TV: Single Father Episode 3 BBC Scotland

If you’re a parent and you happen to suffer a bereavement you’re probably best off not interacting with anyone other than your own parents. Best avoid reading any personal diaries of the deceased and – if absolutely necessary – avoid engaging in any difficult conversations with your stepdaughter (if you have one).

Single Father is – by episode 3 – so distant from the catalyst of the story as to make the present situation which protaganist Dave and his simmering love (oh come on, don’t deny it) Sarah to all intents and purposes both appear like victims.

Matt. Classic victim.

Neither of them are the victim of course. The victim of this particular Sunday night four-part drama is Matt. Poor old Matt. He just wants to move ‘down south’. He wants to take his gorgeous love with him. They’ve done Glasgow now. Now it’s time to move to Liverpool, or Manchester or Warrington.

And why wouldn’t she go with him? If Matt could guarantee the kind of kitchen she’s become accustomed to then surely there should be no debate.

Only there is. For some inexplicable reason she finds David Tennant’s creepily dark pools for eyes combined with his scrawny body difficult to resist. What … on earth … is she thinking?

What I’m struck by is the idea that Sarah is actually thinking. Not only does she realise (albeit a number of minutes before I did when I watched this for the first time) that Dave is in a sense only sleeping with her because he’s getting at dead Rita but also that the only way to deal with this incredibly messy situation is to offer a difficult to resist ultimatum.

From where I’m sitting, I reckon she’s better off with her lycra-clad ex-boyfriend. At least with him she doesn’t run the risk of inheriting someone else’s family with all the emotional baggage that comes with it.

:: Watch Episode 3 of Single Father via BBC Programmes

:: Read Thoroughly Good reviews of Episode OneEpisode Two and Episode Four

Music: 80th Birthday Concert BBC Symphony Orchestra Barbican

Friday night was party night for the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Concert Hall on Friday 22 October.

Inevitably, this was a tame party. No drunk teenage girls perched on the stairs trying to avoid the desperate advances of teenage boys eager to show off their alcohol fuelled prowess at an ill-thought out Saturday night bash at home.

No one was rowdy. Everyone even had their mobile phones switched off – largely because the moment the doors shut at the Barbican Concert Hall all connection with the outside is thankfully severed.

But there was a relaxed feel to the concert. Chris Cooke – the tallest presenter I’ve ever seen with the most gorgeous of voices on the Radio 3 network – guided the audience through the concert, papering over the delays whilst an army of stage managers reset the platform for a range of large scale works.

Short film excerpts kept the energy up as audience and orchestra members alike peered into archive footage of previous BBC Symphony Orchestra performances (the earliest from 1935 shows that in some respects classical music television hasn’t really changed that much so much so that we mourn the brief excursion into daring shots and screenwipes peppered through Pierre Boulez’s studio productions of the late 1970s).

No surprises that amongst this party atmosphere, the audience was at one stage invited to wish the orchestra a happy birthday in time-honoured tradition. I hope to God that doesn’t make it to the broadcast in Wednesday evening’s Performance on 3. The singing was a little lack-lustre, it has to be said. Maybe they were a little shy.

Seemingly cast-adrift at the top of the programme was Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture. Its relevance was that it was one of two works the orchestra played in their inaugural concert in 1930, a nod to the revolution Richard Wagner’s contribution to the operatic canon had made 80 odd years before.

The concert programme for the BBC Symphony Orchestra clearly set the tone of the band back in 1930. Hearing the overture now in isolation seemed a little odd however, almost as though its tuneful popularity had eclipsed the composer somewhat. The work sounds overblown. Pompous even. Part Tchaikovsky in its momentary similarity with the 1812 overture, other times veering towards Gilbert and Sullivan. There’s nothing wrong with popularity, clearly. But take a snippet out of its original setting – today – and somehow something is lost.

ConcertO Duo composer Stephen McNeff

One world premiere DuO Concerto by Stephen McNeff and a UK premiere premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s D’Om Le Vrai Sens graced the middle section of the concert. Both large scale works demanding big platform settings, these performances underlined the contribution the BBC Symphony Orchestra still strives to maintain in today’s considerably larger orchestral scene.

On a personal level, McNeff’s DuO Concerto was the more successful. Breaking the usual conventions of two concerto soloists standing solemnly on stage as the music began, percussionists O Duo bounded onto stage with all the youthful bravado naturally expects of boys who love to creating a cacophany of sound. Percussionists were always the ‘cool’ mysterious people in the orchestra. The ones who could drink endlessly into the small hours of the morning and still arrive at rehearsals on time and fully alert. Light of foot, both performers didn’t disappoint here.

O Duo‘s performance was breathtaking. Players Oliver Cox and Owen Gunnell mastery of their instruments was quickly taken for granted. But more than that they achieved something rare in the concert environment (and something which sadly you won’t necessarily appreciate fully if you only get to hear this on the radio). As a pair of instrumentalists on stage they communicated with each other almost immediately. Separated by a large selection of percussion instruments at the front of the stage, you’d forgive them for concentrating solely on their own individual lines. And yet they didn’t. Such was their interaction with one another that there were moments when the fact that this was a world premiere was completely forgotten. Was this a work written solely for O Duo or something they had picked up, understood immediately and associated themselves with almost immediately?

D’Om Le Vrai Sens was less satisfying, possibly because it trod the fine line between music and performance art. One of the most technically demanding plays for any clarinettists (some of the sounds soloist Kari Kriikku delivered were stunning in his depiction of a unicorn in this setting of a collection of medieval portraits), the boundary between what was the composer’s intention and the soloist’s realisation were blurred, clearly making closer inspection and repeat listens of the work necessary. Where it succeeded in the concert hall was when the soloist wasn’t detached from proceedings – as at the beginning when his opening lines made determining where exactly in the hall he Kriikku was.

Ultimately however, it was a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring rounding off the concert which ticked the most boxes. On paper it had all the potential of being just another performance of the Rite. Everyone plays it. Everyone knows it. And when you listen to it more and more it’s initial impact lessens somewhat.

And yet, the BBC Symphony’s performance during this concert was none of those things. Indeed, it was the best I’ve heard them play in a long time, well-timed and fitting. Something underpinned by a comment made by one of the violinsts after the concert who explained how much the band liked playing it: “It’s one of those works which has been handed down through the ranks of the band since it started. We always love playing it.”

:: Listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Performance on 3 on Wednesday 27 October via BBC Programmes or via the Radio 3 website or – who knows – live on the radio.

:: Performance on 3 is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Monday-Friday from 7pm

#RADFEST10: It takes a long time

As I wrote in another blog post, the Radio Festival sessions featuring Timmy Mallett and BBC Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans were touching, reassuring and inspiring.

Really great radio needs inspiring people. It’s not just someone with a great voice but someone with ideas. Those ideas might come from a producer. They might come from the presenter. They could be concocted through great team work. Whatever the source of great radio, it’s difficult to generalise. It’s impossible and ultimately pointless to apply a template to churning out good stuff. It just won’t work like that.

But there’s one point I didn’t hear mentioned at the Radio Festival, which should have been. A truth which hardly anyone says out loud. And they should. Especially as we’re all supposed to be living in a more transparent world: Producing radio takes time. A long time.

I don’t mean the craft – the actual process. That’s a matter of days maybe weeks. Rock up with a microphone, record something and then edit it back at base. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The production process is straightforward and should be.

No. What takes the time is reaching the status of “radio producer”. At least it is in my limited experience.

A friend of mine from the BBC recently got his name in the Radio Times. He’s worked at the BBC for a while now. A few years, if I recall correctly. I first met him five years back when he was working at BBC Resources. Five years later he’s produced an edition of World Routes for BBC Radio 3 after having spent a considerable amount of time as a broadcast assistant. When we first met we both confessed our dream to work in radio production. Mr Craven has reached the goal. Good for him. I’m very pleased. No really, I am. I’m not in any way jealous at all.

My point is that it has taken five years. That’s no statement on him, by the way. I’m not suggesting for a moment he’s been a lazy wotnot achieving this particular goal. Far from it. More that he’s stuck with it for that long because that is how the media industry is. As much as us storytellers rely on overnight successes or like to condense years of hard work into a more manageable few months or weeks, the truth is the lead time in the media industry is considerably (and perhaps unnecessarily?) longer.

And if radio really does need to sell itself back to the listener and potential listener so as to secure future audiences and make the distribution of DAB just that little bit easier, then a quicker turn-over of ideas generators needs to be made possible.

I’m not calling for revolution. I’m just saying. The river needs to run a bit faster. Because, if we’re looking to secure new audiences – young audiences – for the future then the stuff they listen to on the radio needs to have been created by people who may have gone through less of a gestation period.

I’m not whingeing. I’m just saying. Five years seems a ‘bit too long’.

#RADFEST10: You up for Salford?

A small group of Radio Festival attendees convened in the Compass Room on the third day of the Radio Festival to hear BBC North director Peter Salmon speak in a session about the Corporation’s big move to Salford Quays.

Aside from the inevitable questions which arose in light of the story surround the BBC’s licence fee freeze, the session may have helped secure some of those who may still be scoffing at the idea of transferring departments up to Salford Quays.

I say ‘might’ deliberately. It is impossible to reflect all the individual views. It’s impossible and unfair to arrive at a consensus view. Ridiculous and pointless to polarise the points as well. Peter Salmon touched on one area of concern with a certain degree of sensitivity:

“It’s disruptive … People are going to have change their lives. Some people are going to have to give up their jobs.”

It’s that which feels difficult to swallow. It’s happened to some people I know and – who knows – could happen to me. But in battling one’s own negative and potentially self-destructive internal dialogue – something which could easily become a whole bigger challenge because of the licence fee agreement – there was another angle which Peter Salmon’s session highlighted.

The BBC is an organisation funded by the licence fee, paid by everyone all over the country. And that level of funding should be reflected in different areas of the country. It’s right that the creative opportunities should be made available in Manchester and Cardiff and Glasgow. It feels rather odd – almost too ‘on-message’ – to say it here, but it is right. This isn’t about – as my gut instinct has sometimes led me to think and say – about London and everyone there suddenly being the B-story.

Because as Salmon pointed out – it was the first time I’d heard it explained in this way – the establishing of this new centre is “titlting the BBC on its axis a bit”. More interestingly:

“The BBC is traditionally organised into vertical silos. BBC North is a horizontal slice of those silos.”

But, I found it difficult not to let my personal feelings creep in (although I did fortunately resist the temptation to put my hand in the air and ask a question).

Media City UK, Salford Quays

I came to Salford Quays for the first time a couple of days ago to attend the Radio Festival. It was a two hour and a half hour train journey from London. When I got to the Lowry (it happened to be raining quite hard on the first morning) I couldn’t help wondering whether I might be having to make this journey to work in future years. And if that was to happen – or if I had to make the decision tomorrow – how would I feel about the prospect?

Instead of taking the Central Line to White City would I be taking the tram to Media City? As I walked the unfamiliar and at this time stark path to the Lowry, could I foresee a time when I would have been happy to force change on my own situation, uproot me and my partner’s life from London to set up all over again in a new city?

It’s important to be clear at this point. I like the Manchester experience (I stayed in Manchester during my visit not in Salford). But, home is London for me. The enthusiasm I had for moving around the country has long gone. It disappeared when I settle down with my partner in 1998. He lived in London. I moved in and insodoing I abandoned my plan to sail around the world. Twelve years on, could that eagerness to relocate return? Would I be prepared to consider it if I found myself having to entertain a role which demanded me going to Salford Quays?

The Media City complex is impressive. But, the area isn’t finished off yet. The vista new BBC staff will see isn’t populated enough quite yet. Yes, the building is shiny and new. It gleams in the sunlight and it will undoubtedly be a vast and necessary improvement on present conditions in Manchester Oxford Road. The tram goes from Manchester Piccadilly to the Media City. There are shops. There’s a fantastic theatre. There’s football nearby. It is a brilliantly served area.

Media City UK, Salford Quays

But it’s also a little soulless for me at the present time. That is possibly because the area shares the same characteristics the Isle of Dogs did shortly after the Docklands Light Railway started chugging around Canary Wharf in London. Salford Quays is a new community full of hope. It will grow. It will mature. When it has, it will become that iconic home just as Broadcasting House is or Television Centre was (or is, depending on how you look at it).

But there’s time to go yet and if I’m going to uproot my ‘family’ (small in comparison to most others), then I need more creatively to greet me when I trot to the office and swipe my card on the barrier. Yes, I know it’s superficial and relatively unimportant but hey … go figure.  If I don’t get that, am I prepared to invest myself in it and that building’s formative years in order to get that buzz I reckon I crave?

Media City UK, Salford Quays

Some people have already have already had to face that choice. Some others may have to. This post in no way seeks to compare my thoughts with their experiences.

But it will also enable many people younger than me and as enthusiastic about the BBC as I am to work for the corporation. I can’t overlook that. I can’t be selfish about that. Why should they have to come to London to work for the BBC? The answer? They absolutely shouldn’t.

And for those in the area who get that opportunity they could if Salmon is at the helm have a man with a careful eye on what’s vital for BBC North’s success. Drawing on his experience as Director of Programmes at Granada, he offered his hope for the contribution BBC North will make:

You have to foster a sense of bravery and confidence and risk-taking….people at Granada weren’t respecters of boundaries…[we need to] hold on to the spirit of the old Granada and inject it into this place …

You see Mr Salmon. If you force me to look at things through a pair of rose-tinted spectacles then you will – of course – pull me in. I’ll get on the first train to Salford and sit next to people from the area in the hope that their enthusiasm and passion rubs off on me. I’m being sincere there. But really, is that kind of inspiration all I need?

The reality is that the myriad of different views – some of which a product of the organisation I work for – are all tied up with that new building, it’s location and the surrounding areas. It’s a new build in a community for new creatives. And that’s great. The problem is that I still love my 100 year old house, it’s garden, underground and the creaky White City building I work in.

You get my point. There are many other points to consider. Many angles to look on the whole thing. Little wonder I kept looking at the building at various points over the past couple of days, trying to imagine myself there, trying to determine whether I might learn to love it. It’s going to take time.

Between now and that point in time, no-one should read this post as me unravelling my flag on the flagpole. I am merely imagining, reflecting and discussing. If it turns out it’s a reality I need to confront, I would like to think about it if I need to.

#RADFEST10: Who’d work in radio?

It’s been a difficult day at the Radio Festival today. There have been some difficult lessons learnt. By the time I left the Lowry Theatre in Salford Quays at 7.15pm this evening I was exhausted. Let me explain why.

The radio industry is – as one might expect to hear at a festival dedicated to the medium – rather concerned about some things. At the top of the day digital radio and it’s spread across the UK was one of them.

There isn’t enough take up of the new technology amongst the consumer base. Apparently, people seem relunctant to embrace DAB .. still. Culture chappy Ed Vaizey is saying that he’s looking for a 50% take up before committing to digital switchover and it seems we’re only at 24.6%. As Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine put it in a video interview with the good-humoured Vaizey, “you’re not even half-way to getting half-way”. Who’s going to pay for it? How do we sell the benefits of digital radio to radio listeners who understandably would like to see greater and more reliable coverage across the UK than at present? My eyes started to glaze over.

Ford Ennals from Digital Radio UK

What I found hard-going was the focus on the challenges faced by the radio industry where distribution is concerned. I understood Mr Vaizey’s point that he was looking for 50% take up amongst consumers. I even followed the facts, figures and aspirations Digital Radio UK head Ford Ennals’ presented in the “Action Plan for Digital Switchover”.

The truth was, however, that I wasn’t that interested in it. Possibly because I’ve never really been interested in the business end of anything. I’m no good at it. I’d far rather devolve to people who can manage spreadsheets and can navigate their way around Microsoft Project (or whatever the open source equivalent is).

No, what I’m more interested in is the content. The creativity. The making stuff for radio. Which is weird really, considering that the last stuff I made for radio proper was when I was on work experience with LBC five years ago.

Shortly before I (sort of) started working at the BBC, I worked on Sandi Toksvig’s Lunchtime Show. It was everything I’d hoped radio production would be like without me having any idea what it might be like. I’d listened a lot to her show, laughed with my significant other when we listened together, bitten the bullet and sent her and her producer a letter. I wrote it on yellow paper, sure that would be the way of getting their attention. It worked. I was stunned.

When I went in, LBC – “in the shadow of the White City estate” – was every bit the exciting nerve centre Radio Festival reminiscers Timmy Mallet and Chris Evans described their early radio experiences to be. There was no money. There was precious little time too. But there was passion and enthusiasm. There was openness. Everyone contributed ideas two hours before the show went out. A running was agreed an hour before. And if your idea was accepted you ran with it for that segment. That’s exciting production. You see things happen in front of you. And – at the end of the live two hour show – an overwhelming sense of adrenaline fuelled relief descended when all of us realised we had pulled off entertaining speech radio.

Timmy Mallett & Colin Walters

If I’m completely honest, I’ve no idea whether the audience themselves found it entertaining necessarily. From my point of view I felt the acid test was whether or not it made people in the studio and the control room laugh. Did we feel good at the end of it? I think we did. I certainly look back with a huge amount of fondness on those few short months. I often wonder too whether in my eagerness to take up full time employment at the BBC whether I made the wrong decision. I’ve not seen anything like it since, although listening to Danny Baker’s show on BBC London I’d wager that his show has the same fundamental approach underpinning it.

This – despite what you might be thinking as you read this post – is not a post about me. More, that the sessions at the Radio Festival touched on those experiences in ways I hadn’t expected. Evans and Mallett spoke with warmth about their vital years at Piccadilly Radio, describing how their then programme controller Colin Walters who had been dragged back from France for his first radio industry appearance in 21 years, had adopted a hands-off nurturing stance when he worked with them. It was this which had in their opinion been crucial in giving them the freedom to take editorial risks with what they were doing. Experimentation was important.

Mallett reportedly did a lot of shouting at his production team (of whom the young Evans was one), demanding material for the links in their live output. Perhaps it was overkill to have enough material for seven possible alternative links, but the ends justified the means in their opinion. It was difficult not to agree with them. That level of stress must have contributed to the end product. The clips we heard at the beginning of the session certainly sounded like the entire thing bristled.

Their presence at the Radio Festival was greeted by warmth from the audience. They were affable. Endearing. They oozed radio. Clearly, the audience – the industry – recognised their talent and their love for the medium. I was sold. If either of them had called out for a present days Evans-like production team member today, I’d have stuck my hand up. Sometimes the inner kid could do with being kept under control more, I suspect.

It wasn’t a day for celebrity though, in case you’re wondering. I wasn’t starstruck. I saw a few famous faces – the same as at the BBC – but it wasn’t their relative celebrity which fuelled my enthusiasm. It was the acknowledgment that at various points during the day I understood the language some of the Radio Festival speakers were uttering.

Others talked about the sanitisation of radio. How DJs were personalities instead of being experts in their chosen field. How creativity needed to be nurtured, not stifled and didn’t depend on money. How preparation was vital. In an earlier session Mark Rock from AudioBoo was concise in his assessment: “Radio is full of passionate people. But they’re people who seem to have lost their focus. You’re too bogged down in the technology.”

Radio 4 Commissioning Editor Jane Ellison described how History of the World in 100 Objects had been such a massive affair for the BBC, taking a simple radio proposition (a series of 15 minute programmes about ‘things’) and working with a variety of different partners to deliver something which stimulated audiences in a variety of different ways on and in multiple platforms and spaces.

It sounds easy when it’s written down or when someone is reporting it back to a room full of eager delegates. But the use of the phrase ‘devolving creativity to partners’ by Jane Ellison however underlines the challenge faced when having to offer up an initial idea and see it developed by a great many people, insodoing turning it into something massive. 10 million podcast downloads can’t be bad. A testament to that devolving of creativity. It must have been a leap of faith. How did she sleep at night? And now it’s over (ish) and she’s presumably very pleased with it, how does she now sleep at night?

These were the main messages for me on the second day of the Radio Festival. Things which ring around my head now.

Distribution of radio is important. Giving audiences a quality signal is obviously. Nobody wants to offer up a shoddy piece of work. But that also extends to the people and the things that are on the radio themselves. The content is more important than how we hear it (unless of course its a live classical music concert – I draw the line there). And for good content to survive presenters and producers need to be given some room to breath. Radio is an art form, like painting or drawing or composing. Artists need to experiment. For that they need to take risks, marginally smaller than the risks some of those commissioning editors may feel they need to take to give the talent their space.

Who’d work in radio?