Burn notice

It is possible to become jaded when you have been in variations on the journalism caper for as long as I have (I conducted my first interview for the NME, with Rough Trade-signed indie poppers the Heartthrobs, in 1988, which means I have, without any formal training, been a chancer with a tape recorder or latterly a radio studio, for 23 years). However, today, on 6 Music, I meet Bill Drummond, and I am properly excited and nervous. He is coming in under the nominal guise of the promotion of his latest venture, the paperback version of $20,000 (previously published as How To Be An Artist in fancy clothbound hardback in art bookshops), the gripping and self-deprecating/aggrandising tale of his 2000-2003 project in which he attempted to sell a framed photographic print by Richard Long for $20,000 and then decided to cut it up into 20,000 pieces and sell those individually instead. He originally limited his promo rounds to 100 questions, allotting just four per publication/outlet. These 100 questions and answers are gripping in themselves, thanks to the wit and honesty of Drummond’s answers, and are available to read here. Because the 100 questions are used up, I am allowed to ask him anything. In just three chunks over half an hour – the curse/blessing of music radio – I will struggle to ask him everything I have always wanted to ask him, but it will be fun trying. Tune in from 3pm today. And I’ll extend this blog entry with an account of the adventure later on. Your thoughts on the life and works of Mr Drummond are invited.

It was an entertaining interview, covering the father-son bonding power of AC/DC, that $20,000, the 100 questions, the Brits ’92, the Wild Swans, Select, the elements, and how he’s kind of forgotten what he wrote in his book. You can hear it at about 1.08 on iPlayer, – until next Tuesday – and here’s a nice photo. Yes, he is tall.

A big boy now

Billy pass

So, it’s ten years since my biography of Billy Bragg was publlished. I know this because the reason Billy agreed to help me write and research it, thus making Still Suitable For Miners official and authorised, was because, in 1997, he was fast approaching his 40th birthday. This seemed, to him, like a good time to take stock and put his life in order (he was also selling the flat where he kept his archive and putting it all in storage). I’d just left my day job, and was finally in a position, after ten years in offices, to knuckle down and write a book. It all fell into place (and I remain grateful that Billy responded to my well-timed overtures and decided that I was the man for the job, having interviewed him a number of times for the NME and Q). Billy and I spent six months in 1997 travelling around his past and present, from Barking to Oundle to Dublin, and meticulously going through his effects and diaries. He gave generously of his time, as did his partner Juliet, and we came up with what we felt was a definitive book, one that he’d be happy to give to his son Jack when he ready to read it, five years old at the time of publication. Although Billy had no stake in its royalties, he helped promote it, and sold copies of it through his merchandising stall on tour. In all, Still Suitable For Miners was a happy and prosperous experience, and author and subject became friends. Since then, the book’s been republished with a new chapter twice, and thanks to ongoing interest in Billy, it could be the gift that goes on giving. Ten years on, and Billy is about to turn 50. On December 20th.

On Sunday, Juliet had persuaded him to mark this milestone by appearing “in conversation” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. It was a terrific occasion, with Billy actually playing some of the key vinyl records of his early life on an actual record player (Dylan, Clash, Linda Ronstadt, the Watersons, Thin Lizzy), interspersed with warm chat and a few songs on either acoustic or electric guitar, including a couple of new ones from his forthcoming album Mr Love & Justice, a few very familiar (Levi Stubbs’ Tears, New England, There Is Power In A Union) and a real rarity, Riff Raff’s Here Comes The Now, which I’ve certainly never heard him play live before. The hall was full of fans who’d probaby heard most of Billy’s stories before, but it didn’t stop the evening being personal and amusing and profound in its own way, as this man we’d been listening to for 25 years sat in an armchair, grey of hair and reminisced about half a century. What stopped it being mawkish was Billy himself. After the final song, he thanked everybody who continued to support him, and claimed, with lump in throat, that he only keeps going because of the inspiration he gets from his fans.

In order to force Billy to celebrate his own birthday, the inner circle of associates and family were armed with a laminate (see: above) that got us into the party afterwards. This was, in itself, a rare occasion, in a bar buried underneath the Royal Festival Hall. A chance to see old friends, many of them from the 80s. There were two NME editors in the room: Neil Spencer, now a registered astrologer of course, and Conor McNicholas, who was unsurprisingly tired of talking about Morrissey, but in good spirits otherwise. It was great to see Karen Walter, too, who has been the NME‘s “editor’s secretary” (ie. she runs the office) since Danny Baker still worked there and never ages. She remembered Neil Spencer personally sending her home with a copy of Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy by some bloke called Billy Bragg, telling her it was a life-changing record. It was, and for so many people in that bar on Sunday. Peter Jenner, Tiny Fennimore, Dylan Walsh (Billy’s plugger for years, and like so many of those Billy has worked with, a friend of the family now), photographer Steve Double (with whom I did Billy in Amsterdam for the NME in 1992), Jerry Dammers (who told me a tale of bad behaviour by Morrissey at an Artists Against Apartheid gig the Smith played in the mid-80s), Carl Smyth, Ken Livingstone (gig but not party), Riff Raff alumni Wiggy and Ricey, my old colleague Phill Jupitus, who DJed alongside a man I assumed to be a bloke who looked like Paul Weller but who turned out to be … Paul Weller. What a treat. There was even a cake in the shape of Billy’s old Orange amp. It was lovely to see Billy’s mum, Marie, too. I’m not sure she remembered me coming round her house in Barking ten years ago to go through a box of Billy’s childhood memorabilia in her front room, but I remembered her. She’s the only person on earth who still calls him Stephen.

Happy birthday for the 20th, Stephen William Bragg of Barking, Essex.

It’s not a bedsit, it’s a flat

spaced1

Let us then belatedly mark the nicest job the BFI have ever asked me to do: the Spaced event on Saturday. A marathon, tied in to Channel 4’s 25th birthday, at which hundreds of Spaced fans gathered and watched the whole of series one and two on the big screen in NFT1, introduced by the cast and director Edgar Wright (albeit sadly lacking Jessica Hynes, who sent a filmed message), and with an hour-and-40-minute Q&A, hosted by myself. I’ve interviewed assorted filmmakers on this very stage down the years (Michael Moore, Terry Gilliam, Christopher Guest), not to mention hosted three TCM Classic Shorts awards, but this was a true labour of love. (Simon Pegg actually asked me by text about a month ago, and I texted back yes without even asking when it was.)

It was a lovely way to spend a few hours, not least because of the audience, which comprised the most devoted fans (one guy had flown to London from Seattle specifically to attend), who were warm and appreciative, and didn’t need anything explaining to them, obviously. I’ve met Simon a few times this year, and we’ve become email pals (partly because we discovered we have a Northampton connection), and I met Nick Frost briefly, but this was the first time I’ve been in the presence of all of them, in a big row. Edgar and Simon came on first, then I introduced the others, to a massive round of applause each: Nick, Mark Heap, Katy Carmichael (Twist for the uninitiated) (actually, if you’re uninitiated, you won’t know who Twist is), and Julia Deakins, who wins the prize for being least like her character. Although both Katy and Mark insisted in the green room that they didn’t want to speak, I made sure everybody got a question, and it turned into a free-for-all come the end. We could have talked all night, but they still had series two to screen. You can watch amateur highlights, thanks to YouTube (scroll down), although if you’re not a fan of Spaced or shaky camerawork from Row H, I wouldn’t recommend it. Here are some grabs, for posterity. (Oh, and by the way, I also met Colin the dog, aka Ada. Which will mean nothing etc. etc.) If anything like professional photos come my way, I’ll post them here.

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Edgar, me and Simon (I wore a jacket to give myself an air of authority, which worked)

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Edgar in full anecdotal flight

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Simon and me attentively listening to Edgar

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Me looking adoringly at Simon

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Edgar, me, Simon, Nick, Katy (Nick may have just mentioned bukaki)

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We had joy, we had fun


Part 1 (which includes the intro and part of the Q&A)


Part 2 (all Q&A)

These rather more official photos appeared on Edgar’s MySpace blog (so I’m kind of assuming he won’t mind me showing them here):

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Scary

TCM Winner A Bout de Truffe

So there I was, last night, standing on stage at NFT1 at the BFI South Bank, standing behind the podium wearing a cheap Halloween mask. For a laugh. (Albeit, I’m afraid, a rather muted one.) Yes, it was my third stint as host of TCM Classic Shorts, the now eight-year-old short film award, open this year, for the first time, to entrants from the rest of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Another bumper year: 381 entries, 141 of which were from outside the UK (foreigners coming over here, stealing our prestigious film awards etc.), and two of which made the final shortlist of six. The award is open to anyone with a camera, but once again, the quality was incredibly high, and the six finalists are all fantastic. You can watch them on TCM this weekend (Nov 3-4, details here), but it was great to see them on a big screen, as ever.

Here’s my blog entry on last year’s event, with pics. I am only in possession of the one above, currently, which is (l-r) me, Tom Tagholm, director and writer of winning film A Bout de Truffe (a very sweet and sad parody of a French film about a man and his truffle-snuffling pig), his editor, award presenter and British film production legend Nik Powell (who is already thinking in this pic, “Can I make the second half of the Arsenal match?”), and, in front, French actor Stephan Cornicard, who plays the man. As soon as I get my hands on more pics, I’ll post them. What you’re not seeing in this one is me in my cheap Halloween mask, which was my opening “gag”, and not spectacularly successful. But it was Halloween! The rest of my opening speech was a little more successful – having mused in previous years on the fact that everything is getting bigger, and how small things are best, I went for it this year and delivered a Short History Of Cinema in five minutes. I was very pleased with this as a piece of writing, but I had no idea how well it would go down as a speech. Luckily, the crowd were very kind, and even, on my instruction, cheered every time I mentioned George Clooney, which I did often. At one point, some people cheered in advance of a mention of George Clooney, which I really loved. They really are a nice crowd. Among them, this year, were Kris Marshall, star of one of the shortlisted films, The Amazing Trousers (and, coincidentally, the first ever winner of TCM Classic Shorts in 2000, Je T’Aime John Wayne), Paul McGann, star of the second prizewinner, Always Crashing In The Same Car, opposite – history being made alert! – Richard E Grant, and Zoe Ball and Norman Cook, as Zoe was the producer of the aforementioned film. (It was nice to see the south coast’s favourite couple afterwards – Norman expressed sympathy for the fact that my mask joke had fallen flat. I knew it had, which is why, when I returned to the stage after we’d watched all six films, I wore a second cheap Halloween mask, and thus rescued my joke through sheer commitment. What a pro.) I was really pleased to meet Paul Andrew Williams, writer and director of the best debut of last year, London To Brighton. He was one of the TCM judges this year and had expressed trepidation about presenting the second prize because he’s a bit shy, but I talked him into it, and it was good to have him up there. (Filmmakers love other filmmakers, especially ones who’ve enjoyed the whirlwind success of Paul Andrew Williams, who’s now in post on his second film, The Cottage, and has just had a baby, four weeks ago, so is permanently knackered. He made it to the after-show party, at some lurid club in Kingly Street, where I imagine the DJ was a little self-conscious about having Fat Boy Slim in the same room. A few nibbles, a nice chat to the BFI’s Dick Fiddy about The Sopranos and barge holidays, and to a nice lady from TCM Germany who was very excited that I had mentioned Berlin Alexanderplatz twice in my speech, and I was out of there before the goody bags had even been lined up. Last year’s contained some nail varnish that stunk out the taxi.

Here is the actual envelope Nik Powell opened.

TCM envelope

A good night. Have a look at the short films. They’re very good. I think my favourite is the German entry Cocoon, probably because I’m in a German cinema frame of mind currently, but there’s not a duff one among the six. The ceremony wasn’t being televised this year, so I said “fuck” quite a lot, but I think it was appropriate. And I never called Jonathan Ross’s wife a pig.