
I was in Maplin's attempting to buy a replacement aerial for my wind up digital radio, the old one had broken in a freak "me lifting it up by the aerial" accident (would it hurt to have a carry handle on a wind up radio? It'd make the winding easier if you could easily hold the thing in your other hand while powering it up).

I think Maplin's HQ is in Barnsley actually, which realistically should be easier for me to get to, but, unrealistically, isn't.
In an ideal world, I'd have bought my new aerial from Barnsley via the Maplin's website (though in a really ideal world there'd have be a handle on the radio that meant it hadn't lost its aerial and giraffes would talk but let's not get greedy) but the website uses so much arcane specification talk to describe its aerials that it fills a potential purchaser like me with technofear and convinces him any purchase he makes will be a foolish mistake.

So, it was I was in London's glittering arse-end instead, buying an aerial the old fashioned way with actual money and a visual aid- my broken aerial to Cinderella-slipper up against all the shop's many ugly sister antennae. I got one I thought would do in the end, but not before witnessing something I found a little odd- a young man on roller blades asking the assistant if they sold Geiger counters, he was a bit unkempt verging on crusty, and, though it shames me to admit it, immediately set off my highly specialised "Oh my God, he's planning to construct a dirty bomb" alarms.

The Maplin's man said they didn't have any in store but they might have some on their website. He went to a terminal to search, and I went to pay. As I did, I heard the customer admitting he was unsure whether you spelled Geiger "ei" or "ie". I so nearly got involved, but decided not to.
Admitting to knowing something about radiation measurement in central London whilst wearing a rucksack with wires coming out of it (if only for m'iRiver) struck me as unwise, and besides I had to go and ask telly people stupid questions.

How naive I was, in the city you can wear roller blades in a shop and try to buy a Geiger counter in the high street without seeming even slightly suspiciously odd. You can even go to see We Will Rock You without being put on a list.
In the country, where the real iniquity lies, indoor roller blades alone could get you in trouble, but at least the streets are Tintin free.

I hope the Geiger counter section of the Maplin's website, if there is one, is more user-friendly than the aerials one. I'm not convinced roller boy had done a lot of research, which reassures me that if he is planning to produce a dirty bomb, he'll get caught googling it first.
By the way, if you've come here by googling "dirty bomb" in the hope of finding out how to make one, can I suggest politely that I'd rather you didn't? A discreet bowel movement in a busy London shopping street will probably get your disgruntlement over just as well. Thanks.

PS Obviously, despite being accompanied by my old un, I still bought the wrong aerial.

Friday, 14 March 2008

The Play's the Thing (or Wave, it depends how you look at it)

To confuse things… do you remember the goat doors? My radio play pitch? Oh you must, it’s a mere mouse scroll down from here, maybe a click too.
Well, it’s got more complicated, now. The commissioner liked my log-line more than the attached pitch. It was a jolly good eye-catching log-line that only 20% covered the play, so he suggested I should pitch the play that goes with that log-line instead. So I have and it's now much more like itself.
It’s a harder play to write and despite having been liked at pithy sentence length it may not appeal so much when expanded on.
So, I’ve kind of clipped the bar getting over this hurdle, and am now tackling the next hurdle in a slightly different way instead- straddling rather than Fosberry flopping if you’d like to mess up your sporting imagery.

In terms of goat doors you might consider me as having opened the first door, only to find what's beyond it is still in a state of quantum indeterminacy. That might of course be counter-intuitive nonsense, but I’m not going to judge.
It’s in the pre-offers round anyhow, which basically means it's in the phase of being offered to be offered, which makes much more sense, particularly if you're a bit Zen and that.
To look on this positively- the idea changing radically as a result of being looked at get continuing to progress is eminently quantum, and this is probably as good for the odds of getting through to the next stage as changing doors for no good reason on a quiz show is. Those goats should sue over The Weakest Link, what a pinch.

This post was brought to you by populist factual books from the late 1980s that attempt to explain that Quantum stuff is simultaneously dead easy and a bit like exotic mystical thinking. This is both very hard and easy to believe, though obviously not simultaneously.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Colonel K

A little over a year ago, so it turns out, KFC (the company formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, before deciding the world fried might be becoming a bit of a hard sell these days) changed its logo. I didn't notice because while KFC had apparently advertised the change to low orbital surveillance satellites from the Nevada desert, I'd somehow neglected to be in low orbit or on any of the agenda setting websites showing the resultant images, which are so popular with the hip, young secretively seasoned fried chicken consuming demographic.

The realisation has only just reached me because a recent bus journey took me past two KFCs in fairly quick succession, a funky new one and a tired, old, unchanged since the late 90s one.

You know what, the last 10 years have been kinder to Colonel Sanders than they have to me- he's got younger and I think a little bit more hip, with his "jacket off, apron on" attitude and "down wiv da kidz" jaunty trapezoid backing. He also has to my eye a ghost of young Rolf Harris and particularly cheery Desmond Tutu about his expression, and may even have shed a pound or two in weight.
When I was a lad he was making cameos in Little House on the Prairie which was what simultaneously a quarter of a century and a century and a bit ago, though to be fair he was also writing his company name in full, Wimpy was a sit down restaurant with waitresses, and Pizza Hut didn't deliver and had a sensible hut roof rather than some squiffy faux scribbled nonsense on its logo.

Good for him, as a puritan lefty killjoy I obviously wish his empire had not spread so far as to have two branches within a five minute bus ride half a world from Kentucky (or K as it's now known), and that his TV adverts weren't a) so desperately transparently constructed to imply it was okay for young parents to succumb to kids' pressure and buy his wares instead of making real food, and that they could be both middle class and skinny if they did, and b) so rubbish, but he's looking well on it.

It would be nice if he'd managed Elvis better too, obviously.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Cantabrigia et Mamucium et Caesaromagus CXXIII

This has come out of book research, but almost certainly won’t make the book, and is too good not to share.

I’m a fan of Alan Garner (in particular Elidor and Red Shift had a massive effect on me at opposite ends of my school career). I’m also a fan of Hat Trick productions. Imagine my delight to find just how they intersect.

Alan Garner used to send Hat Trick boss Jimmy Mulville faxes in Latin! That is like so way cool.

A few more details to populate the story- Hat Trick was exploring acquiring rights to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen* a while back. At a meeting with Mulville Garner said he didn’t watch much telly- but he had really liked a comedy show in which the cast had spoken perfect demotic Latin. This was Chelmsford 123, Hat Trick’s first show, a pleasingly Garnerish coincidence, “I wrote that!” Mulville said and no doubt much ice was broken as a result...
Consequently, as negotiations continued, Garner sent Mulville faxes regarding the project in Classical Latin.

Unfortunately, although Mulville had studied Classics at university** his Latin was now a bit rusty, and his perfect demotic Latin had been constructed with the aid of a friend from university days***, and thus to read Garner’s faxes he not only had to hold up the shiny heat sensitive paper and squint at the slightly ‘pages from Ceefax’ed letters like normal people had to “back in the day”, he also had to take it ‘round to his friend.

I had a letter from Alan Garner once, which was great but possibly the very best thing about it was that, after his house name at the top, he gave an OS map reference rather than a street address- that’s proper living in the country for you that is.

*the book I like to think which every visitor to Alderley Edge holds in their head at all times, unless they’re the kind of fool who just goes there to lie in the grass near Jodrell Bank and hum Paddy Kingsland to themselves- I’ve met one. Fool didn’t regenerate- he’d forgotten the scene he was attempting to replicate was a nasty studio recreation, set somewhere poncy like Cambridge and made up.

** at somewhere with a fictional radio telescope and Footlights. Like me Mulville did Latin at ‘A’ level at a comprehensive school that still remembered being a grammar school (unlike me he worked hard enough to pass).

*** I think we’ve established where, punters. While we’re cleaning up the university careers, Garner went to university in Oxford (he was a contemporary of Dennis Potter you know). I went to Manchester, in part for all the theatre there, in part because of The Smiths, and just possibly because Alan Garner had made the city sound magical in Elidor. The non-regenerating tripper to Alderley Edge amd environs went to the real Cambridge. He can still be seen there today on occasion, I suspect dressed as Skagra more often than not (see poncy and made up).

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Poison Door

Not a lot going on right now-
I'm tired, cricky-necked and sore-throated, all of which are probably symptoms of a rare and deadly syndrome known as Obvious Evidence of Something Serious in Retrospect but Nothing you Notice as Out of the Ordinary at the Time Syndrome.
It's closely related to the hacking cough developed in period dramas (as a precursor of Decorous Consumption) that audiences pick up like a badly dropped murder mystery clue, and characters never notice, being unaware that they are in a rather streamlined version of reality in which most things that happen are either significant, or off stage by virtue of being too expensive.
Anyhow, suffering from OESSRNNOOT as it's called by professional observers and lackadaisical sufferers, I seem to have been thinking and doing little of note this week.

Main points of interest-
I have read a script of a forthcoming BBC telly show and enjoyed it, which is nice. Means I'll be an absolute pain when it comes on, saying "here comes a good bit" over and over, but still, I'd probably have been an absolute pain anyway. More later.
I'll be interested to discover who they get to play Instantly Recognisable and Charismatic Man for two lines of dialogue and ten seconds of screen time, though. They'll either have to pull in a favour, or get lucky.
Mark Gatiss might just pull it off, with the right wig, hard-staring and half-smiling except then there'd be that "hang on wasn't that just..." brain freeze for everyone watching, either him or Benedict Cumberbatch who played Stephen Hawking a couple of years back (and always reminds me of Yakult's good bacteria yoghurt geek).
His mum is Wanda Ventham apparently, not, you might have thought, the kind of woman who'd name her son as if he was a minor character in Round the Horne. Mind Wanda Ventham sounds a quite plausible Horne-y name now I think about it.

My Afternoon Play pitch is good enough to be discussed with a commissioner in a couple of weeks time, which means the next stage is either a knockback or invitation to expand the idea, which then will result in either a knockback or commission. Under the powers vested in me by positive thinking I make that a 1 in 4 chance of it getting done. I am thinking positively for a change because I've been told changing my mind now and again somehow confuses Monty Hall, the goats and the nature of reality.
I'm unconvinced.
Or am I?
It is sad that my main awareness of Monty Hall is as a result of his hosting this non-existent edition of Let's Make A Deal.
Or is it?
That's enough of that now, surely?
Or is it?

I am having the occasional drink again now, but enjoying sobriety more, and having just had Radio 4 blather on to me about the silent undetectable curse of liver disease that smiteth you without warning and displayeth symptoms only when it is far too late (bwahahaha), I may continue to go easy.
Or shall I?
Coughs weakly and goes easy into that good night.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Long-Distance Operator

Right then, where are we?

Exhausted, four interviews in the last seven days which isn’t bad except that required around 40 hours travelling and three nights without sleep (though to be fair you can get about an hour in, in fits and starts on the 1.45 am coach).
Unfortunately this means I’ve hardly written a thing because I’ve been so busy gathering further info, and am exhibiting tell-tale signs of vague. I would forget my metaphors if they weren’t screwed on.

Best interviews have to have been Beryl Vertue and Anne Wood who are personal heroes of some standing, and didn’t let me down. Funny how much of the world revolves erratically around Spike, from Pob's Programme to Saturday Night Fever
It was also pretty damned cool to see what I assume was the actual "Vitruvian Man" model used for the World In Action titles at All3Media.

In frustrating Radio 4 news, I probably won’t be doing a Classic Serial because I have no drama experience for 4. I’m pitching an Afternoon Play now. This may well hit the usual wall of indifference too. We shall see. There will come a point soon where you could just re-run this entry with changed programme and people names. Annoying to have wasted time banging against a wall that was now apparently not as hard as all that for me only to find it was actually just as hard after all.

There was also a faint sniff of some sound design work this week, but after doing a short demo I was asked to do something more complex I simply didn’t have time for, and, given this would be on spec and there was no brief other than “make it a bit like this other company’s stuff” I thought it was wiser to leave it and just let that other company do the work.

So that’s all positive, isn’t it?

Oh, just remembered the line in that magazine review a few weeks back- the “The” should have been in italics, I’m told. That actually makes it even better, don't you think?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Man in a Suitcase

And now a message from Tuesday morning...

I'm knackered to the point of being mechanically reclaimed meat this morning- A human peperami without even the faint resemblance to those cheesy string things (which are probably just as full of processed pseudofood gunkery) that seem a bit friendlier.

Kids'll eat anything if it's marketed by an anthropomorphic version of itself with Aardman style googly eyes, won't they? Dip Marty Feldman in chocolate, he wouldn't last five minutes at the school gates (though to be honest, I suspect he wouldn't last too long at school gates undipped either).

"Pseudofood gunkery" there's a googlewhack for you.

Another is "google jetsam" (probably), which is my newly minted coinage for those surprise messages from unexpected sources you sometimes seem to get after posting on your weblog. For example, in my ongoing and pointless "name postings after vaguely apt tracks in my mp3 collection" campaign I headed a post 'All Nighter' a while back, and almost immediately thereafter received spam to the weblog mail address offering me drugs that would help me stay up all night.
Unlike most offers of drugs to keep me up these messages were apparently aimed at helping me revise for exams. Some Technorati grazing cowbot was ruminating on my messages it seems. No, that does make sense, read it slowly. I deleted the spam, I wasn't going to bite, not even if it'd been spam with googly eyes and the voice of Ade Edmondson.

This is why I often avoid using real people's full names in this weblog. I'm aware some of the trails get followed, and I'd rather let the world know the ins and outs of my dodgy music taste than everyone I know, meet or work with.
It's notable that I get more responses if I mention famous people, and I then feel bad for luring the unwary here under false pretenses with little signs saying Lindsay Lohan, Anthony Stewart Head, Sir Agravaine, Eduardo Paolozzi, Cab Calloway or Prentis Hancock which end up letting the searchers down.

I get over it though.

Today, I am mainly knackered because I got up at 5 am to go and see a TV producer and director, married to an ex-Hammer star whose father was a notable TV writer of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Now people who are interested in this kind of thing will know who that is immediately, but bots probably won't (unless I mention the F***** F*** connection). That's much more how it should be, you can unpack their identity if it's your bag (statutory "try to thematically justify the title" sentence).

Maybe I should go back and remove the names of people in past entries, making this weblog less of a cyber celeb seekers cyber siren song? Maybe I should go easier on the assonance? Maybe I should be sleeping not typing right now. People tend to be more forgiving of dreams that aren't really about anything, don't hang together properly and end abruptly without

Monday, 28 January 2008

No Rest

Okay, it's a very quick one this time- just headlines really.

In mysterious radio adaptation news
- none, but still not bad news. rights situation was being checked last I heard. I had some ideas about how it should be done watching Easy Rider last night.
Interesting film, and I liked the ending a lot. Some really annoyingly arty cutting that hits its peak in an LSD sequence that outstayed its welcome for me, but generally a worthwhile watch. Quite low on plot but Pete Fonda and his bike look cool, Nicholson and Hopper aren't quite their established deranged personae, a couple of soundtrack elements are just great- It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) and Born to be Wild which just feels ridiculously good and fresh here.
Most interesting aspects of the film for me- Phil Spector's cameo in the world's most publicly exposed drugs deal near the start and Toni Basil in the gap on her CV between an Elvis movie and kitsch '80s pop fame.

In radio comedy news, things may be more hopeful than I thought. Nothing concrete yet but No Tomatoes series 2 may still fly, and better still, after I've finished this book rather while I'm still writing it. More when/if I know more.

In writing this book news, lots of interviews coming up, which is great because it delays the period when I have nothing to do but type, which is the most tricky bit of any writing, and they're fabulous big names.

In not drinking in January news- I've not been drinking in January and appear to have sloughed off enough pounds to consider not drinking some more.

In unrelated but I mentioned it a few weeks ago news
, 1500ish words of mine about Hughie Green, Hancock, Howerd and the Steptoes will be getting published by my ex-employer's journal. Don't know exactly when but it's to tie in with the upcoming BBC4 dramas about them all (which I think have made a brilliant decision in casting David Walliams as Howerd).

Now the weather. Ho hum.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Picture This

Blimey, the tiny media world I orbit is imploding. I've long been of the belief that there are actually only about two hundred people in Britain really and they all double up (I'm assuming I'm either not really a person or I missed the briefing the day this was all organised) but this afternoon's post convinced me. Pop Culture is eating itself (starting with Paul Morley).

I'd ordered a few books via (no financially beneficial hyperlink- it's just for fun) last week. They're to help me with the book I'm working on, and at least one was going to be handy when discussing the career of a director of commercials, some of whose archive I started cataloging a few years ago. The director in question had once employed one of my previous interviewees and his son now works with another interviewee whose sister I went to University with. Kremlinologists should be able to provide all the required names now.

Anyhow, a few of the books arrived today and I opened up the biggest of the packages to find not only the book I was after inside, but lots of sellotaped newsprint too. I ripped it open and discovered my book had been wrapped in a magazine showing a picture of someone I used to work with. It was a picture of the editor with a little Q and A below it.

Bizarrely, the picture looked at first glance exactly like a photo I'd once taken of them in the house Gerry Thunderbirds Anderson grew up in in Hackney (none of us knew he'd grown up there at the time- I was only there transporting Play School 's Humpty down to a reunion with Floella Benjamin in a cardboard box full of acid free tissue paper- Humpty not Floella).

I was momentarily rather befuddled- two separate parts of my life were colliding. It was a bit like when you naively invite people you know in different capacities together- and find that not only do they not get on but that you are incapable of satisfying what is wanted of you by all present. I'm sure I've mentioned that heart sink before, if not (and indeed if) it's the story of my life. These things should not co-exist I thought.

Then I had a bit more of a think- I never express amazement when things I buy aren't wrapped in pictures of people I know and that happens far more often. I was buying a media related book from a bookshop that probably specialises in media related stuff and it was a media related magazine that my ex-colleague from a media related organisation was now editing. I think it was free too, so they probably had loads of copies for wrapping purposes. What seemed an incredible coincidence was just the kind of thing that happens all the time in a relatively small closed system. Britain/media/arts/academia is ultimately a Venn diagram with a tiny little intersection.

Still, makes you think, if only about the way you think.