The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009


I have a fantastic idea. Any political party, wanting to get into power, adopt this idea. It’s that good. In fact, it’s so good, it’s a little bit scary.

It was inspired by the sight of a McDonald’s takeaway bag in my garden. I thought how ironic it is that these massive corporations, McDonald’s, Coke, KFC, spend so much on advertising and yet for much of the time, the place where we most often see their logo is in the gutter.

So my thought is this. To prevent litter – fine the company advertising on it.

It’d be simple to administrate. People who’s job it is to pick up litter – those poor, under-appreciated souls who do more to improve our quality of life than any other – simply put aside any litter with a company name, address or logo on it. Next, pass the details on to an office, whose job it is fine the company in question. And they use the fine to pay for the administration, and hopefully to increase the wages of the poor soul who picked up the litter in the first place

I cannot see how this plan would not work. It would create a massive incentive to those companies to prevent the spread of litter – the litter they created. Just in case they decide to stop putting their logo on things – make it compulsory. After all, this would hardly constitute a loss of freedom or increase their overheads, as it something they are willingly doing already for the benefit of advertising. It would cost them money to stop doing it.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron, the other guy, I don’t care who, just someone adopt this policy. It’s a vote-winner. It mightn’t prevent the blight of anonymous polythene bags, but it would make a huge difference.

Monday, 30 March 2009

I Can See For Miles

Quiz for you. Which William Hartnell Doctor Who story was an offence under the Official Secrets Act?

The answer is, of course, The War Machines. Because at the time the story was made and broadcast it was against the law to photograph the Post Office Tower in London (latterly the Telecom Tower or BT Tower). It’s location was an official secret and was ommitted from Ordnance Survey maps. The hope being that, in the event of a Soviet invasion, we could cover it with a drape and they’d never know it was there.

It’s one of the frustrations of living in London; you know there must be a really impressive view from the top of the tower but the public aren’t allowed to go up. That pleasure is solely reserved for BT Employees and Noel Edmonds.

The same used to be true of Centre Point, but now there’s some glittering private members club up there, so who knows, in the next couple of decades I might be able to blag myself an invite. I’ve managed to gatecrash most of the London clubs over the past few years. Can’t quite see the appeal myself, but then, I’m not a celebrity with a secret cocaine habit. I’d rather stay at home and watch The Big Bang Theory under a blanket with my girlfriend.

To return to the subject; I think, sensibly speaking, the notion of keeping the Post Office Tower off the maps wasn’t as daft as it might first seem. Because at ground level, the closer you get to the tower, the more difficult it is to see it because of all the other buildings in the way. And when you’re right next to it, there isn’t an entrance for it on the street. It might as well be invisible.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Even Better Than The Real Thing

Another obsession. Cover version albums.

There’s three types. There’s the tribute album, to an artist or label. There’s the compilation, often for charity, often in commemoration of a thing. And there’s the free CDs that are glued with that strange adhesive jelly onto the cover of Mojo magazine.

But what they all have in common is I love them. I love bad cover versions; the more random and inappropriate, the better. It sorts out the men from the boys; the artists who can knock together something musically worthwhile at short notice versus the chancers who can’t even be bothered to work out the chords properly.

I heart them all, for all their oddness, for all their this-would-make-a-really-taxing-round-in-a-pop-quiz-ness. I wish the Radio 1’s Live Lounge compilations only included the covers; the rest, for me, is just chaff.

Here’s some favourites. You must seek them out!

Dubstar – Jealousy – on ‘Come Again’.
McAlmont & Butler – Back For Good – on ‘1 Love’
The Thompson Twins – Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – on ‘Red Hot & Blue’
The Divine Comedy – I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party – on ‘Twentieth Century Blues’
The Divine Comedy – There’s A Light That Never Goes Out - on ‘The Smiths Is Dead’
Wonderstuff – Coz I Luv You – on ‘Ruby Trax’
KT Tunstall – Let’s Stick Together – on ‘Radio 1 Established 1967’
Kate Bush – Rocket Man – on ‘Two Rooms’
Susannah Hoffs – Boys Keep Swinging – on ‘David Bowie Songbook’
Duffy – Live And Let Die – on ‘Heroes’
Future Bible Heroes – Don’t You Want Me – on ‘Reproductions’
The Scissor Sisters – Take Me Out – on ‘Radio 1 Live Lounge’
OMD – Whole Again – on ‘Liverpool Number Ones’
The Flaming Lips – Bohemian Rhapsody – on ‘Killer Queen’
Suede – Shipbuilding – on ‘The Help Album’
a-ha – #9 Dream – on ‘Instant Karma’
Claire Sweeney – Too Much Love Will Kill You – on ‘Claire’

Saturday, 28 March 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green

Part two of my Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith Doctor Who adventure Hothouse will be made available on the Big Finish website today. I look forward to reading what the response is; indeed, if there even is a response. Because, although I work on the principle that reviews aren’t important, I shouldn’t let them affect my personal happiness, I can’t help reading them. Although it’s too late to change anything, it’s still useful to know what went down well and what didn’t. To identify where your weaknesses may lie.

But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I won’t enter into discussions because I’ll look like a berk. I’m not saying that other authors who enter into discussions about their work look like berks, it’s just that if I did, I would.

That said, a Doctor Who website, Dr Who Online, has set up a ‘q & a’ section with me in their forum. My mugshot is now above Joe Lidster’s, which I feel must be significant. I’ve resisted doing these sort of things in the past but if it helps promote Big Finish and my work, I’m happy to oblige.

My reluctance stems partly from fear of coming across like a berk and partly from not being comfortable with the idea of ‘superfans’; of there being an ‘us’ and there being a ‘them’. I’d much rather be treated as an equal.

Anyway, Hothouse. To qualify a statement I gave in an interview somewhere, when I said I wanted it to feel like Spooks. I meant in terms of pace. Because radio is inherently a slow medium, and with Hothouse I was trying to avoid the syndrome of fade-out, music, fade-in, which means each scene change takes five seconds. I was trying to make it feel fast. That’s all.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Nazis 1994

The reason why I have little enthusiasm for political demonstrations is that a while ago, fifteen years ago, I went on a march with the Anti-Nazi League. I can’t remember what it was for specifically, although I’m guessing it was probably against Nazis. I remember, though, the main reason the members of our university Labour club had decided to go was that the Manic Street Preachers were giving a free concert at the end of the march.

Now, I’m not going to complain about the Socialist Workers who always hi-jack these demonstrations by distributing their placards. Well, I am going to complain, but I’m not going to complain any more than I have already in the previous sentence. I’m also not going to waste more than a sentence on expressing my irritation at the ‘Class War’ loons who, as far as I could tell, were basically a bunch of skinheads who wanted a fight and weren’t overly concerned about whether they were on the side of right or left.

But, in a way, that was the problem with the whole thing. I remember there were leaflets being handed out, about an East London bus driver who was a member of the BNP, saying he should be sacked. Now, I consider the BNP utterly repellent, but unless someone is somehow managing to drive a bus in a racist and bigoted manner, I don’t think they should be prohibited from doing so. As soon as you start persecuting ordinary people for their political beliefs... well, then you’re becoming as bad as the guys you’re protesting against.

They even had an effigy on stage. An effigy of a Nazi! To be mocked! As soon as I saw that, I thought, you can count me out.

And the Manic Street Preachers were rubbish.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The End

A while ago I said that ‘that’ is the worst word in the English language. The best word, on the other hand, is ‘end’. No other word gives me such pleasure to write. In bold. Underlined. At the end of a script, article or story.

Finishing a thing is an exhilarating feeling. I wouldn’t say there was actual adrenaline involved but I do get the urge to walk around the house for a bit and have a cup of tea to calm down. It’s the lifting of a huge weight off your shoulders – you did the thing, you can hand it in, it’s not going to be late and now you can move onto worrying about not being able to finish the next thing.

There’s a certain sense of satisfaction. Of having ascended the vertiginous summit – writing is a bit like climbing, and if you wish you can imagine me extending that metaphor further, but I won’t because I’d sound pretentious. But writing ‘The end’ is like sticking in your flag. From now on, it’s downhill ski-ing all the way.

It never is the end, though. Even before something is handed in it has to be wordcounted, spellchecked, formatted. I have to remember to number the pages and stick in headers and footers and titles. It has to be re-read, and re-read again, twiddled and tweaked. It has to go through the ‘that’ check.

And then it comes back with notes, for a second draft, a third draft, however many drafts. It ain’t over ‘til the editor is one hundred percent happy. Or dead.

As Winston Churchill once said; ‘This is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. But it’s the end of the beginning. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get pissed.’

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Hero time again. One of the greatest thespians of our age. The actor Ian McChin.

Now, techically speaking, I realise that isn’t his name. If you’re looking for him up in Spotlight, or typing his name into IMBD, you should use the name ‘Ian McNeice’. But in this house, and in any house in which I inhabit, he will always be known as Ian McChin. Because – and I can’t stress this too strongly – he has the most phenomenal double chin you will ever see.

I’m not mocking it. Quite the opposite. If, when I am his age, I have a double chin of similar size and consistency, I will consider my life to have been a life well-lived. There is no better way of emphasizing a dramatic statement than by accompanying it with a wibbly-wobbly second chin.

McChin’s been in loads of things, usually playing a Victorian gentlemen with gigantic sideburns – he’s brilliant in the BBC’s Harry Potterfield – but recently he’s moved towards playing ancient Romans. Well, let’s face it, when you look as good in a toga as he does, it’s a no-brainer. He was the regular highlight of Rome, playing the newsreader, vogue-ing his way through the events of the day in an historically authentic fashion.

The thing is, so few actors nowadays know how to be overweight properly. People aren’t fat now in the way they were in Victorian times. Back then, I’m guessing because of drinking port, men would develop spherical bellies whilst their legs remained spindly-thin. Like Mr Bumble, or Mr Pickwick, or Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Only Ian McChin and Richard Griffiths have shown true dedication by getting chubby in an historically correct manner.

He’s brilliant. More power to Ian McChin and his amazing double chin!

Next week: My other favourite actor, Michael Fenton-Vicars.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


A friend of mine has a book coming out. ‘The Noughtie Girl’s Guide To Feminism’. I shall have to buy it to find out if I’m mentioned, as I did go out with the author, for a bit. I hope so; I feel my conduct in that relationship would serve as a valuable warning lesson to womankind the world over.

I’m a die-hard, hard-line feminist. And not just because I want women to like me enough to take their clothes off. No. I actually had a bit of a think about it.

Take all the problems the world has. Global warming. Religious intolerance. Poverty. Pollution. Basically, there are too many people fighting over too few beans. If someone doesn’t have enough beans, they’ll blame the guy who has. I realise I am simplifying the problem, but in essence, that’s what it all boils down to. Lack of beans.

Now, resources are finite, and even with scientists being terribly clever, there is an upper limit to how much food can be grown in the world without seriously compromising the environment. Which means there has to be an upper limit to the number of people. And although I realise there are so many holes in Malthus’ argument you could dip it in chocolate and call it an Aero, his basic proposition is sound. All these problems stem from over-population.

But how do you solve over-population? Well, it’s a thing that in countries with something approaching sexual equality, where women have control over the number of children they have, the population is fairly stable, or even shrinking. Whereas in the countries without sexual equality, the population is increasing massively because the men think the purpose of women is to pop out babies.

That’s why Feminism is important. It will save the world.

Monday, 23 March 2009

In The Ghetto

Today, through the door, came a guide to Greenwich. Which was kind of wasted on me, because I already go to Greenwich very often. It’s one of the great benefits about living in Lewisham; it means you are very nearly living in Greenwich. Or Blackheath. It gives you a slight inferiority complex, though – rather like the people in Catford or New Cross must get from living near Lewisham. We look up to Greenwich, we look down on New Cross. Who looks up to New Cross? Tramps, probably.

It’s not all bad. About half-way up Loampit Hill, number 62 you have Mr Pink’s amazing technicolour house. He’s a little bit eccentric, and has chosen his own colour scheme. Mostly turquoise and salmon. It’s always being used for fashion shoots. It’s fantastic and should be a listed building.

A little further up the road, at 72 you have Bargain Junction, a junkyard which basically sells absolutely nothing anyone could ever need but what everyone really wants. Furniture, statues, gazebos. Life-size metal unicorns. If I had to nominate anywhere in London as a likely entrance to Narnia, it’d be this place. Either that or via the Ladies’ Toilets in the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden (though that probably leads to Diagon Alley).

New Cross itself, though, is a dive. Whenever I go through it, there’s always a couple of blokes having a fight at exactly the same place. Well, I say ‘fight’, but they never actually touch each other. Basically they prowl and swear, jabbing fingers and smashing lager bottles as their girlfriends pull them back shouting ‘Leave it Shane, he’s not worth it!’. They’ll even take their jackets off, for no reason other than they’ve seen people do it on television. It’s like watching two peacocks bickering over a peahen.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Just Got Back From Heaven

Went to see the pop group Sparks last night with my lovely friend Sue. As always with the Sparks boys, it was a great show. They played their new one, and the classic one they did with Georgio Moroder – Number One In Heaven, which sounded like the future then, and still sounds like the future now, that’s how far ahead of its time it was. Plus, unexpectedly, encores of Propaganda, At Home, At Work, At Play, B.C. and This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us.

Sparks are one of those bands that you either love, hate, like, dislike, or are entirely indifferent about. Throughout their career, they’ve written pop songs which sound like the sort of pop songs you’d expect someone to write if they’d read about pop music in a manual but had never actually heard any. It’s as if they’re trying to be incredibly commercial, whilst also choosing the strangest possible subject matter, playing fast and loose with time signatures and song construction grammar, and with Russell singing in a peculiar sliding falsetto which no-one else has ever successfully attempted (only Justin Hawkins coming close). They’ve basically ploughed their own course, starting out as a band which thought that the problem with glam rock was that it didn’t sound enough like Gilbert and Sullivan, and progressing via synthpop to their current idiom, which is hard to describe but involves endlessly multi-layered vocals, extreme dynamic shifts and taking repetition a little too far, then taking it even further. They’re massively influential; you can hear echoes of Sparks in everything from Queen to Erasure to The Smiths to the Franz Ferdinand boys. May they continue forever – Ron having found the secret of never growing any older, which is to start off by looking like you’re fifty.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Vegetable Man

Tonight, on the Big Finish site, they’re making the first episode of my new Doctor Who audio adventure, ‘Hothouse’, available for download. It’s available individually or as part of a subscription, where people buy a whole seasons’ worth of Doctor Who adventures, which strikes me as a very good deal when you bear in mind there’s a second adventure by me later in the run. Plus all sorts of marvellous stuff by Alan Barnes, Barnaby Edwards, Nick Briggs, Pat Mills and the he’s-almost-as-talented-as-me genius that is Eddie Robson.

Somewhere on my hard drive I’ve got the first outline for this story, back when it was called ‘Blooming Horrible’. I’ll stick it up on this blog after the story has come out on CD, give you all a fascinating insight into the creative process, or rather the process of how Alan, Barnaby and Nick helped me turn a not very good idea for a story into something much better.

I’m really rather excited about the whole thing. Fingers crossed the Big Finish servers don’t explode. The idea of having everyone listen to a thing more-or-less at once really adds an edge. And, having heard the finished play a couple of days ago, I think it’s turned out pretty well. There’s some very effective post-production in there, the cast navigate a course through the choppy waters of my dialogue, and I had a couple of tingly, ‘Now that is actually good’ moments. What, were you seriously expecting that I might slag it off? Of course there are things which are now glaringly apparent to me that I might’ve done better... but not as many as usual.

Part two will be up the same time next week. Please don’t download it illegally; if you want golden eggs, you gotta feed the goose.

Friday, 20 March 2009

I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No

Not all of the blogs I’ve written have appeared on this site. I also keep a word file of ‘Iffy blogs’; blogs I’ve written whilst in the throes of righteous anger or which turned out, upon reading back, to be a bit more harsh than I’d intended.

So that’s where my more contentious musings have gone. To be pondered over, considered and re-written. Because I’m acutely aware that anything written on the internet never goes away. Quite a lot of it never gets looked at, and never will, but it’s always there, never more than a google search away. So anything I write, I check over, thinking, ‘Could this come back to bite me on the bum in five, ten, twenty years time?’

Hence the positivity. The love you take is equal to the love you make and the smile that you send out returns to you.

It’s interesting, though, to think that in about ten years we’ll have a generation of adults who will have to spend the rest of their lives knowing that every adolescent flame-war on an internet forum has been preservered for posterity. Soon after that, there’ll be children looking up the arguments their parents had as children. Then grandchildren. And so on... until they all get bored.

And for the celebrities and politicians of the future, they will have their juvenile scribblings forever available to public scrutiny. In fact, everyone will be able to point and laugh at the foolishness of everyone else. It’ll be a great day for the human race when that happens. The internet – a recipe for world peace.

Kind of like my theory that the Third World War should not be conducted with nuclear weapons but as a continent-spanning Scrabble contest on Facebook.

Because that way, the English would win.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

To Germany With Love

Last night we watched The Good German on DVD. An odd experience.

It’s in black-and-white, which isn’t so unusual, but it’s also in 4:3 ratio, which hasn’t been used for films since the 50’s. It seems to be an exercise in trying to make a film that looks as though it was filmed in the 1940’s, so it utilizes back projections rather than green screen, has very static camerawork save for the occasional zoom, and everyone smokes all the time with half their face lost in shadow. Whilst gazing meaningfully into the far distance.

Which makes the modern aspects of the film so instrusive. There’s bonking and swearing and the sets are more extensive than anything you’d find in a 1940’s movie.

It had a pretty involved and involving story, but to be honest I missed most of it because so many of the shots were so beautifully lit I stopped listening to what the actors were saying. Which isn’t necessarily a sign of good direction. It was almost fetishising the cinematography at the expense of the storytelling; rather like the Doctor Who story The Leisure Hive. And at the end, where the film starts reproducing Casablanca shot-for-shot, you have to aks – why?

There’s an expression which goes ‘a good actor is never miscast’; bearing that in mind, Tobey Maguire was miscast as a shifty, creepy, arrogant young soldier, as he doesn’t seem to have any of those adjectives in his repertoire.

In the end, it felt as though the director had wanted to do a film ‘noir’ and cast around for a pre-existing script – because the style he adopted doesn’t serve the material. There’s no reason why this film had to look ‘1940’s except in a vain attempt to show off and draw the attention of award committees.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

It's Too Late

Have you heard of the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo? He must be one of the unluckiest people in history. His story goes something like this:


LEONCAVALLO is hard at work, composing, scribbling ideas on sheet music.

There’s a knock at the door.


It’s his friend MARIO.

MARIO: Ruggero!

LEONCAVALLO: What’s the matter, my old friend? You look as if you’ve heard some bad news.

MARIO: Bad-ish.


MARIO: How are you, anyway? How’s Mrs Leoncavallo keeping? You know, we don’t go out for a drink as often as we should, you and me...

LEONCAVALLO: If you have some bad news, just come out and say it.

MARIO: You know how you’ve been writing this opera thing for a couple of years now?


MARIO: And it’s based on the novel La Vie De Boheme, by Henry Murger.


MARIO: Has it been going well at all?

LEONCAVALLO: It has been a struggle, a titanic effort of will, but at last, after devoting my every waking moment to it for the past two years, the end is in sight. I feel, at last, this could be my ticket to the big time. This could be the one that really gets me noticed. The story is very ‘now’.

MARIO: Right.

LEONCAVALLO: Only last night, I came up with a title. It shall be called – 'La Boheme'!

MARIO: Yes. That’s the thing, you see.

MARIO unrolls a bill poster:


LEONCAVALLO: Tits! Tits! Tits!

This story is particularly ironic because Leoncavallo had already got in trouble for ripping-off someone else’s libretto for his Pagliacci, which, unlike his La Boheme, is still performed today.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Attention To Me

Hands up, everybody here who hates audience participation?

I can’t stand it. It chills me to the core. Whenever I hear those fateful words, ‘Let’s have the house lights up’, or where the comedian on stage starts asking people in the front row what they do and where they come from, my heart sinks with dread. I get sweaty palms and a pounding heartbeat. ‘Oh dear God,’ I pray – which, as an atheist, gives you some idea of the degree of my discomfort – ‘Oh dear God, please don’t let the person on stage pick me.’

I don’t want my theatrical or comedy experiences to be interactive. I want to sit there, eat my Maltesers, laugh at the funny bits, clap at the end, then go home without having had to engage in spontenaous banter with someone who is deliberately mis-hearing what I say for ‘comic’ effect. I didn’t pay my ten quid or whatever to be publically humiliated, I paid my ten quid or whatever to be entertained. In as passive a way as possible.

It’s why you would have to attach electrodes to my nipples to get me to go to a pantomime. And once you’d got me there, you’d have to stick 1000 volts through those electrodes to get me to enjoy it. I mean, I have friends who write and perform in pantos, I’m sure they’re excellent, but they’re not for me. I’m willing, at a push, to clap in time to something, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

But if the people on stage start talking to the audience – then you should talk back at them. Heckle them mercilessly. Take the piss out of their clothes and haircut. Ask them what they do and where they came from. Because they started the bloody conversation.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Ergon Threat

The other night, I was watching the Doctor Who story ‘Castrovalva’. Nothing unusual in that – I’d just watched ‘Arc of Infinity’ and found it surprisingly enjoyable, as I was drunk and shouting out ‘Impulse laser?’ whenever anyone got shot, applauding Colin Frazer’s luminous lime-green socks, and rewinding the tape to enjoy again and again Colin Baker’s attempts to steal every scene with his indignantly flared nostrils – but something struck me that had never struck me before.

Well, several things struck me. I’d never noticed how little happens in Castrovavla part two. Really, it has to be the least consequential episode of Doctor Who ever. All that happens is that a) Tegan pushes a button on the console which sorts out the previous episode’s cliff-hanger and b) Nyssa unscrews some doors. That’s it. Oh, and there’s a walk through some woods which seems to go on forever.

But what also struck me was the use of the word ‘must’. Everyone was saying it. ‘I must find the Doctor’. ‘We must do something!’ ‘The Master must be stopped!’ And it struck me because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the word ‘must’ in real-life. It’s a real science-fiction word, isn’t it? ‘Must’. It lends a sense of purpose, of determination, to even the most ordinary action. I must do that thing, because that is the thing that I must do.

It’s one of those odd things in science fiction. Everyone talks in a sort of stilted, formal fashion, as though the dialogue has been translated. As Stephen Gallagher once pointed out, people in Doctor Who will never say ‘They’re think we’re stupid’ if they can say ‘They think us fools’ instead.

And they’ll never say ‘I’ve made you lunch’. They’ll say ‘I’ve appropriated you some comestibles’.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

I Write Sins Not Tragedies

I didn’t start this blog to give writing tips. What the hell do I know about writing? Apart from my top tip about how to find and replace instances of double full-stops, virtually nothing. All I know is that if I’m finding I’m difficult I’m probably doing something right, and I have enough understanding of technique to realise that it’s not a good idea to rely upon understanding of technique. Experience is only useful if you’re doing the same thing again; something which, in writing, you’re always doing your best to avoid.

But – just for the sake of balance – here are some what-not-to-dos. To be precise, these are my own worst, bad, writing habits. Which include, as demonstrated in the previous sentence, an over-use of commas and a tic which means I will always, always use two adjectives where one would do; I also have a tendency to add semi-colon clauses at the end of sentences when I’m not even sure what semi-colons are for. And, of course, I like to stick in redundant words and phrases like ‘of course’, ‘well’, ‘however’ and so on.

I have a real, borderline OCD, problem with word counts. If I’ve been asked to write 1000 words for a thing, I’ll write 1000 words. Exactly. Not 999, not 1001, and certainly not 998 or 1002. I think it’s an obsession borne out of my editing discipline; I’ll always over-write and then edit down to a precise target figure.

I also have a serious hang-up about line breaks and page breaks. I’ll rephrase sentences to avoid them. In scripts, this can be important – you want it to be the right number of pages – but I simply can’t bear to see one word hanging over at the end of a paragraph. It just looks untidy.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Odessey And Oracle

If you’re a fan of 60’s music, you’ll know the oh-so-familiar roll-call of the classic albums of the psychedelic era; The Beatle’s Revolver, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Nothing by The Rolling Stones or The Who. Oh, and there’s Love’s Forever Changes, but that only has one decent song on it. Plus, at a push, The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, The Small Faces’ Ogden's Nutgone Flake and the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past.

But there’s another one – an album as good as Revolver and Pet Sounds. An album which solves that perennial problem – you want to listen to an album like Revolver but you’re a little bit tired of listening to Revolver itself.

Well, you should seek out Odessey And Oracle by The Zombies, the classic psychedelic album that time forgot. It didn’t do very well at the time and has still never received the claim it deserves. Because, despite the spelling mistake in the title, it is seriously pukka.

It opens with Care Of Cell 44, a song which would’ve been a hit had it not been a love song about a girl writing to her convict boyfriend. A Rose For Emily has a beautiful, For No One-ish melody. Changes is I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Syd. This Will Be Our Year should be the most famous song of the 60’s – simply, catchy and touching. And there’s Time Of The Season, which was almost a hit thanks to having percussion which sounds like a table-tennis tournament. Plus seven other great pop songs. The only dud – the obligatory crap track that’s found on every classic album – is the Butcher’s Tale; I’m guessing, what with it being the 50th anniversary, The Great War was very zietgeisty around then.

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Day Before You Came

ABBA’s The Day Before You Came is something of a puzzle. It’s a great song but one which poses an inscrutable mystery. I’ll explain.

The singer leaves her house at 8am as usual. Her train leaves the station just when it is due, she reads the morning paper, frowns at the editorial and makes her desk at 9.15am (approximately). Having read some letters and signed heaps of papers, she then goes to lunch at 12.30pm (approximately).

At 2.30pm she lights her 7th cigarette of the day. Having dragged through the business of the day, she leaves work at 5pm (without exception). She gets the train home, reading the evening paper en route (possibly frowning at the editorial a second time).

At 8pm (approximately) she arrives home, having stopped along the way to pick up some Chinese food (to go). She then eats this while watching Dallas on TV (she has never missed an episode). She goes to bed at 10.15pm (approximately) and reads a book by Marylin French* (or something in that style) for a while before turning out the light and going to sleep.

The inconsistency may not appear immediately obvious. You may worry that if the singer is on her 7th cigarette by 2.30pm then she’s got a 20-a-day habit, but for all we know she only lights the cigarettes and doesn’t smoke them.

The problem lies with her commute into town. On the way in it takes one hour fifteen minutes. On the way back, it takes three hours! Even allowing for stopping along the way to pick up some Chinese food to go, there’s a serious time discrepancy there. What does she do with the missing two hours?

Answer: She has a two-hour commute – which crosses an international date-line!

* Or Barbara Cartland (Blancmange version)

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Ugly Duckling

As a challenge to myself, I thought I’d try blogging about random subjects, plucked from the recesses of my mental dictionary. After all, I have an opinion to give on anything. So today’s subject, chosen at random, is... ducks.

It must be odd being a duck. Because, as everyone knows, while ducks appear, to the casual riverside observer, to glide smoothly and effortlessly through the water, if you were to watch them from beneath, you’d see a couple of clumsy webbed feet flapping about in a mad panic.

Which makes me wonder. Do ducks realise that other ducks have the same problems getting through the water as they do? Or do they look at the other ducks and think, ‘Blimey. All the other ducks seem to find this swimming lark really easy. Maybe I’m the only one who has to really work at it?’

Maybe all ducks feel that way. Maybe they all have inferiority complexes, that they are the only duck in the world that finds it difficult to go upstream? Maybe they quietly quack themselves to sleep at night, hoping that tomrorrow will be the day when they find the whole having-to-be-a-duck business as simple as all the other ducks make it appear?

You could probably spot my point when it was a mile off. It’s fast approaching, it’s getting closer, and now here it is; it’s also what it’s like being a human. In a way, aren’t we all ducks, secretly, deep down? Everyone trying really hard to make their exertions look as effortless as everyone else’s? Aren’t all of us trying to hide our clumsy, flapping webbed feet, desperately struggling to give the impression that we’re gliding along without a care in the world?

Or is it just me?

Okay. It is just me.


Wednesday, 11 March 2009

(Remember The Days Of The) Old School Yard

It’s a cliché that comedians were bullied at school, and developed an ability to tell jokes as a defence mechanism. Though this doesn’t seem to bear close scrutiny; quite a lot of other people were bullied at school who didn’t end up as comedians. I was bullied, and as a defence mechanism I wrote the jokes for the class comedian – that’s how I became a writer.

But the reason why I don’t like stand-up comedy – by which I mean the sort of stuff you get in the comedy-chain clubs – is that if the cliché about comedians being the victims of bullying was true once, it certainly isn’t now. Because it seems to me that a lot of comedians nowadays were the school bullies.

I’m not talking about the great, original stand-ups here. I’m not even talking about the mediocre ones. I’m talking about the ones who don’t bother to write material, but instead base their act on picking on members of the audience.

Again, this can be done well. Al Murray is fantastic at it. But more often than not, it’s like being back in the playground; teasing people about their clothes, their haircuts, for looking like famous people, for being overweight. Nicking the speccy kid’s glasses and trying them on. Attempting to grope the girls and accusing them of not having a sense of humour if they don’t appreciate it. Making the audience laugh not out of empathy, but out of intimidation. Laughing only because they’re glad not to be one who’s being picked on.

It’s lazy, it’s mean-spirited, it’s aggressive, it’s macho, and it’s incredibly dull to have to sit through. If you’ve paid a tenner or whatever for a show, at the very least you expect the comedian to bother to have worked out an act.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Video Killed The Radio Star

Discussion going on over on the Guardian Media website, regarding PRS withdrawing permission for YouTube to show pop videos, because YouTube don’t want to pay the same royalty rate as everyone else on the internet.

As you might expect, there’s quite a few posts which can be summarised as, ‘Wah wah wah, “the man” wants to take my free content away, wah wah wah’. I won’t bother to address that argument, except to say that if any party is “the man” in this equation, it’s YouTube, not the PRS.

Other arguments. ‘The musician doesn’t get any of the money PRS collects’. Well, they get about fifty per-cent – and they’d get considerably more if companies like YouTube didn’t make the collection process so expensive. The fact that the royalty rate is scandalously small – an artist will be lucky to get enough money to buy a stamp from their video appearing on YouTube – doesn’t justify depriving them of what little they do receive.

But pop videos are just loss-leader advertisements for CDs, right? The PRS should pay YouTube for hosting it’s adverts! Wrong. Pop videos are as much a product as the music; more so, now there are no pop music shows on terrestrial TV and MTV became all about programmes about rappers doing up their cars and showing us around their mansions. You can buy pop videos on iTunes, you can buy DVDs. And, as anyone looking for the Virgin Megastore on Tottenham Court Road will realise, CD sales aren’t exactly booming right now – despite all the ‘free advertising’ they are supposedly getting from YouTube.

Final argument. ‘It’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’. Which, if you think about it, is also a compelling argument for abandoning every murder investigation if they haven't immediately discovered the culprit.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Take That And Party

‘That’ is the most annoying word in the English language that I know. It creeps redundantly into sentences that would manage perfectly well without it; the previous sentence, for instance, has an entirely pointless ‘that’ before ‘I know.

Whenever I’ve finished writing something, it’s time for the ‘that’ check. Find every ‘that’ in the document and decide whether it is strictly necessary. If it isn’t, remove it. And then search for all the ‘and then’s to see if they can be replaced with ‘and’s or ‘then’s or can be removed altogether.

Then check for double blank spaces; find ‘ ’, replace ‘ ’. Then check for two full stops – you do this by finding and replacing all the ellipses with something like ‘***BANANA’, then find ‘..’, replace ‘.’ to get rid of all the double full stops, before doing a find ‘***BANANA’ and replace ‘...’ to get all your ellipses back.

There, that’s a top writing tip for you. What else? Well, rewrite all the sentences which I’ve started with ‘well’, for a start. And all the ones I’ve ended with ‘for a start’. Seek, locate and destroy other useless linking words and phrases like ‘however’, ‘though’ and ‘of course’. If I’m writing prose, I'll also get rid of as many adverbs as possible and delete words like ‘almost’, ‘fairly’, ‘nearly’ and ‘quite’ – things either are a thing, or they are not a thing, there’s no such thing as 'almost'.

But what I really want is a gizmo on Word which checks for the accidental over-use of certain words. For example, if you were writing a scary story, you could end up using the word ‘dark’ three or four times a page without realising it. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make such a gizmo.

So why doesn’t it exist?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Flag Day

As a follow-up to my last post about Comic Relief, I’d like to take this opportunity to completely contradict myself. You see, despite everything I previously wrote being what I sort-of believe, I still support Comic Relief. I watch it, I buy the CDs, I donate more money than I can afford. If they ever asked me to write for it I’d be looking down on the moon.

Several reasons why. Firstly, many of the things done in the name of Comic Relief are of such high quality – such as Moffat’s Doctor Who sketch – that it would be ungrateful not to phone in and add to my credit card debt. Secondly, a lot of people I admire and respect are involved; not just comedians, but writers, producers... all working for no money, without cynicism or self-regard. I genuinely believe that. I wouldn’t say that applies to every single person involved with Comic Relief, but the exceptions are very much in the exception.

Thirdly, or fourthly, or whatever number I’m up to now, when Comic Relief started it was as an alternative to things like Children In Need, where charity was a head-patting, patronising, Blue Peter-type of gesture; portraying those in need as ‘victims’ requiring our ‘pity’. Comic Relief didn’t do that; I remember Griff Rhys Jones’ remarkable film about disability not being a matter of charity, but of campaigning for equality; they even used The Housemartins’ ‘Flag Day’ as backing music.

And whilst the African babies with flies on their eyelids still get the headlines, what’s really admirable about Comic Relief is that it gives money to ‘unsexy’ causes which would otherwise find it hard to get a public profile, such as those for reformed drug addicts or those who have suffered domestic abuse.

So ignore that last post.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Guilty Conscience

I’m in two minds about charity, Children In Need, Comic Relief...

Mind one. Growing up as a hard-core leftie, gleaning my politics from The Housemartins' lyrics, I don’t like the idea of charity. If there are people in need they should be helped by the state, funded through taxation. That’s the most efficient way of doing things and it means everyone gives their fair share.

Because with charity, people don’t give their fair share. They give the least they can possibly afford. The poorest people, proportionally, give the most. The whole process of fund-raising is expensive and wasteful; money which could be better spent.

There’s also the argument that if a charity is fulfilling a need – say, providing care for the elderly – then that absolves the state of their responsibility to provide that service instead and actually makes things worse. I’m not sure it works like that, but it’s a persuasive argument.

However – mind two - funding things through direct taxation doesn’t make people feel better. Which might sound like cynicism, but it’s not. People need to do good. It’s part of being human. If we see someone suffering our first, most fundamental, human impulse is to help. Only the most cold-hearted self-regarding misanthrope could resist that impulse because they believe they’re already ‘doing their bit’ through paying their taxes. So, as with the Gaza thing, people should be given the opportunity to help.

Problem is, with some of these things, the event seems to come first and the good cause second. It’s all about giving people an opportunity to salve their consciences while where the money goes is an afterthought. Like the joke that somebody made about the 20th anniversay Band Aid single – isn’t it convenient that there happens to be another famine exactly 20 years after the last one?

Friday, 6 March 2009

I Love You (But You're Boring)

Whenever I’m deciding which CD to listen to – a fraught, complex and painstaking process – there are always certain CDs I skip. It’s odd. They’re like blind spots. Albums which I’ve bought, usually out of completism, but which I never seem to get round to listening.

A lot if it is arse-end of Britpop stuff; Blur’s last album, the Tears album, Ian Broudie’s solo album, Jarvis Cocker’s solo album. I think I’ve listened to each of them a maximum of once, and they made so little impression on me, I’ve never been able to summon up the enthusiasm to given them a second try. I think I did, once, manage to give Suede’s final album a second try, but to be honest I’d rather just listen to their earlier b-sides for the squillionth time. I also haven’t managed to listen to Oasis’ one-before-last album all the way through; until I have I’m not allowed to buy their latest one.

There’s also synthpop stuff. The Human League’s Romantic?, which still has its ‘£1’ sticker on the front. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get more than twenty seconds into any of the tracks on it; the incredibly tacky production and instrumentation always puts me off. The same goes for a lot of Sparks’ 80’s stuff – I’d probably quite enjoy it if I could get past all the Casio synthesizers.

There’s other stuff. Paul Simon’s last album, which I remember enjoying, but which suffers the great misfortune of not having been recorded during the 1970’s. And the last Magnetic Fields album, Distortion. I love the Maggies, but boy oh boy it was a disappointment. Potentially great songs that sound like they were recorded inside a giant bucket.

One day I’ll get round to listening to all these albums. But... not today.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

King For A Day

Today was spent in a recording studio in north London, not far from where I used to work. But where Mute Records once proudly stood, there are now luxury flats. Such is our booming economy. So the greenhouse/cryogenic chamber which was the EIS/Mute Bank office is now no more. Still, happy memories; I’ll never forget the day the Mute window display caught fire.

Nostalgic digressions aside, today saw the recording of The Glorious Revolution. It went very smoothly indeed – a tribute to the direction of Nigel Fairs, the producership of David Richardson, and the great cast. I think – I hope – it’ll go down well. There were a few goose-pimply moments in there.

Usually with these things I sit in with the director. Not to tell them what to do, but just to occasionally make pained noises whenever an actor misses a word out of the script. And maybe, very rarely, to ask for something to be re-taken; though I treat this privilege like playing a joker, you can only do it once or twice so you’d better make sure you choose your moment wisely.

For the interview thing at the end, I got to stand in one of the booths. This was very exciting for me. I’m easily excited like that – stand me in a booth, and I’m as happy as a sand-boy. Which, despite what I thought for at least 20 years due to mishearing the last word, isn’t a racist expression. It was interesting to see the studio as the actors see it; just as the director can barely see the actors through his window, the actors can barely see the director. Instead, they’re all looking towards an untidy shelf full of bits of recording equipment. But such is the magic of audio, no-one would ever know.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


Tomorrow, very exciting, all being well, I’ll be at the recording of my next Big Finish Doctor Who thing. It’s a Companion Chronicle – a sort of half-way house between a first-person narration and a two-handed play – for Frazer Hines, playing the Doctor’s companion Jamie McCrimmon. For those who don’t know, Jamie travelled in the TARDIS with the Patrick Troughton Doctor Who in the 1960’s, when it was in black and white and every space station looked like it had been made out of balsa wood.

The story’s entitled The Glorious Revolution and anyone with access to Google can type that in and get a rough idea of what it’s about. It’s what’s known as a ‘pure historical’ adventure, not something I’ve ever written before, partly because they’re more difficult in terms of coming up with plots, but mainly because setting a story in history means having to do some actual research. My previous Companion Chronicle, The Great Space Elevator, was all about evoking the feel of the TV show; this one is attempting something a little different.

It’s always very exciting seeing or hearing professional actors bringing your script to life and making you look good, but I’ve been particularly looking forward to this one because – to toot my own trumpet – I think this is one of my better efforts and because Frazer Hines did such a phenomenal job on his previous Companion Chronicle, Helicon Prime. I would recommend it to you but I’d rather you saved your cash and bought my one instead. See for details.

Going to recordings, as a writer, means a day spent sitting around like a spare (but very happy) lemon. Occasionally someone might ask you what a line might mean, but if you’ve done your job properly, that won’t happen very often.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Play The Game

I couldn’t help laughing at the news that the Corpus Christi team had been disqualified from University Challenge. That said, they was nowhere near as smug and annoying as the captain of the Manchester team, who would lean back in his chair and sneer when he got an answer right and give his team mates patronising shoulder-pats when they got an answer right for him.

The real humour lies, though, in the BBC’s culture of apology. Ever since Greg Dyke left, the corporation’s first instinct, in face of adversity, is to shoot itself in both feet – and attempt to back-pedal. It fights the wrong battles and blames the wrong people; Richard Marson should never have been sacked from Blue Peter.

It’s solution to its troubles is to send its employees on ever more courses on ethics and compliance, when the real problem is that some of those high-up in the BBC have no background in programme-making and seem to think that management is all about denial and equivocation rather than sticking by the poor sods who actually make the programmes.

I saw University Challenge being recorded once. They did two shows a day, and in the match between the teams I hadn’t come to see, both teams were so dim that there’d be longeurs where half a dozen or more questions would go unanswered in a row. Jeremy Paxman’s solution was to tell the director to wind back the clock and cut out the boring bits. Television fakery – or making an entertaining game show?

That said, when I appeared on Crackerjack, all those years ago, I cheated. When asked ‘what would you buy in a box office?’ I answered ‘boxes’.

But there was a camera fault and the round had to be re-shot – whereupon I gave the correct answer.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Just Can't Get Enough

One of my favourite songs of all time would have to be Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough written by my mate Vince Clarke. That clanging you heard just then was a namedrop, apologies. It’s a fantastic piece of songwriting; the sort of direct, catchy song you can only write when you only know four chords and haven’t worked out what the black notes on the keyboard are for. The lyrics are daft but universal and the arrangement is simply heart-racing.

I just can’t get enough of Just Can’t Get Enough. Here’s a top ten of the different versions – when I was at Mute, a new ‘Eurodisco’ cover version would materialise in the office on roughly a weekly basis.

1. Depeche Mode’s version from Speak And Spell. Definitive.

2. Erasure’s version, from An Evening With Erasure. Maybe not the greatest recording ever – it’s direct off a front-of-house – but some lovely memories.

3. Depeche Mode’s 12” Schizo Mix. Like the classic Denton and Cook theme to Tomorrow’s World.

4. The Saturdays’ version. A faux Xenomania update of the original with Hill’s Angels dance routines in the video. A guilty pleasure? No. I have no shame.

5. The Wannadies, off Might Be Stars EP. Muppet grunge version. Hilarious.

6. Depeche Mode’s live version. The classic, but rockier, more industrial, with Dave’s voice improved by thirty-odd years of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.

7. Nouvelle Vague, off Nouvelle Vague. The kooky one from the adverts.

8. Sam Walker’s version. I suspect there may be a gay subtext to this video.

9. Balanescu Quartet, unreleased. These guys did a great album of Kraftwerk covers. And the theme to University Challenge.

10. Suede’s version, off Head Music. They completely ignore the lyrics and tune; they might as well have written an entirely different song altogether.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Because You're So Sweet

The facts are these. Pushing Daisies is my favourite show at the moment. It’s incredibly well-written and nothing like anything that’s ever been on TV before.

If you haven’t seen it, that places you in the overwhelming majority. It’s a sort-of twisted comedy detective show, but don’t let that put you off, the detective show element is the least interesting thing about it.

What is interesting is the premise – the lead character, Ned, can bring dead people back to life by touching them – until he touches them a second time. If he doesn’t do that, then somebody else in the vicinity dies. It’s a beautifully simple premise which turns out to be an ingenious plot machine.

Even more interestingly, is the look of the show. It’s been described as ‘Tim Burton-esque’; it’s like a child’s storybook. Everything is vividly colourful and larger-than-life. The design is deliberately anachronistic. And it’s all narrated by Jim Dale, famous in the UK for hanging off a rooftop by Barbara Windsor’s brassiere, famous in the USA for being the voice of Harry Potter.

The cartoon-esque feel is continued into the characters; not only do they have alliterate names and oddball quirks, they even look like caricatures. Lee Pace has expressive, doleful eyebrows. Anna Friel is winsomeness turned up to eleven. Chi McBride is lugubriousity personified. Kirsten Chenoworth is a force of nature; big teeth, big tits and big attitude.

ITV famously skipped the second episode; a shame, because it’s an excellent episode, working both as a second introduction whilst furthering the premise. I imagine they felt they’d been sold a pup; by the time they started showing it, the first series had been prematurely curtailed and the second was very much in doubt. Fingers crossed they keep on showing it to the bitter end.