Diary: Your Country Needs You

I know as I write this that nearly everyone else who can be bothered will almost certainly be writing about the man announced as the eleventh Doctor.

Thus far – trawling the text messages, twitter updates and Facebook comments on the subject – opinion seems to be mixed on Mat Smith’s appointment.

Personally, my initial assessment that he should get his haircut like I was the moment my friend Peter texted me to tell me seems a little rash. He could be quite an interesting chap. Can’t wait. Roll on 2010.

I’m feeling torn, however. As big and exciting and strangely overwhelming this piece of entertainment news has been (and believe me, I have been swept along by announcements and anticipation and fear and loathing and anxiety and the rest of it), my attention is fixed firmly on another programme going out on BBC One later this evening.

In fact, it’s only twenty or so minutes away before the UK Eurovision bus gets underway in the first installment for Your Country Needs You.

Sometimes I tut and sigh when I realise that pretty much the only things I write about are things on TV. Can’t I find other inspiration from another source?

The answer is no. Eurovision is a subject close to my heart. Eurovision is a TV show which guarantees to deliver anticipation, joy, excitement, hope, fear and (if the past few years are anything to go by) intense feelings of disappointment. Fortunately these feelings have not been inflicted on anyone close to me.

The point is, that the hideous sack of emotions which accompanies the Eurovision season (Will we stand a chance this year? Could we do it? Could we possibly get a chance to host it again next year? Will we have a decent song? Will we have a decent performer? Will we come last? Will I still enjoy it?) normally starts around about March time. There’s normally a lull around about the beginning of April before the run up to the main event starts in earnest in mid-April. That’s when the endless nights spent gnawing at my own fingernails and making copious notes and thinking and dreaming and whatever else starts.

It’s agony. Just ask the significant other. He’ll tell you.

This year it’s set to be a whole lot worse. The UK Eurovision bus sets off this evening. And you might as well know that I’m absolutely petrified.

Sad isn’t it. It’s just a TV show. It’s just a talent search. It’s a talent search for someone to represent the UK in a European “talent” search or “show contest”. That individual or group will have a mere 3 minutes to sell their wares to the voting public and expert juries across Europe in May. All we’re talking about is finding someone to do something for three minutes in a bid to win the event, host the event in the UK the following year and thus keep Jon Jacob happy and quiet for the forseeable future.

What’s the big deal? Why is it so important Jacob?

I have absolutely no idea.

Radio: New Year’s Day Concert

Barenboim, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

The best part of Christmas and New Year (and only if you’ve weathered the intense rollercoaster ride that is Christmas itself) is undoubtedly New Year’s Day morning.

There used to be a time when I’d look on the arrival of January 1 as a signal that the festivities were finally at an end.

Not so now.

New Year is spot lit perfectly by the New Year’s Day concert, the traditional annual Strauss-waltz-gorge fest from the Golden Hall in the Musikverein, Vienna.

In classical music terms the programme of music in this concert broadcast live across the world is what some (if not the majority) of serious music lovers would dismiss as nothing more than elevator music. It’s very nearly two hours of 19th century dance tunes composed by generations of Strauss’ to satisfy the entertainment demands made by upper echelons of European society.

There might be a strong beat and a memorably pretty melody guaranteed to satisfy the masses but classical music buffs turn their nose up at what is referred to sometimes disparagingly referred to as “light music”.

It’s a shame that it is dismissed in this way. I quite like it myself. Not only that, it’s certainly seen a resurgence in popularity over the past two to three years, in no small part down to passionate exponent and everyone’s favourite uncle-come-radio-presenter Brian Kay.

It was lovely Mr Kay – former presenter of his very own fluffy Light Programme on Radio 3 – who provided the commentary for the live broadcast this morning.

Kay has a passion for the traditional fare we see on New Year’s Day every year and delivers a traditional style of presentation which is refreshing and reassuring as it’s rooted in years of professional broadcasting experience and knowledge of the repertoire. The man is as much a part of the concert as the assembled ranks of the Vienna Philharmonic on the stage at the Golden Hall.

There are other parts of the broadcast which contribute to the emerging New Year’s tradition. It’s relatively sedate nature – perfect for that morning after the night before feeling – and the seemingly reasonable time its broadcast in the UK – 10am on BBC Radio 3 and 11.20am on BBC Two (TV). That’s not the case for the hoards of people who watch this Eurovision network broadcast live across the world. For some it’s last thing at night. That just seems completely wrong for New Year’s Day.

Perhaps the most gratifying thing is the opportunity to observe many hundreds of extremely well-dressed Austrians sit in the opulent Golden Hall, their eyes fixed in a look of perpetual confused delight and satisfaction. This is in itself possibly down to the fact they’ve actually been successful in the ballot for a ticket to the event. These things are the things to be seen at – especially when it’s broadcast to the world. Can’t think why I haven’t wanted to go myself.

The star of the show this year was undoubtedly Daniel Barenboim. He whose Mozart Piano Concerto recordings occupy a special place in my surprisingly small archive of CDs and who appeared during the 2008 BBC Proms, also maintains a busy schedule of conducting engagements and worthy mentoring projects.

For today’s concert, Barenboim selected a programme slightly different from previous years. Yes, the characteristic waltz rhythms were present. Yes, the melodies may have sounded similar to all the rest you’ve ever heard, but listen carefully and some were unfamiliar.

It was a deliberate move on Barenboim’s part, we were told. Given that it would have easy to go with the status quo and give the public what they wanted all of the time especially at a relatively high-profile low-brow gig like this, such a move by Barenboim was much appreciated by the discerning cognoscenti.

The conductor also provided a jaw-dropping moment when he responded to a spontaneous round of applause which broke out during the opening bars of the Blue Danube waltz.

It’s a famous tune and its inclusion is intended to celebrate so at this celebratory time one shouldn’t be too harsh on anyone who wants to show their appreciation at an inappropriate moment.

Conductors are not always so forgiving. They are after all having their performance interrupted. But still in these situations it’s a rare thing which prompts a conductor to actually stop a performance like Barenboim at this moment.

I felt his pain but was terrified to see a look of doom and foreboding on his face as he slowly turned to the audience. What the hell was he going to say? Was he really that angry?

“We hope 2009 will be year of peace in the world and of human justice in the Middle East.”

Cue raucous applause from the audience, a ‘happy new year’ from the orchestra and back to the music we’d all been waiting for. And all of that was going out live: a message to the world, with an enthusiastic agreement from the audience.

That’s what live radio and TV broadcasts to a global audience of classical music events are all about. They’re not just about the music, you know. However, I admit that the initial thrill of the moment I experienced earlier may well have been lost in the retelling of the moment.

The live radio broadcast on BBC Radio 3 is available via the BBC iPlayer (Part One & Part Two) internationally until Thursday 8 January.

Review: 2008

When I draw back the curtains to reveal a dull grey south-east London on 1 January with the New Year’s Day concert live from the Musikverein in Vienna on in the background, it always feels like the start of something new, something exciting. I’ve got the opportunity for a new start. Everything from the previous year can, should and will be forgotten. At least that’s what I hope every 1 January.

In anticipation of that (and in a desperate bid to find something to write about two days before the end of 2008) I took myself off to our new hideaway and made a few notes. What were the things which I would remember 2008 for? Scribbling my answers down didn’t take long.

1. Jimmy Mizen
2. Eurovision
3. The BBC Proms

The list is both short and uncomfortable. The small handful of people who read this will, no doubt, note with interest the weird yet predictable juxtapositioning of a serious news event, alongside fundamentally inconsequential fluff and inevitable self-indulgence.

Truth is, I don’t have any other stuff on my list. Those three things really do sum-up 2008 for me.

Jimmy Mizen

Jimmy Mizen’s murder in May 2008 wasn’t the first teenage stabbing in east London this year. It was in fact the 13th.

There were 27 other teenage stabbings in East London this year. There have been plenty of others in previous years. Stabbings and murder and attacks were normally the stories which failed to grab my attention. So what makes 2008 so different from the rest?

Proximity was the most potent factor. Mizen died in Lee, an area in south-east London I often pass through on my way to the supermarket. Many people say it and a lot of us gloss over it, but it’s true when I say that 16 year old Mizen’s senseless death in the Lee bakery seemed all the more tragic because it was so painfully local. He worked there to get some extra cash. He was 16. The murder happened just a few miles away. That kind of thing isn’t meant to happen.  

Get a grip. This is London, after all. Surely a stabbing shouldn’t really be that incongruous against the backdrop of a supposedly violent capital?

Mizen’s mother delivered a clear message to all, something which I had forgotten about until I viewed the video clip on this page. Now I watch it again I’m struck by her strength. Her message is unusually inspiring. She isn’t angry (or if she is she’s avoiding it spectacularly) and doesn’t want others to be angry with the perpetrator’s parents. She even goes as far as to say “leave them alone”. That is admirable. There’s much to be drawn from the strength she displays only seven days after the death of her 16 year old son, a week after his birthday. She is to be applauded.

Eurovision collides

Around about this time, I was mid-way through a project at work which I’d always wanted to work on.

I’d followed the Eurovision for years. I’d even gone to Latvia to do a spot of naiive investigation during the 2003 contest. I rather like the Eurovision, you see. And I’d quite like us to win. 

As a result of finally getting a job at the Beeb in October of 2007 and (in precisely the right department) I shamelessly locked all of my self-promoting skills in gear and ended up working on the Eurovision website.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think it was plain sailing, or that everyone was necessarily as excited and relieved as I was to work on it. In retrospect, enthusiasm and passion isn’t necessarily something everyone applauds. One or two people hated me. There were one or two heated conversations/steaming arguments in corridors as a result of it. One fairly senior person accused me of being of a maverick as I stood in the corridor with a coffee in my hand. I was a little taken aback, to say the least. No-one has ever described me as a maverick before. Most deliver their assessment with an air of indifference.

I’d been working on the Eurovision site since late February. I delivered a smallish effort in early March (I did stamp my foot quite a few times) and following a series of false starts and one or two agonising nights failing to get to sleep, I ended up working on the main site during the run up to the main even in mid-May.

It was a hideous time.

A week before the Eurovision final (which happened to be the end of the Eurovision website project) I took myself off to Suffolk to see my parents. Work had become way too much for me to handle. I needed a break. I needed comfort food. I needed my teddy bear.

I was working harder than I’d worked in a long time (if ever there was a justification for the line “careful what you wish for” it was then) and it showed. My mother was quite worried about the colour of my skin. Now I come to look at the picture, I think she was right. 

I drove up to Suffolk to see my Mum on Saturday 17 May 2008. The journey started in south-east London. I headed towards Kidbrooke roundabout for the Blackwall tunnel. Lining the roads on the South Circular close to where I live in Hither Green, south-east London people walking solemnly in the same direction, all of them dressed in black.

Where were they going? They were heading towards Jimmy Mizen’s memorial service in nearby Lee High Road.

BBC Proms

The Eurovision came crashing to the ignominous end we’ve all grown accustomed to here in the UK around about 2am on Sunday 26 May 2008. It was then the website producer said “Yes, OK. We’ve got the finals scores up on the website. Everything’s done. We’re finished. Are you happy Jon?”

No. The answer was no. Not only had we come last but I’d had to code up a page which detailed exactly which country had come in which place. Typing the UK’s pitiful result last seemed like such a mean thing to have to do. Both of my friends who had accompanied me through the hell they knew it would be were now asleep on the sofa downstairs. The night was a right-off.

You’d think I’d have been happy to have finished something I’d always wanted to work on, wouldn’t you? You’ve done that Jon .. now sit back and feel proud.

The problem with me is that when I’ve been ridiculously busy for a couple of months, the resulting lack of something to do is the very worst thing for me. I start thinking when I don’t have enough to do and when I start thinking I start moaning. And when I start moaning everyone else around me starts thinking (and in some cases saying) “Would you be good enough to stop being so bloody morose about everything?”

It was Monday 27 May 2008 when I fired off an email to Radio 3 Interactive asking them if they were interested in some more Proms related videos.

With Eurovision 2008 a dim and distant memory, I was keen to look forward to the next big event and to see whether I might crowbar my way into that too. The response was favourable and despite one or two scary moments warranting enormous amounts of wine, charm and reassurances on my part, all turned out well. Everything turned out very well. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that it turned out to be the best summer ever.

You need to be aware of the people who made it the best summer ever – or at least those people who were involved need to know I’m thinking of them – them lovely people being Andi, David, Ashley, Dean, James, Roland, Roger, Simon and, of course, myself. It’s a team effort this.

Far from a hard-hitting news review, is it? It’s not meant to be. These are the things which, as 2008 draws to a close, are flagged up as the most important. I only hope that when 2009 draws to a close any review I might choose to do will see me feature considerably less, if not at all.

Happy New Year.

Oh, and in case you’re interested, the UK’s 2009 hunt for someone game and able to represent us in the forthcoming Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow – Eurovision: Your Country Needs You – starts on Saturday 3 January (yes really, that soon). Or at least the first installment is the sort of “this is what we’ve done so far” programme before the main event begins the following week.

TV: Queen’s Christmas Message

Queen’s Christmas Message, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Christmas Day was rather busy what with preparing for Christmas lunch, cooking it, serving it and then watching the likes of Doctor Who and Wallace and Grommit.

All in all, a truly fab day spent in the company of family and friends.

In light of the heavy workload and rather tight schedules on the day, the only opportunity I had to observe that other Christmas tradition – the Queen’s speech – was when I sat in the bath.

I’d hate for the Queen – or the royal message – not to be a part of the Christmas Day celebrations, but the truth is that having watched it twice now I’ve got to confess that a lot of what was said was really quite a lot of white noise. This may have something to do with the fact that Her Majesty does rather have to tailor her words (assuming she actually writes the script – I suspect not) to appeal to as many peopile who are probably enebriated or stressed or sleeping off their high carb intake.

In comparison to the Pope’s poorly effort earlier in the week, Queen Elizabeth did alright spectacularly breaking the 3 minute video rule I’ve heard so much about this year, delivering her conclusion at a mere 7 minutes 30 seconds.

But for sheer punchiness and effectiveness, the Archbishop of Canterbury gets the top vote for conveying something fitting and quite possibly lasting.

Far from adhering to the religious aspect of his Christmas Day address, I was more struck by the frighteningly effecient headline message encouraging us to make “small and local gestures”.

It’s a soundbite which appeals to my self-satisfying “less is more” personal mantra. Well done Archbishop of Canterbury sir.

<a href=”http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00g7rh5/The_Queen_2008/”>The Queen on TV</a>

The Queen on Radio (available outside the UK, I believe I’m right in saying).

Christmas eve traditions

Salmon terrine, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Being a blogger – and one who frequently runs short of reasonably interesting things to write about – I’m always scrabbling around looking for suitable inspiration in a bid to get my regular 500 or so words out.

Up until yesterday morning I had thought I might be thinking about whether or not I’d actually embraced the religious aspect of the festive season. It is, after all, the whole point of Christmas. Celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth and all that.

Pope Benedict’s end-of-year address to various Vatican bigwigs kind of put that thought process to rest. Gregory’s standpoint on homosexuals didn’t especially come as a surprise. He was after all just towing the party line.

But even though I’ve not hitherto possessed a latent desire to convert to Catholicism, his headline message did rather leave feel a little left out in the cold.

If I was formerly about to go through a road to Damascus experience, understand and feel the true meaning of Christmas, shun consumerism and then blog about it, Pope Benedict’s end-of-term presentation just left me painfully aware that the largest church in the world wasn’t terribly keen on homosexuals and only served to underline that religion is an earthly construct with all those hideous unpleasant rules drawn up by earthy individuals.

Hey ho. At least there’s the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. I can always just sing along to the carols and relive my childhood.

There is, however, one other perhaps even more important tradition which I realise I really get off on at Christmas. It does perhaps surpass all others.

It’s the food. I love the food. Christmas food is all about preparation, preparing food for the big event on Christmas Day. It’s about project management. It’s about keeping a reasonably careful eye on the budget whilst juggling the schedule and keeping in mind the grand vision.

In short, Christmas food is about being a producer. It calls on nerves of steel, untold amounts of energy, patience, understanding, persuasion, boundless amounts of enthusiasm and an overwhelming sense of excitement at the prospect of seeing the end product light up the eyes of its recipients.

Nine people will sit around a six foot round table in our lounge tomorrow afternoon. Everything that can be has been prepared already (the salmon terrines are looking especially fab, personally speaking whislt Nigella’s gingerbread stuffing as yet uncooked offers much for tomorrow). Four hours in the kitchen yesterday, another four today. At times the place looked like a bomb had hit it. Now, it’s prepared ready for the big day, all of it ready in time to listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – the very beginning of Christmas.