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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An Englishman abroad

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Take Down The Union Jack is a song by my friend Billy Bragg, who writes stirringly and without hysteria in today’s Guardian about not just the Scottish Referendum, which takes place tomorrow, but about the differences between English nationalism and Scottish nationalism; one essentially rooted in ethnic cleansing and misguided nostalgia for Empire, the other in civic determinism and forward-facing pride. It’s no wonder that those on the English – or British – left gaze in awe and envy at the currently animated, consumed, fixated Scots, whether they are YES or NO voters. Even the crucial undecided – the YES AND NO campaigners – are statistically likely to turn out to place their cross tomorrow, such is the engagement with the debate. Registration to vote in the referendum in Scotland is a heart-stopping 97% among those of voting age (a demographic which is in itself refreshingly inclusive, welcoming in 16-year-olds). In the European election in May, the turnout was 34.17%.

I am the Scots’ worst nightmare: an Englishman with an opinion on their nation’s future. But my opinion is almost 100% heart, as I don’t get a vote, so there’s no point in engaging my head. My YES is hypothetical. I’m not Scottish, I don’t live in Scotland; the fact that I love Scotland is frankly immaterial. I know Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as I know, say, Manchester or Bristol, and better than I know Oxford or Newcastle. This is mostly because I visit Edinburgh every year for at least a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and have had consistent cause to visit Glasgow in my adult life, too – drawn up there to commune with the many Glaswegian bands that have risen in the city’s suburbs, and more latterly to work with The Comedy Unit, Scotland’s premiere comedy production house. I like Scots. My most recent trip to Glasgow – last Tuesday – was to attend the autumn season launch of Scottish Gaelic language broadcaster BBC Alba at the Royal Concert Hall. To drink deep of this ancient language was to brush past Scottish history and its future in the same spectral moment. They served excellent breakfast baps, too.

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You do need a weatherman to know which way the wind will blow tomorrow, as Scotland stands on the precipice of history. The polls have been kissing each other in the middle for weeks. All I can do is observe. I felt that the UK establishment’s last-minute surge north was mismanagement and hubris in a grey Westminster suit. However, I was wrong when I guessed that the “effing” David Cameron’s arrival, shoulder to confusing shoulder with Gordon Brown, Lord Reid, John Major and Nick Clegg, would surely, counterintuitively, clinch the YES vote.

It had the opposite effect and nudged the blue-faced YES-sayers back into second place. It may have been a pathetic, transparent last-ditch attempt to stem the tide of Scottish dissatisfaction with being run from a weekend barbecue in the Cotswolds, but the scaremongering worked. It’s still too close to call. Alex Salmond is clearly no angel – he’s cosied up to Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch in his time as First Minister – but his belief that Scotland should govern its own affairs is more compelling than the man.

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When the only Scottish newspaper with an opinion to back the YES campaign is the Glasgow Sunday Herald (not the weekly Herald, which is NO), and the UK print media almost multilaterally in the “Better Together” camp (expect the Guardian and the aptly-named Independent, unless you know different), we’ve had to cover our eyes and ears to the again belated chorus of disapproval, half-truths and apocalyptic predictions. At zero hour, the likes of the Telegraph and Mail are now desperately gunning for Salmond’s personality, as if that’s the only factor that’s driving Scottish overtures for divorce, and obsessing over a loud-mouthed faction in St James’ shopping centre in Edinburgh – a display or boorishness that did the YES camp no favours, even if it was unrepresentative. (Pat Kane was on Sky News last night “defending” the actions of a scrum of compatriots when it wasn’t his job to do so, and he was the very opposite of the Tory media’s caricature of a YES man: cool, calm, collected, oh, and gung-ho for the New Scotland however the vote plays out.)

I have no idea what will happen if the Scots vote YES. Nor does anyone in Westminster, or Holyrood, or at the Bank of England, or the Royal Bank of Scotland, or on the board of Asda, or Irvine Welsh, or Eddie Izzard. Martin Amis was eloquent on Channel Four News when he observed that his preferred NO lobby was saddled with a semantic dead weight: “You can’t campaign for a negative.”

But the UK establishment, as I keep calling them, the keepers of the status quo, have been all about the negatives. Never mind “Better Together”, the message I’ve been hearing is “Worse Apart.” Whether it’s the NHS, pensions, oil, water, Team GB, the BBC or the money it will cost to redesign that nice Union flag, all have felt like threats. In the past few days, the Government and the opposition have reverted from stick to carrot, offering more devolved power if the Scots vote NO. But surely, with a binary YES or NO vote (and one sensible enough soul on Twitter suggested there should have been a third, grey option on the ballot for “a bit more devolved power, please”), any Scot interested in more autonomy would vote YES, not NO. And isn’t Westminster giftwrapping autonomy and making you beg for it like Greyfriars Bobby precisely why independence seemed so attractive in the first place?

Whether, as Billy Bragg and my other left-wing friend who writes for the Guardian John Harris suggest, the referendum will encourage further positive independence campaigns in favour of conscious uncoupling from the Bullingdon hegemony in England and Wales and even Northern Ireland, I don’t know. This whole thing may blow over. But to have galvanised an entire nation in debate, discussion, leafletting and – alright – the occasional scuffle in the street, the referendum, or #indyref, has been a force for good, I think.

Here is a picture of some lovely people queuing up to see me for free in Scotland in 2010. (Warning: some of them might not be from Scotland.)

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I am English by birth and by blood. I don’t much care for the place, as, from where I live in London, the disconnect between Westminster, the City and the weekend oligarchs of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and what we’ll call The Rest Of The Country is toxic on so many levels, and it’s turning us on each other.

They say the vote tomorrow is one between heart and head. The UK establishment want it to be between heart and wallet. Because they would do, wouldn’t they? It’s the only card they’ve got.

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I trust the Scots. And whichever way they swing, I believe Scotland will be a better place on Friday than it was before David Cameron noticed that its people were actually seriously going to be voting about something that they care about. Unlike, say, which MEP we “send” to the European Parliament, or who the next Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire will be. (I understand the last one has mysteriously stepped down; he won the vote in November 2012 with 51.35% of a 14.53% turnout.)

They have already taken away our freedom. I would like it back, please. And I’m perfectly happy to take my passport when I next go to Edinburgh or Glasgow or Skye.

Yes to Scottish independence

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Another year, another Edinburgh. It’s great how you can refer to a trip to what really is my Second City to coincide with the Festival, or Festivals, as “an Edinburgh.” We all know what it means. And it means mostly wonderful things. Before I prepare my report on this year’s three-day piped-bagpipe bagatelle, here’s the traditional shot of me at my first Edinburgh, in 1989.

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I feel sure I don’t need to go into detail, but I was two years out of college, one year in the NME art room, far enough into a hair-growing project to produce a nub of a ponytail, and part of a Tooting-based, medical-school-formed am-dram group called Renaissance Comedy Associates; our play, which I co-wrote with co-star Matthew Hall*, was called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out and one or two people paid to see it in a church hall on Princes Street – it was a great adventure, but I didn’t go back until 2001, when the show was Lloyd Cole Knew My Father and we looked like this.

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I have been up every year except one ever since. The big shift for me occurred in 2009, when, having been up to do an experimental week of live Collings & Herrin Podcasts at the Underbelly, I was also invited to host, or “chair”, my first session at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, which – after my heartfelt retirement from stand-up comedy in 2010 and a welcome year off in 2011 – has thereafter been my ticket up there. It being Guardian-sponsored, a short clip of me talking to Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin in 2009 is still available to view. My body language says: I am not yet confident enough as a “chair” to sit properly in one.

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I like to think I am now a far more confident host. Once you’ve done your first live gig as “facilitator” – whose brief is to introduce the session, get the best out of your interviewees (ie. “facilitate” their illuminating answers), move the thing along, hit the clips at the right moment, coordinate a short audience Q&A at the end and exude approachable authority – you start to get into a rhythm of being miked up, having a producer bark into your ear via an earpiece, knowing when to skip a huge chunk of questions for time, and being unclipped from your mic at the end (always courteous and grateful to the venue staff, as without them you would not be miked up, or able to reach for a sip of water, or even know where the hell to go in the warren of suites, green rooms and auditoria). I am not staff. I am not paid to do this work, but the Festival does pay my train fare and puts me up in a serviceable hotel (the one you can guarantee none of the big stars will be staying in – I know my place). Most importantly, it gives me the chance to be here.

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I have rhapsodised Edinburgh aplenty. In a way, I’m the wrong person to ask about the city as I’ve literally only ever stepped foot on the platform of Waverley Station during the Festival. This is clearly not what life is like in Edinburgh for the other 11 months of the year (except for the weather and the novelty drunks and the souvenir shops piping out bagpipe music). But I have made friends up here who do live in Edinburgh and adjoining Dunfermline, so it’s not as if I only hang out with London media wankers like myself. I made enough friends when I was a stand-up to be able to sneak in to see a couple of their shows while I’m up here, which is always a bonus, and I make an effort to conceal or remove my pink, YouTube-sponsored TV Festival pass when I’m walking down the street. I certainly stride maplessly about the place like I own it, which I hope stops me ever looking like a tourist.

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Because I always come on my own, what I do feel like is a travelling salesman. Especially at breakfast.

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I’ve been a regular at Apex hotels for the past couple of Festivals: no-nonsense places but a cut above a Best Western or Novotel (and I say that not as a hotel snob but as someone whose default, austerity overnight is a Travelodge if I’m paying the bill). This year, for no apparent reason, I was placed in a Hilton. I’m worldly-wise enough to know that the “Hilton” logo does not automatically speak of glamour and the high life. It’s just a hotel chain, a Premier Inn that fancies itself.

There are a couple of Hiltons in Edinburgh (which shows how exclusive they’re not) and I think I was in the least glamorous Hilton. I don’t expect to live like a king – all I require is a bed, wi-fi, a full Scottish breakfast and a free paper. The Hilton gives away the digest version of the Independent whose actual name looks like a mistake of you type it: the i. I’ve never had a minibar. Luckily, I don’t demand a room with light in it either, as this year I was in a non-air-conditioned basement whose windows were painted shut and which was illuminated only by tiny desk lamps (the only fitted ceiling light was in the tiny hallway). I did not complain. I was not paying for it. There was free shortbread with the tea- and coffee-making facilities. I thought: I am living the dream.

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The title of this blog entry refers not to Scotland’s forthcoming independence – a matter much discussed and a passion-fuelled debate I felt fortunate to have landed in the middle of at the height of national indecision – but my own current independence. Travelling alone, essentially being on holiday alone (even for three days), is replenishing for the soul, I find. I did plenty of solo travelling when I was a much younger music journalist, and it hardened me up. I flew to Dublin for three hours last week to interview Cillian Murphy for Radio Times and I felt a bit like an international jetsetter, albeit one too intrinsically stingy to pay for a fucking coffee on the plane, especially as the otherwise courteous Aer Lingus declined to offer any of us a free drink while we sat on the tarmac at Dublin for two hours, the mercenary bastards.

I arrived in Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon alone, declined to pay for a cab and thus walked, with my rucksack, to the Hilton, which was 30 minutes away, alone. Checked in alone, unpacked alone etc. etc., you get the manly picture. And within the hour I was back out, alone, marching towards my favourite venue, The Stand, to pick up my ticket to see my friend Josie Long, alone. I bought some fish chowder, which came in a bowl made of bread, from a stall at the new Fringe hub, St Andrew Square Gardens, whose convenience actually prevented me from making my annual day-one pilgrimage to the Pleasance. (This will be the first Edinburgh ever where I haven’t had a pint at the Pleasance. Time bends.) I bought my ceremonial first pint in a plastic glass and sat, alone, among booming revellers, to silently eat my soup and drink my lager. I was happy enough. Edinburgh is full of groups and couples and families at this time of year, but also solo artists, like me. You’re never alone with a plastic pint glass: it is your passport to sit anywhere and just be.

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I do regret only seeing one Fringe show this year (I usually squeeze in at least three), but I do not regret choosing Josie Long‘s. It’s been a few years since we were buddied up by 6 Music (and then let go with an empty promise to have us back on – not bitter about that), and even longer since I first met her in a pub basement and offered to hold her indie coat while she sang Nothing Compares 2 U at Karaoke Circus, so I feel I can praise her new direction without being too partisan.

After years of building up her unique and deeply-felt political persona, this year’s show, Cara Josephine (a title movingly explained in the final section), is a left turn. Or a right turn, since she’s already so far to the left. It’s a personal show about heartbreak and failed relationships and being “on the shelf” at 32 that’s quite a jolt if you know her stuff. But it’s delivered in such a way that, while contextually shocking in places (and actually really challenging at one particularly raw and graphic juncture, which I won’t spoil), it’s still Josie being who she is, with her American accents and her self-effacement and righteous ire always bubbling under the surface. It may even be her best show, although that needs to be taken in context. Nobody can accuse her of coasting, that’s for sure.

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Back to the picture at the top, which I repeat for reference and which, for all the world, looks like a triumphant stand-up gig, or perhaps a rally, but is actually me introducing an exclusive, public screening of the new Doctor Who episode, Deep Breath, at the mighty Filmhouse cinema on Lothian Road, which has been my de facto base for three years. We screened Asylum Of The Daleks two years ago, with a fabulous Q&A with Steven Moffat afterwards. This, blurrily, was it: ACSMEdTVFest12

No Q&A this time, but the preview itself was enough to pack the 280-seater auditorium of Cinema 1 with enthusiasts of all ages. I did a warm-up and by a show of hands (my fallback warm-up technique) established that we had kids in who were too young to remember when David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, and at least a couple of gentlemen who remembered seeing the first ever episode! It was pretty easy to get them excited before the screening, as they arrived pre-excited.

It was fun to be part of, and the episode itself is pretty damn good, with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor a real shot in the franchise’s arm – his very Scottishness seems to have reinvigorated Moffat’s writing: the 80-miute episode is overlong but full of great jokes, including a couple “about” the Referendum. On Friday morning, in the noisy lobby of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, hub of the TV Festival, I filmed a special Telly Addict review of the episode for the Guardian with my usual producer Tom, busked rather than read from autocue, as we didn’t have one, and it will go live right after the episode airs on BBC1 this evening.

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Thursday also had me manhandling the roving mic for an industry session back in the EICC and another exclusive screening: the pilot of a new, grown-up romantic comedy called Catastrophe, written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, produced by Avalon (who also manage me) for C4, and due next year. I “met” them both via Twitter on the train up to Edinburgh and we got on famously. This can happen. It was a buzz to see the creators of a show experience their work with a large audience of their peers, and to soak up the constant laughter. It was an easy Q&A, as it was always going to be, but you wouldn’t believe how panicky PRs and managers get beforehand, as if perhaps I was going to bypass how Sharon and Rob wrote the show in the 15 minutes available and ask them a series of improper, probing personal questions to make them squirm and stutter.

Having been out so late on Wednesday night with my two go-to Edinburgh pals Tony and Helen that two bars shut in our faces, forcing us to go to a much nastier one for a final round, I took it easy on Thursday and retired to my dark room early with a chalice of Stella from the hotel bar to sip with two free sticks of shortbread and watch the world burning on the news with the sound down. (Full disclosure: my manager bought me a posh burger and a beer in a posher hotel than my own, and I did a short spin of the National Museum of Scotland where ITV held their annual TV Fest drinks to discover that I only knew one person in the cavernous space, Badults producer Izzy, whom I was most grateful to talk to.)

EdTV14ACDynamoWe’ll come to the impish, slumped fellow to my right in a moment. Friday was the biggest mountain to climb, with the biggest names to facilitate. It was halfway through the afternoon when I remembered how easy it is to miss entire mealtimes when you’re working the Festival. I’d had my hearty breakfast of course, while weeping lonely tears into the Islamic State headlines in my i (simply doesn’t work, does it? What the hell were they thinking?), but the Guardian filming ran into a session I was keen to attend asking how the US “showrunner” model can be introduced into UK drama production (conclusion: it can’t), and that ran into my first session as host. I did the least imaginative thing possible in the world and ate a warmed-up panini in Caffe Nero for the loyalty stamp in about five minutes flat. Here is a photo of that session, taken by @Missread, my favourite photo of Edinburgh 2014:

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A year ago – inspired by seeing the popularity of a session with Vince Gilligan at the TV Festival – I wrote a piece for the Guardian about showrunners. In researching it, I discovered Des Doyle, an Irish filmmaker who was Kickstarting a feature-length documentary about the US TV industry called Showrunners. I plugged it and quoted it in the piece, as you could tell by the trailer than it was going to be an authoritative treat for TV geeks and Yankophiles like me. Well, the extra funding came in, and he finished it, and it’s being released here and in the States in October. It was a pleasure to be able to screen it for the public as well as delegates, as it’s a cracking piece of work, and we’d secured the great Ron D. Moore for a Q&A (he’s the genius behind Battlestar Galactica if you don’t know the name – a wise, softly-spoken sage who happens to be in Scotland to shoot his latest opus Outlander).

In the picture above you can see both Des and me looking adoringly at Ron. This is what a TV festival should be like. It’s all very well to be “industry” and all dry and po-faced about telly, but at heart we should all be fans of the medium and of those who make it, even if, technically, they are our peers. (Our Q&A was foreshortened by The Next Thing, as these events tend to be on this media merry-go-round, but it was great to be in his aura and chat offstage to him about “that” Portlandia sketch.)

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Thanks to @envypost for the borrow of the above moody photo, by the way.

Dynamo, boyish 31-year-old underground-overground star of Magician Impossible (whose forthcoming fourth series has been announced as his last for the channel Watch), is a different kettle of fish to anyone I’ve ever facilitated. Although the industry panel we did was conventional (see: above), with his producer/confidsnt Dan, Lucy from Phil McIntyre who manage him, and Richard from the channel, fanned around the coffee table onstage with me in the middle, and with clips playing on the big screen above, the subject – a television show – was not. How do you get under the bonnet of a show whose very beating heart is illusion (what Dynamo prefers to call “events” rather than “tricks”) and to which the question, “How did you do that?” is not only inapplicable, it’s downright rude.

For my intro, I borrowed the quote from Walter Bagehot, 19th century essayist, who warned, “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” And I hope we didn’t, and yet I hope we did a bit. If you’ve not seen Dynamo’s work – indebted to both the street style and spectacle of David Blaine, but without the wankiness – look him up on YouTube or Catch Up. It’s quite unique, as is the way he just walks off after doing something amazing, while Dan’s camera stays on the amazed. Dynamo might have turned out to be a tricky customer in real life, but he was sweet, funny and self-aware, and more than able to deal with a large auditorium. (He’s taking a break from TV to do a live tour, by the way.) When he did a bit of magic, and melted the hearts of even the stoniest TV miseryguts in the audience I think, I was right there next to him. I saw him turn some Lottery tickets into £20 notes by just shaking them. If they were “special” ones, I don’t know how they worked. He also turned his hand all the way round on his wrist, and swapped a playing card he held in his mouth with the playing card held in the mouth of a female volunteer. I know it’s magic, but Iogic disappears when you see someone as cool and casual as Dynamo do it.

The industry session was followed by a public screening, back at the Filmhouse. Sold out, of course, with a crowd that needed even less warming up from me than Doctor Who‘s. We watched Ep1 of his new, typically globe-trotting, celeb-packed series (showing on Watch in September), and Dynamo slipped into the seat next to me in the dark, mid-screening, to soak up the audience reaction. A small child in the row in front turned round and saw him and it was like he’d seen Jesus. After the Q&A, during which he did more magic, he was literally mobbed, enveloped, subsumed by disciples. He’s a star of the Instagram Age and he understands the power of that, but it was still incredible to see how patiently and diligently he gave them all the time they individually craved. Here’s a selfie he had taken with a volunteer, @DimpleMagician:

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His popularity, that kid-from-Bradford approachability and a superstar’s diligence combined to become a health and safety issue. I slipped out into the bar to have a chat to my Dunfermline pal Paul (whose daughter – who was such a fan she’d done a school project on Dynamo – queued patiently with her mum to get the now standard autograph/selfie) and realised that, without any warning, my working holiday was over. And it had stared raining.

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It was with a little sadness that I ate my last breakfast this morning, and packed my bags. I got absolutely soaked through on the walk home last night in the statutory proper Edinburgh downpour, but along the way (I was too mean, and too wet already, to hail a cab), I saw women without jackets or coats, let alone umbrellas or kagoules, determined to have a Friday night out regardless. You have to love the north. The Scots are already independent, spiritually and behaviourally, and Alex Salmond’s million signatures were reached yesterday, but I still fear the don’t-knows will win the day and Scotland will remain adjoined more than just geographically to the bit of the country that votes in Tory governments. (Capaldi’s Doctor blames the English for his woes in Deep Breath.) I will still love them as anyone might love a different tribe who almost speak the same language.

My last memory of Edinburgh 2014 will be sitting in wet jeans in the Hilton bar with a burger and a chalice of Stella, reading Charlotte Higgins’ brilliant, eloquent but depressing final analysis of the BBC in the Guardian, the newspaper that sponsors the Festival that pays my train fare and gives me the golden opportunity to see auld acquaintances annually, and asks me to busk a review of Doctor Who in a lobby. See you in 2015, yes?

Or should that be: see you in 2015, YES.

 

 

 

*Oh, Matthew Hall changed his name to Harry Hill. Whatever happened to him?

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.

Writer’s blog: Week 10

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More solipsism, good idea. It’s Thursday and I took this picture last night, in the dressing room at the Roundhouse in Camden, North London. I was hosting the first of three previews and Q&As for the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival (formerly the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival). You may recall I did some intensive hosting at the Festival last August, and had a rare old, star-spangled time. I’m hoping to do the same again this year, hence my access to this glamorous dressing room last night. It wasn’t my dressing room, I was sharing it with at least four other people, possibly five, as it was also our green room.

Our first preview and Q&A was for The Incredible Mr Goodwin, a brand new vehicle for the swashbuckling talents of daredevil escape artist Jonathan Goodwin, whose amazing feats you may have seen on the likes of Dirty Tricks, or Death Wish Live, or The Indestructibles, or One Way Out, being buried alive, sticking needles through his hand, hanging from great heights, that sort of caper. This is the show that will, hopefully, put him up there with Derren Brown, Dynamo, and other hip performers who do astounding feats – although call Goodwin’s stunts “tricks” and you might feel the weight of his inflated upper arms!

There’s a teaser here, if you dig that sort of thing. It’s like an urbane, well-read Jackass with a wife and kids.

It’s on Watch, which is part of the UKTV “family” of channels, alongside Dave. It’s interesting that it’s on a boutique channel, but that’s a sign of the times. Watch, or UKTV, gave Goodwin and his producers at Objective the budget and freedom they needed to make what is a pretty glamorous, transatlantic “fuck-off moment” compendium (Goodwin’s description), and they’ve been marketing the hell out of it. (He hung from a burning rope off the London Eye on Tuesday, which proved an effective teaser stunt.) I hope the show draws a record audience to Watch, as they’ve taken quite a big punt on this, and as anyone who makes television will tell you, it’s no longer the case that the big terrestrial broadcasters hold all the money.

Anyway, I enjoyed meeting Jonathan – as affable and candid in real life as he seems onscreen (think: the medical opposite of David Blaine, who happens to among those whom Goodwin has advised in the past) – and his producer Matt, and the half-hour Q&A was easygoing and informative. We had some smart questions from the audience, too, which was made up of industry onlookers and paying punters, my favourite being: “Have you ever been psychoanalysed?” (He hasn’t.) Goodwin’s wife and baby appear in the show, to point up the humanity of a man who is prepared to be buried alive or to climb a skyscraper using only gloves and grippy trainers.

The bonus came at the end of our session, when the screen rolled up and Goodwin revealed a large bed of nails, which – surprise! – he didn’t lay down on. He plucked a woman from the audience and cajoled her into laying down on the nails, which turned out to be less painful than you might imagine, apparently. This is because the weight of the body is evenly distributed over the nails. Then came the reveal: his producers lifted the bed of nails, and left a lower bed bearing just the one six-inch nail. At which Goodwin stripped his t-shirt off and laid down on it. For the count of ten.

Whether or not the stunt is 100% honest and “real” or not, it bloody looked real from where I was sitting. And that’s the appeal. In the first show, he pushes a needle through his cheek and pulls it out of his mouth using pliers. He climbs beneath an SUV as it barrels down a runway. He monkeys up a building, past the window cleaner. He puts his hand in a bear trap. It’s entertaining stuff, and it was fun to sit next to Goodwin himself and watch the show on the big screen. He relished watching the reactions of the Roundhouse audience when, onscreen, he pushed the needle up his nose and out of his throat. These stunts require an audience, sometimes a close-up audience of a handful of “witnesses”, to make sense. I must admit, it’s not my usual cup of tea, but Goodwin won me over, with his affability and his apparent minimum of ego.

This made it a fairly unusual Wednesday. I’d spent the early part of it waiting in for a tradesman whose office called to say he wasn’t going to make it. As I think of myself as a tradesman, I was a bit pissed off, but they re-booked him for 8.30 this morning, and he was there, bright and early, and did the job brilliantly, so I’m not complaining. The work I do for people does not require them to “wait in” for me, as I am likely to be sending it by email at a designated time, not knocking on their front door. (Interestingly, on Tuesday afternoon, I was trying to arrange a way of taking efficient delivery of the DVDs I need for the next GEITF Q&A – ITV sitcom The Job Lot, for which I will be talking not just to the writers, but to stars Russell Tovey and Sarah Hadland! – and after a few emails, I decided to just walk to the production company’s office and pick it up myself. That’s the kind of hands-on guy I sometimes have to be. So much fannying around otherwise.)

I seem to be doing a lot of hosting these days. I am a host, just like Hannah’s friend on Girls is a hostess. This is not such a terrible rung to have reached in my 25th year in showbiz. As I always say to the people who employ me in this capacity, I have yet to grow blasé about meeting and talking to people who make telly programmes. Whether it’s a writer, or a producer, or an actor, or an escapologist, they are interesting to me per se. I met a lovely guy called Rich last night. He works for UKTV. When I first knew him, in 1997, he was a runner at the production company which made Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club for ITV. This is how TV works, or can do. Jonathan Goodwin used to be a stunt adviser; he trained to be an actor; now he’s got his own show as a bald nutcase with his name in the title. (Yeah, been there, done that, in 1997 – always be nice to people on the way up, as you’re bound to meet them again on the way down.)

I’m pretty sure they’re nearly sold out, but if you’re a Russell Tovey fan, or Olivia Colman fan (who isn’t?), the other surprisingly intimate GEITF screenings are bookable here. Thanks to Liz for setting it all up, and to that large bunch of young people I fell into enthusiastic nerdy conversation with at the Roundhouse bar afterwards about Breaking Bad, Black Mirror and Game Of Thrones. I didn’t catch everybody’s name. (One gentleman among them lamented the fact that I am no longer on the radio with Josie Long. There is, almost literally, always one, wherever I go.)

These are the cats on today’s calendar. I like them. And thereby hang two tails.

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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.

High visibility

My recurring joke about my role at this year’s Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival is that I was basically a steward. Hosting five post-screening Q&As and one stand-alone “masterclass” (also in actual fact a Q&A), I felt I should by right have been given a high-viz jacket to wear, so that my stewarding was more clearly advertised. I’ve done quite a bit of hosting in my time, and I think I understand the job: it’s to make your guest or guests look good; it is to facilitate. (Clearly, if I was hosting a session with, say, Elisabeth Murdoch or a channel controller, I’d be under pressure to play a more journalistic card, but being the “face” of the Screenings Showcase for the last three days has been to act as a conduit for important information from important creative people.)

For the record, I will log the six sessions I hosted at MGEITF 2012, so that I can look back with fondness upon this blog in a year’s time, when I hope I’m back up on Lothian Road doing the same thing. On Thursday, after an hilarious cab mix-up (you don’t get paid to host events at the Festival, but you do get ferried around and put up in a hotel, and I guess the idea is, you use the opportunity to network and further your chance of future paid work on TV), I arrived at Edinburgh Napier University’s Merchiston campus where a cool outfit called The Network were laying on a feast of masterclasses for their lively media students. And then a suitably frazzled Charlie Brooker arrived, so that I could make him look good. (A cab had come to my hotel, the Apex, where Charlie was also staying, except it turned out that he was staying at another hotel called the Apex. There are four in Edinburgh, which rather undermines the concept of an apex. Anyway, due to this confusion, we were denied an in-car preamble in the cab, and had to hit the ground running.)

Oddly, he and I have only met once before, in 1999 we think, when he was working for a Radio 1 show about gadgets and games, and he interviewed me about a new-fangled craze called “email attachments” (my job was to “review” a selection of tiny films, see?) – quite how our paths have failed to cross since, I do not know. All things considered, we both felt like we knew each other better than we do, and it was bags of fun.

Thanks to Kirsten for these pics. Clips were played as you can see. It’s weird to be sitting with someone while their work is shown to an adoring audience. Before the end of the Festival, I would find myself sitting next to Steven Moffat while a whole episode of Doctor Who was played. (There are no pictures of this, as security was tighter at that session.)

No sooner had Charlie and I finished chatting about his life and works – during which he admitted to “hating” writing and that the engine which drives him to work so hard is guilt from ten years he spent doing very little and smoking dope after he’d left university without a degree – and taken questions from the audience as per convention, than we were ferried off in another cab – he to his hotel where his wife and baby awaited him; me to Edinburgh’s lovely Film House, whose threshold I have previously had cause to cross when I’ve been up for the Film Festival. It’s one of those cinemas that has a nice coffee bar and sells DVDs, but with a very nice, old-fashioned auditorium with a much bigger screen than most arthouses.

The Film House became my home, essentially, for the next two and a half days. My two producers, Fraser and Liz, plus PR Ian, and cinema liaison Evi, made this a very smooth experience. Technically, the mics were always in the right place, and working, and chairs and tables miraculous appeared after each screening, so all I had to do was mount the stage, greet the audience, tell them what they were about to see and who they were would see afterwards, watch the film, and then co-ordinate the Q&A, with furtive glances at either Fraser or Liz in the stalls to know when it was time to wrap up. Apparently, this time last year, many screenings were poorly attended. So this year, they got their act together, streamlined the programme of events and ensured that only screenings with “talent” attached would be included.

Because everything at the MGEITF takes place under one roof – that is, the roof of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre – and the screenings take place round the corner, a three-minute walk away, it was a case of constantly reminding delegates to pop over. Tickets went on sale to the public, and it was good to see a mix of both constituencies. It’s a big auditorium, so gaps were inevitable, but we had enough in each of the five events to make it worthwhile.

Screening one on Thursday was Friday Night Dinner, which returns soon for its second series on C4. I enjoy this show, and to say that series two is more of the same (I’ve seen the first two; the first was screened) is not faint praise. It’s supposed to be. I’d seen all the shows beforehand, on my laptop, but it was a different matter to see them on a big screen, and with an audience, especially when there was comedy to laugh at. They laughed at FND.

We had creator and writer Robert Popper, upon whose life it is based, plus stars Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal, son of Jim Rosenthal, although it was his mum who was in the audience. (They have raised him well; he is a very well-mannered young man.) I mentioned Grandma’s House in a question about Jewish humour, and I felt that even the mention of its name rubbed the otherwise cheery Mr Popper up the wrong way, and he refuted my suggestion that it is Jewish humour. I left it. (We’re both British Library hermits, and have previously bonded over this, although I wouldn’t say I know him.) Simon, who I’ve never met and who looks like he’s been in the gym, denied that there was a second Inbetweeners movie on the table, something missed by the international media.

With little time in which to relax and compose myself – which was a running theme – I turned my attention to the stars and execs of a new BBC3 comedy Some Girls, which they won’t want to be described as “the female Inbetweeners” and is written by Bernadette Davis, the woman behind Game On. Unfortunately Bernadette wasn’t on the panel, which is a shame as I always like to meet the writers.

However, she was overcompensated for by three execs: producer Gregor Sharp, controller for comedy commissioning Cheryl Taylor (recently promoted to controller of CBBC), and controller of BBC3 Zai Bennett. This was, they agreed, too many execs for one panel, and Cheryl opted out. We also had principal castmembers Mandeep Dhillon and Natasha Jones, who arrived with unnecessary efficiency approximate 90 minutes early, before the FND session, which they duly and enthusiastically attended, seeming more than happy just to be have been flown up to Edinburgh for the gig.

They are actually 21 and 19, not 16 like the characters they play, but Jonas has only previously been in Attack The Block, so refreshingly free from cynicism.

Some Girls is not aimed at me. And as a non-parent I admitted to its participants that I was shocked by the language and sexually frank material, but could see that I was supposed to be. It is a lively show, however, and I can see it working on BBC3. (The lineup was much more manageable with four, by the way, pretty much the optimum number. I once chaired a panel with the makers of Black Hawk Down for Bafta and I believe we had six, or even seven, and it was hard going keeping all of them in the mix.)

When I suggested to Zai that BBC3 was hitting a purple patch for comedy, with Him & Her, Pramface and Bad Education, and now Some Girls, it sounded like I was looking for work, but that’s a constant tightrope to walk when you’re there as a steward but are in fact a jobbing freelancer at the same time. (I’m not exactly an aggressive networker, but I did meet a nice man after one of the screenings who might, or might not, have offered me some work. I certainly gave him the name of my agent. I shall say no more, but if it does coalesce into a job, that will be one-nil to me.)

Friday started later, which was nice after Thursday’s relatively early start (I’d had to film Telly Addict at 10am and then rush back to the hotel), and I was looking forward to this one: just Victoria Wood, the TV equivalent of royalty, and on this occasion the writer and exec producer but not the star of another one-off film for BBC1: the excellent Loving Miss Hatto. When’s it on? Don’t ask. As with all of the shows we previewed – except Doctor Who – it does not yet have a “TX date” as we sexily say in TV. Victoria Wood would like it to be on at Christmas, but I guess the controller of BBC1 will be final arbiter.

Thanks to Jock’N’Roll for the two phone snaps. I’m glad to have even blurry evidence that I shared the stage with such a luminary. She wasn’t too impressed with the green room, which was an office upstairs at the cinema with some refreshments on a table and a toilet the staff warned me about, so we had our getting-to-know-you preamble downstairs in the cafe, which meant that sweet elderly people kept coming up to her, a fanbase she seems graciously happy to attract. (One couple had already asked me for my photo and autograph outside the Conference Centre because they avidly read the Radio Times, so that’s my entire crossover with Victoria Wood!)

You’d expect someone with decades of TV success behind her to be confident, but there is not a creative soul in the world who doesn’t need reminding that they are good at what they do, emotional fluffing, if you like. I was unable to stop myself telling Victoria Wood how good I think her writing is over a latte, so this was no hardship; whereas I love Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue because it’s beautifully crafted but sounds unlike the way people talk, I love Wood’s because it’s beautifully crafted but does sound like the way people talk. She has a way of leavening a sometimes heartbreaking scene with a throwaway remark that makes you smile, without it ruining the mood. That happens a lot in Hatto. I hope you can see it soon. It’s based on a 2007 article from the New Yorker, so you can see why it’s right up my alley.

Miss Hatto – on the surface a biopic of a little-known English concert pianist, Joyce Hatto, but much more than that – is partly set in the 1950s, and you sense that Wood really relishes capturing the way we spoke then. (Her previous single-film triumph, ITV’s Bafta-winning Housewife, 49, was set in the 30s and 40s, and again, was written with a deep love for old-fashioned Lancashire speech patterns: “We’re all a bit funny with these hostilities.”)

May I call her Victoria? Victoria was on the back foot a little, as some aspects of Hatto’s amazing life story are not a matter of public record, so a certain amount of dramatic licence has been necessarily but sympathetically taken. She made plain that she has “imagined” a drama out of real events – and the names have not been changed – but because Hatto’s husband, Barry, is still alive, this makes such liberties tricky. I admire what she’s done, but a couple of the questions from the audience about this blurred line between fact and imagination felt almost accusatory, and a certain prickliness was the result. All round, a happy occasion. I would have loved talking to her about her entire career, but there wasn’t time.

Again, with zero breathing space, I then switched gear to expensive HBO/BBC/Cinemax espionage action, for Hunted, whose pilot episode – due, possibly, to air on BBC1 in September, certainly trailed during the Olympics (“coming soon”) – is a cracker, suggesting a worthy replacement for Spooks, whose production company, Kudos, it shares. So I welcomed the “power trio” of creator/writer/showrunner Frank Spotnitz (big cheese from The X-Files), British producer Alison Jackson, and British director SJ Clarkson, none of whom seemed very impressed with my interest in the hoary old contest between US and UK drama (“Which is best?”), so I played that right down. You must adapt to survive in the stewardship game! Instead, I played up the co-production angle, and the Q&A became a celebration of hands-across-the-ocean cross-pollination. Phew.

Spotnitz was softly spoken and of few words, which is surprising for someone who writes, but he may have been jetlagged; however, in constantly and flatteringly deferring to Clarkson (a brilliant director whose CV straddles the Atlantic, taking in Doctors, Life On Mars, Dexter and House), he did us a favour, as her insights were really interesting. I asked her the difference between directing here and in the US, and she said, “Money.”

Thanks to Roland for the above pre-show pic.

Saturday was always going to provide a suitable climax to the festival, with just the one session: Steven Moffat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it sold out within ten minutes of the tickets going on sale to the public. (One of those tickets was bought by Michael Legge.)

My only ever contact with Moffat was at this year’s Radio Times party, where I accosted him, tipsily, and told him how much I loved Sherlock, which I did. I’m sure he’s forgotten this, so it was nice to meet him again on a more even keel. (He had no problem with the green room.) As we broke the ice upstairs, and I tested out a couple of questions on him – this is a real luxury and helps your pre-match confidence – the auditorium downstairs filled with Whovians, some reportedly dressed in Tweed.

Having been granted special access to a top-level-clearance stream of Asylum of The Daleks – first episode of the seventh series of Doctor Who, Matt Smith’s and Moffat’s blockbuster third – I knew the fans were in for a treat, although in my intro I had to impress upon them the importance of not Tweeting about a certain element of the story before it airs on September 1, next Saturday. I made them promise. Steven reiterated this when he joined me.

I try not to fritter away the privilege of this job. Sitting next to Steven Moffat and watching Doctor Who and the Daleks on a cinema screen, while Who fans gasped and giggled in all the right places, gave me a proper thrill. It was illuminating to see how much joy this show brings to a certain constituency. Should I ever get blase about these moments, exterminate me. It was also thrilling to have a full house to finish off with. I handed over to the audience much sooner than is traditional, as I knew they’d have more pressing questions than mine. And they did. One tiny girl of about five had her hand up, and, with prompting from Mum, asked, “Do the Cybermen go rusty in the rain?” and it brought the house down. A magic moment. It threw Moffat, as he recalled writing an episode with a rusty one in.

It wasn’t all work, work, work, of course. (Mind you, nor was the work.) I ate at the pizza restaurant Mat Ricardo introduced me to in 2010, Mamma’s, on my own, which was pretty cool of me. I managed three comedy shows at the Fringe – Josie Long’s inspiring Romance And Adventure, Richard Herring’s filthy Talking Cock: The Second Coming, and Pappy’s career-best Last Show Ever! (two Foster’s Comedy Award nominees in there, although neither won) – and enjoyed pints in plastic glasses with pals Tony and Helen, and Tara and Carl, and Richard and Catie, and Michael, and Matt, in familiar drinking spots like the Pleasance Courtyard, the Pleasance Dome, Brooke’s and the Loft Bar, and an unfamiliar one, the Abattoir. (Bumped into old pal Alan Francis, too – he was on me and Stuart’s first ever radio show, Fantastic Voyage, in 1993.)

I also attended – get me – the annual Guardian dinner, at the invitation of editor Alan Rusbridger, where media movers and shakers and, it seems, me, sit around a banqueting table, eat, drink and, after the tapping of a wine glass, enjoy a heated debate, this year about YouTube versus traditional telly (the boss of YouTube was there). It was brilliant; bracing and entertaining, and a bit surreal for me; other guests included Michael Apted, Mark Lawson, ITV1 controller Peter Fincham, along with various big Guardian cheeses and media moguls. I have never met the ed before, as the Guardian is a huge place, and I work quite near to the tradesmen’s entrance, and I really must admit to being surprised at the invite. I hope this bodes well for Telly Addict.

A mad three days, marked by complementary coffee, the Full Scottish breakfast at my particular Apex, and a small, black rucksack full of Fringe flyers. Back to reality. Edinburgh remains, for me, my Second City. Within moments of pulling in to Waverly Station, I feel oddly at home there. I realise I’ve only ever been up at festival time, and that necessarily transforms it, but I love the stone and the buildings and the incline and the weather and the layout as much as I love thronging the streets at an unholy hour with hundreds of other visitors in kagoules, many of them with lanyards around their necks as if to prove that they are just passing through.

I like the television industry, too. But I value my outsider status. Don’t want to get to “in.” That way lies complacency, or worse, security. Although I’m quite getting into the TV industry uniform of jacket, shirt, jeans and sailing pumps.