Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Limited ambitions

As I'm STILL without any telly at home, here's something from the past.

Cue the twanging harps and wibbly dissolve...

Picture the scene, Britain, mid-nineties, a typical indie tv production office (cheap furniture and staff in the open plan bits, expensive fittings and execs in the surrounding offices).

I was producing my first show, and we were due to shoot a one-off pilot episode to test the concept. It was a mix of factual items and comedy nonsense, all around a reasonably strong formatted idea, and had a tried-and-tested set of people appearing in it. Well, apart from me, moonlighting as a games reviewer. I was (a) free; (b) had seen the games so could comment; (c) free, and (d) looked stupid in the wig they made me wear so gave everyone else a cheap laugh.

Speaking of cheap, the show had a TINY budget. Weeny. Infinitesimally small (sp?). We filmed it in a disused old benefits office in Poplar, opposite Kwiksave (now it's an Aldi - is that up or down market?) and a canal full of sludge and broken Kwiksave trollies. The only pub nearby (you can tell I haven't changed much) said that we had to sit in the 'saloon bar' as we had a lady with us. Er, she was a lesbian and more macho than anyone else - but I wasn't going to argue with the man-with-three-teeth behind the bar.

Anyhow, the set looked ok and we'd come up with the monitor-point-of-view shot idea that made it just about filmable on the money we had. (Basically, we'd see a wide of a room and the characters enter - we'd then cut to a fixed camera 'within' the big tv in the corner, with a curvy-not-flatscreen-in-them-days effect on it, and use that for the rest of the scene, saving on relighting and moving camera. Most scenes ended with the main character pressing a button on the tv, cutting to footage so it was surprisingly effective)

Anyhow (ii) I'd spent three months honing the show, making sure the comedy stuff was easy to film and not too visual, as we couldn't afford props and redressing the set was a no-no. (Although we did a Dickens Xmas past/present/future thing, and the set looked jolly fine covered in Kwiksave Bargain Tinfoil as the future. The characters remarked on how the future looked quite like the present, just covered in tinfoil. Postmodern an' everything, eh?)

Anyhow (iii), the exec producer liked the scripts, the actors were happy, the content was good, I was cooking on gas, as we'd say in them days.


The boss came in. "I've written the pilot episode", she announced to everyone, "It's much better than your silly scripts". And with that she hurled a script at me.

Er... um... this was wrong on SO many levels. The boss had no sense of humour - she admitted as much. She hated the secondary character, the only really good actor and comedian. The Carry On-style innuendo and postmodernism made her cringe. She could write, and write well, but drama not comedy.

Her script was incredible. It had a robot supermodel in it, loads of outside scenes and a variety of perplexing remarks I think the boss thought were jokes. But weren't.

I went in to see her and said we couldn't film it, it cost too much. She said she'd pay herself for the extra time.


So we did it, as written. Every last scene. The robot supermodel, Candy LaBelle - I can and will never forget the character name - was an American actress hired at huuuuge expense for 3 days (£300!). I say actress, but, bless, she couldn't act. She had lots of complex techie lines to say and it took 30+ takes to get anything useable.The final denouement had her blowing up. We used a blow-up doll for that. Somehow.

Ooof it was awful. I mean really unfunny, illogical and slow. I cut it together, crying into my Sky-issue plastic coffee. I took it to the boss, gave her the VHS and walked out of the room to hide in the disable toilet. Pretending the Sky coffee had given me the shits.

She called me in half an hour later, stony-faced and ashen. I started to try and say that I thought it was a bit wooden, and too long, and-

She stopped me.

She told me it was awful. Shit. Dreadful. To cut it to pieces to rescue it, somehow, as we couldn't reshoot it and had to use it. But drop in new bits, filmed later. Some jokes perhaps. She'd leave us alone from now on, she knew comedy wasn't her thing but she now realised that you can't be overly ambitious on 10p an episode. That our brand of silly jokes, cheap jibes and implausible campery sort of worked, for no logical reason.

I left feeling ten thousand feet high. We made the eps we'd written and they were funny. Damn funny. The show rated really well, everyone in the office thought it was incredible, I was the toast of indie producerville. EP 4 went out - Candy LaBelle - hacked to bits but still not too good. We'd just about rescued it (even if some bits made no sense)

And the boss left me alone, for 12 whole episodes, a record in that office. She promoted me to a new show on a big channel, and most of my team came with me. She then had a hissy fit saying we'd ruined the show for the team taking over, that we'd all got the new show on our minds and forgotten the old one (which was wrong as the episodes that she was watching go out had been made long before we'd been promoted, and were the funniest of the lot)

I end this anecdote brutally as I've a train to catch. I think we've all learnt something there. I don't know what it is, apart from "leave me be please lady", but there you go.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


Pluses to Sky + HD: stunning picture on both SD and HD, quick channel changes, one box instead of two, one BLACK box matching my Blu-Ray player.

Minuses: it only worked for a day, and is broken, saying "no signal". The installers are checking the dish but as everyone else in the block is fine, it's not that, is it? 48 hours without telly... oh, the humanity.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Bye bye old friend

Well as I type this a Sky man (as in an engineer from the satellite tv company, not as in someone who with a jetpac or cape) is installing Sky + HD, so my dear old Tivo has been flung into a cupboard.

I did sigh slightly as I went to switch it off for the last time, the wee Tivo logo - a little man, improbably, made of those four letters, swaying slightly in the corner of the screen as the cloudy sky background did the familiar-but-still-swishy animated loop it always does.

I put the Sky box in last night (without the '+' capabilities of recording and that) and have to say HD is very good indeed. I sat through some right shite just to see it in HD, just like everyone does when there's something new on offer. When Sky first started, I had a dish and proudly showed off the four channels to gawping onlookers. Oddly enough my mates mainly came over after 10pm perusing the German and Italian channels for the legendary gameshows-with-ladies-of-little-clothes. There were a few of them - chin,chin! one of the theme tunes went, as busty presentresses opened their carefully-hinged bras and revealed prize logos stuck to one of their chests.


I got a stereo telly just before then, a posh Sony with speakers on ears. It was reet fancy, a fully flat screen in 1995 and everything. Hearing music like off of a CD was quite a gimmick... for about five minutes.

Before that I can remember when C4 started, a long hot summer holiday as a kid, little to do except watch their endless preview broadcasts, six minutes on the hour, every hour, on the portable TV in my bedroom. I can't remember the change from B&W to colour, not really.

Watching Jonathan Ross in HD was... well, the same really, colours brighter, sharper image obviously (boy do most people look older and/or more heavily made-up, including Mr Ross). I did notice how limited the HD range is - I expected more channels really. BBC HD, for example, didn't show the trooping of the colour this morning - surely it's filmed in HD? Not that I approve of such programmes, obviously...

Putting on boring old standard def Sky News made me realise just how nice HD is. But then the new Sky box seems to give a much better picture on standard stuff too, so hey ho.

The Skyman is finishing up, must catch him before he jets off up into the stratosphere. I have to say Sky's EPG and box are nicely put together, well designed and simple to use, if slightly more functional and basic than the lovely design and intuitive nature of TiVo. But when I press channel up or down, the channel goes up or down INSTANTLY. For us TiVoites, that's astonishing, as it takes around 5 seconds to change anywhere. A cable linked to the Skybox and send '1' then '0' then '1' and then a pause... and then channel would change. Believe me it made channel hopping a nightmare...

Comparing Sky+ and TiVo is like comparing a PC - universal, popular, functional - to a Mac - fancy, well-designed but a bit too all-knowing. I say this typing on my week-old MacBook with my iPhone next to me, a dramatic switch to the dark side after 20 years of PCness.

Skyman is now on the roof, checking the second feed for the recording thingie. I've even read the instruction book. The bit about how you can only record TWO programmes at once whilst watching another nearly made me fall over. With TiVo it was like early video recorders, you could only record what you were watching.

Sadly, I can now watch and record more TV than ever, at high-definition resolution and with brilliant digital sound - just as the tv industry cuts production of anything and everything to save money in a recession-hit world. Oh well.