Archive for November, 2007|Monthly archive page

We got the Jazz

Lafayette Flying Corps

The other afternoon I had a fabulous chat over tea with director/writer Peter Kosminsky (Britz, The Government Inspector, Warriors) about a forthcoming scriptwriting project of his. It was refreshing for me because the conversation centred on stories which is not usually the focus of much of my work in the Factual arena. Stories are so fundamental to human culture and I came across the beginnings of a fascinating one today.

Like my earlier post Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness, it’s a story involving France and Africa (in this case, indirectly through Afro-America) and racism (in this case, the prejudice of America not of France).

The protagonist is Eugene Bullard. The entry point is the Paris jazz scene between the wars.

The scene was based in the seedy quarter of Montmartre. Bullard, a black American born in Georgia or Mississippi [depending on what you read] in 1894, was programming Zelli’s Club, one of the key clubs in the area (set up in 1919 or 1922 [depending on what you read] by Joe Zelli, a London restauranteur or an Italian-American [depending on what you read] – guess he could have been both, a restaurant and club which dominated the scene til the 30s. The walls were decorated with movie star caricatures which were later emulated at Sardi’s in New York which is where I’m writing this post [in the city not the restaurant, that is]. I came across this story whilst reading about purposeless wandering around cities and today in my purposeless wandering around Gotham I found myself under the red awning of the Village Vanguard where, for example, John Coltrane played in 1961 – the year Bullard died in this same city. So all the skeins of this narrative have been weaving themselves together all day.) Bullard went on to own another hot jazz club, Le Grand Duc. Zelli’s, with its underground dance hall, was less upmarket than the Duc and regularly raided by les flics.

Back as a child in the deep South, Bullard had had explained to him by his father: “in France there are not different white churches and black churches, or white schools and black schools, or white graveyards and black graveyards”. His mother was a Creek Indian which makes the decoration of the biplane, above, all the more resonant.

When he was ten, Bullard stowed away on a ship and made first for Berlin or Scotland [depending on what you read], then London (where he was a boxer and music hall performer), reaching Paris in 1913. When the Great War erupted the following year, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He won the Croix de Guerre for his role at the crucial battle of Verdun. He went on to join the Lafayette Flying Corps, a volunteer squadron who fought for France before America entered the war (the outfit to which the plane above belonged). He flew 20 missions and downed two enemy planes. So he was the very first African-American military pilot. His nickname was Black Swallow of Death. When the USA did enter the conflict in 1917, Bullard was transferred to the US Air Force and immediately grounded. He ended up back in the French infantry. He’d literally been “uppity”, thousands of feet uppity in the French skies.

Our hero died in poverty and obscurity in New York in 1961, having had a series of non-uppity jobs from perfume salesman to interpreter (for Louis Armstrong) to security guard, ending up as lift operator at the Rockefeller Centre (which I wandered past last night aimlessly).

Despite decades of obscure wandering in the aftermath of his Parisian heyday, Bullard was buried with military honours …by French Officers in the French section of the military cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York. Two years before, the French had made him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. By contrast, the Americans waited 33 years after his death and 77 years after his pioneering heroism to eventually make him a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Not the ending the story deserved.

eugene bullard

The Data Day – the best of British comedy

lost CDs

Meta more thesis

kafka

Dale Hergistad of Schematic kindly pulled by the Channel to show us some of their recent work. He’s based in the LA office and looks like a (very nice version of a) baddie from a Hollywood movie, one of those peroxide blonde ones (can’t quite pin down which Die Hard or Lethal Weapon or whatever I’m thinking of).

The presentation kicked off with some interesting analysis of our evolving relationships with different size screens – from the personal mobile to the massive public display a couple of hundred feet away – and how this relates to the journey from viewer to user. So far so good. We moved on then to look at a range of implementations and mock-ups of next-generation navigation, mainly TV-based.

Fast forward twenty minutes and these are the notes on my page, reflecting I think something of the culture gap which still exists between the US and UK:

* the navigation’s all well and good but look at the crapola content we’re navigating through
* the interface experience is over-complex
* (with regard to some of the game-type implementations like Battlestar Galactica or whatever it was) people are fiddling while Rome burns – the world is coming apart at the seams while people fiddle with their joysticks
* pretty much every example is driven by buying and consumption
* who the fuck wants to interact with a car advert? haven’t they got better things to do?
* there’s an incredible greed not to miss anything, with screens within screens and the like.

So, nothing to do with Dale personally – he was very generous with his time and clearly enthusiastic about his work – more to do with the kind of project that was being illustrated, I left feeling uninspired and couldn’t get back to my (rather British) neck of the woods quickly enough.

I’m sitting writing this in Prague airport coming home from the Eureka Mobile Awards with Alfie Dennen of Moblog UK. Big Art Mob was one of six finalists. It was pipped at the post by some porno service which gets its average punter to part with $55 a week to interact via their mobiles with Russian girls (live on webcams) whilst playing with their joysticks or whatever. Kafka would have loved the scenario, and he might well have had a word or two to say about the kind of Amerika reflected in the bloated, greedy world implied by the kind of television/media Schematic find themselves engaging with.

As Alfie and I supped a mojito with a TV producer from Cologne last night in the backroom of a Prague cellar guarded by a smileless skinhead, a ‘TV producer’ hot from a shoot of “erotic sports”, my first experience of Prague was shaping up nicely. Alfie and I were fuelled up with dumplings and heavy meat – consumed just before in a restaurant decorated with copulating Czech cartoon couples (4 Cs copyright Alfie’s mum, Head of Stats at Young & Rubicam) – while Alfie’s long lost and newly rediscovered old flatmate Stormin’ Norman was fuelled with something altogether smaller and rounder. He was kindly leading us to the main event but unfortunately got sidetracked by the other pornographers by the exit.

So Alfie and I had to hijack a cab which pulled up beside the awards venue. It happened to be set in a bar adjacent to the Kafka Museum. A huge K stood in the courtyard beside two statues of naked men holding their joysticks and pissing at each other (I hesitated for some reason to snap it for Big Art Mob, I’m not sure whether that was more about aesthetics or light conditions). So a dark surreality was the dominant atmosphere with Das Schloss looming above us.

The Eureka Awards, run by World Telemedia, had a certain Kafkaesque quality about them, like playing a game whose rules nobody has explained, Byzantine, 1,000 Russian sex-workers voting online, bizarre voting patterns worthy of Richard & Judy, Ant & Dec, Blue & Peter, text votes too for no clear purpose, and a panel of journalists expert in joysticks and other mobile stuff. Big Art Mob, an innocent abroad, a naïve player in a dark game of intrigue.

As I walked home over the unlit Charles Bridge, past shadowy lovers and silhouetted lone men, my long black coat was just right for the Third Man atmosphere of the famous landmark and adjacent streets. The meter on the cab home whirled as if possessed – “it’s night” explained the lugubrious driver. As I crossed the hotel lobby two blondes sat by the lifts ready for the simple pleasures. Who the fuck wants to interact with a post-Communist cliche? Is everything driven by buying and consumption these days? Josef – as one letter (G) to another (K) – any advice on how to navigate our way out of this dark, consuming maze?

I headed up to my (rather British) neck of the woods. My Agatha Christie novel (4.50 from Paddington) where the only thing two ladies do is walk around Miss Marples’ garden admiring the planting. Announcement of a two-nil victory to Spurs on Sky News, a crack of light in the dark surreality of this season? (Kafka may not be a bundle of laughs but following Tottenham is only just the right side of waking up as a giant insect).

Image designed by Liv Ducci – Creative Studio – http://www.kafkamovie.com

25 today

jump london

I can’t let today pass without marking the 25th birthday of Channel 4 which was at 4.45pm this afternoon. Ironically at that time I was entering the BBC (at Bvsh House), albeit with Camilla Deakin of Lupus Films, custodian of Channel 4 animation and a former Commissioning Editor herself in the Arts department. We were meeting Philip Dodd, formerly of the ICA, Sight & Sound and now of Made in China, to talk about exporting British animation to China and a possible broadband animation channel to launch next year – animation being a great example of where the Channel has lead from the front, all the way to the Oscars. So broadband video and China – very now&next.

Also very now is me sitting here watching the Big Fat Anniversary Quiz and writing a blog simultaneously – so 2007. MC Jimmy Carr was in the Channel 4 caff earlier today when I got into work. Coming into 124 Horseferry Road past the Big 4 this morning I couldn’t help but feel a little quiver of pride&joy. Who’d have thought that that day quarter of a century ago when I watched a bloke called Gavin (or was Gavin the actor and Paul or somebody the character?) opening his bedroom curtains to reveal Brookside Close for the very first time that one day I’d be beavering away for the nascent Channel.

That winter I left for a year to live in Chambery in France (Savoie) before going to university – my first time living away from home. To stay in touch with things back in Blighty I had a lively correspondence throughout 2003 with my lovely friend Katherine (now herself abroad long term in Aspen) about Gavin, his missus Petra, Bobby and Sheila, etc. I just got back on Monday from a visit to Paris to my other great mate Marcelino Truong who I first met that winter in Chambery – he was just about to pack up teaching and become a comic book illustrator. So 2002/3 was a very big year in my life as well as for British broadcasting.

That same first night the film ‘Walter‘ was broadcast starring Ian McKellen. That too came to have a personal connection. While I was at college I met a visiting fellow called David Rudkin (Artemis 81, December Bride), an accomplished screenwriter and Hitchcock expert. He brought to the university for a speaking event Alistair Reid (Tales of the City, Traffik – both for C4), original director of ‘Morse’, who showed his home video of the making of the series, an inspiring presentation and one of many things which lead me to leaving university with no more precise an idea that that I wanted to work with moving pictures. David also introduced me to ‘Walter’ producer Nigel Evans and his business partner Simon Mellor who gave me my first job in the biz – a holiday job as a runner at his company AKA in Farringdon Road (now the Guardian Newsroom annex where last year, 20 years on, I found myself presenting my commission Breaking the News).

Jools Holland has just popped up to ask a question on the Big Fat Quiz about the Tube. The AKA experience helped me land my first proper job at Solus Enterprises, the co-operative of Jack Hazan & David Mingay (makers of British cinema verite landmarks like ‘A Bigger Splash‘ and ‘Rude Boy‘ with The Clash), Roger Deakins (Sid & Nancy, Shawshank Redemption, O Brother Where art Thou?, etc.) and Dick Pope (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake). The cutting room upstairs at 35 Marshall Street was usually occupied by promo director Tim Pope and editor Pete Goddard. In there was made the series Groovy Fellas for Channel 4, commissioned by Seamus Cassidy. The title graphics were deliberately difficult to read and looked as much like Groovy Fuckers as Groovy Fellas, derived from Jools’s legendary Freudian slit of the tongue. The graphics, from memory, were designed by Andy who used to do all The Cure’s covers. Alongside Jools, it starred Roland Rivron as an alien who dapper Jools was guiding around contemporary Britain. These days Roland and I cross paths in the local schoolyard rather than the cutting room.

My path also crossed Channel 4 in the next phase of my career in another edit suite – that of the very talented Jan Hallett, the Harrymeister with the legendary ‘trouser tape’. Jan is married to Niamh Byrne who has been doing Presentation at Channel 4 for a dog’s age, one of the longest serving staff members. Jan did all the graphics for Chris Morris’s shows (Channel 4′s ‘Brass Eye’ and the fabulous ‘Day Today’). The ‘Day Today’ gig landed partly because it was done out of IDF (later Jump Design, the graphics outfit which emerged from ITN under the direction of the one&only Richard Norley, who had designed the titles for Channel 4 News). We worked out of the Quantel edit suites of ITN in the downtime between the end of Channel 4 News and the start of Big Breakfast News at dawn. Fueled by adrenaline, beer and curry they were golden days which landed us the Grand Award at the New York International Film & Television Festival and a bunch of other gongs from around the world. And the over-night working combined with inability to sleep in the daytime, frankly, was better than drugs.

So, like the Northern Line, the Channel has been a thread through my life from way back when. Since I started working at C4 early in 2003 my personal favourites include DV8′s ‘Cost of Living’, ‘Shameless’ and ‘Jump Britain’.

So we’re in an ad break now. The ads? Apple iPhone. Nintendo DS. What a different world the Channel’s in 25 years on. A huge challenge. Huge opportunities. The important thing is to stay in touch with our values – well expressed, in the Mark Thompson regime under which I started, as: Do It First, Make Trouble, Inspire Change. And also to have a vision going forward as bold as our heritage – one which refreshes and redefines the broad social purpose of the organisation within UK society on a grand scale, as public service media moves into the digital age.

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