Whatever | June 2010

Whatever | The Great Volcano Inconvenience
God help us if there’s a war

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Wanda Jackson, the 74-year-old First Lady of Rockabilly, was stuck in Germany and couldn’t make an interview on my 6 Music show; the comedian Sarah Millican had to cancel an Edinburgh preview I had tickets for at a North London theatre pub because she was unable to fly back from the Melbourne Comedy Festival; and my asthma was slightly aggravated for a few days. Welcome to my Volcano Crisis.

It all started when, in the early hours of Wednesday April 14, Shetland Islanders detected the smell of rotten eggs in the air. By the next day, like an errant child, Britain was “grounded”, as the sulphuric cloud of volcanic ash caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland started pluming across Europe. The Great Volcano Inconvenience had begun, and nothing would ever be the same again …

Until the following Tuesday, when a BA flight from Vancouver touched down at Heathrow, the skies started to refill with metal birds and Sky started to fill with scintillating footage of ordinary people coming through arrivals halls looking a bit inconvenienced. Willie Walsh, union-intolerant CEO of British Airways admitted it would take “weeks” to resume normal service, but promised, “we will make every effort to get our people back home,” as if perhaps he really was airlifting refugees or troops, not running a £8.9bn business for profit.

During the Six Day Inconvenience, 95,000 flights were cancelled and an estimated 150,000 Britons trapped on holiday. I am not without sympathy for those who missed weddings, or lost money, or, in the case of the Kenyan flower farmers, had to sit and watch tonnes of roses bound for our Tesco Metros and BP Connects rotting under the Nairobi sun, but for the majority of us, it was lovely. Not a single plane In the sky for the best part of a week. As Stuart Jeffries hymned in the Guardian as he lay on the dewy grass at Kew amid magnolias and witch hazel, “The sky is filled with good news. One of the world’s busiest flight paths, that normally sullies much of west London with howling jet engines from 6am, is silent.”

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What prelapsarian paradise was this? On the Thursday, ITV suspended all adverts for the 90 minute duration of the first leaders’ election debate, merely adding to this surreal glimpse of a frankly more agreeable world. The word “chaos” reigned. Not actual chaos, just the word. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was stuck in New York. The Cribs, Delphic and Frightened Rabbit failed to make Coachella in California. Whitney Houston discovered that there is a lower ebb than appearing in the Bravo reality show Being Bobby Brown when she took the ferry from Holyhead in order to make a gig in Dublin. The Iron Man 2 world premiere was switched from the Westfield Shopping Centre in London to a presumably less rubbish Los Angeles. My friend Stuart Maconie, stuck in Venice, switched into travel writer mode and provided Twitter followers with a witty, illustrated commentary on his journey back to Mark Radcliffe by train, via Milan, Zurich and Paris (“Erstfeld station. The Didcot Parkway of the Alps”).

Come Saturday, when constant plane noise over my neck of London usually taints the summer’s first glass of rose on the patio, I’d stopped feeling guilty for enjoying the respite. A hyperventilating media and our glad-handing politicians had combined to turn the ash cloud into a new Dunkirk (“no-fly misery”), with Gordon Brown promising warships and the Daily Mail fortuitously selling World War II In Colour DVDs off the page. We Brits do not have a lot to be proud of these days, but we still have “pluck” and “resilience”, a myth reliably peddled in any self-started crisis. We certainly showed some world-class queuing with bags at Calais and Santander in our darkest hour.

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The clamour to present the Six Day Holiday Extension as some kind of duty-free 9/11 masked the real story: our perverted view of cheap and easy air travel as a basic human right. (Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one telegenically stranded celeb, was rare in admitting that the experience of having to endure five unplanned days in Mauritius had made him realise that flying is “a privilege”.) I’m not the planet’s most assiduous green but I have read a lot of books on environmental matters, including a couple of particularly terrifying ones on peak oil, and it doesn’t take a genius to foresee a foreseeable future where there’s not actually enough fuel to support our decadent devotion to economic growth and stag weekends in Prague.

The Six Day Chillout – quickly blamed on overreaction by the “health and safety” brigade – was an unprecedented and glorious glimpse of a post-Ryanair world. Like the “marooned” holidaymakers, it was all brought home for me in the words of Samson Lukoba, legal and ethical trading manager at Oserian, a vast floral factory perched on the shores Kenya’s Lake Naivasha: “The British, they want flowers every day, even just for their houses, not necessarily for special occasions.”

This was a special occasion. As if choreographed by James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory it so beautifully illustrated, April’s volcano – or “vilecano” as it was anthropomorphically christened by the silly old Mirror – showed us a world in which we must eat tiny bags of dry roasted peanuts and get deep vein thrombosis at home. And grow our own bloody flowers.

Published in Word magazine, June 2010

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Andrew’s Columns

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There once was a magazine called The Word, although I always called it Word, as that it what it was originally called. Had I never written a single word for Word, I would have been its most ardent admirer (and subscriber), and would have lamented its passing with the same moistened eyes. As it happens, I did write for it, but I looked forward to the new issue arriving every month for 114 consecutive months between February 2003 and August 2012 not just to see how my words looked on the hallowed page, but to read all the other words by all the other smart and witty people on all the other pages.

Records show that I began writing a regular page column for Word at the very end of 2004, initially about TV and called Telly Addict. (Not a bad name.) In November 2006, that column’s brief was expanded to include … everything. It was renamed Whatever to reflect this. Whatever ran until the end of 2010, when it stopped. I was sad about this, but pulled myself together and carried on writing reviews and features for my favourite magazine until its final issue, including the third before last cover story, about the Stone Roses. (My only other cover story was Elbow, both pictured.)

As the magazine did not reprint its articles or reviews on the website (which instead predominantly acted as a water cooler for the Word massive), I find I am sitting on an awful lot of my own published writing that I remain very proud of. With the passing of the years, some of it even takes on a socio-historical sheen. So, without rhyme or reason – and mainly because I chanced up a random column from 2010 about the disruption to life as we know it caused by an Icelandic volcano while clearing out my email’s “sent” folder this morning – I thought it might be fun, if not necessarily an actual public service, to reproduce some of these columns here.

I hope you enjoy them, and that they bring back some fond memories of an era when you could publish magazines and a loyal knot of the discerning would buy them.

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An index of columns randomly posted so far:

June 2010 | Memories of the Great Volcano Inconvenience
November 2008 | The branding of everything
September 2008 | Unquestioning TV festival coverage
March 2007 | Health food packaged for idiots
June 2009 | The age of the overstatement
April 2009 | Choosing a daily newspaper
November 2010 | The death of the printed word
April 2010 | 3D or not 3D?
August 2008 | Barack Obama
January 2009 | Grey squirrels
July 2007 | Indie and the charts

Writer’s blog, Week 49

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I know. It’s been a while. It’s been more than a while. A gentleman discerning enough to use an avatar of Mark E Smith asked me via the medium of social media the other day what had happened to my blog. He surmised, correctly, that I have been too busy to keep it up. The truth be told, this year has been one of working harder and earning less, a pattern clearly replicated across this whole stinking world. Although I’ve not been writing here, I’ve been writing. And although I’ve not been writing in the desired form of a script that has been made into a television programme, I have been scriptwriting. It used to be known as development hell, although it’s hardly a hell, as you do get paid a stipend to write a script, even if it never gets past the stage of being words on a screen. (Actually, I always print my scripts out to read them, as they don’t seem real until you are holding them in your hands. If they exist physically, you can pretend they’re being made into television.)

In the accompanying picture above (what would nowadays be called a “selfie”, although these were invented long before the camera-phone), I am sitting in a hotel room in Aberystwyth in Ceredigion, West Wales. The hotel is the Belle Vue and it’s right on the front. Here is the view from my window last night when we checked in at around 7.30pm after the five-hour, one-change train journey from London.

AberPM I love the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls cawing. Because I spent pretty much every summer holiday as a boy in North Wales, I feel very much at home in this country. I’ve spent more time in North and South Wales, though, and less in Mid-, and it’s my very first time in Aberystwyth. If you’ve been following the story, you’ll have probably guessed why I’m here. The groundbreaking Welsh/English detective noir Y Gwyll, or Hinterland, is set and shot in Aberystwyth. I am here, in a landscape you could not make up, in weather you’d usually have to put in afterwards, to effect what’s known in the trade as a “set visit”. That is, I’ve been invited to visit the set, which in this case, was an actual barn near a farm just outside Borth, where a temporary production base had been established under a gazebo.

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I did take some pictures of the filming of a scene involving Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias, Mali Harries as DI Mared Rhys and another actor as a farmer, but these may be embargoed, as series two of Y Gwyll won’t be airing on S4C (in Welsh) and then BBC Wales (in English and Welsh) until autumn 2015. There’s a one-off special on S4C on New Year’s Day, which is intended to sate fans of the show in the interim. (If you haven’t seen it – and you really should – it’s a case-of-the-week crime-solver that has its own broader arc about Mathias’s past, so you can dip in and it will still work.) I’m sure you’re aware that the show’s trick – which it didn’t invent, but is rare – is to film every scene with dialogue twice, once in Welsh, once in English (and some Welsh, where applicable), thereby literally doubling the work of the cast and crew, but in the process doubling its marketability in an international TV market, something that’s clearly working for them, having sold it to Denmark, Holland, Belgium, the US and Canada (on Netflix) and countless others. Not bad for a show set in Aberystwyth.

On our windswept arrival last night, Tash from the PR company (in charge of delivering me to my destination) and I repaired to a bar and cafe – highly recommended locally – called Baravin. While the cast and crew are filming, some based in Aber, others in Borth, many of them far away from hearth and home, this magnificently sited venue seems to be a magnet. It faces out onto the seafront and serves artisan pizzas, draught beer and something called an “espresso Martini”, which sounded like a terrible idea at the beginning of the evening, but a good one at the end of it.

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At Baravin, we met Richard Harrington, Mali Harries (both of whom I appear to have known for years, or at least that’s the impression I got from the warm way they greeted me) and producers the voluble Ed Thomas and more quietly spoken Gethin Scourfield. We had a tremendous evening with all four. I didn’t take my dictaphone out, but we chatted about the show, and the way it’s produced, and it’s all “colour” for the feature I will write to coincide with transmission of series two in about ten months’ time. Our hosts provided plenty. Richard is dark and authoritative onscreen (if you’ve not seen Y Gwyll, you may remember him from Spooks), but in real life, he feels hewn from the same rock as his namesake Burton. An elemental figure, I of course blame him for talking me into an espresso Martini.

You sensed he was up for going after-hours, but the rest of us were knackered and opted for ending the evening when the bar did. (His co-star and producer/director were not even drinking.)

It being Wales, where the stars are visible in the sky, and a promenade, where the sea puts you to sleep, I slumbered hard, woken only once at 4am when two young women who had gone after-hours sang a modern pop song under my window from the pavement below. I could only admire them.

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Tempted out for a pre-breakfast walk along the front to the pier this morning, I felt blessed to witness the murmuration of starlings, who shot out from under the Royal Pier and filled the sky. I don’t think my non-iPhone really captured the glory, but you can’t blame me for trying, presented with that. This may be a writer’s blog, but I’m painting a lot of this with pictures.

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One full English/Welsh inside me, and we were off to the set. This is me, pretending to be a vital cog in the Y Gwyll machine, sitting on a plastic chair under the gazebo, watching a monitor and wearing some headphones so that I can hear the Welsh and English words being said by the actors into the microphones. I am well wrapped up against the cold. It would have been pathetic of me to even admit to myself that I was feeling the cold, as I was only on set for half a day, and these dedicated professionals do it for twice that long, every day, for weeks on end.

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This photo depicts me and S4C Drama Commissioner Gwawr Martha Lloyd, whom I have met before, showing our frozen appreciation for the arrival of on-set catering in polystyrene boxes wrapped in tin foil and cling film. (For the record, I am holding two portions of main course and dessert, only one of which is for me.) After about five hours of being among the elements, it was the thought of getting into a warm car and being driven to a warm train station where a warm train awaited that was keeping me alive.

Ten hours on the train there and back, but 20 hours spent in the salty, reed-filled embrace of Aberystwyth and Borth, getting a boyhood Proustian rush from the Welsh signs, the stern, symmetrical, chapel-like Welsh houses and the sight of endless sheep. Ceredigion really is “Hinterland Country” now. If you know the first series, you will literally spot houses and bridges and garages you’ve seen on telly in real life. This is a show that, unlike so much geographically faked TV fiction, lives and breathes its authentic, living, breathing environments. Gethin and director Julian Jones let us accompany them on a location scouting trip to Borth where we trod infinite dunes and were almost literally run off private farmland after a wrong turn.

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An unusual day in a writer’s life, and a rewarding one, whose printed fruits exist only in the future.

Writer’s blog, Week 26, Monday

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Back in London, as I missed the humidity, litter, scaffolding, oligarchs, controlled parking and housing bubble. They don’t even have an Aldi here! It’s Monday. A new week of fiddling while Rome burns, if fiddling is a metaphor for doing little bits of jobs rather than anything meaningful on a large-scale ongoing commission, and Rome is a metaphor for my career.

With Sitcom A in post-BBC3 limbo and Drama A in a holding pattern while a potential broadcaster gets round to reading the 32-page, 17,000-word synopsis (come on, hurry up!), my creative juices are being diverted into the channel marked “NEW IDEAS”. Although what we call in the trade “small jobs” overlapped and expanded to fill my three full days in glorious, sun-dappled, Northamptonian exile (a TV review for the Guardian Guide’s Other Side page which shouldn’t have taken that long but I still feel as if I’m on probation in the actual paper; my Telly Addict script plus clips; some time-consuming editing work which already feels as if it’s taken three times as much time as I charged for), I am now dedicating that key bumper period between being awake and falling asleep to formulating at least three new sitcom pitches.

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The World Cup is on. (The football one.) Because of the four- and five-hour time difference between here and Brazeel – to use the official pronunciation from ITV’s lilting credits sequence – some games kick off at 11 o’clock. At night. I’m usually tucked up in bed by then, not gearing up for 90 minutes of silky footballing action, sometimes involving a team that happens to share my nationality which has a Pavlovian effect on my general interest. England supplied their traditional dose of expectation and disappointment on Saturday night and into Sunday morning. I managed not to drink anything until 10pm, which was restraint in excelsis, but I was still imbibing at 1am, which is not my usual style unless at a wedding.

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This is me at the Guardian yesterday afternoon, fighting my way through the Lego (they’re doing their now-traditional Lego reenactments of the World Cup highlights, which are always a joy), to enact this week’s Telly Addict (coming imminently, watch this space) which includes a review of the opening ceremony and a little comment on the difference between the ITV and BBC presentation. I won’t be reviewing any games for the Guardian, and although somehow, in previous years, I’ve found time to post regular bulletins from World Cups and Euro Championships on this blog (representative samples: World Cup 2010, Euro 2012), I don’t see that luxury happening this tournament.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say (Pogba’s cake-style haircut, Andy Townsend’s continued use of the phrase, “got a toe to it”), it’s just that the best pithy commentary comes from armchair experts on Twitter, and my brain isn’t big enough to have my phone on during televised matches. The TV picture, the phenomenal Guardian World Cup Guide, conversation: that’s quite enough stimulus for me. I admire you if you can cope with all that plus social media and stay sociable in the room.

I’ve enjoyed the high-scoring matches I’ve seen so far, by the way. Own goals, yellow cards, famous players being rubbish, headbutts, physio breaks his own ankle … it’s not been without incident, has it? I can’t believe I had to choose between it and the Game Of Thrones season finale. Culture can be so cruel.Blog16JunG2

I may well make this radiant, sanguine face while producer Tom has left the studio to do something important and to tread Lego into the carpet. There’s a serious insurgency afoot in Iraq, and as if the imminent destabilisation of the Middle East and a faction too horrible for al-Qaeda committing something we loftily call “war crimes” wasn’t depressing enough, it means Tony Blair is on my television and in my newspaper. Fuck off! Admit defeat! Go and live in Donald Rumsfeld’s house if you like it so much!

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Stop press: managed one World Cup game – the game of one half: Germany Portugal – and the finale of Game Of Thrones. The latter lacked a character as vicious, malevolent and ruthless as Pepe. And it went to penalties. [Throw in further Game Of Thrones/football allusions here]

Writer’s blog: Week 4, Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

MediaCitysign

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.

2011: the 1% vs. the 99%

Well, that’s enough lists. How about I sum up 2011 in terms of things that came and went, and stuff that went right and wrong. This was a year of momentous news from around the world, some of it uplifting, much of it troubling. The so-called Arab Spring, which seems not to recognise the seasons, has been both. The disparity between the Level 7 meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March and George Monbiot’s turncoat “green” conversion to nuclear power made it a very confusing world. I can no longer treat Monbiot as a beacon of common sense.

I’ve long admired Will Hutton, but his assessment of the current Tory government’s handling of the Eurozone crisis – that Cameron is not in politics for the sake of politics, merely to feather nests for his toff mates and then move on, hence his veto on behalf of the Square Mile – puts him back at the top of media commentators I take notice of. I have found the news to be the most compelling narrative of the year, despite all those films and TV shows I usually write about. It’s hard not to feel utterly powerless when capitalist institutions are allowed to go about their merry business even after they’ve fucked it up for everybody.

Certainly we can protest and we can occupy and we can boycott (I can’t wait for my contract with Vodafone to end so that I can extract myself from their dirty dealing with HMRC, although let’s face it, one telecommunications giant is as shifty and shareholder-beholden as another); but the financial system that governs us all is not something that anybody can control, seemingly. And governments aren’t in a hurry to change it.

One goes on with one’s life. I find ecological tumult and civil unrest more worrying than the failure of financial services, although it’s the money markets that have turned me, not uniquely, into a penny-pincher. Another year of cuts at home, and no holiday. This is the way we live now; when I spend time among my friends and family, we all seem to be talking about money – the rising cost of utilities, rip-off Britain, bargain-hunting, vouchers, the shocking injustices of curbed council spending and rising unemployment in the public sector – this is the national conversation. In this regard, I think I’d rather spend time with people who don’t work in the pampered media. I find I’ve had a more serious 2011 than I expected.

I ended my flirtation with stand-up comedy in 2010 and I’ve not looked back. I’m quite happy to let others stand up and make me laugh. I missed Edinburgh, in both senses of the word, but I needed to make a break from my silly fantasy about becoming a comedian. I’m too old for all that, and much better off trying to get better at writing scripts.

I spent a lot of time interviewing Iain Morris and Damon Beesley this year for a long piece about the genesis of The Inbetweeners for Word magazine, work that I’m inordinately proud of. Instead of trying to be them, I was happy enough translating their testimonies into what I think was a clear and entertaining read. I’m not a journalist, but I do get a big kick out of seeing my words on a printed page. I love printed pages.

It was a surprise to find myself engaged on a professional basis by the Guardian, a newspaper I’ve never managed to get into by the front entrance. I’ve been reviewing telly and harvesting my own clips on a weekly basis under the guise of Telly Addict since April, and it’s a proper thrill when it goes live on their website, almost in secret, around midnight on a Friday. I like the fact that all 33 of my little eight-minute films, most of them directed and edited by the indefatigable Andy Gallagher, are available to view. I don’t really know what my job at the Guardian is – am I a critic now? – but I do know that it’s possible to work for them without anybody outside of the digital republic knowing I’m in the building.

On a slightly more even keel, this has been my tenth year at Radio Times, and even though its publisher, BBC Magazines, has been sold to the highest private-sector bidder in order that the Corporation can “deliver quality first” to a Tory government that despises it, I seem to have survived another upheaval. I only really go to the office once a week, but it’s nice to have a bit of routine in the midst of an otherwise amorphous and insecure career. Long may they keep me on. It’s a paper magazine that still sells a million copies in an age when paper is on the way out, or so we keep being told. It’s too big – and represents something even bigger – to fail!

I survived 2011 without succumbing to the iPhone or the Kindle. I feel very good about this. For a start, I can’t justify the expense. For another thing, I still value not being connected. I spent two days at my parents’ house this week and I checked my emails once, on their PC (as it was officially a working day and I am self-employed). If I’d had a smartphone, I would have been tempted to check them every five minutes and it would have tainted a happy visit. Once I’m online, I will check Twitter. So, best not to be constantly online. I retain mixed feelings about social networking, and feel pure for boycotting Facebook and all the other ones, but Twitter entertains and informs me. Unfortunately it can also show the worst aspects of human nature in action: pettiness, meanness, disruption, cruelty, idiocy. I am constantly pruning in this regard. And I love carting unwieldy books around in my already-too-heavy bag. I love it.

One must make social networking work for you; one must not work for it. The adventure with Boston’s Andrew Collins on Twitter, who was so kind and sporting, and let me have his Twittername in March, was a heartwarming slice of human interaction across two continents. I wish it could all be like that.

I thank Martin White and Danielle Ward for giving me the chance to show off, every couple of months, at Karaoke Circus. This is as close as I get to being in a gang, or a club. And it’s certainly the closest I get to being a performer. Many things have ended this year. Let’s hope Karaoke Circus keeps going, in some form or other, in 2012. Again, it represents the 99% of human nature that’s silly and supportive and kind, rather than begrudging and abusive and self-aggrandising.

I do not get on the telly very much (I’m not saying that in a Richard Herring “Pleeeease let me be on the telly” kind of way), so I guess it’s rather apt that over Christmas I’ll be seen on two talking heads shows – Epic: A Cast Of Thousands, BBC4, December 24, 10.40pm, repeated December 28, 11.40pm; and The Greatest Ever Carry On Films, Channel 5, December 27, 10.05pm – the sort of programme that people expect me to be on. (C4 repeated The 100 Greatest Toys from last Christmas, and it’s amazing how many people remarked upon it, many assuming it was new.) I know my place. I’m not going to be picked to present anything, or to appear on Have I Got News For You, so it’s nice to be asked to pontificate and busk at a three-quarters angle every now and again. Keep your ambitions small and avoid disappointment!

I am 46. I have been skulking in reception of The Media since 1988. That’s 23 years in, or near, showbiz. And yet I still get excited about having my photo taken with someone famous. Long may this continue. I am cynical in many ways. I literally disbelieve the news. I distrust every single politician on television. I am tempted by every conspiracy theory going. I assume everyone is corrupt, or simply in it for the money. And yet … give me half a chance to grin next to Jean Marsh or John Humphrys for a camera, and I will, happily. You should never get jaded. I can’t believe I’m still so starstruck, but I am, and that little burst of twinkly innocence is worth hanging on to.

I took delivery of a new Apple MacBook Pro this year. I am using it right now. It turns out to have a fault with the Ethernet input. Not something most users would even notice. But I tried to connect it up to my stubbornly old-school broadband router at home and the Mac would not recognise the cable. However, if you plug it into my old MacBook, which is all sluggish and tired, it works. Hence: it’s the socket, not the cable, or the router. I cannot be arsed to take it into the menders, so have brought my old MacBook out of retirement and now use it at home if I need to get online. In this, my enduring love-hate relationship with Apple – and my inert tendency towards Luddism – flourishes. I feel bad that Steve Jobs worked and fine-tuned himself to death. Nobody should let their work kill them, but from where I’m sitting, that looks to be what happened. I will not let my work kill me. In 2011, I kept my weekends largely for “family time”, which includes DIY, digging holes in the garden, baking biscuits and, frankly, doing nothing or catching up with what’s on the Sky+ from the week. I’ve worked Saturday mornings on 6 Music for some of the year, but only because I want to maintain my relationship with the station, and with its listeners. And who turns down work? I’m sad that they’re taking me and Josie off the air for at least a couple of months in 2012, but I’ll be glad to have my Saturday mornings back.

I first met Josie Long in 2008, when I made my debut at one of Robin Ince’s inclusive comedy nights at Battersea Arts Centre. I have performed on the same bill as her – thanks to Robin, and Karaoke Circus – on many an occasion since. But this year was the first time I’d worked with her. It was an experiment on the part of 6 Music, and I feel that it worked. I am certainly grateful to have had the chance to work with her, as she is a breath of fresh air on many levels, and she has changed me for the better. She seems built for the tumultuous times we live in. I think I was built for the 80s, so it’s good to get an upgrade, politically speaking.

The August riots were horrible. They spread like a very fast rash down to my end of South West London, but did not actually reach my high street, despite all signs that they might. (If the riots did any good, it was in binding communities: I found myself in meaningful conversation about social unrest with the old lady who works in my local newsagent, and the lady in the queue behind me. It’s good to talk.) When Clapham Junction was looted and despoiled, I could almost smell the smoke. I identify with some of the anger that clearly underpinned the mini uprisings – about reduced public services, job losses and the overarching disparity between ordinary people and the fabled 1% – but I’m comfortable enough in work and at home for this not to find an outlet in stealing some trainers. However, forgive me, but anything that makes David Cameron even momentarily uncomfortable is fine by me. I want him to think, “Shit, why didn’t I just stick to my cushy job in PR?” on a daily basis. This is, after all, his adventure and we’re powerless to opt out of it – so no wonder sparks fly and blameless local traders are smoked out of their livelihoods by enraged but directionless youths.

We all have to eat. We all have to work, or at least try to work. I don’t know how the rest of you cope with kids. It’s expensive enough feeding and heating two adults and a cat. Those of us who are self-employed must take work where we can get it. I have been paid by Rupert Murdoch this year, on more than one occasion. I also pay him to deliver satellite television into my house and for one of the Sunday newspapers. Principles are harder to come by in a recession. Equally, I doubt if Rupert Murdoch knows that Sky1 has a new sitcom called Gates in production, one of whose writers is me. (He would have us believe that he doesn’t know anything much about what happens at the various companies he runs, of course. But he’s lying about a lot of that.) I still regret crossing the NUJ picket line in November 2010. The fact that I refused to cross it when they went on strike this summer reflects, I hope, a re-hardening of my old principles. As far as I know, only myself and Lauren Laverne stayed away from 6 Music on that day. I do not believe in name-calling, and it must be up to the individual conscience, but in 2010, when times were even less hard than they are now, I allowed a fear of loss of earnings to influence what became, for me, a practical, dispassionate decision. I learned this summer that it cannot be made without passion.

At the end of the year, I find myself more serious, more passionate, more realistic. I think I still have a few more years of energy left in me, and I suspect I will need to make the most of them if this laughably gelatinous career is going to see me through to anything approaching retirement.

The elephant in the room for 2011 remains my relationship with Richard Herring, which effectively ground to a halt after Podcast 166 [pictured above, with oddly prescient absences where he and I should be on his sofa in the attic]. I didn’t realise I was bringing it to an end when I made my momentous decision to work with another comedian on 6 Music, but history tells us that it was my doing. I feel sad that it came to an end without the chance to say goodbye. When, 21 weeks later, we tried to mend things, it was, again, my decision to knock it on the head after Podcast 167, which is literally the only podcast I have never listened to. It was too painful, and I didn’t enjoy recording it, so had no enthusiasm to listen to it, as I have traditionally done since February 2008. I was always the only one of us who listened back to the work. Richard was, perhaps correctly, more inclined to let it go and move on. Having kept going through the “tiny Andrew Collings” storm, I assumed we would go on forever. I was wrong. I retain a tiny hope that Richard and I will reconnect, if not professionally, then personally. I really like him, after all. And we did some amazing stuff together. We even got paid for some of it. Friendships do have a habit of hoving in and out of view. I have old friends I’ve not seen for years but whom I still consider to be friends. So all hope is not lost. Lots of things began and ended in 2011, but this was the biggest and most difficult.

Such things are sent to try us. I expend an awful lot of energy trying to be nice and decent and polite and moral, so it was unpleasant to have upset a friend in a way I hadn’t anticipated. But at least I never called him a “mong.” That would be unforgiveable.

Hey, it’s nearly Christmas. I could do with a couple of days off. Thanks for reading this blog this year. I am always surprised by how many visitors I get a day, even when I’ve not posted anything new for a week. I have so much work to do I don’t really have time to write this. Or to take a couple of days off. But sanity is important.

Here’s to many more vouchers in the year ahead. We must not let the bastards grind us down. You know who the bastards are.