Moon Shots

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission resonated strongly for me. I consider Neil Armstrong’s foot touching the moon one of the two most significant events of the 20th century. The other is the explosion of the atom bomb in Hiroshima.

I watched the moon in our back garden on the eve of Blast Off + Half-a-Century – it looked full, technically one night off I think. It was slightly yellow, the surface patterns visible from the suburbs of N2.

the moon london 15th July 2019

The moon, a eucalyptus and our garden shed

During the night I caught a bit of a BBC World Service podcast on Radio 5 – in the morning I started listening to the 11-part series, 13 Minutes to the Moon, presented by Kevin Fong.

But only in London, before the day was out, would you by chance cross paths with not only an Eagle lunar landing craft, but also a Saturn 5 landing capsule.

neil armstrong portrait photograph NASA

At 09.32 on 16th July, the time of Apollo 11 lift off, I published a photo of Neil Armstrong from the Wall of Honour in our downstairs loo. It is a signed photo, the smudged signature proving it is an actual individually signed document. The smudge was made by Mark Reynolds’ auntie in Leeds who thought it was a printed moniker so wet her finger and wiped it through in 1969. She was wrong. Mark Reynolds was my trusty editor in the 80s. We made a documentary together about the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman. I swopped the photo Mark wrote away for in his childhood for a signed Damned single from Loppylugs in Edgware. One of my better deals. I’m reflected in the moon in the photo of the photo.

In the evening I went to a screening by Netflix of the documentary The Great Hack about Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica outrage, coming out on 24th July on a data-driven, aspiring monopoly digital platform near you. It was an interesting evening which included taking a leak next to the CFO of Cambridge Analytica and bumping in to an old college contemporary of mine, Chris Steele, author of the notorious Trump-Russia dossier. A chat with Riz Ahmed. Sitting in front of Brittany Kaiser, the protagonist of the film.

But the highlight of the evening – in the Dana Centre of the Science Museum – was walking out past the lunar lander on the left, covered in the crinkly gold foil mentioned in Episode 1 of the podcast, and the re-entry capsule on the right. Not something that remotely crossed my mind as I enjoyed that first episode some ten hours before and ten miles away.

The replica Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), in the London Science Museum.

Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM)

Apollo 10 Command Module | Science Museum

Apollo 10 Command Module

On the tube home from South Kensington I was sitting chatting to Dr Kevin Fong’s agent – Kevin had been at the Netflix screening unbeknownst to me.

When I walked up my street on the way back home I looked up and caught the moon, now fully full, between two suburban rooftops and the disc was halved by the shadow of an eclipse. Wondrous.

As I write this it is Day 3 of the mission. Little Dot Studios where I have been working the last couple of years has brilliantly produced a marathon 6-day live broadcast on the notorious Facebook and the dubious YouTube bringing us the transmissions from Apollo 11 and Mission Control from NASA’s archive, courtesy of my previous employer, Channel 4. Moon Landing Live. (I proposed this programme in 2014 when I was still at C4, a bit ahead of the curve.) If you shoot for the stars, you may hit the moon.

 

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Coincidences quote

Coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.

 

I’ve seen this quotation attributed to both Albert Einstein and Doris Lessing (the former seems to have the consensus). It links to my vague sense of being a Pantheist.

The last two weeks there’s been a Colombia thing going on in my life. It is not a country I have much personal connection with nor any experience of.

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columbia wharf horn stairs 1937

1937

As I was travelling along the Thames yesterday morning on the way to Ravensbourne university/media school to do some work on their MDes course, a postgrad masters programme which is kind of an MBA through the lens of Design, I passed Columbia Wharf, some way east out of the centre of town, on the south bank. This reminded me of, among several other manifestations over the last few days:

  • a documentary I am working on set on Tierra Bomba, a small island off of Cartagena
  • another documentary I have in the cutting room about Colombian BMXers
  • meeting a charming producer (in Waterloo a few days ago) from San Andrés, a small English-speaking island which belongs to Colombia but is much nearer Nicaragua – it was the stronghold of Welsh privateer Captain Henry Morgan, who was a thorn in the side of the Spanish and regularly ransacked Cartagena
  • several more minor sightings of Colombia and Colombian in shops and other places
Captain Henry Morgan

Captain Henry Morgan

colombian skull

See also: 4 Pantheist Quotations including two more from Einstein

The Casting Game No. 55

benedict cumberbatch patrick melrose

Benedict Cumberbatch

as

kenneth williams actor

Kenneth Williams

Coincidence No. 678 – Carpe Diem

patrick melrose benedict cumberbatch actor bath phone

Seize the fucking day

Monday: I am sitting watching UK dramas and International dramas as a judge for the Edinburgh TV Festival Awards in those two categories – I am taking a short break to write this. I am currently watching ‘Patrick Melrose’. Benedict Cumberbatch has just said the line: “Well it’s time to seize the fucking day.”

patrick melrose benedict cumberbatch actor bafta award

(At the TV BAFTAs last month, when they were taking a big group photo of all the winners, I was standing directly behind Benedict Cumberbatch. He had just won Best Actor for Patrick Melrose. He was hugging his colleagues with tears in his eyes, clearly very emotional about this first BAFTA win for him.)

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The morning after the TV BAFTAs – no sleep had: Carpe Noctem

Sunday: I catch the tail-end of ‘Something Understood’ on Radio 4. Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is exploring immortality and the desirability of life eternal. She concludes with the line: “Momento Mori – remember you are mortal – can help me focus on the limitations of mortality and also the idea it is our greatest gift. But to that phrase I would add: Carpe Diem – seize the day – for who knows when we shall cease to be and what lies on the other side of mortality.”

Saturday: My Other Half and I are walking down the High Street. She is telling me about some deaths in the family of her best friend. I say: “You can only come to one conclusion: Seize the Day.” just as I say this two boys walk past in the opposite direction. One is wearing a red T-shirt with the words, in black: Seize The Day.

carpe that fucking diem tshirt

 

Coincidence No. 677 – 12th June

I am sitting in the kitchen reading an article about Anne Frank by Bart Van Es (author of the excellent The Cut Out Girl, the protagonist of which was married to one of Anne’s school friends).

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c.1940

On the radio was Robert Elms on BBC Radio London discussing the Chelsea Drugstore in the 60s.

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1980

In walked my wife to talk about the moths eating her jumpers.

Anne, Robert & Una are all born on 12th June.

 

I vote

I made this to mark the announcement of the results of the European elections

picasso portrait vote election

Inspired by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Berkow. He went to Finchley Manorhill school which was on the same site in North Finchley as The Compton where one of my boys went.

Tigress

While it was very sad to hear of the death of Judith Kerr this week, it also felt like the rounding off of a life well lived. To come from flight (in 1933) from the Nazis and the Holocaust in Germany, Poland, France and across Europe (which went out to vote the day after her passing) to a constructive, hopeful and beautiful body of work which gives delight to millions is a story and a half.

I had the pleasure of appearing with her on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, talking about fathers reading to their children. Prior to entering the studio I’d forgotten that the programme was live so it really helped having a calm atmosphere engendered by Judith and Jenni Murray, the host. I can’t recall much about the conversation other than it went well, felt coherent and fluent, not stressful. And Judith was a thoroughly inspiring person.

Of course I read ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ with my boys. She kindly signed their copy after the recording at Broadcasting House.

I have a vague memory of people looking for a historical analogy in it, like the Tiger stood for the Nazis or the Gestapo or something, “It’s about the rise of Hitler, right?” “No” she said “it’s about a tiger. Who comes to tea.”

That Judith Kerr now stands widely as being about turning adversity to living fully, being constructive and defeating the forces of darkness with hope and humanity is as it should be. The family, though surprised, take the Tiger in their stride and find a joyful, united solution to the problems it causes.

I am writing this in the garden of Keats’ house in Hampstead. Up the road in Downshire Hill, opposite the house of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, is the home of Fred and Diana Uhlman. I met her many years ago to speak about her husband’s work as an artist and their joint role as catalysts of the London art scene before and after the Second World War. Fred came to London in 1936 and became the centre with Diana of a network of artists on the run including Oskar Kokoschka (who followed in the wake of Egon Schiele). This whole area became a home to artists escaped from Nazi tyranny. Judith was the widely admired standard bearer for art and culture’s triumph over the dark side.

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The Artist Who Came To London (acquired this week from Black Gull book shop, East Finchley)

4 places worth visiting in Caernarfon

I am writing this in Chester station on my way home from Caernarfon aka Carnarvon. I noticed on the small train along the coast opposite Anglesey that Caer is Welsh for Chester so there seems to be a link. I’m guessing Caer means Castle but I have no idea what Narfon signifies. What I do know is that Caernarfon is a Stronghold of Chilling Out. When my work (for TAC [Welsh PACT] and S4C) was done, the rest of my time there was largely spent on the

(1) Harbour

wall, overlooking the Menai Strait across to Anglesey. I plonked myself there with the old copy of ‘The Quiet American’ I had half-inched in desperation having finished my book (‘A Woman of No Importance’ by Sophie Purnell) on the first day. The Graham Greene was the perfect read for the warm sun and the cafe terrace overlooking the harbour, an open terrace attached to the arts centre from which piano tinklings and snatches of musicals drifted gently down. The whole place was a haven of tranquility into which the sunshine poured all afternoon, culminating in magnificent sunsets across the waters.

Caernarfon Carnarvon Harbour Wales sunset

(2) The Black Boy Inn

Apparently the place to get food in the town. In an alley off the charming, narrow High Street. Thai mussels and a G&T hit the spot. It was a friendly joint and I met a bunch of Yanks of Welsh extraction from Oregon. I was wearing a T-shirt with three native Americans on horseback and the slogan “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism since 1492”. I was given it in the early 2000s at the Ormeau Baths in Belfast by graffiti artist Kev Largey during the launch of Channel 4’s IdeasFactory Northern Ireland (which I was responsible for). I was pretty confident I was the only person in the world who still had this T. But it turned out the fella in the Oregon trio also has it. Small world.

Caernarfon Carnarvon Wales castle flag

(3) The Anglesey pub

I’m not even into pubs really but this one has a magnificent view across the Strait, in the shadow of the castle walls. I was told the most popular Welsh pop song of recent times is set here and portrays some of its regulars. I also heard that at 11pm the swing bridge adjacent to the pub opens and stays that way until 6am. That means when the klaxon sounds you have to down your pint and leg it or face a 40-minute walk around the water to get home. I’d love to watch klaxon time.

Caernarfon Carnarvon Wales Menai Strait sunset

Menai Strait from The Anglesey

(4) Everywhere

around this town you hear Welsh being spoken in an everyday, mundane, quotidian, alive way. That I’ve not heard even in the Gaeltacht of Ireland, a minority language spoken by people going about their day-to-day business, meeting on the street. Caernarfon, the Online Content Commissioner of Channel 4’s sister station, S4C, told me, is a stronghold of spoken Welsh.  It was a real delight (particularly for a Mediaeval & Modern Languages graduate) to hear Welsh in full flow.

Caernarfon Carnarvon Wales statue Lloyd George

Lloyd George in full flow

A Steamboat Laddie

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inside Sweny’s

I went to Sweny’s where Leopold Bloom bought his lemon soap in ‘Ulysses’ after leaving the National Gallery and ‘The Liffey Swim’. The Volunteer at the old chemist shop confirmed it is pronounced Swen not Sween (as in the Donegal family name Sweeney). A motley crew of Dubs of a certain age shuffled in, grabbed a copy and a cup of tea and biscuit. At 11am, after a brief intro as to what was happening on page 524, we started reading a page each going round the room, surrounded by pharmacy glassware in wooden cases. It was the Cab Shelter section where Bloom has rescued young Stephen late at night and bought him a terrible coffee in the shelter where taximen, sailors and other creatures of the night gas away. I’m the only Englishman there. There’s a fair amount of anti-English sentiment in the pages we read which gives the visit all the more spice. Joyce didn’t have much truck with Blame the English.

At the stroke of midday I ducked out with a wave and crossed the street to the back entrance of Trinity College. I was due to attend a lunch celebrating the 150th anniversary of one of the better English institutions – Girton College, Cambridge, my alma mater. Girton and Trinity (TCD) are connected through the pioneering women dubbed The Steamboat Ladies. Their story I summarised here.

In short, Cambridge University refused to award the degrees the early Girtonians achieved through study and the standard Cambridge examination so they ended up using the fine print of an old tripartite arrangement between Oxford, Cambridge and TCD to have the award made in Dublin. They took the steamboat from Holyhead for a swift one-day visit including a formal lunch and a group photo on the steps I found myself standing on with my brother-in-law Des (my guest) and Professor Susan Parkes of Trinity, surveilling the large, part-lawned quad.

professor susan parkes at trinity college dublin lecturing on the steamboat ladies

Prof. Susan Parkes on the Steamboat Ladies

I am writing this a few miles from Holyhead with a view of Anglesey, in Caernarfon, Wales, where I am doing a keynote speech for TAC, the Welsh indies producers/TV training organisation. I remember one of my sons saying of Holyhead when he was very young: “It’s a bit like Dublin …only shit.”

The Steamboat Ladies, Prof Parkes would explain over lunch, started coming over in 1904. This is the year in which ‘Ulysses’ is set.

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About two dozen old Girtonians were at the lunch, mostly Irish, plus the Mistress of the College, Susan J Smith, and a current Girton historian, Dr Hazel Mills. Hazel reviewed the various connections between Girton and Ireland including two of the Mistresses (Susan is about No. 19). The key point was that Girton proved something of a training ground for the pioneers of women’s university education in Ireland. Education meant jobs, jobs meant money, influence and independence.

After lunch and the two talks we reconstructed the Steamboat Ladies photo on the steps outside, us just a handful compared to the serried ranks of mobile scholars in the 1906 photo.

the steamboat ladies girton at trinity college dublin

The Steamboat Ladies at Trinity Dublin

recreating the steamboat ladies girton at trinity college dublin

As the photo posing concluded and I took my leave of my fellow Mediaeval & Modern Languages colleague Julia (we were the best represented year at 2 shows) Des and I headed to the pub for the second half of Leinster (blue jerseys) v Munster (red). An American woman at the bar beside me asked me how this game (rugby) works. I did my best, pleased with the concision of my stab at it. As I looked at the red v blue the thought crossed my mind that this was a classic colour opposition. I leaned over to her and said: “…of course the blues are democrats and the reds republicans.” “Oh, like we have in the States?” “Yes, sort of.”

The next day I rounded off the trip with a family Sunday expedition led by Des to the cliffs of Howth Head. I pulled by the place at the end of the huge harbour wall where the Asgard and its skipper Erskine Childers are commemorated in a brass plaque for the running of guns into the country via this harbour for the Easter Rising.

plaque asgard erskine childers howth 1916 easter rising

On the way to the Dart to come out of the city north into Co. Dublin I passed a sadly isolated plaque on a crappy government building marking the HQ of De Valera in 1916 at Bolland Mills.

howth head dublin

Standing on Howth Head I could see the sweep of Dublin Bay down to Sandycove – where ‘Ulysses’ opens – and beyond. Up here is where the novel concludes with Molly recalling a romantic excursion with Bloom in the early days of their love. So this geography, the curve of this bay, is essential to this greatest of books. And the perfect place to conclude this trip.

dublin airport sunset

The Golden Envelope

Exactly this time last week I was at the Festival Hall, London entering the auditorium for the Television BAFTA Awards. Our film ‘Missed Call’ was nominated alongside three BBC productions and, while I had faith in the quality of the film, I didn’t have high hopes of a win. It had been shot entirely on a smartphone. No broadcaster was involved at any point. It was fully funded by a privately-held UK indie (Little Dot Studios).

The team assembled in the afternoon sunshine in an urban garden on top of the adjacent Queen Elizabeth Hall. On the taxi ride in I’d noticed our table number was 007 so I was feeling positively Bond like in my John Pearse jacket. John I suspect is the only Savile Row-trained tailor cum filmmaker in London.

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At the appointed time we dropped down onto the red carpet and shuffled along. Greg Dyke was just in front of me. He soon gave way to Rob Brydon and Lee Mack.

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Once inside I found myself chatting to a man from BAFTA’s marketing company – he proved an important character in the night’s drama. Let’s call him X.

Oiled with champagne, I talked to various colleagues from the industry, many from my alma mater Channel 4. I entered the hall behind David Mitchell (who was talking about how we all pretend not to care about awards – but can’t help but care when we win) and Victoria Coren-Mitchell (who was talking about women not wearing pants). I had a brief exchange with Steve Arnott from ‘Line of Duty’ – he turned out to be Scottish, who knew?

As Graham Norton kicked off the show I felt increasingly like we had no chance. Until the Live Event award was announced and a Remembrance Day programme beat the Royal Wedding – at last, an underdog. I put in a small prayer for help from up there to my dad. I had bought a Farah shirt for the night the day before to invoke his spirit – he used to wear these very conservative Farah “slacks”. Apparently some how (Christ knows how?!) the make is becoming trendy again (again???).

Then it was the moment – Short Form Programme. They showed the clips, including one featuring Jodie Comer, the hottest of properties thanks to ‘Killing Eve’. Then two beautiful young things, boy and girl (still not sure who they were as I’m in my silver fox period and phenomenally out of touch) opened the golden envelope and said the words “Missed” and “Call”. There began a week-long buzz I can still feel. Our director, Victoria Mapplebeck, and me had a moment – made all the more beautiful by the fact that Jim, her son and co-star in the documentary, was on her other side. As we walked down to the stage I passed Andrew (Moriarty) Scott clapping with genuine enthusiasm and in front of him Phoebe Waller-Bridge being equally generous. That moment was both humbling and perhaps the highlight of the night for me. On the stage Victoria did a beautiful speech, Jim getting very well deserved applause, as did the iPhone Victoria brandished as the main tool of her trade. Hearing my name in that context was of course a kick. Victoria and I had started the project as a BBC3 series (which they rejected) just before I started at Little Dot Studios and I took advantage of the new job to realise one episode which became ‘Missed Call’, a high risk 19-minute unscripted piece whose ending we didn’t know when we embarked (would Jim get to meet his long AWOL father?) Watch the film here to find out…

The other thing that really struck me was how enthusiastically our win was greeted. Jim’s 15-year-old presence will have helped a lot. But so to did X because he promised to make a noise if we won and he whistled so loudly his wife smacked him.

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When we shuffled off in a lovely daze we went through an efficient assembly line of photos, signing for the individually numbered BAFTA mask, being interviewed. Victoria, Ananda Murphy (our stalwart producer) and I were the named individuals representing the winning production team. The next day I took the heavy bronze award into the Little Dot offices, holding it aloft like the FA Cup, and these are the massive smiles it lit:

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Eventually we were reinserted into the hall in our original seats and tried our best to concentrate, while texting our mums, spouses, children.

Then a bit of a shock which put it all into perspective. The memorial section in which, to my dark astonishment, the name and face of Anthony Owen appeared. I had no idea he had passed away. I checked after and he had texted me three days before to congratulate me on my new job at Red Bull Media House. Everyone used to envy his job title at Objective – Head of Magic. He got my kids tickets for Derren Brown, always generous and warm. I last saw him at The Story conference in February. A total shock. (You can help his family here.)

After the awards/programme recording concluded, a big photo of all winners was taken on stage. I was standing right behind Benedict Cumberbatch who was clearly very emotional about his first BAFTA win. To my right was Fiona Shaw who is an acting idol of my Mrs and Joan Bakewell. I had a brief exchange with that other underdog Huw Edwards (of the Remembrance programme).

On the way down from the hall I bumped into my old Channel 4 colleague, John Yorke, then Head of Drama. We discussed how I apply his book ‘Into The Woods’ (of which I am a huge fan) to documentaries, applying story structures more often discussed in relation to drama and movies.

Next a very nicely presented dinner with my team from Little Dot and ‘Missed Call’ and wafting around in a delightful daze. At one point I was accosted by a charming older couple who wanted to cop a feel of the mask. They did and we got chatting and it turned out they were the parents of Ruth Wilson. ‘Mrs Wilson’ was one of my favourite contenders for this year’s awards and I voted for it for everything possible. The gentleman was one of the son’s (Nigel) of Alexander Wilson featured in the drama. They introduced me to Ruth and we had a long chat, including about the fact I’d made a film about another Ruth Wilson last year ‘Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl’.

Ruth_Wilson_tv bafta awards 2019 actress

A whirlwind of chat and booze until 3am. I bumped into these delightful colleagues from Little Dot who had arrived from BAFTA’s offices at mudnight, having clipped up the broadcast for YouTube – small world.

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After two and a half hours sleep I got up to go deliver a lecture at Ravensbourne film school. “The bad news is this is the first lecture I’ve ever done still a bit drunk. The good news is I have a great excuse…” Pulls out heavy, shiny mask (from the unglamorous plastic bag I was using to take it into the office after).

 

 


Winner’s acceptance speech by Victoria Mapplebeck for Missed Call in the Short Form Programme category

Oh my god!  I just want to say thank you to Adam Gee who commissioned this.  He is at Little Dot Studios, commissioned it for Real Stories. This was a tricky film, as you can see, because I’m both director and parent to the fantastic Jim, and that meant I needed ongoing support from this fantastic dream team of commissioners and editors and producers.

I think it’s proof… I hope the film is proof that small is beautiful, because I shot the whole thing on that phone, and when we needed an end credit composer, Jim took his phone out and composed the end credits, and even better gave me the rights for a pair of trainers.

So, yes, I just want to say — I think you deserve it every bit as much as we do.  Jim is the star of the show.  It’s hard being in a film at 15 and he did brilliantly.  So thank you.

 

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