Sunday, 23 December 2012

How can Breaking Bad produce the blockbuster ending it deserves?

*Spoiler alert - this article contains information up to and including Season 5 Part One

Few TV series have translated a high concept vision into a gripping, well executed show in the way AMC's Breaking Bad has. The multi award-winning series follows the exploits of Albuquerque- based high school chemistry teacher Walter White who, on discovering he has cancer, uses his skills to make crystal meth to earn funds to support his family after his death. A great idea but hiring the cast and creating the plot twists to develop a five series show was to be no easy task when the show first launched in 2008.

The casting of Bryan Cranston was to prove a masterstroke. The transformation of the middle-aged Californian actor from Hal, the bumbling dad from Malcolm in the Middle to a violent, at times psychotic, drug lord defines the core of the show's progression. Creator Vince Gilligan carefully adjusts Walt's character in the early series where the viewer's reaction is one of pure empathy for an intelligent man getting to grips with an unfair, lawless world to help his family while keeping his secret firmly hidden from wife Skyler (Anna Gunn). In later series, Walter's actions become increasingly hard to predict and get the viewer screaming at the TV in anguish as he takes difficult or illogical decisions. 

Skyler herself also develops from a supportive wife and mother to a hard-nosed, cheating co-conspirator simultaneously scared and galvanised by her husband's lucrative, dangerous and illegal exploits. Where The Wire excellently honed in on characters already in The Game trying to formalise the process of drug dealing to create business plans, Breaking Bad looks at how an ordinary individual enters the chaotic world of the US street drug industry. 

Perhaps the most important relationship in a programme dominated inter-relations is that between Walter and Jesse Pinkman (Aaran Paul), Walter's ex-pupil in whom he seeks a help and advice to assist cooking up meth in a recreation vehicle (RV) and distributing the pure product which is quickly snapped up by a market used to buying product made by amateur chemists. The quality of Walter's drugs earns him both unimaginable sums and notoriety as he creates an alter-ego, Heisenberg, picked up by the market and cops alike to make him infamous. 

As seasons progress, Jesse's attempts to escape the trail of destruction brought about by his involvement with Walter - including destroying his parents home by turning it into a meth lab and drug den to the death of girlfriend and fellow user Jane - become more and more futile. Walt and Jesse's relationship is simultaneously reflective of a father-son, best friends and worst enemies as short-lived highs and lows dominate their partnership. 

A further central relationship lies between Walter and brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a Drug Enforcement Agency agent firmly on the tail of the 'blue' product Walter is producing. This cat and mouse chase brings moments of great suspense and subtle humour to the show. Whether it's when Hank has his prey trapped in a junk yard inside the RV only for Walter to use his contacts to fool Hank into believing his wife has been rushed to hospital or when Hank frequently confides his thinking on the case to what he believes is simply his slightly awkward high school teacher brother-in-law, scenes involving both crackle with tension. It also displays one of the show's greatest attributes, to create seemingly insurmountable cliffhangers only for Walter to engineer his way out of it by creating masterplans.

Which is why it is vital that the final part of season five - which has been split into two with the second half due in summer 2013 - doesn't puncture all the good work done so far. There have been intimations that the show could continue beyond S5Pt2 but they appear to be largely hopeful internet rumours. The hype around the final eight episodes heightened yesterday after Norris tweeted a photo from one of the final shows. In the final scene of the last episode, Hank discovers a book gifted to Walter by dead drug lord Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) appearing that the chase to find Heisenberg is over. Many shows could've ended there, with the repercussions - Walter's arrest, his assets impounded, death row - implied. But Gilligan has the unenviable task of continuing the show's high standards to a satisfactory end. 

In truth, the first part of season five lost some of the pace and vigour of previous seasons, not least the climax of the blockbusting previous season. Some of Walter's drive to protect his family appears to have abated while his disabled son, Walter Junior, has become a peripheral character rather than the inquisitive centre of Walter's efforts seen in earlier seasons. If Skyler's discovery of Walter's activities defined seasons one to three then the revelations of his endeavours to his children and wife's family will provide compelling viewing in the show's conclusion. Meanwhile, the conclusion of Jesse's journey from low level drug user to, well, drug user still has some mileage. Ultimately, total annihilation of all the main characters, while spectacular, would prove unsatisfying after a long and committed journey by the viewer.

Breaking Bad is a show about entering a world out of your control. As events unfold in the final part the show's creators need to ensure the realities of that world are married with its incessant desire to twist the tales of its finely-crafted characters. 

Defining moments of Breaking Bad
- Walter and Jesse get stranded in the desert after the RV breaks down and have to walk back home
- The death of Tuco
- Walter shaves his head and dons the pork pie hat of Heisenberg 
- Jesse's girlfriend Jane chokes to death on her own vomit as Jesse sleeps and Walter watches on
- The plane crash and the pink teddy bear floats across the pool
- Hank points his gun at an RV containing Jesse and, unbeknownst to him, Walter
- Gale's murder
- Hank is shot in a showdown in a car park after being signed off work
- Skyler discovers Walter is a drug manufacturer
- Gustavo Fring murders his Mexican contacts
- Gustavo Fring is blown up by Walter
- Walter and Jesse rob a train for methylamine

Don't agree? Feel free to comment below. 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Buck 65 talks horny blues

Buck 65 is horny. In fact Nova Scotian hip-hop's most prestigious export is practically a walking copy of Nuts with carefully crafted tunes in place of some bird from Big Brother's tits. 

Canadian rapper, storyteller and gentle comedian Richard Terfry's appearance on stage at The Garage in Islington is a welcome sight after a number of years of intermittent appearances in the UK. For the uninitiated, Buck is a storyteller who has associations with Anticon records and has spent two decades creating some of the most interesting, innovative and genre-defining hip-hop of his generation. He's also a rather funny, charming fella. 

Buck structures his set like a reverse romcom, beginning by telling of his long distance relationship with his wife-to-be, then their move to Paris together before exhaling heavily and saying the last year and a half has been difficult as he got divorced. This story translates into a scintillating set featuring a duo with support act Laura J Martin playing his wife [see video] before Buck performs a tune which repeatedly states "I wish we could start again". It's a painful and surprisingly stark moment for an artist who often morphs into different characters and is surprisingly chipper. "You don't know how hard it was to perform that," he breathes at the end of the song.

But he's got the Pot Noodle horn, apparently, so his midset is dominated by the theme of heavy penetration and fledgling encounters. He bookends his classic tribute to an oversized lover - Centaur - with a rap made form the titles of spam emails about sperm and a poem-cum-rap about his overly amorous chat up lines. He attempts to give off the air of an awkward first timer attempting to find his way, in fact a more eloquent wordsmith able to handle himself in any situation you'll rarely find.

But the gig is not just Buck's catharsis. He plays Superstars Don't Love from latest album 20 Odd Years as well as previewing material from his forthcoming record expected next April. He also cranks out classics including 463 and Wicked and Weird from Talkin Honky Blues which being back many memories including rapping the entirety of the latter on the motorway with my friend Daniel, fucking up my A Level English exams after going to a Buck gig the night before and interview Mr Tefry at the Rescue Rooms in Anton's office. 

He also cranks out a slightly bizarre 'Friday night' dance tune which may or may not appear on the new record which is quite fun if a little odd. The set runs a little long and it would've been nice to see the beautiful steel guitar of a full band to enjoy his full range rather than just two turntables and a microphone. 

His last couple of records have been a little pedestrian by his very high standards but anyone who's even glanced at ShadowPlay ever will understand why his status as my personal favourite artist ever remains firmly assured. With the prospect of a new heartbreak album moving into view, there's a distinct possibility that this could be Buck's Blood on the Tracks-style defining moment. 

Buck 65, Laura J Martin - The Garage, 16/11/12

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Glory of the Domino Rally

Picture the scene: the last Domino is placed down, you're one tap of an index finger away from unleashing a cascade of small rectangular soldiers across the battleground of your auntie's kitchen table when bang, Uncle Terry walks in, bangs a pork pie on the corner of the table and bang goes 35 minutes  of painstaking work.

The effort and reward of a Domino rally is one that is often overlooked in the modern life of X Boxes and Jamiroquai, however this simple pleasure is one to be savoured. I decided to have a little hunt round the internet for some interesting examples. 

Personally, my favourite rallies as a kid would involve substituting the Dominos for, say, hardback copies of Goosebumps books, tapes of football matches off the radio or videos of shoddy performances in school plays. After time and again knocking over the entire run just as I was about to start, I learnt to build in fail safes, taking Dominos out halfway through to stop it ruining the whole track if I did nudge one over by accident. 

The Domino rally, a classic art which hopefully will never die, or becoming confused with a pizza chain. 

The original 1980s advert
A impressive multicoloured adventure
World record for human dominos at 850 people
A great way to hype the 2010 World Cup in South Africa

Sunday, 4 November 2012

How the perfect shop became a tragic waste

The Dream: Working with a cat in a zine shop

An average indie band once said: modern life is rubbish. And, in a case of rare agreement between Damon Albarn and I, I tend to agree. Much that previously demanded care and attention - conversation, publishing, slagging people off using clever similes - has been undermined by a simultaneously callous and over-calculated age.

So outposts where these outlooks have been shunned are few and far between and should be cherished. Last week, I discovered one such place. Wandering in Amsterdam's famous Nine Streets on holiday last week on a day even David-Blane-mid-ice-block may have described as 'a bit chilly', the discovery of the dubiously named Boekie Woekie was a revelation.

On entering the small bookshop from the cold, you're met with a plethora of vibrant coloured zines, books, pamphlets and postcards. Run by Dutch, German and Icelandic artists, the shop, which first opened in 1986 and carries around 7,000 titles, was founded on the principles of carrying literature regardless of its author's fame. The small shop, located on Berenstraat in the Dutch capital, has two mid-sized rooms wall to wall with self-published books; there's a photocopier for people to re-produce their own work and shelves and shelves of well-merchandised zines. 

In the UK, zines, contrary to popular opinion, are not extinct. The onslaught of blogs (including this one, which runs alongside the paper zine) has definitely impacted the number of zines about but a cursory glance at Brighton zine fest or today's Leeds Zine Fair shows that there are plenty still about. However, aside from a handful of shops - including Sister Ray in London, the Punker Bunker in Brighton and Jumbo Records in Leeds - zines are rarely given much space in shops. Zines get little attention, not least because the passion, creativity, time and effort that goes in for little reward is, understandably, hard for many to relate to.

So to stumble on such a dedicated and extensive collection was, in short, astonishing. Not least because the place had a very friendly live-in cat. I was putting my name on the lease before opening a single book. 

But then came the problem. I'd be astounded if a bigger collection of pretentious, pseudo-political/philosophical babble existed in one place. The stock was completely inaccessible, from publications with a single unexplained word on each page to unclear streams of consciousness seemingly filling pages to justify the amazing cover on the front. And that's what's so frustrating - so many of the works are beautifully created with handmade covers stitched onto each leaf or folded in new ways I'd never seen before. While some higher thinkers than I would doubtless have enjoyed much on display, I think more would be interested in the funny, heartfelt, personal, creative and downright silly offerings that much of self-publishing has to offer.

And the pricing was ridiculous. The cheapest zine - about 10 sheets of ludicrousness - clocked in at about €6 and the standard price seemed to be around €15. I wanted to buy something but could see nothing of even vaguely decent value for money. Even allowing for a decent sale or return margin for the zine's creators, the prices were excessive. Over-pricing of zines is something that really irritates me. The number of times I've been at a zine fair with someone just looking to buy one or two cheaply to see if they can get into them but a bog standard one is £3 is still too much.

The majority of zinesters do not make zines to make money or even cover costs. The most important element is that people read the work so why, when they're on prime display, is there a prohibitive price tag on them? What's more, surly and shy zinesters, combined with, in Boekie Woekie's case, grumpy service (an unassuming tourist asks about an incongruous Obama lollipop to much sighing) give a passionate pastime an unfair image.

In my day job, I write about retail and constantly see large retail chains attempting to battle the forces of low cost online competition. In the zine world, those forces are even stronger and if zines are to survive long term then disappointing experiences like this should be left behind. Boekie Woekie, while outwardly bearing little resemblance of the near-named Russell Brand opus, was arrogant, over-priced and couldn't see past its own shadow. An opportunity wasted. 

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Adem shows corduroy brigade how to rock quietly in comeback gig

Review: Adem + Geese, King's Place, 19/10/12

The sight of Adem Ilhan's cheery smile beaming out from behind the microphone is one of the most endearing experiences a music nerd could hope for. His blend of lilting nu-folk, carefully constructed metaphors and heartbreaking tunes has been sorely missed in the four years since his last release under his own moniker, 2008's acoustic covers record Takes. 

He has been no slouch in the intervening years. He's worked with tonight's festival curators and Scottish folksters Lau, scored the music for In the Loop, Armando Iannucci's big screen version of acerbic political comedy The Thick of It and produced a number of artists including Beth Jeans Houghton. He has ditched his Homefires festival for now, telling us after the gig he found that he wasn't able to find new talent that didn't feel derivative. 
But the former Fridge bassist is arguably more talented than any of the partners he's collaborated with. His 2004 debut Homesongs on Domino Records showed the multi-instrumentalist's ability to create innovative pastoral pop songs which allowed his ever-wistful tones to come through in a quiet manner while 2006 follow-up Love and Other Planets featured some delicate nuggets which ensured the record did indeed feel stratospheric. 
"I've been away for a while…" Adem explains to the enraptured audience at King's Place, The Guardian's large central London offices which house concert venues, bars and even a computer or two on which to bash out witticisms and interviews with Alain de Botton. 

Doubtless coaxed back on to the centre stage by Lau who organised the week long Welcome to Lau-Land festival, Adem is surprisingly nervous and unlike the usual bounding figure who has popped up from beneath his home-painted organ at previous gigs. Backed by support act and long-term friends Geese - a trio of two violinists and a drummer who fail to offer much imagination in their slightly pretentious opening set - Adem admits to having only rehearsed a handful of times prior to the appearance. 

His set is pleasingly full of familiar favourites including a wondrous outings for Love and Other Planets and an achingly stark solo version of Spirals. There's plenty of material from Homesongs but those, including yours truly, hoping for a new studio album, may have to wait a while longer as there were few new tunes. However, perhaps the most remarkable moment of the evening came with new song, Snow in April. A carefully weaved combination of a collection of similes and low tempo folk made this a promising sign of things to come. Halfway through, Adem briefly forgets the words, smiles and then apologises at the end of the song, making you wonder whether there's a more genuinely pleasant British frontman in existence. 

Predictably, Lau take to the stage for an encore and advance with Adem into the audience for jubilant versions of Everything You Need and There Will Always Be with Lau's accordions and energy adding to a feeling Adem has made an understated yet magical comeback. If Adem is to record and tour extensively under his own name again there will be a cluster of very happy music fans waiting with arms open across the world. Let's keep our fingers crossed. 

Video: Adem and Lau: Everything You Need

Sunday, 14 October 2012

On the Road signals the remarkable transformation of Sam Riley

Sam Riley

Adapting Jack Kerouac's landmark novel On the Road for the big screen was never going to be easy. Director Walter Salles has, however, approached the project with guts and pulled off a masterstroke in leftfield casting which turns what could have been an average film into one to remember. 
Sam Riley, an Englishman in his early 30s living in Berlin who's professional acting career is less than six years old, leads the impressive ensemble cast as narrator Sal Paradise in the story of a novelist who travels across America looking for inspiration for his debut book. 
Salles' choice of Riley is perhaps most astonishing due to his origins. I first encountered the Yorkshireman as the enthralling frontman of Leeds pub rock band 10,000 Things who I saw play a few times, mainly in Sheffield and had a quick chat once at a shambolic gig in a student halls of residence. Riley himself, ever energetic on stage dressed in a ruffled grey suit, blatantly thought plenty of himself and it was this confidence and antagonism which is likely to have led to the band's implosion after one record on Polydor in 2005. They remain the authors of Dogsbody, one of the catchiest post-pub bellowers in my considerable boozy singing armoury and Riley had the rough edges still firmly etched on what he is now. 
However I was surprised and nervous when I heard Riley was to play the lead in one of my favourite books, Touching From a Distance, Deborah Curtis' account of life living with Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Control. I needn't have worried. Riley, playing Curtis in a the film which was shot in my hometown of Nottingham because Manchester had become too well developed to pass for the 1970s version of itself, was astonishing. Selected for his ability to sing the songs live in filming, he mastered Curtis' movements on stage and portaged the tortured frontman and talented genus perfectly. Riley's role alongside Helen Mirren as Pinkie Brown in an adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock also won him plaudits and it would've been good to see him play the Fall frontman Mark E Smith in 24 Hour Party People had the scenes not been cut. 
But Sal Paradise is a different beast. Portrayed with a gravelly accent and held up as the finest penmanship of Kerouac, one of the beat poet movements foremost figures alongside Allen Ginsberg, he had to add  softened literary touch to his brusk roles. 
Paradise is actually, due to being a sponge taking on others' inspirations, perhaps not a typical lead character. Ever in the wake of friend and idol Dean Moriaty from who he learns of a fake working class living, Riley's Paradise is ever scribbling what others say on a tiny notepad or watching on as one of the multiple sex scenes grinds away. 
Personally, Kerouac doesn't quite do it for me. What he stands for - post-war liberalisation, challenging widely held ideas and downing plenty of booze in the process - I support, however his particular brand of Americanised pretentiousness is often difficult to swallow. When it comes to stream of consciousness writers, I would much prefer to read Lester Bangs lauding Iggy & the Stooges for 20,000 words from a different era. So it is to Salles' credit that the pretentious elements are kept to a minimum and that an ensemble cast which includes Steve Buscemi getting shagged by a man and Kirsten Dunst looking decidedly world weary. The film itself is a little long at two hours ten minutes but the humour, great blues music and careful dialogue of what sometimes feels like a collection of scenes is enough to keep viewers engaged as it trawls across the US.
Riley brought gravitas, panache and humour to a role that drastically needed it and showed himself to be that rare kind of Yorkshireman who can reinvent himself yet stay true to his routes. 

Sunday, 30 September 2012

ShadowPlay's Top Five Fanzine Videos

Some argue that the internet has killed the art of the fanzine, turning many zines into, arm, blogs. However, it's also become a forum and resource to exchange bizarre and fun ideas. Here, we look at some of the best zine videos online

1. This sums up both the graft and the joy of making a zine as well as illustrating how you can rope friends in. Quite the factory. Watch out for the builder's bum on 32 seconds. 

2. Cutesy in the extreme but very fun. I love mini zines, they're quick, effective and easy to distribute. 

3. A nuts and bolts guide, this works well due to the level of details. Nice, high quality way to create.

4. Great soundtrack and I'd love to read this zine.

5. And one for mirth. The Dark Lord Peter Mandelson says Sun readers don't want a Tory fanzine. He's loving his pre-prepared "we do not want the sun setting on New Labour" line. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Vermicious knids and Umpa-Lumpas: How did Roald Dahl create fiction's most engaging tales?

Roald Dahl: An unlikely hero

The publicity around fellow children’s author Michael Rosen’s new autobiography Fantastic Mr Dahl has been a welcome excuse to ponder the merits of the 20th century’s pre-eminent children’s writer, who died in 1990. It is perhaps only now in what I jokingly call adulthood, reading picture books with my nephew, that I realise quite the style and verve Dahl wrote with and the credit he gave his youthful readership.

Dahl’s most notable works include James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, Fantastic Mr Fox, George’s Marvellous Medicine, The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, credit much also be given to personal favourites like The Magic Finger in which geese take over a household, the strange world of balconies and tortoises in Esio Trot and the gentle humour of The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me

Although Dahl wrote for children somewhere between five and ten years old, his greatest skill was not to patronise his readership. Where others would’ve shied away from orphaned children and callous, unloving parents, Dahl drew these facets to the centre of many of his works. He wasn’t afraid to subvert preconceptions of sweet grandmas and scary giants nor include genuine peril in his novels. Whether it is the main character cowering behind a screen for fear of being turned into a mouse in The Witches or Danny driving a car aged nine to rescue his father who is stuck down a pit in the dead of night in Danny the Champion of the World, there’s always moments which are uncomfortable to read and put the main character at huge risk. Moreover, at the start of The Witches Dahl shatters the glass of the notion that this is a fairytale and explains that Witches look like any other person and could be around you every day in a foreword. That, and my sister Imogen whispering “and then the child was gone, just a picture painted on the canvaaas” in a Norwegian accent was enough to genuinely scare me for years.

Matilda by long time Dahl collaborator Quentin Blake
Right and wrong are also at the heart what Dahl challenges. In Danny, the protagonist and his father poach – or steal by another name – from rich aristocrat Victor Hazell while in Charlie several of the irritating children are effectively killed off much to the delight of the readership. However, research by Charles Gerard Van Renane of Rhoses University showed that many children don’t like main characters such as George  as they go too far (i.e. poisoning his grandma).

In a piece published in The Big Issue, Rosen says that Dahl “wasn’t a perfect bloke” and that he had “odd or unpleasant” elements to his past. He adds that: “I wouldn’t mind guessing that I would have clashed over some political things he said or wrote.” But for everything that didn’t quite sit right about Dahl, his ability to create an unlikely hero triumphing over a carefully crafted ogre was redoubtable.

The Grand High Witch
Dahl’s ability to write about family relationships, too, was uncanny. The way he builds the partnership between Danny and his father William in the slow building first few chapters of that novel or between Matilda in Miss Honey – united through a love of books and lack of love from their own parents or guardians – builds a constant theme of being a team against the monstrous likes of Hazell or the perfect villain, Miss Trunchbull. Dahl channelled his own life into these characters too, his granddaughter Sophie appears as the meek heroine who partners The BFG to catch dreams and save the Queen. 

But it’s for his humour that Dahl is most cherished. The bizarre Umpa-Lumpas, the worms in Mr Twit’s beard, the talking insects or Bruce Bogtrotter shoving a mound of cake into his face – there’s always something to make you smile.
Dahl sits on the very top table of authors, children’s or otherwise, in being able to consistently and perfectly do what many have tried and failed to accomplish: write an engaging story or all ages. His star and the glint of Charlie’s golden ticket, will continue to burn bright for generations to come.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Transgender imprisonment case exposes hip-hop's ignorant failings

Activist B. Dolan is the challenging hip-hop scene

When you love something dearly, admitting it's flawed is as easy as ripping your own knuckles out. So accepting that hip-hop remains inherently ignorant, homophobic and misogynistic doesn't come easily.
But one of the year's most exhilarating tunes has highlighted this fact, as well as the failings of the US prison system. Rhode Island rapper B. Dolan, a label mate of living legend Sage Francis, has released 'Which Side Are You On?' a four minute shot across the bows for the US establishment and the North American hip-hop scene. The tune, a perfect balance between angry rasping hip-hop and a lilting folk chorus, highlights the case of Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald. McDonald, born a man and transitioning to a woman, was attacked outside a Minneapolis bar, stabbed her attacker and has been imprisoned for three and a half years for manslaughter reportedly without counsel. Her case has rallied the support of the transgender community of Minnesota and kickstarted a #FreeCeCe Twitter campaign after she was jailed in a men's prison. 
Dolan's call to arms video (see below) takes McDonald's imprisonment as a case in point to highlight what he believes is an ignorance from the US penal system to put her in a facility based on her gender at birth. But the video takes the argument one step further, highlighting his genre's lack of openness when discussing sexuality.
At one point there's an extract from the excellent PBS documentary Hip Hop, Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Hip-hop figurehead Busta Rhymes is shown saying: "That homo shit? That's what you talkin about? I can't even talk to you about that. What I represent culturally...doesn't condone it whatsover." Does he think that a gay rapper would ever be accepted? "Oh wow," he says, shaking his head and leaving the room.
If one of the biggest figures in hip-hop of the last twenty years can't even entertain the concept of a gay rapper - of which there are many - presumably for fear of his public image among his peers then that's the single most depressing element of a genre which is simultaneously empowering and effortlessly enjoyable at its best.
Busta and his likeminded peers are undermining and embarrassing the rest of us who love hip-hop with his pathetic stance. Huge swathes of people who never listen to hip-hop, have never given it a chance or dismissed it out of hand want to hear comments like his. They want to believe that every rapper wants to treat women like shit and demonise homosexuals. They want to ignore the fact that crowds are rarely more unified than when gee-ed up by the best emcees. They believe it is an aggressive genre which only encourages violence rather than channelling healthy aggression and creativity.
We know different. We know hip-hop highlights differences in society more than any other genre, uses more clever wordplay than a thousand Kindle-friendly trashy novels and, crucially, can intelligently hold people to account.
Hip-hop remains as vital in overturning views that are inherently wrong now as it did in Public Enemy's heyday. B. Dolan, an activist and founder of, claims that many rappers could "put the mic down and be a Republican" representing antiquated views. He wants to be the Harvey Milk of his generation, let Dolan inspire you, let hip-hop fulfil its real role. 

Monday, 27 August 2012

Publication of Prince Harry photos exposes more than just a posh balls-up

Prince Harry may have been caught with his bum out this week but it will be the media who could be left stripped, naked and on the naughty step when Lord Leveson concludes his inquiry into media ethics. 

The paper's decision to publish photos of Prince Harry frolicking naked in a Las Vegas hotel room this week was yet another landmark point in which the rag has undermined the efforts of much of the rest of an industry which acts in both positive and pathetic ways simultaneously. 

The Sun's argument to publish the photos on its front page on Friday was 'well everyone else is doing it', claiming that 40 million users had viewed the photos online worldwide. However, that ignores the jurisdiction in which the paper operates. Smoking weed in public in the Netherlands is fine, here - rightly or wrongly - it's illegal so people, by and large, don't do it. Apply the same ruling to what The Sun has done and you see there can be no justification for its actions. The difficulty in governing online publications is also raging but that shouldn't impact on The Sun's position.

Managing editor David Dinsmore has praised the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Conduct, a flimsy document once described to me while studying journalism at university as a "worthless piece of paper which solely exists to prevent legislation". It is therefore unsurprising that Dinsmore who claims to have "thought long and hard" before slapping 'Heir it is' on a photo of a young lad having a night out that probably went a bit too far, supports it. 

The privacy clause of the PCC code states: "It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent" and the body has already received more than 800 complaints following The Sun's publication. 

The facts around Harry's supposed misdeamours and the interest around it are not up for debate. He's known as liking a party, he is in Las Vegas and anyone who has ever had to endure an evening listening to someone in Clapham talking about the "totes hilarity" of a bawdy rugby or skiing tour can tell you posh people frequently end up in these situations. Personally, I don't think it's newsworthy but of course to some people I know it is. I don't buy the 'Harry as a role model' or as a responsibility to represent Britain card, bollocks. I'm not a republican but am a realist. If you want a role model it's not going to be someone who has no notable skill, talent or reason to be famed but clearly Dinsmore has praised the PCC code with one hand and crumpled it up and thrown it into a big pot of cash with the other in ignoring the clause stated above. 

However, the timing of The Sun's decision amid perhaps the most controversial and crucial period in British journalism for two decades is extremely poor. Already, for the most part, battling against long term problems including the forces of online, alternative sources of entertainment and rising costs, the newspaper industry now faces the Leveson inquiry. The inquiry, which could last a further two years. aims to fully investigate media ethics in the UK and ensure tactics such as phone hacking are never employed again. The one beneficiary of the Harry photo debacle has been David Beckham, another Sun front page joke, who this week had rumours of his affair with Catherine Jenkins both denied and overshadowed.

Clearly the matter is wide ranging all the way from the positive way MP's were hunted out and exposed in the expenses scandal to the prevalence of brief quotes from anonymous sources being used to build a story upon. 

Ultimately it could spur Leveson on to clamp down on the media more firmly - some media lawyers who recently gave a talk at my office at magazine publisher Emap said that the inquiry is likely to make things much more difficult for journalists. And increase their case load. 

But there is also concern that it could make things more stringent for those seeking a public interest defence and genuine freedom of the press. If Leveson decides to pursue a legislation route you can expect more super injunctions, more cover ups and a weakened media industry ploughing more resources into fighting legislation. There are far more eloquent takes on the debate out there but the spotlight should remain on The Sun's flimsy and pathetic representation of British journalism. 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Sharing the sporting burden

With just over two weeks to go, I decided to look at how diehard sports fans may find sharing the London 2012 Olympics with fair weather fans

There's a gentle thud from the hallway as a girl in her early 20s munches on some Coco Pops. She emerges from the lethargy which has defined her summer, her first back in her parents' little back bedroom since university, to pick up the post. Gasping, she rips open a letter with a garish pink logo on it - "Yesss!" she yelps. "I've got them!" It's the best moment of her year, she's been debited £144 for tickets she works out, scouring her painful credit card receipt, are for first round Greco Roman Wrestling at the Olympics. A passion is born.

Because this could be a glorious or a dreadful summer for British sports fanatics. Time and again, us long sufferers hear "oh, I only watch if England are playing" when asking about which football teams people support or "do they play tennis the rest of the year?". Yes, this has been the summer we've been forced to share.

We are slap bang in the middle of that beautiful period when the summer and winter sports collide - people listen out for football results at cricket matches, the tennis clashes with the Grand Prix and the athletics is in full swing. One year in every four, sport takes over a nation. Robbed of the combination in 2008 by England's failure to qualify for the Euros, the Beijing Olympics passed off, at slightly awkward times for European viewers, in modest style. 

So it was with some shock that sports fans have been thrown back into sharing dingy pubs with excited St George-painted types and 5live's 6-0-6 radio phone-in is further populated with broad brush, ill-considered views. 

The much vaunted lack of expectation on the Three Lions from the media translated to the fair weather fans bringing a new experience for diehards.

Instead of being the voice of cynicism every time a part-timer would say "that Darren Anderton could do a job for us long term" or "Henman can win the whole thing using serve and volley", we have to stick up for the overpaid egos which populate the national football team. As such, we hear ourselves saying "but he's had a great season at club level" every time Ashley Young fails to connect with a two yard pass or "I've seen Murray smile when he won the Cincinnati Masters", unable to extoll our usual brand of unflinching cynicism masking blind hope.

And we've been let down twice in very different ways. Against Italy in the Euros, we put out a pathetic, unambitious and embarrassing performance which was inept and dull to the merest onlooker, killing off another swathe of potential fans. The number of fans who cite Italia 90 as the point at which they got into football is unlikely to be seen again as the national side fall from all-action heroes to bedroom action baddies. 

And then there was Andy Murray. I've been following Murray since he astonishingly burst into the mainstream at Queen's in 2005 with a shocking permed haircut and an enthralling follow-up five set defeat to David Nalbandian at Wimbledon. Summer fans have seen his ups and downs at Wimbledon, semi-finals and agonising injuries, but they haven't seen the wins against Federer elsewhere on the ATP tour, the three other Grand Slam finals and the lighter side to the sullen Scot seen under pressure on the court. Without context, yesterday's final was a bolt from the blue and an expected failure when in reality Murray was in the game for long periods and lost out to Federer's key abilities: tenacity, court coverage and finesse. 

So with two opportunities down, we have one sporting event to go to win over the sporting doubters. Names that mean nothing to The Many right now: Mo Farrah, Dai Greene and Andy Baddley, have the chance to become the new Kelly Holmes, Denise Lewis or Linford Christie. 
Because however much fanatics hate to share their prize loves, London 2012 might just be our opportunity not to sit ranting in the corner to no-one for a few weeks. 

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Unconventional Story Telling

If a picture can tell a thousand words, then the adage is worth tweaking slightly and thinking about how else a story can be told. The art of storytelling has always fascinated me. 
I have a friend who I met when I was about 16 and I've always been amazed at how she can turn a banal story into something hilarious, usually by stopping to laugh herself, leaving you hanging and then dropping a ridiculous line like "but the oven gloves turned out to be a false alarm" or some nonsense.
But what's also interesting is how people don't tell stories. Using their eyes or pauses in a sentence, people do it all the time, tell mini stories they don't want to or don't have time to go into like "then the pasta boiled everywhere and the evening was ruined" when actually the story inferred was probabley "then the pasta boiled over, she burned her hand and swore at me, we went and sat in casualty for five hours not talking to each other and then finally made up on the night bus home at 4am laughing about the nurse with the odd boobs". 
Beyond photos, videos and books there are so many ways to tell stories - with raised eyebrows, silent movies, art performance, animation and music - where the only thing in common is communication. Here are a couple of nice unconventional ways of getting messages across:

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Why a Stewart Lee rant has exposed Twitter's biggest failing

Stewart Lee
In all the furore around Twitter's role in the transformation of Ryan Giggs from scoring-every-season-champion to scoring-every-family-gathering-sleazeball, one element of the social medium has gone relatively unchallenged.
Celebrity stalking. Try it. Twitter search any random celebrity - say, Dale Winton - and become mesmerised as Dale goes about his daily life in London moving from "@noseynigel mega lolz, just seen Dale Winton getting into a taxi, he has a purple umbrella #Paddington" to "@cattycaroline Spotted Dale Winton buying a copy of Moby Dick. How apt, he's looking a bit whale-ish these days #Foyles". 

Twitter has taken celebrity spots on to another level feeding a gossip hungry wider world as well as, in many cases, feeding back celeb spots and opinions to the well-known figure themselves. 

Comedian and ShadowPlay favourite Stewart Lee said in an interview with Robin Ince and Josie Long on their podcast last year that the phenomenon has really affected his behaviour in public. The acerbic 41st best comedian in the world ever followed up his thinking in his live show this year, saying Twitter stalkers has documented an entire journey on his beloved 73 bus route to Stoke Newington last year. 

While Lee's act centres on his role as cynical curmudgeon, his point is right. He said he can no longer flippantly slag-off other acts, for fear that the person may post the opinion on Twitter and spread it. Moreover, he can't be kind to middling comedians when asked his opinion in case he is quoted as an avid fan on a poster. 

As a trained journalist (well, University of Sheffield…), Lee's concerns over tweeting photos was perhaps the most interesting. All the UK's major newspapers are signed up to the slightly questionable Press Complaints Commission's Code of Practice - a document which sets out guidelines drawn up to avoid legislation. Within them, publications are commanded not to print the faces of celebrity's children without consent, therefore Lee is understandably concerned that excited fans tweeting photos of him include his children. Lee has said the experience has driven him to go to 'celebrity hang-outs' he would never have dreamed of going to to avoid people listening in to his conversations and tweeting them.

Of course the Tweeters intentions are largely positive- expressing excitement to see well-known figures they like. And celebrity-stalking is no doubt fun, seeing that an untouchable character like Brad Pitt has been spotted nipping into a Greggs in Kings Cross is undoutably chuckle able. But there's also enough misquoting and misrepresentation to get on people's goat. Ultimately Tweeters will have to try to be more responsible and think about what they're posting to avoid a clamp-down on material and possible legal action. 

Don't get me wrong, Twitter can be a great medium, quick, funny, responsive to people's interests and daft in equal measure. As Lee says, the more he interacts the more his views are twisted and tweeted and put on blogs. Oh, bollocks, add this one to the pile then. Oh and this one

Monday, 2 April 2012

Love in a Time of Planned Closures

A slightly older posh couple sat down opposite me on the tube at Euston earlier. They were fairly regular looking - having lived in London for over three years now I've got used to overhearing the quaffing laughter and obnoxious observations of the rich - and fairly innocuous. The bloke had slicked back grey hair and a salmon pink shirt, she has high quality leather boots on and an Edinburgh accent. 
They look well suited.
The first thing he said as they sat down was "when we get to Hampstead we'll go to a Pizza Express", classy fella. They chat about walking the posh shops of Hampstead, she's clutching one of those Ikea-sponsored Oyster card holders you get when you sign up. 

Then he does something unexpected. He leans across to her and says "it's great to see you", taking her hand in the process. She returns the compliment, looks awkward and, at the first opportunity, gesticulates and removes his hand. Both are wearing wedding rings.
I suspect they haven't seen each other for at least ten years. They begin talking about writing, he moans about the creative process. 

I bet they met on one of those terrible 'writers holidays'. Tens of white, middle class Brits sitting round in a worse-than-advertised hotel in Corfu talking about how to "channel James Joyce". Salmon shirt probably told his wife he needed some time to "find inspiration", he'd given up his job as an engineering lecturer at the University of East Anglia a year previous confident of writing some academic tomes that Cambridge University Press would "just lap up". But they didn't like the yawning pages which talked in impenetrable language about the workings of a sandwich toaster maker. Or the debut novel about a Cornish rambler who discovers a dinosaur egg in a bag donated to British Heart Foundation.  
She had probably always been a writer, a kept woman she had tried and failed to be published as a children's writer thinking Enid Blyton style books with a modern twist would work on a generation which either demands nostalgia or true excitement. She'd been reticent to go without her husband but he'd refused to go to "somewhere so obviously vulgar". But old leather boots liked it when she got there, the hotel was modest but comfortable and she enjoyed the time to relax on her own. 
Salmon shirt spotted her straight away. He had always had a wandering eye and he spotted an opportunity to express his ever so forthright views at her. He probably took her to a local social club, assessed the ground. Second date seafood bar. Third date her room, he 'forgets' his Aran sweater. Back at 11.30pm to reclaim the woollen wonder. First drink mini port, second mini whisky. Giant pants, back pains and adultery. 

And now here they sit, opposite me. Today the product of five years coercion by email from salmon shirt. Leather boots' husband is off visiting his mother in Surrey. After the chain meal, they'll probably walk around the posh shops of Hampstead, stroll on the heath, she'll eventually take his arm and they'll pretend that pretending to understand their own views on high philosophy is enjoyable. They'll head back to a fairly dodgy hotel he's booked in Piccadilly. The salmon shirt will end up on the bathroom floor, crumpled. They'll have awkward, crap sex and feel like their lives are empty, now without even an illicit excitement.

Or maybe they're just mates.