Friday, December 19, 2008

The lesson of history

"The occupational disease of ministers long in office is to intervene in the private and communal lives of citizens..."

Simon Jenkins, Accountable to None: the Tory nationalization of Britain, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1995 (Penguin paperback 1996: 95)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Who commissions this stuff?

Who commissions what passes for drama on BBC1? So many turkeys it's like December in Norfolk. Bonekickers, Survivors - even a bad choice of Little Dorritt as the compulsory Dickens. And oh-dear-god, Apparitions; how drunk do you have to be to think Apparitions is a good idea?

All these shows shed viewers at an alarming rate. There's something to be said for risking something new but endless revivals of past failures (Survivors, Blake's 7) is pure madness, especially when the same tiny band of actors is in all of them. Lots of people liked Julie Graham in William and Mary. That was a significant time ago and she's been in nothing worthwhile since.

Dylan Thomas premiere

The Art of Conversation, R4 December 3 2008.

This was billed and produced as an undiscovered play but was actually a dramatic feature. The clue was the in-joke when a sailor at the palais de danse was telling his girl how popular the radio is aboard ship. "Except when there's a feature programme. No one listens to them."

Artistically it could not be a play because there was no dramatic conflict, merely dramatic interludes designed to illustrate the propaganda theme that "careless talk costs lives."

The device was an illustrated lecture about the decline of English conversation. The flashbacks to the conversational giants Wilde and Dr Johnson fell wide of the mark, illustrating the fact that they were monologuists not conversationalists, or more exactly pompous windbags.

The second half, however, came alive when the lecturer illustrated how pointless mundane chatter inadvertently passes useful info to the enemy. The key facts were cleverly 'bleeped' out with a choral chord. Unfortunately the producer, Alison Hindell - the Head of Drama, no less - considered it witty to incorporate the same device into the end credits. This is the same legendary humour that inspired her to use her trademark device of incorporating Richard Burton's half-pissed performance as First Voice in Under Milk Wood. It shows how little broadsheet critics know about the form when several thought this was actually part of Thomas's script.

Nevertheless - a considerable archival discovery by Andrew Lycett and well worth production.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

And the winner is...

The recent glut of awards yielded the following results in the world of radio drama:

The Tinniswood Award for the best radio drama script broadcast in the UK between January 1 2007 and December 31 2007 went to Memorials to the Missing by Stephen Wyatt.

"This intermingling of fact and fiction makes for a poignant play which is perfect for radio and a play, not without humour, of great emotional power. All the judges privately confessed that it reduced them to tears." Personally I thought it superficial and exploitative.

Colin Teevan's Glass Houses was highly commended. "An exceptionally painful, but beautifully and economically written duologue about the break-up of a marriage between an increasingly psychologically disturbed husband and his much-suffering wife, in which the lives of their two young children are very much at stake." I haven't heard or read this play but - albeit with a concern about the limitations of 'duologue', which I find to be literally only one better than monologue - very much wish I had.

The Imison Award for the best play by a writer new to radio went to The Magician's Daughter by Adam Beeson.

"A lovely, entertaining, amusing and taut play with a mystery at its heart and wonderfully light characterisation. It travels skillfully in time, making excellent use of radio in its storytelling and plays, as stage magic often does, with what is real and what we choose to believe." In other words, it's a take on The Prestige and Death Defying Acts (see below, July 20 2008).

The shortlist for the radio play section of the Writer's Guild Awards (all of which I have read because I was a judge) were:

Cavalry by Dan Rebellato (which I hated and my colleagues loved). "Four men are waxing saddles, cleaning spurs, polishing bridles and weapons. They are preparing for battle, but which one? And which century are we in?" "Funny, angry, original" - Daily Telegraph.

Cuba by Jennie Buckman and Ulises Rodriguez Febles (which I quite liked but which my colleagues didn't rate highly) "The ailing Fidel Castro presides over a unique society on the brink of change. Norma, who last visited Cuba in 1978 with theYoung Communists, wants to relive the ideals of her youth before it's too late. Jesus, born in 1978, will do whatever it takes to achieve his dreams." "Two writers - a younger Cuban man, Ulises Rodriguez Febles, and an older British woman, Jennie Buckman, who visited Cuba in 1978, - colloborated on this play about idealism and lost youth through translator William Gregory." - Daily Telegraph.

Mr Larkin's Awkward Day by Chris Harrold (which we all accepted as probably the best of a pretty poor selection and which therefore won). "One morning in September 1957, Philip Larkin receieves a very official looking letter which sends him into a spin. It informs him he is being investigated under the Obscene Publications Act, and that he may have to appear in court." "Pick of the day." - The Guardian.

Insight into the heyday of radio features

From the Daily Telegraph obituary of Stella Hillier, published November 26 2008:

Stella Hillier, who died on November 10 aged 93, had a long, active life in broadcasting and journalism that spanned two hemispheres; once, as BBC Radio's Features Organiser during the 1950s, she dragged the poet Dylan Thomas out of the pub to complete Under Milk Wood, and helped to get it on the air.

An only child, Stella Wedderburn Ogilvie Hillier was born on November 13 1914 at Weston-Super-Mare, and educated locally and at finishing school in Switzerland. Having joined the BBC West of England service as a junior secretary in Bristol in 1937, she was advised by Frank Gillard, then an occasional contributor to BBC Bristol but later to become Managing Director of Radio, to go to London. This she did in 1938, a time when the BBC was very much a masculine stronghold. Girls were not expected to climb the career ladder, nor were they expected to continue working after marriage. The Second World War changed this philosophy, and Stella Hillier took her chance as many male employees enlisted or were sent abroad as war correspondents.

Encouraged to take a production course at the BBC Training School in Marylebone (where she later lectured), she spent part of the war years working on Radio Newsreel in the bunker-like building of 200 Oxford Street whilst London was bombarded by doodlebugs. "We had some very nasty moments," she recalled later, "but there was a strong camaraderie amongst us all, and getting the programmes on the air made broadcasting, even in those conditions, deadly serious but very exciting."

After 1945 the BBC hierarchy decided to split the amalgamated Radio Drama and Features department into two separate entities. Val Gielgud (brother of John) headed Drama; Features, led by Laurence Gilliam, pioneered a new medium in broadcasting, the radio documentary.
The Features department, launched to explore the possibilities of combining poetry and drama to tell stories of fact rather than fiction, embraced, under Gilliam's imaginative leadership, a rich variety of literary figures, some working as contributors, others as producers and writers. They included Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas, DG Bridson, Douglas Cleverdon, Rayner Heppenstall, Christopher Sykes and René Cutforth.

The problem of harnessing these creative, sometimes erratic, people required firm overall control. Stella Hillier was the ideal person to take on the new post of features organiser to maintain some discipline in a department where inspirational talent tended to ignore deadlines, and financial restraint was not always a major consideration in producing exciting programmes. Her strength lay in bringing a sense of economic realism to dealing with budgets and an aptitude for successfully arguing her case in meetings and smoothing impatient egos.

On occasion Stella Hillier would extract her writers from The Stag, the pub across the road from her office (she had a good view from her window), to make them finish their scripts and get into the recording studio. She often said that some of the best radio programmes were devised while propping up the bar in The Stag or in The George, just around the corner in Great Portland Street.

Her down-to-earth realism was useful in dealing with Dylan Thomas, who was commissioned to write several scripts for Features but often missed his deadlines. The writing of Under Milk Wood – which had its first full airing in Douglas Cleverdon's production on the Third Programme in 1954, a few months after Thomas's death – was completed in Stella Hillier's outer office, after she had winkled him out of The Stag. "Dylan was always in dire straits," she said, "but he was soon to go on a lecture tour in the United States, and finishing the script would mean he had something to read to his American audience." The Features department's historic recording with Richard Burton as "First Voice" became a landmark play, won the Italia prize for radio fiction in 1954, and was later adapted for stage and film.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Radio Prix 2008

The Prix Italia for best original radio drama went to Santo Subito, ARD Germany, written and directed by Eberhard Petschinka, produced by Heidemaire Boewe. “The Jury was impressed by the beautiful writing, the fine central performance and the extremely high quality of this production. With great sparsity, it tells the story of a search [for] a miracle and the solution offered. The play is clever, elegant, highly innovative and funny in its approach to its subject. It opens up new vistas for radio drama and points to new directions for paradigm renewal.”

Best adapted radio drama was A True Story, HRT Croatia, directed by Jasna Mesaric, produced by Nadia Zoricic. “The Jury was thrilled by the humour of this adaptation of the work of Luciano of Samosata and by the originality of the approach to an ancient work. In its freshness, the sureness of production and its wonderful dramaturgy, it effortlessly brings an old story to new audiences. The Jury loved its playfulness, its characterisation and its sophistication as it took us on a magical journey into the ancient world of science fiction.”

The Jury chose to make special mention of Baudolino, Slovak Radio, "which it regarded as exemplifying a very high standard of technical production."

Santo Subito also won the Prix Europa.

RADIO DRAMA Santo Subito - Chronicle of the Appearance of the Actor Roberto Benigni before the Vatican Beatification Commission of October 2005 / Santo Subito - Gedächtnisprotokoll eines Auftritts des Schauspielers Roberto Benigni vor der Seligsprechungskommission im Vatikan vom Oktober 2005Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk - MDR / ARD, Germany; [co-produced by ORF]

The Prix Europa also gave a special commendation to Oxygen by Ivan Vyrpaev, directed by Dmitriy Nikolaev for Radio Rossii (Russia).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Commander v Underbelly

Having already seen Episode 4 of Spooks (strange how I enjoy watching it but can't remember a damn thing about it later), I gave The Commander - The Abduction a go over on ITV1. Having avoided the series hitherto, because I find Lynda La Plante's contempt of women disturbing, this was better than expected. The role suits Amanda Burton, albeit she is not the protagonist of this particular three-parter. The show is entirely carried by Mark Lewis Jones. The story is emotive and compelling - for once (thus far) no absurd rape subplot for the heroine. The direction, however, was truly awful, with a drunk POV sequence stolen from Mitchell and Webb and Poundshop special effects - there was a DTs effect that would have shamed Blake's 7. Gillies MacKinnon, who wrote and directed the excellent Small Faces as recently as 1996, should be utterely ashamed of himself.

Over on FX, home of all that is best in TV drama series, Underbelly showed exactly how it should be done. Apparently based on real, recent events in Melbourne, the show exemplifies visual story telling. Our protagonist is asked why someone with his promise is still a uniform cop - the next time we see him, he is a detective, as simple as that. The production is savvy - the music evokes Morricone (Once Upon a Time in America) at one moment, then affectionately mocks Nino Rota (Godfather II) the next. Brilliant.

Twas always thus...

"The reasons for the frequent failure of social democracy are psychological as well as economic. In undeveloped countries where there is no middle class, social democracy has no real basis; feudalism decays and peasant revolts are inevitable. In the industrial West a class has grown up which preserves the inefficiency and immorality of capitalism; its political leaders paint a utopian picture on the hustings and promise reforms which cannot be achieved except over a long period of time. The representatives of the electorate find in front of them an apparatus of government and a series of decisions already made by the past government and which demand their signatures; short of destroying the whole apparatus of administration and running a risk of complete social breakdown, they have no option but to carry on the existing system; only slight modifications are possible. They are not dishonest; indeed they are often idealists of scrupulous integrity. But they have a foot in both camps. They are themselves more or less comfortable beneficiaries of the system they have promised to change and they are as unrevolutionary as any Tories. They have in all good faith promised changes whose implications they themselves can only view with horror."

A serious pundit on the New Labour betrayal of expectation? Nope - Kingsley Martin, editor of The New Statesman 1931-60, writing in 1965.

Kingsley Martin (1966) Father Figures: A First Volume of Autobiography 1897-1931. Hutchinson, London (Penguin paperback 1969)

Monday, November 03, 2008

More on Ross/Brand

Further to the Brand/Ross affair, Stephen Glover in The Independent offered this (very true) observation: "The BBC employs a small army of “comics”, usually male and middle-aged, who specialize in vulgar and scatological humour calculated to appeal to the young."

[Stephen Glover: A new battle between generations threatens to undermine the BBC’s values, www.independent.co.uk Monday Nov 3 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Alexander Armstrong sees sense

Just when we thought he would do absolutely anything for the folding stuff, Alexander Armstrong sniffs the Sanatogen and backpedals furiously away from the poisoned chalice that is Countdown.

The actor would have become the fourth presenter of the 26 year-old show. But after "an incredibly difficult decision", he decided against taking the vacant hot seat when the new series begins filming in 10 weeks, because he feared being stereotyped on daytime television. "I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a presenter, even though I love doing it," he told The Independent. "I'm very lucky to get to do some presenting but if I'm going to be on telly as a presenter every day, well, I think that makes it less likely that people will give me jobs acting or doing comedy.

"For the next couple of years that's where I want to focus really."

A recent edition of Have I Got News For You, which Armstrong presented, saw team captains Paul Merton and Ian Hislop mock him for his potential involvement with Countdown, a show whose core audience is older than Armstrong's 38 years.

Armstrong turns down Countdown job, www.independent.co.uk 31.10.08

A propos the Brand/Ross affair

In all the hoo-hah over the smutty messages left on Andrew Sach's answer machine by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, I found Ade Edmondson's considered view in The Independent the most illuminating:

I'm not a fan of the word "edgy", especially when it's describing comedy. "Edgy comedy" usually means "not recorded in front of an audience because we were frightened it wouldn't get a laugh". "Dark and edgy" is even worse – it usually means "The Emperor's New Clothes".
[Adrian Edmondson, Is that a joke in bad taste? www.independent.co.uk 31.10.08]

The fact is, both were overrated and over-indulged. Brand can be very funny is a format suited to his very limited comedic range - Ponderland on C4, for example. Ross's laddish ribaldry is way past its sell-by date. At 47 he is either approaching the end of his frontline TV career or he needs to take some considerable time out to rework his public persona. This worked well for Chris Evans.

Lesley Douglas, the Controller of Radio 2 who resigned, had gone too far in allowing carte blanche to anyone who had once been employed by C4. Some, like Mark Lamarr, already had reputations as serious thinkers and were able to seize the opportunity to extend their range in the more freeform world of radio. Others, like Allan Carr, turned out to be rubbish.

At the end of the day, the people who came out of this with most credit were Brand, who resigned only two days into the furore, and Andrew Sachs himself, who has throughout been magnanimous to those who have lost their jobs. Douglas should have gone sooner, Ross has lost £1.4m and the last tatters of yoof cred (he is now squarely in the dirty old man/Benny Hill category). DG Mark Thompson, who was yet again on holiday when the proverbial hit the fan, had no credibility left to lose and is to the future of the BBC what George Bush is to the future of America.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dead Set - a triumph for E4



When all the others channels are retrenching, or at best wheeling out more of the same old stuff, E4 comes up with Big Brother meets Dawn of the Dead, by Screenwipe's Charlie Brooker. With Brooker's CV I expected - and got - clever, sparky and witty, but I didn't expect genuine tension, character insights and empathy. Mostly what I didn't expect was the wholehearted commitment of Davina McCall (above). Striped across five nights and ending on Halloween, Dead Set is by no means a spoof or self-conscious irony. What it is is an extension of filmdom's one and only effective zombie narrative.
According to the Guardian, it's getting audiences of around 2m, which is huge for E4.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New season TV drama

Heroes is back and not terribly good. There are now far too many characters, including those who have previously 'died'. It makes no sense, though that in itself is not a bad thing. The worse failing is that is just plain boring. I fell asleep during episode 4 and am not convinced I can stay awake for 5.

Merlin is occupying the BBC1 Saturday teatime slot. Not as good as Doctor Who, ten times better than the dismal and self-regarding Robin Hood. The effects are great.

ITV is winning the shorter-run drama battle hands-down. The dramatisation of Val McDermid's Place of Execution, produced by Robson Green's company but not featuring the man himself, was just brilliant. With ITV following Lost in Austen with this dark masterpiece, the BBC needs to up its act considerably. Little Dorrit starts very soon. It may be captivating or it may be an Andrew Davies Dickens too far. I absolutely loathed the book.

Non-terrestial has the pick of the new US shows. FX has Breaking Bad, which is flagging slightly after the initial storyline played out but is nevertheless a must-see, and the very slick Burn Notice, which has the flavour of a Sixties spy caper and the additional bonus of Sharon Gless. JJ Abrams' shameless X Files rip-off Fringe is on Sky 1. This is such a rip-off that I'm amazed Chris Carter isn't suing - you might as well launch a sci fi series and call it Doctor Why. And yet - it is high quality entertainment with a top notch cast. The one difference from the X Files, the loony professor, is the most compulsive element.

The new series of Gray's Anatomy on Living is a series too far. I'm sorry but after the furore of T R Knight's sexuality it is not possible to sell him as a Don Juan figure. Similarly, Desperate Housewives over on E4 has lost the plot and become pointless.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lost in Austen

This four-part ITV timeslip drama by Guy Andrews is by far the best thing currently on the box. Not only is the script very clever and perfectly judged tonally, but the cast is without exception superb. Jemima Roper is one of my favourite young actresses anyway, but I hadn't come across Elliot Cowan (D'Arcy) before. It's great to see Hugh Bonneville in a challenging part (Mr Bennett) after the awful career clanger that was Bonekickers; Alex Kingston is a revelation as Mrs Bennett and Guy Henry (below), who again I hadn't noticed before, is astonishingly good as the odious Collins. A Dickens adaptation without him will be unthinkable hereafter.
The fact that we know nothing of Elizabeth Bennett, who had swapped lives with Amanda (Roper) is surely an indication of what's in Series II.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

WorldPlay 2008 - this year's theme, mystery

International Radio drama at its most mysterious. Mysteries from the BBC World Service, Radio New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and the U.S...

CBC Canada: The World According to Charlie D: Long-time Listener/First time caller by Gail Bowen, produced by Kelley Jo Burke. "The brilliant and disfigured late night radio show host Charlie D is a regular in Gail Bowen's best-selling Joanne Kibourn mystery series. In this play, we have Charlie D and his faithful producer Nova, trying to figure out if one of his devoted, demented fans is also a killer..." (Cracking play, perfectly radiogenic.)

BBC World Service: The Black Cat Murder Mystery by Marcy Kahan, prod. Marion Nancarrow. "London 2008. A comic murder mystery set in an apartment block in Fitzrovia: a cosmopolitan neighbourhood a step away from the BBC's famous Broadcasting House. Featuring a corpse in flat 6; a mysterious hermit in flat 12; a cognitive neuroscientist looking for love in flat 3; a Russian businessman in flat 11; a Japanese bassoonist in flat 8; a seductive blonde in flat 5 - and an extremely unusual detective." (I've heard this one and it is absolute rubbish, I'm sorry to say.)

Radio New Zealand National: The Moehau by Gary Henderson, prod. Adam Macaulay. "A young woman hiker lies in a psychiatric hospital, traumatised, babbling in a language she has never learned, and refusing to open her clenched eyes. Has she unwittingly awakened something dark, primitive and unspeakable in the mountains and ravines of the Moehau Range, or did she herself commit an unspeakable crime?" I've heard this one, too, and it has many merits. The production is better than the script with very effective aural evocation of the NZ wilderness in fog and the voice (or is it a voice?) of the Moehau itself, which for those like me who don't know, is the Maori Bigfoot. Like many New Zealand plays, it is let down by the apparently compulsory reverence for "New Zealand's ancient past." This is Henderson's first radio play.

ABC Australia: Concerto for Humans and Semtex by Simon Luckhurst, prod. Anna Messariti. "Four intricately interwoven stories, each featuring a conversation between two people with opposing attitudes who have been affected directly by the aggression, explore the bigger questions of war and terrorism. Reading through each story separately gives the impression that the "war on terror" is a drawn-out, tragic and futile exercise fuelled by hypocrisy, self-interest and hidden agendas."

RTE Ireland: The Sweet Smell of Cigarette Smoke by Julie Parsons, produced and directed by Aidan Matthews. "Smell is the most intimate and secretive of our senses and provides our brains with details of everything that is around us. Memories, both good and bad are retrieved in an instant simply by smell. Meet Miriam - a woman who surrounds herself with scents. Her sense of smell is so important to her, that. she remembers people by the way they smell: she judges people by the way they smell. This play is about the mysteries of intimacy and possession, hatred, jealousy, rejection, hurt and above all - love."

The US entry is LA Theatrework's production of David Mamet's The Shawl (1985), directed by Mark Ward. "An amateur physic and his protege mount an elaborate scheme to defraud a young woman of her inheritance. However, their seance to contact the girl's recently deceased mother takes an unexpected turn."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Barack Obama's Euro tour

Found this in the Guardian's "Comment" section:-

"When it comes to international affairs, he will be a huge improvement on Bush and much better than McCain. That takes him a long way from the parlous place where America is now. But his current platform will still leave America a considerable distance from where most Europeans who come out to greet him would like it to be.

"This would matter more if they thought their own leaders could do any better. But Obama's other asset right now is the pathetic state of European leadership. He arrives in a continent whose unifying project has been stalled by the Irish and is based in a country that is falling apart - Belgium.

"With the exception of Angela Merkel, riding high on folksy popularity, he will meet leaders (Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy) who are not much more popular than Bush. So Obama's arrival gives Europeans a chance to be passionate about politics - a feeling they have not had for a long time. In Obama, they pine for something they have singularly failed to produce - a politician who inspires them and a politics of hope."

Gary Younge, People see in Obama what they want to see... Guardian, Monday July 21 2008, p. 25

I don't necessarily endorse Younge's high opinion of Obama as a politician but I do agree wholeheartedly with his diagnosis of the candidate's appeal in Europe. Longterm, I suspect middle America will vote decisively for McCain because they don't get Obama at all. I fear Younge hit on the problem earlier in his piece:

"The division is not just racial but idealogical. Liberals refer to him as though he represents a second coming. The left sees him as a disappointment waiting to happen. Hillary Clinton's team tried to paint him as a condescending sexist. Jesse Jackson wants to cut his nuts off."

Candidacy is one thing, electoral victory something else altogether.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Death Defying Acts

From the business section of the Sunday Telegraph, July 20 2008.

"Death Defying Acts, a new $20m biopic of the magician Harry Houdini starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce, had a less than magical release in the US last weekend, writes Tom Teodorczuk in New York. Released by Third Rail, a distribution label of the Weinstein Company run by film mogul brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the film debuted with minimal fanfare and no premiere, in just two cinemas nationwide, grossing a paltry $5000."

Firstly, surely everyone realised early on this would be a turkey - neither Jones nor Pearce are major attractions, although both can shine in quality material - and no film about magicians has ever set the box office alight (simply put, who cares about illusion in a medium that is entirely illusory?). Secondly, as readers of Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures will instantly recognise, this is a classic case of Harvey Weinstein having fallen out with an obstreperous director or overly-independent producer. Come the autumn I'm betting there will be a more significant Weinstein release aimed at Oscar 2009.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Advice from the literary heart

"Of all human activities, writing is the one for which it is easiest to find excuses not to begin - the desk's too big, the desk's too small, there's too much noise, there's too much quiet, it's too hot, too cold, too early, too late. I had learned over the years to ignore them all, and simply to start."

Robert Harris, The Ghost (Arrow pb 2008) p. 180

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Apropos Bonekickers

The Times critic, in discussing the BBC's new, silly but amusing drama series, Bonekickers:

"To say I was surprised that a plodding forensic science series went round the bend into Hollywood fantasy puts it mildly, but there is a gigantism going on in television drama at the moment: the stakes are always too high, the body count too many, the appeal to plausibility too slight."

Andrew Billen, "Last night's TV: Bones of Contention", The Times Wednesday July 9 2008, p. 25

DAB viability

The Guardian continues its peculiar war on DAB radio.

The "long-term viability" of digital radio has today been questioned by the BBC Trust, which said that all digital-only stations, including those offered by the corporation, had "yet to make a breakthrough".

In the BBC's annual report for the year to the end of March, published today, the trust said it "remains to be seen" whether the launch of the second national commercial digital multiplex backed by Channel 4 later this year "will boost the market sufficiently to ensure its longterm viability".

"Although growing, reach and audience awareness [of digital audio broadcasting] remain low. In November, the government launched the Digital Radio Working Group to look at how to promote digital radio and increase penetration," the BBC Trust added.

Public awareness of digital-only radio services such as BBC 6Music also remains "low" according to the trust, with only 41% of the population having heard of them, even when prompted.
"Concerns have grown about the future of DAB within the commercial radio market," the BBC Trust warned.


Ben Dowell, "BBC Annual Report: Trust questions future of DAB radio", www.guardian.co.uk Tuesday July 8 2008.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Are you a writer?

"I'm a would-be writer."
"Why call yourself that?"
"Because I haven't published anything yet."
"Do you write most days of the week?"
"Every day."
"Then you are a writer. Because you write. You actually do it. Which separates the true artist from the poseur."

Douglas Kennedy (2007), The Woman in the Fifth. Arrow pb, p. 135

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Decision as the driver of drama

"Whether your script is a drama, a comedy, or a thriller, there's always a decision that must be made in order to solve the external [plot] problem. If your protagonist doesn't have to make a decision that alters the course of the story, your protagonist isn't INVOLVED in the story. He's just along for the ride.

"Oddly enough, this is often the problem with character-oriented screenplays - the character doesn't have a major decision to make in the course of the story - and that makes them unimportant! You could substitute ANY character into the story with the exact same outcome. The decision your protagonist makes is the most important part of your screenplay - it reveals the theme. The meaning of your script."

[...]

"A good dramatic decision gives you three big meaty scenes: weighing the decision, the decision itself, then living with the result of the decision."

"Dramatic Decisions" by William Martell, from MovieScope magazine 2:2.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The wisdom of Mitchell and Webb - and their writers

Peep Show, June 6 2008 (last of present series). Mark thinks he has accidentally impregnated his soon-to-be ex-wife. He reflects: "Sperm is like lending someone less than a fiver. You can't really ask for it back."

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Doctor Who - Forest of the Dead



Extremely poor two-parter which raised uncomfortable questions about the future of the franchise. Now Steven Moffat is the boss, has no one the backbone to tell him his scripts need more work? This was an exceptional idea - carnivorous shadows - that completely lost its way in the second part and had a nonsense denouement about virtual reality. The character and mythology devolopment (is the woman above the Doctor's future wife?) was clever and compelling but thrown away at the end with an unnecessary resolution - the whole point of such twists within the Who franchise is enriching the mystery. Quality guest actors like Alex Kingston, Steve Pemberton and above all Colin Salmon (not so much the man in the moon, more the moon as a man) were underexploited. Overall, over-indulgent pish.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Sir" Terry threatens to bow out


Terry Wogan (who is presumably not officially entitled to use the honorary title) last night threatened to bow out after British entry, Andy Abraham, came joint bottom of the heap in Belgrade. I think the time has come for Terry's resignation to be accepted.
He has kept interest high in the Eurovision for at least two decades and should be recognised for that. But now he is ruining it - literally, in the case of Andy Abraham. We supposedly had a viewer vote system for selecting the British entry. Nobody on the night thought Andy Abraham's Even If was up to the mark; the popular vote was for Michelle Gayle with a catchy, well-performed up-tempo tune - but Terry insisted on a wild card for the final viewer vote, which told Terry fans what to vote for.
The truth, however, is that Andy Abraham is a gifted singer with zero broadcast charisma. Even If was instantly forgettable. Even if we had MOR charts, this wouldn't top them. His performance is Belgrade was old-fashioned - more Northern club than stadium extravaganza. Everybody knew he had no chance. Terry blames this on "political" voting - but political voting didn't stop Katrina and the Waves winning in 1997 and which bloc does he suppose voted for Dana International the following year? These were the best songs and the best song, overall, won this year. The Russian won on his second attempt, with a song produced by the world's most sought-after producer of the moment (Timberland) and with the world champion ice dancer as his backing act. And he had to win through the semi finals.
Everybody I spoke to after the semis fancied either Russia, Greece or Ukraine (my own favourite), with Turkey or Armenia as an outside bet. And sure enough, these five topped the international vote.
Unfortunately, Terry is no longer in tune with what the Eurovision is about. Time to step aside and let Paddy O'Connell take over.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How to craft a research grant application

HOW TO CRAFT A GRANT APPLICATION
PREPARATION
- Clear your diary for a month
- Review colleagues' applications
- Agree responsibilities with collaborators
- Do a risk assessment and plan for all events
- Apply to several funding bodies at once
- Be able to explain why a funding body should want to pay for your research
- Be able to explain how the world would be different if your research were funded
WRITING
- Make every word count
- Use a positive tone; remove negative words and conditionals
- Emphasise challenges and opportunities rather than problems and difficulties
- Keep sentences short
- Try draft on your mum
IF UNSUCCESSFUL
- Examine the reviewers' criticisms. If they have misinterpreted the research or the work to be done, ask yourself why
- Remember that the success rate is about 25 per cent.

From the Times Higher Education Supplement, May 15 2008

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

What happened to ... Channel 4's credibility?

Amy Winehouse: What Really Happened. C4 May 6 2008

'Investigative reporter' Jacques Peretti really pulled out all the stops this week. He spoke to a bloke who (briefly) worked with Amy when she was 16, an alleged music critic who saw her perform once, and a woman who - as best I could tell - saw her on the telly. On that basis, he might as well have interviewed me. In fairness he spoke to Blake's dad (who left the family when Blake was a child) and the ever self-serving Sylvia Young (let's be absolutely clear - it's not her fault all her pupils end up in rehab!). Otherwise, it was great chunks of a promo film made by Island Records. Inexcusable and a new low in C4 actuality programming.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Pumpkin Eater (1962)

Surely the women's novel of all women's novels - about love, marriage, babies and the loss of fertility. And yet Penelope Mortimer's blazing talent makes even this cynical, single man utterly unable to put it down. An overlooked classic of mid twentieth century British fiction.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Frozen in Time - the ageless Journey Into Space



Twenty-seven years since the disappointing Return From Mars, fifty-three years since they blasted off for The World in Peril, Jet Morgan, Lemmie, Doc and Mitch zoom to the rescue in Journey Into Space: Frozen in Time (R4, Saturday Play, April 12 2008).


Return From Mars was pish but Frozen in Time exemplified the effortless inventiveness required of a Golden Age radio serial, not least the brilliant conceit that the crew have been cryogenically preserved over the decades, whilst Jet's unit failed and he has circled the galaxy, alone and ageing, for a fictional 30 years. The only surviving member of the original cast, 82 year old David Jacobs, plays the cosmos-weary Jet with elegant aplomb.


The knowing asides are ingenious. The space travellers consider news of global warming on Earth "far-fetched". After all, when they blasted off from Woomera in 1973 (1955) the anticipated, scientifically-proven apocalypse was a new Ice Age. Equally, they are told "Britain doesn't do space" and is now a provider of financial services only.
Perhaps the reason Frozen in Time is so much better than Return From Mars is simply length - 60 minutes instead of an achingly dull 90. There is thus no need of woolly exposition or trivial subplots to pad out the slot. Also, Frozen in Time, like the three original series, boasts a virtually continous musical soundtrack, so that even the transitions maintain the cinematic pace.
Charles Chilton, the greatest British writer of radio serials and a world great, has - at the ripe old age of 91 - lost none of his ability. If the BBC had any sense at all they would commission him to storyline a Doctor Who special before it's too late.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Don't beat about the bush, girl! Say what you mean!

"An awfully big misadventure, this Spanish mauling of J M Barrie's masterpiece flies into the Garrick and crash lands belly-up. There are no survivors. Such is the mind-boggling awfulness of this family show, performed in Spanish with inept English surtitles, that you wish the Lost Boys had not shot at Wendy but taken aim at this great white elephant and finished it off instead."

Lyn Gardner, reviewing Peter Pan el Musical at London's Garrick Theatre, The Guardian, Wednesday April 2 2008.

Monday, March 31, 2008

An experiment in convergence


The City Speaks, BBC Radio 4, digital TV and online


Radio with pictures? That’s television, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no, judging by the six short dramas in this cross-media experiment for Radio 4’s Afternoon Play.

The idea is this: You invite six of the best radio writers to respond to a scenario by the Laureate of London, Peter Ackroyd, in which an ancient manuscript prophesies a manifestation of the Virgin Mary in Bread Street in 2008. You then broadcast the results, as normal, over the radio – but also simulcast them as films via the red button on digital BBC 1 and 2. The texts for radio and film are the same, the directors different. And the results, inevitably, are mixed.

Just as some writers respond directly to Ackroyd’s scenario – Lin Coghlan’s Boy (Pushing) and Alison Joseph’s Ayshe (Ayshe’s Tale) both experience ‘miracles’ in Bread Street – so some films simply illustrate the texts. Alnoor Dewshi’s film for Pushing, for example, shows the voice actors acting out the soundtrack in fifteen minute’s worth of stills that match the narrative exactly. Joe King and Rosie Pedlow (I Am Not You Are Not Me), William Raban (Ayshe’s Tale) and, albeit more imaginatively, Sam Brady (Make Your Way) match dialogue with travelogue, images of the city we all believe we know. There are interesting moments – flickering candles in the Pushing stills, split screen and animation in Make Your Way – but these films neither add nor detract from the audio.

Radiogenic drama flourishes in ambiguity, allusion and indirect narrative. These are also signatures of one strand of short film art. The “radio films” that work best in this exercise are thus those that respond indirectly to multilayered texts.

Esther Johnson’s film for Yalda relates to Mehrdad Seyf’s text in the same way a high-end music video relates to the song. Some key lines are actually pumped up onto the screen, part blurb, part slogan, whilst the dramatic climax – the revelation that Yalda’s miracle is the surgical restoration of her virginity – is offset against shots of synchronised swimmers.






Inge Blackman goes further with Broken Chain, including content not specified in Mark Norfolk’s script. Who is that bloke in cellophane bandages and is that a grin or a grimace? The veiled woman in white taffeta sashaying away from us through the busy market – we tend to assume she’s the Virgin but we check the credits and realise she’s La Diablesse. It makes you think.
So, was the experiment a success? Yes and no. Was it worth doing? Absolutely. The BBC produces more radio drama than any other broadcaster. With so much product, the quality inevitably ranges from outstanding to dire. Virtually none of it is experimental. The experiment in The City Speaks is neither literary nor dramatic but technological. From the Dramatic Control Panel in 1928 to the online Radio Player and podcasting The Archers the BBC Radio Drama Department has always led the field technologically. If these six radio films spark the interest of new audiences then hurry up and make more.

The City Speaks was broadcast as the Afternoon Play on Wednesday March 19 and Thursday March 20 2008. An edited version of this review was published in The Independent Monday March 31 2008.

Monday, March 24, 2008

No 1 Ladies Detective Agency v He Kills Coppers

9pm Sunday - two primetime dramas go head-to-head on the UK's main terrestrial channels - both based on lightweight fiction - both desperate for ratings success. The winner by a knockout?




Post-match analysis? The McCall Smith has a clear, likeable protagonist who by sheer good nature sets the world to rights after minor transgressions in an imaginary Eden. The Jake Arnott has substituted red-top headlines for characterisation, with no one to like or even identify with in an inner circle of Hell, namely a badly-researched Sixties London. It is a shame to knock ITV again, because they are genuinely trying with their drama. Perhaps the answer is competent screenwriters (and the BBC has a clear advantage here, with the late Minghella and Richard Curtis) and directors who serve story rather than directors who really want to direct upmarket adverts. The fact that He Kills Coppers was apparently shot through the side of a dirty aquarium didn't help - and poor old ITV is stuck with two more episodes of this tosh that, on previous Arnott showing, can only get worse as he moves from faction to fiction. Remember the pointless psychologist in The Long Firm? Ghastly.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Plus ca change

Came across this quotation in Martin Pugh's Hurrah for the Blackshirts (2005). It's from William John Brown (1894-60), trade unionist, turncoat, class traitor, who at the time of writing this was the recently elected Labour MP for Wolverhampton West, then later became a scandalous Independent MP for Rugby. Anyway, it's from "Democracy in Danger", Saturday Review, January 31 1931, p. 145:

"Many of us are beginning to think that the supreme need is not so much for Governments of a particular colour but for Governments that will govern and not fiddle about while the country drifts steadily nearer to diaster."

Lesson for Gordon B there...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Weekend TV

The Last Enemy last night was beaten in the ratings by Around the World in 80 Gardens on BBC2. The problem is, it's gone on so long we've lost track of what the conspiracy is supposed to be. Normally, I like Max Beasley but this series has taken a real nosedive since he emerged from behind the wire-behind-the-ears fake beard. Personally, I fell asleep.

After high hopes and oodles of hype, it has become all too clear why HBO passed on Mad Men and how right they were. There's no story, the characters are largely indistinguishable, and the pace would bore a tortoise. I shall not risk a third viewing.

On the positive side, Big Bang Theory continues to excel and BBC3's series of one-off dramas that started off well with Being Human had an even better second week with Mrs Inbetweeny - crap title but fabulous performances all round and a stunning turn from the often undervalued Amelia Bulmore in the title role. Being Human would work better in a 30-minute slot and if the Beeb doesn't commission a run of Mrs Inbetweeny we should withhold the licence fee.

Monday, March 03, 2008

ITV drama missing the mark


Conor Dignam "On Broadcasting", Independent, Monday March 3:
"The wave of new dramas that were supposed to give ITV1 a more contemporary and cutting edge have ... disappointed. The Palace started with viewing figures of 4.3 million and dropped from there, Amanda Redman's Honest opened with a respectable 6 million but dropped away, and Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach have seen ITV beaten by every other terrestrial channel in the Friday night 9pm to 10pm slot."

Mad Men: "It shouldn't be too difficult..."

Essentially, it's about being non-PC. Typewriters have to be simplified for women to use; secretaries go on the pill so they can sleep with and marry their boss; and - best of all - the suggestion that "It shouldn't be too difficult to convince the American public Dick Nixon's a winner."

There was much to appreciate but very little to engage with. The producers seemed more intent on cramming in benefit-of-hindsight jokes and not sufficiently interested in characterisation or dramatic structure. Well worth giving a second try, though.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

This week's new TV shows

The Last Enemy (BBC1 Sunday February 17) is a dystopian five-part thriller by Peter Berry. Peter wrote one of the better Prime Suspects four or five years back but his dialogue has always suffered from prosthetic leg syndrome. That is to say, it looks pretty much like a leg, it does most of things a real leg would do - primarily, it stops you falling flat on your pan - but it can never be as good as the real thing. Peter writes a stonking plot and clearly puts an enormous amount of research into his major scripts - but ear for speech has he none.

Being Human (BBC3 Monday February 18) was a pilot comedy-drama by Toby Whithouse who apparently writes Torchwood every so often. It's a neat but scarcely original idea about supernatural beings trying to live normal lives (see The Canterville Ghost, Rent-a-Ghost, endless Abbott & Costello flicks and specifically the works of Mike Carey). The cast were pretty damn fine, the plot non-existant, the effects surely a breach of copyright re American Werewolf in London. Overall, it suffered the inevitable fate of all comedy dramas, being neither fall-about funny nor particularly dramatic. It was very amiable, though, and I hope it makes a series.

Finally, the funniest thing I've seen in weeks, The Big Bang Theory, E4's new US import. Beauty and the Nerds. Truly fall-down hilarious.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Documentaries and comedies on BBC Radio 2

BBC Radio 2 has rediscovered itself over recent years, largely due to the fragmentation of Radio 1 and the proliferation there of faceless jocks. If Chris Moyles is the public face of your channel, you've got a problem.

Radio 2, on the other hand, is the channel of experienced comedians such as Mark Lamarr (and his stupendous Alternative Sixties show), Paul Merton (currently reading Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall), the barkingly eccentric Rowland Rivron (Jammin') and the wondrously droll Dave Quantick (A Blagger's Guide).

Their (music) documentary strand is equally impressive. We've recently had Al Bowlly and Johnny Halliday. Currently we have Alexis Korner and Woody Guthrie.

Small wonder TV is losing audiences back to radio.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

City of Vice

Original drama series on C4 are always worth consideration. This was disappointing. Despite all the trimmings, no real sense of 18th century London and downright wierd casting. Henry Fielding was under 50 when he died. Now, actors are often older than the characters they play, but Ian McDiarmid is over 60 and has acted ancient since the early 1970s. He also has an unmistakeable Scottish burr. Iain Glen is also Scottish and a full decade older than John Fielding was at the time the Bow Street Runners were formed, but more convincing in the role. These are picky points and wouldn't matter diddly were it not for the show's heavy-handed emphasis on accuracy. Overall, lacked any dramatic tension.

Monday, January 14, 2008

"Damages" and "Mad Men"

Am pretty much loving Damages on BBC1, although they must be kicking themselves for not finding a more audience-friendly slot now that Glenn Close has won the Golden Globe for best TV actress. I especially love the twin time-tracks and the subtle interaction between them - no dissolves, no narration, just a recognition that the audience is smart enough to figure it out for themselves. Also mighty impressive is Ted Danson as the anatagonist (the show is far too highly evolved to have a bad guy and, anyway, how can he be the bad guy when the protagonist, Patty, is pure evil?). I haven't really paid much attention to Danson since Cheers, apart from his occasional cameos in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but this is prime quality acting and fully deserving of his Globe nomination.

BBC4 are soon going to be showing Mad Men, the big winner at last night's Golden Globes. Can't wait.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

TV's festive fortnight

Christmas Day, Doctor Who meets Kylie aboard the Titantic was good enough, mainly because it had Kylie in it. Plenty of ideas and effects - better than last year's Christmas special, mainly because it didn't have Catherine Tate in it.

Boxing Day: Old Curiosity Shop, Ballet Shoes, Lead Balloon - don't care. My Family was clearly a bid for the 100 Worst Television Programmes Ever compilation. Truly execrable. Hard to imagine that this concept (Christmas in a hotel, ghosts and the dear old murderous escaped loony device) ever got past a commissioner who wasn't confined in an institution.

Extras (December 27) came and went and no one seemed to notice. Two-part New Year Casualty was a further descent into soapdom; silly stories and a wasted appearance from Lindsey Coulson. Sunday December 30, high hopes were dashed when Shadow in the North was nowhere near as good as last year's Ruby in the Smoke. The dramatisation was by chain saw and shovel. Promising characters became transitory vignettes. Jared Harris was a sadly halfbaked villain.

Double Time (ITV NYE): who commissions this shit? Are they unfamiliar with the work of Plautus? Sense and Sensibility (BBC January 1) - another Andrew Davies special with spurious sex crowbarred into the work of a woman who shunned physical intimacy. The new series of Shameless (C4), to be fair, started much better than anything in series 4.

So, finally, we come to another of ITV's one-off comedies: Guy Jenkin's Bike Squad on Friday January 4. I won't be alone in having approached this with trepidation. It had all the hallmarks of an aborted sitcom - and yet it turned out to be the original drama highlight of the festive fortnight. It wasn't great but all shortcomings were redeemed by decent writing, well-rounded characters and restrained performances by well-cast, well-directed actors. Mark Addy and Maxine Peake were the leads, Hattie Morahan and Darren Boyd were excellent in support and the discovery for me was Tunji Lucas, who I haven't seen before but look forward to seeing again.