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The Story 2014

#TheStory2014

#TheStory2014

This year’s The Story annual one day conference/gathering, brainchild of my former Channel 4 colleague Matt Locke, launched during his time at C4, was the fifth. I’ve been to all but one, last year’s when I ended up being abroad on the day and passing on my ticket to a colleague, producer Jorg Tittel. The bitter-sweet hand-over took place at the Trafalgar Studios on Whitehall where Jorg and his wife’s (Alex Helfrecht) excellent production of The Sun Also Rises was playing. I can remember that because it is a conference I actually care about and missing it is bothersome.

Stella Duffy and helpers

Stella Duffy and helpers

It was interesting coming into this year’s model off the back of my story-writing sabbatical. What for me turned out to be the highlight and emotional core of The Story 2014 was a direct result of that sabbatical work. One of the chapters of my book, When Sparks Fly, is centred on Joan Littlewood. I began writing that chapter on the stage of the Theatre Royal Stratford East – it was lunchtime, no-one was about, I had my laptop on me and an hour to spare before the event I was attending resumed – it had to be done. Theatre Royal Stratford East was Joan’s theatre, this year is her centenary and the event was a big gathering to help realise a vision of Joan’s she ultimately couldn’t pull off in her lifetime, the Fun Palace. The baton of her dream has been picked up by Stella Duffy who filled The Story slot just before the midday break. Having heard about her plan back in October to realise the dream in this centenary year by catalysing local events across the nation and beyond which bring Art and Science to regular people in an entertaining, fun way, I thought Stella’s story would add to The Story in this particular year and hooked her up with Matt. She had helped me get going on my Littlewood/Theatre chapter and between that chat and the Theatre Royal Stratford East event my instinct was that she would fit right in to the proud heritage of The Story speakers just so.

As it turned out, her slot was more than I could have dreamed. She used her three decades experience of improvisational theatre to create a spontaneous and focused energy of extraordinary impact. She picked up on the contribution just before hers, Kenyatta Cheese on the history of the animated GIF and its role in digital storytelling, an account which used Disney’s Snow White as the vehicle for its narrative, and started by getting six volunteers out of the audience (rarely have I seen people move so fast to get up on stage and help, including Matt’s twin brother and his old BBC friend Tony Ageh, a subsequent speaker) and used them in place of a white board as a living graph-cum-tableau to illustrate the dynamics of a classic (Dionysian) story structure – the one underlying Snow White and, as Stella livelily demonstrated, the New Testament. You can see this coup de theatre here.

She went on to explain the background of the Fun Palace as conceived by Littlewood and architect Cedric Price. She, perhaps somewhat controversially, pulled up one of Price’s drawings and suggested it had formed an important ‘inspiration’ for Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre. And then she explained how we all (and you all) and everyone can get involved. Everything you need to know to make a Fun Palace in your neighbourhood on the weekend of Joan’s 100th birthday you can find here. (And by the way, they need a media sponsor so if you can help please get in touch with Stella or her partner Sarah Jane Rawlings).

What made this perfectly judged performance all the more remarkable is that Stella has been having full-on breast cancer treatment recently and this was her first post-operative outing. She had to high-tail it off the stage to go straight to the hospital to have her dressing changed. A true inspiration capping a brilliant morning of all manner of story-telling.

Meg Pickard, ex-Guardian Head of Digital Engagement, presided, geeing up the already up-for-it crowd. The house charity, Ministry of Stories, set up by Nick Hornby, Ben Payne and Lucy Macnab, was showcased by Ben, demoing in a couple of videos the impact this imaginative literacy and story-telling project is having on the children and supporting adults involved. I walked past their Monster Shop in Hoxton Street just last weekend when out in flaneur mode with Enfant Terrible No. 1 and enjoyed how the display of MoS goodies like Fang Floss, some kind of monster snot, and Bah Humbugs fitted into the Hoxton context.

Bryony Kimmings as Catherine Bennett

Bryony Kimmings as Catherine Bennett (and a monkey)

First up of this year’s featured speakers was the engaging Bryony Kimmings. She explained the genesis of her Catherine Bennett project, a fun music project based on a manufactured popstar, played by Bryony as shaped by her 9 year-old niece, Taylor. Bryony mentioned a Stamford study which centred on asking kids what type of person they wanted to be when they grew up. For years the answer “Kind” came top of the list every year until a certain point in the 90s(?) when Kind dropped to 16th and “Famous” took top spot. Catherine Bennett, pop star and paleontologist, is designed as an antidote to the fame-seeking and twerking inflicted upon children today. The Miley Cyrus debate hit half way through the process of creating CB, emphasising its timeliness, a process which led to the creation of a stage play for kids, one for adults and a touring workshop for schools which we saw video of. I was charmed.

Next up was Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth who gave us insights into their film ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ featuring Nick Cave. The dynamic duo met at Goldsmiths in 1992 and discovered they hated the same things. Then they discovered they hated the same things as Cave and a music documentary with a difference was born. Made by Film4 and the always interesting Pulse, they set out to make the antidote to rock docs by resetting the expectations of the audience (they covered nineteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-something days or so just in the title sequence) and embracing the myth of their subject who plays his mythologised self pretty well. Self-mythologising is the subject of Chapter 2 of my book – centred on another UK music industry stalwart, Tony Wilson. Although they slipped into art jargon easily with art-school-bingo words like “practice” and “strategy” punctuating their commentary, Jane and Iain clearly communicated the kind of truth they were after, the emotional truth. A key sequence at the heart of the film features psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader who was in my year at uni and marked himself out by hanging out with Jacques Derrida in the holidays while I as a lowest-of-the-low runner was driving film gear around London to promo shoots for Simply Red, Duran Duran and the like. He grilled Cave for ten hours until Nick “just couldn’t be bothered to lie any more”. This interrogation brought out Cave’s greatest fear – losing his memory – and memory proved the key to the film as Iain and Jane created a Nick Cave archive in the basement of Brighton Town Hall to help get to a truth beyond the mementoes and facts. As Jane memorably said:

“the truth just doesn’t matter – we should create, imagine and lie – it’s good for us”.

Kyle Bean and the future of the book

Kyle Bean and the future of the book

Illustrator Kyle Bean really pumped my nads with a talk entitled Materials & Messages. He specialises in tactile illustration – in other words,to fulfil mainly magazine/press illustration commissions he makes things from everyday materials and photographs them to create his 2D output. These range from a mobile phone Russian doll to a jelly hand-grenade, all best grasped by having a look at his portfolio here. He often uses word-play and combining pairs of concepts to prompt his creative approach. For a recent article on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden he combines a USB stick with a sports whistle to get the point across concisely and with impact. He has a real spareness which reminds me of a graphic artist well represented on the walls of my home. The other night I went round for dinner to the home of Naomi Games, daughter of graphic designer and poster supremo Abram Games who was a mentor for my mum when she was at London College of Printing. Abram had a ruthlessly spare style with nothing wasted in all his work, from the Festival of Britain logo to his famous ATS poster.

Kyle Bean illustration for 'hand-made' edition of Wallpaper

Kyle Bean illustration for ‘hand-made’ edition of Wallpaper

The afternoon also brought a rich mix of pleasures.

Foley Artist Barnaby Smyth illustrated his cinematic art (sound effects) with a scene from Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie which he worked on. He then did a live demo (for which we all closed our eyes, no peeking), memorably using tearing celery to create the sound of a corpse being ripped apart by dogs. TTSS was made at DeLane Lea which reminded me of my introduction to moving picture media as a child at DeLane Lea in Dean Street, watching Hungarian TV puppet shows for kids being dubbed into English by Louis Elman, as recalled here.

Bill Wasick (no actual corduroy jacket)

Bill Wasick (no actual corduroy jacket)

The Editor of Wired US, Bill Wasick, flew in to tell us a bit about the stuff of his recent book to do with why things go viral. He sat on the edge of the stage like a nice teacher with patches on the elbows of his proverbial corduroy jacket. He had very attractive yellow and white slides I’m going to copy. And he invented flash mobs.

So it's goodnight from me... and it's goodnight from him

So it’s goodnight from me… and it’s goodnight from him (BBC double act of Tony Ageh R and Matt Locke L)

Tony Ageh of the BBC Archive, iPlayer, City Limits et al, went a step further and brought a chair on stage to do a full-on Ronnie Corbett routine which went down a treat. He reflected on his career and the theme of Lists which seems to weave through it, all in a warm, understated way. His anecdote about how the iPlayer was thought up was a cracker. He concluded with a heart-felt plea for iPlayer to move on from being the first bit of BBC technology ever to carry BBC content only. Imagine, he conjoured up, a radio which only played BBC programes. It should never happen. It’s not what the BBC was put on Earth to do.

Meg Rossoff getting the Conscious Rider attuned to the Horse of the Unconscious

Meg Rossoff getting the Conscious Rider attuned to the Horse of the Unconscious

And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, novelist Meg Rossoff, who wrote her first novel aged 46, managed to wrangle a divergent shaggy horse story to illustrate the passage from the conscious mind to the unconscious in writers which develops with practice and helps bring  dream into everyday life,  thereby enabling her – and she encourages others – to “write fiercely with resonance from a really deep place”. Makes a lot of sense of William Burroughs, with whom my book opens, who spent decades consistently taking the trip into that deep, dark place…

Shaggy hat story from Gruff Rhys

Shaggy hat story from Gruff Rhys

Gruff Rhys provided a music interlude with a journey story which roved from his native North Wales across the frontiers of America in a delightfully absurd meander.

Armagh non-poet Philip Larkin brought this to my life, for which thanks. He’s a big fan of Vine and has a good sense of how to deploy those 6 moving seconds for comedy.

Lisa Salem told us a bit about her Walk LA with Me project which was interesting though felt like it could use the lightness of touch of an old school flaneur.

And the day was brought to a heavy-weight end by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger telling us a story about a man called Edward Snowden, a character called Glen Greenwald and a big baddie called NSA which frankly was so fanciful and absurd I reckon he should try his hand at non-fiction ;-)

Alan Rusbridger tells the tale of Snowden White and the Seven Spooks

Alan Rusbridger tells the tale of Snowden White and the Seven Spooks

So, bottom line, there aren’t many better ways to spend a Friday.

Here’s an old Friday called The Story 2012 for anyone who wants a yardstick to make a comparison. Thanks to Matt Locke and the Storythings team for a top day.

Landshare wins RTS Innovation Award

RTS Award Landshare

Can you spot which one is the award?

Last night Landshare won the RTS Innovation Award for User-generated Content. It was one of only six such awards given out (other winners included BBC iPlayer at over 100 times the budget of littl’ ol’ Landshare).

This is the 2nd of these annual awards. Last time out it was even better – Big Art Mob won the Mobile category, an inaugural winner alongside Flash Video (yes, the whole darn technology).

This year Landshare was nominated alongside Sexperience (in the same category), so I liked them 66% odds.

What the judges said: “The judges felt that the award should go to a project that they feel reinvents the viewer/user/programme maker relationship and which is making a fundamental difference to the way key issues of the moment can be addressed. A project whose success demonstrates as one judge put it “how television can make a difference”.”

Straying away from my own oeuvre, another very worthy winner was BBC Children’s marvellous Bugbears – think Monsters Inc meets Creature Comforts, used as a way to help children address&express difficult emotional subjects. It’s the work of Marc Goodchild (who was at our table – the Table of Triumph with its unique double gong status) and my old muckers Joe Elliot and Anthony Lilley of Magic Lantern (among others). I first saw it this time last year at Sheffield DocFest when I was doing a speaking gig on interactive documentary chaired by Paula LeDieu. Japhet (whose second name slips my ravaged mind) from Marc’s team at cBBC demoed it and I was instantly charmed.

Other awards went to the amazing BBC R&D bods who have such a world class heritage in broadcasting/media innovation, pretty much second to none. An honour to be among them.

Update 19.xi.09 BIMAs

Tonight Landshare won the BIMA (British Interactive Media Award) for Community Social Media (as well as being nominated in the Special Achievement Award: Viral Spread category). It follows in the footsteps of MindGym (97) and Embarrassing Bodies (08).

I got biorhythm

bafta awardThe old biorhythms seem to be zinging a bit this week. Nice Kiss & Tell piece in the Guardian yesterday about a new commercially-oriented dimension to my work, to complement the public service projects I mainly commission at C4. Hot Cherry are a cool outfit when it comes to getting the dirty job done in digital PR and marketing.

And the day got off to a fine start with a TV BAFTA Nomination for Embarrassing Bodies Online for the one&only interactive category – imaginatively entitled Interactivity. The other nominations are all BBC, but our odds have improved. Last year little old Big Art Mob was up against iPlayer which cost more in millions than BAM cost in thousands. This year we’re only up against Olympics 08. And Merlin. Let’s see if they can spot real magic…

What’s pumping the nads of the telly industry?

Here’s a nice little piece from the new issue of the cracking 4Talent magazine. It’s come along way over the 9 issues to date, evolving out of Ten4 magazine based in the West Midlands to become the nationwide contender it is now. This issue’s gorgeous cover in Burne-Jones colours is designed by London-based Slovakian designer Petra Stefankova, one of the winners of last year’s 4Talent Awards (for which I had the honour of presenting the New Media award).

cover of 4Talent magazine

Adam Gee: New Media Factual

“I have an upcoming project, codename Sam I Am. I’m busting to tell you about it but I can’t yet [Update SP4 readers: it soft launched today, hence the link]; it’s necessarily under wraps. It’s a very entertaining concept and interactive experience which still manages to convey a substantial meaning – in this case about the diversity of Islamic culture, and the narrowness of most of our experience and understanding of it.

The commission I’m most proud of: The Big Art Mob. It applies new technology and media behaviours to a worthwhile public task: mapping the best of Public Art (from bronze geezers on horses to Banksys) across the UK. Interested people from all around the country and beyond (we’re big in Brazil) are photographing artworks on their mobiles and uploading them to the map, having a good online natter about arty stuff along the way. You can interact wherever you are – I’m particularly proud of the WAP (mobile) site at bigartmob.com/mobile. It’s been nominated for 3 Baftas alongside the likes of the iPlayer and Dr Who, so it’s punching above its weight in true C4 stylee.

In the way that Big Art Mob finds a worthwhile purpose for moblogging (mobile blogging) I want to find missions and purposes for other emerging interactive tools and technologies like, say, Twitter – in itself geek masturbation and possibly the end of civilisation as we know it, with a creatively conceived context perhaps something exceedingly good.

I’ve spent the last 5 years at Channel 4 exploring what public service means in a digital world – from Big Dig to Big Art Project, and one or two projects that don’t even have ‘Big’ in the title like Picture This and Empire’s Children. But Big is important: ambition, scale and impact are all vital.

Cross-platform and interactive media is what’s pumping the nads* of the telly industry right now, and it’s vital to its future. All the creative and entrepreneurial energy is welling up in these areas and Channel 4 is ready for action.”

* [John Bender is absently tearing up books]
Andrew Clark: That’s real intelligent.
John Bender: You’re right. It’s wrong to destroy literature. It’s such fun to read. And…
[examines title] …Moe-Lay really pumps my nads.
Claire Standish: Moliere!

Sons and Daughters

ryan’s daughterTook my dear ol’ mum out for her birthday a couple of evenings ago to see David Lean’s film ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, screened in 70mm at BAFTA in Piccadilly. When I got to the ticket desk there was a good looking actress there whose birthday it also was. That was probably the first hint that my biorhythms were in fine fettle that day. The next clue was when we were handed two glasses of champagne as we walked in. It turned out that 25th March was also the birthday of David Lean – and this year is the centenary of his birth. So we walked in to a special reception with booze, nosh and some interesting faces dotted around the room. I should have made a better fist of pretending “I knew that” and having been so organised as to have arranged especially for fine champers, fancy fish cakes and famous faces. Among them were Peter Lean (David’s son) and Sarah Miles, Ryan’s Daughter herself.

Just before Sarah Miles arrived, I’d been unwittingly sitting beside one of her best friends and talking to my mum about how Ryan’s Daughter is my other half’s most loathed film. Why she gave me the middle name Diplomacy I’ll never know. I did a good one last year with Nicholas Hoult of Skins and About A Boy fame. I’d been reading the first scripts for Skins and was blown away by them. I was speaking at a 4Talent do for Raw Cuts at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road and Nick was also talking, being a real supporter of the NSPCC. “You’re shooting Skins down in Bristol aren’t you? Awesome script. Let me guess who you’re playing… Is it the nerdy one? [Sid]” “No.” “Ah, right, so it must be the devastatingly handsome one. [Tony]” Note to self: Never ask: are you Australian? (ask Are you a Kiwi?). Never ask: are you an American? (ask Are you Canadian?). Ask: are you the devastatingly handsome one?

Any way, she really does loathe the film. So did much of the audience and the critics at the time from what I understand. Lean didn’t make another film for 14 years in the wake of Ryan, so stung was he by its poor reception. If you look at it from an Irish point of view, it is on the dodgy side. The Irish in the movie range from a dribbling retard, to a black leather clad gun runner, to a priest with Republican sympathies and a bottle of Jamesons tucked away in his dirty black soutane, to a treacherous father with verbal diarrhea to a silly adulterous girl. But I think it was always the drooling John Mills that really irked her.

So I went in ready to enjoy in widescreen the scenery of the West Coast I love so much (as captured by Freddie Young) but to scoff at the story and characterisation. Producer [Absolute Beginners, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game] and boss of the National Film School Nik Powell introduced the film, followed by a nice anecdote from the lead actress highlighting the contradictoriness of Lean’s character (he told her off for throwing away a sliver of soap from his hotel room which had “a good three days left in it” and then bought her a Lamborghini a few weeks later). It must have been the weirdest experience for Sarah Miles watching her 29 year old self up in 70mm widescreen – she told me she’d never seen the film before except on video, she doesn’t like watching herself – at the age of 67. It was enough of a momento mori for the rest of us. Ryan was written by her late husband, Robert Bolt, who passed away in 1995. The film started with an overture of the musical soundtrack with the curtains still closed. At three hours thirty it had an intermission. So very much a blast from the cinematic past. The thing was I couldn’t help myself – shagging in the bluebell woods beside the burbling brook, rescuing rebel arms from the crashing waves, padding barefoot across the beaches of Dingle – I was suckered, I came out feeling I’d just watched something romantic and epic and Technicolor from a bygone age.

Lean was the prime-mover behind the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He gave half of his huge royalty shares on Bridge over the River Kwai and Dr Zhivago to help get the Academy up and running. (He didn’t bother including Lawrence of Arabia as the studio had told him it would never show a profit – dontcha just love creative accounting a la Hollywood.) So Lean was the first Chairman of the Academy and a life-long supporter, very keen on film retaining its “dignity” through proper screening in well equipped public auditoriums.

The cherry on the (birthday) cake – the birthday, BAFTA, biorhythm thing that seemed to be conjoining on the day – was that, unbeknownst to me (I found out the next morning) the nominees for this year’s BAFTA TV Craft Awards had been announced during the day and Big Art Mob was nominated in two of the three interactive categories, on top of its nomination the week before in the BAFTA TV Awards. It’s up against Dr Who, X Factor, Spooks, BBC iPlayer, Kate Modern and Bebo among others so pretty much a shoe-in ;-)

Craft was very much Lean’s background having emerged into directing via editing. He cut for Powell & Pressburger during the war, as well as for Noel Coward on In Which We Serve. His first writing credit was for adapting Coward’s This Happy Breed which starred the marvelous Robert Newton under Lean’s direction (his solo directorial debut). There was nothing remotely televisual about Ryan’s Daughter. It was steeped in the craft and love of cinema. No better way to celebrate a birthday.

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