Tuesday, November 30, 2010

iPad magazines remind me of "Stonedhenge" by Ten Years After

In the late 60s every rock band suddenly wanted their album to be in stereo. To convince themselves and whoever was paying that they'd put the expensive new technology to the best use they would always have at least one track where the stereo panned from left to right and back again. Some kind of nadir was reached on Ten Years After's "Stonedhenge" when drummer Ric Lee used the stereo "picture" to play "Three Blind Mice". It's a trick that wore out its welcome very quickly.

I was reminded of this when looking at Project, the all bells and whistles iPad magazine from Virgin Media. Jeff Bridges, the "cover star", moves, for instance and every "page" has buttons and panels which scroll or expand or plunge you into a gallery or otherwise animate the experience. It has so much functionality that it needs a "spread" to explain it all. Like the other ambitious iPad magazines I've tried so far, it's so full of functionality that you can't access its primary function, which is to be something you can read. The very reasons that advertisers find this new medium attractive, the chance that you will brush your finger on a button and find yourself watching a TV ad, are the same reasons I never go back to these apps.

On the other hand I can easily see the appeal of those apps, such as The Economist, the Daily Telegraph or New York Times, that simply take the publication's material and arrange it for the screen. As a means of accessing a magazine that you already have a relationship with, they seem to do that job pretty well and the publishers are either making them available for free or providing free access to subscribers. I'm sure there are iPad developers who would call their policy timid and would criticise the publishers for not taking advantage of the manifold possibilities of the medium. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

I fear at the moment we're in the psychedelic stage of iPad magazine development, where the digital equivalents of stereo panning, extreme reverb, phasing and backwards tapes are being used to distract attention from the fact that in the end it's all about the tunes.

Have the middle classes gone downmarket?

My ears pricked up the other day when Ed Milliband said that Labour had to to get back to doing something for "the middle classes". This seems like the latest step in the Americanisation of British politics. Most of my voting life British politicians have avoided mentioning the middle classes in anything other than a sneering voice, for fear of summoning up images of napkins and gravel drives. When American politicians talk about the middle class they're referring to regular folks. Homer and Marge.

I was thinking about this when I was watching the football in a pub at the weekend. It was full of middle-aged blokes drinking pints and swearing quite freely. I'd guess most of them had not gone to university, but owned their own homes, which their fathers probably didn't. Maybe they're the middle class that the coming generation of politicians is talking about. If that's the case then a lot of alternative comedians (and there's nothing more middle class than an alternative comedian) are going to have to start re-thinking their arsenal of slights. In the 70s "middle class" meant Tom and Barbara Good in "The Good Life". I suppose in my head it still does.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Don't tell me to go to the cinema, Simon

Tonight we went to the cinema. It was a cold night, this is no longer a cheap evening, even at the Barnet Odeon, and because the Odeon chain's credit card booking system seem to have an an aversion to my web browser, I wasn't even certain we were going to get in. However we did, and there among the trailers and the adverts for beer, was a very polished commercial in which Simon Pegg and Nick Frost congratulated us for coming out to the cinema rather than just waiting until the film came out in DVD. Only in the cinema, they said, could you enjoy the film as it was meant to be seen, with a big picture and the best sound.

Now it's probable that when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost see a film it's in a nice preview theatre in Soho with airplane seating and proper projectionists. They don't have to sit, as we did tonight, in a room that feels like a strip club. They don't have to watch an expensively shot commercial for Orange being screened in the colour pink, proof, if proof were needed, that nobody is actually running the programme and making sure that we are seeing things as they are meant to be seen. They don't have to put up with the sound of the special effects from the Harry Potter film coming through the plasterboard dividing this strip club from the slightly bigger one next door. And nobody accidentally switches on the house lights fifteen minutes before the end. And is presumably so far removed from the experience of the customer that they remain on. The members of the audience just laugh. What are they supposed to do? Go off and complain? It would be a day's march before they found anyone.

As we exited at the end one woman was asking the youth in the foyer whether there was a manager she could talk to. He was busy doing what most cinema employees spend most of their time doing - putting carbonated beverages in a refrigerator. I didn't help her because I wanted to get home. On the way back my daughter said that the last time she'd been there she'd had to point out to a member of staff that the roof was leaking. Compared to that our experience had fallen within a range of acceptability.

Complaining about the contempt with which cinema chains treat their customers is as bootless as pointing out that people swear at football. Despite the blandishments of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I shall henceforth vote with my feet, which will remain in the "up" position. At home.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Television is all about faffing around

I did a filmed interview for TV the other day. It's good to be reminded every now and again that TV is a visual medium.

The interview set-up was in a small office with a door that led into a larger outer office. The previous interviewee had been filmed in a different room in the same building. Obviously I couldn't be shot in the same place in the same way because TV grammar being what it is the viewer would have concluded I was in some way associated with the previous speaker.

To move even the simplest camera, sound recording equipment and lights from one room and set it up in another never takes less than an hour. The cameraman finally got me lined up. These were the early shots in a documentary for a proper TV channel and so they had to decide on a style. I was leaning forward. They liked that and so they composed the shot that allowed me to do that. The background was the outer office, carefully lit and artfully unfocussed so that it apparently looked like nowhere in particular. They spent a lot of time looking through the lens at the things behind me.

If you'd been doing the interview for any other medium the very first thing you would have done is shut the door to ensure that you weren't disturbed and the interviewee was not in any way inhibited by the thought of being overheard. But TV abhors a wooden door, particularly when it can have an arty blur. So the door remained open and the production assistant was sent into the outer office to shush anyone whose work might be picked up by the microphone.

There were lots of similar faffing around. When they had me lined up they decided it might be better to have the questions coming from off-camera left rather than right. So they moved everything - sofa, camera, microphone, me - and tried it from that angle. Then they worried about a straight line somewhere in the distance. Then they worried about whether you could see the lights properly. Finally we started.

The time spent filming was maybe a fifth of the time spent faffing. This delay wasn't because the people were in any way incompetent. It's just that TV is one long faff. It has to be. One of the most curious aspects was that later in the interview the cameraman kept jerking the lens away from me, as if he was having trouble with the tripod. I wasn't sure whether to keep talking or not. It turns out he was just providing some of that jerky quality that they now put into interviews to give the impression of looseness.

Over the years my slight exposure to TV has left me wondering how anybody could have the patience to do it for a living. More profoundly it's also left me with the firm conviction that nothing that you see on television "just happened". TV is more planned than Bach. If anything had "just happened" the camera would undoubtedly have been looking the other way. And they would have done it again, this time with better lighting.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The best TV talking head ever?

The American Civil War - a film by Ken Burns is a masterclass in historical documentary making. It shows that a good script, extraordinary photographs and well chosen sound effects can easily ace corny dramatic reconstructions of officers writing their diaries and looking pensively out of the window.

But above all it has wonderful voices: Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman and Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln. Providing the context, on camera, is Shelby Foote, probably America's best-known Civil War historian. His contributions must have delighted the producers because they are perfectly measured in length, packed with the ideal balance of dry fact and poignant anecdote and delivered, from beneath sad eyes, in a voice that sounds like it comes from the same time as the melancholy events it describes.

He died five years ago. A fan made this for remembrance.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Notes after three glasses of wine with an old mate

One day, if you're lucky, there'll be an occasion, possibly a Sunday lunch, maybe during one of the big festivals of the year, maybe just one of those unheralded days that crop up at the beginning or the end of summer, when you'll find yourself hosting Jane Austen's definition of a good party. She said that was too many people in too small a room.

It won't be perfect.

Somebody will be late. Something will burn. A child will refuse to eat something. There won't be enough chairs to accommodate boyfriends, girlfriends and whoever else turns up. At some stage it will strike you that everybody's talking over everyone else and you've drunk too much red wine. Somebody will turn off your precious playlist of Sunday lunch music.

At that precise point, if you'll take my advice, you'll stop, breathe, listen and savour the moment. Because that moment, right there, is what it's all about. It never gets any better than that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When is it OK to call someone a slapper?

We had an interesting discussion in the office yesterday about the word "slapper". Somebody had used it in a feature about footballers and their marriage difficulties. It said that since the Sunday newspapers started paying out to anyone who could produce a story about having slept with a footballer, "every slapper from Newcastle to Newquay knew that they could get rich".

Eyebrows were raised about the use of that particular term. Couldn't it be replaced with something more decorous such as "gold digger" or "floozy"? Well, no. Slapper means a woman who will sleep with lots of men. There is no male equivalent because the idea is deeply ingrained in our culture that most men will, if given the chance, sleep with lots of women. You can't tweak that prejudice out of existence.

The etymology of "slapper" is unclear. It's not in my 1991 Shorter Oxford Dictionary. It doesn't appear in the usual American Dictionaries on-line. In Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang it's traced back, possibly to "schlepper" which might mean a slovenly person or one who paints her face. For me it's always evoked the sound of Chaucerian flesh on flesh. Although Green has it down as "a promiscuous woman", which seems about right to me, he also thinks it might mean "prostitute". I'm not convinced about that. As Mark Ellen pointed out, "prostitute" suggests the calculation of a professional and is increasingly replaced by the almost approving "sex worker".

Somebody further objected that "slapper" could be taken to denote class. I'm not so sure. I think it's a term that can be applied as freely in the smart wine bars of Chelsea as it might be in Wetherspoons. Then somebody said that by referring to Newcastle we might be conjuring up a vision of Viz's Fat Slags in the Bigg Market. Of course, since slappers are sprinkled among the population without any particular regional bias, that must say more about our prejudice about Newcastle than the writer's supposed prejudice against the place or its inhabitants.

And so on. In the end it was decided to leave it alone because we know what slapper means and it is the perfect noun for this context. We might not like to feel that we're the kind of people who would use the term, of course, but that's our problem.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I know what I like

I can't get on with the new batch of torchy female solo artists. I'm talking about the ones that seem to waltz effortlessly on to big radio playlists and are acclaimed as the voice of the year before the year has actually begun. Duffy, Rumer, Pixie Lott, Lissie and so on.

I think it's the songs.

Because most of them work alongside factory songwriters, old hands who have spent years kicking about in no-hoper bands but have a Ph.D in what works, their songs are constructed artfully enough. They have all the surface characteristics of catchiness without actually being catchy. Not at least to me.

I've never written a song so what do I know? I have however listened to billions of songs so I have a point of view. It seems to me a good pop tune has a perfect balance between familiarity and strangeness. The lyric offers you a ribbon that's easy to take hold of and invites you to pull that ribbon to find out more. A good song lifts like a curtain, surrendering its meaning at a pace that the listener can keep up with. The great records aren't just catchy on the surface. At the same time they're hinting at the promise of further layers of catchiness to come.

I'm not picking on Lauren Pritchard. She's simply the latest to get this treatment. She went to Hollywood when she was 16 and for some reason lived with Lisa Marie Presley. She starred in an off-Broadway show. She was in a pop duo. She fronted a reggae band. And now she has a contract with one of the few major record companies and is getting The Treatment. Colleagues of mine like her record Wasted in Jackson She'll probably do very well. I just don't get it. This is her first single.

I've got a strong suspicion that there's no tune in this song. There's a lot of very musical work in there but not a tune you could hum to yourself. The lyrics are difficult to catch, particularly at the beginning. There are no great pop songs that don't have good opening lines. Further into the song the stress doesn't seem to fall where it should. The hook line is "no painkillers make it go away", to which the casual ear wonders why there's such a long "no" and the pedant wonders "make what go away?" It continues. "If I tried to over-dose it wouldn't bring no change," which is a really strange line in that it neither echoes everyday speech nor helps the tune along.

To prove to myself that this is not just an old scrote's prejudice against the new generation, I do like Amy Lavere's record Anchors and Anvils, which came out last year. She's a similar age and background. She has a song called "Killing Him Didn't Make The Love Go Away", inspired by something a woman said after she'd killed her husband. I love this song because it explains something to you and it's all about the performance not the production. After one listen you come away knowing what has happened and how the woman feels. After two listens it has imposed its pattern on you, you're anticipating the chord change on "he said he'd give her the sun and the moon/now all she's got is this eight by eight room" and the cheap poetry of the title is embedded in your memory.

Pop music changes regularly. If you listen to a lot of it you retune your ear to adapt to those changes. It's only occasionally you find yourself wondering if everybody's out of step but you, whether everybody else has settled for songs that are well-made when they really ought to be stopping you in your tracks,

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Watching "Fela!" up close

Last Saturday I went to watch a preview of "Fela!" at the National Theatre. It's a production that's come from Broadway but all of the cast except the lead were hired and rehearsed in London. With a live band on stage, a twenty-strong troupe of dancers, ramps extending towards and through the audience, the entire arsenal of National Theatre sound and lighting at its disposal and the wide open spaces of the Olivier Theatre to roam in, this is about as technically demanding as a performance can be.

I was fortunate enough to watch from the front row. One of the delights of seeing anything - whether it's a theatrical performance, a rock show or a sporting event - at such close quarters is that you can see the performers dealing with the tiny practicalities of their trade. You see the looks exchanged between them. You can tell that chair has been moved because something is about to happen in the place where it stood. You can see somebody being handed a prop that is about to play some part in the action. You notice when somebody covers for somebody else. At certain angles you can see performers in the wings getting ready to come on. When Sahr Ngaujah came downstage drops of his sweat fell into the front row.

During previews the cast are getting ready to face first the press and then the general public. They've done their technical rehearsals and their dress rehearsals. The previews are about ironing things out and getting up to speed. The only thing which appeared to go slightly awry on this occasion was a piece of the set that refused to move. The actors and the lighting crew were so quick to adapt it's unlikely anyone beyond the first few rows even noticed. When the show had moved on I could see from my angle a technician attacking it with a screwdriver. Apart from that you would never have believed they hadn't been doing it for months. It was their first preview. The level of accomplishment beggars belief.

I love doing anything with actors because they always assume things are going to go wrong. They rehearse and rehearse even the tiniest things, not so much to make sure they don't as to ensure they are mentally ready when they do. I'm sure that's a lesson that applies far beyond the theatre.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The strange allure of documentaries from your childhood years

To the NFT to see A Day In The Life: Four Portraits of post-war Britain by John Krish. These films were made in the late 50s and early 60s for organisations like the N.S.P.C.C. and the N.U.T.. They cover the last tram in London; an old soldier living on his own; a bunch of children from deprived backgrounds taken to the sea for the first time; a day in the life of a secondary modern school in Watford in 1962.

It's strange how the chronology of your own childhood helps you date things. I could tell when each of these films was made by looking at the kids' haircuts and styles of clothes. I can look at anything from the 60s or 70s and narrow it down to a two-year period quite quickly. Land me in the 80s or 90s however and it's a blur. Childhood stays in your memory very precisely, arranged by academic years, girlfriends, pop records and other useful markers. You only regain the same kind of accuracy when you have children of your own. You look back and work out the chronology of events by referring to their lives. "That must have been 1993 because so-and-so was at such-and-such school."

In some respects the past is spookily familiar. "I Think They Call Him John" is a pretty agonising film from 1964 about widower John Ronson, leading a lonely life in a high rise flat. On Sunday evening he puts on the D.E.R. television set to accompany his ironing. It's "Sunday Night At The London Palladium". We don't see it but I did recognise the voice of the presenter. Bruce Forsyth.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Watching a Chapel Market funeral

Round the corner from the office in Chapel Market is a pub called the Alma. Britain is full of pubs called the Alma. This one's for hard drinkers, many with market connections. Customers are usually hoisting pints of lager at nine o'clock in the morning. It's been like this long before the licensing laws were reformed. The smoking ban meant the pub's patrons, all of whom are smokers, were suddenly extruded into the daylight as if in a sock that had been turned inside out. People who had spent their days in the darkest corners were forced to drink and smoke outside. None of these people look healthy, which is not surprising if they're drinking and smoking all day. Quite a few of them seemed to have lost limbs, presumably not at the Battle of the Alma.

Every now and then you'll see a small poster run off a home printer and placed in the window. This will bear a picture of a man who looks 75 but was probably in his early 60s and announce that Patrick or Jim or Michael has died and that his funeral party will be either departing from or terminating at the Alma. When we went out for something to eat yesterday lunchtime one of these parties was taking place. Through the window we could see and hear a musician singing "The Fields Of Athenry" through a portable P.A. while the regulars lifted pint after pint and the horse-racing flickered silently on the TV above the bar.

A knot of mourners watched the proceedings from outside so that they could smoke. We sat down in the chip shop opposite. One of the mourners, a 12-year-old boy, wearing a buttoned-up suit and sporting a huge star-shaped stud earring, came in, bought a saveloy and then went back across the road to re-join the mourners and eat it.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

How did Dad become the family whipping boy?

I got a haircut yesterday. It was a bit shorter than I intended but I'm happy enough with it. I walked into the usual banter at the office but none of it was actually unkind, even from old friends and colleagues who are extended a free pass in that area.

It wasn't the same when I got home. The three women in my life looked at me and said "Oh my God!" This wasn't said in a good way. Later on that evening they were still tutting at me. Their central objection was that it was too short. Obviously there's a remedy for that.

Now clearly if the shoe had been on the other foot and I had reacted in anything like the same way when they came back from the hairdressers I would expect to be accused of everything from sexism through rudeness to mental cruelty.

I'm not looking for any sympathy but I do think it indicates how Dad is the only member of the contemporary family that the other members no longer think they have to be careful with. Everybody else is surrounded by an eggshell area to which they are entitled by virtue of having given birth (which is serious) or being a teenager (which is a passing condition) or having a hangover (which is fleeting).

Not Dad. Dad is, as Bruce Springsteen pointed out last week, furniture. Dad is the only person in the world whose clothes you can criticise, whose head you can pat, whose gut you can prod without the slightest chance of any come-back at all. But those people should watch out. Because I've got a blog now.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Obama swallows the bitterest pill

Everyone expects Barack Obama to get a bloody nose in today's mid-term elections. That's what traditionally happens to presidents. I'm sure he expected nothing less when he was elected all of two years ago. Nonetheless he must surely be bitterly disappointed by the number of his top people who have announced that they are planning to leave. Rahm Emmanuel, his chief of staff, is just one. To put this in West Wing terms this is like Leo McGarry buggering off at the end of Season Two because things were getting a bit too hot. There are more.

I expect all Obama's media admirers, who gushed over his election as if it were a hinge moment for civilisation, to melt away the minute he has to do what people in government have to do, make some unpalatable choices. I expect many of the voters to have the attention spans of mayflies. But this sudden disappearance of so many of the people who were professionally connected to him is further proof that no wing of politics has a monopoly of the basic human virtues. I used to know a grizzled old press baron who when asked what he considered the most important virtue would bark "Loyalty" . At the time I thought he was overrating it. I don't any more.