Brains the size of a planet

Sometimes I feel as if I belong to a different species than certain other human beings.

BBC4 has been showing programmes in the Horizon series, one of which featured a number of scientists speculating about what happened before the Big Bang. It’s all in the maths apparently  – but obviously way beyond my O Level. Another programme about quantum particles suggested that the mass of the universe at the time of the Big Bang was less than that of a proton. Come on … how can that be … and anyway, how do you know this stuff!

At the weekend there was a programme about Voyager and how even though it had now travelled far beyond Neptune, we were still able to receive messages and also send instructions the other way, in order to turn off pieces of equipment as a way of conserving energy.  My rudimentary logic concerning communication is that there has to be some form of connection. Essentially it’s two tin cans and a piece of string. Of course this may be infra-red or radio waves, but the principle is the same.

This means we have the equivalent of a piece of string between a big dish in America and a puny spacecraft 3 billion miles away. See how far away your TV remote works and do the sums. Humans designed and built this technology, yet how many of us – the same species don’t forget – struggle to make simple things work.

You’ve got to admire these humans – and also Bill Tutte (24 year-old codebreaker) and Tommy Flowers (telephone engineer who designed and built the first electronic computer) who featured in last night’s programme about Bletchley Park. Their brains are at a different stage of evolution than the rest of us it seems.



I am you and you are me

An hour long episode of The Thick of It on Saturday. All the action took place at the Goolding Enquiry into parliamentary and Civil Service leaks. As you would expect, every character did their best to cover their own back, while planting knives into those of everyone else.

It was low on laughs, compared with previous episodes, but that’s the beauty of this superb series. M*A*S*H managed to be hilarious at times and profoundly moving the next. The Office and famously, the final episiode of Blackadder Goes Forth were also able to change the mood in what is essentially a sitcom.

After almost an hour of denial, blame-shifting and outright lying, Malcolm Tucker was called for his third appearance before the panel. At the risk of being a candidate for Pseud’s Corner, his final monologue did have a Shakespearean feel to it. It was a biting and accutely observed analysis of the machinations and moral land-fill of government. “Everyone in this room is here because they bent the rules,” he said, “I am you and you are me.”

The final episode is next week, after which devotees such as myself will have to be content with watching the DVD over and over again in the hope that Armando Iannucci decides to make another series. Malcolm does appear to be coming to the end of his career trajectory – his world-weariness has been a theme of series 4.  However, The Thick of It without Malcolm, superbly inhabited by Peter Capaldi, would be like Queen without Freddie Mercury, to paraphrase Peter Mannion’s dopey special advisor.

Maybe there could be one more outing, perhaps to coincide with the general election in 2015. How about a couple of specials such as ‘The Rise of the Nutters’ and “Spinners and Losers’ in 2007. And maybe that could mean the return of Jamie McDonald, the other even more visceral half of the Caledonian Mafia. That is, if he hasn’t run off to join a silent order of monks.


The True Legend of Sir George

I went to BASCA’s Gold Badge Awards at the Savoy yesterday. The Gold Badge is an unusual event in the awards show universe, in that recognition is given by songwriters and composers to people who are not writers, but who have had an impact on our working lives.

So, recipients can be producers, engineers, session musicians, journalists, broadcasters, arrangers, administrators, publishers, conductors etc etc. It’s always a heartwarming event, because the writers are able to acknowledge the achievements of some truly remarkable people, while for many of the recipients it is the first time they’ve been publically acknowldged after what is often decades of professionalism, expertise and good humour.

Yesterday’s recipients included the music journalist Chris Welch, publisher Mandy Oates, BBC television producer Mark Cooper, the founder of Rock Choir, Caroline Redman Lusher and the best loved and most respected record producer of all time, Sir George Martin.

Having presented Mark Knopfler with an Ivor for Lifetime Achievement in May, where he got a more tumultous reception than any of the recipients, George received standing ovations for his walk to and from the stage. It’s impossible to overstate his impact on particularly British music since he joined EMI over 60 years ago. Everyone owes him a huge debt of gratitude, yet despite being the great patriach of British record-making, he remains as humble and self-effacing as ever.

Guy Fletcher, who once again hosted the Gold Badge Awards with bucketloads of wit and warmth, said George was “that rarest of things … a gentleman.” In reply, George said he’d composed a couple of “little things” in his time, such as the solo in The Beatles’ In My Life. Most of us would kill for such little things.


‘Tuckerisms’ in the Thick of Common Usage

I’m very pleased to see that lines from The Thick of It are entering common usage. For those who don’t know, The Thick of It is a brilliant satirical comedy on the BBC devised by Armando Iannucci, which began during the Tony Blair/Alastair Campbell era and which is now in its fourth series.

The central character is Malcolm Tucker, superbly played by Peter Capaldi. If not a direct portrayal of Campbell (which it probably is), Malcolm is an amalgam of spin doctors, communications directors and media minders who rose to prominence under New Labour. Campbell shouldn’t be offended by the “homage”. For all the bullying, invective and almost Shakespearean manipulation, Malcolm’s heart is in the right place – as presumably was Campbell’s when he stormed into the BBC following Andrew Gilligan’s early morning broadcast about the “sexed-up” dossier on WMD.

It was pure Tucker and the fact that the casualties were the Chairman and Director General of the Beeb, even though Gilligan was eventually proved to be more right than wrong, would also have been the outcome of the episode for the fictional Master of the Dark Arts. Malcolm has a complex and curious, but ultimately an admirable integrity.

Perhaps the earliest and certainly the most high profile quotation from TToI was when Ed Miliband described George Osbourne’s April Budget in the House of Commons as an “omnishambles” (Tucker’s description of DoSAC minister Nicola Murray). Since then, I’ve noticed a number of political commentators using lines from the series and in yesterday’s London Evening Standard, sports columnist James Olley wrote (in reference to Ashley Cole’s “twat tweet”) that if anyone else had said that about their boss they’d “have to be re-assembled by air crash investigators”.

Iannucci and his writers are doing wonderful things with language, when so many films and television programmes resort to dreary dialogue and tired, unimaginative clichés. Finding fresh new ways to describe people, things and situations is a great skill. At various times Tucker has described ambitious young special adviser Oliver Reader (Chris Addison) as “an anorexic Leo Sayer” and “Tin Tin’s sexy sister”. He called Ben Swain, the minister with a penchant for confectionary, “Benjamin Glutton”.  Another minister, Geoff Holhurst, is generally thought to photograph badly because it appears he has a small head. After a talking to by Malcolm, the government’s enforcer suggested they had a “tete a tiny tete”.

In the associated movie, In the Loop, Malcolm’s colleague in the “Caledonian Mafia” Jamie McDonald (Paul Higgins) describes opera as “subsidised foreign vowels”. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

Posted: 15:12, 11 October 2012

My Favourite Auntie

The BBC does put out some amazingly good music documentaries. Friday was Brummie night on BBC4, with a programme about Jeff Lynne, followed by ELO in concert and then Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees featuring the Birmingham scene. The Moody Blues, The Move, Balls, The Uglys, The Steve Gibbons Band and many others formed, swapped members, disbanded, and morphed into new bands in a way that doesn’t seem to happen today. I wonder why that is.

Last night Stuart Maconie presented a programme about 1962 and the events surrounding the release 50 years ago of The Beatles’ first single Love Me Do. Again it was a window on a different time. In an internet world of YouTube and Wikipedia it must be hard for anyone under 45 to understand how American music was once such an exotic mystery and how Liverpool teenagers’ access to records by the likes of Elvis and Little Richard came via a father, brother, neighbour, or friend in the merchant navy bringing them back to the port city on trans-Atlantic ships.

The next BBC Charter renewal process takes place in 2016. Every 10 years there is more pressure from powerful interests to reform the Beeb. Remove the licence fee and make it compete with the rest of the commercial broadcasters, they say. The BBC is anachronistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of this country’s greatest assets. It should stay as it is, funded by the licence fee and continue to give us the Olympics, Horizon, Question Time, Match of the Day, The Thick of It, and more brilliant music documentaries.

Posted: 13:04, 8 October 2012



Big Jim: A true guitar legend

It seems as if many of these posts – far too many – are to note a sad passing. The legendary session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan died on Tuesday and the firmament of British studio musicians, which also lost Joe Moretti and Bryan Daly recently, is missing another shining star.

It’s a cliche to say that the word “legend” is bandied around too freely, but in Jim’s case, it most definitely applies. The number and importance of the records he played on is truly remarkable and the fact that his contribution is unknown by millions of pop fans makes it all the more so. Jim played the brilliant chopped acoustic guitar intro on The Small Faces’ Itchykoo Park … go onto YouTube and listen to it again. You can also hear him on It’s Not Unusual, Puppet on a String, Something in the Air, Je T’Aime, Anyone Who Had a Heart, Yeh Yeh, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, and The James Bond Theme … alongside his great friend and colleague Vic Flick.

I first became aware of Big Jim in the mid-seventies when he gave guitar tips to Eric and Woody on the Bay City Rollers’ TV show, Shang-a-Lang. Even though the show was irredeemably naff (sorry Rollers fans, there’s no other word for it) it was rare to see a guitarist talking about his craft on British television. I’d just started playing in various school bands and tartan notwithstanding, Jim’s slot made the show worth watching.

In 2001 BASCA awarded him a Gold Badge. I think it may have been the first time I went to the event. I do remember him coming to the stage at the Savoy and being totally overwhelmed by the warm and heartfelt acknowledgment of the room. “This is the first time anyone has said thank you,” he said, which can’t have been true of course, but it did show how these giants of British recording accepted their place as being heard, but not seen.

Posted: 15:45, 6 September 2012

Great Brit writes the Bond song, but a new man composes the score

Well done to Adele for coming up with what by all accounts is a classic title song for the new Bond film Skyfall. The 90 second teaser released yesterday seems to have been met with universal approval, with the Standard saying she is the “best Bond singer since Bassey”. The song is in the tradition of Diamonds are Forever and Goldfinger, with Paul Epworth’s strings providing John Barry-like drama.

The other musical change for  Skyfall is that Thomas Newman has written the score, taking over from Barry’s successor, David Arnold. I don’t think David gets the credit he deserves for his Bond work. He skilfully brought a contemporary flavour to his scores, while retaining the character of his great predecessor. Not an easy task. David and Don Black’s The World is Not Enough, performed by Garbage and with its dramatic soaring intro, is in my top three favourite Bond songs.

James Bond is a phenomenon. The way it featured in the Olympics opening ceremony demonstrates its place in British culture. Fact and fiction merged as the Queen, our Head of State and arguably the most famous woman in the world, took part in a scene with Daniel Craig, actor. We know James Bond is a fictional characater, but for a second, it was totally believable that HRH and Commander Bond from MI6 were leaving Buckingham Palace in a helicopter on official secret service business.

Posted: 11:44, 3 October 2012