Tuesday, 29 January 2008

When I was an 'actor'...

So, yes, I was a games reviewer in one ep of a show, then I appeared as an extra in a soap almost daily... but my longest in-front-of-camera gig was as a regular recurring character in the comedy-soap-factual show I made for Sky.

I've mentioned it before but I didn't go into the ins and outs of being on tv. My character - I must admit to stifling a giggle as I type that, it sounds too luvvie for words, "ooh yes, dearie, my charact-orrrr had such a complex backstory... it was soooo difficult playing him I had to submerge myself in his every word for hours beforehand to get him just right..."


I turned up, put a wig on, a T-shirt with the show's logo on it (that had NEVER been washed, over 26 episodes filmed over 26 weeks - lovely...). I then had a black beard drawn on my face for no apparent reason. Well, there was one. I had a goatee beard for a while, in one of those fashion errors that everyone goes through, before I realised it made me look like an idiot. So I shaved it off during my summer break - sadly, we'd filmed the pilot episode of the show (which went out as episode 4 as we couldn't afford a proper pilot, even though we changed things after it)

The director insisted the beard was drawn back on as it made me look "authorative" - yeah right, more like it made me look even stupider. As the boss, standing there in a hot hippy wig, smelly T-shirt and stupid drawn-on beard, most of my staff laughed at me. But at least I didn't get recognised in the street or anything, a boon if ever there was one.

So I played a researcher for a fictional TV show about games, in the actual show about games I produced and wrote. It was already too post-modern for words, and this was 1994. One of the other researchers played a newsreader (fake tash, no trousers, suit jacket) and got coaching from Sue Cook off of Crimewatch to make him more proper. He was very posh and took it all far too seriously. I simply made him Mr News to his desk with no trousers on in most episodes. It looked stupid and made me laugh.

The two other researchers played, er, researchers. Me and them would appear twice in each show and review games. It was filmed in this chaotic games room in batches of 5-6 episodes, a high camera with me and my researcher researcher standing looking up at it, the other researcher researcher sitting at the back.

Here's the character part. I was called Spike and I moaned a lot. Researcher researcher one was called Freebie and he believed all the PR crap about games - ie was enthusiastic. So enthusiastic he went to work in games' PR when the show ended. And researcher researcher two was called Saddo, wore a woolly hat and gave all the geeky info on games.

I hated doing the reviews. It was filmed live and you had to basically talk in 20-30 second sound bites, all three of us throwing to each other, getting across relevant 'journalistic' points, yet being funny; mentioning anything important and leaving plenty of cut points so we could put footage in or cut the review down if needed.

By the end I was quite skilled at it, looking at camera properly (not that easy, just try it some time), mugging and making faces if people disagreed with me, talking reasonably pithily and that. But eight hours of filming that, especially in summer, was totally exhausting.

We all also appeared in the comedy part of the show, usually at a 'production meeting' at the start, and often in the background of other shots. This was a mixture of boring and stressful, especially if we had to 'act'. As producer I simply cut my lines out so got to do less and less as the series went on, but the occasional one slipped through and my hammy acting, odd accent and sweating form was not something I liked to see.

The best ep I was in I actually got a body double to do me, Jake our props guy. He was a far better Spike than me, even if he had his back to camera all the way through the episode. It was a party ep and Jake/Spike could dance far better than me/Spike ever could.

I was recognised precisely once, in a Chinese takeaway that, oddly, had Sky on in reception. I'd ordered a curry and then up Spike popped on the telly, talking in the same voice. The teenage bloke serving me looked at the screen, then me, then the screen quite puzzled. I said "yeah that's me", in a slightly proud "do you want an autograph?" way.

He looked at the screen, then at me again, then said "nah" and walked off.

Friday, 25 January 2008

When I was in a soap opera...

Yes, the dodgy cable company I worked for did a soap opera for a while. It was set in a dodgy cable company. Oooh, big leap there, eh? Sort of like Moving Wallpaper but made for the budget they spend on hairspray. Genuinely - it cost something like two grand an episode.

Sets? Free! Let's just film it in our office!

Scripts? Free! We'll get our staff writers on other shows to do them! (This eventually changed)

Locations? Free! We'll film in the (then) deserted streets of Docklands, without permission or anything.

Actors? Almost free! We've done a deal with Equity meaning we can pay 'em £50 a day or sommit. But we'll pay more for some. A bit more.

Producer and director? Free! We'll use people on staff. Again.

It was totally hilarious, like one of those odd African soaps you see around channel 190 on Sky. Long shots (editing = money)... hardly cutting (one camera)... dark, dingy, mushy lighting (lights = money), terrible acting and even worse costumes (no budget for costumes, people just wore what they came in)

And they'd film it at the end of your desk. So I'd be sitting trying to think up ideas next to my staff who were producing actual shows and that, then an over-made up fortysomething lady would sit next to me screeching at a hammy man out of Grattan's underpants ads "No, it's not your baby! It's Sir Mortimer's!!!!1!". Over and over again until everyone else on the desk remembered not to look at camera.

Surreal. Once me and my techie biker mate pretended to have a fight in the background of a shot and they actually used it on air. I seem to remember one of the characters ad libbed and said "Look, the channel's financial plight is affecting the staff morale!!!11!!!". But that might be my head trying to justify why they did it.

The show was terrible, beyond bad, but was the baby of the Head of Programmes so ran for six months. They cancelled it, and gave me and my fledgling animation department the job of making the last shot where Canary Wharf disappeared. Which we did to a Tardis sound effect, the tower fading in and out of shot. The reason for it ending that way? Well aliens were running the station secretly and decided to take Canary Wharf Tower away with them. Or something. My head probably made that up too, but I reckon in this case it was probably worse.

When they repeated the "best" of the series, it was labelled as the programme name then ": Silver". Legendary Tabloid Editor who ran the station said "the show's ain't anywhere near good enough to be called 'Gold'", so Head of Programmes suggested "Silver?" and they all had a laugh.

Them were the days.

Coming next time: how I played a researcher in a show I produced and wrote about a crappy TV station. Are you noticing a theme here?

Thursday, 24 January 2008

"Starring" on tv

I've been on telly quite a bit I suppose. The first time was when I was junior researcher on a show, and had to organise a video game review segment. I had 13 episodes to do in one day, each with 3 games in it, then some spare games. Each was reviewed by 4-5 people, to cut together into packages of 2-3 comments per game and a score.

Some of the games were so far ahead of release we, er, hadn't seen that much of them. Stories of other shows I know reviewing a game from a faxed copy of the cover and a still aren't that wide of the mark... at least I'd managed to get all the games in for the reviewers to play, a first.

It all went champion - the reviewers were (a) on time; (b) concise; (c) funny; (d)informative and (e) accurate (in order of importance for telly). Except one got stuck and didn't turn up*

There was a tradition when this happened. Researcher had to go on.


So it was 5pm, after being up at 5am to organise this thing (tired); boiling hot studio (sweaty); dressed for comfort (scruffy) and without any preparation (stupid) that I made my tv debut. I was labelled as a "games expert" - everyone else had the name of the games magazine they worked for as a credit in exchange for their employer letting them come along for free.

I remember the first game, Jimmy Connors' Tennis. It was poo. I said something to the effect of that but in far too many words. The director teased me and said that I was rubbish, and I needed to think in 15 second soundbites, just like I'd told everyone else. Yeah, yeah, you sarcastic twunt, I thought as I gritted my teeth and smiled into the incredibly bright lights (ow sore contact lenses). The makeup lady came (she was there to take our presenter off to do something else, not for us) and dabbed my swatty brow, looked at me and just kinda shrugged. Oh well. I prepared my soundbite.

"This game is about as playable as a box of used tissues"

Everyone laughed. Brill. Cool.

The next few games were better and I got to be dead fluent and funny, the director even saying how I was a natural at it, great with the camera etc.

And then I forgot about the day totally, working my arse off until Xmas when I finally got some time off. Up North I go, to visit family and friends, and then I get a call from the producer to tell me I'm the undoubted star of the Xmas Eve edition of the show. I'm a bit confused, and can hear laughter and the show's theme music in the background - they must be watching it in an edit.

I excitedly tell everyone I'm on the telly and that. I gather with my family and we sit and watch the show. Obviously my parents are confused ("what's going on here?" they say repeatedly, never having watched the show before) but it finally gets to the review section.

And, yes, there I am! Cheers all round. It's the tennis game and my killer line about used tissues. Hohoho, my family all laugh - apart from Pedantic Brother ("but used tissues aren't in a box", he whines, "they'd be in the bin or on the floor")

Up comes the next game and I shush them all up, saying how I'm better on this one. And... er, oh. Apparently that game is about as playable as a box of used tissues as well. Hmmm. Well, no time to wait, here's the final game. There's me, and I'm not saying that line. I'm looking to camera and asking "well what CAN I say about this one?". That wasn't meant to be used, that was me thinking on my feet. Never mind, I'm sure I said something good - natural, the director said.

Yes, you guessed it, they used my tissue line again. And our lovely presenter made a pithy innuendo about me getting through rather a lot of tissues, something I hope went over my parents' heads.

I was told when I got back to work the boss had gone ballistic with the producer and director. Not about making me look foolish, but about compromising the show's editorial authority.

I realised soon afterwards, by the snarky comments of the Very Unpopular AP on the show (ie never been asked to be on it) as well as my friends on other shows, it was actually a bit of an honour to have the piss taken out of you in that way. Apparently. Allegedly.

Remember, kids, appearing on tv is a double-edged sword. My parents and mates up North genuinely thought I'd said the same stupid thing three times. The rather good games I'd appeared to slag off - well, the companies weren't too happy but realised I'd been stitched up and ended up buying me beers to commiserate. And the director and producer, after giggling like little girls when I first turned up, said my other comments on the other games would play properly (which they did).

Even if at the end of the series I won the 2nd Worst Hairstyle Award Ever. And considering the quiffs and mullets on show, that wasn't fair either. I nearly said "tennis" instead of "fair" but I've had an aversion to tennis comparisons since these events.

Next time: my "acting" debut...

*It turned out the missing reviewer hadn't even been asked to come. He was a mate of one of the other reviewers, who'd been told by our presenter not to bother to get him on as they wanted me to do it. So it was all a set up...

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

And finally...

So it's been a while since I've posted. Oops. Been away (Switzerland, thanks for asking, and the only tv I saw there was BBC One. It was odd watching the BBC London News in Zurich - they just take the main Beeb feed so that's there by default. Still shit though...)

Also not been much on the telly, apart from endless shows about chickens (enough, please, Jamie, Hugh and Gordo) and a big rejiggle of ITV1.

The truth is does anyone give a monkey's chuff about News at Ten and Sir Trev and That Lass Off Of Sky and The Bongs? I do, obviously, as I lurrrrrve pretentious pompous news graphics and music - yay NaT for being totally Day Today about the whole thing, with echos of the old BBC News graphics when they used to look like a Nazi propagranda video (http://youtube.com/watch?v=C3wpcsKzgIk&feature=related) or was beamed from London and space (http://youtube.com/watch?v=vPmiB6IhShs&feature=related)

I once did the news. It was a Sunday afternoon in July, on an infamous cable station that has more people remembering it than ever could've seen it. I was in a rabbit costume, mainly pretending to play tennis at the Wimbledon results. There was someone else actually reading the news obviously. Hey, we took our news seriously. So a 19 year-old work experience person read it, working the autocue with a pedal and sitting in front of a static camera.

The only reason I was on was that the person who should've been dressed up like a rabbit pretending to play tennis was trapped in the bogs. I think he'd had a dodgy curry or something but when the panicking Boy Newsreader ran over and said I'd have to be the bunny I didn't exactly jump at the chance. I was the only other person in, true, and the boss would fire him if he saw a news bulletin without his beloved bunny in it, yes, but why me?

The costume smelt of stale sweat and, bizarrely, chips.

Apparently I was "ok for the tennis bit but shit at the news miming", as the boss told me the next day. As I was Head of Stupid Ideas, it had proven quite funny that I was all bunnied up.

Next day I starred in the even rubbisher soap they made next to my desk. But that's another story...

Friday, 11 January 2008

Moving Wallpaper / Echo Beach

Yes I sat and watched ITV1's new flagship comedy/soap/sitcom/drama thing last night. My main interest, to be frank, was in the adverts. They actually showed a one for Cheese Strings.. or is it Cheezstringz? I've never seen such a product advertised on primetime telly. For a show aimed at an upmarket audience, it was an odd thing to see.

And my view? Well, as a tv producer I enjoyed Moving Wallpaper. But I always enjoy shows set in telly, it ticks a box on my anorak list of things wot I like. I even put up with Studio 60 far longer than any normal human being with working eyes and ears should.

To be frank, the comedy one wasn't as funny as it could've been. And - although this is a minor thing - utterly unrealistic in every single way. Ben Miller seemed to think a Nasty Cynical TV Producer is the same as any soap bastard but just talks with his mouth more closed than is natural. Maybe he's pretending to have Botoxed his cheeks but it just came across like he was mumbling a lot.

I think the major flaw is that other tv-shows-about-tv-shows have programme clips in them - the sublime Larry Sanders, the up-it's-own-ass Studio 60, 30 Rock, even back to Mary Tyler-Moore and Murphy Brown. The mixture of behind-the-camera and in-front is where a lot of the comedy can come from, the alomst immediate juxtaposition of the two forms can be dead funny.

Apart from a lame gag involving an extra getting a line 'cos she blew the producer, none of the actors in Echo Beach turned up in Moving Wallpaper. You then end up waiting 45 minutes for a reference to a wet room to turn up in front of the camera when it was obviously a punchline... well, it's not ideal for comedy timing purposes.

Others have pointed out a soap audience isn't going to watch a post-ironic sitcom about making it, and that's undoubtedly true (he confidentially asserts before seeing the ratings) But, post-ironically, my dislike of soaps mean I don't watch them and therefore I quite enjoyed Echo Beach as the no-doubt cliched acting, hilariously literal music, familiar faces from other shows (look, it's that dead one from Corrie! Ooh, isn't that Mrs McClusky from Grange Hill!)... all this is new to me. Like ads for string made of cheese.

In my humble opinion, one of the reasons this concept took so long to get on air was that it's fundamentally flawed. It somehow worked better when they said they'd show the soap on ITV2 after the comedy on ITV1 - not sure why a change of channel makes it right but it kinda does. I s'pose the soap cost too much money or something (lots of helicopter shots, no volume savings like a daily soap).

A sitcom set around people making a soap should be ideal. The people-who-don't-like-each-other-trapped-together thing is there, big characters etc. etc. - it works. But maybe Acorn Antiques total cheesiness made the actual producers (not the fictional ones... sigh, this gets confusing) plummet upmarket and try to be sophisticated. Hmm. I've got friends who've worked on soaps and they've told me plenty of great stories, like the lead actress in a, er, hospital soap who can't ever remember the word 'hospital' and screws up every line with it in.

I'll give it another go - hell, it's the first episode(s) - but my season pass is more than likely to be deleted soon.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Unreality shows...

Happy 2008 and all that. This is my seventeenth calendar year of working for the tellingvision, and I'm not at all jaded by it, oh no. Actually, despite having the attention span of a goldfish and the cynicism of Jeremy Paxman squared, I still love a good tv show. Be it a nice drama like Life on Mars or Torchwood (both back soon), a superbly produced factual show like Top Gear or Antiques Roadshow (and I totally HATE antiques but love the show) or a sitcom containing laughs like... erm... well, six year old repeats of Will and Grace (thanks for bringing it back on Sundays Living!)

Which is why I'm writing about reality shows.

Well, not really. I don't really do reality shows any more. Sadly, with American writers on strike, it's wall-to-wall reality shows Stateside. They've even brought back Gladiators. Yikes.

So I managed to catch some reality shows during the past few days, a situation I'm not too sure why I allowed to happen. Maybe I should call them 'people' shows as I'm including talent shows too. Here are three examples:-

I once wrote a show called... well, it didn't have a title, that was one of the problems with it. It was a talent show where people competed to be the best 'tribute act' - but I felt Britain's Best Tribute Act was a rubbish title and ended up calling it "the lookalikey/soundalikey thing". My boss thought it was a rip-off of Stars In Their Eyes but with the added boredom of the same singers over and over again - a fair point I thought. So I added in people doing famous scenes from movies, as Humphrey Bogart or Harrison Ford, as well as the Elvises and Chers.

"More!" was my boss's retort, so in went famous news events (Churchill making a speech), TV show impersonations and an improv finale that was quite inspired I thought.

The boss was very happy with it, we sent it in to the BBC and got a flat rejection from them saying something along the lines of "talent shows featuring look- and sound-alikes aren't what we're about".


Things change, and The One And Only is about as simple a talent show as possible. No effort has been expended to make it original. It didn't make me want to kick the telly in but it wasn't exactly... er, well, any good either. What's the point of doing auditions if we can't laugh at the totally useless ones? That's the fun bit. Watching a quite good Robbie Williams battling a fairly decent dead-one-off-The-Carpenters is OK but nowhere near as much fun as watching Les Dawson dressed up like Britney Spears followed by a fat trannie Cher.

Wouldn't it have been much better if they'd called it that, eh? As in the name, that'd have been down wif da kidz. The show still wouldn't have been any good because the idea, to be frank, is cack. Matt Lucas telling an ugly politician-type to tell fibs. Oh hold my splitting sides.

The only point of Sleb BB was that it was famous people all forced to be together. George Galloway dressed up like a cat. Michael Barrymore smearing egg on his face. Vanessa Feltz being autistic. That's quite funny. The Sleb Jack is just dull.

They've only themselves to blame, C4. First they broke their own format by introducing a non-sleb who actually won, in yet another case of the audience doing exactly what the programme makers don't want. Yay audience! Then they let Horrid Shouty Witches be racist to that Nice Indian Lass, and did nowt about it. So they had to 'cancel' the series and do this totally new, unrelated at all, format. Ahem. Yeah right.

(Dermot, if you're reading, you're doing the right thing getting out now. Davina, be a love, you should do the same)

Watch this. It's on E! about twelve times a day. Go on. It's a show following some tart what had sex with someone famous-ish on the interslice and her 'wacky family' of other tarts and whores. It's astonishing. Imagine a bimbo more talentless, stupid and vacuous that Paris Hilton, and then times it by a hundred, and that's this show. It's even worse than that one on MTV where teenagers shag in a bus for a dollar. Or something.

So, to conclude, reality tv: no ta. If I wanted to watch real people I'd sit by a window next to a busy street.