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'The Mortal Maze', a modern thriller set in the Middle East

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Friday, 24 October 2014

Celebrity books at Christmas

UPDATED

One of the most depressing issues facing independent book publishers and authors is the prominence given to books by celebrities. We're still almost two months away from Christmas, but the adverts are already out there, offering "discounts", real or fictional. Sadly, these celebrity books will sell, even though they are usually shallow tomes produced by a ghost writers and may never be read by the recipients.



UPDATE: Now W. H. Smith is offering this book for a huge "discount":

So, why would anyone want to part with a tenner to hear this self-important clown's views when they are already well known -- too well known, indeed --via the broadcasting and print media? Further, for less than a fiver you could have a pint at your local pub and hear some bore leaning on the bar expounding similar unsustainable opinions.

Computer viruses that don't exist

This posting is to be read to the accompaniment of screams of disbelief and shouts of "no, no, no!"...

For the umpteenth time I have been sent urgent messages by friends and associates warning me that there is a new virus in circulation that will destroy my computer hard drive. The latest such message came this morning from an old mate who has circulated it to his many email friends. The warning is headed "Black Muslim in the White House". It claims -- as all similar messages do -- that the existence of the virus has been revealed by CNN.

These messages are a hoax -- repeat HOAX -- and should not be circulated. Just think about it a minute. If a "virus" is as dreadful as the message claims, why does CNN have it as an exclusive? In truth, CNN never did not report the "virus"; nor did any other major news organisation, for the simple reason that it does not exist.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Broadcasting: The annoying interviewer who provides both questions and answers

UPDATED:

This item is from my favourite magazine, Private Eye. It is supposed to be satire, but is it? Having listened to James "Jim" Naughtie on the Today Programme this week, it would be easy to think that the item was a genuine transcript.
 

The other morning, on the Today Programme, Jim Naughtie was in typical form. As always, his questions were part statement and part enquiry. This is irritating enough, but what is really infuriating is his apparent compulsion to also provide the answers. What we got the other morning was something along these lines: "So, your answer would be blah, blah, blah, blah, etc ete, etc." This left the interviewee with three options: 1) answer "yes", 2) answer "no", or 3) provide an even more expanded reply than already given by Jim. She took Option 3. What she should have said was "Why the hell am I here if you're not going to allow me to answer your questions in my own way?"

An interview is best conducted if the questions are simple and direct.

Example:
  • Tell us what happened?
  • Was anyone hurt?
  • Do they know the cause?
  • Will there be an investigation?
  • etc etc

For a long time, Jim Naughtie's interviews have been the subject of public complaint and derision. So, why does he continue unchanged? Does he love and admire the sound of his own voice? Does he dismiss the satire and complaints as a form of love? Is his brain incapable of composing a simple question?

Above all, why don't his bosses have the courage to tell him that if he doesn't mend his ways, they will find someone else who can deliver interviews in a less irritating way? There are dozens of first class interviewers floating around the BBC. Many would love to replace him on the Today Programme and on his Radio Four Book Club.

UPDATE: This morning I heard Jim Naughtie doing an interview in which he asked two or three very simple, direct questions. Congratulations, Jim. See, you can do it if you try!


Friday, 17 October 2014

How not to make a sale

I have come to the conclusion that there must be a central training establishment for telephone and door-to-door salespersons on the make. These dreadful people appear to have been told that the best way to engage with a potential customer (victim?) is to begin with the words "Hello, how are you today?"

The most obvious answer -- and one that I usually give them -- is "Well, I was fine until a few moments ago when you called wanting to sell me something." They inevitably reply "Oh no, we're not trying to sell you anything." But, of course, they usually are -- and if, by chance, they aren't, they are trying to empty your wallet with some other proposal.

From time to time I have to phone people with a sales pitch. My opening line is always along the lines of "Hello, I'm Ian Richardson, a freelance journalist/writer, and I wonder if you could spare me a couple of minutes while I tell you about a story idea/proposal that I have?" Usually, they agree to listen and if they're not then interested, politely tell me so and the conversation ends in an amicable manner.

If I were to ring them with the opening words "Hello, how are you today?", they would probably slam the phone down, exactly as I do on such people. But will the wideboys and widegirls learn this lesson? No chance, I suspect. Nor will the training establishments that turn these people lose on the public.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Music on a wood saw

I don't know how the conversation started, but the other day I told an incredulous friend that a wood saw made an most unusual and charming musical instrument. He said he had never heard of such a thing, but I insisted that in the Australian town where I grew up (Charlton in the state of Victoria) one of the star turns at local talent concerts in the 1950s was a farmer who played a variety of musical pieces on a saw. And very good he was, too! There was nothing particular about the saw. It was just an ordinary one, about a metre long and probably from his farm workshed.

No doubt my friend remains skeptical about my claim, so today I decided to explore YouTube to see if there were any recorded musical saw performances. Sure enough, there were several. Here is just one example. Here's another example. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Ciggies on the screen

Last night my wife and I watched a 1967 black-and-white BBC interview with actor Maggie Smith. It was reasonably interesting, but what really caught our attention immediately was that both she and her interviewer were happily smoking cigarettes on screen. Can you imagine that happening now? Of course not. Indeed, all BBC premises are now no-smoking areas and special permission has to be gained to light up a cigarette if one is required and artistically justified for a drama being shot in a studio.

The Maggie Smith interview took me back to the wonderful film Good Night, and Good Luck about the broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. Murrow not only smoked during his program -- it was in the 1950s -- but it was sponsored by a cigarette company. Again, can you imagine, say, David Dimbleby puffing away on a cigarette during a live BBC television program? It would be out of the question.

When I worked as a journalist for BBC World Service, smoking was permitted in the newsroom for most of the years I was there. World Service news bulletins were then read at a rather leisurely pace to aid audibility on the shortwave transmissions. This allowed several of the tobacco-addicted newsreaders to smoke during a bulletin. They would inhale deeply between news items and breath out as they read each story. It was an astonishing sight, although many of my colleagues didn't seem to think so at the time.

Finally, on a thinly-related matter, there was once a music hall comedian born Vernon Watson. He wanted to have a more distinctive name, but couldn't think of a suitable one until one day he spotted a No Smoking sign. From them on, he was Nosmo King!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Genealogy & family history research: Lessons to learn from the Aussies

Let me offer a huge recommendation for the Australian newspaper archive, Trove. It is brilliant, and I choose this word carefully.

Trove is run by the Australian National Library and if you are attempting to track down information about your relatives in Australia, it is an excellent starting point. It is free and navigation around the immensely-informative resource can be learned very quickly. Another plus is that new material is being added every day. The only downside is that it becomes quite addictive, but what fun!

Now, let me turn to the British equivalent, the British Newspaper Archive. This is no -- repeat no --  fun at all. It is infuriatingly and quite unnecessarily difficult to navigate and, further, makes corrections to the text very difficult. Add to this, you have to pay to access it. It is incredibly user-unfriendly and you have to wonder if it was ever beta tested on the public. I bet it wasn't. I spent the best part of an hour rummaging around the archive this afternoon. There is just one word to describe my experience as I bang my head against the wall in frustration: Aaaaaaaaagh!!!!!!!!

UPDATE: Coincidentally (?) my Facebook page came up with a sponsored posting from the British archive, but when I posted a complaint about the site, it was promptly deleted. And when I complained about the deletion, it was also deleted. So much for free speech at this British institution.

SECOND UPDATE: If you take out a subscription to the archive, be careful that a month's subscription doesn't become open ended. Make sure you read the small print "Your subscription is sold on a continuous membership basis, meaning it will continue until you cancel it." and hunt down and untick the automatic renewal.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

The story about, and the story behind, God's Triangle


GodsTriangle: A tale of love, loss and scandal in early 
20th Century East Bengal
From  UK Asian September 2014
    For the curious there's nothing quite like flipping through old family albums, delving into the past, exploring the stories of the men and women who went before.
    Ian Richardson is blessed with shiploads of that particular kind of curiosity.
    The former BBC journalist's curiosity was piqued no end one later winter's day in 1997 in his hometown of Melbourne, as he helped his recently-widowed mother sort through some old family photographs. 
    One photograph in particular caught Richardson's attention, one that would culminate, some fifteen years later, in 'God's Triangle', an extraordinary story about sexual and religious politics, cover ups and nefarious intrigues in early 20th century Australia and India. 
Florence Cox (Standing 2nd from Left)
    At the heart of this fascinating story are three even more fascinating characters, all Australian missionaries: Florence Cox, Richardson's great aunt, who was affectionately known as 'Florrie'; her husband the Reverend Frank Paice and Olga Johnston, one of the bridesmaids at Florrie and Frank's wedding.
    In October 1912, Frank Paice left Melbourne for East to join the scores of Baptist missionaries who were attempting to spread the word of god in the then-wilds of what would become Bangladesh.
    When not preaching, the missionaries were doing yeomen work in some of the sub-continent's poorest and most deprived communities.
    Frank had recently become engaged to Florrie, then aged 24. 
    Florrie had a certain languidness to her, unusually tall in comparison to her contemporaries and devoted to her work. 
    She would join her new husband in Calcutta, some two years later. 
    Their marriage however, endured - for a lack of a better word - in the malarial swamps of the Bengal, culminating in a scandalous divorce after five years: scandalous for numerous reasons. 
Above: Frank Paice and Florence Cox pictured after their wedding in Calcutta
    The astonishment that greeted this devoutly Christian couple's divorce was matched decades later by the evasiveness shown by Richardson's mother in 1997 as the journalist asked after 'Great Aunt Florrie'. 
    "The first thing my mother said when I asked about Florrie was, 'Oh we don't talk about her'.  She became visibly embarrassed and evasive", Richardson says.
    "I'd been a journalist for all these years so I wouldn't let it go.  I pressed and pressed and she said that Aunty florrie had been a missionary around the first World War and had married a missionary as well. 
    "And during that marriage, her husband had become involved with another woman who was also a missionary.  I was only a little girl and no one talked about it.  Initially I thought it was an interesting sidebar story.  But what I found out was astonishing".
    Whilst divorce among missionaries, in a largely conservative world was more than just unusual, the fact that the divorce had then been kept a secret was even more intriguing, a fact merely exacerbated by a mysterious illness that, Richardson would later find out, had afflicted Florrie: a condition that had had a direct impact on the marriage and one which would later lead to Florrie being ostracized by her family and community.
    "The first point for me was that no one had talked about the divorce there was no information about it", Richardson continues.
    "When I approached the Supreme Court of Victoria about it, they would not show me the file, which was quite remarkable.  I thought it was very odd and they were quite adamant that they not give me the file because they said that the judge at the time of the divorce had ordered for the file to be closed for all time.  Well that really did get me curious."
    The resolute Richardson pressed on.
    "The battle with the Supreme Court was a long one but the people in charge understood why I wanted the information and I think they sympathized with it.  It was a piece of Australian history and church history.  I nagged them and nagged them over several years until they got so fed up with me and said I could make an application to the Supreme Court. 
    "To my astonishment, the judge approved the application."
    The file would start a remarkable hunt. 
    When Frank and Olga's affair became known, both were forced to resign. 
Florrie, too, returned to Melbourne and found that she was suffering from a very rare gender condition which may have impacted on her marriage. After the divorce, Frank and Olga went to Calcutta where they were married in a discreet civil ceremony. 
    "Florrie never knew what was wrong with her.  She grew up in a very religious Protestant family in an age when sex was a totally taboo subject.  The first Florrie knew that something was wrong was on her honeymoon when she and her husband were unable to have intercourse.      The marriage never recovered from that. 
    "Florrie went to her grave in 1950 thinking she was some form of freak, getting little support from her embarrassed family or from the equally-embarrassed Baptist Church in Australia. Her actual condition was not given a name until after she died."
    Remarkably, the press was also told to ignore the whole affair and the file on the divorce ordered by a judge to be closed for all time.
    Florrie was shunned by her family who failed to understand the burden she had faced and following the general norm to blame the woman for the breakdown of the marriage. 
Frank and Olga in the meantime had returned to Bengal for different work - Frank had taken up an engineering management job - before returning to Australia as upstanding members of the community.
Above: Councillor Frank Paice and Olga later in life.
    In Australia that standing would reach phenomenal heights: the couple becoming regular fixtures in the social scene in their town and becoming prominent in civic society. 
The past was buried.  No mention was ever made of their time in India and, in particular, Frank's first marriage.  Not even their only son and close friends knew of their missionary past.
    'God's Triangle' is made up of a series of diary entries as Richardson travels to Calcutta and Bangladesh. 
    His curiosity and journalistic skill shines through as he trawls through myriad troves of documents. 
    During his research, Richardson also discovers that Frank and Olga had a son, Paul, who aids in Richardson's search, astonished at the double life his parents lived.
    The cover up is arguably the biggest aspect of the story.  How was it accomplished and who ordered it covered up?
    "This is a story that had everything.  It was scandalous.  How did Olga and Frank hide their past?  I think that was amazing.  I mean they were so prominent in suburban Melbourne society.  How did they manage to get away with people not asking about six missing years in their lives? 
    "Above all though, it was a cover up."
    Richardson suggests that the Baptist church - aided by the ever-present freemasons - went to elaborate lengths to sweep things under the carpet. 
    Despite its diary-like style, the book is gripping, not least due to Richardson's meticulous attention to the tiniest details. 
    At just over 150 pages long, it's not a big book by any means but it is crammed with information, shedding light on everything from the religiously conservative community that all three main characters hailed from to the remote part of East Bengal where carried out their extraordinary work.
    It's a book about religion and the dichotomy of the yeomen missionary work carried out by the likes of Frank, Florrie and Olga and the all-pervasive power of a church with medieval ideas about sexuality and personal freedoms.
    Above all, it's a book about tolerance and justice for a woman who was unfairly marginalized for a reason that those were doing the marginalizing had little understanding about: a problem that continues to blight humanity.
    Unsurprisingly, a story with such universal themes has caught the attention of a number of filmmakers.
    West London-based Richardson is in the final stages of scripting a multi-million dollar film project based on 'God's Triangle'. 


For more information, visit www.godstriangle.com

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Does borrowing a book or buying one second-hand help the author?

The other day when I was searching for some family information in old Australian newspapers I came across this heart-felt advertisement in a provincial daily published in 1880:

It reminded me of an issue that must bother the overwhelming majority of authors: the fact that they get no financial return from books that are loaned to friends or family or are re-sold in second-hand bookshops or charity shops.

I have one friend who was so enthusiastic about my book God's Triangle that she bought a number of copies and gave them away as presents. That greatly cheered me, but there are a number of people who have written to tell me that they enjoyed the story so much they passed the book on to their friends to read. I'm sure they tell me this because they think it will please me. Yes it does -- up to a point.

Every author likes to know that all the hard work that has gone into a book is appreciated. There is no point writing something that no-one wants to read. But, the downside is that loaning books to friends undermines the often-meager financial returns for an author. Even best-sellers can result in very modest returns. A few months ago, I was at a talk given by an established writer who had authored several high-selling books and a screen play. These were listed in the chairwoman's introduction to the talk, to which he replied: "Thank you very much for reminding me of my works, but what I want to know is why haven't they made me rich?" I once asked a friend who wrote a highly-regarded book on Italian politics if he felt it had been worth it. "Well, I suppose so," he responded without enthusiasm, "but only if I try not to think about the fact that my royalties demonstrated that I'd worked for just 25p an hour!"

A real problem for authors are the charity shops -- especially those that deal almost exclusively in second-hand books. Hundreds of pounds can change hands each day in these shops, but none of it will go to the authors. Oxfam has a second-hand bookshop in Ealing Broadway, and I am convinced that it has played a part in the closure of two independent bookshops in Ealing in the past couple of months.

I now have to make an embarrassing confession. Looking through our own book shelves, I see that a substantial number of books have not been bought new at a bookshop or from Amazon. They have been given to us or we have bought them from a charity shop. And that is the real problem isn't it. It means that most authors will just have to be grateful that their books are being read by someone, even if the financial returns are not what they hoped.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Are snails like homing pigeons?

Personally, I have never had any problem stomping on snails. It's a speedy death and, I imagine, a painless one. They would probably prefer that to being slowly poisoned by those horrible little green pellets that people spread around their gardens. And for us, it is better than having to eat them, as the French like to do, and better than have them chewing away at our beloved home-grown vegetables.

This post was prompted by a Facebook friend who said she could never kill a snail. Instead, she would pick them up in a gloved hand and throw them over the fence into a neighbour's garden. Well, I am glad this friend doesn't live near me!

My response to my friend's admission was that she was wasting her time because snails were like homing pigeons and they would always find their way back into her garden. I meant this as a joke, but is it true?

A friend of my friend said she had once tested this out. She had gathered all the snails she could find in her garden and painted their shells with bright red nail polish. She then dropped them into a garden a couple of doors away. Sure enough, the snails were back in her garden flaunting their nail polish a few days later.

This got me sniffing around the internet to see if there had been any research into the possibility that snails had homing instincts. Sure enough there was a Guardian article that said they did know their way back to their original homes, but only if the distance was less than 20 metres.

There you are. My joke turned out to be true after all. So, you might as well do what I do and stomp on them, although some of you will no doubt write me off as a truly cruel and nasty snail-hating bastard. Perhaps that is also true.

LATER ADDITION: On a more serious note, hedgehogs are very good at keeping snails and slugs under control. The difficulty is getting one of the various hedgehog societies to agree to you having some, as they need to be carefully housed and looked after.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Funerals: a reason to be cheerful?

A week ago, I went to a funeral in London of a friend and former BBC colleague. He was a Roman Catholic, although I don't recall him displaying much enthusiasm for the church. This was reflected in the service which seemed to me to be more secular than religious. But as I have never been to a Catholic funeral before, I am not able to judge with any authority.

What did strike me about the 200+ mourners was that at least 95% wore dark clothes and I was one of the few men who did not wear a tie.

How different this is to many of the funerals that now take place in Australia, the land of my birth. It is quite common there for mourners to turn up wearing casual clothes. In some cases, mourners are invited to "wear something bright" to reflect that the event is a celebration of the deceased's life.

When my mother died aged 95 in Melbourne in 2007, the large turnout of mourners wore a variety of clothes from dark suits and ties to bright casual, tie-less outfits. It was, on the whole, a cheerful occasion with a good sprinkling of admiration and amusing anecdotes and laughter. My mother had not died of anything in particular, but of old age. In her advanced years, she was consistently upbeat about her life and achievements and declared herself "ready to go", whenever that might be.

My mother's funeral was so different from the one I attended for my former colleague. He had died at the early age of 61 after a very long battle with cancer. So, although the event was a celebration of his colourful and entertaining life and achievements, it was also a time of enormous sadness because the cancer had devastated his family and cut short his broadcasting career.

There was another big difference between the two funerals: Both my mother's private cremation service and the thanksgiving service later in the day were filmed. Crematoriums and many funeral chapels in Australia routinely video services and offer a DVD copy to the family. Some families take up the offer; others do not. It is left entirely to them.

Although I had seen my mother about a week before her death, I was back in London by the time she died, but a friend who has a TV production company in Melbourne happily agreed to send a two-camera crew to film the service. None of the mourners objected or even raised an eyebrow of disapproval, as far as I could tell.

The raw video from the two cameras was sent to me in London where I edited it into a complete record of the service. By the time I had completed this, I almost felt that I had been there. Members of my immediate family were very happy to get the finished DVDs for their family history files.

When I told an English friend about the filming, she bluntly declared it to be "weird". She said she would never want to watch a recording of her parents' funerals. She didn't get on with either parent so she wouldn't wish to be reminded of what might of been had she not had such a dysfunctional relationship with them.  I didn't always get on with my mother, but she was an extraordinary woman of generosity and with a vividly-amusing streak of eccentricity. And, of course, she was "ready to go".

As I am on the subject of funerals, let me also tell you about one that came with an emotional punch at the end. It was an austere non-religious event with no singing -- just eulogies from the deceased woman's daughter and two sons. The contributions from the daughter and one of the sons were heartfelt, but not at all controversial. Not so the speech by the other son. He took the opportunity to reveal the extended abuse his mother has suffered from her father. He went so far as to suggest that she had lost one of her babies as a result of an unprovoked beating. Furthermore, he denounced a Catholic priest who had been involved with the family. It was, without exaggeration, jaw-dropping stuff. Neither of the other siblings was aware that this was coming, but they seemed not to be offended. They felt their brother had a right to get it all off his chest, which he most certainly did.

Finally, if you would like to learn more about my mother's memorable life, click here: Rena's obituaries.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The threat to our pictorial history posed by digital photography



“More means less” is a truism that applies to many areas of life – but never more so than with present-day digital photography.

It is safe to estimate that billions of digital photographs are taken around the world each day, but almost none will ever become part of a family history archive. They are here today and gone tomorrow.

There was a time, not that many decades ago, when taking a photograph was an event from which the results were treasured.

The photographs from these sessions were archive quality and became proud possessions to be passed on from generation to generation.

We must all know friends and family who indiscriminately fire away with their digital cameras and smartphones with the enjoyment being for the moment.

Some of these photographic efforts are emailed to friends and family, or are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and other social media outlets. They are very rarely turned into prints that can be held in the hand and admired, or put in a frame or even a photo album.

Click here to see my full article published in Family Tree magazine, which is a very useful read for anyone interested in researching their family history. 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

TV events: The BBC's addiction to fictional figures - UPDATE

For reasons best known to the BBC, it merrily trots out all sorts of figures that just can't be substantiated. It happens all the time, frequently claiming financial and business losses that seem to have been calculated by holding up a wet finger in the wind. You know the sort of thing: A strike is staged or there is a shutdown for some other reason and we are told that there are "losses amounting to [insert any figure you like here]". Sure there are losses caused by shutdowns, but just because a can of beans, a jacket, a book, a dining table or a book of stamps is not sold today doesn't mean it won't be sold tomorrow and, therefore, is not a "loss".

This takes me on to the nonsense frequently repeated by the BBC and other media organisations about audiences for events such as royal weddings, American presidential inaugurations, and major sports.

Take the current claim in news bulletins that the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was watched by "up to (or more than) a billion people". How could that be? It's impossible.

Over the years, several ex-BBC editors, including myself, have challenged the "wet finger" calculation of figures, with no apparent effect. Among the most vociferous objectors is a former BBC senior manager and colleague, Graham Mytton, who is an internationally-recognised expert on audience figures. I am taking the liberty to quote from a Facebook entry he made earlier today about a BBC claim that the Commonwealth Games had an audience of more than one billion:
Why does the BBC put out this impossible and self evidently risible rubbish? There are two billion people in the Commonwealth. Most of them will have been asleep last night (it was 2.30 a.m. in India). Is it remotely conceivable that half of them were watching last night? No global TV programme has yet reached a billion, not even the Olympics, although they have come close. Why does the BBC throw away its usual caution and acclaimed authority for accuracy when it comes to global TV audiences? Every time it does this. The Royal Wedding, the Oscars, the World Cup and so on. When I worked at the BBC, one had to have a source. There is no source for this rubbish. Why? Because it is not true. Simple.
Does it matter that the audience figures are inflated? Will anyone care? Well, they should care because the BBC has built up over several decades an international reputation for accuracy. This should apply to every aspect of a story. If it plays fast and loose with figures for such things as business losses and audience figures, what else is considered too good to check?

UPDATE:  On the same subject, this article is worth reading. It denounces the extraordinary claims for the TV audiences for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton:
http://bit.ly/GarbageAudienceFigures

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Writers should not be expected to work for nothing

An important message from the latest newsletter of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain:

Free is not an option

A letter from one writer to another 
The recent Writers’ Guild Survey about the extent to which writers are being asked to give away their work for free, or work on others’ ideas for free, produced a howl of anger as a response. Though aimed at all writers – authors, poets and dramatists for the theatre – it was particularly tailored for those who work in film and TV. A whopping 87% of writers had been asked to work for free, with everyone experiencing an upturn.

It’s clear that there one culprit to blame. Us. We writers are simply colluding in our own downfall, by agreeing to work for free. The worse the story of abuse – endless treatments, being sacked from your own projects, promise of cash that never materialises – the more you wonder, why? The answer is simple. We’re all passionate about our work and understand there’s a lot of give and take in the industry (well we mostly give). Now, however, it’s time to stand together and say no. This is exploitation.

Let me clarify what “free” actually means. All writers accept that there’s a certain amount of spec work – you have to write a spec script to prove you’ve got the chops. That’s fine. When you pitch your idea, you have to put it on a page or two to sell it. But that should probably be it.

As one writer in the survey wrote:  “I'd distinguish between two kinds of pitches – the one I write to showcase my idea and the one they need to sell it. I expect to present my wares for no reward. The tipping point comes when they start giving me notes.”
Another writer says: “Just a ‘one-pager’. Enough to get a feel for the idea. But of course what they want is an entire series condensed into a couple of pages and to do this you need to have worked out the entire series, how it works, how the characters interact etc. There’s a fundamental difference between a ‘pitch’ and a treatment. A lot of TV ideas can’t be pitched in the same way as high-concept movies can. It’s a lot of work to ‘create’ a TV series.”

Time and again, development producers seem to be set up with a salary and an assistant, but no budget to pay for anything. Can this really be true? When it comes to a Top 10 writer or a special book, the funding will suddenly be there. Surely, saying they don’t have any money, actually means they don’t have any money for you.

The survey asked writers to name and shame the biggest culprits and it turned out to be nearly every indie around. If we’re willing to fund a company’s development (and often these are huge indies turning over millions, never mind in-house BBC), then they’re only too happy to let us. How many times have we been in meetings with producers and commissioners to discuss our idea and we’re the only one around the table who isn’t being paid? What’s more, if a producer is in a commissioner meeting with several ideas, which one will they really push – the freebie or the one they’ve paid for?

If we don’t put a value on our work – why would anyone else? Aren’t we just devaluing our own market by flooding it with free ones?

Giving a producer a free option is a really bad idea, then you’ve really lost control of it and they have de factor ownership. Try asking the producer if you can send it out to other people during this period and see the response. They believe it’s theirs, with no money changing hands.

All we have is our ideas. They are our currency. Writing isn’t about typing, it’s about thinking. That’s what we’re paid for.

So what’s to be done?

Say no to unpaid work. If you have an agent, make sure they know this and that they ask producers when they approach you, if they have money to pay for development. The Guild is going to suggest that a tick box is included on BBC editorial specification forms, which asks if a producer has paid the writer for the work.

Join the Writers Guild – there is safety in numbers and who else is going to care about us?

Other suggestions from the survey
“The BBC sets out a guideline/schedule for payments at all stages. Networks adhere to these guidelines. Independents get a 25% reduction on these rates. All writers must sign a Guild agreement before they work. All companies must sign a Guild agreement before they employ writers. Non-signatories are fined double what they would have paid for a Guild writer. Fines imposed by the BBC or network airing the shows. Easy.”

“What I’d like to see emerge from this campaign is a Guild-backed and enforceable principle that if a writer develops material for nothing, effectively bearing the cost of development, that constitutes an agreement to executive producer status and fees on the project.” That makes good business sense – if a producer wants something up front for free, then they should pay more later on.

The industry is taking steps to stop exploitation for runners and juniors. Now it’s our turn. It’s up to us to enforce that free is not an option.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Mysterious case of the supermarket plug in a BBC film (updated)

This is a most curious one. Last week my wife and I viewed an American film that we had recorded off BBC3 back in April. Because our hearing is not as good as it used to be, we watched the film -- a comedy called Youth in Revolt -- with the sub-titles switched on. As the film approached the end, we were astonished to see the words "Always Shop at Tesco" pop up on the screen during a pause in the spoken dialogue. See the screen grab.

Why and how did this happen? The BBC insists that the words were in the spoken dialogue, but we could not see any lips moving, nor could we hear either actor speaking those words anywhere around the scene, even with the sound turned up high. I have also downloaded versions of the screenplay and can find no reference to Tesco. Admittedly, these were not shooting scripts in which dialogue is often added, removed or amended when the filming takes place. 

Why would this encouragement to shop at a British supermarket be in an American film? Sure, Tesco used to operate in the United States for a while but under a different name. Another question: were the sub-titles provided by the American production company or did the BBC outsource them to a British company?

As I have said, it is a mystery.

UPDATE: One person who has looked at this film thinks that "Always shop at Tesco" is muttered as a throwaway line by the woman on the left of the screen. I still don't believe it. Why would a character in an American film deliver a slogan for a supermarket chain that is unknown in the USA? They wouldn't, of course. I still believe that someone inserted the slogan in the sub-titles before transmission by the BBC. Was it mischief or unauthorised product placement?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Why was this photo an embarrassment?



 
As a keen genealogist I have many family photographs that I would regard as “special”, but this is one that I wasn’t supposed to see. Nor were any other descendants of the couple who are pictured. The couple were my great aunt, Florence “Florrie” Cox, and the Rev. Frank E. Paice, on the day they were married in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in December 1914.

Both were Baptist missionaries from Australia, stationed in the early 1900s in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The marriage fell apart in scandal for two reasons: 1) Frank Paice had fallen for another missionary, Olga Johnston, during the two-year engagement that the church required Florrie and Frank to spend apart. 2) Florrie had a rare variation of the intersex condition, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Although she looked and felt like a woman, she had male chromosomes and could not function in several important respects as a female.

When Frank and Olga’s scandalous affair became known, both were forced to resign. Florrie returned to Melbourne, but was a family embarrassment with the breakdown of her marriage a relentlessly taboo subject.

The Australian press – normally addicted to such juicy stories – was prevailed upon to look the other way when the divorce went through the Supreme Court and the judge ordered that the file be “closed for all time”.

Frank and Olga married on their return to Bengal where Frank took up an engineering management job. When they returned to Australia some years later, they had reinvented themselves as pillars of society, with Frank taking on a number of high-profile civic positions in Melbourne. No mention was ever made of Frank or Olga’s time in India or their six years as missionaries. Not even their only son and close friends knew of their missionary past. I learned of the scandal only because my mother let it slip when we came across a photograph taken just before Florrie was about to depart for her wedding in Calcutta. 


It took me 18 months of email exchanges, letters and telephone calls to get a Supreme Court judge in Melbourne to lift the ban on access to the divorce file, revealing Florrie’s condition. But nowhere could I find photographs of Frank and Florrie’s wedding as they had been destroyed by the family – probably out of embarrassment and anger. Then I got lucky. A very distant cousin showed me a photograph of two people he could not identify. I was stunned to see that it was Frank and Florrie after their wedding at the Circular Road Baptist Chapel, Calcutta. Somehow it had survived the family's photographic purge and my hunt was over.

The story of Florrie Cox and Frank Paice is told in my book God’s Triangle, available in paperback and ebook.

Finally, an unresolved question:
Why is Frank seated while Florrie stands? I have part of the answer. Florrie would have wanted to show off her frock and her large bouquet to their best effect. However, it was unusual, but not unknown, for the groom to be seated for a wedding portrait.  I am unable to track down any reliable explanation why Frank chose to sit down, but maybe it was because Frank was shorter than Florrie.