Wednesday, 30 April 2008

What you can and can't do on tv

TV regulations (now please don't run away, this is funny, honest) can be odd at the best of times. Over the -ty years I've worked in tv, they've changed a million times. Here are a few things we did on the television that weren't allowed:-

You can't depict a corpse being hung by a noose at 6pm in what is technically "kids-stroke-family viewing". Fair enough, you may say, we don't want that at 6pm, you evil man trying to broadcast it.

But it was a comedy show. And the 'person' being hung was a hand-puppet. Like Sooty but a pig. A bright pink comedy pig puppet. Red-tape-gorn-mad etc.

The word 'fart' wasn't acceptable before 7pm once. Now it is. No idea why.

Once of our shows had a character who was a spoof of a Sweeney-style 70s detective. (Life on Mars, tsk, stealing an idea from a children's show on Sky in 1993. Tsk again). We got into a bit of trouble as he'd say to a thirteen year old girl "Get orf my manor, you nonce!". None of us knew nonce was slang for child molester. Still, he said it to kids so it couldn't be offensive. Er, no. I had to recut 10 shows' worth of sketches replacing the word 'nonce' with 'bonce'. Made no sense at all, like when the very rude phrase is replaced with 'melon farmer' on American TV.

I had to spend 2 days in an edit trying to blur out the logos from the front of footy shirts, on a feature I'd shot at a premiership football ground. The sponsor was Carlsberg and alcohol advertising of any form is illegal in kids' tv time. It'd be easier now but was incredibly hard back in the pre-digital edit days.

When a po-faced lawyer is watching your show and reading a transcript, it's no use claiming it's obviously ironic. We had a 'Gadget of the Week' slot on a comedy show. The plot would be continuing and one of the characters would find something, point at it and go "what's that?". Then everyone in shot would turn to camera and say "it's the Gadget of the Week!", cheesy QVC-style music would start up and the actors would go out of character and sell it to camera.

We purposely mixed fact, fiction and utter nonsense in the scripts. On an electric bike: "It does 5mph. But not on the Moon. Moon not included". On a GPS thing: "This item is available in... shops. But not ones that sell just bread. Or meat. Or buttons." On a widescreen TV: "The screen is wide enough to show a whole man lying down. But not tall enough to show a mountain. A flaw there I think."

And so on. We got into trouble every week as the lawyers thought we were advertising the products not reviewing them. So we had to brand the segment with a big logo in the top corner and extra 'facts' scrolling up, so (in the words of the channel) "people know it's not a shopping channel". Sigh.

We filmed a lady presenter in a rubber dress in a very cold indoor swimming pool. I had to zoom in on her head and shoulders, cropping out her, um, indications of how cold it was in her chestal zone.

It's the one area we got away with murder, as lawyers have no sense of humour and tend to consult the scripts. So suggestive winks when aforementioned presenter-in-rubber-dress welcomes viewers to her "little slot" are fine.

One of those oh-so-tricky areas. We got into trouble for a cartoon where the owner/authority figure was black, as he snoozed a bit during the show and that was allegedly racist. I say trouble, there was one letter from a schoolteacher. We pointed out he was (a) a pensioner; and (b) secretly did lots of work when he was pretending to be asleep; he was just doing it for fun, winking to camera after. We didn't hear back but there again you never do.

Er, no. I won't go here.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Live tv going wrong (again)

I've mentioned the crappy live pop magazine show I worked on many times before. Well the show was interactive too, aeons before such things were thought important. The viewers picked the presenters, in a big live one-off special, then the series kicked off the next week. The idea was each presenter pitched ideas for features then the ones the viewers voted for were filmed*

In the special, there were ten presenters up for four spots. Only four of the presenters were any good (and I'm pushing it here by the use of the word 'good' - one was properly good, two OK, one less-car-crash-than-the-remainder). I wasn't working on the show at the time, sitting at home watching, jaw dropping at how poor it all seemed, as it stumbled along it's running time, barely staying on air never mind being entertaining. I rang up a mate and we bitched to each other as we watched. Always fun doing that, even when I really liked the two producers making the show. Hey, tv is cruel yeah?

The viewers voted all through the show and the results were read out at the end. And the properly good one hadn't won. What? He wasn't even in the final four, his place taken by a dwarf pixie with a speech defect. Huh? The voting patterns seemed very odd, everything in round %ages - 30% for this one, 20% for that. Durrr?

Next day I was told what happened. In a panic to get the results through, the boss had handed over the wrong results - not the just-collated live votes but the piece of card they'd made up for the rehearsal. The actual results were left on the desk. The ones that picked the only four decent presenters, as any sane person picking up a telephone would've done.

But what could be done? The producers couldn't fire the tiny wee boy who couldn't talk, could they? No, they couldn't. Or, rather, no WE couldn't as I was drafted on board as a producer. The solution was simple. The microscopic talent-free laddie was given his own 'special' segment of the show, kept as a presenter. And the proper good one was hired pronto, with a comedy apology at the start of the actual series the next week.

I was told to adapt an idea I'd been working on as a development producer for the small bloke to present as a pre-recorded segment each week. It was called 'Weird News' and was odd silly stories from Fortean Times. They provided their archive - ie sent over every magazine ever and yours truly ploughed through them all finding bits and pieces. Dog-shoots-man... man-falls-off-balcony-and-lands-on-man-coming-to-kill-him, those kind of stories. The things you see on the Funny News of any website nowadays but that weren't as common way back when I was a nipper.

I now had to put these weirdities on air. My show in development had reconstructions, animations, photo archive and the works. We couldn't afford anything, as this was all an extra expense off the show budget, so I got someone who could draw sketches and then we'd cut to them randomly, with lots of spooky sound effects, odd music, flashes and all that. Anything to disguise it was just a man who couldn't present talking about things he didn't understand in an accent no-one else could understand.

So I found myself sitting in some gentlemen's club with a tiny person-ette sitting in a leather armchair failing to read "Welcome to Weird News" hundreds of times over. He couldn't even say 'news'. It came out as 'nooooos'.

After a full day of filming we made around six minutes of barely-watchable tv. The pointless munchkin complained he was tired. My crew and me smiled politely and said we may as well finish now. He went off, thinking he'd come back and do the next lot. I knew the score - there'd be no next lot as he was so bad it wasn't really broadcastable.

We did show two installments of Weird Noooos I think, and we crammed all the pictures we had into them, jumpcut all over the place and made them almost interesting. Almost. I think we paid the guy for all ten episodes but didn't bother to make them. He wrote in and complained but the show was on it's way to cancellation anyway so no-one replied.

All because of the wrong piece of card being handed over.

*This seemed good but in reality only a few thousand people voted, and they always, always, always picked any feature with a celebrity in it.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Nighttime tv

Many years after my adventures in daytime, I got to make shows for the opposite end of the schedule. Way back in 1999 C4 actually spent (a little) money on programming that ran all night. There were video game shows, clip programmes, docs and even a bit of comedy.

I went to pitch a cartoon video game show, having made a pilot by stitching bits together of other pilot programmes we'd put together over the past 6 months. I sent it in to this new guy at C4 and didn't think we'd have a hope in hell of being commissioned. Our stuff was fairly mainstream (as anything originally made for kids and 'aged up' would be) and the things on his channel were decidedly, er, weirdstream.

But I got a call. A "come in for a chat tomorrow"-style call from his PA. I got very excited, as it had looked like I'd have been out of a job in a couple of months as my company had burned through our start-up cash and not got a lot of work in. So I based my entire future on (a) a meeting with someone I'd never met before; (b) an unsuitable idea; and (c) a tiny weeny budget. I told my boss we'd get some work, his eyebrow arched so much it floated above his head cartoon-style, and I went back to refining my CV.

Next day I got to C4 and met the com.ed. I initally lost all hope. To add to (a), (b) and (c) above, he was (d) American; (e) from the then-new area of the internet; (f) very arty and educated and visually aware, and (g) even stranger in his tastes than his output.

I made my pitch for my video games show. He then said (h) he had already commissioned one, presented by three 'hot chicks' and then showed a bit to me. It was fine, cheap-looking but rude and outspoken. And the audience of geeks would love the predddy layydies. I thought to myself "well, that's it then".

But it wasn't. He liked the odd animation style we'd got. He wanted us to go off and think about interstitials that popped up for up to 2 minutes between the shows. He fancied something dark, edgy and 3D. Cutting edge. Weird. Scary. A "timeless place, like a motel somewhere between heaven and hell" he said.

A motel was a good location, I said, lots of strangers brought together somewhere they'd rather not be. He agreed and gave me a VHS of the interstitials they currently had running, a spectacularly surreal thing with a man and a woman in a virtual set jumpcut to bits so it made no sense.

He told me to come up with an idea. Oh, and that whatever I came up with had to be on air in seven weeks. Otherwise he wouldn't order it.


Three days later our idea went in. It shamelessly used any and every character we'd ever designed. Gay robots (robots = easy to do in CG). A swearing baby (came free with the system). A slightly redesigned lady dancer (the video games presenter made skinnier). A man in the shadows who ran the place (so we could reuse the footage with new voice every episode). A boring bloke who no-one liked, the only real 'customer' (designed as a starjumping newsreader for the kids' show). And a slug (used on a previous programme).

Concept-wise... well, it was arty and surreal and odd. One 30 second link a week was the baby walking in, saying "arse biscuits" then walking out. We proposed a spoof on Kurosawa and other high-falutin' concepts.

Mr Com. Ed. loved it. He wanted twelve minutes a week. In six weeks. I had 3.4 staff (one part-timer) and 4 computers. We couldn't get half that amount per week in footage.

Double gulp.

So I did what I do best - cobble together a way to make something work. Not necessarily something good but something of use. Everyone congregated in the motel bar every episode, in the same spots. We'd make 650 standard shots, of backs of heads, hands tapping, eye closeups, wide shots, top shots, a speaker vibrating, the man in the shadows from 20 different angles. Half each week's output was made with those.

Another 15% of the footage were beautiful motion-captured dances of the lady character, with the small benefit that they came free with the software we had.

The titles were long and elaborate, and used up another 10% of the airtime. So we only had to make a quarter of the actual amount of footage. Even this was a strain so we rendered everything half resolution, which had the odd effect of making it grainy, something 3D animation generally wasn't way back then.

We stumbled on air and got into a relentless routine, myself editing the week's stuff on a Sunday (on my own, struggling with shots that didn't work or were bugged). Creative-wise, the arty stuff was difficult and boring, but for week 2 we did a spoof of one of C4's own late-night shows, more Carry On than Kurosawa. Com. ed., despite himself, loved it.

So we got to do fart gags, bad language, gay robot sex and an Easter special with one of the characters dying and coming back to life. Evil twins turned up, the lady turned out to be a transexual, Diana Ross arrived, and the dead mum of the only customer popped up to haunt him. She was just his character in a wig. There was a smoking monkey, the slug talked backwards and Mr Lee, a Chinese cook, came along to cook with zombies. All this and Bingo MCQuenzie, a news reporter who'd pop up occasionally to recap what had just happened, the microphone in front of his mouth (ie one shot reused repeatedly) and clips of previous episodes used to illustrate it (ie free footage). All we did was change the spelling of his surname.

Please don't ask me to explain any of this.

It did well - we think, ratings weren't something late night did - and we couldn't spend all the money they were paying us as we had no staff and sort of cobbled it together ourselves. This made me v popular with my boss. We got our run lengthened and then recommissioned.

I remember one particular Sunday edit. It kinda defined the show for me. I sat and cut together a sequence of shots for a minute long episode. It consisted of the only customer going into a cubicle and having a wee. For a full minute. Just shots of the cubicle, his face, his feet. Nothing rude. And as we couldn't animate water, no wee either. All the time he was sighing in relief, but in a strange, trance-like, satisfied way, echoey in this public lav, with a very strong water-landing-in-a-loo weeing sound effect.

I sat back and realised I was probably the luckiest man in the world to be paid to do that.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Daytime tv

With the gods of daytime off from C4 to an as yet unnamed new UKTV channel (see for details) it reminds of my limited forays into daytime tv.

I've mentioned being Junior Farm Researcher in the Cotswolds with Leslie Ash, doilies, sheep and lovely rolling countryside. But I haven't spoken about one of the biggest shows I had to write.

It was a few months before Channel 5 launched (it still had the prefix 'Channel' and was a number not a lower-case word). They'd asked a 'selected' group of independent production companies to come up with a daytime magazine show to run between 1pm and 3pm every day. The proposal said "to be 'This Morning' but in the afternoon". It then said it was a huge commission, and the annual budget certainly seemed like a lot of money.

Until you divided it by 250 shows per annum, 2 hours each, and it was a pittance. As in ten percent of the aforementioned R&J morning show's budget.

Our little indie had been asked to pitch, as our boss was old mates with the commissioning editor - she'd worked with him before. So the 'development team' had a meeting - ie me, the boss, her two financial partners (two er, larger than average-sized ladies) and the 'head of marketing' (a man married to one of the larger ladies).

I had to write the show in two weeks but no-one would agree on anything, from format to location to presenter to content... even the bloody name was a problem. And then our boss decided to take herself off on holiday for a week, right at the crucial moment. So me and the others cooked up a show we could at least partially agree on.

It was, to be blunt, a pile of old turds. Garnised with new turds. And piss sauce. A bland, boring, in-a-studio magazine show presented by two people of such unfamousness that I couldn't remember their names way back then never mind now. Although they looked nice. And were cheap. 

The price was the main factor - putting financial controllers in a creative position is a bad thing as they pitched a show that could be made for profit for peanuts. A show that was viable. Commercial. Feasible. Totally forgetting that no-one would watch such a bland blend of beige and b..b... the power of alliteration has failed me. It was that bad.

The boss returned the day before the pitch was due in, totally stressed up by a terrible holiday spent arguing with her son/family/hotel/airline... well, it wasn't nice. She read the show - carefully researched and put together by me - and hurled the sixty page document across her office and at the door. My desk was just outside. I heard the crunch and then saw the other 'development team' members scurry to their offices to hide until the wave of anger had subsided.

But I had a plan. Not perhaps a master plan, more of a minor plan. But a plan none the less.

When the boss summoned me in, staring and frothing with hatred at the idea she'd just read, I pounced first.

"I know you'd hate that idea, but the others were very keen on it. I couldn't do anything, they own the company with you, but they can be a little... erm..."

The boss jumped in at this point, snarling and wild-eyed.

"A little. Fucking. SHIT. Hmm?"

I ermed and ummed and then presented her with another sixty page programme treatment. It was a weird on-location thing presented by a strange-looking man I knew the boss liked, it was all over the place and formatted tightly, with the crew featuring heavily as in The Big Breakfast (cheap, funny and a winner with the C5 commissioning editor, as it was him who'd first greenlit the BB). It was manic, bright and far too youthy for a daytime slot.

And the boss loved it. Right down to the oh-so-up-it's-own-chuffer title. I'd called it 1to3for5. Geddddit? On between 1 and 3 on 5. Hahahahah bonk. That's my head falling off from laughing. Sigh.

The boss smiled and scribbled a few notes as she read. I stayed up all night rewriting, with the 'development team' ordering in pizza and cakes and Indian food (told you they were large) and cutting out pictures from magazines and pasting them in. No Photoshop back then, oh no. It was then off to print at 8am, me grabbing a couple of hours sleep before taking it to C5 myself to deliver it before the noon deadline.

I went on one of those taxi bikes, an absolute nightmare, and got off sweating and terrified. In the lift at the channel I bumped into the man delivering our then deadly rival Planet 24's proposal. It was a giant suitcase with expensive graphics all over it. Mine was a document with things cut out from Women's Realm and You magazine on it. I was too tired to care. And still full of takeaway food - hey it was free.

Mr Planet 24 (one of the drivers from the company actually) handed over the wheelie suitcase. Com. Ed. arched an eyebrow and said thanks. I then handed in ours, making some comment that I'm sorry it wasn't as exotic or well packaged as Planet's. Mr Com. Ed. smiled and said words to the effect of "on these budgets I can tell you we couldn't afford that show already". I toddled off happily and told the boss who roared with laughter, gave me fifty quid, and told me to take the rest of the day off and go out and celebrate that night. 

I think I went back to bed for the rest of the day.

And the punchline? Oh, nothing really. The contract went to one of C5's shareholding companies, a blander-than-bland thing with Gloria Hunniford chatting inanely to minor celebs in front of an audience of twenty pensioners. 

Hey ho, that's the scheme of things. I was quite pleased - no need to scrabble together to make a show that would be damned hard to deliver on price... beating Planet (in a way)... and the channel awarding the contract, in effect, to themselves so we didn't have a chance. 

The only thing that pissed me off was not getting 1to3for5 as a programme title on air...

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Celebrities I have met

Apologies for the pause in bloggerising. I haven't been too busy, or away on holiday, or suffering from RSI or anything. I simply ran out of things to say.

And now I haven't. Here's a random list of celebrities I've met, or been in the same room as, or cut together a show around.

They were known as PJ and Duncan the first time, so it shows how long ago. Both as nice as anyone could be. I seem to recall meeting them again at a BAFTA ceremony when their show beat our show for the Best Children's Entertainment award (we were so NOT robbed - SM:TV was a gabillion times better than our wee thing, if 94% less camp). I believe I joshed with them about Geordies winning BAFTAs so it was OK and they smiled. I can't really remember though, as muchos champagnos has passed down my gullet in a very brief period of time. I do remember...

... dancing with her and her nephew at the post-awards do. I did not interact with the lovely lovely Cat, save a look of extreme sympathy and concern from her to me. I did have a red wine stain on my shirt and I was gyrating like a gibbon with his foot in a bucket, so she probably thought I was having an attack. Needless to say that's my best dance that is.

He was endorsing a video game, and our little show accidentally got invited to some event at a very posh hotel the legendary boxer was attending. Sadly, he didn't say much, but he sparred with our fat kid presenter, and shook hands with him. Incidentally, the only thing I've done in my tv career that really impressed my dad - meeting the one-time most famous man on the planet.

You imagine he's lovely, yes? Well he is. Just times by a million how lovely you imagine him to be. And add a bit.

You don't imagine he's lovely, yes? Well he is. Just very VERY serious. Like a lot of comedians.

The opposite of the man above, wise-cracking and sort of like he is on the telly. Probably because he was a barrister before he did comedy.

One of Mr Evans's gang did a voiceover for a show I did. He invited me on a Bank Holiday bender with the Ginger One. It was at the height of his massive stardom, and I was somewhat in awe. I don't think he'd slept for a while and he was wearing a knitted jumper that a viewer had sent in, one with his face on it. I was so drunk by the time I met him I can't remember much. I was told (and it may have been in jest) that he offered me a job and a share in his new company. The one that was sold for tens of millions of pounds a few years later. I can't remember. I'm glad of that, in a way.

He danced into the sunset with our fat kid presenter on a feature about his videogame (that was a slow news week). It was hard to tell which was which as the light faded.

He did a voice for a cartoon I produced. I never met him, apart from once when he accidentally wandered into our part of an open plan office. I said hello. He didn't know who I was. Our sound producer said he was totally lovely.

He presented a show I was... well, I was going to say producing but that technically isn't true, I was Senior Researcher. We had a hoot, even when our mad boss ripped up our carefully written scripts... well, innuendo-laden puntastical intros and outros, saying Dexter had to react live to situations as he was a presenter now, not an actor. I pointed out the previous presenter had an autocue. She paused, nodded slightly, then wandered off. Cue staying up til 5am to rewrite everything. Many a whiskey was drunked. Very lovely fella, very funny.

When he wasn't famous he did a voice for a cartoon we did, appearing as himself on a cartoon talk show. He was very serious and deadpan. I think that's (a) him; and (b) his act.

I think he was colouring in the bald bits on his head. And this was a while ago.

It was his first job in telly, and he was very young and and very angular-looking. Like the characters in that first 3D CG Dire Straights video (look it up youngsters, Google is your friend). Even his hair had right angles in it.

He was the opposite of Richard Bacon, all fluffy and smiley and round and soft.

Very very small, but with a normal-sized head, so she looked like Lady Penelope off of Thunderbirds. A TV producer's dream, she was co-operative and friendly and great on air, despite us having to remove a stalker from outside the studio after her security spotted an innocent-looking housewife-type standing at the gates. I kissed her hand when she left. I was lifting her off the ground doing so, obviously as she's two foot six and I'm six feet tall.


It's the little things you notice about 'slebs that stick in your mind, the things that don't quite go with the way you imagine them. They're usually a different size (almost always smaller - well, apart from John Leslie, who's twelve feet tall). Presenters that you're used to seeing manic and jumping and in-yer-face always seem quieter. That's because, in my case anyway, I usually met them after a show and they were exhausted.

Comedians are usually serious and dour. That's because they're paid to be funny, and being funny is hard, so they save it for when they're on air. They don't try and make the sweaty researcher howl with laughter.

Older actors always sound luvvier than they do on telly. Younger ones usually sound the same, as they're not really acting. Most of the pop stars I've met have been plain tired - the thing they were doing with me was one of twelve things that day, after flying in overnight from somewhere and flying off overnight to somewhere else.