Friday, October 31, 2008

I know you've been wondering what I think about Manuelgate

I like Paul Gambaccini but he does reach for the extra colour before it's called for, likening Lesley Douglas to Achilles on Five Live this morning. What he has to say is broadly very true: that only presenters who "drive the desk" have the radio professional's approach to their work or awareness of their responsibilities to their audience.

Somewhere in Brand and Ross's minds must have been the thought that somebody else would save them from themselves by cutting the controversial bits out, as they would undoutedly have done in a pre-recorded TV programme. Nobody did.

I've talked to a bunch of people in radio this week, in the BBC and elsewhere. Their view boils down to this: if you hire people like Brand you must at least try to produce them. If you can't control them because you're 25 and this is your first job, you pass it up the line to somebody who can. If you're going to use the word "fuck" in a pre-recorded item on any BBC service it has to be signed off by a senior executive. That's literally "signed off".

All the stuff about the Daily Mail, Mosley, how much Ross is paid, how many people complained, the effect on the licence fee, the eventual fate of "edgy comedy" and all the rest is just a distraction., no matter which side of the argument you're coming from.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

In praise of the seaside photographer

I don't think we had a camera in the family until the sixties. Prior to that photographs were entrusted to professionals: men from the local paper, specialists in "scholastic" photography who came to school every couple of years and then, once a year, the chaps who appeared in front of you on the prom at Filey or Scarborough and fired off one exposure. They would give you a ticket to produce at their HQ, which was usually a hut. Your picture would be up there with hundreds of others. If you liked it, you bought a print, took it home and put it in a frame.

My sister turned a few of these up the other day. The one here shows her with Mum and Dad, probably in about 1947. We were amazed at the quality of all of them. They're nothing flashy. What's amazing is how with minimum cooperation - they never even asked people to stop - they nonetheless managed to get their quarries properly framed and in focus. Did they even have focus on the cameras they used? These shots, which were the least ambitious pictures imaginable, are leagues better, somehow easier to read, more satisfying to the eye and more full of information, than anything done by even good High Street photographers after colour came along.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Peaches, Kerry and the Olsen Twins: what hath fame wrought?

I urge you to see Peaches: Disappear Here. It's a show on MTV. The producers are Ten Alps, a company in which her father is a principal. The idea here is that Peaches gets to produce her own ideal magazine. She is provided with an editorial team whose interesting haircuts and total absence of relevant experience interacts with Peaches combination of cluelessness and idleness to produce the least convincing depiction of the actual magazine experience I have seen since "Absolutely Fabulous". Peaches issues manifestos to her staff and then buggers off to the United States.

I imagine many of us can recall doing or saying stupid things while working on a sixth form or student magazines. That's fine. Nobody was filming us and holding us up to public mockery. Every now and again in this film a reaction shot captures the uncertainty and fear in what are after all some very young faces. James Brown, who is supposed to be mentoring Peaches, doesn't need to say much. His eyebrows do most of the heavy lifting. The producers can't be bothered to follow through on the central conceit of the magazine. We don't actually see much of it and the climactic moment at which they supposedly pitch the idea to proper publishers has been re-cut so that we don't hear a single word that is actually said. Nobody comes out of it looking very good. At TX time they are still waiting to hear back from the potential publishers. Get away.

This was in same week that Kerry Katona spilled on This Morning. I could only watch this one through my fingers. As ever the backstage story was illuminating. Here was this damaged sample of humanity mounting the auction block to have her teeth inspected by a posse of comfortable media professionals. Furthermore, the minute details of her humiliation were being documented by MTV and so she was being tailed by one of their crews who laid down the interview ground rules. This interview had been arranged by the PR of the publishers of Zoo Magazine who had paid a sum of money for first look at her new bosom. When the interview went out Richard Desmond (the original daily beast) was furious, having already paid for a Katona column in his own "OK" magazine and consequently feeling he had some prior claim to those mammaries. (Media Guardian reckons he pays £500,000 for this privilege. I find it hard to believe he can keep his empire afloat if he's paying this kind of money.) Then Philip Schofield, in my experience a very decent individual, went on Chris Moyles to explain how it all went down. Everybody gets a piece.

I blame real stars for creating the vacuum into which these microbes of the fame game have rushed. The big stars of TV and music and film have either retreated behind their castle walls or imposed such inhibiting conditions on their encounters with the press or made themselves so boring that it's no surprise that the media prefer to play with plasticine people like Katona and Geldof. They're cheaper and there is no humiliation to which they will not submit. If you want to know what you have escaped thanks to this celebrity reticence please have a look at the Olsen Twins appearance on Oprah where they recount in some detail what they have for breakfast with a soul-weariness previously unglimpsed in people so young.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Nation shall speak old news to nation

Now that we finally have every means short of teleporting to bridge the oceans we discover that we no longer have anything to say that the people on the other end don't already know. We've just been in video-enhanced communication with the son and heir in Brazil via the miracle that is Skype. I remember the days when we communicated with relatives in Australia via a Christmas Day phone call that had to be booked weeks in advance. Once connection was established, each party would unload a news bulletin, often from a prepared list. Each item was like water to the thirsty man at the other end.

He was Skyping us while simultaneously instant messaging four separate groups of friends all over the world and watching the (British) football, more widely available overseas than it is at home. Most things we said were met with the words "I know". There wasn't an awful lot you could describe as news anymore. Maybe I should start inventing some.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Break a leg

A few weeks ago Radio Four's Front Row sent me to see a play called "Riflemind". This is not my usual beat. However, many years ago in another life I studied drama and directed plays. Hence I've probably got more insight into how theatrical productions work than I do rock bands.

The reason they sent me is that the play, written by Andrew Upton, was about a rock band getting back together. The reason they were bothering to cover it is that Upton is married to Cate Blanchett, the play was the opening production of a deal intended to bring plays from Sydney to London, it was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred John Hannah.

Not being a regular patron of the legitimate theatre - I gen'lly go to things long after they've been pronounced hits - I wasn't sure whether "Riflemind" was par for the course. To my eyes and ears it seemed very bad. "Mortifyingly bad," is how one critic described it the following day. At the interval I found myself sitting next to the mother of one of the actors. She worked out that I was there to review it. She looked at me with some sympathy. "But what are you going to say?"

Anyway, I did my bit on "Front Row" the following night and, thanks to Google alerts, I was able to track everything that was written about the show. Shows like this live or die by the reviews and "Riflemind"'s were so bad that the "reviews" section of their website still said "coming soon" a full week after the opening. Then there were the special offers with £50 seats going for £20, which still seemed quite a lot for such a trial of an evening. Today it posted closing notices. It's coming off two months before it was supposed to. The credit crunch gets the blame.

I don't exactly know how such a terrible play was given a West End production though I suspect it's something to do with the fact that nobody likes to lay down in the path of a few stars with a shared purpose. The people I feel for in this situation are the actors, the poor cannon fodder on whom such an enterprise depends. Every night for a month they've had to go on in front of an auditorium empty enough to hunt buffalo and give this wretched play their best shot. They will have known it was terrible long before I did. That's bloody hard work, in the words of Nicholas Craig, actor.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

For God's sake, stop asking Randy Newman about "Short People"

Randy Newman is on Desert Island Discs this weekend. Radio Four have been hammering the trailer the last few days. I keep hearing Kirsty Young asking him about "Short People".

I've loved Randy Newman's songs for forty years now. I've interviewed him a few times. He's the funniest person In Rock. I've never once felt the need to ask him about "Short People". If ever there was a record that didn't beg a question it's "Short People". The only people who would find that song in any way worrying would be the people who had never heard "Simon Smith & His Amazing Dancing Bear" or "Davey The Fat Boy" or "Rednecks".

The "Short People" question is always directed at getting him to distance himself as an individual from the person singing "they got little hands, little eyes, they walk around telling great big lies". Then Randy has to perform some act of atonement. He might even have to say that he's just satirising prejudice, a sentiment so trite it exhausts me to type it.

Anyone who thinks Randy Newman songs can be panned for nuggets of folksy wisdom or moral teaching has missed what makes them unique in popular music. When I asked Neil Young what songs were he said they were "just thoughts", still the best definition I've heard apart from Bob Dylan's "a song is anything that can walk by itself". I've talked to hundreds of songwriters and they all say the same thing. A song is something which just occurs to them. It alights on a writer's shoulder. It comes to them as they're waking. It is not something they quarry towards. I hate nothing more than hacks trying to use some less than pleasant sentiment in one of a writer's songs as a stick to beat them with and subsequently cast them out of the presumed shining city where the good people live. If there were such a place Randy Newman wouldn't want to live there. I wouldn't either.

I always picture Randy Newman lying on his sofa, flicking through the TV channels, waiting for incoming ideas, hyper-sensitive to the exact sentence and the precise nuance that betrays our real, often unworthy selves. If you need to have "Short People" explained to you or, worse, somehow apologised for, you've missed the overarching truth that all his songs have been inching towards - that we're all complicated, ambivalent, insecure, sneaky, self-justifying, lazy, half-baked, very rarely noble and, in the final analysis, alone.

Friday, October 17, 2008

More signings for The Wire FC

This one could run and run.

Excuse me, could you fix my camera for me?

We'd just finished recording the Word podcast, in which Mark Ellen and I agreed that Ringo Starr was right to stop complying with the wishes of everyone who expected him to sign anything they sent him, and I set off for a meeting in town.

While walking through Bloomsbury I saw three blokes ahead of me. One of them was attempting to work out how a mobile phone camera worked. The camera belonged to one of the blokes. The chap doing the fixing was Simon Pegg. I went past them. Twenty yards on I looked back. Pegg was now dutifully posing with each of them in turn while the third snapped away.

Witnessing this scene, it's little wonder that Pegg was trying to hide his face beneath a flat cap with a prominent brim. It obviously hadn't worked on this occasion but without it his progress through the West End would take far longer.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

It's not quite standing up in a hammock but it can't be an awful lot easier

All news stories leave me wanting one further, usually trivial, piece of information.

The one about the British couple sent to jail for having sex in public in Dubai leads me to wonder: What kind of sun lounger were they allegedly having sexual congress upon?

All the loungers and recliners I've ever had the pleasure of using would not permit any activity more strenuous than lounging or reclining. I can't help but feel that the manufacturer of any chair commodious enough and sufficiently stable to permit the amount of thrusting and undulating traditionally involved in sex should be shouting their product's qualities from the tallest minaret in the locality.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The truth is out

Real events lapped by out of control news cycle

I get the feeling that the media is now moving so quickly that it finds that the actual events it's covering a little bit slow. Even the madness of the last couple of weeks, where people like Robert Peston have been putting out stories on the hour and governments have been changing their policies daily, don't seem quite pacy enough for them. The broadcast media love this kind of thing, where they feel at the centre of events and so much takes place in their studios they don't even have to cross their own thresholds in search of stories. If an hour goes by without a new storyline you can almost hear them drumming their fingers and looking at their watches.

This morning, following the partial recovery of shares in the Far East, they seem to be saying we should all bask in a feeling of relief. I even heard an interviewer just put the question "Is the worst of it over?" My grandmother was no economist but she would have known that was a stupid question.

And at the same time the very people who said a few weeks ago that Gordon Brown was fatally wounded have now decided that he bestrides the world of affairs like a Colossus. Across the Atlantic the media seem to have already banked Barack Obama's poll leads and decided that he should start picking out curtains. The blogs about him have that feeling of a new crush that accompanied Blair into Downing Street. It's the depth of the unrealistic infatuation that makes the subsequent disillusionment so bitter.

Plus there's the satire cycle. If you go on to Huffington Post it's impossible to tell whether people are responding to the events or the satirical spin on those events. They say Sarah Palin is about to appear on "Saturday Night Live" to check on Tina Fey's impression of her. A week ago John McCain cancelled on David Letterman. Letterman made such a fuss on the air that he's forced to change his plans and appear. Letterman made a joke about the road to the White House leading right through his studio. He was joking, I think.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Kids do the darndest things

When your children are small you spend all your time making sure they don't wander into the road or bash their head on the corner of that table. Eventually they leave home and actively seek out danger. When our son was on his gap year he sent me a text message from Brazil. It read:
"This afternoon I'm going hang gliding over Rio. It looks dangerous but it's cheap. P.S. Don't tell Mum until I'm down."
Now he's at university in Sao Paulo. We spoke on Friday. "This weekend I think I'm going sky diving," he said. There's no point saying "don't do that." There's not even much point saying "please do that safely". You just say "let me know the minute you're down" and spend the next 24 hours knotted up with anxiety. Eventually we got a picture.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Weather forecasting and the limitations of graphics

This morning we were in Central London. This afternoon we've been at home. I haven't seen a single cloud all day. Where do the BBC get the weather from?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

One man, one vote

There's an elegant but rather long-winded editorial in the New Yorker explaining why "the editors" will be voting for Barack Obama. I don't think we would have expected them to do anything else.

But democracy being what it is, their vote counts for the same as these people's, filmed at a recent McCain rally in Ohio.

Both sides vote from the gut and then invent the reasons afterwards.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Invading your own privacy

I genuinely sympathise with celebrities pursued by photographers. But for every one who has their privacy invaded there is another energetically invading their own privacy to advance their career. Two cases in point from this week.

Up and coming rugby player Danny Cipriani (20) and model girlfriend Kelly Brook (28) are allegedly snapped by a passing paparazzo while enjoying a quiet cup of coffee outside a cafe in Notting Hill. Whoever matched up this pair must really think we're all stupid. The flawless focus on that picture indicates that the photographer had been given enough time to take Polaroids. And the kiss! I've seen more convincing oscular contact between an eight-year-old boy and a moustachioed aunt. Revenge is already being wreaked by Cipriani's team-mates. God knows how much worse he's going to find it when he comes up against a gang of vengeful Celts in the Home Internationals.

Then there's Brad Pitt taking pictures of his wife breast-feeding for the cover of that well-known organ for the nursing mother, W. Exactly where do they get the conceit from? Look! Look! We can do things just the same as you proles do them, only more beautifully. We were so taken with ourselves we couldn't bear for our private pictures to be private for one minute longer.

These are the people who have been the victim and beneficiary of so much publicity that they literally don't believe anything about their own lives until they read about it in the paper.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why football going bust could be good news

There's a piece in today's Guardian by Richard Williams about the chances of the credit crunch hitting the over-borrowed football sector just as it has hit the over-borrowed banks. I don't doubt this could happen. It's hard to see why we should care.

Apart from the improvements in the grounds that took place in the wake of the Taylor Report, it's difficult to see in what ways the billions of pounds that have poured into the game in the last eighteen years have benefited the fans or the game. We can see how Sky has prospered. We can see how agents have done very nicely. We can see how the players have become so routinely rich that the only people who can afford to meet their wage bills are billionaires. An old colleague of mine used to say he wouldn't mind his club putting their season ticket price up every year as long as he could deliver the difference in person to the wife of the highest-paid foreigner on the team. Either that or just arrange a money order in favour of Harvey Nichols or Porsche. Since that was where the money was going to end up, why didn't he just cut out the middleman and save on admin?

The last eighteen years has seen Britain turned from a football nation into a football market. This decline might bother the average fan but doesn't trouble most of the people with their noses in its overflowing trough. So what if there were less swill in that trough? Are we bovvered? If the downturn means less money coming into the game, how does a football fan suffer? There's not a lot of headroom on ticket prices. Down my street they've taken to selling Sky door-to-door which indicates that take-up is at saturation point. Everyone I know who took up a Setanta subscription is finding it's an organisation harder to leave than the Moonies. The pips have been squeaking throughout the game for a good while now.

If the tap were turned off then the most expensive players would obviously go where they can make the most money. Who knows where? Spain? Italy? China? Kazakhstan? The top British players, being timid home bodies by nature, will probably stay, thanks to the premium they are paid for being home-grown. More British players would get a shot at a career, which ought to benefit the national team. Of course the perfectly-manicured lawns of Highbury and Old Trafford would no longer be graced by the world's most expensive players but wouldn't that allow the clubs to lower their prices sufficiently to admit the occasional member of the working class, along the lines of the assisted places schemes at the major public schools? The rise in fuel prices might even encourage some of their long-distance supporters to adopt somebody nearer to home. Surrey might sprout some football clubs.

A lot of the glamour would go, of course. The thud and blunder of honest toilers (or maybe Joey Barton) would probably replace the stiletto passing of a Deco. The spectacle would look less like a computer game and more like a muddy tiff. Nigella Lawson would no longer be a big fan and politicians would stop pretending that they have always supported a club – but would that really affect the number of people going through the gates? I don't think so. The tsunami of hype that has washed through the game in the last eighteen years has increased its popularity but also pushed up its price. The fans have paid more for their subscriptions and season tickets in order that their club can pay yet more money to people who already have more than they know what to do with; this has been done in the largely vain hope that by hiring them they're going to be able to elbow their way to a position of solvency. It's like a gambler rushing out of the casino mid-session in order to shake down passers-by for the money to fund one more bet.

It can't go on. One day the oligarchs and carpetbaggers will move on. They'll probably leave in the middle of the night like the holders of sub-prime mortgages, slipping the stadium keys through the bank's letterbox before setting off for pastures new. Once they've gone the game will still go on, albeit at a less sophisticated level, driven by the ancient tribal hatred that has animated the game for the last century. That and the enduring desire of tens of thousands of young men to play the game for a living, even a relatively modest one. Because that's what they did once and may do again.

A Day At The Races

Went racing in Paris with friends who know about this kind of thing. They buy all the papers, cruise the bars in search of further tips and then ring home to see if the odds are any better. I don't. I just look for any horse whose name has anything that could be construed as a pop music connection. Hence:
First race: Styx - still running
Second race: Green Manalishi (false start, race to be re-run later)
Third race: Pill - allegedly ran but couldn't personally confirm
Fourth race: Intense Focus - invisible
Fifth race: Lady Gloria - pulling a milk float near you right now
Prix De L'Arc De Triomphe: no pop music connection on the card so I backed Youmzain each way and it had the decency to come second.
We had to leave before the last race. I was on the way to the Gare de Nord when I was informed there was a horse called Ledzep in that one. It won, of course.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The sound of silence

Did an interview with Clive James and Pete Atkin yesterday for Word's Backstage series of podcasts. Clive's got a new book out and therefore he was going straight home to have a look at how it was doing on Amazon. He's not the first author to succumb to the irresistible lure of looking at his Amazon ranking. It must be the least scientific way of keeping track of sales success since the last one.

For years magazine people have been fishing for good news by going into WH Smith and trying to work out if the stack of their latest issue was diminishing at the required speed. I don't know why they do it but they do, everyone from editorial assistants to CEOs. It's a professional disease and professionals should know just how unreliable it is. You don't know how many they've got in the back. You don't know how long they've been out there. You don't know how representative that particular outlet is.

If you want to know how well anything's doing - a record, a book, a magazine - my advice is just stay indoors and see if anyone gets in touch. The most reliable indicator of success in any endeavour is that people can't wait to tell each other anything that could ever be interpreted as good news. Silence usually means they haven't got any.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Autocue and the credit crunch

We know that politicians have their speeches written for them. We know that they're reading from transparent prompting systems. A few have the knack of making it appear as if they're just plucking their thoughts from the air. Some people, like Tony Blair, became so good at it that they eventually overdid the pauses and the general "look, no hands" approach.

George Bush, on the other hand, not only looks as if he's reading it but actually looks as if he's reading it for the first time. This is particularly distressing at a time like this when concern should be balanced by an impression of confidence.

Working with prompting technology is an odd experience. Because it relieves the speaker of the need to remember his words it leads to the temptation to stop thinking and let the mouth do the work. Because it keeps scrolling it tends to make people talk more quickly than is natural and results in sentences that carry too much freight for the listener to take it in. Most serious of all, because it only shows the paragraph, or even the sentence, that he is speaking it can result in the speaker being struck by the terrifying thought - what am I about to say next? That's what the look on George Bush's face says to me.