Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Martian Spies on the Venusians at Play

When Jo’s fourth girlfriend arrived, I knew I should have gone to the pub. I stayed because I was curious to find out what women do when they gaggle. Yes, I know it’s not really a verb, but it conjures a pretty good image of what women do when they get together for a night in.

It was the birthday of one of Jo’s closest friends, so they had arranged an evening of pampering. They’d booked a hairdresser, a manicurist and a pedicurist, or at least I think that’s what they call someone who cuts toenails for a living. To me, having your toenails clipped is an annual ritual to be performed quietly on your own, with one foot placed firmly on the edge of the bath. Sometimes I remember to retrieve errant cuttings from the soap dish. Mostly I don’t.

Forgetting to pick up nail clippings is on a par with leaving all the cupboard doors open, forgetting what I’m saying in the middle of sentences, littering the kitchen table with tools from half-completed tasks, or throwing my socks on the floor beside the bed every night and only retrieving them when the pile gets big enough to trip over. I am a man, and I am wired differently to half the world’s population. Men don’t notice stuff. But we can do speed shopping.

I can never understand why women get so excited about clothes. They started talking about them the moment they walked through the door. I can buy a year’s supply in just five minutes from a single shop. If I find a pair of jeans that vaguely fits I’ll buy six to save having to go back again: it saves on the washing, too. I have eight black shirts, one for every day of the week and an extra one in case there’s a power cut. I wear the same shoes every day till they fall apart, whereas Jo has a roomful, and knows when she’s worn every pair. Neither of us throws shoes away: my trainers have been loyal to me for at least 15 years, so I haven’t the heart to discard them. Jo says she can smell them from the end of the garden.

Though clothes shops leave me cold, I can’t walk past an Apple store without buying a new toy. It will eventually end up in a drawer stuffed full of wires, connectors and old mobile phones and electric shavers. If I suddenly woke up back in the eighties I'd be completely ready for a world of analogue technology. I even have a VHS machine somewhere, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. If I could find them. I’ll ask Jo – she always knows where everything is. She has a cupboard full of nothing but carrier bags: she even has carrier bags inside the carrier bags. I always forget to take them to Waitrose and come back with another load.

By the time the manicurist had unpacked all her little coloured bottles, I realised that the ladies were now speaking a language that was completely foreign to me, so I retreated to the snug where football teams I don’t support were playing a match I didn’t much care about. Jo was happy to see me go, leaving them to intuit away and analyse each other’s emotions. I assume that’s what women do when they go to the loo together in restaurants. My friend Keith would look at me very strangely if I suggested joining him in the gents for a discussion about our feelings or the latest polo shirts in John Lewis.

So while the women put the world to rights, I watched the game, drank beer and replaced the batteries in Izzy’s baby monitor, thereby disproving the theory that men can’t multi-task. Later Jo found me fast asleep on the sofa. The batteries were on the floor.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Red Or Black?

Yesterday a second woman-beating rat crawled out of the rotting timbers of the sinking ship called Red Or Black? Are we surprised?

Well I, for one, am amazed. Having produced television entertainment most of my professional life, I am finding it hard to believe that Simon Cowell’s company could break a cardinal rule of the gameshow: that all participants must be thoroughly checked. “Backgrounds, psychs and meds”, we call them.

Background checks are simple and cheap. For less than £50, you can find out if someone has a record with the Criminal Records Bureau. Producers automatically exclude those who do because they don’t want to traumatise their victims, or give the press a scandal that might damage the reputation of the show. As the revelations of the last few days demonstrate, the damage tarnishes not just the programme, but the network itself.

I’m astonished that Nathan Hageman, who was awarded £1million at the end of the first episode, wasn’t weeded out at the first hurdle. He had been jailed for five years for beating up his ex-girlfriend, and his criminal record sits in public view for life. For £50, the broadcaster would have known not to put him on the screen at all, let alone make him a millionaire.

The “psych” test costs more, but is essential for any programme offering a big cash prize. Contestants sit for a good hour with a psychologist, who is tasked with uncovering emotional and mental flaws. This not only reassures the producer that the player can cope with the pressures of winning or losing, but also protects other contestants and programme staff. What if an aggrieved loser were to attack Ant and Dec? Anyone with the slightest hint of aggression is automatically excluded, which makes Mr Hageman’s appearance even more extraordinary. In America, the mere threat of violence whispered off-camera by a reality contestant would lead to instant disqualification.

In physical game shows or reality series like Big Brother, many other contestants fall at the medical. When I produced America’s Paradise Hotel, around 40% of the applicants were rejected at the “med” stage, most for sexually transmitted diseases – a sad indictment of our youth.

Meanwhile, as Cowell’s show’s ratings declined as fast as his reputation, derision and hostility have been thrown from all sides of the critical spectrum, even from the normally pliant industry trade press. In this week’s Broadcast magazine, the editor Lisa Campbell writes a blistering editorial headlined “How Cowell ran out of luck”. She lambasts the show: “the premise should have set alarm bells ringing at ITV about Cowell’s understanding of, and aptitude for, gameshows… try as they might, no amount of sob stories, weepy phone calls or stirring strings are going to make a viewer invest anything in a bunch of strangers whose choices display an utter lack of skill, effort or reasoning.”

Campbell’s view is echoed across the industry, and it’s easy to see why. For the format of Red Or Black? breaks another gameshow rule: that winners must be “worthy”.

Whether it’s a talent contest, a quiz, or an action gameshow, the prize must always be deserved. Contestants can demonstrate “worthiness” in a number of ways: by answering difficult questions, or performing complex or dangerous tasks; by bravely risking what they’ve won so far to gain more; or by generating sympathy from the viewers who follow them on their perilous journey.

Red or Black? offered none of these. Supposedly based on the story of Ashley Revell, a professional gambler from Kent, who bet all his possessions, including his clothes, on a single spin of the roulette wheel, these contestants invested nothing to win their prize. It is simply a game of greed and chance, nothing more. Thankfully the programme’s viewers, who are a lot cleverer than producers sometimes give them credit, saw right through it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Day The World Changed

The messenger’s bike was chained to a green lamppost. Red, white and blue plastic roses and an American flag stuck into the grey dust on its handlebars, it stood waiting patiently for its owner to return. He never did. The bike had become a symbol of the thousands of innocent lives thrown away. It’s my most haunting memory of 9/11. That and the stench, acrid and lingering, the smell of burning concrete, which still permeated downtown Manhattan a month after the horror.

Down in the hellhole behind the hoardings, the remains of the twin towers were piled like a huge smoking bonfire, many stories high. Out of them, two iconic metal structures, like the ruined facades of a huge cathedral, pointed towards the sky. How men worked in those scalding, foul conditions, I'll never know, but the searching never ceased: it would be another six months before all the debris, human and architectural, was removed.

On the streets of Lower Manhattan, there was the most haunting, sobering atmosphere. Locals, workers, visitors like me, everyone walked silently with shocked respect. The only sound was the relentless pounding and whirring of the machines and cranes down in the rubble below. Sometimes, all too infrequently, they too were muted – as another body, or part of a body, was released from its dust-covered tomb and firemen and workers stopped to pay their respects. We all knew the world had changed forever: this was the human side of the devastation.

St Paul’s Church, a few yards from the epicentre of the disaster, or “ground zero” as the news operations had called it, had become a place of refuge and recuperation.

Workers slept in the pews, food was sent it by local restaurants, pedicures and massages were offered for worn limbs or burnt feet.
I watched exhausted firemen queuing for coffee and comfort. By night, back in the clean luxury of my hotel room in Union Square, I looked across the 30 or so blocks to the floodlights where the twin towers had been, unable to get the terrible images of September 11th out of my mind.

It was one of those seminal moments, like the death of Princess Diana. Right now, television networks are full of recollections, repeats and re-enactments. Of course this is an event the world must never be allowed to forget, but we should beware lest overfamiliarity weakens the shock of those terrible images; the live television pictures that day were the most appalling the world has ever seen.

We watched the world change in high-definition clarity, thanks to a perfect blue sky over a smogless morning. Everyone remembers where they were: I was in my London office, on the phone to Jane Root, one of the BBC’s Controllers, when the second plane hit. A pause, and then “Oh my God”, we said in unison, and Jane added “I’d better go” as she rushed off to cancel her programme schedule. I remember the fear and the rumours in my office: would London be next?

I came to New York a month later because ABC had asked us to make a Christmas special for them. Challenge America, it was called, based on the British show. Erin Brockovitch became Anneka, but we needed a project. The problem was where to start: there was so much devastation, yet most workers in the city were still digging for bodies at Ground Zero.

So we restored a little theatre close by and threw a party for the children of the victims. It was the first building project in the city since the disaster, and Mayor Giuliani came to launch it. But it was just a tiny drop in the ocean, and seemed an inadequate response to the enormity of the problem. We mended their theatre, but the looks on the faces of the children showed that it would take so much more than a television programme to rebuild their lives, so cruelly destroyed on that horrible day.