Permission to be unfunny

The sun is shining in the sky. There doesn’t appear to be a cloud in sight. (Not that we’d notice, locked in a recording studio.) It’s happening. At last. It took 14 years for me to get here, but on Monday, I arrived at the West London offices of production company Avalon for the first rehearsal of my first ever solo sitcom, commissioned by Radio 4 in September. We are now at the end of the week, with all four episodes pretty much in the can and with an air date of Monday May 16, so I think it’s OK to name it and talk about it, without superstitious fear of disaster. (I have been holding back, calling it “my sitcom” and “the Radio 4 sitcom”, for fear of jinxing its delicate progress to fruition, and besides, it’s impolitic to reveal the cast until the actors’ contracts are dry, as the possibility of last-minute drop-out is very real – as I have learned – and that kind of thing does not send out good vibes. You’ll have to forgive my caginess. I still can’t quite believe this is happening, even though the hard part has now happened.)

The sitcom is named Mr Blue Sky, although the very name “sitcom” sends out misleading messages, as it’s not the type recorded in front of a studio audience. Rather, it has been recorded in a studio, as a drama with funny bits in. A risky strategy but after five years of working on Not Going Out, this is what I have been yearning to do. Without going into the plot too much, it’s about Harvey Easter, a 46-year old optimist living in North Surrey whose life throws at him many reasons to be miserable or pessimistic, but whose pathological ability to see the bright side pulls him through while all around is falling apart. Yes, there is a bit of me in Harvey, and always has been. Having stated that it is essentially a comedy drama, we must consult the Radio 4 Comedy Guidelines, which remind us that recording without a studio audience does not give me “permission to be unfunny.” It does, however, give me certain liberties, and allows me to step outside of the tyranny of punchlines.

I would say this, and I know that every writer says it about every cast, but we have an amazing cast. I’ve been involved, at a remove, with casting before, on Grass and Not Going Out, but I’ve never been consulted on every actor as I have been with Mr Blue Sky, so this one matters. When you consider the vagaries and variables of assembling a cast with eight principals and one supporting player, each one subject to taste and preference and to availability and contracts, to achieve one with no apparent weak links is a wonder indeed. The mighty Mark Benton, alumnus of too much to mention but let’s throw in Mike Leigh’s Career Girls, Catterick, The Street and Early Doors, plays Harvey Easter; comedy goddess Rebecca Front his wife Jax; the estimable and also The Thick Of It-linked Justin Edwards his best mate Ray the oncologist; Antonia Campbell-Hughes from Lead Balloon and When Harvey Met Bob the Easters’ daughter Charlie; Joe Tracini (The Great Outdoors, best thing in Coming Of Age) as son Robbie; Javone Prince (PhoneShop) as boyfriend Kill-R; up-and-coming actor a certain Michael Legge as Harvey’s assistant Sean; Navin Chowdhry (Teachers) as Rakesh the builder; and last but never least, Simon Day in two cameo parts, because it would have seemed all wrong not to have him.

Casting is fraught – as the jigsaw is assembled, you dare not get your hopes up about anybody, and we had to move the recording back a week, so that threw a further cat among the pigeons – but on Monday, with those amazing people sat around the conference table at Avalon, scripts in front of them, it all started to feel real. The first read was fun. I was more nervous beforehand than I have ever been before actually performing. This is my script. If it’s no good, I have nowhere to hide. I have worked very closely on it with my producer and script editor, Anna, and she’s been brutal at times, but you need that. I’ve had this story in my head for a long time, and though it’s been through many changes, Mr Blue Sky is still basically the same as when I first conceived it in … wait for it … 1997, when Mal Young, then series-producing Family Affairs for Channel Five, my first ever scriptwriting job, encouraged me to come up with something of my own. So I did. Harvey was a greetings card salesman at that stage, and he had three kids. Now he’s an assistant manager in a piano shop and he has two kids. But if his optimism once chimed with a broader optimism at the cusp of the Blair era, it’s become more and more misplaced as this country’s politics have decayed and corrupted. I like Harvey even more now than I did then. The bright side is harder to come by in 2011, so he’s even more out of step.

Because Mr Blue Sky hasn’t been recorded in front of an audience, we have been physically able to record it out of sequence, which is useful if certain actors are not required the whole way through, but that said, the plan was always to record it as close to chronologically as we could, starting with Ep1 on Tuesday, and finishing with Ep4 today. (As it’s turned out, we quickly got ahead of schedule, and were able to nip ahead to get scenes in the can early, allowing some castmembers to have the occasional early finish or late start – except Mark and Rebecca, who are in most of the scenes. Acting, like rock’n’roll, is a lot of waiting around.)

Because it’s a comedy, as a writer, you’re hoping for smiles at least, and laughs at the most, and we had enough of those at the first read to reassure me that I’ve not been writing a drama for the last five months. (Navin, in particular, found comedy where I wasn’t even aware that I’d written it! And Joe was such a bundle of energy – he’s actually 22, but plays 16 brilliantly – he kept the room lit up.) By the time we all rocked up at the recording studio in an industrial estate in Shepherd’s Bush on Tuesday morning (our nearest neighbour is the Innocent smoothie factory!), we’d broken the ice and felt confident about the task ahead.

That was Day 1. We had four days to get it in the can. There is a certain amount of boredom built in, at least for the actors, and they spend a lot of their days in the green room, but the studio complex is bijou and comfortable, with plentiful coffee, tea and biscuits, and most actors either know the other actors, or have a director, producer or other actor in common from previous jobs, and quickly find common ground for anecdotes and scurrilous gossip. I’d love to sit with them all day and hear their tales, but I am required in the control room, with Anna, co-director and co-producer John, runner/foley artist Calum, and studio director Wilfredo, a man whose laconic, dry sense of humour takes some getting used to, but what a hero he is, re-flooring the studio for different effects and blocking the actors so that they sound like they are coming down the stairs and entering the kitchen when that is precisely what the script requires.

I love the technicality of all this: the pick-ups and the retakes; the microphone effects; the actual rustling of a duvet to create the mood of two characters being in bed together; the startling variety of sound effects available digitally at the click of Wilfredo’s mouse; the soothing diplomacy over the talkback when actors are invited to try it a different way (“That was perfect, but …”); the dramatic shorthand created by simple proximity of actor to mics; the exaggerated noise of a door handle to suggest a door handle; the way you can hear every conversation the actors have in the studio between takes which is not exactly eavesdropping as they know you can hear them, but an insight nonetheless into their trade as they swap observations about which Sondheim musicals they’ve done. It is, needless to say, exhausting. With an hour off for lunch, you’re at it all day, and although – to pre-empt – it’s not as hard as being a miner, it’s amazing how tiring and emotionally draining it is. That’s not a complaint. I’ve been sleeping like a baby all week. Oh, and waking up at 5.30am and unable to get back to sleep as Mr Blue Sky bangs round in my head.

We had fun on Wednesday, which was Simon Day’s one day with us, as both of his scenes the intrepid Wilfredo decided to record outside, so that they sounded authentic. I won’t spoil the scenes by telling you what characters Simon was playing, or explaining why he and Antonia are standing by the bins in these photos (you can also see Joe – glasses – in the bottom pic), but it was a rare excursion outside of the stifling, windowless intensity of the studio and control room, and welcome for that. Yesterday, Thursday, Day 3, I noticed a certain hysteria setting in with the cast – more foul-mouthed swearing when mistakes were made, more silly voices, more uncontrollable laughter – this is understandable and expected. Cabin fever.

Certain traits and oddities and bits of trivia have arisen from our time together: Javone has given up alcohol and carbs until Lent; Joe can’t eat biscuits as they make him gag (he ate his first in ten years at the read-through and regretted it); Michael rubs his hands together before a scene; Mark wants to present a heavy metal show on 6 Music; Navin has a very good recipe for flapjacks; Antonia sounds American in real life but is from Northern Ireland; Wilfredo is so professional and dedicated he opts for a decaff tea; John wears a coat indoors; and pretty much every member of our multi-tasking cast is writing something currently or involved in pitching an idea to BBC3. Navin finished all of his scenes yesterday, and we bid our fond farewells to this nice man. The rest of the main cast soldier on until the end of today.

I guess I shouldn’t write too much. I’m going to do a diary of the production for Radio Times. Needless to say, it’s been one of the most intense and rewarding weeks of my stupid career. Whether the finished result will be worth all the heartache is up to you when you hear it in two months’ time. (Anna and John will take charge of the edit over the next couple of weeks. I will probably stay away. It could drive me mad.) Oh, and none other than Jim Bob has recorded ELO’s Mr Blue Sky as our theme song, which will play out under the closing credits. Maybe he will be able to make it available in full as a download? Either way, it’s another thrill to have his name attached to “my Radio 4 sitcom.” The siege mentality that defines these things got us all through it without any tantrums or friction.

Oh, and a big shout-out to Freddy, Julie and Annabel who run the studio, and brought us tremendous cake every day just when we needed a burst of sugar in the afternoon.

It’s stopped raining. Everybody’s in the play. And don’t you know, it’s a beautiful new day.

Meanwhile, here is a lovely, post-wrap group shot, taken using Wilfredo’s iPhone. A left to right would seem to be in order:

From left: Wilfredo, Calum, Joe Tracini, Michael Legge, Andrew Collins, Mark Benton, Justin Edwards, Rebecca Front, Javone Prince, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Anna Madley, John Pocock

It’s the arts

Having scoured all the radio listings for the week ahead in the Saturday and Sunday papers, it seems clear that on Tuesday, a number of other programmes are being highlighted and chosen as picks of the day. But I would like to mention this one: 3D In Perspective, a half-hour documentary that’s on Radio 4 on Tuesday at 11.30am and thereafter, more conveniently, on the iPlayer.

I don’t get to make that make radio documentaries, but when I do, it always makes me wish I did more. In fact, a nice man at the FX Quiz on Wednesday approached me afterward to praise The G Word, the documentary I fronted for Radio 2, two years ago, about Goth. It was lovely to meet someone who’d heard it. I am careful not to absorb too much of the credit for these things: I may be the narrator, effectively, but all the work is going on beneath the surface. In the case of The G Word, it was a BBC producer called Helen.

In the case of 3D In Perspective, it was an independent producer called Tamsin. Sometimes, as with a documentary I presented for Radio 2 about Jaws, and one I presented for Radio 2 about tribute bands, you tweak and edit the script to suit your own style and sit in a booth and read it out. But I was a lot more heavily involved with the creation and making of this one, and this makes it all the more gratifying that I think it’s come out so well. Tamsin had the impossible task of honing hours of material down to 30 minutes, and having heard the result, I think she’s done an amazing job. All I can say is: I was fascinated by the subject, and by the insight of our many learned contributors

This is the official blurb for the programme:

Bringing together the science of 3D television with a wide-ranging history of art and entertainment, Andrew Collins examines our centuries-old fascination with representing the world that exists in three visual dimensions. In modern 3D entertainment, today’s technologists are fighting the same battles with geometry, depth of field, light and texture as 15th Century painters. Award-winning visual effects supervisor, Paddy Eason discusses the debt that 3D imaging owes to its painterly predecessors.

At The National Gallery, art historian Professor David Ekserdjian explains how, from the changing shape of a canvas to the arrival of oil paint, the architects and artists of the Renaissance, challenged our notions of reality. Andrew enters a world of optical illusion, trawling piles of perspective pictures and stereo photographs at The Bill Douglas Centre for The History of Cinema and Popular Culture. Lecturer in Victorian Studies, John Plunkett explains, the appeal of 18th and 19th century optical or ‘philosophical’ toys, made possible by good lenses and mirrors. Often dismissed as novelty, they emerged from groundbreaking research on the physiology of vision.

The history of 3D is littered with failed technologies, including 3D films that predate cinema sound. Professor Neil Dodgson from The Computer Laboratory in Cambridge is a 3D expert. He outlines the obstacles, in particular the poorly paid projectionist and ultimately the limitations of human vision. Neuroscientist Dr Sue Barry, understands the visceral appeal of 3D. Aged fifty, she experienced her first thrilling sense of 3D immersion after years of being ‘stereoblind’ and suggests why we are so preoccupied with experiencing virtual 3D space.

It is, as they’ll say at the end, a Testbed production for BBC Radio 4. If you seek it out, I hope you like it.

Too much perspective

On Thursday evening, I found myself in the National Gallery, in London, after the National Gallery had closed at 6pm. Not only was I being led through the bowels of the gallery, and through doors that could only be opened with an electronic dongle-style pass, I was there to be given a private, one-on-one, guided tour of some the most significant works in the Sainsbury Wing’s Renaissance collection by my own academic – Professor David Ekserdjian, Professor of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester (and also a Trustee of the National Gallery) – accompanied at all times by our own security guard. This is not how I normally spend a Thursday evening. But I am in the midst of making a documentary for Radio 4, and when you are doing that, you find yourself in unusual places at unusual times doing unusual things. (Actually, a lot of the time when making Radio 4 documentaries you find youself in tiny studios, but it’s nice to get out.)

The documentary, which I won’t go into too much detail about for fear of undermining its impact when it’s broadcast in December, is about 3D. But not just about modern 3D – Avatar, Sky Sports etc. – it goes back to the very roots of man’s obsession with creating the illusion of 3D. And guess what, a good place to start is the Renaissance, where artists and architects like Lorenzo Monaco, Piero della Francesca and Filippo Brunelleschi were changing the face of art by introducing perspective to what were still essentially religious works that came with their own rules. The Coronation Of The Virgin, a 1414 altarpiece which Professor Ekserdjian talked me though on our private view, is a clear early example of a sort of primitive attempt at “realism” (check out the sloping floor tiles) after centuries of “flat” depictions. You can view the picture on the National Gallery website, which I know they’re very proud of. Anyway,  it was a privilege to be talked through such beautiful and important pieces by a man who knows more about the subject than anyone I’ve ever met, and the posh fun wasn’t over yet.

Yesterday, I found myself on the train to Exeter, there to visit the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, housed at the University of Exter. It is also open to the public, and full of lovely artifacts relating to the earliest days of what became cinema, but, thanks to the magic of Doing A Radio 4 Documentary, we were allowed to go backstage, where a treasure trove of Victoriana – optical toys, mainly – was laid out on a table for us to play with, while Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Exeter, Dr John Plunkett, guided us through them. Once again, a privilege. I got to play with an actual Victorian stereoscope circa 1850! It really was amazing, and one of the earliest forms of what we know today as 3D – the illusion of 3D, naturally, but so is Avatar, of course.

After spending much of this year talking bollocks with Richard, or being locked away behind my laptop trying to form sentences, or failing auditions for TV, it’s so bracing to be out and about, doing things I might not ordinarily get to do for people who might appreciate them, and above all, to be talking intelligently to intelligent people who know loads more than me about the subjects they know the most about. There’s less money in making radio programmes than there is in playing at telly, but it’s all so immediate and intimate, and I love trying to describe what in this case is a totally visual subject for the radio. (By the way, I realise Richard Herring is a super intelligent man, but we don’t get to be intelligent together in public, we only get to be idiots, which is fun in its own way, and we’ll be doing it in Bristol on Wednesday, which I am looking forward to immeasurably.)

Anyway, visit the National Gallery duing its opening hours; it’s free. And if you’re in Exeter, drop in at the Bill Douglas Centre – which is indeed named after the great British filmmaker, upon whose own collection it was founded. It’s also free. We should make the most of such places. The Tories may be cutting Arts funding with their big, indiscriminate axe, but museums and galleries can avoid the bigger cuts by remaining free. Do not let these places go. Use them.

And I’ll keep you posted on when this documentary goes out.

Buried treasure

I wasn’t even looking for it, but I found the interview I did with Woody Allen in 2001, broadcast on Radio 4’s Back Row in 2002, languishing on a cached page within the labyrinthine BBC website for a programme no longer on air. It’s not the very best sound quality, but you can listen to it via RealPlayer here by clicking on Listen to the interview.

It was my last edition of Back Row as presenter, as I had just been commissioned to write eight episodes of Grass with Simon Day for BBC2 and couldn’t possibly fit that in with my new teatime job at 6 Music, so Back Row had to go. This was a sad decision for me. I loved my two and a half years at the helm of the weekly film show, and during that time had interviewed many, many fascinating and famous people, from Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Kevin Costner to old timers Ernest Borgnine, Robert Altman and Ronald Neame. But Woody had been my hero since I was 18 and it was a great honour to spend 40 minutes of quality time in his company, covering not just the film he was here to promote, The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, but his whole career and worldview.

The irony was, at the time of broadcast, Jade Scorpion had still not found a UK distributor, but we ran the interview anyway. Anyway, have a listen, if you’re interested. What you need to know is that at the beginning of the interview – we were side by side on a sofa at the Dorchester Hotel – Woody’s body language was such that he clearly didn’t trust me: he was turned away from me and was looking at the carpet. As my questions progressed and he realised a) I knew his work, and b) wasn’t about to ask him about his knotty private life, he gradually turned round to face me, and by the end of it, we had eye contact and he genuinely seemed relaxed, and was having fun. (We had lapel mics, so his answers were audible from the start.)

My successor on Back Row – which has since been rebranded The Film Programme – was, of course, Mr Joe Cornish.

Downtime

I’m getting a bit tired of the little spurts of abuse I’m currently attracting, so I’m giving myself a few days off the blog. I’m on the radio all week anyway (10pm-1am, 6 Music, Mon-Fri; Rockumentary Rollercoaster one-off documentary, Radio 4, Tuesday Nov 13, 11.30am and on Listen Again thereafter for seven days), so feel free to get in touch. It’s amazing how quickly the fun goes out of all this when you are constantly niggled. When I’m feeling a bit less fragile, I’ll be back with more drivel. Your patience is appreciated.

Bah bah bah ba-baaah ba-ba-da-ba-baaahh!

Ang1Ang2Ang3

Welcome to my world. Yesterday afternoon, I went up to Broadcasting House to record a column (ie. authored piece that you read out) for the estimable Front Row on Radio 4. It compared the opening night of Channel 4 with the schedule of this week, in a light-hearted way. (They don’t usually ask me on for a non-light-hearted view – they have plenty of others for that type of thing.) It was fun to do, as it began with me musing on the fact that TV channels no longer have fanfares, as they all did when I was growing up. I was going to ask producer Laura to drop in clips of the fanfares for Thames, LWT, Anglia and early C4, which are all reassuringly available on YouTube, but we decided it would be more amusing if I sang them, as you might in a pub during a conversation about theme tunes. So I did. With the column recorded, I came home. Then, about an hour and a half later, I had a concerned call from Laura, who was mid-edit: it turns out I had erroneously sung the Thames theme for Anglia. Hey, you try remembering channel idents on the spot, in a BBC studio. They get mixed up. So, I travelled all the way back into Central London just to sing the Anglia TV ident. We found a studio, we set up, I put on my headphones, sang, “Bah bah bah ba-baaah ba-ba-da-ba-baaahh!” and then came home again. What professionalism, you’re thinking.

Anyway, it was worth it, I think, to lower the tone of Radio 4 for a few minutes on a Thursday evening. You can, if you wish, listen to the column (it’s the last item on the show, as my items always are!) and to Kirsty Lang back-announcing it with a jaunty laugh in her voice, possibly put on, possibly not. I don’t care! Look for Thursday night’s Front Row here.

(Of course, C4 dropped its fanfare in 1996 and went all esoteric. Nowadays you get an ambient “bed” over which the announcer can rabbit on, and the logo is constructed, mid-air, out of haystacks or bits of council estate.)

C4

And if anybody needs to see or hear the old Anglia fanfare, here it is: