February, 2013

RIP: My Local HMV

Super Trouper
Today came the sad news that another batch of 37 HMVs are to close within the next few weeks. Included amongst them is my local HMV – a shop where, on and off, I’ve been shopping since 1980.
Indeed, the first ever record I bought came from that branch of HMV. Yes, at some point in late 1980 I bought Super Trouper by Abba for about 99p (which puts into perspective the fact that a single today on iTunes is likely to cost 79p. By this calculator’s measure 99p in 1980 would be £3.95 today).
The assistant turned around and picked it off the shelves behind them where all the singles were kept in chart order. I remember being disappointed that the single came with just a generic pale blue Epic sleeve, and not something with a picture.
I excitedly returned home to play it on my mum’s old record player, which dated from some years previously. It had almost certainly never had a new stylus, and the speaker was built into the record player which still had a 78rpm option. I was devastated when I discovered that it had a scratch! The following day – was it half-term? – I got a replacement.
My friend from next door also bought a copy. I think it was his first record too. And he too had to get his replaced. Perhaps there was a problem with the batch. I think Super Trouper may have already been at number one when I bought it, because I remember being disappointed when it started to drop out of the charts fairly soon afterwards. I’d bought it, so it should still be at number one!
HMV was one of a number of places I could buy records locally. There was an independent record shop across the road from the HMV, where I spent about the same amount of time as part of my Saturday tour through the town centre, doing more browsing than buying. Record buying locally would also include WH Smith, Woolworth’s, the local department store Pearson’s in the early years, and for a while there was an Our Price too once the shopping centre had opened.
But HMV was there longest. It’s still in the same site on Church Street that it’s always been – I think it may have expanded from one unit and into two at some point because it used to be a lot narrower as many record shops were.
I can’t say I know or ever knew the staff in there. And I realise that this probably just comes across as a man in his forties wallowing in nostalgia in a very sub-Nick Hornby style.
It’s not even as though music has ever been the be-all and end-all of my life. I read Smash Hits and Number One magazines a little, and we watched Top of the Pops in my family, but not religiously. But I probably saw as much music on things like Noel Edmond’s Multi-Coloured Swap Shop as anywhere. I didn’t even listen to a great deal of Radio 1 at the time (I certainly wasn’t listening to Capital). Remember you’re talking about someone who didn’t even realise until well after he was quite famous, that the boy he sat next to in secondary school was in one of the most popular bands of the early nineties.
But back to the records.
Sometime during the Christmas 1980 school holidays, we all trooped off to the local ABC to see Flash Gordon. Yes – that one, with Brian Blessed (although perhaps more excitingly for us, Peter Duncan from Blue Peter was in it). The Empire Strikes Back had came out in the year, and Superman II was coming soon – we’d see anything with a science fiction theme. None of us were particularly big Queen fans, but coming out of that I remember humming the music and wanting to get it. We’d been to an afternoon screening, and there was still enough time before the shops shut to get to HMV and buy a copy of the single. That record got played to death in our house. My friend next door got the whole album at some time around then, but I was still a singles man. And yes, I did, at some point, put some transfers on the cover.
Stand and Deliver
I do remember heading down to HMV on the Monday that Stand and Deliver came out. The previous Saturday, the video of the Adam and the Ants classic had been shown on Swap Shop (or possibly a Saturday evening show, but Late Late Breakfast had yet to start), and that was enough for me. It was amazing! In that first week, to help shift copies, the single came with a poster carefully folded around it. That obviously went up in my bedroom. He was called Adam after all!
And the following Sunday it had gone straight to number one. Don’t forget, this was 1981 and singles did not routinely debut at number one. This was very unusual.
Added to all this excitement, I remember dad telling me he’d met someone in a park who’d been in the video. He thought it’d been shot in Trent Park which was quite close by, but in fact it was shot at Hatfield House (not itself all that far off either). Either way, that didn’t worry me though.
An interesting aside, though – I now learn that Amanda Donohoe was in the video! I knew her from some of those late eighties Ken Russell films that are so hard to get hold of now, and of course LA Law, of which I was a big fan! But I digress.
I still find myself drawn into HMV whenever I’m passing it. I was in my local soon-to-closed branch just this weekend.
Of course it’s symptomatic of the way we “consume” music and video today, that a specialist high street retailer isn’t relevant to many people any more. Never mind iTunes, it seems as though we’re as happy renting music and video now. And it’s interesting that only this week, I read that Spotify is trying to negotiate cheaper and broader licencing deals with the record labels.
Maybe it’s generational. But owning rather than renting is how I like my music.
Note: I seem to have glossed over the fact that my second single was A Little in Love by Cliff Richard. I think I was desperate to buy something at the time, and I didn’t know what. So I came home with that. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.


The BBC today announced that BBC Two HD will launch full time from March 26. It will replace the current BBC HD channel, retaining that channel’s EPG position on the major digital TV platforms.
This isn’t a surprise – as part of the savings that the BBC’s Delivering Quality First (DQF) initiative instigated, the closure of BBC HD and the simulcasting of BBC Two on HD was always going to happen.
But it’s not altogether great for viewers of BBC Three and Four. The BBC HD channel has regularly simulcast a patchwork of BBC Three and Four programmes.
For example BBC HD is or has been recently simulcasting HD versions of Borgen, The Killing, The Sound and the Fury, Being Human, Bob Servant Independent, and Pramface. And BBC Three and Four have both announced new commissions including a Richard Burton/Liz Taylor drama on Four, and an Afghanistan military comedy drama.
And there’s a limited amount of kids programming that will lose out too. Since all kids TV has been shifted to CBBC or CBeebies, that means high profile programmes like Russell T Davies’ Wizards v Aliens won’t get an HD outing.
The Trust’s assessment last May noted that BBC Four output only made up 8% of BBC HD output, and BBC Three programming made up about 5%. But that’s a little unfair, since clearly nearly every programme now being made is being produced in HD whether or not it’s actually broadcast that way. Aside, perhaps from programming based largely around archive material, there simply is no reason not to shoot everything in HD.
So the lack of BBC Three/Four programming on BBC HD was more a question of scheduling five channels’ worth of programming onto one HD channel.
Yes BBC HD seemed to show some repeats outside of any broadcast on other networks, and there’s no real reason to continue that. And yes, there were lots of “Later…” fillers to get schedules back in sync. But the move is still disappointing.
Still this is happening, so what can the BBC do better?
Discouragingly, the Trust said this:
Though some programmes, particularly those currently broadcast on BBC HD from
BBC Three and BBC Four, will no longer be available to view in HD, they will still be
available to view on their original channels in SD.
I really see no reason for this. I think that there just needs to be more joined up thinking, and the BBC needs to make sure that it has rights agreements in place to allow more broadcasts of new programming in a given week. Channel 4’s recent launch of 4seven which has additional same-week repeats beyond just the regular broadcast and the “+1” repeat suggest that this should be possible – at least for BBC commissioned programming.
The following are examples of what I’m thinking would be smart. The current Sunday night broadcast of BBC Two’s flagship documentary series Wonders of Life, gets a Monday evening post-Newsnight repeat. Why not run Saturday night’s BBC Four episodes of Spiral in that slot, and schedule the Wonders… repeat on BBC Four (let’s face it, it’s going to get a few outings on BBC Four in the coming months anyway). Similarly, Sunday night’s broadcast of BBC Three’s Being Human could get a Wednesday post-Newsnight slot (where it is currently on BBC HD anyway), and the scheduled Genius of Invention repeat get again shifted to BBC Four. If BBC Two and BBC Four are happier bedfellows, then perhaps BBC One and Three should become so. The late night BBC News simulcasts on BBC One aren’t really necessary in a digital world where everyone has access to the BBC News channel.
The other option is to utilise some of that BBC Two overnight capacity. The big “This is BBC Two” block in the middle of the night would at least let allow viewers with PVRs (51% of homes according to Thinkbox) would have the ability of to at least record HD versions of programmes.
Yes, some current HD programming that doesn’t have a BBC HD broadcast channel will be available on iPlayer. But those 1-2GB file sizes are not great for every part of the country.
A broadcast option should still be available.

Light Show

Light Show-1
If you’re in London any time before 28 April, then you really should try to get along to Light Show at the Hayward Gallery.
As the name implies, it’s all about light – lots of installations and exhibits based around light. Some are simple – trivial even – but many are remarkable.
A certain part of me doesn’t want to describe this exhibition in too much detail since to do so might be a “spoiler” but I’ll do my best.
On entering you see Leo Villareal’s Cylinder II which is both enormous and simple. I say that, but there are clearly some smart electronics at work. There are nearly 20,000 LEDs in this work that looks like a fountain of some description.
Magic Hour (above) by David Batchelor seems simple in conception, but is actually very powerful. The glow coming from the screens positioned against the glass coupled with a tangle of power cables give this something of an ethereal quality.
You can probably walk past Throw by Ceal Floyer quite quickly. It’s a basic theatrical effect.
More impressive is Cerith Wyn Evans S=U=P=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E which give off heat and light.
Light Show-2
You and I, Horizontal (above) by Anthony McCall is a straightforward lighting effect seen is many average gigs these days. Yet given its own room, it’s still very powerful.
Doug Wheeler’s Untitled room is the first in which you have to wear shoe covers. The walls and floor are white and the light makes you feel slightly disoriented.
I found actually getting into James Turrell’ Wedgework V installation remarkably hard. Guides from the gallery tell you to enter with your hand against the wall since it is so black. Inside the effect is eerie.
Light Show-3
Quite the most remarkable installation is Carloz Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation (above and below) which is a series of rooms each lit in a single colour, but from which you can see the next room. Consequently, standing under red light you don’t the adjacent green and blue rooms feel more vibrant. The effect is of course reversed when you move to the next room. You have to experience it to fully comprehend what I’m talking about.
Light Show-4
Light Show-5
Light Show-6
Other must see exhibits include Ivan Navarro’s Reality Show (Silver) which is a kind of mirrored phone booth, and Olafur Eliasson’s Model for a timeless garden which uses strobes and water streams (below) to create a great illusory effect. Not for the epileptic!
Light Show-7
Light Show-8
There are plenty more exhibits, but I’ll leave you to discover them. As I say, well worth a visit.
I’d also advise going early in the day to try to get there when there are as few people around as possible. I think that many of the installations work better when they’re relatively empty.

House of Cards

Unless you’ve been keeping your head under a rock, you’ll know that a week or so ago, the streaming video service Netflix launched one of its first original series, with an adaptation of the 1990s BBC series House of Cards. It made all thirteen episodes available to watch in one go, and in the process has created an enormous amount of buzz.
Perhaps as much as the actual quality of the programme, an awful lot has been written about whether the “all available now” way that all thirteen episodes of the series were released on 1 February symbolises the future of television.
And now I’m going to add to those many words.
It first needs to be said that I’m not at all sure that this is the future of television.
While it allows those with the time to gorge themselves over a limited period, to watch in one go, I suspect few us of really have that time available. That said, I’ve just done almost that having watched a single episode the previous weekend, and the remaining twelve this past weekend.
While we live in a boxset age that has allowed us to watch series like this at our own pace for quite some time now – the Guardian has a regular “Your next boxset” feature – I’m not at all sure it’s right for everything or indeed everyone. Indeed while I scampered through House of Cards, there are other boxsets lying dormant near my television as testament to the fact that we can’t always do that kind of viewing.
But what House of Cards is clearly lacking is the proverbial water-cooler moment. I can’t go into work tomorrow and tell everyone how much I liked the first episode and that they should catch up and watch it so we can discuss it.
No instead, I can go into work tomorrow and tell everyone that I loved the whole thing and that they should watch it. Then there’ll be concerns from friends and colleagues that I’m going to spoil the series in some way. Of course some of them will have seen the BBC originals in this instance, but they still don’t want to know plot spoilers. I might never get to sit down and talk about it with others.
Yet if we take another imported serial drama like this – Homeland – I could regularly have those discussions. Certainly PVRs and services like iPlayer and 4OD mean that not everyone has seen the latest episode. But I can usually find a kindred spirit to chat through my thoughts.
However there is, in many respects, already a problem here. Series like Dexter and Breaking Bad are terribly popular on DVD or from online streaming services like Netflix. But that means you need to be careful about what you say before you open up a discussion. Who knows where anyone else is up to? Which season are they on? It actually becomes pretty frustrating.
La la la la la la laaaa. I don’t want to know what happens in season 3 – I’ve not caught up with that yet!
When determining whether or not this kind of release structure truly is “the future of television,” you have to ask yourself “is it repeatable?” If every series came out in this manner you simply couldn’t cope. I suspect that we’d actually end up watching a lot less drama rather than what we currently get through. Leaving aside soaps, drama series would take on the guise of films. Each Friday a handful of films are released at the cinema and the average adult sees between zero and one of them.
House of Cards can cope with this because it’s a singular event. This is a special case. We’re not used to this sort of thing. When you buy or rent a DVD boxset of a TV series currently, you already know that you’re “behind” and that others have seen it when it first aired on television.
Another thing you begin to discover, if you do plough through a full series like this in one go, watching in HD, is whether you have quite as much internet bandwidth on your current plan with your ISP as perhaps you thought. I’ve never run my ISP’s limit close. Checking now, I’m perhaps a little closer than I’d like. I certainly won’t be watching another thirteen part series next weekend. But perhaps that means that it’s time for me to change ISP.
It’s got to be said that Netflix has also been very lucky. I’m sure that their executives are awfully skillful and knew a good series when it was presented to them. But they’ve landed a particularly wonderful series in House of Cards. You only have to look at US TV to find it littered with failures. Yes, the cable channels do better. They don’t cancel series mid-season and stop airing them. And it seems that they’re more likely to renew series than not. But it doesn’t always happen, and if this had been a terrible series, the model wouldn’t have worked any better. William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything” quote about Hollywood still stands.
In fact, Netflix does have other series exclusively. They’re the only place in the UK to catch the latest series of Breaking Bad (UK TV stations having somehow completely missed out on this), and they’ve also got Borgias. No. Not The Borgias with Jeremy Irons, but Borgias with that guy who was the police chief in The Wire (and bizarrely, with the same East Coast accent which you must admit is strange in a fifteenth century Pope). I’ve not watched more than about twenty minutes of one episode, and then it’s only because of the Homicide: Life on the Streets heritage of some of the producers. But the fact you’ve probably not heard of this quite expensive and ill-timed series, suggests that it’s not all that great. It’s a Netflix exclusive in the US and UK – although it does air on regular television in Europe.
Obviously we have Arrested Development to come, and interestingly this is a series that will have a different structure to regular sitcoms – different episodes concentrating on different characters. Whether that was the writers’ choice or because the cast is doing lots of other things these days, and it was a scheduling problem that couldn’t otherwise be avoided, is not altogether clear.
But it does raise the interesting spectre of watching series in any order. A bit like that old Guardian ad that let you see the same thing from different viewpoints to get the full picture, a series could be made where the episodes could be shuffled into any order and still make sense. There have been books and radio dramas that have used this device in the past.
Indeed online streaming also allow for the notion of the TV equivalent of a Fighting Fantasy book where viewers choose how a story progresses. I suspect that production costs might keep something like that in check for a while, although I note a recent US airing of Hawaii 5-O did allow viewers to choose the murderer via a Twitter vote.
Anyway, let’s get back to this new version of House of Cards.
It’s wonderful.
Beautifully produced, and immaculately acted, it’s a first-class piece of television, making it well worth a £5.99 punt for a month’s subscription. Indeed Netflix gives you a free month, so there’s little to lose!
Kevin Spacey is a superb choice as the devious and cunning Francis “Frank” Underwood. He’s a southern Democratic congressman who’s the House Majority Whip. But he has bigger ideas on his career horizon, and that’s the story the series portrays.
As in the original BBC series, Underwood regularly turns and speaks to the camera to let us in on his thinking and why what he’s about to do is really important.
And I found the scene in the opening episode where Underwood shows us his favourite bit of hidden Washington, a ribs joint where Underwood is quite happy eating “half a rack” for breakfast, really powerful, attempting to portray just what kind of man he is.
Robin Wright plays his wife Claire, who runs a charity – not that an enormous amount of her time seems to be spent particularly “charitably.” She has a very interesting relationship with her husband. They’re both in this together, even though we’re not entirely sure what “it” is.
It’s good to see Wright back on the screen – I can’t remember seeing her in anything for years, although IMDB suggests she hasn’t been sitting too still in the recent past. Her character is very interesting, although I still felt we were left with a lot of questions about her at the end of thirteen episodes.
The other key character is Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes. She’s a young reporter on the Washington Herald (in this series, while TV networks are real; newspapers aren’t) who becomes confidant – and more – to Underwood. He’s using her to place the stories he wants in the media, when he wants them. She starts off somewhat naively, although later the mist does seem to begin to clear from her eyes. Mara plays her as quite a docile character, but one who’s not happy to do things the old way. And there’s definitely a tough streak running through her. She might be uncertain exactly where her own career trajectory is taking her, but she’s going to work to get there.
Partway through the series, the media action shifts from the old-world newspapers to the exciting new digital world of Slugline – a seeming clone of Politico. Whether people really do attempt to try to file copy in these places, working from a beanbag and without a desk, I don’t know. I’ve seen pictures of the inside of Google and know that they have these rooms. But don’t they have regular desks and chairs too? I do know that these make typing an awful lot easier!
Whether the old newspaper world is quite dead yet is unclear. A conversation between the editor and the paper’s owner about declining circulations suggests that perhaps it is as far as this series is concerned.
There are plenty of other characters, but perhaps the most important is Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper, Underwood’s right hand man, and one of the few people who are aware of the over-arching plan. Quite how dark and dirty he’ll get is never clear. It’s a while since I watched the original series, but at times I thought he’d behave worse than he actually does. And his character’s life isn’t really drawn out. He’s seems on call 24/7 to do Underwood’s bidding, no matter how unpleasant. But for what ends? He has no obvious personal life. Perhaps that’s for season 2?
Although the series has David Fincher’s name all over it, he only directs the first couple of episodes. The rest are left in some very safe tried and tested TV hands, as well as a couple of names more familiar from the feature film world like Joel Schumacher and James Foley. As someone said to me, this doesn’t have any of Fincher’s tricksy trademarks. But then this is TV, and even with a budget as large as this had, you have to shoot an hour of footage a lot more quickly than you do on the average feature. It’s also worth noting that the actual length of episodes seems to vary a bit, between 45 minutes and an hour. So always longer than the average network TV drama which has to include commercials.
There is no doubt that proper resource was put into the production. At no point did it look like budgetary constraints were preventing something from being on-screen.
For the most part, the series moved along at quite a nice pace, although I’m sure that the requirement for there to be 13 episodes came from commercial demands rather than artistic purposes. And of course, given the volume of episodes, it’s not a single writer who gets to be responsible for all of them.
The one episode that felt surplus to requirements was the one where Underwood heads down to his alma mater and to meet up with his old buddies from college. I think that we’re supposed to come away having seen his character humanised. But I’m not sure it really moved the story forward or was necessary. Arguably the “B” story taking place in Pennsylvania was more important, but I’d argue that viewers who skipped that entire episode would be barely away that they’d missed one (Incidentally, you get no “previously on House of Cards…” type summaries at the start of episodes).
I notice that Michael Dobbs (on whose original novel the UK series was based) and Andrew Davies (who adapted that novel) are listed as Executive Producers. I assume that just means that they got a paycheck rather than being particularly involved in the production. From the credits it would appear to be Beau Willimon who was the driving force behind this adaptation. He’s someone with no real previous screen credits. He wrote the original play that George Clooney took on to become the film the Ides of March last year, but that’s about it. I think it’s fair to say that he has a home run on his hands with this series though!
The series ends decently, and everything is setup for the already-commissioned second series. However, I do hope that there aren’t too many more seasons after that, if at all. The original BBC series ran for three mini-series. And to be honest, I felt that it was one too many as the Francis Urquhart character became ever more a pantomime villain as the series progressed.
So in fact, I’d be very happy with a two-and-out approach. It’s one of the problems of US TV that the “business” part of the word “showbusiness” can take over a little too much, and it becomes about turning out “product.” In any case, I suspect it’ll all depend on what kind of deal Kevin Spacey has been signed up for.
It’ll also be interesting to see where else this series appears. While it’s very much a Netflix original series, they still only have a first-run licence for it. I’d be amazed if it didn’t show up on some kind of regular broadcast channel in due course. And certainly there’ll be DVDs at some stage. I suspect that Netflix’s contractual agreements will prevent anyone from making any kind of announcements while Netflix is marketing the hell out of this series.
After all, they want to keep new subscribers like me on board beyond my free first month. And if I knew it was coming soon on DVD, perhaps I wouldn’t have subscribed (although, as I say, at £5.99, if you can set aside the time in a calendar month, it’s an absolute steal).

Black Mirror: Series 3 Proposal

I really enjoyed the first episode of Channel 4’s new run of The Twilight Zone Black Mirror. It was a well worked tale of future possibilities, played out wonderfully by Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson as loving couple suddenly separated by death.
I watched the programme in near real time – starting about fifteen minutes late, but able to fast forward through the ads meaning I ended up seeing the end at about 11pm as it came to a close in live broadcast.
Then I went on Twitter to make snide remark about Channel 4’s regular drama sponsors having seemingly “opted out” of this particular programme. But by then #blackmirror was trending. A lot of people had clearly been Tweeting the whole way through the programme and not just at the end like I was.
This is the future.
In light of this, we do need to tweak the way dramas are produced.
So here’s my proposal for an episode of Series 3 of Black Mirror:
Title: Exposition
Plot: Damian and Sasha work in a digital media agency designing distracting online advertising that makes you want to click on it. They’re in a relationship, but Damian doesn’t know that Sasha is secretly sharing illicit Vines with Blade, the marketing director of Pzion their biggest client. And Sasha doesn’t know that Damien is also in a secret relationship with Eliza – someone he only knows via Twitter. But they DM each other all the time. Then Pzion releases a hot new Twitter client and all hell breaks loose…
(An exciting plot, I think you’ll agree!)
Visual Style: Characters will have identifiers permanently in vision hovering over each of them. You know, in the style that they use for text messages in shows like Sherlock or the US version of House of Cards. If you’ve ever seen Nascar you’ll know what I mean. Identifying characters makes it easier for viewers to share their favourite moments in social media.
No two major characters will have the same hair colour. Also, each character will wear a different primary colour for easier identification.
Each scene will get its own unique hashtag. It’ll fit nice and neatly, just below the Channel 4 DOG in the top left hand corner of the screen. It makes referencing scenes much easier. Animating the hashtags will enable the audience to pick up on them more easily, and allow them to engage with other viewers online.
Viewers who post a Tweet with the hashtag #wtfishappening will get an instant summary of what’s been going on so far. This facility will be prominently displayed on-screen throughout the drama.
A “Breaking News” style ticker will run throughout the drama highlighting major plot points in case you missed them.
The audio for the hard of hearing stream will be a little fuller than usual. So instead of the voice saying things like “Sasha walks into her bedroom and sees Blade,” it’ll be more like:
“Sasha – the blonde who’s going out with nerdy Damien – walks into her bedroom and sees Blade – her client through work who we know she’s been shagging from that bit in the first five minutes.”
After each commercial break we’ll get a proper “previously on Exposition…” re-cap of what’s been happening so far.
There won’t be any end credits at all. You know, like Spooks.
Funding: Channel 4 needs every penny it can get, so it’d be rude not to include some Product Placement. Mobile phones will prove an important part of this production, so there’ll be a mobile partner on board. But due to production deadlines and the mobile phone release cycle, it’s unlikely that the newest model will be available at time of production. Each actor will use a green block in their hand allowing the latest model to be dropped in just before broadcast.
If anyone at Channel 4 or Zeppotron wants to drop me a note, I can get cracking on a full script!

Awards Shows Need to be Live in 2013

As I type, guests for the BAFTA Film Awards are beginning to arrive at a soggy Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Are they getting to the venue super early, since the awards themselves aren’t on for ages? No, it’s because we get recorded highlights of the BAFTA Film Awards on BBC One from 9pm.
The actual awards start at 7pm in Royal Opera House, but the BBC goes into careful 2 hour “tape” delay before presenting the public with a filtered view.
This is nothing new, and it’s been done for years.
But in 2013, and frankly for the last five or more years, we’ve had social media. And that means you can’t embargo the results. When the award is announced in the ROH, it’s on Twitter, Facebook and the web. And that means by the time 9pm comes around, the vast majority of awards have been made.
Even the red carpet coverage starts on BBC Three at 7.30pm – half an hour after everyone’s sat down in the ROH. Meanwhile US entertainment channel E! did its coverage a couple of hours earlier, actually “live” from the red carpet.
Someone told me a stat recently claiming that the average smartphone owner checks their phone 180 times a day. I may have mis-remembered the number. And that sounds a little unlikely anyway. But what is clear is that people do check their phones a lot. They’re on Twitter. They’re browsing Facebook.
Amusingly, BAFTA has put up a guide about how not have the results spoiled.
The genie is out of the bag. You can’t help but have your viewing of these awards “spoiled”. Largely they’re about not going on their Tumblr site, and being careful about opening images posted by the offical @BAFTA Twitter account. Of course you probably follow a few more accounts aside from BAFTA’s own. And if you’re interested in entertainment news, you might well follow some news outlets that specialise in that news. Indeed I’d be amazed if @BBCBreaking or @SkyNewsBreak don’t Tweet the results.
So why does the BBC and BAFTA persist in presenting us with recorded highlights? I suggest the following reasons:

  • Old world thinking – We’ve always done it this way? Why change things? Well social media has arrived, and live is all. It doesn’t work. The TV broadcast becomes “spoiled” unless you avoid the internet. And today we’re all addicted to the internet with our phones and tablets adjacent to us as we sit in our lounges on our sofas.
  • Swearing – Well yes. This might be true. Except that the broadcast begins after the watershed. And all the people speaking are quite grown up. Pretty much everybody is getting on a plane after today to go to LA for the Oscars. And they manage not to swear there. Plus all those nice young pop stars manage to behave fairly well on the live Brits. So there’s no real excuse.
  • Editing out smaller awards – You know, all those short films, and awards to unimportant people like the writers. Of course, they do this at The Oscars too. But they just start the show a bit earlier before TV gets broadcasting live, and they present them then.
  • Guests want to get to their parties before 11pm – I kind of made that up, but I bet there’s an element of truth in it.

And it’s not even as though the edited result is technically that good. The last few years have been pretty poor at times with interference on the sound.
And in any case, they’re missing a trick not going live. You can get a bigger TV audience by making the whole thing live and encouraging engagement in social media. Having both journalists at the venue, and your friends and people you follow all talk about something at the same time makes it a bigger event. And in 2013, that means you get a bigger TV audience.
The image above is of Bob and Terry from the classic sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. As Jem Stone reminded me, we’re nearly at the 40th anniversary of the classic episode No Hiding Place, when Bob and Terry spend the day trying to avoid finding out an England football score before highlights are shown later in the evening. Today, with football coverage, we find that whole idea feintly quaint. And yet’s that’s precisely what a viewer needs to do today if they don’t want to know the results.
The irony of all this is that I don’t even care that much. Awards ceremonies are dull. The speeches are duller. Most of the winners are “the usual suspects” with little out of the box thinking. And I’ve got three episodes of House of Cards to watch.
But if you’re going to bother broadcasting awards ceremonies like this in 2013, it’s do it live or don’t bother.
And yes, I did write basically the same thing last year.
[UPDATE] I just had a look at Twitter to see what people had been saying to the @BBCBreaking Twitter account that has happily been Tweeting some of the major winners this evening – as they occurred in the Royal Opera House, rather than as they appeared on screen a couple of hours later. The following – with names redacted are just a handful. Fun fact – @BBCBreaking has over 5m followers, and one would imagine quite a few of them were going to watch the BAFTAs on TV!
@BBCBreaking good luck explaining that cock up in the morning! ‘thanks’ morons!
Well done, @BBCBreaking thanks for ruining the BAFTAs for me with that huge spoiler!!!! Who thought it would be a good idea to tweet that?!
@BBCBreaking You could have waited until it had been shown on BBC1! *Turns off TV*
Thanks to @BBCBreaking for telling us all the winners of the BAFTAs before they are announces on the box
@BBCBreaking brilliant….thanks! Can you let me know who wins the cricket next please ’cause I’d hate to enjoy that as well!
Thanks @BBCBreaking not like I was watching for a reason! #spoilt #bafta
@BBCBreaking R.I.P
@BBCBreaking stop telling us before it’s televised!
Oh, I know that but why bother, so? Show it live or don’t bother. 🙂 @BBCBreaking
@BBCBreaking well done BBC, good to see our money is being spent on complete incompetent baboons. #useless
@BBCBreaking well done beeb for ruining the show
@BBCBreaking spoilers! For God sake!
@BBCBreaking Spoiler alert or what!!!?
great-bad enough avoiding the celeb tweets..but come on #BBC it’s on your own bloody channel “@BBCBreaking: #Argo wins best film at #BAFTAs
Wonderfully splendid of @BBCBreaking to tweet that before they’ve broadcast it!! ****ing Idiots!!
@BBCBreaking I think you might of screwed up#BAFTA BALLSUP
@bbcbreaking defeats the whole purpose of televising it…
@BBCBreaking. thanks for ruining the baftas
Things I love: watching the BAFTAs, looking at Twitter and having @BBCBreaking ruin absolutely all of it. Joy.

(And the @EE account didn’t win many friends this evening either, particularly with its patronising default reply: “Sorry about that, – Superfast is in our nature! Normal, non-spoilery service will resume tomorrow.” Completely meaningless. This is the company that spent a fortune on adverts actually promoting the 9pm televising of the show on BBC One, only for their Twitter account people to ruin it should you be following them. Great way to run a sponsorship!)
What I notice is that BBC Entertainment and BBC News operate entirely independently of one another. The BBC News channel also broadcast live from the red carpet. But since they’re news, they did it live. I didn’t really watch either that or any of the BBC Three coverage, so I couldn’t say if it was the same or different. BBC News probably considers a result a result, and as such it should be immediately reported. Of course millions of viewers were looking forward to watching the show on TV. You kind of imagine that had a news bulletin been scheduled on BBC1 ten minutes before the start of the BAFTAs, they’d have revealed the results right then…
But I think I’ve made my point.
[UPDATE 2] And here’s why nothing will change next year: BBC1’s coverage of the 2013 Bafta film awards enjoyed its biggest audience for a decade on Sunday.
Of course, that doesn’t account for the fact that more people might have watched it if it were live. And that many of those who did watch it were annoyed that Twitter or Facebook had spoiled it for them.
And I’ve just seen this blog post from a couple of years ago written by Torin Douglas and detailing exactly the same thing. It seems not a great deal has changed – aside from @BBCBreaking joining in the spoiler fun.

Zero Dark Thirty

As this film came closer to being released I was having mixed opinions about it. There were those stories about how it had overemphasised the success of using torture to tell the CIA what they needed. Then there were stories that it somehow defended torture (a misreading surely).
On the other hand, I’d heard that it was a really good film. Kathryn Bigelow seems, of late, to have specialised in military films. There was the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, and there was also the commercially unsuccessful K-19: Widowmaker set on a submarine.
But aside from the regularly mentioned Near Dark, Strange Days and Point Break, Bigelow has also worked on some of my favourite TV over the years. There are a couple of episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets which in many ways was the precursor of The Wire; some of Wild Palms the somewhat forgotten mini-series that came just before the thematically similar Strange Days; and an episode of one of the best TV series yet to receive a DVD release, Karen Sisco.
The latter had a strong female character very much like Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. That said, Maya is much more vulnerable.
This new film starts with audio recordings of telephone calls made in the immediate aftermath 9/11 and follows a part of the CIA tasked with finding Osama (or Usama here) Bin Laden. In particular, we follow Maya, based on a real agent, who from entry in the Agency has a single aim in discovering Bin Laden’s whereabouts.
She’s aided by a variety of people including Jason Clarke’s Dan who we first meet torturing a suspect, and Jennifer Ehle’s Jessica. Maya is largely based in Pakistan, and it’s no cake-walk there.
The passage of time flows, and various real-life terrorism events form waypoints for the story. Yet despite knowing what’s going to happen in the end, the tension is ramped up throughout.
The final assault – when it comes – on Bin Laden’s compound seems to be played out in just about real time. And it happens without music in almost complete darkness, with lots of infrared footage from the assault team’s point of view. It makes the whole section of the film incredibly visceral.
The cast is excellent. I did find it slighly odd that so many non-Americans were in the roles. In one scene Mark Strong and Stephen Dillane are having a conversation together in a corridor, both with American accents. And as well as Ehle, Clarke isn’t American either (he’s Australian).
Whether it deserves to win Oscars or not is not a question I can answer – although Chastain is superb. But I do know that it’s a great thriller, and well worth seeing.

Death on the Staircase: The Last Chance

Back in early 2005, BBC Four showed an extraordinary eight-part documentary series called Death on the Staircase. It was originally made for French television by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and covered a single murder case prosecution in extraordinary detail.
Michael Peterson, an author, writer and sometime local politician, who lived in some comfort with his family in North Carolina, was charged with the murder of his wife who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their palatial home. The original court case took place in 2003.
The documentary series covered the run-up to, and the detail of the trial itself. The documentary also addressed the media coverage of the trial and in particular the day by day nightly Court TV commentary.
At the time I was riveted by it.
The forensic detail with which it covered the case was amazing, and the construction of the documentary series was such that it was like a television drama. New pieces of evidence would emerge that suddenly clouded the waters. Episodes ended with cliffhangers as we learnt new information – not always obviously directly relevant to the case.
In the end, he was convicted and sent to prison.
As viewers, we could never know for certain whether he was innocent or guilty. However as presented, it did not look like he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt, to at least this viewer.
The series got several repeats on BBC Four. But unfortunately, if you’re coming to this fresh today, your best option is an import DVD, since the series never got a UK release. From what I can see, this US version offers the best value.
This brand new two hour film – Death on the Staircase: The Last Stand – shown in BBC Four’s wonderful Storyville slot on Monday night, brings us up to date with the case, as we return to the main characters nearly ten years later.
An expert witness used in another case has had his evidence quashed and has been accused of misrepresenting scientific data on a regular basis. This forms the grounds for a new appeal for Peterson since this witness’s evidence was so crucial in the original case. The defence are calling for a retrial and the expert witnesses evidence to be thrown out.
What is especially clear when we first meet him again is that Peterson looks a lot older. His eight years in prison have not been kind to him, and he’s now clearly an old man. But remains the same man underneath – his mannerisms are distinct. His hair may no longer be dyed but he has the same bushy eyebrows. In the original series he had a very ambivalent attitude throughout proceedings, perhaps never really believing that he could be convicted.
Now he’s a little more animated. The reality of that prison time probably does that to you.
His two direct daughters still support him, as do most of the rest of the family. But tensions remain high, as a new appeal is heard. And a daughter on his dead wife’s side has perhaps understandably removed herself from the rest of the family. They no longer speak. We don’t see new footage of her in this film.
You don’t need to have watched the original series to understand what’s happening in this follow up. Most of the major issues surrounding the case are revisited in flashback. That said, even if it was eight years since you last watched this programme like it was for me, having a previous understanding of the case gives you a different insight into this new film.
I won’t “spoil” the outcome of the programme since although it’s a documentary, it does have a conclusion… of sorts.
And it’s just terrific television. And kudos to Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his team for following this case so determinedly over the years.
By the way – the recent run of Storyville on BBC Four is nothing less than fantastic. We had the terrific The Queen of Versailles last week about a property developer building an enormous mansion as the economic downturn hits, and a couple of weeks before that it was The House I Live In on America’s “War on Drugs.” Both are remarkable pieces and are thoroughly worth watching (and at time of writing, still available on the iPlayer).
Seriously, all three of these films are worthy of your time.