Tag Archives: interview

Have the Jimmy Savile police decided to re-define the word ‘arrest’ as ‘chat’?

Men in blue on the lookout for headlines

Lads on the look-out for famous names and tabloid publicity

Am I alone… Day 2.

Am I alone in wondering about all these police ‘arrests’ in the Jimmy Savile paedophile case?

Are they actually arresting people they genuinely think are guilty of something or are they just questioning high-profile people under caution and then saying “We have arrested Famous Person Number 5” to make it look like they are actively pursuing the case?

The usual routine in high-profile murder cases is that, if the police can’t find anyone to arrest, they simply find the local loony, arrest and charge him and hope to fix the evidence so he goes down for 30 years.

In the case of these Jimmy Savile ‘arrests’, they seem to be allegedly ‘arresting’ people who will make the front page of the tabloids, having a chat with them and then releasing them all without any charge.

I think my understanding of the word ‘arrest’ may be at fault.

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Filed under Legal system, Police, Uncategorized

Writing someone else’s autobiography: The World Trade Center comparison

Unknown numbers of unknown unknowns

I was talking to someone last night about writing their autobiography. It will probably never happen, because the publishing industry is in decline, is running scared and does not really know what is happening with eBooks, self-publishing, print-on-demand and all the other new imponderables.

Back in December 2011, I wrote a blog about How to write someone else’s biography or your own autobiography 

That did not go into the mechanics of the thing.

Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

– There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know.

– There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know.

– But there are also unknown unknowns – There are things we do not know we don’t know

He got a tremendous amount of unfair criticism claiming this was gibberish when, in fact, it is entirely clear and entirely correct. Especially when you are writing a book about someone else’s life.

You do not know how much – let alone what – you do not know about the other person’s life. And, if you do not know what you do not know, you may not know the right questions to ask to find out what you do not know and what the other person has forgotten or does not realise is illuminating.

By-and-large, I think the best thing is to chat to and record the person talking about their life. This might take 30 hours – or much more.

With my non-typing skills, I take three times as long to transcribe a chat as the chat takes itself. You cannot get someone else to transcribe it, because they may miss something vital in the intonation or the syntax or in the umming and ahhing and meandering which everyone does in ordinary everyday speech.

So that means, in this case, 30 hours of chats would take 90 hours to transcribe – so a total of 120 hours. If you work a solid seven-hour day, that means just over 17 days. If you take weekends off, that means three weeks and two days in total, working solidly every weekday from 9.30am to 5.30pm with a single one-hour lunch break.

After all that, you are at ground zero. You have the material with which to write the book, but you have not yet started to write the book.

If you have conducted the chats well, you will have got the basics and managed to stop the person diverging too much onto sidetrack dead ends – although you have to allow a lot of genuinely irrelevant, pointless sidetracking because you are faced with unknown numbers of unknown unknowns – and one apparent sidetrack may lead to you striking pure gold.

Even if the person has excellent recall of details (which is rare) and has been able to tell their story in some rough form of chronological order (which is even rarer), what you have now is a meandering, waffly mess, from which you have to create some sort of structure with threads running through which will intrigue and ‘hook’ the reader.

What you exclude is arguably more important than what you include.

Telling a life story is not a matter of telling the reader everything that happened. Facts are not necessarily interesting. You have to find specific incidents which will illuminate and explain certain periods in the person’s life. No point describing in detail what happened as 153 events slowly developed in one six month period of a whole life; you have to find one key event which illuminates the period, develops a thread and cut it back so it becomes vivid and insightful.

Part of that you have to sort-out when you are chatting to the person. But a lot is in the later writing, which is like putting together a jigsaw wading through syrup in concrete boots while carrying an octopus on your back.

The important choice is what you do NOT include.

It is like telling the story of how one person died in the World Trade Center. Going through the ruins of both collapsed buildings with a sieve and a toothbrush will not help. There is too much information. Too much rubble.

People know too much about their own lives. A ghost writer has to find the key vivid facts, incidents, thoughts and feelings which condense decades of incidents into 90,000-120,000 words.

And, trust me, 90,000 words is less than superficial.

So pity the poor person trying to write someone else’s autobiography.

You don’t know what my life is like.

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Filed under Books, Writing

The death of comedians Frank Carson and secret transsexual Gregg Jevin

On the studio floor at TV show Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson & associate producer David McKellar

I was sad to hear today about the death of comedian Gregg Jevin. I met him around five years ago and I was going to write his autobiography. Eventually, it fell through because I could not get through to the real person.

With Gregg, you could never ‘find’ the real person; he always hid behind that facade of being the ‘Gregg Jevin’ on-stage character.

I only ever encountered that a couple of other times. Once was with Matthew Kelly and the other was with the late Frank Carson, who also sadly died this week.

When I was at Granada Television, we once went to Blackpool to film a series of on-screen promotions for the TV station. The promos featured stars of the legendary series The Comedians and we, of course, gave them a complimentary lunch in the upstairs room of an off-season Blackpool pub.

It was quite an exhausting lunch, because there were about eight comics sitting round a table all trying to out-do each other on jokes and jollity. I have a feeling Bernard Manning opted out and ate separately, probably wisely. The loudest and most overwhelming of those present was Frank Carson. He never switched off. I talked to him a little bit over the course of that afternoon – and he also appeared in various episodes of the children’s TV series Tiswas on which I worked.

But I never felt I was ever talking to the real person. He was always being the ‘Frank Carson’ character.

TV scriptwriter Nigel Crowle agreed when I asked him about Frank: “He never seemed to switch off,” Nigel told me.

I also asked comic and actor Matt Roper (son of George Roper, who also appeared on The Comedians) if he had any memories of Frank Carson.

“My main memory,” Matt told me, “was his ability to talk non-stop for hours. “There was no ‘off’ button. I remember my mum telling me how my parents had had a huge housewarming party in the 1970s and Frank was last person to sleep at night sitting in an armchair, still muttering away, and the first person up in the morning, at full-power over breakfast.

“I really was a baby in the 1980s even; I knew a few of the old school but not all of them too well. Just my dad’s mates. When I started getting into comedy myself I began to get a bit more interested in it all but, by that point, most of these boys (they were all boys, notably) were off the telly and back in what was left of a dying carcass of a club scene or, if they were lucky, summer seasons and panto.”

Gregg Jevin, of course, was from a later generation. But, like Frank Carson, I could never find the switch to turn off the stage character and turn on the ‘real’ person.

I was on a Storywarp panel last year which discussed storytelling and the subject of how to present real people’s stories came up – and the fact that it is not only the subject of the interview who is presenting a version of themselves but also the interviewer.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley, assistant editor at the New Statesman said:

“There’s an element when you’re interviewing somebody that you have to present the version of yourself to them that you think they will respond to. Which is really bad if you talk to somebody for so long that you start falling into their cadences of speech. One of the many things you do when you’re interviewing someone is that you’re constantly monitoring their responses, thinking Can I push them further? I need to get a quote from them on this subject. It’s incredibly difficult nowadays when you’re interviewing celebrities and there’s a PR handler and they’re aware they want to give you the blandest interview possible but they want to get a huge plug for the film.

“You want to trick them into saying something of vague interest to somebody other than The director was great!  and I love acting. So that becomes a kind of negotiation and you have to be the kind of person they will respond to. Every writer thinks that they themselves are the most interesting person in the world and actually the interview would be much better if they were answering the questions. You have to remove yourself from the process. I hate interviews where it’s all about the interviewer.”

I agreed. “About five years ago,” I explained, “I almost wrote the ghosted autobiography of a stand-up comedian called Gregg Jevin and the sub-story to that was that he was actually a transsexual; he had actually been born a woman but had the operation and became a male stand-up. So there was an interesting secondary story, which no-one knew about. It all fell through, tragically, because there were so many lies and half-truths involved in what he was telling me. I could never ‘find’ the real person.

“But Gregg, interestingly, said to me that he thought the process of writing a biography was the same as being an archaeologist or a stand-up comedian building fake comic stories on a bedrock of truth.

“In the case of an archaeologist, you are carefully excavating and uncovering the past, but you haven’t really any idea what the hell actually went on. You might uncover a slab of stone and think it was used for a particular purpose, but you could be wrong. If you are a comedian, then you go so far with the bedrock of truth but then start embellishing the details. Equally, if you’re writing a biography of someone then, if they’re dead, you’re probably guessing quite a lot – even if you have a lot of sources, you’re still guessing. And, if they’re alive, you’re still vaguely guessing that they’re telling the truth or that your guess of what they’re telling you is what they’re actually telling you.”

TV scriptwriter Ivor Baddiel, who was also on the Storywarp panel, added: “In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he describes exactly that. He thinks stories are like archaeological finds. You unearth them and then you chip away at them until you get them back to their perfect state. And there is something in that. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you know that you’ve found what’s right. If I’m writing a gag or a line or whatever, I’m scrabbling around for it in my head. And, more recently, I’ve learned to listen to my gut feeling more and sometimes it just pops out of the ether. It might not be completely, fully formed but that’s as right as it’s going to get, maybe.”

“But that,” suggested Helen Lewis-Hasteley, “is also dangerous, because that’s terribly seductive. It’s often pattern recognition. You think I’ve heard this story before and what happens with biographies is that it strips away any nuance. It’s like a politician in a sex scandal. It’s perfectly possible for someone to be a wonderful, reforming politician but also to be an absolute shit. But no-one can hold those contradictions in their heads any more. This is the danger of telling a story: it’s one story or the other.

“Newspapers and magazines rely very heavily on archetypes: you need a baddie and a goodie in a story. Most forms of journalism are so short and it very much helps to have archetypes. It’s all about shorthand.”

“Well,” I said. “with comedian Janey Godley’s book Handstand in the Dark… I allegedly edited that and she had never written before for print at all. At that point, she was a stand-up comedian not a writer. So I was shepherding her. I never actually wrote it. I advised her without ever suggesting any specific words at all. At first, she did what I think a lot of people do when they write their autobiography: she wrote facts – and autobiographies are not about facts. She wrote I did this, I did that, I did the other in a long list of things she did. So I told her Don’t do that, because it can be dull. People are not interested in facts; they’re interested in people. So what you want to write is that, if you were doing lots of things at this time, figure out one episode that epitomises what you felt and what was going through your mind – what your emotions were – and then expand on that one element. That will cover over 15 uninteresting facts.

“If you’re writing a biography or autobiography, it’s the emotional journey, it’s the mental journey you’re interested in, not the facts. No-one cares if you went to Swindon for a day; you want to know what they felt and why. It’s like the American election philosophy: It’s about the Economy, stupid. In autobiographies: It’s about the emotions, stupid. It’s about people.”

And so, when I heard about the death of Gregg Jevin today, I thought to myself: What was the one key emotional centre-point of Gregg Jevin’s character that epitomised him?

And I could not think of a single thing. My mind went blank. It was as if he had never existed.

A sad comment on a life.

(There is more about Gregg Jevin HERE.)

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Filed under Books, Celebrity, Comedy, Psychology

A practical demonstration of how not to be interviewed…

I think I am a good interviewer because I am interested in finding out how people think and interested in the editing of reality to make it seem real – if you transcribe what people actually say, it is full of unfinished half-sentences, digressions and inconsistencies.

But, equally, I make a very bad interviewee because I do not particularly care what impression I make. As this interview, recorded after the two-hour Malcolm Hardee Awards Show at the recent Edinburgh Fringe, demonstrates…

To paraphrase Malcolm, it is also best not to be interviewed on an empty head.

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Filed under Comedy