2014: My Top 50 gigs

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I didn’t see 50 gigs this year. I saw one. It was one of the all-time greats, though, so that counts for a lot. It has been some years since going to music gigs was a regular outing for me. Let’s be honest: a large percentage of the music gigs I have been to since 2007 have been Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine at Brixton Academy. But this one, on November 22, was the Final Comedown, that is, their actual farewell, on home turf, to a home crowd. I was proud to have been among the 5,000 who communed there, some of them (not me) in original Carter shirts, many more (not me) in reproductions, more still in brand new ones for the occasion. (For the record, I wore my only band t-shirt, the Space Cudette one that Cud gave me two years ago when I played the drums with them, when they supported Carter at Brixton.)

I have written before about the almost metaphysical experience of seeing two men fill a 5,000-capacity amphitheatre using only their still fairly skinny bodies, a couple of guitars and some backing tapes, but whatever works. Carter USM have the hits, and a fanbase to sing them back at them at the tops of their ageing lungs. They used to have Jon Beast, whose passing was one of the sadder bits of news in 2014, but whose memory lives on in the chant of “You fat bastard!” We’re all fat bastards now. In tribute. The Final Comedown was less of a gig, more of a loud vigil. It allowed me to queue up for what might have been my last time down the side of the Academy, collect my pass from the little window, and stumble up the stairs in the dark to the “VIP bar”, where bottles of Carslberg or Tuborg sell for £3.80, but where you might, as I did, bump happily into Michael Legge, Danielle Ward and Simon Evans, not to mention Adrian, Carter’s old manager in the days when I was a cub reporter for the NME. I saw the gig itself from the right hand side of the front (where the exit from the backstage bit comes out). I am definitely getting too old for this shit, though, as even amid the unfettered joy and untrammelled shouting and air-pointing, I found myself slightly irritated by people blocking my view and filming everything on phones. But the magic was not destroyed.

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So, that was my gig of the year. I await the official DVD with anticipation. You can pre-order it here, and the company that lovingly make it, Nyquest, kindly supplied all the photos, via Carter’s manager Marc.

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As for other live gigs, well, I went all the way to the Edinburgh Festival for three days but I was working, so I only saw one comedy gig. It is, by definition, the best comedy gig I saw in 2014: Josie Long’s groundbreaking Josie Long show Cara Josephine, which I highly recommend, especially if you think you’ve got her sussed. Depths of honesty and autobiography are revealed in this show which makes it one of her very best, I think. I am glad to say that I saw my only comedy gig of the year at The Stand in Edinburgh, one of the greatest venues in the world.

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I saw two plays in 2014. Do they count at gigs? They are live entertainment. One was Daytona at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London’s busy West End, courtesy of my friend Harry Shearer, who’s in it. As a very infrequent theatregoer – mainly due to price – I must say I love every minute of any play. Daytona, written by Oliver Cotton, who also stars in it, is set in Brooklyn in 1986 and, through two estranged brothers (wayward visitor Cotton and Shearer, who’s happily married to ballroom-dancing Maureen Lipman), it examines Jewishness down the ages, from the Holocaust to that which exercises modern Jewry. Having met Harry through 6 Music and relaxed into his company ever since, it was a joy to see him act, which is what he does, in such exalted company, and in such an unfamiliar milieu.

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As I always say, I see too little theatre to judge with precision, but I know I enjoyed watching these three superb actors lead me through a story whose outcome was unknown to me.

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Later in the year, we paid good money to see Ballyturk at the National Theatre, inspired to do so, I must confess, by the pleasurable experience of meeting and interviewing Cillian Murphy for Radio Times in Dublin, by which time he had already premiered his longtime confidant Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in Galway. By the time it arrived in London, we’d purchased tickets, in a moment of fiscal madness. Acting alongside the physically committed Mikel Murfi and – in an extended cameo – the great Stephen Rea, Murphy was a revelation to those of us who’d only seen him onscreen, in films or Peaky Blinders. This is a hard play to pin down, but it seemed to be part hallucination, part something else, set to the great tunes of 80s pop (Living On The Ceiling, The Look Of Love etc.), and set inside the mentally suspect head of one of the two characters, who may have been part of the same head. Murphy’s voice was ragged by the time we saw him (and for which Mike Leigh and Karl Johnson the actor were in separate attendance), but this screechy imperfection added to the dislocated verve of the piece.

That’s it for gigs. I like to see people performing, live, in front of me, but I see this less than I’d like, in a world where money is very much an object.

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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.