Was up at the Edinburgh TV Festival at the end of last week – very much a Channel 4 flavoured one. Channel 4 was named Channel of the Year 2014.
C4’s Chief executive David Abraham gave the opening MacTaggart lecture (the first one by a C4 chief exec in a dozen years and it’s been four years since any UK broadcaster has been invited to speak). It centred on championing British creativity and the unique climate of creative freedom and risk-taking that we have in UK public service broadcasting. He highlighted how important it is for the broadcasting and media industry, politicians, regulators and the public to robustly defend and build this outstanding public service system at this particular juncture, when it is under assault from without (especially US multinational corporations) and within (short-term thinkers and profit-takers). He concluded with a call to action for the next generation of media creatives. It was a generous speech, acknowledging both BBC and ITV’s role in the very special TV ecology of this country.
At the Festival awards, Channel 4 also picked up the award for TV Moment of the Year for Mushi’s speech in Educating Yorkshire and won the Programme Innovation category with The Murder Trial. There was further recognition for C4’s current affairs film Children on the Frontline, with Marcel Mettelsiefen picking up the Debut Producer/Director Award.
Such a whitewash of the awards is almost without precedent at Edinburgh and reflects a revived creative spirit at Horseferry Road after the annus horribilis that was 2013 both for C4 and the BBC. For me personally, the new focus on short form video which has come about this year enables the happy surfing of this wave of new energy. Here’s one of my first commissions in that area from a young British director, Umut Gunduz, who I met at Google HQ in St Giles a few months ago – the series is called Double Vision and the first episode is Cycle of Love.
The Great Escape (1963)
This one (from the year I made my debut on earth) is for me his most memorable role as an actor – as Bartlett, who can forget that tragic end, machine-gunned in a field by the heartless Nazis alongside his stalwart Scottish buddy, MacDonald (played by the ever dependable Gordon Jackson)?
In Which We Serve (1942)
His fresh faced debut, already a screen presence to be reckoned with. Directed by David Lean and Noel Coward, a suitably English place to start.
My hero well captured by the talented young Robert Downey Jnr. under the assured direction of Dickie.
Cry Freedom (1987)
I remember this one opening my eyes to the outrages of apartheid South Africa back in my university days. Denzel Washington was powerful as Steve Biko and first came to international prominence under Dickie’s direction.
Richard Attenborough was instrumental in the establishment of Channel 4 – Deputy Chairman from 1980 to 1986 as it got on its feet and Chairman from 1986 to 1992 through its golden age.
He was also a key leader in BAFTA, associated with the Academy for 30 years and President for over a decade.
I interviewed Lord David Puttnam about him recently for my book, When Sparks Fly. I was thinking of including him in the Film chapter (Choose Life) which focuses on Danny Boyle. With its central theme of the creative rewards of openness and generosity, Attenborough struck me as the cinema embodiment of British public service values. Channel 4 and BAFTA are just two of many appointments which demonstrate his prodigious energy and unfailing commitment to public service media/arts, from the brilliant Chickenshed Theatre to the Mandela Statue Fund.
What piece of music means the most to you?
One of the world’s outstanding pianists, James Rhodes, speaks eloquently – on a fag break after a shoot for a forthcoming Channel 4 multiplatform project on music education – about a supremely resonant, moving piece of music central to his life.
The Piece: the chaconne from D minor partita for solo violin, transcribed for piano
The Composer: Bach, transcribed by Busoni
Here’s what the piece sounds like:
Songlines #9 The Flower Duet
Songlines #8 I’m Waiting for the Man
There’s something about trains that’s very conducive to thought.
But let me back track. The last time I wrote about the progress of When Sparks Fly was over a month ago when I was in Toronto. The way I’m working on it is not as I’d planned – a regular pattern, albeit less concentrated, like when I was on sabbatical. In practice what’s happening is that I get fits of inspiration, often after reading something stimulating, and I’m writing in intense bursts. So I’m switching now to monthly reports.
During Month 4 of the post-sabbatical phase (i.e. May) I went to meet a big publisher – the first I had approached. It was a good meeting, good chemistry and strong interest. What became evident from the meeting though is that I need to start the book slightly differently. I wanted to plunge in in media res of a striking story about murder, drugs, guns and writing. To suit this publisher I’d need a more conventional intro. I started work on the intro on the train up to Sheffield for DocFest last Sunday as referred to in History Boy.
Today I was headed in the other direction to Bournemouth to visit the university with Enfant Terrible No.1 who is interested in Advertising and in Digital Media. Despite it being an early start for the weekend I had the double delight of (a) finding that the first half of the intro I wrote last week (when a bit drunk on champagne from a party just before travelling), which I thought was a bit of a stream of consciousness blurt, was actually pretty coherent and (b) finding an elegant way through to the end of the piece which flowed well into Chapter 1. So by the time we got to Bournemouth (stopping occasionally to watch the England-New Zealand rugby test on ET1’s phone) the intro had been wrestled to the ground and I had a complete draft with which I was contented, even excited.
After the university visit I walked down to the sea with Enfant Terrible No.1 and came out by chance where my grandparents used to have a flat, at Elizabeth Court by the cliff lift. Quite a nostalgia trip. Took photos of the building and its view on my phone, conscious of the fact mobile phones were scarcely invented last time I was in that spot.
Off the back of the visit I got an invitation to come and talk about the book and its Advertising chapter on Paul Arden as a visiting lecturer. That will be fun to do pre-publication to road-test the material.
As part of the response to the publisher I also changed the sub-title. He advised that I broaden the scope from a tight focus on Creativity. I had no problem doing this as that was inherently in the text. So I altered it from “the creative rewards of openness and generosity” to “the creative & personal rewards of openness and generosity”.
This week I’ll revise the Proposal document accordingly and send the intro and revised Proposal back to the publisher. And carry on writing the Film chapter on Danny Boyle. A couple of DVDs arrived in the post on Friday including, neatly enough, Film4’s Trainspotting.
I’ve been coming to DocFest (formerly the Sheffield International Documentary Festival) since the dawn of time. I’m sitting cross-legged on the hill of Howard Street, on a black marble seaty-thing, as I write this, buddha-like. The hill runs up from the station towards the city centre and is one of the best bits of urban regeneration I’ve seen in this country. Overlooking this spot is an Andrew Motion poem written on the side of a Sheffield Hallam University tower block addressing travellers arriving in the city (Andrew Motion in part inspired Simple Pleasures part 4). After my many years coming to the festival I came up with a good strategy involving this hill yesterday. Instead of relentless regular blocks of formalised meetings crowding out the day I arranged no meetings – just sat on one of these black marble blocks and waited for people I knew and wanted to see pass by me. It worked very well – I got to chat with more people and the chats were the lengths they needed to be.
I am now on the train pulling out of Sheffield. I leave behind a very satisfying couple of days’ experience. It began as I got off the other train the other way on Sunday evening. I dumped my stuff at the hotel and went out for dinner just out of town with Colm O’Callaghan, a colleague from RTE in Dublin. We chatted about all manner of stuff, centred on Ireland and music, and most excitingly discussed the possibility of doing a collaborative historical project next year. We headed back to town to meet at a bar the speakers in the session I was to chair the next day. We did a judicious amount of preparation (mainly a quick chat to reassure them we’d be talking about stuff they know well and don’t have to think much about and ascertaining what video material they’d brought with) then oiled the getting-to-know-you wheels with alcohol.
The session the next morning entitled ‘Interacting with the Past’ focused on interactive and multiplatform TV in the History genre. Joe Myerscough, Producer/Director from the excellent Windfall Films, represented the superb D-Day: As It Happens project from Channel 4 in 2013. The delightful Elizabeth Klinck, a super-expert Canadian visual/archive researcher, added an interesting perspective. And my Channel 4 colleague, Online Producer Marie James, focused on The Mill, a historically accurate drama set in 1831. We managed to range across a lot of territory around what interactivity brings to History TV and from a lot of perspectives (indy producer, broadcaster, support services, commissioner), driven by questions from the audience, so it felt free-flowing, flexible and practically useful. Went down well, felt good.
At the other end of the day I went to see a new history documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by Andre Singer. I can’t write about it yet beyond what’s already in the public domain but suffice it to say it’s a very impactful film about the filming of the Holocaust. It will be showing on Channel 4 in January coming. One unexpected aspect of the story is that Alfred Hitchcock was involved in this filmic recording of the Holocaust by Allied troops. I chatted with Andre and his wife Lynette, who wrote the commentary for the film, on the way out. Also the producer Sally Angel, who I first met last year through an online project via my friend Steve Moore. We had a lively discussion about what age is best to first introduce young people to the imagery of the Holocaust. I believe it should be 16+. The person from the BFI thought younger was OK on the basis that kids get to see horror films (not an argument I buy – the documentary footage in Night Will Fall is another world from scripted drama). I first crossed paths with Andre and Lynette when I was starting out on my career and they ran an outfit in Covent Garden called Cafe Productions (that name’s just come back to me after all these years). I went on a bus ride with Andre last May (2013) to Yad Vashem when he first told me about the film. It’s been nestling in the back of my mind since then.
So a day steeped in History.
And today started out in similar vein. I went to see Brilliant Creatures: Rebels of Oz, a 2-part BBC/ABC documentary about 4 Australians who made good in London in the 60s, bringing a fresh perspective to a country only just emerging from the War. The Creatures in question are Germaine Greer, writer Clive James, art critic Robert Hughes and comedian Barry Humphreys. Jacobson considers Germaine Greer the most rebellious and radical of these. It’s a fabulous story – woven together by novelist Howard Jacobson (who himself wrote startlingly about the Holocaust in the brilliant Kalooki Nights, which sits on my Shelf of Honour). I had a brief chat with him after, mainly congratulating him on pulling together such an illuminating story. He said he was in search of the secret to the Oz “zest for life”.
I got close to having a chat with Germaine Greer but it didn’t quite happen. I wanted to talk Frank Zappa with her as the BBC recently released a wonderful radio documentary she made about him. There was a great clip in the film of her hanging with Robert Plant and Led Zep.
Over breakfast this morning I had a great plan-hatching session with a couple of documentary makers (one from Leipzig where my dad was born) which was also a kick.
So it’s been a couple of days with a heartbeat of History. I had to give it up as a subject in formal education after O Level (apart from a small burst of it as part of my German/Modern Languages degree) but at heart I’m still a History Boy.
Early on in my career I directed a shoot in a plastics factory in the depths of South London. It was that morning, as I watched the mundane, repetitive jobs people had to do, that I recognised how privileged my work was, above all in its variety and creative fulfilment. Now it’s the end of a long day, thirteen hours without a break, quite intense activity, which I look back over with that same perspective – that was a really satisfying one.
The first bit at home on rising was just tying up some loose ends of the week, a bit adminy. Then the rest of the day rolled out along the Northern Line.
First stop Borough – a meeting involving a Countdown personality to develop a project focused on words and language. The project seemed to go up a gear or three during the conversation and I’m really excited about it.
Next stop Angel – another creative development meeting for a series about the future, which again made significant headway through a lively and illuminating conversation with the presenter and two producers.
Back to East Finchley for some tough wrangling on a Music education project, really difficult to pull off but really satisfying in its objectives.
Then to round off the week the main person I’m hoping to interview for the Business chapter of my book came back with a positive response.
Popped back to Islington in the evening for some R&R in the form of Nick Lowe at the Union Chapel, which culminated in a rousing rendition of (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?
Photographer Eve Arnold on the background to this photo…
We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet…. I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it — but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her. It was always a collaborative effort of photographer and subject where she was concerned — but almost more her input.
A couple of other Ulysses posts if this puts you in the mood: