Lex Gigeroff 1962 – 2011

Exactly 11 years ago, I went on a ridiculous adventure with my best friend Andy. I was a year and a bit out of film school, he’d just graduated that summer and we were going to become hugely successful comedy TV writers. We’d had meetings and were buoyant with misplaced confident in our talents – the kind of confidence which gets you places but doesn’t do you many favours once you’re there.

Just before Christmas 2000, the wonderful Allison Outhit had contacted us from Canada where she worked as show runner on a TV show called Lexx which I had never heard of. Andy’s parents had satellite TV, so he’d seen a few episodes and said it was pretty good. Allison wanted to know if we wanted to try out as writers on their new (and final) series. I ran out and bought a couple of videos from the first series and couldn’t see how we’d fit into the show but after 6 months working in web design, I was willing to give anything a go. Even if it meant flying all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia in the dead of winter to do so. It was dark and colder than anything I’ve ever experienced anywhere else but it never once felt depressing as the Lexx family was a warm, intelligent and funny bunch. Allison was busy a lot and the show’s creator/producer Paul Donovan was an odd but welcoming chap. The cast were also welcoming but odd and busy. Andy and I instantly fell in with the show’s head writers – Jeff Hirschfield and Lex Gigeroff. For the time we were there and that time in our careers, they felt a bit like big brothers. They’d bust your balls and make fun of you but they were never less than supportive or encouraging.

The first time I met Lex, before even being introduced, he strode up to me, just in from walking through a blizzard and crunched my beard, which had frozen solid “Good beard, it’s got a good crunch to it!” were the words he introduced himself to me with.

This was our first professional job ever and we were thrown in the deep end. From day one, we were taken seriously and treated as professional TV writers despite only ever having written short films and spec scripts. The first meeting we had was a roundtable with the writers, creator and producers. This was to work out the story arcs for the first series and make sure we’d all be working from the same page. It was fun but terrifying. Not only were we not seasoned writers but we knew so little about this series specifically. We were in over our heads and I think we stayed a little quiet. Lex saw this in us and once the meeting was over invited us out for coffee the next morning.

When it was just the three of us, it was great. He was a sincere, sarcastic, encouraging bear of a man. He explained how the show worked, was patient with us and helped us get our episode pitches in order so that we could realistically get to write episodes which we were suited to. Throughout our time writing on that show, he stayed in contact and gave us insightful help and positive encouragement. He didn’t need to do that, it was a sink or swim environment but he gave us his time and experience and enthusiasm. I’d like to think that if I reflect the same virtues through my screenwriting teaching, that they were instilled in me by him.

He really didn’t need to be so nice to us. In a sense, we were taking food from his table. The previous three seasons had been written entirely by Jeff, Lex and Paul. The only reason they had brought us aboard was that to qualify for British funding and tax breaks, they had to have a certain percentage of the writing team as British. The fans were livid about outside talent being brought in (especially when I mentioned online that we knew nothing about the show) Lex could have justifiably been openly resentful and hostile but was the very opposite of that.

I can’t pretend to have known Lex well or to have kept up better than the occasional exchanged ‘what are you up to these days?’ Facebook messages but sometimes brief interactions with special people resonate through the rest of your life. His untimely passing this Christmas Day has really saddened me. The world has lost a good man. He was just 49.

I’ll always be grateful to Lex for the things he taught me and the encouragement and support he gave to a couple of newbies on their first pro job.

Bless you, mate and I hope that whatever’s out there is far less dark and twisted than you imagined it might be.

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Published in: on January 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Eccentric-centric

Do you want to know the worst I ever behaved?

Everyone who knows me probably has some example they would hold up – my parents would probably be hard-pushed to choose just one crowning moment from the litany of choices I’ve provided them with, I’m sure my sister could produce a bratty gem, anyone who’s ever lived with me probably has a favourite story in which I act like a complete cock to somebody. Some of these things I regret, some I’m rather proud of and the vast majority I can justify and offer a full explanation as to why it was acceptable.

I can only really think of one example where I behaved horribly, had no excuse for it, and still feel ashamed of.

When I was 14 or 15, there was a kid at my school, we’ll call him Rory, who was the first real eccentric I ever met. I went to a string of state schools full of the spawn of every walk of life, so I wouldn’t say I was sheltered or the schools ethnically uniform – I knew lots of different people. But this guy was a real piece of work. He was comically tall with gangly legs and a pronounced limp. His hair was a shock of tufty brown wire, he wore a suit, carried a briefcase with his name written in huge white letters on the side, he was loud and cartoonish, he spoke with a posh accent which varied in town between an enraged high court judge and Margaret Thatcher at her most sickly sweet and quietly patronising. He’d clasp his hands together to show emotion and make large grotesque faces to amuse.

I didn’t like him.

The reason I didn’t like him was that the first time I met him, he strode into the classroom, did a ‘heil Hitler’ salute and sat down. All eyes and slack jaws turned to me as the only Jew in the school. I took him to task and was swiftly deposited in the head of year’s office. An irritable woman who, brilliantly for me, also had a pronounced limp and bellowed at me about surely being above bullying a disabled boy. I hadn’t even noticed his limp at this point. Being the teenager that I was, I got into deeper trouble for refusing to apologise and stuck to my guns right into detention. Which always seemed preferable to me than admitting culpability.

That night, Rory’s mum phoned my mum, who grabbed me as I walked past and sat me on the stairs to witness the conversation which was developing. I got the gist of it fairly quickly and was relieved to see that my mum was greatly amused by this woman who appeared to be every bit as mad as her offspring. At one point, Mrs Rory asked my mum if we were practicing Jews, to which mum replied ‘No, we’re perfect’ which I thought was brilliant. After the call, mum very reasonably put it to me that the family were clearly a bit odd and that I should just ignore him – engaging with it would only lead to more hassle for me. Apparently Rory’s excuse for the ‘heil Hitler’ was that he’d recently left a private school and on telling people the name of his new school was frequently told that the students there were a bunch of little Nazis. He’d taken it literally and was trying to fit in.

I backed off. I still didn’t like him, though. He quickly became a bit of a mascot for our year, popular through eccentricity. I think he was bullied quite a lot but I don’t think he realised he was being bullied. Maybe he did, maybe he internalized, but on the surface of it, he laughed along or played up to it and seemed to enjoy his role within, or without, the social order.

In time I began to warm to him. I didn’t particularly want to spend time with him but became as fascinated by his outlandish exploits as everybody else was. At some point, in our new found accord, he invited my friend and I to dinner at his house. We went because we thought it’d be a laugh. What a pair of dicks. And a laugh it was, there was plenty in his home for us to share raised eyebrows over behind his back, plenty to be dumbfounded and amused by. His mother had baked macaroni cheese with boiled eggs in it. Years later, I found out this was commonplace and an acceptable form of the recipe but to me and my pal it was MAD. We were in a mad house with a mad guy and his mad mum eating mad food and we got the giggles. The worst kind of giggles. The arrogant giggles where you barely try to suppress them. I know Rory laughed along at first but eventually petered out as he didn’t understand the joke. His mother must have seen the disdain we had for her son and home, which in retrospect is particularly ghastly as she must have been so pleased when he’d asked if he could have friends home to dinner.

I think about that night a couple of times a year and cringe and hate myself a bit. Just inexcusable rudeness, adding to a family’s sadness. His father had died when Rory was quite young. So I mocked a widow and her awkward son in their own home. Pretty fucking low.

This week, I caught two bits of popular TV shows that I never watch. The first was X-Factor, the second was Come Dine With Me. I’ve only ever been vaguely aware of the specifics of the Simon Cowell cuntfests. I get what they are and what they do and why (freakshows/humiliate/for profit) but I guess I wasn’t so familiar with the specifics. I’d always thought that the major freakshow parts of the series were contained within the first few episodes where the general public all audition at huge venues and we get to laugh at the mentally ill and un-educated people who are looking for an easy way out of poverty. The part of the show I caught this weekend had these people in the actual studio, in front of the live audience. In particular, I noticed a husband and wife, brought out one after the other who were both obviously had learning difficulties, if not actual mental health problems. They were invited to sing for the arena full of laughing, mocking nasty people before a well-paid celebrity panel took it in turns, in varying degrees of mock sincerity, to tell them they were shit.

I was struck by how fucked up this is. A TV show that big, with levels of directors, production team, producers, executives and network executives, not to mention venue staff and audience members, that not one person in the thousands of people involved and complicit between the auditions and this performance, not one person thought to say either to the producers ‘these people are clearly not of fully sound mind, it’s cruel to expose them to this’ or to the people themselves ‘this probably isn’t the right thing for you to do’ It was obvious to everybody that firstly they were intrinsically below the standard of competition and they were unaware of this and vulnerable to public mocking. But that’s acceptable on prime time television, apparently.

The Come Dine With Me episode tonight was slightly less explicit but still chilling. I haven’t seen any of the other episodes of the week to contextualize it fully but, essentially from the handy ‘catch-up’ piece at the start of the episode, out of the five contestants cooking dinner parties for each other, one of them was an eccentric. A suit-wearing, monarchy-loving, port-passing eccentric who lived alone in a one bedroom flat in some crappy city. As eccentrics will, he’d peppered the other diners parties with shocking declarations and attention hogging and an unconvincing air of class. The other diners discussed with glee behind his back how they would sabotage his dinner party. And they did. the black tie dress code was ignored, mocked. As was his food, his home, his beliefs and his behaviour. And that was the entertaining thrust of the episode.

I’d say he was less visibly mentally ill than the X-Factor contestants, he was clearly a functioning eccentric.

As you grow out of your teenage and experience the world, you’re supposed to learn things. Understand things. There are very few natural, wonderful, joyous eccentrics. You learn that the behaviour of these people often stems out of forms of autism, abuse as children, terrible life experiences… any number of things, always somewhat tragic. Their eccentricity is often an exaggerated defence mechanism, a desperate attempt to curry favour and fit in or to just get some desperately craved attention.

When did mainstream television become so fucking vile. So bullying and mean and misdirected. Abuse and exploitation of the mentally ill has become the nation’s favoured entertainment. It’s the lowest form of entertainment there is. It’s what children do. They laugh at other people to feel better about themselves. They delight and unite in the ridicule of people weaker than themselves so they can feel stronger and more confident.

I don’t watch these shows because I’m an intelligent person who hasn’t given up on the pursuit of culture and education. If you watch them every week, and the other ones – I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here – any of those kinds of shows – you’ve given up, you’ve embraced lowest common denominator entertainment and you’re fuelling society’s decline away from education, entertainment and enlightenment into pure pure commercialism. These shows aren’t made from the passion of their creators or for the uplifting of the nation, they are exploiting the weak and the strong for profit. And you may be above that or just find it entertainment but by watching it, you encourage it and fuck you for that.

When I was a teenager, mainstream weekend night entertainment was Noel’s (shitty) House Party. Strike it Lucky. Blind Date. Surprise Surprise. Bland, inoffensive rubbish. And I, a well-raised, intelligent kid still managed to act like a dick to a defenceless guy who deserved my sympathy and help.

I can only begin to wonder what these shows are doing to the current generation of kids and what implications that will have to us as a society in the future.

Published in: on November 16, 2011 at 9:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

You Can’t Go Home Again.

Do you know who I like?
I like David Lynch. I like him a lot.
I hate his films, though. Hate them. I hate his films a lot.
I liked The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, I guess, but those are the least ‘Lynchian’ films.
So, it’s fair to say I don’t like David Lynch’s films.
But I do like David Lynch.
I like him a lot.
I like him as an artist, I don’t like his art, but I like his career. And here’s what I like about it. I think he’s progressive. I think he grows as a filmmaker and I think he keeps a certain vitality. His films remain provocative, original and challenging. I really wish I liked them, to be honest. The other things his films always are is contemporary. He’s an artist who lives and works in the now. No two films of his are particularly similar and he never seems to look backwards or even sideways. He marches ever onward, making his films in the now and moving on to the next.

As a consumer, I’m not even as progressive as Lynch is as a filmmaker. My favourite films remain those of the late seventies to the early nineties. My tastes are pretty simple and probably in a rut. Like how you imagine Jeremy Clarkson could dismiss any music since ELO disbanded and probably considers Def Leppard’s Hysteria as best exemplifying modern British music, that’s kind of me and film. I don’t understand why anyone would need to see the latest Judd Apatow defecation if they’ve never seen The Odd Couple.

I love my 70’s/80’s/90’s films. I’m still in love with Spielberg, Joe Dante, Ridley Scott, John Landis, James Cameron, the popcorn directors of my day. Incredibly, they’re all still working. Depressingly, they’ve all been a bit naff for a while.

Spielberg was progressive for a while, he moved away from the child-like wonder of his early films to a harder, more thoughtful, historical drama era – Schindler’s List, The Colour Purple, Empire of the Sun, Amistad, and then got a bit ploppy. The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can. Work that was beneath him, very average, mediocre films.

Joe Dante dropped off the radar, Matinee, Loony Tunes back in action, lots of TV stuff.

Ridley Scott got less and less interesting, developed a baffling infatuation with Russell Crowe and has been making rotten, overblown tripe with that big horrible ham for more than a decade now.

John Landis just vanished, although last year’s Burke and Hare was kind of a surprising gem of a film.

James Cameron found he had a heart and went from being the world’s greatest intelligent tough guy director to creating insanely overblown mawkish crap a la Titanic and Avatar.

That’s all OK. I’m not against decline. I don’t think they should be held to account for this. The mighty fall. Robert De Niro has fallen very far. He’s probably only one more ‘Fockers’sequel (‘Motherfockers’?) away from the Earth’s core right now. But they have to make their livings, it’s fine. Let’s be thankful for what they have given us. The early stuff, at least. We’ll always have the early stuff.

Won’t we?

Maybe not.

It started in 1997 and it seemed like a good idea. George Lucas, remember him? Before we hated him? George Lucas released a ‘special edition’ of Star Wars and we were all damned excited about it. Until we saw it. It was special, alright. He fucked it. He took the film we loved and tweaked, changed and CGI’d it until it lost all of the charm it has possessed. He told us that this is what he’d always intended it to be. Which made us like him a little less. The slight but palpable betrayal we feel when a friend acts so out of character, we realise they might not be the friend we thought they were.

A year later, John Landis decided to make a sequel to The Blues Brothers. 18 years after the first. The only sequel that had appeared so long after the first before this had been Psycho 2 and it hadn’t been Hitchcock’s idea – he was safely tucked up in his grave. Psycho 2 was actually rather good, as other people’s takes on original source material sometimes can be. The Blues Brothers 2000 (released 1998) was not good. Rather than emulate or build on the spirit of the original, it clutched desperately to match it, to beat it, an exercise in pointless overcompensation. The irreplaceable John Belushi was replaced by THREE men, John Goodman (who trusted and left to his own devices might have been a wonderful alternative, never replacement), the bloke from Terminator 2 and that most insidious of things – a precocious child. There were ghosts, voodoo queens, they all got turned into zombies at some point. It was horrible, and although it didn’t ruin the first film – how could it? It stained it a little. It was official canon. For a while, if you wanted to buy the original on DVD, you had to accept it’s tawdry little brother for free and you couldn’t throw it away because they shared a box and cover artwork. John Landis had the decency to not direct another film for 12 years and came back sharper. God Bless him.

George Lucas didn’t go away. He dug his heels in, folded his arms and declared to his slightly miffed devotees ‘if you didn’t like that, get a load of this’ and spent a decade making a trilogy of Star Wars prequels which seemed almost designed to urinate over all of our childhoods. ‘You like the enigmatic menace of Darth Vader?’ he shouted at us from his big hill ‘here he is as a fucking child!’ ‘Please, stop!’ we begged ‘You’re ruining it! Why do you want to ruin it?’ ‘BECAUSE IT’S MINE!’ he shouted back ‘Meet Jar-Jar Binks! BOOM! Boba Fett as a child! BAM! The Force? It’s not a mystical force, it’s a…. BACTERIA! Fuck it! KA-BOOM!’ He shat over everything that had once been good and then, as VHS moved to DVD and then on to BLU-RAY, petulantly refused to remaster the original trilogy as we had grown up with it. Refused to even let us have what we had fallen in love with as children. Even for money. And if this wasn’t bad enough, he had opened the floodgates. It was now OK for film-makers, now in their autumn years and long off the boil, to revisit the films that had made their names and digitally remove the charm.

Spielberg made a special edition of ET. Replacing the Eponymous character in many shots with a rubbish computer graphic version who looked like a cartoon turd. Has any animatronic character ever been as beautiful and believable as ET? Why replace that with an obvious cartoon? Anyway, he did, and then he digitally removed the guns from the chase sequence. The reason that ET made the bikes fly. Just took them out, replaced them with walkie talkies. Guns apparently seemed harsh now. Were Hitchcock alive today, he’d probably have replaced the knife in the shower scene with a banana. Probably.

Then Spielberg and Lucas decided to work together on exhuming and corpse-fucking Indiana Jones. A film which was ultimately not entirely awful but certainly pointless. Definitely pointless. Ironically the one film of this shameful period where directors decided to needlessly pilfer their own pasts, which was intelligent and worthy came from the most unexpected place. Rocky Balboa. Sylvester Stallone, who had done nothing but fill video shop walls with mindless, inoffensive beefcake for the best part of a quarter of a century, suddenly delivered one of the most perfect cinematic musings on the passing of time. Rocky Balboa, whilst by no means a perfect film, is one of the most thoughtful, devastating, philosophical and uplifting films that has graced a multiplex for decades. But that was a blip in this train crash.

Ridley Scott, probably one of the greatest commercial film directors ever, has been rubbish for a while now. His last groundbreaking, brilliant film was Thelma and Louise 20 years ago. You know what he’s making right now? A prequel to Alien. And you know what he’s doing next? A sequel to Blade Runner.

Oh, you poor misguided old men. Life moves ever forward. You must move with it. Don’t look back. Stop looking back.

A very long time ago, Thomas Wolfe wrote a book called ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ about a writer who writes a novel about his hometown, only to upset its residents as his memories of it bore little relation to the reality. At the end of the book, the main character declares:

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

The past should be left as is, there is a beauty in imperfection and a futility in trying to re-engage with the creative mind of so long ago. We change as people every day, so the markers, as dated and embarrassing as they may be, are important. Don’t fuck with them. I imagine George Lucas’s personal photo collection as being photoshopped to hell. CGI underpants covering his modesty in his bathtime baby photos, subtle muscle definition added to his gawky teenage frame, modern haircuts to replace his 1970’s shame. Maybe he’s just gone out, as a fully grown adult and reshot all of those photos, the originals consigned to the flames, never to be seen again.

You Can’t Go Home Again was actually published posthumously. Which is probably for the best, who knows what Wolfe might have done to it thirty years down the line.

Published in: on August 19, 2011 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Specially Affected

I was going to go to the cinema tonight but it seems like there is absolutely nothing I want to see on. Had you told teenage me that, when faced with the chance to go to a huge cinema and see either (or both of) Transformers 3 or The Green Lantern – both in 3D, I had merely sighed and decided to stay in and watch a Molly Dineen DVD, he would have choked on his bucket of popcorn.

But I reckon once I’d explained to him, as I shall for you, he’d have understood. He was very clever, you see. And handsome, erudite, charismatic…. I’ll stop now.

I think I always understood what films were. I grew up with my father’s super 8 cine camera always present and I think always got that they were works of artifice. I certainly remember being 5 years old and knowing for a fact that Chewbacca was a man called peter Mayhew in a costume, I’d seen a photo of him in the costume sans head with big black make-up panda eyes. But rather than spoiling the magic, that to me WAS the magic. Although I could suspend disbelief and enjoy a film quite happily, I was engaged with it in the same way I was engaged with be-wigged magic midget Paul Daniels – the fun wasn’t believing it was real so much as working out how they’d managed to fool me.

There was a wonderful library book which I borrowed over and over again which explained how forced perspective sets could change a landscape, make a man a giant or be used to make it look like a woman was being burned at the stake. How naval battles could be recreated with model boats if you slowed the camera to the correct speed and how with a bit of latex and make up, you could turn John Hurt into the Elephant Man.

From five years old, up to about 13, Special effects were absolutely all I cared about in films. The idea that you could just make anything you could imagine. It just blew my mind. It also looked like such fun. I wanted to be a creature operator as much as anything. I wanted to play with that stuff. I mean, that’s what it was, those guys were doing exactly the same as I was at home – they were making toys and playing with them. I didn’t understand why my dad would put on a suit and trudge off to sell linen everyday when he could have been playing with creatures and spaceships like those other grown-ups.

My hero became a guy called Rick Baker. All of the books and magazines I read on the subject singled him out as the king. And he was cool, he had a beard and long hair and he built the best of the best. He did the incredible make-up effects for An American Werewolf in London – they were so good, the academy CREATED an Oscar for him. Years later, he’d slam the academy for snubbing his work on Bigfoot and the Hendersons, which they claimed wasn’t technically make-up. They were wrong. He was right. And Righteous. I read that Baker got his start as a teenager, he’d been doing make-up as a hobby and had been roped into creating aliens for the cantina scene in Star Wars. I was a teenager! I had to get on this thing if I was ever going to be his peer.

The only animatronics company I was aware of in the UK was Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London. So I wrote to them and told them I wanted to work with them, they didn’t have to pay me yet, but I would work hard. I had a fantasy of, at 13, packing my bags, saying goodbye to my parents and moving to London to make monsters. It should also be pointed out that at that exact time, Henson made a TV film called Monster Maker in which a 13 year old kid got to join an FX company and help build creatures. It seemed like my destiny. Then sent me back a very nice letter on Henson headed paper thanking me for my interest but politely asking me to go away. I wrote back, explaining they had made a mistake, they didn’t reply again. It gave me such a thrill 20-odd years later, when I was one day accompanying my girlfriend to her GP and she casually mentioned the health centre had been Henson’s creature shop! I finally got through the doors.

Anyway, my parents bought me a subscription for my birthday each year to a magazine called Cinefex, which is the FX industry publication. It’s still going strong. Each issue takes two or three major new films and, thanks to Cinefex’s total on-set access, took you through the entire film explaining (and illustrating with incredible photos that you never saw crop up anywhere else) how every single effect was conceived and executed. it was like having the keys to the sweet shop. I learned about the incredible artistry of matte paintings and optical compositing. About miniatures and the painstaking detail of stop-motion (Phil Tippett, my almost-Baker grade hero, went on to invent go-motion). My favourites were always Animatronics and Prosthetics, though. turning people into monsters and operating their faces with radio controls. Amazing.

I’d try to recreate Hollywood effects with my camcorder at home. The first time I was left at home completely alone for a couple of days, I damned near burned down the garage trying to film a matchbox car exploding (I filled it with match heads, doused it in white spirit and blasted it with the lit spray of a can of Denim deodorant.

At 15, everyone in my school year had to do work experience for a week. I assumed there were no special effects companies in Oxford so sat flicking idly through the Yellow Pages to see if any businesses at all seemed to be worth approaching and bearable for a week.On a whim, I decided to look up ‘animatronics’ and, to my utter amazement, there was a section and a company under it in Oxfordshire. I phoned them up and they said I was welcome to spend a week with them. It was one of the most exciting, magical and illuminating weeks of my life and in some ways I’m forever in their debt. The company was called Crawley Creatures.

Although it was in Oxfordshire, it was a really long way away. I had to take a couple of buses and then someone from the workshop would pick me up and drive me all the way out to their little industrial estate by the river. The place was run by a couple of guys – Nigel Trevessey and Jez Harris – who to this dazed 15 year old – were basically the coolest guys on the planet. Nigel had worked on Willow and The Never-Ending Story. Jez had worked on Return of the Jedi!!!! I don’t think he thought I believed him when he told me that, so the next day he brought in his Revenge of The Jedi sweatshirt to prove it. When I checked my ‘making of’ video – there he was – he built an operated Jabba The Hutt’s eyes! If all of this weren’t cool enough, they had both worked with Rick Baker, building the apes in Greystoke. They even had a couple of the Ape heads kicking around.

Their workshop was full of the most exotic bunch of people I’d ever seen, all working at their own schedules (I thought work was regimented like school, these people just swanned in when they felt like it, picked up tools and made cool things!) They all had stories too. One guy had just come off Alien 3 and he told me all the juicy gossip that only ever came out when the Quadrilogy DVD box set was released two decades later. He’d worked on the scene where the alien burst out of the ox but the whole scene had been scrapped while production was still ongoing. There was a girl who’d just come off Nightbreed, she had made Cabal’s teeth. I had a horrible crush on her. A frizzy haired guy called Mike, who really took me under his wing, made a point of explaining everything he was doing as he went along. These people were lovely and generous and funny and that was the first time in my life that I was ever treated like an adult. They never talked down to me or exerted authority, they were really inclusive and encouraging.

My first day there was horrible, they were building some enormous phone costumes for an advert. The way they did this was to initially sculpt them out of polystyrene. The way you do this is with firm brushes, you just take a huge block of polystyrene and brush it down until it’s the right shape. This means you create millions of static-energy charged little poly balls. My job was to bag those up. They didn’t have a hoover. I had to dump handfuls of those damn balls into black sacks, the second i’d let go, they’d all statically cling to my jumper or hair. It was horrible, but I worked hard and, I think, earned their respect and they never asked me to do it again. Mike taught me how to cast a mould. Starting by painting the inside of the mould with layers of ammonium-stinking liquid latex, setting each layer by blasting it with a hairdryer, then combining two liquid chemicals which, when poured together into the mould would quickly set into a firm spongey texture which could be pulled from the moulds complete with latex skin and then painted.

The main project they were working on at that time was a TV movie of The Lost World, so the place was filled with dinosaurs – some finished and playable with, others still being sculpted from clay, ready to be cast in moulds. They taught me how to build a wire armature, how to build up the clay and how to sculpt it. What they really taught me that week was that, as wonderful experience as it had been and as fantastic an environment as that workshop was, it wasn’t the job for me. I didn’t have the artistic skill to create and sculpt, I didn’t have the technical skill to build, wire and operate and i didn’t have the lung capacity for working with chemicals. Rather than disappointed, I came away from the experience super-charged and with steely resolve to write and direct films instead. I still want to make a monster movie one day.

Fast forward a few years and I cancelled my subscription to Cinefex. Why? Because it had ceased to be interesting. The photos of strange, exotic creatures had been replaced with photos of anemic-looking men sat at computer monitors. The rise of CGI had begun and I had no interest in it.

There’s no magic to cinema now, you see. Because the answer to every question is ‘they did it on a computer’. It’s impressive what can be done on computers, but then… it isn’t magic anymore. They haven’t fooled us, they haven’t created something. There’s no smoke or mirrors, no mystery, I’d even go so far as to say… no craft.

I rewatched Greystoke last week for the first time in ages. The apes in it are wonderful. Sure, it’s obvious they are actors in special suits but that means there is a real performance to it. Real pathos. Real magic. In the same week, I saw the new Planet of the Apes trailer – with all CGI apes. It looked like a cartoon.

I saw a clip from the new Transformers film a couple of days ago. A robot flies through the air, runs up a building with everything exploding around him and a skyscraper fell in half. It looked like I was expected to be impressed. But it was just a cartoon to me. There was no magic. Then I watched a film I had never seen before – Gorgo. A monster film from the 60’s in which a huge Godzilla rip-off stomps all over London. Go on – guess which impressed me more. Gorgo was a 60’s cheapo but there were moments which genuinely blew me away. Although I knew it was a man in a suit stomping over a model city, it was incredibly well done. The model effects were wonderful and epic. At one point, I let out a ‘WOW’ when they tranquilize the monster and drive him across Picadilly Circus on a huge flatbed truck – they had built a full-size monster and actually gone out there and filmed it. That was cool! and impressive! The sheer number of extras they had running around the streets int error amazed me. Cinema has been using CGI crowds since Forrest Gump but to see that many real people running screaming about the streets of London was genuinely impressive. As was a sequence where the hero escapes into the underground, only for Gorgo to smash through the tunnel after him. I still don’t know how they did some of those shots. That, to me, is magic.

And I miss it.

Published in: on July 1, 2011 at 9:25 pm  Comments (2)  

Toying with my affections.

So, I’m writing this blog as a request. My friend Allison has apparently married a ‘collector’ and she tells me there was a certain ‘unpleasantness’ when she suggested he throw out his collection of Simpsons cereal boxes. Now, Allison’s a chunk older than me, I don’t know how old her guy is but – seriously – Simpsons cereal boxes? What a loser. Of course, if some girl, or wife, whatever, suggested I get rid of my original 1978 C3PO’s Star Wars cereal box, that would be a different matter. That would be mean and cold. Simpsons, though? Jesus. What’s up with that guy?

So, Allison asked me to explain the ‘geek collector mind’, not even a week ago, my significant other asked me to do exactly the same thing. And I think it is worth exploring, the only thing which holds me back, honestly, is the danger of changing whatever perception you, dear reader, might have of me. I feel the rather cowardly need, going into this, to stress that I’m not proud of my collector side. I’m proud of my collection and it brings me a lot of kind of happiness and satisfaction but I really don’t define myself by it. Maybe it defines me, somewhat. And I’m OK with that. But I don’t consider myself a collector as such. In fact there is no rhyme or reason to my collection, it’s just a bunch of stuff I like to have around. It’s just stuff. But I like it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s just a side of me. So, here’s the deal, I’ll be completely honest and open with you about it and you’ll accept that it’s a mere strand of my personality and you’ll agree to define me by my more intelligent and erudite blog posts? OK? OK.

So, where to start…

We went for a family lunch for my Dad’s birthday last year and my sister and brother-in-law gave me my belated birthday present – the recently released action figure of Sylvester McCoy as the seventh incarnation of Doctor Who (eighth, if you include the 60’s movie version played by Peter Cushing but, I’m told by those geekier than myself, we don’t.)

I was excited about this. I had asked for him, as he would complete my collection of Doctor Whos (Doctor Who’s? Doctor Whose?) who stand together happily around their TARDIS on the bookcase in my study. As we were discussing the final figure I need to finish the set (I know I just said the collection was now complete with the addition of McCoy, but there is the contentious issue of Doctor ‘8’ as played in a single, lamentable, American TV movie by Paul McGann), I glanced over to my girlfriend and struggled to read her expression.

In the car on the way home, she asked me to explain the Doctor Who toy thing. I told her it wasn’t a ‘thing’, I just liked the idea of having the Doctors all stood there around the TARDIS. You know, in my study. I became immediately defensive and pointed out that Gary – my brother-in-law – had ALL of the figures including every variation of Dalek and every variation of the Doctor’s costumes for each actor  and that I was only collecting one each of the Doctors. And Gary isn’t even weird, so me just having the Doctors is nowhere even approaching weird. It’s not obsessive. She hadn’t said that it was obsessive. Or weird. So I was rambling and justifying like a… weird obsessive. Which I’m not. Anymore.

‘It’s just.. I was in your spare room the other day… and it was….’ She’d never really had reason to go in the spare room before. I tend to visit her in London rather than her make the voyage out to the sticks and, when she did, I have to admit that I’d always made a subconscious point of keeping the door shut, but on a quest for socks I had inadvertently lead her into what she knows as the spare room, I pompously call the study (fuck you, there’s a desk in there) and, to the select few I deem worthy of the guided tour, is known as… The Den of Geek.

The Den of Geek felt like a necessity when I bought this house. It’s a ‘character property’ meaning it’s really old and kind of ‘charming’ Well, the front half is, in the 60’s they extended the back so once you’re past the living room threshold, you could be in any suburban semi in the country. But the living room and bedroom are kind of olde worlde and I knew off the bat that filling them with the plastic pop culture detritis that I have amassed since childhood would be kind of tasteless and, now in my thirties, I kind of don’t want to be surrounded by that stuff so much now. I’d moved from a 60s build townhouse which looked amazing draped in kitschery, but I felt I’d got that out of my system and felt no need to fill the cottage with crap. By containing my filthy secret to one small room at the back of the house, I could give the outward appearance to visitors of maturity but also be able to hang out in a room filled exclusively with stuff I really dig.

There’s one of those big cubey Ikea shelving units against the back wall, rammed with books and work stuff. On top of that, I display my favourite geekery. Rocky Balboa and Clubber Lang slug it out once more in six-inch chunky plastic. just beneath them, the Muppets hang out backstage on the Muppet Theatre Playset (which despite only being a few years old is, according to ebay, worth a shit ton now) beside the Muppets congregate the forementioned Doctor Who’s and beside them stand the Ghostbusters in their freshly imported 12′, highly detailed glory and, towering above the lot of them is the AT-AT.

Oh. the AT-AT. The AT-AT is, I reckon, at the crux of this whole thing for me. If you don’t know what an AT-AT is, you can google it. Back now? Pretty cool, right? When I was a kid, all I wanted was an AT-AT. I don’t remember if I pestered my parents for one (my mother seems to haunt my comments section so she will, no doubt, tell you in due course) but I knew I wouldn’t get one. I don’t think my folks had much money and although I had quite a few Star Wars figures and might have fantasised about owning the ships and playsets, I think even I saw them as a bit of an extravagance. The thing my mum did tell me was that the kids who got loads of toys were given to them by their parents in lieu of time, attention or care. This is the woman who gave her 5 year old son on his first day of school the brilliant insight that ‘if anyone tries to bully you, it just means their mummy and daddy don’t love them and you should just feel sorry for them’. It was true then and it’s true now, right?

Anyway, she was right, and although I didn’t get an AT-AT through my childhood, my dad once spent a whole day building one with me in the garden out of cardboard and it was HUGE. And he built LEGO with me and taught me how to programme our 48k Sinclair Spectrum and he got me into films. Mum, although not into toys and such distractions, would always be happy to discuss things, was always interested in my opinions and had a wonderful rule which was ‘you can always have books’, any book my sister or I wanted (as long as it as passed a basic merit test) we got. So, I got the love and attention and care and all the good stuff. And I don’t want it to sound like I didn’t have toys, I had plenty. But I didn’t have that kind of expensive 70’s/80’s cool crap. I didn’t have Bigtrak or Omnibot, I didn’t have Castle Grayskull, I didn’t have the Millenium Falcon and I didn’t have an AT-AT.

I guess I have the kind of personality where if I want something, I try to make it happen for myself and maybe that means that there is still a list I’m crossing off. And I’m not alone because that AT-AT is not a vintage one, it was released last year for the adult collector market. That doesn’t mean it is in any way pornographic, it means it’s huge (over twice as big as the original release and more in scale with the action figures) and it’s far far more expensive than any kid could afford. Or really any parent would or should spend. But there’s a market for it.

When I think about it, most guys I know are a collector of some sort.There’s Gary with his full collection of Doctor Who toys and DVDs, there’s Ben – he collects Laserdiscs and Tim Burton stuff, Hank collects first edition Moomin books, Ross and Brian collect comics, other Ben collects vintage camera gear, Tim collects NASA related stuff, Edu’s legendary collection of records, James’s rare VHS collection. Even my less obsessive friends tend to have an awful lot of CDs or books. Guys like ‘stuff’.

One of the best exhibition’s I’ve ever seen was in London a couple of years ago when Mick Jones of The Clash literally moved the contents of his storage unit into a gallery. It was incredible. Like crawling into his head. Amongst the guitars and tour clothes were Carry On memorabilia, toy soldiers, tea cards, novelty cans of ‘London Fog’, huge piles of magazines, records and books. It was the sum of his parts. A man’s influences and obsessions deconstructed. It reassured me that one of my heroes was an amplified version of me in that respect.

I’m a film geek, so my stuff is generally film stuff. But why? There’s a great quote from Billy Connolly which I can neither remember,find or paraphrase well but he essentially said that all men need to make them happy are the things which made them happy as a boy. This makes perfect sense to me. There’s purity to childhood obsessions. Be it watching films, going to football matches, listening to music, obsessing over sports cars, fishing, reading comics or building model airplanes. I think it’s at the core of us and I think it never leaves us and serves as a mainline to restore equilibrium and feel some joy and security. I think it’s a good thing to have that kind of connection to the very core of what made you who you are.

What I think is less healthy is for these touchstones and enjoyable past-times to be used to define yourself as an adult. It’s OK to love Star Trek, but if you’re in your thirties and dressing up as a Klingon on a regular basis, that’s not good. It’s OK to love football but if you’re wearing the strip and getting into fights with rival fans as a middle-aged man, you’re a total fanny. If you spend all of your spare time fishing rather than with your family. That kind of thing.

So, I’ll go in my den of geek a couple of times a day and I’ll sit and read in there, do some work in there, that kind of thing. It gives me a buzz to be surrounded by my stuff. But I’m glad my whole house isn’t full of it. And I’m glad to be a little ashamed of it. Mainly I’m glad to know that I have passion and interests and that I have the capacity to take joy in these quirky little things. I have quite a geeky kitchen too and I smile every time I walk into it and notice certain things.

So, for those who were interested, that’s my overall explanation of the geeky collecting thing. And although I understand the much banded-about biblical quote;

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”

I’ve always appreciated C.S. Lewis’s addendum to that;

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

There now follows a brief glimpse of a few items from the Collection….

I think Sendak’s ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ was the first ‘thing’ I ever fell in love with. I’ve never stopped digging his work.

In the 80’s they advertised Weetabix with a gang of Weetabix skinheads. White t-shirts, braces and bovver boots. I loved them then and have retained a fascination for them. In the kitchen, I have their fan club membership pack and one of the original animation cels on display.

Original box fronts of film tie-in cereals from the 80’s. I’m always on the lookout for the Ghostbusters and Mr T ones too.

V was an American TV series in 1984. Dad used to tape every episode for me. It was written by the brilliant Kenneth Johnson and was a big allegory for fascism. I used to get Starlog magazine each month and in one issue there was a full page advert for this amazing V doll. This I did beg my parents for and I think they did try to help out but back then there was no paypal and stuff, it wasn’t possible to mail order it over from the US. Imagine my joy the day I found this on ebay. Love it.

Plectrums caught at various Cheap Trick gigs. You have to know where to stand. As long as you’re nearish Rick Neilsen when they perform Dream Police, you’ll catch one, he lobs handfuls of them out in the middle 8. I’ve never managed to catch the KISS album they chuck out whilst performing Surrender. To my eternal shame.

I think I’ve blogged about it before but The Incredible Hulk remains my favourite TV show of all time. Meeting Lou Ferrigno was an incredibly underwhelming experience but Bill Bixby was always the better part.

They used to show Jacques Cousteau films on TV in the school holidays and I still love them. The combination of clearly-staged human drama and gorgeous underwater photography is completely unique to him. This is a 70’s model kit of his boat Calypso. I do not possess the skill to assemble it.

Yep, it’s a Flux Capacitor. It’s also signed by Christopher Lloyd on the side.

When I was 8, Manimal was my favourite TV show. It was cancelled after one season. The reason for its cancellation, I discovered many years later upon securing a bootleg of a few episodes, was that it was shit. But I still treasure the annual I got that year.

Various old action figures.

The geek holy grail? Signed by the director (who died last year) and the producer. Maybe one day I’ll get Lucas’s autograph on there and can die a pathetic uber-geek loser.

That’s all you get to see.

Published in: on June 18, 2011 at 1:11 am  Comments (6)  

Half Cut.

last week, I had a very long debate on my Facebook wall with my mate Giles Borg. Giles is a film-maker too and a damn good one at that. If you like indie music and indie films and you haven’t seen his directorial feature debut 1234, then you’ve really missed a trick. Giles is one of my favourite people, he acted as a mentor through the editing of my film. Every time I had a new cut of it, he’d take the time to sit down with me, watch it and help me shape into something effective. He’s very smart and very sharp.

But we disagreed.

And what we disagreed about was the BBFC’s decision to reject the film ‘The Human Centipede 2′ for classification. I don’t want to put words in Giles’ mouth or paraphrase but essentially his point was that censorship is bad and my point was that the BBFC do a good job. This summation does the whole debate no favours and I can’t be arsed to cut and paste it, but that doesn’t matter. This post is not about that debate. But it is what got me thinking about what this blog is actually about.

I’m not a huge fan of modern TV. My TV isn’t even connected to the aerial, I just watch DVDs on it. I always take a look at iplayer and 4od and manage to catch anything I think I would have liked but I could never be one of those people who has the TV on all the time and watches anything indiscriminately. As arrogant and high highfaluting as it might make me sound, a lot of what’s on actually genuinely depresses me. Endless new BBC sitcoms starring Will Mellor, Channel 4’s general switch in its approach to documentary to cover mainly people with physical deformity, talent shows, almost 24 hour coverage of people taking things from their homes to provincial auction houses. It’s all a waste of money, time and a great medium.

Anyway, I work mainly from home and do like to watch a programme whilst having my lunch. Yesterday, I was flicking through iplayer and nothing really took my fancy, so I settled on watching ten minutes of something random. I ended up with a show called ‘Young, Rich and House Hunting’. It’s a curious piece of television. As with all piece-of-shit TV shows made for idiots, it essentially starts with a trailer of things you are about to see in the show itself. A montage of moments including a posh girl singing ‘I want to live here’, a Lamborghini (it might have been a Ferrari, Lotus or Porsche for all I know – one of those cars absolute wankers own, anyway) screeching away from traffic lights, a posh young man in a helicopter, another posh lad playing golf, various posh house interior and exterior shots, two toffs looking at a house joshing ‘this is where the mistress would live’, a posh buffoon waving about a copy of ‘how to be a property millionaire’, posh girls in posh streets and posh spas, posh boys in off-road vehicles and Segways, two drunk poshos scoffing at the average age average people can afford to buy their first homes, shots of poor people on the street followed by shots of poshos popping bottles of champagne, posh girls shrieking ‘and there’s a walk-in wardrobe!’ and general shots of hideous, ostentatious affluence. You get the picture.

This is all accompanied by an estuary-accented voiceover telling us in well-spoken barra-boy that while ‘the nation’s youth is becoming seriously in danger of becoming a generation who will not own their own houses’ we’ll be following the ‘super-rich teens and twenty-somethings’ who will be spending their trust funds and parents’ money on new pads and furnishings. This struck me as fuzzy logic and intrigued me. I always tell my screenwriting students to understand the point of what they’re presenting, to be clear on their motivation. Every show has an agenda, but I couldn’t pin down this one’s. What followed was a really strange show. It followed three ‘super rich’ subjects, all looking for their first homes.

The first pair was two girls, best friends, one a successful model, the other a successful businesswoman who were clubbing together to buy an £800,000 flat in a luxury block. The next pair were a young couple buying a flat for £500,000 in Camden. The final one was a 21 year old daughter of a millionaire hotel magnate who was helping her buy her first investment property to rent out.

Each of these three subjects were presented in a subtly damning manner. The two girls introductory piece of dialogue is a shared joke ‘next year we’ll be in the penthouse!’. The Camden couple, we are informed by Estuary Eddie are ‘buying their first home for half a million… after only seeing it once!’ and the rich daughter is shown telling her estate agent ‘the whole street seems a bit, um, how can I put it? A bit chavvy’

These are our introductions. This is the initial information we are given about these people. In turn, a pair of offensive luvvies, a couple of idiots with more money than sense and a hoity-toity girl who looks down her nose at the average person.

I was suspicious. The show’s makers, although working with these people, clearly had the guns out for them. It was defining them by these three characteristics.

When I was a teenager, I had a brief tango with the notion of poetry. It was very brief. And very bad. My parents sent me on a summer school to try to drag my academic achievements up and possibly pass an A-Level. It was me and a bunch of the poshest kids I had ever been around. I hated them on principle… and also because they were hugely detestable people. I was listening to a lot of The Clash and The Levellers back then and no doubt channeling my burgeoning middle class guilt into the mix and acting out some kind of mad class war in my head. I wrote a clutch of hateful poetry about these people and it didn’t take me long to realise that it said far more about me than it did about them. When I went to university, I finally got to meet actual real rich people and make friends with some of them. One in particular actually shattered my prejudices about people born into wealth. Because, we’re all born into *something* and we all have our advantages and disadvantages, talents and failings. The grass is always greener. I’ve met some real rich assholes but it wasn’t the money that made them that way. I’ve met just as many poor assholes and it wasn’t the lack of money that made them that way. There are cool people and there are dicks and being predisposed to hate someone for their privilege is as dumb as being predisposed for hating anyone for what they are rather than who they are.

So, I guess unlike many of the target audience for this show, I wasn’t going into this despising the subjects for their wealth. They were going to have to work to make me actually hate them and they’re opening gambits didn’t fool me.

For a start, my sister and her husband bought a house after only having seen it once. At least, they got their offer in immediately. I believe they made the offer when they stepped through the door. That’s what happens in a competitive marketplace. Houses sell fast, there isn’t time to dither. I’ll add that my sis and her husband aren’t rich, they’re normal people like us who work and don’t come from rich families. They’re actually not ‘normal’, they’re fucking awesome, but you get my point. When I was house hunting myself, estate agents would tell me ‘you’ll want to get an offer in today if you like it’ whilst I was booking the appointment over the phone.

Then there’s the girl who’s looking to invest. When the narrator mentions her father, he calls him ‘Daddy’. It’s quite a subtle linguistic thing but the difference between being told ‘financial assistance from her parents’ and ‘daddy’s help’ is pretty huge. ‘Look at that spoiled cow!’ we think ‘Daddy’s little girl, getting anything she wants!’ Well, that’s actually what happens in a lot of cases. I couldn’t have got my mortgage without my parents’ help (some months I can’t even PAY it without a little parental grace loan). They got their first house with some parental help. Most of my friends who own their homes had to get their parents to at least guarantee the loan. When I have kids, you’re damn right I hope I’ll be in a position financially to help them out. Oh, and as for her declaring the street as being ‘a bit chavvy’. How many of us hunting for houses haven’t said or thought exactly the same thing?

The penthouse girlies, despite being painted as vacuous poshos, clearly work quite hard to pull down the kind of dollar they’re rocking. No, not in factories or bars, but it’s obvious they’re careerist and I have no issue with that. What I took issue with was the jaunty music playing in the background of their segment. you know how these shows usually aren’t too subtle with their choice of backing music, right? Selecting a pop staple which thematically ties in to what’s going on screen. For a while there, you couldn’t see a daytime TV with multiple dogs in it which didn’t use the track ‘Who let the dogs out?’ Or someone walking on a sunny day to ‘I’m walking on sunshine’ – you understand what I mean, a very literal approach to music licensing. Well, the track the makers chose for these two was used a bit more subtly, it didn’t have a vocal track on it but was bouncy and dynamic and then the penny dropped. It was the Cee-Lo Green track ‘Fuck You’. How’s that for subliminal, eh?

And so the show continued, pretending to be an enjoyable show about house hunting but actually being a hatchet job better called ‘rich cunts buy houses you couldn’t even dream of setting foot in’, the reasonable-sounding narrator constantly dropping in reasonable-sounding facts about how rich or insane the people are like Iago whispering in the audience’s ears. At no point does the show focus on the actual houses – there are very few decent interior style shots, two things became very clear to me, very quickly. Firstly, this is a show designed to whip the audience up into a frenzy of hatred for the wealthy and secondly, there was no way in hell the production team told the people participating in it what the show was called or focused on. A complete, wicked hatchet job.

Today with my lunch I watched ‘You’re Fired’, the companion show to The Apprentice. I have a huge soft spot for The Apprentice. I know it’s just a Simon Cowell rip-off for a more refined audience but isn’t it fun, eh? The companion show, if you haven’t seen it, takes the person who got fired on this week’s show and offers them a bit of a requiem. As every week, you find yourself going ‘Oh, he seems alright, actually’. Even last series, where we spent so long detesting the evil STUART ‘THE BRAND’ BAGGS, when he finally appeared on You’re Fired, all was forgiven and we ended up going, as ever ‘Oh, he seems alright actually’. The reason that they ‘seem alright’ is because it’s a different format. It’s a live-style show. Is it actually broadcast live? I don’t know, anyway, it gives the contestants a chance to actually talk and answer questions. And they seem alright because they’re not being edited to look the opposite.

The Apprentice is a master case study of editing. I think you have to have made films to really understand how editing works. But essentially, if you film someone for a whole day and are cutting a film only a few minutes long, you choose carefully what you will show of them and why. So, in any one day, we might be funny, grumpy, lazy, spiteful, generous – any one of Snow White’s mates at any one time but we go through the whole spectrum because we are human beings and humanity is a bit like that. But that does not make for compulsive viewing. So, we’re shown only the highlights – all we see of Susan is her whining, all we see of Jim is his bullying, all we see of Zoe is her laziness, and so it goes. To the degree that when we hear them talking openly at the end of it, we’re amazed they’re not the utter wanker we had been geared to expect. Every confused glance, moment of thumb twiddling and shake of the head is weaved together and presented to us with a direct and cynical agenda.

TV is rife with this.

I don’t think it’s censorship we have to worry about so much as the agenda of manipulation in what we DO get to see.

Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 3:04 pm  Comments (10)  

Badges of Honour.

I have a new pal! His name is Jonathan too and, if you’re any kind of film/TV geek, you should follow him on Twitter. His handle is @SquidyUK. His recent flurry of tweeting has been fantastic as he’s been clearing out his childhood home and finding incredible, awful, baffling pop culture detritis. A kindred spirit. My attic is full of boxes full of such beautiful crap and it’s a wonderful thing to see somebody else’s ‘collection’.

Recently he posted a picture of a couple of Muppets badges from the ’70s and that suddenly reminded of something lurking beside the filing cabinet in my spare room. Last year, when my mum had asked me to clear out my old bedroom, I’d found a drawstring bag at the back of the wardrobe and opened it to reveal a long forgotten collection. My first ever collection. Well, technically it was a joint collection with my sister. Although I went on to avidly collect various things, right into adulthood, this was where it began. Looking at it now, it seems it was quite a passive collection. I really don’t remember the origins of a lot of the badges but just by looking at them generally, I can’t imagine actually having asked for many of them. I can’t remember actually wearing ANY of them. I guess in the 70’s and 80’s you just gave kids badges. Like some strange ritual that neither side really understood ‘Kids seem to like these things’ ‘it seems to make adults happy to give me these things’

Does it still go on? I still see badges of band logos and stuff but do you still get weird corporate badges? They’re probably all… downloadable or something now, right?

Anyway, here are some highlights from my collection. I’d say it spans from when my sister was a baby in ’73 up until I no longer cared in 1987. I’d have been 11 then. The golden age seems to be around 1980 – 1984.

So, here we go…

What’s ‘BIG ‘G”? No idea.
What’s ICE? Haven’t got a clue.
Hall 5 of where? Nope.

What were we seeking? I don’t know, we were young. Seriously, I have no idea what we were seeking or where we got the badges from. We weren’t seafaring people.

This is one of my favourites! What’s a ‘surge’? What kind of company is trying to ‘keep business away’? Anyone in Brighton got an answer to these questions?

Proof positive that the UK was getting Matey with the Middle East in the 80’s. Oh, shut up.

A lot of modern advertising copy is just crappy aspirational non-sequitors but in the 80’s the sloganeering was almost impenetrably baffling. ‘GOOD GRIEF’ seems a strange slogan for jeans. Conversely, Austin Rover get right to the point – 1986 WAS industry year. Wasn’t it? 1986? No?

I’m fairly sure my parents didn’t read The Guardian at all. Maybe they did, wore the badge and were offered some form of counseling.

I remember these two well! I think the badges came with one of my comics – Buster, maybe. I was SO excited when these got released. Up until that point, the most exciting tomato-sauce swamped tinned pasta product was Alphabetti Spaghetti which, to be honest, was getting boring by the early 80s. I demanded and, surprisingly, received these as a replacement. Although Invaders were the single most exciting food event of my young life (replaced shortly after by a cola flavoured ice lolly in the actual shape of Mr T), I was genuinely scared of Haunted House. The advert was creepy, I didn’t trust the man doing the voice-over and I had a suspicion that there might be some kind of evil lurking within each can.

I dread to think what I might have done three times at Pizzaland to warrant such commendation.

A bit of philosophy for you, there.

True story: In 1981, when Prince Charles and Princess Di got married, my sister’s class at school went to Roxon recording studios and recorded a song called ‘You’re getting married today!’ (I still remember every word, by the way), the day before the wedding, a copy of the single – pressed on vinyl – was presented to the presumably baffled couple by Sir Jimmy Saville. Oh, and my sister lost her voice on the day of the recording and was told just to mime.

No, you’re absolutely right, that IS a gold MASTER BUILDERS Lego club badge. I might have had a photo in the Lego Club magazine. It might have been very highly regarded and I might have been bestowed the highest honour a Lego… person… can be bestowed.

Who’s John Wilman? I don’t know.
What did he collect? We may never find out.

The years 1930-1980 are generally regarded to have been the golden age of jam-based racism.

Various campaign badges: ‘Save a baby from being born spastic’ that doesn’t sound right, does it? And was there really such a widespread problem with young children not using their postcode that a neon pink elephant needed to be drafted in? Ken 4London – I assume is Ken Livingstone, who my parents hate, so I have no idea where that came from.
I’m so so so happy to have found my Green Cross Code badges! The GCC Man actually visited my school – DAVE PROWSE! The guy who played Darth Vader! The rumour spread around school fast that he was bringing R2D2 with him. He turned up in white and green spandex looking like a musclebound tube of toothpaste and told us to use the GCC (‘WE KNOWWWWWWWW!’ shouted Paul Sanders to my eternal amusement) He then performed a song. I say performed, he mimed to a record. He had to cue our teacher to start the record. Then he sang in front of a room full of children who were young but not young enough to know how hilariously stupid he looked singing ‘Stop, look listennnnnnn….. AND THINK!’ There then followed a brief question and answer session which constituted the constant repetition of ‘why aren’t you dressed as Darth Vader’ and ‘have you brought R2D2 with you?’ in various tones of mistrust.

I didn’t.

It wasn’t.

Apparently, in the ’80s, we weren’t eating enough FLOUR.

My dad used to take me to big computer industry expo things where I’d load up on freebies. I expected to find more, actually, but I think this is worth showing purely for the U.K. Gold badge. i’m amazed that it appears to be the only badge in my collection that proclaims something ‘RULES O.K.!’ As I remember, EVERYTHING in the ’80s ruled O.K.

We were a very literary family.

I’ve often wandered why, in adult life, I have retained an affection for Gordon Hudson & Co Surveyors and Estate Agents. That’s that mystery solved, then!

And finally….

I still am!

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 5:35 pm  Comments (4)  

Newsance.

OMG!!!!

OMG!!!!!!!!!!

O.

M.

G.

A couple of days ago, Twitter and Facebook came alive with shocked linking to a bbc news article about an incident which by now you are tremendously au fait with – the horrifying murder of an English woman in Tenerife. Unfortunately, we no longer live in a world where the simple random murder of an innocent person in a supermarket is either shocking or surprising to us. ‘Did you hear?’ someone could ask of us ‘about that poor person killed in a supermarket in another country?’ and we would raise our eyebrows awaiting what exactly might be so interesting about that. Maybe if it happened in our own town we would be slightly more intrigued ‘Did you hear about the man killed in Sainsburys?’ ‘Which Sainsburys?’ ‘Heyford Hill’ ‘Wow, that’s not my local one but I’ve been there a few times. Wow. Someone killed in a place I’ve been’. But random murder is commonplace, indeed expected to a degree these days. I honestly doubt a day passes on this planet where someone isn’t murdered in a supermarket somewhere.

Of course, the reason this case was so widely reported was the grisly and depraved act which followed the murder. This appeals to a very certain part of the human experience. The part which likes to watch horror films, dipping our toes in to see our boundaries as to what our thresholds are, what we can deal with. It’s thrilling. Can we watch all of ‘Two girls, one cup’? are we brave enough to watch terrorist executions on the internet? How much detail of the Jamie Bulger case can we hear? Dare we pay our tuppence and enter the Freakshow? This testing of our boundaries is titillation. It’s entirely natural and we all do it to some degree.

There are people who exist in these shadowy areas, who make their livings there – novelists, film-makers, musicians, performers, artists whose job it is to take us to the brink and confront us with the darkness and I’d say, on the whole, they provide a good service. The standard human reaction to what they show us is at least mild disgust and at worst genuine trauma. When I was a teenager, I adored horror films, they were like a rollercoaster ride around the edges of my ability to cope which, like a rollercoaster, always let me off somewhere safe.

I can’t watch horror films now. It’s not that I’m a wuss (although I totally am and always was) – I can deal with the gore, I’m actually rather bored by it at this point, it’s other things that disturb me now – the wider implications. When I was 14 there was nothing funnier than seeing an 18 year old jock, dweeb or princess get their head stoved in or their throat slashed. They totally deserved it because they were dumb, arrogant or vain. At 35, the idea of seeing what I now realise to be little more than a child get murdered for a transgression which represents little more than the kind of insecurity-motivated display all teenagers make at some point is kind of repellant. Especially when the audience is laughing and cheering. I really can’t watch horror films now.

I understand the impulse to share videos and stories on the internet of shocking and unexpected incidents. I absolutely get it. I also understand the need to report such incidents. What disgusted me was the amount of airtime that UK television news devoted to it. The simple facts of the case are that a (non-famous) woman was randomly murdered by a man with known mental health problems. He was immediately detained. You can’t tell me that cases just like that don’t happen daily and go unreported outside of local news. Admittedly, what the murderer then did to the body was shocking. But that’s NOT NEWS. That detail is titillation. The reporting of that detail – the focus on that detail – is not only not of the public interest (this is not a serial killer we need to be on the look-out for) but immensely disrespectful to a woman who lead a good life and got to retirement age. But this is her 15 minutes of fame. This is what she will be known for. Yesterday evening, the breaking news was that the press were allowed to name her and show us a photo. A photo that nobody looked at and said ‘she seems nice’ but instead used to help fill in detail of the grislier parts of the story.

How incredibly disrespectful to her and her family and her friends.

To make it worse, BBC News screened footage of her body being removed in a bag from the scene. Why would we need to see that? To see if the bag is shorter than we might expect? To help us visualize. They show us eye-witnesses lapping up the attention of multiple camera. Crowds of tourists stood on balconies hoping for a glimpse of something red. They bring us back to the UK where a camera team have been despatched to the victim’s old home town and some poor bemused old lady who has been cajoled into letting them into her front room where the best she can offer is ‘she was very well liked’

This isn’t news.

News should inform us, educate us and warn us. This case is unimportant to a British audience. With the greatest sympathy and respect to the victim, I’m sure British ex-pats are murdered every day, all over the world. The only reason the whole country needs to be informed of one isolated murder would be if the victim were of public note, if the murder had wider political implications or if people needed to be aware that the killer were on the loose. The job of the BBC news is not to titillate or to attempt to swell viewing figures by doing so.

Amazingly in last night’s news bulletin, the follow-up story was that of an Iranian man who had been sentenced, owing to their retributive law system, to being blinded by acid after he had thrown acid into the face of a woman who had declined to marry him. The reporting of this story was absolutely intriguing. At no point were they defending the man (he is indefensible and though many of us think law should rise above barbarity, there is always a part of even the best-motivated person thinking ‘fuck him! that’s exactly what he deserves!’) and also at no point were they condemning the Iranian court. It was masquerading as one of those cases where a woman is stoned to death for adultery, except there was no righteous indignation. It was a horrible man who was – maybe uniquely to those of us in the west – being punished apropos the crime. There was no actual news to this case. They just, again, twice in one bulletin, wanted to tell us something disgusting. Something grisly. The case had no wider implications or narrative to us. Had this man actually KILLED the woman and then got sentenced to death, the case would never have been reported over here, let alone by the BBC.

But they got to tell us something grisly. And this time, they got to show us copious amounts of footage of his victim. Face ravaged and gnarled by the attack. Footage of her made up most of the case. Holding photos of her former self, stood talking on a mobile phone, sat in the courtroom.

It amazed and deeply saddened me to see these two cases get such wide and lurid ‘news’ coverage yesterday. Especially on the BBC which, in these days of ‘commercial news’ needs to lead by example in the worth and purpose of the stories it chooses to broadcast.

Published in: on May 15, 2011 at 8:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Sitting on the doc of the day.

Just to pre-empt some of the responses that I expect to this blog, I’d like to confirm that I am bitter, immature, have a serious case of sour grapes and am currently throwing my toys out of the pram. I will not defend myself against any such assertions. I do, however, think that sometimes bitterness and immature responses can be justified and that once in a while, one must throw their toys out of the pram to draw attention to an issue that might well be selfish but also has wider implications.

As regular readers will know, I made a film. A music documentary. If you want to know about the film itself, you can go HERE

A potted history of the film would read like this:

I decided to make a documentary. I made it completely independently with no funding. Two of my best friends – Ben and Hank – helped me. It took a couple of years but eventually we finished the film. We put the project on a crowdfunding site called indiegogo.com to raise the money to have the film professionally mixed and graded. We raised over $30k from complete strangers. When we finally, recently, screened the finished film to a cinema of industry types we got reviews like THIS and THIS and, to our amazement, a bunch of interest from BBC 6MUSIC which resulted in Radcliffe & Maconie inviting members of radiohead on their show to talk specifically about my film. Then Adam Buxton of 6Music legends Adam & Joe watched the film and dedicated a whole chunk of their show to discussing the film and the themes of it (both radio clips can be heard on the film’s website above)

So, an independent film with a bit of buzz behind it.

The traditional route-to-market for independent films is through film festivals. There are literally thousands of these worldwide now and, the basic gist of them is that film-makers and film industry types flock to any given city for a few days where the festival screens the best (and often worst) of the current new films looking for distribution and the delegates get to mingle, socialise and talk business. Film festivals are wonderful things. A huge variety, almost a lucky dip, of films. At the end of most festivals, there’s an awards ceremony and the ‘best’ ones are crowned as such and given a bunch of publicity and ‘heat’ within the industry. It gives a pathway for independently made films to make it out into the world and the awards give the films a commercial legitimacy that rewards distributors who pick them up. It’s a good system.

Well, it was a good system.

Film festivals have become highly commercial ventures in their own right now. Back in the day, the only truly glamorous one was Cannes. Now, every festival tries to be as high-profile as possible, with as many stars and ‘BIG’ films as it can feature and that comes at a price. The people who pay that price are the true independent film-makers.

This week, I experienced my first taste of (what i consider to be) this injustice.

Let’s swirl and tumble back in time all the way to February. My film was freshly finished. Hot off the press. It’s important to select which film festival you premiere your film at – a premiere is a big deal for a festival, some (notably Edinburgh, the UK’s most prestigious festival) won’t accept films that aren’t premieres. We opted for the Sheffield DOCFest – in doing so, nixing any chance of an Edinburgh screening. Sheffield is the biggest documentary-based film festival in the UK. It attracts the biggest names in docs (this year – Morgan Spurlock, Nick Broomfield, Molly Dineen, Albert Maysels and Barbera Koppel to name but a few) and is the biggest gathering of documentary industry types in the UK. We reasoned that this was the only place we should launch. Sales agents, distributors and broadcasters would all be in the one place and our film would hopefully get a screening slot with a bit of celebration around it.

We paid our submission fee and sent the DVDs up to Sheffield. I couldn’t imagine not getting a screening. As far as I know, the only two significant UK music documentaries ready for release this year are my film and Upside Down – the story of Creation Records. DOCFest have a whole Music docs section, so I guess I assumed we were a shoo-in.

This confidence was furthered about a month ago when a chap called Charlie Phillips from DOCFest sent me an email. He explained that Sheffield docfest were creating some kind of presence on Indiegogo.com where they would recommend projects for funding and would we like to be a part of it? I pointed out that we only had 2 weeks left on our campaign and we had already at that point exceeded our target of $30k. He didn’t mind, and I figured the extra publicity couldn’t hurt so said yes.

We took this as a good sign. Also, they started using the tagline ‘sex & docs & rock n roll’. That seemed promising.

Then, last week, we got an email rejection. I spent the best part of a day in shock. I just… couldn’t.. understand… it. Neither could Ben, Hank, or anyone else around the film. Since the 6Music coverage and the early reviews (not to mention a 9.2 rating on imdb) we had just got the confidence that this isn’t just a film we love, it’s a pretty damn good little flick. It’s finished to a high standard and well received, so it couldn’t have been rejected on a quality basis. It features bands like Radiohead, Supergrass and Foals, so it couldn’t have been rejected on a commercial basis. It was a huge crowdfunding success, so it couldn’t have been rejected on a technical or ideological basis. The more we thought about it, the more we realised that it just must have been a mistake. Hank took control and started calling/emailing the organisers to get some kind of answer. The main answer he got was that they have a no-feedback policy.

Meanwhile, Ben poked about online and found THIS and THIS and a press release dated April 6th which states:

April
 6,
 2011:
 Sheffield
 Doc/Fest
 and
 IndieGoGo
 is
 announcing
 a
 multi-­‐year
 
partnership
 that
 aims
 to
 significantly
 open
 up
 and
 promote
 crowdfunding
 projects
 
and
 opportunities
 to
 European
 investors
 and
 filmmakers.
 The
 partnership
 will
 create
 
Crowdfunding
 Fellows,
 selected
 by
 Doc/Fest
 from
 pre-­‐existing
 IndieGoGo
 projects
 
and
 actively
 promoted
 throughout
 the
 international
 documentary
 community.
 

They then list 5 projects which have been named ‘crowdfunding fellows’ – mine being the first one discussed.

The first thing that surprised me about this were that firstly they weren’t keen to actually ‘actively promote throughout the international documentary community’ one of their hallowed ‘fellows’ by… well… screening it. The second was when I saw the ‘TOTAL FUNDS RAISED’ section of their indiegogo page. To my eyes, they are laying claim to have raised – or been instrumental in raising – over $64k. Over $32k of that figure was money that we had raised independently before they even emailed us.

I think that’s pretty cheeky. I would let it slide if they were actually supporting us by screening the film but they aren’t.

Hank had been dealing with the situation admirably – he told Charlie politely that we felt we had been used by them and tried to get some kind of response from Hussain Currimbhoy -the festival’s Film Programmer. We were still sure this must be a mistake.

Today, we received the following email from Hussain:

Hi Hank,

As per the terms and conditions of entry we do not offer feedback or have any obligation to justify our selections to entrants. We get close to 2000 films each year and its just not possible to do this.

But since you are insisting I must advise that I will respond to you after the festival about this. All I can say for now is that the film was previewed by our panel, and it was not recommended for the programme. I then viewed it myself and felt that while its good, like many other independent films we get, it does not have the international appeal we look for in all our films. Furthermore, we have a lot of music films in the programme. But I did not feel your film had the emotional pace or impact many of our other music films deliver.

As I say I will be in touch after doc/fest as its a very busy time for us now. I would really appreciate it if you stop emailing me and calling me. I hope this is clear.

Best wishes,
Hussain

Wow. So, it wasn’t a mistake. Our film just wasn’t up to scratch.

I went on to their website to see this year’s successful list of music documentaries. You can see it here:

SHEFFIELD DOCFEST 2011 MUSIC DOCS

I was shocked for a few reasons. Firstly, in that whole list, excluding the 6 minute short, there are only TWO films from the UK. The first of these – the film about Queen has NO online presence at all. Go ahead and google it. That struck me as odd, so I looked up the director. Matt O’Casey – a solid director of TV docs. It would seem that this is not an indie film looking for distribution but a doc produced by, most likely, the BBC or channel 4 – both of whom are major corporate sponsors of the festival.

The second UK film is a doc called Sound it Out. This film has not only already premiered at SXSW festival but is already available on DVD in the UK. It has been released. I bought a copy two weeks ago on Record Shop Day. I thought it was OK but not particularly illuminating, unique or engaging. I don’t want to pick on this film as I have no beef with it at all but the other thing that should be considered is that it is also an indiegogo project but Docfest didn’t select it as a fellow. Also, just going by the figures, our film raised almost ten times as much money and had almost ten times as many donors – which is a pretty fair equation for public demand to see it, I would have thought.

The other music docs are from around the world and have all either had previous screenings at big festivals or were already sold to big distributors.

In other words, they all came either on approval from other festivals or from Docfest’s sponsors. Most incredibly, one of the music docs they are screening is the Justin Bieber film Never Say Never. This has not only already been released commercially but has made THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS. So nice of docfest to support it.

I don’t know about the rest of the festival, but I’d wager that not one single music documentary at this year’s docfest came through the submissions programme. There is no transparency in their process and they do not enter into feedback.

I don’t think I made a film below the quality threshold for this festival. I question the intuition of Hussain Currimbhoy (who is a shadowy figure both on their website and google – I’d love to know what qualified him for the position he holds) and I think Charlie Phillips is a straight-up duplicitous bastard.

The message they send out contradicts the ethos they espouse on their site:

Doc/Fest is very proud to support the development of emerging talent, providing educational and networking opportunities, outreach training schemes and a structured internship and volunteer programmes all year. The festival itself is a brilliant forum for new talent to meet established filmmakers and producers and buyers. If you work in the documentary film, factual TV or digital industries you can’t afford to miss Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Film festivals should be the conduit for the independent films and emerging talent to meet the industry. Many don’t function that way now. You only have to look at the list of sponsors HERE to see that Sheffield probably doesn’t operate honestly in that way. That kind of sponsorship has an agenda. Many of the films already have deals in place and the distributors use the festivals as a source of free and easy publicity.

I guess ultimately, I’m saying that it’s a rotten state of affairs when a truly independent British documentary, sincerely looking to find it’s route to market can’t even get a screening at the UK’s premier documentary film festival.

And, yes, there’s always the chance that I’ve just made a not-very-good film that didn’t warrant inclusion. You’ll just have to see it for yourself before you can develop an opinion on that.

So, here I sit, upset, dejected, bitter and with the taste of sour grapes in my mouth. The toys have all been thrown. As for the immaturity… well… I’ll just leave you with the email I sent to Hussain Currimbhoy this afternoon…

Dear Hussain,

I would tell you to stick your festival up your arse but I’m sure that’s currently far too full what with all the cocks of the broadcasters who back you rammed up there.

If you genuinely think that Sound It Out or the fucking Justin Bieber film has more ’emotional pace or impact’ than ACPG then you are at best an idiot and at worst an idiot with no fucking clue or integrity.

Actually, fuck it, stick your festival up your arse.

Yours sincerely,

Jon Spira.

Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 10:18 pm  Comments (3)  

You’re (probably) wrong.

OK, this post is a rebuttal to a blog posted today by my friend Tom Greeves. You should go and read that first, there is really no point in reading any more of this post until you have read his. Click here:

I love Tom dearly, he is a good friend and a good man but we have very little common ground politically. He is a Tory. He works for the Conservative party in various roles and, as a blogger/writer/media pundit generally espouses their party line, although he’s not afraid to criticise the actions of various MPs, it is usually in defence of the wider good of the Conservative common cause. I don’t know what I am. I have never successfully allied myself with any one political party. I’m certainly to the left of centre. I think I’m probably, in the traditional sense, a liberal rather than a socialist. I’m certainly not a communist, I don’t believe in enforced equality of wealth, I do believe that people should have the right and motivation to improve their quality of life. I believe in the welfare state as a structure of support rather than a choice of dependency. I think the elderly and ill should be taken care of and everyone else should work and support themselves. I think that our until-recent policy of free healthcare and free education was almost an evolutionary step in the development of the human race.

Tom’s blog bothered me. It bothered me because, although I believe it was written with sincerity it patronizes the reader into potentially believing that they have missed the point of the taxation issue whilst fundamentally missing the point of the wealth issue. He accuses modern political discourse as looking at things “myopically and one-dimensionally.” and then goes on to enforce that by doing so himself. He misses the biggest picture of all. As, I feel, most right wing politics often do. When your politics are based on the protection, preservation and bettering of one’s own situation, it acts as a refusal to see yourself in the broader context as part of a community, country, species and planet.

I should start by saying that he raises some salient points which I agree with. We both believe in progressive taxation (although, to say you didn’t would be like writing ‘I’m a horrible wanker’ on your face). I also wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment “Ministers should consider what taxation levels are fair and reasonable at the same time as calculating what they should spend – and what they can afford to spend.”

But that is where our common ground ends.

Here is the fundamental that prevents me from agreeing with him: I do not believe that any individual should be allowed to amass or control an obscene amount of wealth. I should probably define ‘obscene’. It might surprise you to know that I have little beef with millionaires. I don’t think a million pounds goes terribly far these days. My tiny house is worth a third of that. Most of us who are middle class will probably be millionaires by the time we reach old age. But that is due to inflation. The term ‘millionaire’ is now archaic. The level of relative wealth a million pounds represented in previous decades to today is vastly greater. I’m fine with millionaires. I’m less fine with multi-millionaires. And I’m really not OK with billionaires.

I’m going to address the rest of this directly at Tom, so forgive me the grammatical switch…

Tom,

Your argument is awful. It relies entirely on bluster and fails to address the actual issues that you are dancing around. Early on in your piece, you take care to emphatically state the sentiment “there must be a limit on what one human being can demand of another”.
This is a hugely interesting statement. Context is everything, of course and there are contextual examples in which I would agree with this statement. One of them would be the fact that, in parts of this world, young children work very long hours for very very little money to produce cheap clothing to sell on our high streets. I don’t believe business moguls should be allowed to demand that of them. Closer to home, our healthcare workers have had a pay freeze and as routine work longer than their contracted hours with no overtime in increasingly difficult working conditions. I don’t believe the prime minister should be allowed to demand that of them.

The context you choose to use that quote in is that the ultra-rich should be allowed to harbour an amount of money which they couldn’t ever use for their own material wants even if they were spending hundreds of thousands each day.

There is no shame in success and I see no moral problem in people who have acquired an amount of personal wealth living extravagantly from it. But it is obscene. Obscene for any one person to just squirrel away that kind of money, more money than they could ever need to live or spend to be happy, which could make a significant difference to the greater population. That kind of wealth is destructive.

After a quick google, I found the figure that the richest 10% in the world own 85% of the world’s wealth. That could be a wrong figure – maybe the top 3% own 70%, either way we all know a statistic akin to this is true; a small amount of people own the largest amount of the wealth and power. That is not a good or fair thing.

So, to quote you, maybe I am, at this point, on the edge of my seat, waving my fist at the screen and bellowing “As long as there are people starving in the world we should soak the wealthy! I wouldn’t give a damn if Sir Richard Branson was reduced to owning one very large home and a modest island – he’d cope!”. Maybe I am. Personally, I’d allow him a bit more than that. But he’s worth 4.2 BILLION dollars. That’s a millionaire four thousand times over. I’m not saying that he is a bad man. He is clearly a philanthropist and I believe he is ethical in his dealings. I just don’t think it is ethcial or acceptable within a society that one person be that separated from society in terms of wealth and power.

Because for every Branson – for every benign and charitable billionaire, you have another one who is greedily using his gains to the detriment of the world. I direct you to a DVD I lent you several years ago called ‘Wal-Mart the high cost of low price’ (the rest of you can watch the whole film for free on youtube and I strongly recommend it.) It shows how one family have used their fortune to destroy thousands of families and communities across the world. The Walton family, who still privately own the whole company, are 4 people who are each individually worth about 20 billion dollars a piece. Rather than indulge in philanthropy, these people profit from global exploitation. They have ruined whole towns, put whole communities out of work in America whilst enslaving families in the far east to produce their low cost crap. They have a stranglehold in every area they have a shop and they siphon all of each community’s money into their private bank accounts. They also are heavily subsidised by local and national government and have cost the country millions in healthcare and other expenses. That shouldn’t be allowed. But back to your specific points…

To tell people of modest, average incomes that they could be doing more themselves rather than point out the MASSIVE inequality of wealth is patronising and cold-hearted. Nobody who does an honest day’s work for an average wage should be made to feel guilty about the few luxuries they can afford – a nice bed, some DVDs and a dishwasher. Shame on you, Tom. The top 10% whom you defend have those things AND enough in the bank to buy them another several hundred million times over. Those who work and save for a nice bed and a dishwasher are not in the wrong for doing so and you should feel bad for intimating so.

Especially when you really break it down. The widescreen TV you use as an example for us normal folk to feel bad about? Well, we wouldn’t have wanted it if the ultra-wealthy hadn’t seen a way to make money by needlessly marketing needless technology to us in such a way that we feel socially and culturally backwards for not owning such items.

It’s your defence of such obscene wealth that amazes me. You slam the average man for railing against the billionaires, defending them on the ground that the government has more money as a result of their existence. Well, I question that. You see, the wealthy are greedy and they like to maximise their wealth. So, I think, whenever I have to deal with a call centre in India or see ‘Made in China’ that maybe they aren’t supporting this country so much.

Not to pretend that we have the rosiest past here but Britain was once a manufacturing and agricultural centre. We were a completely self-sufficient country and there was a huge amount of employment. Obviously, even back then, the rich exploited the working class but had we protected agriculture and manufacturing, by now, we’d have a happy country with full employment. We should get MORE from the ultra-rich. Equally global corporations shouldn’t be allowed to appear in our high streets and providers and siphon money away to other countries without being taxed far higher on it.

Out of everything you wrote, this is the most offensive: “They may not feel the pinch like you do, but they’ve made more hospital beds available than you have.” You miss the point that charitable contribution is relative. If a billionaire gives a million to charity, that’s the equivalent of an average person giving £20. Ten million? £200 – do you see where I’m going with this?

Although ten million is a huge amount to give to a charitable cause, to do so whilst retaining nine hundred and ninety million in your bank account is almost insulting. Nobody should have that much money. Oh, and the products, services and jobs they supply to us? Don’t for a second think they do so out of a sense of civil obligation.

“The wealth creators WILL move elsewhere” you tell us. We must bow down to the wealth creators lest they leave us. Well, they can only be wealthy if they get our money. So we should stop them from being able to. If they move elsewhere, we embargo their products. They should not be allowed to hold a whole country to ransom.

The fulcrum of your argument is “It’s human nature to put oneself and one’s family and loved ones first. That isn’t going to change”. Well, you know what? A progressive, civilised society should rise above human nature. It is also human nature to kill, to rape, to steal, to hurt. It has taken a long time to create a society which promotes co-operation amongst people rather than engaging in our base animal instincts. To create a legal structure which protects individuals and communities from the human nature of certain elements within it. Just because it is human nature to jealously guard one’s huge wealth whilst others suffer, it doesn’t mean society should not find a way to protect itself from such behaviour.

The one person you single out for abuse is John Lennon. Which is curious because he is one of the smaller breed of ethical millionaires. A musician who made a lot of money because the music he created resonated with a lot of people worldwide. I think that’s rather nice. He didn’t have to exploit or destroy or change anything to amass a fortune. he just had to compose some songs and sing them. And he’s the one you hold up for abuse. In your book it’s worse to sing a song saying ‘imagine there were no possessions’ whilst owning possessions than it is to amass and retain a fortune through global exploitation.

You see, the skew of your article is all wrong. You’ve written an article berating people for being hypocrites but defending people for hording wealth.

I know which I think is worse.

Published in: on April 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm  Comments (5)