High visibility

My recurring joke about my role at this year’s Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival is that I was basically a steward. Hosting five post-screening Q&As and one stand-alone “masterclass” (also in actual fact a Q&A), I felt I should by right have been given a high-viz jacket to wear, so that my stewarding was more clearly advertised. I’ve done quite a bit of hosting in my time, and I think I understand the job: it’s to make your guest or guests look good; it is to facilitate. (Clearly, if I was hosting a session with, say, Elisabeth Murdoch or a channel controller, I’d be under pressure to play a more journalistic card, but being the “face” of the Screenings Showcase for the last three days has been to act as a conduit for important information from important creative people.)

For the record, I will log the six sessions I hosted at MGEITF 2012, so that I can look back with fondness upon this blog in a year’s time, when I hope I’m back up on Lothian Road doing the same thing. On Thursday, after an hilarious cab mix-up (you don’t get paid to host events at the Festival, but you do get ferried around and put up in a hotel, and I guess the idea is, you use the opportunity to network and further your chance of future paid work on TV), I arrived at Edinburgh Napier University’s Merchiston campus where a cool outfit called The Network were laying on a feast of masterclasses for their lively media students. And then a suitably frazzled Charlie Brooker arrived, so that I could make him look good. (A cab had come to my hotel, the Apex, where Charlie was also staying, except it turned out that he was staying at another hotel called the Apex. There are four in Edinburgh, which rather undermines the concept of an apex. Anyway, due to this confusion, we were denied an in-car preamble in the cab, and had to hit the ground running.)

Oddly, he and I have only met once before, in 1999 we think, when he was working for a Radio 1 show about gadgets and games, and he interviewed me about a new-fangled craze called “email attachments” (my job was to “review” a selection of tiny films, see?) – quite how our paths have failed to cross since, I do not know. All things considered, we both felt like we knew each other better than we do, and it was bags of fun.

Thanks to Kirsten for these pics. Clips were played as you can see. It’s weird to be sitting with someone while their work is shown to an adoring audience. Before the end of the Festival, I would find myself sitting next to Steven Moffat while a whole episode of Doctor Who was played. (There are no pictures of this, as security was tighter at that session.)

No sooner had Charlie and I finished chatting about his life and works – during which he admitted to “hating” writing and that the engine which drives him to work so hard is guilt from ten years he spent doing very little and smoking dope after he’d left university without a degree – and taken questions from the audience as per convention, than we were ferried off in another cab – he to his hotel where his wife and baby awaited him; me to Edinburgh’s lovely Film House, whose threshold I have previously had cause to cross when I’ve been up for the Film Festival. It’s one of those cinemas that has a nice coffee bar and sells DVDs, but with a very nice, old-fashioned auditorium with a much bigger screen than most arthouses.

The Film House became my home, essentially, for the next two and a half days. My two producers, Fraser and Liz, plus PR Ian, and cinema liaison Evi, made this a very smooth experience. Technically, the mics were always in the right place, and working, and chairs and tables miraculous appeared after each screening, so all I had to do was mount the stage, greet the audience, tell them what they were about to see and who they were would see afterwards, watch the film, and then co-ordinate the Q&A, with furtive glances at either Fraser or Liz in the stalls to know when it was time to wrap up. Apparently, this time last year, many screenings were poorly attended. So this year, they got their act together, streamlined the programme of events and ensured that only screenings with “talent” attached would be included.

Because everything at the MGEITF takes place under one roof – that is, the roof of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre – and the screenings take place round the corner, a three-minute walk away, it was a case of constantly reminding delegates to pop over. Tickets went on sale to the public, and it was good to see a mix of both constituencies. It’s a big auditorium, so gaps were inevitable, but we had enough in each of the five events to make it worthwhile.

Screening one on Thursday was Friday Night Dinner, which returns soon for its second series on C4. I enjoy this show, and to say that series two is more of the same (I’ve seen the first two; the first was screened) is not faint praise. It’s supposed to be. I’d seen all the shows beforehand, on my laptop, but it was a different matter to see them on a big screen, and with an audience, especially when there was comedy to laugh at. They laughed at FND.

We had creator and writer Robert Popper, upon whose life it is based, plus stars Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal, son of Jim Rosenthal, although it was his mum who was in the audience. (They have raised him well; he is a very well-mannered young man.) I mentioned Grandma’s House in a question about Jewish humour, and I felt that even the mention of its name rubbed the otherwise cheery Mr Popper up the wrong way, and he refuted my suggestion that it is Jewish humour. I left it. (We’re both British Library hermits, and have previously bonded over this, although I wouldn’t say I know him.) Simon, who I’ve never met and who looks like he’s been in the gym, denied that there was a second Inbetweeners movie on the table, something missed by the international media.

With little time in which to relax and compose myself – which was a running theme – I turned my attention to the stars and execs of a new BBC3 comedy Some Girls, which they won’t want to be described as “the female Inbetweeners” and is written by Bernadette Davis, the woman behind Game On. Unfortunately Bernadette wasn’t on the panel, which is a shame as I always like to meet the writers.

However, she was overcompensated for by three execs: producer Gregor Sharp, controller for comedy commissioning Cheryl Taylor (recently promoted to controller of CBBC), and controller of BBC3 Zai Bennett. This was, they agreed, too many execs for one panel, and Cheryl opted out. We also had principal castmembers Mandeep Dhillon and Natasha Jones, who arrived with unnecessary efficiency approximate 90 minutes early, before the FND session, which they duly and enthusiastically attended, seeming more than happy just to be have been flown up to Edinburgh for the gig.

They are actually 21 and 19, not 16 like the characters they play, but Jonas has only previously been in Attack The Block, so refreshingly free from cynicism.

Some Girls is not aimed at me. And as a non-parent I admitted to its participants that I was shocked by the language and sexually frank material, but could see that I was supposed to be. It is a lively show, however, and I can see it working on BBC3. (The lineup was much more manageable with four, by the way, pretty much the optimum number. I once chaired a panel with the makers of Black Hawk Down for Bafta and I believe we had six, or even seven, and it was hard going keeping all of them in the mix.)

When I suggested to Zai that BBC3 was hitting a purple patch for comedy, with Him & Her, Pramface and Bad Education, and now Some Girls, it sounded like I was looking for work, but that’s a constant tightrope to walk when you’re there as a steward but are in fact a jobbing freelancer at the same time. (I’m not exactly an aggressive networker, but I did meet a nice man after one of the screenings who might, or might not, have offered me some work. I certainly gave him the name of my agent. I shall say no more, but if it does coalesce into a job, that will be one-nil to me.)

Friday started later, which was nice after Thursday’s relatively early start (I’d had to film Telly Addict at 10am and then rush back to the hotel), and I was looking forward to this one: just Victoria Wood, the TV equivalent of royalty, and on this occasion the writer and exec producer but not the star of another one-off film for BBC1: the excellent Loving Miss Hatto. When’s it on? Don’t ask. As with all of the shows we previewed – except Doctor Who – it does not yet have a “TX date” as we sexily say in TV. Victoria Wood would like it to be on at Christmas, but I guess the controller of BBC1 will be final arbiter.

Thanks to Jock’N’Roll for the two phone snaps. I’m glad to have even blurry evidence that I shared the stage with such a luminary. She wasn’t too impressed with the green room, which was an office upstairs at the cinema with some refreshments on a table and a toilet the staff warned me about, so we had our getting-to-know-you preamble downstairs in the cafe, which meant that sweet elderly people kept coming up to her, a fanbase she seems graciously happy to attract. (One couple had already asked me for my photo and autograph outside the Conference Centre because they avidly read the Radio Times, so that’s my entire crossover with Victoria Wood!)

You’d expect someone with decades of TV success behind her to be confident, but there is not a creative soul in the world who doesn’t need reminding that they are good at what they do, emotional fluffing, if you like. I was unable to stop myself telling Victoria Wood how good I think her writing is over a latte, so this was no hardship; whereas I love Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue because it’s beautifully crafted but sounds unlike the way people talk, I love Wood’s because it’s beautifully crafted but does sound like the way people talk. She has a way of leavening a sometimes heartbreaking scene with a throwaway remark that makes you smile, without it ruining the mood. That happens a lot in Hatto. I hope you can see it soon. It’s based on a 2007 article from the New Yorker, so you can see why it’s right up my alley.

Miss Hatto – on the surface a biopic of a little-known English concert pianist, Joyce Hatto, but much more than that – is partly set in the 1950s, and you sense that Wood really relishes capturing the way we spoke then. (Her previous single-film triumph, ITV’s Bafta-winning Housewife, 49, was set in the 30s and 40s, and again, was written with a deep love for old-fashioned Lancashire speech patterns: “We’re all a bit funny with these hostilities.”)

May I call her Victoria? Victoria was on the back foot a little, as some aspects of Hatto’s amazing life story are not a matter of public record, so a certain amount of dramatic licence has been necessarily but sympathetically taken. She made plain that she has “imagined” a drama out of real events – and the names have not been changed – but because Hatto’s husband, Barry, is still alive, this makes such liberties tricky. I admire what she’s done, but a couple of the questions from the audience about this blurred line between fact and imagination felt almost accusatory, and a certain prickliness was the result. All round, a happy occasion. I would have loved talking to her about her entire career, but there wasn’t time.

Again, with zero breathing space, I then switched gear to expensive HBO/BBC/Cinemax espionage action, for Hunted, whose pilot episode – due, possibly, to air on BBC1 in September, certainly trailed during the Olympics (“coming soon”) – is a cracker, suggesting a worthy replacement for Spooks, whose production company, Kudos, it shares. So I welcomed the “power trio” of creator/writer/showrunner Frank Spotnitz (big cheese from The X-Files), British producer Alison Jackson, and British director SJ Clarkson, none of whom seemed very impressed with my interest in the hoary old contest between US and UK drama (“Which is best?”), so I played that right down. You must adapt to survive in the stewardship game! Instead, I played up the co-production angle, and the Q&A became a celebration of hands-across-the-ocean cross-pollination. Phew.

Spotnitz was softly spoken and of few words, which is surprising for someone who writes, but he may have been jetlagged; however, in constantly and flatteringly deferring to Clarkson (a brilliant director whose CV straddles the Atlantic, taking in Doctors, Life On Mars, Dexter and House), he did us a favour, as her insights were really interesting. I asked her the difference between directing here and in the US, and she said, “Money.”

Thanks to Roland for the above pre-show pic.

Saturday was always going to provide a suitable climax to the festival, with just the one session: Steven Moffat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it sold out within ten minutes of the tickets going on sale to the public. (One of those tickets was bought by Michael Legge.)

My only ever contact with Moffat was at this year’s Radio Times party, where I accosted him, tipsily, and told him how much I loved Sherlock, which I did. I’m sure he’s forgotten this, so it was nice to meet him again on a more even keel. (He had no problem with the green room.) As we broke the ice upstairs, and I tested out a couple of questions on him – this is a real luxury and helps your pre-match confidence – the auditorium downstairs filled with Whovians, some reportedly dressed in Tweed.

Having been granted special access to a top-level-clearance stream of Asylum of The Daleks – first episode of the seventh series of Doctor Who, Matt Smith’s and Moffat’s blockbuster third – I knew the fans were in for a treat, although in my intro I had to impress upon them the importance of not Tweeting about a certain element of the story before it airs on September 1, next Saturday. I made them promise. Steven reiterated this when he joined me.

I try not to fritter away the privilege of this job. Sitting next to Steven Moffat and watching Doctor Who and the Daleks on a cinema screen, while Who fans gasped and giggled in all the right places, gave me a proper thrill. It was illuminating to see how much joy this show brings to a certain constituency. Should I ever get blase about these moments, exterminate me. It was also thrilling to have a full house to finish off with. I handed over to the audience much sooner than is traditional, as I knew they’d have more pressing questions than mine. And they did. One tiny girl of about five had her hand up, and, with prompting from Mum, asked, “Do the Cybermen go rusty in the rain?” and it brought the house down. A magic moment. It threw Moffat, as he recalled writing an episode with a rusty one in.

It wasn’t all work, work, work, of course. (Mind you, nor was the work.) I ate at the pizza restaurant Mat Ricardo introduced me to in 2010, Mamma’s, on my own, which was pretty cool of me. I managed three comedy shows at the Fringe – Josie Long’s inspiring Romance And Adventure, Richard Herring’s filthy Talking Cock: The Second Coming, and Pappy’s career-best Last Show Ever! (two Foster’s Comedy Award nominees in there, although neither won) – and enjoyed pints in plastic glasses with pals Tony and Helen, and Tara and Carl, and Richard and Catie, and Michael, and Matt, in familiar drinking spots like the Pleasance Courtyard, the Pleasance Dome, Brooke’s and the Loft Bar, and an unfamiliar one, the Abattoir. (Bumped into old pal Alan Francis, too – he was on me and Stuart’s first ever radio show, Fantastic Voyage, in 1993.)

I also attended – get me – the annual Guardian dinner, at the invitation of editor Alan Rusbridger, where media movers and shakers and, it seems, me, sit around a banqueting table, eat, drink and, after the tapping of a wine glass, enjoy a heated debate, this year about YouTube versus traditional telly (the boss of YouTube was there). It was brilliant; bracing and entertaining, and a bit surreal for me; other guests included Michael Apted, Mark Lawson, ITV1 controller Peter Fincham, along with various big Guardian cheeses and media moguls. I have never met the ed before, as the Guardian is a huge place, and I work quite near to the tradesmen’s entrance, and I really must admit to being surprised at the invite. I hope this bodes well for Telly Addict.

A mad three days, marked by complementary coffee, the Full Scottish breakfast at my particular Apex, and a small, black rucksack full of Fringe flyers. Back to reality. Edinburgh remains, for me, my Second City. Within moments of pulling in to Waverly Station, I feel oddly at home there. I realise I’ve only ever been up at festival time, and that necessarily transforms it, but I love the stone and the buildings and the incline and the weather and the layout as much as I love thronging the streets at an unholy hour with hundreds of other visitors in kagoules, many of them with lanyards around their necks as if to prove that they are just passing through.

I like the television industry, too. But I value my outsider status. Don’t want to get to “in.” That way lies complacency, or worse, security. Although I’m quite getting into the TV industry uniform of jacket, shirt, jeans and sailing pumps.


1 thought on “High visibility

  1. It took a couple of reads but I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘boned’ was a typing error. People do bone up in the library though.

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