I’ve been thinking about updating some of the lists that punctuate this blog (usually around Christmas when I’ve got a bit of time on my hands and am in a playful as well as reflective mood) so I’ve gathered a few here by way of preparation…
Blasts from the Pasts (musicians)
Doing the Box 1 (singles)
I’m thinking of doing next a Best Movies list and revisting Best Songs.
To be “at sixes and sevens” is a British English idiom used to describe a state of confusion or disarray.
6/7: Ten years ago last night I was at a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill with my Best Man celebrating our native city having been awarded the 2012 Olympic Games. It was a balmy summer night and we were high on it.
Earlier in the day I’d been in a meeting room at Channel 4 with my then boss, Heather Rabbatts, whose husband was a key player behind the London 2012 bid, specifically the use of London’s youth to capture the spirit of the proposition. We stopped mid meeting to switch on the telly and tune into the result announcement. “The International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing the games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of………. London!” Hugs were hugged, champagne was broached. 7/7: The next morning – a decade ago this morning – I was in the gym in Pimlico before work. I was watching the screens vaguely whilst running and suddenly some kind of power problem seemed to be hitting the tube system. As I jogged on the power surge turned gradually, uncertainly, into something altogether darker… A few hours later saw me walking from Horseferry Road via Camden & Kentish Towns to Muswell Hill. Up to Kentish Town I was with a commissioning editor from Drama, I forget her name after these years but I have a hazy notion of red hair. She lived really near my younger brother off Prince of Wales Road. I’ve no real memory any more how I got from there to Muswell Hill, but I arrived just in time for my older son’s art exhibition which was happening that afternoon and was the object of my cross-London journey. He had created art – the opposite of Hasib Nobody, who was the same age (18) as that son is now when he bombed Londoners. We walked back among other walkers who combined sadness and shock with determination and resilience – an unspoken solidarity which was the opposite of Mohammad Nobody, Shehezad Nobody and Germaine Nobody (age 19). They bombed Londoners caring only for the future of their own black souls, ironic since their only future was ash, alone in their eternal shame. In the wake of their zombie crime no real mark was made on London. Its diverse population just grew. No Muslims were assaulted. It grew into the most popular city on the planet.
As I walked home from work tonight I went to have a look at a Supermarine Spitfire mark 1A, the hero of the Battle of Britain alongside the 18 and 19 year olds who flew them, risking their lives to defend their country against Fascism with no thoughts for their own futures. The plane is to be auctioned for charity thanks to a US philanthropist in two days time, the eve of when the Battle of Britain started 75 years ago this month, 10th July 1940. At lunchtime I had popped over to Tate Britain whose walls are pockmarked by the bombs that dropped on our city later that summer as the Blitz began. The cowardice of 7/7 made less impression on this city than those bits of shrapnel that took little bits of stone out of the Tate’s walls. Inside those walls today I saw a work by one of the two greatest artists of the 20th Century – Three Studies for Figures at the base of a Crucifixion. The mouths according to Francis Bacon are of Hitler and fellow Nazis spouting bile and hollow propaganda – the kind of thing ISIL and Al Qaeda pour into the ears and vacuum headspaces of young Muslims and rootless converts. Painted 4 years after the Blitz kicked in it captures the bestial depths humanity can plunge to – but in an act of creation and human brilliance which is the opposite of 7/7. It’s an act of love and – as we all know – love is stronger than death.
The creative process is a cocktail of instinct, skill, culture and a highly creative feverishness. It is not like a drug; it is a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure; it’s a little like making love, the physical act of love.
– Francis Bacon
Me and my friend were walking, in the cold light of morning
Tears may blind the eyes but the soul is not deceived
In this world even winter ain’t what it seems
Here come the blue skies, here come the springtime
When the rivers run high and the tears run dry
When everything that dies, shall rise
Love, love, love
Is stronger than death
– The The
I just came home to this note from Enfant Terrible No. 1. It indicates that his Catholic education stuck to some degree, however little time he has for formal religion. It’s also a sign that his Music Education stuck to some degree because it refers to the borrowing without express permission of the paternal CDs (ranging from Curtis Mayfield to Siouxsie & The Banshees) in order to flesh out a newly broadened music collection. For nearly a decade we had wall-to-wall rap and then suddenly the dam has burst and The Enlightenment has flowed.
The beginnings of this are documented below in Passing the Baton.
I want to pick up the thread this day last week on Father’s Day, as good a one as ever occurred.
I get up relatively early (for a Sunday) to take said Enfant Terrible to his weekend job, teaching little kids rugby at a local school (the school where The Kinks went back in the golden era). Before leaving he handed me this home-made card:
Inside are written the wondrous words: “continue to musically educate us”. In the meantime from The Cure to The Doors, from Diana Ross to The Boss, they’re working their way through the goldmine.
Once back to the house I go for a run in St Pancras & Islington Cemetery (do your jogging or you’ll end up in here), listening to Inheritance Tracks from Radio 4. Here are mine from 3 years ago, but I think de facto at this point the one I’ve bequeathed may be Sympathy for the Devil. I was listening to the lyrics the other day while watching Crossfire Hurricane with Enfant Terrible No. 2 and they really are brilliantly epic for a young man of Jagger’s then age.
When I get back from my run I clean the bird shit off the car and pick up all the litter on Maurice’s allotment beside my house (Maurice is rarely able to get here any more due to old age taking its toll and Luis, the Portuguese fella who looks after the massive plot for Maurice, just doesn’t get the idea of litter/rubbish – it’s a cultural thing, either OK for possible recycling or weirdly invisible.) So a couple of physical activities for the greater good, always feels good. The original Forgive-Me-Father was a great advocate of service as the path to happiness.
In the afternoon we went down to our annual local festival, the East Finchley Community Festival in Cherry Tree Woods. I did a short stint on the stall of The Phoenix Cinema, where I am a trustee. Little kids were drawing discs to use in a Zoetrope type device, watching their work back as animation. The rest of the time I was mainly by the main music stage where the highlight for me was a bunch of geezers of my vintage playing tracks from my music collection, as raided above, like Song from Under the Floorboards and something by Talking Heads which now escapes my silver-fox vintage memory.
While I was sitting there the solution to a mystery came in over the airwaves. I’d bought a vinyl copy of Born to Run at Alan’s the day before. On the cover was a name that looked more like a signature than a name written to assert ownership of the record.
I whacked this photo online and drew it to the attention of my best man, a Springsteen veteran and connoisseur – he took 9 minutes to work out whose signature it was (he had a book signed by the same person) – it was Eric Meola, the photographer of the famously stark no-nonsense black&white Born to Run cover. So not a bad acquisition for £7. I told Alan the story on my way home from the festival on this beautiful summer evening and he shared the piquant addendum that the copy had come from the collection of singer Paul Young (of Q-Tips, Band Aid and solo fame).
In the evening the ETs gave me my Father’s Day present, a subscription to Spotify on which was prepared a playlist called ‘The Enlightenment’ consisting of loads of songs I’d shared with them over the years which they now really appreciated. It was clearly the product of many hours work, including the use of Shazaam to identify unnamed tracks I had put on early birthday compilation cassettes for them.
We went up to Highgate for dinner together, unbooked and last minute as I prefer. It was chilled, great larks. On our return we set up a collaborative playlist called ‘3-way Music Education’…
I marked the 10th anniversary of our old slippers of a book group by listing all that we had read to that auspicious date. The personnel is remarkably stable, adding members very rarely, so to herald the arrival of my friend Martin Bright I am updating the list:
- In the Country of Men – Hisham Matar (Jun 15)
- The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell * (Apr 15)
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Mar 15)
- Oblivion – David Foster Wallace (Nov 14)
- The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Sep 14)
- What Was Promised – Tobias Hill (Jun 14)
- Stoner – John Williams * (Apr 14)
- Rabbit at Rest – John Updike *** (Feb 14)
- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – Alice Munro (Dec 13)
- May We Be Forgiven – A. M. Homes (Nov 13)
- Irretrievable -Theodor Fontane (Sept 13)
- Wise Men -Stuart Nadler (July 13)
- Bring out the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (March 13)
- Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers (Jan 13)
- There’s no such thing as a free press – Mick Hume (Dec 12)
- Love and Summer – William Trevor (Nov 12)
- The Uncoupling – Meg Wolitzer (July 12)
- A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 12)
- Nemesis – Philip Roth ** (April 12)
- Old School – Tobias Wolff (March 12)
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain (Jan 12)
- the first ten years
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.
So I’m sitting at breakfast as usual, late Saturday morning, a West Coast Irish sense of urgency (think mañana but less pressing), listening to Robert Elms on Radio London. After a bit of a dull gardening item an Irish poetry enthusiast with a Dublin accent pops up to talk about his guided walk to mark today’s [Saturday 13th] 150th anniversary of the birth of WB Yeats. He says “it’s probably too late for your listeners” – red rag to a British bulldog, I was going to get to Wolburn Buildings for the start of the walk regardless of the sub-90 minute lead-time. Niall McDevitt was the name of the poetical Irish gent punting his walk on the wireless and it was the said poet who wandered up Woburn Walk, location of WB’s bachelor pad, at the appointed hour of one, in red trousers, perfect to lead a walk through a busy Saturday afternoon London, the biz in hi-viz.
As he started the walk-talk an Indian lady appeared at WB’s balcony – an artist who uses his old love-nest as a studio. She gamely waved a large photo of Yeats to the assembled motley crew. Niall explained that WB moved in as a 30-something virgin, determined to pop the ol’ cherry and in need of a bit of space from his artist father and painter brother Jack over in the family home in Chiswick or thereabouts in West London. His married mistress found the place, in a small, quiet passage opposite Euston and within walking distance of the Brain of London which was the British Museum Reading Room, the internet of its day. The affair only lasted a year but WB stayed there for 24 years (1895-1919) until he eventually married. For the Irish Shakespeare that was a long time in prime years to stay in a foreign metropolis. Perhaps we dare think of him as London-Irish in some small way?
The Euston location was convenient for his Monday evening At Homes where the likes of Ezra Pound and Maud Gonne pulled by for cultural and literary chat. It was also convenient for jumping on the train to Liverpool to catch the ferry round to the West Coast of the Emerald Isle.
From Wolburn Walk we headed across Bloomsbury to the bust of Tagore in Gordon Square to review Yeats’s Indian connections. (The Nobel-prize-winning Indian poet Tagore while in London lived in the Vale of Health just below where I was born).
Then along the greenery into UCL (founded by one of my distant forebears) and the building of Faber & Faber where TS Eliot was based. Niall put forward the proposition that Yeats’s Second Coming was the great poem of the 20th Century and not The Wasteland. I let it pass – he’s obviously wrong.
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold
At Museum Street opposite that Brain of London we stopped for an interlude at the Occult Book Shop where the proprietor, a 2nd generation bookseller who has just inducted the 3rd generation, gave us a fascinating talk about Magic and the Golden Dawn, an occult order which Yeats joined in a serious way. On the wall were pictures of various key personages including the Hackney Jew who set up the shop and an oil portrait of Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, one of the primary influences on Yeats life (alongside a Fenian whose name escapes me, Sean O’Something). Irish Nationalism and Magic – his Big Two Things.
From there into Covent Garden where we strangely enough went right past my hairdresser where I had a 3pm appointment – what’s the chances of the line from Woburn Walk happening to pass that spot? Near the Freemasons’ HQ in Great Queen Street we stopped to talk a bit of Blake. In the old Masonic children’s hospital opposite was the place where Blake did his engraving apprenticeship for 7 years. Niall’s core territory is bounded by Shakespeare (who spent a lot of time in London in Southwark) and Blake (who grew up in London in Marshall Street – opposite my first job at Solus Productions at No. 35) and Rimbaud (who spent a little time in London in Camden Town) and Yeats (who spent a lot of time in London in Euston, Primrose Hill and Chiswick).
I peeled off when we got to the other side of Lincoln’s Inn as hair cutting called. They were heading in the direction of temples where Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawners worshipped. That kind of shit freaks me out a bit any way so probably just as well. Rewind. As we were starting off in Wolburn Buildings Niall mentioned the fact that Yeats was big into the after-life and would appreciate our celebration, indeed might well be with us if his hopes for the after-life proved well founded. At that moment one of the walkers’ mobile rang, he fumbled it and dropped a small case he was carrying, from which spilled a number of harmonicas. As in mouth organs. Or blues harps. So harps, the symbol of Irish poetry, fall out on the streets of London. Nuff said.
I had the great honour and pleasure of explaining to Enfant Terrible No. 2 this afternoon how a record player works – and indeed how a record works. “So if you turn it over are there more songs on the other side?”
It reminded me of the time the four of us were in the car listening to a Sherlock Holmes story and I had to pause the tape to explain what a ‘typewriter’ was, as the mystery revolved around a typewriter with a dodgy E.
So I walked down to Alan’s record shop on our high street with the ETs and No. 2 bought his very first piece of vinyl, a Rolling Stones (later) hits LP – he was after the track Wild Horses. He asked me to show him how to play it in the shop. I demoed on the knackered old deck. “So the lines are different songs?”
I showed him how to check the record for blemishes, how to handle the disc, how to check the weight/thickness.
It’s interesting how they came to this place, to the point of being introduced to Alan as customers after one and a half decades of just being local kids. After years of wall-to-wall rap the younger one recently got into reggae, then Dylan and The Stones; the older one into The Doors and Dylan. When Snoop Dogg put out a reggae album as Snoop Lion he provided the bridge for ET2 into the rasta world. And Yelawolf’s Nashville connections prompted thoughts in the head of ET1 of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. After years of Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa how amazing to get a text saying: “Just been listening to Bob Dylan’s song ‘Hurricane’ – the man’s a genius”.
What’s also interesting to see is how all the musical education/indoctrination did actually get in and get noticed. I used to make them tapes for their birthdays based on what they were interested in – so at 4 for example it was cops, robbers and superheroes – cue Police & Thieves, The Batman theme (The Jam), etc. Now tunes like Riders on the Storm (from the cowboys & Indians phase) are resurfacing in their consciousness.
This afternoon’s lads’ trip down the road was a real landmark and a deep pleasure.
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.
My session today was as panelist rather than chair, on the subject of the rise of the Short Form Doc. Showed clips from a range of my recent commissions from Circus Girls to Body Mods, from Futurgasm to The Black Lesbian Handbook, to give a sense of the variety of output. The session started by showing two of the earliest short form films known, from late 19th century France (including the Lumiere Bros.) Shared the platform with Katie Metcalfe from the Short of the Week site/Sundance and a couple of struggling documentarists from Greece among others – it was a good, broad mix. My old friend Bill Thompson from the BBC was in the audience and captured the session in this cheeky tweet:
The new Sheffield DocFest Director, Elizabeth McIntyre, was also there and was strongly supportive of my assertion that it was misleading and plain wrong to portray short form as the little brother of long form documentary. It is not short TV, not cheap TV, it is a thing in itself, a fabulous form.
I met the acting Director at breakfast (Mark Atkins), as well as the recently retired Director (Heather Croall) and the current Chair (Alex Graham) so that was the full set today.
Before my session I went to the Brett Morgen masterclass in the City Hall where I hung a bit with the Music Doc posse from yesterday – Brett, Paul Viragh, Chris Wilson and Leslie Lee. I picked up some good tips from Brett – who talked about Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Kid Stays in the Picture and Crossfire Hurricane – including his ambitious approach of striving for an immersive cinematic experience to distinguish his docs e.g. to solve the problem that dozens of books and numerous films had already told the Stones story when the band brought Crossfire Hurricane to him – he sees his films as “a ride”. Also his use of asynchronous sound is interesting.
After the ‘Make it Short’ session, which seemed to go down really well, I went for a drink with Bill and had a fascinating chat with Bill, Brett and my friend & former colleague Jan Younghusband (of BBC Music) about new tech, AI and the spaces of human presence in our era.
I sat outdoors for a bit in the afternoon watching a documentary about the relationship between human beings and the earth on the hill of Howard Street, on a lawn in a deckchair in the June sunshine, enjoying its hippy vibe whilst reading ‘Our Mutual Friend’, all round green&pleasant.
In the evening I went to see a film about The Damned (Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead) by Wes Orshoski. It was entertaining with some really funny moments, quite conventional but a great range of interviews (from Chrissie Hynde to Mick Jones). Wes spoke a bit after the screening, an enthusiastic Yank, and Captain Sensible’s son was in attendance. From Neat Neat Neat via Smash It Up to Eloise The Damned turned out some great tunes through their various early incarnations. In short, they were The Ramones of Britain. A bit too silly for their own long-term good, condemning themselves to being something of a footnote.
Today’s first day for me at DocFest 2015 has been dominated by music which is at it should be in the home of Joe Cocker, Comsat Angels, Heaven 17 and The Human League. I headed North in time to chair a lunchtime session in the uber-Victorian town hall on the current state of play of music films and rock docs. We had something of a supergroup on the panel, the Cream of the cream, including:
- Brett Morgen, director of Cobain: Montage of Heck and the Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane
- Paul Viragh, writer of the Ian Dury movie Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll
- Jessica Edwards, director of Mavis, a new documentary about Mavis Staples
- Julia Nottingham, producer of the surprisingly romantic The Possibilities Are Endless about Edwyn Collins and his wife, representing Pulse Films who made my favourite film (scripted or unscripted) of last year, Film4’s 20,000 Days on Earth, featuring Nick Cave
- Chris Wilson, producer of Hotel California, centred on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the rest of the 70s Laurel Canyon set
We covered a fair bit of ground including the reimagining of music docs in the form of films like Pulse’s The Possibilities Are Endless; Brett’s technique of cutting and designing the audio track first (particularly evident in his The Kid Stays In The Picture film about Robert Evans); films inspired by magical live experiences and made by fans; the commonalities between scripted drama about musicians and music docs; the opportunities in theatrical releases with a cinematic approach versus those in TV.
I had a good chat with Brett and Chris outside a cafe in the afternoon about music and film geekery from 12 Years a Slave (Brett went to film school in New York with Steve McQueen and thought there was a massive leap forward from Shame to 12 Years) to Fiddler on the Roof.
Paul, Chris and Brett plus Leslie Lee who produced our session wended our way to a slightly bizarre karaoke bar to watch the Champions League final at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin before heading over to the Showroom cinema to watch the Cobain film nice&loud.
My favourite scene is when Kurt plays the master tape of Nevermind to his mother and she realises the implications of how scarily brilliant it is and tries to warn him.
What the Cobain film leaves me with are these keys to Kurt’s life:
- fear of humiliation
- sense of shame
- love of playing live