Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Eggheads and more

Now, where was I....? Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?!

Since last we met, my travels have taken me to Glasgow, Swindon and Belfast. The key headlines from each: Tricky Questions; Concrete Jungle; Fowl Alert.

So, the Glasgow trip first. I'm always glad of an excuse to return to my home town, so when the makers of the BBC 2 quiz show Eggheads extended an invitation, I was delighted to accept. They're lining up a series of "Celebrity" episodes for transmission sometime near Christmas, and some bright spark had thought of having a team of Voice-over Artists. First challenge, when we arrived for the show? Choose a team name. This was the subject of hot debate, over a cold lunch. I can exclusively reveal that the final choice was Rent-a-Gob. Elegant, don't you think?
That's about all I can reveal, without spoiling the various surprises of the show, but here's a glimpse of our team:

(L to R) Redd Pepper, Me, Jon "Weakest Link" Briggs, Steve Punt, Mitch Johnson.

Eggheads is made at the BBC studios in Glasgow. Always nicely nostalgic for me to work there, as it was BBC Scotland that gave me my first professional broadcasting job, back in 1978. The fine old building in which I worked has now been reduced to rubble, and the site awaits eventual redevelopment (rather more eventual than was envisaged, it turns out!) while the Beeb now occupies a glossy glass box in the heart of town beside the Clyde.
I did most of my growing-up in a house across the road from the old BBC building, so it was always just sitting there when I looked out of the window. On the occasion of this visit, I was staying in a hotel just across the river from the new building, so there was something slightly familiar about the concept of eating breakfast whilst looking out at the day's workplace only yards away. Fortunately, I did manage to remember that it was now a river, not a road, that lay in between home and work, so feet remained dry!
And as for the quiz itself, well, I won't spoil the surprise (transmission is due shortly before Christmas), but I would refer you to that headline I mentioned....

And so to Swindon, the latest venue for our periodical Radio Lags' Night Out, that jolly fixture which brings together a disparate array of wireless practitioners intent on (a) a good time; (b) a drink or two; (c) foul and contemptible gossip; and (d) staying awake til long after bedtime. I am pleased to report that all of the above was achieved, but there was a time when it was looking a little questionable. Swindon must have one of Britain's least navigable town centres. A veritable feast of that greying 1970s concrete, it gives little quarter to the casual visitor. The famous Magic Roundabout (pictured above) is definitely a highlight. A quick Google of the postcode for our budget hotel had brought up a rather vague location. The newly built commercial estate on which it sits is sufficiently newly built to be absent from the map, but it appeared to be within a couple of miles of the railway station. No worries, I thought, I'll get a cab from the station. This was a good idea. And I should have stuck to it. So, what went wrong? Well, I fell for the yarn spun by a Swindon taxi driver at the station. He assured me that the hotel I wanted was just round the corner, so close that it made no sense to go by cab and I'd be there in a trice if I just wandered up the road and turned right. I set off, trying to ignore the drizzling rain, and followed the directions. Moments later, I found myself facing an array of featureless buildings and a hotel or two. But not my hotel. I continued to wander, but the mystery just deepened. Then I saw a row of Bus Stops, with maps. Phew! I even found a service that listed a destination with a similar name to my hotel's location. Simples! Now, which way should I be going? This side of the road or t'other? I tried wandering into the local Bus Station, but the uniformed figure lounging against the wall had no idea and just gestured vaguely in the direction of the street from which I'd just come. Muttering darkly, I returned to the Bus Stop Maze to review my options. At that, a gaggle of local Pensioners fluttered in and roosted on the seats in the shelter. "Might any of you ladies know the way to Kembury Street?" I ventured. None of them, it transpired, had any clue where Kembury Street was. Sadly this proved no impediment to a lengthy group discussion about where it might be. I swear I was stuck there for 10 minutes listening to the theories. I left none the wiser, and with the heady aroma of Algipan assaulting my sinuses!

And so, dear friends, we draw a veil on Swindon and move on to matters Fowl.

This was a trip to Northern Ireland, to visit some friends in farming territory on the outskirts of Belfast. Very enjoyable, with good hospitality and fine fresh air. And some scary wildlife...

This is Cogburn. The rooster. And, yes, he comes complete with a John Wayne swagger and a "don't mess with me matey" attitude. I never expected to be cowed by an aggressive chicken, but encountering Cogburn changed all that! He patrols his territory thoroughly, sizes you up and then runs at you. If he gets close enough, he then leaps into the air, turns his heel spurs your way and digs in with vigour. The approved technique is to push him away with your foot while you prepare to scarper. He reacts to this rather in the manner of one of those town-centre drunks you see on Police Camera ASBO Danger Reality Crime Wars Uncut when you can't find anything worth watching on Sky, staggering backwards, neck puffing, shoulders swinging, before rushing forward for Round Two.
Keeping my eyes fixed on the hostile fowl, I started to reverse slowly towards the safety of the house. It was going fine until I heard a threatening hiss and a loud HONK! Oh Lord, now it's the bl**dy Geese!
This gorgeous family of feathered beauties wander round the farm according to some unpublished schedule all their own. The fact that you're standing there is no reason to change their plan. George, the Boss Goose (the girl is called Mildred!) simply walks up to you and delivers a series of clear messages: stretched neck and hissing, honking, wing flapping and the repeated thwack of webbed feet on tarmac. It doesn't take a genius to translate. Two words, and the second one is "off". I beat a hasty retreat.

You know, I don't think the farming life is for me!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Fab song - and a funny bit of musical history!

I've been enjoying the new album from Eliza Doolittle, not least for this song, "Pack Up".

As an inveterate reader of sleeve notes, I was surprised to find a full credit in there for the writers and publishers of "Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (and smile, smile, smile)". I'd have taken a flying guess that an old World War 1 marching song would be well and truly out of copyright by now, but not so.

It was published in 1915, the work of two brothers, George and Felix Powell (lyric and music respectively). Indeed, it won a competition in that year for Best Morale-boosting Song. UK copyright generally subsists for 70 years after the year in which the composer dies so, since George Powell stayed with us until 1951 (sadly, Felix committed suicide in 1942), the work is well and truly still in copyright.

It's an object lesson in never assuming you know the copyright position of an elderly work!

Happy Birthday to you, as frequently sung at family celebrations, is another problematic copyright case, as a few media outlets have discovered to their cost over the years. But let's not go there now!

Meantime, in another part of the forest....

.....regular visitors will know that I always enjoy oddities from the world of "Signage". Here's a recent sighting:

So many questions! Does this establishment have a particular problem with people fondling the signs? Are they only touching it because they are blind and that's how you read Braille? If they are, then how is an added sign in plain English going to resolve the problem?

Friday, 11 June 2010

All at sea .... the conclusion!

Now then .... where was I ..... ? Ah yes! At sea.
In our last, thrilling instalment, you found me contemplating a rush back to the UK, from Barcelona, to cover important broadcasting commitments.
Two things then conspired to obstruct that carefully honed plan: The British Airways cabin crew strike and the Icelandic Volcano. With Alan Dedicoat unable to leave London, there was only one thing for it: I would have to stay on the ship for the duration.
This was, clearly, terrible news.
I retreated immediately to the nearest bar to consider the situation. Whilst considering, I was momentarily distracted by Pudsey, the Children-in-Need bear, who had commandeered the piano, in a shameless attempt to serenade Radio 2 Pause for Thought favourite, the Reverend Ruth Scott.
Mind you, I'm sure she welcomed the light relief after her tough session moderating "A Natter With Nove" in the ship's theatre....
Having come to terms with the shocking fact that I was to be imprisoned on the ship, risking life and limb to thoroughly test Cunard's legendary hospitality, I felt a little light exercise was called for. Here we see a brief venture into Line Dancing, with me and my colleague John "Boggy" Marsh being given expert coaching by Lucy Quipment of the TOGS party.

John is not accustomed to vigorous exercise (or any exercise, come to that) and had prompt recourse to the poolside bar for emergency refreshment. This is a man who has two garden sheds so, naturally, the Pina Coladas had to double up too.

And so, to Cannes, at the height of the world-famous Film Festival. The mighty Queen Victoria anchored in the bay, next to some smaller, but pretty impressive neighbours, like this motor yacht Octopus. Note the two helicopters! There's also a submarine tucked away somewhere in there. The owner is one of the founders of Microsoft. He didn't invite us for cocktails. Miserable sod!

But all was not lost! Ashore, our PR supremo, Dan Kirkby (of the legendary Kirkby Monahan Publicity) somehow secured us a place in a comfortable beachfront venue (something about an international porn star, but I didn't like to ask). A bottle of chilled Rosé, a touch of Calvados, a proper French Tarte Aux Pommes and a chance to admire the way the locals had managed to set up a leather dining suite on the sand and keep it looking stylish...

Meanwhile, on the main drag, a fine array of ladders erected by the eager Press corps, awaited action on the red carpet.

I tried to provide some of the aforementioned action, but they seemed unimpressed!
Back aboard, Sir Terry Wogan joined us in time for a bit of book signing, meet & greet and general bonhomie, culminating in shipboard version of his Weekend Wogan show, with music and laughter in the splendid surroundings of the Queen Victoria's Royal Court Theatre. Here's me getting stuck into a round-up of some of the voyage's many goings-on....

...not least the tale of the party of TOGS on the return leg of a coach trip to Naples who suddenly spotted six ladies of dubious virtue stationed at the roadside, displaying their wares to passing travellers. When the working girls saw the TOGS on the bus, they quickly put their wares under cover, to the considerable chagrin of certain of the party! And, after a revelation like that, time to leave the stage!
So, there we have it! There's much more I could drone on about, but I've kept you long enough. The good news is that the efforts of the TOGS on the voyage, combined with the generosity of our friends at Cunard, raised over £81,000 for Children-in-Need. That, plus a good time had by all, is what I call a result!

Just before I go, a quick glimpse of a neat bit of design. One of the lovely things Cunard have done with the look of these ships is to keep a continuing reference to the history and tradition of the line, and ships of the past. The whole interior design is full of elegant curves, sweeping lines and wood panelling, and little touches like this:
Lovely surroundings, and a ship's company who really do exemplify their employer's motto: Legendary, Elegant, Memorable.
It's been great fun to be a little part of!

All ashore!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Ahar, me hearties!

Well, dear reader, you find me all at sea, on another TOGS’ Voyage. Just a quick explanation for the uninitiated: the TOGS are the hardcore followers of Terry Wogan and his now defunct Radio 2 breakfast show. The show may have gone but, happily, the TOGS and their fun, games and splendid charity work live on. Over 300 of these good folk have booked on Cunard’s Queen Victoria, for a cruise entitled ‘Jewels of the Mediterranean’. (So, where it’s going is anyone’s guess!) And they’ve had the good grace to invite a bunch of us jolly broadcasters along to share the merriment. And as you can see, Children in Need mascot Pudsey Bear is with us too.

We set sail from Southampton at teatime on Friday, the huge ship making her way carefully down Southampton Water, past the Isle of Wight, and out into the English Channel. We celebrated our departure with champagne at the stern of the ship, and then a champagne reception to welcome our TOGS friends. Here’s me, waxing lyrical – or is it whimsical? - at the evening bash.

In the course of Saturday, we traversed the notorious Bay of Biscay. It’s vast! Bigger than it looks on the map. It offered up a bit of a swell, too, but it takes a lot to interfere with the smooth running of a ship this size.

Saturday morning, in the Grand Theatre (and grand it certainly is, a well equipped 850-seater which would not look at all inferior in London’s West End.) the entertainment bill offered A Natter With Nove, in which, with the excellent interviewing assistance of the lovely Reverend Ruth Scott (of Pause for Thought fame) the assembled ladies and gentlemen were treated to the story of my life and haphazard career. We followed that with Uncle Charles’s Newsreading Challenge, in which a number of brave volunteers were dragged to the stage to have a go at some News bulletins, of the style we do on Radio 2. They did very well, and were pretty brave to get up there and give it a try in front of their fellow passengers.

More champagne followed (are you detecting a theme here?) interspersed with a sprinkling of G&T. I’m writing this having come in from sunning myself on deck, with a glass of Pimms and an ice cream. It’s hell, I tell you. One of the party travelling with us is a lovely Spanish lady, Christina. She was a little puzzled by the concept of the TOGS’ names. They tend to have an alias that they use for activities connected with the show, and most of the names are a play on words of some sort or another. Names such as Eileen Dover, Dora Jarr, or the retired military genius Major Sir Gerry Pending, are par for the course. Anyway, one of my on-stage Newsreading participants was the delightful Norma Stitz. Even with the top-class grasp of English possessed by our Spanish friend, this idiomatic usage was a bit baffling. And so it came to pass that Janet, wife of my friend and colleague John Marsh, set to explaining some of these names and how the puns worked. She worked gamely around the idea of Norma’s tag. There was a small pause and then the penny dropped and, grinning broadly, Christina announced, loudly, in her Malaga accent: “AH! ENORMOUS TITS!”. Fortunately, the band was playing cheery melodies for the Black & White Ball at the time, otherwise the ladies walking past at the time might have been taken aback at this observation.

First stop, after 3 days at sea, is Barcelona, where I am due to take my leave, flying back to London so that my colleague Alan Dedicoat can come out to join the ship. Then I’m due to return to rejoin my shipmates in Rome on Friday. If you take out of the equation the British Airways cabin crew strike and the Icelandic volcano, it should all be smooth as silk………

Saturday, 1 May 2010

A nearly gaffe - Exclusive

As the media extracted maximum value, and then some, from Gordon Brown's "Bigotgate" moment, I recalled a moment, long, long ago, when another senior politician came very close to illuminating the airwaves with his innermost thoughts....
(fx: shimmering vision + assorted harp glisses)

It's 1979, and the General Election campaign is in full swing. (This is the election that'll see Jim Callaghan humping his belongings into the removal van and departing Downing Street to make way for Britain's first female Prime Minister.)

BBC Radio Scotland is broadcasting one of a series of election phone-in shows, with various party representatives facing questions from the public. The programme is being presented in Edinburgh, but one of its guests, the renowned Conservative MP Teddy Taylor, is joining the proceedings from Glasgow. For technical reasons, he's sitting with me in the station's main continuity studio.

The calls come thick and fast and, it would be fair to say, Mr Taylor is given a pretty thorough interrogation by a largely hostile electorate.

Being every bit the experienced media veteran, he displays a neat routine for lighting his cigarettes (yes, you could smoke in a workplace back then!) with a match struck underneath the acoustic table, so that the microphone does not pick-up the sound. As the hostile calls come thick and fast, the rate of fag lighting increases, and I'm sure I detect a slight nervous tremor beginning to show in his hands.

Eventually, the programme draws to a close and Taylor emits a sigh of relief, turning to me and opining: "J*sus Chr*st, not a f*cking Conservative among them".

I hastily make the international sign for "Shhh .... not now, matey!" as I open the mic and embark on the live end-of-programme continuity announcement. Just one second earlier on the mic fader and the listening public would have been able to share his observation. Sadly, only Teddy and I had the pleasure. In fact, this blog is undoubtedly the first published record of this event! I probably shouldn't divulge this studio secret, but I'm unofficially invoking the 30 Year Rule.

Although that election swept the Conservatives to power, it also swept Teddy Taylor out of his Glasgow Cathcart seat, as Labour reasserted itself in working-class central Scotland.

Incidentally, 1979's was a May election, and the Labour campaign focused on the damage they predicted the Conservatives would do to the country. James Callaghan cautioned that a Conservative government would "just allow firms to go bankrupt and jobs to be lost in the middle of a world recession". The Tories were, he said "too big a gamble to take. The question ... is whether we risk tearing everything up by the roots".

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

I don't like to say "I told you so", but ...

Back in October 2009, on the subject of the all-seeing airport security scanners, I said:
They insist that the images will only be viewed by one person, and that it is impossible to copy or store them. I'll give it a handful of months before there's an unpleasant incident involving howls of mirth being heard emanating from behind the control room door
So, imagine my smuggery at reading today's BBC News report slugged Heathrow Airport worker warned over Body Scanner misuse.
A Heathrow Airport security guard was given a police warning after he was allegedly caught staring at images of a female colleague in a body scanner.
Read the full story here, but essentially it seems that a female security guard walked through the scanner and one of her male colleagues piped up with some unwanted comments. The precise wording is not disclosed but, I fancy, may well have run roughly along the lines:
"By jove, Missus, you don't get many of them to the pound, and may I say the old puppies' noses are in sparkling form this fine Spring morning!". (Actual wording may vary. Terms & Conditions apply.)

Doesn't this rather blow a hole in the assurances that the people viewing the detailed images would be (a) in a remote location; and (b) not able to see the real person whose naked image they have on screen?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

DJ Torture

Wandering the streets of Soho last night, I happened upon this sign outside a local venue:
Now, I know some live DJs can be irritating, but surely this is excessive? Perhaps this is a sign of how man's intrinsic capacity for inhumanity to man evolves. It's 24 years since The Smiths cried Hang the DJ, but at least they were proposing a reasonably quick way out for the poor sod. Here we are in 2010 and £1 lets you join the queue to skewer the turn.

I may be desperate for a gig, but I don't think I'll be applying there just yet!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

I'm back!

Followers of this blog may have noted a fallow period of late. May I be the last to wish you a Happy New Year!?!

I've been off the blog for a variety of reasons, linked by a common theme: Communications and IT. The headlines:
  1. Wandering Packets
  2. Keyboard Kapers
  3. Mobile Watersports

Let's begin with the hell that is Broadband when it goes wrong. A month ago, our normally robust broadband service began to behave in a manner best described as "Flaky". Connection dropping off every few minutes, download speeds reduced and, most noticeably, the sound on my all-singing, all-dancing VOIP telephone became "serrated", in the manner so memorably illustrated by Norman Collier. A quick online test revealed that, in addition to a lower-than-normal connection speed, I was suffering a high degree of Packet Loss. I won't go into a long and tedious explanation of this. Suffice it to say that data is split into conveniently sized packets before being lobbed across the internet to you and, if not all the packets that were sent arrive at their destination, that's called Packet Loss. Depending on the sort of data that's being sent, this may not be too much of a problem, as error-correction may be able to fill-in the gaps, or the missing packets may be able to be resent. But if the data is the sound of someone speaking, and some bits are missing, it's pretty certain you're going to hear some gaps. In my case there are more gaps than sound. Not good! (Or "..t .oo." as that phrase might sound on my phone!)

So, I've spent a fair proportion of the last month on the phone to the Helpdesk. This is manned by people who are constantly helpful, polite and eager. All good so far....BUT they are also woefully unequipped to deal with a fault that's not in the script. They do ever so well with telling you to reboot your Router, disconnect everything else, try putting it nearer the window, whatever, but after that they are baffled. So, is there someone else I can speak to? Well, er, No! You see, the Helpdesk exists (a) to read out scripts giving a few basic things to try; (b) to prevent a customer who knows a thing or two from talking to an engineering person who also knows a thing or two.

There's a word for this. Actually there are quite a few words for this. Most of which might land me in trouble under the Obscene Publications Act, so I'll just say: Harumph!

For now, BT provide a variety of responses including, but not limited to:

  • There's no fault that we can see
  • Ah, there was a fault but it's been fixed now
  • The faults team are working on it
  • It should be better in 48 hours
  • Have you tried rebooting your Router? (YES!!!)
  • It might just be your PC (NO it bloody isn't!!!)
  • Ah yes, there's a lot of it about

Ok, so I made that last one up, but it would be at least as useful (and - I suspect - as honest) as any of their other offerings to date.

Now on to point 2 on my list of recent aggravations: my keyboard. Actually, I suspect my laptop may be in league with the broadband, as part of some evil plot to crank my blood pressure upwards. Remember the Packet Loss that's reducing my VOIP to Norman Collier speak? Well my laptop keyboard has started to act in the same way. f it wredoin itcnsistntly, I would knw thattheacual keb. Sorry, let me start that sentence again on a proper keyboard! If it were doing it consistently, I would know that the actual keyboard was defective, but the blasted thing seems to have become delinquent. It behaves perfectly for great swathes of time but then, usually as soon as I stop watching the screen, it turns my typing into tripe. It's very annoying. I don't need unscheduled assistance from the laptop to type tripe. I'm perfectly capable of tryping my own tripe! I did try the manufacturer's online Technical Support, but it only seemed to know how to ask if I'd rebooted the computer recently, so I lost heart.

And finally, Watersports.

Take a tip from me: Don't drop your mobile phone down the loo! It won't survive, you'll wish you'd backed up the data from it more recently than you actually did, your friends will take the proverbial, and it'll generally screw up your life!

In answer to a question I've been asked by a number of people, No, I was not talking on the phone while using the toilet. I never talk on the phone in there. To me, the two activities are definitely mutually incompatible. But, where I go, my phone goes. It travels with me in a little pouch on my belt. It's not that we can't bear to be parted, it's just that I have to put it somewhere, I don't normally wear a jacket and I know that if I carried the phone in my hand, I would leave it on the nearest flat surface and the thing would be lost within minutes.

So, what went wrong? Well, it was one of those "you couldn't do it if you tried" sequences. The velcro on the phone pouch attached itself to a wooly jumper I was wearing. I reached up for the light switch, the pouch spun round and the phone bounced out. In my mind's eye I can see the slo-mo replay...the falling phone performs a neat pirouette on the rim of the toilet seat, I dive towards it in the manner of a Premiership goalie, but no, it's all too late and the unfortunate Nokia takes the ultimate dive.

Without going into too much detail, I can confirm that the phone fell in before any lavatorial business had been carried out, so a prompt fishing-out was not too grim a task, but it was to no avail. Despite speedy depowering, and a 36-hour drying phase, the phone did not live to call another day.

The nice people from Orange replaced it, under the insurance. I had to give a detailed description of the incident. The chap told me that phones going down the loo featured at Number One (no jokes!) in their top 10 of reasons for insurance claims, with the Number Two (I've told you: Leave it!) spot being claimed by "I left it in my trouser pocket when I put them in the washing machine".

The insurers agreed to cover it, but gave me earnest words of advice: "I've been told to tell you", said the nice Orange man, "that if you're ever in that situation again, don't take your phone with you.". "What, do you mean if I ever go to the loo again?" I asked. "Er, yes. That's what I've been told to tell you.".

Thanks to the way the Insurance industry works, I've no doubt that at some point in the future, one will be required to declare the frequency of one's lavatory visits on the Proposal Form and failure to accurately declare this will be deemed yet another reason to invalidate one's insurance.

So, there we have it. A trying time of late, but hey, things can only get better. As D:Ream * sang when New Labour swept to power all those years ago. And how right were they.....?

* The original incarnation of this post credited M People with that song. This was, of course, a test to see if anyone was paying attention. I'm delighted to congratulate Paul F on his perspicacity. If there was any justice in the world, a large prize would now be his. Sadly.....