Thursday, January 24, 2013

And the winner is... instantly forgotten

Downton Abbey beat Doctor Who and Sherlock to the prize of Best Drama at the National Television Awards this week and the odds are that you know that. Skyfall was snubbed at this year’s Baftas and that made the news too. Lincoln looks a shoo-in for a Best Picture Oscar even though Les Mis probably deserves it.

But name last year’s NTA drama winner. Or Bafta. Or Oscar.

I used to know this stuff. I worked for Radio Times, I worked for BBC News Online’s entertainment section, I had this stuff at my fingertips and it was important. Today I can’t tell you without cheating – and I don’t only mean searching Google for last year’s winners. I just had to search for this year’s nominees too.

In 2010 or 2011, I cut a short promo video for Radio Times that had Dermot O’Leary calling for us all to vote in the NTA Awards. The script was funny and clever, he delivered it very well but I knew I wouldn’t vote. I studied that video almost frame by frame: it was the first time I’d replaced green screen with a new background and the studio’s green backdrop was crinkly, sometimes a shard of green poked through the video. So even now I can bring to mind every gesticulation, every beaming smile, every joke of that video. But I still wasn’t persuaded to even watch that year’s NTA.

I’ve stopped watching the Baftas. Haven’t seen the Oscars in a century. For a while I did regularly take part in a twitter fashion critique where a huge number of people and this one straight man discussed the Oscar frocks in the red-carpet coverage. But I’d switch off after that, only partly driven away by how the banality of the red-carpet presenters make you ashamed for your species.

It’s not as if presenters of the main awards shows are all that much better, except when they are: I would’ve stayed up for the Golden Globes this year if I’d realised how great Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were going to be.

But this is the good stuff you can check out on YouTube the day after. Someone else does the watching of the show and someone else does the compiling of the good bits. Everyone else, absolutely everyone else lists the winners and talks about what a significant and great result it is or isn’t for Britain, about how it does or doesn’t send a signal about what will do well at the Oscars.

I’m not exactly on my own in awards disinterest: ratings for TV coverage is trending lower each year. But you wouldn’t know that from the number and length of news reports so I feel as if I stand alone.

I can’t help that. Maybe it’s because the voting is always the same. I wasn’t very keen on Skyfall but you knew its Oscar buzz was nonsense: no Bond film will ever win Best Picture. I am very keen on Safety Not Guaranteed but even as it moved me and I’d surely call it tremendous, it didn’t even occur to me that it would be in with a chance at a Best Picture Oscar. It wasn’t.

Maybe it’s because the voting can never be anything else. Even among the type of films that tend to get nominated, the winners feel the same each time. Our culture does laud actors but an acting performance stands on the shoulders of the script, the direction and the whole production. So comparing Denzel Washington with Bradley Cooper (I cheated and looked it up) is as much comparing their films, Flight and Silver Linings Playbook.

You do suspect that the Academy and maybe all awards organisers have yet to twig that. Otherwise you’d never get the ridiculous situation where a film wins Best Picture but the script isn’t even nominated. Actors make it all up, plainly, and for me that undermines the whole concept of awards being a genuine celebration of film and TV.

You can’t compare two actors beyond whether you enjoyed one film more than another. Maybe if you had two actors playing the same role in two otherwise identical films you could actually measure and rank acting skill. We might be able to compare Michael J Fox with Eric Stoltz if the latter’s Back to the Future performance were released. But otherwise, it doesn’t happen because it won’t happen because it can’t happen.

Equally, you can’t really compare Citizen Kane with The Maltese Falcon but the Academy tried to in 1941. (I relished them both but the Academy preferred How Green Was My Valley. Thank you, Wikipedia.)

So when a ceremony declares this film or that actor to be the best, the actual best, the really best of the whole year, it simply is not true. It simply can’t ever be actually true. You can’t measure so you can’t rank so there can’t be a winner. Best Picture, Best Actor and the rest are only We Really Liked This. You’re thinking now about voting bias and favouritism and giving a director an award for this film because he didn’t get one when he or she should have. You’re wrong: it’s never a she.

Even if voting was always pure, the kicker for me is that winning an Oscar has no bearing on whether I’ll enjoy the film. It used to have a bearing on whether I’d go see a film but I’m afraid now I doubt I’ll even remember to watch a movie called Silver Linings Playbook regardless of how it fares.

No award makes me see a film. Actually, no actor makes me see one either: I think Jodie Foster is a fascinating talent – listen to her on the commentary track for Contact where she is just so interesting – but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll go see her every movie. Writers might do it to me: I will eventually check out all Aaron Sorkin movies and for a long time I used to go see see every Woody Allen one.

But I’m persuaded more by the story than who’s in it. Until there’s an Oscar for Best Interesting Story or Supporting Idea for a Film, awards won’t mean a thing to me anymore. Best Trailer, that’d be a good one: trailer-making is an enormous and fascinating skill but of course it never gets any time in the spotlight.

Whereas it’s all spotlight for the Oscar winners even though there is truly only a finite amount of genuine news you can get from one film being picked for an Oscar out of nine nominees.

But you wouldn’t know that from how much news coverage the winner will get.

Until next year when it’s forgotten by the news and by you. Join me ahead of the curve: get in early and forget them before you ever knew them. Ignore what wins and what's nominated and instead ask your friends what’s good instead. Go see Safety Not Guaranteed, would you? Got any recommendations for me?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Annabel (12)

Nobody liked Annabel. But that was okay because she didn't like anybody. They were all stuck up and so what if she whistled a lot? Didn't hurt anyone. Gran liked her whistling, she always said so.

But gran had died. Annabel sat in class, quietly whistling while Mrs Sawbones told her off for not paying attention. She got sent to the headmaster - but as she walked out of class, she decided to keep on walking. She walked out of school.

She walked out of town. Passed her housing estate, passed the train station, out as far as she'd ever been.

It was cold and a bit scary. She tried whistling to keep her spirits up but she couldn't hear herself over the sound of lorries on the main road.

So she kept on walking.

Her phone rang but she ignored it and its whistling ringtone.

She walked on.

It was much further than she'd thought. She'd been in her mum's car last time and was sure it wasn't as far then.

Hours and hours went by. Annabel was tired and her dad kept phoning but she didn't want to talk to him. She wanted to talk to her gran.

By late afternoon, she found somewhere she recognised. The car had turned here. She was sure.

So she turned too and began to walk down a hill and away from all the traffic. Soon all the sound of cars seemed to vanish behind her and she could hear only birds. They sounded like they were whistling and she whistled back.

The sun came out exactly as Annabel saw the big tree at the far end of the cemetery. And saw her gran's grave with the cross on it.

Annabel sat at the grave. She pulled away at some weeds that had already begun growing by it. She tidied away some litter that the wind had blown. And she talked to her gran. And talked and talked.

She talked about rotten Mrs Sawbones. She talked about how horrible everyone was at school and how she had no friends.

Her gran listened.

And when Annabel had finished, her gran just kept listening. Waiting. Until Annabel said "Alright, well, maybe they're not all completely bad. There's Sydney. She asked about you. And Paul in the year above me, I like him."

Her gran listened some more.

"But it's not the same. Nobody listens like you do."

"I do," said her mum.

Annabel's mother stood behind her. "If I don't listen, how did I know where you'd go?"

Annabel tried to whistle a kind of shrugging I-don't-care whistle but her mum kept talking and the birds kept whistling so much better than she did.

"Annabel." Her mum knelt down by the grave. "Your gran is my mum. I come here every week but I was sure you weren't interested. I'll bring you. Okay?"

"Okay," smiled Annabel.

"But next time, we drive. Promise?"

"Yes, mum."

"And next time you never skip school again, okay?"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Britain's Favourite Writing Instrument: The Final

It’s hard to believe now but we started this journey with eight terrific contestants, any one of whom could’ve been standing here tonight in our hunt for Britain’s favourite writing instrument 2013. Tonight is decision time in Strictly Come Writing with the Stars on Ice Factor.

I know we say this every time but, seriously, this year’s entrants truly were the best we’ve ever had and before we get down to the Moment of Truth, let’s look back at the highlights of this incredible journey.

I mean, who can forget the drama of week 1? Despite a perfect score from the judges, once the public vote was tallied, Quill Pen had to write again to survive.

“I tried to keep it light and fluffy, you know?” said Quill. “It’s been an amazing journey for me and I think I’ve become a bit of a icon for all the old writing instruments out there. We can still do it, you know. Don’t rule us out just yet.”

Unfortunately, our judges did. So Quill Pen’s dreams were over before they really began.

Barely had we got over that shock when it was Week 2 and the speed test which saw Morse Code telegraph machine stumble.

“.. - .----. ... / -... . . -. / .- -. / .- -- .- --.. .. -. --. / .--- --- ..- .-. -. . -.--,” said Morse. Which, while a bit slow, must be the most moving thing we’ve heard here on Strictly Writing. Morse is a real pro, I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of him.

But the contest presses on and barely had we got over that shock when it was Week 3 and the controversial wardrobe malfunction that saw everyone rushing to the stage to mop up ink.

“What can I say? These things happen,” said brave Fountain Pen. “The judges and the public praised me for the elegance of my lines and that’s what I’m going to take away from this, that’s the memory I’ll keep with me. Thanks for having me on the show.”

Barely had we got over that shock when we faced the Halloween Horror Special in week 4. Hopes were especially very high for one of our contestants in week 4 which made this exit all the more devastating. Yes, we all were all so certain that this was going to be Blood’s week, but no.

“Ow,” said Blood.

Barely had we got over that shock when things really hotted up for the semi-finals.

“At this stage, it’s really anyone’s game,” said head judge Alesha Dixon. “I think Biro has a lot more to give: it’s been a steady contender rather than a standout yet and maybe it has to pick up the pace now, maybe it has to show us what it can really do.

“But then I actually think that Pencil is the dark horse of the competition. It has had all that experience in space, that’s not to be discounted, and I really think it still has a point to prove. The only question for me is whether Pencil can really last the distance. I’m sorry to say but at times it does look worn down.

“Whereas our last two contenders, Typewriter and Computer Keyboard, I have to say they look the same to me. I can’t call it.”

Wasn’t it the most dramatic semi-final we’ve ever had? You have to take risks at the semis, you can’t play it safe, but risks are a risk and Typewriter paid the ultimate price when it tried to introduce music into its routine and things just went horribly wrong. “What can I say?” said Typewriter. “I just like jammin’.”

Of course, that wasn’t the only drama in this year’s semi-finals as for the first time ever, we literally lost one of the contestants. We could’ve sworn Biro was right there where we left it.

Barely had we got over that shock when we reached tonight. And our two finalists have done their very best.

Pencil, Keyboard, it’s been an amazing journey for both of you, but now you’ve done all you can. You’ve written for the last time and tonight one of you is going home, one of you is going to be crowned Britain’s Favourite Writing Instrument for 2013. Do either of you have anything you want to say to the judges and the millions watching at home?

“I’d just like to say what a privilege it’s been being on this incredible show,” said Keyboard. “And I’d just like to take this chance to say thanks to my lovely husband Qwerty and gorgeous daughter Azerty who’ve had to put up with my being away all this time.”

“That’s lovely,” said Alesha.

“Is it bollocks,” said Pencil, who unfortunately had to be immediately disqualified for snapping.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Have you been telling people about us?

I thought this was you and me. But I just went to see what we'd talked about most for the last year and there are, like, thousands of people reading. You're very nice but, seriously, I only get in enough biscuits for the two of us.

We need to talk this through. I'll put the kettle on.

And in the meantime, happy new year – and here's what was most popular on this Self Distract blog in 2012. I am truly surprised but you know it's nice really.

One thought. Where a blog was about a particular thing, I've included a link straight out to that so you can skip my nattering and go there. Most of it has no connection to me but where it's one of my books or dramas, I could conceivably get a few pennies from your buying. I promise to spend foolishly.

Done To Do, what's next? (23/1/2012)
If I thought I was alone in looking for better To Do apps, I am an eejit. This was a piece that ultimately evangelised the one I'd just moved to, a whole series of apps called OmniFocus. I look back at it now and think... yep, that was right. OmniFocus transformed me. I lost my biggest single journalism client this year and replaced it with a mass of complicated projects and I seriously wonder how I'd have handled all that without OmniFocus. No kidding. 

I did recently find an Anonymous comment about this one. Actually, I'm always finding Anonymous comments: they get sent to a penalty box if they look like spam and I get bored because they always are. Except this one. I should answer that. Maybe when the new version of OmniFocus comes out shortly.

Just one more thing (1/6/2012)
You like Columbo too? I knew we'd get along. You don't have to do much to get me talking about this show but the leak of Columbo scripts online forty years after they were written made talking about it an absolute requirement. Stuff my enthusing, go straight to the scripts.

Indicing with Death (15/6/2012)
Oh, I am so happy that this made the cut. I bounce in this one. It's about how years ago I wrote an article about software that helps you build an index for books and how minutes ago I finished doing one for real. I'd that minute finished the index for my book BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair. If you haven't spent your life reading indexes, you'll think my excitement is very strange. You might be right, but.

What's it about? Uh-huh. And what's it really about? (22/6/2012)
Self Distract may look like us nattering about Strictly Come Dancing and I can't pretend it isn't, but I can pretend it has a format: it's meant to be about what we write and what we write with, when we get around to writing. This entry was a serious bit of writin'. It was about the difference between a plot and a story. And I can tell you now that the script I mention in it is Doctor Who: Spaceport Fear, which came out rather well in the end and comes out in February.

Sandy Glasser owns a cheese shop (27/7/2012)
Nobody commented on the title, a quote from Grosse Pointe Blank, but an awful lot of people seemed to share the sentiment: this was about finding an old school photograph online and trying to spot the person you'd asked out and who smashed your heart like a lollipop right before double maths.

Is this why actors claim to rewrite their scripts? No. (24/8/2012)
Far and away the most popular thing I've written on here – and you can be sure that was because Graham Linehan (@Glinner) tweeted a link to it. The cast-to-die-for of New Tricks had just revealed that they think their show is dreadful and that they save it by rewriting the scripts themselves. Everybody bar the real writers enjoyed laughing at them and I wondered about how you get to that level of disconnection from reality. 

J'queues Apple (21/9/2012)
This one was so popular it got reprinted in a Mac magazine. The only thing that could be better than that is if they'd kept my headline: the piece was about queuing to buy an iPhone 5 and I was – and am again today – preposterously proud of the headline pun. Small things make me happy. Like my iPhone 5.

The News Cycle (26/10/2012)
You name an event and this blog details every news story that will ever happen about it, in sequence. It'd be funny if it weren't true. I hope it's at least a little funny anyway.

The Prince and the Spinning Wheel's Angular Momentum (16/11/2012)
This year I started working with writer Maeve Clarke, helping out at a Writing Squad she runs for school-age children in Walsall. (Writing Squads run all over the place: here's what the fine Writing West Midlands people have to tell you about them.) It's a terrific group and I wish there had been something like it when I was in school: it would have changed my career. Or at least got it on the right track dramatically faster. In one session, Maeve got the group to write a fairy tale – and I did one too. I would not have thought of trying one and yet I so enjoyed it, I wanted to share it with you. I did a sequel, too: The Princess and the Li-On. Just between us, there's at least one more coming your way.

Live blogging Doctor Who at Christmas (21/12/2012)
The joke's not so obvious now but this came out before the Christmas Doctor Who episode aired and though some fans believed I had seen it in advance and was out to spoil it, I was of course really trying to spoil all live blogs everywhere. If I could spoil them enough that they went away, job done. It looks like I'm not alone: this last entry of the year got shared all over the place and I got a nice note from Steven Moffat. 


It's a silly thing to say, but I didn't realise I'd talked so much. It's especially silly because I set out to: I very much enjoy the weekly blog by Ken Armstrong and I decided last year to try emulating him at least in volume and regularity. He posted a rather moving piece about time travel last week that'll give you a taste of what he can do. 

I'm obsessed with time, which may account for all that wibbling on about To Do apps and you have to think it may just play a little bit into how I write Doctor Who dramas. It is also what is making me think you are a pal for reading all this today and over the year.

Thanks for 2012: I had a time, I hope you did too, and now what are we going to talk about next?