Friday, October 26, 2012

The News Cycle

A church priest asks a local celebrity to open its fete

The priest reports this in the church's parish newsletter

The church puts it on its parish website

A local events portal site picks this event up and lists it

A blogger who fancies the celebrity tweets about the event

A local news website features it in its weekend preview

A local radio producer reads the website and regurgitates the story with a clever new angle that is entirely invisible to anyone outside the station

A local newspaper editor hears the radio

That local newspaper editor is the entire staff of the local newspaper and thinks this will fill up another page or two so runs it immediately

Local newspaper's website puts that copy online

The celebrity's Google Alert tells him or her it's up

Celebrity tweets a link

Celebrity's fans retweet

A lot

Celebrity's detractors make sarky comments about the parish fete

Two sarky comments make a newsworthy controversy, apparently

Local radio runs phone-in debate: Twitter – Any Better or Worse Since This Time Yesterday?

Regional television wants to interview the celebrity, settles for the priest

National television gets the celebrity

National newspapers see the broadcast and use story as excuse for photo spread

Newsnight sees the spread and plans feature but drops it on editorial grounds

National newspapers decry Newsnight's decision and prove it is BBC bias

The Sun demands BBC Sex Licence Fee be scrapped

Conservatives threaten BBC

BBC appoints special correspondent for parish fetes

ITV says BBC using unfair advantage

ITN realises it can just announce a special correspondent – who's ever going to check?

On the day of the event, BBC Breakfast and The One Show come live from the parish

BBC News 24 has a reporter on scene who reminds us it hasn't been called News 24 since 2008 but still nobody listens

Newspapers devote five pages to slamming the media for the cost of all this coverage

Three radio writers separately come up with the same idea for a radio play set at the fete but BBC Radio 4 isn't sure it's really for their audience

Seventeen TV writers separately come up with the same idea

Before noon, Andrew Davies is commissioned to write it for ITV

The celebrity appears at the fete and says maybe thirty words, half of which you couldn't catch

Twitter, Facebook and all entertainment blogs agree it was a speech right up there with the Declaration of Independence and that thing Beyoncé said that time

Twitter, Facebook and all entertainment blogs say it was a calamity right up there with that thing by the place where Katie Holmes went that time

Conservatives say it's proof that people can raise money for themselves and that they'll match the donations

The fete raises £37 from the public

The cash box is stolen before the end of the afternoon

Conservatives say this is proof that plebs can't be trusted and consequently there's no point matching any donations or providing health care or a national police service

The fete raises £1,912 from journalists drinking afterwards

The fete raises £9,177 from Young Conservatives drinking afterwards

That evening's episode of The Archers includes two specially-recorded sentences about the fete that sound exactly as if they were two specially-recorded sentences

The News Quiz makes a great crack about the fete the next day

Mock the Week makes a fair gag about it in the next series two months later

The parish puts the money toward replacing the lead stolen from the church

The new lead is stolen from the church

Four hundred online fan fiction writers retell the story of the fete with themselves now a terribly important part of it

The fete features in an end-of-year roundup on Five

In the new year, ITV runs an expose of the celebrity's past

Immediately after transmission, the BBC apologises unreservedly for the ITV documentary

On the first anniversary, ITV screens its drama version, now reworked as "Fete!", a period drama written by Julian Fellowes

On the second anniversary nobody does anything

On the fifth anniversary, the parish priest writes a Was It Really Five Years Ago? sermon

On the ninth anniversary, nobody does anything because, come on, it's the ninth

On the tenth anniversary, celebrities rush to be filmed talking about that great day

Local radio fails to get people to re-enact the events but tries to make it sound on air like it was a success

On the twentieth anniversary, the celebrity dies

Tributes to the celebrity centre on that time when there was, like, this fete and everything

The parish priest's successor decides to cash in on the story and asks another local celebrity to open its next fete

William Gallagher

Friday, October 19, 2012

Making tracks

In the late 1980s, when Angela and I were on one of our very earliest dates, we drove to Wales. I worked at a radio station then and had access to the kind of music library you could only dream of. Today you can dream of it and just glance up at your own iTunes collection. But at the time, this meant I could ask Angela to list her favourite 50 or maybe even 100 songs and know that I could get them all for her.

I did my own list too and that's what I got: not a tape of her favourites, but four or five cassettes filled with music that alternated between hers and mine. Whatever you thought of the current song, you knew one of your utter favourites was next.

It was a good idea and a nice day. But over the years, much as we played them, those tapes did slowly vanish in various house moves or when Angela's car was nicked. The original lists we wrote vanished even sooner. Neither of us have any idea what was on any of those tapes.

But when I say they vanished, actually one survived.

But when I say survive, I'm being generous. It has floated back into view every few years as we've moved or I've done some big rearrangement of my office furniture. I've always liked coming across it but it's been a moment of nostalgia rather than anything I can actually use: you've already guessed that we don't have anything that could possibly play a tape cassette. But there is also the more permanent fact that the tape broke very many years ago. At least fifteen years ago.

I spent four hours this week disassembling that cassette and attempting to get it to work again.

To be completely honest, I thought it would be easy. I used to work in a radio station. I must've cut tape thousands of times; I've edited music on reel to reel tapes where you physically find the beat and slice through that part with a razor blade. Right in front of my office Mac is a radio cutting block that I used to use for that sole purpose.

But the reel tape is wider than cassette tape and also stronger. I did undo all the plastic and get out the reels, I found the break in the tape and I laid it all out in the cutting block but it wouldn't bleedin' stay in long enough for me to do much.

Hours I spent getting to this stage. And when I had it down to just one break, I put some Sellotape over the join. You used to mark out where you wanted an edit by making a line with a yellow Chinagraph pencil and then you'd razor the bits apart and splice them back together with a very thin piece of white tape. That tape was exactly the width of the reel tape and you put it on lengthways.

I didn't have splicing tape. I do have Chinagraph pencils but I can't find them. So I did it by eye and I stuck down Sellotape lengthways, going across the join and then – I didn't have a bare razor either – trimming the tape with scissors.

You know how small C90 audio cassettes were, I now know they are incredibly fiddly. I also knew that it was going to be impossible to trim that Sellotape closely enough, there was always going to be tiny extra width where the join was. And I also knew that Sellotape is substantially thicker in depth than splicing tape so as I'd thread it all back onto the cassette's wee take-up spool, there was going to be a bump. It might be enough to throw the tape off the reel, it'd definitely be enough to cause a hiccup, and it might bend the little pieces of metal and plastic that are meant to hold the tape against the playhead.

There was no possibility that this tape would be properly repaired but hours of surgery should mean that I would be able to play it – once. Just play it once and get the track list off there.

I borrowed a tape player from my mom. She hasn't used it in decades and it was dustier than archaelogy but it did power up. She loaned me the speakers too but – um, she's not reading this, is she? – I wasn't entirely sure where they were. Plus, I was doing this in the middle of the night before Angela and I went away on holiday so to be quiet, I plugged headphones in.

It was unintelligible.

Like music being played backwards. I've heard that often enough, you used to wind tape by hand to get to the exact point you needed plus you'd rock it back and forth over a bit when you were judging the right moment to cut, so I knew what I was listening to. I just didn't know why.

And I still don't. Because even as I tried figuring out how I could've reversed the tape somehow, it managed to right itself after I'd held down fast-forward and play.

Well, I say it righted itself... Really it was just playing in the correct direction. You couldn't hear it well enough to enjoy it, but you could make out the songs. Most of them.

Alright, some of them. For a few of mine and for very many of Angela's, I had to use Shazam. Picture me in my office at 1:30am with one earpiece in my ear and the other pressed against my iPhone's microphone.

I don't want to tell you what the tracks were because I'd rather you imagined what you would've put on. But I will tell you that Shazam was convinced I'd chosen Liebe Fängt Im Herzen An by Nicole Freytag when actually it was Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen's main theme from Edge of Darkness.

That went on the list. As I nursed the tape through to the end and then realised, er, I had to now nurse it through again on the other side, I wrote down each track. I'd never go use Angela's computers without her knowing – it'd feel like going through her handbag – but our iTunes libraries use home sharing: if her Mac is on, my iTunes shows her entire library as a playlist and hers shows mine. So I could search across both our iTunes without giving the game away.

There were two tracks of mine that I didn't have. Plenty I didn't still listen to, but two I didn't have. There were six she didn't. I spent about a fiver on the iTunes Store getting hers and 79p getting one of mine. Amazing how those 79p and 99p amounts add up.

Edge of Darkness wasn't available anywhere. It doesn't appear to be available to buy in any format: you can sometimes get a vinyl EP on eBay but I already have that, that's what I taped it off in the first place. So I used an alternative means of acquisition.

Moving on.

This morning, as I write this, I got into the car with Angela and handed her my old iPhone 4 – looking like this.

That's an app which just plays whatever is on your iPhone's music library but displays a moving cassette and a "handwritten" title. I rigged it so that instead of it being many songs in a playlist and therefore the title would be just whatever the first song was, it said "Wales Tape Side A".

I wish we still had the original lists. I wish I hadn't chosen The Eve of the War from War of the Worlds. I wish I'd dragged the original version of Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing instead of her recent acoustic one (look, it was 2am and I was trying to be quiet, I saw that title and figured I know that one, that's easy, just drag it over and get back to trying to figure out who on Earth John Foxx is).

But by the time we reached Lancaster for lunch, we had driven through 1989, we were peeking back through the walls since then and reliving both a special Wales day and how we had met in another music library back at BHBN hospital radio.

You've gathered that Angela didn't know I was going to do this. Debbie, a friend online equally late at night, heard about it at length because I had to tell someone when I'd finally got it all working. Mark, a soundtrack fan who's really brought me back to the form after years away, worked with me on the Edge of Darkness lark though did not in any way consult or consort with alternative methods of provision.

And now you know too.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Choose your own ending

Prometheus has been released on DVD and the ads are trumpeting that you can watch an alternative beginning – and also an alternative ending. I chose an alternative middle and watched a different film altogether.

(ALL: “A different film.”)

I suppose that in one sense it all worked out very well indeed: I’m not a Ridley Scott fan. But this concept of slotting in new beginnings and new endings, it’s just wrong.

Periodically someone will announce a new drama where the audience votes for the ending. Similarly, you do still get some books that say “if you want to kill the monster, turn to page 94; to eat a nice supper with the monster and reminisce about old times, turn to page 17” but they are dying out faster than normal books.

There’s a reason for this.

Giving the audience a choice of endings or requiring them to make their own way through your story is bollocks.

The desire to do this kind of audience participation is invariably made by people who can’t write and wish they could. It’s also praised as a great new idea by people who think we’re so thick we won’t remember when it was tried last week. And by people who are themselves so thick that they don’t remember when it failed last week.

If you want alternative endings to work, click here.

If you want them to never be attempted again, please God, then click here.

If you’re undecided or only halfway through your biscuit, read on.

There’s a seventy percent chance that you didn’t click anywhere, that you just read on. And a 34 percent chance that you did so because who can be bothered to go clicking away?

Each click, each jump to page 94, each voting breaks the story: it takes you out of it and needs you to make a decision before then plunging back in. It is very, very hard to get anyone into any story so deliberately throwing them out and hoping they’ll come back is on the doomed side of foolish.

But my aggravation and my conviction that this is an impossible concept is because that stopping is as permanently disruptive and damaging for the writer. Now, the writer is paid to get back in there but the fact that they have to means to me that the story is shot through with bullet holes. If you’re not scooped up and carried along by the story and neither is the writer, there just is no story.

There are also no characters.


Follow. Let’s say that there’s been a murder, that I’m a rogueishly handsome detective, you are a suspect and let’s say that bit about me again because I liked it. Let’s say that this actual proper drama that in every way bar the aforementioned hunky me is in fact Columbo.Right from the top the watching audience knows whodunnit and right from about twenty minutes in, Columbo suspects whodunnit. For the next seventy to ninety minutes, it’s you and me. Toe to toe. Question to answer. Accusation to alibi. Move to counter move. You have to be a hell of a great character to keep us for the whole show.

Compare and contrast.

We’re now in Murder Most Randomly Selected. Britain’s Got Murderers. The X Ending.

There’s still been a dramatic murder. I am still good-looking. You are still a suspect. But now you are one of five suspects and not only could any of them have done it, every single one of them has done it –in one of the five alternative endings.

The murderer is instantaneously one fifth as interesting a character. They get less time on screen so they need less character so they have less character. Each of the five has to have all the setup to explain how – only cursorily why but always in detail how – they did the deed. So the murderer has one fifth of the plot too.

I think it’s even less than that, though. If anyone can have done the murder, anyone did and it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a puzzle to solve - where any answer is as good as any other.

Stories are not puzzles. They are not games. They can be both, they can be either, but if that’s all they are then they are not stories. Stories are about characters and if a character has one fifth as good a motive for killing as they should or murder – surely the most profoundly dramatic moment in their life – is instead just any old five to one shot, it’s not a story.

If it’s hard to get an audience into a story and it’s arithmetically harder to keep them there, then it is geometrically harder to create compelling or even just interesting characters. Anyone who believes one-fifth of a character is good enough is someone who can’t create full characters.

Two very good films would seem to give the lie to this, but hang on. Raiders of the Lost Ark was actually a series of terrific ideas for set-piece moments all strung together. The Bourne Identity had an alternative start and ending filmed.

But a writer strung those Raiders ideas together and the writer, director and producers planned and ultimately decided against the alternative Bourne.

It wasn’t the audience voting in the cinema to say they want the bit with the rolling boulder next, please.

You don’t have to like the choices the writer made but if they want the audience to make up the story they should hire them.

Not that I feel strongly about this, by the way.

Friday, October 05, 2012

What you can get away with in Elementary school

I would like to propose a small alteration. Instead of:

“When you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”

let us have:

“When you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, means you haven’t got the whole picture yet”

The Sherlock Holmes line works for him exclusively because he is fiction and written in a world conjured to fit only him. No one but Holmes is allowed to spot a clue, no one but him is allowed to correctly deduce anything. And the only clues that exist are precisely the ones that will lead him to the villainous criminal.

If there’s a spot of blood on a wall, for instance, it’s to do with this case. It cannot ever be that there was another unrelated gang killing in the same spot twenty minutes before.

Similarly, in the latest retelling of the tales, Elementary, Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) correctly spots that shards on the kitchen floor come from two wine glasses and that therefore the victim knew her assailant.

The deduction is correct only because Holmes made it. I deduce instead that, say, the victim saw it was wine o’clock, started knocking back a jar or two of the old vino until she was heading toward being legless and managed to smash her first glass. “Oh, well,” she says, throwing her arms wide with drunken abandon, “I’ve got another one just like that.” And off she goes, drinking from a new glass until the cycle would’ve repeated but for how she was murdered.

This is absolutely not possible, it is an entirely wrong deduction. But solely because Holmes didn’t make it.

This is the case with all fiction, it’s just that sometimes it’s taken to extremes. Sherlock Holmes is the world’s greatest detective primarily because he says so. I don’t know why people believe him – and yet they believe him to the degree that folk around the world really do write to this fictional detective asking for his help on real crimes.

You know that. You’ve heard that. I’ve never heard what those crimes are. You’ve got to suspect that they’re probably not on a par with his usual cases. I mean, they immediately lose some sense of urgency just since people are writing from overseas. They are also writing to a fictional character who by definition never lived but just to be sure was also killed off in 1893 but never mind that, focus on the overseas bit. Something that makes you write overseas for help is either going to be such a gigantic case that the police can’t help you or it’s going to be so piddling small that the police won’t help you.

It’s piddling small, isn’t it? Maybe it’s a variant on Occam’s Razor, but I would offer that if something is either epic and earth-shattering or dull as ditchwater, it is always going to be ditchwatertastic.


The greatest detective in the world gets asked for help finding lost poodles instead of hounds. He also, lest we forget, doesn’t exist. From this, he gets his reputation.

I have had friends I liked very much, and even admired, to whom you could say: “A Study in Scarlet, page 63” and they would tell you what was on the page. It’s a kind of religious devotion in that it has the same remarkable accuracy of the devoted the same willingness to ignore elephants. Fans speak of Holmes’s brilliance yet even with all the clues laid out for him – only for him and only the right clues – still Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to cheat over some plot points.

The Sherlock Holmes short stories don’t hold me. I have enjoyed the novels much more but they have left me blinking at plot chasms and that niggles at me, it gnaws at me, actually it flat-out maims my interest.

Just not because I like plots.

The more I write, the less I am interested in plots. It’s character that matters to me and actually dialogue. Have I said this to you before? Were we in a pub at the time? If I don’t believe what a character is saying, I don’t believe the character. If I don’t believe the character, I don’t care what happens to them. Have a fantastic plot, I’m already gone.

Always, always, I just want to be scooped up by the characters and into the world of the story. Without question, I’ve utterly missed plot holes because I’m caught up in the tale. I’m fine with that. I’m more than fine with that. I might wonder about it technically if you point it out to me afterwards, but whatever you get away with in a film is fine by me.

I’m plainly just not that taken with the character of Sherlock Holmes or I wouldn’t mind, I wouldn’t notice failings in the tales or their retellings.

You know I’m right. You just also know that I haven’t written anything that’s lasted 125 years, been filmed over 200 times and has one high-profile and very successful British TV version plus a very high-profile and at least initially quite successful American TV version at the same time.