Nice

Bruce Forsyth: an appreciation written for, but not used by, the Guardian

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The melodramatic phrase, “We may never see his like again,” is overused. But in this case, we have a pressing question on our hands: who will ever fill the shoes of Bruce Forsyth?

Always light on his dancer’s feet, he was the very definition of the beloved entertainer. An all-rounder, a song-and-dance man, a music-hall act (the Mighty Atom) at 14, a concert party natural during the war and a dogged veteran of summer season, club bill and panto until the London Palladium beckoned, and thereafter a household name who was barely off our TV screens for six decades. He could sing, he could tap, he could tell jokes, he could almost act (people forget that he took over Leonard Rossiter’s starring role in Thames TV’s supermarket-set sitcom Tripper’s Day in 1986, the Trollied of its time), but much more than this, he could host.

When, in 2012, “Brucie” entered the Guinness Book of Records for having the longest career of any male TV entertainer – with, at the time, only former Golden Girl Betty White to beat to the all-gender title – we were reminded that his first appearance on the box was in 1939 at London’s Radiolympia exhibition when he was 11 years old, doing the old soft-shoe on what might be considered an early draft of The X-Factor, Come and Be Televised.

The footage may be long lost, but we know that Bruce Joseph Forsyth-Johnson came and was televised. And we can assume that television liked him, because it kept on televising him until his octogenarian appearances on Strictly were the butt of a thousand affectionate jokes. (He was quipping self-effacingly about being “doddery” as far back as series six, when he was a sapling of 80.)

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Like one of those sweet granddads you see on local TV news who are still stacking shelves in B&Q with no intention of retiring, Bruce lived to work. (He even described his other passion, golf, as “masochistic”.) He was the kind of entertainer who, if he broke into a spontaneous verse of It’s Impossible and nobody heard, may as well have not have broken into it at all.

Those of my generation grew up with him. Too young for his first peak of TV ubiquity at the helm of Sunday Night at The London Palladium in the late 50s/early 60s (and, more pertinently, as adept crowd marshal of its frantic game show Beat the Clock), we clasped him to our collective bosom during his second wind at the helm of Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game in the 70s, his household name already in the title.

The announcer called it “family fun”, and its selling point was to bring parent and sibling generations together to compete in games of guesswork, memory, vocational karaoke and physical humiliation. It’s hard to think of a more effective familial glue than the weekly edition at 6.30 on a Saturday evening. A grinning, avuncular natural with the public at a time when the public were tongue-tied and shy, he would look askance to camera or grimace offstage, saying, “We’ve got a right one here!” or “Where do you find them?” without losing a single passenger. (I remember one young contestant in less than formal attire being greeted with the off-the-cuff remark, “Did you come here on your skateboard?”)

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In the 1973 Christmas special that Generation Game staple the amateur-dramatic finale featured Frankie Howerd in Cinderella. Soaking up the studio applause on his entrance, he gestures back at Bruce, playing Buttons, and says, “Isn’t he looking old these days? No wonder they call it Snow White.” Bruce was 45, but his fuzzy mutton chops were already more salt than pepper and his fringe was well on its way over the crest of the hill. I wasn’t alone in thinking of him as an older man in the 70s than he was in the 90s.

Although the descriptive tramline wrinkles multiplied around his eyes and smile, and a moustache added gravitas, by the time he was hosting ITV’s You Bet in the late 80s, the hair was darkened and combed forward. His toupée was entertainment’s worst-kept secret, but Brucie would bristle if interviewers brought it up. He looked a lot better with it than before it.

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Poached from the BBC by ITV in the late 70s, it didn’t matter which of those two impostors had him under contract, as he always took his catchphrases with him for continuity. Whether fronting the irresistible call-and-response of Play Your Cards Right or ill-advised, voice-activated rounds of computer tennis on Bruce’s Big Night, it was always nice to see him, to see him nice. (Big Night was a rare lapse of judgement in that 76-year career, an act of network hubris that saw him take over the whole of Saturday night in the winter of discontent in 1978 and get beaten in the ratings by The Generation Game under new host Larry Grayson.)

In 1997, the year he joined the hallowed ranks of Kenneth Williams, Billy Connolly and Peter Ustinov with his own An Audience With … for LWT, he told an interviewer, “I feel death coming nearer.”

Of the all-rounders, he even outlived Ronnie Corbett. If not for Ken Dodd, he would have been the last family entertainer standing from that concert-party generation who earned their spurs on the club circuit and built empires around themselves in the voracious vacuum of telly in the 60s and 70s. But as the next wave came – Cannon & Ball, Jim Davidson, Little & Large – their forebears proved remarkably resistant and only premature death (or in Mike Yarwood’s case stage fright and alcoholism) removed them from the stage on Saturday nights.

Retiring in 2015 but never shy, Brucie ended his record-breaking career in a massive Saturday teatime blockbuster, still twinkling, still soft-shoeing, still grimacing offstage; he was surely the most resilient of them all. We had a right one here. As for a replacement in all of the fields in which Forsyth excelled – where do you find them?

 

 

 

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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.

Wrong on so many levels

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Tomorrow night, Tuesday, September 24, The Wrong Mans explodes onto BBC2, with only its own Hollywood-style trailer to beat. You can hardly have failed to notice that it’s one of many attempts on the popular imagination of Mr James Corden this autumn, which has also included the Toronto Film Festival premieres of imminent Billy Elliot-style Paul Potts biopic One Chance, in which he stars, and an American romcom Can A Song Save A Life?, in which he has a supporting role, plus a seventh run of A League Of Their Own on Sky1 as we speak. Of these, you get the feeling that, for the mutliple-stringed-bow-wielding Corden, The Wrongs Mans has the most riding on it, personally, and for self-evident reasons.

It’s a comedy thriller, in six parts, a feat that’s rarely attempted. A half-hour comedy that comes on like a Hollywood blockbuster – thanks to the resourceful acumen of director Jim Field Smith, and an injection of US cash from the Netflix-like Hulu. It stars Corden and co-writer Horrible Histories’ Mathew Baynton as two lowly Bracknell Council employees (actually, one actually works as a post boy for a company outsourced by the council) who get sucked into a dangerous underworld plot after Baynton picks up a discarded phone after a car crash in the opening minutes of Episode One that was make-or-break for the production. The pair almost talked themselves out of the expensive stage direction, second-guessing that it would prove a barrier to being commissioned. (It’s possible they’re being coy here – my fervent hope is that someone who co-wrote and starred in Gavin & Stacey has a bit of auto-clout in BBC pitch meetings.)

I’ve seen the first two episodes and they work on all of the levels they’re supposed to work on. They’re funny and thrilling. The action and jeopardy are real, the reactions of the clownish lead characters are comedic, but no matter how stupid they are, their decisions drive the plot. It works. When I say I’ve seen the first two episodes, I’ve seen them three times, because I hosted a preview in Edinburgh at the TV Festival last month, and a follow-up at Bafta in London at the start of this month. The pics above and below were taken by official Bafta photographer Jamie Simonds and reflect the grandeur and high cast attendance levels of the latter gig. (James couldn’t get the day off of filming Into The Woods, the Hollywood musical shooting in Pinewood and starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, and sadly missed out on Edinburgh.)

For Bafta, we had Jim Field Smith, co-star Sarah Soleman, Baynton and Corden – with co-stars Nick Moran and Emelia Fox, script editor Jeremy Dyson and urbane BBC exec Mark Freeland in the audience, among other key crew – and it was a fine evening. I’ll give a few highlights of the conversation we had, but your best bet is to download or stream the Bafta podcast, which is available here. (There are plenty of others here on the Bafta Guru mini-site, too, including one from July with the cast and creators of Chickens.)

Corden and Baynton first met on the set of Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (a fine British music industry film, directed by Nick Moran, who challenged the three stars it is awarded in the Radio Times when I met him in the bar afterwards and proudly proclaimed it “a four star film”), but they came up with The Wrong Mans – terrible title, but you get used to it – when working together on Gavin & Stacey, where Baynton played Deano.

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Corden: “It was at that time when everyone was starting to watch those American box sets – 24 and so on … TV with higher production values and where the stakes seemed to be a lot higher. We wondered why no one’s trying to do that in a a half-hour comedy. We’d also been to see Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers film, and both really liked it and thought it was very funny and thought, ‘We should have a go at doing this.'”

“We had this great opening, and we wrote this script on spec. We didn’t pitch it as an idea to anyone, we just wrote 35 pages … We put in very specific details, like the fact that the car spins three times, because we wanted anyone who was reading it, a commissioner or anyone, to not be left in doubt as to what it would need to be made.”

Baynton: “Some of the stuff that you assume is expensive, isn’t. What is expensive is time.”

Field Smith: “With that car stunt we had one go at it. If that car doesn’t flip the way it’s rigged to flip, then we’re reverting to Plan B, which is a car skidding out of shot and a hubcap rolling back, which was exactly what we wanted to avoid. We tried not to make choices that are comedic choices. With so many actors coming and going some of them would show up and not necessarily know what the mood is. There were a couple of moments where I’d have to go, ‘No. Wrong show. We’re not making Naked Gun.'”

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While BBC2 is screening the episodes in traditional weekly instalments, Hulu is releasing all the episodes online at the same time so if you are resident in the US, or operate on the wrong side of the law, you can binge on it like it’s House Of Cards or Orange Is The New Black or something equally hip and glamorous. Baynton says: “That’s sort of how it was written. We want people to get to the end of the episode and go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to watch the next one!'”

I suspect you will.

I must admit, I’ve loved hanging out with the Wrong Mans cast, execs and crew. I’d been dying to meet Mat Baynton ever since he played Charles Dickens as Morrissey on Horrible Histories, and although we were denied James Corden in Edinburgh, he compensated in London by hanging around afterwards for drinks when, as a fairly new dad with a wife and a two-year-old son and someone who had been in Pinewood all day, he would have been forgiven for hopping it early. It’s been a while since he shook off the prima donna reputation that dogged him around the time of Horne & Corden (I’ve met Matt Horne a number of times too, and he’s an unassumingly nice chap, too), and if anything, with nothing to prove after One Man, Two Guvnors and its Tony-magnet success on Broadway, Corden has nothing to prove. And yet he behaves as if he has. I don’t believe this is an act.

Mind you, he is a good actor. I’ve admired his work since I saw his film debut in Shane Meadows’ TwentyFourSeven when he was 18 (he played Frank Harper’s kid Tonka). He’s continually played his weight to his advantage and even though he’s slimmed down, it’s his physique next to Baynton’s wiry frame that makes their chemistry so comedic. There’s something Laurel and Hardy about them. Having been involved in the show’s promotion within the industry, I feel quite attached to it, but if I’d never met anybody connected with it and just seen the first two episodes, I’d say: watch it. It’s right on so many levels.

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Drug of the nation

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Look, it’s a massive telly. And people are sitting down watching it, together, at the same time. It must be the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival 2013, which brings together TV professionals from all around the world and confines them to a conference centre for three days. The man on the telly is smallscreen newcomer Kevin Spacey, in his civvies on the Friday morning after the MacTaggart Lecture before, taking questions from the floor in the flagship Pentland suite of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, where all the big gigs take place. I missed his MacTaggart, as I was seeing Sarah Millican‘s 2013 Fringe show in a cellar at the time, before attending the MacTaggart after-show at the National Museum of Scotland, at which the writer of Broadchurch texted me when I couldn’t find him, saying, “I’m in the middle, by a boat.” This is what happens at Edinburgh, when festivals deliberately collide.

As I write, it’s over. A distant memory. The festive spirit of Edinburgh all but wiped out by the grey, humdrum reality of London life. But I’d like to get it down, diary style, if I may?

I have been up at the Edinburgh Fringe (what I call “Edinburgh”) for extended periods in the past – for 16 days in 2010 when I was performing Secret Dancing, hard to imagine that now but I seem to have now settled into a manageable three days, thanks to a blossoming relationship with the nice people who run the TV Festival (hello, Liz, Anna, Fraser, Naz et al). I’m grateful for the chance to make a concentrated raid on the Fringe, and on Edinburgh itself, which is far and away my “second city” after London, as I have really come to know my way about the place over the two decades since I first walked Princes Street and North Bridge and the Royal Mile and Cowgate and all those other inimitably uphill thoroughfares as a wide-eyed postgraduate. (I had a too-true Marcus Brigstocke observation reported back to me in which he pondered why it was that the walk from his flat to the venue was uphill, and so was the walk back from the venue to his flat.)

This, below, is not a great photo (I took it on my phone while pretending to check my emails), but it depicts assorted TV professionals skulking in the lobby of the EICC in a lull between sessions, during which the fancy people queue up to pay for roasted coffee in takeaway cups, and the less flamboyant drink the free stuff, out of urns, which is perfectly nice, but comes in mugs. Conundrum!

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You can probably guess which way I swing vis-a-vis expensive versus free coffee. Actually, it’s imperative for me to have a low-cost Edinburgh. I’m not paid to come up and host sessions (eek! working for free! thin end of the wedge! etc.!), as the Festival is a registered charity whose budget is eaten up by flying Kevin Spacey, Vince Gilligan and Mary Berry up to Scotland, but – crucially – whose profits are ploughed back into training schemes that help people break into TV. However, in return for my professional services, I am put up in a decent hotel, with a Full Scottish Breakfast included, and get to travel first class on the train. This delicate economic contract only works if I don’t pee tons of spending money up against the wall of the Fringe or eating out while I’m in town. Scots may not be mean with money, but I am when I’m in Scotland.

I arrived at the gorgeous, welcoming Waverley station on Wednesday afternoon after the now-familiar four-and-a-half-hour train ride, with its tantalising glimpse of the Angel Of The North built in to ruin my concentration around Darlington, and during which I found myself blocked in on all sides of my solo seat by carousing TV executives who seemed never to have been on a train before, or had never had an alcoholic beverage and were very excited. (I managed not to be get sucked into their end-of-term revelry by keeping my head in my laptop.) I used my pedestrian’s version of The Edinburgh Knowledge to make short work of the short walk from the station to my hotel on Grassmarket (see: below – this pleasant cobbled ecosytem always makes me think of that lovely pizza I had with Mat Ricardo in 2010). I know where I’m going. And I don’t get expenses.

With my first evening ahead, I couldn’t wait to hurry back out and get my laughing gear round a plastic glassful of draft lager at the Pleasance: it’s a tradition. I was happy to be able to corral my two actual Edinburgh friends (imagine actually living in this spectacular city!), Tony and Helen, to meet me. We discussed many things – including the significance of their recent trip to the top of the actual “30 Rock” in NYC – but most of them were TV shows we loved too much. Excellent company. Excellent plastic lager.

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As previously stated, I am a conservative Fringe-goer and with only three spare evenings, two of them after quite punishing days of working and networking, I plumped for two shows by two of my comedy friends: Sarah’s at The Stand, a characterful, diffident, subterranean venue she is way too popular to play but does so in the actual “spirit of the Fringe” (and because, as I’ve witnessed before, she loves to be close to her audience, who love to be close to her) and Richard Herring‘s latest conceptual treatise on masturbation, this year We’re All Going To Die, because I have seen every one of his shows since 2001 and am proud to be able to say that. So that was Weds and Thurs night. All I had to do was fill Friday night with laughter …

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In the meantime, my own first gig on Thursday morning: to interview the affable John Bishop in a “keynote” session for The Network, which is the Festival’s estimable scheme for TV hopefuls, 65 of whom secure a place each year, at a cost of nothing, which gives them access to a glittering array of TV folk to quiz. Last year, I interviewed Charlie Brooker in the same setting at Napier University, which was a walk in the park. As was this year’s. I’d never met John before, but you kind of feel you have. If he’s not the most genuine man in comedy then he’s light entertainment’s most manipulatively evil confidence trickster. Having just finished writing his memoir, his life story was instantly recalled in bite-sized chunks, and he was very revealing and candid about the process of making TV – the producers of John Bishop’s Britain pretty much forced a team of writers on him, even though he prefers to generate his own material, which is personal. (I am out of focus in the lovely pic above, and that’s probably how it should be. The host’s job is to frame the subject, and to facilitate the release of information for the audience. I love it, as I get to meet cool people, and I think I am asked to do it because I love it, so that works for me.)

I won’t give you the full itinerary for my entire Edinburgh. Needless to say, the Bishop interview flowed directly, via a cab ride across town, into a meeting about a future comedy project that I can’t mention, which flowed back directly, on foot, my preferred mode of transport, into my first Q&A at formidable indie cinema the Filmhouse on Lothian Road: The Wrong Mans, a comedy thriller with an awkward title from the combined pens of James Corden and Horrible Histories‘ Mathew Baynton for BBC2, due in September. After seeing two eps on the massive screen (a reason for turning up in itself), I interviewed Matt, director Jim Field Smith and BBC in-house comedy mandarin Mark Freeland. There was some interesting stuff about getting investment from Hulu in the US, who, Netflix, style, will release all six episodes at once, while it shows all traditionally over six weeks on BBC2.

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Without a sniff of lunch beyond two Tunnocks caramel wafers I picked up from a complimentary jar in the lobby of my hotel, I legged it back to the Conference Centre with barely enough time to quickly email an 800-word column I’d written for the Guardian about “poverty porn” from my laptop in the lobby (I had started writing it on the train, broken its back, feeling a bit drunk and sick, just before bedtime on Wednesday, and polished it up before my inaugural hotel Full Scottish that morning). My one TV Festival ambition was to catch Vince Gilligan being interviewed by Charlie Brooker about Breaking Bad, which, save the opening 10 minutes, I did.

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It was quite surreal to be in the same room, albeit the arena-sized Pentland Suite auditorium, full of adoring TV drones, as Vince Gilligan. You can read five of the best bits here. It was a proper treat. Brooker was a fan with a clipboard, an approach I am not too proud to use myself. Gilligan was humble and candid and downhome. Sated with TV drama-writing inspiration after 50 minutes of this, I then fast-tracked myself off to The Stand – surely everybody’s favourite Fringe venue? – to see Sarah Millican. After that – and a foreshortened “hello” to Sarah afterwards – I went up a hill and queued up for ages (but it was worth it) for a Laughing Stock “Red Devil” chilli-burger at their van within the Udderbelly compound. Festival style, I ate it under the dusky sky, standing up, mopping my face with napkins as I went, and sort of leaning against a tiny shelf.

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ITV’s drinks reception at the Museum was vast and difficult to negotiate from one end of the great hall to the other in search of a small bottle of Kronenberg (wine-drinkers are much better served at such events, their glasses recharged automatically by waiting staff), but it was free, and, once the a capella band from Britain’s Got Talent shut up, I was able to tell Chris Chibnall – whom I only ever get to meet at corporate events – that I over-optimistically wrote a letter to the New Yorker complaining that his name wasn’t mentioned in a lovely piece about Broadchurch in the august journal of letters. (It will never be published.) And then, to bed. Lights off by 11, in Edinburgh. Not bad. Not bad. I had a free copy of the Guardian in my bag, all but unread.

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(Oh, by the way, the corporate photo above is of the view from the breakfast lounge of the hotel I was in last year. Living in the past, that’s me, although it should also be noted that the Castle was shrouded in mist for the first 24 hours, so you had to imagine it.) Friday began with haggis and continued with a meeting in the Press Room at the EICC with Alex and Liana, producers of Saturday’s Meet The Controllers session (the most formal of my work itinerary), essentially to reassure each other that we knew what we were doing; to be honest, they are doing more work than me – the legs of a swan paddling beneath the water – so that all I have to do is look calm, informed and authoritative from the stage on the day. This was followed by a rare hour or so of downtime, during which I caught up with Episode 2 of Man Down, subject of my next Q&A, another comedy but this time one with which I have sinister links.

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Man Down is the first sitcom written by and starring Greg Davies. It is quite insane and based upon his own life, albeit with the “loser” part somewhat exaggerated for comic effect. Tragicomic, actually. Rik Mayall plays his dad, in a piece of casting so perfect you may have to pinch yourself. We – blue lanyard-swinging Delegates and paying members of the public – watched the first two eps on the massive Filmhouse screen (Greg said afterwards that it made him squirm), and as the credits for the first one flew past at the speed of light, there was my name, as script editor. (Full disclosure: I was asked to read and give notes on an early draft of Greg’s first script last February before it was even a pilot, and that’s the full extend of my involvement. However, I did come up with the title Man Down. I am very proud of this. I think I got it commissioned.)

Interviewing Greg onstage was easy, and fun. More people came to this screening than to The Wrong Mans. Had James Corden been to attend, I suspect box office might have been different, but he couldn’t get the day off the film he’s making. After this, I went for a panini and coffee with the exec producer of another comedy project I’m involved in developing. An unscheduled stop-off at a double-header free Fringe show – promoted under the new banner Pay What You Want – brought my own experiences of the official Free Fringe flooding back as we filed into a cave and squashed into fold-out chairs. I’m glad I’ve seen Adam Hess and David Elms as they are charming, low-key men, one with a guitar, one not – combined, they might be a love child of Eddie Izzard. I was financially embarrassed during the bucket-waving ceremony on the way out, and only had coins. I apologised, but felt like a heel. (Mind you, I never shook my own bucket at my free gigs, so the guilt factor was – hopefully – reduced.)

An early-evening Royal Mile curry with Matthew, Tom and Ben – collectively Pappy’s – and our execs from nearby Glasgow’s The Comedy Unit seemed in order, as Badults, our vote-splitting BBC3 sitcom (I script edited their wacky inventiveness), was announced at the TV Festival to have been recommissioned. We are very pleased about this. It proves that a broadcaster is able to make its own mind up and ignore the negativity of Twitter. Series Two is, officially, underway. We had the first-series green light during the Festival last year. Telly can move fast when it has the will to do so.

Most of us repaired to the Pleasance to see 2012 Foster’s nominee Claudia O’Doherty‘s new show, Pioneer, a mindbending, self-reflexive, gauze-indebted multimedia assault (I’d not seen her before – presumably this is her now-you-see-me metier), through which a cheeky, poetic, self-effacing, semi-autobiographical Australian personality continually broke through. Was it her? Was it a character? I don’t know. But I enjoy that ambiguity; it’s something for an audience to conjure with. Claudia had a terrible sore throat, but belted her way through this intricate hour like a true battler. Against all odds, I went home after this. (It’s good to see – and like – someone new.)

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My final gig on Saturday morning was the most formal and took place back at the EICC, in the Fintry room, which is not as big as the Pentland, but big enough. It being a 10am session, hopes were realistic about attendance, but loads of blue lanyards showed blearily up, and got value for money, I like to think. It was planned and produced with military precision by Alex and Liana; all I had to do was sit in the middle chair of five on a stage with an earpiece in and a lapel mic on and, clutching a clipboard as much for talismanic reasons as practical ones, keep everyone talking in equal chunks.

Meet The Controllers sessions punctuate the swollen programme and give production companies the chance to gauge what the channels are looking to commission in the new term, and if it’s a big channel, like BBC1 or ITV, they get an hour each and a “name” interviewer like Boyd Hilton or Cathy Newman. For Multi-Channel Entertainment, we packed four controllers into 60 minutes: Lourdes Diaz , LA-based VP, Development and Production, Comedy Central International; Sara Thornton, VP, Production and Development, Lifestyle and Entertainment, Discovery Networks International and boss of lady-aimed TLC; Steve Regan, Senior Editorial Director, Commissioning & Production, MTV (and also, bamboozingly, commissioner of non-scripted for Comedy Central); and Koulla Anastasi, Head of Acquisitions & Commissioning, Crime & Investigation Network and BIO at A+E Networks UK, who is heading up the launch of also lady-themed Lifetime UK. (I joked that I wouldn’t give them their full job titles as it would eat into the session.)

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The hour flew by. (Rob Dougall took the official photo, by the way.) Lots of entertaining VT of the entertaining likes of Geordie Shore, Shopaholic Showdown and Breaking Amish, and a real insight into the ongoing battle for a slice of the soul of satellite viewers, using internationally marketable formats and cheap labour (ie. the “real people” who are the bedrock of these types of show). Steve Regan was a born showman, with his coy mention of a next-series moment in “Welsh Shore”, The Valleys, that he couldn’t possibly describe, but which he went on to describe. (It involved a presumably waxed, toned young Welshman who stuck his penis into a Pot Noodle for kicks. A dry one. Sky+ it, kids.) As I unhooked my mic and earpiece, having I think brilliantly fooled everyone into thinking I had ever worn an earpiece in my life, and joined in the back-slapping that happens through relief as much as self-love, I could think only of the train ride home. I hoped I would be spared the ordeal of being surrounded in First Class by TV execs on a comedown, and I was. Just ordinary members of the public who’d been upgraded to First because of an overheated Economy carriage. It was a revolution. (No hot food or alcohol served to First Class passengers on a Saturday on East Coast, we discovered. I would have asked for my money back if I had paid. Shocking inconsistency of service.)

Now, I have to sit back and see if any of my glad-handing and sweating and networking and namebadge-peering did any good. I’ll let you know.

I remain an Edinburgh man myself.

Don’t stop believing

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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.

ACSopranosgrabPS: 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.

Leak ending

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It wasn’t exactly the Battle of the Blackwater, but there was a brief exchange of fire below the line under this week’s Telly Addict, which was dominated, predictably, by my review of the opening of Season 3 of Game Of Thrones. Although I was careful not to give away any important plot details from Episode 1 in my review – nor to let anything slip in the clips I chose – I strayed, indirectly, into the minefield anyway. This was the pretty angry comment posted by a man called Richard Berry:

Why did the Guardian ensure this video gave a blatant spoiler, even for those who haven’t watched it?

The still image used to advertise the video on the Guardian HOME PAGE shows a character who is clearly alive in season three. The entire plot of series two is that a whole range of others are trying to kill him. Thanks for ruining it.

We don’t all have Sky, and I thought the Guardian would try to refrain from forcing their viewers into the embrace of Rupert Murdoch.

Note that he does not blame me, which is why stepping in may have been a mistake on my part, but it seemed unlikely, what with around 120 comments left under the review at that stage, that anybody involved in producing Telly Addict or responsible for choosing the still that accompanies each one on the page would be following the discussion as vigilantly as I do, so I responded. In my haste, I parried that the offending still was actually from the end of Season 2, which I believed it was. (It certainly features two characters who appear in Seasons 2 and 3, but I have been re-watching episodes from the first two seasons of late so I can’t be trusted!)

Anyway, it turned out to have been from Season 3 after all – from Episode One, in fact. Either way, Richard Berry felt that in revealing that two characters from Season 2 were even in Season 3 was, in and of itself, a spoiler. One of the characters is a principal. It is not out of the question that he might have been killed at the end of Season 2, as a principal was killed at the end of Season 1. However, Sky have been advertising Season 3 with huge billboards in the UK, and these feature the faces of the principal characters, one of whom is in the still the Guardian used. (Is all this obfuscation really necessary? I don’t know.)

Having myself recently re-watched the climax of Season 2 (which revolves around the Battle of the Blackwater), I know that the story does not hinge upon … actually, I now feel too paranoid about spoilers to even discuss it in vague non-detail. After all, not all GoT fans are Sky subscribers, HBO customers or illegal downloaders; although many will have read the books and will know exactly what happens throughout Season 3, and, I think, 4, maybe even 5. (I haven’t looked.)

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I have some sympathy with Richard Berry, as he’s working his way through the box sets, as I have done with a number of US imports, notably Battlestar and Breaking Bad, in both cases behind the actual broadcasts and susceptible to spoilers. I’m currently watching the stirring and addictive Friday Night Lights, on Sky Atlantic, which started showing all five seasons after the fifth had aired and when the whole saga was in the public domain. I made the innocent mistake of looking up one of the lower-ranking actors during Season 1 and found out that he was in all five seasons, so I know he’s in for the duration – a spoiler of sorts, although nobody’s fault but my own, right?

But a vanilla still of two characters, officially released by HBO and Sky, surely cannot be categorised as a “spoiler”. Richard will have to wait until Season 3 is out on box set – at the end of this year no doubt – before he can see it. In the meantime, I expect he’s diligently avoiding any internet sites related to GoT, including Wikipedia. He saw a photo on a newspaper’s website below a caption saying something like “The Week in TV”, assumed it to be from a future episode, and felt that it “spoiled” Season 2. Without going into any plot detail, it was impossible for me to explain to him why it wasn’t a spoiler, because you’re on thin ice the whole time when you’re ahead of someone.

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The spoiler is well-named. “A person or thing that causes spoilage or corruption,” according to the dictionary, or else “a plunderer or robber”. Before the internet proliferated, its most contemporary setting might have been in print publishing, where newspapers still habitually print spoilers to undermine a competitor’s scoop, and entire magazines are launched to interfere with a rival’s plans. (OK! is just about the most successful spoiler title in publishing.)

I wrote about spoilers for the Observer in 1999, but the focus then was movies. I noted that the concept of spoilers was “an underground one”, which seems quaint now. “Nuggets of information made public with the sole intention of undermining the authority of a forthcoming cinema release” were, I wrote, “all the rage, thanks to the Internet, where knowledge truly is power. If you want to know what happens at the end of The Blair Witch Project, just key the title and the word ‘spoiler’ into your search engine, and you’ll soon find the goods.”

I had been commissioned to write the piece because of the forthcoming Sixth Sense, whose twist had the new-fangled Internet aflame. Its twist had, in fact, become a commercial issue, as patrons in America had already started buying a second ticket to re-view the film. “That’s a very important element,” said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney, in between counting his takings. “People are going back to catch all those things you don’t pick up the first time.” The spoiling of twists is, of course, a one-time-only offer.

I did a roll-call of those 90s thrillers with a twist – The Usual Suspects, The Game, Scream, Primal Fear, Wild Things, Twelve Monkeys, Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge – and it did seem like an epidemic. I also observed that many actually fall to bits once you revisit them armed with the special knowledge gleaned at the end.

An article about The Sixth Sense in 1999 in American magazine Entertainment Weekly was stamped with a warning to readers: STORY CONTAINS KEY PLOT POINTS. This was an early example, I believe, of what we now know as the SPOILER ALERT. As a longtime subscriber to Sight & Sound, whose trademark synopses of new releases inevitably give away endings, I have grown used to the warning. I may as well also confess to being the type of person who reads on when advised not to.

I read the Entertainment Weekly piece right through, not having seen the film, and I went in to see The Sixth Sense knowing the wham-bang ending. I wrote, “As a result, barring amnesia brought on by a blow to the head, I will never be able to see The Sixth Sense the way it was intended.” This has remained true ever since. I am simply a sucker for reading synopses and long reviews, where twists are most likely to be revealed. The warning SPOILER ALERT is a welcome mat to me. (The recently deceased Roger Ebert, perhaps America’s most famous film critic after Pauline Kael, admitted to having been “blind-sided” by The Sixth Sense in the Chicago Sun-Times. Lucky him.)

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When Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game came out in 1992, journalists and those attending preview screenings were asked not to give away the big twist. (If you’re still unaware of this one, it occurs long before the end and has an important bearing on the central relationship. It’s also one of the most beautifully-handled and powerful gasp-moments in modern cinema, the sort you envy someone not knowing.) Because The Crying Game had so many other merits as a moviegoing experience, most kept their mouths shut. Ebert, again, ended his review with the words, “See this film. Then shut up about it.”

Being asked to shut up about a hot new film sends out mixed messages: we, the paying public, are usually urged, “Tell your friends!” Because no matter how sophisticated and well-oiled the Hollywood publicity machine has become, word-of-mouth, and its successor word-of-Tweet, is the one marketing factor that’s truly out of The Man’s control. (Only this week, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Oblivion was screened to journalists the night before it went out on general release, but that was, I suspect, for a different reason of media control.)

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In 1960, Psycho was publicised with the memorably jolly tagline, “Don’t give away the ending – it’s the only one we have!” Hitchcock actually issued theatre-owners with a handbook, The Care And Handling of Psycho, with half-jokey notices for the foyer reading, “It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning. The manager of this theatre has been instructed at the risk of his life not to admit any persons after the picture starts.” House lights had to remain down for 30 seconds after the end credits, to allow “the suspense of Psycho to be indelibly engraved in the minds of the audience.” Try maintaining that level of compliance in the iPhone age. (Although Steven Moffat and the Doctor Who team were able to pre-screen the first episode of last autumn’s new series to die-hard fans before transmission and successfully implored them not to electronically blab about the unscheduled appearance of the Doctor’s new assistant. Moffat effectively made it a trust issue.)

Back in August 1999, the Sun filled its front page with the headline, “OFFICIAL: BBC’S LOST THE PLOT”, claiming it had obtained “all the storylines of EastEnders for the next year”. However – and here’s the twist – the paper didn’t reveal a single detail. Readers were asked to vote by phone whether they wished to have their enjoyment scuppered or not. They did not. (I was writing for EastEnders at the time and felt very close to this passing scandal. When Phil Mitchell was shot, none of the writers knew who’d dunit. It was safer that way.)

All the Internet has done is made the sharing of information easier. For diehard fans of a franchise, whether it’s Doctor Who or Star Wars or Game Of Thrones or Twilight or Harry Potter, leaks and rumours and revelations feed their devotion. (I always felt luckier than everybody else in the cinema when I saw a Harry Potter, as I had no idea what was about to happen, not having read a word of the books; whereas the more devoted fans around me must have known every last detail.) Richard Berry and those like him who are one season behind on GoT and who have not devoured George R.R. Martin’s source novels, exist in a permanent time-delay: the story they are following is way ahead of them, and it’s out there, in the public domain, out of the bottle, airborne. They moan a lot in comments sections – a pretty risky place to dwell if you’re afraid of spoilers, in any case – but whose responsibility is it to protect them?

I fully intend to see the new Ryan Gosling film A Place Beyond The Pines at the cinema this weekend. David Denby revealed its surprise twist in his review in the New Yorker. I was initially as annoyed with Denby as Richard Berry was with the Guardian. And then I got over it. Not knowing something that happens isn’t the only enjoyment to be had. If something’s good, it won’t really matter.

It is not until the final frame of Citizen Kane that we learn who or what “Rosebud” is. As Kane’s effects are burned on a bonfire, the camera alights on the answer. Just as no-one heard him utter the word at the beginning, no-one notices the reveal at the end: the secret rests solely with us, the audience. Orson Welles, of course, thought it was a “hokey device”.

26 seconds of fame

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I was, of course, flattered to be asked to contribute to BBC2’s Richard Briers: A Tribute. Having appeared on it, and seen it, I now I wish I hadn’t.

I was sad when he died, of emphysema, aged 79, last month, and although I’ve tended away from “talking head” work these past couple of years, I was caught unawares by the request and actually decided it would be nice to be able to pay tribute to one of my favourite sitcom actors. (At least it wasn’t a list show, and it was on BBC2 on Easter Saturday.)

I grew up with The Good Life, and still consider Ever Decreasing Circles to be one of the all-time best British sitcoms, and the producers of the tribute seemed keen to prime me to talk about some of Briers’ lesser-known work, which I was distantly au fait with, such as The Other One, the barely remembered sitcom he made after The Good Life with Michael Gambon in which he played a compulsive liar, and If You See God, Tell Him from 1993, darker still. As requested, I also did my homework about his films – Hamlet, Frankenstein – and refreshed my memory about Roobarb via YouTube.

On Tuesday 19 March, I duly turned up at the Gore Hotel in Kensington at 2.30 for filming, in a good black shirt and pinstriped jacket for the occasion, and was led to the basement bar, all leather armchairs, gilt, wood panels, stained-glass and oppressive furnishings, a not uncommon type of location for such jobs. Usual drill: bag down, mobile off, exchange greetings with the cameraman and soundman, ask for coffee, sit in the designated chair arranged at an angle from the camera line opposite the chair where the producer will sit and prompt with questions. I’ve done this a million times before.

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Actually, not quite a million, but enough to have become a joke. In that first flush of clips shows, I never really minded being known for my “talking head” work. (It forms a chapter in my third book, That’s Me In The Corner, which begins with an audition I once had for some presenting work where the producer said to me, “I really like your talking head work”, a compliment I struggled to take seriously.) My old partner Stuart Maconie is the one who, along with Kate Thornton, became shorthand for “talking head”. The joke was: I did way more than he did, but he rose to prominence on I Love The 70s, which really relied on its “heads”, and because he was a natural at pithy reminiscence and witty soundbites, he made the edit more often than others.

I didn’t get the chance to pithily reminisce until I Love The 80s, and then only made the first three shows, after which I was not asked back. But I had my revenge by agreeing to every other “talking head” job thrown my way. They were fun, they were easy, they paid. And that’s it, really. If you check my IMDb entry, under “Self – TV” (just scroll past the two erroneous entries for “Actor – TV”, which I’ve attempted to get removed to no avail), you’ll find 36 entries, most of which are “talking head” gigs. The first, according to the great oracle that is often wrong, was Solo Spice for C4 in 2001 – a colourful look at the Spice Girls’ solo work. I think my status as “former Q editor” qualified me. After this, and I Love The 80s, there was no stopping my head from talking.

On BBC3’s The Most Annoying TV Programmes We Love to Hate, I claimed – for the record – to have appeared on 37 such shows (IMDb is not definitive) and announced that this would be my last. Soon after, I appeared on Heroes Unmasked. It was sort of a metatextual joke.

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The next few years – during which I was also an author, a 6 Music DJ, the writer of Grass and Not Going Out, and the host of Banter and The Day The Music Died on R2 and R4, all of which were way more important to me than my “talking head” work – were a blur of hotel bars and private clubs, talking at an angle to every TV producer and researcher in British television, and often meeting the same sound engineers and camera operators.

One job led to another. I turned a couple down – including one that appeared to be built around slagging off Noel Edmonds; I’ve always preferred to celebrate stuff – and there was one about the Muppets where I didn’t even make the edit once, which is an existentially challenging experience – but by and large, it was nice for my Mum and Dad to be able to see me on telly occasionally and I genuinely think it’s good to “keep your hand in”. If you talk as part of your job, it’s as well to practice.

I seem to have done around 40 list/clips/nostalgia/popular history shows over 13 years, but most of those before 2008, which seemed to act as kind of semi-retirement year. As I say, I’ve slowed down a lot. Maybe less clips shows are made. Maybe I don’t get asked. I surfed the wave for a while there. It’s fine. But the Briers show reminded me why I shouldn’t bother any more.

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I sat in that armchair for the best part of an hour, talking constantly about every aspect of Richard Briers’ career. I knew the show was geared around the people who knew him and worked with him, as it bloody should do, and I guessed my job was to add a critical eye. (I never met him, or worked with him.) When we reached the end of his career, we wrapped, I got up, collected my bag, shook hands and left. The thought of playing even a peripheral part in the BBC’s official memorial to a great actor was reward enough, although I got paid as well. (This is still quite handy when you do as much work on spec, for free, as I do. I’m doing a lot of that currently.)

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So, I watched the finished show over Easter weekend on BBC2 and found out precisely how peripheral I was! The programme makers had done brilliantly with their star witnesses: Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal, Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Wilton, Peter Egan, Nicholas Hytner, Sam West, Prunella Scales, Sheila Hancock … as a viewer, I was thrilled. As the token critic who’d taken part, my heart sank. About half an hour in, it was clear that my contribution was not required. To be honest, I have no idea why they even left in my sole contribution, but there it was, at 38.02.

During the section about Briers’ unexpected move into Shakespeare at a stage in his career when his national sitcom treasure status might have been a curse as much as a blessing, there I am, “writer and broadcaster”, saying the following two sentences:

Kenneth Branagh definitely changed Richard Briers’ life, by offering these, er, fantastic Shakespearean parts … It’s easy to overlook the skills of an actor in a sitcom – wrong to, but it’s easy to do it, because they make it look easy, they’re just there to be silly, and funny, a lot of the time. That takes a massive amount of acting.

At 38.28, cut to the much better placed actor Adrian Scarborough, “co-star and friend”, with a far more personal insight. I’m not saying it wasn’t worth me travelling to Kensington and walking from the Tube to the hotel and back (they offered cabs, but I nearly always refuse cabs, as I’d seriously rather use public transport and walk), I’m saying it wasn’t worth the BBC employing me to go all that way in order to say those two sentences. Hey, I know, that’s the way documentaries are made: shoot way more than you need and edit into shape. The writer Andrew Marshall was on quite a few times, and offered sound, firsthand testimony, as he’d co-written If You See God, Tell Him. But If You See God, Tell Him was never mentioned, thus muddying his authority to all but comedy students. The edit takes no prisoners!

The Briers tribute is a really nice programme, and it’s still on iPlayer. You should watch it – it’s my last “talking head” appearance*. I’m glad my shirt and jacket looked smart.

*It probably is, anyway.