Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trick or Treat

Pity the poor children’s entertainer coping with thirty little darlings at last Friday’s village Halloween party. Dressed in evil black, he was showing off his magic skills, pulling snakes and cats out of hats. One small child had other ideas.

Izzy, who had absolutely no intention of sitting politely in a circle, toddled to centre stage and began throwing streams of gobbledygook questions at the man. He was trying to saw a child in half – he must have thought he’d chosen the wrong one. There was no stopping my daughter.

“Make her sit down”, shouted all the 3 year olds, while parents tutted disapproval. Izzy, who’d come as a cat princess with ghost ears, turned, giggled at her audience, then went over to the magician’s bag and pulled out all his tricks, spilling their secrets onto the village hall floor. It brought the house down. Through tears of laughter, Jo apologised to the assembled parents. “What can you do, she’s half-American, and she wants to get into the Hallowe’en spirit”. She pronounced it Holloween.

I don’t remember celebrating Hallowe’en as a child: I certainly never trick-or-treated. Was it a deprived childhood or am I right in thinking that we only became aware of it when we saw E.T.? I know it’s supposed to be an ancient custom, dating back to when our Celtic ancestors wore masks to ward off the dark spirits of approaching winter, but it only became a retail jamboree a few years ago. I couldn’t believe how seriously the Americans took the festival till I saw the huge bags of sweets we had to buy to placate the hordes of children in our Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Our Americanisation shows no bounds. We didn’t have school proms when I was young, and yet now all our teenagers are going to them, clad in hugely expensive outfits. I went to a prom when I was 17, but it was at the Royal Albert Hall and they played Mahler. I bet Izzy won’t be content with a cat costume when she goes to her first in just 16 years time.

Sadly one English tradition never crossed the Atlantic the other way. This morning Jo asked me, in all seriousness, to explain “your George Burns night.” I looked at her mystified. I wasn’t aware the comedian had been given his own festival. Mind you, lines like “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city” are probably worth remembering.

“You mean Robert Burns, the haggis man. That’s not till January.”

“No, it’s this Friday, your Burns night thing.”

Finally I twigged: Guy Fawkes. Jo couldn’t understand why we’d blow the cost of a decent handbag on some brightly coloured cardboard which we then incinerate. Only a Brit can appreciate the fun of standing in a damp garden trying to light a roman candle, or waiting for a catherine wheel to fall off its stick or a rocket to whimper into the air with a single pathetic star. All to celebrate the defeat of a catholic gunpowder plot to bring down the protestant king.

Apparently Guy Fawkes Night is in decline. It’s partly due to our elfin safety laws, but mostly because we haven’t worked out how to commercialise it properly. We still think of bonfire night as a homespun community activity. Even though the fireworks we watch from behind our safety barriers are getting more spectacular, there are no commercial products for our children to buy, now we’ve stopped them buying fireworks.

That’s why for the last fortnight our retailers have been forcing Hallowe’en masks, ghoulish costumes and latex skeletons into our shopping baskets, and we’ve readily succumbed.

This Friday Izzy, probably still wearing her ghost ears, will go “weee!” at her first firework display. Sadly, it could well be one of her last.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Journey to Oblivion

The car park of the Splash Landings Hotel at Alton Towers is a miserable place at 5am, especially if you’re in pyjamas and bare feet. A fire alarm is a great leveller. I was once evacuated from a conference hotel with the entire senior management of the BBC. You can tell a man’s character by his pyjamas: Greg Dyke’s were very colourful, I recall.

At Alton Towers we all shivered in the darkness, vainly scouring the hotel for signs of smoke that might justify our discomfort. There were hungover parents wearily herding children, peroxide Cheshire blondes cruelly exposed without their makeup, bulbous couples who’d evidently only come for the eat-all-you-can buffet, and me, doing paternal duty with my soon-to-be-13-year-old and his two friends. This was Sam’s birthday treat: two days of rollercoaster heaven.

Jo escaped the trip by claiming Izzy was too young. I know the real reason: that ghastly night we spent in Disneyland a few years back.

In fact, Alton Towers is much more parent-friendly. Sure, they play the theme from Captain Pugwash in the lift, which made me smile the first few times, then drove me to the stairs, but the bar, which looks like the tropical set from ZingZillas, serves a decent marghuerita, and the food is varied and edible.

But this wasn’t my treat: the real test was my son’s reaction. So, for anyone stuck for a plan this half-term, here is Sam’s unexpurgated, no-holds (but firmly strapped in, particularly when you’re going upside down) verdict. From what I can gather, he had a pretty good time.

The spooky girl in the advert looked like something from The Exorcist as she whispered “Thirteen!” - that’s what made me want my birthday weekend at Alton Towers.

The park is miles from the train station, and the signposts, pointing us in the opposite direction to our satnav, added an extra 20 minutes to the journey time (we tested it on the way back). Yet, aside from the patronizing Pirate Pete voice on the park’s monorail, Alton Towers is a 13-year-old’s dream.

Towering, spinning, looping structures erupt in the middle of a picturesque landscape of trees and a gothic 19th century house. So even for Dad it was mildly exciting as he got to talk to Alton Tower’s gardeners about orchids. He said it nearly justified the cost of the hotel rooms.

First, my two friends and I raced to Oblivion. Our hearts were pounding as we were hauled up the chain lift. At the top, there was a terrifying pause as we overlooked our fate, then we plunged 180 feet underground at 70 mph. Seven goes later we decided to try the other rides.

Air, a steel flying coaster, was more comfortable than thrilling, although the “flying” experience was one-of-a-kind. Nemesis, which practically had more G-force than a space shuttle launch, wasn’t particularly special; Rita Queen of Speed is a launch rollercoaster and although not as fast as Stealth, has a sharp, eye-popping bend at the beginning and unique soaring turns.

Eventually we reached the most disappointing attraction in the whole park - the new ride ‘Thirteen’. We needn’t have bothered. It was horribly slow and depressing. Sure, the horizontal drop was a first, yet it only felt about two feet. It was as though they had spent so much money on the little drop, that they forgot the rest of the ride, which consisted of a few turns and bunny hops.

We felt let down, but it didn’t spoil our day and we fell asleep as soon as we hit the pillow in our “starfish” room, only to be woken at 5 because someone set off the fire alarm. The next day our faces were a picture. Dad looked like he had a massive hangover. We still had a brilliant time and I definitely recommend it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Old Boys' Dinner

The old boys, some in their eighties, nearly choked on their chocolate cake. 17-year-old school prefects, invited by their headmaster to last week’s annual reunion of old and ancient pupils, gasped in disbelief. Meanwhile the rest of us stroked our black ties and stared down at our wineglasses in embarrassment. Could this man get any worse?

The former pupil turned entrepreneur, who had built an empire out of repairing the nation’s drains and plumbing, was crowning an after-dinner speech of relentless arrogance with a story of such breathtaking vulgarity, I couldn’t begin to hint at its substance, other than it involved an act of intimacy and a girl in a wheelchair. It was so horrendously inappropriate that one group of distinguished north east professionals, all hardened men of the world, stormed out in disgust. It was all quite scandalous and unprecedented, but at least it gave us plenty to gossip about over coffee. There’s an art to giving after dinner speeches and clearly a knowledge of emergency plumbing, even if it buys you your own helicopter, isn’t a much of a qualification.

School reunions generate mixed emotions. I went to my first a full 30 years after I’d left the institution and still found it daunting to push open the big oak doors of the main entrance – a gateway that had always been strictly reserved for teachers and governors. Inside, the massive pillared school hall, with its towering organ pipes and creaking pews where we’d crushed together during morning assembly, the smell of the wooden floors and the tall lockers around the walls, had stimulated feelings of both nostalgia and fear. The lockers from where the plumbing entrepreneur boasted he’d started his career by converting one into a sweet shop and sold overpriced Mars bars to fellow pupils bored with school meals, stood beneath an engraved roll of honour that ran the length of the hall. This was a list of boys who had achieved the only goal the school deemed worthy of honouring: a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge. They were the elite prizewinners in a nearsighted educational system that believed that only Oxbridge mattered, and anywhere else was merely second-class.

Neither the entrepreneur nor I were on that list - we both went to York. But nowadays the function and status of universities have changed beyond recognition, and so too must the focus of our secondary schools. At last week’s dinner, there was a senior prefect at my table who told me he was hoping to go to Oxford to read English Literature. Very commendable: and after that? He wanted a job in television.

I felt bad about putting him straight, but felt obliged to tell him that, despite the prospect of joining the elite band of heroes around the school hall (if indeed they are still carving names in the wood), and possibly learning the art of after-dinner speaking, if he really wanted a career in media, he should instead head off to Bournemouth, which has a first rate media school. Even an Oxford degree would be poor competition against the smart showreels of graduates who will have already have acquired the skills of editing, shooting and scriptwriting that our demanding industry requires. We like people who arrive ready equipped to offer cheap, trained labour. The days of extended training courses on the job are long gone.

In our day a university degree was merely the next rung above A Levels before we were thrown out into the real world to choose a career. Sure, there's a lot to be said for the contacts and bonhomie to be derived from a few years at our finest academic institutions, but nowadays there's a more important consideration: employment. And now, thanks to student loans, the choice of university course is something all our children must consider much earlier, particularly as they, not us, are being asked to pay for it. As the customer, not pupil, they’ll demand value for money in the form of a guaranteed job, not a piece of paper with a grade or a fond memory of the student bar. This week’s cuts in subsidy signal a turning point not just for universities but for our entire education system. The old school will never be the same again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Happiness is a New Pair of Ears

Most of rural Northumberland isn’t on the map. While the rest of the UK is marked green or dark blue, where I live is just a white void. Perhaps nobody round here has an iPhone, or maybe we’re just too happy to care, but so far my part of the world has yet to appear on Mappiness, the latest online phenomenon.

It’s a project being run by two jolly academics from the London School of Economics with (judging by the profiles on their website) rather irritatingly smiley faces. They look like happy-clappy christian converts, the kind that you want to argue with just to wipe a frown across their annoyingly self-righteous foreheads. Their mission is to find out how happy we all are.

They’re measuring the nation’s mood swings on something they call a hedonimeter. They expected 3,000 people to sign up, but there must be so many iPhone addicts bored with life, 20,000 downloaded the “app” in the first three weeks.
Once you’re happily apped up, your phone beeps two or three times a day and asks you how you’re feeling, what you’re doing and whom you’re with. You’re then invited to upload a photo of where you are.

So far, it seems people in Dorset and Arbroath are the happiest, City bankers are miserable, and people in Northumberland don’t exist. It pops your information into its database, and draws you a flowchart of just how miserable you have been since you joined.

In the last 24 hours, I found just five people from Tyneside on the map, all of whom had proclaimed themselves very happy indeed by uploading blurry photographs of half empty beerglasses in garishly lit bars. So I guess Saturday night was a success, then. There was also a single photo of a public loo in Gosforth with the caption “extremely happy” – I guess this euphoria was caused by relief at finding one open at 3am after a night in the Bigg Market (not that people in the Bigg Market normally bother with such niceties).

Mappiness was set up to monitor how people’s feelings are affected by their environment. Are people less happy when they’re surrounded by pollution, loud noise and bad body odour? Not the sort of question you might think you’d need a research grant to answer, but I suppose universities have to justify the impending hike in tuition fees.

Already this vital scientific investigation has discovered that, shock horror, people are happier at the weekends (apparently Sunday lunchtime is quite a happy moment, presumably just after the hair of the dog that lifts you out of your hangover and before the miserable realisation that it’ll be Monday tomorrow), whereas Tuesday is the pits (because there’s so much of the working week still to go, I would hazard – but then I’m not an academic, so we must await publication of the official findings in a couple of years’ time).

I reckon my own personal happiness has nothing to do with my environment and everything to do with the mood of people who may or may not want to buy my television programme ideas. Right now there’s a bloke in Los Angeles called Simon who’s trying to decide whether or not to give me a series. I’d love to have a hedonimeter on him, so that I could judge exactly when to make my final pitch. Catch him in a bad mood, or on a Tuesday, and we’re sunk. Get him just after lunch on Sunday and I reckon we’re in.

In the meantime, my wife does have an iPhone, which I’ve just borrowed to take photographs of Izzy giggling hysterically while wearing some absurd comedy ears she found in a drawer.

Now I don’t need an academic with a hedonimeter to tell me that these are pictures of true happiness.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

And The Winner Is...

The result was too close to call: an entire nation held its breath. By now just two were in contention, and it could have gone either way. As the winner was announced, the audience erupted and the finalists embraced, one triumphant, the other smiling in carefully rehearsed generosity.

The victor gave a noble speech, complimenting the opponent, who, despite the fixed grin, could not conceal a look of disappointment across the eyes. Then there was a pause. “Oh my God, I don’t know what to say right now. I’m feeling a bit sick about this.”

Not half as sick as the production company making Australia’s Next Top Model must have felt this week: they had announced the wrong winner. Not only had they brought global ridicule upon the network and created an instant Youtube hit, but they had also embarrassed their presenter by feeding her the wrong information, and she just happened to be daughter-in-law of the most powerful man in media, Rupert Murdoch. And it wasn’t an Australian embarrassment either, because the production company was our very own Granada, part of ITV. “This is what happens when you have live TV, folks, this is insane,” said Sarah Murdoch, as she ploughed on through the audience’s jeers.

You can say that again. I’ve produced all sorts of live awards programmes, from talent shows like Star For A Night to theatre awards and the Booker Prize. There’s always that moment of impotence as your presenter reads out the winner’s name. What if they misread it, or the autocue pulls up wrong page or, worst of all, you’ve put the wrong name in the envelope? Quite often only the producer knows the result and I used to check and recheck the gold envelopes myself just to be sure.

I was on the original Camelot team that won the National Lottery contract and my biggest fear was that the “voice of the balls” might mistake a 6 for an upside down 9 during the live show: we drew up a detailed contingency plan for getting out of that one. When I was responsible for the BBC’s General Election coverage, I made everyone rehearse the nightmare scenario that a returning officer might read out the wrong result.

On the other side of the cameras, nominees at results ceremonies have a different problem. You hardly ever see an honest reaction, from either winner or loser. The former profess amazement that they could have been chosen over their more worthy rivals, whereas losers can never show how dead they feel in their stomachs. At the BAFTAs, where I’ve had to smile sweetly in defeat so many times, a handheld camera swings under your chin five minutes before the result, with a closeup of your tear glands. So when your defeat is announced, there’s a protocol that you can only put on a “jolly well done, I don’t really hate you at all” expression. Why can’t we be honest?

Like country music singer Faith Hill, who threw her arms in the air and raged “What?!” when American Idol winner Carrie Underwood beat her. Or like, most famous of all, American rapper Kanye West, who stormed the stage after losing at the MTV Europe Music Video Awards and interrupted the winner’s speech, ranting that his video should have won because “it cost a million dollars, had Pam Anderson in it and had me jumping across canyons”.

How great it would have been to have a camera inside David Miliband’s brain when he found out he’d been beaten by his younger brother. I guess we’ll never find out what he really felt at that moment, even in his autobiography.

The two Australians, Kelsey, Next Top Model for just one minute, and the real winner Amanda, were vacuously magnanimous in both defeat and victory. But I’m sure we all know what they were really thinking.