Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Trains, Planes and Canes – Sheffield DocFest Day 4

Was involved in two contrasting panels on my last DocFest day. In the morning the panel I’d pitched to the festival about docs with a lighter touch. It was produced by Documentary Campus, Berlin-based partners of DocFest, the outfit behind the Leipzig documentary festival. Because it’s the birthplace of my late father I’ve a soft spot for it and have been working with them for the last few years, helping nurture emerging documentary talent. On our Seriously Funny panel was Mark Lewis, venerated creator of the landmark ‘Cane Toads: An Unnatural History’, much admired by Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck – see Day 1 below); Rudolf Herzog, the man behind ‘Ve Have Vays of Making You Laugh’ about jokes in the Third Reich and ‘The Paedophile Next Door’ made with Steve Humphreys for Channel 4; Heydon Prowse, one of the prime-movers of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ (Jolyon Rubinstein, his comedy partner was in the audience), whom I worked with on ‘X’, our recent election project at C4 for under 25s involving the shutting down of E4 for the day of the election (leaving just Darren on screen, the man responsible for E4’s On/Off switch).

Last but by no means least, my brother KG who fronts the short form video series I commissioned about West Coast tech and social trends and whether they will make it to Blighty – ‘Futurgasm’ (mainly to be found on All 4).

It was a fun panel, punctuated with loads of amusing clips, including dog and rat humour from Mark and hoodie humour from KG:

We chatted about the advantages of using humour in documentaries – from access to co-operation (see the police in the last clip above), from non-cynical warmth to asking the unaskable.

In the afternoon I did a session on using drones in documentaries, The Sky’s the Limit, led by Brian Woods of True Vision, in the beautiful Chapel building. I showed my Drones in Forbidden Zones project (which also lives mainly on All 4)

and, to balance out the largely techie panel such as Emma Boswell of The Helicopter Girls, took on the subject largely from an editorial point of view, focusing on how to shoot ‘native’ drone films as opposed to using this exciting new tech simply as a cheap helicopter.

Once I was done with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles I boarded a Manned Rail-bound Vehicle and headed South with pleasant memories of one of my best ever DocFests. Proud to have been on the Advisory Board of this particular one which marks the close of Heather Croll’s brilliant expansive tenure, the sure-footed interim leadership of my friend Mark Atkin, and the opening of Elizabeth McIntyre‘s regime, my former colleague from Documentary Campus. Four fine days fabulously finished.

Tears through the Years – Sheffield DocFest Day 3

Fred Hampton Black Panther

Started the day with the best documentary I’ve seen so far – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the revolution.  I was introduced to its talented, measured director Stanley Nelson as I entered Showroom 3 cinema. I told him about some footage we found in the attic of Solus, my first job, of James Baldwin with two Panthers in London (with Huw Wheldon for BBC’s Monitor shot by Jack Hazan).

It’s a masterful historical doc, the story told perfectly in a clear, disciplined and balanced way. Huey Newton’s story is plain tragic. The women protagonists are powerful and impressive. The stand-out character is Fred Hampton, a captivating orator assassinated by the Chicago pigs.

The story couldn’t be more resonant than now with the chain of events unravelling recently like this:

I chatted after with Stanley and Dick Fontaine (of the National Film & TV School) about the trustworthiness of police testimony then and now, and the power of the US authorities through the last 50 years.

Middle of the day was Roast Beef’s curious The Russian Woodpecker – an oblique route in to capturing the looming resurgence of the Cold War. It takes an artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, to know which way the wind blows in Russia/Ukraine and to become as much an over-the-horizon radar as the mysterious Duga early-warning system he discovers in the shadow of Chernobyl. Conspiracy theory, Cold War paranoia, arty kookiness and Soviet spookiness make a heady brew. Fedor and director Chad Garcia attended the screening in Sheffield’s library.

Rounded off the day at a session on Long Lost Family chaired in his usual ebullient way by ITV’s Simon Dickson (a former colleague at Channel 4) and featuring Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell. It is quite the most emotional show on TV and beautifully made (bar the music). The high production values and excellent direction mark it out from its roots in a Dutch format and a US version. Captures exactly the strengths of UK factual TV. Constructing the format on the official social worker process of adoption reunion was clever thinking. Davina and Nicky are both total pros with real heart. I’ve just watched the latest episode and there was not a dry eye in the hotel room.

Long Lost Family davina mccall nicky campbell

Don’t Stop the Music on Newsround

I loved Newsround as a kid. And now after all these years a bit of me gets on it – in the form of Don’t Stop the Music, the multiplatform project I’ve been working on all summer with pianist James Rhodes and Jamie Oliver’s production company, Fresh One.

Over 7,000 instruments were collected in the Don’t Stop the Music Instrument Amnesty thanks to the huge generosity of the British public and their care about music education. That makes it the biggest UK instrument amnesty ever.

Here’s the Newsround item which shows the last step in the journey as the instruments reach the kids…

Screen Shot BBC Newsround

South America Day 7 – Uruguay, Montevideo: On The Town

film movie projector shadow

Argentina is separated from Uruguay by the River Plate, which from the shore looks like a sea. On the Argentina side it is muddy brown. On the Uruguay side, a bit bluer. It takes around two hours to cross by boat. Valeria, Damian and I boarded from the modern passenger terminal in Buenos Aires, built only two years ago, complete with a wall of falling water.

I spent much of the journey doing my Spanish lessons on Duolinguo. Lo siento, no hablo Espagnol. Funnily enough, I got to use that phrase on Uruguayan television later in the day.

uruguay navy in port montevideo

The journey is a flat expanse of calm river, punctuated with the odd vessel but otherwise without features. Eventually the Uruguayan mainland looms into view, and then Montevideo, a largely low-rise city. On disembarking we passed pretty much the whole of the country’s navy in port, grey hulks labelled 1 to 24 under huge yellow cranes.

makeup room studio 10 montevideo uruguay damian kirzner

We were picked up by a colleague of Damian’s from TV station Estudio 9. She drove us along the coastal road, the Ramblas, a crescent promenade bordering the river-sea. We went first to Channel 10 where Damian did an interview on a daytime show. He was preceeded by Chico Novarro, a famous Argentine romantic singer of boleros, and his leather-trousered son, a well-known actor. The two presenters and crew were really welcoming and friendly, especially the older host who couldn’t have been warmer.

studio set studio 10 montevideo uruguay damian kirzner

Everyone in the crew, cameramen, sound, the works, were on their phones the whole time they were shooting. I watched a voice-over artist at the side of the set do the sponsor presentation live, delivering each bit perfectly and on time then returning to his magazine the second the mike went off.

The set was a comfortable house with living room, kitchen and (fake) garden beyond the French doors. Damian chatted in the kitchen with the younger host (with whom he made the multiplatform show Conectados a couple of years ago) and efficiently got across his activities with Mediamorfosis.

montevideo uruguay

We left the beautiful shade-dappled side street where Channel 10’s studio is located for a hotel in the city centre, not far away, it’s a bijou city. After dumping our stuff, the three of us walked ten blocks to the old city centred on Independence Square (this is Uruguay independence from Argentina). It is defined by the old theatre Solis, a strange masonic tower and a stone arch – very atmospheric and typically hispanic.

We had a late lunch outdoors (a lovely fresh white sea fish steamed with carrots and onions). Then I dragged them in to a beautiful late 19C book shop with high shelves, a book-lined balcony, a stained glass window half-way up the stairs and a café up above. If I lived in Montevideo, this would be my HQ.

Also at my request we popped into the Torres Garcia museum next door in a tall old townhouse, five or six narrow floors high. Joaquin Torres Garcia is Uruguay’s most famous Modernist artist. The early work on display (like Adam & Eve) shows the influence of Cezanne, Picasso and Gauguin. He lived in Paris, Barcelona and New York. Other roots seem to be Klee (searching for a symbolic universal picture language) and native South American Indian art (flat hieroglyphic planes). He was clearly both a restless experimenter and a relentless theorist. Note to self: pick up a book about him on my return.

el observador newspaper montevideo uruguay

We then headed off to El Observador newspaper in a quiet, more industrial quarter, beautifully designed offices in black and white, stylish. I had a look around the newsroom, then got roped into an interview despite my Duolinguo Spanish. That’s when I got to say “Lo siento, no hablo Espagnol” on air. We talked about the future of TV and media with a similarly stylish young journalist with blue glasses (Dame Edna Everage-style but dialed down and cool).

estudio 9 studio montevideo uruguay

Off for a siesta listening to Kind of Blue (= perfect siesta length, finishing on flamenco vibe) then over to Estudio 9 where Damian and I were doing a two-hander evangelising transmedia. The venue was a black-curtained studio, subtly lit in the beautifully lit and decorated former dance hall. We had fun doing it, it seemed to go down very well.

tango montevideo uruguay

From the studio we headed out for a suitably late a l’Espagnol supper in a former market with various folk from the British Council Uruguay office. In the corner of the open-to-the-air market (a bit like Spitalfields market) was an enclosed space with windows housing a tango school. Tonight was tango night so I got a chance to watch some regular couples at work. I liked their ambition. When I eventually got back to my 8th floor room I realised what I was looking down on was the corrugated iron roof of the mercado. So I fell asleep in Montevideo listening to the sounds of tango from below.

All 4 one

goggle box tv series channel 4

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.

double vision first date cycle of love

History Boy

the dawn of time universe sun big bang

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.

howard street sheffield docfest 2014

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.

robert capa d-day landings

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.

Andre Singer

Andre Singer

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.

Brilliant creatures rebels of oz documentary howard jacobson germaine greer

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”.

Howard Jacobson, Greg Sanderson (BBC), Germaine Greer

Howard Jacobson, Greg Sanderson (BBC), Germaine Greer

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.

germaine_greer 60s

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.

evolution denied ape to man


The Factory Factor

Intensity - with glasses

Intensity – with glasses

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?

Jesus of Cool

Intensity – before glasses


It’s a mousetrap, baby, and you been caught (Day 61)

the mousetrap play london

1952 nostalgia

Used the morning to go meet a TV indie to talk about the televisual possibilities of this project on the prompting of a seasoned British commissioner I met by chance on the street in Copenhagen the week before last, who made an unsolicited connection as I explained what I was up to, and because the suggested contact was already a friend of mine from university days I thought might as well, if he’s seen something in it. It was on my plan but for way further down the line but the chat was useful, not least for the insightful questions and perspectives the producer raised.

As I was not far away, I decided to trot over to Parliament Hill and ascend. Did a bit of reading and writing at the top of the hill and in the cafe below, mainly centred on Sylvia Beach and the potential publishing chapter. Then home to return to the world of Factory and tap away in that realm.

Knocked off half an hour early to fulfil a long-held London ambition – to go see The Mousetrap, which has been playing of course since I drew my first breath. It was a charming immersion into the 40s (both on and off stage) and had the added bonus of leaving you with a hang-over of mystery and suspicion as you emerged back into the real life of the city, opposite The Ivy. An Aston Martin with the number plate JUL IIAN. An American family arranged by the father in front of the theatre, or was it in front of the sports car, for a sneaky snap. A man in a top hat shouting at someone. All bathed in red neon glow from the sign above. When a man is tired of London, he must indeed have passed on, be no more, expired, gone to meet his maker, a stiff, bereft of life, pushing up the daisies, off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible…

monty python the parrot sketch

1969 nostalgeea

When I got back home, a Ginsberg person from the USA had gotten in touch out of the Norwegian Blue.

Spirit of SEX (Day 34)

Dr Pixie in run up to Health Freaks TX

Dr Pixie in run up to Health Freaks TX

I’m writing this one from BBC Media Centre while getting ready for tonight’s broadcast of Health Freaks, a new series I have been working on, the only Channel 4 work I have carried in to my sabbatical.

Malcolm McLaren hanging out on the King's Road

Malcolm McLaren hanging out on the King’s Road

I have spent most of the afternoon writing happily away outside a cafe on the King’s Road, Chelsea within spitting distance of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX shop. May the spirit of Punk rub off on me. I’m writing away at the Paul Arden chapter and in his contrariness is at least something of punk appeal. In a distinctly non- punk vein, for mid-October a remarkably mild afternoon which I thoroughly enjoyed sitting out in.

Prior to my writing burst, I was round the corner at The Chelsea Arts Club interviewing an advertising photographers’ agent, David Lambert, who worked with Paul Arden from 1974. As I walked into the club I saw a notice on the board announcing the death of Carolyn Cassady, who had been a member – reminding me of my lesson from Carolyn: strike while the iron’s hot when it comes to interviews.

While sitting outside the cafe at the Bluebird I organised a meeting with actress Gaye Brown who, apart from working with Joan Littlewood, was in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (in that magical year, 1971).

David was very generous with his time and stories, and seemed to be enjoying recalling these tales which linked one to another as he hauled them up from the 70s and 80s. He stars in my opening emblematic scene in the Advertising chapter so it was good to get the story direct from him. The version I’ve already written is very accurate it turns out, I just got one extra telling detail from the from-the-horse’s mouth version as well as the chance to compare notes on what it actually means.

The Chelsea Arts Club was a strange affair on a weekday afternoon. Some ladies who lunch, some ageing types with no pressing need to work, the ubiquitous newspaper reader. It felt full of heritage with people on the past chairmen list like Whistler, Philip Wilson Steer and John Lavery but I didn’t recognise any of the last decade’s lot and only Sir Chris Powell was known to me on the current officials photo- board. Not the friendliest place I’ve ever been – CAC? we’ll leave the jury out on that.

As I walked back down Old Church Street Adrian Dunbar rang to confirm arrangements for tomorrow’s trip back to the Littlewood archives. He wanted to bring Janet Behan with, Brendan’s niece (author of Brendan at the Chelsea), but the times wouldn’t work out so that will have to be a separate visit. These little chains of connection are fascinating and the root of the excitement of the project – as well as the very essence of Creativity.

Chelsea Arts Club (aka CAC) in more colourful times

Chelsea Arts Club (aka CAC) in more colourful times

Twitter storm at sea

This was an interesting experiment we tried recently on enlivening pre-recorded shows – in this case by calling out for a mass action over an ad break focused on three UK supermarkets which are unclear about the sourcing of some of their seafood (though no horse flesh involved …I think) and then presenting back the results straight after the break including an on-screen graphic featuring the number of tweets sent. In the words of the Twitter folk: “A great result around the show last night. We count circa 42K+ in the last 24 hours and a peak of 22K+ at the call to action – which is an equivalent hashtag spike to those Xfactor enjoys around its biggest moments! This kind of audience activation and live polling with Twitter is brilliant.”
The following extract is courtesy of Broadcast
hughs fish fight save our seas channel 4

Big Fish Fight hooks 20,000 tweets

5 March, 2013 | By 

Hugh’s Fish Fight saw a massive surge in Twitter activity – to over 2,200 messages per minute – after presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall urged viewers to message the UK’s biggest supermarkets.

Hugh’s Big Fish Fight (C4) 9pm-10pm
Total tweets: 22,151
Peak tweets per minute: 2,289


Fearnley-Whittingstall’s call to action over sustainable fishing saw over 10,000 viewers flock to Twitter over the course of the 60-minute show, according to data from SecondSync.

The show was watched by an audience of 1.1m (5.3%) according to overnight data supplied by Attentional – a conversion rate of around 1%.

The viewer engagement spiked at just after 9.30pm ahead of an ad break as Fearnley-Whittingstall encouraged viewers to tweet the supermarkets’ official accounts after they refused to be interviewed on the show.

The figures represented a massive uplift on the 312 tweets per minute the show averaged across the 60 minutes.

It also dwarfed the total tweet volume of 3,300 and 1,500 generated by the first two episodes in the series – when no call-to-action occurred.

C4’s multiplatform commissioning editor of factual Adam Gee said: “Fish Fight represents the sweet spot of multiplatform – the TV prompts understandable anger and the digital means now you can do something about it.”

The social media campaign was managed by digital agency Keo Digital and audience participation experts Telescope Inc.


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