Fade Up

I am not thinking about the US presidential election in five days, I am not. It is not occupying me, it is not pervading every other thought. Okay, it is distracting me from UK politics.

And I will say this. I think it’s frightening how “truth, justice and the American way” is now multiple choice.

Stop. Think of something totally different. Think of something silly.

Here you go. Back in the day, when politics was boring –– concentrate, William, push it away –– say around the 1980s, American network television used to have more adverts per hour than we did in the UK. I can’t remember, I think we got two ad breaks during an hour drama, but I know America had four.

Since American writers knew this too, naturally every hour drama had four acts. They’d build to big enough point in the story to hopefully make sure you’d come back after the ad break. Fine.

It’s interesting now when so many old network shows are being streamed on pay platforms without any ads. There are streaming platforms like BritBox and ITV Hub where it offends me how poorly the shows are broken up. Watch any of the hundreds of Doctor Who episodes on BritBox, for example, and every single one begins with the first half-note of the Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainger’s theme, then stops to play out a BritBox sting, then carries on with the episode.

And ITV Hub, surely no human editor is choosing when the ad breaks go. Rather than fitting in around the breaks that were already there from when the shows first aired, it feels like there’s a timer and at some interval we just get a break. Forget the fact that it is invariably at a poor point in the episode, every time the ad break is over and we return to the show, we see half a second of the previous scene.

Anyway.

Back in the day, when a US one-hour show would air on UK commercial television, we got one or two fewer ad breaks. What this meant, though, was that in every hour drama we would reach a key dramatic point, then the screen would fade to black.

It would then immediately, instantly, fade up again and we’d usually be right back where we were.

Not knowing that it was because of a missing ad break, I remember coming to think that this was a dramatic, artistic choice. That it was in some way emphasising these key scenes, that television drama had invented its very own dramatic punctuation.

I came to think that the story blinked.

I’d like to think that next Tuesday night I’ll blink and it’ll be over. In 2016, I stayed up late to watch the US election results, sitting on the same couch I am on now as you and I talk, and all night turning steadily to stone. I don’t know if I can go through that this time but then I’m not thinking about it, clearly.

And I’m not thinking clearly about it.

Not when we’ve got 1,280 days until the next UK general election.

Diagnosis: Muddled

This is about writing, it just might take a while to seem like it. But if you bear with me through a tale about the usefulness of writing villains – and getting other people to write about them too – then I can offer you a reward that’s apparently worth millions. Please pass this on to any UK government people you know, because I’m going to give you the COVID-19 contact tracing app that they can’t.

I’m not joking.

Here’s the story that the UK government has written and is getting some newspapers to copy. The brave UK with its world-beating boffins tried to make the greatest coronavirus exposure notification app there possibly could be, but nasty Apple stopped them.

It’s actually Apple and Google who wouldn’t play ball with the UK’s demands, but never mind that, we need one villain so we pick Apple. The Times newspaper reports that MPs in Parliament are “angry” at Apple and these are the men and women ruining – sorry, running – the country so they wouldn’t be annoyed if it weren’t true. If Apple weren’t a moustache-riddled bad guy who strokes a white cat and eats our children, our politicians would be getting on with fighting the coronavirus for us.

The thing with creating a villain is that you are automatically the good guy. It’s good versus bad, and if you can paint the other fella as the bad one, you’re in.

I don’t believe that the UK ever wanted an app that would actually help with the coronavirus. And I am sick to my liver that it seems in the midst of a pandemic that is killing us, the government saw an opportunity for money. There is the unnecessary commissioning of a technology that we all knew wouldn’t work, but it seems to me that this app of theirs was concerned about gathering sellable data rather than doing anything for our health.

It seems to me. I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I can know this. I can know a lot of things. Such as how a few weeks ago the government was saying that it would be the duty of every UK citizen to download this app, when it was available, and now, not so much. Truly. Even after changing to the Apple/Google system, the UK is now shrugging, saying they might get something done by winter. I’m serious: that’s the official position. The app that will now work and protect our privacy is no longer a priority.

I know that what the UK was asking Apple to do was impossible. To make an app that can nick our personal data and get it ready to sell to people later, the UK needed Apple to switch off its security features that are intended to prevent anyone nicking our data and selling it to people. This is the same thing that Apple – an American company – refused to do for the FBI.

I have to say that I don’t and I cannot know that the UK’s interest was really in the opportunity for cash-gathering invasion of its citizens’ privacy.

But consider this.

If the UK actually wanted an app that would help with the coronavirus, it could have one.

I do mean that it could’ve adopted the Apple/Google system as other countries and US states have, yes. But also now, today, right this minute. The UK is not going to release a coronavirus app in the winter, it’s just not going to bother, and it isn’t because it’s difficult or because Apple has meant they’re months behind where they should be.

Let me prove to you that what the UK is putting its efforts into is writing villains instead of trying to help us. And I won’t even charge you a fraction of the millions the UK is believed to have given to app development companies owned by its friends.

Are you ready? Have a coronavirus contact tracing app on me. Here. I’m not joking. That’s the complete source code for Germany’s app. Complete. Ready. Right here – built using Apple/Google’s system, and currently being downloaded by millions of Germans.

Now tell me again how the big bad Apple is stopping the brave UK from making an app to help save lives.

The story the UK is writing – which is remarkably similar to the story it tells about the big bad European Union – is shockingly powerful, frighteningly successful. As a political tool, it angers and scares me. But as a piece of writing, it’s curious how strong it can be because it lacks something writers are forever told is essential.

Stories need a great villain, but they also need a great hero. When the two are equally strong, equally compelling, that’s drama. When one side or the other is trivial, there’s no story.

Right now, the UK has no hero.

Divide by zero

I was doing a thing earlier in the week, writing about our need as humans and especially as writers to see patterns in events. To make sense out of chaos and to form a narrative is just natural.

We all do this. But at one extreme, I’ve a friend who needs me to construct a story about everything. If I give her a book, she will honestly need me to tell her that I heard about it on the radio, that I went to the shop, that I asked a shop assistant for it and then brought it back. If I don’t tell her that, she tells me each step, prompting me to agree.

At the other extreme, I’ve someone who if they need me to get something for them, will give me a script of what to ask for and where to stand when I do.

Hang on. I thought that was just two people who were a bit fixated but it’s me, isn’t it? The second one thinks I haven’t got a brain cell in my head and the first suspects that I go around stealing books.

Well.

Moving on, apart from these two, you’ve seen those TV documentaries about some year or other and you’ve been startled about things such as the fact that Star Wars and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall came out at the same time. I want to give you some example of how surprised I was at how a famous political event happening at the same time as The Muppets but I’m not political.

What I am and what I suspect you are too, is unconsciously used to seeing events sorted out into threads. It’s like history begins as a piece of A4 paper but studying history is like reading that after it’s been shredded. We see long straight lines, we don’t see the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is just too big, I don’t know. Certainly it takes time to understand what’s been going on: I can’t wait for the history books to cover today. Though that’s chiefly because by the time those are written, our current events will be safely behind us.

Only, just looking at this as a writer, just looking at this idea of organising events into a comprehensible timeline of cause to effect, I’m seeing something. I’m seeing a structure that a writer would have to invent if it didn’t exist. I’m seeing enough that I wonder whether we are not only prone to looking for sequences and timelines, but that we also naturally, actively create real-life drama in the same cycles and patterns that we do in art.

For there’s this business now that Brexit has metaphorically divided the nation and there’s at least a strong chance that it will cause the literal division and end of the UK. This is just fact now: Scotland may vote to leave, Ireland could even reunite – and, come on, whatever you think of the politics about it, that is surely a third-act surprise twist.

The UK is being divided and the result is that it feels some of us are being focused more on infighting. I do mean territories but I also mean individuals as lines are being drawn and crossed, political opinions are becoming concrete and angry instead of comparatively abstract. Nobody debates, we all entrench.

It’s just that we’ve seen this before.

It’s no stretch to say that divide and rule was British policy across the world and across history. It is both how the Empire was created and how schisms remained across the world after that fell.

I am thinking that what goes around comes around. I am thinking that if you show a gun in the first act, it will be fired at you in the third.

That does imply that we’re in the third and final act of the UK but, remember, we also love sequels.

England will leave Europe

I don’t know the details, I don’t really follow all of this, but history shows us that without question, England will be beaten by Paraguay or France or some such team. It will be a sporting tragedy that will make people across the entire continent cry out “Was England in Euro 2016? Really?”

Wait, that’s not what you thought I meant, was it? Yes, of course, you’re right: this is all about the forthcoming vote on whether the UK will leave the Eurovision Song Contest.

You have to wonder, now that Australia is in Europe, but you can’t presume, you can’t be sure. The UK is genuinely important to Eurovision because of the money it contributes to the show. If we didn’t do that, we could keep that money for ourselves and could put it toward the NHS.

Of course then the BBC would have fund the missing Saturday night television, it would have to put more money into all the pre-Contest coverage that currently hides away on digital-only BBC podcasts.

I started to say this to you as a joke: I was nodding off during BBC News’s coverage of some football thing and my mind wandered from the Euros to the Euro to Eurovision and on to chocolate. That last was unrelated.

Only, Eurovision and the money the BBC contributes to it is pretty analogous to everything the UK does with Europe. Stand by to be shocked here as you’ve never subscribed to something or opened a bank account or had a loyalty card, but the BBC puts money into Eurovision and it gets programmes out of it.

The first thing about the whole Brexit argument that ticked me off was, well, it was the word Brexit. But the second was the claim that the UK pays eleventy-billion pounds into Europe. I remember watching the politician saying this and assuming TV news had cut away before he said “and we get back this other amount”.

We can blame TV news a lot for this. For instance, they will show Michael Gove saying that Brussels passes laws that cripple our sovereign state and which we had zero input to. They’ll cut away before he presumably adds that he’s kidding. There’s the small matter that the UK is party to these laws and not just the whipping-boy recipient, there is the fact that Gove knows this and is involved. There is the small fact that if this were true, if Britain were powerless against the might of Brussels laws, then that’s why we’ve got the minimum wage. The bastards.

That would go if we left Europe. There’s not much you can be certain about, but there’s one. Minimum wage dies. On a completely unrelated note, and I don’t even know why I bring it up now, there are UK businesses that very much want to leave the EU. Can’t imagine why.

The leave campaign people would have you believe that we graciously give the European Union your hard-earned money and all we get back are laws that override our own. Britain joined the EU in 1973: if this were really what happens, our government chose to pay over money and take the law lumps and our government also chose to continue doing it for 43 years. On that basis alone, I’d rather we really were run by Europe or anyone but our own government.

As it is, you know that of course the UK gets a benefit from doing this. It is impossible that it wouldn’t. Yet the leave campaign hopes you don’t know that, it hopes that you are so thick that you just go yeah, yeah, we need that money for our own NHS. They’re crossing their fingers that you then assume that they would give the NHS this money.

The leave campaign is doing an awful lot of assuming and unfortunately the side saying we should stay in, is not. The stay campaign is making one assumption: that nobody could be so stupid as to think Britain is forever bailing out Europe from the goodness of its heart.

I think this is why the leave campaign has its word Brexit and the stay campaign has no word at all. It’s got a campaign name but I don’t remember what it is.

I do know that there is a Leave poster near my house which says something to the effect of how you should vote to leave the EU because that’s “the safe choice”.

The leave campaign appeals to politicians who are enjoying the ride and would quite like to be Prime Minister please. It appeals to old people who for some reason believe Britain was a superpower in their living memory and can be again. It appeals to people who think Britain still has any industry. That safe choice poster is trying to mop up the people who are lazy about this. Oh, just vote to leave, that’s safer.

Everything the leave campaign says, without exception, is scaremongering or out and out lies. You shouldn’t vote based on how you resent being lied to all the time, but it’s tempting. I also just think the sheer totality of the bollocks is a reason to be suspicious, at least.

But then, what do I know? I work in the Arts. If the UK leaves the EU my industry would be reliant on the British government and that’s the safe choice.

Comedy impressions

A friend was trying to remember what the Benny Hill music was called. “Yakety Sax,” I told him, with my head in my hands. Sorry: it’s in your head now, isn’t it? Whether you dislike it or hate it, that music is in your head and you’re thinking how painful it is that Benny Hill comedies were always about him chasing women in speeded-up videos. I know you think that because everyone thinks it, except perhaps for Anglophiles in America who for some reason see Benny Hill as archetypal British humour.

The thing is, he was. I don’t mean for those Yakety Sax videos and I am not trying to be revisionist and claim there was a lot more to Benny HIll – but there was a bit. I used to write a television history column in Radio Times magazine which meant spending a gorgeous lot of time in archives and finding unexpected things. Such as Benny Hill before the speeded-up videos.

Those were always written archives like Radio Times’s own issues but at some point, once I knew Hill had done more, I remember finding footage of him somewhere. And it was funny. Just a very short sketch where a reporter and an IRA informant are in a TV studio: the informant is supposed to be in darkness to protect his identity but instead the reporter is.

That’s all. Must’ve lasted only moments and the overt comedy was in the IRA guy’s reactions, his realisation. I remember it being a nice piece of acting, actually, a comedic double take that was laced with a bit of fear. Very nicely, that acting was from the guest actor playing the informant: Benny Hill himself kept a straight face. That’s pretty good: the star and possibly also the writer of the sketch giving the laugh to the guest.

I remember, too, that the comedy was really Benny Hill mocking television conventions, maybe even taking a poke at the media’s coverage of serious events. It wasn’t The Day Today but it was clever enough stuff and I believe Benny Hill did a lot of this. I can’t be sure because so little of his work is easily available but then that’s for a reason.

At some point in his career, Benny Hill found this Yakety Sax format and that was that. It’s our fault, really: we must’ve responded so much and liked it so much that he kept doing it.

We should all do things that get into everyone’s heads, we should all create work that lasts, though it would be nice if it were work that people liked remembering. I think Benny HIll effectively erased his comedy career by these speeded-up videos.

I wonder if he knew.

I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression will survive of us. I don’t expect to be remembered after the end of this sentence but equally, I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression we give people now.

I keep thinking about how Benny Hill is never repeated in Britain, I keep thinking about how I’m mostly fine with that, yet I also keep hearing how popular he is outside the UK. True, I hear that less and less – he died in 1992 so over 25 years since his last work – but I hear it.

I’m not claiming some statistically valid example here but it seems to me that the people who mention Benny Hill are all outside the UK and they are all either fond of him or at least not wincing.

I keep thinking of this outside opinion and particularly of how things are seen from other countries. How in one place or in one group of people you can be so caught up in opinions or issues that the rest of the world sees completely differently.

Yes, I keep thinking of this because of the idea of Britain leaving the European Union. My niece, working in Luxembourg, tells me that people keep asking her why David Cameron is campaigning to leave the EU. He isn’t, he’s publicly on the side of staying in, but that’s how he’s seen overseas.

Then people who are in favour of leaving the EU act like anyone else gives a damn. I bet most Americans are completely unaware it’s going on at all – why would they? – and I understand that across Europe the attitude is like, whatever, stay or go, Gallic shrug, get on with it.

You’re thinking I’ve taken a left turn since Benny Hill and you’re sure that I’ve done it to argue that the UK should stay in the EU. Actually, I do very much believe that and I am very much angered by the Brexit arguments and not just because I loathe that new word.

But my point really is a writing one: you can’t control what other countries think of your work, you can’t control what other people think of you – and you shouldn’t try.

I think it’s a shame that Benny Hill erased his reputation here and maybe he didn’t have to do that Yakety Sax thing so very often but he did it and he made an impact. We should all have people trying to remember the name of our theme tune a quarter of a century after our death.

A natter of life and death

That’s all, just a natter and a blather. In the run up to a general election, my mind wanders around more than ever and chiefly it’s focusing on, grabbing on to, just about anything except politics. Just possibly not today.

I do remember my family worrying that I had no interest in the news when I was growing up. They’re sick of me now: I read hundreds of articles a day through my RSS reader and they aren’t sure what RSS is or why I like it so much. But, grief, the ability to just check out the headlines on your phone while you wait for the kettle to boil, it is beyond handy. I could go to each news site in turn on the phone’s web browser but what am I, a barbarian? The news comes to me, all of it, from everywhere.

There are myriad RSS newsreaders, by the way, and they’re available to you on any phone. I have an iPhone and swear by one called Reeder.

I also swear at a lot of the news I read. Maybe that’s what my family doesn’t like. But the consequence of RSS, swearing and – okay, okay – getting older is that I have never been so politically aware.

And therefore so politically depressed.

There is no party I want to vote for, no person nationally or locally that I want to see in power. No one. Well, I do delight in Nicola Sturgeon but I don’t know much about her nor is it physically possible to vote for a Scottish party here in England. She does just tick two boxes that make me happy: for one thing she’s an adult woman where the other leaders feel like schoolboys. For the other, the concept of Scotland being decisive in this general election is dramatically exquisite to me because of the previous bollocks about whether the country should split from the UK or not.

Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t know what I think about it leaving, I just see that I was right about what would happen if it stayed. Specifically if it stayed because of the promises made to it. I’ve written before about how England, UK and Conservative promises to the Scottish people sounded like a pissed boyfriend vowing to be better from now on. They never are, you know they never are, and these promises never would be, you knew they never would be. I barely listened to the promises: I knew they’d vanish after Scotland agreed to give it one more go.

Now, maybe – maybe – that boyfriend is going to need a favour.

I’m not usually right about politics yet sometimes it is obvious and I think unfortunately the obvious stuff is always bad. Prime Minister David Cameron made a comment recently about how abhorrent an idea it is that Scotland could have sway over the whole UK, that decisions made in one part of the nation could affect everyone. He makes decisions in one part of the nation that affect everyone. He makes those decisions in one room. It’s the Cabinet, which curiously enough seems to be the extent of his care when we’re not near an election: does policy X or Y personally benefit and profit someone in the Cabinet? Then we’ll do that.

You see how easy it is to be cynical? I’m not convinced it’s possible to be anything else at the moment. For the first time in my life I do see the logic in not voting at all. Our democratic system is arguably built to favour the incumbent, it’s certainly built to support the system itself and the furtherance of the status quo. I can see the argument that voting is supporting a system that feels theoretically right but practically broken.

In other words, I can see that voting only encourages them.

Nonetheless, I will vote. I cannot do anything else. Cannot.

This may seem a somewhat un-topical reason but amongst everything I think about democracy, amongst everything I want to see happen and everything that I fear will instead, I have to vote because of the Suffragettes.

Don’t get me started on the idiocy, the shameful idiocy that women haven’t just always had precisely the same right to vote as men. Don’t. I’ll go off on one about how human beings can so often create society structures that speak of equality and fairness, that have laws and standards and decency but also a giant bloody hole in them. Democracy for all, oh except women. Treat your neighbour as you would want them to treat you, oh except if they’re not the same sex, religion or race as you, then it’s fine, do what you want.

That’s not me going off on one, by the way. Me going off on one about this is a seven-hour lecture.

The Suffragettes did not support the system, they changed it. Think how impossible that seems now and dial back a century to how even more impossible it must’ve been then.

The system we have now is materially better than it was. Look at Nicola Sturgeon again: one hundred years ago she wouldn’t have been allowed to vote, now she’s head of a political party. Things are actually better. Genuinely, truthfully better.

Just don’t look at the standard of lying we get from politicians today. If I can see that this claim doesn’t match that claim – and doesn’t even come close to this fact – then the standard of pork pies is so low as to be insulting. If you’re going to tell me bollocks, at least put some effort into it.

And just don’t look at any debate, certainly never tune in to Question Time which has become about as bad as Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Parliament.

I’m going to vote but it will be for my best guess at the least worst option available and I have little confidence that I’ll get it right.

I’d like to see a Suffragette-level shake up of the system. But I’ll settle for us reevaluating Eton. We keep saying that’s a great school because we keep being told it is by our politicians who chiefly all went there.

A bastion of British education.

Schools are supposed to form you into an adult. Eton takes the child, makes a schoolboy, and stops. You can name politicians you like, you can point to adult and responsible things they do, but still when you hear them talk and argue, when you see what they do, what they achieve, the word that comes to mind is only similar to bastion.