Friday, April 28, 2017


Earlier this week, I was told that I reminded someone of the character Sheldon Cooper, from the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” I said I have only seen the show a few times, but I had seen enough to know that wasn’t quite a compliment. There is a huge difference between knowing a lot and being smart, and I know I have, at least, some social skills, as I had to have a conversation with someone for this stink-bomb of information to come up.
However, the character, and the show, is successful because we can see ourselves (and others) in it, and because that identification makes us laugh – entering “The Big Bang Theory” into an internet search engine now brings up the show before the actual theory. While I am not a fan, I am aware that making a show about people previously described as “nerds” and “geeks” into a worldwide hit is simple: compare the type of people most of us don’t know, with those we do. Add in the usual American sitcom production line, writers’ room, big-budget salaries and promotion, and it continues to work – if “nerd culture” is now cool, it’s because the most popular sitcom is full of them.
In the UK, we have a dearth of sitcoms – if we had a golden age, it was probably over by the turn of the century. Dramas are the narrative order of the day on primetime TV, from multiple episodes of soap operas to sumptuous feature-length stories. If you can work in a bit of humour, fine, but nothing that will alienate too many people: ITV’s current sitcoms “Benidorm” and “Birds of a Feather” are, for me, a bit too broad in humour, but while “Birds of a Feather” is your standard three-set, three-character set-up, in front of a studio audience, “Benidorm” is an hour-long serial with multiple characters coming in and out, just like the dramas they also show, because it is what works most often for them.

With the potential of any story to become a drama, especially when they are usually an hour long on television, the half-hour standard for sitcoms usually mean generalising – shorter, quicker stories, dropped in and wrapped up in a flash, with a moral to take away at the end. Characters can be generalised, as I managed with “The Big Bang Theory.” To cap it all, if your comedy is not to everyone’s taste, or too broad, or too obscure, or not explained properly, few people will be interested in watching again – better to be safe with a drama, where you can concentrate on just the story. “Till Death Us Do Part,” remade in the US as “All in the Family,” could easily have been a kitchen-sink drama of a patriarch spouting his racist, sexist, xenophobic views over his family but, in inviting the audience to laugh at Alf Garnett, some found a friend, instead of an enemy, and the context became lost – in “All in the Family,” Archie Bunker, unlike Garnett, became mellower as time went on.
For the record, my favourite sitcom is an American one, “Seinfeld,” eschewing conventions by having bizarre, inconsequential storylines, characters that varied from strange to downright monstrous, and “no hugs, no learning.” It is considered to be the best of them all, continuously shown and studied twenty years after it ended, but when the best has already been made, what do you do now?
Time for me to write that script about a researcher…

Friday, April 21, 2017


Was there ever a time when hearing music on the radio was considered rare? Whole services are built around non-stop music these days, but there was a time when playing out a recording of a song, the same sort you would buy to listen in your own time, was restricted. This wasn’t considered a bad thing at the time, until people’s tastes changed.
Put simply, there used to be a system in place named “needletime,” literally how long records could be played on the radio. This was a protective measure, as the two groups in charge of it were the Musicians’ Union, who wanted to preserve opportunities for their members to play live, and Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL), which represented record companies and music licensees.  PPL had been formed after a 1934 court case, when a coffee shop in Bristol was successfully sued for playing records for its customers, creating the notion recordings cannot be played in public without receiving the permission of the copyright holders.
In 1935, the BBC signed its first contract with the Musicians’ Union and PPL, giving them all of twenty hours per week of needletime to play with. This didn’t matter much, as the BBC were engaging bands to record sessions for them, and would start forming their own, with names like the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, and the BBC Midland Light Orchestra.

[The BBC Midland Light Orchestra]

However, by the 1960s, radio had been relegated to background listening by the advent of television, and younger audiences were listening to the pirate radio stations moored in the waters around the UK, and to Radio Luxembourg in the evening. These stations were outside any agreements that could be made, and could play as much music as they could get away with. 
Once the pirates were made illegal in 1967, the BBC was obliged to fill the gap with a legal version that used some of the DJs – Radio 1 – and needed the ability to play more records. How many extra hours did they get? Two per day – on Radio 1’s launch day in 1967, only 5 hours and 35 minutes of the day was not shared with the lighter sounding Radio 2, a situation that wouldn’t be broken for the next fifteen years, with only nudges in allowances in the meantime. No wonder Kenny Everett and John Peel complained, although Peel’s famous sessions helped to bridge the gap, but when people were able to listen to their favourite artists freely before, hearing them try to sound the same live or, even worse, have a cover band do a close approximation of it, wasn’t quite going to cut it anymore.

[Kenny Everett]

However, there were ways to get around the rules, if you were prepared to make the effort. Record review programmes, or shows talking about new releases, were exempt from needletime, so long as they mentioned the catalogue number you needed to order your own copy; foreign records were exempt, so coming back from a holiday to the Netherlands with compilations of hits heard at home was very helpful; and, if you really wanted, you can license songs directly from the record company, like the BBC did with Motown and other labels, make your own records, for personal use only, and play them as much as you wanted.
In 1988, what had become a game finally ended, and radio stations now pay for music by the minute, or song, or by a percentage of their revenue. Music is too personal to put restrictions around it, and the situation now in place means that, in the absence of live music, bands will continue to get paid for their work – until MP3s and streaming started cutting that down.

[Reverse of Blondie album made and used internally by the BBC]

Friday, April 14, 2017


It’s nice to know that, over in Slovakia, their equivalent of the Ordnance Survey and the Land Registry cares about calling our country by the correct name – in fact, they care about it more than we do.
Bratislava’s Geodesy, Cartography and Cadastre Authority has jurisdiction over a certain law passed in 1995, two years after The Slovak Republic, to use its full name, separated from Czechia (see for more details). In the last week, the Authority announced it would start enforcing fines of up to £6,000 if Slovak newspapers and other media kept referring to the UK as “Britain,” instead of the correct “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” although the shorter “United Kingdom” is still OK. It is not a law that has really been enforced previously, but the Authority wishes to raise awareness of referring to their neighbours correctly, even though a spokesperson for the British Embassy in Bratislava said they would, if required, change their official logo to comply.
Because “Brexit” is the reason for mentioning Britain at all right now, it’s an understandable “mistake” to make. As a name, “Britain” only refers to the island on which England, Wales and Scotland stands – calling it “Great Britain” was to distinguish it from “lesser Britain,” as in the French region of Brittany, a necessity when both areas had the same ruler. The “Kingdom of Great Britain” came when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England, but while the original “Kingdom of Scotland” was exactly that, the “Kingdom of England” made no reference to Wales. The reference to a “United Kingdom” only came once Ireland became part of the union, and was retained after the Irish Free State was formed.

It took three hundred years for the UK to amass one of the longest country names in the world, one that we don’t expect everyone to use all the time, because we have a choice of shorter ones. We are “British,” rather than “Kingdominians,” and we know we are not slighting Northern Ireland when we support Team GB in the Olympic Games.
The one name I don’t think you can get away with, however, is using “England” to mean the entire UK. The “Oxford History of England” series of books has never been renamed since its introduction 1934, although the use of the name varies within each volume. A.J.P. Taylor, the writer of the 1914-45 portion, explained that “England” was still used the way we might use “Britain” now, referring to England and Wales, Great Britain, the UK, or even the British Empire. However, I have never heard anyone use “Britain” to refer to the Commonwealth, as that would sound too much like we are hanging on to an empire.
The nationalist jet stream on which “Brexit” rides means we run the risk of changing our name again, if Scotland were to leave the UK. However, there will always be a Britain, unless they dig a canal along Hadrian’s Wall.

Friday, April 7, 2017


Houses never stand still – I have lived in our family home all my life, and I have seen every room change, with new ideas coming and going, furniture moving around, and how the home has grown with the size of our family. Years ago, we had looked at moving, but it was either that the housing market was too poor, or the taxes involved in moving were too great. Therefore, we extended our home sideways, as the size of our family grew, and out back, to take advantage of the view in our back garden.
What we never even contemplated, however, was our going underground. Our back garden, while being home to birds, bats, foxes, and the occasional badger, is also where some of our drainage system lies – playing with that will either wreak havoc on ourselves, or on the houses next door. Even more of a concern would be the total lack of direct sunlight – a basement room would be a fine place to tuck away the washing machine and tumble dryer, and anything that might otherwise be stashed away in the loft, but little else than that.
This is why the idea of “super-basements,” or “iceberg houses,” is an idea I cannot get past in my mind. Sure, you can have your cinema, or gym, or swimming pool, or wine cellar, but does the want for these status symbols mean you have to discount having fresh air as well? OK, perhaps for the wine cellar…

These types of developments are stereotypically found in Central London, where people have enough money to have them built, but a recent rise in stamp tax for more expensive properties makes it less desirable to move. The most famous of these is the extension to BBC Broadcasting House, where the BBC’s basement newsroom is seen on their news channel every half-hour – four studios lie below that, nestled between two Underground lines. Back at home, while still requiring permission, building a basement often can be a “permitted development,” an easier proposition than building above ground – therefore, everyone grab a spade!
I have stopped myself from experiencing the schadenfreude I get from seeing rich peoples’ houses collapse into their metaphorical, and all too real, holes – you can guarantee everyone will be reported in the news, given the same prominence as that old, pre-YouTube film of a water-skiing squirrel - but there is a sadness to why you would need to build a suburban, air-conditioned lair.
Everyone can go to a cinema, or a gym, or swimming pool, or a wine shop – you can do whatever you like. Once you have your own one, you can cut yourself off so easily. I can dream of the big house I would buy if I ever won the lottery, but what would I do with it? All of a sudden, there would be a lot of space for me to feel lonely. Why not go outside, in the open, find like-minded people? Contemplating my own super-basement will, thankfully, not be a possibility any time soon.