"Hello and welcome to Any Answers?" -- Jonathan Dimbleby, 'Any Answers?'

Radio Tonight, I attended a recording of BBC Radio 4’s discussion programme Any Questions? at the Everyman Theatre, introduced by Jonathan Dimbleby. For as long as I can remember I’ve listened to the Saturday lunchtime repeat of the programme, invariably shouting at the radio when one of the particularly small minded guests says something idiotic. I was passing by the Playhouse the other week, saw a poster advertising the visit and knew, if only for curiosity sake, that I had to go along.

The programme has always had a slightly scary ability to crop up in an area in which a major news story is happening and so the Radio Four listener tonight might infer that the programme was coming from Liverpool simply because of the tragedy that has been unfolding of the past couple of days. But I booked my ticket a week ago and it was advertised as coming from here in the Radio Times. It was simply one of those odd, scary, bizarre co-incidences.

I decided to wait until today before formulating the inevitable question. I wanted to get on the air so I made a point of trying to write something in the style of the questions that tend to be asked on air. I’m the last person who’d want to talk about what happened in Croxteth, so stuck to what I know and cribbing from the front page of today’s The Guardian wrote on the suggestion card: “Does the panel agree with Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman’s sentiment that the television industry is suffering from a ‘catastrophic loss of nerves?” Imagining a wry smile from Paxo when he heard it back tomorrow.

I arrived very early as usual and was ushered into the bar. A wooden box on a table with a bright Radio 4 logo on it was in place to take question cards. People were approached to put their questions to this oracle, slotting them in with some reverence. Apart from a woman who turned up with her question printed out five times because I think she thought it meant it would stand more of a chance of being used as though this was some kind of vote. There seemed to be a move for people to ask more than one question so I also dropped in something about the media holding up a mirror to society and about the climate protestors, but I didn’t really think either were good enough.

The Everyman is a surprising venue for the kind of programme. I always imagine Any Questions? happening in the same kinds of venues as its tv cousin Question Time, all grand halls and universities and whatnot. That must have given this a more intimate atmosphere than most programmes in the series -- and now and then the panellists seemed quite surprised to be able to see out disapproval or not up close as we eyeballed them or not. For those who don’t know, this is a theatre in the round and the panellists would be sat on table in the centre back of the ‘stage’ or more descriptively floor, at table covered in Radio 4 blue table closes with logos all about the place.

I was the first in the room and deposited myself on the second row -- behind the seats reserved for questioners. I was followed initially by what many Radio 4 comedy shows joke as being a typical Radio 4 discussion show type of audience, mostly pensioners and retirees who look like they’re on a coach trip. I felt a bit isolated as they gathered in the seats about me but as time went on the demographic balanced out and almost as though the BBC had selected them, I think there where people from every walk of society in there. I’d like to say there was a nervous energy in the room, some pent up anger perhaps because of what had been happening in the city, but there really wasn’t at least not in my section.

The man who sat next to me even turned and said:
‘Can you see the flashback?’
I looked about and wondered if suddenly that my own reality was indeed a facade and that any minute there would cross mix to me being born or my first kiss. It didn’t happen, so I counter asked:
‘What do you mean?’
‘The light’s reflecting.’ A spotlight was reflecting off of one of the name badges on the panellist’s table. ‘Put your head where I’m sitting.’
Not really seeing how I could do that since he was already there I grinned and said instead:
‘Don’t worry. This is radio. You won’t be able to see it.’
He nodded, taking that as a perfectly decent explanation (?) and began talking to his wife.

Above our heads, theatre speakers piped out the greatest hits of the station's theme tunes, including The Archers which in its extended mega mix lasts forever and has the usual tricked out solos these things always have because the composer has had to make up another five minutes worth of music around the stuff that people recognised. It’s surprising actually how many work shorn of their function and simply as musical pieces -- I wondered briefly if there was a best of album and then wondered what that meant I was turning into.

Eventually, the warm up lady, Alex, from BBC local radio appeared. She talked about working for the Radio Merseyside and talked about how friendly Liverpool made her feel, about how it was like coming home and how the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester mirrors that between Sunderland and Newcastle. She then listed a couple of things that might be said to try and get us in the mood for applauding and booing, asking us what we thought of Boris Johnson etc, underlined that the panelists aren’t warned what the questions are and then randomly threw the floor open for questions about BBC Radio.

Enter the rentagob. The rentagob would appear again during the radio broadcast but this time he had Alex in his sights. ‘What I’d like to know is why you people always want to suggest that us scousers are always doin down Mancs’ Tough crowd, I thought. ‘I was joking…’ Alex said, ‘You all knew I was joking didn’t you, who thought I was joking.’ Claps, cheers, show of hands. Then I said that it was lovely to see them here and where there any plans for the comedy shows to make an appearance? She said that they’d been invited to the Everyman and suggested we write to the particular shows themselves. Then, brilliantly Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director of the Everyman said that she had invited them, but they only ever want to come during the theatre season. Question answered, job done.

Then executive producer Peter Griffiths strode onto the floor for the pick-me moment. His researcher had the pile of questions. He began reading and to but to the chase my name came up third. How exciting. I put my hand up and walked to the front and sat in my designated chair as the researcher handed my a script copy of my question with my name at the top and my words underneath. Except ‘Does’ had become ‘Doe’ which made no sense which is why I was sure I’d read it out that way on the radio. I stepped onto the floor and walked up to the researcher who was still directing people to sit down.

‘Can I borrow your pen?’
‘You’re fine sitting there.’
‘No.’ I showed her the sheet. ‘I need to change this. I know I’d say ‘Doe’ otherwise.’
After actually saying ‘Ulp’ as though it’s a real world, pen was lent, correction was made.

Finally the panel were brought out and introduced in much the same way as you’ve seen happen before US sitcoms, perhaps without the bows and self-aggrandising. I’d read the names beforehand but now I could put names to faces. They were, reducing their biography (available beforehand) with my own prejudices intact: Peter Oborne, a columnist for the Daily Mail who I actually recognised; Paul Vallely, the associate editor for The Independent who I didn’t; Louise Bagshawe, the novelist and Tory; and Ian McMillan the poet and Radio 4 presenter who I also recognised and quite like. Then close behind, Jonathan Dimbleby who as with all people who meet off the television or radio is shorter than you imagine.

After Dimbleby thanked us for being there and said a few words about what our behaviour should be whilst on the radio (largely ignored during the programme) and asked for the rehearsal question to check sound levels. It was about the cancelling of Celebrity Big Brother and even though some of the panel were under the impression that the whole programme had been cancelled, they generally thought its loss was a jolly good thing although Oborne was already in controversial mode suggesting that the racism incident was simply the media holding up a mirror to society (ahem).

Rather than simply beginning as the show went to air, the eight o’clock news was piped into the auditorium. That’s when the atmosphere changed, as we listened collectively to the latest news about the teenager being arrested in relation to the murder. I wondered if this had been what it was like before television when people had to gather in cinemas to watch news reels, dispatches from wars, collectively experiencing the ills of the world. Sure enough, the deaths in Afghanistan were mentioned. Then, lights up and the show began.

You can listen to it here online for the next week after tomorrow's repeat on Radio 4 at 1:10pm. As you’ll hear, Dimbelby was the consummate broadcaster capturing the mood of the coincidence of the show being in Liverpool at this moment. Obviously the first few questions were about the incident and I would say the whole first half was dedicated to them. I agreed with everything the panellists said -- it was difficult not to except for Oborne who turned into a stereotypical conservative, knocking on at length about the erosion of family values and father figures and fulfilling all of the expectations this leftist had of him.

The producer held up three fingers and the researcher sat next to me, microphone in hand. I tried to take it off her because I thought she was passing it to me, but she pulled it away.
‘Gentleman in the front row.’
And you can hear the results. I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t flub and took it slowly. I’ve done voiceover work before don’t you know (email me and I’ll tell you the details) and it’s all to do with stress patterns, I think. Only afterwards did I realise that wasn’t Paxman’s juiciest quote (the wry smile I was imaging now becoming a role of the eyes) and indeed the panellists didn’t really answer the question instead leading off into a ramble about the ills of television and whatnot, with Oborne once again saying some very silly things and because he went on I didn’t get to offer my follow up comment (running out of time) which would have been:

“Well I think actually there’s a catastrophic loss of trust in viewers; for some reason programme makers think they have to sensationalise subjects or hide mistakes as though viewers will lose faith in the magic of tv if they find out the truth when something goes wrong or isn’t quite as exciting as programme makers wish they were. I’m much more interested in what goes wrong sometimes…”

Or something like that. It would have been a winner anyway.

As the programme progresses you do enter a kind of trance as you begin to balance what the panellists are saying against your own opinions on a given subject. No, in relation to slavery, people who haven’t done something shouldn’t apologise for it so I’m clapping McMillan, Vallely and unbelievably Bagshawe (who looked like she’d walked off the set of Party Animals) but booing Oborne. That actually tended to be the pattern throughout the fifty-odd minutes -- I think McMillan won on points, but Vallely was rambling if insightful and I thought Bagshawe talked some real common sense all of the way through -- which considering my own liberalism is interesting -- perhaps she’s a moderate Tory (well she did join the Labour Party for a few months in 1996 according to her biog!).

The debate, though, was fairly well controlled. Only the panellists and us questioners were miked, so although people where shouting from the floor, they were warned throughout that they couldn’t be heard. You can hear the rentagob during the slavery question but that’s not the only time he shouted out and there were some other professional hecklers but none of them really made too much of an impact other then to interrupt the flow of discussion. Oborne was being deliberately controversial and was largely treated with contempt as he entered preach mode here and there -- he seemed to be allowed to ramble on far longer then the other speakers because Dimbleby and his producer were having a small discussion while he was speaking. I’ll be interested to hear how it came across when I listen again tomorrow.

I'm glad that the discussion touched on the capital of culture which has become a rather larger issue in the local press as hints and allegations are tossed around and people are asked to resign and don't. Obviously it was given a more wider national feel with Oborne trying to win the crowd back and Bagshawe looking cute whilst mentioning The Beatles because someone had to mention The Beatles, there's a rule. McMillan is right though -- it is the perfect opportunity to help bring communities together and it would be a shame to squander it.

The show ended abruptly as the names of next week’s panel were read out. After the return to broadcasting house, Jon thanked us again for coming, apologised for not everyone being able to be heard and thanked the panel, deliberately screwing up Oborne’s name as revenge for his bloopers during the show. He directed us to listen to Any Answers? and then that was that.

"Why didn't you take the shot?" -- Paz, 'The Bourne Ultimatum'

Film David Bordwell considers the use of shakycam in The Bourne Ultimatum: "Partly, it’s not the pace of the editing but the spasmodic quality of it. Cuts here seem abrasive because they interrupt actions and camera movements. Pans, zooms, and movements of the actors are seldom allowed to come to rest before the shot changes. This creates a strong sense of jerkiness and visual imbalance."

One of my favourite shots in the film was an over the shoulder in which the head and shoulders of the interviewer appeared in silhouette and literally trapped the interviewee's in the corner of the screen. I'm not sure I entirely agree with Bordwell's assessment of the story towards the end. He seems to have not noticed that that section of the film is being told from the point of view of the CIA officers and that it's important that we make the same discovery as the Strathern character at that moment -- the methodology of how he does it isn't all that important -- we just know he has the capacity based on a range of previous scenes. We don't need to see Bourne doing that yet again it's more exciting the way it is, and more mythic.

"Bambi? Isn't that a girl's name?" -- Ronno, 'Bambi II'

Film Why Bambi II Is Better Than Bambi: "the jokes tend to be quiet, the action gripping if only occasional, and the entire pace of the movie enjoyably slower than you're likely to see onscreen these days. How much slower? Lady and the Tramp II and Cinderella III even make time for character-defining songs, the way animated movies used to." [via]

"First you given up your sanity, Turn your back for humanity, And you don't give a damn" -- Inner Circle, 'The Games People Play Now'

Games Chessckrs: "Chessckers is an exciting strategy game requiring the penultimate wit and mental dexterity. As you may have guessed it is a mixture between the games of chess and checkers using the pieces and rules of both."

"Hey, there's something down here... " -- Holly, 'The Descent'

Film Excellent if spoilery appreciation of horror film The Descent: "The Descent marks the descent, the disintegration, of a friendship. Sarah and Juno might never have been that close, but the ties that once bound them fray in the caves as they drift apart and become victims of the common human frailties of misunderstanding, self-interest, and carelessness. Marshall conveys their differences in simple, brief shots of Juno's unspoken response to Sarah quoting an epigram, of Juno's telling glances at the other women, of Sarah's decision to walk away when Juno apologizes for an earlier failure."

"The coolest thing is anybody being able to say what they want to say to as many people as want to listen." -- Evan Williams, Blogger creator

Blogger Blogger is six years old today and I've been a user for six of them. Unlike some people who've migrated hither and thither looking for something more flexible I've stuck with the Pyra then Google people through thick and thin and bizarre changes in user interface. To celebrate, here is a wonderfully predictive interview from 2002 with Blogger creator Evan Williams:
"For one thing, blogs will become ubiquitous to the point of transparency. I don't think many people will be talking about blogs like we do today, because they will just be one of the basic things on the web. Not every site will be a blog, but the blog format will be the default for personal sites, for example (which will become more and more common) and, more often than not, they'll be incorporated into media and corporate sites. They will also be all over inside of corporations, on intranets."
I don't think there's any thing that Evan says that hasn't come true in the past five years.

There really is something quite comforting in people able to see the epic sweep of my life over the past six years in all of its browsable less than glory. Pour example, on this day last year I didn't enjoy the film A Scanner Darkly very much, in 2005 I was making some very good decisions about my university course, in 2004 I was largely missing the Olympics, during 2003 I was stalked by Christopher Biggins and found out my name isn't my real name, in 2002 I posted an old article about film adaptation and finally in 2001, the fifth series of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was beginning in the UK and I was mourning the loss of a bar on Bold Street in Liverpool which subsequently became a Starbucks where I had a coffee only this afternoon.

Happy Birthday, then Blogger -- you've outlived a computer and a range of modems. Perhaps we'll see out the decade together.

The Shadows of Avalon.

Books  Back then in the company of the Eighth Doctor on this ride through his lives.  Much as I enjoyed those Tenth Doctor novels there’s something to be said about picking up a spin-off novel and being sure of the universe contained inside.  Regular readers might have gathered that despite some of my protestations I’m a big fan of continuity and one of joys of a novel like Paul Cornell’s The Shadows of Avalon is that occurs in a Whoniverse where continuity is being created and developed, it's not just a single story that occurs and will never be referred to again.

I love too that the book not only references the television series and is part of the ongoing EDA plot-arc but also refers back unapologetically to the Virgin New Adventures and actually effectively carries on a story sparked back there, for the first time unifying the two continuities in a very substantial way.  Not only is Paul’s own creation Professor Bernice Summerfield name checked (rather than being ‘an archaeologist’ the Doctor once knew) but this also features the new regenerated version of the Brigadier I’d heard about.

This makes the book written by a fan for fans, repaying the investment they've put into keeping with the novels since the series left the air in ‘89.  Having not read many of the New Adventures, I’m sure there were other references in there but again I’ve never liked being in a situation were everything is explained, where I understand everything.  It’s almost like being a child watching the new series and hearing about Axons or Sea Devils and knowing that there’s a whole universe out there to be discovered.  Iit's also influenced the new series too, however inadvertently -- the kind of portal into the time vortex that the young Master looks into during SOD U LOTT makes an appearance here.

If  it hasn’t become apparent already, I was really impressed with The Shadows of Avalon, not least because as you can see it was signed by the author ( it was a present).  I mean look at the cover for goodness sake!  It does exactly that thing which Doctor Who has always been good at -- clashing the relatively conventional with the relatively fantastical and seeing what happens, but in this case its on a rather larger scale than that Yeti who seems to spend an inordinate length of time on a toilet in Tooting Beck.  It’s A Bridge Too Far meets The Lord of the Rings as a portal opens between Britain and the dream world Avalon and after a strategic pact war breaks out between a UNIT co-ordinated British Army and the mythic creatures inside in which not everything is as it seems because (as the book synopsis reveals) a couple of Gallifreyan agents are manipulating the situation for their own ends.

If  that plot summary lacks for the presence of the Doctor, it’s because the main theme of the book is how our characters are coping with obsolescence.  Eighth is still dealing with being knocked about the pocket universes and tortured and the realisation that with the Faction Paradox bouncing up and down on his own personal timeline that nothing he does could matter because it could be changed (his potential multiple origins are mentioned) so what’s the point?  The new younger Alistair, having recently lost his wife Doris in an accident can’t find purpose in having to essentially re-experiencing a life already lived.  Fitz is feeling lost in the cracks of the adventure, missing the girlfriend we met in Parallel 59, and Compassion is feeling the pressure to change.  Like much of Cornell's work it mixes the big epic adventure with the small human experience.

It’s also a book that constantly surprises.  Like Sarah-Jane in Interference, The Brigadier is given a massive chunk of the story, in many way his journey has equal if not more prominence than anything else.  He’s a perfect extrapolation of the man we knew and in a style not dissimilar to the new tv series, he’s given that emotional arc -- dealing with his own personal tragedy leading to a range of critical mistakes which cost lives.  Rather than simply standing around blustering, sending his men to shoot an alien and looking foolish, he’s given room to become a three dimensional being.  When he reaches a pit of despair it's gut wrenching and yet understandable under the circumstances, it doesn't come out of the blue.  I’d imagine some of the older fans will have found this material difficult but as someone sometimes frustrated by the lack of emotional depth in the classic series I lapped it up.

His course of action leads to a rift with the Doctor, who is also feeling marginalised for the reasons discussed above.  If I wished anything from the book it’s that there would be more of its title character, although his absence could be a planned attempt to show how the universe copes when the star timelord is out of sorts.  After he and The Brig are stranded on Avalon for various reasons, he actually tries to build himself a new Tardis out of ply-wood and only really perks up when the aforementioned Queen, Mab sends him on a mission and he only really becomes his Doctorish self in the close stages (which I’ll come to later).  He’s become an old a wary traveller of late, almost as though he’s finally had too many experiences and adventures and seen too many people die and that it’s all just stopped being fun.

Avalon too is a wonderful creation, a fusion of classic fantasy archetypes shaken about and plugged into a new power source, a world which exists in the dreams of a single being.  There be dragons here and lizards who it’s inferred are Silurians and beautiful if cynical queens in big castles.  The impression given is that this is the world that would go on to become King Arthur’s realm and then our own -- that this is his ancestry in much the same way that Elizabethan Britain is to us.  The pieces are almost in place.  But it’ll never develop into that -- Arthur and the place where the Doctor is Merlin exists on yet another plain of existence.  It’s another approach to fantasy from the people who brought you Hyspero but more Tolkien than The Brothers Grimm.  But again, it’s scientifically rationalised and the franchise’s dictum than what looks like magic is actually some higher form of technology is carefully maintained, just as it should be.

There isn’t much, but the book also features the most realistic depiction of near-contemporary Earth I‘ve seen in a while, at least in terms of these novels.  The book is set in 2012 (no sign of the Olympics and the beacon of hope and love, thank goodness) but the opening stages in which Compassion is tasked with learning about humanity and later when she and Fitz are tasked to find someone unreal in the real world you do get a lovely sense of the space inside the M25.  The EDAs have spent a surprising lack of time overall on contemporary Earth in London even though it would provide some really potent images, at least with this Tardis crew, as a section of this novel shows.

But in the end, without giving too much away I hope, it’s all about Compassion.  As with the best story-arcs, there have been hints and allegations as to what’s been happening to her and when revealed unsurprisingly its Gallifrey related, leading to the biggest surprise of the book, the appearance of President Romana.  She’s now in her third incarnation and very much the Imperiatrix of the audio series, her travels with the Doctor a distant memory.  That she would send these two agents, only a parsec away from the agents of the Enemy from The Taking of Planet 5, perfectly and coldly demonstrates the change in her from the girl who skipped about Paris in a school uniform.  It’s a tragedy to see her like this but it shows the franchise moving on and not dwelling and allowing for friends to become enemies.

At the close of the novel the Doctor’s on the run again, has a sense of purpose and as one long story ends another begins.  The series has never been better than when the Doctor has something of his own to fight for.  In the early days, it was control of his Tardis, then it was gaining his freedom from Earth, then it was getting to Metebelis 3 (ish), then search for the Key to Time, then on the run from the Black Guardian, then trying to get Tegan back to Heathrow (again, ish), then dealing with a duff regeneration and subsequent trial, then with the excesses of the universe and now trying to save his a friend from an ex-friend.  Sadly, looking at the pile of books on my shelf and the burning bright orange cover which looms there I don’t think this state of affairs is going to last long.  But it should be fun while it lasts.

It's all over.

Film It's only in the final moments of The Bourne Ultimatum that it occurred to me that the whole trilogy is actually just one long detective story about a man trying to discover who his own murderer was and who led to him becoming a murderer. Bourne spends the three films shifting from location to location, criss crossing the globe picking up clues along the way which send him to the next destination. But whereas for Miss Marple the impediment is high tea and for Sam Spade it's lack of sleep and a hang over, for the hero of this trilogy it's the CIA and whichever hitmen are chasing him and his own ability to stay off the radar until he chooses to show himself.

Writer Nick Lacey describes Star Wars as being of a super-genre nature because it encompasses the recognisable elements science fiction, western and fairy-tale fantasy. There aren't many films in the new Hollywood order that don't cross these lines and Bourne is another example, and it's as super as they come. As well as a detective story, it's also a spy thriller, a revenger thriller, a psychological drama, to some extent fantasy, gathers up new-wave influences as well (not just in terms of editing but also story construction) and it turns out even more of a romance than we might have imagined. That it manages to throw even a couple of these genres together is a minor miracle, that it does this without jarring and with such aplomb is definitive.

In fact you could argue that because the film doesn't fit in one particular genre very easily it's actually without genre -- it's simply telling a story. I wouldn't argue that because clearly films can be of a cross generic nature (see Back To The Future: Part Three), but I'd be interested to know if Greengrass and co even actually thought of the kind of generic implications I wrestled with writing my dissertation last year (beyond describing it as an action adventure) as they were working or if they did if it was in the same way that James Mangold must have during production on 3:10 to Yuma which judging by the trailer must be one of the most obvious, non-deconstructed westerns in years (unsurprisingly perhaps because it's also a remake).

Needless to say, it's an amazing piece of work, certainly one of my favourite films of the year and ties up the trilogy in fine style, which makes a real change in the year of threequels. I agree with Mark Kermode (when do I ever not) -- Paul Greengrass is one of the best directors about at the moment who somehow manages to turn out these exciting actioners which also have a thematic message (on this occasion the surveillance society). Matt Damon's never been better than in these films but it's also a rare occasion in these things when no one seems miscast -- and it has an interesting continuity continuity in that regard with the appearance of a German actor from a certain German film which is as perfect a choice as Franke Potente in the first film and Oksana Akinshina in the second.

Will there be a fourth film? Greengrass seems interested (but needs a break) and Matt says he'll do it if Paul's directing. Is there enough plot? Well actually, yes there is. Without spoiling the ending, although it's an emotional resolution, it's far from a geopolitical full stop and indeed there are a few dangling story details which could be spun out into something else. The next available title, The Bourne Legacy (from the next official novel, this time by Eric Van Lustbader) is certainly atmospheric and could refer to a whole range of outcomes from this film. But perhaps, just this once, it should be left as it's own perfect little trilogy.

Meanwhile, how cool is the poster for Clooney's next movie?

the lone random clapper

Music Prom 50! With twenty-two proms to go I feel like I've reached The Mall and I can see Buckingham Palace in my sights. I mentioned to a friend the other day that I was listening to all the Proms (in the hopes that I could get some suggestions for further listening from him) and he wondered why I would listen to some of the music -- presumably the concerts featuring music I wouldn't really like. I understand what he means -- I'm far more selective with my film diet (which has fallen behind in the past month or so, my backlog has grown so huge there isn't enough time in a decade to watch it all).

I was idly listening to Radio 3 on Sunday lunchtime and Jeremy Sams was joined in the studio by a review for a well known classical music magazine who's name isn't listed in the Radio Times. In her job she has to listen to huge piles of new releases, everything in fact including the music she doesn't really enjoy. She said she's having a disagreement with Prokofiev at the moment and lists the national anthem as her least favourite tune of all time (and then they played a full orchestral version to prove the point). But the point is that in her job, because she has to endure and enjoy everything she's in an enviable position of being able to work out what she does or doesn't like and to make discoveries.

A few years ago, I had my own musical crisis. I was standing in the Vinyl Exchange in Manchester, looking at the racks and I couldn't for the life of me work out what kind of music I actually enjoyed (and stop me if I feel like I've posted this story before). Somewhere along the line, in the midst of college then unemployment then vague employment to commuting employment, I'd lost track of what it was that made me heart and feet thump. So I did what anyone should do in that situation -- began listening to as much music as I could. I worked my way through my cd collection, borrowed discs from libraries, bought a hell of a lot. I did a world music course at the university and stocked up on rough guides to the music of everywhere from Cape Verde to Russia and I eventually realised what kind of music I actually liked. Anything but country (except the odd crossover), most dance or techno and rap. I realised I had a far wider taste than I thought, that my problem wasn't that I didn't know what I liked. It was that I liked everything, but that I had a fear that if I bought a cd I just wouldn't like it. If you see what I mean.

The dark spot in that little exercise was classical music, being one of the massive genres and like jazz (which I suspect I also have a slightly mainstream appreciation of), encompassing a rather large array of sub genres. But the Proms are filling in that blank. By listening to every Albert Hall prom (with a couple on the side) I'm genuinely learning which composers I love, like or loath. I'll keep you in suspense as to which is which when I do my final Proms post, mostly because with twenty-odd Proms to go I don't feel like I can give a definitive answer. All I'll say is that it was particularly difficult last week, a few moments of 'Panic' if you will, but that the odd burst of Bach, Copland and Elgar pulled me back from the brink. But like the reviewer from the music magazine who's name I've managed to miss, unless I hear all of this stuff I'll never know if I like it.

I have confirmed something in this past couple of Proms though -- as far as my musical taste buds go, actual opera -- bad! Symphonies derived from opera -- good! Well, alright I've only heard four of the former and as many of the latter. But in Prom 49, I was bowled over by Thomas Ades's Overture/Waltz/Finale from Powder Her Face, and not at all after the BBC Four expert who I think said it was about fellatio (thereby immediately booking herself on the panel of ITV's Loose Women) but generally underwhelmed by Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. The themes were wondrous and strange as was the narrative but it all left me strangely cold. Am I wrong to feel that without the warbling of Bluebeard and his wife I would have been moved some more -- that their contribution created a barrier for me. I think this requires further study.

No such barrier tonight during Prom 50 though -- John Adams Doctor Atom Symphony was a tour-de-force and yes, derived from an opera about Oppenheimer, inventor of the atomic bomb. But you could hear still the narrative as it shifted through the movements, from the b-movie tinged opening to the shocking conclusion. As I listened I was taken back to my bright old second college days, during my Science in Entertainment Media lectures hearing about how science was communicated in the 50s and 60s, all of the images of what were then space age rockets and scientists. Although the piece wasn't written then, its sometimes fragmented rhythms seemed to capture the time at least through the prism of historical expectation. I'd heard that John Adams' music was inaccessible but this sounded about as accessible as contemporary music can be without becoming pastiche.

Before this descends into a ramble and not the crisp bit of reflection I intended when I started writing this three quarters of an hour ago, I just wanted to include some props (which is a word I've never used before -- it doesn't sound like one of mine does it -- props -- no shan't be using that again) to Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra who banged out their Prom with ten times more passion than some of the orchestras I've heard since July, making Shostakovich's Symphony No 10 this big, loud impressive world beater of work which even managed to turn the head of one of the BBC Four experts so seemed to be less impressed with Shostakovich in general. Pity about the lone random clapper at the end of the Bernstein during the second half. At the moment when Dudamel required some silence for effect. The more the promenaders shushed the clap happy random clapper, the more they clapped. Spoiled the effect (a bit).

Bell Tower

Film In David Mackenzie's, Hallam Foe (which I saw during a preview tonight), Jamie Bell plays a slightly eccentric young man with peeping tom tendencies attempting to get over the death of his mother. He's kicked out of the big house his father (Ciarán Hinds) shares with a new young wife (a reptilian Claire Forlani) when he accuses her of murder and seeks his fortune in Edinburgh were he meets and becomes obsessed with a hotel staff manager, Sophia Myles, who is a dead ringer for his dead mum.

This is a warm hearted and sympathetic piece of work, never quite tipping over into the needless quirkiness which the title suggests and offering Bell's best ever work, a multi-layered portrayal of someone who's inherently shy but putting on a front in order to survive. That could also be a decent description for Myles character too -- she has both and private facades -- and once again the actress demonstrates just how underrated she is (this time showing off her Scottish accent) and what a loss to our industry when she's off in the US doing network television.

The third star though is the landscape, both in the highlands and Edinburgh in a slight return to the underworld seen in Trainspotting. Bell spends much of his time on the rooftops of the city and like Boyle's film we're presented with a side of place totally missed by the festival tourists. When he gains employment in a hotel we never meet the guests who's presence instead is signaled through dirty dishes and over-abundant luggage.

Giles Nuttgens's photography comes into its own at night, as like the little matchstick girl, Bell looks into the glowing windows of apartments from the cold darkness outside. As cityscapes go, Edinburgh is one of the best and it's refreshing to see the story not simply being defaulted to London and for this unfamiliar place being used in a kind of non-specific way in a film which isn't necessarily about Scotland. Indeed with it's slightly continental storytelling it could have worked just as well in Paris or Madrid.

Hallam Foe was unfairly treated by the critics when it opened the Edinburgh Film Festival some of whom suggested it teases more than it delivers which is a nonsense given that it never tries to present easy answers to its questions of psychological ultimately noting that nothing in life is ever truly resolved, there's always some emotional niggle left handing. If the film dips towards melodrama at its climax, within the rest of its pleasingly short running time, it's a charming, warm and funny piece of work which suggests that even though you'll never get exactly what you want out of life, some people will leave you along the way, but that in the end, that's ok.

Forever Autumn.

TV It must be really difficult writing a good Doctor Who story, truly one of the hardest jobs in the freelance franchise fiction market. As well as deciding upon a good idea or plot, the author or writer then has to inject whichever Doctor or companion is currently incumbent into the mix and then has to keep in mind forty-odd years worth of continuity and the knowledge of the fan mass who are just waiting to say ‘But isn’t that just a rip-off of The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve?’ and beyond that the genre community just waiting to note that Joss Whedon or earlier Nigel Kneale or even early than that HG Wells got there first.

Under those circumstances it possible to cut Mark Morris’s Forever Autumn some slack (as one of his characters might say), even though it has to be said it’s certainly the weakest of the September book releases. Morris gives himself a particular uphill struggle by experimenting in the tricky area of teenage horror and should be applauded for at least trying to dilute the gene pool. The problem is that at its heart it’s nothing new and instead another case of the Doctor being drawn to Earth because of some strange energy being generated by an ancient race who seem to have influenced Earth’s own mythology and who are at war with some other species that has already appeared in the series and whose identity he deduces after running around for about a hundred or so pages leading to another hundred or so pages of running around before a deus-ex-machina finale, you wonder if the allotted 244 pages is too long.

There are some positives. The story is set during Halloween in the Capraesque New England small town of Blackwood Falls and as a green mist descends on main street there is a palpable atmosphere of dread and throughout there is a clear sense of something not being quite right in between the picket fences. The book doesn’t lack for pace and Morris at least captures the Doctor and Martha partnership pretty sharply and only sometimes does the Time Lord’s characterization become a bit too exuberant and lacking shade, his rants dragging in pointless continuity which detracts from the story at hand -- that sort of thing tends to be done far more obliquely on screen than here. The inevitable aliens are well defined too and there is a certain creep factor even if the image presented is somewhat like the main character from a certain animated musical adventure from Tim Burton.

But this over familiarity ultimately leads to the books undoing. Although many of the images and story points are new to the Whoniverse they’ve already appeared in other series and stories to the point of cliché. So no matter how well Morris has written some of the ensuing business, the reader is somewhat ahead of him -- I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that he’s not afraid to let loose a killer clown. I’m sure, like Charley from Big Brother, there are many kids who find clowns just a bit creepy but its appearance here just seems to lack imagination; when later in the book the Halloween celebration turns sour and the costumes become more real than they should be, it’s not hard to note Whedon did indeed get there first. It’s frustrating that for all his talent, Morris is unfortunately dogged by the reader’s foreknowledge of the genre he’s set the book in.

Your enjoyment of the book will also be impacted by your reaction to the depiction of the US found in Daleks In Manhattan as those cliché’s also extend to the rendering of this town and its folk. The three kids who trigger the alien menace and Martha meet are particularly annoying, speaking in the kind of US teen speak which disgraces the worse of Nickelodeon’s output, all ‘Hey, you guys!’ and ‘How’s it going?’ almost as though there’s a moratorium on giving them something witty to say -- The Lost Boys and The Goonies may have been influences but in those films, the dialogue is cute. Here, apart from a scene in which one of the boys brings Martha home to meet mother, the book tends to slow down when they appear which is shame because half of the plot is in their hands. In fact most of the town is in this vein, none of characters are that sympathetic. There is an old doctor who’s seen better days and an old woman that’s tuned into the alien threat, but none of them have the instant likeability of the colonists in the other two books.

In the end, the book's likeability is weakened by a range of tiny niggles which all of which stop the reader from becoming totally engrossed. It never quite lives up to the title -- imagine if the time travellers had visited a place of perpetual fall and the thematic implications of that. Most of the pop culture properties you’d expect to be mentioned are present and correct and a couple which seem slightly out of place in a book which might be read by youngsters -- do they really need to be introduced to 18-certificated torture porn so early in life? There’s quite a nice passage during which Martha contemplates calling her sister Tish but then realises that she shouldn’t because it could disrupt the time line -- but it doesn’t contribute to the overall story and in being one of the few really interesting moments overshadows much of what’s around it.

The climax is a final kick in the teeth, the kind of Fanthorpian leap to success which has dogged the new series and fans appreciation thereof from the start -- so in that way the book certainly fulfills the brief of mimicking its broadcast cousin. But the conclusion overall lacks urgency -- after underlining how incredibly powerful the foe is and how whatever it is their doing will devastate the town, the time team decide to enjoy the delights of the Halloween Fair where the lair is situated, just long enough for the Doctor to win Martha a giant stuffed animal. Oh and to randomly imply that the Gungans from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace are a real alien race in the Whoniverse, which, unfortunately, turns out by far to be the most horrific thing in the entire novel.

Forever Autumn, by Mark Morris, is released by BBC Books on 6 September. ISBN 9781846072703

Bent nail.

Radio Bass Clef! Jonathan Baldwin suggests a whole new set of logos for BBC Radio.

Angellica’s breasts.

People Right, on the basis of the following, I'm going to start a Cult of Angellica Bell. Who's with me?
"We had a Mona the Vampire day. The topic was: ‘Like Mona the Vampire, what is the one thing you want to get your teeth into?’ All the texts said, ‘Angellica’s breasts’, or ‘Angellica’s bum’. So the researcher and I decided to phone the people who texted in. I rang back and said: ‘You’ve sent a text to CBBC’ and they all said: ‘No, it wasn’t me – my mate made me do it.’ When I told them it was me, they all wet themselves. That was one of the best afternoons I had working there. It was hilarious."
Which sounds like a perfectly reasonable way of spending the license fee.


Books Fans of the website Cute Overload will love Mark Michalowski's Wetworld. The main alien species in attendance are otters -- and as they scurry about mazes, stand on their hind legs, make squee-like noises (obviously still haven't gotten over watching Utopia yet), dance, form armies and bring about revolutions it's impossible to read about them without thinking 'Aaaaah!' like a big girl's blouse even as they're also sometimes contemplating murder. It's the kind of thing which would be an utter nightmare to bring to the screen -- cue producer Phil Collinson on the podcast commentary trying to explain how the programme budget for the entire series was spent by The Mill rendering hundreds of bits of fur in this one story.

After a neat exchange in the console room subtlety recalling Sarah-Jane's departure from The Hand of Fear, the TARDIS accidentally lands on the planet Sunday, the sopping globe of the title and it's not long before the Doctor and Martha are separated, the timelord gets mixed up with a group of colonists dealing with the after effects of a devastating flood and the human comes into contact with the aforementioned otters and the novel's slimy main antagonist. Arguably in these opening sections that the author gets slightly bogged down with describing the environment at the expense of plot, but admittedly this pays dividends in the unpredictable finale.

The rest of the book balances across the tight-rope of telling a good Doctor Who story and including just too many familiar elements and broadly succeeds. To describe said familiar elements would rather give too much away in what is in the end a reasonably straightforward tale, but Michalowski is clever enough to refer to the influences as Martha realizes that that the Doctor is constantly drawing upon of all of his past experiences and that repetition as well as diversity is one of the miracles of the universe.

There's also a Reithian streaker dashing through the book, with mini-history lessons here and there, a whole line of dialogue in Morse Code that is never fully explained (which should have some readers googling for an explanation) and an ecological message as both the humans and their foe are demonstratively impacting on their environment and taking advantage of its natural resources in different ways. It's never preachy though -- the Doctor voices his concerns but the colonists put their opinions across just as forcefully and even the otters offer their ideas but none are held up as being an absolute truth and despite some gruesome passages few of them meet the usual sticky ends that characters in Doctor Who stories tend to when their moral code even marginally disagrees with the Doctor's.

It helps that the colonists are generally sympathetically described and, for once, a group we can truly care about. There's Candy Kane, originally named Candice by the kind of socially unaware parents some kids reading might be cursing, trying to mark out territory beyond her nickname. Colony head Pallister, who despite being something of a mustache twirler clearly still has the colonists best interests at heart and Ty the local zoologist (every colony should have one) who generates some real chemistry with the Doctor leading to a brim full of jealousy from Martha still clearly besotted with the timelord.

Mentions of incidents in 42 and The Family of Blood suggest Wetworld happens around the time of Blink, and the loyalty between the travellers confirms it. It's the clear they work best when they're together, Martha pulling the Doctor's wilder tenancies into focus. Most of the best scenes in the book are when the Doctor is interrogating and investigating and using humour to get the most of the temporary team which develops to solve the problem at hand. This is also one of the few occasions when Martha develops beyond the generic companion she can sometimes seem to be in other spin-off fiction. The elements of wit which Freema capitalised upon later in the third series are all present and correct.

Ultimately, Michalowski's knack with characterization and clever staging of the action sequences overcomes the slow first half and some of the more ordinary story material; his florid style brilliantly ties the story together and contains glimpses of the kind of whimsey Douglas Adams would be proud of. Example: 'In silence they waited. And waited. And just for good measure, they waited a bit more. 'Maybe it's still falling.' Martha ventured.' 'Maybe it is.' 'So they waited just a bit more.' The author understands that the target audience for the book likes to have a story told rather than described to them and Wetworld will work well in the inevitable audio book.

Wetworld, by Mark Michalowski, is released by BBC Books on 6 September. ISBN 9781846072710.