December, 2009

Happy New Year Boo

Hertfordshire Walk (5 of 12)
I tend to loathe New Year. Forced jolity really isn’t my thing.
Nonetheless – if only to force myself to use the nice H2 Zoom audiorecorder I bought a while back – here’s a Boo I made earlier:

A Night With ITV(1)

Here’s a strange thing: I just spent this evening watching ITV. At least, I spent 9pm to 11.45pm watching the channel. And it’s not even a Champions’ League Night.
Now you do need to understand that I don’t watch any of the soaps – especially not Coronation Street. I gave up on The Bill when that turned into a soap many years ago. And I especially don’t watch Britain’s Got I’m A Celebrity X-Factor. So even though ITV’s not had a bad year in terms of audience figures, in spite of the recession, I’ve not been an enormous part of it.
Football aside, I struggle to think of any drama series worth watching: The Fixer perhaps (although I doubt it’ll be coming back), or the odd episode of Law & Order: UK. But not a great deal else. Although it makes the odd decent two-parter even if I do wonder why they don’t think about making longer running decent dramas.
That’s what made this evening on ITV1 so different*. At 9pm we finally got to see An Englishman In New York, the sequel to Thames Television’s 1975 film of The Naked Civil Servant. That film had been utterly ground-breaking – something that almost nobody else could have made at the time. Certainly not the BBC, although perhaps Channel 4 might have tackled it had it been in existance.
It’s rightly regarded as one of ITV’s most powerful dramas, and yet the fact that this sequel is even appearing on the network becomes noteworthy.
In fact this film was made nearly 18 months ago, and the strange accounting techniques used in TV drama mean that it doesn’t get paid for until it airs. ITV tends to quietly pump out a few quality offerings around this time of year when most advertising budgets (with the exception of plentiful furniture companies’ sales) are extinguished and thus it can later point to them when it’s making some kind of public service case.
The sequel was a slightly forlorn look at Crisp’s life in New York as he at first enjoyed the freedom to express himself that he was now able to achieve (something that wasn’t the case in Britain). But over time, he became an ever more inward and even sorry figure. Hurt’s performance was powerful and you believed that this was an old man who, as he said, was required to stay with the body that he’d long ago divorced. The 70s and 80s New York setting felt real and this was a quality, well-scripted production.
After the news, it was the final episode in the final series of The South Bank Show with Melvyn Bragg. For this swansong, the programme featured the RSC who’d they’d first featured in the second episode. Watching this made me realise that I probably haven’t spent enough time with the programme in recent years.
In a Guardian piece today Mark Lawson (who once claimed to have seen every “SBS” episode made) drew our attention to Bragg’s closing words:
“The brave work is continuing,” he notes, “keeping this now well-established British institution full of new life as it moves into the future.”
I wonder if that’s relevant to British broadcasting as a whole rather than The South Bank Show alone?
What tonight gave us was a glimpse of commercial television back in the eighties or even the seventies. ITV still thought of itself as a public service broadcaster that just happened to have “a licence to print money” as Lew Grade put it. Of course Bragg himself became rich from his shares in LWT (along with many of his contempories), but still The South Bank Show continued.
It seems that its end came when its budget was squeezed. It’s obvious, even with a trip to the Ukraine in this edition, that it was already being made quite cheaply with a director who also did much of the filming. So perhaps it’s time to take one last look back at tonight’s page in the Christmas Radio Times to realise that even in 2009 it was still possible.

* Unless you live in Scotland and don’t have access to Sky or Virgin Media. There STV thought that viewers would prefer to see a documentary on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in place of An Englishman In New York. I don’t doubt that Conan Doyle is worthy of such a documentary, but in place of this? That’s STV being cheap and nothing more. It’s good to learn that even STV is beginning to learn the error of its ways following some disastrous viewing figures – especially on Sunday nights when the rest of the ITV network is performing just fine. I love the expression “shortbread TV”.

My Christmas Radio 4

I’ve put together more than a few annotated pages of the Radio Times in the past, and of course I have the new Christmas issue by my side at all times for the next fortnight.
So I was pleased to see Steve Bowbrick at Radio 4 collecting together the highlights of some its presenters over the next couple of weeks starting today with Kirsty Young.
In a break from my regular tradition of looking at television rather than radio, and looking at a day at a time, I’ve complied with Radio 4’s and present a list of genuine Christmas highlights:
Click on the pictures to make them more legible or read what I’ve said underneath them:
21 December: The Infinite Monkey Cage and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue
21 Dec 09
22 December: MR James at Christmas
22 Dec 09
25 December: A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
25 Dec 09
26 December: Archive on 4: Doctor Who: The Lost Episodes
26 Dec 09
27 December: Desert Island Discs: David Tennant
27 Dec 09
28 December: The Unbelievable Truth
28 Dec 1 of 2
28 December: Book at Bedtime: The True Deceiver
28 Dec 2 of 2
1 Jan: New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna
01 Jan 10 1 of 2
1 Jan: More or Less
01 Jan 10 2 of 2

How Many Listened?

According to a story in Media Guardian, “an estimated 5 million” people tuned in to hear who would be the Christmas number one yesterday during the various chart shows.
There are two main chart shows these days: the Radio 1 version which is considered the official chart, and the Big Top 40 chart which runs on dozens of local commercial radio stations and during which you can actually affect the top ten chart placings by buying songs during the show.
Radio has a couple of problems with listening figures for one-off shows: RAJAR only measures audiences over three month periods, and then publishes those figures at something of a delay. So even if one show achieved four times the audience of the regular show, when averaged over a thirteen (or twelve) week period, that audience surge is flattened out. This is even more the case with the Big Top 40 chart which has 6 month weighting meaning that the numbers are derived from the previous 12 weeks’ performance.
So the 5 million figure is a complete (educated) guess.
To be fair, that’s what John Plunkett’s piece says, and the figure comes from Mark Goodier:
But Goodier estimated that the combined audience for the Radio 1 chart show – yesterday hosted by Scott Mills – and its commercial radio rival, the Big Top 40 , could have topped 5 million.
How did Goodier get to that figure? Well he might have looked at the audiences of Radio 1 and the Big Top 40 shows at that time. Between 1845 and 1900 on Sundays, Radio 1 is heard by 748,000 listeners, while the Big Top 40 chart is heard by 968,000 listeners across its network of 139 FM stations as well as various digital outlets*.
So something like 1.7m people usually hear the number one. Goodier is speculating that around 3 times as many people heard yesterday’s chart.
I think that he might actually be being a little conservative. The two songs battling for the number one sold around a million copies between them. Ordinarily a number one sells much less than this (perhaps by a factor of ten if this table from Wikipedia detailing download only sales is to be believed).
In summary – nobody knows how many people listened yesterday. This is a bad time of year to do any kind of research (RAJAR takes a break for a couple of weeks), and unless somebody like the BBC has commissioned some, we’ll never know.
I think that Goodier is actually being conservative given the many millions who saw Joe win X-Factor the week before, allied with the hundreds of thousands of Rage and Joe sales achieved. I’d put the figure a bit higher perhaps at around 6 or 7 million. But I have no real proof either way. So it’s a fair guestimate.
* Note that I’ve used 6 month weighting for the Big Top 40 figures, but only 3 month weighting for Radio 1, in line with their respective RAJAR reporting periods. Source: RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB period ending September 2009.

Hunting In Packs

In today’s Standard (I managed to get a copy at Kings Cross – they’re never available much beyond 5.30pm at Oxford Circus or Piccadilly Circus), David Sexton pontificates over two pages about why “bloggers” are so hostile towards Ian McEwan.
This is the piece that Sexton is talking about. Following a series of Guardian Book blogs on the best books of each year of the last decade, the author asks for nominations for the worst book of the decade. What the piece is really about is over-praised books, or titles that received good reviews but which weren’t all that good.
Sexton finds it astonishing that so much venom can be saved up for McEwan.
Let’s take this back a step. Is everything McEwan’s written good? No. At least not in my view and I’ve only read a handful of his books. I loved Atonement but thought that Amsterdam (which won the Booker) was vastly over-rated. I enjoyed Enduring Love, but both Saturday and On Chesil Beach left me wanting. Those are my views and they count for as much or as little as you like.
In the internet world you’re always going to find extremes, and just as people like to vent at one another in pubs, they like to write to newspapers. In this day and age, we’re able to comment on anything we like and enjoy doing so. Witness then, the nearly 900 comments (at time of writing) accompanying the Guardian’s blog.
Is Sexton new to the internet? Is that why the strength of opinion takes him by surprise? Has he never been to a debating chamber where people will happily argue back and forth. A blog’s comment section such as this is just such a place. And when you marry that with a subject that we can all easily hold forth on like which book, in our opinion, was given the most undeserved praise, then the comments can fly.
And I take exception to Sexton calling all the commenters “bloggers.”
Bloggers hunting in packs never make a pretty sight, of course. By and large, bloggers remain writers who have not been able to find more rewarding outlets for their work and are therefore pre-packed with resentment, whatever subject they address. They rarely come to praise.
First off, you’re talking about commenters – the same people who write to your letters page too. Bloggers maintain or contribute to their own sites. There’s a subtle and yet fundamental difference, which while it might seem of little import, is relevant to the argument. They’re also a wide variety of society.
I love Word magazine, but a story in a recent issue – preceded by a podcast in similar vein – made the same mistake. In that instance it was about the “feedback” that Lily Allen received when she spoke of her beliefs surrounding music piracy (her views were not to everyone’s liking).
That Word piece spoke of “the message boards” and those who contribute to them.
In both cases, the people to whom disdain is being shown are a broad church. Speaking of them in a simplistic terminology really doesn’t do justice. They’re Word magazines readers; they’re Guardian and Evening Standard readers. They’re not some subspecies who hunt “in packs.”
Can unpleasantness occur if we’re not careful? Certainly. But that’s the same kind of argument that suggests that everyone who watches football is a hooligan.
And I seriously doubt that all those 9000 or so comments come from people who’ve “not been able to find more rewarding outlets for their work.” That’s a low, and thoroughly unfair blow.
Sexton might want to look around at the comments under the sister pieces in this series in which commentors praise lots of books from each year of the last decade and recommend titles to one another. It’s not all bile you know!

Photographers Not Terrorists

A Cloudy Night Stargazing (4 of 7)
Last night I was out trying to take photos of the Geminid meteor shower. It was a bit cloudy as you can see from the above photo which shows precisely no meteors. But as I set out on foot to a nearby field a bit away from the city lights, wrapped up warm with a hat, with a tripod in a case over my shoulder, I was expecting to be stopped at any moment by the police.
Under Section 44, police can stop you if they think that you’re being a bit suspicious – especially in certain areas. And “suspicious” tends to mean taking photographs.
Last week The Independent got an admission from the Association of Chief Police Officers to admit that the powers were being used too much to harrass people innocently taking pictures.
“Officers and community support officers are reminded that we should not be stopping and searching people for taking photos. Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether from the casual tourist or professional, is unacceptable.”
This follows numerous cases of people being stopped and having their details taken and the police insisting that they see your photos.
Anyway – that note should have put an end to it shouldn’t it?
In Saturday’s Guardian, Paul Lewis has penned a piece: “From snapshot to Special Branch: how my camera made me a terror suspect.
The journalist went out to the Gherkin and took photos and video footage of the building. Security guards called the police who wanted to know who he was and to see his footage. Seemingly, filming the top of the building is fine, but not the lower part where you can see the lobby and its video cameras.
While the journalist stood his ground pretty firmly, the video at The Guardian’s site is well worth a watch even though the police involved clearly realise that he’s probably a journalist. Nonetheless they bandy around Section 44 as they like.
The I Am A Photographer Not A Terrorist site is calling for a mass gathering to defend street photography as a result of this and other incidents.
The whole culture that this is part of, is getting really concerning.

Terry Wogan in the Radio Academy Hall of Fame

Terry Wogan
This afternoon in London, Terry Wogan was inducted into the Radio Academy Hall of Fame. This comes as Wogan gives up his breakfast show at the end of next week.
The great and the good (and the rest of us) were out in force to pay their respects, and all in all it was actually quite moving.
Terry Wogan in the Radio Academy Hall of Fame
Wogan’s successor, Chris Evans conducted procedings and was very moved himself. He’d been sat at the same table as Wogan throughout the preceding meal.
Also presented at the event was an award to the artist or artists who saw the most airplay in the last 12 months. This went to Take That, and Gary Barlow showed up to pick up his award.
Terry Wogan and Fellow Breakfast DJs
But the main procedings were reserved for Terry. A nice video featuring the likes of Noel Edmonds, Chris Tarrent (at the filming of the celebrity episode where Evans and Wogan are to appear), Tony Blackburn and Mike Smith was played out. But then came the in-person tributes.
After Evans, we got Neil Fox from Magic who gave a nice measured speech; Christian O’Connell from Absolute Radio who gave a very funny speech, joking about the RAJAR figures; John Humphrys from the Today programme on Radio 4 who was also excellent; Alan Brazil from TalkSport who spoke very briefly for someone who works on a speech station; and Chris Moyles from Radio 1 who was a bit disappointing.
Overall a fine event that most people in room seemed to think was worthwhile.
Disclaimer: I attended this event as a guest of PRS for Music, which in part explains why I had a rather good table right at the front of the room, as they are the events key sponsors.

Cinema Piracy with Laptops

Have you got a laptop? Or perhaps a netbook?
Does it have a webcam?
Seemingly it’s Cineworld policy not to allow customers to bring laptops into their cinemas. This is to curtail piracy. This follows a story from a couple of months ago about someone turned away from a Cineworld.
You see that 1.3 megapixel camera on it? Well you might turn around your laptop and point it at the screen and capture the film. Of course you might just as easily (and somewhat more covertly) use your mobile phone. Or if you’re actually a pirate, you might be using a video camera – they’re pretty small these days.
I’m not condoning piracy for one second. I love watching films on the big screen. For the majority of films it’s by far the best way for them to be seen. But what kind of lunacy is this?
At my local cinema, they search bags on entry. I somehow imagine that any pirate worth his salt keeps his video camera in his pocket rather than his bag, but hey – they’re employing someone (they might improve their bottom line if they employed a few more people at the concession stand, but that’s another matter).
During the film itself, a security guard generally peers in. He doesn’t stop any chattering from annoying teens, or the person in front of me who’s busily using their mobile phone to check emails or text their friends. No – he’s really checking to see if anyone’s using a video camera in there.
Sometimes the guard might have nightvision goggles or other technology to spot the pirates. As long as his radio doesn’t go off in the auditorium I can just about put up with this.
But here’s the thing. I carry a netbook with me pretty much every day after work, and quite a lot at weekends. They’re small, portable and very useful. Perfect – in fact – for carrying around.
Cineworld saying that they won’t allow people in with laptops means that effectively they don’t want my post-work business. I work in the West End and am lucky enough to have a huge choice of cinemas. Any chain that decides that laptops are banned is pretty much ensuring that I can no longer be a customer.
Cinemas – on the whole – don’t have secure lockers. I certainly wouldn’t trust my local cinema with anything.
It has been reasonably common practice at preview screenings of films for private security companies to collect mobiles and digital cameras. It’s a pallaver, and as far as I’m aware pirate copies of films don’t tend to come from these screenings (they do however come from DVD “screeners” sent to voters in The Oscars etc). On the plus-side – they do ensure that others in the cinema don’t text/email in there.
But nobody tries to employ this in local cinemas.
When all’s said and done, customers will vote with their feet, and that’s what I will be doing to any chain that employs such a stupid role.