Saturday, July 30, 2011

I've had it with the "pudding first" school of TV documentary

Started The First World War From Above on the iPlayer. After five minutes I turned it off. It seemed to have all the things that drive me mad about today's factual programmes:

* A script machine assembled from a Scrabble set of clichés: "bird's eye view", "like a lunar landscape", "today's state of the art technology", "those brave pilots", "from the intimate to the truly epic" and so on;
* More shots of the noble presenter, Fergal Keane, looking at the things which are supposed to be interesting than of the things themselves;
* Swelling music to reassure us that the programme will be emotional as well as informative;
* The insistence that the programme will "uncover one of World War One's secrets"' - a "secret" being anything that's not been in this time-slot before
* A three-minute opening section desperate to shoehorn in a taster of everything that's coming up in the next hour, up to and including "the extraordinary encounter at the end of my journey when I meet the daughter of the airship pilot of ninety years ago" and the obligatory shot of somebody crying when they see some film of their father.

There's nothing wrong with making factual programmes entertaining but techniques like these seem to be rooted in a growing belief that we won't eat our greens unless we're first assured that there will be pudding. After a while we lose our appetite.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Every joke has its day

Back in 1978 we were on holiday in Los Angeles. We stayed at the Sunset Marquis. This was the rock and roll hotel at the time. Bruce Springsteen had recently checked out. Santana were there, as were Hall & Oates.

It was summer and there was a small hot tub in the grounds which had room for about half a dozen people. We were lounging in there one day when we were joined by a hippyish chap and an elderly French gentleman. Listening to their conversation it dawned on me that the latter was Stéphane Grappelli, the violinist who played with Django Reinhardt in the Quintette du Hot Club de France. The former was the American mandolinist David Grisman. This is impressive but not as impressive as a member of the Hot Club.

This week I happened to relate this story to Mark Ellen. He cracked the joke that has been waiting to be cracked for almost 35 years.

"Ah yes," he said. "The Hot Tub de France."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Twitter leaves the media standing

Yesterday morning Broadcasting House on Radio 4 carried an item about the death of Amy Winehouse. The reporter went to Camden Square and mused into his microphone about why people were standing around. He then recorded interviews with them. It seems likely that even more people will subsequently come to stand around because at last something was happening. People were getting interviewed about why they were standing around.

The media may well have to get used to just standing around looking at people standing around because this weekend's events have seen them not so much breaking stories as puffing along in their wake. The first hint of the events in Oslo appeared in my Twitter timeline in the middle of Friday afternoon. I searched on "Oslo" and immediately my screen looked like the Dow Jones index at the height of a crash, with tens of thousands of tweets in different languages scrolling past at an unreadable speed. I switched on Five Live, which is the BBC's news and sport station, to hear Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode reviewing films. I found myself on an RTE site where they were just running the feed from Norwegian TV.

Similarly the following afternoon I was watching rugby on TV with the iPad on my lap when a tweet appeared from a source who you'd expect to be well informed, asking "Is this Winehouse story true?". I immediately searched on "Winehouse" and discovered what the story was. This can't have been more than half an hour after the ambulance had arrived at her home. An hour later it was confirmed.

Obviously mainstream broadcasters and newspapers can't publish on the basis of unsubstantiated tweets but the pressure to do so is going to become harder and harder to resist. And this at a time when there is talk of them being brought into line. It'll be funny if the press are restrained from intruding into private lives while at the same time a medium ideally suited to the spreading of unsubstantiated gossip become's the nation's favourite toy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Do people think like they tweet or tweet like they think?

Years ago Andrew Harrison told me the proper etiquette for communicating with people on eBay. When you give feedback, he advised, you've got to exaggerate. A thank-you isn't enough, he said. It has to be accompanied by the word "brilliant" and a thicket of exclamation marks. He was right.

That was years before Twitter. When you've only got 140 characters to work with adjectives tend to take the place of thoughts. This produces a language in which the world is divided into people who are either "lovely" or "bad" and every experience is either "amazing" or "crap". There's no way of dealing with the average or of discriminating between monstrous events and everyday disappointments.

I wondered yesterday whether this was a case of language changing the way people thought or language changing to reflect the way they already thought. I was still wondering when the first news came in of the events in Oslo. Radio was running its usual programming and so I searched "Oslo" on Twitter. I'd never done that before in the moments after such a terrible event. Suddenly my screen was alive with thousands of messages in many different languages. Some were close to the event - there was a Word reader who lived ten minutes away - others were trying to find out about loved ones; most were, like me, just turning up to gawk, like people slowing down when passing the scene of an accident.

Some people seemed to be trying to set down their feelings before they'd decided what their feelings were. Did the person who wrote "Oslo bombed. Shitty day" really feel that the events of Friday were a bit like standing in a puddle or missing a few buses? Did the person tapping "this is so surreal" know what surreal meant and did they really find the idea of a bomb in a major European city in 2011 "hard to believe"? Maybe they did.

I'm sure all these messages were motivated by nothing but simple compassion. I suppose a lot of the people doing the messaging were very young. Surely that's the case with the one who wrote "peeps in Norway. Hope you're OK." I only hope they don't forget about it as quickly as they tweeted about it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

There's nothing as funny as an old Grazia cover line

One of the curses of the internet is that old issues of gossip magazines stick around to haunt their editors. These are just a few Grazia cover stories I found last night.

"Victoria - leading separate life from David" (December 2007)
Think they've just had a baby.
"Brangelina - it's over - Brad banned from bedroom" (March 2009)
Seem to be going strong three years later.
"Jennifer to adopt a baby boy called Alex!" (April 2008)
"Jen and Brad - back together?" (May 2009)
"Katie flips! Is new marriage test the final straw?" (May 2009)
Doesn't appear so.
"Ange - Life without Brad" (June 2009)
Except she was still with Brad.
"Gwyneth marriage under attack" (November 2009)
Seemed to withstand whatever "attack" that was.
"Lady Gaga - battling serious illness?" (June 2010)
Seems to be bearing up.
"Has Kate secretly got married?" (October 2010)
No, she waited a year and then got very publicly married.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The secret of pitching is making them say no

So you want to get on in the media, do you, kids? Well here's my advice to you, refreshed by a recent experience.

When pitching projects to large, bureaucratic organisations, try to get them to say no. Get them to say that is an idea their organisation has no interest in now or in the foreseeable future. Get them to make you promise never to speak of it again.

You probably think it's hard to get them to say yes. That's certainly the case but it's not half as difficult as it is to get them to say no. Very few executives have the nerve to say no without first seeking the backing of their fellow execs. They're terrified they will say no to something that will prove to be a success elsewhere. Thus what they do is endlessly procrastinate in the hope that you'll lose interest or they'll get moved to some other post.

Next time you pitch something tell them they have a week to make up their mind and then you take it somewhere else. You may not get a successful outcome but at least you'll waste less time.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Keep going like this and you won't have newspapers to kick around anymore

When we were entering the 6th form they did everything they could to encourage us to read a newspaper. We were of course nudged to "take" The Guardian or The Times or the Telegraph. I think they probably knew that our parents were happy with the Yorkshire Post, which had a world view that didn't stretch much to Lancashire, let alone overseas. That was in the 60s. I started buying a paper then and carried on through the 70s, 80s and 90s to today.

I don't recall much discussion about which paper anyone read. When pressed people would repeat variants on the line that was put in the mouth of Jim Hacker in "Yes Minister", but more in amusement than in the present mood of indignation:
"I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is."

I've never known a time when people argued so bitterly about the values of different newspapers. The weird thing is that most of the people doing the arguing don't buy newspapers any more. They consult them, certainly, they scan their headlines, tweet about them and they happily link to them but they don't actually read them - not like a buyer would read them. Many of them say they won't even pay to read the news on iPad or on a Kindle version such as The Guardian has launched today. Ultimately the coming generation's unwillingness to pay is going to decide the future of newspapers more certainly than any scandals or PCC deliberations.

In the days when people bought papers they would direct at least a fiver a week towards their title of choice. You've got to sell a lot of click-through advertising and sponsorship to make up that shortfall. That's what Murdoch's corporate investors (your pension funds if you have one) have been telling him for years. This current mess only increases their determination to get out of papers altogether. Nobody's buying them, they say, and the advertisers have lots of other places to go. It's difficult to argue with that line. When the investors take flight from newspapers it will ultimately threaten the papers Twitter Nation approves of and doesn't buy just as surely as the ones it hates and doesn't buy.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Never seen this in a magazine before

At the Printout! event I spoke at on Wednesday, Les Jones gave me a copy of his magazine, Elsie.
Inside the centre spread I found this.

When I opened it, this was inside.

Kewl, as I believe the youngsters say.

Friday, July 08, 2011

No more holidays for Matt Wells

Interesting that in the midst of the biggest media story of the last few years the Guardian's excellent Media Talk podcast seems to have been caught on the hop. Its estimable anchor Matt Wells tweeted yesterday from his holiday in Turkey that since the producer was also away Media Talk would be unlikely to appear this week. Since then somebody has drafted in a relief anchor and they promise to publish a Media Talk podcast about the News of The World later today, though not before the BBC's equally excellent Media Show with its no less estimable Steve Hewlett had rejigged their schedules to get there first.

This may be the last time this happens. Obviously the actual newspapers keep coming out even when people go on holiday but the "digital stuff" can sometimes go by the board for a week or two, even in the best organised places. The odd user may miss a podcast but since they're not paying for them then nobody feels too bad about them going without for a while. It's only when something like this happens that a media organisation realises that the one thing people value more than anything else is not pictures, learned think pieces or even more reporting. What they want is just people who know what they're talking about talking about it. And maybe the only way of making sure podcasts are always available is to pay for them.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

How to tell if you're old enough for The New Yorker

Last night I was one of the speakers at Printout!, an event put together by Magculture and Stack. It was held, not in a conference centre, but in a cellar bar near Old Street. The people there saw themselves as "making" magazines rather than publishing them. Raygun occupied the same place in their world as NME once occupied in mine.

We were asked to choose one favourite magazine and, in five minutes, explain why. I chose The New Yorker. There's always a conscious and a sub-conscious reason for liking a magazine. My conscious reason for liking the New Yorker is for its range of compelling stories. My sub-conscious reason is to do with getting older.

For most of your life the world is a frustrating place because it appears to be run by people older than you are. Then one morning you wake up and find that it's a frustrating place because it's run by people younger than you are. When you reach this stage The New Yorker suddenly has a really strong pull on you. Suddenly it functions as a counter-balance to what seems like the increasing hysteria of everyday life.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

It's not working, Ringo

Ringo Starr wants us all to come together tomorrow on his 71st birthday and think about peace and love.

Why, Ringo? What's peace got to do with love? And what are the credentials of an ex-Beatle when it comes to recommending one or both to us? As we were discussing with Peter Doggett on this week's Word podcast, the Beatles fought for years, sometimes physically. There is no more graphic example of the difficulty of rising above one's baser human emotions and coming to a peaceable settlement than the story of the Beatles.

Since 1967 a huge swathe of the less reflective members of the rock'n'pop brethren (and sistren) have automatically prescribed peace and love as the cure for mankind's ills. If we were to perform a basic analysis of how much humanity has taken their advice we would be forced to concede that for some reason Ringo et al are not getting their message across. War and conflict have been the twin constants of man's time on earth. That's been just as much the case since Sgt Pepper as it was before.

Happy birthday, nonetheless.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Why nobody can answer the "what kind of music do you like?" question

At a drinks do the other day a woman asked me the question I dread the most.
"What kind of music do you like?"
I know she was only trying to make small talk. I really shouldn't shrivel up the way I do. I wouldn't have a problem if she'd said "read any good books lately?" or "have you been on holiday yet?" because those questions demand direct, specific answers.
Two kinds of people ask me the "what kind of music?" question. There are those who don't know I've got the better part of 20,000 records at home and therefore my relationship with music could be said to be complicated.
Then there are the people who know I've got a lot of records and expect me to be somehow expert in predicting what they might like.
In truth there is nothing you can say in response to the question that doesn't make you sound like either a dunderhead or a raging pseud.
I've heard all these and more. I've probably said some of them.
"Anything with a good tune" is the only honest answer but it's been unusable since 1965.
"You probably wouldn't have heard of them" makes you sound 17-years-old, which is the emotional age of most men when it comes to discussing music.
"Coldplay and Beyonce" makes you sound like a sheep.
"The Arctic Monkeys" makes you sound like Gordon Brown.
"Anything but country and western" marks you out as both snob and moron.
"I don't like music" is just plain rude.
"Oh, bit of trance, bit of rare groove etc" makes you sound like a cloth-eared category shopper.
"Oh, I always think Louis Armstrong had a point when he said there were just two kinds of music: good and bad" makes you sound pompous enough to punch.
To avoid any of these and other catastrophes I tend to look down and mumble "all sorts of things", at which point my interlocutor will invariably say "oh, like me!"
That's the interesting thing about taste. Everyone thinks theirs is broad. Mostly it's not. When you've worked around music and music fiends as long as I have you learn that only a tiny handful of people are familiar with a wide range of music and catholic taste when it comes to appreciating it. And they tend to keep quiet about it because they know how much they don't know.
Anyway, my wife appeared and rescued me mid-mumble with a change of subject. I've thought about it a lot since. I think in future if people ask me what kind of music I like I shall respond brightly with "The Beatles!"
At least it's honest.