Taking the Short View

If you’re a fan of any cult media shows – especially British ones of a certain vintage – and also possess even a rudimentary sense of humour, then author Nev Fountain’s “Mervyn Stone Mysteries’ trilogy of books should be right up your street.

The eponymous character Mervyn Stone was the script editor of a cult eighties BBC science fiction series dubbed “Dynasty in Space”, with all the extravagantly dreadful costumes, cut-price SFX and sets and even more flamboyantly over the top performances that this implies. The show is long-dead save in the minds of obsessive die hard fans, who rally every year at a hotel in the middle of nowhere for their annual convention. In Geek Tragedy, Mervyn Stone returns to that convention scene for the first time in years and slowly gets caught up again in decades-old simmering feuds and midjudged fleeting affairs while trying to hide from…

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The Boomerang Effect of Technology. Or how the more they throw stuff away, the more it hits you in the back of the head.

I was rummaging in the attic the other day, and I found one of these.

I got it in a goodie bag as a prize for sitting through an awards ceremony without starting a food fight.  Goodie bags are the awards equivalent of toddler smilies on fridgies: patronising, yes, but by God they work.

The last time I tried to use this digital radio it sounded like John Humphrys was being strangled by his own stomach lining, so it was quickly consigned to the Big Box of Crap.  Hey ho, I thought, as I dusted it off; it’s been ten years since I switched this thing on; surely technology has moved on?  I mean, thanks to all those accommodating churches and primary schools, you’re never more than thirty feet from a transmitter mast…

So I tried it again, and this time John Humphrys sounded like he was coughing up one of his lungs, which didn’t sound quite so terminal, so I suppose it was an improvement of a kind.  Given the march of technology, I think it will be the early 22nd century before you can listen to a whole interview with Kenneth Clarke before he starts to sound like Zelda’s son from ‘Terrahawks’.

Back into the Big Box of Crap it went, next to the larger digital radio which proved to be as incoherent as an ITV football pundit.  Back to listening to my clear-sounding no-frills analogue radio, at least that will never let me down.

Famous last words alert!

Be quiet, old man, and use your huge whiskery ears to listen to this message from the FUTURE.  Analogue is dead and digital radio is NOW, so it is decreed.  Just like digital television; that white-hot cutting edge technology that can take an axe to your favourite programme and chop it into screaming pixels at the first gust of wind, and allows you to toast the chimes of new year about twenty minutes after everybody else.

I’m not sure when rubbish technology got to be made compulsory.  They didn’t confiscate all our cars in 1984 and force us to scuttle around in Sinclair C5s, so I don’t know why it’s the case now.

Ha!  I’m only fooling with you.  Of course I know why it’s the case now.  It’s the cash-hungry politicians of course, lured by the siren songs of huge-breasted men in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ t-shirts, telling them (and us) that the Next Big Thing is so good, that we won’t need the Last Big Thing any more.  Kindle signified the end of print, and the internet killed television.  And it’s true.  How do I know?  I read it in a paper, and saw a programme about it on the telly.

It’s not just politicians that share in this conspiracy; the evil empire of Curry’s keeps shoving us down technological paths we’ve shown no enthusiasm for, and to make sure we get with the program they take away what we had before so we’ve no choice but to consume more metal boxes that don’t quite work when we get them home.   How apt that they’re using ‘Star Wars’ for their advertisments now;  surely it must have been Curry’s that sold the Emperor the same crappy Death Star twice over in seven years.  I bet he wanted a nice plain doughnut shaped space station that would last a bit.

'Tell your grandad they just don't make them anymore, sir.'

They push us in a direction, and it’s always circular, round and back to the same thing we sort-of owned before but slightly worse; lowering our expectations so that we get excited by the journey back to where we were.  I remember getting terribly thrilled when I bought a recordable DVD player only to sheepishly remember that I was perfectly able to record television programmes in the 80s; the introduction of DVDs had forced me to drop the habit.  It’s like hiding a stick behind your back before throwing it to a dog.

DOG THINKS: Yay!  A stick!  We’ve got a stick!  I love sticks!

(Owner hides stick behind back)

DOG THINKS: You know what this walk needs?  Something to add a bit of fun and excitement.

(Owner produces stick from behind back)

DOG THINKS:  My dog, what’s that?  Is that what I think it is?  They’ve finally developed the  i-stick 2.0!  I hear that you can actually retrieve it AFTER you’ve had it thrown for you!

Remember the lies they threw at us?  How digital radio would feel like Chris Moyles was there with you, playing records in your own room (okay, that was more of a threat), how CDs were completely and utterly indestructible, and would  play ‘Dire Straits’ even after being smeared with Nutella and fired into the heart of a supernova?   How digital television would provide us with some kind of choice about what to watch, and not 83 channels of strange orange ladies flogging us stuff (yes, I’m looking at you QVC and Babestation)?  Lies, all lies.  The promises are all broken, all that’s left is stuttering and a big ‘ERR’.

Here is a perfect example of circular innovation.  In the 80s I used to listen to a cassette radio in my kitchen, a tinny little thing playing tinny little tunes.  I recorded the bits on the radio between Jimmy Savile’s incontinent waffle, and made my own playlist.  And then came the ‘better’ radio (which broke), the CD player (which couldn’t record), the MP3 (which no-one bothered to make discs for), and now for convenience sake I just put my i-phone on; a tinny little thing playing tinny little tunes – with my own playlist.

Round and round we go, in all areas of our life.  Things are lost just so we can find them again.  Swanky new bottled water (with a hint of fruit) tastes like the weak orange juice we used to get in cold village halls in the 70s; 3D Movies are the latest thing, unless you’re over forty and have a memory (I’m sure ‘The Artist’ Oscar will probably usher in a new wave of cutting edge silent black-and-white movie technology.  WORDS THAT APPEAR ON THE SCREEN AS THEIR MOUTHS OPEN! etc).  Greece will suddenly get excited by the idea of having their own currency.  Call it the drachma, why don’t you?

Twitter and Facebook keep de-evolving into prehistoric versions of themselves, so they can have the power to gift their bits back to us.  It would be like an evil worldwide version of George Lucas, were it not that George Lucas has already got to the metaphor first, cornering the market in being an evil worldwide version of himself.

And so it goes on.   The Boomerang effect.  They’ll chuck away what you’re using now and hit you with the same thing in the back of the head, and get you to pay for the privilege like red-eyed junkies.  And it bloody well works.  I’d certainly pay real money to have hotmail back without sodding skydrive.  I suppose nuclear weaponry is the ultimate circular innovation; use this most AMAZINGLY sophisticated device once, and hey presto!  We all start appreciating pencils and cutlery and fire again.

And what’s the betting Curry’s will stop stocking spoons, and tell you there’s no demand for them anymore…

A local branch of Curry's, yesterday.

What’s not a good time for aspergers sufferers. Part one: Funerals.

I’m actually quite good at these, because even though funerals can be treacherous times for our species, it’s a place where people are expected to blurt out nonsense and look strangely disconnected from the day.  We can blend in seemlessly.

We’ve had a lot of funerals lately; and by ‘a lot’ I mean two.  Which seems a lot.  Actually, I feel like I’ve done three funerals, because Valentine’s day came slap bang between them, so it’s three times in seven days I’ve had to buy flowers, cards, and turn up in my best suit.

As I say, we creatures from planet Aspergers blend right in with the odd, dislocated day of a funeral.  Where we fall down is our tendency towards unvarnished brutal logic.

I was sent out for sympathy cards.  I was asked to buy two, and I came back with five.  I couldn’t make up my mind about the best ones.  Some had crosses, some had flowers, some had crosses made of flowers, some had flowers that looked a bit like crosses.  My partner was slightly surprised to find a pile of sympathy cards on the dining room table.

Partner:    Five?  That’s rather a lot, isn’t it?  Are you expecting anyone else to die?

Me:             Everyone.

I don’t know if my whole family suffers from aspergers.  I haven’t really thought to ask, because, of course, I have aspergers, and it doesn’t occur to us as a rule.  So much of our lives are like that; composed of these closed, recursive circles (Why can’t you do something about your aspergers?  Talk to someone about it?  What’s to talk about?  I have aspergers.  And so on, and so on).

Sometimes it occurs to me that there is a strong strain of it in my family.  We avoid emotional contact, and we make light of dramatic situations. Perhaps that’s just the similar mental condition known as ‘being men of northern English extraction’.

My Dad is by far the worst.  Well, I say ‘worst’.  It means he’s a very funny man.  Never sit next to him in a church when the organist is trying to play ‘Jerusalem’ with her thumbs.  This is not a hypothetical situation, by the way.  I’ve been there.  So has my partner.  She was gripping his arm by the graveside, watching the priest throw handfuls of earth into the grave, when she heard the too-loud comment ‘they’re going to take a bloody long time filling it up that way’.

It’s annoying when you have to live with it, day in, day out. But sometimes it works.

Yesterday we buried my great-aunt Ruby Fountain.  A stunningly amazing human being.  Clever, cultured, insatiably curious, a fan of architecture and history, sometime ‘Archers’ writer and occasional columnist of ‘The Field’, and she could have been so much more, if the conventions of her generation had nor turned her into a loyal and devoted gamekeeper’s wife and mother of three gifted children.  But she would never have seen it like that.  As far as she was concerned her potential had been fulfilled a dozen times over.  We all feel her loss.

So the Fountain men are doing what they always do at the wake; standing by the back wall, and my Dad is doing what he always does at these functions, hovering by the buffet and eyeing up the pork pies as they are being put out on the table.  Ruby’s eldest son, my uncle John comes up to us all.  It’s been a hard day and he’s under a lot of strain, of course.  He’s clearly emotional, and barely knows where he is.  All he can say is…

John:    Oh dear.  What can I say?  What can I say?

My Dad (eyeing up the buffet): Help yourself?

It takes me three minutes to wipe the tears out of my eyes.  The tears that got put there through laughter, but were leaving through grief.

Yes, there were tears.  We may be from planet Aspergers, but we’re not robots.

Tomorrow is Big Finish day.

Just a note to say I’ll be on my way to Barking tomorrow (the place, not the state of mind) where I’ll be signing copies of my books and CDs under the wary eye of such Sci-Fi luminosities as Tom Baker, Paul Darrow and David Warner.


Don’t miss it, or you’ll be completely barking (the state of mind, not the place).

Tips for writers

Everyone else seems to be handing out tips for writers, so here are mine:

1. In hospitality, always go for the quiche first.  It’s always in demand.

2. When going for a meeting, if the producer has a picture of Clive Dunn in ‘Dad’s Army’ costume on his/her wall, leave immediately.

3. Be nice to all the lazy, stupid, thoughtless people you meet, for they will be kicked upstairs to be kings and queens of your world.

4. If someone says there ‘isn’t enough at stake’ in your script, smash the fire alarm and ring the police.

5. If they say they love the premise, they haven’t read beyond page 3.  If they say they hate the title, they haven’t read beyond page 1.

6. Never miss out apostrophes.  They don’t like it, and the unused ones wait above your head in the dark.

7. Whatever your script, whether it be comedy or drama, or a documentary about earthworms, the first line of your pitch should read:  ‘This show can best be described as ‘Mad Men’ meets ‘Only Fools and Horses”.

8. If a producer tells you to put a joke of theirs in the script, do it.

9. If an actor tells you to put a joke of theirs in the script, don’t bother.

10. If an actor asks you why his/her joke isn’t in the script, tell them you put it in the script but the producer told you to take it out again.

11. Don’t get drunk in hospitality and try chatting up the prettiest runner.  His/her body already belongs to whoever got him/her the job in the first place.

12. The writer’s theory of relativity states: If a writer is in a writer’s room doing bugger all work in relation to every other writer, chances are he/she is the relative of someone very important.

13. Don’t get drunk in hospitality and try to sell your idea for a ten-part spin-off series to the executive producer.  He/she is not there to socialise.  He/she is just waiting for the right moment to have sex with the runner in the BBC toilets.

Tony Blair’s dancing men.

Watching the excellent ‘Borgen’ last night reminded me of this…

The dance of Spin Doctors is a wondrous thing to watch; one of the most beautiful and terrifying things in the world, like killer whales fellating each other on icebergs, or silverback gorillas cuddling David Attenborough.

I’ve only ever seen it once close up.  I wish I’d brought my camera.  Or a net.

A few years back, Tony Blair had agreed to appear in a sketch for ‘Children in Need’, involving another version of himself, or to be more precise, Jon Culshaw in a wig.  As head writers for ‘Dead Ringers’ we were charged with writing a sketch showing, for the very first time, the two faces of Tony Blair (ahem).

I can’t remember the details of the sketch, but I’m sure it was going to be a frightfully fun wheeze where Blair would meet Blair, there would be some jokes about how to work out which one of the two was fake (ahem), the VT would end and we’d cut straight to some Estate Agents freezing their knackers off in a Cardiff football stadium and waggling a huge cheque, or something.

The Prime Minister’s office said that Blair was up for anything.  Anything, right chaps?  After all, it was for charity, and ver lickle children, dontcha know.

Another Tony Blair, yesterday.

We wrote a sketch, foolishly, naively, taking them at their word.  Now don’t get me wrong; we didn’t have Blair humping the body of John Smith while dressed in a Thatcherite hair-helmet and pearls, or anything like that.  We weren’t eejits and we wanted this to happen just as much as anyone – for ver lickle children, you understand.

The sketch was, by and large, respectful of the office of the Prime Minister; with one or two slightly cheeky lines that we thought would be the basis of negotiation.

And we were right.  The ‘up for anything’ pledge vanished as swiftly and as silently as a commitment to ban advertising in sport, and then the negotiations started.  This had to be taken out, that gag wasn’t acceptable, no to this joke, no to that joke…blah blah blah.  Or, if you’d rather, Blair Blair Blair.

We made the changes and sent it back.

Then there was an explosion of outrage from number ten!


Someone had LEAKED the fact that TB was going to be on CIN!

They raged.  They ranted.  They made poor Pudsey’s ears burn.  How dare the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation do this!  Deal off, old boy!  Not doing it now!  Not playing!  And that was it.  We were left on the floor trying to put our stuffing back in.

Now here’s the thing: I’m certain the ‘Children in Need’ office didn’t leak it.  The CIN people are the most honest, diligent, dedicated people you could find, and if there’s a condition of secrecy, they’d ruddy well keep it secret.  They’d kept far bigger secrets than this, and there has never been any leaking from them – apart from this incident, strangely enough.

We, on the other hand, weren’t the most honest, diligent, dedicated people you find, but why would we leak the fact that Tony Blair was on Children In Need, when we’re in the process of writing a sketch that would work MUCH MUCH better if the fact that Tony Blair on Children in Need was a big, big surprise?

Of course there was a third possibility; another bunch of people who could have leaked it, and of course we realised when, after the project was pronounced deader than Harriet Harman’s eyes, they came back to us three days later with an ‘all right then, we’ve had a think, and even though you’ve been very naughty, we’ll do it, but this time we’ll do it right, and this time YOU’LL do it right’.

We realised we were being played; there seemed a distinct whiff that some well-groomed haircut had sat down at a mahogany desk, and thought silkily to himself, as he played with a silver letter opener with his long manicured fingers: ‘Okay.  So if we leak it, we get publicity for being nice for ver lickle children, we blame someone else so we don’t look crass in advertising the fact, and blame the EVIL BBC so we get leverage in the forthcoming negotiations of how brilliant Tony is going to look in this sketch.’

It felt like we’d got on a tube for a nice ride to somewhere fun, but found ourselves sitting on someone else’s discarded McDonald’s wrappers.  This was not our world.  This was not the dance we expected to dance; we didn’t have this problem when Adrian Chiles came on the show, for crying out loud…

So we danced the dance, and did our rewrites and then thought, once again, foolishly and naively, that this was the end of the matter.  And it was.

…Until the day of the recording.

Because Spin Doctors love to dance, and the music hadn’t stopped just yet.

The day of the recording was a complete ambush.  Jon Culshaw turned up on the set, only to find that Blair’s spin-doctors had ‘had a bit of a think’ and had written THEIR OWN sketch, to be performed instead of ours.

Of course Jon stood his corner.  Not only had he not rehearsed this sketch, stuffed into his hands with a nanosecond’s notice, he had a huge loyalty to the Dead Ringers team and the writers, and resented the way the whole thing had been handled.  Did these number ten functionaries think they were comedians all of a sudden? (ahem)  So up brewed a fight, an argument so synthetic you could have served it up to me in 1978 instead of Bird’s angel delight and Puffa Puffa Rice, and I would have choked on the E numbers.

And in amidst this artificial spat strode Tony Blair, the peacemaker in chief.


He was very charming, and he didn’t know what this was all about, and was sure there was some sort of mistake somewhere, and he was sure that he could sort something out.  And they did.

Of course, to create a ‘third way’, both sketches got discarded, and replaced with a little bit of nothingness, and then Blair went on to do the speech he wanted to make all along, with Jon standing on the sidelines.  To Jon’s enormous credit he didn’t take it lying down, and kept spontaneously interrupting the speech with helpful ‘coaching tips’ for the real Blair, telling the Prime Minister when to say ‘in a very real sense’.

It was the funniest thing about the piece, in a very real sense.

So that’s how they dealt with one charity sketch.  God knows how they behaved when they came across anything resembling a policy.  No one begrudges a political party a means to present themselves in the right light; but using spin-doctors as a political tool is like using a tin opener to stir soup.  They have only one job; and they approach that job the same way every time.  They brief against, they run whispering campaigns, they find leverage, they ambush, they trample over everything in their rush to create the ‘right’ image, and leave behind them a fine inedible paste which you would only feed to toddlers.

They dance.

Start of a new year.

Yes, I know it’s February, but everyone knows that the year only starts in February, just like the week begins on Tuesday and ends on Thursday.

Looking back on 2011 gives me whiplash, because so much happened.  They say the past is another country, well last year seems like Libya, lots of running around, celebratory shooting at clouds and wandering around a big house wondering what to do with it.

Anyway, I’ll tell you all about that later.  Let’s start with something easy.  One of the defining things for me in 2011 was helping to celebrate Private Eye’s 50th birthday as a staff gag writer.

This is us signing copies of the annual in ‘Selfridges’.  That’s me (far left) with Adam McQueen, author of the excellent ’50 Years book’, editor Ian Hislop, and my writing partner Tom Jamieson.  Don’t be scared.  We were asked to look moody, and this is what we managed.

A triple celebration, because not only has the Eye an illustrious history, it also has a fantastic present and a rosy future.  Sales are through the roof; despite the Editor wisely refraining from chucking content on the web.  The fact I’m telling you this while chucking some of my content on the web illustrates what a rich and paradoxical life mine is.

In these days of blogs, facebookings, and tweets, it’s wonderful to see an ink-stained satirical rag flying off the shelves of W.H.Smith, and not in a ‘you-can’t-make-jokes-about-Princess-Diana’ kind of way.  Now that print journalism is staggering around clutching its chest, and internet journalism is whistling in the dark, hoping that the last person who updated that Wikipedia entry is less ignorant than they are, the Eye is increasingly the go-to place for news.  It’s an odd position for the Eye, with an obvious ‘fuck-the-lot-of-them’ agenda, but like ‘The Daily Show’ in America, people flock to the nihilistic and the satirical, because they are the ones that are not self-censoring themselves.

Everyone from Fox News up has an agenda, and now thanks to c-span, youtube and just people talking around their big media heads, everyone knows it.  Even the good old BBC, that bastion of things having bastions, tiptoes around ballooning corporate pay and pensions black holes, hoping that chortle-themed pieces like ‘do you remember BBC TV Centre?  What a strange place that was, full of tapdancing toddlers and Elephant shit’ is a substitute for genuine reporting about itself.

If something breaks like Hacking, or the latest Paparazzi atrocity, all the news outlets rush to tell you their side of the story, like a kid rushing in to explain why his sister is bawling her eyes out clutching a decapitated Barbie.  Readers and viewers who happily consume the news, bias and all, about asylum seekers, fat cats, scrounging cripples and gypsies, KNOW they’re being half-lied to every single day, and for the most part they’re happy about that.  But the minute something important happens which is ABOUT THE MEDIA, they pick up a copy of Eye, just to see the naughty things their own newspaper has done in their name.  Good news for this wonderful magazine that I work for, less good news for news, I suppose.

Anyway, here’s me chuntering on.