Wednesday, 18 October 2017

eBook Showtime: my first victim

My first subject for the eBook Showtime interviews wasn't that hard to find. During an online feature for the famous Facebook group We Love Memoirs, where it was me in the hot seat talking about my book How Much for a Little Screw? , I had mentioned that in my early days writing professionally I interviewed well-known celebrities in the television and music industries.

One of the people watching was interested in some of my early exploits of rubbing shoulders with such people, so I promised to send him scans of the magazine articles in which I wrote about the behind-the-scenes stories of interviewing All Creatures Great and Famous. This in turn led me to writing a small book about some of those I did in the 1970s (not all of them, but that's another story), and the person I have to thank for inspiring me to write this book is fellow author Frank Kusy.

I'd already read what I would describe as Frank's signature book, Kevin and I in India, which is an entertaining diary read of the time he descended on the sub-continent as a lone traveller and teamed-up with a complete stranger, who just happened to be called Kevin. Hence the title. This was back in 1986 and since then he's become a recognised travel writer as well as penning memoirs and children's books.


I'd have no hesitation in saying that we "clicked" as soon as Skype (eventually) got around to connecting us. It has to be said that Facetime is a better-quality and more reliable experience, but is a bit of a closed shop because it can be used only on Apple devices, so it was down to Skype for the frequent interruptions, the varying delay in delivering the video signal, and general off-quality – which all added to the element of live, immediate and unrehearsed content, so not all bad. And better than nothing.

I'd used three physical cameras to record our meeting, and this created lots of extra work and headaches. It was indeed a learning experience and later interviews were much simpler, the rule being that if it's not on the screen then don't bother to record it.

We had fun getting our cats to say hello to each other. I don't think I was recording at the time, so Sparky and Gerald's historical meeting has disappeared in the vastness of cyberspace. Maybe we can get it again because such was the wealth of material concerning Frank, and especially his countless anecdotes – such as the time he was given the death penalty in Malaysia – that we could easily make another 15-minute spot.


Anyhow, I believe that Frank, despite initially not being happy seeing himself on screen for the first time, was pleased with the end result and agreed to it going live on YouTube. And now readers can see a glimpse of the man who writes the words, has returned to India on many occasions, is steadily releasing his entertaining and humorous memoirs, and is the creator of a gangster cat named Ginger – oh, and he still has a pal named Kevin. And, I like to think, a new one named Graham.


Friday, 8 September 2017

Still interviewing after 44 years (I started very young)

It doesn't sound so bad if you mumble, but even so the thought of it sends a bit of a chill down my spine – the Hammer Films sort, that is, and not a member of the pleasure-tingle variety.

These are authors of eBooks I'm now interviewing. Okay, so they also produce print copies, but the interviews are primarily aimed at those serving the digital market. The idea came about with the loss of The Book Show on the Sky Arts channel. Presented by Mariella Frostrup, it ran from 2008-2013 and featured interviews with the creative movers and shakers of the printed book world until it was simply dropped by Sky to be replaced with … nothing.


The early set was distinctive, looking like a pastel-coloured front room, with book-shaped coffee tables and a backdrop of giant book spines. Seated comfortably on a settee, the authors would chat with Mariella one could be forgiven for thinking she even flirted with some of them – and of course we were party to these conversations with such names as Rosamund Lupton, Sir Roger Moore, Terry Jones, Kate Mosse, William Boyd, to name just a few. These meetings were punctuated with short pieces filmed in the homes of, say, Nicci Gerard and Sean French, Alison Weir, Joseph O'Connor. Other pieces looked around bookshops with authors such as Ian Sinclair.  
   

Also, each year a studio marquee was set up at the world-famous Hay Festival and extra Book Show programmes were made where guest interviewers such as Sarah Crompton tackled authors before a live audience (I never noticed her working from a script, so awarded her 10/10 for that and her excellent way with people). Other book events, such as the Dublin Writers' Festival, were also included.


It was amazing to be invited, along with thousands of other viewers, into the homes and private spaces of these authors as they told us how they created, their likes and dislikes, their treasured preferences. And I was fascinated to see where they worked, the scenery amongst which their stories developed and gelled – hey, I even found myself looking at the details of how their bookcases were constructed and what their floors were like. Yes, a bit of the woodworker in me was spilling out, which isn't a bad thing because it shows how I was accepting these people into my life; they were, after all, speaking to me at the other end of the camera.

The show was, quite simply, superb, bringing  the authors to the readers in a way that hadn't been done before. And when, in June 2013, the broadcaster axed it, my wife and I were devastated. Strangely, about the same time, BBC2 dumped its weekly Review Show into a monthly slot on a back burner on BBC4, and The TV Book Club on Channel 4 – yet another proactive look into books and authors – had disappeared in 2012.


Now, there was no way that I could take over and finance the making of a dedicated TV book programme, but working from a computer, and with software and equipment on hand from Pin Productions, I thought it would be worth conducting online interviews with eBook authors, to bring them some exposure, to introduce them to their readers, to bring their names alive and put voices to them.


eBook Showtime was born and I grabbed the domain name right away (I've since been offered large amounts for it). Unfortunately, personal circumstances prevented me from getting it going until a couple of years later, but it's here now and in my next post I'll be talking about what it was like doing my first ever Skype interview.


*All images are screen grabs from the Sky Arts television programme and are used here for educational purposes.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Promotion in the Modern World

  
Snape Maltings Concert Hall
(Hikitsurisan, public domain image)

In May 2017, ten minutes or so before a choral concert at the world-famous Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk, I witnessed a man in the audience being torn off a strip by a member of the theatre staff.

The concert was far from beginning, and not even was there anyone on stage. He had been talking to his friends about the attractive wooden ceiling, shaped to fit the original use of the building in bygone times as a malt factory, and he took a photo of it. It was only an iPhone he used, so the quality wouldn't be up to much. Then a suited member of staff came halfway along the row of seats, disturbing other audience members, and chastised him. "We don't allow photos."

The unfortunate man explained, in a pleasant and friendly manner, I thought, that he wouldn't be taking photos during the concert and that he only wanted to appreciate the concert hall's ceiling. "The ceiling is copyright," he was told. "And I will ask you to delete the photo." It wasn't a request.

There were a few uneasy seconds as they stared at each other. The man's wife, tight-lipped, said, "Right," and, after the "security operative" walked away, she whispered to him not to delete it.

I sincerely hope that this clumsy and ill-judged approach didn't spoil the man's enjoyment of the recital, nor that of his friends.

It would certainly have spoilt mine.

Later that evening, photos and videos taken by other audience members began to appear on Facebook, and of the concert itself. Good on them! The man I saw was just the unlucky one. Here you have family members and friends who want memories to cherish, and this is understandable.

Exercising subtlety

Okay, so it can be annoying when you're at a gig and there's someone holding up a camera or phone, with its bright LED screen causing distraction. But these days most people – notice that I said most, not all – are aware of this, and they exercise subtlety.

But what if that man and his family and friends at Snape have decided to never again bless that concert hall with their presence? I wouldn't blame them. Why? Because it was so unnecessary. The ceiling is copyright? What a load of nonsense – it's in a place where the public have been invited, and that's a paying public, by the way, and the seating prices aren't exactly cheap; there aren't even concessions for senior citizens, nor are they exactly comfortable and many of the regulars had taken cushions with them. Whoops, I'm off the point here…

Slow suicide

I've already mentioned that photos and clips appear on social media, which leads me on to an unfortunate aspect of this senseless and archaic attitude that is bordering on the financially inept: reducing visibility on social media amounts to a slow suicide.

Younger audiences are the ones to think about; they are the future, and they have been bred with technology coming out of their ear holes. They take photos and share them. And sharing these images and videos is free marketing for both the performers and the venue – it is promotion that industry professionals couldn't even afford to finance by usual means.

As an example, I can name one international singer/songwriter who isn't paranoid and allows the taking of photos and videos at his concerts so they can be posted on Facebook and also his own website – and he thanks them for doing this! He doesn't wail about it being copyrighted material because, quite simply, these fans aren't making bootleg copies of his recordings; they are simply sharing their enjoyment of his live concerts and encouraging others to attend.

See what I mean? This kind of exposure is priceless, but if theatre staff start jumping on audience members and tearing strips off them (as I've witnessed), in the end the losers will be the artistes and the venues.

Old-fashioned

Of course, the final choice as to whether photos are allowed is down to the artiste concerned. Ken Dodd, so I'm told, doesn't allow any of it, but then, in his very late-80s, he may not be aware – nor care too much about – the long-term benefits.



However, the oldest choral society in the world, Halifax Choral Society, does allow photos, and they indicate this when booking with the theatre concerned. But on numerous occasions, like at Snape, I have been embarrassed when seeing audience members being tackled, in some cases rather heavily-handedly, by torch-wielding usherettes at the Halifax Victoria Theatre.

Apparently, the staff assumed that photos were disallowed for everyone, by default. Not checking the booking details demonstrates a lazy attitude. Needless to say, it is unlikely I shall ever attend the Victoria Theatre again because I find the whiff of fascism quite sickening.

So the Halifax Victoria is another venue guilty of not recognising the growing trend for photos and their value in perpetuating a business. The council-run theatre has been in financial difficulty for some years; I'll say no more.

The solution is quite simple: theatre managements should actually read what the performers have specified regarding photos, and maybe announce that, should they be allowed, to please not use flash, no camera clicking sounds, and not inconvenience other audience members. Simple. Reasonable.

Then everyone can enjoy the show. The performers will have lasting images of their performances, the photographers will have lasting mementoes, and an understanding and modern-thinking venue will have repeat custom.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A Double Anniversary

First of all, as I write it is 40 years to the day since I did the last of my 1970s' celebrity interviews (though there were further meetings with creatures, all great and famous, further down the line), so I thought this a good time to write a post to mark the anniversary.

The idea for choosing this particular one was as a result of visiting my editor in his London office on the very day I interviewed Esther Rantzen. He'd shown me some past editions of the magazine, in which was a single-shot news item about this particular person, and I just thought that doing him would be a good idea. After all, he was an iconic radio and TV presenter, extremely popular and appealed to the masses.

When trying to make contact with people in entertainment, back in those days it was even harder than it is today. There was no internet, no Googling, and in trying to find someone's phone number even an agent's there was, of course, the free Directory Enquiries, yet first of all you needed a name to ask for. Information was not available with a click or two of a mouse. Anyhow, I just happened to know somewhere that could help me make contact with the celebrity involved.

It transpired that my contact knew of a charity jog that the celebrity was doing with a friend, and so I was put in touch with him. Being a successful businessman, he was extremely well-organised and had the ability to focus on the task that was immediately to hand, so everything went smoothly. It was agreed that I could do the interview in a certain organisation's board room, where a press conference would be held at the end of the sponsored run.

The press was indeed there, so was the television news: this was a big name, with lots of public onlookers and adoring fans.

Sod's law says that if you're having a bad day, there will be watchers aplenty. It wasn't my best interview, though looking back having listened to the recording I don't think it was all that bad. It didn't help that, with my youthful over-confidence, I thought I could conduct a celebrity interview with no list of questions, though I'd done about as much research as it was then possible to do, bearing in mind my geographical location and the lack of digital technology. Even if my delivery in front of a few dozen seasoned journalists looked anything like passable, I felt somewhat frustrated and embarrassed by my own performance.

One of the onlookers was a freelance journalist on a mission for a famous women's magazine of the time, who wrote joyously about how the celebrity dealt with "the youth". Of course, I was unaware of her observations until weeks later, when the magazine was published. Had I known on the day that I was being written about in not-so-complimentary terms, I might have emigrated.

Anyhow, driving home from Leeds I was satisfied that at least I had some reasonable material with which to work just so long as the recording was okay; I don't remember taking a standby recorder with me on this occasion  but hey, as with most of my 1970s' interview trips, I made certain there was someone with whom I could share a park bench should the car break down or the weather turn foul. Although an open air bench in severe weather conditions might not be a good idea, at least it would allow more leg room than trying to sleep in a tiny MG Midget that didn't have reclining seats. It did have a hole in the floor, though, that sprayed the passenger with road puddles, Hmm, happy times.

I drove my bench-mate home, late at night and, parked outside her parents' door, with the wet soaking up her trouser legs, I proposed to her. Yes, forty years ago, 28 February 1977, I asked if she'd marry me.

I wonder if she'll ever get around to replying.

It's okay, I'm just joking. 

Never let it be said that I'm not a romantic!



Friday, 4 March 2016

Gilbert O'Sullivan and Me


Please excuse the intro, but it's relevant, as you'll see. It was late summer 1971 and we were parked overlooking the new, partially-filled Scammonden Dam. In those days the British had a fascination with going out on a Sunday just to stare at water and eat an ice cream, only that particular spot didn't do ice creams, I'm sorry to say.
 
I was with my parents and my eighty-three-year-old grandmother. She was sitting in the front, unable to stand properly and stoically accepting the pain and discomfort of being taken for what would be her last ever outing. 

We had the radio on and I remember the BBC pop chart programme playing the song in the number 16 slot: it was We Will by Gilbert O'Sullivan, and I was struck by the haunting melody and lyrics. I'd not heard anything like that before; it was so different to any of the other music that was in the charts and it fascinated me. Little did I know that within three years I would interview the singer/songwriter, and forty-five years later we would meet again.

Those lyrics still get to me because of the pictures they put in my mind: spending time with your family after you've moved out, being treated as someone special and missed when you've gone back home. Oh, and maybe not really spending enough time with them, but they love you all the same. This is what that song is all about—to me, that is, because, as Gilbert once said, once you buy a song it's yours and your own interpretation is all that matters. It will mean different things to different people, but for me there's just so much in that particular track; it's a time bubble, describing a way of life that was bygone even when the song was written. 

I was 13 and the feelings that song evokes in me have never left. It was March 1973 when I bought his first LP, Himself, for £2.49. I liked it so much that the following week I splashed out and bought the second, Back to Front. His single from the previous October, Clair, had been a giant hit worldwide and was responsible for innumerable instances of newborn girls being called the same name. It's rather special to be so influential, don't you think? 

One of my favourite tracks from the first album is Matrimony, where Gilbert suggests running away with his girlfriend to get married, and a few years later my girlfriend and I considered doing just that. And, just like the words in the song, we were mindful of the money we'd save by not having a church wedding, and our mums and dads were not pleased. Did I say influence? Well, it wasn't so much that we were in any way swayed by the song so much as in tune with the writer. It occurs to me that his music has been there, accompanying much of my life, and while I've had other tastes over the past 40 years, such as Queen, and Travis, Gilbert's music has remained a solid base to which I've always returned.
 
Whenever I hear Get Down, I remember him performing this live at Batley Variety Club in 1974. My father drove me there to interview Gilbert and for over an hour we stood in the smoky night club atmosphere, watching the spectacular performance. Later that night I met the man himself (no pun intended): 27 years old, outselling Rod Stewart and Elton John. I was 16, both of us were shy, yet the interview was such a memorable experience. 


Fast-forward to 28 February 2016 and the shyness has gone from both of us, but there's still a reserved aspect to his character that I recognise from all those years ago. His appearance at Huddersfield Town Hall was the 8th of his 9-date tour to promote his latest album, Latin ala G!, and the place was packed. Okay, so the seating in the stalls was dreadful, but with music like this it didn't matter: a mix of familiar and new songs, accompanied by a five-piece band and two backing singers, all providing a superb musical experience.


Gilbert played the keyboard, in stark contrast to the grand piano at Batley, but the voice was the same, and he moved around and sang like someone forty years younger.


After the show, his sister Marie and her husband Richard were running the merchandise stall with T-shirts and CDs—including those of the early LPs. Yes, most of his back catalogue is still available. In fact, when looking at his discography online there are 24 albums listed. Here is his official website

The queue to meet him stretched back up the stairs, round the corner and up another flight. These people would ask him questions, chat about the show, get a tour book or CD signed, and have their photograph taken with him. 


My wife and I took our places, fairly well near the end, though there must have been another 20 or so people behind us. We steadily edged along and, once back in the foyer, we could see that the queue went into another room and down some more steps. From there Gilbert could be seen meeting his admiring public, each of them passing their cameras or mobile phones to a blonde lady—and no, she wasn't confiscating them: she was actually taking the photos. 


When it was our turn, I passed her our SLR digital. It was larger than the other devices she'd been using that evening, but she began expertly clicking away as I asked Gilbert about a BBC documentary that I saw back in 1972. It showed him keeping his record album covers (I remember that the Beatles figured strongly) laid out on the floor of the living room at his house in Weybridge. That way he could see them all and choose what to listen to next. Makes sense; just not so good for vaccing the carpet.
 
"Yeah, my room still has albums all over the floor," he said, laughing. My wife joked with him that he still had LPs? Yes, so do we.


Then I told Gilbert about my book that describes some of my exploits interviewing celebrities in the 1970s, of which he was one, and I asked who I could leave the details with.
 
"Just leave it with my daughter," he said, pointing to the photographer.
 
"Oh, are you the one who went to Leeds University?"
 
"No, that's the other one," she laughed. "I was Edinburgh."
 
I gave her my card, said goodbye to them both and stepped out into the frigid cold night air of a Yorkshire market town. It was 11.35 and it didn't look as if her father would be finished for at least another quarter of an hour or so. But I got the impression that he didn't mind. Quite simply, he believes in looking after his fans and appreciates their loyalty. Each one gets something from his music, whether it's memories, or a liking for the whimsical, sometimes heart-breaking, lyrics that gets them thinking. Gilbert O'Sullivan is a constant, someone you can rely on, still producing great melodies with amazing harmonies, and not forgetting the music that accompanies people's lives.


My eBook, All Creatures Great and Famous, which tells the story of my first meeting with Gilbert O'Sullivan, is available from Amazon for just 99p (they refuse to make it free), but is free elsewhere.


Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Things that go Bruce in the night



Clearing out my mother's house, we found this page, torn by me from a copy of TV Times 50 years ago. I never thought that I would ever see this again and finding it is something of a bonus, bringing back memories.

 


It's a piece about the ITV series Mystery and Imagination that was broadcast in 1966 on Saturday evenings, and this particular episode was the last in that season, and one that I, as a child, remember with such fondness – which was why I kept this page in the loft: a place I wasn't allowed to play and one that, because of its dark corners and moving shadows, had previously scared me witless.

The series was based on dramatisations of horror classics, with more than a smattering of M R James. I don't remember these being shown particularly late – perhaps 9pm, placing them past the horror watershed, but maybe I was allowed to stay up to watch them because it was a weekend. Or maybe they believed me when I said I liked horror stories.

The first one I can remember was of a ghoul that was haunting a library, reading a particular book, wearing a large cloak and hat. And when the protagonist tapped it on the shoulder, it turned to reveal a particularly horrible, partly-decomposed face. So much for 1960s' TV make-up. It would be 47 years before I finally tracked down the name of the story: The Tractate Middoth by M R James.

The episode that followed involved a young, orphaned lad going to live with some distant relative, and the ghastly vision of the ghosts of a boy and girl, wearing billowing shrouds and brandishing extra-long fingernails, walking through the swirling mist between the house and the chapel, about to rip out the heart of the evil man. (Strangely, the manservant in this was played by Freddie Jones, an actor who, many years later, my son worked with on Emmerdale.)

This story, as I later found, was another by James, Lost Hearts. The sight of those children wandering through the mist spooked me to the point where I dare not sleep. What made it worse in my bedroom was the reflection of the moonlight on a dressing table mirror that distorted against the ceiling to look coffin-shaped. Yet I had to keep watching the series. 

And then it came to the very last episode of the season – The Canterville Ghost. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, it's about a ghost who is unable to frighten away visiting Americans, and which causes him unhappiness and frustration.

Now, as far as I was concerned this appealed to my junior schoolboy humour and put horror stories firmly where they belong: in the box of pretend and make-believe. Having seen this play I was no longer afraid of horror tales. Okay, I can be surprised – like we all can – but not frightened. Quite simply, I was cured.

Here's another thing: if you look closely at the image of the Canterville Ghost wearing his green velvet costume, you might just recognize the person playing him. Yes, it's Bruce Forsyth, starring in one of his rare acting roles. I seem to remember that he was rather good, and the fact that I have remembered him as Sir Simon de Canterville surely is testament to the man's little-used acting ability, that was instrumental in laying to rest a child's fear of horror stories.

Sweet dreams, everyone.