Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ratings Wars

[Last night the BBC's new talent show The Voice went up against the ITV juggernaut Britain's Got Talent.  Was it one reality show too far?]

Well, who would have thought Britain had so much talent? Saturday evening has been turned into the long night of the wannabe.

This morning the TV trade press (Broadcast Magazine) announced that Britain’s Got Talent had “triumphed” over the BBC’s new talent show The Voice. Nothing could be further from the truth, for during the 20 minutes period that the two shows went head to head, the BBC actually won convincingly, by nine million to ITV’s six and a half, even though the average ratings for the whole of Britain’s Got Talent were rather higher.

Take it from me (as one who has spent quite a portion of his career supplying shows to the BBC for the traditional Saturday night battle), getting nine million to switch on (and stay watching) your first show is a more than a success, it’s a barnstorming, miraculous, champagne-popping triumph. I can’t recall another debut that came anywhere close: even shows that have gone on to become hits, like Strictly Come Dancing, had less than 5 million on their first airing.

But despite this talk of ratings wars (and I promise, Britain’s press will be full of it for the next two months, so we’d better get used to it), this wasn’t a battle of equals at all. In fact, when most of us thought the talent show market had been saturated, both networks managed to come up with surprising twists on the tired old genre.

The Voice really is what it says on the tin. Four judges sit with their backs to the singers, so the contestants perform in front of four impenetrable chair backs, willing them to swing round before they finish their performance. Influenced neither by looks nor backstory, the judges’ decision is based solely on the voice they hear. If a judge does turn to face a contestant, then that judge becomes their coach for the rest of the series.

Several failed: Phil the delivery driver with his grey-haired Nan sobbing in the wings, who undoubtedly would have had the Britain’s Got Talent judges begging for more, went home emptyhanded.

But where it gets clever is that when two or more judges pick the same person, then, for the first time I’ve ever seen in a talent show, all the power goes to the contestant. Several singers were chosen by all four celebrity judges, who then turned into groveling lackeys as they tried to woo the candidate to join their team. It was like watching real recording industry pitches: they promised the earth – world tours and endless riches; they name dropped without shame (producer and rapper mentioned “Mike” Jackson every third sentence, whilst Tom Jones dragged up an anecdote about Elvis). Meanwhile the wannabe, who frankly would have been quite happy with just another glass of beer in the BBC green room, had to pick a judge to entrust with their future. My favourite moment was when one candidate completely turned the tables by putting in an X Factor-long pause in the middle of the announcement of his choice, throwing judges, audience and even the TV producers, into confusion.

What was strange about The Voice, though, was that in a typically BBC way, they only featured attractive, young contestants in the first show – thereby losing the drama of the judges turning round and facing a Susan Boyle. This is a format designed for a disconnect between vocal ability and looks, yet they haven’t exploited it - yet.

Not so Britain’s Got Talent. Incredibly, they found themselves another Boyle in an extremely large teenager called Jonathan, who sings like an operatic angel, albeit with an underwhelming though more attractive girl singer called Charlotte. I wonder how many weeks it will take for Simon Cowell to split them up and give Charlotte the boot. Jonathan is a star in the making.

But the real hit of BGT was David Walliams. He and Cowell are the new Morecambe and Wise. I have never seen Cowell look more uncomfortable and edgy (and, as a consequence, perform better) as Walliams ribbed him mercilessly. That relationship alone is enough to turn me into a Saturday night couch potato.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

It's Only A Game

The shocked faces of the 30,000 spectators said it all. This was no longer a game, it was a moment of human tragedy: at stake was not a trophy, but a young man’s life.

One moment the crowd had been shouting at their heroes, groaning at their mistakes, mocking their opponents, then, suddenly, there was a confused hush. A Bolton player far away from the action was lying face down in the grass. The television commentator spotted him and the cameras zoomed in. Had he taken a bad knock? No, he had simply collapsed.

Within moments the commentator’s tone grew sombre. Despite having a bank of high definition closeup cameras at his disposal, the producer of the television coverage held on to a wide shot. In his control van parked outside the ground, he could see on the other cameras how six paramedics were frantically trying to revive the unconscious player. As they tried vainly to restart his heart with a defibrillator, the director pointed his cameras at the crowd: people were clinging to each other in disbelief, weeping powerlessly, willing the young man to get up, not believing the reality of the situation just a few yards in front of them. What should have been a terrible private moment of personal crisis was being enacted in full public display. From time to time, a chant went round the ground, the whole crowd calling out his name: “Fabrice Muamba”.

Just 23 years old, Fabrice was born in Kinshasa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. His father fled the country with his family during the chaos following the military coup against the dictator Mobutu. Fabrice was just eleven when he was uprooted to East London, speaking not a word of English. Yet he was incredibly bright, and passed 10 GCSEs as well as A Levels in English, French and Maths. Meanwhile Fabrice’s real passion was football.

He was good – fast, with exceptional control – and was snapped up straight into the English top flight. Indeed, he was so good that he was selected to wear the white shirt of England 57 times before he’d reached the age of 21. At home, he and his girlfriend Shauna were looking happily to the future. They already have a son called Joshua Jeremiah; on Valentine’s Day they got engaged to be married. Then on Saturday, in front of millions, Fabrice’s life was put on pause.

We ask so much of our sportsmen and women, yet we sometimes forget that they are all just ordinary human people, who would be exactly like the rest of us, had not a quirk of extraordinary ability led them into a world where only the best will do. As fans and supporters, we tend to focus only on their few minutes of supreme effort, forgetting just what intense commitment and training goes into every move. The cheers of the crowd can turn to boos with one bad pass. Meanwhile the media whips us up into frenzy with talk of wealth, foibles and failings, while our footballers are expected to walk the very cliff edge of human physical achievement. Our Premier League players now operate at a level of fitness, energy and skill that could not have been dreamt of when Muamba first kicked a ball on the back streets of Kinshasa, let alone when I was a boy.

It’s moments like this when I can’t begrudge professional footballers one penny of their earnings during their painfully short careers. Nowadays we expect feats of physical endurance way beyond the design specifications of the human body. Why are we surprised when, sometimes, and quite unexpectedly, the human body rebels?

Quite why Muamba’s heart gave way at that moment we don’t yet know. But throughout the country every football fan, irrespective of allegiance, is praying for him. At the end of the day, we all know it’s only a game.

Monday, March 12, 2012

How Real Men Bake

My thanks to Valerie Burke-Ward for sending this in response to my latest post.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In Praise of The Amateur

As the piping hot loaves slid out of their little tins, we all cheered. “They’re exactly like shop bought”, one woman said. It was a compliment.

She was right, of course: it’s ironic that amateurs tend to measure success by whether they’ve achieved a professional polish, and yet the reason we six novices were there was because most professional supermarket products are just second rate. I’m talking about breadmaking, a mystery I finally cracked this week thanks to a lady called Carrie Winger. She and her husband own the Allendale Bakery, a small kitchen and café nestling beyond the back of beyond, but which, in the last few years, has won due acclaim for some of the best bread in Northumberland.

This certainly wasn’t my first go at baking. When my last attempt at a sourdough went disastrously wrong, filling the whole house with the rancid pungency of dying yeast, the smell was so bad that Jo had to get the curtains cleaned. She said she was fed up with chipping pieces of cement-like dough off the bottom of bowls, or throwing away flat charred bricks that even the dogs wouldn’t touch. So finally she put her foot down and booked me on a beginners’ course. I didn’t hold out much hope of success, even though Carrie had insisted I bring a large carrier bag to take away my trophies. Frankly, I’d have been happy with one vaguely edible bun.

There were six of us, including a lady whose mother baked every day of her life, and a consultant surgeon, who, like me, had been given the course as a present by his wife. Thankfully Carrie is a very good teacher, watching patiently as the surgeon and I stood side-by-side pommelling piles of sticky dough into submission.

At first my mixture did what all dough has done to me in the past – turn into a gluey, gummy lump. But, against my instincts, and despite my fingers being glued firmly together, I was forbidden to put flour on either the surface or the sticky mess. “Keep it moving, keep kneading”, Carrie insisted, and, miraculously, after ten minutes or more, a transformation took place. The gunk became elastic: I could hold the ball of dough up to the light and it was translucent; I could place it on the surface without having to fetch a chisel.

The Master Baker
I’d made my first proper dough and, an hour later, out came a pretty much bread-shaped leaning tower of wholemeal. On the way home, the car smelt of sundried tomato, basil, cheese and onion: a whole bread shop in the boot. Since Tuesday it’s added an inch to my waistline.

I’m proud to have joined the ranks of amateur breadmakers. I hope my loaves always stay lopsided, for at least people will know they’re mine. There’s nothing I like better than the amateur. By which I don’t mean amateurish – far from it: I’ve bought enough spatulas, yeast and organic unbleached flour to run my own café – but I mean that having a go and doing it yourself is an essential part of English country life.

Take amateur dramatics, for example. This weekend saw the year’s theatrical highlight, the Whalton Village Play. Like my dough, the transformation of my next-door neighbour from sheep-rearing, 6 foot 3 vet into a transvestite nun was nothing short of miraculous. His son, just 16, and even taller, was another nun, and his wife was a most eccentric old biddy.

Directed and written by two delightfully enthusiastic and creative village ladies called Cinzia and Fiona, one half of the village was in it and the other half watched it. Fiona Standfield, chair of the professional company Northern Stage, was an alarmingly convincing villain.

The production was what any West End critic would call a romp, the entire cast magnificent. Everyone remembered their lines, the scenery didn’t fall down, and neither did most of the jokes. After a couple of glasses of red wine, we all proclaimed it a triumph.

All it needed was a nice plate of sun-dried tomato buns in the interval. Maybe next year.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

On The Winning Team

It’s nice to have played a small part in an important victory.

Sadly I’m not talking about football because, though I screamed myself hoarse after Newcastle United’s equaliser in the dying minutes of this afternoon’s derby match, no amount of shouting could bring a second goal and glory.

And I didn’t even have time to voice my complaints about the government’s proposal to dock benefits from young people who leave their unpaid work experience, before the absurd plan was cancelled, thanks to some very vocal opposition from the very businesses that were supposed to implement it.

But I could claim a tiny amount of credit for a statement quietly released this week by the Home Office. Theresa May has evidently been listening to the chorus of outrage about the problems that artists, writers and musicians face in getting into our country.

I wrote with some passion about this issue back in August last year, astonished that our immigration authorities were treating international artists like criminals, even refusing them visas to visit their own exhibitions or book signings. I recounted the story of the Argentinian tango dancers, Ismael Ludman and Maria Mondino, who had been held for hours like illegal immigrants at Glasgow airport when they arrived for a tour of small venues in Scotland, before being ignominiously deported. This policy had made our country a mockery throughout the arts world and was turning Britain into a cultural ghetto. Some renowned performers, like the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, had even boycotted the UK, likening our system to the bad days of Soviet oppression.

My comments received hundreds of responses – almost as many as my equally vitriolic comments about the television programme Geordie Shore – and later the issue was picked up by the New York Times. Although this latter publication doubtless caused the Home Office considerably more embarrassment than my own paltry efforts, I’d like to share with you an email I received on Wednesday from the Earl of Clancarty, who’s been leading the campaign in the House of Lords.

He wrote: “We have scored a rather significant victory in the artists visa issue…There is to be a new scheme called ‘permitted paid engagements’ starting on April 6th which will be outside the points-based system. It will include academics, barristers, artists, poets, writers, musicians, performers and sportspeople who wish to visit from non-EU countries. They will now be able to stay for up to a month and can be paid fees, e.g. for a book tour. Application is made at the port of entry and is effectively free. Thanks again for the article you did last year which was a great help.”

I’d really like to thank those readers who responded to my appeal to lobby their local MPs over the issue. It seems we have a government that’s prepared to listen if we shout loudly enough (except on the NHS, of course – I doubt Cameron would back down if the entire country walked along Downing Street with megaphones pointed at his window).

Meanwhile my latest campaign is gaining momentum. Since my diatribe against the Life In The UK Test, which all permanent immigrants to this country now have to take, scores of people have emailed or tweeted me support. Even someone with a first class history degree from our finest university said he couldn’t answer the questions.

My American wife took the test last week and I’m proud to report that, after a nightmare of nocturnal revision that was worse than cramming for my A Levels, she emerged with a pass. Only two out of twenty candidates succeeded, which is about the national average, apparently.

She did fail one question, though. She was utterly flummoxed by a phrase that hadn’t appeared in any of the test questions: “refuse collection”.

Poor love – it’s taken her five years to learn to use “rubbish” and “waste” instead of “trash” and “garbage”. I told her that I have never knowingly used the phrase “refuse collection” and probably never will. How long before the government throws this rubbish test into the bin?