AND ANYONE ELSE WHO KNOWS ME

This week, BBC Radio 3’s always diverting Between the Ears series opened up an inventory of cassettes packed with the life and work of a man named Mark Talbot. For decades, Mark made his own radio shows, usually called ‘Second Side Up’, complete with records, phone-ins and interviews. But while the clips suggested him to be an articulate and slick host, he never became what you might call a ‘professional’ presenter on a national or even a local station. Instead, his programmes were specially and even individually made for members of his family, his friends and partners. It’s a melancholy but compelling half-hour about how the very act of communication can become an obsession. A kind of dialogue at one remove.

One piece of music I keep going back to is called “I’m 49” by Paddy McAloon, the songwriter and frontman with the group Prefab Sprout. It lies somewhere between electronic and orchestral music, with a yearning but resigned quality to it, but what gives it an extra devastating edge is in its use of speech samples, taken from late night radio conversations and phone-ins. The callers are unhappy and even desperate. At the close of the track someone (Paddy?) almost whispers ‘Just hold me’.

The genesis of the track, and indeed of the whole record, I Trawl the Megahertz, had come from a period of convalescence for McAloon; after eye surgery, he had to rest his sight, and so relied on radio and sound which sparked his creativity into making a solo record (his only one to date).

It’s a given that many radio listeners are lonely, especially at night. I find it a shame that more and more night-time radio is now automated or pre-recorded, even on a national station like BBC Radio 2 which recently dropped the much-loved Janice Long and Alex Lester.  There’s no shortage of stuff to listen to in the dead of night, but little of it is live and interactive. And in the small hours, people often need company. Even if it’s just to say hello to someone.

What the life and work of Mark Talbot suggests is that, sometimes, it’s not just a listener that needs support and an outlet. Sometimes it’s the presenter that might need it. And of course, you can’t award everyone national exposure but what ‘Second Side Up’ underlined is that everyone needs at some level to express themselves somehow and somewhere.

Thirty years ago or so, in my teens, I worked in radio for a bit, firstly as a volunteer at hospital radio and then at local radio. In the early stages of learning the ropes of broadcasting, you were advised to imagine you were addressing just one listener. At the time, I presumed this was to calm a novice’s nerves, but over time, I realised it was probably also to banish any delusions of celebrity that a budding presenter might be hoping for.

When it soon became clear, at least on hospital radio, that I had very few or indeed no listeners, I would occasionally amuse myself by making and recording programmes for my friends. Back then, I wasn’t sure why I did this, but I think I did it to sound more confident, or at least to find a context which gave me a reason to communicate. If it was just me, with no records or microphone, it felt like it wasn’t enough.

I was about to say that I don’t do that anymore, that those lonely years were a long time ago, but are they always? There are times when all that’s changed is the medium. Tweets have the concise economy of radio links, and you can be serious or silly, but sometimes I strain to come up with them because behind it is a terrible feeling of not being good enough, that everyone else is having a better time.

In a sense, on social media, we front our own shows: linking to playlists and video clips, announcing events, reacting, commenting. But what if we wake up in the morning and we have nothing to say, or nothing we can face admitting? You might be able to unleash one plaintive status update on Facebook, provided you offer the disclaimer that you’re over the worst now. But you can’t do it again. No-one, you assume, will want to read that.

At least with Twitter, you can do that a bit more often, but you feel it’s on the condition that you have to think of some witty metaphors along the lines of ‘I am wearing a grey hat made out of screaming wasps’. In other words, something that might distract people while you wear yourself out.

Maybe you need to talk to someone. In real life. Where ‘it’s really complicated’.

 

ARTICLE 14

What makes you laugh on television? Maybe it’s Xander and Richard bantering on Pointless. Maybe it’s the dog acts on Britain’s Got Talent. Maybe it’s the esoteric songs they choose for Homes Under the Hammer. Maybe it’s when they say ‘soggy bottom’ on Bake Off. Maybe it’s Danny Dyer’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Maybe it’s when Phil and Holly get the giggles on This Morning because one of them said ‘knob’ in another context, somehow. Or maybe it’s one of the remaining Actual Comedy Programmes that shiver in the schedules due to lack of company and clothing.

Half my life ago now, one sweltering day in July 1995, I attended a final board at BBC Radio, for a position as a trainee comedy and entertainment producer. It was an exciting time for comedy: the BBC Radio and Television entertainment departments were growing closer together. Many radio series had successfully transferred to television – The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Have I Got News for You, KYTV, Room 101, The Day Today – with many more still to come.  And the trainee producer candidates were likely to work in both media. I faced five (it may even have been six) people in that interview room. An exciting but scary experience.

There were four trainee producer positions available. I came in fifth or sixth, I think, probably due to lack of directing experience or simply that the others were better candidates. They would join a department that was nurturing shows like People Like Us, The League of Gentlemen, Goodness Gracious Me!, and later Dead Ringers and Little Britain. I licked my wounds, and applied instead for office jobs and hackwork.

In the 1990s, with a massive number and range of comedy programmes on television, it felt like the torrent would never end, and this was still before the invention of PlayUK, E4 and BBC Three, who all invested in original comedy. Twenty years on, TV comedy seems on the fringes. In one way, there’s no shortage of them, but they’re scattered around the edges: iPlayer, Sky, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Only Harry Hill, these past six weeks, has been able to sneak a designated comedy show into pre-watershed hours on terrestrial television, and even his Alien Fun Capsule, which is great fun by the way, needs the facade of a panel show, despite being nothing of the sort on closer inspection. Comedy is expensive and risky, and so a lot of broadcasting couches ‘funny bits’ within other kinds of entertainment format: competitions, lifestyle, reality TV.

But everyone still thinks they’re a comedian, and some like to pretend that provocation is the same as telling a joke. Ersatz ‘comedy’ often survives in bastardised forms, such as the output of the tabloid columnist or a front page headline: you write a shit pun, one which doesn’t even work, you punch down at a minority or at least people who are ‘different’ from you, and then after jokelessly causing offence, you switch to disingenuous and wonder why people are causing such a fuss. Sarah. It’s easier to get attention by enraging them than by entertaining them.

There have been, of course, some great newspaper columnists, but many are, like me, people who would have died on their arse in open spot after open spot. A columnist on a comedy panel show is frequently and embarrassingly at sea, discovering that, when voiced aloud, their aggravating gallery-playing shtick turns to gravel in their own mouth. In the distance, a lone owl coughs, and Paul Merton has to step in. Even Alexander Johnson had to work from an autocue after his first Have I Got News for You appearance.

The columnist’s attitude of bleak bravado has spread to social media. The more shrill posters there – who tend to type with their nose or whole arm – have to stress that they’ve made a joke, using that peculiar crying/laughing emoji, when in fact they mean that they’ve just said something they can’t begin to defend.

Then again, my relationship with Twitter is not entirely innocent. For a while it seems liberating. It’s liberating to dismiss provocative figures in kind: to liken Quentin Letts to the Viz character Spoilt Bastard; to describe the head of The Sun’s editor-in-chief Tony Gallagher as looking like ‘a dented football trophy from the 1930s that’s just been dug up’; to call Paul Dacre ‘a putrified testicle’; to call Theresa May ‘a Londis Thatcher who attended elecution classes and said “Make me sound like the cane from school”’; to wonder why Alexander Johnson and Donald Trump seem to want to look like Jimmy Savile first thing in the morning.

All of this is cathartic, briefly, I suppose. But then the excitement cools and sours and you feel resigned and powerless. It’s not funny anymore, you feel tired, and then the next day’s news comes, and it’s more dung, and the dung is even worse. It’s as if your attempts at being funny didn’t change stuff.

Because Twitter is so transitory, it’s not just easy to become addicted to it (nods), it also has no shape, no finity. If only one could channel its funniest, most dynamic components into a TV concept, for funny, engaging contributors. (Note: I am certainly not suggesting a TV show about Twitter – the only time TV entertainment really used the Internet effectively was on So Graham Norton, which was pre-broadband.)

But I think there’s another problem with Twitter and again, I’m as guilty as anyone. We all have our Twitter character now, and a tweeting style, and we can be prone to catchphrases and memes and hobbyhorses. And if you’re a heavy user of Twitter (nods), you risk becoming reliant on saying a thing just to say something, anything. You are Mumbler3, hence: bins, Pacman Ghosts, pop trivia. You start to become bored of your own language.

On the other hand, Twitter has been a constant companion to me over the past seven or eight years, through self-employment, bereavement (twice), anxiety, depression and isolation. It’s also made me laugh a lot, and there are close friends I would never have met without it.

But one reason I started this blog at all was to expand Twitter thoughts into something more fully-formed and ‘permanent’, if a blog can have permanence. Mind you, it’s been tricky to write much lately without interrupting with BUT SO WHAT in big capital letters. It’s because the enormity of Britain leaving the EU with so few concrete ideas about how and even why it is doing so (and real solutions, please, not just that Union Flag you jammed in your arse last June, thanks) has given us a sense that not only is the past far away, but so is the future – and so is the present.

We need to step back from the edge. Idiots must not set the agenda. We want real clowns. We need incisive, thoughtful comedy back at the centre of things. Partly to entertain us, but partly to make sense of it all.

FAKE NEWS: BRASS EYE 20 YEARS ON

file_0005I was once roped into attending a trivia quiz night in London which hinged on the life and work of the comedy writer, producer and performer Chris Morris. None of its several rounds acknowledged his esteemed radio work, but at one point we were played a clip from his 1997 TV series Brass Eye. The item parodied the studio discussion format in which a contributor (played by actor Mark Heap) had been booked to talk about living with the AIDS virus. He revealed that he had caught the virus from his boyfriend, rather than through a blood transfusion. ‘So you’ve got Bad AIDS, not Good AIDS,’ accused Morris, in character somewhere between Paxman and Kilroy-Silk. Chaos was seen to erupt in the studio.

When the clip ended, the round began. We were shown images of ten public figures, and asked whether they had died of Good AIDS or Bad AIDS. As we started, sighing, to identify the likes of Freddie Mercury and Arthur Ashe, gloomy that their extraordinary lives had been reduced to this cruddy indignity, one of my teammates leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Haven’t they missed the entire point of the sketch?’

The sketch was, of course, really sending up the tabloid perception that some people deserve their punishment according to lifestyle. But maybe, I dunno, maybe the quiz organisers just thought it’d be funny to do a round about people who’d died of AIDS. I know the argument that, once someone’s work becomes public it no longer belongs to them, but it was surprising to discover that Morris fans had misunderstood something so profoundly. Warren Mitchell, who played the character of the bigoted east Londoner Alf Garnett on television for many years, used to say that he had grown used to people approaching him in the street and congratulating him for ‘having a go at the foreigners’. He reputedly used to retort, ‘No, I’m having a go at people like you.’ Oh, fandom.

All art needs context, and although not strictly topical, Brass Eye needs some background. Before, during and even after its first transmission, it caused unprecedented trouble for a TV comedy show, especially one that was only watched by around 1.5 million people. It was billed as ‘comedy with a strong taste’, and as ‘a satirical look at television current affairs’. Each half-hour episode addressed a broad subject that provoked emotive responses: animal rights, drugs, science, sex, crime and ‘moral decline’. After being scheduled for premiere in November 1996, it was postponed by Channel 4’s Chief Executive, Michael Grade, concerned that MPs and celebrities had been hoodwinked into contributing to the programme.

The series made great use of creating its own fake news footage and campaigns, and then showing the material to obviously uninformed politicians, journalists and celebrities. A lot of the footage was supposedly uncovered abroad: cattle being fired out of cannons in Libya; the dangerous drug of ‘cake’ in Prague making it to British shores; heavy electricity in Sri Lanka which hit victims like ‘a ton of invisible lead soup’; a two-foot bollock being kept alive in a Siberian hospital; the miraculous vision in Ireland of a statue of Mary driving a car through a field; a US senator who couldn’t stop masturbating at press conferences…  It lampooned that quintessentially British way of thinking: we’re normal; the rest of the world’s crazy.

After the series belatedly began airing in January 1997, Grade ordered that a segment about a West End musical on the murderer Peter Sutcliffe – itself commenting on the celebrity of criminals – should be snipped from the final episode. When broadcast on 5 March, dutifully minus the contentious item, it included a defiant flash-frame: ‘Grade is a Cunt.’ The c-word; the c-word about your channel controller; and a flash-frame, in itself illegal on television. Cue further controversy when the stunt was revealed.

In the aftermath, Morris returned to radio, to create Blue Jam. For years, radio had been his natural home; a decade earlier, he had begun creating satirical stunts for local radio, influenced by the likes of Kenny Everett, Victor Lewis-Smith and Viv Stanshall. In 1990, he was talent-spotted by radio producer Armando Iannucci, and the pair created On the Hour for Radio 4, later to reach BBC2 as The Day Today. Brass Eye was then only Morris’s second full television project, but its style already seemed a natural conclusion of his work, a full stop.

Repeats or commercial releases of Brass Eye then seemed unlikely, but it won awards, several of its production team went on to senior positions in TV entertainment, and it was a big influence on TV comedy. Not necessarily in a good way: if Mark Thomas and Rory Bremner continued to pursue incisive political satire, elsewhere hasty, ill-conceived hidden camera shows sprang up, frequently concerned with humiliating the public. It was into this environment that Brass Eye was finally repeated, with cut material reinstated, in summer 2001, along with a new seventh episode: satirising tabloid attitudes surrounding paedophilia. It had laudable intentions, but I was a bit disappointed by its comedy elements. Regardless, many weren’t, it helped make more people aware of the original series, and the tabloids got upset all over again.

Morris’s work could be cruel, but his prime target was ultimately media attitudes – and he and his co-writers were both imaginative and obsessed with attention to detail. His targets were wide and courageous: tabloid media of course (who attacked the series) and public figures, but also gangsters and drug dealers. In contrast, those who followed him tended towards simply humiliating the participants, and more desperate to push the envelope than tell any good jokes. It was often a cold, mean-spirited time for comedy in the early 21st century, and I’m struck by how that strain of material has thankfully mostly disappeared from TV now, but migrated to the Internet, an environment Brass Eye anticipated. (Greetings, Mr Pie – now please quit shouting and write some gags.)

Twenty years on, and perhaps the only thing that dates Brass Eye are the public figures who were stung; most are now forgotten, deceased or, in one notable case, disgraced and in prison. Rewatching the programmes again, they remain contemporary, relevant and surprisingly funnier than ever, though in the face of relentless, unfunny ‘fake news’ – too big a subject to be incidental about here – maybe its humour simply acts as sharp relief. Above all, as fans and quiz night organisers should be aware, little of it should be taken purely at face value.

——–

With thanks to Kate for videotaping the original run for me, while I was moving house and while my VCR was in storage.

Brass Eye was last televised in 2008 by More4, but it’s on DVD for peanuts and on YouTube for even fewer peanuts. For much, much more information on the series, there are two books: Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall (in which I acted as a text consultant and researcher), and No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris, an anthology of new essays edited by James Leggott and Jamie Sexton, in which I contributed an essay about Morris’s work as a DJ and musician.  

EXPLORING POP’S MAP: ON RECORD SHOPS (PART 1)

file_0004A long time ago now, I worked in record shops for nearly a decade: eventually for two nationwide chain stores, but before that, in a tiny independent shop which specialised in heavy rock and indie but which was on the list of shops for the Gallup charts as used by Music Week, Radio 1 and Top of the Pops. So every time someone bought something you scanned the barcode, or entered the catalogue number on the back.

My first day was Saturday, 25 June 1988. I had just left school, having performed disastrously in my A levels and knowing full well that I’d have to retake them. The main thing I remember about my first day, apart from writing up the masterbags for cassettes to be stored under the record racks, was having to listen over and over again to one of the week’s new releases: a plodding heavy metal instrumental version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz. It sounded like some testcard music for when they lost the signal for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show.

The worst thing about this tiny shop was that it was tiny. It was the size of someone’s living room. It was so tiny that we had no stock room area away from the shop floor to process deliveries. We had to crouch on the floor and open the boxes while the customers were there, squinting in panic at invoices while impatient youths stood over you wanting to be first with that copy of Iron Maiden’s new shaped twelve-inch picture disc of ‘Eddie on fire’ or something.

I ended up working there all the way through college and even university vacation. I rarely listened to metal at home, but I had to concede that it was refreshing to listen to something different at work (we didn’t just play ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, we even stocked some other things). Plus I was undoubtedly a useful presence as I knew the poppier stuff, and we sold a lot of that too.

And, in every shift, more senior colleagues introduced me to stuff I didn’t know and hadn’t heard. We had no iTunes, or Spotify, or Wikipedia, where you could check What People Had Released. All that existed was a frantically well-thumbed Music Master catalogue behind the counter, there was a phone, and your own memory where you’d incrementally archived gobbets of info from the music press, radio and TV. And this was a time when a lot of long-deleted records were reactivated via this burgeoning new format: the compact disc. Every day, then, was an education, albeit a badly paid education, during which you might even be subjected to LPs by Helloween.

I would never claim to have an infallible working knowledge of music, but I would say I was – then, at least – brilliant at working in a record shop. Partly because I was polite and helpful, but also because I knew about music that I didn’t necessarily like but which customers did. You’re there to help, whether it’s someone who only visits a record shop once a year, or someone who is in every day, and yes we did have people who were in every day. Mainly, admittedly, the youth who wanted all thrash metal LPs ever and who wondered aloud who’d win in a fight between Joey Belladonna from Anthrax and Kerry King from Slayer.

All the while, in your head, you were absently continuing to fill in a rough exploratory map of music for your own use and pleasure. Facts, figures, tunes and lyrics were stored away for daily pop quizzes with customers. Their questions would be cryptic but usually could be boiled down to: ‘What is this song I’m looking for, and can I buy it, please?’ They would often sing bits of it at you while other, louder, different music was blaring from the speakers. Perhaps my finest achievement was being asked, ‘I heard it on the radio, it’s got a banjo on it, I think’ and replying, ‘Is it “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” by Del Amitri?’ It was. ‘Yes, we have it. Would you like the album?’ SALE. Kerching.

BBC4’s The Secret Science of Pop, shown this week, also began in a record shop, albeit a deserted one (it might have been the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill, west London). In this rather annoying programme, the evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi was seen rifling through the racks while declaring that although he had little knowledge of pop, he had extensively studied fruit flies (‘earworms’, yeah, see what you did there), and so he was embarking on ‘a journey’ to measure pop through algorithms. He assembled a team of data scientists to analyse five decades of hits and sounds, to reduce pop to its bare essentials, aiming to try and make the ultimate pop song. In practice, what it did was suck all the mystery, joy and spontaneity out of recorded pop: the effect was akin to Johnny Ball on Think of a Number chewing some sheet music.

Although the programme was not made by BBC Music but by the science department, it felt as if this wasn’t just an attempt to make a mean/average pop song, but also an attempt to do the same with the whistle-stop tour of pop’s history documentary. I’ve lost count of how many versions we’ve had now of ‘When BBC4’s Ageing Demographic Slumbers Through The Bill Grundy Clip Again and Again’. It might be time to give these things a rest for a while.

For pop isn’t a science (and in any case, there wasn’t a lot of incisive scientific analysis in this programme either). Those who truly excel at pop are conscious of its past but always bring something new to the table. But this programme seemed to encourage the homogenous, the average, like getting a focus group to make a record. Inevitably, the weird and the unusual were left on the fringes. By the end, a young singer called Niké Jemiyo and the record producer Trevor Horn, who both agreed to participate in the process, looked as though their time had been royally wasted. Because it had. ‘Non-linear effects – they’re the hardest to get at,’ concluded the scientist presenter. ‘Given enough data, we will work it out.’ Nah, you’re fine.

Pop expressed as statistics and graphs and formulae is fun in passing, but it’s a bit like memorising Guinness Hit Singles books for trivia quizzes while never listening to the music. The amateur map I was internally constructing in my years in record shops is, I’m afraid to say, now out of date; I took my eye off the ball at some point in my mid-thirties, so to speak, and though I know the map’s changed, and I remain interested in new stuff, I know I could never really work in a record shop again. Because even though all the information is out there, what’s gone is my playful ability to connect it all up, even if those connections only made sense to me. My map is still full of landmarks, but I’ve never been so aware that it’s also full of holes.

 

IN WHICH I BREAK MY BLOG RULE AND TALK ABOUT BLOODY TWITTER

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Tall people really stink. According to research carried out at the University of Otterglans, Idaho, which is a real university and a real place that I’ve just made up, which means that the research probably doesn’t exist either, tall people are statistically more likely to absolutely stink.

I mean it. Or do I? It doesn’t matter – the main thing is, if you are tall or one of those liberal snowflakes that saw a tall person once, you will be offended, and will leave outraged comments underneath this blog entry, so we can have a debate about this, which (don’t forget) is based on something specious that I invented simply to provoke and enrage you. 

This is how the news works now. And, although I have really tried not to discuss Twitter on this blog so far, it’s increasingly how Twitter works. About two years ago, when professional trolls had already become the rotten meat and pissy drink of the service, I decided to conduct a part-time experiment, to see just how they liked it if you tried to distract them, or insulted them, or badgered them, or simply laughed at them and took the piss out of them. 

What I didn’t do was actually argue with them. There’s no point arguing with them, partly because of the limited character space on Twitter, but also because their argument is frequently based on lies. Lying is what you do now. The so-called President of the United States does it. The Leaves campaign did it last summer and still do it. Tabloids do it every day. So there’s no point wasting energy trying to engage in discussion, because they just want a reaction. 

The first person I trolled was third-class brain Toby Young. I asked him ‘what night is bins’ quite a lot (hence the title of this blog) because of some stoopid column he’d written. Since then, I’ve bothered everyone from 90s radio oaf Jon Gaunt (who now looks like Kenny Rogers disguised as a neglected hill), to gelled wanker Milo Yiannopoulos (asking him his favourite Pacman Ghost), to that masked recruitment douche Old Holborn (it’s easy to find out that coward’s real name). 

And many of them blocked me. You can see the full list at the top of this blog post, although technically Aled Jones blocked me because he searched his name after I was rude about his barely broadcastable TV review show for BBC2. The rest are all deliberate, conscious wind-ups. (And before you ask: Hopkins, Farage, Morgan, Hannan and a few others have surely muted me.)

Is this a thing to be proud of, in the cold light of day? Perhaps debatable. While I am thrilled to have annoyed several Sun staff, including its editor-in-chief, showbiz hack, political editor and even its entire politics twitter feed, is it energy well spent? Probably not. But I hate bullies, especially when they’re paid bullies.

Ignore them. That’s what you’re told. And it’s true that taking the piss out of them is still engaging with them. But the point is, they are going to carry on doing this because they will lie and yet they will still get mainstream exposure. And reporting them is almost always a fruitless exercise.

And then this week, I discovered that – according to Twitter rules – you can be spectacularly racist and misogynistic and bully people and troll the grieving and vulnerable and Twitter seems to do very little. But if you call a professional troll a ‘cunt’, you get a warning immediately, which explains that only your followers can see your tweets for the next 12 hours. It’s not clear if the word itself triggers an automated response, or if someone complains. But the warning pops up with immediate effect, which leads me to conclude it’s automated.

copy-of-file_000This morning I did the same to Nigel Farage, who claimed that Malmo was ‘the rape capital of Europe’, presumably another piece of research from the Otterglans team. So I told him to ‘cunt off, you ashen liar’. I’ve dreamed up better insults, I know (for instance when I called him ‘a grasping dead-eyed toad of shit’), but I stand by it. And I appreciate that not everyone likes the c-word, even though according to research at the University of Otterglans, it is by far the best, most effective swear word. The point is, his tweet – extremely unpleasant, and designed purely to stir up ‘debate’ – is allowed to stand. My response seemingly is not. Which leads me to wonder: are people cautioned for insulting the disabled, for racist language, for Nazi support?

And this is where I wonder where we are going with this toxic atmosphere of provocation, that apparently as long as you can have an argument about it, that’s healthy, oh and also it’s lots of traffic on Twitter. What is the point of having an argument based on something that is specious? Isn’t that a waste of breath? Because Nigel just does it to get people to ring his shit radio show. And having James O’Brien on the same station, by the way, is not balance, LBC.

I keep being told that once you tell someone to ‘fuck off’, you’ve lost the argument. But what if there is no argument to have because the premise is bollocks or needlessly inflammatory? Then you have to spend a lot of unpaid time presenting evidence which they won’t read anyway, proving beyond doubt that Otterglans isn’t a real place. 

I have two basic Twitter rules. Be polite, because after all many people I come across are lovely, and interesting, and funny. But if they’re a git, you are allowed to tell them to go fuck themselves. Because according to extensive study at the University of Otterglans, telling them they’re a‘ cunt’ and to ‘go fuck themselves’ does officially mean you have won the argument. And if your opponent protests that decision, you are allowed to cite this blogpost as official evidence.

Next week: why brown bread is more dangerous to our national security than white bread. 

MAN’S LAUGHTER

file_000Maybe because it’s felt like the 24-hour news media has been laughing at us for months, but I’ve started to be plagued by the memory of a most disturbing record. ‘The Laughing Policeman’ by Charles Penrose is the aural equivalent of being poked in the ribs by The Sun. You rarely hear it nowadays, but in my childhood in the 1970s, Junior Choice on Radio 1 was still playing it. It was already fifty years old, yet no child I knew liked or enjoyed it, and I suspected that grown adults were writing in to troll us by requesting it.

Even now, it makes me feel queasy for several reasons. As an infant, I shunned an ITV children’s show with the same title, even though it featured Deryck Guyler off Sykes and whom I liked, because of its inevitable theme tune. If it came on the radio, I would make a quick getaway, defeated by a mixture of embarrassment (‘Stop doing it, this isn’t funny’) and alarm: ‘Why is he laughing, again and again? He doesn’t sound happy. Why?’

What did this police officer, one presumably in busy full-time employment, find so uproariously funny? Miscarriages of justice? Assuming he was ‘always on the beat’, what sort of weekly targets was he expected to meet? Did his laughter impede his ability to arrest potential suspects? (We discover, at least twice, that yes, it did.) Did his colleagues in the force suffer from other behavioural quirks, like the Crying Desk Sergeant or the Petrified Superintendant?

Is this the ultimate example in comedy of ‘You had to be there’? Because nothing, not Duck Soup, not Seinfeld, not even Three Up Two Down, is that funny. Nothing warrants four ferocious choruses of whooping and barking that makes Kriss Akabusi sound like Droopy the Dog. And it brings to mind another tiresome record that Junior Choice patronised: ‘I’ve Lost My Mummy’ by a now-disgraced Australian entertainer, which replaced the machine-gun laughter with furious mock-sobbing. Who on earth was this rubbish for?

‘The Laughing Policeman’ has no sincerity. It’s the cabaret at Trump Tower. You can imagine Nigel Farage miming to it; it doesn’t laugh with its eyes, only its lungs, a kind of physical exertion like clearing your throat. It’s laughing at nothing – whereas at least David Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’ attempted puns with an ‘-ome’ suffix. One of my favourite bits of laughter in pop, though, is Bernard Sumner on New Order’s ‘Every Little Counts’ where he splutters over the line ‘I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo’. Here the laughter sounds genuine – because he’s trying not to laugh.

If only ‘The Laughing Policeman’ were an isolated offence by Charles Penrose (aka Charles Jolly). But no, for this was a self-styled ‘laughing comedian’. Its B-side on its 1926 release, ‘Laughter and Lemons’ is, disconcertingly, a barrage of forced mirth over the Open All Hours music. There were, still, others: ‘The Laughing Major’, ‘The Laughing Ghost’, ‘The Laughing Monk’ (sadly not a Trappist one), and – a sure sign that someone will not shut up – a sequel: ‘Laughing Policeman Again’ in which the policeman finds a girlfriend who also laughs inanely. As that Glasgow Empire heckler perceptively said of Mike and Bernie Winters, ‘Oh fuck, there’s two of them.’

It seemed appropriate, in the week that Desert Island Discs celebrates 75 years on the radio, to check if anyone had ever chosen ‘The Laughing Policeman’. Four people have, including Twiggy and Hugh Grant, and I shudder to think of having that in your list of eight for ever more. What is it there to do – maybe it was to remind company-starved hermits of how to laugh? And it reminds me why I dislike that laugh certain comedians do: not the laughter of amusement, more the laughter of existence, tediously and constantly reminding you they’re still in the room while other people are speaking. At least Paul Whitehouse’s Chuck Perry character on the radio phone-in parody Down the Line has a point to his relentlessness: formless laughter simply at the inappropriate or even mundane subject under discussion.

It has given me an idea for a new TV drama series, though:

‘The Laughing Policeman’: Like Midsomer Murders but set in the fictional village of Hillarity. DI John Lafferty (played by, I dunno, Robson Green, it often is) tries to solve crimes of murder, except he can’t because he’s laughing. We don’t know why yet. Theme tune is ‘The Laughing Policeman’ but slowed down, like off a John Lewis advert, and sung by Emeli Sande. Repeated Fridays on ITV3. Be there.

 

 

EDUCATION, EDUCATION

blog-diary-mockup-150117It is strange to read of a time when, technically, you really were alive, yet remember nothing about it. I often wonder why no-one can consciously recall their early life. Perhaps it’s because, as infants, we are so busily absorbing the basics – of feeding, bathing, dressing, our surroundings, understanding and then adopting vocabulary and meaning – that there is no capacity in our mind to record even seismic events. We are so enthralled by the present that there is no space to look back. I can barely remember a thing before the spring of 1974, when I turned four years old, and so to read of 1971, in daily vivid detail, is disconcerting. I was in the world, after all. But what was I doing?

Sarah Shaw’s 1971 is wonderfully brought to life in her book, Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary, published last summer. It dutifully records every single day of her professional and personal life that year. She began the year aged nineteen, working at the BBC’s Schools Broadcasting Council at the Langham Hotel building. At the time, the BBC had just begun to experiment with sex education programmes on television and radio for primary school children, and it is startling to read some of the complaints and reactions that the SBC received. It feels like prehistoric times, and the kind of sexual politics that Sarah encounters often reflect that too.

Meanwhile, she writes about her own romantic education, after meeting an Irish lift attendant called Frank, who is much, much older and married. With empathy and humour, it nails the obsessive thought processes of what happens when you meet someone special, and details all the strategies of how far to go, like a chess game. It’s about falling in love, then out of love and back in again, at times even wondering if it’s love at all.

What gives Portland Place an edge over ‘celebrity diaries’ lies in its fearless openness, which stems from the teenage Shaw’s assumption that these contents of these entries would never be shared. When Alan Bennett and Michael Palin write their entertaining, thoughtful diary entries, deep down they know that this stuff will eventually connect with a wider public. There are no ‘Had lunch with Cleese at the Ivy’ entries in Shaw’s story, and though a TV personality or two brushes past, these are cameos that are barely at extras level. This is not a book about celebrities.

For most of 1971, Sarah lives in a hostel close to London’s Victoria station. She goes to see films and plays, listens to music, writes her own songs and plays the guitar, reads avidly, socialises with colleagues, and sometimes returns to suburbia at weekends to see her family. Even so, at times not much happens, and she describes watching Morecambe and Wise on TV with such relief that it reminds you how unforgiving and drab a Sunday could be in those days. Furthermore, when an entry appears like ‘My challenge today was to find out the date for Good Friday in 1973,’ it hammers home how tough it was to research something Wikipedia could clear up today in five seconds.

Meanwhile, the lift of the Langham acts as a secret compartment for her life with Frank. It is the starting point for their adventures, and offers them a freedom of sorts. On Monday 9 August she writes:

‘Is life like a lift? We are on ground floor when we are born, and reach the top floor when we die, and in between we go up and down at different speeds, stopping at different floors.’

It’s a striking observation. But the lift is also a metaphor for a confined space, and sooner or later, one she must escape from. (Fortunately, Shaw does reveal in two postscript chapters what did happen next.)

I have rarely kept a diary. I used to joke that there was no point; I can eerily recall to the exact date when something happened. I even once tried writing a diary in retrospect, trying to remember the content of each day of 1988. I can’t bring myself to tell you what that was like to revisit years later. But reader, I shredded it. With relief.

One’s diary is not an act of memory until you re-read it; writing a diary is about a near-instant reaction. These days I sporadically write a journal, for the downside of not writing about one’s life isn’t that events go unrecorded. It’s that they remind you of how you thought, and even more crucially, how you felt. I definitely had a squeamishness about emotions when younger, and had I bothered to keep a diary for when I was nineteen (1989–90), it would make for painful, lonely and needy reading: stumbling around university on an unsuitable course, longing for friendship and romance, but mainly hiding in the arts library reading back copies of The Listener, or shuddering in bed. That year felt like being in a trap: stifling and dangerous, but aware that admitting defeat and leaving would feel like regressing. So you stuck at it, somehow.

It is almost miraculous that Portland Place’s raw material survives at all. Sarah Shaw had never written a book before, and she only found the diary when clearing out her attic. It’s not just a compelling, novelistic account of someone’s life as an independent young woman, but it’s packed with detail, subtlety and humour. I’d like to read more by her.

Sarah Shaw’s Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary is published by Constable. Sarah Shaw also has an excellent blog, which you can find here.

‘IT’S NOT GOING IN’: ROOM 101’S RADIO YEARS

room-101-illustrationIn early 2015, Len Goodman off Strictly Come Dancing and the Farm Foods advert was on the TV panel show Room 101, more than ably hosted by Frank Skinner, in which celebrities and sometimes comedians compete to have their pet hates consigned to oblivion. Len’s selections included ‘all foreign food’, ‘the Metric system’ which was introduced in the UK forty-six years ago, and, most remarkably of all, ‘too much choice’. I’m guessing he voted Remain.

For me, Len’s appearance underlined the shift between the attitudes of millennial Room 101 – too often a howl of despair at ‘modern life’ (it even has a regular category called that) – and those attitudes of its early incarnation. Because when the programme began, in January 1992, it was less about banishing the Present Day than rejecting the Past. Back then, it was a low-key lunchtime radio series, with one guest not three, and no studio audience. Somewhere between a comedy show, a chat show and a game show, Room 101 launched just a fortnight before Desert Island Discs celebrated its golden jubilee on BBC Radio. And it’s probably one of the funniest radio series ever made.

For its origins, it’s back to the summer of 1990. After BBC Radio 2 aired a short series about all-time worst films, called Talking Turkey, its producer Harry Thompson received some feedback. ‘Two people sent a letter the same week, both suggesting a “bad records” show,’ remembers Room 101’s original producer Lissa Evans. ‘One was called “Devil’s Island Discs”, the other “Desert Island Discards”. And Harry said, “Does anyone want to do something with this?”’

Evans immediately thought of the stand-up and actor Nick Hancock as a presenter, ‘because he’d always made me laugh, he had this emphatic delivery’. She had previously booked him for a spot on a series called The Cabaret Upstairs in 1988, and for a topical sitcom called Little Blighty on the Down. But Hancock had also been a relatively early exponent of comedy about trivia, thanks to a double-act with Neil Mullarkey – where they, with limited resources, recreated title sequences of old television shows – and a series for the satellite station BSB called La Triviata.

A show about hated records had been done – Radio 2’s Hit List in 1982 and 1984 with guests including Kenneth Williams, Denis Norden and Claire Rayner – so Evans and Hancock expanded the idea to also encompass terrible films, books, people, places, TV programmes and objects. Both of them fans of George Orwell’s books, it was the host who hit upon the final title, and which resulted in probably the only comedy show to boast a theme tune by Eurythmics.

Despite what its producer rightly describes as ‘a perfect pilot’ (with Paul Merton as the guest), Radio 1 inexplicably turned it down, and so the series would battle with cruddy medium wave reception over on the newly-created BBC Radio 5. For a show that asks a lot of a guest, Merton grasped its sense of humour almost immediately. When subjected to Kenneth More’s laugh from the film Genevieve, his groan contains proper horror.

Stand-up comedy in the 1980s had been political, observational or surreal, but rarely directly autobiographical. This gave way in the 1990s to a more personal take on comedy, and guests on Room 101 were encouraged to choose items that could evoke personal experience, a way of forcing them away from pre-prepared material and into some quite revelatory and individual anecdotes. The result was not just good comedy, but a superior kind of talk show.

So when Jo Brand chose ‘Angie’ by The Rolling Stones, it was less about the record itself than a misguided early relationship her parents disapproved of. Frank Skinner remembered awful bus journeys in the West Midlands. Caroline Quentin recalled her unsung days in the original West End chorus of Les Miserables and the modest role of ‘Blind Beggar’. Danny Baker lambasted his brief spell as a presenter on a consumer TV show. David Baddiel brought along a lo-fi tape of his own teenage band with a future indie rock guitarist on lead vocals. Jenny Eclair shivered about her early 80s attempt at recording The Kinks’ ‘Tired of Waiting for You’. Steve Punt reminisced about the harsh limitations of the Bontempi keyboard as a Christmas present (‘Look, I’m sorry – I asked for this, but this is rubbish.’) And perhaps best of all, the late John Walters harked back to his personal nightmare: in a recording studio playing trumpet for the Alan Price Set.

This was an exercise in catharsis and closure, about safely transferring one’s past hell from the jail of one’s mind into a dustbin of a room. And relax. Assuming, of course, that Nick agreed your argument was strong enough for the selection to be banished.

In radio days, it was easy to collar willing victims. ‘It was so last-minute,’ says Evans. ‘We’d get the guests the week before, perhaps even the day before recording. Then I’d rush down to the record library to find clips.’ For occasions when the guest’s suggestion was accepted, she would also find material to put ‘behind the doors’, such as Derek Jameson, ‘Seasons in the Sun’, Norman Tebbit and the showjumper Harvey Smith’s rendition of ‘True Love’. Sometimes, she would mischievously rile the host, like the time she put in footage from a cup defeat suffered by his beloved Stoke City.

In all, Radio Room 101 lasted twenty-seven episodes, including a terrific Christmas special where the tables were turned, and Hancock finally got the chance to suggest his least favourite things: ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ by the Singing Sheep, an excruciating single by Gordon Banks, Scrappy Doo, and his own adolescent song lyrics. Guest custodian Danny Baker was aghast: ‘No, don’t read anything called “Dreamland”.’

Partly because ‘no-one listened to Radio 5’, Room 101 in radio days was left alone. When it moved to television in 1994 on BBC2, booking people became trickier. Lissa Evans: ‘I once drew a Venn diagram: people who are funny, people who are famous, people who want to do Room 101. [The intersections were tiny.] It was absolutely nightmarish. [But] it’s very exposing. And a lot of people, especially actors, are so frightened of exposing their personal opinions.’ In Hancock’s words, some traditionally candid performers suddenly went coy in recording mode, and were reduced to choosing ‘supermarket trolleys with wonky wheels’.

Though the television incarnation – hosted by Hancock, then Merton and currently Skinner – has had many memorable moments, I prefer the radio version, partly because there is no studio audience, simply a conversation where the two participants could actually be outside Room 101 itself. On medium wave.

On one level, comedy about trivia and nostalgia has a poor reputation:

‘Do you remember Deputy Dawg?’ ‘Yes, shut up.’

‘Who remembers those crisps?’ ‘Yes, we still have crisps, I had some yesterday.’

‘Remember dogs?’ ‘No, I don’t, but that’s hilarious.’

‘Do you remember eggs, for God’s sake? Come on!’

But, when on form, Room 101 has risen way above this kind of hackery. Sometimes, it’s not just the stuff you love from childhood that stays with you – it’s also the stuff you hate or even fear. Even if the dogmatism has palled with age, it still reminds you of what you used to be, and what you are now. Don’t be Len. Don’t look back. Embrace that Metric system.

Special thanks to Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) for her time and her memories. She now writes fantastic novels, notably Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half, and her books for younger readers include the newly published Wed Wabbit.

 The television version of Room 101 continues on BBC1 and Dave. Apart from the links to a handful of radio episodes, most aren’t currently online, but hopefully that’ll change.

BASSLINES AND RAYS OF SUNSHINE

fullsizerender3In a radio tribute to George Michael earlier this week, there was an extract from some old interview where he recalled how, with little contemporary music in his family home, he was compelled to rely on Radio 1 in his youth. And then I remembered an interview from Saturday morning TV in the mid-80s, when Wham! were probably the biggest group in Britain, and when a fellow pop star (perhaps Gary Kemp – equally perhaps not) marvelled at his enthusiasm for, and knowledge of all pop: ‘He knows the lyrics to everything.’ That was the thing with George Michael: he really was one of us. He was a pop fan.

Before the Internet, if you had no disposable income or wealthy parents, you had two options if you were a kid into music. Either you latched on to one band and aimed to buy every record, poster and T-shirt they ever put out, or you generalised and sampled a bit of everything – a record collection of oddities is the truly honest record collection. I was struck by how, when first famous, George Michael reminisced about not only liking The Sweet in his formative years but also buying Carly Simon’s ‘The Right Thing to Do’ on holiday, almost as if by accident. To be a pop fan, I reckon – and I suspect George agreed – is to be open to anything. Even if you don’t like it, you hear it anyway – because who knows, thirty years later, a song you thought you detested brings back fond associations of that holiday, that job, that crush, that partner, that family member who perhaps did like it.

Memories occur by accident, and it has become commonplace for professional contrarians to tut away at our reactions to celebrity deaths, as if such things are cordoned off from our real lives. It is immature, it seems, to mourn someone’s life and celebrate someone’s passing, and instead we should return to the usual ten phone-in subjects, like revisiting the same ten stale farts you once locked away in the shed. I wonder if these contrarians secretly resent that few things they say or write will be remembered in a week, let alone after they pass on. Note too that even when they do recognise someone’s death, they rarely refer to the work, merely their behaviour or that they met them. Yet the detail of pop culture is what furnishes our recall, what intersects with our own lives, and are often the elements that help to bring our missed loved ones back to life in our imaginations, momentarily perhaps, but vividly.

As we grow older, so the power of nostalgia grows with us. It unlocks your past, and often makes sense of it. It reminds you of euphoria, of despair, of a need for escape, a craving for entertainment and colour. And for George Michael to die on Christmas Day itself, when we are already at our most nostalgic thanks to family members (both present and absent), is a haunting irony.

George’s death alone evoked several specific snapshots from my own life. I thought of my dad blasting out Wham!’s ‘Freedom’ (off The Hits Album) while he was working on the bathroom and saying how great it sounded – I know you’re meant to hate your parents approving of stuff in the charts, but I’ve always believed it shows they haven’t lost interest. I also thought of buying my first compact disc player at eighteen and choosing, amongst other things, a Wham! compilation – two years after they’d split up. In turn, that CD reminded me of being thirteen, and obsessively playing their Fantastic! LP, which I borrowed off my brother – he never asked for it back. A particular favourite track on that album was ‘A Ray of Sunshine’, a joyous song emphasising the power of pop music.

At the time, thirty-three Christmases ago, I was also a fan of Thriller and The Beatles’ ‘Blue’ compilation, and how I’m now struck by how we lost important contributors to those records too in 2016. And the memories and connections don’t stop there: That time your dad helped Paul Daniels in his live act by being stuck to a chair; when you scoured record fairs seeking twelve-inch import copies of ‘Mountains’ and ‘America’; when you were traumatised by Watership Down, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ and that bit in The Deer Hunter; when you all but wore out your VHS off-air tapes of the As Seen On TV special and Fawlty Towers.

Furthermore in this tapestry: the best Willy Wonka, the first cheery weather forecaster, what the producer said to Ronnie, Hilda Ogden wishing she didn’t live at number 13, the theme tunes to Soap and Diff’rent Strokes, ‘this is the theme to Garry’s show’, ‘down down deeper and down’, ‘‘Ello darling hahahaha’, The Liver Birds, Equus, Shoot the Damn Dog, ‘Nasty Girl’, Yes Minister, Shoestring, Postman Pat and Chigley, ‘first we take Manhattan then we take Berlin’, Skating to Antarctica, Hotel du Lac, ‘you spin me right round baby right round’, Unhalfbricking, ‘September’, The Brady Bunch, ‘I Scare Myself’, Postcards from the Edge, Singin’ in the Rain, ‘Wedding Vows in Vegas’, ‘What’s the recipe today, Jim?’, ‘it’s a wonderful, wonderful life’, ‘Sound and Vision’.

Sound and vision – the fabric of our lives. Once, when a celebrity passed on, if you were lucky, you got a repeat of something they were in, or a compilation of clips. As Spitting Image once put it in a parody of TV news obituaries, ‘The scheduled episode of Quincy has been postponed, unless it was Quincy who died.’ But online interaction now means we can celebrate how moments from their lives enriched ours. Because we lived through such an extraordinary age of popular culture, because we ourselves are ageing, our presents and pasts are going to keep colliding. But it is these passions that keep us young and lively – and in an era when apparently ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ is supposedly a grown-up maxim and where a President-elect wears a fucking baseball cap, we need all the rays of sunshine we can find. If that means seeking out comedy, music, literature and cinema that warms our heart one more time, so be it.