Tuesday, 14 November 2017

eBook Showtime: my second victim

The second author to feature in my online interviews was Ann Patras, a funny lady who, in the early-80s, moved from a technologically-advanced Britain to Zambia with her husband and three young children. And thirteen crates. Of course there are challenges, both culturally and materially, such as the shortages like… no, I'll let Ann explain it to you in her books.

She has moved around over the years and now lives in Spain, and I suspect eventually she may write about all the places she has called home.

Now, to get some idea of what might come to light during our online meeting, I asked Ann to supply me with some amusing and memorable facts about herself – something I might use in my introduction. "Well, I was given a sex change between wards at a Malaga hospital in 2012," was one of the things she mentioned.

A-ha! I thought, this could be interesting. I was rather taken with the idea of her living in sunny Spain, which instantly got me playing Y Viva Espana round and round in my head (memories of the mid-70s and that rather attractive Sylvia Vrethammar who sang it). So, if I wore my Madrid cap (to set the scene) and did the intro out in the snow, surely there would be some comedic value based on the climatic contrast…?

Er, no.

For one thing, right where Ann was in Spain the temperature was miserably low (though not exactly freezing like it was here in Costa del Pennine),  and I couldn't help myself saying that today's guest author had undergone a "sex change operation", which wasn't exactly the case. And although I knew this, I just couldn't say it any differently. Well, I did say it was cold out. It was only after nine takes (that's when I lost count) that we decided to go inside for a hot drink and a shot of rum…

…but could only find some port. Anyhow, a rethink of the intro was in order, and we hadn't yet done the interview but hey, what else could possibly go wrong?

We did a practice Skype call, in which we seemed to be constantly interrupted by the audio disappearing, then the video, then freezing (no, not the weather this time), but whilst we were chatting away (as if we'd known each other for years, which was uncanny), both of Ann's dogs were outside, and one of them, JD, let herself in the house.

That's when Ann told me that she can open the door (and also the outside gate) from either side, but refuses to close them after herself. But that's okay, you see, because the other one, Marti, will then close the door. And if she doesn't quite manage it, Ann only has to say, "Now do it properly," and the dog will apply a little more weight until the latch can be heard to catch. You can see my reflection from the screen on the glass door.

This seemed like too good a treat to not use on the night of the interview, only I feared that any attempt to engineer this would appear contrived … but then on the big night it did indeed happen and without any attempt to shoehorn it in.

Here's a recent video of JD and Marti following prompts from Ann's daughter Vicki:

During their time in Zambia, Ann took many photos, but admits the film quality was lacking and the prints haven't fared well over the past 30-odd years. However, she did send me some scans to use in the interview, and I managed to squeeze some extra resolution and colour from them. A small selection was included in a short 35-second animated sequence. This little video, would you believe, made using Adobe After Effects software, took many hours to render. Apparently, long processing times are par for the course. I used it again later to show some of Ann's excellent book illustrations presented in a revolving drum.

The interview lasts around 18 minutes, so shorter than other online author videos and, we hope, more comfortable and convenient to watch. And together with the graphics and image presentations, the eBook Showtime programme lets readers see Ann as she really is: friendly, funny, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. We had one hell of a good chat and I think we both enjoyed discussing her books and generally talking shop.

Here's the interview:

and here is Ann's website:

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.


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!