The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Achoo

Catch up time on blogs again. Today I’ve written a blog for today, plus the previous four:

Girls & Boys
Attitude
Hebrides Overture
Hard Headed Woman

Still not sure what to do about the big for the first half of November. I think I’ll go back and fill some days with the ‘rainy day’ blogs I wrote earlier this year, and fill some other days with reviews of things I mean to get around to reviewing, and point out new stuff as and when it gets posted up. It would be nice, at the end of the year, to have 365 blogs, one per day, wouldn’t it?

Spent the weekend back in Somerset with my parents. Had a lovely time, as I always do, though as always I had the allergy problem. The allergy problem is this; whenever I stay with my parents, I start sneezing. Particularly when I’m in bed at night, my nose gets blocked up and runny and it prevents me from sleeping more than a couple of hours per night, so I end up all grumpy and short-tempered. After another day or so, my eyes start itching. A few more days, and I get irritated skin.

This has been the case ever since I first went away to university; it would be the same pattern whenever I returned home. I’m not sure what the allergy is against; possibly oilseed rape, as there’s a hell of a lot of it around there. Or some other pollen. I don’t get the sneezing anywhere else; it’s not dogs, the local water, or an allergy to “fresh air” as my dad thinks. I’ve tried anti-histamines, to no effect. I’ve tried bringing my own pillow-case down from London with me.

But it is an insufferable sod. Thinking about it, it’s probably why I had bad skin as a teenager.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Hard Headed Woman

Words I particularly hate number seventeen. Hokum.

Why do I hate it? Because it’s an Alison Graham word. It may seem a little unfair to single out one word, when every word she uses is an abhorrence to civilisation and humanity, but it’s particularly irritating because it’s used by her, and other critics, to dismiss anything with an ounce of imagination.

‘Escapist hokum’. The critic adopts a supercilious, condescending, sneering, couuld-do-better tone. This show is beneath them because it isn’t entirely devoid of humour, because it doesn’t try to be mundanely realistic, because it doesn’t have a Message. Because it only serves to entertain, to engage the imagination and to excite, amuse, to touch the emotions and widen the horizons. Never mind these things; at once point something happened which required suspension of disbelief so it is ‘hokum’.

‘Enjoyable hokum’. This is perhaps even worse. The idea that ‘it may be shit, but if one is willing to hold one’s nose and wade into the depths of mediocrity, some amusement may be gained ironically, or by feeling a sense of superiority towards those viewers who might take it all seriously’. The Footballer’s Wives defence, basically – it might be crass rubbish, but let’s call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ and pretend to enjoy it because ‘it’s so bad it’s good’.

I don’t think writers set out to write ‘hokum’. I don’t think a writer has ever gone through a script and thought, ‘No, this is too meaningful and thought-through, I should make it glib, fatuous and vapid.’ That’s the producer’s job, ater all.

Let’s face it, what ‘hokum’ really means. It means the reviewer thinks they could do better. That because it didn’t live up to their dull-witted prejudices of what constitutes drama, they’re going to treat it as a joke.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Hebrides Overture, Op. 26, 'Fingal's Cave'

One of my current projects is to listen to all classical music, in order. Why? Because until now it has always been one of those things that has eluded me, and I don’t like the sensation of not knowing about something. I don’t like feeling stupid; and I don’t like people who pretend they are clever purely because they happen to know a very simple thing that I don’t. Yes, it’s to get more answers right on TV quizzes, that’s it.

So far, as of today, I’m up to Chopin, romantic era, first half of the nineteenth century. I skipped all the medieval and renaissance composers because when you’ve heard one Gregorian chant you’ve heard them all and it’s not as if those tunes come up very often. No, I stated with Monteverdi, who invented the chord sequence for The Farm’s ‘All Together Now’ and a thousand other pop songs, then did Purcell, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Johann Bach, Handel, Carl Bach, Haydn, Salieri, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Rossini. Berlioz, Straus and Mendelssohn. It’s what Spotify is for.

It wasn’t all entirely unfamiliar. I already love Bach’s stuff, it sounds like maths, and Mozart’s stuff, which sounds like people camping it up in powered wigs. Still haven’t quite ‘got’ Beethoven. But the revelation for me was Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, aka ‘Fingal’s Cave’. I’ve listened to it about five times a day over the last few days. I’ve downloaded it. It’s just so extroardinarily brilliant; the way the melody summons up images of tranquil, wind-blasted rugged Scottish isles, before shifting into storms, all the time working around the same chord progression, before shifting back to blue skies, before repeating until the most devastating, dramatic climax. It’s one of those tunes you have to play again immediately after hearing it – only this time, slightly louder.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Attitude

Scum.

Was in the pub the other night. A couple were asking for their money back because they weren’t happy with the food; the landlord gave them their money back, but they weren’t satisfied, and the next thing, the landlord had the bloke in a headlock and a window’s been smashed. All very EastEnders.

Another couple I saw the other night, the woman was smoking in a non-smoking area. Heavily. She looked like the ‘before’ in one of those ‘twenty years younger’ shows. Like a cross between Pat Butcher and Mother Theresa. Anyway, a young couple came up to them and politely pointed out that smoking in a non-smoking area was at least unsociable and at worse illegal. So Pat’s husband stood up and theatened violence. The young couple backed away and Mr and Mrs Theresa had a laugh at how clever they had been to get their own way.

Three thoughts. Firstly, I hate these people. The sort of people you find on the Jeremy Kyle show. People who breathe through their mouths. The people you encounter on trains who you just know, if you catch their eye, they’ll stab you. The people who, in cinemas, talk, make phone calls and knee the backs of seats. People who have taken school bullying into the real world.

Secondly. One of the reasons I get annoyed with soaps is that, in stressful situations, people take their cue from soaps as how to behave. This an observable phenomenon. They stand up and shout in courtrooms, because they’ve seen it on telly.

And thirdly; it’s a result of people thinking they have ‘rights’ without responsiblities. Millions fought and died for our liberities and some people think that means it’s okay for them to act as though the world owes them an apology.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Girls & Boys

Another moan. Well, not a moan as such. A quibble. An indulgence of irk.

What is it with pubs and the signs on toilet doors?

In the old days, you knew where you stood. There’d be a sign for ladies, and a picture of a stick person with a skirt, a sign for gentlemen, a picture of stick person without a skirt, and a sign for disabled, and a picture of a stick person in a wheelchair.

Now, at this point I could digress into the prejudices and assumptions this makes about people with disabilities – what, are they suddenly devoid of gender because they have wheels? – but I’ll save that for another day.

No, my problem is that now, in order to seem more upmarket, cutting-edge or chortlesome, toilets no longer have these simple, easy-to-understood words and symbols.

Instead suddenly, if you want to go into the correct toilets, you have to have a degree in iconology and foreign languages. It’s not enough for it to be ‘men’ and ‘women’. Now it’s ‘ducks’ and ‘drakes’. Which leaves me standing there, legs squeezed, jumping up and down in bladder frustration, trying to drunkenly remember whether male ducks are called ducks or drakes.

Other places are more cryptic. I swear I once went in a place that had ‘Roundheads’ and ‘Cavaliers’. These aren’t even gender-specific.

In America, they don’t even have toilets. They have washrooms, or even more euphemistically, restrooms. Of course, in the UK you can go to the toilet in a restroom, it happens at London Bridge station every Friday night.

It gets more complicated. In Scotland, both the pictures have stick people in skirts. And I once went to a transvestite bar in New York. It was like a bizarre logic puzzle. The choice was ‘butch’ and ‘femme’.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Dumb It Down

Not going to post a specific review about last nights Paradox, but bearing it in mind, a few thoughts about television drama. And why UK drama sometimes doesn’t seem to have quite the excitement of the best US drama.

Firstly, can’t remember the exact quote, but it goes something like, ‘You’ll never piss someone off by underestimating their intelligence’. Indeed, the opposite is very true; flatter somebody’s intelligence and they’ll let you get away with murder.

What do I mean by underestimating intelligence? Well, at the most obvious level, a story should make sense; not complete sense, because that might be impossible, but enough sense so that a viewer, on their first viewing, doesn’t notice any obvious plot holes. And any science, history, etc should be sufficiently well-researched so that only an expert in the subject would be able to find fault; it doesn’t have to be entirely accurate, it just shouldn’t be so egregiously wrong that it contradicts the level of knowledge of a GCSE student. Don’t treat your audience like morons, basically.

Following on from that, the characters need to be intelligent; it makes no sense to have, say, a top sleuth if that top sleuth isn’t picking up on clues that the viewer is picking up on. The expression is not having been ‘hit with the idiot stick’. Even if the characters aren’t geniuses, they should act rationally; if their goal is to achieve A, and they can achieve it by taking the shortest, simplest route possible, they should. People might not do that in real life but when they do it in fiction it feels like bad plotting.

And following on from this; dramatic irony, the idea that viewers know more about what’s going on than the characters. This is fine for sitcom, and it’s how soaps are written – on the rare occasions where the audience isn't in on a secret, it’s headline news – but it can make for a dull drama, because you’re just watching people find out what you already know; you’re several steps ahead of the characters, endlessly waiting for them to catch up.

And this is why some UK drama doesn’t work. Because it’s written with the soap mindset. That’s not how ‘Lost’, ‘The West Wing’, ‘House’ or ‘FlashForward’ work. And to be fair, there are plenty of UK shows that get it right – ‘Collision’ and ‘Unforgiven’ spring to mind.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

All Roads Lead To Rome

Early this morning – about eight – I finished reading Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans. I adored his previous novel, English Passengers, and would rate it up there with David Copperfield and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it’s that good. He’s the son of science fiction horror genius Nigel Kneale, and the writer of the Mog books, Judith Kerr. So he has literature in his DNA.

I enjoyed the novel greatly, with reservations. It’s beautifully written, narrated from the point of view of Lawrence, a boy of nine – which immediately would provoke a lazy reviewer to mention The Curious Incident, as I have just done. But the similarity is superficial. Kneale perfectly captures not just the voice and erratic punctuation and spelling of a young boy, but also his mental processes as he struggles to make sense of the world. The novel’s other great strength is the characterisation, of Lawrence, obsessed with space, his Hideous Histories books, and Tintin; his sister Jemima and his mother Hannah. The story begins with Hannah concerned that her ex-husband is stalking them, leading her to decide, on the spur of the moment, that they should move to Rome (where she lived during her student days, and where she has friends).

The novel then concerns the family’s haphazard attempts to find somewhere to live, shifting from flat to flat on a daily basis, with Hannah rapidly running out of money and goodwill; but what it really chronicles, through Lawrence’s point of view, is his mother’s mental illness. She’s suffering from depression and paranoid schizophrenia.

Which is my reservation with the novel. Humorous, engaging, brilliantly written and well-observed as it is, it’s so relentlessly heartbreaking that it’s quite tough to read; it reminded me of The Old Curiosity Shop, with Little Nell breaking down in tears every three pages.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Back In '64

Day off today. Finished a thing in the early hours, it’s now been accepted, approved, and I’m sure I will have forgotten about having written it in a few day’s time. I can never remember things about things I’ve written. I have to record over the memories whenever I’m writing something else, there isn’t the room. Still, it means when I do read things back, or listen, or whatever, they seem new again. And I get to laugh at my own jokes. Which I do a lot. This thing I’ve just written has an excruciating pun which I am desperately proud of. It makes me laugh just thinking about it.

Anyway, day off, and off to the National Portrait Gallery to look at their exhibition, Beatles to Bowie, a load of photos charting sixties pop music fashion. Basically, a few representative snaps of each of band or artist, year by year, interspersed with collections of magazine covers, record sleeves and so on.

What does it tell us? Firstly, that to be a pop star in the sixties, you really didn’t have to be good looking. I blame rationing; that’s why Gerry And The Pacemakers all looked forty even when they were only twenty. And secondly, it demonstrates, beyond doubt, that whatever the Beatles did, the Rolling Stones did six months later, rubbishly.

By concentrating solely on photographs, though, it gives a misleading impression of how record sleeves evolved during that era; there’s a whole history of graphic design missed out. And you could do a whole exhibition on the Beatles increasingly surreal photo sessions; from umbrellas to springs to bloodstained dolls.

After that, we visited Edward Keinholz’s Hoerengracht at the National Gallery, which was superb. Always been a fan of his walk-in installations ever since I saw the Beanery twenty years ago. I wrote a whole novel about it.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Miranda

Astonishing. The BBC are broadcasting a sitcom on one of their terrestrial channels. Just when you thought they’d given up on the genre entirely. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but sadly, not by much. BBC 1 hasn’t had a sitcom since, well, I can’t remember, it was a fair few months ago. And when was the last studio-audience show on BBC 2? Of course, the BBC still does make a few sitcoms, almost as an obligation or as niche programming – created to win awards and get reviews in The Guardian, or to fulfil BBC 3’s remit to show programmes that none but the most slack-jawed of teenagers would ever desire to watch (such is their underestimation of the intelligence of their audience – they assume all under-25s are happy-slapping shelf-stackers, not university students).

Anyway, these bitter rantings of a failed wannabe are merely a preamble, a preamble set in the past tense of How Things Used To Be, because things have changed. BBC 2 are currently showing a sitcom which is actually rather funny. Okay, it’s not up there with The Big Bang Theory or even How I Met Your Mother, but it has jokes, it has funny characters, it has comedy arising from situation. It’s called Miranda. Originally I was lukewarm towards it, not being a fan of Miranda Hart, but consider me converted.

Read a review somewhere that described the show as ‘self-consciously’ retro; aside from the fact that a show can’t be ‘self-conscious’ - that’s the reviewer imposing their emotional reaction upon it – I don’t think it's ‘retro’ at all. A studio audience, two or three sets and five minutes of location filming; that’s the format of the genre. Even asides to camera, or waving to camera at the end, isn’t ‘retro’. Traditional, yes, but traditional because it works.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Forever Autumn

This month’s exciting Jonathan Morris release for you to purchase and enjoy is Doctor Who – The Eternal Summer. I’ve blogged about the recording in the past, but now I’ve actually heard the finished article. It’s rather wonderful, if I say so myself. I don’t think, as a script, it was quite as strong as The Haunting Of Thomas Brewster, but as a production I think it works much, much better. Entirely down to the director, the cast, and the post-production sound guy.

It’s been described as a Sapphire & Steel-ish thing, and I can appreciate why people might say that, though for me there were three main influences. Firstly, Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills and The Singing Detective, all the scenes set in the Forest of Dean. Secondly, as a reaction against the whole idea of the pastoral ‘village green’ being some sort of quintessential English heaven. And thirdly, Robert Shearman’s stuff. If you’re going to nick stuff, then shoplift from the quality outlets. Oh, and there’s a bit of Brigadoon in there too.

There’s also a slight sense in there of the eerie feeling I get whenever I return to the village where I group up. Not because the village itself is eerie – though it is – but because it has barely changed, and every hedgerow, building and lane is part of my childhood, its odd to revisit them as an adult. Ghosts and nostalgia. That’s what it’s about. Along with a bit of atheist propaganda.

People seem to like it, particularly the first half. My main memory of writing it is that episode two was a real sod; I didn’t have enough plot so I had to think of ways of padding it out. Irony is, those bits of padding are probably the best scenes in the play.

It's been reviewed here. Here are some quotes from some other reviews:

Awesome! More Max please!!!

A breath of fresh air. All the characters were great, as was the performances. Special praise to the wonderful Max, i'm not failiar with the comics, but i feel now like i wanna track them down. The first 2 episodes were as good as anyhing ive heard bf put out, the last two were a bit weaker, but wrappe the whole thing up well. i clicked 8, but in fact maybe a 9. fantastic!!

Well! I can't pretend I know what was going on some of the time, and look forward to listening again to see if the mists clear a little - but what incredible performances from all! Especially the two leads - quite unsettling in places.

Just finished listening to this release, and this was God Damn Bloody Brilliant!

Absolutly and completely brilliant. I loved this one. Very clever and I didn't find it confusing at all. I usually enjoy stories that jump back and forth in time, flashbacks/flashforwards etc, but this one was particually good. Excellent work all round! One of the best this year!

A solid 8 I think. There's an inevitable reset at the end but a very entertaining and well put together play. Maxwell worked really well and it would be nice to hear more stories featuring him in the future.

Great stuff! Loving the linking between the plays in this 'season'. I agree with the others who have said that Mark Williams was fantastic! Hope we get to meet Max again.

Just very much enjoyed the sellotape joke in episode four - fabulous. Why couldn't The Fifth Doctor had material like this when he was on television?

A superb release. Very well written, and Mark Williams is inspired casting.

As for the play - wow, fantastic. Great use of the non linear plot line. Enjoyed everything about this one. Great stuff.

Terrific story, great cast and sound design. I listened to this earlier today in one sitting and loved it. His name escapes me at the moment, but the guy playing Maxwell Edison was brilliant.

Loved this one. After this and The Glorious Revolution, the question is...when will Johnny Morris write for the TV series? I'd love to see what he could do.

My favourite of 2009. A genuinely brilliant story.

I just loved it. I made the mistake of listening to it in the dark when tired and was surprised at how scary and unnerving it was. Great performances and a cracking script with superb sound design and music. Love it. Sorry to gush but it really is just great...

I loved this audio. Very clever and I didn't find it confusing at all. I usually enjoy stories that jump back and forth in time, flashbacks/flashforwards etc, but this one was particually good. Excellent work all round! One of the best this year!

Didn't understand most of it... I think I'd prefer to forget it.

Friday, 20 November 2009

I'm On An Island

A couple of days after finishing the novel, we went to see the production of Nation at the National Theatre, as adapted by Mark Ravenhill. It was a preview, so the finished play may be slightly better, but as it was, it was absolutely superb. One of the main reasons I’d wanted to go was reading the book, thinking, ‘Well, they’d never be able to do that on stage’ – not just shipwrecks, underwater tussles, and exotic wildlife, but basic practicalities like fact that the first few chapters of the book concern a character on his own with nobody to talk to.

Have to say, the production confounded my expectations and founds way of turning each of these problems into a highlight, through the use of ingenious staging, lighting, back projection and puppetry. The tidal wave is terrifying. The parrot is hilarious. The grandfather birds are sinister (a little Dark Crystal). And the songs are catchy (though I’m not sure why Twinkle Twinkle Little Star required a new melody).

I was surprised by how faithful it was. Each time I thought, ‘Oh, well, they’ll have to cut that bit... no, they’re doing that bit too’. It was extremely fast-paced and packed an emotional punch. The only significant difference from the novel was in the ordering of events, shifting the order of scenes to be more chronological, so we see stuff that happens to characters which is only related after-the-fact in the novel. The villain also has more complex motivation. Oh, and a character who is largely silent in the novel is given some lines. The only omission I really missed was the message written by the axe in the tree; ‘men help other men’, which kind of sets up the themes of the whole story. I’d stick that back in.

But I loved it. Blog readers, rush out and buy tickets now.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Spies Like Us

Don’t like to be negative, but I’ve been very disappointed with this series of Spooks so far. It’s one of my favourite shows, so my disappointment is all the greater. But I don’t think it’s the fault of the people making it.

The problem is, the budget has obviously been cut, and quite dramatically. I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of why this has occurred, suffice it to say they are all wrongs. The show just feels less ambitious. Not cheaper, but as though it’s avoiding doing expensive things – stunts, action, explosions, crowd scenes.

Budget cuts also have an effect on the scripts. Because of reduced shooting times, the writers have presumably been briefed to keep things simple, to cut down on the set-ups, characters and sub-plots, to make the show easier to film. So when, in the past, you’d have 70 minutes of story squeezed into an hour, now it’s 30 minutes padded out. Even the US versions of the episodes must drag in comparison to what it used to be like.

My other disappointment is that one of the things I loved about the show was its verisimilitude, the sense that the stories had been extensively researched, worked-out and were as plausible as possible. Now it’s entering Bonekickers territory; we have terrorists holding people hostage in an underground bunker, yet can still broadcast freely over the internet, without the security forces able to cut off their wi-fi – or even just pull the plug on their electricity supply.

But it’s still doing okay in the ratings – but not as well as it used to – and my hope is that the BBC restores its budget, so not only does the show get a bit of spectacle once more, but so the show’s writers can tell stronger stories.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Island Of Lost Souls

Just finished Nation by Terry Pratchett. I read a lot of his stuff when I was a teenager, but fell behind as he was writing books faster than I was reading them, and each new novel became an increasingly intimidating proposition; thinking how many books I’d have to re-read simply to catch up. But I bought The Amazing Maurice a couple of years ago, it was the get-one-free in a buy-two, and my missus recommended Terry’s latest novel, Nation, so I thought I’d give it a go. In it’s favour is that it isn’t a Discworld novel; not there’s anything wrong with that, I just don’t like not reading a range of books in the correct order.

It concerns a young boy, Mau, who lives on an island in the middle of an ocean, who finds himself suddenly and terribly alone when the rest of his tribe is swept away by a tsunami. However, he’s not alone for long, as a girl, Daphne, has been shipwrecked on the island.

It’s not really about that though. That’s what happens, but what it’s about is, well, mans relationship with his gods, the gods that man creates in order to make sense of the universe. There’s also stuff about the nature of what constitutes civilisation, that whole comparative post-colonial area; that technological superiority does not mean the same thing as cultural superiority or greater wisdom, or compassion.

It’s written in a gently humorous, action-adventure style; the characterisation takes priority over slipping in amusing footnotes, which always feel a bit glib; the sort of thing a lesser author would do. From what I can remember of his other books, if it’s not considered his best work I would be very surprised, because I found it to be his most moving, engrossing and thoughtful.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Hello Hello I'm Back Again

And he’s back.

Not sure for how long, though. I’m having a sort-of day off today. I have a hangover. But tomorrow it’s back to the creative typing, I have things I have to write, and will soon have things I have to re-write.

Only under three hundred words shouldn’t be too much of a burden – though it’s one that’s easy to let slide – but it does get in the way. Sometimes I only have so many words in my head, and I have to use them for work. Sometimes I’m finding the work so arduous I’m tempted to blog instead, a temptation which must be resisted. After all, it doesn’t look terribly professional to be asking for an extension on a deadline whilst one is bashing out missives on the internet. And sometimes I’m not in the mood; too tired from staying up late tapping at a keyboard or lying awake worrying about a potential lapse of plot logic that nobody would ever notice.

Whether to go back and fill in the missing days? Too much like hard work. Not sure whether to continue – certainly, if I make it to 2010, this blog will no longer be updated on a daily basis, I’d just end up repeating myself.

I don’t have that much to write; I’ve led a very dull existence over the past two weeks (though marital bliss has indeed been blissful). But, when I get around to it, expect reviews of Inventing The Victorians, Nation, The Table-Rappers, A Scanner Darkly, Collision, Doctor Who And The Waters Of Mars and Balans restaurant. Oh, and expect plugs for my new Doctor Who Big Finish thing, out now, The Eternal Summer. Apparently it’s very good. I haven’t heard it, but those that have are saying kind things.

Friday, 6 November 2009

No Regrets

Back in 2003, I was in favour of the Iraq war and I remain convinced we did the right thing. Occasionally I might have said I was against it, but usually that was just to avoid an argument or because I was agreeing with an attractive girl. Shallow? There are bird baths out there with more depth.

It was, I believe, inevitable. Certainly it would’ve happened if we’d had a Tory government; their position at the time was that the government was being too cautious! Under Gore; yes, it would probably have been conducted more competently but it still would’ve happened. And if we’d had a Liberal government... well, I’m sure that once Charles Kennedy found himself sitting at that desk, and had sobered up, he would’ve realised how limited his options were.

I had a problem with the anti-war marches. They seemed to be a coalition of people who felt that either a) war was bad thing, per se or b) that George Bush was a bad thing, per se or c) that although wars aren’t intrinsically bad, this one was all about ‘oil’ and that ‘Tony B Liar’ had lied to us, and anyway there are worse people in the world we should be fighting against. As though we should be working down a list (because the world really is that simple). The reasoning was contradictory; people were protesting that it was wrong to go to war in support of a resolution made by the United Nations.

But I support the UN. I know enough history to know that it was a reluctance to intervene which led to the collapse of the League of Nations. And besides, if you have an evil dictator refusing to let inspectors into his cupboard marked ‘WMD’, you’re going to suspect he’s got something in the cupboard. Even if he hasn’t. And the alternative – the UK and USA issuing ultimatums only to back down at the last minute – wouldn’t just have been what Saddam wanted; it would’ve made the world we live in today a much more dangerous place.

You may disagree. Please do.

One last thought, though. Lots of people at the time, and forever since, have said that Tony Blair lied to us, that he claimed that Iraq was ’45 minutes’ away from launching an attack on Britain with Weapons of Mass Destruction.

But the odd thing is, if he had said this in a speech to parliament, don’t you think they’d be wheeling out that clip all the time? And yet they don’t, and the reason is because Tony never said this. All he did was put his name to a report that said Saddam could launch an attack on the Shia muslims at 45 minutes’ notice. Which... er... was the truth.

The ’45 minutes’ attack on Britain nonsense was a piece of misreporting by The Sun newspaper in 2002. So anyone who says Tony ‘lied’ is basically saying that they usually believe that whatever is reported on the front page of The Sun is the unadulterated truth and hasn’t been distorted or exaggerated in any way. And that if a newspaper misreports somebody’s words, then it is the responsibility of the person who was misreported and not the newspaper.

A hundred thousand people in Trafalgar Square because, due to a headline in the massively reliable newspaper The Sun, they’d got themselves all worked up about ‘lies’ which never existed.

But the main reason why I had a problem with anti-war movement was that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. He was killing his own people. Presented with the opportunity to stop that, we should. And we did. We should be proud.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

When Two Songs Sound The Same

Another obsession of mine. Soundalike recordings.

What are they? Well, best example I can give is the Cold Feet DVD. At some point during an episode – probably a scene involving Jimmy Nesbitt and Helen Baxendale sitting in a front room decorated with candles – we hear Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ playing in the background. As was so often the case during the 90’s. Barely an episode of This Life went by without it.

But on the DVD, you don’t get ‘Teardrop’ by Massive Attack. Instead, you get a song which is almost, but not quite, the same as ‘Teardrop’ by Massive Attack. Which I’m guessing was specially recorded, or taken from a stock music library of such ‘soundalike’ songs. That way, the mood of the scene remains unaltered, but without the need for Massive Attack’s permission.

It’s not the only time this has happened. ‘Teardrop’ by Massive Attack is the theme tune to House everywhere in the world – except in the UK, where a tune almost, but not quite, the same as ‘Teardrop’ by Massive Attack is used. Because Massive Attack are a bit tricky about their songs being used in the UK; which is ironic because I’ve heard that Tricky is a bit massive attack about his songs being used too.

These songs fascinate me. Who makes them? Where do they come from? They turn up on DVDs and advertisements, something almost-not-quite Oasis, something that’s-definitely-meant-to-be-'Shine'-but-isn’t. In their own way, they’re ingenious, finding ways of pressing the same musical buttons without treading on any copyrighted toes. Like what Neil Innes did with The Rutles, recreating the ‘feel’ of a song without its specific content.

I want compilation CDs. The guys who put together these soundalikes should get the recognition and the royalties they deserve. They’re the unsung heroes of music.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Should I Laugh Or Cry

Please, television critics, could you stop using the phrase ‘canned laughter’. I beg you. I implore you. I down-upon-my-knees you.

No comedy shows use canned laughter. It hasn’t been used anywhere since the 1970s (except, apparently, on one recent BBC 3 comedy I shall not name).

What you’re complaining about isn’t ‘canned laughter’. It’s the sound of a live studio audience. Which can be intrusive, it can be over-enthusiastic. But it isn’t canned.

When a television critic talks about canned laughter, they’re betraying their massive ignorance. It’s like not knowing the difference between film and video. Or widescreen and full screen. Or actor and actress. It’s that straightforward, that simple. If critics aren’t capable of getting that right, then who knows what else they are misinformed about?

Some shows need laughter. Imagine QI without a studio audience – there’d be no-one for the comedians to play up to. Some comedy shows need laughter, because they’re telling big belly-laugh-out-loud jokes; others don’t, because they’re doing chuckle-inside beard-stroking wit. Horses for courses.

What critics are objecting to is disproportionate laughter. Which it might very well be. Studio audiences get over-excited, they laugh too much, they laugh in the wrong places, they laugh at the wrong things. The later episodes of Red Dwarf are ruined by an audience of ‘Dwarfers’ who don’t laugh at the jokes but applaud the continuity references.

There is an art to mixing audience laughter. It’s important to take off the laughter when the jokes don’t merit it. It’s important too that the audience should be mixed properly; not too tinny, not too harsh. Just like concert albums, you want some of the ambience of a live show, but not too much.

For more on this subject, I’ll hand you over to Graham Linehan.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Look Back In Anger

When I was sixteen, I kept a diary for a year. Reading it now, it’s one long self-absorbed winge, full of desperately unfunny and derivative attempts to be amusing. So in many ways, the forerunner of this blog.

The diary contains a message to my future self, telling me never, never, to think back fondly on my time at Richard Huish College. I’d realised, you see, that memories become rose-tinted with time, and I didn’t want that to happen.

My time spent at Richard Huish College was the most profoundly miserable time of my life. If I wasn’t depressed in the medical sense, I was consistently very, very unhappy, joyless and lacking in self-esteem. That’s what Richard Huish College gave me. It would take two universities, several years and the love of a good woman to undo all the damage inflicted by that institution.

I don’t remember much of my time there. I kept my head down, withdrawn. I didn’t make many friends, and even when I did, I don’t think I made much of an impression. I remember getting on well with Maths and Physics, because I found they came easily, not because I was enjoying them.

And English; I remember how inept the English lessons were. Atrocious. For ‘The Tempest’, the class just watched a video of the Derek Jarman movie and wrote about that (Toyah takes her top off). I was the only one who had bothered to read the play; and I got marked ‘D’for my essay because I’d decided that ‘The Tempest’ was crap – it’s very much in the second division of Shakey’s plays - and had written an essay about ‘Macbeth’ instead. I was annoying like that.

I mean, a ‘D’. What sort of mark is that? I’d spent three or four weeks on the essay, I’d researched it thoroughly, it was a good essay. Either mark it a fail for being about the wrong play, or mark it honestly for how good it was. But, no, my essay about ‘Macbeth’ rated a ‘D’ when considered as being an essay about ‘The Tempest’.

I loathed the English lessons. I loved English, I’d adored it for GCSE, and at home I was reading literaure for pleasure; I remember one lesson where it became apparent I’d read more of Dickens’ work than my English teacher.

Another essay incident. I’d written about, oh, 5000 words on Coleridge. Again, four or five weeks’ work. I’d written it on my dad’s Amstrad Word Processor, and because I was still editing it down to length on the day it was due in (how little things change) I brought the disk into college. I finished the essay around midday... only to discover that not a single printer in the college was working.

I literally ran around the college for the whole afternoon, tearing my hair out and screaming, crying with frustration, trying to find a working printer. But they had either been buggered or bagsied, every single one. The whole college.

So I asked the English tutor if I could hand in the disk. My essay was on it, he had the disk so I wouldn’t be able to change it, he could print it out and read it tomorrow. It wasn’t my fault that there wasn’t a paper copy. It wasn’t my fault.

But, no. Apparently, if there wasn’t a printed paper copy, they couldn’t be sure I had written it. Don’t ask me to explain the logic of that statement, I still can’t fathom it. The deadline hour came and went, and they wouldn’t let me hand my disk in. Eventually I managed to print out a copy, but it was too late. My essay – 5000 words, a months’ work – was never even read. ‘Ungraded’.

After that I stopped bothering with English. I didn’t turn up. I had three other A-Levels to be getting on with (they wouldn’t allow me to take General Studies).

And now I’m professional writer. Because Richard Huish gave me something precious, something that would prove invaluable to me in life. It gave me a chip on my shoulder.

But one day I’ll finish that A-Level. It shouldn’t be too much work. After all, I still have that disk somewhere.

But, oh God, it was a ghastly place. I wouldn’t say I hated every minute, but we’re talking a good 99 per cent. I hope one day they’ll invite me back to do a speech so I can tell all the current students about how much I wish I’d never gone there. I should’ve gone to SCAT; a much more egalitarian place where most of my friends went, but I had pretensions of grandeur and getting into Cambridge, so – thanks to some inappropriate career advice – Huish’s it was.

Princess Diana visited the college once while I was there. To give you some idea of cynicism of the place, when she visited to talk to sixth-formers, they got together eleven of the nerdiest ex-public-school ingrates to meet her. Of course, this is envy speaking; I remember being aked if I wanted to meet the Princess but pointing out that I considered the Royal Family and the multitude of Civil List hangers-on to be an anachronistic blight on British society. I was annoying like that.

Eleven sixth-formers? No, there were twelve. In order to show that Richard Huish’s wasn’t a racist institution, they needed a black student, if not for the Princess, then for the photo in the Somerset County Gazette. Problem was, there weren’t any black students at Richard Huish’s at the time. So they bussed a black student in from SCAT.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Stuck In The Middle

I remember Terry Pratchett once saying there was no such thing as writers’ block. Thirty-odd novels later and he seems to have been proved right.

What’s usually called ‘writers’ block’ is not-being-in-the-mood. In order to write, you need to be in a certain mental zone for storytelling. Terry seems to live there permanently. Others need to travel. Particularly if you’re writing comedy – you have to trick yourself into ‘social’ mode, as being funny is rarely a solo activity. You need the sound of laughter even if it’s your own.

If you’re not in the mood then displacement activities beckon. The internet. Television. Exercise. Eating. Going to buy a coffee and a mango chicken sandwich from Gregg's. Anything and everything which falls under the Millennium-Dome-sized umbrella known as ‘constructive research’. But most of all, anything to get you into the storytelling zone.

What do I do? I read something someone else has written, a script usually. It gets my mind working in those terms. Quite often, I find myself thinking I could do better – which is usually enough impetus to then go away and attempt just that. It’s like any sort of machine. You have to put stuff in to get stuff out.

And deadlines help. Someone shouting at you to get on with it or they will sue you to get their money back is often a great motivator.

The other writers’ block is a crisis of confidence. It’s a paradoxical thing. You become convinced that you’re a terrible writer – so you might read back a piece of old work of which you’re proud – only to convince yourself that you’re still a terrible writer who got lucky once and will never be that good again. It’s like giving birth; you forget how difficult and time-consuming it was and how you felt like you were a terrible writer when you wrote that, too.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Photographic

I’m sure, if I ever met the pop star Prince, we’d have plenty to talk about. We’d probably disagree about whether the Emancipation album was a good career move or whether improvised guitar solos were a source of entertainment, but one thing I suspect we’d agree on is the use of cameras at concerts.

I really don’t like cameras at concerts. Particularly camera-phones, held aloft by people throughout the show, so that the short-arsed individuals standing behind them – such as yours truly – don’t end up watching the show, they end up watching the show as relayed through a viewfinder. I don’t like it because it’s selfish, it’s antisocial, and also because it’s crap for the gig; if someone is snapping they’re not clapping, if someone is video-ing they’re not pogo-ing.

It’s also annoying because it’s not needed. Watch Glastonsbury on television and you see a hundred people in the audience capturing the show on their camera phones. Why are they bothering? If they want to have the concert perserved for posterity, why not just tape it off the television? Or buy the live concert DVD? How can their crappy little camera-phone rival the work of a professional film crew?

I’m obviously a complete hypocrite writing this, because I’ve taken cameras to concerts, and running the Erasure fan club actively encouraged fans to take cameras to shows so that we’d have some pictures to print in the newsletter. But my conscience is clear; I knew the fans who were taking the photos, and I knew they would never let the fact that they were taking photos get in the way of them having a good time or anyone else in the audience having a good time. But that’s because Erasure fans, in my experience, are uniquely kind-hearted and considerate people.