TV: Louis Theroux – Law and Disorder in Johannesburg

Is it right to define Louis Theroux’s latest documentary as TV? Technically, yes as it was on BBC Two to begin with. But for me, I’m thinking it’s probably necessary to redefine such visual experiences in terms of the type of material I’m watching and how I’m watching it, at least for this blog. In this case, the title should really be “documentary” and “mobile phone”.

Theroux’s hour-long piece about crime in Johannesburg was something I was certain I wouldn’t get a chance to see. Although I’m an iPlayer supporter and do from time to time watch an entire programme on my laptop, I’m still largely someone who relies on his Sky+ box to catch up on TV assuming I don’t watch it the moment it’s broadcast. Inevitably, I’ve missed Theroux’s piece on Law and Disorder in Philadephia. Hey, I usually arrive late to everything.

Over the past few days I’ve seen a number of people comment on Theroux’s programme. It was one of many Twitter updates which I have overlooked. Twitter has become increasingly annoying in recent weeks – a necessary evil destined to feature in a future posting, no doubt – and I was very close to ignoring yet another one about the documentary.

At 6.00pm this evening, however, I confronted my irritation, processed through it and downloaded it to my phone. I’d watch it on my way home.

Theroux didn’t disappoint. On my tiny 2 inch screen, his usual style shone out. His seemingly naiive inquisitiveness engages me, his gentle but thorough questioning indispensible.

But it’s his bravery in this particular documentary which really hit me hard. There were moments as I peered at my mobile on my way home when I feared what he was getting himself into. I wanted him to ask more questions, wanted him to go into buildings I didn’t dare to go in myself. I gasped when he went inside one very dark block of flats, the camera shining the smallest light into the eery darkness. I wanted him to be careful. I didn’t want harm to come to him.

These were genuine reactions to what I was watching on screen as I made my journey home. It seemed odd to be learning about another city far away as I made my way home. It didn’t matter I was watching on a mobile. Nothing was lost. In fact, it might have been sub-zero temperatures this evening, but I still made a point of walking from the train station to my front door to finish watching.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to. It’s revealing and – as far as I can make out – brutally realistic without being gratuitous.

What hit home more than anything else was the way I was watching it. In recent months I’ve done battle with a man who reckoned that people are incapable of concentrating on small videos for any longer than 3 minutes. Any more than the magic three minutes and they’ll lose interest and go some place else. Nonsense, I responded to him in an email. If the subject material is good people will watch. Not surprisingly, he and I don’t speak anymore.

Theroux’s programme – watched on my mobile phone on my way home – was an hour long. I was gripped to the whole journey. I can’t really remember how I got from one tube to another. That’s how good it was.

Louis’ a god, so too his producer who has a job I never want to have. It’s clearly a collaborative effort – how could it not be. This isn’t just Theroux on his own, although his obvious skill is something to behold. How he manages to draw out responses from people when us in the audience wonder whether he’s inadvertently provoking them is beyond me. But the piece is also a testament to the contributors who agreed to take part, the camera man who makes a point of sweeping from Louis to the contributor (thus emphasising that this isn’t an edited conversation) and the calm and measured way the final piece is put together.

For those of you inside the UK (apologies to the rest of you) you can also catch Theroux’s Law & Disorder in Philadelphia on the BBC iPlayer.

Louis Theroux features in this C21 video talking about his Law & Disorder series.

Graham Norton gets the plum job

Returning home after a smashing Christmas party at the Edge, I was surprisingly pleased to discover the news that Mr Graham Norton will be taking over as Eurovision commentator from Sir Terry Wogan. 

Perhaps there was the tiniest of disappointment discovering that a personal dream now lay in tatters, but still I’m sure he’ll do a good job. 

If he doesn’t, then it goes without saying that there is a “reserve” available. 

I will, of course, be watching like a hawk.

Dolce & Gabbana’s pants

Blokes in pants

They’re just pants, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Dolce and Gabbana are cashing in on the Christmas shopping frenzy (if there is one) by launching their latest poster campaign on the London Underground. In this perennial effort, D&G are hoping to turn heads and sell a shed load of pants as well.

The posters are certainly turning heads – well, at least one. In fact, one commuter can be observed shuffling past the revolving poster display hoping to catch a glimpse of the same poster a second time before he has to run off to catch his Central line tube.

It’s shameless titillation on D&G’s part. And they’re everywhere. And they’re treading a fine line between titillation and intense bitterness and resentment.

What exactly are they trying to sell?

They’re selling pants by showing the latest range modelled on a collection of butch (Italian) rugby players. (The photo shoot was totally above board, by the way, you can see a behind the scenes video on the D&G website. I’ve done the research, so you don’t have to.)

The men look good. They look irritatingly good. They have fantastic bodies and wear their pants very well indeed. One of them even looks like he might possibly slip off the bench he’s perched on. I trust there wasn’t a nasty accident. I wouldn’t like the idea of him having suffered any pain during the photo shoot.

After a number of sightings of the poster over the past few days, I’ve come to ponder one very important question about D&G’s advertising campaign.

What exactly is D&G saying?

Is it:

1. You can look as good these men if you buy a pair of D&G pants?

Believe me, I can’t.

They might enhance the crotch, but one look at those waistbands and I know they’ll grip uncomfortably around my waist and reveal an unsightly layer of puppy fat. In short, I will be wasting my money.

2. You can only wear D&G pants if you’re built like these men…

It doesn’t matter how much protein I shovel down my throat or how many times I go to the gym. I am NOT going to look like them. I don’t do either at the present time, so that’s another reason not to buy them.

3. You can only play rugby if you wear these pants.

Such a statement leaves me feeling like a complete failure.

4. You have to be Italian to wear these pants.

Then why advertise the damn things in London? Surely your target audience is going to be quite small. Or, if this is the case are D&G just rubbing my nose in it, so to speak?

5. All rugby players in Italy wear D&G pants.


6. If you give these pants to your partner at Christmas he will also look like one of these rugby players.

I might be gullible, but I’m not a twat.

Once I go through this rigorous process, I’m still left wondering. If the vast majority of people don’t have the kind of bodies these blokes have who look good in what must surely be over-priced, brand heavy undergarments, what the hell is the point in advertising them?

They’re just pants. Why not sell the poster instead?

This is visualising radio

Radio was the reason I wanted to work at the BBC. That was my “way in”. At least that’s what I thought when I came out of the second session of my radio production training course.

I enrolled myself. It was an evening course at Morley College. Three former World Service types ran the course for a knock-down rate.

They evangelised. They inspired. They charged very little money.

Aside from a tricky beginning where it appeared that neither the college hosting the course nor the tutors actually knew when the course began – something us students were a little put out by initially – those ten weeks spent discovering the fundamentals of making a radio package and “producing” a live radio programme were a real joy.

Something clicked, you see. As soon as I sat down in the studio and peered down at the script below the foam head of the microphone I suddenly felt at home. Radio was for me.

The key to breaking into the radio industry was, according to the lead tutor, in persuading various radio producers at the BBC that your radio package was the one they absolutely needed for their programme. An entire lesson was devoted to the art of pitching to producers, the art of persuading BBC producers. There was even special attention given to how to navigate one’s way around that very special type of producer who refused to answer emails and loathed picking up the telephone. Pity they didn’t prepare me for the ones who – apparently – had absolutely no concept of what to do when faced with an MP3 file.

In my confident if misguided eagerness I did frequently come up against some quite bizarre responses from those who I thought were the ones who held the keys to my future success in radioland. Some had no idea what a podcast was. Some didn’t know where to put a CD into a computer. Some, shamefully, didn’t possess a pair of headphones.

You won’t be surprised to learn that aside from a brief stint working with Sandi Toksvig on LBC, radio has remained an unrealised dream.

Part of the problem has been what I had believed was the death of the radio package. Shortly after I started work at the BBC I noted with a slight amount of irritation a conversation between two people on the work message boards mourning the passing of this much treasured audio format.

I was doomed. I’d spent £100+ on learning an art form which I felt really comfortable with and reckoned I could do quite well with if only I could have a break. Here I was, on the periphery of the BBC and it turned out that my skills wouldn’t be required especially as some reckoned it was on its way out.

Only today however, I stumbled on this, an audio slideshow featuring audio from a woman who hasn’t worked ever – nor anyone who lives in the house with her – accompanied by photographs of a lady who, in the business, is callously referred to as “the contributor”.

Why am I blogging about it? Well, there are a number of reasons.

First, is the joy that seeing this on the BBC website provides me with. Listening to the audio (even without the photographs) reminds me that far from the negative comments conveyed by those message board postings back in 2005, the radio package isn’t dead. This is high quality audio, mysterious, robust and engaging. It doesn’t need a commentary because the person speaking is engaging. I end the oh-so-brief 1 minute 47 seconds wanting more. That is the mark of brilliant radio.

Second, is that this is another example of a new development of what I think I’m right in referring to as “visualising radio”, that dangerous development where radio producers dare to join pictures with audio.

Thirdly (and perhaps most importantly), it means that contrary to what some people think, sticking images with audio isn’t bad TV. It isn’t radio trying to be TV either or, worse, radio trying to be bad video on the web.

Instead, it’s a series of thought-provoking images accompanying an already punchy piece of audio, leading the listener into an interesting journey.

This stuff is great. And, thankfully, it means that maybe that training course wasn’t the waste of money I thought it was three and a half years ago.

Beware the perils of Christmas cards

Gocco Christmas Cards, originally uploaded by coreymarie.

Did artist John Calcott Horsley have any idea what he started when he agreed to draw a Christmas card for Sir Henry Cole in 1840? Almost certainly not.

Three years later Sir Henry saw the potential and exploited it. One thousand cards were printed using the same print. One of the originals he sent to his grandmother fetched a mere £8,469 in 2005.

There’s reassurance to be found in the motivation Sir Henry Cole had in commissioning that first design. The idea of writing letters conveying best wishes for the season seemed demanded a more efficient alternative.

Henry Cole was pragmatist. With only a pen a paper, the prospect of writing letters to all his friends must have seemed like way too much work for him. I’m inclined to agree.

I look on the first Christmas card illustration with surprise. There’s a space for the recipient and a space for the signature with a fairly cold “A Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you” in between. Compared to writing a letter, all Cole had to do was write two names. Quite a cold process.

It’s not entirely dissimilar to the experience I have today.

Christmas cards loom over me in the first few weeks of December. It’s a task which absolutely needs to be done, seems like the nicest, easiest thing to do at Christmas and seems like the most daunting Christmas-related task of all. All that writing. All that organisation. All those addresses.

Year after year I try hard to trim down the Christmas card list. Ever since the heady days of school, I’ve strived to edit the recipients. Back then it was about receiving what seemed like year long tokens of friendships from contemporaries. Now, it’s about sharing heartfelt wishes amongst those I feel most close to. The fewer the better. It’s not that I hate people. I just rather like the idea of not being seen as too shallow. If I like I’ll wish you a happy Christmas to your face. If I don’t I won’t.

The problem comes as we get closer to the big day. What started off as pragmatic and cost-effective list of recipients quickly develops into a long guilt-fuelled list of people I’ve forgotten or callously crossed off. I don’t like that situation arising. I always feel so very dirty come Christmas Eve when the inevitable stragglers on the list of names stare up at me. “There’s no chance now,” I’ll think, “maybe I could send them a new year’s card instead?”

Better to start the process early. Get the cards distributed as early as you can to the beginning of December. And yet, do that and you risk imposing the same sense of guilt on your recipients. Maybe, you’re someone who relishes the thought of your friends and associates scrabbling around like mad in the run up to the final posting day as they desperately try to avoid any Christmas-related guilt. Whilst I might occasionally be fuelled by bitterness and resentment there aren’t any people I’d wish that on.

In years gone by I have, I confess, followed the easy path – the one established by Sir Henry Cole. Pictures of cats padding through the snow or stylishly crafted cards from WHSmith normally hit the spot. Set aside two or three evenings to write the cards and envelopes (factoring in a good week to source the addresses) and the job is done. But is there any joy in it?

There isn’t. Merely sitting down and writing the recipient’s name before signing my own name and dutifully passing it on to my partner to sign his makes the process a long and drawn out affair.

Surely, if I’m going to this trouble to send season’s greetings to people I haven’t been in contact with the rest of the year, shouldn’t I be going to the trouble of personalising the message? Otherwise, what exactly am I doing? And for whose benefit exactly? The card will be opened, blue-tacked to the wall for the Christmas season and then recycled (if you’re lucky). A year will pass before the next communication and so it will continue year in, year out.

Over the past few years I have gone to the trouble of making my own cards. Like pickling, there is an undeniable pleasure in constructing your own, especially when the subject of the card is one of your own cats. But having read over the results of a few other, slightly more organised Christmas crafters and considerably more labour-intensive card creations, I’m fearing the prospect of homemade Christmas cards may be one task too many this year.

Unless of course I could make use of a few tasty pictures I’ve found from Flickr today. Keep an eye out for your mail. I am making a list and will be checking it twice before the holiday season is over.