May, 2007


I love stories set in newspapers. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is quite probably my favourite ever book – riotously funny. TV has had its fair share of programmes set around plucky newspaper reporters; most recently State of Play, but I even remember Lytton’s Diary! And then there are films. Another favourite is The Day The Earth Caught Fire set in the offices of the Daily Express (back in the sixties I should rapidly point out).
I also quite like the films of Woody Allen. I’ve not seen every film, and I’ve missed a couple of his more recent entries like Melinda and Melinda, and Match Point. I suppose that like many others, I was put off a bit by the little local difficulty he had in his personal life.
But when I heard he’d made another film in Britain (Match Point was too), and it was set in the newspaper world, I was intrigued and looked forward to it. The fact that it starred Scarlett Johansson was no bad thing either.
Woody no longer gets big releases. He makes films as regularly as clockwork and I guess the sums all add up because the same people go and see them, and the studios keep backing them. Big name actors love to work with him (for much reduced fees one suspects) and the whole thing ticks over nicely.
Scoop (nothing to do with aforementioned Waugh novel) was released in the US last summer, and has since opened in a number of countries around the world. But noticeably, not Britain.
This is unusual in that there’s a reasonable following for Woody over here, and the film was actually made here. On top of that, many famous British faces have parts to lesser or greater extents (mainly lesser, but we’ll come to that). The latest word I hear is that no British distributor is going to pick up the film. So aside from the odd festival screening, it’s likely to first pitch up on DVD or TV. The latter is a dead cert. since BBC Films co-produced the film.
I picked up a North American copy of the DVD to see the film, getting impatient with obviously foolish distributors in the UK. It couldn’t be that bad could it? I mean as well as Johansson, the film stars Hugh Jackman and Ian McShane as well as Allen himself!
Well, I’m sorry to report that it really is that bad.
Woody has something of a starring role in the film alongside Johansson. She plays a young American visiting her British friend (the thoroughly underused Romola Garai), and she also happens to be a cub reporter on her college newspaper. For very feeble characterisation reasons, she stalks a famous film director (Kevin McNally in practically a cameo) and immediately jumps into bed with him to get her story. She fails.
Then she goes off with her friend to see a magic show being conducted by Woody Allen. I’m not quite sure where such magic shows are held, but they find one nonetheless. Allen’s character is a hackneyed conjourer with a supposedly razor-sharp wit. But it isn’t really. And Allen just plays Allen as he always does. Johansson is chosen from the audience to be made to vanish in a wooden box, but whilst inside she meets the ghost of legendary tabloid hack Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). Stay with me. He’s been told in the afterlife that the renound “Tarot Card Murderer” who’s killing prostitutes all over the streets of London is actually playboy rich-kid Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman).
Johnansson and Allen team up in the most unlikely manner to try to get close to Jackson and find out if he’s the real murderer. This will be her big break after all!
What follows is a mess. The jokes are feeble, with more laughs in the average episode of My Family. The dialogue is poor, and the plot just freewheels along on its own without any care for logic.
Along the way, every incidental character our heroes run into is a famous face playing blink and you’ll miss it roles. Especially bad is Charles Dance playing the editor of The Observer, and forced to say lines that he practically winces at on camera so terrible are they.
The end comes relatively quickly and you’re not exactly surprised.
The only reason I stayed with this film is because I’d paid good money for it, and as I say, Johansson’s not exactly unappealing on the eye. But the film is a stinker. Expect to see it cropping up sometime between Christmas and New Year on BBC2 without too much fanfair despite its stellar cast.
I see that Allen’s next film, Cassandra’s Dream, has also been made in Britain – it simply can’t be any worse than Scoop.

Z. for Zachariah

I didn’t actually know that Z for Zachariah was actually a book. I remember it as a Play For Today back in the eighties (1984 to be precise – ah the power of the internet). I remember it starring Anthony Andrews (late of Brideshead) and not a great deal else.
Anyway, my interest was piqued recently when I saw a copy of it pop up on a certain file-sharing site that’ll remain anonymous. Reading a little more, I learnt that it was based on the novel, so I decided to give it a read.
Then I discovered that the book was actually aimed at children.
Oh, and the book has been relocated from North America to Wales. The premise is that there’s been a nuclear war, and most of the countryside has been ravaged. Yet there’s a valley that’s somehow remained unscathed, and in it lives a young girl who’s now all alone and is tending for herself, running her farm and generally surviving.
One day a stranger arrives…
And that’s all I’ll say. In some respects the novel is more of a novella, but if that premise intrigues you then read this book. Now I must go and catch up on the TV version (shhh…).

Dalek I Loved You

Nick Griffiths is a writer on the Radio Times amongst other places, and this is a memoir interspersed with Doctor Who. That sounds a bit strange but it all makes sense. Sort of.
He begins with Jon Pertwee and takes us through his early years and Tom Baker. He misses out ther rest, largely, which is a shame because I basically begin with Peter Davison. And yes, I knew him as Tristan from All Creatures Great and Small too.
But as Griffiths is a little bit older than me, his Doctor Who experiences stop as mine begin largely.
He talks about his nice upbringing, every so often leaping forwards or backwards to bring us a bit of his life as a fan of Doctor Who too. Near the start of his book, he explains that he’s not some kind of complete obsessive, explaining where he stands on the scale. He puts himself in the mild camp, but we later read about some of the collectibles he’s bought, and I rather think he’s a little more obsessive than he lets on.
This is a fun read, and if you too were a child of eighties, then you’re going to recognise a lot. Griffiths is much more into music than I was, so his life isn’t really a parallel to mine, and indeed the book reminds me a great deal of the first volume of Andrew Collins’ memoirs. If you liked that, then you’ll like this.

New Versions of Classics

Why do we keep getting new versions of TV and film classics adaptations? Every Jane Austen novel has now been adapted on countless occasions and you just know that there’ll be more.
Even “definitive” versions of the classics don’t stop someone else making the same story again a few years later. So we had a film version of Pride and Prejudice after the exceptionally popular Colin Firth TV adaptation.
There’s a film version of Brideshead Revisited coming soon which seems pointless considering the incredible Granada TV adaptation of the eighties simply couldn’t be surpassed. Andrew Davies wrote the first draft of this but is reported now not to be still attached – although I too think it’s bizarre that they’re filming in Castle Howard again.
And now we read that there’s a new version of A Room With A View starring Timothy Spall coming, even though the Merchant/Ivory film version practically defined a genre. And the same, very busy Andrew Davies is adapting it and he said at Hay this week that it is a tough task because there was such a good film, but his version will have an “edge” to it.
You could argue that there’s always room for another Hamlet, but stage plays are ethereal and there’s always a new audience who’s yet to experience the play. But films and TV series live on, with DVDs and satellite channel repeats.
New directors always feel that they can bring new visions and ideas to a project and attack the story in a different way, but I always feel that it’s a little like deciding that you’re going to remake a classic film. When was the last time that worked? Psycho? The Ladykillers? The Texas Chainsaw Massachre?
It’s just a pity that we can’t either adapt some less popular works in an author’s cannon – ideally ones that have never been filmed before. Or perhaps – shock horror – actually commission new stories. I’m sure that someone must have written one, but I struggle to think of a costume drama, particularly a major one, in recent times that wasn’t based on an original novel. I suppose there was the recent Lilies (which I didn’t see), but the list must be short.
And speaking as someone who loved Andrew Davies’ original series, A Very Peculiar Practice, why doesn’t he write a few more original stories.

No Idea

Read this.
This is quite easily the single worst “scientific” article I can remember ever reading. I really simply don’t know where to begin.
Why is it acceptable for journalists on a national newspaper to write about science when they clearly have no qualifications, background or plain and simple knowledge of the subject? In any other sphere, you’d be laughed out of court if you came up with such nonsense.
I’ve got the paperback of Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion at home in which he expounds on the dangers of religion. I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve read it, but to my mind he’s going after the wrong people. It’s the singular lack of scientific understanding that’s the biggest problem society faces today. [Update: It seems he pretty much said precisely this at the Hay Festival] It took until the 18th century before England stopped trying witches, but it might as well be witchcraft that explains how some of these ridiculous new-age pseudo-scientific devices work.
I think it pains me that The Independent should publish such nonsense because even though I don’t read The Independent as much as I used to, I’ve still got issue 1 bought when I was at school, and I’ve always thought of it as a paper of my time.
I will be buying it tomorrow in the hope that plenty of letters appear pointing out the error of its ways.
[Incidentally, while Googling around to find out when the last witch was hanged in England, I was aghast to discover that the last person to be tried under the British Witchcraft Act was Helen Duncan in 1944. If we bring the act back, can we lock up that stupid lot over on Living TV from Most Haunted and other shows, to prevent them, oh I don’t know, giving away troop movements in Iraq or Afghanistan?]

As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade

Anyone would have thought I’d stopped reading, given that it’s ages since I’ve written up a book review. Rest assured that’s not true. I’m just a little behind. Look to a flood of reviews over the next few days.
You’ve probably seen Mark Thomas on Channel 4. Well not latterly, since his brand of political humour seems to have disappeared. Alan Carr and Justin Lee Collins are more likely to be presenting, with perhaps even Russell Brand.
Anyway, he still pops up from time to time. Last year Thomas presented an edition of Dispatches in which he got a couple of sets of school children set-up as arms dealers. Not because it was a good career path for them, but to explain all the various loopholes and legislative failures that let just about anybody sell anything they like to pretty much any country, irrespective of the regime.
I must admit that because I’d seen this film, I wasn’t too sure whether it was going to be worthwhile buying this book. It’d just cover the same ground wouldn’t it? Well, yes it does. But there’s much much more.
Certainly some of the stories related here are from Thomas’ various TV shows over the years, but there’s a lot more, and this book forms a really good backgrounder into how arms dealing and the arms trade in general works. It’s really really scary how easy it all is to do.
In places there are loopholes you could drive a tank through, but you just know that at the end of the day, even if it is illegal of me to directly ship, say, military trucks from India to Sudan while I sit on the end of an email address and mobile phone in the UK, unless someone finds out about it.
The tone of the book is typical Thomas – he is a comedian by trade after all. A good read.

Great Reality TV

In this age of terrible “reality” programming, this week sees the return of a wonderful reality show. As ever, this series sees the housemates couped up inside their newly designed structures. But you never know exactly what’s going to happen next, and there’s minimal interference.
Yes, Springwatch is back.
And in a completely genius idea, they’re doing live streaming every night for a couple of hours. So instead of watching a house full of half-wits talking such nonsense that producers have to mute the sound and replace it with random bird noises, you can actually watch proper birds (and badgers) themselves in their natural habitat.
None of these birds are trying to appear in Heat magazine.
This is real reality.

Serial Competition Winners

Here’s a little known fact: it’s easier to win radio competitions than you might think.
Most people assume that there are thousands of people phoning in to try to win tickets, cash, a holiday or maybe even a car. But the truth is that it can be easier than you think to get through. I’m not talking about premium rate type affairs like ITV Play that limit the number of calls that even get through – I mean your regular common or garden radio contests, known as promotions in the trade, because they’re usually paid for.
Of course for really big prizes, it’s not quite so easy, but you’d still be surprised.
I’m not the only person who knows this sort of thing, and littered around the internet are forums and groups full of competition junkies. They regularly post details of new contests, answers to the questions and so on. From what I’ve read, if you put in the effort, you can make it pay, with valuable prizes being won by these regular entrants all the time.
Indeed a few years ago, one of these groups realised that a specific competition was almost certainly fraudulent because none of their members had won one of the copious prizes that were said to be on offer. When they considered the number of entries they’d cumulatively made to the competition, a bit of basic statistics revealed that they certainly should have won at least one prize, and probably many more.
Let’s return to radio for a moment.
It’s not normally in a radio station’s best interests that the same contestants win all that stations’ prizes. Listeners begin to recognise the same people winning all the time if they do, and will probably become disenchanted with the station. One of radio’s great strengths is that it becomes a friend to you in a way that other media can’t. The listeners may not enter competitions themselves, but they want to hear different people win great prizes. It’s why TV game shows down the ages have always been popular – Deal Or No Deal being the most recent phenomenon; you don’t know the people especially, but you’re happy for them when they win.
So radio stations tend to have rules that try to “spread the love” a little. My own employer’s rules state that:
Anyone who has won a prize within the last twelve months on a Virgin Radio station or valued at £100 or more shall not be eligible to enter the competition, nor shall any member of such person’s family (including, but not limited to, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents etc).
So you can win more a single pair of concert tickets in a year, but you can’t win a car one week and £25,000 the next. It’s only fair to let a few different people win.
Similarly Magic 105.4 FM in London has some quite specific rules for its competitions too:
A person or people at the same residential address may not win more than one prize valued at £500 or greater within a one-year period following the first win.
But here are some other rules that Magic has in place for its competitions:
You must enter the Competition using your legal name.
We reserve the right to disqualify any entrant if we have reasonable grounds to believe the entrant has breached any of these Competition Terms.
You may only enter the Competition as an individual, any entries that, in our absolute discretion, have been made via participation in a syndicate will be disqualified.
We reserve the right, in our absolute discretion, to request a proof of identity and address in the form of your passport and driving licence, proof of your address in the form of a utility bill and proof of you vocal identity with an in-studio recording compared to your on air win audio.
A couple of odd ones there. Why does it worry about syndicates? And voice tests?
All becomes a little (but not much) clearer when you see a statement that’s posted on the Magic FM website. Magic has a popular competition called “Mystery Voices” in which you have to guess the identities of three famous people from a very brief piece of audio. It’s very hard, and each day that the competition continues, the prize fund increases.
Last time around it reached £168,600 before someone won the competition.
But according to Magic’s statement:
Given the large sum of money involved and in accordance with our terms and conditions, we required the winner to provide proof of identity and to undertake a voice recognition test to satisfy the company that the participant had complied with the rules of the competition.
As a result of these exercises, Magic concluded that there was a serious breach of the competition rules, resulting in the judges’ final decision to disqualify the winner.

Now I don’t know the specifics of this instance, and in case there’s any legal action pending, I’ll talk hypothetically.
Hypothetically it’s possible that someone has a “syndicate” of friends and colleagues who try to enter competitions. Perhaps they withold Caller ID to prevent stations seeing the same numbers come up. By using sheer weight of numbers (they might have additional lines installed at home), they get through to the station on a regular basis. They do still have to get the competition right. But if they’ve won recently before, it’s a bit of a problem. The competition’s rules say that they can’t enter if they’ve won in the last 12 months. But they’ve got a friend’s name and details who can replace theirs. This “friend” hasn’t entered a competition on the station. The entrant names that person as the winner – they can share the cash out appropriately later.
But the station’s a little clever, and wants to see a recording of the voice that called in is the same as the voice of the person who turns up to collect their cash. No match – no cheque. This is all hypothetical mind.
There are other oddities, hypothetically, used by “winners.”
No they can’t write the cheque in someone else’s name because the winner “doesn’t have a bank account.”
The station can’t put the holiday in someone else’s name because “their cousin’s going instead,” and not at all because they’ve auctioned the holiday on eBay to someone else.
Yes you do have to come into London to collect your prize, and I’m sorry that you’re “agoraphobic” – you’re still needed here. We’ve got wheelchair access.
Why does your passport look defaced? Isn’t that illegal?
Hypothetically speaking, of course.
For the most part of course, winners don’t have to jump through hoops. Stations are just happy to dole out the prizes and move along to the next competition. Happy listeners, happy station with happy audio making for great programming. But stations wouldn’t just want the same people to keep winning, particularly when their tactics might disadvantage other listeners. Hence stories like this one.
[As this entry is all about radio, I should reiterate that views mentioned here are mine and mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. Having said that…]


… or “Viewer Participation” is an essential part of all entertainment TV programmes now. Or at least it was until it was revealed to viewers that the TV companies were ripping them off in many instances.
But votes on programmes such as B** B****** have always been an intrinsic part and invariably there’s always someone willing to pipe up about more votes being cast for the programme than at the last general election. What such “stats” fail to make clear is that the programmes practically encourage repeat-voting. As a rule Parliament doesn’t like vote-stuffing in real world elections (well, unless you come from particular parts of Scotland, but let’s not go into that now).
And if you’re TV company is taking home 25p for every text and phone vote sent, then there’s no real incentive to try to enforce a one-phone/one-vote rule. The BBC occassionally tries something to stop vote-stuffing when things like the Today Programme are electing their person of the year. But really, most people don’t care.
Anyway, fast-forward to this week and C4 is reportedly cutting the cost of calling B** B****** by 50%, with no profit now being made by the channel. All very gallant.
But I’m curious to know what to think of the next part of the article:
Channel 4 said text voting had been axed because mobile phone operators cannot process SMS messages within a time frame suitable for the voting procedures on the programme.
Really? C4’s always managed this in the past. Does that mean that text votes weren’t counted in the past? Seemingly not:
“The voting has been fair and transparent throughout Big Brother’s eight years on air, but given the recent focus on the use of premium-rate phone lines on TV we want to ensure the audience has absolute confidence in the evictions, which are absolutely integral to the show’s success,” said Andy Taylor, the Channel 4 managing director, new media.
Phew. That’s OK then.
But a cynic might rather suspect that there may just have been, on occassion, instances where maybe not every single text vote was counted in the past. There was certainly an instance recently when ITV admitted that 11,500 Vodafone votes failed to be counted for an episode of Dancing on Ice. Fortunately for all concerned, the outcome of the programme’s elimination would have been unchanged regardless of these missing votes. But to go back to a General Election analogy, even if one candidate won my constituency by 10,000 votes, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t mind if the van driving the ballot box from my village hall got lost, and its votes weren’t counted (Or maybe the ferry coming from my island).
Nothing like covering your backside after the event is there?
In other reality news, is it just me, or is common decency and morality getting harder to find. In Australia there’s the B** B****** contestant who’s father has died but who hasn’t been told. She’s missed the funeral. Seemingly, she agreed to this course of events before entering the house, and her family are supportive. All I can say is that a lot of people have got their priorities very badly wrong. A fleeting attempt at “fame” is not worth it. In whatever passes in Australia for Heat magazine, she’ll forever be remembered as the glory seeker who’d miss her own father’s funeral to take part in a game show.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, three contestants are competing to “win” a new kidney. Words fail me.
Coming soon, text your votes in to say which prisoner on death row gets executed live on Friday night’s show, and which gets a reprieve! You decide!