Sorry, got distracted this week on Telly Addict by a gloriously pointless and condescending documentary on BBC1, Britain’s Favourite Supermarket Foods, which ought to have been on CBBC, except it might have been rejected by that channel’s core audience for being too facile (but full marks to presenter Cherry Healey for giving it her all). More meat was to be found on the estate-set drama Run on C4, a four-parter so unrelentingly grim I decided not to watch it over the prescribed four consecutive night, but spread its grimness out over four weeks; Family Tree on BBC2 was an expectedly gentle comic treat; there was more humanity on Route Masters on BBC2; The Americans pulled me back in on ITV; and law-firm fixer procedural Ray Donovan from Showtime made a big impression on Sky Atlantic. But what is Britain’s favourite supermarket food? Find out in part two next week. I expect.
We apologise for the late arrival of this week’s Telly Addict; this is because the Guardian staff are on “Glastonbury time”. They’re the sunburnt ones, wandering about the corridors, looking lost and prodding the coffee machines, wondering what they could be. As it happens, I cover the Glastonbury coverage this week, or bits of it, on BBC2 and BBC3 (with special commendation to Lauren Laverne, Mark Radcliffe and Jen Long); also, the soapy season one finale of Nashville on More4; the supreme season six finale of Mad Men on Sky Atlantic; HBO’s Phil Spector TV movie on Sky Atlantic, in which Al Pacino atones for those awful Sky Broadband ads (can he need the money that badly?); and my new favourite documentary series, The Route Masters on BBC2.
It’s been a while since I squeezed one of these in, but it seems opportune. I’m in Northampton for a couple of days at my folks’, but still working, still writing, still pitching. It’s Saturday. The photo above is misleading, for I am not in Glastonbury, nor wearing a fisherman’s hat. I really like this atmospheric shot; it was taken of me at dusk, along the main commercial thoroughfare to the Pyramid Stage by my brother-in-law Paul at Glastonbury 2009, which was my designated “mid-life crisis Glastonbury”. (You can read about it in excruciating detail here.) I loved every second of it. But I haven’t been since, and it’s conceivable that I’ll never go again, mainly because 2009 was so perfect in every way.
I’ve been thinking about it as I watch – or fast forward through – the Glastonbury 2013 coverage I’ve taped. (Hey, I have no interest in the Vaccines, or Rita Ora, or the latest wide-eyed BBC3 presenters being run in*, and I was ready for bed at 10.30 last night in any case.) I hadn’t been since 1995 when I went in 2009 so it was a special occasion, and uniquely family-oriented, in that I was convinced to go by my brother-in-law.
Though I am not at Glastonbury this year, due to media and social media saturation, I am acutely aware that the festival is ongoing, as I type. I do not wish I was there, in actuality, but I do sort of miss it somewhere in my bones. It’s somewhere you can go and get away with a hat, for a start. I hope everyone who is there is having an epic time. For fun, here’s a photo of me taken at Glastonbury 1990, my second ever Glastonbury, which was a filthy one, and the inaugural year of the festival’s dedicated Comedy Tent, where I spent the bulk of the long weekend. I loved that, too, although it had been too wet to realistically pitch our tent on arrival, so we slept in the car. I think I’m too old for that shit now.
It’s refreshing to get away from the fabled “hustle and bustle” of London – as I am doing by hopping it to the parental pile in Northampton – although I watched an episode of the BBC2 series The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads on Wednesday, which was all about life on London’s night buses and ought to have been enough to put anyone off moving to the capital, but, oddly, made me miss the place, and glad that I live there.
I’ve been resident of London for 29 years (minus the three where I moved out to Reigate by mistake), and although as you get older you’re inexorably drawn to a less stressful environment, I do find it hard to imagine living away from the smoke. And The Route Masters was a deftly captured – and slyly cast – snapshot of what makes the city simultaneously terrifying and joyful, with all sorts using the nocturnal bus service, which, since the relaxation of the licensing laws, really is an all-night proposition. I loved the Muslim driver Zajad, born and bred in London, who recounted being told by a fire-and-brimstone passenger that they were all going to hell: “I told him, we’re not going to hell, we’re going to Ilford.” Priceless.
When I lived in Streatham, in South West London – must have been late 90s – I was on the top deck of a bus, coming home late at night, and a stupid verbal misunderstanding between two male passengers led to one of them drawing a knife on the other. The man on whom the knife was drawn looked shocked and disappointed that it had come to this, and did not raise the aggression levels. It seemed a possibly idle threat, but when a young man is standing up pointing a knife at someone else, you tense up. Someone ran down the stairs and informed the driver, and he stopped the bus – handily, right outside a police station. Officers boarded the bus and escorted the knifeman off, with his large but friendly looking dog, as it happened. It was one of those ugly moments you experience in cities.
I watched half of Eye Spy on Thursday night on C4, the “moral dilemma” hidden-camera show “narrated by” Stephen Fry, although he makes an appearance too, as if to bind the format to him when frankly, he’s effectively just the voiceover artist, it’s not “his” programme. In it, situations are created that test the moral fibre of members of the public – £30,000 in cash left in a phone box, an actor playing a racist waiter in a small restaurant, a boy in a wheelchair at the bottom of some steps – and instead of these stunts being played out for our vicarious pleasure (except they are), they’re framed as a social experiment.
In brief, you get to see how much citizens of this country use the phrase, “What the fuck?”, which is an awful lot. I question the social efficacy of the format, but it did monitor how much racist abuse from a waiter diners will put up with, and you couldn’t help but feel proud of the Londoner who was first to stand up to the actor playing the racist waiter. (They did the same “test” in a restaurant in Manchester and not a single diner said a word. This is not conclusive proof that people in Manchester will put up with more racism than those in London, as it is not proof of anything.)
So, what have I been doing? Gathering my thoughts for a “corporate” next week. I’m hosting a series of Q&As at an “away day” for a large international media company, where various TV shows are previewed and their producers questioned before a large audience of delegates. I enjoy doing these gigs, as it means I get to meet executives from TV; people who make telly. These are the people I hope to be working with, and the reason I spend a lot of my time working for free – out of necessity – on pitches. I’ve been working on one today. At least the corporates help pay for the days when I’m not being recompensed for my time.
Next week’s busy, as I’m also interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright about their new film The World’s End for Radio Times. The weird part of that is, I’ve only seen the first half of the film, as the second half isn’t going to be finished until the day after the interview! This can’t be helped, as my deadline is Wednesday. I really liked the first 45 minutes, by the way, but then I was bound to: it’s Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright! Sometimes you can take a confident flyer. I am also meeting a producer about another scriptwriting project on the Friday, which is more unpaid work, but vital, as such connections lead to other connections, and writers exist in a permanent, cosmic join-the-dots puzzle, hoping to make those connections.
On a more paid note: yesterday, I delivered the second draft of a pilot sitcom script that’s in development with – I think it’s safe to say this – the BBC. That is, I delivered it – eg. emailed it – to the execs at the production company who are paying me to write it, and who will deliver it to the BBC, whose commissioning editor is paying them to pay me to write it. We all hope we will get paid some more money in order to write a lot more of it, with a view to actually making it into actual telly. So fingers crossed that the BBC will like it. I’ve certainly put a lot of time and effort into it, and so have my producers with their copious notes, and I really like the made-up characters I’ve invented and put into it. I could imagine writing five more stories for them, at least.
It’s good to see one’s family. While at my Mum and Dad’s, I get to see my brother, who lives about 40 minutes away in a less towny place, and his family, and dogs, and I get to see my sister, who lives five minutes away, and her family, and guinea pig. They’re good, my family.
I walked to the Weston Favell Shopping Centre this afternoon, for some fresh air and exercise, and I found it particularly hostile to pedestrians. It’s not clear which way you have to walk to get into it – and I speak as someone who lived in or near Weston Favell for the first 19 years of my life, and remember the mall when it first went up and was called the “Supacentre”. But it’s set behind a car park, a petrol garage, and a drive-thru McDonald’s, all of which rather suggest you ought really to pull yourself together and be in a car.
Ah! The official website gives directions only to people planning to “get here” by car or bus. There is no official pedestrian route to it. Well, there is, as I managed it somehow, but only by crossing lots of roads and going the long way round. (There’s a pretty scary looking “walkway” but this only works if you are walking from the direction of Standens Barn; I would have had to cross a road to get to it, which rather defeats the object.) When did Britain become America, and when did Northampton become LA?
Still, at least I’m not at Glastonbury!
*Incidentally, before I get back to work, I should add that I encountered, for the first time, a young presenter on BBC3’s Glastonbury coverage called Jen Long, whose energy and fluency and ability to hit her mark, in a field, were commendable. I thought she was great. I’ve looked her up and she’s on Radio 1 in the night, and she runs a fanzine, and she used to do Introducing on BBC Wales. I expect great things of her.
In this week’s Telly Addict, I find myself returning to a number of shows I’ve previously assessed at the outset: The Returned on C4, which is proving to be the best thing currently on TV, now at Episode 3; The Americans on ITV, which hit a post-pilot dip but has found its feet again at Episode 4; and Oliver Stone’s Untold History of The United States, which reached a new pitch of alternative-narrative chest-beating in the final of its ten episodes on Sky Atlantic. Also, a new season of The Borgias on Sky Atlantic, a dip into Question Time, aka #bbcqt, on BBC1 to see how Russell Brand fares, and a nice moment from the new run of Marple on ITV, involving Ian Fleming and Charlie Higson.
When you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.
This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too, but this will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)
However, it ain’t necessarily so. Because James Gandolfini sadly died, I was contacted yesterday morning, by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm yesterday afternoon. Having just gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this show.
However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”
Without wishing to come across as some kind of bread-head, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I am currently writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline after all, and I’m being paid for that.
Having worked for 25 years in the media, I would say I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay them for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.
I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with, but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path.
Now, if I had accepted the no-fee and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster today at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:
- My face would have been on the telly.
- Some people might have seen it.
- The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
- The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.
Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.
I declined, politely. So I wasn’t on. I kind of wonder who was? But it doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. But what right does a broadcaster ie. employer or client, have not to pay for honest work? Every TV show you watch will probably have interns working, often unpaid, on the first rung of a TV career, but that is their decision, and a time-investment in exchange for “work experience”, which can be invaluable. Also, you get free coffee and get to work on a TV programme. Me? I’m 48. I don’t care about free coffee and I’ve seen hundreds of TV programmes being made. I have written some of them, and been in some of them. I no longer need the work experience.
Richard used to take the piss out of me for screen-grabbing my occasional TV appearances, but these are my work. I don’t have a library of tapes, but I do have some grabs. Plus, they’re fun to look back at.
I didn’t get paid to be on Mastermind, of course – my appearance fee went to charity. Typically, they paid for my train fares. This is weird only when no fee is forthcoming. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee yesterday offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Pay contributors with that instead!
So, what else could I hope to gain from a brief, unpaid slot on a news programme? An ego boost? Those who still think I am on the telly all the time as a pundit or “talking head” may assume I have some need to be seen in pubic. I don’t. I may once have been excited by it. But not any more. This is why I have consciously scaled back on the frequency with which I say “yes” when asked to appear on stuff. Because my mobile number is on some general BBC contributors’ list somewhere, and I haven’t changed it for a long time, I am called up by researchers looking comments all the time. I decline almost all of these requests, as I find they take up more time than they are worth in nominal appearance fees. (When I used to write books, I would appear on anything in order to promote them – you do not expect a fee in this instance.)
If I was on the staff of the Guardian, or Radio Times, I might happily be ferried to a TV studio for an hour or two, just to get out of the office, but I’m not on the staff of anything. (I explained this to the producer who wanted to not pay me yesterday, so there was no confusion.)
It’s a burning issue in the media. Barney Hoskyns, the august music scribe and curator of Rock’s Back Pages, has started a campaign for media freelancers called Stop Working For Free, whose Facebook page is here. (I can’t access it as I’m not a Facebook member, but you might be.) While people with “proper” jobs might think that media work is cushy and “a laugh” – which to a degree it can be – it is still work: a case of time taken and effort and expertise expended, both of which should by rights be recompensed, by verbal or written agreement with the employer. I’ve complained before about how much free work – “on spec” – you must do as a writer, and how many meetings you must attend for no financial return or “call-out fee”. You accept this as part of the world you work in. But exploitation is never far round the corner, as Barney’s manifesto makes plain:
STOP WORKING FOR FREE.
Calling all freelance content providers (musicians, writers, actors, photographers, designers etc): Join me in WITHDRAWING UNPAID LABOUR from the creative and media industries. The exploitation of freelance content providers has gone on too long, and we are all responsible for letting it happen.
Things have got much worse in the digital age, of course, where images and words are shared around as if nobody is responsible for them. (Hey, I write a blog; I bet at some point I have used a photo that an agency, and therefore a photographer, should be paid for. I do my best not to, but it’s a wild west, isn’t it?) As a creative person who gives a lot of writing away for free – which is my choice – I feel I am on the moral high ground, but there’s a lot of grey here.
I would be interested to hear from people in and outside this weird industry. How do you feel about anybody working for nothing?
In the meantime I’ll leave you with more of Barney’s stirring words:
If you allow yourself to be seduced by the myth that your unpaid labour will “look good on your CV” (or equivalent blah), please try to see that you jeopardise not only the welfare of your replaceable elders but your OWN long-term economic future. You set up a paradigm whereby you in turn become replaceable.
We don’t know if Tony Soprano died. Let’s say he didn’t. Last seen eating dinner with his family in a local New Jersey diner to the chosen tune of Don’t Stop Believin’ in the aftermath of a mob war, he saw a man enter the restroom, his daughter Meadow arrive, at which he looked up and the screen went to black for ten seconds before the final credits rolled. We had no reason to think that Tony Soprano died, having watched him move like a bulletproof Buick through 87 hours of supreme television fiction over six years. He was a big man but he was in bad shape; you could outrun him, but he would catch you in the end.
We had Tony Soprano down as indestructible, immortal, qualities we probably bestowed upon James Gandolfini the actor who played him, and who has died of a heart attack, in Italy, aged just 51. Much discussion has taken place about the final scene of The Sopranos. I reviewed the final episode here. But now that Gandolfini has reached his season finale, we might remind ourselves of that Journey lyric.
Working hard to get my fill,
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin’ anything to roll the dice,
Just one more time
Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on
If there is a TV Valhalla, some marbled hall where only the medium’s immortals congregate, we can be certain that Tony Soprano, as played by James Gandolfini, is already among those Gods, taking his bulky place between JR Ewing, Hawkeye Pierce, Homer Simpson and The Fonz (and if that sounds facetious, it’s anything but). Clearly, Tony would never have existed without creator David Chase, but Gandolfini literally put flesh on those bones. A generous helping of flesh.
What’s most haunting in the immediate aftermath of Gandolfini’s passing is the way we listened to him breathe for all those years, that nasal wheeze increasing when Tony was stressed, a signal sent from deep within his workings that all was not smooth. The laboured breathing was a key facet of Tony’s character; he was not a man you could easily knock over, but he was mortal, always. If he stopped breathing, we would know about it.
Heavy set when The Sopranos made him a household name – within about ten minutes of the first episode starting, possibly from his first walk down that drive – Gandolfini’s skill and presence had already been noticed by the talent-spotters among us for supporting parts in films like True Romance, Crimson Tide, 8mm and Fallen. In movie parlance these were “character” parts. He was not a “leading man”, by dint of his shape. He carried an awful lot of weight, but this was required on the voyage of Tony Soprano, as the mob boss and family man seemed to be carrying all the trouble in the world on what looked like a gone-to-seed ex-prizefighter’s frame, as if, again, those burdens were made flesh.
We lived through those panic attacks with him, so full-blooded and corporeal was Gandolfini’s acting, as delicate and nuanced as he seemed bulky and unyielding. Gandolfini built him up but nobody could knock him down. There is little in TV’s great history to match it. It was Michael Corleone’s wife Kay who, in The Godfather Part III, uttered the devastating line, “I dread you.” We all dreaded Tony Soprano, and yet could not take our eyes off him, week after week, year after year. His temper was on a hair’s trigger, a Tasmanian Devil’s dervish of violence nearly always preceded by a grin, or a squint of death.
Gandolfini’s features were set like tiny pebbles on a vast beach of a face, but what complex emotions he could rearrange them into. It’s a commonplace to say that an actor inhabits a character. Gandolfini was a sitting tenant. He was just as much Tony Soprano when disconsolately peeling slices of bresola off the greaseproof paper at that monolithic fridge as when meting out rough justice to some insubordinate on the pavement with a staple gun or his ham-like fists.
It was a masterstroke of storytelling to have Tony’s entire arc prefigured by the flight of some ducks from his swimming pool, but rewatch that early sequence again and see how much wordless pathos and existential fear Gandolfini builds in, that bowling ball face shifting from simple delight to mortal terror. The dressing gown, the flip flops, the vest, the bowling shirts, these were his sartorial tics, but they alone did not maketh the man. In Tony Soprano, Gandolfini found immortality, all the more remarkable for doing so from the rarefied outfield of cable television. His face was not beamed into every American home like Hawkeye’s or Kramer’s or Archie Bunker’s or Mary Tyler Moore’s. It’s rare that an actor gives himself over so fully to a fictional construct, but Gandolfini did that.
Thanks to the medium that made him, he will never leave us.
PS: I was pleased to be able to articulate some of the same feelings for this Guardian video obit, also featuring Andrew Pulver on his films, which we shot this morning.
Who’s in here? Well, if you watch this week’s Telly Addict, which avoids spoilers for the final episodes of The Fall on BBC2 and Game Of Thrones on Sky Atlantic (mainly because I hadn’t seen either when I filmed this yesterday), you’ll see clip evidence of at least two supporting actors who are in both shows. Also, new on BBC3, docucircus The Call Centre, and new on C4, the terrific, glacially-paced French “zombie” drama The Returned. And congratulations and clubbable banter all round for the 500th episode of Pointless on BBC1.
It’s the dawning of a ne-e-e-ew era for television, and for Telly Addict. Just over two years in the chair, and I’m reviewing my first ever television programme that I didn’t watch on my television. I’m talking about season four of Arrested Development, which can only be viewed by subscribing to video streaming service Netflix, which I have now done. I can’t make the sound work when I connect my MacBook to the TV, though, which is why I’ve only watched the first two of 15 brand new episodes on a laptop screen. Meanwhile, back on steam-driven TV, I’ve been beaten by Chris Packham’s games on Springwatch on BBC2, re-educated by Horrible Histories on CBBC (shouldn’t there be some kind of adult-lock that prevents me from watching this channel?), entertained by Psychobitches on Sky Arts (which is the best female-centric comedy that started last week), and gripped by The Americans on ITV1, which is money well spent by the network. There’s also time for a quick clip from Five Years on BBC2, which I failed to review last week because of the stupid Bank Holiday/Memorial Day Weekend.
Taking my cue from a remark made by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in the final episode of the excellent PBS documentary The United States Of Television (re-framed and shown here with added Yentob on BBC2), this week’s Telly Addict sets out to prove that the best TV drama is better than Hollywood movies, with specific reference to Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, both at episode seven in their respective seasons on Sky Atlantic at time of writing; also, a tiny leap from Oliver Stone’s Untold History of America, also on Sky Atlantic, to The 80s: The Decade That Made Us on National Geographic (first time on Telly Addict for the channel – ripple of welcoming applause); plus, The Fall, on BBC2, an excellent new police drama from BBC Northern Ireland that punches it weight with the American occupiers; and a strange signal from Hannibal on Sky Living. A packed programme tonight, as the Ronnies used to say. And better than The Great Gatsby, for sure.
Catching up with the Masterchef final on BBC1 from last week this week on Telly Addict. Also, the quick death of Four Rooms on C4; Da Vinci’s Demons on Fox; a much more promising new US drama, Banshee, on Sky Atlantic; and two new sitcoms on ITV, Vicious and The Job Lot, one of which I’m sticking with. Due to the Bank Holiday, I hadn’t seen the final episode of The Village when I wrote this one, so I’ll catch up with it next week, as I understand it ended with a song and dance number.