Robin Brown

Journo. Editor. Tutor. Dour northerner.

Archive for September, 2009

The Sun drops Labour, but there are wider issues at stake

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Idiot comic The Sun has unsurprisingly switched its allegiance to the Conservatives, having declared that the Labour government has ‘lost its way’.

This supposed revelation is as unsurprising as its timing – immediately following Gordon Brown’s rallying cry to the Labour faithful at the Labour conference.

In a clear lie the Sun’s political editor, George Pascoe-Watson, stated that the announcement was not scheduled to cause maximum political damage. That’s absurd in itself, but also because no-one really believes a lowly tabloid political editor would be allowed to make a decision like this.

The clear originator is Rupert Murdoch, who can spot a trend when he sees one. Psephologists have long argued about the impact the media has one voting behaviour. To my mind it once did, but I don’t think that anything as explicit as people obeying newspapers on election days rings true any more. Class dealignment, party dealignment, paper dealignment.

Murdoch probably knows that, which is why he’s unwilling to lose face by backing Labour – a long shot at best – at the next election. That way the idea that the Sun is the prime mover in an election victory can be maintained.

In doing so Murdoch can also leverage his fearsome media arsenal against David Cameron if he so chooses. Murmurs from the Tories regarding the BBC will not have gone unnoticed, and Murdoch can probably rub his hands in glee at the prospect of another chunk of media real estate becoming available to News International.

This raises the prospect of a British Fox News, based on the American version that delights in spouting bigotry in every form. Such broadcast channels are currently outlawed in the UK, but Cameron has already indicated that he wouldn’t obstruct them as Prime Minister.

It’s here that I think the media still has a strong influence on thinking and behaviors, the insidious drip-drip that may not explicitly back politicians or parties, but steadily reinforces right-wing values by broadcasting ignorance, fear and intolerance.

Couple that to a neutered BBC and a media landscape that could also be missing the Indie and the Observer by next year and it’s a grim prospect for a healthy Fourth Estate.

Written by Robin Brown

September 30th, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Edge of Darkness – Troy Kennedy Martin’s masterpiece

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Although he never managed to make the Twitter Trending Topic of Doom, it appears that British scriptwriter Troy Kennedy Martin has merged with the infinite.

It seems possible that Kennedy Martin’s death may go rather unnoticed given the recent deaths of Patrick Swayze and Keith Floyd, so I wanted to commemorate his passing. To throw a few titles at those of you not familiar with the name: Kelly’s Heroes, The Italian Job and Edge of Darkness.

The latter is unquestionably one of my favourite TV serials of all time, and I urge any readers (there are readers, right?) who are interested in such things to check it out.

The late-80s serial mixes nuclear paranoia, militant environmentalism, cold war politics, coal, Irish provos, James Lovelock, grief, loss, Willie Nelson, an iconic theme and score from Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen and age-old feudal battle. In the original draft the script’s protagonist, Craven, turns into a tree at the climax.

Out of all of that Martin, along with director Martin Campbell and producer Michael Wearing, fashioned a cohesive, intelligent and hard-edged thriller, with the mystical and ethereal overtones still integral but muted.

A spectacular cast also helps, with the sadly-departed Bob Peck perfect as lonely, unglamourous and rather dour Yorkshire detective Ronnie Craven.

Ian McNiece and Charles Kay are also particularly good as mysterious government suits Harcourt and Pendleton, while there’s solid back-up from John Woodvine, Jack Watson, Joanne Whalley, Zoe Wanamaker, Tim McInnery and, pleasingly, Blake’s 7 stalwarts David Jackson and Brian Croucher.

Stealing the show, though, is Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh, a fun-loving, vaguely unhinged CIA agent gone rogue – a great, if slightly hyper-real creation, made believable by Baker.

Pretty much everyone involved went on to bigger things, including Kennedy Martin, who spent time on various underwhelming action scripts for Hollywood.

Speaking of, a Hollywood movie of Edge is planned which, although directed by Campbell, threatens to be awful.

The touches that made Edge of Darkness so superb in the first place – Jedburgh’s love of Come Dancing, the grimy London settings, the coal board corruption, the black flowers and the duality between the real world and the mystical – are likely to be missing. Small but important details whose significance is likely to be lost on US producers.

Edge of Darkness was a product of its time, a rare example of every element combining to make something even greater than the sum of its parts. Troy Kennedy Martin’s masterpiece.

• In the clip below, Craven discovers his murdered daughter’s double life as an environmental activist.

Written by Robin Brown

September 16th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Twitter Trending Topic of Doom takes Patrick Swayze and Keith Floyd

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There’s always a little somersault in the pit of my stomach whenever I see someone’s name trending in Twitter’s most popular topics.

The column on the right-hand side of Twitter’s page relates the most popular mentions over the millions of Twitter accounts globally. If something gets in there, it’s big news.

This means that the first inkling of a celebrity death is likely to come from Twitter trending topics as rumours and news stories get retweeted and people start tweeting their sadness. Sad tweets.

I learned of the deaths of Mollie Sugden, Sir Bobby Robson and JG Ballard this way, and today spotted Patrick Swayze and Keith Floyd’s names in the list.

Kanye West’s frequent appearances in trends is always a false dawn, however.
Trending topics

I assumed Floyd was up there because of his rather depressing appearance in the Keith Allen documentary last night, but it appears that he’s shuffled off to the great kitchen in the sky.

I loved Floyd as a youngster, and could probably say that he stirred my early interesting in cooking. Finally someone who talked about food as if it was enjoyable and fun.

He always reminded me of the kind of family friend who have a sense of danger about them – they could swear at any moment and they smelled of booze and fags. Other adults disapprove, but kids loved old soaks.

We shared a love for The Stranglers. He went as far as having two of their tunes as his shows’ title music. Brilliant!

TV chefs these days revere Floyd, and rightly, but he seemed rather disappointed by them – blaming himself for the rise of the modern TV celebrity chef.

It couldn’t happen these days. Guys like Ramsey may swear and shout, but they tend to revel in a weird kind of puritanical discipline. No fun.

Hellraisers and TV drunks seemed to go out of fashion after the 80s, after which they seemed to crawl away to go bankrupt, get involved in unseemly drunken incidents and develop various illnesses. Finally they keel over, generally in penury.

But Floyd was a glorious product of the time, when a sozzled BBC producer can get his sozzled restauranteur mate a show on the Beeb because he thinks he’s funny.

I’ll raise a glass of wine to Keith, and pop on a Stranglers CD while I cook tonight. But I’ll just have the one.

Written by Robin Brown

September 15th, 2009 at 9:24 am

Posted in People,TV

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Gordon Brown in Polaroid by Rankin

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I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Gordon Brown, and that’s assuming there are any fans, but I have more time than him for most.

Although Brown was at the heart of the ‘market-first’ orthodoxy of the last decade, he also had the nous to recognise the end of Lehman Brothers as the catastrophe it was, and create the model to address the precipitous recession that has been adopted across the world.

If nothing else, Brown can probably have that one under his name in the history books.

But he’s made for a rather sad spectacle as PM. Whereas the initial honeymoon period showed a relaxed and confident man, HoneyMoon Brown hasn’t been seen since. He now appears unsure, hesitant and, frankly, shagged-out.

Gone are the clunking fists, and the famous intellect that terrified several Tory front benches seems overcome by neuroses.

But it’s not apparent how much of this is actually true, certainly in terms of whether that constitutes the ‘real’ Gordon Brown. As Prime Minister he is habitually painted as weak, grumpy, ineffectual and virtually paralysed by indecision.

Rankin’s Polaroid images of Brown, as part of the Observer’s Polaroid Project to celebrate the last Polaroid films reaching their expiry dates, reveal a man comfortable, humourous, relaxed and, well, human.

Even the shot of Brown astride a chair, a la Christine Keeler, doesn’t look particularly odd, despite the fact that it’s a strange pose for a man in his late-50s to adopt.

Gordon Brown by Rankin

Rankin’s own reaction to Brown speaks volumes about the way Brown is portrayed and, indeed, the way the PM comes across.

The photographer admits to being surprised at finding Brown such pleasant company.

“…with Brown you can’t help be aware that he is supposed to be dour. I found the opposite was the case. He was a really fascinating – and fascinated – bloke. Really inquisitive about what I was doing. It got me thinking that maybe no one had ever taken a good honest photograph of him before.”

‘With Polaroids it’s like I can see someone between the shots – in this case Gordon Brown is friendly, then intense, then relaxed.

“We had a chat before starting; he was easygoing and natural. The shot of him on the chair, for instance, I could have made him look bad, but he didn’t seem to care.

“He had no vanity whatsoever. He had a great way about him and a great smile, which is not what you’re led to believe from the press and most photographs.”

It’s ironic that, in an age more exposed to multimedia of every kind at every turn, it’s possible that no-one has ever taken a good photograph of one of the most photographed men on the planet.

Or, arguably, it’s part of the media’s projected image of the PM, with images of a gloomy, glowering Brown more suited to stories predicting his imminent downfall.

The images themselves are superb. Brown is shot in flattering light, and from flattering angles, but he appears every inch the statesman, family man and modern politician – as if a touch of Tony Blair has rubbed off on him. Simply, he looks like a nice guy, someone you could have a beer with.

A lot of people praise Polaroids for their supposed realness, whereas they display nothing of the sort.

Colours and contrasts aren’t remotely like those the human eye perceives. In actuality Polaroids are nothing like real life, they come out looking like a relic of a 70s summer holiday.

This appeals to me, as did the awkwardness of my old SLR. I’m mightily impressed with the efficiency of digital, but it hasn’t enthused me in the way the clunkiness and preciousness of old film snaps did.

I learned a lot experimenting with light, apertures, angles and shutter speeds on old cameras, and the imprecision of development lent another filter for the original image. Through those filters the mundane can become magical, and the stark more enigmatic.

The difference between them is like the difference between old film stock and videotape – often seen in the same programmes together during the 70s and 80s when location work was shot on old film reels and interior on video. The video segments are better in every technical respect, but they don’t look half as good.

So, how does all of this help Gordon? Not one jot in all likelihood, but it gives a fascinating insight into the power of photography or, if you’re more cynical, the power of a concerted and pre-conceived news agenda.

• The Impossible Project aims to restart production of Polaroid cameras. Head over for more details.

Written by Robin Brown

September 14th, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Debenhams marks Twitter channel launch…with dismissive swipe at Twitter

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This utter non-story, reporting Debenhams’ revolutionary and unique use of some strange new device called Twitter, from the Torygraph has been amusing me during my lunch hour.

The tone of the article is the first thing to bear in mind (Twitter is apparently a source of ‘gossip and blogging’); the fact that there are dozens of stores already using Twitter is second; and the way that Debenhams spokesman Ed Watson rubbishes Twitter in his first quote is the third.

“Rather than finding out the latest celebrity tittle tattle we’re going to use Twitter to provide customers with instant customer service,” beams Ed, basically dismissing the whole enterprise at the first bang of the starting pistol.

If that’s what you believe is Twitter is all about why on Earth would you think it was worth bothering with in the first place? Rob ‘No Relation’ Brown goes into more detail.

In fairness to Debenhams, it has grasped the opportunity to create an interactive profile on Twitter, rather than a feed of its latest offers.

In doing this it has negotiated the first hurdle to using the social media network, unlike the vast majority of new businesses taking a first foray into social media – most of them resembling new-born fawns stumbling around in an unforgiving forest.

Debenhams’ idea is to allow customers to tweet directly to shop floor workers at its Oxford Street branch. But reports also include the following statement:

Twitter users not in store can also ask questions, which Debenhams hopes will encourage them to visit the sale at a later date.

All of which indicates that Debenhams’ Twitter experiment is designed to be used by shoppers already in the store.

In-store shoppers can attract the attention of a shop-floor worker if they @ the Debenhams Twitter account and include the #debtwtasst hashtag. Here’s Watson again:

Instant communication with our customers as they do their shopping is a tremendous asset. We intend to develop this approach for the future.

I’m all for early adoption of new technologies that actually assist people in leisure and work, but when it comes to tweeting someone who may be a matter of feet away from me I can’t help feeling that something has gone very wrong.

Celebrity tittle tattle never seemed so attractive.

Update: Anyone following the hashtag debtwtasst will know that precisely zero uses of the idiotic Debenhams Twitter experiment were ever see. Shock

Written by Robin Brown

September 9th, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Media

Tagged with , ,

Save the planet – go doggy style

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I have, in my time, witnessed an extraordinary range of reactions to my asking for a doggy bag in a restaurant, following a half-demolished meal.

Embarrassment, bemusement, horror and a kind of appalled fascination are among the most common (although never from restaurant staff). I simply don’t understand why this is.

Neither, would it seem, does Huge Fearnley-Wotsisface, who has urged British diners to take their leftovers home with them. This should come as no surprise – Huge can regularly be seen scavenging food from bins, eating dirt with his fingers and picking up dog turds from pavements to put in his paprikash.

I exaggerate, but only by a little. Hugh probably takes any leftover bones home to make a stock. In fairness, though, why not? We throw away 20m tonnes of perfectly good food a year, a sickening stat when people still starve to death elsewhere in the world.

People wasting food makes my hair stand up on end, as I was brought up boiling up chicken carcasses, frying left over mashed potato and chucking a week’s worth of leftovers into a frying pan with some rice.

I take leftover food from restaurants that I intend to eat at a later date, but I’ll even take meat fat for my cat to eat, and bread to feed some nearby ducks – if there are any.

Doggy bag

Frankly this is how it should be. Apart from it being blinding common sense, many of the problems associated with climate change – desertification, forest and bog clearance, and rapidly climbing amounts of methane in the atmosphere – can be directly attributed to our rapacious consumption.

And just as energy and water security issues are coming to light now, so will food security in the coming decade, as Western world ships all of its wheat production to volatile Ukraine – an acknowledged likely flash-point in any new global skirmish.

So, as the evidence mounts, it becomes not only a matter of common sense to ask for a doggy bag, it’s become a moral imperative.

It’s not that long since David Attenborough called for a return to ‘waste-not-want-not’ values to combat climate change.

And he should know a thing or two about the environmental problems the planet faces due to our obscene appetites, having spent 50 years schlepping around the globe staring at ants.

Why aren’t we teaching this in schools? Why, with my limited ability in the kitchen, am I pretty much the best person at cooking I know? And why on Earth wouldn’t people take home the expensive food they’ve paid for?

So, save some cash and save the world. Ask for a doggy. And, if possible, ask for the leftovers of the fat bloke next to you who only ate half of his steak. If you don’t want it my cat will give it a good home.

• Image by auxesis via Creative Commons

• A thousand apologies for the made-you-look header. I just couldn’t think of anything else.

Written by Robin Brown

September 7th, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Moon

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I finally got to see Moon at FACT, the last night it was showing. I’ve got an impressive track record in missing films I particularly wanted to see at the cinema, so I was quite please with myself for making it.

The last time I went to FACT I turned up about five minutes after the stated start time, confident in the knowledge that there’s be a comfortable 15-minute buffer of adverts and trailers. How wrong I was, walking into Drag Me To Hell five minutes into the prologue and on the receiving end of a snarky usherette’s temper.

So, there I was today at 8.40 on the dot, only to be force fed fully 15 minutes of adverts, followed by 10 minutes of trailers. To me, the idea of paying a fiver for the privilege of almost half an hour of fucking adverts take the biscuit, but I digress. Just don’t do it again, FACT.

Moon poster Sam Rockwell

Anyway, Moon – a lovely, eerie, sad and wonderfully understated little film that wears its influences on its sleeve but turns out something rather more than the sum of its parts.

There’s a lot of Silent Running, Dark Star and a spot of Solaris in there, but it’s the evocation of the 70s films that is most apparent, even running to the sets and model work, which is a pleasing counterpoint to the CGI-swamped messes sci-fi films indulge in these days.

Sam Rockwell is great in the, ahem, leading role, there’s a nice use of Kevin Spacey’s deadpan tones and some good incidental music work from PWEI’s Clint Mansell, no longer on Beaver Patrol. The attention to detail is satisfying, even down to the film’s poster and the fonts used in the titles.

I wish there were more films on general release like Moon, but then again I suppose I’d only miss them.

• Neil MacDonald bagged himself an interview with Duncan Don’t-Call-Him-Zowie Jones before Moon went on release. Read it.

Written by Robin Brown

September 3rd, 2009 at 10:27 pm

#welovethebbc

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I don’t know why people like James Murdoch, and his father before him, are invited to give MacTaggart lectures – it’s not as if anyone is going to hear anything they didn’t expect to.

Rather like a left-winger reaching vicariously for a Sun or Express in a hotel lobby room to experience the frisson of outrage, or Mary Whitehouse reaching for a Razzle, the Edinburgh media scrum seems to take great delight in a bout of extended self-flagellation.

Well, half of them do. As we already know the other half have it in for the BBC for a variety of corporate, ideological or score-settling issues.

It’s easy to see why. As digital platforms have rolled out, the BBC has kept pace. In 20 years it’s gone from under ten national radio and TV channels to a vast multimedia empire. And it’s likely to continue growing – that is, essentially, its remit – at least as far as its news coverage is concerned.

This threatens a lot of people, myself included to a degree, as it raises a number of questions about the reach of the BBC and its effect on the journalism and media market. How can news platforms make money from their news services when the Beeb does it all for free?

There’s an important issue to be addressed there but this growing, if fairly limited, base of unease about the expansion of the BBC has been recently used by a number of critics to take a pot-shot at the organisation.

Much of these can be tracked down to self-interest. Other media groups such as the Guardian Media Group, Associated Newspapers and News International have their own interests to safeguard. They often post fairly wild attacks on the Beeb for its ‘land-grab’ expansion – a subtly pejorative term that has been reinforced again and again.

James Murdoch used it at the weekend, along with the following references and terms:

[The UK is] it’s the Addams family of world media

The land grab is spear-headed by the BBC. The scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling.

state-sponsored journalism

state-sponsored news

pocket-Pravdas

[On the one hand] authoritarianism: endless intervention, regulation and control.

[For them] the abolition of media boundaries is a trumpet call to expansion: to do more, regulate more, control more.

Sixty years ago George Orwell published 1984. Its message is more relevant now than ever.
As Orwell foretold, to let the state enjoy a near-monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion.

It’s a rather faux-intellectual sixth-form style diatribe against regulation in all of its forms and the Beeb and Ofcom in particular. It flirts with some important points, but all of this is lost in the hyperbole and off-kilter references.

There’s a rather bizarre passage that compares the BBC to creationism, which then segues into another half-witted metaphor about bananas and the redundancy of regulation. This, naturally leads to ‘state-sponsored news’ – a deliberately misleading titbit thrown to the kind of right-wing loons who think the NHS is trying to kill them.

The message is clear – not only does regulation not work, it’s actively evil. What the world needs is unfettered free-market capitalism, in broadcasting as well as banking (although, of course, Murdoch didn’t mention Sky’s utter domination of pretty much ever significant sporting event in the UK following the government’s craven deregulation of that market).

Thankfully on hand to take Murdoch to task over this untimely assertion over free markets was BBC credit crunch boffin Robert Peston, who pointed out that deregulation in economic sectors recently landed us with the worst recession in 80 years.

Murdoch’s attack reminds me of the smear politics of the American right – beginning a discourse with an attack so hysterical and out-there that it drags the tone and battleground of the following debate in the attacker’s favour.

Murdoch’s attack will launch a new broadside against the organisation, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that there’s a general election next year, during which Gordon Brown and WebCameron will be hoping for some help from the Sun.

So, gear up for some serious Auntie bashing from the usual suspects over the next few weeks, indeed the next year.

Gear up for free-marketeers pushing the monopoly line; hand-wringing articles from The Grauniad about how a pay-for-content platform can work while the Beeb is offering it for free; and ideological attacks from various lunatics seizing on Murdoch’s provocative (and deliberate) accusations about state-sponsored news and Orwellian organisations.

The death-by-1000-cuts assault has begun. Yes they’ve been much more sober and considered than Murdoch’s, but a variety of big beasts have decided that now is the time to voice their opinions that the BBC would be much better if ‘slimmed down’ and focussed on ‘core values’.

This is the start of a concerted effort to neuter the Beeb as a commercial threat, designed to cripple it as a news and broadcasting organisation.

The BBC has a big part to play in organising its own defence, and needs to come out fighting, reminding people of its value and important role in British culture. And it also needs to drop its bums-on-seats approach that has led to the arms race with ITV and SKy over big events, big-name signings and stupid paychecks.

But it also needs to address issues pertaining to its use of the licence fee to fund operations that clash with existing commercial ones and re-orientating itself in the digital world in a way that does not impinge unnecessarily on private enterprise.

Those supporting the Beeb need only look to how successful social media was in correcting and combatting slurs about the NHS. Despite their faults, I love the NHS, and I love the BBC too.

• Full MacTaggart text here: http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/comment/james-murdochs-mactaggart-speech/5004990.article