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Month: June 2009

Watching Blur closing the Glastonbury Festival on BBC2. Two things are obvious: 1) They’ve upped the tempo of each number, presumably to cram in as much as possible and 2) Alex James doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition as a bass player. Now excuse me while I kid myself that I’m a 20 year-old borderline alcoholic with quite a lot of hair again.

One of my worst fears is the loss of unique, irreplaceable material through technical failure. Seven years ago, I found with horror that an interview recording on minidisc had screwed up. Fortunately, the interviewee was someone I knew well enough to ask if we could start again. When a similar situation occurred yesterday, as part of the research for my forthcoming Les Dawson book, I had no such luxury. The interviewees had given me 40 minutes of their soundcheck time before a concert. As my wife drove me back home, I scribbled down as much as I could remember from the conversation, in case the recording proved beyond repair.

Had it been a cassette tape, there would have been no problem (apart from tape hiss and all the other reasons I moved to minidisc in the first place), but digital recording devices tend to use things called tables of contents that tell playback machines where the relevant bits are. If the table of contents isn’t written properly, the audio is inaccessible. I knew it was there, as I’d listened to a little of it before turning the machine off, which is when the TOC gets written. I’d read online that it was possible to clone the TOC from a working disc to the failed recording, unlocking the material within, so I gave it a try. I felt like a cross between an expectant father and a bomb disposal expert as I waited to see if the technique would save my recording. I’m happy to report that it did. I’m hoping I won’t have to resort to the bomb disposal method ever again, but if I do, it will be with a great deal less trepidation.

Now to transcribe the ruddy thing…

The coverage of the news that BBC Worldwide is to release the recovered soundtracks of several previously-missing editions of the Hancock’s Half Hour TV series has been, at best, misleading. At worst, it’s been utter bollocks. Take this line from The Times: “They are thought to be the earliest examples of a DIY audio recording made directly from a television broadcast”. ‘They are thought…’ is a handy formulation. It enables a journalist to sound authoritative to the casual reader while admitting to those who know the way these things work that he/she hasn’t got a bleeding clue. I can’t be certain without making a few enquiries, but I’m sure I’ve heard of a number of DIY audio recordings from TV that predate these. There was a time when The Times didn’t think. It simply reported, and was a better newspaper for it.

Meanwhile, Chortle, which should perhaps know better asserted that “The episodes were first aired 50 years ago, but thought lost forever when the BBC wiped the master copies so they could reuse the expensive tape and save on storage space”. The shows in question never went near video tape. They were transmitted live, and telerecorded on 35mm film. These copies were repeated a few months after the first transmission and then junked. You don’t ‘wipe’ film.

The coverage has also been full of the usual emotive nonsense that gets spouted about missing programmes. Back to the Times, this time from the paper’s blog: “It’s a scandal that the BBC let so much of its programming be wiped or destroyed in the past”. Is it? At one time, the cost of repeating a show came close to the cost of putting on a new programme, and union regulations limited the number of screenings that a programme could have. Nobody foresaw sell-through video or multi-channel TV, and the renegotiation of the repeat agreements that eventually occurred. The pressure was on the BBC to use its funding as wisely as possible, and that involved making new shows, not recording and storing old ones that were, to all intents and purposes, unusable. It’s sad that some programmes are missing, but it’s not really a scandal. We should be glad when lost gems turn up, but retain a sense of perspective – in many ways, it’s a miracle that we have as much archive material to enjoy as we do.

As I get older, I find myself less interested in my birthday. The last one I celebrated properly was my 30th, with a party in the back garden. For 32, I contented myself with shouting “Noooooooooooooooooooooo!” at the television as I watched Michael Jackson evade conviction on even the minor charges of giving alcohol to a minor, something he’d admitted to doing. Yesterday, when I turned 36, I ticked the no publicity box and celebrated with a swim in the sea, a takeaway curry and a dip into the bottle of single malt I received in the morning.

From now on, however, I have a real reason to celebrate on 13 June. In the Birthday Honours, an OBE was awarded to Brian Lomax, chairman of Supporters Direct and father of one of my dearest friends. Brian’s a life force. He was instrumental in saving Northampton Town FC when the club hit the buffers in 1992, and, subsequently, has shown many football fans how grass-roots activity can see off inept and corrupt management of their beloved team. In the mid-1990s, he almost succeeded in getting me interested in football, after years of hating sport in any form. I liked the singalongs, the pies, the Bovril and Brian’s excellent company in the nearest pub after the game, but I couldn’t quite work up enough of an interest in the blokes doing things with the spherical doodah. After attending the play-offs at the old Wembley in 1997, and seeing the Cobblers despatch Swansea for a well-deserved promotion, I felt my work was done.

So, from this moment on, 13 June is Brian Lomax Day.

While it’s nice to get away, especially if very dear friends are at the other end of the journey, I’m starting to find travel knackering to the point of incapacity. Via family in Surrey and Bristol, I popped over to the West Midlands last week to meet up with a pair of old friends, the recording engineer/archivist Martin Fenton (aka Posie Flump) and the composer/arranger/conductor Gavin ‘Vaginal Thunders’ Sutherland (no blog – too busy), and to attend, with them, the quarterly archive television treat put on by the nice people at Kaleidoscope in Stourbridge’s thrusting, vibrant Town Hall. A wonderful time was had by all, but on returning home, I felt like death warmed up, and have taken two whole days, several hot baths and a lot of stretching/creaking to recover. It was the same when I came back from Glasgow last month, having gone up to blether about Stanley Baxter and Chic Murray to the Historical and Cultural Studies 2nd years at the School of Art. Why do I find travel so tiring? All I did was sit in trains and cars doing very little for quite a long time.

Incidentally, the Kaleidoscope beanos are put on in aid of the RNLI, and I encourage you to make a modest donation.

Until the European election success of Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, I hadn’t heard the slogan “No platform for Nazis” for a good few years. The last time was at a meeting of the National Union of Journalists’ London Magazine branch back in the early part of this decade when I was vice-chair(man). I’m not sure of the branch’s political make-up now, but back then it was Socialist Worker-dominated. Nice people, but a bit obsessed.

‘No platform’ was, and I suspect still is, the Union’s official policy. The matter came up, and all present agreed that it was a sensible policy, aimed at repelling evil. All but one. Although I knew that registering my concern would be like shaking the last drips of urine off in a force 9 gale, and that I would almost certainly be persona non grata for the rest of the meeting and possibly a fair bit longer, I felt it worth doing. My hand went up. Surely denying opponents the right to express their views and run for election, on the basis of their beliefs, were the sort of acts you’d expect from fascists? Wasn’t it dangerous to do so? Would not the Socialist Workers be squealing like stuck pigs if the positions were reversed? Surely the proper way to repel the evil was to let it have its say, then refute every single point with sweet reason and humanity? My prognosis was correct. For the rest of the meeting, I was the man in the Bateman cartoon. I’m sure I heard one person tutting, completely unironically. Merely for daring to suggest that we should give fascists enough rope and then ensuring a satisfying outcome just by pointing out what poisonous bilge they had to offer, I was seen to be marching down Cable Street on the wrong side.

Until, that is, the meeting came to an end. We repaired to the pub and continued the debate. When it was thought that the chair(man) of the branch wasn’t looking, one of his fellow travellers sidled up to me and said “You were right, of course, but I couldn’t say so in the meeting. What are you having?”. This clandestine dance was repeated a couple of times by other SWP members during the evening.

Free speech, free assembly and free elections are just that. Free. You can try to stop the electorate voting for fascists. That’s fair game. However, if you believe that fascists do not deserve the same democratic rights as you, then aren’t you a bit of a hypocrite?

So farewell then, Daniel Patrick Carroll, known professionally as Danny La Rue (French for ‘the main drag’, in the words of Ray Martine) . Apart from his own dazzling career, La Rue was responsible for helping to launch Barbara Windsor, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Corbett professionally when they worked at his West End cabaret club. Not a bad epitaph, but if you want more, have this false modesty-free self-assessment from his autobiography, From Drags to Riches:

There will never be another Danny La Rue. There are very few one-offs in show business. I am unique…a complete one-off, and this is not conceit or big-headedness in any way, it is simply my professional side talking. There has never been anyone like me before…no one has made history like me in virtually every medium of the entertainment industry.”