Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sheep's Stomachs in Syria

My first introduction to Syria was white and rubbery: a mound of sheep’s stomachs on a bed of rice.

We hadn’t wanted to be in the café at all: our trip to India, in the small campervan with blue curtains and photos of our parents on the walls, was supposed to take us on the old hippy trail through Iran. But two days before we were due to cross the Turkish border the Shah was overthrown and Iran was shut.

In desperation we turned right and headed for the deserts of Syria. We drove for half a day, then pulled over at the roadside café for a bottle of water.

Everything about the country seemed scary to naïve young Westerners. We knew it had one of the most repressive regimes in the world: an uncompromising elite had seized power nine years previously under Hafez al Assad. They were embroiled in civil war in Lebanon, just a few miles to the west and had failed to regain the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. All dissent was stamped on: the day we arrived, the BBC reported that a demonstration against the regime had been brutally put down. It was 1979.

The men at the next table in the traditional didashah robes and red and white checked shemagh headscarves eyed us suspiciously as we sat down. We stared across at the mounds of white rubber on their plates. They caught our glance and I blushed. “It looks…very good”, I lied in that slow, condescending voice the British use with foreigners. Big mistake. The tallest of them, dressed in white, snapped his fingers and the café owner brought me a large plateful. My girlfriend declined – her mineral water had apparently made her full.

The sheep’s stomach stared up and taunted me. “Here, you must drink this”, said the tall man, handing me a large tumbler of ayran. The sour drink, made with strained yoghurt and salt, made me gag even more than the glutinous sheep. I closed my eyes and went for it. “It’s…extraordinary”, I ventured, smiling grimly through my misery. The man beamed: “You must come to my village”.

It wasn’t an invitation: more a command. All the houses in Kara had high white, spotless walls. Inside the man’s home there was a beautiful garden. They killed some chickens and threw a banquet, the men eating separately from the women.

We talked of London: the man frequently stayed at The Dorchester – he showed me his address book, listing phone numbers of his “good London friends”, all girls with names like Venus and Angel. “Do come and see us in Putney”, we said as we added our address to his list.

He told of his love for Johnny Walker whisky and in the morning he proudly showed us his mosque. As he washed my feet at the entrance, he taught us the principles of Moslem cleanliness.

His smiling face darkened only once, when he told of the people conspiring against the Ba’ath government. He spoke dismissively of the Palestinian refugees near the border and his hatred for the banned Muslim Brotherhood. He was uncompromising, for he genuinely felt the regime was right for Syria, the only way to hold together the divided sects and factions in the nation. It’s taken more than 30 years for his views, the official line of the ruling elite, to be openly challenged, and now the crisis appears to be spiralling out of control.

When we left Kara the whole village turned out to say farewell and I was given my own robe and headdress. I wore them once at a fancy dress party in Clapham.

Two years later I was out of the country when I received a panicky phone call from my girlfriend, by then my first wife. She was in our tiny terraced house, heavily pregnant with our first child, when the doorbell rang. Outside were four Arab women, dressed in black, clutching children and suitcases. They had come to stay.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Farmyard News Exclusive

Peppa Pig and Fifi & the Flowertots are no match for cruise missiles. I don’t know who is more upset with the United Nations: Colonel Gaddafi or Izzy. Her beloved DVDs have been lying beside the television, ejected and rejected, and her demands for “Piggy-Pig” and “She-She” ignored as the drama from Libya unfolds. Our household is now hooked on 24-hour news.

It’s amazing to think that it was only nine weeks ago that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ejected from power in Tunisia. Remember Hosni Mubarak? Whatever happened to him after he went off to join the tourists by the Red Sea at Sharm-el-Sheikh? Is he still there, taking in a bit of snorkeling and wistfully gazing up at Mount Sinai? Who knows – the story has rolled on.

For the last few weeks, one whirlwind of earth-transforming events has followed another like tornado season in Kansas. It’s turned into the plot of a really bad action movie: “Dateline March 2011 – half of Christchurch has been destroyed; 10,000 people have been drowned in a Japanese Tsunami and the country is threatened with nuclear devastation; meanwhile the United Nations declares war on a deranged tyrant bent on killing his own people”. Not even Bruce Willis would risk his career on that one.

Every new event stretches audience credibility. Last night I dreamt that the supermoon, the biggest full moon for 18 years, was actually on an out-of-control trajectory and heading for a soft landing somewhere near Darlington. It’s almost as believable as some of the television output we’ve been watching over the last fortnight.

In the calm of our rural backwater, Jo and I have our own version of the news – we call it Farmyard News. I am chief reporter, political correspondent, newsreader and I also make the tea. Having worked for the first part of my career in BBC news and later on programmes like Nationwide and Panorama, I love a good breaking story. I think both BBC and Sky are doing a great job, but recently I’ve been running my own exclusive commentary alongside their official output.

It’s actually Jo’s fault. Like many Americans, she has an insatiable curiosity for information, particularly about British history. I, on the other hand, almost failed History O-Level. However, determined not to disappoint her, for the entire 7 years of our relationship I’ve been making stuff up. If we drive by a castle she demands to know who lives there, so I will invent an entire tragic dynasty, complete with wayward son who goes mad, marries a German milkmaid and strangles his parents. She will happily take all this in, but I know one day I’ll get caught out.

Convinced that my brain is a vast repository of useful information, Jo has a tendency to ask me questions during news bulletins. Because I’m too polite to say “Babe, this is the news: how could I possibly know why this man killed his wife?” I try not to let her down. Sometimes I strike lucky.

Like last week. Just after the explosion at the first Fukushima nuclear reactor, some pundit on Sky was worried about Tokyo. “Do you think people in Tokyo are safe?” asked Jo. “Absolutely”, said the Farmyard News anchor confidently, handing over to the weather reporter: “The smoke from the explosion is blowing to the left and the sea is behind: that means the wind is towards the north, so for now Tokyo is safe”. It took Sky News four hours to catch up with me on that one.

All week I’ve tried to be one step ahead of the headlines, but now I’ve given up. I don’t think there’s a pundit on earth who could predict the final act of this Libyan nightmare. I’m sure we’d all be far safer watching Peppa Pig.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Filming With Children and Animals

Photos by David Bridges. All rights reserved.

It was a precarious dawn, the sun just managing an orange glow through its ominous shroud of black raincloud.
The small child stood shivering out of view on the other side of the hill. Huddled in a thin red cape, the 9-year-old waited patiently for her cue as, in front of her, a herd of woolly sheep grazed silently.

“Perfect,”, shouted the director. “Standby and… Action! – oh no, the sheep are off again – fetch the herder”.

Never work with children or animals, goes the old maxim. Last week we had both. We also had hailstorms, torrential rain and intense blinding sunshine: this was Spring in Northumberland.

The owner of the sheep, armed with tasty ewe nuts, coaxed the animals back into shot. “We only have 5 more minutes with Maia”, warned the assistant. There are strict rules on filming with child actors. Every hour they need a 15-minute break. A crew member was desperately clinging on to the rest tent, which was trying to launch itself skywards in the gale force winds. It started to hail again: the sheep quietly munched through the chaos.

Meanwhile our motley gathering of extras, dressed in grey suits from Asda, sat bored in our house with their muddy shoes, slurping coffee and swapping anecdotes about famous people they’ve stood behind. Jo was going frantic. “Never again”, she wailed, as she put up large signs warning retribution on anyone bringing mud, food or drink onto our carpets.

This wasn’t Hollywood, but it could have been the set of a film anywhere in the world. Except this wasn’t a movie that you’ll see on television or in the cinema. It was a film with a message, commissioned by a global energy company.

I hadn’t expected to be in the corporate communications business. I’m just a television producer, but a few months ago I was asked by a delegate at a seminar I was addressing why corporate films and websites were generally so poor. I told her, quite honestly, that I had no experience of the genre.

“That’s the problem,” she said. “Real producers don’t do corporate”. She persuaded and cajoled, and eventually we made her a string of videos and a smart new website, which last week won two major awards for Best Online Production. The gongs look good on the mantlepiece, but our real prize was that the global energy company saw it, and commissioned us to make a corporate film for them.

The message we were asked to convey was simple: when building a large scale project, like an oil refinery or a power station, it’s vital to know the precise origin and specification of every single part, down to the smallest valve. Apart from benefits of cost and efficiency, it’s essential that, if something goes wrong, the operators can get instant access to that information, even many years after it’s built.

Our film was designed to encourage suppliers and contractors to utilize effective information management systems. A dry subject seemingly disconnected from reality. “Shouldn’t you bring all your information into one place, so you can easily get at it?” asks little Maia at the end of the film.

But when we woke up the morning after we finished filming to the first news of the terrible catastrophe in Japan, saw the burning oil refinery in Ichihara, and then, all weekend, the fear and confusion about nuclear meltdown, the message of our film, shot at home with a child and a few woolly sheep, took on a terrible relevance.

The world we live in needs modern technology for fuel and progress. But our very survival depends on careful and precise management of what we build. For nature has a terrible habit of testing to the limit the structures of technology that humanity has created. And Heaven help us if we get it wrong.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

It's a Goal - Maybe!

On a 22-acre estate near Winchester, there’s a research laboratory containing some of Britain’s most prodigious brains. It was set up in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, to invent new technology for the spooky world of electronic warfare.

Since then Roke Manor Research has been one of the world’s leading developers of communications devices for military and commercial use. They create systems that can track planes, missiles and people.

For all I know they may be responsible for some of the gadgets inside Gaddafi’s warplanes of popular destruction.
But Roke Manor’s technology is potentially much more valuable than that. It could have been used to decide whether Arsenal should have won Saturday’s football match against Sunderland.

In 2000 the head of our sports division summoned us to a demonstration of something truly amazing: the product of our company’s collaboration with one of Roke Manor’s boffins, Paul Hawkins, who has a PhD in artificial intelligence. He’d adapted his tracking and positioning technology to the more mundane world of cricket.

By placing ultra high speed cameras all around the ground, fed into a sophisticated computer system, Dr. Hawkins could show not just where a cricket ball was but, more significantly, where it would have been if it hadn’t hit a batsman’s leg. In other words, he’d built a machine that solved the great cricketing conundrum of “leg before wicket”.

Solely for my American wife’s benefit, I should explain that if a ball is thrown towards the little wooden sticks at the end and the man in the white coat says it would have hit them, except the batsman’s leg got in the way, then the batsman is out. I know there was no point in writing that last sentence: Jo’s eyes would have already glazed over at the word “cricket”. Now, if Dr. Hawkins had invented a machine that could track bargains in a handbag store, she’d have demanded one for Christmas.

That year we launched Hawk-Eye (named after Hawkins, I guess) and the world of sport has never looked back. At first, only viewers benefited. Our sports company Sunset + Vine won numerous deserved plaudits for its 2001 Ashes coverage, not least because Hawk-Eye let the TV audience see what the umpires couldn’t. It took another six years before the game’s governing body allowed the system to be used to challenge an umpire’s decision. By then it had also been adopted by the game of tennis, even at Wimbledon, where bad line calls have been a thing of the past since 2007.

That was also the year that Hawk-Eye was declared fit and ready for football. They rigged a system in the goalmouth at Reading’s training ground and tested whether or not the ball passed over the line, a job currently done by a man who rushes sideways like a breathless crab for 55 yards up and down the pitch. The poor chap is rarely level with the goal-line when the ball goes over, and usually players are obstructing his line of sight, so it’s not surprising he can get it wrong.

Twenty times more precise than a television action replay, Hawk-Eye worked every time in the Reading tests; its analysis could be conveyed to the referee’s earpiece in less than half a second, so the game didn’t have to be stopped. The Premier League loved it; so did Arsene Wenger; but FIFA’s myopic President Sepp Blatter said no. And, amazingly, he still does. If FIFA had allowed goalmouth trials of Hawk-Eye in 2008, by now it could have sorted out dubious offside decisions as well.

Which is probably lucky for Sunderland and frustrating for Arsenal, who may miss the chance of winning the Premier League as a result of a wrong offside decision in Saturday's goalless draw.

Mind you, if they’d used Hawk-Eye in the 1966 World Cup final, then Geoff Hurst’s second goal would have been disallowed and we might not have beaten Germany. So perhaps Blatter’s got a point, after all.