April, 2016

Celebrity Deaths in 2016

Small Purplish Chap

No. I’m not about to pen a piece about sad the death of Prince. I couldn’t ever say I was a massive fan, although I’m enormously respectful of him and the range of his music. But in truth I never owned much of it. I think the album I must have listened most to of his was actually his Batman soundtrack – or at least the album of songs inspired by Tim Burton’s film, a handful of which actually made it into the movie alongside Danny Elfman’s score.

Instead I wanted to highlight a very worthwhile piece that aired on Radio 4’s More or Less last Friday exploring why so many celebrities seem to have died in the first months of 2016. There certainly do seem to have been more this year, although there are always ups and downs.

But what was hypothesised in the programme was the fact that we’re now reaching the period after which television, and pop and rock music made many more people famous than previously.

Suddenly there were an awful lot more people who’d found fame – often people who touched our lives during our adolescent years. And sadly they’re now reaching an age when they’re more likely to die.

That’s not to say that 69 for David Bowie, 62 for Victoria Wood or 57 for Prince aren’t terribly young ages to die at in 2016. But it does seem likely that celebrity deaths will become more common than they once were because from the latter part of the 20th century we had more cultural touchstones.

The edition of More or Less is really well worth a listen.

And that photo above of Prince?

It was taken at a great fun day out at the O2 in 2007 during Prince’s 21 night residency, when Virgin Radio took the entire station for a night out to see him. Prince had a strict “no photography” rule, but I was snapping away nonetheless until I felt the tap on my shoulder of a security guard. Worried that he was going to either wipe or take my SD card, I palmed it off to a colleague next to me, before being forced to put it in storage until after the show.

Do You Know What Product Placement Is?

Ofcom has just produced a slightly dry sounding report on “UK Audience Attitudes Towards Broadcast Media” based on some of its Media Tracker findings.

If you work in UK commercial radio, then the good news is that most people don’t think you’re running too many ads right now.


51% of commercial radio listeners say that present levels of advertising don’t bother them, with 12% saying a little more would be OK. Incredibly a further 5% say you could add loads more advertising without it bothering them. On the other hand, 27% say that there are already too many ads. So I’d be very wary of upping advertising levels – especially with a competitor set – both BBC and paid-for streaming services – that carry no ads.

All well and good, but I think the key finding in this report is actually about Product Placement.

Product Placement Logo

This is the logo that was conjured up when Product Placement was first introduced in the UK in 2011. The idea is that the logo is incorporated into the opening and closing credits of any programme containing Product Placement, including during break bumpers.

So you will see it on programmes ranging from This Morning and Coronation Street to Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and I’m A Celebrity… By November of last year, ITV had used it for more than 4300 hours of programminmg.

Fine, so it’s an additional revenue stream for commercial broadcasters, and it offers “brand integration” (marketing buzzword alert) like no other form of advertising.

When Product Placement was launched in the UK, there was an advertising campaign across most UK commercial stations to explain what it was, and to introduce the logo.

Ofcom – Product Placement from Laurie Smith – Director on Vimeo.

Yet since then, further campaigns have been far and far between. And that’s evident from Ofcom’s findings on awareness of Product Placement.

Just 15% of adult viewers could correctly identify the Product Placement logo.

That’s bad, but I’m actually amazed it’s that high.

Furthermore, 67% of viewers claim to have never seen it. Remarkable, given that it’s appeared at the start of some of the biggest shows on television in the UK.


There is no international sign for Product Placement which might help, since in the US, viewers are alerted via a note in the end credits. Of course, end credits are often shrunk or compressed. And that’s before you get to music videos and films.

It feels to me that a slightly opaque logo hidden in a busy opening credit scheme is not really doing anything for viewers. Either give up telling viewers altogether, or properly announce the fact that programmes contain Product Placement. Failing that, broadcasters should continue to alert viewers properly about what the symbol means, because 15% is an awful result.

Satire, Parliament and Dennis Skinner


Last week Labour stalwart Dennis Skinner was ejected from the House of Commons for the rest of the Parliamentary day for calling the Prime Minister “Dodgy Dave” during his statement on his father’s off-shore affairs to Parliament. The Speaker, John Bercow, didn’t like it, and Skinner was forced to leave.

Skinner regularly entertains with his witty and acerbic comments, so this wasn’t out of character. In this instance, Skinner had a particular interest in the subject and had confronted Cameron on it previously.

What’s interesting is how the news was later reported beyond the day’s news reports.

On Friday, Have I Got News For You covered it, pointing out that Parliamentary rules prevented them from showing clips on a satirical TV programme. They instead used an “artist’s impression” as shown above.

Now I’ve written about this issue before – here in 2009, and again in 2011.

As the licences to use material from Parliamentary coverage make clear:

no extracts of Parliamentary proceedings may be used in any light entertainment programme or in a programme of political satire;

This is despite some changes in copyright legislation which, to my non lawyer’s eyes, would seem to be at odds with them.

So it was slightly surprising to sit down and watch Monday night’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sky Atlantic, originally transmitted by HBO on Sunday evening, and see footage of Commons, lifted from the BBC’s website, and used by Oliver for, well, satirical purposes!


Of course in the US, they have separate copyright rules and restrictions, and they don’t have to adhere to UK rules. Fair Use probably applies, and so the footage was used. And programmes like this, The Daily Show and many others, regularly use C-SPAN coverage of US government business to illustrate their stories. Only the Supreme Court remains off limits to cameras (Oliver has notably used a “court” of dogs to illustrate exchanges, alongside audio recordings which are allowed).

I was slightly surprised to see that Sky Atlantic didn’t edit that segment before UK broadcast however, since it does seem that they’re in violation of Parliamentary rules. I wouldn’t be surprised if a trimmed down version is used for any rebroadcasts, although at time of writing the full unexpurgated episode is available on Sky Go.

It’s a ridiculous rule of course, and the point is that the footage is widely available.

Last month Rupa Huq MP, sister-in-law to Charlie Brooker, requested that it was lifted, but her request was denied by Chris Grayling MP, leader of the House of Commons.

As Brooker is quoted is the Telegraph as saying, “”Have I Got News For You can’t use clips from the House of Commons, whereas This Week can – with funny music dubbed on top.”

And of course, you can very easily view the footage, including Skinner calling Cameron “Dodgy Dave” on at least two occasions before he was required to leave the Commons by the Speaker for “Disorderly Conduct.” Here it is on the BBC website for example.

I can even go ahead and make an animated GIF of it!


But for goodness sake, don’t let the footage end up on a satirical television programme in the UK. Whatever would happen then?

Unseen Avatar

The news that James Cameron has at least four Avatar sequels reminds me that I initially went to see a preview of 15 minutes’ footage back in August 2009. The idea was to whet audiences’ appetites.

This is what I said in 2009:

…Somehow I wasn’t as completely bowled over as I’d perhaps liked to have been. There were a few too many “pointy” incidents where sequences had been filmed in such a way as to purely show-off the 3D. While things weren’t quite coming out of the screen in a cheesy manner, they were clearly there for no other reason than to remind the audience that it was watching a 3D film.

It’s possible that this is because Cameron has edited together lots of sequences that exaggerate this to an audience that’s only seeing 15 minutes, but it was overdone in my view.

The other issue is that while the world Cameron’s created is bizarre and thoroughly imaginative, it’s also a little – well muddy. I don’t know if it’s the 3D process and the polarising lenses in the glasses as opposed to the colour palette Cameron has used to portray this imaginary world, but it all felt like it needed brightening up a bit. I’d love to compare the same footage in 2D and 3D to see whether this is the case. Remember that I was seeing this footage on perhaps the best IMAX screen in the UK…

Then I went on to add this:

I’ll certainly go and see this film when it comes out, although I’m not actually sure that I want to see it in 3D on the basis that it might actually sparkle a little more in 2D.

Well that was not true. I did not go to see Avatar, and I still haven’t seen it, despite numerous TV airings. And you know what? It may have made more money than any other film in history, but I still have no desire to see it. Nor the upcoming sequels.

3D was new when Avatar was released – or at least had been newly rediscovered. Was it just the experience that saw such large audiences going to Avatar? I guess when the sequels belatedly start appearing, we’ll find out.

I’m just nonplussed about the whole thing.

Early One Sunday Morning

Sunday Morning in Trent Park from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Taken in Trent Park, Enfield, earlier this morning. The music is Finlandia by Sibelius (criminally cut short, but there you go). A little bit of rolling shutter visible. This may be my encoding solution.

And I notice that Vimeo can accommodate higher resolution videos, so if you’ve got a decent monitor, watch this in up to 2k!

By the way, in this photo, you can just about make out the Shard and the cluster of skyscrapers in the City of London, as well as the cluster around Canary Wharf further to the east (the left in this photo). Click to go large to make it clearer.

Trent Park Campus from the Air

Unconvinced by Virtual Reality

Last week Oculus Rift finally started shipping consumer units, two and a half years after it first appeared on Kickstarter.

This week the HTC Vive has been launched, part of a system that includes motion tracking.

Sony is readying a VR PlayStation add-on for imminent release.

And then we’ve had both Google Cardboard and iterations of Samsung’s Gear VR, both working at the lower end of the market and utilising the processing power of your phone.

Elsewhere, a range of 360 degree cameras are on sale at a variety of price-points expanding the action-cam market a little. YouTube accommodates 360 degree footage, and a recent episode of the BBC’s Click programme was filmed entirely in this format.

The New York Times gave away a million pairs of Google Cardboard glasses, and various news organisations have shot pieces in 360 degree video, learning as they go.

Everyone is very excited about virtual reality.

But isn’t it just the new 3D?

That is to say, fine in some limited circumstances, but mostly just a bit of a novelty, and something most people will quickly get bored of?

Now I confess that I’ve not experienced any of the higher-end VR devices. It’s therefore possible that I’m being grossly unfair. But then you’ve probably not experienced it yet either. I’ve no doubt that there are some awesome games that use VR, but high-end PC gaming, or even console gaming is a relatively niche area. The Xbox Kinect was an incredible piece of hardware, but has it really changed gaming?

There’s no doubt that broadcasters and film-makers are getting excited about VR, and as with 4K and developments in multi-channel audio, it’s right that they should be interested and experiment. Last weekend’s El Clásico was streamed in VR in Spain. Some rounds of the NCAA March Madness basketball competition in the US were also in VR. And of course, parts of this summer’s Rio Olympics will be shot in VR.

Whether any of that coverage was or will be any good is a separate question. I suppose I could look at Barcelona fans’ faces as Ronaldo scored the winner, but TV coverage already gives me that.

In any case, what I’m not clear about is, beyond gaming, what VR really adds. There will clearly also be some experiential stuff, but regardless how brilliant those special cases are, it’s not quite enough to convince.

Here are a few of my problems:

  • It’s not a social way to watch video. You have to wear goggles and headphones to get an immersive experience. Yes, your whole family or your friends could sit around similarly, but I bet your family didn’t even sit around all wearing 3D glasses, never mind each with a pair of VR goggles that cost hundreds of pounds.
  • You have to wear glasses. This is the same problem that 3D glasses had.
  • It’s expensive. Very expensive. Sure prices will come down a bit. But it’s expensive because you need a lot of processing power and high resolution screens to give the user a good experience. (Yes, I realise that £5 Google Cardboard also exists, but that’s not nearly as good an experience)
  • Did I mention it’s expensive? You also need a very capable PC for the full VR experience. Most current PCs aren’t powerful enough. Nvidia has said that less than 1% of PCs in use at the end of this year will be powerful enough. Go away and try the Oculus Rift or Steam VR test tools to see how your machine fares. I don’t have to download them to know that I’d need a new computer, probably getting on for £1000 worth. Even with as processing power gets less expensive, it’s going to take a while, and not be especially cheap for many years to come.
  • Motion sickness. This is going to be a problem for some people, and I’m not sure that it’s technologically solvable problem. Sea-sickness tablets? Reports suggest that you need to get to 90 frames per second to avoid the issue. That explains the immensely powerful computers and graphics cards that the VR manufacturers are specifying. (It’s also worth noting that many video cameras top out at 60 fps before dropping to lower qualities.)

If you’re a hardcore gamer, then none of these are necessarily problems. The social element comes from playing others over a network, and you’re probably alone with your computer during gameplay. Sure, your gaming PC plus VR goggles are expensive, but high-end PC gaming has always been an expensive hobby.

So yes, gaming is a legitimate use case, and I imagine lots of people are going to be enjoying an awesome gaming experience, although perhaps eyeing that even more powerful GFX card so that they can max out all the details games’ settings.

And I’m well aware of Moore’s Law which will see the cost of the technology drop quickly. But it wasn’t a cost premium that killed 3D – it was a lack of consumer interest. Yes – you might go and see the new superhero spectacular in 3D, but back home on TV, those 3D glasses that came with your TV set are probably gathering dust in drawer somewhere. 4K and HDR is where the technology is now, and it’s where the focus of the manufacturers and companies like Netflix and Amazon are. I’ve no doubt that we’ll get some 360 degree productions from some broadcasters or narrowcasters, but they played with 3D before, and look where we are with that now.

The wider application of VR is in video, and it’s here that I find the parallels with 3D are closer. I think you have two key problems here, in addition to general issues I’ve already noted:

  • Beyond an initial curiosity, are viewers going to be interested in seeing what you’ve shot through a VR lens?
  • And won’t most of them be viewing on quite low-end gear anyway?

So while yes, I can see people being interested in seeing your Planet Earth-style clips of wildebeest crossing the Mara River in the Serengeti in 360 degree video, I’m not sure I want to watch 10 hours of documentaries in that format. For the most part there’s the thing you want to point a camera at and watch, while everything else happening is actually a bit dull. It’s akin to those situations where you can choose your own angle to watch sports. You play with them for a bit, before you finally realise that the director is busily cutting around to the best angles on your behalf, so you revert to the main feed. In any case, the average user is likely to be using low-end kit at the same that their next TV will be capable of 4K. So clips in Google Cardboard will look far worse than those on the home’s 48″ TV.

And once you’ve got over the excitement of seeing everything around you, often spotting the production team standing “behind” the camera, you quickly realise that you’re losing focus on what you should be watching. Ordinarily a director and/or video editor has made those decisions for you, controlling your focus. So aside from distracting and weird stitching between the multiple cameras used to create the shot, what’s actually the point?

Perhaps a primary use case hasn’t really emerged yet. Maybe a certain kind of immersive storytelling utilising this kind of technology will be adopted and prove popular. But at the moment it feels like we’re experiencing tableaus a bit like those 4K videos you see running in stores of incredibly detailed waterfalls and forests. They certainly achieve a wow-factor in store, but when you get home you’re actually going to watch The Great British Bake-Off or Ant & Dec on your set. Those tableaus will seem to be of very limited appeal.

High Rise


I didn’t think about it until during the film, but could there be any more appropriate location to watch High Rise than the Curzon Bloomsbury (née Renoir cinema) in the Brunswick Centre?

In Ben Wheatley’s superb adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel, his production designer Mark Tildesley has created a modernist* marvel of building. The way that the apartments are tiered in the film is very reminiscent of the much lower Brunswick Centre has tiering for its apartments, all in that same modernist style. The Brunswick Centre was designed by Patrick Hodgkinson who died very recently, and for who the centre was his most famous piece of work, long in gestation before finally opening in the ’70s and getting a revamp in the ’00s.

Recently the below-ground Renoir cinema has been modernised and overhauled, becoming the Curzon Bloomsbury. Although the cinema reopened a year ago, this was the first time I’d been back inside. The main reason for holding off was that the previous cinema had featured two screens, but following the 10 month refurbishment, it now features six screens. It does not take a genius to work out that all the screens are therefore now smaller than they were before, and when I see a film on the big screen, I tend to like that screen to be, well, big!

That’s not to say that the cinema was especially good in its old format. It was originally designed as a single 490 seat screen at the time of the centre’s opening in 1972, but as with so many cinemas in the 1980s, it was converted to become a two-screen cinema – essentially splitting the cinema down the middle. That left each of the two neighbouring screens uneven, with more seats on one side than the other. There were also pillars that you obviously couldn’t sit behind.

Now under its new name, it features six screens, of which only the “Premium Screen” is of a decent size with 177 seats. The other regular screens all seat between 28 and 30, making them feel a little closer to a hi-fi dealership’s screening room rather than a full blown cinema. They’re certainly plushly appointed and the chain has named the screens after now re-branded or closed cinemas from around London (Lumiere, Plaza, Phoenix and Minema). The Bertha Dochouse screen is actually larger at 55 seats. It’s a screen devoted documentaries and supported by a number of groups.

I saw High Rise in the 30 seat “Plaza” screen, and while I have no problems with the cinema itself – aside from a couple of late patrons casting shadows on half the screen as they spent too long finding their seats (another consequence of small screening rooms), I do wonder why I’m paying a premium to see a film on the big screen if home cinema screens are getting close to the same size. I exaggerate a little, but it’s an issue of mine. The seats are comfortable, and there are bars throughout, but paying £15 plus a £1 booking fee for such a small screen experience is galling.

But what about the film?

Well it’s really excellent. If you don’t like JG Ballard, then it won’t be your cup of tea, because this one of his dystopian future novels, in a believable future from around the time they were published. High Rise came out in 1975, and begins with Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moving into his new apartment mid-way up a brand new apartment block. For him and his fellow aspirant middle-class tenants in the block, this is a self-contained world. They have their own supermarket, a gym and a swimming pool.

But there’s a very rigid hierarchy, within the block. The higher up in the building you are, the greater your social standing. On the very top, in the penthouse, is the project’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).

As Laing settles in, the high rise takes on a life of its own with an endless stream of parties to which you may or may not be invited. Laing befriends Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her son who live just above him. But below him are Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss). Wilder is something of playboy, his wife seemingly acquiescent.

Higher up are people like the gynaecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy), an actrees Ann Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) and Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) who manages to keep a sheep and a horse on the top of the building.

Slowly and surely chaos begins to ensue as rubbish chutes are jammed, power-cuts hit the lower floors, and finally there is no water. Raiding parties look out for their own areas, yet there’s still a weird normality as some continue to head out of the building each day, walking out across the enormous car park to head off to their jobs.

The chaos gets worse, and there are assaults and all manner of debauchery. Yet somehow the building contains all of this. There’s an amusing sequence when a police car pulls up and Royal assures the policeman (a cameo from Neil Maskell who previously appeared in Wheatley’s Kill List) that everything’s fine. Revolt is in the air, and it’s uncertain how things will play out. The script is both very much in keeping with Ballard’s novel, whilst not afraid to diverge from it. Invariably there is a lot of compression, and fewer characters on fewer floors. And the timeframe seems compressed compared with the novel.

The performances are all excellent with Hiddleston almost gliding through the film, as Laing does in the book. Irons is right the grumpy architect who sort of knows his designed society is all collapsing around him. It’s fun seeing Hawes in yet another very different role – she’s currently very different in both the third series of Line of Fire, and as the mother in ITV’s new version of The Durrells.

You can’t separate the film from the superb production design. As well as the amazing architecture conjured up in CG, there interiors are beautifully delivered. I especially enjoyed seeing the supermarket with all the carefully labelled products (There’s an excellent article in Creative Review detailing this work) and signs.

And Clint Mansell’s soundtrack is also incredibly important, adding layers to the film. Beyond that there is incidental music such as muzack version of Abba’s SOS, later reprised into a fully-fledged song from Portishead. Sadly, it’s not included on the soundtrack, and the band prefers that you hear the song in the context of the film.

Finally, you can’t ignore Amy Jump, Wheatley’s partner in crime. The film credits her equally at the end, her writing, and he directing – the pair of them editing. The film is very truthful to the book, but Ballard is not the easiest author to adapt – there’s a sensibility to his work.

I loved this film, and can’t wait to watch it again and soak up some of the details.

* Or should that be brutalist? I’m afraid architectural doctrines are a little beyond me.

London in B&W-14

March Books

Oh dear. I’m really slacking now. Just three books this month which is very poor.

In my defence Amazon went and released series 2 of the very fine, but not enormously talked about, Bosch. And Netflix went and released a new series of House of Cards, before which I had to watch last season’s. Then there was the arrival of a new season of Daredevil. OK I’ve only watched a couple of episodes of that so far.

And lest anyone think I just watch shows on the streaming services, the finest dramas are probably to be found on the BBC right now. Happy Valley and The Night Manager have now concluded, and Line of Duty is getting fully into the flow in its third series!

But what about books?

The Shepherd’s Life is James Rebanks book on life as a shepherd in the Lake District, and it seems to have been a bit of a hit. You’ll find stacks of copies in your local bookshop, and it’s heavily discounted on Amazon.

Rebanks is a very entertaining writer, telling the tale, season by season, of what it’s like to work on a sheep farm in a valley on the edge of the lakes. Interspersed between those stories, is his life story – and those of so many of those around him. Early on you read of what it was like at school, where none of the kids who were children of farmers really wanted to be there. The idea that they might “better” themselves and get out of farming was an anathema, and anyone who suggested as much was treated with disdain.

In case you didn’t really think it, the life of a shepherd is a tough one, and you need a family to help get the work done. Reading the book I’m still not sure how farmers like Rebanks make ends meet. When you read that some farmers don’t even bother selling the wool from their sheep preferring to burn it, so low are the prices, that you wonder what kind of person is willing to forgo so much to continue a life that his forefathers led.

The book is also a bit of a meditation on the ways different people see the Lake District. As a child, Rebanks didn’t really understand the pull of Wainwright or Wordsworth. That was a different world to his – gathering sheep in from the high fells and tending to lambing sheep in the snow. But even spending a little time in the city reveals perhaps city dwellers’ needs for places like the lakes. Perhaps that’s why Countryfile or Springwatch do so well on TV?

As a companion piece to this book, you could do worse than watch the documentary Addicted to Sheep. It was recently shown on BBC4 but has now slipped out of the iPlayer catch-up window. But the film is still being screened in its full-length version at screenings around the country, notably in some rural locations. But it’s also available from the makers on DVD, and I’d imagine it’s possible that it’ll turn up on a download or streaming service at some point.

The documentary tells of the life of a pair of tenant farmers in the Pennines, detailing a very similar life looking after their flock. Even though I saw the shortened version of the film, the pace was lovely, and if you’d be very much mistaken if you think life is dull! The book and the film have very definite parallels. Well worth seeking out.

A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a new series of crime books featuring the Canadian Inspector Domenic Jejeune. Written by Steve Burrows, this series of novels seems to have so far only been published in Canada, despite being set in Britain.

Jejeune finds himself in a different rural location – the North Norfolk coast, an area well known to me! And this is crime novel set in the world of birds, birders and birdwatching. A TV scientist and environmentalist has been found dead near his home in the fictional Saltmarsh (Wells Next the Sea perhaps?) with Jejeune and his team having to find the murderer in this high profile case.

Things move along quickly enough and for anyone familiar with that part of the world, real places like Cley and Stiffkey also feature. While there are a couple of scenes that don’t hold-up to being authentic, it’s a fun romp, and I’ll be looking out for the next books in the series. Because we’re a little behind the Canadian publication, we seem to get three books from him this year, with A Pitying of Doves next up.

East Anglia also features a little in Rain, a short book about four walks taken by Melissa Harrison. She begins in Wicken Fen, somewhere I do know a little, in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, not far from the Norfolk border. It’s an area where the low-lying land has not been completely tamed, and where reeds allow a range of wildlife to prosper in a habitat that has largely disappeared.

She continues with walks in Shropshire, the Darwent Valley in Kent, and on Dartmoor, each time, as the title implies, in the wet. That’s important because so many of us (non-sheep farming urbanites anyway) only really get into the countryside when we know it’s going to be dry, and it’s a different place in the rain. The importance of it is reiterated throughout this slim volume, with too much or too little having long-lasting and (as we know) devastating effects.