The meaning of ‘broadcaster’

I have commented before on the fact that I tend to prefer to receive my news and entertainment from publicly funded sources such as the BBC or CBC or PBS. I don’t believe that this is due to wanting to follow the official line but rather the fact that when I listen to the radio in particular, but also when I watch television I don’t always want to hear or see the familiar, expected or normal. Fortunately, there are presenters who epitomise these ideals, unfortunately, they appear to be getting rarer.

Two presenters in the UK who truly represented the ideal of a broadcaster were Humphrey Lyttleton and John Peel. I am expressing nothing new to anyone who listened to either of them to say that they were legends of their respective genres, bringing new music to at least 2 generations of people who would hide a radio under the bed sheets late at night and listen in to new and wonderful sounds.

Humph presented ‘The Best of Jazz’ for 40 years; each week his 1 hour show would introduce something new to even the most hardened jazz fan, whilst to me as the jazz neophyte it was all new. But the authority in his voice and the history of his playing meant that I wanted to listen and I wanted to like the music. Now, admittedly I didn’t like it all, but then that is the point of the broadcaster and it brings me neatly onto John Peel.

John Peel presented a show that towered over the independent music scene in the UK for three and a half decades. As he himself once put it “If there is an ‘up-and-coming band’ that I haven’t heard of; they aren’t”. He famously championed the Smiths, the Undertones and the Fall. But he also played a significant part in the development of the following:

  • Pink Floyd
  • David Bowie
  • Joy Division/ New Order
  • Billy Bragg
  • Blur

I could go on, but you get the idea- it is not a bad resume to have. The thing that staggers me is that not only was his influence immense, but the length of time he held it for was truly mind boggling. Especially when you listen to some of the, quite frankly, dross that he played. But the entire ethos of John Peel, and I like to thing of Humphrey Lyttleton too, was that presenters on a broadcaster should “not give people what they want but what they didn’t know they wanted”

And that to me is the beauty of radio and the ultimate downfall of the iPod. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am, unlike Alan Sugar, in no way saying that the iPod is dead or even likely to go away any time soon, in fact I have just seen a lovely little MP3 dream machine that I would love to find under a Christmas tree (preferably paired with a nice set of headphones too). But, here is the thing, unless I have been doing it very very wrong with my iPod you will never suddenly hear a track that you have never heard before, but that blows your mind, causes you sit down and just lose yourself in music for the first time. There are many songs that have the same effect even after repeated listenings (Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’ makes me cry every time I hear it on a decent stereo system), but I propose that there is still something just incredible about hearing a song for the first time.

Unfortunately, the majority of my praise for Humprey Lyttleton and John Peel is written in the past tense as they have both passed away. And in this era of fragmentation, market segmentation and focussing on the customer we are in danger of losing their like. There are radio stations and presenters who continue the tradition, and just as Humph and Peel were, they are shoe-horned into the late night slots, the out of the way schedule and the hard to listen to radio stations. But for people who like to hear something new, with absolutely no guarantee that they will like it, I suggest 6Music (available on digital radio in the UK and via the interweb throughout the world) and in particular Guy Garvey and Clare McDonnel or Alex Lester on Radio 2 (you might want to be a bit careful with the rest of Radio 2 though- it gets a bit cardigan cuddly middle of the road most of the time).

BBC drama

Aah, the end of a long silence. Brought about entirely by a lack of enthusiasm for writing a blog- my admiration for professional writers, in particular my good friend Clive Gifford, goes up once again. I have had many, many thoughts and inspiration; just a singular lack of enthusiasm to do anything about it. But now, to use a famous quote “I’m baaack!” and starting gentle with a post on TV:

I don’t know whether it was nurture or nature but given a choice I will almost always choose the ‘national broadcaster’ of a particular country. This means that I forgive the BBC for its ridiculous funding mechanism, I am humour the CBC and the way it treats its journalists and I even had found time for ZDF (even though I didn’t understand much of what was going on).  Also, I enjoy drama shows- throw in the occasional piece of humour into the mix and I am in hog heaven- so I should love vast amounts of the BBC output. But why is it that the only show I currently set my PVR (TiVo) for is an American show from 2006 that has since been cancelled (Jericho)? I have really tried to get into several british shows, including one that stars one of my favourite actresses but there is just no edge to Mutual Friends– the situations seem contrived, the characters make me cringe more than care and the overall storyline has degraded to the point that I just don’t care. Consequently, the show gets deleted without even watching.

I know that I may have posed this question before, but where have the good shows gone? Showtime, HBO et al seem to produce some truly wonderful television- please don’t tell me that the equivalent in the UK is Sky because I really don’t want to go down that route.

Complexity in Creation

Creating something, anything, that can be admired, enjoyed or simply used involves things that the admirer or user is frequently entirely unaware of. I remember sitting in a meeting with all the bright IT people at a mid-sized oil company and ideas, problems and solutions were being thrown out at a dizzying rate. By the way, I do mean all the bright people- in three years of working there it was the one and only time I saw everyone in the same room working to solve a single problem. What intensely complex problem was all this brainpower trying to solve? Simply to stop the need for a user to type in a password twice- yup that was all, but it took all of us to work out how to do this. Now this is also a reflection on the complexity of systems and the fact that unlike 300 years when an intelligent man (and unfortunately it was all too often only a man) could know the entire sum of human knowledge, no-one knows everything today. But as the solution began to develop I passed a note to the Chief Technical Architect that said “Nola has no idea what we are going through to solve her problem”

Well, it is the same in all forms of life: I listen to music and buy what I like, look at art (and even manage to buy the occasional painting) and watch movies and television (though I prefer to wait and watch them on DVD without any adverts). But really, I have no idea what goes into painting a masterpiece, composing a piece of music lift you out of you seat or directing a scene in a show that works so perfectly that you smile to yourself afterwards. Fortunately, though this lack of understanding does not stop me from appreciating them: the Rijksmuseum has a small (very secure) extension at Amsterdam Schiphol airport that is currently exhibiting 8 pictures by Vincent van Gogh. Having more than $10 million of painting in front of you is something that I could get used to, even if I don’t understand all the complexities of how the pictures were created. And the fact that entrance to the Rijksmuseum is free simply is the icing on the cake.

I get more opportunity to watch television than gaze at impressionist masterpieces; and still following through with my resolution to only watch ‘worthwhile’ television I recently watched the last 2 seasons (6 & 7) of the West Wing. When it first arrived on TV in 1998 the West Wing set the bar for smart, well written, well acted and fantastically produced television. And though most critics felt that is suffered a drop in form during the middle of its run, by the end it was completely back to its excellent best. I think that part of the reason that the ratings did not recover was the the plot lines were so complex, the dialogue so fast (and intelligent) and the advert breaks such low quality compared to the actual program that people gave up watching the broadcast show and simply waited for the DVD to come out (apparently this also happened with Alias). So although the show was broadcast in 2005 and I only watched it in 2008, and to use a line from the West Wing- let’s not knock me for coming late to the party and celebrate the fact that I came at all (courtesy of Sam Seaborn as he attempted to explain the budget to CJ in series 2 I think).

The final strain of this thought before the denouement (bet you weren’t expecting a word like that in this blog!) concerns music and in particular jazz: Although many of my friends are firm blues fans, I have always been more of a jazz guy. I tend to take it in small quantities, but there have been times when music has had such a profound effect on me that the fact that I don’t understand the intricacies of what I am listening too are entirely irrelevant. I spent several months on the Yemen/ Saudi Arabia border in the Empty Quarter. This was before the Internet or satellite TV: the only regular contact we had with the outside world was via the BBC World Service of the Voice of America; and the conditions were not pleasant on so many levels. The fashion these days is to talk about Health, Safety, Security and the Environment (HSSE)- well given that we were exploring for oil I can safely say that the Environment was taking a hit. As for the H, S and S; let’s just say that none of them were being met- raw sewage was being dumped close to the camp, dynamite was being used to blow things up and men who were barely more than boys were walking around with AK47’s and no fear of death. In this environment music and the escape it can bring from what surrounds you is almost essential. Where the music takes you depends on what you listen to and I discovered two bands that took me in opposite directions: I had never understood the attraction of the Doors; not that is, until I was in situation with guns, explosions and living far from home. Suddenly LA Woman (the full version) could transport me far, far from where I was. Which would typically be a good thing, except that where it took me, in my mind, was to a war zone in South East Asia where the Doors were heard for the first time. And that was not a good thing.

Taking me in the other direction- to calm, peace and a more mellow place, was Miles Davis and in particular a track called Bag’s Groove. I have said several times that The Doors came close to pushing me over the edge, but Miles Davis get pulling me back (well, him and Van Morrison). I am not sure why jazz has been able to play such a role in my life but the first jazz song that had impact in my mind was probably a track called Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I think that my father owned the 7” single and I played it a lot as a small boy. Being the contrary character that I am, I was probably attracted to it initially simply because it was in 5/4 time (and though I didn’t understand what that meant) and that sounded different. And cool. And isn’t jazz all about being cool? Sure it is.

Except that maybe I overdosed on Take Five, maybe the unusual time signature threw me off or maybe I just didn’t understand how to use rhythms, the off beat, strangeness of it all the best effect so it disappeared from my conciousness, even after the track appeared on a CD I bought. And then I saw a scene on ep. 19 of series 6 of the West Wing: Picture in your mind the scene- its a Democratic Party Gala ball in the White House. Everyone is dressed up, bright lights are creating a dazzling background and the camera is whirling around people in full party mode. The conversations are rapid, often at cross purposes but occasionally subtleties emerge that were never seen before. And in the background, in 5/4 time a clarinet, double bass, drum solo and piano are perfectly syncopating to the action evolving before our eyes.

In 4 minutes of television involving 7 separate conversations using lights, dialogue, a swirling camera, television acting of the highest level and the perfect background soundtrack I remembered why Take Five is still such groundbreaking jazz and I was completely overwhelmed by just how many components go into making a scene work the way it did. Never mind the 90 minute meeting involving a dozen or so IT geeks to work out how to pass a password to a new system, the number of people and amount of time that must have been involved in creating the West Wing is truly mind blowing. I don’t understand the complexity of 1 of the components that go together to make that scene so wonderful, and maybe if I did the beauty would be lost on me- but for right here, right now, I just love it.

Photography as Art

They say that a good story is worth retelling, well I don’t know if this is a good story, but it keeps getting retold by others, so I’ll jump into the frame with my own version…

There have been a number examples of celebrities complaining (and occasionally even suing) magazines for retouching photographs. Famous examples include Kate Winslet (there there are many more links than just this one on Kate’s issues with GQ magazine) and Faith Hill (including this blog posting on the Faith Hill example) but the art of doctoring or modifying photographs has gone for as long as there have been photographs. So what particular example do I bring to the table? This one

(The picture should be an animated GIF showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ effects of photo retouching. If it doesn’t change then click on the photo to open it in a new window)

Full credit for the photo goes to Lee Phillips1 at Flickr

It is taken from a BBC Three program Dawn gets naked that was recently (re)shown in the UK. Obviously with a title like that it was going to grab the attention, but there was more to it than simple voyeurism. As Dawn attempted to overcome her issues with body image, she learnt how to perform a burlesque strip tease and organised a mass flash mob entirely composed of women riding an open top bus around London. But the most interesting part was as intrepid reporter got her body initially made up and then retouched by the digital artists.

Again credit to Lee Phillips1

My mind had two questions as we witnessed the transformation

  1. Why do we believe that an image that was captured using a mechanical/ electronic device should actually represent the truth? Sure, it can be used to represent the truth, but does it always have to?

One of the dominant trends in the art world for over 100 years has been the impressionist movement. If you look at the work of Monet, van Gogh and the like, the images are nothing like the truth. Yet they are undeniably desirable (to me at least, and if the sale prices at the major auction houses are anything to go by, by a lot of other people as well).

If we go further back in the history of art the paintings and sculpture are more lifelike and at the time served the purpose of capturing a measure the truth. But if you are commissioned to paint a King and he is overweight, ugly, has bad skin and bad teeth (insert favourite joke about bad British teeth here) it may be in your best interest (not to mention keeping your head attached to your shoulders) to exercise a little artistic licence and make him look a little better than reality would have it. So what did Henry VIII really look like? And what about Henry V? William the Conquerer? If we go back 1,000 years then the process of creating paint the correct colour was beyond the means of most artists- never mind the fact that perspective was not truly understood. So how do we know that the image we have of Kings, Queens and the like are anything like the truth? So maybe the trend of photo retouching is simply continuing a tradition that has existed as long as artists have painted- that of making the image a little more than the truth.

2. The other question is a little more social sciences oriented: Why do women want their physical appearance to look like the images of women they see on the covers of magazines?

OK, there are many, many women who make a lot of money for nothing more than looking good and very few men (Name me one male supermodel? OK, now name me 10 female supermodels) but is that a real aspiration for women? There is a huge industry in making women thinking they need to primp, preen and pump themselves up- and don’t get me wrong, I like it (a lot) when I watch the transformation in a women as hair, makeup and the like get applied. And maybe guys just have it easier- can you imagine George Clooney spending more than 20 minutes getting ready for a night out? Even Samuel L Jackson gives the impression that looking that good doesn’t take effort.

I guess I just don’t get it. But that might explain why I am single

Comedy Talk Shows and Favourite Songs

Talk shows are a staple of modern day television and have been so for over 50 years: Johnny Carson defined the late night talk show for nearly 40 years in the US and Michael Parkinson similarly dominated in the UK for 25 years. Recently the trend has seen far more informal shows dominate, things like Jimmy Kimmel in the US or Jensen in the Netherlands (my dutch may be bad, but he conducts some of his interviews in english so I can watch along). In the UK this has been taken even further by a raft of talk show where the hosts are not even real people.

One of the first to do this was Dame Edna Everage who dominated talk shows in the late 80’s and early 90’s by mixing proper talk show conventions with some comedy that was only possible because the interviewer was actually a man in drag peforming as a comedy character. This approach was continued by Caroline Aherne/ Hook (a 20-something comedienne) who used her Mrs Merton persona (a senior citizen with few social graces) to ask truly outrageous questions; the finest of which was “So, Debbie, what was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

And now we have Al Murray using his ‘Pub Landlord‘ character as a host of chat show. The problem for Murray is that, unlike Parkinson or any of the late night show hosts in the US he is unable to command the quality of guests that a show typically needs to be successful. Whether this is because the guests have wised up after the experiences of Dame Edna or Mrs Merton is not clear but it makes for less interesting television. On the other hand he has come up with a couple of cool gimmicks; including getting all the musical guests to play 2 songs: 1 is normally the latest single that they are promoting, the other must be from the band who are, in the opinion of the Pub Landlord, the greatest band ever: Queen. So you could get Bryan Adams doing Fat Bottom Girls or Katie Melua doing Crazy Little Thing called Love.

Or the one that I liked best because it is my favourite Queen song: KT Tunstall doing Hammer to Fall. Which got me to thinking about my taste in music- it is very rare for me to agree with what is generally perceived to be the ‘best’ song or ‘favourite’ song by a band or singer. I would guess that Bohemian Rhapsody will be far and away the most popular Queen song- but not for me. When it comes to the favourite band of my youth (I got all their albums): The Beat (or The English Beat, depending on what side of the pond you are on) Mirror in the Bathroom is what most people will pick- not me, I love Save it For Later. Whether it is the rather risque lyrics that attracted a 13 year old boy or not I don’t know, but to this day it is still my favourite. And someone no less than Pete Townsend agrees with me. And he knows a little bit about writing songs (although a lot less about what you should or shouldn’t do on the internet). I’m thinking that I should stop that analogy right there. Onto The Eurythmics: I am going to guess that Sweet Dreams would be up there, but I’d pick When Tomorrow Comes. I never seem to get it right.

All of which pontification on musical taste has no real conclusion but leaves me wondering if I am yet again out of step with the majority of the world. Maybe it is the wiring in my head that makes me understand databases, but I still don’t fit in. And you know what? I am happy with that.

Quality TV – where are you?

What has happened? It seems that only a few short months ago I was luxuriating in TV shows that were defining a new style of television:

  • Life on Mars was the most inventive cop drama seen in years
  • Dirt may have left a bad taste in the mouth, but it was compelling
  • Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was more of the same from Aaron Sorkin; but when the same is that good, why not have more?
  • Weeds was devilishly wicked; ripping the veneer of suburban America to expose a disenfranchised (and largely high) society
  • Californication was able to show that even someone who we should consider as unredeemable has a decent side
  • Heroes was a cool 21st Century take on superheroes and comic books
  • Even ‘What About Brian‘ was a nice little guilty trip (and ‘October Road‘ continued the same theme) both of which were probably made more interesting (for me at least) by the presence of some extremely easy-on-the-eye actresses (Sarah Lancaster, Tiffani Thiessen and a grown up Laura Prepon)

Each week I would get home from working away and was faced with a dilemma: Which of the quality TV shows on my PVR would I watch first?

And now…. I tried to get into the recent BBC period dramas (‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’) and they didn’t take. I am probably the wrong demographic for either of them, but you can’t blame the source material- after all I love the BBC version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

I am trying to stick with Damages (that one might last, but I am not convinced yet), Mistresses (which is IMHO a bit of a chick flick on TV- maybe I am trying to get in touch with my feminine side… Yeah right) but only Torchwood (think ‘Doctor Who’ for grown ups) is getting anywhere near the peaks of last year. And part of the appeal of Torchwood is the impending arrival of Martha Jones (played by the wonderful Freema Agyeman– is there a theme working its way through my viewing habits?)

At least I will soon be moving into my apartment in the Netherlands where there will be no TV signal; just a TV, a DVD player and a pile of DVD’s that I haven’t got around to watching- and the DVD’s are often of TV shows- just the good ones 🙂 .

I can’t wait.

The Quality of Self Publishing and Californication on TV

Not that many people have noticed, but I haven’t had time to post anything in a while. A number of influences have resulted in me thinking about the quality of my (and others) posting in the blogosphere. And this may be a dangerous comment, given that most people reading this firmly inhabit the same world, but I think I should say it.

I have written this several times before- the difference between most, if not all, blogs and traditional media is the concept of an editorial process. In my “real” job I wouldn’t ever publish a technical document without it being peer reviewed, critiqued and going through several editing cycles. And yet, on my blog (here) I can publish all and any thoughts without any checks.

In some situations this is a good thing- the very act of spontaneously writing can be good. In many situations it is not.

Furthermore, I am in no way a professional writer. I have friends who are journalists and authors and I can recognise the additional quality, care and craft in the words that they use.

Finally, I was watching a TV show, Californication, that is somewhat about a professional writer who is “reduced” to writing a blog. At the end of many episodes he voices his latest blog posting. The following is a transcript of his supposed latest posting. I am not proposing that it is great literature- even I can see the derivative of Dickens in the third sentence- but as I sat and listened to it I realised that is was better than anything I have ever posted

Will this stop me from posting? No. Will it make me take a little more time and care over the words I write? I hope so. Unfortunately, the upshot of this is that the postings may be less frequent.

Good Morning LA. In the land of the lotus eaters time plays tricks on you. One day you are deaming, the next your dream has become your reality. It was the best of times, if only someone had told me. Mistakes were made, hearts were broken, harsh lessons learned.

My family goes on without me while I drown in a see of pointless pussy. I don’t know how I got here, but here I am; rotting away in the California sun. There are things I need to figure out- for her sake at least. The clock is ticking, the gap is widening. She won’t always love me, not matter what

I have had to create my own punctuation and I am not sure if the grammatical mistake (while/ whilst) is my mis-hearing, an intentional mistake on the part of the writer to convey a the nature of writing the blog or genuinely a mistake. But that notwithstanding, and overlooking one glaring omission, the passage of time, the changing dynamic of family and the discordance in our personal life all rang true. Or maybe I am reading too much into it, and as women frequently tell me “Get over it”. If only I knew what it was.

Microblog sites and the Creation of a new Community

I spent a short time recently getting Twitter (a ‘micro blogging’ site) to talk to Facebook. Obviously the desire to spend time integrating two Web 2.0 applications places me firmly in the category of ‘geek’, but let’s ignore that for now. What I began to think about is:

Who cares?

I mean, really, who cares what I am doing?

15 years ago I worked in remote parts of the world: The only contact we had was via the BBC World Service or Voice Of America (both on Short Wave radio) or if there was a real emergency via Single Side Band Radio to the country office. I was out of touch with the world for 2 months at a time.

And the world seemed to keep turning.

Now, we are being encouraged to post to the world in every minute detail. I just wonder what it is that gives us the arrogance to think that anyone else is remotely interested in what we are doing right now Or maybe I am just officially a Grumpy Old Man

I can understand the concept of creating a new online community of your friends, knowing what each of us is doing all the time. Maybe that is what neighbourhood communities were like 40, 50 or more years ago. Or maybe my vision of the world has so changed as a result of working away for long periods of time that I can’t actually work out how much “normal” people know about each other every day.

Contents of a Library

In the past an extensive collection of books in a library was a sign of both education and wealth.

Today a library will more often be made up from DVD’s and CD’s as well as books; but with the availability of multi channel TV on Demand, Video rental (from stores or on-line), iTunes and music sharing what do you really want to buy to put in your library. I propose that the DVD’s  that we buy fall into 1 of 2 categories:

  1. Movies/ TV Shows that we truly will watch many, many times. Typically these will be children’s films (because kids will watch the same film again and again and again) or guilty pleasures that we use as comfort food. Basically anything by Pixar, Disney or Dreamworks falls into this camp.
  2. Movies/ TV Shows that we want other people to see on our library shelf.  You might not ever get around to watching these DVD’s (you definitely won’t watch them often enough to justify the cost you paid) but they show that you are familiar with Truffaut/ Shakespeare/ Welles etc etc. I know that I will never watch the original version of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ often enough to justify the price I paid for it (not least of which is because it scared the bejeezus out out me) but it sure do look good on the shelf.

And sometimes, just very occasionally we get a DVD that falls into both categories. And when you do, it makes you very, very happy.

P Company

This goes firmly in the category of “things that make you laugh (but really shouldn’t)”

P Company is the selection process used by the Parachute Regiment (2 Para or 3 Para) to determine who is eligible to take parachute training. It is a brutal week seven weeks (thanks to Smudge for providing me the correct information) of physical and mental examinations to weed out anyone deemed unsuitable. Needless to say I have no idea of what these men go through and it is a long time since I had any pretensions of even starting such a test, never mind finish it.

There were two documentaries made in the early to mid 1980’s about this selection process, probably as a direct result of the Parachute Regiment’s involvement in the Falklands Conflict. The BBC made a 6 part documentary, Channel 4 made a 1 hour special. At the very end of the Channel 4 version a new recruit is shown taking his first training parachute jump. The process is well known: Jump, count to 3, look up and check your company. The following is what this new recruit said as he made his first jump

“One thousand. Two thousand. Three thousand. Check canopy”

Short pause as canopy inflates

“Thank f^c& for that”

And here is the video to prove it (the clip is right at the end), courtesy of You Tube.