Tag Archives: Sky

How budgets and technology have affected the type of TV comedy we see

I was at the London School of Economics last night for an event called Comedy As Commentary, in which a panel of writers and producers discussed the way in which “much comedy writing can be read as a kind of commentary on social life.”

But economics came into it too.

One of the panelists was Joanna Scanlan, actress and co-writer (with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine) of the highly realistic sitcom Getting On, set in the geriatric ward on an NHS hospital.

All of the panel seemed to be big fans of the sitcom Father Ted.

“But,” Joanna pointed out, “the budgets that were available to make television at the point that Father Ted was commissioned by Channel 4 are very different from the budgets that are available to make television comedy now.

“What has happened is that the realism mode, to-camera shoot and the limited locations are partly financially driven. If you turn up in a commissioner’s office and say we have to build these props and it’ll take a six-day shoot… The Thick Of It was initially shot in two-and-a-half days per episode and Getting On was done two-and-a-half days per episode.

“They both started on BBC4, where there were very low budgets and very low expectations for audience: they were going to build it.

The Thick Of It has ended up being a huge phenomenon, but it has never had the budgets that really go with that.

“People talk about Getting On as if we really intended it to be like that, but we didn’t. It had to be like that. It couldn’t be different (because of the budget).

“The other thing is that technology has changed; cameras have changed. You can walk around a room without a cable behind the camera so therefore you can shoot in rooms without cables becoming visible on the shot.

Peter Capaldi, who directed the first two series of Getting On, said at the very beginning Why are we making television in the way that we’re making it? The technology has utterly changed. All the conventions within the production methods you can throw away.

“So I think it’s partly about letting your imagination run wild but (with lower budgets) it’s very difficult in a world where no commissioner is going to… Well, Sky is the exception. When they started commissioning comedy, Lucy Lumsden, the commissioning editor, said she wanted touchy-feely stuff, she wanted warm stuff – which is partly about their subscribers, but it’s also that she had some more money. You could make a world. You could have more than one location.

“It obviously does affect the creative vision.

“There was a BBC do a while ago where one of the heads of Comedy was saying Ooh, it’d be nice if… and showed a clip of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em – one of the most famous episodes where Frank Spencer gets hoisted up onto the steeple of the church… We can’t laugh at that sort of thing any more, because we really couldn’t afford to do that. It’s out of the question, but it would be good if we could.”

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Why do BBC, ITV and Sky News not report what is happening in the world?

(This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian news site WSN)

Blindfolded to what happens elsewhere

BBC, ITV and Sky TV’s target audience in their news reports

America is often criticised for being insular.

It was said that, in the build-up to the Gulf War, some people in the southern states – genuinely – were nervous because they believed the war would be happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

The blame for Americans’ insularity is usually put on US TV News which, it is said, reports almost entirely internal US stories.

But the words pot, kettle and black leap to mind.

Two people from Ireland were staying with me last week.

They complained that, on Irish television, the RTÉ news reports were almost entirely inward-looking reports about things happening in Ireland. One or two news items from the UK might be tacked-on briefly at the end.

But it is the same in the UK.

Blinkered, insular news reporting. We hear very little about what is happening in the outside world. One school shooting in the US is not wide world reporting.

I worked for 25 years or so in television, mostly in Entertainment but, early on, I was a Researcher on the BBC’s start-up teletext service CEEFAX, part of BBC TV News. This meant, in effect, being a cheap Sub Editor and, during the real Sub Editor meal breaks, being the person who, unsupervised, decided what went out.

We had Reuters and Press Association teleprinters spewing news in to us all the time and I remember one day stories coming in about massed tank battles involving (it was said) Soviet troops in Ethiopia or, I suppose, it was probably Eritrea. I did not report these on CEEFAX because the major full-scale war had been going on for months and had never been in the headlines.

In the same way, much later, the war in Liberia was almost never reported on British TV news because it went on for so long, because there were no TV reporters out there and because it overlapped with the First Gulf War.

I was thinking about this last night when I was watching vivid Al Jazeera reports on the civil war in Syria.

On the BBC TV News programmes last night – zilch, nothing, nada. Syria crops up occasionally but not regularly.

You would have thought that, with rolling 24-hour news channels, we would be getting more news, but we simply get the same news repeated every 15 minutes.

In a mainstream half hour BBC1 or ITV1 or Sky news broadcast we get, perhaps five news stories reported. Almost all are domestic UK stories.

Africa and Asia go virtually unreported.

‘Extended’ news coverage means Europe and the US.

To get regular news on Africa, Asia and Australasia, you have to watch Al Jazeera.

There is no reason why the BBC or ITN or Sky could not have a 15 minute slot every hour in which they report genuine World News. Quantity, in this case, is more important than in-depth reports.

Of course, the demand for what is happening in South America or South East Asia is not as high – unless there is a visually exciting tsunami.

I remember talking to a reporter on Granada TV’s World in Action programme years ago. He had risked his life in Nicaragua and Venezuela with bullets whizzing over his head and death threats from the government. But, he said, he knew that when his reports were networked on World in Action, they would get relatively low viewing figures… Whereas a relatively easy-to-make programme on the NHS or UK schools would get much, much higher viewing figures because those subjects touched people’s lives.

That is no reason, though, for not reporting what happens in the world.

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The British upper-middle media class hates anyone who is genuinely popular

Sid Yobbo….Do they mean him?

Derek Jameson died on Wednesday. His death was reported yesterday; I suspect most people had forgotten about him.

It is Friday today; I suspect most people have forgotten about his death. Yet he was very famous. In his time. Being one of the most famous people in Britain is always just a raindrop in time on a small island at the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean.

I think, when I was at college, he may have been one of our guest lecturers. Perhaps more than once. I really can’t remember.

Yet he was editor of three national newspapers – the Daily Express, Daily Star and News of the World. Then he became a famous voice on radio, a famous face on TV, had his own series – several of ’em’… And – one of the best signs of fame for a populist personality – Private Eye created a name when they regularly lampooned him – Sid Yobbo. They called him that because of his strong Cockney accent and what were seen as his ‘down-market’ tastes.

He was the sort of person Guardian readers – and, indeed, Private Eye readers – always sneer at.

It was snobbery masquerading as… Well, it wasn’t even really bothering to masquerade as anything. It was just out-and-out snobbery. The chattering classes of Islington did not like him because he spoke with a ‘cor blimey’ accent, was someone who had the proverbial common touch, was much-loved by ‘the masses’ and did not go to Oxbridge.

I mean, my dear, he left school and went out to work at 14…!!!

On BBC Radio 4, it was once said he was “so ignorant he thought erudite was a type of glue”.

But you don’t get where he got by being ignorant nor by being unintelligent.

He was an orphan who grew up in care homes, became a Fleet Street (ie newspaper industry) messenger boy at the age of 14 and made it to the top of his very prickly tree… by which I mean it’s full of pricks.

He may have been a horrible man… or a nice man… I have no idea. But he was vilified in the minority circles of up-their-own-arse media luvvies because he was seen as ‘common’ and because what he did was read, watched, listened-to and liked by more millions than have ever heard of any Booker Prize winner.

Mad inventor John Ward, who designed and made the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award trophies, met Derek Jameson in the late 1980s.

“I appeared as a guest on one of his Jameson Tonight chat shows on Sky TV,” John told me yesterday.

“At the time, Sky had only been running a short while and Derek’s show had only been on air a matter of weeks. It was pre-recorded and then screened about an hour later.

“The show was recorded before an audience at the old Windmill Theatre, which had been turned into a television production studio and renamed Paramount City. The audience, it seemed to me, were literally ‘hooked off’ the street outside!

“When I was a guest on the show, we had the rehearsal/run through session and drifted off to have tea and biscuits before getting ready for the taping.

“Other guests on the show that night included actress Shirley Anne Field, Don King the American boxing promoter and Maria Elena Holly (Buddy’s widow). While I was waiting to follow them into Make Up, I asked Derek what the ratings for his show were. After careful consideration, he told me:

Well, as we are new ‘ere, in England, it’s not really registered ‘ere yet, cos there are not a lot of folk who’ve got SKY ‘ere so far but… I’m told we are really shit hot in Murmansk!

“He was a true down to earth trouper and I shall miss him because – unlike a lot of them – he was for real. What you saw, is what you got. R I P Derek.”

As an afterthought, John Ward added:

“One good thing about appearing on his show is that at least I can say I appeared at the Windmill…”

O quam cito transit gloria mundi

Now there’s something Derek Jameson would never have said.

But the world, as always, has turned and changed. Now we have Google Translate. But no Derek Jameson.

So it goes.

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True tales from the Comedians’ Cricket Match?

Apparently, during filming of the new movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, author John Le Carré was phoned up and a key line was added. It was during a scene in which new information was assessed and the line was:

“Patently a fabrication from beginning to end. Just could be the real thing.”

I have found that the more unlikely a story, the more likely it is to be true. When comedian say something likely, it is often made up; when they say something too OTT to be true… it is often a toning-down of a far more OTT truth.

Yesterday, I was at the comedians’ annual cricket match against the locals at Staplefield in West Sussex. It seems to be held every six months.

Cricket is possibly the dullest game ever invented. But you certainly meet some interesting people and hear some interesting stories at the comedians’ cricket match.

While theoretically watching, I got talking to a retired fireman who used to work in Slough. He told me that, occasionally, he would cycle into work to Slough from Staplefield, a journey of 54 miles. It would take him three hours but keep him fit. And he once cycled from Slough to Northampton and back – a 140 mile round trip – to see a girlfriend.

Clearly Staplefield harbours some hardy people.

One comedian at the match told me about not appearing on the Sky TV talent show Don’t Stop Me Now in which contestants are ejected in various odd ways including being jerked up into the air by a rope or wire or dropped through a trapdoor.

The comic in question was told he could not use the word “Nazis” in his routine because “people might be offended”. Not offended by the routine or the gag, which was inoffensive, but by any use of the word “Nazis” in any sentence. Another problem was that he turned out to be too heavy for either the rope or the trapdoor. Sky did not use him on the show.

Another comic (and it is fairly obvious to other comics who this is) told me that, in horse racing, there had been a fad a few years ago – if a fellow jockey was asleep – to drop either snot or sperm onto the unconscious person’s closed eyes.

“Snot and sperm,” I was told, “are both at body temperature, so the person doesn’t wake up. But, when they do, they find their eyelids are stuck together for a little bit and they think they are blind… How we used to laugh!”

This story vies with another for most bizarre story of yesterday.

I heard the other story at local pub the Victory Inn from a guy of about 30 who claimed he had been in the Army and had been in Afghanistan. His tour over there is not actually relevant, but I mentioned to him the story I have blogged about before of the Irish Republican sympathiser who was put unconscious on a plane to New York.

The story I was told yesterday was a tale of a personal dispute between a couple of Army men and a non-Army person who had screwed them out of money. When the money could not be recovered, they removed him from his house one night, drugged him so he was unconscious, put him in a container lorry, drove it to the Balkans to a place they knew in a forest on a remote hillside miles from any town or village. They stripped him, gave him a tab of LSD and left him there on the hillside, naked and presuming he was still in the UK.

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“I’ve got no idea,” the man in the pub told me. “Not interested.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

The story seems unlikely but, perhaps because of that, it has the ring of truth about it.

Who can tell betwixt reality and fantasy, especially if you find yourself naked and alone on a hillside where any locals you meet will be speaking in an unknown language.

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Yesterday was a bad day for watching others work at the coalface of comedy

Yesterday, comedian Janey Godley (of whom more later) said to me about the superfluous ‘tasks’ in the first episode of ITV1’s Show Me the Funny: “Finding someone called Michelle in a street in Liverpool does not mean you are a good comedian; it takes no comedy talent.”

Bloody right.

What on earth is the point of this show?

For no logical or demonstrable reason (apart from copying a not-very-good old TV format where comics performed in front of ‘difficult’ audiences) this week our mis-used nine comics had to perform five minutes of new material to soldiers at Catterick army camp.

Four minutes into the show, the scripted voice-over said pseudo-dramatically – “They’ll be a tough audience to please.”

Maybe. But it was not until 29 minutes into the show that the comedians actually started to perform to the audience.

Why oh why oh why do they not just Show Me The Funny?

Perhaps next year, when television screens the 100 metre race at the Olympics, the race itself will be preceded by 30 minutes of watching the athletes learn how to juggle fruit… and we will only be allowed to see glimpses of the race itself.

In this show, where the format involves writing five minutes of new material, we only get glimpses of the acts performing that material. The longest any of them got was two minutes; most got significantly less than one minute; the shortest appeared to get around 4 seconds.

Last week, I said the problem with this show was that the producers could not see the wood for the trees. We are now into another week, another simile. It is now clear they are just barking up the wrong tree.

The producers are so busy showing us irrelevant production values that they do not have any time left to show us the funny. And, because they have chopped the comedians to pieces in the edit, the person who actually comes across strongest is judge Kate Copstick whose tongue is as sharp as her Scotsman reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. La Copstick has clearly been chopped-to-hell in the edit as well, but she still shines forth a beacon of light in her Cruella de Vil world.

Perhaps I am just becoming a grumpy old man.

A least Show Me The Funny showed us glimpses of what we were supposed to be seeing.

Yesterday, I was invited along by Sky TV to what they called a PR “junket” – which my dictionary defines as “an extravagant trip or celebration”.

Sky say that, by 2014, they will be spending £600 million on British programming and that “original British comedy provides cornerstone of Sky1 HD autumn schedule” this year.

Well, all I can say is they’d better hurry up and get their publicity act together.

I was one of six mostly-mystified people with an online presence – I think we were each supposed to be highly influential in our blogs and websites – and we were invited to “round-table interviews” with some of the talent involved in the new Sky comedy shows.

What a disastrous bit of PR. Are companies just suicidal nowadays?

“What shall we do today?”

“Oh, I know, we will see how we can damage our own brand image.”

Four months ago, I blogged about the disastrous recording session for IKEA’s ‘comedy/Friends’ commercials – it is an old blog which still gets a few hits every day or so.

IKEA promised to ply their Family Card holders with plentiful food and drink if they attended the endlessly unfunny recording of their TV ads. The food and drink which was not supplied made Southern Sudan seem like a land of milk and honey.

Sky did not promise any food or drink, so I can’t complain about the small bottles of water which were probably supplied by the excellently-run hotel where the junket took place and not by Sky.

But I can bitch about the lack of any discernible organisation.

The story was that they would screen clips from possibly four shows, then there would be these “round table interviews” with the talent. Presumably the idea was that, from these glimpses of the shows and sparkling quotes from the talent, we would write glowing online pieces which would spread the word on how good the ‘products’ are.

This was supposed to happen 5.30-7.00pm – “arrive at 5.15pm” we were told. The very efficient hotel staff showed us into a padded room. I should have started to worry at this point.

Around 5.45pm, the first appearance was made by a Sky person – a head popped round the door to say “We’re running a little late” and then disappeared.

The first ‘talent’ came into the room accompanied by a PR lady just after 6.00pm, we turned to the TV screen but there were no clips.

Perhaps later, I foolishly thought.

So we rather awkwardly asked questions of the talent who brilliantly plugged their unseen show. This was repeated with three more different groups of talent being ushered into the room (with large gaps of emptiness between) each with a different, mostly mute, PR lady. We had four bunches of talent from three new Sky series; the talent from the fourth show seemed to have wisely done a runner.

It was a magical mystery guess as to who would come through the door next. Sometimes, as they entered, we were told which show they were on; sometimes we had to guess from their faces and the single sheet press releases we had on each show.

For the record, the shows were The Cafe, Mount Pleasant and Trollied. The billed people from the Spys sitcom must have gone on an undercover mission elsewhere. It was only when we asked at the end that we discovered they were not turning up.

The show people were all rushed through to a tight deadline because, having started half an hour late, the Sky PR machine did not want to end late because they had other things to do. Poor Jane Horrocks and Jason Watkins had to try and ‘sell’ their show Trollied (set in a supermarket) in seven minutes, which they did brilliantly. But what do you ask about a show you haven’t seen which is set in a supermarket?

I asked if, because they were used to performing in studios, it was more difficult to act in the ‘real’ supermarket which Sky had built for the series.

Jane Horrocks said she had done so many ads for Tesco she felt at home in a supermarket.

I like Jane Horrocks.

But quite what we were talking about no-one really knew. Which brings us back to Janey Godley, who was one of the six influential online people invited to the junket and who said to me (I paraphrase extensively):

“You have to see clips to know what the tone is. You can shoot one idea in any number of ways. You can have a great idea badly done and it’s crap. You can have a bad idea brilliantly done and it’s wonderful.”

No clips meant we had no idea what we are supposed to be helping Sky TV promote.

I felt like asking if any of the talent had had their phones hacked by News International.

The “junket” lasted under an hour; one of us had come all the way from Devon to attend.

It all ended with a brief head popping round the door again to thank us for coming. Someone asked: “Are there any DVDs so we can see the shows?”

“Oh,” the surprised PR replied: “Send us an e-mail if you want one.”

I think a basic rule-of-thumb should be… if you are trying to kick-start good word-of-mouth in hopefully influential online sites and blogs… then show us the product.

Show Me The Funny fell at the first hurdle because it failed to Show Me The Funny.

Sky TV, trying to promote their TV shows, fell at the first hurdle because they wanted good word-of-mouth but failed to show us anything at all of the programmes.

And whatever happened to outright bribes of canapés, knick-knacks or, at the very least, an inflatable Jane Horrocks doll?

Word-of-mouth works both ways.

I will listen with interest to Janey Godley’s weekly podcast this Wednesday – after only a year, it gets over 100,000 downloads per week via multiple sites – having built on the success of her blog which, since 2004, had built up to over 500,000 hits per week on multiple sites.

I left the excellent central London hotel hosting the Sky junket – the Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall Place – I recommend it highly – thinking the highly-trained if rather overly-smiley hotel staff should have been arranging the PR.

Then I thought:

“Shall I slag off this shindig or not? If I do, they will never invite me to another one.”

Big decision.

“What have I really got to lose?”

The answer was obvious:

“A bottle of still water but no knick-knacks or inflatable Jane Horrocks doll.”

Lackaday! Lackaday!

Do the words Brinsley Schwarz mean nothing nowadays?

(Janey Godley’s weekly podcast also talked about this Sky junket – 10 mins 20 seconds in)

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Are Pipex/TalkTalk, BT and Virgin Media in a contest to be the most incompetent UK telecoms company?

Right… Standby for a pointless complaint about an insanely incompetent British company. Indeed, companies. No enlightening information. No message for Mankind.  Just a rant… You have been warned… What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t have a rant?

Is there actually no competent telecoms company anywhere in Britain?

Really.

A serious question.

BT treats its customers with much the same care and respect as the Libyan and Syrian governments treat its people.

But Pipex/TalkTalk appears to be in some sort of heavy-handed contest with BT and Virgin Media to win a prize as the most PR-stupid and professionally incompetent telecoms company in the UK. They seem to manage to be devious, deaf and incompetent simultaneously. At least Virgin Media is not devious, it’s just plain incompetent.

Virgin Media claims to have the fastest broadband in Britain but, in my first-hand experience, its broadband does not work for 60% of the time and constantly drops. Someone else I know reckoned, for her, Virgin Media’s broadband was perhaps 10% the speed of her former BT line for 90% of the time. Perhaps it has the fastest broadband in Britain over a measured two second spurt. Try to get any customer service, of course, and you might as well be trying to play football underwater.

As for Pipex/TalkTalk…

In the last five weeks, I have had five cold calls from them using an 0161 (Manchester) telephone number but actually phoning from abroad to avoid the restrictions on cold calling within the UK. When I asked the man with the Indian accent where he was phoning from, he said South Africa.

At least Pipex/TalkTalk’s people are comprehensible, if unwelcome. BT, in my limited experience, have ‘help centres’ in ‘proper’ India staffed by unfortunate people with accents more incomprehensible than drunken Glaswegians wearing gas masks. That’s not racism, it’s a rant against BT’s stupidity in having foreign help centres. They might as well have their help centres staffed by deaf mutes in Guatemala for all the good they do. When will BT realise that saving money on help centres costs them more in lost customers and disastrous damage to their already low image?

I used to be with Pipex. I left because they were generally incompetent, they couldn’t actually supply me with VAT bills and two separate Pipex people told me I had to make phone calls to them not use the internet because the Pipex online service was “insecure”. Not reassuring in a telecoms company. What I didn’t know then but do know now is that apparently Pipex routinely cut off customers who left them before the changeover date for a new supplier so that customers were left without a line.

Now they are trying to tell me they are part of Pipex/TalkTalk and are a brand sparkling new company and offer sparkling service.

I think Colonel Gaddafi’s spokesman has been saying much the same thing about the Libyan regime every few weeks over the last few months. I can’t say I’m convinced.

I work on the principle of three strikes and you’re out.

If I get cold calls, I ask to be removed from the list of the company. After trying this twice – or, if they’re lucky, three times – the phrase “Fuck off, you cunt,” tends to get used in the hope they put me on a list of people who perhaps don’t altogether want to be cold called and might just hurl random verbal abuse at anyone who calls me.

If I forced my way into the home of the chairman of Pipex/TalkTalk five times in five weeks, I somehow think the sentence “Fuck off, you cunt,” might be very justifiably used by him to me. If someone forces their way into my home, uninvited, via my telephone line, I feel much the same applies. If you come into my home uninvited, you can’t complain I am being unreasonably impolite if I tell you to fuck off out of it again.

I find “Fuck off, you cunt,” is often an effective deterrent to unwanted calls and far less hassle than complaining to any alleged regulatory body. With luck, the company has some list of abusive potential customers. Pipex/TalkTalk seem not to understand the words – simple enough to understand, I would have thought.

Like I say, five calls in five weeks.

Clearly they think it is good PR to circumvent the UK restrictions on cold calling by phoning from foreign soil. And clearly they think it is good PR to keep calling an ex-customer who is not a current subscriber and who had zero interest in re-joining them even before these annoying phone calls.

They’re not alone, of course.

I had much the same trouble with BT. I eventually left them when they would not stop making marketing calls to me despite the fact I was on the Telephone Preference Service list to receive no calls.

“We can’t stop marketing calls,” I was told by two separate BT Helpline people. “It’s another department… No, I don’t know which department. It must be one of our marketing departments.”

A friend of mine tells me the tale of BT harassing her dying mother with marketing calls which could not be stopped. It added to the distress of her mother in the months before she died. This same friend has had  a worse time than me – she herself had hassle from BT marketing calls for months and now has had computer-generated calls from Barclaycard for six months (using an array of different originating numbers and still continuing) because their computer got her confused with someone else. The calls say – “Please call this number”.

Can she get the calls stopped by calling the number(s) given? No she can’t. Can she get the calls stopped by writing to Barclaycard? No she can’t.

I am currently with the very efficient Sky TV, though their lines are supplied by the appalling BT and occasionally drop in two of my rooms. But, unlike the utterly unspeakable Virgin Media lines, at least they work almost all the time.

Sky seem to be the only British telecoms company that has anything like a customer-friendly policy – or a broadband service that works – or any corporate ideology that values PR.

So Rupert Murdoch is OK with me.

But perhaps I am tempting fate…

(There was a later mention about this in my blog on 22nd May)

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