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Monday, 17 December 2018

The collective noun for TV talking heads

The BBC documentary ‘Roxy Music – A Musical History’ achieved something quite remarkable. The remarkable thing was this: it made a tragic, middle-aged Roxy fan boy like me turn off after about ten minutes. Had I kept watching, I’m afraid I might have ended up breaking something in our living room.

Some folk in TV land must think that a definitive template for quality has been established by programmes like ‘The nation’s 100 favourite telly adverts’ or ‘The greatest-ever soap villains’, wherein a bunch of well-worn video clips are assembled for the purpose of showcasing the ‘witty’ and ‘off-the-cuff’ observations of C-list celebrities. You can tell from their eyes that, generally speaking, these TV talking heads don’t know (or care) much about the subject matter; they’re just reacting to clips they’ve been shown five minutes before. 

One of the reasons that online content is often more interesting than TV content is that the folk who make the online stuff usually care (sometimes to the point of insanity) about their subject matter. A talking head on TV, by contrast, only really cares about being a talking head on TV. Such a person will dream of the money shot, the moment they’ll coin a phrase so cute, pithy and resonant that they’ll be hired to do a whole bunch more talking head stuff on shows like ‘Britain’s Weirdest Game Show Contestants.’

I generally avoid this kind of programme, but felt that I could not pass up the chance to watch an hour devoted to one of my favourite bands. Alas, merely 600 seconds into the show, having absorbed a series of blows, all of which sign-posted the grim direction of travel, I had to reach for the remote and terminate my participation with extreme prejudice. Maybe I should have watched the whole thing before writing this review, but those 600 seconds contained quite enough inanity for me to get the gist, featuring as it did some world-class superficiality from Sadie Frost, Shaun Ryder, Alan McGee, Sian Pattenden and Emma Dabiri (no … me neither).

The commentary seemed neither apposite nor insightful, but what made it worse was that some of it was used DURING THE SONGS, the director clearly having interpreted each of the instrumental passages as an opportunity to insert analysis like this:

"Bryan Ferry wore glitter on his eyes.”

And this:

"The instruments all had a part to play in the Roxy sound.”

To anyone interested in finding out about a fantastic band, my advice would be to avoid this programme. Instead, do yourself a favour and check out some old clips on youtube. At least that way, you won’t have to encounter a phenomenon which surely deserves a collective noun, preferably something pejorative and judgemental to reflect its pestilential vapidity.

How about a jabbering of TV talking heads? That sounds about right.

There ... I’ve done something useful with the time I could have spent shouting at the television. 

Sunday, 9 December 2018

You can check out any time you like (but you can never leave).

Watching the news and social media responses to the Brexit negotiations makes me wonder what people expected from a process that was bound to be complicated, painful, protracted and prone to brinkmanship. The level of ineptitude shown by the British Government may have surprised people, but it doesn’t account for the catastrophising zeal of those commentators who consistently attempt to invalidate or sabotage both the goal and the process of the negotiations. 

One of the juiciest cherries atop this absurd cake is the acknowledgement by Scotland's First Minister that the 35 Scottish Nationalist MPs at Westminster will back any proposals for a second referendum on the Brexit terms. One must accept that nationalists will, by definition, view everything through the prism of their desire for independence; with that in mind, it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine a situation in which Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum might have resulted in a similar melodrama.     

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which that independence referendum had resulted in a narrow win for the Yes team. There would have been all kinds of heated discussion about the future, with just under half of the population dismayed by the result and just over half in a state approaching euphoria. Many within the Yes movement would have been elated, but some might also have urged a note of caution about the challenges lying ahead, perhaps considering it foolish to assume that it would be easy to dissolve a 300-year old partnership.

Our First Minister would have had to appoint armies of civil servants to deal with the many complexities of what, for the purpose of this flight of fancy, we'll call Scoxit.

There would, surely, have been questions over border controls, currency, share of national debt, location of key businesses, ownership of assets etc. Perhaps, given the closeness of the result, there might even have been some division within the independence movement. Hard line Scoxiteers might have argued for immediate secession from rump UK with as little compromise as possible; others may have reasoned that the hopes, fears and aspirations of the half of the population which did not vote ‘Yes’ would have to be taken into account during the negotiations.

Imagine, on the losing side, that a group of rich and influential people (bankers, politicians, business folk, cultural taste-makers) started to cavil about the result. Imagine that their default line of attack was that the Scottish electorate had been ‘duped’ and did not understand the complexities of the issues concerned. These low-information voters, it might have been argued, were forcing us to break up a successful partnership that had endured for centuries. That Scoxit vote, portrayed by some as essentially anti-English and driven by ‘blood and soil’ xenophobia would have to be overturned; a second referendum (or, if you will, a peoples’ vote) would be required.

The discerning reader might consider this to be a dismally low-resolution interpretation of a binary vote, but let us imagine for the moment that such a fanciful notion somehow had the power to gain some traction in the public consciousness.  

As the deadline for the Scoxit settlement loomed, one could envisage the negotiations stalling, perhaps snagging on technicalities and conflicting interpretations of some of the terms contained within the Act of Union. The First Minister would have been caught between a rock (the ‘Stop Scoxit’ movement, agitating for a second referendum, but perhaps willing to consent to a settlement involving as little disruption to the Union as possible) and a hard place (the Scoxiteers, insistent that a newly-independent Scotland should not be bound by rules, terms and conditions dictated by Westminster).

Aiming to maintain a conciliatory approach to an increasingly divisive issue, let us imagine that the beleaguered First Minister might have flown to London to present a compromise deal, one which –arguably- contained just enough juice for both parties to accept, allowing us to get on with the business of forging effective links between Scotland and rump UK. Imagine that this plan was quickly rejected by the Westminster negotiating team and that the First Minister was sent homeward to think again.  

Weary of being traduced for their ‘stupidity’, their ‘ignorance’ and their ‘xenophobia’, it is not difficult to imagine that Yes voters would have started to fear that the prize they had won was going to be denied by intransigence in London. Many would have been angry about a ‘foreign’ power deigning to grant secession only on terms that seemed unduly punitive.     

There is, of course, a possibility that those voters might have weighed up the stalled negotiations, the slights to their First Minister, the endless slanders and calls for a ‘peoples’ vote’ and thought:

"Well ... this is rather more hassle than we expected. Maybe all those celebrities are right; perhaps we should just have another vote."

Or perhaps they would have taken a deep breath and said:

"Now, perhaps, some of you are beginning to understand why we wanted to leave the UK. We were asked a question and we gave you a clear instruction; now, please, give us what we voted for."

Given the circumstances, which of those responses would have been more likely?

To ask that question is to know the answer.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

About that FIFA Club World Cup ...

Speaking at the opening of the Asian Football Confederation's new headquarters the other day, FIFA president Gianni Infantino reiterated plans to expand the Club World Cup. He said he wants to make it a "real competition" that "every club in the world can target".

Thank goodness it’s going to be a genuine World Cup for clubs and not, as some had suspected, a ‘let’s get all the big teams playing each other in the middle east and then rake in TV millions’ Cup. Mr Infantino is clearly looking after the interests of the global game and not just building strategic alliances by courting dodgy regimes with big barrels of cash; FIFA’s spotless reputation means that we can trust them to look after the best interests of the sport.

The claim that ‘every club in the world can target’ this new competition is, though, worth a little bit of scrutiny. In what meaningful sense can, say, Ayr United, Bolton Wanderers or Carshalton Athletic ‘target’ the Club World Cup? 

FIFA has 211 member countries; the big, traditional footballing nations have thousands of professional and semi-professional teams (if you want to make a whole morning disappear, go look up the number of teams and leagues in Brazil). Even a small country like Scotland has 276 registered professional and semi-professional teams; England has 480 affiliated divisions with more than 5,000 registered teams. It would not be unreasonable to estimate that, across FIFA’s member countries, there might be an average of, say, 750 professional or semi-professional clubs. If they can all legitimately ‘target’ (i.e. enter) this new competition, the Club World Cup could start with 158,250 entrants. How might that work? 

First, let’s address the question of whether games should be organised on a one-off ‘knockout’ format, or on a ‘home and away’ basis. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’ll be going with a straight knock-out format (to avoid the tournament becoming a tad unwieldy).

The observant reader will have noticed that an ‘all-in’ draw featuring 158,250 teams in a knock-out format will, at some point, throw up an odd number of surviving competitors. If all the teams went into the hat for the first round draw (it will have to be a big hat … maybe a barrel would be more appropriate. Or, now that I think about it, a skip; or rather, several skips), by round 5 we’d be left with 9,875 teams; put simply: odd numbers don’t work in cup competitions.   

My guess, therefore, is that FIFA will arrange a preliminary round in which the bottom-seeded 56,416 teams will play each other for the right to enter the full competition. Once that preliminary round has eliminated 28,808 minnows, the first round ‘proper’ will feature 129,792 teams playing 64,896 ties.  

There are one or two practical issues to consider.   

I estimate, based on extensive research (i.e. watching the draw for the quarter-finals of the League Cup on TV the other night), that it takes an average of 38 seconds to draw two numbered balls from a hat or barrel, or skip (or skips).  With 64,896 games to arrange, our first round draw will, therefore, take somewhere between 28 and 29 days to complete. 

I think FIFA should brand this draw as a month-long celebration of football administration. Factoring in time for commercial breaks, celebrity appearances and bringing on substitutes when people collapse from exhaustion, the draw would be a terrific televisual sporting event, a bit like the Super Bowl, but with less Beyonce.   

As a Scottish football fan, I’d love to see our smaller clubs get a chance to compete on the world stage. Imagine the tantalising prospects such a draw might deliver:

Inverurie Loco Works v Fótbóltsfelagið Giza

Whitehill Welfare v Jagiellonia Białystok

Esportiva Guaxupé v Newtongrange Star

(One of the downsides of that last tie would be that, since deregulation, the bus service between Newtongrange and Guaxupé has been shocking; this, combined with kick-off times designed to suit TV channels, might put off some Newtongrange fans from travelling to Brazil).   

Once the matches get underway, they’ll probably be spread over several days in order to maximise TV revenues; by scheduling around 1,000 games per day, the first round could be completed in two months. I won’t go into the logistics of rounds 2 to 14, save to say that by the time we get to round 4, the number of competing teams will have been reduced to 16,224; by round 7, we’d be pretty much down to the ‘elite’ level of 2,028 teams.

Only by round 12 will we have reached the magical number of 64 teams, proven by scientists to be the highest number that football fans easily understand (it’s a bit like the theory that birds can only count up to 5, which makes it OK to steal eggs from their nests if there are 6 or more in it. Or maybe they can count up to 6? Whatever).

If one or two of the smaller teams manage to benefit from kind draws and a bit of luck, there would be an outside chance of some mouth-watering quarter-final games. How about Real Madrid v South Normanton Athletic or Kakamega Homeboyz v Manchester City? The prosaic truth, though, is that the last eight will probably feature world football’s most popular ‘super clubs’, plus Bayern Munich.

With tight scheduling and round-the-clock fixtures, it should be just about possible to complete the entire event within a calendar year (remembering that the first month of each new year would be entirely devoted to making the draw for the first round). And yes, I’m aware that the preliminary round draw must always precede the first round. In a tight footballing calendar, it is therefore possible that we might have to play 28,208 preliminary round ties for ‘year two’ while the tournament for ‘year one’ is still running. Not ideal, I know, but it would at least help FIFA advance their strategic goal for the total football environment, i.e. televised football happening all the time. Everywhere.           

The final will probably be played in Riyadh or Doha on Christmas Eve, kicking off at 3.25am GMT.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Tribute Act blues, part 2.

The release of the Freddie Mercury biopic reminds me that I once had a spell playing with a Queen tribute act.

We played lots of gigs and built up a small but dedicated group of fans who followed us around the country. We got to know some of these fans quite well. One of the most devoted was Tessie, a friend-of-a-friend of our drummer. She was quite a big lady with a lively sense of humour and a fondness for pranks. She enjoyed our gigs but, more than anything else, she loved playing practical jokes on the band, invariably involving some spurious ‘emergency’ about one thing or another. On the way to one show, we got a voicemail message stating that the venue could not provide electricity after 9pm (that turned out to be Tessie). The day before another gig, we got an email asking if we could insert a couple of Abba songs into our set as there was a fan convention taking place in the town in which we were due to play (that turned out to be Tessie). Her pranks were occasionally amusing and usually harmless, but could sometimes be a pain in the neck when we were preparing for a performance.   

I remember one gig at a small town on the Ayrshire coast. We arrived late after our van had broken down on the motorway. Not only did we have no time for a soundcheck, but the manager of the venue proceeded to put us under additional pressure by making an unusual request. Bohemian Rhapsody was normally the closing number in our act, but he asked if we could start the show with it. He felt that, because we would be playing to a ‘difficult’ Friday night crowd, we might need something big to get the inebriated locals onside as quickly as possible. After some awkward negotiations, we reluctantly agreed to open the set with what would normally have been our show-stopper.

The last thing we needed at that point was another complication, but shortly before the gig was due to start, we got a phone call from a woman claiming to be from the local bee-keeping society. She told us that they had been using the venue for a meeting earlier that day and that one of their members had accidentally left a large working hive behind in the 'trap room', immediately underneath the stage.
According to this woman, we wouldn't be able to start our concert until they had removed the hive, as there was a strong possibility that a sudden outbreak of amplified music would send thousands of agitated bees flying up through the floorboards to attack members of the audience.

Despite the suspicion that this might be yet another prank by our number one fan, we agreed to check out the story. Upon entering the trap room, we came across a large wooden structure, which looked like a cross between a wardrobe and a series of stacked boxes with holes in them. None of us were experts. We might well have been looking at something a professional bee-keeper would use, but it could equally have been a stage prop for concealing a large human being.

Mindful of the fact that we were due onstage in a few minutes to start our show with Queen’s most famous tune, I turned to my bandmates and asked the only question that seemed appropriate:

“Is this a real hive? Is this just fat Tessie?”     

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Great news from UEFA

At long last, details have emerged about UEFA’s much-anticipated new ‘third’ club competition, The ‘Equity and Diversity’ Shield, which is due to launch in season 2019-20.

European football’s governing body has decided to move with the times, recognising that the old paradigm of competitive contact sport is perhaps out of sync with modern thinking.  
Unlike the other two major club competitions, participating teams in the ‘Equity and Diversity’ Shield will not be drawn from specific geographical locations, but will –according to a statement on UEFA’s website- be selected from ‘communities of interest’, a move designed to “transcend the outdated notion of tribal boundaries, which are intrinsically decisive and oppressive”.

Under the new format, any ‘goals’ which happen to be scored during a game will be only part of an overall qualitative assessment made by a panel of judges, who will mark each team based on elements like: co-operation, social awareness, sportspersonship and cultural sensitivity.

For example, a team which does not score any ‘goals’ during a game may instead accumulate ‘merit points’ by performing an interpretive dance commemorating the historic achievements of indigenous communities, or perhaps by facilitating a series of workshops on themes like racism, transphobia or patriarchal hegemony. 

Any ‘goals’ conceded will be balanced out by an assessment of the inclusivity of the merit activities undertaken, measured against specific performance criteria focused on Equity and Diversity. Additional merit points will be awarded to teams drawn exclusively from communities or groups facing systemic oppression. Points will be deducted if a team is perceived to have unfairly benefited from privilege (for example, if it was discovered that a member of their squad had previously owned a slave plantation or had an uncle who was in the Gestapo).

The tournament will have no outright winner as such, but 16 qualifiers from the group stages will take part in a celebration of Equity and Diversity to be held at the end of each season. The four most worthy teams (as chosen by the judges) will then be awarded joint custody of the trophy for three months each. 

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin said:

We must move with the times and accept that concepts like ‘winning’, ‘losing’, ‘scoring’ etc. are becoming increasingly inappropriate in the modern world.
Academic studies suggest that the act of ‘scoring’ a ‘goal’ in a football match can be interpreted as an unconscious celebration of heteronormative penetrative intercourse and that this is not always consensual. Depending on the circumstances, members of the team conceding a goal might then be made to feel like ‘losers’ or even victims of abuse.  
Our new rules are designed merely to take a little bit of the focus away from the problematic activity of ‘goal-scoring’ by recognising that there are many ways to succeed in football. That is why the judges will be considering other performance elements, like good co-operation, social awareness, cultural sensitivity and so on.”    

As an avid football fan, I welcome this news. Some reactionary forces within the game will be hostile to the proposed changes, but we should remember that football was once played without goalposts and crossbars; it was once played without referees; it was once played without red and yellow cards. The introduction of ‘merit points’ is just part of the natural evolution of the game. In time, most fans will get behind the new format and support the drive towards equality of outcome at all levels.  

A spokesperson for the BBC has already announced that they will be bidding for the exclusive broadcasting rights for the new tournament.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

What goes around ...

I have never really wanted to meet any of my creative heroes, mainly because of the worry that, if they turned out to be twerps, it might put me off the very work which drew my admiration in the first place. Accordingly, I usually find it easy to separate the person from the work. If I first had to approve of the personalities or political views of folk whose music or literature I could enjoy, I’d probably need to ditch about 90% of my books and CDs. 

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a more pronounced example of the gulf between ‘how highly I rate someone’s work’ and ‘how unimpressed I am with them as a person’ than the case of Graham Linehan. I loved his writing for the sitcoms ‘Father Ted’ (co-written with Arthur Mathews) and ‘The IT Crowd’.
These shows created surreal worlds wherein events invariably conspired to cock a gentle snook at prevailing orthodoxies, institutions and personality-types. The scripts were often rich in sceptical observations of the kind that could only be made by a thoroughly grounded person. 

At least … that’s what I thought until I started following him on twitter.   

I soon discovered that, on cultural debates, he came across as … well, let’s be polite and say ‘not a very nice person’. His strident right-on persona dispirited me to the extent that I had to ‘unfollow’ him, worried that continued exposure to his shrill pieties might somehow impact on my enjoyment of his creative work. Earlier this year, he disgraced himself by condemning a fellow comedian (Count Dankula) over his now infamous ‘Nazi-pug’ video. 

It seems, however, that Linehan has now fallen prey to the very thing that he practiced: the twitter pile-on. In case you haven’t caught the story, he has been cautioned by the police for dead-naming (no, I didn’t know that was a thing either) Stephanie Hayden, a trans activist. Presumably looking for something to do after solving all of the local crimes, the police sprang into action when Linehan chose, in an online spat, to mention a biological fact: namely, that the person he was arguing with had been born male. 

Let’s, for the moment, put to one side the chilling realisation that the Orwellian nightmare of thoughtcrime has been eagerly embraced by the British police. 

After cultivating a belligerent online persona, Linehan surely can’t have been surprised by the extent to which people were prepared, in tennis parlance, to return his serves with interest? Having, among other things, slandered Brexit supporters as RACISTS (yes, he did use capital letters) he is now being served with a civil court action for being a TRANSPHOBE (capitals appropriate).

His problem is that, even in comfortable middle age, he has yet to grasp a simple truth that, once understood, ought to inform adult political discourse: namely, that the opposite of a good idea is not necessarily a bad idea; it is often just another idea, imagined by someone with different life experiences and different thought processes.
Good ideas not only can, but do (and almost inevitably will) come into conflict. An acknowledgment of this fact should be on the map guiding us through the territory between competing ideologies. Because, to put it simply: how we negotiate that space defines our humanity.

Had Graham Linehan been plotting these misadventures for one of his comedy characters, my hunch would be that the story arc would end with a moment of realisation, after which the chastened hero would be a wiser, more measured, more conciliatory person.  

He must be a smart guy to have written the things he has written.

I hope he has it in him to become as smart as one of his characters.