September, 2010


My favourite Icelandic band were in town tonight, and I was in XOYO in London to see them. I last saw Amiina at Latitude in the summer where some members of the group performed a live musical accompaniament to the animated films of Lotte Reiniger.
Prior to that, I’d seen them in the Queen Elizabeth Hall performing with Shlomo and Valgeir Sigurdsson in Music Through Unconventional Means.
This was the first time that I’d seen Amiina perform a more regular set. WIth a new album out this week – Puzzle (strangely, not currently to be found on Amazon) – they performed a set that was largely made up of songs from that album. As I’ve not had a chance to listen to it yet, it was pretty much all new to me.
Amiina were originally four women, but this time supplemented by two men. While Hildur, Edda, Maria and Sólrún circulate around the stage, each playing different instruments or combinations of instruments for each song, Magnus plays the drums and Kippi stands behind a MacBook Pro cuing up various electronic sequences to supplement violins, and accordian, keyboards, bells, a saw and much more.
This was never going to be the loudest concert in the world, but that meant that what I believe is a pretty new venue really wasn’t right for the band. At first I thought it was just an especially noisy barstaff who were to blame as they slammed tills shut and noisily restocked fridges with bottles of beer during very quiet points. But then as the heat intensified we were told that the band had elected to leave the aircon switched off because it was so loud. At precisely that moment the fans revved up and a sound akin to a Harrier jumpjet filled the room. The band battled on against it for another song or too before some pleading led to the fans being switched off (various elements in the room either wanted the fans on or off – depending on how much they liked the music versus how faint they felt in the heat).
And it wasn’t just the barstaff and a noisy aircon that had to be fought against. XOYO is actually two venues in one, and another – much louder – band was playing in the other venue. And their sound was leaking through to our area.
All in all, a pretty dismal experience. Amiina seemed to have only been supplied with a single 500mm bottle of water between all six of them, and they were losing as many pounds as we were by the end of it.
Still, I’ll forgive much for the music which is exceptional. But next time they need to play in a different venue. A friend told me that they were wonderful in the Bush Hall, and although it’s very formal, the Queen Elizabeth Hall is a properly airconditioned building too. I’m not in a rush to go back to XOYO to see a band like Amiina in a rush.
Once the gig was over and we were leaving, everyone was appreciating the cool of the air outside – including the band, who seemed to be reacquainting themselves with a significant section of London’s Icelandic community.

ITV in Good Drama Shocker

It’s very easy to knock ITV, and I’m always quite prepared to do so. I don’t like reality garbage like X-Factor, so aside from Champions’ League football, it has been off my radar for a while. But to give the channel its dues, it does seem to have turned a corner recently.
Last night we had the premiere of Downton Abbey, a ninety minute introduction to its big new costume drama series from Julian Fellowes. And it was excellent from the off. Quite how much it cost, I don’t know. Even with Masterpiece Theater money, it’s still a significant investment for ITV. The overnights suggest 7.6m watched it, although ITV weren’t taking any chances with an X-Factor lead in, as many ITV trailers as they could muster, as well as copious radio and press advertising for it.
While I squirmed a bit when the cook asked for a pot of poison to be removed from the other ingredients sitting on the table, and immediately knew what was going to happen (in a manner of speaking), the plot was interesting, and the characters developed enough to leave me wanting to learn more about them.
I confidently predict that Highclere Castle is going to do amazingly well out of this. It’s just a shame that they’re basically closed until next summer now when they’ll be fighting off the coach trips. Think of what Brideshead Revisited did for Castle Howard or Pride and Prejudice did for Lyme Hall.
Aside from that, there’s the prospect of Aftermath starting later this evening based on Peter Robinson’s long-running DCI Banks series and a very fine au revoir to Alan Plater a couple of weeks ago with Kevin Whately and Robson Green in Joe Maddison’s War (Green really was excellent in this). Add into the mix, the relative success of Law and Order UK which is back for a new series (its second, rather than third, since ITV split the first one into two tranches), and you’ve got a resurgent channel for drama. OK – I didn’t think much of Bouquet of Barbed Wire, to the point that I watched parts one and two and didn’t even bother with the third part.
But that aside, it’s a good start to the autumn season from ITV.
I just feel sorry for Scottish viewers where STV (in which I’m a shareholder by virtue of them once owning the company I work for) opted out to bring viewers a 13 year old programme about Billy Connelly in Antartica.

Tour of Britain – London Stage

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Bradley Wiggins looks impressed with something.
On Sunday I was out to watch the Tour of Britain come through London. I say “come through”. I really mean “do laps of Docklands.”
Usually the Tour ends with a scenic multi-lap sprint around the centre of the city, but with the Pope in town this year conducting a mass in Hyde Park and generally travelling through the middle of the city, the concluding stage was shifted out to Docklands near the Excel centre.
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A young fan watches near the lap finish.
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The eventual stage and Tour winners, Andrei Greipel and Michael Albasini
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Capital Radio

In 1990, I was working for the Bath Evening Chronicle, which at the time was a daily paper. Locally we competed for advertising with GWR which had a Bath opt-out, and to a much lesser extent HTV West our local ITV company.
Then in 1990, along came a new big station broadcasting across Bristol and Cardiff (and a bit of Bath) – Galaxy 101. Their first media pack was an expensive affair fashioned to look like an album cover – LP sized. I still remember being very impressed with it.
By the start of next year, none of those brands I’ve just mentioned will still exist in their previous guises. ITV long ago subsumbed local TV stations; the Bath Chronicle stopped coming out daily and dropped the word “evening”; GWR has become Heart; and Galaxy is shortly to become Capital. I should point out that Galaxy 101 long ago stopped being called that in the Bristol/Cardiff area, and is these days Kiss 101, which is true to its original format.
But this rebrand really is quite significant.
Not only are Galaxy Radio stations in Birmingham, Manchester, the North East, Yorkshire, South Coast and Scotland, all becoming Capital Radios, but additionally Cardiff’s Red Dragon will become Capital Wales, while RAM, Trent and Leicester Sound all merge to become Capital East Midlands.
None of this is unexpected. Global has been set to go down this path for sometime, with its massive Heart rebrand over the last year or so, including co-locating stations together and merging others. Ofcom’s rules dictate a certain amount of “local” programming, so like the Heart network, the new Capital stations will all have their own local breakfast and drive shows, with nearly all the rest of the stations’ programming coming from London where it’ll be shared with the mothership.
Ashley Tabor says that “Capital will be the first proper national commercial competitor that Radio 1 has ever experienced,” which to an extent is true. Virgin (and now Absolute Radio) was never a Radio 1 competitor – sitting between Radio 1 and Radio 2. And Capital is a very powerful brand name. While some might have believed that the plan might have seen the new name for the network to be Galaxy, that would have been devastating in London, where the brand has existed since 1972. The commercial radio market is vital with significant revenues being derived, so London does matter in this instance.
But there are some potential headaches with the name which will have to be carefully dealt with. How well known is the Capital brand recognised outside of London today? I can believe that fifteen or twenty years ago, visitors to London might have been keen to listen to a station like Capital with massive big-name DJs that they’d heard tell of. Don’t forget that this was a station that was once listed in those old BT Code Books – you could dial a number and listen to Capital Radio if you were outside London or even abroad! A very expensive way of getting your radio fix.
However, I’m not sure about the resonance of the name now.
In a Five Live interview this lunchtime on the Gaby Logan show (featuring one James Cridland as a contributor), there wasn’t a great deal of recognition of the Capital brand in Huddersfield.
More problematic is how the station might be received in Scotland or Wales. In Scotland, the station will be the latest in a long line of rebranding operations for a service that started out as Beat before changing to Xfm and finally Galaxy just less than two years ago. First there’s the fact that the majority of the station will come from London and almost certainly won’t have Scottish DJs during those time periods. The name “Capital” might be seen to refer to London, which won’t necessarily go down well with Scots. Don’t forget that Galaxy is already a station that shares much of its playlist with a national FM competitor that does come from London in Radio 1. Yet despite the adverts some listeners prefer Galaxy Scotland – although it’s perhaps not the most successful station in the current Galaxy network.
The other issue in Scotland is that Scotland has a capital city – it’s Edinburgh. Yet the vast proportion of the new Capital Scotland’s TSA is in Glasgow. There is just a small rivalry between the two cities. So will Glaswegians listen to a service that is a) perceived to reference Edinburgh or b) seem to come from London? That’s the significant challenge Global faces.
To a lesser extent, the same is true in Cardiff where Red Dragon – a station that references something on their national flag – is also going to be called Capital. It’s true that Cardiff is the capital of Wales, and I’m sure that positioning can refer to that. But again, the Welsh take pride in their locality, so it’s not a done deal.
Elsewhere, it should be a smoother transition since the music is identical anyway, and as the Capital and Galaxy brands have shifted over time.
But this does give Bauer, GMG and Orion some seriously good options. I’d expect that Forth and Clyde will shout out their 100% Scottishness. Orion will make more of its locality (although it doesn’t crossover completely with Global services) while GMG has kept Real, thus far, very localised, unlike what they’re doing with Smooth. And there are lots of smaller stations that can also shout about their localness and look to make gains.
Will they take on Radio 1 with this move? Well thew new combined Capital network will have 6.7m listeners compared with Radio 1’s 11.8m reach (Source: RAJAR, 6M weighting). So not quite, but certainly a significant size. If Global repeats the Heart trick, then it’ll work out well for them.
As for where people starting out in the industry go to learn their trade? Well that’s something I do worry about…
There’s lots to read elsewhere on web about this. But I’d point you towards Paul Easton, Matt Deegan and James Cridland who all have worthwhile things to say.

Pictures From The Weekend

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There was a rather lovely sunset over London on Saturday.
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On Sunday it was to the Thames Festival where I first saw the amazingly talented CW Stoneking. Then it was on to the carnival parade and the fireworks.
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The full set are here:

Tamara Drewe, The Girl Who Played With Fire and Piranha 3D

I was lucky enough to attend a “public premiere” of Tamara Drewe on Monday followed by a Q&A with many of the cast and crew. I hadn’t quite realised that the big Leicester Square premiere was happening at the same time, but it did explain why Tamsin Greig was so dressed up when she came on stage. From the timings, I’d suspect that they’d done their red carpet bits in Leicester Square, seen the film start there, and then hot-foot it out the back and on to the BFI Southbank for our screening which had kicked off rather earlier.
Anyway, enough of the logistics of film publicity, and what of the film itself? The film is based on a weekly cartoon series in the Guardian Review, which I started reading in strip form, but ended up reading in book form a couple of years ago. Posy Simmonds essentially takes elements of Thomas Hardy’s Far From A Maddening Crowd and resets them in a 21st century version of the rural idyl. So we have Greig’s Beth Hardiment running a writers’ retreat in Dorset farmland while her philandering husband Nicholas (Roger Allam who plays the role with ease) writes his successful series of detective novels.
Into their world comes Gemma Arterton’s Tamara Drewe. She once lived in the village, but has since had a nose-job and a change of lifestyle. She’s now a successful journalist, looks stunning, and knows it. She’s inherited a cottage, and is getting it renovated while she works out what she wants to do with it.
Into this mix is added a young gardener, a rock-band drummer, an American academic, assorted writers, farmers and villagers, and two very funny young girls. Stir in some jelousy and infidelity, and you have an amusing, very middle class story of English village life.
The film is good fun, and is terribly middle class. In the Q&A afterwards, director Stephen Frears pointed out that the British don’t often make films about the middle classes – at least not these days. And aside from rom-coms from the likes of Richard Curtis, he’s right.
I liked the film, although I wouldn’t say that I loved it. It’s exquisitly made, and if you liked the comic/graphic novel, then you’ll be pleased to hear that it doesn’t put a foot wrong in retelling the story for the screen.
Having devoured Stieg Larssons novels as they came out in translation, I’m also now enjoying the release of the Swedish film adaptations. I say “film” although it must be pointed out that the original plan was to release the first as a film, with the second and third being TV mini-series in Sweden. But the success of the first meant that all three got cinema releases in their home country with the final episode being released last autumn. We’re getting the films about a year behind the Swedes with the final part due in November. But this second part doesn’t disappoint.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is again a very faithful adaptation of the book, and the performances from the main actors are strong. This second part is really the first of a two-part conclusion to the story, so while the film doesn’t quite end with a cliff-hanger, we’re in much more personal territory now. The plot is intimately based on the life of Lisbeth Salander, and there’s still plenty more to come in part three.
And finally to Piranha 3D. Oh dear. Where to begin with this piece of fluff? Well the first thing to say is that despite finding 3D pretty worthless, and more objectionably, dark, I nonetheless went into this daft remake of the old Joe Dante original. We think today, of Piranha as something of a Jaws ripoff, whereas in fact it came out in 1978 around the time of Jaws 2.
Alexandre Aja at least understands the kind of film he’s making – that is to say, a piece of nonsense. The film opens with Richard Dreyfuss (from Jaws) fishing in the middle of a lake. But an underwater earthquake has released the deadly piranha from some kind of underwater cavern through to the main lake. Dreyfuss dies a grizzly death in a particularly poor piece of CGI.
I went into this film thinking that, much as I hate 3D, it has its place in genre nonsense like this and had been shot that way, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t the case. Cursorily taking off your glasses at various points revealed that, no my eyes weren’t deceiving me, this scene simply wasn’t in 3D. And reading the end credits showed that it had been post-processed into 3D. In other words, someone had cut out foreground images from the background and Photoshopped in missing “bits” to give an impression of 3D. All the CGI piranha were in 3D, but so much of the underwater action was CGI that it didn’t matter. CGI in 3D is technically easy since everything is already modelled in 3D – it’s just a question of rendering a left and right image.
But back to the film. The really odd thing about this piece was the quality of some of the cast. Elizabeth Shue is excellent, even if the best thing she ever dead was Leaving Las Vegas 15 years ago. Ving Rhames is also really good, and who doesn’t love Christopher Lloyd? Then there’s the rest of the cast, including Strictly Come Dancing’s Kelly Brook who appears in quite the most hilariously gratuitous nude scene you could possibly imagine (it’s a “ballet” according to the credits at the end).
Fortunately, much of the action takes place in the daylight during Spring Break. This is fortunate because the image appears pretty bright throughout. But despite blood and body-parts a-plenty, the film isn’t remotely scary. There’s barely a jump to be had, which is actually quite hard to do and somewhat disappointing in what should be a horror film.
Overall, it’s a guilty pleasure that doesn’t live up to its promise.

The Boss Will Be Pleased

Google Instant really is very clever.
The boss will be very pleased to see the above come up when just typing “Abs”, although that’s possibly because Google knows the kind of sites I visit.
Quite what it means for SEO is truly fascinating. I suspect that there will be a lot of meetings in a lot companies as they try to get their head around what this means…

Things That Have Piqued My Interest Recently

Further proof that BBC Four is the best channel in the UK comes through a series of excellent programmes that have been on-air this week:
– Storyville had YouTube Hero: The Winnebego Man starting briefly with the stories on people who made it “big” on YouTube, but highlighting the story of Jack Rebney who shot to fame via an outtakes tape from an “industrial film” (i.e. corporate film) detailing the features of said range of camper vans. It’s really worth watching.
Upgrade Me with Simon Armitage is a timely repeat of a documentary from a year ago in which the poet and gadget fan examines why we feel the need to upgrade all the time. It’s not a perfect film, but I found it worthwhile after my little piece the other day, and coming on the day that Apple releases its new range of music products (of which more anon).
– I’ll happily watch just about anything on climbing or mountaineering. At the weekend we had the excellent Great Climb on BBC Two Scotland (watchable via Sky) and BBC HD. Watch the sequence about 23 minutes in. And then BBC Four tonight had The Eiger: Wall of Death.
More or Less is back on Radio 4. If you’re not already, you should be subscribing to their podcast.
– I enjoyed Legacy on Radio 7 but must admit that I’ve not played the accompanying game yet. It’s getting a repeat on BBC Radio Scotland very shortly so hopefully episode 1 will be back online to listen to via iPlayer.
– It wasn’t the greatest MacTaggart lecture ever, but I think Mark Thompson had some relevant points to make about Sky’s investment in UK production.
– I was a little underwhelmed by Apple’s announcement today. My favourite iPod is the Classic. It’s the only one with enough capacity for my needs, yet Steve Jobs seemingly neglected to mention it despite saying the entire range was getting an overhaul. If it gets discontinued, then I’ll have to look for a new portable music manufacturer. I’m not at all sure about the new look Nano which seems to be a step back to the horrible looking third generation device and not actually usable in the hand. The Touch is fine (although Apple still seems to limit FM radio to the Nano), and the Shuffle becomes usable again (if mostly pointless without a screen). But Apple has again concentrated only on the US with Apple TV. Not only does $99 = £99 in Apple world, but there’s no TV programming available. Now if they’d got iPlayer, 4OD, ITVplayer, Sky Player and LoveFilm on the device, they’d have people falling over themselves to buy one. Internet on the TV is the future of TV – not 3D. But Apple has missed in a trick in beating Canvas to the punch. If I was Sony, Samsung, LG or Panasonic, I’d be rushing to get my £99 device into the marketplace which does all these things even if it’s just these things. The jury’s out on iTunes 10 because while it’s a sophisticated piece of software, changing icons isn’t the same as a ground up rewrite which I believe this software is in dire need of.