Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Clegg vs Farage - more please

In less than an hour it will happen. The leaders of the two biggest UK wide minor parties will go head to head to argue about Europe. And it could set a useful precedent.

In just about every country that has election debates - and that's an awful lot - there are regularly rows over who should be included and excluded. But they don't all have to be in one messy crowd. In New Zealand, amongst other countries, there are separate debates for major and minor party leaders and it brings greater clarity.

So come 2015 we could put Clegg and Farage, and probably also Natalie Bennett, George Galloway and the Westminster leaders of the SNP/Plaid Cymru (no Alex Salmond, it should be someone actually aiming for Westminster) in their own debate to slug it out, and have a separate one with the two major party leaders. Tonight is just a starter.

Friday, February 28, 2014

We don't all adore the Daily Mail

I've rather lost track of who said what, did what, supported what, opposed what and all the rest in the National Council for Civil Liberties. But one thing has become rather clear - with some exceptions nearly everyone on the right is siding with the Daily Mail and nearly everyone on the left is siding with Harriet Harman. That's not exactly the best circumstances to determine the truth of the matter.

But not everybody on the right is actually a great fan of the Daily Mail - that's no secret but it's not so well known. Often the paper's editorial line leaves many of us annoyed and frustrated. Frequently its fire is unhelpful and sometimes it's turned on the right. But worse still many of its columnists spread vile unnecessarily. I've heard many things said about the paper by my friends of the left (and those who think they're on the left) but I've heard worse things from fellow righties.

As the issue itself, it needs to be considered dispassionately and not through an automatic filter of one's pre-existing view about the Daily Mail, Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey, Patricia Hewitt or Liberty.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Meredith Kercher murder case

I haven't followed the Meredith Kercher case closely. I don't know all the facts of the case or just who is and isn't guilty.

Nor do I understand the Italian justice system.

Judging by the amount of coverage of the matter that probably makes me just as qualified as most of the talking heads on the matter.

A media circus has never served justice well. It just encourages arm chair judges, leads to no end of ill informed belief and few will have their minds changed by the verdict. A young woman died and the pain for her family must be terrible. Is this enormous coverage and attempted media juries really doing any good?

So let's stop all this endless media waffle and let justice be sought and found.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The horror of coleslaw

I don't like coleslaw. And it seems I'm not alone. Mark Evanier hates it with a passion and has even used comics as propaganda against it. News from ME: From the E-Mailbox...

And one of the things that's really offputting about it is the way it's often forced onto you. Luckily over here it doesn't come up on plates too often or maybe I've just been lucky in what I order. Mark has been less lucky in this regard. But when I was younger I was forced to eat the stuff week in, week out.

My first school had a rule that all plates had to be completely cleared before an entire table was allowed to get pudding or leave for the playground. It was aiming to encourage children what they could eat, but a terrible case of punishing an entire group for the faults of one individual. And the system broke down when the teachers serving deviated from the normal practice and refused to let the children decide what they did and didn't have, and instead chose to impose their own opinions on what the children were to eat.

Had this been a standard rule across the board it would have probably been less of a problem. Pupils would have accepted it as the norm and the school might have kept the menu under closer review to remove discomfort. But when it was one rogue element then it became an anomaly. And unsurprisingly this came up with coleslaw.

One day every week this teacher would force a large lump of this horror onto our plates whether we asked for it or not. Requests to have none were batted aside with an assertion of "It's good for you!" No attempt to explain why, either there or in the classroom, just an abuse of power to force it onto us.

What is it about coleslaw that makes people throw aside all the normal rules about choice, whether a teacher in that situation or restaurant staff who refuse to implement customers' requests for none? Why must it be thrust upon diners with no warning or say?

I don't normally believe in great world conspiracies but when it comes to coleslaw I'm prepared to make an exception. And I see I'm not alone with others fighting back. Mark's CB Bears comic story sounds hilarious. More of us need to stand up and declare our dislike.

(I have never heard of the CB Bears before - maybe they never made it over here or maybe I'm just oo young - though from the name it's easy to see what fad they were riding.)

Monday, December 09, 2013

Nelson Mandela - 15 - 12 - 43,000,000

It's taken me a while to compose this but here goes...

 For me there are three numbers that sum up Nelson Mandela's achievement more than anything else.




I can't actually remember Mandela coming out of jail. My parents used to watch the Antiques Road Show whenever we were in but I don't remember watching the edition that was interrupted to show him coming out jail. Maybe I have a rubbish memory or maybe we had gone out that day.

But there is one moment I will remember above all others.

Rugby is normally a game I have absolutely no interest in. I once had a Welsh flatmate who was normally a great bloke but utterly unbearable whenever Wales were playing and/or won. But I couldn't understand or give a damn. At school I almost never played it - at one school only some boys in each year were trained and I applied but was rejected within twenty minutes and despite letters that school made no effort to teach the game to use. At my next school I found we were supposed to have arrived with a comprehensive understanding of the game and I was soon dispatched to the sidelines and treated like an idiot who was sometimes given punishments whenever I dared to ask basic key questions about a game I had no real experience or understanding of and needed to know the basics that the teachers hadn't bothered to teach me. Luckily I soon left that pathetic excuse for an educational institution.

But one afternoon I saw one of the greatest ever moments in the history of rugby. And it had little to do with matchplay.

It was the final of the World Cup. New Zealand had assumed it would be walkover. They soon learnt it wasn't. They lost to the hosts, South Africa, 15-12.

And then came the presentation of the trophy by the host nation's head of state.

For a long time South Africa had been divided in sport as in much else. A footballer talks of how he could go into a restaurant and all the black staff would be demanding their autograph yet none of the white diners could even recognise them. A golfer could claim that the country was a small nation of just five million people - meaning just white South Africa.

But then came the fall of apartheid. The election of Mandela. And much changed. One day showed it more than any other.

The World Cup saw South Africans united as they never had done before. Not immediately but as the national team progressed through the stages it became ever more popular. Nelson Mandela invested a lot of time and credibility in supporting the rugby team. Once they had been the symbol of white South Africa and many opponents of apartheid, Mandela himself, had wished them bad and hoped for their defeat. Yet 1995 so much changed. Mandela even donned the Springboks' shirt and went into the changing rooms to wish the team well before the final match.

The Springboks won 15-12. New Zealand whinged to disguise their team's failings, but South Africa had triumphed. Mandela presented the trophy to the winning team's captain.

That day there were no Blacks in South Africa. No Whites. No Coloureds. No Indians. There were just South Africans. 43,000,000 of them. One man and one game had brought them together as one like never before.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The men who created Doctor Who

Fifty years of Doctor Who

Who would have thought it? It's survived budget deficiencies. It's survived ratings downturns. It's survived egotistical actors. It's survived TV executives without a clue. It's survived sixteen years in the wilderness. It's come all this way.

Many hands went into the creation of the series and others came up with the ideas that made it last so long, but there were three people who devised the basics in a meeting in March 1963 and ultimately are the show's creators. One is well known in connection with the series, another for his wider television work and the third has now sadly been forgotten.

C.E. Webber is by far the most forgotten. A BBC staff writer who wrote up the discussions into the series's first format guide, he ultimately captured the essence of what the series would be and sketched out the basics that would be returned to time and time again. He wrote what was intended to be the first ever story but it was ultimately not used and his material was instead used as the basis for the first transmitted episode though his co-authorship was not cedited onscreen. Much forgotten for a long time, in recent years fan historians have rediscovered his role. There are few photos of him available - the one here is cropped from a group shot where he's sitting next to Enid Bignold (Samantha Cameron's great-grandmother).

Donald Wilson spent 1963 changing jobs as the BBC Drama Department was heavily reorganised, going from the Head of the Script Department to the Head of Serials. He contributed ideas to the creation of the series and then served as what would later be described as the show's "Executive Producer" for its first two years, though he curtailed his input after his reservations about the Daleks were proved wrong. Otherwise he had a long career writing and producing television, with his greatest work being the 1967 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga.

Sydney Newman is by far the best known of the three. He spent much of his career putting people's backs up and doing things differently; with longstanding results such as The Wednesday Play or The Avengers, as well as Doctor Who. But he sometimes opposed what turned out to be big successes with both the Daleks and The Forsyte Saga making it to the screens in spite of him, not because of it. A brash Canadian who had shaken up drama first at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation then at the Associated British Corporation (the ITV weekend franchise for the Midlands and the North) before coming to the BBC at the end of 1962 and shaking things up with a strong determiation on realism and the masses instead of just adapting elite classics. In later years he returned to Canada and served as chairman of the National Film Board, where he continued to outrage others and had to have armed guards patrolling the headquarters during the October Crisis.

These three between them came up with the basic ideas for the series, both the character types that the show has returned to time and again, and the core philosophy of storytelling. Unfortunately there has never been a "Created by" credit on the series (and there wasn't an official system for designating particular personnel as a "series creator") but they are not forgotten.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The legacy of John F. Kennedy

Fifty years ago John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And for many it was much more than just a President who died that day.

In many ways the best thing that happened to Kennedy's reputation was Lee Harvey Oswald. * A lot of the problems that exploded in the 1960s came after Kennedy's death. It became possible to believe he would have evaded full involvement in Vietnam and driven through civil rights with less pain than Lyndon Johnson. The facts that Kennedy had already shown he was prepared to go to the brink against Communism and whilst he'd talked the talk on civil rights he'd also pandered to Southern segregationists instead of standing up to them, to the disappointment of many civil rights leaders, just get overlooked.

But beyond his substantial record, or lack thereof, Kennedy's death also came to symbolise the passing of an age when the Presidency was shrouded in mystery and magic. His successor was forced out by a popular uprising that rode the primaries - indeed the Secret Service warned Johnson not to attend the 1968 Democrat convention because it was too dangerous. Then Richard Nixon, the man beaten by Kennedy, brought the office into disrepute. Never again could a US President be looked upon like some deity or superhero. Instead he was a mortal, easy to distrust and mock.

Indeed one can almost neatly illustrate the changes with depictions of contemporary Presidents in superhero comics. Here's a panel from Action Comics #309, which, due to the time lag in publishing, went on sale just weeks after Kennedy's death:

(Superman has just entrusted his identity to the President in order to hide it from Lois Lane and Lana Lang!) Superman's speech now seems ironic but at the time it reflected the awe in which the office was held.

Here's a panel from Captain America #175, published in April 1974, as Cap has a showdown with the evil mastermind behind the Secret Empire, in none other than the Oval Office:

The art may tiptoe around showing the face but from the context there was no hiding who it was meant to be. Months before the final resignation it was possible to say "I knew it was you all along, Richard Nixon!"

But before November 22nd 1963 nobody would have depicted Kennedy as crooked or in the pocket of mobsters.

* Okay the inevitable "whodunit" question. The more I read on this, the more I think the evidence points to Oswald acting alone. Much of the evidence for a conspiracy hinges on dubious evidence, particularly a false seating plan of the limousine that makes the Single Bullet Theory look ludicrous. Yes there are areas where the Warren Commission and all the other enquiries were not as thorough as they could have been but every investigation and murder conviction has loose ends that a defence can build upon without making it so. The idea of a giant conspiracy involving hundreds of people that managed to hide itself from the world yet is known to all the conspiracy nuts just doesn't hold water. And Oliver Stone has a lot to answer for.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The unjust hatred of Pamela Nash

I wonder if the MP for Airdrie and Shotts ever receives misdirected hatred from Doctor Who fans. If so then I hope she's aware that she shares a name with probably the most unfortunate person in the story of the missing Doctor Who episodes.

The Pamela Nash in question is a former employee of BBC Enterprises (now BBC Worldwide), the section of the BBC devoted to commercial and international exploitation of the BBC's output. Amongst her tasks was ordering the creation of copies of programmes for overseas sales. At present out of the 253 episodes of Doctor Who made in the 1960s, only 147 survive (a number that may change very soon). However if the series had never been sold overseas at all then the number surviving would be just 7 - the seven unusually made as & transmitted from film copies that were then kept by the BBC Film Library. It is thanks to BBC Enterprises - and particularly Pamela Nash - that so many early Doctor Whos survive at all.

However that's not how Doctor Who fans traditionally regard Nash. For later on in the 1970s she oversaw the destruction of the BBC Enterprises stock of telerecordings - and not just Doctor Who was affected. She then had an encounter with a fan chasing rumours that some episodes still survived and wasn't the most sympathetic in the encounter.

Now the whole issue of lost television is actually quite complicated and it's easy to point fingers or talk about hindsight without considering the broader reasons. But it strikes me as somewhat ludicrous to focus on the destruction of the overseas sales stock without considering the consequences. The primary causes of the destruction of much material were the old attitude that television was an ephemeral medium with little interest in past performances (the view that the BBC was the "national theatre of the airwaves" applied in more ways than one), severe rights restrictions that limited the scope for repeats & overseas sales after so many years, changes in broadcast standards that saw the arrival of a higher resolution format and colour, and a general lack of belief or supporting money for maintaining a comprehensive archive.

It was primarily the cost of reusable transmission videotape that meant that many, many BBC shows were wiped over when they appeared to no longer be usable. A small number were made on and transmitted from film and some of these transmission prints survived but not all. However nobody ever seems to find a single name to blame in either the Engineering Department or the Film Library. But we have one in the sales division so the finger gets pointed.

Blaming Nash and BBC Enterprises for the holes in the Doctor Who collection is probably on the scale of blaming publishers and booksellers for the gaps in the British Library's holdings (and there are some items that have been lost or which were never held in the first place). At the end of the day Enterprises was focused on selling programmes it currently held the rights for and which were profitable. And it had limited storage space. It could no more be expected to hold onto rights expired old material any more than publishers maintain huge backlists on books either where they no longer hold the rights for or which just don't sell any more. Anyone who's ever browsed a remainder bookshop knows what gems can be found in them but publishers have to take a broader approach.

Nash's "crimes" seems to be:
  • Not recognising that Doctor Who (or for that matter any number of series that were either very popular, had a strong fan following and/or are important in the history of a particular genre) was a special case that should be preserved at all cost.
  • Not realising that it was BBC Enterprises' duty to do things it wasn't its duty to do.
  • Not having the available budget to hand and using it to create a special archive to retain the old shows.
  • Not giving the desired response to a stranger who didn't work at Enterprises who came charging into her office one day freaked out about old film prints being cleared out.
In the last case many of us have had experience of outsiders of one kind or another butting in and telling us how to do our jobs and what our priorities should be; and our reaction is rarely going to satisfy them.

At the moment the Doctor Who world is abuzz with reports that some missing episodes have been recovered but strangely the BBC is embargoing the precise information. But whilst we await it, let's stop the hated for somebody just because we have their name and they didn't meet up to the standards of an obsessed fan one day.


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