Sunday, April 26, 2009

The End of New Labour

For once in my life, I wish I could see the future.

Watching Izzy opening her eyes this morning at the start of her 17th week of breathing, first smiling and then giggling as she focuses on my face (the source of her amusement may possibly be down to the absurd way my hair stands on end after a night on the pillow – her Dad currently bears a remarkable resemblance to Ken Dodd), I asked myself what sort of world she faces. Yesterday her grandmother, now a sprightly 88, told me she was extremely worried about the baby’s future; 11 years ago, when my last child was born, she had no such qualms. In those days the world was somehow so certain; now, nothing looks safe.

The other day some students asked me what would be the best part of the television industry for them to join when they leave university. I replied honestly that I hadn’t the slightest clue; already my industry resembles nothing I’m familiar with. The perfect storm of digital television, the internet and the recession has wiped the slate clean; what happens next is anyone’s guess.

So it is with politics. This week New Labour was finally buried by Alistair Darling. In fact, as a political construct, New Labour physically died some while ago, killed not by Brown or Blair or any individual human act, but by the demise of the very circumstances which brought it into life: the opportunities for low taxation and raised public expenditure offered by a strong, growing economy. The recession has washed away the soil in which the New Labour harvest was happily growing and which allowed it to survive scandal and sleaze through three consecutive seasons.

In politics the death of one ideology normally coincides with the rise of another. Not this time. The funeral of New Labour coincided with the cremation of the Tories’ own response to it. Cameron’s policies were based on the very same assumptions as Labour’s and so they too have gone up in smoke. Continuous growth was assured, boom and bust was over; the only argument between the parties was how to divide the spoils. Now politicians, economists, bankers and the electorate are gazing at the same blank sheet of paper. Where do we go from here?

Labour is probably back where it started, in the unelectable doldrums. You can already see the Tory posters for the next election: Labour is the party of higher taxes. But what is the alternative? Whichever government comes into power will be forced to make such savage spending cuts, such difficult decisions about taxation, the world in which Izzy learns to read and write, cut her teeth and sing her first song will be so different from her brother’s that I can’t begin to imagine it.

So how worried should I be about this new world? Well, in one sense I like the blank sheet. Anything is possible if we grasp the future and I do believe the door has opened for a new kind of politics and a new conviction. America already has Obama: this Wednesday sees the end of his first 100 days in power and I swear the air wafting across the Atlantic is now smelling sweeter. In the UK, we too need our messiah, and I doubt very much that someone as out of touch with the real world as David Cameron is going to fill those shoes.

I certainly hope, for Izzy’s sake, that we find that leader. I also hope my innocent wide-eyed daughter doesn’t grow up to see the tired old order, in which the politicians’ policies are based not on conviction but on whatever they think is needed to win over the voters. Or am I, like Ken Dodd, looking at things just a little too optimistically?

Monday, April 20, 2009

I Dreamed A Dream

By this morning the video of Susan Boyle singing I Dreamed A Dream will have been viewed over 40 million times.

You’ve got to hand it to the Britain’s Got Talent team: this was great television, edited like a romantic film, with quirky “comedy” music as she ate her sandwiches and confessed she’d never been kissed and then a huge instrumental climax from the real Les Miserables for her standing ovation. But even without the manipulative editing it was still genuinely touching.

Susan’s voice is nothing special: there are thousands of amateur singers out there with similar renditions of that tired old standard. What Susan Boyle was all about was little to do with talent and everything to do with the audience itself. Close your eyes and think of a beautiful 25 year old and you’ll notice wavering and strained notes. Open them again and see Susan Boyle’s innocent, overweight squashed face and terrible gold lace dress, and the contrast overwhelms your judgment.

This isn’t about her; it’s about us. It’s about the ironic wolf whistles as she comes on stage, and Cowell’s rude eye-rolling when she says she’s 47, and the embarrassed gigglin
g as she rolls her hips and says she wants to be Elaine Paige: Yeah, right, we all say, and wait for her to be shot down. Then she sings, and it’s a wonderful moment, a Paul Potts moment, when the fat man sings and wins. It’s moving because, as Amanda Holden said, “everybody was against you”. The audience had already damned Susan for being ugly and overweight and for presumptuously coming onto its stage. But wow, the circus freak can actually sing, so we’ll layer the soundtrack, cut to a standing ovation, and make the viewers cry. Pure Hollywood schmaltz, and it worked.

The problem is, what should the producers do next? Allow her to carry on wearing those ghastly dresses and no makeup for the rest of the series? Or do they engineer a “swan” moment, and reveal her, eyebrows plucked, straight from the plastic surgeon? If they do
, presumably the joke won’t work anymore, so will her voice then be any more special than the others? I guess they’ll keep her as she is until the Final. But won’t that be just as cynical and manipulative?

I encountered a similar problem with my own Susan Boyle moment. A few years ago, I produced a series called Star for a Night. On the first audition day my researchers came rushing in: I had to hear this girl. Hannah Morris was about fifteen, with buckteeth and glasses, nervously clutching the sheet music of My Heart Will Go On from 'Titanic'. She was so tiny; I looked at her in disbelief. Her voice brought the house down and she won the show. But when we came to the final “Best of...” programme at the end of the final series, Hannah had got herself contact lenses and a proper hairstyle. She had a recording contract and was no longer the geeky schoolgirl. Trouble was, she was now nothing special at all.

Sometimes preconceptions work in reverse. We were auditioning in Bristol when, amongst the I Dreamed a Dream wannabes (God, how we grew to hate that track) was a sweet little 14-year-old from Devon with cascading blonde curls.

“I’d like to sing You Make me Feel like a Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin”, she whispered. Our jaws dropped open. If ever there were a mismatch it was this pretty child and that adult song. Then the music started and out came the deep voice of a blues singer. We all cried. The girl was called Joss Stoker, a name she later changed to Joss Stone.

I wish Susan Boyle the best of luck for her future, but exactly whom the producers decide she should turn into for that future, now that’s a huge dilemma.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Generation Gap

“The crying’s not right yet”, warns Hayley, as she presses “Play”. On the video screen, a young girl is sitting hunched up in the corner of a room. The shadow of a man appears through the window. The girl shakes and starts to cry. It’s an animation; not terribly sophisticated, but it works, and the work is all Hayley’s.

I’m in a classroom in an inner-city college where a group of students are showing me their course projects. This is a group of “unteachables”: kids of around 16 who’ve virtually dropped out of conventional education, the product of urban decay, family upheaval, in some cases addiction and abuse. Many are still illiterate and innumerate. The GCSE system has passed them by, but I’m astonished by what they’ve achieved. In just a few weeks they’ve learnt how to make proper “Flash” animations, with music, sound effects and neat little title sequences with their names proudly emblazoned on the front; they’ve planned, storyboarded, designed, filmed and edited – techniques which in the professional world would take scores of trained experts.

The results are pretty dark. One boy shows me a gang of skeletons catching and mugging a little old lady. The film is half finished. “So, does the old lady win in the end, then?”, I ask naively, expecting her to turn into Supergran. “No, she dies”, comes the response. “Perhaps she could turn into a skeleton as well and then get her own back?” I suggest. “No, she just dies”. Not exactly a Hollywood ending. There’s no artifice with these children; a psychologist would have a field day. Unequipped with the filters that sophisticated artists employ to process their feelings, these trampled lives come straight through the screen. Using the power of film to look straight into the soul.

Over the past few months I’ve been travelling round the North’s universities and colleges looking at how we teach our media students. What’s really amazes me is not how good these kids are, but how little I’ve been taught myself. When I joined the television industry, you needed a degree at a top university before you could be considered for a training course. Producers were the ideas people and, although some of us were directors as well, we relied on other people trained in craft skills to operate our cameras, edit our films, produce our animations and so on. Nowadays we’re in the world of what we call “user generated content” (or, YouTube). Our teenagers do the work of whole movie studios and put them straight on the web. Most of us over the age of 30 are left completely in the dark.

Back at Teesside University, where occasionally I appear under the grand title of Visiting Professor of Media, I recount this story to one of my colleagues. How can I have spent a lifetime getting to the top of my profession and not learnt any of the basic media techniques that a group of deprived 16 year olds have perfected? We’ll teach you, he says. Immediately I snap up the offer and list the skills I never learned that are now standard issue to all media students: editing, graphic design, website building, computer game design and, of course, Flash animation. He sets about organising some training for me and any other dinosaurs I care to invite.

Last Friday in Newcastle I had lunch with some of the North East’s top television producers. When I told them about my proposed re-education plan everyone round the table jumped at the chance. The fightback has begun; old grey dogs are learning new tricks; keeping up with the children is our new watchword. Next we’ll be learning how to use the remote control on our televisions. On second thoughts, that might be a step too far.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Saving The Children

[Madonna's application to adopt a second child from Malawi has been turned down]

It was the rocking that disturbed us most. Until she was almost a teenager Anya rocked herself to sleep, just as she had always done in the orphanage. Anya was one of 150,000 victims of the Ceausescu regime. The Romanian dictator tried to spread communism by artificially increasing the population. He banned abortion and the use of contraceptives and gave financial incentives to anyone with more than four children. The compliant but impoverished population could not cope and dispatched their extra offspring to state-built orphanages. There the children received little education and no love; the healthy were prepared for Ceausescu’s special police; the remainder were left to rot.

These weren’t orphanages at all: most of the children had parents or close relatives who simply couldn’t provide for their huge families. When the dictator was overthrown in 1989, it left the country with a huge problem.

In 1990 I took our programme Challenge Anneka to Romania. I will never forget the sights and sounds of the “orphanage” we chose to help. Or the smell. An intense stench of faeces, urine and decay, which overpowered you at the door. Three stories high, with a dank rat-infested basement, this was home to 650 of Ceausescu’s children. About a dozen staff tried to care for them without resources or training. There were no toys, playrooms, lights or heating, no working toilets and just one shower room with cold water. The kitchen reeked of rotting food and damp.

Each room contained twenty tiny rusting cots, and in each cot lay two children. Some were just skeletal babies, lying in urine-soaked filthy grey bedding; others were much older. Most of the children were too weak to cry; the older ones just sat and rocked. Rats ran around freely. In ten days we transformed its facilities, but the children remained.

Anya’s orphanage wasn’t as bad as the one we converted for the programme. It had toilets and heating. There was a swing in the yard outside. But there was no disguising the rocking. All the children did it.

Our motive for adopting wasn’t altruistic. My wife had discovered we couldn’t have more children, but we still wanted a larger family. Too old to adopt in the UK, we tried Columbia, but found we didn’t qualify. Romania matched our desire for a child with a child’s desperate need for love.

Madonna will almost certainly win her appeal to adopt baby “Mercy” later this week. She probably has the necessary resources and influence to sway the appeals procedure. However I admire Malawi’s concern for protocol. For in Romania, as a result of our television programme and others about the situation, the floodgates opened and thousands of British and American families tried to adopt, not because they genuinely wanted more children, but because of sympathy for the children they’d seen on television. As a result greed and corruption created a commercial international adoption industry, and that is one reason why Malawi is keen to set hurdles even for someone as altruistic as Madonna.

Adoption is the last, not best solution; communities should be helped to look after and integrate their own. But in our case, in a country riddled with debt and corruption, it was the only way forward for Anya and for us. It was difficult: four years without education, comfort or hugs took their toll on her, emotionally and intellectually. But eventually she grew into a beautiful and confident young woman. She is now 21, and last week started her first paid job.

“Mercy” is lucky – she is young, and, assuming she finds a home quickly, the effects of the institution will be short-lived. It’s a shame her experience of family life will be through nannies and an itinerant lifestyle. The poor child really needs a family, not a rock entourage. But almost anything is better than life in an orphanage.