The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Death And Night And Blood


Watched 28 Weeks Later last night, the sequel to 28 Days Later. It was great fun. A little bit scary, a little too gruesome, but brilliantly suspenseful.

Robert Carlyle gave one of his better performances. He’s a brilliant actor but for much of his recent movie/TV movie career he’s been suffering some hacky but no doubt lucrative scripts; the problem is, even the best actor delivering clunky, Dan Brown-esque dialogue is going to come across like a bad actor. So it was good to see him reunited with Danny Boyle; 28 Weeks Later’s script isn’t quite as breathtakingly dynamic as its predecessor but is nevertheless a damn fine piece of work in its own right.

If you threatened to set a rage-infected person on me if I didn’t find something to quibble about, my few quibbles would be that the day-for-night sequences didn’t convince (looking like an over-compressed DVD) and that, like all horror movies, occasionally the plot requires people to do some really stupid things. Usually it’s walking in a sleeping gown through the graveyard after midnight, or playing the videotape just to check whether the stories about everyone who plays the videotape dying one week afterwards are true; in 28 Weeks Later it’s someone breaking quarantine because they’ve not considered the possibility of an asymptomatic carrier; of the US military not installing CCTV in their quarantine chambers; and, one for all the east Londoners, the US military sealing off all routes of escape from the Isle of Dogs but forgetting about the Greenwich foot tunnel.

That was quite exciting. Zombies on my jogging route. Next time I go for a jog, I shall imagine a horde of wild-eyed gibbering monsters chasing me, and will run just a little bit faster. And the person in front of me will run just a little bit faster to get away from me.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Space Oddity


Just finished ‘Phase Space’, a short story collection by science fiction author Stephen ‘The Time Ships’ Baxter. It loosely ties in with his ‘Manifold’ trilogy of books, consisting of the excellent, mind-expanding ‘Time’ and ‘Space’ and the bewilderingly dull ‘Origin’.

Looking back at the list of titles, the stories that have stuck with me most are two in the ‘Earth’ section; ‘Glass Earth Inc’, a story about a policeman investigating crime in a futuristic London where an overwhelming noise-to-signal ratio of advertising means that everyone has artificial-intelligence filters on their perception, and ‘Dante Dreams’, a strange tale of resurrected computer simulations and the Vatican suppressing Dante’s ideas about a God-like super-intelligence working four-dimensionally within human genes. And as you might guess from that explanation, I didn’t entirely understand it.

Another good one was ‘Huddle’, about humans having devolved into walrus-like creatures (I think Terry Nation did something similar for a Dalek annual once). Many of the stories pose potential solutions to the Fermi paradox – the contradiction between the supposed likelihood of intelligent alien races and their apparent absence – with a few stories about people discovering ways of ‘crashing’ the virtual-reality simulation in which they are living, like in Tomb Raider where you can mess up the game by standing on a certain ledge.

Less interesting for me were the numerous stories of alternative histories and futures for NASA exploration; there’s a good one about the Russians being blamed for an Apollo mission going wrong ‘War Birds’. And the ones which didn’t do so much for me were all about nebulous beings composed of living plasma or gas called things like Sunbeam or Naughtyglow. Apparently in the future that’s what humanity will become; swirling eddies of information whirling through a universe where the lights are slowing going out.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Slide Away


So Noel Gallagher has quit Oasis. This doesn’t bother me very much, as I quit Oasis two albums ago. I do have a copy of their second-to-latest album, Don’t Believe The Truth, but I’ve never listened to it all the way through and haven’t imported it into iTunes.

Oasis used to be so good. For the first few years of their career, their albums were fantastic, and they released so many fantastic b-sides it was like we were back to the sixties with a band releasing two albums’ worth of top-notch material every year. I would make a list but you’d want to hit me with a ladle.

But then there was that difficult third album – which actually was a reasonably fine album, albeit with some waffly guitar solos and all the self-discipline of a pampered cat, hyped to oblivion and mastered to the point of unlistenability – followed by the even more difficult fourth album, the extremely difficult fifth album, and the well-nigh impossible sixth album.

The tragedy is that Noel used up all his great songs on those early b-sides until he had nothing left in the back of the songwriting drawer. There’s nothing on their recent albums that compares with what they were throwing away ten years ago. Because he’s now down to two or three songs a year – with Oasis no longer ripping off the Beatles and the Stones, but ripping off earlier Oasis songs – and with regard to the other band member’s songs, if it ain’t by Noel it ain’t Oasis.

I met Noel Gallagher once. He was coming out of the toilets downstairs at the Fitzroy Tavern. I was very drunk so I told him how great I thought he was and shook his hand. It was damp. Hopefully because he’d washed it.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Hopeless


There’s a demonstration on my jogging route. ‘Capitalism Is Crisis’, the banner reads. A couple of hundred people deciding to spend the weekend camping out on Blackheath. Well, the Beachdown Music Festival has been called off, so next best thing.

What’s my problem with people demonstrating? After all, unfettered capitalism is clearly not a force for good, so why shouldn’t they take a stand?

Except... if you’re taking a stand, it helps if it isn’t completely futile. That’s the difference, the crucial difference. The mass demonstrations of the seventies at least had a purpose, a link between cause and effect; they might not have influenced the government of the day, but they demonstrated support behind the unions, that there was a constituency out there to be won.

But if you’re taking a futile stand, if you’re attempting to reverse the direction of the wind by pissing into it, what is the point? These protestors might as well be holding the protest virtually by forming a Facebook group, for all the difference it will make, because there are so pitifilly few of them, their cause is so nebulous, their goals so abstract.

So the cynic in me makes me question their motives. This isn’t about making a difference; it’s about being seen vainly attempting to make a difference. It’s about consciences being salved. Often, one suspects, middle-class, privately-educated consciences. Railing against mummy and daddy.

And, like all lefties, there’s nothing I hate more than other fair-weather lefties and trust-funded extremists giving democratic socialism a bad name. The idea is to make capitalism work for humanity rather than against it; it’s a necessary social mechanism, ever since the first hunter decided to become a gatherer. The alternative is that we all go and live in the woods and eat twigs.

(Plus, of course, they're protesting about the wrong thing; it's not capitalism that causes climate change, it's overpopulation.)

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Wedding March


Sorry I’ve been away for a couple of days. I’ll go back and fill in yesterday’s and yesteryesterday’s blogs with some nonsense after I’ve written this one. Basically, I had a thing which was overdue, and I wasn’t going to waste time writing blogs until it was down and delivered.

Random thought. Always hearing about TV fakery, yet they never mention the breakfast TV (or local news) convention of a reporter going to a school at about 7.30 in the morning to discover a room of pupils doing an activity; or they’ll be in a field with some kids learning about worms or whatever. I know, you know, everyone knows that it’s all put on for the benefit of the TV crew. Still winds me up though; it’s so naff and patronising.

Yesterday was the run-through of the wedding, making sure the venue is still in the same place, making sure there’s breathable oxygen in the atmosphere, making sure there are no man-traps on the dance floor, that sort of thing. What’s so stressful about weddings, above and beyond any other sort of event organisation, is that the goal is to end up with an occasion which runs so smoothly the organizers have nothing to do on the day but enjoy the ride. When, with any other sort of event, the organizers would expect to have to do a bit of last-minute trouble-shooting. It’s that element of precariousness which is the problem. But things will go wrong, it’s inevitable, but nothing significant, and so long as me and my girl are there to do the ‘I doing’ that’s all that matters.

And then we have a big party to celebrate – not so much celebrating having got married as celebrating not having to worry about the wedding any more.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Madcap Laughs


Canned laughter can be a freaky thing. A rush of laughter which hasn’t been solicited; there’s something sinister about it, not being in on the joke, and the artificial parody of a warm human response.

Music list time. Songs which contain canned laughter or audience cheering!

1)

The Beatles – Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not sure if it was the intention for it to be so eerie, but it is. Particularly at about 48 seconds in. There’s also that brief snort of giggling after Within You Without You, because George was under the impression all the songs would have an audience.

2)

Erasure – Love To Hate You. Has taped applause at the beginning to give it that ‘live performance’ excitement. It’s present elsewhere in the track, and one theory has it that the crowd are chanting ‘love’ and ‘hate’. I’m unconvinced.

3)


The Monkees – Listen To The Band. What’s weird about this Mike Nesmith country and western number – which is brilliant, by the way – is that the fake audience only turns up right at the end. Rather an unsettling effect.

4)

XTC – The Loving. Would probably have been included on the Love Actually soundtrack if it wasn’t for the annoying canned cheering at the beginning. Oi, bumpkins – no!

5)

David Bowie – Diamond Dogs. ‘This ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide!’ Now that’s how you start a track. The peopleoids of hunger city having a knees-up, having put on their best leg warmers (formerly shiny silver foxes).

6)

KLF – 3 AM Eternal. It was a thing in the early 90’s. The whole album’s a fake concert.

7)

Pulp – Sorted For E’s And Wizz – not really recorded at a music festival.

8)

Pet Shop Boys – Where The Streets Have No Name. There they go again, ripping off Erasure pre-emptively.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Always Asking Questions


I have a problem with Question Intonation. It bugs me. It’s nothing to do with class or accent; it’s just that it gives me confused signals, because I still associate it with someone vocalising uncertainty. Or speaking ironically, or parenthetically. To my ears, it makes the speaker sound insecure, hesitant and stupid. It’s as if they’re constantly asking for reassurance that they’re saying the right thing, for positive feedback. Rather like saying ‘You know?’ all the time, or ‘D’you know what I mean?’ or ‘D’you hear what I’m saying?’

If I may indulge the old fart in me for a paragraph, maybe it has something to do with premature deafness. Maybe we are seeing the first casualties of the Loudness War, of mp3 players which go up so loud you could still hear the hi-hat if your head was stuck up the exhaust pipe of a harrier jump jet. Maybe that’s why people sound like they are soliciting nods of comprehension - because they can’t hear their own voices. They’re checking whether ‘d’you hear what I’m saying’ because they can’t.

Even more annoying, though, is the word of the decade. ‘Meh’. Oh, it drives me nuts. It’s supposed to indicate a sort-of non-commital indifference, a lack of reaction, somewhere between ‘blah’ and ‘whatever’. Maybe the idea that something is so run-of-the-mill, so focus-grouped, so corners-smoothed-off that it didn’t intellectually touch the sides on the way down. But what it actually indicates is a lack of critical process, a smug supercilious unwillingness to engage critical faculties. It tells you more about the person than the thing they’re talking about.

That’s the world we live in. Global warming? Meh. The collapse of capitalism? Meh. The lack of funding for children’s television? Meh.

Oh, be negative, be positive, but have a bloody opinion.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Age Of Revolution


Plug. It’ll be the last one for a while. Out this week on download, and presumably compact disc at some point, is my Doctor Who Companion Chronicles adventure The Glorious Revolution, recorded back in March. It stars Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon, companion to the second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton, and Andrew Fettes as both the mysterious Visitor and King James VII. I’ve just downloaded it and it sounds fabulous. Irrespective of my involvement, it’s turned out incredibly well, largely down to Nigel Fairs’ post-production – brilliant music and some subtle editing for pace – and Frazer Hines’ performances as Jamie and his rightly-celebrated recreation of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. I’m particularly proud of the scene which is Track 06 on the download/CD, which was a real ‘Wow, this is going to be amazing’ moment in the studio, and the cliff-hanger which comes at the end of Track 08.

Excitingly for me, if for no-one else, with this story I actually have a couple of ‘deleted scenes’ which were cut because the script was over-length. I shall post them here at some point; they were chosen for trimming mainly because I found they could be removed without affecting the sense of the play, and because if you find you can remove something without leaving a gap that’s a hint that maybe it shouldn’t be there.

Also, in maybe a month’s time, I’ll be sticking a signed copy of the script up on eBay to raise money for Comic Relief. If no-one wants it I’ll end up buying it for myself.

Oh, and it’s not supposed to be a sequel to The Highlanders. It’s set about sixty years earlier, for a start. But, yes, there are a few similarities, intentional and unintentional. So if you want to think it’s a sequel, that’s okay.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

I'll Give It Five


The guys who do movie posters are clearly trying to do the best they can, even if it means polishing the proverbial turd. But no matter how much lacquer is applied, the scent of desperation has a habit of wafting through.

For example, when you see a movie poster quoting a review which gave it four stars. Four stars. Not five, the traditional number of stars. Four. Which says to me that, out of all the reviews this film, the best it managed to scrape was a measly four out of five. Nobody, anywhere, liked it enough to award it five.

Or you’ll see quotes. Now, of course, there have been occasions where film and theatre promoters have been so naughty as to quote their own press materials on the publicity; they’ll get a journalist to blow out of a puff piece, long before the show or movie is available, only to cherry pick the puff as though it were a review of the finished product.

But the quotes that fascinate me are the ones which aren’t from movie critics in movie magazines or national newspapers. It’s the ones where they’ve had to dig a little deeper; maybe quoting write-ups from Heat or OK, which to be fair do actually review movies – or, more hilariously, quoting magazines that aren’t really known for their film criticism, such as Woman’s Weekly.

It smacks of desperation. All it says, loudly and clearly, is that none of the proper film critics from the proper newspapers gave the film a thumbs up.

Even worse, though, are the films which quote celebrities – usually disc jockeys. As though Johnny Vaughan is some sort of authority on cinema!

And if a film can’t even scrape together any positive reviews at all... just how bad must it be?

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Closer Than Most


Can’t quite see the point of getting a HD television. Oh, I can see the point of HD; it may not actually make the acting or writing any better, and it may make programme-making even more expensive and time-consuming, but it’s fine if you’re watching a movie or a programme about brightly-coloured tree-frogs on jungle leaves glistening with rain-drops.

It’s just that, if those who are to believed are to believed, 3-D telly will be following shortly afterwards, so one might as well skip a generation and wait for that.

Not sure about 3-D stuff, myself. It’ll make a huge difference to action movies and CGI kids movies, all those blockbusters where they are desperate to make the cinema going experience bigger, louder and more jaw-dropping than the downloaded-off-the-internet experience. And 3-D will no doubt add another dimension to nature documentaries – as you already find in the IMAX shows where you snork with the fishies or flotate over the space shuttle.

I can imagine 3-D being a ‘plus’ for porn, though apparently, I am told, HD has not been such a great development, as there are some things you don’t want to see in vivid detail and HD has a habit of revealing blemishes and how much wake-up people are wearing.

But for comedy? Well, we can expect a few years, before the novelty wears off, of all sorts of gruesome bodily substances being splattered towards the viewer in order to solicit a groan of ‘ugh’. But after a few years of having people sneeze over you – or worse – I can imagine it will get pretty old pretty fast. What’s more interesting is that 3-D tends to mean longer, continuous wide shots – which may mean that comedy becomes closer to live theatre, just as it was in the 70’s.

Friday, 21 August 2009

It Ain't 1918


After about two weeks, we’ve finally got to the end of The War Games DVD. It’s one of those stories that works best if you limit yourself to no more than one episode in a sitting. Like The Web Planet, which has rather risen in my estimation, just because I adore the eerie, moonlike, dreamlike out-there-ness of it.

That said, we watched the last three episodes in one go, because the cliff-hanger to episode eight is just ridiculously marvellous and after that it’s all totally fantastic, one brilliant scene after another. And this time I didn’t cry at the Doctor saying goodbye to Jamie and Zoe. No, I didn’t.

The story works rather like 24, in that it’s all about the gradual reveal of a big plan, with us meeting villains, and then the villain’s boss, and then the villain’s boss’s boss and so on up the chain of command. In the case of The War Games, a succession of great British character actors with increasingly odd glasses and ornate facial topiary.

My favourite is the War Chief, played by Mr Meaker from Rentaghost. He’s always on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Paranoid. Tetchy. Never comfortably seated. And he has a special bell that sounds whenever he walks into a room surrounded by armed guards. I want a special bell.

Of course there’s padding, though it’s padding of the good sort – fights and arguments and people being held at gunpoint, rather than, oh, people arguing about directions or telling bizarre anecdotes about purple ponies. And it’s full of vivid, clearly-drawn characters; Lieutenant Carstairs, Lady Jennifer, General Smythe, Captain Von Weich, even down to the individual soldiers and scientists. And in great Terrance Dicks tradition, it follows the maxim that if all else fails – in walks a Mexican bandit.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Whisper To A Scream (Birds Fly)


Apparently I have a passive aggressive personality. Someone who knew what they were talking about once told me so, very loudly, leaving me no reason to doubt them.

Without wishing to get into details or specifics, I had a passive aggressive moment today. Day two of the recording of a thing that I’m not going to mention. Basically, I thought something had been changed without my permission, and I quietly got very cross about it. I lost sleep, lying awake Making Plans. Reputations were mentally slandered. Pillows were clutched, twisted and thumped. In order to try to put my mind to rest, I even Made Notes so I wouldn’t have to think about them any more.

And then I did a sensible thing, which was check my facts, and discovered that nothing had been changed without my permission, I had been asked, and I had gladly given permission, and I had no reason to be frustrated or upset with anyone apart from myself for putting myself into such a pent-up mood in the first place; and for not enjoying what was a wonderful day as much as I might because of all my silent cursing. What a silly billy I am.

This has got me into trouble before, so I’m careful not to let it get me into trouble again. In the past, I’ve quietly, apparently happily, got on with stuff, without a word of a quibble, claiming there to be no problems, whilst inside I have been raging. Until, suddenly, apropos of FA, I decide to Make My Feelings Known by throwing a chair or, which is more my style, sending off an incredibly long and vituperative email which I can never take back.

My advice for fellow sufferers? I have none. I am not Doctor Miriam Stoppard.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Counting Backwards


Today was the hottest day of the year, which - as tradition dictates – I spent indoors in a recording studio. I can’t say why. And because I don’t want to be Mr ‘I’ve got a secret’ I’ll shut up about it and talk about something else.

There are some songs which are so good that, no many how many times you want to hear them, you always want to hear them again. Ones where you find yourself listening to them every day. Because they are that good.

At the moment I’m listening on a daily basis to ‘Great Fire’ by XTC. It wasn’t a hit and there isn’t even a full rendition of it on YouTube. So you’ll have to seek it out yourself. It has lots of great dipping-rollercoaster moments.

Another daily basis song at the moment is ‘Counting Backwards’ by the Throwing Muses, a song I think heard once on the ‘Indie’ chart of the The Chart Show and which stuck with me for nigh-on twenty years since. It reminds me of the Beatles ‘Rain’, it has that same sluggish beat with chaotic, lop-sided drumming, oblique repetitive lyrics and single-chord drone. Like ‘Rain’ you kind of suspect that it might sound exactly the same played backwards. And it even has a false ending, one of those things, like descending basslines, sliding string sections and a trumpet doing sixths over a fade-out which the Beatles never really did. But which sort of got associated with them because they’re such sixties clich├ęs.

Don’t think I’ll be able to afford to get the Beatles remasters. At least, not straight away; and with these things there’s always a suspicion that they’ve just increased the volume and widened the stereo image. Though there is something subtly more Beatlesque about the mono stuff.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Man In The Middle


For the sake of fairness, I hate the liberal guy too. Who the internet tells me is a guy called Nick Clegg who looks like a prefect at a public school.

My problem with liberal guy is basically out of frustration. For the last decade, up until the last couple of years, the Conservative party were, quite admirably, stuck determinedly on a path of self-destruction. They elected unelectable leaders. They had no policies, because the only policy the Conservative party has ever had in opposition has been to ‘wait until Labour cock things up’ – a policy which saw them bitterly twiddling their thumbs for over a decade.

This was a fantastic opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to become the second main party and to change British politics permanently for the better. To finally push through some form of proportional representation (which I’m not particularly keen on, but I can appreciate the arguments in favour of it).

Instead, they were content to remain in third place. That’s what irritates me about the Liberals. They treat politics as a hobby. You get ludicrous things like a Liberal MP calling for airbrushing to be banned... the amateur-hour politics of a party that is happy to remain on the sub’s bench, scared to take power. Except on a local level, where they are the party of political opportunism; Tory Liberal Democrats in a Tory seat, and Labour Liberal Democrats in a Labour seat.

But my rant is basically directed at everyone who voted for Menzies Campbell; a party leader who appeared and behaved older, and more frail and faltering, than other politicians of his age, who sent out the signal loud and clear that the Liberal Democrats are the party for people who want to play at making Policies Which Will Never Happen.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Let 'Em In


Another thought regarding the Optimum Population Trust. Immigration. Does the idea of wanting to control – and reduce – a nation’s population mean you are against immigration? Does it mean you are xenophobic, or even worse, racist?

Quite the opposite.

Think of it this way. Someone from the UK – if you’re single, you can imagine that it’s you, if not, one of your single friends – goes on holiday, meets a chap or a lady from another country and falls in love. They want to live together in the UK, with the chap or the lady from another country taking UK nationality.

Now, is this going to be easier in

a) a country with a population of 30 million and spare capacity

or

b) a country with a population of 90 million and massive housing and job shortages.

I think the answer’s a). Just as in any system, if you want freedom to move about, you need to have room to move about in. A world with ever-growing population is going to be one in which immigration is ever more difficult.

Obviously this is a problem that can only be solved internationally rather than nationally, and the idea of a country unilaterally reducing its population by blocking immigration is unconscionable and wouldn’t help with the problem of world overpopulation one iota (indeed, it would merely exacerbate existing nationalistic pressures and prejudices). In the short term, on a national basis, the most sensible thing to do is the opposite; to maintain as much freedom of movement and employment as possible, to remove any mandatory linkage between employment and long-term residence, and to equalize working conditions and rewards so that the only imperatives for settling in a different country are social rather than economic. That’s definitely ‘do-able’ in terms of the EU at least;

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Too Much, Too Little, Too Late


I’ve said it far too often, so I’ll say it here on last time and never say it again.

I wish everything I’d ever written was a little bit shorter.

Every book, every radio play. Maybe not counting the comics, but everything else. Because in writing shorter always, always, always means better. It’s one of George Orwell’s rules. Shakespeare wrote ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’.

I’m happy to be script-edited harshly by others. I welcome it. I’d be delighted for anything which I’ve written which was supposed to be 25 minutes, but which turned out to be 30, to be cut down to size.

Why? Two reasons. Firstly, when you’re cutting, it gives you a much-needed excuse to be merciless. You keep only what is essential and what is excellent, and throw away the rest. This makes things better. This is why I tend to write massively overlength, so that the process of re-drafting isn’t so much a case of re-writing but of simply dispensing with anything about which any element of uncertainty exists. My best sitcom scripts all started out at 40-odd pages, my film started out at about 150, my novels at 110,000 words.

And cutting is so much easier than padding. Padding can be hell; trying to cheat the reader, viewer or listener into thinking the plot is moving forward when it isn’t. Except in comedy, of course, where it means you can stick in a digression.

Reason two is that if I’ve written something which was intended to be an hour, when I worked out how much plot I would need, and it ended up being over an hour – then it needs to be edited, because it’s not going to have enough going on to justify its duration.

I’ll shut up about this now.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Over The River


Went for a big run yesterday. It releases stress, and trapped wind, it gets me out of the house, and gradually I’ll lose weight and my legs will become rock-hard. That’s the goal. Thighs of steel.

And so, for only the second time ever, I jogged to Woolwich along the north side of the Thames, via Greenwich, the Isle of Dogs, and so on. It was easier the second time; first time round, I was trying to stay close to the river which resulted in lots of wrong turns and backtracking. Still, I found lots of locations used in Spooks. The bridge over the Royal Victoria Dock offers great views. All the new housing estates around there look just like the one from Dr Who And The Fear Her.

So it was easier going, even though I had no water – there don’t seem to be any drinking fountains at Barrier Park, which is crappy. Since I last ran the DLR branch through the area has been closed/shifted north, meaning lots of ghost stations where the track has already become overgrown.

Also en the route I passed the Millennium Mills, which I was surprised to see still standing as I’d assumed it would be the very first thing knocked down to make way for the Olympics. It’s featured in almost every episode of Ashes To Ashes. ‘Oh no, there’s been a break-in at the Rubik Cube factory – quick, stick some Japan on the stereo and let’s knock some ‘eds together!’

Also en the route is the British International Teleport. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, ‘like out of Star Trek?’. It’s full of giant radar dishes and in the park outside there are hundreds of white rabbits. Meanwhile inside, Commander Radnor and Miss Kelly are hard at work...

Friday, 14 August 2009

Longer Boats


Another plug time. Sorry, I just happen to have lots of things to plug at the moment. It’ll ease off a bit soon enough, I’m sure.

Out now, in all good bookshops both physical and virtual, is the new Doctor Who Storybook 2010. It’s like the annual, designed to be unwrapped on Christmas morning (hence having next year’s date, and hence coming out in the middle of August with all the other Christmas merchandise). There’s also a Doctor Who Annual, but I’m reliably informed that’s not as good – and I can think of no better way of gauging the quality of a publication than on whether or not I have been invited to contribute.

My contribution to the Storybook is the script for the comic strip, Space Vikings! As you might imagine, with such a brilliant title as that, the title came first and the story came afterwards, as I tried to come up with a logical reason why there might be vikings in space. To find out if I succeded, you’ll have to buy the storybook. The artwork’s by Rob Davis, who has done a fabulous job, just as he did last year and on the Time Of My Life comic strip in DWM.

Haven’t read the rest of it yet (I’ve spoken to other writers and all of us read our own bits first, partly to remind ourselves what the hell we wrote, and partly to check that it’s all there and hasn’t been re-written) but it’s all written by proper writers off the telly, and illustrated with authentic I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-1979 artwork (this is a high compliment). And the frontispiece is hilarious.

The only negative point is the photo of yours truly on the back flap. I’m cringing with embarrasment so much I’m in danger of turning inside-out.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

I Can See Clearly Now


Got a letter from Vision Express the other day. Apparently my type of monthly contact lenses are being discontinued. First my headphones, now my eyes. Is nothing safe any more?

Fortunately, it turns out that although my type of contact lenses are being discontinued, they are being replaced by a marginally-improved version of the same. Phewee.

I’m on a type of contact lenses which means you only have to replace them once a month and you can sleep with them in. I’m lucky in that I have naturally moist eyes so I don’t get irritation, so long as I remember to remain hydrated.

And you have no idea how much I value them. After 25-odd years of waking up in a blur, of being unable to see anything more than six inches from my nose, I can still remember the extraordinary rush of wonder and excitement I got the first time I woke up with the contacts in – opening my eyes to discover a world in vivid focus. Something which hadn’t been the case since I was 4.

I can’t recommend these contacts too highly. Hell, even people with perfect eyesight should wear them, they’re so great, why not join in the party?

I never liked wearing glasses. They made me look like a geek. I prefer that to come as surprise when I start to talk. And one of the reasons why I’ve never been keen on sports was because glasses get in the way, not just physically with the seeing and the running, but it terms of having really poor eye-hand co-ordination. And they mist up in pubs and get spattered with rain and you can’t kiss a girl while wearing them.

Now all they have to do is invent contact lenses you can wear whilst swimming.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Wired For Sound


Aaaaargh.

My mp3 player headphones are going. The connection is iffy, occasionally cutting out the left channel. It’s the plug which is the problem.

So I tootle along to HMV, yes, I do literally tootle, to buy a replacement pair. They’re HMV own-brand headphones, I’ve been buying the same type for ten years. Why? Because they are inexpensive, comfortable (they clip on to your ears and there’s a plastic band that actually fits my oversized head) and the sound quality is fantastic. Good, solid, clear bass, and bright, punchy sounds at all pitches.

And of course the sods don’t sell them any more.

I knew! I knew last time I was there I should buy ten headphones just in case. This is always happening to me with shoes, you get a pair you like, and you go back to the shop a year later to buy the same shoes again and of course those are the shoes they don’t do any more.

And all the replacement headphones, they’re just not the same. They’re all too expensive. I don’t want ludicrous heavy hi-fi ones, I don’t want inner ear ones, they sound dreadful and make my eardrums feel all prickly and I don’t like the way they cut out external noise. I just want my current headphones again.

I did buy a replacement pair in the end. And of course they sound atrocious compared to my lovely HMV own-brand headphones. Muddy bass then nothing all the way up the pitch range until you reach tinny hi-hat.

Experiment. I’m going to take the plug off these atrocious headphones and use it on my HMV ones. Perform a plug transplant. That might give them another six months, a year at most.

But curse you HMV. No wonder we are in a recession.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Advertising Space


I’ve identified the real cause of the recession (curse you Alistair Darling!). It wasn’t anything to do with American banks lending money to the studio audience of The Ricki Lake Show. No. It was, in fact, caused by Bloody Stupid Adverts.

I’m not ranting about annoying adverts per se. I mean, any adverts which try to make choosing car insurance look like the armoury scene from The Matrix are in a world of their own stupidity. I’m talking about a certain type of advert:

Picture a futuristic city. Gleaming skyscrapers. Spotless streets. And sinister, smiley, computer-generated people, with oversized heads and spindly bodies, walking about, or driving futuristic bubble cars.

There’s some music. It’s a futuristic nursery rhyme sung in a light, folksy lilt.

The computer-generated people go about their lives. Maybe the buildings dissolve into bubbles. Maybe their cars fly them to faraway worlds.

And all the time the audience is sitting there thinking;

What the bloody hell is this supposed to be an advert for?

Because, let’s face it, it could be anything. Financial services. Or telephones or perfume. There were cars in it, it might be for cars. Or alcoholic spirits. Or yoghurt. Or the Post Office.

And then, at the end of the advert, you actually find out what it’s advertising. Which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the advert. It’s like in the cinema in the 70’s, where you’d have a film clip about a James Bond figure ski-ing down a mountain before it cut to a caption slide – Taunton Jewellery.

That’s why we’re in a recession. Too many ad executives who think there was something admirable about the ‘Silk Cut’ campaign, and too many boardroom fogies who are so old-fashioned they still think computer generated graphics are cool and impressive.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Weight Of The World (Heavy 'B' Mix)


Apparently this week sees the release of a ‘new’ EP by Erasure, Erasure Club – Six Classic Remixes. I say apparently because, despite the fact that I worked for them for six years, the mean sods haven’t seen fit to send me a freebie. And at this point I should make it clear that this is a joke.

I put the quotation marks around the word ‘new’ in the previous paragraph because these mixes first came out back in 1990, as 12” ‘club’ promos. I’m not entirely sure what the thinking was behind this but then, I was never very clear on the thinking behind ‘club’ mixes in the first place; I mean, even if people love the remix, if they can’t tell that it’s Erasure then what’s the point?

A couple of the better remixes – Danny Rampling’s shoegazey ‘Sometimes’ and The Orb’s ‘Ship Of Fools’ – were on the 1992 reissue of ‘Who Needs Love Like That’ (I still know all this stuff, it will stay with me to my death bed). As for the others, I dimly remember there was a clearance problem...? I also remember that it was one of those things where, every year or so, someone would ask why they’d never been properly released; I never had any say on the matter, and when we did the fan club CDs, there were much more interesting ‘proper’ Erasure things to release instead. I remember discovering a box load of the promotional 12”s as returns; I always felt slightly embarrassed about this (because fans had been paying quite a lot for them) so I tried to give them all away in competitions.

Still, I haven’t heard these mixes for a decade, I remember the ‘Weight Of The World’ one being excellent, so I’ll be downloading.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Chicken Wings


Lewisham’s improvement seems to have stalled. For a while there it looked like the place was going upmarket; Yates's closed down, thus forcing the local hoodlums to move all their drug dealings to the McDonald’s, and meaning that at midnight on a Saturday the high street was no longer full of drunken louts throwing up into litter bins and bimbos scuttling about on precipitous high-heels threatening to scratch each others’ eyes out, along with a van load of cops quietly sighing into their riot helmets that they wished they were out catching the real criminals.

Instead we had the One Bar, which offered complicated food and was lit by candles. A little oasis of class. It’s still there now, but the candles have gone and there’s a vast plasma screen showing football . So Dylans remains the only decent pub in Lewisham.

When I lived in Kensal Rise, the place was being visibly gentrified; offies, bookies and launderettes were closing down to be replaced with wine bars that looked like book shops and book shops that looked like wine bars.

Unfortunately Lewisham seems to be on a downward trajectory.
Because in the last few months they’ve opened another fried chicken shop on the high street (and there’s another one on my jogging route between Lewisham and Greenwich).

Not to knock the fried chicken itself, which is a guilty pleasure, but the presence of so many friend chicken shops – sometimes next door to each other, or opposite each other – is a bad socio-economic sign. It means there’s a lot of people in the area who can’t afford, or who don’t have the nous, to not eat unhealthily. It means lots of takeaway boxes and plastic bags littering the surrounding streets. I’m looking at you, 'Chicken Cottage'. I’m looking at you, 'Favorite Chicken'.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Stranglehold


Nothing on telly, so film reviews.

Frost/Nixon. Great stuff. Excellent performance as David Frost, played by our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Though the other guy playing Richard Nixon was perhaps even better; partly because he’s not playing the guy who, to a generation, is probably best known for presenting Tharougha Tha Keyhool. That said, on the DVD bonus bollocks you get to see the actual interview footage from the actual interview, where the real David Frost is much more insouciant, and the real Richard Nixon is much more impassive, measured, likeable, and much less sweaty. That’s the movies for you.

Main criticism would have to be of the only female character, Caroline Cushing. She contributes nothing to the story and her inclusion as ‘love interest’ seems miserably tokenistic (in a film which otherwise avoids too much Hollywoodisation of history). Rebecca Hall does an excellent job – but with the most thankless of thankless parts.

Rope! One of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser-known thrillers, where the gimmick is that’s all in one flat, shot all in (nearly) one continuous shot. It’s not quite there – despite the presence of Jimmy Stewart, the greatest movie star ever. The ending feels flat, and the acting is mannered – a bit too stagey and drawing-room, with any homosexual subtext excised but with nothing put in its place. It feels mechanical, contrived and unemotional. That said, it’s only one small rewrite away from making a great episode of Frasier.

Minority Report. Running out of words now but this was brilliant. I loved it. There’s a particularly impressive bit about one and a half hours in which so elegantly solves the plot exposition problem. It looks great, it’s intelligent, and apart from a couple of CGI chase sequences included for the sake of having CGI chase sequences, excellently-plotted.

Friday, 7 August 2009

All Summer Long


Purely as an excuse to stick the photo up – the latest issue of DWM announces (though with not as much fanfare as I’d like) that in my forthcoming Doctor Who audio adventure The Eternal Summer the part of Maxwell Edison is played by Mark Williams, of The Fast Show fame. And playing Lizzie Corrigan is Pam Ferris, from The Darling Buds Of May, Rosemary & Thyme and the marvellous movie Children Of Men. Yes, that’s two stars of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban in a thing written by yours truly. Cue overwhelming and vertiginous feelings of delight.

One of my favourite things about these plays, after 1) receiving the cheque (always the best bit), 2) getting the commission in the first place, 3) writing ‘The End’ having completed the script, and 4) the occasions when I’ve been lucky enough to attend a recording, is 5) the casting process.

In the past few years Big Finish has been getting some extraordinary casts for their audio plays. You might think that this has something to do with the TV series coming back but I don’t think you’d be correct. It’s certainly not because Big Finish are offering more money. It’s basically all down to the perseverance of the casting director. I don’t quite know how they do it, but it seems to be a process of aiming for the moon, shooting for the moon, and occasionally hitting the moon. Because it’s always worth asking; even the biggest stars would prefer to work than not. It’s a fun job, after all (and the scripts are brilliant).

But, for once, I can claim a fractional percentage of the credit, as Mark Williams was my suggestion. Though I can’t claim any credit whatsoever for the fact that he said yes.

Photo by Barnaby Edwards. Click on it for a bigger version.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

From Out Of Nowhere


As a follow-up to my earlier post about evidence, and my suspicion of any argument which boils down to ‘because I say so’... I think that’s why I never, not for a moment, ever believed in any sort of religion. Because it is – whether you consider it true or not – based on the idea that something can (and should) be considered to be true without evidence but as an act of faith - and that there is something admirable about this.

When I was five or six, this smacked of ‘because I say so’. Because, really, ‘because I say so’ isn’t so different from ‘because it was written in a book a long time ago’; that’s just an extension of the same justification. Eventually it comes down to taking something on trust, of suspending disbelief, of wanting something to be true so much that your start to forget that it isn’t actually true.

This happens – people do read stories, or watch TV shows, and forget that what happened was a fiction and that it actually happened to them. Stories or TV shows they read or watched when they were young and impressionable.

My other main reason for disbelief, though, was that by the time I was five or six I spent most of my time reading and writing stories – and the Bible just felt like more stories, and not particularly well-written or thought-through ones at that. So many parts of the old and new testament sound like someone making it up as they go along, exaggerating set-pieces and adding unverifiable detail, before writing themselves into a corner so that the only way out is an absurd, cop-out climax where hitherto-unmentioned supernatural abilities are brought into play.

Yes, that’s the problem I have with the resurrection. There wasn’t enough narrative foreshadowing.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Treasure


Here’s a theory. Great Lost Masterpiece syndrome. The syndrome that anything by an artist which has been ‘lost’ automatically tends to get elevated. As a result of a mixture of the romance of the artist who, like Icarus, failed in their over-reaching ambition, and wish-fulfillment as people fill in the missing blanks with their own What Might Have Beens. It’s responsible for legends like the Beach Boys’ Smile album, or the missing Doctor Who episodes (which are always better than the existing ones), and so on...

The slightly annoying thing about Erasure, when I worked for them, was that they didn’t really have any Great Lost Masterpieces. From what I could gather, they rarely recorded anything they didn’t end up using; the best ‘unreleased’ stuff was an out-take from Cowboy called ‘My Love’ and a song a bit like Human League’s ‘Circus Of Death’ called ‘Twilight’, where Andy tried ad-libbing lyrics and melodies to a backing track – the song eventually evolving into the b-side ‘Ghost’.


Vince’s work with Yazoo and Depeche Mode was more of a mystery. If he ever recorded anything for The Assembly project beyond ‘Never Never’ and ‘Stop-Start’ god knows what happened to it – there was nothing in the archive when I looked!


The same goes for a Yazoo duet of ‘It Takes Two’ with Neil Arthur mentioned in interviews. And the same applies to Yazoo’s ‘Get Set’... AFAIK they never recorded it, so this is the only known performance:


(AIUI the master tapes of this TV show also no longer exist.) The only other great missing Vince track is ‘Let’s Get Together’, demo-ed for Depeche Mode...


...and which has since been recorded by an American group called Girl Authority. I love Vince, and all his stuff... but I can’t watch this without worrying that I might be running the risk of ending up on a certain ‘register’...

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Comedy Tonight


Thoughts on the Guardian article about the state of UK TV comedy; the BBC having recently admonished itself for not having had much luck with mainstream comedies in the last few years.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of sympathy with commissioners explaining how difficult it is to have a hit comedy. That’s their job! That’s what they get paid for!

That’s one difference with the UK and the US. In the US, the commissioners are rewarded for their successes and held responsible for their failures. It’s why US TV comedy still has huge, lucrative hits like The Big Bang Theory.

The article also makes the point that comedy is seen as being unprofitable. Which is, frankly, down to a lack of ambition; if shows like Peep Show and The Inbetweeners had longer runs they could build bigger audiences. Treat comedy as a niche product and it will only ever get a niche audience.

It’s a Guardian article about comedy, so expect a few massive factual errors; Fawlty Towers was never broadcast in a ‘mainstream’ slot, I remember it was on after my bedtime and hearing my dad’s laughter through my bedroom wall. And Only Fools did not take three series to ‘get good’ (the chandelier episode is in series two, FFS!).

Another positive step would be if success were rewarded; it’s massively discouraging to everyone in comedy that Not Going Out was axed as it was actually gaining viewers.

Part of the problem is that comedy always gets bad reviews; a cynic might infer that critics are frustrated failed writers. Sadly I think it’s not healthy for comedy show’s success to be measured by their reviews or industry awards – it was focusing on commercial and ratings success that generated the hits of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Deceiving Is Believing


In response to Simon Guerrier’s blog post about measuring the weight of evidence and how we take things like the dates of our births on trust... a couple of thoughts.

It’s human nature to opt for the simplest, most obvious answer to any question. You can see why; it’s important for survival to make a link between cause and effect – stop eating food which makes you sick, don’t go dancing barefoot in the part of the jungle where all your friends have been bitten by ground snakes, that sort of thing.

Problem is, the simplest, most obvious solution isn’t necessarily the correct one. Because, very often, the simplest, most obvious solution is ‘because god says so’. Which isn’t so very different from the explanation that parents give when telling their kids to behave without having a clear reason to hand; ‘because I say so’. So for years people believed the sun went up in the morning and went down at night because god designed it that way.

It’s also how magic tricks work. The audience takes everything at face value, that the suit the magician is wearing is just a suit, that the guillotine is just a guillotine. Except, of course, the suit isn’t a suit but a intricately-designed cloak of hidden compartments and the guillotine has been specially designed for the blade to invisibly retract into the wood. The audience is fooled because they assume that the onstage equipment works in a simple, obvious way – when the truth is much more complicated.

Simon’s right to say people should challenge their own beliefs; I’d add that it’s healthy to be sceptical of anything based on the ‘because I say so’ argument, whether it be religion, ghosts or mathematical statements that seem to hold true but which haven’t been proved.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Hey Hey Helen


This evening went to the Globe to see Helen, a new play by an up-and-coming playwright called Euripides, as translated by Frank McGuiness. Helen’s played by Penny Downie, and her husband Menelaus is played by Paul McGann.

Enjoyed it immensely. Not familiar with Euripides’ other work, but it’s a strong, simple story, with big emotions flying about the place and lots of references to a pointless war which has an inevitable frisson of topicality. Hence also the Globe’s other production of Troilus And Cressida (and the inspiration for my own dead-in-the-water sitcom about the Trojan war. Ho well.).

The play is pretty much carried by Helen and Menelaus, with most of the other characters merely acting as exposition bunnies – the only other character of note is Theoclymenes, played in roaring Brian Blessed mode by Rawiri Paratene. What I found most impressive about his, and the other lead performances, is that they were pitched perfectly; the plot is absurd enough to be a pantomime, whilst the dialogue is modern and naturalistic. So it’s kind of like Shakespeare in that the job is to find the emotional reality in an unrealistic, or theatrically magnified, situation.

The storytelling was very linear, and the re-iteration of plot points was at first useful but eventually wearing. My only real quibble, though, is with the incidental music, which didn’t add very much and occasionally drowned out the dialogue. If the tension and emotion is already there in the performance, the clarinet player should bloody shut up.

The ending was, of course, a deus ex machina, though interestingly it’s not quite a ‘cop-out’ (which is what some people seem to think the term means) as it's clearly established and foreshadowed that the play’s events are the result of the intervention and complex interaction of cosmic deities.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

The Duckworth Lewis Method


Never really got cricket. I completely understand the whole romance and nostalgia of the ‘whump of willow’ on the village green thing, the whole ‘the bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willy’, Garboldisham-road, PG Wodehouse and WG Grace vibe. It’s just that the game itself is perversely arbitrary and tedious, and watching it now, it seems to be a load of players dressed like American Footballers going to Gay Pride adrift in a sea of corporate sponsorship.

But Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh’s The Duckworth Lewis Method is sublime. It’s a concept album about cricket but, thankfully, you don’t have to like cricket or know a single thing about it in order to appreciate the album.

That said, the songwriter’s love of the sport comes through clearly; much as I love The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon has a habit of writing too ‘ironically’; his songs coming across as one-step-removed tongue-in-cheek exercises in pastiche and esoteric subject matter. In this case, although the songs are ostensibly about cricket, they’re about using it as a metaphor for something else – from the changing state of the world in The Age Of Revolution to sex in The Sweet Spot to lost love in The Nightwatchman.

While Neil Hannon is all over tracks like Jiggery Pokery – a Noel Coward-lite narration of Mike Gatting being bowled out in the 1993 ashes – Thomas Walsh seems to be more responsible for Gentlemen And Players, Mason On The Boundary and Flatten The Hay; all of which sound deliciously like 1980’s XTC (after spending the 1970’s releasing lazy Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand rip-offs, XTC spent the 1980’s writing songs about hills).

All in all, if you like The Divine Comedy, or 1980’s XTC, or even if you just like cricket for some unfathomable reason, this is the album for you.