Friday, September 28, 2012

Paperback writer: The Beiderbecke Affair is published today

I think it was about November 10, 2010 when I looked at my watch, saw I was late leaving my office and yet as I stood up to go, still thinking, what the hell, make one more phone call. I rang the British Film Institute, as you do, and proposed a book.

It's September 28, 2012 now and that book is on sale: BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair.

This is true: I am shouting about the book's release everywhere I can and I'm doing it obviously because I want the book to be a success but also this is about The Beiderbecke Affair and, stuff me and my involvement, if I hadn't written it I would today be buying it to read. So I take every opportunity to tell everyone who might be as interested as I would be.

But not this time. Not this particular time. Listen, it's just you and me here, I will add all the links to the book and the videos and the podcasts that I've produced but I'd like to just talk to you about what all this means to me. One book is very much like another and if I find revelatory insider details to tell you, well, they are probably revelatory insider details you already knew. In which case, the question is less why I'm telling you and more why you didn't tell me.

I guarantee that you don't know that I am writing to you from the tearoom at Winterbourne. Bugger. You know now.

It's just a rather strange day. Yesterday I hadn't written a book, today I have. That's obviously not how it works but it's how it feels and I am surprised to say that it's only on publication that I'm realising the difference between this and most things I've done. Up until this book and my Doctor Who work, everything I've done has been ephemeral.

Follow. My favourite gig at Radio Times was On This Day, a piece in the daily listings about the history of television as reported in RT and it was very much as if I would bound up to you with a new morsel of information. I vividly remember going to look up The Glittering Prizes, an especially famous drama from 1976 and discovering that it began on the same day as Kizzy. Turning that page, seeing that listing, I was right back in 1976.

I hoped then and I still hope now that maybe you got the same or a similar rush from seeing something that I brought to your attention. But I didn't do it today. I can't remember when that gig finished but if you wanted to read any of it now you'd have to go to some trouble looking up eBay listings for old Radio Times. Many, many people buy and sell old Radio Times copies and not one of them does it to get their hands on one of my On These Days.

Similarly, all my Ceefax work was gone the day it was done. You can still look up BBC News Online pieces but why would you?

Whereas, for good or bad, my book is here. It will go out of print but even when that happens, it has queered the pitch for anyone else wanting to write about The Beiderbecke Affair. It's me or it's nothing. I was aware of that when I originally phoned the BFI, I was aware of it as I wrote – of course you want to get things right but you have to, you have to, you have to since nobody else is going to cover the same topic – but I think I only really felt it now.

Shirley Rubinstein, Beiderbecke writer Alan Plater's widow, told me that I am now forever bound up with Beiderbecke. I am not bound up with One Direction or whoever I last wrote about on I'm okay with that. I gulped a bit when she told me because it's true. Whether my book is good or bad, it is the only book on this topic. If you Google the words "Beiderbecke Affair" you do get me.

Wait. Let me try it. I'm writing on my iPad, newly, freshly tethered over my iPhone in a way that lets me think I'm online but actually takes just long enough to connect to anywhere that every page becomes an exciting, tantalising, cliffhanging mystery as it sloooooowly appears.

Google: "The Beiderbecke Affair"

I am there. But I'm ninth in the search results and that's way below the fold, you would never scroll down past eight other fully Beiderbecke references feeling somehow dissatisfied until you reached me.

So that's alright then.

What am I worrying about?

Alan Plater was a friend. Shirley Rubinstein is. The Beiderbecke Affair made a big difference to my career: my very first big magazine article was about it. Actually, my book is about The Beiderbecke Affair, it's about Alan Plater and it's published by the British Film Institute and that very first article was too. It was about Alan and Beiderbecke, it was published by the BFI.

I actually think that Beiderbecke becomes personal to anyone who watches it. Or at least anyone who watches and enjoys it. That first one, especially. Without anything really seeming to happen, huge things go on and the Beiderbecke world is warmly enveloping. I have a habit of picking up lines from dramas and finding that they are in my everyday speech, my own ideolect, and there are plenty of Beiderbeckeisms that have come tripping out of me over the years.

This is all unconscious and I never know why it's happening, I routinely say something I know is a quote but I can't place it. But I am conscious of one line in particular. It's not from Beiderbecke but it is an Alan Plater line and I used it in the book most deliberately.

I used it in the dedication: "This is dedicated to Angela, Alan, Shirley and all passing by – as am I."


Buy BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair
Watch the Author Video about the book
Subscribe free to the Beiderbecke podcast on iTunes

Friday, September 21, 2012

J'queues Apple

Standing in the cold and being jeered at just so you can pay some outfit hundreds of pounds for rubbish even though they rip you off every year by making some pathetic tiny change to, I don’t know, a colour or something. It is beyond me why anyone goes to football matches.

It has been said – often and loudly and forcibly - that queuing outside an Apple Store to buy a new iPhone on launch day is silly. It is. But as silly things go, I mean if you were looking to be right daft, if you yearned for world-record breaking silliness, it’s not really up there with voting Republican or LibDem. It’s pretty mild silliness, really.

Maybe you could feel sillier by pointing out that Apple is laughing all the way to the bank. But then banks are laughing all the way to themselves. There’s a lot of jollity out there. Not a great deal of it seems to be reaching us individually but in a time when things are rather hard, the fact that anyone both wants to and can go queue to spend dosh, well, it is silly but I think it’s a lot of other things first.

Especially since we all give companies money every day and at least this way has some theatre to it. Some style. I met a guy this morning who said he wouldn’t queue even if they were giving the iPhone 5 away – but he was the owner of a mobile phone shop and there was a bewildered longing in his voice as he watched hundreds of people walk past his store.

And there were hundreds in Birmingham today.

Usually when I go through the city at that time of the morning, it’s probably a cold and quiet place but I’m so three-quarters-asleep that I don’t notice. Today at 05:45 it was alive. Still bleedin’ cold, but alive.

Some years ago I queued for an iPhone at an O2 store on New Street. It was a blast. There must’ve been a hundred people and we gassed away. Met such interesting folk I’d never normally come in contact with. Promised to stay in touch. But I was talking about this with a friend today and had been about to say something about that time we queued there when I realised that we hadn’t. I’d queued in Birmingham’s New Street, he’d queued somewhere else. But he and I had nattered on the phone in the queue, many of my hundred were nattering equally to the people around them and on phones. It was just a buzzing, happy, shared experience.

With a hundred people.

I can tell you that times have changed. Back then, whenever it was, I fancied a new iPhone. Today, I need one. (Need is a relative term, but.) With my new unexpectedly financially savvy head on, I schlepped through all the maths about tariffs and handset costs and total-cost-of-ownership. And the other year, I also worked out how often I actually use my iPhone. I counted. On one day. It was 230 times.

So over the two-year contract, I used it 167,900 times.

It’s still such an integral part of my work that as I have it in my left hand looking up emails, I’ve often found myself reaching into the pocket to get it out to do something else too.

Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve done repeatedly and very successfully is drop the poor thing. It is now a bruised and limping iPhone. Hardly a scratch on it, but the innards are wobbly and I somehow broke the Home button.

So trust me, I need a new one. Forget NFC, if you even know what that is, the killer features I needed in the iPhone 5 were: availability and my being out of contract.

Consequently, today, this morning, getting up at my sometimes usual time of 05:00, I decided to do it. I could’ve just ordered online and had a chat with the postman in eleven to eighteen days time, but instead I went in to Birmingham city centre to have a great time with one hundred people and come back with something I actually know will be a part of my every working second for the next couple of years.


It’s 05:45.

Birmingham city centre.

And there are not 100 people queuing, there are 1,600. If you know the city, let me explain that the line stretched up out of the Bullring, around the statue of the Bull which is an unacknowledged and actually a bit bowdlerised ripoff of the one in New York’s Bowling Green area, then up New Street toward Corporation Street and lastly take a left up the ramp to the train station.

I did a fast estimate, realised that even if this were the greatest crowd of people in the world to talk to, there was physically no possibility that I could queue here for an iPhone 5 and get back to my office in time for a scheduled Skype interview.

It is not silly to queue up with a group of strangers, it is fun. It is not silly to buy an iPhone, it’s my business. I’m not even going to say that it’s silly to take the entire day to do it, but I am going to say that it wasn’t possible. Not for me.

So instead I am at home in my office and actually I’m writing this to you while I wait for that Skype interview which is currently two hours late and feels unlikely to be happening. Thank you for being my distraction.

One thing occurs to me. You will not have to look far to find people saying that folk who buy Apple products are fans who have been taken in by the advertising. It’s a child’s argument and especially so as it comes with a concomitant suggestion that by not buying an Apple iPhone you are in some way superior. Gosh. If only I were as brave as you.

Yet think about what it would mean if it were true. What it would feel like if Apple did this, if Apple got 1,600 people queuing outside just one of its shops purely because it did a nice ad campaign. You’d have to feel pretty good about yourself if you were Apple. But you don’t have to buy your iPhone from them at all.

That guy who wouldn’t queue if they were free knows that they aren’t free because he sells them too. You could buy an iPhone from his shop. In sight of his window, there were 1,600 customers that keen to buy an iPhone and precisely 1 queuing outside his shop.

Where was the marketing magic for him?

More, think about what it would feel like if your business did have this magical advertising and it did work for you, it did get crowds coming to your door with open credit cards – and then you lost them all.  For as I walked up that line of 1,600 people, I passed the same O2 shop I’d queued at last time and there was no one there.

You can hype all you want and you might even get phenomenal business out of it – but you'll only get that once. If you keep getting queues and today's is sixteen times longer than the last one you got, you're doing something better than choosing a nice photo for your posters.

Sent from my bruised old iPhone 4

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Premiere: video trailer for The Beiderbecke Affair

UPDATE: Try as I might, I can't make that video look as shiny as it does here on my Mac where I've been editing it. But I can make it look better: would you watch it on my Facebook author page, please? Head right this way.


I really should be promoting my own book here – listen, it's BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair and it's out on 28 September in the UK – but I've also got to urge you to buy the Network DVD release of The Beiderbecke Affair. I couldn't recommend that more if they were paying me. Though actually, Network was a great help to me with the book: they couldn't have been more help if I'd been paying them.

Network DVD is a UK firm so I presume you can't usefully buy that in the States or Canada but fortunately you can get my book everywhere. It's out 30 October in America and in Canada too.

Before all of that, I'm going to be speaking at the PowWow LitFest in Birmingham on 23 September swapping live on stage between a Beiderbecke hat and a Doctor Who script writing one.

Other events and much more Beiderbecke to follow but, seriously, that's enough linking for one day.

Funny. By the time the book comes out in the US, it will have been near enough two years since I phoned the British Film Institute with the idea to write it. I can see me standing up by my desk, needing to get out to a meeting but thinking I'd just try them while it was on my mind.

And I do very clearly remember weighing up whether to pitch the idea at all. If you're going to do a book about something, you have to love it enough to be willing to hate it. To accept that by the end of the process, you will scream if you ever hear the title again. It's inevitable: so much goes into your head during the researching and the writing; plus no project is ever straightforward so there will be many times when you wonder if it's bleedin' worth the trouble.

Or so I thought.

I suspect now that The Beiderbecke Affair may be the very best introduction to book writing that I could've had. The BFI is great to work with, everybody I spoke to about Beiderbecke was enthusiastic and informative and charming. I cannot draw to mind a moment that didn't work as planned – that didn't work exactly as hoped.

Certainly, there were problems getting everything in and getting everything done to deadline. There was the moment when I got to read every script of the show bar the last ten pages of episode four which have somehow vanished from the archives. There was the moment when I was conflicted: I'd either already written or had extremely thoroughly allotted every chapter, every section, practically every word but I'd also now just found a previously unpublished Beiderbecke short story by Alan Plater.

It was murder cramming that in. Also rather a new experience for me: I've commissioned hundreds of thousands of words of journalism from all sorts of writers but not once before had I ever had to negotiate rights to publish someone's fiction. I'm writing this to you in my living room and I remember making the first phone calls about that story while hovering around the window and looking out at the rain.

Actually, if you want to build a picture here, I'm sitting in the seat I bounded out of when Diana Dunn phoned me. Did I tell you this already? Complicated story. She ended up phoning me because of someone else I'd been tracking down for the book and she honestly did not expect me to even know who she was. "DIANA DUNN!" I said calmly.

I've probably seen The Beiderbecke Affair thirty times now, and only twenty of them over the last two years. The other ten were spread out since it first aired in the 1980s and long before I even imagined writing a book. And each time I'd catch an episode, I'd see Diana's name on the credits for having designed that terrific title sequence.

I'm sure I've told you that. I'm sure I should be telling you all this kind of thing in about two weeks when the book actually comes out. But you've just got that kind of face, I feel I can tell you anything.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Anything can happen in the next 50-minute hour

TRACY ISLAND – I've complained about the swimming pool again. It's forever drained and, god, it's a health and safety nightmare the way they just leave this massive hole in the ground. The whole island is a disaster. I got hit by a palm tree yesterday.

And I don't know where this island is – literally, it's a secret, that's its big selling point on TripAdvisor – but wherever it is, it's on one hell of a flight path. I was having afternoon tea in this lovely elevated building, a circular restaurant with the most gorgeous views, when the whole place shook from a jet's sonic boom. I tell you, it was so loud I would've believed you if you'd said the jet had taken off underneath me.

As it was, at least five windows shattered. You'd think they'd do something about that but the one guy here who seems approachable has this almighty twitch. They call him Brains, which I think must be a cruel joke, he's probably a bit, you know, and they dumped him here. I suppose he can just about cope with serving cream teas but plainly he's not got it in him to phone up the airport and complain.

I should probably help him there. But, dammit, I'm on holiday. My first holiday in seven years. Can't say I'd planned to take one just yet, some of my patients really need me right now, but the practice did insist. They're paying for everything, too. It's a really generous firm.

They're so generous that I feel a bit bad wondering if there is more to this than they said. I keep passing people who plainly need some therapy but maybe that's the curse of the job. Give it a few more days here in the sun, and I'll stop thinking of everyone as a patient.

It would help a lot if there were more than one bar here, though. I could murder a drink now but he'll be in there again. General Scarlet.

I bought the line last night, I asked the question he wanted me to: "How did you get that name?"

"Started as Captain, rose through the ranks."

Fine. A comedian. He did have a good taste in Scotch and I didn't spot it was going on my tab. So we drank on and he does tell some terrific stories. Really wild things, like war stories but with a hell of a twist. I asked if he'd been in Iraq but no. I couldn't place his uniform. NATO in Afghanistan? "Sometimes," he said. "My fight is not with other humans."

I was starting to like him then: here's a military man with a humanitarian outlook. I was going to stand him dinner when – seriously, you can't make this up – he got out a razor blade and ran it over his hand. Cool as you like. And not kidding. Not a trick. He meant to cut and he did it. Blood everywhere.

"Are you mad?" I yelled.

"I self-harm," he said.

"Apparently so." I reached over the bar, grabbed a towel rag and tried to bandage him up. "Why would you do that?"

"If you'd seen the things I'd seen, done the things I'd done -"

"Yeah, right, yeah, lots of army guys have problems. Don't worry, the bleeding's stopped. We'll get you to a doctor."

"Plus, I'm indestructible."

Well, I ask you. I think I nodded encouragingly, maybe said "that's the spirit", you know the kind of thing. And I got him to the island's sickbay before getting the hell out of there. I feel for him, but these weirdos can suck you down.