It’s over

Those following my Electric Light Orchestra-themed headlines this week will have guessed today’s. For today is Day Seven, the final day of the recording of Series 2 of Mr Blue Sky. Above is today’s schedule. I don’t know if you are able, or can be bothered, to read it, but it lists, in order, every scene we have yet to record, and because today involves the entire cast (minus Navin), plus three star cameo turns, Simon Day, Greg Davies and Angus Deayton. (I know, pretty tasty.) All you’ll see, Harvey ie. Mark Benton, is in every scene except one. This man is earning his radio pittance.

Here are a few of Rob’s photos from yesterday, when the whole family performed a scene from the wedding episode (spoiler alert!), outside the studio in the post-apocalyptic car park of the industrial estate that is earmarked for destruction. (My face, as you can see above, is similarly ravaged, except by biscuits.)

I bet The Archers never do this. (Actually, they might. I didn’t know anybody did this in radio drama.)

At 11.40am, after a full morning’s acting and green-light pressing, we are on schedule. Would you like to see the fictional Easter family pretending to be in a car?

I’m going to post this now, even though we’re totally in the can just yet. I’ll put the last batch of pictures up tomorrow.

Discovery

Green light. Day Four of Mr Blue Sky. This green light, whether mounted on a stick, or sitting on a desk, says something really heavy. It says, “Go.” From where I sit, with producer Anna, studio director Wilfredo, production coordinator Anke (whose name is, aptly, pronounced “Anchor”) and production assistant Rob, in the control room, the green light can be operated. But it flashes green out there in the studio, and it has the power to make fiction start. It’s weird to sit on this side of the glass. The actors know that we can hear every word they’re saying when they’re in there, but unless we press “talkback”, they can’t hear us. It’s an unfair dynamic, but it spells out who’s boss.

Although I’m not an actor, I have gifted myself a couple of tiny parts in this series, DJ and Labradoodle Man, the first of whom has one speech, the second of whom only mutters one or two words when passed in the street with his dog, who is called Martin. I have already been called upon to give life to these two characters (DJ’s speech in the can on Day One; two takes), and when you’re not used to it, it’s oddly disorientating. Paranoia that you are being talked about can set in. In fact, does set in.

In these pictures, you can see me having to act opposite one of the greats, Benton himself. It’s a foolish position to put oneself in; equally, it’s nice to be able to watch a professional working, close enough to smell his after shave, and for him to be able to smell your fear. (Mark Benton is currently appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric, Hammersmith, which means that after a hard day’s reading out my nonsense, he has to go to a theatre and read out Shakespeare’s. I don’t imagine there’s much difference between the two.)

Lunchtime is important in life. In drama, doubly so. You need to recharge your batteries. And although someone from Equity does not come round with a stopwatch to ensure you get 60 minutes, it’s accepted that lunch is non-negotiable. And even on a low-budget radio production, you get nice Pret sandwiches, there’s constant hot and cold running drinks, and the biscuit jars miraculously refill throughout the day. This is the actors’ green room area, with a couch suitable for power-napping on if you’re not required for a certain length of time, or if you’ve got a new baby and you’re getting no sleep at home. (Radio is great, in that you get to hold your script in front of you when you act, and don’t have to learn your lines, although some preparation is expected, and its absence is noted.)

I’m keen to show you round the studio while the actors aren’t in it. This is the main area.

And this is the stairs, which are for walking up and down if your character is supposed to enter by coming down the stairs, or exit going up them. It’s quite hard to stop actors going up and down them, even if no dialogue on the stairs is required. It gets them in the right frame of mind.

It is Tuesday. We finish on Friday. That’s also non-negotiable. And known unknowns still haunt Anke and her tightly-plotted schedule – a hospital appointment here; an audition there; an agent trying it on there – all of which have to be absorbed. We may even have to move the lunch hour from 1-2pm on Thursday to 12.30-1.30pm. I know. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff. There’s continuity to keep abreast of, too. Yesterday, Monday, we recorded the final take of a scene involving four characters, and we’d all forgotten that Harvey was supposed to have a bandage on his nose, and thus Mark was supposed to talk with his fingers on his nose. Mark remembered on the way home last night. We checked the take. He was right. So we’ll have to re-take that one.

Otherwise, we’re still on schedule. Yesterday, I tweaked the press release. At the end of last week, I wrote the summary of episode one that’ll go to the listings magazines. It’s all happening.

And nobody’s noticed the running theme of the headlines yet …

For ease, here are the previous days:

Day One: It’s a living thing; Day Two: Out of the blue; Day Three: On the third day

On the third day

Day Three of Mr Blue Sky – after a working weekend I spent script editing someone else’s script, but don’t feel sorry for me! – and it’s all slotting together. We had an easy morning, in that we recorded all of Harvey’s monologues from all six episodes, which by definition, only required one actor, the mighty Mark Benton, who did such a sterling job, we were ahead of schedule by lunch. (The most complicated day we’ve saved until last – Friday. That’s going to be a frazzler, with pretty much the entire squad in, including all three of our star cameos, Simon Day, Greg Davies and Angus Deayton. Photographic evidence of this car crash of talent will be forthcoming.)

By lunchtime, the whole family was here. They are not a family. They are four – sometimes five, sometimes six – unrelated professional actors, but in the bunker of a radio production, the lines between reality and comedy drama blur, so that actors are often addressed over the talkback by their character names, and this is not meant as an insult. If anything, it’s a compliment! When Tyger Drew Honey arrives, having been stuck in traffic in Hammersmith, we say, “Robbie’s here!” When Mark arrives, having been stuck in the same traffic, we say, “Harvey’s here.” Nobody’s going “method” but if they wished to, they’d get no complaints from in here, behind the glass.

In the pic above, we see Tyger, physically blurred, as he is a highly caffeinated 16-year-old and very seldom still. Sorcha Cusack, who plays his racist grandmother Lou, is like acting royalty, and – guess what? – a sweetheart. She hits her mark every time, and is a pleasure to have around. And she was Brad Pitt’s mother in Snatch.

Below, we see Mark and Claire Skinner, as Harvey and Jax. The scene they are recording involves the couple being in bed. This is why they are doing some top quality “quilt acting” as it’s known in the trade. No, it’s not a sex scene. Mr Blue Sky is family listening.

On Friday and today, the weather has been glorious, which is apt, of course, but also frustrating. Because I am working in my breaks and during lunch, I literally do not see the outside world between the 9am start and the 6pm finish. The glorious weather is wasted on me. But again, do not feel sorry for me! This is the best gig in the world.

Happy birthday to us

So, just for the record, the official left-to-right of the great 6 Music presenters photo, taken before Christmas, and almost definitive in terms of the current squad. Many have asked about the identity of certain individuals after I posted it on Twitter, so here goes:

BACK ROW: D Letts, G Garvey, S Lamacq, T Ravenscroft, S Maconie, N Metaxas, S Keaveny, M Everitt, J Cocker, L Laverne, C Matthews, M Riley, H Morgan

FRONT ROW: M Radcliffe, J Holmes, A Collins, C Charles, G Coe, T Robinson, L Kershaw, C Hawkins, M Lachlan-Young

Out of the blue

Day Two of Mr Blue Sky series 2. The palatial middle studio at Soundhouse on what is now an ominously deserted industrial estate in Shepherd’s Bush is our place of work until the end of next week. Already, we are into a rhythm. We’re recording the six half-hour episodes very much out of sequence, in order to accommodate the intricacies of actor availability. There is something utterly thrilling about seeing massive piles of scripts, especially if you wrote them. This is why I was drawn to pointing at them in the above pic.

In the background of this shot from the green room, or anteroom, or outhouse, is Navin Chowdhry, who plays builder Rakesh – and imbues every one of his lines with such seductive innuendo we had to get him back to provide romantic intrigue with the happily married Mrs Easter. In the foreground is Rosamund, star of all the This Is Englands and Life’s Too Short, and, as of now, the new Charlie in Mr Blue Sky. In real life, as in fiction, she turns out to be something of a force of nature. You need one of these on a gruelling week of drama. (Last year we had the walking fireworks display Joe Tracini, who now belongs to Hollyoaks and, one must assume, keeps their morale up when the going gets tough.) Rosamund travels down each day from Nottingham, so she wins the prize for the longest commute, I think. The other cast members travel from as far afield as the South coast and from as near afield as pretty much over the road. Although there is much about the piecemeal assembly of a radio comedy that is not like a day at the office, it does a good impression of a day’s work, in that we start at a fixed time, end at a fixed time, and break for lunch.

Today, as you can see below, those nice people at Pieminister sent over a box of pies for us to mark National Pie Week. Although some of our cast – naming no names – are watching their weight, most of us tucked in. This was a welcome invasion by the outside world into our mostly windowless existence. Here are the cast eating their lunch (I have saved their blushes by not actually showing them shoving food into their mouths, but you can see the hands of TV’s Claire Skinner delicately dissembling her Big Cheese Pie with a plastic knife and fork.)

This was my Cow Pie before I dissembled it.

We’re on schedule as I write, which is just after lunch. Our producer and production co-ordinator have created a spreadsheet that must be obeyed. As a writer, you just merrily knock this stuff out, without too much of a care for how long scenes are, or how many characters are in it, or whether or not a character is heard enough times in a scene to suggest that they are still there – all stuff that presumably becomes second nature the more you do radio drama, which is what this essentially is – but on the day, these poor actors have to make sense of it, hit their marks, live out the fiction in a plain studio and give their best performance. The Easter family of four has become five in Series 2, and with the addition of Harvey’s racist Mum for a couple of episodes (played with fabulous gusto by the amazing Sorcha Cusack of the Cusack dynasty), which means some scenes have six voices, which is both an amazing sight to behold through the glass, and an amazing thing to hear through the speakers, but quite a headache to choreograph.

This (below) is the man who makes much of it happen. He’s Wilfredo, our studio director, who works wonders with sound effects both digital and physical, and mans the desk throughout. He is a laconic and calming presence. When all around is chaos, he keeps his head.

I shall end today’s entry with a snapshot of the whole Easter family, who, as I write, are pretending to eat in a pizza restaurant. From left to right: Claire Skinner (Jax Easter), Tyger Drew Honey (Robbie Easter), Rosamund Hanson (Charlie Easter), Mark Benton (Harvey Easter), Kill-R (Javone Prince) and Lou Easter (Sorcha Cusack).

It’s a living thing

The sun is not yet shining in the sky as I am writing this over breakfast, but I am optimistic that it will. Today is Day One of Mr Blue Sky Series 2. It is a year to the day that we embarked upon the recording of Mr Blue Sky Series 1 at the Soundhouse studio in West London – on the same industrial estate as the Innocent smoothie factory (which has since moved) – and by luck and judgement, this is where we find ourselves today.

Previously on …
If you are not up to speed with Mr Blue Sky, it is my first ever solo-written comedy. It’s mine. All mine. Made by Avalon, it aired on BBC Radio 4 in May and June last year; four episodes. It revolves around Harvey Easter, played by the mighty Mark Benton, who is the world’s biggest optimist, a pathology challenged on a daily basis by the world around him. You can read all about the making of Series 1 in this rather long blog entry from last year.

Because it was a new show, I was rather superstitious about it, and did not even name it until we had finished recording. This year, I can be a little more open about it, as it’s Series 2. It starts airing on April 9, which is just over a month away, so it’s almost instantaneous. This reminds me why I love making radio. And it’s why everybody loves making radio: commissioning decisions can be made more easily, the technical task of making it is one unencumbered by wigs and lighting and requires only a very small and intimate crew, which means you all get to know each other very quickly and a healthy siege mentality takes hold; also, actors of a very high calibre can be recruited, as six half-hour episodes can realistically be recorded in six days, or thereabouts.

This is Day One of the recording. I guess the actual Day One was Monday, when we had the very first full cast read-through of the six scripts which I have been working on since before Christmas, to the detriment of many other things, including writing this blog. That’s how devoted to Mr Blue Sky I have been.

I will attempt to blog more regularly this time, and add pics as and when. As you can see from the pic above, taken by the spy Michael Legge on the way to the read on Monday, just over half of the original cast are back. It’s been something of a nightmare trying to reconvene the actors from Series 1, during which, for producer/director/script editor Anna, the word “availability” has been the bane of her life. As you can see, we have Mark Benton back, as well as Justin Edwards, Javone Prince, Navin Chowdhry and Michael, but the parts of Jax, Charlie and Robbie have been re-cast. So we welcome Claire Skinner, Rosamund Hanson and Tyger Drew Honey to the family! (The observant will have spotted that Claire and Tyger have already developed a fictional mother-son relationship on Outnumbered, so that worked out rather nicely.) Although it is sad when some of the original cast can’t come back, you have to admit, we’ve been very fortunate in being able to fill their big shoes with some big feet.

This is the studio control room. Javone and Rosamund are setting up through there in the darkness, ready for their first scenes together as Kill-R and Charlie. And … action.

A personal explanation

It’s a bit confusing. I posted this earlier, but felt it was too personal, on reflection, and removed it, so as not to add to what had turned into a bit of a deluge of goo. But, having taken down my bit, I also had to take down the comments, which seemed a bit harsh, on further reflection. So I’m putting it back up. But please don’t post abusive comments, as many were doing. They won’t be published, so you won’t look clever in front of anybody. If you find this whole issue self-indulgent, then back away. Go and read something else.

It’s important that you know: I have posted Richard’s response to this blog entry at the end of the blog entry. This was never intended to be “my” side of the story, simply my response to the confusion and speculation that built up in cyberspace around vagueness. My point of view is only half of the picture. Richard’s point of view is the other half. His response is now added to this entry at the bottom.

Look at the two happy friends in the above picture. This was taken almost a year ago, and shows me (right) giving a birthday present to Richard Herring (left) on the Saturday closest to his birthday, in the 6 Music offices. We were at the 6 Music offices because, in July last year, we were almost six months into our stint in the Adam & Joe slot on Saturday mornings, having been booked for a month in February initially. What fun we had. The only downsides to the run that eventually lasted 13 months were a) not knowing how long it would last, which prevented us from ever feeling secure – and we were still billed as “in for Adam and Joe” months into our stint on the scrolling text on DAB radios and other electronic guides – and b) having to work around Richard’s touring, and around Edinburgh, which took us both out of action for a month in August.

This week, as fans of the Collings & Herrin Podcast will know, we put out some “pretend podcasts” from November and December 2006, when Richard used to be a guest on my then-regular 6 Music weekend shows, and we would review the newspapers in a humorous and irreverent way. Listening to these recordings now – which were never podcasts, it’s just a half-hour of radio with the music cut out for copyright reasons – it’s amazing how young and silly and in love we sound! Little wonder that, a year after I stopped having a regular 6 Music show, we sought to recreate this exciting and natural chemistry by starting a podcast in Richard’s house.

That was in February 2008, after a year of not doing anything together. At that time, I wasn’t even being asked to deputise (or “dep”) at 6 Music, as I had seemingly fallen out of favour with the station’s bosses. Who needs them, I thought. So it was that Richard and I embarked upon our podcasting adventure, pretty soon falling into a rhythm of producing an hour of unedited, unscripted, unrehearsed nonsense every week, in his attic, using GarageBand and the in-built mic on my laptop. Collings & Herrin were born.

Over the next three years, we would not only keep this ridiculous podcast up, and pre-record podcasts to fill in the gaps when Richard was on tour or on holiday (I was seemingly never away), we also branched out into live performance, where our podcast relationship was made flesh for paying punters. The format stayed the same. But we changed. The podcast Richard became more and more dominant, and the 6 Music Andrew, the one who used to be in charge on the radio, became the butt of many of the podcast Richard’s jokes and tirades. The irony was: in real life, we became closer.

When, in February last year, our podcasting reputation had finally earned us a shot at doing a radio show and we landed the prestigious Adam & Joe slot when Joe had to go off and make a hit movie, we were chuffed. Even though we were now equals, I knew how to “drive” the desk, so took charge of the buttons and faders. Also, Richard made no secret of the fact that he didn’t much care about the music we were playing. This became part of our 6 Music schtick – we even built in a silly feature where I would “teach” Richard how to use the desk and he would press the wrong button (a rare example of something that was almost planned and rehearsed!) – and nobody seemed to object.

However, come the end of 2010, as if perhaps to compensate for the fact that I had my hands on the faders and Richard had never been given an email address, he grew more and more dominant on 6 Music, just as he had done on the podcast. The line between Herring and Herrin grew more blurred. I could see the comedy value in being the “victim”, as, for most of the time, I knew I wasn’t really the victim, and that most people who listened knew that. (Part of the real Richard, the one who is my friend, really does think I am an “idiot” but it’s not the whole story, clearly.) I personally think we allowed the podcast relationship to infect the radio show, and by Christmas, it had changed.

Meanwhile, over the preceding year, I had become 6 Music’s “super sub”, filling in for pretty much any presenter who was ill, pregnant or on holiday. This was a development that I relished, as I love being on 6 Music on my own, and I love having the freedom to do other stuff while still being a “regular” on the network. I enjoyed doing the show with Richard on a Saturday, and with Michael Legge when Richard was gigging, but the solo shows were, and are, much less stressful. Richard delights in pushing the envelope, and always has done. This is even evident back in 2006, if you listen to the archive. It’s what makes him brilliant and “edgy” (sorry to use a commissioning editor’s buzzword) and vital. He is a unique professional comedian who occupies an increasingly enviable position in the comedy firmament: he plays by his own rules, plays to larger and larger audiences, and is now regularly invited on telly (despite his protests to the contrary). He works incredibly hard, and deserves every ounce of this success. I know he has moments of insecurity and doubt, but then, so do all comedians. It’s a competitive business, and one that favours the young and the new, so to maintain a viable career by gigging and writing new material, and branching out, for 20 years or more is no mean feat.

Me? I had a stab at stand-up – ironically, because of the confidence that working with Richard had given me – but I am not deluded about it. I am not a comedian. I am a writer, and I am a broadcaster. These are the areas that might just continue to provide a career for me. Not comedy, or at least, not performance comedy. I envy Richard in many ways. His hard work is paying off. He is known as a pioneer in new media, and although I have had a hand in that, it’s through AIOTM that he’s made the biggest mark. I was never going to be a part of AIOTM – it was Richard’s brainchild, and it was his project, and it would be separate to Collings & Herrin. I understood that.

I was, of course, the fictionalised butt of a lot of the jokes on AIOTM, and I think my discomfort at some of that is pretty well know, but Richard was respectful enough to pull back on that, and even invited me onto the stage, twice, to reclaim some dignity. I appreciated that. But AIOTM was Richard’s thing, Richard’s success, Richard’s cult, Richard’s Sony nomination. Just as Richard Herring’s Objective is Richard’s thing. And his Edinburgh shows are Richard’s things. I have my things, which are, currently, a Guardian TV review, a slot on Zoe Ball’s programme, and … yes, my regular solo work on 6 Music.

So, when 6 Music asked me to pilot a show with Josie Long, with a view to trying it out on air in July when Adam & Joe’s latest bloc of shows ended, I was up for it. The writing had been on the wall for Collins & Herring on 6 Music from Christmas. We’d had a couple of run-ins, which we don’t need to rake over, and all I can say is, I’m glad our last shows together on the network were less grumpy and shouty, and I think we ended on a good note. Which is why, understandably, many of our listeners, and podcast fans, are disappointed that Richard and I will not be filling in for Adam & Joe in July. Instead, it will be me, with another comedian. Josie and I have been given five Saturday shows, after which she, like everybody else in comedy, will be in Edinburgh.

Richard knows Josie better than me, although I have come to know her through the gigs that I have done for Robin Ince and Martin White. We are not forming a double act. We are co-hosting some shows, to see how they go. I think Josie will be great. I’m still kind of there to push the buttons and the faders. I appreciate that not all of our old listeners will like this change. But I hope they give Josie a chance. I don’t need to be given a chance. I’m an old 6 Music war veteran in comparison to Josie. It’s her moment, not mine.

So, Richard is cross that I have agreed to do a show on 6 Music without him, and with someone else. I respect him and his reasons for being cross. But I was not secretive about what was going on. And he knows that I rely on 6 Music now for a good chunk of my work. I have been a 6 Music presenter since 2002. I had a show on the first day ever of 6 Music. It was through my regular show that I was able to get Richard on, first on Roundtable, then as a regular guest. Our chemistry began to bubble up on 6 Music. But we both have separate careers, and always have had.

Richard is doing a run of solo podcasts in Edinburgh. Brilliant. I will download and listen to them all, and wish I was up there with him. But I can’t afford the time or the money or the stress to go to Edinburgh. If I was going up, I feel sure we would be doing the podcasts together. But I am not a comedian, and I have no right to be up there. Also, the summer months offer up many “deps” at 6 Music, which, as I believe I have made clear, take priority. We’re all self-employed; we all have to take our work where we can get it.

I love Richard Herring, in a funny sort of way. The penultimate time we saw each other was when we went to see Seinfeld – a great evening with my friend! I am sad that my decision to take a job without him has made him cross, and uncomfortable. But this is why the C&H podcast is on a break. We are on a break. I think, like a married couple, we will weather the break, and in fact, the break will do us good. We have both been working too hard.

I felt I should express my feelings about this before my first show with Josie, this Saturday, to clear the air. (Richard wrote about it on his blog yesterday, albeit more briefly than this.) I suspect Richard will not be listening on Saturday. But then, he claims not to listen to anything I do without him, or indeed listen to our podcast. He won’t have listened to the “pretend podcasts” from 2006. If he did, I think he would be amazed how sunny and equal and silly we sound.

I hope we will be sunny and equal and silly again.

Richard’s response (which was posted below) is now added to this entry, for full disclosure and fairness. I am grateful that he added it.

The issue for me is not that Andrew is doing a show with someone else – of course he should be allowed to do work on his own and with other people. But I think to do the same slot that we were doing with someone else is disloyal to the friendship that Andrew (sincerely) professes here. It’s personal choice and Andrew is entitled to make that, but if the roles had been reversed I would not have considered doing the same slot with someone else for a second. Because I know it would have been upsetting and humiliating for him. I too feel quite humiliating and I think it would have been easy for Andrew to decline doing these five weeks work because it put him in a difficult position and that would not have affected his other work with 6Music. If 6Music had given the slot to someone else entirely then that would have been sad, but at least we’d have stayed united as a double act. I don’t think Andrew considered the impact of his decision at the time, but that in itself to me speaks volumes.
I have worked hard on trying to help him out by buying equipment for the show and paying for entry to the Sonys (cos he couldn’t afford to), selling his DVDs at gigs and keeping the 6Music show going during tours when I should really have been resting. I also very much wanted to do the Collings and Herrin podcast in Edinburgh but Andrew couldn’t make the commitment. I wouldn’t have minded any of that, but then the decision to do a slot that we’d made (temporarily) our own with someone else seems to show a lack of commitment to the double act that makes it harder for me to justify spending my already stretched time on it.
I suspect we will ride this out. I have always made time for C&H both on podcast and radio before however busy I’ve been- and it was a massive strain to keep the radio show going on last year’s tour. I am very busy at the moment and after Andrew’s decision I don’t feel that I should be pushing myself so hard if it’s something that he can treat so casually. He told me he as doing the show in advance, but as a fait accompli. I wouldn’t have minded so much if he has discussed it and offered to take into account my feelings on this.
The thing is that even if it isn’t an intentional slap in the face, it really reads like one. Whether it’s from 6Music or Andrew or both. I will probably get over it. Or maybe from the comments above about the imbalance in the relationship it might be time to take a longer break from it or stop. We were only doing it for fun and if it stops being fun then maybe we shouldn’t do it.
I don’t think that will impact on our personal friendship (and I suggested the break partly to make sure we didn’t) and I have enjoyed the stuff we’ve done and am grateful to Andrew for supporting me at a time when a lot of people didn’t give a fuck. But I am a person for whom loyalty is the most important thing and so in a sense that makes this decision a bit harder to make
Don’t give Andrew a hard time about it. I am sure the show with Josie will be great. And this is is in no way her fault. I think it’s an odd decision by Andrew to be honest, but he’s made it now. I guess it’s the fact that ironically enough I saw him as a friend rather than a colleague (we always joked it was the other way round) that has made this a harder thing to take. But I have taken knocks in this business many times before and I am not being precious or looking for sympathy, and I hope I am not being over sensitive, just trying to explain my feelings about it.
The irony is not lost on me that we’ve reached this situation because Andrew has offended me. But in the podcast the offensive things I have said were almost always just jokes. And this is real.
And I worry that it’s something that will affect our dynamic if we do try and do more stuff.
It’s great that you all care so much and even greater that you’re (mainly) not taking sides.Mummy and daddy will sort this out in time. We still both love you very much. It’s nothing that you’ve done.

PS: I have disabled comments on this blog post because it’s taking up way too much of my time moderating them (and believe me, they need moderating). Also, this way, Richard gets the last word on the matter.

Five Angry Men and One Woman

Well, not angry, exactly, but animated and exercised and passionate about whether the music from You Only Live Twice is better than the music from Goldfinger or not. (It is.) On Friday March 18, I was invited by BBC Radio 5 Live to join a jury charged with selecting the Top 10 instrumental film scores of all time for a forthcoming concert by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, whose running order would be based upon our hard-fought selection. It’s all part of BBC Philharmonic Presents … a week of concerts themed around the proclivities of various BBC radio networks [find out all about it here]. 5 Live’s was chosen to be film-themed, and goes out live in two Fridays’ time, June 10, from 2pm, curated and presented by its cult film-reviewing/bickering duo Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode, whose “Wittertainment” initiative has defied nature and survived Simon’s move to Radio 2 (it remained in place on a Friday afternoon on 5 Live, which shows just how valued it is by the Beeb). The idea of these concerts is to officially launch the BBC’s new Salford Quays home, MediaCityUK, which has a venue built in. I wish I was going up to Manchester for the gig, but I am too busy. Should be a fine afternoon’s “instrutainment”. Tune in.

You can see us all gathered around the warm glow of a green studio light that bright Friday afternoon, a jury of six charged with the ludicrous task of stacking up a dozen great orchestral film scores. From left, then: Mark Kermode, the good doctor, linchpin of the Corporation’s film coverage and – as luck would have it – a skiffle musician in his own right; chairman, the genial Simon Mayo, and Mark’s unofficial handler; the Philharmonic’s General Manager Richard Wigley (who’d just flown back, with the band, from Japan, when the earthquake hit – if you want airlifting out of a stricken country, be connected to the BBC!); eminent and garrulous American conductor Robert Ziegler, who actually conducted one of our shortlist, and about which he was extremely humble and gracious, There Will Be Blood; colourful, platinum-selling pop singer and actress Paloma Faith, the only jury member to dress up and wear a massive hat for the occasion as if it was on TV (unless she always looks like that, or was on her way somewhere else); and me. I had my laptop out because I’d forgotten to print off my own personal shortlist.

We all brought in a personal wish-list, as instructed, and to kick things off Simon asked us all to read them out. I went first, and as I remember just kind of rattled them off. Paloma went second, and opted instead to make a passionate case for each one of her choices. Because she is a singer, and had been part of a previous concert of film music, conducted by Mr Ziegler, most of her choices had been influenced by that experience. We discussed them all. (The whole judging process has been made available as a podcast by 5 Live, which is nice. If you really want to hear it, it’s here. I have yet to listen back to it, so maybe it’s not as tense and fraught as some of it felt on the day. I sincerely hope you can hear Paloma eating her ambient BBC canteen salad.) I enjoyed Robert Ziegler’s propensity for singing the themes when they came up – I seem to recall a spirited dum-de-duh-dum-dum-ing of Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven – again, I may be misremembering. Mark kept his powder dry and was the last to pitch in with his own personal favourites, most of which were on the obscure side and many of the other jurors weren’t familiar with them. That’s the way – uh-huh – he likes it. (The production staff on the other side of the glass were heroic on the day: the session was taped, as live, over an hour, and they managed to rustle up clips to play through our headphones almost as soon as they were mentioned. Even some of Mark’s. Top work.)

The final shortlist of 11 (don’t ask) – heavily influenced, it must be said, by Richard Wigley’s valuable input on the sheer practicality/impracticality of an orchestra actually playing the extracts on the night/afternoon, and by our collective aim of not putting any composer in twice (except for John Barry, because we couldn’t help it!) – included Raiders Of The Lost Ark, You Only Live Twice, Blue Velvet (or at least a specific song by Angelo Badalamenti from it, Mysteries Of Love), Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Taxi Driver, The Mission (specifically Gabriel’s Oboe), The Godfather (one of my picks, although not exactly difficult to pitch), The Magnificent Seven, Midnight Cowboy, There Will Be Blood, and last but not least, 2046, which Paloma championed from the start as her absolute, foot-stamping must-have, a score from a still fairly obscure Wong Kar-Wai sci-fi love story by Shigeru Umebayashi, who, if he knows he made the shortlist, would be pretty surprised, I should imagine.

You’ve got to love Dr Kermode – the case he made for Badalamenti, whose most famous score, after all, is for a TV series, was so feverish, the whole room went away convinced he is as vital a film composer as Bernard Herrmann or John Williams or John Barry. (Mark looked like he might commit suicide if we didn’t allow the theme from Firewalk With Me, which hardly anybody was familiar with, but we didn’t, and he was talked down off the roof in order to accept Blue Velvet.) I also like the idea that Mark was egged on to volunteer to play the harmonica with the orchestra for Midnight Cowboy. “Oh, go on, then …”

A funny, odd and mostly enjoyable way to spend an hour, and democracy in action. Hey, it’s the only way I’m going to get back into that 5 Live studio on a Friday afternoon.

Photos by Jane Long.

Be glad of first night nerves

It doesn’t get any easier. The first episode of Mr Blue Sky aired this morning, at 11.30, on BBC Radio 4. I was as nervous before it went out as I might have been waiting in the wings to go onstage. (Actually, in the action photo above, I have emerged from behind the glass to play the second of two cameo parts, a cancer patient called Mr Bellamy, and I am breathing in the rarefied thespian air of Justin Edwards and Mark Benton for a brief moment on the shop floor.) Come half past eleven, there was literally nothing I could do about it: the first 28 minutes’ worth of my first solo-written sitcom was being given birth to, in public, and if I had, somewhere along the line, made a massive mistake, it would no longer be a secret. My cover would be blown. All that work, all those accursed rewrites and rethinks, all those drafts when it was in development as a TV sitcom, all that heartache when it was bounced from pillar to post, all that stress as it took shape in the mouths of professionals in a West London recording studio, all of them kind enough to give the impression that they thought it was alright … no hiding place! Mr Blue Sky went into the world. By midday, I was spent. (It’s on iPlayer here, by the way.)

I’ve been forcing myself from the margins of showbiz onto the public for most of my life. Why? Why do I put myself through it? I don’t know. The search for approval is the usual diagnosis of this unsavoury habit. Some kind of emotional neediness is another. But my Mum and Dad were always very attentive and appreciative when I shoved cartoons under their noses as a tiny boy, and shoved more elaborate cartoons under their noses as a more complicated teen. (I guess even they grew blasé about my creative itch and the yards of drawing paper it consumed, and once you’ve seen your eldest son in one school play, you’ve seen him in them all, but you dutifully turn out anyway, because you made him and it’s your fault.) I remember a few milestones very clearly: the first scribbles of mine that were actually “printed” – and by that, I meant rattled off on some ancient carbon-based contraption at Abington Vale Middle School (don’t look for it etc.) when I was about eight? I had rudimentary drawing skills. I wasn’t that good. I was just more naturally equipped than most kids with a pen. So the headmistress, via my form teacher, pressed me into service to supply a couple of illustrations for a lyric sheet for an end-of-term carol service. These had to be scratched into some carbon paper – a most irksome process for a boy used to felt tips and crayons. Anyway, one was of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, another was of a carol singer, a large musical note emanating from his mouth in the traditional Beano style, while a pound note was dropped into his hat. Miss Malins, the headmistress, was moved to comment upon the illustrations at the service, as the circular design I had etched into the pound note made it look like a ten pound note, and she cautioned parents that they need not donate such an extortionate amount!

After a misleading brush with top billing in an Abington Vale Primary School Wind In The Willows (I was a slapstick Toad with eggbox eyes), my school drama career settled into the rhythm of one spear-carrier after another. In fact, in one play at Middle School, I played a “Sentinel”, whose job it was to stand motionless beside a king’s throne throughout, even when Anita Barker tickled me with a feather duster. It got a laugh, without me lifting a finger. One Christmas, my friend Angus and I performed a two-hander at an end-of-term talent contest called The Dentist, which we’d conceived, and in which I played the patient and he played the dentist, but whose hilarious comic conceit was ruined by the curtains being already open when Angus and I laid out most of my Dad’s toolbox on a table, thus giving away the escalating narrative before it had started. We didn’t win.

At Weston Favell Upper School, my friend Paul Garner and I achieved a modest, geeky kind of “fame” when, through his Dad, who worked at the Chronicle & Echo, we had caricatures of film stars we’d drawn printed in the paper, which led to an appearance (above) on Look East. This was my TV debut. Our next door neighbour, John, who had a proper camera, took the photo off the telly, as it went out, as nobody had a video. Also at Weston Favell, I helped write and conceive Not The Sixth Form Revue (this was in 1982, so you must forgive the now rather hackneyed title), and gave myself a couple of plum parts, but I understood the democratic sketch group aesthetic and kept out of most of it, finding an equivalent level of satisfaction hearing my words coming out of other performers’ mouths. I guess this is when I realised that I was in fact better off writing for other people, and that there was gratification to be gleaned from doing just that. The career in journalism which eventually awaited me after four years of drawing more pictures and failing to impress any of my tutors with it, gave me a chance to communicate with the public, or at least the NME‘s readership, without having to wait behind curtains for my entrance. My first byline in the paper consisted of just my initials, after a couple of capsule reviews of Vietnam films. This thrilled me to the bone nonetheless. In those pre-computer days, the only way to validate your words was to see them in print.

I think if I’d landed at the NME ten or 20 years earlier (ie. if I’d been born ten or 20 years earlier), I might have remained satisfied with shoving my words under people’s noses and never have troubled television or radio with my face and my voice (neither of which I was entirely in love with at any stage, especially the latter). But this was the 90s, and journalists were being increasingly recruited as pundits – what we’d now call talking heads – and I was willing and able. (“Able” in the sense that I will keep talking when there is a dead air to fill.) Along with my new soulmate Stuart Maconie, who had a better face and a better voice, I drifted from print onto the airwaves, and we were suddenly writing words for ourselves to say. I wonder if anyone remembers Fantastic Voyage, our first radio comedy show, six parts on the old Radio 5, in which we played hospital radio DJs called Andrew and Stuart? We both got radio careers out of this fertile period of cross-pollination, but unlike Stuart, I was restless and still casting around for something else to do, and he edged ahead of me into mainstream broadcasting, while I dabbled with a new toy: scriptwriting.

At Family Affairs, and then EastEnders, I learned new skills. This was the toughest of all the jobs I’d ever had, and for that reason alone, it gave me the most satisfaction. After anything between four and six drafts of an episode of EastEnders, to see the finished programme go out, on BBC1, with a guaranteed audience, and to have your name at the beginning or the end of it, was the feeling of a job well done. (I saw more experienced writers than myself taken off an episode if it wasn’t progressing fast enough between drafts, and knew that I was only as useful as my last script. This keeps a writer on his or her toes. You can get away with a lot more as a music radio DJ than you can as a television scriptwriter. Radio is transient, and that’s why it’s such a lot of fun to do.)

Had, at any stage, I concentrated on just one aspect of the media, I might have become an expert, or a specialist, or a master of one single trade, rather than what I am: a hyphenate, a dabbler, a fly-by-night, a second or third choice for the occasional lucrative panel game if somebody’s dropped out, someone who had a crack at stand-up for a year, someone who has been on any number of TV and radio shows once, never to be asked back, and a writer who’s most known for collaborating with others, because I’m fairly easy to get on with and don’t have tantrums.

And here I am, scriptwriting, but also on the radio. It doesn’t get any easier. I’ve been forcing myself from the margins of showbiz onto the public, sometimes by stealth or as a stowaway, for most of my life. Searching for approval and being too thin-skinned to ignore criticism. But I listened to the first episode of Mr Blue Sky go out, live, at 11.30am this morning, at my Mum and Dad’s, with my Mum and Dad, in the very living room I left behind in 1984 in order to go and seek my fortune in London, a city I adore and despise at the same time, but it’s where the work is. They seemed to enjoy the show. Others, on the internet, and by text, were equally supportive. I knew that the actors were good, and that the production was good, and the editing, and the badly-played piano, and the closing theme tune by Jim Bob, but I had no idea if the script was.

I was nervous when the actors first read it out, round a massive table at Avalon, in March, and I was nervous when I first listened to the finished programmes, on disc, about a month ago. But none of this compared to the butterflies I felt when I woke, feeling a bit sick, this morning. It’s a ridiculous ordeal to put yourself through. But the satisfaction when it’s not a complete disaster is the clincher.

Ironically, while I’m up at my parents’, my next job is to get out my old felt tips and draw the caricature for that nice man who bid £363 for me to do so on TwitRelief. So I’m back at my Mum and Dad’s, drawing a cartoon to shove under someone else’s nose. I’m slightly apprehensive that I won’t be able to actually draw a caricature any more. But fear gives courage wings.

Day Four Pt2

Cheers. I look happy in this picture, too, don’t I? This never happens. I mean, it pretty much never happens. I am in a pub. On my own. At lunchtime. Here is my excuse: I left the coffee shop at St Pancras and headed over to Tottenham Court Road in Central London to where the studio is. The studio where we are recording the extra scene for Mr Blue Sky. When I got there, it turned out that, it being lunchtime, the producers and editor had gone for lunch. So, unwilling to give any more money to a coffee shop and having used up my Costa loyalty card privileges, I went to the nearest pub, and, using a special logic based on a combination of factors (it’s a nice day; I never do this; there were lots of spare tables; I felt a bit spare and lost; I need somewhere to wait for Michael Legge; it’s what Steve Lamacq would do and I am Steve Lamacq this week), I gave money instead to a pub for a pint of Staropramen, which I am hip enough to know is called “Star” when you ask for it, if you are an experienced drinker.

I am no longer an experienced drinker. I feel illicit. I know that I can drink a whole pint and still operate for the rest of the day without falling asleep, especially as I have many packed lunch elements still in my bag to help see me through my radio show, but it’s rare at my age to feel illicit. This is highlighted by the fact that I am clearly in a student pub. It’s near to the University of Central London, or UCL, which is huge, and if you ever hear students complaining about tuition fees again, tell them to stop ordering lunch from a pub, as all these students are. It’s seven or eight quid for a fish and chips or burger, and if they can afford to pay that when I can’t, they must be rolling in it. (Debt. They are rolling in debt. But they would be rolling in less debt if they made a packed lunch every day, like I do.)

Because I don’t go to pubs much, I like going to them. When I was at college, I used the canteen, where food was cheap and subsidised, and so were we, as we still got grants for being a student. Maybe UCL doesn’t have a canteen. I bet canteens are nicer now than they were then, too. Ours was like a school canteen. We loved it, but it was. I bet university canteens are all modern and healthy now, and I bet they have sandwich shops too. I do not deny students the right to go to the pub. But they shouldn’t eat in them.

(Ha ha, I accidentally pushed in front of three students at the very crowded bar because they were too busy talking, presumably about the cuts, to hear the barman say, “Next, please!” They were next. But I went next as I was alone and not talking to anybody. They should take pity on me. I have no friends.)

Well, here I am in the edit. This is where my Radio 4 sitcom, Mr Blue Sky, is currently being turned into an actual thing that they can play out on the radio by my producers Anna and John and editor Rich. I don’t think my presence there on a daily basis would help. Better to just turn up, as I did today, and listen to a completed edit. Also, we had Mark Benton and Michael Legge in to record my brand new scene, one which we didn’t realise we needed in Ep1 until it was lashed together. It’s an establishing scene which, when you hear it on May 16 on Radio 4 at 11.30am, you won’t notice, hopefully.

I had to leave for 6 Music before they’d finished, and it took a while for Mark and Michael to get back into character, after two weeks away from the show, but as I left, they were Harvey and Sean again, and in safe hands. (The studio requires a code tapped into a keypad to operate the lift, and another code to get into the actual studios from the corridor – that’s high security.)

The 6 Music show was dominated by Roundtable, which, neatly enough, was revived for what used to be the Teatime slot when that slot was mine, and is now Steve’s. But for this week, it is mine again. Not much has changed. Some records, reviewed by a trio of guests, either musical or comedic, or, in the case of Matt Berry, both, as his new LP is why he’s on the market. As ever, it’s a potentially sweat-inducing presenting job, as you have to keep on top of the tracks being played, jolly along the panellists, read out extracts from what used to be called the “chatroom” and time your way up to the news, and to the handover to Marc in Manchester at 7pm. Also, it’s your job not only to impart information about the records under the hammer, but to elicit meaningful comments from the guests.

Dave from Frankie & The Heartstrings – a lovely band from the North East, whose singer, Frankie, I have guested on Roundtable alongside – is a bone-dry individual, but very funny, if you can listen past his deadpan delivery. He’s the one who came up with the line, “Crosby, Stills and Gash,” to describe Fleet Foxes. A fine, upstanding individual, and drummer (finest member of any band), he drank a glass of white wine in the pub afterwards before heading back to Sunderland. (If it turns out to be Newcastle, I will be killed.) Matt Berry, so familiar from The Boosh and The IT Crowd and Darkplace and Snuffbox, was very technical about the production techniques on the records, and held back from being overtly funny, even though he is. (He orderd a “scotch and coke” in the pub.) Meanwhile, Legge (pint of Becks) whom I know too well to be dispassionate about, brought a welcome frenetic energy to proceedings. I would say this, but he’s very good on the radio, I think. (Paul Simon and Yuck drew in terms of points given, for the record.)

Only a quick “one drink” in the pub afterwards, as we all had gigs and homes to go to, or trains to catch, but it was nice to unwind for a blessed hour.

A full day, and an exhausting one. Another full and exhausting one tomorrow.