February, 2006

Expositary Titles

I think it was Charlie Brooker who first pointed out in Screen Burn (coming to BBC4 this Thursday as Screen Wipe) who first pointed out how expository programme titles are now.
Thus tonight, we have a collission of “Reals” with The Real Dad’s Army on C4 up directly against The Real Rain Man on Five. Of course, you won’t be watching either of this will you? You’ll be watching the final episode of Life on Mars to see how they wrap it up, considering that a second series has been commissioned. The obvious outcome is that he’s in a coma, but is that too obvious? And if all is revealed tonight, where does that leave series 2?
Incidentally, it wasn’t all that long ago that C4 ran another documentary on the Home Guard as part of its Secret History strand, was it? Still, you can’t have enough WWII documentaries can you? I mean, where would that leave UK History or the History Channel if they dried up?

Ricky Gervais

For the last twelve weeks, the Ricky Gervais podcast has been at the top of the iTunes chart in both Britain and the US. Indeed it even got awarded a Guinees Book of Records award as the most listened to podcast (albeit that there are other podcasts out there, distriubtedly significantly beyond iTunes, that may also be potential bestsellers).
Given that Ricky Gervais has a commercially strong product, the question was bound to be asked: “Why don’t we charge for each episode?”
Well now, it seems, they are.
Now I’ve listened for the last 12 weeks and enjoyed the programme, going back each week, but I won’t be forking out, even 95p, for further editions. Advertising support I can appreciate, but it’s not so good that I’d actually pay for what effectively are just ramblings. While they may do some preperation for the show, I don’t feel I’d be paying for skilled performers giving us material that I’d otherwise not get. It’s good radio – and all the radio I listen to is free (or paid for via advertising or my value-for-money licence fee).
It’s a shame that the BBC has yet to offer any of its comedy programming as podcasts – I suppose there’s too much value in selling CDs later. To that end, I must recommend Virgin Radio’s very own Al Murray as one of the best free comedy shows that you can now download, for free, in a non-proprietry format. And while you’re at it, get The Geoff Show too.
There’s another reason why I won’t be buying it. The deal has been done with Audible. Now Audible programming is available via iTunes, but without first burning the show onto CD and then re-ripping, that’s no use for my Creative Zen Touch or Sony PSP. And in any case, even at its highest quality, I’m not especially happy with the sound quality of Audible’s codecs. I have bought a couple of books and plays via iTunes, and been through the ‘burning a CD and then ripping it back’ process and it doesn’t do the sound any favours.

Bird Flu Horror

Tonight’s Evening Standard had a headline: “Lock Up All Chickens” on at least one edition. Don’t they know that most chickens spend all their lives caged up anyway, often in spaces the size of an A4 piece of paper.
A few weeks ago the FA announced that from next season, energy company E.ON would be the sponsor of the FA Cup. For the Standard, in true hyperbolic style, this became “Germans buy the FA Cup.”

Manufacturing Consent

ITV4’s a strange beast. I really like it. Lots of old ITC shows in the early evening – Strange Report, The Persuaders etc. Then it moves into some more recent stuff cult stuff like Dark Skies or First Wave. Then, in the post 9pm slot, there might be football, a film or a recentish lower-tier import. Late nights are full of David Letterman and Larry Sanders. And just occassionally, it throws a real curveball by putting out something that has More 4 or BBC 4 written all over it – Outfoxed was a recent case in point.
And then last night, I did a complete double take when I saw what was on. I had been planning to record Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past on BBC 4 (well, you can buy it on DVD). But that plan went out the window when I realised that Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent was on.
I haven’t seen this since I taped it late one night when it was on Channel 4 many years ago (it’s pretty safe to conclude that C4 wouldn’t show it now – I’m biding my time until they simulcast Quiz TV overnights).
At first I was pissed off that it was knocking Homicide: Life on the Streets off the schedule, but that’s back next week.
I can’t wait to sit down and watch this now.
“If ITV4 wants to prove its credentials as a digital channel committed to serious documentaries, you can only admire its decision to reach for the top by shining a light on one of the world’s cleverest men.”
Patricia Wynn Davies, The Daily Telegraph

Contact Zero


David Wolstencroft was very successful with his first book Good News, Bad News. It was pretty well reviewed, and then had the book chosen to be a Richard & Judy bookclub choice, which is never exactly bad for sales.
As a co-creator of Spooks (you can’t miss this fact as it’s all over the cover, and there’s a special offer for the DVDs inside the back), he’s already set lots of action in MI5, so this time he chooses MI6.
Four “lilywhites” are involved in operations that go spectacularly wrong, and with their own government offering them no support, they’re forced to seek out the mystical Contact Zero – an organisation or person who can make spies disappear forever. They’re forced to go on something of a “quest” that leads them half way around the world, while various other powers are on their trail.
This is good old-fashioned populist stuff, with plenty of action to keep the reader turning the pages, but nothing too deep. Comparison’s with Le Carré are seriously misplaced (incidentally, aren’t we due a new Le Carré by now?).
However, it’s pretty obvious that Wolstencroft’s publishers must have had a conversation with the man that when something like this:
“The first book did really great David, but have you seen who’s still top of the bestsellers? Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. If you can find a way to get a bit of that kind of thing into the book, then you’d really have a blockbuster on your hands. You know, historical secret societies, a plot from A to B to C. You’ll sell millions.”
And so, while it is a pageturner, the comparisons are not to be made lightly. Where Brown insisted (and readers believed) that everything therein was true, Wolstencroft begins by telling readers, seemingly with a straight face, that the D-Notice Committee can censor books, and this is out of the author’s control. Thereafter, at points throughout the book, odd words, phrases and names are “blacked out”. It’s an unnecessary trick.
Worth a read? Maybe. But I’d wait for the paperback if I were you.

More BBC Podcasts

The BBC has announced a new raft of podcasts to be added to those it already serves. The highlight seems to be an audio version of the key Newsnight interview (in the same way as Today offers the 8.10am interview).
It’ll be interesting to see how the hourly World Service news download works. If I leave my podcasting software open, will it just keep downloading more and more news until I fill my hard drive?
Other podcasts will include Start The Week, Broadcasting House and Front Row – the latter offering a weekly key interview.
There are a few Radio 1 shows offering interviews and gossip segments, and Five Live will offer highlights of Simon Mayo daily amongst others.
One of the more interesting programmes to be added to the list is Radio 3’s Discovering Music. Although it doesn’t play music in a straightforward manner with full performances as such, it does include music within the programme as it conducts workshop sessions.
There are no proper programmes that include any music in this batch, and it’s a shame because if anyone can sort out the rights to include music, then it must be the BBC.
The other disappointment is that none of Radio 4’s science programmes are yet included. Given the popularity of science podcasts on the net, I’m really surprised that the BBC hasn’t made more of a push by perhaps including, perhaps, Material World on the list. I’m very impressed with both the New Scientist’s podcast and Nature’s ones. Scientific American offers a podcast, and CBC’s Quirks and Quarks is perennially popular.
The curious thing is that much of Radio 4’s science archive is available for streaming permanently – Material World offers programmes going back until at least 2004. There’s no music rights to worry about, and most interviewees are unlikely to object. So what’s the problem?
And finally, the whole BBC podcasting programme is still referred to as a “trial”, with a June deadline. Can it not be considered permanent yet?

Virgin Mobile’s TV Service

Virgin Mobile has announced the launch of their mobile with TV service.
Conspicuously absent from the press release are:
the cost of the service to consumers
what the TV channel package actually consists of
and when it’ll be available from.
So, just the salient points then.

West Side Story

I’ve just been watching, again, the BBC documentary that recorded the creation of the 1984 Leonard Bernstein conducted “operatic” version of West Side Story. It was on BBC Four a few weeks ago, and I’d not watched it since it was first shown in 1985.
It’s a fantastically interesting document of the wonderful musical’s first full recording, since soundtrack albums until that point, had been cut to fit on a single LP. I remember listening to dad’s LP of the musical many times on our “music centre”. After the documentary was shown, mum went out and bought this new version on cassette. I made cassette to cassette copies for myself. Since the book was reproduced in full in the accompanying booklet, I was able to sing along to my heart’s content!
But the music aside (and I do have some issues with the over operatic renditions in a couple of places), the most remarkable thing about Humphrey Burton’s film is the candid record of Bernstein working with his scratch orchestra and his tough love approach to getting what he wanted. In particular, Jose Carreras doesn’t get an easy ride.
I don’t own this version on CD, so I feel a trip to a music shop coming on soon. It’s just a shame that the DVD of this documentary that’s available from Deutsche Gramaphone isn’t quite as good as it might be, being a NTSC transfer rather than PAL.

Scary Fact of the Weekend

At around 9.15pm on Saturday night, BBC2 was showing the pairs short routine in the figure skating at the Turin Winter Olympics (or are we calling it Torino? Nobody seems too sure). Over on ITV, David Seaman, Bonnie Langford and their cohorts were performing in Dancing on Ice. How many people do you think were watching each show?
1.8m were watching the pros on BBC2 and 7.4m were watching the amateurs on ITV1. Hmm.