June, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey – Live at the Royal Festival Hall and the See Further Festival

See Further Festival
2010 is the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. We’ve had a special series of In Our Time earlier in the year, the president of the Society, Martin Rees has given the Reith Lectures, and there’ve been numerous talks and lectures.
Over the weekend, the Royal Society’s annual summer exhibition moved to the Southbank Centre where it has became the See Further Festival. All around the South Bank and Royal Festival Hall, were exhibits of what British scientists are currently doing. Various research labs and companies were present with live demonstrations explaining the practical applications of what they’re doing.
Amongst many things I saw over the weekend were a new holographic method being developed for finding landmines, what we can learn from how insects navigate, and the development of an incredible new magnifying lens. And they’re just a handful of the exhibits. On Friday, I saw Material World’s Quentein Cooper interviewing someone about volcanoes, and reporters from a variety of international media talking to the scientists involved. Elsewhere, a little girl was being CT scanned by a large pink Siemens magnetom. And Festo had an Air Penguin that was very gracefully flying through the enclosed Royal Festival Hall’s atrium and was as elegant a flying machine that I’ve ever seen.
Air Penguin
Outside the BBC’s Bang Goes The Theory roadshow seemed popular, with Dr Yan in attendence.
The exhibition is open to next weekend, and if you’re near London, is well worth a visit.
The reason that I reached the exhibition so early is that on Friday the “Premiere” of 2001: A Space Odyssey with live orchestral accompaniament was taking place. I first saw this film in one of its re-releases (they still used to do things like that in the late seventies) with my dad and brother at the Barnet Odeon. It is one of the few times I’d experienced an intermission in a film. Indeed, so unusual was such a thing, that I remember wondering whether the projectionist hadn’t just introduced it on the cinema manager’s orders so that he could sell more Kia Ora and popcorn. But it left an indelible memory – not least as 9 year old tried to understand “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”.
To my young mind, it opened with a tediously long sequence involving apes – “The Dawn of Man”. But I remember watching and being mesmerised nonetheless. The moment that one of the apes throws a bone skywards and it becomes a spaceship heading towards an orbiting space station, accompanied by the Blue Danube, is one of cinema’s most glorious moments. The piece is roughly 11 minutes long, and Douglas Trumball’s effects, still stand up perfectly fine today. I guess that working with Arthur C Clarke for verisimilitude, Kubrick’s ceaseless quest for excellence meant that he did as good a job in 1968 as anyone could do today.
For this production, Warner Bros had gone back to the film’s audio master and separated the music cues from the dialogue and sound effects so that the Philharmonia Orchestra and Philharmonia Voices could be added in live. While music is vital to 2001, it’s actually used relatively sparingly; think of those scenes where all you can hear is Keir Dullea’s breathing within his spacesuit. Conductor Andr√© de Ridder had a timecode alongside him to ensure that the cues were all met in timely manner.
Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, introduced the evening’s event, and noted that Stanley would have been shocked for his wife to have been speaking in public (when she sat down near me, and I realised that I was surrounded by friends and family, I must admit to being quite thrilled). Famously reclusive, it seems uncertain whether he would have attended at all. He might not have been completely taken with the projection. While the picture – I suspect an HD version – was pin-sharp, and perfect technically, he might have been a little annoyed that the orchestra needed any light to work beneath the screen.
Yet, all said and done, it was a wonderful experience, and was given a standing ovation at the end.
It’s a long time since I properly watched the film. Although I have an early version of it on DVD, it’s not great. So it was interesting to note some of the things Kubrick and Clarke got right about their film. While Pan Am may not have survived, the commercialisation of everything else seems right (the space station is basically a Hilton). Meals on board are “microwaved”. On board Discovery One, the two pilots are seen using devices that are staggeringly similar to iPads! (The chap in front of me also noticed this, and was so excited that he had to tell both the person to his left, and right). A news broadcast comes from BBC 12. Sadly Kubrick wouldn’t have known that BBC Executive would be reigning in their channels rather than expanding them from the current main 4 TV services.
Anyway – it’s unclear if and when this event might be seen again. But I do feel a need to return to Clarke’s novel.

World Cup Coverage in the Middle East

You may be sick of the World Cup now having seen today’s debacle. But I’m a bit confused about the coverage of the World Cup in the Middle East.
From what I can gather, the rights to the whole Arab speaking region – with the exception of Israel of course – were sold to Al Jazeera Sports. That station, part of the Qatari owned set of channels that also owns the Al Jazeera news channels, seemingly bought the rights from ART which is closing down.
During the World Cup, there’s been something of a subplot that put’s ITV’s little “snafu” during England’s opening game into perspective. There was intentional jamming of the signal via an Egyptian satellite distributor that prevented fans watching. This seems to have reoccurred at various points during the tournament to date.
In the UK we take it for granted that we can watch the whole World Cup – ITV and the BBC bidding jointly for the rights. The entire tournament – to FIFA’s chagrin – is a Listed Event. If you look across the rest of the world, different countries have varying levels of free-to-air coverage.
As I’ve mentioned before, the IOC has the Olympic Charter, one of whose stated aims is to:
The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games. (Section 49, Paragraph 1)
While that doesn’t explicitly mean free-to-air on every occassion – it certainly means that more free-to-air broadcasters than not transmit the games in their local markets.
As far as I can tell, that’s not the case at all for FIFA. Hence, in many localities, if you want to see every game, you need to watch both a free-to-air channel and a pay channel (e.g. France and Italy). I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s such a good thing to help develop football in poorer nations.
But what I find extraordinary is the pricing of the rights charged by Al Jazeera. We may complain when out Sky bills go up each year, irrespective of our pay packets not increasing. But we’re not charged $100 a month for the rights to a single tournament.* Even with our relatively high standard of living in the West, I’m sure that many of us would think twice about whether we really wanted to watch the tournament if it came with a £67 bill (especially after today’s performance). While some parts of the Middle East are very prosperous, many live relatively impoverished lives. Think of all the immigrant workers in Dubai, or the beggars on the streets of Morocco.
Now perhaps I’m missing something, and I’d love to be put straight on the matter if I am, but it feels to me that the World Cup is very exclusive in these countries. Undoubtedly, many will watch in bars and cafes across the region, but that’s not really the same as watching in your own home.
FIFA is an enormously prosperous organisation with its expensive Swiss headquarters, and Sepp Blatter’s “head of state” lifestyle. And I’ve no doubt someone at FIFA would wave documents showing how much money gets reinvested into developing the sport across the globe. Yet I still wonder about the avarice of an organisation that can make it so expensive to watch the biggest single sporting tournament in the world.
Please do comment if you can shed some light.
* Yes, I’m aware that a season of Champions’ League or Premier League football easily beats this, but it’s a cost spread over many months.

Ray Harryhausen and King Kong

This evening Newsnight had a lovely little report about Ray Harryhausen, the film genius behind such films as One Million Years BC, Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans (no – not the recent one). They are the films of my childhood – regularly repeated every Bank Holiday. You’d always happily watch them.
Next week he’ll be 90 years old and he’s in London to be recognised by BAFTA.
Earlier this evening I was lucky enough to attend a screening of King Kong at BFI Southbank which Harryhausen introduced. As a boy, he’d seen the film when it came out in 1933, and he went on to discover how Willis O’Brien had produced those effects. This, he explained, was during a time when the magic and mystery surrounding film production was still maintained. Audiences simply had no idea about things like stop-motion.
King Kong is still a great film to watch. As Harryhausen points out, it’s a tight 100 minutes with no flabbiness. The story moves forward the whole time. Viewed over 75 years later, it still holds up, even if there is occassionally some unintentional humour. And Fay Wray does scream an awful lot.
But you still feel sadness and sympathy for Kong – the Eighth Wonder of the World – when he’s atop the Empire State Building being gunned down by planes.
And there’s that famous final line…
I note that there’s also a London exhibition about his work opening next week. I’ll try to get along and see it.
Anyway, it’s a privilige to have been in the same room as someone who’s had such an impact on cinema as Ray Harryhausen has done over the years.

Breaking The Code and Alan Turing

Alan Turing - Blue Plaque
Today, had he lived, would have been Alan Turing’s 98th birthday.
Last night at the BFI Southbank, there was a great double bill featuring the excellent TV version of Hugh Whitmore’s play about Turing – Breaking the Code. Regular readers will perhaps recall that I saw a theatrical production of this play back in November. But although I’d seen this version before, I was happy to see it afresh and on a big screen.
The cast is powerful led by Derek Jacobi as Turing, but ably supported by Prunella Scales as his mother Sara, and Amanda Root as Pat Green. Alun Armstrong plays the police inspector who feels that it’s his duty to investigate Turing’s admissions of homosexuality, which leads to an inevitable sad ending. And Harold Pinter has a terrific cameo as a slightly disturbing mandarin for one of the intelligence agencies worried about how Turing lived his life and the authorities concerns about his vetting and the possibility of blackmail.
Sadly, I don’t believe this production is available on DVD.
Alan Turing
Next up was a 1992 edition of Horizon produced by Christopher Sykes. It’s remarkable how even a documentary made in the 90s still feels like something from a distant age now. The programme was largely based around Andrew Hodge’s excellent biography of Turing, as Whitmore’s play is. But it was made at the right time, with many of Turing’s contemporaries from the war and post-war still alive to tell us about Turing.
Unususally for Horizon, this edition of the series really was much more about the man than the science. Although we had his ideas laid out for us, the casual viewer might still be hard pushed to explainn exactly what he did during the war and post-war period apart from “work on” things.
It was good to see that a slightly uncomfortable NFT2 was packed out last night for this presentation.
(Amusingly, at the end of the Horizon credits, we saw a few frames of the original slide that followed at the end asking us to send cheques for £2 to a Broadcast Services address if we wanted a booklet on that series’ Horizon episodes. I’m pretty sure that somewhere buried away, I have that booklet).

BBC Tennis

BBC Tennis
You’re a news and sport radio station.
It’s reached the stage in the World Cup where final group games take place simultaneously and you’ve promised listeners that you’ll cover all the matches.
It’s Wimbledon fortnight and Andy Murray has his opening match.
There’s an emergency Budget taking place in the Commons.
[UPDATE] And an England v Australia one-day fixture.
How do you cover all this? Ordinarily Five Live’s “sister” service, Five Live Sports Extra would suffice. But this week, there’s just too much happening. So you play around with your DAB multiplex, and you conjour up a new service: BBC Tennis.
The BBC really does cover Wimbledon well. Last night when I got in, I had the choice of six live games on satellite (Freeview viewers get slightly fewer). And then there’s the HD TV coverage.
For the technically minded, this service has the effect of knocking Radio 4 down to 80k mono. In other words, it occupies the space used by Parliament and the Daily Service during other Radio 4 opt-outs.
Incidentally, I believe Talksport uses DAB and AM to offer listeners a choice of either game during these final stages, although I’ve not been able to confirm that on their website. As digital platforms become more popular, this is going to become a harder decision to make. If loyal listeners have purchased DAB sets, then they might be disappointed to have to dig out an AM radio to hear an England game when the less popular fixture has been put on the digital platform.
I did notice that Talksport is not carrying streaming coverage of their games however, which surprised me since Five Live is. This is almost certainly due to Talksport’s ability to geo-IP block since their rights almost certainly only extend to the UK. [UPDATE] This is due to the additional fees FIFA wanted to allow streaming rights (See comments below).
One way or another, you’re spoilt for choice with sport on the radio.

Radio Drama

I really like radio drama, although I’ll freely admit that I don’t get to hear enough of it. So the piece in today’s Guardian made for interesting reading.
It highlights the fact that Radio 4 is losing the Friday Play, and the strain in general that radio drama finds itself under.
What can radio drama to become more popular? Here are the things I’d do:

  1. Podcasting. The Guardian piece mentions that something else might happen, but this is the most obvious thing to do. The Archers is podcast but no other drama is, despite the fact that a “play of the week” or something similar would be enormously popular, barely any radio drama is made available to download to an mp3 player. You only have to look at iTunes’ podcasting charts to see how much Radio 4 programming populates the charts. Listening to a play on the way to work would be popular with lots of listeners.
    I believe the BBC is a little nervous about this area as it’s specifically not allowed to podcast audiobooks, which effectively means the Book at Bedtime. But the reality is that unless it’s a major franchise that BBC Worldwide thinks deserves a CD release, such as the Smiley series, once broadcast plays just end up deep in an archive somewhere.
  2. Plays on iTunes. One of the main problems with radio plays being made available to download is music rights. The Archers has little to no incidental music, but other radio play use much more music. This becomes problematic for licencing and it inevitably costs money to licence. Deals also have to be struck with Equity for paying actors. But if plays were made available to buy on iTunes, then both of these problems could be overcome. In the same way that I’m able to buy Doctor Who episodes on iTunes a week after broadcast, the same could be done to radio plays. Listen to them free via the iPlayer for the first week, and thereafter buy them on iTunes, Audible, Amazon or anywhere else.
    The actual costs of running this should be pretty cheap. The digital files already exist – it’s just a bit of admininstration, and ensuring that original contracts take this kind of reuse into account. While I wouldn’t expect too many bestsellers beyond the likely candidates, the long tail effect would certainly occur, and a new revenue stream would be opened up.
    Currently, the only “easy” way to listen to a radio play on an iPod or similar is to record it at time of broadcast using something like a DAB radio with SD recording functionality, “ripping” an iPlayer stream (which involves listening in real-time anyway, thus defeating the purpose to a large extent), or downloading from less-than-legal sources online.
  3. Radio Drama on Radio 1. Once upon a time, Radio 1 did a bit of radio drama. Hard to believe but true! For example, Dirk Maggs – recently responsible for new Hitchhikers’ adaptations – made versions of Superman and Batman that were broadcast on Radio 1 in a short episodic format. And in 1996, Radio 1 broadcast Independence Day UK presented in a style not dissimilar to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. It featured then Radio 1 DJ, Nicky Campbell, and Patrick Moore.
    Of course, today such an obvious promotional film tie-in would be impossible. It’s a little like giving an hour’s free advertising to the film release on Radio 1. But while a few Torchwood spin-off radio plays have aired on Radio 4, it’s not hard to imagine that a version of them, or perhaps something like Being Human, could air on Radio 1. As well as increasing the public service delivery of Radio 1 (I’m not going to get all “commercial radio” on Radio 1 and bemoan the station too much), it would serve as an introduction to new drama listeners. There’s no reason that radio shouldn’t be listened to by the young.
  4. Make Award Winners Available. In the recent Sony Radio Academy Awards, the gold, silver and bronze drama winners were People Snogging in Public Places, The Day That Lehman Died, and The Loop. As it happens, I heard both the silver and bronze winners around the time of broadcast – although neither live. Yet, if you fancy listening to these award winners now, you can’t – with one exception. The Loop was last broadcast in November, and People Snogging in Public Places was broadcast in September.
    The good news is that The Day That Lehman Died is available to listen. That’s because it was commissioned by the BBC World Service, and much of their programming is available well beyond the regular BBC 7-day iPlayer window.
    Unless the BBC repeats them, there is no possibility of hearing two of these award-winning plays – possibly ever again! And this is despite award winners being one of the few times that radio drama gets some publicity.

The growth in popularity of audiobooks shows that radio is still a wonderful medium for telling stories. And it’s only really the BBC that can make or commission dramas (Yes – there was OneWord, although I’m not sure that they ever commissioned drama. Certainly LBC once did – back in the 80s, via their legal correspondent I believe. But aside from a handful of one-offs, that’s about it).
So can we please allow listeners to hear plays in the manner that they’d like to – on their own terms?

To Watch and Listen To Between the Football

A few things that caught my eye this week:
By far the best World Cup package surrounding the games must have been the package that aired after the Italy v Paraguay game. It was all about the footballers of Robben Island.
While they were locked up by the apartheid regime, football was one of the few outlets that prisoners had, although they were heavily punished before they were allowed to play. It’s really worth a few minutes of your time to watch before expiring from the iPlayer on Monday evening.
Later this evening, there’s a South African made docudrama based around the same story.
The President of France and his lovely wife were in London today visiting Broadcasting House to celebrate the 70th anniversary of General de Gaulle speaking to France from the BBC after the country had been occupied. Those speeches effectively brought about the French resistance. Newsnight produced a marvellous piece detailing the full story.
There are plenty of good football podcasts out there: Danny Baker’s going great guns in South Africa, while Alan Davies is back in the UK essentially shifting the emphasis of his Arsenal podcast onto the national team. For more serious fare there’s the Guardian’s World Cup Daily which is nice and pithy, while I also like ITV’s football podcast mostly presented by Ned Boulting. And finally the iTunes chart topping Baddiel and Skinner are out in South Africa with daily podcasts for my employer which are well worth a listen.
The major football podcast I’ve not listened to is the BBC’s World Cup Daily which is made up of highlights of the previous 24 hours. Interestingly, the BBC has turned Five Live Sports Extra into a rolling repeat of this service when it’s not broadcasting other sporting coverage (we’ve had Ascot this week, there are some rugby tests, and Wimbledon starts on Monday). Ordinarily, during “dead air” it just runs a generic loop highlighting upcoming coverage. It’s now a bit more like those loops you find under the red button on TV.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra

Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
I’m beginning to lose count of the number of times I’ve seen Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra playing their big band jazz, but it doesn’t really matter, as it’s a joy to see them every single time they’re in the country.
This time around it’s an especially good treat as they’re actually in residency at the Barbican for a few days playing a series of concerts and events not just for ticket payers, but for school kids, youth orchestras and the local community in general.
When I arrived at the Barbican a youth jazz orchestra was playing to a rapt crowd in the Barbican’s foyer, and it just got better from there.
We had the traditional three rows of a by now very familiar group of musicians playing pieces from the early swing era of the 1930s, including pieces from Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton amongst others. Marsalis, as ever, introduces each piece and generally seemed to have a really good time enjoying guest appearances from Elaine Delmar and Christian Garrick.
A chap near me who I’d initially thought was an official photographer given his DSLR and position, turned out to be something of a dancer, and just couldn’t help himself at one point!
A wonderful evening.
Incidentally, the performance was being recorded on video for archival purposes, but also, we were told for CBS News’ 60 Minutes for broadcast later in the year. I counted at least three video cameras recording the concert including one that was positioned three seats along for me. Although we don’t get 60 Minutes in the UK, I’ll try to keep an eye out for the programme’s broadcast.
Marsalis himself is playing at least a couple more concerts including one I’m really looking forward to going to at the Hackney Empire on Sunday night. But anyone in London should definitely try to get along to Victoria Park on Saturday where there are some free open air concerts.
As a side note to those who come here for radio and media bits and pieces, it’s worth pointing out that jazz as a music form has just about completely been handed over to the BBC. Although Jazz FM still exists on some DAB multiplexes as well as Sky and the internet, the last major commercial stations to play jazz – Smooth FM (once itself Jazz FM) – is currently trying to persuade Ofcom that even the minimal amount of jazz it does still broadcast is too much.

Sky’s Freeview Strategy

Media Guardian is today reporting that Sky Sports News is coming off the Freeview platform. Up until now, Sky had effectively been using the channel as something to promote their premium sports services. That’s really why they never showed any action in full-screen.
But now they’re pulling the service. I think they’ll get some very annoyed customers. There will be Sky Sports subscribers who watch the service on second TV sets in other rooms, but aren’t likely to subscribe to Sky Multiroom (Sky’s default way to get Average Revenue Per User – ARPU – up).
And of course lots of people enjoyed Jeff Stelling and co. doing Soccer Saturday. This will just drive those people to Final Score on the BBC’s red button.
What I really can’t see is lots of people taking out full subscriptions to make up for the loss of service.
Sky’s replacement service is atrocious. The risible Sky 3 is getting a “+1” channel. Sky 3 doesn’t even really act as a driver to Sky 1, its programming is so dated and poor.
So what are Sky’s long term plans? Well we know that BT Vision and Virgin Media will be pushing their deals for sport this autumn in a big way following Ofcom’s statement on Pay TV made back in March.
Sky is still upset about that, although it has since done a deal with Virgin Media that included acquiring Virgin Media’s wholly owned channels as well as giving full access to Sky’s TV services including red button functionality to Virgin Media subscribers.
Sky could relaunch its Picnic plans that Ofcom previously put a stop to. Indeed I’d suggest that this is highly likely. This is simply an interim step because Sky doesn’t have any hardware in place to allow Freeview viewers to subscribe to encrypted premium Sky Sports and Movies channels. And there’s probably some ongoing discussion about Sky News. Adam Boulton aside, the channel had a reasonable election and I’d imagine garnered a fair few viewers via Freeview. Does Sky now want to ditch those viewers?
Sky faces some interesting challenges. Although a Conservative government might have seemed favourable, it’s not clear how the coalition will effect things. An investigation into the separation of channel delivery and programming can’t be a long way off. And of course we know that News Corporation is trying to take full ownership of BSkyB.
But the threat that Sky really faces is on demand. Satellite is great for some things – not least high bandwidth to deliver a multiplicity of HD TV channels. But it can’t do on demand, which is the way the TV market is going. They’re fighting Canvas tooth and nail for no other reason than it hurts Sky’s business model. If I can buy programmes direct from the studios that make them, do I really need to subscribe to Sky One?
In the meantime hardware manufacturers just work around these issues. Sony’s recent Bravia sets are all internet enabled, and take a lead from their games consoles in providing direct access via the internet to free and subscription television services. And this autumn Google will launch Google TV that’ll again be included in some TVs as well as third party boxes.
A single platform in the shape of something like Canvas makes life easy for programme suppliers and viewers, and it’s full steam ahead on that. But whatever Sky’s views on that, the flood is coming. That will hurt some parts of Sky’s business.
When Sky launched, and for much of its existance, it’s been sport and films that have been of pre-eminant importance. I’d argue that films are far less important now. There are lots of convenient and inexpensive ways to watch films from buying DVDs and Blu-Rays to services like Lovefilm. Why would I need to subscribe to a film channel?
Sport is not in that position – and hence it becomes even more important to Sky.
Imported US drama series can be watched in large chunks on DVD boxsets. Or they can be bought on iTunes. A subscription to Sky One is no longer needed to keep up with House.
How successful might Picnic be? Well – somehow – TopUp TV still survives. ITV is mulling over the idea of taking ITV2, 3 and 4 behind a paywall. That would leave Freeview a bit barren – a couple of Five TV channels, Dave and of course the BBC. But if Sky buys Five too…
This is going to be an interesting to watch play out.

Robin Hood

I saw this while I was away recently, and somehow neglected to note it here (mind you – I’ve been going to the cinema so infrequently recently, this isn’t entirely surprising). I suspect that the real reason that I’d not got around to mentioning Robin Hood thus far is that I’d completely forgotten that I’d seen it.
Even now, as I think hard about it, I can’t really remember a great deal about it.
Unlike some, the one thing that I didn’t really worry too much about, it was Crowe’s accent. That might be because I saw it in a cinema in Oban where the sound possibly wasn’t the finest on the planet. But mostly, it was because it’s Russell Crowe, and his voice is so deep, he could be adopting a Russian accent and you’d hardly notice.
I’m a Ridley Scott fan, and to be honest, this film is fine. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. It just really doesn’t hold you. There were a number of children in the cinema where I was watching, but they were in and out to the toilet like yo-yos, and I think that’s largely because they were losing interest.
Cate Blanchett’s subplot was dull. The Sheriff of Nottingham barely features, and only really Mark Strong’s villainous Godfrey was a strong character.
In many respects, it reminds me more of Kingdom of Heaven rather than Gladiator. And that’s probably not a good thing.
PS. If you’ve been seeing some odd “Test” entries appearing in this blog, it’s because I’ve been upgrading to Movable Type version 5 and that invariably means I have to try to fix stuff after I’ve broken it.