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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well

I knew that in 1687 the Irish poet and hymn writer Nahum Tate was asked to do a re-write of Shakespeare's "King Lear". What they needed was a version that wouldn't rattle the cage of recently restored monarchy and sat more comfortably with the advance of the Enlightenment. They couldn't face the bleakness of Shakespeare's original. Tate's version has a happy ending with Cordelia marrying Edgar and everybody begging each other's pardon for the misunderstanding. What I didn't know until this morning's In Our Time on Radio Four was that for the next 150 years this was the accepted and most widely performed version. Presumably the original was regarded as a mistake. Which makes me wonder, what works from the Canon will we change our mind about in the future?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

And ye shall know them by their TV commercials


The past is another country, sure enough.
  • The captain of the England football team dropped in at his local unmolested after a match.
  • There was a product called Dreft.
  • People got excited about the prospect of winning five pounds.
  • They blended tea specially for Northern Ireland.
  • All blondes were Swedish.
  • Middle-aged men wore bowler hats.
  • They advertised boots on the TV.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Time and motion

I was talking to Tom Whitwell yesterday. Tom runs the community sites for The Times now but he used to be in magazines. He reckons he couldn't do magazines anymore because they're not instant enough. Certainly you're struck by the fact that in magazines you spend much of your time processing material that you're not actually going to use. They don't call it editing for nothing. However the other day I was reminded that when it comes to time spent unproductively, nothing can compare with television. Particularly prime time television.

I took part in an item about LP covers for BBC's "The One Show" which involved me turning up at Sister Ray in Soho to deliver the so-called expert's view of the development of album art from the 50s to the present day. My old pal Clare Grogan, to whom I am legally married in Memphis, Tennessee but that's another story, was fronting the item. The people doing the job were very professional but what with cutaways, noddies, different angles, close-ups of hands flicking through the racks and the rest of the palaver that inevitably accompanies even the simplest filming, there was no time to talk about the fifties, the eighties or the nineties. And that wasn't because I was talking too much. I avoided that because the director told me that the finished item was expected to run just two and half minutes. Because I was keen to avoid that conversationus interruptus that afflicts most TV nowadays, in which nobody is allowed to actually finish a sentence, I kept it snappy, believe me.

Nowadays there seems something rather old fashioned about an activity which takes days of people's time and is then gone in 150 seconds - never to return.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Er, we've won the cup

I've been to a few cup finals but yesterday's was the only one where the result particularly mattered to me. I was so pleased to be able to go in the first place that I couldn't believe it when the result went our way as well. It seemed a bit much to ask.
Before it began the PA announcer said "may we remind you that racism and foul language have no place in football".
Obviously the former has no place anywhere, and I was pleasantly impressed by the fact that the bloke in front of me kept up a steady barrage of abuse directed at Didier Zokora without once mentioning his skin colour, but the latter is stitched into the very soul of the game. The 22 men we've come to watch are cursing loudly throughout the 90 minutes (and in extra time too) and so it seems only fair that we should be able to do it too.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Take me back...

"Serendipity" is the ancient name of Sri Lanka.
It also describes one of the chief delights of the web. On the Word site we started off a thread about how quickly the latest technological marvel is, once superseded, utterly forgotten.
This led somebody who posts under the name backwards7 to compose a brilliant pastiche of Van Morrison's "On Hyndford Street", looking back at the days of Rapidshare, "Skins" and "Mock The Week".
I was so inspired by this I got Barry McIlheney to recite it and put it on YouTube.
Why? Because it wasn't there, I suppose.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Being Dave

In today's Times David Aaronovitch writes about how 2008 is the year of David (or at least Dave). The prominent Davids consulted in the sidebar have all had the same crisis at one time or another - the fact that their friends all prefer the shortened form, which somehow makes you sound like a painter and decorator.

I was Dave from my teens on. It was only when my shortened name first appeared in print on a review in the NME that my mother said, with a smidge of asperity, "you have a perfectly nice name, please use it." (I have since discovered that a parent says this with the same emotional force that they might say "don't marry that man" or "don't tattoo yourself all over". Because they don't want to see what they've brought into the world irredeemably ruined.)

Since then I have been David professionally even though my work friends call me Dave. Anybody I know through my wife calls me David. Was it Thelma in The Likely Lads who fought a losing battle against her husband being called Bob because she felt it might impede their social ascent?

People who don't know me but are vaguely aware that some people call me by the diminutive compromise by referring to me as "Mr Hepworth", which remains stranded somewhere between sarcasm and matiness.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Opinions'r'us

I wrote a piece for the Independent's op-ed page about the Brits. It's appeared today with the headline "David Hepworth: these silly awards are pop's most absurd anachronism". So there.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Death of a Ladies Man

In November I mentioned "George Melly's Last Stand, an excellent documentary about the last few months of his life. Last night they showed it on BBC2 so for the next week you can catch up with it via the iPlayer. I think in the future we'll see more documentaries like this. Our stars will live longer, our programme makers will get more demanding and we'll get even more appetite for revelation. Anyway, you should see it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

She's a laugh

After experiencing that unique tristesse that I imagine follows a stand-up show that goes over just marginally less than socko, blogger Clair Woodward, whose musings I cannot recommend too highly, concludes that the game isn't worth the candle. She reckons:
"So as a woman on the box, you can either be funny, or sexy, but not both, right?"
As evidence to the contrary I would beg to offer Julia Louis Dreyfus, who played Elaine in "Seinfeld". As actresses go she's pretty without being va-va-voom - but that doesn't matter. The charisma comes off her in waves and with it comes the quality that so often follows. I could watch her for days.

The show exploits it brilliantly because every now and then she does something to make the three men in the cast stop treating her like a friend. Believe me, it doesn't take much.

Pull the other one

This last week, the record companies' campaign to get copyright in sound recordings extended from 50 to 95 years, which was kicked into touch a few months ago, got fresh impetus from the European internal markets commissioner. The leading edge of their argument was that non-writing performers such as Cliff Richard and Roger Daltrey would benefit from their labours in later life. The Gowers Review of Intellectual Property rejected this on the grounds that in reality the only people who would continue to benefit would be the record companies.

This morning I found a lovely Ben Webster/Joe Zawinul tune on an MP3 blog. It came from the album "Soul Mates". I found this on Emusic and bought the whole album. They made this record in 1963. Webster died 35 years ago, Zawinul just a couple of months back. If either of them were around I guess they would tell you that, the odd freak hit apart, they had never made much from record royalties.

Today I paid a few pounds to Emusic for this record. A small amount of that will get back to the copyright owners, who are the people who bought the company who bought the company who bought the company who paid for the making of this record 45 years ago. The main musicians are dead. The rest got paid by the day.

So who's getting my money?

Friday, February 15, 2008

TV - where intelligence insulting is our business



Nothing is more offensive here than the suggestion that:
a) Jane Fonda spoke "inadvertently"
b) we can be persuaded that this is the case

"No, before him, surely?"

Certain exchanges in comedy attain the dream-like quality of poetry. I've been able to recite this scene since I can remember. The section that begins with "Are you a doctor then?" and ends with the discussion about Mussolini is one of the most beautiful examples of writing and acting I've ever come across. Aren't they making another film about Hancock? I don't know why they bother. What's interesting about him is here, for all to see, for ever.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

"It's before my time"

It started with a stupid no-count item on the BBC news website about the Isley Brothers. I posted about it on the Word site. This drew this excellent response from Archie Valparaiso which got me thinking about the tyranny of what he calls the "now-now", the cultural/historical swerve whereby you're forgiven your ignorance about anything which either happened before you were born or didn't happen to be in the cross-hairs of your focus while you were a teenager. It's at its worst when dealing with pop music and results in news readers and politicians swapping light banter about the groups they used to like when they were teenagers, at the same time stressing their proud ignorance of anything that didn't. There's about to be a Radio Four programme called "The Jam Generation". Say no more.

Whenever I ask A Younger Person (and that covers an increasing amount of people) about anything which pre- or post-dated their "era" they will be very quick to say "before my time" with that patronising smirk that implies that one's date of birth excuses one's ignorance. I don't remember the Second World War but I know something about it. Count Basie was past the zenith of his career before I was born but I've listened to him and I don't regard his music as a message from a different planet. I've even read Dickens and he was born, oh, it must be before the First World War, surely?

I blame punk rock, he said once again. That would certainly fit in with Archie's view of the last 35 years as a continuity as far as the media is concerned. It's not to do with the music. It's the falsity of the idea that this represented a new beginning, a severing of links with the past, a marking of the time before which everything was somehow "quaint" or, in the argot of the time, "naff". It results in a failure to accept the fact that anyone who didn't live like you, dress like you, speak like you or share your value system lived their life less fully than you are living yours.

I would have more hopes for the government's plan to introduce five hours of cultural activity into the school week if it was less about herding the unwilling around art galleries and more about imparting the vital information that the world didn't begin yesterday. Educational theory today is dominated by the need to build up children's self-esteem and convince them that they are capable of great things. There's nothing wrong with that as long as it's balanced by the parallel message that I used to pick up at school. You're really Not All That.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Adventures in call centre land

So I called BT and was put through to a young man in a foreign country. He was as helpful as anyone can be at that remove. He looked at my records and said that was pretty much what I could expect living where I do. I asked for my MAC code.
"So you want to leave BT?" he said.
"I might," I replied. "I just want the MAC code."
"Hang on a moment."
I do. He comes back.
"I've just been talking to somebody in sales who might be able to help you. Let me transfer you."
Female voice from the North-East of England comes on (instant smell of toast) and tells me that they've had a look at my records, I've been a customer of BT's for a long time and therefore should have been promoted to the faster broadband. She's prepared to do that now and to lower the rate and to roll our BT phone bills into the same deal but she wants it all to go on to Direct Debit.
I've made some quite responsible decisions in my time and raised three children but I am:
a) genetically incapable of assessing deals of any kind on the telephone
b) married to a woman who is fighting a lone battle against Direct Debit
Therefore, I say, send me the details and I'll look at it.
Meanwhile, I've had lots of feedback on this blog, all of which is appreciated but most of which encourages me in the belief that if you can avoid changing your supplier, then you should.
And then I get an email from someone who'd read this blog and works for BT who might be able to help me. Hey, I'm not a crusader for consumer rights. I know very few problems that can't be solved with the help of a sympathetic soul who knows where the levers are and which ones to pull.
So I shall continue approaching this problem via the front door as well as the back. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Churn Baby Churn

I've decided to change my broadband supplier.
When I first got "the internet", back when it was a fledgling miracle, I signed up with Prestel because it came top of some consumer test. When Prestel disappeared I should have learned lesson one of the Internet - everything disappears, sooner than you'd think.
I switched to BT. I think it was called BT Internet at the time. It has since changed its name to BT Connect, BT Openworld, BT Yahoo and BT Lost The Will To Live, by which point I had accumulated no end of passwords and usernames and no longer knew what my deal was.
When I upgraded to broadband an engineer actually came to my house. Takes you back, doesn't it?
On the basis of remarks by friends and running various web-based "speed tests" since then, I suspect that my broadband is not as broad as it should be. In a sane world I would call a number and talk this over with a BT employee who was in a position to do something about it. After a few calls in the last couple of days I have come to the conclusion that this will not be possible. I shall therefore adopt the policy used by a young friend of mine when dealing with phone companies:
1. Ring up
2. Say you're leaving
3. Negotiate
4. Be prepared to go through with "2".
I shall let you know how I get on - assuming I'm not cut off.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Primates were us

They're closing down one of London's oldest pet shops, Palmer's in Camden Town's Parkway. Back in the 70s they used to have a window full of sleeping puppies. However, even that was a step forward from what they used to specialise in in the 30s, as this old facia announces.

The sound of the crowd

I would be interested to see the Premiership's plan to play a number of games in foreign cities come to fruition for at least one season. I would like to see the whole circus (players, managers, media, sponsors and wealthy supporters) pack its tents and head off to Tokyo or New York. (Obviously it won't be Nairobi or Mumbai, because nobody's interested in taking the game to those supporters.)
I would like to see it because I think they would find that they'd left the key element of their world-beating "product" at home. They'd set sail without the thing that makes the Premiership madhouse work as a spectacle and that's the crowd: the howling, hydra-headed hate machine that is Anfield or White Hart Lane or Upton Park in full cry as twenty-two hired hands scrap over the bones of ancient emnities. That's what makes the Premiership. It isn't Nike or Cristiano Ronaldo. It's the fact that the loathing is in our blood, as is the loving.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

If you can remember the sixties.....

I was called yesterday by somebody from the Daily Telegraph. He wanted to know if I'd ever undergone Transcendental Meditation. If so, could I write about it to mark the death of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?

I would guess he was about twenty-five and he'd been given the job of finding a suitable candidate within a couple of hours. Presumably they've got a list somewhere of people who were alive in the 60s and can type and he was working his way down it.

I blame "Absolutely Fabulous" and the Sunday supps for propagating the notion that in the 60s everybody had long hair, wore kaftans, smoked dope and meditated. On the contrary. These things were only done by the tiniest of tiny minorities of the population. The poor hack's chance of turning up somebody who'd actually practised TM™ was about the same as finding somebody who'd fought with Che Guevera.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Other websites are available: Speechification

One brilliant thing leads to another. Speechification is dedicated to reducing the chances that great speech radio from all over the English-speaking world just floats into the ether and disappears, never to be heard by anyone outside of the producer's family and friends. It curates the best stuff and makes it available for further listening. It even does a podcast.
Through it I rediscovered "Don't Hang Up", one of the greatest radio programmes I have ever heard. This was the work of interviewer/oral historian Alan Dein and producer Mark Burman. The idea was simple but immensely time consuming. They just rang phone boxes all over the world and recorded conversations with whoever answered. The best one features a teenager on the front at Margate, a security guard in the Florida Everglades and a Kiwi transexual. It's superbly produced with an atmosphere that you rarely get on Radio Four.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The end of EMAP: director's cut

My piece in today's Guardian about the end of EMAP was the victim of a misunderstanding about length. Here's the full version:
It takes years to build a company. It takes about forty minutes to wind one up. In a Bloomsbury hotel last week a random assembly of pensioners, long-time investors and former employee shareholders of EMAP met to rubber stamp the sale of the company's magazine and radio assets to H. Bauer, the German publishers of Take A Break, Bella, TV Quick and other women's weeklies. We held up our voting cards as if the decision hadn't already been taken by a handful of fund managers. A few questions were put, along the lines of "was this really the only course of action?" and "how secure are people's jobs?", questions which the chairman Alun Cathcart was able to field with the precise opposite of charisma that is called for on these occasions.

Nobody mentioned that this meant another of Britain's major magazine companies in foreign ownership, possibly because they didn't want to be the first ones using the expression "the Germans". Hachette is French and IPC is American, as are Conde Nast and National Magazines. Only Future, Haymarket and the BBC among the majors remain in British hands. The parallels with the Premiership are strong. How come overseas investors see value whereas, as Cathcart correctly pointed out, the UK stock market prefers to put its money elsewhere?

Maybe it's the difference between an investor and a buyer. The story is already gaining ground that Heinz Bauer, the fourth generation of the family to be at the helm of this private company and, according to Forbes, merely the 410th wealthiest person in the world, swung the purchase over the competition because he was the only one at the table who could tear off a cheque for the full purchase price of £1.4 billion there and then. It can't have been as simple as that but the story illustrates the advantage that a private company enjoys in negotiations like these.

Herr Bauer's company is less vulnerable than most to advertising downturns. He doesn't have to persuade any teenage scribbler that there will be jam tomorrow. They only have to look at the 175 million weekly copies that he already sells ever year. He won't be in any hurry to move them online. At the stroke of many noughts he becomes the leading magazine publishing company in Britain as well as Germany and no doubt thinks about what former EMAP titles he can take into the emergent markets of Eastern Europe and beyond.

Ironically, EMAP's troubles can be traced back to 1998 when they made the cardinal error of travelling the other way and buying a publishing company from the Americans. When transatlantic transactions like that take place in any sphere, it's like Captain Mainwaring buying from Sgt Bilko. You fear it's only going to go one way.

Following the meeting a bunch of the company's former executives were waiting outside as the pub across the road opened its doors. Having ordered their drinks they addressed the company's demise with that peculiar combination of sentiment and bitterness that characterises corporate wakes. There was a time when EMAP was the city's darling, recalled a Large Orange Juice. Ah, but that was also the time that magazine sales were breaking records every year, pointed out a Pint of IPA. Ever since then, interposed a Guinness, the company had been in the business of promising the City that two plus two was about to make five. Yes, I remember when masthead programming was going to make magazine companies rich, added a Bloody Mary, wiping a tear of hilarity from the corner of her eye. Then there was buying magazine companies overseas, recalled Fizzy Water. Don't get me started on the internet, muttered Large Gin and Tonic. The Large Orange Juice sighed and said he felt deeply uncomfortable the first time he heard somebody use the expression "leveraging the synergies between magazines and radio".

The talk grew darker when it turned to more recent events. When the Boston Consulting Group came in, they sniffed round the place and then made the suggestions you would expect them to. Plenty of talk of content, platforms, hubs and cost-cutting. Why not use one editorial team on Heat, Closer and Grazia? (Why not use one consultants report and send it round from company to company because it always says the same bloody thing?) It may not be entirely satisfactory to point out that magazines don't behave like FMCG but over the last twenty years millions of pounds have been wasted proving it to be the case. In June of last year Simon Stewart joined EMAP as Chief Marketing Officer across magazines, radio, web and the rest, in the hope that his experience in the drinks industry and widely hailed "outside-in" perspective could transform the company's marketing. The night before the shareholders meeting it was quietly announced that he was returning to the drinks industry.

Any day now EMAP's problems will be Bauer's. It couldn't come at a tougher time. The publishers of the mass-market women's weeklies are already getting their bad news out ahead of the ABC figures. The EMAP titles, as they were prepared for sale, had not been spending the marketing money they normally would do and are unlikely to be outperforming the market. Will Bauer face the future with a platform-agnostic's breezy and baseless optimism or will they go below and ride out the storm like ancient mariners? It's perfectly possible they don't know themselves yet and their profile in the UK industry is so low they won't have any trouble keeping the lid on whatever they decide. I don't think they'll be larging it. But either way, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Lies, damned lies and mobile phones

Like most things in this country, the debate about crime is generally expressed in terms of left and right. It goes like this:
The Daily Mail: We're going to hell in a handcart.
The Guardian: Oh, it's not as bad as all that. In fact, if you look at the statistics....
Into this dialogue of the deaf, just occasionally, a fact intrudes and makes you stop and think.
The British Crime Survey is the gold standard of crime stats. It's what governments quote from, at least when it suits them.
Rewind. When I was a teenager, hardly any of my peers had been the victim of any kind of crime.
Come back to date. I know lots of teenagers today and I don't know one male teenager who hasn't at one time or another been the victim of some kind of crime, generally involving having their phone "jacked". It happens so often they don't bother to mention it. I am horrified by how everyday it is.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the British Crime Survey only records crimes involving sixteens and over. It can't be right.

The most unreal thing about Reality TV

Caught the last half an hour of "The Choir" last night. It's not a bad idea. Charismatic young choirmaster attempts to persuade a bunch of cripplingly inhibited teenage boys at a school (which has somehow attracted the addendum "sports college") that they can sing. He tries to coax the ones with talent to take lessons, he tries to persuade the more musically inclined ones to sing un-self-consciously at each other; to the rest he simply points out that if they sing "nobody dies".
Near the end he is getting discouraged by their mulish insistence that singing is "boring" or "gay". (How this chimes with the government's "come and work with the most exciting people in the world" teacher recruitment campaign I do not know.)
To gain encouragement he goes to visit another school where choral singing is hugely popular. The BBC can't be seen to mention the fact that this one is some form of selective school but it smelled like that to me.
Anyway, the last five minutes featured him waiting in the hall to sign up volunteers to join his choir. At first he was on his own, contemplating the failure of his project. I looked at the clock. Two minutes air time to go. They clearly weren't going to leave it like this.
Sure enough. One boy turned up to volunteer. Then another. Then a few more. Then yet more until there was a queue of shiny-faced adolescents begging to join. He ended up with, if memory serves, 170 names. "I can't believe it," he blushed. Well, nor could we. There had clearly been some major manipulation that we didn't see to bring about this very televisual resolution.
Many things betray the credibility of reality television but the thing that really gives it the lie is the fact that IT ALWAYS WORKS OUT IN THE END.
You can see "The Choir" here.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Someday we'll look back

Britney Spears is hospitalised because of her mental instability.
Amy Winehouse has to be driven into rehab following increasingly "erratic" behaviour.
Jonathan Ross, David Walliams and Russell Brand retreat under a hail of abuse after attempting to placate a crowd during a Morrissey concert.
David Beckham takes his bat home to Los Angeles after failing to get picked for his hundredth international cap, leaving disappointed guests at a charity dinner.
For years people have been speculating that the tide was about to go out for celebrity fever. This may be the week it finally turned.