This week’s spam news is entertainingly recursive:
AOL to dig up Spam Nazi’s gold
“Just remember this one golden rule,” he said. “It’s all soap opera. They may say its a classic serial, they may call it a cutting-edge drama, they may bill it as cops, they may set it in deep space, but actually it’s all just soap, soap, soap.”
Mark Ravenhill’s lament over the sudsing up of contemporary television drama is, to my sorrow, very right. He offers the words of a bored scriptwriter annoyed that “what they really want is a little half-hour or 50-minute morality play”.
Ravenhill even offers a few of the commandments of the new soap morality: “Be true to yourself”; “talk about your feelings”; “learn to forgive and move on”; “accept difference”; and “you’re still family even after the murder/arson/substance abuse”. He’s right, though he might add that emotional displays are more virtuous than stoicism.
What I find interesting is that Ravenhill, a playwright himself, identifies these values as a perniciously homogenous liberal orthodoxy. The worst thing here, by far, is that lack of variety, the lack of dissent, the lack of angry engagement with a world. This is a morality of withdrawal from the larger world, a focus instead on the self-aggrandising individualism of the post-sixties middle classes.
And yet, what I see here is not in fact an echo chamber for the incorrigibly empty self-interested, the reverberating clamour of which drowns out legitimate, different voices. No, what leaps out at me is that this ultra-liberal porridge is a perfect fit for the requirements of soap, of any kind of regular drama.
Let’s look at those commandments again.
“Be true to yourself”: drama not only needs strong and readily identifiable (even caricatured) characters, it needs characters who will pursue their beliefs beyond the point of reasonable disagreement, necessarily causing conflict.
“Talk about your feelings”: Television drama is based on talk, no two ways about it. Inarticulate, reticent or inexpressive characters need not apply. I remember well leaving Mike Leigh’s (excellent, emotionally articulate, Palme d’Or winning, and very soapy) film “Secrets & Lies” thinking that all it lacked was Bob Hoskins popping up at the end telling us, on behalf of BT, that “it’s good to talk”. Leigh, a proper artist, managed to do this with a story essentially about characters who were variously bad at talking. Soaps and TV dramas cannot afford such subtlety with the basic mechanisms of the genre. The least of the cast must be gabbier than the most annoying person you ever sat next to on the train.
“Learn to forgive and move on”: You can’t, as you would in real life, endlessly rehash the same problems and complaints in minutely differentiated forms over the course of weeks, months, years. You have half an hour or 50 minutes at most to state, develop and resolve the problem. Next week we need to be onto the forgiveness and the next problem, so you’d better forgive him/her/them/it now and scrub the slate clean in order to be disappointed and angered afresh next week.
“Accept difference”: Ah, the greatest liberal nostrum of all. A Good Thing, particularly if you’re a drama writer seeking to set up odd couples, cultural conflicts, and misunderstandings galore.
“You’re still family”: Blood and marriage are the two clearest ways to keep warring characters in close proximity.
The warmly liberal values produced by this orrthodoxy, are, I think, more to do with the shapes required by regularised drama, and less to do with an political or sociological intent.
The Today programme has form for producing bruising interviews. I reported one notable performance by John Reid in stunned almost-admiration some time ago.
Only rarely are the bruises self-inflicted, so a rousing cheer please for the hapless current Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, for his sparkling intervention this morning on the subject of multiculturalism and integration (link liable to disappear quickly).
Howard was busy suggesting that there was no reason why communities of all types could not retain their cultural identity while at the same time fully partaking of the cultural identity of Britishness (implying that this would be possible if only they showed the true British values of not moaning about it, knuckling down and getting on with it). Those that failed accommodate the core values of Britishness could then be gently and courteously invited to go somewhere else.
The interviewer at this point, to pick a topical metaphor, bowled her flipper, reading out a listener’s email enquiring whether this meant that British-born republicans would be expelled.
No, beamed Howard, he didn’t see any reason why republicans couldn’t be “loyal British subjects”.
And so, the week after we buried one of the few genuine political intellects of our age, we prepare to push into retirement another one of its also-rans.
From the otherwise fabulously pointless Regret the error site comes this beauty, collected from the National Post in Canada:
In a letter to the editor from Andrew Burrowes in Tuesday’s National Post, a quotation from a previous letter-writer, Robert Randall, in Mondays Post, should have read “prejudice against homosexuals … should not be tolerated in this country, even when masquerading as ‘religious freedom.’ ” A word was incorrectly omitted in Tuesday’s Post. The Post regrets the error.
The site almost has no need to point out exactly which word was omitted. At which point we all, like giggling schoolboys, recall the 1631 so-called ‘Adulterer’s Bible’ which spectacularly omitted ‘not’ from the seventh commandment.
While we’re noting things from things, please do brush up your knowledge of scrap-metal dealing in Kazakhstan (particularly this, although you can skip slide 11 if you are of a sensitive nature.
I was reading how the Daily Mail will soon be Britain’s biggest paper with its fiery compound of middle class aspirations (a thinner body, house prices rising, moving abroad) and anxieties (trying to get a thinner body, house prices falling, foreigners moving here). A jaunty sidebar to the article made plain how we have moved from the unremitting optimism of the thirties (epitomised by the Daily Express), through the unionism and welfare statism of the Mirror of the fifties, through smash and grab years of the Sun, to the bleak apocalypticism of the Mail.
I don’t think it’s adequate to raise an eyebrow and tut that, you know, things these days are pretty comfortable for most people in Britain, so whingeing about house building and transport policy as if the country’s about to collapse is a little self-indulgent. I think the point is that the moaning Mail thrives precisely because its readership is very comfortable indeed, and therefore feels that it’s got a great deal to lose.
The newspaper readership of the fifties was still, to a significant extent, looking forward to indoor toilets. For Mirror readers then, things were visibly getting better, hence the solidarity and positive outlook. Today’s Mail readership, by contrast, sounds bored, soft, uncertain and directionless. If you’re not on the rise, they seem to say, you’re heading for a fall.
Coincidentally, I noticed one of those exclamatory weekly magazines on the newstand. I can’t remember if it was Now!, Heat!, Help! or Cobblers!, but it had the most wonderfully expressive coverlines:
Blind? Who cares?
Breast cancer? Who cares?
Games that make kids go psycho
Which last is a promotional offer that surely can’t be beat.
The tail of the peacock is a redoubtable example of the importance of sexual selection in forming the physiology of animals. The theory goes that the elaborate plumage of the male peacock developed first because the choice of partner rests mainly with the female. The male’s ability to produce and support a strong, colourful display implies health, or plentiful strengthm, or perhaps, indirectly, dominance of other males in the area.
Sexual selection in evolution is a curiosity, though. It develops over long periods of time into a form of evolutionary arms race, where increasing amounts of energy are expended by males in sustaining these elaborate and potentially debilitating sexual displays. However ridiculous the display, however, because it is an agreed sign, it continues to function effectively in promoting the male, and so, by permitting the showy male to father more offspring, the situation is perpetuated.
These thoughts were running through my mind, as they were no doubt yours, this morning in the papershop, when I noted the back page headline of The Sun:
Big Hits of the Seven Tease
Jaw dropped. Tumbleweed bounced past. Across the land, the sound of nobody laughing.
The story, it transpired, was that there had been a football match, in which the Woolwich Arsenal had beaten Everton FC by seven goals to nil. These things happen, and I’m sure everyone thought this was as notable an achievement as I did.
So what the hell was going on with the headline? Why the pun on ‘Big Hits of the Seventies’ (which does exist as a compilation album, but is hardly well-known)? I see where the ’seven’ comes from, but ‘tease’? Would a trouncing ever be considered a ‘tease’ if it didn’t help the pun home?
It’s not even a good pun, which, like a good crossword clue, should work on both the superficial and the cryptic levels. An example would be The Sun’s modern classic when Inverness Caledonian Thistle upset the mighty Celtic:
So why, when they are capable of touching the heights of punnery, would The Sun’s subs allow such a stinker to be published?
The answer is because they have no choice. The laws of sexual selection in the Great British Tabloid mean that you must pun, because punning is what the readers expect. No matter that nobody in the country could possibly have even raised an internal smirk at this morning’s effort. Puns are the battleground; rather, they are the secondary sexual characteristics of the tabloid, and they must be as big and bold as possible.
No matter that they’re as debilitating, irrelevant and ridiculous as the largest peacock’s tail that you ever did see. It’s in the genes; and breeding will out in The Sun.
Back, like a fool, just in the nick of time for polling day. Unexpectedly, there appear to have been no unexpected twists and turns to the election to leave me baffled and behind in following the last-minute coverage.
All that was left, after discharging my democratic duty at half seven this morning in an almost deserted school building, was to amuse myself with the traditional read-through of newspapers’ exhortations to vote their way. This, I feel, is the payoff the papers think they’ve earnt for four years of hard toil covering government announcements: the chance to pretend for a day that they have voters (some, any) at their bidding.
Far be it from me to suggest that, at the end of a parliament, the papers might like to review their own performance in the damnably tricky business of reporting faithfully the news. Where ever would we be if we adopted new-fangled concepts such as quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Oh, I see.
On this, the Longest Electoral Day, that finest of Watchmen, the Metro, is faced with a particular problem. Unlike all the other major papers in Britain, the Metro cannot endorse a party, much as in its throbbing Daily Mail heart, it would love to. For the Metro is a free (as in worthless) paper, and its carefully nurtured distribution rights (for instance, in the London Underground system) would be under threat if it developed an overt political sensibility. So this paper of papers ducked the problem entirely this morning by running (in the London edition at least) on an entirely separate issue:
Human Babies ‘Grown in Labs’
A headline of some genius, you will agree, given that the story relates to immature human egg cells being artificially cultured from stem cells. Now, this is a genuine story, and it is worthy of comment from various perspectives, but not this one. The result achieved by the scientists constitutes the tiniest first fraction of the effort required to grow a human baby, and very far from being one of the many harder parts of the task. It is a little like looking at one of Leonardo’s designs for a flying machine, then running a story that Da Vinci airlines are running cheap flights to Florence (this may in fact be one of the claims in Dan Brown’s book for all I know: I haven’t checked). It is, in fact, about as wrong as a headline can be without the reader concluding that the headline has been misplaced from another page, or indeed another newspaper, entirely.
So, no change there. Four more years? Let’s hope not.
Channel 4 have just launched their election FactCheck website, following up on election issue stories with some cold-eyed investigation.
Already it’s calling Michael Howard on that infamous claim about gypsies abusing the Human Rights Act and Patricia Hewitt on her claim that the Tories backtracked on an increase in funding for childcare.
Journalists? Checking their facts and reporting the truth to the public? Not slavishly following the issue of the day? Calling politicians on policies not presentation? Shome mishtake shurely?
Ah, the lad Derren Brown, the most interesting if daftly named man on the television these days.
Tonight (Friday 7th January) he has another of his controversial one-offs. This one is called ‘Messiah’. It may well be the epitome of everything that Brown has done to date:
It’s a personal journey for me, quite a dark journey. It’s a documentary styled show where I go to America and meet some influential people behind certain belief-systems that people are encouraged to base their lives upon. Two targets are new-age beliefs and mainstream Christianity. Using my techniques and showmanship can I get these people who are responsible for the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of people, to endorse me as being the real thing? I approach these people under different pseudonyms, demonstrating to each of them an ability I have which is somehow proof to them of my abilities in that particular field. I allow them to decide how much they are going to endorse it and embrace it. If at any point they say to me this is some sort of trick I will confess and tell them.
It remains to be seen if the delivery is as carefully nuanced as the set-up, which clearly offers a provocatively Dawkinsian view of religion as an aberrant belief on a level with new-age claptrap. The counterpoint is that neat gamble; that all the victims have to do is ask if it’s a trick.
The cleverness lies, in part, in the fact that while this question will seem hideously obvious to the audience, it’s a formulation that is actually fairly unlikely to be uttered in full.
I just know I’m going to enjoy this programme. For once the assertion that this is television that will ask questions seems very likely to be true.
Many thanks for the continued flow of suggestions for decent people. With the exception of ‘my friends’, which does not count, and the addition of Patrick Moore, who I suspect does, I think we’re going to have a publishable first XI soon enough.
In the meantime, thinking about John Peel’s incomplete autobiography, and noting the current qualification for getting a publishing deal for spilling one’s life story (two years on the telly, by my reckoning), I’ve been paying more attention than I should to the distractingly unhappy art of the autobiography title.
Recent efforts have increasingly reinforced the basic rule that celebrity autobiographies, particularly for sportsmen, should have titles like tabloid headlines. So, former Englan wicket keeper Alec Stewart is ‘Playing for Keeps’, while intermittently uxorious golfer Nick Faldo says that ‘Life Swings’.
The weakness of Faldo’s effort got me thinking: surely things would work out better if we started with the punning title and created celebrities to fit?
So the straight-talking music producer telling it like it is will be ‘On the Record’. And the architect who brought bright and cheerful child-friendly environments into the mainstream, despite a battle with the bottle, would of course have ‘Swings and Roundabouts’. The ex-racing driver bled dry by paternity suits and rapacious ex-trophy wives? ‘In the Pits’. The effervescent fish shop mogul? ‘Chipper’. The fashion designer whose life has been a flurry of scandalous rumour? ‘Utter Bobbins’. The Barnardo boy who made it in haute couture*? ‘Rags to rags’.
I could go on. Instead, a question. What should the autobiography be called of the person who ghostwrites all of those
* No, I don’t know what Bruce Oldfield’s autobiography is called, but if it is ‘Rags to rags’ I’m claiming the credit.
More ambiguous newspaper headlines:
Family fury over bogus cab death
The mind roars enthusiastically down a story path before realising that, oh, it was the cab that was bogus.
Last night, as noted on the linklog and all over this morning’s Metro, there was a flashmob in central London: the self-explanatory Pillow Fight Club.
As a high-concept gag, it looked fun. Far more interesting, though, was what BBC Three did with flashmobs last night. Last night they put on an opera at Paddington station.
You know what? It turned out to be alright.
I watched Flashmob: The Opera, by which I mean that I saw it on TV, not that I turned up myself as part of the mob. It lasted under an hour, and only really involved the mob for the very end of the climactic number.
But it did work.
The conceit was not just that this was a drama interacting with a real space, although it was that too, with the characters trailing about the station waiting for their trains and arguing on the concourse (an engaged couple, Mike and Sally, fall out over football, and she is picked up by a lothario). The real conceit was that this was opera for football crowds.
More about that in a second. First an overview of the key creative decisions involved.
First (and I must say I was initially disappointed by this), the music consisted entirely of well-known arias, with a couple of choruses thrown in. I had a nasty feeling this was going to be Hooked on Classics all over. It wasn’t, largely because the English libretto had been written so well and so wittily (by Tony Bicat). The opening line of the piece was “What a plonker!”, and the tone was set from there.
The first act was pretty stodgy, with the characters separated and a surprisingly large amount of the performance prerecorded (noticably Mike’s rendition of La donn’e mobile on his tube journey).
Incidentally, this was I suspect a moment where life had let down the art a little. Mike was cast as a Charlton fan, and Charlton were, until a couple of months ago, the home of Paulo Di Canio. I’m sure Mike’s opening lines were originally meant to be the chant based on La donn’e mobile that used to accompany Di Canio on trips to Liverpool:
‘We’ve got Di Canio; you’ve got our stereo’
Anyway, things got rather better at half-time, not least because the producers did their best to play up the football theme: veteran commentator Barry Davies gave the half-time analysis. As throughout, this maximised the sense of a football audience meeting opera, rather than opera being brought to a football audience. This also explains the choice to show the piece on populist BBC Three rather than artsy BBC Four.
In the second half the atmosphere grew with the flashmob, who had evidently been asked to arrive for about two-thirds of the way through the performance. It all moved swiftly towards a conclusion with Sally being persuaded to catch the train to sin and Swindon, while Mike failed to grab her attention with a rendition of ‘Nessun dorma’.
Cue the flashmob, circling Mike, blasting out a quick chorus, and sending Sally scurrying back towards her one true love. It was a very basic story tricked out with frills and ruffles (Mike is confronted by an argumentative chorus of Chelsea supporters; there is some business with the carousel in a sushi bar), but that’s what you get with opera.
In the end I think it worked for two reasons:
First, the choice of popular pieces rather than original music was made to work by emphasising that these pieces are part of the popular consciousness. It felt perfectly sensible to hear a Chelsea gang hammering out the Anvil Chorus, and it was probably ‘Nessun dorma’ that gave the piece its football theme in the first place.
Second, I’m a complete and utter sucker for found choruses. The flashmob chorus at the end, a motley bunch of commuters, students and web-types, gave a decent account of themselves and Mike had the nous to look astonished as they accompanied him.
In short, the performance was cleverly angled to take best advantage of its own peculiarities: everything in it was defined by the twin poles of flashmobbing and opera.
Clever, successful, and definitely unrepeatable.
One of Andrew Marr’s pieces of advice on reading newspapers was to learn to recognise individual writers.
Here’s one I always recognise.
Jeremy Alexander writing on the football in The Guardian. As distinctive as a baby screaming in your ear.
I’ve written before about the curious nature of sports journalism. In essence, I said that sports writing has the task of rendering a shared experience into a shared memory. To this extent it has a tendency to both poetry and playfulness. Most of The Sun’s really memorable headlines (such as ‘Wenger’s wonga makes Bergkamp linger longer’ and ‘Super-Callie-are-fantastic-Celtic-are-atrocious’ ) have in fact been found on the back page, not the front.
So sports journalism is powered by the metaphor, the comparison, the pun.
Sadly, nobody told Jeremy Alexander when to stop, or indeed, that the point of the report is the game, not the pun.
Reread Alexander’s piece. Skip over the first paragraph, noting only that it labours the phrase “ifs and buts” into a riff on Kipling.
It’s the second paragraph that shows Alexander at his unstoppable worst:
He joined Norwich in July for £250,000, a Briton too far for Bolton after Gary Speed’s arrival there. When Nigel Worthington called for a concerted rolling up of sleeves on Friday the doughty defender was a natural master of the rolls.
You’re probably rolling on the floor in pain by now, and hence missed the quick pun on ‘A Bridge Too Far’ that came before the real clunker.
The annoying thing is that the man can write if he stops trying so hard. He describes a surge by Huckerby as “one last pendolino run, tilting and surging like a lurcher on course”. Yes, that’s exactly how Huckerby runs; but make your mind up, are you on dogs or trains. I would have gone for the train, if only because Mr Alexander thoughtlessly follows up with an eminently excisable gag: “It could have slipped the discs of Redknapp’s remaining defenders.” It’s a shame that ’slipped’ following ‘dogs’ can’t help but suggest ‘dogs of war’, which really muddles the issue.
I don’t hate Alexander’s writing, as such. I just wish he’d cut down on the Sunny Delight. He gives me a headache.
As that oafish ex-hack director on the telly might put it, “Calm down, dear, it’s only a match report”.
Fine article on Monday by Andrew Marr on reading between the lines when addressing an newspaper. Applied field semiotics of the highest order, covering important elements such as identifying the key paragraph (the second, not the first), applying proper scepticism to quotation marks and ‘research’, and remembering to read the small stories.
It’s notable how much emphasis Marr puts on paratextual information: the byline, the page the story is on, the headline itself (if it is a question, you can probably answer that question ‘no’). Marr could write a useful appendix to Genette’s seminal Paratexts — one of my favourite books of literary theory, because it resolutely addresses the information you think doesn’t matter when addressing a book.
How often have you bought a book you’d never heard of, just because it caught your eye in the bookshop? You probably bought it solely on the basis of your paratextual reading: the title, the dust jacket, the author biography, maybe even the dedication. I’ve bought books solely on the basis of the index, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
One of those occasions where the idea is so much better than the reality could possibly be:
The Nine network [in Australia] will roll all episodes [of American daily soaps Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless] made in the past four years into two one-hour specials, to bring Australia’s programming up to date with the United States.
(source: Nine News)
This should be like Tom Stoppard’s joyful The (15 Minute) Dogg’s Troup Hamlet, in which everything pretty much everything gets crammed in, actors haring ever faster about the stage as they realise they’re running out of time, and which includes, as an encore, a one-minute Hamlet.
You can be sure it won’t be anything like that, of course. The only way of getting four years of plot into one hour is through lots of tedious exposition. It’s a shame, because there’s the germ of a winning idea here. For those of us who don’t care to watch soap operas, but have to communicate with people who do (i.e. half the population), it would be a public service to have, instead of a weekly omnibus edition, a weekly microbus: a five-minute precis where no conversation involves more than twenty words and all the entrances and exits are done running.
This journal’s popular and long-running serial “Our Reasonable Media”, is temporarily interrupted for a special spin-off titled “Our Idiot Media”.
It’s not all change, though: it does feature our favourite overpriced free newspaper, the Metro. Like many papers, they chose to lead this morning with the story of the flash flood that hit the Cornish village of Boscastle, and which may have killed up to 15 people.
The ever-sensitive Metro picks a headline that hones in on the real issue:
WASHED AWAY BY JUST 2 INCHES OF WATER
Nice to see the newspaper’s subs parading their gleeful ignorance of elementary meteorology, just in case any of us remained in doubt. I was particularly impressed by the way that neither the horrible facts of the story nor the large picture of a torrent of water cascading down the streets gave the hacks any pause to consider that two inches might actually represent quite a lot of water.
I’m not a particular admirer of Dr John Reid, the so-called Minister for the Today programme. But it’s easy to see why he got the gig. To label as combative this epic standoff from this morning’s show would be to understate the man’s pugilistic expertise. Like Dennis Wise, Reid is a man who could start a fight in an empty room.
This morning’s display was a classic. Reid was brought on nominally to talk about the government’s increased funding for trainee dentists. He knew as well as we did that this would mean one minute on dentists and ten minutes on Butler, faulty intelligence and the JIC.
The two by elections last night where Labour suffered a 20+ point swing were quickly dismissed by both interviewer and interviewee as being low on the card. Everyone was jumpy for the main bout.
Suddenly, we were off, Reid repeatedly landing body-blows with jibes about the BBC’s supposed bias and willingness to lie (compared with the Hutton-stamped probity and even-handedness of the government).
In fact, in these circumstances he’s more like a judo wrestler than a boxer, letting the questions come onto him, then using the attack to unbalance his opponent with (frankly paranoid, were he truly to believe them) claims of prejudice and misleading reporting, aiming relentlessly at the areas where the Beeb carries a recent injury.
Reid’s finest minute or three was the way in which he was able to talk repeatedly about the Butler Report essentially vindicating the government’s judgement on Iraq, while simultaneously complaining that the BBC had failed to ‘cover’ this in its reporting (as though, post-Hutton, they could do anything but cover it carefully). This is not so much having your cake and eating it as punching someone, nicking their cake, eating it, then blaming them for being so careless.
Reid memorably summed up the by election results as a “score draw”. This interview was a 4-0 drubbing in which he not only avoided answering the key question (about why intelligence apparently withdrawn by the SIS in July 2003 was not declared as such either by Hutton or the government), but made political capital out of even being asked.
I can’t imagine Dr Reid will be the next prime minister, even in times of such fevered speculation, but I can quite see him as deputy prime minister. I can even imagine him asking John Prescott outside to settle it once and for all.
It’s difficult to credit that this whole saga of invading Iraq started, really, two years ago. More than enough time, you find, for statements and claims to swing back and hit the people who made them in the face.
I remember particularly enjoying Tony Blair complaining that the BBC had run a report based on a single uncorroborated source. The report was, of course, about the government making claims about Iraq based on a single, uncorroborated source.
These days, I’m watching Alistair Campbell’s famously triumphant post-Hutton challenge:
“If the government had faced the level of criticism that today Lord Hutton has directed to the BBC, there would clearly have been resignations by now - several resignations at several levels.”
I don’t really suppose that the Butler report will land the prime minister in it, but it’s looking increasingly likely that heads will be rolling in the intelligence services.
Barclays Bank have depressed me even more than they manage to every month. They now have posters up declaring that “The Barclays Premiership Starts Here”.
No it doesn’t. Not just yet, at least. Ye Gods, people, we haven’t even had the summer test series against the West Indies yet.
Second, there is a billboard car ad, at the bottom of which is a checkbox labelled “Left Brain”, implying that buying this particular motor is a good left brain decision.
I hadn’t realised the left/right brain hoodoo was so pervasive. Now tell me, is not knowing the difference between left and right brain characteristics a characteristic of being left brained or right brained?
I admit, I didn’t suppose that I would end this week by applauding a headline in the Evening Standard. But tonight it is ‘WATER FOUND ON MARS’.
Now that’s a proper headline.
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