Archive for the 'Nostalgia' Category

Alas poor Press Gazette

When the trade magazine for an industry closes, it’s a sure sign that things aren’t looking good for said industry. When the trade magazine for an industry that includes magazines closes… well, you tell me what that means. Nothing good, that’s for sure.

The Press Gazette has been bumping along, barely getting by, for a while now so while today’s announcement is somewhat of a shock it can’t be said to be a surprise.

The publication will be mourned by those in the media and rightly so. Not too long ago it was still essential reading. Even when it switched from a weekly to a monthly and got by on reduced staff it was still worth reading, if only as a place where you could get a reasonably comprehensive roundup of national, local and regional and it still provided food for thought.

But the writing has been on the wall for a while, as illustrated nicely by Dave Lee’s anecdotal post. It was still important reading but not vital reading. It was useful but the website wasn’t a daily must-read.

If anything its demise acts as a pretty good barometer and illustration of the industry itself. It was struggling with declining revenues, cutting costs, struggling with whether it was a print or online publication and, most importantly of all, struggling to stay relevant in an online world. It was just about managing this, but having mediaguardian.co.uk as a competitor didn’t help.

More worrying is what this means – and says – about the media itself. We’ve already seen other big name publications, most notably Maxim, disappear from our shelves.

And while we’re not quite at the levels of the US where several big names have gone, local press is seriously struggling to keep going here. Plenty of people I’ve trained with, worked with or have got to know have been made redundant or have been asked to work shorter hours. The prognosis is not good.

Roy Greenslade asks if anybody will be willing to save the Press Gazette. But we’ve been here before and the publication has just lurched from one owner to another, struggling to stay alive all the time.

And this is, let’s not forget, a media industry that, for whatever reason, cannot make a magazine about media aimed squarely at them work [1].

The industry will be much the poorer without the Press Gazette, especially as it seems their online offering won’t actually offer any proper journalism after the start of May (which kind of defeats the point in keeping it going). Hopefully somebody will give it the proper send off, the celebration of its life that it deserves.

It’s going to be a long hard year for the media, sadly. I still maintain that the cycle will come back round at some point (whenever that may be) and the industry will pick up.

But quite what the industry will look like at that stage is anybody’s guess. That the business model has to change is beyond doubt, but if anybody had a clue on how best to change it, it would have happened long before now.

Ouch.

[1] Although this is a slightly simplistic way of looking at it and the various owners can be said to play at part in this.

It only takes a minute

I blame Abba. Or perhaps Buddy Holly. Ben Elton’s definitely getting some of it as well. Ever since some bright spark had the idea of mixing well known pop music with stage musicals, the hen weekend market suddenly found a whole host of new options. There’s definitely blame in there somewhere, because gosh darn it, we live in a blame society and I want to blame somebody for Never Forget – otherwise known as the Take That musical.

This type of theatre is something I’d normally sprint across hot coals to avoid but the offer of free tickets and the odd idea that I should really try to step out of my comfort zone on occasions and perhaps try something I’d normally turn my nose up at led me to the Savoy Theatre on a Friday evening.

As with a first date that’s not going well, let’s get the niceties out of the way first. Never Forget is by no means awful. There’s a lot of energy, some nice 90s boyband jokes (“at the moment you lot aren’t even 911”), and it has some genuinely funny moments. It’s certainly passable if you’re the target audience. Sadly, I’m not really the target audience and if it wants to achieve the success it needs to somehow transcend the hen-weekend audience.

And that hen-weekend appeal is also part of the problem. There’s so many shows like this on the market that the script and show need to sparkle. It can be as ropey, plot-wise, as it likes as long as you get a chance to completely immerse yourself in the world.

The are weird elements that don’t quite sit with each other. The Manchester setting makes you feel like you’re watching a hyper-real episode of Corrie on occasions. There’s also plenty of references to chavs, the tribute band circuit, tacky clubs and the general awfulness of working class nightlife, but it pales in comparison to, say, Benidorm, which is much more sharply observed in this area. And the Northern tribute act storyline was done so much better in the wonderful Little Voice, while the Full Monty also looms in the background. It pulls in all of these elements but only serves to remind you how good some of these possible inspirations are.

So Never Forget falls back on the songs, and while the best-known Take That songs will always get the audience clapping in the aisles, weirdly it’s like you’re watching a poor Take That tribute band trying too hard, and at this point postmodernist theory probably gets a very bad headache and decides to decamp to the pub for a pint and a packet of crisps to try and work out what the hell its just seen.

It might be a bit cheaper and easier to get to than watching the real Take That live but then there are also plenty of decent tribute bands doing the circuit that are a lot cheaper, which leads to a question that should trouble all productions of a similar ilk: just what has Never Forget – or similar shows – got that the alternatives haven’t?

It’s a problem that really seems to afflict any kind of entertainment package – be it theatre, music, film, or TV – that attempts to leap onto another medium. It just jars badly outside of its natural habitat because we’re too familiar with the original source material.

Never Forget might have worked better on screen than stage. After all, there are plenty of classic musicals than have storylines that could easily be grouped with it – A Star Is Born and Singing In The Rain spring to mind – and in the hands of somebody like Busby Berkeley or Vincente Minelli it could have been a visual treat on celluloid. Even Scorsese’s Happy Endings, the spoof musical within his New York New York, worked far better than these kind of shows.

It’s a bit of a two way process though. Chicago has been one of the best musical adaptations for the big screen in recent years but even that felt far too stagebound. Sweeny Todd did a decent job, largely because it had the unmistakable feel of a Tim Burton film and an excellent cast. The Producers, however, just felt like a stage performance on the screen and was a pale imitation of the original source material.

With the exception of The Producers, though, these films feel like somebody has put effort in. Something like Never Forget, and to a certain extent forerunners like We Will Rock You, feels lazy – like bolting on whatever they can find to something that’s already popular, safe in the knowledge there’s a decent enough fanbase out there who’ll come and see it regardless of what kind of job has been done. Grease may be a cheese-fest but its light years ahead compared to today’s current new musicals, both on stage and screen.

With all this lazy-musical love in, you’d think audiences would be prepared to tolerate more musicals on the big screen, but Sweeny Todd seems to indicate otherwise, and other forays into this genre have been largely disappointing.

Still, there’s no doubt money to be made from this. Got a successful film that involves a bit of dancing (“Billy Elliot”) – make it into a musical. Got a popular culture figure (Beckham)? Make a musical around it. It almost feels that, in this day and age, if you were to propose Brass Eye’s Sutcliffe: The Musical somebody would snap it up.

With that in mind, I’m proposing a musical built around The Smiths & Morrissey. Given real-life events, it’d probably be called We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful and the big love number would probably be You’re The One For Me, Fatty, Bigmouth Strikes Again or Girlfriend in a Coma. I’ve no idea what the plot would be, but it’d be as anti-musical as you could get, yet still be a music. Panic! would obviously be the choice of music for the obligatory nightclub scene, while Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and How Soon Is Now were built for those lonely solo numbers. In fact, much of the show could be made up of lonely solo numbers. The final song would have to be There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.

I’m not quite sure how I’d work Meat Is Murder into it, but I’d like to think La Mozzfather himself would raise a wry smile. Now, who wants to be a Max Bialystock and invest in this?

With NME, but asked by people who know what they’re talking about

Following on from my ill-constructed ramble about why I’m not keen on the paper form of the NME, there’s a couple of excellent pieces on the current state of the magazine.

Former writer Stephen Dalton has a fascinating analysis in The Times, and Andrew Collins posts up his interview, in full, with Dalton for the piece.

Both make points about the threat from online far better than I did, and the issues merit further discussion.

Not right now though, and not here. I’m practically falling asleep at my keyboard, to the point I spelt discussion with 4 ‘c’s.

Two lecturers. Two irreplacable people.

It has not been a great year for my old alma mater, Cardiff University’s School of Journalism.

A couple of months ago my old tutor on the broadcast journalism postgraduate, Bob Atkins, died. Bob was a larger-than-life character who, along with Colin Larcombe, knocked hundreds of would-be journalists into shape and influenced probably hundreds more. He was one of the main reasons I am where I am today, and convinced me to stick with the course when I was questioning my own abilities.

Blunt, honest and thoroughly entertaining, Bob wasn’t afraid to tell you your work was rubbish (I have one of my old scripts somewhere with Bob’s writing saying: “This is crap” on it), but was also a fantastically kind and generous person who enjoyed his job, and passed that enthusiasm down to his students. I think its fair to say Bob WAS the broadcast journalism postgrad.

He also knew how to get the best out of people. Running up to one production day, our group was in a bit of a crisis trying to put together our first live, 2 hour breakfast show. Bob, being Bob, saw the chaos and boomed across the room: “Right, I’m cancelling the breakfast show. We’ll do an afternoon broadcast instead.” Two hours later, we were fine tuning our packages and early the next morning a somewhat shambolic, but entertaining, show was broadcast to the Bute Building.

I didn’t blog about Bob’s death at the time as I really didn’t feel like I could add anything to what others were saying, and was still in some sort of shock as I’d only completed the course 12 months ago.

Now, in the space of less than 3 months another old lecturer, this time on the undergraduate course, passes away suddenly.

I didn’t know James Thomas as well as Bob Atkins, as I only took one of his modules, but his death feels even more shocking. Bob’s health wasn’t brilliant. James, on the other hand, barely felt to me like he’d started.

As with Bob, James was one of those lecturers who could inspire and entertain, and make what you learnt stick with you. You never wanted to skip his classes because they were so engaging.

I wouldn’t really call James larger than life. Indeed, I don’t think his first lecture made much of an impression on me. But soon his lectures became the highlight of the week, and his enthusiasm for his subject, dry wit, and a genuine desire to help each and every student that knocked on his door meant he was one person who, no matter what the subject, you’d turn up because it was, well, James Thomas.

Two lecturers. Two very different styles. Two people who’ve left an impression on thousands of graduates around the UK and beyond, and two people who’ve cruelly been denied the chance to leave an impression on thousands more.

RIP James. RIP Bob. JOMEC wouldn’t have been the same without one of you. Without both, the department has lost two outstanding members of staff, and two outstanding human beings.

Teenage troubles

Today I took the plunge and finally got around to my annual clean-out of accumulated crap. Along with a large bag of long-since-not-worn T-shirts for the charity shop and an Ibiza chill-out CD I don’t remember buying, let alone listening to, I discovered my teenage poetry and song-lyrics, which I’d assumed I’d discarded a long time ago.

Before I consigned these great works of a middle-class teenager with the requisite amount of angst to the recycling, I took a quick flip through. God it made depressing reading. Titles ranged from the not-at-all morbid ‘Life in a Graveyard’ to the typical teenage howl of ‘Why Doesn’t She Like Me?’ And the less said about ‘There’s No-One Here But Me And I’m Ugly And Lonely’ the better. Before you ask, I didn’t discover The Smiths until well into university.

My two personal favourites were a metaphor-heavy song [1] about why it was unfair I had to wash the car when I didn’t drive and a poem where the pen was running out, and I was forced to bring a potential epic to an end with the concluding couplet: “As you can see/even the pen doesn’t like me.”

I’m just thankful that none of these ever found their way into the ill-conceived band myself and a friend attempted to form. (Sample song title: Repetition. Sample lyric: “It’s very late at night/My head’s going round and round/Repetition/Yeah).

The songs were so basic it make the Sex Pistols look like Mozart. Still, we were happy enough twiddling away in my living room until we decided on a very daft course of action and decided to recruit a bass player and drummer. These two could actually play a bit and at our first, and possibly only, major rehearsal our plan for an assault on the charts it a brief snag. Not only was my musical talent limited to three chords on the guitar, but I had an utterly tuneless voice that probably scared all the neighbourhood cats away. That’s when I wasn’t too shy to sing out loud and just muttered into the mic.

Thus ended the memorably-titled pop career of Castle Minds [2]. Strangely, given the lyrics and the slightly Gothic nature of the band name, our main music influences were Blur, Oasis, Shed Seven and The Bluetones, while I was mostly listening to dance music (I have a huge collection of mid-90s house and trance singles, despite it being a good few years before I’d set foot in a club), The Prodigy (Music For The Jilted Generation), Orbital and, erm, Dodgy.

Now my pop career is soon to lie firmly at the bottom of a Devon recycling centre, which is, on reflection, the best place for it. Although one thought does spring to mind. If, by some bizarre miracle, I ever find fame as a writer [3] and they come to write my biography, this blog aside, they’ll be devoid of material from my early/teenage years.

At least some material would have existed, though. If Dylan Thomas had been alive today, he’d probably send a few hundred thousand emails, the majority of them being utterly banal to the point of ‘don’t forget the bread and toilet roll tonight’ while his hard drive would, as most likely, crash deleting the entire manuscript of Under Milk Wood.

[1] Complete with suggested chords. Given that I just about could play three, maybe four, chords at this stage, you’ll appreciate it was hardly Lennon & McCartney).

[2] I really wish I could tell you why we chose this name, but I’ve absolutely no idea what the thinking was. I’m sure there’s a story behind it but I’m buggered if I can remember.

[3] And if Jordan can have 4 bestsellers I should at least be able to squeeze out one modest-seller. Assuming I ever getting around to writing one. 

Gordon! What a pleasant surprise!

I woke up this morning, turned on the radio and heard the news Tony Blair was due to step down and Gordon Brown would take over as Prime Minister. Now this didn’t come as a massive shock to me, partly because myself and a colleague had already spent time speaking to local MPs, organisations, the IT man in my office [1] and general voxing to get a local angle on what was going to be the biggest issue of the day.

And big it was. Bar the weather and Wimbledon, nationally it’s been pretty quiet. But two things bothered me slightly. The first was the nature of the news itself.

Now, call me old fashioned, but when I was just considering starting a career in journalism I was taught two vital pieces of advice. The first was always ensure you go to work with a tie and jacket on hand. The second was ‘news’ should be to tell the audience something they don’t already know.

Now, unless somebody had forcibly kidnapped me a year ago, flew me to the moon and stuck large wedges of cheddar in my ears and eyes I think, even without working within journalism, I could have hazarded a guess that Tony Blair would be calling it a day today and there was a good chance a Scottish neighbour would replace him as Prime Minister.

I could have also guessed that he would have made a last appearance in the Commons before visiting the Queen, resigning and letting Brown put up the road to Buckingham Palace and take the reigns

Now, strictly speaking, under the definition I was taught – and largely stick to – this isn’t ‘news’. Perhaps it could classify as ‘olds’ or the less catchy ‘something we already know about but happens to be occurring this instance’.

But here’s the paradox. Really, Blair leaving and Brown’s coronation isn’t news, but is still the biggest story of the day. But could broadcasters have covered it any differently? I honestly can’t answer that. At a local level, I think my newsroom did a good job [2]: a range of opinions from a range of people, all equally valid and interesting. I would have  tweaked bits and pieces and got in a couple more voices had I had time, but in my office it was a job well done, I hope.

But if I’d been working in a national newsroom, I can’t honestly think of how I’d have played it differently from all the national feeds I saw at various points during the day. Odd thing, broadcast news. It’s up to date, right up to the minute often, but is also stagnant because if nothing significant or new is happening, that’s what gets reported.

Things picked up a bit later in the day, when Brown took over as we moved into speculation of the cabinet, but I was left with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction at what I’d seen. The best coverage: probably The Times’ News blog [3], which I’ve only seen after the event[4].

[As an aside, Iain Dale is fuming about the BBC’s decision to go to Wimbledon coverage of Eastern European tennis players in the middle of PMQs, as act that makes me wonder if my old friend, Guardian music journalist and female tennis obsessive, Alex Macpherson, had temporarily been installed as programme controller at the BBC. The mind boggles. But frankly, I’d have rather have watched Wimbledon than PMQs. At least with the tennis you genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen]

But the other aspect of today’s coverage was broadly deferential, which troubled me. Even the most ardent Blairite would have difficulty denying that Tony’s not exactly loved by the whole of the country, and there are plenty of vociferous, and not-so-vociferous, critics of assorted policies.

Yet we got Tony smiling and waving to the crowd. Tony getting an ovation in Parliament. Tony cheered by an adoring public as he popped into visit Mrs. Liz Windsor. Tony solemnly announcing his new job as Middle East envoy. You’d have thought he’d single-handedly solved every major issue at home and abroad during the last 10 years and rounded it off by rescuing a bag of drowning kittens on his last day in office. It’s as if Iraq and Cash For Lordships had never happened.

I don’t want to get into my own take on Blair’s legacy (although for an entertaining and distinctly partisan take on the last 10 years, Justin McKeating’s your man) but one commentator really stood out today – Jonathan Freedland:

For Tony Blair will leave today not with his head bowed, or drummed out of office, but on a day and in a manner of his choosing. He has choreographed his exit with a thousand send-offs: cheers at Sedgefield, a last hug at the White House, a final round of backslapping from European leaders last week and yet another ovation from a Labour conference on Sunday. No hint of a leader made to dip his head for a fateful, lethal mistake.

His whole piece could be used as a cool, reasoned argument of why Blair does not deserve lavishing of praise when he leaves office. I can’t think of another Prime Minister, save perhaps Churchill, who left to such fawning, and even the cigar-chomping V-signing one was voted out of office once inbetween.

Yes, we’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the past ten years. Yes, there will be plenty more time to reflect on Blair’s legacy. And yes, to sum up the gradual move from near-euphoric expectation in 1997 to a state of disengagement, apathy and malaise with politics today would take more than a bulletin’s worth to explain. But it would have been nice to have some genuinely critical voices around, to remind us of his weaknesses as well as his strengths.

Today went exactly as Tony Blair hoped it would. And that speaks volumes about the current state of politics, the media and the public.

[1] This wasn’t an arbitrary choice or one of my, ‘Oh shit, we’re running out of time, he’ll do’ moments. He’d actually first voted in ’97 and hadn’t moved away from the area since. 

[2] Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Journalists are not noted for their lack of ego.

[3] HT: Martin Stabe.

[4] I had work to do today. Much as I could easily spend my day surfing around the internet, I’m usually too busy to even get a chance for my requisite number of cups of tea.

Mobile phones: still stupid

Further to my communication problems of yesterday, I’ve just had this following internet exchange with a friend:

Friend: hullo.. did you get my txt yesterday/sunday?
Gary: erm, I’m not sure. I think so. Did you get my text [about that issue but not in direct reply to the issue in hand] today?
Friend: erm no

Really. I mean honestly! We invented the wheel so this could happen? I’m so nonplussed by the whole thing I might write a letter to a newspaper.


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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com