Sunday, May 29, 2011

Geordie Shore

"If you’re a Geordie, you need a tan: no true Geordie goes around looking like a ghost". That pearl of wisdom came from one of the cast of Geordie Shore. It was one of the few coherent sentences in the first episode.

For those who don’t normally watch MTV, here’s the plot: four pneumatic North East girls with fake tans are in a posh house with four bare-chested boys and a fridge full of booze. They get drunk, vomit, and have sex under duvets. That’s it.

It’s appalling. The cast generates no empathy, their characters portrayed as ignorant, unattractive and interested only in getting laid.

Putting a whole new spin on the slogan Passionate People, Passionate Places, this is possibly the worst kind of publicity for our region. It portrays Newcastle as home to loud, loose, shallow, orange-tanned morons.

This kind of reality television is far from new. In fact, I have a terrible confession: I kicked off the whole phenomenon in 2003 when I produced a show in the United States called Paradise Hotel. The concept was similar: put young people in luxury and they’ll soon drive each other mad. We shot it with multiple hidden cameras; there were relationships and tears. It was a ratings triumph.

There was a big difference, though: we didn’t use booze to generate the drama, instead relying on clever casting. A plain, rather overweight boy called Dave and a strange but gentle girl called Charla were set within a company of busty blondes and beach bums. For an entire summer the show was on everyone’s lips – people threw Paradise Hotel parties on elimination nights. When Charla ditched Dave in the final episode, it made the New York Times.

The following year MTV produced Laguna Beach, with spoilt kids from Orange County. It was about romance, unrequited love and rivalries, set against a backdrop of wealth. But in 2009 MTV decided to reinvent the concept as something more gritty. Their target was the working class Italian-American community of Jersey Shore: loud and uninhibited, without self-consciousness or shame. It broke ratings records and now they’re repeating the formula over here, with what they consider the ultimate dumb, drunk stereotype: the Geordie.

Our local media has buzzed with indignation. “Why Newcastle? They could have done it in Liverpool.” Well one reason is that the production company is based in Liverpool and they’d be drummed out of town if they did this to their own city. They also produce The Only Way Is Essex.

“This isn’t a true picture”, say the critics. Are they blind? Take a tour of the Bigg Market zoo any weekend evening. Jo and I often drive visitors there to see the animals: men and women naked, urinating openly in the street, unspeakable acts taking place in broad daylight.

So who is guilty? Not MTV, for sure. What is our elected council doing to protect the image of our city? Licensing countless clubs and bars to serve unlimited drinks at a pound a time? Turning a blind eye to the weekend debauchery? Well now we’re reaping the consequences. We’ve got our party city, and a reputation to match.

How can Newcastle limit the damage? The last thing it needs is an MP asking questions in the House of Commons. More publicity equals higher ratings.

Those really offended by Geordie Shore might learn a lesson from Paradise Hotel. It was the biggest hit of the summer, but wasn't renewed. The reason: just a few conservative people wrote to complain about the show to the network’s key advertisers who, fearing the association would damage their brands, pulled their commercials. Without ad revenue, the network was forced to cancel the second series.

One of the advertisers of Geordie Shore, on the web if not the TV series, is the health drink Lucozade. The company that makes it, GlaxoSmithKline, says it is “committed to improving the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer”. I doubt that its chairman, Sir Christopher Gent, would think this aim was being furthered by a television programme that idolizes young people who get utterly intoxicated on cheap vodka and indulge in loveless sex with complete strangers.

Sir Christopher is in his 60s and has two young children. It's unlikely he knows that his adverts for Lucozade are helping to pay for Geordie Shore. Any real Geordies reading this might like to enlighten him.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Till Death Do Us Part

You have to feel sorry for 60-year-old New Yorker Robert Fitzpatrick. After blowing his entire life savings on posters predicting the end of the world last night, he woke up this morning to find he was still amongst the heathen.

It must have been a bitter blow for him and thousands of American believers who’d been convinced by the California preacher Harold Camping that it was “Rapture Day”, when they’d all be transported up to heaven as huge earthquakes destroyed the rest of us left down here on Earth.

Robert had spent $140,000 putting up thousands of posters around the New York subway and bus system. I assume all believing bus drivers had considerately taken the day off work: after all, if any of them had been raptured off a moving vehicle, it would have caused no end of traffic chaos down Broadway.

Camping had worked out the date using a series of complex calculations based on the anniversary of Noah’s flood (7,000 years ago on Saturday) and various biblical passages. As a result, thousands of Americans sold their homes and valuables and quit their jobs, all clearly surplus to requirements in the afterlife, and handed over their money to Camping’s church. It’s reported that he raised tens of millions from believers over the last few months.

They weren’t put off by the fact that he got it completely wrong last time: he originally said that the Rapture would happen in September 1994. In fact, apart from the 5,000th performance of Cats on Broadway, there wasn’t a lot of seismic activity anywhere that month and, denied his Journey To The Heaviside Layer, the discredited minister went off to lick his paws and invent a new date.

This latest prediction has resulted in a roaring trade for poster manufacturers, end-of-the-world party organisers and also for a company in New Hampshire called External Earthbound Pets. For just $135, paid in advance, they agreed to collect and care for any furry friend left behind after its owner had been raptured away. No Armageddon, no refund.

The fact that Harold Camping’s absurd prediction gained such traction is a tribute to the extraordinary gullibility of the human mind. Is there nothing that people won’t believe, given a bit of hype? From fad diets to reality television, from conspiracy theories about Bin Laden to the journalism in the Daily Mail: people believe all sorts of nonsense as fact. It’s just as well – without fantasy, wouldn’t life be intolerably dull?

At precisely 6pm last night, just as the world wasn’t ending, Jo and I were at a wedding reception drinking a toast to the bride and groom. As they began their new life together, Jo and I were thinking about that daunting phrase “till death do us part”.

We agreed that, when you love someone so much that you can’t imagine life without them, the best way to go is probably to share some God-invoked end-of-the-world scenario. The mere thought of separation is more than either of us could bear, so it would be good to know we were victims in the same Armageddon. We’d have loads to gossip about as the conflagration hit: it’s always exciting to be a witness at a breaking news story.

But then we realised we’d have a problem: how to ensure we’d be together after the big event. You see, Jo is Jewish and I’m Church of England. As we can’t both be right, there’s a real risk that one of us ends up alone on the wrong side of the fence, looking after the pet-minding. Unless, that is, we’re both on the wrong side and we should have turned Buddhist. Still, as the Grateful Dead song goes: “I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe, at least I’m enjoyin’ the ride”.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Don't Scare The Turkey

The hare is dead: frankly, it never looked very alive to me.

The news that BBC1 has decided to axe its infantile game show “Don’t Scare The Hare” after just three disastrous and expensive episodes must come as no surprise to anyone who has actually seen it: which isn’t many (the ratings have plumbed new depths for Saturday night viewing).

For those who haven’t, it’s a show with dubbed laughter, a strange and superfluous music track, a scary presenter with giant glasses and a cap hiding his baldness, and an animatronic hare which trundles around the studio like a dalek. Grownups play children’s games and if they fail, the hare runs off “scared”. Oh, and someone wins some money.

Wow: somebody actually sat in a darkened room and came up with this drivel, and the BBC paid them a couple of million quid to stage it. It looks like cheap Bulgarian children’s television. Suspecting that it was designed for two-year-olds, we tried it out on Izzy. She didn’t last twenty seconds, angrily demanding we switch to Peppa Pig. The BBC clearly cast the wrong animal in the lead – it should have been a turkey.

Mind you, all producers have made them: turkeys, that is. When Mark Thompson quit the BBC as director of programmes, at his leaving do he gave a speech about his career highs and lows. Robot Wars, which I produced when he was running BBC2, was a high; but the lowest of the lows was a Saturday night game show called Happy Families.

It seemed like a great idea at the time: Gladiators had just completed its first series on ITV, and arena shows seemed to be the in thing. So, rather than lycra-clad superheroes with false names like Jet and Wolf, I came up with a show that pitched extended families against each other. We staged it at the London Arena: a barn of a place so big we had to build giant games to fill it. In the middle were two metal cages in which the contestants imprisoned their grandmothers. The contestants had to “Hoist up their Grannies” a hundred feet to the top of the building. Yes, I was responsible for this nonsense.

The show opened in the roof, with a giant roller coaster made up of hand-powered bikes. One by one each family member pedalled furiously to link up with the others into one long hand-powered train, which began a terrifying descent to the ground, hitting more than 40 miles an hour on the bends with no safety net. I was scared that we might dump an entire family onto the heads of the audience. Sometimes the bikes got stuck and the contestants were suspended in mid-air: one woman broke her arm on the pedals. We also built absurd games like “Terrorball”, in which someone had to answer trivia questions about their family while being spun upside down. There was even a game for the family dog.

I was terrified one of the grannies would suffer a heart attack. In fact, the biggest problem was incontinence: you wouldn’t believe how many times they needed to go to the toilet during filming. Each time the wretched cage had to be slowly winched down so they could be released. We went wildly over schedule, frequently filming into the night, by which time the audience – all 5,000 of them, had drifted off home. So instead of a mass spectacle, we had to shoot everything in close-up and cut in shots of audience cheering from the afternoon.

Right now I feel the pain of Don’t Scare The Hare’s producer. After so much effort, realising you’ve created a turkey is no fun. But at least the hare won’t be lonely, as it lies buried in the Saturday night television graveyard: it will have two granny cages and a load of rusty hand-pedalled bikes for company.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Maybe We Should All Become Scottish?

McGutteridge of Blog

[The Scottish Nationalist Party had a landslide victory in the Scottish elections last week: we live only half an hour from the border]

I’ve started to collect Scottish £5 notes. They’re kept in a shortbread biscuit tin with a picture of Edinburgh Castle on the lid.

You see, once the divorce with England takes place, I’m assuming Scotland won’t want the Euro as its unit of currency, so I thought a few Scottish pounds might prove useful.

They’ll be hard to spend, though, as I predict the new currency will be divided into its original pre-1707 component parts of doyts, bodles, placks, bawbees and merks, which nobody will be able to understand without the calculator they’ll sell to immigrants and tourists at passport control.

But it looks like Scotland’s the place to be. Maybe we should relocate now? I’m sure Jo won’t mind moving to an even colder farmhouse. The weather’s not really that much worse, if you wear a warm enough overcoat in summer. And the food is, well, hearty.

I suspect she might have problems with the language, though. It’s taken her three years to be able to communicate with the locals here; we had a Scottish workman in the house the other week and her look of incomprehension was priceless: he was only asking the way to the toilet.

Nevertheless I’m sure there’ll be loads of advantages for us: Izzy will qualify for free everything for life, including university lectures, medical prescriptions and eye tests. Also, she won’t have to pay a penny for me to stay in my old people’s home in Peebles.

I hope they’ll grant us residency visas. Joseph Gillan, my great-great grandfather, was born in 1808 somewhere in Lanarkshire. That makes me one-sixteenth Scottish and Gillan is my middle name: surely it must count for something?

In fact, most of Jo’s American friends are convinced we live there already, and our London friends think we may as well, so remote is our Northumbrian farmhouse. They must all picture us in kilts.

That’s how we used to paint the SNP: all beards and sporrans. In fact, as the election results showed last week, most of Scotland’s population, across all parts of the social spectrum, now supports the SNP. There’s no other real option: all the other parties are irrelevant minority also-rans in Scottish politics. Whether these people will also support independence from England when the referendum is held in a couple of years is another matter. If the SNP continues to play the game so well, and Labour so badly, a vote for separation should be a tartan shoe-in.

You don’t have to be a political analyst to know that the consequences of Thursday’s vote will be far-reaching in England, and it’s nothing to do with independence, which is neither here nor there to most of us south of the border. Labour’s worst performance for 80 years saw its Scottish powerbase destroyed; even if this were partly reflected in a Westminster vote, they’d find it numerically impossible to be elected in London ever again, so reliant is the party on its Scottish MPs.

Already the rise of nationalism has affected my own industry. The BBC reserves a major chunk of its programme budget for what it calls “the nations”, and most of that goes to Scotland. It means that if I want to make an entertainment programme, the easiest way to get it commissioned is to say that I want to film it in Glasgow. It’s a lie, of course: I’d rather film almost anywhere else, but they’ve built an enormous state-of-the-art television centre there with our licence fees and they’re desperate to fill it.

Two of our last three prime ministers were Scottish and Cameron almost is: it’s clearly the fashion. Speaking of which, the editor of my newspaper, who comes from Aberdeen, wears a very fetching kilt at black-tie dinners. I must ask him where I can get one for my new Scottish persona, once I’ve saved up enough £5 notes.