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Month: May 2009

Many years ago, Richard Digance had a dream. With mainstream television on a drive to attract younger, more idiotic audiences, the journeymen and journeywomen of the entertainment world were no longer getting a fair crack of the whip. People like Digance, who can still fill clubs and theatres, weren’t getting screen time anymore, and younger acts on the live circuit had no chance of getting on TV at all. Putting his head together with fellow comics Mike Osman and Jethro (real name: Geoff Rowe), with a bit of backing from Chris Tarrant, he decided to found his own channel. Initially billed as The Great British Television Channel, it finally launched, sharing airtime with the PIF-heavy satellite channel Information TV, on 26 February 2005 as Sound TV.

It didn’t last. Plans to fly the Information TV nest and gain its own position on the Sky EPG came to naught. Within six months, the dream was dead. In many ways, it’s sad that it didn’t last because far more pointless satellite channels continue to broadcast, but the first 38 minutes show quite clearly the seeds of the channel’s failure. The opening attraction to the channel that says it’s going to revitalise British variety is not a fast moving slice of top-flight entertainment, but three bored-looking old pros sitting at a table in a Southampton restaurant putting the world to rights for half an hour. Good video editing software is in the grasp of just about everybody, and you can get professional results cheaply. This just looks cheap. The logo looks like it was designed by Helen Keller.

As a child weaned on Tiswas, Tarrant’s place in my affections is secured, and nothing he does can change that, not even Man O Man. I also have quite a lot of residual fondness for Digance, based on his 1980s LWT shows like Abracadigance. That whole raft of comics who came up through the folk scene, who were too edgy to be old-school but who were never seen as truly alternative, interest me greatly. Influenced by Jake Thackray, people like Jasper Carrott, Billy Connolly and Mike Harding blazed a trail (Harding’s early 1980s Friday night BBC2 show was a must-watch, and, on the basis of clips I’ve seen recently, still stands up – no pun intended), with Digance and others following in their wake. I like Osman – who was heard to best effect on Capital Gold back in the 1990s – too. I’ve never seen Jethro’s act, but his reputation as an entertainer is pretty strong, so I’ll take it on trust. As a result of this, I had a lot of goodwill towards the venture. These men knew their stuff, so I tuned in wanting it to be great. It wasn’t. By the end of the opening show, I knew the whole thing was doomed. Don’t let that prejudice you, though. Here, in the interests of historical research, is the first 38 minutes of Sound TV.

The German digital channel EinsFestival is currently showing a rake of early 1970s Top of the Pops in the dark watches of the night, in the original English (or whatever language it is that DJs speak) unsubbed and undubbed. Having missed out on the UK Gold run of later shows in the mid-1990s, I’m atoning for my sins by hoovering these off the satellite onto shiny discs.

Last week’s edition dated from 15 November 1973. Now, one of the guarantees of TOTP was that you heard (and usually saw) that week’s chart-topping act. On this show, however, it jumped straight from Tip for the Top – Kiki Dee’s ‘Amoreuse’ – to the fragrant Pan’s People hoofing through the end credits to Barry Blue’s ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’. Where is number 1 band? A glance at the Murphy’s Book of British Hit Singles (cheaper than Guinness) explained all. That week’s toppermost of the poppermost was the erstwhile Paul Gadd, teetering on spangly platforms, as he belted out ‘I Love You Love Me Love’.

Now, whatever your opinion of Gary Glitter, I have a problem with him being unpersoned in this way. Whatever he did, he was number 1 in this particular week, and without the number 1, Top of the Pops is, literally, not top of the pops. You don’t want to give residuals to a convicted sex offender? Fine, pick another edition off the shelf. It’s unclear as to whether the cut was made by the BBC, the German TV people or whether Glitter himself refused to allow clearance. The fact that Jonathan King was left in the repeat of the 29 January 1970 edition makes things even less clear.

If the motivation came from either the BBC or EinsFestival, double standards are at work. However abhorrent his crime, Glitter’s served his sentence. Leslie Grantham murdered a taxi driver, but the BBC has never had any problems with employing him. Meanwhile, EinsFestival preceded one of the recent Top of the Pops repeats with a half-hour long profile of…wait for it…Bill Wyman.

There’s not an awful lot I miss about being a full-time wage slave, but I do have occasional yearnings for the banter and in-jokes that occur between colleagues on the same wavelength. When I worked on the now defunct trade paper Publishing News a decade or so ago, sharing space and humour with people like Rodney Burbeck, Roger Tagholm and Ralph Baxter (not to mention ad boss Matt Levy, who started the Crisp Olympics via internal email to decide on which variety of fried potato snackwas best, and designer Jon Bidston, who put subliminal items into the backgrounds of photos and created a treasured spoof place setting for the office Christmas lunch that still lives on my mantelpiece) made some of the other aspects of the job far more bearable.

Tagholm, in his dry Croydonian way, is one of the funniest people I’ve ever encountered. He’s also an unbearable human being*, but you can’t have everything. He once rendered me and Ralph (with whom I already had several years’ worth of in-jokes stored up, the pair of us having been friends at university) speechless with admiration using nothing more than a slightly adapted section of Wichita Lineman. The paper was owned and run by a terrible old misanthrope called Fred Newman, whom I think I’ve mentioned before. He was known to the irreverent in the PN office as Kunta Kinte, just because it sounded a bit like what we thought he was. I think Tagholm might have been behind the rechristening. When we moved from Museum Street to Store Street, Rog found that his desk was directly under a skylight, and that, when the sun came out to play, his monitor was afflicted with terrible glare. Grudgingly, Fred arranged for a blind to be installed. One day, pulling the blind across with the stick he kept by his desk for the purpose, Rog sang to himself, quietly, “I am a blindsman for the Kinte”. On hearing this, I think Ralph and I just stood up, clapped and nodded approvingly. What we really needed were those score cards that you used to see on the TV coverage of ice-skating. This would have been worth a clean sweep of 6.0s.

At PN, as at many workplaces, the office noticeboard was a strange mixture of serious information about the work on one hand, and surrealism and quiet subversion on the other. We had ‘Up the Arse Corner’ before Viz ever latched onto the idea. Also pinned there was a yellowing letter sent some years before in response to an article by columnist Ian Norrie, which we all suspected to be the single greatest item of reader correspondence ever sent to a periodical. When I handed in my notice to become an airy-fairy author ponce in 2002, I took a photocopy, which turned up the other day during a bit of light re-shelving, and I reproduce it for you here. I have reason to believe that its author is the same Simon Strong who wrote the cult novel A259 Multiplex Bomb Outrage. If it’s half as good as this, I must find a copy.

*Actually, I love him, but I didn’t want to look too crawly.

What an age we live in. I write this on an East Coast main line train to Glasgow Central, using the free wi-fi provided by National Express. Observation: download speeds were non-existent until York, when dial-up speeds were achieved. Obviously, if there were no-one else on the train, I’d get full-speed. Selfish bastards.

How clueless are the bookers at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall? They’ve cancelled Ken Dodd’s booking for a show in December 2009, after “a significant number of audience members left before the end” of his show there last December. This, apparently, raised “concerns to our manager on the night as to the quality of some of the performances within the show”. Quality? The only problem with a Doddy show is quantity. When I went to see him in Lowestoft, I enjoyed the full 5 hours, secure in the knowledge that I was a 5-minute walk from my bed. Others will have had further to travel and might reluctantly have made an exit before the finale. I’d be very surprised if the people who left the Nottingham show thought that they’d got anything less than excellent value for money, and would have booked up for December 2009 and left early again. I think we’re dealing with weasel speak. When anyone says guff like “the management team therefore took the difficult decision to give this long-running and much-loved show a break during 2009” you know they’re hiding something. “We can’t afford to pay overtime to the usherettes” is probably closer to the truth.

If a chap can’t be a shameless self-publicist on his blog, where the hell can he? Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I sat in a windowless room in Norwich talking to actor/comedian Miles Jupp* down the line in London. The reason for this disembodied conversation was that I was contributing to his BBC Radio 4 documentary By Jove, Carruthers, in which he explores the tendency of the name Carruthers in fiction to embody a certain type of character, with the help of people like me. It was all jolly good fun and the finished article is on tomorrow (Tuesday) in the 11.30am slot long reserved for splendid quirky features like this one.

*Best known to parents of toddlers as Archie the inventor in Balamory, but last seen on non-children’s TV playing an estate agent selling a lengthy lease on his anus to a couple in need of a home.

Half-watching Friday Night with Jonathan Ross earlier while trying to get on with something else, I sat up and paid attention after Tom Hanks had been on for about a minute. Film-wise, I can take or leave pretty much everything he’s done since Dragnet, but, holy cow, he’s a great chat show guest. A proper, bona fide Hollywood star, but with a quick wit and a willingness to talk about something other than the product, just like Jimmy Stewart and all the greats who twinkled so merrily on Parkinson back in the 1970s. The bit about supporting Aston Villa was a particular delight, with Hanks explaining that he was stuck in a hotel room with the scores coming up one day and just decided that he liked the name, then going on to make up a splendidly-daft fake opponent for the Villa, the name of which escapes me. Get thee to iPlayer or catch the repeat tomorrow and see for yourself. He’s great.

This week, I have been mostly reviewing my relationship with Facebook. First things first, I’ve found the whole shebang faintly sinister since I read a Daily Telegraph magazine feature about the founding of the site. I sat, riveted to the bog, by the details of how a high-achieving Billy No-Mates code monkey stole a couple of fellow students’ idea for helping people at their institution keep track of each other socially, and turned it into a global business. It struck me as one of those horror B-movie plots – “Muhahaha. Nobody wants to be my friend, but I now OWN THE CONCEPT OF FRIENDSHIP. I have codified social interaction, and in so doing become the king of the friendship hobby. Next stop, the world…”. After wiping my arse and shuddering a bit at what I’d just read, I decided that I didn’t trust Mark Zuckerberg to run a whelk stall, let alone look after private messages between me and my (real) friends. Consequently, unless it’s been impossible for whatever reason, I’ve tried to steer conversations onto nice, old-fashioned email, which, once my ISP’s handed it on to me, lives on my hard drive and is backed up daily.

My disenchantment with the whole Facebook experience has been enhanced by the recent remodelling of the site, taking on some of the dubious innovations of Twitter. I can’t see the point of Twitter at all. It seems to consist of drab people writing haikus about their wretched lives in the mistaken impression that they’re remotely interesting, and celebrities giving a false impression of intimacy to their fans in the hope that it’ll shift more product. In the case of Adam Woodyatt, it somehow manages both. Facebook users now post status updates, whereas once they might have had conversations using the site’s Wall feature. For a while, I quite enjoyed coming up with what I thought were amusing status updates, but I suddenly realised that it was just a way of showing off, a nasty habit I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to break. We seem to be saying more, but communicating less than before, and that’s sad.

I don’t know what other people’s policy for accepting friend requests is, but mine’s always been that I have to know and like the person in question. Having been on or around forums and mailing lists since the Internet was just fields, I have quite a few close, valued associates I’ve never actually met, but I believe that qualifies as knowing someone. Conversely, there are people I’ve known personally for years, and I’ve suddenly realised that I have nothing in common with them other than the fact that I’ve known them for years. I don’t actually like the buggers, and I know the feeling to be completely mutual, so why do they try to add me? Then there are the “Friends all over the world! All over the world! None in this country…” operatives who seem to be just hellbent on racking up a high score as if the whole thing’s a gigantic pinball machine. An American writer I’d never encountered in any way, shape or form added me, and got ferociously humpty when I rejected her very politely explaining that I didn’t know her from Adam. I was missing the whole point of networking, she blustered, and in so doing, did nothing to persuade me that I hadn’t been very wise in not accepting her invitation.

So, what’s a lad to do? Deactivate my Facebook profile? I tried that once before, for 24 hours or so, and many friends were so concerned that they practically asked me to surrender my tie and shoelaces. If HM Bateman were alive today, ‘The Man Who Took His Facebook Profile Down’ would be one of his best-loved works. On Wednesday, I finally hit on the compromise. Post a status update saying that all was well, and that if anyone needed me, I could be reached via email. Since then, I’ve dipped into Facebook for five minutes here and five minutes there, and I feel strangely liberated. The site has its uses (marking birthdays, anniversaries, etc.), but it’s my bitch, not vice versa.

Isn’t it a bit hypocritical for me to be blogging about the whole matter? Isn’t this showing off too? Maybe. I keep this blog as a jotter for random thoughts about subjects that interest me: entertainment, broadcasting, technology, etc, to which like-minded individuals (recent surveys suggest that I have enjoyed at least a pint with 99% of the people who leave comments on this blog) add their valued opinions. As such, I prefer to think of this posting as a starting point for a discussion among friends about how much information we give away about ourselves, the nature of modern friendship, the point of social networking, why withdrawing from Facebook isn’t tantamount to topping yourself and why Twitter’s for cunts.