A few weeks ago, Jane Garvey and Fi Glover said something on their Fortunately podcast to the effect that there ought to be a politics podcast featuring two women discussing the issues of the day, in the same vein as The Rest is Politics. I agreed with them, in much the same way as you agree with a lot of what they say.
But now I wonder, was something cooking? Was it already in the bag? Or did something start cooking, very fast, as a direct result of this conversation? I suspect the former, but I’d like to believe it’s the latter.
Because yesterday, the news broke that Garvey and Glover are leaving the BBC for Times Radio, where they will have an afternoon show and a podcast, presumably not called Fortunately, which will continue until the end of the year.
There’s a piece over on the BBC web site about the mass exodus of presenters from the public broadcaster. It’s hardly surprising. It’s widely known to be a shit place to work, with Compliance officers crawling out of the walls; a constant barrage of hate from the billionaire press; pressure to move to Manchester; Tory infiltration in the news organisation; a ridiculous interpretation of “balance” you have to cleave to; and – if you’re lucky enough to be a top earner – the publication of your annual salary for all to see. On top of this, the BBC is notoriously still a terrible place to work if you are a woman over a certain age. They have an absolute blind spot when it comes to women over 50, even on the radio.
Given the popularity of Fortunately, and the sheer quality of these two presenters, the BBC should have given the two of them a Five Live afternoon show long ago. When I fell in love with Five Live all those years ago it was Garvey and Glover (and Peter Allen) who made me love it. They’re two ridiculously under-utilised talents. And while I’m sure (like lots of women) they also had to deal with childcare issues in their middle career, there has been nothing stopping the BBC from giving them a more prominent role in recent times.
And it’s another nail in the coffin of the BBC, as far as I am concerned. One more reason I personally have for my very light use of the service, gone.
So they’re off, like Eddie Mair before them, like Maitlis and Sopel and Simon Mayo and many others. A shame, in a way, to lump them in with some of the others (e.g. Steve Wright), who are superannuated and ought to make way (nobody in the media ever retires), but a bigger shame that it’s to Times Radio. Because if you’re constantly under political pressure at the BBC, you won’t get much respite in the Murdoch organisation. It really is The Dark Side when it comes to media. Only thing darker is The Daily Mail.
Will I listen? I’m going to have to think about it.
I was reading the headlines last week about the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’ and in particular the cost of filling a car with petrol or diesel. And it struck me that newspapers like The Guardian, who were punching the government about not doing enough to help, were wrongheaded in their approach to this issue. Because the fact is that this government’s freeze on the fuel tax accumulator over the past 10 years has kept prices artificially low. And if we want to encourage people (including the people writing these words) out of their cars and onto bicycles and public transport, then the cost of running a car needs to get higher, not lower. And then yesterday, when the remaining electric car purchase subsidy was lifted (finally!), we should be cheering from the rooftops because private car ownership is not the answer. Doesn’t matter whether we’re driving electric or diesel or petrol: we need to be consuming less. Of everything.
And this has been the problem really, since the privatisation of the utility companies in the 1980s. A for-profit privatised electricity generator and distributor has no incentive to encourage consumer economy, fuel parsimony. Since 1986, nobody has been telling us to switch off lights, have showers instead of baths, turn the heating down a notch or rely less on electrical gadgets. (The logo above comes from a UK government energy saving campaign in the early 1970s.)
Which brings us to Sherwood (BBC iPlayer)
As time has passed, the stand-off between the British government and the coalminers in 1984-5 looms larger and larger in our national psyche. The more remote these stakes are from the lives of subsequent generations, the greater its significance in legend. At the time, it seemed both like a fight to save a way of life and a form of brutal, petty vengeance that had been a long time coming. How long? *cracks knuckles*
In 1910, Winston Churchill (then Home Secretary), sent troops to break a 10-month long strike in Wales by charging striking miners with fixed bayonets. The consequence of this was eventually a national strike in 1912 (referenced by J B Priestley in An Inspector Calls, natch), with over a million coalminers flexing their industrial muscles. The government of 1914-18 then tried to use the excuse of war to attack miners’ pay and conditions (a classic play they repeated in 1939-45), and the fractious relationship between the government, the mine owners, and the miners led to the General Strike of 1926. While the national version of this strike was short-lived, the miners were out for seven months.
The disputes and confrontations continued into the hungry 1930s, with miners’ pay and conditions continually under attack. In Nottinghamshire, where a breakaway (‘Spencer’) union had formed, pay was the lowest in the country (because that’s what you get when you undermine solidarity). Miners loyal to the main national trade union (then called the MFGB) were victimised. Sound familiar?
After the Second World War, the government nationalised the coal mines, and the new National Union of Mineworkers was formed. This powerhouse union had the ability to bring the country to a standstill: and did. But not straight away. This country was, frankly, a socialist paradise between 1945 and 1966, so it wasn’t until 1972 that the first strike of the modern era happened. It only lasted a month or so, and the miners achieved an improved pay offer from the Heath-led Conservative government. That’s what strikes are for.
Following the 1973 oil shock, there was another miners’ strike in 1974, after an overtime ban had reduced coal stocks. In response to the coal shortage, the Heath government introduced the three-day working week (yes please!) and anyone old enough to remember those days will recall the heady thrill of nightly power cuts: candles at the ready! ITV and BBC took it in turns to stop broadcasting at 10:30 pm. Bed time, everyone! Oh, and SAVE IT.
With the miners now voting to strike, Heath went to the country, asking the electorate to choose who was running the country. Voters (narrowly) chose Harold Wilson’s Labour party (and then again in the October 1974 election).
Humiliated, the Conservatives brooded like trolls until they were back in power. Thatcher’s 1979 government was perhaps not secure enough to take on the miners, so she waited until after the 1983 election to have the showdown her party had been waiting nearly 10 years to have. And it was brutal.
Nominally, this was a dispute over the future of the industry. Nowadays, I have mixed feelings. I didn’t want communities all over the country, from Kent to Wales and Nottingham to Yorkshire and Scotland, to die. But nowadays I know that we really should have stopped digging coal out of the ground a long time ago. All those Tomorrow’s World etc. segments about wind and wave power, from the 1950s onwards, should have been taken more seriously. But Thatcher’s project of closing down the coal industry wasn’t about the environment and climate change. She wanted to put the mines down so she could put the miners down. Revenge was her dish, and she had been prepared so long that it was indeed served cold.
Even though the miners were on strike for a year, there were no power cuts; there was no three-day week. Coal had been stockpiled, a lot of power stations had converted to gas, and the government was importing coal from the continent. The miners were fucked.
This didn’t stop the Nottinghamshire miners, who had a history of this kind of thing, from forming a breakaway union and continuing to work (they were not alone, actually: the strike was never solid). It didn’t save them: they betrayed their comrades for nothing.
As a young union organiser at the time, in the tax office union, I did my bit to support the strike. Organised raffles, raised money to pay striking miners. Because of this activity, I was definitely blacklisted by the government, and my own working career blighted (I’ve written about this before).
The miners were defeated, the unions and the trades union movement broken, and (as such), we were all damaged. The hedge fund managers, the Tory spivs, moved in, the Labour movement was enfeebled, heavy industry was hollowed out, and debt took over as the means people use to make ends meet. The average credit card debt per household in March this year was £2,173. It now takes 26 years, at average savings rates, to put aside enough money for a deposit on a house. Average debt per UK adult is now 108% of earnings (source).
Many communities have never recovered. For our Oxford and Cambridge educated political and media elites, the wild country North of Watford Gap is a blasted wasteland of hoodies and deprivation. People up there put cheese on their chips.
This is all background to Sherwood, the BBC’s new drama about a murder in a former coal mining community (a former community is the best way to put it) in Nottinghamshire.
A friend asked me if I thought it was realistic that someone would (nearly 40 years later) be called a scab, as one character was in the first episode. I replied, I would.
I’ve often said on here how I look out of the window and seethe with dislike towards my Tory neighbours. The flag wavers across the road, the white-haired, red-trousered old men I see around the neighbourhood and in the local supermarkets. I’ve also said on here that Thatcher was my Vietnam. The fact is, my anger and resentment towards the people who live around here (and who have consistently returned a Conservative MP to Parliament at every single election) does date back forty years. And, yes, I’ll still mutter fascist under my breath when I see that union jack draped outside the house opposite. It’s not as if these are the people benefitting when London is turned into the world’s money laundering capital. But they’re the ones who keep voting for it. Nothing worse, as I often say, than a working class Tory.
So Sherwood does seem quite authentic, as far as the social background goes. The Guardian awarded five stars and was fulsome in its praise. The Times, true to form (as the newspaper of the spivs), offered a more grudging four stars.
Me? I think it’s all right, but nothing like this will ever wholly win me over. Too many clichés of the form. The opening aerial drone shot of the forest (see every Scandi noir, and any other rural-set thriller); the local cop who grew up in the community and is now semi-detached from it because s/he’s one of the few with a steady job; the lock-up full of surprising evidence; the raft of familiar faces, from that woman who always plays the slightly less well off sister to the guy who always plays the hard-headed class warrior, and the other guy who always plays the haunted-looking geezer you wouldn’t want to encounter in the dark. I can never really get past the small pool of talent that British TV producers draw from. But even the “working class community fallen on hard times and divided against itself” theme is a hoary old trope. The same critics were surely gushing about the same idea in Mare of Easttown just last year.
Anyway, it’s watchable, it’s on the iPlayer, and it’s another reminder that our country and its assets was stolen from us. If you need me, I’m over here: the human face being stamped on by a boot—forever.
Look, I know – I know – the BBC is good value for money, and I agree with the principle that everybody pays a little and then everybody gets a little back. It’s not that I think the whole of the BBC’s output needs to be ‘for me’. So I don’t really care that I mostly use the BBC to listen to vintage radio dramas and that I probably wouldn’t miss the television output if it disappeared tomorrow. It’s not about the money. But I do think we need to punch our way through the wet paper bag of this argument that arises every few years, especially when the bastards are in charge of the country. Because the Tories love to do this: they love to toss out some shite about the Beeb, just to get everyone worked up. They’re trolling us, and the result is an entirely too predictable outpouring of sober facts and measured truth telling.
Is it an election winning strategy? I find it hard to believe that it would be, although I bet there’s a good 40% of the population who wouldn’t care. No, it’s rather a palliative for the foam flecked Conservative wrecking crew, the ideologues who want to destroy the state and all it works on behalf of the super-rich. It’s an announcement designed to appease the people who have been starting to think Johnson was a bit of a socialist. I also think it’s a move calculated to create a lot of liberal hand-wringing, in full knowledge that nobody’s going to be throwing stones on the streets about the BBC.
Political attacks on the BBC are exactly like the actual physical attack the other day, when some geezer climbed a ladder and hacked away at Eric Gill’s Prospero and Ariel statue with a hammer. People spectated, probably tut-tutted a bit, but nobody hoiked the ladder out from under him and let him crash to the ground and break his neck to general applause. In other words, politicians know that there are zero consequences for attacking the BBC.
Obviously, obviously the billionaires who own most of the newspapers have a vested interest in a weakened BBC — especially when it comes to news. But they’ve already achieved that: BBC News is a tamed pony, a bollockless follower of other news agendas. Its duty to be impartial to the truth was abandoned years ago in favour of a ‘both sides’ presentation of artificial debate. I find the BBC web site and its general news output to be absolutely worthless, unchallenging, and anodyne.
But the the argument that really gives me pause these days is the ‘soft power’, ‘internationally-recognised cultural export’ ‘envy of the world’ guff. Because I can’t help thinking that this idea that we continue to wield an outsized influence over the world through the cultural output nurtured by the BBC might be part of the identity problem this country has. There’s surely a Venn diagram you could draw in which the ‘Make Britain Great Again’ union jack waving empire boosters overlap with the ‘BBC is the envy of the world/soft power’ boosters. I mean, why exactly do we want to have an outsized influence on the world? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we acknowledged, finally, that Queen Victoria’s Empire is gone forever, that it wasn’t such a great thing, and that we are a wet little island in the North Atlantic without even the common sense to be in a trading alliance with our nearest neighbours?
What is it exactly that is so great about us that we should be exporting us to the world? The class system? The shocking levels of inequality? The private schools and elite universities that perpetuate these injustices? Luvvies? The terrible flag and the terrible monarchy?
I hate to have a massive chip on my shoulder, but here it comes. Wasn’t it only five minutes ago that the BBC was fighting tooth and nail to avoid paying a woman the same as a man for doing the same job? Wasn’t it ten minutes ago that they were trying to squash any discussion of the crimes of Jimmy Savile? Is that what we want to export? Isn’t there a sense that the BBC is an institution that exists to provide employment (and a ridiculously high standard of living) to a small coterie of very privileged people from elite educational backgrounds? According to Ofcom’s latest diversity report, people who work in the media industry are more than twice as likely to have been privately educated, compared to the general population. The creative industry has the highest proportion – of any industry – of people from privileged backgrounds. When you look at the professions followed by the parents of people who work in this industry, they are more than twice as likely to have been professional people. Only 23% of creative industry employees come from working class backgrounds.
So there’s a part of me, I’m afraid, that wonders what might happen if this all got shaken up a bit. Does the BBC stop things from being worse than they are, or does it stop people from noticing that things are as bad as they are?
Maybe things really do have to get a lot more shit before people will wake up and realise that they’ve been had. And I really hate to say it but, perhaps the BBC is one of the things getting in the way of that awakening, simply because it provides the comforting illusion that things are better than they are. Perhaps it is in fact the veil that needs to be torn away from in front of our eyes. So perhaps it’s time to call the Tories’ bluff.
I kept waiting for the twist that would prove me wrong, but it didn’t come. I just listened to all five episodes of the BBC Radio drama Steelheads, and it was so obviously thinly disguised anti-vax propaganda that I didn’t quite believe the BBC would be so stupid. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, in this week in which BBC news gave airtime to an accused sex offender to discredit his accuser without challenge.
The premise in this latest outing in the Limelight strand is intriguing: a tennis star with a brain tumour opts to go into cryogenic suspension in hopes of a future cure, but when she wakes up into a transformed world, she discovers that only a handful of years have passed.
It turns out in this show of thinly disguised metaphors that her brain tumour was a mere pretext to get her into the surrogate time machine, the cryogenic pod, which takes her forward in time five years. What has happened?
Well. Everybody had a “health chip” installed (“Because who wouldn’t want perfect health?”), but then the chips were “hacked” and now everybody has been brainwashed into being shiny and happy and ignoring their problems. For the slow-of-mind, let me point out that for “health chip” you should be hearing “vaccine” and for “hacked”—well, then it’s just the same script people have been using for the past year or so. Vaccines = mind control.
Oh, apart from the people for whom the “health chip” goes wrong, who end up being cared for in — and you won’t believe this got past the BBC’s editorial standards – The Bill Gates Rest Home. Because we couldn’t be spouting anti-vax propaganda without smearing him at the same time.
And who is behind all this? Behind all the chips and the hacking as well? “The elites”, of which Bill Gates is the only named representative.
That’s right: “the elites”.
The only thing missing was some mention of the Illuminati.
Anyway, I’d like to congratulate the BBC for this incoherent exercise in paranoia, especially at this particular moment in time. I’m sure it’ll be fine.
The Guardian gave this three stars in an “if you like this kind of thing” way, and I almost didn’t watch it because it was made by the same people who did the silly submarine thriller (Vigil), and it did look like it was going to be another one of those stripped procedurals, the kind both the BBC and ITV are too fond of. But it’s November, we’re in Beatles Limbo waiting for Get Back later this month, and everything else is a bit shit. I’m off the Succession train. I watched the first two seasons and honestly wish I hadn’t. There was so much out of proportion hype for the 3rd season, and I find it quite bewildering, because the show is okay, in the way that a lot of television is, but it’s definitely not as good as journalists think it is. Of course, they all think it’s marvellous because it’s a thinly disguised portrayal of the Murdoch dynasty, which is the soup they all swim in. So after all this, I no longer think Succession is okay. I think it’s terrible.
And the tendency of people who work in the media to get things wrong is really why I set the first episode of Showtrial to play, and I’m glad I did. Because it was better than the Guardian review indicated. It wasn’t perfect, and the title is ridiculous, but it had a lot to redeem it in my eyes.
Consider this. I complain frequently about TV series that seem to go out of their way not to have any (or any important) female characters. Explorers in the arctic? No women. North Sea Whalers? No women. And if you give it any thought you realise that people are actually going to a deliberate effort to direct their creative powers towards creating narratives in which men are isolated from society and have no women around them.
So how refreshing it is, in Showtrial, to note the following. Murder victim: woman (obvs); but: prime suspect: woman; all the barristers and solicitors: women; judge: woman; lead investigator: woman.
Written down like that, you might make a whiny noise and complain that such a set up isn’t “realistic”, but here’s the thing. I bet most viewers didn’t even notice, because it’s not as if there were no men in the way that there are no women in so many television/film narratives. There are men: other lawyers; a couple of other cops; the father of the prime suspect; the other suspect; the creepy university professor; the drug dealer. So you’re looking at the screen and what you see is a reflection of society rather than a fantasy created out of whole cloth in order to exclude 50% of the population.
And here’s another thing. If I tell you a girl has been strangled, sexually assaulted and dumped in the water, you’re going to picture all of the genre shows you’ve seen where a woman’s body is set out, naked, on a slab in the morgue and examined in minute detail by the camera eye. And you would be forgiven for thinking that, because it’s one of the clichés of the genre. Or: you’d be thinking there would be flashback scenes of sexual assault, rape, torture, strangulation.
And you would be wrong on both counts. Five episodes, and not a single shot of the dead victim, not a single autopsy scene with milky white dead flesh and an erect nipple. Nope. Instead, they show enough of the effects of the victim (her rucksack, her sleeping bag) without ever feeling the need to run the camera up and down her body.
And the story was suspenseful and interesting, the main cast excellent. I’ll forgive it the one clunky moment and recommend you give it a watch.
Here we are then, twenty-twenty, the year of hindsight, and my first (new) album purchase of the year is this new record from vocal harmony group Little Big Town. And it’s great, beautiful, and if you’re not uplifted by the opening track, “Next to You”, you’re dead inside. The band wrote 34 songs for this album, whittled down to a lucky 13 for the release. There are lush songs reflecting on things worth getting up for, drinking songs, questioning songs, heartbreak songs, and all of it lifted by the soaring power of the human voice, the harmonies and arrangements, as ever, superb. It’s not all Karen Fairchild, either. At times, I’ve felt that she’s carried the rest with her amazing voice on their standout tracks. Not this time.
On Chapel Sands – Laura Cumming
Finally got to read this, a book that was on my list from the moment I read an extract in the Graun last year. I listened to the abridged version on Radio 4, but still wanted to read it. It’s an intriguing story about a child who gets snatched from a lincolnshire beach in 1929. The child was the author’s mother, and the story is both a deeply personal story about identity and a documentary about rural life and hard times in the Britain of long ago. The author is an art critic and tells the story through images, including both family photos and paintings. She highlights the mysteries of both, from the blurred faces of long-dead relatives to the carefully composed works of old masters. The writing is beautiful, the story tightly controlled, with startling revelations that keep coming. Having read this and Mark Lewisohn’s first volume of his Beatles biography, and knowing some of my own family history, you start to form a picture of British family life that’s completely at odds with the conservative myth of “family values”.
My one criticism of On Chapel Sands is that it tries very hard to be a beautiful (hardback) book, but is let down by the reproduction of the images that are so important to the telling of the story (like the one above). What it needed was an insert of glossy pages. What it ends up with is what Kurt Vonnegut so memorably described: “They were grainy things, soot and chalk. They could have been anybody.”
The Whisperer in Darkness – BBC podcast.
You ay have heard this recommended. Radio drama can be hit and miss; there are so many things that can go wrong. They can rely on grownass adult women to deliver the voices of children: bad. They can have extended sequences of grunts: boring. They can dumb things down too much: Journey into Space, I’m looking at you. They can be too depressing or too middle class. But The Whisperer in Darkness is properly good, so much so that I even forgive it the already tired trope of being a podcast about a pretend podcast. It even manges to be decently creepy and scary.
(In contrast, the latest BBC attempt at this kind of thing, Murmurs, becomes quickly unlistenable. It relies too much on irritating sound effects which are, well, irritating. And it uses a sound effects library of sounds that telephones haven’t made in a long time. Also, it relies on the conceit that all of this drama is happening over telephone conversations – and who, these days, ever really talks on their phone?)
Thought it was about time for an update on what’s in the ‘casting playlist.
I just subscribed to The Missing Cryptoqueen (BBC), which was featured on this week’s Fortunately (also BBC). It’s the story of what appears to be a financial scam on a massive scale: a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a cryptocurrency. It’s a good listen, although, as ever, I’m absolutely bewildered that people ever fall for these things. I mean, if a relative came to me and said, “Oh, I found a fantastic investment opportunity. You need to get on board,” my immediate reaction is no thanks, I’ll leave my pensionexactly where it is. And if they were to add, “It’s a Bulgarian cryptocurrency,” my first thought is Mafia. My tenth thought would probably be, oh, outside of any financial services regulatory framework, then? What could possibly go wrong?
And yet it seems that thousands of people have invested gambled millions of Euros like so many cartoon characters with fruit machine eyes.Other recent additions to my playlist include Backlisted (Unbound), a books podcast, which came to my attention when David Hepworth guested on an episode about Beatles books. Quite apart from that, it’s always good to listen to people enthuse about things they love. It’s a little blast of fresh, optimistic air in our fractious times. I prefer Backlisted to Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year (Ora et Labora), which is also on my list, as it’s less of a plug show and more about pulling out unjustly overlooked titles and authors. The most recent episode, about Elizabeth Taylor (who I’m convinced is overlooked because of her name, which is shared by someone more famous than her), is a perfect place to start.
Another podcast featuring someone (theoretically) enthusing about something they love is The Band: A History (independent), which ought to be right up my street, but unfortunately the presenter needs some voice training. His delivery is flat and monotonous, making a fascinating subject seem dull.
Heavyweight (Gimlet) is back, and presenter Jonathan Goldstein is here to show The Band guy how it’s done. Former This American Life reporter Goldstein can take the most mundane episode from an ordinary person’s life and make it dramatic and mysterious. What is Heavyweight about? It’s a little like the late lamented Mystery Show: people get in touch concerning unresolved incidents from their past, and Goldstein does his best to put people in the same room to have it out. I know it’s a good podcast because I have a flashbulb memory of picking up chestnuts in the garden in France while listening to an episode about someone who was kicked out of a sorority in college and never knew why. It’s episode #10, if you want to check it out. (I have a similar flashbulb memory of listening to an episode of Criminal about the theft of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey while riding my bike in France.)
I’ve started listening again to The Word podcast, which I had wrongly believed finished, or at least gone behind a paywall. This oversight can be rectified by downloading back episodes, of course. I love the content, but have to say that their audio quality is poor. Given that so many people manage to make podcasts with great audio, not all of them working for NPR or the BBC, then this seems a bit off.
Finally, a couple of complaints. I would never make a mean comment about a podcast on the iTunes review thing, but I have to get a couple of things off my chest.
There are a few people I kind of follow and listen to multiple podcasts they’re on, mainly because they’re enthusiastic/knowledgable about things that interest me. Merlin Mann, for example, is on a few podcasts, and I generally like his stuff. I love Roderick on the Line, and Reconcilable Differences (Relay) is still a favourite. On the other hand, I gave up on his Do By Friday because the constant giggling by one contributor and shilling for Patreon on the show got too much. I listen to a lot of Incomparable Network shows, many of which feature founder and former Macworld editor Jason Snell. But I can’t listen to Mr Snell’s podcast Upgrade (Relay), because his British co-host Myke Hurley is an idiot and a philistine ignoramus. I’m assuming his parents were idiots too, for giving him a nickname instead of a name and then misspelling it.
Talking of idiots. I like to listen to the thoughtful John Siracusa, who occasionally guests on The Incomparable and co-hosts Reconcilable Differences. But I cannot listen to his technology podcast Accidental Tech (ATP), because both of his co-hosts are whiny, entitled, car bores and one of them is also an idiot.
One of the things you learn if you know anything about technology and software is that, if you want an easy life, you shouldn’t be an early adopter. The early adopter mentality should be that you can be first to have something but should always expect it to be flaky and buggy. This is something both Casey Liss and Marco Arment seem not to understand. So when they get the new iPhone/Apple Watch on release day and then find it takes a few software updates before things are working properly, they act like spoiled 10 year olds who have been told they can’t have birthday cake until the candles have been blown out. Which is not to mention the shameful detail that one of them is such a self-entitled baby that he actually went down to the Apple Store to buy a new phone because the one he ordered online and which was out for delivery didn’t arrive quickly enough for him. I ask you. Can you imagine being married to that? To be the wife who phones up while he is queuing in the store to inform him that his new phone has been delivered? Meanwhile, the voice of reason, John Siracusa, points out that if you were going to bent out of shape by software bugs, you should wait a few months to buy. My personal philosophy is that if you’re buying a new iPhone, don’t order it till November.
Anyway, I had to switch off an unsubscribe because I could no longer listen to these people whining. And it feels good to get it off my chest.
John Roderick, of severalpodcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.
I currently subscribe to:
The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)
That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.
It’s a lot.
*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.
Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.
†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:
It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.
Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.
So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.
‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.
Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.
I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.
I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.
Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.
I’ve been struggling for podcasts lately, perhaps because my AirPods make it so convenient to listen at times when I might otherwise not be able to, and so they run out — especially towards the end of the week. For example, I find AirPods quite comfortable to wear in bed, and so I’ll often hear a podcast to the end instead of reading in bed (I can’t do both, obvs).
It’s a weird feeling, to choose sound over reading at night, which is a life-long habit. You feel oddly guilty, but at the same time, there have been times of late I’ve been too tired. And my love of the short story, the science fiction story in particular, has taken a dive of late. I’m currently reading a Le Carré, which is okay, but the chapters are really long, which is not conducive to bedtime reading when tired.
Anyway, lack of podcasts means turning to the BBC and seeing what they have, which can be pretty desperate stuff. Obviously, I’m avoiding the horrid Sounds app and I’m sticking to iPlayer Radio while I can*. In my grumpy middle age I’ve decided that most BBC comedy isn’t funny, so I tend to avoid panel shows unless I’m really desperate. I like Mark Steel’s stuff, and John Finnemore, but the News Quiz and the Now Show can do one, far as I’m concerned.
Most of what I go for is drama, but even then I’m very picky. I’ve never enjoyed “issue-based” radio drama, and I hate those ripped-from-the-headlines ones too. Perusing the current listing under the Drama category, and you’ll see something based on the playwright’s “real life experiences”, which is a turn-off. And then there’s an interminable series of plays “set in the Staffordshire potteries”. I listened to some Big Finish Doctor Whos, if only to remind myself what a shit Doctor Colin Baker was. And I’ve listened to some readings and some literary adaptations, though I often don’t get to the end. Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, for example, I didn’t finish. Every single character was just so horrible, I wonder why anyone would read this nonsense. Where’s the pleasure in this? I don’t get it. Daphne Du Maurier’s The Years Between was good, though.
But this is a tale of two Sci-Fis. On the one hand, Stephen Baxter’s Voyage (first broadcast in 1999), a kind of alternative history in which instead of the Shuttle programme, NASA went to Mars. Being adapted from work by a proper science fiction writer, it ended up being quite good, notwithstanding some less than convincing American accents. (Often, I find that the least convincing Americans on the radio are the actual Americans.) On the other hand: Charles Chilton’s Space Force, from the mid-1980s, a kind of redux version of his earlier Journey into Space. Chilton was a radio all-rounder; being unkind, you’d call him a hack. And listening to this stuff is as close as you’re going to get to the kind of Hugh Walters juvenile science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, exemplified by Blast off at Woomera and Destination Mars.
Now, one might forgive Chilton’s 1950s Journey into Space, but this 1985-era reboot had no excuse to be as silly. Space Force is science fiction written by someone who likes the idea of it but appears never to have read any. The absolute worst sin committed by the writer was to include an audience proxy character who appeared to have left school at 14 and skipped all his science lessons while he was there. The character of Chipper, played by Nicky Henson, is supposed to be the communications officer, but doesn’t seem to understand how radio works. One plot point is that he hears voices in his head. The first time this happens, he’s surprised to discover that nobody else can hear them. The second and third and fourth and fifth times it happens, he’s also surprised to discover that nobody can hear them. In fact, he’s incapable of learning that he is the only person who hears these voices, and so we get his hysteria/surprise over and over again. In the final episode of six, he hears a voice in his head, and says aloud, “Who’s that?” Jesus Christ. Chipper has somehow qualified for the astronaut programme in spite of having no scientific knowledge and in spite of having no temperament for it: he panics at the slightest provocation (think Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army) and has to be sedated whenever things get hairy.
It’s not just that it’s stupid, but that it’s so stupid. It’s a hate listen is what it is.
*As to BBC Sounds, you just know there was a meeting at some point in which someone pointed out that the BBC’s audio broadcasting was no longer, strictly, what Marconi called radio. It’s not even radio, really, is it? You can hear them say. Why do we call it radio when it’s not even?
And so they reached for the 1970s slang term for “cool music” after which the absolute worst of the British music press was named: Sounds.
A more prosaically descriptive “BBC Streaming Audio” would have been better. BBC Stuff That You Listen To With What Are Called Ears. But “BBC Sounds” is the Orwellian future of listening to the world’s worst DJ wittering into your ears forever.
Every day, someonereaches the front of the line to have an opinion about Brexit. And every day, it creeps a little closer. Time moves strangely: on the one hand, tick-tocking to the tappety tap tap tap of people paid to have opinions; on the other, coming straight down the tracks with the clackety clack clack of a runaway train.
At this stage, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting it to be over and done with, in one way or another, and yet you can’t shake the realisation that this is how we live now. Whatever happens, the bickering will continue and the tappety tap tap will go on forever.
I still remain (fnar) torn between my intellectual awareness that we can’t have socialism within the neoliberal culture of the EU and my intellectual awareness that we can’t have socialism because my neighbours (and yours, and yours) are fuckwits. And so I wish we could stay in the EU, because then at least I could get out of this fucking country and away from my fuckwit neighbours as soon as I retire.
If capital has freedom of movement, then people should too. Why should money have more rights than people?
Another sign of the forthcoming End of All Things is the BBC’s decision to make its popular Fortunately podcast exclusively available on the BBC Sounds app.
Now, the great thing about podcasting, up to now, has been that, as a new medium, it was open and free, and anybody could make one. The cost of entry being low has enabled a burgeoning of independent producers who have carved out their niches and their audiences on an equal footing with the big players (traditional broadcasters).
There have been signs of late that this situation was coming to an end. Large corporations introducing exclusive content on proprietary apps. For example, Jon Ronson has produced exclusive content for Stitcher and Audible.
But this Fortunately fiasco is the first time that something I care about has been taken off the open internet (RSS feed/on iTunes) and put into a “walled garden” that required you to have a specific app to listen. And I hate it, of course. Not just because of the inconvenience, but because it’s so unnecessary. The BBC has a massive platform and has no need to muscle in on the world of podcasting with its heavyweight app: especially as it already had the iPlayer Radio app.
Now, I fully understand that the under-35s aren’t bothering with BBC radio or iPlayer. And I fully understand that the BBC wants to ensure it has a future: hence, the trendy “Sounds” app with its wall-to-wall recommendations clearly aimed at people much younger than me.
I looked at it, as I was encouraged to, and hated it. It makes you log in with a BBC ID, and claims that it will tailor content for you, but then proceeded to show me almost nothing but music and sport recommendations, when I literally never listen to either of them on the BBC. The last time I tuned into a radio station to hear some music was the day Radio Caroline sank in the North Sea. So I genuinely hated it, and even though I gave it a couple more tries, I returned to iPlayer for my BBC listening, and will stick to Overcast for podcasts. Until the bitter end.
The BBC did almost immediately back down and put Fortunately on iPlayer, and claim that the exclusivity will end after a while, but still. Stop messing with podcasts. Free and open and independent podcasting is clinging on, and when it’s gone we will miss it, just like we’ll miss all the high street shops when they’re gone.