A friend of mine describes the frustrations of not retaining a degree of control over his creative output:
Watching a documentary about the making of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, I was amused by Al Jardine’s tale of suggesting they record the song ‘Sloop John B’. Brian Wilson wasn’t too keen, but Jardine showed him some chord changes and tried to persuade him it would be great. He then went back to work, and the next he heard was the finished track.
“I was really pissed not to be invited to the recording session, but I guess in the end I was pleased that the idea flew,“ said Jardine, ruefully.
I wish I shared his insouciance. Whenever an idea of mine is approved and selected for production, only to be hi-jacked by others who change it and deliver the finished thing without involving me at all, I die a little. I know these are professional people who are good at their job, and are only interested in getting good work out into the light of day. And I know that I am not as good as I think I am at art direction, let alone knowing anything about today’s technical skills, but so what?
Our current CD is extremely good at people – one of the best I’ve known. He constantly praises and flatters us all, never taking credit for others’ work and delighting in the growth and achievements of the team. But he gets excited about good new work, and zooms off with it, overseeing every detail, all the way. Which includes tweaking the script, changing the jokes, adding new bits, etc.
And the finished result? I haven’t seen the latest one yet – I’m going to withhold this until I do – but I expect it will be excellent, loved by the client, and feathers in caps all round. So what am I fretting about? I guess it’s frustration about losing control and especially about not being kept in the loop as things progress.
I think what’s missing is a stage, or stages, in the production process where I – and others in a similar position – can be kept in the picture. That’s all – no-one has to take any notice of my suggestions or anything, just let me feel part of it. And defend my original idea where necessary.
Of course, if it all turns out like Pet Sounds then I won’t complain too much.
Do you recognise this scenario? I certainly do. The only thing I’d take issue with is my friend’s assertion that the people who change creative work are ‘are only interested in getting good work out into the light of day’. Maybe that’s what’s happening. Or maybe there are other forces at work. As HG Wells said, ‘No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.’ This is especially true in advertising agencies when people spot a good idea. They want to alter it – ever so slightly – so that they can then claim a tiny bit of ownership for themselves. When you have everyone in an agency – not to mention everyone in the client’s office – itching to add their fingerprint to a piece of creative work, the result is very often the proverbial dog’s dinner.
Younger readers, this is Bernard Manning.
It’s 1992. I’m a young, fresh-faced freelance copywriter which, amazingly, I still am. I had picked up a few little jobs from a London advertising agency that specialised in film work. That is, they made press ads for when Hollywood films were about to get a video release. I had a lot of fun coming up with ads that were appropriate to the film being advertised, reasoning that this was a key element of my job, but the agency generally rejected my work in favour of a pack shot with the headline ‘OUT NOW ON VIDEO’.
But today my job is a bit different. I am to direct the comedian Bernard Manning in the recording of two radio scripts I’d written. They were to publicise the release of his own video, charmingly titled ‘Banging With Manning’ and allegedly a ‘hilarious’ spoof of sex education videos.
Manning. He was much bigger back then.
I arrive at the Manchester recording studio with the agency’s account lady at the same time as he rolls up in an enormous Cadillac bearing the number plate 1 LAF. No doubt you were supposed to read that 1 as an I in case you were left thinking the plate alluded to the number of actual jokes in one of Bernard’s comedy routines.
The passenger door opens and Bernard, not the lithest comedian on the circuit, grips various parts of the car to leverage himself out of his seat. He waddles across the car park and introductions are made.
“See the boxing last night?” He’s addressing me, correctly assuming that the posh young account lady wouldn’t care one iota about boxing. Neither do I, but I say I missed it while making a face that I hope conveys the idea that this was an unavoidable oversight on my part.
We walk to the studio. “I don’t mind black blokes punching shit out of each other,” he continues, “but I don’t like it when they beat white fellas.”
I don’t have a face ready for a remark like this, much less a suitable vocal response. The account lady and I look at each other. This is going to be interesting.
And it is, and not only in the way I’d been expecting. No sooner does he settle down in the recording studio, still angry about a white boxer being beaten by a black one, than my colleague gets a call from the agency back in London. Apparently the body that oversees the suitability of broadcast advertising has belatedly taken objection to an element of the script. “Which script?” I ask.
“Both of them,” she says.
“What it is about them they don’t like?”
She hesitates. “The word ‘banging’.” The name of the product, in other words.
I glance at Bernard in the booth. Although I can’t hear anything, he seems to be asking the recording engineer questions about the equipment. What’s there to explain? Like all such rooms there’s only a microphone and a pair of headphones, and surely he’s familiar with the former.
“You’re going to have to rewrite the scripts,” says the account manager, “and quickly.”
I look for a place to, er, bash something out while the situation is explained to Manning. He’s not happy. He’s decided that blame for the episode should be laid at London’s door. “Fucking London,” he yells at everyone. “Fucking London idiots,” he adds, getting a bit more specific.
Writing radio scripts isn’t easy. To be honest, I don’t find any writing easy. Those who come up with headlines like OUT NOW ON VIDEO probably do, but I don’t. And although I’m not what you might call precious, I do find a desk and a chair and a bit of peace and quiet help the creative process. Not an enraged shouty comedian stomping about, a product I’m not allowed to mention by name and less than 45 minutes to write and record a couple of 20-second radio commercials.
It gets worse. Once we’re in a position to get something down on tape, it becomes clear that Bernard is as unfamiliar with reading aloud as he is with basic recording equipment. He stumbles over every line, strays from the script, adds pointless pauses and PUTS the emphasis ON all the wrong words. The agency didn’t bring an actual radio producer, someone skilled in the diplomatic art of getting the best work out of the ‘talent’, and all the engineer says after each take is “was that OK?” So it’s down to me to explain to an increasingly impatient Bernard that he needs to read a bit faster, or a bit clearer, or with less yelling, and please can you wait until the microphone’s turned off before saying fucking London wankers.
Luckily, the studio – situated in a largely residential area just outside Manchester, as I recall – doesn’t have any other jobs lined up so we’re allowed to overrun. A couple of hours later we’ve got frayed nerves but two commercials that even the most puritanical member of the radio clearance committee won’t have a problem with.
Recently I was clearing the loft and came across a whole bunch of my old radio ads on C30 cassettes, including the two with Manning. I ordered a bit of kit called the Tonor cassette tape to MP3 convertor, and stuck the least-crap ones on my website. Grit your teeth and have a listen. 5th and 6th ones down.
The local boozer is having a refurb! This is good news. Like many pubs, the Royal Oak has been hit by falling trade and has also suffered a number of ‘incidents’ prompting visits from the local plod. Permanent closure and conversion into flats could have been the alternative, so any kind of determination to keep it open is a good sign.
Speaking of signs, there’s one on the wall announcing that the Royal Oak was an Evening Standard Pub of the Year back in the late ’70s. That probably meant you got an assortment of affable pipe-smoking gents who used the word ‘marvellous’ a lot.
‘Affable’ too, probably.
I hope the refurbishment plans allow for the retention of that dying institution, the separate public and saloon bars. Mind you, the distinction between the two was getting a bit blurred at the Royal Oak. The former used to show football on Sky and could get noisy, especially when Chelsea were playing. The saloon bar used to be somewhere you could escape football on Sky. Then the management adopted the retirement home model of reckoning that people needed to have TV on at all times, wherever they were. So they put up TVs in the saloon bar, and tuned them all to show football on Sky.
The pub served a range of traditional hearty pub fayre. You know the sort of thing. Burgers, steaks, pies and so on. All pretty good value and, thanks to weapons-grade microwaves, delivered to your table virtually before you’d finished placing your order.
But whatever else is changing, it looks like the food side of things will stay the same:
GASTRO PUB, NOT US!
Dubious grammar aside, I was struck by what these four words say about how the ‘gastro pub’ is perceived. Well, badly, obviously. Perhaps with a deep sense of distrust and suspicion. ‘We’ll be having none of your fancy London ways around here’ is the subtext. Or maybe it’s a veiled reference to the refurb carried out some years ago at another nearby pub, The Railway.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about drinking in pubs, it is to avoid any whose name contains the words ‘railway’, ‘station’ or ‘travellers’. Sure enough, The Railway was a seriously dodgy venue. After one disturbance too many, they shut the place down and reopened it months later with a new name, new decor, new prices and a new menu:
Does this shout ‘gastro pub’ to you? It doesn’t to me. But maybe the drinkers at the Royal Oak got terrified that their pub would reopen selling, not burgers, but black cod fillet in a Japanese tamari and manuka honey reduction, served with locally harvested micro greens.
Fair enough, but why so virulent in the denial? Why mention it at all? Is gastro food, whatever that might be, really such a terrible, terrible thing that you have to highlight the fact that customers needn’t entertain the slenderest fear of encountering any?
It’s like trying to reassure customers with signs saying things like:
SALMONELLA & BOTULISM? NOT HERE!
FILTHY CARPETS & STINKING BOGS? I DON’T THINK SO!
RISK OF UNPROVOKED GLASSING? NOT REALLY OUR STYLE!
To me, the sign is stating in a passive-aggressive way that the pub will under no circumstances serve the kind of food many people enjoy. They may as well have a sign reading:
CHEERFUL AMBIENCE? NOT US!
LOG FIRE IN WINTER? GET OUT OF HERE!
GOOD RANGE OF ALES? WHAT PLANET ARE YOU ON?!
I’ll give it a try when it reopens, though. Of course I will. It’s the local.
UPDATE 1: I visited The Royal Oak shortly after it reopened. Verdict: They’ve kept the good stuff (antique mirrors, unusual tiny wooden doorway through which one has to stoop to get from the public to the saloon bar, good range of beers, general layout,) and got rid of some the bad stuff (old fashioned furniture, heavily stained swirly carpet). All the TVs are still there, and they’re all showing football. There were plenty of unoccupied tables and chairs. But dim lighting made it impossible to read the paper, which has always been one of life’s pleasures, and a pair of children were allowed to run around and yell at the tops of their voices. THAT I could just about have coped with, but the constantly barking dog in the adjacent bar proved too much. Plus, the owner attempted to stop his dog barking by shouting at it. So I drained my pint and left.
UPDATE 2: Maybe I was unlucky, so I give the pub another try. This time I takeBounder (my cocker spaniel) and a backlit iPad. The place is just as empty as before. But the barman takes one look at Bounder and says that dogs are no longer allowed, except in the public bar. From there I can hear the barking dog above the sound of two teams battling it out on Sky 3 Plus Football Euro Extra, so I leave and strike the Royal Oak off of my list of locals. Shame.
In the early 1980s a job move took me to new accommodation in a flat in Hornsey, north London. By the end of the second week it was time to wash some clothes. Trouble was, there was no washing machine in the flat. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much of anything in this flat. No TV or radio. No stereo. A tiny two-ring hob in a poky kitchenette. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation, either. The only other occupant – the flat’s owner – was a humourless, vegetarian teetotaller. My small room contained an ancient wooden-framed single bed that made such an alarming series of creaks and groans every time I shifted position that the noise would wake me up. I ended up sleeping on the floor.
Two weeks later I’d be out of there, moving to a much more lively flat on the edge of Clapham Common. Sex, drugs, booze and noisy parties all awaited.
But right now I needed my clothes washed. So I stuffed them all into a heavy duty plastic sack and hauled it to Turnpike Lane, the local high street, where I quickly found a launderette.
I opened the door to an uncharacteristically empty shop. In my experience of using these places when living in other flats around London, your typical launderette would be full up on a Saturday. There’d be people chatting, smoking, reading magazines and lifting great baskets of steaming laundry from one machine to another. Everyone would know what to do and the order in which to do it. Crucially, they’d also have the right change for the different types of coin-operated machinery.
I never had the right change. Nor could I face the prospect of dumbly sitting there while the machines slowly did their stuff. I could conceivably zip off to the pub to while away the time, but harboured the fear that I’d come back to find I had missed the end of the washing machine cycle, and an irate customer had angrily dumped all my clothes in a tangled heap.
So I always opted for a service wash, where the attendant – typically a harried, no-nonsense, chain-smoking woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a floral garment made from some electrically-charged synthetic fibre – would for a nominal fee do all the heavy lifting for you. Hopefully without spending too long judging the general state of your smalls.
There was just such an attendant there in the Turnpike Lane launderette. I approach her with my sack of dirty clothes.
“Hi! Do you do service washes here?” She looks at me while she considers the question. You should know the answer to this instinctively, I think.
“Yes, love,” she says eventually. “Yes we do. You want that little lot washed, do you?” She nods at the sack.
“Yes please, that would be great.” I hand the sack over. “How long will it take, do you reckon?” She gives the sack a once-over. “Couple of hours?”
“Great,” I say. She starts to turn away, then stops.
“What, are you going to wait for it?” Well, no. That would defeat the whole time-saving purpose of a service wash. It would also be a bit odd, sitting there watching while someone you didn’t know washed your clothes.
“No no, I was waiting for a ticket. You know.” Back when people used launderettes, you needed a ticket for a service wash. Otherwise anyone could walk in and claim your washing as their own. Or there could be a bag mix-up and you’d get home to find you’d picked up the clothes of a petite 25-year-old PA. So they’d give you a ticket, normally one of those cheaply-printed tear-off raffle ticket affairs.
“Oh right. A ticket.” She puts the sack down and heads off into her little office at the back. I hear what sounds like heavy wooden furniture being scraped across the floor. I turn to have a look around. No one else has come into the shop. Curiously, none of the machines seems to be in action. All I can hear is the steady drone of the traffic outside. Eventually the attendant emerges from the office. But she doesn’t have a ticket. Instead, she’s dragging an enormous pair of old-fashioned wooden step ladders. She plonks it in front of me, extends the legs outwards, rocks the assembly back and forth to ensure it’s stable and begins slowly climbing up.
I follow her progress. When she gets to about the third step, she reaches up and pushes at a ceiling tile. It moves a little. She gets both hands to it and slides it fully out of the way. Then she climbs up on the next step, and the next, until she’s in a position to climb off the top of the ladders and into a black space above the ceiling. She disappears from view.
I stare at the darkly forbidding aperture. The seconds tick by. Anyone glancing in through the window would see a 20-something man standing motionless in front of a pair of tall stepladders in an otherwise deserted launderette. My mouth starts to feel a little dry. The sounds of more objects being moved around reaches me from above. There’s a muffled thump. At least something’s happening up there, I think.
Eventually a leg appears, its foot searching tentacle-like for the uppermost step of the ladder. It makes contact. The attendant slowly descends a few steps, stops to replace the little trapdoor in the ceiling, then makes it all the way back to terra firma. Plumes of dust fly from her crackling nylon housecoat type thing as she brushes herself down. She reaches into a pocket and hands me the ticket.
It’s the customary raffle ticket. I look at the number. It reads ‘1’.
Lately I’ve been commuting to a station in Islington called Essex Road. The trains that pass through it don’t go anywhere near Essex. They run from Moorgate in central London to places like Letchworth and Stevenage. It’s called Essex Road Station because it’s situated near Essex Road.
Essex Road doesn’t lead you anywhere closer to Essex, either. The whole Essex thing is a bit of red herring.
So that’s one thing you already know about Essex Road Station.
The other is that it is the only deep-level underground station in London that doesn’t see any Underground trains. The trains that stop here are all operated by First Capital Connect, part of the above-ground rail network. (Confusingly, Essex Road used to be part of the Underground, then in 1975 it suddenly went all high and mighty and switched to being overground.)
Anyway, it’s also one of those stations that’s served by lifts rather than escalators. Summon a lift and it effortlessly transports you down to platform level. Except that it doesn’t. It takes you beyond platform level. For reasons I cannot fathom, when you exit the lift you then have to take about 20 steps back up to where the trains are.
Flashback to 1904:
“OK boss, we’ve reached the platforms, can we stop digging now?”
“No, keep going! Another twenty feet should do it.”
“But this is perfect, boss! We’re exactly in line with the trains.”
“I told you to keep digging, dammit!”
Under the heading ‘Disabled Access’, one website says of Essex Road Station: ‘Partial’. I suppose this means disabled people can ‘partially’ board a train or ‘very nearly’ leave the station.
I mentioned this to the man who didn’t beat me up.
We’d both been at street level awaiting one of the lifts. He with his tracksuit, his golden, jangly adornments and the various piercings about his person; me with the bag that I was suddenly aware contained my whole livelihood. He had the darting eye movements and the rapid, jittery body motions of someone who’s totally wired on something other than café cortado. The lift doors opened and we both walked in. After a moment the doors closed.
“Umeddmimmasmaffkintren,” he said. I pulled off my headphones.
“You made me miss my fucking train.” Oh, great. I was in a lift with someone using the past tense to describe something that couldn’t have happened even in the future.
“How did I manage that, then?”
“You held me up. Getting in the lift.”
This was bollocks, of course. “Going somewhere good, are you?” Change the subject. Get him talking about him.
“Yeah,” he said, without elaborating. Then: “I could have beaten you up. But it’s all right, I’m not going to do that.” The lift completed its descent and the doors opened. There was no one else about. He glanced at me as if he was about to reconsider.
“Weird about the stairs, isn’t it?” I said.
“Eh?” I talked about the madness of the lifts taking you to a point way below platform level. He said he’d never noticed that before.
It has since occurred to me that imparting London trivia might be an effective way of disarming would-be attackers.
“Wait! We’re in the only ‘road’ in the City! Everything else is a lane, street, way or square!”
“Don’t hit me! See the Monument over there? Do you know more people have died falling from it than in the Great Fire it was built to commemorate?”
“Guys! Guys! We’re in the only Tube station that doesn’t contain any letters from the word ‘mackerel!”
Think I might be on to something?
2014 is the year I turn 60. No, I can’t believe it either. I wanted to know who and what I share my anniversary with, so here are twenty or so examples of others celebrating their 60th birthday this year.
Unilever first launched this famous shampoo in the UK. Now it’s the biggest name in haircare and is sold everywhere. A 1960’s ad campaign for Sunsilk featured a jingle composed by John Barry that was subsequently released as a pop single. Don’t look it up, it’s awful.
Univers is described as a neo-grotesque sans-serif typeface and was designed by a Swiss guy called Adrian Frutiger. Frutiger also came up with, er, Frutiger. Alas, Univers isn’t on the WordPress menu so you’ll have to settle for whatever this is. Palatino?
THE GEODESIC DOME
A strong yet lightweight structure consisting of a lattice of interlocking icosahedrons, patented (but not invented) in 1954 by American hippy hero R Buckminster Fuller. The best examples in the UK can be seen at Cornwall’s Eden Project.
Not the movie, the actual thing. One breezy day in 1954, a couple of Texan dudes noticed that the wind was always blowing swing doors open. So they set about inventing the world’s first automatic electric sliding doors. Today it is estimated that there are lots of sliding doors everywhere.
THE MOGEN CLAMP
A tool used in circumcision procedures and invented by Brooklyn rabbi Harry Bronstein. Bronstein’s invention had an inherent design flaw in that the very act of applying the clamp made it impossible for the circumciser to see what he was doing. So Rabbi Bronstein is probably known as ‘that goddamn bastard’ by the various men who lost more than was religiously necessary.
Also enjoying its 60th birthday is the photovoltaic or solar panel. Back in 1954 you needed a whole square yard of solar panel to power a single domestic light bulb. Today it’s more like 0.836 square metres.
The original transistor radio was called the Regency TR-1 and entered the US market costing £29.45, or about £250 in today’s money. Surviving examples are much sought after by collectors but rarely by music fans. I mean, look at it.
Discovered in 1954 but actually born much, much earlier, 1717 Arlon is a small asteroid with its own tiny moon. It’s visible to the naked eye, but only if you’re viewing it from a spaceship that’s cautiously threading its way through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
* Asteroid shown may not be 1717 Arlon
1954 was a big year for all things nuclear. America launched the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, while Russia built the first ICBM, opened the first nuclear power station and exploded its first hydrogen bomb. Thanks, 1954!
NON-STICK FRYING PANS
Widely and wrongly believed to be an offshoot of NASA’s space program, the trusty non-stick pan was actually invented in France by one Marc Gregoire. However, it is true that US scientists one day saw Marc’s frying pan and thought to themselves ‘wait a minute – space travel!’
Scientology was founded in 1954. With their belief that everyone on Earth is descended from the souls of murdered aliens, they make practitioners of the Wiccan pagan religion, also founded in 1954, seem positively rational. Tom Cruise is a famous Scientologist, while Alan Whicker was a Wiccan*.
THE BLACK BOX
The guy who can probably claim most credit for the invention of the modern flight recorder is an Australian called David Warren. There are two things we know about the black box. One, they aren’t black and two, we’ll probably never find the one from flight MH370.
The annual Dublin event (read ‘pub crawl’) celebrating the life of Irish writer James Joyce. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the main character in Joyce’s book Ulysses. Have you ever read Ulysses? Neither have I.
When I was growing up in the 60s, these iconic items of confectionery carried messages like ‘Groovy’ and ‘Swing it’. There’s currently a competition to dream up aphorisms for their 60th anniversary, so expect to see lots of OMGs, WTFs and ROFLMAOs. DYSWIDT?
There were some good ones, like On The Waterfront and Rear Window, as well an abomination called The Silver Chalice, starring Paul Newman in his first role. When the film ran on TV in 1966, Newman took out ads in the trade press begging people not to watch it. His plea inevitably backfired.
MUSIC OF 1954
Mantovani, Dean Martin and Max Bygraves were the year’s big hitters. Bill Haley briefly lit up the charts with Shake, Rattle & Roll, but it wasn’t until 1955 that rock ‘n’ roll really took a hold. The number one when I was born was ‘Cara Mia’ by David Whitfield. I considered adding it to my party’s playlist. Then I listened to it.
Who doesn’t love the iconic Routemaster? Apart from people in wheelchairs, I mean? Some 2,876 Routemasters were built between ’54 and ’68, with 1,280 still in existence. They’re still operated on the ‘heritage’ routes 9 and 15 – plus there’s a phantom Routemaster that occasionally ‘appears’ in W10.
MONSTERS OF ‘54
Specifically, Godzilla and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, both of whom made their first appearance that year. Godzilla dealt with the prospect of humanity unleashing something beyond its control, i.e. atomic weapons. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was just a monster movie, although a 2014 remake is slated to be about the pollution of the Amazon.
Artificial nails had been around for centuries, but the type used today came about by accident when US dentist Fred Slack broke a nail and used the tools of his trade to make a false one. The rest, as nobody says, is history.
THE ELECTRIC TOOTHBRUSH
The first one was called the Broxodent and it was invented by a Swiss dentist named Dr Phillipe-Guy Woog. Dr Phillipe-Guy Woog never met Dr Robert E Moog, or who knows what we’d have been subjected to whilst brushing our teeth.
Subaru is part of the Fuji Manufacturing Corporation. Not a lot of people know that. Subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster. Not a lot of people know that, either. And in the US, Subarus are popular amongst lesbians. Who the hell knew that?
Simpsons creator and massive Zappa fan Matt Groening was born in 1954, along with John Travolta, Neil Tennant, Denzil Washington, Elvis Costello, Ang Lee, James Cameron, Ray Liotta, Annie Lennox, Angela Merkel, Arthur Smith and Jermaine Jackson.
Arthur Smith provided the comedy for my 40th birthday party. He was brilliant.