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.