Tuesday 28 February 2006

They think it's all over

They think it’s all over – no, don’t turn over, I’m not banging on about the collapse of Western civilisation, but the end of television. Something that many of you might regard, on the face of it, as a positive and indeed civilising development.

While the end of television is both more imminent and more certain than our destruction by global warming, it’s only fair to add that I’m talking about the end of television as we know it. Video entertainment will continue to grow, becoming ever more ubiquitous - on your computer and mobile phone as well as on those flat screens installed in virtually every room of your home, and in lifts, taxis, trains, buses … the list appears almost endless.

Programming too will become infinitely more diverse, as all of us are forced, whether we like it or not, to become multi-channel digital viewers. The great analogue signal switch-off begins as soon as 2008 in the Border TV region and, by the time it is completed, BBC1 is expected to command an audience less than half of what it is today.

The implications for defenders of the licence fee are obvious. And with more and more viewers owning time-shift recording devices that enable them to eliminate advertising, mainstream commercial broadcasters also face an uncertain future. Hence the growing interest in opportunities for product placement in soaps and the like, rather than traditional ads.

Did you know that CBS in the States have already commissioned the first ‘mobi-soap’ – a soap opera filmed in 3-5 minute segments, specifically designed to be watched on mobile phones?

Neither did I till I attended an excellent lecture at the Royal Grammar School by the distinguished producer and director Tom Gutteridge. While I may have distorted some of the above facts, before writing this I have at least had the benefit of listening to someone who knows what he is talking about, rather than simply making it all up as per usual.

Tom was a contemporary of mine at the RGS, where his highest achievements were editing the school magazine and winning the fifth form reading prize. (For reading aloud, that is. If they’d handed out prizes for sitting in a corner reading, particularly during games lessons, I’m sure I’d have been unbeatable.)

But unlike most of us, he went on to greater things, inspired by his hero worship of the legendary Mike Neville and Wacky Jackie. He produced such great programmes as The Hot Shoe Show, Challenge Anneka and Robot Wars. Not to mention the most expensive single TV show ever made, the $3m Torvill & Dean epic Fire and Ice. A venture which apparently turned a profit despite the sticky moment when a white-faced US mogul saw the thongs worn by the fire dancers, and pronounced, ‘On American TV, we don’t do buttocks.’

It’s unlikely Tom will read this, as he currently lives in LA, but if he does I hope he realises that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.

Getting back to the end of television as we know it, what does it mean for you? Well, it means smaller, segmented audiences which in turn means smaller budgets. Sad news for those of us who are seduced to the box mainly by spectacular costume dramas. (Though, having seen Bamburgh standing in for both Tilbury and Ireland in the BBC’s recent Virgin Queen, I wonder if the days of big budgets aren’t already well and truly over.)

For soap fans, it probably means paying for mobile phone downloads if you want to see the full story, with teasers played on the big screen.

On the news it means more input from ‘citizen broadcasters’, like those survivors of the July 7 bombings who captured the aftermath on their mobile phones.

For all of us, it means a vastly increased choice of programmes, and fewer that we actually want to watch. That’s not an informed, second hand opinion, but I reckon it’s the right way to bet.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 February 2006

Help, we're all going to die!

I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re going to die, probably in a thoroughly unpleasant way. I’m sorry if that’s spoilt your breakfast. If it’s any consolation, it’s the same for everyone, even the smart alecs who write columns in The Journal.

You’d think that would be bad enough. But apparently not. Ever since the first caveman crept into his neighbour’s cave, pretending to be a sabre-toothed tiger, we humans have taken a perverse delight in scaring the bejasus out of each other.

The Christian Apocalypse, medieval legends of dragons and goblins, Victorian ghost stories – all have had but one purpose, and it hasn’t been to give anyone a good night’s sleep.

Now we have the twenty-first century equivalent: the looming environmental catastrophe. The planet is overheating, the Arctic ice cap is melting, sea levels are rising and we’re all heading to hell in a handcart.

Well, as it happens, we’re nearly all going in that direction anyway. But is any of it actually true? There have been some lively letters in this paper from both sides of the debate, and I’m not technically qualified to judge between them. But I do know that the nature of the coming catastrophe has changed completely since I was at university, when we were doomed by the imminent exhaustion of world copper supplies (hence no more electricity) and a looming ice age.

As I sit here 30-odd years later, the power still seems to be flowing and there isn’t a large glacier forming atop Cheviot. Quite the reverse, in fact.

I have a touching faith in our ability to avert catastrophe through human ingenuity, particularly when the danger becomes imminent and indisputable, and helps to concentrate our minds.

At present, we are still looking on global warming much as our forbears regarded Nazism in the 1930s. Most of us recognise that it could be a threat, but we don’t actually want to do anything about it that might threaten our comfortable lives. We are, if you like, in the appeasement phase, just starting to move towards taking up arms.

Building wind farms is a classic case. They make it look like the Government is doing something, in a way that reminds me of nothing so much as the great campaign to recover cast iron at the start of the last war. Houses, schools and parks were deprived of their decorative railings, allegedly to be smelted into guns, tanks and battleships. Does anyone believe for a second that they were? But their disappearance let everyone know that the enemy was at the gate, as the industrialisation of some of our most beautiful landscapes is intended to do now.

The fact that wind farm enthusiasts are largely urban, and their opponents rural, no doubt adds an extra touch of spice for an administration that loses few opportunities to demonstrate that it not merely doesn’t understand the British countryside, but actively dislikes it.

Even to a cynic like me, it does seem unlikely that this planet can be industrialised to the degree that would provide first world living standards for all, without irreparably damaging its ecosystems. If that is the case, what should perhaps be giving us nightmares is how we can defend ourselves against the coming charges of unfairness and hypocrisy.

Here in Europe we’ve already destroyed our natural forests, wiped out our mega-fauna and plundered our fossil fuel reserves. In return, we’ve enjoyed 200 years of relative posterity based on industry and urbanisation. Who’s volunteering to be the missionary who explains to the populations of Asia, Africa and Amazonia that they simply cannot be allowed to do the same, in the interests of the Earth as a whole?

Remember that the people who are really in tune with the planet are the guys in New Guinea wearing the penis gourds and bringing down animals with blow-pipes, not any of us here. Even if we vote Green and drive a 2CV with a ‘Nuclear Power No Thanks’ sticker on the back.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 14 February 2006

Be my Valentine

Valentine’s Day. Another brilliant reason to feel (a) miserable, (b) guilty or (c) both, particularly if you’ve just ended up wearing half of an expensive candle-lit dinner for two.

It pains me to report that I last received a mystery valentine when I was 15. That was the third year the alluring Wendy had sent me a card smothered in kisses. I didn’t know anyone called Wendy. In fact, I didn’t know any girls full stop.

Then my mother’s best friend, Maisie, dropped dead of a heart attack and the flow of cards stopped. Far from featuring in the dreams of some adolescent cutie, I turned out to have been an object of pity for a sweet-natured though comically obese sexagenarian.

Which, now I come to think of it, is about as near as I got to sex for another decade.

I still shudder when I recall the sixth form party where a girl called Amanda, who was well known to snog anyone, rejected my advances with the immortal line ‘When your friend said you had film star looks, I didn’t think he meant Orson Welles.’

I’ve sent lots of unsigned cards over the years, and in only two cases has this led to the recipients seeking court injunctions. The real reason I have stopped is that I can no longer face seeing a woman’s face crumple with disappointment when I finally give up under the barrage of questioning and admit. ‘Oh, all right. It was from me.’

None of this is intended to suggest that I have led an entirely celibate life, though from what I read in the papers I have probably had a rather quieter time than the average Catholic priest. Things definitely looked up in the years when I had a good job, flat, car and prospects. Women seem to be so much better than men at weighing these practical things in the balance against the lack of a beautiful body and/or a sense of humour.

Only last year I had a cracking Valentine’s dinner in Venice, with a beautiful young woman who, in a moment of temporary insanity, had become engaged to me. Nothing went wrong, apart from the growing volume of shrieks from the Essex girl at the next table as the contents of her wine glass went down.

Having eaten out at ten different Venetian restaurants in the space of five days, and had an English couple at the next table every time, I can exclusively reveal that we are world leaders in perceiving the romantic qualities of Venice. Not a top choice, then, if you want to be able to whisper sweet nothings without being understood by your neighbours. You’d probably be better off in Middlesbrough. And how often in this life does one get to say that?

While nothing went wrong on Valentine’s Day 2005, plenty went wrong shortly afterwards and I am not expecting my postman to be suing for industrial injury as he lugs an extra-heavy sack of love tokens to my remote dwelling. In fact, I plan to seal up my letter box up to avoid disappointment.

Still, it’s a fine tradition, and jolly considerate of the early church to come up with a feast day so promising for florists, confectioners, jewellers and restaurateurs. And so conveniently timed right in the middle of the lull between Christmas and Mothering Sunday.

Cynics suggest that St Valentine never actually existed, and that his feast merely puts a Christian gloss on a pagan festival, timed at the point in the year when birds start pairing up.

But let’s bin that unromantic thought and remember that all the world loves a lover, though not necessarily if he’s serenading under your bedroom window at three in the morning, fuelled by 17 pints of lager.

I hope that your Valentine’s Day is filled with fun, laughter and – above all – love. If it isn’t, and you’re female with a working pulse, feel free to call me.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 February 2006

Reasons to be cheerful

The good thing about being an incurable pessimist is that I’m never disappointed. And once in a blue moon life does throw up a pleasant surprise, like a £50 cheque from the premium bonds or a column in The Journal.

The bad thing is that I tend to end up sitting on my own on Saturday nights, sipping whisky and thinking about playing Irish roulette. That’s like Russian roulette, but using five bullets.

I try to counter this by thinking of all the things I want to see before I die. Given that I hate travel for reasons of both principle and personal comfort, it’s a fairly short list. And if we’re realistic, what are the chances of the UK naked ladies’ synchronised swimming team trekking all the way out to the Cheviots to put on a display for me? Particularly as I don’t have a swimming pool.

Shortly before he died last year, the great comic writer William Donaldson observed to the young co-author of his final book, ‘You’re so lucky – you’re going to live to see what happens to Charlotte Church.’

Now I have to say that the future of that young Welsh liver isn’t something that keeps me awake at night. But I do count myself lucky to have lived long enough to see some of the monstrous buildings that went up in my childhood reduced to rubble. And my attitude to today’s crop of development proposals is much influenced by the perspective of age.

As a sixth former, I remember laughing with my friends about the way newspapers always print the age of anyone they write about. What on earth was the relevance of that?

Then one gets to 40 and suddenly death ceases to be a distant, hypothetical concept. Now it looks more like a giant truck bearing down at breakneck speed, horn blaring and lights ablaze, and with absolutely no-one at the wheel. From this point, nothing becomes more relevant than the time you’ve had and how much you might have left.

So when I read on the letters page opposite that wind farms are a convenient short-term stopgap, while we wait for scientists to master hydrogen power or nuclear fusion, I feel even more gloomy than usual. Because for me they represent the permanent destruction of the finest countryside on the planet. If the time ever comes to dismantle them – which I doubt – I shall be long dead.

Twenty years ago I lived in a small cottage right in the middle of one of the many developments currently seeking planning permission, at Wandylaw. I can confirm that it’s a good spot for the technology, as I used my own small wind generator to power my lights, word processor and TV.

But that was on a pole around 12 feet tall, hardly noticeable one field away, and would have come a poor second in a dust-up with a sparrow. How very different from the new generation of behemoths, which threaten to bestride the wonderful open spaces of Northumberland like something out of The War of the Worlds, reducing even kites and buzzards to neat salami slices.

All this so that a few large corporations – and some suspiciously small ones – can cash in on the latest market-distorting subsidy scam. The twenty-first century equivalent of all those rolling acres of Sitka spruce, planted with generous State aid to ensure our eternal self-sufficiency in pit props, which now cost more to harvest than they realise as wood pulp.

Yes, faced with a straight choice between a 400ft turbine and a nuclear waste dump in my back yard, I’d probably plump for the former. For a true pessimist, the nuclear option presents many more alarming possibilities when one asks ‘what could possibly go wrong?’

But far better than either, I think, is to remember the wise words of our Dear Leader. There is a Third Way.

Put on a pullover, turn down the thermostat and don’t take that cheap flight. That’s as good a way to save the planet as any I’ve heard of. And it will leave you richer into the bargain.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 1 February 2006

We are all guilty, as usual

The post-Christmas profit warning from Northern Foods has become a great British tradition, like over-indulgence in plum pudding and mince pies. Both of which, unless you made them yourself, probably came to you from a Northern factory.

This year the blame was laid on a biscuit price war and higher energy costs. Last year it was disappointing Christmas trading. The year before that … well, you get the idea.

Over my last decade as the company’s PR adviser, I became so adept at breaking bad news that I am now much in demand as a bereavement counsellor.

Yet it was not always thus. Founded as a dairy business in 1937, Northern prospered mightily through the 1970s and 1980s, as it sensibly diversified out of milk by buying high quality food companies like Park Cakes, Fox’s Biscuits and Pork Farms.

To this day, no other British food business can match Northern for its range of temptingly delicious products, which include most of those lovely ready meals that line the shelves of your local M&S.

So why, in the 1990s, did the track record of success come off the rails, and the corporate motto become ‘What could possibly go wrong?’

To be fair, it says much for the intrinsic qualities of Northern that it still survives as a quoted food company. Nearly all of its once substantial stock market peer group vanished long ago.

Having declared an interest as a former adviser, I think I can still claim objectivity in saying that quality of management has not been the issue.

What has happened to Northern since the early 1990s has much more to do with the changing balance of power in British retailing, and specifically with those giant supermarket chains which are relentlessly squeezing the life out of a high street near you.

We are all guilty of complicity in this. We like the convenience of big store, car-friendly shopping. Tesco hasn’t come to take one in every eight pounds spent by British shoppers because of some ghastly conspiracy, but because it is exceptionally good at its job.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the collateral damage caused to independent shops, doorstep milkmen, British food processors and farmers. All of which are rapidly becoming endangered species.

If you don’t like this, the answer is in your hands. Take your custom elsewhere while you still can.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who prefers locally produced food and small shops. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.