Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The people who fail try just as hard

Henry Worsley's last message is a rare episode in the narrative of human accomplishment. It's not often we get to hear the sound of somebody failing. But, as he says, the same thing happened to Ernest Shackleton. He shot his bolt. He came up short.

The same thing happens to most people who try difficult things. They fail. All political careers end in failure. The team trudging off the pitch disconsolate and empty-handed at the end of the big final tried just as hard as the team dancing with joy for the cameras.

Because we can't face this truth we always tell ourselves that the winners - whether explorers, athletes, politicians, actors or scientists - won through because they tried harder and longer than anyone else. They didn't. The only difference between the winners and the losers is this. They won.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Eagles and the only truth about pop music

The first album by The Eagles in 1972 took a long time to finish because David Geffen, who managed them and was their record company boss, wanted another song by Jackson Browne with a lead vocal by Don Henley to follow up the first single "Take It Easy" and to bolster their album.

Browne supplied another song called "Nightingale" but the producer Glyn Johns didn't think it was as good as "Take It Easy". They recorded it a few times but it was never strong enough to walk on its own. Geffen insisted on Johns coming back to the United States from Britain to have another go at recording it. They tried again but it never worked.

Both songs are on the first album. Both songs are tuneful. Both are the same tempo. One lifts off and the other one doesn't. Geffen couldn't believe it was as simple as that but it is.

In the present melancholy season I keep getting rung up by radio producers and asked to explain why certain careers happened in the way they happened. Was this person a genius? Was this person a hack? The truth is underneath it all it's a business about hits and hits are all about catchiness.

These two records had the exact same inputs. One flies. The other doesn't. All the work in the world wouldn't change that. In the words of Carol Kaye, one "pops", the other doesn't. It's the only thing that matters.

It's not cool, it's not clever, it's not the kind of thinking they encourage on the arts shows; nevertheless, it's the only true thing you can say about pop music.

Monday, January 11, 2016

In praise of Radio 4 Extra and the joy of repeats

If you're the kind of person who complains about too many repeats on TV, you're watching too much TV. Anything worth repeating was a success first time around, which has to be a good thing.

I'm one of those people whose staple diet is increasingly Radio 4 Extra, which is nothing but repeats. It provides a reliable supply of the kind of programmes I prefer - which are either factual, comic or literary - and now that I use the phone or the iPad as the main way of accessing audio, it's becoming second nature to just scroll back through the schedule on the BBC iPlayer Radio until I find something I want to hear. Most of the time I don't want to hear what's being broadcast at the time but I can easily find an alternative.

In the last few days I've loved Julian Barnes and Hermione Lee looking at Rudyard Kipling's motoring holidays in France, John Hurt as E.M. Forster narrating a dramatisation of Howards End, a whole lot of the glory that is Ed Reardon's Week and Julian Fellowes' history of the Dorset theatre company who first performed the stories of Thomas Hardy.

When the BBC big themselves up they tend to do it through their big programmes, which I neither watch nor hear. It's the little things like Radio Four Extra, which presumably costs nothing, that make the difference for me.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The difference between "War and Peace" on the telly and "The Archers" on the radio

 War and Peace debuted on BBC TV the other night in a standard Andrew Davies adaptation. All the characters had to be introduced right at the beginning. All the bases had to be covered. All the budget had to be on the screen. There was even the standard tacked-on, not in the book sex scene that looked like it had wandered in from a pre-Christmas ad for a men's fragrance. The one actor who remained still enough to register his character was Stephen Rea (above) as the sinister, manipulative Kuragin. 

Meanwhile, in the land of radio soaps, Timothy Watson (left) just shifted up a gear as the sinister, manipulative Rob Titchener in The Archers.

They're obviously both good actors, doing different jobs in different productions.

What's interesting is the differing reactions. The performance of the TV actor is met with detached admiration. The performance of the radio actor, on the other hand, is met with demands that the BBC move him and his plotline out of the series because, frankly, it's just too damned disturbing.

TV always provides you with an escape clause. Radio gets inside your head.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Is the movie business just the R&D arm of the toys business?

In 1989 I interviewed Jeffrey Katzenberg. At the time he was a senior executive at Disney where he was spearheading their move back into animated features with films like "The Little Mermaid".

"My job," he told me, "is to make sure the parks have got characters."

I was surprised by that line. Now I know what he meant. As Michael Hiltzik puts it in his scorching reduction of the new Star Wars film, this is not a movie so much as "the anchoring element of a vast commercial program, painstakingly factory-made for maximal audience appeal, which means maximal inoffensiveness."

The Star Wars franchise in now owned by Disney. In their boardroom they must smile at the lengths the media go to to pretend that this is a film. They know that it's nothing more than a launch vehicle for a marketing campaign, the endgame of which is the selling of plastic toys and tickets to their theme parks. Unlike most marketing campaigns, this one can depend on airtime donated free by broadcasters.

One of the interesting things I learned from Mark Kermode's The Business of Film is that franchise films don't make their money back until the sequels. Since few people go to the sequels who didn't go to the first one the launch of the first has more in common with the launch of a subscription offer or a partwork than a piece of popular art.

All that's required is to persuade men that they would be foolish to miss out. It clearly works. Over Christmas I've spoken to blokes in their thirties who went to the first screenings, which started at midnight, five-year-old boys playing with their Star Wars Christmas presents and blokes in their sixties who are planning to see the film even though they don't have all that much interest.

I didn't get the impression of genuine excitement from any of them. It was as if a ticket for Star Wars was like some kind of tax on being male. You felt better for having paid it.