Sunday, 4 December 2005

total:spec - more4

In a small, unassuming office in the heart of the ITN building in central London, the tight, efficient ship that is the More4 news room is run. It's like any other office - a group of people quietly work away, with only the occasional burst of interaction.

Sitting amongst them for a Friday afternoon, as they work on that evening's show, it's hard to believe that each day such a small team of people produce a slick, half-hour programme of concise and distinctive news coverage that not only informs its viewers of the day's news, but does it in a way that compliments its sister show, the Channel 4 News. 

Forget the image you might expect of a sprawling, hectic news room with phones ringing every second, people shouting across the room and a fiery editor storming around, that's reserved for the newspaper world. Television news, as More4 News's anchor Sarah Smith explains, is a much more relaxed place to work.

More4, you may already know, is Channel 4's new sister channel which, like E4 before it, takes out the favourite programmes of a particular section of the channel's audience and puts them all together on one whole new channel. Unlike E4, though, the focus of More4 is not 'youth' TV, but 'adult' TV - drama, films and factual entertainment that has a more cerebral aspect to it. You won't find Hollyoaks on here.

It was launched last October amid great fanfare - you may remember the teaser adverts for a new 'adult' channel that made it seem like Channel 4 was venturing into erotic television. It wasn't the case. Instead More4 arrived with quality films, shows like The West Wing and The Sopranos and, of course, its own news programme.

Presented by Smith - the daughter of late Labour leader John Smith, who moved to More4 from her presenting job on Channel 4 News - it's shown five nights a week (when I ask why it's not on at the weekends, the director, Luke Brown, just puts his finger to his mouth and says, 'Ssh!') at 8pm, minutes after the Channel 4 News has signed off.

It's remit is simple - it will carry the most important stories of the day, updated from what Channel 4 have been reporting, but it will do it in a way that gives viewers ‘new and challenging perspectives’ on events.

"Inevitably some of what we do ends up being the same [as Channel 4 News]," says Smith, "because a lot of the VT reports that we play are the same ones they have. So if they have a reporter covering the EU budget negotiations we're not going to send someone as well because it's a waste of everyone's time and money. It would produce a very similar result. Instead we play a shortened version of whatever they play on Channel 4, and often reports will be the same or very similar. But we will try and interview different guests and have interviews on different stories. If they've already got the best person you can get talking about the EU budget, why have the second best person?"

The Channel 4 News room is just a quick walk away. It's much larger, more how you would expect a news room to be, and, dominated by the tall frame of presenter Jon Snow sat in the middle, there's the same level of calm and concentration you find in the More4 news room. 

More4 News monitor what Channel 4 are up to on their computers, continually checking their running order and adjusting their own or making changes accordingly. The team have their first meeting at 10 o'clock, deciding what they are going to be working on during the day. There's a second meeting at three o'clock, in which More4 make adjustments in light of Channel 4's meeting one hour previously.

"The primary function of both programmes is to be a news show, by the end of which you will have learnt the day's news," says Smith. "But I suppose as a channel More4 sets out to look for different, challenging opinions and perspectives that viewers haven't necessarily heard, so we would try and do something a little bit more risqué or challenging than they might do on the main programme. We're looking for people to interview who you maybe wouldn't hear on other mainstream news programmes, people with different opinions."

"For example, on certain subjects Channel 4 will always want to do the minister. If, say, a new piece of legislation is being proposed they'd ask the minister why he's doing this and another minister why he thinks it's wrong. We wouldn't necessarily go for an interview that was quite that obvious. We might find someone who would be affected by the legislation and who might normally support it but is against it for a surprise reason. We'd be much more interested in that person than somebody who's absolutely head on in the story."

An example of that on the show the team are working on when we join them is a story about the World Health Organisation saying it will no longer recruit people who smoke. In a surprise move, anti-smoking pressure group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) have criticised the policy, saying that smokers should be encouraged to give up, not forced to do so.

As the show's editor Mick Hodgkin (who is filling in for the usual editor) jokes with his team, ASH are using all the arguments normally levied at them. And so they want to get someone in from ASH to challenge them on their unexpected response to the WHO's new policy.

"It's definitely more creative [on our show]," says Smith, "and more challenging as well, as a result. We have to think a bit differently about who we can get. But even then there's always the chance that Channel 4 decide to do what we're doing. That's happened before. We've thought we were being quite clever in booking an interview and they've ended up booking the same person. So that changes things."

On the other side of the building are the offices of ITV News, which is also produced by ITN. They, however, have much less impact on what More4 do.

"We can monitor what they're doing but it doesn't actually affect us that much to be honest," says Smith. "Out of curiosity we may look at what they're leading with but it doesn't make much difference to us."

So you don't pilfer ideas?

"Oh, well if it's a good one we might," she laughs. "But it's kind of a different remit to be honest. They don't do nearly as much international news as we do, they wouldn't do anything on Sudan for example, as we are today. And they don't really do any live interviews because they're on at 10.30, which is not conducive to getting guests."

Every day Smith joins the rest of the team at two o'clock. She has a chat with the editor about the stories they plan to cover that evening and then the team convene for their second meeting of the day. It's a relaxed, easy discussion. They pull their chairs to the centre of the office and it’s pretty informal - they have a laugh amid the serious nature of the stories they're discussing. And they listen to each other well, each person gets their turn.

They have secured an interview Craig Sanders, a representative from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, who is happy to give a pre-recorded interview to Smith from Geneva to follow up a story on the troubles in Sudan that is to be reported in the Channel 4 News. They're pleased to have bagged the interview, it gives them a good reason to run a feature on Sudan that one of the journalists, Nima Elbagar, from Sudan herself, has filmed.

"We don't work on stories in advance an enormous amount," says Smith. "For instance the Sudan piece we’re running today, we've been waiting for an opportunity to get it out, and that only came today. Although I didn't get in until two, I was talking to Mick throughout the morning about what was going on. But it's only things like arts features and such that you can plan a wee bit in advance, but even then it would never be more than one piece in a programme that would be a feature.”

As the afternoon rolls on, the team does start to get more animated, but there’s no sense of tension, or urgency, just a growing sense of focus and a need to get things done on time. Smith reads up on the Sudan story and the one about the WHO in preparation for the two pre-recorded interviews they have set up for that afternoon. She goes off to get changed and do her hair and make-up, this time herself. Later she will head down to the make-up artists to have it done properly for the actual show.

“I don’t think you can tell the difference when watching the whole thing together,” she says. “I hope not anyway.”

Brown, the director, takes us down to the studio. I ask him about his job and he simply says, “I make it look nice.” That he does. The studio is the same one used by Channel 4 News, but it’s amazing what different lighting and graphics, camera moves, and placing the desk and chair in a different position can do. There are two cameras, one moves, one doesn’t, and when you’re watching the programme, you’re given the sense that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

The interviews go well. Smith is direct and demanding when she speaks to both UNHCR man Sanders and the ASH representative Amanda Sandford. Off camera she is the consummate host, making both Sanders, who is talking from Geneva, and Sandford, who is in the studio, feel equally at ease. Normally they’re not too keen on doing pre-recorded interviews. They’d rather talk to their guests while the show is going out live.

“It’s just the feel of it really,” explains Brown. “I mean, there's an advantage in pre-record in that you can run it by the office and pick the questions you like, but, particularly when they’re in the studio, live is just part of the feeling of the programme. It feels a bit more instant and immediate."

Smith agrees, saying that it looks better if they’re live, and that doing pre-records makes more work for everyone. But sometimes they are necessary, particularly on a Friday when people aren’t so available at eight o’clock in the evening.

“It’s a shame you’re not here another day,” says Smith later. “We’re normally running around madly making sure the guests are ready.”

Hodgkin congratulates his team on bagging the interviews – he says both are good for More4. Compliments flow freely here, whenever someone is impressed with their colleague’s work they will say so. Later on Smith is appreciative of Elbagar’s work on the Sudan feature to Hodgkin when she finally sees it.

But there’s plenty of mickey-taking going on as well. Talking about her Sudan piece and how the country has had only nine years of peace in the 50 years it’s been independent, Elbagar says wryly, “I’m so proud of my country.” One of the editors immediately picks up on the comment. “You’re so proud?” he says, with a big grin. “Shut up, Thomas,” replies Elbagar, laughing. “We take things seriously.”

From next door to the More4 office comes the sound of people taking something very seriously. The shouting from the office has been growing in volume all afternoon. It sounds, at first, like an unhappy editor, but in actual fact it’s the bellowing of an excitable TV presenter. More4’s unlikely neighbours are Big Game TV, a 75p-a-minute phone-in channel which holds competitions for its viewers to win prizes. It’s the most shouting you’ll hear in the ITN building.

Smith heads down to hair and make-up where make-up artist Lisa Connell, along with her colleague Liz Jones, start working their magic. Smith likes it in here, it’s the calm before the storm, and it’s fun, she says. They talk about the celebrities that have been into hair and make-up. Rowan Atkinson has been in this morning. But, after being told they’d get to meet Westlife, Connell and Jones’s hopes were dashed when the band didn’t appear.
As Felicity Barr, a presenter on ITV News, joins Smith in front of the mirror, talk turns to Big Game TV.

“The shouting is mildly distracting,” laughs Smith. "They get more excited as the day goes on as well. By the time it's 7 o'clock you can hear them yelling."

"They definitely earn their money,” adds Barr. “They do three hours solid, no breaks. There’s no commercial breaks and he just keeps talking about absolutely nothing. It’s a real art, I tell you."

Richard and Judy are on in the background and when Jon Snow appears in the ad break, trailing that evening’s Channel 4 News, that’s Smith’s cue to head upstairs for More4’s five minute news summary at five to six. She shows me the marks on the floor where she has to stand. They’re indistinguishable from those for Channel 4 News and Smith says she does get them confused. You’d never know if she did, though.

Having worked here since 1998, when she joined Channel 4 News as the show’s Scotland correspondent, reporting on the first elections to the new Scottish parliament, she knows exactly what she’s doing and knows how to appear in control even when she’s not.

“Anything can go wrong at any time and frequently does,” says Smith. “You can never let your guard down or relax too much. But doing live TV is not something that sends dread through me, thank goodness. I would hate to do something if I was absolutely dreading it all day."

While she’s on screen Smith watches what’s going out on a TV behind the camera so she knows if something goes wrong and can apologise if it does. It went horrendously wrong one evening not long after the channel had launched. The computer developed a fault that wouldn’t allow the VTs to play. As Smith read the lead-in to the first report, she had to apologise when it didn’t start and move on to the next item. Again the same happened.

“It took us a while to realise the problem was with the computer and not the VTs themselves,” says Smith. “It started to get pretty farcical. It's a pretty big problem on television news when you can’t play out the reports, so I was sat there blathering away for about five minutes telling people things they might not have known about our top story. Fortunately it was something I knew a fair amount about, so I was able to talk and talk until one of these pieces would finally play. There were men crawling under desks with spanners trying to make the thing work."

How do you feel when something like that happens?

"You haven't really got time to feel anything,” says Smith. “You’re too busy trying to think of something to say about the news story and keep it going. What you can’t do is stop talking."

Smith began her journalism career as a trainee for BBC Scotland. She says it was invaluable training.

“It was something I wanted to do for a long time, from a reasonably young age,” says Smith. “It looked like it would be interesting, different, and it's lived up to that. There's been a lot of travel, a lot of different challenges. You find yourself in situations and experiences you wouldn’t in any other kind of job. It keeps you on your toes.

“I was very lucky to get on to the BBC training programme, which was great. From the start you get a lot of different experience working in different departments, and get a chance to see all the different things you might want to do."

Smith worked for the BBC for a long time before moving to Five News where she was a reporter for two years. After moving to Channel 4 seven years ago, she has covered stories ranging from the US presidential elections, the Madrid train bombings (for which Channel 4 News won an Emmy in 2004), and conducted an exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein’s defence lawyer. She’s seen a lot of changes in the industry.

“Mostly technological,” she says. “The news is easier to make with fewer people and less money. There are far fewer people with far smaller bits of equipment which are much easier to travel with. You can get to places faster in a way that you never could before. Five years ago you wouldn't have been able to do More4 News with this number of people, you’d have needed twice that many. And 10 years ago you would have needed an army the size of the Channel 4 news room to do it. People are able to do far more things at their desk. Producers are now editing. Even more so on More4 than Channel 4 news, a lot of our films are shot by the producers, and probably reported by them."

Is there a lot more pressure on news programmes now because people have a lot more access to news through rolling news channels and the internet?

"It means that for a programme like ours, you've got to think a bit more about bringing an interesting analysis to it,” says Smith. “We’ve got to give the proper treatment to a story. Not everybody is sitting and consuming news all day. You’ve got to assume that your viewer is coming in after a day at work not necessarily knowing what's been going on in the world. But at the same time you can’t just repeat a string of facts. That's what these other continuous outlets are for. You have to craft it into an interesting programme and make sure you have a wide variety of stories that are treated well, and that you’re supplying an analysis and expertise that’s much harder for continuous news channels to provide.”

And what does Channel 4 itself demand from its news programmes?

"The news," laughs Smith. “I know it's obvious but that's 90% of what news programmes are. You can make a terrible mistake by doing a lot of features and different things and trying to look completely different from everyone else. It's easy to look different from other news programmes but do you necessarily have the news in it? From us, Channel 4 is looking for greater analysis and perspective on events.”

What about the future of television news, what changes do you anticipate?

“Fewer and fewer people and smaller and smaller bits of kit," says Smith with a smile. "I can’t imagine that it won't change. Each one of us is having to learn more skills and become more acquainted with the technology. A lot of people resist it at the beginning but then you realise that it makes it all a whole lot easier to be able to just do something yourself rather than involve a long chain of about four different technicians. That speeding up of things is what I imagine will happen, as the technology allows that."

So there will be less people and less jobs.

“Yes, but there seems to be ever growing amounts of news channels."

The summary done, Smith returns to the office to go through the script for the half hour show, to make sure she understands the stories, check they translate well when read aloud, and, last but not least, check she knows the correct pronunciations. Around her a sense of urgency begins to creep in as the clock ticks. They’re still working on stories right up until eight o’clock, with minutes to spare, but they still do it seemingly calmly.

“I wouldn’t say we’re calm,” says Elbagar. “Just quiet.”

Having returned to the studio, Smith is raising concerns about her jacket. Is it too blue? It may be the case on the very blue set, but there’s nothing she can do about it now. Wardrobe is an important aspect of her job, and one that is left completely down to Smith to take care of.

“It's got to be right,” she says. “When I'm stood in the studio I need colours that work with it. I learnt that on Channel 4 news and have had to work it out along the way. I have to worry about all of that. I have to find it, choose it and pay for it, unfortunately."

The show itself runs smoothly. Brown calmly directs the cameramen and lets the floor manager, Rebecca Bryant, know where to put the furniture. Over the headphones he discusses the reports with Smith, more compliments are made. They are all completely unflappable. Without the headphones all you can hear are Smith’s authoritative tones when she’s talking to the camera.

Otherwise it’s quiet, and hard to believe that what is going on in this room is being broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people. Bryant checks Smith is okay as a report is playing. “Yes I am, I’m absolutely fine,” she says. And you know she absolutely is.

Saturday, 3 December 2005

total:spec - Will Young

Will Young is incredibly nice. After four years in the limelight the affable, well-spoken young man who was thrust on to the music scene as the winner of now almost forgotten reality talent show Pop Idol has changed little, aside from becoming increasingly confident as his career progresses. He's even nice when he's grumpy, which he is today given a bout of tonsillitis that has delayed the interview for a number of days (for which he apologises) and an unspecified phone call he's just finished.

"They asked what was wrong with me this morning," he explains. "What was wrong this morning? What about the rest of the weekend? Last week I was talking like a frog, and even then they wanted me to do interviews. What the hell? ‘Do you think you’ll still be able to do it, babe?’ Don’t think so. It was dreadful.”

He avoided work for the weekend and found himself doing something he doesn't normally do - watch TV.

"I don’t watch much because I don’t really like watching mindless TV," he says. "I find myself just switching off. But actually there was quite an interesting thing on Panorama last night about imports and exports, and how since Labour’s got in our exports just gone down and down and the gap between import and export has got bigger and bigger. But I didn’t really understand that much about it. My housemate works in the City and I kept going, 'I don’t know what GDT means.' I lost interest after a while and moved on to the industry of porn on Channel 4, which was far more exciting.”

We’re meeting in a local cafe bar, where Young is a regular. He orders nothing stronger than water, still. The venue is at the heart of his neighbourhood of Notting Hill, a neighbourhood in which owning a property is a sure sign of professional success if not celebrity status. Young can claim both, and these days it's hard to remember the singer's origins as a reality TV star. Since the record-breaking No 1 single that followed his win, he's garnered success with two albums - the 800,000-selling debut From Now On, and its follow-up, the 1.6 million-selling Friday's Child - and established himself as one the UK's top male pop stars, competing with only Daniel Bedingfield and Robbie Williams for pole position.

Young is not only a rare breed amongst his reality show alumni, he's a rare breed amongst pop stars generally these days in that there seems to be plenty of potential for longevity to his career. He delivered his latest album, Keep On, last November. It's a strong, confident set - his best yet - and Young himself says it's the album he's most proud of so far.

"I do feel 100% confident that the music is good," says Young. "It’s much better quality than the last one. I think Friday’s Child had two halves - one of some great songs, and then some songs that were just fine. This one I just feel it’s 12 really great, strong songs, and all quite different. I think the people I’ve worked with have been really interesting. Working with [acclaimed producer] Nitin Sawhney was amazing. I did the final track Home with him, and I love it, it’s beautiful. Although a friend did come in and go, 'Sounds a bit like spa music, what’s this?', and I went, 'This is my new album'. Fucker," he laughs. "But I do feel confident about this album. I feel like no matter what other people have said about it, good or bad, I feel I really believe in it, and I don’t often feel like that.”

There have, however, been murmurings that things are not going well for Young this time round. After the incredible success of Friday's Child, that album was always going to be a hard act to follow, and Keep On has been finding it hard. First week sales were down on those of Friday's Child, as were the sales of lead-off single Switch It On in comparison to Leave Right Now, Young's massive No 1 hit which launched Friday's Child. But Young and his team always knew they were taking a risk with Switch It On. The frenetic pop song, a tour-de-force of drums, guitars and Young's powerful vocal, was an unexpected move from the singer known for his more mid-tempo hit songs.

"It's important that Will doesn't start to be seen as predictable," explained Simon Fuller recently. Fuller is the pop management and music industry guru who created Pop Idol and has guided the careers of the likes of Annie Lennox, the Spice Girls, S Club 7 and now Will. "I think you always need to be conscious of growing a new audience because if you don't, you go stale. I always think of it as adding a little bit more to the mix each time. To that end, Will’s new album is the broadest we've done to date, but not to the point where we're going to lose his old fans."

On top of that Young's team always knew they had an ace up their sleeve. His new single All Time Love is the ballad that most would have expected the singer to launch the album with. It's a piano-led song, very reminiscent of John Lennon, with a gentle but provocative vocal from Young. It's got smash hit written all over it and will undoubtedly kick-start sales of Keep On. On top of that there are plans to use the song to push Young's career overseas. Up until now Young's success hasn't really translated in many of the other music markets around the world. He has managed to sell well in Italy, however, made in-roads in some Asian territories, and been given good airplay in Germany. But it's with All Time Love that his record label Sony BMG plan to improve on that, concentrating on Europe, then Japan and Australia.

Part of the reason it's not happened before is Young's own reluctance to engage with territories outside the UK. It's taken him a long time to come to terms with the massive level of fame that was thrust upon him so quickly and so he's held back from spreading that fame any further.

"I have to be careful talking about it as I don't want to be one of those moaning people who go, 'Oh being famous is so awful', you know?” he says. “It’s just the way it is. Obviously there’s times when I just can't be bothered but there’s also loads of fantastic things that my job provides.

"I could talk about it for days because I do find it a fascinating subject - what happens in our society, the role celebrity plays. I think people underestimate the role it plays in our society - it’s a form of control. You can tell people what to wear through celebrity, what music to listen to, what way to be, what way not to be. I think what happened with Kate Moss is a perfect example. In my opinion, it seemed like they were just manipulating a person to prove a point, or not prove a point, I don’t know. I wish it was that admirable, it probably isn’t.

“But I don't know how it’s going to change, so you just get on with it. You can’t get sucked into it. I mean the big, big people obviously lead the way on that but I just don't really see myself as being that famous. I’m not Kate Moss standard, I’m not exactly a star, I’m not exactly Posh and Becks. I’m kind of like periphery celebrity. That’s what I see myself as,” he laughs.

You are written about a lot, though.

“I am, I know. I don’t know why that is. But I don't read it so it’s fine. I hear about it from other people. It’s horrendous, and it’s probably all ridiculous. It is actually also quite funny. You have to have a sense of humour about it.”

So Young is becoming more relaxed about his fame as it grows (not only through his singing career but also a burgeoning acting career that began with last year's performance in the Stephen Frears film Mrs Henderson Presents), but not totally relaxed. With regards to America, the biggest market for record sales in the world and therefore the golden egg for record companies who have a popular artist on their hands, he is nonchalant.

"I don't really think about it," he says. "I think more about Broadway actually, which I probably shouldn’t say. I should probably say, 'Yes I want loads more success'. Oh well. But I’d love to do a Broadway show there, I think it would be amazing. But in, like, three years time."

So with this slight resistance to increasing his fame, how will Young be able to keep building on his success and nurture the longevity he has the potential to achieve? It's unclear, though it may happen despite Young's resistance. He remains popular both with critics and the public, and released an album in the period that new albums from virtual veterans like Kate Bush, Madonna and his closest rival Robbie Williams came out, without being overshadowed by them. He says what other acts are up to doesn't really concern him, but still, Williams in particular is often portrayed as a rival for the affections of the record-buying public.

"I like Robbie because he seems to work in the way I enjoy doing things," says Young. "His videos are always very different and he always pushes himself when he could so easily sit back and churn out the same kind of stuff, which is I’m sure what his record executives would prefer. I think from that side of things he’s done really well. I really respect him because he has taken risks. Plus he’s always been very nice when I’ve met him. But I don’t think there’s any rivalry. I think we’re different people and different artists really. I’m not Robbie Williams and he’s not me, so it’s not a worry."

Though he doesn't envy the fame of those singers that have been around for years, he does take mental notes from them.

"I do make notes, maybe not even consciously," says Young. "I remember when I started touring last year someone said to me that I should be more like Robbie and I turned around and said, 'Well I’m not Robbie, I need to find out myself how to project myself and what I am on stage'. I think it’s real problem, a mistake, to try and emulate other people. You just see it because it’s not believable. So I don’t try and copy people, but I think you can learn from them.

"The person I learnt most from was James Brown [who Young met at the Live 8 gig in Murrayfield], definitely, in terms of performance. You’ve got to watch the old performers. I saw this TV special with Louis Armstrong recently, who was a consummate performer. It was this film of him doing something at the BBC and the audience couldn't even clap in time they were so white. It was tragic. He must’ve thought it was horrendous, but you’d never have known.”

And so Young says he is in it for the long run. Not even the acting, he says, will distract him from his main focus, which will always be his singing career. The acting is just a bit of fun and he's seeing what happens with it. Will Young is a singer first and foremost and he's determined it will stay that way for some time to come.

"As long as people are still listening to the music I'll be here," he says. "I’m still loving it. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. When I stop enjoying it I will go and do something else but at the moment I’m really proud of my music and I've got loads of ideas about how to present it. I really want my career to work because if it works that means I get more money to do more interesting things,” he laughs. “But yeah I'm definitely in it for the long run."

Wednesday, 30 November 2005

PA - Professor Robert Winston

Doctor in pursuit of the divine; Wil Marlow finds the BBC's favourite man of science is also a man of God.
The health service's loss is television's gain, for earlier this year Professor Robert Winston retired from the NHS and his position as Director of NHS Research and Development for Hammersmith Hospital.
It had been a long and illustrious career in which the doctor, who is now, of course, well-known as a presenter, had made leaps and bounds in the often difficult and emotional science of fertility, helping thousands of childless couples to achieve their dream of starting a family. With such an achievement under the 65-year-old's belt, it's no wonder the good doctor is missing his lifelong vocation.
"I spent 40 years treating patients," he says, "and it's a hard thing to leave something which is so rewarding and, I hope, has been helpful and useful. It's a very nice feeling to be useful."
Robert is, of course, still making himself very useful. He continues his academic work as Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, London University, and this is flexible enough to allow him to work on even bigger projects on television.
Best known for his enthusiastic and engrossing documentaries looking at human life and its history, he's become a household name and won three Baftas for series such as The Human Body, Superhuman, Walking With Cavemen and The Human Mind.
But now, for the first time, Robert is stepping out of his field of expertise for his most demanding television project yet - The Story Of God, looking at how our belief in a higher power has developed over the centuries.
Something he is keen to point out, however, is that this is not a religious programme. He looks at the story of God from a scientific and historical point of view - how people's beliefs in a all- powerful deity developed, how that belief has impacted on human development over the centuries, and how it impacts on our lives today.
"One of the reasons for me agreeing to make this series," he says, "was I wanted to show an aspect of humanity that is not, I think, very well dealt with by many scientists, who often profess strongly atheist beliefs and are rather dismissive of the spiritual side of humanity. I wanted to, as a scientist, redress that a bit really.
"It's my view, expressed in that programme, that actually there shouldn't be a conflict between science and religion, that actually they should be able to sit quite comfortably side by side. They're both looking at the natural world in different ways, but which aren't necessarily conflicting."
Robert himself is that rare individual - a man of science who practices religion, in his case Judaism. He says he's never had any trouble reconciling the two disciplines.
"I certainly follow a somewhat religious track in my life," he says. "I think religion provides a very useful framework for people and it's been quite helpful to me. Has there been a conflict between my science and religious practice? No, I don't think there has.
"On the contrary I think it's enlightened and helped my clinical practice. I think it's been very useful in making good decisions about an area of biology that is fairly controversial - mainly the embryo, human life and its start, pregnancy and conception.
"Many of the decisions I come to in helping people have been illuminated by, not necessarily my religious views, but other peoples', and religious views in general."
The professor and the BBC film crew travelled the world in their mission to tell God's story, visiting places as far flung as America, France, Switzerland, Italy, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and Egypt.
"It was arduous," says Robert. "Because it was not travelling comfortably and much of it was in quite hostile environments.
"Just getting a visa, for example, to go to India, which was what we wanted to do to film Hinduism, was extraordinarily difficult. It was so difficult that eventually we decided to go to Sri Lanka instead because it would be easier.
"In Saudi, of course, no non-Muslim can go to Mecca, which is incomprehensible really but it's there and one has to accept it.
"And in Iran it's not a very easy society to move around freely, where there are religious sensibilities and where the Shi'ite Muslims are somewhat suspicious of people who come with a Christian or Jewish or other view.
"I don't think this series would have been possible for me to do at all a few years ago when I was heavily involved in clinical practice. I regret having to leave that part of my life but life moves on and this is quite a fulfilling way of spending my life intellectually."
Robert says he will continue straying away from his usual area of expertise in future television projects -he says there's another possible philosophical series in the pipeline. But he promises to return to biology as well, he's committed to doing another series on reproduction. There's also one hugely ambitious project he'd like to take on.
"I still think that one of the great icons of television was Bronowski's 1973 series The Ascent Of Man," says Robert. "And I think it would be very interesting to revisit some of those themes from a more modern perspective.
"Whether the BBC would do that I don't know because television has changed so much and I don't want to presume they'd want me to do it anyway. "I'm always surprised they ask me to do anything, really."

Monday, 31 October 2005

total:spec: Desperate Housewives

When both Friends and Sex And The City finished in 2004, it seemed Channel 4 would never be able to replace them. The two American shows had captured the imaginations of a whole generation who discussed the ins and outs of each episode at work water coolers the next day. Both shows seemed impossible acts to follow and yet American television managed it. Within months of Friends and Sex And The City finishing two new shows were the talk of the airwaves - survival thriller Lost and, on an even bigger ratings scale, Desperate Housewives. Both have, of course, been picked up by Channel 4 and repeated their US success here in the UK. When the first episode of Desperate Housewives was screened here at the beginning of 2005, it garnered the channel the highest ever audience share for a US series launch, including ER, Sex And The City and Friends. So confident were Channel 4 of its success that they bought the rights to the second series, which is due on screens here in January, before that first episode was even screened.
Desperate Housewives has become a TV phenomenon to rival that of Friends. For a year it's been untouchable, the shining star of the TV schedules that everyone loves. Despite constant negative press about the rumoured rivalries between the show's five female stars - Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Eva Longoria and Nicollette Sheridan - the show itself has only received positive coverage. Critics love it as much as the millions of viewers that watch it, and it has been showered with awards, including six Emmys and one Golden Globe. But as the show powers on through its second series in America, the first rumblings of a backlash have begun.
Critics in the US have been quite scathing in their comments of the new series, saying that it's lost its campy sensibility, its eye on realism and the originality that marked it out from other TV dramas. A new storyline involving actress Alfre Woodard - who joins the cast in series two as Betty Applewhite, a new neighbour who imprisons someone in her basement - also came under some negative scrutiny. One critic said that it "has not only wasted Woodard's talent, but our time as well". The most common accusation is that the show is resting on its laurels. This was being said even as far back as when the last episode of the first series was being screened in the UK. Russell T Davies, the writer who this year resurrected Doctor Who, a self-confessed fan of Desperate Housewives, said in one interview he felt the season finale "was good but it didn’t really build to a good climax. It was quite secure in the knowledge it was coming back next year so it relaxed at the end, I thought. I think that’s a mistake as you want to leave people punching the air."
The lack of punch that American critics say beleaguers the new series of Desperate Housewives has been put down to the apparently diminishing involvement of the show's creator and executive producer Marc Cherry. Cherry didn’t write any of the new series’ first three episodes and Touchstone Television, who make the series, recently announced that Cherry had signed on as co-producer of another series, a murder mystery show called Kill/Switch. There have even been rumours that Cherry is working on a spin-off series called Desperate Husbands, but Cherry himself says this is untrue and that the speculation about his involvement has been blown completely out of proportion. He says he is still a major contributor to the show’s scripts and plans to be with the show for the next three series.
“I am as involved in the writing process as I’ve always been,” says Cherry. “I help come up with the storylines, I give notes and, indeed, I write things constantly. I take the credit and the blame for everything that goes on screen.
“Yes we’re trying new stuff. Some of it might work, some of it might not. This, of course, is the nature of episodic television. They can’t all be gems. Rest assured I’m paying attention to my audience’s response and am trying my darndest to please them. And I will do so as long as I’ve got that executive producer credit above my name.”
Cherry’s been through worse periods in his career than this. Starting in TV as a writer on The Golden Girls in 1990, Cherry, who’s 43, went on to write a number of sitcoms throughout the 90s, all of which flopped. The end of the decade saw him virtually unemployable. Not only did have a bad track record, reality TV had become the viewer’s genre of choice over comedy and drama. But he didn’t give up. He began work on Desperate Housewives, a project he toiled over for two and a half years only to have it turned down by every channel he approached. And then more bad luck. His agent Marcie Wright was jailed for embezzlement, which included thousands of dollars of Cherry’s. He borrowed money from his mother, got new representation, and things began to change. His new agents Paradigm pitched Housewives again, this time as a soap with comedy elements rather than a satire. It worked. ABC, a channel who weren’t exactly doing well themselves and were losing viewers at a rate of knots, went for it and found themselves with the biggest TV hit of the year.
“ABC helped me and I helped ABC,” says Cherry. “We were both very desperate entities, to be sure.”
Cherry got the idea for Housewives from his own family background. Brought up one of three children of successful oil executive Truman Cherry and his wife Martha, Cherry had a good childhood despite the obvious problems between his parents.
“At some point they became two people who really had in common only their children,” says Cherry. “That was the bad part of their marriage. The good part was that so much love was poured into us kids.”
Martha is the obvious inspiration for Lynette, played by Felicity Huffman. Before Cherry and his siblings came along, Martha was a fashion designer, but gave up her career to become a housewife and bring up her children. Lynette’s story comes from a moment when Cherry and his mother were watching a programme about Andrea Yates, the Texan mother who drowned her five children. Cherry’s mother suddenly blurted out that she’d experienced similar desperation.
“It hit me so hard,” says Cherry. “I thought that she was always happy.”
But Cherry’s mother is also the inspiration for Bree, played by Marcia Cross. Cherry says his mother was obsessed with creating the perfect home and life for her family. A similar incident to that in the penultimate episode of the first series, where Bree makes the bed as her husband suffers a heart attack on the stairs, saying to him, ‘I never leave the house with an unmade bed, you know that,’ before taking him to hospital, actually occurred between Cherry’s parents in real life.
“But thank God for my family’s weirdness,” says Cherry. “Now I drive a Lexus because of it.”
The success of Desperate Housewives has been staggering. It’s become a pop culture phenomenon around the world, made huge stars of its five main protagonists and in doing so single-handedly resurrected the career of Teri Hatcher, who plays Susan. It garnered an average of 25 million viewers a week during the first series in the US, becoming the most successful show there since ER. Even Laura Bush referenced it in a speech she gave at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, is quite straightforward about the show’s success.
“It’s an incredibly entertaining show,” he says. “It has great comedy, great drama, great mystery and great intrigue.”
Others have looked for deeper meaning to the show’s success. Naomi Wolf, described as America’s leading feminist, is one.
“First, it says the unsayable without apologies – about female unconscious and, by doing so, makes Sex And The City, its obvious antecedent, seem quaint, even demure. Second, it lets hard-working women explore a retreat fantasy – of a work-free life in suburbia – and then emerge from it refreshed and with an appetite for their own tough, bracing, more independent lives.”
Susan Douglas, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan has a slightly different take on the show’s ability to engage so many viewers.
“It rips the veneer off the myth of suburban domestic bliss,” she says. “In the process, the show punctures the notion that in a post-feminist world women have achieved full equality and can choose freely how they want to live their lives. The choices women make are anything but choices. Women watching can easily relate to that.”
Media analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner echoes that.
“It’s not about the angst of young life, it’s about the angst of real life. It’s figuring out where you are in terms of the choices you’ve already made. It’s [American 80s drama] Thirtysomething, but more domestic.”
The cast, however, refuse to get bogged down in all the theory.
“I don’t care about any of that,” says Hatcher. “For me it’s just pure entertainment.”
“It’s very entertaining and it moves fast,” agrees Steven Culp, who played the now deceased Rex Van De Kamp. “Beyond that there are things about the characters that people recognise, and that resonate in their own lives.”
So everyone loves it, that’s obvious. But how long will that last? Aside from the criticism thrown at the new series in America, the show has had to deal with trouble on the inside as well. Much has been made of the reported in-fighting between the five main cast members – there's been alleged jealousy of those who did pick up awards for Desperate Housewives and those who didn’t, for example. It was given further credence by a scathingly funny article in Vanity Fair telling the story of the difficult photo shoot for the accompanying cover picture. It seemed the success of the show had turned these five actresses into huge divas.
“The reporter caught them on a bad day after a really, really bad week,” explains Cherry. He says there was tension over the subject of Hatcher supposedly being thought of as the show’s lead. “The culmination occurred, sadly, in front of a Vanity Fair reporter, who played everything up to the hilt and made everything a little more dramatic than it was. Not that there wasn’t some truth there, there was. It happened and we got over it, and then about six weeks later the magazine comes out and we had to relive it. It really hurts my feelings because all the girls, Teri included, really do treat each other not only professionally but with love. Four or five bad days does no reflect what went on the other 240 shooting days where everything was hunky-dory.”
“I have to take my hat off to the Vanity Fair writer,” adds Huffman, “because he made this great thing out of a tempest in a teapot. Actually, we do all get along. People have been waiting for us not to get along from the minute this went on air. I remember doing press conferences with people saying, ‘That’s a lot of women on the set, there must be a lot of fighting.’ They’d been waiting for the fur to fly and now suddenly they found they had made something up to sink their teeth into.”
And so, in accordance with Huffman’s theory, the stories of on-set tension continue as the second series continues in the US. Rumours that former Baywatch star Kelly Monaco is set to join the cast has prompted stories that the five main stars are worried about their future due to the introduction of a younger female cast member. There may be some element of truth to these stories – similar reports dogged the Sex And The City cast members for years and it was eventually revealed that not all of them were untrue. But like Sex And The City, Desperate Housewives has the staying power to survive them. For despite all the criticism currently being levelled at the show in the US, the viewing figures tell a different story. The first three episodes were watched by an average of 27 million people in the US, beating the 24 million average for the whole of last series.
Cherry has no reason to worry about his baby, but he is. It’s nothing to do with all the criticism, however. Instead of worrying about the quality of the show, he’s worrying it may get a little too controversial this series. He’s preparing himself for a backlash concerning a storyline where Andrew Van De Kamp exacts a horrible revenge on his overbearing mother.
“It will be about as bad as anything on TV,” says Cherry. “Andrew resents her tremendously. He’s going to get back at her. We’ve got something just hideous planned. I’m going to get letters.”

Friday, 14 October 2005

PA - Chris Rea

I will always be a Boro lad

By Wil Marlow

Chris Rea is no stranger to hospitals. Pottering about his home-cum-studio, he tells of his latest visit, which was for a not very pleasant sounding operation to remove a blockage in one of his sinuses. Despite repeated visits, thanks to a string of health problems, he says he never gets used to going to hospital.

"It's always hard to go back. Just because of all the scenarios that have happened to me. In 1994 I had a big colon operation, and in 2001 I lost my pancreas, duodenum, and gall bladder."

That followed a cancer scare, and it goes on. "You're very much aware of post-operative infection, especially in hospitals now because of the MRSA stuff," explains the Middlesbrough-born musician.

"I'm always on at the doctor, driving him mad. I'll say to him 'I feel something.' He'll say 'Yes, it's called pain.' I'll say 'I've got an abscess,' and he'll say 'No, it's not an abscess,' and I'll say 'Prove to me it's not an abscess.'

"I do give the doctors a hard time. It's my paranoia, but I have a right to be paranoid."

He certainly has. The 54-year-old, who has sold 30 million albums worldwide, has just been back in hospital again. He developed an abscess on his leg following an infection from the insulin injections that he has to administer daily. He became diabetic after nearly dying following the major surgery of 2001.

Chris, who famously wrote The Road To Hell, is now on the road to recovery again but still leads a difficult life.

"It's tough," he says. "I train very hard to keep everything going as much as possible. I do a lot of weight training to keep my muscles the right size.

"I don't want big guy muscles but because the pancreas converts so many things into the whole life blood of your body. When you don't have one, lots of things go missing.

"In order to maintain muscle ratio, I have to do 50 press-ups to your 10, otherwise I'd start wasting away.

"I'm type one diabetic and certain foods can give me the effects of food poisoning very easily. What else? Oh yeah, my circulation's not good. So I train about five times a week. I hate it."

He makes it interesting by playing football games on his own. "I can play ball against a wall and invent a rule that means I have to keep running to keep it up. I can play for an hour."

Chris's health problems do not stop him working, however, much to his family's concern. His wife Joan and daughters, Josephine, 21, and 16-year-old Julia, were not overjoyed when he began work on a mammoth 11 album project which took him a year to complete.

Blue Guitars sees Chris and his regular band of musicians traverse the story of the blues from its origins in west Africa through to modern blues.

It's all original material written by Chris and his cohorts, but he did sample heavily as well as make use of old and modified instruments and electrical equipment.

"This was my first ever guitar," he says, picking up a battered looking instrument, "£28 it was. We used it on all of Blue Guitars.

"We found all these old instruments in silly little shops as well, and we got ourselves some great little amps from the 50s on eBay. One of them was a real pain actually but we managed OK."

Blue Guitars is an epic project but Chris is keen to point out it is no history lesson. He is looking at the blues timeline, and how it has changed over the years, then he is mixing it up to show the connections - like taking a jigsaw and putting it together in a different way while still getting the same picture. He famously does not like listening to his own music but it is obvious he is immensely proud of this.

"It's the first one I've ever taken home. It's different to all the others because there's been nothing in the way of what I wanted to do.

"I'm actually hearing my musical idea whereas, when I used to have executive producers, everything got watered down, shortened, strings added for the wrong reason. There's no compromise on Blue Guitars."

Chris, whose early ambition was to be a journalist, went to St Mary's College in Middlesbrough and was a latecomer to music. He did not pick up a guitar until he was 19 and joined his first group only at 22.

He is the son of Camillo Rea, the Italian immigrant whose family ran Middlesbrough's biggest ice-cream business and he even worked in the old family ice-cream factory at Brambles Farm.
As his career developed, he lived in a flat above Rea's famous Park Bar opposite Albert Park which was beloved of footballers and football fans on their way to Ayresome Park.

His first big success came with the album Whatever Happened To Benny Santini and the magnificently haunting single Fool (If You Think It's Over).

He married Joan, the former Stainsby Girl he immortalised in his song about the pupils of the old Acklam secondary school, and the successes kept rolling out including Driving Home For Christmas which will soon be ringing out from everywhere.

He moved away in 1983 and the family now lives at Cookham just outside Windsor.
Despite the 22 year gap, he still has that distinctive smoke and gravel Teesside accent.

"A lot of people are amazed I haven't lost my accent," he says, "but I don't mind. I'll always be a Boro lad."

A versatile one, too. Blue Guitars is not just a musical project as, for each album, he used his painting skills for the cover, creating a visual representation of each style of blues he experimented with. The paintings are to be shown at an exhibition in London.

"When somebody was doing the engineering technical stuff, or someone was learning a part, I'd be in the kitchen doing the paintings.

"I was working on this project all day every day for a year. The family weren't happy about it. After the illness I'd said I wasn't going to do much, that I wasn't going to chase the company line anymore. I ended up chasing my own line," he laughs.

"I'm on a promise now that I won't do this type of thing again in terms of how I did it. But to me it's not work. My bad moments are when I don't have anything musical to do.

"It's because I genuinely love doing it."

Blue Guitars will be his last release under the name Chris Rea. His tour next year with most dates - including Newcastle City Hall - sold out, will also be a last. Afterwards he will be part of a three-piece called The Fire Flies.

"I don't want to be hindered by my health," he says. "I love touring, it's the best job in the world - if I had a different body.

"My health is hard to forecast and I can't guarantee things aren't going to get any worse. I need to find a different way of working."

Thursday, 29 September 2005

total:spec - Ms Dynamite

"If I was Prime Minister," says Ms Dynamite, "the first thing I would do is take a trip around the country and talk to young people about how they feel, what they want, what they need, what they like, what they dislike. I would just find out ways in which I could help them to be everything they can be, to feel that they count and their opinion counts and to let them know that they are important and that they are the future. They’re everything, basically. That would be my first thing, to focus on young people and what they want and not what I think they want or need. That's a big problem at the moment, young people don’t get enough attention.”

Ms Dynamite, real name Niomi McLean-Daley, might not be Prime Minister, at least not yet, but she is a very powerful young woman. The London-born R&B singer is a refreshing voice in a period when most pop stars monitor what they say carefully and are so media trained they have made sitting on the fence a fine art. But Niomi is happy to wax lyrical on subjects that very few of today’s pop stars would dare to talk about. And people listen to Niomi. Whether she's talking, or singing, about gun crime, or domestic violence, or racism, what she says is guaranteed to go in print and without all the snidey remarks that accompany the worthy ramblings of the likes of Bono or Chris Martin.

"You think I get more respect? Really?” Niomi laughs. "That’s very funny. No one's said that to me before. I feel like they do take the piss. That people go, 'Oh here she goes again, like, shut up.’ But I just don't care. Honestly I have no idea if what you say is the case, why there might be a difference between me and another artist. I guess all I can say is that I hope people do take me and my music, and my feelings and stuff, at least half seriously. Just because it comes from the heart, it really does. I put it out there in the hope that it is helpful to someone. If nothing else I hope people can maybe have a bit of respect for that. And if they don’t, who cares? No, I do. I hope that can be appreciated because otherwise what’s the point? If it doesn't do what it I want it to do then I might as well not do it. Do you get what I mean?"

You don’t say things without thinking it will make a difference.

“Yeah," she says. "With some specific songs I sometimes think, actually should I put this out there? Things that are personal and things that I know someone’s going to come back and say, 'What did you mean when you said this?', whatever it may be. I hope the thing that will override my decision is that this might help someone out there. I hope that it does otherwise it’s just pointless.”

Niomi, who is just 24, is very aware of her power. Although it's just in her nature to state her opinions on social and political subjects with passion and whenever the mood takes her, she does it knowing that she can make some sort of difference. Of the many awards she won around the release of her 2002 debut album A Little Deeper, one of them was the non-music related Telegraph Woman Of The Year award, which she was given for her stance on gun crime. Despite all this, she doesn't set out with an agenda.

"It sounds like I have this checklist of things I want to talk about," she says when asked if she'll be talking about gun crime again. "It’s really not like that. I talk about what I feel. I talk about whatever is in my heart at that time and whatever I’m going through or seeing or whatever. It’s just what’s natural to me. So who knows? I wouldn’t like to say, ‘I’m going to raise this issue and that issue’. We’ll just see how things go I guess.

"It’s never my intention to do it in my music either," she adds. "Every now and again I’ll come across something and I’ll write about it and I’ll look back and think, oops. It’s always a case of, are you sure you want to say that? And instantly this thing kicks in that says, [aggressively] yes I do. It doesn't give me a chance to second question it. And that part of me is the part that says, yes I do want to say this because it needs to be said. I want people to think about it. I want people to, I don’t know, be a bit more aware I guess. So yeah, I don’t go out with that in mind, but when it comes up I will override any sort of, should I say that or shouldn’t I? I go with my first instinct.”

Gun crime is one of many issues Ms Dynamite tackled on her recent album Judgement Days, on the track Put Your Gun Away. The song included the lyrics: 'Put your gun away, ease your stress and just chill. Put your gun up in your waist and everything will be just fine.' But nowhere did Niomi stake her claim as the queen of issue-driven pop than on her comeback double A-side single Judgement Day/Father. While Father tackled the thorny issue of Niomi's dad leaving his family when she was just two, Judgement Day went all out. It was anti-war, anti-big companies, anti-pervert priests, anti-wife-beating husbands - all in a three minute pop song. Niomi obviously seems happy to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders, but sometimes it must get too much?

"I can’t say I get depressed," says Niomi. "But honestly I have had to teach myself how to switch off, because I do carry everything around with me. I have to switch off more than anything now for my son. My brother is such a person who’s into everything, he loves to know facts, figures and information about everything that’s going on across the board. He’s like a walking encyclopaedia,” she laughs.

“But he’ll come in and say, ‘Guess what happened’, and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t want to know, don’t tell me’, because it will affect me. And he gets so annoyed with me. He just wants to chat and I have to say I don’t want to. But that’s how I stop it getting depressing. A lot of stuff there's nothing I can do about it, and I get this feeling of feeling someone else’s pain but feeling helpless. They’re going through it and there’s nothing I can do to help them out of it. That is the bit that I can’t get my head round. It’s really frustrating but if I let it affect me too much it doesn't just affect me, it affects my son. I have to find ways of dealing with it. I don’t want to sound like some morbid person, but I do get sad.”

What gives you hope?

“Children," says Niomi immediately. "Young people. I would say my son but that is just so obvious,” she grins. “Just kids in general. They totally give me all the hope in the world. They’re just what it’s about really. They are the point.”

Niomi became a parent herself two years ago, to her son Shavaar, which prompted a lengthy career break. It seemed like bad timing - she was on a roll after the success of her debut album A Little Deeper. As well as selling half a million copies. the album garnered Niomi a slew of awards. A Mercury Music Prize, three MOBOs and two Brits, as well as that Telegraph Woman Of The Year award now weigh down her mantelpiece. Niomi was one of Britain's brightest new talents and it seemed like a bad move to take a break with only one album under her belt.

"I thought the timing was perfect," counters Niomi. "On a personal level it gave me time out, which is bad, really, because I should have just had a break,” she laughs. “But it gave me time out to reflect on myself, what was going on. Just my son being there has given me something that nothing else on earth could give me - a sense of strength that I can’t really explain. Then that has filtered out into everything else, so now I’ve come back and I feel a million times stronger, a million times more confident. I know what I want to do and how I want to do it. Just all round I feel that the timing for me, and for Ms Dynamite, couldn’t have been better. I don’t know if the people around me would agree, but I felt like it was perfect.”

Were there any worries from any quarters that you taking time out would ruin the momentum of the success of the last album?

“Not really," Niomi replies. "At least, no one ever said it to me. But I’m sure for anyone with any care for the project and Ms Dynamite and the success of things from a business perspective, that must have crossed their minds. But no one came out and said that at the time.”

That's very nice of them.

“Well I just think, what could be done anyway? It doesn’t matter. They could have expressed it as much as they wanted. Even I said at the time it might not be the best thing for the project, but at the end of the day I’m not just a project, I am a human being that has a life, a personal life, as well. I just felt that I had done a lot for Ms Dynamite and was ignoring Niomi and what was right for Niomi at that time. I just thought, this is what I want, this is what I’m ready for. There is a a life and a world outside of this and I shouldn’t feel pressurised or allow it to dictate something as important as my child. I was ready and that was what I was going to do.”

Inevitably going back to work was a wrench. Having spent 18 months purely focusing on bringing up her child (she split from Shavaar's father Dwayne Seaforth this year but he remains heavily involved with the upbringing of his son), Niomi found it hard being away from Shavaar for the long hours she had to spend in the studio.

But he makes it really easy,” says Niomi. “He was just like, ‘Bye Mum, see you later’. He wasn’t bothered in the slightest, whereas if he was a bit more upset I don’t know what I would’ve done. I don’t know if I’d be sitting here right now. But he’s just like, ‘You going work now Mum? Okay bye, have a nice day.’ I just go, ‘Aw! My baby!’ He makes things so much easier.

"At the end of the day he is my motivation. When it gets hard and I get tired I just think, right there’s a bigger picture here. Really the bottom line is no matter how much I love what I do and all the other things I'm involved in, and why I do what I do, no matter how much I want to help others, if it ever effects him in a negative way, that’s the end of it. He is the No 1 sole priority in my life."

Motherhood has certainly softened the edges of Ms Dynamite, and with the release of her reggae-tinged new single Fall In Love Again you may be forgiven for thinking that the singer is slowly becoming more like the female singers she has long stood out from. But this is not the case. The tattoo across her right wrist, which says, 'Without Struggle There Is No Progress', keeps her mind on the issues that mean so much to her. But despite being one of the most politicised singers to come out of Britain in recent years, she says the actual world of politics wouldn't suit her.

"It’s not something I want to do," she says. "I want to be a part of making things better and, yeah, if I have to go into politics to do that then I’m willing to. But it’s not something that appeals to me. I mean, what does appeal about politics? Let’s be serious here."

Well, like you said, you could make things better.

“If I thought I could make more of a difference by becoming a politician then I would do it. But I feel that I am able to make more of a difference in the way that I want to, saying the things that I want to say and how I want to say them, through music. By doing what I'm doing now. I’m allowed to be creative and say what I want to say and do my thing. There’s not really any limitations, but in politics there are. People are silenced and they’re not always allowed to say what they want. Sometimes if they do they’re punished for it. That is not the place for me because I wouldn't last very long,” she laughs. "They’d be just like, get her out of here! I’m happy with what I’m doing now. I feel like it is making a difference. Not necessarily in the way or to the extent I want, but give me time.” She smiles. “I’m working on it.”

Wednesday, 24 August 2005

total:spec - Legless

In November of this year the government will be passing new laws that will change the landscape of British drinking culture. The Licensing Act 2003 will become fully operational and pubs, bars and nightclubs will be able to provide alcohol for their customers for many more hours than is currently the case.

As the change in the law has drawn closer the debate surrounding the effects it will have on the drinking culture of Britain has become more and more frenzied. A new Channel 4 drama confronts the issues raised by this debate head on.

Legless, written and directed by Matt Greenhalgh, best known for his work on Cold Feet and cult BBC drama Burn It, is a one-off film that follows the experiences of a group of disparate people during a night out in an unnamed ‘town near you’.

“It was inspired by fact we didn’t think the current system works,” says producer Nicola Shindler. “Matt is young and still goes out and is conscious that the things that are written about this debate are written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. We set it on streets that are in so many towns in the country. What you get in a lot of newspapers is condemnation of those streets - ‘Isn’t it awful? Look at all those people falling over.’ -  when actually people choose to go out there and have a great time. We’re trying to say, if it’s so horrible why do people go out every week?”

By telling a handful of stories through various fictional characters and their experiences of the current state of drinking culture in Britain, Greenhalgh has tried to give a balanced view (albeit an ultimately pro-reform one) of what is both right and wrong with the current system of shutting bars and pubs at 11 o’clock and clubs at two o’clock. At the heart of the film is the conflict between a pro-reform councillor who believes the only way to salvage his town is to extend drinking hours, and a chief constable who believes the situation is difficult enough already.

“The chief of police is old school and puts his foot down,” explains Greenhalgh. “And we’ve got the councillor who at the outset you think is the bad guy, saying that if they don’t change they won’t change. He says that if the chief of police isn’t happy now, what does he expect it to be like in five or 10 years? That’s the real crux of Legless, how those two characters, who are totally different in their lives, end up on a night out together to try and persuade the other one that their point of view is right. It’s interesting because even those two characters come out at the end of the night with the feeling that neither of them are right. It’s an open-ended argument for these characters who, at the start, were really specific in how they viewed the change in drinking laws.”

Also featured are two under-age lads having the time of their lives, a licensing lawyer who makes money out of the system, a paramedic who is sick and tired of his job but returning to it after being assaulted by a drunken patient, and a woman in her late 20s who needs a bit of Dutch courage to talk to a man she’s attracted to.

“Hopefully there’s someone everyone can relate to,” says Greenhalgh. “That’s what I wanted. I hope it’s come out like films like Short Cuts and Magnolia, things where you’re taken on multiple journeys in one story. I think that was a good decision because you have to show all sides of this drinking argument.”

The young woman who turns to a glass of wine for Dutch courage is played by Nicola Stephenson, the actress best known for her roles in Brookside, Holby City and Clocking Off. Her character Terri is having a bad time of it, suffering from low self-esteem. Fed up of the routine of going out with her mates and getting drunk, she decides to give it up. But when she’s chatted up by a man in a bar, she realises the only thing that can give her the courage to return his interest is a glass of wine.

“She has a little drink and gets a bit merry and then they have a really sweet little love story,” says Stephenson. “My character shows the positive effects of alcohol.”

Stephenson herself is no stranger to a drink or two. In her Holby City days the actress was often photographed out on the town with her co-stars Lisa Faulkner and Angela Griffin.

“I don’t think we drunk in a problem way,” says Stephenson. “We used to go out but there were never any pictures of us falling out of clubs and falling into cabs hammered or anything. We used to dance more than anything. But everybody’s done binge-drinking. Everyone my age has, definitely. Everyone’s woken up on a Sunday morning feeling like they want to die, haven’t they?

“But now it’s a really big issue, it’s everywhere. You can’t escape it. Everyone’s thinking about how much they drink and how much the recommended amount is and how many units are in a pint of beer. It seems to be a bit of a buzz topic at the moment. I think that’s why Matt wrote it, because alcohol’s got such a bad name right now, everyone’s so worried about it. You don’t hear in the press about the positive sides. What we do have to promote is responsible drinking really because there’s no point just saying, it’s bad, stop doing it, because I think if people abstain and then binge that makes the problem worse. I think it’s more responsible to show that used maturely it can be enhancing in certain social situations.”

Ostensibly what is happening with the debate surrounding the new drinking laws is a moral panic. Earlier in the year newspapers were putting the frighteners up the public about kids in hoodies. An innocent piece of clothing became an item that struck fear into the more faint-hearted newspaper reader. The same is happening with British drinking culture. The onset of 24-hour drinking in this country has inspired some journalists to create a vision of drunken violence and street crime that has spiralled out of control.

“It’s something Matt calls The Fear,” says Shindler. “People like being scared and this is a big fear that the newspapers play on in people.”

But those who are pro-reform say that the current level of drunken violence and street crime is only occurring because drinkers are all ejected onto the streets at the same time each Friday and Saturday night. They feel if it was staggered, if people could leave when they like, the chaotic behaviour of drinkers would actually decrease.

“I think we set ourselves up for a fall actually,” says Greenhalgh. “The system doesn’t work at the moment because I don’t think there’s any chance to drink maturely. If we can make sure that there’s an opportunity to drink in a  relaxed manner, maybe the next generation of kids won’t be so mad and uptight and drink over a full night what they drink in four or five hours at the moment.

“But even now it’s not that mad. It’s only a minority that cause problems. When we filmed in Wigan, it was a great environment, it really was. Of course there were police dotted down the street but that’s normally all you need to stop the arseholes kicking off. It’s visible but it’s not intrusive. And Wigan was great, it was a real holiday atmosphere. We were there for three weekends and filmed from three until three, and the crew loved it. No one was given any grief. I think in general people do just want to go out and have a drink and a good time. They don’t want to go out and smash someone’s head in. Not everyone anyway. And it’s unfortunate that that point of view constantly comes across.”

“My opinion even before I did this was that we have to do something,” adds Stephenson. “At the moment it doesn’t work, and I think our lives have become more 24 hours anyway. People are getting scared of 24 hour drinking and being a bit reactionary to it, but it’s not actually going to be people drinking 24 hours a day. It will just be that places can stay open until what time they want and therefore chucking out time will be staggered. It won’t be everyone leaving at the same time and getting into fights for taxis, and all these people in one concentrated area of the town, all drunk and leading to trouble. It will get rid of so much trouble on the streets.”

Although Legless is being shown as the centre-piece to a series of factual programming on Channel 4 that will debate the law change, all those involved are keen to point out that the main aim of Legless is to entertain rather than educate. “It’s very funny and very fast and very loud and it’s very not like a political debate,” says Shindler. That said, it’s subject matter perfectly places it in the centre of the debate and it will certainly get people talking about it in contexts other than a television drama.

“What reaction Legless gets depends on what viewing goggles they put on when they watch it,” says Greenhalgh. “It opens with a fight because we had to set the scene up that things aren’t in a very good state and then gradually roll out the argument that it’s not as bad as everyone thinks. I hope people stick with it and realise there’s an intelligent idea behind it, rather than just saying it’s an argument for or against changing the law.”

“When I read the script I just thought it was a really good drama,” says Stephenson. “I think we’ve done it in a way that’s not worthy, it’s just realistic. It paints a realistic portrayal of alcohol and the licensing system as it is now. And that’s all in a good drama. It certainly doesn’t preach. The opposite in fact. It shows that alcohol is good as well as bad. Aside from the political questions it raises, it’s just really brilliant with well-rounded characters. I love the way their stories are all inter-weaved into this one night out in a town near you. I hope people enjoy it as a drama, as well as talk about what it raises.”