Category Archives: Reading & Writing

BFI / Radio Times TV Festival – The Crown & a TV writing masterclass

A few weekends ago saw my first visit to the BFI & Radio Times TV Festival – and that’s hardly a surprise, because it’s a brand new festival.

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It was, in all, a really fun day. We had only two events booked. The first was a panel / Q&A with four editors from the Radio Times – which, I admit, I’ve only bought at Christmas for years now, though I do keep a weather eye on the Facebook page / website and I have now signed up for a subscription out of curiosity – about the experience of writing about television. The other was a panel about Netflix sensation The Crown, with Suzanne Mackie, Philip Martin and the glorious Claire Foy (the last of whom I managed to walk straight past in the ladies without really registering this until  I’d swept past, gone in the cubicle and was mid-pee, at which point my brain kicked in – that’s pre-occupation for you).

Although the latter panel had the star factor and plenty to talk about in terms of both specific production (Peter Morgan’s apparent 7-season plan, how re-casting is going to work for season 3 and beyond) and general consumption (the Netflix all-in-one delivery model), it was actually in the masterclass with Alison Graham et al – and in some of the audience questions and introductions from Radio Times editor Ben Preston – that some of the really interesting themes emerged.

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In the masterclass panel it was obvious the youngest member of the panel was something of an odd one out; he was the only one who made regular set visits, as the soap opera specialist, and he was the only one who made videos or regular digital content. At one point Graham even commented that no-one knew where he was because he half-worked for the website – a snippet of insight into the print vs digital structure of the RT, and also a suggestion that digital is just… different from what was repeatedly referred to as “proper telly”. All used Twitter but, interestingly, only for work and only after the fact; two out of four grasped why people might make Twitter their second screen, but for one it was only for ‘event’ TV (talent shows etc); in this he was swiftly contradicted by the live TV specialist, who was horrified at the thought that you might look at Twitter before Strictly  was already over – what if you missed a move?

This, from a team of people who still exercise an enormous influence over the TV watching habits of a significant chunk of people, was fascinating. It’s easy to be dismissive and assume the RT‘s readers are older and might not second screen on social anyway, but I think that’s a narrow-minded assumption; plus the busy stream of digital content across social channels from the publication suggests that either they have a busily active broad demographic or they’re trying to woo one. Netflix et al do make an appearance in the listings, and if there’s anyone who understands a binge-watch it’s someone who has to review shows in advance of broadcast. Yet, more than once, those words “proper telly” – eg traditional broadcast, released weekly – came up, with the clear perspective that this was (should be?) still the approved way of consuming television. Shades, perhaps, of the paperback vs Kindle debate that never seems to quite go away.

Diversity of viewing habit wasn’t the only intriguing morsel to be winkled out of an hour of chat. A young woman of colour, who wrote for a smaller publication and raised the woes of trying to engage consistently with PRs if you have to give a negative review, also asked about diversity, and whether the panel handed off to writers with more direct experience if a programme was of a particular cultural niche. The panel awkwardly scraped for ideas of how this might work, giving examples of Welsh and Scottish programming; somehow I don’t think that’s what she was getting at.

The idea that television is something to be delivered in discrete doses certainly wasn’t unique to the panel – and even some digital-only services have sought to emulate it too (my festival pal, Alex Totaro, has written about The Good Fight as a network show in disguise). Several audience members spoke almost guiltily about binge-watching The Crown – as it if was something not quite proper and that the show’s exceptional quality made this a rare treat (the man who stayed up all night to watch all 10 episodes back to back with his wife, and who thought all television other than this and Our Friends in the North to be thoroughly inferior was a fascinating study all on his own). This might have also been impacted by Preston’s introduction to the panel, in which he detailed how he couldn’t possibly sit and watch more than a single episode at a time, since this simply didn’t allow him to savour it appropriately.

I watched The Crown in three of four episode clusters;  actually, it took me three goes at the first episode for it to grasp me, and had it been delivered in the traditional Sunday night format, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to give it the second and third goes (urged on by friends). There is still water-cooler, communal pressure to be had – and I can succumb to it with the best of them, or I’d never have got through the first three tedious episodes of The Night Manager and made it to the considerably more pacy pay-off.

I can’t very well think of a job I’d like more in the world than sitting in a room with blinds drawn and headphones on, succinctly summing up my thoughts so as to direct the viewing public in a helpful way. It is an immensely rich journalistic job to end up in – and the panel made it clear it does tend to be one you end up in rather than pursue; although, again, most of them came through a more traditional journalistic route than might the next generation who will be blogging their way through to digital-only publications, likely without first having a stint at Industrial Engineering Weekly or similar. What I’d love to see in the next BFI / RT festival is a panel that brings the print and digital teams of the RT (and, if they’re willing, other publications) together to discuss the similarities and differences of writing about TV on and offline, and for different audiences watching TV in different ways. Show us your future-proofing, RT – I’m ready to see it.

Canon Fodder

goblet of fiyah

Canon.

lumos maxima

Also canon.

Neither of these moments appears in the Harry Potter books but they are now, technically, film canon. (Alright, the first one does, but it’s specifically described as Dumbledore delivering the line “calmly“). How Harry can be almost expelled for flouting the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery while trying to prevent a disaster one summer and then, with nary a slap on the wrist, cause temporary retinal damage for no reason the next, who knows? But there it is, for anyone to Google.

The thing is, they make for good movie moments. As much as I have many conflicted feels about the way Michael Gambon interpreted a Dumbledore he never read, and the way David Yates directed him in that, the fact remains it was an interpretation. I was free to watch it or not watch it. Like it or not like it. There are three universes at play here: the books, the films and the one in my head. It is neither realistic nor desirable for those to all be identical (if nothing else, book and film are very different media; as sorry as I was to lose Hermione’s impassioned S.P.E.W. campaigning, I concede it would have made pretty dull viewing).

Now, enter a new galaxy. Along comes a play, based on an idea none of us have yet read, with the original author’s involvement, in which some characters make the leap (though only in a form vaguely similar to how we last saw them, briefly, in a train station, and not at all how we spent the most time with them). In this completely fresh creative effort, which – not actually being the next book or film in either existing series – has pretty much full freedom to stand alone, one character is a different race from her mainstream portrayals thus far (ie book covers and film casting). And in a virtuoso display of how quickly the commenters of the internet can race to the bottom, every single individual who cannot cope with their white-centric world view being nudged even a tiny bit turns to the text to prove that it’s not ‘canon’.

I am not going to argue the point over Hermione. How I feel is pretty much summed up in this one tweet; I also couldn’t face battling the hordes for tickets, so it’s going to be a long time before I get to see The Cursed Child (sob!) and whoever is in it by then I shall be very excited about it. But this canon malarkey has got to stop. This obsession with picking over the details – as if authors can’t be fallible! As if there are not inconsistencies within universes! As if art can’t just bloody change if we want it to! – is taking the very joy out of being an enormous nerd.

Look, I get the geekery, of course I do. Two nights ago, on the way home from town to see the Christmas lights, my husband got my full spiel – not for the first time, frankly – on the individual nature of each individual and group strand of the MCU so far, and why Captain America: The First Avenger gets away with being the world’s longest origin story while Iron Man dispenses with the practical bit in the first ten minutes. He got the Shakespearean Thor spiel, and my speculations about how the use of Spider-Man might be the bit that prevents Civil War coming across as an Avengers movie. The thing is this: it is enormously enjoyable to deconstruct and reconstruct, to Google original comic book references, to spot Easter eggs, to come up with elaborate theories and to be, frankly, a bit paranoid – the interlocking successes of the MCU surely rest in part on this irresistible urge to neatly link things together. But it is also nonsense. Because between the myriad comic book strands, the visions of Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios, the scriptwriters, the directors, the editors, the cinematographers and the interpretations by the talent (plus the audiences themselves) there can be no such real thing as canon. It’s simply impossible. There are too many people involved. Messy, messy people.

It is, of course, disappointing when something you see does not satisfactorily chime with the contents of your head – or when your favourite paper moment doesn’t make it to the screen. But it is not necessarily wrong. There are times, I think, when one can be critical – for example, I think Yates made a downright peculiar choice to have Bellatrix and Voldemort dissolve rather than be real dead bodies, as I thought the whole point of those battle scenes in the book was to show the brutal, damaged, evil but very real humanity of the man who was once Tom Riddle. But that was less to do with having it be exactly as I pictured it, and more to do with making that point as I had understood it; I didn’t want any hint that the pieces of Voldemort could be swept back into a pile and reanimated (as if Otto Chriek and his emergency blood had just teleported over from the Discworld). Or any re-affirmation of his belief in his own exceptionalism. And yet I understood that it made for a much more cinematic moment, and had to concede that even when we’re both staring the same source material right in the face, Yates and I might yet be reading it differently.

Let me get things straight: of course I’m not saying that everyone should like every interpretation, neither that it’s necessarily wrong to argue it (it can be fun). But I think you do have to ask yourself why it’s bothering you and if your objection doesn’t come from the text, but an unexamined prejudice. And even when it does come from the text – does it really matter? When people argued that Jack Reacher, continually described in the books as being a huge dude, could not be embodied in not-quite-so-massive Tom Cruise, I did have a moment’s pause. But actually, it made little or no impact on the final result (in fact, it actually heightened the tension in scenes where gangs of rent-a-muscle thugs sneer at Reacher’s cast-iron self-confidence).

When it comes down to it, canon, despite being apparently pegged to the page or screen, none the less still lives entirely in the eye of the beholder – and the beholders of Hermione live in a world where whiteness is regularly the default. Our lenses are scuffed and blurred, and it sometimes takes someone making an unexpected choice to unfog them a little. Canon is a security blanket; reassuring, familiar, warm and comfortable – but if you look at it a little closer, frayed, full of holes and overdue for a wash. Sometimes adding a little embroidery or a patch can change it into something newer and more beautiful. And even if you run in desperation to Mama, you might not get the answer you want to hear.

 

Season’s Readings: win Pop Art – A Colourful History by Alastair Sooke

Admit it, your brain immediately re-titled that book as Hogwarts: A History didn’t it?

But look! Look at how gorgeous! The generous folks at Penguin Random House have given me a beautiful Christmas present of this delightful book – plus an extra one for me to give away. So here we are.

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Pop Art – A Colourful History is a lovely little hardback, engagingly written (from the Viking imprint, if that kind of detail floats your boat), taking in – of course – Lichtenstein and Warhol but also delving into the lives and significant works of their less lastingly famous contemporaries, like Marisol Escobar and Rosalyn Drexler.

In a classic example of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the introduction opens with the idea that by the early 60s, the art world had become unshockable; that there was nothing “despicable enough”, in Lichtenstein’s words, that no one would hang it (and to think, this was before the heyday of Jeff Koons’ highly explicit works or the Chapman brothers’ deliberate grotesquerie). Sooke then takes the reader through the emerging landscape, the collision of media and the artistic period which might have had the greatest influence on the way we create art and content today.

So, fancy a copy? Then please comment below telling me one of your favourite ever pieces of art – any medium, any era. Let’s just talk lovely things.

Note: Please make sure you use a valid email address when you do so; it’s the only way I will have to contact the winner and will not be visible to anyone else or shared publicly, ever.

A few conditions:

  1. Only UK entries can be accepted. No purchase necessary.
  2. Entrants should be aged 18+.
  3. There is only one prize, and no alternative can be offered.
  4. Postage is standard UK first class delivery.
  5. The prize is one hardback copy of Pop Art: A Colourful History by Alastair Sooke.
  6. The closing date is 23:59 on 27th December 2015. The winner will be drawn at random using an online random number generator, and notified by email by the 31st of December 2015. The winner should provide their details within 3 days of being notified; should they not do so the prize may be re-drawn.

 

Disclosure: My copy of the book and the prize copy were both gifts from the Penguin Random House team.

Hairy Scary’s Bad Day: Squarehead returns!

EEK!

EEK!

One of my continually most popular posts – and this thrills me to bits – is my piece about I Am Squarehead, a simply delightful picture book about being oneself, written by Simon Frank and illustrated by Margit Mulder.

As I mentioned in that post, I came to Squarehead because I already knew Simon – and one of his business partners, Rochelle, is a good friend. Since then I’ve got to know Margit as well, and when I heard there was another Squarehead book on the horizon I was delighted. Better yet, Simon asked if there was any way I could lend a hand with some social media support around the launch; I agreed with practically unseemly haste.

LOOK AT THAT HUGGABLE FACE

LOOK AT THAT HUGGABLE FACE

Hairy Scary’s Bad Day picks up where I Am Squarehead left off, but this time focusses on the whuffling beastie Squarehead brought home with him. Hairy Scary is big, and gallumphing and looks pretty terrifying – but everyone knows he’s really an enormous sweetie who gives the best cuddles ever. So how on earth is he going to measure up against the scariest monsters in the world?

This week everyone’s been buzzing about Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill, who suddenly obliterated her online presence – leaving behind a trail of genuine captions which give away the secrets behind each perfect ‘candid’ snap. I’m not sure that came as a surprise to anyone in her audience – especially not her young and very savvy followers – but the willingness to be honest about it was refreshing and more than a little painful. We are so very scared of not measuring up, all the time, and social media can be this constant reminder that everyone else is doing a little bit better than you – their lives a little cooler, more privileged, more beautiful. Of course it’s a carefully edited snapshot, and we know that really but we still, I think, don’t quite believe it somewhere in our fearful, competitive, paranoid lizard brains. It seems to me that the message of Hairy Scary’s Bad Day – that you can only be the best and happiest YOU you can be, regardless of the boxes others seem to tick – couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Our kids are growing up at a time when it’s normal to have a very public record of everything you do; it needn’t be the complete story of who you are.

And yet of course it was Instagram I turned to when I discovered – completely by surprise – that I’d earned a mention in the acknowledgements for the book. My first ever, and I couldn’t be more proud and happy to sit in the faintest glow of reflected light from this very special series.

Apparently Chinwag might star in the next one – dog lovers watch this space!

I Am Squarehead and Hairy Scary’s Bad Day are available now from www.iamsquarehead.com and Daunt Books. Toys and more coming soon…

World Book Day: Cobbling together a costume on a shoestring

This year was our first year with a child at ‘big’ school, so it was our first real experience of the competitive costume gala known as World Book Day. Luckily, both our daughter’s school and the parents in it are pretty sensible; the school gave a week’s notice via a letter in which the head laid out in no uncertain terms that the buying or making of expensive and complicated costumes was really unnecessary – this was to be very much a home-made, celebratory, non-competitive and above all book-focussed World Book Day (they’re rebuilding the school library at the moment, too). Plus the other mums and dads at the school gates this morning were really great at making encouraging noises in the direction of all the kids. Yay, community!

Anyway, as usual, because we are rubbish and busy loving and devoted parents, Ash and I left it to just a couple of days before to agree with R what she wanted to be on the day; we steered her away from the standard Disney kit, because we wanted her to think outside the obvious a bit. It’s no secret from the whole of the internet that I love Disney and Marvel (yes, that IS me in the Daily Mail wearing silly leggings) with an almost embarrassing intensity, but I was determined that this year at least we wouldn’t go the ready-made route. No judgement of those who did, do or want to you understand.

Anyway, I cannot remember whose idea it was to be a crayon from The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers; it MIGHT have been mine, but anyway R chose to be Red Crayon as it’s her favourite colour – handy, since she already has a load of red clothes. We were determined to spend pennies on this, if that, so in the end the only thing we had to buy was the card, because the coloured paper we had was too small, and the elastic.  So, what we used was:

  • Red clothes (child’s own)
  • Red card
  • Black card
  • Pencil
  • Elastic
  • Stapler
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Needle and thread
  • Writing paper and markers

R's letter to Duncan from Red Crayon

R as Red Crayon

I don’t really need a step-by-step guide here, do I? A few points of note:

I sewed the ‘belt’ trim to the t-shirt because it’s a really old, short t-shirt and I don’t care if it gets holes in it. I actually thought about stapling it on, but I wanted her to easily be able to rip it off if it annoyed her during the day – she still needs to focus on what she’s doing at school after all. Ash made the hat, which was a basic semi-circle shaped into a cone held together with tape and staples; as I said, we did splash out on some elastic to keep it on (and of course cut it slightly the wrong length so it falls off every time she looks down, but let’s face it – that was never going to stay on in school anyway).

The letter to Dung Duncan was actually R’s own idea, and she copied it out herself which, given she’s only 4, I was very proud of; she wanted to do a copy for every person in her class, which is a genius thought but not when you have it at 8:00pm the night before and your bedtime is 7:30pm max. I think the cutest part was when she addressed it to her teacher but then decided to give it to her friend instead and crossed out the name on the back. Second hand letters are the most thoughtful, aren’t they?

So there you go. Less than £5 spent, and we needn’t even have done that if we’d been prepared to cobble together smaller pieces a bit more (or had a better stocked craft pile. Or thought of making a paper chin strap for the hat. Or, or, or…).

And now looking forward to spending the book token with R. Perhaps she’ll go for The Day the Crayons Came Home!

Once there was a… failure?

So, I got nine days into my 30 day challenge and it all went a bit wrong. There are reasons. A full-time job that has required some extra cover. A week where I barely saw my daughter after which I felt it not just right but as necessary as breathing to spend more time with her wherever possible. A few late nights in a row…. I guess reasons start to sound like excuses in the end. And I can’t deny I’m disappointed with myself.

Still, I think even in nine days – and there is nothing stopping me simply restarting for a week or so, and I might still, since the desire is there – I learned the crucial lessons I was trying to hard to break into my thick skull that knew them but also didn’t. I learned that writing every day, and coming up with ideas from nowhere (when I’m so used to incubating them endlessly until they’re almost overbaked by the time they spill out) is possible – you can, if you want, force some creativity and it might be great, okay or utterly rubbish but it shall come. I learned that sharing a piece of writing in a raw, doughy, shapeless mass need not be terrifying. Most of the time, in fact, no-one will read it and there is an almost inexpressible freedom in that. When you suspect only four people are actually paying attention, it’s astonishingly liberating. I’m sure there is lots of common sense in writers seeking to be published professionally to think of audiences and tone, yadda yadda, but when you write just for the sake of removing the flaking orange rust from the dark cogs of your mind it’s so much more satisfying to please no audience except yourself. The skill of editing is a lesson for another day. Today we have just the words.

I might have achieved only a third of my original stated goal, but I broke a frightened thought pattern in my own head, and that was, after all, the point of proceeding. And an idea for something to actually do with all these fragments has also occurred to me… if I can keep that thought pattern broken for long enough to attempt to achieve it.

But first, I think, a little more writing. Maybe today (does this count?), maybe not. But soon. And more often. And happier.

OTWAG: Watching

Once there was a girl who had blue plaits and black eyes, with a tiny dot of gold twinkling in them. She used those eyes to Watch.

She Watched while the child slept, covers hanging off, one leg at an unlikely angle. She Watched while the child played, making a carefully constructed mess. She Watched while the child sang to herself in her bed when she knew it was too early for anyone to come for her. The girl liked to imagine the child’s songs were meant for her, rolling somewhere around a tune and never squarely landing on it.

The girl could not remember when she had started Watching, and she didn’t know what she was Watching for, but she knew this was what she was meant to do. She could just about remember the child as a baby, and was vaguely aware that her charge was getting bigger, but the passing of time was of no real interest to her. When the child was not in her room, the girl simply waited; not impatiently, because there was no schedule. When the child came back, the girl silently Watched. At all times she wore a smile that was a slim, tight line in her face.

The girl was also vaguely aware that she must be wearing something; she had noted the child’s clothes, and how she got into special ones at night, which was quietly fascinating. But she’d never been too interested in looking at her own clothes; had she paid any attention she’d have seen a red and white striped top and yellow trousers. There were heavy blue boots that matched the colour of her thick plaits. But these were not the things she Watched.

Gradually, the girl did notice one change. It was getting harder to Watch, because the view was getting less clear. She found the girl was getting… fuzzier. Greyer. Sometimes the details of her clothes were hard to make out. Watching sleep became nearly impossible now the night-light was no longer used; the grey and the dark merged into one as if the blanket was now over the girl and not the child. Who had also moved to the other side of the room, and a bigger bed. In the morning she no longer sang and her limbs didn’t hang out of the bed like a flopping starfish. She was, the girl was fairly sure, cocooned in a roll and she didn’t bounce out of bed with as quite as much energy, though she cried much less and she dressed herself much faster.

The girl Watched as the mother came into the room with the girl one morning and started brushing something onto the walls. Patches of colour, she thought, in shades of pale purple, light green and creamy yellow. They seemed to argue a little over what they preferred, though eventually the mint shade seemed to win out. They started creating a pile of things in the corner of the room; a huge white sheet, a few fat tins – it was hard to make out the details through the dimness that wasn’t getting any better – and some blades that still managed to cast a glint of light into the girl’s black eyes.

When the sheet was laid down, the girl was Watching. When the blades were taken up, and began scraping at the wall opposite, the girl was Watching. When the child and her mother splashed water on the walls and scratched and peeled and tore and laughed, the girl was Watching. When the pair started working their way around the room in opposite directions, coming towards the girl from either side, the girl was Watching. When the child looked straight at her, and rubbed a sponge across her face, clearing the greyness just for a moment, the girl was Watching.

When the first coats of paint went on, the girl was gone.

This is the ninth attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.