The OK foundation

It can be told. Last Tuesday night, in the Main Hall of the Maidwell Building, at the Avenue Campus of the University of Northampton, the frankly legendary Bill Drummond and I gave a joint lecture to students and paying customers as part of the Articulation series of events, curated by Associate Fellow of the university John Harper, who taught Bill in 1971 when he did the one-year foundation art course on this very site, and who taught me in 1983 when I did the one-year foundation art course on this very site. The experience changed both our lives forever and set us on very different paths through art, music and the media, converging occasionally along the way. We both give thanks for that formative experience.

It was John, always a force of nature, who inspired us both, 12 years apart, and who had the momentary lapse of reason to suggest we join forces for one evening under what was a fairly hastily conceived umbrella: Art Vs Art. John’s first, insane optimstic email was sent to both of us at just after midday on May 14 this year. By 3pm that afternoon, we had both said yes, and a date was fixed – far enough into the future to seem conceivable. (For the record, although a long-standing fan of his various works, I had only met Bill on one occasion, although it was to interview him on 6 Music in 2008 for his terrific book 17, so we had, it seemed, bonded sufficiently.)

Over the ensuing months, the three of us pinged emails back and forth, in search of some kind of shape for this live event, which remained amorphous but hopeful even after the tickets had gone on sale. Bill and I had been photographed, for the 6 Music album, in 2008, and this unique shot was all we had for publicity, so out it went into the world.

In it, you can sense the disparity in height (I look up to him etc.), and in attitude. My grinning inanity compares unfavourably with Bill’s authoritative gravity. But there it was.

Over the ensuing five years – five years! – the parting in my hair would change sides, and I would stop wearing black t-shirts that were already frankly inappropriate for a man in his 40s; while Bill would remain pretty much the same. He’d already found his visual brand.

The passage of time turned out to be key to our lecture. (Was it a lecture? Or was it too men talking about themselves? Maybe it was both.) John Harper had caught us both at an impressionable young age, a decade apart, and, as Bill stated, the course at what was then a technical college and years away from attaining university status taught him “not just to look, but to see.” For me, it broadened my artistic palette, and gave me the freedom to express myself in new ways. I’ve always thanked art school – both Nene College, as it was in 1983, and Chelsea School of Art – for exposing my obsession with drawing cartoons for the commercial outlet it was, allowing the act of writing to take over as my creative impulse. I used to draw cartoon strips. But it was the writing in the bubbles and the captions that turned out to be my calling. (God, let’s hope so, as without practice, my drawing ability has withered.)

Now, photographs were taken. The big one above is a phone shot of the sign outside the building, which I intended to relegate and replace with one of me and Bill, when one was supplied. But one shall not be supplied, for the very sound reasons given at the bottom of this blog entry. In the event, and of the event, I only have photos of me and John. Thanks to Fiona Cordingley for supplying these. They’re very good.

Here though is a nice shot of John introducing us. He is hiding behind a photocopied shot of him as a younger man in the 70s; more passage of time. When I arrived at Nene, aged 18, he blew my mind, with his fine art sensibilities and empowering “schemes.” (“What’s the scheme?” he would inquire of his students – not always a question you could answer.)

The “scheme” turned out to be tag-lecturing. Bill (just out of shot, to the right) would tell a relevant anecdote. Then I would tell one. Thinking on our feet, we found hooks and references in each other’s ramblings to feed back into our own. It must, at times, have seemed to the excellent, attentive, wide-age-ranged, in-tune audience of a couple of hundred as if we had planned it all out. Here, you can see my slipping the first JAMs 12″, All You Need Is Love, onto the turntable we asked for. It was fun to be able to go and rummage through my bag-for-life while Bill held the audience’s attention and cue up a vinyl record. Music was our first love, after all. Before art.

I hadn’t warned Bill I was going to play one of his records. (I didn’t even know I still had it until I checked my single flight-case of 12″ vinyl before heading down up to Northampton, and really only played it to illustrate a later point about how much power the NME had over us in the 80s: I read about the record and bought it without having heard a note of it – something unheard of in the download age.) It was the one point in the evening where Bill seemed flustered. Not because he minded me playing it, but because he feared the audience might expect him to riff on his pop career, which he has no interest in doing. We got through it, don’t worry.

In the photo above, subliminally influenced by the guerilla art of Bill Drummond, I have emptied out onto the floor a folder full of my commercial illustration work from 1987-88, after I’d graduated, and during which “pay the rent” period my creative urges were satisfied not by my work, which was soulless and supplied by the yard, but by rustling up my own fanzine and writing and designing it, ready for Kall Kwik. So, indirectly, the soulless art pushed me in the direction of what would be the first rung on another career entirely, one that was driven by art, albeit soon subsumed by the imperatives of commerce. It is a career whose story has been told many times, so I won’t repeat it here.

Tuesday happened also to be my Dad’s birthday, and he came along to the talk, meeting Bill over a fruit plate and two doughnuts in a gallery space which became our de facto “green room.” The age difference between Bill and my Dad is about the same as the age difference between Bill and me, so we got on fine, the three of us. (Dad had rather sweetly looked Bill up on Wikipedia in the afternoon – research!) The combination of my – our – alma mater, the curatorial joie de vivre of the infinite John himself and the presence of my father made Tuesday a very special night indeed. I’m so glad we agreed to do it, against all odds. Perhaps this is how all visiting lecturers should be forced to operate, by being thrown together with another visiting lecture and making it work on the hoof. I sincerely hope that the audience felt they had not wasted their evening. I certainly hadn’t.

Bill’s climactic section involved him donning a high-viz tabard and a bespoke Homburg, and living out his fantasy of being a superhero street sweeper. This was a routine he’d clearly done before, and it was a fitting end to what turned into a two-hour talk, as he swept the stage with his broom. Much of the detritus that required sweeping was, as seen, a pile of my own work. Which was fitting. We couldn’t have planned it better if we’d planned it.

I hope to return to the University of Northampton soon, although, in the future, it will up sticks and easels and move to a new site, and will no longer sit hunkered around the old building into which both Bill and I tentatively stepped in 1971 and 1983, respectively. But it doesn’t do to be nostalgic. Bill and I were ancient, and justified, to varying degrees, and have both done varying degrees in big cities other than Northampton, but it was good to be back.

Postscript

Statement from Bill Drummond regarding the absence of photographic evidence of he and I at this event:

Now that we live in an era where we can all post an unlimited amount of information about ourselves I am interested in exploring how little information I can post and still function in the modern world. Part of this includes limiting the photographs taken of me in any one year to no more than ten. I have now reached my limit for 2012.

Writer’s blog: Week 47

Wednesday

I give up. I don’t know what week number it is. Anyway, we’re hurtling toward December, I know that much, it’s Wednesday, and the heat is on at the Pappy’s sitcom for BBC3, Secret Dude Society (the working title seems to have almost hardened into a title, but not fully so hold your horses for a bit longer). As I type, I’m currently on the East Midlands train, more literally hurtling back to London Euston from Northampton for a full day’s script meeting with “the boys” – Matthew, Ben and Tom, who are not boys – our fastidious Scottish bosses Gav and Rab from Glasgow’s illustrious, industrial estate-based production company The Comedy Unit, and producer Izzy (with whom I previously worked on the cruelly cancelled Gates for Sky). I am, as previously stated, script editing the six-episode series. The onus remains on “the boys” to come up with the goods, which, after all, they will be acting out in a TV studio in February before a live studio audience, but my job is to help pat it into shape. It’s cool to be part of someone else’s first sitcom and to be around a conference table with creative, funny people.

I was involved in a talk at the University of Northampton last night, part of a series called Articulation, a sort of “tag lecture” with fellow alumnus Bill Drummond. I will write about that unlikely and amazing experience once I have the photographic evidence that it even took place.

Thursday

I am unnaturally soothed by the repetitive, mundane, always-looking-sideways-off nature of the PhotoBooth pictures I take of myself to illustrate Writer’s Blog. They are spectacularly uninteresting, and reveal little about my physical context (oh, not those ducts at Radio Times again!), but they are honest and true. And they reveal the routine nature of my life. And the occasional fluctuation one way or another in terms of the size of my double chin.

Arrived in London at 10.27 yesterday morning, as advertised (I must admit, I am generally quite lucky on this train from Northampton, the 09.25, which I regularly take after a sleepover at Mum and Dad’s), and joined Pappy’s and co round the circular conference table in a ground-floor conference room at the West Kensington-based media company who own The Comedy Unit by 11.00, unnaturally hot, as ever, after a trudge in too many layers with too many bags. (This time of year is always a conundrum: waterproof outer layer, optional jacket underneath, optional cardigan under that, over shirt … how to strike the perfect, temperature-controlled balance? On Stephen Fry Gadget Man on C4, he demonstrated an air-conditioned jacket, from Japan. I don’t want one.)

With all six scripts at varying stages of completion, we read aloud, and made notes, and shared notes, and made more notes, from 11am-6pm, and ate the traditional platters of M&S sandwiches and sausage rolls (cheese ones for the veggie) while we worked, so as not to waste valuable time. It was, as you can imagine, as hard and tiring as the equivalent time spent working down a coalmine. I still love the fact that the sort of food we eat in the middle of a working day is exactly the kind to ensure a slump, mid-afternoon: bread, pastry, sponge, potato. We are a curious race.

My day at Radio Times today has been focussed. I have had to supply a week’s worth of Film of the Days for the magazine that will hit the armchairs of Britain in two weeks’ time, as we are in “Christmas pick-up”, which is where everybody works super-hard in order to get the famous Christmas double-issue (our biggest seller of the year) out in good time for the festive period, which means foreshortened working weeks in order to pull all schedules forward. (This means that the staff get an actual week off for Christmas, secure in the knowledge that the issues for the first week of the New Year is already “in bed”.)

Arrived home to find that my annual Cats Protection advent calendar had arrived in the post today. You may be unsurprised to hear that this is my favourite charity after Thomas’s Fund, of which I am a proud patron. What can I say? I like cats. It is also an annual New Year tradition to scan the opened calendar, even though it is impossible to do it and let you see inside each door, without removing the doors, which would be counterproductve, as the names of the kits are on the door.

Oh, alright, here’s one where the doors are off. You’re so demanding.

Anyway, it’s good to think of those less fortunate than ourselves at this cold and festive time of year, so spare a thought for those who haven’t been sent a Cats Protection advent calendar.

Read an alarming but expected piece in today’s Media Guardian about BBC4 controller Richard Klein considering axing the currently ongoing, back-to-back Top of the Pops repeats from the late 70s. They’ve had to yank a couple presented by Jimmy Savile in recent weeks, and one presented by DLT, and you can understand why Klein might be nervous about forging on with the initiative into 1978 next year. (After all, even though Kid Jensen, Noel Edmunds, Peter Powell etc. are free from any implication of wrongdoing, it’s the atmosphere of adult male DJs surrounded by fawning teenage girls and introducing the lovely Legs & Co with a glint in their eye that now seems to have curdled with recent revelations.) I love these re-runs – shown in full, unedited, they present valuable social documents, and I hope BBC4 keeps airing them. It’s too easy to edit the past, and these half-hours show 1976 and 1977 as they were, with The Jam rubbing seditionary shoulders with the frankly offensive Barron Knights. Save TOTP!

Watched Sky’s documentary about Bradley Wiggins, A Year In Yellow (can’t imagine why Sky had exclusive access to him … oh yes), and found myself utterly captivated by it, despite my threadbare interest in sport and almost non-existent interest in cycling. Not only did it explain the Tour de France for me – thanks to intelligent and eloquent input from three cycling journalists who were a credit to their trade and chosen sport – it depicted Wiggins in an honest manner. He seems decent, self-aware, dedicated, a family man, averse to fame, a bit shy, a lover of peace and quiet, proud of his tower-block roots (his Nan, who raised him, still lives on the same estate) and committed to the purist notion that he will not leave his wife for a supermodel, nor takes drugs to enhance his sporting performance. I wish him well, and will review this programme, with clips, on next week’s Telly Addict.

Friday

Just heard from the University of Northampton that some official photos of my night with Bill Drummond are on their way, so expect a full account soon. I’m off for a meeting with my agent today, what we call a “catch-up”, which is always done face to face. Clearly I can’t give anything away, but I will say this: I’ve had some encouraging news from a particular broadcaster this week about one of the projects I have “in development”, something I’ve developed and written by myself and have invested a lot in. Not a commission, as yet, but not a knockback, or an interminable series of notes, and that in itself is promising.

As mentioned above, but not stated for the record before, Gates has not been recommissioned by Sky Living. I’m sad about this, as I felt we – the team who wrote it – had more stories to tell about these parents and teachers. It is not to be. And there was me thinking everything got a second series on Sky! I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that Mr Blue Sky – a far more personal project – was not automatically recommissioned by Radio 4, but we’re in the process of re-submitting it as we speak and have fingers crossed for a good decision before Christmas. If we get the green light – and again, I have loads more stories to tell with Harvey, Jax, Ray, Sean, Lou etc. in a third series – it may not air until 2014, but it would mean a concrete commission for the New Year. I’d love to end another uncertain, up-and-down professional year with something positive in the diary for 2013.

I do know that Personal Training, the short film I wrote with Simon Day, who stars, will be airing in the New Year as part of Sky Atlantic’s Common People strand, for which ten character-based shorts have been made by Baby Cow. That has been officially announced: it begins in January as part of Sky Atlantic’s Comedy Monday line-up. We shot it in two days, and I can’t wait to see the finished product. It marks the debut of Simon’s latest character, Colin Reed. We wrote a film about him for C4, years ago, which was put into development and then cancelled before it went into production after one of those pesky management changes that happen all the time. We have always been determined to get Colin out there, and thanks to Sky, and Baby Cow, that is definitely going to happen.

The estimable Stuart Jeffries, who has written scathingly about C4 in the past, has gathered his thoughts on the 30-year-old channel for the Guardian this week, a very good read. Over the years, as both presenter and writer, I’ve been in and out of meetings at all the major broadcasters, including C4, although off the top of my head, I think the only actual programmes I’ve been involved in have been clips shows (nothing wrong with those, of course, although they’ve thankfully dried up).

When I was still paired with Stuart Maconie in the 90s and simultaneously on ITV with the Movie Club and Radio 1 with the Hit Parade, we paid our first visit to C4 at Horseferry Road to pitch our own comedic cultural magazine show (Get Culture!) with a supportive commissioning editor who left the channel about a week later. We learned a valuable lesson that day: you’re only as popular as the current commissioning editor thinks you are.

The late Harry Thompson, whom I interviewed about Peter Cook for Radio 4, and had stewarded The 11 O’Clock Show to fruition, gave me an insight into how C4 then worked: some excitable exec would designate some up-and-coming comedian as “the new face of the channel”, tell them so, wine them and dine them, try them out in a few things, and then tell them that, in fact, they were no longer “the new face of the channel”, because somebody else was. In this, I guess C4 are not so different from the BBC, or ITV, or Sky, who have long been in the business of creating a Hollywood-style “stable” of stars. But unless you have signed a contract, it’s all meaningless.

When Simon and I developed and wrote the 90-minute version of Personal Training for C4, in 2007, we had every reason to believe it was going to air. Instead, it was never shot. You weather such setbacks, or else – as I always say – you get out of the business. When the 10-minute version airs on Sky in the new year, all the agony and the ecstasy will have been worth. (You could conceivably write scripts that are never made forever and live off it. But what kind of life is that? And in any case, unmade scripts will eventually start to work against your professional reputation!)

I discovered yesterday that Lee Mack’s autobiography, Mack The Life, has been published in hardback, in time for Christmas. I knew he was writing it, as he tapped me for some clarification about the early days of Not Going Out last year. I look forward to reading it, as I sincerely hope I am at least a footnote. But Not Going Out, as important as it has been for me, professionally, was never my show, and series six – the first without Tim – is being filmed right now, the second series with which I’ll have had no involvement whatsoever. I’m glad it’s still going, although Tim’s absence will be a problem, I suspect. We shall see. I’m out. When you work on a show almost full-time for two series, then as one of a much larger team for two further series, this seriously reduces your annual income. Then, we you are relinquished altogether, that has an even more profound effect on your income. But it’s good to be forced to concentrate on projects of your own. Series six airs in the new year. (Lee and I remain friends, by the way.)

Roll on the end of the year. It’s around now, just before the advent calendar doors start to be folded back, that I always start to take stock of the disappearing year. Has it been an improvement on last year, or the opposite? Have the highs outranked the lows? Have the slaps in the face outweighed the pats on the back? Don’t know yet.