Writer’s blog: Week 4, Thursday

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This picture is a cheat, as I took it yesterday, Wednesday. But it is packed with significance, of a sort. On Monday, as documented, I travelled to Dorset and back on the train, about 12 hours round trip, door to door. That was pretty unusual for a working day, and a pleasant diversion. I haven’t travelled outside of London since then. Most days – and this is why I don’t inflict a daily diary on anybody – I’m in the British Library, or at the Radio Times office, or shuttling between meetings and work engagements in and around Central London, at the peak of activity either writing, or talking.

How interesting is any of this? How interesting in anybody’s daily life? As it happens, later today I am catching another train, this time to Northampton, as I’m giving a lecture/Q&A to journalism students at the University of Northampton tomorrow. It being a careers-based talk, I shall be roadtesting Andrew Collins: 25 Years in Showbiz, or Indecision: a Career Choice. There will be slides. I don’t write these talks, as such, but I shape them in advance, and use props, or images, to punctuate them and act as guides for me. I don’t like them to be too rigid; I prefer to roll with the reaction of the audience – if, that is, I can gauge it. Students can sometimes be inscrutable, but most are at an age when “cool” drives their personalities. I know this. I was one.

Here’s how my life works: I do a string of low-paid jobs and then, occasionally, if the stars align (fingers always crossed), I get a higher-paying job for which I actually have to block out weeks or months in order to fulfill the commitment. It’s not unusual for a self-employed person to exist in a permanent state of rollercoasting. A talk at a university is not a high-paying job, but I like doing them, they keep me in practice for public speaking, and it’s Northampton, so I can visit my parents and claim back the modest train fare. I am looking forward to both bits.

The snow’s almost melted in London. I’m glad to see the back of it. It breaks my heart to see how weak this country’s infrastructure is. God help us if there’s a war.

Yesterday, I did two low-paid jobs, and I managed to group them together so that I could do one, followed directly by the other – one was in Broadcasting House, the other in Western House, both BBC buildings, and next door neighbours. For both jobs, I was being interviewed for the radio, but pre-recorded, which means you say a hell of a lot more than anybody listening to the radio will ever hear. For the first, I was interviewed about the film Jaws. When the programme airs on Radio 4, I’ll let you know. This was fun. I had my childhood diaries from 1976 and 1977, so could revisit how, as an 11-12-year-old, I was affected by Jaws, long before I actually saw it. (I saw it in March 1977, when I was old enough to see an “A” certificate.)

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Next stop: 6 Music, where I was interviewed by Steve Lamacq’s producer Phil about Britpop – specifically the April 1993 “Yanks Go Home” issue of Select, on which I worked – for an ongoing history project about which I’m sure all will be revealed. I am an interviewer’s dream and worst nightmare: ask me a question and off I go. Especially if it involves remembering. I am good at remembering out loud. (Coincidentally, this hallowed issue of Select is one of my props for tomorrow’s talk at the University.)

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Anyway, the gaps between my visits to 6 Music are lengthening. The last time I was in, before Christmas, was to appear on Steve’s show when he was doing the TV Themes World Cup. Before that? October, when I literally just dropped by to empty my pigeonhole, which kindly pluggers and PRs still keep topped up with pre-release CDs by bands I’ve usually never heard of. It’s nice to be remembered by them. And I left 6 Music with about 20 singles, all of which I intend to listen to, out of gratitude for being given them, and out of eagerness to hear something new that I like. I get a Tweet at least once a week asking when Josie Long and I are back on 6 Music. Never, I fear. We had a great run in the six months leading up to Christmas 2011, but have never been asked back, which, after a calendar year, is a fairly easy to read sign.

I sincerely hope 6 Music will get me back in 2013 to emergency plumb for one of their regulars. It’s the best place on earth to broadcast from. But here’s the scary bit: although people I know at 6 Music are always cheery and pleasant to me when I venture back into the office, each time I go in, more faces have appeared whom I don’t know. This is bound to happen. Eventually, all my contacts there will erode, and my name will fall off the whiteboard. It happens. You’d be amazed how many people who don’t listen regularly to the station still think I have a regular slot on the network. (The guys from BBC Bristol who interviewed me about Jaws did.) You have to move on.

Remember the theme of my talk? Indecision. It’s indecision that’s driven and stunted my career at the same time. Not being able to decide which path to take – or to commit to one branch of the entertainment industry – has lead to an enormous range of work over those 25 years, but it has also prevented me from specialising in anything. I accept that as my destiny.

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And here I am, in the British Library canteen again, contemplating that very conundrum. Any questions? (That’s what I’ll be asking at the University of Northampton tomorrow.)

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The rest is silence

TA84grabWe’re back, for Year 3 of Telly Addict, and, after an unprecedented two-week break, during which I allowed all the germs of the season to infect me while my immune system was off guard, my voice is on the way out. Thankfully, we managed to squeeze the last few drops out of my larynx before silence set in, and thus, here is an unplanned BBC-only review, with Borgen‘s welcome return to BBC4; the arrival of Ripper Street to BBC1; a very good documentary series, Queen Victoria’s Children, on BBC2; and finally, the latest Attenborough epic, Africa, on BBC1. I accuse Sir David of “husky hyperbole”, but wrote that, during the day, when I had no idea how husky my own voice would turn out to be. I hope you can hear the words I am saying, and that you feel my pain. Normal service will be resumed next week. And a haircut, I think.

(My full review of Seasons Three and Four of Breaking Bad will follow separately.)

25 Years in showbiz: a prelude

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Right, Here’s a splendid photo of me and three-quarters of the band Cud, backstage at Brixton Academy in November, to put us all in a happy place at the end of one year and the tentative, under-par beginning of another one. In other words, let’s just clear up 2012 before we really get stuck into 2013. By my calculations, 2012 was my 24th year in Showbiz. Which is a glib way of saying that I’ve been working in what we must, without irony or sneering, call “the media” since the summer of 1988, when I first stepped foot in the NME office, and wangled a part-time job in the layout room.

It was, of course, through working as a journalist for the NME that I met Cud, along with countless other bands. Without the NME, I might not have played the drums for them for one song at a soundcheck at Wakefield’s Rooftop Gardens in May 1992, thus setting a precedent. Having kept up genial diplomatic relations with the band ever since, I was invited to go one better, 20 years on, and if the notion hadn’t been wiped from history in 2012, I’d have called it a middle-aged man’s “Jim’ll Fix It moment”. I wrote about it here. When you reach my age, milestones come less often. To have played the drums onstage at Brixton Academy, for one song, was one of them. It will forever nail 2012 to the map. As will my appearance, in January, on Celebrity Mastermind (it was filmed in 2011), where I scored 23 points but still only came second.

This was a milestone in the sense that I crossed the Rubicon and became further proof of the dire elasticity of the word “celebrity.” (Watching this year’s run on BBC2, I noted that in his call for future contestants, John Humphrys says, “You don’t have to be a Celebrity to appear on Mastermind.” No, and you don’t have to be a Celebrity to appear on Celebrity Mastermind, either. I wrote about my experience for Radio Times here.)

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It is not to seek sympathy if I say that, on the whole, despite these two marker flags, 2012 was not a historic year. for me. They can’t all be, can they? While the Olympics, the Paralympics, and Euro 2012 ran a highlighter pen through the sporting summer, on a personal level, as a competitor in the rat race, I feel like I spent most of the year running to stand still. The recession continues to bite hard, and the price of everything rises at an inhumane pace, so, in line with the general outlook since 2008, it was a case of watching expenditure, travelling only when my journey was really necessary and reading books I already own, as per my New Year’s Resolution. When you’re self-employed, you do everything in your power to keep working, but it’s never a walk in the park.

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Professionally, I was proud to have my name on the credits of school sitcom Gates, as co-writer and co-creator, which helped relaunch Sky Living in August, having been on ice for about eight months. Sadly, it didn’t ring the ratings bell and was not recommissioned. (I wrote about the show here.) Neither was a much more personal project for me, Mr Blue Sky, although I think we were all very pleased with Series 2, which went out on Radio 4 in April and May, and gathered some nice reviews. Not nice enough to earn us a third series, although it wasn’t through want of trying, I can tell you. (I wrote about Series 2 for Radio Times here.) I’ve written two further scripts, for two further broadcasters, in 2012, and one of them may yet prove to have legs in 2013, depending on how a January meeting goes. Fingers crossed. Actually, my fingers are always crossed; I am a writer. I’m also very excited to have made a ten-minute short film with Simon Day for Sky Atlantic; the all-star anthology of which it is a part, Common Ground, starts on January 14.

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Back in January I did the finishing touches to a script I had in development with ITV which then disappeared in a puff of smoke when the in-house producer I was working with left ITV. This is what happens. Get used to it. My ardent hope for 2013 is to get a comedy commissioned.

In terms of radio, I’ve noticed a slight reduction in hours spent in front of a microphone. I had a couple of nice runs on 6 Music Breakfast, and a short go at Saturday mornings, solo, while they waited to fill the slot with someone more famous. (I was also offered Breakfast in Christmas week but I wasn’t around, to be fair.) I presented the Radio 4 documentary Oscar Sings in February, but that’s pretty much it for me as a “proper” presenter. However, ironically, via the tradesman’s entrance, I appeared in about 50 short films in 2012, further honing my Autocue skills for the Guardian‘s weekly Telly Addict review. I love doing this, so long may it continue this year.

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I had a great time at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, hosting Q&As with Charlie Brooker, Steven Moffat, Victoria Wood, Robert Popper, Frank Spotnitz and others, and this is an area I’d really like to develop. Having sensibly put stand-up behind me, this feels like a far more age-appropriate and far less egomaniacal way of talking in front of an audience: this is the job of the facilitator. You get to meet amazing people, doing it, too. (It was cool to meet Todd Solondz before doing a Q&A with him at the Curzon, Soho, in the summer. You should never get blasé about this kind of privileged proximity.)

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Socially, 2012 was quiet, but deliberately so. I avoided parties, as a rule, although the Radio Times covers party presented its annual opportunity for me to play Zelig with the stars of TV, unashamedly. Here I am with two of the ladies of Downton (and some mad-eyed feminist), and Vic Reeves and Vicky McClure.

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While we’re talking about magazines, 2012’s greatest loss was surely Word magazine. You can read my requiem here, although it’s worth stating that its sudden closure in June – another victim of the advertising revenue downturn and the general decline of print – was twice the loss for me. I miss Word as an employee and as a subscriber. It leaves a void. (It also means I am probably doing more prose-writing for free, on here, than I might have done previously. Sign of the times.)

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Sad, too, to see Karaoke Circus go, after all these years of good-natured, have-a-go entertainment. The final showdown, at the 100 Club, on 29 October, crowned the run in suitable style, even if my overambitious rendition of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems was one of my worst. Nobody complained. And that is why we shall miss it. (The following shot of the final finale is by Russell McGovern, whose full set of pics are here.)

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On the whole, 2012 was less about evenings, more about mornings and afternoons. More about meetings. I’ve had tons of them. Some have led to work, most have not. Some have been administrative, others more sociable. Some have been script meetings, as a script-editor – which, again, is a much less egocentric job to have on a TV programme. I had a brilliant time at the end of the year working on Secret Dude Society for BBC3, an actual, six-episode commission, with the beloved sketch trio Pappy’s, and although it has yet to be filmed (that happens in Glasgow in February), the majority of my editing work is done, so that ought to be a satisfying thing to look forward to in 2013.

When I look back over my 25 years in showbiz, as I am bound to do, I recognise that the bulk of my work has been entirely egocentric and self-centred; whether it’s being an opinionated music journalist, a DJ, an author, or a stand-up. It’s all been about my name at the beginning or the end. The past few years have seen me settling down into a quieter life, whereby my work is often out of the spotlight, behind the scenes, in meetings. This can only be a good thing. There are enough people out there vying for your attention with loud voices. I’m happy if you catch an episode of a sitcom I’ve written for Radio 4, brought to life by professional actors.

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I’d certainly be happy if you bought the new edition of my Billy Bragg biography, Still Suitable For Miners, which Billy and I have been working on updating over the last couple of months, starting in MediaCity, Salford, where I accompanied him for his John Peel Lecture in November. The new edition is due out, in physical form and as an eBook, in the early part of this year (no fixed date as yet). Revisiting his stirring lifestory – and in order to write a new chapter, it is advisable to re-read the existing ones – has reignited my leftist fury. The Tories continued to drive me round the bend in 2012, with raids on the public sector whose bare-faced audacity would have made Mrs Thatcher blush, and a general, all-round dismantling of the state whose ease merely exposes the historic failure of New Labour to do anything to reverse the trend while they were in power.

In this sense, 2012 was an angry year for me. The reelection of Barack Obama provided some relief from apocalyptic thoughts – at least the world is spared a Tea Party in control for another four years – but the news has been ostensibly depressing most days, from ecological disaster to corporate tax avoidance to widespread child abuse hidden in plain sight. Billy Bragg reminds me that hitting your fifties, as he has, does not have to denote giving up, or tuning out, or logging off. He was as fired up by bankers’ bonuses and the Bullingdon Club cabinet in 2012 as he was about the miners and Reaganomics in 1985. We should look to people like him for inspiration.

Maybe Still Suitable For Miners is a perfect example of a project that isn’t primarily about me. It’s about Billy Bragg. I am merely facilitating its existence. That’s got to be a more dignified way forward.