TV monitors

ShowrunnersPOI

It’s not every day I have an actual article printed in the actual, papery version of the Guardian, so forgive me if I provide a link to the piece I have written about a new, feature-length documentary with the self-explanatory title Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show, which is available to buy from its website from 31 October. I first crossed paths with its tenacious and very friendly director, Des Doyle, a year ago, when I was writing a shorter piece on the subject of showrunners for the Guardian. He’d contacted me as he was using Kickstarter to fund the final stage of post-production, and – being the target audience for his film ie. a US telly geek – I was more than happy to help promote the initiative. Mainly because I wanted to see the finished film.

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He and his producers reached the funding target and finished the film. This summer we crossed paths again, as Des was looking to make contact with the Edinburgh TV Festival with a view to perhaps showing his film to like-minded TV nuts. I was able to make introductions and the next thing I knew, I was down to host the film at the mighty Filmhouse in Edinburgh and chair a Q&A not just with Des himself, but also with Battlestar Galactica supremo Ronald D. Moore (who happened to be filming his latest series Outlander in Scotland in August and whom I felt honoured to “hang out” in the bar with). I wrote about the experience here (although you have to scroll down a bit).

Anyway, the film’s about to become available to buy and download, so it’s almost in the public domain. I highly recommend it if you’re even half-interested in the way TV is made, especially in the States. It’s particularly good on Showtime’s House Of Lies and its journey from pilot to air, and TNT comedy-drama Men Of A Certain Age, which I don’t think we’ve had in the UK, and which – before our very eyes in Showrunners – goes from pilot to air to cancellation. It’s a heartbreaking arc in the documentary, and shows just how cruel US TV can be, even on cable. As a UK-based TV scriptwriter and editor, I am that sucker who mythologises the American model, in transatlantic awe of all those guys – and occasionally women! – who sit around conference tables in Burbank “bullshitting” in the most creative fashion, filling up whiteboards and eating doughnuts on a salary. (I’ve been writing the same pilot script in my house all year.)

Needless to say, when I was able to pin down the great Terence Winter, showrunner of Boardwalk Empire (whose series finale airs on Sky Atlantic this Saturday after five incredible, slow-burning seasons), for a 20-minute phone interview about Des’s film and about showrunning in general, I had to jettison a large chunk of what I’d already written for the Guardian in order to insert Winter’s words of wisdom. So I thought I’d publish some of the material I couldn’t fit into my 1,200-word commission here. You’ll have to be super-interested in the subject to find it as fascinating as I do, but I’m going to guess that one or two of you are.

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First, here’s my interview with Des Doyle, the director. (He’s on the left of this illustrious lineup from one of the many convention screenings they’ve done in the States.)

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AC: Which was the first writers’ room you gained access to, and how were you received as outsiders?

DD: The first room we got into was Men Of A Certain Age. It was a little pressurised for us because we had just one hour with the guys and we knew Ray Romano had to leave early to fly to NY to do Letterman. The good thing was that it was a very lively room – comedy writers tend to like to crack jokes a lot and that helped ease them into the cameras being on. They were also intrigued why somebody from Ireland would be particularly interested in them or what they did and my “uniqueness” in that regard certainly helped with a number of people we filmed with. And Mike Royce the showrunner for that series was a very gracious host to us and helped make sure we got what we needed. But for me as a first-time director in a room with so many people to try and cover with two cameras it was a big learning experience and the other writers’ rooms we did a little differently.

AC: Can you just confirm the dates of production so I can get an accurate figure for how long Showrunners took to make?

DD: We started in September 2010: first people on camera Dec 2010, principal photography in blocks continued to November 2012. We ran Kickstarter in Dec 2012; editing/post production/clearances and licensing up till April 2014.

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AC: Did the experience of making the film and getting under the bonnet in any way spoil your perhaps romantic view of the process of turning out quality TV drama?

DD: I think making the film has increased my respect for what showrunners do tenfold! Even if they’re making a show I may not like I still have huge respect for the amount of work that goes into that. Considering all of the challenges they face in terms of time, money and politics it’s remarkable that a) any show gets made on time and budget and b) that so many great shows are made under this system.

AC: The rise and fall of Men Of A Certain Age is one of the film’s great arcs, if bittersweet. As a filmmaker, it’s gold, but did it break your heart to be with Mike Royce on the set of the show after it had been cancelled?

DD: One of the things that really surprised me in making the film was how candid people were with me – both in words and emotionally. I tried very hard never to “interview” someone but instead to have a conversation with them. When we spoke with Mike about the ratings for MOACA he had literally just gotten the news that morning so it was still very raw for him and certainly my heart went out to him as he told us about it because I could empathise with him greatly. These were really personal stories they were telling and Mike, Ray and the writers really loved making that show. It’s not always like that for a showrunner which is what made that experience even more painful for Mike. I think anyone who watches that story unfold will really feel for Mike because apart from being an extremely talented writer he’s also a really lovely guy and that comes across in the film very much.

AC: What’s next for you?

DD: I’m currently in very early development on another doc also set in a creative field which we have just attached first talent to and will be filming a little with them in LA later this month. There are also one or two other ideas I’m pursuing and some of the showrunners in the film have very kindly agreed to read my pilot script although that needs a major rewrite first!

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The big catch for me while writing this piece was Terence Winter. The PR for Showrunners foolishly promised him to me early on in the process and although it happened last-minute, the 20 minutes I spent on the phone to him at his New York office were gold. I am such a fan of Boardwalk Empire, which ended forever this week in the States, but you have to remember, “Terry” – as I discovered everybody calls him – had nothing to gain from helping to promote Des’s film by talking to me, so all credit to him, and to Des for having engendered such a happy, symbiotic relationship with these high-powered execs.

While I waited to be connected to “Terry” (I still think of him as Terence), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough was playing. I applauded him for his “hold” music when we first spoke, and he said, “I like to have that as my theme music going into every interview.”

I confirmed that he’d seen the finished film. He had, and really enjoyed it: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and to see the different ways people run shows and get a look behind that curtain. Occasionally we’ll be panels for different things and say hello to each other but for the most part the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”

Did he have a well-earned holiday once Boardwalk had wrapped? Apparently not. “I’m going pretty much right into preparing for what I hope is my next series, a show set in the world of rock’n’roll in 1973 in New York City with Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, and Mick Jagger is also one of the producers. We’ve shot the pilot and I’m already starting to look at writers. So no real break but this is the highest class problem I could possibly have.”

It’s for HBO, right? “Right. HBO has been my home for 15 years and I hope it’s my only home.”

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I asked if he had time to see his family – something he touches on in Showrunners. “I certainly get home to put my kids to bed, and weekends are really sacred to me. They know Daddy’s at work during the week but I’m always around to go to baseball games and soccer games, and I always make school functions. If you wanted to you could live at the office. The business of running a show is so massive.” They shoot 14-15 hours a day. “If you never wanted to leave there’s always something to do.”

Were you worried the documentary might “let light in upon magic”? “I’m one of those people that buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions … The same when I go to a museum, I like to know about the paintings, the story of who painted it and when, what was going on in the world around him. I talk to young film students about what a great movie Citizen Kane was, and they see it say and go, It was OK. You have to put it in context of when it was made.”

Especially that it was a flop at the time of release. “Right. The Wire wasn’t really a hit when it was on the air, that found its audience on DVD. It’s A Wonderful Life is another one.”

I asked how he personally ran the Boardwalk writers’ room. “Very similar to The Sopranos in terms of how it was run. I would come in at the beginning of the year with a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go. We averaged about five writers at any given time, I think at one point we had as many as eight, and as few as four.” He cites Howard Korder as his “main writer – he wrote more episodes than I did. I truly could not have done the show without him.” Meanwhile his other right-hand man, writer-director Tim Van Patten “ran the set.”

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So, the methodology. “We’d sit down and I’d say, What happens in Episode One? It’s a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression, telling stories about your own life – those are the things that get made into TV shows. To the untrained ear it may sound like a bunch of people sitting around bullshitting.”

A showrunner, for Winter, is “part psychologist, part motivational speaker, cheerleader, you’re almost like a host at a dinner party, you’re trying to get everybody to talk, open up a little bit. I’m glad to have a roomful of funny, smart, interesting people to bat around ideas with and bullshit with. That’s not a bad way to spend your day.”

I bring up the subject of UK drama’s attempts to emulate the American model. But he doesn’t think we should try. “I will say this, whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. Whether there’s a writers’ room or a showrunner or not, some of the best dramas ever have come out of that system. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I push him to name names and he cites The Singing Detective (“I re-watch that once every two years”), Luther, The Hour … “I’ve always been a fan of the BBC, I’ve just started re-watching Fawlty Towers.” I tell him that, like Citizen Kane and The Wire, this was not an instant hit either. He did not know that.

On the more vexed subject of the lack of female showrunners in American TV, he admits that a writers’ room “can be” a male environment, “depending on the make up of a room. I always try to get a balance between men and women. Not to say that if there are female characters on the show so therefore you need female writers. A writer should be able to write men, women, children, all different races, religions, backgrounds. With writing, the blank page is the great equaliser. If I read a script and it’s good, I don’t care where it came from.”

For the record, Boardwalk had six female writers: Margaret Nagle, Meg Jackson, Bathsheba Doran, Diane Frolov, Jennifer Ames, Cristine Chambers. “You’re sitting in a room for eight to ten hours a day around a conference table, so there’s gotta be what I call ‘hangability’. These are people you gotta want to hang out with. You can be the greatest writers in the world, but if they drive you insane, it’s pointless, because you can’t stand being around them. You ultimately spend more time with these people than your own family. It’s like putting together a football team.”

Could a great writer who’s not sociable survive? “Yeah, anything’s workable. If there’s a writer you can give an outline to and have them go away and they come back with something you can shoot, I’d work with somebody like that any day of the week. Some people are good at writing and not good at verbally explaining or pitching. Some are great and dialogue, some have great ideas but can’t execute them. But if you can round out your team with those different people you’re in pretty good shape.”

How does he feel about having to get involved with a show’s publicity as a showrunner? “It’s always a little jarring when I get recognised on the street in New York. Once a month it happens, and my initial instinct is that I must have gone to school with this person or we have a mutual friend, but they’ve seen my face on an HBO behind-the-scenes. It’s part of your responsibility to get out there and be the face of the show, to be the ambassador, if you will, of that material.”

Winter watches his shows when they air. As he did with The Sopranos, although he hasn’t seen it since it went off the air. “David [Chase] used to always say: you’re here to entertain people. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It’s very simple advice but it’s the truth, it’s what we’re doing here. All the other stuff comes later.”

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Thanks to Des and “Terry” for sparing the time to answer my questions. Now watch the film.

An education

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Music news. First, here are two LPs I have recently paid money for in a shop. Both are new. One is by the Irish-born, Cornish-raised electronic musician Aphex Twin, the other is by Wimbledon born and raised singer-songwriter Jamie T. These are both artists I have enjoyed in the past (the former much further back in the past than the latter), and seemed like safe purchases in a recession.

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I hadn’t heard a note (or beep) of Syro by Aphex Twin before purchase. I trusted the reviews I’d read (especially this really long one by the eloquent Sasha Frere Jones in the New Yorker), and the very fact the album was his first new record under the name since 2001 and apparently a sort of compilation of all the musical styles he’s drifted through in his career. (Frere Jones writes, “It’s Aphex Twin saying, ‘Yes, that was me,’ rather than ‘Here is the new frontier.’”) I have listened to it through once so far, in order, on my headphones, on public transport and walking along, and I am very glad I bought it. The packaging, by Designers Republic (whom I interviewed for an NME article on record sleeve design when there were still records in about 1989), is exquisite – clever and witty.

I had heard three songs from Jamie T’s album, his third, Carry On The Grudge, thanks to Later … With Jools Holland, a lifeline for middle-aged music fans who would no more listen to Radio 1 than drink bleach. So I went in with my ears wide open (and had enjoyed his 2007 debut Panic Prevention and the single Sticks ‘N’ Stones from its follow-up). I have yet to listen to it.

And here are five reasons why.

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Two Mondays’ ago, I had an email from the comedian Stewart Lee. Not a total surprise; we occasionally exchange emails, although it is not a method of communication he seems entirely comfortable with and the emails are not long or flowery. He asked me a favour, which involved me having contacts in BBC Radio – contacts that I wasn’t sure I had any more. With low expectations, I pulled the only string I could think of, and due to the kindness of that particular contact handing the request onto a more relevant one, I was able to effect a resolution by the next day. (If I worked at a help desk, I would have been very pleased with myself.)

Anyway, as a thank-you, Stewart promised to send me a compilation CDR. In the event, he sent me five. I checked with him and he doesn’t mind me publicising his act of musical philanthropy on this blog. I wanted to write about these five CDRs – Global Globules Volumes 9, 21, 22, 24 and 27 from a home-compiled series of 38 – because they have improved my life, and continue to do so.

I’ll get back to Jamie T, I promise. But right now, I’m listening to a varied diet of Swedish prog rock, Irish poetry, music concrete, reels, Krautrock, Eastern-influenced jazz, yogic West Coast psychedelia, Fort Lauderdale metal, and “British Invasion” folk-rock. That’s 47 tracks over five discs themed around nationality or intent, many of them coming in at around ten minutes (Stewart likes a song that defines the length of its own welcome), and one – Sommarlåten by Träd, Gräs och Stenar (Trees, Grass and Stones) – a full 26 minutes and 42 of your Scandinavian seconds.

I’m not going to track-list all five volumes, as Stewart has plans to at some point turn them into a radio series, which I wouldn’t wish to preempt. But I can promise you, they are a head-expanding experience, especially if, as I have been diligently doing, you avoid random shuffle and experience them in the order they have been prescribed in. (It would seem rude not to.) So, Volume 21, the promisingly named Black Acid, begins with a band I know, Funkadelic, but a track I don’t, Maggot Brain from the 1971 album of that name, which I’d not knowingly dipped into.

Global21 It’s blinking incredible, a ten-minute effects-pedal odyssey by guitarist Eddie Hazel recorded in one take and “directed” by George Clinton on LSD, whose decision it was to fade the other musicians and leave him to it (none of which I knew while first listening to it). Now, this is one track, and already my life – and a journey home from Hammersmith on a chilly evening – have been enriched. It’s followed by Ball Of Confusion, a song I know well and could sing along to, except it’s a cover by The Undisputed Truth, who I don’t. Another shot in the arm. Cane & Able next, then Cannonball Adderley … and by the time I get to By The Time I Get To Phoenix, an 18-minute way-of-life interpretation by Isaac Hayes, I have been picked up and put down somewhere else. All because a man made a playlist and burned it onto a CDR for another man.

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In order to select the volumes he sent me, Stewart asked me to name my favourite countries. My first choice was Ireland, hence Volume 22: Ireland. I wouldn’t call myself the biggest fan of traditional folk music – although Billy Bragg broadened my palette in this regard in the late 90s when I was writing his biography – but when songs like The Streets Of Derry/Derry Gaol by the Bothy Band and McMahon’s Reel by Bernard O’Sullivan are elegantly folded into the likes of Square Room, a 1967 b-side by a post-Van Morrison Them and Sign Of My Mind by Dublin’s Dr Strangely Strange, a united Ireland of aromatic variety is founded in your ears.

The songs on Global Globules are generally not new. This reflects the tastes of their curator. They are mostly old. The decades the 60s and the 70s enjoy an actionable bias. Stringed instruments predominantly feature, although Roger Doyle’s ambient Solar Eyes would make Aphex Twin blink. Not all the songs are long, but some of them are really long. The shortest on Volume 9: Sweden is 7.11, and the most luxuriant is the aforementioned Sommarlåten at 26.42. I would say they are excellent value for money …

Here is a picture of Träd, Gräs och Stenar. I think they have earned it.

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If I am driving at anything, it’s that opening your mind to the more obscure musical tastes of another is a fine way of pressing “refresh” on your brain. I eagerly await Later to find out if there’s anything current that I might be missing out on. I quite liked Alt-J the other week, and even FKA twigs [sic], who is very fashionable, so God bless Jools and his producers and all who sail in the only terrestrial music programme on television outside of the Proms and 1979 repeats of Top Of The Pops. But who needs new, when there’s so much thrilling, questioning, sincere, stirring, challenging, toe-tapping, foreign-tongued and long-lost old?

Now, go and make your own compilation and send it to someone. It is a thing we can more easily do in the digital age, but which harks back to an analogue one, where we spoke to each other occasionally and cared a lot. (And lovingly make the sleeve out of the sleeve artwork in a Celebrity Squares pattern, as above.)

Here is a picture of Stewart Lee. Thank you, Stewart Lee.

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Jamie T can wait.

Writer’s blog, Week 40, Thursday

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It is Thursday. It was quiet when I came into this coffee shop in a department store and secured my pleasant window seat just after it opened at 9.30am, but it is now noisier than the trading floor of the stock exchange, except with crying babies. Which is not to say I am getting any less done. When you’re a have-laptop-will-work transient, you learn to shut the noise out. I put my earphones in and thought seriously about listening to the new U2 album, which arrived for free in iTunes, but I couldn’t bring myself to press play. That’s what happens when you give something away for free. I’d rather hear the noise of babies actually crying and toddlers doing that whining thing that isn’t really crying, more a chorus of disgruntlement. I channel my disgruntlement through my fingers into my laptop.

I read a really good blog this week from Danny Brocklehurst, the blessed younger-than-me writer with a CV that gleams with Clocking Off, Shameless, The Street and Accused - the sorts of strands I’d love to have written for, had I not backed myself down the cul-de-sac of comedy – and is now crowned with The Driver, a project I’ve known about for a long time as I occasionally have a coffee with David Morrissey, its star and co-producer. Danny’s blog (I’ve never met him, by the way, but feel sufficient writerly solidarity to call him by his first name), was on the fabulous Writers’ Room website, and was mainly about writing The Driver. Read it here.

I always find the story of a project’s genesis interesting, as I’ve been there myself many times, albeit predominantly these days with projects that do not come to fruition and therefore do not qualify me to blog about them on the Writers’ Room website! Danny says that once he and his co-creator had come up with the idea for The Driver, he sat down and wrote the whole first episode, without waiting for anyone to ask him to. This means he wrote it on spec, which means for free. I envy him, I can’t lie. To be able to afford to do that is such a luxury. I’d love to just sit down and write a script, but it’s not practical. If I was commissioned to write one – and I currently have one project “in development” – I’d be able to clear the decks and concentrate on it.

These were Danny’s wise words on being in development:

Development can be painful sometimes. But the secret to getting through it is to listen to others whilst trying to keep hold of your original vision. If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy.

I feel his pain – and recognise his truth. If you don’t have the time to read his blog, he says that of the three episodes that comprise The Driver, one of them had to be rewritten from scratch. No writer is too good, or too decorated, or too old, to have to do that. It’s part of the process.

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I am off to see the Head of Development at a very successful production company this afternoon. I’ve met him and worked with him before, but at another company, so it’s like starting again; I’ve also been in to talk about possible projects with at least two other people at the same successful production company in the past. One project actually expanded to at least three further meetings and a lunch, followed by a frenzied period of development with another writer, which led to a brick wall, and neither of us was paid a single penny for our time. So, Danny Brocklehurst was able to afford to write a whole episode of The Driver for free, and this other writer and I were expected to work up a storyline for an imagined comedy, also for free. If you’re a writer, you have to write and you don’t need anyone else’s permission first. If you don’t have to write, you might not be a writer. But when writing becomes your living, it’s sometimes irksome to have to do it with no guarantee of any recompense.

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I wonder if the small soya latte that you make last for two and a quarter hours is the most perfect symbol of a writer’s life? It costs money. So when you sit and write for two and a quarter hours with no guarantee of any recompense, you are literally down on the deal before you start. But what better inspiration to write something inspiring than having invested three pounds, and made yourself irritable with toddler whining and a laptop battery that tells you you’re down to 48%? (I was inspired to write this, but it’s better than nothing.)

I will pitch two things at the meeting. Unless it’s my lucky day, I have a sneaking feeling that neither will go any further, because producers and heads of development can always think of a reason why a commissioning editor won’t “go for it”. They are paid to know this, but it’s not an exact science, as commissioning editors a) change jobs all the time, and b) change their minds all the time.

I was planning to put a comedy idea in at the next “offers round” at Radio 4, having licked my wounds after the cancellation of Mr Blue Sky for long enough, but was tipped off that the commissioning editor didn’t want anything “media-related”, which my idea was. I tried to de-media it, but it made no sense without the media angle, so I stopped trying to bend it into a new shape, with Danny Brocklehurst’s wise words resonating around my head (“If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy”).

I don’t believe commissioning editors when they say, “We don’t want anything to do with the media,” because if they didn’t, why would Episodes or W1A be on my television?

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The project I actually have in development is moving at a slow pace. (Once someone is paying you some development money, they earn the right to ask, “How soon can you get it to us?”, but you are not entitled to deliver a draft and say, with similar urgency, “How soon can you get your notes back to us?”) Luckily, I pitched a feature idea to the Guardian last week and they said an immediate yes, so I researched and wrote it, and delivered the copy yesterday and they like it. When TV moves at treacle pace, it’s refreshing to write something for a daily newspaper (albeit for the weekly Film section, so the publication window comes round less often).

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On a similarly straightforward note, I had a job on Sunday which was paid, and yet entirely pleasurable: to host the Q&A after the world premiere of the first episode of the second series of Peaky Blinders in its spiritual home of Birmingham. That is a shot I took of my own access-all-areas pass as I sat, alone, in the green room beforehand, while stars like Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, creator Steve Knight and Benjamin Zephaniah soaked up the Brummie love on the red carpet. I’ve done a lot of Q&As, and if I could make my living out of doing it, sometimes I think I would. It’s fun. I find it thrilling rather than nerve-wracking, and I love meeting talented, creative people, even if we’re miked up in the process.

Being the host, moderator, facilitator, whatever, gives you a hint of importance, but you always know your place in the hierarchy, so it’s both elevating and humbling. But who wouldn’t want to see their name on a cinema seat?

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It goes without saying that Steve Knight, a prolific and voluble individual with internationally acclaimed screenplays as well as this vast civic passion project under his belt, is one of those writers who’s currently inspiring me to get out of the comedy cul-de-sac. For a man so busy, I was surprised and encouraged to learn that he starts writing very early and likes to knock off at around 2pm. God, at least he’s about five years older than me – that’s far less worrying when you think your moment might have passed. I genuinely don’t believe mine has, but it crosses my mind more than it used to.

Also, he’s among the three men who came up with the format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in the late 90s. So I guess – I hope! – he too can afford to write a script for free.

And U2 can certainly afford to chuck out an album for free. I wonder what it’s like?

 

 

An Englishman abroad

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Take Down The Union Jack is a song by my friend Billy Bragg, who writes stirringly and without hysteria in today’s Guardian about not just the Scottish Referendum, which takes place tomorrow, but about the differences between English nationalism and Scottish nationalism; one essentially rooted in ethnic cleansing and misguided nostalgia for Empire, the other in civic determinism and forward-facing pride. It’s no wonder that those on the English – or British – left gaze in awe and envy at the currently animated, consumed, fixated Scots, whether they are YES or NO voters. Even the crucial undecided – the YES AND NO campaigners – are statistically likely to turn out to place their cross tomorrow, such is the engagement with the debate. Registration to vote in the referendum in Scotland is a heart-stopping 97% among those of voting age (a demographic which is in itself refreshingly inclusive, welcoming in 16-year-olds). In the European election in May, the turnout was 34.17%.

I am the Scots’ worst nightmare: an Englishman with an opinion on their nation’s future. But my opinion is almost 100% heart, as I don’t get a vote, so there’s no point in engaging my head. My YES is hypothetical. I’m not Scottish, I don’t live in Scotland; the fact that I love Scotland is frankly immaterial. I know Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as I know, say, Manchester or Bristol, and better than I know Oxford or Newcastle. This is mostly because I visit Edinburgh every year for at least a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and have had consistent cause to visit Glasgow in my adult life, too – drawn up there to commune with the many Glaswegian bands that have risen in the city’s suburbs, and more latterly to work with The Comedy Unit, Scotland’s premiere comedy production house. I like Scots. My most recent trip to Glasgow – last Tuesday – was to attend the autumn season launch of Scottish Gaelic language broadcaster BBC Alba at the Royal Concert Hall. To drink deep of this ancient language was to brush past Scottish history and its future in the same spectral moment. They served excellent breakfast baps, too.

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You do need a weatherman to know which way the wind will blow tomorrow, as Scotland stands on the precipice of history. The polls have been kissing each other in the middle for weeks. All I can do is observe. I felt that the UK establishment’s last-minute surge north was mismanagement and hubris in a grey Westminster suit. However, I was wrong when I guessed that the “effing” David Cameron’s arrival, shoulder to confusing shoulder with Gordon Brown, Lord Reid, John Major and Nick Clegg, would surely, counterintuitively, clinch the YES vote.

It had the opposite effect and nudged the blue-faced YES-sayers back into second place. It may have been a pathetic, transparent last-ditch attempt to stem the tide of Scottish dissatisfaction with being run from a weekend barbecue in the Cotswolds, but the scaremongering worked. It’s still too close to call. Alex Salmond is clearly no angel – he’s cosied up to Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch in his time as First Minister – but his belief that Scotland should govern its own affairs is more compelling than the man.

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When the only Scottish newspaper with an opinion to back the YES campaign is the Glasgow Sunday Herald (not the weekly Herald, which is NO), and the UK print media almost multilaterally in the “Better Together” camp (expect the Guardian and the aptly-named Independent, unless you know different), we’ve had to cover our eyes and ears to the again belated chorus of disapproval, half-truths and apocalyptic predictions. At zero hour, the likes of the Telegraph and Mail are now desperately gunning for Salmond’s personality, as if that’s the only factor that’s driving Scottish overtures for divorce, and obsessing over a loud-mouthed faction in St James’ shopping centre in Edinburgh – a display or boorishness that did the YES camp no favours, even if it was unrepresentative. (Pat Kane was on Sky News last night “defending” the actions of a scrum of compatriots when it wasn’t his job to do so, and he was the very opposite of the Tory media’s caricature of a YES man: cool, calm, collected, oh, and gung-ho for the New Scotland however the vote plays out.)

I have no idea what will happen if the Scots vote YES. Nor does anyone in Westminster, or Holyrood, or at the Bank of England, or the Royal Bank of Scotland, or on the board of Asda, or Irvine Welsh, or Eddie Izzard. Martin Amis was eloquent on Channel Four News when he observed that his preferred NO lobby was saddled with a semantic dead weight: “You can’t campaign for a negative.”

But the UK establishment, as I keep calling them, the keepers of the status quo, have been all about the negatives. Never mind “Better Together”, the message I’ve been hearing is “Worse Apart.” Whether it’s the NHS, pensions, oil, water, Team GB, the BBC or the money it will cost to redesign that nice Union flag, all have felt like threats. In the past few days, the Government and the opposition have reverted from stick to carrot, offering more devolved power if the Scots vote NO. But surely, with a binary YES or NO vote (and one sensible enough soul on Twitter suggested there should have been a third, grey option on the ballot for “a bit more devolved power, please”), any Scot interested in more autonomy would vote YES, not NO. And isn’t Westminster giftwrapping autonomy and making you beg for it like Greyfriars Bobby precisely why independence seemed so attractive in the first place?

Whether, as Billy Bragg and my other left-wing friend who writes for the Guardian John Harris suggest, the referendum will encourage further positive independence campaigns in favour of conscious uncoupling from the Bullingdon hegemony in England and Wales and even Northern Ireland, I don’t know. This whole thing may blow over. But to have galvanised an entire nation in debate, discussion, leafletting and – alright – the occasional scuffle in the street, the referendum, or #indyref, has been a force for good, I think.

Here is a picture of some lovely people queuing up to see me for free in Scotland in 2010. (Warning: some of them might not be from Scotland.)

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I am English by birth and by blood. I don’t much care for the place, as, from where I live in London, the disconnect between Westminster, the City and the weekend oligarchs of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and what we’ll call The Rest Of The Country is toxic on so many levels, and it’s turning us on each other.

They say the vote tomorrow is one between heart and head. The UK establishment want it to be between heart and wallet. Because they would do, wouldn’t they? It’s the only card they’ve got.

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I trust the Scots. And whichever way they swing, I believe Scotland will be a better place on Friday than it was before David Cameron noticed that its people were actually seriously going to be voting about something that they care about. Unlike, say, which MEP we “send” to the European Parliament, or who the next Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire will be. (I understand the last one has mysteriously stepped down; he won the vote in November 2012 with 51.35% of a 14.53% turnout.)

They have already taken away our freedom. I would like it back, please. And I’m perfectly happy to take my passport when I next go to Edinburgh or Glasgow or Skye.

A second opinion

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There are bigger, more globally grave stories in the news, but this one has gnawed away at me over all of them for the past four days: that of Ashya King, the five-year-old with an aggressive brain tumour whose parents, Brett and Naghmeh King, are currently under arrest in Spain after removing him from the Southampton hospital where he was being treated. I’ve attempted to engage in a dialogue about the heartbreaking story as it unfolded via social media, but keep encountering people who I’ll generously describe as fence-sitters.

My reaction to the facts as they keep emerging has generally been a visceral one: that of disbelief, empathy and anger. Anger that when the seemingly well-informed, well-prepared and determined parents of a sick boy remove him from hospital care in order to seek an alternative, less scattershot radiation treatment which is not freely available on the NHS except in very rare circumstances – a treatment they were willing to pay around £100,000 for – are criminalised for taking this step. The parents, and the most tech-savvy of Ashya’s six elder siblings, Naveed, seem entirely fluent in the power of social media, and have been posting regular YouTube videos explaining their position.

Although it’s ten minutes long – and what’s ten minutes compared to the life expectancy of a five-year-old with a tumour on his brain stem? – I have been urging people to view father Brett King’s key testimony, in which Ashya appears, apparently relaxed and well cared for in a hotel in Vélez-Málaga. (They’d taken him to Málaga – not “snatched” him, in the alarmist words of the first media reports – in order to sell a holiday apartment to raise the money to pay for “proton beam” treatment in the Czech Republic.)

Although, as the fence-sitters have been quick to point out, we cannot know the full, transcribed conversations that have taken place between the Kings and the oncologists at University Hospital Southampton, Brett makes a clear and non-hysterical case for why he and Ashya’s mother took the unusual step of removing him from hospital care. They used the Internet to research alternatives and the one they chose was not one based on crystals or cabbage soup but on conventional radiotherapy, which goes against what would have been the media’s preferred narrative: that the Kings were complementary medicine nutters.

That they are Jehovah’s Witnesses – a breakaway millenarian Christian branch that, by strict doctrine, refuses blood transfusion, or so I’ve read – was seized upon initially before the facts were known. It was during this cloudy period of speculation and kneejerk conclusion-jumping – a vacuum into which rolling 24-hours expands to fill – that the facts got away from us. But it seemed to me that reason was to some extent restored and hysteria averted by the first YouTube video.

Naveed subsequently posted this, to reassure those who would condemn his family’s decision that they did not make it lightly or without investing time, effort and money into ensuring Ashya’s normal feeding routine would not be interrupted.

In Madrid, which is 322 miles away from Málaga, where Ashya remains under armed police guard in a foreign hospital, Judge Ismeal Moreno ordered that his parents be held in custody for up to 72 hours while he studied medical reports and documents from the couple’s defence lawyer. Those who insist on blaming the parents will experience a weird sort of melancholic schadenfreude here – if they hadn’t “snatched” Ashya, they’d have been at his bedside in Southampton, instead of staring at the walls of separate cells in Madrid.

Again, although we can only know what we know, the family’s lawyer gave a statement denying that Ashya’s life had been at risk, and that he had been admitted to the hospital in Málaga “in a perfect state of health”. (Ashya’s brother Daniel, 23, was with him in hospital – thank heavens for small mercies in a case where very little has been shown, in my emotionally crazed and ill-informed opinion.)

There is still a chance that common sense will prevail and the family will be reunited after days of stress that none of them asked for. There was no “snatching”, there was “abandonment” (quite the opposite) and there has been no “neglect”, the flimsy basis of the arrest warrant and the threat of extradition. I asked aloud on Twitter when David Cameron would step in: he’s quick to get on the phone to Obama when the US needs our “military prowess” – why not a quick call to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy? Nick Clegg has weighed in today, coincidentally after the Daily Mail made it a campaigning issue, although I fear one needs political and/or moral weight to make “weighing in” count. Cleggs boasts neither.

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I hold no torch for the Mail‘s dirty tricks and grubby Victorian hypocrisy, but when it gets involved, politicians tend to be roused from their slumber. I’m no expert on the law, but isn’t extradition – an outcome that is on the table – basically about co-operation of governments? Though the Kings have refused extradition, surely some co-operation could resolve the matter before – and let’s not be coy – things deteriorate?

Unless Brett King is lying through his teeth, he was “threatened” with a “protection order” by the boy’s oncologist if he continued to push for the proton beam option and thus defy the child’s doctor – which would have meant (ironically) that he and Ashya’s mother would have been denied access to their son’s ward. That prospect seems to have driven them to act. They’d contacted the Prague clinic, but when the clinic contacted Southampton for the requisite X-rays and paperwork, the request was ignored. (Unless, again, Mr King is lying, or dressing up the facts. The fence-sitters will cling to this grey area until the story has been the subject of an independent review, I guess.)

Is it so wrong to air a gut reaction to a news story as it unfolds? I felt so sick about how quickly a child’s parents can be painted as neglectful, irresponsible criminals in a supposedly free society. Even if the hospital felt it was acting in the best interests of Ashya King, did it really have to call in Hampshire police so soon after discovering he had been removed? The first “breaking” media reports were of a “missing boy” who had been “snatched”. He was not missing. He had not been snatched. Assistant chief constable Chris Shead said in the police’s first statement on Friday: “It is vital that we find Ashya today. His health will deteriorate rapidly. Ashya is in a wheelchair and is fed through a tube. The feeding system is battery operated and that battery will run out today.” Clearly, at this stage, the police had no idea how well equipped the King family was, but no wonder the world acted with alarm.

I can totally understand Hampshire’s “damned if we did, damned if we didn’t” defence, but what I personally regard as a heavy-handed, panic-button reaction did not help matters, or contribute to the boy’s health. A European arrest warrant? Could they not have called the family to ascertain how much danger Ashya was in?

I’m not a parent. I will never be in the Kings’ position, thank God. But this didn’t stop me from feeling for them. Commentators have been saying, “It’s what any parent would do if they felt it was the best for their child.” I suspect the unconditional love for a son or daughter would trump all nuanced options, but I think the Kings should be applauded for taking such careful preparation before removing Ashya from care. (Naveed said that their mother was “by Ashya’s side for the whole month that he was in hospital.”)

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I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But since we all hope that Ashya’s health will improve, by whichever treatment his guardians decree and pay for, at least there is some common ground. Without the Internet (and some of us can remember a prehistoric time before it), patients were in thrall to doctors for advice, and took it, without question. The dissemination of information, while wildly unpoliced across a once-super highway full of potholes, means access for all, even we plebs who do not have the luxury of a medical degree.

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and that works in both directions.

Unbelievable

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Kate Bush is doing some concerts in London. You’ll have spotted this. It’s front page news, as she hasn’t done any concerts since 1979. I love Kate Bush’s LPs, especially the first four, which she isn’t apparently playing, and the fifth, which she is. I’ve lost my appetite for attending gigs, but these do sound rather special and a consensus seems to have been quickly arrived at that she’s on fine form, and, if you are old enough to have been at gig-going age in 1979, it was “worth the wait”. When an artist gets this much attention, and adoration, it can be a bit irksome if you happen not to like that artist, but really, move on, listen to something you do like. It’s not compulsory to kneel at Kate’s bare feet. Which is why I was taken aback to read the above-scanned letter in today’s Guardian. The full text goes like this:

• I played viola on Kate Bush’s last LP, and laughed myself silly at her nonsensical lyrics about snowmen. The obsequious, unquestioning critical acclaim heaped upon this manifestly overrated singer is rather depressing, and summed up by your reviewer when he describes an audience who “spend the first part of the show clapping everything; no gesture is too insignificant to warrant applause”. Enough said.
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When I started reading the first line, I expected to hear from a musician she’s worked with who wanted to add his or her own special perspective on this positive music event. But no, Bill Hawkes, Canterbury, is a viola player with an axe to grind. That he goes on to call Kate Bush “manifestly overrated” is ultimately a matter of opinion (to dismiss someone as “overrated” usually means you don’t rate them and can’t understand the fuss, but it’s still subjective and thus arguably valid). But to prefix this with a cheap dig at a former employer and to reveal that you “laughed yourself silly” at the “nonsensical” lyrics to which you were paid to provide viola accompaniment is simply bad manners.

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I looked up Bill Hawkes and he seems to be a viola player of some note. Born in Cambridge in 1967, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music and has been a violist in both the Balanescu and Nigel Kennedy String Quartets, also playing violin for Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. He’s obviously very confident in his ability, and perhaps with good reason – he must be to publicly belittle someone he’s worked with and to admit to “laughing” behind their back in the studio. I don’t have my copies of 50 Words For Snow, her last album, to hand, so I can’t confirm his contribution to it, although the thorough Discogs.com listing makes no mention of him, and his own, fulsome entry on the same site omits to mention any Kate Bush album. Which leads me to wonder: was he left off the credits, and is that his beef? If so, he should have said.

Maybe she was horrible to work with. Maybe she trod on his foot during the sessions, or stole his parking space. Maybe there’s some other bad blood we don’t know about, but there are ways and means of processing this – tribunals, even! – and name-calling in a public forum isn’t one of them.

I posted the link to his letter on Twitter, and many agreed with my assessment that Bill Hawkes is at the very least, even in the context of a personal or industrial dispute we don’t know about, an impolite man – and one who seems unconcerned that his actions may also make him look unprofessional. Assuming he is a freelance musician for hire, this looks a lot like an own goal. By all means have your say about the overratedness or otherwise of a famous artist in the public eye – write a letter to a national newspaper if you feel so moved – but don’t mock their work from the privileged point of view of someone who’s previously contributed to it. Is the current mania for Kate Bush really “rather depressing”? A female artist who dares to be over the age of 30 being received with great enthusiasm by – again – mature music fans attending actual live gigs in a recession? Regardless of who that artist is, there seems little “depressing” about it.

To reiterate, my point here is not about Kate Bush, it’s about good grace and picking your fights wisely and thinking before you press “send” (dear God, let’s hope he didn’t send the letter in the post). A couple of people on Twitter who agree with the opinion that Kate Bush is “overrated” basically defended Mr Hawkes on the grounds that he was “right” (or, that they agreed with his opinion), but even if I thought she was overrated, I wouldn’t be very impressed with the wording of this letter.

David Arnold, one of the few people I know who might actually look to employ a violist, said on Twitter, “It’s an odd way of asking for your p45.”

Yes to Scottish independence

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Another year, another Edinburgh. It’s great how you can refer to a trip to what really is my Second City to coincide with the Festival, or Festivals, as “an Edinburgh.” We all know what it means. And it means mostly wonderful things. Before I prepare my report on this year’s three-day piped-bagpipe bagatelle, here’s the traditional shot of me at my first Edinburgh, in 1989.

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I feel sure I don’t need to go into detail, but I was two years out of college, one year in the NME art room, far enough into a hair-growing project to produce a nub of a ponytail, and part of a Tooting-based, medical-school-formed am-dram group called Renaissance Comedy Associates; our play, which I co-wrote with co-star Matthew Hall*, was called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out and one or two people paid to see it in a church hall on Princes Street – it was a great adventure, but I didn’t go back until 2001, when the show was Lloyd Cole Knew My Father and we looked like this.

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I have been up every year except one ever since. The big shift for me occurred in 2009, when, having been up to do an experimental week of live Collings & Herrin Podcasts at the Underbelly, I was also invited to host, or “chair”, my first session at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, which – after my heartfelt retirement from stand-up comedy in 2010 and a welcome year off in 2011 – has thereafter been my ticket up there. It being Guardian-sponsored, a short clip of me talking to Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin in 2009 is still available to view. My body language says: I am not yet confident enough as a “chair” to sit properly in one.

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I like to think I am now a far more confident host. Once you’ve done your first live gig as “facilitator” – whose brief is to introduce the session, get the best out of your interviewees (ie. “facilitate” their illuminating answers), move the thing along, hit the clips at the right moment, coordinate a short audience Q&A at the end and exude approachable authority – you start to get into a rhythm of being miked up, having a producer bark into your ear via an earpiece, knowing when to skip a huge chunk of questions for time, and being unclipped from your mic at the end (always courteous and grateful to the venue staff, as without them you would not be miked up, or able to reach for a sip of water, or even know where the hell to go in the warren of suites, green rooms and auditoria). I am not staff. I am not paid to do this work, but the Festival does pay my train fare and puts me up in a serviceable hotel (the one you can guarantee none of the big stars will be staying in – I know my place). Most importantly, it gives me the chance to be here.

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I have rhapsodised Edinburgh aplenty. In a way, I’m the wrong person to ask about the city as I’ve literally only ever stepped foot on the platform of Waverley Station during the Festival. This is clearly not what life is like in Edinburgh for the other 11 months of the year (except for the weather and the novelty drunks and the souvenir shops piping out bagpipe music). But I have made friends up here who do live in Edinburgh and adjoining Dunfermline, so it’s not as if I only hang out with London media wankers like myself. I made enough friends when I was a stand-up to be able to sneak in to see a couple of their shows while I’m up here, which is always a bonus, and I make an effort to conceal or remove my pink, YouTube-sponsored TV Festival pass when I’m walking down the street. I certainly stride maplessly about the place like I own it, which I hope stops me ever looking like a tourist.

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Because I always come on my own, what I do feel like is a travelling salesman. Especially at breakfast.

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I’ve been a regular at Apex hotels for the past couple of Festivals: no-nonsense places but a cut above a Best Western or Novotel (and I say that not as a hotel snob but as someone whose default, austerity overnight is a Travelodge if I’m paying the bill). This year, for no apparent reason, I was placed in a Hilton. I’m worldly-wise enough to know that the “Hilton” logo does not automatically speak of glamour and the high life. It’s just a hotel chain, a Premier Inn that fancies itself.

There are a couple of Hiltons in Edinburgh (which shows how exclusive they’re not) and I think I was in the least glamorous Hilton. I don’t expect to live like a king – all I require is a bed, wi-fi, a full Scottish breakfast and a free paper. The Hilton gives away the digest version of the Independent whose actual name looks like a mistake of you type it: the i. I’ve never had a minibar. Luckily, I don’t demand a room with light in it either, as this year I was in a non-air-conditioned basement whose windows were painted shut and which was illuminated only by tiny desk lamps (the only fitted ceiling light was in the tiny hallway). I did not complain. I was not paying for it. There was free shortbread with the tea- and coffee-making facilities. I thought: I am living the dream.

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The title of this blog entry refers not to Scotland’s forthcoming independence – a matter much discussed and a passion-fuelled debate I felt fortunate to have landed in the middle of at the height of national indecision – but my own current independence. Travelling alone, essentially being on holiday alone (even for three days), is replenishing for the soul, I find. I did plenty of solo travelling when I was a much younger music journalist, and it hardened me up. I flew to Dublin for three hours last week to interview Cillian Murphy for Radio Times and I felt a bit like an international jetsetter, albeit one too intrinsically stingy to pay for a fucking coffee on the plane, especially as the otherwise courteous Aer Lingus declined to offer any of us a free drink while we sat on the tarmac at Dublin for two hours, the mercenary bastards.

I arrived in Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon alone, declined to pay for a cab and thus walked, with my rucksack, to the Hilton, which was 30 minutes away, alone. Checked in alone, unpacked alone etc. etc., you get the manly picture. And within the hour I was back out, alone, marching towards my favourite venue, The Stand, to pick up my ticket to see my friend Josie Long, alone. I bought some fish chowder, which came in a bowl made of bread, from a stall at the new Fringe hub, St Andrew Square Gardens, whose convenience actually prevented me from making my annual day-one pilgrimage to the Pleasance. (This will be the first Edinburgh ever where I haven’t had a pint at the Pleasance. Time bends.) I bought my ceremonial first pint in a plastic glass and sat, alone, among booming revellers, to silently eat my soup and drink my lager. I was happy enough. Edinburgh is full of groups and couples and families at this time of year, but also solo artists, like me. You’re never alone with a plastic pint glass: it is your passport to sit anywhere and just be.

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I do regret only seeing one Fringe show this year (I usually squeeze in at least three), but I do not regret choosing Josie Long‘s. It’s been a few years since we were buddied up by 6 Music (and then let go with an empty promise to have us back on – not bitter about that), and even longer since I first met her in a pub basement and offered to hold her indie coat while she sang Nothing Compares 2 U at Karaoke Circus, so I feel I can praise her new direction without being too partisan.

After years of building up her unique and deeply-felt political persona, this year’s show, Cara Josephine (a title movingly explained in the final section), is a left turn. Or a right turn, since she’s already so far to the left. It’s a personal show about heartbreak and failed relationships and being “on the shelf” at 32 that’s quite a jolt if you know her stuff. But it’s delivered in such a way that, while contextually shocking in places (and actually really challenging at one particularly raw and graphic juncture, which I won’t spoil), it’s still Josie being who she is, with her American accents and her self-effacement and righteous ire always bubbling under the surface. It may even be her best show, although that needs to be taken in context. Nobody can accuse her of coasting, that’s for sure.

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Back to the picture at the top, which I repeat for reference and which, for all the world, looks like a triumphant stand-up gig, or perhaps a rally, but is actually me introducing an exclusive, public screening of the new Doctor Who episode, Deep Breath, at the mighty Filmhouse cinema on Lothian Road, which has been my de facto base for three years. We screened Asylum Of The Daleks two years ago, with a fabulous Q&A with Steven Moffat afterwards. This, blurrily, was it: ACSMEdTVFest12

No Q&A this time, but the preview itself was enough to pack the 280-seater auditorium of Cinema 1 with enthusiasts of all ages. I did a warm-up and by a show of hands (my fallback warm-up technique) established that we had kids in who were too young to remember when David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, and at least a couple of gentlemen who remembered seeing the first ever episode! It was pretty easy to get them excited before the screening, as they arrived pre-excited.

It was fun to be part of, and the episode itself is pretty damn good, with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor a real shot in the franchise’s arm – his very Scottishness seems to have reinvigorated Moffat’s writing: the 80-miute episode is overlong but full of great jokes, including a couple “about” the Referendum. On Friday morning, in the noisy lobby of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, hub of the TV Festival, I filmed a special Telly Addict review of the episode for the Guardian with my usual producer Tom, busked rather than read from autocue, as we didn’t have one, and it will go live right after the episode airs on BBC1 this evening.

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Thursday also had me manhandling the roving mic for an industry session back in the EICC and another exclusive screening: the pilot of a new, grown-up romantic comedy called Catastrophe, written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, produced by Avalon (who also manage me) for C4, and due next year. I “met” them both via Twitter on the train up to Edinburgh and we got on famously. This can happen. It was a buzz to see the creators of a show experience their work with a large audience of their peers, and to soak up the constant laughter. It was an easy Q&A, as it was always going to be, but you wouldn’t believe how panicky PRs and managers get beforehand, as if perhaps I was going to bypass how Sharon and Rob wrote the show in the 15 minutes available and ask them a series of improper, probing personal questions to make them squirm and stutter.

Having been out so late on Wednesday night with my two go-to Edinburgh pals Tony and Helen that two bars shut in our faces, forcing us to go to a much nastier one for a final round, I took it easy on Thursday and retired to my dark room early with a chalice of Stella from the hotel bar to sip with two free sticks of shortbread and watch the world burning on the news with the sound down. (Full disclosure: my manager bought me a posh burger and a beer in a posher hotel than my own, and I did a short spin of the National Museum of Scotland where ITV held their annual TV Fest drinks to discover that I only knew one person in the cavernous space, Badults producer Izzy, whom I was most grateful to talk to.)

EdTV14ACDynamoWe’ll come to the impish, slumped fellow to my right in a moment. Friday was the biggest mountain to climb, with the biggest names to facilitate. It was halfway through the afternoon when I remembered how easy it is to miss entire mealtimes when you’re working the Festival. I’d had my hearty breakfast of course, while weeping lonely tears into the Islamic State headlines in my i (simply doesn’t work, does it? What the hell were they thinking?), but the Guardian filming ran into a session I was keen to attend asking how the US “showrunner” model can be introduced into UK drama production (conclusion: it can’t), and that ran into my first session as host. I did the least imaginative thing possible in the world and ate a warmed-up panini in Caffe Nero for the loyalty stamp in about five minutes flat. Here is a photo of that session, taken by @Missread, my favourite photo of Edinburgh 2014:

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A year ago – inspired by seeing the popularity of a session with Vince Gilligan at the TV Festival – I wrote a piece for the Guardian about showrunners. In researching it, I discovered Des Doyle, an Irish filmmaker who was Kickstarting a feature-length documentary about the US TV industry called Showrunners. I plugged it and quoted it in the piece, as you could tell by the trailer than it was going to be an authoritative treat for TV geeks and Yankophiles like me. Well, the extra funding came in, and he finished it, and it’s being released here and in the States in October. It was a pleasure to be able to screen it for the public as well as delegates, as it’s a cracking piece of work, and we’d secured the great Ron D. Moore for a Q&A (he’s the genius behind Battlestar Galactica if you don’t know the name – a wise, softly-spoken sage who happens to be in Scotland to shoot his latest opus Outlander).

In the picture above you can see both Des and me looking adoringly at Ron. This is what a TV festival should be like. It’s all very well to be “industry” and all dry and po-faced about telly, but at heart we should all be fans of the medium and of those who make it, even if, technically, they are our peers. (Our Q&A was foreshortened by The Next Thing, as these events tend to be on this media merry-go-round, but it was great to be in his aura and chat offstage to him about “that” Portlandia sketch.)

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Thanks to @envypost for the borrow of the above moody photo, by the way.

Dynamo, boyish 31-year-old underground-overground star of Magician Impossible (whose forthcoming fourth series has been announced as his last for the channel Watch), is a different kettle of fish to anyone I’ve ever facilitated. Although the industry panel we did was conventional (see: above), with his producer/confidsnt Dan, Lucy from Phil McIntyre who manage him, and Richard from the channel, fanned around the coffee table onstage with me in the middle, and with clips playing on the big screen above, the subject – a television show – was not. How do you get under the bonnet of a show whose very beating heart is illusion (what Dynamo prefers to call “events” rather than “tricks”) and to which the question, “How did you do that?” is not only inapplicable, it’s downright rude.

For my intro, I borrowed the quote from Walter Bagehot, 19th century essayist, who warned, “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” And I hope we didn’t, and yet I hope we did a bit. If you’ve not seen Dynamo’s work – indebted to both the street style and spectacle of David Blaine, but without the wankiness – look him up on YouTube or Catch Up. It’s quite unique, as is the way he just walks off after doing something amazing, while Dan’s camera stays on the amazed. Dynamo might have turned out to be a tricky customer in real life, but he was sweet, funny and self-aware, and more than able to deal with a large auditorium. (He’s taking a break from TV to do a live tour, by the way.) When he did a bit of magic, and melted the hearts of even the stoniest TV miseryguts in the audience I think, I was right there next to him. I saw him turn some Lottery tickets into £20 notes by just shaking them. If they were “special” ones, I don’t know how they worked. He also turned his hand all the way round on his wrist, and swapped a playing card he held in his mouth with the playing card held in the mouth of a female volunteer. I know it’s magic, but Iogic disappears when you see someone as cool and casual as Dynamo do it.

The industry session was followed by a public screening, back at the Filmhouse. Sold out, of course, with a crowd that needed even less warming up from me than Doctor Who‘s. We watched Ep1 of his new, typically globe-trotting, celeb-packed series (showing on Watch in September), and Dynamo slipped into the seat next to me in the dark, mid-screening, to soak up the audience reaction. A small child in the row in front turned round and saw him and it was like he’d seen Jesus. After the Q&A, during which he did more magic, he was literally mobbed, enveloped, subsumed by disciples. He’s a star of the Instagram Age and he understands the power of that, but it was still incredible to see how patiently and diligently he gave them all the time they individually craved. Here’s a selfie he had taken with a volunteer, @DimpleMagician:

Dynamoselfie@DimpleMagician

His popularity, that kid-from-Bradford approachability and a superstar’s diligence combined to become a health and safety issue. I slipped out into the bar to have a chat to my Dunfermline pal Paul (whose daughter – who was such a fan she’d done a school project on Dynamo – queued patiently with her mum to get the now standard autograph/selfie) and realised that, without any warning, my working holiday was over. And it had stared raining.

Ed2014adcrop

It was with a little sadness that I ate my last breakfast this morning, and packed my bags. I got absolutely soaked through on the walk home last night in the statutory proper Edinburgh downpour, but along the way (I was too mean, and too wet already, to hail a cab), I saw women without jackets or coats, let alone umbrellas or kagoules, determined to have a Friday night out regardless. You have to love the north. The Scots are already independent, spiritually and behaviourally, and Alex Salmond’s million signatures were reached yesterday, but I still fear the don’t-knows will win the day and Scotland will remain adjoined more than just geographically to the bit of the country that votes in Tory governments. (Capaldi’s Doctor blames the English for his woes in Deep Breath.) I will still love them as anyone might love a different tribe who almost speak the same language.

My last memory of Edinburgh 2014 will be sitting in wet jeans in the Hilton bar with a burger and a chalice of Stella, reading Charlotte Higgins’ brilliant, eloquent but depressing final analysis of the BBC in the Guardian, the newspaper that sponsors the Festival that pays my train fare and gives me the golden opportunity to see auld acquaintances annually, and asks me to busk a review of Doctor Who in a lobby. See you in 2015, yes?

Or should that be: see you in 2015, YES.

 

 

 

*Oh, Matthew Hall changed his name to Harry Hill. Whatever happened to him?