Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Shock - I'm in Radio Times

What do you mean, I work for the magazine? And the website? Somehow there's a big difference being in the magazine and being in the magazine: my podcast show is featured on the mag's radio pages.

It's just a short mention in this week's new issue and I wouldn't have expected to be so thrilled but after years of writing for the magazine, including plenty on the radio pages, this is me getting into the mag's radio section for a show I make. Specifically for a show I write: I would hope you can never tell UK DVD Review is scripted but it is and that's one reason I do it. After all, if you want to write scripts, practicing with a 100-odd of them and doing them every week without fail is quite educational.

Before you ask, yes, I knew I had a chance of getting in there. But that podcast page has been in the mag for a year, if this were only because I work for RT wouldn't I have been in before now?

And I didn't know it would be in this week's. Hence a mad dash yesterday morning to create a page for the address they'd given. If you'd like to see what awaits curious Radio Times readers, here's the temporary new podcast page


Friday, August 24, 2007

Picture this

Just came across this, a New York Times blog about photography. Well, it's headlined as a blog but it reads as an essay, what I used to know as a think piece. What's happened to think pieces?

This one fascinates me and the reason I want to point you at it is because of its unstated relevance to journalism and writing. It's a photography essay but it isn't about f-stops and lenses, it's about truth and lies. Not a simple, overly familiar tract for or against Photoshop, it posits that truth exists only outside the picture: it's in the context, not the image.

Blog writer Errol Morris, who's a filmmaker by the way, says it much better than I do.


Who'd want to be a writer?

Have you seen this? Reportedly 10% of Britons dream about being a writer, according to a new YouGov survey. That makes writing the most longed-for job in the UK, but what do you think is the second most popular?

It's "Sports Personality".

Now, I'm wary of reading too much into this because I don't know how the YouGov poll was done: just to make the data manageable, I would expect there was a specified list to choose from rather than it just being open season. (An example aside. Olive magazine ran a poll recently covering twenty-odd topics such as favourite chef, best cookery book, and so on. But because the answers were all free text, I got hired for an entire day to sort out the results. Best chef, for instance, would have several thousand answers and no way to sort out G Ramsay from Gordon from Sweary Bloke from Gardin Romsory other than by eye. I got statistically significant and provable results from about 19 of the 20 questions; one of them was impossible because of how they'd done it like this.)

So maybe it was YouGov that set up tick boxes for Writer, Sports Personality and so on. I hope so. I don't like it if it's true, but the alternative bothers me because of that word personality. Either YouGov or its respondents chose sports personality over, for instance, sportsman or woman. The personality aspect appealed more than the prospect of getting your teeth punched out in rugby. It's almost hard to believe.

That word colours what I think of all the results, which by the way continued with pilot, astronaut, and event organiser in that order.

You're ahead of me, aren't you? This isn't about work, it's about glamour. Writing is a glamorous job and The Guardian's coverage of this poll suggests that JK Rowling's success has a lot to do with that image, especially with women. I understand that yet it almost feels like it's reducing her effort somehow. Her success, if you think of the glamorous side, is being interviewed everywhere, praised through the roof and earning a lot of money. But when I think of her, I think of her work: those years of writing, that sheer bloody hard slog and the way to stay creative and imaginative and fun when dealing with that weight of storytelling. I admire her, I have no idea what she's earned from Harry Potter but I hope it's a lot and I am sure she really did earn it.

It's not as if I'd turn down an interview, it's not as if money wouldn't ease a few problems, but that's not what I think of when I think about writing as a job. And I never think of being a sports personality because that would surely involve some sports. Though I did discover an unexpected knack for pool this week.

Perhaps I'm naive, or perhaps this is all just another way of commenting on the notion that people seem to want fame and don't have any interest in what form it takes. I got really narked the other week, hearing Jade Goody talk about her career: how can she apply that word? What work has she done?

But on occasion I have been told by people that they would love my job. Given that I wouldn't change what I do for the world, I am still invariably surprised that they say this. Perhaps that's all I'm thinking tonight over this poll, why would you want to be a writer?

Here's what I think writing is. Imagine when you were in the kitchen this morning, you heard a joke on the radio so good that it made you choke. And all you could think of was that you've got to tell it to the friends you're meeting tonight in the pub.

And they don't get it. "Right, good one. Great. Really. So who do you think will win Big Brother?"

You've had this, you can feel what it's like. But now imagine the same thing with one difference: you didn't hear the joke on the radio, you made it up. And they didn't like it.

And now one last change. You still made up the joke, you still went to tell these people but they're not friends, they're editors. And this wasn't a spontaneous gag you thought up, it was your job to find something funny and the fact that they don't laugh directly affects whether you can pay the mortgage.

That's what I think writing's like.

Mind you, you do get to work at home a lot.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Holby blues

So I'm thinking that I gave you the impression I'm rubbish at interviews, is that right? Given that you know the truth is always going to be somewhere in between, may I offer some anecdote about when I've been good at the job?

Because I actually am - or at least I am enough times that I can vividly see when I am not. Obviously I'm thinking primarily about work but something I'm also proud of in everyday life is that I am often able to see and to ask that certain right question. The question that nobody else has thought of and yet which the moment I've asked it, becomes the question everybody should've asked. That's an amazing feeling.

I get it a lot with my family, too. It's terribly gratifying to derail an entire conversation with one innocent little question that re-paints the whole topic. As you can imagine, it's only me who finds it fun, but there you go, you have to take what you fun you can.

And there is one situation I want to tell you about where I believe I did this but practically nobody else in the room did.

I say room, it was really a ward: I was at a press event once for the start of Holby City and we were in the fictional hospital's wards. (It's filmed in Elstree in a tower block that still holds EastEnders production offices and once housed the Top of the Pops ones. In fact, I'm almost certain it was the TOTP floor that was given over to Holby City. Gutted out, reworked with hospital gear, it's vastly more substantial than any studio set might be and because it's all around you, you start believing you're in a ward. It's many years since I was there but I was talking to an actor doing a regular guest spot recently and she said it's still precisely as odd when you get in the lift in a BBC reception and get out in hospital.)

So anyway, I think I was there representing BBC News Online, maybe BBC Ceefax, and there may have been a dozen more journalists with me. All or most from newspapers. And after a presentation of an episode or various clips, we got an en masse interview with some of the main cast. They'd sit in front of us, we'd sit in a semi-circle and ask our questions one by one.

George Irving was playing Anton Meyer at the time; he played him well and I have a lot of time for the guy but the quickest way to remind you who the character was is to say he's the typical gruff, unpleasant but brilliant surgeon.

You've heard actors say that interviews are just another performance, I'm sure, but with my position somewhere in the middle of the row of journalists, I had plenty of time to watch him act. And he did. Because he played a surgeon, he was asked if he'd ever wanted to be one. Had he learnt any medicine working on the show. Did he see any real operations. There was doubtlessly one about his love life but I can't even make one of those up.

He answered everything graciously, smoothly, giving every appearance of being full engaged with the journalist. But from where I sat, way over here, I believed I could see he wasn't. Don't misunderstand: he wasn't any inch less than professional, friendly, serious, but these were truly trivial questions that you or I could've made up answers to, let alone an actor who'd already gone through similar press events there earlier that same day.

And then it came to me.

I asked him about the way his character was always the scowling, sullen, brooding type: would it be difficult to keep that rigid persona interesting over a long run?

You can guess the answer and all I can really remember is that he gave a good one but what was great was seeing this man's mind switch back on: he was snapped out of the routine answer and into actually thinking about what I'd asked, it was tremendous. And then snapped back into routine by the fella next to me.

That's it. I just remembered that today and wanted to share. Incidentally, Angela Griffin was interviewed at that time and every question was about some boyfriend or romance or something. I talked to her afterwards and said that I hoped she has a happy lovelife but that I'd manage to make it through another day without knowing anything about it. I remember her nodding vigorously and appearing to look forward to what intelligent questions I would have for her.

I can't win 'em all.


Interviewing Stephen Fry

I should really have written this to you before or at least during BBC4's Stephen Fry Weekend but watching it reminded me. When I interviewed Stephen Fry for Radio Times about two years ago, everybody at the magazine treated me as if it were my very first interview with anyone. And here's the thing: so did I. 

Once a group of us counted how many words we'd actually had published: I can't remember theirs or how exactly we were able to work it out, but mine was closing in on a million and this would've been in the early 1990s. So I'm not inexperienced. And RT knows that well, I've had a lot of praise from editors on that over the years and I have written some good, strong pieces. But I suppose this was Stephen Fry.

And I suppose you don't often get to interview people you admire; I can only think of three people now. Dar Williams was a treat, I liked her even more after interviewing her. Trevor Eve, not so much. Well, actually so much that I'm surprised to say I ever did admire him. Maybe I just admired Shoestring.

And Stephen Fry.

Well, actually, I also interviewed Alan Plater in the mid-1980s and he was and remains a favourite writer but he's also a pal now so I kind of forget I ever did that. And you, plainly, when we've spoken I've been a bit tongue-tied but I've hid it well, I think, and I won't embarrass you by singling you out now.

Lots of people at RT told me I'd be okay, it'd be fine. One man said the trick to interviewing Stephen Fry was to ask a question and hit record on your tape. When the tape runs out, thank him and go. Not to nip ahead too far here, but that was pretty close to what happened: the man can spew. So can I, for that matter, but I don't sound like I had six weeks notice of your question and had researched it: his answers were all very fast but very considered and, to be honest, probably stronger than the questions really warranted.

I was asking him something about smart TV: he'd just been voted the cleverest man on the telly by readers of poll and my questions had to fall into two types: 1) how does that feel? 2) er, what else can I ask about and still stay on the topic?

Oh! I forgot this bit, seriously it's only just come back to me: I specifically was ordered not to ask that first part until the very end. It was thought, it was feared, that he'd be either too modest or just too unhappy with the poll to talk very much. And in the end he was extremely modest, very self-effacing and yet able to convey exactly the but-it's-really-nice that made me feel I was doing good.  But it meant I had to build up to that and I know we talked about what you might call smart TV, and what you'd definitely called dumbed-down TV. 

And I think I might as well have been on my first interview. I swear to you that it was because his answers were so good that I let him talk and talk but when I play back the tape it sounds like I'm simpering. And when I did interrupt him to steer the conversation somewhere else, my memory was that he'd said "Please do" (or something) and that it was the first time this had really become a conversation. But, again, listening back, he says "Please do" and it's more like thank-God-he's-asked-a-question-at-last. There's a chance I'm projecting.

Similarly, there was a point where he was making an analogy between dumbed-down television and health & safety rules. "Got to stop you there," I said. "My wife is a health and safety inspector." (Which she is, except when she's teaching jewellery-making. Have a look at her jewellery site.) And if you'd asked me ten minutes later, I'd have told you I just made Stephen Fry do an about-face on a topic.

Ask me the next morning, again after the tape, and no. He was slightly more complimentary to HSE but basically carried on precisely the same line: that companies use health and safety as an excuse for the most ridiculous things. I can't disagree, I don't want to disagree: remember all that stuff about HSE banning conkers in schools? Utter nonsense: the head of the school did it and blamed HSE. 

He said in one part of this BBC4 weekend that he's at pains to make people like him, that he goes to probably unhealthy and definitely unnecessary lengths to win you over. I was won when we nattered about iPods before starting the interview and much later when we were at his RT photo shoot, he gave me an including kind of look. I can't fault the man, I do like him, I continue to admire his writing just as much as I ever did.

But I can't see him without thinking I did a poor job and being very disappointed in myself. I did a rubbish job with Dar Williams for that matter: I think the interviews with her went well and I really enjoyed them but I never found the spine for the feature that followed so it reads a bit wet.  I've done a phone interview with Hugh Laurie too. He thought I was an idiot but was far too polite to say so.

So, conclusion 1: I should practice my interviewing more. When are you available? And conclusion 2: never listen to the bloody tape afterwards.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Decaf untempered schism

Red ready to read

Right then, that's my Red Planet ten pages written. How're you doing with yours?

I've also just written up my next Radio 4 proposal. Twice a year, by long tradition, I pitch something to Radio 4 and they turn it down. They like to kid. And while I'm not trying to knock my chances, straight statistics are against me and if I didn't love Radio 4 so much I'd look for an easier life.

But there is an unpalatable fact, or at least there has been for me, in these offers rounds. I can't remember how many I've been through, I could tell you a couple of horror stories along the way, but each time you do have to come up with something new. Many, many Radio 4 producers tell me this isn't true: they've often liked an idea of mine enough that they've recommended putting it up the next time. But if you're in this position, don't waste your shot: no matter how much the producers mean that today, when the next round comes by, your once-failed piece will be up against brand-new, exciting offers and there will be an inescapable whiff of staleness about yours.

I'm not saying you should abandon an idea forever; there's one I swear to you is not only good, not only perfect Radio 4, but also impossible to do anywhere in the world except on BBC Radio 4. My producer on that one still speaks fondly of it and has faith it will get somewhere. Sometime.

But actually, none of the ideas I've ever put forward are that bad. Usually I hate something the second I've entered it, and certainly when it's been rejected. And yet unless I'm mentally blocking out the worst ones, which is far from impossible, then a quick mental flick through the back catalogue is quite encouraging. Plenty of things I wouldn't do the same way now, lots of topical stuff that wouldn't fly today at all, but good and smart ideas.

And that's the unpalatable bit. Many times I honestly think R4 should've gone for a piece of mine - I did get a message back from an editor once saying that she regretted not commissioning me - but each time they reject you the pressure mounts to do better next time. And each idea I pitch is genuinely better than the last.

So I've been in a strop the last month or two, prevaricating over Red Planet, fretting over a book, worrying that I can't cap the R4 idea I tried last time.

But I think I have. It's actually far too early to say that, I've just written a one-page pitch and not a single page of script. But I can hear that script in my head and in reaching to do better, stronger, deeper, I have just ended up with a paragraph that chokes me.

Of course you might read it and only be able to smile politely while backing away, but I've never before gone for choking and it feels like when I move up a level in Scrabble on my Mac. Harder to win, yes, but the easier levels have irrevocably lost their appeal.

I cannot decide if this is a good or bad thing.