Saturday, 28 July 2012

Isle of plenty

It's sometimes a little tricky being British. Not in a life-threatening way. On the grand scale of things, we don't have too many problems to deal with; we're not being visited by tornadoes on a weekly basis and plagues of locusts seem to be rare. But we're difficult to label, hard to describe.

Oh, we've all seen the stereotypes - diffident, slow to show emotion, a little stand-offish. We all drink tea, and when we're not doing that we gulp down warm beer out of very large glasses. Actually, there's a grain of truth in that last one, but my point stands. Britain, and the whole concept of being British, is a hard concept to pin down.

That's why I was anticipating last night's Olympic opening ceremony with a touch of concern. After all, events like this are supposed to show the country and its people at their best. But what angle to take?

Britain has a lot of history. This is a truth universally known - after a year of studying British history at school we were still looking at Roman roads with another 2,000-odd years of castles, battles, errant clergymen and stovepipe hats ahead of us. The opening ceremony could have tried to cover this vast swathe of events, but with only a couple of hours to fit it in, it would have needed fast-forwarding. The Reformation of the Churches and Henry VIII on roller skates? I don't think so.

What creative director Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire fame, did instead was to look not at Britain as a rather rainy island in the North Atlantic, but as a collection of people. People who came together and ended up giving something back to the world.

We saw a picture of the country in its rural idyll, rapidly transformed by the pandemonium of the Industrial Revolution. Individual people - those who had the spark of an idea - working together to improve their lot. Of course it was broad brush stuff. There was no Marx and Engels discussing the avarice of Victorian factory owners to counterbalance Branagh's Shakespeare-quoting Brunel. But the social aspect wasn't missed.

At the first Olympics where every country finally had female athletes in attendance, there was a nod to the Suffragette movement. The appearance of the Empire Windrush marked the major incoming of West Indian immigrants in 1948, just one aspect of the constant influx we've seen since the Romans. Our greatest post-war achievement, the introduction of universal healthcare for all, got an affectionate nod. And then the rapid growth in digital communication - transforming our lives in ways far beyond Brunel's imagination - with the eventual unveiling of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. He waived all commercial rights to the Web and let everyone dig in, free of charge. That blows my mind.

God, that all sounds horribly worthy doesn't it? A rich tapestry, but not one you'd hang on your wall.

Luckily, Boyle remembered the one thing that binds us Brits. We like to take the piss. We can laugh, most often at ourselves. So we saw the Queen - the actual flipping Queen! - take part in a sketch with Daniel Craig, plummeting out of a helicopter with a Union Jack parachute. Mr Bean gatecrashed the famous Chariots of Fire beach scene. Gregory's Girl rubbed shoulders with Michael Fish.

And running through all of this was the music. Sometimes irreverent, anarchic, angular, sometimes throwaway, always there to move you. Elgar's Nimrod at the beginning brought a lump to my throat. Pink Floyd's Eclipse at the end, after the most fantastic Olympic cauldron lighting, had me pretty much blubbing.

Although being British, I tried to hold it in. I think I said "Well, that's quite lovely."

Last night proved to me that you can be proud of your country without the macho, chest-thumping nonsense that sometimes comes as part of the bargain. I don't think I'm the only one, either. We're a world-weary lot, normally, but the conversations I've seen since last night - online and in the real world - suggests that many of us have suspended our cynicism for the time being. A non-cynical British person? That just doesn't happen. It's a modern-day miracle.  

In short, Danny Boyle didn't just get Britain. He got us. It was a love letter back to the country. It might be baffling to outsiders. It might not translate into foreign languages. That's perhaps the British way.

Here's the thing, though. I said at the start of this, we're not easy to pigeon-hole, us Britons. We come from hundreds of different places, originally. We're a mongrel nation. We certainly don't all look alike. And we're not perfect. You might not always like us, although we're hard to ignore. We like to grumble. It's a little difficult living here sometimes. Things don't always work. Historically, our country hasn't always got everything right.

But from now on, if someone asks me about what it's like to be in Britain in the 21st century, I can simply show them last night's ceremony. After all, it's not about castles and kings these days. It's about people. It's about ideas. It's about dreams.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hints and tips for Olympic visitors

Apparently there's a whole list of words I'm not allowed to use when discussing the London 2012 Olympics, in case I annoy the sponsors. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I can even mention the words 'London', '2012' or 'Olympics'. Which might make this post a little tricky.

After all, I want to give helpful advice for those planning on visiting our capital city to watch the Games. Let's just hope I don't upset those purveyors of fizzy brown sugar-water and McRandom animal protein burgers encased in bread whose logos seem to be all over the bloody place.

So you're coming to London? Some things you should know:
  1. Despite being a highly-urbanised world city, London has its fair share of wildlife. For instance, locals may tell you about the gangs of badgers that roam the streets after night. Don't be fooled by the creature's reputation for docility. The London Urban Badger is known for its short temper. They go for mobile phones in particular, which is puzzling as everyone knows that badgers have no love for cellular communications, preferring instead to convey information through the medium of modern interpretative dance. Just keep your phones safe and look out for furry little jazz-hands.
  2. Before the badgers moved in, foxes were highly-regarded by many Londoners due to their natural homing instincts. In the 1920's a network of uniformed City Guides operated in the city, using foxes to offer navigation tips to passers-by. This died out in 1956, but even now you can mark yourself out as being 'in the know' when asking a local for direction. Once he's finished, stare straight in his eyes and intone, "Wear the fox hat!" as loudly as possible.
  3. Jellied eels have not been eaten seriously by Londoners since the days of Hogarth.  It's one of those dishes that are rolled out to fool tourists. Every city has one. See Deep Fried Mars Bar, Chicken Phall, Ulster Fry, etc.
  4. On the subject of food, do try the most typical of London dishes, the doner kebab. Containing a delicate mix of spices, sauces and something that once might have been meat, all wrapped up in a pitta bread, this represents the high point of fine dining. Make sure you order plenty of salad, but do not eat it. You're supposed to leave this part on the pavement as an offering to the Badger God.
  5. Do not make eye contact with people on the Tube. A Canadian tourist did it once on the Circle Line in 1978, by all accounts. Henry Kissinger got involved, there were questions in Parliament, but in the end it was hushed up and Londoners don't like to talk about it these days. 
  6. The British sense of humour tends to be a little robust to some visitors. We are fond of gentle banter, or as we call it, 'taking the piss'. British people like to take the piss out of ourselves, the weather, situations, politics, culture and people from other places. If you can take the piss out of us, we'll probably join in. We take the piss out of people who can't take the piss out of themselves. We're helpful like that. 
  7. If a local says to you, "You're taking the piss!" that might not be a good thing. I didn't say this was easy.
  8. It's a little-known fact that London was invaded by giant but invisible aliens in 1860. Estimates place them at being somewhere around 100 feet tall, but to prevent public panic (or, given this was Victorian England, an outbreak of tutting), their existence was only made clear to the government, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The aliens worshipped Albert as their god, leaving offerings around the city in the form of ten foot tall red monoliths. The locals hollowed these out, put in windows and converted them into telephone boxes. We don't know what happened to the aliens. Come to that, we don't know what's happened to the telephone boxes, either.   
  9. Those people who mime at Covent Garden? No, beats the hell out of us, too.
  10. Take some additional time to look around and you'll see that not all of the UK is the same as London. It's tempting to think that with such a dominant capital city the rest of the country suffers by comparison. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For instance, I understand Northumberland now gets mains electricity two days per week and those of us in Birmingham are certainly looking forward to receiving our supply of rudimentary hand-tools next month. Who says there's been no trickle-down from the Olympics?

Thursday, 12 July 2012


I have a bit of a confession to make. It's quite difficult to own up to this, but, well, we're all friends here aren't we?

I mean, it's not a wholly shameful admission. It's not up there with impaling infants on spikes. Think about it as being somewhere on the same level as admitting a fondness for steam traction engines or Morris dancing, perhaps.

I don't like steam engines or Morris dancing, by the way. Just in case you were worried. No, I'm owning up to something else that is spoken about in hushed, slightly aghast terms. Something that you'd never admit to at a smart dinner party. Or a shabby one, come to that.

It's a musical thing. I like lots of types of music - I have the weirdest iPod in the Western world. But a significant part of it is filled with sounds coming from men (and it is normally men) with strange instruments. Banks of keyboards. Guitars with more than one head. And bass played on pedals.

I'll stand up and admit it, here and now. My name is Phil. And I like progressive rock.

I've loved this type of music since my early teens - even then it wasn't trendy. While my schoolmates were listening to Wham, I was the one digging out some obscure Emerson Lake and Palmer. I knew what a Mellotron was when everyone else was getting excited by drum machines.

This explains why I was to be found the other week at a music venue in Bilston. Bilston doesn't really feature in many rock and roll history books. I think the drummer from Slade was born there, but that's about it. But what Bilston does have is a music venue called the Robin 2. And on this occasion, a Genesis tribute band was playing. The Book of Genesis, if you're interested.

So I went to a small town near Wolverhampton to see a progressive rock tribute band. That is possibly the least-fashionable sentence I'll ever write.

But it was ace.

The bass player used pedals to accompany himself while he strummed a double-necked guitar. There were keyboard solos. They had immense technical skill. The singer wore a cape at one point. There was a bit of a lightshow. The audience was 99% male. Interesting facial hair abounded. Marvellous.

And through it all, the long-suffering Katie was there with me. This had been part of my birthday present which she had bought. She offered to drive back, so my evening was lubricated by pints of Banks's Original.

"Are you enjoying this?" I asked worriedly as the band ploughed into Supper's Ready, a 23 minute epic of dystopian nightmare visions.

"Yes, I'm fine. Look, you go up to the front if you like. I'll be ok here."

Bless her. She had an evening of my nonsensical music, poured beer down me and drove me home.

Good God, that's love for you. Think I'll write a 17 minute song about it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Off the rails

We're quite lucky, on this small, rain-sodden island of ours. It doesn't take too long to get anywhere. If the mood takes us we can jump on a train and go to, oh, I don't know, London for instance - have a meeting, take a picture of a gherkin-shaped building for no apparent reason - and then jump back on the train to be back at our desks by mid-afternoon.

Don't believe me? I see.

A bit of London.

Some people just aren't satisfied unless there is pickle-based architecture as proof.

But it's not all rosy. We've had rail travel for some time now, and yes, it's moved on a bit from Stephenson's Rocket. The latest ones even lean on bends - I have no idea if this makes them faster, but it's definitely cool. But there are still shortfalls.

People arranging meetings in London always seem to set them up to start at 10am. Despite the speed of modern trains, that still means having to get up at OhMyGod o'clock. You park in the station car park and walk, zombie-like to the station concourse. There are lots of other grumpy sleep-derived people there, all of them secretly hating the organisers of their meetings, who at this point are probably just waking up to a splendid breakfast in Islington.

Being vaguely organised you have booked your ticket and seat in advance. You go to the self-service machine and enter a handy 16-digit alphanumeric code on a touchscreen. Which promptly and simultaneously gives you both a Windows error message and a sense of foreboding with regards to the train company's technical expertise. Eventually it spits out a succession of small orange bits of cardboard. Your next few hours will revolve around these.

Walking down to the platform with your fellow melancholics, you wait for the train. These days we don't tend to have much in the way of delays, but to enliven your wait there will be a station announcer with nasal constriction and access to the Tannoy.

Your train arrives, and everyone dashes to find a seat. But not you. Oh no! You booked a forward-facing window seat on that snazzy website, didn't you? The seat number is even printed on one of those bits of orange card. You are relaxed and confident for the first time today. You're going to coach B, seat 33A. Everything is going to plan.

Which is why you're confused to find that seat 33A is (a) facing backwards (b) placed in the one row that has no window, and (c) has all the comfort and space of an above-ground coffin. You're going to spend the next hour and a quarter looking at a panel of beige plastic.

And as you become one with your panel, you realise that rail travel has one thing in common with flying in that you are, essentially, trapped in an aluminium tube along with the farts of a whole bunch of strangers.

I'm not sure that's an official policy of Virgin Trains. Maybe Richard Branson has a carb-heavy diet. Who knows?

So as I'm being dragged backwards through the English countryside, I'm aware that Sharon, three rows ahead, needs to tell David something. She has her phone out and is speaking, with a voice that could curdle milk at 20 paces. David appears to have issues with comprehension, however. After the seventh time she's told David that she's on a train, her fellow passengers are becoming keen on changing that situation.

We reach the capital and I get to experience the London Underground. I made a big mistake this time - I made eye contact with another traveller. I think I got away with it though. There might be a small parliamentary enquiry, nothing too major.

Meeting done, it's the same in return. I get to read someone else's copy of the Metro this time. No-one pays for it, and having read it I can see why. I could feel my brain trying to exit through my ears.

And then back to the car, having paid £8 for a few hours' parking. This 20' by 8' stretch of tarmac is on a better hourly rate than I was when I started my first Saturday job in a record store. OK, I can't accommodate a parked car, but I don't think it could have cashed up and told customers when the new Jesus and Mary Chain album was coming out.

It's a little known fact that Birmingham International railway station is home to a breeding colony of pterodactyls. That's the only way to explain the bewildering volume of fecal matter that is on my car when I got back to it. I don't know what pterodactyls eat, but their aim is uncannily good. The direct hit on the driver's window was especially skilful, I reflected, as I wound it down to put my ticket in the machine.

Oh yes, there's nothing like letting the train take the strain.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Camera rolling....sound rolling...

I am pretty sure that Alfred Hitchcock spent his formative years taking shelter from the rain outside his local dry cleaners. Tarantino couldn't do anything unless the West Midlands Ambulance Service had passed by. And Spielberg was often to be found filming toast being made.

Yes. I'm pretty sure that's how they got started.

These were just some of the highlights of the weekend just gone by. While you were off doing whatever it is you do on a Saturday and Sunday, I was directing a film. And I'm here to tell you, it's better than gardening.

'Jess' is a wonderful short story from a young (well, young to me) and enthusiastic film & Television graduate from Worcester called Matt Johnson. Together with my partner in many things creative, Mike, we took this story and worked up a screenplay. The story aims to do two things; to document a day in the life of a young teenage girl (the eponymous Jess), and challenge a few perceptions.

We see young kids on the streets all the time. We talk about them in outraged terms. Feral kids. Hoodies. We dehumanise them. And sometimes our preconceptions are valid. But is that always the case? Jess seeks to give an alternative view.

It's a short film - less than three minutes. It has to be that length to be picked up by the regional and national film festivals that concentrate on short films. The last film we did was wonderful (I would say that, having written it) but at seven minutes long it was practically an epic of Tolkienesque proportions.

And let no-one tell you short films are easy. Samuel Johnson once wrote to a friend: "I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead."  He was right. Telling a complete story in 180 seconds-or-less is quite a challenge.

But it was great fun. We're not making money, and our budget was precisely zero. We overspent by buying a clapperboard. Oh, and a packet of sausages to use as props. Universal Studios should have our problems. However we pulled together a crew - photography, sound, the whole shebang. Our small cast of volunteer actors were great. I had people looking to me to tell them what to do. And they did it without fail. Our lead character, a 12 year-old girl, had never acted before but was a natural.

One scene has our heroine making herself breakfast, inclusing toast made from authentically-mouldy bread. We wanted a shot of the bread going in, and another of the toast popping up. To make things easy, we decided just to film the whole toasting cycle - after all, you don't know when it's going to finish - and edit it later. So we ended up - a whole film crew, cameras, sound, actors, fiming a toaster, toasting two slices of bread.It's 2012 and we can't CGI this stuff yet.

I'm sure some of us wondered what we were doing with our lives. I know I was.

But now it's all in the can. Or 'on the memory card', if you like. Now comes the editing part. We hand our precious files over to yet another skilled volunteer who will help us wrangle our shots into the finished article. I can't wait. Hopefully, neither can you.

Beats gardening, any day of the week.


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